Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Wilson: The Thirties

Edmund Wilson's diary from the Thirties (1930-1939) has potent erotic scenes, such as the following, quoted generously; it is poignant for its anonymity, following his wife Margaret's death, and for its resigned, observative, bystanderish quality, coming as it does after a sordid period where he would sleep with and whip adulteresses who had uxorious husbands. In the below it is unclear who is in control, and how much so, and why:
She said, "I've got some beautiful clothes." (She had bought them, I learned afterward, especially.) Then she sat down in a big armchair, and I sat down beside her. "So what?" she said. When the ice came, I said, "Let's get on the bed." She complied, but asked whether I didn't think it would be piquant to have dinner with the old ladies first. I told her to take off her dress; I took off everything but my underclothes, looking the other way, then lay down on the side of the bed, turned away from her. When she came to me in the luscious dressing gown, I was surprised to find her completely naked. I went to her breast, which was lovely-she said that they had been spoiled, something about their having been held in at the time she was having milk before her baby had miscarried-she tried to direct my attention to the right one, though I had started on the left, because she thought it was better than the other-confessed that she was afraid they weren't pretty, that was why she had never let me kiss them, not knowing how firm and round (and rather low) they were, how tender and white and with darling little pink nipples. But when I looked at her lower down, I was really amazed at her beauty-I had always supposed that her claim to classic beauty was one of her compensations for her bad jaw, but now I could see it was true: she was the only woman I had ever known who really looked like a Greek statue-her waist was beautiful, and it also made her back extraordinarily beautiful-though she thought she still had too much flesh on her stomach-...-her toes were round and very small in proportion to her feet, she had had them made up red, in spit of the fact that, as she said, she knew that I didn't like it- although they were so pretty in themselves that it seemed to me all right, I had never seen anything like them-and her sex was, I had to recognize, the only genuinely beautiful, as distinguished from sexually stimulating one, that I had ever seen-she had the lighter hair of a blonde, and it was coppery so that I had to admit that her hair was, after all, that color naturally-I accused her of having said that she had dyed it, but she replied in her dear little-girl way, "I never said I dyed it," adding, "I put henna on it, that's all." She was rounded like the mons Veneris of a statue-round and smooth, feminine, plump, and her vagina did its female work of making things easy with a honey-sweetly-smooth profusion which showed that I had misjudged her again in supposing her unresponsive to caresses. Indeed, it was so smooth and open that after the first few moments I could hardly feel it...She made me stop my movement and did something special and gentle herself, seeming to rub herself in some particular way-and then climaxed with a self-excited tremor which also seemed to me strangely mild for a woman of so much energy and passion...I stopped for a while, then went at it again and came, though not feeling it very acutely...
"Looking the other way"-that's so '30s. That is one of the better, more complicated forthright representations of sex I have read, no doubt because of the dispassion of its passion.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Strindberg: Inferno

I have been unable to find an original French copy of Strindberg's Inferno (1897), but can duplicate here passages from the Mary Sandbach translation:
One must fight the Evil One but—would you believe it?—a lower-middle class family came and sat down quite close to me. They were too numerous to count, their glasses were replenished again and again, the females bumped against my chair, small children calmly did their little business in front of me, young men took matches from my table without so much as asking my leave. Though surrounded by these boisterous and insolent persons, I was determined not to budge. Then followed a scene which must, without any doubt, have been arranged by the skilful hand of the Unseen, for it was far too cleverly contrived for it to be possible for me to suppose a plot on the part of the persons concerned, to whom I was completely unknown.
One of the young men laid a sou on my table with a gesture that I could not understand. As a foreigner, and alone among a crowd of strangers, I did not dare to make a fuss. So I just sat there, blinded by rage, trying to fathom what had really happened.
He had given me a sou as if I had been a beggar.
A beggar! The very dagger with which I so often stab myself.
A beggar, yes, for you earn nothing, and you...
The waiter came and offered me a more comfortable seat, and I left the coin lying on the table. The waiter brought it to me. What an insult! But he informed me, very politely, that the young man had seen it lying under the table and thought it belonged to me.
I felt ashamed and, to calm myself, ordered another absinthe.
It came, and everything was fine, until the foul stink of ammonia began to suffocate me.
What do you suppose it was? Something quite natural, not a miracle, not a trace of malice about it, merely the gaping vent of a sewer at the edge of the pavement close to my chair. Then, for the first time, I realized that the good spirits intended to help me free myself from a vice that must inevitably lead to the mad-house. Blessed be Providence for having saved me.
What a shocker as a commentary on the ascetic imagination of Providence and gratitude.

Lovecraft: "The Outsider"

As compelling as was this story by H.P. Lovecraft, who came to my attention because his Works have been handsomely bound in a Library of America hardcover and because he is reputedly the well-beloved of the French writer Michel Houellebecq, whose Particules élémentaires I enjoyed as far as it is possible to enjoy contemporary fiction from France, I could not read further in his canon. Houellebecq lives in Ireland, which may help him creatively, but critically his judgment on this one proves either ignorance of English, even in whatever brogue he hears day-to-day, or the perverse logic that infers Poe's greatness from his adulation by Baudelaire. Consider this from Lovecraft:
Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghosts on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon on the rock tombs of Neb, or any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.
For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this country and among those who are still men.
I tremble as I write this, not because of its Gothic shock-effect, but because this inhuman writing could be contagious.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra to her footman Alexas apropos of Antony:
See where he is, who's with him, what he does:
I did not send you. If you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return.
Charmian retorts:
Madam, methinks, if you did love him dearly,
You do not hold the method to enforce
The like from him...
In each thing give him way, cross him in nothing.
Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him!
Charmian is here a straw man to buttress Cleopatra as a character, but what a character she is; which is another way to wonder, what wisdom she has. Later Antony tries to give her a bulletin from Rome on his former wife Fulvia's death, but cannot get it out before she says (an admirable conceit, that, since we already know Fulvia has perished; also a standard Shakespearean trope):
Why should I think you can be mine, and true,
(Though you in swearing shake the throned gods)
Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous madness,
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows
Which break themselves in swearing.
Now, this would be good if she meant it, because it is a clever enough pointing-out of his male fickleness, an irony in itself given the topos regnant. But she doesn't mean it, it is a springe to snare him in further love of her, since she still believes as she says it that Fulvia lives.

Dolabella, her handmaiden, knows Cleopatra best, however. After her beau, in no way her equal, has killed himself for love of her (as she may in part have desired, to verify in the truest sense how utterly she conquered him--as he, Pompey and Octavian conquer land), she says:
His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb
he was as rattling thunder.
And so forth in praise, until Dolabella interrupts her raptures with a "Cleopatra--" and brought back to earth, she says:
Think you there was or might be such a man
As this I dreamt of?
Dolabella replies, "Gentle madam, no," wherewith she vaunts herself again by scorning her underling's imagination: for it is that she scorns, and that in which Dolabella truly is her underling.
You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But if there be nor ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming: nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy, yet t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.
Dolabella then delivers her sagest speech:
Hear me, good madam.
Your loss is as yourself, great; and you bear it
As answering to the weight.
Dolabella's wisdom, that is, is in identifying Cleopatra's love of Antony with Cleopatra herself. She is her love for him and cannot exist without it. Cleopatra as other than a snake charmer is nothing: it is the essence of her power: she has enthralled Antony, and without her thrall she is a master without a slave.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Lévi-Strauss: La Pensée Sauvage

Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in his La Pensée Sauvage (1962) a theory of art. From the standard English translation, The Savage Mind:

Now the question arises whether the small-scale model or miniature, which is also the ‘masterpiece’ of the journeyman may not in fact be the universal type of the work of art. All miniatures seem to have intrinsic aesthetic quality—and from what should they draw this constant virtue if not from the dimensions themselves?—and conversely the vast majority of works of art are small-scale...The paintings of the Sistine Chapel are a small-scale model in spite of their imposing dimensions, since the theme which they depict is the End of Time...To understand a real object in its totality we always tend to work from its parts. The resistance it offers us is overcome by dividing it. Reduction in scale reverses this situation. By being quantitatively diminished, it seems to us qualitatively simplified. More exactly, this quantitative transposition extends and diversifies our power over a homologue of the thing, and by means of it the latter can be grasped, assessed and apprehended at a glance. A child’s doll is no longer an enemy, a rival or even an interlocuter. In it and through it a person is made into a subject. In the case of miniatures, in contrast to what happens when we try to understand an object or living creature of real dimensions, knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts. And even if this is an illusion, the point of the procedure is to create or sustain the illusion, which gratifies the intelligence and gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can already be called aesthetic on these grounds alone.

Now the model being an artefact, it is possible to understand how it is made and this understanding of the method of construction adds a supplementary dimension. As we have already seen in the case of “bricolage”, and the example of “styles” of painters shows that the same is true in art, there are several solutions to the same problem. The choice of one solution involves a modification of the result to which another solution would have led, and the observer is in effect presented with the general picture of these permutations at the same time as the particular solution offered. He is thereby transformed into an active participant without even being aware of it. Merely by contemplating it he is, as it were, put in possession of other possible forms of the same work; and in a confused way, he feels himself to be their creator with more right than the creator himself because the latter abandoned them in excluding them from his creation. And these forms are so many further perspectives opening out on to the work which has been realized. In other words, the intrinsic value of a small-scale model is that it compensates for the renunciation of sensible dimensions by the acquisition of intelligible dimensions.

That does not go far, which is why it is good.

Naipaul: A Bend in the River

V.S. Naipaul begins his Bend in the River (1979) with the flat statement: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." Bellow is another writer who begins at least his short stories with these blanket wisdoms. It is not that their novels unfold as à these; it is that they hash out the meaning of the statement, explaining as it were how it could come to be said. Strictly this is a tautology, saying everything in nothing, as does most wisdom. Also this could not possibly escape outrage if said by anyone other than a so-called Third Worlder.

Russell: Autobiography

Bertrand Russell's Autobiography (1967-1969), while by turns self-important, self-effacing, inadvertently embarrassing, and ridden with longueurs, also has passages such as this that burn with an insane eloquence that more than justifies his Nobel:

Underlying all occupations and all pleasures I have felt since early youth the pain of solitude. I have escaped it most nearly in moments of love, yet even there, on reflection, I have found that the escape depended partly upon illusion. (fn) I have known no woman to whom the claims of intellect were as absolute as they are to me, and wherever intellect intervened, I have found that the sympathy I sought in love was apt to fail. What Spinoza calls “the intellectual love of God” has seemed to me the best thing to live by, but I have not had even the somewhat abstract God that Spinoza allowed himself to whom to attach my intellectual love. I have loved a ghost, and in loving a ghost my inmost self has itself become spectral. I have therefore buried it deeper and deeper beneath layers of cheerfulness, affection, and joy of life. But my most profound feelings have remained always solitary and have found in human things no companionship. The sea, the stars, the night wind in waste places, mean more to me than even the human beings I love best, and I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God.

fn: This and what follows is no longer true (1967).

"I have loved a ghost, and in loving a ghost my inmost self has itself become spectral." It is hard to find that passage's match anywhere else in twentieth-century literature: the footnote, added a half-century later, only confirms its poignancy. Russell's lack of self-consciousness as a writer--as a man he was if nothing else self-conscious--also adds to the effect, for this comes from a man who corresponded with his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, as "thee," using unconjugated verbs.

Hume: The Natural History of Religion

Hume wrote in his Natural History of Religion (1757):

The absurdity is not less, while we cast our eyes upwards; and transferring, as is too usual, human passions and infirmities to the deity, represent him as jealous and revengeful, capricious and partial, and, in short, a wicked and foolish man, in every respect but his superior power and authority.

That, more than his cyclical theory of poly- and monotheisms, is the powerful theological statement of the book.

James: The Princess Casamassima

In the novel The Princess Casamassima (1889) James's plotting shifts from one crisis to another, as also from one character to another. What to do now? they perpetually ask themselves; the narrative is always on that knife's edge. Each of their choices is hedged by a negative consequence, so that the propulsion of the story is a measure and countermeasure of pros and cons. After modernism novels have tended to focus on fewer characters, typically only one, and to be preoccupied with time, typically the past, so that they lose their forward orientation.

O'Connor: The Violent Bear It Away

Below is maybe one of the greatest passages in American literature, from The Violent Bear It Away (1955):

The old man had fancied he was making progress in convincing the nephew again of his Redemption, for he at least listened though he did not say he believed. He seemed to delight to talk about the things that interested his uncle. He questioned him at length about his early life, which old Tarwater had practically forgotten. The old man had thought this interest in his forebears would bear fruit, but what it bore, what it bore, stench and shame, were dead words. What it bore was a dry and seedless fruit, incapable even of rotting, dead from the beginning. From time to time, the old man would spit out of his mouth, like gobbets of poison, some of the idiotic sentences from the schoolteacher’s piece. Wrath had burned them on his memory, word for word. “His fixation of being called by the Lord had its origin in insecurity. He needed the assurance of a call, and so he called himself.”
“Called myself!” the old man would hiss, “called myself!” This so enraged him that half the time he could do nothing but repeat it. “Called myself. I called myself. I, Mason Tarwater, called myself! Called myself to be beaten and tied up. Called myself to be spit on and snickered at. Called myself to be struck down in my pride. Called myself to be torn by the Lord’s eye. Listen boy,” he would say and grab the child by the straps of his overalls and drag him slowly, “even the mercy of the Lord burns.” He would let go the straps and allow the boy to fall back into the thorn bed of that thought, while he continued to hiss and groan.

I hardly know how to comment this passage.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mailer: Harlot's Ghost

Norman Mailer's trouble is that he cannot invent a woman with more complexity than "a silent tantrum of sheer envy at the way you men are free to explore your sexual curiosity and alter yourselves in the process." Kittredge, the heroine of Harlot's Ghost (1991), the author's personal new testament, does not even conceive of male sexuality in this sentence as involving women as women--some woman she. Mailer, here, speaks for her. Otherwise she remains only a shadow-presence in the novel, the matte image of Harry Hubbard the narrator's desire, and human only because not yet attained. Kittredge could be accusing Mailer, or Mailer writing his own confession on behalf of the male sex, when she writes to him: "Your smug acceptance of a full half of sexual indifference in yourself is a way of stating that you, unbeknownst to yourself, are a sexual fascist."

Kittredge is given a few memorable lines, but they are not presented dramatically, they are asides in letters: "I've always thought of myself as ruefully patriotic, that is, I love America, but it's like having a mate whose gaffes keep you exclaiming, 'Oh, my God. He's done it again.'" She also gives a spot-on characterization of the cardinal sin: "Vanity is the abominable conceit that one could run the world if only one weren't so weak." And: "nothing is more painful to relinquish than hubris itself." Like the rest of Harlot, these are central to Mailer's song of himself, but it is still Mailer singing the song. He ventriloquizes through Kittredge: for instance, the bunk theory of Alpha and Omega. (Bunk, but nonetheless indigenously American.)

Hubbard's emotions toward her can reach a certain intensity, but she does remain the far-off clay idol. Amid their secret, illicit correspondence he says: "The thought of Hugh Montague as a satyr hot on her back left me feeling criminally wounded. I might as well have been the cuckolded lover. I hated how her confidence had reached so easily to the very center of me." Mailer does pay Kittredge, of all his women, the most masculine compliments.

The irony is that Modene Murphy winds up being a more complex character than Kittredge, even though Mailer is again speaking for himself when Hubbard says, to her remark that JFK is a better listener: "She would start to speak and my mind would wander over to her carnal virtues. I never saw her but in a cloud of sexual intent. I did not have to listen to her--she was so much more than what she was saying." To this Mailer offers no dramatic rebuttal, as he should. Modene is complex in her stipulation, seemingly without origin, that she must have two lovers at a time; as if this were a divine requirement and to do otherwise would be to sin.

Dix Butler and Herrick Hubbard are two of the completest characters anywhere in modern fiction. Hubbard's complexity comes from the fact that he has been legacied into the CIA, and must contend with his feelings of illegitimacy. His realizations are the tenets of Mailerism: "One matures within an identity. One regresses without it." (Naturally the conceit of the spook novel is that identities are like hats.)

Dix has an almost demonic savagery that we all have shrunk before. Hubbard reveres his father, without ever overcoming his father in any Freudian-derivative agon, and Dix is partly created by comparison: "I used to wonder what would happen if he and Dix Butler ever got together." Butler then inherits some of his father-worship, but his demonia also comes from his own assurance of purpose. Dix says matter-of-factly: " any given moment, there are something like twenty superior people on earth. Castro is one of them. I am another. God, or whoever it is--it could be a fucking committee for all I care--has put us twenty down here on earth." Why? asks Hubbard. To torture him? "You are making decent efforts not to be stupid," Dix scoffs. That--a disdain toward God, a sense of election--are the hallmarks of Satan. In other respects Dix is the image of Hubbard's desire: one has the sense that while he fears and hates Dix, he would be him if he could. One night in a bar he says, with Dix on the floor asking to be sodomized: "He was pagan, an explorer of caverns and columns, and I happened to be the piece of human work he wanted inside himself tonight. For what, I hardly knew." Butler is at once omnivorous Lothario and spook priest.

Harlot is also fully executed. The technique of his creation relies on inventing a conceit and making him alone privy to it, and then to have him reveal it before we, or before Hubbard, can discover it. (Consider the Soviet agent Masarov, and the incidents in Uruguay.) Harlot's compliments to himself are a good touch, because Hubbard is so in awe of him that we believe them as if they had come from a disinterested party. Harlot says of Masarov: "Competitively speaking, he's nearly as competent as myself." Mailer's mythology requires blood and sweat shed in competition, and Hubbard's status as legacy is a well thought-out disadvantage in any such struggle. Because it is not an intrinsic, but a perceived disadvantage, and because it becomes his resort for explanations. Other aphorisms, like what he says of the CIA--"Our real duty is to become the mind of America"--are less eventful. Hubbard has some revelations in his presence. Among the pitons and bongs of a rock climb, he says: "Happiness is experienced most directly in the intervals betweenterror." Whether this is true is another matter.

The ending, that evolution is God's legend or cover story, and a ruse to deceive us so that we will not, like Satan, try to usurp him--in other words, so that He can remain incognito--is not imaginatively complete enough as a climax. It reads as if this were what Mailer were trying to prove, and not an illustration of the same. A far better theological proposition, and far more pointed in the context of the novel, is Harlot's wisdom: "That may be our simple purpose on earth. To rise to higher and higher levels of fear. If we succeed, we can, perhaps, share some of God's fear." Sublime.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Radiguet: Le Bal du comte d'Orgel

Orgel, Orgueil. «Sous un soleil delicieux, il semble que fonde peu a peu l'orgueil qui la paralysait.» A stillborn male heir for the family Grimoard: a mute female child Mahaut: the inheritance at risk. Le Bal du comte d'Orgel (1923), published posthumously after Raymond Radiguet's early death from typhoid fever following a jaunt with his lover Cocteau, promises from its first pages to shake the death-rattle of the aristocracy. It has become sterile, paralysed by its own vanity.

Mahaut matures under the tutelage of her black nurse Marie, forgotten and despised by her white mother Mme Grimoard: an old archetype. Papa takes care only to teach her that no one is worthy of the hand of a Grimoard. Nonetheless she marries the thirty-year-old Count Anne d'Orgel at the age of eighteen. Herself unloved she loves him overmuch: he returns only friendship, which she (not knowing anything more intense) mistakes for love. Radiguet's stress on the young girl's liveliness points to a source in Effi Briest.

Paul Robin is the quixotic youth who desires d'«arriver,» as Eugene Rastignac in Pere Goriot chez Balzac. His best friend, Francois de Séryeuse, is also his foil; «Francois avait exactement son age.» In the introductions to the Orgels Radiguet is good on social mannerism: Orgel «mentait comme l'affabilite sait mentir.» I myself have known what it is to be the arriviste or parvenu, in my third year at Harvard. From knowing no one to having one's own society: one's own people. Except that class is now less important. People cut each other as if class strictures still existed, but we have seen the birth of the cool, which is the new coin of social aristocracies, at least at the university. Radiguet's pair, Robin/de Seryeuse, mirrors the double nature of the one arriviste, the ambivalence of his ambition and of his knowledge of the new world.

The intimacy of mockery together: nothing binds us like playing a false hand on an innocent. Something of perhaps Laclos: «Il fut entendu entre Anne d'Orgel et Francois que l'on feindrait de se connaitre de longue date...Ils etait leurs propres dupes, car ayant decide de faire croire a Robin qu'ils se connaissaient de longue date, ils le croyaient eux-memes.» Mahaut plays along «habituee aux maneges de son mari.» Radiguet well presents the polyhedral mood of Paul after this, focussing each of its many sides through the prism of a single trait, his smile:
De temps en temps, Paul se retournait vers les Orgel et Francois, et leur souriait. Ce sourire pouvait s'interpreter de facons diverses. C'etait soit: «Mais non, je vous assure, je suis tres bien, il ne fait pas froid du tout», soit le sourire qui pardonne. Il sentait vaguement qu'on s'etait joue de lui...Peut-etre son sourire ne refletait-il que le plaisir d'un enfant qui fait une promenade.
That is a technique to remember, though archaic here in the much that is not necessary (e.g. omit the second sentence). Henry James does this refraction one better, not as Radiguet does by passing mood through a smile, but by passing his entire narrative through the several minds of his characters. Whatever happens is told in reference to Kate Croy, for instance, as here mood is told in reference to a smile. James uses character where Radiguet uses a smile, but otherwise it is the same technique.

Radiguet's private scripture he expresses through Francois, greening at the dance before him of Anne and Mahaut: «Chez lui la jalousie precedait l'amour.» Jealousy is the demon who created love. Love is the mollycoddled daughter of jealousy, never quite weaned.

Introductory fables like the history here of the famille Grimoard are superfluous, and character would gain by omission of backstory. Mahaut for instance would be a mysterious creature if we did not know just why she was what she was. And this explanation of d'Orgel is rude--the literary equivalent of laughing at your own joke: «C'etait l'esprit le plus delicieux, mais le plus autoritaire, le plus exclusif, que le comte d'Orgel. Il 'adoptait' les gens, plus qu'il ne se liait avec eux. En retour, il exigeait beaucoup. Il entendait un peu diriger. Il exercait un controle.» Bah! Better to have a bemused question from Mahaut, "Why invite Francois?" and a knowing chuckle from d'Orgel. A backdrop like this may be useful to Radiguet in his notebooks, in order that d'Orgel takes a consistent imaginative form: but it need not go into the final text.

Chesterton: The Everlasting Man

Chesterton's Everlasting Man (1925) does not merit long dissection. The parable that will follow is better than the book's point: "the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And a particular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it." Or: "while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian." In illustration, he adduces an unwritten novel of his in parable form, which also is a geometric figure for the plan of Orthodoxy:
I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are scrawled along the flanks of the hills. It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen.
Besides that there is much cant about the difference between man and Pithecanthropus and so on: apologists always fail humiliatingly when they try to act as a counterforce to the truths of science. "Art is the signature of man," says Chesterton of reindeer paintings. Good! But it is painful to see the misguidings of a mind that can write so well, with even the straightforwardness of a Bertrand Russell. Edwardian prose would make a good model for speechwriting in any era. That type of writing makes extensive use of metonymy, and from it mines aphorism.

God: "But absence does not mean non-existence; and a man drinking the toast of absent friends does not mean that from his life all friendship is absent."

Man and Mythologies: "scientists seldom understand, as artists understand, that one branch of the beautiful is the ugly." "The true origin of all the myths has been discovered much too often. There are too many keys to mythology, as there are too many cryptograms in Shakespeare. Everything is phallic; everything is totemistic; everything is seed-time and harvest; everything is ghosts and grave-offerings; everything is the golden bough of sacrifice; everything is the sun and moon; everything is everything. Every folk-lore student who knew a little more than his own monomania, every man of wider reading and critical culture...has practically confessed that the bewilderment of these things left his brain spinning."

Prophets: "These men had their limitations and their local passions; but this criticism of them is unimaginative and therefore unreal."

Against materialism in history: "men will not be martyred for money."

Against critics of dogma: "What the denouncer of dogma really means is not that dogma is bad; but rather that dogma is too good to be true...Dogma gives man too much freedom when it permits him to fall. Dogma gives even God too much freedom when it permits him to die...They mean that the universe is itself a universal prison; that existence itself is a limitation and a control; and it is not for nothing that they call causation a chain. In a word, they mean quite simply that they cannot believe these things; not in the least that they are unworthy of belief. We say, not lightly but very literally, that the truth has made us free. They say that it makes us so free that it cannot be the truth." Chesterton claims that for such as these to believe in men with wills is to believe in men with wings; but for him it is so too, as he compares in Orthodoxy the realm of his faith to Elfland.

"Despair lies not in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."

Heine: Geständnisse

Don't know what to make of the Gestaendnisse (Paris, 1854). Heinrich Heine's book is not an apologia or not a good one, and passages like this one are as jarring (like his misogynistic comments) as they are amusing:
als ich sah, dass Schmierlappen von Schuster- und Schneidergesellen in ihrer plumpen Herbergsprache die Existenz Gottes zu leugnen sich unterfingen - als der Atheismus anfing, sehr stark nach Kaese, Branntwein und Tabak zu stinken: da gingen mir ploetzlich die Augen auf, und was ich nicht durch meinen Verstand begriffen hatte, das begriff ich jetzt durch den Geruchssinn, durch das Missbehagen des Ekels, und mit meinem Atheismus hatte es, gottlob! ein Ende.
Um die Wahrheit zu sagen, es mochte nicht bloss der Ekel sein, was mir die Grundsaetze der Gottlosen verleidete und meinen Ruecktritt veranlasste. Es war hier auch eine Gewisse weltliche Besorgnis im Spiel, die ich nicht ueberwinden konnte; ich sah naemlich, dass der Atheismus eni mehr oder minder geheimes Buendnis geschlossen mit dem schauderhaft nacktesten, ganz feigenblattlosen, kommunen Kommunismus.
The cutting part of this is that it is likely more honest than anything in Newman or Chesterton or even Tolstoy. Are our persuasions more than class or other prejudices, more than animal decisions? Is the apparatus of explanation in the written confession not a hypocrisy perpetrated on us by the brain? Heine lauds his own fame, and contemns what is common. Also for instance: "Lasst dem Volk die Wahl zwischen dem Gerechtesten der Gerechten und dem scheusslichsten Strassenraeuber, seid sicher, es ruft: 'Wir wollen den Barrabas! Es lebe der Barrabas!'" Shame is part of it. Ironically Heine as an atheist once found himself wishing that God didn't exist, rather than see the embarrasment he felt at having as a partner-in-arms the godless revolutionary Weitling...hence God.
ich bin zu bescheiden, als dass ich der goettlichen Fuersehung wie ehemals ins Handwerk pfuschen sollte, ich bin kein Gemeindeversorger mehr, kein Nachaeffer Gottes, und meinen ehemaligen Klienten habe ich mit frommer Demut angezeigt, dass ich nur ein armseliges Menschengeschoepf bin, eine seufzende Kreatur, die mit der Weltregierung nichts mehr zu schaffen hat, und dass sie sich hinfuero in Not und Truebsal an den Herrgott wenden muessten, der im Himmel wohnt, und dessen Budget ebenso unermesslich wie seine Guete ist, waehrend ich armer Exgott sogar in meinen goettlichsten Tagen, um meinen Wohltaetigkeitsgeluesten zu genuegen, sehr oft den Teufel an dem Schwanz ziehen musste.

That bit is perhaps best commented upon by Heine himself in a later bit, again about the attempt to be God:
Dieser Berg ist nur das Postament, worauf die Fuesse des Mannes stehen, dessen Haupt in den Himmel hineinragt, wo er mit Gott spricht - Gott verzeih mir die Suende, manchmal wollte es mich beduenken, als sei dieser mosaische Gott nur der zurueckgestrahlte Lichtglanz des Moses selbst, dem er so aehnlich sieht, aehnlich in Zorn und in Liebe. - Es waere eine grosse Suende, es waere Anthropomorphismus, wenn man eine solche Identitaet des Gottes und seines Propheten annaehme - aber die Aehnlichkeit ist frappant.
Two other aphoristic phrases of note: "Es ist nichts aus mir geworden, nichts als ein Dichter"--this amid celebrations of his own renown; "Der grosse Autor des Weltalls, der Aristophanes des Himmels"--this in comparison to himself, the small Aristophanes of Germany.

Friday, June 03, 2005

MacDonald: Phantastes

C.S. Lewis writes that MacDonald had a perfect, which must mean untroubled, relationship with his father when his father lived. That may be why in Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895) the crisis-moment begins soon after the orphaned narrator's investiture in his new estate. Both tales begin with a passing through a state of half dream, half waking: whether hypnagogia ("I awoke one morning with the usual perpexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness") or fictions (the comings and goings of the ghost-librarian). Both adventures are spurred by the discovery in an ancient secretary of a lost father's papers. But the discovery and recapitulation of the father's voyage is the hook. Both stories, again, are stories of big and little people, whether the forest babes of Lilith or the fairy grandmother from the desk chamber. Romantic parity--at least--of childhood and adulthood: "Form is much, but size is nothing," says the wish-granting fairy of Phantastes. We are more like our fathers than we know.

Both stories, again, are located in a wood--the overriding influence may be A Midsummer Night's Dream (from references to a "Midsummer-eve"). And both have strong ambivalences toward women, best symbolized in the white and black leopards, Eve and Lilith.

Phantastes has beautiful metaphors: "as if the darkness had been too long an inmate to be easily expelled..." In the wood Anodos the narrator meets beech-tree who longs to become a woman. Not a child, she nonetheless has a childlike naivete: "For there is an old prophecy in our woods that one day we shall all be men and women like you. Do you know anything about it in your region? Shall I be very happy when I am a woman?" It is a maturation from vegetable nature to spiritual nature: vegetable has something of the meaning it has in Blake. MacDonald's "old prophecy" is the mirror of the dim childhood awareness of the truths of evolution, of manifest society: the child knows she will become a woman; that it will be hoped she marries; soon enough a little, too, of sex as a natural thing. But to the child (for MacDonald) this has the mystery of prophecy. It is perhaps true, but to be true it would require a metamorphosis from beech-tree to human. So perhaps that is the meaning of metamorphosis in the child's fairy-tale, or at least here: It represents the child becoming an adult. Initiation by transmogrification.

That is a protective female: she guards him against ash-trees who are also ogres and spectres. She teaches him better what to desire: "I had often longed for Fairy Land, as she now longed for the world of men. But then neither of us had lived long, and perhaps people grew happier as they grew older. Only I doubted it." The verse-face of the female is the marble lady: vivified from rock, she is less part of nature than the woman within the tree. "Sweet sounds can go where kisses may not enter," Anodos says, and his voice is the charm that reanimates her. Percival's story warns him against the Maiden of the Alder-tree: soon he realizes that like Duessa, like Lilith, the two are one: "It was the Ash-tree. My beauty was the Maid of the Alder!" Later he knows he must leave her but leaves with the paradox of manhood: "I felt, notwithstanding all this, that she was beautiful."

It is the mother-like figure in the cottage to which he returns for rest and reorientation. From which he sallies. Ah childhood. Makes him almost hard to read solemnly. C.S. Lewis tried to, but took away the dubious wisdom that "He who loves, sees" (from his Introduction). That is from a child's tale a child's sagacity. A too easy formula. And a too easy reading of MacDonald. Lewis's wardrobe is MacDonald's closet. The woman warns Anodos: "Everybody's shadow is ranging up and down looking for him. I believe you call it by a different name in your world: yours has found you, as every person's is almost certain to do who looks into that closet, especially after meeting one in the forest, whom I dare say you have met." That shadow is the Jacob's angel that Anodos must strive with to overcome; by overcoming it he also throws over the dark half of his love, takes Rachel for Leah; and wins a cupie-doll new identity, Israel. That is the logic of romance. The best passage in the book:
In a few days, I had reason to dread an extension of its baleful influences from the fact, that it was no longer confined to one position in regard to myself. Hitherto, when seized with an irresistable desire to look on my evil demon (which longing would unaccountably seize me at any moment, returning at longer or shorter intervals, sometimes every minute), I had to turn my head backwards, and look over my shoulder; in which position, as long as I could retain it, I was fascinated. But one day, having come out on a clear grassy hill, which commanded a glorious prospect, though of what I cannot now tell, my shadow moved round, and came in front of me. And, presently, a new manifestation increased my distress. For it began to coruscate, and shoot out on all sides a radiation of dim shadow. These rays of gloom issued from the dark central shadow as from a black sun, lengthening and shortening with continual change. But wherever a ray struck, that part of earth, or sea, or sky, became void, and desert, and sad to my heart. On this, the first development of its new power, one ray shot out beyond the rest, seeming to lengthen infinitely until it smote the great sun on the face, which withered and darkened beneath the blow. I turned away and went on. The shadow retreated to its former position; and when I looked again, it had drawn in all its spears of darkness, and followed like a dog at my heels.
That shadow-self is Anodos's imagination. Consider the tale, read by him in an antique volume, of one Cosmo. A passage: "Most men have a secret treasure somewhere. The miser has his golden hoard; the virtuoso his pet ring; the student his rare book; the poet his favourite haunt; the lover his secret drawer; but Cosmo had a mirror with a lovely lady in it. And now that he knew by the skeleton, that she was affected by the things around her, he had a new object in life: he would turn the bare chamber in the mirror into a room such as no lady need disdain to call her own." That mirror is a metaphor for the imagination (MacDonald tells us as much), and later we learn: "But, alas! he loved a shadow." Yet "He never doubted, all the time, that she was a real earthly woman; or, rather, that there was a woman, who, somehow or other, threw this reflection of her form into the magic mirror." She is double. To free her (and himself, since "she--alone and altogether--was his universe") he must revolt, cast a spell, use an "unlawful" power. She is a slave to the mirror, it is revealed after she corporealizes, and when he tries to destroy the mirror they, she and the mirror, both vanish. Cosmo becomes as a ghost. Arching over the rest of the tale is the lore of Sleeping Beauty. Except that in exchange for her freedom in the end he sacrifices his life.

Anodos releases the lady inscribed in the block of marble, except that once out of her bas-relief prison she cries "You should not have touched me!" (It is often hard not to wonder what MacDonald's sexual relations were like.) Such is the terror of virginity. Her immobility, her ability to be imaginatively apprehended, gave him a sense of possession of her. After setting her free he says: "I no longer called her to myself my white lady." When Anodos is knighted his shadow vanishes. So that in the end, "I was dead, and right content." Immortality is the promise of death: "It was not that I had in any way ceased to be what I had been." "'Ah! my friends,' thought I, 'how I will tend you, and wait upon you, and haunt you with my love.'"

These books are a compendium of fairy devices. MacDonald makes use of the fairy-tale relic enchanted after a condition: Percival's armor, for instance. Revivifying water. The doppelgaenger of his own real room in fairyland. The tower that cages the hero.

MacDonald writes here covertly of God: "They who believe in the influences of the stars over the fates of men, are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law. All that man sees has to do with man. Worlds cannot be without an intermundane relationship...Else a grander idea is conceivable than that which is already imbodied." (So much this sounds like Blake!--his logic by which man is the highest conceivable by man, man both the cup and its capaciousness.) Also in the sci-fi of H.G. Wells, there is the sense of man as measure of all things. That is the condition and meaning of good fantasy.

The danger of fantasy is that it may approach too close to allegory: a mere retelling of a doctrine, Gnosticism told in other names. Phantastes fails because it is too strictly a translation of timeworn truths. Reading it is in this like reading Frye. Frye's thesis that literature is the record of identity lost and gathered again is also MacDonald's: "Self will come to life even in the slaying of self; but there is ever something deeper and stronger than it, which will emerge at last from the unknown abysses of the soul: will it be as a solemn gloom, burning with eyes? or a clear morning after the rain? or a smiling child, that finds itself nowhere, and everywhere?" Criticism exists to find these cached doubloons, to pull them out and burnish them new.

Beckett: Catastrophe

I visited Dachau in July 2002. In front of the visitor’s center was a huge ironwork sculpture, at a distance representing barbed wire, but closer revealed to be a tangle of charred Modigliani-length human remains. Across from the cremation chambers was an unassuming sculpture of a Jewish inmate with his hands in his pockets: a gesture of revolt, because a gesture disallowed by the authorities. Both sculptures were powerfully evocative, though they nonetheless seemed somehow inadequate to the rest of the memorial and the historical fact of the Shoah. But few things have ever troubled me more, as an aesthete, than the simple manicuring of the lawns, which left a patina of beauty over the whole evil. It seemed to express in a pure understated form, although unintentionally, the paradox of Nazi culture, that permitted a man like Eichmann to execute Jewry as resident Scharführer and then return home and play a Beethoven sonata on his grand piano. It also raised questions how we ourselves appreciate, or if not appreciate at least approach, the Holocaust a half-century hence.

Beckett, in Catastrophe, has his director insist that his actor mustn’t have his hands in his pockets, as did the Defiant Inmate statue. All his alterations to the pose emaciate the figure into a survivor’s state of degeneration. And all his alterations aim to increase his aesthetic impact. Catastrophe the title puns on this twinning, the collusion of the aesthetically and the genuinely tragic, for catastrophe can denote (though by absurd understatement) a historical fact like the Shoah, even as it takes its originary meaning from the final action in Greek tragedy. Applause at the end of the play carries a disquieting but crucial irony; the truer the representation of wretchedness, the more applause the tableau ought to receive. Should we ever be applauding human despair, or do we betray ourselves? What is the director’s pride if not in aesthetic ruin? And should we applaud the brilliantly contrived paradox, Catastrophe the play?