Sunday, April 30, 2017

The War at the End of the World - Mario Vargas Llosa

I can read dystopian novels with the best of them, but for some reason I found this book to be soul crushing. I can’t tell if I’m having situational depression due to reading this book, or if it could be attributed to the weather and the bleak and dreary reality of a German spring…either way, a deep and lurking hopelessness has begun to claw it’s talons into the far reaching geography of my heart. 

Reading this book was sort of like playing monopoly with my twin sister when we were kids. Within 15 minutes there was a clear winner. One of us would spend the next 6 hours winning gloriously and the other would spend 6 hours facing one pecuniary hardship after another. Instead of a decisive coup de grace to put the soon to be vanquished out of their misery, it was just a long hopeless narrative of mortgages and refinancing until eventually the cash reserves were bled out to the last cent, nothing left to mortgage. Usually by this point we were beyond the point of civil communication, if we made it to a stopping point without the board being flipped and our relationship being completely severed that was an unexciting bonus. Either way, we were usually no longer on speaking terms until tempers cooled.

This book is 750 pages long. With 300 pages left to go the narrative takes a whiplash of a turn and jumps forward in time to the end of the battle between Canudos and the Republic and we find this:

“‘People are forgetting Canudos,’ the nearsighted journalist said, in a voice that sounded like an echo. ‘The last lingering memories of what happened there will fade in the air and mingle with the music of the next carnival ball in the Politeama Theater.’

‘Canudos?’ the baron murmured. ‘Epaminondas is right not to want people to talk about what happened there. It’s better to forget it. It’s an unfortunate, unclear episode. It’s not good for anything. History must be instructive, exemplary. In this war, nobody has covered himself with glory. And nobody has understood what happened. People have decided to ring down a curtain on it. And that’s a healthy sensible reaction.’”

I found reading this book to be an unfortunate unclear episode of my life, but I digress. 

It’s 1897. Brazil has been a republic for less than a decade and the growing pains of a new world order can be felt from the booming metropolis to the thorny underbrush of the sertao. The republic has introduced civil marriage, separation of church and state, and the metric system. While most embrace this as progress, a tall emaciated man in a purple robe wanders the country side and says these things can only be the bastard child of the union between Freemasons and Protestantism ie. signs of the Antichrist. 

At first, the man in the purple robe, Antonio Conselheiro, known as the Counselor to his followers, attracts little attention. He wanders into the hot dusty villages and he and his followers set up camp by the church and cemeteries where they repair broken windows and erect fallen tombstones. But over time his message begins to attract  the most motley and desperate cast of characters: prostitutes, murderers, hunchbacks, filicides. In exchange for their deformity, physical or otherwise, the counselor offers them hope. Hope that Christ will raise an army that will defeat the antichrist. Hope that suffering will be abated. Egalitarianism will be ushered in and men and women once and for all will be free. 

Eventually the small contingent sets up camp in Canudos. They begin to build a church from scratch and a society wiped clean from the deleterious effects of class suppression. 

‘There it stood facing the east, that stupendous disharmonious facade, without rule or proportion, with its gross friezes, its impossible volutes, its capering delirium of incorrect curves, its horrible ogives and embrasures, a brutish, shapeless hulk, something like an exhumed crypt, as if the builder had sought to objectivise in stone and cement the disorder of his own delirious mind.’

For a short time Canudos is left to itself. But then the republic issues a national census which for the impoverished and illiterate pilgrims could mean only one thing: a diabolical plot to re-enslave the blacks.They refuse to pay taxes which could only be an attempt to keep the poor impoverished. They will not give in to the hocus-pocus of the metric system only meant to confuse and entrap them. Instead they would live side by side without violence amid a fraternal society and a climate of exaltation. A tapestry of humanity woven from the down trodden and derelict. Without realizing the historical relevance of what they are saying they begin to mutter under their breath something akin to “liberty, equality and fraternity,” and it is not long before a revolutionary from a failed and distant revolution has found them. 

Galileo Gall, a self made/named man has chosen his moniker after the father of the scientific method and Franz Joseph Gall the founder of phrenology. Like his name sake, Galileo Gall is also obsessed with revolutionary ideas, but instead of astronomy he has chased after one societal collapse after another waiting each time with bated breath for mankind to get it right and usher in a new era of humanity. Gall thinks Canudos has picked up the fight where others have left it, and unbeknownst to them they are breathing life back into the Idea…but he must help them realize this. 

‘In the last analysis, names did not matter; they were wrappings, and if they helped uneducated people to identify the contents more easily, it was of little moments that instead of speaking of justice and injustice, freedom and oppression, classless society and class society, they talked in terms of God and the Devil.”

Gall hires a guide, with the help of Baron de Canabrava, the societal detritus of a collapsed monarchy. Quickly a rumor develops that the baron, functioning as a representative of the Autonomists are intent on establishing this group of outlaws in Canudos to profane the Republic and provides them with arms and supplies. 

The militants of the Republic spread the rumor as well. It will be just as helpful for them to amputate the dangerous ideas before they spread like gangrene into the underbrush of the uncivilized peasants eking out a living in an inhospitable world. 

And so Canudos finds itself in the political interstices of opposing factions. Each faction demands resolution purified with glorious battle and so Canudos, a favela comprised of the elderly and deformed, must ready itself for a battle for which they are underprepared and undersupplied. 

The cast of characters swarms in and out of focus like the sertao 's carnivorous fire ants, burrowing into flesh and proliferating only to disappear in the hot pulsating flesh for a moment before bursting out in an oozing pustule of narrative and regeneration. The narrative baton is passed quickly and chaotically. 

Gall edges forth as champion of narrative only to make one dire mistake and after being tracked through the scrubland dies in a stranglehold with his guide. Each one fighting for the right to die with honor. 

Jurema, the guide’s wife, has been a quiet background character throughout and momentarily finds herself thrust into the role of protagonist, sullenly picking up the narrative as well as a dwarf and an emaciated birdlike journalist. The three struggle to make their way to Canudos where they dissolve for a time into the background of the city, erecting blockades, shivering in the cold, sharing the last remaining moisture from the marrow of a bone. 

As the Republic mounts its offensive the outlaws are joined by more and more disenfranchised citizens. The Mirandela village of Indians, herded together in the eighteenth century by the Capuchins missionaries, trickle into Canudos to offer their support. While the Republic fights with Krupp cannons and artillery the bandits have slingshots and bees nests. There is no conceivable reason for the bandits to win, but they do, one battle after another. They fight a battle without quarter and mercurial lines of offensive. But even this isn’t enough. The war of attrition takes it’s toll on both sides, and every evening the emaciated and desperate living are harder and harder to distinguish from the dead. 

As the death toll climbs to thirty thousand souls, seven skeletal bandits escape through the cover of darkness. All have been chosen and given consent to leave by the Counselor as he too succumbs to starvation, but not all are joyous at the prospect of abandoning the fight. The Villanova brothers have been chosen to start again, somewhere else sometime else. They will pick up one stone and a trowel of mortar and slowly rebuild the hopes and dreams of the diaspora. The journalist and his nuclear family which now includes the dwarf and Jurema, have been tasked with escaping so that the world can know their story; why they fought and the truth about the end of the world. 

As the seven scurry away the bandits hidden in their trenches hold their breath, waiting for that last bullet that will end the entire conflagration once and for all. Throughout the cacophony of artillery and rubble exploding a voice is heard. The Little Blessed One has decided to send the women and children across the battle lines. There is nothing left for them here and no space for the living amongst the rubble and the dead. As one by one the aged and infirm, women and children begin to make their way across the small no mans land, a few of the bandits begin to think they are sending their loved ones to certain death by torture and mutilation by the Freemasons. Rather than allow this atrocity they begin to shoot their own wives and daughters in the back so as to save them humiliation and pain from being accosted from the front. 

With this last sacrifice they have exchanged ideology for extremity. Fanaticism for clarity of purpose. With the counselor dead and the leadership dispersed each one is left with the imprint of a thought, the ghost of an ideology; shape shifting and indistinguishable. 

‘I don’t know. Once again I don’t know anything. In Belo Monte everything seemed clear to me, day was day and night night. Until the moment, until we began firing on the innocent and on the Little Blessed One. Now everything’s hard to decide again…because maybe the Father wanted us to go to heaven as martyrs.”

As the narrative sputters to a close, one crazy spasmodic episode after another Colonel Macedo stops to ask an emaciated toothless woman if she’s seen one of the notorious outlaws, Abbot Joao who is rumored to still be alive:

“The little old woman shakes her head and clacks her tongue, as though sucking on something. 
‘He got away then?’
The little old woman shakes her head again, encircled by the eyes of the woman prisoners. 
‘Archangels took him to heaven,’ she says, clacking her tongue. ‘I saw them.”

With this last salvo we are left within the swirling vortex comprised of madness and fanaticism, fate and responsibility, hope and oppression.  

“Like Brazil at the dawn of the century, ''The War of the End of the World'' looks both forward and backward; the forces acted out are eternal and elemental. It is not a multitude of competing ideologies that besets the world, Mr. Vargas Llosa tells us; rather it is one, always the same, calling itself by different names, its hero showing a thousand faces, forever haunting the peace of prelates, presidents, general secretaries and chairmen, threatening their benefices, palaces and chairs in the name of liberty, equality and life more abundant. Espousing the rule of the Messiah, the Christ, the people are in pursuit of an unchanging goal - the final liberation of mankind from evil, the settling at last of the oldest direct question in the world, the question of suffering. A thousand revolutions in the name of that one resolution.” (Stone, Robert. “Revolution as Ritual.” New York Times, Books. August 12, 1984.)

Friday, March 31, 2017

Nathan the Wise - Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing loved a good argument, and in 1777 he found himself embroiled in the "hottest theological debate" of the century; Protestantism vs. the Enlightenment. 

First a little history: Lessing is working as a librarian for Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand. It’s 1769 and despite making a name for himself as one of Germany’s foremost writers, he is broke and in love and needs a job to provide for the woman he hopes to marry. Despite the fact that the Prince is a bit of a pecuniary despot, the arrangement seems to work. Lessing spends his time doing librarianish things and reading over a manuscript written by Professor Reimarus.  The manuscript was given to Lessing by the professor’s son with the understanding that Lessing would not publish it. 

Lessing is an artist, or art critic, and as such is impervious to social code and conduct. He doesn’t exactly publish the manuscript, instead he breaks it down into 5 chunks and publishes them in serial form as excerpts from an “unknown author.” 

As expected, these “excerpts” are highly controversial.  They attack everything from the historicity of the resurrection to the inerrancy of the scriptures and offer a plea for religious tolerance (particularly for Deists).

He begins sparring with Johann Melchior Goeze, a Lutheran clergyman with an allegedly radical viewpoint. As the debate is made in serial form, slowly over the course of two years, the attacks become more and more personal. Lessing has lost his infant son and wife and builds himself a cocoon of theological hatred and self preservation. The Goeze debate becomes the perfect catharsis for a man who has lost everything, attempting to patch up a broken heart through inexhaustible work. His quest for truth, unfettered from the oppression of the clergy becomes a clarion call for a man buried alive in grief and the only light at the end of a tunnel of despair. 

Eventually Goeze is concerned for his reputation. Lessing has now focused his attack directly at Goeze in an 11 part publication entitled “Anti-Goeze,.” The debates had become too personal and gone too far and there was no foreseeable end in sight, so Goeze calls in the big guns. He asked the government to forbid any further publications from Lessing and revoke his freedom from censorship, which the government does, and for a singular moment, Lessing has been silenced. 

But Lessing is a man of many talents and decides that if he can’t attack religion through periodicals, he will take his arguments to the theater and in 1779 writes “Nathan the Wise” as a distillation of his 2 year theological debate. 

To set the stage for his attack against Christianity he picks inarguably one of the worst moments of the Christian faith: 12th century Jerusalem during the crusades. The play opens during the armistice between 1202-1204 and the tension of imposed peace is almost palpable. 

The “basic” plot line is as follows: 

Saladin, a Kurdish Sultan, has decided to let a templar live after he bears a striking resemblance to his brother. 

(The actual Saladin was responsible for the capture of Jerusalem in 1193 and the subsequent near annihilation of the Crusaders- in Lessing’s version Saladin is less of a military strategist and more of a big softy). 

This templar, wanders around Jerusalem with the guilt of an only survivor when he sees a house engulfed in flames and without thinking races in and saves the only occupant, Recha, the daughter of Nathan the Wise. 

Nathan has been away collecting Middle Eastern gems and wealth etc. and when he returns he learns of his daughter’s near death and miraculous rescue. When he is about to go out and seek this Christian templar to proffer his thanksgiving, his daughter’s christian maid Daya says it’s of little use,  she has tried to thank him but the templar seems to have multiple personalities; being heroic and valiant one moment, since the infamous rescue he has become a taunting racist, spitting out slurs against Jews. 

Nathan is unperturbed. Very slowly and with many opportunities for soliloquizing the plot progresses as Daya makes her way to the palm grove in search of the templar. 

Thirty pages in and Nathan is very obviously the poster child for the enlightenment espousing “Passion in the garb of Reason”, while the templar take his place as a foil for Christianity.  As the templar has a short erratic discussion with a friar he says: 

“A templars only calling is to fight, 
And not to ferret out intelligence.” 

In the context of the play he is turning down an opportunity to become a spy, but as the representative of the Christian faith he has distilled the crusade into it’s most basic element: men fighting for a cause they little care to question or understand.

When Daya finally finds the templar and asks him to visit Nathan so that he might show his thanks, the templar says:

“From this day forth good woman, 
Do me at least the favor not to know me; 
I beg it of you; and don’t send the father. 
A Jew’s a Jew. and I am rude and bearish.
The image of the maid is quite erased
Out of my soul - if it was ever there-“

Eventually, to move the plot along the templar is finally persuaded to visit Nathan and Recha and immediately falls in love. Nathan is indebted to the templar for saving his daughter so how could he refuse him his daughter in marriage? But Nathan, like Saladin, feels like the templar marks a striking resemblance to an old friend and hesitates to give the youngsters his blessing until he can go on a fact finding mission. (Also…it’s way too soon!? Get to know each other? Go on a date that doesn’t involve buildings being on fire…)

Daya, a Christian, and as such a treacherous back stabber, secretly goes to the templar and tells him that Recha isn’t actually a Jew! Nathan maliciously adopted her as a child with perhaps the exclusive intent of keeping her soul in perdition. The templar is a mix of emotions; partly enraged that a Jew would do such a disgusting and immoral thing, but also partially hopeful, with the old miserly Jew out of the way he’ll have Recha all to himself, a perfect ending to a most perfect meet-cute. 

The templar races off to ask a bunch of hypothetical questions to a priest such as: Hypothetically if a Jew captured a Christian child and forcibly adopted (her?) and then brought her up as a Jewess…how bad hypothetically would that be? 

The templar with his heart ablaze and the hope of matrimonial bliss on the horizon has enough humanity to be shocked by the rabid ferocity that the priest sics on the hypothetical Jew. All scenarios end with the Jew being burned at the stake. 

“To execute at once upon the Jew
The penal laws in such a case provided
By papal and imperial right, against
So foul a crime- such dire abomination…

How much more the Jew, who forcibly 
Tears from the holy font a Christian child
And breaks the sacramental bond of baptism;
For all what’s done to children is by force-
I mean except what the church does to children…”

The templar begins to think this may not be the best plan and goes off to seek council from Saladin. 

Meanwhile, Nathan has already been to visit Saladin to thank the sultan for saving the templar who in turn rescued his daughter. The sultan after exchanging a few pleasantries turns the discussion to ontology, and here we have the linchpin of the play: The story of the Three Rings, which is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Decameron. 

In Boccaccio’s version, Melchizedek is sent for by Saladin who has devised an intriguing method of extortion: he will trap Melchizedek into debating theology at which point, after being successfully ensnared, Melchizedek will affront the Islamic faith and his wealth will be forcibly taken from him while he dies a horrible death etc. 

In both versions Saladin asks which religion is the true religion? Christianity, Islam or Judaism? And in both versions Nathan and Melchizedek avoid the trap by telling a parable of three rings. 

In Boccaccio’s version a father will bequeath to his son a ring that will allow the entitled heir to receive honor and “homage due to a superior”. Eventually a man has three sons and rather than give the ring to a favorite son, since he loves his sons equally and can find no favorite, he has two replicas made and upon his death bequeaths a ring to each son. Upon the morrow when the sons begin to discuss who was the favorite all produce identical rings and realize that in their father’s eyes they are all equal. 

In Lessing’s version there are a few Enlightenment variations: Now the illustrious owner of the ring is not just entitled to honor but the ring has the “hidden virtue him to render of God and man beloved.” Eventually a father has three sons and is in the same predicament as Boccaccio’s version. He has two replicas made and upon his death the three sons are each given a ring. 

“Scarce is the father dead, each with his ring
Appears and claims to be the lord o’ th’ house. 
Comes questions, strife, complaint- all to no end;
For the true ring could no more be distinguished 
Than now can- the true faith.”

Nathan further argues that religion is contextual. History and tradition must be passed down similarly to genetics and who are we to decide whose version is best?  

“How can I less believe in my forefathers
Than thou thine. How can I ask of thee 
To own that thy forefathers falsified
In order to yield mine the praise of truth. 
The like of the Christians.”

Nathan then lays down his gauntlet: Let the true religion speak for itself in the actions of it’s adherents. 

“The judge said, If ye summon not the father
Before my seat, I cannot give a sentence.
Am I to guess enigmas? Or expect ye
That the true ring should here unseal it’s lips? 
But hold- you tell me that the real ring 
Enjoys the hidden power to make the wearer
Of God and man beloved; let that decide.
Which of you do two brothers love best?
You’re silent. Do these love-exciting rings
Act inwardly only, not without? Does each
Love but himself? Ye’re all deceived deceivers,
None of your rings is true. The real ring
Perhaps is gone. To hide or to supply 
It’s loss, your father ordered three for one. 

Thesis: Truth is relative. If you believe your religion to be true act like it is and it will be. Treat humans as brothers in a global surge of magnanimity and grant that all men are equal and the true religion is arrived at by popular vote. (Paraphrase of the Freemason constitution of which Lessing was a part.) 

Eventually all the players make their way to the court of Saladin all for various reasons when there is a big reveal: Recha and the templar are brother and sister being the children of Saladin’s late brother and good friend of Nathan. The templar is revealed as Guy of Filnek and Recha as Blanda of Filnek and they realize that in this motley crew of emotions and faith here stand the salt of the earth. 

The only problem with this religious pluralism, is that all the religions being represented look an awful lot like Christianity. The reality of women’s roles in Islamic culture is softened by the relationship Saladin has with his sister. Saladin doesn’t keep a harem but instead in the only instance in literature or perhaps history, his sister does and in this presumed harem there is only musical endeavors and virtuous chivalry. As an embodiment of the Enlightenment Nathan has been forced to give up the Judaeo- part of this faith and what is left is “Christianity”, nowhere is the Torrah mentioned or anything even remotely Jewish. The premise of universal religion is that all religions will be inclusive of everyone else…but what if the bedrock of your religion is the promise of a chosen people? 

In the end what Lessing offers is an exchange of religious sectarianism for secular nationalism. 

And as Esther Cameron in her article “The Street of Nathan the Wise, or The Flawed Contract of Tolerance” says “To portray the ‘ideal’ Jew as one who has foregone all attempts to perpetuate either his lineage or his faith, is to offer tolerance on condition of extinction.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Prose Edda - Snorri Sturluson

According to Jesse Byock (The Prose Edda, Norse Mythology, 2005) the Edda “recounts the Norse creation epic and the subsequent struggles of the gods’ tragic realization that the future holds one final cataclysmic battle, Ragnarok, when the world will be destroyed.”  

There is much more of a Christian influence on the Germanic prose of the Nibelungenlied than the Norse. While Snorri Sturluson does ground his mythology in the guise of Christianity, there is actually very little apparent Christian influence outside the prologue:

“In the beginning, almighty God created heaven and earth and all that pertains to them…[short discussion on Adam and Eve and Noah and worldly ambition etc.] …they abandoned their obedience to God, going so far that they no longer desired to name God. Who was able to tell their sons about God’s wondrous deeds? Thus they lost God’s name, and nobody could be found anywhere in the world who knew his maker.”

King Gylfi goes on a quest to understand the origins of the world, and ends up in a hall reminiscent of Valhalla where he sits down with three figures, High, Just-as-High and Third (all of which are names for Odin), to discuss cosmology.

The narrative then progressive with a question and answer session between Gylfi, disguised as an old man, and Odin disguised as three mortals. Gylif is curious about the origin of the gods; who for example is the oldest? Or the highest? What was the beginning or how did things start?
“Early of ages, when nothing was. There was neither sand nor sea nor cold waves. The earth was not found not the sky above. Ginnungagp [the great void before creation] was there, but grass, was nowhere.” (The Sibyl’s Prophecy. 3)

While there are Christian themes ameliorated into the narrative, for example the concept of a Trinitarian God, the Christian elements are subtle and the Edda reads more like a “Just So” story or Ovid’s Metamorphoses than a treatise on faith.

The Nibelungenlied by comparison chooses to keep a Germanic and barbaric epic narrative (lots of blood and gore and descriptive decapitations) with a sprinkling of the catholic rite and ritual.  In fact, I think the most suspenseful scene in the Nibelungenlied is when Hagen and his warriors, suspicious of Kriemhild’s very evident plan to murder them, choose to wear their armor and carry their swords into mass. It’s all very edge of your seat.

The world of the Edda is comprised of dwarfs and elves and Middle Earth etc., It is not hard to see the influence the Edda had on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In fact, I think you could probably insert a paragraph from either book into the other without much discontinuity.  Besides the fact that Tolkein uses many of the same names and concepts of the Edda, probably the most emblematic comparison is that of the ‘ring’. While we are all probably familiar with the role the ‘ring’ played in Tolkein’s trilogy, Snorri’s version is not too dissimilar: the ring will ultimately harm its owner and bring death and destruction wherever it goes.

King Gylfi asks: ‘Why is gold called Otter’s ransom?’ And in response Odin tell the following story:

Loki, Odin and Hoenir are traveling throughout the world, Loki as usual is contemplating some sort of mischief to enact on the gods, when the trio stumble upon an otter taking a bath in a river. Loki kills the otter and a salmon and as they make their way through the forest they are pleased with their catch and anticipated lunch. Unbeknownst to them, they have actually killed the son of the magical woodsman Hreidmar. When Hreidmar realizes this is what has happened, he calls his sons, Fafnir and Regin and they bind the three gods preparing to kill them. 

The gods beg for their lives and promise a ransom. After a bit of contemplation, the woodsmen agree: the gods must fill the sack, made with the skin flayed from the otter, with red gold. The gods agree and Odin sends Loki to go find the dwarf Andvari, who has a predilection for turning himself into a fish, and lives in a rock cave filled with a hoard of gold. As Andvari hands over the gold, he hides a little ring in his hand, not wishing to part with it, but Loki having seen the subtle gesture demands that the ring be turned over. The words ‘my precious’ may not have been used, but it’s the same general gist. As Loki grabs the ring and heads back to the woodsmen, the dwarf screams out a warning and a curse that the ring will be the death of whoever possesses it.

The curse of the ring begins its malevolent work immediately. As Loki unburdens himself of the gold, Hreidmar casts his eyes over the compensation for his son’s death, again the words “my precious” might not actually be spoken in so many words, but you can sense the sentiment. Fafnir and Regin ask for their part of the gold and when their father refuses to part with even a single gold coin, Fafnir kills him. Then Regin turns to Fafnir; now that their father is dead, the most rational decision would be to split the gold evenly down the middle, but Fafnir laughs, after he killed his own father for the gold does Regin actually think he is about to share it? As Regin decides maybe he will leave and take that vacation he’s always promised himself. Fafnir, now wearing the Aegis-Helm (the Helm of Dread) makes himself a lair in the Gnita-Heath, and turning himself into a dragon lays down on his hoard of gold.

Enter our hero from the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried, who in the Norse version has become Sigurd.

Rigen is annoyed at his brother just because he killed his father first and then turned himself into a dragon etc. doesn’t mean he gets to keep the gold. Not fair! He makes his way to Thjod and finds Sigurd, the strongest warrior in the land renowned for his strength and courage, and bates him with treasure (the hoard of the Nibelungelied). We are forced to read between the lines, but the discussion must have gone something like this: A dragon is lying on my pile of gold, want to kill it? My translation says: “Regin told him where Fafnir lay on the gold and urged him to seek the treasure.” I’m emphasizing this because what happens next can only be described as foul play.

Sigurd, the brilliant and cunning warrior that he is, digs a pit in the path that Fafnir always takes and then hides himself in it waiting for the dragon to pass by. As Fafnir crawls along the path inattentive to his surroundings, probably thinking something along the lines of “my precious”, he passes over the pit and Sigurd thrusts his sword into his belly killing him instantaneously. At this point, Regin rushes forward crying “you just killed my brother!”

“As settlement between him and Sigurd, he asked Sigurd to take Fafnir’s heart and roast it on the fire. Then Regin lay down, drank Fafnir’s blood and went to sleep.”

There are some deeply disturbing familial issues at play here, but Sigurd seems unfazed. He busies himself with cooking up some dragon heart and as it is roasting nicely on the stick he touches it to find out if it is still raw, when the boiling blood from the heart drips onto his finger scalding him. He quickly puts his finger in his mouth and immediately can understand the language of birds. (Not quite as cool as the immortality Siegfried got for killing his dragon…but still pretty cool.) Lucky for Sigurd, the birds are poets and apparently mind readers for they warn Sigurd of the nefarious plans of Regin in iambic pentameter.

Sigurd kills Regin, hops on his horse Grani, and makes his way to Fafnir’s lair where he loads up the gold and heads home for praise and adoration.

On the way he finds Brynhild, (or Brunhild of the Nibelungenlied), unlike her Germanic counterpart she is not a giantess obsessed with track and field events but a Valkyrie, trapped in a sleep inducing helmet and mail coat.  Sigurd cuts the mail coat away and removes the helmet and frees Brynhild from her stupor and then makes his way to the Gjukungs, where he marries the princess Gudrun (or Kriemhild of the Nibelungenlied.)

In the Norse version Brynhild is the sister of Attila the Hun, and Gudrun’s brother Gunnar has his eye on her. Brynhild after being rescued by Sigurd has established herself on the top of a mountain surrounded by a “wavering flame.” She has taken an oath that she will only marry a man capable of riding through flames for her. Gunnar, with the best of intentions, tries to ride his horse Goti through the flames, but Goti won’t have it. Sigurd changes form with Gunnar and rides through the flame and marries Brynhild on Gunnar’s behalf. That evening as they get into bed, Sigurd draws his sword, Gram, and lays it between them, as a sign of protecting her virginity, which is a much more chivalrous version of the marriage night than the Nibelungenlied.

The next morning, as payment for the ‘linen fee’ Sigurd gives Brynhild the gold ring that Loki had taken from Andvari and she gives him one of her rings in exchange.  He then jumps on his horse, rides back to his companions, presumably with Brynhild in tow, quickly changes form with Gunnar and the now happy party makes their way back to Gjuki to live happily ever after.
Except this is an epic. And there’s that dastardly ring involved, so no one actually lives for long and whether their short lives are happy is questionable.

We now come to the infamous quarrel between the two brides. Once again, a version of ‘my husband’s stronger than your husband’ is played out, but this time as the women are washing their hair in a nearby stream. Brynhild refuses to have her hair washed with water that has already run through Gudrun’s hair because hers is the more courageous husband. Makes sense. Predictably, as these things go, Gudrun then has to wade farther out from shore saying her husband is more valiant and courageous and as proof she offers the anecdotal evidence: her husband (obviously much stronger than any mortal living including Gunner etc.) has killed Fafnir the dragon and Regin the nefarious woodsman and taken both their inheritances.

That’s pretty impressive, but didn’t Gunnar ride gloriously through hell flame and fire to marry Brynhild, while Sigurd was hardly man enough to stand guard? Obviously Brynhild wins. Fire beats dragon.

Gudrun laughingly says “Do you think it was Gunnar who rode through the wavering fire? This I know: the one who came into your bed was the one who gave me this gold ring. Further, the gold ring you have on your hand, which you received as the morning gift, is called Andvaranaut, and I do not believe that Gunnar was the one to get it at Gnita- Heath.”

Brynhild says nothing. Or at least Snorri doesn’t allow her a retort. Instead she makes her way home and urges her husband to kill Sigurd, which he does with little prompting. (Actually, to be more accurate, since he took an oath not to harm Sigurd, he tells his brother Gothram to kill Sigurd, which he immediately does by thrusting a sword threw the sleeping Sigurd).

(I like the immortal Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied a bit better.  With only a small pervious section of his back grounding him in mortality there’s much more intrigue and planning involved than: sword in the back while sleeping.)

 Brynhild then grabbing the sword from Gothram thrusts it into herself. Sigurd and Brynhild are then burnt together on a pyre. We are given nothing about Gunnar’s emotional state, having just lost his wife and brother-in-law, he seems less distraught than one would imagine. He quickly takes the gold from Sigurd and the ring from Brynhild and heads back home to rule over the lands.

Gudrun then decides to marry Brynhild’s brother, King Attila. One sentence later it’s time for a visit from Gunnar, for good measure he decides to hide his hoard of gold in the Rhine, where it remains to be found (the same place it was hidden in the Nibelungenlied). King Attila is waiting for Gunnar and his men and within 2 sentences has cut out the heart of Gunnar’s side kick and thrown Gunnar into a pit of snakes. Luckily, Gunnar was secretly given a harp which he was forced to play with his toes, since his hands were bound. As he plays his melody the snakes begin to fall asleep, all except one:
“This one glided towards him and struck just below the breastbone so that she buried her head into his flesh, grabbing hold of his liver until he died.”

It is now Gudrun’s turn to wreak havoc on the life of her husband, King Attila. She murders her two sons and makes goblets from their skulls. At the funeral procession for her brother she presents her husband with these macabre goblets filled with the blood of their sons. And then just in case he doesn’t get the memo that she is truly psychotic, she has her sons hearts roasted and given to the king to eat. Um what?! She shouts and yells and with “foul” language tells her one dimensional husband what she has done. This is the next sentence:

“There was no lack of strong mead at the feast and most people feel asleep where they were sitting.”
Gudrun does not fall asleep. Instead she murders her husband as he slept (what?!) and then burns the hall so that all the guests burn to death.
As a whole, if one can compare these two entirely different pieces of literature I think the Nibelungendlied is more…readable?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Une Vie - Guy de Maupassant

“Jeanne had left the convent the day before, free for all time, ready to seize all the joys of life.”

Baron Simon-Jacques Le Perthuis des Vauds is a man of generous temperament and a fanatic devotion to Rousseau. He agrees that the modern world, with all it’s tool making and property rights is no place for a modern woman. 

“Of aristocratic birth, he hated instinctively the year 1793, but being a philosopher by temperament and liberal by education, he execrated tyranny with an inoffensive and declamatory hatred.” 

The Baron believes that the only way to educate and safeguard the chastity of his only daughter Jeanne is to have her brought up in a convent; and there she has spent her childhood, severely cloistered and uneducated about the ways of the world and ignorant of the secrets of life. Her one daydream has been this day, when her father and mother would come and pick her up out of her life of seclusion and bring her to her very own castle where with baited breath she would await matrimonial bliss. 

The day her parents come to fetch her, her jolly father and corpulent mother, squeeze themselves into their carriage and make their way through the dreary grey weather to her long awaited home. As they make their way along the wharf, past tall-masted vessels and the raging sea, the three travelers are cocooned in their own thoughts. “Their minds themselves seem to be saturated with moisture like the earth.” And each held their breath, waiting for the rest of their lives to begin. 

Jeanne has spent every waking day-dream imagining what this new life would hold in store for her, she envisioned charming incidents and a life filled with ecstatic joy. As they drive up to her new home it is everything that she ever imagined, tucked into the countryside, surrounded by little farms, with an interior painted with Romantic depictions of earlier epochs and she tucks herself into a waking dream of potential hope. 

It is not long after they have established themselves that they hear a rumor of a nearby eligible young bachelor, M. le Vicomte Lamare, from a family of nobility, but little property. His father has recently died, leaving a vast sum of debts to be paid, so our economical hero has sold the family castle and now lives on one of the three farms left to the family estate. He has a reputation of a hard worker but lives a secluded life. Still nobility is nobility, and despite his six thousand livres a year, an almost pitiable sum, he is handsome and confident and slowly begins to weave himself into their lives. 

He is quiet and respectful and for Jeanne’s mother it is love at first sight. Jeanne on the other hand is too busy walking through fields and breathing the fresh scent of warm grass. She is the product of a Rousseauian education and as such spends a lot of time contemplating nature and crying. When she and her father and their new friend decide to take a boat trip to some of the surrounding islands, she is overcome by the breathtaking beauty of the sea. For her the only three things in the world that are truly beautiful are: light, space and water. Jeanne and the vicomte get seated next to each other, their bodies occasionally pressed together at the sudden movement from the waves and in this moment, overcome with the beauty of the sea, Jeanne’s daydream begins to become more distinguishable. 

As she whispers her hopes and dreams about traveling the world, all the things to see and the places of antiquity to discover, their eyes meet and he says: Yes, but it can be tiresome to travel alone, there should be at least two, to exchange ideas. Jeanne for a moment contemplates this. She likes to walk alone though, she says, she likes to run her toes through the sand and dream alone about the future. The vicomte raises his eyes slightly to hers and says, “Two can dream as well as one?”

At this point they are practically married. There is still more blushing and averted gazes and such, but their hearts have been twined and they wait the days and the perfunctory exchanges until they can communicate their true feelings. 

Despite her initial joy, Jeanne is not entirely sure she is quite ready for this next adventure, but things begin to progress quickly and beyond her control and Julien, the vicomte, seems to be everything a girl could ever ask for, patient and kind, devoted and chivalrous. When he asks for her hand in marriage the whole family is happy and excited about their future. 

The wedding preparations are hurried through and as Jeanne and Julien, now married, are about to embark on their honeymoon through Athens, Jeanne’s mother presses into her hand a small purse heavy with the weight of gold. It is two-thousand livres a third of Julien’s income, for Jeanne to purchase some wedding presents for herself. Julien watches the exchange and says nothing and the happy couple make their way to the ancient world. 

At first everything seems to be perfect, minus of course the whole unpleasant business of wedding night expectations etc. Poor Jeanne has very little experience when it comes to any of this more sordid business, she has been raised more by the birds and the bees themselves then educated about them. But even this can not dampen her mood. She loves Julien and humanity and birds and little children. 

Eventually Julien asks to hold the little purse that Jeanne’s mother has given her, and without hesitating she hands it over. Increasingly he begins to exhibit miserly tendencies and at one point when she asks for some change to buy a little something for herself, Julien hands over a couple sous saying she needs to curb her exorbitant spending habits. By the end of their honeymoon he has become distant and laconic. And as they head back to her castle among the poplars she feels as if she has married a stranger. 

“Then it came to her that she had no longer anything to do, never again anything to do. All her young life at the convent had been preoccupied with the future, busied with dreams. The constant excitement of hope filled her hours at the time so that she was not aware of their flight. Then hardly had she left their austere walls, where her illusions had unfolded, then her expectations of love were at once realized. The longed-for lover, met, loved and married within a few weeks, as one marries on these sudden resolves, had carried her off in his arms, without giving her time for reflection.” 

Slowly, Julien becomes more and more aloof and reserved and Jeanne becomes the slave of a life of lethargy and seclusion. 

“It seemed to Jeanne that her mind was expanding, was beginning to understand the psychic meaning of things; and these little scattered gleams in the landscape gave her, all at once, a keen sense of the isolation of all human lives, a feeling that everything detaches, separates, draws one far away from the things they love.” 

And then one morning while she’s sitting silently in her room and contemplating the disillusionment of life, her maid, Rosalie, seems out of breath and unwell. Without really seeing her, Jeanne asks if she’s well, when the response is a moan and a cry of pain as Rosalie holds her stomach a wave of understanding washes over her. She races to the top of the stairs and calls “Julien!! Come quick!” But by the time he runs up the two flights of stairs, their maid Rosalie has already given birth to a baby boy, in what is the shortest recorded labor in literary history.

This is shocking. Especially for a sheltered Rousseauian. How did this happen? Rosalie is an unmarried scullery maid…while Jeanne is trying to rationalize what is taking place her husband seems even more gruff and deleterious. When he walks into the room and sees the maid, crouching on the floor with her new baby he turns around, an evil look on his face and abruptly tells his wife to get out of the room, this is none of her business. 

Jeanne is shocked and horrified. She tries to force the maid to tell her who the father is, but the maid shutters with horror and perhaps revulsion and is unable to speak. Julien is sullen and angry whenever the subject is brought up of their maid’s impropriety, but they gradually fall into acceptance of their new reality. And slowly as the seasons change, with the weather Julien’s mercurial moods wax and wane. One particularly freezing night while a chill has fallen over the house Julien’s mood for some reason seems to thaw. He allows his wife to heat her room with an extra log and then since she is not feeling well, he kisses her goodnight and heads to his own room. 

The weather is perilously cold and Jeanne awakes feeling ill. She rings for her maid and gets no response, concerned for her maid and the child, living in the even colder rooms in the garret, she creeps out of her bed and makes her way to Rosalie’s room softly calling her name. But the maid is not there, the bed sheets are askew and looked slept in, but where could the maid be? Jeanne makes her way to her husband’s room to tell him of her discovery…by the light of the dying embers she perceives Rosalie’s head leaning on her husband’s shoulder. 

At this point it’s hard to decipher if it’s Julien that has failed her or Rousseau.

She has had a completely different expectation of the “noble savage”. She thought that meant taking long walks and discovering native peoples. But in all her day dreams the fidelity and commitment to her lover were always taken for granted. She has married a roving individual with a preference for loose companionship, who has thrown off the tyranny of marital expectation and there is little she can do. Not only that but she is pregnant. 

Her parents and the priest come to force Rosalie to make a confession. She says that she has been having an affair with Julien since the first time he came to the house. That the second they got back from their honeymoon, that night he went to her bed. He has been a more faithful husband to the maid than to his wife. The father is at first apoplectic and about to do something hasty and rash when the priest pulls him aside and says basically “who of us has not had a dalliance with a maid? How can you be harsh with your son in law when you are guilty of the same crime?” The father pauses. The priest is right. And so they all decide to live as happily as possible ever after, quickly marrying the maid off to a burly farmer who for a large sum and the property of a farm decides he can be persuaded to adopt a bastard. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Nibelungenlied

“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.”
The Mourning Bride - William Congreve 1697

In a nutshell, the Nibelungenlied is an epic Germanic poem about a catfight; the lengths both women go to destroy each other and the ultimate carnage left in the wake of their fury. 

Germanic poetry in the twelfth and thirteenth century can be divided into two classes: Court Epic and National Epic. The Court Epic for the most part followed the French model and primarily dealt with chivalry, their hero and penultimate example being embodied in the legend of Arthur and his circle of knights. A good example of this class would be the Prison of Love.

The other class, The National Epic drew it’s subject matter from the national Germanic saga and were written in four-lined strophes rather than couplets. Rather than chivalry being the underlying theme, this class (which would include the Iliad) tends to emphasize loyalty and unswerving devotion to a personal cause despite all odds often using a historical backdrop to ground the mythology into a national hero saga. While Siegfried was popular as the hero of the nature-myth in many differing versions, the Nibelungenlied tries to address the mass annihilation of the Burgundians in 437. 

According to George Henry Needler, who translated this incredible version, the Iliad far surpasses the Nibelungenlied in its depth of feeling, wealth of imagery, and the beauty of its language. By contrast the Nibelungenlied is episodic and blunt, and there is little character development or dimension. It’s also an interesting hybrid of pagan mythology and christianity, with the characters fighting dragons and taking each others chastity but stopping regularly to go to mass. 

Our heroines are Kriemhild and Brunhild, both notorious for their beauty and strength of character. Kriemhild is the princess of Burgundy and an echelon above mere mortals. Her brother Gunther is King, and she lives with her three brothers and mother in the palace, apparently sewing, participating in court rituals and having premonitions. 

“Amid this life so noble did dream the fair Kriemhild, 
How that she reared a falcon, in beauty strong and wild, 
That by two eagles perished; the cruel sight to see
Did fill her heart with sorrow as great as in this world might be”

Basically Kriemhild has a disturbing nightmare, and after describing it to her mother, Queen Ute, they come to the conclusion that the falcon must be her future spouse, who will ultimately come to a cruel and heinous demise at the hand of evil henchmen. Horrified, Kriemhild decides the best defense is a good offense. She will remain chaste and unmarried for the rest of her life; and she dutifully disappears from the court, burying herself in a hermitage of needlework and fear. 

Brunhild is more of a track and field kind of girl. She has come up with a way to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to her matrimonial prospects and has orchestrated an elaborate “field event” of strength and valor. If her suitor can beat her at three events (“shaft hurling”, the discus and shot put) she will take her place by his side, the subsequent “taming of the shrew” being voluntary. If, by chance, her suitor does not win in all three events then she gets to cut off his head. 

And so as the epic opens, it would seem that fate is stacked against these women, for what knight could conquer the dragon of nightmares or beat a valkyrie at a field event (in the Icelandic version of this epic, the Prose and Poetic Edda, Brynhild is a valkyrie asleep on the top of a fire-encircled mountain waiting for her deliverer, here she is in fact a mortal with an unjustifiable amount of superhuman strength.) 

Luckily, or rather unluckily, there does in fact exist such a knight. 

There grew likewise in Netherland a prince of noble kind,
Siegmund hight his father, his mother Siegelind-
Within a lordly castle well known the country o’er,
By the Rhine far downward: Xanten was the name it bore.

Siegfried they did call him, this bold knight and good;
Many a realm he tested, for brave was he of mood.
He rode to prove his prowess in many a land around:
High-ho! what thanes of mettle anon in Burgundy found. 

Siegfried is the Germanic equivalent of Achilles. Like his counterpart he even has a small section of pervious skin, a thumbprint of mortality.  In Siegfried’s case, rather than his heel it is a small spot on his back where the blood of the dragon he had slain did not fully cover him. 

After somehow capturing the hoard of the Nibelungen, Siegfried decides he needs another challenge. He has heard of the unsurpassable beauty of Kriemhild and makes his way to Worms where he will try his hand at wooing a fair maiden. 

His plan is to walk into the castle and present himself to Kriemhild’s brother, King Gunther, and basically overwhelm him with his grandeur and strength. He immediately challenges king Gunther to a duel, in the genre of Eric Carle’s ladybug that wants to fight. 

“And art thou then so valiant as hath to me been told, 
I reck not, will he nill he thy best warrior bold,
I’ll wrest from thee in combat whatever thou mayst have;
Thy lands and all thy castles shall naught from change of masters save.”

Gunther and his men are perplexed.  They tell him he’s going about this all wrong and after a brief tête-à-tête they all agree to be friends, fight each others battles and let bygones be bygones. Siegfried, then decides to quietly and valiantly imbed himself in the fabric of Gunther’s court until he sees an opportunity to ask for Kriemhild’s hand in marriage. 

After many heroic adventures, his opportunity presents itself. Gunther has heard of that strong and buxomy heroine, Brunhild. He is intrigued. It’s not every day a fair maiden is offering a challenge of feats of strength or death. Would he be a man if he could sit idly by and not try his hand at discus throwing? He asks Siegfried for his help, and Siegfried strikes up a bargain: If Siegfried can help Gunther win the hand of Brunhild, then in exchange he will get to marry Kriemhild. Gunther loves this idea. The agreement is settled and the men go off in search of their WWE champion. 

As they approach Isenland, they come up with a plan: Siegfried will dress as Gunther’s vassal, then when the challenge is about to begin, he will sneak off and put on his invisibility cloak, then sneak into the arena and fight against Brunhild.  Their plan works for the most part flawlessly, Siegfried does end up with a bloody nose, but he’s invisible so no harm no foul. 

Brunhild senses some sort of untoward behavior is underfoot, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. Since Gunther has traveled to her country and beaten her at her own field games, she will hold up her end of the bargain and marry him. She packs her bags and says good bye to her people and her country.

Finally they arrive in Burgundy and Gunther presents his sister to Siegfried to marry. They agree to have a joint wedding as soon as possible and as plans are underway, Brunhild ruminates over these bizarre happenings. Gunther is a King, Brunhild is a Queen; Kriemhild is a princess…Siegfried is a vassal? Something doesn’t quite compute. Why would the king marry off his sister to a vassal? As the wedding night is upon them and Gunther and Brunhild are getting into (or out of their pjs) Brunhild asks Gunther why he would marry his sister to a vassal. Gunther tries to play the “silence woman! let’s make a baby” card…but he quickly realizes that he is no match for Brunhild. When he refuses to answer her, she ties him up in the bed linens and hangs him from a nail in their bedroom and then goes to bed. 

Gunther, humiliated spends the night whispering conciliatory remarks like “come on baby, you’re so strong, I just love your muscles…but can you please untie me before the servants come in and bring us our breakfast…did I mention you’re gorgeous?” Brunhild has gotten her point across. The way things stand she wears the pants in this family and things bode poorly for their future…unless…

Siegfried pats his friend on the back the next morning, winking about their presumed exploits…when he realizes Gunther looks somewhat defeated. Gunther tells Siegfried how he spent his wedding night hung on a nail on the wall and Siegfried is stunned. This will not do. They will teach that shrew a lesson once and for all…so that evening Siegfried once again dons his invisible cloak and sneaks into the honeymoon suit. When the lights are turned out and Brunhild begins to edge away from Gunther’s advances, invisible Siegfried takes it upon himself to subdue the wench…with a wrestling match. 

“He did there as if Gunther the mighty king he were, 
And in his arms he pressed her, the maiden debonair. 
Forth from the bed she hurled him, where a bench there stood , 
And head of valiant warrior against a stool went ringing loud.”

Finally, exhausted and subdued, Brunhild cries “uncle”:

She spake: “O noble monarch, take not my life away.
The tram that I have done thee full well will I repay. 
No more thy royal embraces by me shall be withstood, 
For now I well have seen it, thou canst be lord o’er woman’s mood. 

Satisfied, Siegfried creeps out of the bedchamber, but not before he has taken a souvenir. He removes a ring from Brunhild’s finger and takes her richly woven girdle and gives them to Kriemhild. This was a terrible idea. Eventually, as the two Queens sit side by side, bored and watching the monotonous acts of knightly valor that seem to be everyone’s favorite pastime, the conversation turns into the genre of “my husband is stronger than your husband”. Brunhild, somewhat condescendingly suggests, that no matter how great Siegfried is…he will always be a vassal. 

The spat devolves into name calling, Kriemhild calls Brunhild a whore. Shocked and perplexed at such an accusation she asks what right does Kriemhild have for making such an accusation, Kriemhild, the bile practically dripping from her tongue, says it was her own husband Siegfried that took her virginity and she has the ring and garter belt to prove it. Not only that, but this is the second time her husband has tricked her, using his deceptive cape to cunningly outmaneuver her. 

Brunhild is devastated, as one could imagine. She has spent her life being strong and capable, and maybe deep down behind all those protruding muscles she’s really just a romantic at heart, looking for a soulmate in the only way she knows how. Sure maybe the stakes were a little high,  maybe cutting off the heads of her competitors was a little excessive, but love makes us do crazy things. And now, to realize that every moment has been steeped in deception, that this man she respected as an equal is a liar and a coward needing to call in the muscle even on his own wedding night rather than lose face and risk getting tied up and hung on a nail in their bedroom. 

She walks around in a daze. Heartbroken. She is a stranger in a strange land, who will avenge her honor? Slowly the story makes the rounds among Gunther’s men and everyone is moved to pity. Hagen of Tronje vows to make amends. Siegfried thinks he can do whatever he wants. Just because he slew a dragon and has a cloak that makes him disappear he thinks he’s hot stuff. Hagen makes it his personal mission to destroy his life. 

A hunting trip is planned and Hagen wanders into the sitting room to chat with Kriemhild. He’s worried about Siegfried getting into trouble, now that his recent exploits have been exposed, he doesn’t want someone to try to kill him or anything like that. Kriemhild smiles, Siegfried is practically immortal, she says, there is absolutely no reason to worry! There is just the tiniest place in the center of Siegfried’s back where an arrow could mortally wound him, but luckily no one knows that! She goes back to her sewing and Hagen, armed with his vital tidbit of information gets ready for the hunt, preparing for slightly bigger game than his companions. 

And of course, everything goes smoothly. Siegfried unsuspectingly walks into the trap and Hagen, knowing exactly where that tiny piece of pervious skin on his back is, murders him in cold blood. Then he brings the body of the slain warrior back and leaves it on the threshold of Kriemhild’s door, where she will find it as she makes her way to vespers. 

Kriemhild trips over the prone body of her husband and into a new devastating reality. She is untethered from her anchor, from her soulmate and she faints only to wake up screaming that Brunhild and Hagen have done this to her. Hagen swears that he is innocent, but his lie causes the wounds on Siegfried's mutilated body to open up and start bleeding anew. Classic medieval proof of a crime. 

Armed with this information she swears she will avenge her husband. 

Avenging her husband proves to be more complicated that she expected. She is a woman in a medieval court with little agency or power. She is left incredibly wealthy by the death of her husband, but when the Nibelungens bring her their hoard of wealth which she has inherited as her bridal portion, Hagen convinces everyone to “accidentally” sink it in the Rhine. 

She is emotionally vanquished. They have stripped her of both a husband and her wealth. She has nothing and no way to concoct a plan surrounded by a court that secretly despise her for her cruelty to Brunhild. She waits. Dressed in her widows weeds for years she waits for an opportunity. 

Eventually a somewhat distasteful opportunity is presented. A marriage proposal from the king of Hungary, King Etzel. He is a recent widower himself and has heard of the remarkable beauty and piety of Kriemhild. He sends an envoy to persuade her to marry him on his behalf. At first Kriemhild is unenthusiastic about this idea. Etzel is a heathen Hun, she a pious christian…everything about this is distasteful, what about remaining faithful to the dead? What about her faith?

Her old friend and ambassador for King Etzel, Rudiger suggests there is always the possibility of missionary dating/marriage and what’s more…doesn’t she have her honor to avenge and the death of her husband to requite? She ponders this for about a second. Revenge does sound good. So she accepts and makes her way from Burgundy to Hungary, shaking the dust of her birthplace from her feet. They are dead to her. She is alone in the world, and she will make it her personal mission to destroy everyone who has ever been loosely associated with the death of her husband. 

Thirteen years after her arrival, she makes her case to King Etzel. Isn't it maybe time for a visit from her brothers and in particular their faithful knight Hagen? Etzel is surprised, has she been pining for them all this time? Of course they must visit. He immediately sends out an invitation which her brothers trustingly accept, despite a premonition that everything will go terribly wrong from their mother Ute. But they assure their mother it must be fine, Kriemhild must have finally forgiven them! 

Hagen dismissively says: we are men of valor- we are moved by honor not by dreams! 

And it is settled. They will go.

And all is going smoothly until they come to a river. The boatman seems to be missing and Hagen goes in search of a way to cross and happens upon a group of mermaids bathing in an inlet, their clothes strewn about the grass. Hagen sneaks up and grabs their clothes, his objective being somewhat ambiguous. The mermaids laughingly beg him for their clothes, one shouts out “I’ll tell your fortune in exchange for our clothes!” And Hagen, flirtatiously accepts the exchange, “You will live a long life filled with fortune and beautiful women and wealth and rainbows and roses etc.” Hagen tosses them their clothes and turns to leave chuckling to himself about what a mensch he is and how great his life is going to be, when another mermaid pipes up: “just kidding! My cousin here just wanted to get back our clothes, but you are all going to die. The only one who will survive is your chaplain. He will make it back, but the rest will die agonizing and horrific deaths.” 

Hagen is the type of guy that never really believes the siren song of a bunch of mermaids. Didn’t they just tell him he was going to be rich and famous and well loved by beautiful women? He’ll stick with his first prediction. With only the slightest tinge of concern and a background level of angst he makes his way to find his men and ferry them across the river on a skiff he has found lying about. 

 On the last trip he sees the chaplain, squished in among the men and horses. Not that he believed those mermaids, but it would make him feel a bit better to drown the chaplain and prove that they were little more than paranoid schizophrenics with fins. He grabs the chaplain and throws him overboard attempting to pantomime something that looks like an attempt at a rescue while purposefully holding his head under the water. His soldiers push him aside and the chaplain, choking and sputtering, weighed down by his inability to swim but propelled by his fear of death, graspingly makes his way back to the shore. He pulls himself out of the water and as his eyes rest on Hagen, Hagen thinks: “we’re screwed. We’re literally all going to die.” As the last man disembarks he destroys the skiff. Their only option is to die fighting. There is no turning back. 

The rest of the narrative is suspense intermingled with heads being cut off. Everyone does die including Kriemhild, her son Ortlieb and all her brothers.  (Kriemhild does get to cut off Hagen’s head, but then a nanosecond later his last remaining henchmen jumps out of the woodwork screaming about the dishonor of being killed by a woman and cuts off Kriemhild’s head.)

“So all those warriors fated by hand of death lay strewn,
And e’en the queen full lofty in pieces eke was hewn.
Dietrich and royal Etzel at length to weep began, 
And grievously they mourned kinsmen slain and many a man. 

Who late stood high in honor now in death lay low,
And fate of all the people weeping was and woe.
To mourning now the monarch’s festal tide had passed, 
As falls that joy to sorrow turneth ever at the last. 

Nor can I tell you further what later did befall,
But that good knights and ladies saw ye mourning all,
And many a noble squire, for friends in death laid low.
Here hath the story ending, - that is the Nibelungen woe. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Our Heart - Guy de Maupassant

If Bel-Ami was about upward mobility during the Second Empire, then Our Hearts is about the same epoch’s downward spiraling morality. You of course could argue that there is little of moral value in either novel; but there’s something incredibly depressing about the lazy sloth-like immorality of the leisure classes compared to the scrappy underdog of the lower classes fighting for a chance to survive. 

George Duroy, was a scrappy fighter, not ashamed to step on the backs of the women a station above him, one at time until he gained, if not universal respect, universal notoriety. He had little, but like his fellow women of the night, he knew how to use what he had to his advantage. Those watching his successful social climbing from the sidelines would mutter to themselves “this man is sneaky and devious, he would take the last remaining crumbs out of the mouth of a baby if it meant he would survive, all while twirling his mustache and whispering subversive sweet nothings into the ears of unsuspecting victims.” Despite the knowledge of what Duroy was, there was still the desire to creep into the circle of light illuminated from his radiating climbing star; making his victims somewhat complicit in their own demise. 

Our Hearts is a different world. Here our microscope brings into focus the ennui of the leisure classes; the exhaustion and boredom that comes from being alive with little to no responsibility for anything. Life is comprised of dressing for salons and gossiping, and the endless waiting between the two occupations. It is the era of pleasure, corrupted by excessive wealth and little ambition. 

Our protagonist, Mariolle, is a bachelor without profession. Twenty-seven years old and rich enough to do as he pleases, he is another example of the superfluous man, like his literary counterparts Oblomov or Onegin.

“Andre Mariolle bore the reputation of a man possessing a fine mind but a whimsical, capricious nature: one who posed as a recluse more from pride and reserve that from timidity. With fine natural gifts, quick of apprehension and perhaps of accomplishment, he had through indolence contented himself with the role of an onlooker or perhaps, to speak more accurately, of an amateur.”

As the novel opens, Mariolle is being invited to the Salon of Mme. de Burne, a young widow, now rich and independent and renowned for her style and coquetry. She has a string of beaux, all of which after professing love and undying fealty now sit breathlessly in her salon, thankful to be merely in her presence. All this seems a bit humiliating and distasteful for our hero. He sees the men jumping over each other to be the closest to her radiating glory as demeaning and a little too predictable. While he is surprised by her beauty and intelligence, he promises to keep himself guarded, not willing to be yet another jilted lover. 

Mme. de Burne is the penultimate example of feminism during the Second Empire. She is neither a spouse nor a mother, defying Rousseau’s theories on the appropriate role of a woman. As a widow she is free, she neither needs a man nor desires a “master.”  Instead she lives comfortably under the respectable mantle of her late husband, who had trained her to “receive his guests with mute correctness, [as] an elegant, beautifully dressed slave.”  Her sartorial choices now represent her own economic status rather than that of her husband’s, she is educated and independent, having sworn to never repeat the mistake of matrimony. After the dreamy and passionate women of the Restoration, the Second Empire has ushered in a new form of protean femininity; a woman created to charm and to excite but without needing consummation. They are no longer created for men, but for each other. Their dresses calculated to outdo each other and dazzle. They inhabit a world calculated to be irresistible through the artificial power of fascination rather than the natural power of charm.  

As Mariolle walks into her salon for the first time it is as if a match as been tenderly presented to kindling:

“It was as if they had known each other’s opinions and sensations, as if the same nature,the same tendencies and tastes had predisposed them to understand each other and that destiny had ordained that they should meet.”

In a word: soulmates. 

Despite this breathless meeting of souls, Mme. de Burne has no intention of falling in love. She cautions him with a look not to be a simpleton, not to expect more than has been given to his predecessors. 

And while rationality wins the day for a moment, his capitulation is imminent. For three months he resisted her charms and calculated grace, but eventually he succumbs to her siren songs and joins his fellow lotus-eaters; a madman in love with a mirage. 

“She was, above all, a coquette, and as soon as she had gained her freedom she set to work to hunt for and subdue those susceptible to her charms, just as a hunter goes out in search of game, for the mere pleasure of seeing it fall…she believed herself an almost unique being, a rare pearl existing in a mediocre world, a world that seemed to her empty and monotonous because she was too good for it. ”

In a similar way, Zola’s Nana was a huntress seeking to bring down big game, but while Mme. de Burne is satisfied with a mere crippling and emotional emasculation, Nana wasn’t satisfied until she had destroyed fortunes and ruined the reputations of the men in her entourage. Mme de Burne somehow remains respectable and her liaisons are carried out quietly and without intrigue. 

Mariolle decides he will take it to the next level and write millions of letters, thus beginning the epistolary phase of their relationship. While in person they are civil and exchange banal pleasantries on paper they are ardent lovers. And for a while this satisfies both. Mariolle is finally good at something! He’s not superfluous! He can write letters for hours each one shakespearean in length and emotion, and eventually one synonym at a time he burrows himself a little further into her heart than any of his predecessors. 

And then one day she plans a trip for him. She and her father are going touring to some coastal lands to see castles etc. and she’s not sure she can spend the whole trip without seeing him. He has become necessary to her existence, or rather “the incense of the vassalage to which he was reduced” was necessary for her. 

“She needed him just as any idol needs worshippers in order to become a god: in the empty chapel it is only a piece of carved wood, but let even one devotee enter, prostrate himself and pray and the piece of wood is transformed into a god equal to that of Allah or Brahma.”

So, she concocts the perfect plan, he will just happen to be sightseeing in the same vicinity and they will by chance happen to meet at a certain park at a certain time, all very spontaneous and unexpected. 

He agrees. Life for him is little more than one long transport of intoxicating desire. And at the appointed time he is in the aforementioned park, pacing up and down in a way he hopes looks very casual and spontaneous. And then she's there, introducing him to her aunt and relatives and then he’s saying his lines about “the pleasure of your company for dinner etc.” and everything goes according to plan. He is embraced by her family’s traveling party and becomes one of the group. 

And whether it’s the boredom of the seaside, or the fresh air and wholesome manor of the countryside, Mme. de Burne feels herself slipping. Is she falling in love? Does she have the capacity for such an emotion? As the two find themselves climbing up mountains and walking on precarious ledges, he reaching out with his strong and solid arm to rescue her on more than one occasion, their eyes meet and there is a mutual understanding. 

All of this is very exciting and heart palpitating etc. as Mariolle paces back and forth in the middle of the night, alone in his room, illuminated by the moonlight. He hears a shuffle in the hall and then a soft tap on the door. His heart skips a beat.

“He started and looked around. A woman with her head veiled in white lace, and wearing one of those robed-de-chamber that look as if made of snow and silk and lace, entered. She carefully closed the door behind her; then…she walked straight to the mantel and extinguished the two candles.” 


He has won! He congratulates himself on his conquering of her. She is the one now subdued and in love. He is Eros, none can resist him. The trip ends and he rushes back to Paris to find the perfect apartment to conduct their affair in. He must hide out for a few weeks so that his friends all think he is continuing a tour of the continent, so when Mme. de Burne returns they will have a few glorious weeks to be alone together without commitment or dinner party…but first he has to convince her to live this duplicitous life of intrigue and deception. He waits for her return with bated breath.

They meet early in the morning in a public garden, he a little too conspicuous for her taste. What is he thinking prancing about for everyone to see him? She brings him to the most secluded place in the park as if she’s done this many times before. Now, carefully hidden behind the shrubs they can pick up where they left off. Mariolle, cautiously mentions perhaps meeting at a flat he has just taken the liberty of renting. Without batting an eye, and after a couple practical questions she agrees. 

And then at the precise moment their love is officially and practically established the seed of its demise is planted. 

For a second the game is perfect. They meet in public and she says “my dear friend!” and then attends to her other more special guests. Every night his decorum is exemplar. It’s almost as if they barely know each other. 

And then every afternoon they spend wandering the little garden of their perfectly hidden flat and of course doing other things. 

But then it’s not every afternoon. Mme. de Burne at the last minute cancels or shows up hours late and then eventually not at all. Her favorite part of the game is the evenings, surrounded by men that openly or secretly admire her with a few ardent worshipers thrown into the mix. The actual love making is a bit of a drag. It’s annoying to have to get out of all her clothes and then putting them back on without the help of a maid is way too much work. Can’t they just be secret lovers without the lover part? She needs his worship, but nothing else. 

And in a nanosecond it’s over. His heart is wrenched out of him and she looks on unable to comprehend the suffering she has caused him. While emotionally eviscerated he has just enough strength to promise himself that he will survive. He will wrench himself free from this instrument of torture even though he may leave portions of himself, fragments of his heart on the rack. 

He writes her a missive telling her he is leaving and the next morning goes, anywhere as long as it is far away from the skyline that he finds to be so incredibly heartbreaking. 

He finds a small hermitage, somewhere in the Parisian suburbs. Far enough to be “gone” but close enough to get the paper and scour the society pages for lines to read in between; hoping to find traces of Mme. de Burne’s new lover and indiscretions. He must have been thrown over for another. It isn’t possible that he’s just too boring to keep a girl interested, although he is incomprehensibly dull. 

Two days in the country and he’s stir crazy. There’s way too many trees and nothing to do. He finds himself at a little inn, the waitress, while from a lower class is not unpleasing to look at. He goes back the next day and the next and before he knows it, as if fate has decried it, he has taken her into his “protection” as a maid. Within a short time she has transformed herself from a scullery maid to a lady in waiting complete with clean nails and new clothes…

…I wish the book ended here. Slightly misogynist, but I still would have considered this a happy ending. He didn’t get the girl he wanted, but he slowly learned to love a good honest girl of genuine character. He does not force himself on her but after months of reading theology in his hermitage he swears to cast aside conspicuous consumption and the leisure classes and devote himself to charity. 

But no. He ends up sleeping with his maid, while calling her “child” and thinking of Mme. de Burne. While the maid is devoted to her new master and hastily transforms herself in every way imaginable to squeeze herself into his cookie cutter notions of femininity, it is all for naught. NAUGHT. 
After zero amounts of time, but enough time for the maid to think they are getting married and probably preemptively naming their future children, Mariolle writes Mme. de Burne a note. And a few hours later she’s there, swathed in evanescent mauve, shimmering and glittering in the twilight. The maid can not possibly compete with this vision of beauty and femininity. After a short tête-à-tête, Mariolle has denounced his relationship with the maid. Mme. de Burne is the only true love of his life. 

Well, she says, you would make a terrible husband and currently you’re a bit too passionate for a secretive lover; a bit jealous and demanding of the actual love part, but someday, you will be the perfect fit for my secret lover. I will take advantage of you and make you wait for hours in the rain for trysts that actually don’t take place, but at that point you will finally appreciate me and you will recognize that fidelity of the heart is better than love. 

For the record, Mariolle is being offered the secret abusive relationship he just had and that almost crushed him, only this time he has to wait with bated breath. She has won. He is no longer a man but a simpering, pining slave to his god of love. 

Mme. de Burne takes her leave. The maid skulks back in weeping. Mariolle can’t possibly choose her over that vision of beauty. ‘There, there’, says Mariolle, stroking her hair and thinking of his future of blissful vassalage, ‘I will always love you.’