Friday, December 28, 2018

The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s short stories are permeated with an almost tangible sense of disorienting tension, filled with misunderstandings, missed opportunities and heroines that remain frustratingly invisible. 

I had never heard of Katherine Mansfield until this past fall when I was taking a class on Critical Reading and had to pick a piece of writing to analyze. Mansfield was on the list so I decided she would be perfect…I was unprepared for her writing. 

One of the things that makes Mansfield's writing a challenge is she’s hard to categorize. Born in 1888 in New Zealand (Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp) to a prominent commercial class family, at first she seems to be the poster child for post-colonialism. At 19 she left New Zealand to study at Queen’s college and becomes a part of the modernist literati…but her medium (the short story) is something never fully embraced by the modernist circle. She marries a man, (a singing teacher, George Bowden, 11 years her senior) but then hastily breaks it off, she has at least two lesbian relationships, all of which leave her semi-marginalized, existing in a tribe of her own.  

She is described by Elleke Boehmer (1) as a “woman between worlds,” which is also a fitting description of her protagonists, all of which are marginalized characters on the fringe of society or alienated within the culture they are a part of. 

Last month I looked at “The Garden Party” (1921) in which the protagonist is an adolescent girl, existing in the liminal space between adulthood and class distinction vs. childhood and invisibility. The main character, Laura, must navigate between being seen for who she really is, a sentimental girl that likes flowers and trees and whistling and eating her bread outdoors…and the cultural expectations of a wealthy British scion. It is unclear whether or not she navigates this successfully. The reader is left almost mid-sentence, mid-story…wondering what happens when Laura and her brother return to their house after dropping off food for a bereaved and impoverished family. Laura’s response to death and bereavement is disconcerting, and this defamiliarization is Katherine Mansfield’s specialty. 

In “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” (1910) there is the same transient sense of displacement. Here’s the opening line: 

“Getting ready was a terrible business. After supper Frau Brechenmacher packed four of the five babies to bed, allowing Rosa to stay with her and help to polish the buttons of Herr Brechenmacher’s uniform. Then she ran over his best shirt with a hot iron, polished his boots, and put a stitch or two into his black satin tie.” 

This opening contrasts to Mansfield’s later writings where she takes her time introducing the protagonist. In “The Garden Party,” Laura is introduced fourth, as almost an after thought or the last possible option. In “At the Bay,” (also 1921) the reader is languorously introduced to the New Zealand landscape and then the cat, Florrie, is given the first line: “Ugh! What a coarse, revolting creature!” (an assessment of the old sheep-dog…but an appropriate appellation for the rake at the closing scene.) 

In 1910, Mansfield gets straight to the point. Frau Brechenmacher has been tirelessly preparing for this wedding all day, with less recognition than an old work horse. She plows through the details only to have her husband race in the door last minute and cry: 

“Now, then, where are my clothes?” cried Herr Brechenmacher, hanging his empty letter bag behind the door and stamping snow out of his boots. “Nothing ready, of course, and everybody at the wedding by this time. I heard the music as I passed. What are you doing? You’re not dressed. You can’t go like that.” 

Frau B. exists in the residual shadow of her postmaster husband. He’s important and significant and she’s invisible and voiceless. She’s caught between slaving alway for children that don’t appreciate her and a husband that doesn’t see her. As they hurry to the wedding, her spouse lunges ahead of her and she’s left slipping in the ice and snow, alone and abandoned. 

“She had not been out of the house for weeks past, and the day had so flurried her that she felt muddled and stupid - felt that Rosa had pushed her out of the house and her man was running away from her.” 

Finally they get to the wedding, and after making the rounds, the honorable post-master and his wife, she finds that she is enjoying herself. The air is warm and full, and she puffs out her chest a little with pride…only to be pulled aside and told that the back of her dress has been undone the whole time. She then sits and watches her husband become inebriated and ridiculous. 

Ultimately the Frau is powerless. She watches as the wedding crowd laughs at her husband and his ridiculous pontificating, and somehow it is directed at her, it is the result of their strength and her weakness. It’s not just her husband that dominates and controls the minutia of her life, it is the world, and she’s trapped, endlessly spinning down a drain that refuses to empty. 

She goes home (following behind her husband once again) and prepares a small dinner, which her husband takes as his due. Then after cleaning up she wanders into the children's room, pulls down the bedding to make sure they are all still dry and then prepares herself for the end of the day routine. She takes off her dress and lays down on the bed: “[putting] her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in.” 


Another contrast between Mansfield’s early and later writing is the narrative perspective. In “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” the narrative voice (third person omniscient) hovers just above the head of Frau Brechenmacher…it is only her perspective and her voice that we are interested in. In Mansfield’s later writing the reader is saturated in a cacophony of voices (to include family pets) we see the men having their own misunderstood trajectories and while still offered as examples of the ridiculous and often stupid, they are more dimensional, filled with insecurity and their own sense of alienation. 

“At the Bay” is a good example of this. Stanley has all the strength and presupposed valor of the truly masculine. He is introduced (after the cat) taking his morning swim, the exemplar of virility. He has a job in the city which gives him financial independence which he exemplifies by his conspicuous consumption.

Short aside: In any other environment the conspicuous consumption would be just that, and each artifact would be another building block towards status and acceptance, but Mansfield’s writing take place in New Zealand, her characters carry with them the heritage of colonizers. Therefore their purchases reflect another element to their quest for identity:

“Jeffery Meyers draws a picture of the intellectual environment prevalent in New Zealand towards the end of the nineteenth century, and points to the fact that a settler community is bound to be concerned with material rather than intellectual matters because the material comfort was the main motivation for most settlers.” (2)

 In “Prelude” (1918) the Burnell family is first introduced and Stanley purchases cherries out of season, in “At the Bay” he hurries home to profusely apologize to his wife after leaving that morning without saying goodbye to her. His apology is overly dramatized and as he talks about how she was all he could think about all day, how their parting disagreeably left a pit in his stomach, how he’s “suffered all day”… she notices he’s wearing new leather gloves. 

He sheepishly justifies his purchase, old Bell had a pair on this morning etc… but the moment is lost. 

Stanley wanted to say, “I was thinking of you the whole time I bought them.” It was true, but for some reason he couldn’t say it. “Let’s go in.” He said.”

Like one would expect from a modernist text, the voice of the focalizer is constantly shifting, and the narrative voice is passed from character to character like a baton. There isn’t a clear protagonist, instead there are themes that come to the fore as each character wrestles with being misunderstood; their own ignorance and the ignorance of others; and their own experience or lack thereof. For each character the day to day moments offer crushing defeats or exhilarating joys, but there is no shared language or vocabulary and they are left alienated within their own spheres. 

In “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” the plot structure is somewhat simplistic and the narrative is almost set up in binary oppositions. The powerful vs. the powerless, dominance vs. submission, the male sphere vs. the female…etc. as one would expect from a feminist author. But by 1918 Mansfield has added dimension to her story telling, the themes are still there, but they have taken on an almost Joycean complexity. The diametric oppositions are not as simple as the powerful vs. the powerless…instead each character is met with moments of power and subjugation. All exist in the pointless fray of swirling meaningless fate. 

In “How Pearl Button was Kidnapped” (1912) the plot circles around a misunderstanding. Again, similar to “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” Mansfield gets right into the narrative and introduces the protagonist within the first sentence: 

“Pearl Button swung on the little gate in front of the House of Boxes.” 

Unlike our protagonist of “The Garden Party” who is an adolescent and play acts at being her mother (wearing her clothing, talking in her voice) Pearl Button is still young and impressionable, a tabula rasa, and we get to trespass into Maori culture from the unsullied, un-colonized, perspective of a child. 

Her “kidnappers” are two large Maori women, shoeless and in good humor, it’s hard to tell which aspect Pearl finds more intriguing, but within moments all three are standing at the gate smiling and laughing at each other. 

“The women smiled at her and Pearl smiled back. “Oh,” she said, “haven’t you got very white teeth indeed! Do it again.” The dark woman laughed, and again they talked to each other with funny words and wavings of the hands. “What’s your name?” They asked her. “Pearl Button.” “You coming with us, Pearl Button?” We got beautiful things to show you,” whispered one of the women. So Pearl got down from the gate and she slipped out into the road. And she walked between the two dark women down the windy road, taking little running steps to keep up, and wondering what they had in their House of Boxes.” 

Pearl obviously doesn’t think she has been kidnapped. This is potentially the greatest day of her life. She is surrounded by people that interact with her and find her fascinating, they share their food and time and look at her like she’s an exquisite specimen of humanity. Later as they make their way to the beach, Pearl sees the sea for the first time and screams. The most frightening part of her day is part of the natural landscape, a landscape she has evidently been deprived of exploring. 

“And down at the bottom of the hill was something perfectly different- a great big piece of blue water was creeping over the land. She screamed and clutched at the big woman, “What is it, what is it?” “Why” said the woman, “it’s the sea.” “Will it hurt us- is it coming?” “Ai-e, no, it doesn’t come to us. It’s very beautiful. You look again.” 

Eventually Pearl makes her way to the shore and after working up the confidence to touch a body of water for the first time, conquers her fear and realizes there is nothing to be afraid of. In a euphoric rush of gratitude, she flings her little arms around the neck of the woman, kissing her all over. This has been the greatest day of her life! And over the shoulder of the woman she sees a swarm of policemen, racing toward her to “rescue” her and bring her “home.”

This is perhaps one of Katherine Mansfield’s many concurrent thesis statements: look again. 

Her characters frequently have epiphanies where they come into a new form of realization, only to have the moment snatched away by obfuscating ambiguity. In “The Garden Party,” Laura is pleading with her mother to cancel their party out of respect for the grieving family that lives on the edge of their property. It seems cold and heartless to be so merry on such a devastating day for their neighbors. Laura’s mother thrusts a hat upon her head (the mother’s own hat) and then changes the topic by the new distraction of the hat and Laura’s beauty. It isn’t until Laura turns around and catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, where she has her epiphany. She is beautiful. She is a part of this family. She does belong. 

The epiphanies frequently lead to faulty knowledge, for example, a shared moment in the moonlight with another woman, thinking she’s communing with your soul…only to realize she’s been having an affair with your husband. The realizations are almost always slightly off, so it’s not a mandate of “look again”…but rather a clarion call to change how we see. Where does the threshold of belonging really lie? And is it possible to cross it? 

Mansfield takes of the cry of the modernists, wondering how we make sense of this crazy amorphic world in which we find ourselves and posing the question: what is our identity in a society that is always in flux, always ebbing and flowing beyond our ability to pin down and make sense of. She doesn’t offer advice on how one makes sense, but rather challenges who we give narrative status to and ultimately who we see. 

1. Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 127. 

Most of her Short Stories are available here-
A Structural Investigation of the Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1974

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Garden Party - Katherine Mansfield

I'm going to do something a little different this month, I recently took a short course on Critical Reading and one of our projects was to practice close critical analysis of a text. I chose a few paragraphs from Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party". Next month I will zoom out and discuss Mansfield a bit more generally, talk about more of her works and her context situated in-between modernism and post-colonialism. Super fun! But for this month a perspective microscopically from within the text itself: 

In “The Garden Party” Katherine Mansfield uses the image of the Karaka trees being hidden behind a marquee as a metaphor to highlight the complexity of identity for an adolescent girl hidden behind artifacts of class. 

Like most modernist texts, the action in this short story is not conclusion driven, but follows the minutia of the everyday lives of a wealthy British family, living in New Zealand, as they prepare for an afternoon garden party. The tone of the text is filled with the tension and ambiguity of in-between space and the confusion of a multiplicity of voices. The characters are driven in and out, up and down, within the protected confines of their estate and out into the bleak and poverty stricken surrounding neighborhood; hidden between the lines is the question of who has an authoritative voice. 

The adolescent girl, Laura, becomes the unlikely heroine of the story when the other options are exhausted. Her mother and sisters are too busy to go meet the workmen and Laura is obliquely introduced with the words: “You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.” 

Laura quickly complies:

“Away Laura flew… she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.”

Later we learn that Laura’s sister Jose: “loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama.” As we will see, Laura has virtually no power to arrange anything. She hurries to obey the women in her family that clearly outrank her, only to find herself equally outranked by the workmen. The motif of trapped birds is a recurrent image and it is interesting that the first verb associated with Laura is one of flight. 

One of the workmen is described as having “a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court.” The OED defines haggard as “(of a hawk) caught for training as a wild adult of more than twelve months.” A trapped adult bird. Later, when Laura visits the surrounding neighborhood, this imagery comes up again in the dismal description of the cottages, where one man has “studded” his house front with “minute bird-cages.” The inhabitants, both human and fauna are trapped, their lives are  “shreds and rags” in contrast to the “silvery plumes” of the Sheridans.

My close critical analysis will focus on the three paragraphs beginning with “Against the Karakas….She felt just like a working girl” to explore how the Karaka trees symbolize the isolation that Laura exists within, being both unseen and unheard. She is commanded to do things eight times throughout the short story, by both family members and the impoverished neighborhood women and always obeys. She has little agency and no volition. 

“Against the Karakas.” The text is filled with truncated sentences that create an overall feeling of tension, but this simple sentence also names the trees. They are not just foliage used as a demarcation between the Sheridan’s property and the surrounding neighborhood, but they are an identifiable species, with a history and a name that predates the arrival of the Sheridans. 

Then the Karaka-trees would be hidden.”  Being hidden in plain sight is Laura’s predicament.   Her family bosses her around like a servant, they shame her for being “overly sentimental”…she feels different from them and they only exacerbate that difference by continuously pointing out her short comings. Her emotional response to the lilies is later referred to as “low class.”

The narrative voice (third person omniscient) slips into FID and we overhear Laura’s mental assessment of this plan:

“They were so lovely…Must they be hidden by the marquee?”

Why does Mansfield specify the Karaka tree? All of the research I have done about indigenous trees of New Zealand has emphasized the significance of the Karaka tree for the Maori people. Using a tree with a rich cultural history that is invisible or insignificant to the Sheridans emphasizes Mansfield’s point: the tree is prized for its visible surface but its nature and significance is unacknowledged. Now the tree exists in a highly codified world where the will of the horticulturalist is imposed, and the trees are forced to bend to the aesthetic demands of others.

In order to be “proud” and “solitary" the Karakas must be removed to a desert island, outside the boundaries of the reality in which they currently exist. This symbolizes Laura’s own struggle. It is impossible for her to imagine herself, proud and solitary, lifting her own “leaves and fruit” in a kind of splendor, while trapped within the confines of her family’s estate. 

The Karaka trees are described as having lovely “clusters of yellow fruit.” Here Laura stays at the visible surface, ignoring the toxicity of the interior pits and ultimately disregarding the nature of the fruit itself. 

“ Must they be hidden by the marquee?”

“They must.”

While technically not enjambment, the question pauses at the end of the paragraph elongating the space that waits for an answer. This pause and temporal stretching emphasizes that this decision is beyond Laura’s control. She is ultimately powerless. Like the trees, fated to be hidden, her own invisibility is outside of her control. She must be hidden as well. 

Like the Karakas with a toxic pit hidden beneath the surface, Laura’s genuine concern for others is slowly buried under the surface of a different object: the hat. Similar to the trees, who have no voice in the decision to be hidden, Laura has the hat thrust upon her against her will. In the same way the trees are hidden by the marquee, an artifact of class, Laura is hidden by the hat: a symbol of status and the power of consumption. 

“She would get on much better with men like these.” As one of the workmen bends down to “pinch” a sprig of lavender, she recognizes a kindred spirit. Behind the surface expectations of his class, behind his freckles and straw hat, is hidden a man who cares for the smell of lavender. This gesture reveals a character who “sees” the beauty hidden within even the smallest things, an attribute beyond the “silly boys” of her own set that seem intent to occupy themselves with the trivialities of dancing and eating.

The next paragraph has another significant pause in progression as the tall fellow’s action is forcibly situated in the middle of the sentence.

It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions.”

The “absurd class distinctions” have trapped people of both sides into expected behaviors and individuality has become a type of collateral damage. While the workman displays sentimentality in his appreciation for lavender, Laura’s appreciation of the lilies will be ridiculed, and the workman’s gesture seems somehow out of place. Neither of them are allowed the freedom to be sentimental, and instead are isolated being almost cursed with the ability to see and appreciate the world around them. 

“Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom…” In the midst of the workmen, she finds a longed for camaraderie, she is not constrained by the “absurd class distinctions.” While this is an endearing sentiment, the ellipsis emphasizes a tension between what she perceives and her reality. The class distinctions don’t define her because as an adolescent she exists in a liminal state where everyone outranks her, she has no purchasing power and therefore belongs to neither class fully, having no voice or identity that is recognized. 

Her thoughts are interrupted by a cacophony of sounds. The “chock-chock” of the hammers, a whistle, a song. Mansfield frequently uses onomatopoeia as an aural effect to plunge the reader into the soundscape. This short story isn’t quiet and contemplative, it is loud and confusing. There is almost a type of narrative chiasmus between Laura’s dreams and hopes of belonging being interrupted by a supporting orchestra of friendly companionship in contrast to her sister loudly playing the piano “Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta!”  and then doing her best impression of sentimentality as she sings a song about the weary life where hope comes to die. Hope followed by music, and music followed by dying hope. 

“She felt just like a work-girl.” In these three paragraphs we see Laura at her happiest and least constrained. She would gladly exchange her class and presumed status to simply belong to anyone, but it is her overwhelming isolation and her need to belong that ultimately control her. When Laura begs her mother to reconsider postponing the garden party, her mother redirects the conversation by placing a hat upon her head.

The adjectives used to describe her before the hat were all pejorative: absurd, extravagant, sentimental. But now with the hat she has become stunning, becoming, striking. The hat gives her purchase, it is an artifact of belonging. Laura doesn’t take the hat off, she doesn’t fight to be heard or seen, instead she sees her reflection in a mirror and has an epiphany: with this hat she can be seen! She can belong to her family. 

These absurd class systems are ultimately responsible for burying identity behind artifacts of class. The tree is buried, unseen behind the marquee and Laura is buried beneath her hat. Ultimately, when she meets the dead man, she apologizes for her hat, for choosing to belong rather than choosing to care. The narrative ends abruptly, almost mid-sentence, as Laura says “Isn’t life-“ and then is unable to finish her thought. There is no happy conclusion, and the reader is left in an atmosphere of tension wondering if she’s made the right decision.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - T.S. Eliot

“If I thought that I were speaking to a soul
who someday might return to see the world,
most certainly this flame would cease to flicker;

but since no one, if I have heard the truth,
ever returns alive from this deep pit,
with no fear of dishonor I answer you:” 

Dante’s Inferno: Canto 27 1

At this point in Dante’s journey to hell, he and his companion Virgil, have made their way to the eighth pit, filled with the flickering souls of famous deceivers. After a brief chat with Ulysses, a flame flickers nearby having recognized Virgil’s Lombard accent and asks after the civil unrest in his home of Romagna. Dante jumps in, after a nod from Virgil, and tells this flickering flame that his Romagna “Is not now and never was without war in her tyrants’ heart…” and then begs the flame to reveal his identity. The above quote, is the answer to this question, and the epigraph to Eliot’s poem: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". 

And so our poem begins in the depths of hell, where the inhabitants are forced to remain indefinitely, their inability to proceed is ultimately what coaxes Guido da Montefeltro to reveal his identity and his narrative of the journey that led him there. There is the opening theme of going nowhere, of being stuck; while simultaneously asking for information from an infamous deceiver. The characters are mired in the tension of being trapped, both physically and psychologically being unable to proceed without the stability of truth to tether them to the real world. 

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table; 
Let us go through certain half-deserted streets, 
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument 
Of insidious intent
[1-9] 2

Within the opening lines of the first stanza, Eliot begins his exercise in confounding the readers expectations. The first line seems to suggest a pleasant walk with a friend or lover, as the evening turns to dusk and is “spread out against the sky”, but the simile that follows is shocking and unexpected. An etherized patient spread out on a table…conjures up all the fear and anxiety of medical procedures, of being alive and yet unconscious while at the mercy of the masked “others” hovering above your prone and lifeless body.

Eliot is creating a juxtaposition between the romantic and the modern; the beautiful and yet sublime juxtaposed with the terror of isolation. In fact the opening line is the high point of the stanza…the perambulators are in for an evening of “half deserted streets”, “muttering retreats”, the detritus of low class dining and tedious arguments. We find ourselves in a different kind of hell than Guido da Montefeltro, the hidden recesses of the modern city.  

(Side note about oysters: “In 1909 [about when this poem was written], oysters cost half as much as beef per pound. Oysters were used to add bulk to more expensive dishes such as meat pies.” 3 Ostensibly oysters were the food of the working class, cheap, inexpensive and full of protein.) 

By the end of the first stanza the narrative voice has urged the journey to continue with the repeated refrain of “let us go…” and yet, as the first stanza comes to a close, women are overheard talking of Michelangelo and a cat-like fog of inaction creeps over the authorial voice. It pauses to “lick” and “linger” and then “Curled once about the house and fell asleep.

This will not be a poem about actual “going.” While initially the obstacles are presented from the surrounding physical world, by gradation they reveal the inner turmoil of our angst-ridden protagonist, caught in a net of indecision, hemmed in by his own self-loathing. 

The next stanza begins with a change of pace, contrasted to the “let us go” now we have time to spare and ponder. Over the next twenty lines (23-49) we see this refrain repeated seven times: “And indeed there will be time”…

The action of the poem seems to come to a halt at the end of the first stanza, when the narrating voice is revved up to go out “Let us go and make our visit” when he happens to hear women chatting about Michelangelo….and this eavesdropping halts the momentum and throws our hero into an existential crisis. 

(Side note: The women seem to be intellectuals, trapped “coming and going” but always talking of Michelangelo…while to Prufrock these women represent high culture, they also allude to Dante’s Inferno, where intellectuals and important people were trapped for ever, muttering to themselves in their little flickering fires. So our narrator is misreading the situation and, like Guido da Montefeltro, is suspiciously unreliable.) 

Now, twenty lines later, caught in the indecision of moving forward, these same women resurface. Still talking of Michelangelo…and the crisis culminates in a four line rhyme scheme that encapsulates the anxiety of the speaker: 

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare? and ‘Do I dare?” 
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-

(They will say:’How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!”) 

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is written in free verse, with unpredictable meter and rhyme schemes, the lines that rhyme stand out and make a statement. Here the two line rhyme scheme, dare and hair, begins the descent into madness, followed by the four line rhyme scheme of: thin, chin, pin, thin. One can almost see the narrator surrounded by bottles of his own urine, a sombre unshaven Howard Hughes type, muttering “the way of the future” on repeat for the rest of his life. 

The tempo has slowed yet again. What was a declamatory statement of: “And indeed there will be time” has now slowed to “In a minute there is time”…but first, the hopelessness of never being quite cultured enough to riff off a conversation about Michelangelo has thrown our hero into a quagmire of self-loathing, which we incrementally get to. 

Line 49 begins with a hint at the futility of stepping out: “For I have known them all already, known them all…” what is presented as a type of wisdom, slowly by description discredits itself. His knowledge is based on basic survival and coffee drinking. He has measured out his life in coffee spoons…he doesn’t need to venture into the next room, he knows what’s there already and plus…how should he presume?

Eliot was famously the most read author/poet of the twenty-first century and is constantly hiding references to other works. There seems to be a reference in line 30 to Hesiod: “And time for all the works and days of hands” In Works and Days Hesiod writes a didactic poem to his younger brother about the necessity of hard work. Hesiod’s little brother has stolen his inheritance and now has the audacity to come back asking for more money to bail him out of whatever scrape he finds himself embroiled in. What a contrast to Prufrock, who seems to lack the volition to even find himself in the midst of an indiscretion. 

The stanzas have tightened up now, and are shorter and three times in succession end with “How should I presume?”  By lines 55-61 we have arrived at the middle of this three stanza apex of Prufrock’s self loathing: 

And I have known the eyes already, known them all
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, 
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, 
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, 
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? 
And how should I presume?  

This stanza reminds us of the opening lines of the etherized evening, spread out upon the table. Now in contrast, he is the object of study, but there’s a cruelty implicit in the language, he's “wriggling” and awake…unlike the evening, Prufrock is cognizant of his “physicians” judgment and displeasure, pinned and wriggling beneath the formulated phrase.

This three stanza commemoration to self loathing ends with a digression about women and the futility of beginning, or maybe the enormity of deciding where to begin? Figuratively he has divided each of the three stanzas into a specific body part that he has come to “know”: voices, eyes and arms. All of which have eluded him, he has known them but still remains unloved. The body part that is missing is the heart. 

The last “body part” stanza seems the most evocative of having pleasure just outside your grasp: he has known all the arms, white and bare, all the perfumed dresses and it has still led him here, to this place. This reminds me of the greek hero Tantalus, damned to Tartarus, forced to spend eternity standing in a pool of water with luscious fruit hanging just above his head, perpetually out of reach; the water, cool and refreshing, always receding before he can take a drink.

At the end of the “arms” stanza we have a two question crescendo: 

And should I then presume? 
And how should I begin? 

We’ve come full circle, to the moment before the poem opens, and now our protagonist is unsure of how to start. Where did he go wrong? He takes us back to dusk, back to the narrow streets of the beginning, back to the textual labyrinth, where Prufrock (Guido) searches for the right path, the right winding street that will lead him out of this hell. 

The poem’s stanzas shorten as if in a stutter of doubt, ending with a two line culmination of more animal equated self loathing: 

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. 

There’s a pause. A structural ellipsis between these lines and the next. Almost as if Prufrock, has gotten lost for a while in this crustacean daydream of silence and an impenetrable shell of self preservation. But, he’s back now, and so, for the first time since the opening lines are we/ “you”…(“you” was mentioned in the semi-ecclesiastical stanza: “Time for you and time for me”…but it seems like at that point Prufrock was somewhere else, “we” may have been holding hands on this imaginary walk…but Prufrock was miles away.) 

But now his reverie is over, and we realize this whole time he has been lying next to “you”!  

And in the afternoon, the evening sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers, 
Asleep…tired…or it malingers, 
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

And it is here for the first time the reader is confronted with the total depth of cowardice that has consumed Prufrock. He hasn’t been alone and lost for this entire poem, “you” has been silently tethering him to humanity, to the potential of offered love…and yet, while coming up with his fictitious day plan, he remembers all those intellectuals that haunt him, all those women that have assessed him and found him wanting, whispering disapprovingly about his thinning hair.

The last section of the poem is devoted to ‘misunderstanding', with the refrain being: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”  Our triplicate metaphors are this time: John the Baptist, Lazarus and Hamlet, all of which share their significant deaths in common, while Prufrock recognizes his own insignificance. They also share the ability to see; a type of prophetic vision, and yet all are equally disbelieved, a fate Prufrock assumes will inevitably be his as well.

The reference to Lazarus, coming back from the dead, to “tell you all” alludes to the story Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 of the rich man and the poor man. 

“In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” 
[Luke 16: 25-26 NIV]

Abraham refuses to send comfort, and when the rich man begs that Lazarus be sent back to his brothers to tell them of the reality of the life after death, again Abraham refuses the request. 

He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” 
[Luke 16:31 NIV]

And once again we find ourselves at the beginning with Dante and Guido. Dante has asked Guido to “tell him all” and Guido agrees only because he assumes he will never leave the confines of the underworld. For Prufrock, he’s the living amongst the dead, met with the everyday futility of speaking truth to a world that is too saturated with the consumption of life to care. It’s impossible to say what he means…and he wonders if it’s even worth while to try… 

He’s equated himself with prophets and visionaries, but like Hamlet is fated for disbelief and madness. And as the poem stutters to its conclusion, he grows old and begins to ruminate on his pants, and peaches and mermaids, but even the fantasy of the phantasmagoric isn’t a safe place. The waves are white capped with age, even the waves are exhausted by the monotony of the tides and the mermaids refuse to sing to our hero, and he is once again left eavesdropping on conversations swirling around him. 

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. 

The thing that is shocking and also terrifying about this ending, is that somehow we went from taking a stroll through a foggy October afternoon with a chronically depressed, independently wealthy tea drinker…to the chambers of the sea, where potentially we’ve been the whole time! And then we drown! The end! We’ve been tricked into watching his life slip away, one minor inaction followed by another, while his self-loathing transforms itself into a consuming fear of rejection. Like Dante we have been waiting for the answer to a question, a question that refuses to be asked and then is fated to never be answered, and while we wait we realize it is too late. Unlike Dante, who has another circle of hell to tour, we end our journey here, with the sea-girls and mermaids and now the reference to “scuttling claws” making their way across the silent sea…has a different connotation. What we took for self loathing, is maybe closer to envy. The proprietor of the “claws” has volition, something forever eluding our hero, just outside his grasp like hanging fruit or one drop of refreshing liquid to cool the burning tongue. 

Works Cited:

1. Musa, Mark, editor. Dante’s Inferno, The Indiana Critical Edition. Indiana University Press, 1995.
2.  Eliot,T. S., “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The Waste Land and Other Poems, HBJ Publishers, 1930. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer writes complex narratives about the effects of war and the collateral damage it has on both sexes. Gender seems more of an aside then a focal point for characters, women can be protectresses or monsters, they can be cunning and devious or loyal and faithful. Their gender doesn’t lock them in. Meanwhile, his contemporary poet Hesiod has a singular role for women to play, namely the origination of evil.

“Iapetos’ boy, if you’re the smartest of them all!
I bet you’re glad you stole fire and outfoxed me. 
But things will go hard for you and for humans after this. 
I’m going to give them Evil in exchange for fire, 
Their very own Evil to love and embrace.” 

That’s what he said, the Father of gods and men, 
And he laughed out loud.  Then he called Hephaistos
And told him to hurry and knead some earth and water 
And put a human voice in it, and some strength, 
And to make the face like an immortal goddess’ face
And the figure like a beautiful, desirable virgin’s. 

Then he told Athene to teach her embroidery & weaving,
And Aphrodite golden to spill grace on her head
And painful desire and knee-weakening anguish. 
And he ordered the quicksilver messenger, Hermes, 
To give her a bitchy mind and a cheating heart. 
[Works and Days trans. Stanley Lombardo, 72-87]

It’s hard to think of this as tongue-in-cheek. But…then as Works and Days progresses it becomes apparent that women are necessary, and not just a necessary evil. In his advice on marrying Hesiod suggests that “A man couldn’t steal anything better than a good wife…” 1 And so there emerges between the lines of misogyny a portrait of a hard working woman who by her character can foil the curse of Zeus. 

But this is didactic farming poetry. The discussion becomes a bit more serious in the hands of philosophers, in particular Aristotle. If there’s been a single human being who has been the background radiation for misogynistic texts it is Aristotle. He deviated from his predecessor, Plato who argued that the soul is sexless and both genders are capable of high level reasoning. Instead, Aristotle believed not only that women were inferior to men, but that they were a deformity of the pure masculine body. His premise is founded on an amazing mashup of 3rd century BC biology which pretty much says since women are “cold” and contribute little to procreation except incubation they are biologically destined to be ruled by their superiors: men. 

“Whilst man was thought to to be dominated by heat and dryness, woman was supposed to be ruled by coldness and moisture…this lack of heat meant that her body and mind were unstable. For example, it was feared, that she was in danger of going mad if her animal-like womb, which wandered at will due to the coldness of her body, ever strayed up into her head.” 2

By the time Augustine was writing City of God, (410 AD) this view of the inferiority of the female body had become so entrenched in the public discourse that Augustine had to a argue that at the resurrection women would retain their bodies and NOT be transformed into men, because their bodies were God given and as such not anathema. 

By 1405, when Christine de Paz begins to write, Aristotle and a misinterpretation of Judeo-Christian theology have cemented women to the bottom of the barrel; morally and otherwise.  So she picks up her pen and becomes the first woman to challenge this tradition head on, using a title that will call to mind Augustine’s treaty on the heavenly city, a city comprised of both earthly and heavenly citizens that have as their foundation a call to virtue and the pursuit of the glory of God. Christine will argue that in every city women have been integral to the moral and spiritual pursuits of the urban community. Without women there is no city.

City of Ladies falls into the the biographical catalogue genre. It is essentially a catalogue of narratives that will anecdotally challenge each slur thrown at women. The book begins with Christine reading some contemporary literature in her study:

“One day, I was sitting in my study surrounded by many books of different kinds, for it has long been my habit to engage in the pursuit of knowledge. My mind had grown weary as I had spent the day struggling with the weighty tomes of various authors whom I had been studying for some time. I looked up from my books and decided that, for once, I would put aside these difficult texts and find instead something amusing and easy to read.” [I.1]

Things to note in this opening salvo: 1) Christine is capable of high level rationality, despite what Aristotle might think, 2) She is capable of wrestling with weighty issues which shows a mental strength and capacity not often associated with women, 3) the book that is causing issues is the light and easy reading you look for when your brain is tired: a jibe at the author Matheolus. 

What she finds in the “easy” reading is such an awful and damning accusation against the character of women as a sex that she immediately becomes depressed. When all the authors and experts are “unanimous in their view that the female nature is wholly given up to vice” what hope is left? Christine comes to the conclusion that these authors must be right, God truly did create a “vile thing when he created women.” [I.1] 

“Oh Lord, how can this be?  Unless I commit an error of faith, I cannot doubt that you in your infinite wisdom and perfect goodness, could make anything that wasn’t good. Didn’t you yourself create woman especially and then endow her with all the qualities you wished her to have? How could you possibly have made a mistake in anything? Yet here stand women not simply accused, but already judged, sentenced and condemned….Oh God, why wasn’t I born a male so that my every desire would be to serve you, to do right in all things, and to be as perfect a creature as man claims to be?” [I.1]

As she sits in her sorry state, depressed and dejected, she sees a vision: three women stand before her, Reason, Rectitude and Justice. They have been sent to her by God to speak the truth and walk her through a critical analysis of the attacks and the ultimate defense. When they are finished, Christine will have constructed not just a “room of ones own” but a City of Defense, a City of Ladies that will buttress women against the attacks that they have become culturally saturated in.  

“The female sex has been left defenseless for a long time now, like an orchard without a wall, and bereft of a champion to take up arms to protect it…Even the strongest city will fall if there is no one to defend it, and even the most undeserving case will win if there is no one to testify against it…Now, however, it is time for them to be delivered out of the hands of Pharaoh.” 

The book then proceeds through three parts, or three main arguments. The first argument is against the weakness of women and it is filled with anecdotes of strength and valor. The second is against the promiscuity of women and it challenges these accusations with anecdotes of chastity and constancy. The third part looks at the faith of women, specifically those that have been martyred, despite the temptation to recant their faith, many women went through the most heinous of torture and did so with grace and the joy of their salvation. 

The first accusations are given with the benefit of a doubt: Some men are actually attempting to “rescue” innocent men that have fallen into the clutches of corrupt women…so in order to “prevent others from suffering the same fate, and to encourage men generally to avoid leading a lustful and sinful existence, they therefore attacked all women in order to persuade men to regard the entire sex as an abomination.” [I.8]

Christine asks the muses if in a scenario where misinformation is spread with good intentions…doesn’t that somewhat mitigate the damage? Reason responds emphatically: there is no excuse for plain ignorance. 

“Attacking one party in the belief that you are benefiting a third party is unfair. So is criticizing the nature of all women, which is completely unjustified, as I will prove to you by analogy. Condemning all women in order to help some misguided men get over their foolish behavior is tantamount to denouncing fire, which is a vital and beneficial element, just because some people are burnt by it, or to cursing water just because some people are drowned in it.” 

As Christine begins to build her metaphorical city, the foundation is built through anecdotes of female strength and valor. She picks up her shovel and removes a shovel full of soil while asking about Cicero and the philosophers. Aren’t they right when they say that a man should not be in subjection to a woman? Or that a man that is in subjection to a woman “debases himself” because it is morally wrong to be in subjection to your inferior? Or what about the the claim from Cato who argued that because the blight of “women” had been created, men no longer could converse with the gods? 

Again, Reason challenges these arguments, one spade full at a time. She argues that superiority or inferiority is not something regulated by gender but rather by “the degree to which one has perfected one’s nature and morals.” [I.9] And she further argues that mankind has gained far more through Mary than they have lost through Eve. The medieval obsession with making the focal point of Original Sin a female woman rather than humanity has distorted the actual Good News of the gospel. “If human nature is fallen, due to the actions of one of God’s creatures, it has been redeemed by the Creator Himself.” [I.9]

Christine begins to lay her foundation: who can match the political savvy of Empress Nicaula? [I.12] Or the noble warriors of the Amazons? [I.16] Or the cunning of Queen Artemisia who attacked Xerxes and routed his army. She pursued him over land and sea ultimately defeating him off the coast of Salamis. 

Here’s a quote from Aristotle: 

“The fact is, the nature of man is the most rounded off and complete, and consequently in man the qualities or capacities above referred to are found in their perfection. Hence, woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful that the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutrient. 

As was previously stated, the male is more courageous than the female, and more sympathetic in the way of standing by to help. Even in the case of the mollusks, when the cuttle-fish is struck with a trident the male stands by to help the female; but when the male is struck the female runs away.” 
[The History of Animal, Aristotle. 350 BC]

Christine’s task is almost impossible. She has to argue against the “it just makes sense” misogyny buttressed by “science” and cultural perceptions. Her argument is that women are more diverse that cuttle-fish, or Molossian dogs; not all women are capable of strength and valor, but some are. Not all women are capable of constancy and steadfastness, but equally so not all women are shrews. At the end of her book, after her city has been lovingly crafted, there is a place for all kinds of women. There is no role or objective for women, women are not expected to look a specific way or share specific tasks: the female spirit is diverse and beautiful and capable of grandeur in both the urban community and the domestic realm. This isn’t a treatise to get women out of the home, it’s a treatise to recognize that wherever women are they are a valuable asset. 

Rosalind Grant, in her introduction to City of Ladies, argues that Christine’s intent is twofold: “both to refute the misogynist equation of womankind with sinfulness and to instill a sense of self-worth in her female readers.” 3 But to equate Christine with our modern conception of feminism seems to miss the mark. Christine was not arguing for equality with men but rather basic dignity. She’s almost the same type of “feminist” as Plato, arguing that both men and women have been given souls, voices and rational minds. 

Reading City of Ladies six hundred years after it was written, still feels relevant and immediate. There are still debates about the appropriate “role” of women, without an emphasis placed on the diversity and talents given by God for his glory. There is still a debate about inferiority only now it’s referred to as “submission” and what Aristotle argued was true based on scientific observation, the Christian church has argued is true based on the “Eternal Subordination of the Son.” In any scenario where there is attempt to class and subdivide a population based on gender or race etc. this book is relevant. Human dignity shouldn’t be something left to the “feminists” to fight for; but rather anyone who believes we were created in the image of God with intent and specificity. 

Christine’s closing word of parting is this: 

“Let your hearts rejoice in doing good. I your servant, commend myself to you. I beg the Lord to shine His grace upon me and to allow me to carry on devoting my life to His holy service here on earth. May he pardon my great faults and grant me everlasting joy when I die, and may He do likewise unto you. Amen.” 

1. Lombardo, Stanley. Works and Days (Cambridge: HackettPublishing Company Inc, 1993), 777.
2. De Pizan, Christine, trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant. City of Ladies (London: Penguin Books) xx
3. De Pizan, Christine, trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant. City of Ladies (London: Penguin Books) xviii


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