Sunday, December 14, 2014

Suttree - Cormac McCarthy

If you were to take the adventures of Huck Finn, and remove all joy and hope in exchange for the sordid, heartbreaking world of Knoxville, Tennessee circa 1950, this is the book you would come up with.

"Down pavings rent with ruin, the slow cataclysm of neglect, the wires that belly pole to pole across the constellations hung with kitestring, with bolos composed of hobbled bottles or the toys of the smaller children. Encampment of the damned...

Here at the creek mouth the fields run on to the river, the mud deltaed and baring out of its rich alluvial harbored bones and dread waste, a wrack of cratewood and condoms and fruitrinds. Old tins and jars and ruined household artifacts that rear from the fecal mire of the flats like landmarks in the trackless vales of dementia praecox. A world beyond all fantasy, malevolent and tactile and dissociate, the blown lightbulbs like shorn polyps semitranslucent and skullcolored bobbing blindly down and spectral eyes of oil and now and again the beached and stinking forms of foetal humans bloated like young birds mooneyed and bluish or stale gray."

Our protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, has walked away from his inherited wealth and status and instead has seemingly taken a vow of poverty. He runs his lines in the brown, mercurial water amongst the sewage, nameless waste and yellowed condoms fishing for catfish. A difficult way to survive, but it seems like this is the place Suttree feels the most at home, in abject poverty and intentional solitude. 

As the book opens, Suttree is languidly checking his lines in the torpid summer heat, when he notices a couple rescue boats trolling for the body of a presumed suicide. Unlike Huck Finn, hiding on  Jackson Island and witnessing the ferryboat sounding it's canons and floating mercury bread while  the passengers wait with bated breath in vain for Huck's body to appear, this is real life. In real life the suicide is found, bloated and grim with a grappling hook in the side of its indistinguishable face. This seems to be an unsurprising occurrence, one that barely sends a ripple of concern throughout the riverbank diaspora. 

It's not long, although honestly this whole book felt long and painfully slow, before we meet the Tom counterpart, the "melon mounter" Gene Harrogate. Both Harrogate and Suttree are inmates  at a work camp/prison and Suttree steps in as a sort of older brother figure to occasionally be the voice of reason to counter Harrogate's endless get-rich-quick schemes. After they both get out of prison, Suttree goes back to his small dilapidated house boat, and Harrogate takes up residence under a near by bridge. Harrogate quickly develops what he considers a fool proof plan to hasten his journey to wealth and luxury: he will shoot poisoned meat into the sky, bats will eat the meat and die and he will carry their bodies to the hospital to earn the bounty of $1 per bat paid out by the health commissioner. As Suttree looks aft with a modicum of disgust, Harrogate goes sailing by on his homemade boat constructed from two welded car hoods, while slowly it begins to rain the bodies of poisoned bats. This plan does not work and instead of the $42 Harrogate has already mentally spent, he earns a $1 and calls it even.

His next plan is to excavate his way through the city's old sewage system until he finds the bank, detonate a homemade explosive and watch the money poor down from above. As usual, things do not go according to plan.

"He was engulfed feet first in a slowly moving wall of sewage, a lava neap of liquid shit and soapcurd and toiletpaper from a breached main."

The avalanche of sewage throws Harrogate deeper into the labyrinthine tunnels, ripping his clothes from his body. When the wall of sewage finally abates, he is left naked and shivering; rubbing the feces out of his eyes he looks around him only to realize he is completely lost.

This is an interesting take on Tom and Becky getting lost in the tunnel on the day of the picnic. Obviously getting lost with the girl you have a crush on while potentially least has the hopeful outcome of maybe making out? But in real life you're alone and covered in shit.

While Harrogate sits shivering in the dank, dark sewage system for four days, Suttree spends the next 20 pages wandering around, having random conversations about lost pets and wandering in and out of the tunnel system. Eventually he finds the city mouse, who is momentarily castigated, but not for long and quickly rushes out into a field to wrestle a semi-feral shoat.

Not long after, when Sutree finds himself in a sort of metaphorical sewage system, while he wanders about the mountains looking for himself, there is no one to rescue him or even to bother looking.

"Some doublegoer, some othersuttree eluded him in these woods and he feared that should that figure fail to rise and steal away and were he therefore to come to himself in this obscure wood he’d be neither mended nor made whole but rather set mindless to dodder drooling with his ghosty clone from sun to sun across a hostile hemisphere forever."

The common refrain every few chapters said by his "friends" or neighbors is "oh, I thought you were dead," and the secret of the damned is that they have been for an indistinguishable eternity.

In a weird way, this book is a love story for a person that almost existed; his twin brother that had died at birth. Suttree has a twin sized hole in his heart that can never be filled, a hollowness that aches with a longing for a person that would have given meaning to the abject misery of his heart.

"...Suttree turned and lay staring at the ceiling, touching a like mark on his own left temple gently with his fingertips. The ordinary of the second son. Mirror image. Gauche carbon. He lies in Woodlawn, whatever be left of the child with whom you shared your mother’s belly. He neither spoke nor saw nor does he now. Perhaps his skull held seawater. Born dead and witless both or a terratoma grisly in form. No, for we were like to the last hair. I followed him into the world, me. A breech birth."

Suttree has followed his brother into this world backward, and while his brother now waits for him in "the limbo of the christless" Sutree is left to reconnoiter this terrestrial hell alone. He has abandoned his wife and small son, he goes from one drunken brawl to another, limping away to nurse his wounds but with no hope of sobriety. He wanders aimlessly from one lover to another; a young girl that is crushed by a landslide, a prostitute that has more of an affinity for women than men; his helpmates are there as momentary warm bodies reminding him only more of the ache in his heart that can never be filled.

At last in a moment of lucidity, he packs his cardboard suitcase, and hitches a ride to new soil in an aura of hope. Perhaps whatever land he encounters next will be one that can free him from his wanderlust and  give meaning to the impotency of his life. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Princess Casamassima - Henry James

After 6 years and many false starts, I have finally read this book. It was as painful as expected; there were many close calls where I almost "accidentally" lit it on fire, or dropped it out of the window of a fast moving vehicle or discovered an animal capable of ingesting large quantities of paper...(goats?) but alas, no animal came to my aid and in good conscience I can not cross off a book without seeing it through to the end...and if that means hours of my life that I will never get back, so be it. The only fathomable reason to write this book and/or include it in the Western Canon would be to serve as a counterpoint for all truly good books. Let's just say I couldn't rouse myself from my cocoon of apathy to even work up an emotion regarding the protagonist, Hyacinth. When, like his mythic namesake, Hyacinth's life is ended abruptly, two paragraphs before the book ends, I had to go back and reread what had happened to make sure he was really dead, which would have come as a shock if I was capable of feeling anything. For one tiny second I thought, "Hm, I did not really see that coming...but I guess I don't really care -" and then there were two paragraphs of his friends mourning the senseless loss of a life so young and brimming with potential, while I congratulated myself that I had finally made it through and day dreamed about the perfect reward for so painful a journey.

One of the things that's difficult about this book, is it is told in Jame's tranquil impressionistic style, where one learns of things as if being told the life history of a stranger at a cocktail party; only not their history, but rather the history of a first cousin once removed. Through the haze of boredom, one learns that Hyacinth is the bastard of a spirited French woman and allegedly an English nobleman. When the nobleman refuses to acknowledge that he has placed this woman in the awkward position of being an unwed mother, severing ties with her and leaving her cast off and downtrodden, the only solution left to this unfortunate woman is to shoot the lord. While she is left feeling vindicated for a nanosecond, she is then forced to spend the rest of her miserable days in a dank English women's prison. Her son is taken from her and given to an old friend and seamstress who is destined to spend the rest of her days wringing her hands out of a panoply of emotions and believing that Hyacinth, while technically an impoverished street urchin is really the son of nobility and as such destined for greatness.

Here, there is a bit of the nature vs. nurture discussion. Is the partial nobility that courses through young Hyacinths veins strong enough to conquer his baser nature? Despite the fact that he has been raised by a woman with a cockney accent, it seems as if the nobleman in him wins the day and he speaks perfectly respectable English, learns French within the span of 2 minutes and is better read than most of the peerage. He is dainty and frenchified in a way likely only in literature, and like his mythic namesake Hyacinthus, he is incredibly beautiful.

Disclaimer: I had never heard the story of Hyacinthus prior to writing this book report and in retrospect, knowing this myth makes The Princess Casamassima slightly more interesting. The myth goes something like this: Hyacinthus is a young, strong, super beautiful man of uncertain origin. He is so beautiful that Apollo kind of develops a thing for him and takes him under his wing, quickly teaching him the manly art of discus throwing. Unfortunately, during one particular lesson as Apollo throws the discus it goes off course killing the young and inopportunely placed Hyacinthus.

This helps shed a modicum of light on an otherwise frustratingly dull book that is ostensibly about the impotency of the English working class revolution. Instead, the environment of the malcontent provides a backdrop for a young man born into the wrong life at the wrong time. Despite being destined for greatness, our hero must take his place among the impoverished and the first book ends with him begging for theater tickets for him and his childhood friend, Millicent, who has now blossomed into a slightly crass but obligingly beautiful companion for our protagonist.

As they take their seats in the theater, within moments Hyacinth is summoned by the mysterious Princess Cassamassima, who is fascinated by the rumbling turbulence of the lower classes and views Hyacinth as an interesting specimen of this lower order. As Hyacinth chats up the princess he mentions that he too has an Apollo in the form of his good friend Muniment, the socialist agitator and revolutionary. And thus the skeleton of the narrative is revealed; Hyacinth, befriended by a socialist warmonger is immediately taken by this sinister world of intrigue and reprisals for the suppression by the upper classes. Finally his life makes sense; sprung at birth into the maelstrom and chaos of civil discord it seems as if he were destined from his very conception to stand up for the rights of the proletariat. If it were not for Princess C, perhaps Hyacinth who quickly pledges himself to martyrdom for the cause, would have gone about his life with a sense of solemn fealty to his fellow man.

Princess C offers a glimpse into an entirely different world order. After deciding for no apparent reason that she will make Hyacinth her pet and invite him to stay with her in the country, of course to strengthen their platonic friendship and have very long discussions about social well being, Hyacinth begins to have doubts about his glorious martyrdom. Doesn't he have just as much a right to this world as the dingy one he's momentarily left behind? Slowly the seeds of disillusionment are sown as he witnesses the simple luxuries of having a conspicuous income.

All of a sudden Pinnie, his step- mother of sorts, is taken ill and slowly (it felt like it took 50 pages) declines to the point of whispering her last fond remonstrances to Hyacinth and closes her eyes forever. Pinnie, a borderline impoverished seamstress who has only deteriorated at her profession over the years, has somehow managed to scrape about £100 together, which is a considerable fortune beyond the realm of actual feasibility. Hyacinth decides the best way to use essentially a four year income would be to quickly blow it all in Paris, after all isn't he French? Doesn't he have a right to see his paternal homeland? Within a short time (another 500 million pages filled with endless observations and conversational eaves dropping in coffee houses) he has spent his fortune and is now even more jaded by the cause then ever. He walks through the streets of Paris and is reminded at every corner of a failed revolution of the not too distant past. Is it really worthwhile to devote oneself to something so protean as the wants and desires of the masses?

The rest of the book is spent with Hyacinth dreading and regretting the pledge he has made. He is not a coward and refuses to renege on a vow...but it all feels so incredibly pointless. He has long walks through the park with his friend Muniment, and shorter and shorter visits with the Princess, until all visits and walks stop abruptly and he realizes the only solution left for him is to take his life.

The thesis that the things we love often lead to our destruction is a good one. Both foils, Muniment and Princess C, are revolutionaries, gods of war demanding vengeance for the socially vanquished, and pushing Hyacinth to throw his discus and deal the hand he's been given. Only, as so often is the case, where the discus lands can never be certain, and frequently leads a trail of bitterness and heartache in its wake.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell

First of all, I love this story, I have seen the BBC movie multiple times and it has always been the perfect antidote to depression. Not so the book.

At first I was swept up into the minutiae of this "Every-Day Story," Molly Gibson is as charming as ever, the perfect semi-educated, not too beautiful heroine that we must learn to love and appreciate as a foreign specimen under a microscope. It is with careful observation that she is tested and proved the superior object in contrast to her beautiful, coquettish step-sister. But while one learns to appreciate all of Molly's quiet unobtrusive charms, which happens in about 5 pages, one must suffer through another 600 pages of the most banal of "fairytales".

I found this book to be frustrating on so many levels. Unlike Margaret Hale, the protagonist of an earlier novel, North and South, little "goosey" Molly Gibson is the prim and proper quiet little angel that never argues or presumably raises her voice, except for one moment where she breaks character and somewhat chews Lady Harriet out for referring to her friends, the Miss Brownings, as Pecksy and Flapsy. While I commend Molly's flushed, red in the face defiance of a member of the peerage...I only wish she was that spirited for the duration of the book, instead she receives insult upon insult with only a quiet tear here and there while she comforts herself in the quiet solitude of her lonely heart.

North and South was an industrial novel and as such there was the requisite soliloquies on labor laws and unions, and while Margaret was passive in a way, she had the gumption to throw herself in front of an angry mob to protect a man she somewhat despised. Molly feels like the heroine you would write if you were on vacation and thinking of ways to extend a book contract in order to secretly purchase a little country house as a surprise for your husband. Allegedly, Charles Dickens, a friend and her editor at times encouraged her to get to the point in a more expedited manner and that's saying something.

There is a bit of the cherry-picking from ones life that also adds a certain lazy character writing. Mr. Gibson, a Scot (like Gaskell's own father) in a sly way represents how wrong educated men can sometimes be. In an attempt to save Molly's maidenhood, he hastily marries an old friend of his and recent widow, with her own daughter about Molly's age, Cynthia. The irony is that Molly is the most pragmatic and chaste of the three women and more apt to keep her own virtue unsullied on her own than with the help of the new duo. In fact, it is from this very hasty marriage, that Molly must defend and protect her new sister from one scandal after another - sullying her name and for a while becoming an untouchable to the small Hollingford community. Of course Cynthia is too beautiful and full of her many charms to spend much thought on the inconvenience of others and instead mesmerizes and entraps one suitor after another, ending the book with four proposals and a marriage.

One of her many misguided suitors is the good Roger Hamley, who although does not actually develop as a character, after being jilted happens to look around the room, and when Molly has on a new dress and her hair done in an elaborate way, finally is capable of noticing her. This is horrible, disgusting and everything I hate about fluffy romance plotlines. While the reader is supposed to admire and appreciate her for her many qualities, it isn't until she's wearing a new dress that she gets noticed by the second hand love interest. And while Roger is supposed to represent this new age of "Muscular Christianity" and the advent of Naturalism, loosely based on Gaskell's cousin, Charles Darwin, I'm sure if Darwin ever condescended to read this book it would be a distasteful likeness. While Gaskell paints Roger as a scientific researcher, going on all sorts of expeditions on his own veritable "Beagle" she also makes him a romantic. And after two years gallivanting around Africa, contracting one travelers disease after another, having his brother die and his fiancé run off with another man he comes home a burly, bearded bear of a man and is impressed with silk? I feel like it would have been a bit more true to the point if we saw his own hastily scrawled pros vs. cons list with "constant companion, (friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, object to be beloved and played with - better than a dog anyhow - home and someone to take care of the house...ergo I will propose to Molly Gibson!"

As I was reading this book, I felt so frustrated by the lazy uninspired portrayal of women. Molly sits quietly by, waiting for what good or bad fate has in store for her.  While Cynthia, is far from idle, constantly flirting with anyone wearing pants, there is still the same sort of ineffectual lack of agency. She threatens to become a governess in Russia whenever she is feeling particularly provoked...and one wishes she would have made good on her threat and exited the narrative scene stage left. Then of course there's Mrs. Gibson the provocateur of all ones fetid hates distilled into a single character. Her monologues are literally endless and while Gaskell died suddenly and was unable to finish the book, the unfortunate ending is given to Mrs. Gibson's endless prattling: 

"You might have allowed me to beg for a new gown for you, Molly, when you knew how much I admired that figured silk at Brown's the other day. And of course, I can't be too selfish as to get it for myself, and you to have nothing. You should learn to understand the wishes of other people. Still, on the whole, you are a dear, sweet girl, and I only wish - well, I know what I wish; only dear papa does not like it to be talked about. And now cover me up close, and let me go to sleep, and dream about my dear Cynthia and my new shawl!"

Overall, I can not help feeling a certain sadness for Gaskell, what a terrible book to go out on. Gaskell contributed to the same magazines as Anthony Trollope (The Way We Live Now)  and Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone) both of which had more respect for their heroines than Gaskell. While Gaskell's heroines are weakly, fainting types that are constantly in need of a big burly man to rescue them both Collins and Trollope treat their heroines with far more respect. Granted Marian Farley, the heroine of The Woman in White was an ugly George Elliot type that was brilliant at unraveling one web of intrigue after another but was unmarriageable and destined to spend her days with her beautiful and marriageable damsel in distress half sister.

It's almost impossible to compare Gaskell and Trollope except to say Trollope wins. He is expansive while she is simplistic. His characters grow and transform while hers live one dimensional lives waiting for their writer to have her way with them. While Trollope champions the cause of women and the complexities their limited options allow them, they are all astute and pragmatic regarding what they want and what bull they must grab by the horns. His women are forced into creative forms of entrepreneurship as they struggle actively to take agency in their fates while Gaskell's are forced to wait idly by for their men to eventually recognize them and by doing so breathe legitimacy into their ineffectual lives.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Medea - Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers offers us a distilled version of the Euripides play, Medea. In his version the language gets trimmed to its most essential parts making the rhetoric more straightforward and profound. Again, like Cawdor, Medea deals with the question of agency in a world governed by predestination. While Fera has ingested the curse of Aphrodite, unbeknownst to her, it has slowly trickled into the recesses of her soul and consumed her. She then becomes a sort of automaton, exacting justice in her wake; but while Fera seems to lack even an approximation of free will, Medea is full of agency. At any moment she can leave and walk away from the pain and heartache she is about to inflict, but like Fera she is consumed, only this time instead of love, our heroine is  consumed by hate.

While Jason was running around completing feats of heroism, such as retrieving the Golden Fleece, he comes across Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis and granddaughter of the sun god Helios. She decides to help Jason with his tasks, but only if he promises to marry her and take her with him. He agrees and in the first act she reminds him of what she has done for him:

Medea:" might remember whether I cheated my father for you and tamed the fire-breathing Brazen-hoofed bulls; and whether I saved your life in the field of the teeth; and you might remember whether I poisoned the great serpent and got you the Golden Fleece; and fled with you, and killed my brother when he pursued us, making myself abominable in my own home; and then in yours I got your enemy Pelias hacked to death by his own daughters' hands- whatever these fine Corinthian friends of yours say against my rapid and tricky wisdom; you it has served, you it has served well: here are five times, if I counted right..."

But time has passed. And Jason now has the gall to refer to his marriage with Medea as nothing more than a "barbarian mating and not a Greek marriage..."

Jeffers presents Medea as a fierce daughter of a king, not someone to be tampered with; unlike the heroine of Euripides she is not a hapless wife, wringing her hands in sorrow, occupied with grief, she instead contemplates the best, most destructive revenge she can render on Jason. 

While both Jeffers and Euripides give the nurse shuddering premonitions in her entry monologue of the terror that is about to be unleashed, Jeffers paints a more detailed picture of Medea's crazed hatred.

Nurse: "She is like a stone on the shore or a wave of the sea, and I think she hates even her children. She is learning what it is to be a foreigner, cast out, alone and despised. She will never learn to be humble, she will never learn to drink insult like harmless water. O I'm in terror of her: whether she'll thread a knife through her own heart, or whether she'll hunt the bridegroom and his new bride, or what more dreadful evil stalks in the forest of her dark mind..."
As the nurse's monologue comes to an end, in Euripides version she says: "Would I were as thou art! the mischief is but now beginning; it has not reached its climax yet," while Jeffers' nurse nervously, hands wringing says "This evil is not declining, it is just at dawn. I dread the lion-eyed glare of its noon..."

Medea's first line is also telling of the woman each poet is creating. In Euripides version Medea is chanting within another room and we hear her voice cry "Ah, me! A wretched suffering woman I! O would that I could die!" Jeffers Medea is much more sinister:

Medea: "Hear me, God, let me die. What I need: all dead, all dead, all dead, under the great cold stones. For a year and a thousand years and another thousand: cold as the stones, cold, but noble again, proud, straight and silent, crimson-cloaked in the blood of our wounds."

This is obviously not someone to cross, unhappily for Jason he has become inured to her strength, vitality and cunning. What was once so necessary for his very survival is now standing in the way of his happiness as he prepares to wed Glauce, the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth. While Jason attempts to offer a pragmatic reason for his infidelity to Medea (ie. once married into the family of the king he will be better able to provide for Medea's sons...) it is clear that he has used Medea and cares little for her happiness or wellbeing. And now Creon has decided to banish Medea and her sons and Jason sits idly by waiting for this cursed women to leave his house.

Medea begs Creon for one day, one part of a day even to pack what little things she can carry and try to make provisions for her sons. Weepingly, cunningly, she begs Creon not to send them to their deaths, but to simply allow them a few hours. Creon, aware that there is something sinister lurking in this wolf from Asia, but unable to deny a weeping woman agrees to allow them to stay until morning. As Creon leaves, wondering if he's been made a fool Medea turns to her women:

Medea: "...this man...this barking dog...this gulled fool...gods of my father's country, You saw me low on my knees before the great dog of Corinth; humble, holding my heart in my hands for a dog to bite- break this dog's teeth! Women: it is a bitter thing to be a woman. A woman is weak for warfare, she must use cunning. Men boast their battles: I tell you this, and we know it: It is easier to stand in battle three times, in the front line, in the stabbing fury, than to bear one child."

While Euripides also uses the  "child bearing" line, it is said in a more deferential tone almost as if Medea is sorry to even bring it up, she begins her stanza with how difficult it is for a woman, hapless creatures that they are, after buying a husband at great expense to then keep him. Or what if he be a tyrant? Marriage is a chancy gamble, with all but the fewest exceptions, ending in sorrow. While a woman can not divorce her husband, at the slightest provocation the husbands may grow either bored or incensed and issue a writ of divorce at a moments notice.

Medea: "But when a man is vexed with what he finds indoors, he goeth forth and rids his soul of its disgust, betaking him to some friends or comrade of like age, whilst we must needs regard his single self..."

A woman's position is precarious at best. Euripides ends Medea's soliloquy thus:

Medea: "For though a woman be timorous enough in all else, and as regards courage, a coward at the mere sight of steel, yet in the moment she finds her honor wronged, no heart is filled with deadlier thoughts than hers."

Jeffers Medea is far from timorous and hardly a coward. While this is an anguishing moment to live through, to be the serpent that exacts vengeance on all that have wronged her, is a role she has always been destined to play.

And it is destiny that Jason uses as his alibi:

Jason: "As to those acts of service you so loudly boast- whom do I thank for them? I thank divine Venus, the goddess who makes girls fall in love. You did them because you had to do them; Venus compelled you; I enjoyed her favor. A man dares things, you know, he makes his adventure in the cold of death; and if the gods care for him they appoint an instrument to save him; if not, he dies. You were that instrument."

As one would expect, this does not go over well. Medea, apoplectic, frothing at the mouth with rage tells Jason he better leave before his vulgarity of invoking the gods becomes contagious. But it already has. Medea has given up everything for Jason, she has sweated, called down curses, murdered family members, given birth to two sons and all the good she has done him over the years is now being accredited to Venus? Well, two can play at this game. She immediately calls on Hecate, the patron saint of all that is evil.

Medea: " No: I have subtler means, and more deadly cruel; I have my dark art that fools call witchcraft. Not for nothing I have worshipped the wild gray goddess that walks in the dark, the wise one, the terrible one, the sweet huntress, flowers of night, Hecate, in my house at my hearth.

Medea's plan is to feign reconciliation. A ruse that someone only very stupid or very hopeful could believe. She calls for Jason again and expresses her wish to reconcile with the young bride and offer as peace offerings a crown and a inherited from her grandfather, the sun king.  While Euripides' Jason is quickly appeased, attributing her mercurial emotions to what is only the natural response of the female sex ("to vent their spleen") when their husband "traffics in other marriages besides his own," this Jason is so full of himself that he is incapable of recognizing the somnambulating beast hiding in the breast of his ex-wife. Jeffers's Jason seems a little more practical, while intensely suspicious at first, he reluctantly comes to believe Medea is in earnest.   As she offers him her gifts she asks: "Her sun is rising, mine going down - I hope to a red sunset. - The little gold wreath is pretty isn't it?" Jason replies, "It looks like fire..."
Obviously these gifts do not bode well. But Glauce, being a one dimensional foil for the plot to progress, dutifully postures as the vain and impetuous young bride; upon being given the gifts she immediately puts them on and goes to the mirror to have a better look, only to discover that both the cloak and the crown are like melting lava, and as she screams in pain, she is slowly burned alive. Her father, Creon, in an attempt to put out the flames smothers her with his body only to then find himself unable to extricate himself, he too, now thrashing in pain as the searing hot cloak envelops him.

In Euripides version the cloak and the crown are poisoned. I think having Medea's nemesis devoured by fire seems more poetic and horrifying. If only she had let the fire assuage her hatred, the vengeance being sufficient to make her grief bearable, but alas, we all know how the story ends, and Jeffers must dutifully follow the plotline.

Having destroyed Glauce, "that robe of bright-flowing gold, that bride-veil, that fish-net to catch a young slender salmon- not mute, she'll sing: her delicate body writhes in the meshes, the golden wreath binds her bright head with light: she'll dance, she'll sing loudly: would I were there to hear it, that proud one howling. - Look, the sun's out again, the clouds are gone, all's gay and clear..."

She moves on to the next objects of affection that Jason holds dear to his heart: their two sons. Euripides was the first poet to have Medea commit filicide, much to the horror of the Athenians, who awarded him only third place at the Dionysia festival in 431 BC. Traditionally the Corinthians would have killed the boys after Medea makes her escape. As such, she wrestles with her unpreventable actions, she hems and haws and begs herself not to commit such a horrific deed, she cries after her children, pleading with them to let her kiss their hands and feet and finally, nervously, filled with dread utters: "At last I understand the awful deed I am to do; but passion that cause of direst woes to mortal man, hath triumphed o'er my sober thoughts."

Euripides quickly has the chorus explain that to lose a child is a grief surpassing all others; for Medea to truly injure Jason to the quick of his soul, she must enact this one last horrific deed.

Jeffers version is better; Medea is evil incarnate. Her one purpose is to destroy Jason and there is none of that "weaker-sex", complicated maternal business to limit the capacity she has for destruction.

Medea: "Be silent! Look at him: he loved them-ah? Therefore his dear children are not going to that city but a darker city, where no games are played, no music heard.- Do you think I am a cow lowing after the calf? Or a bitch with pups, licking the hand that struck her? Watch and see. Watch this man, women: he is going to weep. I think he is going to weep blood, and quite soon, and much more than I have wept. Watch and keep silence."


As her women cohorts beg her to rescind her decision, she blithely tells them "I do according to nature what I have to do..." the die has been cast and she hastens to fulfill her destiny, even a grim one such as it is. The women beg and plead, one woman says "I dreamed that someone gave good for evil, and the world was amazed." Medea spits back, "Only a coward or a madman gives good for evil,- Did you hear a thin music like a girl screaming? Or perhaps I imagined it..."

As she makes her way to follow her sons into the house, she pauses to ponder whether the boys have their father's eyes, and from within we hear a child's voice cry "Mother Ai-!" 

Again, Jeffers makes no pretense of apology for his language, it is gritty and visceral.

Elder Child's Voice: "You've hurt him! The blood. The blood. Oh, Mother!" (then clear, but as if hypnotized) "She is hunting me...She is hunting me...She is hunting...Aah!"

And now for Euripides:

First Son: "Ah me; what can I do? Whither fly to escape my mother's blows?"
Second Son: "I know not sweet brother mine; we are lost."
First Son: "Yea, by heaven I adjure you; help, your aid is needed."
Second Son: "Even now the toils of the sword are closing round us."

In Euripides version, the play ends as Jason, running up to the house, is told by the Leader of the Chorus that his sons are dead by their mothers own hand. Jason cries out, having been finally brought low by unthinkable anguish:

Jason: "O God! what sayest thou? Woman, thou hast sealed my doom."           

As he runs hither and thither to find out more details, Medea, now transformed into a veritable she-demon taunts and goads him, this is what he has brought upon his own head, with little help or intervention on his behalf by the gods. They blame each other for what has happened; Medea was not going to stand by while her marriage bed was defiled and her husband laughed at her; Jason is appalled at how far Medea is capable of going in the name of vengeance. They continue to spar, until at last Jason begs just to be able to touch his sons, their tender skin, but gleefully, Medea refuses even this last request and as she leaves with their sons' bodies, Jason, defeated, departs to bury his young bride and the chorus sings:

Chorus: "Zeus on Olympus, dispenses many things. Gods often contradict our fondest expectations. What we anticipate does not come to pass. What we don't expect some god finds a way to make it happen. So with this story."

The character development of Medea seems a little hurried, it takes until the murder of her children before her vengeance is palpable, she has spent 90% of the play in anguish/ sorrow and the last 10% in hatred/anger/vengeance, unlike the Medea of Jeffers who is comprised primarily with hatred and vengeance and only partially with anguish and sorrow. This is a Medea who offers no apology for what she has become and Jeffers gives her the last lines of the play; as Jason begs to touch his sons' dear flesh and dear hair she ruefully spits out:

Medea: "No. They are mine. They are going with me: the chariot is in the gate. You had love and betrayed it; now of all men you are utterly the most miserable. As I of women. But I, a woman, a foreigner, alone against you and the might of Corinth- have met you throat for throat, evil for evil. Now go forth under the cold eyes of the weakness-despising starts: - [it is] not me they scorn."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Cawdor - Robinson Jeffers

This is the third version of this story that I've read and without a doubt the most successful. Euripides' Hippolytus was more of a one dimensional fable discussing the cons of defying the gods, and I didn't think anything could come close to usurping Racine's Phaedra, but Cawdor is entirely in a league of its own.

In Euripides' Hippolytus, Hippolytus has sworn off love and instead has devoted himself to the goddess Artemis, his hunting companion, deeply offending Aphrodite; it is not a passive preference but rather a deliberate stiff-necked offence and he openly derails her as the "vilest of all the gods." This obviously annoys Aphrodite and she makes a plan for revenge; she will make his mother-in-law fall in love with him and it will destroy both of them leaving a trail of carnage and destruction in their wake.  

Aphrodite: " Look, here is the son of Theseus, Hippolytus! He has just left his hunting. I must go away. See the great crowd that throngs upon his heels and shouts praise of Artemis in hymns? He does not know that the doors of death are open for him, that he is looking at his last sun."

In Euripides' world there is a clear delineation of where mortals can and cannot tread. Theirs is a world with assigned rules and laws governing behavior of the classes. The play then represents one man's arrogance toward the gods and the just vindication they retaliate in turn. The fact that Phaedra is collateral damage is almost incidental.

In Racine's version things are a little different. While it is still true that Hippolytus is not really into love...he surprisingly finds himself infatuated with the daughter of his father's mortal enemy. When he has a premonition that his father has died, he returns home to either bury his father and discuss his inheritance or do his best to persuade Theseus that Aricia really isn't all that bad. He has been banished by his mother-in-law, Phaedra, they seem to bring out the worst in each other, but Hippolytus decides he must risk even this if it means being with Aricia.

Phaedra, while suffering from love sickness from the moment she saw Hippolytus, has refused to acknowledge it or even give voice to her malady. It is with great persuasion that her nursemaid, Oenone, finally draws out of her the reason for her abject misery. Oenone persuades Phaedra to reveal her curse to Hippolytus after they receive a message confirming the death of Theseus. Hippolytus is disgusted and in his hurry to get away leaves his cloak behind. About two minutes later in walks Theseus, not dead after all, and Hippolytus quickly tells him he loves Aricia, much to the chagrin of Phaedra. So he is capable of loving women, just not her. Oenone fabricates a lie on behalf of her mistress: Hippolytus has raped his mother-in-law while Theseus was away and, despite the murky veracity of this story, Theseus is enraged and calls down a curse from Neptune dooming Hippolytus to an imminent and painful death.

Pheadra, sick and disgusted by what she has become sees no other solution than to kill herself, and after ingesting poison makes her way to Theseus to exonerate Hippolytus of his crimes.  As the poison makes its way deeper into her veins, Theseus, disgusted leaves her to die alone and rushes off to embrace the now cherished remains of his son. 

Racine's version wrestles with the question of predestination and freewill. While the gods may set the course of our lives it is up to us to determine how we live. By taking responsibility for her guilt although doomed to suffer an endless temptation, she emerges virtuous and expresses her free will by engaging her temptation and battling with it to the death.

As Cawdor opens it is 1909 in the Big Sur region of California. A fire has swept through the hills destroying all but the most veteran farmers livestock.  As Cawdor watches the road among the animals fleeing in terror slowly comes an old horse carrying the charred semi-conscious remains of Martial and his bedraggled soot covered daughter Fera. Two years  ago the Martials decided to try their hand at farming and it was a catastrophic failure. Their cows ended up sick almost immediately and when one died in the creek, Martial, no longer having the strength to fight against nature, left her there to slowly poison the water supply, not out of malice but ignorance and dejection. Cawdor then had ridden over to remove the cow only to have the fetid carcass burst. Since that day Cawdor has despised Martial, but there's something about his daughter that quickens a place so long forgotten in his soul that he had thought it had died. Is it his heart? He allows them to stay for a short while so they can treat Martial's burns and get him healthy enough to travel.

As Martial is brought into the house he quietly whispers his anthem of failure: "Turn me that way before I go in, To the good light that gave me so many days. I have failed and failed and failed. Now I'll go in as men go into the grave, and not fail any more."

Cawdor at 50 would have sworn he was impervious to the potions of love, he is too old to woo and perhaps too pragmatic. He decides he will offer half courtship half blackmail and see what response he gets. He is too proud for rejection so he stacks the odds against her to ease the rebuttal, if one comes, as much as possible. He tells Fera it's time to go, if only she could's pitiful to see youth chained to helpless old age (when it is crispy and decayed of course) the unknown town might not be as kind as neighbors can be...he's never had time to play with colored ribbons -he's been a hard man that knew how to boss his men and turn a profit...

"and now I'm caught with wanting something and my life is changed....Oh, I'm still my own master and will not beg anything of you. Old blind man your girl's beautiful, I saw her come down the canyon like a fawn out of the fire. If she is willing: if you are willing, Fera, this place is yours..."

While the terms are still somewhat opaque, Fera bargains for marriage, only then will she have certain stability. Cawdor, embarrassed by his profession of love, ends the negotiations with the claim that he is certainly being made a fool, but in matters of the heart what can one do? And so in due course the marriage takes place and Fera pledges to be honest and love her husband well...which seems a foreboding promise to keep given her predecessors.

On the night of Cawdorr's marriage, his son Hood, away on a hunting expedition has a premonition that his father had died or was fast approaching death. In what is his slow and methodical way, he waits a few months to finish the hunting season and then begins the long trek homeward, on his way stopping to kill a mountain lion. Hood seems lacking in dimension, while his predecessors had taken a vow of chastity and instead worshipped at the feet of Artemis, Hood just likes to hunt. He's not in love with hunting, he's just a hunter, very measured and certain.

When he arrives home he finds that not only is his father still very much alive, but he has taken the neighbor's daughter as a wife. He recognizes the wind in her eyes although she has changed much from the sallow girl he had seen two years ago on the barren farm. He gives her the lion skin as a present and she, undisturbed by the fact that it has only recently been skinned and still very much a bloody carcass drapes it over her shoulders.

This Fera at first is pitiable. She is a girl of 19 entering into a marriage to save her father, who only manages to live a short time after. While she has promised love and honesty these things are far beyond her grasp. She has been complicit in her father's failure and along with the dripping lion carcass wears her own failure, deep and embedded in her soul, its talons gripping her heart. She must prove to Hood that she is worth looking at. And what begins as a pin prick of desire to be recognized and seen turns into an obsession to be loved and to conquer.

As Hood remains in his father's house Cawdor becomes suspicious of his obsessively chaste son. After her father dies, Fera now free of all obligations to the dying man, walks into Hood's room and propositions him, as she finishes making her plea to Hood's disgust and horror, in walks Cawdor:

"His confused violent eyes moved and shunned hers and walked the room, with the ancient look of men spying for their own dishonor as if it were a lost jewel..."

He knows something is awry, Hood is standing in his bed sheets half naked, but Fera plays the part of one deeply mourning and briefly lets them both off the hook. As Hood continues to reject her though, her pursuit becomes frenzied and while the men dig the grave for her father she asks Hood to cut some laurel branches for his casket. This is obviously a ruse, but one she creates with deft hands.

"Before you came I used to come here," she caught her quivering under lip with the teeth to keep it quiet, "for solitude. Here I was sure no one would come, not even the deer, not a bird; safer than a locked room. Those days I had no traitor in my own heart, and would gather my spirit here to endure old men."

She has been living in hell, has been taken captive by love and its talons are ripping her apart, either he submits to her desires or she will tell Cawdor he has raped her. For a moment his options seem limited and he drops to the bed of leaves to consummate her crazed desire. But...this is not who he is, Hood is a hunter, not easily stymied by a cunning fox and so he grabs his knife and plunges it into his thigh so that the pain will focus his attention and he will not respond to Fera's caresses.

This is the second time she has aggressively propositioned him and the second time she has been rejected.  She would kill herself, but is caught in an existential crisis of the hereafter. What if death does not offer a reprieve from these feelings? What if the mind is left forever chained to its wild and monstrous forever ruminations? Does she exchange one hell for another? If Hood will not make love to her than will he kill her? Will he, as a hunter, end her life with one quick stroke of his blade? There is no rest for either of them while she is alive. But as usual, Hood denies her request.

"You will be grateful tomorrow, for now we can live and not be ashamed. What sort of life would have been left us?"  "No life is left us," she said from a loose throat....

Fera decides to wear the lion skin and wait in the bushes...if he will not intentionally kill her she will make him kill her unintentionally, but at the last minute she convinces herself that Hood won't shoot but instead will track her up the mountain and maybe she can work in proposition number three. Hood shoots. In the dark he takes aim at the bushes and hits only her arm, crippling her, but not mortally wounding her. As Hood realizes what he has done a mix of indecipherable feelings rush through him and he quickly makes his way to deep into the woods to await the prognosis.

As Cawdor begins to piece Fera back together he discovers that her arm has been fractured and must be reset.  As he tries to put the bone back in place, Fera, thinking she is being tortured screams out the lie she has been quietly nursing: Hood has raped her, but she is innocent, why must he continue to torture her? Cawdor, suspicious from the start has all the proof he needs, when he has pieced her back together and she is quietly resting he tracks his son through the forest and kills him with little regard for his version of the story.

Fera decides she will try again to kill herself and this time hangs herself over the bedpost, but the maidservant hears her feet scuttling on the floor and rescues her. So then Fera, too weak to attempt suicide again, tells Cawdor it was all a lie. That she has been playing him for the fool he really is this whole time. That she always loved his son. She hopes she will arouse the rage she knows he is capable of and that he will strangle her, ending her misery once and for all, but instead she wakens only grief. She wants him to strangle her, but instead he walks away, disgusted and jaded.

Finally, her last card. She has tried to kill herself 3 times and has failed every time. She goads Cawdor into telling his other children and the farm hands that he has killed Hood, hoping that someone will maybe push them off a cliff...but instead, after his narrative, Cawdor gouges out his eyes and when Fera loses her nerve at the last moment and is unable to jump off the cliff herself, Cawdor is led back into his house, blind and aged to spend the rest of his waking moments buried in regret.

At the same time that Hood witnesses Fera's initial disgrace, two years ago as the Martial's primitive farm is filled with exploding cows, the hunter accidently maims an eagle. Despite his initial inclination to put this majestic bird out of its misery, his sister has nursed it back to health and it now remains crippled and encaged. Each day, Hood's sister brings it squirrels with just enough life in them to keep the bird of prey trapped in the farce that it is still a hunter.  As Hood sees the bird for the first time in almost two years he ponders the pitiable existence of this once formidable hunter:

"Hood remembered great sails, Coasting the hill and the redwoods. He'd shot for the breast, But the bird's fate having captivity in it took in the wing-bone, against the shoulder, the messenger of human love..."

Since that moment Fera has been cursed with a love sickness far deeper than that of her predecessors, in a world where fate is unalterable and agency is always outside of ones grasp. Fera has been consumed by Aphrodite's curse at a cellular level, every pore and gland oozes the curse and as she is consumed by her desire, Aphrodite finally has her revenge on the hunter. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Palm At The End Of The Rainbow - Wallace Stevens

I do not know how to read poetry. It is something I'm working on and have always felt somewhat sheepish about. Ever since I saw Anne of Green Gables as a 6 year old and witnessed a red-headed tomboy quote Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" while being unmoored in a canoe, I always thought reciting poetry would be incredibly romantic.  But alas, my friends and I always skipped the memorization portion and jumped right into the play acting, one girl being nominated to lay in the bottom a canoe while we delicately placed weeds around her tresses and pushed her out to sea/lake/pond.

A few years ago I picked up The Collected Poems by Langston Hughes (on the list - not by choice)  and came across this little gem.

Little Lyric (of Great Importance)

"I wish the rent was heaven sent."

While I appreciate it's brevity...I don't really get it. Why the word "wish"? I wish I could time-travel. I wish I had a million that poetry too? Why not the word "pray"? At least there would be a barely perceptible tremor of passion, urgency, desire? Not that swapping out the word "wish" with "pray" makes it that more poetic...I feel like it's the kind of thing you scrawl on a napkin while a chatty Cathy is giving you a blow by blow account of her day. I can see the scallops making a protean border around the edge of the napkin. Cathy keeps talking. Langston's mind wanders...the rent...don't forget to get milk and eggs....

Thankfully the book took me about 90 minutes to read, and after a shrug I patted myself on the back for a job well done and crossed off another book on the checklist (which I used to carry around with me...back when I had no life or friends in the DC area and probably wandered around muttering conversations to my imaginary friend Harold Bloom, such as "HB...I do not know what you were thinking on this did this make it in - but the Count of Monte Cristo didn't make the cut? Or anything by Dumas for that matter? It makes no sense. Oh and by the way "The Science Fiction Novels" of HG Wells....should totally be more than one cross off...)

Anyway, so when I warily picked up The Palm at the end of the Mind I was 70% more impressed than I thought I would be. There is the occasional feel of writers block, when apparently Stevens looked around his room and saw a banana and thought: "Bananas!" Yet, instead of something like "I wish the banana was heaven sent" he came up with:

"But bananas hacked and hunched...
The table was set by an ogre,
His eye on an outdoor gloom
And a stiff and noxious place.
Pile the bananas on planks.
The women will be all shanks
And bangles and slatted eyes."

-excerpt from "Floral Decoration for Bananas"

So again, while I have a hard time getting into this moment...there's a lot more there to keep me tethered. He does tend to talk a lot about birds, fruit and Key West, obviously all important...but as a whole, for a non-reader of poetry I occasionally found myself getting pulled into a moment, feeling a note of an emotion resonate in my soul. Here's an excerpt from "Farewell to Florida":

Part IV
My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.
The men are moving as the water moves,
This darkened water cloven by sullen swells
Against your sides, then shoving and slithering,
The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.
To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on.

I can feel this. There's a tangible desperation, maybe a fear of being lost? Maybe the fear of what you once were, despite your precarious instability, was a better, deeper, more profound place than where you are now. He's asking for freedom from this stability, in a land of manicured lawns and pink flamingos. To return to the deep waters where the life blood of the soul it held at bay by the impervious foam of regret? And there might be something about a girl?...I don't know. I'm probably completely misreading this. Maybe it's about a breakup with a girl from Florida and he's leaving to go back to his depressing slimy life...too bad for her, if only she knew what she was missing?

This is why I have a hard time with poetry. It's so incredibly personal and introspective. It almost feels like I'm reading a coded diary and half the time can't decipher the code. I guess, one of these days after reading tons and tons of poetry, maybe it will all click and I will bask in the glory of being able to decipher all at my can only wish.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Castle - Franz Kafka

I love to read Kafka when I'm depressed. It localizes my depression into one finite entity. As I finish the last page and close the book there is such a wave of relief to be finished that I find any lingering depression absolved.

We're moving to Germany in less than a month. I'm excited about this opportunity for adventure...but nervous about leaving my twin. We've never gone a day, that I can remember, without talking to each other for the last 10 years or a way I think I'm defined by our relationship; when the murky chaos of life presents a grey impenetrable fog, and I am unable to see a reflection of is my twin that often brushes aside the clouds and allows a glimmer of sun to penetrate. Who will I be without her?

Who am I? Is a question I think our protagonist, K. can relate to. He has been called to a small village at the foot of the Castle to take over the position of Land Surveyor, but upon arrival is dismissed by the locals and finds his goal of actually making it to the Castle an improbability piled upon the impossible. As he seeks an anchor to tether himself in the quicksand of impervious truth, he stumbles upon Frieda, the barmaid of an upstanding inn. If he can not get to the Castle, perhaps he can get to Klamm, a high ranking Castle official and Freida's alleged lover.

At this point his goals are completely off track. He has begun his quest to simply be a Land Surveyor, but the fact that no one will acknowledge his presence or even the fact that he has actually been summoned, makes him obsessed with following the thread of misinformation that will hopefully lead him to his objective: a tête-à-tête with anyone of substance. Klamm seems to be the golden nugget at the end of a mythical rainbow that K. must blindly navigate towards. With each step of progress a new character is introduced to sit him down and have an inhumanely long conversation about how everything he has been led to believe thus far is all a lie. With each new telling, the narrative becomes more and more amorphous. Is Frieda K.'s comrade in arms? Or the sinister Siren leading him ever farther from his goal, and with each step closer to his destruction? 

More importantly is everyone incredibly simplistic and ignorant? Or is it just a ruse to keep feeding K. misinformation. Is there a singular plot against him? One day someone, somewhere decided it would be fun to singularly destroy the life of a Land Surveyor? Or is it simply a question of geography? Perhaps this one place, this on Castle, is so backward that once someone, for whatever reason, slips through the looking glass to this nether world all hope is lost and one is drowned in the bureaucratic tape that holds everything tirelessly in place. 

K. is an indefatigable protagonist. Nothing will keep him from scrutinizing every detail, of following every lead no matter how unpromising it may appear. However, unlike Sherlock Holmes, or any Willkie Collins protagonist...this is not a sensational mystery to be solved. And instead of clues leading him ever closer to resolution, he instead chases an infinite supply of red herring in an ocean that refuses to yield to lucidity. 

Unlike some of Kafka's other protagonists, K.'s task of truth finding is self imposed. There are so many opportunities for him to hang up his deerstalker and leave this miserable little town with Freida; they could begin a new life any where except here where his knotted fate, like a nervous tick, torments him unrelentingly. But K. is ultimately a seeker, on a quest for the meaning of things; his identity as a Land Surveyor comes with all the accouterments of the trade, ie. a need for measuring, mapping and identifying the physical world. Like August Esch, the accountant in The Anarchist, who can only make sense of a world schema of checks and balances, K. must identify the world he is a part of. But K.'s world refuses to be mapped and charted and is uncompromisingly hostile to those wishing to excavate beyond the surface. 

In a somewhat rambling narrative given by Olga, a compatriot in arms in the fight against the injustice of this place, we learn that Olga's family, once prosperous has been shunned for the last 3 years because her younger sister refused to sleep with a city official, or perhaps because she insulted the messenger. For whatever reason, and with barely any discussion, their friends and family slowly took leave of them, leaving them isolated, destitute and crippled as Olga's parents, steeped in regret, regress to an infantile state where their only objective is waiting to die. Throughout this narrative we learn that Barnabas, the messenger given exclusively to K., and Olga's younger brother, has his doubts about whether or not he is actually a messenger. He is certainly called and detained in an antechamber to some unidentified official, but is it real work that he is doing? Or is it all merely another way the City toys with those out of favor? Olga is bogged down in a quagmire of doubt, but she is resilient; there are other ways to become a Messenger, and she has not given up hope for her families survival.

After K. leaves his discussion with Olga, he learns that Freida was incapable of waiting for him for more than 10 minutes and has moved back to her old position as barmaid, has given up their engagement and want's nothing further to do with K.. From the beginning it has been unclear as to whether or not K. is simply using her for his purpose to access Klamm. His initial meeting with Frieda, definitely lacked the requisite wooing you would expect from someone "falling in love" and erred more on the "two warm bodies in the same proximity might as well make the best of it" genre. But for some reason K. believes losing Frieda means losing his one entry point to Klamm and so he must fight for their "relationship" in the most passive and  unconvincing way possible.

As K. confronts Freida, realizing his old assistant is at that moment in her room and perhaps even her bed, he seems more preoccupied with getting a bite to eat and finding a place to rest. He has been allowed into the bedroom hallway of the Inn to wait for a meeting he was supposed to have with a City official, and as he struggles to remember the right door to the correct official, he stumbles into the room occupied by Burgel, another peon in the inexhaustible hall of mirrors. Burgel, awakened from a sound sleep, begins prattling on endlessly, he invites K. to sit on the edge of his bed and while K. drifts in and out of consciousness, Burgel tells him the only way to beat the system, is to go on the offensive and attack when the bureaucracy least expects it, for example in the middle of the night. If one were to surprise a City official in the middle of the night, one could ask for what ever one wanted, to be officially reinstated as chief Land Surveyor, for example, really whatever one's heart desires for the element of surprise, coupled with the desire to go back to bed would force the official to grant any and all requests. K., unfortunately is asleep. The quiet soothing, monotonous droning of Burgel has lulled him to sleep and has denied him his glimpse of the unobscured. Burgel talks passionately on the pros and cons of night interrogations, while K. sleeps on, unaware of the opportunity that has passed him by.

When K. finally is dragged from sleep to yet another night meeting, it is as ineffectual as he expected. Exhausted, hungry in a stupor he slumps into a pile in the hall and watches the morning chaos of the messengers commence. It is not long before his presence is ousted though and he is forced to go down into the bar and begrudgingly allowed to sleep behind a barrel, only to be wakened by Peppi, the deposed barmaid, who feeling annoyed and disgruntled about her position must tell K. her version of history, and we, enduring our own form of torture are forced to listen once again to a monologue that calls black white, day night and reality once again is toppled head first into a cesspool of the obscure.

Finally the landlady, discovering K. attempts to give him a lecture, but is too preoccupied by a comment he made about her dress and instead of lecturing him decides to hire him on as a sort of dress maker/ assessor...that is if he decides not to become a chamber maid along with Peppi.

After reading Hermann Broch, Kafka's writing seems almost harsh and diluted. It is not beautiful writing. You do not get lost in the narrative. While both authors in a way tackle the disintegration of meaning/morals they do so from completely different sides of the elephant. Broch is an expansive, challenging writer; the world he creates is in a way more terrifying because it truly exists. The enemies are given names and they are formidable. Kafka's writing by comparison feels listless and monotonous. While in the Metamorphosis  Gregor Samsa in the end does become a terrifying insect of some's actually more terrifying that someone could commit cold blooded murder on a friend in a moment of war torn chaos and then transform from a monster into an accepted member of society.

The Castle lacks an element of the surreal and terrifying that one would expect from Kafka, and perhaps that would salvage the story and keep a modicum of interest alive for the reader, instead it is a monotonously opaque world where the narrative limps along on the endless retelling of a story no one was particularly interested to hear in the first place. In short, once finished, the perfect antidote to depression.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Sleepwalkers, Part Three: The Realist - Hermann Broch

It is now 1918 and our protagonist, Willhelm Huguenau, in this final book of the Sleepwalker trilogy, is a thick-set Frenchman determined to make it through this mess of a war with his best interest his sole preoccupation. A smuggler, a deserter, a rat, a rapist, a murderer, a man of business, a salesman; in short, a man completely without honor or code.

When his shortsightedness is overlooked he dutifully follows the requisite call to arms and joins his compatriots in the dug-out where unparalleled filth reigned; streaks of urine covered the walls and it was impossible to ascertain if the effluvia was the derivation of feces or that of corpses.

A man without a code is unable to ever truly have a compatriot of any kind, he lives an almost solipsistic reality, and a fox hole only serves to expose his isolation rather than convince him of solidarity.

"...there was not one among them who did not know that he was posted there as a solitary creature to live alone and to die alone in an overwhelmingly senseless world, so senseless that he could not comprehend it or rise beyond describing it as "this bloody war.""

Eventually Huguenau has had enough. This war seems inconvenient to a man of enterprise, and he is unabashedly a coward, so he strolls away through the dense forest, littered with the bodies of those fighting for even an ambiguous sense of freedom; their bodies crucified on his behalf, in a world without order where morals are drowned in the maelstrom of bloody chaos, and there is only silence.

"...the world lay as if under a vacuum glass- Huguenau could not help thinking of a glass cover over cheese - grey, worm-eaten and completely dead in a silence that was inviolable."

Without running, with no sense of haste or urgency, but rather a somnambulistic sureness, he picks his way through the forest, leaving the dangerous zone behind him seeking out a greener pasture to make his fortune.

For the Romantic, Joachim von Pasenow, sleepwalking precipitated fate. Joachim was led upstairs to the brothel like a Sleepwalker, unable to resist or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge reality and instead purposely closing his eyes. For the Anarchist, August Esch, the past strangled him and he fought to nullify its demands, but like a sleepwalker he was unable to escape the past and instead followed its trajectory, unable to overthrow fate and destiny. But for Huguenau, he uses sleepwalking as a tool that frees him from the harsh reality of life, and in doing so he lives his life with the confidence of a dreamer.

It is not long before he finds himself in a small town with a newspaper run by none other than August Esch. Since we have last seen him, Esch has grown calmer.  No longer manically obsessed with balancing accounts, he has instead fixed his eyes on the coming Messiah who will bring forth the awaited panacea - Socialism. Huguenau thinks the newspaper business would be the perfect cover for a deserter and an easy way to squeeze a bit of income for himself so he visits Esch, beginning his vulture like circling to ascertain what sort of man he must deal with.

"He had something of the actor about him, something of the clergyman, and something of the horse."

Huguenau has decided to purchase the newspaper with a brilliant scheme that results in all the wealthy members of the town fronting the purchase price with the generous sponsorship from the acting Major, Joachim von Pasenow. Since this is a sleepy, trusting little town, his plan goes forward without a hitch and he has seamlessly ingratiated himself with the Major and become a spy on his behalf to seek out the evil and sinister nature he guarantees exists in the pacifist Herr Esch. But his plan is slow going and he has little to report to the Major and instead to his frustration and chagrin the Major takes a liking to Esch.  They have formed a spiritual bond of sorts over discussions of religion. Although the Major believes that religion is really more of a prescriptive right of landowners and at first to hear the words tumble off Esch's tongue make him uncomfortable, it is not long before he too is enraptured by the passion and zeal of an order and hope outside the bondage of the temporal.

The Major is alone; his brother has died; his confidant Bertrand has abandoned (and betrayed) him; he is separated from his family and his land and surrounded by an overture of distrust in a war he didn't ask to be a part of. If only there was a respite from his agonizing isolation, if only one could ford the gulf between the precipices of autonomy and for once have true communion with another.

"...and through the resonant laughter he saw the glimmer of a soul leaning out of a neighboring window with a smile, the soul of another brother, yet not an individual soul, nor yet in actual proximity, but a soul that was like an infinitely remote homeland.

 Their relationship provides the foil for Broch's endless dissertation on religion. The Major is a protestant and Esch a catholic, but I feel like it should be the other way around. According to Broch Protestantism is the incipient hole in the dike of moral values. Because the stringent, sacred, ordered and regimented faith of Catholicism has been exchanged for the abstract Protestantism, stripped of its ornamentation and instead distilled down to its most simplistic form, it has only increased man's isolation and made moral axioms relative and devoid of meaning.

" is as if the radicality of Protestant thought has inflamed to virulence all the dread ruthlessness of abstraction which for two thousand years has been sheltered by insignificance and reduced to its minimum, as if it had released that absolute power of indefinite extension which inheres potentially in the pure Abstract alone, released it explosively to shatter our age and transform the hitherto unregarded warden of abstract thought into the paradigmatic incarnation of our disintegrating epoch."

Protestantism represents a dumbing down in a sense of Catholicism. It has removed the necessity for priests, its acolytes instead having direct contact with the High Priest himself. It has removed all ornamentation and with it the beauty and mystique of something incomprehensible. By making faith accessible, Protestantism has tossed the first stone in what will become a crisis of faith and a disintegration of values.

But I think the Major then represents the better Catholic. He is at peace in the systemic order of a faith that can not be cast asunder. He sleepwalks because he acknowledges a God that is supreme and divine and ultimately the architect of his fate, unlike the endlessly angsty Esch who perseverates about redemption, salvation and sacrifice with the nervous twitch of the unredeemed. While they battle out the polemics of their faith, quietly there grows an even more subversive enemy than Protestantism: Humanism, where God has been denounced in place of man and the last bastion of concrete rationalism has been destroyed by the deity of Self; more specifically, Huguenau, the agent provocateur par excellence. When he ultimately realizes that it is hopeless to get the Major to think ill of Esch, Huguenau lazily makes it his personal vendetta to destroy him.

Huguenau has worked into his contract with Esch not only the controlling share in the newspaper company, but also his room and board; every evening while Frau Esch ladles them their soup and cuts them their bread, Huguenau goads Esch, but Esch is unseeing. Esch is fixated on salvation, on the necessity of this war to wipe the slate clean and make way for the Messiah, the Son that will conquer death and end the encroaching chaos.

Finally, the quite town can take no more, it is November 1918 and there are riots all over the country as men and soldiers tire of fighting for an elusive cause. Huguenau has night watch duty and while he daydreams about deserting yet again, another possibility presents itself: that of rioter. As the torch flames creep closer and men's shouts become audible, Huguenau joins with the rabble he is supposed to be defending against. When he is tired of watching the rioters antics, he wanders back to the Esch house to look for something to eat. The last few pages are more of a tour de force for the reader than for our protagonist as we are forced to sit back and watch Huguenau destroy everything that comes into his path, his methodical depravity heralding in an age of degeneracy - only to then escape with the Major, who now suffering from a concussion, clutches onto Huguenau's finger as if clutching the consecrated hand of a priest in this new vapid and amorphous religion of Self.

Of course I am leaving out about 80% of this 300+ page book. I am leaving out all the many character studies of existential loneliness like Godicke, the bricklayer/architect that has suffered severe brain trauma and must now wait "as his soul collects itself with agony around the core of his ego." Or Hanna, the wife that must wait for her husband's return from war, her world now a chrysalis of dread and anticipation, caught in the stasis of a moment preserved, tethered by a hope of what is to come and ultimately jaded by the disintegrating world around her.

This third book seems the most obvious counterpart to Goethe's Faust.  The narrative like Faust is interwoven with allegorical poetry and is concerned with the true essence of life and the limits of knowledge and power. But Huguenau is the anti-hero/anti-Faust; while Joachim Pasenow agonized about his true purpose and the essence of self and was tempted by Bertrand/ Mephistopheles he emerges victorious to his life of banal simplicity; while Esch is led through one lustful relationship after another until he finds his Gretchen in the form of the virginal widowed Frau Esch, rather than being destroyed by his lust or deceptions, he just slowly grows out of them and learns to love and respect his wife. But for Huguenau, there is no need for Mephistopheles, he is depraved and without moral values of any kind, he despises philosophy and the endless babble on the meaning of life.  There are no limits to his power and no justice for his actions. He is the fate the world must contend with if it chooses to turn its back on God.

As difficult as this book was to read, there were actually moments where I really enjoyed it. It is breathtakingly expansive and Broch has definitely earned his place next to Joyce, as an author one is forced to reluctantly admire despite their often inaccessibility. I think ultimately this is a hopeful book, Broch ends with the conclusion that the divine sparks in each one of our souls will forge a brotherhood of humble human creatures and that will be great enough to push us away from the precipice of moral decay.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Sleepwalkers, Part Two: The Anarchist - Hermann Broch

"The 2nd of March 1903 was a bad day for August Esch, who was thirty years old and a clerk; he had had a row with his chief and found himself dismissed before he had time to think of giving notice. He was irritated, therefore, but less by the fact of his dismissal than by his own lack of resourcefulness."

15 years have passed since the narrative ended and we have entered an even more mercurial system of values as the prewar foundations of a society on the brink of moral decay shudder; a slight crumbling precipitates the coming collapse. How fitting then, that our protagonist is a book-keeper, obsessed with settling accounts, whether corporeal or imaginary; he is overly preoccupied with order and balance in a world that refuses to be ordered or to be held accountable.

Esch, unlike Joachim von Pasenow, is not without purpose, he is focused and diligent in his pursuit of redemption, but redemption from what? As he is walking away from his position as book-keeper, his friend, the crippled anarchist Martin, hobbles up on his crutches and informs him that he may know of a position available. It is a book-keeping position at the Central Rhine Shipping Company, chaired by none other than the shadowy, sinister Bertrand. With less effort than one would expect, Esch is given the new position:

"Nevertheless, Esch could not feel elated over his new post. It was as though he had purchased it at the cost of his soul's welfare, or at least of his decency."

His debt to Martin is filed, and it is not long before he has grown accustomed to his new duties and lifestyle, and yet are they new? Or is his life just a re-organization of matter? This thought too is filed for another day and he finds himself at the theater with his new friends Balthasar Korn and his sister Erna, whom Esch is encouraged to woo with little success. Esch's relationship with Korn is one of transactions, Korn pays for the drinks of his "Herr Brother In Law" while Esch struggles to remain free of obligations and morally solvent. But here, at the theater, the meaning and purpose of Esch's life is revealed. The theater becomes quite dark and silent. Then a pinpoint of light and a girl is revealed stretched against a black board, as if crucified, smiling and gracious, unaware of the peril that awaits her. The juggler has exchanged his balls for javelins and slowly he begins throwing his knives. His daggers whistling through the air, his murderous hand grabbing one knife after another, after another. And then finally, the girls face and body is completely framed, the throwing stops and this waif of a girl, Ilona, steps lightly and gracefully down from her cross.

Esch is so troubled by this vision, that he intends to free Ilona at all and any costs. He will redeem her. He will be her salvation. But when she lazily accepts the repulsive Korn as a suitor, his plans as her means of redemption become more complicated.

As he contemplates the incomprehensible he comes across a band of Salvation Army proselytizers, standing on a bench and pointing out the way of salvation. He watches them, drowning in isolation, weighed down by the responsibility of redemption and certain that he will die in utter and complete loneliness.

"A vague and yet unforeseen hope had risen in him that things would go better, far better, with him if he could but stand up there on the bench; and he saw Ilona, Ilona in the Salvation Army uniform, gazing up at him and waiting for his redeeming signal to strike the tambourine and cry "Hallelujah!"...yes, whether a girl like that beat a tambourine or threw plates, one only had to order her to do it, it was just the same, only the clothes were different."

His plan: The way he will redeem Ilona is to concoct an elaborate theatrical display of female wrestling, perhaps his success will free her from the knives. But not this alone, he must sacrifice himself in some grotesque and extreme way, he must suffer on her behalf and for this he decides to woo the unattractive and somewhat hostile widow, Frau Hentjen.

Frau Hentjen has spent her life as the proprietor of a small restaurant.  A passive feminist, she despises the men she must serve day after day, chained to them and their needs as they in turn satisfy their perfunctory cravings. She is fiercely independent and resents all attempts at even the remotest intimacy. Nevertheless, she has become the unlikely object of Esch's desire. He must conquer and possess her as a form of  kharmatic penance. And he begins his task with dutiful precision. Frau Hentjen rises to the challenge, with every token of intimacy she responds with increased independence and hostility, slowly winning, even for a brief moment, Esch's respect.

"It did him good to know that here was a human being whose character was decided and unequivocal, a human being who knew her right hand from left, who knew virtue from vice. For a moment he had the feeling that here was the longed-for rock, rising clear and steadfast out of the universal confusion, to which one might cling in security..."

Once again, Esch has confused his metaphors in a world where symbolism has lost its meaning and is laced with the unfamiliar. This one, lone woman is no more a rock than he, but there is something about her pride, her strength that he must break, that he must swallow and ingest. He must possess her if he is to save Ilona and so after bringing her on a long and arduous hike, he takes advantage of her low blood sugar and kisses her.

"He kissed her on the cheek as it slid past his mouth and finally he took her round, heavy head in his hands and drew it to him. She responded to his kiss with dry, thick lips, somewhat like an animal which presses its muzzle against a window-pane."

And as they walk down the hill and back to their still separate and insular lives Esch has the almost proud sensation of being Frau Hentjen's lover. A sensation destined to last merely a few paragraphs. Frau Hentjen is no match for Esch, he will overpower her, he will possess her. And as he does so, he is reassured by the thought that his sacrifice is the same as Ilona's, and not just that but his sacrifice is good and right and done for Ilona, for her and for redemption into righteousness. But despite being conquered, Frau Hentjen will not relinquish her soul, leaving Esch enraged because "she kept her soul tightly enclosed behind her teeth so that he should not possess it."

Frau Hentjen is no longer a woman, but a heritage to be wrested from the unknown, a birthright to be attained amidst the matrix of life, a means of deliverance and redemption. And the gift of herself, once consummated is despised. She is owned and once the delicate curtain of mystique has been rent there is no going back. Her passive acceptance of him enrages him, there is still a piece of her soul somewhere that he cannot see that he must possess, and when words fail him he beats her, her recalcitrance being simply a problem he must master and resolve.

What Esch cannot communicate to Frau Hentjen is his existential loneliness, a loneliness that is not alleviated by love or relationship because it is sewn into the fibers of his personhood; this personhood that was destined for greatness and instead is met with futility, destined to redeem and instead so overwhelmingly in need of redemption, willing to sacrifice everything only to realize that even his sacrifice is ineffectual.

"He felt strong, steadfast and well endowed, a man whom it would be worth while to kill. "Either him or me," he said, and felt that the world was at his feet."

"The only thing left to do, to sacrifice oneself for the future and atone for all that is past; a decent man must sacrifice himself or else there's no order in the world."

How Esch is able to come to the conclusion that he, a degenerate-wife-beating-drunken-womanizer is such a "decent" man is a sign of his exponential narcissism. And as Esch tries one sacrifice after another, one spiritual murder followed by a corporeal one, the creeping realization that all might be for naught begins to entwine its tendrils into his soul. It is not Ilona that was nailed to a cross, but another:

"Yes Esch, nailed to the cross. And in the hour of final loneliness pierced by the spear and anointed with vinegar. And only then can that darkness break in under the cover of which the world must fall into dissolution so that it may become again clear and innocent, that darkness in which no man's path can meet another's - and where, even if we walk side by side, we will not hear each other, but will forget each other. as you too, my last dear friend, will forget what I say to you now, forget it like a dream."

While this soliloquy is given by none other than Bertrand, now in the guise of reluctant sage, who has become a sounding board for Esch to philosophize with and ultimately another scapegoat to sacrifice, the philosophy debate seems to do the trick. Esch is exhausted by the constant quest to absolve himself and balance all debts. The past, which he has tirelessly tried to annul, still and forever exists - "there is no end to the human contrivances, and all of them engender barrenness."  Despite his attempt to free himself from the coil of the past, his attempts as usual, end in futility. The knives that have been thrown can never be recalled.

"For fulfillment always failed one in the actual world, but the way of longing and of freedom was endless and could never be fully trod, was narrow and remote like that of the sleepwalker, though it was also the way which led into the open arms and the living breast of home."

Esch hangs his angst on a peg and picks up the work-a-day coat of the banal. He has made it through the stations of the cross and emerged in awe of the divine while recognizing his agonies have given birth to humility. His quest for the immortal and transcendent has led to the buttressing conviction that here on earth we must all go our way on crutches.

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 projec...