Saturday, December 19, 2015

Effi Briest - Theodor Fontane

While Nana's courtesans lead Paris into moral decay and the country's subsequent defeat by the Prussian army, in Effi Briest, we see the imminent decline of Bismark's Prussia for exactly the opposite reasons.

Set in the 1880's we are confronted with a culture deeply entrenched in Prussian ideology, "a mixture of militarism, Lutheranism, loyalty to state and king, order, ambition and obedience, the Kantian ethic of doing one's duty and Hegelian apotheosis of the state- a combination of elements which Fontane regarded highly critically and to which he attributes the essential responsibility for Effi's destruction."(Fontane, Theodor. Effi Briest. Ed. Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers. 1995)  

Geert Instetten is a 38 year old bachelor who, after spending the last twenty years diligently working for crown and country, has finally arrived at the point in his career where his status as Landrat would be greatly improved by a wife from a proper family. It is time for him to get married, so he packs a bag and heads to the home of his childhood sweetheart to ask for the hand of her 17 year old daughter.

In contrast to Geert's calculating propriety is Effi, a nature loving free spirited tom-boy racing around the backyard in a toga. Effi is playing with her three friends, none of which are quite in the same social strata as the Briest's, but as the daughters of schoolmasters and rectors there is no impropriety in their friendship. Hulda is described as "while more ladylike than the other two, she was also boring and conceited, a lymphatic blonde with somewhat protuberant eyes that somehow always seemed to be searching for something."

As the quartet plays languidly in the late morning sun, they decide to have a mock burial for the gooseberry skins they have been collecting and slowly make a funereal procession to the pond. As Effi solemnly intones the litany she remembers something:

"Hertha, your guilt is now consigned to the deep,' said Effi, 'oh and that reminds me, this is how they used to drown poor unfortunate women, from boats like this, for infidelity of course."

Thus we have the first foreshadowing of what is to come...although technically their downfall is inscribed within our protagonists names themselves, Effi, (according to the wonderful introduction by  Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers) is an echo of Eve; the implication being that her fall from grace and removal from the idyllic garden, in which we find her in the opening scene, is imminent and predestined. "'Geert' not only means 'a tall slender stem' as old Breist remarks, but also a 'switch', an instrument of punishment and control." (p. xii)

And so from the beginning their roles are written for them and the conflict begun. Effi, the wild spirit, that represents nature must either be controlled by pragmatism and culture, that her much older husband represents or fight back against his austere orderliness but in doing so risk losing everything.

 According to HR and HC there is some debate about whether or not Fontane is subtle and intriguing as he spins his narrative web or a bit heavy handed. I tend to agree with the 'heavy handed' camp. Just so we don't lose sight of the fact that Effi is a young inexperienced virginal maiden, there are about a million references to the 'Virginia creeper' ie. virgin's vine, ie. wild wine "suggesting both freedom and Dionysian pleasure," (p. x) that separate the wild maiden surrounded by nature and the sitting room in which Instetten has begun the formalities of asking for Effi's hand in marriage.

"Instetten nodded mechanically in agreement, but his mind was scarcely on these matters as he glanced repeatedly in a kind of fascination at the Virginia creeper climbing up the window to which Briest had just alluded, and as he dwelt on this it was as if he saw the golden red heads of the girls again among the tendrils, and heard once more their 'Come back Effi.'"

While perhaps a bit on the wild native side, Effi is not without ambition of her own, and this match, although initially surprising is accepted in due course with little hesitancy. In a discussion with her girlfriends regarding whether this Geert is the 'right one' or not Effi replies:

"Of course he's the right one. You don't understand these things Hertha. Anybody is the right one. Provided he is an aristocrat and has a position and good looks, naturally."

And so begins their life of matrimony. They move to a provincial town, Kessin, where Geert is the highest member of society/only member of society. Part of societal ambition is being able to show off your position in society and Effi is disappointed with her lack of peers. She is cooped up in a little house, no more than a cottage, complete with it's own ghost of a chinaman that haunts the upper levels, an old maid that sits in a chair rocking a black hen and specimens from hunting exhibitions made by the former occupant hanging from the ceiling. When Effi asks to make changes to the decor, Geert is gentlemanly intractable, he likes the decor the way it is. While not unkind, Geert believes since he is confident in his love for Effi that there is no need to make a big show of it/any show of it. But for a young idealistic 17 year old ready and willing to pour out a heart full of passion, this just isn't quite enough, and it pains her that her marriage lacks marks of devotion or encouragement or even little attentions.

Within the year Effi has begun another transition, that of motherhood, and with Geert constantly on the road running hither and thither at the behest of Bismark, Effi's cocoon of solitude becomes unbearably snug.

Eventually the Crampas family moves to town. Crampas is an old soldier buddy of Geerts with a reputation for being a ladies man and a jealous wife of the 'ball and chain' type constantly supervising his extracurricular activities.

In a letter to her mother, Effi describes Crampas as "apparently a man who has had many affairs, a ladies man, which I always find ridiculous, and I would find it ridiculous on this occasion too,  if he hadn't had a duel with one of his comrades for just that sort of reason."

GA! It's all so out in the open. We're only half way through the book and everything is unraveling before our eyes. Here is the ridiculous man, who is going to ridiculously insert himself into Effi's affections and although he's already fought a duel once before with a comrade, he is destined to fight another.

But first, a break in the narrative trajectory and Effi makes her way home with her new little precious cargo, Annie, and finds herself once again, and a year later, in the garden of her parents' estate. Still a young girl, but now with responsibilities almost too taxing, she seeks a respite in the quiet normalcy of her girlfriends who now envy her her position and wealth as the young Baroness Instetten. But Effi is still a wild, untamable colt and spends long afternoons swinging...?

"...best of all she had enjoyed standing on the swing as it flew through the air, just as in the old days, and the feeling 'now I'm going to fall' had given her a strange tingling sensation, a shudder of sweet danger."

Once again, Geert is absent. Throughout the whole summer he fails to take the short trip to Hohen-Cremmen and is instead entirely devoted to his job and subsequent endless duties. Effi finds his absence disheartening and a little chink in her armor, right above the heart, is pried just a little wider.

Upon her return to Kessin, Effi finds herself more and more in the company of Major Crampas in what, at first, are completely innocent circumstances. But then as Effi takes long walks alone, her absence seems to be pregnant with indiscernible meaning. One day, upon her return to the stable yard, Effi catches her nursemaid Roswitha chatting up the married stable man and gives her a bit of a chewing out, and we have a feeling that the pot is calling the kettle black. Her lack of patience with Roswitha's professed innocence is a bit much and she harshly tells her that if she's banking on the stableman's sick wife to die and leave him an amiable widower, she's waiting in vain, the sick tend to live the longest, and that wife with her black hen will probably cast a hex or a pox or something on Roswitha in the meantime.

Thankfully, Geert is eventually promoted and at just the right moment Effi makes her escape to Berlin. For a moment we breath a sigh of relief, thinking Effi has dodged a bullet and has miraculously escaped with her virtue intact.

6 years pass and the Instettens have settled into their new more cosmopolitan life. After the birth of Annie, Effi has found herself frequently ill with only the type of sickness that strikes the protagonists of 19th century literature. Unable to have more children, the Instetten line is at risk for extinction, but all is not completely lost. Effi takes long treatments at different German spas to work on her weak health and here we find her, at a treatment center in Ems chatting with a fellow patient Frau Zwicker.  Effi, now 25, is still the innocent and asks this older more experienced woman her opinion on foreign literature, in particular Nana, was it really so dreadful?

"My dear Baroness, what do you mean, dreadful? There are much worse things than that.' She also seemed inclined, Effi concluded her letter, 'to tell me all about these "worse things". But I wouldn't let her, because I know you think the immorality of our times derives from such things as these and you're probably right."

I'm not sure what Frua Zwicker could mean by "worse things than that" as reading Nana in the 21st century was still at times a bit shocking, although I am a bit of an innocent prude myself...but the point is while France is embroiled in gratuitous prostitution, Prussians won't even read the book or discuss it's contents afraid that might lead to moral decay.

It is at this exact point, while Effi is at the spa in Ems, there is a moment of frenzy involving Annie falling down stairs and hitting her head and a quick decision to break open Effi's desk to find something to wrap on her head (?) A package of old letters are discovered, wrapped with a single red thread.

After ascertaining whether or not Annie's case is dire, and deciding it's not, Geert turns his attention to the packet of incriminating letters and to his horror finds evidence of his wife's infidelity with none other than that ridiculous old Major Crampas! Immediately Geert calls a friend and asks him to be his second and without delay they make their way to Kessin to challenge the Major to a duel.

For a moment there is the slightest hesitation. It has been 6 years since they left Kessin, His wife was 17 and perhaps entitled to a momentary lapse in judgment? And besides, Geert feels little resentment or bitterness...but his duty compels him onward.

"We're not just individuals, we're part of a larger whole and we must constantly have regard for that larger whole, we're dependent on it, beyond a doubt...wherever men live together, something has been established thats's just there, and it's a code we've become accustomed to judging everything by, ourselves as well as others...The world is as it is, and things don't take the course we want, they take the course other people want. All the pompous stuff you hear from some people about "divine justice" is nonsense of course, there's no such thing, quite the reverse: this cult of honor of ours is a form of idolatry, but as long as we have idols we have to worship them."

And so, Geert challenges the Major to a duel that ends fatally for the Major. Effi is sent a missive, telling her that her husband is filing for divorce and without a moment to say good bye to her daughter or pick up personal items from home, her life as Baroness Innstetten is over. Her parents agree to give her a small stipend to live on, but they are hesitant about having her return home, knowing that would ruin their social lives. Effi spends a few years living in essentially a garret, until news of her poor health reaches her parents and they finally decide to take their miscreant daughter home, where her health, with moments of improvement, gradually declines and she is destined to end her days in the garden, forever Effi Briest, untamed and true to herself/her nature at the cost of everything else.

In Nana there is no question that Parisian society is morally decayed and on the brink of it's ruin, but in Effi Briest the imminent ruin is a bit more subtle. At first glance it seems like Geert's intrenched morals are what will save Prussian society- they are incorruptible! But slowly we realize, that it is the cult of honor that propels Geert forward, not his feelings of justice or morality. "Innstetten's final, impotent recognition of the hollowness of his establishment principles coupled with the dying out of his family name prefigures the inevitable demise of an antiquated social and political construct. Fontane agrees with Charlotte Bronte: conventionality is not morality." (p.xi)

 His duty to society is inflexible and demanding and he is willing to sacrifice the hope of an heir at the altar of culture and ambition.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Nana - Émile Zola

A few months ago I wrote a book report on The Princess of Cleaves and the Birth of Fomo. The book focused on the upper echelons of Parisian society circa 1678, where infidelity was rampant and the finesse of balancing multiple lovers simultaneously was practically the norm. Yet, alongside this culturally acceptable moral myopia were those that held fast to their principles, creating a sort of dialectic between virtue and debasement.

Our heroine, eventually is either so virtuous (or so afraid that her true love may be only a mirage) that her only solution is to join a convent, and there she spends the rest of her short life in pious contemplation while her suitor hovers just outside the frame hoping she'll change her mind.

Two hundred years later, during the Second Empire, Parisian culture is quite different. Rather than trysts being carefully hidden and out of sight the courtesans are a ruling class of their own, destroying the peerage with their avarice and caprices and making a laughing stock of all that is noble.

In contrast to the respect and esteem the Princess of Cleaves was met with by her equals, who admired her virtue even if they were confused by her stubbornness, in 1870 virtue is no longer an attribute to be lauded and to devote oneself to God is an endeavor only to be pitied.

About a hundred pages into Nana we find ourselves at a cocktail party. While conversation flits about from one topic to another, there is a soliloquy devoted to which of the ladies have remained faithful to their spouses. Eventually the conversation turns to a topic that has gripped society for the last three days: "The eldest daughter of the Baron de Fougeray, who at the bidding of an irresistible vocation, had just entered the Carmelite Order."

High society is in an uproar, "What a horrible way to lose a daughter!" is a constant murmur throughout the crowded streets and at our cocktail party the sentiment is a bit more vulgar:

"The fact is that they marry God when they haven't been able to marry their cousin,' muttered Vandeuvres, who found the whole subject a bore. Joining Fauchery, he went on: 'My dear fellow, have you ever seen a woman who had a man to love her become a nun?"

And at that the two men go back to the intrigue of the following night's party at Nana's house, where some of the most desired courtesans will be on display.

I thought this would be a good place to start. Paris is a different world, but not necessarily one without religion, just a new religion whose deity is pleasure and debauchery. In the introduction, Zola sums up his philosophy for his novel:

"The philosophical subject is as follows: A whole society hurling itself at the cunt. A pack of hounds after a bitch, who is not even in heat and makes fun of the hounds following her. The poem of male desires, the great lever which moves the world. There is nothing apart from the cunt and religion."

As always, Zola is an expansive writer, detail obsessed down to a microcosmic level. The way the narrative progresses, leaving one protagonist to follow another, creates a frenetic atmosphere where at any moment a hero or heroine may find themselves cast off and struggling along the dregs of society to merely survive, while the never ceasing maelstrom of Parisian debauchery moves on to the next victim.

As the novel opens, we find ourselves in an Opera house waiting to catch a glimpse of the new up and coming star that has left Paris breathless and trembling. As the merits of the play and the star are debated, the crowd waits, expectations only growing in anticipation.

"At that very moment the clouds at the back of the stage parted, and Venus appeared. Very tall and well built for her eighteen years, in her goddess's white tunic, and with her long fair hair hanging loosely over her shoulders, Nana came down towards the footlights with quiet self-assurance. Greeting the audience with a laugh, she launched into her big song..."

The audience for a moment is stunned. Never before has anyone heard a more tuneless voice, could this be a joke? But Nana knows how to work the crowd and with a toss of her curls and a sway of her hips she seems to let the audience in on the joke- she does have a terrible voice, and can hardly be expected to remember all of the lyrics, but isn't life simply hilarious? Isn't it all just perfectly grand?

And slowly the crowd, tickled in all the right places, is captivated.

"When she came to the end of the verse, her voice failed her completely, and she realized that she would never get through the whole song. So, without getting flustered, she thrust out one hip which was roundly outlined under the flimsy tunic, bent backwards, so that her breasts were shown to good advantage, and stretched out her arms. Applause burst forth on all side."

While she is a tremendous success on the stage, there is no end in sight for her pecuniary problems. The next morning we find her searching through her apartment for a louis to pay the workmen already sitting in her foyer. After begging change from her maid to no avail she resorts to her steady failsafe: a quick trick with a gentleman caller.

The transition between prostitute and gentlewoman seem only to happen in her mind.  At her dinner party, the guests arrive and make themselves at home in her sparse, barely furnished apartment and she presides over them like a schoolmarm, demanding order and decorum. The men wait with baited breath, surrounded by courtesans, the anticipation of vulgarity is almost too much to bear.

Eventually Nana's success catapults her into a life of notoriety and wealth. Being desired by princes and bankers, she takes what she can from them, climbing the ladder out of the gutter one rung at a time, until at last she has convinced one of her lovers to buy her a country estate where she can escape for the summer to play house. But even here, in this place of expected solitude, there is little escape. She is hounded by boys and men and seems to pick her lovers indiscriminately.

She has left the city certain that her place in the theater was secure, but after her summer vacation comes to an end, she finds that she has been readily replaced by another buxom girl/body. She takes this in stride and decides to set up house with a friend of hers, Fontan, a goat-like actor whom all the courtesans seem to love for his "personality." As Nana spends her savings setting up their garish apartment, throwing away her hard earned money one louis at a time, it is not long before Fontan's true personality begins to shine through.

In a moment he goes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, demanding she pay for everything and beating her at first because she needs more money or can not provide dinner, but eventually just because he feels like it. Yet, she chooses to stay and eventually must resort to walking the streets and prostituting herself on the street, simply to put food on the table for Fontan and his guests. With each beating, she looks forward to the moment when they will make up and so chooses to stay. It is not until she is actually locked out of her apartment, while Fontan makes love to another woman, that she decides to move on and reinvent herself. This time she will no longer be the plaything, but will exact her revenge on men first and class second, carefully laying her traps of destruction and devouring all that, by their own caprices, fall into her lair.

The first step to her plan is to accept the Comte Muffat's addresses, which she has heretofore rejected. She demands terms and conditions, which he hastily accepts, shaking with lust and desire. She will be established in one of the finest houses in Paris, she will be given an infinite stipend and recast as a gentlewoman. It is not long before she has become an icon of fashion and Paris waits with baited breath each day to see what she will wear.

All that the Comte asks is that she remain faithful to him. And at first she does so, biding her time while the currency of desire rises amongst the men that are constantly surrounding her. Quietly, she begins her conquests, one fortune at a time, as these men, lacking agency and completely controlled by their lust and desire lay their fortunes at her feet. Fortunes that took generations to amass are decimated in a matter of weeks. Estates are sold to pay for her equipage and brocades. And when a suitor is no longer solvent, our Medusa moves on the next victim who is waiting for the privilege of being stripped and decimated by a courtesan of such high rank and prestige.

Eventually these trysts become more brazen. Nana is practically taunting the Comte to leave her, knowing he is powerless over his desire. Instead, he must take his place in line behind the rest of her suitors, her bedroom a veritable public house, with the effluvia of the men before still clinging to the sheets and bed curtains. The high price he pays to keep her established grants him little more than the title of "official lover" and the courtesy of a smile, yet his need for her gnaws at him like an inescapable disease.

"A pious churchgoer, accustomed to ecstatic experiences in sumptuous chapels, he encountered here exactly the same mystical sensations as when he knelt beneath some stained-glass window and surrendered to the intoxication of the organ music. Woman dominated him with the jealous tyranny of a God of wrath, terrifying him, but granting him moments of joy as keen as spasms, in return for hours of hideous torments, visions of hell and eternal tortures. He stammered out the same despairing prayers as in church, and above all suffered the same fits of humility peculiar to an accursed creature crushed under the mud from which he has sprung."

If anyone is the victim in this narrative, it is the men. They lack free will and are totally controlled by desire and lust. It's almost too easy. All it takes is a little cleavage and they are groveling at the feet of their infatuation. As a whole they are weak cowards, unable to take destiny into their own hands but rather throwing away their fortune and dignity at the shrine of Bacchus. The Comte is an even sadder exhibit. He is a cuckold and as such completely emasculated. He has no power over the women in his life and while he throws his money at them, their avaricious demands grow and morph into infinite unmet expectations.

Upon learning that his wife is cheating on him with a newspaper man, he walks the street late at night, circling the apartment where he assumes the tryst is taking place. He thinks about confronting them, but eventually decides on standing in the shadows and waiting, watching, hoping to see if his wife will emerge and confront her. But his wife is nowhere to be seen, and as the sun comes up, he is once again a man of inaction, too weak to defend his honor and too cowardly to confront his wife.

As his relationship with Nana becomes more tenuous, he shrinks even more until his humiliation becomes the thing that keeps both of them interested in an otherwise boring relationship. It is now her turn to be the master, and like Fontan, Nana begins her games of abuse and debasement.  Finally, she demands that he come dressed one evening in his uniform of court chamberlain and after laughing uproariously, carried away by her irreverence, she begins a new game of kicking him in the ass and shouting "get a move on, chamberlain!"

"Every kick was a heartfelt insult to the Tuileries and the majesty of the imperial court, dominating an abject and frightened people. That was what she thought of society. She was taking her revenge, settling an unconscious family grudge, bequeathed to her in her blood. Then, once the chamberlain was undressed and his uniform spread out on the floor, she shouted jump, and he jumped; she shouted at him to spit, and he spat; she shouted at him to trample on the gold, the eagles and the decorations and he trampled on them. Abracadabra, and nothing was left; everything was swept away. She smashed a chamberlain just as she smashed a bottle of a comfit-box, turning him into filth, and reducing him to a heap of mud in the gutter."

At last, the Comte has had enough, walking in on Nana with his old and decrepit father in law is the last straw. Death and destruction have surrounded him and he has finally worked up enough gumption to walk away. Nana is ready for a change herself, the house feels too small, she has vanquished all the vanquishable and is ready to move on to greener pastures, but her victory lap is short lived.

After traveling abroad for a few months, she returns to Paris and has somehow along the way contracted smallpox. As her body begins to decompose, her face unrecognizable behind the mask of suppurating boils, she takes her last breath surrounded by her fellow courtesans. None of the men are brave enough to enter the sick room and instead hover outside, making awkward conversation and pretending they care less than they all actually do. As Nana breathes her last breath, the women surrounding her are destined to carry her torch, to spread a virus of their own of lust and debauchery. And while Nana lies there, her skin already decaying she is the embodiment of a festering Paris, rife with an incurable disease.  From her deathbed, through the open window can be heard "To Berlin, To Berlin, To Berlin" chanted by the crowds enamored by the recent declaration of war on Prussia, a war they will lose, and with it the collapse of the Second Empire.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Double Infidelity - Marivaux

When I was 6 or 7 a friend came over to play while her older brother sat in the dining room and did homework. Dress-up eventually evolved into something involving princesses and after a while we came to the logical conclusion that we needed a prince to vote on our beauty contest.

(Disclaimer: I usually hated this type of play and when volunteering to be the dog was no longer age appropriate would volunteer to be the prince so I could go do whatever I wanted for the million hours it took the girls to curl their hair and put on makeup. If I played my cards right it would be time to go home before I had to a chance to decide on the winner of any pageants and we would wave goodbye and I would cross my fingers that next time it would be warm enough to play outside where I could spend the entire time building a house out of twigs or leaves or vines...)

Anyway, on this particular occasion, we were all dressed up and the older brother was called in to be the judge/prince. Somehow I had a crown in my hand when the boy asked if he could have it and I said "no"...maybe it was stage fright? Maybe it was the sheer overwhelming nature of being talked to by a cool older boy...for whatever reason I froze and as he pleaded with me for the crown, saying he would pick me as the winner (which even at that age I could tell had a bit of disingenuousness about it...) I felt this little prickling sensation of power. The power that comes from being desired...or in this case being the one with the thing being desired... Eventually my luck ran out and the boy went back to his homework and the girls, who were now annoyed at me decided to play something else.

In a nutshell "Double Infidelity" is about the power that comes with being desired.

(Side note: This play gave me major anxiety and I'm not sure if it's because I'm about to have a little girl in three weeks and everything at this point gives me anxiety, or if it was an unwelcome throwback to my days as a Critical Theory groupie, where free will is held suspect and the sinister Proteus of conspicuous consumption is our maniacal puppeteer....more on that later.)

A simple maiden, Sylvia, and her betrothed, Robin have had an unwelcome intervention in their
anticipated blissful fate: the Prince, after crossing paths with Sylvia a couple times has decided that out of all the maidens in the land he wants Sylvia. At first this comes as horrible and unwelcome news, and as both Robin and Sylvia find themselves in the palace to work out their destiny, they have sworn fidelity to each other, whatever the cost.

Sylvia: Is this Prince in love with me? That's not my fault. I didn't look for him, and he needn't have looked for me. Is he young and attractive? So much the better for him; I'm glad. Let him keep himself for his equals, and let him leave me my poor Robin, who is no more the fancy gentleman than I am the fancy lady; who is no richer, no vainer, and no better lodged than I am; who loves me without frills, whom I love the same way, and for whom I'll die of grief if I don't see again.

Very rarely does grief over the loss of a suitor result in death. I'm not saying it can't happen...but as we are to see, "love" is very easily exchanged for lots of other things, such as status and emotional conspicuous consumption.

For some reason, Flaminia, a woman of court, has taken it upon herself to "destroy the love that Robin and Sylvia bear each other." As she hatches her plot, the lackey offers his doubts, Sylvia is too pure and loyal, it's not every day that a woman so carelessly rejects offers of wealth and luxury. The lackey, Trivet, is sure Sylvia will remain faithful.

Trivet:...This creature belongs to a species unknown to us. No mere woman would give us this much trouble. There's a warning here; we're dealing with a prodigy. Let's stop right now.

But Flaminia is not impressed. She knows her sex too well and counters that the only "prodigious" thing about women is their propensity for vanity.

Flaminia: Sylvia is not ambitious, true; but she has a heart; therefore she is vain; and that's all I need to bring her down to where we women live.

I guess this is the part that stresses me out. From the beginning a plot has been hatched to destroy Sylvia's "love" for Robin...but the test seems unfair because the villain essentially is her own nature.

So within the first act we have numerous outpourings of Robin and Sylvia's love for each other and oaths of fidelity and such, while Flaminia puts her plan in action with a little good cop bad cop scenario. Lisa, another woman of the court shows up to taunt Sylvia and flirt with Robin. Her antics are too obvious though and Robin, disgusted, stands even more firmly committed to his sweet vision of beauty.

What Robin is not prepared for is the proffered friendship of Flaminia, offering herself as a compatriot and friend and willing ear to listen to Robin's woes and sit quietly and dutifully in a posture of commiseration. She agrees with everything he says, while subtly stroking his ego. You can almost see him giving her a fist bump as they part ways, as they become "friends" she becomes indispensable and slowly the pinprick of relational need is imbedded and begins to fester.

Next Flaminia preys on Sylvia's vanity, she suggests that the people, while perhaps jealous, have been ridiculing her, saying that she has a bit of a clumsy gait, eye issues, maybe a weird mouth, and an awkward appearance in general.

Sylvia is apoplectic. If any of these slandering lies were true than why would the Prince have chosen her above all others? Even though at this point she "despises" the prince, he is a good form of social capital and Flaminia, the master puppeteer, exploits her vanity. This plan is almost too easy. Vanity transforms  Sylvia from a simple maiden, sworn to fidelity to a catty woman deriving her street cred from throwing other women under the bus. A new refrain becomes "I'm rather sorry to be as good-looking as I am, and I'm sorry you're not quite pretty enough." Gag.

In "Why Women Compete With Each Other" (Emily Gordon, New York Times, 31 October 2015) the author references a literature review by Tracy Vaillancourt that suggests that women express indirect aggression as a combination of "self-promotion," making themselves look more attractive, and "derogation of rivals", being catty about other women. Check and check.

Gordon offers a couple theories of why women behave this way.  Theory one is evolutionary psychology, which would suggest that a woman's prerogative is her womb and therefor will do whatever is necessary to ensure she has the best partner. This "best" is confusing, because unlike birds of paradise that just show off their exemplary plumage (plumage = good partner for procreation and potential to offer a life of joy and stability), human "plumage" is much more complicated. As we see with Sylvia, she initially hates and despises the Prince for coming between her and Robin. Her value at this point is in her chaste fidelity. But when she realizes that the Prince has societally desirable "plumage"...she is at biological odds with her predetermined nature.

Theory two: She has ingested the patriarchy, and according to Noam Shpancer (Psychology Today, Emily Gordon, New York Times, 31 October 2015) "As women come to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize. In short: when our value is tied to the people who can impregnate us, we turn on each other."

Just for reference, this play was first presented at the Theatre Italien on May 3, 1722...so while modern feminists might have some pretty good definitions and theories, this cattiness has been the subject matter of literature and plays for at least 300 years.

It is not surprising then how quickly Sylvia begins to defend her attachment to the Prince when this attachment is brought into question. All Flaminia has to do is suggest someone said she was ugly and that another is in the wings to take her place and the quiet Sylvia turns into a frothing monster, demanding that her beauty is unequaled and that the Prince's love is uniquely for her. Before long she is saying that poor old Robin used to follow her about like a dog and the only reason she ever loved him was out of feelings of compassion and the logical outcome of proximity. (That's basically a recipe for true love according to Claude Levi-Strauss...)

Although Sylvia at this point has never knowingly met the prince, with each barb at her pride and vanity his love becomes more and more concrete. At one point when Flaminia offers to try her hand at captivating the prince, Sylvia says "Believe me, you'll never cure him; it's beyond any remedy of yours." The next step is to throw Robin under the bus, saying he wasn't really good enough for her any way and she always knew he had a problem with gluttony and drink.

Is this where we as women sit at baseline? Are we this simplistic? All we need is someone to point out a desirable guy who wants us and with a poke or two at our vanity and pride we throw our scruples aside and chase after the next best thing/guy? Obviously Sylvia is the worst feminist heroine on the planet...but even her foil for the everyday woman is disturbing. While in this play the antiheroine is plotting and devising ways to prey on her fidelity...today the modern woman just needs a little FOMO and a couple unrealistic romantic comedies to make her see her Robin sitting next to her as an obese drunkard. Without even the power that comes from being desired, the fear of sticking it out with an oaf or worse, someone society thinks is a little lame, is enough to make her ditch the guy and go looking for the next set of "plumage"...

Obviously the play ends "happily ever after" with Sylvia and the Prince deciding they are in "love" which at this point is a vague and somewhat obscure feeling rather than anything of substance, and Robin, who is now unable to be apart from Flaminia for a nanosecond decides - what the hay, fidelity shmedelity, he was young and foolish when he said all that stuff about Sylvia...it's actually Flaminia he wants/loves. And with a little pecuniary help from the prince, he is able to offer a recently titled hand and as the curtain closes both couples have found their...something resembling true love?

I'm not really sure who the winners are here. Flaminia definitely gets the award for destroying someone's fidelity...but then she goes after the guy...which seems to be inconsistent. Does everyone really lose because they have defined love as this temporal status regulating emotion? Or does everyone win because they now have someone they will be tethered to while they together realize that the basis of a relationship is fundamentally more than good looks and outlandish poetic utterances?  

One can only hope that years down the road, when their posse of toddlers are running around demanding constant unnegotiable attention, and the women, in their third trimester of pregnancy are bloated beyond humanoid recognition, that both couples are able to remember what they meant by the word "love" and have learned in their own ways to anchor themselves to fidelity.

...but more than likely since they're gentry and nobility they will all just have affairs and end their days with some good old fashioned venereal diseases. One can only hope.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Robin, Bachelor of Love - Marivaux

A while ago, Matthew gave me an anthology of Georg Büchner plays edited by John Reddick. Basically the short story is I fell in love with John Reddick and now he is a type of imaginary friend. I mentioned that he suggested I (and everyone else that read his anthology) read Simon Schama's "Citizens: A chronicle of the French Revolution" and I immediately ordered it and after about a trillion months it finally came in! The only person who might be able to push Reddick out of the running for best (imaginary) friend is Simon Schama...but since they are in completely different categories I think I can leave them to simply hover about on the same level of my adoration. 

One of the things I love about Schama histories is that his information is exactly the type that you would want to be able to rattle off at a cocktail party, it's all the hilarious details, the sinews that give the skeletal framework life. Simultaneously I have been reading French authors of the Revolution and it has been much more rewarding, when for example Diderot is mentioned, to be able to have even a minuscule understanding of who he was and what he contributed to the zeitgeist.    


After a wonderful description of the fervor that hot air balloons induced in the Parisian populace during the civil unrest and initial fomenting of the 1770s and how the scientists of the Royal Academy made way for the "theatrical science of public experiment," which would slowly begin to dissolve the formal distinctions of rank by shared enthusiasms,  Schama directs our attention to another democratizing event that gripped French society during the 1770s, the public theater. 


"The size and diversity of the public boulevard theater, popular song and even the biennial Salon exhibition was such that it engulfed the traditional distinctions of social and legal order preserved in official forms of art licensed by the monarchy. "


Which brings us to Marivaux, one of the most frequently performed comic playwrights after Moliere, but virtually unheard of outside of France (according to my 1968 anthology of plays edited by Oscar Mandel). Although achieving a modicum of success while he was alive, writing some of his best work between 1720-1740, it was not until the years of the Revolution that Marivaux was really discovered. 


After my first introduction to Marivaux, through "Robin, Bachelor of Love", (or "Arlequin poli par l'amour") I'm basically in love. How has he gone so long without being completely embraced by...everyone? He's hilarious and accessible, which may have more to do with Mandel, but in any case what a treat to discover after Diderot. Finally a play without miming!

The basic plot line of "Robin, Bachelor of Love" is as follows:

Lucinda, a seemingly semi-ineffectual witch is about to marry Merlin, but only days before the nuptials are to take place, has fallen in "love" with a mere mortal, a young man who although perhaps a vision of beauty is also a consummate dunce. She abducts him, bringing him back to her castle/lair and waits for him to awaken and immediately confess his undying love and allegiance.

Instead what happens is after waking and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the youth (Robin) bellows "Hey!" And after Lucinda rushes to his bedside, anticipating that he will be startled into a passion of love by her beauty, instead he says "Bring me something to eat." When she asks if he is surprised to see her, he looks at her with only a glimmer of comprehension and says "Oh, I suppose so."

That was two weeks ago, and now Lucinda is fairly certain her true love is on the spectrum, unable to utter a complete sentence and perpetually falling asleep in her presence and yet, whether it's her cold feet at the prospect of a life of matrimonial bliss with a social peer, or a deluded sense of hope, she waits patiently for Robin to become aware of her and ultimately aware of himself.  As Scene 1 comes to a close, he has once again fallen asleep during a performance of singing and dancing put on for his benefit with the hope of prompting an emotion in the organ located somewhere between his ribs.

Scene 2. We are introduced to Sylvia, a shepherdess, who is in the process of rejecting, for what appears to be the millionth time, her suitor and fellow shepherd. The more she looks at her shepherd the less she likes him, although she has tried to be obliging and attempted to offer the perfunctory sighs of women in love, it is no use. She has come to the conclusion that she will never love this shepherd, perhaps she is frigid? Perhaps she is destined for a life of celibacy and sheep herding? Eventually she has persuaded her shepherd to leave with a "it's not me, it's you" speech and sits back to contemplate a life of solitude...when who should stumble through the brush but our dimwitted protagonist, Robin.

In the time it takes to push the branches out of the way our little pupa has transformed into a beautiful, poetic and loquacious butterfly. Within seconds of his brazen flirting he asks if Sylvia is in love with her shepherd, being answered in the negative he says "That's as it should be. The only people you ought to love are you and me. Do you think you can manage?"

It is immediately apparent that a transformation has taken place in our hero. As he walks back into the castle he is whispering sweet nothings into the handkerchief he has begged from Sylvia. When Lucinda finds him he is almost unrecognizable:

Lucinda: Good day, Robin.

Robin: (bowing and hiding the handkerchief) I'm your humble servant.

Lucinda (aside to Trivet.): What manners! And never before has he spoken a whole sentence to me.

Robin: Madam, would you be good enough to tell me how one feels when one is in love with a certain person?

Lucinda: (delighted to Trivet) Did you hear that, Trivet? (To Robin) The person who loves, dear Robin, longs to be with his beloved day and night. He can't bear to part from her; he grieves when he loses sight of her; he is on fire, impatient, full of desire.

Obviously, Lucinda is annoyed to find that Robin is capable of speaking in more than monosyllables when the object of his affection is not her but a poor shepherdess. She uses some of her witchy trickery to disappear and spy on the young lovers to confirm her suspicions.  A firm believer in free will, she can not use her powers to effectively just make Robin fall in love with her.  Eventually she comes up with a plan to ruin their love, and more specifically Sylvia, and force Robin to see the errors of his ways and ultimately engage in some passionate swooning if not wooing.

At this point Lucinda's servant takes pity on the young lovers and offers them another plan to trap the witch and escape into the infinite land of happily ever after.

At first I wasn't entirely sure why this would be picked up by the French Revolution, but then I had an epiphany: Lucinda represents the bourgeois, able to pick people out of the gutter on the off chance they happen to find them amusing, no question of what Robin was doing or who he was before this benevolent recognition, he is merely a prop by which Lucinda can be amused. And yet, rather than a Cinderella story, where the cinder Ella, caught up by the beauty of her new ball gown and the admiration of a prince, is swept into her deserved fairy tale ending, here our hero rejects the princess and instead turns back to the peasantry, and who better to represent this class than a Shepherdess, the emblem of the cult of the Sublime and a representation of the Rousseauian ideal. 

Robin has always been capable of logic and reasoning, and yet the only role for him to play in the parlor of the bourgeois was that of an idiot. Having escaped his canary cage, he has found a voice, a will and a destiny and after a bit of crafty deception steals the witches magic wand, rendering her ineffectual and ultimately human and he escapes with his chosen bride and all the power of the bourgeois distilled into a magic wand. 


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Rameau's Nephew - Denis Diderot

One of the things that makes Rameau’s Nephew difficult to read, is it feels sort of like eavesdropping on a conversation rather than a cogent narrative. At one point “I” mentions it would be ridiculous to create an opera from Blaise Pascal’s Pansees…yet what Diderot has created is almost just as incomprehensible.

Thankfully we are not left alone on these unnavigable rapids, and have as our guide Leonard Tancock, vying for my favorite editor alongside John Reddick

In a brief introduction we learn that Diderot was an incredibly versatile Renaissance man, having a brilliant mastery of everything from mathematics to theology; although perhaps his passion for music may have outmatched his talents. Tancock describes him as “a scientist always in a state of febrile emotion and seldom far from tears, a deadly enemy but the kindest and most companionable of men.” In 1747, Diderot began a project that would span the next 25 years and be filled with intrigue and controversy. What began simply as translating Chambers Cyclopaedia into French expanded to become the first great Encyclopedia of the modern world, running 17 folio volumes of text and eleven supplementary volumes of plates. 

Alongside the birth of the Encyclopedia, French philosophers wrestled with the debate between materialistic fatalism and sentimental moralism. The Encyclopedia was seen as a threat to the church, it quickly became clear that “the tendency of the work was to be materialistic, progressive and hostile to all religious and social vested interests.” Very quickly an “anti-Encyclopedia” faction arose that was not above the most dastardly foul play; using every conceivable means to suppress and destroy the Encyclopedia. 

I kind of wish the book was about that. An anti-Encyclopedia faction hell bent on the destruction and suppression of knowledge sounds like a nail-biting thriller. Instead we have “a work belonging to no recognizable genre, neither novel nor play nor essay nor, in spite of its subtitle, satire, and unique in French literature.” 

Tancock gives us four possible objects that would have motivated this writing: An attack on the enemies of the Encyclopedia and of progress, a battle in the musical war, a discussion of moral values or simply a discussion of literary and artistic questions; with a break here and there for some hilarious miming…

While I am the farthest thing from an expert on French literature, I wonder if option three gives us the most holistic solution. 

Written in first person and ostensibly from the perspective of Diderot, the plot is as follows: “I”, while strolling throughout the streets of Paris meets “He” or Rameau’s nephew. The dialogue then runs in an almost play-like form with “He” and “I” taking turns hashing out the general theory of everything. Their discussion progresses until it is evening and time for Rameau’s nephew to make his way to the opera.  

This work was never published, and that only adds to the general confusion of why this was written and what it was written for. The characters are real, although perhaps less grotesque than sometimes made out to be. The chronology is almost impossible and the portions of “reality” are done in broad, ambiguous strokes. Tancock wonders why, if this work was never meant to be published, there is such dramatic scathing personal abuse of his enemies? 

Leaving aside the “why” this was written, or for whom, I think the quest to unify one’s philosophy is a good place to start. Along with the other great 18th century French writers, Diderot explores the impact a materialistic philosophy, and as such determinism, would have on all aspects of life. He uses Rameau’s nephew as a foil to hash out all the rabbit trails that determinism leads to, while Diderot straddles the fence between materialistic fatalism and sentimental moralism. How could he devote 25 years of his life to compiling one of the greatest contributions to science and not be a bit wary of where this leaves mankind if he truly is predetermined by the laws of chemistry and physics? So through his either real or imaginary debate with Rameau’s nephew, he uses the Socratic method to flush out his philosophical inconsistencies. 

As the text opens, Diderot walks through the streets of Paris, alone with his thoughts, thinking about the opera, women and the unmasked villains and fools of the world. It is not long before he meets the latter in the form of Rameau’s nephew. After a few nods and a “what have you been up to” Rameau’s nephew replies:

He: The same as you, and I and everybody else: good, bad and nothing. And then I’ve been hungry and eaten when chance came along, and after eating I have been thirsty and had a drink, sometimes. In the meantime, my beard grew and when it grew I had a shave.” 

I: That was a mistake. A beard is all you need to be a sage. 

I think it’s fair to say that at base point there is an aura of cynicism from both parties. And also, I think if I’m ever engaged in a conversation I want immediately out of, I should try that line…

The conversation moves on to discuss all forms of facial hair growth, until we come to a short treatise on the transitory nature of truth and as such the fatalism of the law. 

I:…there are two kinds of laws: some absolutely equitable and universal, others capricious and only owing their authority to blindness or force of circumstance…Who is disgraced today, Socrates or the judge who made him drink the hemlock?” 

But moral ambiguity is not really a solution. Men of genius are quickly brought up as examples of exemptions to the law, seemingly operating in a moral construct of their own. But is that right? Does their genius demand a certain moral ambiguity and as such absolve them from the responsibility of their actions? And are men of genius the only ones with the ability to write their own moral code? What about men of wealth? Wouldn’t all people rather, at the end of the day, to be men of wealth rather than men of genius? What good does it do you if while you are living you are barely able to scrape by enough to survive? 

More importantly, if a man of genius is predetermined as such, what responsibility has he for his actions? If nature “were as powerful as she is wise why, when she made them great, didn’t she make them equally good?” 

I am reminded of Buchner, wrestling with the same ideas and using as his foil the prostitute Marion. If this is who she was created at baseline to be, this is the sum of all parts and the definition of her nature…can she be faulted if this is then what she does? And who is to decide the difference between good and bad if there is no seemingly negative consequence (besides the contraction of a few social diseases and the potential to lose body parts and one’s sanity to syphilis…)
Ultimately, I think Buchner’s example of the happy prostitute is the better illustration. Diderot decides to take the argument one step further. What if a truly bad man is so good at being bad that he elicits almost a form of respect for his profession? Or to use Buchner’s example, could a prostitute be so good at her craft to evoke admiration? 

Diderot sets up a couple heinous scenarios of villains taking advantage of the occasional unsuspecting Jew. In one example involving the “renegade of Avignon”, our villain after befriending a “virtuous descendant of Abraham” and convincing him into a profitable business venture that involves “the Jew” putting all his wealth and assets into the hand of the renegade, the villain then reports “the Jew” to the Inquisition and within three days the unsuspecting man has been burnt at the stake. The renegade is then left to walk away with all of the Jewish man’s wealth and possessions. 

This is an example of pure, unadulterated baseness. Does the same argument that fit so well with the prostitute still hold true? Maybe it is in this man’s nature to be depraved, and he’s certainly putting a lot of effort and creativity into the endeavor; is it unsettling because it offends our moral sensibilities or because there is a foundational truth that whispers into our souls that certain actions are indisputably wrong? 

Nabokov’s “Humbert” would be another example of this argument.  Humbert is obviously disgusting and grotesque…but can we the reader understand him? And if we can understand him, can we truly condemn him? 

He: In nature all the species feed on each other, and all classes prey on each other in society. We mete out justice to each other without the law taking a hand. 

Diderot is disgusted by not only the illustration, but the prancing and gadding about by Rameau’s nephew as he describes these horrible acts like a connoisseur of painting or poetry; holding up each example to the light and examining them like a work of art. Diderot feels just ill enough for the reader to be aware of his general disapproval.

While Buchner’s argument encompasses virtue and vice and the social implications that rewriting the moral code will have, Diderot takes his argument another step. If we can agree that at baseline there is foundational truth and moral transparency of some sort, should we not then aspire to achieve the highest level of truth and purity in all our actions? Which brings us then to a discussion on art and morality, specifically the place of realism in music. What is the musician’s model when he writes a tune? 

We are then subjected to a very long treatise on the verisimilitude of the opera and the disconcerting lack of, “the animal cry of passion that should dictate the melodic line.” Disclaimer: I start tuning out when there are more than two paragraphs devoted to the musicality of anything…

Eventually we get to the money shot: 

I: How is it that with a discrimination as delicate as yours and your remarkable sensitiveness for the beauties of musical art, you are so blind to the fine things of morality, so insensitive to the charms of virtue?

He:..it may be that I have always lived with good musicians and bad people. Hence it has always come about that my ear has become very sharp and my heart very deaf.

Prior to reading this book, I thought we were at an apex of social insecurity; we not only have the tabloids to feed us the little mishaps of celebrity culture, but we have reality television that feeds our ability to feel superior to the truly mediocre. Our hearts are often deaf because we spend too much time worrying what others think and less time wrestling with questions of morality.  This is not a symptom of mass media and instant gratification, but one of humanity. To be untethered, insecure and devoid of a sense of self is to be truly human without the bastion of faith. 

I found this book to be very thought provoking. While the narrative may lack a certain linear progression, and there is undoubtedly way too much pantomiming going on, I almost wished I was there in the pub to observe the whole dialogue in person. As someone "in a state of febrile emotion and seldom far from tears" myself, I think Diderot and I would have gotten along really well. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Lover - Marguerite Duras

Surprisingly, despite the fact that Duras is a prolific writer and has profoundly impacted modern cinema, this is the first time I have come across any of her work. In a way, I think this is the best way to be introduced to her, with a clean slate and impressionable palette.

Described on the cover as "the hypnotic bestseller" I braced myself for the unknown while traveling back from the states on my own, with a toddler in tow. I needed something to become fully absorbed in and drown out the chronic fatigue that was only momentarily held at bay. Despite the daydreamer quality of the writing (each paragraph jumps to another subject and another time) I found this small novel to be the perfect portal into another world.

We are introduced to our unnamed protagonist as she makes her way, alone, on a ferry, crossing the Mekong River. She is fifteen and as way of introduction has briefly discussed the temporal nature of the face. Perhaps there was a time when she was beautiful, perhaps her face has always been the mask she wears that she neither belongs to nor truly represents who she is.

"I often think of the image only I can see now, and of which I've never spoken. It's always there, in the same silence, amazing. Its the only image of myself I like, the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight."

Her manic-depressive mother has dragged our heroine and her two older brothers to pre-war Indochina, where the mother teaches at a girls school and the family scrimps along on their meagerly earnings. Here in this world, despite their destitution, the fact that they are French, or rather white, allows them to socially outrank just about everyone. So they live a life of impoverished arrogance filled with disturbing familial chaos. The older brother is a gambler and slowly item by item, mortgage by mortgage takes what little the family has and reduces them even further into the dregs of poverty.

As we meet our heroine on the ferry, she is trying to come to terms with her place, in society, as a young woman, and as a form of diaspora. As she makes her way down the gangplank she notices a limousine parked at the docks and seemingly waiting for her. She brazenly makes eyes at the Chinese man, 12 years her senior and she can tell she unnerves him. Even though he is the son of a business magnate and infamous millionaire, she outranks him by the color of her skin and the shape of her eyes.

Perhaps she is initially curious about how far this will go, maybe she feels claustrophobic in her world of familial instability, maybe she hopes the rabbit trail will lead to a hot meal, whatever the initial reason she quickly begins an affair with the Chinese man. It is within these moments alone that they are both distilled into the simplicity of time and place, two bodies using each other "unto death."

At first their affair is kept hidden, but eventually they realize they are invisible. The boarding school prefers to have a few white faces to keep the prestige established, so our heroine is allowed to come and go as she pleases with hardly even a lecture, in fact her mother defends her freedoms, saying that if they put too much restrictions on her she'll just run away. She is alone, forced to be captain of a small rudderless ship, taken here and there along the flotsam of fate.

Jennifer Wicke, who was an associate professor of comparative literature at New York University, describes the French writing sensibility that Duras exemplifies in an article for the New York Times ("The Life and Loves of Marguerite Duras" Oct.20, 1991):

"Duras's writing is always at an extremity, and that is quite French, " she said. "I see her as carrying on the tradition of l'amour fou, the crazed love. It's a bleak world view, the opposite of a lyrical text. It proposes a tragic end, because desire can't be sustained. It will either turn into obsession and, thus, ultimately destroy its object, or it will see itself be deflated by the very cruel contingencies of history, or death."

It is interesting to compare  The Princess of Cleaves, the seminal "French Novel" to this equally influential work. While the The Princess of Cleaves deals with two very desirable people, both "gifts of nature" in both beauty and intellect, and caught in the purgatory of unfulfilled desire yet chained there by a sense of compulsive duty and virtue, The Lovers inhabits the exact opposite side of the spectrum. Instead of the girl and the Chinese man being desirable, both are representations of "unnatural love", the girl because she is just that, a girl of fifteen, fatherless and defenseless against even her own base nature, and the man because in an xenophobic culture, there can be little worse than having an affair with someone barely deemed human. Yet, in both cases love can not be sustained, either because unfulfilled desire is requisite for love to exist as the Princess of Cleaves would suggest, or because the act of love exists in another realm from the soul and without a sense of self and a knowledge of one's face - there can be no true intimacy of the soul.

Rather than a narrative of two souls that missed each other by mere seconds and now must spend the rest of their lives paying penance for their inability to anticipate the future, our subjects in The Lovers were always destined to miss each other even while holding each other in the moonlight and sharing secret intimacies- rather than being seen, they are distilled into bodies wrestling for place and supremacy in a world on the cusp of war and heartache.

"My brothers never will say a word to him, it's as if he were invisible to them, as if for them he weren't solid enough to be perceived, seen or heard. This is because he adores me, but it's taken for granted I don't love him, that I'm with him for the money, that I can't love him, it's impossible, that he could take any sort of treatment from me and still go on loving me. This is because he's a Chinese, because he's not a white man. "

The family decides to condescend to meet the man and they pick an expensive restaurant to gorge themselves at while he quietly and deferentially picks up the bill.  In these moments with her family, the girl falls into the expected pattern of intentional blindness and requisite silence.

Eventually both the girl and the man must go their separate ways. The man's father has arranged a marriage for his son years in advance and his inheritance is contingent on him accepting his fate. The girl slowly grows up, jaded and disappointed with her inability to truly see herself, as her face ages and continues to take on an unrecognizable form.  Separate from her outer shell her soul hovers about the surface of lost memories and unfulfilled hope. Our heroine is destined to experience a loneliness that eats at the soul and leaves it's impression, like tendrils of sorrow, across the face.

After a little research into Duras, I found myself liking this semi-autobiographic work much less. Written when Duras was 70 and already an iconic French author, all the xenophobia and racism I was surprised by the lack of, actually exists in the real subject and makes the storytelling feel forced and self congratulatory. While for the young girl of the novel this tryst is little more than a physical experiment, behind the facade of impenetrability one wonders if she is capable of returning the love. There is no question of requited love with the real Duras. While there may be power shifts and consuming infatuation, it always ends flatteringly with the girl (i.e. Duras) being the one with the unflinching control.

In the last line of the book, years later, after wars and broken marriages, the Chinese man calls the girl and once more, these many years later, professes his love.

"Then he didn't know what to say. And then he told her. Told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he'd love her until death."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Princess of Cleaves and the Birth of FOMO

Recently, I had attributed the fear of missing out (FOMO) to the millennials’ inability to commit and an incapacitating fear of failure. In Alex Williams' New York Times article "The End of Courtship" (Jan, 11. 2013) Williams attributes part of this failure to commit to a relationship, and the subsequent relaxed dating etiquette, to the fear that while you're wasting your time over cocktails your potential soul mate is waiting for you to find her just around the corner.

Yet, this problem is far from new. Social media only serves to exacerbate a fear that stems from mankind's ability to perceive and desire relationship. The Princess of Cleaves, written in 1678 and attributed to Marie-Madeleine De Lafayette, rather than discussing this fear of missing out creates the petri dish for this fear to germinate. 400 years later this fear has blossomed into an invasive species that entwines it's tendrils around our hearts and cripples our ability to commit to love. 

The novel opens with an immediate thrust at the contemporary court of Louis XIV setting the stage that what is to follow is more a parable of the human dilemma than an historical account of the court of Henri II:

"There never was in France so brilliant a display of magnificence and gallantry as during the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was gallant, handsome, and amorous; although his love for Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois, had lasted twenty years, its ardor had not diminished, as his conduct testified.”  

We are then quickly introduced to the court in what feels more like a guest list than a narrative, a flurry of descriptions leaving the reader feeling lost and ill-informed of the contemporary names and mores. We are not alone. Our heroine suffers the same fate, for while she has been well educated she has the provincial naiveté of a 16 year old being presented for the first time at court. The little preparation her mother has given her for the dog-eat-dog world of social politics is a short lecture of virtue:

“Most mothers imagine that it is enough never to speak of gallantry to their daughters to guard them from it forever. Madame de Chartres was of a very different opinion.; she often pictured love for her daughter, showing her it’s fascinations, in order to give her a better understanding of its perils. She told her how insincere men are, how false and deceitful; she described the domestic miseries which illicit love-affairs entail, and, on the other hand, pictured to her the peaceful happiness of a virtuous woman’s life, as well as the distinction and elevation which virtue gives to a woman of rank and beauty. She taught her, too, how hard it was to preserve this virtue without extreme care, and without that one sure means of securing a wife’s happiness, which is to love her husband and to be loved by him.” 

Thus armed with her pursuit of virtue, Mademoiselle de Chartres make her way into the narrative, first stopping at a jewel shop to pick out gems for her upcoming presentation at court, a detail that Madame Lafayette’s contemporaries found to be as ridiculous as comparing the court of Henri II to Louis XIV. In a letter from Jean-Baptiste-Henry Du Trousset De Valincour to the Marquise about The Princess of Cleaves, he says that even the most perfect of things have there shortcomings, and in detail discusses the shortcomings of this sensational novel that had provided so much controversy at court.  He finds this opening scene to lack verisimilitude, why would a 16 year old girl be left to pick out gems by herself? Where is her mother? 

“Practical minded women say that no one ever let a 16 year old girl choose gems and that all a girl can manage at that age is to choose ribbons and trimmings.”

But it is here, in this little shop picking out ribbons, that Mademoiselle de Chartes meets our hero, the dashing and stalwart Prince of Cleaves, who is at once completely in love with this blushing vision of a girl. She leaves before he catches her name and spends the next few pages wandering around telling everyone at court he has seen a vision of beauty. 

Just to set the stage, the Prince of Cleaves is not some anemic poet with a nice personality. He’s the whole package. “He was brave and grand, and was endowed with a prudence rare in the young…he was handsome, brave, generous; all his good qualities were distinct and striking - in short he was the only man fit to be compared, if such a comparison be possible, with the Duke of Nemours. This nobleman was a masterpiece of nature…” 

So the Prince of Cleaves is a pretty good catch. Eventually he discovers who the vision in the gem shop was, Mademoiselle de Chartes, a young woman of considerable fortune and good standing. After a bit of confusing court politics all the young suitors have been demurred from their pursuit of the young woman, all but the Prince of Cleaves. He proposes at the moment when all other suitors have vanished into the wood work and Madame de Chartes recommends that her daughter except his offer. The problem is that our young heroine isn’t in love with her Prince and believes herself incapable of such an emotion. The Prince is obviously very steadfast and determined, so she accepts his proposal with the hope that maybe someday she’ll learn to love her spouse. 

A nanosecond after they are married, who should finally get back to court from his long journey abroad trying to woo the new Queen Elizabeth, but the masterpiece of nature himself, the Duke of Nemours. They catch glances of each other at a ball and both are overcome with the other’s perfect and harmonious beauty.  

If only the new Princess of Cleaves had held out just a little longer, maybe she would have met the Duke unattached and this whole book of missed opportunities and relational frustration would be moot. But no. She took the first opportunity offered and now has missed out on her true soulmate and one true love. 

Which brings us to page 40. While other loose women of the court would have begun an affair posthaste, our Princess is steeped in the lessons of virtue, and so every time her heart flutters or she finds herself aware of the Duke’s presence at an almost cellular level, she catches her breath and reminds herself of her vows. The Duke, on the other hand, at once smitten by this vision of beauty, interprets her reluctance to acknowledge his presence as playing hard to get.

And thus begins the annoying part of the book. Instead of being satisfied with the man that genuinely loves her, the Princess is infatuated with the man she can never have. Like Phaedra, she is caught in a trap laid by Venus and now a plaything of her feral emotions and untamed heart. She decides the only way to truly keep herself in check is through a certain level of accountability. And what better accountability partner than her husband? After making excuses to be absent from court they make there way to their country house, where at dusk, in the garden, the Princess reveals a somewhat redacted version of her problem. She tells the Prince she is in love, but refuses to say how far this love affair has gone or who the lucky man is, ending her monologue with:
“Whatever the dangers of the course I take, I pursue it with pleasure, in order to keep myself worthy of you. I beg your pardon a thousand times if my feelings offend you; at any rate I shall never offend you by my actions. Remember that to do what I am now doing requires more friendship and esteem for a husband than anyone has ever had. Guide me, take pity on me, love me, if you can.”

As one would expect, this is devastating for the Prince. Not once has he abated in his desire or actions to pursue his wife. He has known from the beginning that her heart was always out of reach, but now he fears it might forever be out of his grasp. While the Princess defends her virtue, he fears it is not long before her temptations might prove to be too great.

In a moment only constructed in works of fiction, who should have snuck through the garden and heard this profession of love? Why the Duke of Nemours! So now he can confidently interpret every action, every hasty retreat as a symptom of a greater cause. “In a word, he felt a hundred times happier and unhappier.” Having proof of her love is one thing, but will she be able to quench it and remain faithful? The chase is more than half the fun and the Duke decides he will pursue ever diligently. 

She mentioned she likes yellow, he wears yellow in the jousting competition. She makes excuses to leave the court and he makes excuses to find her. Eventually the game of cat and mouse culminates in some peeping tom behavior by our Duke. As he once again creeps through the bushes to look in on the Princess, hoping to have an opportunity to talk with her since she has avoided him. This time he is followed by one of the Prince’s guardsmen who watches the Duke creep into the garden. 

As the Duke sees the Princess in her sun room, she is preoccupied with tying yellow ribbons onto the Duke’s walking stick, and is gazing longingly at a portrait of him at the victorious defeat of Metz. What could be more incriminating! As he moves toward the window the sudden movement catches the eye of the Princess and she hurries away fearing that she has recognized the Duke in the bushes. She immediately goes to her room and shuts all the windows and doors and thus remains for the rest of the night. The Duke waits patiently, but at last at dawn, makes his way back. The report the Prince’s man has to give, ie. the Duke snuck into the garden and emerged at dawn…is incriminating to say the least.

The Prince immediately falls ill, his wife’s brazen unfaithfulness the salt rubbed into the open wound of his heart. He has no desire to recover. He has been vanquished by an assumption and no matter what the Princess says she has lost his respect. 

Eventually the Prince dies. But instead of waiting the appropriate amount of time designated for mourning and then marrying her one true love, the Princess is overcome with guilt. She decides she will live a life of celibacy, even as the Duke promises he will pursue her to her dying day. 

Is this genuine remorse? Or simply FOMO in a different color? What if after she complies he grows bored? What if the lack of a chase and conquest removes the buttresses of their intimacy? The Princess admits that Monsieur de Cleves was perhaps “the only man in the world capable of keeping his love after marriage”. She is certain if she were to marry the Duke she would always be suspicious of infidelity. If he could pursue a married woman so diligently and one with an unprecedented amount of self control, what would he do when his flirtations were reciprocated. Perhaps her actions are dictated by the fear that the only way love can remain alive is by being unsatisfied.

Millennials aren’t the first to be crippled by the fear of missing out, rather this fear has been alive and well and diligently tended to by books like this. Why would anyone choose the super great guy that is the full package and happens to pursue you and love you and be devoted to you…when there might be a vision of nature right around the corner that is your one true soul mate. 

I have always held the myth of the “illusive soul mate” somewhat reprehensible and destructive, feeding the FOMO flames rather than providing any semblance of reality. This theory, fed by the Hollywood world of misconception and unreality, keeps perfectly compatible people waiting for the “spark” or the moment their soul windows open and they reach across the void to embrace. Blah. I’ve always been more of a fan of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his theory of structuralism. Relationships are primarily based on proximity and secondarily based on need thus creating a system of reciprocity or teamwork, that if done right can cement even the unlikeliest of pairs. It is through this work, alongside another, that one begins to appreciate all the myriad of qualities not immediately apparent on match.com etc. 

The tragedy of The Princess of Cleaves is that at 16 she was supposed to know what she wanted without having a construct of what that was. She didn’t know she was looking for someone, but rather thought she was frigid and incapable of affection. I thought that too at 16. A lot can be said for not rushing into things, taking your time, getting to know people in groups, playing a little ultimate frisbee, unfortunately for the Princess, time to grow up wasn’t an option. For today’s young people “growing up” has become almost as illusive as the mythical soulmate. My advice? Find the hardest worker you know and go for it. And then take a warning from the Princess and learn to love whoever that person is, that person is fundamentally more alive and intriguing then the hope that the Duke of Nemours exists and is waiting just around the corner.


The fact that I found and then married my own vision of Nature is besides the point…

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mozart's Journey to Prague - Eduard Mörike

Mörike's career as a poet began in 1824 with the publication of On a Winter Morning before Sunrise and would span more than four decades. While his poetry is well known in Germany, chiefly as the texts of songs, he is virtually unheard of in the English speaking world. In an unfortunate way, he owes most of his recognition to others, such as the composers that set his stanzas to music, and even his most well acclaimed novella, Mozart's Journey to Prague, has become a footnote to a musical folklore.

Perhaps one of the reasons his work remains largely unread by the English speaking world is that it is a tad inaccessible. Written in the 'Biedermeier' style this narrative poem feels like an opaque dream in which the dreamer is searching for clarity without success.

"It was appropriate to an epoch of extreme political conservatism, the Metternich police state, in which the intellectual middle classes could do little but retire, so to speak, to their respective provinces. If there was a 'Biedermeier' attitude, it is one of disillusioned withdrawal from political engagement of any kind, as well as from passionate love and anything else that might disturb the resigned tranquility, the aurea mediocritas of life."

The introduction, by David Luke, is helpful, and I probably should have read it first, but I found myself pining away for John Reddick. I would have appreciated a few more foot notes to pull me into this otherwise floating realm of poetic realism, something like "Mörike alludes to Mozart's extreme almost maniacal affinity for collecting pinecones..." instead I was given an appendix that simply identified leading characters or people mentioned in passing and a brief sentence of their lifespan and geographical region.

Knowing next to nothing about Mozart was also not to my benefit. I felt perpetually left out of a good inside joke. Also, knowing next to nothing about the climate of 1787 was to my disadvantage because I was unable to hear the distant rumblings of civil discord that were allegedly alluded to.

The poem opens with a brief summation:

"In the autumn of 1787 Mozart, accompanied by his wife, travelled to Prague, where he was to stage the first production of Don Giovanni."

In the carriage, as husband and wife make their way through the German countryside, the tension is almost palpable. Will this play be a success? After years of pecuniary hardship and poor remunerations, will this be enough to finally pay their creditors? Written thirty years after this poem takes place, the readers would have been aware of the opera's wild success. Almost one-hundred and forty years later Don Giovanni is currently tenth on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide, but despite Don Giovanni's success Mozart would never fully emerge from his financial hardships.

Mozart seems to have developed socially only slightly beyond that of a toddler. By page two we realize he has accidentally spilt an entire bottle of expensive cologne on himself and while the carriage may have benefitted from this catastrophe, Mrs. Mozart is far from pleased and is a second away from a full fledged lecture, when Mozart decides now would be a perfect moment to take a walk through the beautiful country side.

"Arm in arm, they stepped over the ditch at the side of the road, plunging at once into the shade of the pine-trees...The refreshing chill, suddenly contrasting with the heat outside, might have proved dangerous to the carefree traveller had his prudent companion not induced him, with some difficulty, to put on the coat which she was holding in readiness."

As Mozart pockets an assortment of pinecones, they climb back into the carriage to finally make their way to their lodgings after a long day of travel.

Besides being somewhat infantile, Mozart also seems incredibly humble and genuine; character traits that seem shockingly rare in the run-of-the-mill socially awkward child prodigy.

"That black-faced lad by his charcoal kiln, he knows exactly as much as I do about a whole lot of things, even though I too have a wish and a fancy to take a look at many matters that just don't happen to be in my line of business."

While refreshingly transparent and humble, I'm sure Mrs. Mozart would have wished her husband to have taken a minute or too to acquaint himself with family finances and other such practical matters. Mozart, instead seems to live in a fantasy word of sonatas and etudes, lost in the lyricism of a new chord while his wife scurries around building the physical world they inhabit.

As the journey progresses, Mozart's childish delight at finding pinecones and breathing fresh air takes a turn for the somber. A little black cloud hovers over our protagonist as he ruminates on the transitory nature of life.

"And meanwhile life goes by, it runs and rushes past - Oh God, once you start on such thoughts, what a sweat of fear you break into!"

Now it is Mrs. Mozart's job to fabricate stories of their reception in Prague, about the wealth and fame that will follow them home and about the new tapestries and decor their now modern and updated house will luxuriate in. Her tales of their imagined successes do seem to rouse Mozart from his momentary apathy, but like a twitch, a premonition of an early death haunts him. Each second is filled with an intensity, knowing his last could be just around the corner, and to each moment he brings his full attention; happily enraptured by a perfectly ripe orange and ready to invest all of himself at a moments notice in a strangers celebration.

While Mozart absent-mindedly picks an orange setting in motion an interview with the Lord and Lady of the estate, he finds himself first mistaken as a thief and then embraced as the brilliant composer. The festivities underway are the wedding preparations of Eugenie, the daughter of the manor and a kindred spirit to our protagonist.

The rest of the poem feels like an acquaintance free associating for an endless eternity, the narrative is frequently put on hiatus and another adorable story or narrative introduced. Of course Mozart must explain/defend his actions/criminal orange picking, and so a long story about the spring of 1770 and a sea performance in Naples. Then Mrs. Mozart tells a story of their financial hardships combined with Mozart's adorable need to defend rural maidens. Then another story of the moment Mozart composed the final acts of Don Giovanni...

It seems like Mozart would be the perfect dinner party guest, filled with an exhaustive supply of stories mixing in range from hilarious to sombre and if that doesn't fit the mood why not saunter over to the salon where he can entertain your guest endlessly with his musical genius! His hosts extend their hospitality and demand the Mozarts stay at their house and then upon their departure they give them a carriage!

As they drive away, Eugenie is left with a premonition of Mozart's impending death. Her friends and family brush her off, but she has read between the lines and seen the heartache and despondency quietly festering in our protagonists soul.

The narrative ends with one of Mörike's own poem:

In the woods, who know where,
Stands a green fir-tree;
A rosebush, who can tell,
Blooms in what garden?
Already they have been chosen-
Oh soul, remember!-
To take root on your grave,
For they must grow there.

Out on the meadow two
Black steeds are grazing,
And homewards to the town
They trot so sprightly.
They will be walking when
They draw your coffin;
Who knows but that may be
Even before they shed
That iron on their hooves
That glints so brightly.

Hesiod - Theogony

There is a modern tendency to think of cosmogony as an attempt to substantiate foundational truth. In our modern brains we feel entit...