Saturday, March 21, 2015

Woyzeck - Georg Büchner


I'm going to try very hard not to make this an ode to John Reddick, but it will be difficult because I can not fathom Büchner without him. (Also he dedicates this book to Sarah, who missed out last time by not yet existing...need I say more? Obviously he's the man.)

But to get back to Woyzeck, here is a play that is barely 30 pages long, with even more of Büchner's trademark brevity than usual. Before his play could be finished, while in Zurich, Büchner had contracted typhus and became a statistic in what had become an epidemic. What he left behind was a fragmented play in four folios without chronology or even a cast of characters. While this is an editor's nightmare, it is also the perfect opportunity to shine and Reddick brings to life the skeleton that Büchner left behind.

In a nutshell, Woyzeck is a play about a crime of passion; Woyzeck, suspecting his mistress is cheating on him, murders her in cold blood.  But of course, it is not that simple. Büchner is interested in a specific question: "Are people truly in control of their actions and therefore accountable for them? Or are they driven willy-nilly by inner compulsions and/or outer circumstance - by their elemental natures, by visions and illusions, by ambition or convention, by poverty and exploitations?" (Notes, pg.251)

Reddick cautions the reader to avoid the trap of viewing Woyzeck as a victim, but this is extremely hard to do for a variety of reasons.

The play opens with Woyzeck and his friend Andres cutting canes, presumably for corporal punishment. Both are the lowest ranking soldier and as such make up the dregs of society. Woyzeck supplements his minimal income by shaving his officers and taking part in a medical trial that involves exclusively eating peas.

Immediately we are aware that all is not right with our hero, he obviously suffers from paranoid delusions; his conversation is peppered with the fear of Freemasons and obscure biblical references. The opening line sets the tone:

Woyzeck: Yes, Andres: that streak there over the grass, that's where the head rolls in the evenings; someone picked it up once, thought it was a hedgehog. Three days and three nights, and he was lying in his coffin. Andres, it was the Freemasons, that's it, the Freemasons - quiet!

Reddick mentions in his notes that not all versions start with this scene, but rather start with the shaving scene which Reddick places at scene 6. The brilliance of opening the play with this scene is the foreshadowing of heads rolling and the streak of blood in the grass, a more sinister beginning and one that allows the viewer to appreciate Woyzeck on his own merit. Despite Woyzeck's many flaws, he is a requisite worker and faithful provider for his girlfriend and their small boy. As Andres and Woyzeck run off for role call we are subsequently introduced to the girlfriend, Marie.

Marie is brazenly leaning out the window making eyes at the good looking, strapping and more importantly sane drum-major who happens to be marching by. She's a self professed tart, but when the neighbor woman calls her out on her ogling, she screams "Bitch!" and slams the window closed and comforts her poor misunderstood victimhood by monologging with her young son before she delves into a poetry recitation on the joys of imbibing.

Marie: Don't fret little 'un....You're just a poor little tart's kid, and you makes your mum happy with your bastard face...

Poignant. While she is lost in her poetry recitation, Woyzeck knocks on the window, spouts a bunch of illegible paranoid mumbo-jumbo and then races away. Clearly she has picked a winner. But while Reddick posits that Marie is more of a victim in this story than Woyzeck...I find this hard to believe. She is a passive victim, if anything, sitting around making eyes at whoever walks by and whining to her toddler about how alcohol is the only palliate.

In the next scene, Woyzeck seems to be taking Marie out for a stroll, they pass an old man and his beggarly child dancing and perhaps (the stage directions are far from clear) singing in unison: "In this world shall none abide, All of us we have to die, And well we know it too!"

Another glimmer of what's to come. Another harsh juxtaposition between what's being said and the action taking place on the stage. As they meander through the stalls and street vendors, a man pontificates: "Observe the forward march of civilization. Everything is making giant strides. A horse, a monkey, a canary. The monkey's already a soldier, though that's not saying much - the bottom-most species of human kind!"

A preoccupation with Büchner is the frustrating lack of societal progress. While "giant strides" are made, often they are in no particular direction. As discussed in Danton's Death, the forward march of civilization is more akin to a tsunami at times than a precisely ordered drill command. And while this showman spouts off his philosophical treatise, Woyzeck and Marie seem oblivious to his insults and the scene itself becomes a foil for the drum-major to walk by and make reciprocal eyes at Marie.

Drum-Major: Hell's teeth! Spawn whole regiments of cavalry she could, breed drum-majors by the dozen!

I'm not going to recreate every scene here, as much as I'm tempted to....but I do want to peripherally comment on the fact that Marie is a terrible mother. And I think this is important because it's part of her character, a lazy, apathetic, self professed whore. She has virtually no good qualities besides the theoretical ability to breed drum-majors. As evidence I present 'the bedtime ritual':

Marie: Sleep lad, sleep! Shut your eyes tight, go on, tighter, keep 'em like that and stay quiet or the bogeyman'll get yer. [sings] Hey lass now shut up the house, A gypsy boy's coming at last, To lead you away by the hand, Off into gypsy land.

Obviously not a parenting style to emulate. But is this perhaps more foreshadowing? Is Woyzeck none other than the bogeyman, come to lead Marie rather than the child "off into gypsy land"?

Marie: Quiet child, shut your eyes, the sandman's coming! See him run along the wall? [She dazzles him with her mirror.] Keep 'em shut or he'll look in your eyes and turn you blind.

The second she finishes her version of a lullaby, who appears, like an aberration (or the sandman) but good old Woyzeck to drop of some of his pea money (we'll get to this later,) he notices the poor boy is hunched over and sweating and although he doesn't do anything, at least he comments on his son in a somewhat caring way, which is more than we can say for Marie, who is obviously suffering from depression. As Woyzeck leaves, Marie calls out "God bless you Franz," and then quietly monologues about the futility of suicide.

Scene 6. I said I wasn't going to do this, but it's just too good to not comment on absolutely everything. I think the reason that this scene would be a logical choice for the beginning scene is that we are given more context into Woyzeck's world, and as the curtain is pulled aside, it is a dreary, humiliating existence. While Woyzeck carefully shaves the face of his officer, his superior prattles away with one insulting comment after another, "God, you're so stupid, so abysmally stupid...", leads into a discussion on the regrettable choice of having a child out of wedlock.  Woyzeck defends himself by saying that without money, morality is a luxury. And the officer as an echo of Robespierre expounds on the benefits of virtue:

Officer:...But Woyzeck, virtue, virtue! How else could I ever cope with time?

The officer, manic and delusional pats Woyzeck on the back, tells him to run along and pays him his fee, which Woyzeck dutifully brings to Marie.

Ok, summarizing: Scene 7: the drum-major and Marie continue their flirtation with more explicit discussion of breeding little drum-majors like rabbits. Our drum-major is obviously a one trick pony, and while perhaps his lucidity and 'beard like a lion' are enough of a red-herring to make her believe she's found someone to hitch her lucky star to, in reality he is little more than a John looking for a fix. When he asks her if the devil is in her eyes, her response is: "Don't care if it is. What the hell." Marie lacks agency in a big way. While Marion at least was given a monologue to present her case, ie her nature ordained decent into prostitution, arguing that fidelity was an incommensurable paradigm for those euphemistically like an ocean, insatiably devouring everything only to demand more...Marie can't work up enough gumption to care one way or another.

Eventually the officer decides to up his game and openly goads Woyzeck by insinuating that Marie is being unfaithful. While Woyzeck is willing to endure one humiliation after another, this is going too far.  Marie is the only thing that he clings to and the seed that is sown finds itself germinating in rich paranoid soil.  When Woyzeck confront Marie, granted, in his crazed sort of oblique way, she shrugs and cockily responds "And what if I did?"

The next scene is an exhibit of the humiliation Woyzeck must continue to endure. Brought before a panel of doctors initially there to examine a cat which he is holding, he finds himself the object of observation after the cat runs away. The doctors poke and prod, observing what a diet exclusively comprised of peas can do to one's complexion.

Doctor: You animal, do you want me to waggle your ears? Are you trying the cat's trick? There gentlemen; what we have here is throw back to the ass, often brought about by excessive childhood exposure to women and a vulgar mother tongue. How much hair did your tender loving mother tear out for a keepsake then? Your hair has gone so thin these last few days; yes, gentlemen, it's the peas.

Goaded by his officer, goaded by Marie, and insulted by his circumstances, he has no solid footing to fall back on. As he clutches at the straws of his lucidity he is finally goaded by his insanity as the many voices in his head demand he kill Marie.

Even thus goaded, he still has the composure to make sure one last time that his suspicions are well founded. He asks around about the drum-major and finally confronts him only to be beaten and further humiliated. He buys the cheapest knife he can find, for two groschen, the same price he earns from his pea enterprise and hastens to away perform the act he is destined to carry out.

Reddick suggests Marie is the victim because she is the one "being done unto" rather than doing. But I find myself on the fence with this line of reasoning. For a man who talks about how the poor have no need for morality or virtue, when the woman he refuses to marry is unfaithful all of a sudden he demands justice for her lack of morality. This seems disingenuous. He is not a hero enacting justice, but rather a crazy man able to assuage all the voices that whisper epithets except that of rage. He can be humiliated by his superiors, but not his mistress, even the poor have standards and so like Phaedra or Theseus, he takes his place among the many felled by Venus.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Clarissa - Samuel Richardson

One of the most engaging books I've read recently (obviously not on the Canon) was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. At first I thought it was a treatise on marriage and found myself looking at the crumbling marriage with sympathy, occasionally uttering a "too true..." Until Nick's phone rings and he doesn't answer it and we realize we have an unreliable narrator. Then everything is turned upside down and the reader must attempt to parse reality from the sticky web of lies, fencing one's emotions and allegiances. Of course Amy is crazy - but the craziness stems from a desire to teach Nick a lesson. In a way, our villain, wrestles with the same objective, only instead of teaching a singular person a lesson, his vendetta is against women as a whole with Clarissa acting as resident scapegoat.

Clarissa in a way follows the same formula that Flynn takes in Gone Girl, or Nabokov takes in Lolita...can a reader be persuaded to sympathize with a reprobate?

Clarissa's plight is that she is too good, too dutiful and a touch spineless. Bequeathed a considerable fortune from her grandfather's death, she has the potential to be independent from the beginning, making this whole 1500 page book a moot point. Yet because she has such veracity and would rather offer olive branches than pursue her independence, the history of this young lady becomes a long drawn out tragedy of "what ifs".

Told in epistolary from, the first letter from Miss Anna Howe begins thus: "I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbances that have happened in your family." And we are thrown into the plot immediately. Robert Lovelace, after briefly courting Clarissa's sister Arabella, while Clarissa was out of town, upon her arrival home does a one-eighty in his affections and chooses to pursue the younger more beautiful Clarissa.

Obviously this does not go over well with Arabella and after a pretense of any kind is discovered, James the brother and up-and-coming patriarch of the family decides he must force Lovelace to duel. Lovelace is a much better swordsmen and the duel does not go according to plan although it is ended prematurely as Lovelace shouts something about valuing his little sister enough not to run him through, and James is left defeated emotionally and without honor. If Clarissa is what Lovelace wants, James will do everything in his power to make sure this does not happen.

The fortune left to her by her grandfather, and the favor of her two uncles only adds to estrange her further from her siblings who in turn hate and despise her. Their solution is to marry her off to the most illiterate, repugnant, gouty hag (can men be hags?) Mr. Solmes. Clarissa has begged to be allowed to live a life of celibacy, throwing into the bargain becoming her brother's housekeeper with the understanding that he will treat her little better than a servant. This is her preference. But out of spite, the brother rallies the family around him and they demand that Clarissa cede her preference out of obligation to the family.

An obligatory description of Solmes: "It was, however, [Solmes] laugh; for his first in three years, at least, I imagine, must have been one continual fit of crying; and his muscles have never yet been able to recover a risible tone. His very smile...is so little natural to his features, that it appears in him as hideous as the grin of a man in malice."

So Solmes is awkward, unattractive and a little dense, but is he really that bad? Clarissa profusely objects to this match and says repeatedly that she would choose death over this man. Unbeknownst to her is how close she comes to the truth.

Eventually (over the course of 400 painful pages) she has become a prisoner in her own room and her family demands that she cease all letter writing. Much to the chagrin of the reader this does not happen. Instead she writes letter after letter to Miss Howe and now Lovelace. Most of her letters to Lovelace are about how "this is the last letter she is going to write him and she would appreciate it if he respects this request."  Her letters to Miss Howe are more along the lines of "I hate Solmes, and Lovelace is a rake...I wish everyone would let me live alone in peace or join a convent...but it looks like I may be forced into the protection of one of these horrible options."

Lovelace at first seems justified in his pursuit, obviously who wouldn't want Clarissa? She's gorgeous, well established, relentlessly pursues charity and even has an account of her time budgeted in a way that would make even a compulsive salivate. Is he really all that bad? In letter 4 (50 pages in) Clarissa describes him to Miss Howe for the readers benefit as follows:

"...always noted for his vivacity and courage; and no less, it seems for the swift and surprising progress he made in all parts of literature; for diligence in his studies, in the hours of study, he had hardly an equal..."

Clarissa blames her brother's overt hatred on the fact that he recognizes his superior in Lovelace, and for about 400 pages there is a bit of consideration whether or not Lovelace is really all that bad. Sure he has a reputation of a degenerate rake, but he's young and wealthy...who doesn't? Sure there's an aura of disquiet that seems somewhat sinister...but at least he's up on all the classics? While Miss Howe prompts and teases that perhaps Clarissa is lying to herself, perhaps there is no one other than Lovelace she could even consider, Clarissa herself is almost convinced.

And then she is pushed into a corner. Her parents demand she marry the hated Solmes ASAP, as in Wednesday, and after bartering her time and submission, she has no other cards to play besides basic hope. She writes Lovelace a letter telling him she'll meet him outside the gate so that he can take her to a respectably safe distance where she can then, from her copious and persuasive letter writing, convince her family that she would like to join a convent, or live a life of charity and peace secluded in the country. But then after another 100 pages, she changes her mind and decides not to go with Lovelace at all and writes another letter saying basically that, leaving it in the little crack in the wall where it remains untouched and unread. So then of course when Lovelace comes to take her way, she is obligated to go outside the gate and say "just kidding- I'm not coming after all...bye?!" To which he replies by falling down on his knees and frothing at the mouth professing his undying love, until a servant comes running at them shouting "get your arms! Clarissa has eloped with the reprobate!!"

Clarissa is duly terrified and Lovelace works the terror and adrenaline into his favor and whisks her away.

Her fear, and greatest hesitation about actually eloping with Lovelace is that she thinks him a "vain man, capable of triumphing, secretly at least, over a person whose heart he thinks he has engaged." (page 72) Sadly, this is the actual plot of the book.

150 pages in we finally hear from Lovelace for the first time: "I have boasted that I was once in love before: and indeed I thought I was. It was in my early manhood - with that quality-jilt, whose infidelity I have vowed to revenge upon as many of the sex as shall come into my power. I believe, in different climes, I have already sacrificed a hecatomb to my Nemesis in pursuance of this vow."

That's Lovelace in a nutshell. Bent on avenging himself on all women. Later while defending himself to his friend John Belford, he essentially says "I don't know what all the fuss is about, each time I knock someone up I always provide a good midwife for the birth and make sure to provide enough to meagerly get by on until I can find a suitable spouse to pawn her off to...isn't that the gentlemanly thing to do?

Slowly, the narrative spirals down hill in a truly modern way. For a book published in 1747 there is an element of vindictive meanness that is somewhat surprising. Like Nick and Amy, able to anticipate each others next move and notice the malicious subtleties that might pass by the unsuspecting, Clarissa and Lovelace are the only two people destined to cause one another the most possible pain and heartache.  Although Clarissa is unable to anticipate the next move in the intricate web of deceit Lovelace is always gloating over, she is capable of instantly recognizing his motives.

Lovelace has decided there's no such thing as a virtuous woman and has made it his life's purpose to try Clarissa's virtue with all the intrigue and web of lies he can skillfully weave. Test after test proves Clarissa to be only more admirable, more chaste and ultimately more virtuous. What? This can not be! Lovelace decides this plan is boring and may take forever...why not date rape her (minus the date but with plenty of drugs so she is requisitely unconscious!) and then see how she'll behave. If he can a) further induce her to forgive him and decide to live with him as a mistress that would be sweet or b) decide maybe it's not all that bad - but she needs to be married ASAP and then he can put up a wedding farce so that she thinks they are married and he can live with her as a mistress.

Throughout this whole book Anna Howe is far from helpful. While she's always offering to come for a visit (to the brothel where Clarissa is imprisoned) and send her money or do anything of value she always ends her offer with "let me just check with my mom." Which of course then turns into "mom and I had a huge fight about the whole thing, mom thinks you're probably enjoying yourself and you definitely did not listen to your parents (a big no no!) so at this point all that help I just offered is a no go." While Clarissa finds herself in one trying disastrous catastrophe after another, Miss Howe's responses are akin to "wow, that is so horrible for you! Yikes! Maybe I will pursue a life of celibacy after all...or I could marry Mr. Hickman who's such a bore...but I think I'll just think about everything for a few months until all decisions are moot and void...Love ya!"

Eventually Clarissa escapes from the brothel that Lovelace has brought her to/imprisoned her in and after an accidental stint in prison becomes increasingly sickly.

So begins the test: Lovelace becomes increasingly distraught over what he has done and the fear of losing his one true blah blah blah...he vows a life of virtue and integrity and even suffers a bout of illness himself that takes him to the cusp of insanity.  Throughout his brief if yet not entirely disingenuous reformation, John Belford writes him letters saying "How could you try such a virtuous angel of a woman like Clarissa? She is so near perfection she's barely human, um I think you basically date raped an angel! You had better feel seriously bad about this and change your way of life stat. I am disgusted at who you are as a person, but since I never stopped you when you appraised me of your very detailed plan of mortification I also feel slightly complicit in this poor angels downfall...therefore I have just enough spine to write you endless letters...but not enough to be actually helpful. Get well soon!"

Eventually, even Samuel Richardson is annoyed/tired with Lovelace and decides that despite that fact that dueling is considered poor form, and despite the fact that Clarissa explicitly "forgives everyone and demands they all live in perfect harmony..." he can not let this villainous rake get away with it by simply "reforming" and devoting his life to charity. Instead after about a nanosecond of almost genuine remorse, he decides he has a gift, and that is being a rake! He's so good at what he does! So he skips off the island (Great Britain) for a bit to galavant around, presumably looking for more maidens to defile until Colonel Morden finally shows up (only after waiting for him for 1000 pages) and decides as much as he loves Clarissa and as much as he mostly honors all of her wishes...he can not let Lovelace get away with defiling the gem and pride of humanity. They duel. Lovelace is caught off guard. The End

In the end there is nothing even close to sympathy for Lovelace. He is pure unadulterated evil to Clarissa's pure unadulterated goodness. While evil may prevail in this life, life is not the end for the righteous and we're left to recognize that he will live an eternity in hell-stone and fire, an eternity of regret and remorse with small breaks in-between for gnashing of teeth; while Clarissa floats to heaven in peace and joy, enraptured by her ability to forgive and for God's grace.

Still, for the third longest book in the English language, the end feels sort of rushed. I wish that Lovelace had to suffer a few more tangible humiliations...like being put into the stocks naked in the town square and having rats chew off his appendages...or something.

I can not say that I enjoyed this book. There were moments that were actually really engaging and all I wanted to do was hide in a hole (from my 2 year old) and read for hours...but eventually that feeling would subside and I would realize I still had 1000 pages to go. The thing that is interesting about this book though is how it anticipates all books in which a villain carefully and intricately plots the hero's demise. That being said it probably would have been better as a novella.

Hesiod - Theogony

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