Monday, December 26, 2016

The Nibelungenlied

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is settled. They will go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Our Heart - Guy de Maupassant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a word: soulmates. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCANDALOUS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hermann and Dorothea - Johann Wolfgang van Goethe

At first I was absolutely horrified by the translation that I have. I would love to give credit to someone for doing the worst translation of one of the world's greatest poets, but there is actually no information in my copy of this "novella in verse". No translator's name. No date or location of publication. I assumed that some poor sod had to put this translation together for a school project and was too embarrassed to include their name...

And then I found the exact same translation in the Harvard Classics series…it is literally a travesty that this is the authoritative text. It is little more than a direct translation of the German, awkward and jarring. I think what truly makes Goethe one of the foremost poets in the world, is that despite one of the most egregious translations of his work, between the lines are the skeletal structure of something not only profound but strikingly beautiful. 

Goethe used as the backdrop of his poem an incident from 1731 when the Archbishop of Salzburg drove a thousand Protestants out of his diocese. Now, more that 60 years later, he weaves the tumultuous politics of the French Revolution into the narrative. It is no longer the Catholics recreating national identities and restructuring sovereign states, but the French. Germans, that have occupied the western side of the Rhine river for generations, have now become refugees as they flee to the eastern side to escape the forces of General Custine and his marauding military forces that have now occupied portions of the Palatinate. 

Our hero, Hermann, is the son of a wealthy burgher. He is shy and good natured, hardworking and almost embarrassingly chaste. His father thinks he lacks chutzpah. The first canto, “Calliope Fate and Sympathy” comes to a close with the father bemoaning his son’s character attributes to his friends:

“Little enjoyment he finds in going about among others; Nay, he will even avoid young ladies’ society wholly; shuns the enlivening dance which all young persons delight in.”

When the refugees begin to pour into their province, Hermann’s mother puts together boxes of old linen and food and sends Hermann off to find the refugees and minister aide as best he can, while the village doctor, sitting with father and pastor, notes how chaotic tragedy can be: 

“Danger, alas! as we learned ourselves in our great conflagration twenty years since, will take from a man all power of reflection, so that he grabs things worthless and leaves what is precious behind him. Here, too, with unconsidering care they were  carrying with them pitiful trash, that only encumbered the horses and oxen; such as old barrels and boards, the pen for the goose, and the bird cage. “

The dutiful son makes his way to the city center to find the refugees. As he comes upon the stream of recent diaspora he sees walking among them a strong woman, skillfully leading a team of oxen. When she sees Hermann she asks if he has any extra linen on hand for the woman who has just given birth in the wagon, a rich land-owners wife, now without land and husband, her little infant lying naked in her arms. Hermann quickly gives to Dorothea all that his mother has entrusted him with, linen and provisions, and asks if she will distribute it as she sees fit. She agrees and he heads back home, a little seed in his heart quickened and beginning to bloom. 

When his family asks how the aide distribution went he basically says that he was surprised by the level of want and distress that he witnessed. And on a side note mentions that in a time of war, in a time of great conflict and extreme want it seems almost unethical not to take a wife, specifically a refugee as a wife. All these women are cast off, alone and unsheltered, isn’t it the right, nay the duty of all eligible men, to take upon themselves the mantel of chivalry and to offer them their protection? 

The father is caught off guard. This is a good speech. Here, here! He agrees with everything except the refugee part. Although the sentiment does remind him of his own love story which the mother jumps in to tell: 

One day there’s a tragic fire. The father, only a young man, stepped through the ashes to check on what was left of the horses in his barn, while his neighbor, the young maiden next-door stepped through her own ashes to check on what remained of her hens. 

“Thoughtful and grieving we stood there thus, each facing the other, now that the wall was fallen that once had divided our court-yards. Thereupon thou by the hand didst take me, and speak to me saying - Lisa, how earnest thou hither? Go back! Thou soles must be burning; hot the rubbish is here: it scorches my boots, which are stronger. And thou didst lift me up, and carry me out through the courtyard…Then thou didst set me down and kiss me; to that I objected; but thou didst answer and say with kindly significant language: See! My house lies in ruins; remain here and help me rebuild it..”

While this is all well and cute and adorable for Hermannn’s parents, the father has a very different idea for Hermann. He can be chivalrous and honorable and all that, times of war, very hard yes indeed, but when it comes to marrying, the father expects a well dowered bride, specifically from one of the girls in the other opulent family across town. The father gives him total control and free will- as long as he chooses one of the 3 daughters that live in the green house. 

And perhaps on another day, the quiet and bashful Hermann would have ignored the indignities he suffered as a boy at the hands of the sisters, how they always made him feel a fool and seemed to derive great pleasure in his embarrassment, but not today. He has seen his maiden and he can settle for no one else. His father is enraged that his son would dare defy him and hurls a litany of complaints at poor Hermann’s back as Hermann runs out the door to find an orchard to cry in.

At this point the mother, in her son’s defense utters the most famous line of the poem, which you can read here. And then runs off to find him bringing us to what I believe are the worst sections of translation: 

“Thus was she come at last to the end of the far-reaching garden, where stood the arbor embowered in woodbine; nor there did she find him, more than she had hitherto in all her search through the garden.”  

That just makes me sad. 

Anyway, so the mother finds Hermann and after a brief discussion realizes he has fallen in love. They head home and try to convince the father of a plan in which the refugee maiden has a chance, and after much deliberation, they come up with this idea: the pastor and doctor will go into the city and assess the maiden themselves, and if she actually lives up to the portrait Hermann has depicted of her, then he will be allowed to marry her. 
The doctor and pastor agree and quickly find themselves in the chaos of the refugee crisis. They both look around for men of some repute where they can be given accurate assessments of Hermann’s maiden and quickly discover Dorothea is practically a super hero. She has saved women and children by defending them with her secret swordsmanship skills, she has practiced midwifery when called upon, she quickly fashions the old linens given her into baby clothes for the needy; she has a reputation only of service and diligence, a maiden without ill repute. 

Parenthetically, there was a whole lot of discussion about her bosom, such as: 

“Mark how the stomacher’s scarlet sets off the arch of her bosom…” 

or “Happy to whom mother Nature a shape harmonious has given!” 

or “Before Hermann’s eyes moved the beautiful shape of the maiden…”

Anyway, the doctor and pastor decide that while she gets an A+ in all the visual categories, they still need to make sure she is honest and virtuous and a housewifely maiden. They go in search of more gossip, but all inquiries are met only with tidings of her virtuous nature. 

So it is settled, Hermann can be allowed to marry Dorothea! Hermann upon learning the happy tidings gets cold feet. Just because he’s rich and has land and a family and is not an impoverished orphan/refugee is he supposed to expect that she will just out of the blue accept his proposal? But his friends laugh at his concern and tell him to get to it and make their way home, “the stallions speeding rapidly homeward, desiring their stable”.

But Hermann is not a stallion. The clouds of dust whirl up from under the powerful hoofbeats, and Hermann stands there, watching, until the dust settles and he finally and with much trepidation makes his way to find his maiden. 

Without much difficulty he finds her drawing water for the new mother and baby from a well outside the city limits, the water in the city has become foul due to people throwing waste from their horses and oxen into the drinking water. 

Hermann after exchanging a few shy pleasantries, works up his gumption and begins: 

“Long for that reason my mother has wished for a maid in the household, Who not with hand alone, but with heart too, will lend her assistance, taking the daughters place, whom, alas! she was early deprived of…”

While this is perhaps the most confusing and unromantic proposal ever, it does get to the heart of Goethe’s thesis: the true blessings of life come from the dutiful performance of necessary tasks. 

Not surprisingly Dorothea misinterprets the proposal and thinks she is being asked to come with Hermann as a servant for his mother. He is too shy and bashful to correct her and thus ensues a hilarious / frustratingly inept comedy of errors.

As they make their way through the idyllic countryside, Dorothea, holding her small pack which encompasses the entirety of her earthly belongings, chatters happily about her new prospects: 

“Early a woman should learn to serve, for that is her calling; Since through service alone she finally comes to the headship, comes to the due command that is hers of right in the household.” 

(Not the modern day woman’s take on things…)

As they walk, at one point Dorothea asks how she should treat the son of her master? And his response is: 

“Suffer thy heart to make answer, and follow it freely in all things,”

WHAT? He is pathologically unable to just man up and propose…when Dorothea slips and twists her ankle, he graciously upholds her not being too chivalrous to cop a feel:

“Breast was pressed against breast, and cheek against cheek. Thus he stood there fixed as a marble statue, the force of will keeping him steadfast, drew her not to him more closely but braced himself under her pressure. Thus he the glorious burden felt, the warmth of her bosom, and the perfume of her breath, over his lips was exhaling; bore with the heart of a man the majestic form of the woman.” 

Finally they make their way home and the father seeing a limping maid says playfully: 

“For by the bride that a man shall elect we can judge what he is himself.” 

Obviously Dorothea thinks he is mocking her, since no discussion of matrimony has been had, she quickly rejects her position and says she would rather walk home, back to nothing than be forced to be ridiculed, a destitute, virtuous maiden with no one to defend her. 

Instead of clearing up the confusion the pastor comes up with another test for the maiden to pass and asks what she expected.  She quickly admits that she hoped deep in the secret recesses of her heart that maybe, at some point after she had proven herself, perhaps this young man would take it upon himself to marry her, but she now knows how brazen and ridiculous this was….so at the end of the day, she proposes first! 

Hermans basically says, just kidding! I was going to propose but then I made you think I was hiring you as a servant and decided to just let you believe that…want to get married?! 

Whether out of sheer exhaustion or an improbable amount of good will, or because she has literally no other options, Dorothea accepts this “proposal” and they live happily ever after. 

While at face value this novella seems light hearted and cheery, it also strikes me as “home and heartland” propaganda, the hero is just too good. In a time of war, while the country is tossed about in a flotsam of chaos, instead of being the type of landed gentry that will take what he can from the weak and unprotected, he decides to marry them. When given the chance for a little necking, he reserves himself to just a very gentlemanly groping. So many opportunities to be a bastard and he triumphs against them all.  In short this is a social commentary on how despite tragedy and political turmoil, through the morality of close knit family and community, integrity will ultimately prevail. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bel-Ami - Guy DeMaupassant

George Duroy is the Jason Bourne of literary social climbers. Not once does he make a mistake, not once does he find himself back to square one watching the world he has built come crashing down around him like Nana.  Not once is he in danger of losing everything, only one day to wake up with nothing, cold and alone in an empty apartment like Becky Sharp. No, it is almost like he has been nefariously programmed to cheat his way to the top, taking advantage of all that fall across his path, manipulating one person after another with his wily charms and charismatic mustache. 

When we meet Duroy he has once again found himself down to the last dregs of his limited savings, forced to make the decision between two dinners without "luncheon" or two luncheons without dinner. As he wanders about, looking at his fellow pedestrians and wondering why the gods of solvency have taken a particular dislike to him, he feels in his heart "all the instincts of a noncommissioned officer let loose in a conquered country."  

As he wanders about, nearly destitute, his attitude is a bit more carefree than one would expect. While having little to boast of, he is the proud owner of a fine physique and if it comes to that he should be able to make a few sous loitering in front of the opera house. All he has to do is catch the eye of a beautiful and desperate lady, or rich and desperate as the more likely situation would be, and then he should have enough to get by for at least a week or so…

His plan is momentarily suspended when he happens upon an old friend, another comrade of the Sixth Hussars, Forestier, who is now the political editor of the Vie Francaise. After Duroy quickly lays out his cards, Forestier says maybe there’s something for him at the old editorial desk, and asks if Duroy is up on his Cicero and Tiberius. Duroy assures him that he is and then Forestier utters what is to become the life motto of our hero: 

“Good, no one knows any more, with an exception of a score of idiots who have taken the trouble. It is not difficult to pass as being well-informed; the great thing is not to be caught in some blunder. You can maneuver, avoid the difficulty, turn the tables and floor by means of a dictionary. Men are stupid as geese and ignorant as donkeys.” 

Little does Forestier know that he is paving the way for his usurper to slowly crawl into his life and gradually consume it from within. 

One thing leads to another. A dinner party is organized by the Forestiers and all notable editors and writers from the Vie Francaise are invited including the head honcho, the ploy being of course, to land Duroy with a spectacular job. While Duroy says “yes, yes of course I’ll go old boy” what he really means is “hang it all”. Duroy is the type that admires himself in mirrors and storefront windows etc. and he is very aware of his lack of appropriate dress. He quickly rents a thing here and buys a pawned thing there until he has mustered up something he hopes will pass for dinner attire. As he makes his way up the regal stairs to his friend’s apartment he catches a glimpse of a well dressed and somewhat gruff and judgmental man- only to realize it’s just his reflection! This party is destined for success and as he makes his way through the door…the reality of his situation comes crashing down on him and he remains mute and nonverbal for the majority of the evening.  

Finally, after being almost catatonic with nerves and the profound realization that he is out of his milieu, he is thrown a bone. The great question, posed by Monsieur Morel in the Chamber representing the colonization of Algeria comes up again and for a fleeting second a wave of confidence mixed with terror washes over our hero. Algeria? Why he’s been there…
“George Duroy opened his mouth and said, feeling as much surprised at the sound of his voice as if he had never heard himself speak: “What is chiefly lacking there is good land…” 

His monologue on Algerian agricultural practices goes over very well. He is given a job almost immediately and promises to have Part 1 of his “Recollections of a Chasseur d’Afrique” handed in ASAP. 

He leaves the party feeling very pleased with himself…only to realize he actually doesn’t know how to write. But since he’s Jason Bourne and is a nonhuman robot when it comes to upward mobility, he doesn’t get bogged down in the details of grammar and appropriate verbiage, no…he finds the people that he can manipulate into doing his work for him and that person for the moment happens to be Madame Forestier, or Madeleine as we will soon know her. While she does not seem particularly overcome by the irresistibility of his mustache, she does have a secretive past, one that allows her to see the potential in a rising star and pay forward with the anticipated dividends tucked away in the back of her mind. 

She agrees to dictate his paper, the newspaper knows her handwriting from years of writing her husband’s assignments, and within a couple hours they have concocted the perfect “recollection” filled with heroism and danger and just enough bawdy gossip to keep the lower classes interested. And that is that. He hands in his paper and is a sensation. 

Only…it’s not like he can show up on Forestier’s doorstep every morning so that his wife can write his assignments for him. As his natural writing is quickly exposed as very mediocre, he has managed to convinced himself that he’s seconds away from becoming editor in chief and continues to live a life of excess, before long finding himself even further in debt than before. 

What he really needs is Forestier’s little wife to write his papers…but all in good time. Forestier has developed a chest cough which bodes well for our protagonist and in the interim, Duroy has begun an affair with one of Madeleine’s unhappily married friends, Clotilde. 

While Clotilde has access to all the right people, she demands a certain lifestyle that is infinitely beyond Duroy’s means. At first it’s just expensive meals and evenings at the opera, but quickly Duroy’s apartment becomes inconvenient and Clotilde procures a much better flat in a much better neighborhood, and since it was all Clotilde’s idea, Duroy is happy to let her pay the rent. This does not count as being “kept” in his mind and he appreciates the aesthetic lifestyle change, after all his garret quarters were hardly acceptable for the soon to be editor in chief of the most popular Parisian newspaper. But one day, after complaining to Clotilde that he literally doesn’t even have a sous left to his name, he returns home to find a gold piece in his pocket and another in his boot. “What luck” he thinks for about a nano second…until the creeping realization that he is after all someones “manstress.” 

One would think since Duroy was not above a quick promenade about the opera in search of an unhappily solvent woman and some easy cash, that being a “kept” gentleman would be a step above, but one would be wrong. The affair has lost the excitement that comes from risky unscrupulous behavior and instead has become a banal farce. A rich woman, unhappy with her absent older husband, takes up with the new writer. It’s all so predictable. 

He has played his hand well thus far and has transformed himself from street urchin to political writer, biding his time as he anticipates his next metamorphoses to be even grander. 

All at once, Madeleine sends word that Forestier is very sick and they are leaving for the seaside to take a palliative cure of sea air. Duroy waits until he is officially sent for and then makes haste to be at his good old friend’s bedside. While his friend declines and slowly, raspingly is at death’s door, Duroy makes furtive glances at Madeleine, suggesting “this is all very sad, my dear girl, and when it is all over I promise to be by your side.” 

If flirting over the warm corpse of a close friend isn’t bad enough, the second Forestier is declared officially dead Duroy is offering his hand in marriage: “He’s aways admired and secretly coveted his friends wife, he’s said often to himself ‘if only I could find a wife like that one…only now the facsimile can be set aside and he would find himself being truly honored to be the husband of the original”…  of course she should not reply immediately, that would be too coarse and base, but when the dust settles and she is ready to move on…he will expect to hear her acceptance speech. And with that he departs, and heads home to see if Clotilde is free for a few months while he has time to kill before his impending marriage. 

And mind-blowingly his plan works! A few months later, like clock work, the wealthy, (and now even wealthier having come into her late husband’s estate) Madeleine is ready to officially become Mrs. Duroy. She does have one condition. Can he just change his name slightly to make it sound more regal? With a stroke of the pen George Duroy has become George du Roy de Cantel. 

“She looked at her writing, holding it at a distance, charmed by its effect, and said “Wth a little method we can manage whatever we wish.” 

Duroy has entered the chrysalis phase. He is wealthy and made even more so each day by his equally brilliant and conniving wife. She writes his papers and organizes the right social acquaintances that will propel him forward and he works on his charm and irresistibility. Perhaps for a moment he thought that he had found his soul mate, they are after all two peas in the same rapacious pod, but it is quickly made evident that Madeleine’s scheming and conniving is her first love and there is little love or emotion left to create a sense of intimacy with her new husband. This should have been obvious considering the circumstances in which she agreed to marry Duroy…but Duroy rather than being introspective, decides he’ll use her for what he can and wait for his next big opportunity. 

“George reflected: I should be very stupid to fret about it. Every one for himself. Fortune favors the bold. Everything is only egotism. Egotism as regards ambition and fortune is better than egotism as regards woman and love.”

When Duroy’s boss and owner of the newspaper comes into an enormous fortune after a slightly shady insider trading scenario, his two homely daughters all of a sudden find themselves  in the spotlight of enterprising eligible young bachelors. 

This is a real fortune, millions upon millions, nothing compared to the simple hundreds he and his wife have accumulated in such a short period of time. Now they seem almost poor comparatively, and Duroy finds himself resenting his wife and scheming for ways to get rid of her.

While walking arm in arm with the least homely and unattractive daughter, Susan Walters, George thinks to himself:

“If I had been really clever, this is the girl I should have married. I could have done it. How is it I did not think of it? How did I come to take that other one [this could either be his wife whom he obviously resents or Susan’s mother with whom he has had a recent and flagrant affair.  The mother is absolutely obsessed with him and he finds this very boorish and exhausting.] What a piece of stupidity! We always act too impetuously and never reflect sufficiently.”

But one should never underestimate a charming mustache. Duroy wedges himself into Susan’s heart and vows to be her protector, and with each turn around the pavilion extracts another promise until she has all but pledged herself to him. Now he must find a way to get rid of that horribly provoking wife. 

From his stint at the newspaper he happens to know all the right police commissioners. He also happens to know that his wife meets a certain political gentleman (the reason her political writing is so on point) at the hotel at a certain time. So he calls a small militia together to surround the hotel and surprise his wife in flagrante, therefore allowing him to file for an immediate divorce. He quickly writes the whole thing up and submits it for publication in the next days paper. He of course is written as the innocent victim, his wife the nefarious adulterer. 

The plan goes flawlessly. With his wife out of the way and Susan in love with him, all he has to do is convince her to elope with him which will force her parents into allowing them to marry to avoid a scandal. 

Despite the fact that Mrs. Walter is apoplectic with rage and disgust that her “manstress” is about to become her son in law…there is no way to explain her rage and disgust to her husband without implicating herself as well. 

Duroy’s previous wedding is annulled due to a technicality, allowing them to be married in the church and he finds himself the unlikely star of Parisian society. Everyone of notable personage must be at the wedding and those that don’t make the cut flock to the church to catch a glimpse of the heiress and her husband. The glorious man with impeccable mustache. 

His metamorphose is complete. He is George Duroy.

“He felt little quiverings run all over his skin, those cold shivers caused by overpowering happiness. He saw no one. His thoughts were solely on himself. When he saw the crowd collected- a dense agitated crowd, gathered there on his account- on the account of George Duroy.  The people of Paris were gazing at and envying him.  Then, raising his eyes, he could see afar off, beyond the Place de la Concorde, the Chamber of Deputies, and it seemed to him that he was going to make one jump from the portico of the Madeleine to that of the Palais Bourbon.”

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Prison of Love - Diego de San Pedro

This past Christmas Matthew gave me a stack of medieval literature, all of which looks terrifying and unpronounceable. After a cursory glance, it was obvious that The Prison of Love was by far the shortest, so it seemed like a good place to start. 

In short, this epistolary novella, is a treatise on exactly what not to do when trying to woo a beautiful princess or to be a bit more generalized: a female. 

As the book opens the narrator stumbles upon a furry beast of a man dragging a captive, who is emitting piteous cries. Not cries for help, but rather cries of anguish; an anguish which stems from the knowledge that he has laid eyes on a treasure which will henceforth consume him. While the beast of a man holds a thick shield in one hand, in the other, almost like the proverbial carrot, he dangles before the prisoner the figure of a woman carved into such a brilliant stone that it almost seems to flicker. Periodically a bit of flame leaps out of the effigy and singes the captive’s flesh.

Our narrator, being the inquisitive type, stops to inquire of the unruly henchmen what task he has been given: 

"Traveler, naturally I have not the least wish to converse with you; my office is rather to execute evil than to conciliate with good. But being of noble stock, I will treat you with the grace of my rearing and not with the malice of my character. Know then, since it pleases you, that I am chief officer in the House of Love; my name is Desire; and with this shield I smite all hope, with this icon I kindle longings and with them I burn lives to cinders, as you can see with my captive, whom I am escorting to the Prison of Love, from which death is the sole means of escape.” (1)

All of this seems a bit steeped in histrionics. But our narrator, having just returned home from war, and with little else to occupy his time, decides that this just might be the campaign he has been destined to champion. As he approaches their final destination, which can only be described as allegorical, he disconcertedly makes his way through the prison until he is face to face with the captive. The room is dark and bleak, being illuminated only by the light emanating from the captive’s heart. Despite being continuously gored and prodded, the captive has the fortitude to introduce himself and describe his plight: 

"I am Leriano, son of Duke Gueriso and Duchess Coleria. I am of this kingdom, which is called Macedonia. Fate decreed that I should fall in love with Laureola, daughter of King Gaulo, our present sovereign. I should have fled this affliction rather than seeking it out; but man cannot elude the stirrings of sensuality, as Thomas Aquinas has explained, and rather than routing them with reason, I embraced them with my will. In this way Love defeated me and dragged me to this house, which is called the Prison of Love. Pitiless, watching the sails of my desire unfurl, he condemned me to the state you find me in. And that you should better understand what lies behind it all and the meaning of what you have seen here, you should know that the stone on which the prison is founded is my hope, which steels me against my torments for the sake of the benefits they harbor. The four pillars that rise above it are my Understanding, my Reason, my Memory, and my Will. Love ordered them to his presence before he sentenced me, and that justice should be served, he asked each in its turn whether it consented to his taking me; for if any had not, he would have chosen mercy.” (1)

In a nutshell, our captive has fallen prey to a morganatic infatuation, and while this might bode well for such literary characters like Cinderella, for Leriano the situation is dire. 

Our narrator agrees to be the courier for the “star-crossed lovers”. First he goes to court and after a character assessment of our Princess, decides to approach her and make her privy to Leriano’s plight. Laureola  is initially enraged that our narrator would be so bold, she is the heir to the Macedonian throne, what is she supposed to do? Be courted and wooed by every peeping Tom that comes her way? The outrage! 

But as our narrator watches Laureola’s behavior, he seems to interpret a disingenuity. She sighs often and frequently makes excuses to be alone, ergo she must be in love! And with none other than our Leriano!  Our narrator returns to the prison and persuades Leriano to write a note to his fair lady and quickly Leriano sends off a missive that surely would melt even a heart of stone. With bated breath and amidst much duress, he waits in agony for the response. 

Disclaimer 1: I know virtually nothing about Medieval courtship rituals…so what follows is a very unenlightened interpretation of what went wrong. Perhaps this relationship was always destined to fail, but I see some definite “red flags” that could have been avoided and made his fated outcome a bit less tragic. 

Number one: Don’t lock yourself in a prison made entirely of your emotions and torture yourself on the rack of your desire/ will to live/ hope etc.

Number two: In the unfortunate scenario, where you find yourself in the above mentioned predicament, if you feel the urge to write your unrequited lover a missive, perhaps refrain from calling her a murderer more than you absolutely have to. (Which would equal zero times…)

Disclaimer 2: In a very sad twist of fate, I lost my heavily annotated copy of Prison of Love and had to instead ferret around the internet to find some of the quotes that I wanted to include. (Sources are listed below.) Because of this travesty I will not be able to include all the wonderful quotes about murder or the 35 reasons why women should be esteemed, except from my faulty memory. 

As one would expect, when Laureola receives her love note filled with various histrionic threats and accusations, she is about as enthusiastic as one would imagine. Since Leriano’s genre of wooing is akin to blackmail, she has little choice but to respond to his letter, unless she wants to be known as an infamous murderer of love. She hesitatingly responds with a very cautious letter, which in summary is as follows: Listen guy, since you say you will kill yourself in your hopeless despondency unless I agree to be penpals…I agree. But this in no way means that I love you or even know you. We are strangers. This is not a relationship. 

Her response is interpreted as: My dearest Leriano, I can only imagine what our future babies will look like. Will they have your dimples? (Do you have dimples, I just realized I actually don’t know what you look like, since it is only you that has seen me from afar.) Alas, whatever you look like I imagine to be perfection. I await with bated breath for you to get here and begin the arduous process of courtly wooing which will in no time result in our happy union and by default, your acquisition of the Macedonian throne. 

The letter is the antidote Leriano needed. Within seconds he has thrown off the weight of his chains, the Prison of Love comes crashing to his feet and within a thrice he is hero once more. 
He arrives at court and it is not long before his surreptitious glances and heartfelt looks of mutual understanding find him a jealous rival. This rival accuses the couple of infidelity, and the King quickly throws his daughter in prison and demands that the gentleman fight a duel. The situation disintegrates and Laureola finds herself just days away from being executed. Leriano concocts a brilliant rescue plan and saves her life, and while she races away with her Uncle, his band of essentially merry men face the Kings army with dignity and valor. Eventually, Leriano and his men manage to drag one of the reprobates that was paid to besmirch Laureola’s good name and when he is summarily executed…one would think we were on the cusp of a happy ending. 

One would be wrong. 

Despite Leriano’s bravery and valor, despite his brilliant calculations and commendable leading, instead of receiving medals of honor and the hand of the woman he loves, the plot repeats itself. 

Leriano sends his sweetheart a letter and is again rejected. Despite his bravery, this is still a morganatic relationship. He is still a commoner and she is still the heir to the Macedonian throne. 

As soon as he realizes he is destined to play the unrequited lover in perpetuity, he contracts “lovesickness” and his health slowly deteriorates. While to the modern observer this may seem a bit attention seeking, for the Medieval chivalrous lover this is the honorable thing to do. He will be devoted in sickness and in health and if his presence upon this earth causes his fair mistress discomfort, then he will delicately remove himself from it. 

At one point a friend appears to defame women, hoping to rouse a bit of healthy resentment in our hero. Instead, he does just the opposite, and Leriano devotes his last iota of strength to defending the virtues of women. 

I wish I had my book because out of his 35 reasons that women are to be esteemed there are some real gems. 

Ultimately, as he realizes the end is near, he asks for his correspondence between himself and Laureola to be brought to him. Not once has he mentioned her name, choosing to honor her anonymity; with his last reserve of strength he rips her letters into tiny shreds and swallows them. Having concluded his business of honoring her to his last breath, he succumbs to his sickness of love.

At first I thought there was a similarity between the Prison of Love and the Phaedra plays and novels, whether by Racine, Euripides or Jeffers. The protagonist, usually a woman, falls in love with a man she cannot marry, ultimately committing suicide either out of desire or to preserve her honor. Granted the Phaedra type is always married, so there is a legitimate/ murky incestuous reason that she cannot have the man she desires, who always happens to be her new stepson. 

In these examples there is a clear delineation of where mortals can and cannot tread, and a world of assigned rules and laws governing the behavior of the classes. When the rules are defied, for example when Hippolytus refuses to worship at the shine of Aphrodite, the arrogance toward the gods is met with just vindication. The collateral damage and carnage that is left in the wake of this lesson is almost besides the point, making the suicides less of a plot culmination and more of an aside. 

For the medieval protagonist, lovesickness was a death sentence, an illness of mind and body ignited at the sight of beauty. From the first second we see Leriano, gazing at the face of the woman cast in stone, he is in the process of dying; the malady creeping its tendrils about the unlucky heart. For lovesickness the only antidote is requited love and since he has been destined to fall in love with a woman far above his station, he is destined to die. 

What I initially took as histrionics, may have actually been a fundamental medieval interpretation of science and medicine. He really was being murdered. And in this situation the only option for a man of virtue is to do die gracefully and with honor. 





Friday, July 29, 2016

Adam Bede - George Elliot

Picture this, you're a girl (named Dinah) and you've recently found Jesus and Methodism and Chastity and you're into wearing super ugly clothing and street preaching around the Victorian English countryside. You travel to the most inhospitable places ever to work alongside coal miners and contribute your wage to the poor. Occasionally when your aunt can't take your prolonged absences anymore, you make your way to your relative's house where you will cook and clean and tend to your nieces and nephews. Yet, while perhaps domestic service can be draining and tending to little “Totty” isn’t always pleasant, since you have plenty of food and are not in contact with people actively dying, this does not classify as a hardship tour. While the luxury you must endure is all very grievous to you....it does bring you into close proximity with the penultimate model of Victorian masculinity: Adam Bede. 

Adam is what everyone would expect of a Victorian hero; chivalrous, hard working, demanding perfection, but willing to pick up the slack that is constantly around him, because deep down inside he realizes he is the only one with standards. He is a woodworker and while at one point he had amassed enough of a fortune to potentially buy into a partnership, he used up the majority of his money to buy his brother's place out of the military and the rest has been drained away keeping his drunkard father solvent. So basically he’s the full package: hardworking, muscley, and a loyal and devoted son. He’s almost just perfect enough for you to reevaluate your life goals and maybe…entertain the idea of falling in love.

Luckily for you, Adam doesn’t really realize you exist. He’s too obsessed with Hetty Sorrel, a coquettish beauty that knows she’s gorgeous and spends too much time looking at her reflection in milk jugs. Hetty, although a cousin, is the exact opposite end of the spectrum, potentially even a different species altogether from your own. While you are industrious, hard working and never complaining, sacrificing daily for the needs of others, Hetty does just enough to classify whatever she is doing as being “done” while resenting the fact that she has to do it to begin with. She hates Totty and spends far too long churning butter. But what she is good at is flirting with everyone and fantasizing about her future. 

As is common with beautiful flirtatious women, she has many suitors, one of which is the most eligible bachelor - Adam Bede. And while she tolerates his overtures and gives him just enough attention for him to think they're basically dating, she is keeping her options open in case a better option presents itself.

Not that you need or even want suitors, but while everyone and their brother is chasing Hetty around, the one brother that seems devoted to you, is Seth Bede. He has become a methodist and follows you around like a little puppy, kind of like a Lennie Small. Seth may not crush you in his big bear arms like a little bunny, but his devotion is of the same caliber. So while a part of your heart is secretly pining for the Bede you can never have, the Bede you never wanted follows you around wanting to discuss your potential relationship. In this scenario, obviously celibacy is the preferred and higher calling. But that Adam Bede. If only he knew how that trashy Hetty was two timing him behind his back…but what can you do. You love that trashy Hetty Sorrel for what she is, a sinner in need of redemption. 

But…you do have a point. Hetty is two timing Adam. And whether Adam is too good natured to notice, or whether he is giving her space and time to look around and weigh all her options, he is confident that eventually she will make  the right decision, and in the meantime he can diligently work to pay off his father’s debt and hopefully accrue enough to purchase a share in the local woodworking business. Then there will literally be no reason for Hetty to not jump into his arms, he is far superior to all his competitors. 

Or is he?

Little does Adam know, but his childhood friend and next in line to be squire, Arthur Donnithorne, has taken a fancy to little Hetty Sorrel. In his summer boredom, while he waits to come into his inheritance (his grandfather while sickly will not die and insists on carrying out all the estate business on his own with little help from the enthusiastic Arthur) he wanders around checking up on the tenants. And one day while making such rounds he stumbles upon the scene of Hetty churning the butter, her dimpled little arms (arms are always little and dimpled in Victorian literature) churning away, a blush upon her fresh cheeks etc. And what can he do but ascertain her weekly itinerary and know just when she will be walking across the green alone. Hm, interesting information. He is not a reprobate. He believes in class order and such, but if he happens to be running an errand at the same time Hetty Sorrel is running an errand…isn’t that more like fate? 

And so, as only luck would have it, after totally not planning to be on the green at the same time as Hetty…he finds himself there, walking in the twilight with a beautiful girl. And for a moment he rues the day classes and social structure were invented, taking offense that one so incredibly beautiful could be relegated to a lower class simply from order of birth. It’s really quite base that such a perfect specimen should spend her whole life scrubbing floors and babies and making gruel etc. But within the next second he is no longer a rational man, no longer a Victorian man, but merely a 23 year old man. 

And so one tête-à-tête leads to another until that fateful day when Adam, whistling a toon and walking through the forrest happens upon the couple kissing under the shade of a tree. Now this is problematic for a bevy of reasons, but to name the top three: 

1: What is a squire doing making out with a milkmaid? That can only go poorly for the milkmaid, and shows very poor character of the squire. While the maid’s head will balloon into enormous self importance, when she realizes she will never be married to the squire and must henceforth live a life of comparative squalor and misery with the gardener…this can only lead to chronic depression. 

2: Why would Hetty be making out with Arthur when she’s supposed to have the hots for Adam? They’ve never exchanged more than a conversational pleasantry and that took effort, they were slowly working their way up, one building block cemented with mortar at a time, to that beautiful day when they had built a bedrock foundation and could finally in good conscience take their first kiss. Now literally everything is ruined!

3: Isn’t Arthur supposed to be Adam’s friend. Isn’t this stabbing your friend in the back?!

For all the above reasons and sundry more, Adam finds himself understandably apoplectic. Hetty runs away and Adam charges on his friend, a true fist to cuffs if ever there was one, culminating in the gentry being landed and Adam feeling less angry…but still pretty angry.

When Arthur regains consciousness, they hobble their way back to the Hermitage which Arthur has remodeled for his obviously nefarious reasons. While Adam scurries around looking for supplies, Arthur, clutching his ribs and internal organs scurries around looking for something quite different: a pink neckerchief. 

At this point it’s all really quite obvious what has happened. But since this in Victorian literature, we gasp, and slowly begin rocking back and forth praying it isn’t true. 

Arthur is persuaded to write Hetty a letter calling the whole thing off and decides it would be best if he joins the military, he can’t sit around forever waiting for his grandfather to die. So he writes his letter and then makes his way to the colonies or the harbor or somewhere very militaryish. 

Meanwhile Hetty, after all only a girl of 16, has been loved and petted her whole life getting the cherry on top in every situation. But now, after falling in love with the biggest cherry and having that love seemingly reciprocated…she gets a “Dear Jane” letter? 

At first her plan is to pretend she’s ok with everything and just marry Adam after all and then slowly maim him with her bitterness…but as the months progress, seven months to be specific, she feels less and less energetic and more cut-off, hurt and confused. She can not marry Adam. It is true now. There is nothing left in her heart, or rather in the shadow that was once her heart. She collects her few insignificant belongings, and makes her way, only a couple weeks before her wedding, to find Arthur and escape into the life that he promised her. 

But of course this plan is impossible to execute, because she has no idea where Arthur is! After she makes it all the way to the address on his last postscript only to realize he has left the country for military training…she has nothing to do but survive the best she can by pawning off her jewelry and special items and trying to make it back home…before the BABY IS BORN! 

But the baby is born. And everything is sad and devastating but also happy in that way only new life can allow. But Hetty is a narcissist and add postpartum depression into the mix of her already high levels of depression and the result is bat #$@^ crazy. So she sneaks off into the woods, two days of motherhood being more than she can handle, and hides her baby in a hole in the ground by a tree stump. She hopes that a goodly woodsman will come along and rescue the baby. She then attempts to escape, but is haunted by the baby’s cries and after she makes her way back to the tree stump the baby is ….dead or gone…I don’t really remember the chronology. It dies. 

So then of course Hetty is borderline catatonic and thrown into prison for the murder of her child, a soul on the cusp of eternal damnation. And that’s where you come in…

You were waiting this whole time, just on the periphery of the scene in some mining town or other inhospitable climate where you tended to the poor, the helpless and the needy, and now you make haste to your cousin’s prison in her time of distress. (You sort of mentioned something like this could happen back on page 12 but now is not the time to mention that). The guards escort you past the vermin and stench filled cells, deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine prison system until a door is opened and you stare into the pitch black room and whisper “Hetty?”

Hetty, barely conscious, consumed with shame and regret at a cellular level, has refused to speak to anyone, but now, after hearing your sweet charitable voice, a spark appears. At first there is resistance to talk, but talk is what you must do, because while the body faces perdition the soul can still be rescued. 

And there you sit for days. Your arms wrapped around your jaded and dejected cousin who has lost everything. Day after day you hold her and tell her the truth: that God can still save her soul. She has already been found guilty, she has already been sentenced to “hanging by the neck until you be dead”…the terror is engulfing, but she allows herself to hope, and she gives her life, the last remaining dregs of it to Christ and meets her destiny with the strength that comes only from Faith. 

Months pass. You’re back in Adam Bede country because his mother is obsessed with you and you're always the first person/ only person she calls to come stay when she isn’t feeling well…which is often. There is now a mutual respect between you and Adam, you both cared for Hetty down to the last second and in doing so revealed a greater depth of character than either of you may have imagined existed. Adam talks to you, walks you home, though never offers you his arm, he seems to think of you as a sister, and while that is so good…it’s also so sad. Your cheeks burn whenever he looks at you with the direct gaze of his, and it’s beginning to become obvious that your affections may not only be for God…

The Garden Party - Katherine Mansfield

I'm going to do something a little different this month, I recently took a short course on Critical Reading and one of our projec...