In 1815 Switzerland was suffering with its identity. Where did it belong in a world increasingly more global? In an essay by Karl Schmidt ("Petty-State Malaise"), he describes the feeling of oppression the Swiss felt by their perceived exclusion from history. As the countries surrounding them became players in an ever growing global world, Switzerland was left on the periphery to contemplate its involvement. At some point, it had become incapable of making its own decisions, instead finding its fate dictated by its policy of neutrality. In this moment of stasis and confusion, on the cusp of a new world order, our protagonist, Green Henry, takes his place among the countrymen and artisans, desperate for a sense of place and identity.
"In the meantime, however, the softly rustling, artificially flowering springtime that followed the Battle of Waterloo diffused its pallid candle-light in all corners of Switzerland, as it had done in every other country...the honorable Dame Restoration was solemnly installed, with all her handbags and cardboard boxes, and she settled in place, as it had done in every other country."
Green Henry, at the opening of the book has lost his father. He is five years old and his mother and he are now left alone, adrift on the maelstrom of fate. Green Henry's father was a brilliant architect and although he had a short and brilliant career, the small family is left only slightly above the status of destitution.
The mother, the inveterate spendthrift, finds ways to economize even their meager needs. And while they have little to live on, she forces him to go to the best school they can afford, and he finds himself surround by children in a social strata far above his own. Their teacher is bullied by the children, and in an effort to gain street cred, Green Henry concocts an innocuous plan: the children will march to the teacher’s house in a huge cavalcade and then...won't he be surprised!
The plan is quickly adopted, gathering momentum, until it seems all the children have gathered and instead of a parade have created a churning mass of chaos and rioting. The neighborhood women hastily close the doors as the mob passes and when they finally arrive at the teacher’s house, the mob has become a beast with a mind of its own. The children pour into the house throwing things and wreaking havoc. They torment the teacher and then at the last minute before the police arrive they all disperse and scatter into the surrounding woods.
This was not what Green Henry had in mind. But he assumes childhood pranks are to be expected and that at least he has a certain level of anonymity. Not true. His classmates hate him, and quickly place all the blame for the entire endeavor on his shoulders and he is immediately expelled.
And so begins his phase of the ‘misunderstood victim’. From this point on he carries with him the weight of entitlement, demanding that his mother find an apprenticeship for him as a painter. In the meantime, while his mother carefully spends close to nothing, he spends all of his inheritance left to him by his father on stupid bets and trying to purchase friendship, sneaking one gold piece after another out of the family safe. When he is caught and “punished” he sort of vows never to be so stupid with his finances again…but whether he just has a predilection for financial impropriety or whether or not he is just really stupid…this is a lesson he really never learns from.
Eventually he is sent to spend the summer with his cousins, where he falls in love with Anna, a young cousin of his and foil for Diana, the maidenly goddess of Nature. At a nearby farm is another young woman, Judith, a widow that has been left well provided for by her late husband and as such is free from all societal convention. Judith is the foil for Venus, a beautiful, desirable matron that uses her prowess for seduction. Green Henry is caught between the two, the innocent virgin and the temptress. He finds a little gray area where he can snuggle Judith while Anna is slowly dying of consumption.
This polemic will be again repeated with Rosalie and Agnes, the debate between the tamed and refined and the wild and natural, a foil for the greater debate between the transition from romanticism to realism in life and art.
Eventually, after learning all he can from his teachers, Green Henry decides to kick the dust from his crummy little town off his feet and make his way to Munich to become a real artist. But his images of the grotesque and sublime landscape don’t quite become the hit he was hoping they would. He tries to hunker down and get discovered, but mostly he spends all his money on frivolous things and pretends he’s an artist.
In this quest to become a real artist he comes across various characters that persuade him of the folly of his spiritualism; scoffing at his lazy imaginings. It’s always easier to invent a little gremlin than to learn from nature and paint what is before you.
“Spiritualism is that dread of work which is the consequence of a lack of judgement and of the proper equilibrium of experience, and substitutes for the industry of real life the gift of working miracles…[in contrast] All creation proceeding from necessity is life and toil, which consumes themselves, just as, in blossoming, the process of decay begins to draw near; this blossoming is the true labour and the true industry; even a simple rose has to help valiantly from morning till evening with its whole physical nature, and its reward is that it fades. But the compensation is that it has been a real rose!”
While Green Henry may sympathize with this method, he is at baseline lazy. He has been petted and overindulged until the mere hint of work has become noxious. Instead, he quickly spends all his reserve savings and then one by one sells off all his possessions.
Eventually he is completely destitute and after asking his mother to send him any extra cash she might have lying around, he holds his breath and stays indoors until his ready money is supplied. His mother has been scrimping to an almost maniacal standard. Eating little but broth, having but a tiny candle, which she lights only on the sabbath, she has been saving away all her funds for such a moment as this. Hoping that maybe her son will finally realize how much she has done for him and at least in exchange for her sacrifice offer up even a modicum of gratitude. But after the reserve funds come in, Green Henry once again returns to his life of excess and frivolity.
Finally, there is nothing left. In his shame at how quickly he has spent his mother’s money, he decides the best plan of action is to never contact her until he can figure his miserable failure of a life out…but before he hits rock bottom he sells off all his paintings one at a time, followed by his sketches, until at last, he is the proprietor of nothing. As he is about to walk away from the pawnshop, the owner asks if he would like to earn a little cash by painting flag staffs…initially this type of work is repulsive to our hero…but after he realizes this is his only option he gets a quick tutorial and slowly resigns himself to a day laborer.
Still working with a paintbrush, but now doing actual and substantial work, he begins to slowly build back his integrity.
“This was a unified, organic existence; life and thought, work and spirit the same activity. But yet there is also a separate, in a certain measure inorganic, life of equal honesty and fullness of peace, that is, when a man daily performs a modest, obscure task to gain quiet security for liberty of thought, like Spinoza, grinding optical glasses. But with Rousseau copying music, the same situation is distorted into something distasteful, since he seeks therein neither peace nor calm but rather torments himself, as he torments others wherever he happens to be.”
For five seconds I thought the book was going to end with Green Henry realizing he had been a bastard and turning himself diligently to his work, saving up his money to send home to his mother and making reparations for his wrongs.
He works hard for about a minute. Then heads home somewhat remorseful for treating his mother like crap…only to get waylaid at a Count’s estate and realizes he is an artist after all! He returns home as his mother takes her last breath, overcome with grief and disappointment over how much of a failure her son turned out to be. Her son, in turn, somehow becomes rich and is enabled to live a life of pleasure.
Judith shows up at the last second and says “hey- I’m really into you, but don’t worry, you don’t have to marry me or even ‘keep’ me. I’ll just live in a tiny house by the river and wait for you to come whenever you want to.”
I recently read a Huffington Post article by Rhonda Stevens about contemporary parenting, (Are Today's Parent's Getting a Raw Deal April 11, 2016) in which the author makes the case that today's children are more demanding, egocentric and selfish than previous generations. The author uses herself and her children as examples. When Stevens was a girl, secretly coveting all the kids with Converse sneakers, she wouldn't dream of demanding them from her parents, but rather when she is presented with the cheap knock off, not only wears them, but even manages to muster a modicum of thankfulness for having shod feet.
Stevens thinks this generation is dealing with the worst kids on record, but I submit Green Henry as evidence to the contrary. I think kids have always sapped their parents down to the last drop. I think this is less of a question on how horrible kids have become, but how overindulgent parenting always results in overindulgent children.
Rousseau thought children were perfect little examples of the natural element in its purest form, these children needed to be tended to lovingly like a rose, never a harsh word uttered that could crush the integrity of their little petals, encouraged to become the child star and prodigy that they were, coddled indefinitely until upon adulthood they awoke one day to take their place as fully functioning members of society.
Obviously Rousseau spent little time with 3 year olds. The whole “spare the rod spoil the child” thing is for real. The prerogative of children is to destroy their parents life. They are only kept at bay with full on diligence and calculated tactical resistance. This is a war of attrition and the balance is not in our favor.
I know a few “Green Henrys” that could have done with a bit less coddling. I’m not saying they should have become chimney sweeps at 3 or something…but I am in favor of some legit hard work and a huge dose of failure. Life is hard.
By far, the worst part of this book though, is Green Henry’s treatment of Judith. She is faithful, stable, gorgeous…ok she might be 10 years older or something…but that’s nothing right? Instead of even considering fidelity, he refuses to tether himself to her. He doesn’t fear commitment, it’s not even in his lexicon. Sound like a millennial you know?
So I think this problem of ungrateful, commitment phobic underachievers is not new to this generation, we’ve just started resenting it a bit more.