Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lieuvain: Madame Bovary Part I

In 2006 David Foster Wallace wrote in the New York Times Magazine that you can appreciate tennis great Roger Federer even more “if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.” I feel that way about Gustave Flaubert. It’s possible that you have to have worked as a fiction writer yourself to appreciate the finesse with which Flaubert shifts viewpoints and narrative speeds. That’s partly because he would prefer the reader didn’t detect his artistry. In accordance with his famous credo (quoted below), he intends that his characters and events appear to have been found in nature, not created by an author, and boy, does Madame Bovary pull it off like no other book. In an almost supernatural way, it lives up to Flaubert’s principle of artistic invisibility, a principle that deeply inspired the young James Joyce:
L’artiste doit être dans son oeuvre comme Dieu dans la création, invisible et tout-puissant, qu’on le sente partout, mais qu’on ne le voit pas.

The artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and almighty, felt everywhere but seen nowhere. –Flaubert, letter to Mlle Leroyer de Chantepie, 18 March 1857
There is a hardcore realist devotion to Platonic Truth in this aesthetic (to which Flaubert directly attests in his correspondence) and that devotion carries over into Madame Bovary’s themes, which circumscribe a tight circle around Truth’s foremost enemy—human vanity.

Like Cervantes, Flaubert objects to romantic, idealistic lies in the service of human vanity and depicts a protagonist, Emma Bovary, whose temptation to indulge such self-deceits leads to her ruin. But where Don Quixote satirizes vain romances, the reality-fueled engine of Flaubert’s novel leaves no air for fantasy at all. There are elements of satire in Madame Bovary, to be sure, but mainly Flaubert applies his industrious scalpel to depict and dissect the vanity afflicting his characters just as though vanity were a disease to be understood and resected.

I am tempted to turn to the original French text in order to investigate Flaubert’s complex idea of vanity. I say that not because I’ve read Madame Bovary in the original French but because I want to make it look like I have. You see? “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

But the translation of at least one character’s name from French into English does, I think, help to explicate the nature of vanity in Madame Bovary in a quick and capsular way. The character, named “Lieuvain,” is a minor state official who comes to the muddy provincial town of Yonville to speak at Yonville’s ridiculous “Agricultural Show.” Town officials use the show to tout Yonville’s importance and modernity, though it doesn’t have any. Flaubert emphasizes the contrast between the attendees’ pretentions and their earthbound vocations in cows and fertilizer.

Lieuvain’s appearance in the context of the pompous fertilizer trade show is no accident but rather derives from Flaubert’s “name game,” as North Texas State University prof Lloyd Parks put it in 1971. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that you haven’t read the 1971 winter bulletin of the South Central Modern Languages Association. In it, Parks notes that character names are one facet of Madame Bovary where Flaubert loosens his orthodox naturalism to make a subtle point:
Names and place names are used throughout Madame Bovary to extend its dimension and support its theme. To this end Flaubert exercised the greatest care in his choice of names … but so ingeniously that their meaning becomes apparent only after the closest examination.
Parks quotes, for instance, Flaubert’s explanation of how he settled on the name Monsieur Homais for his pharmacist, possibly the most pretentious character of all in Madame Bovary: “Homais comes from homo = homme.” Homo and homme of course mean “man.” If Monsieur Homais represents humanity, then Flaubert suggests our species is defined not by wisdom but by bullshit—Carolus Linnaeus, meet homo vanitatis. Flaubert gives other strivers names that suggest a lowly, bovine materiality in direct contradiction of their vain aspirations—Yonville’s mayor, for example, is named Tuvache, which literally means “you cow.” Parks also points out that the name of the chateau where Madame Bovary sees her first mirage of ‘the beautiful people,’ Vaubyessard, is a phonetic anagram of Bovary, the family name of her bovine husband Charles.

But Lieuvain is perhaps the most interesting name of all, and Parks notices the lieu part, but curiously ignores the vain part, which is the more important. Lieuvain looks like a sort of hieroglyph composed of two root words, lieu and vain, meaning “place” and “vain.” The insignificant Lieuvain speaks pompously (and inaudibly) through the lowing of the cows at the Agricultural Show, unaware that Flaubert has put a hieroglyph over his head saying PLACE-VAIN. He has come as the inadequate substitute for, that is in lieu of, a more important personage, but PLACE-VAIN means more than that to Madame Bovary when one considers the strength of the connection in the novel between geography and vanity.

From her days as a schoolgirl, Madame Bovary despises her own world and she daydreams of living the glamorous lives she’s glimpsed in her excessive reading of romantic novels. As the novel progresses, Emma Bovary’s catastrophic daydreams continue to unfold in connection with faraway, romantic places free from the angst of her real life:
She felt that certain places on the earth must produce happiness, just as a plant that languishes everywhere else thrives only in special soil. Why couldn’t she be leaning her elbow on the balcony of a Swiss chalet or indulging her moods in a Scottish cottage with a husband dressed in a black velvet suit with long coattails, soft boots, a pointed hat, and elegant cuffs! Madame Bovary, Signet Classic edition, Mildred Marmur trans., p. 60
Her pedestrian husband Charles, whose “conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, with everyone’s ideas walking through it in ordinary dress, arousing neither emotion, nor laughter, nor dreams” p. 60, cannot transport Emma to such idyllic realms as the ones she’s read about in books. Charles in turn does not understand his wife’s unhappiness. He too thinks that a change of venue will cure her depression and, with his typical imperceptiveness, moves his depressed wife from one provincial town to another that’s just the same. His mother bans Madame Bovary from reading any more romance novels!

It’s as though none of the Bovarys have heard of psychology! The problem with Madame Bovary lies not in her reading habits, not in a book or a place, but within. And her tragedy develops from her inability to look within, and to see what she’s looking at.

More on blindness, Madame Bovary’s “fog in the head,” and the invasion of dreams in Part II.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Freed Men

A number of the heavy-weights of Roman literature were freed slaves. Terence, for example, was an African slave, brought to Rome by a senator. His master became impressed with his literary talent and, insensitive to the demotion in quality of life and pay it would mean, freed him from slavery to become a playwright. (Terence wrote six plays and died young.) Horace, one of Rome’s most revered poets along with Virgil and Ovid, proudly admitted he was the son of a freed slave. The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus was himself a freed slave. And these writers overcame the disadvantages of slavery to influence the course of intellectual history—and even cast their shadows into the political sphere. The editors of the Dover edition of Epictetus say “Epictetus was considered the greatest of the Stoic philosophers by Herodes Atticus, a teacher of Marcus Aurelius,” who ruled Rome in the second century C.E. and wrote perhaps the most famous works of Stoic philosophy we have.

Our academy labels Horace and many other Roman writers ‘dead white males’ of the ruling class and so casts them aside. Most people won’t have even heard of Epictetus. The not ignoble idea is of course to give a voice instead to those who’ve been historically deprived of one. The irony is: who better meets this exact criterion than a poet like Horace or philosopher like Epictetus! A ruling class can impose no more thorough a silence on the powerless than through slavery, and Horace shares this heritage with the great African-American writers of today, only it was even closer to him—his father was a slave! Virgil was not a slave (though he did come from Gaul), but he was the sort of un-elitist man to give a chance to the son of a freed slave. Virgil gave Horace his shot by introducing him to the great Roman literary patron Maecenas. You see, the enlightened Roman Republic wasn’t just good for aqueducts. It was good for outsider literature too; its finest writers brought to their work a worldview from outside Rome’s ruling class.

Epictetus’s history as a slave has a special importance to his work. It not only marks him as an outsider but also, I would argue, forms the basis of his Stoic philosophies. His writings frequently criticize the institution of slavery—clearly, he didn’t forget about his early life as a slave—but more importantly the condition of helplessness of which slavery is the apogee colors all his thinking. He returns again and again to the theme of freedom of mind versus that of body; every line of his work speaks to all that we can’t control in life and seeks to define the correct terms of happiness and freedom given this limitation.

A collection of his teachings called the Enchiridion, or “Manual,” begins:

Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinions, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. p. 1, Dover Thrift Edition


From this premise he draws the conclusion that one can only secure happiness “by withdrawing from the things which are not in our power, and by placing the good and the evil only in those things which are in our power.” (p. 13) The job is therefore to be master over one’s own thoughts, not one’s fortunes, over one’s deeds but not over their consequences. It is what might be called the art of assent, as it’s put in the 177th “fragment” attributed to Epictetus (p. 56). Paleo-Christian monks handed down these fragments across the centuries like Roman pottery, getting more and more broken with each transfer, and it’s just this sort of shabby treatment that’s out of Epictetus’s control and to which, I imagine, Epictetus therefore grants a certain assent. “Let it be,” “Let it go,” “It is what it is,” and like sayings seem to me to have this kind of assent in mind. It’s what I have in mind with my kids when I decide to pick my battles and give in. You want ice cream before dinner? OK, yes. The blessed freedom of it!

The Stoic philosophy is not idle speculation but rather a discipline. It’s meant for practical application to help you live a better life. The Stoics find happiness in the regulation of one’s feelings instead of in victory or salvation in realms outside the self. The idea belongs to a humanistic, rationalist movement of two millennia that begins with Socrates and ends, perhaps, with Freud. Could there be any talking therapy without a Stoic expectation of happiness attainable from within?

The pleasures of Stoic self-sovereignty allow the gladiator-slave Spartacus, at the end of the 1960 movie of that name, to conquer his enemy even as he is crucified by refusing to answer his interrogator’s question. As screenwriter Dalton Trumbo said, it was a movie about men “who in the end preferred to die as free men than live as slaves.” In this calculus, the freedom given to all human beings as a birthright trumps even death. But the pleasures of a free mind exceed Spartacus’s right to disobey—they include also a freedom of imagination. André Breton, the father of surrealism, makes a Stoical retreat from reality towards an inner freedom of thought that knows no bounds. He writes: “Among the many misfortunes to which we are heir, it is only fair to admit that we are allowed the greatest degree of freedom of thought.” (Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, p. 4)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Little Prince

It was a magnetic Israeli poet-warrior who, during my second visit to Israel, thrust The Little Prince into my hands. He declared it his favorite book with an absolute conviction that, it must be said, characterized a large number of his statements. On the other hand the book obviously spoke to him personally and individually—so much so that he’d asked all his troops to read it, exhorting them to model their leadership skills after the example of Saint-Exupéry’s humble king. This Israeli soldier, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War and many other conflicts, a man with a metal plate in his head and a knife scar on his back, told me he often thought of The Little Prince on desert nights after a mission, when the stars seemed to echo with a beautiful loneliness.

Beautiful loneliness saturates every page of Saint-Exupéry’s tale, which was written and published during the two years Saint-Exupéry lived in New York. The story’s loneliness flies before it like a banner, though the reasons for that loneliness remain obscure, in keeping with Saint-Exupéry’s declaration at the end of chapter VII: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.” He constructs his land of tears and solitude from poetry, fantasy, and fable: A small boy lives by himself on an asteroid ten or twenty paces in circumference—he has only to move his chair to see a sunset. It’s as if he never had parents, and except for a talking rose with whom the prince has a thorny and abstract love-affair, he has on his asteroid no one to converse with at all. The prince visits others whose barren asteroids and desolate solipsism isolate them even more deeply. On Earth, a certain doom haunts the prince’s encounters with a snake, then a fox, and with the stranded pilot who narrates the tale. Each relationship accordingly succumbs like a tragic hero to a prophecy. T.V.F. Cuffe, Saint-Exupéry’s Penguin translator, says of the narrator-airman: “Like everyone else in his story, the narrator is alone, marooned in the solitude of the desert, and in the desert of his solitude.”

And yet: another person, the prince, disturbs the narrator’s solitude, and it’s this temporary suspension of solitude that becomes the story’s focus. The prince likewise tells of glancing contacts that resemble proverbial ships passing in the night. So Saint-Exupéry fashions the loneliness of his tale not only from solitude but from specific absences. The lonely people in The Little Prince remember visits, seek out whatever new encounters emerge from the screen of nothingness, and even court real relationships before continuing on in their solitary orbits. This flirtation between absence and presence befits James Joyce’s paradox, “Absence is the highest form of presence,” which reflects the heavy footprint that absent people leave in the minds of those who miss them.

Something like Joyce’s theorem seems to underlie the surface movements of The Little Prince, and Saint-Exupéry was as poetic as Joyce on the subject of absence. In Saint-Exupéry’s essay “Letter to a Hostage,” he writes of families who continue to set a dinner place for a loved one who has died. He criticizes such mourners: “They make the dead into missing persons for eternity, into guests who will forever be late.” Of course, precisely this sense of unstable absence—absence that might have been presence, and still may become presence—pervades The Little Prince. One wonders if it came from Saint-Exupéry’s personal experience since he lost his father at the impressionable age of four. Did that imprint him with a sense of the inevitable failure of love and relationship? Did it prepare him not only for a troubled marriage and a life roaming empty African skies in a solo cockpit, but also for writing The Little Prince?

And did it prevent redemption from finding a way into his tale of desolation? Redemption was of course not Saint-Exupéry’s aim. Like other French writers of the 1940s, he saw the end of France as he knew it, the Destruction of the Temple, which seems to have given that generation a certain license to indulge in despair. My Israeli soldier, however, doesn’t see The Little Prince as entirely bleak. That it speaks to him so much and has consoled him in the loneliness of the desert is its own form of redemption. It evidently speaks to many people in this way; Cuffe tells us that The Little Prince has been translated more than any other French title in history. In his loneliness, Saint-Exupéry seems ironically to have united many lonely souls in mutual identification with his lonely airman and his little prince.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Jane Austen, Naked (Pride and Prejudice Part II)

descriptionEnglish comedienne Katy Brand is by no means alone in her view that Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice “is still the ultimate English sex symbol.” Last year, in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic fiction publisher in fact looked to profit from the latent sexual energy in Jane Austen’s novels by adulterating them with absurd sex scenes. And yet literary critic Julia Prewitt Brown in 1979 made a conflicting observation: “Although I think most readers [of Jane Austen] would agree that the heroes and heroines are attracted to each other … something in Austen’s valuation of sexuality still denies it an exclusive eminence.” (P&P, Norton ed., “Criticism,” p. 349)

Brown goes on to observe that women of many eras have had particular reasons to fear sex: pregnancy can lead to social and financial ruin, a bad marriage, or a life wholly subjugated to childbearing and childrearing; and males’ predatory appetites and violent frustrations make sex a precarious affair regardless of whether a pregnancy follows. Possibly, Darcy’s unpredatory Georgian manners make him a sex symbol to women because they make him safe without making him boring. His haughty judgments against Elizabeth’s family entail a reassuring distance from her at first, but also a discriminating, almost female, sense of sexual relations as a serious, procreative business undertaken with caution and concern for one’s descendants. His discrimination perhaps encodes a certain understanding of women and the dangers that sex poses to women. A player like Wickham can’t provide this sort of psychological shelter to a sensitive female.

Undoubtedly, Darcy also derives his sex appeal from Austen’s amazing ability to combine romantic idealism with naturalism. “Pride and Prejudice is almost shamelessly wish fulfilling,” as Austen scholar Claudia Johnson says (p. 368), and at the same time, as the 19th-century Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant put it, “Nothing but a mind of this subtle, delicate, speculative temper, could have set before us pictures which are at once so refined and trenchant, so softly feminine and polite, and so remorselessly true.” (p. 287) These two attributes of Austen’s writing produce particularly compelling fantasy.

It’s of course her realism that distinguishes her work from commonplace romance—and I want to suggest that her realism makes Darcy (and Elizabeth too) sexy not only by selling the fantasy but, more importantly, by depicting Darcy and Elizabeth undressing themselves, in an emotional sense.

Austen’s brother Henry says that Samuel Johnson was her favorite prose writer (p. 255), and she’s clearly a disciple of the Johnsonian view of Shakespeare as the pre-eminent psychological realist, the great “poet of nature” versus those of romance and fable. Like Shakespeare, Austen adopts as a central theme the human capacity for emotions to distort thought—in so many words, the capacity for “pride and prejudice.” Austen depicts her characters distorting thought by hiding certain emotional facts from others and from themselves, due to fear and shame. Her heroes and heroines fight against this repression in themselves and others.

Examples of dissemblance are everywhere: “At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her [Miss Bingley’s] own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his [Darcy’s], she gave a great yawn and said, ‘…I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading…’ ” (p. 37); “[Elizabeth] attracted [Mr. Darcy] more than he liked…. He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should now escape him….” (pp. 40-41); “[Elizabeth] sat down again, and tried to conceal by incessant employment the feelings which were divided between distress and diversion” (p. 71); “A day or two passed before Jane had courage to speak of her feelings to Elizabeth” (p. 89); “Jane’s feelings, though fervent, were little displayed” (p. 135); “[Elizabeth] entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make her unfit for conversation” (p. 136); “Elizabeth privately added, ‘And how much I shall have to conceal’ ” (p. 140); “ ‘When my eyes were opened to his real character’ ” (p. 177); “ ‘Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible’ ” (p. 177); “She was in no humour for conversation with any one but himself; and to him she had hardly courage to speak” (p. 215).

Equally ubiquitous in P&P are Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s rebellions against dissemblance: “ ‘Nothing is more deceitful,’ said Darcy, ‘than the appearance of humility. It is … sometimes an indirect boast’ ” (p. 33); “ ‘In vain have I [Darcy] struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you’ ” (p. 123); again Darcy: “ ‘disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related’ ” (p. 125); and Elizabeth: “ ‘Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly…. I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away…. Till this moment, I never knew myself” (p. 135); Elizabeth: “I speak nothing but the truth” (p. 239).

The action of the plot in fact conducts Darcy and Elizabeth forward along the path of private rebellion against dissemblance, leading them gradually to shed their masks and expose the naked truth of themselves to themselves. Ultimately, their brave discoveries of their own emotional truths enable them to stand naked before each other with their raw and undisguised true feelings exposed to each other. This shedding of social masks and defenses resembles literal undressing, exposing as it does vulnerable, private, instinctual parts of Darcy and Elizabeth. We as readers become voyeuristic witnesses to this undressing, which is even more intimate, perhaps, than the shedding of mere clothes—for what we see at the end is not the generic form of “a poor, bare, forked animal,” as King Lear would have it, but two complete human beings revealed in all their complex individuality.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

To Love Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice Part 1)

descriptionIn Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the pompous, foolish clergyman Mr. Collins proposes marriage twice to two different women in a matter of days. The reactions he gets chart two different possibilities that at one time hung before Jane Austen herself. Heroine Elizabeth Bennett turns him down and afterwards Austen makes one of many funny commentaries on Mr. Collins: “Elizabeth had hoped that his resentment might shorten his visit, but his plan did not appear in the least affected by it.” (Austen, P&P, Norton ed., p. 77) Days later, Mr. Collins proposes to Charlotte, who accepts out of loveless expediency: “at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.” (p. 82) But Charlotte’s choice dismays Elizabeth. “[S]he never would have thought it possible that … [Charlotte] would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.” (p. 84)

Austen scholar Deidre Lynch objects to idle speculation about Jane Austen’s source material (such as that in the 2007 Anne Hathaway movie Becoming Jane), but the Collins episode does seem to recapitulate a known event in Austen’s life. According to descendants of Jane’s brother James Austen, it happened on December 2 1802, at Manydown House not far from her hometown of Steventon: “on the evening of 2 December Harris Bigg-Wither had asked Jane to marry him and she had accepted, but then on the following morning had changed her mind and withdrawn her consent.” She and her sister summoned their brother James, who had to come away from his duties at the rectory to help his tearful sisters make an emergency escape to Bath by horse-drawn carriage. James Austen’s second wife, Mary Lloyd, said, “I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that yes…. All worldly advantages would have been to her—& she was of an age to know this quite well.” (P&P, Norton ed., “Backgrounds and Sources,” p. 258) In fact, the evening of Bigg-Wither’s proposal came exactly two weeks before Jane Austen’s 27th birthday, which perhaps explains why she assigns the age of 27 to Charlotte Lucas at the time of Charlotte’s desperate engagement to Mr. Collins.

Prior to the Bigg-Wither proposal, Austen had perhaps flirted (literally) with Elizabeth Bennett’s future; in the winter of 1796, a few weeks after Jane Austen turned 20, she wrote to her older sister Cassandra about an intelligent Irishman named Tom Lefroy. “He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you,” Austen wrote. Then a small cloud of fatalism or anxiety darkens the letter. Austen seems to bear up courageously underneath it as she narrates not only the truth of her affection but also her clear-eyed judgment that the relationship looks unlikely to proceed, “for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.” (p. 263) Whether or not Lefroy inspired Darcy, as the movie Becoming Jane supposes, it does seem that Lefroy follows Darcy’s pattern in that he seems to have allowed social pressures to interfere with a possible romance. A week later Austen wrote to Cassandra again of the doomed flirtation and added, “My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.” (p. 264) Unlike Mr. Darcy, Lefroy never came around. He married someone else and later became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Curiously, Austen’s niece Anna, daughter of her brother James, later married Lefroy’s cousin Benjamin.

Austen would ultimately share neither Elizabeth Bennett’s nor Charlotte Lucas’s conjugal fate. Rather, she lived out the possibility looming before Charlotte when Mr. Collins came along and relieved her and her brothers “from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid.” (p. 82) A decade after turning down Bigg-Wither (whose “charactonymic” name sounds less plausible than that of his fictional counterpart William Collins—especially given that Bigg-Wither was supposed to be physically large), Austen had resigned herself to the fate that her character Charlotte had explicitly avoided by a marriage of convenience. On November 6 1813, Austen, who was approaching the age of 38, wrote to Cassandra, “By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” (p. 267) Austen’s onetime neighbor Charlotte-Maria Middleton remembered, “She was a most kind & enjoyable person to Children but somewhat stiff & cold to strangers. She used to sit at Table at Dinner parties without uttering much….” (p. 260) She’d been put out to parlor, if not pasture, with her wine and her lonely fire.

Why, Professor Lynch wonders in a Slate article, “does Jane Austen’s spinsterhood bug us so much?” She notes that fanciful imaginings about Austen’s love life go back to the 1924 Rudyard Kipling poem, “Jane’s Marriage,” which envisions angels providing a well-suited husband to Austen in the afterlife. If concern for poor spinster Jane originates with Kipling—who in 1899, evidently without a trace of irony, exhorted Americans to “take up the White Man’s Burden”—is such sympathy for Jane Austen then corrupted by a stodgy, old chauvinism? (Incidentally, the meter of “The White Man’s Burden” is such that it can, and perhaps should, be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”)

It deserves mention that Kipling certainly meant his poem to honor Jane Austen’s achievements as a writer. I like to think that people wish she’d been properly adored most of all because they adore her. And they love her because, among other things, she understood love, and even sex, as only the finest poets do. As Kipling movingly stated:

Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And while the stones of Winchester – or Milson Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Stopping by Schneedreck on a Sunny Afternoon

As a recent article about skiing and climate change attests, poets have always been fascinated by snow. Eskimos, it is often said, have many words for the stuff. But what would the poets call the thick, hard substance spackling the cobblestones of Brooklyn’s Old Fulton Street last weekend? Maybe the Eskimo would look and say, “Pukak!” If so, would they be right? The mysterious Old Fulton gunk was contiguous in places with patches of identifiable snow and ice—but overall it was black, and also impervious to light and warmth. Saturday was the first warm day in many brutal weeks of winter, but the substance wasn’t even wet and if anything was growing. In color and luster, it bore some resemblance to beef tongue. On closer inspection, however, it was more like a terrine of dirt, salt, snow, and refuse.

166 years ago, Walt Whitman wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a building right there on Old Fulton, but poems like “To a Locomotive in Winter,” don’t mention the snow-filth of February. Perhaps it was unknown to Whitman and his time, but I doubt it. Maybe it's unknown to scientists, however, this unmeltable garbage-ice that fears no salt or sun. It certainly isn’t the first February in which I’ve encountered it. I remember it well from my snowy growing-up in Cleveland. (Offended Clevelanders: please address all letters of complaint to Anne Trubek, c/o the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

In any case, the words “snow-filth,” “garbage-ice,” or “snow-grime” would not do justice to the frozen black head-cheese on Old Fulton Street, because the hyphen divides that which has in fact fused and metamorphosed into something wholly new, something unlike snow, filth, ice, garbage, or grime. The word for it therefore ought to be strange—a foreign import. Since German often fuses root words to make new meanings, I put “snow” and “grime” into my Talking Translator and out came Schnee and Schmutz. But only a long blast of nitrous oxide at the dentist’s office can prepare somebody to pronounce Schneeschmutz. The good news is that Dreck means much the same thing as Schmutz. In addition, Dreck carries with it a note of invective (at least in the idiom of Americanized Yiddish). Thus I discovered the word Schneedreck—which was almost like discovering what exactly Schneedreck is, but not quite. A cursory internet search on Schneedreck turns up over 2 million hits, but an image search on the word only yields a lot of pictures of robots and artificial knees. Who can fathom this Schneedreck?

I believe Schneedreck to be a near relative of the Oobleck that fell on the Kingdom of Didd in The-Year-the-King-Got-Angry-with-the-Sky. That happens in one of Dr. Suess’s few prose works, a fine story called Bartholomew and the Oobleck, first introduced to me by my Uncle Zack.

Whatever Schneedreck is, it looks like I feel. It’s been a long winter, one that saw polar winds loosed on the Northern Hemisphere by melting Arctic sea ice, and that filled my chest and nose with Oobleck for seven straight weeks, attaining a peak rate of two tissue-boxes a day. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his lovely winter poem “The Snowman”:


One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;


And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter


Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind….


To have a “mind of winter”—what does it mean? I have not so much a mind as a maxillary sinus of it. Who can prepare one’s mind, or sinuses, for so much winter?

It’s one of those weird authorial coincidences that the master bard of winter should be named Robert Frost. Snow probably falls more heavily in the poems of Frost than in those of any other writer. Some beautiful ones are “Stars,” “Storm Fear,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “A Patch of Old Snow” (his only Schneedreck poem, so far as I know), “Birches,” “The Wood-Pile,” “Dust of Snow”—and then there is “Snow.” It’s one of his dialogue poems, a little play like “The Death of the Hired Man.” In it Meserve, the storm-warrior, pays a visit to Mr. and Mrs. Coles before going back out in the snowstorm. He tells them:


“You make a little foursquare block of air,
Quiet and light and warm, in spite of all
The illimitable dark and cold and storm,
And by so doing, give these three, lamp, dog,
And book-leaf, that keep near you, their repose;
Though for all anyone can tell, repose
May be the thing you haven’t, yet you give it.
So false it is that what we haven’t we can’t give….”
ll. 141-149
And then:


“Our snowstorms as a rule
Aren’t looked on as man-killers, and although
I’d rather be the beast that sleeps the sleep
Under it all, his door sealed up and lost,
Than the man fighting it to keep above it,
Yet think of the small birds at roost and not
In nests. Shall I be counted less than they are?”
ll. 222-227


Meserve then walks back out into the storm at night, against the pleading of Mrs. Coles. Meserve’s a sort of king who’s angry at the sky, who offers himself and us repose by saying what we feel. Mrs. Coles doesn’t understand his war. Having learned he made it home to his wife and child a few hours later, enduring the snow like a rugged piece of beeftongue Schneedreck, she’s mightily irritated. “What did he come in for?” she cries scornfully. “Thought he’d just call to tell us it was snowing.” She abuses him as though he were an actual poet.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Art of Avoiding Calamities

The Sound of the Mountain

Last March, an archaeological survey in Japan turned up a 16-inch unexploded artillery shell near a bullet train track in north Tokyo. The trains were stopped in early June so the Japanese army could dispose of it. Such incidents are normal in post-war Japan; tons of unexploded ordnance are discovered and removed every year there and it’s estimated that thousands more tons remain buried in the ground, like bad memories that may be suppressed, but don’t go away. The problem seems emblematic of Japan’s struggle to digest painful history—not only the recent calamity of World War II, but centuries of earthquakes, tsunamis, and apocalyptic civil wars.

The consciousness of calamity has informed Japanese art since ancient times. Columbia University Press’s Sources of Japanese Tradition, edited by Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, tells us of the ancient state records called the Nihongi or Chronicles of Japan: “Over and over in the Chronicles of Japan we find such entries as the following (for A.D. 599): ‘There was an earthquake which destroyed all the houses. So orders were given to sacrifice to the God of Earthquakes.’ ” (Tsunoda p. 267) Buddhism and Chinese philosophy came to Japan around the same time as the earthquake mentioned above, and both found favor in the island nation, perhaps because they squared so well with the old Shinto fear of nature. Buddhism expresses a deep sense of the changeability and impermanence of the natural world and a determination to reach some inner, mental accord with it (Tsunoda, p. 96). The Chinese school of yin-yang provided to Japan the art of “avoiding calamities” by divination. (Tsunoda, pp. 58-59)

An acute sense of perishability and calamity remains in the Japanese art of modern times—having been reinforced no doubt by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the torrent of conventional ordnance that the U.S. air force rained on Japan during World War II. (Some Japanese referred to the bloody sea and air assault on Okinawa as the “Typhoon of Steel.”) Japanese disaster films like Godzilla and the Japanese-influenced Pacific Rim of last summer bespeak the preoccupation with calamity, as does Japanese contemporary high literature. Yasunari Kawabata, who in 1968 became the first of two Japanese Nobel laureates in literature, worked directly in the calamity tradition. Much as W.G. Sebald did in Germany, Kawabata wrote characters whose inner lives were contaminated with the unexploded ordnance of the past.

Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain was first published in 1954, and while his characters for the most part avoid talking about the war, the scars and holes that war left in Japanese families play a dominant role in their lives. It’s a story of veterans, widows, and orphans, of a Japan where “[a] great many children were left behind by men who died in the war, and a great many mothers were left to suffer” (The Sound of the Mountain, p. 233)—a story where, as war veteran Shuichi says, “[the war] is still haunting people like me. Still somewhere inside us.” (p. 266) Encyclopedia Brittanica says of Kawabata, who was born in 1899, “he was orphaned early and lost all near relatives while still in his youth” and from the outset of the novel we gather that if life is short and fragile, calamity’s influence on the human mind is long and enduring. Here is the protagonist Shingo arguing with his wife Yasuko about their troubled granddaughter Satoko (if you think those names are confusing to a Western ear, the family also includes a Fusako, a Kuniko, and a Kikuko—thank God for Shuichi):
“She was born after things started going bad with her father,” said Shingo. “It all happened after Satoko was born, and it had an effect on her.” “Would a four-year-old child understand?” “She would indeed. And it would influence her.” “I think she was born the way she is.” The Sound of the Mountain p. 23
The dark weather of past times perhaps does something to corrupt the mind so that it makes its own storms, as Shingo observes later:
“Even when natural weather is good, human weather is bad,” he muttered to himself, somewhat inanely. The Sound of the Mountain p. 185
The “somewhat inanely” tacked onto the thought is a case-in-point. Shingo’s mind distorts its picture of itself and makes bad weather out of good, for the statement is not inane. It’s profound. The calamities of war and lost love have corrupted his thinking:
Women had left his life during the war, and had been absent since. He was not very old, but that was how it was with him. What had been killed by the war had not come to life again. It seemed too that his way of thinking was as the war had left it, pushed into a narrow kind of common sense. The Sound of the Mountain p. 210
The “narrow kind of common sense” seems to be an “art of avoiding calamities” that extinguishes desire and the will to live by too many “pious thoughts about the dead” (p. 219). People in this novel, as in real life, find ways to imagine that they’re responsible for the calamities that befall others. Just as ancient Japanese authorities concocted a magical art of avoiding calamities by making sacrifices, the characters in The Sound of the Mountain seem to sacrifice themselves on the magical altar of abortion and suicide, as if that would undo the calamities that have befallen others. So Kikuko does not put up a fight when her husband Shuichi has an affair with a war widow and impregnates her. Instead she aborts her own pregnancy: the art of avoiding calamity gone all awry.

Kawabata himself committed suicide in 1972, but he had written against suicide: “However alienated one may be from the world, suicide is not a form of enlightenment.” It appears Kawabata fought with demons, as his characters do in The Sound of the Mountain. And before he lost one of those battles, he won a great many of them, and his weapon in the fight was his art, a beautifully modern update to the ancient calamity art of Japan.

The Sound of the Mountain combines realistic dialogue and depth psychology with aware, a trope associated with The Tale of Genji, which some consider the world’s first novel; it was written around 1010 C.E. by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Sources of Japanese Tradition explains aware like this: “It bespoke the sensitive poet’s awareness of a sight or sound, of its beauty and its perishability.” (Tsunoda, p. 176) It converts melancholy to joy by seeing the beauty in a transient moment or by beautifying it in poetic language, but also perhaps by penetrating beyond despair to a possibility of joy that may be latent in the transient scene.

The eponymous “sound of the mountain” turns out to be the remembered sound of an avalanche in Shingo’s childhood. Kawabata arrests the frantic movement of an avalanche with his beautiful and meaningful aware, an image of an avalanche that is still and calm and subject to contemplation as in a Japanese painting.

At one point Shingo recalls a real painting by Watanabe Kazan with the legend “A stubborn crow in the dawn: the rains of June.” Shingo remembers the crow “high in a naked tree, bearing up under strong wind and rain … awaiting the dawn.” (p. 209)