April 21st, 2012 § § permalink
This review was originally written in November 2011, in the wake of my grandmother’s death due to complications from dementia.
…Brokenness, you do surprise me –
here I could have sworn I’d lost my taste for you,
you being an accident like all the others that, one
by one, constellate, first becoming a life, and then
as if the only one, as if no other were possible. Since
when does that make a world? Whose business
but mine is it if now, when I grieve, I grieve
this way: crown in hand, little flowers of gold?
from “Glory On” (p. 34)
Some people listen to the same song, over and over again, when emotion overwhelms them and they seek comfort in verse and song. Others burst out in a melody either borrowed or composed from the vibrating life strings. For myself, I turn to poetry when I need an emotional salve. Although I had planned to write a review of Carl Phillips’ Double Shadow for days now, perhaps it was fate or (mis)fortune that I had the book image saved and the labels ready for me to write of the nearly three dozen poems that appear in this slender 58 page collection before I received word this morning that my maternal grandmother had died this morning after battling dementia for over three years. I re-read several of the poems in Phillips’ collection, as several deal with that “double shadow” that constitutes life, death, and the struggles between eros and thanatos, until I read the final half of “Glory On” and I found something that resonated closely with my own situation.
Later, I will write more about the importance of my grandmother in my life as a reader, perhaps after her funeral Monday, but I do want to look at the lines I quote above. Although I had thought I was long prepared for this day, it still surprised me with its sudden ache. As a child, I remember vividly three family members dying within two years of one another. I recall the heartache and confusion at learning over and over again what death is. There were times that I would come close into sinking into that pattern outlined above, where such trauma “first becoming a life, and then/as if the only one, as if no other were possible.” Phillips nails it here for me, that peril of fetishizing loss and grief. But how we deal with grief can change with time and what business is it, I find myself asking in response to the narrator here, how I grieve? Maybe it’s best to celebrate the release that has taken place from that most hideous of terminal illnesses (some may argue cancer is worse, but would you want to lose your personality and what makes you you rather than dealing with acute physical pain and discomfort? ‘Tis a horrible choice), as what made my grandmother herself had mostly died in the weeks and months before her body shut down due to further destruction of the brain tissue. “Crown in hand, little flowers of gold;” doesn’t that sound as though there is some vague optimism through the grief at hand?
Phillips’ other poems also speak of the complexities of life and our frustrations, fears, and hopes. Take for instance the imagery of bells in “The Heat of the Sun”:
…Maybe the mistake
never to make mistakes is the only
pattern we get to leave behind us: no bells – just
a calmness, after; the air so clear, we forget what
hurt so much and, in forgetting it, think it’s disappeared.
Bells ring to mark special occasions: marriages, ceremonies, calls to worship, death tolls. What happens when they stop ringing and the air is calm? Phillips suggests ambiguously that there is a forgetting, whether that is for good or nil is up to the reader to decide. Something else to consider, I suppose.
There are so many other examples that I could quote to illustrate Phillips’ adroit use of metaphor to reflect upon the nuances in our lives. Lines such as this taken from the first poem in the collection, “First Night at Sea”:
…As affection was never
twilight, but a light of its own, blindness not at all
a gift to be held close to the chest, stubborn horse
meanwhile beating wild beneath it, stubborn heart,
a dark, where was a brightness, a bright where dark.
The dualities here between light/twilight and blindness/sight set the tone for the remaining poems. Phillips does not suggest answers, only possibilities. This, however, is more than sufficient, as it allows the reader to adapt these lines to suit his/her needs. When beginning (or ending) the grieving process, there is some hope to be found in “a bright where dark,” or conversely, a sense that the narrator can sympathize when there is “a dark, where was a brightness.” Our emotions, as Phillips reminds us in this excellent but short collection, are ours to treat as we may. Sometimes poetry serves to remind us of those conflicts and contradictions that dwell within us. Double Shadow certainly does this and I am grateful that I had this in my possession when I learned the expected sad news this morning.
April 18th, 2012 § § permalink
Sodomist, Abuser of Women,
Destroyer of Morals, Ensnarer of Youth,
Philip Roth has never been adverse to a bit of sex, Portnoy’s Complaint was described by Time on its release in 1969 as “a sex novel of the absurd”, and forty years on, there are still parts of it that are quite shocking. Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, which won the National Book Award in 1995 and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer (losing to Richard Ford’s Independence), makes it look rather tame by comparison. The novel focuses on the exploits of Morris “Mickey” Sabbath, an exemplar of the phrase “dirty old man”. Formerly a puppeteer until his hands became riddled with arthritis, and fired as an arts teacher after having been caught in a compromising position with a student, he spends his life reading books about death and conducting an affair with the married owner of the local inn. His long-suffering wife, Roseanna, who has to support him, is a former alcoholic with enough problems of her own. At the beginning of the novel, Sabbath is content with his life as a gleeful adulterer, but the loss of his mistress causes a descent that follows the trajectory of Lear’s, a similarity Roth enforces, into madness and ruin.
Sabbath’s problems at first arise when he begins to see the ghost of his mother, who urges to kill himself and end his failure of a life. His relationship with his mother is an issue for him, stemming from the death of his brother, Morty. Morty was Sabbath’s hero as a boy, but never came back from World War II, having been shot down over the Philippines. His mother was so affected that she became withdrawn and was never the same afterwards, seemingly incapable of happiness (parental problems are a major theme in the novel, as Roseanna’s drinking is caused less by Sabbath than by her father’s suicide when she was a child). Sabbath’s way to escape from the situation was to sign up for the merchant navy, and as a result he spent most of his formative years, sexually, in whorehouses. His callousness, and his attitude towards women stems from a fear of abandonment, as in addition to his childhood trauma, his first wife, Nikki disappeared. She was an actress that Sabbath met when doing his puppet show and the star of the only play he ever put on, King Lear, a critical failure. What Sabbath loved about her was that she was submissive to almost the point of docility, and as a result he could impose his will on her without resistance. She disappears one night before the start of the evening’s play, while Sabbath is fooling around with the woman that becomes his second wife. He feels betrayed by the fact those he loved left him, as Roth writes,
The question haunted Sabbath. Why? Why? If only someone will explain to us why, maybe we could accept it. Why did you die? Where did you go? However much you may have hated me, why don’t you come back so we can continue our linear, logical life like all the other couples who hate each other?
This can also be seen in his attitude towards his work. He studied in Italy and came back to work in America putting on obscene puppet shows (for which he was once arrested and convicted), and although he at one point had his own theatre, he claims to be uncomfortable working with real actors, much preferring his own puppets as,
With puppets you never had to banish the actor from the role. There was nothing false or artificial about puppets, nor were they “metaphors” for human beings. They were what they were, and no one had to worry that a puppet would disappear, as Nikki had, right off the face of the earth.
His affinity with puppets goes further than simple malleability though, there seems to be something about puppets the is essential, something beyond the realm of humans. “The mistake” he says, ” is ever to think that to act and to speak is the natural domain of anyone other than a puppet. Contentment is being hands and voice- looking to be more, students, is madness.”
In his mistress, Drenka, he finds a woman as sexually adventurous as he is. In addition to having sex with her whenever he has the chance (including while his wife is away undergoing rehabilitation for her alcoholism), he encourages her to have affairs with other men too, so she can relate all the juicy details to him afterwards. There are two events of which the pair are particularly proud; the first being a lesbian encounter arranged by Sabbath, in which Drenka wanted to be paid so she could feel like a prostitute, and the second, a day in which four different men came inside her. The opening of the novel sees Drenka asking Sabbath to be faithful, something he finds preposterous as she can’t be faithful to him even if he is. His meanness (in which he counters by saying he will do so if she gives the husband she despises two blowjobs a week) leads to her blurting out that she has cancer, and it is advanced to the point that it is fatal. Despite his attitudes towards her, it becomes clear to Sabbath after her death that he cared for Drenka deeply, and he has trouble accepting the fact that she too has left him. He becomes jealous of the time that she spent with other men, and even sneaks into the graveyard late at night to masturbate on her grave (and surprisingly, discovers he isn’t the only one to do so). Sabbath is a beast, no doubt about it, but Drenka is the only person in the novel that not only accepts it, but encourages it. In fact, the only honest conversation that occurs in the novel is one between the two about how they felt when they experimented with urinating on each other.
The mental toll that Drenka’s death has on Sabbath is made apparently after an absurd incident at the cemetery where he licks from his fingers the cum of another one of Drenka’s lovers who had paid his respects in the same manner as Sabbath, while chanting “I am Drenka!” In the section that follows, titled “To Be or Not To Be”, referencing Hamlet’s soliloquy that acts as a meditation on suicide, Sabbath begins to contemplate killing himself, as suggested by the ghost of his mother (arguably, another Hamlet reference). He purposely antagonises his wife to facilitate a massive argument, and then heads to New York to attend the funeral of a friend. As Roth writes,
The problem was that his life was never to be solved. His wasn’t he kind of life where there are aims that are clear and means that are clear and where it is possible to say, “this is essential and that is not essentials, this I will not do because I cannot endure it, and that I will do because I can endure it.” There was no unsnarling an existence whose waywardness constituted its own authority and provided its primary amusement. He wanted his mother to understand that he wasn’t blaming the futility on Morty’s death, or on her collapse, or on Nikki’s disappearance, or on his stupid profession, or on his arthritic hands-he was merely recounting to her what had happened before this had happened… Homeless, wifeless, mistressless, penniless . . . jump in the cold river and drown. Climb up into the woods and go to sleep, and tomorrow morning, should you even awaken, keep climbing until you are lost. Check into a motel, borrow the night clerk’s razor to shave, and slit your own throat from ear to ear. It could be done.
The return to New York does little to help his mental health, as he left in the first place as Nikki’s disappearance was beginning to drive him mad. At his worst point he has a break down on a train, rambling lines from Lear, and becoming certain that the drama student who prompts him must be Nikki’s daughter, terrifying the poor girl. His despair is the result of his self-obsession though, and when he thinks he may have a new affair to look forward to, he returns to his old Falstaff-ian self. Having seduced the wife of his only friend, partly with the use of the categorical imperative, in itself impressed, he finds that he is no longer so suicidal.
Yes, yes, yes, he felt uncontrollable tenderness for his own shit-filled life. And a laughable hunger for more. More defeat! More disappointment! More deceit! More loneliness! More arthritis! More missionaries! God willing, more cunt! More disastrous entanglement in everything. For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence. I may not have been a matinee idol, but say what you will about me, it’s been a real human life!
His affair never comes to fruition though, as the contents of his trousers (her daughter’s panties, a bag of crack, and a cup he used in the city for begging as “performance art”), scare his intended target off. Without the promise of anymore sex in his future, Sabbath leaves the city, once again resigned to taking his own life.
In many ways, Sabbath is the antithesis of American Pastoral‘s Swede, where he cannot act, Sabbath seems unable of any sort of decorum. He is, to use a Freudian analogy, pure Id, driven by both Eros and Thanatos. For all his callousness and cruelty, for all his cleverness and so called brutal honesty, his talk of having “murdered” his wife, it really is just self-involvement. In his actions, he sees himself as Iago, manipulating people with his emotions, but he doesn’t even realise that he isn’t actually faking it. If there is a Shakespeare character he resembles it isn’t Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Iago, or Falstaff, but Lear’s fool because he doesn’t even realise the farce of his life. In the end he cannot even acquire the plot in the rundown graveyard next to his family, as it has already been filled by an elderly Jewish relative in comic fashion. Even his attempt to return home is foiled by his discovering that his absence, his wife has become involved with a woman. He has no one at all, as they have either died or he has driven them away. His life has come to naught and he knows this,
If he weren’t too old to go back to sea, if his fingers weren’t crippled, if Morty had lived and Nikki hadn’t been insane, or he hadn’t been-if there weren’t war, lunacy, perversity, sickness, imbecility, suicide and death, chances were he’d be in a lot better shape. He’d paid the full price for art, only he hadn’t made any. He’d suffered all the old-fashioned artistic sufferings-isolation, poverty, despair, mental and physical obstruction-and nobody knew or cared. And though nobody knowing or caring was another form of artistic suffering, in his case it had no artistic meaning. He was just somebody who had grown ugly, old, and embittered, one of billions.
Deciding now is the time to die, he returns to the scene of the crime (Drenka’s grave) to be caught by her son, Matthew, a police officer, who he believes will kill him. His last great mistake is to assume that everyone is as twisted as he is, but Matthew, knowing full well all of the things that Sabbath had done to his mother, refuses to kill him. His assumption that deep down everyone is just like him is proved wrong by a man who arguably has every right to hurt him. In the end, he can’t even bring himself to take his own life, all his talk of suicide was just self-delusion, “he could not do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.”
April 16th, 2012 § § permalink
But atheism – or, more accurately, the indifference of the gods – was not the only problem posed by Lucretius’ poem. Its main concerns lay elsewhere, in the material world we all inhabit, and it is here that the most disturbing arguments arose, arguments that lured those who were most struck by their formidable power – Machiavelli, Burno, Galileo, and others – into strange trains of thought. Those trains of thought had once been eagerly explored in the very land to which they now returned, as a result of Poggio’s discovery. But a thousand years of virtual silence had rendered them highly dangerous.
By now much of what On the Nature of Things claims about the universe seems deeply familiar, at least among the circle of people who are likely to be reading these words. After all, many of the work’s core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed. But it is worth remembering that some of the arguments remain alien and that others are hotly contested, often by those who gladly avail themselves of the scientific advances they helped to spawn. And to all but a few of Poggio’s contemporaries, most of what Lucretius claimed, albeit in a poem of startling, seductive beauty, seemed incomprehensible, unbelievable, or impious. (Ch. 8, e-book edition)
Imagine a world where our internet has crashed and petabytes of data about our lives, worldviews, and histories are irretrievably lost. Envision the scientific method rejected out of hand due to its dangerous potential to undermine certain philosophical views of the world. Such a place would be radically different within a few generations of this massive change. Then try to picture someone discovering a long-lost fragment of this past society and realizing that this little scrap piece might overturn currently-accepted views of religion, cosmology, and the very nature of things.
Such a thing did happen in the early 15th century when a former secretary to the disgraced anti-Pope John XXIII, Poggio Bracciolini, discovered a long-lost manuscript of the 1st century BCE poet/philosopher Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which until that point had appeared only in a few fleeting references in other works. Discovered only a generation before Gutenberg developed his movable type press, this work was a slow-release detonation that rocked the foundations of late-medieval/Renaissance thought.
Professor Stephen Greenblatt, one of the founders of the literary New Historicism movement, which seeks to contextualize literary works with their times and Zeitgeist, steps back a bit from his main research area of Elizabethan literature to explore the ramifications of this book-length poem/philosophical piece being reintroduced after a millennium. He breaks his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern into a historical component that revolves around Poggio’s time and his motives for searching for lost manuscripts and a philosophical one that examines Lucretius’ transmission of Epicurean thought and how that philosophy was so alien and enticing to several leading thinkers of the 15th century and beyond.
The eponymous “swerve” is an explanation of ancient Atomist thought. The world is, according to Lucretius, is composed of a countless number of atoms, which interact in strange ways:
But because throughout the universe from time everlasting countless numbers of them, buffeted and impelled by blows, have shifted in countless ways, experimentation with every kind of movement and combination has at last resulted in arrangements such as those that created and compose our world. (On the Nature of Things, 1.1024-28)
This “swerve,” which according to Greenblatt Lucretius variously referred to as declinatio, inclinatio, or clinamen, involves only minute motions. But what waves are created from these motions! Nearly-infinite particles merge and mate and clash and rip themselves apart to create new beings, new forms. This belief, which is derived from some of Epicurus’ thoughts on cosmology, has little room for gods (or God). It is little surprise, as Greenblatt surmises at several points throughout the book, that anything with a hint of Epicurean thought to it, particularly the more “atheistic” ones that focus on the material, concrete world to the near-complete dismissal of the spiritual, was going to be denounced and destroyed by the Church leaders in the immediate aftermath of the rise of Christianity to state religion in the late Roman Empire. Greenblatt does an excellent job centering the “lost” status of Lucretius’ poem, not to mention other fragments of Epicurean thought, around the potential danger they held for the dominant philosophical/religious system in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century.
It is hard to find fault in Greenblatt’s presentation, as he builds a persuasive case for the importance of Poggio’s discovery through the use of early chapters devoted to reconstructing the dominant religious ideology and the constraints many philosophers of the time operated under (or against) before he lays out in detail just how the rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem introduced new ways of thinking into a society that was seeing the reemergence of long-distance markets, both commercial and philosophical alike. Perhaps Greenblatt could have provided more counter-evidence to test his argument that exposure to Lucretius’ Epicurean-influenced work irrevocably changed European thought, but that would be splitting hairs, as most historians would readily admit that the rediscovery of works such as that of Lucretius and other ancient poets and philosophers did have a profound impact on the course of modern philosophy. In fact, if it weren’t for the discovery of such works, it would be almost impossible to imagine our modern world-views developing in the patterns that they did.
The Swerve is one of the best cultural/philosophical histories that I have read in recent years. Its scholarship is superb and Greenblatt eloquently argues his points without neglecting to provide evidence to support his arguments. Winner not only of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction but also just announced as the Pulitzer Prize winner in Non-Fiction, it is a work that will continue to spark debates about how we came to view the world in which we live. It is a deserving winner of both awards.
April 15th, 2012 § § permalink
What we really want to do, he said, deep in the secret recesses of our heart, all of us, is to destroy the forests, white saltbox houses, covered bridges, brownstones, azalea gardens, big red barns, colonial inns, riverboats, whaling villages, cider mills, waterwheels, antebellum mansions, log cabins, lovely old churches and snug little railroad depots. All of use secretly favour this destruction, even conservationists, even those embattled individuals who make a career out of picketing graceful and historic old buildings to protest their demolition. It’s what we are. Straight lines and right angles. We feel a private thrill, admit it, at the sight of beauty in flames. We wish to blast all these fine old things to oblivion and replace them with tasteless identical structures. Boxes of cancer cells. Neat gray chambers for meditation and the reading of advertisements. Imagine the fantastic prairie motels we could build if we would only give in completely to the demons of our true nature; imagine the automobiles that might take us from motel to motel; imagine the monolithic fifty-story machines for disposing of the victims of automobile accidents without the bother of funerals and the waste of tombstones or sepulchres. Let the police run wild. Let the mad leaders of our nation destroy whomever they choose. That’s what we really want, Black Knife told me. We want to be totally engulfed by all the so-called worst elements of our national life and character. We want to wallow in the terrible gleaming mudcunt of Mother America. (That’s what he said). We want to come to terms with the false anger we so often display at the increasing signs of sterility and violence in our culture. Kill the old brownstones and ornate railroad terminals. Kill the rotten stinking smalltown courthouses. Blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Blow up Nantucket. Blow up the Blue Ridge Parkway. We must realize that we are living in Megamerica. Neon, fiber glass, Plexiglass, polyu-rethane, Mylar, Acrylite.
In 1971, Don DeLillo published his first novel, a novel he has said came to him in a “moment in which nothing happened, nothing ostensibly changed, a moment in which I didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen before. But there was a pause in time, and I knew I had to write about a man who comes to a street like this or lives on a street like this. And whatever roads the novel eventually followed, I believe I maintained the idea of that quiet street if only as counterpoint, as lost innocence.” The protagonist Dave Bell is a Madison Avenue network exec who spends his days not unlike Mad Men’s Don Draper, drinking, napping, and engaging in a power struggle with the other people who work at the firm. At 28, he is the youngest person in a position of power, something he takes very seriously, and his project, a person of interest documentary titled Soliloquy, is a critical, although not commercial success. In a dangerous time at the office, his star seems to be on the rise and he about to undertake a project that he has been pushing for, a documentary on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Despite his success at work, he begins to suffer from existential angst as he finds himself at parties that he doesn’t want to be with, sleeping around with women his doesn’t particularly care for, unable to make sense of his place in the world as he undergoes the disintegration of self that so often occurs in the face of capitalism. Despite his young age, he has already been divorced for a few years, having cheated on his wife when the relationship lost its spark. He withdraws from the marriage, and even though he knows that he is hurting the women he is having an affair with, also purposely refuses to give her anything of himself either. He retreats inside himself as it is easier for him to not have any responsibilities towards other people, as DeLillo writes,
I wanted to wake up alone; it was a characteristic of mine, which women learned to despise down through the years. My apartment welcomed me, dim and silent, the red-wine flavor of paintings and rugs, the fireplace and oak paneling, the black leather upholstery, old and comfortably cracked, the dull copper mugs on the mantelpiece and the burnished ale tone of the desk lamp-all warm and familiar and needing no acknowledgement, all reminding me that solitude asks no pledges of anyone.
In order to escape his life in New York, he embarks on a road trip across America with a group of artistic friends to film his Navajo documentary (it has to be by road because to America cars are religious, planes have not yet become religious), but he never makes it there, lost among the small towns of backwoods America.
On the way to Arizona, Dave decides he wants to make a film to piece together his shattered past. Putting to use his filmmaking skills gained from his years at a small liberal arts college, he asks the locals to act out scenes from his life, some factual and some imagined. Throughout the novel, Dave talks about how he associated with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, but his own film is very different from the usual Hollywood fare. Film is a constant in the work of DeLillo, and Dave becomes obsessed with his film, believing that if he can create a transcendental work of art, he might be able to understand what has gone wrong in his life. For inspiration he cribs from the finest filmmakers, Yasujirō Ozu, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, and even attempts to recreate the memorable snow scene from Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. In his film he deconstructs the major events of his life: the sister he no longer sees because she ran off with a criminal, the effect it had on his delicate mother and her later death from cancer, and the withdrawal of his advertising exec father as a result. His father’s job has given him some insight into the personal nature of consumerism, quoting,
“In this country there is a universal third person, the man we all want to be. Advertising has discovered this man. It uses him to express the possibilities open to the consumer. To consume in America is not to buy; it is to dream. Advertising is the suggestion that the dream of entering the third person singular might possibly be fulfilled.”
In one particular passage, Dave has an actor read a harrowing account of what he believes his father saw on the Bataan death march during World War II, something his father has always refused to talk about. In this scene he imagines the very worst that humans are capable of, cruelty and torture, amidst the rotting corpses and dysentery. In attempting to understand what his father saw, and the impossibility of not being affected by it, it isn’t hard to see why his father was always somewhat distant with his son.
Two characters in the novel in particular foreshadow the absurdity and paranoia that DeLillo would later be identified by. The first is Warburton, an older man who works at the firm, and is kept around mostly because he is seen as their moral compass (although they always ignore him anyway). In secret he is the man that Dave calls Trotsky, an anonymous individual who has been sending out memos in secret quoting from political theory, theology, and philosophy. Dave begins to suspect him when he quotes Kafka discussing China in a meeting, and when he confronts Warburton about the most recent memo, quoting St Augustine, he denies it before replying,
“We are endlessly dying… We begin dying when we are born. A short time later we die. By universal consent, more or less, this is known as death. In time the so-called resurrection of the body takes place. Soul and body become joined in what we already defined as the state of death. But although we are in the state of death we are not dead because body and soul are intact once again and there is no recourse but to resume the process of dying. Or, if you will, the process of living-the words are interchangeable really. And since the process of dying goes on for all eternity we cannot be said to be waiting for death. Nor are we looking back on something which is not there but here. In this paradoxical, redundant and somewhat comical passage, what Augustine is getting at beyond all the gibberish is that death never dies and man shall remain forever in the state of death. There is always the chance, of course, that I have misunderstood every word. I managed to obtain a key to the multilith room. I run off the copies after midnight and then distribute then, If I’m not able to get it all done before daybreak, I distribute the remaining copies during lunchtime, as was the case yesterday. I work quickly and stealthily. Naturally, I am above suspicion.”
The other character is a late night/early morning radio DJ, Warren Beadsley, who’s show, “Death is Just Around the Corner” consists solely of his monologues, as he waxes lyrical about cults, conspiracies, the CIA, revolution and all sorts of outsider culture. While the novel contains many precursors to later themes in the work of DeLillo, Beardsley is arguably the genesis of what defines his work; the paranoia andt he conspiracy theories. Even the seemingly inexhaustible Beadsley is beginning to show cracks like Dave though, as he admits he has had to switch from live to pre-recorded towards the end of the novel, finding that it is becoming too difficult.
As a debut novel, Americana, is not without its flaws. DeLillo had yet to master his own chaotic prose, and it gets away from him, sometimes running on too long, and at times becoming overly purple. It remains important though because DeLillo is an important writer, and through the ideas that populate the novel we see the evolution of a writer who has become one of the finest in the world. Dave Bell is a man destroyed by modern American life, and is forced to try and find some meaning in the core of his own wrecked self. The novel ends in the mid-west, as Dave abandons his friends to continue west into mythical America. Avoiding the Navajo reservation where he is still expected, he spends the night with a group of hippies who have left their normal lives behind to live with Apaches. Even the anti-thesis of his New York life cannot cure his malaise, and he leaves in the morning and the novel descends into chaos. At the workplace of the Samaritan giving him a ride, a Cadillac driving, loud mouthed Texan, he engages in a bacchanalian orgy of sex and violence, and, having bathed himself in essence of real America, he does the only thing that he can do; he cleans himself up, and books himself a flight back to New York.
 Paris Review – Don DeLillo, The Art of Fiction No. 135, Interviewed by Adam Begley
April 13th, 2012 § § permalink
And the doctor wore a night shirt too, not pajamas, for the same reason that he smoked the pipe which he had never learned and knew that he would never learn to like, between the occasional cigar which clients gave him in the intervals of Sundays on which he smoked the three cigars which he felt he could buy for himself even though he owned the beach cottage as well as the one next door to it and the one, the residence with electricity and plastered walls, in the village four miles away. Because he was now forty-eight years old and he had been sixteen and eighteen and twenty at the time when his father could tell him (and he believe it) that cigarettes and pajamas were for dudes and women.
Once (it was in Mississippi, in May, in the flood year 1927) there were two convicts. One of them was about twenty-five, tall, lean, flat-stomached, with a sunburned face and Indian-black hair and pale, china-colored outraged eyes – an outrage directed not at the men who had foiled his crime, not even at the lawyers and judges who had sent him here, but at the writers, the uncorporeal names attached to the stories, the paper novels – the Diamond Dicks and Jesse Jameses and such – whom he believed had led him into his present predicament through their own ignorance and gullibility regarding the medium in which they dealt and took money for, in accepting information on which they placed the stamp of verisimilitude and authenticity (this so much the more criminal since there was no sworn notarised statement attached and hence so much the quicker would the information be accepted by one who expected the same unspoken good faith, demanding, asking, expecting no certification, which he extended along with the dime or fifteen cents to pay for it) and retailed for money and which on actual application proved to be impractical and (to the convict) criminally false; there would be times when he would halt his mule and plow in midfurrow (there is no walled penitentiary in Mississippi; it is a cotton plantation which the convicts work under the rifles and shotguns of guards and trusties) and muse with a kind of enraged impotence, fumbling among the rubbish left him by his one and only experience with courts and law, fumbling until the meaningless and verbose shibboleth took form at last (himself seeking justice at the same blind fount where he had met justice and been hurled back and down): using the mails to defraud: who felt that he had been defrauded by the third class mail system not of crass and stupid money which he did not particularly want anyway, but of liberty and honor and pride.
As much as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha stories are effective in creating a realistic setting with complex characters spitting into the winds of culture, family history, and fate, there is still the threat of narrative fatigue. After a few stories on the Compsons, Snopes, Sam Fathers, or Doom, the reader already has a general idea what to expect from these characters when they are confronted with certain situations. After 1929, Faulkner wrote very few non-Yoknapatawpha stories, but his 1939 novel, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (originally entitled The Wild Palms) stands out as perhaps one of his five most accomplished and moving novels. If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem features two separate narratives, each connected only thematically by how the protagonist responds to moments of crisis. Alternating chapters, “Wild Palms” and “Old Man,” tell the stories of a rich country doctor and a convict caught up in the aftermath of the 1927 Mississippi flood, as each battle against social conventions, desire, and fate.
The two quotes above underscore Faulkner’s use of parallel structure. The doctor, Harry Wilbourne (itself a telling name), is trapped. He becomes a country doctor, willy-nilly, just as he acceded to his father’s wishes and married the woman selected for him. He is slotted into his father’s old role, with little say in the matter. He doesn’t wear pajamas because his father disapproved of them. He smokes cigars because that was expected of doctors in the 1930s. His entire life is circumscribed by others’ expectations of what he, a doctor, ought to be, never mind what he himself might enjoy. It is this growing frustration with his assigned social/occupational role that leads Henry to partake in the ultimate transgression for his social milieu, that of a clandestine affair and later flight from the village where he had lived virtually his entire life.
Contrast this with the convict described in the second quote. He is younger, twenty-five at the time of the events of 1927, yet he too finds himself bound. His binding is not that of a society expecting him to occupy a prestigious position against his will, but rather he is shaped by the pulp fiction dime novels that he reads. This convict, for whom there is no name given in the “Old Man” chapters, rails against the deceptions that society has imposed upon its denizens through the dissemination of fictions that feature rogues and gentlemen thieves. Condemned to serve fifteen years at Parchman State Penitentiary (itself a vast plantation worked by convicts under the watchful eyes – and guns – of guards) for armed robbery, this convict feels deprived of liberty, honor, and pride by the very institutions that instilled such notions into his young mind.
The alternating structure of the “Wild Palms” and “Old Man” chapters allows Faulkner to explore the different (and similar) paths Harry and the convict take in dealing with their crises. For Henry, his love affair with Charlotte (herself a married woman) leads to a flight to the Gulf Coast, where both attempt to abscond not just from their spouses, but from the restrictions that their social class has imposed upon them. It is as much a confining prison as that which the convict discovers at Parchman, where the freedom to choose how to live one’s life has largely been taken away by a society that expects total conformity to its rules and conventions. Harry and Charlotte struggle to find happiness, feeling even from afar the scathing contempt born of their transgression. Fear of further loss and agony over Charlotte’s pregnancy and what that might mean to even the shredded remnants of their reputations leads to a desperate attempt by Harry to abort Charlotte’s pregnancy. Even though this ending, where the lovers cannot have full, “true” happiness due to their violation of social standards regarding the sanctity of marriage, risks having a cliched ending, Faulkner goes further and explores just how those implacable forces against we struggle can create something more than just a tragedy, something that is worth remembering even in grief and suffering because both are superior to nothingness. The very last paragraph of “Wild Palms” states this eloquently:
So it wasn’t just memory. Memory was just half of it, it wasn’t enough. But it must be somewhere he thought. There’s the waste. Not just me. At least I think I dont mean just me. Hope I dont mean just me. Let it be anyone thinking of, remembering, the body, the broad thighs and the hands that liked bitching and making things. It seemed so little, so little to want, to ask. With all the old graveward-creeping, the old wrinkled withered defeated clinging not even to the defeat but just to an old habit; accepting the defeat even to be allowed to cling to the habit – the wheezing lungs, the troublesome guts incapable of pleasure. But after all memory could live in the old wheezing entrails: and now it did stand to his hand, incontrovertible and plain, serene, the palm clashing and murmuring dry and wild and faint and it the night but he could face it, thinking, Not could. Will. I want to. So it is the old meat after all, no matter how old. Because if memory exists outside of the flesh it wont be memory because it wont know what it remembers so when she became not then half of memory became not and if I become not then all of remembering will cease to be. – Yes he thought. Between grief and nothing I will take grief.
The tall convict’s story in the “Old Man” chapters approach issues of freedom and love from a different angle. This unnamed convict, identified by his height through these chapters, finds freedom of a more literal sort when during the Mississippi flood of 1927, the inmates of Parchman are evacuated and his skiff (where he had rescued a woman from a tree) is forced apart from the rest of the crew. Whereas Harry and Charlotte’s flight is from extra-legal conventions that bind perhaps even harder than the legal restraints that the tall convict escapes, his situation becomes perilous due to the very real danger of being killed as a fugitive or bound to serve even more time if caught. He and the woman (who is pregnant) go up and down the river, trying to find Parchman, only to spend weeks separated. Traumatic events frequently bring people closer together and the tall convict and the woman do form a bond, even though he is bound and determined to return to finish his sentence.
There is a connection here between the flooded Mississippi (the “old man” of the story) and the streams of human lives that intersect it. Outside of rare tumultuous times, both flow from point to point with nary a pause. The convict’s struggles against the river, against this inexorable tide that pushes against his desire to return to his familiar penitential life, is seen in a telling passage near the end of the penultimate “Old Man” chapter:
The lake was behind him now; there was but one direction he could go. When he saw the River again he knew it at once. He should have; it was now ineradicably a part of his past, his life; it would be a part of what he would bequeath, if that were in store for him. But four weeks later it would look different from what it did now and did: he (the old man) had recovered from his debauch, back in banks again, the Old Man, rimpling placidly toward the sea, brown and rich as chocolate between levees whose inner faces were wrinkled as though in a frozen and aghast amazement…
Yet for the tall convict, as for Harry and Charlotte, fate proves to be fickle and treacherous. Although the tall convict turned himself in voluntarily, he discovers that he now has had an additional ten years added to his sentence for escaping, even despite his intent to return. While he receives this stoically, accepting it as part of fate, it is the betrayal of his female companion that angers him most, as she quickly moves on from their shared bond and forges a new one, despite her initial agreement to wait out those ten years for him to be free. Here, there is a bitterness that tinges the earlier resignation to fate, a sense that despite what the tall convict had stated throughout the narrative, that there is still a spark of resentment and perhaps even an eagerness to resist what fate has had in store for him. It is a sobering way to close If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, yet the tall convict’s “Women, shit” comment provides a sense that this tragedy is not the end of his life; he will continue to endure.
In a 1958 Paris Review interview, Faulkner made the following remark:
“No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by that word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol — cross or crescent or whatever — that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach a man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral codes and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.”
This quote fits neatly with the characters of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. Harry, Charlotte, and the tall convict all try to go beyond what their natures/society have dictated them to be. Although each fails, there is something to be said for that desire to strive to do his or her duty, whether it is to love and cherish or to remember grief in honor of that lost love. It is tempting to label the two stories contained within If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem as tragedies; after all, they do hold up the ideal of humanity as greater than its quotidian actions and desires. Yet there is more to it than the inevitable failure of those goals. We see characters striving to change the equation, to rewrite the rules and conventions and to forge something different. There is a nobleness in those deeds, which Harry and the convict will likely not forget, that brings Faulkner’s original title, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem,” full circle. That reference to suffering and loss also contains the germ of hope, as this suffering and sorrow will come to bear new fruit. Like Harry, between grief and nothing we choose to take grief.
April 11th, 2012 § § permalink
Thinking: She is not in my power and she never was. She is in the power of something that does not give a shit. Something demented. We all are. Their elders are not responsible for this. They are themselves not responsible for this. Something else is.
Yes, at the age of forty-six, in 1973, almost three quarters of the way through the century that with no regards for the niceties of burial had strewn the corpses of mutilated children and their mutilated parents everywhere, the Swede found out that we are all in the power of something demented. It’s just a matter of time, honky. We all are.
He heard them laughing, the Weathermen, the Panthers, the angry ragtag army of the violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have. The Swede finally found out! They were delirious with joy, delighted having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to their truth, to the truth as they knew it to be for every Vietnamese man, woman, child, and tot, for every colonized black in America, for everyone everywhere who had been fucked over by the capitalists and their insatiable greed. The something that’s demented, honky, is American history! It’s the American empire! It’s Chase Manhattan and General Motors and Standard Oil and Newark Maid Leatherware. Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race!
In American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s meta-fictional lens, the author, Nathan Zuckerman returns for the first time since Nineteen Eighty-Six’s The Counterlife, to play a more passive role as chronicler of the fictional life of a recently deceased acquaintance. The two meetings that Zuckerman has with the man whose life he imagines, Seymour “the Swede” Levov (rhymes with the-love) bookend the Swede’s life; first as the blue eyed handsome blonde high school star of baseball, basketball and football, the idol of a Newark community struggling to overcome the tragedy of the second World War, and much later as the wealthy owner of Newark Maid Leatherwear and father of three. The childlike idolization that Zuckerman had for the Swede, resulting from a throwaway friendly remark the Swede once made to him, remains forty-five years later, when upon meeting him for dinner at the Swede’s request, he struggles to reconcile the young man revered by the community as a god with the normal man that he has become. But all that changes when shortly after, at Zuckerman’s high school reunion, he learns from the Swede’s brother Jerry that the Swede has died from prostate cancer, and that his life was shattered by a random act of violence that Zuckerman knew nothing about. This revelation prompts Zuckerman to write a novel that imagines the idyllic life of the Swede and the consequences that the tragedy has on himself and his family.
The role that the Zuckerman device plays in American Pastoral (and the two novels that follow, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain) is fundamentally different to the Zuckerman novels that precede it (collectively referred to as Zuckerman Bound). Whereas in the past, Roth had used Zuckerman as a lens to examine and comment on his own experiences, such as the sudden fame that arose from the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, (re-enacted in Zuckerman Unbound as Zuckerman’s difficulty coming to terms with his fame after the release of the his fictional novel “Carnovsky”), and also to comment on the relationship between the artist and art, the Zuckerman of American Pastoral acts as an added layer between author and fiction. In a sense, through the use of Zuckerman, the fictional novel within a novel as a framing device becomes something akin to a play-within-a-play. Zuckerman himself tells the reader that if he were to give his novel to Jerry, that he would likely tell him that he has got not only the facts, but also the character of all those involved completely wrong. But for Zuckerman, as for all works of fiction, getting it right is unimportant because fiction can never be right, as he explains in the two quotes that follow. Firstly,
The fact that remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive; we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. If you can do that-well, lucky you.
Writing turns you into somebody that is always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.
The act of writing fiction then, can never be “right”, because authors are not attempting to recreate the truth, to do so would be a contradiction in terms. Through Zuckerman’s liberties with the life of the Swede, we can see his motivations for using the narrative to shape his own views of America as a separate entity from Roth, and that allows us to analyse the intent of a character and not the author, sidestepping the problems that arises in regards to authorial intent. As a result we can say that Zuckerman shapes his Swede in a manner that allows him to reveal the empty reality of the American pastoral, without having to speculate as to what Roth intends.
When discussing character in The Poetics, Aristotle states that the author of the tragedy, in regards to the protagonist, must “[reproduce] the distinctive form of the original” while “[making] a likeness true to life and yet more beautiful”. The “real” Swede is already an impressive specimen, seeming to be the consummate All-American Jew, handsome, successful, and at one point married to a shiksa beauty queen, Dawn Dwyer, the 1949 Miss New Jersey and Miss America contestant. In Zuckerman’s novel, putting aside an engagement and a military career he is a dutiful son, starting at the bottom of the company in the tannery and learning every aspect of glove-making before succeeding his father as the owner of Newark Maid Leatherware. He is also a dutiful husband, often putting his wife’s happiness ahead of his own, and buying a classic country house for the pair to live in in a gentile community, against his parents’ wishes. But it this desire to please everyone that leads to his downfall and expulsion from his pastoral paradise. His willingness to avoid any sort of conflict that would shatter the idyllic life that he wants so badly leads to the tragedy that destroys his family. His brother Jerry, in an angry phone call, brings the point home,
What are you? Do you know? What you are is you’re always trying to smooth everything over. What you are is always trying to be moderate. What you are is never telling the truth if you think it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings. What you are is you’re always compromising. What you are is always complacent. What you are is always trying to find the bright side of things. The one with manners. The one who abides everything patiently. The one with the ultimate decorum. The boy who never breaks the code. Whatever society dictates, you do. Decorum.
What the Greeks understood about tragedy is that the punishment for the crime of inaction carries as much weight as any other. The Swede goes through his life as if he never really has any agency; when the time comes to act, he fails to do so. He caters to his wife’s every whim, from purchasing an expensive steer so she can raise cattle, to expensive modern art and a facelift in Geneva. When his daughter starts to become radicalised, instead of putting his foot down, he instead respects her opinion and tries to enter into rational discourse with her, which does nothing to dissuade her. His self-sacrificing nature makes him a passive spectator to the demise of his reality, and it is commitment to his American pastoral, and his Proustian desire to return to it after the tragedy that serves as his hubris. Paradise lost can never be regained, regardless of any amount of nostalgic longing.
The instrument that brings about the destruction of the Swede’s pastoral is his beloved daughter Merry. Cherished by her father, she grows from a sweet and loving daughter with a speech impediment to an angry pro-Vietnam Communist who despises her father for owning the means of production. In her anger, she brings the war home to America, using what she has learned in high school chemistry to construct a bomb. Her plan to blow up the local small town post office goes awry though, when the bomb kills the local doctor who was in the vicinity unexpectedly. The incident forces Merry to go into hiding, causing the Swede to lose a daughter and his wife, Dawn, to suffer a mental breakdown. As Roth writes,
…the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive-initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens the particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral-into the indigenous American berserk.
The Swede becomes obsessed with psychoanalysing his daughter, scrutinizing his memories of her childhood to try and identify some event that served as the catalyst for her radical change. Rita Cohen, her supposed accomplice and tormentor of the Swede, claims her reasons arose due to criticism of her stutter by her mother, and his bourgeois values. His darkest fear is that is it all stems from his mistake in indulging her childhood whim that he kiss her like he kisses her mother, a mistake that haunts him in the wake of tragedy. When he finds her later, having come full circle back to Newark, she has killed three more people, been raped twice, and become a Jain, the horror of which is too much for him to bear. But even then, he is still unable to force himself to act and take her out of her dangerous situation, even after a strong dressing down by his brother, who offers to fly in from Florida and do it himself. He does realise however, that everything she has done is a feeble attempt to fill the emptiness inside her as the Swede’s inner monologue demonstrates,
Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness ever deeper. There is nothing we can do to dispose of that. No, loneliness shouldn’t surprise us, as astonishing to experience it as it may be. You can try turning yourself inside out, but all you are then is inside out and lonely instead of inside in and lonely. My stupid, stupid Merry dear, stupider even that your stupid father, not even blowing up buildings helps. It’s lonely if there are buildings and it’s lonely if there are no buildings. There is no protest to be lodged against loneliness-not all the bombing campaigns in history have made a dent in it. The most lethal of manmade explosives can’t touch it. Stand in awe not of Communism, my idiot child, but of ordinary, everyday loneliness. On May Day go out and march with your friends to its greater glory, the superpower of superpowers, the force that overwhelms all. Put your money on it, bet on it, worship it-bow down in submission not to Karl Marx, my stuttering, angry, idiot child, not to Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung, bow down to the great god Loneliness!
Roth’s novel ends, not with death or divorce, but with a seemingly normal dinner party that takes place during the Watergate scandal and signifies the mundane death of the Swede’s pastoral. He discovers that his wife’s upswing in mood has been caused by an affair with their Ivy-league neighbour, William Orcutt III, and having discovered from Merry that her speech therapist (also a family friend and his mistress for a few months when Dawn was in a mental institution) was the person who hid Merry after the initial bombing. Also in attendance is Mrs. Orcutt, who drinks herself into oblivion, and the Swede’s parents. The conversation moves from the war to Deep Throat, and as the Swede sits in the middle of the facade, he knows it is all a lie. He has, as Zuckerman writes earlier in the novel, “learned the worst lesson that life can teach-that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.” We imagine our lives in the third person, the people we want to be, the lives that we want to have, reality has other plans for us. The force of history destroys the Swede’s idyllic life, despite the wall he builds around his pastoral, history cannot be kept out. Not just his daughter’s crime, but the war, the Newark riots, racial tension, presidential assassinations, infidelity, and betrayal; the barbarians are at the gates and they cannot be kept out forever. This can happen to any of us, we are all on the chopping block.
This is how successful people live. They’re good citizens. They feel lucky. They feel grateful. God is smiling down on them. There are problems, they adjust. And then everything changes and it becomes impossible. Nothing is smiling down on anybody. And who can adjust then? Here is someone not set up for life’s working out poorly, let alone the impossible. But who is set up for the impossible that is going to happen? Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering? Nobody. The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy-that is every man’s tragedy.
April 6th, 2012 § § permalink
One notable feature of Faulkner’s writing is that there are very few true “villains.” Yes, there are characters such as Light in August‘s Joe Christmas who do reprehensible deeds, yet their portrayals allow us enough insight into their characters that we feel sympathetic, at least in part, toward them. Faulkner’s thematic explorations into how history and place affect character motivations and actions tend to leave little ground for characters that are truly repulsive or “evil.” One possible exception might be the Snopes family. Ever since the first Yoknapatawpha novel, Sartoris (later revised as Flags in the Dust) in 1929, members of this family have come to represent souls who have been banished to the outskirts of polite society, left there to scrounge for themselves, largely outside the influence of others. Ab Snopes, the horsethief and resentful barn burner of The Unvanquished and “Barn Burning,” is shady enough on his own, yet it is his second son, Flem, who perhaps is the coldest, least sympathetic recurring character in all of Faulkner’s fictions, with the possible exception of Sanctuary‘s Popeye (yet even he has his moments of near-redemption). Flem appears briefly in Flags in the Dust and is referenced in the 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, before playing a central role in the “Snopes Trilogy” (The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959). He is described as having “eyes the color of stagnant water” and his small nose somehow manages to have the hooked appearance of a raptor bird. He is more shrewd than his father, having moved from a position of poverty toward a powerful position in Frenchman’s Bend, located in the southernmost part of Yoknapatawpha County.
“Centaur in Brass” (1932) represents Flem as a half-legendary character whose amorality baffles and annoys the townspeople of Jefferson, yet whose ability to turn a trade into something favorable to him has made him an object of grudging admiration. The anonymous narrator of “Centaur in Brass” certainly displays this as he recounts in the first quarter of this twenty page story some of Flem Snopes’ exploits: the way he went from being a country store clerk to having the former store owner work for him; the fashion in which he “won the hand” of that same store owner’s beautiful daughter, Eula; their elopement in Texas and return just in front of a pony trader who sells the locals unbroken ponies; Flem’s rapid rise to prominence, first in Frenchman’s Bend and later in Jefferson. There are hints of unscrupulous acts, such as the one involving Eula and the new Jefferson mayor, Major Hoxey:
Not impregnable: impervious. That was why it did not need gossip when we watched Snopes’s career mount beyond the restaurant and become complement with Major Hoxey’s in city affairs, until less than six months after Hoxey’s inauguration Snopes, who had probably never been close to any piece of machinery save a grindstone until he moved to town, was made superintendent of the municipal power plant. Mrs. Snopes was born one of those women the deeds and fortunes of whose husbands alone are the barometers of their good name; for to do her justice, there was no other handle for gossip save her husband’s rise in Hoxey’s administration.
But there was still that intangible thing: partly something in her air, her face; partly what we had already heard about Flem Snopes’s methods. Or perhaps what we knew or beleived about Snopes was all; perhaps what we thought to be anyway, when we saw Snopes and Hoxey together we would think of them and adultery in the same instant, and we would think of the two of them walking and talking in amicable cuckholdry. Perhaps, as I said, this was the fault of the town. Certainly it was the fault of the town that the idea of their being on amicable terms outraged us more than the idea of the adultery itself. It seemed foreign, decadent, perverted: we could have accepted, if not condoned, the adultery had they only been natural and logical and enemies.
Yet “Centaur in Brass” is not about Snopes adding to his list of triumphs. Instead, it is a tale in which the shrewd, almost reptilian, calculating Snopes gets the tables turned on him as he tries to make a profit by having brass parts from the power plant turned into a profit by having the two fireman, Tom-Tom (day) and Turl (night), portrayed as being guilty parties of stealing parts from the plant for their own personal profit. Yet these two firemen, after a heated confrontation leads to mutual awareness of what Snopes has done, manage to turn the tables on him, forcing him to pay for the purloined parts. It is a well-written inversion of the opening section of the story: the con man is conned; the menial labor one-ups the superior.
Revealing this does not weaken the story, as it is as much a fuller introduction to Flem Snopes’ character than it is a clever tale of deceiving the decepter. One thing is notable here, however. The Flem Snopes of “Centaur in Brass” is not quite as developed as he became in the later Snopes novels. We only hear of his exploits, but do not see them executed. There is not yet the sense of cold, almost malicious intent in his actions; here, he only is after a profit and nothing else. His wife, Eula, barely factors here, compared to her role in the novels. It is as though Flem Snopes were an idea that Faulkner had had for some time (viz. his appearance in Flags in the Dust), yet there were still questions of how best to flesh out this character. Despite this sketchy quality to Snopes’ character, “Centaur in Brass” is a very effective story because of its contrast of the legend and the reality of Flem’s character. We do not admire his behavior or his motivations, but there is something about the audaciousness in which he operates that captures the readers’ attentions, making them want to read more about this character and to try and understand just how this cold, calculating person operates. This, when combined with the contrasts noted above, make “Centaur in Brass” a story that loses very little when read multiple times.
April 4th, 2012 § § permalink
War, those who love trite expressions might say, is a horrible, tragic thing. Innumerable numbers of people have died through the ages due to competition for resources, for upholding their cultural/religious beliefs, for ideals that often seem insubstantial when one views the corpses of people they have known and loved. Yet war also reminds us paradoxically of our better qualities, of the brave men and women who have suffered in the hopes that their next generation may not have to endure what they have persevered through. It is this combination of the horrific and the heroic that makes war (or violence in general, perhaps) so grotesquely fascinating to people even centuries after the last shot was fired. In the United States and especially in the region of the former Confederacy, the American Civil War still occupies a central part of the national psyche. Whether some view it as a “righteous” war that preserved not just the Union but also eradicated that detestable institution of slavery or if it marked the descent into privation and the genesis of a further cultural separation from the rest of the country, the Civil War’s many facets and interpretations still are being fought over 150 years after the surrender of Fort Sumter.
As a native Tennessean whose family (the Irish side, that is; the Cherokees and Chickasaws had lived here for thousands of years) had been among the first to settle in Tennessee (my 4x great-grandfather was William Cage, who was the Speaker of the House for the failed state of Franklin), the Civil War for my ancestors contained its own fair share of agonies and glories. My great-great grandfather had his exploits at the Battle of Ft. Donelson (about which I may write more later this year), while ancestors of my paternal grandmother split over secession and some fought for the Union while others fought for the Confederacy. This was common across both sides of the “border states,” especially Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. In viewing prior battle sites, there were stark reminders that Tennesseans killed Tennesseans over the issues of the indissoluble Union and slavery. It is easy, over 150 years after the fighting began, to condemn one side and praise the other, depending if the perspective centers around those ideals of “freedom of people” and “freedom of the states.” Those antebellum ideas are still be fought over today, just this time it takes the form of rhetoric regarding things such as health care, birth control, social welfare, and taxation.
In 1862, there had only been relatively minor battles. Both the Union and the Confederacy had to quell fractious arguments regarding volunteer mustering and the suspension of basic rights such as that of habeas corpus. The Confederates were trying to hold a series of river passages that ran deep into Southern territory while the Union forces were in near paralysis due to the Army of the Potomac’s General George McClellan slow recovery from typhoid fever and to Western Theater commander Hallack’s initial refusal to engage in more than cautious advancement after the capture of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson during the first 16 days of February 1862. But scarcely two months later, one of the largest, bloodiest, and most important battles had been fought near the west bank of the Tennessee River at a tiny place called Pittsburg Landing, a mere 22 miles from the important railroad center of Corinth, Mississippi. Over the course of April 6-7, 1862, there were nearly 11,000 Confederate casualties and over 13,000 Union casualties as the battle ebbed and flowed. There were heroes such as Prentiss and tragedies such as the mortal wounding of Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston from a shot to the thigh. The Peach Orchard. The sunken road known now simply as The Hornet’s Nest. The Bloody Pond. The who’s who of the war and later politics and literature: Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, Lew Wallace, Ambrose Bierce, Nathan Bedford Forrest, James Garfield, among others. This battle, named after the small country Shiloh Methodist Church, was the bloodiest two-day battle of the entire war. There were portents of war’s future: The rapid deployment of troops via rail that led to the Confederate Army of the Mississippi to assemble in Corinth before marching north to confront Grant’s forces, the quasi-trench warfare of The Hornet’s Nest, and the massive array of artillery (the largest ever seen in continental North America until that time). More people died or were wounded at Shiloh than had suffered casualties during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. With this in mind, my parents and I took a trip to visit the Shiloh National Military Park on April 3, just before the official sesquicentennial celebrations. Below are some of the pictures that I took of the battle site and the memorials surrounding it.
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