The Rabbi’s Cat (2011 French Film; December 2012-January 2013 US release)

December 28th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Frequently there is this mistaken notion, especially among American film audiences, that animation is primarily intended for children.  Yet animation offers possibilities that live-action film, even those heavily augmented with CGI, just cannot achieve.  In his adaptation of his own acclaimed five-volume graphic novel series, Le Chat du Rabbin (The Rabbi’s Cat, available in two volumes in English translation), French writer/producer Joann Sfar has produced a film that makes full use of animation’s potential for mixing the unreal with the real to create a provocative story.  Winner of the 2011 César Award (France’s equivalent to the Oscars) for best animated film, The Rabbi’s Cat (French, with English subtitles) debuted in New York City earlier this month and will enter a wider US release sometime in January 2013.

The Rabbi’s Cat adapts volumes 1, 2, and 5 of Sfar’s graphic novel series.  Set in 1930s Algeria, then part of France, it is a tale that examines the troublesome issue of religious conflict and the search for understanding in a world that seems hostile to the faithful.  The titular cat, who gains the ability to speak when he eats the family parrot, is a fascinating character.  His first words are a lie (he did not eat the parrot, thank you very much!) and his questioning of whether or not his new-found self-consciousness and verbosity makes him a potential Jew greatly vexes Rabbi Sfar.  The first half of the movie is devoted to exploring the fragile relationship between religion and science, as the more skeptical cat questions the validity of the Talmud even as he seeks a place among the local Algerian Jews.  Easily this could devolve into a trite, shallow exploration of faith, but Sfar is playing a deeper game here, as a visit to Rabbi Sfar’s old teacher shows an uglier side to this conflict.

Intermixed among this are the relationships between the widowed Rabbi Sfar and his only daughter, Zlabya, and her love for the amusing, witty, and occasionally devious cat.  These scenes are animated brilliantly, as Sfar utilizes a combination of traditional ink animation and computers to create a very vivid, organic interplay of scene and people.  The characters, especially the cat and Zlabya, move in an entrancing fashion, due in part to motion-capture technology being utilized to create a framework for the animation clips.  Although I only saw this in 2D on the screener DVD provided to me by the American distributors, GKIDS, The Rabbi’s Cat was designed with 3D in mind and in places in the film, it is easy to imagine that the layered effect, combined with very vivid colors, would likely make for a good 3D viewing experience (in 2D, it is one of the most colorful animated films I have ever seen).

Yet visuals can carry a movie only so far, as there needs to be a strong narrative to engage the viewer’s interest for the entire 89 minutes.  Unfortunately, there were a few places where the narrative seemed to falter for a few minutes, namely in the scenes setting up the transition from the initial focus on the cat, rabbi, and daughter toward an African adventure (a subplot adapted from the fifth graphic novel volume).  The scene introducing the Russian Jewish painter and his mission to find a fabled African Jewish community, a sort of mystical Jerusalem, is choppy and there is the sense that things are rushed too much; an extra five minutes or so developing the transition scene would have made the connection between the two halves of the movie much stronger.

Other reviewers have remarked about how the second half of The Rabbi’s Cat fails to live up to the promise of the first half, as the conclusion in particular comes under scrutiny.  At first glance, there is something to this, as the scenes involving the travel across the Sahara toward the “lost city” contain certain references to previous Francophone comics/colonial themes (such as the appearance of Tintin characters in a fashion that satirizes the dodgy racial depictions in that famous comics) that may be lost upon American audiences.  Yet there is an underlying unity of theme that pervades these scenes that tells a larger story about ourselves and our prejudices than what first appears to be the case.  If anything, Sfar may be a bit too subtle in places, at least for particular American audiences who prefer more explicit development of anti-racism/religious tolerance themes.  Take for instance these three images from a scene roughly 2/3 into the movie that I took with my phone’s camera:

The Rabbi's Cat Movie1

The Rabbi's Cat Movie2

The Rabbi's Cat Movie3

 Here the cat is voicing a question that takes in such matters as religious belief and cultural identity and he makes even deeper connections between the human longing to emulate and to control nature and the means by which this longing is displayed in our symbols and actions.  Although he is quieter here in the second half compared to the first, the cat is still a voice of an outside observer, questioning just why we act in certain ways to particular beliefs.  This is especially seen toward the movie’s end, as the travelers near their goal, only to discover that the goalposts have shifted.  It is not a comforting end, certainly not one with a nice, simple conclusion that is a Hollywood standard, but it fits with the issues that Sfar wanted to explore here.

The Rabbi’s Cat is not a perfect movie, but despite its flaws in transitioning between key scenes, it is certainly a work that will linger in the viewer’s mind longer than the vast majority of recent cinema releases.  The combination of detailed and excellently-rendered scenes and complex characters with a movie that refuses to have clear-cut answers to the questions it raises may make this a movie that will not appeal to those who prefer to have “light” entertainment, but for those who are willing to consider the themes that Sfar’s characters raise, The Rabbi’s Cat will be one of the better movies, domestic as well as foreign, released recently in the US.  Highly recommended.

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977)

December 25th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.  Two days before the event was to take place he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:

     At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday the 18th of February,
     1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on
     my own wings.  Please forgive me.  I loved you all.
                                (signed) Robert Smith, Ins. agent (p. 9)

Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, is perhaps the closest American equivalent to the magic realism found in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Comparison to other authors’ works, unless done well, often fails to place properly the book being considered.  However, Song of Solomon‘s intricate weaving of nearly a half-century of one fictional African American family’s history with the complex social and political situations, not to mention that this admixture also includes lyrical passages that combine elements of the spiritual, the apocalyptic, and the speculative, leads to a novel whose closest spiritual counterpart is the above-mentioned One Hundred Years of Solitude.  However, this is not to say that the two novels share much in the way of plot structure or internal dynamics; the main similarity is in how powerful of an effect the entire story ends up having on the reader.

Song of Solomon covers the life of the Dead family from the 1920s until the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  There are four main characters:  Pilate, Milkman, Corinthians, and Guitar.  In each of these characters, two male and two female, Morrison explores a whole host of issues, ranging from how African American females are treated by both Caucasians of either gender and by African American males to issues of racial injustice to dreams to the conflict between received spoken culture and the dominant, mass communication-oriented culture surrounding the African American families of Mercy.

Morrison deftly weaves all of these elements together into a tapestry that as one critic put it, serves not “a window into African American experience, but into the kitchen of its creation.”  Character is at the heart of these narratives of the Dead family.  From how Milkman’s mother reacted to the news of Mr. Smith’s attempted flight to the college-educated Corinthians dealing with the eccentricities and cluelessness of her Caucasian employer to discussions of race-related murders, Morrison imbues each of these conflicts with a vivid sense of just how difficult and (at times) how transformational these changes were for the characters.  It is easy for readers to shift back and forth between “liking” and “disliking” the characters based on their actions; they feel “real” and even for those such as myself who have not experienced most of what Morrison details, there is the sense of a shared human contact, of a emphatic bond developing between imagined characters and the readers trying to grasp the import of what is transpiring.

There is a strong metaphorical element that runs throughout the novel, starting with the family name of Dead.  Consider that in light of this key exchange between Milkman and Guitar:

Guitar stretched his legs.  “They want your life, man.”

“My life?”

“What else?”

“No.  Hagar wants my life.  My family…they want – “

“I don’t mean that way.  I don’t mean they want your dead life; they want your living life.”

“You’re losing me,” said Milkman.

“Look.  It’s the condition our condition is in.  Everybody wants the life of a black man.  White men want us dead or quiet – which is the same thing as dead.  White women, same thing.  They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’  Tame, except in bed.  They like a little racial loincloth in the bed.  But outside the bed they want us to be individuals.  You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’  And black women, they want your whole self.  Love, they call it, and understanding.  ‘Why don’t you understand me?’  What they mean is, Don’t love anything on earth except me.  They say, ‘Be responsible,’ but what they mean is, Don’t go anywhere where I ain’t.  You try to climb Mount Everest, they’ll tie up your ropes.  Tell them you want to go to the bottom of the sea – just for a look – they’ll hide your oxygen tank.  Or you don’t even have to go that far.  Buy a horn and say you want to play.  Oh, they love the music, but only after you pull eight at the post office.  Even if you make it, even if you stubborn and mean and you get to the top of Mount Everest, or you do play and you good, real good – that still ain’t enough.  You blow your lungs out on the horn and they want what breath you got left to hear about how you love them.  They want your full attention.  Take a risk and they say you not for real.  That you don’t love them.  They won’t even let you risk your own life, man, your own life – unless it’s over them.  You can’t even die unless it’s about them.  What good is a man’s life if he can’t even choose what to die for?” (pp. 242-243)

This scene, part of a much longer one that forms a key linchpin of the novel, deals with life and the control of one’s life.  Much of the novel’s tension revolves around this, how one group (whites, other blacks, men and women toward the other group) wants to dictate what the other can believe or do.  From things as silly as the naming of (Not) Doctor Street to as serious as the series of racial killings hinted at throughout the course of the novel, Song of Solomon takes these conflicts and creates a multi-layered tale that shows happiness and sadness, frustration and joy, that each member of the Dead family finds over the course of the novel.  It is for this, among several other reasons, that Song of Solomon is widely considered to be one of the best American novels of the past 50 years and certainly the main reason why Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  A true classic in every sense of the word.

Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

December 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I remember everything.
I remember everything perfectly.
During the war, the city was full of mirages and I was young. But, nowadays, everything is quite peaceful. Shadows fall only as and when they are expected. Because I am so old and famous, they have told me that I must write down all my memories of the Great War, since, after all, I remember everything. So I must gather together all the confusion of experience and arrange it in order, just as it happened, beginning at the beginning. I must unravel my life as if it were so much knitting and pick out from that tangle the single, original thread of my self, the self who was a young man who happened to become a hero and then grew old. First, let me introduce myself.
My name is Desiderio.

I saved The Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman until last because it is probably my favourite of her novels. Carter uses fabulous surrealist imagery, the Romanticism of the picaresque and Continental philosophy themes to explore, as always, a wide range of social issues from post-modernism to society’s obsession with images, feminism and the dichotomy of the rational and that which we desire.

The plot revolves around a war that has broken out in an unnamed city in a South American town because of the experiments of the titular Doctor Hoffman, a scientist who has found a way to create images through the power of desire. While most people are unable to deal with the strange things that they now see every day, defence of the falls to the Minister of Determination, Desiderio’s boss, a stoic man who believes in the importance of the rational so strong that anything that Doctor Hoffman throws at the city is unable to trick, or for the most part even phase him.  Desiderio is also not concerned with the images as he has a fairly unpassionate life and he finds them rather boring, he doesn’t seem to have any desires and as a result he is not affected. The pair spend their days working on schemes to stop the Doctor, although Desiderio admits he is not particularly interested, until one night Desiderio dreams of a black swan, Cygnus atratus, both ugly and majestic, with a look described as evil. Dying, her swansong is a savage erotic contralto and around her neck is a collar bearing the name of Doctor Hoffman’s daughter, Albertina, who becomes the focal point of all Desiderio’s desire and who he must eventually kill.

After a meeting with a spy for Hoffman, Desiderio is sent away to a town by the sea to investigate, beginning a long journey that will eventually lead him to the Doctor’s hidden castle itself. At the town, he learns the mayor has gone missing and discovers a strange peep show on the pier run by the professor who taught Hoffman. The show contains a number of boxes that show strange and grotesque images combining sexuality and death that call to mind the paintings and sculptures of surrealists artists like Salvador Dali. He discovers that these are the Doctor’s samples and remain a very important part of his schemes as it is by using the samples that he is able to create the image through the composition of the different elements that make up a thing. Unfortunately, he has to flee the town after being framed for the murder of the mayor’s daughter, a young sexual somnambulist, seeking refuge with the river folk, with whom he shares a common Indian heritage.

In each of the chapters that follow, Desiderio experiences a different kind of life that provides both different pleasures and different dangers. For the first time in life, with the river folk he is not bored of life but interested in it and almost marries into a family that he befriends before he begins to suspect they intend to eat him as they believe old myths about the transfer of knowledge through anthropophagy.  Returning to the seaside town, he joins the travelling show with the old professor, serving as his apprentice on the orders of the Doctor. He makes friends with a number of the other performers and learns a lot from the professor about the Hoffman’s past and the metaphysics behind the doctor’s samples, but these happy times too end, this time with the arrival of nine acrobats who rape Desiderio. Afterwards, Desiderio leaves the camp for the night and the circus and the samples are destroyed by a landslide (nature is a reoccurring theme in the novel, particularly the force of nature, which is so strong and so primal that Hoffman cannot conquer it) leaving him as the only survivor.

Shortly afterwards he meets the Count, one of the most interesting characters in the novel and is clearly influenced by Lautréamont’s Maldoror. The Count believes that he himself is a very act of negation, a libertine dedicated to debauchery, self-deprivation and evil. He is on the run from a black pimp who is chasing him on account of the murder of a prostitute in Louisiana, but in reality the pimp is his dark half, a being willed in reality as a form of self-abuse.  The two travel together while the Count tries to indulge his baser instincts, leading to a brothel where in a room of bestial whores that seem as much animal as they are human, Desiderio meets Albertina who is disguised as the madam. Throughout the novel Albertina uses her father’s machines to travel beside Desiderio, first as the Count’s servant Lafleur and later as herself. Attempting to flee the pimp by sailing to Europe, the three end up captured by pirates and then on the African coast where they again encounter the Count’s nemesis, this time as a chief of an African tribe. The Count meets his end, but Desiderio and Albertina continue on into the nebulous time, the world of the doctor’s images, that has become unstable with the destruction of the samples.

In the nebulous time, they meet a strange race of centaurs and the chapter brings to mind something from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. On the first night that they arrive, each of the town’s males rape Albertina and the experience almost kills her. Even in the world of images rape culture still prevails, but despite this, Carter does not represent her as a victim. Even the horrific act cannot rob her of the fact that she is a strong and beautiful woman and perhaps more importantly, it cannot rob her of her desire. When they learn she is Desiderio’s mate, they punish themselves (as their religion is big on self- flagellation) and they spend some time as part of the society until they learn that the centaurs intend to put them through a religious ceremony that will no doubt kill them. Through seemingly sheer will alone, Albertina is able to immolate the area around them and summon one of her father’s helicopters to take them to his castle.

In the end, Desiderio has to choose between the world of the rational and that of desire, to either consummate his love with Albertina or kill her. Faced with the final deciding act of the war, he has to choose between Descartes’ cogito and the Doctor’s own, I desire, therefore I exist. It is not clear why he makes the choice that he does and it seems that maybe he does not know himself. Perhaps it is out of some old sense of duty towards the Minister, or perhaps because like Dorothy he has learned that behind the curtain the wondrous is really just mundane, but in the end logic wins out as he considers that it is for “the greater good”. Whether or not he made the right choice is left to the reader to decide, after all, Desiderio is the ablative of desiderium, which can mean both “desire” and “regret”. His life without Albertina is a life without love, and I am sure we can all recall what Browning has to say about that in Fra Lippo Lippi.

In a world where we constantly bombarded by impossible images on all sides, whether it is airbrushed men and women on the covers of magazines or fantasy worlds in online MMORPGs, we too find ourselves faced with the same problem as Desiderio. How long before we cannot tell the difference between that which is authentic and that which is fake, how long before we have our own set of samples that allow us to blur reality with the unreal? When that happens, how can the mundane reality of our lives compete with the fantasies of our desires? What is to stop us all from surrendering to the totality of images, to that nebulous time?

Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dreams on July 30th, 2010.

Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees (1957)

December 16th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Fu il 15 di guiugno del 1767 che Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, mio fratello, sedette per l’ultima volta in mezzo a noi.  Ricordo come fosse oggi.  Eravamo nella sala da pranzo della nostra villa d’Ombrosa, le finestre inquadravano i folti rami del grande elce del parco.  Era mezzogiorno, e la nostra famiglia per vecchia tradizione sedeva a tavola a quell’ora, nonostante fosse già invalsa tra i nobili la moda, venuta dalla poco mattiniera Corte di Francia, d’andare a desinare a metà del pomeriggio.  Tirava vento dal mare, ricordo, e si muovevano le foglie.  Cosimo disse:  – Ho, detto che non voglio e non voglio! – e respinse il piatto di lumache.  Mai s’era vista disubbidienza più grave.


It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, my brother, sat among us for the last time.  And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly.  We were in the dining room of our house at Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park.  It was midday, the old traditional hour followed by our family, though by then most nobles had taken to the fashion set by the sluggard Court of France, of dining halfway through the afternoon.  A breeze was blowing from the sea, I remember, rustling the leaves.  Cosimo said:  “I told you I don’t want any, and I don’t!” and pushed away his plateful of snails.  Never had we seen such disobedience.

Italian author Italo Calvino wrote stories and novels of all shapes and forms from his earliest published tales in the 1940s up until his death in 1984.  His 1957 novel, Il Barone Rampante (The Baron in the Trees in English translation), however, might be his most picturesque.  Set in the waning years of the aristocratic 18th century, Calvino through the Rousseauesque lead of Cosimo explores the changes that occurred in Europe from the days of the Enlightenment through the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the short-lived restoration of near-absolute monarchs in Western and Central Europe.  It is in turns a comic and tragic novel, seen through the travels and experiences of the tree-dwelling man, Cosimo.

The passage quoted above is from the first paragraph of the story.  The English translation, done by Archibald Colquhoun in 1959, for the most part attempts to remain true to the basics of the story, but there are times where Colquhoun changes the imagery Calvino employs.  In the excerpt provided above, Colquhoun in his substitution of “house” for “villa” removes the aristocratic element from the di Rondò residence.  Cosimo, and his narrator brother of course, are not simply well-to-do bourgeois who live in grand houses; they have some seigniorial rights in the region of Ombrosa (the boys’ father has his heart set out to regaining the lapsed title of Duke of Ombrosa for the family).  Throughout the rest of the story, there are several other small yet sometimes significant semantic shifts that occur in the translation into English.

Yet despite this and the adoption of the more innocuous “The Baron in the Trees” title over the more direct “The Rampant Baron,” the translation does succeed in capturing much of the general thrust of Calvino’s story.  Cosimo in his youth rejects his father’s authoritarian, aristocratic ways, declaring as he climbs into a nearby oak tree that he will never again set foot on earth.  This rather exaggerated defiance of paternal power (and paternalism in general) resembles in some ways Rousseau’s then-radical ideas on youth and their education.  Yet Cosimo is not a full stand-in for Emile; in his experiences living from tree to tree (often carried out to exaggerated effect, such as when later in life he comes to talk with Napoleon), he converses with people, famous and ordinary alike, about then-current philosophical trends, on life, on suffering, and all the emotional palettes that comprise that rich painting we call life.

Calvino treads a fine line between the reduction of this tale into farce and the possibility that Cosimo might become merely a moralizing spokesperson.  Having a protagonist wandering from tree to tree, living separate and yet surrounded by grounded humans and their concerns, allows Calvino to keep Cosimo slightly distant and aloof from our affairs without removing him from quotidian concerns.  The view in the trees might be higher than that on the ground, but it is also obscured, a point which Calvino exploits at times, especially with Cosimo’s love affair with Viola.  In addition, while Cosimo is living apart from his family, we see through his brother Biagio’s eyes, the tyrannical and mad aspects of the di Rondò family life, as the loveless marriage of their parents begets arranged marriages that lead to tragedy for the brothers’ sisters.  It is this undercurrent of sadness and inflicted cruelty that gives The Baron in the Trees a darker tone that keeps it from being strictly a light-hearted affair.

At times, however, Calvino risked having his story becoming too distant from its central character (and narrator).  He almost loses control of the story when he has Cosimo discoursing with Spaniards, Russians, and other folk from the time immediately following the French Revolution.  It seemed in those places that the focus had shifted from Cosimo’s relationship with the changing world to Cosimo being merely present at anything remotely historical.  However, Calvino manages to swing the focus back to a more personal take on Cosimo’s continuing act of rebellion.  The concluding chapters serve to reinforce what Calvino has set up throughout the tale and Cosimo’s end becomes true to the life he has read.

The Baron in the Trees is not my favorite Calvino tale (that would be Invisible Cities, followed by If on a winter’s night a traveler…), yet it would be near the top of his works that I would recommend to those who are unfamiliar with his works.  Here Calvino is more direct in conveying what he wants to explore and Cosimo certainly is an engaging character.  Calvino’s prose is clear, incisive, and rarely tedious or digressive.  Even at his most farcical, he manages to imbue this story with serious elements that cause the reader to consider more than just the humor being displayed in sometimes outrageous fashions.  This results in a deceptively complex tale which at first seems to be almost whimsical until the narrative “hooks” are firmly set in place and the reader comes to reflect upon the whole range of emotions and movements embedded within the tale.  Highly recommended.

Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose” (1835-1836); “The Overcoat” (1842)

December 15th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Although I enjoyed Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls when I read it in grad school during the late 1990s, I never got around to reading any of his short fiction until 2010.  In reading the stories found within The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, I found a few elements in common among the two stories being discussed, “The Nose” and “The Overcoat,” that I want to explore in this short essay.  In particular, I want to concentrate on the use of the comic to set the stage for the tragic.

Of the two stories, “The Nose” is the lighter-hearted and more comic of the two.  It is, on the surface, a farce about a government official literally losing his nose and searching for it.  For much of the time, Gogol has great fun at this officious official’s expense.  In passages such as the one quoted below, much is stated in comic terms about just how stratified Russian society was in the early 19th century:

But, in the meantime, a few things should be said about Kovalev to show what sort of collegiate assessor he was.  Collegiate assessors who reach their positions by obtaining academic degrees cannot be compared with the collegiate assessors that used to be appointed in the Caucasus.  They are two completely unrelated species.  The collegiate assessors equipped with learning…

But Russia is a strange place and if we say something about one collegiate assessor, all of them, from Riga to Kamchatka, will take it personally.  The same is true of all vocations and ranks.

Kovalev was a Caucasus-made collegiate assessor.  Moreover, he had been a collegiate assessor for only two years.  In order to feel distinguished and important he never referred to himself as a collegiate assessor but employed the equivalent military rank of major. (pp. 33-34)

Gogol does an excellent job portraying not just Kovalev as being an officious minor official, but also his use of Kovalev’s absconded nose, first found to be with the humble barber Ivan Yakovlevich,  Gogol further mines the possibilities of this societal satire on wealth and privilege when Kovalev’s nose decides to have a few adventures:

Suddenly he stopped dead near the entrance door of a house.  An incredible sequence of events unrolled before his eyes.  A carriage stopped at the house entrance.  Its door opened.  A uniformed gentleman appeared.  Stooping, he jumped out of the carriage, ran up the steps and entered the house.  A combination of horror and amazement swept over Kovalev when he recognized the stranger as his own nose.  At this eerie sight, everything swayed before his eyes.  But although he could hardly stand on his feet, he felt compelled to wait until the nose returned to the carriage.  He waited, shaking as though he had malaria. (p. 35)

Today, this sort of nasal adventure might seem to be nothing more than a farce.  But within this story is a darker tale, one of a Russia, where in the 19th century and certainly in the centuries prior to it, social rank and position are key.  Without all of the accouterments of high rank, a person there was almost a complete non-entity.  Here, Kovalev’s nose could be viewed as a symbol of stripping away of that status, of  a sort of metaphorical castration caused by the removal of a sign of rank, even one so fine as a nose.  Considering how “The Nose” concludes, this interpretation of the nasal loss as being representative of a stripping away of power, privilege, and ultimately identity perhaps provides some possible solutions for interpreting this story through a perspective that is, in many respects, alien to contemporary Western views of rank and identity.

“The Overcoat” is a darker, more sinister tale.  It is a tale of a poor clerk and his inordinate pride in his increasingly shabby overcoat, but it is also a reflection of Russian society during the early 19th century.  The introductory paragraphs paints a very grim picture of life then:

Once, in a department…but better not mention which department.  There is nothing touchier than departments, regiments, bureaus, in fact, any caste of officials.  Things have reached the point where every individual takes an insult to himself as a slur on society as a whole.  It seems that not long ago a complaint was lodged by the police inspector of I forget which town, in which he stated clearly that government institutions had been imperiled and his own sacred name taken in vain.  In evidence he produced a huge volume, practically a novel, in which, every ten pages, a police inspector appears, and what’s more, at times completely drunk.  So, to stay out of trouble, let us refer to it just as a department

And so, once, in a department, there worked a clerk.  This clerk was nothing much to speak of:  he was small, somewhat pockmarked, his hair was somewhat reddish and he even looked somewhat blind.  Moreover, he was getting thin on top, had wrinkled cheeks and a complexion that might be aptly described as hemorrhoidal.  But that’s the Petersburg climate for you. (p. 68)

So this is a specific story told through a generic setting, with such a setting as being presented as being necessary due to the nature of the agency for whom this clerk, this wretched mouse of a man worked without distinction.  Gogol’s humor here is much less obvious than in “The Nose”; the civil servant is presented as having an outsized pride in his poor, shabby overcoat and it is his efforts to get it repaired and the resulting tragedy that turn this tale into a biting attack on the ridiculous, callous nature of Russian society and especially Russian civil service departments.  Gogol portrays the pettiness here through the use of sharp contrasts, most especially between how the poor clerk in this tale sees his prized, shabby overcoat and how his fellow workers view him (and it) with scorn and derisive laughter.  It is not a pleasant tale, nor are there any cheery endings.  But as a satire, it is effective in how well it presents the absurdities of life in early 19th century St. Petersburg.

If Dead Souls could be viewed as Gogol’s masterpiece of comic social commentary, perhaps “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” could be interpreted as being precursors to that great work.  Not only does Gogol engage with elements of Russian society, particularly the vast gap between the privileged classes and the commoners, but his use of farce to underscore this social polarization is effective and hints at what was to come in his most famous novel.  These stories, along with the others in the collection I read, certainly are worth reading, not just for fans of Gogol’s longer fiction, but for those curious to see how 19th century Russian writers such as Gogol managed to portray their society during a tumultuous period following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the 1825-1832 unrest in Poland and other western provinces.

Angela Carter, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders

December 12th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

America begins and ends in cold and solitude. Up here, she pillows her head upon the arctic snow. Down there, she dips her feet into the chilly waters of the South Atlantic, home of the perpetually restless albatross. America, with her torso of a woman at the time of this story, a woman with an hour-glass waist, a waist laced so tightly it snapped in two, and we put a belt of water there. America, with your child- bearing hips and your crotch of jungle, your swelling bosom of a nursing mother and your cold head, your cold head.

American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, Angela Carter’s last short story collection published posthumously after her death from lung cancer in 1992, is a collection of two halves. The first half illustrates her continuing interest in America and its post-colonial history as demonstrated in The Passion of New Eve and Our Lady of the Massacre. In the second half she returns to Europe to once again discuss fairy tales as well as Prague, Pantomime and the representation of Mary Magdalene in art throughout the centuries. Between the two halves lies The Ghost Ship, an interesting story about New World Puritanical rejection of Old World paganism in regards to the origin of Christmas, which serves rather well as a natural bridging point. As a whole, the collection is an interesting look at the relationship between the Old World and the New, in those things carried over and the difference in the scale of history of the two.

For the first story in the collection, Lizzie’s Tiger, Carter returns to where she ended in the last, Lizzie Borden. This time however Lizzie is just a young child, her mother recently dead, living with her miserly father who dotes on her, as he does in The Fall River Axe Murders. After discovering a poster announcing that a circus is coming to town, she asks her father to take her but he, being the man that he is, refuses, and so she sneaks off alone as she wants to see the tiger. Various misadventures occur between her leaving the house and seeing the tiger, involving stealing cider and inadvertently tossing off a man who turns out to be the tiger tamer, but the interesting thing for me was the tiger act. The tiger tamer is the epitome of masculinity and he is even still visibly erect during the act; he enforces his will on the tiger through sheer force, but it rebels and attacks him when it has the chance. Lizzie on the other hand is pure feminine innocence and the tiger comes and subjugates itself before her because of the power of Lizzie’s love, willingly in contrast to that of the tamer. We are left to wonder what sort of influence this incident had of the behaviour of the Lizzie Borden of the other story, as the image of an animal trapped in a cage no doubt draws parallels to her own confinement in that narrow house.

The second story, John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore, once again highlights Carter’s skill as a master stylist by re-imaging the Jacobean playwright Ford’s tragedy in the style of the westerns of the celebrated American director of the same name. Parma becomes the prairie and Giovanna and Annabella becomes Johnny and Annie-Belle respectively. Isolated and left with a distant father after the death of their mother, they become close and eventually begin an incestuous relationship, both swearing love or death.  These things never end well though and when Annie-Belle finds she is pregnant she marries the minister’s son who has been trying to court her in order to hide their illicit relationship. It is too late though as she begins to show before it could possibly be her husband’s, and she is abused by her mother-in-law physically and verbally, although her husband still wants to be with her. They plan to leave by the train and start a new life somewhere else where they will raise the baby, but Johnny is jealous and remembers his oath. He rides out to the train station and shoots them both dead before taking his own life. Carter takes a traditionally European tragedy and Americanizes it in order to create a new tragedy of the West, similar to the way in which Shakespeare adapted the Greeks for Elizabethan society, by incorporating the shift in cultural paradigms. To do this she uses a number of different interesting techniques, cutting between the new narrative, sections of the original play and the kind of music and camera shot directions you would find in a movie script.

Gun for the Devil, one of my favourite Carter stories, is another Old World vengeance story of the West. Set in a small town run by a bandit chief and his equally wicked wife, it revolves around the Count, a man of presumed Old World nobility with a shadowy past. Now retired having hung up his rifle, he spends most of his time at the bar in the town’s brothel as he is the consort of the brothel’s madam, Roxanna. The bandit chief has big plans to wed his young daughter, Teresa, to the son of another bandit chief that is much wealthier and thus improve his own standing. His plans are upset by the arrival of another citizen of the Old World, a young talented pianist who arrives in town and takes the vacant job of playing piano in the brothel. He has come to avenge the death of his parents at the hands of the bandits and plans to do so by seducing the daughter and thus ruining the wedding. He becomes friends with the Count, who appreciates his skill as a pianist and his knowledge of Old World compositions, while manoeuvring into a position to seduce Teresa as her piano teacher. He takes the girl’s virginity in the church and begs his friend the Count to help him enact his vengeance, believing the tales that the Count’s uncanny accuracy comes for an occult source. The Count agrees to help him, but warns him that the seventh bullet is for the devil; the first six shots will hit anything that he aims for, but the devil will direct that seventh where he likes. Late at night, the pair summon up the spirits to make the deal, but this being a New World they summon up this world’s Gods, those of the Aztec and the Toltec. Outside a Native American hands him a rifle “on account”, but summoning up the spirits has taken the last of the Count’s strength and he realises that he is dying. On the day of the wedding, the pianist shoots dead the bride’s mother and father, the groom and fires off another three shots, leaving only the devil’s seventh bullet. Teresa flees towards the brothel and he runs after her trying to stop her as he doesn’t want to hurt her. The Count takes his gun from the wall, fearing the pianist will accidently shoot Teresa or Roxanna and stands at the door, taking aim. The tragedy unfolds as the younger man tries to shoot the Count to save his own life, the bullet hitting Teresa and killing her. The coda sees the pianist travel to a ghost town destroyed by smallpox where he meets the Native American again, who tells him they have business to conclude.

Fourth in the collection is The Merchants of Shadow, a story about a Londoner who has come to California to do research for his thesis on a legendary director, Hank Mann. The trail leads him to the house of the director’s ex-wife that he discovered as an actress and who went on to be a huge Hollywood star after his death. When he meets with her, it is quite surreal and purposely draws parallels to Billy Wilder’s seminal film noir, Sunset Boulevard. The problem I have with this story though is that after reading The Passion of New Eve recently it is quite predictable as it shares a great deal of common points and themes with the novel, down to the glass house and the way in which Carter plays with gender roles with the actress. It isn’t by any means a bad story, I just felt reading it that it retreads old ground without really adding anything to what Carter was saying in The Passion of New Eve and as a result it is my least favourite story in the collection.

As mentioned earlier, The Ghost Ship bridges the two halves, and is about three ships that visit Boston Bay, to bring the older pagan practices associated with Christmas to the New World, all rejected in turn by the Puritans who want none of the Old World. The three ships each carry an integral part of Christmas revelries adapted from the Winters Solstice. It is interesting as Carter details the various folklore and myths and the place they overlap, the relevance of the original story and the way that each has been perverted.  The Puritans will have none of it though, as they believe that each day should be special and find the idea of celebrating one in such an outlandish way as people celebrate Christmas as being abhorrent. Each ship that they turn away sinks in the bay, taking both its cargo and its crew with it. When the last sinks however, the Lord of Misrule, Father Christmas’ darker ancestor, casts a Christmas pud onto the beach where it is found by children, perhaps symbolising the way in which the Puritans decedents will embrace Christmas.

Pantoland is interesting because it is a very English story, as pantomime is essentially a very English tradition. As a child I attended one a year and I even participated in a few myself over the years. This does lead me to wonder if it would be difficult for people who were not English or did not have any knowledge of panto. If you don’t know what pantomime is, it is a form of theatre performance that mixes fairy tale with slapstick comedy, audience participation, mild sexual innuendo and song and dance. In Pantoland Carter examines the roles of certain characters in pantomime, such as the Widow Twankey type (played by a man), the Puss in boots type and the main boy type (played by a girl), what they represent and how they relate to gender roles. She explores the idea of pantomime as a fertility festival as when they main boy wins the heart of the girl that he loves, it is a four breasted affair, not unlike a fertility goddess. Carter ends the piece by lamenting the loss of tradition in favour of television.

Carter returns to fairy tales for the next story, Ashputtle or the Mother’s Ghost, examining three different variations of the Cinderella myth. The first is a traditional version of the Brothers Grimm tale in which she questions the absence of the father and why he allows the stepmother to treat his daughter the way that she does. When all that she asks her father for as a gift is the last branch that hits him on the way back from his trip, it seems odd that he does not realize that his daughter thinks that he cares so little for her. Carter also notes that Ashputtle does not seem to have a name before she is given the cruel nickname by her stepmother and any name she may have had is eradicated by this new one. The stepmother sees her own daughters as a means of increasing her standing in life and is willing to mutilate both of them in order to make the shoe fit. Through the love of her mother’s spirit, Ashputtle is able to win the heart of the prince and outsmart her wicked stepmother and this is a theme which is continued through the other two shorter variations.

Alice in Prague, dedicated to Czech surrealist artists and filmmaker, Jan Svankmajer, is an interesting story that mixes Prague, the place of his birth and his home, with Lewis Carroll’s Alice, the subject of his debut film. It is a surreal tale about Elizabethan occultist John Dee and Edward Kelley, who are in Prague working for the future Roman Emperor, the Archduke Rudolph. It is a strange story even by Carter’s usual standards, as the archduke has some kind of exotic fruit fetish and has his staff create a homunculus out of fruit and a wire frame for intercourse. In the curious room, while Kelley, a con-man, tries to divine fake messages from angels for Dee to translate, Alice appears in her tiny form. Kelley cannot believe it as he is a rational man, and also Alice speaks only in riddles that require logical answers (as Carter says she is from the world of nonsense). It is an interesting story that highlights the contradictions between rationalism and occultism, although I’m sure I have no idea what it all means.

The final story in the collection is Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene, in which Carter examines the portrayal of the Mary Magdalene through art. She focuses mostly on the depiction of Mary in the work of the French painter Georges de La Tour and his use of candlelight to create chiaroscuro.  Throughout the story Carter examines cultural and artistic attitudes towards religion, sexuality, penitence and femininity in regards to the Mary Magdalene. Unlike the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene is not a mother and perhaps the most interesting observation that carter makes is that there seems to be no specific word in the English language to describe an adult sexually mature female who is childless that is not related to her somehow using her sexuality as a profession. The motif throughout seems to be the idea of the candle flame as strength that all women can relate to.

Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dreams on July 18th, 2010.

Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (1933, 1937 Polish; 1963, 1978 US editions)

December 11th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

And suddenly he dropped onto his forepaws and uttered a sound unfamiliar to him, a strange noise, completely different from his usual whimpering.  He uttered it once, then again and again, in a thin faltering descant.

But in vain did he apostrophize the insect in this new language, born of sudden inspiration, as a cockroach’s understanding is not equal to such a tirade:  the insect continued on its journey to a corner of the room, with movements sanctified by an ageless ritual of the cockroach world.

The feeling of loathing had as yet no permanence or strength in the dog’s soul.  The newly awakened joy of life transformed every sensation into a great joke, into gaiety.  Nimrod kept on barking, but the tone of it had changed imperceptibly, had become a parody of what it had been – an attempt to express the incredible wonder of that capital enterprise, life, so full of unexpected encounters, pleasures, and thrills. (p. 44)


Bruno Schulz perhaps is one of the most well-known of the overlooked writers of the early 20th century.  A near-contemporary of Kafka (both were Jewish writers who came of age during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:  Kafka in Bohemia, Schulz in Galicia), Schulz’s stories and illustrations are not quite as famous as Kafka’s, yet seventy years after his death on the infamous “Black Thursday” of November 1942 at the hands of a vengeful Nazi officer, Schulz’s stories contain an unsettling and sometimes menacing quality to them that is at least the equal of the better-known Czech writer.  Schulz’s stories vary from the whimsical to the disturbing, with sometimes only a paragraph or two to separate the twain.  In The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, virtually all of Schulz’s extant writing (several works in progress, including an unfinished novel, The Messiah, were lost during World War II) is collected.

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories contains the two collections Schulz had published during his lifetime, The Street of Crocodiles (the US title; in Polish, it was named after the story “Cinnamon Shops”) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.  The first collection, published in 1933, is a more dream-like look at Schulz’s native city of Drohobycz (now a city in the western Ukraine known as Drohobych) that originally was a series of letters that he wrote to a close friend, Debora Vogel.  In these tales, quotidian life can take on a more surreal and sometimes even existentialist quality.  Consider the quote above, taken from the end of the story “Nimrod.”  There is the Biblical reference to the mighty hunter, here cast as a dog.  There is a heightened sense of perception here, from a creature that has found its own sort of enlightenment, yet that quality is not necessarily one that conveys a universality of understanding, but rather something that cannot be conveyed adequately.  Here, Schulz is interested in the limits of expression, as we, like the dog Nimrod, are not quite capable of full communication with each other.  Like the cockroach, scurrying off to do its “ageless ritual of the cockroach world,” we move in circumscribed patterns, the meaning of which is obscured to others and sometimes even to our selves.

This ritualization of the possibly absurd can be seen in the titular “The Street of Crocodiles”, where the narrator recounts a visit to a merchant’s store:

Tall dark salesgirls, each with a flaw in her beauty (appropriately for that district of remaindered goods), came and went, stood in the doorways watching to see whether the business entrusted to the experienced care of the salesman had reached a suitable point.  The salesman simpered and pranced around like a transvestite.  One wanted to lift up his receding chin or pinch his pale powdered cheek as with a stealthy meaningful look he discreetly pointed to the trademark on the material, a trademark of transparent symbolism (p. 66)

Like several of his stories, “The Street of Crocodiles” relies on movement to set up the unsettling observations that follow.  Here, the hustle and bustle of a store, here an outfitter’s shop, in which “[t]he effeminate and corrupted youth, receptive to the client’s most intimate stirrings, now put before him a selection of the most peculiar trademarks,” is shown to be a microcosm of the world at large.  As Schulz pans out from this detailed scene of this store, which ultimately is a façade for a different sort of store, it becomes a metaphor for something quite different than what the reader might expect:

It is, as usual in that district, a gray day, and the whole scene seems at times like a photograph in an illustrated magazine, so gray, so one-dimensional are the houses, the people, and the vehicles.  Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character.  At times one has the impression that it is only the small section immediately before us that falls into the expected pointillistic picture of a city thoroughfare, while on either side the improvised masquerade is already disintegrating and, unable to endure, crumbles behind us into plaster and sawdust, into the storeroom of an enormous empty theater.  The tenseness of an artificial pose, the assumed earnestness of a mask, an ironical pathos tremble on this façade. (p.67)

This “thinness” of reality is a motif that Schulz explores frequently in his fiction.  Beneath the hum-drum of an industrial society lurks another world, one in which all that activity is revealed to be a masquerade, a sometimes badly choreographed dance of characters from one crumbling cityscape to another.  There is little permanency to our lives; all seems to be on the brink of dissolution. This sense of dissolution is strongest in one of Schulz’s most famous short stories, “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.”

The whole landscape, somber and grave, seemed almost imperceptibly to float, to shift slightly like a sky full of billowing, stealthily moving clouds.  The fluid strips and bands of forest seemed to rustle and grow with rustling like a tide that swells gradually toward the shore.  The rising white road wound itself dramatically through the darkness of that woody terrain.  I broke a twig from a roadside tree.  The leaves were dark, almost black.  It was a strangely charged blackness, deep and benevolent, like restful sleep.  All the different shades of gray in the landscape derived from that one color.  It was the color of a cloudy summer dusk in our part of the country, when the landscape has become saturated with water after a long period of rain and exudes a feeling of self-denial, a resigned and ultimate numbness that does not need the consolation of color.(p. 241)

The sanatorium toward which the narrator travels is in another country.  It is a place where his father has not yet died, where he is alive despite the shadow of that death in his own country casting a pall over him.   Here Schulz sets up a situation in which reality can be seen as malleable, where as the sanatorium caregiver says, “we reactivate time past, with all its possibilities, therefore also including the possibility of a recovery.”  This malleability, however, comes at a dreadful cost, as the narrator discovers to his chagrin as he ventures out from the sanatorium into the streets below.  There, life such as that of his father’s, is conditional upon the whims and beliefs of the beholder; the slightest doubt risked destroying everything.  Control is illusory, and virtues that might have otherwise been steadfastly held to have been abandoned here.

“Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” is representative of Schulz’s explorations of Fate and Death and how all of our rituals and gestures do little more than attempt to place the reins around a horse that has already escaped from the barn.  In the story “Father’s Last Escape,” he makes this point quite explicit:

Fate has a thousand wiles when it chooses to impose on us its incomprehensible whims.  A temporary blackout, a moment of inattention or blindness, is enough to insinuate an act between the Scylla and Charybdis of decision.  Afterward, with hindsight, we may endlessly ponder that act, explain our motives, try to discover our true intentions; but the act remains irrevocable. (p. 311)

Without rituals or other means to try to explain the inexplicable, we can feel lost, rudderless, adrift in a sea of seeming madness.  What Schulz does in his fictions is strip away those protective layers of semiotic gesture, leaving us raw and naked, exposed to a world that is as incomprehensible as it may be threatening to our sense of sanity.  While few of his characters succumb to insanity, there are few that are left unscathed by their exposure to the worlds that lurk beneath and around the constructed one that we have built to provide the semblance of order in a chaotic existence.  The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories haunts us not because of ghosts or “unnatural” phenomena but rather because of the sense that we get that perhaps we are the ghosts that flitter about in a world that is more “real” than we care to ever admit.

Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak (1987)

December 9th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I try to make clear to him the latest motives at work, and console him with insights more available to members of my generation.  I say, “Whatever troubles people run into, they look for the sexual remedy.  Whether it’s business, a career problem, character difficulties, doubts about one’s body, even metaphysics, they turn to sex as the analgesic.”

“No, no, Kenneth, not an aspirin, no.  That makes it too trivial.”

“All right, then; they do the act by which love would be transmitted if there were any.”

“That’s more like it.”

“Furthermore, women are allowed to be more aggressive now.  But when they’re rebuffed it’s terrible for them.  It used to go the other way, women saying no to men.  The men became accustomed to it.”

“I should have rebuffed her right away, without sampling.  What hurt her was that I sampled.”

“She’s set up to be made a fool of – the way she dresses, wears her hair, the way she speaks.  Not like a woman taking herself seriously.  How could you take her seriously?” (pp. 86-87)

Saul Bellow, 1975 Nobel Prize-winning author, is perhaps one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century.  Several of his works, including The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970),  have won prestigious national literary prizes.  His works are full of memorable characters, such as the protagonist of The Victim, whose oft-tortured recollections of deeds not done and misdeeds committed serve as exemplary models of how to use characterization to reflect thematic concerns and vice versa.  His characters live, breathe, sweat, and often agonize, leaving readers to feel as though they are putting coins in the 25¢ peep show to view a confessional instead of a tawdry show.  Bellow’s prose is outstanding and his dialogue in particular can be mesmerizing, as readers can easily find themselves reading pages-long conversations before realizing how much has been consumed.

In his later years, Bellow’s output was a bit more sporadic.  While there would be several memorable moments in his latter works, these would not be as commonplace nor as easily integrated into the narrative as was the case in his earlier work.  Sometimes, the result would be something like 1987′s More Die of Heartbreak, where the parts are greater than the whole.  Despite this, even Bellow’s more flawed novels are worth reading and More Die of Heartbreak, despite its unbalanced narrative, certainly is a work that reveals certain insights (not all of which are welcome) that are worth considering.

The main story revolves around members of a Jewish family.  Kenneth, the narrator, has left his native France for New York in the belief that there is “action” in the US that he cannot find in France.  He comes to spend time with one of his uncles, Benn Crader, who is both a wanderer at heart and a renowned botanist.  The two share recollections regarding their lives, their aspirations, their disappointments, and interwoven amongst all this, the power that sexual relationships of all forms and fetishes, have had on their development.

More Die of Heartbreak is a very introspective novel.  It operates on several levels.  It can be viewed as a family novel, showing the familial bonds and how they are expressed.  It can also be read as a penetrating look into post-World War II Jewish-American life and the problems that faced that ethnic/religious group.  It is also a treatise of sorts on love and its effects on the human psyche.  It is also in some ways a parable about the dangers of longing and desire.

However, these different aspects of the novel often clash and weaken the overall effect.  In trying to explore these disparate elements, Bellow often fails to develop his characters as much as he had done with previous novels.  Kenneth and Uncle Benn often feel sketched out rather than fully rounded characters.  Their concerns regarding their relationships, while moving in places, is not as powerful due to this weaker sense of these characters being sympathetic.  Sometimes, too much was going on in particular scenes to suit the narrative goals.

This is not to say that More Die of Heartbreak is not a good novel.  It is at times a very moving novel, despite its many flaws.  Even during the scenes where it appears Bellow skirts too closely the invisible line between balanced and unbalanced narrative tense, he does still display a gift for putting words to fears that few authors have managed to do.  Take for instance the scene quoted above.   In just a few exchanges, not only does the reader get a greater sense where each character stands, but a lot of insight is provided in just those few comments.  Kenneth is perhaps in some ways even more jaded than his uncle; his heartache involves being rejected by the mother of his young child.  But his Uncle Benn is the one that is suffering the most; a former paramour has died of a heart attack, as revealed in this section just after the quote above ends.

It is this sense that beneath the questing for love, the desire for some confirmation that something is right in the universe, that underlies this novel’s best scenes.  To continue quoting from the same conversation given above:

“Watch out, Uncle.  Don’t exaggerate.”

I had the sex with her.  I know what I know.”

“It was more hysteria than lovemaking.  And when you first told me about it, you were the one who made it sound preposterous.”

“Well, yes.  Maybe I did.  If I didn’t treat it as a joke it would be too awful to face…But now she’s dead.  It gets me, Kenneth.  I see her suffocated by swollen longings.  Poor thing, her heart gave out.”

“You didn’t cause it.”

“I might have prevented it, but it probably does no good to harp on it, either.  A newspaperman had men on the phone a few days ago.  Vulliam, my chairman, got rid of him by putting him onto me, and he wanted a statement about plant life and the radiation level increasing.  Also dioxin and other harmful wastes.  He was challenging about it.  Well – I agreed it was bad.  But in the end I said, ‘It’s terribly serious, of course, but I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation.” (p. 87)

Not only does this quote reference the novel’s title, it also reveals far more of the characters than virtually any other passage.  While too often there was a sense of murky distance between the characters as personages and characters as thematic cyphers, here the two converge.  Heartbreak is shown both as an intellectual discussion, as Uncle Benn says to the newspaperman, but also is revealed to be a personal affliction that is haunting Uncle Benn.  From this point, nearly one-quarter into the novel, the story begins to develop, but with several hitches along the way.  The answer to the two protagonists’ problems is intriguing and is mostly good, but it fails to resonate as much as it could have, due to the shortcomings cited above.  More Die of Heartbreak is a troubled, flawed novel, but despite this, or perhaps in part because of these flaws laid bare, it still contains powerful moments that make it a good, if not great, read and (eventually) re-read.

Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (2011, English translation)

December 9th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

“I swear to God, if you don’t give me that right now…”

“So help me God, I will…”

“By the honor of my family name and my hope for salvation, I do solemnly swear that everything I say is true…”

Each of the expressions above are examples of oaths.  In today’s world, an oath is a relic of an earlier time when pledging one’s word was a more awesome event than the mere agreement to tell the truth lest there be a jail term or fine, or in the first example, a mere colloquial expression stripped of its prior associations with curses and the possibility of eternal damnation if the oath were not upheld.  An oath used to mean so much more, but whence its origins?  Is it found in religious rituals, or does its genesis go even further into the shared human past, into the very realm of human language itself?

Italian philosopher Giogrio Agamben explores this issue in the latest part to his Homo Sacer series, The Sacrament of Language:  An Archaeology of the Oath, published in English translation by Stanford University Press in January 2011.  Citing Paolo Prodi’s 1992 book, Il sacramento del potere, Agamben opens his monograph on the oath by noting its decline:

In keeping with its central function, the irreversible decline of the oath in our time can only correspond, according to Prodi, to a “crisis in which the very being of man as a political animal is at stake” (ibid.).  If we are today “the first generations who, notwithstanding the presence of some forms and liturgies from the past…, live our own collective life without the oath as a solemn and total, sacredly anchored bond to a political body,” this means, then, that we find ourselves, without being conscious of it, on the threshold of “a new form of political association” (ibid.), whose reality and meaning we have yet to recognize. (p. 1)

In discussing matters of oaths, their origins, and their implications for human societies, it is important for us to be cognizant of the fact that we are looking across the temporal river to other times, other ideals.  Some remnants of older traditions regarding oaths still persist among us today (weddings, oaths of office, court proceedings), yet they have lost their potency with the passing of time and the changing of human cultures.  It would be too easy, as other political philosophers have argued, to conflate the oath and its purposes with religious affairs.  Agamben, however, argues against this origin for the oath.  Rather, he proposes the following:

My hypothesis is that the enigmatic institution, both juridical and religious, that we designate with the term oath can only be made intelligible if it is situated within a persepctive in which it calls into question the very nature of man as a speaking being and a political animal.  Hence the contemporary interest of an archaeology of the oath.  Ultrahistory, like anthropogenesis, is not in fact an event that can be considered completed once and for all; it is always under way, because Homo sapiens never stops becoming man, has perhaps not yet finished entering language and swearing to his nature as a speaking being. (p. 11)

Agamben then notes the work done by Émile Benveniste in his 1969 study, Indo-European Language and Society, to clear up confusion surrounding the etymology of the Greek expression horkos.  Benveniste argues that horkos, derived from the earlier word herkos (enclosure, barrier, bond), is “not a word or an act, but a thing, a material invested with evil potency, which confers to the commitment its obliging power” (Benveniste [I], p. 85-86; p. 11).  Horkos, from which is derived the Greek philosophical terms for oaths, their applications, and the effects such have on daily lives, therefore is what Benveniste (and to an extent, Agamben) would argue is a substance, an agent that acts upon the words uttered and which binds the utterer to those words.

Where Agamben differs from Benveniste and other scholars on the oath’s history is that this binding substance is not necessarily “religious” in nature.  As Agamben notes in passing in the first pages of his monograph, humans have proved to be more than capable of being religious and irreligious, faithful to the oath and more than capable of perjury, sometimes in the body of the same person.  Agamben notes that scholars have too readily assumed that in the earliest stages of the oath,  the religious and the political have to be conflated into a whole.  He eschews this argument, noting that there is nothing in the earliest recorded legal documents containing oaths to substantiate this argument.  Yes, there may be formulaic expressions invoking local gods and goddesses to serve as witnesses, yet the substance of the oath is ultimately a “verbal act intended to guarantee the truth of a promise or an assertion, which presents the same characteristics attested by the latter sources and that we have no reason to define as more or less religious, more or less juridical.” (p. 18)

Agamben continues, noting that in Greek mythology, the very gods are said to swear by objects, whether it be by the River Styx or another sacred object, and that according to Hesiod, even the gods themselves are bound by their very words.  He contrasts that with the Biblical God, whose very λογος is the surety of the oath; nothing more sacred than YHWH himself can such an oath hope to bind (pp. 20-21).  Here, the very words are the binding actions, not the objects or presumed witnesses, but instead the words themselves function as the surety for the oathgiver.  Human oaths, the ancient philosopher Philo notes:

“…have recourse to oaths to win belief, when others deem them untrustworthy; but God is trustworthy [pistos] in his speech as elsewhere, so that his words in certitude and assurance are no different from oaths.  And so it is that while with us the oath gives warrant for our sincerity, it is itself guaranteed by God.  For God is not trustworthy because of [dia] the oath; but it is God that assures the oath” (p. 21)

Agamben devotes much of the remainder of this monograph to exploring the etymologies surrounding the oath.  Earlier, the debate surrounding horkos was noted.  In the middle section of the monograph, discussion of pistis and its relationship with horkos in legal formulae serves to expand and to strengthen Agamben’s argument that if an archaeology of the oath is to have value, it must not assume that there is a pre-legal phrase, since the very language of the Law constitutes values and understandings that are often at odds with the more mystical realm of magic and faith.  This argument Agamben explores in greater detail toward the end of this monograph.

Related to oaths are curses and the imprecations cast upon those who violate the sacred with the profane.  Agamben remarks:

But what is a curse, and what can its function be here?  Already from the terminological point of view the situation is far from clear.  The terms that designate it, both in Greek and in Latin, seem to have opposed meanings:  ara (and the corresponding verb epeuchomai) mean, according to the lexicons, both “prayer” (and “to pray”) and “imprecation, curse” (and “to imprecate, to curse”).  The same can be said for the Latin terms imprecor and imprecatio, which are the equivalent of both “to augur” and “to curse” (even devoveo, which means “to consecrate,: is equivalent to “to curse” in the technical sense in the case of a devotio to the infernal gods).  The entire vocabulary of the sacratio is, as is well known, marked by this ambiguity, the reasons for which I have sought to reconstruct elsewhere. (p. 35)

Agamben reiterates here the failure of other scholars to consider that curses, as well as oaths, do not necessarily have to be tied so tightly to magico-religious affairs.  Rather, his argument seems to be that both oaths and curses reflect a linguistic bent, one that might be related to religious belief but which signifies something else.  Faith, along with other concepts, does not necessarily connote a true semantic association, but rather an attempt to define something of “pure existence.”  As Agamben states later on in his monograph, quoting Thomas Aquinas:

The meaning of the name of God, then, has no semantic content, or better, suspends and puts in parentheses every meaning in order to affirm through a pure experience of speech a pure and bare existence.

We can therefore specify further the meaning and function of the name of God in the oath.  Every oath swears on the name par excellence, that is on the name of God, because the oath is the experience of language that treats all of language as a proper name.  Pure existence – the existence of the name – is not the result of a recognition, nor of a logical deduction:  it is something that cannot be signified but only sworn, that is, affirmed as a name.  The certainty of faith is the certainty of the name (of God). (p. 53)

Here we finally get to the crux of Agamben’s argument.  Utilizing the very name of God as being not just a religious deity who will serve as a guarantor or as a witness to the words and actions of the oathtaker, the name of God represents, Agamben argues, this ideal of a pure, true substance around which the nexus of language and thought revolve.  It is not important whether or not the oathtaker is “religious” or if s/he fails to follow the precepts of religare, the font of religio.  What is essential, however, is that there exist in human language this concept of a binding force that takes our words and makes them something more than puffs of air scattered by the breeze.

Agamben goes on to argue that unique among species is this concept of a binding force that unites humans, makes our words something important and vital beyond the moment of utterance.  This concept precedes concepts of religion, for the binding elements found in various religious faiths proceed from this belief in a binding, unifying force that makes the act of being human possible.  It is a persuasive argument, one that has much merit, but it is one that is open to counterarguments.  It is equally possible that concepts of binding and religion are coeval and that each arises out of certain core human needs, yet Agamben fails to address this possibility satisfactorily.  It will be interesting to see what counter-arguments might arise that might take Agamben’s intriguing hypothesis and develop something that explains not just how the concept of the oath became sacramentalized, but how religion has become so close tied to the idea of binding people together in a faith of a God (or gods and goddesses in polytheistic societies).  There seems to be an underformed argument here (perhaps it is addressed in Agamben’s other books in the Homo Sacer series, which I have yet to read) for humans being ritualized beings whose identities are forged in the centrality of Language for their very being.  I am very curious to see if this is indeed the ultimate thrust of Agamben’s work and if the promise found in this monograph will be realized when his study is complete.

Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus

December 5th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

‘Lor’ love you, sir!’ Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. ‘As to my place of birth, why, I first saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed as the “Cockney Venus”, for nothing, sir, though they could just well ‘ave called me “Helen of the High Wire”, due to the unusual circumstances in which I come ashore – for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched.

At the centre of Carter’s ninth novel, Nights at the Circus, is the question of whether the female protagonist, Sophie Fevvers, star aerialiste and talk of Europe at the end of the nineteenth century is fact or fiction. Jack Walser, a pragmatic American journalist more accustomed to covering wars than investigating cause celebres finds himself backstage at the Alhambra interviewing Fevvers and trying to answer just that very question. In the three divisions that make up the novel, Jack finds himself weighing up the fantastic tale Fevvers tells of her youth and then joining up with the circus himself to continue his story, finding himself before the Tsar in St. Petersburg and finally the bleak landscape of Siberia.

The first section of the book deals with Fevvers recounting the details of her upbringing to Walser, claiming to be part woman part swan, having hatched from an egg and “the only fully-feathered intacta in the history of the world”. Left on the steps of a progressive brothel run by a one eyed madam named Nelson (on account of the fact she dressed like an admiral), she was raised by her constant companion, the housekeeper Lizzie and the other girls in the brothel. She has a happy childhood filled with love, playing cupid in the main room during the day. As she grows older her wings develop and she transforms from cherub to winged victory, armed with Nelson’s ceremonial sword. In a do or die attempt at flight on the roof, she learns to use her wings to fly much to her excitement, but unfortunately her happy life cannot last. A freak accident results in the death of Nelson and the house in which they all live is inherited by her brother, an unkind religious man who gives them until the next day to leave. As Nelson had always encouraged the girls to prepare for the future, most of them are able to find their way in the world through various skills that they have learned over the years while in the house. Fevvers realizes that she was naive and may even be engaging to some extent is nostalgia, as she tells Walser:

“It was the cold light of early dawn and how sadly, how soberly it lit that room which deceitful candles made so gorgeous! We saw, now, what we had never seen before; how the moth had nibbled the upholstery, the mice had gnawed away the Persian carpets and dust caked all the cornices. The luxury of that place had been nothing but illusion, created by the candles of midnight, and, in the dawn, all was sere, worn-out decay. We saw the stains of damp and mould on ceilings and the damask walls; the gilding on the mirrors was all tarnished and a bloom of dust obscured the glass so that, when we looked within them, there we saw, not the fresh young woman that we were, but the hags we would become, and knew that, we too, like pleasures, were mortal.”

Knowing that the past was no more, they burn the house down taking only Nelson’s sword and the clock from the mantelpiece with them as they go to stay with Lizzie’s sister in Battersea.

Arriving in Battersea, they are once again happy for a while until things take a turn for the worse and circumstances lead to serious money problems. Having been visited by a rather creepy skeletal old woman, Madame Schreck, Fevvers agrees to be a part of her collection of oddities despite the others’ objections in order to raise the money. She is kept in what is for all intents and purposes a prison, along with a number of other women with strange physical impairments, such as a very short woman who claims her mother was impregnated by the fairy king, a hermaphrodite and “sleeping beauty”, a young girl suffering from a disease that caused her to sleep for long periods of time. For the most part, Madame Schreck caters to the sexual perversions of the rich and after a while she sells Fevvers to a Mr Rosencreutz, who sees her as his “Flora; Azrael; Venus Pandemos!” He intends to sacrifice her as a “virgo intacta” as a way of conquering death but she is more than capable of protecting herself as she never goes anywhere without her sword and manages to escape back to Lizzie’s sister’s house in Battersea. It is not long after that that she meets Colonel Kearney, a circus owning P.T. Barnum type southerner and joins the circus as an aerialiste. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the second section of the novel set in St. Petersburg, the narrative onus shifts over to Walser who begs Colonel Kearney for a job in the circus so he can continue his story on Fevvers. Kearney’s business partner, his pet pig Sybil, divines through the cards that he should be given a job as a clown and so he is taken on. The novel becomes a little more of an ensemble story as we are introduced to the various members of the circus. The clowns that Walser is forced to live with are headed by Buffo the Great, a man with a tragic past who eventually goes insane and attempts to murder Walser in the middle of an act on the big night. The Princess of Abyssinia is a lonely tiger tamer who also plays the piano, scarred all over from having trained the beasts. Mignon, a girl with a tragic past who is married to monsieur Lamarck, the monkey trainer, an abusive alcoholic that beats her terribly, and Samson, the strong man who has been sleeping with Mignon, but is a selfish, vain coward. When a tiger gets loose and corners Mignon, Walser saves her. He is injured as a result and Samson is revealed to be a coward as he ran to save himself. In Fevvers hotel room, Walser is nursed by her and she is angry because she believes him to be sleeping with Mignon, and it becomes apparent that there is something between her and Walser. She berates him, but later realises that she was wrong about him after he doesn’t take advantage of the young girl when Fevvers puts them in the bridal suite. Things continue to go wrong at the circus though as Samson violently assaults Walser, both out of shame at his own cowardice and in the belief that he has stolen his woman. The Charivaris, believing Fevvers to be a cheat and as a result not a real aerialiste, weaken the trapeze in an attempt to kill her out of jealousy, but she survives and has them all fired by Kearney who has no choice. There is a wonderful passage from Walser’s point of view during this that reads:

Walser, half-laughing, half-wondering, almost, yet not quite, convinced himself the woman had been in no more danger than a parrot might be if you pushed it off its perch. And though he was altogether unwilling to believe this might be so, still he was enchanted by the paradox; if she were indeed a lusus naturae, a prodigy, then – she was no longer a wonder.
She would no longer be an extraordinary woman, no more the greatest Aerialiste in the world but – a freak. Marvellous, indeed, but a marvellous monster, an exemplary being denied the human privilege of flesh and blood, always the object of the observer, never the subject of sympathy, an alien creature forever estranged.
She owes it to herself to remain a woman, he thought. It is her human duty. As a symbolic woman, she has a meaning, as an anomaly, none.
As an anomaly, she would become again, as she had once been, an exhibit in a museum of curiosities. But what would she come if she continued to be a woman?

Meanwhile, having discovered she has a beautiful singing voice, Fevvers gets Mignon a job accompanying the princess and the pair fall in love, but tragedy strikes when she has to shoot one of the tigers when it becomes jealous and dangerous as a result. Kearney also loses his biggest star as Fevvers, who loves to part fools from their money, has been planning a game with a Russian Grand Duke since she was in London. She goes to his mansion, intending to receive a fortune for something simple like a hand job, but realises that something is wrong and the narrative begins to disintegrate making the scene almost surreal. In a sense it contributes to the feeling from the first section in the novel in which the reader doubts the reliability of the narrator, as Fevvers is one minute trying to escape from the Grand Duke in a Faberge egg, and the next on the train leaving St. Petersburg. It seems he is trying to trap her there, as one of the Faberge eggs contains a tiny gilded cage, a reoccurring theme within the novel. The ironic thing is that when she lived in a brothel, she never sold herself, but since then she has sold herself at least twice that we know of, first unwillingly and the second willingly, both times nearly killing her.

The final section of the novel takes place in Siberia, in the forests of Transbaikalia, after the rail line is blown up by outlaws and the train is derailed as a result. It is interesting to note, that in the crash both her wing and the clock from Nelson’s are broken and the sword was broken by the Grand Duke in the previous chapter, meaning all the symbolic representations from earlier in the novel are in a sense destroyed. Kearney, Fevvers, Lizzie, Samson and the girls are taken captive by the outlaws who believe, due to the rumours Kearney had been spreading, that Fevvers is engaged to the Prince of Wales. They are all outlaws who have killed corrupt minor Russian officials for raping female members of their families and think that she will be able to help them by writing a letter to Queen Victoria to implore the Tsar to let them return to their villages. Fevvers cannot help them and is distraught as she has broken her wing and believes Walser to be dead. He is in fact buried under rubble but has completely lost his wits and is rescued by a group of women who have escaped from a mental asylum for women who had murdered their husbands, even though most of them deserved it. They leave him at the train though, as he is suffering from some form of amnesia that is causing him to act like a simpleton and he wanders off and meets a Mongolian shaman who believes Walser is hallucinating. While the shaman takes him back to his village to train him to become a shaman (which involves a process of sleight of hand, ventriloquism, and looking very serious while doing these things), the others escape from the outlaws when the clowns, almost a physical manifestation of chaos incarnate, summon up a storm through their act. They meet a maestro who came out to Siberia believing he would get to have his own Conservatory, but was tricked by a corrupt Russian official who takes the princess and Mignon on as students, Samson staying with them in order to become a better man by devoting himself to them. Lizzie and Fevvers continue to look for Walser, having seen him in the distance and Lizzie tells Fevvers that when they find him, the next step is for the pair to get married, which leads to an argument that reads like a dialogue between feminism and postmodernism. Lizzie believes that nothing good will come of Fevvers giving herself to Walser, while Fevvers argues that she can make him a New Man like she is a New Woman, and together they can go forward into the New Century. When they find him in the village, Fevvers is able to make him remember who he is and he asks her “What is your name? Have you a soul? Can you love?”

At the heart of Nights at the Circus, Carter continues to raise the same questions as always about gender roles, social class, relationship dynamics and feminist thought. Fevvers as a narrator’s reliability is constantly called into question and despite her revealing to Walser the only things she claims to have lied about, it is never really certain to the reader what is true or false. Her relationship with him is one where it is usually her that has to save him from whatever trouble he has gotten into and when she herself is threatened she is either strong enough or intelligent enough to save herself. She is never the victim. Her transformation is interesting as she goes from being interested in what she can sell herself for to being willing to give herself to Walser, which to me seems like trading a power dynamic for something more optimistic. Walser on the other hand goes from being a cynical pragmatist to a shaman and by the end is proved to have been quite gullible after all.

Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dream on July 10th, 2010.

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