My experience of a novel depends as much on a sympathetic response as anyone else's. The question is: with whom, exactly, do I need to sympathize? Readers of Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction (1988) know where I'm going, even though I was well aware of everything I'm about to say before I read Booth, I swear.
When I read Wuthering Heights, I encounter a fine assembly of weirdos, misfits, idiots, and monsters, a few of whom deserve my pity, but none of whom deserve much more. Yet there is one character with whom I sympathize strongly: I care about what happens to her, and I wish her well in her goals. She's not much like me, so there's little identification with her, but I appreciate and benefit from the offer of friendship she makes me, and enjoy the opportunity to get to know her better.
Her name, of course, is Emily Brontë. She is not the real Emily Brontë, but one I have invented in collaboration with the actual author. Booth calls her the "implied author." When "EB" and I get together, she offers to show me this wonderful thing she made, this novel, or perhaps one of her poems. We look at it together. She points out the bits she's particularly proud of. We have a good laugh whenever a book is abused, or when Catherine is bit by a bulldog. We hunt for fairies and ogres. We perhaps discuss why Heathcliff is the way he is, and why Catherine is like she is. I ask her if she has read John Galt. She unfortunately does not answer.
It's kind of a one-sided friendship. But as Booth says (I'm in Chapter 6, "Implied Authors as Friends"), we have many different kinds of friends, some close and wide-ranging, some best met on specific occasions. Lunch-every-week friends, lunch-every-year friends, and lunch-every-decade friends. The analogy with books is clear enough, so I'll move on.
Maybe what I do want to emphasize is that before I can really accept or reject an implied author's friendship, I have to have some sense of what she's trying to do. Emily Brontë did not botch her attempt to create a genial romance. Her goals were entirely otherwise, and quite interesting; she achieved them admirably, mostly; and her book allows me certain emotional and artistic experiences that I still don't think can be found anywhere else.
Booth never discusses one case: what if the author is not my friend, but my enemy? Sometimes that relationship is valuable, too. Emily Brontë (my Brontë, the one I made up) is weird enough that I understand how plenty of people will not be able to accept her friendship so easily, and may even want to fight it out with her. They should.
So, OK. That's Sympathetic Character Week. That's why I don't particularly care about sympathetic characters. They're a literary device useful for achieving specific goals. Other devices are useful for achieving other goals. Sympathetic attention to the book will point us in the right direction. Then we can puzzle over whether the goals were achieved, or whether they were worth trying in the first place.
Thanks for all of the useful comments. I thought this all worked pretty well, for such a misguided idea. For the next two weeks, another bad idea: Who is John Galt?
Friday, October 30, 2009
My experience of a novel depends as much on a sympathetic response as anyone else's. The question is: with whom, exactly, do I need to sympathize? Readers of Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction (1988) know where I'm going, even though I was well aware of everything I'm about to say before I read Booth, I swear.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
How crazy is it to say this: The development of the idea of sympathy in 19th century literature was one of the great achievements of the time. I'm slighting the 18th century Germans.
The success of Pamela (1740), the first modern novel, depended on a very crude idea of sympathy. Richardson identified or chanced upon a new audience, newly literate female servants who were primed for a story with a female servant for the heroine, with a protagonist just like me. For non-servant readers, the new experience was to identify so strongly with someone not like me. Not that it's so easy to identify with Pamela today.
I don't think, though, it was until the 19th century that many writers discovered just how powerful the novel was, just how easy it was to direct readers' sentiments towards or away from almost any character. And more importantly, just how artistically and ethically effective these techniques could be when employed by a really skilled writer.
I'm thinking, for example, of Dickens, and especially Hugo. The condemned murderer in The Diary of a Condemned Man (1829), the Gypsy and hunchback in Notre Dame of Paris (1831), the whole range of urchins, orphans, and thieves in Les Miserables (1862): Hugo wanted action from his readers. Political reform at most, copious tears at the minimum. The reader was really supposed to regard various categories and behaviors of his fellow man differently after closing the novel.
By mid-century, most of the great writers were working on The Sympathy Project. Not just Hugo and Dickens: George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Theodor Storm, Adalbert Stifter, Henry James, Mark Twain ("All right, then, I'll GO to hell"), Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky. All of those Naturalists. Poets and playwrights, too. Not everyone. But an unbelievable amount of artistic and intellectual effort was devoted to creating these incredibly complex patterns of human fellow-feeling. Excrutiatingly complex, thinking of certain works by Henry James. The careful reader's sympathetic response to Anna Karenina, for example, ought to be complex.
In Silas Marner (1861), George Eliot carefully directs her reader into the thoughts of every major character, including the candidate for "villain." We are likely to end up with more understanding of everyone, regardless of their mistakes, eccentricities, or bad actions. But Eliot is also making an argument about sympathy, enforcing some limits. The villain crosses a moral line, and we're not with him when he does, a minor key variation on poor pregnant Hetty's "Journey of Despair" in Adam Bede (1859), where the reader and the author are with Hetty, really with her sympathetically - but only up to a point. Sympathy is withheld, and she's on her own.
I know an English professor, an 18th century specialist, who taught a Jane Austen seminar that, he said, was a complete failure. He could not penetrate his students' love, love, love for Austen and her characters. For some reason, he never has this problem with the Vicar of Wakefield, also a likeable fellow. As Rohan Maitzen suggested a couple of days ago, sympathy can be as bad for the reader as antipathy. Both can inhibit critical thought. Elizabeth Bennett, wonderful, amazing Elizabeth Bennett, is not allowed to be ethically compromised. What, then, do these loving readers make of the last part of Pride and Prejudice? On the other hand, she is one of the greatest creations of imaginative literature.
I was thinking this would be a good place to discuss Gustave Flaubert's A Simple Heart (1877), perhaps his single serious attempt at a sympathetic character, an amazing character, created using the exact same techniques he uses on his horrible people. But I think I've written enough. The 19th century International Literary Sympathy Project is beginning to look to me like one of the great achievements of civilization. But literature can do other things, too. That's all I'm saying.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Really, here's the most important reason to be careful about indulging in the entirely natural impulse to sympathize with the admirable and interesting characters in a novel. It turns out that certain novelists are aware of this predilection and have learned to manipulate it for their own sinister ends. One solution is to avoid all such books. Use this post as a guide. Another is to be cautious. Very cautious. One can't be too safe.
Vladimir Nabokov, for example. In Lolita (1955), a murderous pedophile writes his confession. He (Humbert Humbert, and Vladimir Nabokov) uses every trick in the book, and invents a few new ones. Readers who are not extremely vigilant almost inevitably find themselves relaxing their guard. HH is so erudite, and there are worse monsters in the world, and - well, there's a lot more like that. Most importantly, we spend most of the first-person novel with him, and he's not only charming, but dazzling, a self-pitying master of flimflammery. We slip into the narrator's world. Isn't that what we're supposed to do in a novel?
Lolita is a useful case because it is actually about readerly sympathy. Taking the book as a real document, the author is justifying his crimes to someone, asking someone to forgive him, appealing for sympathy. Taking the book as a novel, the reader often has to struggle to escape the natural pull of sympathy. Whether or not HH, at the end of the novel, begins to understand the true nature of his own crimes is incidental to the way the device works.
Nabokov continued to explore this idea in the novels that followed Lolita. In Pnin (1957), the hapless Russian immigrant Professor Pnin is genuinely sympathetic, a brilliant, warm creation. Many readers, indulging in their fellow-feeling for this marvelous character (see the end of Chapter Six, the punch bowl, unbelievable), never quite notice how he's being abused by the narrator, a certain "Vladimir Nabokov." Poor Pnin, with a burst of creative solution-finding, actually has to flee the novel. In Lolita, the villain hides behind false sympathy; in Pnin, behind real sympathy. Pale Fire (1962) twists the idea in yet another direction. Nabokov sure enjoyed the author-as-puppeteer metaphor.
Ford Madox Ford famously begins The Good Soldier (1915) with "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Now here, one thinks, with this story we'll find some first-rate sympathizin'. "Poor Florence," the narrator calls his dead wife, again and again, and Captain Ashburnham is the model of an English gentleman, and "I loved Leonora always and, to-day, I would very cheerfully lay down my life, what is left of it, in her service." But in fact the characters turn out to be ridiculous, and the narrator himself loses sympathy for them as he tells the story - actually, because he tells the story. The act of storytelling in this case destroys sympathy.
And what, I ask you, is behind the inscrutable expression of Little William Thackeray, perched up there at the top of the blog? He's keeping a careful eye on the readers of Vanity Fair (1847-48), watching them puzzle over exactly which characters are supposed to receive the reader's sympathy. The most likable character is selfish and immoral; the other candidate is selfish and priggish. The men are idiots or dishrags. The narrator keeps telling us that everything's fine, what do we expect, that's just the way things are.
These are some of my all-time favorite books. You may have noticed that these are all comic writers. So the savvy sympathetic reader might want to avoid comic writers. Dickens wanted his readers to like his characters, so he's safe. I think.
All right, I'm tired of not liking anyone. Tomorrow, I'm going to sympathize with sympathy.
* I want to recommend, as strongly as possible, Nabokov's last Russian novel, The Gift (1938), which is neither tricky, nor icy, nor icky, nor whatever other adjectives people use to diminish Nabokov. It's a perfect Bildungsroman, and I have no idea why it's not more read. The Chernyshevsky chapter alone is one of the best things Nabokov ever wrote.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
I tried to do some genuine research for Sympathetic Character Week, to try to shape my rhetoric, if nothing else. Besides Wayne Booth's book, enormously helpful, and to which I'll return later in the week, I did not have much luck.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster: these all seemed like good candidates. None mentioned the issue at all, and the reason was clear enough. None of them took the question seriously. Of course you don't dismiss a book because you don't like the characters. Now get back to work!
The same person who suggested the spot-on yet off-point Freud essay led me to Samuel Johnson's Rambler #4, (1750), on the "new realistic novel." Anybody want to defend this position:
There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters of the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved than the art of murdering without pain.
Or more concisely: "It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn" (emphasis mine). I think that cat is pretty much out of the bag by now.
Virginia Woolf always comes through for me. From "How Should One Read a Book" (1926):
Reading is not merely sympathizing and understanding; it is also criticising and judging.
Sympathizing with whom, one should ask? Woolf is clear enough, but we'll return to that on Friday.*
So (again excepting Booth) none of these books were that helpful. One argument, my strongest, is perhaps so obvious that no one bothers to make it: a lot of great novels (stories, poems) have characters with whom no sane, mature person should sympathize. And another swath of books is constructed independently of our concept of sympathy. You shouldn't like them, you shouldn't want to be their friend, you shouldn't wish them well. You should wish some of them ill, frankly.
One group of books is more or less Modernist; the other is more or less pre-modern. Pre-modern first. One reason we call Don Quixote the first novel is that we've hijacked it, turning it into a novel, and one way we did that was by learning to sympathize with the travails of Our Lord Don Quixote. My understanding is that at the time it was generally read as a collection of side-splitting cruelty, an early Three Stooges. Ha ha - poke him in the eye again! We aren't capable of reading it that way any more; sympathy is a powerful thing.
But what to do, then, with Egil's Saga, about a sociopathic Icelandic poet, or Grettir's Saga, about the last of the monster-killers, who is something of a monster himself? So much pre-modern and early modern literature was created under entirely different assumptions of the reader's response. Sometimes, a sympathetic response works; sometimes we have to find another way in to In Praise of Folly or The Lusiads or Orlando Furioso.
Now, the Modernists, deliberately working against sympathy: Charles Baudelaire titles one of the Paris Spleen prose poems "Let's Beat Up the Poor." Or how about the poem "Against Her Levity," one of the six banned poems from The Flowers of Evil, in which the speaker expresses his desire to copulate with a wound he has made in his lover. Yuck! Baudelaire's art presents a challenge to the notion of sympathy.
Every third French writer seems to ends up following in his path: Rimbaud, Ubu Roi, the Dadaists and Surrealists. Icy Gustave Flaubert, contemptuous of his own characters -- not that you have any obligation to read Madame Bovary like he wanted you to (and let's revisit Flaubert in a couple of days). And it's not just France: As I Lay Dying. The Castle (he's never going to get in). The Voyeur. Beckett, or Bernhard, or Borges ("I sure hope that nice Pierre Menard finishes his Don Quixote book.") There are exceptions on this list - see Beckett's heartbreaking Krapp's Last Tape. Surrealists aside, I haven't even mentioned the genuinely avant garde stuff, mostly because I'm not sure I want to call any of it "great." Additions to this list, or the one above, most welcome.
One could make a much longer list of wonderful Modernist books that do depend on some type of sympathetic relationship between the reader and the characters. That is, and should be, the norm. But there's this other world, too. What should one tell the reader who refuses to look into Wuthering Heights because the characters are unpleasant? Stay away from all those other books? Or, try another approach - it's a lot more pleasant than it looks.
* In fairness, I should mention that Woolf called this essay "a lecture, for schoolgirls," which suggests a certain amount of contempt. In more fairness, those schoolgirls were undergraduates at Yale.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Surely learning to meet "the others" where they live is the greatest of all gifts that powerful fiction can offer us.
Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction (1988), p. 414.
Welcome to Anti-Sympathetic Character Week! Or Sympathetic Characters: Pro and Con! Or Sympathetic Characters! What Are They Good For? I guess I didn't think of a good title.
What do I mean by "sympathetic character"? What I mean is, whatever someone means when he says "I did not like Wuthering Heights because it did not have any sympathetic characters." Now, what does that reader mean? Check out this horror show for something similar.
Literature professors hate this kind of talk.* What a conversation-killer. That's how I see it used in LitBlogLand, too. Didn't like the characters, therefore didn't like the book, therefore we're done.
We all, as humans, have a taste for sympathetic characters. That taste is natural, perhaps a social animal's evolutionary adaptation, who knows. Sigmund Freud, in his 1908 essay "Creative Writers and Day-dreaming," sees the actions of both writing and reading as akin to day-dreaming, with the sympathetic hero providing a "sense of security". But look at this caveat:
for the purposes of our comparison, we will choose not the writers most highly esteemed by the critics, but the less pretentious authors of novels, romances and short stories, who nevertheless have the widest and most eager circle
So a disclaimer of my own: I'm only talking about the writers most highly esteemed, the more pretentious authors, with the narrowest yet most eager circles.
Tastes, I am told, cannot be disputed. Tastes can be cultivated, though. The taste for characters with whom one does not sympathize should be cultivated. That's what I want to argue. And, honestly, I'm not convinced that a taste for "characters I can identify with" or "characters I understand" is any less arbitrary than not wanting to read about poor people, or not wanting to read depressing books (examples drawn, sadly, from life).
Wayne Booth, and he's not the only one, argues that we readers actually have an ethical imperative to seek out characters unlike ourselves. Fiction (including poetry) gets us closer to other humans than is otherwise possible. No other form allows this particular intimacy. This is our chance to fight against our own limits and experience true sympathy.
Or is this just another arbitrary preference, a taste for cosmopolitanism, a taste for otherness?
One more disclaimer, while I'm jabbering about tastes. One of my problems with that Wuthering Heights straw man up above is that I don't really care if he likes the book. I don't care that much if I like the book! Something about Wuthering Heights has kept it alive, has attracted so many good readers. I want to figure out what it is. Looking for sympathetic characters in Wuthering Heights is a hindrance to understanding the novel. The strange thing is that once I do begin to figure out what the author is up to, what is actually in the book, I begin to like it, a lot. This is what I mean by cultivating a taste. Critical distance is pleasurable.
I'm going to spend a couple of days arguing my position, which, again is not against sympathetic characters but for putting them in their place, for critical distance. Then I will try to recover the sympathetic character. It turns out that I want sympathetic characters, too.
All of this barring ideas from my readers, who are likely to understand the issue better than I do.
* This week I'm likely to be wrong a lot more than usual. Please, correct me. Who knows, maybe professors love this. Please, student, more about your likes and dislikes. Wonderful.
** Freud quotations from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IX (1959), ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press. p. 149. Thanks to JRussell (see comments) for this source, and for a Samuel Johnson essay I'll mention later in the week.
Friday, October 23, 2009
I'll give you a for example.
The book is Journal of Trapper by Osborne Russell, which records the author's life and adventures as a fur trapper from 1834 to 1843. Due to bad luck, it was not published until 1914, twenty years after the author's death. Like Parkman in The Oregon Trail, Russell mostly just tells us how he went about his business in an unusual place. Russell's working, not on vacation, so a lot of the book is about which river he followed, where he found beaver, and where he wintered. Until we get to page 101 of the 1965 University of Nebraska Press edition.
Russell and his comrades are trapping in what is now Yellowstone National Park. They're not working too hard. They're taking a bit of a vacation, themselves, actually, hunting and admiring the geysers and mudpots. Russell and his co-worker White are napping when:
Presently I cast my eyes towards the horses which were feeding in the Valley and discovered the heads of some Indians who were gliding round under the bench within 30 steps of me I jumped to my rifle and aroused White and looking towards my powder horn and bullet pouch it was already in the hands of an Indian and we were completely surrounded (102)
Now here, something is happening:
an arrow struck White on the right hip joint I hastily told him to pull it out and I spoke another arrow struck me in the same place but they did not retard our progress At length another arrow striking thro. my right leg above the knee benumbed the flesh so that I fell with my breast accross a log. The Indian who shot me was within 8 ft and made a Spring towards me with his uplifted battle axe (102)
Russell and White miraculously escape, but the Blackfoot Sioux have taken everything they own except for a bag of salt. And both men have been shot in the legs by arrows. They walk back to a fort on the Snake River, maybe 250 or 300 miles through the Rocky Mountains.
I guess this is only about 10 pages out of 120. Still, what an adventure. There are other reasons to read Journal of a Trapper - as an account of how the fur trade worked, it's essential, and this line is curious:
We passed an agreeable winter We had nothing to do but to eat attend to the horses and procure fire wood We had some few Books to read such as Byrons Shakespeares and Scotts works the Bible and Clarks Commentary on it and other small works on Geology Chemistry and Philosophy (109)
It's not exactly as exciting as the story of how Frederick Douglass learned to read, but the path that turns this fur trapper into a posthumous author is almost as unlikely.
The Oregon Trail is the greater book - well-written, more varied - but in Journal of a Trapper, holy cow, something happens, does it ever.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
I'm talking about The Oregon Trail (serialized 1846-8). I've read the book twice now and find it exciting, even thrilling in places. But I recently came across a book blogger - no idea who, unfortunately, and Google is no help - whose verdict was "boring," and I understand what she meant.
Because nothing really happens in Parkman's book, except for all of the things that are constantly happening. If you know what I mean.
Parkman and his college chum Quincy Adams Shaw (now is that a Boston name or what?) spend their 1846 summer vacation out West. They hire a guide in St. Louis, and take the Oregon Trail to Fort Laramie, where they split up so Parkman can live with a band of Dakota Sioux. When they join up again, they head south along the edge of the Colorado Rockies to Bent's Fort, then go home along the Santa Fe Trail.
They hunt, a lot, to eat and for sport. I think Shaw was really there to hunt. They never fight it out with Indians, or with bandits, or with grizzly bears. They never dangle from the edge of a cliff, or discover anything new, or climb an unclimbed peak. Parkman does not paint portraits of his Sioux hosts, or witness their secret mutilation ceremonies. Both men nearly die, but from disease, which is not so dramatic. A war among the Indians threatens, but fizzles.
For me, this book fires the imagination. Parkman actually chances onto the most eventful year in Western American history. The migrations to Oregon and Utah are at their heights - Parkman's party travels in the middle of it. In the Rockies, they encounter the dying remnants of the fur trade and the last of the mountain men. On their way home on the Santa Fe Trail, they encounter detachments of the U.S. Army, on the way to the war with Mexico. And Parkman's chapters about the Sioux are almost unrivaled. He's describing daily life, though, not anything extraordinary - even the great buffalo hunt chapter is just part of daily life.
It's strange. I read the book and it seems so eventful. But nothing happens.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
That last page of Dracula. A little epilogue by Jonathan Harker. Four paragraphs.
I was joking, kind of, about the novel as a polyamorist tract. But the first new piece of information we get is that Harker and Mina have a son "whose bundle of names links all our little band together." Huh. So he's everyone's son. Somehow.
The next paragraph brings back the travel-writing theme, which I haven't mentioned before. Transylvania is once again safe for Baedeker. "Every trace of all that had been was blotted out."
Well, almost every trace. Because the third and longest paragraph is all about - I can hardly believe it - the paperwork, the "mass of material," "nothing but a mass of typewriting." Harker worries that there is "hardly one authentic document," no proof of anything.
But sweet old Uncle Van Helsing ends the book with this:
"We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake."
This is where Stoker wants us to stop - back with strong Mina and her courtly knights. Mina's story is important for the future. The whole business with the supernatural monster is important only as a part of that story. Is this a clue to the book's meaning?
Last pages can be dangerous. To the reader pursuing the transgressive Dracula, the epilogue might look like a travesty, maybe a deliberate travesty, a mockery of the real meaning of the book. The subconscious sexual predator in us all, or the fear of the unknown, or whatever it is that makes the novel psychologically effective. Or does Stoker mean it all - the enemy is, or can be, crushed, after which we're all safe and happy.
I have no idea. It's a strange book, not strange in the way I had expected (uncanny weirdness), but slippery, hard to interpret. The ending is just one more puzzle. I'm more comfortable with the straightforward ambiguty of the ending of Frankenstein, which is a culmination of the meaning of the book, not a reversal:
He sprang from the cabin window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
In Dracula, Bram Stoker created a character and a set of images that are greater than the actual book they appear in, a feat neither small nor common. I know, there were vampire stories before Dracula. Goethe did not create Faust; Mozart did not create Don Juan.
So what else does Dracula do? I'm having a little more trouble there. I think that's the question at the heart of Prof. Maitzen's ethical protest: "Isn’t it a shame to take this ability and use it in the service of something as prurient as this novel, as dedicated as this novel is (so far) to the cheap thrill of waiting to see how bad things will get?"* What, though, if Stoker has something else in mind?
1. A celebration of polyamory. Count Dracula has his three vampire consorts. Lucy Westenra receives proposals from three suitors on the same day, and later receives blood transfusions from all three, and also from Dr. Van Helsing. Later our brave heroes all devote themselves to Mina Harker and make various pledges of undying loyalty. Mina is married, but her husband's spirit has been destroyed by Dracula, allowing the other men to feed off of the indomitable strength of his wife. All of this is undone on the very last page. How much weight should a reader put on the last page of a novel? Oops, I forgot Dracula. Lucy and Mina also symbolically marry Dracula.
That one doesn't make me feel any better about this book. Let's try another.
2. A celebration of technological progress. The tools that defeat the vampire include: the telegraph, the dictaphone, the typewriter, Winchester rifles, steamships, the railroad, and the telephone. Property rights and the rule of law perhaps also play a part. Also, in a particularly silly scene, a dog whistle. Some sort of argument is being made about the primacy of technology and science, a curious thing to find in a book about a supernatural menace. Dracula is defeated by the application of the scientific method to supernatural phenomena. Van Helsing and Mina, in particular, are rational and open-minded. The learn the rules and apply them. Science will presumably catch up eventually.
I was hoping Stoker was going to do something genuinely interesting with these ideas, but I don't see it. The rules for defeating vampires includes consecrated Hosts and crosses and whatnot. Does this challenge our ideas of science or not? It does explain how the Dracula-as-disease metaphor works so well.
3. One more, a related one. A demonstrarion of the value of information. All of that typing and filing has a point.** Dracula is defeated by the dissemination of information. Stoker makes this point clear in the plot when, after everyone shares all available information via Mina's secretarial work, the men immediately conspire to conceal information from her, to protect her delicate womanhood or some such idiocy. They almost get her killed. Lesson learned: after this, all data is shared. Mina's telepathic link with Dracula is related, somehow.
H.P. Lovecraft's stories generally make the opposite argument. Additional information causes insanity and death. One is best off not knowing about the screaming chaos at the center of the universe. In Dracula, knowledge leads to victory. Stoker is an early prophet of the information economy.
I've come up with some fine, fine nonsense here. Maybe one more day on Dracula. That last page is still bugging me.
* Note that Rohan is taking for granted Stoker's skill as a writer. Me too. Dracula, the prose of Dracula, ranges from pretty good to pretty great, with a lot of the pretty great concentrated in the first quarter or so. A famous bit of Chapter 2:
There seemed a strange stillness over everything. But as I listened, I heard as if from down below in the valley the howling of many wolves. The Count's eyes gleamed, and he said:-
"Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!" Seeing, I suppose, some expression in my face strange to him, he added, "Ah, sir, you dwellers in the city cannot enter into the feelings of the hunter."
You have a way to improve that? Dracula is only rarely uncanny.
** But see here, where all of the typing and collating and meetings are interpreted as a budding creative writing program, allowing the characters to express their "passion" for "storytelling," which they share with Stoker, and the author of the post.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Typing in triplicate! Pretty scary stuff! From Chapter 17 of Dracula (1897).
Dracula consists of documents. Diaries and letters, with the occasional newspaper clipping thrown in, strung together in chronological order. One clever result is that the reader always knows more than the characters, for most of the book, at least. Until heroic Mina Harker, exemplar of modern womanhood, master of the sciences of shorthand and typing, gathers together all of the relevant materials and - sensitive readers should look away - types them up. In triplicate. And then she collates them. Stoker neglects to mention her use of color-coded mini-PostIt notes, or what binderization system she employs. Then the vampire-hunters have a meeting in a conference room. Mina takes minutes, which she later types and distributes.
For many readers, this will be the most terrifying scene in Dracula. Look at that primitive technology. Only three copies for six characters. They do not each get their own takeaway. They have to share.
So the next thing that happens in the actual plot of the book about vampires is that everyone reads the big pile of documents, the same documents that the reader has already gone through, Chapters 1 through 16 of Dracula. By lining up the dates of the different diaries, various discoveries (which the reader already knows) are made which help move the plot forward. Count Dracula, understanding that this paperwork is a wood-pulp stake aimed directly at his heart, invades the office and throws it all into the fire.
Here I interrupted. "Thank God there is the other copy in the safe!" (Ch. 21)
Sometimes Dracula is kind of a stupid book. I haven't even mentioned the scene where the heroes hire a locksmith. I promise, kids, next week's movie will be really scary.
By the time Stoker wrote Dracula, the novel-of-documents was an old device. Rarely, though, do the documents themselves play such a direct role in the story. Samuel Richardson got caught up in the same thing in Pamela (1740), where poor kidnapped Pamela often seems more worried about her supply of paper and pens than escaping her kidnapper. And I now remember that Robinson Crusoe "could not make any ink by any means that I could devise" (Ch. 4). Mostly, though, authors set up the "actual document" premise and then discreetly ignore it. Not Bram Stoker.
Tomorrow, I'll take a useless stab at figuring out what this book is good for.
Friday, October 16, 2009
In Theodor Storm's "A Green Leaf" (1850), a soldier is lying in the heather:
The brilliant Argus-eyed butterflies fluttered up and down, between them the rosy streaks of the sky shot down toward him, and the fragrance of the erica flower covered his eyes like a gentle cloud.
The image is more complicated than it first appears. The sky is moving toward the viewer, between the butterflies, themselves in constant motion. The smell of the flowers affects the soldier's eyes. The butterflies themselves have many eyes, as many as Argus. The spots on their wings, presumably.
A snake approaches:
The sleeping man turned his head, and, half-awake, he gazed into the eyes of the serpent that crept along beside him. He wanted to raise his hand, but he was not able to; the reptile's eye held him fast.
A woman approaches, and the soldier dreams that he is in a fairy tale. He kisses the serpent to release the princess.
The girl had folded her hands across her knees, and she gazed out over the heath without moving. Only the mysterious rustling and swarming in the endless carpet of plants, here and there the cry of a bird from the air or, on the heath below, the sleeper's breathing, but no other sound. So a length of time passed. At last she bent over him; the long tresses fell down against his cheeks. He opened his eyes with a start; and when he saw the young face hovering over his own, he said, as though still half-dreaming, "Princess, how blue your eyes are!"
Gazed, eyes, eyes. The soldier spends some time at the woman's home, where she lives with her grandfather. But he is on his way to the war, and can't stay. They fall in love; they must part. Can he return? "She and the forest are in the hands of the enemy" (p. 62). That's where the story ends. It isn't so much, is it? But those eyes, and ways of seeing keep recurring, as do distant sounds, and the sense that the woman is intensely real yet a creature from a dream.
Every Theodor Storm story I've seen works like this. I suspect it's possible, with too much analysis, to disfigure them. They're delicate, these early stories.
I said, yesterday, that every Storm story I've seen has been worth reading, no matter how minor, or how repetitive the basic story. Perhaps these passages, from a single page of "A Green Leaf," will suggest why.
All quotations, but one, from p. 52 of the NYRB edition of The Rider on the White Horse, tr. James Wright.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
My enormous enthusiasm for the works of Theodor Storm has been tempered to a degree by the my most recent reading of Storm. The just republished James Wright translations, The Rider on the White Horse (1964/2009), is the culprit.
The Wright book contains Immensee and The Rider on the White Horse, both superb, unmissable. Unlike the great Denis Jackson's translations, the Wright volume has no maps or notes. On the other hand, it's about half the price of Jackson's books. A deal.
So it's not Immensee that's the problem, or the quality of the translations. It's the other stories Wright includes, all good, all delicately written, all about exactly the same thing. Specifically, thwarted love, and the sacrifices thereby required. Two lovers should marry each other, but cannot, so they heroically do what they must. Renunciation - there's some domesticated Goethe here.
Now, Immensee is also about thwarted love, sacrifices, stoicism, regrets, etc. I think it's basically perfect. Followed by another similar story, and then another, and another - six in a row, actually - a certain monotony intrudes, and what looked like necessary heroism in stiry #1 begins to seem false by story #6. Read as intended, isolated in a magazine or album, any one of these stories might have seemed like just the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. All together, the formula becomes apparent.
Tomorrow I'll forget all of this and write about the strengths of these stories. They all have their strengths. And I do want to acknowledge a clear diffference in taste. James Wright preferred these gentler, gauzier stories, characteristic of an early stage in Storm's life. To him, they represented the best of Theodor Storm. Denis Jackson prefers the more complicated, geographically specific, ambiguous later stories.
So do I. But I'm glad this book is easy to get again, am glad I read every story in it, and still plan to track down every Storm tale I can find, no matter how trivial. They have all been rewarding (some more than others).
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
July, by Theodor Storm
Sounds in wind a lullaby
sun shines warmly from the sky,
heavy ears bend down the corn,
berries ripen on the thorn,
fields with richest blessing teems -
young woman, tell me what you dream.
tr. J. W. Thomas, in German Poetry from 1750 to 1900 (1984), Continuum Press.
Looking at the German, those berries are red, and that young woman could be a young wife. Since there is no single collection of Theodor Storm's poems in translation, I have been reading them in anthologies like The Penguin Book of German Verse and this volume of the German Library.
A lot of Storm poems sound a lot like this one. Short, sweet, a little mysterious. But what's this?
August - Advertisement
Of the honourable young gentleman who this year
May be considering the theft of apples and pears that are mine
I respectfully request that during this amusement,
As far as it is possible they will themselves confine,
Not entering the beds nearby, please,
To avoid trampling down my plants and peas.
tr. Frances Sturmer-Robb, in Anthology of German Poetry Through the 19th Century (1964), Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
A good poem, that's what.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Human sacrifice, supernovas, competitive sports, slavery, zigzag-nosed gods - Timothy Pauketat's Cahokia
For reasons only distantly related to 19th century literature, I have been reading about Native American history. I'm trying to "learn something" by "reading books." I had not really planned to write about any of this, but I can't help myself, because the book I just finished is so good.
The book is Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi (2009) by University of Illinois anthropologist Timothy Pauketat. Pauketat tells an almost unbelievable story of human sacrifice, supernovas, competitive sports, slavery, zigzag-nosed gods, and the rise and fall of empires. All of this was, I remind myself, not in central Mexico, but in the Mississippi valley.
I have visited the Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, long ago, in the late 1970s, I think. So I knew a little bit of this story - that in the 11th and 12th century, Cahokia was a city of dramatic earthen mounds in habited by 20,000 or more people. "Larger than London" is the standard comparison, like 11th century London was so special. Still, before European settlement, it was the largest city in the history of the territory that would become the United States; one of the mounds is the third largest in North America.
As Pauketat tells the story, it is clear that there have been massive changes in the archaeological and anthropological understanding of the Cahokian and Mississippian culture, much of it in the past twenty years. Pauketat uses the history of the archaeology as a plot - the development of the story is his story.
Cahokia is a tiny book (170 little pages) in a series of tiny books - the Penguin Library of American Indian History. I recently read another one of the series, The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears (2007) by Theda Perdue and Michael Green. I can easily recommend the Perdue and Green book to anyone curious about the subject in the title. But it is not particularly exciting or well written. It's a useful book.
So Pauketat's book was a surprise. I'd recommend it to pretty much anyone. Some of it is a bit gruesome, I guess - those human sacrifices. One might think that the Cherokee history would have more grip because it has real characters - the great Chief John Ross, for example. But Pauketat's a better writer, and that makes all the difference. Plus, the archaeologists are good characters, and Pauketat knows how to use them, to b ring them to life and even argue with them. He calls one "paranoid." This book has personality.
Funny thing is that I've already found another fantastic Native American history, The Comanche Empire (2008) by - just a minute - Pekka Hämäläinen. No idea how to pronounce his Finnish name. This book is a serious academic history, so it's not so little and not so friendly. It's overturning every other fact I thought I knew about Plains Indian history, and I've barely started it. Maybe I'll write about it more at some point. It'll take me a while to finish - it's real work.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Even Rama gradually permitted his mind to become enthralled - a return visit to the Clay Sanskrit Library
The John Galt reading proceeds. The final pieces of the Anti-Sympathy project are falling into place. obooki extracts yet another fascinating, baffling 100 Best Novels list. But this week will be entirely miscellaneous.
The Clay Sanskrit Library has reached the end of its funding, with fifty-six voulmes in print, many never before in English. I celebrated or commiserated or whatever it was by reading another of their titles, the first volume (of eight) of The Ramayana (4th century BC, maybe). I've read the R. K. Narayan version twice, once when I was twelve or so, once as an adult. It's a thrilling little book that is maybe a tenth of the length of the real thing. So one might expect substantially less thrill in the long poem.
Yes and no. In the first book, King Dasharatha has everything but a son. Heroic sacrifices give him the son he wants, the future hero Rama, who goes around bending unbendable bows and killing unkillable demons. But, frankly, the main story doesn't get moving until Book 2. No Hanuman the monkey-hero, for example.
The greatest pleasures of reading the beginning of the actual Ramayana are the incidental passages, digressions, mythical tales, and inset stories that do not advance the plot at all. The sage Vasishtha orders his "heavenly, wish-fulfilling cow" to make "a huge amount of food" "using all the six flavors" (canto 51):
"She made sugarcane and sweets, parched grains and wines, excellent liquors, costly beverages and all sorts of food. She produced mountainous heaps of steaming rice, savory food, soups and rivers of curds. There were thousands of silver platters, filled with various delicious confections." (canto 52)
Then the king and the sage argue about selling the magic cow. The sage refuses, obviously. It's a heavenly, wish-fulfilling cow!
The very best thing in the first book of The Ramayana, actually, is the very beginning. The sage Valimiki sees a hunter kill a bird, is filled with pity, and spontaneously utters the first poem. The god Brahma suggests that Valmiki use this new technique to tell the story of the hero Rama in a vast poetic epic. The poet composes the poem, which is so wonderful that even Rama himself, still alive, wants to hear it. "And right there in the assembly, even Rama, in his desire to experience it fully, gradually permitted his mind to become enthralled."
Friday, October 9, 2009
First, Randall Jarrell recommends the second book of The Excursion.
Second, reading The Prelude of 1850 - no, writing about it - sent me back to, or near, the beginning, to the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, with A Few Other Poems, in which two energetic anonymous youths revolutionize English poetry.
Or so I am told. As with so many "first books," the revolutionary force of Lyrical Ballads has been so throughly absorbed and diffused that there is little hope of finding it again. Even compared to earlier poets, the books does not seem so unique, hardly as radical as anything William Blake had already done.
And it's not even a collection of the Best of Wordsworth and Coleridge. A few of their finest poems are in the book, but there's lots of more ordinary stuff. Ordinary for them, at least. Nevertheless, it's a wonderful poetry book, a work that functions as a book, a treat to revisit.
Lyrical Ballads begins with "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere," more old-timey than the later, anthologized version. The "Rime" takes up a fair chunk of the book, and I think only three other poems belong to Coleridge. But all of the poems seem to talk to each other. "The Rime" is followed by another Coleridge poem, a fragment, "The Foster-Mother's Tale," which describes a boy who "never learnt a prayer" but "knew the names of birds," until, "poor wretch!", he unfortunately became educated, and "read, and read, and read, \ 'Till his brain turned." A sad story. Variations on this fellow will show up again, perhaps, occasionally, in the form of William Wordsworth. This poor lad goes to sea and escaped into the wilds, where he "lived and died among the savage men."
Sailors, that's one theme. Children and mothers; children and fathers; dying children and grieving mothers. "We Are Seven," about a child's innocent view of death, is insipid on its own. But it gains strength in the company of "The Female Vagrant" and "The Thorn" (a story, perhaps, of infanticide), and "The Mad Mother," and others.
Lyrical Ballads ends with "Tintern Abbey," The Prelude in miniature, an attempt to understand the move from a time when nature "was all in all" to a more mature or grander:
a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused.
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (96-103)
Plenty vague, still. "All thinking things," that's key. Wordsworth was never really a nature poet, not like John Clare or William Cullen Bryant. His subject was people in their landscape, not just the landscape itself. Coleridge was something else entirely. Strange how well they meshed here. I don't know another book like this one.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
The fifth book of The Prelude is titled "Books". That should be a comfortable place to visit. Let's see.
I saw before me stretched a boundless plain
Of sandy wilderness, all black and void,
And as I looked around, distress and fear
Came creeping over me, when at my side,
Close at my side, an uncouth shape appeared
Upon a dromedary, mounted high.
He seemed an Arab of the Bedouin tribes:
A lance he bore, and underneath one arm
A stone, and in the opposite hand a shell
Of a surpassing brightness. (1850, 5, 71-80)
The stone and shell are both books. The stone, it turns out, is Euclid's Elements, which "held acquaintance with the stars," The shell, when held to the ear, delivers
A loud prophetic blast of harmony;
An Ode, in passion uttered, which foretold
Destruction to the children of the earth
By deluge, now at hand. (94-8)
This book "was a god, yea many gods." Did I mention that this is a dream of Wordsworth's, a dream he had when he fell asleep reading Don Quixote in a seaside cave? Which sounds a bit like a dream to begin with, The "semi-Quixote" flees into the desert with his books, pursued by "the waters of the deep gathering upon us." This part of The Prelude is not boring.
Wordsworth recedes from this vision for the rest of the chapter, speaking of actual (you know, paper) books, and complaining about faddish educational theories. He ends with another kind of vision, an account of an Infant Prodigy.
Wordsworth is so often prosaic, so matter-of-fact, that it seems that he's grounded in my world. But in fact, he is a visionary poet, as weird as William Blake, perhaps no more coherent. The actual weaves in and out with the imaginative. Wordsworth is after Truths that are not always of this world. No wonder they're so hard to understand.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Who is he that hath his whole life long preserved, enlarged, this freedom of mind? For this alone is genuine liberty.
The Prelude is Wordsworth's account of his artistic development, whatever it was that made him a poet. Books, for example (Book Five), and key episodes from his childhood, his early schooling. Not - definitely not - college. Wordsworth presents himself as a Cambridge goof-off, "an idler among academic bowers" (1850, 8, 503).
The bulk of The Prelude, though, is a form of travel writing. Journeys to Switzerland, France, and Scotland are central, and presented in detail. London, too, a bit surprising for someone so strongly identified as a nature poet - see the chaotic Bartholomew Fair scene at the end of Book Seven.
The last book begins with a trip to Wales and an night ascent of Mount Snowdon, with a friend and a shepherd guide:
It was a close, warm, breezeless summer night,
Wan, dull, and glaring, with a dripping fog
Low-hung and thick that covered all the sky;
But, undiscouraged, we began to climb
The mountain-side. (1850, 14, 11-15)
They climb and climb, and then:
For instantly a light upon the turf
Fell like a flash, and lo! as I looked up,
The Moon hung naked in a firmament
Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still ocean; and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched,
In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes,
Into the main Atlantic, that appeared
To dwindle, and give up his majesty,
Usurped upon far as the sight could reach. (1850, 14, 39-49)
The stars are visible, too, and the only sound is a distant waterfall. A sublime scene. What's the point? The young man discovers, not in an instantaneous vision but "in calm thought reflected," "the type of a majestic intellect... that feeds upon infinity, that broods over the dark abyss." This intellect is somehow simultaneously external (God or Nature) and internal to the poet (Imagination). This sublimity is a "power, which all acknowledge when thus moved" but only the poet "can send abroad kindred mutations; for temselves create a like existence."
So far, so good, I guess. This fits my own experience of nature, which helps. I don't know how to move to the next step, but it's not clear to me that Wordsworth does, either. Here I either lose the thread of the argument, particularly the later link to "spiritual Love," or fail to see the intuitive leap.
Wordsworth is clear enough about the value of poetry, of doing poetry. This imaginative communion with Nature is "the highest bliss that flesh can know" and "endless occupation for the Soul":
Oh! who is he that hath his whole life long
Preserved, enlarged, this freedom in himself?
For this alone is genuine liberty:
Where is the favoured being who hath held
That course unchecked, unerring, and untired,
In one perpetual progress smooth and bright?— (1850, 14, 130-5)
Wordsworth admits to "lapse and hesitating choice, / And backward wanderings along thorny ways," but that favored being is obviously him, the poet and genius. That latter word - perhaps that's the missing step.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The Wordsworth-is-boring theme meshes nicely with the forgotten-book theme I puzzled over last week. As boring as The Prelude can be,* Wordsworth wrote a far duller poem that was once considered his greatest achievement, by far, by so far, and is now virtually unread.
It's The Excursion of 1814. Cornell University Press has just returned it to print as part of their 19 volume critical edition. The Cornell edition is 1,256 pages long, of which less than 300 are the actual text of the actual poem. It's described as "a dramatic poem that advances largely through debate among the four main speakers: the Poet, the Wanderer, the Solitary, and the Pastor." Largely through debate, wonderful. Wonderful.
So maybe three years ago I read The Excursion. Why? Because everyone in early 19th century England - everyone** - who expressed an opinion on Wordsworth seemed to assume that The Excursion was Wordsworth's greatest achievement, the culmination of his life's work, a source of wisdom and solace. Keats, Hazlitt, I remember their praise distinctly. Later writers, too. I finally got sick of just hearing about it. I wanted to see for myself.
The Excursion is quite dull. I remember it poorly. One of the few episodes that lingers with me is the Solitary describing his enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and his later disillusionment. The character is just ventriloquizing Wordsworth - everything interesting he says is borrowed from the 1805 Prelude. That's more or less true for the whole book.***
As a result, when the 1850 Prelude was published just after Wordsworth's death, contemporaries saw it as a weaker, more egocentric Excursion. In the 20th century, egocentrism is not only a lesser fault, but positively valued. To us, The Excursion is The Prelude seen through a haze. Give it to us straight, William, we can handle it (even though the "William Wordsworth" of The Prelude is fictional). The Prelude has now completely swallowed and digested The Excursion. Scholars, and luckless saps like me, still pick through the bones.
This bit of Thomas Macaulay's journal (July 28, 1850) is too good to resist:
"I brought home, and read, the 'Prelude.' It is a poorer 'Excursion;' the same sort of faults and beauties; but the faults greater and the beauties fainter... The story is the old story. There are the old raptures about mountains and cataracts; the old flimsy philosophy about the effect of scenery on the mind; the old, crazy, mystical metaphysics; the endless wilderness of dull, flat, prosaic twaddle; and here and there fine descriptions and energetic declamations interspersed."
Quoted in the 1979 Norton Critical Edition of The Prelude, p. 560.
But then see this George Eliot letter, April 19, 1880:
"Except for travelling, and for popular distribution, I prefer Moxon's one-volumed edition of Wordsworth to any selection. No selection gives you the perfect gems to be found in single lines, or in half a dozen lines, which are to be found in the 'dull' poems." ****
So the dull poems are exactly those we should be reading!
I seem to have avoided, for a day, writing about The Prelude, the actual poem.
* Disclaimers: I like it, I've read it four times, it's brilliant, a landmark, etc.
** Everyone except for Thomas DeQuincey. And Coleridge, if I remember correctly. But they had both read The Prelude. And I also mean eventually, over the course of Wordsworth's life. Some of the intial reaction was extremely negative. One review famously, stupidly, began "This will never do!"
*** But I'm leafing through The Excursion now, and am reminded that Book I is actually just "The Ruined Cottage," perhaps overly sentimental but not dull. And the Pastor's section, Books VII and VIII, have a lot of good passages: the graveyard, the story of the Knight. Gentle, sweet stuff, hardly exciting.
**** The George Eliot Letters, Volume VII, 1878-1880, (1955) ed. Gordon S. Haight, Yale University Press, p. 261.
Monday, October 5, 2009
What can I say, it's true. He may be the most boring great poet in history.
I don't want to dispute his greatness. I'd rank him #3 or 4 in English (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth and Yeats, Milton) in "greatness," whatever that means. "Michael" (1800) is one of my favorite poems. The 1798 Lyrical Ballads, the collaboration with Coleridge, is a favorite, too. And the reason Wordsworth's dullness is on my mind is because I just finished my fourth pass through The Prelude (the 1850 version this time) Wordsworth's blank verse epic of himself. The Prelude is boring.
Like many a dull-brained pupil, what I mean, or at least one thing I mean, by "boring" is "hard." Wordsworth - the philosophical Wordsworth - presents difficult ideas in a heightened language. Sometimes his subject is concrete, and not so hard. Sometimes it is completely abstract, akin to philosophy, but without the underlying logic, which makes it even harder. I obviously think The Prelude is worth the effort. But the effort is real, for me, just to finish the book, much less to really undertand it.
A not-so-boring bit of The Prelude, young Wordsworth at play:
And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us—for me
It was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six,—I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. (1850, I, 425-33)
And then the next phrase is "All shod with steel," ice skates in reality, but another link to that wheeling horse. What an image, and what absolute mastery of blank verse. Too bad that blank verse is large quantities is typically a bit, what's the word, boring.
Wordsworth is describing the development of his own mind, a subject he barely understands. How could that be easy? Since he understands it better than I understand my own growth, or whatever I should call it, I keep reading him, and reading The Prelude.
I don't want to spend a whole week on The Predude - boring! - but I'll try to push past my own resistance and see if I can find a few more posts.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Get up, go to the city of slaughter and you will come to the courtyards,
And with your eyes you will see and with your hands you will touch the fences
And the wood and the stones and on the plaster walls
The congealed blood and the hardened brains of the fallen. (1-4)
That's the beginning of H. Bialik's "In the City of Slaughter" (1904), an angry poetic response to the 1903 Easter pogrom in Kishinev. The Biblical language reaches back, mostly, to the Psalms and Jeremiah and Lamentations and the other prophetic books. Bialik's poem sounds like a new prophetic book.
It's a brutal and unsparing poem, full of horrors, details about filthy hiding places and violent deaths. It's a bit hard to read, although perhaps not more so than, read in the right spirit, Jeremiah.
To the cemetery, beggars! Dig up the bones of your fathers
And the bones of your martyred brothers and fill your haversacks
And carry them on the shoulder and go out to the road, prepared
To do business with them at all of the markets; (258-61)
As this passage suggests, Bialik is not particularly angry at the Russians. He's angry at the Jews. Disgusted - "And everything will return to its usual manner, everything will return to its proper form." The Jews will clean up, grieve, and go on as if nothing happened. Vladimir Jabotinsky gives Bialik credit for inspiring Jewish self-defense leagues (he calls it "[t]he revival of Maccabean tendencies"),* putting "In the City of Slaughter" in the company of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Nicholas Nickleby as one of the rare literary works to have genuine political impact. Which is hardly why I read it.
For God called forth the Spring and slaughter together:
The sun shone, the acacia bloomed and the slaughterer slaughtered. (21-2)
* Quoted in Jacobs, Steven L., Shirot Bialik: A New and Annotated Translation of Chaim Nachman Bialik's Epic Poems (1987), Alpha Publishing Company, p. 124.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Reading about Yiddish literature, the name of one non-Yiddish writer kept appearing: H. Bialik, the pioneering Hebrew poet. In some rough sense, his project was similar to that of I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem and other Yiddish writers, modernizing a traditional language, bringing it into imaginative literature.
I finally read a bit of his work, and it turns out to be something unique. But, of course, Bialik was a poet, so his problems and solutions would be different. And Hebrew isn't Yiddish.
Shirot Bialik* includes four Shirot, or "Epic Poems." These four epics barely fill eighty pages, so there's our first Modernist irony. Bialik was not writing The Iliad.
Here are the titles and subjects:
"The Yeshiva Student" (1894-5), where a student renounces all earthly things for the study of the Torah. Bialik sees this choice as tragic, admirable yet deadening.
"The Dead of the Wilderness" (1902), about a group of pre-Jewish giants, cursed and frozen in the desert. The story is an expansion of a passage in the Babylonian Talmud. It is presumably an allegory.
"In the City of Slaughter" (1904), an angry response to Russian pogroms. Absolutely amazing. I think I'll save it for tomorrow.
"The Pond" (1908), in which the poet sits by a pond for eleven pages. There's also a storm. Epic!
All four poems, as different as their subjects are, share a common meter and technique, an intimate interweaving with the Hebrew Bible. I know this from the extensive footnotes. It turns out that the Biblical references are often to single words, which I would never be able to detect myself. But the cadence, the feel of Bialik's verse is Biblical, even in English, which not surprisingly sounds like a translation of the Hebrew Bible. From "The Yeshiva Student" (69-76), on the reason students leave the yeshiva:
Also, there was one chosen for a bridegroom and a maiden,
A village girl, coarse, fat, was his lot,
And another one of the secluded ones was redeemed
And became a great rabbi in a worthy town -
But one stands like a hammered nail,
The deeds, the years pass behind him;
And before him? Before him a wall of iron is planted,
A dim corner and parchment scrolls are seen.
For "redeemed," a note points to Leviticus 25:24 ("you must provide for the redemption of the land")**; the "wall of iron" is from Ezekiel 4:3, a typically weird passage for that book. The hammered nail, an image that recurs in Bialik's poem, is his own, modern, as are, of course, the village girl and the rabbi and so on.
Here's a bit of Bialik in sublime mode, from "The Dead of the Wilderness" (135-7):
Yet sometimes the wilderness becomes disgusted and grows weary of the eternal stillness
And awakens to be avenged with one big vengeance for its desolation by its Creator,
It lifts itself up against Him with a tempest and with pillars of sand rebels against Him.
Note how different the line lengths are compared to "The Yeshiva Student." One might think that this passage is a pastiche of Biblical references, but the notes identify just one, a link to Judges 16:28, where a blind Samson prays for strength "to take revenge of the Philistines." The language is Bialik's.
* Jacobs, Steven L., Shirot Bialik: A New and Annotated Translation of Chaim Nachman Bialik's Epic Poems (1987), Alpha Publishing Company.
** Biblical translations from the New Jewish Publication Society version (1985).