Obscure Mythology

March 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Of course there’s no such single thing as “Southern literature.” It’s silly to think so. But the term exists to be defined by writers like Welty; she’s one of the handful of names you’d think of in connection to it.

“June Recital,” a chapter/story in The Golden Apples, is willfully confusing, dense, allusive, tragic, and obscure. It’s a humid story. It feels like it’s been infected by the fever of the boy Loch Morrison, one of its two perspective-points (along with his sister, Cassie). Although no Southern narrative should be cursed with such cliche, it is, I am afraid, Faulknerian.

There’s the mysterious, serpentine path of the narrative, the way that the perspectives taken and the things they see seem somewhat random at first, working themselves out through the course of the story until they (maybe) make sense. So here we start with Loch, in bed, looking at the “vacant” house next door, and what he sees there is presented in a way that makes you wonder whether it’s a fever dream or actually happening: the house it called vacant, it is beautifully described as blending into its foliage, becoming part of the landscape, and yet there are hints that someone lives (or at least crashes) there, and we see two young people go in and start fooling around, and then a mysterious older woman goes in and starts putting up decorations made of newspapers, and then Fur Elise gets played on the piano. And Loch’s got his own impression of what’s going on, and it’s couched in a boy’s love of mystery and adventure and action (he wonders if the old woman is going to blow the house up).

Then we switch to Cassie, and her flashbacks to piano lessons with Miss Eckhart explain things as they are, we guess. Miss Eckhart is a strange German woman, who lives in the house (which used to be the MacLain house, the town’s nobility) with her elderly mother. Miss Eckhart, it seems, is now deranged. She had loved giving lessons to Virgie Rainey, who plays beautifully. Now, years later, Virgie the teenager is upstairs in the “vacant” house with a sailor, and Miss Eckhart is downstairs playing the piano and setting things up to burn the house down, which seems awfully convenient.

But then, myths often are, in that convenience is sometimes nothing more than fate revealing itself. (And one of the characters here is named Fate, by the way.) There seem to be echoes of the Arachne myth here, alluded to (perhaps?) by the tie-dying into the pattern of webs that Cassie’s doing to a handkerchief as she remembers her lessons, and in that Virgie seems to challenge her stern teacher and Miss Eckhart, just once, plays a grand, masterful, romantic piece for them one day when it’s storming outside. And the myth of Circe and Odysseus, as well, in more obscure ways: Miss Eckhart is explicitly compared to Circe. And Miss Eckhart’s ambition seems to be to keep Virgie with her, playing the piano for her in Morgana, as Circe longs to keep Odysseus forever. But then, in another possible allusion, King MacLain, the Zeus- and Odysseus-like serial fornicator, comes home after Eckhart’s attempted arson has failed, and sees her, and denies he knew her, and there seems to be something there as well. (But then, there’s also the way that Miss Eckhart’s hair catches fire, and this seems something like the scorn of Dido for Aeneas’s rejection of her, too.)

Maybe it’s obvious that Welty is not Joyce: there’s no one-to-one mythological resetting here, there is a web of meanings and significances. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve understood “June Recital.” I suspect this is one of the key passages:

…People saw things like this as they saw Mr. MacLain come and go. They only hoped to place them, in their hour or their street or the name of their mothers’ people. Then Morgana could hold them, and at last they were this and they were that. And when ruin was predicted all along, even if people had forgotten it was on the way, even if they mightn’t have missed it if it hadn’t happened, still they were never surprised when it came.

It’s this placing of people that King MacLain, especially, seems to escape. And it’s what is escaped, as well, through the flights that Miss Eckhart and Virgie both take in their music. The perspectives of Cassie and Loch fit in here: Cassie getting ready for a hay ride that night, full of pubescent sexual intrigue, and Loch just beginning to be curious about such things, watching Virgie and her sailor excitedly. Later that night, after the hay ride, Cassie thinks of when Virgie and Miss Eckhart passed each other after they’ve left the house, and how they didn’t say a word to each other:

Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them — human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.

The story’s difficult and complicated, in that necessarily unnecessary way that I, for one, think of as Southern. Mythology can be this way too, although it tends to have at least a superficial clarity: it’s only when you get below the surface that things get murky.

Why There are Roses

March 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

A couple more tidbits from this:

Probably my favorite of Sir John’s stories so far appears in chapter 9, which treats of Bethlehem and the scenery between it and Jerusalem. Here it is in full, after a description of a church outside of Bethlehem:

Between this church and the city is the field Floridus; it is called the ‘Field of Flowers’ because a young maiden was falsely accused of fornication, for which cause she was to have been burnt in that place. She was led thither and bound to the stake and faggots of thorns and other wood were laid round her. When she saw the wood begin to burn, she prayed to Our Lord that as she was not guilty of that crime He would help and save her, so that all men might know it. When she had thus prayed, she entered into the fire — and immediately it went out, and those branches that were alight became red rose-trees, and those that had not caught became white ones, full of blooms.  And those were the first roses and rose-bushes that were ever seen.  And thus was the maiden saved by the grace of God.

Now that’s excellent.  If God were always (or even occasionally) that whimsical, merciful, just, and available, who could help but worship him?

In chapter 10 we get a discussion of Saint Helena’s discovery of the cross, an important medieval legend I’d not known of before.  Saint Helena was the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, and was charged with discovering relics in Jerusalem shortly after Constantine Christianized the Roman empire.  According to Mandeville, she found the three crosses (of Jesus and the two thieves) hidden underground by the Jews.  To determine which cross was Christ’s, she had each one placed in turn on a dead man.  Christ’s cross brought him back to life.  (I think an alternate version of the legend says that it was just a sick man that was healed.  I kind of like the drama of finding a dead man to test the crosses on, though.  What experimental rigor!)

Helena also found the nails from the cross nearby, and the bridle of Constantine’s war-horse was made from one of them; hence the might of his army.

Crosses and Pyramids

March 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

What I’m reading here is a cheapo Penguin Classics edition of a 14th-century travel narrative/guide to the Holy Land/catalog of marvels and tales written (supposedly) by an English knight. Mandeville was really, really popular in his time and up through the Renaissance: tons of manuscripts survive in most European languages, there were a lot of printed editions, and the work was heavily anthologized, plagiarized, criticized, etc.

A lot of it is intended to be practical advice on geography, sight-seeing, and travel etiquette. But Mandeville’s digressions are most interesting, with their typical medieval tendency to filter everything possible through the Biblical narrative, folklore, and symbolism. So I’ll be jotting down some of the stories I thought most interesting here. To wit:

Chapter 2: Did you know Christ’s cross was made of four different types of wood? Mandeville did! The foot was cedar, to keep it from rotting (in case it took a long time for Jesus to die; apparently the thinking was that this was a kind of Jewish bet-hedging, in case Jesus was a bit divine and took days and days to die). The upright was cypress, which smells good, to keep the b.o. down. The cross-piece was palm wood, as an ironic fulfillment of an Old Testament statement that a victor should be crowned with palm. The INRI sign above Christ’s head was made of olive, which symbolized peace, which the Jews thought they would have once Christ died. And of course the symbols embodied by the woods, the choice of which Mandeville assigns to (unnamed, unidentifiable) Jews, can be neatly reversed to symbolize Christ’s power, perfection, victory, and peaceful reign.

Later in this chapter Mandeville claims to own a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. If there was, indeed, an actual John Mandeville, this is a nice piece of self-promotion.

Ch. 7: Did you know the Pyramids were actually the barns which Joseph (the Old Testament Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man) had built to store grain in during the seven lean years he correctly prophesied? As Mandeville says, “it is not likely that they are tombs, since they are empty inside and have porches and gates in front of them. And tombs ought not, in reason, to be so high.”

Mandeville (to assume there was such an actual person, and not a fictional construct, a handy name for a compilation by many writers, or a mythical being) actually seems to be a fairly free thinker, as medieval Westerners go: he says he’s served in the army of the Sultan of Egypt, and carefully presents alternative views to his own (see above). While he argues that the Holy Land should be under Christian rule, he also thinks that Christians have been unsuccessful in maintaining their hegemony there because they are unworthy of it, both in smarts and in sanctity. He seems genuinely interested in other places and peoples, and in their perspectives, even though he can’t break out of seeing Christ, the Bible, the dominant worldview in everything.

Mrs. Moore and the Temple of Boum

March 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

Reading next: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Adela Questing is not the only character whose life changes in the picnic at the Marabar Caves. Mrs. Moore’s is also profoundly affected: both share a similar experience with an echo, at different times, in different ways.

Forster, while careful to point out that the caves are not to be seen as merely uncanny, is thoroughly uncanny in his initial description of the echo, as experienced by Mrs. Moore:

The echo in a Marabar cave… is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies… “Boum” is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or “bou-oum,” or “ou-boum” — utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce “boum.” Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling… And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.

Mrs. Moore hates her short time in the dark cave, into which the entire company had packed. She’d felt something repulsive cover her mouth; looking for the villain after they have left the cave, she discovers it was the hand of a baby on its mother’s hip, just grabbing what looks grabbable, as babies will. Not a touch of evil about it at all.

But the echo, that horrible snake composed of small snakes… that stays with her. (Almost Shakespearean, that image. Like something Lear would have said.) And in another of the last paragraphs of chapters about religion, she thinks:

But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from “Let there be Light” to “It is finished” only amounted to “boum.” … she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God. She sat motionless with horror…

And Mrs. Moore, apparently, never gets over this. She makes herself so disagreeable — going so far as to be rude to the damaged Adele and to assert Aziz’s innocence — that her son ships her out, in the midst of the insufferably hot tropical summer. She dies on the passage across the Indian Ocean, having become a horrible sibyl of a kind, uttering her pronouncements of doom and terror when she has to speak at all. It seems, in a way, the opposite of Godbole’s Hindu song: where he continually sings for the god to come, she feels she has heard the horrible response, the response which is no response at all, and ceases to see why communication should be bothered with.

Adela also experiences the “boum” echo, but it takes a much different form with her. Her echo torments her, ringing in her ears for days after the incident. It is trying to tell her something; it is akin to Poe’s tell-tale heart, pounding away in her brain, an awful manifestation of conscience. When she admits that she may have made a mistake by accusing Aziz, it subsides; and when she finally recants, in court, it leaves her. But why the echo? The echo seems to her the key to remembering at least some of what actually happened, and also the disorienting factor keeping her from remembering.

The Thoughts of Others

March 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

On the train to the Marabar Caves, an expedition lead by Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore (in “purdah,” or seclusion of women from public sight, with Adela Questing) reflects on the impending marriage of her son Ronny and Adela (who reconciled immediately after Adela had decided not to marry Ronny).

She felt increasingly (vision or nightmare?) that, though people are important, the relations between them are not, and that in particular too much fuss has been made over marriage; centuries of carnal embracement, yet man is no nearer to understanding man. And to-day she felt this with such force that it seemed itself a relationship, itself a person who was trying to take hold of her hand.

I must pause, here, to make two separate digressions.

Digression A: Besides its importance in the novel, this statement reflects in interesting ways on the Bloomsbury Group, the circle of friends including the Woolfs, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and others, with whom Forster was friendly (although his actual inclusion in the group is a subject of heated debate among those who care about such things). In the light of what (little) I know about Forster’s biography and about the relations among the Bloomsberries, I suspect that by the unimportance of relationships Forster means their codification, the societal verification of the relationship between two people in marriage, and the necessity of maintaining such a relationship for life. This thought of Mrs. Moore’s could almost be a manifesto of interpersonal relations among the Bloomsberries, who were busily trying to dismantle Victorian proprieties, welcoming sexual experimentation, and having sex with each other and with those outside the group.

Digression B: My copy of A Passage to India (Harcourt, Brace Modern Classics, apparently a 1956 printing) was a $1 purchase at the most excellent Newberry Library Book Fair. It is fairly heavily marked up, especially in the first 150 pages, using red pencil and blue and black pens for underlining and occasional annotation. I would think this indicated two or three different annotators, but the markings and subject matter of interest seems fairly consistent. I suspect all of the markings belong to the Cornell U. student who identifies herself on the front endpapers. (Tina Van Lent, I have your book.) I’m guessing by the fading of the ink and the quality of the penmanship that these are circa late 1950s/early 1960s notes. (Just a guess.)

I mention all of this now, partly just because marginalia interests me, but also because the annotator underlines the passage quoted above heavily, excitedly, and asterisks in the margin by “yet man is no nearer to understanding man” with the note: “point of book.” The annotations of others in second-hand books can often be distracting or annoying, especially those of students who underline everything discussed in class, or everything identifying a new character, or who make really dumb notes in the margins. But they can also be illuminating, interesting, even important. (I recently purchased a copy of a book from the library of the novelist John Fowles — it has his bookplate, which is quite nice — and also includes some marginalia, possibly his, possibly that of the Oxford professor who’d owned it previously.)

Anyway, I don’t know that I would have identified this passage as the “point of book,” but it interests me that a former owner did. This is the kind of thing hard to replicate in e-books, this experience of communion with a former reader through a copy both of you owned. It is one of the things we’d lose if we lost the physical book. The freedom of transmission and marking of a copy of a book would be severely restricted by e-books; to the delight of publishers, I’m sure, who could restrict e-books to use only through passwords or licenses and thereby sell more copies to more users, and do away with “second-hand” copies altogether.

To segue back to the topic at hand. The communion between different minds, and the ways our thoughts circle around ideas and topics in divergent ways, is one of the truly masterful techniques Forster controls in this book. His perspective flits from mind to mind, smoothly moving from one to another, so we hardly notice that we are now thinking like Fielding, now Moore, now Questing, now Aziz. Third-person omniscient, here, but in a way very different from Joyce, whose Ulysses was published a couple of years before this. Unlike that encyclopedic vision, Forster willfully selects the thoughts of his characters, summarizing past thinking and choosing the most important thoughts to show how the views of one character communicate with those of another in ironic, sympathetic, or unexpected ways.

So Mrs. Moore is thinking these rather radical thoughts for an older Englishwoman, and when they reach the caves, and Aziz is trying his best to make them interesting, diverting, the sort of scenery he thinks adventurous Englishwomen would want (not realizing they’ve come only out of politeness, having been told they’d been disappointed he hadn’t arranged the trip yet, and so arranging it out of a feverish desire to keep what he sees as important friendships with Mrs. Moore and Fielding) — as all this is happening, Adela Questing is thinking about her marriage, making her plans, and suddenly coming to the realization that she does not love Ronny, does not believe he loves her, and wondering why it has not even occurred to her to ask until now, when she’s already engaged. She would obviously profit from an honest talk with Mrs. Moore, it would seem: but, Forster seems to ask, how would such a talk occur, in the stultified air of propriety and etiquette the English live in? Even among two fairly independent-minded women?

So Adela climbs among the caves and rocks with Aziz and a guide (Fielding having missed the train, and Mrs. Moore having been appalled by the caves, and deciding not to continue after the first, but instead rest). And deciding she needs to talk about marriage with someone, she asks about Aziz’s marriage. Aziz, weirdly feeling it more “artistic,” says he is married, even though his wife is dead. And then Adela makes a monstrous faux-pas: she asks if Aziz has more than one wife. Deeply offended, he says he only has one, then takes refuge alone in a cave to avoid further embarrassment. Completely oblivious, Adela also goes into a cave, thinking about marriage and how she hates sight-seeing. The chapter ends. And in the space between chapters, the book changes drastically.

We follow Aziz’s perspective into the next chapter, and learn that he pauses in his cave, smokes a cigarette, then comes out to find Adela gone. He curses at his guide for letting her out of his sight, hits the man and causes him to flee. He then sees Adela talking to a Miss Derek, who has just arrived with Fielding in her car. He assumes everything is well, but decides to cover up the fact that Adela had been alone for a while when he talks to Fielding.

When they arrive back at Chandrapore, Aziz is arrested. Adela appears to have accused Aziz of attempting to rape her in the caves.

The interesting thing here is how Forster makes this into a mystery for us, at least in the short term. We have gotten to know and like Aziz, and we’re in his head, seemingly, when the event supposedly takes place. It seems a horrible injustice that is being done to Aziz, especially when the English get all xenophobic and emotional about the state of Adela, who is apparently sick in one of those ambiguous ways Englishwomen were thought to be ill after some excitement or affront. (Seriously, what is the deal here? Does she have a fever? The vapors? Is it all psychosomatic? If so, why do so many women in novels die after falling ill after some horrible incident? They say she’s “in danger,” but I have no idea what that might be. Is this a euphemism — are they checking for sexual contact? Do they just assume she might be ill? She ends up being fine, of course.)

So we are on Aziz’s side, and Forster is careful not to give us any of Adela’s thoughts or perspective for a good 50 pages after the incident. This is important, since we’ve also learned a lot about Adela, and are wondering how these charges, which we feel cannot possibly be true, came to be. Is it part of some wild plot on her part to get out of her marriage?  We cannot imagine either Aziz (and, by extension, Forster) lying to us about what he did up in the caves (we are given explanations for why he fibs to Fielding about the chain of events, and about how he comes across her field glasses outside a cave); neither can we imagine Adela making up such a story out of whole cloth.

The only explanation at this point seems to be that Adela was attacked by the guide, or that there was someone — who knows who? — already in the cave, disturbed by the intruder.  The guide, of course, has fled.  Forster, who has been so careful to show us many minds, many ways of being, suddenly keeps us in the minds of those who were not involved: Fielding, who defends Aziz, and the overreacting Englishmen. It’s excruciating, this interim, as we fear for Aziz and for Fielding and for Adela, not knowing what happened, or how the caves, the dark, mysterious, primordial caves, figure into it.

The Marabar Caves

March 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

There will be much more to say about what’s going on with (and in) the Marabar Caves, but for now I just want to pause and savor Forster’s Chapter XII, the opening of Part II, describing the caves. It’s a somewhat cosmic, mystical chapter; Forster writes beautifully about India’s prehistory, interpreting how the strange rock formations in which the caves reside came to be.

He goes out of his way to point out that the caves are not merely spooky: “To call them ‘uncanny’ suggests ghosts, and they are older than all spirit.” (Sacrilegious to some, I suppose, this idea that spirits came to be only when mankind came to be. But then Forster definitely has his own ideas about religion in this book.) But they are also strangely unassuming, to humans. An interesting passage here: “their reputation — for they have one — does not depend upon human speech. It is as if the surrounding plain or the passing birds have taken upon themselves to exclaim ‘extraordinary,’ and the word has taken root in the air, and been inhaled by mankind.”

Now I have to quote the next paragraph in full, just for the beauty of it and because it seems to hold some sort of key:

They are dark caves. Even when they open towards the sun, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the circular chamber. There is little to see, and no eye to see it, until the visitor arrives for his five minutes, and strikes a match. Immediately another flame rises in the depths of the rock and moves towards the surface like an imprisoned spirit: the walls of the circular chamber have been most marvellously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone. A mirror inlaid with lovely colours divides the lovers, delicate stars of pink and grey interpose, exquisite nebulae, shadings fainter than the tail of a comet or the midday moon, all the evanescent life of the granite, only here visible. Fists and fingers thrust above the advancing soil — here at last is their skin, finer than any covering acquired by the animals, smoother than windless water, more voluptuous than love. The radiance increases, the flames touch one another, kiss, expire. The cave is dark again, like all the caves.

The “fists and fingers” here are a reference back to the opening chapter of the book, in which Forster mentions the Marabar Hills, using the metaphor of “a group of fists and fingers thrust up through the soil.” The “skin,” the inside of the hills, polished somehow (by who? by nature?), “more voluptuous than love.” These caves are the heart of the book, and Forster sets what appears to be the book’s pivotal event (or non-event) there. I’ll need to tackle what happens at the caves tomorrow.

Ineffable Gods

March 12, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: A Passage to India.

I’m rapidly in the process of falling in love with this book (quite a change from yesterday, eh?), as it seems determined to thwart my expectations and be just completely fascinating, unpredictable, and beautiful.  (The lesson, as always: trust Ray Bradbury.  He says it’s good, it’s good.)

Forster has that sense of chapters as scenes, as potent mini-books which readers will stop and reflect upon before moving to another.  As such, the beginnings and endings of his chapters tend to be crucial, the places where he makes his points, sets his scenes (something he’s very good at, of course), brings his ideas to the fore from behind the action of the narrative.  (This is a common trait, another that I, for one, especially associate with early modernist British writers.  Again, maybe it’s just me.  I’d like to read something someday about the development of the chapter.  Surely Gerard Genette says something about it.  But I digress.)

Forster has been excellent, so far, at ending every chapter with an epigram, symbol, incident, or idea that’s really provocative.  See Chapter II: Mrs. Moore says, “I don’t think I understand people very well.  I only know whether I like or dislike them.”  To which Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, replies, “Then you are an Oriental.”

But I want to share the two that seem to be developing the most interesting theme, so far.  At the end of Chapter V, Mrs. Moore is talking to her son Ronny about the interactions between the English and the Indians, and Mrs. Moore is arguing that the English “are out here to be pleasant,” not simply to administer justice and bring civilization to India, “Because India is part of the earth.  And God has put us on the earth in order to be pleasant to each other.  God… is… love.”  This talk of God disturbs Ronny, and he ends the conversation as soon as possible.  In the chapter’s last paragraph, Forster writes:

“Mrs. Moore felt that she had made a mistake in mentioning God, but she found him increasingly difficult to avoid as she grew older, and he had been constantly in her thoughts since she entered India, though oddly enough he satisfied her less.  She must needs pronounce his name frequently, as the greatest she knew, yet she had never found it less efficacious.  Outside the arch there seemed always an arch, beyond the remotest echo a silence….”

At the end of Chapter VII we hear a similar thought from a different direction, told by Forster in a different way.   Mr. Fielding, the master of the small college, has invited to tea Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore and Ms. Questing, and a Brahman Professor at the college named Godbole.  At the end of their tea (which began very well and ended quite badly, with the arrival of Ronny to usher away the ladies) Godbole, with very little provocation (and quite out of character, seemingly, as he has been Brahminishly aloof throughout), sings a song for them.  It is unintelligible and rather baffling to the English ear, but the Hindu servants are entranced and delighted.  Fielding thanks him for the song and asks for an explanation, to which Godbole replies:

“I will explain in detail.  It was a religious song.  I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden.  I say to Shri Krishna, ‘Come! come to me only.’  The god refuses to come.  I grow humble and say: ‘Do not come to me only.  Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, O Lord of the Universe, come to me.’  He refuses to come.  This is repeated several times.  The song is composed in a raga appropriate to the present hour, which is the evening.”

“But he comes in some other song, I hope?” said Mrs. Moore gently.

“Oh no, he refuses to come,” repeated Godbole, perhaps not understanding her question.  “I say to Him, Come, come, come, come, come, come.  He neglects to come.”

Ronny’s steps had died away, and there was a moment of absolute silence.  No ripple disturbed the water, no leaf stirred.

This theme, of the god who cannot be denied but is also removed, distant, inscrutable (as Gaiman and Pratchett had it, humorously, in Good Omens, “ineffable”), is handled so well here.  That last paragraph really knocks me out.  (As an aside, it also reminds me of the George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord,” the greatest pop song ever about god.)  Another interesting thing about this, I think, is that Forster relieves himself of the unwelcome necessity of commenting on Mrs. Moore’s reaction to this, after her similar rumination the night before.  We’re left to contemplate her reaction ourselves: that’s a nice ambiguous space to think in, and also leaves us wanting to read ahead to how she develops in the coming chapters.

There have started to be discussions about the Malabar Caves outside of town, and Part II of the book is entitled “Caves” (Part I is “Mosque”).  I have high hopes that we’re going to move into some really interesting metaphysical territory in Part II.

Ah, Englishness

March 11, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.

I am reading this for two reasons:

a) I never gave A Room with a View a fair shake in college and I’ve always felt I owed Forster another chance.

b) Ray Bradbury called this the perfect novel or some such.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Forster is English with a vengeance.  I’ve grown more patient with that fussy British parsing of every single dull social interaction’s subtext, although it’s still definitely here and still has the power to get on my nerves occasionally.  But the book seems to be building to something more interesting here; I’m enjoying the interactions between the naive, young Miss Quested (that’s right, quested) and the older but adventuresome Mrs. Moore and the Indians they desire to learn about.  (I’m also enjoying ignoring, for the moment, all those grating sirens in my head blaring Colonial oppressor’s literature!  Colonial oppressor’s literature!, at least until I figure out what Forster’s trying to say.)

Right now, Forster seems to be setting up a romance between Miss Quested and a Mr. Fielding, the principal of the “little Government College,” who are both determined to be decent to the natives (unlike Ronny Heaslop, Quested’s semi-betrothed and Mrs. Moore’s son, of whom his mother says, “Englishmen like posing as gods.”)  I hope to gods that’s not what we’re leading to here, at least not as the focus of the book.  Please let it be a subplot.  Please let it be a subplot…


March 9, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Just a few idle thoughts after finishing this late yesterday:

-Funny coincidence: while I was reading this, my wife Jaime was reading a book subtitled The Confessions of Ike Turner. Synchronicity!

-I kind of dismissed the title of this book without a second thought until after I’d finished, but now it has me thinking.  The significance of the title, which is also the title of the actual document written (and/or transcribed) by T.R. Gray based on the historical Nat’s statement (and the preface to which appears as the preface of Styron’s book), now looms large.  I credit some of the shriller criticism of the work with pointing this out to me: there were (are?) suggestions that the book be retitled The Confessions of William Styron or, if you want to be gratuitously insulting, The Confessions of Willie Styron.

I’m taking it a different direction, though: the book is a confession, but whereas the historical confession is a legal confession, detailing what happened when and, so far as Gray can surmise, why and how, this novel is a moral and personal confession, as well.   But Nat remains adamant to the end that he would carry out his insurrection again, given the chance.  So what has he confessed?  His lust; his disgust at the actions by some of his men during the insurrection, especially Will, and his guilt at killing Margaret Whitehead to assure the men that he was capable of killing; perhaps, just perhaps, his confusion (right up until the end) with why he was called to do this only to see it go to hell, and to see none of the effects he hoped for come to pass.  (There’s an ironic twist to the double-titling, too, in that both documents are supposed monologues by a black slave taken down by a white mediator.  I would think that a lot of this is coincidental, but then, from what I know Styron was quite deliberate with his titles: they were important to him.  It’s an obvious title but an interesting one, too.)

-My earlier thoughts on the lack of Jesus in a book so full of the Bible and Christianity (see “The Gospel of the Flies”) recurred to me as Nat has a vision of something like heaven on his way to the gallows, and thinks, “I would have spared her that showed me Him whose presence I had not fathomed or maybe never even known.” In a moment, he thinks, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” It seems to be Styron’s final motion toward hopes of contemporary racial reconciliation, coming as it does after Gray smuggles a Bible to Nat in the jail the night before his execution.

-There are thickets of scholarship on this book, and I’ve just started poking around at the outlying shrubbery. One thing it’s got me thinking, though, is that my nonfiction reading on slavery has been too thin. (Another thing it’s gotten me to thinking is that we, as a country, are kind of in a weird time with the topic right now. I mean, it’s a topic that comes up constantly in public discourse, but so much of the discussion seems trite, facile, or assumptive. Is it exhaustion? Aversion? Or have we never been very good, as a culture, about confronting the actual mechanics of slavery? There was Roots, I guess. And, granted, like most cultures we tend to be more comfortable discussing the crimes against humanity of other people. Maybe this is just my own warped view of things.) Anyway, I’m in the market for some books on American slavery: I’m thinking detailed, well researched accounts of the trade and the day-to-day. Plus a sweeping narrative of broad trends from colonies to Civil War. I could do the legwork on my own, but maybe you’ll save me the trouble. Suggestions, please!

Laying My Vengeance Upon Thee

March 7, 2008 § 4 Comments

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

**Reading next: E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.**

The connection I’m going to try to make here is probably tenuous at best, but the connection in question struck such a chord when I read a certain passage tonight that I have to spin it out a little.

Nat begins to blossom as a preacher as, paradoxically, the hate he feels for white people begins to fester and dominate his life in earnest.  A poor, white “sotomite” named Ethelred T. Brantley overhears Nat preaching to a group of slaves in town one day and asks Nat to save him, however possible.  After a little discussion, Nat recommends a week of fasting and meditation, at the end of which he will baptize him.

When the day of baptism arrives, they find the pond they’ve arranged to use surrounded by a crowd of antagonistic white folks.  But Nat pushes on, and the passage he recites before dunking Ethelred is from Ezekiel (37:6): “I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live, and ye shall know that I am the Lord…”

Maybe you see where I’m going here: when I read that, I instantly thought of Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in Pulp Fiction.  Allow me a fanboy rant at this point: this is, quite simply, one of the greatest film performances of all time.  It’s such a perfect match of role, actor, and film that I don’t think Sam’s ever quite gotten over it.  (As an aside, it is, in retrospect, positively ridiculous that all the hype at the time was about Travolta, and that Miramax (I assume) made the decision to enter Travolta on the Oscar ballots for Best Actor, and Jackson for Best Supporting Actor.  Go ahead, watch the movie again.  Tell me who’s leading and who’s supporting; tell me who the true star of the movie is.)

And of course, Jackson’s recitations of Jules’ version of Ezekiel 25:17 at the beginning and end of the film are the greatest parts of the film.  (Here it is, very little of it actually in Ezekiel: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”)  It is, on paper, more or less a ridiculous speech.  And it could have been really bad, just this really bad Tarantinified blaxploitation reference, but when you see the movie: damn!   It’s real, it’s fierce, it’s utterly cryptic and compelling and you can feel Jules all the way through it.  I mean, the crescendo of “and you will KNOW my name is the LORD!” in the first speech compared to the taut, thoughtful delivery near the end: it’s absolutely perfect.

Interesting, comparing Styron’s Nat Turner and Tarantino/Jackson’s Jules.  Avenging angels, both, speaking from opposite ends of the civil rights movement.  Both have developed a more or less homemade, individual, somewhat mystical religion for themselves: Nat sees visions of black angels in the sky, calling him to wreak havoc, and Jules recites his pseudo-Biblical verse before blowing his employer’s enemies away, then decides to hang it up and “walk the Earth” after a junkie misses him at point-blank range.  Both are perplexed by their relationship to God, unsure what they can know about him but sure of what they are being told to do.  And both, in spite of their rage and their guilt, are (as Jules says) “tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”

Coincidentally, both also deliver their Ezekiel quotes to white men whose salvation or damnation they hold in their hands.  Nat’s verse is couched in the anger and wrath of Ezekiel just as Jules’ is, but it’s a creative verse; “you shall know my name is the Lord” here is comforting, life-affirming, if still slightly threatening.  Jules’ is, at first, pure destruction, but he shifts his view at the end of the movie, trying to glean a creative (or at least non-destructive) message from it.

Styron and the character embodied by Jackson have, I think, similar motives here in their creations as a whole.  Jules, looking back on a life of violence and anger, is trying to reconcile himself to that past, and find a peaceful way.  Styron, in the midst of the civil rights (and Black Power) movement, is writing about slavery and trying (I suspect) to connect the violent, ugly, oppressive past with the unfocused, unharnessed anger he saw around him, and find its motives, and its alternatives.

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