February 19, 2009 § 4 Comments
Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.
Schreber’s book was introduced to me by Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, probably the coolest piece of criticism I’ve ever read. It sounded wild at second hand; at first hand, it is wild indeed. The backstory is byzantine, as evidenced by the layers upon layers of commentary, addenda, notes, and postscripts in this edition (the New York Review of Books translation by Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter); the memoirs themselves are mind-bogglingly complex, in a number of ways. One of these ways is the problem of figuring out the relationship of Schreber to his story and the state of his mind as he writes — which I hope to deal with in my next post.
Another is the more straightforward challenge of keeping up with the bizarre cosmology which was revealed to/invented by him during his stay at an asylum in the 1890s. It is a universe dazzling for its originality, its solipsism, its psychological and symbological insight, and its nightmarish detail. To inadequately summarize my incomplete comprehension of this universe: Schreber has come to realize that there is a crisis in the universe, based on God’s being trapped by a human soul, that of Schreber’s doctor, Dr. Flechsig. Schreber has come into contact both with the voice of God and with spirits of the dead (but also the living) in the form of “rays” which commune with his soul (which resides in the nerves which run throughout the human body). He’s come to understand that this crisis has led the rest of humankind to be replaced by phantasms, “fleeting-improvised-men” (in this translation) who exist solely to help him along in his, Schreber’s work: to repopulate the earth with actual humans by transforming into a woman.
Got that? Yes. Well. It is helpful (and incredible) to remember that this was not willfully invented as a fiction, in which case it surely would have been much less opaque, much less ornate, unless Schreber truly were a kind of extremely avant-garde science fiction writer, the preincarnation of Philip K. Dick: Schreber believed this, as a divine revelation he was continually receiving as he was recovered from a nervous breakdown (which was also related to this divine plan). Incidentally, the book is central to the woefully underrated film Dark City.
There are a zillion things to talk about in this highly evocative cosmology, but I’m fascinated by the God Schreber has created, which he is careful to point out bears little resemblance to the Judeo-Christian God except that he is the only God. Schreber’s God is marvelous: Chapters 2 and 5 contain a huge amount of detail on his complicated structure and place in the universe. God’s functioning in the world is intimately connected to — and limited by — something Schreber calls “The Order of the World”: in other words, the normal functioning of the universe, to which even God is subservient.
Chapter 5 contains a remarkable section in which Schreber discusses God’s lack of omniscience — his fallability, his incomplete knowledge, and the ability, in fact, to tempt him. As a theodicy, or explanation for the existence of evil, it is quite something. Schreber explains that, “…within the Order of the World, God did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses.” (Italics Schreber’s.) This idea — that God may have started or even created the universe and life, but does not necessarily understand it — is quite compelling, I think. After all, how could God understand life? Having no beginning and no end, and his realms being those of the dead, how could he understand what it meant to be alive?
Because of this lack of understanding, Dr. Flechsig was somehow able to attract and trap God. And this leads to a remarkable, 4-page paragraph in which Schreber attempts to explain why God was, in fact, responsible for trying to “commit soul murder” on him. Because Flechsig has violated the Order of the World by trapping God with his seductive, living nerves, God is motivated by
“that instinct of self-preservation, as natural in God as in every other living being — an instinct which as mentioned in another context … forced God in special circumstances to contemplate the destruction not only of individual human beings, but perhaps of whole stars with all the created beings upon them…. wherever the Order of the World is broken, power alone counts, and the right of the stronger is decisive. In my case, moral obliquity lay in God placing Himself outside the Order of the World by which He Himself must be guided; although not exactly forced, He was nevertheless induced to do this by a temptation very difficult for souls to resist, which was brought about by the presence of Professor Flechsig’s impure (“tested”) soul in heaven.”
Schreber concludes that he has defeated the plans of God and Flechsig to murder his soul, because “the Order of the World is on my side.”
Impossible as it probably is to make any sense of out of context, it is a remarkable argument. God seduced by the vitality of a living human soul, unable to resist making contact with that dangerous “other”!
You can see Schreber, a respected scholar of the law before his mental illness, working out the moral ramifications of the universe imposed on him by the voices he hears in his head. Heartbreaking. And yet there’s a kernel of artistic greatness there, too. The God presented here reminds me an awful lot of the God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books: a monster of self-interest, clinging to life and desperate to make the world believe in him and the unjust order he’s imposed on it. But Schreber is much more sympathetic to his God: incapable of understanding humans, even when he’s fallen just like them.
February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Villette.
Reading next: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.
Moving on now, but a few more quick thoughts before we leave Lucy Snowe’s world behind:
-I never did really say anything about three of my favorite scenes: the play in chapter 14, in which Lucy is talked by M. Paul into playing a foppish man but refuses to dress entirely as a man, then goes off book and acts out a scene of wooing Ginevra for Dr. John’s benefit (this chapter should just be called “Grad Student’s Paradise,” for gosh sakes); chapter 19, “The Cleopatra,” in which Lucy hates Rubensesque female portraits and M. Paul begins to tease Lucy for being a scandalous sexpot (but does he really actually have her pegged?); and the amazing “Vashti” episode, in which Lucy attends the theatre with Dr. John and the combined passions of Lucy and the actress Vashti seem to start an actual fire which leads to Paulina’s salvation by Dr. John (I like to think Vashti is actually playing Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, but probably not).
These are all high points in the novel, not just as dissertation-fodder but as brilliant examples of the craft of writing and of character development. The introduction in my Modern Library edition by A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre is really great on these scenes. It’s actually one of the best introductions I can remember, although, like most introductions, it’s best saved until the end. (I never read introductions first. Seriously, why are these not afterwords? Must be something with marketing.)
-The Vashti episode leads me to another point: Lucy’s is a very concentrated, condensed, even claustrophobic universe. Everyone shows up over and over; somehow everyone she knew in England moves to Labassecour. It is a funny thing to do in a book so much about Lucy’s loneliness and her longing for a companion to surround her with a de facto family she can’t seem to shake. I think partly it was simply demanded of the novel of Brontë’s time to have a cast that worked like this, appearing in each of the three volumes; but the coincidences and reappearances also work against the grain of Lucy’s narration. People do care about her; she is never alone, never isolated, for better and for worse, and the one time she reaches out from a deep isolation and depression she finds someone (Pere Silas) intimately connected to those she already knew.
-What I’m left with from this book, most of all, is Lucy Snowe’s voice, her narration, her insistence on telling things her way. She is tricky, indeed. The ending is, I think, brilliant, and perfectly like Lucy, and perhaps a marvelous unraveling of the mystery of the shipwreck-metaphor I talked about a couple posts back.
In a perfect coincidence of my own, I read Ander Monson’s essay “The Guilty I” in The Believer while in the thick of Villette. It was perfect for thinking about Lucy: the infuriating way you sometimes know you’re not getting the whole story, the difficulty or impossibility of burrowing back into former manifestations of yoursel — of bearing eyewitness to the “I.” What we end up with when we dig deeply into our memories are often fictions, constructs based on life experiences. Just like Lucy; just like Charlotte.
February 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Villette.
About halfway through the book Lucy makes one of her recurring points about the misperception of her by those around her: Madame Beck thinks her learned, Ginevra believes her catty and bitter, M. de Bassompierre “the essence of the sedate and discreet,” M. Paul a wild woman.
This is an interesting aspect of the book, this ongoing calibration by Lucy of what others think of her compared to the turmoil she knows in her innermost life. But I’m most interested here in the name she makes up for herself in the next paragraph, and imagines M. de Bassompierre calling her: “Madame Minerva Gravity.”
Gods (capitalized and not), angels, and demons appear throughout this work. There are the two Christian Gods, the Protestant (Lucy’s) and the Catholic (all the non-Britons). There are also the many anthropomorphized attributes that populate Lucy’s thoughts: her Reason, her Imagination, her Hope and Despair, many others. But of all the powerful deities in the book, one stands out: the moon.
Lucy, for all her attempts to squash her inclinations, is a creature of longing and even passion. At night, alone and unable to sleep, she thinks, and worries, and speculates. The moon is somehow her companion in these lonely nights. And she mentions the moon — how it looked, and looked down on the world — at most of the critical moments in the book. At times it seems to guide, advise, or comfort her.
There are two remarkable instances of this very near the end of the book. In chapter 38, “Cloud,” Lucy is given a sedative by Madame Beck when Lucy refuses to sleep, waiting for a visit from M. Paul. Weirdly, the sedative has the opposite affect, reviving and exciting her. In the reversal of the earlier chat with Reason, Imagination now bids her rise, and “Look forth and view the night!” When she does so, Imagination “showed me a moon supreme, in an element deep and splendid.” She has a vision of the moonlit park, and determines to go there. It’s clear the moon equates with peace, clarity, and resignation, to Lucy. But when she gets to the park, her hopes for moonlit peace and reflection are dashed by the false daylight of a festival, and an upsetting appearance by M. Paul and the Jesuit Schemers.
Later, at perhaps the happiest moment in Lucy’s life, the scene is moonlit again: “We walked back to the Rue Fossette by moonlight — such moonlight as fell on Eden — shining through the shades of the Great Garden, and haply gilding a path glorious, for a step divine — a Presence nameless.” (This passage reminds me of the magical moonbeam of The Master and Margarita.)
Brontë employs the moon motif brilliantly: it figures in some of the most beautiful passages in the book. The moon is traditionally female, of course. It’s a satellite, a product of gravity. And it reflects the sun’s light. Minerva, as you probably know, is the Roman goddess equating to the Greek Athena. She’s not the goddess of the moon, although there are some connotations (with owls, for instance). Artemis is the goddess of the moon: both she and Minerva are virginal, but Artemis is a huntress and a woodswoman while Minerva is urban and rational. You might say that Minerva stands for the cool, calming aspects of moonlight, and Artemis for the mysterious, mystical aspects.
Somehow the complexities and contradictions of moonlight are right for Lucy Snowe: the mingled traditions of tranquil cool calm and uncontrolled passion and mayhem (werewolves, witches’ rites) reflect her outer and inner selves, her desired and actual states of being. Likewise, the moon’s status as a reflective satellite, and its presence as the symbol of the night, embody Lucy’s conflict between self-reliance and an utter dependence on those she cares about and that she thinks might care for her: like the moon gets its glow from the sun, she is happy only when basking in the reflected glory of her importance to those she loves.
There’s a bunch of stuff in here about the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, but frankly I think that’s all a ruse: I think Lucy Snowe is a pagan, or maybe an animist.