September 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.
Had it only been a gale instead of a calm, gladly would we have charged upon it with our gallant bowsprit, as with a stout lance in rest; but, as with mankind, this serene, passive foe — unresisting and irresistible — lived it out, unconquered to the last. -Melville, White-Jacket
Millhauser’s story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” reminded me of that passage, which had itself reminded me when I first read it of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: the calm “I would prefer not to.” Of course, the ambiguity of Bartleby’s stand is legendary: it’s a very open question whether he died “unconquered to the last,” firm in his refusal, or died a broken automaton, something less than a human being, or somewhere in between. But Melville’s statement about the gale here did first bring to mind Bartleby — whatever he might have meant to Melville, he certainly has taken on heroic stature, or at least a kind of grandeur through boredom.
And Bartleby has stayed on my mind after reading Millhauser’s story. It’s a powerful story, itself like a calm at sea in its implacability and plainness. The only truly unusual rhetorical flash comes from the use of first-person plural in the opening, which dissolves into a somewhat generic singular. And it leaves you with the dual mysteries of what exactly happened to Elaine Coleman — who disappears from her apartment with no trace of abduction or escape — and how we should feel about this disappearance.
The story itself conveys an almost overwhelming sadness, and it is tempting to sympathize with the narrator when he finds himself, and the rest of his community, culpable for her vanishing, and for her apparently lonely existence as a wallflower, by their incuriosity about her. But of course, as with Bartleby, there is another way to see it: perhaps it was a heroic act, this vanishing. Perhaps it was the ultimate expression of Elaine Coleman’s contempt for her degraded world. Perhaps it was not a fate imposed on her by the absence of community interest, but a fate chosen, cultivated, and finally acted upon by someone who would prefer not to be seen. (You could argue that the first-person plural supports this argument, acting as a kind of homogeneous, mundane chorus — “For days we spoke of nothing else” — against which Elaine’s act seems even more radical.)
Ultimately, I think this — and, to a lesser extent, the depiction of Bartleby as tragic hero — is a rather strained interpretation. Both Melville and Millhauser see the need to be serenely, passively “unconquered to the last” as unspeakably sad. Bartleby is something singular: a cipher, but a necessary one, whose stand has a kind of meaning and merit that is made apparent even in the story’s bleakness and the pointlessness of his death. It is possible to legitimately make the argument for Bartleby as a symbol of passive resistance.
Elaine Coleman, on the other hand, is rather like Eleanor Rigby; the story gets much of its strength from her status as a kind of ghost flickering at the edges of the narrator’s vision, as he tries to remember her, incidents he might have shared with her, times he might have engaged her but did not. It is a kind of horror story, but a different kind than “Bartleby”: to me, at least, it feels more personal. There’s something horrifying about the idea of being this kind of marginal figure in even your own story — the kind of person that could vanish for lack of popular interest. I think Millhauser tried very hard to avoid being condescending to his absent creation, Elaine. Later stories in the collection show the author has deep interest in and sympathy for the Elaines of the world. It’s hard to avoid being maudlin about lonely people; hard for many people to understand that loneliness is not necessarily thrust upon everyone who lives alone, or that some people prefer not to be sociable (there’s that phrase again).
(Sidebar: is “Eleanor Rigby” maudlin? I think many people find it so, maybe mostly because there’s the intimation that Eleanor’s a spinster; I don’t know, I still find it more heartbreaking than maudlin. Hard to argue against it being at least a little condescending, though.)
December 19, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.
Dickens seems angrier in this book than in the others I’ve read (although he certainly has his moments in all of them, and especially in Bleak House). I hope I’ll write a little something about hypocrisy — one of the major targets of ire — and Dickens’s irony in this book a little later, but for now let’s focus on one of the least hypocritical characters in the book: Jonas Chuzzlewit, who is, at least, a forthright scoundrel.
In chapter 11 we get a grotesque little domestic scene, with Anthony Chuzzlewit and his son, Jonas, entertaining the Misses Pecksniff. The Chuzzlewits are two of Dickens’s monsters of commerce, obsessed with business. They are especially fond of ill-gotten gains.
We are also introduced to one Mr. Chuffey, an ancient clerk in the Chuzzlewit’s employ. Chuffey intrigues me as a kind of anti-Bartleby: both seem to be ciphers, blanks reduced in the drudgery of office work to a single characteristic, but whereas Melville’s scrivener would prefer not to do nearly anything asked of him, including anything asked of him by his employer, Chuffey is responsive only to the suggestions and commands of his employer, Anthony Chuzzlewit. If anyone but Anthony asks him if he is ready for dinner, he either does not or chooses not to hear them; if Anthony suggests a joke is funny, Chuffey finds it hilarious. He’s a human being who’s forgotten how to be, having become so used to someone else deciding for him. Whereas Bartleby, the consummate misanthrope, preferred not to, Chuffey prefers to, losing himself in the opposite direction.
It is, as the title of this post says, a chapter for our times. Jonas loves to abuse this old man, calling him “Stupid” and “Old Chuffey” and showing off his wit in cracking jokes at the clerk’s expense. This figure lurks in the background of the scene in the Chuzzlewits’ den, choking on his food as Jonas “entertains” the Pecksniffs, attempting to woo them both simultaneously. Jonas also scorns his father, calling him “ghost” and dropping unsubtle hints that the old man has hung around for too long and should probably feel free to die soon so Jonas can have his money. Of this, his father approves, as signaling his son’s proper attitude toward the world of business. (These interactions make me think of Jonas as the ancestor of Walker and Texas Ranger, the sons of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, with their threats to come after their grandfather Chip “like a spider monkey” if he gets in their way.)
But this has been a week of $50 billion dollar Ponzi schemes, and a budget deficit nearing 14 digits, and very smart people like Paul Krugman pointing out that a huge chunk of our economy for the last decade has been more or less a sham dedicated to gigantic personal bonuses based on imaginary dividends, a massive theft from investors. It’s been an unjolly week. So here’s an exchange between Anthony and Jonas:
‘You may overdo anything, my darlings. You may overdo even hypocrisy. Ask Jonas!’
‘You can’t overdo taking care of yourself,’ observed that hopeful gentleman with his mouth full.
‘Do you hear that, my dears?’ cried Anthony, quite enraptured. ‘Wisdom, wisdom! A good exception, Jonas. No. It’s not easy to overdo that.’
‘Except,’ whispered Mr. Jonas to his favourite cousin, ‘except when one lives too long. Ha, ha!…’
‘There’s another thing that’s not easily overdone, father,’ remarked Jonas, after a short silence.
‘What’s that?’ asked the father; grinning already in anticipation.
‘A bargain,’ said the son. ‘Here’s the rule for bargains. “Do other men, for they would do you.” That’s the true business precept. All others are counterfeits.’
It’s the refutation of any goodness in the world that Dickens so disdains. This is the worldview that leads to monstrous unfettered capitalism. When Alan Greenspan seemed so shaken by the utter lack of regard for shareholders and reputation in the financial services industry, I think this is what he was responding to: the shortsighted nihilism of its leaders. Unchecked greed is, in the end, a horrible long-term business strategy, unless you only care about your own personal paycheck and making enough money before the bubble bursts that it doesn’t really matter to you that your company, your industry, your country has gone bankrupt.