The Mysterious Muslim Babes of Spain

October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts  “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past).  There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words.  They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be  succubi.  Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”?  It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).

So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways.  Though there are many apparently supernatural events  in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it.  On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives….  And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.”  After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you.  Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us.  Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”

Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words.  He believes they are his cousins.  And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.

There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character.  We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment.  His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous.  Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react?  There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.

Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here.  Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted.  Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.

Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read.  In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days.  Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground.  Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins.  They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain.  This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets.  He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez.  The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”

In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day.  The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise.  It was all an illusion.  I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.

(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture.  I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now.  Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)

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.

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