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.)
June 22, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading: The Decameron.
Following up on my post on the eighth day and of importance to the ninth is the analysis of the characters of the “brigata” (the ten storytellers) on Decameron Web, the scholarly website maintained by Brown University. Sometimes it’s convincing on the character revealed by the introductions and conclusions of days, the choices of tales, the songs sung, etc. Other times it seems like the kind of selective magnification of some evidence and ignoring of others that people (okay, me) dislike academics for.
Nevertheless, it’s important on this day for its analysis of Emilia, the day’s queen, who chooses to allow each of the ten to discourse on whatever topic they want. Way back on the first day, Emilia sang that narcissistic song about gazing in the mirror. She also told, on the sixth day, a story about an unpleasantly vain young woman who gazes at herself in the mirror all day but is too stupid to understand a put-down about this very fact. Emilia introduces that story by saying she was “absorbed for quite a while in distant reverie”; after telling her very short tale, the day’s queen, Elissa, perceives that she had “dashed off her story.” (I learn from Decameron Web that Elissa is thought to be a Ghibelline, a noble supporting the Holy Roman Empire.) Emilia’s one whose dancing at the end of days is often pointed out, and she’s apparently one of the hotter ladies.
Again, it’s hard from this evidence to tell if Emilia is to be seen as a narcissist oblivious to her own narcissism, or as a beautiful young woman interested in combatting the narcissism she sees as a common vice of beautiful young women, or as Boccaccio’s rhetorical device representing narcissism and not necessarily imbued with any psychological depth at all.
Whatever the case, her story on her own day, when she can choose any theme she wants, is pretty freaking troubling. It is, quite frankly, a fascistic, misogynistic story, by far the most cruel in the whole work. Her introduction to the story is long, and she states that her theme will be that wives must be submissive to their husbands, and she cites the proverb “For a good horse and bad, spurs are required; for a good woman and a bad, the rod is required.” She points out the ribald wordplay available here — perhaps opening the door for a sexy undercurrent to her story — but immediately says that these words are valuable “even in their moral sense.” Emilia seems to be the biggest prude in the group.
In her story, a man with a shrewish wife receives the advice from King Solomon to “Go to Goosebridge.” There, he sees a stubborn mule beaten across the bridge. He goes home and beats his wife “until eventually he stopped from sheer exhaustion.” She behaves after that, and this is presented as a desirable outcome. The other half of the story deals with a man who feels unloved, and whose advice from Solomon is simply, “Love.” At the end of the story he understands that he must do everything out of love, not from simple obligation or courtesy, if he wants to be loved in return. This story seems so out of keeping with Boccaccio’s themes of pity, love, and questioning of received wisdom that I wonder whether this second story in conjunction with the wife-beating tale is meant to subvert that ugly message.
After this story, the ladies murmur, and some of the men laugh. The Decameron Web interpreters think that the characters of Emilia and Dioneo are linked by Boccaccio as subverters of the common laws of the group, in support of his theme that “transgression and repression are two sides of the same coin.” That certainly does seem to be one of his main, quite radical messages in the work as a whole, insofar as we go looking for political messages; but I’m unconvinced by the idea that Dioneo’s tale, as always, divided from the other stories of the day as a special privilege, is supposed to reflect upon Emilia’s. It seems utterly unrelated. I think the key to deciding how sincere Boccaccio is in the misogyny of this story depends on our decisions on Emilia’s character, and on whether we think Boccaccio presents her as a thoroughly unpleasant narcissist and fascist (not that fascism existed as an episteme at B’s time!), an earnest young noble, or a container for his ideas about vain ladies disposed to become shrewish wives. I’d like to learn more about this.