July 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
Finished long, long ago: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray.
Big, fat SPOILERS abound below.
I liked Skippy Dies a lot, which is the desired response, but still an odd thing to say of a mighty dark book. Its first edition comes in a sweet little three-volume boxed set, each volume in bright tartan wrappers. It comes to be liked; it stays a while and its sweetness turns bitter. (Incidentally, I wish this triple-decker throwback strategy would catch on. I suspect it actually reduces publishers’ production costs — but would be happy to be disabused of the notion — but beyond that, it feels so much more like you’re making progress in flipping through the pages and volumes of three paperbacks rather than one narrow-margined doorstop of a hardcover.)
I won’t say much about the DFW resonances here, especially since they’ve been thoughtfully summarized here. If you’re reading closely and have read Infinite Jest closely, you’ll see homages and responses all over the place. Instead I want to focus on a particularly compelling passage, nearing the end:
He delivers his lessons mechanically, not caring whether the boys are listening or not, quietly loathing them for being so predictably what they are, young, self-absorbed, insensate; he waits for the bell just as they do, so that he can dive once more into the trenches of the past, the endless accounts of men sent to their deaths in the tens of thousands, like so many towers of coloured chips pushed by fat hands across the green baize of the casino table — stories that seem, in their regimented wastage, their relentless, pointless destruction, more than ever to make sense, to present an archetype of which the schoolday in its asperity and boredom is the dim, fuddled shadow. Womanless worlds.
That’s about Howard “The Coward” Fallon, who has fallen into an obsession with World War I, having lost his girlfriend and most of his pride along with her. But yes: “womanless worlds,” and the awful things that take place in them, are the subject of this book. War. Boarding school. Fathers with sons without mothers. Sporting competitions. The priesthood.
Maybe you see where this is going.
I was surprised by how polemical the book ended up feeling; how strong the point of view espoused here really was, how strong the emotion contained in the satire. (It’s rather an indictment of a lot of contemporary fiction that the reader must struggle to find any such identifiable point of view or emotion; that such things are even looked down upon in many schools of thought and practice.) Part of this is a credit to the way in which Murray puts the reader in the position of uncertainty about Skippy’s central problem; one notices some hints, but does not receive confirmation until Skippy himself remembers it, traumatically.
One could, perhaps, say that it is rather like shooting fish in a barrel to write a polemic advocating that sexual abuse of children is a bad thing, and that neither the behavior itself nor any attempt to cover up such behavior should be excused. Perhaps. But it’s not as though we’re all actually following through on this seemingly self-evident advice. And this is an Irish author, writing about an Irish school. There’s a strong vein of Irish mythology and folklore running through this book, and an engagement with Irish literature and history; it’s possible to position Murray’s polemic as another in the long line of Irish stories of betrayal and deceit among supposed friends and protectors. Nothing should be taken away from an author willing to stand up to such institutions as the Catholic Church and the educational system, especially not in Ireland.
One could also say that self-congratulatory approval and encouragement of such polemics from afar is also rather like shooting fish in a barrel. Perhaps. But this happens everywhere. The Sandusky abuse in Pennsylvania, and the response to it from administrators at Penn State, bears shocking resemblance to some of what happens in Skippy Dies.
If that astounding fragment, “womanless worlds,” tells us anything, it is that this is not a provincial issue, not a denominational one, not a national one. There are connections to those big-world problems of war and evil in the structure of our schools, our religions, our relationships. Railing against patriarchy and patriarchal systems has become fodder for jokes, but those remain real problems. The institution which protects itself rather than the young, or that even demands their “relentless, pointless destruction,” is not an institution worth preserving. The institution which denies an honest exchange with women, and about sexuality, will always invite and even provoke abuse. This is a funny, sweet, heartfelt book, but all of the laughs, camaraderie, and teenage love leads to those very serious conclusions.
July 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
Finished long, long ago: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.
Okay: back on the horse. This will begin a series of catch-up posts on books read in the past few months, when I’ve been too busy, distracted, or otherwise occupied to write about reading. But there’s been a lot of good stuff, so I’d like to post at least something brief about many of these books.
Beginning with this work, which features prominently in the David Foster Wallace essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” That’s where I first heard about it, in the mid-90s. Frankly, the essay tells you all you really need to know about the book, though if DFW piques your interest as he did mine, it’s a very quick read. When I finally came across a copy at a used bookstore, I snapped it up. Especially since the back cover features blurbs by DFW and David Byrne:
Published as part of that ’80s-90s wave of trade paperback originals of avant-gardists, its packaging and paratexts are retro-futuristic throwbacks: each chapter begins with a very large numeral and initial letter in a raster font reminiscent of an 8-bit PC or game system. The chapters are short, and each given two opening pages (one for the title and numeral, one blank); without this filler, the book probably would have been simply too short to be published at the time. (As it is, it’s just 154 pages, 34 of that chapter intro pages. But then, the chapter titles really are the best parts of the book.) In both form and content, it’s a book that manages both immediate obsolescence and eerie prescience: the Apple II or Data Discman of American experimental fiction. Those aren’t offhand comparisons for a book that is obsessed with technology: this is, as DFW points out, a book that would rather be a TV show or, perhaps, a video game.
While its preoccupations with network TV, robots, and the fearsome Japanese economy now seem awfully dated, the work as a whole does beckon towards our current media-soaked age. For instance, the 3-page “About the Author” send-up is straight out of social media’s identity-bending playbook. The brilliant idea of a Hollywood blockbuster version of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” complete with “huge metal robotic women who come and go talking of Michelangelo” must have seemed among the most ridiculous ideas in the book in 1990; now we have both billion-dollar Transformers movies and a 3D version of The Great Gatsby. The references to haute cuisine and fast food must have seemed like throwaway yuppie jokes at the time of publication; now, they seem harbingers of our country’s obsession with food (on the very first page, “a bright neon sign flashing on and off that read: FOIE GRAS AND HARICOTS VERTS NEXT EXIT”). Its nearly complete lack of coherent plot or stylistic consistency point toward the snippets and mashups in which we now consume so much of our culture. Its utterly superficial, drug-addled stand-ins for people have problems with health care, bodies upon which surgery, sex, and cybernetics are performed, and total disregard for the reality of others. So yeah, that sounds about right.
March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
Finished: The Art of Fielding.
SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.
Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature. Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:
“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis. Emerson was shattered. Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave. Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved. Can you imagine? It must have been terrible. Just a terrible thing to do. But the thing is, Emerson had to do it. He needed to see for himself. To understand death. To make death real….”
It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor. Hamlet, of course. The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe. The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.
In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted. Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them. Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom. The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan. You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually. His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.
The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there. The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game. Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace. With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.
Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it. The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.” Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history. Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”
Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film. The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis. But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors. I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.” In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.” He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it. The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story” at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education. But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about. The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.
August 9, 2011 § 3 Comments
Finished long ago: The Pale King.
A long-belated short note on The Pale King, and DFW’s oeuvre more generally. To wit:
Is DFW secretly a horror author? Or a literary author most deeply interested in horror?
Mixing and reappropriating genre conventions has been de rigueur for the belletrist since at least Burroughs, and DFW does some of that, especially with the science-fiction elements of Broom of the System and Infinite Jest (and the great Incandenza filmography, which is itself a parody of avant-garde genre-play). But Wallace consistently writes in the horror tradition — both using the tropes of the genre (film and fiction) and using unusual techniques to evoke the responses with which it is typically associated — beyond a postmodernist’s appraisal.
Section 48 of The Pale King, which is a brilliant little chunk of discrete horror-comedy, brought this up. That section, written entirely in dialogue, utilizes the central trope of horror going way back to its Gothic roots — the careful withholding of information to heighten fear of the unknown and let reader’s imagination do the dirty work itself. But there are ghosts here. And Toni Ware’s harrowing tale. And IRS paranormals. The title is a perfect horror title, with its allusion to the Grim Reaper or other mythic figures of inhuman power. (Aside: By my count there are at least three characters in the book who could be argued to be the titular king, but I’m not sure any of them were really intended as such.) (Aside 2: I’m deeply curious about the placement of section 48, which really seems like the kind of thing DFW might’ve placed near the beginning. Though it strikes me as akin to the first chapter of Infinite Jest, in its cryptic description of a traumatic event integral to the action of the work, perhaps it was be more like the herd of feral hamsters or other asides in that book, and wasn’t actually going to lead anywhere.)
Once you start looking for it, it’s just about everywhere. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has horror throughout, in the interviews and elsewhere. Oblivion has the nightmarish title story, elucidated by my lovely wife here. Countless anecdotes and incidents in IJ beyond the “wraith” and the grave-digging; the mysterious events at Enfield, for instance. The Broom of the System is a kind of Wittgensteinian horror tale: The Word Terror.
Beyond all of that, there’s something in horror that seems central to DFW’s worldview and its expression. Being trapped in a web or spiral, being unable to express one’s self adequately or at all, being out of one’s own control as the unthinkable happens, having heightened consciousness in some ways but a sense of being buried in others: central motifs in DFW’s work, and in nightmares, and consequently in horror. Almost all of DFW’s fiction is horror fiction at some level: work dealing with the uncanny, awful, and broken in human beings and their societies, the things that we try to keep submerged and the things that are nevertheless surfaced.
July 31, 2011 § 1 Comment
Just finished: The Pale King.
Reading next: The Third Book of Pantagruel, by Francois Rabelais.
This month in national politics has seemed like a nightmare, no? Or one of those terrible anxiety dreams where you know what needs to get done, you want to do it, but you cannot make yourself move or do the necessary thing, and all the while terror builds and builds of some unknown disaster or monster awaiting you, as you continue to try to do or remember this very simple thing that keeps escaping you…
So yes: the debt ceiling crisis has played out, at least from my perspective, like some horrible emanation from the unconscious mind of the country. (That description fits the hardline Tea Partiers pretty well, actually.) And Obama is the avatar in the dream who cannot seem to do or remember the simple-but-impossible thing. I suspect and kind of hope that he must feel like this at some level himself. But it’s also felt like a personal nightmare. There is in the citizen within me (and many others) a wish to wake up and take the government supposedly doing my/our bidding by the lapels and shaking, hard, and slapping forehand and backhand across the cheeks. And knowing that the hardliners holding up the whole show do not care about my wishes; do not care about any of our wishes, if we do not agree with their ideology. That’s a kind of nightmare, too.
Economics, government, civics, and nightmares have all been on my mind thanks to The Pale King. I’ll say more about nightmares in another post. For now, just let me say that it’s very worthwhile to read and reread section 19 and think about the discussion and/or debate therein, driven by a thoughtful, cogent, apparently conservative high-ranking IRS official, about the role of government, of taxation, and of civic responsibility. And now I’ll shut up and just let a few excerpts do the talking. (Except for saying that it’s somewhat useful to keep in mind that the excerpts take place in the very late 1970s, as a Reagan presidency is becoming a possibility.)
Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens — parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibility to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I’m talking mostly about economics and business…
Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them. Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think — of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster — depression, hyperinflation — and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly. Like Rome — conqueror of its own people….
Of course you want it all, of course you want to keep every dime you make. But you don’t, you ante up, because it’s how things have to be for the whole lifeboat. You sort of have a duty to the others in the boat. A duty to yourself not to be the sort of person who waits till everybody is asleep and then eats all the food….
I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty….
There’s something very curious, though, about the hatred. The government is the people, leaving aside various complications, but we split it off and pretend it’s not us; we pretend it’s some threatening Other bent on taking our freedoms, taking our money and redistributing it, legislating our morality in drugs, driving, abortion, the environment — Big Brother, the Establishment… With the curious thing being that we hate it for appearing to usurp the very civic functions we’ve ceded to it….
We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?
Corporations make the pie. They make it and we eat it….
What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves.
The [Internal Revenue] Service’s more aggressive treatment of TPs [taxpayers], especially if it’s high-profile, would seem to keep in the electorate’s mind a fresh and eminently disposable image of Big Government that the Rebel Outsider President could continue to define himself against and decry as just the sort of government intrusion into the private lives and wallets of hardworking Americans he ran for the office to fight against….
The new leader won’t lie to the people: he’ll do what corporate pioneers have discovered works far better: He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves.
March 21, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.
(Re)reading next: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, accompanied by The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.
I just barely passed my AP calculus exam; I was seriously unsure about whether I’d done well enough until getting that blessed “3” in the mail one day in the summer after graduation. College credit in hand, I happily forgot just about everything I’d “learned” in cramming for the exam. This is a common experience, I suspect, at least for those expecting to go into the humanities in college.
Part of my disconnect with calc — my reason for scraping by just exactly as much as I could without trying to get much at all out of the class — was that I either wasn’t paying attention at the beginning of class or was never given an explanation about what, exactly, I was learning: what were all these crazy new theorems and formulas for, exactly? What did the symbols, procedures, and functions signify? AP calc was so compressed and results-based that there wasn’t necessarily time for these kinds of background explanations. But I never even “got” what limits were, or why they were important, or what even differentiated calc from algebra, trig, etc. It all just seemed kind of pointlessly complicated and wickedly disconnected from any level of empirical reality (which is more or less diametrically wrong, but that is how it seemed).
Which is to say, in DFW’s phrase, it seemed “stratospherically abstract,” divorced from human experience or even (my) comprehension. So does much of Everything and More, to be honest, and at times I’m scraping by with the same bare modicum of understanding I did in AP calc if I’m scraping by at all. But at least DFW has given me some sense of what calc is for — understanding and manipulating continuities like motion and time — and what limits and functions and derivatives are about, at a basic level. All of this is somewhat tangential or at least secondary to the book’s main point, the history of infinity as a mathematical concept of central importance. But I’m grateful for it. DFW clearly had a really gifted and engaging teacher of calc, a Robert Goris, whose techniques for teaching many different concepts in calc are referenced quite often in the text.
I would never have considered reading this book if it weren’t for DFW-completist reasons. And I honestly don’t care much whether I understand calc, advanced math, and/or mathematical infinities. That ship’s long since sailed. What I cared about was DFW’s approach to the material, which was obviously very important to him, and about how or whether he would adapt the idiosyncratic style and voice of his fiction and creative nonfiction to what he presents as a “piece of pop technical writing” in his “Small but Necessary Foreword.” (I’m not sure it’s all that “pop,” to be honest, even so far as writing about mathematical history goes; we get all of five pages of “Soft-News Interpolation,” padded by two photos, on the biography of its ostensible subject, Georg Cantor. DFW’s titling of this section as “soft news,” and rather arbitrary placement at the “Last Place to Do It Without Disrupting the Juggernaut-Like Momentum of the Pre-Cantor Mathematical Context,” seems to me to suggest that even this tiny amount of non-technical discussion might have been forced on him by his editor.)
Some of the DFW quirks are here: the footnotes, of course, and the tendency to use abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols to save space within the text. Actually, one of this text’s illuminations on DFW’s style is that these quirks in his literary works are reflections of his mathematical/philosophical academic background: these techniques are par for the course in those academic disciplines, and he found them efficient and natural ways to deal with his dense literary material, as well. While I’d registered before the general academic/technical register of these techniques, their precedence in his own academic history had never occurred to me before.
Rhetoric is always a paramount concern in DFW’s work, with self-awareness in the text of the arguments and appeals that are being made, the techniques that are being employed, and the intended relationship between the author and the audience. Everything and More is also rhetorical, though it is more subdued and consistent in its voice and its stance toward the reader than most of his other work, and much less self-conscious. In fact, he discusses his rhetorical stance in the aforementioned “Small but Necessary Foreword,” like so:
The aim is to discuss these [mathematical] achievements in such a way that they’re vivid and comprehensible to readers who do not have pro-grade technical backgrounds and expertise. To make the math beautiful — or at least get the reader to see how someone might find it so. Which of course all sounds very nice, except there’s a hitch: just how technical can the presentation get without either losing the reader or burying her in endless little definitions and explanatory asides? Plus… how can the discussion be pitched so that it’s accessible to the neophyte without being dull or annoying to somebody who’s had a lot of college math?
And then, in the first of the book’s footnotes:
Your author here is someone with a medium-strong amateur interest in math and formal systems. He is also someone who disliked and did poorly in every math course he ever took, save one, which wasn’t even in college, but which was taught by one of those rare specialists who can make the abstract alive and urgent, and who actually talks to you when he’s lecturing, and of whom anything that’s good about this booklet is a pale and well-meant imitation.
This last seems to be an obvious allusion to the aforementioned Robert Goris. So maybe it’s obvious that by and large, DFW is operating here as a teacher, rather than as an everyman or tour guide or friend or even expert. He sprinkles the text with less formal sentences and phrases, and occasional restatements and reminders and examples and metaphors, just like a good teacher would. He is more concerned with getting through the material than in his other works, where he’s more focused on maintaining an entertainment-informational-emotional balance. In other words, though he never says it, it seems to me that DFW is simply enthusiastic about the content of the work, and believes it will shine if he gets out of the way as much as possible and presents the text. He wants to help you understand the concepts he’s talking about.
Those quotes above also include one of the book’s more obvious rhetorical strategies, consistently employing the word “booklet” to refer to the text in hand. This term is ridiculous in reference to a 300-plus-page hardbound book. This is a booklet like Infinite Jest is a beach read. DFW knows this. I think he uses “booklet” to try to make the work seem less intimidating to the lay reader. Or he was deluded or misguided by the publisher about the format or intended length of the work.
Do DFW’s rhetorical strategies succeed for his stated purpose? Marginally, at best, I think. DFW’s writing here was well received by critics as a promising step in his career (as I recall), and I suspect that’s because he’s subdued his style and concentrated on clarifying his dizzyingly abstract subject. Critics are often lazy, and dumb. DFW is trying not to make you work at understanding him here, in order not to pile rhetorical difficulty onto his subject’s difficulty. This is rather different than what he’s trying to do in his literary registers, where he’s frequently emphasizing that we all need to work a little harder at understanding texts and people and the fiercely concrete complexity of life.
January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Villette.
There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry). Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.
Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months. It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway. And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.
So: let’s talk about mental illness. Specifically, hypochondria. Ishmael’s famous “hypos.” (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea. Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence, she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)
We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause. I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria. Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.
Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this. It can all seem fairly played out. But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation. That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living. Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.
(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that. I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles. Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others? Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle? I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle. End crabby aside.)
Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic. The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful. Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable. But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.
The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing. Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.” (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.) “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:
Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss? Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man? What was near me?…
Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely. Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks. I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.
Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.
Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree. The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind. The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.
But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost? What if it’s an affront to Reason? There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?
The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:
There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man. Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria. Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng. Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.
And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.