Hypochondria and the Gothic Imagination

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.

The Wraith

November 2, 2008 § 6 Comments

Just finished: Infinite Jest.

Reading next: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

It’s one of the most audacious gambits in American fiction, period.  It makes perfect sense for its narrative and yet it seems a colossal singularity.  In complicated ways it recalls both Hamlet’s father’s ghost and the “Circe” episode of Ulysses.  Somehow (how?!) I’d forgotten it was coming and then, as I read it, the feeling of reading it the first time rushed back to me: that feeling of being torn between belief and skepticism, at the appearance of James Incandenza’s “wraith” to agonized, incapacitated, feverish Don Gately.

There’s no doubt, really, that this actually happens: James Incandenza appears to Don Gately, even bringing Lyle or his disembodied spirit with him at one point.  If it’s a product of Don’s fever, it’s a vision, not a dream or figment.  The wraith corresponds exactly to James O.’s characteristics, which Don would have no way of knowing, even though Don’s seen some of his films (unwittingly) and has other weird tangential relationships with the Incandenzas (getting us back to that confluential/anti-confluential discussion).

The word itself, “wraith,” is important here, since DFW uses it pretty much exclusively.  Hal’s beloved OED is less than helpful, but interesting.  The first definition is the simple “apparition or spectre of a dead person…”  The second is somewhat confusing: “An immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being, freq. regarded as portending that person’s death; a fetch.”  But what Hal would likely be most interested in is the utter lack of etymological information: “Of obscure origin.”  The earliest uses are from 1513, in a translation of the Aeneid into “Middle Scots” by one Gavin Douglas.  And a 1691 reference also refers to the use of the word among “low-countrey Scotts.”  Just as the appearance of the wraith is inescapably creepy and weird and outside of the already very weird (but differently weird) world of this book, so the lack of etymological information on the origins of the word itself would strike Hal, I suspect, as equally creepy and unsettling.

Hal is the key here, because the only reason I can see for JOI’s wraith to appear to Don is to plant a dream in Don’s feverish mind of helping Hal unearth his (JOI’s) corpse.  The wraith explains to Don that it takes enormous effort for him to appear to Don: “Wraiths by and large exist (putting his arms out slowly and making little quotation-mark finger-wiggles as he said exist) in a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage.”  Therefore, the wraith has to stand still for extremely long periods of time to appear at all to Don (who seems to be able to see the wraith at all just because of his feverish dream-fugue state; and all of this seems creepily reminiscent of the way that Hal moves in jerky and frightening ways at the beginning of the book, so deep inside his own head that he’s something of a wraith).

Basically, as Don summarizes: “death was just everything outside you getting really slow.”  JOI’s wraith then does this scary kind of whirl into Don’s brain, where he can plant thoughts and vocabulary Don would never use and basically make things even more confusing for poor fever-addled Demerol-tempted Don.  So he plants a dream, very similar to the brief mention of Gately all the way back in the very first section of the book, with Hal thinking (remembering?) as he’s strapped down during his apparent seizure in November of the Year of Glad (a year after the action of the rest of the book), “I think of John N. R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head.”

It strikes me that JOI’s wraith could function as a metaphor for the authorial perspective of the book, a figure outside of the world diving in and out of heads and planting thoughts in the voices of the characters themselves, if we want to get metafictional about it.  Less metaphorically, could be JOI is our narrator.  Even less metaphorically, but on rather more destabilizingly metaphysical ground, could be that JOI’s wraith is somehow behind the movement of Stice’s bed (last seen somehow hanging from his room’s ceiling), the strange movement of other objects around E.T.A., and even the disappearance of Pemulis’s DMZ from its hiding place, acting as a kind of deus ex machina, although much more confusing and ambiguous in intent and execution.  Could be that he also plants that thought of Wayne and Gately and digging up his body in Hal’s mind: that it hasn’t, in fact, happened yet, that Hal and Don haven’t met yet, and that JOI is still trying to get them together.

It’s hard to close the circle of this book.  Things seem to be coming to so much of a head, as the Y.D.A.U. action of the book winds up, that it’s hard to imagine them getting to the point they’re at a whole year later, with Hal still playing tennis (apparently very well, still, since he’s in the semis of the WhataBurger) but apparently non-communicative for the entire year.  The thought of Gately gives us hope that he survived, although he seems so very close to death at the end (although the cooling sensation of being on the beach in the “freezing sand” in the very last line could be a clue to his being given an ice bath, maybe, to relieve his horrible fever in the hospital, or perhaps just the fever’s breaking).  One way to look at it might be that the wraith of JOI thinks that Don may be able to help Hal, to get through to him and help him both with his marijuana problem and with the apparent danger he’s in from the Quebecois separatists.

Beyond all that, though, is DFW’s amazing insistence on the wraith’s appearance.  We go on.  The wraith is undeniably James O. Incandenza, not just some facsimile or hologram or apparition thereof.  He’s got the man’s characteristics, memories, annoying and inspiring quirks.  I suppose what it is, is an insistence on the human soul, warts and all, and on the possibility of infinity.

Adventures in the Shadow World

August 2, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

In all of Pynchon’s books there seems to be a chapter that totally baffles me on first reading — a chapter I simply can’t follow. The last chapter I read, the twelfth (though they aren’t numbered), seems to be that chapter for Vineland. It involves, I kid you not: a Friar’s Club Roast of the Living Dead, a Luftwaffe officer in charge of eradicating marijuana fields, parrots telling bedtime stories to kids who then engage in communal lucid dreaming, a Kafkaesque dentist’s office, a scene which turns out (I think) to be an imaginary idyllic flash-forward of Pynchon’s own creation or perhaps of Prairie’s (or just through her, as she watches footage?), tiny gangsters playing pinochle on Weed Atman’s nose (seriously), the agonizing dissolution of 24fps and the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll, Weed Atman’s death or staged death, a system of secret highways called the Federal Emergency Evacuation Route, ninja moves, a plot to kill Castro, typical Pynchonian S&M pseudo-erotica, the gorgeous recurring Dream of the Gentle Flood, a trip to Mexico, commentary on Reaganomics, horoscopes about the danger of Pluto, and wiretapping.

There are so many loose ends here, I can’t imagine Pynchon tying them all up in 120 pages, though then again all of that only took 50. (I mean, read that list again! Only Pynchon.) It’s the chapter in which he’s throwing off ideas like sparks, seemingly on a strong cocktail of stimulants. But I think one of the important elements of the chapter is that it is, in large part, mediated: much of it seems to be the story as told to Prairie and/or seen by her on film, although it’s hard for me to tell how much is meant to be read this way and how much is simply provoked by that scenario, and meant to be read as the narrator’s address to the reader.

This question of mediation is important. In this chapter I think Pynchon reveals that his hints of another world, close to our own and connected to it but also very different, refer to the world created by and existing in film (now video, I suppose I should say), the 24-frames-per-second world. Most important in this regard is the confrontation between Weed and Rex. Frenesi has deliberately set it up to confront Weed with the accusation that he has betrayed the collective to the FBI (when, of course, it’s her that’s working for Brock Vond — although Weed might have been turned, too, it’s hard to say) on film, in the guerrilla style of 24fps. But the cameraman was changing rolls at the time, so the actual shooting is not filmed: there’s only sound footage and blurs, which Ditzah presents to Prairie. Here it is in the actual language; note all the complexity here, all the mediation:

Rex screaming, “Don’t you walk away from me!” the squeak of a screen door, feet and furniture thumping around, the door again, a starter motor shrieking, an engine catching, as Sledge then moved on out into the alley after them and Frenesi tried to find enough cable to get one of the floods on them and Howie got his new roll in and on his way out offered to switch places with Frenesi, who may have hesitated — her camera, her shot — but must have waved him on, because it was Howie… who emerged into the darkness and, while trying to find the ring to open the aperture, missed the actual moment, although shapes may have moved somewhere in the frame, black on black, like ghosts trying to return to earthly form, but Sledge was right there on them, and the sound of the shot captured by Krishna’s tape. Prairie, listening, could hear in its aftermath the slack whisper of the surf against this coast — and when Howie finally got there and Frenesi aimed the light, Weed was on his face with his blood all on the cement, the shirt cloth still burning around the blackly erupted exit, pale flames guttering out, and Rex was staring into the camera, posing, pretending to blow smoke away from the muzzle of the .38….

I mean, for one thing, so far as I can tell Rex was chasing Weed; so why’s Weed on his face with the exit wound in his back? For another, Weed’s a Thanatoid in the present-day 1984 of the book; either we believe he’s an actual ghost or spirit, or this was staged, and Weed escapes into an underground life. (If he’s a spirit, the Thanatoid Roast at the start of this chapter takes on a very Beetlejuice feel. And I suspect that the ambiguity might be what’s important to Pynchon: this way, he gets to kill Weed with both camera and gun, as well as allowing us to see various levels of conspiracy and intrigue, if we so wish.)

Right before the shooting, we are told that his face (as captured on film) betrayed his understanding of Frenesi’s betrayal, and that this was “the moment of his real passing,” his spirit actually seeming to leave his body. This ties in with a comment Howie made earlier, that confronting Weed on film would be “takin’ his soul, man,” a la that idea (is this myth or actually documented?) that some Native tribes believed the camera stole their soul. It might also go a way toward explaining the meaning of the Thanatoids: beings from whom the spirit has been drained, brains operating only on mediated experience, through the Tube. There’s also the comparison, recurring throughout the chapter (and book), of camera with gun. Frenesi, at the end of the chapter, says they were fools to think their cameras could stand against the Man’s guns.

Pynchon’s feelings about all of this remain difficult for me to interpret. He certainly is sympathetic to the aims of 24fps, and would seem to think that the camera is, in fact, just as powerful as the gun, if only we’d believe it. Factoring into all of it is that Kabbalistic myth that’s so important in Gravity’s Rainbow, of the world as broken vessel, shards of light scattered throughout the darkness. The last words of the chapter are “the spilled, the broken world.” DL is equated with Lilith and shadow, Frenesi with Eve and light, and much as in GR light/white is often menacing while shadow protects the good. The “broken world” could be the world broken into countless segments of film which only seem continuous, but the “real” world is what’s being talked about here, what’s broken. Perhaps the point is that they are parts of each other, just as shadow and light exist because of the other. The broken world of film could also redeem the broken world we live in, perhaps, by recording injustice and forcing outrage at the inhumane. Maybe that’s why so much of this book veers between cinematic pastiche, political commentary, and literary genre-play?

But the issue of possession is also troubling, and there’s definitely a hint of vampirism in some of Pynchon’s filmic references. Brock is in the possession business. He kind of reminds me of the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, with that camcorder attached to his eye. (The chapter before this ends with an uber-creepy scene in which Brock is staring at Frenesi in the dark, and starts laughing when she’s scared by him.) (And this further reminds me that there’s some pretty Lynchian stuff in this chapter; I wonder if Pynchon’s a fan?) The sections of this chapter on FEER and the surveillance of the ex-24fps’ers seem downright prescient, now. Brock abducts the dangerous elements from the People’s Republic and hides them in his secret camp, for reeducation or blackmail or torture, but uses cameras and those media outlets who will play along to remake this story into the story of radicals “going underground,” a “rapture below.” Bad puns. (Those who ask inconvenient questions are summarily removed from the press pool.)

PS: One more stylistic quirk I’ve noticed popping up more and more in this book. Pynchon makes a point of using an apostrophe at the beginning of ‘suckers, though the word had clearly lost the connotation that this implies in ordinary usage by the time he’s writing in and of. I think it’s a way for him to reinforce the crazed sexual desire, perversity, and brutality simmering beneath the surface of everyday life, politics as usual in the good ol’ USA.

God and Ghost in the Machine

July 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

Well, shucks, things have changed. It’s still a fun book, but we’ve gotten into heavy-duty Pynchon territory now. The damned, the paranoid, the radical and the tyrannical. I have this strange feeling that TP started out trying to write a different kind of book but it sucked him in and he let it take him, his obsessions with Calvinism, systems, technology. There are moments when you can feel the sentences pulling him along to his inevitable conclusions. But it’s great stuff, and there are passages in here to rival anything in Gravity’s Rainbow. (Also, the quirk I remember most from GR, the “a-and” stutter or elongation, has resurfaced here, if only a couple of times. I always liked that, and it always seemed like Pynchon was trying to channel the archetypal overexcited American kid in movies and ’50s TV with that extra letter and dash, and it seemed to me like a brilliant condensation of American character. In which case it fits in well in this media-obsessed book, showing how TV has worked its way into our minds and is constantly showing us how to live, how to be. Or it was just supposed to be a longer “a” sound and I got the whole thing wrong. Anyway.)

He’s on to computers, for instance. There are no less than three really virtuoso pieces about computers already in the book. Two are in the chapter in which we’re shifted to Frenesi’s story (a virtuoso chapter overall, really). On page 87, after Frenesi’s husband Flash has been talking about how people are disappearing from the government’s computer files (and it begins…), their son enters. The kids in this book are really interesting — Pynchon seems to have a lot more invested in them than in previous books, or maybe is just more interested, or is acknowledging the shift toward youth that the culture as a whole took after the 60s — so I might quote a little long just to get in some of the allusive, pitch-perfect, idiosyncratic dialogue:

…Justin came wandering in, cartoons having ended and his parents now become the least objectionable programming around here, for half an hour, anyway — and just as well, too, because the last thing either parent needed right now was an argument, or what passed for one with them, a kind of alien-invasion game in which Flash launched complaints of different sizes at different speeds and Frenesi tried to deflect or neutralize them before her own defenses gave way.

“Say, Justintime, how’s ’em Transformers, makin’ out OK?”

“And how was everything over at Wallace’s?”

The kid put on a genial smile, waved, put his hand to his ear like Reagan going, “Say again?” “How about a few questions,” Justin pretending to look around the room, “Mom? You had your hand up?”

“We’re just getting you back for all those questions you used to ask us” — Flash adding “Amen!” — “not too long ago.”

“I don’t remember that,” trying not to laugh, because in fact he did, and wanted to be teased.

“Must be gettin’ old, man,” said Frenesi.

“Nonstop questions nobody could answer,” Flash told him, “like, ‘What is metal?'”

“‘How do you know when you’re dreaming and when you’re not?'” Frenesi recalled, “That was my favorite.”

Isn’t that great, that subtle shift, incorporating the computer-game metaphor into the already-established TV theme? And this idea itself, of parental arguments being seen as a video game? I’m always fascinated by Pynchon’s narrators, how they manage to shift their voices so rapidly and convincingly without actually shifting point of view: the idea of Flash and Frenesi’s arguments being like a giant game of Space Invaders would not have occurred without Justin’s point of view, in addition to the metaphor being important to Pynchon’s overriding concerns. (I love Justin impersonating Reagan, too, and “I don’t remember that” — just like Reagan, forgetful whenever convenient, and playing his coy game with the media, wanting to be teased.) Plus there’s Frenesi’s remembrance of young Justin asking about dreams; we’ll later see DL asking similar questions, wondering if she’d become “finally lost in a great edge-to-edge delusion.”

So this leads to the end of the chapter, as F&F’s nightmare is coming to pass and they’ve apparently been erased from the system they were living on the edge of, as independent contractors on shady governmental missions.

…it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence. If patterns of ones and zeros were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long string of ones and zeros, then what kind of creature would be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name… We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.

Overblown? Maybe you could say that. But mind-blowing, too, and I wonder what Pynchon makes of the fact that a lot of the people in the world are now busy adding to their “computer records” pictures, profiles of friends and acquaintances, weird literary blogs? (2.0 apps as path to acknowledgment by the hacker-God, and as handy guides to governmental intrusion.)

Then there’s Prairie, looking at her mom’s file on an apparently magic computer (it plays “Wake Up, Little Susie,” and it politely says goodnight to Prairie when she shuts it off — it’s maybe the worst line I’ve ever seen Pynchon write, actually, right there on p. 115). But this is a great paragraph, an enrichment of the theme:

So into it and then on Prairie followed, a girl in a haunted mansion, led room to room, sheet to sheet, by the peripheral whiteness, the earnest whisper, of her mother’s ghost. She already knew how literal computers could be — even spaces between characters mattered. She had wondered if ghosts were only literal in the same way. Could a ghost think for herself, or was she responsive totally to the needs of the still-living, needs like keystrokes entered into her world, lines of sorrow, loss, justice denied?… But to be of any use, to be “real,” a ghost would have to be more than only that kind of elaborate pretending….

After that we get Prairie finding out some things, but transported by a picture of her mom with DL (the asskicking Ninjette) in the 60s. There’s a great transcript of what Prairie imagines they’re talking about in the photo, and then, once Prairie has shut the machine off, in his inimitable Pynchonian fashion, the narrator takes us back into those “quiescent ones and zeros” and shows us (apparently) the true story behind the picture, and we get a nice long flashback, and flashbacks to flashbacks, and the ghosts become as real as ghosts in a machine can. (Realer, maybe.)

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