Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

July 9, 2011 § 2 Comments

[Editorial note: And now for a departure.  I wrote the piece below in 2000.  It’s the work of a young guy in love (with the woman he’d eventually marry) who’d clearly been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace.  I’ve made a few minor edits but left the major faults unchanged.  Looking back over it recently, I decided to post it here before heading back to Nebraska to visit family: a paean to the Midwest, to summer, to Jaime, to hope.]

Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

Well there’s a Memphis down in Tennessee and a Memphis in my dreams, and there used to be a Memphis over in Egypt, back when it was the Memphis, and even if you don’t believe it there’s a Memphis, Nebraska. How much of each makes up the one in my dreams? The world may never know.

So I Had This Dream

a couple of months ago, before I was really aware of any of the Memphilia about to break through to my daily consciousness.

The dream took place in Memphis, it was understood, in that perfectly succinct way dreams have of establishing place — and, well, of establishing practically everything else, too. A lot of the dream is unimportant for these purposes, although I’m pretty sure my parents were around and I know my girlfriend was at least a figure in the dream, if not physically there. (It would help this whole thing gel a whole helluva lot better if Jaime were physically there, but such are the spoils of living apart.) Point is, I’d gotten myself to Memphis, somehow.

Memphis in my dream was a magical city. A holy city, perhaps the holy city. For some while I simply rode around in a car, looking out the window at the buildings (I got a feeling of dilapidation) and the sky (senses-heightening blue), hearing music in the background, always music. Then I was walking down a street, surrounded by green everywhere. The city was full of vegetation, lush, rich, overflowing, Hanging-Gardensish. Fertile. It was spring. I missed Jaime.

The music picked up here, as I recall: organs, ethereal dream-instruments. I was suddenly on what I’ve come to think of as Cathedral Row. There were massive temples here. They were stunning, and when I think of them even now I am struck with a profound sense of how truly gorgeous they were, in my dream. One was all stained glass, purple, made entirely of turrets and steeples and windows and Baroque and Gothic elements, rising high into the sky, a sacred Tower of Babel — so, perhaps not a Tower of Babel at all, but its antithesis. Another contained gorgeous sculptures everywhere, flanking the pulpit, jutting right up into the faces of overeager parishioners in the first rows. There were more: I have sinned, I have forgotten.

Duke Chapel, Durham, NC. Photo by Adam Gerik.

What’s Your Point? #1

I’ve never been one of those people that rolls their eyes at people who want to share their dreams. Seems to me that if you’re not interested in what people are dreaming, you’re just not interested in people. Perhaps I oversimplify.

But this dream most definitely had a point, which is, in a way, the following:

I remember writing to Jaime about it, about what a great dream it was, about how bizarre, to dream about Memphis. I wrote a short piece trying to capture the feeling of that dream, the kinds of things I was actually thinking in the dream. It was a “deeply spiritual” dream, if one is allowed to call anything “deeply spiritual” anymore. Put it this way: the Memphis in my dreams was not the kind of place where you have to put “deeply spiritual” in quotes, to show that you know how hackneyed and flaky you’re being, to show how worldly and un-naive and, well, godless you really are.

I love Jaime very much. We have grand plans to live quietly, happily, peacefully together forever after two years of living apart — right now she’s in St. Louis, I’m in Lincoln. I tell her my dreams; she tells me hers.

And it was on my way to see her, when she was home for the summer in Nebraska, that I ran across a sign for Memphis, NE. The sign (MEMPHIS 10) is posted on a shortcut to her house that I’d just recently begun to utilize. When I noticed it, I quite suddenly wanted to go there, to see the town, to write about it (never thinking even once about the dream I’d had, months before; that connection came later). Nothing glamorous, nothing all that smart, even. Just a piece about Memphis– or rather, Memphises.

How to Find Memphis, NE

From Omaha, take I-80 out of town to the Gretna exit. Go through Gretna, take Hwy. 6 down to near Ashland, then catch 63 through Ashland. After a few turns, you’ll be in Memphis.

From Wahoo, just catch 77 South to the turnoff for 63 East, right before you go through Swedeburg; 63 will take you right to Memphis’s doorstep. (But watch out for the turn, to the right; sneaks up on you. Look for the Country Keno sign.)

From Nebraska City, you’ve got a hike, but not too bad! Just take 75 N to Union, then hop on 34 E for a ways (25 mi?) ‘til you get to the intersection with 63 N (there’ll be a sign for Alvo), and take that right ‘til it ends, breaking off into 6 roughly E and W. Take E ‘til that same Ashland turnoff, 63, up to Memphis. You know the rest.

Or, if you’re coming from Lincoln, like us: you can take the N 14th St. shortcut to 77 (no gravel necessary!), or you can just get on I-80 E and take that to 77, go through Ceresco and Swedeburg to that 63 E exit. Skip Ithaca; get to Memphis.

Failing that, head toward Ithaca, Ashland, or Mead. You’ll find it eventually.

Some Interesting Connections

“Memphis,” the word, can be translated a few different ways (hieroglyphics being a tricky medium for even the most skilled Egyptologist), but it’s most likely that the name means “White Fortress” or, more poetically, “White Walls.” Memphis was the original capital of the unified Egypt, the city which brought together the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, perhaps 15 miles south of the apex of the Nile delta. As such, it was the home of pharaohs and, correspondingly, a religious center.

Temple of Isis at Philae near Memphis, by "Son of Groucho."

Elvis Presley, whatever there might be to say about his (un)originality or mimicry of black forms or rather simple and/or derivative sense of rhythm, was one hell of a singer and did much to unify the Northern and Southern halves of this country in a sound, in rock and roll (however short-lived it was). Would the Beatles have happened without Elvis? What about rap?

Elvis loved Memphis. He built his own White Fortress there, Graceland, a complex structure which allowed him to be simultaneously worshiped and utterly alone behind his many different walls.

Graceland, Memphis, TN, from discoveringelvis.wordpress.com

Most intimately linked to the ancient Memphis was Ptah, a creator-god (but so much more!) who had his main temple there. Ptah seems to have always been an anthropomorphic deity, but his humanity was almost completely concealed within a skullcap and tight-fitting cloth which resembled a leotard. Only his face and hands remained visible. One is somewhat reminded of Elvis’s sequined-jumpsuit Vegas days.

It’s tempting to consider Ptah as the very first rock god, predating Bacchus and Christ and Liszt and Elvis. Ancient Egyptian love songs often call upon him to bring lovers together at night — what more rock-and-roll sentiment exists? In those same songs, Ptah is often known by one of his many appellations, “Ptah Beautiful of Face,” attributable to the fact that Ptah’s skin was made of pure gold. It virtually begs for hieroglyphic newsreels of Ptahmania sweeping the Nile basin, girls swooning at his dreamy eyes, his full lips, his gentle-yet-powerful hands.

Then there are the representations of Ptah themselves, which offer perhaps the most perplexing and intriguing evidence of Ptah-as-superstar. The god is usually shown grasping a narrow staff which symbolizes royalty and which is topped with an ankh (life) sign. The whole thing, held close and directly in front of him, comes to roughly chin-height and is eerily similar in design and appearance to an old-style microphone — such as the one Elvis swings to the side in that very famous photograph, face contorted mid-croon, pelvis swiveled, knees buckled, hair pompadour’d. Ptah as king of rock and roll? Maybe so. Elvis as life-bringer and sexual liaison? Too obvious to expound upon.

The young god Presley, from (yes!) http://www.jesus-is-savior.com

Annoying (but Crucial) Autobiographical Information

We drove to Memphis, Jaime and I, on one of the hottest days of the year. July; mid-afternoon. We escaped from the hot tin box in which I lived and sweated, took off with windows down and radio up. That’s our sort of thing to do.

Embarrassingly, I have never been to Memphis, TN. Or Memphis, Egypt. I first saw the Atlantic Ocean last year. I have never seen the Pacific. I have flown on a plane exactly three times — each time to Boston, within the last year, to visit Jaime. This is, I think, not a terribly unusual state of affairs for a kid from Nebraska.

I’ve lived here my whole life, first in Norfolk (pop. 22,000 or so), then in Hastings (pop. 23,000 or so), then in Lincoln (pop. 150, 000 or so). I will more than likely be leaving it soon, quite possibly for a city with a pop. in the millions. I’ll miss it; I feel a kinship with this place, its people, its sky, its land, even though I’m not a farmer or a farmer’s son. (However, one doesn’t need to travel far here — either geographically or ancestrally — to feel that connection to place, to country.)

So this would be my first Memphis — at least, my first physical Memphis. It seemed fitting. I’d like to go to Tennessee, see Graceland, hear some blues — I’d like to go to Egypt, sometime, maybe, for a while — but Nebraskans like me, for better or worse, filter life through these tiny towns.

But so could I be more in love with this girl Jaime? It was the first summer we’d had together, and the trip to Memphis started, at least in part, as just an inkling of something I would like to do with her. She enjoys exploring such places as much as I do, I think. At any rate, we would get to ride around together, talking, listening to the radio, sweating.

We were doing just those things as we neared Memphis proper, and we actually missed the turn to the town, and had to turn around. As we did so, we found a radio station (I think it was NPR) broadcasting an interview with Charles Brown, the great blues musician.

And wouldn’t you know it, he was talking about meeting Elvis, the King.

What Memphis, NE Has to Offer

There are quite a few very beautiful trees standing in the midst of cornfields around Memphis. One gets to be a connoisseur of such things on the Great Plains; there are some fine examples of the phenomenon in the vicinity of Memphis. The road we took also has a lovely stretch upon which both shoulders are covered in vibrant purple wildflowers, the grass coming right up to the white lines. The flowers — and, hell, Highway 63 in general — are highly recommended in the early hours of summer mornings.

Memphis is also very near the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center, which may not sound like a whole lot but is really a pretty big deal, taking up whole bunches of land for ruminant, porcine, and bovine studies, forestry training and research, innumerable crop yield projects, and Lord only knows what else. The site seemed to emanate a kind of mad-science vibe, for me. I think this comes partly from my own ignorance if not outright timidity when it comes to agriculture, and partly from the aura which surrounds the idea of Memphis. To me, the town’s name stands for magic, mystery, alignment with things I don’t or maybe can’t understand.

University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center.

As not-one-but-two signs point out at the turnoff to Memphis, the town also has “Methodist Church Worship” at 9 AM. I’m not sure if that’s everyday or just Sunday. In any case, worship services are available if you should want to visit: fear not for your soul’s constitution.

And while we’re on the subject, that same Methodist Church Worship is presumably held in the town’s dominant (and loveliest) structure, the Iliff Methodist Church. It is a simple, white, steepled chapel with some lovely painted-glass windows and a charming lack of improvements such as aluminum-and-glass doors or a message board bearing embarrassing inspirational messages.

Town hall in Memphis, NE. Photo taken in 2000.

Memphis has a town hall that looks an awful lot like a storage shed, but this seems to be the unofficial town hall; the other one is just a normal, modest structure, with an old, rusty basketball rim in the driveway.

There are those black sans-serif sticker-letters (the kind that usually advertise things like drink specials on Bud banners in the windows of bars) everywhere in town, including on the advertisements for Methodist Church Worship at 9 AM. Someone’s got a truckload of ‘em, but we never did ask who.

Memphis has a green rectangular sign proclaiming the existence of itself and its 117 inhabitants.

For the residents’ correspondence needs, there is an absolutely tiny post office in the middle of town which flies the American flag proudly, if not really all that high. One gets the sense that the flagpole is short so as to draw attention away from the size of the post office itself.

Memphis, NE post office. Photo taken in 2000.

But as bucolic as all of this might seem, Memphis surely sees periods of heavier traffic, for the town is also home to a state recreation area — a lake, in other words. The lake is man-made, and was created for the booming (now ailing, maybe dead) ice factory the town housed in the early twentieth century. It’s a small, peaceful, pretty lake which comes right up to the road and says hello. On the night we visited, it was completely untouched, completely still.

Near the lake, on the outskirts of town, is a big pink ranch-style house with a huge lawn. Jaime and I both found the house intriguing, partly because of the color and partly because of the proliferation of lawn ornaments (miniature porcelain gauchos, horses, a flamingo or two; oversized porcelain frogs) and partly because of the fertile garden in the backyard, replete with flowers and vines climbing the walls of an enclosed porch. It conjured images for me of the town’s “crazy lady,” living there for unknown reasons, generating gossip and willful tolerance in the other townsfolk. Tending her plants, talking to her lawn sculptures.

The town’s bar — Don’s Bar — is a nice enough place, with fairly good food and a prime rib buffet on Saturday nights. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood, maybe, but listen, don’t go just for Don’s. It’s standard-issue small-town Nebraska.

Memphis has some streets named after places from antiquity or related to its namesake — Cairo St., for instance, but sadly, no Beale — and some that are just odd, such as Gahala St.

One of those streets leaves an indelible image on my mind’s eye. We turned onto this street, only to find it abruptly ending before us in a wall of wild grasses, trees, and brush. A fire hydrant poked out of the scrub near where the side of the road should’ve been, had the road continued; a cardinal perched on the ruins of an old foundation. How to explain such a scene? Perhaps as the place where a town simply ended, where the walls were erected when its capacity was reached.

What’s Your Point? #2

Perhaps there is no exact point, but a thought did occur to me, while trying to understand the significance of these Memphises. I was thinking of how a piece on Memphis, NE, might be perceived, and the imaginary catchphrase I kept attaching to it was “a travelogue from Real America.” And it kept ringing false.

Because, hey, look: if a fake America exists anymore– and by fake I mean an unseen, Dream America — if it even exists anymore, it is embodied in Memphis, Nebraska. Everything else has been made real, or has made itself real — and by real I mean visible, mediated, artificial — simply by showing itself to us again and again and again, over and over, via innumerable sources. The country is rapidly turning (or has turned) into a big dumb cruelly elitist entertainment complex, and Memphis is just about all it has left of a dreamworld. Not in a fantastic sense, or in an On the Road sense: in the sense of being simply unattainable. Mars, New York and every city on down the line, Tibet, the ocean deep, etc., etc. — everything else is far too real. But Memphis, NE — well, no one looking to make a buck has ever gotten Memphis quite right. Not many have tried. And not many will, more than likely. It’s a hardscrabble life in Memphis, and there’s no bureau of tourism to send out glossies of the buffet at Don’s Bar.

The white walls of this Memphis, while perhaps not intentionally erected, are certainly real and exist in the marrow of every villager. It’s not a matter of avoiding the world. It’s a matter of needing those outer walls to feel safe enough, perhaps, to dissolve those inner walls. Not easy to survive at the center of the universe; not easy to cope with depression and loneliness; not easy to live with the same 115 people every day; not easy to commune with the ones you love.

Why do I love and treasure that dream I had? Getting inside the walls. The walls of Memphis, my own walls. And to me, Memphis will always be a matter of love.

What I Wrote Right After My Dream (Which I Just Recently Rediscovered)

…Memphis is unbelievable. There’s all this greenery (just like You said Everything was so green You went Down South after I left and You loved how green everything was and You said Maybe someday we could live there and I laughed) and the weather is beautiful. Memphis is a revelation. (I expect Graceland…)

Suddenly I’m alone in Memphis (thinking I miss Her, She would love this) and surrounded by the most incredibly beautiful cathedrals. They are enormous and tall and I feel like a very small child looking up at them.

This one is painted green, yellow, and purple (purple Purple’s your favorite color how you would love this) and the whole building is covered in sculpture and it’s like Memphis is suddenly Oz.

This one is huge, wide, creamy brick with metal corners and somehow I know that it is alive.

This one is almost completely stained glass and there is a purple stained-glass fountain inside which makes me want to cry.

There are riots of flowers outside.

(I am not laughing anymore.)

When I Think of Memphis

my thoughts start to wander, and I end up thinking about all of them. It becomes a conflation of my impressions of those cities, centered on the small town I visited.

I think of Elvis, in his pink castle on the outskirts of town, not terribly unhappy, putting together lyrics from those black sticker-letters and strumming a guitar, sitting on his back porch, amid the gauchos and gigantic frogs and the other kitsch he’d strangely become related to in another world far away. The alchemists and oracles in the ARDC laughing madly over their magics, creating cows that never stop giving milk and ears of corn as big as Cadillacs. Pyramids on the floor of the lake, buried beneath water, their stone guardians and sloped walls defending their inhabitants from intrusion, violation. A jukebox in Don’s Bar playing Charles Brown’s blues. Kids coming together to walk after midnight, guided by Ptah to the Church at the heart of town, to walk the streets and hold hands and make love their own. The trees in the cornfields spreading their limbs over the cornstalks like revival preachers blessing their congregations. The white walls, too tall to climb, at the place where the streets end in a profusion of weeds. The whole town set down in the middle of the plain, encased, like the City of Gold, Jerusalem.

And I think of love, Jaime, and wanting to make those walls between us disappear. I think of times when they do, when they have — when we have walked the streets of Memphis together, amid the riot of flowers and through the towering cathedrals.

She’s in St. Louis right now. It’s only four hours from Memphis, Tennessee, she tells me. Will we get there? I can only hope; I can only hope we go together, hand in hand.

The American Nile floods Memphis, TN, 2011.

The Trickster’s Exemption

August 11, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Fariña.

Reading next: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

Lots of questions with this book. For one: Why am I reading it? (Well, because Fariña was a good friend of Pynchon’s when both were at Cornell in the ’50s, and I’m in this hippie-lit phase now anyway, and if not now, when?)

For others: is it Beat or Hippie? Does it matter? (Not really, but fun to parse sometimes.) I think it’s mostly late-Beat, actually. As Vineland is a kind of post-hippie novel, looking back at the 60s to reclaim its ethos from the greedy 80s, BDSLILLUTM looks back at the Beat heyday, 1958, from crazy 1966. It’s ponderous and pretentious (as well as overreaching in the very special way that only first novels from those weaned on the Beats can be), with jazz, Joyce, and multiple layers of mythological allusion involved. (Actual onomatopoetic lines of jazz at some points, I guess to reinforce mood and tone, or at least that’s the excuse.) It’s also got that Beat frisson of misogyny or at least condescension to women. And everybody embarrassingly calling each other “baby.” And Gnossos, our hero, with this retarded self-aggrandizing idea about being a spiritual virgin, claiming he’s “laid” like a million women but never “surrendered” himself to any of them. (What a tool, seriously. This is the stupidest thing about this book.)

But I’m being hard on the book. There are some funny slapstick scenes, and some good writing. It’s only pretense if you’re pretending to be good, as they say, and Fariña definitely has good stuff. (He died, sadly, two days after this was published.) And it does seem to be at least in part about that anxious incessant identity-forming that was so much of the Beat project, and is so much of a part of growing up, getting out of the house and going to college and out on expeditions in hopes of receiving a vision (as Gnossos does, into the American West and the frigid North, before returning to Athene, the stand-in for Ithaca, NY, in the book). Right at the start, there’s this interesting passage, as we’re plunged into Gnossos’s thoughts:

I am invisible, he thinks often. And Exempt. Immunity has been granted to me, for I do not lose my cool. Polarity is selected at will, for I am not ionized and I possess not valence. Call me inert and featureless but Beware, I am the Shadow, free to cloud men’s minds. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? I am the Dracula, look into my eye.

Exemption, immunity: Gnossos is a trickster, or at least fancies himself such. An invisible Mercury, a wandering Odysseus (yes, he’s very self-consciously Greek), a fly in the ointment of an uptight 1950s university town. This passage does a nice job of introducing some of the main symbol-systems used in the book: the physics and chemistry of the nuclear age (we learn later that Gnossos witnessed a nuclear test in the Nevada desert), the mass media booming in the ’40s and ’50s and forming a generation both homogeneous and terrified of homogeneity, the literary and the mythical.

And yet Gnossos also obsessively worries about “the monkey-demon,” another trickster figure from Chinese Buddhist legend (and there’s a fair amount of Buddhist allusion in the book, making me think this is a Buddhist monkey-demon and not one of the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz. ‘Course, could be both). He reminds himself again and again to watch out for the monkey-demon. At one point, at a crazy party/orgy, a scary spider monkey actually appears; his owners get him stoned for fun, making the monkey even scarier. Needless to say, Gnossos is freaked out.

The monkey-demon seems to stand for the dark side of the trickster/outsider identity, to Gnossos: the side of chaos, of destructive rather than creative force, the side that turns evil and frightened when its mind is altered. The perspective shifts in this book in tricksy ways, too, Farina often shifting from third to stream-of-consciousness first and back within the same paragraph or sticking to one or the other for pages at a time with a few sentences sprinkled in that could either represent the thoughts of either the narrator or Gnossos. Mentions of “the monkey-demon” or “beware the monkey-demon” are often like this: we can’t be sure if it’s Gnossos saying this to himself, or the narrator telling us and his eight-years-ago hero-self that danger is afoot. (Clearly part of this shifting perspective is the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, the trickster as the author of his own fictional story and “true” identity, the web-weaver and lie-spinner. The confidence-man. Anansi.) The problem I’m having is with that mention of Dracula, which seems to show awareness, and even an embrace, of the dark side of the identity Gnossos has cultivated.

This circles back to this whole male-spiritual-virginity thing: as “Book the First” ends, Gnossos has fallen in love with a co-ed named Kristin McLeod. “Exemption” means exemption from the rules of society, but it also, apparently, has meant exemption from being required to care about the person on the other side of sex. Is this why the dark trickster figures of monkey and wolf recur here, why Gnossos’s boozy Indian neighbors interrupt the consummation with a smile and a warning, “Much caution”? Although Gnossos longs, supposedly, to truly “make love,” is this a warning that immunity and exemption are only granted to those who remain outside of love’s circle?

Guilt Against Death

July 23, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

For all his theological concern, I’ve never been sure what Pynchon makes of Jesus. His concern is primarily with the lost and outcast — all of us, or damn close — and not with the saved and saving.

But one of the most surprising elements of JC’s teaching is his emphasis on love and his deemphasis of guilt. He talks to prostitutes and Samaritans, recruits tax collectors and peasants, asks forgiveness for his punishers. A revolution of personal orientation toward the world: doing good not because you’ve done bad and feel bad about it, but doing good because you love your neighbors and your God.

Of course Christianity has very little to do with Christ.  (Did it ever?)  But I do think Pynchon addresses himself in the long chapter covering pages 130-191 to the lack of love in our contemporary discourse, and the preponderance of guilt.

The startling passage that got me thinking on these lines occurs as we meet a Thanatoid, one of Pynchon’s underground people. Thanatoids are ambiguous beings, creatures of entropy. They “watch a lot of Tube,” living in ghostly communities like Shade Creek, where DL and Takeshi (the “Karmic Adjuster” almost accidentally killed by DL thinking she was killing Brock Vond with the ninjic “Vibrating Palm” — is anything harder to summarize than a Pynchon plot?) meet Ortho Bob Dulang, their first Thanatoid. They “limit themselves… to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death… the most common by far was resentment…”

After a cool exchange in which Takeshi is revealed as a kind of anti-Thanatoid, “trying to go — the opposite way! Back to life!” from his dead-man-walking condition as DL’s victim, we get this doozy, as Ortho Bob comments on the arrangement by which DL is assisting Takeshi for a year and a day to atone for her, you know, killing him slowly with her ninja moves: “My mom would love this. She watches all these shows where, you got love, is always winnin’ out, over death? Adult fantasy kind of stories. So you guys, it’s like guilt against death? Hey — very Thanatoid thing to be doin’, and good luck.”

He’s right: very Thanatoid thing to be doin’. But what does that mean? The Thanatoids are still quite slippery, Pynchon keeping their meaning ambiguous: sometimes they seem to stand for American culture as a whole, a culture glued to the TV and losing the will to do just about anything else; sometimes they seem to be presented as victims of Vietnam or the reactionary elite, made half-ghostly by their inability to overcome their desire for revenge; sometimes they seem simply a way of presenting the human condition: always moving towards death. But it’s the way Ortho Bob frames his argument, his sarcastic, typically Thanatoid comment that there’s no way that guilt (much less love!) could ever overcome death, that’s interesting.

Because the Thanatoids do practically nothing but watch TV, the idea of “love winning out over death” strikes him as an “adult fantasy.” In the arrangement before him, he doesn’t see love as entering into the equation at all: guilt is the emotion he sees, incapable of believing that DL could possibly have any other motivation. But of course, I think the point of the whole exercise from the SKA’s point of view is to move her past guilt, to a desire to operate in the world out of something more than rage and resentment. And it works, maybe — she’s still with Takeshi an undetermined number of years later, in a presumably platonic relationship that seems to bear many of the marks of love.

It’s a very cool, dense passage. It reminds me a helluva lot of DFW, with those extra commas, that broken grammar, the filtering through TV. And also in the way that love is dismissed from the discourse, as something too often exaggerated and mediated and sold to possibly be a real opportunity for salvation. And that does seem to me a Pynchonian commentary on the 1980s, in the time’s utter repudiation of something like “love” — say, concern for fellow citizens and humans, a desire to live peacefully and simply.

One more note here. We saw The Dark Knight last Sunday, and I was struck by what a strange movie it was, so very different from so much else that’s been released in recent years. What made it strange, I think, was its attempt to move past our societal obsession with blame and guilt — if only we can identify and punish the “evildoers,” surely everything will be all right — and its amazingly old-fashioned climax, a fascinating variation on the “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory set up by the Joker (and seriously, it’s not just hype: Heath Ledger is really unbelievably good as the Joker). It’s hardly a Batman movie at all: it’s a movie about wanting a man, a city, a country to move past guilt, towards decency, regard for fellow humans, something like love.

Caging the Nightingale: The Fifth Day

June 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Where to begin with this day? Quite a bounty, these lovers’ happy endings.

I suppose we really must start with the fourth story, Filostrato’s. Abashed for bringing down the whole group with his demand for tales of woe and heartbreak, he tells the fifth day’s funniest and sunniest story. There are these young lovers, see, who hatch a plot to see each other at night: Caterina will convince her parents that her bed needs to be moved to the balcony because she is too hot to sleep in her room, and needs the song of the nightingale to soothe her. Ricciardo will climb up to be with her. It works, but they exhaust themselves to the point that they are not awoken by the dawn, and Caterina’s father comes to check on her. He finds her, asleep, holding… um… “that part of his person which in mixed company you ladies are too embarrassed to mention.” His nightingale, in the parlance of the story.

Boccaccio is remarkably consistent in his arguments that such sins of passion as premarital sex and adultery may be against God’s law, but they certainly don’t warrant the harsh punishments they are sometimes accorded. (However, Dioneo heaps scorn on the closeted homosexual in the final story of the day.) So in this story, the father accepts Ricciardo’s sin, provided he marry Caterina (which he gladly does). And, as Filostrato ends his tale, “he lived with her in peace and happiness, caging nightingales by the score, day and night, to his heart’s content.”

All of the day’s stories seem a reaction to the fourth day’s gloom, and represent a rumination on the relationship of Love and Fortune. Many of the stories are very similar in incident and character to the fourth day’s, but with a reversal of Fortune or a change of heart leading to a comedic rather than tragic ending. For instance, Emilia’s story, the second, reuses elements of Elissa’s story from the previous day (a Sicilian setting, a girl named Gostanza, piracy, the King of Tunis). But whereas in Elissa’s story the boy-pirate who’d fallen in love with Gostanza from afar saw her killed before they’d ever touched, in Emilia’s the girl is rescued by a stroke of wild luck and the boy-pirate is restored to her by Fortune, skill, and the generosity of the powerful.

Not that it’s all sunshine and lollipops. One of the book’s rare splashes of the truly supernatural comes in Filomena’s story, the eighth. It seems ancient and scary and somehow, strangely, Nabokovian, this story. A spurned lover, Nastagio, leaves the scene of his humiliation and goes wandering in the woods. Here he comes across an utterly terrified naked woman running from a “swarthy-looking knight, his face contorted with anger, who was riding a jet-black steed and brandishing a rapier…” When Nastagio interrupts the knight, he says his name is Guido degli Anastagi (Nastagio? Anastagi?); that he is dead, having killed himself in despair over the cruelty of the woman he is chasing, whom he loved; that she is also dead; that they are both in Hell; and that their punishment is to repeat this chase, over and over again, ending every Friday with Anastagi disembowelling his lover, feeding her heart to his hell-hounds, only to have her pop back up and start running again. This is kind of too brilliant for explication, the way so much of Dante is. (No one does the tortures of hell like fourteenth-century Italians!)

But here’s the kicker: Nastagio thinks it would be a swell idea to trick his beloved to coming out to the woods for a picnic, then forcing her to watch the weekly murder. Somehow this makes her change her ways and marry him. Filomena introduced the story to the “adorable ladies” as “an incentive for banishing all cruelty from your hearts.” Boccaccio definitely disapproves of those that try to stay out of love’s way altogether, but how much love does it show to force your beloved to see something like that?

These two love-days, the fourth and fifth, are fascinating on the idea of Love. I find myself wondering how much of my speculation on what Love means to Boccaccio is intentional on his part — is he self-consciously ruminating on its meaning? — and how much of it is my lack of knowledge of the world view of his time. I do think Boccaccio fashioned the stories of these two days to show us different facets of the concept of Love. But when he (and/or his translator) uses the word “love” the way we would commonly use “lust,” as he often does, referring to the satiation of purely physical desires, is he ironically indicating the lack of love in one’s selfish use of another human? Is he saying that he believes the physical and spiritual imperatives of love cannot be separated, or building a case for that argument? Is there really simply no division, in the Italian language of the time, between love and lust — no word to differentiate the two? And why does Boccaccio downplay the procreative aspect of sex so heavily? (There have been attempts to miscarry and panicky pregnant teens in the book, but fairly few, and mostly as convenient plot devices.) And there’s such a lack of religious fervor in this book: I don’t sense much interest on Boccaccio’s part in showing human love as an allegory of God’s love. Maybe it’s still coming, but it’s refreshing for a dilettante like me to see, in a medieval text, such a focus on how humans interact without the characters or the narrator always looking over their shoulder to see what Jesus would do.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m unsure of how unsure Boccaccio was about what Love is and what it means. Does he think he’s explaining or investigating? I wonder.

Head in a Pot, Heart on a Plate: The Fourth Day

June 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

We’re under the dominion of Filostrato, the tortured lover, on the fourth day, and he’s insistent that the stories told be tragedies: love ending unhappily, the more cruelly the better. It’s the most interesting day so far in the interaction of its ruler to the stories told, and in the interjection of the teller into his or her story.

The day starts off with a surprise: Boccaccio tells a story of his own, addressing himself to “dearest ladies” just as his ten often do in introducing their stories. He’s responding to critics of the earlier stories, and my cheapo edition doesn’t say anything about the dissemination of the text to explain why this step would have been taken in the middle of the work, or if this was likely a preemptive measure by Boccaccio responding to anticipated criticism (which seems plausible, given how raunchy things got on the third day). What’s remarkable is that Boccaccio is responding to the charge that he’s too fond of women (and, by extension, sex), unseemly in a man of his age. He is, he says, “secure in the knowledge that no reasonable person will deny that I and other men who love you are simply doing what is natural.” I’ll hope to find out more about this.

It’s an odd introduction to this day, in that, while Boccaccio remains defiant in his own voice, the stories Filostrato demands are brutal in their punishment of lovers. It is made clear that Filostrato is enamored of one of the women in the group, but feels spurned by them or unable to declare his feelings; through stories of tragic love, he seeks to “feel one or two dewdrops descend on the fire that rages within me.” He scolds Pampinea, the second storyteller, for daring to tell a mostly comic story in an attempt to lighten things up. (She’s defended by Boccaccio, in the introduction to her story: Pampinea, he says, knew that “her own feelings were a better guide than the king’s words to the mood of her companions.”) Everyone else — except Dioneo, of course — falls in line, telling the worst story they can think of. In terms of straightforward plot development, it’s the best use of the framing device so far: we search for clues to the object of Filostrato’s passion in the comments before and after stories, in his reactions to them, in the conclusion (when Filostrato sings a song and one of the ladies is said to blush).

In the tales themselves, things get really bad. These are very earthy, bloody stories, of people screwing around and getting killed for it. There’s a lot of dismemberment, a lot of body parts, culminating in Filostrato’s own story, the final tragedy of the day, in which a husband kills his wife’s lover (his former best friend), cuts out his heart, and serves it to her at supper.

Two of the more mysterious stories, the fifth and six, seem very much like folklore embellished by Boccaccio. Both pivot on dreams. Filomena’s story, the fifth, tells of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. Lisabetta’s brothers secretly kill Lorenzo for bedding her; he appears to her in a dream, telling her how he was killed and where he was buried. She digs up his body, cuts off his head, and puts it in a pot, using it as fertilizer for a basil plant watered by her tears. Her brothers discover this and take her beloved plant away from her. This, we are told, is the story behind a popular song about a villain stealing a pot of herbs. Okaaay.

Panfilo continues the dream motif, in a very strange way. He tells a strangely anticlimactic story in which two lovers both have a dream of impending doom. Andreuola dreams of she and her lover, Gabriotto, having sex in their usual place, a beautiful garden; but then — and I wonder how many different ways this has been translated — “she seemed to see a dark and terrible thing issuing from his body, the form of which she could not make out.” It somehow takes Gabriotto below the ground, never to return. As it turns out, Gabriotto had a dream the same night, in which he captures a doe. As it sleeps with its head upon his chest, “a coal-black greyhound appeared as if from nowhere, starving with hunger and quite terrifying to look upon.” The greyhound starts eating him, gnawing to his heart, “which it appeared to tear out and carry off in its jaws.”

I’m impressed by Boccaccio the horror writer. These are terrific depictions of dreams: I found the strange dark force from Gabriotto’s body, and this starving greyhound, remarkably effective images, things that ring the true tone of nightmare logic. But it’s weird what Panfilo does with them: the next time the lovers meet, Gabriotto dies from a taste of a poisoned sage plant, then Andreuola dies of the same cause in the process of defending herself from an accusation of murder. Turns out there was a giant poisonous toad at the root of this sage plant, poisoning it with his breath. Whaaa? Panfilo said that the dreams in this story would be prophetic, and they are, in the loose way of presaging death: but the sage-plant plot element seems weirdly out of place. There’s something very cryptic, emblematic, and folkloric in this story.

For the Ladies

May 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Boccaccio’s preface seems remarkable. The main thing most people (self included) know about the Decameron is that it’s bawdy; but the preface is a remarkably subtle, perhaps ironic, discussion of love lost, won, represented.

I’m reading the 1972 translation by G.H. McWilliam; his introduction focuses on how badly the work has been translated in the past. This does little to soothe the great torture of reading translated literature, the monolingual reader’s insecurity about the quality of the translation: how much do I trust word choice? To what degree do I infer meaning based on sentence structure, tone, or vocabulary? To what degree is the meaning of the words I read match the original author’s intention? Nevertheless, I must say that the language so far seems remarkably fluid, beautiful, and interesting.

The very first sentence of the preface surprised me, and overturned my expectations: “To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.” Boccaccio goes on to explain that he received comfort from many others as he had experienced a love “far loftier and nobler than might perhaps be thought proper.” The love was, apparently, only from afar or perhaps just never declared (although the passage seems intentionally cryptic, in a lovely way); Boccaccio has passed through the painful stages of longing for it to the time when he can think back on his passion with nostalgia, “the delectable feeling which Love habitually reserves for those who refrain from venturing too far upon its deepest waters.”

Boccaccio goes on to explain that, in gratitude for the support he received, he intends his work to provide support in kind for those who most need (and will most appreciate) it. Therefore, he dedicates his work to “the charming ladies.” But not all ladies: only “those who are in love.” He says he wants ladies to read his book for advice as well as entertainment. By “in love” he clearly refers to the kind of passion he, himself, partook in and overcame: a physical, unrealistic love, I suppose. He refers to it as an “affliction” which can be overcome by reading the following stories, to discover what should be avoided in love, and what appreciated. Just as remarkable as the first sentence of the preface is the last: “If this [ladies being freed from the affliction of their love] should happen (and may God grant that it should), let them give thanks to Love, which, in freeing me from its bonds, has granted me the power of making provision for their pleasures.”

Give thanks to Love for torturing Boccaccio, so they can be freed from Love? For making him pass through a purgation of his lust to reach the point when he can pleasantly look back on his infatuation? It’s tempting to see this as an ironic, jesting statement, and, in retrospect, to see the entire preface as ironic (how, indeed, was he “helped” to overcome his unrequited love?): is Boccaccio saying that, no matter what he may write in his dedication to throw the Church’s censors off his scent, the book to follow will celebrate carnal love?

In the introduction we are introduced to the background of plague-ridden Florence in 1348, and the theme of pity and compassion for the dead and dying resurfaces, Boccaccio lamenting the lack of it among the citizenry inured to the sights of corpses, even of their own relatives. And then we are introduced to the group of ten — seven women, three men, all respectable and wealthy, all having lost many relatives to the plague. They decide to flee the city. Boccaccio had earlier said that many “callously maintained that there was no better or more efficacious remedy against a plague than to run away from it.” What are we to think of these young merry-makers? What are we to make of their palace on a hill, two miles outside of Florence, and their plans to shut out the world entirely, leaving their troubles and the world’s behind for a utopian society in which each of them will lead the group for one day?

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