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?

Doing Good, Being Cruel: The Tenth Day

June 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Decameron.

Travel, unfortunately, delayed this last post on Boccaccio, but I thought there was enough of interest on the tenth day to write a little something, however stale in my mind. (Besides, there’s no way the structuralist in me would allow a post on every day but the last.)

The stories on this last day, Panfilo’s, are largely a fun game of one-upsmanship: each teller tries to tell of the most munificent deed he can think of. Fortunes are awarded, wives bestowed, the “dead” returned to life. Many of these stories center on the deeds of the nobility or the enormously wealthy, and Filomena makes the excellent point that “Those people do well… who possess ample means and do all that is expected of them; but we ought neither to marvel thereat, nor laud them to the skies, as we should the person who is equally munificent but of whom, his means being slender, less is expected.”

The most interesting stories are the last, Panfilo’s and Dioneo’s. Panfilo’s is especially remarkable: it seems lifted from the Thousand and One Nights, and dramatizes the remarkably complex attitudes at the time toward Islam and the “East,” though I’m not sure whether Italians of the time would even think of it as such a thing other than directionally. It features Saladin, the Muslim ruler who recaptured Jerusalem and many other territories from the Christian crusaders. He travels to Europe in disguise as a merchant from Cyprus to scout his potential foes and is received very hospitably by a Messer Torello, whom he happens to unwittingly capture when the crusades actually begin. Saladin treats his servants very well and keeps Torello as his falconer; when Torello reveals his identity, Saladin does all in his power to restore him to his family and then some. I’m not an expert in medieval or Renaissance literature by any means, but the story seems remarkable to me for its depiction of respectful relationships between Christian and Muslim; it’s also remarkable in the Decameron for its use of magic, as Saladin’s magician whisks Torello back to Italy in one night to stop his wife’s marriage to another.

Then comes the last story, and this truly does seem a response to Emilia’s of the previous day, the wife-beating story. It is also remarkably cruel, especially for Dioneo. Gualtieri, a rich young man, succumbs to the pressure to marry and takes a very poor but virtuous wife, Griselda. After she gives birth to their child he “was seized with the strange desire to test Griselda’s patience, by subjecting her to constant provocation and making her life unbearable.” (The setup resonates, for me at least, with King Lear, in that it concerns a capricious ruler demanding ridiculous levels of deference for no good reason of his remarkably patient beloved.)

So, for about twelve years, he “pretends” to hate her and despise her low condition. He pretends to have their children killed (he really sends them off to stay with relatives). He ostensibly divorces her, forcing her to return to her impoverished family in only a shift. He pretends to have a new wife coming and wants Griselda to prepare his house and wait on her, since she’s a good cleaner and knows where everything is. Then, finally, being convinced that this girl (her own twelve-year-old daughter) is to be her husband’s new wife, Gualtieri says, basically, “Gotcha! It was just a goof.” And, one would hope, out comes Griselda’s machete. But no: she accepts it all, patient as ever (just like maddening Cordelia).

This is adapted by Boccaccio, I think, from a French folktale. And Chaucer uses it too, in the “Clerk’s Tale.” So you certainly have that sense of suspended reality, of humans acting inhuman to make a point about humanity. But it’s a pretty crappy point, here. Dioneo does, at least, end his story by acknowledging that Griselda’s trials were “cruel and unheard of,” and that it “perhaps would have served him [Gualtieri] right if he had chanced upon a wife, who, being driven from the house in her shift, had found some other man to shake her skin-coat for her, earning herself a fine new dress in the process.” Perhaps? Perhaps it would have served him right if Griselda came after him with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. She certainly should have screwed around, according to the logic of the previous 99 stories.

(Actually, since I’ve been Tarantino-riffing, thinking about Kill Bill is interesting in comparison to this story.  Imagine if Bill had reconciled with the Bride at their climactic meeting.)

I’m not sure how to take this, and especially how to read its correspondence with Emilia’s story of a less psychological torture. It would be comforting to me to imagine that he’s actually being deliberately over the top to point out the cruelty and absurdity both of his own story and of Emilia’s, but it seems unlikely. Somehow Love and torture coexist — and can actually depend on one another — in this universe. (I suppose for many, it is a less foreign concept than I’d like to believe.)

There are all kinds of interesting things to say about the conclusion and epilogue, too, but I have to stop. (Too much good stuff in Dog of the South to think about.)

Our Fascist Queen: The Ninth Day

June 22, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Following up on my post on the eighth day and of importance to the ninth is the analysis of the characters of the “brigata” (the ten storytellers) on Decameron Web, the scholarly website maintained by Brown University. Sometimes it’s convincing on the character revealed by the introductions and conclusions of days, the choices of tales, the songs sung, etc. Other times it seems like the kind of selective magnification of some evidence and ignoring of others that people (okay, me) dislike academics for.

Nevertheless, it’s important on this day for its analysis of Emilia, the day’s queen, who chooses to allow each of the ten to discourse on whatever topic they want. Way back on the first day, Emilia sang that narcissistic song about gazing in the mirror. She also told, on the sixth day, a story about an unpleasantly vain young woman who gazes at herself in the mirror all day but is too stupid to understand a put-down about this very fact. Emilia introduces that story by saying she was “absorbed for quite a while in distant reverie”; after telling her very short tale, the day’s queen, Elissa, perceives that she had “dashed off her story.” (I learn from Decameron Web that Elissa is thought to be a Ghibelline, a noble supporting the Holy Roman Empire.) Emilia’s one whose dancing at the end of days is often pointed out, and she’s apparently one of the hotter ladies.

Again, it’s hard from this evidence to tell if Emilia is to be seen as a narcissist oblivious to her own narcissism, or as a beautiful young woman interested in combatting the narcissism she sees as a common vice of beautiful young women, or as Boccaccio’s rhetorical device representing narcissism and not necessarily imbued with any psychological depth at all.

Whatever the case, her story on her own day, when she can choose any theme she wants, is pretty freaking troubling. It is, quite frankly, a fascistic, misogynistic story, by far the most cruel in the whole work. Her introduction to the story is long, and she states that her theme will be that wives must be submissive to their husbands, and she cites the proverb “For a good horse and bad, spurs are required; for a good woman and a bad, the rod is required.” She points out the ribald wordplay available here — perhaps opening the door for a sexy undercurrent to her story — but immediately says that these words are valuable “even in their moral sense.” Emilia seems to be the biggest prude in the group.

In her story, a man with a shrewish wife receives the advice from King Solomon to “Go to Goosebridge.” There, he sees a stubborn mule beaten across the bridge. He goes home and beats his wife “until eventually he stopped from sheer exhaustion.” She behaves after that, and this is presented as a desirable outcome. The other half of the story deals with a man who feels unloved, and whose advice from Solomon is simply, “Love.” At the end of the story he understands that he must do everything out of love, not from simple obligation or courtesy, if he wants to be loved in return. This story seems so out of keeping with Boccaccio’s themes of pity, love, and questioning of received wisdom that I wonder whether this second story in conjunction with the wife-beating tale is meant to subvert that ugly message.

After this story, the ladies murmur, and some of the men laugh. The Decameron Web interpreters think that the characters of Emilia and Dioneo are linked by Boccaccio as subverters of the common laws of the group, in support of his theme that “transgression and repression are two sides of the same coin.” That certainly does seem to be one of his main, quite radical messages in the work as a whole, insofar as we go looking for political messages; but I’m unconvinced by the idea that Dioneo’s tale, as always, divided from the other stories of the day as a special privilege, is supposed to reflect upon Emilia’s. It seems utterly unrelated. I think the key to deciding how sincere Boccaccio is in the misogyny of this story depends on our decisions on Emilia’s character, and on whether we think Boccaccio presents her as a thoroughly unpleasant narcissist and fascist (not that fascism existed as an episteme at B’s time!), an earnest young noble, or a container for his ideas about vain ladies disposed to become shrewish wives. I’d like to learn more about this.

Under the Pear Tree: The Seventh Day

June 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

I have to admit, Dioneo’s day was a disappointment. I really thought we were in for some truly filthy stories and maybe an orgy or two, but there wasn’t really much of an uptick in filth or sex. That being said, it is a day befitting a trickster-figure like him: Boccaccio begins by telling us Lucifer is the only star left in the sky when they awake, and the tales revolve around wives tricking husbands. (As an aside, the names of the three men in the group are interesting and probably important, at least rhetorically, in ways I don’t understand: Panfilo, the all-lover; Filostrato, lowered or tortured by love; Dioneo, a Dionysian reveler.)

This seems like a setup for some old-fashioned misogyny, but most of the time the stories are really quite gentle — or at least, no harder on the wives than the husbands. Lauretta speaks best for him, introducing her story, the fourth: “O Love, how manifold and mighty are your powers!… What philosopher, what artist could ever have conjured up all the arguments, all the subterfuges, all the explanations that you offer spontaneously to those who nail their colours to your mast?” Women who trick out of love, or boredom, or for anything but money, really, are okay in Boccaccio’s book; as Lauretta sums up her story, “Long live love, then, and a plague on all skinflints!”

The most interesting stories are the first, Emilia’s, in which a wife convinces her husband that it is a werewolf, not her lover, that is tapping at their door at night, and the ninth, Panfilo’s. This is one of the most famous stories in the work, the magic pear tree story. It’s one of the few stories to take place outside of Italy, in Argos, Greece. In order to win the love of one of her husband’s handsome retainers, Lydia agrees to undertake three crazy tests. To show just how committed she is, Lydia says she’ll not only accomplish them all, she’ll make love to Pyrrhus (the retainer) while her husband watches. Once Lydia has completed her tests, they fulfill her final wish when Pyrrhus climbs up a pear tree and convinces Lydia’s husband that he can see him making love to his wife, even though they’re just sitting under the tree. Afraid the tree is enchanted, the husband climbs up himself, and sure enough, there’s Pyrrhus and Lydia, getting it on.

I mean, this is brilliant in any number of ways. It’s a mockery of magic and superstition; it’s breezy and utterly Boccaccian (is that a word?) in its insistence that people who want to screw will screw, and it’s silly to fight such forces as Love and Horniness; it’s ingenious in that the trick is that there really is no trick: it’s all in the husband’s head, all in his strange but utterly plausible combination of credulity and disbelief. All perspective and self-delusion. I think Chaucer uses it, in the Merchant’s Tale, which I need to go back and read again.

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.

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