How Snack Cakes and Thomas Kinkade Explain America

August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Pym, by Mat Johnson.

Pym is a wildly uneven book, its amazing premise (Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a true story, as revealed by the existence of a narrative by Dirk Peters, the black sailor on the voyage) and brilliant, relentlessly inventive plot undermined by some uninspired language (the word “guy” is used excessively) and underwritten elements.  But any book that can move from a satire on academic tokenism to a post-apocalyptic scenario in Antarctica is worth a look.  It’s a worthy entry in the category of the American Weird; the book it reminds me of most is Victor LaValle’s Big Machine.

Johnson is really good at presenting the scope of America’s absurdity, and the overlooked pervasiveness of race and racism in its giant problems: he has a real gift for skirting close to allegory in his fantastic scenarios.  I especially loved the inclusion of two connected elements of satire in the comic character of the narrator’s friend Garth: his overwhelming loves for the paintings of Thomas Karvel and Little Debbie snack cakes.

Karvel is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade.  If you’re not American or have somehow, blessedly, missed seeing his work, just check out his website for an introduction.  You’ll see that, as Chris Jaynes  points out in Pym, the work “looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.”  Jaynes also points out that black people seem to have no place in the Karvel aesthetic: they are just not part of the “pretty picture.”

The cloying sweetness of Karvel’s landscapes is only matched by the HFCS-laden Little Debbies that Garth is addicted to, to the point of bring cases of them along to Antarctica.  Great fun is had with the Little Debbie name, logo, and long-lived slogan, “Little Debbie has a snack for you.”  The white American obsessions for centuries — racial purity, cleanliness, “wholesome family values,” the monetization, standardization, and mass production of just about everything — are mirrored in both Karvel’s factory-produced “masterpieces” and the omnipresent, addictive Little Debbie simulacra of homemade desserts.

Johnson’s greatest gift in this book seems to be for giving the abstractions of academic discourse — fear and attraction to the Other, sexual sublimation, the deep contextual underpinnings of American literature — lurid, provocative, narrative form.  To make them, in other words, interesting as entertainment.  The juxtaposition of Karvel and Little Debbie works beautifully on this level, bringing together many threads in American culture, politics, and aesthetics.  So do the brilliant plot twists in which Karvel and Little Debbies become the salvation of the black cohort of adventurers at the South Pole are a perfect example of this.  But to give too much away about that would spoil the fun.  The fantastical plot elements of the work do function, as I said, at an almost allegorical level for the predicament in which America finds itself: our gluttony and willful blindness to problems like inequality, racism, and global warming leading to a situation nearly as dire as that in which the black explorers find themselves in Antarctica.  Eventually the  hermetically sealed hothouse of Pollyannaish exceptionalism has to be exposed to the harsh elements.  The Little Debbies eventually must come home to roost.

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.

Dickens, Poe, Milton, Shakespeare

January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Just a few more words about Jonas Chuzzlewit’s demise and then I’ll move on.

I neglected to mention the two paragraphs before Jonas’s nightmare in my last post: they’re fascinating, haunting, beautiful.

The fishes slumbered in the cold, bright, glistening streams and rivers, perhaps; and the birds roosted on the branches of the trees; and in their stalls and pastures beasts were quiet; and human creatures slept.  But what of that, when the solemn night was watching, when it never winked, when its darkness watched no less than its light!  The stately trees, the moon and shining stars, the softly-stirring wind, the over-shadowed lane, the broad, bright countryside, they all kept watch.  There was not a blade of growing grass or corn, but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.

And yet he slept.  Riding on among those sentinels of God, he slept, and did not change the purpose of his journey….

I love many things about this passage, but especially how it turns Jonas’s solipsism inside out.  Jonas, center of his own universe, for once is universally watched, as he sleeps.  I think this passage still puts us, somehow, in the mind of Jonas: he feels watched, he feels the night watching him, even as he sleeps, rocked by the motion of the carriage.  The world is alive with the “sentinels of God,” whose eyes he feels.  And the morning after the murder, he’s made uneasy by the mirror, into which he glances before reentering society: “His last glance at the glass had seen a tell-tale face…”  He has made the world in his own image, and now he can no longer stand it.

There’s something Satanic about Jonas, in the sense of Milton’s Satan, as this essay points out.  Although he has none of Satan’s majestic rhetoric or noble rebellion, he carries hell within himself, just as Satan does; and just like Satan, he seems to believe (at least for a while) that he can make a heaven out of that hell — but cannot, or at least does not.  Dickens does have an inclination towards Biblical syntax, cadence, and vocabulary in his weightier chapters (evident, I think, in that passage above), which reinforces this similarity for me.

And there’s some Poe in this chapter, too — or is it just coincidental, that “tell-tale” glance in the mirror?  The first number of Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843; “The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published in January 1843.  There’s this passage, as well, in Jonas’s fitful night after the murder: “…the starts with which he left his couch, and looking in the glass, imagined that his deed was broadly written in his face, and lying down and burying himself once more beneath the blankets, heard his own heart beating Murder, Murder, Murder, in the bed…”  The beating of his own hideous heart, the image of this desperate man staring at himself in the dark mirror, trying to compose his features to eliminate the stain of his guilt: very Poe!  (Not the first time they crossed paths, either: there’s a talking raven in Barnaby Rudge.)

In Chapter 51, Jonas is finally exposed.  As he realizes his fate is sealed, he begs five minutes alone — with the unspoken understanding that he means to kill himself.  But he can’t do it.  (The officer finds him standing in a corner of the dark room, staring back at him; somehow, you can see this, as Dickens quickly sketches it, and it is awful.)  ‘You’re too soon,’ Jonas whimpers.  ‘I’ve not had time.  I have not been able to do it.  I — five minutes more — two minutes more!  — Only one!’

This is the culmination of Jonas’s consuming terror of death — the end of self, the end of everything.  It also strikes a chord, for me at least, with King Lear.  That bargaining for time, for a little more time in which to agonize and not do anything: it reminds me of the frittering away of Lear’s retinue by Goneril and Regan.  “What need one?”  Lear, another great solipsist echoed by Jonas.

Of course, my synapses probably wouldn’t have made this connection were it not for how the chapter ends (and probably not at all if Lear wasn’t more or less an obsession with me).   Jonas finally works up the gumption, once in the cart on the way to prison, and swallows his poison, which smells of peaches.

They dragged him out into the dark street; but jury, judge, and hangman, could have done no more, and could do nothing now.

Dead, dead, dead.

Where Cordelia gets five consecutive nevers, Jonas warrants only this simple prose epitaph.  It makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it sound like clucking over a waste, that “dead, dead, dead,” as opposed to the staggering agony of Lear’s grief?  It’s so matter-of-fact, that line.  But somehow containing sorrow, too; as much sorrow as Dickens could summon for a character he despised.

Mrs. Moore and the Temple of Boum

March 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

Reading next: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Adela Questing is not the only character whose life changes in the picnic at the Marabar Caves. Mrs. Moore’s is also profoundly affected: both share a similar experience with an echo, at different times, in different ways.

Forster, while careful to point out that the caves are not to be seen as merely uncanny, is thoroughly uncanny in his initial description of the echo, as experienced by Mrs. Moore:

The echo in a Marabar cave… is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies… “Boum” is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or “bou-oum,” or “ou-boum” — utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce “boum.” Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling… And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.

Mrs. Moore hates her short time in the dark cave, into which the entire company had packed. She’d felt something repulsive cover her mouth; looking for the villain after they have left the cave, she discovers it was the hand of a baby on its mother’s hip, just grabbing what looks grabbable, as babies will. Not a touch of evil about it at all.

But the echo, that horrible snake composed of small snakes… that stays with her. (Almost Shakespearean, that image. Like something Lear would have said.) And in another of the last paragraphs of chapters about religion, she thinks:

But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from “Let there be Light” to “It is finished” only amounted to “boum.” … she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God. She sat motionless with horror…

And Mrs. Moore, apparently, never gets over this. She makes herself so disagreeable — going so far as to be rude to the damaged Adele and to assert Aziz’s innocence — that her son ships her out, in the midst of the insufferably hot tropical summer. She dies on the passage across the Indian Ocean, having become a horrible sibyl of a kind, uttering her pronouncements of doom and terror when she has to speak at all. It seems, in a way, the opposite of Godbole’s Hindu song: where he continually sings for the god to come, she feels she has heard the horrible response, the response which is no response at all, and ceases to see why communication should be bothered with.

Adela also experiences the “boum” echo, but it takes a much different form with her. Her echo torments her, ringing in her ears for days after the incident. It is trying to tell her something; it is akin to Poe’s tell-tale heart, pounding away in her brain, an awful manifestation of conscience. When she admits that she may have made a mistake by accusing Aziz, it subsides; and when she finally recants, in court, it leaves her. But why the echo? The echo seems to her the key to remembering at least some of what actually happened, and also the disorienting factor keeping her from remembering.

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