The Mysterious Muslim Babes of Spain

October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts  “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past).  There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words.  They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be  succubi.  Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”?  It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).

So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways.  Though there are many apparently supernatural events  in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it.  On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives….  And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.”  After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you.  Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us.  Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”

Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words.  He believes they are his cousins.  And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.

There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character.  We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment.  His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous.  Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react?  There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.

Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here.  Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted.  Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.

Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read.  In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days.  Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground.  Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins.  They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain.  This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets.  He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez.  The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”

In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day.  The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise.  It was all an illusion.  I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.

(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture.  I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now.  Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)

Perverse French Jokes About James Joyce

July 26, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright.

Reading next: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

Raymond Queneau is the reason I want to learn to read French.  I will read anything he wrote.  Coming across Witch Grass a few years ago was like finding an unexplored tropical island.  (Of course, he’s a legend in Europe; so maybe it was more like a native of an unexplored tropical island discovering the existence of France.)

Loving Raymond Queneau means loving Barbara Wright, who translated much of his work into English.  Translating Queneau, who thrives on puns, portmanteau words, idiomatic and colloquial expression, and literary allusion, is impossible in some respects (hence the desire to learn French).  So Wright (who died earlier this year) is something more like a co-author, or adapter.  Interestingly, she says in her introductions to both We Always Treat Women Too Well and Witch Grass that, with Queneau’s blessing, she would insert her own allusions to English literature and English idiomatic renderings to correspond to Queneau’s untranslatable French equivalents.  Without looking at her papers (at Indiana’s Lilly Library), we can’t know what delightful quirks of language are hers and which Queneau’s.  (Something to do if I ever find myself in Bloomington.)

All of that being said: what the hell is We Always Treat Women Too Well?  Not having delved into 1940s French pornographic pulp fiction, I can only take the word of some person named Valerie Caton when, in the introduction, she insists that this work is only masquerading as pornography; that it is actually a parody of the kind of book published by Editions du Scorpion, and not itself pornography.  Now, while there’s clearly a parody happening here, this is also fairly disingenuous, especially since the book was published under the pseudonym Sally Mara, by a publisher of “erotica” and straight-up porn.  It was a joke, certainly, but a joke the original audience was not in on.

However, it is fairly amusing to imagine pervy French dudes trying to get their postwar jollies from this deeply weird book.  Maybe the bar was just set really low for titillation; like I said, I just don’t have comparables here.  (The book was not a success.  Shocking!)  There’s certainly kinky sex and gory violence and nymphomaniacal behavior; but there’s also typically Quenovian (?) etymological wordplay, hilariously tangled and repetitive dialogue, deliberate anachronism, philosophical subtext, scholarly footnotes by the book’s imaginary translator (from the imaginary English original of the imaginary Irish lass Sally Mann) Michel Presle, and, throughout, allusion and homage to and satire on Ulysses.

So, yes: the book is really a perverse joke, on many levels, and I can imagine Queneau making himself giggle throughout.  He loved Joyce: it must’ve given him great delight to write the stream-of-consciousness monologues of Gertie Girdle, using the ladies’ room as Irish rebels take over the post office where she works, alluding to both Leopold Bloom’s own use of the w.c. and Molly Bloom’s grand soliloquy.  And to give the subordinates of his band of IRA fighters names of tertiary Ulysses characters and/or similar alphabetic structure: Gallager, Kelleher, Callinan, Dillon, Caffrey (the consonant-vowel-double consonant pattern).  And to make the rebels’ battle cry “Finnegan’s wake!”  And to invert the repressed sexuality of Joyce’s Dublin, to give a crazy plot to the prurient urges of that book’s characters.

Valerie Caton argues in the introduction to this edition (the 1981 New Directions paperback) that Queneau intended the scenes of sex and violence to be “disquieting and absurd,” and that the book is an act of “literary sabotage” upon the fascism inherent in both black humor and pornography.  Sure, if you’re reading it as pornography; if “disquieting” means you can’t get off.  I’m sure it was an act of sabotage upon some of its initial readers.  (In this sense, it’s kind of a book meant to be left unread: did Queneau really expect his porno readers would do anything but toss the book aside?)  Maybe 60 extra years of hilarious violence and kinky sex both literary and cinematic have jaded me beyond the point of being “disquieted” on any deeper level by some s&m action (note the initials of Sally Mara).  But the book also seems like a goof, plain and simple: “why not write a porno set in Joyce’s Dublin?”  I can definitely say it’s the funniest book I’ve ever read that also features a coital dismembering.

Five Favorites, Five Mysteries from Only Revolutions

July 20, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

Okay, enough attempts at coherent thought: let’s do some lists on this soggy, boggy monster!

Five favorite things about the book that I haven’t discussed yet:

-The call-and-response of plants and animals, coming to life in the first half of each narrative and dying in their turns (boldface turned to gray).  The pronouncements about them maybe forming a kind of Whitmanian choral voice of “the land,” and an ecological message.  This is also one of the elements that seems to indicate that Sam and Hailey are more than human: symbols, but also perhaps gods — of nature and technology?

-The 10th section, p. 73-80, S&H’s adventure in New Orleans.  I love any epic poem which makes room for two different lists of pies.  Also love how this section leads us into the roaring ’20s in Sam’s narrative, and through ’68-’69 in Hailey’s: the mix of debauchery and darkness, plus the voodoo sexuality of The Creep (see below).

-HONEY.  I love honey.  When I worked for a food broker in Chicago, I got to know about the different grades and varieties, and totally fell in love with the stuff.  (As I told Jaime the other day: people should care less about wine and beer and more about cheese and honey.)  Here, it functions as something like ambrosia: the food of the gods, powering Sam and Hailey’s love.  Its gold color, the fact that it is one of the only foods which never spoils, that it is a completely natural product which requires husbandry rather than slaughter, and of course its relationship to stinging bees: it all seems perfect.  (I must say I’m baffled as to why they always have a half-jar left in their stash, though.)

-The mindbending, slapstick St. Louis center.  Especially the use of St. Louis’s awesome street names like Chouteau (although I was sad he didn’t use Kingshighway).  And throughout, the poetry of American place: “Mishishishi” (the S&H-centric spelling of Mississippi), Nauvoo, Hannibal, Keokuk.

-The language itself, with its loose poetry of rhymes and rhythms and portmanteau words, is often amazing.  A (less than amazing, but representative) example, from a random opening, and incorporating those place names I love: “Confined to no loss.  Beyond stops we all/ toss.  Because we’re emergent.  Allways divergent./  Down shifting only when we reach La Crosse.”  (As a footnote, I also really loved the use of allone and allways: allone, especially, really added something to the meaning of alone for me.)

And then five things I’m fairly baffled about:

-The Creep.  The villain of the piece, and I guess it’s possible to just see him/her/it as something like the twirly-mustache-black-cape figure of melodrama, but there actually is something creepy about him.  The book felt most like House of Leaves to me in his sections: the purple-pink in which his name appears somehow leaving you with this dread akin to some of the colored words and typographic effects in HoL.  He is described in such mysterious ways: he might be simply a concentrate of dark American impulses towards taking what we want when we want it, or a sort of “dark side” of Sam and Hailey, or something else entirely (in my brief dabbling on the OR forums on Z’s website, I came across a thread suggesting Creep might be the destructive aspect of Sam/Hailey in the other’s narrative.  Interesting, but I remain baffled.)

-“Flash, searing lime to wide.”  Wha?  I guess it’s the lightning to the “ThUuuUuunder” on the opposite side of the page.  But why lime?  Why wide?  And why the lightning/thunder at all?  I appreciate the assonance, and the attempt (maybe?) at the effect of really bright lightning on the backs of your eyelids.  It just seems so out of context whenever it appears.

-The small circles in the corners of a few pages.  These are black circles with gold or green “irises”, or near the end of each narrative, the book’s symbol of two lines in a circle.  Never really got my mind around what these were meant to indicate, except (perhaps) a restarting of the narrative for the two-line-circle symbol.

-The Leftwrist Twists.  Either watches or bracelets, made of materials from “Shit” to “Gold”; since the book itself is a timepiece of sorts, these are perhaps just a reflexive way of pointing to that fact.  Again, though, the frequent references to these are dropped into the narrative in a jarring, seemingly random (but surely not) way of which I could never quite seem to grasp the full significance.

-The marriage and consummation.  Somehow I’ve gotten through all this without discussing the sex.  It seems so out of step with the whole tone of the rest of the book that Hailey only comes, and Sam only refrains from withdrawing, after their marriage.  Why is this marriage necessary?  Is Z actually trying to say something about responsibility, abstinence, “safe sex,” or is it a contrivance to discuss prohibited forms of marriage in America, or a way to link to Romeo and Juliet, or what?  I think it does have to do with S&H committing to each other — valuing the other over the self — but for some reason the marriage bothered me, in such a heightened, stylized, idyllic work.

Silver and Light

August 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland.

A couple more things about Pynchon’s other world and I’ll move on.

There are two incredible extended metaphors within six pages of each other that identify the essence of that other world (which I posited as being the filmed world): it is its timelessness, or at least the illusion of same. Here’s Frenesi, suffering from post-partum depression and from memories of her fascist lover Brock:

Taken down, she understood, from all the silver and light she’d known and been, brought back to the world like silver recalled grain by grain from the Invisible to form images of what then went on to grow old, go away, get broken and contaminated. She had been privileged to live outside of Time, to enter and leave at will, looting and manipulating, weightless, invisible. Now Time had claimed her again, put her under house arrest, taken her passport away….

Frenesi as film, and although I don’t really understand the process of developing film very well, I think what’s intended here is the idea of silver grains recalled from development to the real world, and by extension the idea of Frenesi terrified that she’s given birth to something existing in an unbounded set, something that can “grow old, go away…”

Then there’s a metaphor that manages to be both gonzo and haunting: Brock Vond’s “erect penis” as a “joystick” with which Frenesi steers through her obstacle-filled world, presented as a “forbidden arcade… closing time never announced… no longer the time the world observed but game time, underground time, time that could take her nowhere outside its own tight and falsely deathless perimeter.”

Also important is an earlier passage, from the beginning of the previous chapter (p. 218), which I somehow forgot to mention before. Discussing the Thanatoids, it reads:

We are assured by the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, that the soul newly in transition often doesn’t like to admit — indeed will deny quite vehemently — that it’s really dead, having slipped so effortlessly into the new dispensation that it finds no difference between the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death, an enhancing factor in Takeshi’s opinion being television, which with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialized the Big D itself. If mediated lives, why not mediated deaths?

Now, there does seem to be a clear difference between Pynchon’s treatment of TV and his treatment of video games and film. I’m probably simplifying by lumping them all together into Pynchon’s other, timeless world, a kind of fool’s paradise. I suppose, however, that I should leave the last, blunt word to Sledge Poteet, cutting through layers of b.s.:

“You don’t die for no motherfuckin’ shadows.”

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.

Boccaccio! You dog!

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Decameron.

I lied, I have one more comment on this.

In his epilogue, Boccaccio defends himself against those who will say that he has “an evil and venomous tongue” for his comments on the corruption of the clergy, among other things.  In the penultimate paragraph, he writes:

I will grant you, however, that the things of this world have no stability, but are subject to constant change, and this may well have happened to my tongue.  But not long ago, distrusting my own opinion (which in matters concerning myself I trust as little as possible), I was told by a lady, a neighbour of mine, that I had the finest and sweetest tongue in the world; and this, to tell the truth, was at a time when few of these tales remained to be written.  So because the aforementioned ladies are saying these things in order to spite me, I intend that what I have said shall suffice for my answer.

So, your neighbor-lady says you have a fine and sweet tongue, eh, Boccaccio?  Is this a double entendre?  Or unintentional comedy?  After these singularly bawdy tales, I am inclined to see this as intentional and quite saucy of him, but I couldn’t presume to draw a conclusion without reading the original.  But after all, earlier in the epilogue he says that many of his tales were no less inappropriate than people who use words like “rod,” “hole,” and “stuffing” every day.  It’s the kind of comment that, coming at the very end of the book, makes clear the book’s dual purposes of “instruction”: the potentially duplicitous reason of showing ladies what to watch out for so they can protect themselves accordingly, and the possibly more sincere reason of showing the many ways and means of taking their pleasure, making their loves.

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.

The Sex Thing

March 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

As you may know, when NT was published in 1967 there immediately followed a firestorm of criticism, controversy, indignation, scorn. It was a novel written by a white Southerner impersonating the voice of a black slave uprising leader, and it was 1967/68, for God’s sake. Between MLK’s assassination in April 1968, the Black Power movement, the rise of Black academia, and the times’ generally radical politics in intellectual circles, it was bound to stir things up. (Styron probably saw at least a measure of this coming: his carefully worded “Author’s Note” at the beginning points out that he took liberties, but based his account on the sources he could find, and tried to remain truthful to those meager sources whenever possible.)

One of the sticking points for a number of black intellectuals was— ahem— the sex stuff. Here are, so far (I’ve just started Part III, around page 275), the major juicy bits in question: Nat masturbates as a teenager, always to a fantasy of a white girl (see p. 172-73, and 180-183). A little later he befriends another slave, Willis, and the two end up pawing and masturbating each other after Nat has slapped Willis for swearing (203-04). And years later, as his hatred for white people increases, he has a detailed fantasy of raping a white woman who is crying in the street, unable to understand the black man from whom she asked directions (262-66).

There are some other things we could bring up, but I think this is probably enough to give you the idea. Obviously Styron has taken liberties here— scary, questionable, even objectionable liberties. I feel offended by this stuff, frankly, especially the rape fantasy— I can only imagine what a black person would feel reading that, seeming to corroborate and perpetuate hundreds of years of ridiculous miscegenation terrors and myths of black men endlessly craving white women.

That being said, a review of events like the one I gave above is always a bit of a lie without the scenes’ context, and (especially) without the nuances of experiencing the book as a whole. There are, in two of the cases, adjacent negative-exposure scenes of a white overseer raping Nat’s mother, and Nat’s second owner, Reverend Eppes, groping and propositioning him (unsuccessfully). But more than that, there’s the details of language and mise en scene that I can’t get into fully; they bring into focus Nat’s religious self-denial and the disgust for most blacks which he harbors from his (limited) education and his upbringing in the big house. They foreground Nat, I guess I’m trying to say–the individual, not the representative of a race. And I think we’re building to a crucial element at the climax of the book— Nat’s single personal murder, of Margaret Whitehead, a girl who had been kind to and even (after a fashion) befriended him. So the jury, for me, is still out.

But of course Nat always remains a representative of his race. Styron would seem to have no truck with ideological interpretations of literature— all the better— and the examples above should indicate that he was, if nothing else, fearless in his attempts to get at the truth of the matter, not at some kind of allegorical depiction of what we’d like to imagine the truth should’ve been. He was building a story based on the limited facts, but more than that, he was trying to build a story that would resonate not as history, but as meaningful literature for his time (and, I would think, all time). It’s troubling, though, and I wonder where it’s headed.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with sex at The Ambiguities.