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.

The Appearance of Freedom

October 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

How could I neglect for so long the great discussion of the death of broadcast TV and advertising (p. 410-16)?  It’s great, obviously, for the way it deals with advertising’s weird codependent, parasitic relationship with TV entertainment: how everyone claims to hate TV ads, and they can be so grating and omnipresent and obviously horrible that they even hurt the ratings of the TV shows on and around which they appear (strange: do ads appear “on” or “in” a TV show? why not “among,” or “through”?), but nonetheless they work no matter how much we claim to hate them.  Exhibit A: the political attack ads everyone in the free world claims to hate, but which recur like clockwork in any remotely competitive well-funded race, because they work so much better than the positive ads we all claim to prefer.  (I’m estimating 3/4 of all TV advertising I’ve seen for the past three months has been political — and I watch Simpsons reruns, football, and that’s about it — and just about the only positive ads I’ve seen have been Obama’s, and that’s only a quarter to a half of his ads.  Here in NC, Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole are basically just flinging monkey feces at each other by now. )

So this is much like drug addiction (and, while I’m thinking mostly of the recipients of attack ads here, I can imagine McCain furiously rationalizing to himself about one last bender before he goes cold turkey and throws out all the attack-ad and character-assassination-consultant paraphernalia).  But the really stunning phrase occurs in a footnote, in which the narrator pulls us out of Hal’s account to provide a more considered, wider perspective:

164.  Granted that this stuff is all grossly simplified in Hal’s ephebic account; Lace-Forche and Veals are in fact transcendent geniuses of a particularly complex right-time-and-place sort, and their appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom almost unanalyzably compelling.

Of course DFW (and that’s as close to straight-up DFW as we get in this book) would consider masters of marketing and advertising “transcendent geniuses.”  He was often a rhetorical writer and they, as a group, are our rhetoricians, however we (or he) may feel about their motives or means.

“Almost unanalyzably compelling” “appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom.”  Well, yes.  That’s a very large part of this book.  The AA paradox — the way it works even when you don’t believe in it, and the way it seems to just replace one master with another — is part of that.  This is the darkest aspect of that thread of the narrative: the thought that recovery is just a way of making it appear that you’re free, when you’re really just burying the old urges under layers of habit and repetition and willful recitation of how bad you’d once gotten. (But it works.  And there’s the complication of the Higher Power, which Gately acknowledges that acknowledging this HP even if you don’t believe in it seems to work, and make you feel better.  And the whole AA thing is immensely complicated.)

So there’s our cultural tendency to tell ourselves (in both ads and entertainments) that we have choice, are autonomous, can make that great life-changing moment or relationship or epiphany happen.  But, behind that: the appearance of freedom, not freedom itself.  Our ideology is not freedom itself — freedom is scary, and I’d agree with DFW here that we’ve more or less rejected it by this time in our history, if we ever actually embraced it — but its image.  We have admitted that we do not know what’s best for us and will gladly accept a life of wildly proscribed activity, provided we’re kept safe and entertained.  We’ll watch the TV so long as we appear to be watching what we want.  We’ll pick from two candidates so long as they strenuously insist that they have major differences which we need to take seriously.  We’ll ignore our piles of waste and our overcrowded prisons so long as they’re not in our neighborhood.

And there’s the appearance of freedom from the self: the desire to look like you never think about what you look like, or how you appear to people.  (The U.H.I.D. is a fascinating hall of mirrors, in this respect: appearance of freedom by freedom from appearance.)  Tennis plays into this, too: Schtitt’s philosophical lectures on battling the self, on the freedom available within the constraint of the lines of the court.  Almost Oulipian, those speeches of Schtitt’s.

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