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.

Madame Minerva Gravity and the Moon

February 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

About halfway through the book Lucy makes one of her recurring points about the misperception of her by those around her: Madame Beck thinks her learned, Ginevra believes her catty and bitter, M. de Bassompierre “the essence of the sedate and discreet,” M. Paul a wild woman.

This is an interesting aspect of the book, this ongoing calibration by Lucy of what others think of her compared to the turmoil she knows in her innermost life.  But I’m most interested here in the name she makes up for herself in the next paragraph, and imagines M. de Bassompierre calling her: “Madame Minerva Gravity.”

Gods (capitalized and not), angels, and demons appear throughout this work.  There are the two Christian Gods, the Protestant (Lucy’s) and the Catholic (all the non-Britons).  There are also the many anthropomorphized attributes that populate Lucy’s thoughts: her Reason, her Imagination, her Hope and Despair, many others.  But of all the powerful deities in the book, one stands out: the moon.

Lucy, for all her attempts to squash her inclinations, is a creature of longing and even passion.  At night, alone and unable to sleep, she thinks, and worries, and speculates.  The moon is somehow her companion in these lonely nights.  And she mentions the moon — how it looked, and looked down on the world — at most of the critical moments in the book.  At times it seems to guide, advise, or comfort her.

There are two remarkable instances of this very near the end of the book.  In chapter 38, “Cloud,” Lucy is given a sedative by Madame Beck when Lucy refuses to sleep, waiting for a visit from M. Paul.  Weirdly, the sedative has the opposite affect, reviving and exciting her.  In the reversal of the earlier chat with Reason, Imagination now bids her rise, and “Look forth and view the night!”  When she does so, Imagination “showed me a moon supreme, in an element deep and splendid.”  She has a vision of the moonlit park, and determines to go there.  It’s clear the moon equates with peace, clarity, and resignation, to Lucy.  But when she gets to the park, her hopes for moonlit peace and reflection are dashed by the false daylight of a festival, and an upsetting appearance by M. Paul and the Jesuit Schemers.

Later, at perhaps the happiest moment in Lucy’s life, the scene is moonlit again: “We walked back to the Rue Fossette by moonlight — such moonlight as fell on Eden — shining through the shades of the Great Garden, and haply gilding a path glorious, for a step divine — a Presence nameless.”  (This passage reminds me of the magical moonbeam of The Master and Margarita.)

Brontë employs the moon motif brilliantly: it figures in some of the most beautiful passages in the book.  The moon is traditionally female, of course.  It’s a satellite, a product of gravity.  And it reflects the sun’s light.  Minerva, as you probably know, is the Roman goddess equating to the Greek Athena.  She’s not the goddess of the moon, although there are some connotations (with owls, for instance).  Artemis is the goddess of the moon: both she and Minerva are virginal, but Artemis is a huntress and a woodswoman while Minerva is urban and rational.  You might say that Minerva stands for the cool, calming aspects of moonlight, and Artemis for the mysterious, mystical aspects.

Somehow the complexities and contradictions of moonlight are right for Lucy Snowe: the mingled traditions of tranquil cool calm and uncontrolled passion and mayhem (werewolves, witches’ rites) reflect her outer and inner selves, her desired and actual states of being.  Likewise, the moon’s status as a reflective satellite, and its presence as the symbol of the night, embody Lucy’s conflict between self-reliance and an utter dependence on those she cares about and that she thinks might care for her: like the moon gets its glow from the sun, she is happy only when basking in the reflected glory of her importance to those she loves.

There’s a bunch of stuff in here about the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, but frankly I think that’s all a ruse: I think Lucy Snowe is a pagan, or maybe an animist.

Beautiful Absurdity

February 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Having just finished this, and with a great deal to process and look into, I’ll say that the book is clearly a masterpiece, and no wonder Ellison had such trouble finishing a second novel: where do you go from here? Two things nag at me, the way small flaws in otherwise perfect constructions do. One is the opening paragraph, which, after the power of the first sentence–the famous “I am an invisible man.”–is stiff and verbose in ways the rest of the book avoids. The other is chapter 24, very near the end, which is weirdly tedious, annoying, and overlong in its explication of a drunken night between the narrator and one Sybil. There’s a point to all of this, too, of course–the constant fear of miscegenation that’s haunted America, the superstitions of sexual power this fear has assigned to black men, and the comic debunking of same–but the tone and the tedium seemed all wrong to me for a chapter so near the end, and it seems wildly out of place. At times it seemed to me simply an excuse to have drunken Sybil call the narrator “boo’ful,” with its potential to signify beautiful, boogieful, and boo-ful (as in, ghostly, invisible, scary) all at once.

There’s far too much going on near the end of this book to go into all of it–the final chapter, with its surreal race riot and the fascinating image of Ras (now Ras the Destroyer) on his black steed, holding a spear and spiked shield, leading his warriors against a police troop while stores are looted around him; not to mention the narrator’s dream, on an underground coal pile, of a bridge brought to life as an “iron man” by the transplant onto it of the narrator’s castrated testicles–but I wanted to focus on one small phrase near the end. The narrator says, in the midst of the wild riot:

“I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”

Beautiful absurdity… this is the phrase that Ellison chooses to sum up American identity. And he includes all of us in it–black and white, rich and poor, revolutionary and reactionary. It’s a phrase the narrator enacts himself, in previous chapters, in his impersonation of one Rinehart–equally rind and heart–who turns out to be a popular preacher promising to make “the invisible visible” (there’s a handbill shown here reminiscent of the famous J.A. Dowie handbill in Ulysses) but also a numbers-runner, womanizer, and general sleazebag.

And it’s a phrase that might also be the key to understanding the contents of the narrator’s pocket. Throughout the book he collects these somewhat talismanic objects in his pocket: first the leg iron given to him by Brother Tarp, a kind of symbol of slavery, and used as a kind of brass knuckles to escape from a couple of jams; then one of Brother Clifton’s “Sambo” paper dolls; then the dark, green-tinted glasses he bought to hide his identity and which convinced passers-by that he was Rinehart. These are all symbols of identity: of identifying who he is, who his people are, how they are perceived or not perceived. This strikes me as a beautifully absurd collection of objects to carry around in a pocket.

But so what’s meant by “beautiful,” anyway? Is it tied to the fact that, as the narrator says in the epilogue, “one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray”? This is an appealing theory, to me, but if so, why does this description of American unity-in-diversity use ugly words like “dull and gray”? Is it because of the struggle against this becoming? The “absurdity” is more obvious: no one seeing who they are, where they came from, where they are going; no one taking the time to delve into their connections to others, or their own motives for the actions they take or do not take. Plus, of course, there’s the absurd distance between America’s foundational principles and the actions of the ones we entrust to uphold and enforce those principles. Hard to find beauty in that, though.

And it’s the “beautiful” in that phrase, I think–a phrase which is very close to a self-summation of the book–which keeps the book from being a polemic, a manifesto, or (only) a “social” novel. “Beautiful” is open-ended, subjective, ambiguous, personal. Because Ellison is concerned with the aesthetic, and is concerned with the individual. It’s a book about individual perception and awareness, as much as anything–about self-discovery and its power, and the beauty of those things.

The Machines Inside the Machine

February 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

I’m skipping over a bunch of good stuff–the narrator’s exile from college and move to New York, including the dream-like return of the mental patient/vet/pseudo-alter-ego who treated Mr. Norton; his shattered hopes of a good job and return to college, and utter disillusionment with his former hero (the college president, Dr. Bledsoe) after an interview with young, hipsterish, down-with-the-black-man Emerson (a very well done, uncaricatured interview, I might add)–like I say, I’m skipping all of this because chapter 10 is another knockout, another spike of wild violence and great virtuosity.

The narrator lands a job at a paint factory–“Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints,” says the huge electric sign–and, after getting reassigned from a shady-seeming job mixing up and adding “dope” to paint buckets for the government, is sent to the basement to assist one Lucius Brockway, an old black alchemist who manipulates the huge machines that make the base of the paint. He asks a lot of questions, makes the narrator anxious and uncomfortable (like just about anyone else), and loves to call his gauges and tanks “sonofabitch.”

There’s a great exchange–one of those great literary scenes that feels like you’ve read it before, but you can’t really be sure where or when or whether it’s just the recognition of beauty and truth–as Lucius and the narrator discuss the machines and the paint they’re making. Lucius says:

“All right, but I’m warning you to keep an eye on ’em. You caint forgit down here, ’cause if you do, you liable to blow up something. They got all this machinery, but that ain’t everything; we the machines inside the machine.

They begin to discuss the company’s signature paint, Optic White, a name so loaded and resonant it almost makes you laugh. Lucius says he helped come up with the slogan “If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White,” and received a three-hundred-dollar bonus for his ingenuity. Here he is again:

“And that’s another reason why the Old Man ain’t goin’ to let nobody come down here messing with me. He knows what a lot of them new fellers don’t; he knows that the reason our paint is so good is because of the way Lucius Brockway puts the pressure on them oils and resins before they even leaves the tanks.” He laughed maliciously. “They thinks ’cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it!…”

This old, black man, utterly proud and contented with his place in the basement, cooking up the pure white paint (but with a base thick and blackish-brownish underneath the color) on which the fortune of Liberty Paints rests. An incredible image. (And I suppose I should go ahead and say that Ellison’s Melvillean capacity to create audacious symbolical and allegorical meaning–Optic White!–while keeping his narrative couched in its realities is one of the things that I love about both writers. Like Moby Dick is a whale, not just a container for allusion and symbol, Optic White is a paint, a volatile mixture of chemicals, in addition to whatever other resonant meanings it carries. And, like Melville, the symbols here are easy to read, even–and Ellison would love this–transparent, but not necessarily easy to decipher, or even necessarily decipherable: it’s not like there’s a simple chart you can post of what Moby Dick means, any more than you can simply chart what Optic White stands for. They’re complex, multivalent symbols. Machines inside of machines, you might say.)

Anyway, after this exchange the narrator stumbles into a union meeting going for his lunch, and this, too, is fascinating, with its discussions of brotherhood and finkery. Then there’s a shocking fight between Lucius, who despises the union, and the narrator–comic elements undercut with horrible misunderstanding, shame, ugliness. These recurring episodes of crazy, unnecessary violence, something inside of the characters involved snapping, taking them in new, unexpected directions: what are they leading to? (Kind of amazing, Ellison writing this in the ’40s. If the book continues to chart the African American experience in the 20th century, as it’s doing so far, we seem to be headed to the militant ’60s and ’70s, when that violence was tapped and channeled like never before.)

In the aftermath the two men to forget to check the gauges, leading to an explosion; the narrator receiving a bad head wound and being subjected, in the next chapter, mysteriously, to shock therapy; his being dismissed with a small settlement for his trouble in exchange for not suing the company; and a final word from Lucius, in the delirium after the explosion: “I tole ’em these here young Nineteen-Hundred boys ain’t no good for the job. They ain’t got the nerves. Naw, sir, they just ain’t got the nerves.”

Id, Ego, and Supercargo

February 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Chapter 3 presents a wild, wild scene in a bar/house of ill repute called the Golden Day. The narrator, driving a trustee of his college to the bar to get him a “little stimulant”–whiskey–to shake him out of the shock he’s taken, runs into a pack of patients from the insane asylum down the road. They take over the Golden Day; their orderly, named Supercargo, is hit with a bottle of whiskey and trampled.

This is a funny, diagrammatic chapter a la Ulysses: Supercargo is cast as superego, the reckless patients as id, Halley the bartender as ego, just trying to make a buck and keep his bar out of trouble with the law and the local bigwigs. But there are a number of complicating elements, as well, muddling my sense of what Ellison’s trying to do here.

At one point a patient with some medical knowledge calls the trustee, Mr. Norton, “A trustee of consciousness,” adding to the psychological allegory. Supercargo (a noun meaning a ship’s officer in charge of its commercial concerns) is a white-clad orderly; his name, outfit, and place in this allegory would seem to associate him with the only white person in the bar, Mr. Norton. His boorish bullying of the war-veteran mental patients, coming down from his room upstairs to try to establish order in the bar with his boots and fists (and receiving worse in return), seems to indicate that Ellison means to tell us something about the workings of race relations in addition to the workings of consciousness in this chapter. This chapter contains multitudes, a whole bizarre array of social strata (prostitutes to bankers) and events and crypto-events (race riots, nervous breakdowns, self-doubts).

Modernists get a bad rap for this kind of thing, now–this kind of heavily symbolist, deeply weighted narrative–but I’m a sucker for it. Especially the kinds of rich, mingled layers of meaning that Ellison digs up here. And the sentences! I mean, look at this semi-soliloquy recited by the mental patient/vet/former doctor to Mr. Norton:

“Rest, rest,” he said, fixing Mr. Norton with his eyes. “The clocks are all set back and the forces of destruction are rampant down below. They might suddenly realize that you are what you are, and then your life wouldn’t be worth a piece of bankrupt stock. You would be canceled, perforated, voided, become the recognized magnet attracting loose screws. Then what would you do? Such men are beyond money, and with Supercargo down, out like a felled ox, they know nothing of value. To some, you are the great white father, to others the lyncher of souls, but for all, you are confusion come even into the Golden Day.”

I mean, whoa! What a range of styles, meanings, associations.

(Full disclosure: I once wrote a heavily allusive, diagrammatic bar scene of my own. My bar, in the novel I wrote in college, was called the Broken Road; its walls were covered with pictures of hitchhikers; and its men’s room was missing the ‘n,’ so it was the Me room. Obviously I’m not comparing myself to Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, or anyone else in any way whatsoever– but what is it about bars that calls out for this kind of literary treatment?)

Morrison, Ellison, and the Grotesque

February 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

Yesterday, Groundhog Day, was another case of literary serendipity, for me. In the morning I read the first chapter of Invisible Man–not expecting the famous “Battle Royal” chapter, awed references to which in various places finally spurred me to read this book (somehow it was never assigned to me in school). A couple of hours later, I heard Toni Morrison read, in Duke Chapel at the Reynolds Price Jubilee here, from her manuscript for a forthcoming novel set in 1690.

But first, IM. The first 50 pages have basically exhausted everything I knew about the book. The prologue–a tour de force itself–introduces the titular character, squatting in his famous light-bulb-filled, Dostoyevskian “hole.” He takes a reefer-fueled trip into the “cave” behind the “hot tempo” of the Louis Armstrong song “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” and hears a rousing sermon there. (This sermon, with its Jonah references, is an homage to Moby-Dick; Melville and Dostoyevsky are both all over this prologue, and, while we’re playing the “Literary Influence Parlor Game,” the IM’s trip into the grooves of the Armstrong song reminded me strongly of a similarly hallucinogenic scene involving jazz in Gravity’s Rainbow.)

And after that, we get the battle royal. This raging, pseudo-allegorical, horribly violent, soul-bearing chapter must have felt like a kick in the head when it first appeared (modified, of course) as a short story in a magazine in the late ’40s. Grotesque is the exact word to describe it. How else would you sum up a fight among ten young, black, blindfolded men, staged for the amusement of a town’s respected leaders–followed by the same fighters being forced to grab for money on an electrified carpet?

Anyway, seeing Morrison (her reading was excellent) reminded me of Beloved, and the grotesque elements in that novel, as well. Ellison’s achievement in the battle royal chapter, I think, is to make his scene heavily symbolic while simultaneously deeply troubling, visceral, and realistic. Really, how often do you come across a piece of symbolism–say, Eliot’s Waste Land (another influence, it seems)–which also seems like it could have actually happened–or, what’s more, is happening? That’s how this chapter feels. It feels real. And I speculate that this effect has resonated throughout subsequent African-American literature; I speculate that Morrison’s depiction of the grotesqueries of slavery may have been abetted, if not consciously inspired, by just this chapter, and its deft balance of character, violence, allegory, and emotion.

Where Am I?

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