Archive for September, 2014

It’s always interesting to find the receipt stuck in the back of a book (I use receipts as bookmarks) and think about my life as it was when I made the purchase. According to the receipt, I bought my copy of Fahrenheit 451 ten years ago in a store that has since closed. It was a chain store in my hometown, so I can picture the huge windows in the front, the regulated stacks, the cheerful signage, the in-house coffee shop. It was a little like the Walmart of bookstores. But the town I grew up in doesn’t have enough readers to support a bookstore, which is one of the reasons I no longer actually call it home. Ten years ago I was a newlywed, and the ex and I went everywhere together. The only memory I have of her in that store was the time we ran into two of my friends from high school. Of the two, she came across as perpetually angry and he as a major stoner, which isn’t how either of them was when we were close. I think that my friend’s anger came from the fact that our friend had become so comfortable with mind-altering substances; we met her again a few years later and she was fairly happy, secure in herself and her life. After the visit, the ex said, “Now I can understand why you were such good friends.” First impressions aren’t generally reliable.

Why am I going on about this? Because I’ve just finished reading a book on the importance of memory.

One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn’t, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago. Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silverfish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes. Now the guild of the asbestos weaver must open shop very soon.

Yeah, people say that it’s about books, and in one sense it is, but I think that books are a vehicle to talk about something else.

It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

Montag’s society has lost books, but they’ve also lost the world itself. They flip on the television to distract themselves, and live in a constant state of distraction. They don’t enjoy life. One of the opening scenes involves Montag’s wife accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills and getting her stomach pumped. It happens so frequently the medical technicians come to people’s houses instead of dragging them to the hospital. The techs don’t have any medical training, either; they know where to stick the tubes, they run their machines, then they move on to the next house. Reckless driving and suicide are fairly common. They don’t value their lives.

Bradbury seems to see this as a consequence of their lifestyle. People avoid contact with nonhuman life, and with their own emotions. Television manufactures relationships with the unreal, and if not managed appropriately, those fictive relationships can take the place of real ones. My mom leaves the TV on when she goes out so the cats feel like there is a human presence in the house with them, and I watch an unreasonable amount of television to distract myself from the unbearable loneliness of my real life. Like the other great dystopias of the twentieth century, this book is about the government taking control of our emotional lives. The essential freedom is the freedom to be honest with ourselves and others about our feelings; without that self-awareness and the ability to communicate it, there is no independent identity.

Books tend to fuck with our illusions. Behold, the reaction to a reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

Mrs Phelps was crying.

The others in the middle of the desert watched her crying grow very loud as her face squeezed itself out of shape. They sat, not touching her, bewildered with her display. She sobbed uncontrollably. Montag himself was stunned and shaken.

“Sh, sh,” said Mildred. “You’re all right, Clara, now, Clara, snap out of it! Clara, what’s wrong?”

“I – I,” sobbed Mrs Phelps, “don’t know, don’t know, I just don’t know, oh, oh . . .”

Mrs Bowles stood up and glared at Montag. “You see? I knew it, that’s what I wanted to prove! I knew it would happen! I’ve always said poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I’ve had it proved to me. You’re nasty, Mr Montag, you’re nasty!”

Faber said, “Now. . .”

Montag felt himself turn and walk to the wall slot and drop the book in through the brass notch to the waiting flames.

“Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,” said Mrs Bowles. “Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you got to tease people with stuff like that!”

“Clara, now, Clara,” begged Mildred, pulling her arm. “Come on, let’s be cheery, you turn the ‘family’ on now. Go ahead. Let’s laugh and be happy now, stop crying, we’ll have a party!”

In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, there’s a moment when one of the bad guys (Anne Wirthlass-Schitt) gets caught in a book of poetry and ends up trying to save someone. When asked to explain, Thursday says that our response to poetry reveals who we really are. The suicide and tears aren’t in the poetry; they’re in the people reading it. To borrow a phrase from Zora Hurston, poetry calls our souls from their hiding places. It reintroduces us to ourselves. One of the products of reading is self-awareness, which I suppose is why reading leads me to write such long articles about myself.

Mrs Phelps has plenty of reason to cry.

“When do you suppose the war will start?” he said. “I notice your husbands aren’t here tonight?”

“Oh, they come and go, come and go,” said Mrs Phelps. “In again out again Finnegan, the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours, they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be back next week. Quick . . .”

The three women fidgeted and looked nervously at the empty mud-colored walls.

“I’m not worried,” said Mrs Phelps. “I’ll let Pete do all the worrying.” She giggled. “I’ll let old Pete do all the worrying. Not me. I’m not worried.”

“Yes,” said Millie. “Let old Pete do the worrying.”

“It’s always someone else’s husband dies, they say.”

“I’ve heard that, too. I’ve never known any dead man killed in a war. Killed jumping off buildings, yes, like Gloria’s husband last week, but from wars? No.”

This book reminds me so much of my 1980s childhood that the first time I read it, I filtered out all mentions of war until it actually comes to the town at the end of the novel. The Cold War made the threat of mutual destruction normal, banal, uninteresting. The Russians were going to come and either destroy or enslave us all; this was an accepted part of my daily life. Sometimes there were frantic repetitions of the party line, as with Mrs Phelps, but by then they were less frequent. The constantness of the threat had inured the public to its severity. After all, it’s always someone else’s husband who dies. My grandpa made it through World War II; my dad made it through Vietnam; when the Russians come for us, we’ll survive that too. When I was nineteen, I saw Red Dawn, and I thought it was one of the most frightening movies I’d ever seen – not because of the Russian-Cuban invasion of the United States, that part felt familiar and even oddly reassuring, but because the redneck teenagers were so ready to become child soldiers. I don’t want my kids to have that kind of access to weaponry. On rereading Fahrenheit 451, though, I see that it’s a book drenched in the threat of war; it’s just that my childhood was spent blocking out the threat of war, and now I’m really good at it. No one I knew was involved in the first Gulf War, so it was easy to see it as entirely separate from my life.

For everyone nowadays knows, absolutely is certain, that nothing will ever happen to me. Others die, I go on. There are no consequences and no responsibilities. Except that there are. But let’s not talk about them, eh? By the time the consequences catch up with you, it’s too late, isn’t it, Montag?

And that’s still true. September 11, 2001, was such a tragic day because suddenly we had to stop telling ourselves this lie. We’ve lulled ourselves back into a sense of security since then, which seems fairly obvious from the actions of the US Department of Defense. Sure, we can keep supporting Israel while they act like Nazi Germany; that’s never going to come back and bite us in the ass. If they were annexing sections of Czechoslovakia, we’d be losing our shit; but it’s just those little Arab countries that we can’t even identify on a map, so it’s okay. I mean, they’re not even white. I saw a New York Times piece about nuclear disarmament – apparently the Russians are working ahead of schedule and we’re way behind, and I’m really uncomfortable identifying with the country with the most nuclear warheads. Think of it as a neighborhood; we don’t attack the family next door because we like them, not because they have a lot of guns. In fact, when I see a family with a ton of guns, I avoid them whenever possible. Or, in cowboy terms, the most effective way to ensure that people are going to shoot you is to get a reputation as the fastest gun in the West.

But, books.

I spent my early childhood afraid. I wasn’t involved in any physical abuse, but my dad was undiagnosed bipolar and wouldn’t allow himself to use drugs or alcohol, so he self-medicated by hitting his older children. I was too little, but still petrified of him. My parents divorced a year before the Wall fell, so that gave me a different set of things to be afraid of. My mom has spent forty years creating and feeding a sense of insecurity in her children, delighting in their failures, finding the flaws in their successes, sucking the joy out of our lives unless it is a reflection of her own schadenfreude. After all, if you meet your children’s emotional needs, they’ll just be dependent on you for the rest of your life (the exact opposite of all the research in attachment theory, by the way – I showed all the signs of child abuse except poor academic performance). My older siblings seemed to form a clique that I could never belong to, despite occasional forays into togetherness, so I spent most of my time playing alone. I drew pictures of the toys that I wanted, colored them and cut them out, and played with the scraps of paper. I also read. A lot. I learned to read before I went to kindergarten, and reading was my favorite thing. I was more comfortable in the library than I was in my own home. I lived almost entirely in my imagination; I didn’t make close friends until I was eighteen. My social development still feels about ten years behind my peer group; I hit my adolescent rebellion around age thirty, when I was married and had kids. Five years later I’m mostly better, but I never feel quite mature enough. When I was a kid, the world seemed content to leave me out of it, too: once my mother went out with a bunch of her kids, but left my teenage sister home supposedly alone – they had forgotten that I was there too. If my sister hadn’t stayed, I would have been left home alone. A nine-year-old who lives in books is not likely to be a danger to himself or others, but the having been forgotten damages him. But there are the books, right? Books don’t say awful things about you; books have people who are more similar to you than the people you see in your real life; no one expects you to love them because you were born into the same family or attend the same school or church. Books have brighter colors and happier endings than the real world, and more than anything, I needed the hope that they provide. Then I married someone who taught me that my feelings are important, and books have been teaching me about myself ever since.

She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it had to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses, but moving also toward a new sun.

Or in other words, Clarisse had a face like a book. The glowing certainty of books got me through the long night of childhood and has helped me move toward new sources of light.

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No one questions the supremacy of Mr Dickens in the realm of the Victorian novel. Not only was he the most popular novelist, he made sure that ladies could read his stories without wandering outside the boundaries of respectability. Perhaps this is why I almost always mentally refer to him as Mr – there’s something about him that keeps me at a distance. No amount of biographical research has conquered this respectable lack of intimacy. Most of his contemporaries that we still read were not so cautious. Thackeray, for example, once tried to flirt with Charlotte Brontë by talking about the ‘naughty’ books they both wrote [She shut him down, of course, with absolutely no hesitation]. The lack of respectability doesn’t seem to have injured Brontë any, as she was second in popularity, and coming in at third was the fiercely antagonistic Wilkie Collins. He chafed at selling fewer books than a woman, but when all the reviews pan your books for their immorality (despite their commercial success), you have to face the consequences.

Collins’s career falls into three stages: before 1860, 1860-1870, and after 1870. The early novels were a bit shorter than we’re used to from the 1850s (think about the size of Bleak House, or Villette), and they rocked the boat a little. Collins likes to use characters who are traditionally excluded from society, as in Hide and Seek, where the heroine is deaf. That book also ends without a marriage; Collins creates a family without legal ties. The middle stage of his career is by far the most successful, and contains the two books that still get read in college courses. For Collins, 1860 means The Woman in White, the novel that launched his fame. He was so proud of it that he had it etched on his tombstone. Everyone’s favourite character from it, Marian Halcombe, received a number of marriage proposals, and I’ll admit to falling in love with her a little myself. Then there were No Name and Armadale, both fine novels. But everyone gets all het up over The Moonstone, which TSEliot once called the first, best, and longest British detective story. I tend to take issue with all of these superlatives, because there were clearly fictional detectives before 1868, some of them were longer (The Moonstone isn’t that long, compared to other books of its time), and I don’t find that it improves on rereading. Yes, I laugh at Miss Clack, yes, I identify with Ezra Jennings and Mr Murthwaite, but Gabriel Betteredge, Franklin Blake, and Rachel Verinder, the most prominent characters, fail to keep my attention. Once you know the secret, the book loses its interest. In 1870 Collins produced Man and Wife, which is like No Name and Armadale in being a perfectly fine Victorian novel overshadowed by the ones the academy pays more attention to. It marks the turning point in Collins’s career because the plot is obviously politically motivated. In the later part of his career Collins points out the absurdity of the complex marriage laws in the United Kingdom, by writing stories that illustrate the nonsensical points by which unethical men can contest their own marriages to unsuspecting ladies. They’re so painfully allegorical that they stop being believable. There are also some short stories that feel like truncated novels. The bright spot of the later career is The Law and the Lady, which features the first female detective. Valeria is out to clear her husband’s name, and deserves some attention for being a pregnant first-person narrator written in the 1870s. Seriously, sometimes fictional Victorian babies just pop out of nowhere.

Despite gendered comments on his rivalry with Brontë, Collins seems to have had a higher opinion of women than most people of his time.

You say I am driving you on to do what is beyond a woman’s courage. Am I? I might refer you to any collection of Trials, English or foreign, to show that you were utterly wrong. […] The woman was handsome, and the sailor was a good-natured man. He wanted, at first, if the lawyers would have allowed him, to let her off. He said to her, among other things, ‘You didn’t count on the drowned man coming back, alive and hearty, did you, ma’am?’ ‘It’s lucky for you,’ she said, ‘I didn’t count on it. You have escaped the sea, but you wouldn’t have escaped me.’ ‘Why, what would you have done, if you had known I was coming back?’ says the sailor. She looked him steadily in the face, and answered: ‘I would have killed you.’

Can you imagine such a passage in one of Mr Dickens’s? His female murderers, aside from being French, are generally not this chatty. They’ll do it, but they won’t go in front of a judge and affirm their willingness to commit a crime that they have not yet committed. To use a colloquial vulgarity, Collins’s women have balls. Big huge lady-balls. Most of them are in positions that no man of his time would have submitted to, but they survive and find ways to be happy. The efforts are often heroic, and sometimes almost superhuman.

But I don’t complain; I only mourn over the frailty of our common human nature. Let us expect as little of each other as possible, my dear; we are both women, and we can’t help it. I declare, when I reflect on the origin of our unfortunate sex – when I remember that we were all originally made of no better material than the rib of a man (and that rib of so little importance to its possessor that he never appears to have missed it afterwards), I am quite astonished at our virtues, and not in the least surprised at our faults.

Collins just can’t stand conventional people. His disdain of them is rather apparent in most of his novels; they have so few characters because his protagonists have to hate the run-of-the-mill as much as he does.

What had Allan seen in him to take such a fancy to? Allan had seen in him – what he didn’t see in people in general. He wasn’t like all the other fellows in the neighbourhood. All the other fellows were cut out on the same pattern. Every man of them was equally healthy, muscular, loud, hard-headed, clean-skinned, and rough; every man of them drank the same draughts of beer, smoked the same short pipes all day long, rode the best horse, shot over the best dog, and put the best bottle of wine in England on his table at night; every man of them sponged himself every morning in the same sort of tub of cold water, and bragged about it in frosty weather in the same sort of way; every man of them thought getting into debt a capital joke, and betting on horse-races one of the most meritorious actions that a human being can perform. They were no doubt excellent fellows in their way; but the worst of them was, they were all exactly alike. It was a perfect godsend to meet with a man like Midwinter – a man who was not cut out on the regular local pattern, and whose way in the world had the one great merit (in those parts) of being a way of his own.

Of course, such a man must fall in love with an unusual woman. Instead of the customary beautiful teenager full of airs and graces, Allan takes to Miss Milroy:

She was pretty; she was not pretty – she charmed, she disappointed, she charmed again. Tried by recognized line and rule, she was too short, and too well-developed for her age. And yet few men’s eyes would have wished her figure other than it was. Her hands were so prettily plump and dimpled, that it was hard to see how red they were with the blessed exuberance of youth and health. Her feet apologized gracefully for her old and ill-fitting shoes; and her shoulders made ample amends for the misdemeanor in muslin which covered them in the shape of a dress. Her dark grey eyes were lovely in their clear softness of colour, in their spirit, tenderness, and sweet good humour of expression; and her hair (where a shabby old garden hat allowed it to be seen) was of just that lighter shade of brown which gave value by contrast to the darker beauty of her eyes. But these attractions passed, the little attendant blemishes and imperfections of this self-contradictory girl began again. Her nose was too short, her mouth was too large, her face was too round, and too rosy. The dreadful justice of photography would have had no mercy on her, and the sculptors of classical Greece would have bowed her regretfully out of their studios. Admitting all this, and more, the girdle round Miss Milroy’s waist was the girdle of Venus, nevertheless – and the pass-key that opens the general heart was the key she carried, if ever a girl possessed it yet.

After all, Marian Halcombe, of the numerous marriage proposals above, is first introduced like this:

The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

But Marian is so completely badass that you forget her physical defects because Collins shows you the person she really is. Her beautiful sister is rather empty-headed, even before the amnesia. Miss Milroy is unfortunately no Marian Halcombe. She can’t even support the name Eleanor; everyone calls her Neelie.

All that female badassery is concentrated in Lydia Gwilt. The novel may be titled Armadale, but it’s about her. The critics called her

One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction

and she may deserve it.

There are five men in this novel named Allan Armadale. It works like this: AA1, a wealthy landowner with plantations in the Caribbean, had a son, AA2. AA2 was rather a disappointment, so he was disinherited in favor of a distant cousin, Allan Wrentmore. Wrentmore got everything, provided that he change his name to AA3. Of course he changed his name. He was really young, so when AA2 showed up under the name Fergus Ingleby, he gave him a position of trust despite all the warnings. Wrentmore’s mother wanted to separate them, so she wrote to one of her old admirers and proposed marrying her son to his daughter. Fergus used a nonlethal poison to keep Wrentmore out of the way long enough for him to take his place on the ship back to Europe and marry Miss Blanchard with his real name. Wrentmore figures out the identity theft and goes after them. He kills Fergus in the confusion of a shipwreck, but the guilt eats at him for the rest of his short life. The former Miss Blanchard gave birth to a son, AA4, and Wrentmore married a Creole woman who also gave birth to a son, AA5. As he’s dying, Wrentmore writes his son a letter warning him to stay clear of AA4 (Allan hereafter). AA5 has a terrible childhood with his stepfather, so he runs off and starts going by Ozias Midwinter. Midwinter knows the story, but Allan doesn’t. The secret of Midwinter’s real name is revealed only to Mr Brock, the clergyman who helped raise Allan, and Miss Gwilt.

Miss Gwilt seems to have been abandoned as a baby. She was picked up by a couple of con artists as an advertisement for their supposed hair tonics, but when the Blanchards showed some interest in her, the cons dumped her on their hands. When she was twelve, she was working as Miss Blanchard’s maid. There was some difficulty to be overcome when Miss B was marrying Fergus Ingleby/Allan Armadale, so the happy couple forced her to forge some letters for them. After the forgery and the marriage, they hid her in a French convent to keep her quiet. When she was seventeen, her music teacher committed suicide for love of her, so she was moved to another convent in Belgium. She nearly took the veil herself, but decided against it. She got involved with a different set of cons, and married one of their marks when the police busted their gig. He was abusive, and she fell in love with another guy, so she poisoned him. There was a well-publicized trial, and she was convicted. The public rose up in outrage, though, a beautiful woman who had been mistreated and all that Roxie Hart stuff, so she wasn’t punished. Celebrity trials worked pretty much the same then as they do now. Journalists can have as much influence on justice as the judges themselves. So she tries to hook up with her Cuban lover, but their marriage is invalid because he’s already married. He takes her money and leaves; she tries to kill herself, but one of the Blanchard men was (coincidentally) on the same ship she jumped out of, so he saves her. He gets a cold and dies – his other male relatives are in an avalanche on their way back for the funeral, so the Blanchard estate goes to Allan. Midwinter was briefly an usher in a school, but when he got sick he was fired, and wandered away until he turns up in Allan’s town, again by coincidence, and they become best friends.

For a while the novel is taken up with the struggle over fate or coincidence. How can all of these things have happened by accident? Then, Allan and Midwinter go for a boat ride one night (Allan was drunk and unmanageable), and they end up onboard the wreck of the ship where Wrentmore killed Fergus Ingleby. Allan has a series of prophetic dreams that may or may not warn him against getting close to Midwinter and Miss Gwilt. Midwinter becomes convinced that there’s a malevolent Fate that has brought Allan and him together to recreate the murder, even though they love each other. My gay heart leaps up when I read casual details, like Allan giving Midwinter a set of gold studs (do straight men give each other expensive jewelry? Not in my experience), or Midwinter’s closing affirmation on the last page of the book,

Your love and mine will never be divided again

So yeah, you could read them as gay before that existed as a cultural concept. They do fall in love with women, but that’s secondary to their interest in each other. The middle of the novel gets mired in the circumstantial evidence necessary to debate the existence of accidental coincidences – the introduction of Mrs Milroy perks things up for a while, but they slow down again, until halfway through Book Four we start reading Miss Gwilt’s diary and the character of the novel changes.

Miss Gwilt initially schemes to marry Allan, but she hates him. She falls in love with his friend instead. Her love for Midwinter changes her in some significant ways.

I have seen handsomer men by hundreds, cleverer men by hundreds. What can this man have roused in me? Is it Love? I thought I had loved, never to love again. Does a woman not love, when the man’s hardness to her drives her to drown herself? A man drove me to that last despair in days gone by. Did all my misery at that time come from something which was not Love? Have I lived to be five and thirty, and am I only feeling now, what Love really is? – now, when it is too late?

Hardly the monologue of a hardened villain, but Miss Gwilt is more complex than that. One of my frustrations with Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is that it’s the classic Gothic story told from the point of view of the villain, but Thackeray’s villain is no more nuanced than those of Ann Radcliffe. Miss Gwilt is not your average villain, and I don’t mean that because she’s more evil than the rest, but because she’s a lot more subtly drawn than they are. There’s no motiveless malice; she’s abused and depressed, and her society has left her with very few alternatives.

Poor dear Midwinter! Yes, ‘dear’. I don’t care. I’m lonely and helpless. I want somebody who is gentle and loving, to make much of me; I wish I had his head on my bosom again; I have a good mind to go to London, and marry him. Am I mad? Yes; all people who are as miserable as I am, are mad. I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner’s inquest lets so many people see it.

I know that I’ve been going on for quite a while now, but Victorian novels lead me into tangled wildernesses of thought from which it is difficult to extricate myself. I just have one more thing to talk about, so hang on just a little longer.

This novel gives a close look at a marriage, and it’s rather similar to what mine became. The ex was like a lot of conservative Christians:

In the miserable monotony of the lives led by a large section of the middle classes of England, anything is welcome to the women which offers them any sort of harmless refuge from the established tyranny of the principle that all human happiness begins and ends at home.

She saw her job, her mission in life, as taking care of her children. Just that. She got out of the house when we had only one, but after the second came, she only left the house when necessary. She had a couple of friends whom she could neglect for months at a time without offending, but she confined her daily life to her family. She ended up centering all her hope of adult interaction on me. I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a shy person who doesn’t like spending all of his time interacting with people. But as a teacher, that’s my job, so I’d talk to people all day long, and then I’d look forward to coming home where I could just be quiet. We had very different ideas about how I’d spend my time.

It is not in his nature to inflict suffering on others. Not a hard word, not a hard look, escapes him. It is only at night, when I hear him sighing in his sleep; and sometimes when I see him dreaming, in the morning hours, that I know how hopelessly I am losing the love he once felt for me. He hides, or tries to hide it, in the day, for my sake. He is all gentleness, all kindness – but his heart is not on his lips, when he kisses me now; his hand tells me nothing when it touches mine. Day after day, the hours that he gives to his hateful writing grow longer and longer; day after day, he becomes more and more silent, in the hours that he gives to Me.

The ex used to say that while I could make any sort of sacrifice of money and possessions for her and the boys, I was extremely selfish with my time. Maybe she was right, but I find that I need time alone in order to be able to handle being around people, even people I love. I get too much alone time now, but back then I never got any. I’d get home from work after the kids were in bed, and she’d want to spend time with me. All I wanted to do was eat my cold dinner and go to sleep. It may have been the introversion, or it may have been the homosexuality, but at the end of our time together I couldn’t stand her touching me. I just wanted to be left alone. Then the baby would lie between us perpendicularly and kick me in the face half the night, and the middle boy would wake himself up at 4:30 so that he could see me before I left for work in the morning. I didn’t leave until 6:45, so having another hour to sleep would have been really nice, but not going to happen when a two-year-old wants his breakfast.

These days I feel like Lydia Gwilt. I want someone gentle and loving to make much of me; I want to rediscover what it feels like to fall in love when I’m thirty-five. However, I’ve been in a relationship where I’m everything to the other person, and I don’t want that again. I want to be with someone who has interests outside of me – other friends, hobbies I’m not interested in, activities to pursue that leave me time to be alone. I’m finding the ability to set boundaries extremely sexy.

One last thing, and then I promise to stop. The last chapter, the one with The Purple Flask, is one of the most emotionally intense reading experiences I’ve ever had. The effect is not diminished with time or repetition. You see, Midwinter’s idea of fate is always negative, and coincidence is neutral. The novelist seems out to prove that you can interpret the events of your life to mean that there is a positive supernatural force guiding our lives, one that’s interested in using Midwinter to save Allan’s life, and ultimately, even in redeeming Lydia Gwilt. Christianity might be full of hypocrisy (evangelical churches and theatres blend into each other in this book), but that doesn’t mean that atheism is the only alternative.

People have been telling stories about vampires for a long time. In the European forests of times past, parents told scary stories to keep their children close to home – there were legitimate dangers in the dark forest, but when you tell a small child about bears, he envisions them as slightly larger versions of squirrels, and accords them the same amount of fear. Friends also told scary stories to each other for entertainment. One of the creatures invented was the vampire, a reanimated corpse that subsists on human blood. Vampire stories come from all over the world, dating back to pre-Christian times, but our modern American vampire seems to have been born in eastern Europe in the early eighteenth century. Many of the conventions that we see as important now were invented in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so they’re really not as essential as they seem. The vital bit is that they survive by taking life from others.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla predates Dracula, so the vampire isn’t quite what we expect. Stoker does steal quite a bit from this much shorter story, though, so she’s not a total surprise.

The features, though a hundred and fifty years had passed since her funeral, were tinted with the warmth of life. Her eyes were open; no cadaverous smell exhaled from the coffin. The two medical men, one officially present, the other on the part of the promoter of the inquiry, attested the marvellous fact that there was a faint but appreciable respiration, and a corresponding action of the heart. The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed. Here then, were all the admitted signs and proofs of vampirism.

At first, it seems like people are being set up for a scam: a fast carriage is upset, the vaguely injured girl is left with wealthy bystanders while the supposed mother jumps back into the quickly repaired carriage and dashes off on a mission of life and death. Really? Moms were willing to ditch their rich daughters with total strangers? This mother figure may have some hypnotic abilities; in one scenario, she meets a guy at a party and convinces him that they’re old friends; it makes the daughter-ditching a little less unbelievable (from her mark’s point of view), but it also makes me think she’s not quite normal.

There follow some classic story elements: children go missing from the woods, or are found dead. The young lady of the house contracts some mysterious wasting illness, to the great concern of her father and friends. The doctor discovers a puncture wound normally hidden by the high collars of the time, and someone calls in a vampire hunter/scholar. There’s a showdown at the crypt and order is restored.

Our characters live in classic Gothic isolation, a nice British family forced abroad because it’s so much cheaper to live in an Austrian castle than an English village. There’s a nameless father and daughter, and the two women hired to attend to the girl’s education. These four seem to have little interaction with the outside world. Then Carmilla gets dumped on them, and the daughter falls in love for the first time.

“How romantic you are, Carmilla,” I said. “Whenever you tell me your story, it will be made up chiefly of some one great romance.”

She kissed me silently.

“I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on.”

“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”

How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.

Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”

I started from her.

When viewed in the light of homosexuality, the whole vampire thing becomes much more frightening, to me. A girl gets visits in the night from a female guest, she becomes more and more like this other girl, so her father tracks the foreign element down and kills it. They live in a female-dominated environment, so the lesbian attraction makes perfect sense, but when it comes time to kill the monster, men seem to appear out of nowhere. It’s like patriarchy was waiting, just out of sight, lurking, and when the moment came for a woman to profess her love for another woman, the weight of authority jumped out from behind a tree and crushed her.

I’m reminded of the time I was riding a bus with some coworkers and they started talking about the love scene between Catherine de Neuve and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. I could hear the drool in their voices. I was really uncomfortable, not at the thought of lesbian sex, but at the way they were discussing it. I had seen that part of the film years earlier with less discomfort than I felt at hearing them talk about it. It was like something precious and sacred was being passed around, handled, profaned by vulgar nonbelievers – pearls before swine. Sexuality is something private; it belongs to the people involved. I do enjoy a good sex scene, but I think that what makes the difference for me is in identification. When I watch people on a screen having (or pretending to have) sex, I can identify with the men involved – I enjoy the sight of a body similar to mine, an example of what I’d like mine to be. I can also identify with the partners of men, though sometimes I get jealous if I have an overwhelming desire to be with the guy (Ewan MacGregor, for example). But in a lesbian love scene, there is no place for a man. We can never enter that narrative. When I hear men trying to, by becoming narrators or observers, it feels like a violation. I don’t want to be part of that.

Being written in 1872, there’s nothing prurient about Le Fanu’s narration; he points us in that direction without dragging us all the way there. The same is true of the violence at the end. Because the story is narrated by the girl, we don’t have to see the staking, beheading, and burning, a great relief to me. I don’t like seeing all that. Without quite meaning to, I always see myself in the victim’s place, imagining the sharp point penetrating my heart, the axe at my neck, my own limbs consumed in the fire. Not as much fun as it sounds, but after thirty-four years of repetition, not as horrific either.

Carmilla is a short book, and a good one, much better than Polidori’s wretched Vampyr. It’s important to people interested in the history of horror or representations of homosexuality. Carmilla herself is fairly sympathetic, if you can overlook that whole vampiric monster thing. But hey, Myrna Loy got her start playing vampiric monsters, and she went on to become Nora Charles, one of the most beloved female film characters from the 1930s. They can’t be all bad.

I believe that many people will find my attachment to this novel to be somewhat singular, yet I must confess that my affection for Evelina can hardly be surpassed by that of the hero for the eponymous heroine.

Fanny Burney, who would later become Madame d’Arblay and write a moving account of her unanaesthetized mastectomy in 1811, wrote a novel in her teens called Caroline Evelyn, about a nice girl who gets lured into a private marriage and then abandoned, pregnant, with no proof of her child’s legitimacy. This type of story was quite common among novels written by women in the eighteenth century, actually, and even Charlotte Temple, America’s first bestseller, was a similar don’t-trust-handsome-men warning tale for young women. Writing was not seen as an appropriate activity for a young lady in the 1770s, though, so Burney burned all her early writings. By her mid-20s, when she had passed the age that women of the era pinned all their future hopes on marriage, she wrote a sequel and got it published without her family’s knowledge. Caroline Evelyn is summarized in the first few chapters, and then we move on to the story of her daughter, Evelina.

The novel is in the epistolary style so popular to the eighteenth century, and chronicles a young lady’s first introduction to society. It reminds me of Lydia Melford’s letters in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, but Lydia’s letters are balanced by others of her family while Evelina’s are so numerous that the few other writers hardly seem mentioning. The structure of the story lends itself well to the three-volume division that was common at the time, as Evelina spends each volume with a different set of people, the Mirvans, the Branghtons, and Mrs Selwyn. At one point there is a mention of Justice Fielding, and I can’t help thinking she’s consciously referring to Henry Fielding, the comic novelist who later became a magistrate. The humor of the novel is very much in his style, and I sometimes feel sorry for Evelina because her writer makes her narrate so many practical jokes that she herself fails to enjoy. It’s a bit like asking Richardson’s Pamela to become the protagonist of Tom Jones.

Burney seems fully aware of some of the issues that we in the twenty-first century recognize as of prime importance: gender and class. Women are expected to be decorative, and one of the characters actually says that he doesn’t understand why women live past the age of thirty because then they’re only in someone else’s way. The same guy later has a conversation about how important it is that a woman never seem to be more intelligent or stronger than any of the men around her. Compare this with Burney’s own life, and the fact that she didn’t marry until she passed forty. After she was considered a confirmed old maid, she met someone who found her desirable enough to marry and gave her time to continue her writing, and they seem to have been very happy together. And as for strength, she was almost sixty years old when she had a breast removed, let me repeat with no anaesthetic, and then she lived for nearly thirty years more in apparent good health. She’s kind of amazing. However, the best she can do for her time is to have the moral centre of her novel say,

Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men: the right line of conduct is the same for both sexes, though the manner in which it is pursued may somewhat vary, and be accommodated to the strength or weakness of the different travellers.

Today we would cavil at the idea that women are somehow essentially gentle and modest, and indeed, Burney’s characters call this idea into question. But think of the 1770s, before Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, and give her credit for the gesture toward gender equality.

Class is rather an important issue in the novel. At the time the novel was praised for its accuracy in portraying working-class dialect, but I didn’t meet any characters I could really think of as working class. There are servants, of course, but they rarely speak. I think they must be referring to the Branghtons, who are only working class in that they do work. Mr Branghton owns a shop and rents rooms – he is an employer, not an employee. He is in trade, which separates him from most of the characters, but there are hardly any Dickensian brickmakers, or even any of Fielding’s shrill dairymaids. Evelina’s world only contains one named character who is really poor, and even he is revealed to be the son of a baronet. The Branghtons torture Evelina by trying to seem aristocratic, as in this description of one of their close friends:

In the afternoon, when he returned, it was evident that he proposed to both charm and astonish me by his appearance; he was dressed in a very showy manner, but without any taste; and the inelegant smartness of his air and deportment, his visible struggle, against education, to put on the fine gentleman, added to his frequent conscious glances at a dress to which he was but little accustomed, very effectually destroyed his aim of figuring, and rendered all his efforts useless.

This group is entertaining to us who don’t have to associate ourselves with them, but Evelina is miserable with them. Mr Branghton is always insisting on doing everything as cheaply as possible while his children want to live the high life with the upper class who frequent their shop. In the end nothing is done well and they are only spared embarrassment by their colossal insensitivity. They are Evelina’s cousins through her grandmother Madame Duval, an English barmaid who married up twice and now has a rich French husband, so she pretends to be native French gentry. But no matter how she’s dressed, she’s still a barmaid with an inflated sense of self-worth. In this, she’s not really that different from ‘the quality.’

The Mirvans are more highly placed than the Branghtons, but it seems that Burney isn’t quite sure what to do with well-behaved people. Mrs and Miss Mirvan are so self-effacing that they practically disappear from the narrative. It’d be tempting to forget the family altogether if it weren’t for the Captain. Captain Mirvan has just arrived in England after a seven years’ absence at sea. His time abroad has unfit him for the life his wife and daughter lead, and he compensates for this by abusing Madame Duval for being French. He concocts several practical jokes to play on her; he only injures her dignity and her clothes, but that may be more of an accident than evidence of care. He’s often joined by Sir Clement Willoughby, one of Evelina’s suitors. Sir Clement is one of those guys who can’t take a hint; he pursues Evelina through three hundred pages without realizing that she can’t stand him. Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval seem equally matched in terms of manners, and Sir Clement only talks better than they do. The people who don’t need a profession are just as vile as those in trade; money and status aren’t the best indicators of worth or respectability.

The shining star of the aristocracy is Lord Orville, who alone seems to care how other people are feeling. At first, Evelina mistakes his manners for ordinary:

These people in high life have too much presence of mind, I believe, to seem disconcerted, or out of humour, however they may feel: for had I been the person of the most consequence in the room, I could not have met with more attention and respect.

But more contact with Sirs and Ladies puts that notion out of her head. Indeed, I find that to encounter such a person is just as rare in real life as it is in this book. This passage reminds me of a line from the otherwise-forgettable Brendan Fraser/Alicia Silverstone flick A Blast from the Past, when he explains to her that a gentleman is someone who tries to make everyone around him feel comfortable. I try to be like this, but generally I fail through oversensitivity. My emotions shout so loudly within me that it’s sometimes hard to hear what anyone else has to say; I only seem still and silent to others.

In fact, I am far more like Evelina than I feel I ought to be. Being a seventeen-year-old raised in isolation, she has a marvelous excuse that I can’t claim. I’m twice her age and was raised in a large family, so I was constantly around people. Maybe the problem is that I was with too many different kinds of people, so I never learned to ally myself with any particular cultural niche. Even today I feel uncomfortable if I find that I’m typical of any group of people. If I’m told that I’m classic gay, I’ll ‘straighten’ myself out. If I seem too high for my company, I’ll start dressing like a lumberjack. And if I’m too much of an Appalachian cracker, I read plenty of books, and especially books that are hundreds of years old or written by international authors.

But as I mentioned, she and I are similar in a lot of ways. I felt that Mr Villars was talking to me when he tells Evelina,

But you must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself: […] do not, by a too passive facility, risk the censure of the world, or your own future regret.

I have been blessed with a splendidly passive facility, which leads to my own future regret and sometimes the censure of the world. I need to struggle against it, particularly as the time comes for me to re-embark on the job search. I’m great at thinking for myself, but taking active steps comes less easily. And even though I’ve been travelling all over the country and the world, I still find myself, like her,

unused to the situations in which I find myself and embarrassed by the slightest difficulties, I seldom, till too late, discover how I ought to act.

The ex was once in a group of students listening to a well-known author, and someone asked what it took to become a good writer. He explained to the group that from his youth he had had the habit of replaying events from his day in his mind, imagining how things would have happened if someone (usually himself) had behaved differently. This tendency to correct reality doesn’t guarantee a writing career, but he had never met a successful writer who didn’t have it. I do this all the time. It’s annoying, frankly. But when I’m dissatisfied with my own behavior, I play the scene back and write myself a different part. Sometimes that part fits my character, sometimes not. Sometimes I picture myself acting so far out of character that I wonder if I really know who I am at all, and who I would have been if the circumstances of my life had been different. But things being as they are, I keep making false steps, offending where I mean to comfort, wasting time being shocked, and ignoring real affection in favor of the conditional love that I expect. Like Evelina,

my intentions are never wilfully blameable, yet I err perpetually!

Which may explain why I’m alone on the wrong side of the world, and why I keep remembering things that I probably ought to have apologized for, but that happened so long ago that I doubt anyone else remembers, or cares. My perpetual erring is particularly noticeable when I’m around people I’m attracted to. I don’t know how to act, so I’m offensively silent, or I interrupt when I ought to have kept my mouth shut; I’m either too aloof or too familiar; I start to get close and then I push people away. Or run off to another city, state, or country for a few years.

Perhaps my closest affinity for Evelina is in the manner in which we fall in love.

Young, animated, entirely off your guard, and thoughtless of consequences, Imagination took the reins, and Reason, slow-paced, though sure-footed, was unequal to a race with so eccentric and flighty a companion. How rapid was then my Evelina’s progress through those regions of fancy and passion whither her new guide conducted her! – She saw Lord Orville at a ball, – and he was the most amiable of men! – she met him again at another, – and he had every virtue under heaven!

I mean not to depreciate the merit of Lord Orville, who, one mysterious instance alone excepted, seems to have deserved the idea you formed of his character; but it was not time, it was not the knowledge of his worth, obtained your regard; your new comrade had not patience to wait any trial; her glowing pencil, dipt in the vivid colours of her creative ideas, painted to you, at the moment of your first acquaintance, all the excellencies, all the good and rare qualities, which a great length of time, and intimacy, could alone have really discovered.

You flattered yourself, that your partiality was the effect of esteem, founded upon a general love of merit, and a principle of justice: and your heart, which fell the sacrifice of your error, was totally gone ere you suspected it was in danger.

Yup. That’s me. I might be in my thirties, but this passage still describes me well. It was eleven years ago that I met the ex and imagined her to have all sorts of good qualities that I desired, rather than knew, her to have. In eight years of marriage, continually treating her as if she were kinder than she is helped her to develop that quality, and her treating me as I were more assertive than I am helped me to develop that as well, but after the breakup we snapped back to our original characters like rubber bands suddenly relieved of pressure. Not quite back to where we had been, of course, but separating from a spouse is such a paradigm-shifting event that you change very quickly, mostly by rebelling against the person the former spouse wanted you to be. And it was just this summer that I had that sudden crush on the guy I’m trying not to think about, because I don’t want a repeat of the same experience. The ex and I spent all our free time together for nine weeks and got married (not decided to get married – I proposed after twenty-three days, and she had already made up her mind to accept if I should ask), and it was good for a while, but I don’t want to rush into things again. I certainly don’t want to end up smitten with someone who’s going to treat me badly, again. This time I’m going to pay more attention to reality – how does he treat strangers, for instance. The ex could be nice to me, and to people she knew were important to me, but not to cashiers or office clerks who didn’t follow her idea of how she should be treated. Besides, after being with a couple of guys who become intimately violent, and paying attention to who I feel attracted to in films, I’ve realized that I tend to fall for psychos. Sure, David Tennant is my favorite Doctor on Doctor Who, he seems the most capable of really loving someone, but when The Master has him trapped and is dancing around singing, “I can’t decide whether you should live or die,” I wish I were dancing with him instead of trying to save DT. I love villains, the more self-loving the better, and that makes me very suspect of anyone I might feel attracted to in real life. The next time I enter into a relationship, I’m going to be more careful.

So. Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who loves Jane Austen. Burney’s society here is set a little higher than Austen’s gentry, but it’s also about thirty-five years earlier, so the manners are pretty similar. It’s also a good recommendation for someone who likes Ann Radcliffe, though it’s more comic than Gothic. Someone who likes Fielding but not Richardson may find it too sedate, someone who likes Richardson but not Fielding may find the humor too physical, and someone who loves Smollett and no one else may find it a bit too feminine, but if (like me) you like most of the eighteenth-century authors whose works have survived this long, don’t miss this one. Evelina is the best introduction to Burney fiction because it’s a normal length for the time period, but it’s the shortest of her novels. Cecilia and Camilla went to five volumes instead of three, and I think The Wanderer was four. I’ve not been brave enough to read them yet; The Mysteries of Udolpho was the last four-volume novel I read, and I’m not in a hurry to do that again. It’s also good for students of the history of English, since several spelling and grammatical choices are different than what we now consider standard. Choose is spelled chuse, happy people are chearful, and educated people say ‘you was.’  Evelina is cute, funny, imperfect, an impressive debut novel, a pure delight.

Back when I was in undergrad, I had two professors who lived across the street from each other. The music professor is conservative, religious, and plays golf, so his lawn reflects that. Every blade of grass is regulation height, more firmly in line than the choirs he directs. [He was an important father figure to the ex, so I have very little contact with him these days.] The English professor is more liberal, one of those people who has always made me feel that whatever I do is not just fine, but awesome. If I were sacrificing a goat to Cernunnos, she and her excellent spouse would be at the top of the guest list. Her yard also demonstrates her philosophy of life – joy in whatever life manifests, whether that’s grass, weeds, or wildflowers. So once upon a time the music guy became concerned at the English couple’s lawn, or lack thereof, and he decided to take matters (and property values) into his own hands by cutting their grass. My friend grabbed her field guide to North American plants and stood guard over her plant life, pointing out to him all the rare plants that only grow in their small part of the world, flourishing in her less-kempt yard. Even the most conservative guy will recognize the power of invoking endangered species, and he eventually backed down. This week I’ve been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, envisioning my former teacher as Gandalf defending Appalachia against a Balrog with a lawnmower.

This has been one of the most influential texts about the environment. The style is unusually readable for a book about scientific concepts, but that makes sense because the author takes a lot of research and packages it for public consumption. Unfortunately for her cause, she sometimes sounds a bit melodramatic, which would make it easy for some people to dismiss the book as leftist hysteria.

The world of systemic insecticides is a weird world, surpassing the imaginings of the brothers Grimm – perhaps most closely akin to the cartoon world of Charles Addams. It is a world where the enchanted forest of the fairy tales has become the poisonous forest in which an insect that chews a leaf or sucks the sap of a plant is doomed. It is a world where a flea bites a dog, and dies because the dog’s blood has been made poisonous, where an insect may die from vapors emanating from a plant it has never touched, where a bee may carry poisonous nectar back to its hive and presently produce poisonous honey.

Hysteria is the appropriate term – Carson refers frequently to research men, medical men, and men of science, which gives her argument a gendered feel, as if she is the one brave woman standing up against a host of authoritative men. In 1962 I guess you could get away with that. Now, an editor would change those to researchers, physicians, and scientists.

When I hear the title, I think of a spring of water, quietly bubbling up in a secluded part of the woods, but that’s not it at all. The title is about dead birds. A lot of this book is about dead birds. I find dead birds disturbing, so it took me over a week to read, even though I could knock out a novel this length in a single afternoon.

I should have read this book a long time ago. When I was in school, ecocriticism was the area of theory that appealed to me the most: I don’t see humanity as the only important thing in the world, and the other political theories tended to ignore anything nonhuman. The world of literary criticism has apparently shifted beyond the New Didacticism we were taught then, so it’s not surprising that in my no-longer-academic life I don’t think about it as much as I used to. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that I think of it in different terms. I don’t go on about The Earth or The Planet; I think more in terms of life, and I turn my focus inward.

These insecticides are not selective poisons; they do not single out the one species of which we desire to be rid. Each of them is used for the simple reason that it is a deadly poison. It therefore poisons all life with which it comes into contact: the cat beloved of some family, the farmer’s cattle, the rabbit in the field, and the horned lark out of the sky. These creatures are innocent of any harm to man. Indeed, by their very existence they and their fellows make his life more pleasant. Yet he rewards them with a death that is not only sudden but horrible.

I’ve been thinking of human nature lately, and I’m trying to accept the fact that anger and hatred are part of it. I see them as psychological DDT, destroying whatever they come into contact with. It’s not quite accurate, and suppressing them can be just as toxic as suppressing optimism and love. Yes, I need to treat people with kindness, but I also need to let myself feel what I honestly feel.

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.

Control is a concept that troubles me. As a parent, I’m expected to control my children. As a teacher, I’m expected to control my students. At least no one expects me to control my wife any more. Control always has an adversarial quality to it, and I don’t like to live my life in perpetual conflict. Three years ago I had a major seizure because of the continual struggle against my own homosexual desires. Fighting against myself was wearing me out and could have killed me, so I decided to stop fighting. Even now I rarely actively fight. [Exception: This week the program director printed our names on paper for our office doors, in an effort to regulate the appearance of the university I suppose, and he asked my office mate to remove our handwritten name signs. When my friend told me, I said (a bit loudly), “Bullshit! I ain’t gonna!”] Isn’t my job as a parent or a teacher to let my kids find their own way? To discover what they have to offer instead of clipping them into shape, like some Marge Piercy work of artifice? All of this is more easily achieved without the conflict inherent in control.

Carson reacts against the types of control widely used in the United States in the 1950s – broadcast spraying of pesticides. One of my colleagues here blamed it for the in-his-opinion-excessive ecological concerns he was taught growing up in California in the 1970s, but I don’t think you can blame all of deep ecology on Rachel Carson. She includes passages like this:

The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and animals. Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do it thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.

Yes, it’s all interconnected, but that doesn’t mean we can’t touch it. Life is change, and human beings are living things too. We are allowed to change the world around us. In fact, I believe that faith in our ability to change our environment for the better is an essential component of self-esteem. But changes must be made carefully. It is not enough to consider the impact of a change on me alone; I need to think about others as well. Why did I bother fighting against my sexuality for so long? Because I was married to a woman I loved, and I couldn’t come out of the closet without taking her into account. I didn’t handle that situation well, but coming out was not the self-centered move that some people have construed it to be. My being gay is a piece in the interconnected web of my family; it was the answer to the question, “If you love me, why don’t you ever want to have sex with me?” I cared about her enough to tell the truth; I can hardly be blamed for her responding by snatching my children and running away in the middle of the night. In the long run, we’ll both be happier apart. In many ways, we already are. And as for my brother who thought my coming-out was a personal attack on him, I will freely confess that I wasn’t thinking about him when I told my mother that I’m gay. He wasn’t there. I never thought of him when I was having heterosexual sex, so I don’t see how he should be invested in my gay sex life. So he announced my death, and his intention to knock all my teeth down my throat if he should ever see me aboveground again. My mom still tells me about what’s going on in his life, and she still invites us to the same family events that neither of us attends. She even talks about us riding to them together, as if all she has to do is concoct a scheme to place us in the same room and we’re suddenly going to have an emotionally dramatic reconciliation, as if real life were a 1980s sitcom. I don’t know if the ties between us will ever really be broken – we have too much family for that to happen.

In this elemental drama all life is revealed as one.

The copy of Silent Spring that I picked up this summer originally went for seventy-five cents, so I think it is actually from the time it was written. It certainly smells like a fifty-year-old paperback. This time differential has been weighing on my mind as I read – what has changed since 1962? Twenty-five years ago, I was growing up in a world of cotton and tobacco fields. Every time we heard an airplane, we ran inside to get away from the crop dusters. We also had to stay in our yard the day after, because that was how long we were told the poison stayed on the plants. Because poison stays on plants. I didn’t like the smell of tobacco, so I didn’t play in the fields much anyway. I preferred the patch of dirt by the back porch where grass wouldn’t grow because it was in the shade and it made a better place to play with cars. I mean seriously, have you ever tried to drive a pocket car through grass? That may be the only concern for a nine-year-old boy, but nine-year-olds don’t determine public policy.

The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.

The government, as Carson represents it, is a bit like the guy I picked up in Paris a while back. He seemed nice, but he started choking me during sex, and I pulled his hands off my neck and he said, “What, don’t you trust me?” I only met you four hours ago and it feels like you’re trying to kill me; of course I don’t trust you. Taking my pants off is not a sign that I trust someone with my life. Neither is acknowledging the election of a politician a sign that I trust him with my country. They fund scientists to approve mass distribution of chemicals that kill some of the target insects while ignoring the effect on non-target insects, birds, mammals, fish, and plants, all of which affect human life. We can see the dead birds and squirrels, we notice the sudden lack of good fishing, we see our neighbors die when they don’t heed the warning labels, and then the government asks, “What, don’t you trust us?” Not when you act like a nine-year-old who wants a bigger patch of dirt to drive his pocket cars around in, and certainly not when you approach environmental care as if it were choke sex.

The response to government these days is different. We weren’t raised during World War II, when the American nuclear family was the world’s savior against the evil Nazis. I was raised knowing that duck-and-cover will not save you, that periodically the entire world is going to be filled with poison by people you don’t know and will never see, and that families are only held together when they live in the same house. We don’t trust the government to protect us. We know they lie to us constantly, yet we believe one of the most egregious of their lies: that there is nothing we can do about it. Carson quotes a housewife who wrote to one of the prominent men of science, asking:

Is anything being done? Can anything be done? Can I do anything?

Our government would tell us no. Facebook is a useful tool here; I read an article about how government policies are resulting in the destruction of wetlands or rain forests or some such natural area, I click Like, and I consider myself as having done my job toward saving the planet. What have I accomplished? Nothing. Nothing at all. We haven’t even succeeded in changing our cultural attitude toward the people who devote their lives to preserving nonhuman nature. A misguided environmentalist is a minor yet powerful antagonist in Ghostbusters back in 1984, and then there’s 2014’s Transcendence, where computerized Johnny Depp implements ecofriendly practices by brainwashing and enslaving humanity. The environmentalist in I Heart Huckabees isn’t the antagonist, but he’s still portrayed as completely unable to work with or even live in mainstream society. Like women in James Bond films, movie environmentalists are either evil or incompetent.

I don’t have an answer. I don’t even know how pest control has changed since 1962. I know we’re not using DDT anymore, but when I worked at Home Depot in 2009 we were still selling malathion, one of the poisons Carson warns about in her book. We’ve made the world a scary place full of dangerous chemicals; if I knew what to do about it, I would. This is a bigger problem than I can solve alone, but I believe a solution is possible, even if I don’t know what it is. Together, we can stop fucking up everything around us. I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they have to be afraid of the airplanes that fly overhead.