Archive for October, 2014

A year or so ago, I was doing a reading exercise with some students, and I learned that one of the best-selling poets of all time is this Lebanese guy who wrote partly in Arabic and partly in English. I thought it strange that someone so apparently well-known was completely unknown to me, so when I saw one of his books in a used shop in the US, I picked it up. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Kahlil Gibran was born in the part of the Ottoman Empire that is now Lebanon. He was a Levantine Christian, so Islam was also a big influence on his religious thinking. He wrote poetry in Arabic in the nineteen-aughts, then emigrated to the United States and switched to English. It’s the sort of genre-bending mystical . . . my inner optimist calls it meditation, but my pessimist calls it bullshit . . . that was popular in the 1920s, and then again in the 1960s, and is having a resurgence now. It has the same sort of vague spiritual guidance that appeals to the readers of Paulo Coelho, but with less pretense of story. I can understand why there are busts of this guy in public parks all over Brazil. The only people who have sold more poetry are William Shakespeare and Lao Tzu.

The Prophet is prose poetry, so it’s spaced to look like poetry with Whitmanian long lines, but no attempts at rhyme or meter, nor much in the way of obscure figurative language. The similes and metaphors are pretty obvious, and they’re meant to be. For example, this bit about marriage:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

This is pretty close to the opposite of how the ex viewed marriage. For her, love was a bond, one that tied us together rather tightly. For someone who had been through twenty-three years of never having been in love, it was exciting. Someone actually wants me around all the time? Someone wanting me around at all was a novelty. After seven years, though, I just wanted to sit still in my own house with no one touching me for about half an hour a day. Too much. As for that moving sea, we were the perfect example of how the friction of plate tectonics creates continental drift. Two plates start out with a more or less complete joining, but as new stuff comes up between them they change shape and push each other away. With more space between us, we could have grown and changed without needing to drift apart. I’m not saying that the divorce was her fault, I’m the one who’s a homosexual, but there was a lot of unhealthy stuff going down that had nothing to do with my coming out.

Gibran’s meditations extend over much of what constitutes society and our lives in it, like this bit about justice:

And this also, though the word lie heavy upon your hearts:
The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder,
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.
The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked,
And the white-handed is not clean in the doings of the felon.
Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured,
And still more often the condemned is the burden bearer for the guiltless and unblamed.
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked;
For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.
And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also.

In the West, we’ve been blaming the victim for far too long. I don’t think that is what Gibran is driving at here. I don’t think he’s blaming rape on short skirts, or victims of theft for leaving the skylight unlocked. He’s pointing out that crime is evidence of systemic problems, not one genetic mutation that has no bearing on the entire society. When a rape happens, yes, blame the rapist, but also examine the cultural ideas that led him to that action. The article is not in the current edition, but about fifteen years ago Rereading America had a piece that examined the attitude toward women on college campuses, and the authors discovered that one-third of male college students would rape a woman if they thought they could get away with it. And that’s based on the response on an anonymous questionnaire; the real number is probably higher. So we’ve been focusing on giving women rape whistles and that dreadful-looking device that women can wear inside them that works like a car boot but on a dick, but are we really creating a society where women are sufficiently respected? Does society give men power over their lives, so they don’t try to regain that sense of control through sexual violence? Do we train people in nonviolent conflict resolution, so they know how to manage their issues without hurting someone else? We focus on keeping them from getting away with it instead of teaching them not to rape. It’s like when Donne said that no man is an island; we’re all connected, so the crime of one person reflects the ideology of the entire society. We put all of the blame on either the victim or the perpetrator without thinking about how we who are not directly involved encourage crime. American movies and music have glorified crime for rather a long time, so now we have more people in prison than live in all of Latvia. Or about fifteen times the number of convicts that England sent to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

Gibran is speaking about the balance within a person, but I think that this extends to all of society. Our problems come about because we insist on this us-them attitude; we believe that some people have no place in our society. It seems that most criminals feel that society has a vendetta against them, and when you examine the facts of their lives, they can present some pretty compelling evidence. If we build a society where everyone has a place, where there is no outer darkness where we thrust the undesirables, if we stopped seeing our fellow human beings as undesirable, maybe we wouldn’t have so much crime. I’m drifting into a Foucault rant. Let’s stop.

Your daily life is your temple and your religion.
Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.
Take the plough and the forge and the mallet and the lute,
The things you have fashioned in necessity or for delight.
For in revery you cannot rise above your achievements nor fall lower than your failures.

One of the problems I have with the faith I was raised in is their idea of sacredness. Some objects and concepts are sacred, and others are not. Some places are sacred, some times are sacred, others are not. You should always take communion with your right hand because the right hand is more sacred than the left. I think it’s ridiculous. I took communion with my right hand because I’m right-handed; it’s the same hand I use to wipe my ass with. I also use it to shake strangers’ hands, strum the guitar, eat apples, handle my . . . hm, I do just about everything with it. Is there something about a church that suddenly sanctifies the hand I wank with? For me, the important religious concepts are awareness and love. Church buildings and services don’t necessarily help me with those. I feel my awareness expanding and heightening in the woods or gardens, seldom indoors; I feel closer to a perfect love when I’m having pizza and beer with friends than when I’m reading psalms in unison with a roomful of people I don’t know well. A grateful, loving awareness of the earth and people around me can make any time or space sacred. Which means that aesthetic appreciation is as close to godliness as I get.

Going along with this pantheistic theme, here’s a bit about the use of money:

And if there come the singers and the dancers and the flute players, – buy of their gifts also.
For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

I’ve heard people talk a lot about leaving a financial legacy for their children, securing property of lasting value, that sort of thing, but I think it’s a crock of shit. My parents only showed love by buying us stuff, but we were so poor that we only got stuff at Christmas or birthdays, and most of the year it was dried beans and the one kerosene heater that wasn’t really intended for indoor use. Looking back, I’d rather have had fewer toys at Christmas and a stronger conviction that I was loved and valued. Possessions are not the same thing as love. Let’s put money into having good experiences, going to a play or a concert; they may be fleeting, but the relationships we build around them endure longer than any piece of dross we can purchase. When I look at acquaintances who lose their parents, no one seems comforted by the size of their inheritance.

So yeah, Gibran encourages all of my most extreme hippie tendencies. If you don’t have any, or distrust the occasional temptation to wear headbands and tie-dyed shirts, handle this book with care. If, on the other hand, you kind of wish they had elected McGovern back in ‘72, get this book and keep it close to your heart.

In the spring of 2003, I decided that it was ridiculous that I had never read anything by Jane Austen, and that it was about time I did. I read all six novels in about six months. Mansfield Park seemed to be the long, boring one (Emma is actually longer). A year later, though, I was a newlywed and had just moved across the country to start our new life together in Seattle, and I started to miss Mansfield Park. I realized that, while the book itself may not be the most attractive, it captivates me in a way that Pride and Prejudice just can’t. I spent most of the two years of my graduate study reading and writing about Mansfield Park – when I didn’t include it in a project, that project ended up a failure. I bowed to necessity and started nearly every academic thought with Mansfield Park. I’ve not subjected any of my students to it, but it is still frequently close to the surface of thought. With the possible exception of As I Lay Dying, it’s the book that I’ve read the greatest number of times.

My major professor once said that she had a hard time being friends with people who didn’t love Mansfield Park like she did; that may sound a little excessive, but I completely understand. Partway through the grad program, the ex declared that she hated the book (always had) and was tired of me going on about it. She resisted all of my attempts to inject a little Mansfield Park into her life. When you identify as strongly with a book as I did with Mansfield Park, hating the book feels like hating me. It certainly implies that she hates the parts of me that I see reflected there. As I read it this week, I realized that the parts of me that are reflected most clearly in the book are parts of me that I’m less fond of, so maybe I’m putting some distance between myself and it. I am fully cognizant of the irony that the longer we’re divorced, the more I become the kind of person she claimed to want me to be.

In many ways, Mansfield Park is Pride and Prejudice’s evil twin. That immortal opening line,

A single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.

is matched with a line from MP’s opening paragraph,

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.

I read an article once that said that after Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, the next Austen novel should have been Delicacy and Decorum, and while those are important concepts, I think a more apt alliterative title would have been Diffidence and Disappointment. I also read once that P&P is concerned primarily with happiness; I think that MP is more interested in disappointment. In most of Austen’s novels, two people fall in love with each other over the course of the book, and it ends with their marriage. In MP, we see our couples form, but the novel works at splitting them up instead of getting them together. The supposed hero doesn’t fall for the heroine until three pages from the end – he spends the entire book in love with the wrong girl, though frankly, I think she would have been good for him in a way that the supposed heroine will not be. There’s no balance of equals, as in the relationship between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet; Edmund has been a male authority figure for Fanny since they were kids, and now he will continue to be so for the rest of their lives. It’s like seeing a love affair between Mr Collins and Mary Bennet. In fact, most of the characters in P&P have clear parallels in MP. There’s a bit about Austen’s character patterns in Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic.

The protagonist here is Fanny Price, one of the more suggestive of Austen’s names. Fanny was already used colloquially to refer to female genitals (I suppress a giggle at every mention of ‘your own dear Fanny’ or ‘My very dear Fanny’), and surnaming her Price suggests that she exacts a heavy toll before that part of her body can be enjoyed. Which is true. Fanny is the youngest of Austen’s protagonists, and being as serious as she is when a person is as young as she is means that she’s generally harsh and judgmental. However, she’s been trained to have extremely low self-esteem, so she usually keeps her thoughts to herself. That might make the book unreadable, if we heard her thoughts more often. In Austen’s other novels, we spend almost all of our time looking at the narrative from one perspective (Elinor, Elizabeth, Emma, Anne, Catherine), but MP balances perspectives and judgment.

For a long time I’ve identified strongly with Fanny Price. Partially because of the childhood stuff, large family, oversensitive child,

Her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to. Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.

That’s my family experience exactly, but it takes a lot of mature, rational thought to arrive at this explanation of it. When you’re the kid in the middle of it, you just feel alone and unloved, no matter how many people are around or how little privacy you have. Fanny’s also very imaginative, as in this scene where she’s watching Edmund give Mary a riding lesson, but from a great distance:

After a few minutes, they stopt entirely. Edmund was close to her, he was speaking to her, he was evidently directing her management of the bridle, he had hold of her hand; she saw it, or the imagination supplied what the eye could not reach.

Fanny’s imagining this as more intimate than it may have been. I don’t think her imagination gets as much exercise as it needs, since she doesn’t read fiction, just nonfiction and poetry. This is one of those indicators of character – at the time of writing, fiction was still thought to be a little naughty, which is why the writers of it tried to make it so . . . safe. Though Austen’s most religious protagonist is in the book with the worst behavior, so maybe they weren’t trying that hard.

Fanny is not the paragon of virtue some people read her as. This passage sounds a little like the demonic puppetmaster bit in Villette:

Fanny looked on and listened, not unamused to observe the selfishness which, more or less disguised, seemed to govern them all, and wondering how it would end. For her own gratification she could have wished that something might be acted, for she had never seen even half a play, but every thing of higher consequence was against it.

There’s so much of Fanny Price in Lucy Snowe that it’s hard to believe that Brontë never read Mansfield Park, but there’s no definite proof that she did or did not, so we can speculate all we like. Fanny looks on while her cousins and their friends behave like idiots, pretending to be putting on a play while really working out their own desires and relationships. Fanny herself will pretend to be disgusted by what’s going on, higher consequence and all that, but she loves it. She does half the backstage work, hardly the behavior of someone who doesn’t approve of the theatre in general.

I like the theatre part because I used to do a bit of that myself, in high school and college. I get minor roles, usually as someone’s dad. I miss it sometimes. I don’t think I’m that good, but at the same time I don’t want to put the time into a production if I’m going to be an extra. I prefer musicals, but the local ones they do over the summers are directed by someone I worked with in undergrad, and time with him is something else I don’t want in my life. I just don’t hate myself that much.

Fanny also loses her halo because she gets fucking pissed. When Edmund spends months trying to decide how much he cares for Mary and how much she cares for him, Fanny loses her temper (when she’s alone):

“There is no good in this delay,” said she. “Why is not it settled? – He is blinded, and nothing will open his eyes, nothing can, after having had truths before him so long in vain. – He will marry her, and be poor and miserable. God grant that her influence do not make him cease to be respectable!” – She looked over the letter again. “ ‘So very fond of me!’ ‘tis nonsense all. She loves nobody but herself and her brother. Her friends leading her astray for years! She is quite as likely to have led them astray. They have all, perhaps, been corrupting one another; but if they are so much fonder of her than she is of them, she is the less likely to have been hurt, except by their flattery. ‘The only woman in the world, whom he could ever think of as a wife.’ I firmly believe it. It is an attachment to govern his whole life. Accepted or refused, his heart is wedded to her for ever. ‘The loss of Mary, I must consider as comprehending the loss of Crawford and Fanny.’ Edmund, you do not know me. The families would never be connected, if you did not connect them! Oh! write, write. Finish it at once. Let there be an end of this suspense. Fix, commit, condemn yourself.”

Hell hath no fury like that of a quiet woman ignored. Her despair is so unchristian that she judges everyone around her harshly; Mary is not so bad as Fanny imagines her to be, nor is Henry Crawford. Fanny just hates Mary because Edmund is in love with her. Of the people at Mansfield, Mary Crawford is actually the person most careful of Fanny’s feelings, the one who takes her for granted the least. Some people do a queer reading of this friendship, and there’s some evidence for that. People in Austen novels are frequently interchangeable, but usually there’s a slot for a woman and a slot for a man. Fanny and Edmund tend to slip in and out of the same slot in Mary’s life, possibly her heart. When Fanny’s listening to the harp, she tries to leave, but Mary calls her back to hear Edmund’s favorite piece, thus demanding a repetition of a romantic experience with Fanny in Edmund’s place. In some ways, Fanny and Mary have much more of a relationship than Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith, though some critics try to make a big deal out of Emma’s need to elevate Harriet to an equal status and then control her behavior (that doesn’t sound like a relationship to me).

But Fanny doesn’t see it, because she’s not very self-aware. She starts falling for Henry Crawford while still assuming that she hates him. Here, when she’s denying his marriage proposal:

Fanny knew her own meaning, but was no judge of her own manner. Her manner was incurably gentle, and she was not aware how much it concealed the sternness of her purpose. Her diffidence, gratitude, and softness, made every expression of indifference seem almost an effort of self-denial; seem at least, to be giving nearly as much pain to herself as to him.

And I think she might be. She knows all the reasons for and against him, and the narrator frequently reminds us that if it weren’t for her obsession with Edmund, she could have been happy with Henry. And even with that obsession, his visit to her in Portsmouth reveals how much she wants him to think well of her. But she doesn’t realize how high her opinion of him is; she never thinks through her changing feelings for him. She gets a bad first impression of him and then consciously fights against changing it.

Mrs Norris sums her up in a moment of anger, and I think this is a more accurate description of Fanny than most people give:

If she would but have let us know she was going out – but there is a something about Fanny, I have often observed it before, – she likes to go her own way to work; she does not like to be dictated to; she takes her own independent walk whenever she can; she certainly has a little spirit of secrecy, and independence, and nonsense, about her, which I would advise her to get the better of.

Sir Thomas thinks this is unjust, but the narrator refrains from comment, because Mrs Norris is right. Fanny makes her own opinions and sticks with them. She may be outwardly submissive, but internally she’s a raging ball of hormones and teenage lovesickness, and she doesn’t tell anyone about it. The matter of Henry makes it pretty clear; she refuses to tell anyone why she won’t marry him. Edmund guesses, but he’s lost a lot of his influence with her by falling in love with Mary, so she won’t talk it over with him. Fanny is so used to being discounted that she won’t stick up for herself, with the result that she seems mysterious to strangers, and is rather secretive even with people she knows well.

I have a similar tendency – I get a feel for who people want me to be in a given situation, and I try to be that person. I do this so unconsciously that I don’t notice it, and I value my time alone because only then do I stop performing. I keep my thoughts and opinions to myself, unless I’m with someone I’m really comfortable with. [This is in real life; online, I’ll write about anything and be super opinionated. I’ll only talk out loud like this when I’m drunk or with close friends.]

I don’t like Edmund Bertram enough to identify with him; I can barely even call him the hero of the piece. I think Henry Crawford deserves that title. Compare him to Mr Darcy: their social habits are the opposite of the female protagonists’, so there’s some initial friction. Over the course of the novel, the man falls in love and tries to attract the woman with his old habits and proposes marriage, which she refuses. But he persists, and eventually wins her heart. Outwardly, I’m more like Mr Darcy, shy and withdrawn. But inwardly, I’m a bit more like Henry Crawford. I have that same unsettled, indolently restless nature. He’s interested in everything; sometimes he wishes he had been an actor, sometimes he wishes he had been a sailor, and sometimes he wishes he had been a preacher. He eventually decides that being rich and lazy is enough. I became a literature major because it really does give you the space to study everything, history, psychology, science, philosophy, education – whatever is part of human experience is in literature somewhere. Henry also needs everyone to love him, and that’s one of the qualities I’m trying to let go of (along with some Fanny Price-ish masochism and low self-esteem).

Austen almost never gives details of people’s physical appearance, allowing us to settle for ourselves how tall is tall and what a ‘fine figure’ involves, but then there’s this bit about Henry:

“I do not say he is not gentleman-like, considering; but you should tell your father he is not above five feet eight, or he will be expecting a well-looking man.”

I’m only three-quarters of an inch above five feet eight myself, which puts me at average height. In Brazil and the American South, I’m actually considered a little tall, certainly not too short to be handsome. [Unless it was the ex, and she was mad at me. She knew she was angry when she started thinking about how short I am.] However, in the Midwest I’m so small that someone tripped over me. They grow ‘em big in Iowa. Henry and I are also alike in the more substantial question of steadiness of character. He knows what’s right, but doesn’t have the consistency necessary to do it all the time. This is another of those traits that I don’t approve of when I see it in myself, but I do see it whenever I have something unpleasant to accomplish, or a large change to make. I keep putting things off until it’s too late. You can see the precise moment when Henry loses power over Fanny:

I have a great mind to go back into Norfolk directly, and put every thing at once on such a footing as cannot be afterwards swerved from. – Maddison is a clever fellow; I do not wish to displace him – provided he does not try to displace me; – but it would be simple to be duped by a man who has no right of creditor to dupe me – and worse than simple to let him give me a hard-hearted, griping fellow for a tenant, instead of an honest man, to whom I have given half a promise already. – Would not it be worse than simple? Shall I go? – Do you advise it?

He’s started to make good choices, using his responsibility wisely, but then he stops and asks for her approval. This kind of wavering is what she can’t tolerate in him. He’s figured out the right course, but he just can’t stick with it without her cheering him on. Which, of course, leads to the novel’s final disaster and Fanny’s marriage to Edmund.

A quick word on style: Mansfield Park tends to have long complex sentences, which is partially why people have a harder time loving it than some of Austen’s other novels, but it makes the short sentences more effective. I mean, this one practically pops out at us:

William and Fanny were horror-struck at the idea.

And, of course, I’ve seldom seen an author who cares about her characters so much as Jane Austen. Which is why MP is so odd; people keep getting banished from the narrative, and ultimately some are utterly excluded from the community. This never happens – people like John Thorpe have a place in Austen’s communities, but here someone finally commits an unforgiveable sin. Not that the author goes on about it.

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

Which is one of my favorite passages in all of Austen’s work. It speaks of the playful optimism that you find in all of the other novels. It’s in Mary Crawford, our antagonist, instead of Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. The character most similar to Austen’s other heroines loses the man she wants and ends up spending most of her time with people she calls friends but doesn’t actually care for much. And I think this is why the ex hates it so much. She likes being irreverent and saucy; she’s rather similar to Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood, so of course she dislikes a book where she’s the villain. Well, not quite the villain, but certainly less sympathetic. Because we tend to read the book through Fanny’s eyes, it’s easy to think poorly of Mary, but I don’t think Austen does. As mentioned above, Austen’s narrator has a different opinion of her than Fanny does. The conflict between narrator and protagonist can make this frustrating for an uncareful reader, but fruitful and exciting for the literary academic.

I’d like to think that I’m outgrowing my resemblance to Fanny Price and Henry Crawford. I saw them more objectively this read than I have before, though, like them, I probably need someone else to help me gauge that. All this time alone in the desert has helped me work out who I want to be, and who I don’t want to be any more. It’s time to get back to life, to be around people again and see if I can keep being myself when I’m with others, particularly others I wish to think well of me.

If ever you see this book in a store, drop whatever else you’re holding and buy it immediately. I realize that this is rather a strong command, perhaps even invasive, but you’ll do me the credit to recognize that I don’t command this strongly very often. Of course, now there are several versions you can buy online, but shopping online steals from one the joy of discovery that is felt when shopping nonvirtually. When I was introduced to this book in 2006, it was out of print and unavailable anywhere except for the rare used bookstore. Looking at the reviews on amazon.com, it seems that someone at a publishing house scanned an old book without correcting the text – the negative reviews are for the product itself, not the story. If you can find one of the rare old copies, snatch it up; let no one part you from this book.

It’s sort of an allegory, sort of a fairy tale, sort of a myth. It’s about the stereotypical conflict between gender stereotypes; it’s about the role of thought in our lives. It’s beautiful and strange, delightful, wistful, earthily magical. There was a flourishing of Irish writers during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and Stephens may not be prominent among them, but perhaps he ought to be. James Joyce seems to have a precious jewel that he is proud of possessing, and equally proud of concealing beneath layers and layers of incomprehensibility. W B Yeats is best known for looking to the mythology of other places, sailing off to Byzantium or looking for the second coming of a Hebrew god fused to the Egyptian sphinx. Yeats does write about the Irish myths and legends, but those poems tend to get rather long, and they require a great deal of concentration, more than is consistent with pure joy. Stephens uses simple sentences that a child could understand to discuss abstract concepts that the wisest of adults will take time to ponder.

In the beginning, there are two philosophers and their wives:

In the centre of the pine wood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two Philosophers. They were wiser than anything else in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall from the hazel bush on its bank. He, of course, is the most profound of living creatures, but the two Philosophers are next to him in wisdom. Their faces looked as though they were made of parchment, there was ink under their nails, and every difficulty that was submitted to them, even by women, they were able to instantly resolve. The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath asked them the three questions which nobody had ever been able to answer, and they were able to answer them. That was how they obtained the enmity of these two women which is more valuable than the friendship of angels. The Grey Woman and the Thin Woman were so incensed at being answered that they married the two Philosophers in order to be able to pinch them in bed, but the skins of the Philosophers were so thick that they did not know they were being pinched. They repaid the fury of the women with such tender affection that these vicious creatures almost expired of chagrin, and once, in a very ecstasy of exasperation, after having been kissed by their husbands, they uttered the fourteen hundred maledictions which comprised their wisdom, and these were learned by the Philosophers who thus became even wiser than before.

Then one of the philosophers and his wife decide to die, which simplifies things immensely.

Things start to happen when a cat kills a bird. The animals aren’t important in themselves, but the cat belongs to Meehawl MacMurrachu, and the bird is honored by the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora. The leprecauns take MacMurrachu’s washboard, and he goes to the philosopher to ask for help in getting it back. The philosopher tells him where to find their pot of gold, which MacMurrachu steals and hides in a place that is protected by all the fairy folk, including the leprecauns, who are now bound by their own laws not to recover their property. Instead, they go after their opponents’ children. They kidnap the children of the Philosopher, and it’s rumored that they’re the ones who sent Pan to ensnare Caitilin ni Murrachu. But you don’t fuck with a woman of the Shee, especially not if she has fourteen hundred curses, so of course they returned the kids to the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath.

Pan is the Greek god, the one who looks a bit like a satyr and nothing like an Irishman. His attitude doesn’t seem to quite match up with my understanding of him from the Greeks, but when you meet a mythical figure in a novel you accept the author’s interpretation. Pan represents foreign influences; he beguiles Caitilin with his music, but his philosophy is that hunger and emptiness are of the utmost importance and should be pursued for their own sakes. This deliberate choosing of unhappiness seems to me more closely allied to the monotheistic religions, but maybe it really is present in the Greeks and I’ve just been ignoring it. He also seems more closely related to the philosopher than to the other characters, since the ancient Greeks have dominated European intellectual thought since the Renaissance.

To counter Pan, the philosopher enlists the aid of Angus Og, one of the old Irish gods. He comes surrounded with joy and fullness, and Caitilin chooses him. In this conflict between two gods, I see the struggle of Ireland for its own cultural traditions. Will they assimilate with the rest of Hellenized Europe, or will they recover their own Celtic beliefs? It’s clear that Stephens prefers Angus Og to Pan, and if they really are as he portrays them, I quite agree. But once the children are all rescued, MacMurrachu still has the pot of gold, and justice must still be attended to.

Justice is the maintaining of equilibrium. The blood of Cain must cry, not from the lips of the Avenger, but from the aggrieved Earth herself who demands that atonement shall be made for a disturbance of her consciousness. All justice is, therefore, readjustment. A thwarted consciousness has every right to clamour for assistance, but not for punishment. […] It will, therefore, be understood that when the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora acted in the manner about to be recorded, they were not prompted by any lewd passion for revenge, but were merely striving to reconstruct a rhythm which was their very existence, and which must have been of direct importance to the Earth. Revenge is the vilest passion known to life. It has made Law possible, and by doing so it gave to Intellect the first grip at that universal dominion which is its ambition.

So the leprecauns give the police an anonymous tip about the dead philosopher and the Grey Woman buried under the philosopher’s house. The thought life of Ireland had its first obstacle with foreign influences, and now it is challenged by modernity. The leprecauns fight to free the philosopher from the police, but he just turns himself in the next day. Then, randomly, his children find the pot of gold and return it to the leprecauns.

How could they thank the children whose father and protector they had delivered to the unilluminated justice of humanity? that justice which demands not atonement but punishment; which is learned in the Book of Enmity but not in the Book of Friendship; which calls hatred Nature, and Love a conspiracy; whose law is an iron chain and whose mercy is debility and chagrin; the blind fiend who would impose his own blindness; that unfruitful loin which curses fertility; that stony heart which would petrify the generations of man; before whom life withers away appalled and death would shudder again to its tomb.

There’s a similar feeling of justice in The Scarlet Letter; people punish in order to make offenders suffer, but the punishments tend to drive the offenders further from society instead of reintegrating them into it. Hawthorne ascribes reconciliatory justice to God; Stephens to the Earth and the fairy folk. As an American, I have a troubled feeling about human justice. We have more people in prison than any other nation on earth. We have more people in prison than some countries have people. One third of the African-American men in my age group are in prison, right now. While other countries are closing empty prisons, ours are full to bursting. Part of this is a problem with the justice system, which tends to convict rather a lot of people (particularly nonwhite males) for fairly minor offenses. Part of this is a problem with the laws, which require imprisonment for something as small as having marijuana in the house. Part of the problem is that we can’t seem to think of any other method of punishment but to lock offenders away with other offenders, so that whatever diseases of thought that lead to crime grow and become even stronger. Part of the problem is that the prison industry sees tons of money changing hands, so lawmakers have no incentive to change a system that is actively harming the people it is supposed to be helping. Part of the problem is that American culture is strongly motivated by revenge, so most of the people I meet don’t see a problem with giving those punks exactly what they deserve. If they didn’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t have gotten caught. American culture also tends to valorize criminal activity; most styles of popular music celebrate some form of crime, and films and television tend to make law enforcement look ineffective or corrupt. The prison problem seems the natural result of a society based on the idea, “Fuck society!” The leprecauns have their pot of gold again, the natural order has been restored, so let’s free the philosopher! How un-American is that?

The Thin Woman goes on a journey to Angus Og, just as her husband did before, but she takes a different route and meets different people along the way. Well, one person is the same, but their encounters with her are vastly different. The Thin Woman and Angus Og call all the clans of the fairies to their aid. All the old gods (except the Sleepers, of course), all the leprecauns and cluricauns and Shee and anything else, all march together to break the philosopher out of jail. But there are no weapons or hatred or thirst for revenge – this section of the book is called The Happy March. They come singing and dancing, smiling and loving and joyful.

Down to the city they went dancing and singing; among the streets and the shops telling their sunny tale; not heeding the malignant eyes and the cold brows as the sons of Balor looked sidewards. And they took the Philosopher from his prison, even the Intellect of Man they took from the hands of the doctors and lawyers, from the sly priests, from the professors whose mouths are gorged with sawdust, and the merchants who sell blades of grass – the awful people of the Fomor . . . and then they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods. . . .

I’d like to return to the country of the gods. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’m willing to believe that might be it.

I find it difficult to explain precisely what about this book I love so much. It touches my heart in a place that is deeper than words, deeper than conscious thought. Maybe there are some genetic memories at play, these thought patterns echoing in the subconscious bequeathed to me. My face may proclaim the Dutch part of my heritage, but I have a whole clan of redheaded Irishmen behind me as well. I believe that this is why the Celtic myths resonate more strongly with me than the Judeo-Christian ones. I suppressed this feeling for a long time, but Christianity just feels weird and wrong to me. There’s an inexplicable rightness to books like The Crock of Gold, or Byatt’s Ragnarok, that I don’t feel in monotheism. I’m not saying that I’m becoming Druid, or Wiccan, or any of the earth religions, but the belief in one god seems as limiting as believing in none at all.

The primary lesson seems to be one of balance. Thought balanced with belief, struggle balanced with happiness, scarcity balanced with generosity. There are some of the misogynistic stereotypes to be expected from a story a hundred years old, but they’re balanced by equally reductive/destructive stereotypes of men. One of the things that I admire about Norse mythology is that everyone has a ‘heim,’ a home. There is a place where everyone belongs. Celtic myths seem to have this same inclusiveness. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an outcast, so an inclusive ethic appeals to me. Christianity tells its followers to put ‘the family of faith’ first; there’s an us/them, believers/damned binary opposition that runs through the center of it. Nature doesn’t have any binaries. There are always exceptions, slippages, creatures in the middle ground. Therefore, I trust faith systems that don’t rely on artificial binaries – God/Devil, good/evil, heaven/hell. Life is more complex and beautiful than that.

With a book like this, it’s easier to have a conversation about the novel’s history than about the novel itself. Censorship trials everyone hears about, but few people talk about what’s actually going on in the book.

The eponymous lover is Oliver Mellors, and for someone who is so important to the book, his name is used very seldom. He’s more often ‘the gamekeeper,’ or just ‘the keeper.’ When he and Lady Chatterley are alone, he’s just a masculine pronoun, as if his maleness is the most important thing about him. The two of them take on an allegorical quality, just a he and a she, doing what comes naturally. But the title identifies him primarily in relation to her, and her in relation to her husband.

The grin flickered on his face.

‘The money is yours, the position is yours, the decisions will lie with you. I’m not just my Lady’s fucker, after all.’

‘What else are you?’

‘You may well ask. It no doubt is invisible. Yet I’m something to myself at least. I can see the point of my own existence, though I can quite understand nobody else’s seeing it.’

He holds himself and his self-worth independent – as if there are some things about himself that are no one else’s business, not even the reader’s. We seldom see the story from his point of view, except when he’s getting aroused. In some ways he remains a mystery to the end of the book.

Sir Clifford Chatterley is much easier to figure out. Clifford gets married in the middle of World War I and comes back paralyzed. Without the use of his legs or his cock, he goes through some times of depression and anger. At first he devotes his attention to the life of the mind to compensate for his bodily losses. Then they hire a nurse for him, and she changes him. Mrs Bolton quickly becomes the most important person in his life; he becomes the kind of man she expects him to be, a businessman. Under her influence he becomes the representation of industrialized progress – sterile, childish, self-important, mechanized, successful.

The fault lay there, out there, in those evil electric lights and diabolical rattlings of engines. There, in the world of the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanised greed, sparkling with lights and gushing hot metal and roaring with traffic, there lay the vast evil thing, ready to destroy whatever did not conform. Soon it would destroy the wood, and the bluebells would spring no more. All vulnerable things must perish under the rolling and running of iron.

Then there is Lady Chatterley herself, formerly Constance Reid, and most frequently called Connie. Daughter of one baronet and married to another, her class position is clear. The novel traces her personal growth and development as she learns to love someone with a dramatically different background. Connie has a democratic sensibility and a hopeful naivete where people are concerned, and I identify strongly with these qualities in her.

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Like Connie, it’s hard for me to admit that the world is not always precisely as it ought to be.

This is history. One England blots out another. The mines had made the halls wealthy. Now they were blotting them out, as they had already blotted out the cottages. The industrial England blots out the agricultural England. One meaning blots out another. The new England blots out the old England. And the continuity is not organic, but mechanical.

Connie, belonging to the leisured classes, had clung to the remnants of old England. It had taken her years to realise that it was really blotted out by this terrifying new and gruesome England, and that the blotting out would go on till it was complete.

People sometimes talk about this novel as if the sex were the only important thing about it, but I don’t think that it’s even the most important thing. It’s about this change, from a life in contact with nature to a life that destroys nature. Clifford is the industrialist who leaves a black swathe on the world, and the gamekeeper is the remnant of the feudal agricultural age, tending to various forms of life. He and Connie wreath flowers into each other’s pubic hair, but Clifford chugs along on his motorized wheelchair, smashing the flowers and everything else.

Tevershall pit-bank was burning, had been burning for years, and it would cost thousands to put it out. So it had to burn. And when the wind was that way, which was often, the house was full of the stench of this sulphurous combustion of the earth’s excrement. But even on windless days the air always smelt of something under-earth: sulphur, iron, coal, or acid. And even on the Christmas roses the smuts settled persistently, incredible, like black manna from skies of doom.

So Connie’s choice of lover is not just a matter of finding a good lay, it’s a choice of lifestyles, of economic systems, of periods of history. She chooses life and nature over money and mechanics.

Another thing about Connie that I identify strongly with is her inability to articulate her ideas in an argument. I can usually express myself well in writing, but when it comes to conversation or verbal disagreement, I end up a sputtering mess, either stuttering or silent.

Logic might be unanswerable because it was so absolutely wrong.

She runs into this problem discussing her gamekeeper affair with her sister:

‘But you are such a socialist! you’re always on the side of the working classes.’

‘I may be on their side in a political crisis, but being on their side makes me know how impossible it is to mix one’s life with theirs. Not out of snobbery, but just because the whole rhythm is different.’

Hilda had lived among the real political intellectuals, so she was disastrously unanswerable.

And in discussing the lives of coalworkers with her husband:

And she wondered with rage, why it was she felt Clifford was so wrong, yet she couldn’t say it to him, she could not say exactly where he was wrong.

‘No wonder the men hate you,’ she said.

‘They don’t!’ he replied. ‘And don’t fall into errors: in your sense of the word, they are not men. They are animals you don’t understand, and never could. Don’t thrust your illusions on other people. The masses were always the same, and will always be the same. Nero’s slaves were extremely little different from our colliers or the Ford motor car workmen. I mean Nero’s mine slaves and his field slaves. It is the masses: they are the unchangeable. An individual may emerge from the masses. But the emergence doesn’t alter the mass. The masses are unalterable. It is one of the most momentous facts of social science. Panem et circenses! Only today education is one of the bad substitutes for a circus. What is wrong today, is that we’ve made a profound hash of the circuses part of the programme, and poisoned our masses with a little education.’

When Clifford became really roused in his feelings about the common people, Connie was frightened. There was something devastatingly true in what he said. But it was a truth that killed.

There’s no doubt that people perform better at their tasks when they only have the education they need to accomplish those tasks, and that ignorant people are often happier than educated ones, but there are types of satisfaction that are unavailable to them without an education. Moving up Maaslow’s hierarchy of needs, or the hierarchy of thinking skills, is difficult without the type of education that Clifford would deny the masses. He would rather they not be actual human beings; while he calls them animals here, I think he’d be happier if they weren’t even that, but just gears in his machinery of wealth. The keeper is an individual that emerges from the masses, but people like Clifford ignore just how hard that emergence is without an education.

And after he’s emerged, it’s not always clear if he’ll do the crowd he came from any good.

If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing! But it’s no good. If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend, they could manage very happily on twenty-five shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers as I said, they wouldn’t think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on, and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn’t need money. And that’s the only way to solve the industrial problem: train the people to be able to live and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend. But you can’t do it. They’re all one-track minds nowadays. Whereas the mass of people oughtn’t even to try to think, because they can’t. They should be alive and frisky, and acknowledge the great god Pan. He’s the only god for the masses, forever.

Even Mellors wants the mass of humanity to become picturesque peasants. In this elitism he and Clifford agree. Neither of them recognizes that the problem is the wealthy. The people with money give the people without money something to aspire to; since the rich won’t live in sensual simplicity without spending a lot of money, neither will the poor.

Personally, I rather like the life Mellors associates with red trousers. I was converted to a life of the arts at a young age, and I’m fond of singing and skipping and making my own things. I won’t comment on my own handsomeness or lack thereof, but I wish I was a better dancer more than I wish I was better at making money. Unlike Lawrence’s characters (and perhaps the great DHL himself), I think that this life of continuous self-expression, and pride in self-expression, is not incompatible with education. Maybe a different type of education than what we typically receive would be better suited to it, but the problem isn’t the eduation; it’s the type and manner of it. Our educational system in the West teaches children to be good factory workers, to distrust difference, and to value mediocrity. This is the way to get them to be good little cogs winding the machinery of commerce, but it doesn’t help them to be good men and women. Some schools have begun teaching good character, as if it could be learned like arithmetic, but defying society and its obsession with financial gain to express the self is seen as sentimental, quixotic, and ultimately tragic. And that attitude doesn’t help anyone but those with a vested interest in keeping the machine going.

Having lived among the owning classes, he knew the utter futility of expecting any solution of the wage-squabble. There was no solution, short of death. The only thing was not to care, not to care about the wages.

Yet, if you were poor and wretched you had to care. Anyhow, it was becoming the only thing they did care about. The care about money was like a great cancer, eating away the individuals of all classes. He refused to care about money.

And what then? What did life offer apart from the care of money? Nothing.

While Connie does seem to have problems with her husband’s elitism, she doesn’t seem to realize that she has a little of her own.

The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few in most personal experience. There’s lots of good fish in the sea . . . maybe . . . but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.

This is a problem I run into, too. There have never been very many people I’ve been attracted to, either as friends or lovers. I try to convince myself that this isn’t evidence that I’m an elitist, and sometimes I succeed. I recognize that some people are good, worthwhile people with valid thoughts and opinions, but that doesn’t mean I want any sort of intimacy with them. My life seems to be spent among genial, uncongenial people.

The gamekeeper gets some criticism for his attitude toward women as well. He is in favor of simultaneous orgasms, and I think that most people are, but he hates women who want to use him to get off on without getting him off as well. He calls them all unconscious lesbians, which is amazingly offensive. But at least he recognizes that this is a completely selfish viewpoint.

‘But do you think Lesbian women any worse than homosexual men?’

I do! Because I’ve suffered more from them. In the abstract, I’ve no idea.’

Lawrence tends to write sympathetic roles for men who might be bisexual, like Birkin and Crich in Women in Love, and there’s a possibility for the gamekeeper to be. He grew close to a colonel when he was in the army, and this colonel got him an officer’s commission. Lawrence mentions that the two loved each other, but he doesn’t go into the details of how. It’s exposition rather than story, so it makes sense for the author not to get explicit here, but it’s fun for me to imagine Oliver Mellors fucking his way up the ranks.

People talk about this novel like it’s second only to Fanny Hill, and while there are a couple of explicit descriptions of sex, those descriptions are actually not a large proportion of the book. The sexy bits are very sexy indeed, but they adorn rather than drive the narrative. People who read it also sometimes complain about the language, and I’ll agree that it’s a bit unexpected to see these words in a book published in 1928.

‘Th’art good cunt, though, aren’t ter? Best bit o’ cunt left on earth. When ter likes! When tha’rt willin’!’

‘What is cunt?’ she said.

‘An’ doesn’t ter know? Cunt! It’s thee down theer; an’ what I get when I’m i’side thee, and what tha gets when I’m i’side thee; it’s a’ as it is, all on’t.’

‘All on’t,’ she teased. ‘Cunt! It’s like fuck then.’

‘Nay nay! Fuck’s only what you do. Animals fuck. But cunt’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ tha’rt a lot besides an animal, aren’t ter? – even ter fuck? Cunt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee, lass!’

She got up and kissed him between the eyes, that looked at her so dark and soft and unspeakably warm, so unbearably beautiful.

He really makes that word sound like not such an insult. When we’re young we tend to imagine that our profanity is like our slang terms, invented on the moment and only belonging to our time. But Chaucer wrote about piss and shit, and if I had access to the OED I could give other examples of contemporary profanity being used centuries ago.

So, in the end, yes, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a book full of graphic sex and offensive language. But it’s also a book about industry trampling the environment, which is an important precursor to today’s debates on climate change; it’s also a book about the artificial barriers between people created by economic differences, which include education, manners, and speech patterns; it’s also a book about how love can separate individuals from their respective herds and unite them in joy, and how the herds fight to reclaim their own. It’s about society and the direction we’re moving in, and the world we’re destroying in the process. Lawrence doesn’t have any answers about how to resolve these conflicts, how to keep technology without losing the flowers and the pheasants, and the book itself ends unresolved, with a letter from the keeper to his absent love hoping for the future:

John Thomas says good-bye to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.

As the title might imply, this is a slow book. Sometimes very slow indeed.

The days go by.

and

But again the days went by and nothing bad happened because the days went by.

and even

But the hours went by now as well, afternoon came and was followed by evening.

The book is heavily imbued with the landscape of northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle, where the author grew up. What plot there is moves with the same glacial stillness. A man walks into the wilderness and cuts out a spot for himself.

Fall is coming, it is quiet in the woods round about, the mountains are there, the sun is there, and tonight the moon and the stars will come out; it is all unchanging, full of kindness, an embrace. Here folks have time to rest in the heather, with an arm for a pillow.

He tends to his farm. People walk by every now and again, and he asks them about getting a woman to help him. He’s alone for a year or two, and then she comes seemingly out of nowhere and they settle into their work. She was born with a harelip, so she never could find someone to take her on elsewhere. She comes to Isak as a way of hiding from the world, in the one place she will feel valued. And he does set a great deal of value on her. Their lives have the flavor of a fairy tale, or a myth of origin. It’s just so . . . Edenic.

In the wilds every season has its wonders, but there is always something unchanging: the immense, heavy sound of heaven and earth, the sense of being surrounded on every side, the darkness of the forest, the friendliness of the trees. Everything is heavy and soft, no thought is impossible there. North of Sellanra there was a tiny little tarn, a puddle, no bigger than an aquarium. Swimming around in it were little baby fish which never grew bigger; they lived and died there and were no use at all – goodness, no, not in the least. One evening when Inger stood there listening for the cowbells, she heard nothing else, because all was dead round about; but she did hear a song from the aquarium. It was so small, next to nothing, dying away. It was the little fishes’ song.

But paradise never lasts. Reality comes in, demanding to know what right Isak has to his land, expecting payment for it. He doesn’t let that bother him, though, and he pays it off. This is a great deal of the first half of the novel: Isak works, things grow, he builds new buildings, and life on the farm continues. The potatoes grow better during a drought than anything else, the animals reproduce, and Inger has children. Eventually more people carve out their places in the landscape and Isak and Inger get neighbors, and their lives dominate the second half of the book. But pretty much the same things happen again. Some people are successful, some are not.

The mining operation upsets the balance of things – there’s copper up in the mountain, and some Swedes buy it to mine. They bring their own workers instead of relying on local labor (a smart move – most people wouldn’t even agree to monitoring the telegraph wire because it would take them away from their farmwork), but the workers turn some people’s heads. The problem with harvesting nonrenewable resources is that eventually the copper runs out. Mining towns collapse. Aaronsen sets up a store to trade with the miners, but when they go, his business goes too. The store never really works out until Andresen works the farm behind the store and only sells what people need, when they need it, but by then Aaronsen is long gone. Self-sufficiency is very strongly valued in the book, and those who let the outside world affect them are generally seen as weak. Those silent farmers carry the day.

The settlers in the wild didn’t lose their heads. They didn’t find the air to be unhealthy for them, had a large enough public for their new clothes and didn’t miss diamonds. Wine they knew from the wedding in Cana. The settlers didn’t make themselves suffer on account of goodies they hadn’t got: art, newspapers, luxuries, politics were worth exactly as much as people were willing to pay for them, no more; the growth of the soil, on the other hand, had to be procured at any cost. It was the origin of all things, the only source. The settlers’ lives sad and empty? Ho, that least of all! They had their higher powers, their dreams, their loves, their wealth of superstition.

The whole farming vs mining thing gives Hamsun a great opportunity to explore the nature of money and commerce. Money isn’t that important; food is. Animals and people are. You have to make things; people’s worth comes from the produce of their hands and land. Money’s a worthless sort of thing that lies around, easily lost, easily stolen, easily traded for other worthless things.

Isak understood work, to carry on his trade. He was now a wealthy man with a large farm, but he made a poor use of the many cash payments chance had brought his way: he put them away. The backland saved him. If Isak had lived in the village, the world at large might have influenced even him a little; there were so many fine things, such genteel surroundings, that he would have bought unnecessary things and gone around in a red Sunday shirt every day. Here in the backland he was protected against all excesses, living in clear air; he washed Sunday morning and bathed when he was up by the mountain lake. Those thousand dollars – well, a gift from heaven, every penny to be put away. What else? Isak could manage his ordinary expenses, and more, simply by selling the yield of his animals and the soil.

It makes me dissatisfied with my life as it is now. I live in a place where there are only two things, money and God, and anyone looking for other things (music, art, pork, alcohol, nutrient-rich soil, greenery, fiction) is going to be disappointed. I’m not interested in the god they have here, so that leaves me with money. If I think about it too much, I really start to hate myself. Who lives in a place they don’t like among people they don’t much care for just to get money? I do, apparently. I comfort myself with the thought that I’m doing this as a sacrifice for my children, giving up my happiness to meet their needs, but I wonder if they’ll thank me for it when they’re old enough to understand.

You should’ve seen the engineer: here he has worked hard and kept it going, with men and horses and money and machines and lots of trouble; he thought he was doing the right thing, didn’t know any better. The more stone he can turn into money, the better; he thinks he’s doing something meritorious that way, providing money for the community and the country. Meanwhile he hurtles more and more rapidly toward disaster, and he doesn’t understand the situation.

I had an opportunity to teach some extra night classes a year ago, but I refused. Everyone kept telling me that it would be worth the amount of money I’d make, but after a few weeks the people who did it told me that I was right not to take it. It ended up being a miserable experience, despite the money they made. I felt rich and principled because I could refuse the money, and they called themselves whores because they thought they couldn’t.

If I were to live in this type of barter economy, what would I contribute? What can I actually make? I like putting together IKEA furniture, so maybe I could make a go at carpentry sometime. I am pretty good at some of the fiber arts, knitting and crocheting, but I tend to place a low value on my own work. I can bake well, but the less scientific types of cooking are beyond me. I’d need a lot of help with farming; I’ve never succeeded in keeping a plant alive. The ex once had a dream of a self-sufficient family compound away from civilization, and she envisioned me as primarily teaching the kids. Lessons for food isn’t a bad deal, but one that’s hard to come by these days.

Another major issue in the book is infanticide. Inger has two boys, then kills her first daughter because she is born with a harelip. Knowing what that life is like, she doesn’t want her daughter to go through it, like Sethe in Beloved. Oline, the resident troublemaker, figures it out and gets Inger arrested for it. Inger gets sentenced to eight years in prison; she only serves five, but that time changes her significantly. I don’t say that she’s been rehabilitated – spoiled, more like. Living in a large community has made her unfit for life on a secluded farm with only her husband and children to talk to. Oline, of course, gets Isak to hire her to do Inger’s work while she’s gone, raising the children and tending to the house and livestock.

But to fight with Oline, wrangle with Oline? Impossible. She never gave in. And nobody could match her in mixing heaven and earth into a big muddle of kindness and malice, nonsense and poison.

Another description:

She had not been pampered. Practiced in evil, oh yes, used to fighting her way with tricks and petty deceits from day to day, strong only thanks to scandal-mongering, making her tongue feared, oh yes. But nothing could now have made her worse, a legacy least of all. She had worked all her life, had borne children and taught them her own few tricks, begged for them, maybe also stolen for them, but had kept them alive – a mother in straitened circumstances. Her ability was no poorer than that of other politicians; she worked for herself and her family, suited her speech to the moment and came through, gaining a cheese to bring home by one tack, a handful of wool by another; she too could live and die in reliance on insincere quick-wittedness.

Oline seems willing to do anything she can to get by, so long as it involves feeding off of others. Settling down on a place of her own is out of the question. She finds her happiness in stealing that of others. She engineers Inger’s removal from Isak’s farm, and then when Inger comes back, having learned to spin and weave, and having had an operation to fix her face, Oline then takes credit for all of Inger’s improvement, as if getting her sent to jail was a special favor. Isak turns a blind eye to her thievery while he thinks he can’t get any better help, but once Inger comes back, Oline is out again. Years later, when there’s another case of infanticide, Oline sticks her nose in again. Barbro isn’t married to Aksel, she’s just his housekeeper, and she doesn’t want the child, so she drowns it. Oline makes sure the police know about it, and there’s another trial. Barbro gets off, though, and she works for the sheriff’s wife for two years to recover her respectability. Then she marries Aksel anyway. Oline, of course, fills Barbro’s place at Aksel’s while Barbro is away, but she’s too old to do the work well, and Aksel kind of hates her. When Barbro returns, they try to get rid of Oline, but don’t seem to quite manage until she dies suddenly one night.

Inger’s trial passes with little authorial comment, but Barbro’s is no small matter. That sheriff’s wife, Mrs Heyerdahl, testifies on Barbro’s behalf, a long argument in favor of a woman’s right to kill her baby. Personally, I recognize the difference between infanticide and abortion, but I know people who don’t, and most of Mrs Heyerdahl’s argument could be used to support abortion. A hundred years has passed since Hamsun wrote this novel, but it’s still relevant. The ex was attracted to Catholicism at least partially due to its stance on abortion; she felt so strongly about it that we ended up not using any birth control (hence the three children, now aged 7, 5, and 3). I had some students back in the United States who chose to terminate pregnancies, and I really felt sorry for them because I love (love, love, love) babies. But I recognized that their life choices were none of my business, and for them, in their situations with work, family, and relationships, and with their personalities, it was the right choice. Reproduction is a huge decision, which impacts every part of a person’s life for the rest of his life. It is not to be entered lightly. I know that there are other options: I’ve seen a small part of the world of private adoption, and it’s not right for everyone. I also have over thirty years of experience as an unexpected, unwanted child in a large family saddled with poverty. I don’t wish I had been killed or aborted, but I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone else. This is one of those decisions that has to be considered on an individual basis, but civil and religious authorities make sweeping laws that paint every case with the same brush. It’s never black and white.

Despite his apparent forward-thinking on a woman’s right to choose, Hamsun was a terrible racist. Even though he won the Nobel Prize in 1920, his works lost their popularity when he sympathized with the Nazis.

The Lapps keep to the fringes, lurking in the dark; expose them to light and air and they don’t thrive, like vermin and maggots.

Really? The Sami (Lapp is an offensive term – sorry, Cole Porter) occasionally travel down from the extremely distant North to trade with the town, and they stop off and see Isak on the way, but only at first. Inger blames them for her daughter’s harelip, because one of them shows her a hare when she is pregnant. Oline hangs out with them, but after Isak and Inger push Oline out of their house, they disappear from the narrative. Hamsun says they’re only interested in people they can manipulate and steal from. They remind me of the Native Americans, but they have the same color skin as the settlers, so they’re less easily categorized. And the settlers don’t want the land they live on, so that’s a different issue, too. But people discriminate against them and demonize them all the same.

In the end, I suppose this is a book about happiness.

The mining had come to an end, but so much the better for the farmers; it wasn’t true that the land was dead, quite the contrary. It was beginning to teem with life – two new men, four more hands, fields and meadows and homes. Oh, those green wide-open spaces in the forest, a hut and a spring, children and animals! Grain swaying on the moors where horsetail grew before, bluebells nodding on the hills, babies’ slippers blazing with golden sunlight near the houses. And people are going about their lives, talking and thinking, at one with heaven and earth.

There’s so much beauty in the natural world. People find joy and identity by working with the earth. It’s a different type of pleasure than people are used to in the cities, and it’s one that has become less common. I think in some communities people are recovering it; Seattle and Portland, for example, or the area between Asheville and Knoxville. Collectively, we’re changing our definition of progress and modernity – skyscrapers belong to the past, and we’re returning value to our connection with the land. Hamsun’s characters are mostly against the supposed progress of telegraph wires, newspapers, and other marks of urbanization; they’re busy with the land. And that’s what makes this book a hard sell today – the life portrayed isn’t fun or exciting; it’s as slow as a man hitching himself to a harvester to make sure it works properly. But as other people have pointed out, ‘The happiest nations have no history.’ Books about other people’s happiness are sort of dull.

No one can live deep in the wilds and keep on playing around. Happiness is not the same as having fun.