Archive for June, 2015

A little while ago, my friend David was struggling with his feelings for T. S. Eliot. I agree with him, that Eliot is an author that is hard to love, but after reading this collection, I no longer feel guilty for disliking him, despite the occasional beauty of his words.

This collection was assembled by the good people at Borders, before they went out of business. It covers his works from 1917 to 1923, or in other words, when he was 29 to 35 years old. There’s more prose than poetry, and I think it’s important to read the essays in order to understand the poetry.

Okay, story time. When I was in school, we usually studied literature in chronological order, discussing great movements. In twelfth grade, our teacher decided to teach British literature thematically instead of chronologically, so we did a unit on heroism that included Beowulf, an excerpt from Paradise Lost, and Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” He knew that most of his students didn’t really care about movements, and if they were going to study literature at the university, they’d learn the movements there. So, as he explained it, there are two contradictory basic impulses that battle through culture throughout time: classicism and romanticism. To introduce a comparison he didn’t make, classicism is Spock in The Wrath of Khan. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. A hero sacrifices everything to protect his society. They find value in the history and traditions of their community, like Alexander Pope, always looking backward to gods and kings in ancient Latin and Greek texts. Romanticism is Captain Kirk in The Search for Spock. The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. A hero struggles to live naturally and authentically, despite social pressures, so he is rejected by society. They find value in nature and in themselves, like William Wordsworth, always looking around at poor wanderers amid the trees and rivers. If you’ve ever heard me talking about literature, it should be no trouble to determine which I prefer. So, imagine my great umbrage at reading:

We agree, I hope, that ‘classicism’ is not an alternative to ‘romanticism,’ as of political parties, Conservative and Liberal, Republican and Democrat, on a ‘turn-the-rascals-out’ platform. It is a goal toward which all good literature strives, so far as it is good, according to the possibilities of its place and time.

Or:

With Mr Murry’s formulation of Classicism and Romanticism I cannot agree; the difference seems to me rather the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic.

Or the weird, excessively sarcastic:

For to those who obey the inner voice (perhaps ‘obey’ is not the word) nothing I can say about criticism will have the slightest value. For they will not be interested in the attempt to find any common principles for the pursuit of criticism. Why have principles, when one has the inner voice? If I like a thing, that is all I want; and if enough of us, shouting all together, like it, that should be all that you (who don’t like it) ought to want. The law of art, said Mr Clutton Brock, is all case law. And we can not only like whatever we like to like but we can like it for any reason we choose. We are not, in fact, concerned with literary perfection at all – the search for perfection is a sign of pettiness, for it shows that the writer has admitted the existence of an unquestioned spiritual authority outside himself, to which he has attempted to conform. We are not in fact interested in art. We will not worship Baal. ‘The principle of classical leadership is that obeisance is made to the office or to the tradition, never to the man.’ And we want, not principles, but men.

Well, yeah, Mr Meanie Pants, I do desire men more than I do principles. Now fuck off.

Not content with mocking Romantic principles, he trashes Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge (not the prose, just the poetry), and then he even talks smack about the tradition that Romantics love, like:

The real corrupters are those who supply opinion or fancy; and Goethe and Coleridge are not guiltless – for what is Coleridge’s Hamlet: is it an honest inquiry as far as the data permit, or is it an attempt to present Coleridge in an attractive costume?

And

Milton and Wordsworth, on the other hand, lack this unity, and therefore lack life; and the general criticism on most of the long poems of the nineteenth century is simply that they are not good enough.

Another quick story: I’ve been working at my current job for almost five months now, and at first I had a lot of trouble with one of my co-workers. He had a habit of expressing his opinions as if they were dogma, even on trivial matters. And he only expressed an opinion of it was in opposition to whomever was speaking at the time. He didn’t have an unqualified good word to say about anyone or anything. At first, I assumed he was much younger than I am, and that he was so rigidly axiomatic because he hadn’t had enough experiences with the real world. But no, I was wrong. He’s my age. Almost exactly. He’s actually a few weeks older than I am. However, I’ve spent the last eighteen years living on both American coasts, and also traveling through South America, the Middle East, and even a short trip to Paris, looking for people to love and ways to understand myself. He’s been living in either Indiana, Japan, or Korea, and he seems to have spent all that time correcting the internet. He doesn’t call himself a troll because it’s not trolling if you’re right. So he was approaching us real people as if we were faceless webpages, so aggressive and offensive that I started shutting down as soon as I saw him. He’s been verbally beaten down a couple of times since then, once by me for speaking disrespectfully of the American South, and now he’s quieter, but I don’t think he and I will ever really be comfortable in each other’s presence.

This is T. S. Eliot. He was a troll before the internet existed. He wants to break with the nineteenth century, so he opposes them as vehemently as he dares (he may have a soft spot for Matthew Arnold). Eliot reminds me of an undergraduate so passionately attached to his opinions that he ignores his professors.

So, we circle back to the poetry. He may be in his late twenties and early thirties, but he still writes poetry like a Victorian undergraduate. He’s so insulated in his little community of people who share his ability with Latin and Greek that he assumes everyone does. My students used to ask me why he included so much Latin, Greek, Italian, German, and French in his poems, and I told them that it’s a way of selecting your audience. Eliot has a specific sort of reader in mind, probably what he would consider a person with a minimum of education, but he sets the bar so high that very few people of any time would be qualified to read him. He’s selected not to have an audience.

Polyphiloprogenitive
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the windowpanes.
In the beginning was the Word.

Perhaps he’s a bit like Ginsberg writing “Howl,” but Ginsberg showed that he was writing for a few select friends by writing about their specific experiences that other people can still identify with, not by using language that no one else would be able to understand.

Eliot rejects the nineteenth century, it’s true, but he seems to reject his own time as well. That’s the effect I feel from all those allusions. His view of the 1920s seems summed up here:

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

Some of the most beautiful writing in the English language is reduced to a pop song. I tried to find the Shakespearean Rag on youtube, but it’s not there. I think it must be like the “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” scene from Kiss Me Kate. High drama is juxtaposed with people who can’t afford proper dentistry, and the modern sufferers seem tawdry and mean compared with Cleopatra’s burnished throne or Juliet’s temporary tomb.

Okay. I hate it when people are excessively negative, and here I am being excessively negative because T. S. Eliot is excessively negative. Now, OccMan, say something nice.

Eliot does put his words together very well. Some of his images and thoughts are really very beautiful.

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

And

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And again

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair –
Lean on a garden urn –
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair –
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise –
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

In fairness, I can understand Eliot being depressed around this time. He was the primary caregiver for his wife, who had a severe mental illness. Eventually he placed her in a long-term care facility, but during the time he wrote these poems and essays they were still together. Can you imagine? Leaving your home to study in a foreign country, loving the new place and marrying someone from there, only to have her lose her mind and suddenly the whole world seems like a sterile, unfriendly place, where the best offer he ever hears is

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Later, of course, he’ll go on to write a sweet book of poems about the neighborhood cats, but he’s always remembered for these early depressed writings. This is what we study, and that may say more about us who study literature than it does about Eliot himself.

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It is a joy to read an author who knows her tradition, and no one understands two hundred years of Gothic fiction like Daphne du Maurier. Stephen King also knows the tradition he’s writing in, but somehow when I read his short fiction I start recognizing his plots from old episodes of The Twilight Zone; not an issue with du Maurier. She’s more likely to draw from Radcliffe or Brontë. This book is a collection of shorter pieces, but since they’re each around fifty pages (or a little more), I have a hard time calling them short stories. Maybe novellas? Each story involves travel, the fear of being in an unfamiliar place, sometimes finding strangely familiar things in the unfamiliar, sometimes the self itself becomes strangely unfamiliar. While Stephen King sometimes mixes in stories that are sweet – ghost stories about love beyond the grave or something of that nature – du Maurier’s collection is all spooky, uncanny, and while the stories end ‘correctly,’ with a feeling of fitness, there’s no sense of good things continuing. The transformations don’t make the protagonists happy.

DON’T LOOK NOW

Tourists in Venice meet a stranger with psychic powers. She tells them of a vision of their recently deceased child, then warns them to leave town. There’s a bit of that familiar British fear of Italians and distrust of the Scottish. Difference is weird and bad. According to the cover of my paperback, this story became “a spine-chilling film!” starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. A more complete treatment of a similar theme can be found in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

Very Dr Moreau-ish. The only story to take place primarily in England. Down on the east coast, a conventionally mad scientist is working on psychic machinery, communicating between minds at long distances. His principal experiment involves capturing a person’s soul, the electrical impulses of the brain that determine identity, at the moment of death and thus preserve the soul indefinitely.

NOT AFTER MIDNIGHT

A good old mystery, in the vein of Dashiell Hammett or John Franklin Bardin. Things do become a bit supernatural at the end, but most of the story is very realistic. A misanthropic teacher goes off to Crete on vacation, hoping to do some painting. With the way he describes himself, he sounds kind of gay, but that’s never pursued.

I am a schoolmaster by profession, or was. I handed in my resignation to the headmaster before the end of the summer term in order to forestall inevitable dismissal. The reason I gave was true enough – ill-health, caused by a wretched bug picked up on holiday in Crete, which might necessitate a stay in hospital of several weeks, various injections, etc. I did not specify the nature of the bug. He knew, though, and so did the rest of the staff. And the boys. My complaint is universal, and has been so through the ages, an excuse for jest and hilarious laughter from earliest times, until one of us oversteps the mark and becomes a menace to society. Then we are given the boot. The passerby averts his gaze, and we are left to crawl out of the ditch alone, or stay there and die.

If I am bitter, it is because the bug I caught was picked up in all innocence. Fellow sufferers of my complaint can plead predisposition, poor heredity, family trouble, excess of the good life, and, throwing themselves on a psychoanalyst’s couch, spill out the rotten beans within and so effect a cure. I can do none of this. The doctor to whom I endeavored to explain what had happened listened with a superior smile, and then murmured something about emotionally destructive identification coupled with repressed guilt, and put me on a course of pills. They might have helped me if I had taken them. Instead I threw them down the drain and became more deeply imbued with the poison that seeped through me, made worse, of course, by the fatal recognition of my condition by the youngsters I had believed to be my friends, who nudged one another when I came into class, or, with stifled laughter, bent their loathsome little heads over their desks – until the moment arrived when I knew I could not continue, and took the decision to knock on the headmaster’s door.

The story ends a little abruptly, so when I got to the end I flipped back to the beginning to read these first two paragraphs again, to fix the sequence of events clearly in my mind. I had to do the same when reading du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the aftermath of the final crisis is alluded to in the first chapter, and the final resolution is tucked away in the middle of the book.

A BORDERLINE CASE

Shelagh Money is a nineteen-year-old actress preparing to play Viola in Twelfth Night when her father dies. She decides to go see her father’s old friend from whom he has been estranged for years. She goes to Ireland and finds that Nick is even more eccentric than she had thought. He’s into practical jokes, including photographic fakery, and he also organizes bombing raids to protest the English occupation of Northern Ireland. He stays on his side of the border and warns the locals so there aren’t any casualties, but buildings go up in smoke. Shelagh learns the dangers of deception, and there’s a little gender-bending, as in the Shakespeare play. Nick doesn’t jump straight into her pants, so she jumps to conclusions a bit. What can you do? She’s rich, pretty, and nineteen, therefore accustomed to getting what she wants.

Nick was a homo. They were all homos. That was why Nick had been sacked from the Navy. Her father had found out, couldn’t pass him for promotion, and Nick had borne a grudge ever afterward. Perhaps, even, the dates she had copied from the list referred to times when Nick had got into trouble. The photograph was a blind – homos often tried to cover themselves by pretending they were married. Oh, not Nick . . . It was the end. She couldn’t bear it. Why must the only attractive man she had ever met in her life have to be like that? Goddamn and blast them all, stripped to the waist there down by the megalithic tomb. They were probably doing the same in the control room now. There was no point in anything anymore. No sense in her mission. The sooner she left the island and flew back home the better.

Of course, less than ten pages later he’s proving just how very wrong she is.

She could see nothing in the darkness of the van, not even the face of her watch. Time did not exist. It’s body chemistry, she told herself, that’s what does it. People’s skins. They either blend or they don’t. They either merge and melt into the same texture, dissolve and become renewed, or nothing happens, like faulty plugs, blown fuses, switchboard jams. When the thing goes right, as it had for me tonight, then it’s arrows splintering the sky, it’s forest fires, it’s Agincourt. I shall live till I’m ninety-five, marry some nice man, have fifteen children, win stage awards and Oscars, but never again will the world break into fragments, burn before my eyes. I’ve bloody had it . . .

There is some fear of mental illness, but in the end, I don’t think that’s the problem. You don’t need nonstandard brain chemistry to rebel against society, to do questionable things just because you can. I mean, visiting your best friend’s wife while he’s out of town, getting her drunk and date-raping her simply because she doesn’t like your jokes, is criminal, not funny. And while some of that can be explained by the possibility of Nick being mentally ill, explaining it does not excuse it.

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

A group of people come to Jerusalem to see the holy sites. Unfortunately, their minister becomes ill and has to stay on the boat in Haifa, and they adopt another churchman to guide them. However, Jerusalem is a disorganized mess, and so are they. People get lost, overhear things about themselves they weren’t meant to, make mistakes, nearly die. These aren’t humble pilgrims, they’re vacationers (there’s even a couple on their honeymoon), and they’re almost all wealthy and proud. So the story is a course of humiliation, crowds, danger, fear. Many of the important events of the Biblical story of the Passion are parodied. This story is less straightforwardly Gothic than the others; it’s more often sad than scary.

So, not only am I fond of reading Gothic stories, but I’m also fond of watching scary movies and TV shows. It’s given me a lot of time to ponder fear, and what our culture is afraid of. It seems that the answer is, death. We tend to be afraid of what we don’t know or understand, and death is fundamentally unknowable. Culturally, we turn to the supernatural in order to cope with the fear of death. Religions have grown up as a way of helping us handle fear and grief. The ancient mythologies are full of assurances that life continues after death, with a system of rewards and punishments for the activities of our current lives. I heard someone saying recently that she’s not too upset about her twelve miscarriages because she believes that she’ll raise those children in the afterlife. Her version of Christianity negates death altogether. It makes sense, then, that Gothic experiences a revival when faith is in recession. It seems a human trait that we need some experience with the supernatural, whether it’s God or the devil or the spirits of nature or vampires or zombies or mummies or whatever. We don’t need to believe in it; we need to experience it, either for ourselves or vicariously through fiction. The desire to elude death through supernatural powers seems to be a human trait. At least in Western cultures, we can’t get away from the need to get away from death. If we become comfortable with the idea of our own mortality, we’re called a danger to ourselves and others and prescribed medication. Death is natural and inevitable, so I try to accept it with the same equanimity with which I accept my same-sex attraction.

Du Maurier writes some beautiful stories. These aren’t exceptions, they’re just shorter than the pieces I’m used to working with. Each one can be read in the length of time it takes to watch a movie. So, bite-size du Maurier, like a little snack. Enjoy it.

I know. I know, people who are as poor as I am have no business peeking into used bookshops, even if they are new in town, and even if it’s Memorial Day weekend and no other shops are open. So I did, and the owner was terribly friendly, so of course I did what I had sworn I would not do. I bought a couple of books. Less than a week later, I picked up a couple more because I feel guilty using a store’s wi-fi for an hour without spending any money there. Besides, circumstances in my life are demanding that I make some decisions with relation to my belief system, and when I saw the title of this book I knew intuitively that I needed to read it.

You see, I’ve been getting lonely on the weekends. The loneliness drove me to visit the local Mormon church, because this is the church I was raised in, and I needed to meet some friendly people. Mormons are always happy to welcome a member who is new to their town. No need to mention that after two months of living here and exploring these two towns, I didn’t feel exactly new any more. So I’ve been there two or three times, and so the bishop called me in to have a little getting-to-know-you chat. He seems friendly (I seem to have passed the age beyond which pastors no longer seem paternal), not really bothered by the whole gay thing. But a week or two ago he asked me back in, and the conversation, while not threatening, was more professional than friendly. The problem is this. Even though I haven’t thought about myself this way in quite some time, in their terms, I bear the priesthood of Melchizedek, the high priest of the Old Testament. Yet, as a single man not given to celibacy, I have done things that the church cannot abide. They say that it’s the premarital nature of the sex that’s a problem, not the gender of the actors involved, though I confess that I have some doubts on that score. Not having premeditated a plan for this conversation, naturally I panicked. Long painful pauses, some random stammering. We agreed not to withdraw my church membership immediately, but we’re going to continue to have these little chats from time to time.

So I’ve spent these almost-two weeks trying to understand myself. What I do and don’t believe seems too big a topic for me to tackle all at once, so I’ve gone at the situation from a different angle. Why am I reluctant to take the active role in terminating my alliance with this church? The only answer I’ve been able to accept is sentiment. It’s not the doctrine; most of it, especially the stuff central and unique to them, seems like bollocks. If there is any sort of trajectory to my life, any overall moral lesson, it has been that no one is going to save me. Either I do it myself or it doesn’t get done. Most people are kind, and many of them want to help, but if there is to be any meaningful transformation in my life (aka salvation) it has to come from me. No one else is going to do it. Partially because I don’t like being helped, and partially because they all have their own shit to deal with. Like Rilke’s God, who sort of accidentally created humanity. He had gathered up the clay and was shaping it, but other problems kept coming up, like a baby bird who had lost its parents, so he stopped looking and let his hands carry on without him. God’s hands finish the first man and drop him down onto the earth while God’s eyes and attention are elsewhere. According to Rilke, God is still looking for a complete and perfect man, unsuccessfully since the dawn of time.

“And that is why it is urgently necessary that God should learn what man really is like. Let us rejoice that there are those who tell him . . .”

The good lady was not yet rejoicing.

“And who might they be, if you please?”

“Simply the children, and now and again, too, the people who paint, write poems, build . . .”

“Build what, churches?”

“Yes, and other things too – build in general . . .”

As I was saying, sentiment. I feel a great deal of nostalgia for the person I once was, for the boy who could see life as simple, like the German einfach, one-fold, singular. He was kind of narrow, but he was sweet and happy, innocent. Rilke’s stories are written with children in mind, and I believe that part of the attraction this book held for me is in my need to reconcile the man I have become with the overgrown boy I held onto being for too long. Another important aspect of this sentiment is my desire for my parents’ approval. I forfeited that when I told them that I’m gay, and I’ve been regaining it insomuch as I can convince them that I am still the same person I’ve always been. Around them, I am as little different as possible. Okay, in truth, I’m not very different at all, but I’ve always been careful only to show them one side of me, and it’s not the side of my character that is actually most prominent. I worry that if I voluntarily withdraw my church membership, my parents will never forgive me. There are also the many friends who have worked so hard to keep me in this church. It’s been the best way I know to honor their love for me, by continuing to belong to an organization that brings them so much personal fulfillment. The Mormon church does a lot of good things for people and meets many physical and emotional needs; just not mine.

Christians (including Mormons) are apt to say that the only way to truly find oneself is in God. You give God everything you have and deny yourself of all ungodliness, and God returns to you all of the things that are really you and gives you a sense of complete identity. This follows the implications of Paul’s epistles, that who we really are is an obedient spirit wrapped up in an envelope of sinful flesh. Good desires come from our true selves, while evil desires come from the physical body, which is not really us. Mormons teach that the body and spirit together form the human soul, but they tend to cling to this holy spirit/evil flesh dichotomy, and I don’t believe in it. I lived that way for a long time, and it’s like I was living half a life. I kept wanting to destroy parts of myself, important, significant parts that shape my character. I hid several aspects of my real self from my conscious self in my labors for divine approval. Now I try to accept whatever aspect of my self is revealed to me. I don’t have that surface happiness any more, but nor do I have the hidden self-hatred. I am becoming simpler, a more unified self, while my view of the world is becoming more complex, more multiple.

The thing I keep running aground on, in terms of faith, is not a belief in God itself, it’s all the add-ons. You believe in God, so you must also believe that you’re a sinful creature in need of Jesus’ blood to save you from hellfire. You believe in God, so you must also believe that Joseph Smith was led by an angel to recover a religious document remarkably similar to the Bible, engraved on golden sheets, preserved by God in a hole in the ground for fourteen hundred years. You believe in God, so you must also believe that God sent his messenger Gibreel to communicate his final message to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) fifteen hundred years ago. You believe in God, so you must believe the world is a mirage, a symbol of spiritual truths not yet directly revealed to us. You believe in God, so you must believe that homosexuality is evil, which means that God built you for either celibacy or damnation, though most days you can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s all this other rubbish that seems absurd; the simple idea of a God doesn’t.

And this, I think, is one of the real strengths of Rilke’s book. He presents us with a God unencumbered by sanctimonious rubbish. His God gets distracted, forgets things, misunderstands, and reveals himself in the least likely places. I suppose you could say that this version of God is too limited, that God should be infinite, infinitely beyond our comprehension, all-seeing/all-knowing/all-powerful. Such a God is easy for people to worship (most people – I don’t know if I have a reverent bone in my body), but hard to love. To love, you have to be able to draw something close to you. Rilke’s God is harder to worship, but easier to love. And my need to love is stronger than my need to venerate.

In “A Story Told to the Dark,” Rilke introduces a ‘fallen woman,’ someone who left her husband for the love of an artist and now raises her illegitimate child alone. Her childhood friend comes to visit her, and she explains to him how she has come to love God:

“As a child – did I love God? I don’t believe so. Why, I never even – it would have seemed to me insane presumption – that isn’t the right word – like the worst sin, to think: He is. As though I had thereby compelled him to be in me, in that weak child with the absurdly long arms, in our poor apartment where everything was imitation and false, from the bronze wall-plaques of papier mâché to the wine in the bottles that bore such expensive labels. And later – ” Klara made a parrying gesture with her hands, and her eyes closed tighter, as though she feared to see something dreadful through the lids – “why, I would have had to drive him out of me if he had been living in me then. But I knew nothing about him. I had quite forgotten him. I had forgotten everything. – Not until I came to Florence, when for the first time in my life I saw, heard, felt, realized and simultaneously learned to be thankful for all those things, did I think of him again. There were traces of him everywhere. In all the pictures I found bits of his smile, the bells were still alive with his voice, and on the statues I recognized the imprints of his hands.”

“And you found him there?”

Klara looked at the doctor with large, happy eyes: “I felt that he was – at some time once was . . . why should I have felt more? That was already more than enough.”

The doctor got up and went to the window. From it one could see a stretch of field and the little old village church of Schwabing, and above it the sky, no longer quite untouched by evening. Suddenly Doctor Lassmann asked, without turning round:

“And now?”

Receiving no answer, he came quietly back.

“Now – ” Klara faltered as he stood before her, and then raised her eyes full to his face, “now I sometimes think: He will be.”

I can cope with this idea, of God as the Arthurian legend, the once and future king. I know that I should try to stick with the Rilke here, but this idea of his has reminded me of another book, that expresses a similar attitude toward God but more familiarly (for me):

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“Hark ye yet again, – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines. […]”

If Melville is right, and Moby Dick is just a mask through which Ahab can strike at God, then Rilke is also right, and Klara can learn to love God through her aesthetic sense. And as I think about my life since coming out, this appreciation of the beauty in art and nature has actually been sharpened. Without realizing it, I have been loving God through the mask of creation this whole time. If reverence is only to be found in genuflecting, using only the right terms and metaphors, and fostering a lively sense of my own nothingness, then yes, I am a failure. But if reverence can be found in the sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the world, at sunlight on long grass or wind through freshly-leaved trees, or a series of statues in a French park or the paintings of an old Dutch master, then there is indeed hope for me yet.

Perhaps this is what I need to fix clearly in my mind before my next little chat with the bishop: his church, while it can offer me some measure of human love and support, in the long run it cannot offer me hope. If I fall back into the habit of believing them, my future will ultimately be one of despair. Hope and peace are in the woods, in the art galleries, in the libraries, in the love of a good man. And that is where I will find my faith as well.

Had I picked up this novel when it was first published, I doubt I would know what to think. Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, are fairly straightforward, the narrative voice simple and clear, the books move as we expect books to. Then along comes Jacob’s Room, and it’s none of those things. Now, we know Woolf as experimenting with the techniques of painting in her novels, some blending of Cubism, Impressionism, and Expressionism, but in Jacob’s Room she’s still working on her technique. It’s kind of like what Mrs Dalloway would be, if it were written by David Lynch – disjointed, pregnant with the unsaid, flirting with obscenity, not making much sense the first time through but not establishing sufficient exigency to experience it again right away.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself; stalls, boxes, amphitheatre, gallery. The moulds are filled nightly. There is no need to distinguish details. But the difficulty remains – one has to choose. For though I have no wish to be Queen of England or only for a moment – I would willingly sit beside her; I would hear the Prime Minister’s gossip; the countess whisper, and share her memories of halls and gardens; the massive fronts of the respectable conceal after all their secret code; or why so impermeable? And then, doffing one’s own headpiece, how strange to assume for a moment some one’s – any one’s – to be a man of valour who has ruled the Empire; to refer while Brangaena sings to the fragments of Sophocles, or see in a flash, as the shepherd pipes his tune, bridges and aqueducts. But no – we must choose. Never was there a harsher necessity! or one which entails greater pain, more certain disaster; for wherever I seat myself, I die in exile: Whittaker in his lodging-house; Lady Charles at the Manor.

After reading the book, I think about how we react to people after they’ve died. We look at every moment of their lives at once, as if the person never aged but lived all his life in one Eternal Now. Fiction and biography give us the idea that lives have trajectory, as if death is a destination that we are all traveling toward, but our lived experience of death is different. Our daily lives seem static, and one day passes like the next, and then suddenly someone isn’t here any more and we forget the bad things and tell the funny stories and good impressions, the loves and endearing habits without the hatred and mistakes. We can forgive the dead nearly anything, because it’s often only after someone is dead that we realize that love is more durable than anger, and therefore more significant.

In subject matter, this book comes nearer D. H. Lawrence than anything else I’ve read by Woolf. She’s much franker about sex than she is customarily, especially the idea that some men prefer each other’s company to that of women. Young men strip their clothes off but don’t go swimming immediately, and some men reach middle age without marrying but forming possessive attachments with their peers. But the details are reserved for loose women.

The letter lay upon the hall table; Florinda coming in that night took it up with her, put it on the table as she kissed Jacob, and Jacob seeing the hand, left it there under the lamp, between the biscuit-tin and the tobacco-box. They shut the bedroom door behind them.

The sitting-room neither knew nor cared. The door was shut; and to suppose that wood, when it creaks, transmits anything save that rats are busy and wood dry is childish. These old houses are only brick and wood, soaked in human sweat, grained with human dirt. But if the pale blue envelope lying by the biscuit-box had the feelings of a mother, the heart was torn by the little creak, the sudden stir. Behind the door was the obscene thing, the alarming presence, and terror would come over her as at death, or the birth of a child. Better, perhaps, burst in and face it than sit in the antechamber listening to the little creak, the sudden stir, for her heart was swollen, and pain threaded it. My son, my son – such would be her cry, uttered to hide her vision of him stretched with Florinda, inexcusable, irrational, in a woman with three children living at Scarborough. And the fault lay with Florinda. Indeed, when the door opened and the couple came out, Mrs Flanders would have flounced upon her – only it was Jacob who came first, in his dressing-gown, amiable, authoritative, beautifully healthy, like a baby after an airing, with an eye clear as running water. Florinda followed, lazily stretching; yawning a little; arranging her hair at the looking-glass – while Jacob read his mother’s letter.

The concerns that Woolf will become more well-known for do assert themselves from time to time, as in this passage that seems to belong to A Room of One’s Own or Three Guineas:

But coming along Gerrard Street was a tall man in a shabby coat. A shadow fell across Evelina’s window – Jacob’s shadow, though it was not Jacob. And Fanny turned and walked along Gerrard Street and wished that she had read books. Nick never read books, never talked of Ireland, or the House of Lords; and as for his finger-nails! She would learn Latin and read Virgil. She had been a great reader. She had read Scott; she had read Dumas. At the Slade no one read. But no one knew Fanny at the Slade, or guessed how empty it seemed to her; the passion for ear-rings, for dances, for Tonks and Steer – when it was only the French who could paint, Jacob said. For the moderns were futile; painting the least respectable of the arts; and why read anything but Marlowe and Shakespeare, Jacob said, and Fielding if you must read novels?

“Fielding,” said Fanny, when the man in Charing Cross Road asked her what book she wanted.

She bought Tom Jones.

At ten o’clock in the morning, in a room which she shared with a school teacher, Fanny Elmer read Tom Jones – that mystic book. For this dull stuff (Fanny thought) about people with odd names is what Jacob likes. Good people like it. Dowdy women who don’t mind how they cross their legs read Tom Jones – a mystic book; for there is something, Fanny thought, about books which if I had been educated I could have liked – much better than ear-rings and flowers, she sighed, thinking of the corridors at the Slade and the fancy-dress dance next week. She had nothing to wear.

They are real, thought Fanny Elmer, setting her feet on the mantelpiece. Some people are. Nick perhaps, only he was so stupid. And women never – except Miss Sargent, but she went off at lunch-time and gave herself airs. There they sat quietly of a night reading, she thought. Not going to music-halls; not looking in at shop windows; not wearing each other’s clothes, like Robertson who had worn her shawl, and she had worn his waistcoat, which Jacob could only do very awkwardly; for he liked Tom Jones.

There it lay on her lap, in double columns, price three and sixpence; the mystic book in which Henry Fielding ever so many years ago rebuked Fanny Elmer for feasting on scarlet, in perfect prose, Jacob said. For he never read modern novels. He liked Tom Jones.

“I do like Tom Jones,” said Fanny, at five-thirty that same day early in April when Jacob took out his pipe in the arm-chair opposite.

Many people seem to think that the significant thing about someone is whether she reads, and everyone who loves books will naturally have a great deal in common about which they can talk. Fanny Elmer has realized the lie in that thought. It’s not enough just to read; you have to read the same things, though frankly even with people who like the same books as I do, I don’t have much to say. I feel a great surge of affection for someone who shares my taste in books, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into conversation. Our books shape our pattern of thinking, and it’s the recognition of the similarity in mindsets that draws readers together, but generally in a companionable silence.

It is curious, lying in a boat, to watch the waves. Here are three coming regularly one after another, all much of a size. Then, hurrying after them comes a fourth, very large and menacing; it lifts the boat; on it goes; somehow merges without accomplishing anything; flattens itself out with the rest.

What can be more violent than the fling of boughs in a gale, the tree yielding itself all up the trunk, to the very tip of the branch, streaming and shuddering the way the wind blows, yet never flying in dishevelment away? The corn squirms and abases itself as if preparing to tug itself free from the roots, and yet is tied down.

Why, from the very windows, even in the dusk, you see a swelling run through the street, an aspiration, as with arms outstretched, eyes desiring, mouths agape. And then we peaceably subside. For if the exaltation lasted we should be blown like foam into the air. The stars would shine through us. We should go down the gale in salt drops – as sometimes happens. For the impetuous spirits will have none of this cradling. Never any swaying or aimlessly lolling for them. Never any making believe, or lying cosily, or genially supposing that one is much like another, fire warm, wine pleasant, extravagance a sin.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I felt confined by government policies and social norms. The impetuous spirit in me is still raging against confinement, but now it’s an inconvenient economic situation penning me in. I just want the freedom to go out and find someone to love; it doesn’t seem like much to ask for, but apparently it’s entirely too much. I’m going to have to work my ass off at two jobs just for the privilege of driving an hour to the nearest establishment for men of my type, buying a drink or two, and meeting someone. I keep thinking that life shouldn’t be this hard, but it continues as ever, heedless of my railing.

My grandfather died last week. The funeral is a week from tomorrow, and already I can feel his life being flattened under a slide for the microscope. My mother will remember that he was a churchgoer who served in World War II, worked for the government, and raised a large family. Other family members will remember his support for liberal politics, and the fact that he loved his children more than religious dogma. I’ll think of how he always played with us when they came to visit. I’ll miss buying a bag of pecans at Christmas (and a bag of Dove chocolates for my grandmother, who died a few years ago), and playing Scrabble with one of the world’s sorest losers. He didn’t lose often, probably because he kept the score. He always said, “A scorekeeper who doesn’t win isn’t a very good scorekeeper.” I’m very proud of the fact that he spent his time in the war saving lives without taking any. He worked closely with General Eisenhower, and he used his radio to deceive the Germans into thinking Allied troops were where they weren’t, often by being himself one of only two American soldiers in an area. He was kind, and patriotic, and loving, and popular in a way that I don’t think I shall ever be. When I think that I will never see him again, that word never seems to make my life stretch out like a desert highway with no relief or shelter in sight. Death always makes me feel so alone.

After reading a book about him, I still don’t feel as if I knew Jacob Flanders well at all. I don’t think anyone else does either. I worry that when I die I’ll leave a similar impression on the world. I’ve been called mysterious and secretive, but I really just want to love and be loved. And in order for me to trust that I am loved, I need to feel known. I don’t want to end up like him, a bunch of letters and receipts scattered around a room, with a pair of old shoes.