Posts Tagged ‘celibacy’

August

Hide and Seek (Wilkie Collins)

In this novel Collins starts his interest in writing about the disabled, with Magdalen as his deaf heroine. She’s a real angel in the house, and we conclude with the same brother/sister ending that we had in Basil. I’m kind of hoping that he gets off of this kick, because while I do acknowledge the validity of love between people who aren’t having sex, the fact that Collins keeps replacing the traditional married couple with a pair of siblings makes me wonder about the nature of the relationship, especially in a story like this one where the two kids don’t know about their consanguinity for most of the birth-mystery plot, so they toy with romance a bit before they realize. One of the strongest themes for me is the suspect nature of visibly excessive virtue – the people who are strictest with others have the most to hide, as in all those leaders of conversion therapy camps who later come out as gay. And not the quiet, domestic sort of gay that I am – we’re talking rowdy rent boys in loud techno sex clubs gay.

Sunjata (Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute)

This is a west African epic, in this edition transcribed from a couple of performances by famous bards. It is difficult to capture the magic of a live performance in a written medium, but the editor sure tries his hardest. I think this edition is useful for those of us who are interested in traditional stories but don’t have our own immediate access to traditional African bards.

Zeus is Undead: This One Has Zombies (Michael G. Munz)

The sequel to Zeus is Dead, which I read back in June. The characters who annoyed me in the first book are either absent or only appear in cameos, so I prefer this one. Instead of drifting around to several different characters, Munz keeps a much tighter focus on a single protagonist, Athena trying to win back her divinity by solving the mystery of the zombies’ origin. As with any good sequel, this book is about the consequences of what happened in the previous book, and you can’t just go around killing goddesses and expect nothing bad to happen.

Sugar and Other Stories (A. S. Byatt)

Reading this book, I was actually wondering what I was going to write about it here. I thought about aboutness, a real word/concept we use in cataloging. This book is about the emotional lives of intelligent women. [Find me a Library of Congress Subject Heading for that.] Like many of the women in this book, I was a smart child who grew up and wanted to be known for his heart rather than his brain. So many people treated me like a disembodied intellect, and I went along with it – it’s rather a job to make up for lost time and balance myself out now. I recognize that it’s easier for me to be smart because I’m a man and people either expect me to be intelligent or at least to believe in my own intelligence, which is the opposite of what they expect of women. Byatt’s argument, here and in many of her other early works, seems to be that women have both heads and hearts, and can use both effectively, even simultaneously.

The Lord Won’t Mind (Gordon Merrick)

Okay, so I recognize the groundbreaking nature of having written a gay romance in 1969. I know the cultural issues surrounding coming of age in the United States in 1940. But the protagonist of this book is so racist, so misogynist, so homophobic, so toxic that I had a hard time reading about him. Charlie is a terrible person who, when a girl sets boundaries about what he can do with her body, thinks that he ought to rape her because she ‘deserves’ it. There is a lot of explicit gay sex in the first part of the novel, and it’s really hot and really works for me, but then Charlie gets all stupid and breaks up with Peter and marries the first woman he can find. Then he gets abusive and breaks up with her, after he’s beaten her so hard that she’ll never act again, and go finds Peter again. Peter has been nothing but sweet, honest, and tolerant this whole time, so I really worry that Charlie’s going to beat the shit out of him too, leaving him too disfigured to turn tricks, so I don’t want to read the sequels. Charlie’s not anyone I want to spend my time reading about.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

A novel without a real plot. Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about the cities he’s visited and heard of in his travels, most of which are impossible to really exist. They all have women’s names, so I wonder if he’s speaking metaphorically about people he’s met. As the stories go on, it becomes less easy to know what’s real and what isn’t, who’s speaking and who’s listening, and where the story is being created, if there even is one. It might be a bit destabilizing, but I thought it was very good.

Weight (Jeanette Winterson)

Yes, I’ve read this book before. I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m allowed to reread. It’s easy to focus on Atlas, the man carrying a heavy burden who learns to let it go. This time I saw the story of Heracles, the bragging, self-centered idiot who is changed by carrying a weight too heavy for him that he dare not lay down. It’s not just the physical weight of the world; it’s the weight of being alone, afraid that the loneliness will never end. When it does end, he’s still changed by it.

The Invention of Heterosexuality (Jonathan Ned Katz)

If you will recall, a little more than a hundred years ago people in the United States created the concept of whiteness as a way to pacify the masses of poor immigrants, I’m thinking of the Irish and southern Europeans. Yes, your lives are shit and no one will hire you or speak to you in a language you can understand, but at least you’re not black. You’re white, and there will always be a place in our slums for you. Katz gives a similar historical survey of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tracing the formation of the heterosexual identity. As gays and lesbians became more vocal about their existence, innate dignity, and basic human rights, heterosexuals began to examine their own sexual orientation identity and to codify what it means to be ‘straight’. In what situations is it acceptable for same-gender heterosexuals to express affection, and how should it be expressed? What habits of dress, mannerism, and behavior characterize the heterosexual American? The book is very interesting in looking at the changing nature of ‘normal’ and the codification of homophobia; I don’t think it should be labeled for gay/lesbian studies (eh-hem, publisher who printed that on the back of the book). I think that in some places Katz’s analysis is a little slap-dash, and his understanding of American history seems a bit incomplete (we didn’t all land at Plymouth Rock), but there’s still a lot of value here. I think this book is a good starting place, but that we need more granular perspectives, a closer reading of specific times and places. The United States is hardly a single monoculture, even today. Katz tends to homogenize the country as he decries the homogenization it performs on itself.

Let’s Talk About Love (Claire Kann)

YA asexual romance. Protagonist is a biromantic asexual college student, starting with the breakup from the girlfriend she loves but doesn’t want to have sex with and working through the friendship that becomes her next relationship. Our culture puts so much emphasis on sexual license for people in their late teens and early twenties that a young woman of color really has to fight for her right not to have sex. She works at a library, which makes me happy, and falls for the guy who volunteers for storytime. He’s straight, so when they do finally have the talk about sex (after having already broken several touch barriers), it’s a struggle for him to deal with the fact that they’re not going to do it. There’s a happy ending, where he says that all the passion and connection he looks for in a sexual relationship are already present with them, but I personally tend to doubt what he says. He loves her, yes, and he’s not a rapist, but I don’t think he’s going to be long-term happy with lifelong celibacy. It’s very much a happily-for-now, not a happily-ever-after.

 

September Books

The Hangman’s Daughter (Oliver Pötzsch)

Historical mystery. The author comes from a long line of executioners, so he did some research into life in small-town Bavaria in the seventeenth century and wrote a murder mystery featuring his however-many-greats-grandfather. Kids are being killed during the week of Walpurgisnacht, and when found they have alchemical symbols drawn on their bodies, so everyone assumes witchcraft. Despite the potential for emphasis on women’s wisdom (and the title referring to a woman), female characters are not really terribly important (the woman of the title is identified by her relationship to a man, not anything inherent in her). This is a book about the hangman and the doctor in love with his daughter, their interest in herbal medicine and modern surgical methods as opposed to the traditional four-humors style of healing by opening veins and forcing laxatives. When women appear, they are fantastic and strong and wise, but we spend most of our time in the heads of the men investigating and perpetrating the crimes. As with the witchcraft itself, women are a distraction or a misdirection, red herrings all. Some of the characters I read in the voice of angry Nazi officers in films, both American and German, which adds a layer of fear that I don’t know was intended. The fact that I can do this seems to point to the quality of the translation – I take it it’s very good.

The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)

“If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?” Maggie Tulliver is a girl who holds tightly to the ties of mutual history that bind her to her family, no matter how miserable they make her. Eliot spends a good bit of time setting up the tug-of-war tragedy of Maggie’s adult life, so it can seem a bit slow at the beginning, when everyone is talking about the future. The foreshadowing is heavy, and then the reflection on the past is heavy as well, and the weight of all that is not present tense crushes her. I really want Maggie to focus on right now for a few minutes, but when she does she breaks convention so strongly that she’s shunned for the rest of the book. I identified very closely with Maggie on this reading; my family vexes, ignores, and intolerates me, but I feel equally unable to cut the ties, no matter how loose they have become, no matter how many Stephen Guests tell me it’s okay to do it. Sometimes I feel so distanced from them that my own last name seems foreign to me. Spending time with them feels like I’m complete, as if I’ve misplaced a part of my identity that only lives with them, even though/even while they constantly reinscribe my role as Lost Child, the tabula rasa who hides his own personality like a palimpsest, wanting to be valued but afraid to be seen.

Where Angels Fear to Tread (E. M. Forster)

This is a story of cultural contact, looking at the way Englishpeople respond to Italy. The fools rushing in, implied by the title, are the English family who seem determined to destroy the life of a handsome young Italian. All the English know that while Italy is beautiful, both by nature and as home of Renaissance art, actual Italian people are dirty and evil, no matter how sexy (probably because they’re so sexy – there’s no way someone that pretty and that dark could be good). It’s easier to stay racist at a distance, so when the English come to Italy they can’t hold onto their resolutions, leading to blunders and foolishness and ruined lives. It’s not always clear when Forster is speaking in his own voice or narrating the inner monologues of his characters, so it’s not always clear where the racism is coming from, but the broad strokes make it clear that the English are idiots and the Italians are better off without their meddling. Misogynistic philanderers, maybe, but also close to nature, closer to the marrow of their own lives. If you can stop thinking of love as monogamous and possessive, then modern Italian culture as Forster portrays it can be really beautiful as well. They just experience chivalry differently than the English do. There’s a strong sense that the English experience goodness as passivity and part of Italian evil is the willingness to act, but I think that good and evil are not easily mapped onto passivity and activity – I don’t think either of these binaries actually exists except on a spectrum from one extreme to another, and that inherent nature (which I perceive to be good, distinct from the dominant culture’s perception of good) always lies somewhere in the middle.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)

Another book about Man’s relationship to Time. I use Man in the gender-specific sense because women are not prominent in this story. They can act as ideals for men to practice their chivalry upon, but if they take up any space in the narrative at all it’s as the fallen woman or the evil witch. It’s a story of men learning to accept the aging process, not trying to speed it up when we’re younger or reverse it when we’re older, not placing sole value on our existence between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. Will and Jim are thirteen-year-old best friends, and in one of the easily-forgotten-yet-foundational early scenes, they watch while a couple has sex with the window open. I guess pornography wasn’t readily available in Bradbury’s Illinois, so Jim is continually drawn back to staring in the window of adulthood while Will keeps pulling him back toward childhood. The dark carnival arrives almost immediately, turning the literal growth of sexuality into surreal metaphor. Will’s father Charles occupies the opposite end of things, older than most first-time parents, so much older than his wife that people mistake him for her father. Realistically, she’s probably only ten or fifteen years younger, but Charles looks old for his age. He’s the janitor at the library, which I find interesting because (a) there’s no stigma attached to his work, and (b) there are no librarians. Librarians were mostly female at this time, and the profession was consciously trying masculinize itself in its rebranding as library SCIENCE. Charles Halloway manages to use the library resources in the absence of the trained library employees, as if to point out that all that education women get in organizing and providing access to resources is unnecessary to a man who is determined to root out evil. The book has a way of erasing women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities, leaving us with a world of ‘straight’ white men eradicating evil through the power of their contempt and desperate self-control. I do appreciate the lesson that we see later on in Harry Potter’s boggarts, that the best way to deal with fear is to laugh at it, but Green Town is such a restricted view of the United States that I find it claustrophobic, creepy even without Cooger and Dark’s. Bradbury’s writing is beautiful, but very firmly rooted in the conformist part of the early 1960s.

As it is, this collection wasn’t put together in Lawrence’s lifetime. Three of them were published together, with one of those having been previously published in a periodical. This group of three is from the early 1920s, around the time of Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. The fourth story is from the very end of his career, after Lady Chatterley, at the time of The Virgin and the Gipsy. These are all love stories, but as one might expect from Lawrence, they’re all a little unusual.

LOVE AMONG THE HAYSTACKS

This is the one from the end of his life, but it really feels a lot more similar to his earlier work focusing on the lives, loves, and opportunities of the rural poor. Maurice is young and in love with the vicar’s young foreign governess. It seems a little miraculous, because there are not many young people in the area, and he and his brothers haven’t had much romantic experience. His older brother Geoffrey is jealous and surly – not because he wants this woman, but because he wants a woman. As they’re harvesting hay, they meet a homeless man and his unhappy wife. That night, Maurice stays in the field to guard the hay, and his Polish lady comes to him. When it starts to rain, she helps him cover the hay, but at the top of one of the stacks the ladder falls down and they’re stuck there all night. Geoffrey comes round to help cover the hay and sees what happened. He covers the hay himself and leaves them to it. The unhappy woman from earlier pops by looking for her worthless husband, and Geoffrey comforts her. By the morning, he has plans to run off to Canada with her, and Maurice and his girlfriend are not as pleased with each other as they had been.

So yes, sex means different things to different people, and at different times. For Maurice and Paula it seems like a disappointment. They are all impatient to make it happen, but afterward they’re bickering and unpeaceful. For Geoffrey and Lydia, it solidifies their feelings for each other and gives them motivation to press forward, even though there are some substantial obstacles to their being together. I know that we euphemize the activity as making love, but it seems to prove and strengthen love, not create it. I suppose I’m supposed to be shocked at the fact that Lydia cheats on her husband and then leaves him, but that’s not content that shocks me any more. A man can’t marry a woman and assume he’s done his part. Relationships bring expectations, and there’s no reason for her to stay with someone she can’t love.

THE LADYBIRD

In the United States we call the titular insect a ladybug, as if it was somehow perturbaceous. The ladybird in the story is on the family crest of a German officer in a prison hospital in England during World War I. He sometimes uses it as a symbol for himself. The protagonist is a young woman he knew before the war; they met while she was on holiday with her parents. Now she’s married to a young officer believed to be dead, and she learns that her old friend is being held close by. He’s a little firecracker, not very tall but very passionate about his feelings and the sense of isolation. Daphne is his only connection to the happy life he knew before the Great War – he had given her a thimble with a ladybird on it as a keepsake. She doesn’t really like him, but she feels drawn to him in a way she can’t describe to herself. There’s something indefinably sexy about this fiery little German, and even though she keeps thinking she’ll stay away, she keeps coming back.

Then, of course, her husband isn’t dead after all. Basil comes back and he’s all light and conformity where Count Dionys is all darkness and rebellion. After a few nights Basil realizes he’s no longer interested in sex. It’s not that big a deal since they have separate bedrooms anyway (tradition in wealthier English families – I hope they’ve given it up). So when they invite the German count to stay with them before his return to the Continent, it’s easy for her to sneak into his room at night. There’s a lot of social pressure for Daphne to be with Basil – he’s the right sort of husband, socially speaking – but I think that in a different society, one where women were free to be themselves and choose for themselves, she would have chosen the Count, and not just at night.

She never saw him as a lover. When she saw him, he was the little officer, a prisoner, quiet, claiming nothing in all the world. And when she went to him as his lover, his wife, it was always dark. She only knew his voice and his contact in darkness. “My wife in darkness,” he said to her. And in this too she believed him. She would not have contradicted him, no, not for anything on earth: lest, contradicting him she should lose the dark treasure of stillness and bliss which she kept in her breast even when her heart was wrung with the agony of knowing he must go.

No, she had found this wonderful thing after she had heard him singing: she had suddenly collapsed away from her old self into this darkness, this peace, this quiescence that was like a full dark river flowing eternally in her soul. She had gone to sleep from the nuit blanche of her days. And Basil, wonderful, had changed almost at once. She feared him, lest he might change back again. She would always have him to fear. But deep inside her she only feared for this love of hers for the Count: this dark, everlasting love that was like a full river flowing for ever inside her. Ah, let that not be broken.

THE FOX

This is the one that was published in a magazine, which I find sort of odd because it’s the one that takes on LGBT issues the most obviously. March and Banford are two women who live on a farm during the war. Their farm isn’t super productive, either because gay relationships don’t lead to childbirth and are thus sterile or because they’re not that great at farming. They end up focusing on chickens, which still isn’t that successful because there’s a fox that keeps stealing hens. March sees him once and is shocked into stillness, like that Annie Dillard piece about weasels. Winter is hard on animals, so I don’t really begrudge him the chickens, but then again, they’re not my chickens. Banford is furious about it. She may also be angry that the situation is out of her control; she tends to the house (the traditional women’s work) so she isn’t the one with the gun. March is the more masculine of the two (because even gay relationships have to conform to heterosexual norms), but after staring into the fox’s eyes she can’t kill it.

That was the symbol. The rest of the story is the reality. At war’s end the soldiers are coming home, and one of them wanders into their house. He had lived there with his grandfather before the war, and something vague and unimportant (probably death) led to the women renting the place. He’s young and handy – he even kills the fox for them. But he himself is the fox in this henhouse. Something about March’s defiance of gender roles draws him in. I wonder about him being closeted himself because he’s turned off when he sees her in a dress. He likes March to be mannish, and to be March instead of Nell. Even though he’s much younger, he talks her into marriage, which she of course breaks off once he’s out of the house.

I don’t see on what grounds I am going to marry you. I know I am not head over heels in love with you, as I have fancied myself to be with fellows when I was a young fool of a girl. You are an absolute stranger to me, and it seems to me as if you will always be one. So on what grounds am I going to marry you? When I think of Jill, she is ten times more real to me. I know her and I’m awfully fond of her, and I hate myself for a beast if I ever hurt her little finger. We have a life together. And even if it can’t last for ever, it is a life while it does last. And it might last as long as either of us lives. Who knows how long we’ve got to live? She is a delicate little thing, perhaps nobody but me knows how delicate. And as for me, I feel I might fall down the well any day. What I don’t seem to see at all is you. When I think of what I’ve been and what I’ve done with you, I’m afraid I am a few screws loose. I should be sorry to think that softening of the brain is setting in so soon, but that is what it seems like. You are such an absolute stranger, and so different from what I’m used to, and we don’t seem to have a thing in common. As for love, the very word seems impossible. I know what love means even in Jill’s case, and I know that in this affair with you it’s an absolute impossibility.

So of course he decides to kill one lesbian so he can marry the other. Men can be so depressing and predictable.

Most relationships have to deal with some jealousy at some point. We don’t put our eyes out when we tell someone we love them, and I’m sure even blind people’s eyes wander metaphorically. Jill Banford’s approach, to try to control the situation, is normal, natural, and ineffective. Telling someone what to do and how to interact with others seldom feels like love. That type of fear-based behavior can actually become abusive. But when someone decides you have to die, it’s normal and natural not to like them.

I feel sorry for March, because she has a choice between two people who want to control her and doesn’t see a third option for herself. The soldier boy is the poorer choice, what with the violence and the demand for her to be only a part of herself. One could argue that Banford is the same, but the condition on Banford’s love is that she be loved in return, not that March actively deny a large part of her identity and put up with the death of her lover.

The hetero love story here is really weird and powerfully fucked up. As love often is. But we do see some happiness for March and Banford, so the story isn’t unrelentingly sad. As with so many stories about foxes, it’s a warning. Not that lesbians shouldn’t reject male suitors, they absolutely should, but it’s wise for everyone to be vigilant about people on the edge of violence. Appeasement is a dangerous habit.

THE CAPTAIN’S DOLL

A Scottish captain is stationed in Germany, after the danger of the War has past. He’s sleeping with a local countess who makes dolls to earn her living. She makes one that is obviously him, the military coat and the plaid trousers and everything, and then his wife comes to visit and sees it. The Countess, Hannele, is mystified by their attitude toward sex, that sexual monogamy is insignificant. What matters is the emotions behind it. They can sleep with anyone they want so long as their actual love is only directed at each other. He doesn’t seem to love much of anyone, or at least not very strongly, so it’s of little moment to him, but it’s a big deal to Hannele. She’s not used to this idea, that his soul belongs to his wife but his penis is his own to do with as he likes, and she doesn’t like the situation it puts her in. She thinks that sex means something, and that the fact that he’s fucking her means he cares about her. The situation becomes a little too well known, so of course the wife takes him away. Fucking another woman is fine, but doing it indiscreetly is not. But Hannele won’t sell her the doll.

Years later, the wife dies and the captain comes back to Germany, desultorily looking for Hannele. Instead, he finds a still life painting of his doll. Suddenly the doll becomes this intense symbol of everything that he can’t handle about relationships; he sees women as making men into dolls, homunculi they can pose and speak for at tea parties. He doesn’t feel like a human when he’s in a relationship with a woman. I think that men can be equally guilty of creating an image of the beloved in our minds and forcing women to live up to the image; part of the captain’s anger is that he’s being treated the way men treat women. And then, of course, she had sold the doll after all, to a stranger. The shoe is on the other foot now – he thought he meant something to her, but she moved on. No promises of eternal love and fidelity to a man who treated her like shit.

He starts to pursue her with some of that intensity we saw in The Fox; he only wants a woman when she doesn’t want him, apparently. I know that this happens, and is even pretty common, that people go after those who are unavailable to them. I’ve heard it said that men want the challenge, but I think there’s more to it than that. People (not just men) take rejection as a sign that they’re not good enough, as if we all existed on a scale from one to ten and it was easy to say that one person is a two and another is a nine. Everyone wants to believe that they’re a ten, but getting rejected by a seven means that we’re obviously a six or less. We don’t pursue the seven because they represent a challenge in itself; we pursue the seven to prove to ourselves that we are a seven or higher. Basing one’s self-esteem on the esteem of others (particularly their interest in sharing genital contact) is absolutely ridiculous and leads to these absurd and dangerous situations. Lawrence’s stalkers and murderers need to learn how to love themselves apart from their ability to fuck any woman they want.

Women have the right to choose whom and when to fuck. They are the keepers of their own vaginas. They guard the access. Men who behave otherwise tend toward abuse and possibly violence. It’s certainly a misogynistic attitude, and it implies that the man who holds it is not ready for an adult relationship.

“Oh, that eternal doll! What makes it stick so in your mind?”

“I don’t know. But there it is. It wasn’t malicious. It was flattering, if you like. But it just sticks in me like a thorn: like a thorn. And there it is, in the world, in Germany somewhere. And you can say what you like, but any woman, today, no matter how much she loves her man – she could start any minute and make a doll of him. And the doll would be her hero: and her hero would be no more than her doll. My wife might have done it. She did do it, in her mind. She had her doll of me right enough. Why I heard her talk about me to other women. And her doll was a great deal sillier than the one you made. But it’s all the same. If a woman loves you, she’ll make a doll out of you. She’ll never be satisfied till she’s made your doll. And when she’s got your doll, that’s all she wants. And that’s what love means. And so, I won’t be loved. And I won’t love. I won’t have anybody loving me. It is an insult. I feel I’ve been insulted for forty years: by love, and the women who’ve loved me. I won’t be loved. And I won’t love. I’ll be honoured and I’ll be obeyed: or nothing.”

“Then it’ll most probably be nothing,” said Hannele sarcastically. “For I assure you I’ve nothing but love to offer.”

He’s upset, yes, and probably still sexy in his sixties (he is Scottish, after all), but he’s also wrong and ridiculous. Imagine the gall of a woman, to treat a man the same way he’s treated her. Men have robbed women of their humanity, their opportunities to express and be themselves, their right to make their own choices about their bodies, for too much of Western history. A hundred years ago men don’t seem to have been accustomed to recognize that fact. I feel like these three post-World War I stories could have been called Love Amid the Patriarchy. It places Lawrence in kind of an awkward position: some critics will say he’s doing it on purpose to reveal how harmful the patriarchy is, but some will say he’s doing it unconsciously because he’s really on the verge of being a murdering stalker himself. He just found a woman he wanted who wanted him back, so the violence is unnecessary. It’d be great if we could revive him long enough to ask him which.

In any event, all four of these stories are about love and its problems. The soldiers who returned from the war brought with them a set of attitudes that clearly harmed women, and the women themselves are complex, interesting people who deserve love and respect, even if they don’t know how to demand it. Lawrence’s vote is clearly on the side of sexual license, so long as both partners agree to it. His stories demonstrate the importance of talking plainly about sex and what it means. Partners should understand what it means to the other and be willing to accept the burden of expectation it creates, whether the expectation is to go about one’s business like it meant nothing or to be involved with the partner for the rest of one’s life. Being of the same religion, or ethnicity, or orientation, is no guarantee that two people will have the same attitude about sex. You have to talk about it.

Lawrence’s politics are sometimes upsetting, but his language is exquisite. I’ll probably always enjoy his writing, misogynistic and proto-Fascist as it was. These stories are very much in his vein, so whether you like them or not, whether you should read them or not, really depends on how you feel about him. They’re all good examples of what he does, representative pieces of the man. I enjoy them, but you’ll have to make your own choice on that subject.

 

Well. It has been quite a while since I’ve written something personal here, but sometimes I read long books, and sometimes I read very long books, and I was in the mood for Chaucer, and nothing says springtime like eight hundred pages of Middle English poetry.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan that Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye –
So priketh hem nature in hir corages –
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

See? Nothing. This seems to be one of the earliest accounts of the Spring Break road trip, an urge that I still feel even though I’m in my mid-thirties.

One of the strange mental habits I have is to think of Decent People; generally, in contrast to myself. “It’s so nice driving on the interstates after midnight. There’s so little traffic. Yeah, all the Decent People are home in bed.” “It’s Friday night, and all the Decent People of the world are taking their families to Walmart. I guess I’ll go back home and watch Cary Grant and William Powell.” “You still haven’t changed the oil in the car yet? Decent People would have done that a thousand miles ago.” One of the interesting things about The Canterbury Tales is that it’s quite clear who the Decent People are, and one of the interesting things about the way we study The Canterbury Tales is that we more seldom teach the stories told by Decent People. I guess all of us who study literature professionally feel a bit indecent. It’s a good feeling.

In Chaucer, whether people work for The Church or not has little to do with whether they are Decent or not. Behold, my favorite image from the book:

“And now hath Sathanas”, seyth he, “a tail
Brodder than of a carrik is the sail.
Hold up thy tail, thow Sathanas!” quod he,
“Shewe forth thin ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place.”
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hive,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne drive
Twenty thousand freres on a route,
And thurghout helle swarmeden aboute,
And comen again as faste as they may gon
And in his ers they crepten everychon;
He clapte his tail again and lay ful stille.

I can’t say as I’m completely certain why I love the image of twenty thousand friars spewing out of Satan’s ass, swarming all over hell in their tonsures and long rough robes; I’m sure Freud would enjoy explaining that about me. As I enjoy analyzing The Host: He’s always complaining about his wife, and then he goes and flirts with clergymen:

But, by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,
Thou woldest ben a tredefoul aright;
For if thou have corage as thou hast might,
The were nede of hennes, as I wene,
Ya, mo than seven times seventeen!
Se, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,
So gret a nekke, and swich a large breest!

I guess the Prioress has good taste in priests. The Nun’s Priest’s mock-epic beast fable is one of the more entertaining, a bit like Aesop meets Alexander Pope and foreshadows Henry Fielding. The Host also has this to say about the Monk:

I pray to God yeve him confusioun
That first thee broghte unto religioun!
Thou woldest han been a tredefoul aright;
Haddestow as greet a leve as thow hast might
To parfourne al thy lust in engendrure,
Thow haddest bigeten many a creature.
Allas, why werestow so wid a cope?
God yeve me sorwe but, and I were a pope,
Nat oonly thow, but every mighty man,
Thogh he were shore ful hye upon his pan,
Sholde have a wif, for al the world is lorn!
Religioun hath take up al the corn
Of treding, and we borel men been shrimpes.
Of feble trees ther comen wrecched impes;
This maketh that oure heires beth so sklendre
And feble that they may nat wel engender.
This maketh that oure wives wol assaye
Religious folk, for ye mowe bettre paye
Of Venus paiementz than may we.

In our time, all the hot guys don’t become priests; but then, most churches don’t require celibacy of their priests any more. But really, there’s got to be some other problem with the time if all the wives are out offering themselves to men of the cloth. Judging by the less Decent Tales, The Host is not the only one to notice that women have an eye for a man in a cassock. They don’t always return it; The Monk’s Tale is a catalog of the Fall of Great Men, frequently (but not all) because of the women in their lives – Samson, Holofernes, Solomon, and many others.

In general, the less Decent stories are about sex, or at least the battle between the sexes. Perhaps that’s why we love them so – gender roles haven’t really changed that much in seven hundred years. We still want to figure out how to make people love us back. The Wife of Bath has it that men should submit to their wives, and The Clerk implies that women should submit to their abusive husbands, but I think the truth is this:

Love wol nat be constrained by maistrye;
Whan maistrye comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth hise winges, and farwel, he is gon!
Love is a thing as any spirit free.
Wommen of kinde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constrained as a thral,
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal.

The trick is to find someone that you love too much to control, and who loves you the same way. We want to feel free, and loved as we are. I’ve yet to find that person, but I’m still hoping. The hope is a bit foolish since I don’t like to go out and meet people, but only a bit because I still end up meeting quite a lot of people, just not gay men that I’m attracted to.

The Wife of Bath rationalizes the existence of us Indecent People:

For wel ye knowe, a lord in his household
Ne hath nat every vessel al of gold.
Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servise,
God clepeth folk to him in sondry wise,
And everich hath of God a propre yifte,
Som this, som that, as him liketh shifte.

And there are some pleasures imagined by Decent People, like The Knight:

ne how the Grekes pleye
The wake-pleyes, ne kepe I noght to seye –
Who wrastleth best, naked with oille enoint,
Ne who that baar him best, in no disjoint;

Seriously? If my wake is going to have nude wrestling, I’ll hop out of the casket to watch.

When it comes to Decency, no one on this trip is as Decent as The Parson. He concludes the book with ninety pages of prose, mostly about the Seven Deadly Sins, how to avoid them, and how to repent of them. He likes lists, especially numbered lists, and if those lists can be long, even better. Like this list of little-recognized sins:

Now sith man understondeth generally which is venial sinne, thane is it convenable to tellen specially of sinnes whiche that many a man, peradventure, ne demeth hem nat sinnes, and ne shriveth him nat of the same thinges, and yet natheless they been sinnes soothly, as thise clerkes writen. This is to seyn, that at every time that man eteth or drinketh moore than suffiseth to the sustenaunce of his body, in certein he dooth sinne. And eek whan he speketh moore than nedeth, it is sinne; eek whan he herkneth nat benignly the compleinte of the povere; eek whan he is in heele of body, and wol nat faste whan oother folk fasten, withouten cause reasonable; eek whan he slepeth moore than nedeth; or whan he comth by thilke encheson to late to chirche, or to othere werkes of charite; eek whan he useth his wif withoute soverein desir of engendrure, to the honour of God, or for the entente to yelde to his wif the dette of his body; eek whan he wol nat visite the sike and the prisoner, if he may; eek if he love wif, or child, or oother worldly thing, moore than reson requireth; eek if he flatere or blandise moore than him oghte for any necessitee; eke if he amenuse or withdrawe the almesse of the povre; eke if he apparaileth his mete moore deliciously than nede is, or ete to hastily by likerousnesse; eek if he tale vanitees at chirche, or at Goddes service, or that he be a talkere of idel wordes of folye or of vileinye, for he shal yelde acounte of it at the day of dome; eek whan he biheteth or assureth to do thinges that he may nat parfourne; eek whan that he by lightnesse or folye misseyeth or scorneth his neighebore; eek whan that he hath any wikked suspecioun of thing ther he ne woot of it no soothfastnesse. Thise thinges, and mo withoute nombre, ben sinnes, as seyth Seint Augustin.

Wow. I personally have done a lot of these things, and yet I don’t feel bad about them. I mean, loving your children more than is reasonable? Check. Enjoying good food, a little better than is strictly necessary to choking it down? Check. Showing up at church late? Check. Having sex without considering conception? Check. Forgetting to skip meals when other people are? Check. I’m the sort of person who tells jokes and laughs during funeral services, so I guess that counts as speaking unnecessarily. This enormous weight of sin that The Parson dumps on us all seems excessive to me, and a bit ignorant.

Of leccherye, as I seide, sourden diverse speces, as fornicacioun, that is bitwixe man and woman that ben nat maried; and this is deedly sinne and agains nature. Al that is enemy and destruccioun to nature is agains nature.

Has he seen nature? How many species are monogamous? For that matter, how many species of mammals are strictly heterosexual? It seems to me that religious laws are themselves against nature. If working against nature is a deadly sin, then Christianity has a lot of repenting to do –

But war thee wel that swiche manere penaunces on thy flessh ne make thee nat bitter or angry or annoyed of thyself, for bettre is to caste awey thin heire than for to caste awey the swetenesse of Jesu Crist.

– not in chain mail on bare skin or hairshirts, because that sort of mortification of the flesh defeats the purpose. We have life so that we can enjoy it; whether that’s the sweetness of Jesus Christ or the sweetness of the love that The Parson can’t even name, we must find the goodness in life and taste it often. So much of what The Parson teaches seems to work against finding any joy in life at all, but even he admits that hating the life you live is a bad thing. And lest you think he’s a big old hypocrite, Chaucer says in the General Prologue that this Parson is the real deal. He contrasts him with the bulk of the clergy:

And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

Another phrase that I love.

It’s true that Chaucer didn’t finish his project, four stories for each of thirty travelers (and when the Canon’s Yeoman rides up he makes thirty-one), but I think he gives us a fairly good picture of what life is like in fourteenth-century England. There’s a lot of bigotry, a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of sex, a lot of love, a lot of hope and despair. It’s like seeing the entire world, or at least the world as they knew it.

I don’t believe the world or the flesh is here to be overcome, as the old Christian Fathers would have it; the world is here to be loved. We have life so that we can be happy in it. For some people, that means a life of perpetual decency; for others, it’s a little more free. We have to be reconciled to ourselves, we have to love ourselves, we have to find peace with who we are, we have to get in touch with our personal nature (which no one else can define) and live it completely. The Parson finds it one way, The Wife of Bath another. They’re different, nearly binary opposites, but the end result is the same. They each are who they are without shame or self-reproach. And if that is something I gain from spending the month of April with eight hundred pages of Middle English, the time will have been well spent.

I feel sort of bad, like I should apologize to the author, but I really feel like when he says

Self-conscious and didactic, it was not a successful work.

he’s talking about his own novel. I mean, a few of the critics call it a thriller, but it doesn’t have anything scary in it. There are a few moments of mild excitement, but not even cheap thrills. It is very learned, with an advanced vocabulary and heavy with allusion, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good read.

How many times have we done the fallen priest novel? I wasn’t that fond of Graham Greene’s, but I haven’t found one better. As is often the case, the priest, who is a Father Whatawaste, falls in love and has sex. The physical contact drives him into questioning everything he’s ever believed, because if you can have sex without being dragged to hell immediately, then obviously God doesn’t exist.

Within he wonders what he has wondered for much of his life but has rarely allowed conscious space to: is there a being, transcendent or immanent – either will do – that one might call God (or Dio, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Bog, if it comes to that) and if there is such a being, does he (He?) care one jot or tittle for the spiritual or physical life of this speck of dust crammed into tourist class on an Alitalia flight to London, Heathrow? He reads his breviary, possibly for the very last time. His question remains unanswered, but his body (embarrassingly: he has to shift in his seat to make things comfortable again) answers all to readily to the persistent vision of Madeleine, which exists in a separate but simultaneous part of his mind and has by now opened its legs.

Leo Newman’s conundrum is complicated by the fact that he’s a researcher; once he and his girl (diplomat’s wife) start doing it, he gets tapped to translate a newly discovered scroll. It’s authenticated to earlier than any preexisting gospel narrative, and claims to be Judas Iscariot’s account of the life of Jesus. So, he didn’t kill himself after the crucifixion. Worse, he says that he, Nicodemus, and Saul of Tarsus stole the body and hid it where no one could find it, but that he, Judas, has seen the decomposing body of Jesus, so the resurrection is a fraud. First the scandal about him and Madeleine hits the papers, and then there’s the to-do about the Judas scroll. Everyone sees him as a betrayer, as worse than Judas himself. And they do have a point; betrayal is sort of this guy’s stock-in-trade.

There’s something oddly Victorian about the whole thing; a priest who has Jewish blood and Jesuit training unravels Christianity, and yet the attempt is made to present him sympathetically? Who wrote this novel, Thackeray? I mean, the author seems to struggle between a conscious acceptance of the inevitability of sexual desire and a prurient rejection of its expression. I don’t think of sex as failure or disease; I rather believe it’s a success.

And that was the moment when something turned inside him, something visceral, like the first symptoms of a disease. That was what made it all the more disturbing, that it seemed so profoundly organic. The cerebral he could deal with. The cerebral he could battle against, had long ago learned to battle against. Mental images were things he could chase from his mind like Christ chasing the money-changers from the Temple (an incident that is generally accepted by the most skeptical of New Testament scholars as genuine, indeed pivotal). But when it was the temple of the body that was under assault, the dismissal was not so easy. No easier to dismiss a cancer. And her glance at him as they sat at the long dining table beneath the benevolent eye of Jack and the agonized eye of Saint Clare Contemplating the Eucharist, School of Guido Reni, seemed to plant the first seeds of some disease in his body.

Twined around this story, we flash forward and backward, into his past and his present. The story of his present, living with an artist named Magda, is sort of dull, even when compared to the uninteresting main story. It provides some foreshadowing, and I believe Leo is eventually sort of happy. In my opinion, the interesting part of the book is the story out of the past.

Leo’s parents were German Nazis stationed in Italy during World War II. His mother has an affair with an Italian Jew, gets angry, and turns him in. I mean, it may not be the most original story in the world, but it was a lot more interesting and affecting than the story of their son’s life of betrayal. I suppose there’s an element of “the sins of the fathers being visited on the heads of the sons,” and parts of the story of Frau Huber and Checco parallel nicely with Leo and Madeleine.

“You are a Jew. What can you know of God?”

“I thought we invented him.”

She chooses her words deliberately, as one chooses a weapon that will do the most damage: “You may have invented God,” she says, “but you also murdered him.”

How can this poor kid help betraying everyone and everything around him? His father was a Christ-killer, and his mother was a Holocaust-denying Jew-killer.

“Tell me what it is like . . .” he asks as they contemplate a Venus standing in the long grass. The Venus gestures with half an arm, like an amputee. Her face, part ravaged by time, still contains within its worn features a strange modesty. Her thighs enclose her glabrous pudendum tightly, so that men may look but not see.

“What what is like?”

“To be a woman.”

She laughs. “How can a woman explain that to a man?”

“Tell me how it feels when you make love.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Or when you have a baby.”

“Painful. You’re being idiotic.”

“I want to understand you.”

“Men cannot understand women.”

“Italian men can. Maybe not German men, but Italian men can.”

“German men are no different from Italian men.”

“They are very different. German men murder children.”

“They do not!” Her voice has risen now. The ghostly, mangled Venus has ceased to matter. She is suddenly angry, her face flushed, her nose, that not-quite-classical nose, sharp and white with a kind of tension. “That is a disgusting thing to say!”

He is grinning at her reaction. “Oh, but they do. Jewish children.”

“Lies! I will not have you saying that kind of thing!” Momentarily, guiltily, she thinks of her husband.

I’d like to say that there’s some interesting stuff about gender, but this is the only passage that moves in that direction. And there are a couple of references to homosexuality, but all of them as something to be avoided in a priest. Back when I was a Mormon, preaching in Brazil, one of my friends said, “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man; if you look twice, you’re not a missionary.” Newman’s fellow priests have the same attitude: it takes a celibate heterosexual man to do God’s work. Anything else is the devil’s work. Mawer recognizes that lifelong celibacy is fucked up, but he represents sex as an inevitable evil, proof of betrayal. Judas and Jezebel, cut from the same cloth, dyed with the same blood. Blood soaks through every symbol and allusion in the book, odd since there’s so little physical violence.

It’s an unfortunate book. I’m sure there are some who like it, and it’s self-consciously literary enough that at one time I may have pretended to, but I’m certainly not one of them.