Posts Tagged ‘chaucer’

For the last two weeks, I’ve been working on grading some research projects, and the teacher gave them all the same topic, so it’s been a little hard to focus on because my mind keeps wandering away from globalization to other things. Any other thing. This morning I was finishing the last of it, and I had some coffee to help me wake up and focus, and I listened to exciting swing music, so now I have all this energy and not much to do with it.

Globalization is becoming rather a pertinent topic lately, with Brexit and Trump’s increasingly intolerant policies. These current struggles are foreshadowed in this book, describing Turkey a good twenty or thirty years ago. Thinking back over Pamuk’s career and the books of his that I’ve read, The Black Book was written before he became internationally famous, and the dominant feeling is the author’s deep love for Istanbul. Then there was this one, The New Life, which expands over all of Turkey, but the optimism implied in the title is misleading. This is an angry, unhappy book. Then there was the first one I read, My Name is Red, the historical murder mystery that helped him really ‘make it’ in the world market. A few years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and quickly became the best-selling Nobel author in history.

So, Reader, place your faith neither in a character like me, who is not all that sensitive, nor in my anguish and the violence of the story I have to tell; but believe that the world is a cruel place. Besides, this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business. That the reader hears the clumsiness of my voice within these pages is not because I am speaking raucously from a plane which has been polluted by books and vulgarized by gross thoughts; it results rather from the fact that I still have not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy.

First-person narrator is not a happy guy. The book starts off promising, but it actually goes south pretty quickly.

I read a book one day and my whole life was changed. Even on the first page I was so affected by the book’s intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table. But even though I felt my body dissociating, my entire being remained so concertedly at the table that the book worked its influence not only on my soul but on every aspect of my identity. It was such a powerful influence that the light surging from the pages illumined my face; its incandescence dazzled my intellect but also endowed it with brilliant lucidity. This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace.

Most of us who love reading have had this sort of experience, and I think that we’re especially susceptible to it when we’re young, as he is. Early 20s, still at the university, a time when we are acutely aware of the fact that we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be. But for most of us, the research we do into the books we read, no matter how emotional we feel about them, is essentially impersonal. We don’t meet our favorite authors, in my case because they’d been dead for over a hundred years. For Protagonist, though the book leads him into intensely personal spaces.

In the life of those people like me whose lives have slipped off the track, sorrow presents itself in the form of rage that wants to pass itself of as cleverness. And it’s the desire to be clever that finally spoils everything.

He reads the book, and it’s so powerful for him that he wants to meet with the girl who first made him aware of it. They do meet again, but she’s not really into him; she’s all over the guy who introduced her to the book, Mehmet. Mehmet isn’t as into her as she is into him. One day, Protagonist is looking for them and sees Mehmet get shot in the street, right next to her. He asks around and gets really contradictory information about what happened, whether Mehmet is alive or not, still studying at the university or not, still in town or not. Eventually he gives up and takes to the buses. At this point I really started to feel like I was reading a book by David Lynch – the critics say Kafka, but I haven’t made it through The Trial, and I have made it through Eraserhead. They all three share this phantasmagoric quality, which feels sort of allegorical but is not transparent enough for me to find the meaning.

He’s riding buses, changing destinations at random, and Turkey is a big country. There’s plenty of room to get lost in. Then his bus crashes. Then another bus crashes. Then he starts looking for buses that are likely to crash. He thinks he’s being led intuitively by the book, but this section (Act 1 of 3) is full of random accidents. He starts to see that the new life he’s looking for is really close to death. Indeed, his obsession with bus crashes seems to lead toward death. And crime, since he robs the newly dead to keep buying bus tickets. He does run into the girl again – her name is Janan, and in keeping with Pamuk’s habit of portentous names for female characters, it means Soulmate. They ride the buses together, still looking for crashes, both now also looking for Mehmet. In one of the crashes, they meet a couple who had been going to a dealers’ convention to meet Doctor Fine, so they steal their identities and destination.

Act 2 is at Doctor Fine’s. Unbeknownst to Janan and himself, Doctor Fine is Mehmet’s father. Mehmet is an identity that he stole later on. Doctor Fine thinks that his son is dead, and he blames the book for polluting his son with Western influences. Because he hates the book so much, he has spies all over the country looking for the people who read and are affected by the book, and if they seem to be spreading the book they get shot. This is where the similarity to ultra-nationalists like the Americans who support Trump and the British who support Brexit became a little uncomfortable for me. There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, and I personally love North Carolina quite passionately, but I don’t believe any community is served by extreme conservatism. Things change. Cultures change. It’s what happens. But Doctor Fine and his followers are devoted to preserving one aspect of culture as Turkish and rejecting the ways that their culture is changing. No culture can be distilled to a single issue, and choosing the making of local goods and crafts instead of mass-produced imports only makes sense to them because they are dealers trying to preserve their livelihoods. As with our conservatives, they assume that what is good for them personally is good for the nation as a whole, and as with our conservatives, they pick and choose which parts of the country and the culture are Turkey and deny the existence of others. A significant portion of Turkey is European, it borders on Greece and Bulgaria, but European influence is bad for Turkey, which they perceive to be an Asian, Muslim country. And how much of America is heterosexual, white, and Christian? Not all of it. Not even most of it. A recent study showed that white Christians have become a minority group (comprised mostly of people over 30), and if you subtract the gay white Christians, they’ll be even smaller.

The pleasure of reading, which natty older gentlemen complain is lacking in our culture, must be in the musical harmony I heard reading the documents and murder reports in Doctor Fine’s mad and orderly archive.

It’s not that reading was lacking, but that people weren’t reading what their parents read. Just consider the furor that this book is raising, not because young people weren’t reading but because they were reading the wrong thing. Like that time I almost got into a fight with an older colleague over the value of graphic novels. Really? Your worst fear is that your students would rather read Death Note or Black Butler than The Canterbury Tales? What if they never stepped foot in a library or read anything at all? Wouldn’t that be worse? And isn’t that happening? In the place where I used to live in the Midwest, the libraries only serve people who live in the cities. If you live in the county, but in a small town or village outside of the two main cities, you have to spend $75 to get a library card. People in the rural areas are unlikely to be able to afford that, or to prioritize it. I may have ended up spending more than that at the used bookstore, but it wasn’t all in a lump sum. This is just one of the ways that American society punishes people for being poor. If a kid lives out in the country, where cell towers are few and internet signal is weak, his only access to information is through his school library, and teachers are often so pressured to spend every moment of class time preparing to meet state and national standards that they don’t have time to take their classes to the library. Kids can go to the library before or after classes begin, but if students ride the bus, they arrive at school with only a few minutes to get to class and they have to leave immediately after classes end. Again, no time for the library. In that part of the Midwest, access to information is limited to children whose parents can afford to live in the city. How are we supposed to have an educated populace if we restrict who can use the library, or if we dictate which books are to be read? I think we’ll be much better served if we teach children that the world is knowable and available to them and that learning is interesting and rewarding than if we explain patiently to them all the metaphors in Chaucer or lock them out of the library because their parents are poor farm workers.

There and then, as here and now, the conservatives blame foreign influences for the natural changing of culture. Trump’s immigration policies show a great deal of prejudice and a great deal of ignorance about how our country actually works. We’re in a less extreme version of what’s happening in Saudi Arabia: as higher education becomes more available, fewer Americans are taking ‘vocational’ positions. We are expecting a produce shortage soon, because most of the fruit pickers in California are being deported and Americans are not willing to take those jobs. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we won’t get hired for that work, and that we’re too good for that sort of manual labor anyway. You want to get rid of the people doing the lowest paid work? Okay. That means that pretty soon we’ll have no electricity, all the toilets will be clogged, there won’t be any good fruit, and new construction will grind to a halt. In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes there’s a janitor at the library who spends half the night reading the books after the building is closed to the public. This character felt unrealistic to me in a way that I wish he didn’t – he combines a lifelong love of learning with a contentment to work in a low-paying job that doesn’t require an education. We invest education with this sense of vocation, as if I have a duty to work in the field of literature because I have a degree in it. And now I’m unfit to do manual labor because employers expect me to be too snobbish to do the work. We need to instill a sense of pride in all sorts of work, and relax our expectation that every American needs to go to a four-year university. We need plumbers and construction workers, and right now we need them more than we need more English teachers (a dime a dozen, we are). We need to forget this idea that the life of the mind and the work of the hands are incompatible, and raise up more young students to become like Bradbury’s janitor.

Drifting back to Pamuk. Protagonist does finally find Mehmet, living under a new name and copying the book for select friends and acquaintances. His life is like that of the monks before the printing press, writing the scripture over and over again.

What I do might appear simple, but it requires great care. I keep rewriting the book without missing a single comma, a single letter, or a period. I want everything to be identical, right down to the last period and comma. And this can only be achieved through inspiration and desire that is analogous to the original author’s. Someone else might call what I do copying, but my work goes beyond simple duplication. Whenever I am writing, I feel and I understand every letter, every word, every sentence as if each and every one were my own novel discovery. So, this is how I work arduously from nine in the morning until one o’clock, doing nothing else, and nothing can keep me from working.

His encounter with Mehmet closes this portion of his life, and I felt like it would have been a good close to the book, but like Mulholland Drive, just when it ought to end it doesn’t, and a dozen years go by in the course of a few pages, and there are fifty more pages that tell about Protagonist’s life when he’s my age, and he goes on another, shorter quest to find out about the book. He reads all the source material, disappointed to find out how much of The New Life is based on La Vita Nuova, and then tries to track down another source of inspiration, the New Life candy wrappers that were around when he was a child. Throughout the book he seeks The Angel, and at first he identifies her with Janan, and later he identifies her with the angel on the candy wrapper, and he finally realizes that The Angel of Desire is really The Angel of Death. There’s been a conflation of Eros and Thanatos since the beginning, experiencing a new life while looking for bus crashes. I suppose there’s some accuracy to the idea that change is a sort of death, but I don’t think that literal death is necessary. Change is one of the characteristics of life; Death is an existence that does not change, where nothing is desired.

As I implied earlier, there is a lot of bitterness in this book. The conservatives long for death so much that they are actively killing the people who disagree with them, and the adherents to the book find madness and death. There are a few, very few, who can give the book a place in their lives without letting it flood everything and take away the good things they had, but our protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by both sides. He’s serious about that line, ‘the world is a cruel place.’ He describes the Turks of his peer group as being like himself, hollow shells of adults who are too tired by the conflicts they live among to do anything toward resolution, change, or happiness.

I wonder if a big part of my problem with this book and the similarities with my own society is my disenchantment with materialism. Here and now, as there and then, most people’s life is about things, whether books or houses or furniture or ornaments or clothes or whatever. The identity of the characters, and even of the book, is unfixed and mutable, while things remain the same. When protagonist borrows some old books, unread for more than a decade, the old woman who owns them asks him to return them quickly so they don’t leave her with an empty shelf. Books containing ancient wisdom and original thought are treated as mere knickknacks. I’m holding onto books that I haven’t read in years, but it’s because they’re hard to find and they mean important things to me. Her books are a reminder of the dead husband who loved his books more than he loved her, but she likes the way they look on the shelf. I suppose I see my books as living things, dear to me because of their uniqueness, and not things like a glass unicorn. They’re not status symbols or proof of wealth. Considering how much money I spend on books that I could be devoting to other things, they’re rather a proof of poverty.

I suppose what I’m saying is, this isn’t a happy book, and it reminds me of all the things in the world that I’m not happy with. If you want a happy book, read something else. If you want to be convinced that people are all basically the same, regardless of time or place, and the same dramas keep getting acted on different stages, by all means. Read this book and compare it to the news from the United States. Collectively, humanity does not learn quickly.

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This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

 

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.

This is a murder mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul. It is a time and place of intersection, where Europe meets Asia, when traditional Islam meets the Renaissance. The community of characters we have to deal with, though, is rather small, a community of artists. I rather like the epistolary format, both for the intimacy it creates with a community (instead of with a single person) and for the fact of short chapters. I don’t know if authors realize how much of my enjoyment of a book comes from chapter length, but I do like to feel as if I’m getting somewhere, and not wandering in the stream-of-consciousness bogs of The Sound and the Fury. Following Shakespeare’s lead, here’s the cast of narrators, in order of authority:

Master Osman leads the illuminators’ workshop. He is responsible for determining the direction of visual art in Istanbul. Painting is forbidden by the Qur’an, but people began drawing decorative borders around calligraphed manuscripts, and those borders drifted from the strictly geometrical to having some figures. The figures eventually took on their own scenes. Under Osman’s training, the goal of the illustrators is to show a scene from Allah’s point of view. If we can see as God sees, then we can understand, love, and obey Him more completely. The miniaturists are thus arriving closer to Allah themselves, and helping those noblemen who read their books to do the same. If a miniaturist is pious and talented, then one day Allah will reward him with blindness, so the forms of this world, limited and temporary, do not interfere with the heavenly vision. Under Osman’s direction, the workshop’s style comes from the old masters of Herat, who were influenced by Chinese, Indian, and Persian art.

Enishte Effendi is an older illuminator who has traveled in Europe and thus been influenced by the Venetian portrait painters of the Renaissance. The Franks (all European infidels are Franks) do not see things from God’s point of view; they paint from their own perspective, showing things as a man would see them, or a dog in the street. They also paint a person in such detail that you’d be able to recognize him from his portrait, which runs counter to the modesty expected in a Muslim; they also place a person in the center of a picture, as if he were the center of the universe. Enishte represents a threat to Osman’s order of things: the introduction of foreign ideas into society. When the sultan wants a book designed with European influences, he commissions Enishte to oversee the project instead of using the official workshop. Enishte involves the four best of the young masters, listed next. But first, an excerpt from his conversation with the sultan about the book:

“It is the story that’s essential,” our wisest and most Glorious Sultan had said. “A beautiful illustration elegantly completes the story. An illustration that does not complement a story, in the end, will become but a false idol. Since we cannot possibly believe in an absent story, we will naturally begin believing in the picture itself. This would be no different than the worship of idols in the Kaaba that went on before Our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, had destroyed them. If not as part of a story, how would you propose to depict this red carnation, for example, or that insolent dwarf over there?”

“By exposing the carnation’s beauty and uniqueness.”

“In the arrangement of your scene, then, would you situate the flower at the precise center of the page?”

“I was afraid,” my Enishte said, “I panicked momentarily when I realized where Our Sultan’s thoughts were taking me.”

What filled my Enishte with fear was the notion of situating at the center of the page – and thereby, the world – something other than what God had intended.

“Thereafter,” Our Sultan had said, “you’ll want to exhibit a picture in whose center you’ve situated a dwarf.” It was as I had assumed. “But this picture could never be displayed: after a while, we’d begin to worship a picture we’ve hung on a wall, regardless of the original intentions. If I believed, heaven forbid, the way these infidels do, that the Prophet Jesus was also the Lord God himself, then I’d also hold that God could be observed in this world, and even, that He could manifest in human form; only then might I accept the depiction of mankind in full detail and exhibit such images. You do understand that, eventually, we would unthinkingly begin worshiping any picture that is hung on a wall, don’t you?”

My Enishte said: “I understood it quite well, and because I did, I was afraid of what we both were thinking.”

“For this reason,” Our Sultan remarked, “I could never allow my portrait to be displayed.”

“Though this is exactly what he wanted,” whispered my Enishte, with a devilish titter.

Elegant Effendi is the master gilder of the group. He impresses the gold leaf onto the manuscripts. His murder is the first event that gets the plot moving. He is laden with doubt and guilt about the project they are working on, because he spends a lot of time listening to a fire-and-brimstone preacher in town. This preacher is calling for a return to a stricter Islam, getting away from drinking coffee, drawing pictures, buggery, and anything else he sees as innovation. Because innovator describes someone (like Enishte) who introduces new ideas into a group of believers, it’s one of the doctrinal insults in Islam even today. Elegant has the first section of narration, speaking from the bottom of a well three days after his death.

Butterfly is the most popular illuminator. His drawings show such a lively spirit that everyone loves them, and he’s so good looking that everyone is at least a little in love with him (Osman and Olive, explicitly). When Osman retires or dies, he expects to take over his job.

When I draw a magnificent horse, I become a great master of old drawing that horse.

Stork is the most ambitious. He is the only illuminator to have gone to war so that he could draw battle scenes more accurately. He wants to take over Osman’s job. Really, really wants it.

When I draw a magnificent horse, I am who I am, nothing more.

Olive is more reserved than the others, isolated somewhat by his own temperament and somewhat by their prejudice against his origin in a gay-sex-traveling-beggar sect. I found him to be the most sympathetic of the illuminators.

When I draw a magnificent horse, I become that magnificent horse.

Butterfly, Stork, and Olive are the primary suspects. They have a sort of Huey/Dewey/Louie vibe to them because their narratives are always together, and we rarely see or hear of them individually. Each of them thinks he is the most talented artist of the four, but when working for Osman, they all contribute pieces to the same pictures. This merging of personality is culturally significant: Islam, even as it’s practiced today, emphasizes group rather than individual identities. There are a number of conversations about the evils of signing a drawing with the author’s name or with any identifying marks of personal style. There is no personal style; only mistakes made when conforming to the style of the old masters of Herat. The Muslims I live among seldom make individual choices on important questions: all points of doctrine and behavior are codified and clarified in the Qur’an and the Hadith, so there’s not much thinking they need to do for themselves. The further into the religion they become, the more likely they are to answer a question with a quotation than with an opinion. Conformity breeds unity, and to this end, shortly after the time of the novel Muslims stop illuminating manuscripts altogether to avoid the corrupt Frankish influence. The three illuminators also de-emphasize themselves by spending a lot of time telling parables of historic figures instead of talking about their own experiences.

Black Effendi is the protagonist. Enishte’s nephew, he declared his love for Enishte’s daughter before he had the wherewithal to support a wife and so was banished from Enishte’s house. He spends the next twelve years wandering the Ottoman Empire as a clerk or scribe for various nobles. His return to Istanbul is the second event that gets the plot moving. Many of the characters suspect Black of being the murderer because he is the new element in the community, but he provides himself with alibis before we know he needs them, so it is hard for me as a reader to suspect him. Besides, all he really cares about is getting back together with Enishte’s daughter, the beautiful Shekure. Enishte enlists him to write the stories for his book, but Black never has any ideas to get him started.

The murderer often feels like a fifth presence among this group of equals; even though he begins narrating before you meet the Three Illuminators, he keeps the two sides of his personality so separate that we don’t know who he is until the end. There’s a scene at the end when the four are struggling together, and when the murderer narrates, he feels separate from Butterfly, Stork, Olive, and Black, as if Brad Pitt were pointing the gun in Edward Norton’s hand. I tend not to speculate on the identity of the murderer in a mystery novel (theories ruin the suspense), but the murderer here continually asks us if we know who he is – he wants to be found.

The storyteller is never named, that I can remember. The illuminators working on Enishte’s book all frequent the same coffeehouse in the evenings (alcohol is forbidden, so they drink coffee instead), and the storyteller asks one or the other of them to give him a picture that he can use to tell a story with. They give him quick knockoffs of the pictures they’re using for Enishte’s book, and he improvises some pretty awesome stories. They’re usually pretty funny, with some fairly serious stuff thrown in, fit for an audience of artists taking a break after work. Even though he’s often kind of invisible, he points out most of the important themes, particularly the conflict between those who work by providing leisure (it’s not exactly entertainment) and Elegant’s overzealous preacher. From his story about the tree:

A great European master miniaturist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: “Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others.”

I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I’d been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.

And what does a tree mean?

I was meant to be among the pages of this illuminated manuscript that I sadly heard was completed today. Unfortunately, on a cold winter’s day, the Tatar courier who was carrying me as he crossed a rocky mountain pass was ambushed by thieves. First they beat the poor Tatar, then they robbed him and raped him in a manner befitting thieves before mercilessly killing him. As a result, I know nothing about the page I’ve fallen from. My request is that you look at me and ask: “Were you perhaps meant to provide shade for Mejnun disguised as a shepherd as he visited Leyla in her tent?” or “Were you meant to fade into the night, representing the darkness in the soul of a wretched and hopeless man?” How I would’ve wanted to complement the happiness of two lovers who fled from the whole world, traversing oceans to find solace on an island rich with birds and fruit! I would’ve wanted to shade Alexander during the final moments of his life on his campaign to conquer Hindustan as he died from a persistent nosebleed brought on by sunstroke. Or was I meant to symbolize the strength and wisdom of a father offering advice on love and life to his son? Ah, to which story was I meant to add meaning and grace?

This tree captures the feeling that many people in the book have. They were meant for something, but they’ve somehow slipped away from their fate. They search for meaning in their lives but don’t know where to find it. They look to the stories they illuminate, but their own stories end up being different. Life doesn’t actually repeat itself, so maybe the new European mimesis is just an illusion. It does introduce shadows, after all. A Muslim illustrator is such a contradiction that they feel like hybrids. The murderer’s split personality is the most obvious representation of this, but there’s some internal division in all of them. The miniaturists focused on in this novel have begun working at home, separating themselves from the collectivity of the workshop; it is to be expected that the isolation will lead to emotional crises and mental illness.

Orhan is Enishte’s younger grandson. You’ll notice that this is also the author’s first name. At one point his mother says that there’s no lie he won’t tell for the sake of a good story. It kind of feels like an apology for having written a work of fiction, like Chaucer’s retractions.

So, are there any women in this book? Well, Shakespeare always listed them last, remember?

Shekure is Enishte’s beautiful daughter. She forms the center of the domestic drama storyline. People think of Shekure as beautiful, but they ignore the ways that she is also intelligent and brave. Her husband is a soldier who went to war four years earlier and never came back. She lived with his family until his brother raped her and she moved back in with her father. Despite the rape, she and Hasan love each other; she just can’t trust him. He’s mostly cleaned up his act, but the reappearance of Black sends him back into a violent frame of mind. Shekure is also in love with Black, even though/because he’s completely different. It’s easier to admit her feelings for Black, but she knows that she genuinely feels for Hasan too. There’s at least one more man who is in love with her, though she only has feelings for these two.

Esther is a clothes peddler. An illiterate Jew, she acts like the Yente of the town, passing messages between lovers. It’s a more productive business than selling cloth. Even today, Muslim men and women live separately. Shekure can go to the market by herself, but in the place where I live, women don’t drive. Women only have contact with the men in their families, because it is assumed that men have little control over their sexual impulses. History, both real and the imagined one in the novel, seems to support that idea. In the novel, men are expected to be bisexual; there are boys for before marriage, and after marrying the boys are still there. Yes, the Qur’an forbids it, but it also forbids painting. The women are so isolated and have so little choice that their sexuality is rarely an issue. As a cultural outsider, Esther can transgress boundaries that no one else can – she can speak with both men and women. However, it’s no mistake that when the storyteller adopts the persona of a woman, complete with makeup, it becomes his last performance. Gender comes with strict rules that must be followed.

You’ll notice that this book fails the Bechdel Test. I can’t even talk about the female characters without involving men. Matchmaking is not just Esther’s business; her interior life is consumed with it. There is the potential for some sort of friendship between Shekure and her father’s housekeeper Hayriye, but the fact that Hayriye is sleeping with Enishte blurs their social positions. Without a clear understanding of which is the lady of the house, they spend their days in tacit conflict. In the absence of men they stick together for support without liking each other. I suppose you could blame some of the inequality on women’s position in society, but the author could have given Shekure a sister, or a daughter. He didn’t have to isolate the women.

I’m not a Muslim, for very convincing personal reasons, but I do like the way God is represented in the novel. Not as He is described by the characters, but in this scene when one of the murder victims goes to heaven:

My mounting joy and flowing tears were abruptly poisoned by a nagging doubt. Guilt-ridden and impatient in my uncertainty, I asked Him:

“Over the last twenty years of my life, I’ve been influenced by the infidel illustrations that I saw in Venice. There was even a time when I wanted my own portrait painted in that method and style, but I was afraid. Instead, I later had Your World, Your Subjects and Our Sultan, Your Shadow on Earth, depicted in the manner of the infidel Franks.”

I didn’t remember His voice, but I recalled the answer He gave me in my thoughts.

“East and West belong to me.”

I could barely contain my excitement.

“All right then, what is the meaning of it all, of this . . . of this world?”

“Mystery,” I heard in my thoughts, or perhaps, “mercy,” but I wasn’t certain of either.

If God exists, He is for everyone; His love includes everyone, regardless of which dogma tribe they belong to. Labels like Muslim, Christian, Ottoman, or Frank are just not important. At some level, we’re all infidels, unfaithful to whichever belief system we espouse. Life doesn’t fit into the rigid categories that belief systems encourage, so as we confront the world, we use the strategies that are most expedient to get us through. We lie, we steal, we eat at restaurants that don’t compost their vegetable waste. The important question is, how do we respond to our own faithlessness?

Mystery and mercy.

We must accept the limitations of doctrinal systems. There are some things we are never going to know or understand. Some of the things people say are mysteries I think are actually bullshit, but it’s important to recognize that the world is bigger, stranger, and more beautiful than any set of statements we could make about it. No matter how much experience we gain, we retain this capacity for wonder.

And mercy. We forgive ourselves almost automatically, and we forgive others because they are equivalent selves. One of the struggles of my life has been to let go of the search for ideal people and situations – not because they don’t exist, I think they do, but because the relentless pursuit of the perfect keeps me from enjoying the good. There are so many good, imperfect people to love in this world.

In some ways, I think this is the meaning of it all, of this world: to learn to love what we can’t understand. Mystery and mercy, uncertainty and compassion so blended that we can’t separate them, and no longer want to. Or, in another word, acceptance.