Posts Tagged ‘death’

As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.

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As I’ve been thinking of things this week, I’ve realized that there is an astonishing amount of rape in Greek mythology. It seems like a third of their stories are, “Fleeing from a man about to rape her, a woman is transformed into a feature of the landscape,” and another third are, “Having been raped, a woman flees from the rapist’s jealous wife and is transformed or killed.” Women’s bodies are mutable and disposable, and men are powerless to control their constant erections. The story of Pan is no different: He chases a girl who doesn’t want to sleep with him, she gets transformed into a reed, and he cuts a group of reeds (hoping to get her) and makes them into a musical instrument. Pan seems to be defined by his sexual appetite – I’ve even seen a statue of him fucking a goat, but instead of the goat standing on its legs (the more practical approach), he’s got the animal on its back, which seems to imply consent but also the idea that this is unnatural. Hamsun only explicitly mentions Pan in one short scene, but the protagonist seems modeled on him, the man who lives in nature and is sexually irresistible.

pan

This is a story of the Nordland summer, when instead of the night nearly equal to the day, the sky blushes as the sun approaches the horizon for a kiss and a little touch before shooting back up into the air. It’s mostly the first-person account of Lt Glahn’s loves during that summer, but there is a short narrative from another voice at the end that shows us a little about him.

When I met him in the autumn of 1859, he was a man of thirty-two – we were about the same age. At that time he had a full beard and wore woollen hunting shirts with excessively low-cut necks, and it happened also that he not infrequently left the top button undone. At first, his neck struck me as being remarkably handsome; but little by little he made me his deadly enemy, and then I did not think his neck any finer than mine, even though I did not show it off as much.

Glahn lives in a little hut close to the woods, and I’m honestly a little envious of how easily he manages his sex life. Girls just seem to show up at his hut, ready to go, as if the warm weather activates a magnet that draws partners to his cock. For all his good looks and self-confidence, though, he’s still a wild man of the woods, sort of useless in polite nineteenth-century Norwegian society.

I have written this now just for my own pleasure and amused myself as best I could. No worries weigh on me, I merely long to go away, I know not where, but far away, perhaps to Africa or to India; for I belong to the forests and the solitude.

Much as he enjoys spending time with Henriette and Eva and the other girls who pop in to the hut, Glahn is interested in, and gradually obsessed with, Edvarda, the local rich girl. She won’t sleep with him, but spends the entire summer playing this elaborate come-here-now-go-away thing that I personally would not have put up with. I don’t understand the pursuit of someone so irresolute in her actions; Edvarda likes the power of having a handsome man in love with her, but I don’t think she actually likes him, she just can’t bear to have him like anyone else. Edvarda’s father pays Eva to do some work for them, so she gets angry and mocks Glahn for talking with ‘a servant,’ or ‘the help,’ but to Glahn they’re both just women, and all women are equal. Or at least, they’re ranked according to beauty and attraction to him, not according to wealth or social standing. Edvarda plays with a couple of other men that summer too, a Doctor and a Baron, both of whom Glahn abuses, both of whom Edvarda compares him unfavorably with. And he does some pretty insane things out of love for this girl – she says that the Doctor is a better man than he even though he’s lame, so Glahn shoots himself in the foot and has to spend weeks recovering under the care of the Doctor he’s so jealous of. He doesn’t end up lame, though, just a little arthritic when the weather is ready to turn.

This is the nineteenth century, though, so a book about casual sex and the misery of denying it will, of course, involve a lot of dying. So I wasn’t surprised so much as saddened at the end. I like to think that sex can be good and happy, not leading to madness and death.

Although I lack Glahn’s confidence in my own attractiveness, I identify with a lot of what he says. He has a number of elaborate descriptions of nature and the effect it has on him.

From my hut I could see a confusion of islands and rocks and skerries, a little of the sea, a few blue-tinged peaks; and behind the hut lay the forest, an immense forest. I was filled with joy and thankfulness at the smell of the roots and leaves and the rich, fatty redolence of the firs, so like the smell of bone-marrow. Only in the forest did all within me find peace, my soul became tranquil and full of might.

This is, of course, why I love North Carolina so much. It’s a place of forests, where I can spend time with the trees, breathing in the rich life of their oxygenic exhalations. In the woods there is an ecstasy, a rapture, that doesn’t belong to any other place.

I lay on the ground as I ate. It was quiet over the earth, just a gentle sighing of the wind and here and there the sound of birds. I lay and watched the branches waving gently in the breeze; a diligent little wind was bearing the pollen from twig to twig and filling each innocent blossom; the whole forest was in ecstasy. A little green caterpillar loops its way along a branch, without pause, as though it could not rest. It scarcely sees anything, although it has eyes; often it rears up and feels the air for something to catch hold of; it looks like a bit of green thread slowly stitching a seam along the branch. Perhaps by evening it will have arrived where it wants to be.

For all his attention to the outward world, though, Glahn is rarely self-aware; he doesn’t identify or admit what he is feeling and why. When he tells a girl he loves her, it rings false because I’ve just read an entire chapter about shooting a couple of birds, roasting them over a fire, and eating them, but he hasn’t mentioned her or himself thinking about her, and he’s either fucking or mooning over other girls at the same time. I suppose it could be not so much a lack of self-awareness as an unwillingness to commit his awareness to paper, but his actions make me think that he’s not great at thinking things through or planning ahead.

I lie closer to the fire and watch the flames. A fir cone falls from its branch, and then a dry twig or two. The night is like a boundless deep. I close my eyes.

After an hour, all my senses are throbbing in rhythm, I am ringing with the great stillness, ringing with it. I look up at the crescent moon standing in the sky like a white shell and I feel a great love for it, I feel myself blushing. ‘It is the moon,’ I say softly and passionately, ‘it is the moon!’ And my heart beats gently towards it. Several minutes pass. A slight breeze springs up, an unnatural gust of wind strikes me, a strange rush of air. What is it? I look about me and see no one. The wind calls to me and my soul bows in obedience to the call, I feel myself lifted out of my context, pressed to an invisible breast, tears spring to my eyes, I tremble – God is standing somewhere near looking at me. Again some minutes pass. I turn my head, the strangely heavy air ebbs away and I see something like the back of a spirit who wanders soundlessly through the forest.

I struggle for a little while against a heavy stupor; with mind worn out by agitation and weary as death, I fall asleep.

Which reminds me of my own experiences of the divine in this world, and the way that for me the sacred and the sexual and the natural are all intimately tied together. Perhaps my unsatisfaction with my sex life is caused by not giving enough attention to those other two areas. Maybe Glahn’s confidence comes not from staring into a mirror but from touching the trees and shunning human society. In this book, the sense of powerlessness comes from other people – solitude in nature revitalizes the protagonist until he’s glowing with life. There are no faux pas in the forest.

For it is within ourselves that the sources of joy and sorrow lie.

Glahn tells us this at the beginning, and then tells a story where he forgets it, trying to extract these emotions from a woman instead of just accepting them as they come up within himself. I believe that the statement is true, that our true happiness comes from ourselves rather than our external circumstances, but there are external circumstances that support creating joy. For me, those include trees and aloneness, but for others those could be the sea and a crowd, or the desert with one special man. But whatever those circumstances may be, it’s important not to lose sight of them as I tend to do. These last few months I’ve been trying to engage more with people, but that means that I’m not taking care of my self, or my soul if you’d rather, like I did when I was so far away.

There is, of course, one other important feature of the Pan myth: he dies. The rest of the pantheon is cursed to endure, forgotten, faded, and immortal, but Pan dies. His death signals the end of Greek polytheism and the beginning of the Christian era, where there is only one god and he only impregnates one girl (who consents) and everything is single instead of multiple. Not only is rape punished now, but so are masturbation, homosexuality, fornication, and adultery. That sentence really makes it sound like I’m somehow nostalgic for a society in which rape is acceptable, but I’m not. I’m all for sexual license, but only as long as the consent of all parties is obtained – nothing sensual if not consensual. Pan’s death marks the end of rustic pleasure and the beginning of a policed society. Similarly, Glahn’s departure seems to be the end of an era – civilization has taken over. Nominally Christian morality has taken over, people have been sorted into classes, and economic power has replaced emotional connection as the motivator of human behavior. The cities have defeated the forests – in nineteenth-century Norway. In my here and now, the antagonism between the two seems to be passing away. A number of cities are incorporating greenways, large parks, and other acknowledgments that people need nature to survive. I’ve seen forested bridges that allow animals to cross highways in safety and landscaped roofs of conference buildings where executives can walk through a garden between meetings. The library where I work is halfway buried in a hillside, and while that means there are no windows on an entire side of the building, it also means that, as every book was once a tree, ours are rooted in the earth. Perhaps I love libraries so much because they are the forests where we keep our knowledge and experience, the collected memory of our species. And perhaps I’m spending less time with the trees because I’m spending so much more time with the books.

slade house

Well, it isn’t often that I gobble a book up all in one go, but this one I did. I have some time off from work this week, and not much to do aside from reading, knitting, and trying to remember to eat, so there was no reason not to. The book also reads a lot faster than the other things I’ve been reading lately.

As I was reading yesterday morning, I noticed something strange: the air here has suddenly gotten cold in the morning, so when I looked out the back window, I saw a clear day in early autumn, where some of the leaves are turning but there’s still a lot of green. But when I looked out of the front windows, I saw a wintry day covered in frost. I didn’t know if there was a lot of fog, or if there was a sudden icing over of the trees across the street, or what. It was disorienting, as if I were seeing into two different times, occupying a middle ground between what I thought was the present and the future. Later I walked over to the front windows and saw that they had frosted over in the night, as evidenced by the water still on the panes as the sun warmed the world. In real life there are perfectly rational explanations.

But in fiction there aren’t. Once every nine years, someone gets lured into a mysterious mansion and they’re never heard from again. These people are a series of first-person narrators, so we get to see what happens from their perspectives. They find their way through a tiny door set in an alley, where a pair of mystical fraternal twins leads them through a sort of Mind Theatre which always ends with a very Clive Barker-esque ritual murder, thus ensuring the twins’ survival. Their lives are unnaturally extended, and their ability to project thoughts and images into other people’s minds is sort of par for the course for a Barker villain.

What separates them from my beloved Mr Barker’s characters is that they’re really bad at being evil. Their illusions are sloppy, and the victims generally figure out what’s happening and try to escape. There’s enough of a soul left for them to appear as ghosts later and warn the next. However, like a good fairy tale or myth, they’re too late because the new victim has already eaten or drunk something and so can’t leave. Another problem is that they leave traces – it would be simple to treat these narratives as separate short stories, but they’re not. After the first victim disappears, a thirteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s, the second is a detective investigating the disappearance, the third is a college student in a paranormal club, the fourth is her sister who’s come looking for her, and the fifth is a psychiatrist studying the abductions and the narratives of the witnesses. Or maybe I should say, witness. Fred Pink sees the boy and his mother right before they go, and then he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out the truth.

That first section of the book is not a deep exploration of mental difference. The victims in this story are all people whom society doesn’t work for, outsiders, and the syndrome makes Nathan very pick-on-able at his school. In 1979 there weren’t any of the advanced medications or treatments or interventions we use now, so he self-medicates by stealing his mother’s Valium. I suppose it’s hard to be a proper horror novel victim when you’re high on anti-anxiety meds, but he realizes that he can drop physical items through the cracks in time, and is thus influential in bringing about the end.

The 1988 detective is divorced and unhappy – I’m not saying those two things are connected, but I also don’t feel sorry for him because he refers briefly to a domestic violence incident that these days would have led to a restraining order. Good police officers don’t hit their wives. The presence of Gordon Edmonds, though, really makes me wonder about Mitchell’s identity politics. (Give me a second. I’m circling back to this, but we need to mention the Timms sisters first.)

In 1997 Sally Timms is a college student in a Paranormal Society, lost in unrequited love for Todd, one of the other members. Her sin against society is being overweight, for which she was bullied mercilessly in school. In 2006 her sister Freya is a journalist trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance, and keeps fielding texts from her girlfriend while time is going all out of joint around her.

Okay. In real life, death is often a senseless tragedy, and we try to create a meaning for it. In fiction, authors choose who lives and who dies, which means that there are no accidental deaths. Authors kill people because deep down at some level the writers think the characters deserve it. The wife-beater I can understand, but the others seriously bother me, now that I’m thinking about it. Mitchell even draws our attention to their differences, as if on the surface being bullied can increase a person’s psychic potential and abilities, but going deeper, being bullied at school identifies people as targets and even the author can’t resist knocking them down and stealing their lunch money. Asperger’s Boy, The Lesbian, and The Fat Girl all have to die because their author is removing those who are different from society. He may be doing it in a sympathetic way by giving them voices, but he’s doing it all the same.

If you watch British television and film, you’ll have noticed two things: one, that unlike in America an actor can become famous and successful while looking sort of ordinary and not drop-dead gorgeous; and two, that the British crowd people (NPCs) are much thinner than the Americans. Yes, we have a serious problem with weight in our country, with literally two-thirds of the population considered overweight or obese, but while we talk about body-shaming here, it’s nothing like over there. I heard a story of an English teacher in the U.K. teaching his Asian students the word excessive, and he showed them a picture of a sumo wrestler, hoping they would pick up on the excessive weight. It was a teacher fail because in Japan sumos aren’t considered fat, and I was rather surprised he would have chosen such a culture-specific body-shaming example. But from all that I see and hear, it seems like it’s much more culturally acceptable to be horrible to fat people in Britain than it is in the United States.

I feel like I should say something about the homophobia, overt in 1979 and 1988 and implied in 2006, but to quote R.E.M., “This story is a sad one told many times.” I don’t want to keep talking about how people hate me for . . . I’m having a hard time finishing this sentence, because what precisely is it they hate me for? I don’t love differently than heterosexual conservatives; when I fall in love, I feel the same way about it that anyone else does, and I do the same sorts of things with that person that anyone else would do. Maybe I fuck differently than they do, but I don’t invite them into my bedroom to watch. Maybe they hate me for being open about liking something that they can’t imagine liking, but I don’t understand why this reaction is so much more extreme than when I tell people I like liver and onions.

This week I’ve been celebrating Halloween not just with a scary book, but with another viewing of the Harry Potter movies. At the last one I got all weepy, not over all the people who die or the attack on Hogwarts, but over the Malfoys. In the midst of all this huge conflict of good vs. evil in which all the wizarding world is taking sides, the Malfoys choose each other. Narcissa may not be a good person, but whenever we see her she is acting out of the love she has for her son. It’s a great, overpowering, maybe in some ways frantic and excessive love, but it’s love nonetheless. They’re in the middle of the final battle, in that lull between attacks, and Voldemort offers the students a chance to join his side – Draco’s parents beg him to come over, and since he’s been a minor antagonist all along we expect him to, but all he does is quietly and gently take his mother home. The books and films go on and on about the love of Lily Potter, but only the Malfoys turn their backs on both good and evil and choose each other over all the world. Even Lucius, Voldemort’s lapdog, leaves his Dark Lord’s army to stay with his family.

Which leads me back to Sally and Freya, the two sisters whose love for each other damages the forces of evil so that they can be defeated.

I wish Sally’s last known place of abode could have been prettier. For the millionth time I wonder if she’s still alive, locked in a madman’s attic, praying that we’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed. Like Schrödinger’s cat inside a box you can never ever open. For the millionth time, I flinch about wriggling out of inviting my sister to New York the summer before she started uni here. Sally wanted to visit, I knew, but I had a job at a photo agency, fashionista friends, invitations to private views, and I was just starting to date women. It was an odd time. Discovering my Real Me and babysitting my tubby, dorky, nervy sister had just felt all too much. So I told Sal some bullshit about finding my feet, she pretended to believe me, and I’ll never forgive myself. Avril says that not even God can change the past. She’s right, but it doesn’t help.

Which drops me at the last thing I wanted to say. Despite all of the horror novel trappings, this is a book about Grief. It even gets capitalized and personified a couple of times. Stripped away to the basic bones, this is the story of an extraordinary woman who can’t deal with her grief in constructive ways, so the unmanaged feelings lead to paranormal abilities and all sorts of damage. I don’t mean to judge her for this; Grief is personal, overpowering, and no one else’s business. Grief is the expression of love for someone who cannot return it. I nearly wrote ‘the final expression,’ but I don’t think it’s that. Grieving is the process whereby we learn how to continue to love someone we have lost. There is nothing final about it.

For fans of Cloud Atlas, this may seem like an odd direction for Mitchell to have moved in. I have The Bone Clocks on my shelf but haven’t made time for it yet, so maybe there were intermediate steps that I missed. But Mitchell’s writing is still excellent and engaging, and like me, you may find that this is a book you don’t want to put down. It’s a good thing it’s short.

 

house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.

This group of stories was written by Lawrence in his twenties, leading up to Sons and Lovers and World War I. I’m reading the Oxford World’s Classics edition, ed. Antony Atkins, and there is a choice I would not have made. Atkins orders the stories chronologically, from the earliest known draft, instead of in the sequence Lawrence chose. DHL was an obsessive reviser, so it seems plain to me that the arrangement of the stories would have been agonized over as much as any of his other changes, particularly since Atkins’s notes highlight the frequent revisions and the specific changes Lawrence made each time. I’m not saying that studying them chronologically has no value, merely that I think there is more value in reading an author’s work in the manner in which he published it.

“The Prussian Officer” is the last story to be written, but Lawrence puts it first and uses its name in the title, so I guess he considered it either the best or most important. Publishing in 1914, at the beginning of a war, I can see the expedience of that choice. TPO is the gay story of the bunch, but it’s written at a time when there was no cultural vocabulary for that, so it’s painful. The Captain is infatuated with the soldier who acts as his servant, but he can neither express nor accept his own desire, so it comes out in dangerous ways. Instead of kissing him, he kicks him. The only way his cultural background will allow him to touch this younger man is violently, so he does. This kid gets really hurt. The servant is straight, though, so he doesn’t kiss back – he kills him. With his bare hands. As with most of the stories, it’s really sad and completely preventable.

“The Thorn in the Flesh” is the second story, and second-to-last written. It’s also about a German soldier who accidentally hurts an officer and gets in trouble for it. I think that, as he traveled about and saw more of the world, Lawrence became less tolerant of authority, particularly in the military context. Atkins includes in an appendix an earlier version of this one called “Vin Ordinaire,” and it helped me understand the story and its revision better. In describing the accident, the earlier version is much clearer – I couldn’t visualize what was happening in the later version. The earlier story seems to come from the soldier’s point of view, and everything revolves around him. He runs off to his girlfriend’s house, and even the sex is centered on him. There’s a line about how Emilie is only half satisfied, but Lawrence sort of drops her. The later version, the one he published in the book, is much more centered on her. The accident is vague because she probably only had a vague sense of the details. Her consciousness is moved to the forefront, and it highlights her virginity and her pride in her virginity, then her changing outlook after she loses that virginity. And, in the later version, she spends the night with him instead of with the governess, so she gets complete satisfaction. The early version is a lot like the other early stories, but the later one seems to have challenged him more. I envision Emilie knocking on the door of his brain, demanding a better ending and more attention, until he finally rewrote the thing.

Most of the stories in the book rely on his own early experience, like Sons and Lovers. As you would expect, they’re about the everyday lives of coalminers in the Midlands. My favorite of the volume was “Daughters of the Vicar,” about two girls raised in isolated snobbery in a little mining village. The story is about their marriages – the first marries this curate with Short-Man Syndrome, which means that he is keenly aware of his physical inferiority and overcompensates with intellectual prowess and the power to force other people to do what he wants. The older girl is drawn to his power, and as such is a little afraid of him and not much attracted to him. The younger sister is in love with one of the miners, a curiously self-conscious young man who did a stint in the navy to get out of town but came back from homesickness. For me, their love affair is one of the most intense parts of the book, so it’s no surprise that Lawrence put it third after the German soldier stories.

At last she wanted to see him. She looked up. His eyes were strange and glowing, with a tiny black pupil. Strange, they were, and powerful over her. And his mouth came to hers, and slowly her eyelids closed, as his mouth sought hers closer and closer, and took possession of her.

They were silent for a long time, too much mixed up with passion and grief and death to do anything but hold each other in pain and kiss with long, burning kisses wherein fear was transfused into desire. At last she disengaged herself. He felt as if his heart were hurt, but glad, and he scarcely dared look at her.

The ones in the middle are a little forgettable. No doubt true to the life, but not every aspect of life is interesting, you know?

The final story in Lawrence’s arrangement is the one most frequently anthologized, “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” A miner’s wife gets angry at her husband for staying out late, then she finds out that he died in a cave-in and she and his mother prepare the body for burial. There are two topics that interest me here, and in the less memorable stories. (1) The sharp visual contrasts in miner’s lives. They work underground all day, so their skin is as pale as anything. But, despite their bright whiteness, they get covered in coal dust, so when they come home they’re nearly black. They move back and forth between black and white, and while they’re black they communicate that darkness to the rest of the world. Darkness defines the miners’ professional lives, and it stains the rest of their existences too. Washing is one of the most important activities of the evening, because that is the transition between workplace filth and domestic cleanliness. This casting of white as normal and black as deviant probably affects Lawrence’s ethnocentrism, evident throughout his career. (2) The unknowableness of other people. The mining stories are full of this sense of isolation and social ignorance. We can never completely know what is happening in another person’s mind, so even if we spend years sleeping in the same bed we can never fully know another human being. This knowledge frequently comes too late, after the characters have to suffer for their presumption. This theme is stressed in the version of “Chrysanthemums” Lawrence chose for publication, but Atkins includes an earlier version of the ending which focuses instead on the consequences of poverty. As Elizabeth is preparing her husband for his grave, instead of thinking of how little she really knows him, she thinks about how working long hours in a dangerous job for little pay has affected him over the years.

Let Education teach us to amuse ourselves, necessity will train us to work. Once out of the pit, there was nothing to interest this man. He sought the public-house where, by paying the price of his own integrity, he found amusement, destroying the clamours for activity, because he knew not what form the activities might take. The miner turned miscreant to himself, easing the ache of dissatisfaction by destroying the part of him which ached. Little by little the recreant maimed and destroyed himself.

It was this recreant his wife had hated so bitterly, had fought against so strenuously. She had strove, all the years of his falling off, had strove with all her force to save the man she had known new-bucklered with beauty and strength. In a wild and bloody passion she fought the recreant. Now this lay killed, the clean young knight was brought home to her. Elizabeth bowed her head upon the body and wept.

If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, poverty focuses our attention at the bottom, with keeping ourselves fed, sheltered, and sexually satisfied. Safety is a higher level of concern that, at home, the miners can achieve, but not at work. As such, women are in some ways better off than men, but in most ways not. The difficulty of being a miner’s wife is one of the primary themes of the collection. After safety, people need love and belonging, and most of Lawrence’s characters can achieve that, though Elizabeth is in some doubt. Esteem is more difficult to accomplish – no student of gender interactions will be surprised at how little respect husbands and wives can show each other. [Notice, I said can; it’s not inevitable. The old saying goes, Familiarity breeds contempt, and spouses generally become quite familiar with each other over time. Maybe clinging to unknowableness is Lawrence’s way of establishing more mutual respect.] And finally, few of Lawrence’s characters meet their full potential – self-actualization – because of their economic and social limitations.

Atkins’s edition also includes “With the Guns,” which was considered uncollected until the sixties. It’s a nonfiction piece about Lawrence’s observations of European soldiers before WWI got started, and it seems to give a key to his writing choices. This scene involves the shots fired by modern artillery:

I watched, but I could not see where they had gone, nor what had been aimed at. Evidently they were directed against an enemy a mile and a half away, men unseen by any of the soldiers at the guns. Whether the shot they fired hit or missed, killed or did not touch, I and the gun-party did not know. Only the officer was shouting the range again, the guns were again starting back, we were again staring over the face of the green and dappled, inscrutable country into which the missiles sped unseen.

What work was there to do? – only mechanically to adjust the guns and fire the shot. What was there to feel? – only the unnatural suspense and suppression of serving a machine which, for aught we knew, was killing our fellow-men, whilst we stood there, blind, without knowledge or participation, subordinate to the cold machine. This was the glamour and the glory of the war: blue sky overhead and living green country all around, but we, amid it all, a part in some iron insensate will, our flesh and blood, our soul and intelligence shed away, and all that remained of us a cold, metallic adherence to an iron machine. There was neither ferocity nor joy nor exultation nor exhilaration nor even quick fear, only a mechanical, expressionless movement.

Lawrence’s love for nature seems to have been awakened by watching the Bavarian artillery. There was a time when war meant pitting men against men, where the stronger or more determined man won. World War I seems to be the beginning of drone strikes, where an obedient soldier manipulates fire on an impersonal target he is given, like the faceless NPCs of shooter games. Modern warfare denies our common humanity; it transforms living beings into cogs of a machine, a machine designed to bring death to whatever comes within its sights. In contrast, there is the beauty of sky and vegetation, life all around the machinery of death. The thing that really twists my perception here is that death is an inherently natural process that has been hijacked by technology – war denaturizes death. There is no inevitability, no sense of continuity, no circle of life. One moment someone is there, breathing and digesting and loving and sweating and alive, and the next moment he is gone, arbitrarily, purposelessly.

Maybe if we loved nature more, we would have found a different kind of warfare. Instead of increasing tools and separating the combatants, we could have reclaimed a style of war that more closely mimics nature, one that celebrates the physical reality of two men’s bodies coming together, struggling for dominance, where the strongest will to live wins. More primitive, no doubt, but where honor, strength, and determination really matter, where there is more to defending family and resources than what you see in a video game. I’m not suggesting that there is a good type of warfare; I’m just saying that our current method of managing conflict to maintain peace is ineffective, in part because it removes the human element from both sides.

War is awful. Killing another person is (and should be) a traumatic experience. Making it easier to kill others, both logistically and psychologically, which is the aim of military technology, is not a worthwhile endeavor. Some things are supposed to hurt, so that we learn not to do them.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.