Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

Before I get into Shen Fu, I have a confession to make. Because I love The Woman Warrior, I’ve been trying to read Maxine Hong Kingston’s fiction, but it’s been killing my motivation pretty quickly. This is the second time it’s happened, so I checked something. Tripmaster Monkey, the one I was reading last week, features a character named Wittman Ah Singh, and I find him thoroughly unlikable (in the first chapter, which I didn’t finish). I looked back at The Fifth Book of Peace, which I’d started a few years ago – the first section, the one on the San Francisco Fire, is great, but then she starts telling a story about that same guy, Wittman Ah Singh! I couldn’t stand him then either! Maybe I need to find a book of hers that isn’t about him.

Shen Fu lived in the later part of the Eighteenth Century, in China. Some things were weird and foreign, yes, but what surprised me is just how similar he is to British authors writing around the same time, like Coleridge, Blake, and Wordsworth. Lavish descriptions of nature, interest in ruins and other picturesque features of the landscape, travel, and fragmented narrative. Each of these six records shows a different side of his life, but they don’t follow each other chronologically.

First, he talks about the happiness of his marriage. He marries a girl who seems like his intellectual (but not social) equal, so they make jokes about literature and laugh all the time. He and Yün are very happy and love each other very much. Yeah, sometimes they leave a party drunk and he sends her on ahead so he can have sex with a stranger, but attraction to third parties doesn’t change their feelings for each other. They live in beautiful places and find joy in their everyday lives. Besides, in China at the time lesbianism was kind of a normal thing that didn’t upset straight marriages. His wife has a couple of very dear friends, and whenever they come over the three women get the bed and he gets the couch, which he accepts with the same good cheer that men in my society accept “Girls’ Night Out.” In their early thirties, she starts looking for a concubine for him, but she’s really looking for a woman she can love too. When they find one, she falls hard for her, but it doesn’t work out and she becomes seriously depressed.

But later Han-yüan was taken off by a powerful man, and all the plans came to nothing. In fact, it was because of this that Yün died.

Ending the chapter like this, it seems like we’ve started a murder mystery, but there is no mystery. Grief and stress rob Yün of her health and kill her at the age of forty.

The second part is about his hobbies, so there’s a two-page section on flower arranging. He likes entertaining and landscaping. He is quite the aesthete.

Third, we have the story of his sorrows. Life with Yün isn’t a bed of roses, like it may have seemed in the first part. His parents don’t really like her, which makes for some serious problems. He’s not that great with money, or holding down a job, so they’re always poor and relying on friends for help. His parents also don’t like Han-yüan, so they’re part of the plot to prevent the concubine thing from working out. Nevertheless, he takes his father’s death pretty hard, as well as his younger brother’s attempt to take over as head of the family. He talks about his children here, but not in the first part, and I take that to be a little odd since my children were the happiest part of my marriage, but he is separated from them and his son dies in childhood, so it makes sense.

The fourth story is about his traveling. Up until now, Yün has seemed like the protagonist of this story because everything he talks about involves her. But he spends a lot of time away from her, following the demands of his changing professions, and maybe she really was happier living with a girlfriend than with him. This is the longest section of the book, so I think that spending time away from each other must have been critical to maintaining the happiness that was so strong in the first chapter. When he goes to the Land of the Floating Whorehouses (my title, not his), he looks for a girl who reminds him of his wife, and even though there are several girls living in the houseboat he sticks with the one he likes. His friend makes the rounds, though. He’s always traveling with some close male friend, so maybe there’s some male homosexual behavior going on too, but he never alludes to the possibility of that. The closest we come is when he talks about being in a room with a few friends and all their rented girls and being teased for wanting a private room. I’ve never been in a room with people who are having sex when I’m not involved, so I think it must be very awkward, but I suppose in a society that’s less puritanical it’s like watching a porn video. Except that it features your friends and coworkers. Even when I was in an all-male workplace, I still wouldn’t want to see my coworkers naked. I would be really uncomfortable.

Hsin-yüeh had a son named Chu-heng who was quiet and well bred. We never quarreled, and he was the second close friend I have had in this life. The pity is that we only met like bits of duckweed drifting on the water, and were not together for long.

This is why I hang onto Facebook, even when it’s full of sad news about world events. My entire life has been drifting along a stream, and I meet many interesting and lovely people, but then I move away, or they do, and we are never together for long.

I know it’s called the Six Floating Records, but today there are only these four. The other two have been lost to time. People have claimed to find them, but so far all “recovered chapters” have been forgeries. Some scholars think he may not have finished writing them, like one of those verse dramas by the English Romantics that are only ever published in fragments. He gets to the end of his travels, especially the traveling he does to recover from his wife’s death, and the book just ends with no real conclusion.

I felt very close to Shen Fu while I was reading his book, like he’s telling the story of my hypothetical life in China two hundred years ago, being bad at business but interested in art and literature and history and making everyday life beautiful. The Chinese astrologers would say that this makes sense, because we’re both born in the year of the Goat. Goat babies are unlucky, vain, unable to save money, and very proud of their homes. We like our lives to be nicer than we can afford on our own.

Normally this would be the part where I talk about him and how great it is that I live with someone who has a job and likes to take care of me, but he’s been out of work for the last six weeks and it’s given me a lot of stress because I don’t make enough money to support my kids and myself, much less another person. But he’s being trained in a new position this weekend, so I’m hoping that our financial situation will improve very soon.

Hope is so very important. Shen Fu and Yün are always hoping something will turn up, and it always does. There’s a certain amount of drift involved in living by hope, the Floating from the title. After she dies he loses his hope that anything good will happen again. I’ve heard depression defined as the inability to see a future, and that is his problem not just in his widowerhood but throughout his life. He doesn’t plan specifics – there’s only the vague hope that things will work out. It’s like when The Ex got pregnant for the first time, and we went to the midwife and she asked, “What form of birth control were you using? Hope?” Hope is not an effective method of preventing pregnancy, nor is it an effective tool for taking control of your own life. Relying only on hope means that your life will be determined by external events; it keeps the locus of control outside of yourself. However, for those of us who frequently feel that our life is in fact controlled more strongly by sinister outside forces than by our own will, hope is also the only thing we have to hold on to. Hope gives us a way out, a light in the darkness. Hope is our escape. Hope gives us the ability to sketch a vague plan that can keep us from dying from depression. Yün loses hope and dies. Shen Fu’s friends keep supplementing his hope with their own, keeping him alive long enough to find goodness in the world again.

This is a short and beautiful book, and it apparently gives us the most detailed look into private life in this period of Chinese history. I enjoyed it thoroughly. When I first came out a lot of people were after me to tell my story, but the task always seemed too big. This may be a good approach, though, taking just one element at a time. It could be a way for me to get a handle on it.

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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.

This one seems like a strange direction for Hardy. The Return of the Native was such a triumph, I suppose it’s a little natural for me to feel a letdown as I move to the next thing (that isn’t The Woodlanders). It’s like when I first listened to White Blood Cells. I thought, White Stripes are the most amazing band ever! and I ran out and got another album, and I was disappointed. So I let it go for a little bit, and then I listened again. De Stijl is a great album, it’s just a different album than White Blood Cells. Not less than, just different. Similarly, The Trumpet-Major isn’t necessarily less than Return of the Native, it’s just different.

We’re reading about Wessex six or seven decades before Hardy’s writing about it, which means Nostalgia. And possibly anachronisms – I don’t know enough of the minutiae of nineteenth century life to speak to that, but scholars more dedicated than I say it’s remarkably accurate.

The present writer, to whom this party has been described times out of number by members of the Loveday family and other aged people now passed away, can never enter the old living-room of Overcombe Mill without beholding the genial scene through the mists of the seventy or eighty years that intervene between then and now.  First and brightest to the eye are the dozen candles, scattered about regardless of expense, and kept well snuffed by the miller, who walks round the room at intervals of five minutes, snuffers in hand, and nips each wick with great precision, and with something of an executioner’s grim look upon his face as he closes the snuffers upon the neck of the candle.  Next to the candle-light show the red and blue coats and white breeches of the soldiers—nearly twenty of them in all besides the ponderous Derriman—the head of the latter, and, indeed, the heads of all who are standing up, being in dangerous proximity to the black beams of the ceiling.  There is not one among them who would attach any meaning to ‘Vittoria,’ or gather from the syllables ‘Waterloo’ the remotest idea of his own glory or death.  Next appears the correct and innocent Anne, little thinking what things Time has in store for her at no great distance off.  She looks at Derriman with a half-uneasy smile as he clanks hither and thither, and hopes he will not single her out again to hold a private dialogue with—which, however, he does, irresistibly attracted by the white muslin figure.  She must, of course, look a little gracious again now, lest his mood should turn from sentimental to quarrelsome—no impossible contingency with the yeoman-soldier, as her quick perception had noted.

I’m writing this the night of the election, and I feel a similar sense of participating in a historical moment that is in the process of being written. Tonight they will either declare the first female U. S. president or the granting of nuclear weaponry to a buffoon who is unqualified to lead and hates everyone. History, no matter what the outcome. As with Hardy’s soldiers, glory, death, or both.

One of the things that feels anachronistic is the ratio of men to women. By mid-century British thinkers were focused on The Surplus Woman Question, the issue of what to do when women are not allowed to work for their own support, and yet they far outnumber the men whom society allows to support them. Perhaps in 1805 there wasn’t such an issue, but really. Overcombe seems like a giant frat party.

Anne was so flurried by the military incidents attending her return home that she was almost afraid to venture alone outside her mother’s premises. Moreover, the numerous soldiers, regular and otherwise, that haunted Overcombe and its neighbourhood, were getting better acquainted with the villagers, and the result was that they were always standing at garden gates, walking in the orchards, or sitting gossiping just within cottage doors, with the bowls of their tobacco-pipes thrust outside for politeness’ sake, that they might not defile the air of the household. Being gentlemen of a gallant and most affectionate nature, they naturally turned their heads and smiled if a pretty girl passed by, which was rather disconcerting to the latter if she were unused to society. Every belle in the village soon had a lover, and when the belles were all allotted those who scarcely deserved that title had their turn, many of the soldiers being not at all particular about half-an-inch of nose more or less, a trifling deficiency of teeth, or a larger crop of freckles than is customary in the Saxon race. Thus, with one and another, courtship began to be practised in Overcombe on rather a large scale, and the dispossessed young men who had been born in the place were left to take their walks alone, where, instead of studying the works of nature, they meditated gross outrages on the brave men who had been so good as to visit their village.

Which explains why Anne Garland has three suitors, all of whom are locals. Anne and her mother live in an apartment that is part of the local miller’s house, and he has two sons. The older is a trumpet major in a squadron training in town, the younger is at sea. John makes up to Anne, but she’s only interested in being friends, so he respects that. John Loveday is really a great guy. Festus Derriman, on the other hand, is a problem. He’s a giant, but he’s a coward. He talks big, but acts small. He’s a drunk bully who has a hard time with the idea of consent. Anne is very definitely not interested, but he keeps finding ways to trap her, and she keeps escaping. Fess’s father is a local landowner, but he’s determined to keep everything away from the blowhard, so he keeps trying to hide the tin box with all his deeds and will and saved cash. No hiding place is ever quite good enough, so he keeps moving it, which puts the box at risk in a comic-relief sort of way.

The third suitor is Bob, the sailing son of the miller. Anne and he had a thing when they were younger, but when he comes back he brings a fiancée, Matilda Johnson. And in her reaction, Anne shows her naivete in the matter of men and marriage.

She would not be critical, it was ungenerous and wrong; but she could not help thinking of what interested her. And were there, she silently asked, in Miss Johnson’s mind and person such rare qualities as placed that lady altogether beyond comparison with herself? O yes, there must be; for had not Captain Bob singled out Matilda from among all other women, herself included? Of course, with his world-wide experience, he knew best.

“Singled out from among all other women”? No, sweetie, Bob found a pretty girl that he wanted to have sex with and she wouldn’t do it without marriage. Or at least he thought she wouldn’t. John puts him off of her by telling him a story about Miss Johnson and his regiment. [His entire regiment? Really? Score one for Victorian vagueness.] And Bob understands himself better than Anne understands him:

You know, Miss Garland,’ he continued earnestly, and still running after, ‘ ’tis like this: when you come ashore after having been shut up in a ship for eighteen months, women-folks seen so new and nice that you can’t help liking them, one and all in a body; and so your heart is apt to get scattered and to yaw a bit; but of course I think of poor Matilda most, and shall always stick to her.’

She was the first one he saw when he got off the ship; that’s all. She’s an actress who gets slut-shamed, and the tradition of marrying castoff mistresses to inferior or inadequate men goes back over a hundred years before this, to Fielding and Smollett.

It’s like Hardy suddenly decided to write a Jane Austen novel. It’s set during the Napoleonic Wars and includes the Battle of Trafalgar (Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion). A young woman loses her father and has to live in reduced circumstances in a place that uses Combe in its placenames (Sense and Sensibility). She meets a young man she was enamoured of in the past and must re-win him from his new love (Persuasion). The problem is, Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliott and Elizabeth Bennet are not interchangeable. This collaged heroine doesn’t feel believable to me; she’s just too contradictory. I’m not saying that Hardy is well known for his deep insight into the female mind; I’m just saying that in my opinion, Anne Garland is too much of a weather-cock to be real.

There are some situations that are horrible to live in. Anne Garland lives in a straitened economic circumstance with people who are almost completely uncongenial. She has no friends except a mother who is more romantic and less class-conscious than she is, trying to live this unrealistically privileged life in a community that doesn’t understand privilege. Small towns are marvellously effective at leveling society. Maybe Anne Garland makes more sense if I imagine her, not an intellectually independent woman in her twenties, but an American teenager who reads a lot of books. Like the protagonist of David Bowie’s Labyrinth movie. She makes her men prove their worth and devotion time and time again; it’s not enough just to love her. They have to suffer for it.

So, how does a young woman choose? Two honourable men, both doing service for their country? How do you choose between equal suitors? It’s not a choice Austen’s women ever had to make. Captain Benwick himself withdraws from Anne Elliott, and the other women have only to consult their code of ethics to choose between the men who are interested in them. Fortunately, we’re in a Hardy novel and not an Austen. One of them dies in the Wars, the other gets the girl.

I think one of the important differences between Austen and Hardy is in the equality of the hero and heroine. Anne Elliott is not Captain Wentworth’s prize for getting honorably rich in the war, and she has to do more than wait in a tower for him to come sweep her off her feet. I love the fact that the film ends with her on his ship, heading into the war together. Anne Garland, on the other hand, insists on acting like some sort of Holy Grail, a valuable and symbolically weighted object, but an object nonetheless. Austen’s women learn to take action and think for themselves; Anne Garland learns to force healthy, able-bodied men into ideological corsets. There must be a better life than forcing oneself to live with Anne’s disapproval.

“Worthy” is such a poisonous concept; during a war, when men are dying all around, there’s just no time for it. Show love. Even if it’s just for a few hours. And don’t shame others for loving temporarily. Miss Garland erases the double standard by holding men to the same ideal of celibate fidelity that she holds herself to, but that doesn’t make the ideal healthy or good. My briefest sexual relationship was one of the most satisfying; it is the one that involves the fewest regrets and the simplest emotions. I’m not saying that a one-night stand is the same as a decades-long commitment; I am saying that there’s no shame in it. I’m also saying that it’s not fair to expect commitment when you don’t offer it in return. Love people for who they are and what they have to offer, not for what you think they ought to be.

 

A few weeks ago, I was complaining about an author who wrote a period novel, but didn’t do it well. Byatt does it well. She knows the Victorian Era, so her books are similar to the classics, but she discusses things that were unmentionable back then. These stories contain things that people really did and thought about, but only hinted at in literature.

When students discuss the Nineteenth Century, they often treat it as a period of great certainty; they trust the surface of religious conservatism, or the now-well-publicized hypocrisy: a church on each corner, with a bar and two whorehouses between each pair. But they don’t question the moral certainty of the time. Well maybe it’s not exactly hypocrisy. That conservative certainty was all surface. The Nineteenth Century was a time of great insecurity – people started questioning their religion in a way they never had before, so they had to reassure each other constantly that “God is in His Heaven, and all is right with the world.” As Hamlet’s mother would say, “Methinks they do protest too much.” Darwin is an easy scapegoat, but the Industrial Revolution changed the world so much that the old belief system wore thin in several places. Nothing convinces people that God is limited like poverty. Byatt really captures the uncertainty of the time.

The two stories here are linked by this theme of uncertainty, but also by a minor character. Captain Papagay appears at the end of each to signal the fulfillment of other characters’ goals, though it’s only the middle of their journeys. For a story to end in hope, there has to be some sense that the characters live beyond the end.

MORPHO EUGENIA

In some ways, this is a protracted analogy between ant colonies and Victorian country houses. The communities are remarkably similar.

Nevertheless, in the hot days just after Midsummer, when they increased their vigilance in order to observe, if possible, the nuptial flight of the Queens and their suitors, he was hard put to it not to see his own life in terms of a diminishing analogy with the tiny creatures. He had worked so hard, watching, counting, dissecting, tracking, that his dreams were prickling with twitching antennae, advancing armies, gnashing mandibles and dark, inscrutable complex eyes. His vision of his own biological processes – his frenzied, delicious mating, so abruptly terminated, his consumption of the regular meals prepared by the darkly quiet forces behind the baize doors, the very regularity of his watching, dictated by the regularity of the rhythms of the nest, brought him insensibly to see himself as a kind of complex sum of his nerve-cells and instinctive desires, his automatic social responses of deference or required kindness or paternal affection. One ant in an anthill was neither here nor there, was dispensable, was nothing. This was intensified, despite his recognition of the grimly comic aspect of his reaction, by the recording of the fate of the male ants.

This story was difficult for me to read because it reminded me of my own marriage. It failed for a different reason than William’s, but a lot of the emotions were the same. The ex became interested in me primarily as a provider of children and for her children – like William, I was defined primarily by my reproductive function, which inspires about as much respect as prostitutes generally receive. I felt worthless, like a drone in an anthill. I need to be with someone who wants me for more than sex. Sex yes, and frequently, but not just when partner is at peak fertility and wanting another pregnancy.

There are a few long passages speculating on intelligent design, trying to reconcile God and Darwin, but the arguments tend to go in big circles without reaching any conclusions. It seems that the only conclusion available to logic is that God is an evolutionarily advantageous fantasy adopted by the masses for the preservation of the social order.

One of the things that I appreciate about Byatt is that she considers the “surplus women,” the worker ants who support the queen. Miss Crompton lives in the house in a marginal position between the family and the servants, quietly watching both, with her beautifully bony wrists. A woman of sense and education, she constantly surprises William, though me not at all. I’ve come to expect rebellion, poetry, talent, intelligence, and an appreciation for natural beauty from Victorian governesses. Here she is, upon seeing her first monarch butterfly, on a ship a hundred miles from shore.

‘It fills me with emotion,’ she says. ‘I do not know whether it is more fear, or more hope. It is so fragile, and so easily crushed, and nowhere in reach of where it was going. And yet it is still alive, and bright, and so surprising, rightly seen.’ ‘That is the main thing,’ says Captain Papagay. ‘To be alive. As long as you are alive, everything is surprising, rightly seen.’

A friend complimented my nature photographs, which I routinely post to facebook. He said something about my skill, but I don’t think I really have any. Like all art, my pictures are a method of self-expression. I see the world as completely, breathtakingly, gobsmackingly beautiful. My natural state in the forest or mountains is one of wonder and awe. And excitement – I jump and skip like a small child. If my pictures are at all lovely, it’s because I see the world as so beautiful that I can’t show it to you any other way.

THE CONJUGIAL ANGEL

This not-quite-half of the book is less about science than faith. Instead of faith in God, though, it’s about faith in the occult: mediums, séances, the dead. And also unlike the first story, it deals with a fictional version of people who really lived.

The Victorian Era’s favorite bromance is the one commemorated in In Memoriam A. H. H. Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam were best friends, so close that Hallam’s father and twenty-first century literary critics assume they were a gay couple. Byatt presents them as men who love each other, but who don’t have sex. Instead, they use their sisters as proxies. Arthur was set to marry Alfred’s sister Emily, but then he died. Alfred spent seventeen years writing a poem about his grief in which he calls himself Arthur’s widow, and then he married Arthur’s sister Emily. Personally, I find the collective grief for Arthur Hallam to be excessive. As he’s described, I can’t see anything unusual about him, but everyone treats it like a huge betrayal that Emily falls in love with someone else eight years later. Eight years is plenty of time to give to someone who was always more in love with your brother than with you.

It is hard to love the dead. It is hard to love the dead enough.

Despite the more-than-appropriate mourning period, Emily still feels guilty for finding another lover.

And with them in the dreams stood also a separate creature, the girl in black with a white rose in her hair, as he liked to see it. You are accompanied through life, Emily Jesse occasionally understood, not only by the beloved and accusing departed, but by your own ghost too, also accusing, also unappeased.

This is an issue I feel from time to time. My younger selves are all still here in my head, and some of them don’t approve of my life as it is now. Of course, they’re also jealous, so I try not to take their disapproval too seriously, but it contributes to my tendency to depression. I feel guilty for not being able to feel guilty. I end up in church feeling empty and disconnected, looking for a community but feeling alien. As my community is forming up here in the new town, I don’t feel that I have much in common with anyone. I try to connect through the job, or through talking about my family, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I feel too different. It doesn’t help that over Labor Day I drove back home and hooked up with someone I felt a close connection to but whom I will never see again. I find myself hoping that he was lying about moving away soon because I’d like to run into him again someday, and that won’t happen if he really does go to California. I’m lonely, and my twenty-year-old self tells me it’s my own damn fault. I was so judgmental and intolerant – if that part of me had its way, I’d still be married, making justifications like Byatt’s aged Tennyson:

He thought he had acquitted himself well enough, he thought he had. He had felt a suffusion of affection and companionable calm, which he suspected was less than what others felt, somehow, but not unpleasant, not inadequate. To Emily’s taste, he was sure. If he was truthful, there was more excitement in the space between his finger and Arthur’s, with all that implied of the flashing-out of one soul to another, of the symmetry and sympathy of minds, of the recognition they had both felt, that they had in some sense always known each other, they did not have to learn each other, as strangers did. But this did not make them men like Milnes. They were like David and Jonathan, whose love to each other was wonderful, passing the love of women. And yet David was the greatest lover of women in the Bible, David had despatched Uriah to his death to possess Bathsheba, David was manly beyond all heroes.

It always bothers me when people assume that being a homosexual means that a man is effeminate. Since coming out of the closet, I’ve become more confident and assertive, more stereotypically masculine, not less. Even after I’ve taken it like a good bottom, I don’t feel or act womanish. I love masculinity as a concept and some men specifically – for me, there’s nothing feminine about being a gay man. And if I find someone who loves me as Lieutenant Jesse loves Emily, I won’t turn him down either.

You don’t seem to understand. I didn’t mean to speak so much so soon, but there I go, rushing on, like the North Wind, can’t stop – have you ever felt that someone was to do with you, when you saw them, quite simply, just that, that there are people all over the place with noses like dough-buttons and eyes like currants and other people like Roman busts, you know, and then suddenly you see a face that’s alive – for you – and you know it’s to do with you, that that person is a part of your life, have you ever felt that?

Sometimes people are just perfectly matched, and the externals of their lives don’t make them an obvious fit but their real selves align perfectly. One of the ancient Greeks – I think Plato – once theorized that people were originally conjoined beings, split in half for this mortal life. Some of the pairs were androgynous, some were doubly feminine, some doubly masculine. We spend our lives looking for our other half, our soulmate. This has given rise to the (in my opinion) dangerous idea that there’s only one person in the entire world that a person can be truly happy with. In Byatt’s story, this gets merged with the Christian understanding of angels (hence the title), and eventually Arthur Hallam appears as half an angel, haunting the girl who moved on, never realizing that Alfred is his other half, not Emily. She has her Captain (promotion since their marriage), and she loves him, not the boy who died forty years earlier.

Taken together, these two stories show the limitations of mid-Victorian Christianity, its inability to accommodate evolution and spiritualism, two contrasting forces that probably shouldn’t work together to destroy the mechanism of social order, but that’s how the process happens. And of course, they’re also stories about finding love, written with the skill of someone who loves the Victorian Era and the English language. Since I love these things too, I’m going to keep reading Byatt’s stories. They leave me satisfied, full, if not exactly happy. The realism of her stories doesn’t lend itself to simple emotions, even when it’s magical realism.

Last weekend I decided that I was done with being lonely, so I drove up to the nearest city with a gay bar to get dinner, do some drinking, do some dancing, and later do some fucking. The problem was, I’m rubbish with driving in cities. I’m never in the right lane, I get paranoid when someone drives behind me, and I never have change for parking meters. I called someone for directions, but I still ended up out by the highway. In Asheville terms, I went looking for Lexington Ave and ended up on Tunnel Rd. Or, if you prefer New York, I got lost in downtown Manhattan and found myself in Scranton. So I pulled into the Walmart parking lot to figure out where I was, and I saw a guy with a “Homeless and Hungry” sign. I ran into the Subway inside the Walmart and bought him a sandwich, looked at how late it was getting, and trudged moodily to the Outback Steakhouse. I had a great dinner and did a little drinking, read some Sartre, but then I just went home. This happened to me in Paris, too: I spent three days wandering the city, giving over a hundred euros to beggars, before I finally made it to Le Marais. I’ve got to make sure other people’s needs are met before I can accept the idea that my needs are important too.

This was always my favourite C. S. Lewis book. Maybe because, as a romantic, I’m drawn by its fragmentary nature. I tend to think that it’s more because the title speech captures what I believe the essence of religion ought to be: learning to see the infinite potential of each human being, and encouraging them to reach that potential.

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

Many religious people will tell you that the purpose of religion is to gain a sense of God and to please Him. I think that it’s just as important to understand what religion tells us about ourselves and our fellow humans. I don’t usually think of myself as a god-in-embryo; it’s easier for me to see the divine in other people. Maybe that’s why I give to the homeless; when I help them, their gratitude makes me feel as if the universe approves of me. There’s something that feels more authentic, more beneficent in having a dirty kid who wears winter clothes in the summer and only owns eight pieces of kibble for his dog tell me “God bless you” than in hearing the same phrase from my coworker, who is consistently well-fed and is taking a month of vacation to travel to Albania. I shake hands with American Christians on a weekly basis (can’t resist a nice-looking guy in a suit, so I keep going back to church), but none of them confer the same degree of blessing as the old woman wearing hijab on the Champs-Elysées, who interrupted her prostrating to clutch my hand and kiss it. It is significantly more difficult for me to see the divine in my next-door neighbor, who shouts really damaging things at the woman he lives with, or in another coworker who literally sticks his nose in the air when he sees me coming down the hall (if I walked by him outside during a rainstorm, he’d drown). So, yes, even in the religion of free love that I’ve invented for myself, I still have a way to go.

I also appreciate Lewis’s approach to symbols, and his honesty with them.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

Symbols are not doctrine. They can teach, but only by suggesting, by pointing at something else. The symbol is not the point; what it represents is. The problem is that, when it comes to religion (of any sort), the thing symbolized cannot be understood without symbols. I think this explains my abiding interest in mysticism and sex. Language is a symbol like any other, and it’s often less adequate than more pictorial representations. I’ve spent my life looking for experience that transcends language, for glory that cannot be expressed. That bit in the Bible about “seek and ye shall find” is true; when I was religious, I sought mystical experiences, fasting, praying, meditating, sacrificing, any spiritual discipline that people do, I’ve probably tried in some form. In return, I heard voices, saw visions, and occasionally felt a touch or an embrace from someone who (empirically considered) wasn’t there. These days I look for transcendence in sex. Not as frequently as I’d like, but I can find “what feeds my soul” in that intense physical experience.

Lewis describes it not so much as transcending as transposing. The comparison here that makes the most sense to me is in making a piano reduction of an orchestral work. I’ve listened to and played enough of these that I get it. You can put all the same notes in there, but you can’t capture the timbre of the other instruments with a piano. There’s something about the opening to Rhapsody in Blue that only makes sense when it’s played on the clarinet. Even so, there are some things that just will never make sense in this life, because Earth isn’t the instrument life is written for. I’m not sure I completely agree with this idea, but I can see the beauty of it, and I can see how it helps others get through life contentedly.

As I was rereading this book, I realized how much I’ve changed from when I last read it, five or six years ago. For most of my life, I’ve looked for what Lewis calls “The Inner Ring,” that small group of people who really belong, who make things happen. I’ve been drawn to power and tried to associate myself with those people I perceived as having it. But not now. I guess now that I’m away from God and my ex-wife, I feel like I have enough power in my life that I don’t go around looking for more. I don’t even look at social groups any more. I see individuals, and I decide whom I want to be with based on their personal qualities. Perhaps not completely, but mostly I’ve been cured of this inner-ringer-ness.

The other big change is in my response to the essay on membership. Lewis teaches that the key to personality is in surrendering it to God. Working in the church, you discover who you really are, you are more completely yourself than when you are alone.

We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

I am too familiar with truthful paradoxes to argue against this with logic. All I can really say is, my experience was different. I didn’t become more myself; I became less. The more I threw myself into church service, the more I conformed to the patterns set by others. It’s no use turning yourself into an ear when you were made to be a leaf. And as for obedience and unity with God, that requires labeling half of my desires as evil and ignoring or fighting against them in order to kill them. Killing half of oneself does not increase the self; it left me half of a person. And that supposedly evil part of the self never really dies; like Tolkien’s Ring of Power, it lies in wait until a new opportunity arises. Then one day when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, those desires overwhelm you and you “fall into sin.” This Christian concept of what it means to be human is incredibly dangerous because it encourages such violence to the self. Not physical, but mental and emotional violence.

I find more diversity among “the worldlings” than the Christians. This diversity comes from having a healthier attitude toward the self. Instead of seeing myself as a battlefield where angels and demons struggle for dominance, now I am just myself. The desires I have for “evil” are as much a part of me as my desires for “good.” The more I can accept this fundamental truth, the more peace I have with myself. I try to love the people and other living things around me, and where I can’t yet love, I try to be kind. If I have a desire to be unkind, then I accept that as part of myself, but I also try to understand where the desire comes from. It’s often rooted in fear, especially fear of rejection, so I try to address my fears in other ways that don’t hurt others. I do not find this approach to life in most Christians, but it doesn’t seem quite as uncommon among the educated secular.

Religion has actually been the area in my life where I feel the most rejection lately. Here in the United States the Supreme Court has decided that marriage is marriage, regardless of the genders of the people entering into it. A number of my friends are celebrating by adding rainbow filters to their facebook profile pictures and posting supportive comments. A number of friends I feel more distant from are responding by complaining about the color and insisting that by definition gay marriage cannot exist. While it’s not a definite dividing line, more Christians are straight-only-marriage-defenders, and more secular people are gay-marriage-celebrators. Then, the church I grew up in issued a formal statement to be read in all congregations throughout the United States and Canada claiming the church’s right never to recognize gay relationships. In my opinion, the gesture is unnecessary and hostile. Their stance on homosexuality has been clear for decades now, and has never changed. They are an institution dedicated to the salvation of humanity, they even claim that their priesthood ordinances are necessary for salvation, but they deny these to me and my people. It’s taken me years to understand that being rejected by this church and being rejected by God are not the same thing. But I’ve finally mustered the courage to respond to their rejection in the most sensible fashion: I resigned my membership. Most of the members I know think this is a horrible idea – I think they see me as embracing my damnation – but I can see the love in their concern, and I can accept their love and friendship without remaining one of them. If God is my creator, then I can best please him by being the person he created. [Sorry about the masculine pronouns. Part of being gay for me unfortunately involves a certain discomfort with femininity as an abstract concept, so I think of God as a him. There are many people I love who see God as female, or both, or neither, and I support their interacting with the divine in terms they are more comfortable with.]

So, looking at the table of contents, we have: The Weight of Glory, yes. Learning in War-Time, yes. Why I am Not a Pacifist, yes. Transposition, yes. Is Theology Poetry, yes, but it’s not as memorable so it’s a more tentative yes. The Inner Ring, okay, but not really relevant right now. Membership, no. On Forgiveness, yes. A Slip of the Tongue, no.

C. S. Lewis is good for striking at the heart of Christianity, explaining the basic concepts in a learned fashion. You can see his strong leaning toward the academy, but he explains things in such a way that most people can understand. If a person has a problem with Lewis, that person probably has a problem with Christianity as a whole because Lewis tends to shy away from topics that Christians disagree on. As I’ve said, of the works that I’ve read, this is the book that I have the most positive emotional response to. The emphasis is on application and reasoning rather than unquestionable doctrine, so it’s better for me and other people who don’t trust what can’t be questioned.

Last week I had a conversation with an old coworker about being rehired at a former place of employment (different position, different supervisors, so it feels like a step forward, not back). She told me that the person I had been before would not do well in this position, and I told her that I’m not who I was four years ago. Apparently, I impressed her with that fact enough that she commented on it with a few other people. In thinking about it, the difference is in the way I understand who I am. Four years ago I had several props that I substituted for my own identity – my marriage, my faith community, my career – I don’t think I’m unique in having relied on those things to tell me who I am. But I could see how precarious it all was, and as my awareness of my homosexuality became more pressing, I could foresee the imminent collapse of my life and self. I lived in perpetual fear of ceasing to exist. I thought that without those things I would no longer be. Not death so much as disappearance, like in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ when Prince Prospero unmasks the death figure and finds only an empty robe that falls to the ground. I would lose all my social masks and be revealed as nothing at all. And that was how this potential employer knew me before, as the consciousness on the verge of extinction, the damaged and endangered psyche. And then everything did collapse. I lost all of those crutches that my injured identity was leaning on. But I didn’t die (getting rid of the sleeping pills helped with that one), and I didn’t disappear. I came through it all just fine. It took a few years, but I’m better now than I have ever been in my entire life. I have fewer labels, but I don’t need them. I can’t describe myself as easily, but I know more accurately who I am. And if the paradigm shift called coming out didn’t destroy me, I know that nothing else can.

Milan Kundera’s Identity is about a similar issue: how we derive our identity from the people who love us. Chantal and Jean-Marc don’t split up as the ex and I did, but there are many elements of their relationship that remind me of ours. The relationship is marked by insecurity: they’re excessively afraid of losing each other, possibly through death, possibly through indifference, possibly through forgetting.

I see their two heads, in profile, lit by the light of a little bedside lamp: Jean-Marc’s head, its nape on a pillow; Chantal’s head leaning close above him.

She said: “I’ll never let you out of my sight again. I’m going to keep on looking at you and never stop.”

And after a pause: “I get scared when my eye blinks. Scared that during that second when my gaze is switched off, a snake or a rat or another man could slip into your place.”

He tried to raise himself a little to touch her with his lips.

She shook her head: “No, I just want to look at you.”

And then: “I’m going to leave the lamp on all night. Every night.”

This is what we had, and it’s what I don’t want to have again. I don’t want to be an enthralled captive; I want to be in love with someone who makes me feel free. I want to be with someone who wants me because he likes me, not because he needs me. Love shouldn’t make me feel trapped or afraid.

Part of the insecurity comes from inequality.

All at once he knows that the assertion he often made to Chantal is finally about to be confirmed: that his deepest vocation is to be a marginal person, a marginal person who has lived comfortably, true, but only under completely uncertain and temporary circumstances. Now suddenly here is his true self, thrown back among those he belongs with: among the poor who have no roof to shelter their destitution.

Chantal makes four or five times as much money as Jean-Marc, so he is maintaining a standard of living that he feels he doesn’t have a right to. She’s also a few years older than he is, and with an ex-husband and a dead child, she seems to have a world of experience beyond him. He seems to need her much more than she needs him. In the early days of my marriage, we relied pretty heavily on the ex’s parents for things like rent. We had known that neither of us would ever have money, majoring in literature and music as we did, but the reality of that didn’t hit until we were on the wrong side of the country in jobs that would never pay our bills. Then I went to graduate school and she got a good job, but she didn’t see my studying as work, so she had very little respect for what I was doing. When I finished school, though, I went to work and she stayed home. I’m not sure how much of this was conscious, but she felt all the insecurity of being dependent on another human being for the necessities of life. When she worked, she felt independent enough that she looked into divorcing me, and she was afraid I’d do the same. So she bound me to her with insults, reminding me how lucky I was to be with her, making me feel like no one else could ever want me. I worked at The Home Depot for a year and a half, and I was physically stronger than I had ever been, and I was the happiest with my body I’d ever been, but my muscles get flat instead of rounded, so I was also thinner than I had been in ages, and she’d tell me I looked like a Holocaust survivor and threaten to buy my clothes in the kids’ section. After our third child was born I wanted to go back for a doctorate so I could get a better-paying job, and she told me repeatedly that I was too old, too poor, and had too many children to chase after dreams. What I needed to do was get a shit government job for the next thirty years, give up ever being happy with my life, and content myself with what satisfaction there is in knowing that my abject misery provided the basic needs of my family. That’s what real men did. This is the kind of poison that comes from an insecure person in an unequal relationship. She tended to get between me and family or friends, interpreting and packaging me for them so that I felt like I couldn’t interact socially without her. I felt like Jean-Marc, even after I was the one bringing home the organic preservative-free bacon. And at first I did feel homeless and marginal; Kundera’s novel doesn’t show how it gets better. As I reflect on it now, I don’t wonder that I survived the divorce; I wonder that I survived eight years with her.

Y’know, my parents thought that it was important never to fight in front of us, so when they divorced it sort of came out of nowhere. At the time, I didn’t see it as a conflict between them so much as the natural state of things. People ran away from time to time; my brother did it, every teenager in a 1980s sitcom did it, it’s just what people do. The ex also thought it was important not to fight in front of other people, so we didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t. When she started yelling at me in front of the kids, I knew things were bad. But even when she only yelled at me in private, I felt like everything was ending because I had never seen people who love each other fighting. Right now I’m staying with some friends who have been together for more than thirty years, and they have their disagreements as people do, not in front of me though I can hear when they raise their voices, but I’m finally learning that not every fight ends in divorce, not every disagreement is final, not every frustration is the end of the world two people have built together.

One of the things that frustrates Chantal (and my ex) is what has become of the men in their lives.

Chantal thinks: men have daddified themselves. They aren’t fathers, they’re just daddies, which means: fathers without a father’s authority. She imagines trying to flirt with a daddy pushing a stroller with one baby inside it and carrying another two babies on his back and belly. Taking advantage of a moment when the wife stopped at a shop window, she would whisper an invitation to the husband. What would he do? Could the man transformed into a baby-tree still turn to look at a strange woman? Wouldn’t the babies hanging off his back and his belly start howling about their carrier’s disturbing movement? The idea strikes Chantal funny and puts her in a good mood. She thinks to herself: I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.

Then, along with a few morning strollers, she found herself on the seawall: the tide was out; before her the sandy plain stretched away over a kilometer. It was a long time since she had come to the Normandy coast, and she was unfamiliar with the activities in fashion there now: kites and sail-cars. The kite: a colored fabric stretched over a formidably tough frame, let loose into the wind; with the help of two lines, one in each hand, a person forces different directions on it, so that it climbs and drops, twists, emits a dreadful noise like a gigantic horsefly and, from time to time, nose first, falls into the sand like an airplane crashing. She was surprised to see that the owners were neither children nor adolescents but always men. In fact, they were the daddies! The daddies without their children, the daddies who had managed to escape their wives! They didn’t run off to mistresses, they ran off to the beach, to play!

Again the notion of a treacherous seduction struck her: she would come up behind the man holding the two lines and watching the noisy flight of his toy with his head thrown back; into his ear she would whisper an erotic invitation in the lewdest words. His reaction? She hadn’t a doubt: without glancing at her, he would hiss: “Leave me alone, I’m busy!”

Ah, no, men will never turn to look at her again.

Chantal seems to value the old days when Sean Connery was James Bond, when men would drop whatever was happening for a quick lay with whichever objectified female happened to be closest. There’s this weird equation of promiscuity with adult masculinity and paternal authority which seems to run counter to today’s accepted model of male behavior. As if authority can only be exercised at a distance, or as if he’s only a man if his cock is actually inside a woman at the moment. Well, there’s a price to be paid for gender equality – I know we haven’t succeeded in that goal yet, but it’s a useful touchstone just now – we all like to feel physically attractive (regardless of gender), but men have been taught that James Bond is just a fantasy, that real life is not a nonstop sexual buffet, so we don’t act like it is. In general, we’re more guarded in expressing the pleasure we take in the sight of people we find attractive, so attractive people get less external validation. Most guys don’t like to be thought of as rape-y, so we go in the other direction. [I wonder how sexual orientation affects self-esteem in this area. I can look at myself in the mirror and think, yeah, I’d fuck me, without feeling like there’s anything weird about that. Can straight people do the same?] When the ex and I got together, we were both really into changing traditional gender roles, but over time she became more religious, and she felt more strongly that she needed to submit to me (at least superficially), but I never wanted a fuckable child-care worker who has to resort to manipulation to get what she wants. I’ve always wanted to be with someone I felt was my equal, and I’m still not sure how the powerful feminist I loved became a resentful housewife, or why she chose that.

But I can say that the kids strapped to their daddies won’t care if they turn to look at a strange woman. I could use a urinal without waking the baby strapped to my chest; they can handle a slight turn of the torso. Yeah, I was a baby-tree for a while at first, but as I started working full-time, the ex trusted me less and less with the boys. I don’t have any strong memories of carrying my youngest through shops or down the street, though I’m sure I must have done it.

I spent eight years expecting my life to end at any second. Every day I’d wake up and wonder, is it today? Whenever the phone rang unexpectedly, I’d think, is this the call? For a while I thought she was going to kill herself before I got home from work. Then I thought she was going to die in a car crash or some other accident. Then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a worthless shit, and then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a gay worthless shit. Then she did. It wasn’t quite as I had imagined it; in many ways it was worse. I really want to be in love again, but I don’t want to go back to that constant fear of loss.

He was thinking not of her death but of something subtler, something elusive that has been haunting him lately: that one day he wouldn’t recognize her; that one day he would notice that Chantal was not the Chantal he lived with but that woman on the beach he mistook for her; that the certainty Chantal represented for him would turn out to be illusory, and that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.

Certainty is illusory, full stop. The only thing I’m really certain of now is that no matter what, I’m going to be okay. Even when I die, that’ll be okay too. But relationships end. Sometimes not until death, but death parts us all. When Chantal’s lamp goes out one night, what will become of Jean-Marc? He’ll rediscover himself, as I did. All the things that he didn’t do because she hated them will come back. He’ll seek out all the friends she didn’t like. He’ll watch the movies and listen to the music she hated. He’ll read the books she didn’t approve of and eat at the restaurants where she felt snubbed. But being fictional, he will never face that. There’s a losing that he won’t have to live with.

In the last three years, I’ve realized that the ex didn’t know herself very well when we got together. I was pretty unaware of myself too, so I’m not judging her for that. But when you don’t know yourself, you can’t present yourself to another person accurately. The person I fell in love with never really existed. Part of her was there, of course, but part of her was the person the ex thought she ought to have been and not who she was, and part was who I wanted to believe her to be. Part reality, part fantasy. It was hard when she left me and I lost her physical presence, but it was also hard when I realized just how much I had blinded myself to. She’s still beautiful and the type of person I can respect, but I cannot imagine being in love with her, let alone making her the mainstay of my own identity. If I passed her on the street as a stranger, I wouldn’t look at her twice. I’d forget her almost immediately. She’s an important part of my past, but as we are in the present, I don’t find anything special about her. Jean-Marc is afraid of this state of things, but I welcome it. Yes, it represents a loss, but it’s healthy to let go of the things that hurt you.

Kundera’s work often resonates with me on some deep levels, and this short novel clearly brings up a lot of things for me. It’s a little love story, and I suppose it could be read allegorically, but I hope not all love is like this. I want to be complemented, not possessed. I want a love that feels secure, without fear. And I have faith that there are other men who want the same thing. I just have to find them.

 

I tend to forget how much I enjoy some artists. I pick up a book, and set it on my shelf for a while, and the urgency and attraction fade. Then, one day, I open the book I’ve been neglecting, and it opens like this:

It was a cold gray day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it traveled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.

and I remember how much I love Daphne du Maurier. One of the things I love about her is her complete lack of the anxiety of influence. Her most famous novel, Rebecca, draws heavily from Jane Eyre; there are also accusations of plagiarism from other sources. Jamaica Inn is remarkably similar to the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho. [Radcliffe’s first novel, A Sicilian Romance, is remarkably similar to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.] Nice girl grows up in the countryside, then has to move to a new, isolated home when her parents die. Her aunt has married a real bastard who thrusts nice girl into a living hell for a few months, while she infiltrates his ring of criminals. She tries to escape a few times, but only succeeds when she brings down the entire organized crime syndicate. Writing in the 1930s instead of the 1790s, du Maurier has a little more freedom to imply homosexual attraction, but she refrains in this one. She does, however, make much of gender differences.

 Were she a man, now, she would receive rough treatment, or indifference at the best, and be requested to ride at once perhaps to Bodmin or to Launceston to bear witness, with an understanding that she should find her own lodging and betake herself to the world’s end if she wished when all questions had been asked. And she would depart, when they had finished with her, and go on a ship somewhere, working her passage before the mast; or tramp the road with one silver penny in her pocket and her heart and soul at liberty. Here she was, with tears ready to the surface and an aching head, being hurried from the scene of action with smooth words and gestures, a nuisance and a factor of delay, like every woman and every child after a tragedy.

Our protagonist Mary Yellan objects to the social roles allotted to women. Her father died when she was six years old, so her mother spent seventeen years working a farm as effectively as a man before dying herself right before the novel begins. Though she’s written in the 1930s, Mary lives in the 1810s; she has a firmly essentialist view of gender. She often struggles against what she perceives as her femininity, by which she means an ability to become stressed to the point of breaking, and a tendency to cry to vent emotional stress. If these things are essentially feminine, then I must have a feminine nature after all. I can’t cry on my own, though; I need a movie like The Majestic to get me going. Other characters don’t help matters, by also insisting on the restrictions placed on her by her gender.

You’re a woman, and your home is your kingdom, and all the little familiar things of day to day. I’ve never lived like that, and never shall. I’ll sleep on the hills one night, and in a city the next. I like to seek my fortune here and there and everywhere, with strangers for company and passers-by for friends. Today I meet a man upon the road, and journey with him for an hour or for a year; and tomorrow he is gone again. We speak a different language, you and I.

And yet, despite all the seeming indications to the contrary, once Mary’s free at the end of the book she lives this sort of life. She’s not alone, but she is free to experience adventure the way a man does. After all, she may seem limited:

Here she was on her bed, a girl of three-and-twenty, in a petticoat and a shawl, with no weapons but her own brain to oppose a fellow twice her age and eight times her strength, who, if he realized she had watched the scene tonight from her window, would encircle her neck with his hand, and, pressing lightly with finger and thumb, put an end to her questioning.

but she wins in the end.

There may not be any gay characters in Jamaica Inn, but du Maurier is frank on the subject of sexual attraction, much more than her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century influences.

 And there, in spite of herself, came Jem’s face again, with the growth of beard like a tramp, and his dirty shirt, and his bold offensive stare. He lacked tenderness; he was rude; and he had more than a streak of cruelty in him; he was a thief and a liar. He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him. Nature cared nothing for prejudice. Men and women were like the animals on the farm at Helford, she supposed; there was a common law of attraction for all living things, some similarity of skin or touch, and they would go to one another. This was no choice made with the mind. Animals did not reason, neither did the birds in the air. Mary was no hypocrite; she was bred to the soil, and she had lived too long with birds and beasts, had watched them mate, and bear their young, and die. There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life.

I mean, realistically, there’s no reason for a farmgirl to be naïve about sex. Animals don’t care who’s watching. I should mention that Mary manages to protect herself from sexual attacks, but she’s frequently threatened with rape, and there’s at least one attempt. If this is a trigger, please be careful – but remember that she wins the fight for the right to choose what happens to her body.

The soil here is Cornwall, du Maurier’s home for nearly her entire life and certainly her favorite setting for her fiction. One of the things that always amazes me about the British is the way that they seem to think of the island that contains England, Scotland, and Wales as being at least the size of South America. Mary is constantly thinking how different people are in the North and the South, but she never leaves the county. She’s talking about North Cornwall and South Cornwall. She grows up in Helston, down at the end of the peninsula, and Jamaica Inn is located on the high road between Bodmin and Launceston, what is now the A30, not quite at the opposite end of the county, at a distance that we can drive in a little more than an hour (All the locations in the book are real). I admire the patriotism that can find such variety in so small a space, but I can’t quite comprehend it.

Du Maurier seems to have the Modernist cynicism on the subject of organized religion, particularly the established church. The turning point of the novel is on Christmas Eve, and it’s hardly a time of birth or renewal.

 Last year she had knelt beside her mother in church, and prayed that health and strength and courage should be given them both. She had prayed for peace of mind, and security; she had asked that her mother might be spared to her long, and that the farm should prosper. For answer came sickness, and poverty, and death. She was alone now, caught in a mesh of brutality and crime, living beneath a roof she loathed, among people she despised; and she was walking out across a barren, friendless moor to meet a horse-thief and a murderer of men. She would offer no prayers to God this Christmas.

Mary is a moral person, just not a religious one. I don’t see any direct correlation between the two qualities as I look around the world, and indeed, the difference between them is sometimes rather wide.

I was rather surprised by du Maurier’s representation of alcohol. She seems to come out in favor of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the portrayal of Joss Merlyn. When he tells Mary about what it feels like to get drunk, he says:

 It’s power, and glory, and women, and the Kingdom of God, all rolled into one. I feel a king then, Mary. I feel I’ve got the strings of the world between my two fingers. It’s heaven and hell.

but drinking only makes him hallucinate about the people he’s killed, and it knocks him into bed for almost a week. After watching the process, Mary decides:

 She had lost her fear of him. There was only loathing left in her heart, loathing and disgust. He had lost all hold on humanity. He was a beast that walked by night. Now that she had seen him drunk, and she knew him for what he was, he could not frighten her.

Of course her fear of him comes back, but not as long as he’s drunk.

Jamaica Inn comes fairly early in du Maurier’s career, but she’s already mastered the most important and most difficult part of writing Gothic: atmosphere.

 Strange winds blew from nowhere; they crept along the surface of the grass, and the grass shivered; they breathed upon the little pools of rain in the hollowed stones, and the pools rippled. Sometimes the wind shouted and cried, and the cry echoed in the crevices, and moaned, and was lost again. There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills. And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.

I was rather shocked at the lack of sympathy du Maurier has for Mary’s Aunt Patience. She fits right into our modern understanding of the psychology of battered women, but that doesn’t mean that the author has much mercy on her.

 In her own way Aunt Patience was a murderer too. She had killed them by her silence. Her guilt was as great as Joss Merlyn’s himself, for she was a woman and he was a monster. He was bound to her flesh and she let him remain.

I feel for Aunt Patience, because while Mary’s loyalty to her is more important than her actual appearances in the novel, she’s the character I identify the most strongly with.

Think of Paris in the early spring. The trees and shrubs are beginning to regreen themselves, and the air is always vaguely undecided as to whether it’s raining or not. I was on a break from teaching school, taking my first-ever vacation that wasn’t visiting relatives. I wandered around the city looking at things for a few days, and then one night I went to a café for a drink or two. There was a cute guy a few tables over, and when he caught my eye, I waved him over. He was Algerian and hated the French, so he was quite glad to find an American, particularly one who looks as Dutch/Swiss as I do. We were rather pleased with each other, so I brought him back to my place. Things went very well; no one has ever complimented me like he did. It was like being in a romance novel. Well, until I got his trousers off. He held me down and slapped me across the face – once was kind of a turn-on, but after several times in quick succession it was clear that he was just getting off on causing me pain. I remember thinking clearly, I’m turning into a battered wife. This is a class of people I’ve never understood very well, so I decided to let things play out a little longer. Things got worse when he started choking me. But he wasn’t pressing hard enough to hurt me, just enough to scare me. Later, he looked so sweet when he was asleep that I didn’t want to wake him up and throw him out, and in the morning he wasn’t violent at all.

We spent the next day together; he took me up to Montmartre to see the Moulin Rouge and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. During the day he was back to being perfect: attentive, kind, thoughtful, complimentary. So his behavior during the day outweighed what happened the night before, I made up excuses for him in my head, and I brought him back to bed again. The second night was worse. Along with all the slapping and choking, he spat in my face and bit me hard enough that I had a bruise for a week. He also talked about his fantasy of giving me a dog collar and keeping me in a cage. He kept hitting me until I’d join in the fantasy with him; it made me feel complicit in what was happening, but it gave him the thrill he was after without giving me physical pain. This second night I decided that no daytime behavior was worth all this, but that since I only had one more night before I left France, there wasn’t much point in making a scene. And I was a little afraid that if he was this violent when he claimed to love me, I could get really hurt if I tried to get rid of him.

The third night we stayed out late and we drank a lot. And I mean, a lot. For most people, that helps them sleep; for me, I can’t fall asleep until I’ve gotten rid of the alcohol in my system. Getting rip-roaring drunk is a certain way to keep me up all night. Luckily, he’s like most people and passed out within five minutes of walking in the door. I stayed up reading and watching him sleep. In the morning he was his sweet self, so it was easy to be sentimental about saying good-bye. Especially since I knew I was never going to run into him again. I had had the experience of being in an abusive relationship, and now I was more than ready for it to be over.

I know that my experience was very brief when compared with most wives with husbands who beat them, but in those two and a half days I saw, in miniature, the changes that happen to a person. He’s not always violent; most of the time he’s really very sweet. So long as he’s dressed. And it’s easy to forgive an action that only hurts me and gives pleasure to someone I care about. Maybe overlook is a better word than forgive. And what we do in the bedroom is no one else’s business. I keep reminding myself of all the good things and try to forget the bad, until he’s hitting me again and I get angry. My whole life people have minimized my feelings, so I feel a little silly and ashamed whenever I get mad. Like other things I get angry about, I need to deal with it on my own. I’m responsible for my own feelings; it’s not fair of me to take them out on the people around me. The mind becomes a strange mixture of a little good sense and a lot of lame excuses, all in a murky haze of affection for this guy who, sadly, can only get off by denying pleasure to others. He’s a sad case, really, not someone who’s incredibly bad for me. The compliments are nice to hear, but the compliments are so scarce in my life that I only half-believe them, and I’ve probably done something to attract bad karma, so I deserve a little suffering. You can’t smell the bullshit when you’re standing knee-deep in it. That requires some distance from him and the situation he keeps you in.

Politically speaking, it’s been important to the LGBT community to keep quiet about stories like this. People are pushing for marriage equality, so we only present to people the best possible impression of our relationships. The media is all Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris, and any problems get swept under the rug. The Trans community is becoming more vocal about the way LGBT groups keep them on the margins, but the internal violence is still something we don’t talk about. It’s real; it happens. Lesbians are better at getting help in exiting abusive situations than men. Men, including gay men, have a hard time admitting that someone is victimizing them. I don’t like remembering it clearly enough to tell the story. A friend of mine was raped once, and when a government official told him it was his own fault, he decided it wasn’t worth telling anyone about it. He spent years taking antidepressants and getting counseling for depression because he couldn’t talk about what had happened. We’ve got our problems too, and maybe when we finish getting the right to marry in all fifty states we’ll start addressing them.