Posts Tagged ‘nature love’

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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These winter holidays have just been a whirlwind. I feel like I haven’t stopped running since Thanksgiving.

A couple of Tuesdays ago, we closed down the library for the vacation and I came home to pack. On Wednesday, I packed up my landlady next door and drove her to Florida, and her little Toto-looking dog, too. We stayed with a friend of hers, a philosophy teacher with a taste for the occult, so someone who’s a lot like me, only older. The weather was amazing, and the room he put me in had a private bath and a screened porch with large trees for additional privacy. I thought to myself, if I lived here, I might never put clothes on again.

Seeing an older version of myself, I’m rather concerned about my future. I think swearing is fun, and I occasionally have little outbursts at the injustices of the world when I’m among friends, but he had a lot less control over his tongue than I do. An additional forty years of living alone meant that he sort of melted down over any contretemps, and I could see myself easily becoming this if I let myself. It was also frightening to see someone insist on doing things that are unsafe, like driving a car when he’s blind in one eye and has a tendency to doze off at inconvenient times. I was afraid I might die, or at least become so severely injured that I wouldn’t be able to meet the rest of my appointments during the vacation.

On Thursday we went to the Salvador Dali museum in St Petersburg. I thought it was a little pricy, as I always do when going to a museum, but it was a valuable experience. I shunned the guides because I object to being told what to look at, and one of the guides was so loud and obnoxious that I found myself ducking around corners trying to hide from his voice. Another was so quiet that I barely noticed she had a group, which I found much more congenial to the enjoyment of beauty. When I’m focusing on the emotional effect of an experience, I find quiet to be essential.

In some ways, the irritating guide highlighted what feels to be basic, essential differences between myself and mainstream humanity. He kept asking rhetorical questions like, Who else would make the head of a crucifix the bullet hole in Lincoln’s forehead? And I would think, That makes perfect sense to me. While both Lincoln and Christ did good things, they both cemented their martyr status, securing the love of millions, by being killed. They would have little fame without their deaths, so yes, juxtapose their mortal wounds. It feels wholly logical to me, but the guide’s question made me feel like Dali and I are both in some way inhuman, divorced from our own species by having a different perspective. I suppose fragmentation and connections between apparently unlike things come naturally to us both. While others were marveling at the strangeness of Dali’s work, processing the cerebral surrealism, the main impression with which I left the gallery was that he paints such beautiful sadness.

As I came around the corner and saw this one, I thought, What a handsome man.

dali

There was a special exhibit of Dali’s duets with Elsa Schiaparelli, a fashion designer. They did a lot of plays on the phrase “chest of drawers,” combining women’s bodies with furniture. Which explains why some women’s dresses have tiny little pockets on the front that make them look like an old card catalog system. The print dresses they designed were just amazing. I know I don’t discuss women’s clothing often, but when it’s done well it’s clear that clothing is just as much of an art form as painting. And as I’m sitting here thinking of it, the women I spend time with do tend to dress well. [I’m thinking of the ones I know in real life who also read here.] I should probably compliment them more often.

Friday we went to the metaphysical shop where she used to give readings. We’ve been around to some of her old friends in the psychic community here in North Carolina, but it’s the ones in Florida who seemed really excited to see her. In many ways, getting back to Florida is as much a homecoming for her as North Carolina is for me.

She asked one of her friends to do a reading for me, and it was really good. I believe she was trying to be Yenta, putting her two gay male friends in a room alone together, but nothing of that sort happened. Yes, there was some connection, in many ways our energies are a good match, but we are in very different places, both geographically and emotionally, and besides, he’s a psychic. If he had seen a future for us, he would have asked me out.

There were a good many things he said that either confirm what I’ve been feeling or what other people have been saying to me. Professionally: the work I have been doing was good for a while, but now it’s sort of turned to shit and I need to do something else. I already know what, I just need to go ahead and pursue that. I’ve already commented on how little satisfaction I get from teaching and how much more I enjoy working in a library, so I’ll continue to focus my energies there. Personally: if I choose, then of course I can keep living on the edge of nowhere and be single and lonely for the rest of my life. But if I want to meet a presently unattached gay man who will love me, I have to go where the unattached gay men are. He’s known men who would make great husbands, but they end up alone because they’re so busy expressing their domesticity that they never get out of the house. If I don’t want their fate, I need to stop modeling their behavior. One of the things that has been making me hesitate is my need to take care of other people, but it’s time to stop doing that and take care of myself. The other people will do just fine without me. There was some other stuff too, like my oldest son trying to figure out how he and I fit into each other’s lives, but I don’t think that’s uncommon for sixth graders. He’s growing up, and his relationships with his parents are likely to be as confused as his relationship with himself for a while. And there was a skinny dark-haired man surrounded by hills, but I don’t think I’ve met him yet.

In the shop, there was a necklace that called to me, so (not wearing jewelry) I hung it up on the rearview mirror of my car. Ever since, I’ve felt driven to learn about Wicca.

Saturday I drove back home alone. She had other friends to see, but I had an invitation to see my kids for the holiday, which hasn’t happened in my six years of separation and divorce, so I wasn’t about to miss it. The drive was absolutely miserable; I seriously need to rethink driving during the holidays. But on Sunday morning my children were delighted to see me. They really liked the things I made for them, and they were excited about giving me a gift too – my middle son realized this year that I always give them things, but they never give me Christmas presents, so they put their heads together and bought me a concert ticket. It’s for a band that I don’t listen to much since the divorce, but it’ll be a good opportunity to leave the house and get drunk in public.

I spent Christmas day by myself, which is what I really wanted from this holiday. I opened my mother’s gift straightaway, without cleaning the entire house or eating breakfast first (rules from childhood). She got me a pair of lounge pants with cartoon characters on them, in an extra large. I have never been a size extra large. When I called her about that fact, she pointed out that they had a drawstring, so I could make them as tight as I liked, never mind the fact that they’re six inches too long. I did not mention the fact that it has been several years since I’ve worn clothing with cartoon characters; I like dressing like a grown-up. It’s generally agreed in my family that my mother’s mind is starting to go – just starting, but starting nonetheless. Having watched my grandmother fade out with Alzheimer’s, I’m rather apprehensive about my mom’s future. There might be seven of us, but none of us can afford the care my grandmother had.

Tuesday was a day of diminishing resources. I had a check in my hand and an empty checking account, but the banks gave their employees another day off for the holiday, so I couldn’t use the money I had. I had brought some snacks home from the work Christmas party, so I stayed home and ate snack foods and read all day. Not a bad day, but I would have liked to get out a little. Wednesday I deposited my check, returned the lounge pants, and drove back to Florida. The landlady next door was starting to talk about staying longer, so while my ostensible purpose was to pick her up, I really just wanted to go back down there.

I spent Thursday and Friday with my dad. His visit to Illinois was really awkward, so I’ve been sort of avoiding him, but he sounded so pathetic on the phone, talking about missing me, that I gave him some time, and I’m glad I did. The awkwardness had passed away, and it feels like things are back where they were. He is aware of my immorally liberal lifestyle, and I’m aware of his racism and conservatism, but we try not to push those things in each other’s faces. We can bond over watching science fiction, but really, we let his wife pick the movies, so we saw Dr No and some old monster movies. So many of the James Bond movies are perfectly silly, like Moonraker, that it can be hard to remember that the first two were actually quite good. The only Bond I like as much as Sean Connery is Daniel Craig. While this isn’t a fashionable opinion, I also have a soft spot for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where George Lazenby makes an entire resort full of girls think he’s gay.

Friday we spent all day working on my car. A few weeks ago, the driver’s seat moved itself all the way forward and wouldn’t move backward, so in all of these journeys my knees had been pressed into the dashboard and I looked like a praying mantis trying to steer. We got the seat disassembled to reach the motors underneath, and Dad attached a battery to the appropriate pieces of electronics to push the seat all the way back. We left the motors disconnected, so now there will be no more unwanted scooting forward. I say we here, but he’s getting a lot better about directing and letting me do the things. My dad is losing his fine motor coordination and his hands shake, so that’s another thing for me to worry about as I grow older.

Saturday I drove back down to the southern part of Florida, to hang out with the landlady and her son. He’s handsome, kind, my own age, and perfectly straight. But we’re becoming very good friends (his girlfriend is really great too), and I’m happy to know him. The mother is a smoker on oxygen for her COPD, but hadn’t been using her oxygen enough on the long car trips, so she had an episode and spent a night in the hospital. People say she’s bouncing back quickly, but a few days later she was only sitting up for an hour or less at a time, so I don’t know whether that’s quickly or not.

The young’uns of us stayed up late, drinking wine and playing board games most of the evenings I was there. One night his roommate brought out something to smoke, and I hadn’t participated in that since I was in Brazil, so I agreed. It’s amazing what I’ll agree to after three or four glasses of sweet red (Jam Jar is my jam). Oddly enough, some of the pattern was repeated – in Brazil, it was the men who would smoke pot, and the women tended to decline, so we’d go off down the street a ways and share a joint about the size of a grain of rice (a little thicker, but not really longer). Here, the son’s girlfriend declined, so we went out to the garage, but this time instead of a tiny little thing there was a pipe, and it was full. So I got rather more of the THC than I did before, and I got really giggly and really ruthless in the board game. I won. I also don’t remember much of that night. The next day, though, I was really sick. Part of it was not being used to smoking, part of it was drinking too much, and part of it was spending most of the week with cats, to which I am allergic.

We got out to do some hiking, though for me that word implies a change of elevation, so maybe it’ll be better to say we walked through the woods some, in a few different locations. I wanted to see some manatees, but the water was too cold. One spot we went to had some kind of Devil Tree, where all sorts of terrible things are rumored to have happened. There are some documented murders in the near vicinity. But when I touched the tree, all I felt was a great sadness, as if the tree had seen some serious shit but was in no way responsible. Farther off the trail behind the tree there are the remains of a few buildings, and those set all of our spider-senses a-tingling. In thinking about the experience, I’ve been wondering about my response. I hear, Hey, there’s this evil thing over here, and I say, Great! Let’s go see it! I feel that there’s something bad in a place, and I run towards it. Past evil draws me like a magnet. I don’t yet understand why, but I aim to find out.

I drove back on Tuesday. It was hard to leave, particularly when I could tell that no one wanted me to, but the traffic had somehow returned to normal levels, so I guess Jan 2 isn’t a bad travel day. I’m taking today, Wednesday, to rest and recover, and then tomorrow I’m back to work. While I was gone, the temperature dropped significantly, so even though my heat’s been on all morning it’s not warm yet. Something in the water line is frozen – we have expandable pipes, so they won’t break, but I won’t have running water until the weather turns. I hope it’s soon.

Until two weeks ago, all of my experience with the state of Florida had been with the northern part, where there are palm trees but the culture is still remarkably similar to the southern parts of Georgia and Alabama, so the energy there is sort of conformist and threatening. But the area where I was over the break was very different. It was very uplifting and life-affirming. I enjoyed my holidays much more than I was expecting to. Here’s hoping for more serendipity in 2018.

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.

Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

I’m always fond of book recommendations. I like to see what the people I love love to read; it’s a way for me to approach them more nearly, since books are easier for me than people. This rec comes from Virginia Woolf, who mentions it several times in The Common Reader even though it doesn’t get its own chapter. I also saw several references to it back in grad school when I was reading a lot of ecocriticism, because there are not that many Victorians who worked with nature as extensively as he does.

After making a hasty meal at the house, I started, full of pleasing anticipations, for the wood; for how pleasant a place it was to be in! What a wild beauty and fragrance and melodiousness it possessed above all forests, because of that mystery that drew me to it! And it was mine, truly and absolutely – as much mine as any portion of earth’s surface could belong to any man – mine with all its products; the precious woods and fruits and fragrant gums that would never be trafficked away; its wild animals that man would never persecute; nor would any jealous savage dispute my ownership or pretend that it was part of his hunting-ground. As I crossed the savannah I played with this fancy; but when I reached the ridgy eminence, to look down once more on my new domain, the fancy changed to a feeling so keen that it pierced to my heart, and was like pain in its intensity, causing tears to rush to my eyes. And caring not in that solitude to disguise my feelings from myself, and from the wide heaven that looked down and saw me – for this is the sweetest thing that solitude has for us, that we are free in it, and no convention holds us – I dropped on my knees and kissed the stony ground, then casting up my eyes, thanked the Author of my being for the gift of that wild forest, those green mansions where I had found so great a happiness!

Hooray for Victorians! Hudson was born in Argentina to English-speaking parents, so when he finally came to Victorian London he spoke a weird mixture of English and Spanish, but in his writing most of the Spanglish is gone, and he sounds halfway between Stevenson and Dickens. The Argentine literary tradition claims him also, as Guillermo Enrique Hudson, even though he wrote in English.

You may think that growing up in South America would give him a sympathetic view of people of different races, but some people travel all over the world only to find that their culture really is the best and most enlightened. You can’t always heal ethnocentrism with cross-cultural contact. Our protagonist is from Caracas, and while Spanish speakers are always referred to as white and therefore normal (different from modern United States usage, where Hispanic White is a separate category), he has nothing kind to say about the natives. They’re dirty lying superstitious murderous savages, even when they take him in and feed him for several months. This racial tension is the context that drives the main action in the story. The other important context is the white tendency to possessiveness that we see in the passage above. He sees something he likes, he wants to own it completely.

Enter the bird-woman. Hudson was an ornithologist and wrote a few nonfiction works on birds, so naturally the love interest in his romance is extremely bird-like. Protagonist starts spending time in those woods he likes so much, and he hears something that sounds like a bird but isn’t quite one. It turns out that no one hunts there because they believe the wood is protected by a spirit, daughter of the river-god or some such. Protagonist is not very interested in native religions, so he doesn’t explore the mythology. So he spends time in the woods, and learns to recognize the emotional content of the bird-speech, and eventually he meets her. In fairness to the natives, she does get seriously angry if any animals are harmed. She’s a total vegan, and makes a shimmery dress for herself from spider webs.

Like a good sensation novel, we get her background information about two-thirds of the way through the book. Once upon a time, there was a Spanish guy who fell in with a bad crowd. They were running from the law through the woods once, and run across this cave. There’s a young woman inside, and in trying to catch her, the bad guys fall to their deaths. The single good guy takes her out of the cave and they go to live in civilization. (Sound suspicious? This guy tells his own story, and I tend not to trust narrators. Salient facts: seven or eight guys go into a cave, but only one comes out, and he brings a woman with him. What happened in the cave and why the girl is pregnant are a matter of conjecture.) He passes the girl off as his daughter, albeit a weird daughter who only speaks in this bird language that no one else knows. She learns Spanish and gives birth, which kind of makes Rima look like an immaculate conception from nature itself. Rima learns her mother’s language as well as Spanish. When the mother dies, her supposed grandfather takes her far away from the people who think she’s a witch. They live in the greatest seclusion somewhere in the jungle probably on the southern part of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. She spends most of her time alone in the woods, chirping like a bird and hanging out with the animals. Grandpa takes his dogs and goes to a hunting shack, far away from where she lives, so that he can eat some meat. Not all people take to veganism.

The love affair between Abel and Rima is as weirdly Victorian as it gets. Two beautiful people meet each other, and he is the first man of her ethnicity that she’s seen since before puberty (Grandfather doesn’t count). She thinks he listens to her and treats her as more than just a ghost, even though he never really understands her. He sees that she is beautiful, so he wants to force her into his model of a conventionally beautiful woman. He doesn’t bring her a literal corset, but continually asking her to explain things in Spanish instead of her preferred language is like a mental corset. Language is a very important part of a person’s identity – when I first got back from Brazil, it was still hard for me to talk about emotional subjects in English, but I could open up more easily in Portuguese. There are some concepts that make more sense in other languages – every word was once a poem, and other languages blend meanings differently than we do in English. Even though we translate, the flavor of the meaning changes. Abel refuses to learn Rima’s language; he just keeps insisting she speak Spanish. He tries to control her in other ways too, like wanting her to walk next to him instead of running all over the place like a bird circling around him. She wants to be understood, but he can only understand through dissection.

Victorian modesty strikes a false note here. This girl has wrapped herself in spider webs, but how does she perform essential bodily functions? I’m particularly concerned about menstruation, which apparently never happens. Abel talks in vague terms about the loveliness of her form, but for her to be wrapped in spider webs and still climb trees and do the other things she does, that dress has to be sheer and tight up top and either split like trousers around the legs or considerably looser in the skirt. These details we ignore; he talks about the opalescent shifting colors, but not the shape. And then, nature girl meets the guy she wants to keep for life, and they never have sex. Her distance from society should make her less bound by sexual mores, but no. She’s as chaste as a Dickens heroine, and more chaste than some of them. I suppose you could read it that she’s so far removed from conventions that she doesn’t even have conventional desires, but it seems unnatural in a character so tightly bound to nature.

In some ways, Rima could be read as surprisingly feminist because she resists so much. The modesty and affinity with nature are classical indications of femininity, but the conflict between her and Abel is because she refuses to adopt the passive role with him. She won’t speak only in Spanish because she wants him to learn her bird language. She can travel faster and farther than he can with less food, so she goes off on a journey and leaves him to follow at his own pace. She also recognizes the landscape after having only seen it once, so even after traveling across all of Venezuela, parts of Brazil, and into Guyana, she can get home in half the time it takes him. And she is independent enough to do it. Unfortunately, the solitude that results from this leads to her death, but this relationship wasn’t going to end happily anyway. In the time and place that the novel was written, leading female characters had three options, to be wed, mad, or dead, so death was probably the best choice because it means she doesn’t have to compromise who she is in order to please some man. Rima is hunted down and killed for being different, and there is no man to save her because no man is her physical and spiritual equal. She seems like an entirely other species, one better adapted to the environment but poorly adapted to human society.

Abel reacts to her death the way you would expect: he goes to a neighboring tribe and starts a war that kills the entire tribe that killed her. Everyone who knew her and consented to her death dies. Such a white man thing to do. So much the opposite of anything she would have wanted. Then he goes off and lives like a crazy hermit in the woods, nearly starving to death before finally settling in Georgetown.

This issue of solitude is important to me. As Abel mentions in the quote above, when we’re alone we are free from social conventions and expectations. When you grow up in a difficult family situation, of the type that I did, figuring out what people want and giving it to them quickly is an essential survival pattern. It gets deeply ingrained at a very early age, so now people are hard for me because as I age I become less interested in conforming to what is expected of me. There’s often a dissonance between what I do/say and what I want to do/say, like watching his daughter’s shows with the family instead of reading by myself, because he thinks something is wrong if we aren’t all together in the evening. And he is similar enough to my dad in size and personality that I’m kind of afraid of making him angry, which is probably why I haven’t yet told him that I’m moving out in four weeks. That conversation needs to happen soon, though.

I need to find someone who makes me feel so accepted that I don’t have to be afraid of disagreeing with him. Or in other words, someone I can trust. I have friends like that, so I know such people exist, I just need to locate one who’s interested in me romantically.

 

BILLY BUDD

Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.

THE PIAZZA TALES

The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.

Bartleby

In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.

THE TOWN-HO’S STORY (CHAPTER 54 OF MOBY-DICK)

I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.

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.