Posts Tagged ‘racism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As I’ve mentioned, I am a very trusting person. I will believe everything a person says to me, especially if I’ve had a glass or two of wine, and then only later do I start thinking critically to see if what was said is realistic or true. But, when you’ve been breaking promises to me for the last year, I start to distrust more quickly, so when we have the sort of phone conversation we had this week, I pick up on things that I wouldn’t have a year ago. As anyone skilled in the art of detecting deception can tell you, there are certain ‘tells,’ or signs whereby I can tell, that you’re lying, and I thought it might be instructive to point out what those are.

  1. Fast exculpation. I explain that I’m feeling sick because I’ve been walking outside in the cold rain without my customary protection – we both know that I left my coat and hats at your house in the Midwest, and that you promised to mail them to me. In the past, you’ve always encouraged me to consult with a medical doctor, because even though I don’t trust Western medicine and the American habit of prescribing antibiotics for everything, you do. But instead of making sure I’m being taken care of properly, you immediately start talking about how none of this is your fault because you’ve already mailed my warm clothes to me.
  2. Unrealistic details. I’ve lived in several parts of the United States while my family has remained more or less stationary, which means that I’m pretty familiar with the U. S. Postal Service and how long it takes mail to be delivered. So when you say that the package is supposed to be delivered in the middle of next week, and you mailed it last week, I know that it is unrealistic to say that it takes two weeks for a package to travel from the Midwest to the South. It buys you time, since now I can’t ask you about it for another week, but it doesn’t help me trust you.
  3. Lack of follow-through. I asked you to text me the address I gave you so that I could make sure it is correct, and you didn’t. If you had sent the package, you would have been more anxious to make sure it went to the right place.
  4. You hadn’t called me for a few days before, and this could mean that you’re just getting used to your life without me and that you’re moving on, but when coupled with the other tells, it looks suspicious. You also made up an excuse to get off the phone and said that we’d talk again later that evening, and I stayed up late waiting for your call, but you didn’t call back. Now, you did try to cover it by introducing another topic before running away, but even hurrying to tell me about your dog’s incontinence and new grain-free diet looks like you’re avoiding talking about what is going on with me.
  5. We went through all these same things face-to-face when you told me you had deposited money to my bank account but it never actually appeared. Another thing to keep in mind here is that while I may have let the matter drop, relinquishing the subject does not mean that I believe you or that I have forgotten it. It simply means that I don’t want to talk about it any more, and that often means that the fact that I think you’re lying to me makes me sad, and I don’t want to keep reinforcing the sense of sadness. Sometimes the only way I can make you stop lying to me is by ending the conversation. That sadness may not be in the forefront of my feelings, but it doesn’t go away; it just sits in the back of my mind, waiting for you to feed it some more. Every time I think you’re lying the sadness gets stronger, until eventually I realize that the fact that I care about you doesn’t make me happy, and when thinking about you makes me sad, it’s time for things to change.

As you can see, the summary of all these points is that when you’re being honest, you act like you care about me, and when you’re lying to me, you act like you don’t.

As I was preparing to leave, you thought it strange that I donated some books to the library, knowing as you do how much I care about my books, and I didn’t think of this analogy then, but I thought of it later and it really makes sense to me. Do you marry every man you sleep with? Buying a book is like meeting a guy at a bar. He only has to look good enough to take home for a night, but that’s not a lifetime commitment. Most of the books I buy are cheaper than a cocktail and last longer than a one-night stand, but the same principle holds true.

All of which brings me around to this book of sixteenth-century poetry. I remember Marvell primarily for “To His Coy Mistress,” a delightful pastoral love poem about taking advantage of youth, along the lines of this:

Grass withers; and the flowers too fade.
Seize the short joys then, ere they vade,

But most of Marvell’s poetry is not at all similar. As I was reading, there seemed to be three main phases in his career, and they overlapped a bit. The first is the one that I was most interested in, when he was young and writing pastoral love poems. I’m not opposed to the dialogue, and Daphnis and Clorinda are the appropriately Arcadian stock characters used in such poems. But Marvell only wrote about pastoral love and the advantages of youth when he himself was young; when he’s old, he skips over all that. This first stage of his writing is also the time when he talks about abstract emotion – he gets grouped with the Metaphysical Poets, and it’s only in his twenties that this makes sense.

Yet happy they whom grief doth bless,
That weep the morshae, and see the less:
And, to preserve their sight more true,
Bathe still their eyes in their own dew.

Around the time he was thirty years old, Marvell was hired as a teacher for the daughter of General Fairfax, the recently retired general of the Parliamentary Army. If you’ll remember your seventeenth-century British history with me, Charles I was an awful king who mismanaged resources and demanded too much from the people, so he spent a good part of his reign opposed to the Parliament, which was influenced by a strict religious sect known as the Puritans. They weren’t very popular in a lot of circles; in Twelfth Night, Malvolio is accused of being one, and Sir Andrew immediately threatens to beat him within an inch of his life. As you know, many of the Puritans left England for Amsterdam, a place of religious tolerance, but Amsterdam was too tolerant for them, so they traveled on to Massachusetts Bay, where they built a colony where their virtues could shine brightly, unmixed with the baser matter of anyone who disagreed with them. At the same time, the Puritans who stayed in England grew strong, especially in the military, so they had a big voice in the Parliamentary Army. In this second phase of his career, Marvell drops the pastoral love and the risqué allusions in favor of virtue and Puritan justice and conservative values. It’s like he suddenly remembered he was a clergyman’s son, ten years after his father died.

When the sword glitters o’er the judge’s head,
And fear has coward churchmen silenced,
Then is the poet’s time, ‘tis then he draws,
And single fights forsaken virtue’s cause.

In time, Marvell worked more directly with Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Puritan government after King Charles was beheaded. Throughout the Interregnum, Marvell’s poems are in praise of military leaders (like Fairfax and Cromwell) and he really says some nasty things about their opponents, the Dutch. I’ll admit that this bothered me because of my Dutch ancestry, even though by the time of the Protectorate, we had already crossed the ocean to New Amsterdam. I know that when we read poetry of the past, we tend to value those poets who share our values, so modern readers have a hard time with Milton’s anti-Irish comments in the same way that I balked at Marvell’s anti-Dutch comments, because racism is bad. But these men are products of their time (the same time), and in service to an intolerant government, so some people say that Marvell didn’t really hate the Dutch, he was just an opportunist with a talent for self-preservation, and he was just giving his patrons what they wanted. Apparently what they wanted was to hear how great they were, how successful in battle, and how terrible their opponents were. They wanted to hear about the glories of battle without hearing about the horrors of war. This passage is atypical in its acknowledgment that war can be a terrible thing:

Thousands of ways thousands of men there die,
Some ships are sunk, some blown up in the sky.
Nature ne’er made cedars so high aspire,
As oaks did then, urged by the active fire,
Which by quick powder’s force, so high was sent,
That it returned to its own element.
Torn limbs some leagues into the island fly,
Whilst others lower in the sea do lie.
Scarce souls from bodies severed are so far
By death, as bodies there were by the war.
The all-seeing sun, ne’er gazed on such a sight,
Two dreadful navies there at anchor fight.
And neither have or power or will to fly,
There one must conquer, or there both must die.
Far different motives yet engaged them thus,
Necessity did them, but Choice did us.

But in general, the poems of the middle period are very much Marvell acting as Cromwell’s cheerleader.

Things end. Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored. Charles II’s government wanted to execute John Milton for being all up in the Puritans, but Marvell dissuaded them. He himself was elected to the House of Commons, at around the age of forty or so, so in the third phase of his career he’s done with being a secretary or an assistant and has now become a politician in his own right. Unfortunately for the apologists of his middle period, Marvell’s poetry doesn’t suddenly become a celebration of liberal values; when that conservatism is opposed, Marvell digs his heels in and refuses to change with the times. This is what makes me think he was a true convert to the conservatives rather than an opportunist: when the government changes and fashion goes to the other side, he doesn’t go with it. In fact, he writes a very long poem with some very harsh satire against specific members of society and Parliament. Most of it is against the Restoration government and its mismanagement of the military, but he also throws some disparagement at Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, whom you will remember from Woolf’s Common Reader as being an important example of women’s power and liberation, and one of the first people to write speculative fiction in English. In this time, Marvell was usually much busier being an MP than being a Major Poet, so his work is a little thin here at the end. In fact, after his death his constituency put up a huge monument with a lengthy inscription, which describes his political career and ignores the poetry. It seems sad to me that someone who loved youth and nature should end up a bitter old man, but that’s the story the poetry tells.

Nation is all but name – a shibboleth –
Where a mistaken accent causes death.

Dear Friends, I advise you, if you like “To His Coy Mistress,” don’t read Marvell’s complete poems. After he gets political, it’s sort of a downward slope. I wonder, if his life had run differently, if he hadn’t worked so closely with government and military officials, whether his writing would have gotten so frustrating. I suppose someone who writes a lot of verse in Greek and Latin is not necessarily headed to twenty-first century popularity, but no matter whether his politics were merely expedient or truly embraced, they stink.

I haven’t read Marvell’s prose, but apparently it’s even more extreme in its conservatism, attacking Catholics, Dutch, and anyone different to himself. I don’t remember now how Marvell was presented to me at school; it’s possible that we ignored the heavy later poems, but it’s also possible that I forgot about them. I’m good at self-deception; I like to see the best in people, including long-dead poets, but it’s not always accurate. Hopefully I’m learning to be wiser about whom I trust, but I think it’s a slow process.

Well, I got off of my Kundera kick for a while, only to find more Eastern European twentieth-century fiction. This book of short stories was banned in Yugoslavia, and the writer of the introduction acts like that’s strange, since none of the stories take place in Yugoslavia itself. But given the themes relative to Jews and Communists, I’m not surprised. The Jews are heroes, and the Communists are murderers and deceivers. And I imagine that it was considered wise to keep the Russians happy instead of publishing material that is so clearly opposed to their interests.

The thing that really would have got them, though, is the passage at the end of “Dogs and Books” where he explicitly compares the Communists to the Inquisition. The same convert-or-die mentality, the lack of respect for personal property belonging to those who think differently, the same futile attempts to escape what has become the new hegemony.

Before we go to the quotation, let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the fact that much of this book is plagiarized. Kis affects a journalistic style, rather like Hemingway in its lack of ornamentation, and as in a news story, there are many short sections and it’s hard to recognize where the exposition ends and the real story begins. One story remained so vague that I got to the end without feeling there was any story there at all. But this style allows Kis to pull whole sections from newspapers and histories without jarring the reader. Part of me rebels against the detractors to say that pastiche is a legitimate art form dating back to at least the eighteenth century, revived as a postmodern sensibility in the twentieth century, and that I myself deeply love Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. But pastiche relies on the audience’s awareness of the previous work, and that that first scene where Ewan MacGregor meets the Bohemians doesn’t make any sense if you don’t know The Sound of Music. Journalism is not a genre where a writer becomes a hero; his individuality as a writer is not valued as it is in fiction or film. News stories rather seem all to have been written by the same person, so that cutting and pasting them can create a seamless whole (unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the two writing styles are so distinct that they don’t blend, making the book really hard to read). Kis’s book becomes unfair to the reader because we can’t recognize the quoted material. It’s a practical joke that starts to seem mean-spirited, and no one laughs.

I was busy reading and writing when a great number of these men burst into my chamber, armed with ignorance blunt as a whip, and hatred sharp as a knife. It wasn’t my silks that brought blood to their eyes, but the books arranged on my shelves; they shoved the silks under their cloaks, but they threw the books on the floor, stamped on them, and ripped them to shreds before my eyes. Those books were bound in leather, marked with numbers, and written by learned men; in them, had they wanted to read them, they could have found thousands of reasons why they should have killed me at once, and in them, had they wanted to read them, they could also have found the balm and cure for their hatred. I told them not to rip them apart, for many books are not dangerous, only one is dangerous; I told them not to tear them apart, for the reading of many books brings wisdom, and the reading of one brings ignorance armed with rage and hatred. But they said that everything was written in the New Testament, that it contains all books of all times, and therefore the rest should be burned; even if they contained something this One did not, they should be burned all the more since they were heretical. They did not need the advice of the learned, they said, and shouted: “Convert, or we’ll knock out of your head the wisdom from all the books you’ve ever read!”

And we pretend that we’re different. It’s the twenty-first century, and we live in the oldest and strongest republic in the world. But it’s not. Enforced conformity is taking hold in Trump’s America as surely as if he were leading the pogroms himself. Texas is considering a transphobic bathroom law similar to the one in North Carolina, and while news reports of police violence against black people is becoming less prominent, I doubt that race relations are actually improving. I may be able to marry another man in any state of the Union, but in most of them I can still be fired from my job or evicted from my apartment for being gay. And let’s not forget that misogynistic sentiment is so high that critics could not stomach a movie where the girls of Saturday Night Live replace the boys of thirty years ago, or that the internet is aghast that a British science fiction series that has been running for more than fifty years is finally getting a female protagonist. I didn’t suffer much bullying after the fourth grade or so, but this supposedly great country is full of children who are being punished constantly for being different from the others. The highest cause of death among teenagers in Utah is suicide.

At times, especially after reading books like Kis’s, it seems right to embrace despair, to give up and move to France. But despite all of the everything, I still have hope that things will improve. I believe that kindness and the better part of human nature will prevail. I believe that good is greater than evil, and that though wars may happen, the world will one day know peace. As the title suggests, Kis is creating a monument for the dead, a memorial to those who died not in war between nations, but the domestic conflict between those who have power and those who have none. Killed for exercising the right to think for themselves. But I think the best way to honor the wrongfully dead is to transform the world so that these deaths will have an end. Kis doesn’t celebrate or even acknowledge hope, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I believe that the world is a good place, and that means believing that the people in it are good. I agree with the old apologists, that faith is ingrained in the human mind like instinct, and having lost my faith in divinity, I place my faith and all the passion it inspires in humanity.

 

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.

 

The promotional material (quotes, blurbs,) markets this as the book of Forster’s gay stories. That’s not always accurate, but it’s pretty close. Chronologically, these stories fall into a few different groups.

PRE-WORLD WAR I

Almost all the writing for which Forster is famous happened between 1900 and 1914. He wrote two collections of short stories during this time, though one was not published until the 1920s. Collected here are five previously uncollected stories, most of them unpublished, and probably with good reason. “Albergo Empedocle” is the one that made it, and it’s probably the best. It’s about an English guy who goes to the Mediterranean with his fiancée’s family, and he realizes that he lived in a Greek colony on Sicily in a previous life (Empedocles having favored the idea of reincarnation). However, the previous life takes over his current life, and he ends up in a mental institution speaking a forgotten dialect of Greek. Despite Forster’s comparative youth, there is some wisdom here:

Had she only realized that it is only hypocrites who cannot forgive hypocrisy, whereas those who search for truth are too conscious of the maze to be hard on others – then the bitter flow of her thoughts might have been stopped and the catastrophe averted. But it was not conceivable to her that he should forgive – or that she should accept forgiveness, for to her forgiveness meant triumph of one person over another.

I like the ability here to understand things from multiple perspectives, as well as the understanding that people who are really in the struggle to understand the world are gentle to those who misunderstand it, and that defining forgiveness as triumph instead of reconciliation leads to bad outcomes.

The first story, “Ansell,” reminds me a bit of Maurice, in that it’s about abandoning society’s ideals and living happily and naturally with a lower-class friend of the same gender. In these early stories, if you’re looking for homosexuality, you can find it, but it’s not obvious. There’s a point here that really irritated me:

Dead silence ensued, which was well enough for Ansell, to whom it merely meant that neither of us had any more to say. But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention.

I’m quite sufficiently educated, but I don’t often feel silence to be awkward. I don’t see the purpose of education or intelligence to be the obliteration of quiet with idle chatter. I see it as the exact opposite – good friends and intelligent people know when to keep their mouths shut. I have a lot of thoughts that I don’t express (and don’t want to), and I like being able to pursue a train of thought even when there are other people around. Most of the people I love are those who know how to sit quietly with me.

BETWEEN THE WARS

So, Forster wrote Maurice and World War I happened, and there’s a bit of a gap. He wrote his last novel, some say his greatest, A Passage to India, in 1924, and there were a number of other stories, but at one point he decided that he was writing the stories “not to express myself, but to excite myself” and he burned them all. So, there are some racy Forster stories that the world will never see because he thought they were blocking his creativity – he couldn’t write anything publishable because every time he picked up a pen gay sex came out of it. But after the burning, he kept writing stories without publishing them. The three stories in the 1920s become gradually more graphic, but they all have a solemn air – “The Life to Come,” “Dr Woolacott,” and “Arthur Snatchfold.” Gay relationships are punished pretty severely, too – by death in the first two and imprisonment in the last.

“Dr Woolacott” is a ghost story – a young invalid meets the ghost of one of the soldiers his doctor treated during The War, and the ghost casts doubt on his treatment, and as they come together physically the boy dies. “The Life to Come” may be one of the best stories, but it’s also one of the saddest.

Love had been born somewhere in the forest, of what quality only the future could decide. Trivial or immortal, it had been born to two human bodies as a midnight cry. Impossible to tell whence the cry had come, so dark was the forest. Or into what worlds it would echo, so vast was the forest. Love had been born for good or evil, for a long life or a short.

A missionary to an unnamed indigenous group tries to convince them of the love of God, but is only successful after he sleeps with the young chief. The missionary convinces himself it was an evil act, but the chief remains unconvinced. However, he does turn his whole tribe to Christianity in the hopes that he can “come to Christ” with the white man again, but it doesn’t turn out. The missionary feels too guilty, so he marries a woman and has kids and rejects the chief once he’s done using him to advance his work. Several of the stories have an anti-Christianity flavor, but this is one of the strongest. For Forster, religion does terrible things to people by making them ashamed of their natural sexual desires. The repressions that religion exacts warps people and leads to a great deal of unhappiness, such as imprisonment or murder. Typically, when there are this many bad endings to stories of gay love, we critics would say that the author is against them. However, I think in Forster’s case the bad endings are not so much an indictment of gay sex as an indictment of a society that rejects homosexuality. If gay love is love, how can it be bad? If God is love, why can’t he support all kinds of love?

The 1930s have a markedly different feel. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I wonder if the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had anything to do with it. These stories have an exuberance, a joy, that is missing from the others. “The Classical Annex” is about a museum where all the statues come alive at night and fuck each other. But the small-town museum can’t afford more than miniatures, except for the one full-sized classical subject who goes unfulfilled every night. The townspeople made him a metal fig leaf for decency’s sake, and during the day it seems way too big for what it has to cover, but at night it’s suddenly way too small. The curator blunders in one night and is thoroughly shocked and heads back home. His son, though, goes to the museum to find him, and finds a horny gay Greek made of marble instead.

And in after years a Hellenistic group called The Wrestling Lesson became quite a feature at Bigglesmouth, though it was not exhibited until the Curator and the circumstances of his retirement were forgotten. “Very nice piece, very decent” was Councillor Bodkin’s opinion. “Look ‘ow the elder brother’s got the little chappie down. Look ‘ow well the little chappie’s taking it.”

So the youth is part of the statue magic now, and so is technically no longer alive. But it seems that he’s enjoying spending eternity ‘wrestling’ with the Greek, and Forster makes it into a joke on the dignitaries’ ignorance.

“The Obelisk” pulls a similar stunt. A newly married (but not quite happy) couple on vacation meet a pair of sailors on shore leave. They all head toward the town’s one tourist spot, an obelisk facing the sea. On the way there, they separate and the wife has her own Lady Chatterley experience with the nicer of the two sailors.

Yes, he was wonderful. She would have this gallantry to look back upon, especially at night. She could think of Ernest quite kindly, she’d be able to put up with him when he made his little wrong remarks or did his other little wrong things. She’d her dream, and what people said was false and what the Pictures said was true: it was worth it, worth being clasped once in the right arms, though you never had them round you again. She had got what she longed for, and it was what she longed for, not a smack in the face, not a sell. . . . She had always yearned for a lover who would be nice afterwards – not turn away like a satisfied brute, as handsome men are supposed to do. Stanhope was – what do you call it . . . a gentleman, a knight in armour, a real sport. . . . O for words. Her eyes filled with happy tears of happiness.

But, while she never makes it to the obelisk, she realizes later that her husband never did either, and probably for the same reason she didn’t. But it doesn’t impair their relationship – she actually thinks he’s more handsome and pleasant after bottoming for the sailor.

Forster’s morality tale “What Does It Matter?” makes his philosophy clear – sex is no one’s business but the people who are doing it. The president of a fictional eastern European country has a minister of police who wants to make a scandal, so he engineers a situation where the president’s wife walks in on him and his mistress. But there’s no scandal because the wife keeps her calm. Then the minister gets one of his men to seduce the president and has the mistress walk in, and she goes a little crazy, but the president’s wife talks her down. They all agree to accept the situation, and they publish an edict to that effect, that all three have had sex with the president and intend to continue, and why does that matter? The people take to the idea that sex doesn’t imply possession and it becomes the most peaceful nation in the world. No one will attack them because their sexual ideology is so contagious that they will transform any nation that conquers them. This may have something to do with the fact that Forster spent many years in a loving relationship with a married man, but the idea strikes me as sound. If sex is consensual, and that implies that all parties involved are mature adults, then why is it anyone else’s business?

AFTER WORLD WAR II

By the end of WWII, Forster was in his mid-60s. He’d been busy doing other things, because even if you’re as fantastic as he was there’s more to life than publishing fiction. There are a couple of other gay stories from the late 1950s, and they return to that 1920s feeling of “great” literature. “The Torque” is about a Roman from a newly Christian family who gets raped by a Goth, but in reality the sex seems more unexpected than unwelcome. They don’t speak each other’s language, so the Goth can’t really ask, and afterward the Roman seems to have enjoyed himself. Then later he imagines the Goth asking to be raped in turn, so I really have to question Forster’s use of the word. Rape means that consent is withheld, but in this story it’s only withheld until the rapist’s intentions are clear. This is not what rape is really like. It’s a horrible experience that leaves permanent scars. If the receiver consents, and I mean from the heart and not necessarily in words, then it’s not rape. Some people are pressured into consenting in words when they do not really want to do it, and that is rape. People have started talking about ‘grey rape,’ where the two parties are so chemically elevated that neither is sure whether they had sex or whether consent was given, and I don’t know how to judge that situation, and I’m glad I don’t have to. I do think that it’s a bad idea to have sex if either person is too far gone to judge the situation, but as the name implies, this is a grey area. And, as should be obvious, no one asks to be raped. The request implies consent. In the story, the Roman gets happiness and possibly mystical powers from the experience, not permanent psychological wounds. But Forster is back to hating on Christianity and its demand for chastity.

I didn’t quite see the full extent of Forster’s hatred of Christianity until I got to “The Other Boat.” Here, he not only blames Christianity for homophobia, but also for racism:

He spoke of the origins of Christianity in a way that made her look down her nose, saying that the Canal was one long genuine Bible picture gallery, that donkeys could still be seen going down into Egypt carrying Holy Families, and naked Arabs wading into the water to fish; “Peter and Andrew by Galilee’s shore, why, it hits the truth plumb.” A clergyman’s daughter and a soldier’s wife, she could not admit that Christianity had ever been oriental. What good thing can come out of the Levant, and is it likely that the apostles ever had a touch of the tar-brush?

In terms of Western Civilization, Christianity has been the winning team for about two thousand years. However, it’s not a European religion. It’s not an American religion. It’s from the Middle East. If most American Christians saw Jesus Christ today, they would think he looked like a terrorist. It’s interesting to me that she points out the racial Otherness of the Arabs, but here in the United States we define peoples of the Middle East as white, no doubt so that we can admit that Jews are white. Jewish people have played a large role in positions of power in American history, so of course they can be legally considered white. After all, we can’t go around Othering Jesus. But if we welcome Jesus as part of our group, we also have to admit Syrian refugees as white people, and Iraqis and Saudis and all the other people from the heart of Islam. Which creates a racial conundrum for some people, if they put any thought into it.

Forster juxtaposes racism with homophobia – the white Englishman is okay having a relationship with the ethnically vague foreigner as long as no one knows about it, and he enjoys it as long as he doesn’t think about it. But at the end he realizes the foreigner’s bribes are tipping people off, and he does spend some time thinking about it, and he kills the man he doesn’t love. Then he runs up on deck and jumps in the ocean, killing the other man he doesn’t love, himself.

Taken all together, this is kind of a weird collection because the stories are written at such different times in the author’s life. They can hardly be expected to present a unified viewpoint; we are all such different people at different stages of our development. Forster in his 20s and Forster in his 70s write in very different ways, and “Ansell” and “The Other Boat” don’t seem all that unified. But in some ways they do. Maybe people don’t change as much as I think (hope) they do. “Ansell” ends with the boys happy together because the rich, educated boy isn’t yet thinking of his future, but “The Other Boat” shows what happens when he does. There is an important distinction, though – Edward in “Ansell” loses all the books he needs to write his dissertation, so his love with Ansell grows up because he’s already lost the future he had planned. In “The Other Boat,” Lionel still has a lot to lose when he hooks up with Cocoanut, and he can’t face that expected loss when he realizes that their relationship isn’t the secret he thinks it is.

THREE COURSES AND A DESSERT

Speaking of weirdness. This four-part story was designed for four different authors, each taking a section. You’ll recognize the format from Naked Came the Stranger, as well as its for-charity descendants Naked Came the Manatee and Naked Came the Phoenix. The first author, Christopher Dilke, does a good job of setting up an interesting story, and Forster manages to match his tone and characters pretty well. But the third author, A. E. Coppard, is not their equal. Characters change drastically and become caricatures of themselves, and while James Laver does his best to mop up the damage in the epilogue, the first two parts cohere and the rest do not. I do appreciate Laver’s final twist – Forster ended his part with a murder, and Laver broke the fourth wall by placing Forster in the crowd and saying that the author did it. It’s a bit of a joke, but I think it was the only reasonable way to end it. It’s an unfortunate addition to a short story collection that, at 210 pages, was already long enough to publish. I’ve seen novels shorter than that published without any trouble.

This collection was a real delight. It satisfies the itch for a book like Maurice without being it – early twentieth century, well-written, normative gay romance with a little Lady Chatterley thrown in. No wonder I couldn’t put it down.

 

Oxford, in the rain:

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

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.