Posts Tagged ‘snobbery’

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.

Steppenwolf has been very important to me. It has been very important to lots of people, but I don’t like to think about that. I tend to feel towards it like it is St Matthew’s pearl of great price, that I go to great lengths to obtain and keep secret. Or maybe it’s a little more like Gollum, stroking my paperback in secret, muttering over My Precious. I take an unjust comfort in the thought that very few people understand it like I do. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to things that touch me deeply, I get overprotective.

Hesse’s comments in the foreword strengthen this impression. He talks about the many men who identify with the protagonist, but who miss the point. The first hundred pages or so are kind of slow, and describe Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf of the title. But the rest of the book, longer than that beginning, is about how he grows and changes, becoming more complete, though the novel ends with the proof that he’s not finished yet.

Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.

Harry begins the novel unhappy and begins a journey to heal himself and find some happiness in his life. If you’re one of these forty-ish-year-old Germans who live lives of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, you’ll identify with Haller at the beginning, when we’re spending a lot of time analyzing him, but you have to be willing to change, you have to believe that you can change, in order to see it as Hesse does, to get the benefit he seems to have intended from the book.

Unfortunately, Hesse’s greatest lyricism is in the passages about the quiet desperation.

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon your own sick self – he who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today. Thankfully you sit by the warm stove, thankfully you assure yourself as you read your morning paper that another day has come and no war broken out, no new dictatorship has been set up, no particularly disgusting scandal been unveiled in the worlds of politics or finance. Thankfully you tune the strings of your moldering lyre to a moderated, to a passably joyful, nay, to an even delighted psalm of thanksgiving and with it bore your quiet, flabby and slightly stupefied half-and-half god of contentment; and in the thick warm air of a contented boredom and very welcome painlessness the nodding mandarin of a half-and-half god and the nodding middle-aged gentleman who sings his muffled psalm look as like each other as two peas.

I find myself stuck in this half-and-half life right now. In this desert, the best thing on offer seems to be not-depressed, so that’s all I’m shooting for when I’m here. I know it’s dangerous to postpone the search for happiness, but I don’t seem able to find much here. The communal culture is not well-suited to my temperament, but living in one means that the solitary joys are few. The locals deal with it by focusing on their religion. The name Islam means submission, so that’s what they do. They resign themselves to life as it is and discourage any attempts to change anything. I have never been good at submission. I can fake it for short periods, but it’s not natural or comfortable to me. This is not to say that I think I’m better than others, or that I’m too much in love with myself. In many ways I am (and have been) like Haller at the beginning:

It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

Or, as when Hesse describes the suicide as a personality type:

What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void. The line of fate in the case of these men is marked by the belief they have that suicide is their most probable manner of death. It might be presumed that such temperaments, which usually manifest themselves in early youth and persist through life, show a singular defect of vital force. On the contrary, among the “suicides” are to be found unusually tenacious and eager and also hardy natures. But just as there are those who at the least indisposition develop a fever, so do those whom we call suicides, and who are always very emotional and sensitive, develop at the least shock the notion of suicide.

These days we talk about clinical depression and prescribe medicine, but Hesse cuts to the heart of the matter. I feel this whenever I walk across a bridge or stand on a cliff; I’m not afraid I’ll fall, I’m afraid I’ll jump.

Those of us who feel this self-discontent, which becomes displaced as discontent with the entire world, usually want to be different. We know that life would be better if we changed – we don’t need the great Zachary Glass to tell us that. However, that knowledge is only the first step. It’s like when I came out of the closet and got divorced. Lots of people were telling me that I should go hook up with some random guys to ‘explore my sexuality’ or ‘figure out what I want’ or even ‘you can’t masturbate forever.’ I had accepted that this kind of experience would have some benefit for me, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to do it. It took me a couple of years before I was. When the time was right, I did it and derived what advantages one can. I think that a lot of us make this mistake: we think that when we know we ought to do something (or want to do it), that’s all the preparation we need. Recognizing a need is not the same thing as being ready for its fulfillment.

In analyzing the Steppenwolf, it’s useful to talk about Freud for a minute (not that Hesse does, though he discusses the same concepts). Harry Haller sees himself as a two-part being, a man and a wolf. The two sides of himself are constantly at war with each other, each struggling to dominate. The part he calls the wolf matches with Freud’s idea of the id, the part of the subconscious where all our desires originate from instinctual drives. The id wants to avoid pain, so at first Freud called it the pleasure principle. Hesse points out that a lot of what Haller calls the wolf is actually what makes him a human man. As time went on, Freud started treating soldiers who were trying to recover from World War I, and he realized that he couldn’t explain their traumatic dreams with the pleasure principle. He recognized survivors’ guilt, and theorized that the subconscious has another part – a legislative body where we store our internalized social conventions, which attacks us in the form of guilt and the compulsion to repeat traumatic events in our imagination. Haller thinks that the man part of himself is this superego, even though it’s more often trying to kill him, or at least punish him for the desires that come from his id/wolf. Hesse identifies the bourgeois as those who can comfortably strike a middle path between desire and law, who live the sort of half-and-half contented life mentioned above.

Haller finds comfort in aesthetics. This is the only place where he can reconcile his need to satisfy himself with his need to satisfy everyone else. His ideals are Goethe and Mozart, and judges every other cultural production by its ability to approximate one of these two monoliths. Buxtehude and Haydn are okay, even Schubert, but not Beethoven. Jazz is right out.

You are right, Steppenwolf, right a thousand times over, and yet you must go to the wall. You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours –

His aesthetic sense can help him find peace in mundane things, like a neighbor’s potted plants, but his snobbery keeps him away from a lot of life. He feels isolated, and comforts himself by saying that it’s because the rest of the world is not up to his standards, but he doesn’t recognize the arbitrary nature of those standards. I feel isolated a lot of the time, but I no longer see that as a sign of my self-worth. I don’t want to define myself by the things I refuse to enjoy. I used to reject country music out of hand, but I want to get over that. Yes, I can enjoy a glass or two of wine with my salmon and lentils at an expensive Parisian restaurant, but if I’m at a pig-picking in eastern North Carolina and someone hands me a Mason jar of homebrewed corn whiskey, I’ll enjoy that too. I’m done with being proud of loneliness. After all, don’t wolves travel in packs?

That larger second part of the book is about Haller getting out of this miserable, snobbish, suicidal life. He meets a girl who forces him to learn the fox trot and to listen to recorded music. He realizes that he’s having fun. In order to be a complete person, he has to learn to embrace everything that the world has to offer, even if it’s not the highest art. [I think that’s why I started a blog about books with World War Z – to remind the readers of my former blog that my thought-life isn’t all Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf.] He has to find the value of the ephemeral. This is personified in the vaguely Hispanic saxophone player, who leads him into the allegorical magic gallery.

You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key. I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.

And what he finds there is all the selves he has been. Society has agreed that it’s a terrible crime to reduce a person to one body part, like her genitals; it’s equally awful to reduce a person to a single personality trait, but we do that anyway. It’s easier to hate someone when you only see one quality in them. Haller has reduced himself to two, his anxiety to be respectable and his desire to rebel. But we are all more complex than that. There is no simple duality at the heart of man (good/evil, flesh/spirit, God/Satan, angel/djinn, whatever). We are more than we give ourselves credit for.

In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

Every possibility is in every person. Given the proper training and stimulus, any person is capable of any action. This is one of the reasons it so ill becomes us to judge others; in dwelling on another’s guilt, we deflect our attention from our complicity in his crime, our jealousy that he did it and not I. At the same time, we also measure ourselves against other people’s successes, but without recognizing that we ourselves are capable of the same degree of success. There is value in every person, in every kind of life. For my entire adult life, I’ve been living the adventure of traveling around and meeting new people in new places. I’d like to try the adventure of living in a town for years, growing into a house that becomes the shell of my life, seeing a single group of people grow and change, feeling how I change in response to them. There are all sorts of adventures, if you choose to see them as such.

Haller reflects on his life at the end of the book:

My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

As does mine. As does yours.