Book Reviews

Reviews of each book from the 1001 Books list, as well as some others

The Babe with the Power: Rejecting Compromise

jane eyre

How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth. You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so...

As we grow from larvaceous little rolls of baby fat into semi-conscious, babbling beings, we learn many things about how to exist in the world. These lessons come from those around us, generally from those who have taken it upon themselves to ensure our survival, to a greater or lesser degree. These lessons are not always directly taught, but rather absorbed through experience. The luckiest among us learn, for example, how to give and receive things like empathy and compassion. We all learn the varietals of shame. Some of us learn to protect ourselves from a world that wants to view us a certain way. We learn to take what we want (entitlement/privilege) or to accept what we are “allotted” (meekness/humility) or, more commonly, to compromise (neutral, possibly).

Compromise is the idea that if two entities want non-complementary things, they must come to some kind of agreement–meet halfway. Long touted as a necessary skill to interacting and being a successful player in society, not all compromise is created equal. In fact, compromise is largely gendered and, if we have learned anything from the news of late, that which is gendered is so rarely equal.

If a man and a woman disagree on something, you can pretty much bet that the woman has been socialized to be more amenable to compromise than the man. Women have been compromising forever, making themselves smooth so others can move more easily over them. Children or a career? A partner or freedom? Though past iterations of feminism have claimed that we can have it all, most of us can’t and frankly, don’t want to. Compromise is fine, I think, when talking about where to eat lunch or go on vacation, but when it comes to life’s big decisions, to dreams and aspirations, I say, to hell with them. Take what’s yours. You are entitled.

In literature, compromise is often the end of a woman’s journey. When she lets go of some part of herself in order to fit more snugly into someone else’s idea of how their life should proceed, often in the guise of marriage, something is forfeited, something the man would never be asked to pawn. But not so Jane Eyre. Although her story ends in marriage, it is marriage on her own terms. There seems to be nothing ideal about her eventual reconciliation and marriage to a newly blind and one-handed Mr. Rochester, and yet she has remained true to herself and her integrity, and thus does she, in the end, triumph.

Throughout Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the eponymous heroine is anything but your average girl turned woman. She does not meekly bow her beribboned head in the face of slander and misplaced blame while in the house of her cruel aunt, nor does she tremble beguilingly when Mr. Rochester enfolds her in his arms and entreats her to stay with him, despite the fact that he tried to marry her without informing her that, not only was he already married, but was keeping his (certifiably) insane wife locked away in a room above Jane’s own. Jane maintains an iron grasp of what she believes to be good and true, on her sense of right and wrong, sacrificing superficial contentment for the furtherance of a deeper, more soul-saturating, though by no means guaranteed, happiness.

I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me–for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.

As a woman, the expectations Jane Eyre faced in her little world of 407 pages (in my edition) were varied, diverse, and deeply-embedded in the society in which she lived. Despite her extraordinary resilience and loyalty to her own integrity, these societal influences showed. She referred to her boss as Master. She almost, almost married St. John, the (in my opinion) slightly sociopathic wannabe missionary, just because 1) he asked, and 2) he cited the impossibility of an unmarried woman being allowed to do much good in the world. Yet her resolve held, and in the end led to the fulfillment of her desire to marry Mr. Rochester legally and honorably.

“Keep to common sense, St. John: you are verging on nonsense. You pretend to be shocked by what I have said. You are not really shocked: for, with your superior mind, you cannot be either so dull or so conceited as to misunderstand my meaning. I say again, I will be your curate, if you like, but never your wife.

The compromises routinely asked of today’s women are not so different, and are still largely ruled by the whims and behavior of men. Women want free and easy access to birth control and reproductive freedom, but those who claim to have our interests in mind preach abstinence and strip away our “alienable” rights, as Roxane Gay calls them, one by one. Women want to wear clothes that make them feel good, men take that as an opportunity to catcall, leer, or W.C.S. (worst-case scenario), rape. So the compromise is that women should wear more conservative clothing. By the way, #notallmen.

I admire Jane Eyre. She thrived in the face of insuperable obstacles, but we have come a long way and times have, in some ways, changed. She had no friends, no vehicle of voice with which to protest. She lived in such a small world, and that world has grown large. We, women, have choices and voices she could never have hoped for, and we need to take responsibility for them. We need to make what is alienable inalienable. The time for compromise is over. Our bodies are not board room tables over which compromises are made. We must show the same kind of integrity that Jane showed and keep the greater goal in mind. We must not be tempted by momentary appeasement to give up the game. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine knew the merit of not compromising, and she suffered for it. She was homeless and hungry and near death, yet she persevered. We would have pardoned her for giving in, but she never did. We need to show the same resilience. We need to acknowledge that when it comes to our bodies, our futures, the time for compromise has passed.

Though the world would have you believe otherwise, believe this, tell yourself this in moments of doubt:

I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.

 

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The Godfather — For President?

Among the myriad of reasons for why books are almost unfailingly better than their cinematic counterparts, the most important is that they are capable of the kind of depth and detail and backstory that screenwriters do not even dare to dream of. In order to achieve the same depth, a movie would have to be so long that even the most devoted moviegoer would flag in their enthusiasm. In the classic movie The Godfather, which I had seen twice prior to reading the book, I remember being both enthralled and repulsed by this glimpse into New York’s underground crime rings of the 1940s. Regardless of the fact that the story itself is fiction, I was floored by the nonchalance of murder and the impunity via political connections enjoyed by the Families. But I was also disdainful that these people should believe that they had the right to be the makers and enforcers of their own laws and moral codes within the larger framework of the United States government. To me it seemed irresponsible, unsympathetic to the consequences sure to ensue. From the movie, I understood that it was greed and a thirst for power that fueled these organizations. But then I read the book and I came to understand not only why these pseudo-governments came into existence but even (although I am not so naive as to think that greed and power did not play their part) why they were justified in doing so. As my eyes raced over the words on pages that dealt with whole layers of backstory that the movie didn’t even touch on, I came to see on a deeper level what it was truly about and what, arguably, the movie missed completely: the reality of immigrant life in America.

Ever since the English and smattering of French and Dutch settlers who first came to North America conveniently “forgot” the fact of their own immigration, American-born citizens have looked down on and otherwise made life hard for immigrants. Whereas today it is the Central and South Americans that suffer this fate, in the early part of the last century, it was the Italian immigrants escaping crushing economic conditions in their home country (especially southern Italy and Sicily) who faced poverty, manipulation, and unfair treatment as their Welcome Wagon to America. It was because of this reality that the underground rule of crime “Families” flourished like dark things do in the damp and untended corners of society. The following is Michael Corleone’s attempt to explain who his father, the Godfather, is:

He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character. What you have to understand is that he considers himself the equal of all those great men like Presidents and Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices and Governors of the States. He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society (365).

It is still the same story. Why do we continue to be surprised that people whom we as a nation try to take advantage of eventually organize in order to protect themselves and their interests? These are the same conditions that birth violent gangs formed mostly by underprivileged minorities in urban areas today. Granted, these power structures lack the finesse and coordination of the Godfather and the Corleone Family, but it’s the same principle. How can anyone expect a group of people systematically neglected and pushed to the fringes of society to simply allow this to happen until time or some sense of human compassion causes those in power to see them as equally needful of the same benefits and protection afforded to the native-born, usually white citizenry?

It is this unwillingness to allow xenophobic injustice and prejudice to dictate their lives that makes the Godfather and the other heads of family men to be emulated, in character if not action. I am not condoning murder or coercion as a political or personal weapon, but I can not deny the strength of will and the desire to protect their families and friends that spurred these men from humble beginnings to positions of power.

All of these men were good listeners, patient men. They had one other thing in common. They were those rarities, men who had refused to accept the rule of organized society, men who refused the dominion of other men. There was no force, no mortal man who could bend them to their will unless they wished it. They were men who guarded their free will with wiles and murder. Their wills could be subverted only by death. Or the utmost reasonableness (287).

It is that last line that caught my attention like a fishhook to the mouth. These are not madmen deaf to reason and sentiment. They are ruthless and condemn men to death with the wave of their hand but their violence is not arbitrary, their cruelty not lacking in focus. Our own “legitimate” government openly tortures, murders, and otherwise uses the force of their political weight to achieve its own ends, often in the name of freedom and liberty. The American government, in spite of benevolent and inspiring semantics, has never been especially worried about the lower classes. In action, it has always been the interests of the rich at the expense of those of the poor. Don Corleone is a wealthy man, interested in retaining and growing his wealth, but he is simultaneously a friend to the laborer, the artisan, the helpless and dependent. It is vital, however, to point out that African-Americans and other minorities did not fall under the protection and benevolence of the Families. Today, corporations get to vote as if they were people, money can keep criminals out of jail and put psychopaths and idiots in political power… but does our government listen to the utmost reasonableness? When I think of our current bipartisan government, reasonableness is not a word that comes to mind.

Understand that I am not advocating capital “M” Mob rule. For one, as I pointed out, the Italian families cared little for the fates of other minorities, especially blacks whom they considered little more than animals. Also, despite the Families’ insistence that civilians were not harmed in their wars, that women and children were completely off-limits as targets for blood feuds and vendettas, it would be of the utmost naiveté to believe that there were never innocents caught in the cross-fire. We see this in the book when Michael is in exile in Sicily where the ravages of years of wars between Families has devastated the region. Even Michael’s new young wife, Apollonia, is murdered accidentally in a failed assassination attempt. I am of the belief that violence begets only violence and can never be a long-term solution. I also believe that everyone should be treated as equals, regardless of faith, income, skin color, gender, sex, etcetera ad infinitum, but still I can admit that there are aspects of the Godfather’s rule that seem preferable to how my government runs things. It seems beneficial to have the ruling members of a society remember what it was like to be one of the outcasts, what it felt like to be the “other”. In such cases, it would seem more difficult to forget them later, as legislation seems to do when it tries to penalize abortion with one hand while stripping people of their welfare benefits with the other, or withholding citizenship from those who need it to survive, or sending military instead of university recruiters to high school classes of low-income or minority students.

In all honesty, I would not cast my vote for Don Corleone for president. But the whole idea does provide some food for thought, does it not?

Self-Sacrifice Aboard the Pequod

Imagine for a moment spending four years on a ship. It is musty with dampness, creaky, never for an instant motionless. You are without exception subjected to every whim of the weather, with no choice but to stand watch during the worst storms, in winter or summer, at other times unshielded from the fiercest beatings of the sun. Your duty will be to chase creatures as large as the ship you inhabit, whose slightest movement could crush you like waves crush rock into sand. You will not set foot on land for 1,460 days and see no other human being other than those on board with you. And no, you do not have a smart phone. Can you imagine it?

Neither can I.

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, is our window into the exclusive and now mostly extinct world of whaling. Although he both begins and ends the novel as a man with his own will and personality, his time on board the Pequod is characterized by an almost total lack of either. He has in essence become only another appendage of the many-limbed animal that is an efficient whaling crew, his every action dictated by the mates, his captain, and above all, the sea. To be a valuable part of a crew, or any team in which the only hope of success lies in working together seamlessly and almost instinctually, there has to be a certain sacrifice of one’s individuality, at least temporarily. Ishmael likens signing on to a whaling voyage to suicide when he says,

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses… then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship (2).

In this case, Ishmael seems to welcome this relinquishment of personality, of individual responsibility and care in exchange for becoming part of the unified body of the ship’s crew. For further proof of this self-sacrifice, one only need look at Queequeg, the fascinating cannibal whom Ishmael goes into such detail about in the beginning of the novel. Queequeg is a towering man, covered from head to foot in tribal tattoos, who goes everywhere accompanied by his razor-sharp harpoon. And yet both Ishmael and the reader quickly come to find that his threatening exterior conceals a gentle and tolerant soul, which contrast makes Queequeg one of the most intriguing characters in the book. Before embarking on the whaler, Ishmael and Queequeg become fast friends, and Ishmael even makes sure that Queequeg is hired on the same ship. However, almost immediately after setting foot aboard the Pequod, Queequeg is suddenly mentioned rarely, and often only in passing. It seems that Melville created this fascinating and wild character and then almost completely muted him in order to show the reader just how little individuals mattered aboard a whaling ship. However, the bond between Ishmael and Queequeg is not broken by joining the crew; instead it is transformed from one of friendship to one of universal interdependence. In one of the gruesome scenes where the dead whale is being carved into its valuable parts, Ishmael reflects on the extent to which their fates, and ultimately the fate of the crew, are interwoven:

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have sanctioned so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering… I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die…. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it (329).

In this excerpt, Ishmael brings up a very interesting point. How connected are we to the people around us? The answer is invisibly and irrevocably so. While driving on the freeway, you are unconsciously trusting that the people around you are paying attention. Should the driver in front of you lose focus and then suddenly slam on the brakes to avoid something, you will most likely smash into him. Should the person making your dinner fail to wash the vegetables they’ll be serving you, you may find yourself becoming all too intimate with the toilet. Or, if a chemical processing facility near your town should forgo safety checks on the containment of hazardous materials, you just might find yourself without clean water for drinking, preparing food, showering, or any other of the daily things we think so little about when we have them at our disposal.

It is a wonderful asset of literature that it allows us to find parallels between our own lives, whatever they may consist of, and the very different lives of others. I would never have considered that my life had any similarities with that of a whaler aboard the Pequod, but as Ishmael states above, in some ways there is very little difference. So although I started this entry by attempting to have you imagine being a whaler and pointing out that we could not know what it felt like, perhaps now you’ll agree with me. There is no occupation, no social status, no state of wholeness nor disability, that does not maintain within it some thread of similarity with the existence of every single other human being on the planet. I think the world would be a nicer place if we all reminded ourselves of that more often.

 

As I Consume, I Also Am Consumed: A Study of Passion

I often find myself thinking about how I am going to fill up the time I have left in my life, not in any melancholy way, but rather in a practical one. This generally happens when I’m sitting at a stoplight or on a lazy Sunday afternoon where I’m flat broke and afraid to leave the house for fear I’ll spend money I don’t have. What am I going to do for the rest of my life? Not just in the grand scheme of things, but also in the small, everyday things. One thing I know I’ll always do is read and it was in reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion that I realized a simple truth. It doesn’t answer all my questions about the time ahead but it does provide a sort of key. In this book, there are many different manifestations of passion: monomaniacal, self-sacrificing, and hedonistic are some examples, but what each of these has in common is that they lend a sort of impetus to the character’s lives. Their individual actions are often trivial, sometimes unalterably life-changing, but always fueled by passion.

The story is told directly from two different perspectives, that of Henri, and that of Villanelle, and yet there is another character whose passion brings these two together: that of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. We never see the story from his perspective and yet it is all the more poignant seeing him through Henri’s eyes. Henri is Napoleon’s personal chef of sorts when he is with the army, serving him roast chicken (apparently Napoleon’s favorite dish) at all hours of the day and night. In Napoleon’s case, his passion for chicken emulates his passion for the world. Imagine him looking at a globe instead of a covered dish of roast chicken as “he [would] lift the lid and pick it up and push it into his mouth. He wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird” (4). His appetite for chicken is his appetite for conquering the world, just as unquenchable, just as unreachable. He is the Ahab of world leaders. His great white whale is Europe, and in just the same way, his monomania consumes him until there is nothing left but a good story.

The passion of Villanelle is similar to that of Napoleon in its veracity, but whereas Napoleon sought to conquer whole civilizations to slake his passion, Villanelle’s desires are more earthly and attainable, and yet more transient. Hers are the passions of experience, of carnality, of youth. She seeks to enjoy everything, and she finds both her imprisonment and her freedom in this. Her passion has her teetering wildly on life’s knife-like edge, “somewhere between fear and sex” (55) at all times. Unlike Napoleon however, whose passion is like a wildfire that burns fierce and bright until it suddenly finds itself unable to sustain its ferocity and dies, Villanelle’s passion is tapered to a point, like a blowtorch, driven to unbearable heat because it is focused on one area at a time. Her description of kisses demonstrates this:

I like such kisses. They fill the mouth and leave the body free. To kiss well one must kiss solely. No groping hands or stammering hearts. The lips and the lips alone are the pleasure. Passion is sweeter split strand by strand. Divided and re-divided like mercury then gathered up only at the last moment (59).

I like that idea of Passion split strand by strand. It’s the idea of indulgence, but controlled enough to prolong the consummation of whatever pleasure is the end goal, like a tasting menu that builds up to some magnificent pièce de résistance. This is the secret to Villanelle’s flame: that she is able to protract the completion of her passion to such a degree that she never runs out of fuel or burns herself up.

Henri’s passion is of an entirely different breed than that of the latter two. His is passion tempered with rationality and self-sacrifice, which is ironic considering of the three Henri is the only one to end up in a madhouse, though happily, it would seem. Henri is the martyr. He gives all of himself to the people he loves, first to Napoleon and then to Villanelle, who loves him back in her own way but cannot reciprocate in the manner Henri needs. He is carried along on the fast-moving Lethe-like rivers of other people’s passions until he almost loses himself. There is a moment when he gets a taste of the more destructive and violent strain of passion when he kills Villanelle’s creepy, abusive husband. He describes it as follows:

Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But for us, who travel along the blood vessels, who come to the cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who were fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back is worse (68).

Unlike Villanelle, whose being has been virtually fireproofed in order to sustain the strength of her passion, part of Henri is burnt up in this act. It is after this that he relinquishes any hold on Villanelle. He very calmly takes responsibility for the murder and is sent to prison, and then to a madhouse. This madhouse becomes his haven, the four walls of his cell confine his existence in a way that comforts him. And it is within these walls, where Henri sometimes looks out his window to see Villanelle rowing her boat by his window, his small passion all but smothered while hers still burns with white-hot intensity, that the story ends.

In my story, I am sitting at my desk at a job that I am explicitly not passionate about. I am currently looking for the means to change this. Obviously, I do not want a passion that consumes me completely, like Napoleon’s, nor do I want one that is inextricably linked with the passions of others, carrying me with them, bumping and scraping along. I hope to find a passion more like Villanelle’s. Hers is one of freedom, of wild joy and insuperable curiosity. At the same time, I can see the selfishness of this, as one can never pursue only enjoyment and adventure if other people are in the picture. True freedom is total independence and true freedom is lonely. Maybe some day I will find a happy medium that will, like I mentioned initially, give a sort of impetus to the everyday. I need to find a passion that will become a catalyst for a meaningful life.

Next: A chicken dinner Napoleon would have left off savaging Europe for.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: From 1789 to 2013

I have never been an exceptionally “current” person. I often see movies way after they’ve come out on DVD, wear last season’s trends, and eat at restaurants that were posh in the nineties, but this is especially true with literature. With a few notable exceptions, I have trouble keeping pace with contemporary literature. I am constantly reading blogs talking about incredible new novels where I enthusiastically write down the names of ones that sound intriguing on my ever-growing “to read” list, but there they sit, and for many of them, there they stay. I don’t think that classic literature is necessarily better than modern. In fact, they are so different that comparison is futile. But I do know that my favorite stories, the ones that I return to over and over again, tend to have been written in or before the first half of the twentieth century. But to say that I enjoy all the designated “classics” would be presumptive and silly and there are some authors in whom I have relatively no interest, sometimes without reason. So to be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to the subject of this entry, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I haven’t read any other Dickens books since The Cricket on the Hearth in about 6th grade, so in my head were random words that I attributed to him: “musty, verbose, Wilkie Collins, bah humbug.” These were, for the most part, assumptions and associations that had little to do with his actual writing. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I was hooked from the beginning, as doesn’t often happen with novels from this period, that I became caught up in the action and romance of the story, and that I was almost (which for me is really something) brought to tears. But the thing that gets me, really deep down grab-me-by-the-heartstrings gets me, is the fact that, in essence, it is not a book about another time and place. It is about here and now. This is what makes classics classics, why the majority of people (in the Western world at least) know who Charles Dickens is even if they’ve never read a word: the conflicts in this novel, the characters he created, they haven’t died out or evolved. In both a sad and sometimes beautiful way, you realize how very little some things have changed. Let me explain.

The overarching conflict in A Tale of Two Cities is the French Revolution and the unrestrained monstrosities that resulted from it. Exacerbated by the ever-expanding gap between rich and poor, where the wealthy are painted as “exquisite gentlemen of the finest breeding… known by its fruits of indifference to every natural subject of human interest” (131), and the poor as broken, ignorant, and miserable, the latter’s boiling point is finally reached. This eruption is seen in the storming of the Bastille, a symbol of the corrupt elite power structure. Led to a degree by the fearsome Madame Defarge, a woman with a personal vendetta against the aristocracy, the people take over the city, throw every aristocrat they can get their hands on in jail without recourse to a fair trial, and then roll out that sinister symbol of the revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death”: La Guillotine. What happens then is chaos. Starting, as so many revolutions do, as a downtrodden people revolting against the boundless waste and apathy of the rich, it quickly devolves into a bloodbath in which blind revenge parades as justice, mob rule disguises itself as order, and all compassion and human empathy is washed away like blood in the gutter. In this environment, the good and honorable, like Charles Darnay née Evrémonde, who comes back to France to save a friend from being executed in his name (an aristocratic one which he gave up willingly), are presumed guilty simply because of their name and despite their actions, while the most savage and bloodthirsty of the “revolutionaries” are elevated.

What makes this novel interesting is that it is a warning, but not in the way you would think. It is not propaganda to promote or demoralize one side or the other. It warns against the upper classes (that incorrigible one percent!) sinking into wanton decadence and luxury while ignoring or displacing responsibility for the burdens on the middle and poor classes  (you guessed it, the ninety-nine) that grow heavier and heavier. But the “bad guys” in A Tale of Two Cities are not the rich, not exclusively. The story also warns against the mob mentality that can easily become reality once the idealistic fervor of revolution wanes a bit. To put it into a modern setting, it begins when a class of people can no longer look the other way while their rights are stolen from them. Consider this context: a nation of people is guaranteed Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness and yet finds the tools needed to ensure these things taken away, such as the right to choose what happens to one’s body, the right to be paid the same as everyone else regardless of class, color, or gender, the right to be paid a living wage and provide for one’s family, among others. When diplomacy fails, when the democratic system fails, what path is left to the common populace but revolution?

Charles Dickens wrote about a dark time in European history, when the poor rose up and swallowed the rich, and yet the system they implanted was at least as corrupt, bloody, and inhumane as the monarchy that kept them in poverty. I think it possible that History will label this, the first decades of the twenty-first century, a dark time in American history.  In the world I live in, where American cities go bankrupt and its people suffer while the rest of the country turns a blind eye instead of extending their hand, where the reticence to infringe on the right to bear arms overrides a school room of children’s right to life, where a young man is put on trial for his own murder because of the color of his skin, I sense a revolution coming. Like Jacques Defarge, I don’t know if I will see it in my own lifetime, but I know that the seeds have been planted and the fertilizer of mistreatment and unequal representation has been laid. The way this world is turning, I don’t think it is a remote possibility anymore, nor do I hope that it does not happen. I like the comparison Madame Defarge makes of revolutions to natural disasters:

“‘It does not take a long time,’ said madame, ‘for an earthquake to swallow a town. Eh well! Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?…. But when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything before it. In the meantime, it is always preparing, though it is not seen or heard…. I tell thee… that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats and never stops. I tell thee it is always advancing. Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know, consider the faces of all the world that we know, consider the rage and discontent to which the Jacquerie addresses itself with more and more of certainty every hour. Can such things last? Bah! I mock you” (221-2).

Things need to change. We need to start taking responsibility, not just for our own well-being, but for the overall well-being of our country, and our world. All I can hope for is that we learn from our mistakes, that we remember the blood in the streets of the French and American and Mexican and countless other revolutions. Rights are not won, not truly and not for long, with violence and hatred and vengeance. The Madame Defarges of the world cannot be the paragons of our revolutionary ideals, but neither can the laconic and apathetic Monseigneurs. It must be the people, but the people must maintain in their hearts the knowledge of their equal humanity and their capability for compassion and empathy. That is the only way that there can be hope for a better future.

 

King Arthur and the Women Behind the Round Table

Our lives are made up of stories which are neither wholly nonfiction nor completely fiction. Things happen to us, sure, but our telling of them becomes a narrative. No person alive has ever related something that happened to them or that they experienced without omitting certain things and embellishing others. But here’s the thing about narratives: we, the audience and/or reader, have a tendency to accept them at face value. I think that it is a subconscious instinct to believe what we hear. It’s easy and comfortable to think that what someone is telling you is the truth (whatever that is). This is a bad instinct. Every so often we learn that what we had blindly accepted as truth is anything but that, but still more frequently we go through life with the simple assumption that things we have been taught, such as the Arthurian legends, are true. Not true in the sense that these events all actually happened necessarily, but rather in the sense that we do not question the perspective from which the story is related, and almost never consider that there may be another side to it.

It’s like how you felt as a high school student, learning in a passive, osmosis-like way about such grand sounding things as manifest destiny, conquistadors, and imperialism. When we are teenagers, we often accept as true what we are told by teachers and parents, figures that we have been taught to regard as the final word, the guiding light of  “what really happened”. Conscious critical thinking is something you may or may not have developed as you matured. I remember taking my first American Indian studies course in college and later a class on American Involvement in Central American Issues and sitting in my seat, stunned and horrified. We did WHAT?! I felt ashamed by what my country had done (is doing), ashamed of the color of my skin, the complicity of my ancestors, knowing or otherwise, in the injustices and genocides (a term NEVER applied to the U.S. in high school history) that happened on their watch. As uncomfortable an experience as those classes were for me, I learned something invaluable: never take narratives at face value. You have to make a conscious decision to keep in mind that there is always at least one other side to the story. There is always a different perspective from which to view the action.

The same is true for fiction as it is for History. In the novel I just finished, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which just so happens to be my first deviation from The List, perspective is everything. It is a story most of us know by heart. The legend of King Arthur is one of the most famous tales in the English language, but it’s usually told from an outsider’s perspective; not an ambivalent one, but one who focuses on the doings of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and on Merlin. Never have we heard the story from the perspective of the many important women in the story, like Arthur’s mother Igraine or his famous sister Morgan le Fay. Most of us never even realized that we were lacking this perspective. This is exactly what Bradley gives us in The Mists of Avalon: the side of the story we never knew we needed.

This is how deeply our subconscious tendency to believe what we’re told runs: never once, in all the times that I’ve read or watched some version of this story, whether it’s that one made-for-tv Merlin with Sam Neill or Bulfinch’s Mythologies or Camelot on Netflix instant watch, have I stopped and wondered, “I wonder how Morgan le Fay felt about having her brother’s baby” or “I bet Igraine wasn’t too happy when she realized that Uther had tricked her into sleeping with him by using magic to resemble her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (whom Uther had killed, though Igraine didn’t know that yet)”. Bradley answers all these questions, although usually not in the manner I was expecting. She imbues these characters with life, gives them their own motives and passions, fears and weaknesses, thereby fleshing them out in intriguing and believable ways. In Bradley’s version, these women are not the passive porcelain dolls flung about by the ambitions of men in the games of lust and power, but main characters in their own right. The lineage of the Lady of the Lake, which includes Igraine and her daughter, Morgan, are responsible for setting Arthur on the throne and later for casting him down when he betrays Avalon and the old ways for the Christian religion. Gwenhyfar (Bradley’s spelling) herself is the one who fights fiercely for the christianization of Britain. None of these women are helpless. In fact, they often appear to be stronger than the famous men of the story: Morgan holds enormous power over Arthur and many of the men in her life. Gwenhyfar, who appears strikingly weak at first, turns out to be much stronger than her lover, Lancelet. The mastery of Bradley’s telling is the dynamic nature of her female characters. The reader’s opinion when they first come to know Igraine, for example, will be worlds different from their opinion later on, and the same holds true for most of the women in the story.

The long and the short of it is that I found myself deeply surprised by the fact that I had never considered this story from the perspective of the women. I learned all about reading through different critical lenses in college, the feminist viewpoint being one of the ones I focused on most. What surprised me wasn’t that Bradley was able to take these minor characters and transform them into world-shaking valkyries, but rather that I had never even considered that possibility. To me, that is evidence of just how deep-seated is our inclination to believe, and not question, what we are told is just “the way the story goes”. That my conscious mind simply allowed what I had previously heard and read to be true without questioning what may have been omitted is a scary thing. If I open that can of worms, what other things does my consciousness accept without the slightest tremor of doubt?

 

Sink or Swim: Social Stagnation in Eliot’s Middlemarch

Funny how just when you think your brain might implode from sheer impotency, you finally think of something to write. I was writing a rant about how every topic I tried ended up dying off or stagnating, and I began to think about stagnation in general. Even the word as it rolls off your tongue does so slowly and unpleasantly, drawing itself out like the last algebraic equation in an exam when outside it is a hot, beautiful summer day. Stag-nay-shun. I thought about the term itself, a word which means something which has ceased to change, stuck instead in some dank, pungent plane where there is life but no growth, decay without death. And then something clicked: Hey! Stagnation could be a theme for Middlemarch, the book that has hands down given me the hardest time thus far on this blog. I don’t know if it’s the sheer size of the novel or the fact that I wasn’t that into it, or maybe because I just realized it’ll take me about 80 years at this rate to read and blog about 1,001 books, but this book has been a challenge. But stagnation: what better term to use to talk about a book chock-full of characters unable to reach their potential because of some internal inability to move forward, due either to societal expectations or a kind of self-inflicted immobility. So bear with me, because I’m going to force my brain out of this sluggish mire even if I give myself a hernia.

The thing about big cities is that there is never a lack of “newness.” Many things stay the same, but currents of novelty are constantly changing the city on some level, whether big or small, noticeable or otherwise, which is why small, isolated country towns are such extraordinary things. In 19th century England, in a medium-sized rural township, residents might never venture further than 20 miles away from home, and the isolation was just an accepted part of life. This allowed for close-knit social networks, long-standing familial ties, and a sense of independence from the bigger cities. But a frequent downside to smallness and isolation is stagnation. Like a small pond in a forgotten countryside as compared to a great lake with rivers emptying into it, sometimes the lack of movement, of new mingling with old that occurs so seamlessly in cities, leads to a sort of social miring, both on the collective and individual level. Many characters in George Eliot’s Middlemarch suffer from this social stagnation. The genius of Eliot’s telling of this story is that she manages to encompass characters from every level of society in a detailed and enlightening way. Obviously, there are main characters, but there is also a representation of minor characters that is much more in depth than most authors are capable of. However, I am not going to explain how all of these characters are in their own little bubble of swampy immobility, and will instead focus on two: Dorothea and her husband, Mr. Casaubon.

Dorothea Brooke begins the novel as a young idealist with a very definite vision of the world and her place in it. She has great plans for what she sees as her abilities to make life better for others, often eschewing personal luxuries because she finds them unfitting for someone dedicated to such ideals. She rejects her initial suitor, Sir James, a young and handsome man with a large estate, and instead marries Mr. Casaubon, to the horror of most of Middlemarch, because she sees in him the kind of venerable man who would teach her the best ways to think and believe and whom she could assist in all his endeavors. Unfortunately, the reality of married life is something that Dorothea, with her head in the clouds, never expected.

Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty: it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape… (249)

The wide-open vistas that the young, unmarried Dorothea foresaw as the most precious aspect of marriage very quickly contract around her. She finds that not only is her husband unwilling to share much of himself with her, but that he likewise expects her to be as meek and unobtrusive as possible. Her dreams of assisting him in his academic endeavors are meaningless, as Mr. Casaubon has no interest in Dorothea’s help. This leaves Dorothea in a state of inaction. Unable to go forward in what she sees as her wifely duties, she feels extraneous and without purpose, and yet she can not continue with her own ambitions as they do not fall within the realm of what is expected from a young wife. Dorothea is stuck in a kind of domestic limbo. Her husband is either unwilling or unable to make her feel useful and appreciated, while Dorothea is reluctant to engage in any activities which might, while they may make her feel accomplished, appear unseemly in a wife.

Mr. Casaubon, on the other hand, the ill-chosen companion to Dorothea’s life, is both victim and perpetrator of his own kind of stagnation, separate from that of his wife. We first see him through Dorothea’s eyes, as a kind of venerable intellectual, just the kind of man a young girl could look up to and shape her life around. The reader is not fooled however, thanks to the opinions of such characters as Mrs. Cadwallader and Cecilia. If the reader should have doubts about the reliability of these opinions (bravo!), once Mr. Casaubon himself has been heard from, it becomes quite plain just how deluded Dorothea is. “Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was…. Mr. Casaubon found that sprinkling was the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream would afford him…” (55). It is obvious from the start that Mr. Casaubon is not a man of excessive emotional attachment or passion, especially towards his young wife. Instead, we find that the only area in which Mr. Casaubon shows anything more than a perfunctory interest is in his work on what he terms the Key to All Mythologies, an enormous academic piece that endeavors to be an encyclopedia of sorts of every major pantheon in the history of the world. It is as daunting as it sounds.

Although there are many aspects of Mr. Casaubon that could be analyzed for signs of stagnation, it is his impotence in completing, or even making progress, on this work that most obviously shows how he has become so stuck that he no longer knows how to free himself. He spends hours in his library trying to catalog his notes, organizing and reorganizing in a futile attempt to mimic progress, yet he is completely landlocked by his own self-doubt and his apprehensions about what the outside world thinks of his work, though the reader is quite sure that no one is thinking about it at all.

Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying (254).

There are many examples of thwarted potential in Middlemarch, but it is Mr. Casaubon’s failure to not only complete his work, but also his inability to understand how completely Dorothea is willing to share his one passion with him, even to the extent of sacrificing her own ideals for his, that most reeks of stymied possibility.

There is no human who has not at some point or another in their life experienced a sense of stagnation, of half-floating in the doldrums of experience, neither sinking nor swimming. This is not to say that stagnation is a safe place to exist, as at some point one has to choose to extricate oneself or to go under. Dorothea is able to do the former, finally ignoring the “advice” of others, instead finding happiness in her independence as a widow and in her eventual marriage to Will Ladislaw. Poor Mr. Casaubon, however, is of the latter group. His stagnation, his sense of never moving forward is halted only by his death. And so with the end of this blog, I hope I am emulating Dorothea in having slogged through my own cerebral stagnation and Casaubon-like inability to write this entry. It is not my best but thank you for continuing with me, if you are still reading this. I promise that I am trying to do better, be more consistent, and ultimately break through my writing doldrums, hopefully to find something better (my own literary Ladislaw?) on the other side.