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.

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The Meal that Married Two Cities

How is it that time can seem to go so slowly and yet at the same time speed by faster than I can understand? I’ve been meaning to write this blog for months! Yet here I am and almost two months have passed since I wrote the review for A Tale of Two Cities. I made the meal for it weeks ago, and still haven’t written it… and the food part is the easiest part! I blame it on my current situation, in which I seem to be sub-leasing a rut with indefinable borders and a vague termination date. I have been so unmotivated lately. All I want to do is sleep or do things like watch marathons of Netflix shows. I need to stop worrying about things I can’t control, stop fretting that so much of my time is spent doing things I don’t enjoy and make time for the things I do, like this blog. If I’ve learned anything in the past 25 years, it’s that I always get out of the ruts I find myself in, after a time.

I originally wanted to do the meal for this book on July 13th, Bastille Day, but I couldn’t think of what to make.  It is difficult to do a food portion on a book whose focus is very much on poverty and the lack of food. In my bibliocentric sense of justice, I couldn’t reconcile the story with my desire to eat escargot and moules mariniéres. So instead I stuck to the story. Since the story takes place in both Paris and London, I thought I’d have representatives of both cuisines. London provided the main course: an adaptation of the mutton pies that were being hawked during Darnay’s trial for espionage at the beginning of the book, as if it were a fair or celebration. That’s one thing I’ve never understood about my species: the ability to be entertained by the suffering of one of their own, in this case the unfair trial and possible execution of an innocent man. But that’s a topic for another day. For the pie, I used a recipe from a blog called Righteous Bacon, although this was a lamb pie instead of mutton. The only other time I’ve ever cooked lamb is for The Corrections dinner, but I have found it to be a difficult meat to work with, as it can easily be overcooked. It was also my first meat pie, and I think more practice is definitely in order. In the end, it tasted good, but the crust was a little undercooked and the lamb a little overdone. The guinness gave it a nice flavor and the beautiful vegetables I got from Good Eggs* were nice and crunchy. The dough was from a bakery called Three Babes Bakeshop.

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To represent Paris, there was an abundance of fresh French bread and wine.

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I know, my pictures this time are pretty dark. I really  need to take another photography class. Also, it’s really hard to simultaneously cook and take passable pictures of your cooking. Maybe I should “hire” (which means of course, pay in food) someone to take pictures while I cook. That would be a dream.

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I also need to invest in a pie dish, since I think the round metal cylinder thing did not flatter my pie, and it needed some flattering. For dessert, I took some artistic liberties. The only sweetness in the whole book is the hot chocolate that Monseigneur indulges in which, while it is a great little scene, did not make me want to do as the aristocrats did. This following quote will show you just how decadent the rich were in the book and just how sarcastic Dickens was in his representation of them.

“It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two” (128).

So in order to distance myself from the selfish wantonness of Monseigneur, I decided to make a strawberry shortcake. Specifically French? Not so much. But, I added blueberries to make it a tricolour dessert matching the French flag and the symbol of the revolution. I found it to be very fitting… and tasty.

DSC_0203All in all, it was a good dinner and I hope to continue doing this blog for as long as I enjoy doing it and you enjoy reading it, emotional ruts be damned. Next up, from revolutionary France to Napoleon’s reign, Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion.

*Good Eggs is this wonderful site where you can order produce and other goodies from local businesses and farms, and everything in season. They deliver for a very reasonable fee or you can pick it up at varying locations throughout the week. I highly recommend it! Never before have I found myself window shopping for food!

 

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?

 

High Tea in the Heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin

When I think of where I grew up, I mostly think of a then-small town in Southern California called San Juan Capistrano. Thinking back on it, it feels small, but only in comparison to the suburban sprawl which has now metastasized into the majority of Orange County. These days it seems like there is no end, no noticeable barrier between cities. Los Angeles slides into Long Beach which then engulfs Garden Grove etc., etc. The point is that my understanding of what it’s like to live in a small, isolated town is extremely limited. I’ve never lived anywhere surrounded by country, nor had such an intimate relationship with my neighbors that I was privy to the goings on in everyone else’s lives. I have known no Middlemarch. And yet, the idea of stagnation that I discussed in the last entry is one with which I feel some familiarity. Orange County has never been my favorite place. Parts of it are breathtakingly beautiful, the weather is nigh on unbeatable, and the presence of my family is not to be overlooked, but I’ve always felt thwarted by it. To a large degree, Orange County is a place where affluent people go to become more like one another. It’s like a devolution into a specific and unimaginative mold, and I’ve never felt the pull to join the herd. Instead, I remember spending my adolescent years feeling contained, thinking that if I could only get some space, meet some people who felt like I did, that I would be able to grow. Then, I graduated high school and moved to San Francisco, a place that resists inertness like an opposing magnet. San Francisco, overflowing with fecundity, the absolute antithesis to stagnation. Thank god.

What I love about San Francisco is that there is never a lack of new things to do or see or, and this is important, eat. All of the “regular” cultural cuisines are represented, from Chinese to Mexican to Italian, but there are also many lesser known ones like Eritrean, Burmese, and Senegalese. Almost anything you’re craving, you can find, even something that will connect you to 19th century England. In Middlemarch, George Eliot was much more concerned with the inner turmoil of each of her characters than she was with what they were eating. In fact, she mentions food no more than a few times in the whole clunking thing, and nothing sounded like a good entry for this blog. So instead I fell back on some assumptions: Middlemarch is a town in England, and the characters are all very English, so they must drink lots of tea and I bet they eat finger sandwiches and scones with Devonshire cream. You with me?

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Well, once again, San Francisco came through, this time in the form of Leland’s Tea in the Tenderloin. I believe that the feeling of stagnation is one we all experience, but I also believe that most of its power comes from our own isolation. The problem is that feelings like this, or depression, make us abhor our solitude and yet sap our motivation to seek the company of others, perhaps because it is exactly the presence of friends and loved ones which is the best remedy to stagnation. They bring that breath of fresh air that smells of a world outside our sordid little self-made island and remind us that it is within our own power to free ourselves, once again giving ourselves the freedom to grow. I think this may be one of the reasons why tea time was such an important custom in England. If people outside of one’s normal sphere of domestic existence were present, this social event alleviated both boredom and restlessness, at least for a time. Perhaps that’s why Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon seemed so unable to overcome their individual and mutual stagnation: they very rarely, especially Mr. Casaubon, sought the company of others. Even Dorothea, who was social and friendly by nature, felt that her place was by her husband’s side, and so rarely left her home without him. It wasn’t until his death that she began to feel the enlivening currents of fresh air entering to disperse the stale air of her confinement.

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I am exceedingly grateful for the people I have in my life at this point. The friends that accompanied me on this book-nerd inspired outing are just the kind of people that everyone should have around them whenever they find themselves stuck, whether it be emotionally or intellectually and especially physically, like Artax in The Neverending Story. It is in large part thanks to my friends and family that I have had the motivation to get even this far on this blog and it will be largely with their help that I continue on.

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.

 

Boats in Champagne Currents, Borne Back into the Roaring Past

Man, it takes a long time to plan a party. As I’m sure Gatsby would agree, if you’re going to have a party, you might as well do it right or else, well, what’s the point? If there’s one thing to say about Jay Gatsby, it is that he never went halfway on anything. If he wanted something to happen, he threw his whole self into its attainment. If some of his dreams didn’t come off as he planned, it was never for lack of trying.

Have you wondered if I’m ever coming back? Well, here I am (I’ve missed you, too) and this month is going to be chock-full of booknerdish indulgence to make up for my long absence. In my last post, I talked about the role of Nick Carraway, the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and how his role as observer, and the idea of “being observed” in general, helped make the story and the characters into the unforgettable classic they are. And what but the hope of being observed and appreciated is the point of dressing up for a themed party? So sit back, grab a glass of champagne (it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, we are going back to the Roaring 20’s after all), and relive the “Gatsby Glitterati Party” with me.

The reason it took so long for me to actually have this party was that I had a hard time finding somewhere to throw it. I love my apartment in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco, but it is tiny, and I would imagine could probably fit in one of the closets of Gatsby’s mansion, with room to spare. I played with the idea of having the party at a bar that was kind of speakeasy-esque, like Comstock Saloon or Bourbon + Branch, but as it was a costume party, I wanted people to feel comfortable and, since most of us had to buy costumes, to not have to fork over 10 bucks a pop, not including tip, for the costly (but delicious) cocktails these places sling. Instead I appealed to several friends, but for one reason or another, I just kept finding myself at dead ends. Finally, my friend Adri, whose apartment is slightly bigger than mine and might fit into one of Gatsby’s bathrooms, agreed to host, and just like that, it was on. Having had the idea for this party in my head for quite a while, I had already been collecting parts of my costume, so I was able to save my money for the other accoutrements of a good party, namely booze.

The menu was simple, as food is not an important part of this novel, although alcohol is. The only food mentioned, in fact, was a quick list of food on display at one of Gatsby’s parties which included spiced ham, turkey, and tea cake, and later on the cold fried chicken lying untouched on the table in the emotionally charged silence between Daisy and Tom the night that Myrtle is killed, when Nick spies on them through the window at Gatsby’s insistence. But since it was a simple party, I thought that the spiced ham or turkey would be overkill, so I stuck with the tea cake, which was based on a recipe from the blog COUKiNE. I ended up making a few last minute changes to the recipe when I realized I hadn’t bought all of the ingredients, but it actually came out really yummy. Other than having to substitute whole-wheat flour for regular, I also changed the apple for unsweetened shredded coconut, which gave it a more subtle sweetness (which is not something that can be said about any of the leading ladies of this story; in fact, there’s very little subtlety to any of the characters, with the exception of Nick, of course). Oh, a warning: most of these pictures are terrible, because I forgot to take them until after I’d already had several mint juleps, and consequently did not feel like messing with trivial things like focus and exposure…

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Speaking of mint juleps, a refreshing, bourbon-heavy cocktail I’d never tried before, I borrowed the recipe from the blog Pixelated Crumb. Unlike most cocktails I’ve made for these events in the past, this one required a little more foresight. The night before the party, I went out and bought mint to make the simple syrup. When it was finished, I realized that the recipe must have been for a maximum of three people, and since any one person who attended the party is capable of drinking for three, I figured I should probably make more. To the store for more mint and back again, and I had my simple syrup, which I then bottled in Mason jars and refrigerated. Once the syrup is made, the prep of the drink is very easy: an ounce of syrup, two ounces of bourbon (I went for Bulleit, my current go-to), a few leaves of mint, and ice. Voilá, eat your heart out. Careful though, like the Southern regions this drink comes from, it’s sweet when you first meet, but will knock you on your ass if you’re not careful.

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As I’m sure you can imagine, after a few of these the party was in full swing (no pun intended). Actually, it was in full Charleston, which we all learned with the help of a YouTube video which I will attach at the bottom in case you’d like to learn as well. If you’ve ever hosted a costume party, you’ll remember that there are always people that go all out and then there are those who don’t even try. But because I have awesome friends, all the costumes were great. Here are some of my favorite pictures, accompanied by a few choice quotes from the novel:

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Daisy was popular in Chicago, as you know. They moved with a fast crowd, all of them young and rich and wild, but she came out with an absolutely perfect reputation. Perhaps because she doesn’t drink. It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard drinking people. You can hold your tongue and, moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care (75).

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Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….(154).

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Being in Adri’s apartment building, overlooking the quiet Outer Richmond district, reminded me of a scene from the book when Nick goes with Tom to meet Myrtle in the city: “…high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (44). While wrapped up in the sudden excitement and vitality of our own lives, its easy to ignore or forget the fact that uninvolved parties are observing you. What a strange thing it would be to see ourselves from an objective point of view! If only  Gatsby or Myrtle or Daisy had been able to step outside of themselves, even for a moment, and see their actions and their lives from a casual observer’s standpoint, how different a story it might have been, and yet, it wouldn’t have been the same story that takes a firmer hold on my heart each time I read it. That is what it truly means to be a classic work of literature, to be able to bring to light different emotions and insights each time it is read. Great stories do not cease to grow once the final period has been placed, but continue to become larger and more complex versions of themselves each time they are read and enjoyed.

If you’ve read The Great Gatsby before, I hope these last couple entries have caused you to reexamine your feelings about it, maybe even tempted you to pick it up again. It is a story that will never cease to enthrall, especially in the context of the society we live in today.

Now that you’re done reading, throw back the rest of your champagne, get on your feet…and Charleston.

 

Next up: Middlemarch, a daunting read about which I have no idea what to write, and, for the food portion, a tea service! Stay tuned.