April 2009 Archives

Note to Self

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When aroused by a sexual passion that cannot (for the moment) be sated, and while attempting to "sleep it off" in the (vain) hope that I'll wake up with a sensibly lower pulse and less mindless desire to throw my legs over the shoulders of the (for the moment) unavailable object of my affection, A House for Mr. Biswas is not ideal reading material.  It fails to grip.  It leads to questions like, "Are 626 pages really necessary?  In a plot-thin, character-driven book, couldn't its main theme -- the relationship between housing and self-actualization -- have been explored in a more moderate 300 pages?"  Unfair questions, completely.  There are simply very few literary characters more spectacularly unsexy, or more obviously not candidates for the legs-over-the-shoulders treatment, than Mr. Biswas  -- no surprises here that V.S. Naipul admits that he was having "carnal pleasure for the first time in my life" in 1972, at the age of 40, and that he wrote Mr. Biswas in 1961 -- and in my current state, Mr. Biswas compels about as much interest as does the 8 year-old brother of the boy-besotted 15 year-old girl.  Doesn't mean the 8 year-old isn't fascinating.   

Graduating with David Foster Wallace

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Tom Bissell's NYT Book Review essay about David Foster Wallace's 2005 Kenyon College commencement address made me think back on -- and want to write an addendum to -- my blog post about Foster Wallace from last month.  Interestingly, in his commencement address, Foster Wallace expounds on exactly the issue I discussed in my blog post: the limitations on human compassion.

In particular, Foster Wallace focuses on the work necessary to cultivate compassion.  Advising graduating seniors on the imperative of seeing multiple perspectives and taking the trouble to imagine the motives of people who are annoying us, or who are in our way, Foster Wallace cautions, "it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to . . . . It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out."

But if you don't at least try?  Foster Wallace has another word of warning, to the effect that if you don't buoy yourself with ethical principles, the world will erode you: "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

I read Foster Wallace's commencement speech for the first time today and, frankly, I was surprised that his words echoed my own thoughts -- that our hard-wiring isn't well suited for compassion, that compassion requires cultivation, that that, in turn, requires hard work, that any other course basically leaves you fucked, and that drudgery sacrifice for people we love is as close as we get to the meaning of life.  I hasten to add, lest my surprise sound arrogant (which is not my intent or feeling), that I wasn't surprised because I thought my own ideas were so original or refined, but because in general I don't relate to Foster Wallace's writing, or to his overall conclusions about America and American culture.  Foster Wallace's commencement address reminded me that people who share fundamentals can nonetheless go in completely different directions with those basic concepts.

I was also interested to experience in Foster Wallace's commencement address an illustration of another point I'd raised in my previous blog post: our tendency, when generalizing about others, to project ourselves onto the people around us.  As I wrote previously, this bent impairs our ability to empathize with others.  Even when we exert our wills, determined to see multiple perspectives, and expend the energy to listen or imaginatively embody another's position, what we hear (regardless of what's said) and what we imagine (regardless of the facts that form the springboard for our imaginative leaps) are determined by our own identities.

Knowing this limitation has not freed me from its constraints. 

For me, the worldview that I've adopted -- that correllates with the framework Foster Wallace outlines in his commencement address -- has been a comfort, a resource and a wellspring of strength.  When I have wanted to die (and there have been times in my life, more than I hope anyone experiences), I have received succor from believing in the basic tenets that Foster Wallace articulates in his speech.  As a result, I've basically assumed (very broadly speaking and oversimplifying for the sake of illustrating my point) that people who adopt a similar worldview get similar results: that if you can accept that worldview, then it puts to rest existential crises.

Obviously, I was wrong.  Given my current (limited) capacities for compassion, I'm having difficulty relating to Foster Wallace.  I'm surprised that the man had a similar worldview to me because I have been generalizing about others based on myself, and so my default assumption was that a suicide must have a different set of values.  But the relationship between any individual's (cerebral) world view and (visceral) drives is no doubt more complicated than my assumption allowed.  And, in the absence of any basis for understanding that relationship, I'm still groping for an entry point for understanding an existence that is beyond my experience.

What I wouldn't give for Foster Wallace to be able to elaborate on his ideas in another commencement speech.

Cold Comfort Romance

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I've just reread Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm -- an event rapidly becoming an annual ritual.  As always, I was delighted by the book's comedy (which does get better with every re-read), but for the first time, I was struck by its character as a fundamentally romantic work.

Of course, the book ends with Charles sweeping Flora off in his plane, to a life of civilized marriage, and Flora's last words in the book are, "I love you."  However, this happy end is not the romance to which I am referring.  Flora + Charles is entirely plausible; their pairing is not the stuff of fantasy -- the incredible openness to possibility -- that characterizes the romantic vein.

Rather, romance rears in Flora's triumph with her relatives.  As Lynn Truss describes this victory in her introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition:

[T]he huge delight of Stella Gibbons's novel is the way Flora approaches an eternal and universal difference of temperament: as a brisk, cheerful person, she discovers a whole farmful of people wallowing, self-thwarted, in chronic misery and simply makes them stop it.
(p. ix (emphasis added).)  But, rather than a "huge delight," Stella Gibbons, looking back on Cold Comfort Farm thirty-three years later in an article for Punch, remarks that, when she glances at the book now, she is "filled by an incredulous wonder that I could once have been so light-hearted -- but so light-hearted."  (p. xiii.)

What's the cause of this incredulous wonder?  My guess is this: in real life, Flora could never "simply make them stop it."  The denizens of Cold Comfort Farm were invested in their dysfunction.  As Flora observed about Aunt Ada:

Persons of Aunt Ada's temperament were not fond of a tidy life.  Storms were what they liked; plenty of rows, and doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, and faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and partings for ever, and misunderstandings, and interferings, and spyings, and, above all, managing and intriguing.  Oh, they did enjoy themselves!
(p. 57.)  People of these sorts are well-defended against Flora's weapon of choice: reason.  Nobody snaps out of dysfunctional behavior patterns simply because, as Flora does with Aunt Ada, someone points out that they could have a better time being a reasonable person. 

Having spent a good chunk of my life negotiating with just such freaks as inhabit Cold Comfort Farm, I can relate to the wonder Stella Gibbons feels about her youthful light-heartedness.  The romance of Cold Comfort Farm arises from the glorious possibility that these nasty head-cases could be persuaded to reform, and the concomitant hope that, therefore, you can reform by choosing to, that you're not bound to repeat the disastrous patterns of your family -- that being "born in the woodshed" -- to paraphrase Stella Gibbons (p. xviii) -- doesn't mean that you won't marry the prince with the airplane.

The reality, in my experience, is that negotiations inevitably fail with people who are committed to irrationally miserable patterns of behavior, and the experience of having tried and failed (repeatedly) to persuade them leaves one leaden and old.  What a buoyant relief, then, is a dose of light-hearted romance.   

The Bad Girl introduces Madame Bovary to Freud

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Mario Vargas Llosa's novel, The Bad Girl, is a fabulous read, despite the sorry translation of the title.  In Spanish, Vargas Llosa's Madame Bovary-inspired romp is called Travesuras de la Niña Mala, which roughly translates as "The Naughty Tricks of the Bad Girl."  The Bad Girl isn't half as fun (or marketable) a title.

But the English-language title can't dampen the liveliness that Vargas Llosa infuses into Madame Bovary's plot and (especially) characterization.  This vivacity derives from two factors.  First, Vargas Llosa has empathy -- perhaps even too much -- for his Bad Girl and Ricardo, the stand-ins for Emma and Charles Bovary.  Unlike Flaubert, who famously wrote, "Bovary bores me, Bovary irritates me, the vulgarity of the subject gives me bouts of nausea" (quoted in The New Yorker), Vargas Llosa is plainly aroused by his Bad Girl.  Her travesuras are -- far from being boring, irritating and vulgar -- something close to the meaning of life.  As for Ricardo, he's no pathetic medical-officer-masquerading-as-a-doctor, no joke-hat wearing, club-foot tormenting butt of the author's derision.  To the contrary, Ricardo is fidelity personified, the yin to Bad Girl's yang, the oppositional force without which the Bad Girl's travesuras have no power. 

Second, Vargas Llosa has the benefit of writing post-Freud.  Characterization in the age of the psychotherapist is, quite naturally, psychological.  Flaubert's characters, however, are psycholgoically flat.  We see -- ad nauseum we see -- their actions, but we are not privy to any depth of thought, and so their actions pile up, page after page, without our caring (until the accretion suddenly collapses Emma's world in the last 50 pages, and we do care -- we are horrified -- at the speed and force of the tornado that spins her to death).

In places, Flaubert implies that the superficiality of his characters' thought is the very reason we should condemn them.  Seeing "Amor nel cor" (love in my heart) on his seal, Rodolphe realizes that it's the wrong message to imprint on his "I'm dumping you" letter to Emma.  "Oh well, who cares!" he concludes, before smoking three pipes and going to sleep (p. 189).

But Flaubert's psychologically bereft characterization is not entirely by design; it's also of necessity.  Pre-Freud, people didn't think with the same self-awareness as they do now.  Actions didn't demand the same kinds of explanations -- I did it because my parents were mean to me; I suffered in my youth -- as they do now.  Vargas Llosa's Bad Girl therefore has a backstory that allows the reader, if inclined, to excuse her.

Of course, the Bad Girl's sob story is no excuse.  Going from rags-to-riches is no exemption from the simple respect of human dignity that we owe others, regardles of their status.  Nor does childhood hardship waive the duties of maturity.  Vargas Llosa believes this (and punishes the Bad Girl accordingly), but he doesn't really feel it (I suspect -- his Bad Girl has him wrapped around her finger).  Still, the richness of the Bad Girl's psychological development, however halting, and the excruciating psychological pain Ricardo suffers -- touchingly rendered -- make the story a page turner where Madame Bovary is (in parts) a soporific.

And, of course, there's the sex.   

The evolution of "Eating Penis in Beijing"

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In the most recent version of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, Pip Alonzo begins writing a book called Eating Penis in Beijing, which is her exploration of the unique way that China is modernizing.  The title, of course, is also a joke, as well as an allusion to the many ways in which Beijing's expatriate residents are brought to their knees by the formidable city.

Reader response to Eating Penis in Beijing, and to the scene in penis restaurant that inspires that title (in The Swing of Beijing, as well as in real life), has been such that when I was brainstorming locations for a short promo for The Swing of Beijing, Beijing's actual penis restaurant, Guoli Zhuang, was the obvious choice.  We -- that is to say, me, Matt Forney, and Josh Chin -- filmed the promo yesterday.  (I'll post the link here once the promo is finished and up on the web.)

The conversation that Matt and I had about The Swing of Beijing on camera, as well as our lunch of horse, donkey, dog and ox cock (horse was the best, in case you're wondering), made me think back to the many iterations of Eating Penis in Beijing that have appeared in The Swing of Beijing over the many drafts.  Below, I reprint the penis restaurant's earliest appearance in The Swing of Beijing, in an article that Pip writes in defiance of her editor, who wants her to cover the penis restaurant with a non-analytical, "isn't this gross?" agenda.

In this early version, Pip gets to use her full name, "Lapis Patricia Alonzo," for which "Pip" is a nickname (a detail that's been axed in later versions), and her explanation includes a detailed analysis of the social meaning of status foods.  As in later drafts, however, Pip's analytic focus remains the same: why penis?  Why now?

Sure, The City's Called "BJ," but Eating Cock in Beijing Isn't Just About Sex
By Lapis Patricia Alonzo

    Guolibian, Beijing's first penis-in-every-dish restaurant, is a development of note.  Though penis is not an ingredient foreign to Chinese cuisine, and consuming it is reputed to have health benefits ranging from virility to improved skin tone, Guolibian's singularity and lack of competitors raise the questions:  Why penis?  Why now?

    Pointing to the omniverousness of "the Chinese" doesn't explain Guolibian.  Vague stereotypes about all the world's animals (and their many parts) ending their lives in a Chinese wok is a racist canard, albeit one embraced by the Chinese themselves:  Northern Chinese complain that Southern Chinese will eat anything.  "Three squeaks," a dish of live newborn rats - so named because the ratlings squeak once when they're grabbed by chopsticks, a second time when they're dipped in sauce, and a third and final time when popped in the mouth - is a common example offered by Northern Chinese to prove the uncivilized natures of their Southern countrymen.

    In fact, the food consumed by most Chinese is pretty pedantic.  Putting aside the approximately 700 million Chinese peasants who subsist on staple foods, like rice and fried bread, somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million Chinese qualify as "middle class."  And, at least in Beijing, they eat jiachangcai:  literally "food often eaten in the home" (although increasingly Beijing's middle class eat jiachangcai in restaurants).  Typical of this cuisine is stir-fried tomatoes or cucumbers with eggs, braised eggplants or tofu in brown sauce, and boiled dumplings stuffed with pork and cilantro.

    That said, Chinese banquet cuisine, reserved historically for imperial personages (or, in more recent times, for Communist cadres and their relatives and business partners), has always encompassed the extremes of culinary experience:  bird spit, camel humps, frog ovaries, hairy crab roe, jelly fish, rabbit ears, scorpions, shark's fins, snakes and - yes - penises.  These ingredients became delicacies for the same reasons that transform any odd food - caviar and uni; Vieux Boulogne; haggis; sweetbreads - into a treasure in need of an acquired taste:  they're rare or expensive, require special expertise to prepare, taste good and/or impart coveted health benefits.

    Why penis?  It's a benchmark delicacy food.  It's rare - there's only one on every male, and whether because of anthropomorphism or scarcity, everyone acknowledges that it's valuable.  It requires special skills to prepare because, as the female readership already knows, every penis is different.  And, not to belabor the knowledge of our female readership, it tastes fine - particularly when doused in chili or sesame sauces.  Perhaps most endearingly, Chinese men really believe that it enhances sexual performance.  Across the world, Viagra has found grateful customers for a $9 pill that can cause debilitating headaches, priapism or - even worse - nothing at all.  Eating penis is (depending on the species) cheaper, tastier and risks fewer side effects - and if it has a placebo effect, even better.  

    Simply put, penis is a status food in China.  And this is the answer to the second question:  Why now?  Perhaps nothing is so important in China as face, but face is precisely what the Chinese, as both individuals and as a nation, feel they've been deprived of for the past century.  Pre-Communism, rampant wars and invasions, opium, political vacuums and natural disasters left the Chinese impoverished and their country an international whipping boy.  Post-Communism, ideology, bad policies, corruption and environmental degradation have left the Chinese impoverished and their country an international pariah.  

    For the first time in more than a century, the Chinese are on the brink of enjoying genuine status.  Quality of life is improving in a stable political context, and the nation is enjoying unprecedented attention on the world stage.  Hosting the 2008 Olympics is the capstone of national status, the proof positive of the nation's emergence as a power that commands face; eating penis is the personal equivalent.  Eating penis shows that you're rich, virile, and feasting on the food of kings.

    But status and the Chinese quest for it doesn't entirely explain an all-penis restaurant like Guolibian.  Acknowledging that eating penis shows wealth and virility and commands face still begs the question:  Commands face from whom?  Plainly, not from the West, where eating penis is viewed as abhorrent and uncivilized.  So why, just when China is about to win international acceptance, and the Chinese people to enjoy heretofore-unknown personal prosperity - benefits attributable to China's adoption of Western economic methods - would the Chinese embrace penis cuisine?

    This restating of the questions doesn't merely reflect Western incomprehension of a desire for difference.  The Western revulsion of penis consumption is grounded in more than narrow-mindedness.  Western respect for the individual has historically correlated to a practice of ascribing sacred or symbolic meaning to certain body parts:  Oedipus gauged out his eyes; Achilles' downfall was his tendon; and Jesus gave his blood to save humanity.  Consumption of eyes, tendons, blood, and other parts emblematic of the person, like hearts, brains and genitalia, has - precisely because of that part's close association with an individual's identity - long been linked in the West with barbarism.

    And while it's easy to critique Western sensibilities as those developed in conditions of prosperity - bones, organs, and sinew that constitute trash in the West are, elsewhere in the world, whole meals - the truth is that conservative consumption practices are safer.  Human cases of bird flu in Viet Nam have been traced to the practice of using raw poultry blood as a condiment in porridge.  SARS was unleashed when the Chinese mania for eating wild animals to demonstrate status led to increased consumption of civet cats, whose bodies harbored the virus.  HIV, originally a disease in monkeys, may have leapt the species barrier when humans hunted, prepared or ate bush-meat, while the degenerative neurological disease, kuru, afflicted New Guineans who ate brain.

    For these reasons, the Chinese enthusiasm for eating penis at this historical moment is significant.  What explains a penis emporium, like Guolibian, is the Chinese rejection of Western values in favor of establishing continuity with more traditional Chinese mores and practices.  The Chinese have little use for the Western investment in the sanctity of the individual or the West's fanatical attention to safety, and the Chinese now have the confidence and security to dismiss these Western obsessions.  When the Chinese tuck into a penis, they're not trying to keep up with the alienated, urban Joneses in New York or London.  Rather, they're aligning themselves with their ancestors, reintegrating themselves into the context of their clans, and establishing a communion with an ancient belief system that posits that eating the penis of a yak imbues a man with the animal's prowess.  

    The Chinese are unfazed by the contradiction inherent in having achieved the prosperity necessary to enjoy penis-eating as a status ritual only by embracing Western economic reforms.  What the Chinese want, and think they can have, is the benefits of modernity - wealth and conveniences, stability and respect - while maintaining the feudal, famial- and communal-orientation that sustained them through their two thousand year history as a nation under imperial rule.  

    Eating penis in Beijing, then, represents "modernization with Chinese characteristics."  As with most slogans - "democracy with Chinese characteristics," "transparency with Chinese characteristics," "Internet with Chinese characteristics" - the last three words tend to obliterate the first one.  Recognizing that incompatibility, however, isn't within the scope of "self-awareness with Chinese characteristics."  And for the time being, at least, China's massive labor resources, steaming economy, and manipulative bravado allow China to get away with telling its naysayers:  "Eat me."

Leading ladies, rotten mothers

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Emma Bovary and Scarlett O'Hara are two of the most hateful mothers ever depicted.  Here's Emma, responding to her toddler daughter's demand of attention:

But there, between the window and the work-table, was little Berthe, tottering along in her knitted boots, trying to reach her mother, to grab hold of the ends of her apron strings.
-- Leave me alone! said Emma, pushing her away.
The little girl soon came back again, even closer, up against her mother's knees; and, leaning to steady herself, she gazed up at her with big blue eyes, as a thread of clear saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk of the apron.
-- Leave me alone! repeated the young woman sharply.
The look on her face frightened the child, who began to cry.
-- Can't you leave me alone! she said, elbowing her away.
Berthe fell over by the chest of drawers, against the brass fitting; she cut her cheek on it, blood trickled down.

(p. 107.)  Scarlett seems to have studied at the Emma Bovary mothering school.  Here's Scarlett, bemoaning her pregnancy with Ella:  "When she thought of the baby at all, it was with baffled rage at the untimeliness of it."  (p. 624.)

"Aren't you proud to be having a child?" [asked Rhett.]
"Oh, dear God, no!  I -- I hate babies!"
"You mean -- Frank's baby?"
"No -- anybody's baby."

(p. 638.)  As for Wade, Scarlett's oldest, his attempts at gaining his mother's attention are consistently met with "Don't bother me now.  I"m in a hurry" and "Run away, Wade.  I am busy."  (p. 823.)

In all societies, mothering is such a weighty measure of a woman's value and virtuousness that it's remarkable that these two enduring ladies of literature are such abominable mothers.  Bad mothers are unsympathetic.  Why would readers devote the time and energy to spending hundreds of pages with these two loathsome mothers? 

As readers obviously do spend the time and energy necessary to finish Gone with the Wind and Madame Bovary, repeatedly, they can apparently take bad mothering in stride when it's a character trait in their novels' heroines.  One reason may be that extraordinary adventures become possible for women who are not maternal.  In a sense, bad mothering is necessary for verisimilitude.  If Scarlett and Emma Bovary had accepted the roles that society had selected for them, then they'd have been normal mothers, and they wouldn't have gotten themselves into the messes that ruined their lives and make such great reading.

Scarlett's and Emma's bad mothering also contributes to the reader's sense of justice at the comeuppance both women receive at the end of the tales.  These ladies aren't merely victims of their authors' sadism; rather, they deserve their fates because, among other things, they've been appalling mothers.  Readers respond positively to this shape of righteousness in the narrative arc.

Finally, bad mothering shows a kinship between Scarlett and Emma and male protagonists of great novels.  By being lousy mothers, Scarlett and Emma signal their exceptionalism: they're not like other women; they're non-maternal.  They're like great men, who are driven by the imperative of realizing their potential in a non-domestic context, who'd rather live out their destinies directly than vicariously through their children. 

Privileging the self over others, including offspring, is a sharply double-edged trait.  It's both necessary for greatness, and the most ready mark of a narcissist -- or, in non-clinical terms, an asshole.  Truly great people rarely calibrate this trait with sufficient sensitivity: witness artist-monsters like Pablo Picasso and V.S. Naipaul.  As for the mere narcissists, the trait leaves their personalities an unmitigated disaster. 

In life, the misfortunes that rank above being the child of such a person are few.  On the page, there's enough distance to make it a captivating dymanic about which to read.    
"Ever since early adolescence, Flaubert had regarded bourgeois existence as an immense, indistinct, unmitigated state of mindlessness," pronounces Geoffrey Wall in the Introduction to the Penguin Classics 2003 edition of Madame Bovary.  (p. xxx.)

Emma exhibits symptoms of this mindlessness in her choice of reading: romance novels, treated in the book like a decidedly low-class, but highly addictive, drug.  Emma's first taste of romance novels comes from the old servant in her convent school, who lent "the big girls, clandestinely, one of the novels she always kept in the pocket of her apron" (p. 34) -- and so the good girl is corrupted by the help. 

Despite the interventions of her pious mother-in-law, on whose advice "it was decided to prevent Emma from reading novels" (p. 117), Emma's reading continues unabated, with disastrous effect on her correspondence: "in the letters that Emma sent to [Leon], there was a great deal about flowers, verses, the moon and the stars, naive devices of a depleted passion, attempting to rejuvenate itself from external sources."  (p. 263.)  "As a reader," Geoffrey Wall solemnly condemns her, Emma "only wants what she can incorporate easily into the stereotyped repertoire of her fantasies."  (p. xxv.)

Flaubert's ambition, then, was to attack the bourgeois mindset by undermining the complicity books had in perpetuating its existence: "Writing such as [Flaubert's] invites us, delectably, to reinvent our reading."  (p. xxxix.)

Flaubert's project seems, in later generations, to have been derailed by psychology, the advent of which postulated that bourgeois existence is not an "indistinct . . . state of mindlessness," but a variegated -- and extremely interesting -- assortment of neuroses.  Where Flaubert sought to inspire disgust in the bourgeois mindset, in order to provoke the will to change, psychology reinforced the bourgeois existence by infusing it with fascination.  Psychology drained the deadly boredom out of Flaubert's vision of bourgeois existence.

Flaubert himself foreshadows this development.  In a book conspicuously devoid of passages depicting self-reflection, or anything but the most perfunctory assertions of the mental states of the characters, the following passage caught my attention:

Love, [Emma] believed, had to come, suddenly, with a great clap of thunder and a lightning flash, a tempest from heaven that falls upon your life . . . . Little did she know know that up on the roof of the house, the rain will form a pool if the gutters are blocked, and there she would have stayed feeling safe inside, until one day she suddenly discovered the crack right down the wall.

(p. 93.)  The general trend of literature after Flaubert has been to examine closely those pools of rain, forming on the roof behind the blocked gutters, implacably cracking the edifice.  But because bourgeois mediocrity has such power that it can transform a potent agent of change, like psychology, into a neutered tool of commercialism, like self-improvement mania -- and because language is itself a poor match for such power ("like a cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing-bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars," (p. 177)) -- Flaubert's abiding mission has yet to see fruition.  Notwithstanding the ending Flaubert contrived for her, Madame Bovary lives on. 
What causes patterns of dysfunction to repeat themselves across generations in a family?  And how can these patterns be altered?

Literature throughout history has dealt with the problem, and despite the efforts of the most creative minds in humanity, the root cause of pernicious behavior transmission remains murky.  

Moreover, the idea that the behavior patterns across familial generations can be altered seems to be a new one.  The Greeks were convinced that generationall familial disaster was the will of the gods and impossible to evade.  Even modern writers find moderate versions of that position palatable: in his preface to A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and their Remarkable Families, author Michael Holroyd remarks that "the configurations of family life today still echo and reflect the concealed lives of a hundred years or more ago" (as reported in a NYT book review).

One obvious possibility for dealing with such fatalism is to flee.  Oedipus tried with dismal results.  Writers, as recounted in Louise DeSalvo's, On Moving: A Writer's Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again, seem particularly inclined to follow Oedipus' lead and obtain similarly disappointing outcomes.  "In . . . detached moments, . . . [Virginia] Woolf understood that her moves -- like many discussed here -- were efforts to obliterate the past. The next house was always, she said, the 'ancient carrot before me,'" writes Amy Finnerty in a NYT review of DeSalvo's book.

My own sense is that, literature and the experiences of writers notwithstanding, physically disassociating oneself from dysfunctional behavior is a step towards breaking the pattern.  That said, running is not a solution in itself; rather, conscientious and extreme uprooting of the environmental triggers that lead to behavior patterns seems to be necessary.  Oedipus, for example, seeminly could've avoided all his familial woes if he'd joined a monastary.

I don't mean to be blithe about the difficulty of altering behavior patterns, and I'm not typically a supporter of radical measures.  But because the causes of pernicious behavior transmission are difficult to identify with any precision, broader remedial measures seem justified.  Whatever the cause, eliminating all triggers will prevent the harm.  Whether Oedipus slept with his mother and killed his father because of the gods, bad luck, or a mixture of perversion and over-competitiveness, joining a monastary would've averted the evil.

Of course, we resist radical measures.  They're inconvenient.  Also, "[w]e typically take comfort in any discovery of connection to ancient peoples. See, we reassure ourselves, nothing has changed," writes Brad Leithauser, reviewing Anne Carson's An Oresteia for NYT.  But, whether examining the House of Atreus or the House of Alexandri, the comforts of nothing changing are outweighed by the pain of nothing changing. 

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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