February 2011 Archives

Merchant-Ivory's new clothes

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In their film version of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory make an error that quite possibly is a first for book-to-screen adaptations: they make the sex less controversial.  Specifically, they uncouple the sex from religion, stripping the romance between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson of the trappings of transcendence and holiness in which Forster had clothed it.  In place of Foster's couple surrendering to the divinity of sexually-vibrant love, Merchant and Ivory give us a pair relieving themselves of silly Victorian repression in order to obtain self-fulfillment.  Superficially persuasive, perhaps, but not what Forster wrote.

In A Room with a View, Forster's didactic side is irrepressible and insistent on teaching that God is in the pleasures of the flesh, that religion errs when it banishes the body from the realm of the holy, and that the only correct response to desire is to act upon it. 

"Passion is sanity," admonishes old Mr. Emerson, and "love is of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!" 

Mr. Emerson's words succeed in "robb[ing] the body of its taint," and his version of reality thereby prevails over that of poor, likable Reverend Mr. Beebe, who agrees to help Lucy because of his "belief in celibacy" and his determination that, by "plac[ing] [Lucy] out of danger until she could confirm her resolution of virginity," he is helping "not only Lucy, but religion also." 

Mr. Beebe's soul shall not be liberated, not in A Room with a View.  

Not when Lucy runs off with George Emerson after finally grasping "the holiness of direct desire."  Sex with George in the loving context of matrimony is a sacred imperative to E.M. Forster.

To Merchant and Ivory, it's little more than an opportunity for an orgasm.  Gone from the film's dialogue are Mr. Emerson's references to the holy-carnal.  (Indeed, the film splits up his critical interview with Lucy, having Mr. Emerson spend half the time speaking to Lucy's spinster cousin, Charlotte, a prude on whom such a sermon would have been wasted.)  Nor does the film include any inkling of Mr. Beebe's religious abstinence.  As for "the holiness of direct desire," all we get is the genial approbation of sexual longing acknowledged and acted upon in a socially responsible way.  In place of the ecstasy and rapture of Saint Theresa, we get Dr. Ruth.  Superficially persuasive, perhaps, but not what Forster wrote.

In a moment of irony, the film includes a quote of something Forster did write: "Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes."  Possibly Merchant and Ivory felt that makers of costume dramas are exempted from this wisdom.  To the contrary: new clothes often signal new values.  And while it might seem easy to understand the cut of an Edwardian dress, it may be less difficult to comprehend that a modern, sexual-health marriage doesn't fit inside it.
(Image of Helena Bonham-Carter in the Merchant-Ivory film version of A Room with a View from Duke University's website)

With failure like this, who needs success?

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My last post constituted a kind of footnote to my penultimate post, and now I have to confess something embarrassing about footnotes: I've never written just one.  They always seem to proliferate on me.

So here's another footnote to that penultimate post, in which I casually referred to E.M. Forster's A Room with a View as, variously, "uneven" and "at times . . . implausible."  I hadn't included any evidence supporting those judgments in the post and, though I think the judgments are warranted, I also think that, without elaboration, they're unfair.  So I elaborate.

My concerns rest on two scenes.  Both involve conversational confrontations that lead to personal transformations.  Both seem to reflect, not human behavior as lived and observed, but characters' behavior as imagined by an optimistic author determined to craft salvation for his creations, whether deserving or no.

In the first scene, Lucy Honeychurch tells Cecil Vyse, her fiancé, that she won't marry him.  As her reason, she proffers that he's "the sort who can't know any one intimately."  She condemns him for "always protecting" her and not "let[ting] me be myself."  She calls him "conventional" because he "may understand beautiful things," but he doesn't "know how to use them."  (p. 201.)

Cecil, up until this point, has been controlling, condescending and conniving about getting his way.  He seems well-defended against any reality that shows his asshole personality.  Nor does his asshole personality seem to encompass being a good sport about rejection.  Nonetheless, wholly outside of his character, he replies:

It is true.
. . . .
True, every word.  It is a revelation.  It is - I.
. . . .
He repeated: "'The sort that can know no one intimately.'  It is true.  I fell to pieces the very first day we were engaged.  I behaved like a cad to Beebe and to your brother.  You are even greater than I thought."
(p. 202.)  Then, with dignity and grace, and without much further ado, he departs.

Now I have, in my day, broken up with one or two men.  I've also taken other men to task for asshole behavior, actions which - in a more or less direct way - led to them breaking up with me.  And based on these experiences, I find Cecil's response so implausible that I'm tempted to hazard that E.M. Forster has never witnessed - or received an accurate second-hand account of - an actual break-up between a male and a female.

This scene is a contrivance.  Resulting not from organic interaction between the characters, but from authorial sentimentality for Cecil and a need to advance the plot and deepen Lucy's character development, the scene is a gentle redemption of Cecil that paves the way for Lucy's redemption two chapters on.  Unsurprisingly, Lucy's redemption is the second scene with which I take issue.

In this second engineered exchange, George Emerson's father talks Lucy into marrying George.  His technique is a bit brutal by Edwardian standards.  He "mean[s] to shock" Lucy with references to the carnal: "I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!"  And he warns Lucy that, "It isn't possible to love and to part. . . . You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you.  I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal."  (p. 237.)  He urges her, "When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love - Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made."  (p. 238.)

This entreaty frightens Lucy, but it also revolutionizes her.  Despite her commitment to travel to Greece, despite having spent her mother's money on travel arrangements, despite being revealed as untrustworthy and unreliable to her family and Mr. Beebe, despite her ordinariness, prudishness and inexperience, she will now radically alter her life's course and marry George.  Mr. Emerson's speech had "robbed the body of its taint, the world's taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire."  (p. 240.)

Without getting too graphic, I'll assert that I think I know a thing or two about the holiness of direct desire, and I've never experienced it in conversation with a lover-to-be's father.  I won't go so far as to say that my experience is definitive, but I feel myself on comfortable ground calling this scene, as I did previously, a deus ex machina.  It's a wondrous machine for transporting sheltered little Lucy into the wide-open world of adult love . . . but none of us have ever traveled in such a machine because it doesn't exist.  What does exist - and what constitutes the conduit from innocence to sexual maturity that most (if not all) of us traverse - is a poorly-lit path, pitted with potholes and lined with muggers and thieves.

This reliance on artifice and contrivance, rather than the grit of reality, may be one reason why Forster is so often demoted from the top ranks of novelists:  "There's something middling about Forster," writes Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books, "he is halfway to where people want him to be."

And yet, despite my own objections to Forster's rude artifice, despite my sense that it adds "uneven" and "implausible" elements to his work, I don't think these flaws make Forster "middling."  Shakespeare, too, is uneven (Henry VIII anyone?) and implausible elements abound in his works (A Winter's Tale, hello?); still, Shakespeare is tops, and anyone who disagrees is a "three-inch fool."

Forster reached for artifice (I'm guessing) for the best reasons: he was imagining a world that didn't exist.  He was giving us a nudge to head for the horizon and, if his vision of what lay beyond didn't accord with what was actually there, it doesn't make him less of a visionary.  As Zadie Smith notes about Forster's literary criticism, he had an uncanny ability to be "right" about his contemporaries, to make judgments with which later generations agree - to see accurately in the midst of the thicket. 

Forster, I think, had the same gift of insight about human behavior.  What he seems to have lacked in A Room with a View was the ability to imagine the alternatives that humans eventually adopted, as well as the literary and narrative capacities to allow his characters to lead him where he wouldn't have otherwise have gone.  Still, a truly middling novelist is unlikely to have failed as graciously, and as entertainingly thought-provokingly, as Forster.     
(Image of E.M. Forster from BBC)

Going nude is better than going stoned

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As a medium, blog posts - like any medium - have their strengths and weaknesses, and one of these (either a strength or weakness, take your pick) is that blog posts are not especially accommodating of footnotes.  A footnote is, like, another blog post.

So here's a footnote to my prior post about E.M. Forster casting a fumbling male as a romantic lead in A Room with a View.  My comments about males fumbling their way through courtship would benefit from a caveat.  I wrote, "The fumbling man is the honest man, while the man who proceeds according to script, regardless of the circumstances, is not actually responding to the world around him. . . . if you want to live, you have to fumble," without qualifying that fumblers fall into two categories: (1) those who "step up"; and (2) those who don't. 

The fumblers who are "responding to the world" - who are living life without a rehearsal, to paraphrase Forster - are generally the former and not the latter.  The guys who won't "step up" are just as "unwilling to confront uncertainty and roll with it" and just as "defended against humiliation to risk genuine connection" as the straight-laced guy who never makes a wrong move.

And one reason why, culturally, we've "yet [to] work out the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time" is because the current crop of American male fumblers are of the latter category.  They do not "step up."  They fumble not by kissing women when they shouldn't or running around naked when they should be clothed (as George in A Room with a View does), but by getting stoned every day and generally being too passive.  As any author knows, coaxing a plot line out of a passive protagonist ain't easy. 

The obvious fix is that our passive fumblers need to step up, even though how we are to convince them to do so is not obvious.  As Forster describes an analogous quandary in A Room with a View:

It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, "She loves young [George] Emerson."  A reader in Lucy's place would not find it obvious.  Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome "nerves" or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire.  She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed?
(p. 165.)  Men love dope; women make them nervous; will the reader explain to them that the phrases should have been reversed?

Forster provides - not a reader - but another character to assist Lucy Honeychurch: George's father, the wise and eccentric Mr. Emerson, who functions as the deus ex machina, the instrument of revelation who during a single conversation withdraws "veil after veil" until Lucy sees "to the bottom of her soul."  (p. 238.) 

Forster's solution doesn't seem replicable on a large scale (or, truth be told, even on an individual level).  But in the absence of the artifice of a deus ex machina, allow me to harness the artifice of Web 2.0 communications networks to pass on this simple truth: stepping up makes life more fun. 

And, on the off chance that my message in this context proves insufficient, that the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time can't be worked out in a foot note to a blog post, I've got a novel planned . . . .

(Image from the film version of A Room with a View from Fotolog)

Scoring with awkward courtship

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What passes for masculinity is a fashion, at least as much as it is innate.  Rhett Butler doesn't fumble in his pursuit of Scarlett; Ben Stone does nothing but fumble with Allison Scott (in Knocked Up, not quite the culture icon that Gone with Wind has become) - call it the difference that seventy years makes in our mythologies of gender relations.

Maybe it's my generation, but I've always been more interested in male fumbling.  (Granted, I haven't seen much non-fumbling; cultivating an interest in it strikes me as akin to obsessing over unicorns.)  Male fumblers make good in my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, and have a nervous breakdown in my third novel, Waiting for Love Child.  Indeed, I'm so interested in male fumblers that a previous agent told me that I "channel" men and that I need to stop doing it.

Well, the male fumbler may have been banished from my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, but my interest hasn't abated.  Indeed, E.M. Forster piqued it with this passage from A Room with a View:

[George's] awkwardness went straight to [Lucy's] heart; men were not gods after all, but as human and as clumsy as girls; even men might suffer from unexplained desires, and need help.  To one of her upbringing, and of her destination, the weakness of men was a truth unfamiliar, but she had surmised it . . . .
(p. 178.)  Forster, after all, was writing during an era when male fumblers were not the rage.  To the contrary, the decisive man, ordering the world and his woman's place in it, was the ideal.  As George protests to Lucy about her fiancé, Cecil:

I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for you to settle whether you were shocked or no. . . . He daren't let a woman decide. . . . Every moment of his life he's forming you, telling you what's charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly.
(p. 194.)  All very sensible condemnation today, but not 103 years ago when A Room with a View was first published.  Cecil is the respectable man; George, please remember, is a freak.

That Forster defied convention to allow the fumbling freak to prevail in romance suggests a perceptiveness and sympathy about masculinity that transcends fashion.  (Of course, as a closeted gay man, Forster might have had particular insights into fumbling courtship of women; but I think his empathy was more universal.)  "[I]t is impossible to rehearse life," he writes in A Room with a View:

A fault in the scenery, a face in the audience, an irruption of the audience on the stage, and all our carefully planned gestures mean nothing, or mean too much.
(p. 154.)  The fumbling man is the honest man, while the man who proceeds according to script, regardless of the circumstances, is not actually responding to the world around him.  He is unwilling to confront uncertainty and roll with it; he is too defended against humiliation to risk genuine connection.  He is, in fact, playing at living, but not really living.  Forster teaches that, if you want to rehearse, you condemn yourself to the stage; and if you want to live, you have to fumble.

I don't think men - or women - are yet entirely comfortable with this truth.  Seth Rogen, after all, is nobody's idea of Clark Gable, and Knocked Up is a comedy.  I'm not sure we've (that is, "we" as a culture, have) yet worked out the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time.  As old, as uneven, and at times as implausible as it is, A Room with a View may remain our bellwether of this realm of human behavior.      

(Image of Julian Sands and Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View from The Guardian)

It isn't ever delicate to be reviewed

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I think Kay Ryan and her poetry are magnificent.  Uncompromising and wise, Ryan seems to wear her later-life success (Guggenheim fellowship, Poet Laureate of the United States, etc.) very easily.  Perhaps her mastery of fame derives from having her priorities in order.  Her poetry, at least, always jolts my priorities into place: "Turtle" brings me succor on my worst days, reaches me when more personal entreaties can't or won't.

With such feelings, I am not an objective reader of reviews of Ryan's work.  Indeed, I am possibly a mite overprotective of her, the way fans of Jane Austen, with their "peculiar affection," won't tolerate an unkind word against her.  Disclaimers out of the way, I can now say that Helen Vendler's New York Review of Books review of Ryan's new collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, pissed me off.

Some of the offense arose from Vendler's distinctively condescending tone, insistent refusal to like Ryan's poems, and begrudging praise:

And what sort of poetry has issued from this unusual personal trajectory?
. . . .
But such [rhymes], aside from being defensible, should by their sound please or alert or warn the ear, and these, to my mind, don't always succeed in doing so.
. . . .
Over the past fifteen years, Ryan's poems, resolutely impersonal versions of the personal, have varied in quality.
. . . .
Her departure leaves only "the chap of/abandonment."  And if nothing clever, in Ryan's earlier manner, can be said about that, something better than cleverness takes its place, a "polish and balm" in the simplicity of the poet's lines.
These remarks are all of scant bearing on Ryan's new collection.  That her personal trajectory is, in Vendler's opinion, "unusual" is either obvious or irrelevant; any interesting personal trajectory is unusual, yet plenty of fine poems have emerged from dull lives (pace Wallace Stevens).  That Ryan doesn't always succeed (in her rhymes or anything else) is a readily-grasped observation about humankind and, situated in nothing sturdier than Vendler's personal taste, the comment sounds simply bitchy.  All artists' work varies over a decade and a half, but Vendler doesn't clarify that the variance is reflected in Ryan's new collection.  And the toss-off insult about Ryan's lack of cleverness is so gratuitous as to appear mean. 

But my biggest gripe pertains to Vendler's insistence on casting Ryan as an uncultivated outsider who, late in life, was embraced by the inside - a sort of Grandma Moses of poetry:

Ryan's work might be considered outside the mainstream, and she (as someone who began outside the realm of privilege) feels she ought to stand up, as a matter of principle, for "outsider art."
. . . .
Ryan occupies the uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer, growing up with no "background" that could help with the rise to mastery of language, with no money to buy select education from kindergarten on, doing an ill-paid job not offering much public recognition. . . . From a life that has not been easy, she has mined nuggets that add to American poetic wealth.
This narrative of Vendler's is sheer idiocy.  What can she possibly mean by calling Ryan's work outside the "mainstream"?  What's the "mainstream" of poetry?  Ryan's style is more accessible than that of poetry paragon, John Ashbery, and every bit as accessible as the "popular" work of Billy Collins and Mary Oliver.  And in any event, isn't the point of poetry to eviscerate a "mainstream"?

Moreover, what the hell is the "uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer"?  What else is there?  Writers, unlike lawyers (and I should know, I'm both), don't come out of cookie cutters.  Law can be taught; writing cannot.  Lawyers pass the bar and are licensed to practice; no test exists that can certify a writer's quality.  A writer can attempt to fool him or herself with MFA degrees and fellowships, with creative writing professorships and publishing contracts, but all those credentials will make you a writer as much as a regime of regular colonics will protect you from mortality.  All writers (and artists) are self-made.  Otherwise they're hacks.

As for mining a difficult life for nuggets to contribute to the wealth of American poetry, snooze.  What poet doesn't have a difficult life?  Byron was born with a club foot; Coleridge had issues with opium.  Hart Crane was an openly-gay alcoholic, at a time when the former was socially unacceptable.  Robert Lowell was a manic-depressive.  Anne Sexton: suicide.  Jack Gilbert has dementia.    

Does Helen Vendler have something to say?  What's with all the useless, irrelevant, obvious, general statements?  Is she hiding something?  Or merely without anything to contribute?

If The New York Review of Books decides to send a third rate critical capacity to assess a first rate poet, the error reflects only on it.  But Kay Ryan deserves better, although she knows better than to expect what she's owed.  As Ryan wrote in concluding her poem, "Spiderweb": "It/isn't ever/delicate/to live."

(Image of Kay Ryan from Library of Congress website)

Maya and Alexis in America

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"Ce qu'on va lire n'est pas un voyage."  I haven't read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, but I've been hearing about it ad nauseam since 1995 (the text seems irrepressibly ubiquitous in legal academia - not to mention in the pages of The New York Review of Books), and the book's first sentence - "What you're about to read isn't a travel memoir" - strikes me as perfect for this blog post.

I have just completed a four-month tour of the U.S., my first extended stay in the country since 2004.  Granted, my road trip was significantly different than the one Tocqueville took with his buddy, Gustave de Beaumont, in 1831.  I was not, for example, conducting a study of the American prison system, and so I didn't visit Sing Sing; I encountered no near-death experience while aboard a steamboat on the Ohio River; and I didn't chat with the President of the United States.  (Lest any reader of this post conclude, based on the foregoing, that my trip lacked excitement, I hasten to add that - unlike Tocqueville and Beaumont - I didn't take a vow of chastity during my trip.)

On the other hand, my trip may - in a small, personal, anecdotal and highly idiosyncratic way - cast some interesting light on Tocqueville's observations.  As Alan Ryan summarizes in his (yes, New York Review of Books) review of Leo Damrosch's book, Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Tocqueville subscribed to John Stuart Mill's assertion that

in the United States there was "none but a middle class." . . . Damrosch takes him to task for [this conclusion].  Did he not see, wonders Damrosch, that there were great disparities of income and wealth in America?

He did, but they were less striking than those he knew in France, and for him the ethos of "equality of condition" trumped inequalities of income and wealth, as it does for Americans today.  About 80 percent of Americans today call themselves "middle class," whereas 57 percent of British respondents call themselves "working class," although the distribution of income and wealth in Britain and the United States is very similar, as are rates of social mobility.

What was this egalitarian ethos?  It was the universal belief that with luck and hard work, anyone could become rich . . . the measure of success was money . . . . No doubt reality fell far short of this idealized picture, but people are affected by their idea of reality more than by reality itself.
When I moved to China in 2004, I (and everyone I knew) subscribed to this ethos to some greater or lesser degree.  Yes, I knew the platitude about people on their deathbeds never saying they wished they'd spent more time at the office, but everyone who recited that mantra to me earned at least six figures.  (Homeless people, I gather, might very well express a deathbed regret that they hadn't enjoyed the cash reserves necessary to enable them to have neglected the non-monetary rewards in life.)  

My going off to China elicited much concern from my cohort of friends and associates.  One former colleague, meeting me to say good-bye, told me to "pull myself together."  More than one person expressed reservations about my fiscal - to say nothing of my mental - health.  I was going off track - off road, literally - and by the standards of the egalitarian ethos I was taking risks of staggering, if not outright foolish, dimension.

I can't say that my risk-taking was unreservedly rewarding.  Since 2004, I have worked extremely hard, but I haven't gotten rich.  To the contrary.  Whether that outcome is the result of bad luck or an inherent flaw in the egalitarian ethos, I cannot say.  But a little more than three years ago, I experienced extreme anxiety about the fact of my non-affluence.  The measure of success was still - even for me - money.  At that time, I didn't want to return to the U.S., but I felt that (even if I had wanted to) I couldn't.  I wasn't rich; I was a failure.

Shortly thereafter, the economy tanked.  Friends of mine agonized over losing 50% of their net worth.  Possibly coincidentally, I perceived a difference in the way my friends in the States responded to me.  Skepticism and bewilderment no longer predominated in their responses to my life choices.  Curiosity began to mingle with admiration.  I began to be told that I was living what others dreamed about.  What I experienced as inconvenience, danger and uncertainty looked, to my States-bound friends, enviable.

Nonetheless, when I told a Zimbabwean friend that I would be spending months visiting family and friends in the States, he warned me that I'd feel alienated.  Time apart feeds the imagination; as much as others had made a palimpsest of my life, overlaying it with their own fantasies, I was doing the same to them: my expectations of feeling "at home" were sure to be disappointed, he warned.

We were both wrong.  I didn't feel like I belonged, and I didn't feel alienated.  I felt like an extremely welcome guest - supported, but an outsider; a peripheral character whose status on (and reports from) the periphery was (were) both respected and valued.  I was, quite honestly, not expecting this kind of reception.  Lectures about the need for financial stability in uncertain times; well-intentioned exhortations about moving back to the States; references (in varying degrees of stridency) about my biological time clock; these potentials I anticipated.  Congratulatory back-slapping, not so much.

Reading Ryan's review, I couldn't resist wondering if my experience in any way signaled an evolution in the egalitarian ethos Tocqueville described (or, possibly, through his description contributed to creating).  Tocqueville himself had expressed disillusionment about the underbelly of this ethos, as Ryan recounts:

[Towards the end of Tocqueville's life, h]is doubts about American moneymaking and his fear that commerce drove real politics out of everyone's mind had intensified, as had his contempt for the loudmouthed ignorance of both the American public and many American politicians.
Are Americans beginning to embrace a more nuanced egalitarian ethos, one that is less tolerant of income and wealth disparities?  Are they beginning to lose patience with the political ineptness, corruption and ignorance bred by a system that over-values commerce? My experience is too individual to serve as the basis for general answers to these big questions, but I got the distinct impression that Americans are happy to see someone else - a representative of sorts (or, to use more folkloric terminology that crops up in the work of the excellent poet Thomas Lynch, a sin eater) - attempt to fashion a life consistent with this less commerce-driven, more substantively-egalitarian version of Tocqueville's egalitarian ethos.  Changing their own lives may be no more appealing than it was seven years ago, but demonstrating support for someone else doing it seems like it's no longer as threatening.

If people's ideas of reality affect them more than reality itself, perhaps this shift does reflect an evolution in Americans' thinking about reality, regardless of the facts on the ground.  Or perhaps less noble forces are at work: the guy who'd told me to "pull myself together" in 2004 had simply no memory, in 2011, of ever having made the comment or, indeed, have met me to say good-bye at all.

(Image of Alexis de Tocqueville from Seton Hall University; image of Maya Alexandri taken by Alice Forney) 

A schlep with a view

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E.M. Forster is obviously a man who knows from experience the pain of travel.  

Having just shipped 175 pounds of personal affects (ok, ok, I admit it: books, mostly books, I'm absolutely hopeless about being parted from certain - too many, obviously - books) to China, followed by checking in another 146 pounds of luggage on my flight to China (ok, chalk that weight up to bottles of vitamins, tins of sustainably-harvested fish and other food items that I couldn't ship), and all the attendant fees that go along with such retarded materialism (or attentiveness to one's intellectual and physical health, however one chooses to view the situation), I thrilled to the following Forster description, in A Room with a View, of two spinster lady travelers:

That there are shops abroad, even in Athens, never occurred to them, for they regarded travel as a species of warfare, only to be undertaken by those who have been fully armed at the Haymarket Stores.
(p. 223.)  Need I add that these ladies were stocking up on "digestive bread" for their journey?  

In defense of Forster's spinster ladies (and myself), I proffer that bulk purchasing in advance of extended travel is a wholly rational precaution in the face of the uncertainty of conditions in foreign lands.  Quite simply, if you do it, you may feel like a jackass for hauling around a trailer's worth of goods; but if you don't do it, you'll certainly feel like a jackass for contracting food poisoning and having to stay in bed, incapacitated, with nothing to read.  I have therefore concluded that one must simply accept what Forster later describes in A Room with a View as follows:

Waste!  That word seemed to sum up the whole of life.  Wasted plans, wasted money . . . . Was it possible that she had muddled things away?
(p. 229.)  Waste (and muddle) is an unavoidable collateral effect of imperfect information.  We don't know what we can buy in Athens or Beijing, so we bring it, possibly unnecessarily, certainly at cost.  We don't know how our stomachs will behave at foreign latitudes or exposed to strange foods, so we take precautions, possibly over-cautiously, certainly at cost.  We don't know how we'll feel if we're - or how we'll deal with the anxiety of being - deprived of items that make us feel secure and healthy in the world, so we refuse to be parted from those items, possibly pigheadedly, certainly at cost.

The only solution is to make peace with the waste.  As George Emerson says in A Room with a View,

We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows.  Choose a place where you won't do harm - yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.
(p. 176.)

I am standing in my courtyard in Beijing for all I'm worth.  I'd like to face the sunshine, but there isn't any because the sky is enveloped in a thick, depressing fog that will almost certainly cause serious damage to my lungs when I attempt to run long distances in it, as I must, since I'm training for a marathon.  The only up side is that it's nearly impossible to cast a shadow in such light, even if one has the heft of 321 pounds of stuff behind one.  At the moment, my main comfort is the (possibly misplaced) conviction that E.M. Forster would approve.

(Image of E.M. Forster from Stanfords)
I had to laugh when, in Henry James' Daisy Miller, Frederick Winterbourne urges Daisy to avoid baiting her Italian friend with the following admonition:  "Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn't exist here [in Rome]."

My laughter was prompted by the familiarity of the conversation.  Several months ago, when I was editing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, in Denmark, I noticed that I wasn't a hot commodity with the Danish men.  Night after night, I sipped coffee, had a drink, ate dinner - all by myself - in public places, and no one ever spoke with me. 

Finally, I asked my friend Gillion Grantsaan for his interpretation.  "Am I just not cute here?  Danish men don't flirt with me - do they not like brunettes?  They're sticking with the local blondes?"

Gillion explained that, no, the issue wasn't cuteness or hair color, but flirting.  "Men here don't flirt," he said, "because the women don't flirt.  The women are socially cold until they get drunk, at which point they go home with a guy.  Flirting doesn't enter into it."

Well then.  I won't take it personally.

Somehow I don't think the Danish women's approach would've been much assistance to Daisy Miller.

(Image of Danish photographer Kurt Rodahl Hoppe talking, not flirting, with Maya Alexandri taken by Solomon Lyttle)

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