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Sophie needs less world and more story

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Almost two years ago, I saw Jostein Gaarder give a talk in Beijing.  His general theme was the human propensity for stories: we learn information when it is situated in the context of a story.  Gaarder plainly assimilated the principle without mastering its application.  Sophie's World, which I've just read for the first time, isn't an example of a well-crafted story: it's more of a series of lecture notes for a high school philosophy class strung together with a "frame" that falls apart into an unsatisfying heap by book's end.  

Nonetheless, Sophie's World delighted me in places.  In particular, I was amused because I recalled Gaarder saying that he started out writing Sophie's World without knowing what would happen, and that he spent a lot of time taking long walks around Oslo, trying to figure out how to end the story he'd started.  His resolution actually comes in the middle, not at the end, of the book -- SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to reveal the plot twist -- Gaarder makes Sophie and her philosophy teacher, Alberto, realize that they are nothing more than characters in a book that another man, Albert, is writing as a birthday present for his daughter, Hilde.  The book's plot, such as it is, consists of a not-at-all convincing rebellion of characters against their author.

That said, I love the construct, and I wish Gaarder would've followed it through brilliantly.  His basic insight -- that characters, no matter fictional, seem to have an existence apart from their creator -- immediately resonated with me.  When I'm writing, I often feel like an archeologist, excavating a character that exists independently of me, and that my job is to extract him or her as completely and sensistively as I can.  (In fact, Gaarder uses archeology as a metaphor to describe a process not dissimilar to novel writing -- psychotherapy, which he terms an "archeology of the soul." p. 426.) 

But from what material am I excavating my characters?  Reality?  My imagination?  Another dimension?  I don't know -- probably all three -- but I do occasionally feel that my characters "keep me honest": I can't just make them do whatever I feel like having them do; they have individual integrity, and the range of plot possibilities available to them is determined by their personalities.  I can't make Chastity in Portnoy's Daughter keep her adultery a secret; and I can't force Pip in The Swing of Beijing to call Tyler a loser when he ejaculates prematurely; and even I can't save Dean from his own rotten judgment in Waiting for Love Child (although I probably punish him too harshly).

I am startled every time I feel "push back" from my characters, but I respect "their" resistance because it's guidance on plot development.  The feedback I get from my characters, however imagined (or nonsensical or irrational) that dialectic may be, steers the story on an organic (as opposed to formulaic or externally-determined) course that's consistent with the voice and feel of the created space my characters inhabit. 

Like Gaarder, I don't know what's going to happen when I start writing.  My literary mentor, D.M. Thomas, once wrote to me, "You don't have to know what the end of the journey is.  As Pushkin writes in 'Autumn' -- 'We sail.  Where shall we sail?...'  You are Columbus."  (That's why he's my literary  mentor; the man knows what he's talking about!)  In Portnoy's Daughter, the final chapter, the apotheosis of the story, didn't exist -- even in my most transitory thinking -- until D.M. Thomas told me to write it.  In Waiting for Love Child, my notes for the plot said, "Reveal secret why Lan's parents don't talk to one another."  What that secret was I didn't know until I wrote the chapter.  In both these examples, what I eventually wrote turned out to be "clincher" passages for the plot and meaning of the book.  And those passages function the way they do because I was guided by the characters, not vice versa; or, at least, I wasn't consciously, rationally or cerebrally guiding the story development.

Ultimately, that's my guess about where Gaarder went wrong: he experienced the phenomenon I've described, but he couldn't resist getting cerebral about it, and consequently the life he'd sparked on the page withered.  (He's aware that interference by the cerebellum in reflexive, irrational, creative processes -- like dancing -- is fatal; see the tortoise and centipede story on page 437.)  I can't blame Gaarder; philosophy is cerebral, overly so.  Philosophy is no more conducive to good story telling than physics

I'm not saying that a well-told novel about the history of philosophy is splitting the atom; but it's probably close.      

The politically incorrect imagination

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Occasionally, I stumble across a quote that sums up my thoughts exactly.  At such moments, I'm startled at the connection that I share with this other person, typically someone I've never met, maybe even a person from another age.  I had such an experience when I read this NYT review of two of Amos Oz's recent publications.  At the end of the article, Oz says, "I believe that imagining the other is a powerful antidote to fanaticism and hatred.  It is, in my view, also a major moral imperative."

I've written before about the importance of imagining the perspectives of "the other" as a basis for compassion, which is incompatible with fanatical hatred.  But the intense identification I felt with Oz's quote related not to these musings, but to my reaction to Adam Hochschild's book, King Leopold's Ghost.

In his thorough research and quoting from primary sources, Hochschild deserves much praise for King Leopold's Ghost.  Nonetheless, Hochschild's story-telling annoyed me.  In presenting his data, Hochschild chose to inhabit the mind of King Leopold, but refused to inhabit the minds of the Congolese living under his oppressive regime.  Hochschild repeatedly offers subjective opinions about Leopold's character, thoughts, morality and conduct, portraying these assumptions as conclusions drawn from evidence.  In reality, they are PC condemnations of a man whose time, thinking, and morality are alien to Hochschild.

Hochschild doesn't make the same mistake with the Congolese.  To the contrary, he refuses to offer any speculation about how they might feel.  The Congolese were routinely flogged to death and forced to walk hundreds of miles over rocky terrain infested with insects that burrowed into their feet, all the while lugging obscenely heavy cargo.  How might they have felt about those circumstances?  According to Hochschild, we have no idea because of the lack of primary sources written by Congolese.

Hochschild's approach is, to my way of thinking, PC nonsense.  In reality, we have no more primary source about King Leopold's mind than we do about the inner thinking of the Congolese who suffered for Leopold's pleasure.  The concept of "primary sources" begins to break down when the "facts" we are hoping the source will "establish" are thoughts, mindsets and moral constructs.  Yes, it's true that people can leave written records of their thoughts.  But most people are inarticulate, and even the articulate among us very often have only an imperfect grasp of the operation of their own minds.  We can never truly know the mind of another to the standard of historical fact.  We can only ever conjecture.

My criticism is not that Hocschild was, of necessity, required to offer conjectures.  My concern is that he doesn't seem to realize that he's offering conjectures about King Leopold, while refusing to do so for the Congolese.  Hochschild, a white man, seems to feel comfortable inhabiting the perspective another white man for purposes of condemning (what appears to our eyes today as) his racism and immorality; but Hochschild doesn't seem to feel qualified to imagine how it felt to be a Congolese person under King Leopold's rule.  Although Hochschild purportedly supports the Congolese against King Leopold, the Congolese remain to him an "other" beyond his imagination. 

Is it really so impossible to imagine the Congolese perspective?  A man is forced, on pain of death, to march three hundred miles across land that razors his feet.  He's carrying an 80 pound load.  He's not fed enough.  Knowing these facts (which are confirmable through primary sources), is it possible that he's pleased about the situation?

I reject the idea that it's wrong for me to ask these questions because I am a white, American woman living in the 21st century, and the Congolese who lived and died under King Leopold were black tribal people living in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I cannot, of course, know comprehensively or viscerally what the experience of their lives was like, but mental connections (whether imaginative, cognitive or both) between me and the Congolese are as possible as they are between me and Amos Oz.  Indeed, they are not merely possible but, according to Oz, morally necessary.

Oz's assertion that imagining the other is a moral imperative stands as a severe condemnation of Hochschild's political correctness (however well-intentioned).  Isolating another group as being beyond the imagination, whether out of respect or out of maliciousness, forecloses meaningful comprehension and compassion. 

Far from demonstrating his sensitivity, Hochschild has undermined his credibility with his PC crutch.  By constructing King Leopold's Congolese subjects as unimaginable others, he has telegraphed one indelible impression: fear of criticism.
If you're like me, committing to the first page of a book is committing to the last page as well: there's no putting a book down mid-way.  And therefore, if you're like me, a book like A House for Mr. Biswas is a period of incarceration with a cellmate so annoying that you'd be willing to trade for a rapist: at least then something would happen.

The most fascinating aspect of Mr. Biswas, from my perspective, is the question of why V.S. Naipaul would write a book about his protagonist, Mohun Biswas, in the first place.  Mr. Biswas is passive, immature, asexual and whiny.  Two behavior patterns prevail throughout his life: when confronted with an unlucky circumstance, he complains in a manner intended -- without succeeding -- to be funny; and, on the rare occasion when he rouses himself to action, disaster ensues (e.g., when Mr. Biswas almost burns down his house in Shorthills after unsuccessfully attempting to "fire the land" with a ritual bonfire earlier in the evening).

Unsurprisingly, with such a character at the helm, the book has no discernible plot.

Its meandering course follows Mr. Biswas's habitation of successive homes offered to him by his wife's family, a cloying, manipulative, repellent clan.  Mercifully, V.S. Naipaul kills Mr. Biswas at forty-six (and a painful 623 pages -- had the man lived a normal lifespan, into his sixties, say, the book could've rambled on for another four hundred pages). 

Without question, Mr. Biswas contains detailed and thoughtful passages about the human and geographic environment in which Mr. Biswas exists, and Naipaul has a sharp eye for the decrepit state in which much of the human population lives.  The topic, also, is promising: exploration of the relationship between home and identity is powerful material.  Finally, I don't doubt that Mr. Biswas is a faithful, realistic portrayal of a near destitute man in a developing country.

But none of this adds up to "page turner."  Nor, I should add (since being a "page turner" is not my sole criteria for an entertaining book), does Mr. Biswas amount to a pleasant occupation of one's mental energies. 

Finishing Mr. Biswas, I thought longingly of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, another book that explores the topic of home and identity, in the context of an impoverished household, and that -- thanks in part to its extended passages on theology -- moves slowly.  I didn't read Gilead quickly, but I loved reading it and looked forward to the time I'd spend each day with it.  Mr. Biswas, on the other hand, was a chore to finish.

The difference between the two is in the character of their protagonists.  John Ames is a sympathetic character, a man who waits and seeks -- just like Mr. Biswas -- but whose personality was so compelling that I found it a pleasure to sit down and wait with him.  Mr. Biswas (even the fact that Naipaul insists on using the distancing "Mr." in his address of the character) had no such charm: time spent in his presence was time spent wishing I was elsewhere. 

Plot or character appeal: a novel has to have one or the other (and preferably both).  Otherwise, I'm committing to doing time.  

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.   

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