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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. 
In recent months, I've thought a great deal about the limits of human compassion.  We seem hard-wired to relate to individuals and their stories, but our compassion breaks down when we're asked to relate to groups.  We can empathize with one Holocaust survivor; 6 million dead, on the other hand, are a number. 

I was put in mind of another limitation on human compassion as I read D.T. Max's recent New Yorker article about David Foster Wallace.  Wallace, he says, perceived "that America was at once overentertained and sad."  Speaking to Salon in 1996, Wallace said that living "in America around the millennium" was "particularly sad . . . . It's [a] like a stomach-level sadness. . . . It manifests itself as a kind of lostness.

Wallace's experience of the 90's made me gape in amazement.  Sad?!  The 90's?  The Internet boom?  The swinging Clinton years?  When America was good and loved and Whole Foods was becoming mainstream and salaries were rising and everyone was making money hand-over-fist in the stock market?

Of course, Wallace's 1990's included stays in mental asylums, a half-way house, a failed relationship, as well as the pre-Infinite Jest stage in his career, when he was worried that his career had ended before it'd begun.  His diagnosis of the American condition during those years strikes me -- and I say this gently, cognizant of Wallace's suicide six months ago, and feeling that engagement with his ideas is a proper way to honor his memory -- as a projection of his own profound sadness onto the country writ large.

That Wallace felt the need to address the state of the nation is a reflection of his ambition, but whether he could have come to any other conclusion of the world around him -- be it his closest circle of peers or the broadest circle of the globe -- seems doubtful because of another of the limits of human compassion: the tendency to generalize about others based on ourselves. 

For example, my default assumption is that most people value time efficiency; my experience, on the other hand, is that my default assumption is wrong.  Nonetheless, it's difficult for me to restrain my frustration at the Beijing taxi driver who has resignedly driven me into a traffic jam instead of taking a faster detour; unless replenished through conscious effort, my compassion dwindles for people who operate on rules different from my own.

This limitation makes challenging any individual's ability to relate to another person; applied on a group level, it's even more likely to cause distortions ("All Americans want fast services"; "All Beijing taxi drivers waste time").  Wallace was, without question, aware of his pain, but the fact that he detected sadness in himself does not mean that other Americans were aware of their own conditions, sad or otherwise.  Self-awarenes, in my experience, is among the least useful of characteristics to project on others if the goal is obtaining accurate deductions about them. 

Of course, maybe I'm falling into my own trap; my generalizations about the limitations of human compassion could be wrong; I may be completely misconstruing the basis of Wallace's conclusions.  And perhaps Wallace was right about millenial sadness in America (for example, the musical Rent makes the same point). 

The question is whether nurturing such doubts is a means of transcending those limits and expanding the scope of human compassion.  I am hoping the answer is yes.     
Immediately after I wrote the post British authors mentally masturbate about physics, stories suffer, I read Peter Dizikes essay in The New York Times about C.P. Snow, the physicist and novelist who coined the term "the two cultures" to describe the rift between scientists and literary types -- and I knew I would have to write an addendum to my previous post.

According to Dizikes, Snow made three claims that are worth considering in light of Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.  First, Snow laid the blame for the rift between these two cultures on the literati.  Plainly, that claim is untenable today.  With the advent of string theory, the mathematics required to understand physics has become so complicated that even other physicists, much less literary scholars, don't understand it.  (See, for example, this New Yorker article about Garrett Lisi, renegade physicist, or this review of a couple of books about string theory.) 

Moreover, the strenuous efforts at bridging this gap between the scientists and the poets is coming from the poets' side, with novels like McEwan's, plays like Frayn's, and countless other examples (Huxley's Brave New World, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, etc.)  Oliver Sacks alone cannot make up for the majority of scientists who are incapable of communicating with the rest of the world.

Second, Snow argued that science, not literature, is what safeguards the progressive betterment of society because scientists are more morally reliable that the literati.  This claim, also, is one that cannot be credited.  Science, as the history of scientific advances in the 20th century amply demonstrates (atom bomb anyone?), is amoral.  The job of scientists is to discover the truth, regardless of the outcome; the moral ramifications of the discoveries are someone else's job.

That "someone else" often, increasingly, is a writer.  McEwan has reached the stature of "England's national author" (in the words of New Yorker profile) because, in novels like The Child in Time, Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday, he undertakes the task of sorting the moral ramifications of technological and social developments.  Copenhagen, as well, is an attempt to parse the morality of working on an atom bomb in World War II, examining the question from multiple perspectives.  (Whatever might be said about the moral failings of Ezra Pound, Snow's example of a literary moral degenerate -- or P.G. Wodehouse, or Gertrude Stein, to name a couple of other literati who behaved abysmally during WWII -- none can approach the scale of damage done by physicist Werner Heisenberg who, in addition to being a Nazi, was also almost certainly developing an atomic weapon.)

Third, according to Dizikes, Snow maintained that "20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists."  This claim, of course, is risable.  To whatever extent 20th century progress has been stymied, governments, corporations and academic mismanagement have been vastly more responsible that poets and novelists -- who, as the novels and plays cited above demonstrate, have been anything but "indifferent" to 20th century progress.

That said, something can be salvaged from Snow, namely his prescription for a generalized education.  Specialized education, especially too early in life, narrows the mind and exacerbates the gap between "the two cultures."  Moreover, a broader educational platform might obviate the need for incorporating physics lessons into novels and plays, leading to better, more elegantly-told stories about these issues (the point I raised in my previous blog post).  After all, only when we're able to communicate easily across this divide will we be able effectively to bridge it.

Denys Finch-Hatton, the not-great aristocrat

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Denys Finch-Hatton.jpgIn an earlier post, Greatness and Aristocracy, I wrote about the idea of greatness as relating, not to absolute achievement, but to achievement within a particular context, specifically, among the aristocratic.  The life of Denys Finch-Hatton (left), as depicted in Sara Wheeler's Too Close to the Sun, bears out my observation.

Everyone instantly recognized Deny's greatness, insists Wheeler, even though he achieved nothing.  "Denys was a great figure," according to  his obituary in Eton's magazine, "not only to Masters and boys, but to the Eton population at large, human and animal."  (p. 34 (emphasis added).) 

Eton's magazine is not alone in promoting the absurd notion that the animal kingdom hailed Denys' greatness.  In Out of Africa, Karen Blixen reported that "'[a] lion and lioness have come [to Finch-Hatton's grave], and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time.' . . . It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys's grave and make him an African monument." (p. 308.)

But, by the end of his life (short, but still 44 years), Denys had accomplished nothing.  "In terms of a career -- positions held, books published, the shibboleths of success one lists in Who's Who -- there was nothing," admits Wheeler.  He left behind no written record, no diary, no significant letters.  Perhaps his most enduring legacy is of the abortions and miscarriages that Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen had respectively, carrying children for whom he showed no inclination to take responsibility.  "It's not clear what he ever did to merit a biography of his own," adds Nicholas Best, reviewing Too Close to the Sun for The Observer.

Plainly, when people characterized Denys as "great," they were responding not to his accomplishments, but to his place in the (waning) aristocracy.  "He was the Last Edwardian Male," wrote Florence Williams, in a New York Times book review. 

This use of "greatness" to invoke the aristocratic is both imprecise and not, in my view, without harm.  Great people are worth our time; alive or dead, kind or mean, great people have something to teach us.  Whatever their personal natures, great people have contributed something to society and human existence.  Greatness, despite the costs, ought to be encouraged.

Aristocrats, on the other hand, are people who have convinced themselves and the rest of the population that they have an entitlement to wealth, based on their cultural superiority and proximity to a divine monarch.  Though this class of individuals, like any strata of social organization, has something to teach us about human nature, individual aristocrats (potentially Denys among them) are often privileged wastrels, fungible in their educational value.  They have not invariably contributed something to society and, as a group, they are not necessarily normatively valuable.  (While, anecdotally, culture typically flourishes in aristocratic societies, the cost-benefit equation doesn't compare favorably to non-totalitarian societies in which the government substitutes as patron.)

But regardless of the larger issues at stake in conflating a romanticized notion of aristocracy with genuinely great achievement, Denys Finch-Hatton is an easy case: he was unquestionably artistocratic; he was also, unquestionably, not great.  Sara Wheeler does him no favors by wrapping him in a mantle that's too broad for his shoulders: doing so only makes the man look small.

(Photo courtesy of The New York Times.)
Thinking about Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, I cannot help but relate it to Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen.

When I saw Copenhagen in 2002, at the Kennedy Center, it was much-buzzed as the play to see.  I remember leaving the theater befuddled at the buzz: "boring" was the word I would've applied, followed by "repetitive." 

The play three times enacts the famous walk that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg took in 1941, during which they had a conversation -- the substance of which remains unknown -- which fundamentally altered their relations for the rest of their lives.  At the time, I recognized fully that the repetitive enactment of the walk-and-conversation was a dramatization of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is colloquially (though controversially, from a physicist's point of view) understood to mean that our understanding of any situation is always limited by our perspective; shift the perspective, and the content changes.

However boring Uncertainty might be to learn in the classroom, Copenhagen didn't make the case that dramatizing it improved the learning experience.  On the contrary, I found the physics lesson to get in the way of Frayn's proper task: storytelling. 

The number one priority in telling a story, so far as I'm concerned, is maintaining interest, entertaining the audience.  This imperative is among the most difficult of the novelist's tasks.  "Most novels incredibly boring. It's amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge."  That's McEwan talking, quoted in a recent New Yorker piece (at p. 48).

But McEwan appears as vulnerable as the rest of us to recognizing principles that we don't apply in our own lives.  The Child in Time makes the same blunder as Copenhagen (although, seeing that Copenhagen post-dates The Child in Time by a decade, perhaps it should be the other way around.)  The entire plot line involving Thelma and Charles Darke, Thelma's long physics lectures, Charles' regression into childhood, as well as the lorry accident and Stephen's near-miss driving around it -- these some hundred pages or so are all peripheral to the story of Kate's disappearance, and Stephen's reuniting with Julia.

These irrelevancies are not in the book to advance plot.  They're in the book to illustrate physics principles about the nature of time.  McEwan is elaborating in prose on his intellectual love affair with physics.  These passages are all cerebral masturbation.  And, while admittedly they're more masterfully done than Frayn's tiresome redundancies, these diversions are as disruptive to McEwan's storytelling in The Child in Time as Uncertainty was to Frayn's in Copenhagen.

The irony, of course, is that nothing illustrates the importance of perspective to determining content, or the elasticity of time, better than a well-told story.  With a page-turner in hand, the content of the world of the page is determined wholly by the author's perspective, and time flies.  

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