Recently in Short stories Category

A pleasure incapable of repetition

| No Comments
Henry_James2.jpg
Henry James' The Aspern Papers made me giddy, the way children are delighted when a beloved uncle plays a trick on them. 

By this admission, I don't mean any backhanded compliment.  The Aspern Papers isn't in any respect cheap, superficial or manipulative.  Nor, on reflection, do I think it really has a trick ending - not in the sense of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," or O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

But James' rendering of Juliana Bordereau, the elderly ci-devant lover of (fictional) poet Jeffrey Aspern, is so compelling that it utterly blinded me to where James was heading with the plot.  (Warning: I am about to mention some plot spoilers.)  When Juliana catches the narrator opening her secretary cupboard, and he sees "for the first, the last, the only time . . . her extraordinary eyes" (p. 112), the confrontation was so electric that I could only feel, upon learning four pages later that Juliana had died, that James had lost his way in the plot.  Surely, I thought, the story hinges on the narrator's conflict with this indomitable, controlling, ancient woman - a woman so crushing and incomprehensible that she seemed a pagan god?

But, no, Juliana was an elaborate distraction in a story more directly about innocence than about conniving. 

On my second go-round through the story, I noted Juliana's emphasis on pushing the narrator into relations with her middle-aged spinster niece, Miss Tita.  I had registered the references before, but they hadn't clued me into the endgame of Miss Tita's marriage proposal, partly because I couldn't ever decide whether Juliana's relationship to Miss Tita was supportive or destructive.  Juliana's desire that the narrator spend time with Miss Tita seemed more likely to be a ploy to embarrass and control them both, or to get them out of the house in order that Juliana might burn the Aspern papers; a shidduch for Miss Tita's benefit and pleasure didn't seem an obvious option.  That Juliana's relationship to her niece turned out to be both supportive and destructive only deepens the realism and resonance of the story.

Seeing and analyzing the mechanism that tricked me, I feel admiration . . . and also a little disappointment.  Now that I know the trick, it won't work on me again: I'll never be able to feel the same giddiness at the conclusion of The Aspern Papers.  All the more reason to savor its memory.   

(Image of Henry James from The Guardian)

Prostitutes' paradoxes

| No Comments
Guy_de_Maupassant.jpg
I don't know if Karen Blixen ever read Guy de Maupassant's story, "Boule de suif" - probably she did.  She'd lived in Paris as a student and spoke French.  Maupassant was (and still is) a writer who enjoyed wide popular acclaim; his work would likely have been unavoidable for young Blixen.

The question arose because my first thought on reading "Boule de suif" was its remarkable parallels with a (much later written) story by Karen Blixen, "The Heroine," which appeared in her second collection, Winter's Tales.

Both stories take place during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71.  In both stories, a band of French travelers are stopped by Germans.  A German officer in both stories demands sexual favors from one of the French women.  In both stories, the woman works in the sex trade.  And in both stories, the woman's companions - who, in both stories, include a pair of nuns - are instrumental in the outcome.  Yet the two stories are totally different.

In "Boule de suif," the woman, Elisabeth Rousett (known as "Boule de suif" or "suet dumpling") is a prostitute.  Her companions in her traveling coach initially snub her, but they welcome her into their society after she shares her food with them.  When the German officer arrests the progress of their party, however, Boule de suif's companions pressure her until she relents and complies with his demands.  The German officer allows their party to proceed, and the companions regress into their haughty exclusion of Boule de suif.  The story ends with everyone in the coach refusing to share their food with her, while she cries, and one of the men hums "The Marseillaise."

In "The Heroine," the woman, Heloise, appears to be a lady of some distinction.  She and her companions at an inn are trying to cross from Germany into Luxembourg.  A German officer tells Heloise that he will grant the laissez-passer if she comes to him naked.  She demands that the officer present the request to her companions.  Led by an elderly priest, who weakly waves his arms, they all give some sign of refusal, and the party is sent outside.  They fear they will be shot.  But a German officer comes with the laissez-passer and a bouquet of flowers, which he presents to Heloise, "to a heroine." 

After the war, one of the men who'd been with Heloise that night, a scholar named Frederick, goes to a nightclub in Paris where he sees Heloise - far from being a woman of distinction - performing naked in a titillating show called "Diana's revenge."  After the show, Heloise has a drink with him, during which she muses that, during their showdown with the German officer, their companions were running a worse risk than being shot.  Had they made her do what the German had demanded,

[t]hey would have repented it all their lives, and have held themselves to be great sinners. . . . for those people it would have been better to be shot than to live on with a bad conscience.
(p. 86).  When Frederick asks her why she is sure of this conclusion, she replied, "Oh, I know that kind of people well . . . . I was brought up amongst poor, honest people myself."  (Id.)   

This comparison between Maupassant's "Boule de suif" and Blixen's "The Heroine" brings Blixen's romanticism into sharp relief . . . and possibly some ridicule.  Romanticism in and of itself doesn't deprive a work of its plausibility - people behave romantically often enough - but as the side-by-side with "Boule de suif" clarifies, Blixen's romanticism was normative, not descriptive.  She wrote about how people should be, not about how they are.  And how Blixen thought people should be can seem a bit ridiculous today.

In Maupassant's hands, the social pressure exerted on Boule de suif to force her to comply with the German officer's request that she perform exactly what she would do for her job seems dehumanizing and cruel.  In Blixen's telling, Heloise's refusal to ensure the safe passage of herself and her companions by doing exactly what she does for her job seems foolishly proud; and Heloise's insistence that her companions would have been better off being shot, than having supported her in her honor, seems naive, if not offensive.

At the end of the stories, it is Maupassant, not Blixen, who has made me feel empathy for the prostitute, who has inspired me to insist on her dignity, on her human entitlement not to be sexually degraded, whatever she does to earn a living.  Who, then, is the romantic?  Maupassant, who lays the groundwork for realization of an ideal by showing us reality; or Blixen, who shows us a peculiar ideal, the realization of which seems not merely impossible, but ill-advised?

If Karen Blixen did read "Boule de suif" before writing "The Heroine," she didn't appear to take from it its most salient lessons.   

(Image of Guy de Maupassant from Narrative Magazine)

The spiritual hometown of Jorge Luis Borges

| No Comments
Venice_Bolognino_Zaltieri_1565.jpg
Being in Venice without thinking of Borges is impossible for me.  Although (unlike many other writers, including Henry James) Borges isn't linked to the city through past residency, many of Borges' stories feature labyrinths, among them "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth," "The Two Kings and their Two Labyrinths," "House of Asterion" and "Parable of the Palace" from The Aleph and other Stories; and a collection of his stories was published in English under the title, Labyrinths.  The importance of the labyrinth in Borges' work links him inextricably (in my mind) to Venice, a city and spectacular labyrinth in one.

I'd pondered Borges' fascination with labyrinths.  I know I'm not the first, and I'm sure many compelling explanations of Borges' labyrinth obsession exist.  Wandering around Venice yesterday, however, I came up with my own: a labyrinth is a physical representation of the brain's process of attaining insight.

As Jonah Lehrer writes in his New Yorker article, "The Eureka Hunt":

the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. "The relaxation phase is crucial," [Mark] Jung-Beeman [a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University] said. "That's why so many insights happen during warm showers."  Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up.  The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.  The right hemisphere is also unusually active. . . . We do some of our best thinking when we're still half asleep. . . . [To attain insights, w]e must concentrate, but we must concentrate on letting the mind wander.
A labyrinth mirrors a path "unwound and disorganized," and in a labyrinth, we find ourselves wandering, searching our way, "open to all sorts of unconventional" directions.  In a labyrinth, we may feel lost, but we may also stumble on the Minotaur: wild, dangerous and totally original.  To enter a labyrinth is to embark on an expedition which may end in a creative breakthrough - or a despondent failure - but which in any event takes us beyond the routines of day-to-day living.  (And, in a lovely aesthetic lietmotif, the brain and its neural networks look like labyrinths.)

Perhaps, in setting so many of his stories in labyrinths, Borges was consciously or unconsciously referring to his own creative process.  And perhaps, in constructing their city-republic as a labyrinth, the Venetians were invoking the blessing of the gods of genius.  Among these possibilities, however, is one certainty: in the labyrinth of my neural networks, Borges and Venice are tangled up.

(Bolognino Zaltieri's map of Venice from Wikipedia)

The line from literacy-enabled logic to immortality

| No Comments
Fr.WalterOng.jpg
For the first time, I am reading two books together to experience the way they illuminate and duel with one another.  The two books are Walter J. Ong's, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word and René Descarte's Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences.  The result of this experiment in parallel reading is interesting: the experience is like setting my brain on fire. 

One aspect of Ong's book that reliably throws sparks is his overview of characteristics of people from primary oral cultures - that is, societies that don't write or know of writing.  Ong explains:

[A]n oral culture simply does not deal in such items as . . . formally logical reasoning processes [or] . . . articulated self-analysis . . . which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought.
(p. 55.)  In respect of articulated self-analysis, Ong elaborates:

[I]lliterates [have] difficulty in articulate self-analysis.  Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking [typical to people from primary oral societies]. . . . Externals [e.g., amount of land farmed, success of crops planted] command attention [in lieu of internal qualities]. . . . Self-evaluation [gets] modulated into group evaluation ("we") and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others [e.g., no one would respect our group if we were otherwise] . . . . Judgment bears in on the individual from outside, not from within.
Rene_Descartes.jpg
(p. 54-55.)  Reading this passage, I immediately thought of Descartes, whose self-analysis as it pertains to the quality of his mind after it emerged from his education is one of the earliest important examples (second, possibly, to Montaigne) of the expansion of human capacities enabled by literacy.  Here is Descartes describing his change in thinking about his education:

I was brought up from childhood on letters, and, because I had been led to believe that by this means one could acquire clear and positive knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely anxious to learn them.  But, as soon as I had completed this whole course of study, at the end of which it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned, I completely changed my opinion.  For I was assailed by so many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my ignorance. 
(p. 29.)  In this short passage, Descartes illustrates the opposite of the characteristics Ong earmarks.  Internals (ignorance vs. knowledgeability) matter.  The self-evaluation is not modulated into a group assessment; on the contrary, Descartes distinguishes himself from the group and societal expectations: whereas "it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned," Descartes doesn't think he belongs there.  Judgment doesn't bear in on Descartes from the outside (society would consider him "learned"), but from inside (he has discovered his own ignorance).

Formal logic, as much as self-analysis, is foreign to the consciousnesses of people in primary oral cultures.  According to Ong,

[I]lliterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive procedures at all - which is not the same as to say that they could not think or that their thinking was not governed by logic, but only that they would not fit their thinking into pure logical forms, which they seem to have found uninteresting.
. . .
A highly intelligent person from an oral . . . culture might be expected normally to react to [questions that require abstract thinking to answer, like syllogisms] . . . not by answering the seemingly mindless question itself but by trying to assess the total puzzling context . . . Is it a game?  Of course it is a game, but the oral person is unfamiliar with the rules.  The people who ask such questions have been living in a barrage of such questions from infancy and are not aware that they are using special rules.
(p. 52.)

Descartes, of course, was familiar with formal logic.  He was also critical of it:

[R]egarding logic, its syllogisms and most of its other precepts serve more to explain to others what one already knows, or even . . . to speak without judgement [sic] of those things one does not know, than to learn anything new.
(p. 40.)  Of course, Descartes' criticism is focused on the output of formal logic, not on the fact of its methodology.  Descartes is in favor of such methodology: he has developed one himself that he hopes will replace the logical methodology of the ancients.  Descartes goes on to eliminate all his received opinions in order to replace them with ones that were true, and not merely true, but

to include in my judgements [sic] nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt.
(p. 41.)  But I went in a different direction.

My brain is not as airlessly sealed off from outside influences as Decartes, which no doubt explains why I wandered off track.  These other influences include the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, where research curator Jan Stubbe Østergaard recently showed me around the museum's impressive collection of Greek and Roman statues.

In discussing Roman copies of Greek statutes,
Østergaard revealed that the Romans copied only the heads.  The Greeks didn't sculpt body-less heads; they believed that a head was not enough to reveal the man.  The Romans, on the other hand, prioritized the head (and the ideas within it) over the body (and the viscera it encases).

I began to wonder if the prioritization of heads and ideas might parallel the literacy-related changes in consciousness between the Romans and Greeks.  The Greeks, after all, transitioned from orality (in the time of Homer, 750 BC) to literacy (in the time of Plato 350 BC).  The Romans were literate.

And then, because I've also been reading Jorge Luis Borges, I began to wonder about the connection between literacy, prioritizing ideas and immortality.  Ong mentions a fascinating aspect of primary oral societies:

[They] live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.
(p. 46.)  The written word, of course, makes sloughing off memories more difficult. 

The potential for the eternal preservation of memory takes humans a step closer to immortality: our bodies may fade, but our ideas can live forever.  No wonder prioritizing ideas over viscera seems appealing.

Indeed, in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "The Immortal," the race of immortals make this same choice.  (If it were me, and my body could endure eternally, I wouldn't be prioritizing thought over bodily pleasures - quite the opposite; nonetheless, in Borges' world, immortals aren't hedonists.) 
The immortals were

immune to pity. . . . [A] man fell into the deepest of . . . pits; he could not be hurt, could not die, and yet he burned with thirst; seventy years passed before he was thrown a rope.  Nor was he much interested in his own fate.  His body was a submissive domestic animal; all the charity it required each month was a few hours' sleep, a little water, and a scrap of meat.  But let no one imagine that we were mere ascetics.  There is no more complex pleasure than thought, and it was to thought that we delivered ourselves over.
(p. 14-15.)  Taken to its logical extreme, delivering oneself to ideas extricates oneself from one's humanness.  We cannot be separated from our bodies, however tempting the notion may be.  And immortality fundamentally severs a human from her body.

Only after I followed my thoughts in the manner described above did I understand this passage from "The Immortal":

In Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a man's life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the number of his deaths.
(p. 5.)  Contrast Borges' insight with Ong's description of the paradox inherent in "writing['s] . . . close association with death":

The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers.
(p. 81.)

Immortality is for the books. 

(Image of Father Walter J. Ong, S.J. from Wikipedia; image of René Descartes from The Telegraph)

What The Witness saw

| No Comments
Flower_arrangement_in_Karen_Blixen_Museum.jpg
At the Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark, floral arrangements complement the displays of furniture, paintings and tchotchkes from Karen Blixen's house.  The flowers come from a special garden, specifically tended to provide fresh flowers for the Museum's arrangements.  (After a slug invasion in the early nineties, a special, shin-high, slug-proof metal fence was erected around the garden to protect the flowers.) 

The care and attention paid by the Museum to the details concerning the flower arrangements are because Karen Blixen herself was an accomplished floral arranger and considered arranging flowers a form of art.  Photographs were taken of arrangements she'd made during her life, and the Museum claims that it "recreates" her arrangements.

Learning of this attempt at recreation, I thought of the Jorge Luis Borges story, "The Witness."  In this slender piece, a man dies in a stable.  He dies in the Kingdom of England,

but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners.  Before dawn, he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again.  The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.
(p. 161.)  Borges goes on to remind us that,

one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man's or woman's death . . . . In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.
(Id.)  He wonders, "What will die with me the day I die?  What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world?"  (Id.)  His proposals, in contradistinction to the preceding examples, are intimate, personal and apparently historically insignificant:

The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
(Id.)

Perhaps Borges believes that he has written down everything he witnessed worth preserving, so that when he dies all that remains will be meaningless outside his personal context.  Or perhaps Borges believes that he lives in a time that cannot parallel the greatness of the ancients, so that anything he witnesses cannot be of historical significance.  In any event, nothing in "The Witness" suggests a propensity on Borges' part to preserve his bar of sulfur in the drawer of his mahogany desk, and to project over it (on an endlessly repeating loop) an image of a bay horse in the vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, accompanied by a soundtrack of the voice of Macedonio Fernández.

In contrast to Borges' modesty, the efforts of the Karen Blixen Museum to ensure that Karen Blixen's flower arrangements do not die with her suggest a certain hubris that often accompanies hagiography.  Immodest and immoderate love cannot distinguish the important from the trivial aspects of the beloved. 

Similarly, the Karen Blixen Museum doesn't seem to appreciate that recreating Karen Blixen's floral arrangements is the kind of silly tribute that obsessives pay their objects of attention.  The effort doesn't present itself as an obvious priority for a museum dedicated to preservation of and promotion of a legacy that, like Karen Blixen's, is thoughtful, subversive, humorous, and controversial.  Rather, the emphasis and labor expended on the flowers suggests a focus on the fleeting and the decorative aspects, a preference for the pretty over the challenging.

In this respect, if not others, the world is a little poorer for Karen Blixen's death.
  
(Photograph of a flower arrangement in the Karen Blixen Museum gift shop taken by Maya Alexandri)

The final destiny of the gods

| No Comments
Thoth.jpg
My favorite story from Jorge Luis Borges' collection, The Maker (1960), is "Ragnarök."  In it, Borges describes a dream he had, in which he is at the College of Philosophy and Letters with other scholars.  Their discourse is interrupted by the sudden appearance of ancient gods (Thoth, Janus, etc.), who emerge from the Underworld and storm the dais. 

At first, people applaud and weep.  But then, one of the gods emits an animal scream of triumph, and "[f]rom that point on, things changed."

It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the gods were unable to talk.  Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them that was human; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these fugitives.  Beetling brows, yellowed teeth, the sparse beard of a mulatto or a Chinaman, and beastlike dewlaps were testaments to the degeneration of the Olympian line.  The clothes they wore were not those of a decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld's gambling dens and houses of ill repute.  A carnation bled from a buttonhole; under a tight suitcoat one could discern the outline of a knife.
Feeling that the gods are "aged predators," "playing their last trump," the scholars draw their revolvers and "exultantly" kill the gods.

The story dramatizes the modern human fear of interaction with an other that cannot communicate on human terms (e.g., gods who have degenerated to animals).  At first, the return of the gods is an event of transcendent wonder; but if the gods cannot "talk," the elating feeling of "we are not alone" is transformed into the terrifying feeling of "we are with a threat."  Humans will no longer submit to the domination of animals. 

(In the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, humans are made in the image of God.  Perhaps the most overlooked innovation of Judeo-Christianity is not monotheism, but the elimination of animal forms from the holy.  As for communication, if the Judeo-Christian God is not currently talking, it's because He chooses not to - or we choose not to listen.)

I noticed a similar kind of privileging of human communication in Kenya.  Before I lived in Kenya, I did not believe that animals had consciousness equivalent with human consciousness.  But even a short time passed in the relatively distant proximity of wild animals in Kenya convinced me (intuitively, not scientifically) that I'd been wrong.  Animals seem to me to have consciousness, but they lack a ready means of communication with humans.

That humans tend to equate consciousness with the ability to communicate on human terms is a terrible error.  It causes us not merely to fail to dwell in ignorance when we could learn from animals, but also to prefer human needs to those of animals because animals cannot persuade us that their needs deserve equal or greater weight.  The consequence - whether from destruction of animal habitats for human development, or from harvesting animals for human consumption - is the steady elimination of animals from the planet.

Borges begins "Ragnarök" with a citation to Coleridge:  "The images in dreams . . . figure forth the impression that our intellect would call causes; we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel."  Borges doesn't elucidate what his dream explains for him, but for me, "Ragnarök," explains the horror of humanity's profoundly disfigured relations with animals: not merely the defamation and violence against these "others" incapable of speaking, but the exultant joy in destroying them.

If we mourn ourselves as a godless and abandoned species, this is why. 

(Image of the god Thoth from BBC)
<< 1 2 3

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Short stories category.

Research for Novels is the previous category.

The Bible is the next category.

Categories

Archives

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04