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Decency above courage

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Moralizing around Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is difficult to resist.  The book's unsatisfying resolution defies attempts to file it away under "well-constructed story about the age-old conflict between individual self-realization and familial constraint."  Wharton makes so concrete Newland Archer's sacrifice of the love of his life, Ellen Olenska, that the mind demands some purpose to redeem the carnage that has deprived Newland Archer of "the flower of life."  The affront of the novel's conclusion begs the question: what is the meaning of this? 

Closing the book and musing on what I had learned, I was most immediately struck by how The Age of Innocence illustrates that courage is not so much a quality as a discipline.  Without practice, a person cannot exercise it.

In giving up Olenska, Archer capitulates to "the old New York way" of placing "decency above courage."  Decency arises from the discharge of duties, and duties in turn convey dignity: as Wharton explains, Archer's two-and-a-half decade marriage "had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty." 

Dignity, of course, is necessary for human happiness and the realization of individual potential.  But the dignity deriving from duty, though critical for social stability and integral to moral engagement with one's family and community, is not without its drawbacks: "The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else." 

Specifically, it "unfits" one for acts of courage: by the novel's last page, Archer cannot face meeting Olenska again; cannot face his emotions so long under wraps ("He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime"); cannot face modernity ("Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough"); cannot face reality ("It's more real to me here than if I went up [to meet her]"). 

The dignity of duty is necessary, but not sufficient, for a fully lived life.

Of course, in the choice between courage and decency, dignity is a common element: it flows as much from acts of bravery as from the discharge of duty.  The difference arises elsewhere.  Courage is a more destabilizing value to cultivate: courageous people are much more difficult to control than decent ones.  But courage is also more nourishing than decency: courageous people have a much better chance both of attaining "the flower of life" and of simultaneously being good people. 

Ellen Olenska herself demonstrates this possibility.  She is courageous: defying social convention, and at personal and financial loss, she leaves her husband.  She tries to establish a satisfying life in New York, and (again, flouting conventions) she negotiates various degrees of independence (physically and geographically, though not financially) from her family, who find her difficult to control.  She is, at the same time, a woman bound by duties: she undertakes the care of her aunt, Medora (who had raised her), and she refuses any betrayal of her cousin, May Welland, despite her love of May's husband, Newland Archer.  When May manipulatively reveals that she is pregnant, Ellen abandons her efforts at living in the United States and retreats to Europe so as to snuff any possibility that she and Newland can consummate their love.

Although Ellen Olenska's flight snaps the bud of Newland Archer's life before it can bloom, she herself is not so disabled.  He has lost the love of his life and spends the next twenty-six years in a tomb ("a deathly sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in on [Newland Archer] like the doors of the family vault"). 

The indicators suggest that her fate is otherwise.  She has suffered a grievous loss, certainly; but her balance of courage, dignity and duty have enabled her to enjoy a full life before Newland Archer (one enriched perhaps more by pain than joy, but she has known ecstasy as well), and she will continue to do so after Newland Archer.  

Courage has fitted her for life.

Image of Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's film version of The Age of Innocence from Gonemovie.com.

The readiness is all

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Seven months ago, I saw the (British) National Theatre's production of Hamlet in London, and it was brilliant.  The director, Nicholas Hynter, dropped the royal house of Denmark into the security apparatus of modern governments.  In addition to imbuing the play with the excitement and suspense of a political thriller, this present-day setting made the power dynamics of the play come violently alive.   

In keeping with the modernity of the production, Peter Holland - writing in the program's playbill - offered an interpretation of Hamlet's dilemma that seems tailored to today's psycho-analyzed, cosmopolitan, post-deconstructionist, alienated audience:

[Hamlet] approaches a paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached by his thinking: the more he is able to grasp his awareness of how he knows anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative . . . . Confronted with the enormity of that crisis of truth, the only response is to "Let be," to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes.
The quote to which Holland refers comes at the end of the play, when Horatio is exhorting Hamlet to listen to himself and decline to fight Laertes: "If your mind dislike any thing, obey it."  Hamlet responds by dismissing his feeling of foreboding, saying - in essence - we're all going to die and we don't know when, so what does it matter if it's soon?  "The readiness is all . . . Let be."

I don't know if Shakespeare ever ran a marathon.  I doubt it.

Nor do I have any insight as to whether Peter Holland ever ran a marathon, but he has a goatee, so I think it's unlikely.

Nonetheless, both men seem intimately familiar with the modern marathoner's mindset.  After months of single-minded physical labor, abstinence from late nights, booze and any semblance of vice, the marathoner surrenders to reality: the preparation is all you can do; after that, as my brother says, "anything can happen in a marathon."

In fact, the "anything" that happened to my brother during last Sunday's marathon in Prague, was a pretty damned impressive "anything."  He ran 3:15:57, which is not the kind of fate one can complain about.  Had my brother gone off to fight Laertes, the play would have had a different ending.

Not so with me.  My legs all but shattered, and I staggered across the finish line 5 hours, 9 minutes, and 54 seconds after I started.  I never ran slower in my life.  Indeed, during training, I ran 22 and 23 miles in roughly four hours; but the race was nothing like training: blisters on my toes, leg muscle cramps, and an extended stretch of walking were all present during the race and noticeably absent during training.  Had I been tapped to duel with Laertes, death would have arrived on the playwright's schedule.

While I've had enough exposure to truly rotten fates to refrain from describing mine as one about which I can complain, my situation is nonetheless dispiriting - all the more so because, from the outset, I saw running the marathon as a metaphor for how I live my life, a microcosm that reveals the whole.  I became attracted to this idea last year, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and discovered that the key to reaching the peak was going slow and surrendering to the limitations imposed by the environment.  I blogged about the inspiration I drew from my mountain experience to persevere in my writing.

Unfortunately, the take-away here is less upbeat.  Months of planning and work, tireless effort, deprivation of socializing and fun, dieting, forswearing alcohol, money spent on clothes, shoes and supplements - not to mention all the acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and masseuses who toiled to get my legs race-ready - resulted in a completely disastrous performance.  Enthusiasm, willpower, investment of resources: all easily come to nothing.

I thought I'd already learned this truism the hard way.  Six years of work, discipline and sacrifice to write novels have yielded (a) four novels on the shelf, as of yet unpublished and unread, and (b) a state of near bankruptcy.  Rejection is the only constant, and my life is so unstable that I've come to feel for rejection a wry and perverted gratitude: it's the only thing I can rely on. 

It also make me want to vomit.  Not just vomit, but curl up in a ball on the curb and stay there.  When your rock is rejection, maybe you're better off under the stone.

Of course, I'm not the first to feel this way.  I refer to the aforementioned "paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached" when "the more [I am] able to grasp [an] awareness of how [I] know[] anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative" - although I add, no less painful for being relative.  "[T]he only response is to 'Let be,' to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes."

While I'm constitutionally constrained from waiting patiently - the best I can muster is waiting in a state of thinly-veiled neurosis and sincerely-felt misery - I take the larger point.  "The readiness is all" because it's all we can control.  The loss of control reduces us to paralysis - metaphorically, literally or, if we're really unlucky, both.  Though being without control is an aspect of reality, living in that reality without being sabotaged by it requires a mental discipline of preferring, and prioritizing, what you can control.

That's our choice: lopsided or frozen.

And here, at last, is the metaphor I'll draw: even a lopsided runner (like myself, suffering from a biomechanical breakdown in her right leg) can finish a marathon.

(Images of Maya Alexandri and Talmon Alexandri running the Prague marathon on 8 May 2011 compiled by Maya Alexandri)
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Great artists are so frequently assholes that I have learned to compartmentalize. Ok, so Lord Byron was loathsome in his relations with women; doesn't stop me from admiring his work unstintingly.

Whether such compartmentalization is difficult to maintain or distasteful - probably a bit of both - it's not a popular approach.  People prefer judgments.  There's a pleasing equanimity in being able to say, for example, that because Picasso hated women, Cubism amounted to a visual violence against women - cutting up the planes of their faces and bodies and rearranging them - and that our assessment of Picasso's achievement should be accordingly tempered.  In a world where bad produces bad, we find stability.

Such a world is not the one in which we find ourselves. 

As a result, many people require a certain amount of creative narrative to rationalize situations in which bad produces good.  Maurice Malingue is one such person.

Malingue was the editor of Paul Gaugin's letters to Mette Gad, his wife, and others.  Working in the middle of the last century, Malingue attempted to reconcile aspects of Gauguin's life that were in some tension: on the one hand, he was a genius painter; on the other hand, he was an asshole. 

The facts supporting Paul Gaugin's categorization as an "asshole" are as follows:  After fathering five children, he quit his job, lived apart from his family and contributed little to his family's support or upkeep.  He was openly unfaithful to his wife.  He did not return home either when his favorite daughter, Aline, or his favorite son, Clovis, died, both in their early twenties.  That Gauguin had syphilis, apparently of the variety that leads to madness, is something of a mitigating factor, though he seems to have contracted it after he set himself on the path of abandoning his family.

What Malingue made of these facts is laugh-out-loud funny to today's reader, who is at least 150 years too removed from the Romantics to be reflexively sympathetic to Gauguin's choices.  Malingue has no such scruples.  With a zeal unknown to generation acclimated to a divorce rate of roughly 50%, Malingue - in the Preface to Letters to his Wife and Friends - attacks Gauguin's wife, Mette Gad, and condemns her for expecting Gauguin to support his family:

[Gauguin's] letters constitute the most . . . overwhelming indictments in the trial of Mette Gauguin, who can now be charged with incomprehension of the artist, indifference towards the man, and with having as a wife failed the father of her five children.
. . . .
Mette, in contrast with wives of innumerable artists, found it difficult to contemplate poverty for herself and her children.
. . . .
It is probable that Mette, the daughter of an official, brought up with some degree of mental freedom but in the observance of somewhat rigid moral principles, never could understand how a father of five children could throw up a comfortable position without bothering what was to become of his family. 
Of Gauguin's abandonment of his children, Malingue remarks:

[Gauguin] is a father who suffered keenly in living apart from his children.  Obviously, he could have had them with him if he wanted to.  He renounced his paternal duties deliberately, because constrained to do so by the demands of his art.  The presence of his children would have imposed on him paternal obligations.
As for Gauguin's infidelity, Malingue takes a (dare I suggest typically French?) brazen line:

[Gauguin] plunged into casual amours at Pont-Aven, set up house in Paris with a Javanese, and in Tahiti bedevilled hussies invaded his bed every night.
These "bedevilled hussies" were 14 year-old girls who Gauguin took as his live-in companions.  (In Mario Vargas Llosa's telling - in This Way to Paradise - far from finding his bed "invaded" every night, the aging, broke and syphilitic Gauguin, whose legs were covered with sores, and who lacked money necessary to feed even himself, struggled to find girls willing to live with him.)

Of course, Malingue is full of shit.  Mette might not have been a creative woman, but she was in no way wrong (or even "rigid" in her morals) to expect financial support from her husband and the father of her many children.  Caring for five children might be inconvenient for Paul Gauguin, but the existence of children - not their presence or absence - imposes parental obligations; abandoning one's children geographically does not absolve a parent of responsibilities, however much one's time needs to be devoted to art.  As for adulterous husbands, at a minimum one can demand that they be discrete and steer clear of minors.

In fairness to Malingue, he lived in a different era, when he was not alone in being relatively receptive to justifying the bad acts of a genius, done in the name of his art.  All the same, Malingue's thinking - in any age - is slavish and lazy, the automatic "yes" of a dazzled fan.

Today, the trend is towards the opposite error, of dismissing Gauguin's mastery because he was an adulterous pedophile and a deadbeat dad.  But such reasoning would be equally slavish (to PC standards) and lazy.

We live in a world in which good can come from bad.  In which - Malingue is almost certainly right - Gauguin could desperately miss his children, and yet do nothing to be with them or help them.  In which Gauguin's actions can be wrong and sick, and still the general public is much the better for them.

The accurate narrative is the critical and rigorous one, the one that describes the world in its ambiguity, and that captures and conjures what beauty there is in such a world as ours.  It's not an easy narrative to tell or to absorb, not a narrative that likely to gain popular currency.  And yet it's the narrative in Gauguin's painting; it's the reason, in fact, that Gauguin is great.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ from the National Gallery of Australia website)

Recommending Henry

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A friend recently wrote to me asking for recommendations of classic books he could read over Spring Break.  (Plainly, he's not one of my friends who believes that nothing in the classics can rival Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break; and for those of my friends who do hold such beliefs, what about the "lioness on the cheese grater" position referred to in Lysistrata?)

So back to my friend: I replied with a list of books that included Henry James' The Aspern Papers, possibly my fave of the James oeuvre.  Short, shocking and chock full of nasty conflicts of interest and sexual tensions, The Aspern Papers is my idea of reading satisfaction.

Not so much my friend: "I tried reading the Aspern Papers, but didn't really enjoy the writing style."

Poor Henry!  All those long sentences with tangential, intermediary clauses; all that punctuation - those dashes, those commas; all those asides, all that effort, all that style: all beyond the ready appreciation of today's reader.

And poor friend!  Henry James is not called "The Master" for nothing.  All his learning, his intimate knowledge of the human viscera, his understanding of emotional contortion and manipulative behavior, of the corrupting power of money and the dangers of life on society's periphery: all inaccessible under the lock of his impenetrable prose.

The situation brought to mind the scene in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, when Aziz spontaneously recites a poem by Ghalib to an assortment of well-wishers who have come to his bedside when he's sick:

[The poem] had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs.  They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers.
. . . .
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry.  The minds of the others were inferior and rough.  Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization.  The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty.  He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness.
(p. 99-100.)  With humor and a deft description, Forster captured - almost 90 years ago - what we have lost and, still today, haven't been able to replace.  The "infection of beauty" imbues even the ignoble thought with a "pleasant freshness."

Translation: Girls Gone Wild is even better after reading The Aspern Papers!

(Image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James from State College of Florida website)

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)
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