Recently in The Great Themes Category
Although I previously characterized Lorrie Moore's Self-Help
as a "wasteland of ideas
," in fact one of the stories contains one idea. The story is "Go Like This," and the idea is the disturbing concept of "aesthetic suicide" (p. 73).
The story's protagonist, Liz, has breast cancer that has spread. Although her doctor advises her that "women have survived much greater damage than you have suffered, much worse odds, worse pain than this" (p. 68), Liz decides to kill herself on Bastille Day with an overdose of Seconal. "[S]uicide [is] the most rational and humane alternative to my cancer, an act not so much of self-sacrifice as of beauty, of sparing" (p. 71), she tells her friends.
Some of her friends protest, but her husband, Elliot - who won't sleep with her after her mastectomies, despite her continuing sexual desire for him - thinks that "[suicide] will possibly be the most creative act Liz has ever accomplished," and adds, "I think it is beautiful she is doing this for me" (p. 73).
Elliot's attitude is a pity because his stance deprives the story of an opportunity to explore seriously the idea it raises. Despite the fact that luminaries like Martha Gellhorn
have agreed with Liz's assertion that "intelligent suicide is almost always preferable to the stupid lingering of a graceless death" (p. 72), "Go Like This" reduces Liz's thinking to a pathetic rationalization. With her husband rebuffing her sexual desires, masturbating after she goes to sleep and expressing relief and gratitude for her exit strategy, Liz's suicide cannot be "the culmination of a life philosophy, the triumph of the artist over the mortal, physical world" (p. 72-73); rather, it is a demoralized accession to her husband's will.
In "Go Like This," Moore does more than "focus on the visceral
." Whether consciously or not, she seems to cast aspersions on the cerebral. Not content to ignore ideas completely, in "Go Like This," Moore suggests that ideas - "big ideas," "existential" ideas ("It's Hemingway" (p. 69)) - are devices for self-deceit.
Of course, Moore's suspicion of "big ideas," and her insistence on the primacy of the visceral, emotional and irrational in women's lives, is itself a big idea - and not a new one: it's the idea that when women try to think, they get themselves into a muddle.
Far from condemning this message as sexist, Moore's stories seem to argue that this banishment of women to the Irrationality Reserve is true-to-life and aesthetically-liberating. My own perspective is that this argument is no less deceptive than Liz's contorted rationalizing and no less of an amputation than Liz's mastectomies.
An aesthetic without ideas is not "female": it's amoral. And glorifying such an approach as essentially female isn't "women's art": it's aesthetic suicide.
(Image of barbituates from Healthmad.com
Opening Jeanette Winterson's Weight
, the first of many prefatory pages was about the series, The Myths
, of which Weight
- a refashioning of the myth of Atlas - is a part:
Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives - they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.
Who could argue? But as a description of a series of modern retellings ancient myths, the statement fails in its explanatory purpose: if the very power of myths is their enduring relevance, why commission their retelling, as opposed to returning to the originals?
In Winterson's Introduction, the third prefatory passage in the book (by the Intro, I was antsy for her to get started already), Winterson attempts an answer:
My work is full of Cover Versions. I like to take stories we think we know and record them differently. In the re-telling comes a new emphasis or bias, and the new arrangement of the key elements demands that fresh material be injected into the existing texts.Weight
, p. xviii.
Retelling stories is a common impulse. Shakespeare (who used commonly available plots) did it; Tom Stoppard returned the favor in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
to fantastic comic effect; and other examples across high and low fiction abound, from Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl
to Anita Diamant's The Red Tent
But a new emphasis or bias doesn't necessarily deepen the literary (as opposed to sociological, historical, anthropological or psychological) value of the work; and an injection of fresh material doesn't necessarily enhance the old story line. New for the sake of being new is as gratuitous as the "[r]eality TV or the kind of plodding fiction that only works as low-grade documentary" that Winterson condemns in her Intro (p. xix).
In the case of Weight
, Winterson ends up aping that of which she claims to disapprove. After calling herself a "writer . . . who believes in the power of story telling for its mythic and not its explanatory qualities" (p. xx), she litters her retold myth with explanations:
Autobiography is not important. Authenticity is important. . . . I
believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing
process, which is not say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply,
it is real.
p xix. And:
When I was born my mother gave me away to a stranger. I had no say in that. It was her decision my fate.
Later, my adopted mother rejected me too. And told me I was none of her, which was true.
Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself.
My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex.
p. 97. And:
I am good at walking away. Rejection teaches you how to reject. I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life. I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once. I stayed on the run.
p. 98. And:
That's why I write fiction - so that I can keep telling the story. I return to problems I can't solve, not because I'm an idiot, but because the real problems can't be solved. . . . The more we see, the more we discover there is to see.
Save it for counseling, Jeanette! This irrelevant content is the same kind of "'true life' account that occup[ies] the space where imagination used to sit" that she criticizes, "explanatory" rather than "mythic" writing. Coming on the heels of all her protesting against such dross, her own "mythic" contribution seems pretentious.
, Winterson's feather-light achievement is to illustrate, not the "universal" and "timeless" aspects of the myth, but the self-absorbed, victim-centric obsessions of the moment. For an "explor[ation of] our desires, our fears, our longings, and . . . narratives that remind us what it means to be human," read the Greeks.
Elspeth Huxley and Lewis S.B. Leakey were both born and raised in what is now Kenya in the early parts of the twentieth century (when the territory was British East Africa). Both were keen observers, cogent critical thinkers, articulate voices, adventurous travelers and prolific in their works and writings. They were also both sympathetic to black Africans and adopted balanced perspectives about colonization and its impacts on settlers and natives.
Despite these similarities, they come out on different sides of a question of pressing importance and, in light of my work at the UN Environment Programme, immediacy in my own daily life: environmental degradation.
Kenya currently is suffering a long-running and debilitating drought. Electricity - much of which is generated by hydropower - has been rationed because the water levels are too low to produce sufficient supply. Crops are failing, and people in Samburu are dying of starvation in the same horrifying manner (if not numbers) as their forerunners in Biafra and Ethiopia did.
In 2009, with our current knowledge of climate change, Kenya's condition looks like the effects of increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - and maybe it is. But drought and the attendant sufferings aren't new in Kenya, and people have long cultivated knowledge about water, its sources and the impacts human activity can have on its availability.
Writing in 1963 on the cusp of Kenyan independence, in the context of the the handover from white national forest administrators to their black successors, Huxley writes:
The Masai are no respecter of forests. Trees, to them, are enemies which rob them of potential grazing, rather than allies which anchor soil and make of it a sponge to absorb rainfall and return it in the form of springs. The Masai drive their herds up into the glades and start fires which destroy the vegetation.
Across the Rift [Valley], on the south-western slopes of the Mau escarpment, you can count at least a dozen fires every time you fly over the mountains. You can see blackened patches and clearings hoed for crops (a lot of these Masai have Kikuyu wives who cultivate) and the gloomy spectacle of human predators colonizing and spoiling the forests. Already springs are dwindling and soon rivers that have always flowed the year through will be turned into seasonal streams that come down in spate in wet seasons, and dry up altogether in between. Then what will the Masai do for water? When their streams turn into dry, sandy river-beds they will shrug their shoulders and say shauri ya Mungu: the affair of God. Perhaps it is, for tolerating so much human stupidity.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook
, p. 20
The argument that water shortage in Kenya had a human - and specifically "native" - cause was not original in Huxley's day. Almost thirty years earlier, in 1936 - and about sixty years before the term "climate change" had entered our daily discourse - Lewis Leakey debunked the "blame the natives" theory of water shortage in Kenya:
The soil erosion which is taking place so alarmingly in some parts of the country, and the destruction of so much forest by fires, are both commonly attributed to the natives and their carelessness. I believe, however, that the more important factor governing both these troubles is a purely climactic one, although it is probably true that excessive grazing by goats and sheep, and carelessness with fire in forest areas, is hastening the process of nature.
If dessication really goes on for the next two or three hundred years at the rate at which it has been at work in the past few hundred, it will not only be the European community in Kenya that will suffer but also the natives, and as they have less money at their disposal for water boring and for water conservation, the latter will probably suffer the worst.
Lewis S.B. Leakey, Kenya: Contrasts and Problems
, p. 169
With the scientist's perspective of drought patterns over hundreds of years, Leakey was able to identify Kenya - as early as 1936 and perhaps earlier - as being in a pattern of "dessication" caused by "climactic" factors. Leakey understood that the drying up had started centuries earlier; and, moreover, that this latest phase was not the first in a series of swings between lushland and desert that Kenya had experienced over millennia.
Certainly, greenhouse gas emissions may be responsible for a speeding-up of this dessication process; what Leakey thought might happen in two or three hundred years might be occurring in sixty to one hundred. Still, the comparison between Leakey and Huxley is significant: even the sharpest eye is apt to misconstrue what it sees without the scope of other disciplines and perhaps hundreds of years.
On the other hand, consider the perspective of Stephen Dobyns in his poem, "Where We Are (after Bede)
." Dobyns doesn't have (so far as I'm aware) any exposure to Kenya, let alone opportunities for close analysis of its people, soil layers or climactic patterns. Nonetheless, from his perch of severe distance (nay, ignorance), he sums up climate change in Kenya (and worldwide) better than either Leakey or Huxley could:
This is where we are in history - to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night - a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.
I take from literature what I need at a particular time in my life - a reread at a different moment reveals another necessary - so I was impressed by the resonance of Nick's final gift in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
. Nick's openness to seeing beauty in the world at the instant of his most foul excommunication recalled the last lines of Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese
. . . .
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
In his aesthetic sensitivity, an expression of Nick's ability to love the world with "shocking" unconditionality, Nick has found his place in the family of things - whatever the verdict of the families - the Guests, the Feddens, the Charleses, the Ouradis - he has tried to join previously.
Alan Hollinghurst and Mary Oliver are not the only authors who have comforted me thus recently. Kathleen Jamie's joyous poem, "The way we live
," makes the same point as she celebrates (among others):
. . . .
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government. To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.
To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems
to be: let me bash out praises - pass the tambourine.
Indeed, the power imparted by an unconditional love of the world - with its embrace of mortality as much as vivacity, hardship as much as luxury - also captured Karen Blixen's attention. In "The Dreaming Child," she describes the helplessness an adoptive mother feels when her dying adopted son displays this very trait:
All her life she had endeavoured to separate good from bad, right from wrong, happiness from unhappiness. Here she was, she reflected with dismay, in the hands of a being, much smaller and weaker than herself, to whom these were all one, who welcomed light and darkness, pleasure and pain, in the same spirit of gallant, debonair approval and fellowship. The fact, she told herself, did away with all need of her comfort and consolation here at her child's sick-bed; it often seemed to abolish her very existence.
"The Dreaming Child," Winter's Tales
, p. 178
This lesson was one Karen Blixen appears to have grasped, not by innate inclination, but through repeated suffering at the hands of men - Bror, Denys - who didn't see debt, alcoholism, war, illness, loneliness, or her own misery as conditions to be avoided - who swallowed life knife-edge first and wondered why Karen seemed to cut her throat on it - whose phenomenal fortresses of apparent independence "did away with all need" of her and "seemed to abolish her very existence." No wonder she looked on this unconditional love of the world with awe. Bror and Denys may have found their places in the family of things, but Karen seems to have gone to her death still looking.
Perhaps what Karen Blixen needed was, not better men, but better literature. The last poem Denys read to her, standing with one foot in his idling car, from a book of poems by Iris Tree
that burned with his body in the plane crash at Voi, is also about geese:
I saw grey geese flying over the flatlands
Wild geese vibrant in the high air -
Unswerving from horizon to horizon
With their soul stiffened out in their throats-
And the grey whiteness of them ribboning the enormous skies
And the spokes of the sun over the crumples hills.
Compared with the use Mary Oliver makes of wild geese, Iris Tree's effort is crap. Were it that Karen Blixen could have nonetheless taken the tambourine she so badly needed from it.
I am a plot woman. Characterization, tone, style, word-smithing, clever turns of phrase, psychological acuity - I appreciate them, but with me plot is king. If the plot falters, so does my enjoyment.
Not so with the reverse. I recall Russell Roberts opining
that the plots of all P.G. Wodehouse's books were "the same." To the contrary - Bertie Wooster's and Jeeve's characters may be frozen; the tone, style and amusing word play may never evolve; the overall story lines may remain predictable; but the plots - the plots are always magnificent. P.G.W. was an absolute genius of the plot (as must be all masters of the long-form comedy, which may explain why they are so few in number).
For this reason, I remain amazed at my own ardor for Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
. The novel is, in fact, spectacularly plotted . . . but the pace of the plotting is so slow as to be imperceptible until the last forty pages. At that point, the entire world of the book shatters with such speed and reverberation that the closest analogy to reading the book's last two chapters is living through a head-on car-truck collision.
But why did I keep reading through the first 460 pages? I know people who didn't - "Same old, same old" from chapter to chapter, they complained. They put it down 100 pages into it and never picked it up again.
In my case, I kept reading because I marveled at Hollinghurst's astonishing skill at evoking moods that leapt from the page and manifested in a physical experience. From the scene - on page 10 - when Nick returns to the Feddens' Notting Hill house and intuits a burglary, I was in awe. I read that scene several times, trying to understand how he'd done it. "Just words on the page," I hmphed to myself, but they'd cast a spell of pulse-racing, quick-breathing terror and suspense over me.
This suspense - of waiting to see what a magician will do next - kept me reading, and I was not disappointed, from the surprisingly (to a heterosexual) arousing sex scene between Nick and Leo in the park, right through to its bookend, the revolting sex scene between Wani and Tristão at the party with Maggie Thatcher. The pull of this suspense was plot-like, just as the audience's anticipation in a Cirque du Soleil performance is.
The real magic, though, is that The Line of Beauty
was not as plotless as a circus. Hollinghurst's immaculate mood-conjuring passages distracted from the machinery of the plot, and while I was dazzled by the beauty of his realism - so perfect that I experienced the physical reactions of an eye-witness - Hollinghurst was laying a merciless plot-trap.
His accomplishment suggests a nickname for him, in the tradition of his mentor-of-sorts, Henry James - known as "The Master": Hollinghurst could be known as "The Magician."
(Photo of P.G. Wodehouse courtesy of The Telegraph
Reading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
for a second time, I was more impressed even than I'd been the first time - and I'd been smitten on my initial go-round. Hollinghurst is so well-rounded as a writer that it's a wonder his book is still bound in the conventional manner and not shaped like a globe, so near is he to what's meant by "universal" in his scope.
Of course, my neighbors in Beijing might be lost in all the references to classical Western music, art, architecture and literature (though not in the refuge sought in "high culture"). My colleagues in Pune might not relate to the Feddens' permissive attitude towards their daughter Catherine's misbehavior (but they'd understand the Feddens' general denial of her mental illness). My friends in Nairobi might be turned off by the explicit descriptions of Nick's homosexual sex (but they'd recognize the moralistic and hypocritical condemnation of it as "vulgar and unsafe").
Still, the receptive reader from any culture will respond to the novel's surprising hopefulness. Despite his rejection and betrayal by every member of the Feddens' household and circle, despite his absolute solitude and vulnerability in his anguish, despite his conviction that his latest HIV test will return a positive result and the hallucinatory patina his fear throws over his vision, Nick's final impression in the book is one of beauty, provoked by the unexpected discovery within himself that his "love of the world . . . was shockingly unconditional." (p. 501.)
Nick's apprenticeship to the masters of aesthetics has imbued him with resiliency beyond his years, his experience and, possibly, his innate capacities. His appreciation of the line of beauty is a treasure more valuable than all the money of the Feddens, the Kesslers, and the Ouradis combined because, in the end, all must die, and money - if anything - weakens one's capacity for recognizing in mortality a beauty that's of a piece with the finest objets d'art
At the risk of damning the book with faint praise, I'll hazard that The Line of Beauty
is the finest argument ever penned in favor of aesthetics as capacity building. That his argument has not been more universally accepted - in developed but mediocre cultures like America, as much as in the developing world - is a loss that money-chasers are apt to discover too late.
(Photo of Alan Hollinghurst courtesy of The Guardian