Reading this quote immediately put me in mind of a conversation I'd had with a Kenyan friend, Marianne, about my interest in Karen Blixen, Denys Finch-Hatton, and their social set. "They weren't like the 'Happy Valley' crew that came in the decade after they arrived," I'd told her. "The 'Happy Valley' group just got drunk and slept with each others' spouses."
"Which is what they [Blixen and friends] did, too," she replied, challenging my categorization criteria.
"Well, yeah," I admitted, recalling Bror Blixen's alcoholism and philandering, Karen Blixen's affair with Denys while she was still married to Bror, Deny's affairs while he was with her, the wine-swilling, dope smoking and opium taking that went on in Karen Blixen's parlor . . . .
What could I say? Yes, Blixen & Co's behavior paralleled that of the Happy Valley entourage, but Blixen et al. were . . . cultured? Karen and Denys read poetry and listened to classical music?
The question needled me until I read that above-quoted passage from George Eliot, and then I understood my own reasoning. The colonists of Blixen's generation - perhaps because of their proximity to the Victorian era and its endorsement of exploration and discovery, especially by amateurs - were remarkably reflective about their lives in Africa. An astonishing number of them wrote books about their experiences: Bror (African Hunter), Karen (Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass), Llewelyn Powys (Black Laughter), Beryl Markham (West with the Night), Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (My Reminiscences of East Africa), to name but a handful.
By contrast, the Happy Valley menagerie - Idina Sackville, Lord Errol, Diana Delamere, Alice de Janzé,Sir Jock Delves Broughton - bore a much closer resemblance in their conduct to Los Angelinos in the 1980s. They were too busy being drunk, stoned and otherwise zonked out of their minds - and in-and-out of each others beds, trousers and every other locale and crevice - and shooting each other - to do much reflection, never mind writing. Though a number of books have been written about them - White Mischief, The Bolter - reflection is not a characteristic attributable to their modus vivendi.
Yet reflection - that most distinctly human activity - is what interests me. The critical mind that perceives, questions what it perceives, and experiments in the arrangement of those perceptions into coherent narratives - along with the benefits and limitations of such an approach - is what captures my attention.
However much damage the colonists of Karen Blixen's era wrought - ecological destruction, biodiversity diminishment, discrimination, denial of human rights, theft of land - they were reflective about their actions. Why those philosophers were unable to prevent themselves from being as harmful (to themselves, and to Kenya) as the Philistines that followed - and whether their reflectiveness made any difference - is a question worthy of reflection.
In the Introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of Middlemarch, Rosemary Ashton writes:
Perhaps it is wrong to try to reconcile the opposing tendencies of Middlemarch, not only its passionate airing of the case for extending women's opportunities and its putting them back in their wifely place again, but also its expression of a general belief in progress, "the growing good of the world," simultaneously with its exhibiting of the individual failure of the two main characters to achieve their ideals.
Despite Ashton's abdication of this reconciliation, I think these polarities are (already) reconciled in the text by Eliot's conservative perspective on romantic love. Eliot appears to find romantic love a force that will not be denied; for which sacrifice is either worth it, or for which society encourage people - men and women - to sacrifice (a view that she might complicate, but doesn't condemn).
Will Ladislaw, for example, seems stricken with the most adolescent type of romantic love, a two-dimensional devotedness that probably goes far towards making him among the least-developed of the novel's characters. Notwithstanding his insistence to the contrary, if he couldn't have Dorothea, I'm entirely confident that he'd find someone else in a couple of years time.
Dorothea Brooke, for her part, would no doubt have gotten over Will (whom she doesn't even realize she loves until 786 pages into the book) and realized her St. Theresa-potential if she'd stayed single and been a bit more persistent about finding an Albert Schweitzer (or Mother Theresa) outlet for her money.
Still, Will and Dorothea's love will not be denied (by Eliot, or by Dorothea), and neither Eliot nor Dorothea think it error to give up property for this match, despite its most mediocre results.
Similarly, Mary Garth would have been much better off marrying Camden Farebrother; he's a richer, fuller person than Fred Vincy. With Farebrother, Mary would have had a more interesting life and more possibility for realizing her potential in educational, charitable, humanistic and theological directions. Still, both Mary and Eliot are satisfied that Mary should grow white-haired with the man who "always loved her" since she was a child - even if their marriage entails Fred wasting his education and Mary not bothering to educate their boys.
In the same vein of self-destructiveness, Tertius Lydgate squanders his potential as a medical scientist simply to avoid realizing that he no longer loves Rosamond. ("In marriage, the certainty, 'She will never love me much,' is easier to bear than the fear, 'I shall love her no more.'" p. 652.) He'd rather be without his career ambition than without his romantic love for an undeserving object.
This attitude about romantic love is the narrow conservatism that curbs Eliot's progressivism. She cannot seem to imagine a liberating valence for romantic love, as would be the case if Dorothea married Tertius and the two of them joined forces to reform the health care system in Victorian England - a possibility at which the book hints, but dares not dwell.
Why Eliot couldn't imagine this outcome for her characters is an interesting question. In her own life, her partner and common law husband, G.H. Lewes, was her agent. Plainly, Eliot herself was familiar with partnerships that advanced the professional and economic - as well as sexual and emotional - well-being of both partners. All the same, the men in Middlemarch - Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, Tertius Lydgate, and Fred Vincy - obviate this possibility with their pinched views of ideal womanhood - uncritical devotion, beauty, adoration, goddesses on pedestals.
Perhaps without intending to do so, Eliot has illustrated a dynamic more complicated than her stated belief that society suppresses opportunities for individual realization of potential; in Middlemarch she shows - more powerfully than what she says - that individual's compromises (or refusals to compromise) with their romantic inclinations are as powerful an obstacle as any society has constructed.
When reading fiction, the temptation to finger some fact or occurrence as "the truth" is strong, and those writing about Karen Blixen are apt to capitulate to it. Judith Thurman, Sara Wheeler and Errol Trzebinski all do it, citing some snippet of her fiction for a clue about how she might have thought or felt or responded to x or y situation.
Reading Winter's Tales, I myself felt the pull of such interpretive methods. "The Pearls," for example, dares you to understand the story as an account of her marriage. The groom, Alexander, in "The Pearls," has a twin sister; Karen Blixen's husband, Bror, had a twin brother. The bride, Jensine, is happy to honeymoon with her husband in the wilderness; Karen and Bror no sooner married than they were living in Africa. "The gossips of Copenhagen would have it that [Alexander] had married for money, and [Jensine] for a name" (p. 108); and, indeed, such gossip circulated about Karen and Bror - he, who was always in debt, and she, who was in love with being called "Baroness."
These correspondences lead the reader (or at least, this reader) to draw similar parallels about other nuggets in the story. "[V]ery soon after he marriage, Jensine realized - as she had perhaps dimly known from their first meeting - that he was a human being entirely devoid, and incapable, of fear." (p. 110.) Ah-hah, I thought, upon reading this passage: so that's what Bror was like.
"[Jensine] recalled the fairy tale of the boy is sent out in the world to learn to be afraid, and it seemed to her that for her own sake and his, in self-defense as well as in order to protect and save him, she must teach her husband to fear." (p. 111.) An insight into Karen Blixen's attitude towards her husband, no?
By the end of the story, when "[t]o her own deep surprise . . . . Alexander . . . had become a very small figure in the background of life; what he did or thought mattered not in the least. That she herself had been made a fool of did not matter" (p. 123), I was inclined to believe that I was reading Karen Blixen's personal opinion about having been married to an adulturer who'd humiliated her in front of Nairobi society.
Had I read "The Pearls" in isolation, perhaps my opinion of Karen Blixen's marriage would have settled into that comfortable category of "stuff I know without needing to retain citations" that resides in a hazy corner of my memory. But I kept reading. And, annoyingly, characterizations resurfaced, but now in less comfortably identifiable situations.
For example, in "Alkmene," the title character is a gorgeous girl adopted by a childless couple. "The first thing [Gertrud, Alkmene's adopted mother] told me about [Alkmene] was that she seemed to be altogether without fear. . . . So [Gertrud] made it her first duty as a mother to teach her child, as in the fairy-tales, to know fear." (p. 200.) Uh-oh. Is Alkmene also supposed to be Bror? Because later on in the story, Alkmene dresses up in a regal silk gown and parades around the woods - and dressing up, as well as theatrical behavior, were characteristics of the young Karen Blixen.
This coincidence of fearlessness in a character reminded me that extracting facile assumptions about the author's life based on her fiction is crap-quality literary criticism, a lesson I should've known so intimately from my own writing that I'd be in no need of reminding. From my own creative methods, I know that facts are an input to a process - the inner workings of which are veiled even to me - the outcome of which is (hopefully) entertaining, (hopefully) linguistically acute and (hopefully) insightful into the human condition, but never reliably accurate a reflection of my own biography. I don't "hide" my truth in the novels I write, but instead transform the raw factual material of reality into stories.
If Karen Blixen did anything similar, then the only conclusion to draw from her fiction is doubt about the possibility of extrapolating backwards from her fancy to the facts that formed its basis.
This week's New York Times online book review featured a video, in which Sam Tanenhaus interviewed E.L. Doctorow about his new book, Homer & Langley. Doctorow - whose gentle, mellifluous voice matches his deft touch with political agendas - admits in the interview that the political dimension to Homer & Langley is about "entropy." Now, in the aftermath of the reign of Bush and Cheney, Doctorow says, "I hope we're living a little better, trying to recover our identity or our illusions of our noble identity as a country. The last best hope for mankind and so on." (5:25-5:44)
Whether "recover[ing] . . . our illusions of our noble identity . . . . [as t]he last best hope for mankind" is "living better" is an interesting question. While I'm inclined to think that Americans will probably be happier, living under the illusion that the United States is the last best hope for humanity, I don't believe that such deluded happiness is either advisable or sustainable. (Simply based on our carbon emissions, America is not only not the last best hope for mankind, but unquestionably the chief agent of its demise.)
I am surprised to hear Doctorow advocating a return to illusions - however seemingly nurturing. My own expectation of a novelist of Doctorow's stature (and with Doctorow's penchant for political activism - literary or otherwise) is that he'd recommend embracing a national identity based on reality: we can't go back again. At a minimum, writing a novel about entropy seems wasted effort if retreat into illusion - an approach no less entropic than the Bush/Cheney administration - is the recommendation.
I have no basis for speculating about the reasons for Doctorow's position, and - disappointingly - Tanenhaus didn't pursue that line of inquiry. Perhaps I'm simply misunderstanding him; of course, in a 5-minute video, complex ideas will inevitably be oversimplified. But, as a default, Doctorow dispelling my illusions is as unremarkable as is America undermining his.
If I'd been allowed to choose the title for Claudia Roth Pierpont's book, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, I might have selected, The Arduous Lives of Women Writers: Failure, Imbalance and For What? In her selection of essays, originally written for The New Yorker, about twelve women writers, Pierpont depicts an ambition - being a writer - so remote from feasibility that none of the women under examination have been able to achieve it without gross and debilitating sacrifices.
Of course, everyone knows that being a women writer makes for a hateful life - between the constant rejection, poverty, needing the room of one's own, dying of Addison's disease and all that, it could hardly be otherwise. But I forget. The way my mind works, I'm liable to connect my languishing in the purgatory of yet-to-be-published with the general pattern of unfairness and injustice in my life - another of the never-ending side-effects of having been less preferred to my obviously inferior brother - instead of, like, the normal state of affairs. Pierpont's book was that "knock knock" message we all need at various times in our lives: hello, dumbass, what you're attempting is so hard that geniuses can't do it without suffering.
Which is not to say that Pierpont's book is solely - or even primarily - about geniuses. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of her book is the number of hacks she profiles. Pierpont can scarcely veil her disdain of
Anaïs Nin's writing ("For the reader able to escape the solitary confinement of these endless pages [of Nin's Diary] through the mere act of closing a book - such a simple deliverance - relief is dulled only by a shuddering pity for the woman who lived all her days trapped inside." (p. 79)). For Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Pierpont reserves the terms "vulgar," "blatant, commercial," and "blundering colossus." (p. 130-131.) Pierpont makes no claims for Ayn Rand's work beyond Rand's admission of writing "propaganda." (p. 200.) Talentless (or talent-limited) dreamers, no less than the geniuses, suffer for the ambition of making their living from their writing.
But the suffering is extreme for such a minor crime. Zora Neale Hurston, the writer in this collection with whom I identify most closely - and whose fate I think most likely to be a foreshadowing of my own - worked as a maid in her old age and died in a welfare home, a lonely end that the critic Darwin Tuner wrote was "eccentric but perhaps appropriate" - so deeply was Hurston misunderstood.
This unhappiness that, without exception, characterizes the lives and careers of Pierpont's passionate subjects reminded me of an article Malcolm Gladwell wrote about late blooming geniuses. Largely a book report on David W. Galenson's Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Gladwell's article contains this gem: "This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others," whereupon Gladwell details the support provided by the patrons of Cezanne and (less established, but still warranting the label "late blooming genius" in Gladwell's inventory) Ben Folds. In other words, artists who have a long development period need support if they're going to make it.
Guess what the women writers of Passionate Minds lacked?
Whether support would have made a self-destroyer like Mary McCarthy or a battle-ax like Mae West happy is an open question; my vote is "no." (Astonishing levels of support did seemingly little to improve Cezanne's happiness quotient.) Still, support might have enabled these women and others - Marina Tsvetaeva, Doris Lessing, Eudora Welty and, of course, Hurston - to succeed more readily and more sustainably; and both the support and the success - one could easily imagine - would have improved their lives.
This problem of support - or lack thereof - seems to be what, in the end, makes realization of the ambition of being a woman writer so difficult. Whether a woman has to marry into the support (prostitution), rely on her family (manipulation, co-dependency), or work another job (exhaustion, distraction, no time for writing), finding the money to support her writing is so miserable a hustle that, among Pierpont's twelve subjects, not one survived it on any but the most abject and usurious terms.
As Pierpont sums up the situation, "These are lives in which success is hard won, retreat and even breakdown are common, love is difficult, and children are nearly impossible, lives in which all that is ever certain is that books and plays and poems are being written." (p. xiii.) The sacrifices are so great, and the rewards so meager and long-coming, that the effort doesn't look - even to one engaged in the attempt - to be worth it; and yet the compulsion to continue remains.
A memorable feature of The African Queen - now three weeks after I've finished it - is C.S. Forester's empathy for the Germans. Early on in the story, Forester highlights one of his heroine's few flaws by emphasizing her lack of compassion for the German military predicament:
[N]aturally [Rose] could not see the other side of the question. Von Hanneken, with no more than five hundred white men in a colony people by a million Negroes, of whom not more than a few thousand even knew they were subjects of the German flag, had to face the task of defending German Central Africa against the attacks of the overwhelming forces which would instantly be directed upon him. It was his duty to fight tot he bitter end, to keep occupied as many of the enemy as possible for as long as possible, and to die in the last ditch, if necessary, while the real decision was being fought out in France. Thanks to the British command of the sea, he could expect no help whatever from outside. . . . Rose saw no excuse for him at all.
p. 8-9. Later, when The African Queen squeaks by the German troops stationed at Shona, on the last stretch of river before the rapids, C.S. Forester endows the German commander with a complex range of reactions:
[The captain of the reserve] stood staring down between the cliffs for a long minute. Von Hanneken would be furious at the news of the loss of [The African Queen], but what more could he have done? He could not justly be expected to have foreseen this. No one in his senses would have taken a steam launch into the cataract, and a reserve officer's training does not teach a man to guard against cases of insanity. . . . . As he walked back to Shona, bathed in sweat, he was still undecided whether he should make any mention of this incident in his report to Von Hanneken. . . . It might be better to keep quiet. The [African Queen] was gone, and the poor devils in it were dead. . . . But he was sorry for the poor devils, all the same.
p. 85-86. And in the tale's dramatic conclusion, the Germans "[p]retty decent[ly]" bring Rose and Charlie Allnut over to the British side of Lake Tanganyika - in a move that has "a touch of the formal chivalry of the Napoleonic wars" (p. 233-234) - before the British finally sink the German ship,KöniginLuise, in a maneuver that sees the British "not want[ing] to kill the wretched Germans" and the Germans gallantly going down with the ship. (p. 241-242.)
C.S. Forester's notable and humanizing depiction of Germans prompted a number of questions for me: First, I wondered if C.S. Forester was taking any political risks by offering so three dimensional a glimpse of his German characters. WWI - and the use of mustard gas - was still fresh in the minds of the British public, and Hitler was already in power by the time to book was published. His good-natured approach to the enemy could have cost him readers.
Second, I wondered if, even if he'd perceived the political risk, C.S. Forester would have cared. In his criticism of Rose's inability to relate to the German military predicament, I perceived that C.S. Forester was gently contrasting her with himself; his characters may be privileged to be narrow minded, but the author can afford no such luxury. In that case, his discharging of his authorial duty seems tinged with bravery.
Finally, I wondered if his empathy was an expression of a longing for a romantic, chivalrous (imagined) golden age - an idealistic hope that if he could conjure a civilized conflict on the page, readers might be inspired to live it out in the real world. If so, a rich irony exists in the fact that Rose and Charlie Allnut - the patriotic, intrepid, salt-of-the-earth lovers - planned to destroy theKöniginLuise in a suicide bombing.