Recently in The nature of greatness Category

Real combat

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David Grossman's To the End of the Land might be a great book, but it's a mess.  It has tics, like its characters.  (And this is a book in which a boy rhymes incessantly for months, and then graduates into OCD hand-washing/lip-puffing/face-contorting, etc.).
 
Grossman's protagonist, Ora, is a little too emotional, and a little too unintelligent, to hold the book together.  It flies apart with her tantrums, her sudden impulses to cook, to flee, to write, to argue.
 
Like Ora, the story occillates.  The book begins powerfully, with evocative scenes in an isolation ward in a hospital during the 1967 war.  Fast-forwarding to 2000, the book continues strongly, with a devastating sub-plot involving Ora's Arab driver, Sami.  But - too soon - Sami disappears.  Ilan, Ora's husband, and Adam, her oldest son, have disappeared before we meet Ora in 2000, and her younger son, Ofer, vanishes into a military campaign shortly before Sami takes off.  All this fleeing leaves Ora alone with Avram, a man of severe incapacities, on a hike along the Israel Trail, from northen Israel back down to Jerusalem.  The narrative for the next four hundred pages or so must rise and fall with Ora, and she isn't up to the burden.
 
Grossman tries to help her out.  At one point, feral dogs menace Ora and Avram, with the upshot that Ora attracts - and functionally adopts - a dog who follows their meanderings for the remainder of the book.  At another point, Ora and Avram meet an elderly pediatrician, hiking alone, wearing two wedding rings and asking intimate questions.  The doctor finds a notebook Ora dropped, and Ora later retrieves it from him while he naps.  In my favorite of these tangents, Ora and Avram are picked up by a jester of sorts, a holy fool named Akiva, whose job is as a "gladdener of the dejected."  
 
But none of these narrative life-savers thrown by the author gets Ora to swim.  She swirls along with the currents and the breezes, and by the end of the book the narrative seems to expire from exhaustion.  The desperately important sub-plot with Sami is left hanging; the fate of Ofer in the military campaign limps to an ambiguous closure; the rupture in Ora's relations with her husband, Ilan, and her son, Adam, raises its head, but barely receives a pat. 
 
Instead, we get Ora's final tantrum, which occurs after she's invaded Avram's privacy by checking his voicemails without his knowledge and intercepted a sensitive message from his girlfriend in which she seems obliquely to be confessing to an abortion.  Ora - though the aggressor and the violator in this scenario - is hurt and acting out, and in the context of everything else with which she and Avram have been dealing over the course of the book (horrorific torture, war crimes, divorce, abandoment, helplessness to protect one's children), Ora's behavior rings a sour and petty note on which to conclude the book.  But the ending feels like Grossman simply couldn't go on: Ora wore him down.  He had to close the book on her. 
 
And yet the book has the ambition, the empathy and the sheer compulsion - the sense that it ripped itself from its author's guts and loins - that makes it great: "great" in the sense that the great Roberto Bolaño defines great books in his great and monumental novel 2666:

What a sad paradox . . . . Now even bookish [readers] are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.  They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.  Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
(p. 227.)
 
Bolaño has distilled the issue perfectly.  In To the End of the Land, Grossman struggles mightily against what terrifies us all, literally amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.  And he has produced an imperfect, torrential work that blazes into the unknown.  
 
For Grossman, for Bolaño, and most of all for ourselves, we mustn't fear to take it on.

(Image of David Grossman from The Guardian)

Not worth sixpence

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The Tate Modern's Gauguin show enthralled me.  I saw it three times, and if I were in London now I'd see it again. 

After my first time through the exhibit, I bought Somerset Maugham's, The Moon and Sixpence.  Like one of the characters in this novel, I was in "the cruel grip of appetite" (p. 108): I wanted to know everything possible about Gauguin, and The Moon and Sixpence was loosely based on his life.

I'd also wanted to read something by Somerset Maugham.  After reading Ruth Franklin's New Yorker review of Selina Hastings' biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, I was curious about Maugham.  According to Hastings, Maugham was plagued by artistic doubts.  Of middling critical success (although he earned spectacular popular acclaim), Maugham judged himself of "small power of imagination" and made "earning a living . . . his first priority."

The Moon and Sixpence doesn't rescue Maugham from his own harsh assessment.  As a portrait of a sociopath, the novel conceivably possesses some descriptive accuracy; as an inquiry into the nature of artistic greatness, the novel is utterly a failure.

Charles Strickland, the novel's stand-in for Gauguin, is a monster:

He was a man without any conception of gratitude.  He had no compassion.  The emotions common to most of us simply did not exist in him, and it was as absurd to blame him for not feeling them as for blaming the tiger because he is fierce and cruel.
(p. 109.)  Even worse than inhuman, Charles Strickland is flat.  His dialogue is bad and, unforgivably, unrevealing.  Here is Strickland responding to the book's narrator, sent by Strickland's wife to retrieve him after he's quit his job as a stockbroker and abandoned his family:

"What makes you think you have any talent?"
. . . .
"I've got to paint."
"Aren't you taking an awful chance?"
. . . .
"I've got to paint," he repeated.
"Supposing you're never anything more than third-rate, do you think it wil have been worth while to give up everything?" . . .  
"You blasted fool," he said.
"I don't see why, unless it's folly to say the obvious."
"I tell you I've got to paint.  I can't help myself.  When a man falls into the water it doesn't matter how he swims, well or badly: he's got to get out or else he'll drown."
(p. 44-45.)  The pedantic - to say nothing of redundant - quality of Strickland's self-explanation is sadly consistent with the narrator's dull assertions about "life in general": 

  • "I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, or how much goodness in the reprobate" (p. 36);
  • "I did not realize how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being.  Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find a place side by side in the same human heart" (p. 57);
  • "It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest" (p. 47).
Well call Maugham a bitch.

But the Maugham doesn't restrict the book's flaws to blithe sexism and insouciant lack of self-awareness.  In addition to denying both Charles Strickland and the book's narrator psychological and emotional depth, Maugham is cowardly in his handling of the facts of Gauguin's life.  Strickland has two children, not five, and they don't die (unlike Gaugin's, of whom only three lived to maturity); Strickland's Tahitian wife is seventeen, not fourteen; Strickland dies of leprosy, not syphilis. 

Taken alone, these details might be unimportant, but I can't help relating Strickland's avoidance of these dirty facts of sex and death to his overall lack of insight into life and the artistic process.  "It seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed," Maugham reportedly said; in his insecurity-masquerading-as-arrogance, he must have hoped that everyone else, like Strickland (and Gauguin) at his death, is blind.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's "Vision After the Sermon" from Shafe)

The Venetian gardener

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In Roberto Bolaño's novel, 2666, an acclaimed, reclusive novelist, Benno von Archimboldi works as a gardener in Venice. 

Bolaño acknowledges the unlikeliness of Archimboldi's day job - it sounds like a joke, like being a trash collector in Antarctica.  But, no, Bolaño maintains that Archimboldi really is a gardener in Venice, employed by the municipality to tend to its public parks, however few in number or small in square footage.

Having just traipsed around Venice for the first time, I have a fresh appreciation for the disbelief that ought to greet any claim to be a gardener in Venice: the city really doesn't have any plants. 

Indeed, I believe I have identified what has to have been Archimboldi's workplace.  Pictured above is the only public park space I saw: four or so trees, clustered with some shrubs, by the Ponte della Accademia.  An enterprising Venetian municipal official might consider installing a plaque, "Here worked the mysterious and brilliant novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, according to that other mysterious and brilliant novelist, Roberto Bolaño" - or setting up a walking tour of Venice's public plants, similar to Stockholm's tours of points of interest from the Millennium trilogy.

That said, having seen Venice (however briefly), I now feel that Archimboldi's job was not a joke: it was a metaphor. 

Venice is a has-been metropolis.  Its dwindling population survives on the skimpiest of economies: short of seasonal tourism, the city has no industry, no offices, no business, no livelihood.  Its buildings are constantly decaying; upkeep and restoration efforts cannot hope to outpace the destructiveness of the rising salt-water.  A monument to a Renaissance pinnacle, the city is currently close to a tomb, a symbol of the absurdity and hopelessness of resistance to mortality.

Nonetheless, Bolaño doesn't grieve Venice's fate.  Everything has its span of existence, and Bolaño doesn't respect attempts at exceeding these limits.  Throughout 2666, Bolaño mocks stabs at immortality, whether through his repeated references to burned books or his antipathy to fame:

Until that moment Archimboldi had never thought about fame.  Hitler was famous.  Göring was famous.  The people he loved or remembered fondly weren't famous, they just satisfied certain needs.  Döblin was his consolation.  Ansky was his strength.  Ingeborg was his joy.  The disappeared Hugo Halder was lightheartedness and fun.  His sister about whom he had no news, was his own innocence.  Of course, they were other things too.  Sometimes they were even everything all together, but not fame, which was rooted in delusion and lies, if not ambition.  Also, fame was reductive.  Everything that ended in fame and everything that issued from fame was inevitably diminished.  Fame's message was unadorned.  Fame and literature were irreconcilable enemies.
(p. 802.)  Like fame, immortality is "rooted in delusion and lies."  Immortality is almost always twinned with ambition.  And it is reductive; to be immortal is to be diminished, the color stripped from the Greek statues, the music lost from the Greek dramas, the social context irrevocably severed from the surviving fragment. 

For Bolaño, literature is not about authors who reverberate through the centuries.  Rather, tthe point of literature is to help us to accept mortality, to benefit from its gifts, and to husband our energies so that we can avoid wasteful resistance to the inevitable.  In 2666, Bolaño suggests that mortality doesn't diminish life, but resistance to it does. 

Thus, he sends Archimboldi into the world's most beautiful monument to such resistance, Venice, to nurture life and growth in the midst of this blindingly gorgeous hollowness.  The task Bolaño gives Archimboldi is one either futility or nobility. 

In any event, it is the task of any brilliant novelist today.

Sonnet XX: WTF?

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Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

A pinched-faced provincial romance

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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.
(p. xix)

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. 

Leading ladies, rotten mothers

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Emma Bovary and Scarlett O'Hara are two of the most hateful mothers ever depicted.  Here's Emma, responding to her toddler daughter's demand of attention:

But there, between the window and the work-table, was little Berthe, tottering along in her knitted boots, trying to reach her mother, to grab hold of the ends of her apron strings.
-- Leave me alone! said Emma, pushing her away.
The little girl soon came back again, even closer, up against her mother's knees; and, leaning to steady herself, she gazed up at her with big blue eyes, as a thread of clear saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk of the apron.
-- Leave me alone! repeated the young woman sharply.
The look on her face frightened the child, who began to cry.
-- Can't you leave me alone! she said, elbowing her away.
Berthe fell over by the chest of drawers, against the brass fitting; she cut her cheek on it, blood trickled down.

(p. 107.)  Scarlett seems to have studied at the Emma Bovary mothering school.  Here's Scarlett, bemoaning her pregnancy with Ella:  "When she thought of the baby at all, it was with baffled rage at the untimeliness of it."  (p. 624.)

"Aren't you proud to be having a child?" [asked Rhett.]
"Oh, dear God, no!  I -- I hate babies!"
"You mean -- Frank's baby?"
"No -- anybody's baby."

(p. 638.)  As for Wade, Scarlett's oldest, his attempts at gaining his mother's attention are consistently met with "Don't bother me now.  I"m in a hurry" and "Run away, Wade.  I am busy."  (p. 823.)

In all societies, mothering is such a weighty measure of a woman's value and virtuousness that it's remarkable that these two enduring ladies of literature are such abominable mothers.  Bad mothers are unsympathetic.  Why would readers devote the time and energy to spending hundreds of pages with these two loathsome mothers? 

As readers obviously do spend the time and energy necessary to finish Gone with the Wind and Madame Bovary, repeatedly, they can apparently take bad mothering in stride when it's a character trait in their novels' heroines.  One reason may be that extraordinary adventures become possible for women who are not maternal.  In a sense, bad mothering is necessary for verisimilitude.  If Scarlett and Emma Bovary had accepted the roles that society had selected for them, then they'd have been normal mothers, and they wouldn't have gotten themselves into the messes that ruined their lives and make such great reading.

Scarlett's and Emma's bad mothering also contributes to the reader's sense of justice at the comeuppance both women receive at the end of the tales.  These ladies aren't merely victims of their authors' sadism; rather, they deserve their fates because, among other things, they've been appalling mothers.  Readers respond positively to this shape of righteousness in the narrative arc.

Finally, bad mothering shows a kinship between Scarlett and Emma and male protagonists of great novels.  By being lousy mothers, Scarlett and Emma signal their exceptionalism: they're not like other women; they're non-maternal.  They're like great men, who are driven by the imperative of realizing their potential in a non-domestic context, who'd rather live out their destinies directly than vicariously through their children. 

Privileging the self over others, including offspring, is a sharply double-edged trait.  It's both necessary for greatness, and the most ready mark of a narcissist -- or, in non-clinical terms, an asshole.  Truly great people rarely calibrate this trait with sufficient sensitivity: witness artist-monsters like Pablo Picasso and V.S. Naipaul.  As for the mere narcissists, the trait leaves their personalities an unmitigated disaster. 

In life, the misfortunes that rank above being the child of such a person are few.  On the page, there's enough distance to make it a captivating dymanic about which to read.    
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This page is an archive of recent entries in the The nature of greatness category.

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