Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Absence of Mind, by Marilynne Robinson

A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s

Absence of Mind

Originally published on the online edition of the
Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2010/2011

Absence of Mind:
The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self
By Marilynne Robinson
Yale ($24)

Any reader of Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary works of fiction has experienced how marvelously she explores the mysteries of human existence on—as she calls it in her new work of nonfiction, Absence of Mind—our “tiny, teetering, lopsided planet.” Robinson is fascinated with consciousness and with the mind’s place in the universe, and her novels open readers to the worlds within the world of each of her characters’ particular corner of the swirling cosmos. In Absence of Mind, Robinson addresses these issues directly, confronting the mind head on and arguing for its existence as an entity much larger and more elusive than any merely biological or evolutionary function.

Written in four parts and commissioned for the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, Absence of Mind has a clear mandate and agenda. The Terry Foundation’s “deed of gift” states its desire that through its series of lectures “the Christian spirit may be nurtured in the fullest light of the world’s knowledge,” and while Robinson allows for an expansive and encompassing conception of Jewish, Christian, and other spiritual wisdoms and philosophies, her objective is certain. A believer in both scientific inquiry and religious mystery, she wishes to reconcile what many on both sides of the science/religion debate see as irreconcilable, but rather than actually pursuing such a course, her book takes the stance of a factious attack on what she refers to as “the closed circle that is called modern thought.”

Railing against positivism, behaviorism, neo-Darwinism, Marxism, and Freudianism, Robinson points out how each of these systems of thought not only offers an incomplete view of the world, but also how incompatible they are with each other when taken as a whole and accepted as a collective view of modernity. One of her most salient criticisms is in pointing out the fallacy of what she describes as a key dictum of each of these systems: “the notion that we as a culture have crossed one or another threshold of knowledge or realization that gives the thought that follows it a special claim to the status of truth.” Although the discoveries of Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein certainly cross thresholds toward a more workable model of truth, Robinson rightfully questions the common contemporary mindset that holds that we were in error before a certain moment and only now we see clearly. This has also been the mindset of many of the world’s religions and metaphysical philosophies, however, and in honoring their valuable insights and wisdoms, Robinson somehow fails to mention their own exclusionary claims to veracity.

Leaving the poets and saints and mystics undisturbed, Robinson’s main targets in Absence of Mind are contemporary writers such as E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Daniel Dennett—writers whom she characterizes as taking a derisive stance toward religion and whom she derisively labels as “parascientific.” One of her repeated methods of refuting them is to call into question the very character of their thought, and many of her arguments consist of choosing a vulnerable sentence in their books (and in the case of Rorty and Vattimo’s The Future of Religion, an introduction written by the book’s editor) and dismantling, discrediting, or lampooning it. At one point, she even refers to an author’s colloquial explanation of altruism (which is one of Robinson’s main arguments against neo-Darwinism) as “sophomore-speak.” While her own prose is high-handed, one of the great disappointments of Absence of Mind is that Robinson fails to dazzle the reader with the flights of insight that this book’s subject matter should have generated in a writer of such talent and profundity, instead maintaining the cold and inelegant register of a defensive (and often offensive) polemicist. This hardly seems the work of the author whose first novel, Housekeeping, inspired a generation of writers to pursue the marvels of both the world and the word.

The greatest contribution of Absence of Mind comes in the book’s third chapter, “The Freudian Self,” in which Robinson recontextualizes Freud and his times in fascinating detail and with an extraordinary command of how Freud’s works interacted with the worldviews that surrounded and inspired his own. Her ultimate aim in this section is to negate certain Freudian and post-Freudian concepts that in her view discount the idea of the individual mind living in an individual time, and with a deftness of thought and knowledge and style, she largely succeeds, turning her double-negative approach into a positive contribution to Freudian criticism, as well as to the ongoing exploration of how the mind exists in time. Whether you find yourself agreeing or arguing with Robinson’s conclusions (or agreeing and arguing with them), this is a classically rigorous and beautifully hewn essay that—like much of Freud’s best writing—is valuable both as an intellectual artifact to be pondered and confronted and as a work of literary artistry.

Despite its overall tone of enmity—and despite its hand-wringing apprehension that our existence is being impoverished by the perils of “modern thought”—Absence of Mind makes a positive and often successful effort at showing us how both science and the mind are far more expansive and inexplicable than many schools of thought would have us believe. It may be unfashionable to think of the mind as a mysterious entity that exists as something much larger than our already large brains, but when Robinson delves into the farthest interior and exterior worlds and drops her offensive defensiveness, she reveals in herself a mind that serves as a living example of many of her best points. Perhaps few will be convinced by this book—its arguments are couched in terms more suitable to those who will probably disagree with it, while most sympathetic readers will be turned away by its antagonistic tone—but Robinson’s learning in all the fields she discusses is remarkable, and her ideas will certainly impress themselves upon the mind of any serious reader, regardless of whether that mind decides to let itself be changed.

—David Wiley

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Several Perceptions:

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity.

                     —David Hume, from A Treatise of Human Nature

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography has long stood as one of the most famous and exemplary memoirs in American and world history, and Franklin himself has often been held up as a multifaceted microcosm of America itself, for better or worse. Naive patriots see the endlessly brilliant and successful Franklin as a role model for self-reliance, reading his Autobiography as an advertisement for individual initiative, while detractors see Franklin as a duplicitous facade-builder whose Autobiography hides as much as it reveals and ignores the fact that the vast majority of America—and of the world—has to sink a bit in order for a brilliant and ambitious individual such as himself to rise. Both views (and many more) easily affix themselves to the Franklin of legend, of reality, and of his Autobiography, and although no one particular reading of the man or his works can encompass his full entirety, examining the dis-united states of his Autobiography and of its readers’ perceptions of it can offer great insight into Franklin himself and into the United States that he ostensibly reflects.

As a text, the Autobiography is a complete farrago: a wholly unintegrated mass of parts that hardly portrays a coherent life at all. What’s fascinating, though, is that its four soldered-together sections show the reader innumerable interconnected and progressive sketches of Franklin that sometimes add up and sometimes don’t, and this is perhaps the only true way to view a human being of his amazing range—or, for that matter, to view any human being. Even the book’s obvious (and not-so-obvious) lacunae tell us a lot about him and ourselves, and anyone who reads the Autobiography with a bit of critical curiosity will discover volumes about how we—individually, and as a country, and as a race of humans—aspire to be and, in Franklin’s words, to be seen.

Joseph Siffred Duplessis’ portrait of
Benjamin Franklin, 1785 
Franklin wrote the first section of the book in 1771 when he was in England, and its stated form and purpose was to chronicle Franklin’s ancestry and early life in a long anecdotal letter to his firstborn son and confidante, William. Franklin did nothing without an eye to the public, however, and when reading of his precocious personal exploits, we need to keep in mind that our perceptions are as much in Franklin’s mind as are his son’s. The book’s second section was written in France in 1784, after the Revolutionary War had severed the deep bond between Franklin and his Royalist son, and this section is expressly (and coldly) addressed to the public and was written in response to the urging of friends who wanted Franklin to publish his projected Art of Virtue, which only came to fruition as this short second section of his Autobiography.

Franklin began the third section of the book later in 1784 when he was back in America, and here he returns to chronicling the progress of his fascinating history, but the focus in this section changes from the personal to the public, and instead of documenting what good he’d done for himself, he documents what good he’d done for his city, country, and world. Franklin was obsessed with doing good, and this is the longest section of the Autobiography, but what’s fascinating is that even with the in-depth accounts of establishing schools, a fire department, and the first lending-library, improving public streets and streetlights, serving as a Colonel in the French and Indian Wars, attending to various public offices, and detailing some of his experiments with electricity and heat, the Autobiography doesn’t even come close to summing up this astonishing man’s contributions to the larger public welfare. If his own personal prosperity came at the cost of outstripping less gifted individuals whose fortunes waned while his waxed—thus nullifying his personal example as a universal model because of the impossibility of everyone rising through his methods—his tireless efforts on behalf of public progress surely lifted the world a bit higher and made life for his fellow human beings a bit easier and lighter.

John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, 1817
The Autobiography’s very brief fourth section was begun in 1790, in the last year of Franklin’s life, and it merely continues a description of his efforts in 1757 to get some legislation passed, and then the manuscript breaks off. Thus the Autobiography of America’s most famous Founding Father, and perhaps most famous individual, ends decades before arriving at the most significant events and contributions that made him who he is to us. This incompleteness is of course part of the book’s fascination, because in addition to the selectiveness and creative license of Franklin’s self-portrait, the vastness of the missing parts makes us see how impossible it is to conceive (or even perceive) a full view of any individual human being. We round out much of the subject of the Autobiography with knowledge gained elsewhere, but even more than that, we fill in the holes with our own perceptions and self-conceptions, whether they’re positive, negative, or deeply ambivalent.

What I recommend when reading this fascinating and problematic work by this fascinating and problematic human being is to keep your view of its subject, author, and text from closing in any definitive fashion. Franklin can be both hilariously self-conscious and hilariously un-self-conscious—and can be simply embarrassing when he’s at his most un-self-consciously self-consciousness—but despite his wild flaws and foibles, he truly meant to do good, as a world citizen and as a writer of his own self. Perhaps the most good we can gain by reading his Autobiography is to achieve a deeper understanding of who we are—as individuals, as a nation, and as a world—by looking at ourselves through Franklin’s singularly cracked lenses.

—David Wiley

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Irresistible Grace:

James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and

Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

In an age when Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu fundamentalists hold profound sway over nations armed with nuclear weapons—and when many other non-religious but nonetheless fanatically extremist ideologies threaten the world’s safety with their urges to fulfill their purifying programs—it becomes imperative that we examine not just the end-results of these perfectionist words made flesh (i.e., the Crusades, the Holocaust, Stalinism, Maoism, 9/11 and its worldwide aftermath), but their roots in our own desires and psyches. It’s easy to point to others and marvel at their insane beliefs and actions, but it’s only when we interrogate our own urges to be right and to be justified (across the globe and often beyond) that we can see ourselves as human beings with the exact same capacity to be as misguided as the most fervent religious terrorist or the most patriotic purveyor of state-sponsored torture.

James Hogg’s strange, terrifying, and largely forgotten novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner explores the inner and outer worlds of “justified” terror, delving into the personal terror within the most haunted fanatic and producing a work that’s unsettling in every sense of the word. Working contrary to many of the solid-rock beliefs portrayed within its pages, Hogg’s novel undermines all sense of certitude and even undoes the faith that we as readers put in its own varying and contradictory narratives. Employing and improvising upon a host of literary conventions, devices, and styles, Hogg’s 1824 masterpiece is thus timely to a twenty-first century audience in both content and form and has even been cited as a forerunner of postmodernism.

Published anonymously because of its scandalous nature, the novel’s sections comprise a ninety-page Editor’s Narrative, the sinner’s 140 pages of Confessions, and an additional fifteen pages of Editor’s Narrative at the end. In the first section, an unnamed editor reports the details of what he’s been able to gather about a strange family history that involved a series of murders in late-seventeenth-century/early-eighteenth-century Scotland. The opening pages recount the marriage of the elderly Laird of Dalcastle, George Colwan (“a droll, careless chap”), to a sternly pious young woman who tries to escape but is returned to Colwan by her father. The unhappy match results in one acknowledged son, also named George, and another son, Robert, who may or may not have been fathered by the mother’s spiritual advisor, the fanatical Reverend Robert Wringhim. Although Hogg is careful never to mention Calvinism by name, Wringhim’s beliefs make the reader infer this affiliation, and the young Robert is raised separately from his brother, reared in an extreme version of this faith, and is adopted by Reverend Wringhim.

A brockengespenst, which may be
what George sees on his hike.
As young men, George and Robert meet for the first time in Edinburgh and become bitter enemies, the latter soon shadowing his popular older brother to haunt his every move. Wherever George goes, and at whatever hour, Robert somehow takes his place next to him to taunt him and ruin his peace of mind. The despondent George begins to fear going into public, and after attempting to seclude himself, he makes an unplanned trek into the hills on a beautiful morning and has a truly bizarre and ghostly altercation with Robert that nearly results in fratricide. After a resulting courtroom scene, George retires with friends to an inn and finds himself in a pointless quarrel with another young nobleman named Drummond, who quickly leaves in anger. Soon afterward, a knock on the door seems to signal his return, and George steps out to meet him, doesn’t return, and is found dead the next morning. Drummond flees the country and is assumed guilty, and Robert soon afterward claims his patrimony and installs himself as the new Laird of Dalcastle.

A complex series of investigations follows, and through somewhat fantastical means, two women pursue a thread of circumstances that leads them to implicate the younger Robert and a mysterious and elusive friend who now seems to be goading him on to murder his own mother. When officers arrive at his mansion, however, they find no trace of either Robert or his mother, at which point the narrative reaches the end of the details passed down about the account and then introduces the memoir left behind by Robert, declaring that “We have heard much of the rage and fanaticism in former days, but nothing to this.”

This makes me laugh.
Robert’s memoir—a kind of novel within a novel—shifts the text to a radically different perspective and tells the tale from his point of view, and true to the words that Hogg ascribes to the novel’s “editor” (who we must remember is a character too), the “rage and fanaticism” portrayed in his Confessions is like nothing in any known literature, either fiction or nonfiction. As a child under the Reverend’s tutelage, Robert learns that the Elect are pre-ordained by God and that no act or belief can influence the spiritual fate of who does or who doesn’t go to heaven, an extreme doctrine known in Calvinism as “Irresistible Grace,” a far-flung extrapolation of Saint Augustine’s original concept of a persevering grace that keeps chosen believers from falling away from their salvation. Exerting a wildly manipulative influence on Robert and his mother, the Reverend struggles and prays to discover God’s will concerning Robert, and one day he announces that it has been revealed to him that Robert is one of the Elect. This day of revelation finds Robert at his most spiritually elated—and relieved, as his deeply cruel and spiteful manipulations as a child and young man have made him fear damnation—but it is also the beginning of an astonishing and relentless descent. Seeking solitude in the woods to pray, he immediately meets a stranger who distracts him from his task and draws him into a theological discussion that seems to echo the Reverend’s teaching, initiating an uneasy but unshakable association in which the stranger, whose looks keeps changing and who only goes by the name Gil-Martin, takes the logic of Robert’s faith to its most extreme lengths and leads him into a life of beliefs and acts that are simply beyond belief.

Evaluating the stranger from within the frame of reference of Robert’s confessions, the reader sees that Gil-Martin is clearly the Devil, but while Robert develops increasing fears about him as the narrative progresses, the logic that the Elect are forever chosen and justified keeps convincing him that Gil-Martin’s murderous suggestions are not just reasonable but are perhaps even the will of God. Unable to elude Gil-Martin as a constant shadow, his situation mirrors (and causes) his haunting presence by his brother George’s side. The dual doppelganger effect becomes further accentuated when Robert writes that even when alone he feels an uneasiness in his own skin, as if there were a second self inside of or somehow concurrent with his own being. Some of his language recalls the ways that Thomas De Quincey writes about his own lack of ease with his body and mind in his famous 1821 memoir, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and at one point Hogg even has Robert write a line that directly alludes to De Quincey’s call of hope within his pain, quoting the Psalms: “O, that I had the wings of a dove….” The self-loathing and terror and inability to escape or transcend that Hogg portrays to such extremes is certainly influenced by De Quincey’s language of addiction, but Robert’s memoir takes things much farther. This is certainly no case study, but Robert’s tortured childhood, his warped upbringing and religious indoctrination, and his heightened capacity as an adult for unspeakable cruelty (urged on by an inexorable outside agent) clearly illustrate Hogg’s view of how fanatical mindsets and already unhealthy minds can combine to take a set of beliefs to the most appalling extents, with dire consequences for everyone involved—especially for the fanatic himself, who may in fact be the most cruelly tortured victim.

Making his novel and its horrors all the more ambiguous, at the end of the book Hogg has the “editor” systematically dismantle the facts that we believed about the story and memoir and dismiss the existence of Gil-Martin as a figment of Robert’s sick fantasy world. This novelistic ruse may seem like a dirty trick because of its placement at the end instead of at the beginning, but a close examination of the book’s various parts reveals that the editor’s dismissal is far from authoritative. He claims that all the information in the first Editor’s Narrative is based on oral tradition and can hardly be taken seriously, but this can in no way account for the tightly interwoven connections between the initial Editor’s Narrative and the Confessions—connections that are so cleverly and complexly plotted that the reader is constantly checking one against the other to piece together timelines that add up almost seamlessly and only contradict each other in ways that their subjective natures would be expected to do. There’s also the simple fact that the murders and many of the other events involved police and other officials, who surely would have left extensive records. So the book’s editor, who belongs to a circle of writers with whom Hogg had a very uneasy relationship, makes his own judgments on the case as suspect as those handed down through gossip.

Surely an influence on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, whose cyclical system of doubles, intricate stratifications of time, and profound emotional and physical violence forms a perfect storm of self-perpetuating terror, Hogg’s novel also seems to anticipate the bifurcating ambiguities of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. As in Wuthering Heights, Hogg also makes extensive use of regional dialect, but he has much more fun with it, and despite all of its horrors, the novel often uses its varied voices and approaches to introduce extremely enjoyable comic relief. As in Pynchon, Hogg delights in all of his devices, and he even makes an appearance himself at the end of the novel. Hogg had published an article on the case in Blackwood’s Magazine the previous year, and a section of his article is excerpted in the second Editor’s Narrative, but when the editor goes to look for information, he runs into Hogg at the market, where Hogg dismisses his efforts as folly and goes about his business of trying to sell his livestock.

An illustration from The Private Memoirs
and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
There are great diversions to be found in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but at its core there’s definitely not much fun in its view of fundamentalism, and the novel’s deepest tones are of resounding terror. Hogg was neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, but his explorations of the profound suffering at the root of Robert’s haunted journey give great insight into the fanatical mindset, illustrating how it can even bring demons alive to further its mission. Although he has his editor dismiss the memoir’s supernatural aspects, Hogg was certainly insinuating that the Devil plays a significant role in the ostensibly holy programs of religious mania. Whether we believe in any of this or just see it as a metaphor for madness, it’s clear that Robert was haunted by a specter that made itself very real to him, giving the stunned reader of this shocking novel the sense that these specters can appear to any troubled soul of any persuasion, whether religious, ideological, or political, and that the repercussions of following their haunted urgings can become devastating to everyone involved when made flesh in the real world.

—David Wiley

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Hopes Defeated: Thomas De Quincey’s

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Near the end of his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey describes a great philosophic book that he’d planned and abandoned because of the weakness of mind and body that a lifetime of opium use had brought upon him:

I had devoted the labour of my whole life, and had dedicated my intellect, blossoms and fruits, to the slow and elaborate toil of constructing one single work…. This was now lying locked up, as by frost, like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct, begun upon too great a scale for the resources of the architect; and, instead of surviving me as monument of wishes at least, and aspirations, and a life of labour dedicated to the exultation of human nature in that way in which God had best fitted me to promote so great an object, it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations that were never to support a superstructure,—of the grief and ruin of the architect.

Working intermittently throughout his life as a essayist and journalist, De Quincey read deeply in philosophy, both ancient and modern, and he planned to construct an opus inspired by one of Spinoza’s unfinished works, but waylaid by his opium use, he never got to become a philosopher himself, and despite producing a large and wide-ranging body of work, he is today almost solely known for his memoir of hopes defeated.

Serialized in two consecutive months’ editions of London Magazine in 1821, when De Quincey was thirty-six, the first version of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was hurriedly and haphazardly composed during a short period when his opium-use was at a temporary minimum. He promised a third installment that was to elaborate upon his opium dreams, which provide the most haunting and affecting—and tantalizingly brief—section of the narrative, but he was unable to deliver on the extension and left even this short work’s superstructure unfinished. The 1822 book edition contains an appendix explaining why he hadn’t been able to continue the account, reporting in excruciating detail his battle with his addiction and with his body, and along with the few earlier pages describing his dreams, this appendix offers the book’s most penetratingly raw portrait of De Quincey’s tormented existence. Appearing so briefly at the end, these horrors show us what De Quincey either couldn’t or wouldn’t give us in the whole of his story, leaving the reader with the impression that only the pressure of meeting a deadline (and failing) had squeezed some of the darkest truth out of him.

Knowing that his opium-dreams were to provide the greatest fascination and appeal for his memoir, it’s clear that De Quincey planned on describing them at great length, but in building toward them in his “Preliminary Confessions,” he too often diverts the reader—and himself—with both too much and too little foundation. The rushed 1821/2 version describes how he ran away from school and ended up in London, where he nearly starved to death, but it glosses over his motives for leaving school, fails to explain certain logistical and financial details of his journey, and gives the reader no idea of what brought him to London in the first place. In place of such information, De Quincey regales the reader with his intellectual achievements, which are both formidable and fascinating but which are no substitute for the physical and psychological truths that led him to a life of drug addiction.

The London segment of the memoir offers more valuable—and moving—material, because here we see De Quincey become both physically and emotionally human. Starving, he finds refuge—but almost no food—in a lawyer’s house, where he shares a floor with an orphan girl whom he calms during the ghostly night hours. His violent hunger affords him very little rest at night, and during the lawyer’s business hours in the house he meanders the streets, where he befriends a young prostitute named Mary, who becomes a deeply sympathetic companion and who at one point literally saves his life. Their friendship and their accidental separation—a separation that haunts him for the rest of his life—give the reader access to some of De Quincey’s most profound emotions, and as he desperately tries to keep himself alive and connected, he truly becomes alive for the reader. This period of deprivation also lays some of the foundation for his subsequent addiction, because it’s sickness and pain that a few years later lead him to opium, which is at first a revelation to him and which for many years he uses only once a week for recreation. Then about ten years later it’s a recurrence of the intense stomach pains that he’d experienced during his earlier hunger that leads him to a lifetime of daily use, his stomach pains probably a recurrence of the overload of adrenalin that’s pumped into the body by out-of-control anxiety, an experience described by many drug addicts who are desperate to numb the pain, most famously in our era by the pop musician Kurt Cobain, who was sadly never diagnosed in his lifetime.

Although he’s obfuscated much about himself, the descriptions of his suffering and of his kinship with his fellow sufferers allow the reader to feel a similar kinship with De Quincey’s sensitivity and fragility, and so when the book finally arrives at its ostensible subject—opium—we have enough of a grasp of the author’s frame of mind and body that even the book’s narrative elisions and diversions don’t keep us from comprehending how powerfully this drug affects the human being who simply wants a respite from his suffering. De Quincey divides this final section into two parts: “The Pleasures of Opium,” which are marvelously enticing and gorgeously elucidated, and “The Pains of Opium,” which are the real heart of the matter and which even in their truncated state give the reader a profoundly terrifying tour of the addict’s physical and mental horrors.

An illustration by Laurence Chaves of
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
The memoir made De Quincey famous, and its exquisitely hewn hall of terrors has influenced generations of writers—most notably Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Jorge Luis Borges—but this of course didn’t alleviate any of De Quincey’s suffering during his lifetime or allow him to become the writer that he felt he was meant to be. In 1845, more than two decades after the first edition of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, he published sections of a never completed work called Suspiria de Profundis, which comprised short, fantastical prose pieces and which was billed as a sequel to the Confessions because of the works’ fevered affinity to the author’s opium-dreams. Then in 1856, for inclusion in a volume of his collected works—which also included a revised and expanded but still uncompleted Suspiria de Profundis—he produced a revision of the Confessions that was twice as long as the original but that still failed to give the reader what it promised. Rather than completing the work’s original plan or expanding the section about his dreams, he instead quadrupled the length of the “Preliminary Confessions” and merely added a short piece from Suspiria de Profundis as a bizarrely disconnected coda.

The 1856 revision has much to recommend it, especially in how it fills in the details of De Quincey’s childhood motives and methods—and, most significantly, his early struggles with his health—but rather than standing as an autonomous and completed masterpiece, the revised version works more as a lengthy and often tedious explication of the more lively and imperfect 1821 version. While revising, De Quincey was working from a severely corrupted printing of the text—it was the only copy he could get his hands on—and he both cleans up some of its mistakes and enriches certain sections and passages, but mostly he just adds enormous chunks of material to the beginning and sews it all together into a kind of lopsided Frankenstein’s monster. It’s often fascinating to read the intricate details of how his early life worked, but the interpolated digressions are often intolerably dull and pointless and in fact make De Quincey much less of a sympathetic character than before. The passage of time has allowed him to name many names that were left out of the original version, and this occasionally affords De Quincey the chance to draw richer portraits and to make more complete connections for the reader, but it also causes him to aim torrents of abuse at people who he feels have wronged him, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was also an opium addict and who criticized De Quincey after the first edition of the Confessions appeared—a criticism that results in astonishingly frequent, involved, and vitriolic reprisals in the revised Confessions. Conversely, De Quincey’s adoring passages about William Wordsworth’s world and works paint an incomparable portrait of the Lake District and provide some of the book’s richest and most rewarding passages.

An illustration by Giovanni Battista Piranesi of
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
The most jarring addition to the 1856 revision, however, is the author’s extensive claim for the good that opium has done him over the course of more than five decades. Although it may be possible that opium helped to keep him alive through certain periods of his pained existence, the idea that it corrected his respiratory problems and kept him from developing tuberculosis is simply wishful writing. De Quincey should not be faulted for trying to put a positive spin into his painful memoirs—and he should also not be faulted for simply being an addict, which can happen to anyone unfortunate enough to be born with a human body—but this unfinished and contradictory book tells the real story despite itself. The section vindicating his lost/saved years of addiction comes right before the almost completely unrevised “Pains of Opium” section, which in contrast hits with even more astonishing force—although he silently deletes the horrific 1822 appendix and replaces it with the wholly incongruous “The Daughter of Lebanon,” from Suspiria de Profundis, followed by a different appendix expounding upon his family name and providing an expanded account of one of his servants. Compounding the wild imbalance of the life and memoir is the fact that he still couldn’t deliver any elaboration on what he knew to be his Confessions’ greatest draw: his dreams. Claiming that the dream-material that he’d prepared in journal form had either been lost or stolen, De Quincey is unable to conceal the truth of his wholly disordered existence, and the uncompleted and uncompletable book—which wasn’t at all the philosophical book that he always intended to write—stands as his true memorial: an unforgettable and lasting memorial, but nonetheless a memorial of hopes defeated.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe

Love is a Cattlefield:

Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

In classical literature the ekphrasis—a detailed description of a work of art or craftsmanship—was a common literary device that served as an enjoyable digression and variation on how the larger story was being told, while also working to mirror or illustrate an important aspect or theme of the work. Often filling in a historical or psychological background, it wasn’t just a digressive pause in a self-reflective and self-contained narrative backwater, but rather actually added momentum to the story and often forcefully threw its subject back into the flow of events. The most famous ekphrasis in all of literature is Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in Book 18 of the Iliad, taking well over a hundred lines to draw back into a brilliantly forged mirror of humanity at peace and war before completing its concentric circles and thrusting Achilles forward into the bloody fray. Displaying a work of art within a work of art for the reader/listener to experience as both a discrete frame and as a fully connected part of life, this device’s reflexive aspects are clear, reminding us that the work as a whole is itself a complete artifice, an enclosed and reflective circle that’s nonetheless an integral and interwoven part of the thread of our own lives. Books may be just an artificial series of marks bounded within static leaves of paper, totally unfazed by the rush of life around them, but they’re still physical objects that we hold in our hands in the real world and that often effect our actions as much as living people do. In Homer and Vergil, and in the millennia of subsequent writers employing some variation of the ekphrasis as a meta-narrative strategy, the device usually serves as a brief reminder that we—like the works’ characters (and authors)—are both looking and living. But one brilliantly singular “literary pendant,” Longus’ second-century Greek novel Daphnis and Chloe, takes the ekphrasis to its farthest extreme, forging the entirety of its narrative out of a description of one single painting.

In a brief prologue the narrator comes across a painting in a beautiful grove—with the painting described as being even more beautiful than the grove itself—and he gives us this brief snapshot of it:

Women giving birth, others dressing the babies, babies exposed, animals suckling them, shepherds adopting them, young people pledging love, a pirates’ raid, an enemy attack—and more, much more….

Wanting to write something about the painting, he finds someone to interpret its story for him so he can create “an offering to Love, to the Nymphs, and Pan, and something for mankind to possess and enjoy.” He claims that it will “cure the sick, comfort the distressed, stir the memory of those who have loved, and educate those who haven’t.” In the four perfect books that compose Daphnis and Chloe, Longus does all of that and more. Much more….

Arthur Lemon’s The Wooing of Daphnis, 1881
Discovered two years apart by a goatherd and a shepherd, respectively, Daphnis and Chloe are abandoned orphans raised to follow their adopted parents’ simple lives and livelihoods. Daphnis, a boy, becomes a goatherd, and Chloe, a girl, becomes a shepherd, and as they tend their flocks they become friends, grow up together, and slowly—and beautifully, and hilariously—begin to discover the mysteries of love. Cited as a model for the book and film The Princess BrideLongus’ novel takes the couple through a cinematic procession of nascent love, abduction, piracy, war, predatory suitors, astonishing recognitions, and, of course, a thoroughly satisfying happy ending. Although it fulfills all the typical genre expectations for the ancient Greek novel, which was a popular form of entertainment in its time and was rarely taken seriously as an art form, Daphnis and Chloe is so exquisite and so uniquely crafted that it serves as the exemplary Greek novel while at the same time transcending its genre to equal some of the finest works of ancient poetic literature.

The way that Jean Racine’s play Phèdre adheres to its immediate audience’s expectations for a generic love-interest diversion while offering immeasurably more artistry and pathos to the larger world theater, Daphnis and Chloe deftly aims its derring-do Greek-novel complications into a kind of Cupid’s-arrow that keeps its unwavering sights on the luscious magic of youthful love discovering itself. One of the great reminders that love and lust are totally marvelous and pure and new for every single human being, this novel’s depiction of ingenuous innocence reads like a Garden of Eden where sin is impossible and where the flesh—along with the heart and the mind—follows the decrees of its true unsullied nature.

An illustration from Daphnis and Chloe
by Konstantin Somov
Longus is extraordinarily sophisticated and doesn’t merely portray innocence and experience as mutually exclusive, but rather depicts their symbiosis in a way that’s also borne out in his representation of how the rustic countryside is inextricably linked to the urbane order of the city, which also mirrors the reflective relationship between effortless nature and created art. Part of Longus’ innovation within his genre was how he introduced the idyllic themes and features of pastoral poetry into the forward-moving Greek-novel narrative, balancing the two modes in a delicious back and forth that allows for both action and reflection. As in Theokritos’ Idylls and the early works of Vergil, simple yet refined shepherds tend their flocks in an Arcadian utopia while accompanying their lovers’ plaints with tunes on the Panpipe—a bucolic dreamland that draws upon a highly cultivated genre form that’s in fact as artificial as the Greek-novel structure that encompasses it. In Longus’ inspired hands, though, these two synthetic modes combine into something beautifully organic and alive.

In their confusion about the desperate pangs that they’re both experiencing, Daphnis and Chloe ask an old cowherd named Philetas about Love (aka Eros, aka Cupid), after he tells them a story about his own experience with the lust-god, and he replies, “There is no medicine for Love, no potion, no drug, no spell to mutter, except a kiss and an embrace and lying down together with naked bodies.” They find that this excites and frustrates them even further, still not knowing a thing about doing what comes naturally (as Ethel Merman described it), and even though they observe their livestock mating—but not lying down, which Chloe objects to as contradicting Philetas’ advice—it’s only when Daphnis is initiated by an older woman and given instructions about how to (and how not to) proceed with Chloe that Cupid’s arrow starts to attain the balanced thrust of its final trajectory.

In composing this ekphrastic essay on Longus’ artistic masterpiece, I’ve consulted three different editions of the novel, all of which are worth mentioning to an initiate looking to enter into its mysteries. The most useful by far is the Christopher Gill translation that’s contained in Collected Greek Novelswhich was edited and introduced by the incredibly well informed and informative B. P. Reardon. Moses Hadas’ Three Greek Romances also contains good introductory material, and as an edition is unique in including Dio Chrysostom’s The Hunters of Euboea within its genre classification, and Hadas’ translation is the most artistic of the three but is also occasionally overly precious. Of special interest to art-lovers is Paul Turner’s translation, which contains forty-two color lithographs by Marc Chagall, creating a reverse-ekphrasis with its illustrations of a novel that illustrates a painting. The prettiness of the Hadas and Turner editions masks an ugly truth about Daphnis and Chloe’s world, however: the common practice of “exposure.” When Daphnis and Chloe are abandoned, they’re exposed to the elements to die, a kind of postpartum abortion, and Hadas and Turner’s translations elide both the word and the concept, making the babies’ abandonment seem much less unsettling to the modern reader. This was part of ancient reality, though, and part of Longus’ art, and the Gill/Reardon edition gives us the most honest English representation of the Greek original.

An illustration from Daphnis and Chloe by Marc Chagall
Knowing this detail, which takes place in the book’s first few pages, the reader will be happy with whichever edition best suits his or her tastes and/or scholarly requirements. I prefer the unmasked version—or, more accurately, the least-masked version, which is the best that a translation can achieve—because I believe that people don’t need to be protected from either truth or art. Because this is a work whose truths and artifices are wholly enmeshed and are as primal and complex as the intermingling world itself, the much larger interplay of love and art and reality that’s represented in this extraordinary novel form an artistic truth that’s so moving and so profound that its arcing thrust both transcends and encompasses its specific—and novelistically idealized—universe. Integrating both the natural and the human sphere into an ever-renewing cycle of love, Daphnis and Chloe cannot fail to reach its mark in the reader’s united mind and body.

—David Wiley

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains

Blood on the Tracks:

Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The literary output of the former Czechoslovakia (which in 1993 was split into the Czech and Slovak Republics) is as tumultuous and as politically colored as was the ever-metamorphosing and almost constantly occupied state itself. Its capital, Prague, is most known in the literary world for being Franz Kafka’s birthplace, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia declared independence, but in 1939 it was divided when Germany annexed the Sudetenland and then attacked eastward. Kafka, along with most of the Prague intelligentsia of the time, was a German-speaking Jew, and he would have been murdered in Auschwitz along with his sisters and the rest of the city’s educated class had he not died young, in 1924. After World War II, Czechoslovakia then came under the rule of communism and was dominated by Soviet influence until 1989. As a result of all this subjugation, the country’s literature suffered greatly, especially under communism, which favored Social Realism and devalued autonomous artistic and personal expression. Worldwide, the most famous Czech-language writer is Milan Kundera, who’s known for fusing the political with the personal and the sexual in his works, but the writer who first started to break away from dogma and into the realm of true art was Bohumil Hrabal, and his breakthrough novel was 1965’s Closely Watched Trains.

While Hrabal’s and Kundera’s work is still very much tethered to their country’s shifting political environments—in Hrabal’s case because he had to work under communism and in Kundera’s case because he often wrote in opposition to it from exile in France—they both focused more on the art of their novels than on their politics. Hrabal wrote The Legend of Cain, the original version of Closely Watched Trains, in 1949, but because of the political climate of the time, it remained shelved until he revised it for publication a decade and a half later. In the opinion of some of Hrabal’s avant-garde contemporaries, the published version is somewhat less shocking (but better written) than the original, and his revision may have helped it pass the censors, who were easing their restrictions at the time, but its anti-Nazi politics probably helped as well, the novel’s subject matter illustrating that politics were unavoidable as part of twentieth-century Czech life, whether you were specifically writing for the current regime or not.

A scene from the 1966 film version of Closely Watched Trains 
The novel’s young protagonist, Miloš, has just gotten out of an asylum after slashing his wrists and returns to work at the local train station, where that night he ends up taking part in the sabotage of a trainload of Nazi munitions. Through a dazzling array of flashbacks and varying narrative techniques, the reader learns that Miloš tried to kill himself after a sexual tryst that failed because of premature ejaculation, and as Miloš’ first-person thoughts meander through the current day and through his and his family’s and his town’s past, the novel paints a kaleidoscopic picture of a world that’s at turns—and often at once—disgustingly ugly and almost unbearably beautiful. The isolated point of view that Hrabal creates through Miloš’ reflections allows for a deeply personal vision of a world whose natural and human elements can combine in his head into the most lovely and terrible combinations. Hrabal is fascinated with human cruelty toward animals—and toward fellow humans, the distinction between the two often breaking down as Miloš watches and contemplates the suffering of all sentient existence—and some of this novel’s scenes are horrifically painful. Miloš’ connection to the pain in every living eye allows him to look at the retreating Nazis with the same sympathy that he views the slaughtered animals, but while his final actions distinguish him as a kind of hero, they also show him to be as capable of steely inhumanity as everyone else, illustrating that among the vast array of humanity’s possibilities for action in the world, “inhumanity” is in fact a misnomer, because only human beings can act with inhumanity.

One of the great achievements of this novel is that its pathos is balanced with wonderful humor and vitality, its cast of characters revolving around each other with romance, longing, absurdity, vanity, hilarious deviance, and a healthy (and/or perhaps unhealthy) dose of sexuality. Perhaps meant to be comic, the novel’s correlation between virility and political action can be somewhat troubling, though, both to male and female readers—to the former because the idea that men must rise to action is confining, and to the latter because serving as ciphers for male ability is insulting. Hrabal was an enormous literary influence on the younger Kundera, and in Kundera’s works—which often revel in the humiliation of women while the male characters partake in masculine philosophizing and political action—this tendency is sometimes taken to extremes. But in Closely Watched Trains, both men and women take active militant roles, making this novel much more intertwined and ambiguous in its gender assignments than any of the works of the somewhat wayward disciple. Perhaps further tempering Miloš’ “heroic” sexual/political salvation, the ironic relativities of his tragic ups and downs serve as reminders of the absurd—but often absurdly necessary—follies that both men and women partake in during war.

A young Bohumil Hrabal
Although the world of politics—including sexual politics—is inextricable from any kind of reality that Hrabal could have experienced or written about, this novel was embraced by the public and the literati alike as an emancipation from mere message and as a triumph for artistry. Torrents of blood course through every arterial passage of Closely Watched Trains—political blood, sexual blood, animal and human blood—but mostly its blood is the blood of art taking on a sanguine life of its own.

—David Wiley

James Joyce’s Exiles

Cunning Stunts:

James Joyce’s Exiles

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Of all of James Joyce’s abundant gifts as a writer, narrative drama was his least developed, and perhaps his least innate. His focus on inner dramas—emotional, artistic, sexual, spiritual, etc.—relegated mere storytelling to the sidelines of his work, perhaps as an overt strategy but perhaps also because Joyce’s relentless self-consciousness caused him to write in labyrinthine circles and paralyzed his ability to move a narrative forward (note that the closest he comes in his entire body of work to telling a story that focuses on an actual event is the sketch collected in Dubliners that’s merely entitled “An Encounter”). This bodes poorly for anyone looking for drama in Joyce’s one play, Exiles, but as always with Joyce, there are other reasons to read this work. Unfortunately, the reasons aren’t intrinsic to the play’s artistic value, but instead mostly consist in examining Joyce’s mindset, his artistic and personal direction at the time—he was at a crossroads between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses—and his literary intentionality, all of which help us understand some of the more complex and thorny shades of his more important works.

Joyce idolized Henrik Ibsen, and Exiles is a very clear attempt at an Ibsenian portrayal of the realistic dramas of family life, an approach that in the Norwegian playwright’s time was revolutionary and that had a inestimable impact on Joyce’s decision to focus on “ordinary” heroes, such as Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom, rather than on “heroic” heroes, such as Bloom’s mirror-opposite inspiration, Odysseus. While Ibsen’s plays scandalized viewers with the reality of their goings-on, however, Exiles instead attempts to scandalize with its ideas, its emotional interiors, its backgrounds, and its attempted revision of family life. None of this actually works in the way that Joyce hoped, because his attempt at furthering Ibsen’s approach simply fails as drama, and what actually scandalizes is the unpleasant view of Joyce’s frame of mind that this play reveals to readers of his novels and stories.

Although dazzling and innovative in terms of prose in form, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is actually a pretty abysmal novel, partially because its story is paper-thin, but perhaps more so because its main character, Stephen Dedalus—Joyce’s literary surrogate self—is a pretentious prick whose artistic aims seem to be caused more by negative reaction than by a positive interest in creativity. Dedalus claims that he will (defensively) employ “silence, exile, and cunning” to “forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race.” It’s nearly intolerable. But then, completed and published six years later, a miracle appeared: Ulysses. And one of the great leaps forward for Joyce is that he decided to split his surrogate self into two characters—into Dedalus and Bloom, a surrogate father and son (for Joyce and for each other) who allow for extraordinary reflection and growth and healing. The idea that Joyce may have had this intention all along is a comforting one for readers who are turned off by Dedalus’ initial idiocy. But Exiles’ Joyce-surrogate, Richard Rowan, extends the egotism of the original Dedalus to outrageous lengths and forces us to revise our view of Joyce’s trajectory—and of Joyce himself.

A vision of the life Joyce could have taken but didn’t, Exiles depicts the return of writer Richard Rowan and his family to Ireland, where Richard’s friends Beatrice and Robert re-enter their lives, with Richard’s wife, Bertha, serving as a crux for the psycho-sexual power-play between the reunited characters. Playing upon a similarly conjectured alternate version of another great exiled writer, Dante Alighieri, Joyce loads his play with heavy-handed symbolism and symmetries—and, more pointedly, asymmetries that explore what could have happened if he (or Dante) would have returned to his native city. As with Dante, Richard’s muse during exile is named Beatrice—with the last name of Justice, which in the Paradiso Dante’s Beatrice partially symbolized, the pilgrim-poet putting words in her mouth that “teach” him that justice held primacy over compassion as the universal law—but unlike in Dante’s case, Richard’s Beatrice is still living and upon return is no longer the crucial figure in his personal drama. Richard and his family have been living abroad in Italy—mirroring both Dante’s exiled wanderings and Joyce’s own self-exile—for nine years (the Dantean number that symbolized Beatrice), and the play comprises three acts, like the three books of the Commedia. These may all just be the typical Joycean overload of literary correlation and allusion, and some of it’s just a play on elements that Joyce had on hand, such as the serendipitous last name of his own cousin, Elizabeth Justice, but the idea of returning rather than forging forward, as Dante did and Joyce would continue to do, is an intriguing one. Or it would be if Exiles hadn’t gone so awry.

Dante and Beatrice
Focusing on the human elements of life rather than on a “high fantasy” like the one that Dante constructs as his ideal, Exiles shifts its attention away from the non-idealized Beatrice and toward the very real Bertha (as a contrast, Dante’s wife, Gemma, is never once mentioned in all of his works—nor is her existence even alluded to, unless she’s the “Donna Gentile” of La Vita Nuova, which isn’t likely). In having Richard make this shift, Joyce embraces in artistic form the very real love that he has for his common-law wife, Nora, whom in Italy he’d truly come to adore and accept as his life-partner. In turning his face to reality this way, though—especially toward carnal reality—Joyce composes a grotesque vision of an artist constructing a world around himself that’s as fantastically egotistical as anything Dante ever imagined. Richard’s friend Robert has his sights on Bertha, but rather than making this play dramatize a standard love-triangle competition, Joyce has Richard encourage the pairing because it will further his aim of creating a new order, where traditional rules no longer apply, but where Richard is both lord and sacrificed lamb and Bertha’s sexuality is his crucifix.

This inverted take on sexual possession is as absurdly macho as the outdated caveman battle that Richard deems to be beneath his ostensibly enlightened emancipation from any kind of old order—an emancipation that in fact ties him as much to his fellow sexual slaves as it does them to him. In his real, non-literary life, Joyce entertained similar ideas about the specter of infidelity, especially on Nora’s part, but he seems to have been unsuccessful in making their relationship break with all convention in the way that he strove for in all other aspects of his life and art. Richard is therefore an imagined vision of a complete new order: “the uncreated conscience of [his] race”. What’s profoundly disappointing is that none of this is meant to be satiric or even ironic, as Joyce’s own handwritten notes further illustrate (notes that were discovered in Paris after Joyce fled the advancing Nazis and that are appended to the Penguin edition of the play). Even Vladimir Nabokov’s intensely painful Lolita knows to mock the self-crucifying parts of itself—“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”—but but despite its self-consciousness, Joyce’s ludicrous pseudo-drama isn’t even self-aware enough to be funny, on purpose or even accidentally.

Perhaps Exiles’ only redeeming aspect—other than as a key that unlocks an unpleasant door into Joyce and his work—is that neither Richard nor the reader/audience are privy to what actually happens between Robert and Bertha. Part of this is simply a literary trick, comparable but vastly inferior to the question of whether Stephen Dedalus’ brothel-experiences actually happened in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and part of it is Richard’s even more self-centered insistence on Bertha’s “freedom,” keeping himself purposefully blind while still dictating the terms of his blindness. Richard’s cunning manipulation of her silence keeps them all in the exile that he requires, and this literary stunt may be the one innovation that holds the play together. It’s a thoroughly repulsive togetherness, though, and it’s largely been ignored by the dramatic and critical world. Almost nobody has seen, read, or written about this play, and so even though its tangle of thorns is useful to Joycean masochists, perhaps Joyce simply should have left the world of the stage silent.

—David Wiley