Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's a pack of nonsense - misreading with heart and energy

“Creative misreading” is a polite term for what I was trying to do with The Immoralist yesterday.  I succeeded at misreading, and will defer to others regarding the creativity.  I was following a train of references that are in the novel, right there on the page, but that seem to lead somewhere that fits strangely with the rest of the book.  With its surface, at least.  I do not really believe that The Immoralist is a spy novel.  Yet Gide scattered these scraps throughout his own book.  He meant something by it.

My favorite act of creative misreading, an all-time great, is Maurice Morgann’s An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), in which Morgann brilliantly defends Falstaff, the greatest coward in literature, from the charge of cowardice.  He uses nothing but the evidence of Shakespeare’s own words, and his own crackpot ingenuity, to demonstrate Falstaff’s great bravery.   Samuel Johnson laughingly suggested that “as he has proved Falstaff to be no coward, he may prove Iago to be a very good character” (Boswell, Life of Johnson, somewhere in 1783).  Yes, that’s the spirit, exactly!

I unfortunately do not have a copy of Morgann’s book, so I will advance to my second favorite pack of nonsense, “A Little Look into Chaos” (1975) by Robert M. Adams, which I know from the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost (2nd edition).   Milton’s poem shifts between Heaven, Hell, and Earth, but Adams investigates the fourth location, Chaos, which is both between and outside of the realm of devils, angels, and men.

In Book II, Satan pays a visit to the ruler, or anti-ruler, of Chaos, the Anarch and his court.  The Anarch complains that the recently created Earth, and Hell, and, weirdest of all, even Heaven have been created from, taken from, his domain.  Adams discovers a second war concealed under the war between Heaven and Hell, a battle between God and Chaos.  Satan appears to be an ally of God in this conflict, although he might not realize it.  Or Chaos is cleverly using Satan as his own weapon.  Or, or, or - keep 'em coming.

Veterans of Dungeons & Dragons will understand all of this immediately; more orthodox readers may invoke the pack of nonsense in my title.  That line is from the essay (p. 629); Adams is also one of the orthodox readers:

“I’ve overstated the case for his [Chaos’s] presence, and traced out the implications of his logic as vigorously as I could – too vigorously for the good of the poem.  We must suppress Chaos a little bit, mute him, sit (maybe) on his head, so that the poem as a whole may maintain its intended balance.” (630)

But Adams, a true scholar, is not simply playing with ideas.  Every reference to Chaos is there in the text.  The interpreter of Milton needs to find his own way through the material, but not brush it aside as inconsequential simply because its fit with received ideas of the meaning of the poem is askew.

Adams begins his article with a uniquely modest preface: his paper is “poor, sparse, speculative”; he would like to “inscribe a spectacular and gigantic question mark” over it “[b]ut as we don’t know what a question can do till we put some heart and energy into asking it, I’ve chosen to take my chances.” (617)

Now, that right there could be the motto of Wuthering Expectations (and I take the giant question mark as given).  I recommend it to other amateur critics.  We have less to lose than the professionals.  Read well, but also misread well, with heart and energy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Immoralist as spy novel – a misreading

Others criticized my method; those who complimented me were those who had understood me least. (The Immoralist, tr. R. Howard, 93)

The Immoralist is a tricky novel, easy to misread.  Minds greater than mine have mangled it every which way.  Whatever Sartre and Camus found in Gide’s novel is their business.  Their use of Gide may not tell us so much about the book Gide actually wrote, but they are artists, not critics.  Misreading, like reading, can be done well or badly.

I want to do some misreading myself.  From the first page on, I found hints of a sub-story in The Immoralist that I do not know how to fit into the rest of the book, that seems incidental, at best, to what the novel is really about.  But the theme kept popping up.

On the first page, the “written” narrator, the friend of Michel’s who takes down his story, is writing to his brother, a state official.  He is worried about Michel’s psychological crisis – the first-time reader, of course, knows nothing about the nature of the crisis.  The writer asks “How can a man like Michel serve the state?”  Sort of an odd question to ask about a close friend having a nervous breakdown, odder when we learn that, before and after his illness he was a classical scholar with an independent income.

In Paris, halfway through the book, Michel encounters another old friend, Ménalque, who works for the Colonial Ministry and disappears “for over a year at a time” on foreign expeditions.  He is also, and I will admit that the combination is perplexing, Oscar Wilde, the subject of “an absurd, a shameful, lawsuit with scandalous repercussions,” and a man who speaks only in irritating, “witty” aphorisms.  E.g., “You have to let other people be right.  It consoles them for not being anything else.”

Ménalque appears to understand Michel’s crisis and offers him, if not advice, then an example, although an example of what, I am unsure.  My greatest failure, I fear, reading The Immoralist, is integrating this character into my understanding of the novel.  I am brought up short by passages like this:

“Listen, I’m leaving Paris soon, but I’d like to see you again.  This time my trip will be longer and more dangerous than the others; I don’t know when I’ll be coming back.  I’m planning to start in two weeks; no one knows I’m leaving so soon – I’m telling you in confidence.”


His trip will take him, first, to Budapest, Rome, and Madrid, and then, who knows where; at least one previous trip was to Nepal, and he learned about Michel’s illness by chance while in Tunisia.

Ménalque – now the misreading really begins – Ménalque is a spy, a secret agent in the service of France.  Michel’s other college (or earlier?) friends, the ones who listen to his story, are also spies or foreign agents of some sort (page 4 - “Denis was in Greece, Daniel in Russia”)

The narrator asks his brother if, hearing the story, hearing about Michel’s cruelty, they have to reject his "capacities" as "useless."  Implicitly, one answer is “No,” his “capacities” are still “useful.”  Michel’s friends have actually gathered to survey the extent of the damage, and, if he is capable, to recruit him as a spy. 

What does all of this mean?  Why did Gide put it in his novel?  “How can a man like Michel serve the state?”  What am I supposed to do with that question?

More Gide – someday.  Tomorrow, on to other things, or the same thing, with a different book.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All of which was ridiculous, ridiculous - the trangressive Immoralist

The Immoralist’s life-threatening illness causes him to embrace the physical, sensual side of life.  A different character, in a different book, might engage in a series of sexual adventures, or experiment with narcotics, or, I don’t know, skydive or bungee jump or something.  By 1902, French literature was not exactly lacking transgressive models.  Michel seems to be unaware of them.

If only he had read Gautier or Baudelaire.  Michel’s new found sensuality does lead him to consummate his marriage with his wife – “It was on that night that I possessed Marceline.”  Not all that daring but a start, I guess.  He also shaves his beard, and “[i]n compensation, I let my hair grow.”  I am looking at page 59, irritated that it took me so long to pick up the clues.  Ah, the power of a narrator’s voice.  Michel, as a transgressor, as a wild man, is incompetent.

I can point to the exact moment, the page at least, where my irritation with The Immoralist dissipated, where my idea of the novel Gide was writing flipped.  Michel has returned to his Normandy farm, where he moons about the attractive peasant boys.  He begins to poach game with one of them.  Finally, a crime, something truly transgressive!

With what passion I continued poaching!

The only attention of which I was capable was that of my five senses.

But once night fell – and night, even at this season, fell quickly – that was our time, whose beauty I had never suspected until then; and I stole out of the house the way thieves steal in.

It was the truth: I despised my bed, and would have preferred the barn.  (scraps from 131-133)

The joke, though, and it’s an outstanding one, is that Michel is poaching his own game on his own land!  He’s not committing any sort of crime at all, but is rather playing at crime.  He even, in some sense, legitimizes the poachers.  Perhaps Gide is tweaking a metaphor – is property still theft when you give your property to thieves?

The consequences of mucking around in the business of the petty criminals has a whole series of consequences, each funnier than the next, “[a]ll of which was ridiculous, ridiculous.”  Michel and I agree on that point.

The entire episode is the comic high point of The Immoralist.  When Michel leaves his farm, the novel shifts into another mode, moving towards a climax that is not funny at all.  The ridiculous shifts to the tragic.  Michel finds something genuinely immoral that he can do.

The Immoralist is built out of a series of snares, each trapping the reader in a different but incomplete, even incorrect, interpretation of the novel.  Any reader is free to cheer on Michel’s immoralism.  “Go! Go!” cheers Dean Moriarty, waving his filthy bandaged thumb while listening to bebop.*  That reader is ignoring substantial parts of the novel in his hands, the novel Gide actually wrote.

* I’m referring to On the Road.  I may well completely misremember the scene.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The French are all lovers (the French are all crazy) - the carefully hidden homosexual subtext of The Immoralist

A young classics scholar, on his Tunisian honeymoon, is nearly killed by an attack of tuberculosis.  The illness leads him to rethink the meaning of life.  He concludes that the authentic life is the life of the body, not the mind; conventional society represses or destroys sensual life, or if it does not, is insufferably dull; and teenage Tunisian boys are highly attractive, as are certain strapping young Norman peasant lads.

Michel may or may not actually “conclude” that last item, although the reader of The Immoralist is left with no doubts.  The novel is a classic in the literature of homosexuality – this is virtually the only thing I knew about it before I read it – although the only homosexual act is here:

I stood up in the carriage to talk to the driver, a boy from Catania, lovely as a line of Theocritus, vivid, scented, savory as a fruit.

Com’è bella la signora!” he said in a charming voice, watching Marcelline walk away.

Anche tu sei bello, ragazzo,” I answered; and as I was leaning toward him, I couldn’t resist my impulse, and abruptly drawing him against me, kissed him.  He yielded with a laugh.  “I Francesi sono tutti amanti,” he said. (Howard trans., Modern Library, 154)

Michel and his wife are now near the end of the novel, back in Sicily, retracing their steps.  Sicily embodies classical ideals, including sexual freedom.  This one passage has enough ironies for today, doesn’t it?  Beginning with the sexual freedom of the Sicilian boy – the freedom to openly admire other men’s wives, and the freedom to mock amorous Frenchmen.

As blatant as this episode appears, it is possible that Michel is unaware of his homosexuality, that he is repressing it.  It is possible that he is perfectly aware of it.  Many possibilities exist:

  • Despite his newfound impulse to the sensual life, Michel is repressing his true sexual desires, but inadvertently reveals them in his narration.  Typical unreliable narration.

  • Michel means to hide his sexual inclinations, of which he is perfectly aware, from his friends, from the reader, but can’t help himself.  He is not repressed – he fails at repression.  He is exuberant.

  • Michel is pretending to repress his homosexuality, and cannily reveals it to the friends listening to his story.

Gide’s frame, the fact that we are not reading Michel’s narration, but a later account of his narration, written by someone else, multiplies the interpretations: 

  • Michel is cagey about his homosexuality, for whatever reason, repression or fear.  The writer detects Michel’s evasions and highlights them, or even exaggerates them, in the written text. 

  • Michel is actually more explicit in his spoken account than in the text.  Perhaps that Sicilian kiss was not the end of the story.  The writer conceals Michel’s homosexuality, to protect him, or because the writer is himself sexually repressed.  He conceals Michel's inclinations poorly - on purpose, or not?

Straining the point, I could come up with a few more of these.  The frame is not incidental in The Immoralist.  It is an enormous complication.  Ignoring it is an error.

A final irony is that Michel’s homosexuality is not, within the ethics of the novel, very closely related to the “immoralism,” whatever that is, in the title.  Another little trick of Gide’s.

Friday, March 25, 2011

they are sweet, harsh; they quench your thirst - the prose of The Immoralist

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. – Humbert Humbert

HH is, as usual, incorrect.  Michel, the narrator of André Gide’s The Immoralist (1902), has a disappointingly plain style.  Or perhaps it is the style of his amanuensis that is so ordinary.  Regardless.  At the sentence level, The Immoralist is rarely too interesting.  I was hoping for - am always hoping for - something more like Flaubert or Proust.  Oh well.

Gide is working in his character’s voice, so he is working under a conceptual constraint.  The result is passages like this (which I am not saying is bad writing, not at all, but merely ordinarily good writing):

Numb with cold, I came out almost at once, stretched my body on the grass, in the sunlight.  There was a clump of mint growing nearby, the perfume overpowering.  I picked a stalk, crushed its leaves and rubbed them all over my body, damp but now incandescent with the sun’s heat.  I looked at myself a long time, without any more shame, with joy.  I judged myself not yet strong, but capable of strength, harmonious, sensual, almost beautiful.  (57)

Michel is recovering from a life-threatening illness, and has discovered his own physicality.  He decides to live, to really live!  One aspect of really living is to swim and sunbathe in the nude.  Not my point.  My point – the incident, the sensual mint-crushing, the sun worship, has its own interest, but the prose is nothing special – functional, unsurprising, only barely metaphorical.

It is also clear and light, which are virtues, but common ones.  Gide needs these qualities, though, to put some distance between the narrator and his story.  As I mentioned yesterday, Michel’s own telling is described as dispassionate.  I can imagine an ecstatic reading of the sun worship passage, like something out of D. H. Lawrence, but the straightforward language restrains the reader. Or restrained me, at least.

I would describe some dialogue-heavy sections of the novel as genuinely bad, but I’ll skip to a favorite paragraph, an exception, and one which, weirdly was quoted by Whispering Gums earlier today:

Olive groves, enormous carobs; in their shade, cyclamens; higher still, chestnut groves, cool air, alpine plants; lower down, lemon trees beside the sea.  They are set out in tiny, almost identical terraced gardens, shaped so by the slope of the terrain; a narrow path runs through the center from the highest point, all the way down; noiselessly you enter, like a thief.  You dream, under this green shade; the foliage is dense, heavy; not a single sunbeam penetrates unfiltered; like drops of thick wax, the lemons hang scented; in the shade they are white and greenish, they are within reach of the hand, of your thirst; they are sweet, harsh; they quench your thirst. (54)

The beginning is dry, an arborial topography, but then metaphors begin to intrude with the thief.  That fine last sentence, those drops of wax, is very much not the normal mode of The Immoralist.  Michel is in Sicily at this point, so the passage is suddenly loaded with associations, going back to the idyllic shepherds of Theocritus, and continuing through Goethe’s “Mignon” (“Knowst thou the land of flowering lemon trees?”) and Nerval’s “Delphica” ("Et les citrons amers où s'imprimaient tes dents?").  Gide crams the passage not just with imagery, but with literature.  Elsewhere in the novel, I find clear references to St. Augustine and W. G. Sebald.  I cannot be sure if the allusions are Michel’s or Gide’s.  This murderer’s style has its curlicues.

Next week I will make some attempt to describe what The Immoralist is about.  It is about more than one thing.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

When it was night, Michel said - puzzling over The Immoralist

Now here’s something unusual for this Appreciationist, a novel I disliked from the first page and grew to despise as I read on.  It’s The Immoralist (1902), by André Gide, a great classic of something or another.  I could bury my hatchet in the book’s head, which would be good fun, but I want to spend more time with it, this week, and maybe part of next week – my vacation has kerfuddled the Wuthering Expectations schedule.

After giving the book some of that ol’ whaddayacallit – time, reflection, some simulation of thought – I discovered that Gide had bamboozled me.  I fell into every trap, into one copper-wire rabbit snare after another (that’s an actual detail from the novel, right there).  Well, I’m out now, I hope.

The novel begins with a letter to a “Président du Conseil” from his brother.  He is describing an encounter he and two friends had with the immmoralist of the title, Michel, an old school chum who has been ill and gone through a damaging philosophical transformation.  Michel has called his friends to Tunisia to make his confession, which makes up the rest of the short novel, a first person account that is, oddly, not written but spoken.  “When it was night, Michel said:” followed by 165 pages of uninterrupted story.  No digressions, no chronological missteps, no corrections.  Virtually no reference to the three auditors, his best friends.  Preposterous.

The narrator is a classics scholar of genius, we are told, the author, at the age of twenty, of a book titled Essay on Phrygian Religious Customs.  So perhaps I can just barely swallow his unlikely control over his own material, over the course of the hours of his monologue, told “without an inflection or a gesture to reveal that any emotion whatever disturbed him” (169).  But what, then, of the recounting of conversations, typically novelistic stuff like:

“But we’ll see each other again before that,” I said, rather surprised. (106)

or, for that matter, the chapter breaks?

I was reading a written text that sounded like one, not like speech, however rarefied.  But in the world of the novel, it is, in fact, also a piece of writing, written by the author of the letter that begins the novel.

I send you this account, then, as Denis, Daniel and I heard it.  Michel delivered it on his terrace, where we were stretched out near him in darkness, under the bright stars.  By the time he had finished, day had broken over the plain.

This is on page 5, and contains a lot of information for the reader alert enough to notice it.  The text of The Immoralist is not the spoken confession of a disturbed genius, but a later transcription by someone else entirely, written to be sent to a Président du Conseil.

This is all awfully complicated, isn’t it?  Changing almost nothing, Gide could have simply made the novel a fictional memoir, written by Michel, to be published or perhaps written for private purposes, to justify his actions to himself.  What is all of this clumsy framing for?  One possibility is that Gide is incompetent, technically inept.  If not, we have a puzzle to solve.  (Preview:  not incompetent).

One might argue that, resistant to Novels of Ideas, I respond by turning them into aestheticized puzzle books, regardless of what they actually are.  One might be right.  But The Immoralist is a tricky puzzle book, a parody of a Novel of Ideas, a snare.

Page numbers refer to the admirable Modern Library edition, which contains the admirable Richard Howard translation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

They weren't French - the blasphemous St. Joan

The central chant of The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc culminates with a vision of the defense and subsequent betrayal of Christ by his disciples.

The defense:

MADAME GERVAISE: The master saviour did not want Peter to draw his sword against the soldier in arms: we mustn’t go to war…

JEANNETTE: So they had swords.

MADAME GERVAISE: They therefore had swords. (170)

The betrayal:

JEANNETTE: I believe, had I been there, I would not have forsaken him.

MADAME GERVAISE: Daughter, child, let us keep ourselves from the sin of pride.  We are made as others.  We are Christians like others.  We would have been like them.  We would have been among them.  We would have acted like them.  The Scriptures had to be fulfilled.  All forsook him.  Not one remained.  It had to be.  All forsook him.  We too would have forsaken him…  We are no better than the others.

JEANNETTE: They weren’t French.  They weren’t French knights. (171-2)

“They weren’t French” – this was, to me, the single most shocking line in Charles Péguy’s audacious play.  The nun, Madame Gervaise, a representative of orthodoxy, is similarly shocked – “You don’t talk like a good Christian, like an ordinary Christian.”  After all, Peter, the founder of the Church, is among the deniers of Christ.  But he was not French.

Joan and the nun debate the sin of pride, and the meaning of the cock that crowed with each of Peter’s denials, the meaning of religious courage.  Joan is, of course, unswayed.  We know how the story ends, with Joan on the bonfire and France liberated from the English.  The nun, Madame Gervaise, is in fact converted to Joan’s position – but the nun is French, and amply courageous.

I have never read, and have little idea, what George Bernard Shaw or Bertolt Brecht try to accomplish in their plays about Saint Joan.  They can’t be much like Charles Péguy, can they?  I can believe, though, that Péguy’s Jeannette becomes this Joan:

I had trouble, sometimes, mentally excluding the image of Renée Falconetti’s extraordinary performance in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).  Dreyer’s script is taken directly from the transcripts of her trial in 1431, so the film is structured a bit like this play – another debate with a saint, a frustrating exercise, since mystic saints seem to have their own rules of engagement.

Falconetti – this is really the key – captures the central strangeness of Joan, the sense that Joan is not quite of this world, that this wisp of a girl has an unearthly power, and that what is heresy or sin in other people is something else in her.

Péguy’s book is, like Dreyer’s film, a masterpiece, high level artistry.  I was tempted to write “a masterpiece, but a disquieting one,” which is wrong. A masterpiece, and therefore disquieting.

Still borrowed from imagesjournal.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

its last thoughts tetter the furrows - the mystery of The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc

The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.  The title, that got my attention.  Hard to parse.  Written by Charles Péguy, published, self-published, in 1910.

It’s a play, or maybe a poem.  It has been a play, much shortened, rearranged.  The translation, the only translation of the whole thing, is 200 pages long.  The centerpiece of the play is a French nun’s seventy page meditation on Mary’s perspective on her son Jesus, a Passion of Mary.

For the last three days she wept.
For the last three days, she wandered, she followed.
She followed the procession.
She followed the events.
She followed as you follow a funeral.
But it was a living man’s funeral.
A man who was still alive. (117)

Joan, Jeannette, is “thirteen and a half.”  She spends the entire play, a few moments aside, spinning wool, always working.  The story, so to speak, is Jeannette’s discovery of her sainthood, of her role as the deliverer of Catholic France from the godless English – “Do you know they feed their horses oats on the venerable altar?” (70).

The nun and Jeannette argue about sacrifice, about charity.  The nun tries to persuade Jeannette to accept suffering, to be loyal to the church.  Aspiring sainthood resembles heresy.

Jeannette is not dissuaded.  Rather, if I understand the poem correctly, the nun’s arguments backfire, actually convincing Joan to become a martyr for France.  “Can it be that so much suffering is lost?” asks Jeannette.  She will, like Christ, redeem France’s suffering.

I suspect I can pinpoint the exact moment when Jeannette enters her vocation.  But who knows.  The women do not debate so much as exchange monologues.  Entire pages could be best performed as chants, like a church liturgy.  Péguy’s poetics are irregular and repetitive, looping, strange. Strange, strange.

Oh, if in order to save from the eternal flame
The bodies of the dead who are damned and maddened by pain,
I must abandon my body to the eternal flame,
Lord, give my body to the eternal flame;
My body, my poor body, to that flame which will never be quenched.
My body, take my body for that flame.
My wretched body.
My body worth so little, counting for so little.
Of little weight.
My poor body of so little a price.
                      (A pause)          (83-4)

The most common stage directions are (A pause) and (A long pause).

Péguy was a socialist, an atheist, a Dreyfusard, who had somehow returned, by the time he wrote The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, to Catholicism, although not, paradoxically, to the Church.  In 1914, forty-one years old, he enlisted in the French army as an officer and was killed almost immediately.

Geoffrey Hill’s poem “The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy” (1983) is, I would guess, read more – read more by readers of English – than Péguy himself.

The blaze of death goes out, the mind leaps
for its salvation, is at once extinct;
its last thoughts tetter the furrows, distinct
in dawn twilight, caught in the barbed loops. (stanza 8)

Hard to write about, this poem.  Hard to think about.

This little essais is indirectly related to my trip to Quebec City.

Excerpts and page numbers, from the Julian Green translation, Pantheon, 1950.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bad beer, fullness of purpose, corpse windbreaks, maple syrup, etc. - Irish short stories, Canadian vacations

Two part post.

1.  Wuthering Expectations is on vacation for a week.  Back next Monday, if I am up to it, once I have licked the maple syrup off my fingers.  Don’t want to get the computer too sticky.

Does that much Quebecois food involve maple syrup – rack of elk in maple syrup glaze, roast chicken in maple syrup sauce, cream of maple syrup soup – or is that just an obsessive tic of the Fodor’s writer?

2. mel u at The Reading Life is spending the week writing about Irish short stories.  He’s already covered Joyce, Beckett and Yeats.  Read along, he suggests.

I read along, a bit, in The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999), ed. Colm Tóibín.  The book itself is irritating - huge and heavier than my cat.  As many pieces are excerpts from novels as separate stories.  I stuck with the stories, these:

George Moore, “Home Sickness”
James Stephens, “A Glass of Beer”
Liam O’Flaherty, “The Hawk”
Seosamh Mac Grianna, “On the Empty Shore”
Flann O’Brien, “The Martyr’s Crown”
Tom Mac Intyre, “Left of the Door”

More than I had planned, although, Moore aside, they are all not just short but tiny stories.  The Tom Mac Intyre is three repetitive paragraphs, more like a prose poem, or a riddle I failed to crack.

O’Brien’s story was a disappointment – Irish Maupassant, smutty ending and all, with The Troubles substituting for the Franco-Prussian War.  Very much not The Third Policeman.

The James Stephens story is hilariously overwrought misanthropy:

On this night life did not seem worth while.  The taste had gone from his mouth; his bock was water vilely coloured; his cigarette was a hot stench.

“The Hawk” should be from the perspective of the hawk, but is not, quite. Raptor-lovers will politely ignore the over-writing:

His brute soul was exalted by the consciousness that he had achieved the fullness of the purpose for which nature had endowed him.

I guess I don’t like hawks that much.  Most of the story is better – cleaner – than that, but yeesh.

George Moore’s contribution was not as good as the excerpt of his memoirs kindly provided by obooki, not nearly, but is still a well-made, well-observed, well-thought out short story.  An Irish immigrant returns home, circa, I don’t know, 1900.  Will he stay, or is it back to the Bowery?  Moore skillfully made me want to stay in Ireland, but perhaps just for a long visit.

Moore was pretty good, but the winner was Seosamh Mac Grianna.  His story is set – no idea when it was written – during the Famine, and is a mix of historically accurate despair and off-the-cuff absurdism.

He gave his back to the wind, and leaned against a rock, the cold corpse serving him for a shield against the sky.

If you happen to read an Irish short story this week, drop mel u a postcard.

Back Monday.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A serious production of Thaïs - readers uninterested in opera can skim right past this one - readers interested in opera, apply your best judgment

The entry on Thaïs, the 1894 Jules Massenet opera, in The New Grove Book of Operas (2000), ends with this:

The human truths contained in Thaïs have yet to be revealed either on stage or indeed on record; it is, in many ways, an opera still awaiting its first serious production.

I presume the entry has been revised since then.  I have seen a serious production of Thaïs, and am listening to it now.  Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson recorded the opera in 2000 with a regional French orchestra.  I saw the production in Chicago in 2002 or 2003.  Hampson I saw several times in Chicago, but I believe this was the only time I have heard Fleming perform.

I would not want to put too much pressure on my memory of any opera I have seen, particularly one I had never heard.  I asked ma femme what she remembered, and she immediately said “the set” - a bright version of the Alexandria and the Egyptian desert, yellow, white, and blue (about two-thirds down, there it is) – “and not much else.”

How do I know it was a serious performance, then?  Back to the New Grove.  In the 1894 premiere, the star "'accidentally' exposed her breasts," and a 1973 performance featured "the first full-frontally nude opera singer."  Fleming remained clothed for her entire appearance.  If anything, the production was too static, except that the attention was then firmly on the interpretation of the music.  Really, I know the performers understand what they are singing, are “serious,” because I can hear what they’re doing on the recording.

I wrote and have abandoned a little exploration of the musical themes of the opera.  The only point worth keeping is that Massenet is clearly composing in a Wagnerian world.  Motifs run through the entire piece, performing the same thematic functions of a repeated color or phrase in a novel, except I can hum the motifs.  I am not a particularly sophisticated listener – after multiple plays of the recording, I have been able to pick out five themes.  I doubt that’s all of them.  The one the brass section plays at the beginning of the monk’s “Voilà donc la terrible cité” aria is blatantly ripped off of Tannhäuser (1845).  I think it’s Tannhäuser.

All of the motifs are blended together in the “Méditation religieuse,” a six-minute instrumental section in the exact center of the opera.  Thaïs has just been “converted” by the monk, has just decided to abandon her earthly life and return to the Christian church.  In France’s novel, this is a moment of catastrophic “victory” for the monk.  Massenet abandons the monk, and gives his attention to Thaïs, to her psychological state, which is quiet but ecstatic, and entirely wordless, aside from some off-stage humming.  France’s anti-clerical satire is entirely abandoned by Massenet.  In some sense, this eviscerates the novel.  All for the best.

I understand that the “Méditation religieuse” is popular at weddings.  It’s the moment when a courtesan resolves to become a nun, and a monk begins a life of erotic torment.  Ha ha ha!  But no one at the wedding will know that.

The Fleming and Hampson recording is highly recommended, although I wish there were a CD of highlights.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Her tone was ironical. Riquet did not understand irony - an Anatole France masterpiece

It finally occurred to me to hop over to and do my basic French writer status check – what do Anatole France’s Pléiade editions look like?  The Pléiade volumes are standardized texts, with masses of annotations and who knows what else.  France has a three volume Pléiade, compiling a dozen novels and amounting to 4,200 pages.  Status: not so shabby.  I once calculate that Balzac fills about 18,000 Pléiade pages.

The fact that only a few France books have had much presence in English is not necessarily the fault of the poor author.  Reading France, it was easy enough to see how sections – sometimes long sections – of Penguin Island and Thaïs have lost their savor, but also easy to find passages of high interest.  Overall, though, I can hardly make an emphatically positive recommendation.  If what I have mentioned sounds good, it is; if it sounds painful, it is.

If you are, for some reason, planning to “read the Nobels,” I urge you to rethink that entire project, but until then, what should you do with Anatole France?  Obooki, commenting back here, had the solution.  Wend your way to Google Books, download the PDF of Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet, and other profitable tales, jump to page 79, and read the eight little pages of the edifying saga of Riquet.

Riquet is a dog; the story is told from his perspective.  It is a terrible day in his life – moving day.  Strangers invade the house, order is destroyed, the “domestic gods” (“arm-chairs, carpets, cushions”) vanish.

He could not believe that so great a disaster would ever be repaired.  And sorrow filled his heart to overflowing.  Fortunately, Riquet’s heart resembled human hearts in being easily distracted and quick to forget its misfortunes. (81)

There’s a passage a few pages later, describing the furniture on the sidewalk, awaiting the mover’s cart, that is in itself a little masterpiece.

“Riquet” is not actually a short story, it seems, but Chapter II of a novel, Monsieur Bergeret à Paris (1901), which is now most tempting.  The chapter is printed separately in this collection as the necessary introduction to the ridiculous and sublime “Meditations of Riquet,” twenty of the dog’s aphorisms.  Riquet is, it seems, a philosopher, a profound thinker about the most difficult problems of existence:

I am in the centre of all things; men, beasts and things, friendly and adverse, are ranged about me.

Although, as I think about it, Riquet cannot be right, because I am at the center of all things.  A paradox.

Riquet is a keen observer of the world, but also adept at generalizations:

Men possess the divine power of opening all doors.  I by myself am only able to open a few.  Doors are great fetishes which do not readily obey dogs.

I will leave the rest of his wisdom, including his prayer and other religious ideas, to the interested reader, of whom there are, I assume, many.  That was certainly not my assumption about Thaïs and Penguin Island!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

That artifice did not seem ingenious to me - Anatole France's Penguin Island

Anatole France’s Penguin Island is a satirical history of France, a highbrow counterpart to Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America or – what’s an English parallel?  1066 and All That?  The novel has, more or less, no characters and no plot, and spends a good part of its time satirizing long-forgotten political issues – it’s very much a statement of French anti-clericalism, for example.  It should be a deadly bore, and, occasionally, is.

France’s silliness works in his favor, though.  He does not stay in any one period too long, and is not afraid of a joke.  How funny any particular reader finds the jokes, I will not presume to predict.  The medieval “Marbodius” chapter is a parody of Dante, in which Virgil loudly and angrily denies that he was ever a Christian, or predicted the arrival of Christ in the fourth Eclogue, or ever led that rude and ignorant Etruscan through Hell, a place he, Virgil, had never visited and in which he did not believe.  He had met Dante, though, and was appalled by his rudeness, ignorance, vulgar dialect, and primitive versification:

My ears were more surprised than charmed as I heard him repeat the same sound three or four times at regular intervals in his efforts to mark the rhythm.  That artifice did not seem ingenious to me; but it is not for the dead to judge of novelties.  (III.6)

I’m just saying that I found a lot of it funny enough.

The origin myth of Penguin Island is on the cover of that Modern Library edition.  A wandering saint, nearly deaf, nearly blind, baptizes a colony of penguins.  Heaven forms an advisory committee.  St. Augustine argues that the penguins must be transformed into humans.  One is given the impression that Augustine always wins these theological arguments.  Regardless, the penguins become people, and join the ebb and flow of human history, much to their joy and sorrow.  That the episode occurs in the Arctic, and that it is thus clear that the ancestral penguins were, in fact, puffins, is merely an irony of history.

A long section near the end is a parodic recounting of the Dreyfus Affair.  France was a Dreyfusard himself, and Dreyfus had only been reinstated in his Army rank two years earlier, so this is in part a long, laughing gloat.  Perhaps one would be better off, reading Penguin Island, not even knowing about Dreyfus, and not wasting time looking for pointless correspondences – ooh, is that Zola?  Who cares.  The central situation – a man is falsely accused, and his case becomes political fodder for all sorts of other interests – is universal enough.

My single favorite paragraph in Penguin Island is from this section.  The government, having convicted “Pyrot” with no evidence at all, decides it must shore up its case retroactively by accumulating “proofs” of his guilt.  They overdo it a bit:

Six months later the proofs against Pyrot filled two storeys of the Ministry of War.  The ceiling fell in beneath the weight of the bundles, and the avalanche of falling documents crushed two head clerks, fourteen second clerks, and sixty copying clerks, who were at work upon the ground floor arranging a change in fashion of the cavalry gaiters.  The walls of the huge edifice had to be propped.  Passers-by saw with amazement enormous beams and monstrous stanchions which reared themselves obliquely against the noble front of the building, now tottering and disjointed, and blocked up the streets, stopped the carriages, and presented to the motor-omnibuses an obstacle against which they dashed with their loads of passengers. (VI.10)

France is not so far, here, from Evelyn Waugh or Bohumil Hrabal, or dare I say it, Schulz and Kafka.  The corruption and idiocy of the government is embodied in a single action, a single image.

Such are the pleasures of Penguin Island.  If only they were more abundant.

That woodcut cover can be found at this Modern Library book collecting site.  I read a 1933 ML edition.  No mention of a translator.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The flesh of Thaïs sparkling in the light of the waters

An Egyptian hermit becomes obsessed with an Alexandrian courtesan, Thaïs, who he remembers from his youth, and becomes convinced that he has been chosen to convert her to Christianity.  He travels to Alexandria, where he succeeds in his mission.  Thaïs renounces the world and enters a convent; the monk, however, has developed an unquenchable passion for Thaïs that destroys him.  This is one way to describe Anatole France’s Thaïs (1890), and it also applies to the Jules Massenet opera, first performed four years later.

This summary omits everything, absolutely everything, that makes France’s short novel interesting, exasperating, ridiculous, profound, bad, and great.  Dead center in the novel is a parody of Plato’s Symposium, which brushes against the Judas heresy before concluding that the secret savior of mankind is a continually reincarnated Helen of Troy.  The courtesan Thaïs is an early Christian incarnation of the Helen-spirit, apparently.  I would apply all of the words in the above list, except “great,” to this one episode, which has nothing to do with anything resembling a story.

The monk Paphnutius - Massenet’s librettist found the name insufficiently euphonious and switched to Athanaël - encounters a series of figures who represent alternative, non-Christian philosophies, Skeptics and Stoics and Epicureans.  I began to fear that the entire book would be a series of such monologues or debates, and that Thaïs herself was simply one more point-of-view.

The monk’s obvious sexual repression was a complicating factor, though.  After the conversion of Thaïs, which, in an irony discarded by the opera, has almost nothing to do with any action of the monk, his condition, his spiritual and physical anguish, grows even worse.  Here’s where I began to use the word “great,” for the torments of Paphnutius, a twenty page series of increasingly bizarre visions and agonies, of which Massenet contains barely a hint.

In the center of the episode, the saint becomes a stylite.  In the sort of irony France would employ repeatedly in Penguin Island (1908), the saint draws pilgrims; the pilgrims draw commerce; commerce creates a prosperous city; a prosperous city is full of vice:

In the inns, the drinkers, reclining upon divans, called for beer or wine.  Dancers, with painted eyes and naked breasts, performed before them religious and lascivious scenes.  Young men played dice apart, an old men pursued courtesans.  Above these moving forms the motionless column stood alone; the horned head looked into the shadow, and above it Paphnutius watched between heaven and earth.  Suddenly the moon arose above the Nile, like the naked shoulder of a goddess.  The hills streamed with light and azure, and Paphnutius thought he saw the flesh of Thaïs sparkling in the light of the waters among the sapphires of the night.

The episode culminates with the monk’s renunciation of his sainthood when he calls for the assistance of the human Christ.  The human Christ is, of course, long dead.  The human saint is on his own.

The quotation is on p. 111 of a 1932 edition, published by Walter J. Black, translated by who knows who.  It’s different than, but similar to, Gutenberg’s version.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A hodgepodge of factual matter and unsupported opinion about Anatole France

For some reason, I want to spend a good part of the week on a couple of novels by Anatole France, Thaïs (1890) and Penguin Island (1908).  These were once famous books; France was once a famous writer – he won the Nobel Prize in 1921, at the age of 78, and his reputation has been in decline ever since.  His banquet speech is worth a glance.  The first sentence is hilarious.

In some sense, I mean his reputation in English, but I am not convinced that his status in French is much higher.  I paged through a couple of recent histories of French literature (e.g., A Short History of French Literature, Sarah Kay, 2003, Oxford UP) and France was always mentioned, but not for any of his books.  He has been reduced to a pro-Dreyfusard and a friend of Zola.

Penguin Island actually has a long episode that is a satirical revision of the Dreyfus Affair.  It’s poor stuff compared to the sophisticated use of the episode in Proust’s work, but France’s writing has an entirely different tone and purpose, and contains one brilliant bit I want to write about later.  I wonder if Proust has come to fill the literary niche France once occupied.

I invoked the dread word – satire.  No doubt France, in his dozens of books, had more than one mode, but in both of the novels I read he could not be clearer about his pedigree.  In tone, style, ideology, he is a disciple of Voltaire and other eighteenth century rationalists.  Thaïs evokes Zadig (1747); Penguin Island covers all of French history, and thus moves through time rather than space, but has a kinship with Candide (1759), and even ends with the cultivation of a garden, sort of – more of a meadow, really.

The garden is atop the ruins of Paris, disguised “Penguin” Paris, which has been dynamited by anarchists.  Yes, another demolished city!  I didn’t know it was there, honest.  The novel actually ends with another city built over the garden built on the old city.  You can retreat from the world and cultivate your garden, but only up to a point.

Thaïs is the basis of the third most performed Jules Massenet opera.  The librettist of course eviscerates his source, but the opera is nevertheless excellent, at least when performed, as I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears, by Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson – but when is that not true?

Penguin Classics has a single France novel in print, The Gods Will Have Blood, a historical novel of the French Revolution.  The French title is better - Les Dieux ont soif, The Gods Have Thirst – someone, please fix my French – because of the sinister ambiguity.  Thirst for what?  Oh no, for blood!  Anyone read it?

obooki read a couple of early France novellas last year (down near the bottom).  He gave Jocasta a 3 (of 10) and The Famished Cat a 4, which on his scale, where almost every book ever published is a zero, is pretty good.

Such a hodgepodge.  What have I learned?  Voltaire, in decline, Massenet, Dreyfus Affair, thirsty gods.  I might return to Massenet, but otherwise, the rest of the week, I’ll ignore all of this, and just write about the Anatole France I actually read.  Attention, focused; throat, cleared.

Friday, March 4, 2011

but . . . one has never been able to find out what--satin--hat explodes - Stéphane Mallarmé is kinda hard to decipher

When I claimed that Samuel Butler, in Erewhon, or Anatole France in Penguin Island* are hard to pin down, a little hard to understand, what I mean is that they are dedicated ironists, committed to not quite saying exactly what they mean.  It can be difficult to understand their stance, or tell when they are joking or when they are merely joking (they are always joking).

I had been reading Stéphane Mallarmé alongside Butler and France, as if to remind myself what true difficulty looks like.  Mallarmé challenges me to decipher individual sentences, or the use of specific words, words I understand in non-Mallarméan texts.  And that’s in his prose that follows the usual rules of punctuation and paragraphing.  What to do with this:

An excerpt from The Book, is what that is, from the 2001 Mallarmé in Prose, New Directions, pp 132-3.  This particular piece is translated by Richard Sieburth, a champion of the more baffling side of Mallarmé.  The title of this post can be found in the lower right-hand corner.  Click to enlarge, I hope.

Mallarmé is constructing a text in a way that creates multiple meanings.  The sentences can be read across, or down, or I can follow the lines.  I can insert or omit phrases.  The meaning of any particular section remains obscure, and the layering of possibilities only adds to my confusion.  The effect overwhelms the sense.  I see that Sieburth has written an article on this text – on the whole thing, 72 manuscript sheets – titled “Discard or Masterpiece? Mallarmé’s Le Livre.”

The only other time I have written about Mallarmé, I did the same thing I am doing here, scanning pages of the wildest things I could find.  Mallarmé’s texts mostly do not look like this.  His poems look like sonnets, his fashion writing looks like fashion writing.  The sense is rarely much clearer, though.

Mallarmé’s writing – his prose as much as his verse – is essentially musical, with words chosen for their sound:

Whereas there was, when language reigned, a first attunement to the origin, in order for an august sense to be produced: in Verse, the dispenser and organizer of pages, master of the book.  Visibly, whether it appears in the integrality among the margins and blanks, or dissimulates itself, call it Prose, but it’s still there if there’s any secret pursuit of music within the storehouse of Discourse.  (“Displays,” Divagations, 1897, tr. Barbara Johnson)

The “secret pursuit of music” – in English, I have to take that on faith.  Or, I can mouth the French here (bottom paragraph), and continue to scratch my poor head.

I mentioned the fashion writing, yes?  Mallarmé wrote and published several issues of a fasion magazine, La Dernière Mode (The Latest Fashion) using a number of pseudonyms – Margeurite de Ponty, Miss Satin, A Reader from Alsace – in which he advises that the bustle is dead, but cameos are coming back into fashion, and bicycle pants should be partly covered by short skirts – “such a dazzle melts me, knocks me over, and pierces me” (M. in Prose, p. 95).  He recommends perfumed soaps, by brand, and “the deliciously-named product Snow Cream.”  He provides a recipe for mulligatawny, and ideas for the decoration of Christmas trees that would meet the approval of Martha Stewart (gilded walnuts!).

This glorious nonsense is drawn from the few pages of La Dernière Mode translated in Mallarmé in Prose.  Why the whole thing, every issue, has not been translated is beyond me.  I am not entirely sure of Mallarmé’s stance about fabrics and perfumes and top hats, either, but if I had to take my own stand, I would say that he means it, every word.

* Next week is Anatole France week!  It is as if I am determined drive off my readers.  Come back, come back!  France is not so bad!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My ignorance of technical terms has led me doubtless into many errors - my imaginary Erewhon

The narrator of Erewhon spends his first three months in the strange country learning the language.

I found to my sorrow that the resemblance to European things, which I had so frequently observed hitherto, did not hold good in the matter of language; for I could detect no analogy whatever between this and any tongue of which I have the slightest knowledge, - a thing which made me think it possible that I might be learning Hebrew. (Ch. 8)

Hebrew, because he thinks he has stumbled upon a lost tribe of Israel.  He begins his study with numbers and objects, logically, but the bulk of the book is concerned with abstractions – the College of Unreason, the religious beliefs of the Erewhonians, the details of their legal system.  He claims that the long excerpts from "The Book of Machines" and other works are his own translations – he smuggles the manuscripts back to England under absurd circumstances.  Prof. Mayhew observes that reading an Italian text full of cognates is easier than one about household objects, but Italian, for him, is full of cognates.  Our hero insists he has no knowledge whatsoever of Greek or Hebrew, and that the Erewhonian tongue is completely unfamiliar.

My ignorance of technical terms has led me doubtless into many errors, and I have occasionally, where I found translation impossible, substituted purely English names and ideas for the original Erewhonian ones, but the reader may rely on my general accuracy. (Ch. 22)

Ya know, in a different kind of book, a disclaimer like this would set off the unreliability alarm bells.  Add to this the narrator’s nutty insistence on the Lost Tribe theory, and his crackpot, even evil, final-chapter scheme to profit from it (it involves sugar plantations and a gunboat).  Maybe this fellow is not altogether right in the head.

I don’t think there’s quite enough of these clues, or that they’re arranged in a tight enough pattern, to spend much time looking for the secret subtext.  Butler wants to take his shots at the Anglican church, classical education, false middle-class respectability, and he wants to find a context for his amusing ideas about the Darwinian evolution of machinery.  Anything else is just messing around.

The messing around, though, suggests the possibility of another novel.  A better novel, says I.  The traveler arrives in Erewhon, learns the language, confidently but badly, and proceeds to misunderstand everything he sees.  The Colleges of Unreason are, of course, Colleges of Reason – the narrator never figures out how negations work.  Criminals go to prison, and ill people to the doctor, just like anywhere else.  The church is treated with respect.  There are of course no Professors of Inconsistency and Evasion.

The plot, as such, can go a couple of different ways.  In Erewhon, the nation that at first seems bizarre turns out to be a veiled version of England, at least in its hypocrisies and absurdities.  But perhaps it is a genuine Utopia, the vices only existing in the mind of the uncomprehending and stubborn traveler.  Or perhaps he has been knocked on the head, and has been in England all along.  No wonder he picks up the language so quickly.

This would be a clever book.  Erewhon is a clever book, too, but the one I want to read would be more clever.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cultivating a sufficient distrust of printed matter - notes on Erewhonian pedagogy

Erewhon (1872), in the antique (1927) Modern Library edition I read, is 308 pages long.  The first 43 pages move the narrator from his life as a New Zealand shepherd across the mountains to the hidden Erewhonian civilization.  This passage for some reason ends with a page of a Handel score, for harpsichord.  The basics are covered for 44 more pages – dress, food, and so on, and questions about how these people live, not answers.  Then, for 197 uninterrupted pages, satire.  How we all love satire.  In Book Blog Land, I often see “satire” used as a kind of swear word.  Two final chapters in 25 pages, “Escape” and “Conclusion,” finish off the novel-like business of the novel, bringing the narrator back to England.

Except for some odd, odd, odd business with the narrator, all of which I want to save for tomorrow, the heart, meat, and spirit of Erewhon is in the satirical chapters, two-thirds of the novel.  Religious practices, somehow involving a Musical Bank.  Education at the Colleges of Unreason.  The wisdom of The Book of the Machines.  Crime as illness; illness as crime.  The afterlife and the beforelife.

Often, episodes work by correspondence.  The Musical Bank is a church!  You go there to withdraw a special currency that everyone says is valuable, but does not actually allow you to buy anything, but you do get to hear some pretty music while banking.  Ha ha!  Or, not.

At the Colleges of Unreason, youngsters study nothing but “hypothetics,” for which they learn the hypothetical language.  Students “will spend years in learning to translate some of their own good poetry into the hypothetical language – to do so with fluency being reckoned a distinguishing mark of a scholar and a gentleman.”  Hey, I do believe Butler is talking about Latin!

This is thin stuff, really, but as Butler piles on the nonsense, the satire becomes more tangled, and thus, to my mind, sharper, more universal.  The allegory falls away.

Life, [the professors of Consistency and Unreason] urge, would be intolerable if men were to be guided in all they did by reason and reason only.

Unreason is a part of reason; it must therefore be allowed its full share in stating the initial conditions.

"It is not our business," [the professor of Worldly Wisdom] said, "to help students to think for themselves.  Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do.  Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do."

One man was refused a degree for being too often and too seriously in the right, while a few days before I came a whole batch had been plucked for insufficient distrust of printed matter.

All of these aphorisms are from Chapters 21 and 22.  Are they wrong?  Yes, but, completely wrong?  One should certainly cultivate, for example, a sufficient distrust of Erewhon and its author.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The deeply rooted wish to spread opinions - Samuel Butler and Utopian exhaustion

Let one book lead to another, I advise, but I feel I am demonstrating the limits of the thesis.  Flaubert’s nightmarish siege of Carthage leads to Richard Jefferies’s nightmarish London bog in a book that is also an ecological semi-Utopia, so that leads to the satirical Utopia of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872).  Meanwhile, exotic Flaubert leads to exotic Anatole France (Thaïs, 1890), which inevitably sends me to another satirical Utopia, France’s 1908 Penguin Island, which has pretty much worn we out.  I should read William Morris next, shouldn’t I, News from Nowhere (1890)?  But I'm beat. Some other time.

The problem is two-fold.  First, these books are all second-rate.  I staunchly defend the second-rate, but a diet of nothing-but is wearing.  The characterization in these books is, to be generous, thin.  The stories do not necessarily have much forward momentum.  I’m not sure they should.  Still.

Second, the genuine satires, like Erewhon and Penguin Island and, to drop back to the source, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), are dang slippery.  The authors are, certainly, puncturing hypocrisies and mocking the unmockable, but they are also, at times, entirely serious.  Aren’t they?  So I’m batted back and forth, constantly on edge.  Was that joke just a joke?  A joke with a target I don’t recognize?  A joke that is not a joke at all?  I am thinking of Thomas Carlyle – as I read more of him, I realized that the more outrageous his claim, the more likely he was to really mean it.

Butler’s Erewhonians imprison people when they are ill and send them to the doctor when they embezzle funds or knife their neighbor.  They abolished machinery, or a lot of it, because of fears that machines would evolve into Robot Overlords.  They were all vegetarians for a while, until the entire nation briefly tried living without eating vegetables, although it was all right to eat “what had died a natural death, such as fruit that was lying on the ground and about to rot, or cabbage-leaves that had turned yellow in autumn” (Ch 27, “The Views of an Erewhonian Philosopher Concerning the Rights of Vegetables”).

Butler, my imagined Butler – I know nothing about the actual Butler – may or may not advocate vegetarianism, although I doubt it, but the anti-vegetable position is surely a folly, a mockery of systems that violate common sense.  How about the anti-machine position?  I suspected that I was reading the equivalent of a needle being threaded.

What could it matter to me how many absurdities the Erewhonians might adopt?  Nevertheless I longed to make them think as I did, for the wish to spread those opinions that we hold conducive to our own welfare is so deeply rooted in the English character that few of us can escape its influence.  But let this pass. (Ch. 20)

I recognize the target of that passage.  It’s the author of Erewhon, and perhaps others, too, including, just possibly, the author of Wuthering Expectations.