Friday, May 29, 2009

I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. - Théophile Gautier and his friend Gérard de Nerval

The biographer Richard Holmes has put together a volume of Théophile Gautier stories called My Fantoms. It's an odd little thing, six short stories and a biographical elegy, retitled and reordered, in the hopes of making a thematic argument, which I think it does.

I suspect most readers would enjoy this book quite a bit more than Mademoiselle de Maupin. Four of the stories are about ghost women and the men who love them. One steps out of a tapestry, another is a vampire, a third appears in an opium dream, the fourth haunts Pompeii. The tone varies a lot. The story with the tapestry ghost is a sex comedy (last line: "And then again, I am no longer quite such a good-looking young fellow that tapestries leap off the wall in my honour"). The vampire story is more of a real horror story, with a wistful tinge. The Pompeii story is an effective evocation of Roman vitality.

There's also an excellent E. T. A. Hoffmann knockoff about a mad painter ("Onuphrius Wphly, ou Les Vexations fantastiques d'un admirateur d'Hoffmann"), and a clever tale of what happens when an actor fails to play Goethe's Mephistopheles to the satisfaction of the devil himself. The writing, in general, is light, elegant, dashing.

So those are the Fantoms, or all but one. Why My? In a couple of the tales, Gautier, or "Gautier," is the narrator - he's the teenager seduced by the tapestry ghost. And the phantoms are all his creation, so they're phantoms of his imagination. There's one other thing, though.

Holmes renames all of the stories - "The Priest," "The Tourist," and so on. That long "Onuphrius etc." title becomes "The Painter." The actual titles are in a bibliographical note, so Holmes isn't doing any damage. The final fantom in the book, written in 1867, is "The Poet." It's real title is "Gérard de Nerval:"

"It is now almost twelve years since the drear morning in January, when a sinister rumour first began to spread through Paris. In the uncertain light of that cold, grey dawn, a body had been found hanging from the bars of a wall ventilator in the rue de Vieille Lanterne, opposite the iron grille of a street sewer, halfway up a flight of steps. It was a place frequented by a familiar crow, who used to hop ominously about, seeming to croak like the raven in Edgar Allan Poe: 'Never, oh! nevermore!' The body was that of my childhood friend and schoolfellow, Gérard de Nerval, my collaborator on the newspaper La Presse and the faithful companion of my brightest - and above all - my darkest days."

This final fantom is a real one.

Gautier sketches out his schooldays with Nerval, and their Bohemian life in Paris, their newspaper work, their famous battle against the Classical fogies over Hugo's Hernani. The whole piece is only twenty-three pages, so the movement is rapid, from Nerval's difficult obsessions with women to his strange travels in the Near East to the symptoms of his madness, with key, pungent details suggesting larger things.

"He could not conceive why doctors should be concerned if he happened to walk in the gardens of the Palais Royal leading a live lobster on the end of a blue silk ribbon.

'Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?' he used to ask quietly, 'or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gnaw upon one's monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad.'"

Gautier ends the piece with an incisive appreciation of Nerval's writings, particularly the account of his madness, Aurélia. I'm going to try to write about Nerval's work myself, soon. Maybe the week after next - a break from Weird France is in order.

I don't actually believe that all art is perfectly useless, although I have been nodding along with Wilde and Gautier. I don't think they believed it, either. Just read Gautier's fine tribute to Gérard de Nerval.

The photo of Gautier is of course by Nadar, from 1854 or 1855. The drawing of Nerval's suicide is by Gustave Doré.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I, I have made enamels and cameos - Théophile Gautier's beautiful, useless poems

"When he had stretched himself on the sofa, he looked at the title-page of the book. It was Gautier's Émaux et Camées, Charpentier's Japanese-paper edition, with the Jacquemart etching. The binding was of citron-green leather, with a design of gilt trellis-work and dotted pomegranates... As he turned over the pages, his eye fell on the poem about the hand of Lacenaire, the cold yellow hand 'du supplice encore mal laveé,' with its downy red hairs and its 'doigts de faune.' He glanced at his own white taper fingers, shuddering slightly in spite of himself, and passed on, till he came to those lovely stanzas upon Venice:"

And at this point Oscar Wilde (we're in Chapter XIV of The Picture of Dorian Gray) inserts three stanzas of a Gautier poem, from the second of four short verses on the subject of Venice. In the novel, the stanzas are in French. I'll get a dictionary and ma femme and try to translate a stanza very literally (please feel free to correct me), the one Dorian finds particularly evocative of Venice:

The skiff lands and disembarks me,
Throwing its rope around the pillar,
In front of a pink facade,
On the marble stairs.

L'esquif aborde et me dépose,
Jetant son amarre au pilier,
Devant une façade rose,
Sur le marbre d'un escalier.

Delicate, not too complex looking, not too exciting in English. Hard to see what Dorian is getting from them, exactly. The joke, such as it is, is that he has just murdered a friend, and is looking for distraction from Gautier's volume of exquisitely crafted miniatures, the enamels and cameos of the title. Dorian is finding a use for the useless. In the first poem, the "Préface," Gautier says he is like Goethe, who wrote his East-West Divan against the noise of the cannons; without worrying about the hurricane that whipped his windows shut, "I, I have made Enamels and Cameos," decorative, useless things.

About that hand of Lacenaire. Gautier wrote two "Studies of Hands," the first about a clay woman's hand, a sculptor's model - Gautier has this, let's call it a thing, about preferring sculptures of women to actual women - the second, "Pour contraste," about the severed hand of a murderer, still unwashed:

Mummified and all yellow,
Like the hand of a pharaoh,
It stretched its animal-like fingers
Frozen by temptation.

So I see why Dorian did not want to linger over this poem.

The problem is that Gautier's poems are too lyrical, too simple-seeming (but not actually simple) - whatever magic they might have is ineffable. All of Gautier's poems are like this. Here we have a complete Englishing of Émaux et Camées from 1903 which I have read in its entirety, and which, I have concluded, is basically terrible (the 1903 New York Times agrees!). The insertions of extraneous matter, the bizarre choices of rhyme words, the occasional total abandonment of English grammar, what a mess. It's the only complete Enamels and Cameos I have found. I need to find a better translation. These poems can't be harder to translate than Charles Baudelaire, and the Richard Howard Flowers of Evil I'm reading is fantastic.

And here, by the way, is the lovely 1887 Émaux et Camées, the source of the images, yours for free.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

No, fools, no, goitrous cretins that you are, a book does not make gelatine soup - but what, M. Gautier, about books of gelatine soup recipes?

I mean, I know the book does not actually make the soup, but having the recipe* helps, non?

Mademoiselle de Maupin begins with a long preface, in which Théophile Gautier stabs, hacks, batters, and mocks every critic ("eunuchs," "lice") in France, to really fine effect. The preface is better than the novel, and more influential, too.

On the prurient critics, for example: "If there is any nakedness in a picture or a book they go straight to it, like swine to the mire, without troubling themselves about the full-blown flowers, or the beautiful golden fruit which hang in every direction." Gautier has special praise for a virtuous theater critic "who has pushed this morality so far as to say 'I will not go to see his drama with my mistress.'"

To the extent Gautier makes an argument here, it is that the critics are self-serving hypocrites, and that the novels and plays of his day are no smuttier or bloodier than Voltaire or Molière, "where the husband is duly deceived in the fifth act, fortunate if he has not been so from the first."

In a preface to a moderately smutty novel, this preface might itself seem too self-interested, but, as with almost every aspect of Mademoiselle de Maupin, the arguments for immorality are misdirection. Gautier's real argument is aesthetic. He's practically John Milton, arguing for the absolute freedom of the writer. The moralists are worth a laugh, but it's the utilitarians who are the real problem (long, but worth it):

"No, fools, no, goitrous cretins that you are, a book does not make gelatine soup; a novel is not a pair of seamless boots; a sonnet, a syringe with a continuous jet; or a drama, a railway - all things which are essentially civilising and adapted to advance humanity on its path of progress...

A novel has two uses - one material and the other spiritual - if we may employ such an expression in reference to a novel. Its material use means first of all some thousands of francs which find their way into the author's pocket, and ballast him in such a fashion that neither devil nor wind can carry him off; to the bookseller, it means a fine thoroughbred horse, pawing and prancing with its cabriolet of steel, as Figaro says; to the paper maker, another mill beside some stream or other, and often means the spoiling of a fine site; to the printers, some tons of logwood for the weekly staining of their throats; to the circulating library, some piles of pence covered with very proletarian verdigris, and a quantity of fat which, it if were properly collected and utilised, would render whale-fishing superfluous. Its spiritual use is that when reading novels we sleep, and do not read useful, virtuous, and progressive journals, or other similarly indigestible and stupefying drugs."

Worth it, yes? Those horrible, greasy pennies, the early eco-criticism, the conversion of paper into wine. I've read Mademoiselle for Maupin twice, although not for a couple of years, but I recently read a couple of his other books. I reread the M. de M. preface this morning, and think it's the best thing he ever wrote. I haven't even mentioned Gautier's five-act tragedy, in which the hero "throws himself into the water-closet," or the fulsome praise for Charles Fourier, "a madman, a great genius, an idiot, a divine poet far above Lamartine, Hugo, and Byron." The novel is almost superfluous, a mechanical working-out of his ideas with some spicy seasoning mixed in.

If any of this sounds suspiciously like the one page preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), where "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written," and "All art is quite useless," that's because Oscar Wilde's preface is directly summarizing the preface of Mademoiselle de Maupin. Except for the thing about Caliban looking in the mirror; that's not Gautier. The Picture of Dorian Gray has numerous direct references to Gautier, because it, too, is in part a novelistic demonstration of an aesthetic theory.

So I'm wrong, the theory is insufficient. Gautier had to create the beautiful, ridiculous, useless thing itself. Gautier actually worked as a journalist and critic for the remaining forty years of his life, intermittently creating beautiful, useless things. Over the next two days, I'll spend some time with a few of them.

* In the same book, be sure to see, at the very least, Ch. XIV, "Count Rumford's Cookery and Cheap Dinners," and Ch. XV, "Count Rumford's Substitute for Tea and Coffee." As the Trollope heroine says, "Yummo!"

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Out of consideration for the reader, whom we do not wish to humiliate and discourage, we shall not carry this description too far

Which of these books looks more interesting? On the left, "The adventures of a woman who sets out to discover men, and discovers them thoroughly" - boy, that does not sound like the sort of thing I read. And what's up with the perspective of those balconies?

On the right, what's that? Maybe it's a Surrealist novel, or some Weimar decadence. How does Penguin describe it? "An influential novelist's shocking tale of sexual deception draws readers into the bedrooms and boudoirs of a French château in a compelling exploration of desire and sexual intrigue." Wow, how dull (and, it turns out, inaccurate). I'll go back to the first one.

The punchline is obivous, right, that they're the same novel, Théophile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), written at the age of 24 by that dandified Bohemian on the left. It's a dirty-book classic, in at least two scenes actually kind of steamy. There's some fairly direct Lesbian stuff. One of the women is disguised as the world's most beautiful man, but the reader knows the score. I mean, it's not Zane, but Mademoiselle de Maupin is one of the reasons "French literature" became associated with dirty books.

How about Chapter IX, from a letter by the novel's hero, D'Albert, which begins:

"It is so. I love a man, Silvio. I long sought to delude myself; I gave a different name to the feeling that I experienced; I clothed it in the garment of pure and disinterested friendship... but I now recognize the profound and terrible road to which I am pledged."

By the end of the letter D'Albert has realized that the man he loves is actually a woman in disguise, so Gautier does not pursue the idea all the way to it's end. But still, 1835! The obscenity trials of Madame Bovary and The Flowers of Evil are more than twenty years later. Mademoiselle de Maupin never ran into that sort of trouble.

One reason why: the entire novel is an elaborate gag, an explication of an aesthetic theory. None of its surface is meant to be taken quite seriously. It's, I say, it's a joke, son, a funny. I'll try to write about that tomorrow.

Maybe I should include one of the naughty bits, just to prove my case, for the purposes of literary science. We're near the end of Chapter XVI, and the end of the book:

"Still, one lesson, no matter how intelligent one may be, cannot suffice; D'Albert gave her a second, then a third. Out of consideration for the reader, whom we do not wish to humiliate and discourage, we shall not carry this description too far.

Our fair reader would possibly pout at her lover if we revealed to her the sum total of the lessons imparted by D'Albert's love, assisted by Rosalind's curiosity. Let her recall the best occupied and most charming of her nights, the night which would be remembered a hundred thousand days, did not death come before; let her lay her book aside and compute on the tips of her pretty white fingers how many times she was loved by him who loved her most, and thus fill up the void left by us in this glorious history."

Is the whole novel written like this? Yes. Is that Rosalind related to the cross-dressing heroine of As You Like It? Yes, a performance of the Shakespeare play is part of the novel's plot. Isn't Gautier sort of forcing the male reader into a cross-dressing role in that last paragraph? Yes, definitely, and on purpose - "the tips of her pretty white fingers"! The more I look at that passage the dirtier it seems. I'd better stop looking.

Quotations from the 1944 Heritage Press edition, translated by It Don't Say.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Like foam-bells from the tide - don't let your sister posthumously edit your poems

When Matthew Arnold published his tribute to Charlotte and Emily Brontë in 1855, Emily had been dead for almost seven years. Arnold could have known only a small number of Emily's poems, the twenty-one Ellis Bell poems published in 1846, and eighteen more that Charlotte included in the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, one of which may actually be by Charlotte. Now we have over 180 poems.

The Complete Poems that I read, the Penguin Classics edition, is too much. The shorter collections that I looked at had too little. Plus, there are serious textual issues. So I don't know what to recommend. The 1846 poems, plus the 1850 poems (see, for example, the Norton Critical Edition of Wuthering Heights), plus a little more.

Charlotte's editing of her sister's poems can be a problem. Mostly, Charlotte just smoothed out the punctuation and verb tenses. But on a few poems, she went to town.

Aye there it is! It wakes tonight
Sweet thoughts that will not die
And feeling's fires flash all as bright
As in the years gone by! -

And I can tell by thine altered cheek
And by thy kindled gaze
And by the words thou scarce dost speak,
How wildly fancy plays -

This is Emily's beginning. That floating "it" is a problem. Or maybe it's good, a source of mystery. Who is speaking to whom? I don't know. Here's Emily via Charlotte:

Ay - there it is! It wakes to-night
      Deep feelings I thought dead;
Strong in the blast - quick gathering light -
      The heart's flame kindles red.

'Now I can tell by thine altered cheek,
      And by thine eyes' full gaze,
And by the words thou scarce dost speak
      How wildly fancy plays.'

More comprehensible, maybe; more conventional, certainly. Note that the second stanza is now in quotes. Still not sure what "it" is. Which is worse - the red-kindled heart or the full-gazing eyes?

The next stanza is my favorite. Luckily, Charlotte barely touches it; here's Emily:

Yes I could swear that glorious wind
Has swept the world aside
Has dashed its memory from my mind
Like foam-bells from the tide -

I'll skip to the last stanza:

Thus truly when that breast is cold
Thy prisoned soul shall rise
The dungeon mingle with the mould -
The captive with the skies -

Wow, this is supercharged Emily: the prison and the grave and the unchained spirit disappearing into nature, all in three lines. Charlotte found it too heathenistic and actually added five banal lines of her own, ending:

Mortal! though soon life's tale is told;
      Who once lives, never dies!

Emily Brontë's poems, like the works of Mozart and Schubert, are now referred to by letter and number. This one is H. 123. My thanks to the scholars who disentangled this mess.

I have found these poems highly challenging to write about, and am not sure I have any greater understanding of them than when I started. So thanks also to everyone who had the patience to read along or who left comments.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee - angst, heartbreak, and repetitive V sounds in Emily Brontë

A post or two ago, I looked at a poem written by Emily Brontë when she was 19 years old, and mentioned that to me it seemed much more mature. Biblibio politely suggested that it seemed plenty immature, detecting "teenage angst." I was actually thinking about her versification, not the content of what she wrote. Biblibio was committing the readerly sin of responding to what I actually wrote, rather than what I meant, but did not write. Unforgivable!

Biblibio is correct, completely correct. And it's not just Brontë's teenage poems that are packed with adolescent pity and passion; it's the whole project. That's why Les Hauts de Hurlevant is suddenly so popular with vampires and the teenage French girls who love them. Let's look at a poem Brontë wrote when she was 27, published a year later with her sisters' verse in the Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell volume. I'll interrupt it here and there, since the main point of Wuthering Expectations is to mangle the work of geniuses:


Cold in the earth--and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far, removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time's all-severing wave?

Now here, note all of the repetitions of entire words, rather than vowel and consonant sounds, although there's also plenty of that (above, remove, grave, have, love, sever, wave). Also note, that the speaker's tone is hysterical and the sense on a far edge of recognizable human emotion.

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart for ever, ever more?

Those internal "v"s, they're everywhere. And look at all of those "o"s. The answer to the question is "No," as we will see below. Her thoughts, in fact, do not still hover over the mountains containing her lover's grave, and do not rest on the grave. I guess they used to hover until they were tired, and then rest. I'll skip two stanzas.

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy;
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion--
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory's rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

Ah ha, a twist. She has Moved On. The poem is an argument against teenage angst, expressed in the rhetoric of teenage angst! She checks the tears of useless passion, shes dares not indulge in her memories. Their power is acknowledged, but also their danger.

"Remembrance" has attracted a lot of attention from heavy-hitting critics. I'm looking at the note to the poem in the Penguin Classics edition, p. 228, where I see that Barbara Hardy called it Brontë's "best love poem," and F. R. Leavis wrote that it was "the finest poem in the nineteenth-century part of The Oxford Book of English Verse," and (or but?) it "does unmistakably demand to be read in a plangent declamation." Try that at home. I'm pretty sure it will emphasize the more ridiculous side of the poem, rather than the affecting side. Maybe my declamations have not been sufficiently plangent. I'll keep practicing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

If it but herald death, the vision is divine! - Emily Brontë's fantasy world

Gérard de Nerval, from Aurélia, part 2, chapter 1 (1855): "if only we can identify the missing letter or the obliterated sign, if we can resolve the dissonance of the scale, we shall learn a great deal about the spirit world."

Emily Brontë's works, her poems and Wuthering Heights, present the same temptation that poor, mad Nerval saw in the Kabbalah and other esoteric pursuits, the possibility that there is a key to the lock that allow us entry to the inner core of Brontë's world.

Gondal, that's the key for some people, the Byronesque fantasy world created by Emily and Anne, not to be confused with Charlotte and Branwell's Angria. The Angria stories survived and can still be read. All that's left of Gondal are Emily's poems.

This is why a substantial number of the poems have titles like "A.G.A. to A.S." or "The Death of A.G.A." or, my favorite, "Written in the Gaaldine Prison Caves to A.G.A." No, sorry, my favorite title is "From a Dungeon Wall in the Southern College." That's a good, rigorous college!

I could not care less about the Gondal business as such. I'm looking at an article by Rosalind Miles ("The Creative Dynamism of Emily Brontë's Poetry") in which she comes this close to saying that she would rather have the Gondal material than "the novels of Jane Austen's middle age" or "the poems of Keat's full maturity" - nutty, just nutty.*

What amazes me about all this is that, aside from a few names, most of the Gondal poems look just like Brontë's other poems. They're set in a fantasy world, spoken by or to unknown characters, but they're not simply about that world. She, and her sister, created this entire, complicated world, and one way Emily used it was as a frame or inspiration for her original poems.

I think many poets do something like this, although rarely so explicitly. William Blake and Friedrich Hölderlin are extreme cases, sometimes seeming to live in their own mythical world, and meine Frau reminds me that some of the best poems of many German poets - Theodor Storm, Theodor Fontane, Goethe - were first found surrounded by prose. "Mignon," from Wilhem Meister's Apprenticeship, is a perfect example - "Knowst thou the land of flowering lemon trees?" But Brontë's efforts are in their own category.

Emily Brontë returned to the same themes again and again. There are a cluster of parting poems ("O wander not so far away! \ O love, forgive this selfish tear.") Half a dozen prison poems - good examples of what I'm trying to say. In the Gondal world, the poem is about a person in an actual prison; in our world, with no Gondal, the prison is metaphorical. The poem is no worse off.

I'll end with some stanzas from one of them, "The Prisoner. A Fragment," from the 1846 Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. I'm skipping to the end; the prisoner, a young woman, is speaking:

"Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free--its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulph, it stoops and dares the final bound,

"Oh, dreadful is the check--intense the agony
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

"Yet I would lose no sting, would wish no torture less;
The more that anguish racks, the earlier it will bless;
And robed in fires of hell, or bright with heavenly shine,
If it but herald death, the vision is divine!"

She ceased to speak, and we, unanswering, turned to go--
We had no further power to work the captive woe:
Her cheek, her gleaming eye, declared that man had given
A sentence, unapproved, and overruled by Heaven.

I can't really say that I like this much. But it's intense, passionate, a little crazed: Emily Brontë. No, revise that - the third stanza, "And robed in fires of hell," etc. I like that just fine.

* Rosalind Miles, "The Creative Dynamism of Emily Brontë's Poetry" in The Brontës, ed. Harold Bloom, 1987, p. 72. Really helpful article, actually. I seem to have picked out the one silly thing in it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thy mind is ever moving in regions dark to thee - Emily Brontë the nature-worshiping heathen

Shall earth no more inspire thee,
Thou lonely dreamer now?
Since passion may not fire thee
Shall nature cease to bow?

Usually I assume that the speaker of a poem is the poet. It's a fiction, I know, a pose. Here, though, someone else is addressing a poet-like figure ("thou lonely dreamer"). Earth and passion and nature seem to be connected.

Thy mind is ever moving,
In regions dark to thee;
Recall its useless roving -
Come back, and dwell with me -

Now the poet really sounds like Emily Brontë, Official Poet Laureate of the Goths.* A mind moving "in regions dark," that's her. The speaker, whoever it is, is not so sympathetic with the whole black clothes and emo thing. "Useless," that's pretty strong.

I know my mountain breezes
Enchant and soothe thee still -
I know my sunshine pleases,
Despite thy wayward will -

So the speaker is actually earth, or nature, or the earth spirit.

When day with evening blending
Sinks from the summer sky,
I've seen thy spirit bending
In fond idolatry -

Nature has observed the poet, at twilight, secretly worshiping nature. "Fond" can mean "mad" - is that what it means here? Note the assonance - all of the "n" sounds, and the second "s" line. I'll shut up for a moment and let the nature spirit finish up.

I've watched thee every hour -
I know my mighty sway -
I know my magic power
To drive thy griefs away -

Few hearts to mortals given
On earth so wildly pine
Yet few would ask a heaven
More like this earth than thine -

Then let my winds caress thee -
Thy comrade let me be -
Since nought beside can bless thee,
Return and dwell with me -

In her dream of Heaven, Catherine Earnshaw "broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy." (WH, Ch. 9). Maybe nature is not speaking to a Brontë-like poet, but to a Catherine-like wild spirit. Either way, she's a nature-worshiping heathen who has somehow strayed from the natural world into the darkness of the imagination, although she maintains her pantheistic faith in her own way, and will eventually return to the earth, perhaps in death.

Or something. These poems, some of them, are so strange. This one is unusually pure. It does not seem to have any Gondal mixed into it. Tomorrow, I guess, Gondal.

* Not mockery. The Goths chose correctly. One thing Emily Brontë is, one among many, is the original Goth girl.

Monday, May 18, 2009

She can bear her soul from it's home of clay - the mystical superpowers of Emily Brontë

I'm happiest when most away
I can bear my soul from it's home of clay
On a windy night when the moon is bright
And my eye can wander through worlds of light

When I am not and none beside
Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky
But only spirit wandering wide
Through infinite immensity

This is an early poem of Emily Brontë's, written when she was 19, but not published until 1910. Does it sound like a 19 year old? It sure sounds like Emily Brontë.

This is early poetic mastery, varied in form, strange in concept, although perhaps not as weird as it looks (or, perhaps, weirder). That third line is fancy - an internal rhyme, and "wind/ when." I actually pronounce "win" and "when" the same way, a regionalism I'm trying to combat, so the effect is really strong for me.

That line is a bit singsongy, which is why the fourth line changes the order of the sounds. Line three stresses wind/night/moon/bright, while line four has eye/wand/worlds/light. She flips the location of the "I" sound and the "w_nd" word, a trick that looks so easy. The variety keeps the poem from sounding insipid. It sounds pleasing and sophisticated to me.

What does the poem mean? One pass - it's a celebration of the poet's imagination, with the soul and spirit as a stand-in. It's the poet describing how she does her job. The second stanza is tricky, and could use some punctuation, but it's consistent with this idea, mostly. The first "Nor" really means "Neither," an archaicism. So maybe it means:

"I am happiest
When I am Not and also None -
Not, for example, earth or sea or sky -
But only a spirit, etc."

This is still not quite English, and still pretty strange, and suggests another way to interpret the poem is to take its surface seriously. The speaker is happiest when her spirit mystically leaves her body and becomes Not, a perfect nothing, somehow existing only in some infinite world of light. But then why the eye, why the bright moon (itself a kind of world of light, I guess)?

Emily Brontë's poems share many characteristics with Wuthering Heights. One of them is that they're impossible to completely pin down. Just to add another complication, the "I" of the poem may very well be neither Emily Brontë nor a poet at all but a character in a lost fantasy epic.

I've demonstrated well enough that I barely know what I'm talking about, but that won't stop me from spending all of the week with Emily Brontë's poems. Or perhaps not all - I hear the songs of the Jewish gauchos in the distance.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Might, passion, vehemence, grief, daring - Baffled, unknown, self-consumed - Matthew Arnold and Emily Brontë

As he aged, Matthew Arnold wrote fewer poems. Many of those are memorial poems, culminating in the glorious trilogy "Geist's Grave" (1881), "Poor Matthias" (1882), and "Kaiser Dead" (1887). Geist was a dachshund, Matthias a canary, and Kaiser a dachshund-collie mix. These are not manuscript poems; they were all published, by England's greatest critic, in magazines.

"Poor Max, with downcast, reverent head,
Regards his brother's form outspread;
Full well Max knows the friend is dead
          Whose cordial talk
And jokes in doggish language said,
          Beguiled his walk."

These are the only Arnold poems that contain any evidence of a sense of humor. The poems are heartfelt, but the poet does see that they're a bit ridiculous.

Many of the elegies are among Arnold's best poems: "Memorial Verses" (1850), to Wordsworth; "Rugby Chapel" (1867), to his father, "Zealous, beneficent, firm!"; "Heine's Grave" (1867).

My favorite, or perhaps just the one that most surprised me, was "Haworth Churchyard" (1855), about when:

"I saw the meeting of two
Gifted women. The one,
Brilliant with recent renown,
Young, unpractised, had told
With a master's accent her feign'd
Story of passionate life" (7-12)

That's Charlotte Brontë, and the other woman is Harriet Martineau. A "feign'd \ Story of passionate life" - Arnold seems a little suspicious of fiction, doesn't he? But that description 's accurate, and not just of Jane Eyre.

Most of the poem fits the title - a tour of the Haworth churchyard - so when Arnold reaches Charlotte's graveside, he also sings the praises of Anne and Emily and even, rather gassily, of Branwell ("the child \ Of many hopes, of many tears"). Look how the rhetoric ramps up when he discusses a fellow poet:

"-and she
(How shall I sing her?) whose soul
Knew no fellow for might,
Passion, vehemence, grief,
Daring, since Byron died,
That world-famed son of fire - she, who sank
Baffled, unknown, self-consumed;
Whose too bold dying song
Stirr'd, like a clarion-blast, my soul." (92-100)

As with every line of Arnold I've mentioned here, as soon as I copy it out I want to edit it. Why do we need to drag Byron into this, for example? But overall this is meaningful, a recognition of the power of a poet of a very different breed than Matthew Arnold (Arnold definitely lacks vehemence and daring), like the scholar-gypsy another hero in his modern Pantheon.

I've been thinking, for a while, about trying to write about Emily Brontë's poems. Matthew Arnold has inspired me. I like her more than Arnold, but understand her even less. Next week, or part of it, I'll see if I have anything to say about this strange, difficult poet.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side - sad sack Matthew Arnold finds a genuine hero

What's eating poor Matthew Arnold? Let's look at "The Scholar-Gipsy" (1853):

"the sick fatigue, the languid doubt" (164)
"we others pine \ And wish the long unhappy dream would end" (191-2)
"For strong the infection of our mental strife,\ Which, though it gives no bliss, yet spoils for rest" (222-3)

So sad. Arnold retells a 17th century story about an Oxford student who abandoned the university to wander with the gypsies, and who has become a mythic figure, still encountered here and there near Oxford, "roaming the country-side, a truant boy, \ Nursing thy project in unclouded joy" (198-9), despite being dead for two hundred years.

What is that project? The scholar-gypsy is a spiritual seeker who has freed himself, somehow, from the sickness of the world that has infected everyone else. Why mince words - he's a hippie who lives in a "smoked tent" and "wait[s] for the spark from Heaven." It's not clear to me why Arnold can't simply join the scholar-gypsy, aside from family, money, responsibilities, and the general constraints of actual life.

The scholar-gypsy is another one of Arnold's borrowed heroes. This one, though, is fragile and elusive, but in some way more of a genuine alternative to Arnold's crisis of faith than are the Norse gods and mermen of his other poems, even if the poet is not sure how his hero can survive.

He's actually more worried about contaminating the scholar-gypsy. The last five stanzas of the poem urge him to "Fly hence, our contact fear!" (206), like Dido fleeing Aeneas in Hades, or, most strangely, like "shy traffickers, the dark Iberian" traders on a beach, buying "Green bursting figs, and tunnies steep'd in brine" from Greek traders without actually contacting each other. It's apparently something Arnold found in Herodotus, and it gives a visionary cast to the end of the poem. It pushes the scholar-gypsy back into antiquity, and perhaps ends the poem on the shores of the "Sea of Faith" of "Dover Beach." The ending is very complex - I think I'm just beginning to grasp it, writing about it now. It's sure not how I expected the poem to end.

The scholar-gypsy returned to Arnold's poetry in 1866, in "Thyrsis," Arnold's elegy for his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, who died in 1861. Where the pessimism of "The Scholar-Gipsy" seems unearned, "Thyrsis," about the death of an actual person, is surprisingly optimistic. Arnold describes the changes in the Oxford countryside since his and Clough's student days. Oh no, they cut down the giant elm - as long as the elm stood, the scholar-gypsy survives, we always said. No, wait, there it is!

It's not as silly as I make it sound, although it does have a bit too much pastoral nonsense for my tastes. Here's the end (Thyrsis is Clough):

"Too rare, too rare, grow now my visits here!
  'Mid city-noise, not, as with thee of yore,
    Thyrsis! in reach of sheep-bells is my home.
  --Then through the great town's harsh, heart-wearying roar,
    Let in thy voice a whisper often come,
      To chase fatigue and fear:
  Why faintest thou? I wander'd till I died.
    Roam on! The light we sought is shining still.
    Dost thou ask proof? Our tree yet crowns the hill,
  Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The knights drew sword, the ladies scream'd - the heroic Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold wrote a lot of heroic poems, imitations of old stories and old forms. They are not pastiches, or updates, but are more like fake translations. His play Merope, for example, is a convincing imitation of Euripides, as if Arnold had translated a newly discovered play. Or "Sohrab and Rustam," a long episode from Firdawsi's epic Shahnameh - if it were labeled a translation from the Persian, I would believe the label, but it's in fact a convincing rewrite.

"Balder Dead" is a from the Norse Eddas. "The Forsaken Merman" is a Danish folktale. There's a compressed "Tristram and Iseult," and a couple of good ballads:

"'-I am no knight,' he answered;
'From the sea-waves I come.'-
The knights drew sword, the ladies scream'd,
The surpliced priest stood dumb."

That's from "The Neckan," also about a merman, who is miraculously converted to Christianity. What is the deal with Arnold and mermen? Seems kind of silly, now that I look at it again. Anyway.

This all adds up to 40% or so of the Oxford Poetical Works; a lot. What was Arnold trying to accomplish? Maybe I should first say that although the poetic quality varies, I enjoyed most of these poems. The Euripidean Merope seems like a botch, and the philosophical pastoral "Empedocles on Etna" is over my head, but "Sohrab and Rustam" is vivid and exciting and "The Forsaken Merman" has a lot of good descriptive lines and some interesting uses of line length. "Balder Dead" is excellent, and has an ending that I think is Arnold's own, except that I suspect it's really a dramatization of Goethe's notion of resignation. The imagery is good, too; here's the very end (Hermod has tried and failed to release the dead Balder from Hell):

"And as a stork which idle boys have trapp'd,
And tied him in a yard, at autumn sees
Flocks of his kind pass flying o'er his head
To warmer lands, and coasts that keep the sun;--
He strains to join their flight, and from his shed
Follows them with a long complaining cry--
So Hermod gazed, and yearn'd to join his kin.

At last he sigh'd, and set forth back to Heaven." (559-566)

In the preface to the 1853 Poems: First Series, Arnold makes his case for these poems, although I suspect misdirection. "A great human action of a thousand years ago is more interesting to it [our nature, our passions] than a smaller human action of to-day, even though upon the representation of this last the most consummate skill may have been expended, and though it has the advantage of appealing by its modern language, familiar manners, and contemporary allusions, to all our transient feelings and interests."

As evidence, says Arnold, "I fearlessly assert that Hermann and Dorothea, Childe Harold, Jocelyn, The Excursion, leave the reader cold in comparison with the effect produced upon him by the latter books of the Iliad, by the Oresteia, or by the episode of Dido," because "the action is greater," and not because the Goethe and Byron poems are deliberate anti-epics and Wordsworth's Excursion is almost indescribably dull (The Prelude might too obviously challenge his argument).

Arnold proceeds to deny the value of praising individual lines in a poem, rather than the overall effect, and points to Faust, King Lear, and Keats as exemplary modern failures! Eh, enough - it's a lot of smoke.

Arnold was an immensely skilled and intelligent writer with little sense of poetic purpose. The subjects, at least, of the heroic poems are purposeful, although what they mean in a modern context becomes a problem. The problem of poetic form is similarly solved by the choice of subject. I assume that Tennyson, in The Idylls of the King, and William Morris had to deal with the same problem, and I don't know what answers they found. I'm pretty sure that Arnold found no answers at all, just frustration, empty perfection.

I associate Arnold's rummaging through antique poetry's box of heroes with Thomas Carlyle's call for hero-worship a decade earlier. Undergraduate Arnold even won a prize for a long poem on Oliver Cromwell, Carlyle's great shining perfect hero (it's one of the poems I skipped). The irony is that, among all of these slightly sterile experiments, Arnold did write one poem about a genuinely modern hero figure. But I'll save "The Scholar Gypsy" for tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What dost thou in this living tomb! - not a quotation from a Gothic novel by Matthew Arnold, but from "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse"

While an older generation of poets - Tennyson, Browning, and so on - spent their youth absorbing Shelley and Keats, Matthew Arnold jumped back a generation, to William Wordsworth. Hints and scraps of Wordsworth are all over Arnold's poems, the "Switzerland" sequence (1852), for example.* If I were better at this, I might find some specific examples, echoes of "Tintern Abbey" and whatnot. I can sure hear them, but my memory's not that good, and tracking them down would be real work, and really all I would need to do would be to get a book where someone else has already done it. Where was I?

Right. Arnold actually retraces Wordsworth's actual steps in some of his poems, fifty years later. In the 1850 Prelude, ll. 418+, Wordsworth writes of his visit, circa 1790, to the severe Carthusian Monastery in Switzerland. Arnold's poem on the same subject, "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse," is from 1855:

"The silent courts, where night and day
Into their stone-carved basins cold
The splashing icy fountains play -
The humid corridors behold!
Where, ghostlike in the deepening night,
Cowl'd forms brush by in gleaming white." (31-6)

Why is Arnold there? Good question; Arnold was wondering the same thing:

"For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
And purged its faith, and trimm'd its fire,
Show'd me the high, white star of Truth,
There bade me gaze, and there aspire.
Even now their whispers pierce the gloom:
What dost thou in this living tomb?" (67-72)

One of those "rigorous teachers" was Arnold's own father. The poem is, like "Dover Beach," in the "faith and doubt" genre. Arnold compares his visit to the monastery to an ancient Greek visiting a "fallen Runic stone," a remnant of a dead faith. But, if Arnold is like the Greek, and the religion of the Greek is also long dead, then what value, what future, has Arnold's own faith? Arnold asks to be left with the:

"Last of the people who believe!
Silent, while years engrave the brow;
Silent - the best are silent now." (112-4)

I think I have a basic grasp of the "faith and doubt" stuff, an early formulation of a modern problem. Maybe not the next step, though, where things get interesting, and puzzling. "The kings of modern thought are dumb," Arnold writes, "Silent they are, though not content." A footnote in my Norton anthology suggests that this may refer to Newman or Carlyle, for which I will take its word, I guess (Silent? Newman and Carlyle? Silent!?!).**

Then comes the Hall of Heroes - stanzas about Byron, Shelley, and French Romantic novelist Senancour, specifically about how Arnold and his generation "learnt your lore too well," resulting in melancholy, torpor, and a general sense of the pointlessness of effort. An army passes the monastery, and calls for the monks to join it (this is a weird inversion of Wordsworth, where the troops expel the monks from their home). The monks, and I guess Arnold, reply that it is too late, "Too late for us your call ye blow \ Whose bent was taken long ago" (197-8).

It's really quite a good poem. I've no idea if these excerpts convey that - I've skipped, for example, all of the descriptive parts. This poem was particularly helpful for whatever understanding of Arnold I might have gained. More on Arnold and his heroes tomorrow.

* Prof. Novel Reading singles out the final line of "To Marguerite - Continued," one of the "Switzerland" poems, as an all-time favorite:

"The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea."

** I do not, at all, understand Carlyle's whole "Worship of Silence" thing. "Silence, the great Empire of Silence: higher than the stars; deeper than the Kingdoms of Death! It alone is great; all else is small," etc., On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, Ch. VI. Maybe he means everyone else should be silent?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Why did I read so much Matthew Arnold poetry?

I suppose it would have been smarter to have read a carefully culled, tastefully selected Selected Poems, to put Matthew Arnold's poetry in the best possible light. Instead, I went straight to The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold, Oxford University Press, 1950. Not only that, but I constructed, from within that volume, Matthew Arnold's original published books.* The 1849 The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems, for example, and the 1852 Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems.

Why did I do this? I am not completely sure, aside from an unfortunate Completeness Neurosis. I did skip two undergraduate prize poems, but perhaps that was just a neurotic attempt to counter the completeness neurosis. Also, I assumed they would be terrible. Maybe not "And the dark cucumber" (from "The Strayed Reveller," 1849) terrible, but not worth my time.

A better reason: Sometimes the non-selected original book turns out to be a masterpiece on its own - Robert Browning's Dramatic Lyrics (1842), for example, home of "My Last Duchess" and many other much-anthologized poems, or the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, great books on their own ground.

I did not discover that Matthew Arnold had written one of those. Each volume - the two mentioned before, Poems: First Series (1853), Poems: Second Series (1855), the verse drama Merope (1858), and New Poems (1867) - was of mixed quality, with some duds, some hits, and some surprises.

A less good reason: I had enjoyed Arthur Hugh Clough so much that I wondered what his much more famous, longer-lived school chum was up to at the same time. Clough sometimes seems to have devolved into a footnote to Matthew Arnold's life. Doesn't seem fair. I still enjoy Clough more. Arnold, in his poems, not his prose, has no sense of humor, and I think gets himself too caught up in conceptual apparatuses that do not always serve him well. For a disciple of Wordsworth, Arnold sure could be artificial. Based just on what they had published by the mid-1850s, I would have judged Clough the better poet, easily. Clough died young, though, and Arnold wrote additional good poems, and it turns out that in 1851 he had already written but not published "Dover Beach," one of the greatest poems in the language. Clough is wonderful, but he never wrote a "Dover Beach." I don't think Arnold wrote a second one.

This has all been plenty vague. Let's have a bit of "Dover Beach," even if everyone is sick of it:

"Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then begin again,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in."

It's the commas, isn't it, the short phrases? They mimic the waves hitting the beach, help us hear the "grating roar." I don't hear that eternal note of sadness, but my ear for poetic music is not so strong. Then comes Sophocles, and the Sea of Faith, almost too powerful a conceit, and lastly the darkling plain and the ignorant armies clashing by night.

Am I really going to spend the whole week writing about a poet I don't especially like or understand? Maybe I won't, but maybe I will.

* You can do it, too, with the help of this handy 1892 bibliography.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Heaven forbid anyone should spend his life in perpetual expectation of meeting the Golem - Gustav Meyrink's The Golem

The golem story is so flexbile. Gustave Meyrink's novel The Golem (serialized 1913-4, published as a book in 1915) somehow manages to omit the golem entirely. Or else it's narrated by the golem. Whichever way, this golem is not the big clay fellow we've grown to love - see left.

The Meyrink novel is wild stuff. A gem-cutter, our narrator, lives in an apartment in Prague's Jewish ghetto. He is schizophrenic and has lost all memory of his past due to a hypnosis cure (he doesn't remember that either). A mysterious stranger, who may very well be the Golem, or is the narrator himself, gives him a mystical book to repair (right). A beautiful woman wants his help covering up her affair with a doctor. A young lunatic wants revenge against the sinister Jewish junk dealer, who, it turns out, is his father. Um, there's a saintly rabbi, and his beautiful, miracle-attuned daughter. And, let's see, several murders. Our hero ends up in prison for one of them. But it turns out that it's all a dream, or is it, and although one might be likely to groan at that old chestnut, I didn't, not in this case.

This is pure E. T. A. Hoffmann, in some ways quite derivative. A not-quite-ordinary person gets caught up in some tangled supernatural plot involving characters who constantly transform into other characters and strange powers that somehow set everything right at the end. There must be a dozen Hoffmann stories that work this way. The Golden Pot is the most famous, maybe. The Devil's Elixir is better. Meyrink knew them both, very well, too well.

The Golem has its own originality, though. First, Hoffmann is the great pre-Freudian Freudian fiction writer. Meyrink gets to filter Hoffmann through Freud. The schizophrenic narrator is key - a good part of the effective horror of the novel is that every scrap of reality, every stray phrase or gesture, becomes imbued with significance. The narrator lives in a state of perpetual uncanniness. Readers familiar with Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" will pick this up immediately.

Second, the Prague setting is interesting. The golem story is just one local detail of many. The actual 1890 collapse of the medieval bridge over the Moldau, for example, is inserted into the plot - the narrator thinks he caused it, mentally. The strange ending, with the gem-cutter, disoriented after months in a dark prison, wandering through a Jewish quarter destroyed not by a pogrom but by modern urban renewal, ironically invokes the golem without even mentioning it.

Finally, sometimes Meyrink's prose is really good, even aside from the horror-story atmosphere business:*

"For answer came a sound as though a rat had scampered over the keys of a piano." (36, Dover edition)

"The snowflakes sped like regiments - little miniature soldiers in white furry coats - past the panes of my window, on and on, one behind the other, always in the same direction, as though in universal retreat from a particularly formidable foe." (75)

"A man with a long beard, and official sword, coat, and cap, but with bare feet and trousers tied together at the ankles, stood up, put down the coffee-mill that he was holding between his knees, and ordered me to remove my clothes." (140)

The bare feet and the coffee-mill - to me, that is the stuff.

Meyrink was a genuine occultist, and at times The Golem plunges into a bog of will o' the wisps, strange gases, and mystical claptrap. At its best, the Kabbalistic Buddhist Egyptology or whatever it is provides Meyrink with striking, original images; at its worst, its empty and dull. A reader with more patience for tarot and whatnot may think otherwise.

There are also a fair amount of anti-Semitic stereotypes. E. F. Bleiler, in the introduction to the Dover edition, thinks that the philo-Semitic stereotypes balance things out, and points out that the Nazis agreed, gleefully banning and burning Meyrink's books. The split is consistent with the divide in the mind of the narrator, but an artistically superior book might dispense with the stereotypes completely, no?

The Dover edition includes more of these dramatic lithographs, by Hugo Steiner-Prag. Who is he? Maybe you can find out and let me know. The illustrations do fit the text, exactly.

I'll end golem week with some different illustrations, from David Wisniewski's 1996 Golem, although neither my little thumbnails nor my scanner can do justice to his amazing work with cut-paper. Wisniewski tells the Yudl Rosenberg version of the story, basically, with one amusing amendation. The golem, once de-activated, usually has to be stored somewhere. In Meyrink's version, for example, there is a secret golem storage room, accessible only by tunnels, where the narrator somehow ends up spending the night. I. L. Peretz covers the golem with dust and cobwebs.

Wisniewski buries the golem in books, which I thought was an appropriate metaphor for Golem Week, and, frankly, for everything else I do at Wuthering Expectations:

Actually, click to enlarge - they came out better than I thought.

* Postscript: I forgot another first-rate device, the sculptor theme. The narrator makes cameos; another character is a puppeteer and carves a puppet head that represents either the narrator, or the Golem, or both; wax figures pop up in unexpected places. There's also a "hanged man" theme that links the prison scenes, the tarot cards, and other odds and ends.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What made me supplement the endless series of symbols with one more? - Borges and the creative golem, Peretz and the destructive golem

The golem, it really is everywhere. I certainly did not expect it to see its clayey head pop up in Abdourahman A. Waberi's In the United States of Africa (2006), a short, clever alternate history by a novelist from Djibouti, the premise of which is in the title. The progtagonist is a sculptor; sculpture imitates divine creation, see Golem, Legend of - that's the link.

Jorge Luis Borges follows the same thread in his poem "The Golem" (1964), except he's interested in writing, not sculpture:

"Thirsty to know things only known to God,
Judah Léon shuffled letters endlessly,
trying them out in subtle combinations
till at last he uttered the Name that is the Key"*

The resulting golem is a pathetic everyman, mute and uncanny, it's eyes "less human than doglike." It scares the rabbi's cat. Borges admits that he has no textual authority for the cat, "but across the gulf of time I make one out."

This sounds like a parable about creation, the writer's (and in the end, God's) ongoing failure to get things right:

"What made me supplement the endless series
of symbols with one more? Why add in vain
to the knotty skein always unraveling
another cause and effect, with not one gain?"

Sort of an unpleasant question.

I. L. Peretz's tiny story "The Golem" (1893), barely a page, is about destruction, not creation. "Great men were once able to perform great miracles," it begins. No more. Rabbi Loew creates the golem to save the Jews of Prague, and it goes to work:

"Prague filled with corpses. They say it went on like this right through Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, with the clock striking noon, the golem was still intent on its labors."

The Rabbi, a pious man, has in the mean time been studying. His congregation finally requests that he stop the golem's slaughter, because "[s]oon there won't be any Gentiles left to heat the Sabbath ovens or to take down the Sabbath lamps." That's signature Peretz irony, as is the sterile end, where the Rabbi's grandson, long after the golem's deanimation, "still deliberates whether it is proper to include such a golem in a minyan or in a company for the saying of grace."

I mentioned that this story is only a page long, right? One of Peretz's modes is to add layer after layer of meaning to seemingly simple stories. His golem is stored in The I. L. Peretz Reader, a great, great book, which I have not yet written about, probably because it is difficult and slippery.

* The Borges poem is from Selected Poems, pp.192-7. In this stanza, "only," "endlessly," and "trying them out" are inventions of the translator; not a hint of them in the Spanish. Here's a vers libre alternative by blogger James Honzik.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

It is said that the golem lives everywhere and in all times - the golems of H. Leivick and Dovid Frishman

Writers use the golem story for all sorts of purposes. He's a blank slate, created from nothing, so the author can inscribe anything he wants on the golem.

In H. Leivick's verse play The Golem (1922), the poor golem is a sort of existentialist, tormented by his inability to understand his purpose, even though he is specifically created to save the Jews of Prague from the blood libel. But that is not what he means, exactly:

"You don't see who I am? I'll be another.
Beware of looking at my face, my features.
I am condemned to lie here on the ground.
I do not want to lie here any longer.
I am repelled, disgusted by my flesh,
Revolted by my glassy, bulging eyes,
By my own muteness, by my dark sign language...
The moment has come. See, I repel
Myself as I would repel any worm..."

The whole play is like this. I can guess how it would work on stage - abstract sets, flashing lights and sudden plunges into darkness, bizarre electronic music. Tough stuff.

In the long climactic scene, in which the golem is sent on his mission (destroying the false evidence of the blood libel), he experiences some kind of Walpurgisnacht, as in Goethe's Faust. The golem is taunted by CAVE SPIRITS and debates an INVISIBLE FORCE. The final crisis is shared with the YOUNG BEGGAR, who represents idealism or something, and Christ, I mean MAN WITH BIG CROSS. I was not expecting him, but I didn't expect Byron to show up in Faust, Part II either, yet there he was.

In Leivick's play, the golem is psychologically damaged by his heroic feat, so his deactivation, a standard part of the golem story, is perhaps merciful. Dovid Frishman* lets the golem stick around in his 1922 story. Just barely - he nearly drowns, but is rescued, and now "[i]t is said that the golem lives everywhere and in all times."

Frishman's golem story reminds me of Frankenstein, assuming that Victor had not behaved so strangely after he created his monster. Rabbi Leyb creates the golem to be the perfect student. Bu the golem cannot resist the rabbi's granddaughter Eve, who possesses a different kind of knowledge:

"Eve was holding and wiping a huge sacred tome. She stood there absorbed for a minute. Good Lord! Why so many books? Why does a person need them? Eve stood there, pensive. Her granddad was simply crazy! He had taken a long, blossoming life of seventy years and inundated it in such nonsense. Why, for one long minute, the dear, radiant world with the golden sun was a thousand times dearer and smarter than all these tomes put together."

Eve doesn't win the argument, but neither does the rabbi. The mind-body dualism is never resolved, even after the golem tries to solve his dilemma by, I love this part, writing his memoirs.

Many golems for many purposes.

The Leivick play and Frishman story are in Neugroschel's anthology The Golem. That brick golem is from the streets of Prague; the charming plump one is from one of many Prague paintings by the artist Natalia Povalyaeva.

* Who is Dovid Frishman? Who knows? His collected works, mostly in Hebrew, runs to six volumes, but this story is the only thing I can find in English. It's good; maybe there's more.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Golem Week! Golem Week!

It's Golem Week! Why? Because Joachim Neugroschel put together a collection of Yiddish golem stories (The Golem, 2006) and I read it. And one book led to another, as always seems to happen.

The 16th century Rabbi Leyb (or Loew) wants to save the Jews of Prague from the blood libel, or some other peril, or he has wood that needs chopping, so he creates a man out of clay and animates him by writing God's name on the golem's forehead, or on a piece of paper which he puts in his mouth, or perhaps he whispers the name in the golem's ear. At some point, the golem goes out of control and has to be destroyed. Or it doesn't. There are a lot of variations.

I've never been to Prague. My understanding is that it is now crammed with golems. See left, see right, see everywhere. Actually, the image on the right is from the 1920 movie The Golem. I've been scrounging golem photos from the internet. Some of the little Prague golem souvenirs are pretty cute.

How strange to finally read a golem story, then, and find that the golem looks perfectly human. His name is Joseph. He has a beard. He eats and sleeps. If you prick him, does he not bleed? He does. That's in Yudl Rosenberg's The Golem or the Miraculous Deeds of Rabbi Leyb (1909), at least.

The Rosenberg book is sort of like a dime novel. It's clumsy, pulpy. A bunch of folktales about Rabbi Leyb are strung together in a more or less logical order, the language is standardized, and Joseph the golem is shoehorned into every adventure whether he is needed or not. In one familiar story, the Rabbi's wife plays Mickey Mouse and the golem plays the water-carrying broom. I see why the book is important - it's a lot of golem stuff in one place - and I enjoyed it, even if it's not exactly good.

What's coming up this week? H. Leivick's golem-in-crisis; Dovid Frishman's golem-in-love; I. L. Peretz and Jorge Luis Borges; and one of the craziest novels I've ever read (or will read, inshallah, since it's in process). And more golem pictures, pilfered from the internet.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Lucky me - I'm an orphan! - Sholem Aleichem's cheeriest creation

"I've never been so important. How is that? Because my father, Peysi the cantor, died on the first day of Shavuos. That make me an orphan." (p. 116)

This sounds like it might be another sad story, but it's not. Sad for some of the characters, but not for Motl, the cantor's son.

"Lucky me!" says Motl, the cantor's son, "I'm an orphan!" And it turns out that he's right, sort of. Motl is - well, it's not quite clear - eight years old to start, let's say. His mother is still alive, and always weeping. He has an older brother, a worrier, and an entrepreneur. So when Motl loses his father at the beginning of Motl, the Cantor's Son (1907-8, 1916), he enters a world of surprising freedom. "I've stopped going to school and am no longer in Hirsh-Ber's choir. Orphans are excused. Lucky me!"

I wonder if Motl will pay for this in the long run. But try telling that to an eight year old. They are so irresponsible.

The novel really gets going when Motl's family decides to emigrate. They wander through Europe, and end up in New York. For Motl, it's all a great lark. A third-class train car, a third-class ocean liner cabin, Ellis Island, Antwerp, Vienna - it's all so much fun. It's the grown-ups who have the worries, not Motl.

Motl, the Cantor's Son does not seem especially sophisticated to me. It's the voice of the boy, and his way of seeing, that are the heart of the novel. Sholem Aleichem's version is wonderful, but hardly unique. But there's something about Motl's spirit, his irrepressibility, that I find very appealing:

"The ride through New York was pretty awful. The worst part was changing from the stritkah to the eleveydeh. That's a stritkah that runs on a long, narrow bridge above the ground. It flies like a bullet. You're sure you're going to die.

You think that's all? Wait, I'm not through. You crawl out of the eleveydeh and walk down some stairs to a cellar an get into another stritkah called a tsobvey. The tsbobvey rushes through the cellar until you feel faint... Brokheh swears she's never taking either again. She'd rather walk than ride through the clouds or the earth like a lunatic. 'Spare me your ups and you can have your downs,' she says.

She's a weird one, my sister-in-law. If I had my druthers, I'd ride the eleveydeh and the tsobvey all day long." (p. 264)

One can see the Yinglish intruding. Noospeypehz, eiskrim, haht dawgz at the Hibru Neshnel Delikatesn. Sholem Aleichem seems to have felt ambivalently about America, but he lets Motl love it.

Tevye the Dairyman is cheerful, too, always cheerful. His cheerfulness, though, is a weapon in his ongoing argument with God. Motl is just a kid. That's what I mean when I say Motl, the Cantor's Son is less sophisticated. The meaning of the Motl stories is less internal to the central character, more about what happens around him.

Still, there's a lot more to this charming book that I'm omitting. But I wanted to write about something sunny before devoting the rest of the week to:

The Golem!

Quotations are from the Hillel Halkin translation, packaged with The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl & Sheyne-Sheyndl. Penguin Classics also has a new translation from Aliza Shevrin, packaged with Tevye the Dairyman.

Friday, May 1, 2009

They hate scholars, ridicule of scholars would give them pleasure, it was sure to be a success - the tragic dream-world of Der Nister

A month or two ago, I had not heard of David Bergelson. No, I had, because I had read about him as a victim of Stalin's final attempt to destroy Soviet Yiddish culture. But as a writer, his name meant nothing to me.

It was while reading around in Joachim Neugroschel's anthology of Yiddish fiction, No Star Too Beautiful that Bergelson's stories caught my attention - Bergelson stood out. So I started looking around, and one book followed another. He wasn't the only one, although most of the writers I liked best were predictable - I. B. Singer and so on.

A writer who I don't exactly like but who definitely stood out - who is in his own category - is Der Nister, The Hidden One. The Neugroschel book includes the story "Beheaded" (1920), which I will try to summarize:

Adam taps his head. It opens, and his Comedian emerges. Another Comedian comes along, with Adam's double. Adam drives them all away - he has to wait for the Master. The Master arrives, and leads Adam and his disciples to the giant ladder with rungs made of heads and skulls. Everyone has his head chopped off, so it can be added to the ladder. The headless Master then tells the story of the living bridge, which served faithfully but succumbed to despair in its old age. An angel came to the bridge, and told it the story of the Universal Bridge, and how it was tempted by Satan, and how later bridges suffer for the weakness of the Universal Bridge. The End.

I don't have the story handy, and have probably made some mistakes. It's hard to remember how it goes, because it makes no sense. I mean, it's completely crazy. It's not an allegory, with an X=Y correspondence, but rather an attempt to create a new and original symbolic structure. Der Nister's visions have links to the Kabbalah and Hasidic mysticism, but they're not derivative. What, then, is a reader supposed to do with something so strange and private?

I've read only one other story by Der Nister, "Under a Fence: A Revue" (1929), from the Ashes Out of Hope collection. It's one of the saddest things I've ever read, Der Nister's farewell to his art. Like David Bergelson, Der Nister willingly returned to the Soviet Union to be a writer, to serve the state. That he thought his esoteric work would be welcome seems so naïve, but this was just before Socialist Realism became doctrine.

In "Under a Fence" - well, I won't try to summarize it, quite. There is a scholar who is in love with a circus rider. In a dream-like sequence, the "dustman" appears to the scholar, and drags him and his straw-daughter around town and to the circus, where the scholar becomes a performer himself, staging mock trials of his pupils and former teacher:

"'And,' the dustman said, 'the clowns would have plenty of opportunity for humor and ridicule. The theme was current, and the people would love it. They hate scholars, ridicule of scholars would give them pleasure, it was sure to be a success.'"

In the end, though, the scholar himself is on trial, and the dream-world is replaced by the real-world, I guess, the scholar broken, his life emptied of meaning.

This was published in a Soviet Yiddish periodical! The amazing thing is that Der Nister survived until 1950 (he died in a prison hospital). Der Nister apparently abandoned his symbolist work after this story, and turned to approved forms of realism. I've read good things about his later novel, The Family Mashber, which does not sound especially realistic. Maybe he pulled one over on the Soviets. Or maybe he really did work his way to a new artistic voice.

I'm not going to pursue the issue, though, not now. I have read all but two of the Yiddish books that I had originally planned to read way back in January, yet somehow my list of interesting Yiddish books is just as long as ever. So I have to start drawing some lines, retreating back to the 19th century a bit. So this may be it for Der Nister, and who else - the Singers, I. I. Trunk, Itzik Manger, and many others. If anyone wants to do a Yiddish Modernism project, I beg you, let me know. I'm avidly interested, even if, as with Der Nister, I barely understand it.