Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

And indeed, it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronise the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past. Of them we can justly say that they live precisely the sixty-eight or seventy-two years allotted them on the tombstone. Of the rest some we know to be dead though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through the forms of life; others are hundreds of years old when they call themselves thirty-six. The true length of a person's life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute.

Virginia Woolf's Orlando is a strange book: A sort of love letter to a married woman, in which the woman spends the first half of the book a man. Orlando, the alter ego of Woolf's friend/lover Vita Sackville-West, begins life as a boy serving in the court of Elizabeth I; later, as an ambassador to Constantinople for Charles II he suddenly becomes a she, in a scene that Woolf drags out with laborious humor:

And now again obscurity descends, and would indeed that it were deeper! Would, we almost have it in our hearts to exclaim, that it were so deep that we could see nothing whatever through it s opacity! Would that we might here take the pen and write Finis to our work! Would that we might spare the reader what is to come and say to him in so many words, Orlando died and was buried. But here, alas, Truth, Candour, and Honesty, the austere Gods who keep watch and ward by the inkpot of the biographer, cry No! Putting their silver trumpets to their lips they demand in one blast, Truth! And again they cry Truth! and sounding yet a third time in concert they peal forth, The Truth and nothing but the Truth!

Woolf is quite clearly having her bit of fun, not least from mimicking the silliest floridness of Enlightenment writers, but in the book's general mode, which pretends to be a biography cobbled together from real sources, and in such setpieces as the "Great Frost" that turns Elizabeth's Thames into an endless carnival rink. The circuitous, often inscrutable prose that typifies Woolf's more "serious" fiction is reserved for the book's latter portions, in which Orlando, now a woman, adjusts to the advent of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the fact that no one thinks it's odd that Orlando is over 400 years old is one of the book's better jokes).

Along the way Orlando falls in love, is rejected, joins a band of gypsies, becomes ambassador, is courted, falls in love again, is reciprocated, and writes a poem--"The Oak Tree," for which the quotations in the text are actual reproductions of a poem by Sackville-West. The point, I suppose, being that Sackville-West's work, as well as person, represents the best of 400+ years of European culture, or, rather, as something that, like the best literature, battles against the expectations of its own age:

Orlando was unaccountably disappointed. She had thought of literature all these years (her seclusion, her rank, her sex must be her excuse) as something wild as the wind, hot as fire, swift as lightning; something errant, incalculable, abrupt, and behold, literature was an elderly gentleman in a grey suit talking about duchesses. The violence of her disillusionment was such that some hook or button fastening the upper part of her dress burst open, and out upon the table fell 'The Oak Tree,' a poem.

But moreso, Orlando learns in his/her 400 years to exist beyond words. She and her husband, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, speak in a "cypher language which they had invented between them so that a whole spiritual state of the utmost complexity might be conveyed in a word or two without the telegraph clerk being any the wiser, and added [to the telegraph] the words 'Rattigan Glumphoboo,' which summed it up precisely." Or, sweetly, they speak not at all:

...and really it would profit little to write down what they said, for they knew each other so well that they could say anything, which is tantamount to saying nothing, or saying such stupid, prosy things as how to cook an omelette, or where to buy the best boots in London, things which have no lustre taken from their setting, yet are positively of amazing beauty within it. For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.

Of course, a great white space follows. There is an overwhelming suggestion, I think, that since no words can really express how Woolf feels about Sackville-West, any words may do, and the silly, absurd, ironic mess that is Orlando is as great a testament as any that could be made. As such, Orlando is a book as much about the limits of what can be said as it is about the limitlessness of one man/woman.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

27 Views of Chapel Hill

27 Views of Chapel Hill is ostensibly a collection of essays, poems, and short stories connected in some way or another to a small town in North Carolina. What 27 Views of Chapel Hill really is, though, is a love story, as if told by someone who has long since become more than a lover and is now a partner. Someone who knows all of his or her better half's flaws and imperfections but loves nonetheless, focusing instead on the intricacies and quirks that make them great. Some essays discuss people or places in Chapel Hill directly, and others merely use the town as its setting, but in all of them there is an appreciation and adoration of this town that I, too, know and love.

There are stories about little old ladies who keep a garden, about a woman and her dog, about an old bookstore, and more. I loved reading the story written by my Community Journalism professor at Carolina about how his childhood friendship with James Taylor helped him endure his mother's crippling depression. I was interested to read the accounts of all the U.S. presidents who visited Chapel Hill, either before, during or after their presidency (including Gerald Ford, who took my grandmother on a date while she was an undergrad at UNC). I found the story set during the turmoil of the civil rights era especially poignant, especially the description of the sit in at the intersection of Franklin Street and Columbia Street, which made me think about how far we've come from then to just a few years ago, when some of my best memories were made jumping over bonfires in that same spot after we won the national championship. I liked some of the essays better than others and didn't love the poetry, but overall 27 Views of Chapel Hill was a sweet ode to a wonderful town.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

No, she did not wish to repeat that experience. The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush and the smells s he could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, "Pathos, piety, courage--they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value." If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same--"ou-boum."

A Passage to India is a strange book. One can rifle off the details--in British-controlled India, a Muslim is accused of assaulting an English girl in a mysterious cave--but a summary seems beside the point. As Mrs. Moore decides about her memory of the accused, Dr. Aziz--"Yes, it was all true, but how false a summary of the man; the essential life of the him had been slain"--there is something crucial missing, something ineffable.

The novel begins and ends as a story about the difficulty of friendship and intimacy between the Indian and the English. Dr. Aziz is the great centerpiece of these sections, a stubborn, fickle, but gregarious man who wishes to make friends of Mrs. Moore and her companion, the young Adela Quested, and resolves to take them to the nearby Marabar Caves:

His friends thought him most unwise to mix himself up with English ladies, and warned him to take every precaution against unpunctuality. Consequently he spent the previous night at the train station.

But the middle section--the book is split into three unequal parts called Mosque, Caves and Temple--is something else all together. The Marabar Caves are annihilators of meaning. The echo that attaches itself to Mrs. Moore proves unshakable, and follows her as she leaves, promising a kind of anti-transcendence:

The unspeakable attempt presented itself to her as love: in a cave, in a church--Boum, it amounts to the same. Visions are supposed to entail profundity, but--Wait till you get one, dear reader! The abyss also may be petty, the serpent of eternity made of maggots..

And so the Caves themselves seem to be responsible for Ms. Quested's experience of a violent attack, which is never explained in a "proper" sense. Unpredictably, the English rally around Ms. Quested and use her story to validate their most brutish prejudices ("Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die," one says) and the Indians rally around Aziz and riot. But though this makes for some great scenes of satire (my favorite is when the trial magistrate permits Ms. Quested to sit on the platform to escape the heat of the gallery, and she's joined by every white person in the court save one) Forster's interests lie mainly elsewhere. Ironically, what nearly destroys Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Ms. Quested is just what they had been seeking: a sense of unity, a sense of intimacy and oneness with the other. But when difference is annihilated, nothing remains; when man succeeds in finding infinity he has lost himself:

Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind.

In what must be the most striking prose Forster ever wrote, he symbolizes the problem with a flame:

They are dark caves. Even when they open towards the sun, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the circular chamber. There is little to see, and no eye to see it, until the visitor arrives for his five minutes, and strikes a match. Immediately another flame rises in the depths of the rock and moves towards the surface like an imprisoned spirit: the walls of the circular chamber have been most marvellously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone.

At first this seems a symbol of the relationship between the Indians and the English--two mirrored flames, unable to connect--but soon becomes a symbol of the inability to touch, to interact, to communicate with anything beyond oneself. Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested are given brief glimpses of the flame beyond the wall, and perhaps finding only an image of themselves, are traumatized by them. The other conflicts of the novel--Ms. Quested's only-half-wanted marriage to the City Magistrate, the relations between the Indians and their occupiers, the inability to describe or create a unified Indian nation--become slivers of this whole, and the solution promises to be worse than the conflict.

By contrast, the Temple section begins with an extended description of a Hindu ceremony that brings a more beneficial unity:

When the villagers broke cordon for a glimpse of the silver image, a most beautiful and radiant expression came into their faces, a beauty in which there was nothing personal,l for it caused them all to resemble one another during the moment of its indwelling, and only when it was withdrawn did they revert to individual clods.

What is it about the Hindu ceremony that makes it a joy, rather than a terror? Can Prof. Godbole, Aziz's Hindu friend, be right or wise when he remarks of the charges,

I am informed that an evil action was performed in the Marabar Hills, and that a highly esteemed English lady is now seriously ill in consequence. My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr. Aziz... It was performed by the guide... It was performed by you... It was performed by me... And by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself. When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe. Similarly when good occurs.

Godbole goes on to say that good and evil "are both of them aspects of my Lord. He is present in the one, absent in the other, and the difference between presence and absence is great, as great as my feeble mind can grasp. Yet absence implies presence, absence is not non-existence, and we are therefore entitled to repeat, 'Come, come, come, come.'" Is this what differentiates these unities, an eye to the presence, and not the absence, of God? Or the hopefulness that one is coming to make the unity meaningful?

These questions fade into the background of A Passage to India. By the end we are left with a little tableau of an Englishman and and Indian promising friendship, but their horses rearing away from one another. We are left, if we wish, to return to thinking about England and India, but also, if we wish, to see that there are more encompassing concerns at hand, and that there is unity in disunity, and also with a thin echo of Godbole's "Come, come, come, come":

But the horses didn't want it--they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, "No, not yet," and the sky said, "No, not there."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty.

Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra is a dogged attempt at the resuscitation of one woman's reputation, sullied over two millennia by misogynists, xenophobes, and axe-grinders. It is perhaps a little late--I suspect that our modern aversion to outdated stereotypes of manipulative and unserious women has scrubbed off much of the tarnish--Cleopatra's reputation as the Great Seducer remains. Schiff doesn't deny Cleopatra's erotic appeal, but traces it to her eloquence, not her lasciviousness, and affirms her canny political acumen. After all, as Pharaoh and later Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was in a precarious position on a Mediterranean shore being carved up by decades of Roman civil war, and her alliance with two of its most preeminent power holders--Julius Caesar and Mark Antony--ensured her survival for decades in a kingdom where monarchs frequently lasted months, or weeks.

The shortcomings of Schiff's project are many, but they are perhaps not her fault. The long stretches in which Cleopatra takes a backseat to the machinations between Antony and Octavian are probably necessary, both for our understanding and because of a spotty historical record. She is probably right when she argues that Cleopatra's record has been maligned, but when she has torpedoed the bias of ancient historians, she frequently finds herself lacking much material to go on. This is disguised in part by presenting the book as stridently non-academic--she quotes, many times, "one ancient historian," and buries the citation in the endnotes--but this is also it's greatest strength: it's fairly engrossing, and its narrative compelling.

One of the most appealing parts of the book for me was the fulsome descriptions of ancient Alexandria, the (I had not realized) foremost city of the world at the time. Rome was a rustic backwater, but Alexandria "remained a swirl of reds and yellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color. Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world: superior in its ways, splendid in its luxuries, the place to spend your fortune, write your poetry, find (or forget) a romance, restore your health, reinvent yourself, or regroup after having conquered vast swaths of Italy, Spain, and Greece over the course of a Herculean decade." Schiff makes much of Cleopatra's expense records, with their absurd numbers of suckling pigs and oysters and golden everythings, and it's easy to see why a man like Antony, with his imperial pretensions, would have such a difficult time returning to Rome, Cleopatra notwithstanding. For Schiff, Alexandria is an image of Cleopatra herself: seductive, exuberant, but also marked by intelligence, prosperity, and a vaunted heritage.

In the end, of course, Schiff cannot excuse the simple fact that Cleopatra's acumen came up short: whether you believe they were in love or not, Cleopatra backs the wrong horse in Antony. In fact, Schiff is nearly undone by her alluring portrait of Alexandria. Cleopatra and Antony's disastrous flight at Actium, a battle staged only to give them a chance to escape back to Egypt once at sea, makes Antony look like a man more desperate to return to luxury than to rule the world. Nor does her description of Antony as a "great brooding hulk" after Actium mitigate the traditional perspective that Cleopatra held undue sway over the once-powerful general.

The greatest part of the story, as it is in Shakespeare (soon to come), the end: Antony, having mangled his own suicide, dying in Cleopatra's arms; Cleopatra committing hers surreptitiously, and somewhat triumphantly, under the watchful eye of Octavian's guard. She cynically implodes the story of the asp, saying that "[a] woman known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to a wild animal." But, she suggests, there is always the possibility that Octavian, remembering the sympathy unwittingly engendered toward Cleopatra's captured sister Arsinoe in Julius Caesar's triumph decades before, had her killed. "While her death reduced the glory a little," she writes, "it also eliminated a host of complications."

My Roman history is not quite as thorough as my Latin degree might suggest. But it seems to me that either Schiff is a popular biographer, not a historian, and thus odd to be the first person to voice this suspicion--or she's working from sources she fails to cite. Is that prejudiced? Maybe. But if reputations are going to be resuscitated, it ought to be by means more stringent than the histories that maligned them in the first place.

But that's pedantic. Cleopatra succeeds, in the end, by straddling the line between popular non-fiction and thorough historical assessment. She won the Pulitzer prize for her biography of Vera Nabokov, and it wouldn't surprise me to see this make the shortlist either.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England

This is in part because, despite criticism's frequently professed desires to "make the past strange," it much more often makes it overly familiar. The depth, passion, and occasional ferocity of early modern religious belief simply doesn't resonate in a secular modern culture committed to toleration and agnosticism, so we tend to reduce its alienness by overlooking it, or translating it into terms we are more comfortable with. But those are by definition not the terms in which these things existed and operated historically; when we use them as the basis of our critical practice, we are looking not at the past but an image of modernity in hose and ruffs.

The influence of the Book of Common Prayer is everywhere, though you may not realize it--it is responsible, for example, the phrases "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and "dearly beloved, we are gathered here today..." But the author of Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England, Timothy Rosendale, believes that it has been insufficiently explored as a literary document.

Rosendale gives a brief account of the Book's creation, depicting it as an attempt--or rather, a series of attempts--at negotiating the bitter Protestant-Catholic tensions of post-Henry VIII England. Interestingly, he argues that much of the Book's efficacy comes from its calculated ambiguity that, like Elizabeth I's public religious persona, deliberately left room for residual Catholic practice. By creating a national uniform liturgy in English, it also helped to create and bolster an English national identity, negotiating the need for the monarch's supremacy over religious practice and deeply held Protestant beliefs about the importance of individual priesthood. In the final chapters, Rosendale turns to the Book's literary influence, tracing its impact on Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton and Hobbes. I particularly liked the chapter on political power in Shakespeare's histories, in which Rosendale argues that the history plays, from Richard II to Henry VI, map the transition to a monarchical system in which power is maintained through representation and symbolism, mirroring the Prayerbook's vision of the Eucharist.

What I appreciated most about Rosendale's book is what I have quoted above. One of my deepest misgivings about modern criticism is a sneaking suspicion that it does not treat texts seriously, using them as templates for various ideological, political, or philosophical agendas. While Rosendale happily points out the positive aspects of various critical schools (for example, he praises the way in which New Historicism has "emphasized... the idea that the literary is not walled off from other spheres of culture"), he is careful to treat the religious impulses that created the Book of Common Prayer as genuine and not outward manifestations of psychological or political pressures.

Furthermore, books like this (and too a lesser extent, McCoy's) allay my fears that scholarly language need be obtuse or somehow "beyond me;" not only is Rosendale's text highly engaging and fluid (his paraphrases of his critical sources tend to be far more lucid than they), but occasionally he'll do something like this:

"...even the Zwinglian sacrament is clearly set apart to operate in a different symbolic register; after all, a completely desacralized Eucharist would be nothing more than a snack(rament).


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Alterations of State by Richard McCoy

Richard McCoy's Alterations of State is a survey of Reformation-era literature that seeks to investigate changing ideas about sacred kingship. To those of us who, in our high school history classes, congratulated ourselves for not belonging to a society that believes in divine right, McCoy's book does a good job outlining the theological complexities of that philosophy, which give it force beyond the need to consolidate a monarch's power.

McCoy argues that the idea of sacred kingship was ultimately a response to the Reformation's abolition of "real presence" from the sacraments, churches, and relics of England. He takes us back to Marburg (cue Ford Madox Ford) where Zwingli rejects Luther's claim to Christ's presence in the Eucharist and tells us that "Monarchy's enduring power derives in part form a vague but persistent desire for a real presence in the face of an 'essential absence.'" That is, because we could no longer locate Christ's presence in the traditions and icons of the church, a national vision of Christianity required that presence to be relocated in the figure of the King himself.

Alterations of State is persuasive and thorough, yet highly readable. Most of the chapters are organized by the authors in whom McCoy tracks the conflicts over sacred kingship, including Skelton, Shakespeare, and Marvell. Perhaps the most interesting of these, for me, was the chapter on Shakespeare, in which McCoy contends the relationship between Hamlet and his father's ghost mirrors the Reformation-era compulsion for an obviated spiritual presence in the Catholic sacraments. Though I wouldn't recommend this for most readers here, I found it fascinating.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Here then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals…

Moby Dick is the book that this blog followed into a black hole. I started it months ago, and finished it weeks ago, but hadn’t the time or energy to write about it. Other things intervened, I suppose, like the advent of the school year—I’m not sure what made me think I could start and finish it in the last two weeks of summer—but I’ll admit that to review such a monster was a daunting prospect.

Weeks later, then, the strongest impression I retain is the Moby Dick’s sheer immensity. Not its length—though it is long—but its size, its capaciousness. The narrative which everyone knows, the story of Ahab chasing the white whale around the world for his revenge, comprises perhaps less than half the novel, nearly crowded out by the narrator Ishmael’s encyclopedic treatises on whales and whale hunting. There are chapters on eating whales, painting whales, whale anatomy (in fact, the sperm whale’s head gets six pages of its own), the historicity of the story of Jonah, and many chapters painstakingly detailing why whalers deserve your reverence. The best of these, I think, are the chapters where Ishmael expounds on the meaning of whiteness:

Is it by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?... And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

The effect of Ishmael/Melville’s towering erudition and knowledge, then, is more than merely to impress. Like the whiteness of the whale, which is made of all colors and therefore seems like none, the great conglomeration of information that is Moby Dick teeters toward meaninglessness. The whale is loaded with so much symbolism that it ceases to symbolize anything.

Moby Dick is an “inscrutable malice” and an “intangible malignity,” not because he is so mysterious but because he is so well-known. In its capaciousness the whale manages to be both the “colourless, all-colour of atheism” and a stand-in for God. In his way Ahab comes to represent man’s vengeance for the fall, to lash out against his maker:

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Ahab is the other lingering impression: Monomaniacal, blood-lusting, and unwavering. He’s named for a Biblical king, and it’s only through him that the novel’s overblown, King-James-cribbed language works, with its “thees” and “thous” and ponderous, circuitous sentences. The back of my copy calls Moby Dick a “hymn to democracy” because it is the “image of a co-operative community at work,” but one might say the same thing of the Peoples Temple. One of my favorite episodes is when the Pequod meets a ship that has been effectively commandeered by a sailor with pretensions as a prophet, but he pales in comparison to Ahab’s religious intensity:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with theee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

As great as that is, I found that I didn’t love Moby Dick as much as I hoped it would. I expected it to be life-changing, but the long discursive chapters, serviceable to the themes as they were, never faded away to make room for the heightened intensity to the plot. It overwhelmed me and awed me, but did not—completely—endear itself to me. Mostly, I found myself impatient to get back to Ahab. Is that a criticism of Moby Dick, or a praise of it?