Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

PROCTOR: You are the high court, your word is good enough!  Tell them I confessed myself; say Proctor broke his knees and wept like a woman; say what you will, but my name cannot--

DANFORTH, with suspicion: It is the same, is it not?  If I report it or you sign to it?

PROCTOR--he knows it is insane: No, it is not the same!  What others say and what I sign to is not the same!

DANFORTH: Why?  Do you mean to deny this confession when you are free?

PROCTOR: I mean to deny nothing!

DANFORTH: Then explain to me, Mr.  Proctor, why you will not let--

PROCTOR, with a cry of his whole soul: Because it is my name!  Because I cannot have another in my life!  Because I lie and sign my name to lies!  Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang!  I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

The Crucible is famously an allegory for McCarthyism, in which the accusations of witchcraft which rapidly multiply in 17th-century Salem stand in for the similar mania for secret Communists which Joseph McCarthy inspired in the 1950's.  But allegories are reductive--once you have observed that X is a representation of Y, or that Napoleon is Stalin and Snowball is Trotsky, you have solved the puzzle the allegory represents and need go no further.  I didn't find the McCarthyism angle necessary or helpful in reading The Crucible.  Yes, Miller draws parallels between the 17th and 20th centuries, but The Crucible is far less interested in using the past to illuminate the present than it is in observing something frightening and true about human nature: the fragility of community, and the tyranny that public morality can exert over the moral self.

What happens in Salem happens, Miller observes, thanks to a poisonous mix of noble motives and evil ones.  Governor Danforth, who sentences Proctor and others to hang for witchcraft, is never anything less than a devout, if myopic, figure who takes Proctor's claims that the accusations are false quite seriously.  But others, like Putnam, seize the opportunity to punish their enemies and seize their property once they've been accused.  The worst of these is Abigail, the chilling villainess of the play, only a teenager, whose calculated show of being afflicted by witchcraft is terrifying in its malice.  Abigail, having had an affair with Proctor, makes his wife one of her principal targets--as Proctor says, she "means to dance on my wife's grave."  At the end of Act III, Abigail whips herself into a possessed frenzy in front of the courtroom, pretending to be menaced by the spirit of a girl she wants to ruin--and ultimately forces an abject apology out of the very girl she wants to destroy.  It's a frightening moment, partly because of Abigail's shameless cruelty, but also because it shows how weak the individual spirit can be.  It's probably awesome on stage.

The hero, Proctor, is not a very good man--he has an affair with Abigail, after all, and is renowned for not being much of a churchgoer--but fights valiantly to preserve his own sense of right and wrong in the face of immense social pressure.  At the end, in prison, he faces a choice: sign his name to a confession and live, or refuse and be hanged.  The choice is between public absolution and private morality--is it worthwhile to be a good and honest man, the play asks, if it means the rest of the world sees you as a bad one?  Proctor begs to keep his name, though he's given the community his soul, but it seems like the terms have gotten switched around: his name, that part of his identity which belongs to the community, has already been robbed from him, but his refusal to sign the document allows him to retain something of himself, even at the cost of his own life.

Putting The Crucible in the McCarthyism box prevents us from really understanding the power of Proctor's doomed choice, and from realizing that we still fall prey to the same kind of savage mania as the Puritans.  I'd argue that, in the social media age, we're constantly finding new victims on whom to exert the will of public shame.  Like Danforth, sometimes our motives are essentially good ones--I'm looking at you, Racists Getting Fired Tumblr page--but we fail to anticipate the destruction and abuse they foster, and so we devour ourselves.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

There are green turtles whose feeding grounds are along the coast of Brazil, and they swim 1,400 miles to breed and lay their eggs on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, half way to Africa.  Ascension Island is only five miles long.  Nobody knows how they find it.  Two of the turtles at the Aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one.  The sign said: 'The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup...'  I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that.  Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup.  In a town as big as London that's a lot of soup walking about.

Two London strangers encounter each other at the Aquarium on multiple occasions, and they begin to suspect that the other is having the same thought: that the Aquarium's two green sea turtles, confined to their small tank, ought to be set free.  Each of them is lonely, isolated, and the possibility that the other shares those feelings of loneliness and isolation is somehow both thrilling and threatening.

Turtle Diary takes the form of alternating diary entries by these two strangers, William G. and Naeara H.  He is a divorcee working in an independent bookshop; she is a children's book author and illustrator who is moderately famous for writing a series of books about a character named Gillian Vole.  (Of course, Hoban himself first found success writing the Frances the Badger series.)  They are more apprehensive about finding company in each other than they are about finding company in the turtles--and numerous other animals, who seem to live more naturally and comprehensibly than human beings:

I was looking at a book on shamanism at the shop, by Mircea Eliade.  In Siberia and South America, wherever they have shamans, they're always the unstable, the epileptics, the weird ones of the group, people prone to terrors and depression as I am.  But unlike me they get initiated into power and a place of importance, they become seers and healers.  There's something between them and animals, a bond, a connection, channels of power.  Speech with animals, magical transformations.  Could I be a turtle.  Could I through an act of ecstasy swim unafraid and never lost, finding, finding?  Swimming with Pangaea printed on my brain and bones, the ancient continent that was before the land masses drifted apart.  That's part of it, too: there were no seas between, the land was one, there was one thing, unbroken.  Now there are thousands of miles of open water and the strong ones, the swimmers, the unlost, are driven to trace the paths between, maintain the ancient connection.  I don't know whether I can keep going.  A turtle doesn't have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on.  Maybe that's why man kills everything: envy.

To Hoban's credit, Turtle Diary refuses to follow the paths of expectation.  William and Naeara don't fall in love; they never really rise above the level of strangers, in many ways alike but in others inscrutably different.  They come together to set the turtles free, and with the help of a sympathetic Aquarium employee, they do so, but this act of compassion doesn't come at the end of the novel and it doesn't fix all of their problems.  The turtles remain for them a symbol of possibility:

In them was the place they were swimming to, and at the end of their swimming it would loom up out of the sea, real, solid, no illusion.  They could be stopped of course, they might be killed by sharks or fisherman but they would die on the way to where they wanted to be.  I'd never know if they'd go there or not, for me they would always be swimming.

But the turtles remain turtles, and William G. and Naeara H. remain William G. and Naeara H., the source of their own kinds of soup.  They go on having to decide "whether to bother every morning," and whatever human companionship they find along the way is hard-won.  Hoban refuses to overstate the parallels between the two protagonists and the turtles themselves, and though something is achieved on the turtle's behalf, human nature makes similar achievements elusive for William and Naeara, and perhaps never quite possible or as fulfilling as the return to Ascension Island.  William and Naeara drift away from each other after the turtles are freed, and they probably never see each other again.

Turtle Diary shares some of the mystic habitation in ordinary things that characterizes KleinzeitOf the four Hoban novels I've read, these are the only two that seem in any way like they were written by the same person.  Turtle Diary is a much more muted and subtle work than Kleinzeit, but it possesses a power that comes from the recognition of the quiet desperation that characterizes much of our modern lives.  It reminded me of Georg Lukacs' idea of transcendental homelessness: unlike the turtles, the beetles, and Gillian Vole, we have no ancient instinct that tells us where and how to be.