Review: Rimas y Leyendas

Review: Rimas y Leyendas

Rimas y leyendasRimas y leyendas by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know a hymn, giant and strange, that announces an aurora in the soul’s night; and these pages are from that hymn: cadences which expand in the overshadowed air.

Bécquer is an example of that species of national writers, almost universally known in their own countries, almost universally obscure elsewhere. Here in Spain he is the second most commonly assigned author in schools, only bested by Cervantes himself. But how many readers—even avid readers—outside of Hispanophone countries even know his name?

For an iconic Spaniard, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer has a curiously Germanic name; change a few letters and you have Gustav Adolf Becker. Indeed, “Bécquer” wasn’t the name he was born with, but one he adopted later in life. (It was his father’s mother’s last name, of Flemish origin.) To me this Germanic tinge is singularly appropriate, since Bécquer was a prophet of Romanticism, an intellectual movement I most strongly associate with German authors.

Notwithstanding this Teutonic whiff, the writer who, in many ways, most closely resembles Bécquer is Edgar Allen Poe: both of them are authors of creepy tales and charming verses. Romantic writers to the bone, they both died relatively young (Bécquer at 34, Poe at 40), although Bécquer perhaps beats Poe by never having achieved widespread fame during his lifetime. This book, Bécquer’s most famous, is a collection of his most popular short stories (“Legends”) and several dozen short poems (“Rhymes”). Poetry was his first and truest love. Yet, as befalls so many of us, penury forced him into prose.

I read the Legends before the Rhymes. These are distinguished, most of all, by their atmosphere. The plot, the dialogue, the characters, the description—everything is subordinate to a certain mood, a mood of mystery and foreboding. The characters wander, wide-eyed and wondering, through haunted glades, enchanted monasteries, and cursed dens. And as is so common in literature written by men, beautiful women are mixed up with these demonic haunts; and Bécquer’s women are always surpassingly beautiful—with pure white skin and pure black hair. Added to this medieval twilight is a strong dose of Spanish Catholicism: beautiful Jewish and Moorish maids are whisked away by their Christian paramours, saved from their heathen fathers.

Some examples might illustrate these tales. In “El Rayo de Luna,” a wandering poet, who walks aimlessly from dawn to dusk in his aesthetic quest, encounters a beautiful woman, chases her until she mysteriously disappears, and then spends the rest of his life comparing everything to “a moonbeam.” In “Tres Fechas,” the Narrator spends most of his time in extended descriptions of old buildings in Toledo, only to be interrupted, three times, by a fleeting vision of a beautiful woman—with ivory-white skin, of course—until finally he encounters her taking the vows of a nun. In “Creed en Dios,” a young atheist kills a priest, gets lost in a forest, is overwhelmed by a cosmic vision, and suddenly awakens to find that generations have gone by—a sort of Catholic Rip Van Winkle. You get the idea.

Although I enjoyed the overwrought atmosphere of these legends, I must say I was surfeited by the end. The Rhymes, on the other hand, are absolutely charming from first to last. The poems seem to have been especially written for Spanish students, since they are surprisingly simple and easy, while maintaining a high quality throughout. In form they are as simple as can be, rhyming couplets or alternating ABAB patterns, sometimes with a refrain. In subject matter they concern themselves with the usual holy trinity of poetry: death, immortality, and love:

“What is poetry?” you ask while
You fix in mine your eyes of azure
What is poetry! And you ask me this?
Poetry… is you

It is light and airy, and appeals to the teenager in all of us—sometimes even to the wistful adult. For any students of Spanish, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western FrontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Quiet on the Western Front is an extraordinary war novel. It has everything you would expect from a book about World War I: the mixture of boredom and fear; the constant specter of gore; the unrelenting threat of death from every direction; the strong bonds between fellow soldiers and the hatred of superior officers; the reduction of life to its most basic elements; the depersonalization of oneself and one’s enemies; the feeling of apathy and pointlessness; and the difficulty in re-adjusting to civilian life. This, by and large, is the common image of the First World War nowadays, so it is surprising to me that this novel sparked controversy when it was first published. The Nazis eventually burned Remarque’s books, and later decapitated Remarque’s sister.

I have never been in battle, thank heavens, and I hope never to be. Thus the conditions described by Remarque, though doubtless true enough, often struck me as unreal—ghoulish nightmares rather than reality. Indeed, the First World War in general is hard for me to wrap my mind around. That so much carnage could result from such petty causes—it makes my stomach tie itself into a knot the more I think about it. And then there is the, for me, strange collision of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: Kaisers and the aristocracy, cavalry charges, bayonets, juxtaposed with gas bombs, land mines, and heavy artillery. Technologically, it seems that defensive weapons far outpaced offensive ones. There were heavy artillery and machine guns, but neither were portable and so of limited use in an attack. Thus the endless trench warfare and the pointless offensives, as both sides could beat each other back but neither could win a decisive victory.

The final effect for the soldier, if he escaped with his body intact, was trauma. This was a world before PTSD; back then it was called “shell shock,” and poorly understood. But as Remarque describes the conditions on the front line, it is no wonder that recruits were traumatized; rather it would be a wonder if they weren’t. The carnage—bodies stabbed, shot, blown to bits, and wounded in every other imaginable way—was ever-present and horrific. Added to that is the constant fear—of artillery, snipers, landmines, electrified barbed wire, or merely getting separated from your fellows and lost in no-man’s land. And then the soldier must endure the loss of his friends—his fellow soldiers, with whom he forms bonds of terrific strength—as the war takes more and more men.

The worst part, perhaps, is that after enduring all this, the soldier cannot easily return to civilian life. In war, life is reduced to its bare essentials: the search for food, warmth, safety. Every moment, even those of rest, is part of a struggle to survive. Thus the soldier is shocked when he returns to his home. Civilian life, though enviably safe and comfortable, also seems terribly artificial, oriented towards goals that, to a soldier accustomed to struggling for bare survival, can seem superficial and even despicable. Remarque portrays this brilliantly, as the returning Narrator finds himself unable to communicate his experiences when he goes home on leave. After reading Proust’s novel set during the First World War, which focuses on the ridiculous pontifications of the socialites far behind the front lines, treating the war as just another topic for gossip, I can see why returning soldiers could feel disgusted.

Just thinking of how young these soldiers were—just eighteen when they began fighting—one realizes that a whole generation of men spent some of their most formative years in the most brutal conditions imaginable. It is no wonder they considered themselves the Lost Generation. And what was it for? Although admittedly the propaganda seems to have been quite effective in whipping up anti-German, -French, or -English sentiment, many soldiers must have felt like Stefan Zweig did—that the conflict was pointless. Remarque captures the absurdity of the situation: powerful men in ornate rooms, signing pieces of paper that result in thousands of young men fighting and killing thousands of other young men, not because any of them have any grievance against one another, but for the sake of the Fatherland.

Remarque conveys all this with a gripping immediacy. The story moves forward at lightning pace; and yet there is nuance and depth, too, in this short novel. Even though this is hardly a story of adventure, you realize that merely to keep on going required a kind of daily heroism—an unglamorous, grueling, thankless heroism—the loyalty to one’s fellows and the determination not to succumb to despair. War brings out both sides of the human character: our enormous capacity for violence and destruction, and our capacity for selfless devotion and extraordinary endurance. This is why war has formed one of the most popular themes of literature, going all the way back to Homer. But between those two extremes we often forget that war is long, boring, and terrifying, and that many people lose everything. It is this daily horror, and the daily heroism required to live through it, that Remarque captures.

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Review: Titus Andronicus

Review: Titus Andronicus

Titus AndronicusTitus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This play is famous for being Shakespeare’s dud, not only bad by his lofty standards but by any standard. Even Harold Bloom, who worships Shakespeare this side of idolatry, calls Titus Andronicus “ghastly bad.” The plot is mechanical and clumsy—but admittedly that’s true of many Shakespeare plays. More important, the characters are bland and flat, with the notable exception of Aaron the Moor, who nevertheless is still leagues behind the serviceable villains Iago and Edmund. But the main problem, for audiences and critics, has been the violence. This play is a bloodbath; character are not just killed, they are hacked to bits.

True idolaters of Shakespeare have attempted to defend him from this play. The most obvious defense is that he didn’t write it, or that he collaborated with someone else and only wrote the good bits. Unfortunately the available evidence seems to support the Bard’s authorship. This would hardly be surprising, given the time period. Elizabethan audiences were quite fond of bloodshed; and this play was wildly successful in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Harold Bloom takes a subtler approach in Shakespeare’s defense, and asserts that Shakespeare wrote this to free himself from the influence of Christopher Marlowe, by parodying Marlowe’s style to excess. This reading does have its merits. Many passages are nearly impossible to read straight:

Come, brother, take a head,
And in this hand the other will I bear
And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.

I agree with Bloom that these lines, the last in particular, cannot be read without a shocked chortle. And Aaron the Moor, devious plotter, is as ridiculous as Dr. Evil in his famous monologue:

Even now I curse the day—and yet, I think, / Few come within the compass of my curse— / Wherein I did not some notorious ill; / As kill a man, or devise his death; / Ravish a maid, or plot a way to do it; / Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself; / Set deadly enmity between two friends; / Make poor men’s cattle break their necks; / Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night, / And bid the owners quench them with their tears. / Oft I have digg’d up dead men from their graves, / And set them upright at their friends’ door / Even when their sorrow as almost forgot, / And on their skins, as on the bark of trees, / Have with my knife carved in Roman letters / “Let not your sorrows die, though I am dead.” / Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly; / And nothing grieves me more heartily indeed / But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

And yet the play is rarely funny, not even unintentionally funny. Indeed, some lines have a certain gravity and grandeur, though they are often marred by melodrama. Titus’s impassioned sorrow, too, does contain a faint hint of Lear’s magnificently mad grief:

If there were reason for these miseries
Then into limits could I bind my woes
When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o’erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threatening the welkin with his big-swoln face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?

But even the most charitable appraisal must rate Titus Andonicus far behind the other tragedies. Of all Shakespeare’s plays that I know, it is the most marked by its Elizabethan origins, the least able to transcend its epoch. The only indication that this playwright will go on to do bigger and greater things is Aaron the Moor, by far the most “Shakespearean” character in the play, whose tenderness for his newborn son adds an extra dimension to his villainy.

All this being said, I still must say I quite enjoyed Titus Andronicus. This is probably because we are nowadays swinging back around to Elizabethan sensibilities. In a world where Game of Thrones—far more bloody and gruesome than this play—is the most popular show in the world, Titus Andronicus is neither intolerably gory nor overly melodramatic. Indeed, I think if HBO did a production of it, they could make a lot of money.

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Review: In Search of Lost Time

Review: In Search of Lost Time

In Search of Lost Time  (À la recherche du temps perdu #1-7)In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.

I struggled with Proust, on and off, for three years. I read these books sitting, standing, lying down, in cars and on trains, waiting in airports, on commutes to work, relaxing on vacation. Some of it I read in New York, some in Madrid, Lisbon, Vienna. By now this book functions as my own madeleine, with different passages triggering memories from widely scattered places and periods in my life.

I am surprised I reached the end. Every time I put down a volume, I was sure I would never pick up another; each installment only promised more of the same and I had already had more than enough; but then the nagging sense of the incomplete overcame my aversion and, with mixed feeling, I would pick up the next one and repeat the experience.

Throughout this long voyage, my response to Proust has been consistent—I should say consistently inconsistent—alternately admiration and frustration. There are times when I fall completely under Proust’s spell, and times when I find his writing intolerable. Probably this mixture has much to do with what Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence,” since almost as soon as I finished the first volume, I started working on a novel, a novel which very clearly bears the traces of Proust’s influence. It may be that, with Proust, I have something of an Oedipal complex, and I need to lodge criticism at his work in order to clear the air for my own—though I don’t know. What I do know is that my reactions to this book have proven tempestuous and I have yet to spur myself to write a fair review.

When approaching a novel of this size and complexity, it is difficult to know where to start. Can In Search of Lost Time even be called a novel? In a writing class my instructor told us that any story needs to have a protagonist, an objective, a series of obstacles, a strategy for overcoming these obstacles, a sequence of failures and successes, all of it culminating in a grand climax that leads directly to a resolution. If you look carefully, you can, indeed, make out the bare outline of this dramatic pattern in Proust’s work. But, like the slender skeleton of a peacock buried under a mountain of feathers, this outline serves as a vague scaffold over which are draped colorful ornament; and it is the ornament that attracts our attention.

In most novels, any given passage will serve some dramatic purpose: characterization, description, plot. However, there are times when the author will pull back from the story to make a more general comment, on society, humanity, or the world. These comments are, very often, pungent and aphoristic—the most quotable section of the whole book, since they do not depend on their context. Some authors, like Dickens, very infrequently make these sorts of remarks; others, like George Elliot, are full of them: “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know of no speck so troublesome as self.”

Elliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, is distinguished for being simultaneously didactic and dramatic, equal parts analysis and art. Proust goes even further in the direction of analysis, totally overwhelming every other aspect of the book with his ceaseless commentary. No event, however insignificant, happens without being dissected; the Narrator lets no observation go unobserved, even at the cost of being redundant. This endless exegesis, circling the same themes with relentless exactitude, is what swells this book to its famously vast proportions. Tolstoy, no laconic writer, used less than half the length to tell a story that spanned years and encompassed whole nations. The story Proust tells could have been told by, say, Jane Austen in 400 pages—although this would leave out everything that makes it worth reading.

Different as the two authors are, the social milieu Proust represents is oddly reminiscent of Jane Austen’s world, being populated by snobby aristocrats who jostle for status and who never have to work, a world of elegant gatherings, witty conversation, and artistic dilettantism. Austen and Proust also share an affinity for satirizing their worlds, although they use different means for very different ends. In any case, both Austen’s England and Proust’s France are long gone, and it can be very difficult for the modern reader to sympathize with these characters, whose priorities, manners, and lifestyle are so distant from our own. Why should we care about soirées and salons, dukes and duchesses, who do nothing but gossip, pursue petty love affairs, and pontificate ignorantly in their pinched world?

Yet this narrow social milieu, though always in focus, only forms the backdrop for Proust’s real purpose; and this purpose is suitably universal: to create a religion of art. A new religion was needed. Proust was writing at a turbulent time in European history: in the aftermath of the Death of God, as the fin de siècle high society of his youth was shattered by World War I, as new notions of psychology overturned old verities of human behavior, as every convention in art, music, and literature was being broken. Even the physical world was becoming unrecognizable—populated by quantum fields and bending space-time. It was the world of Freud’s unconscious, Einstein’s relativity, and Picasso’s cubism, when new theories about everything were embraced. Granted, Proust may have been only peripherally aware of these historical currents, but he was no doubt responsive to them, as this novel amply proves.

In this book, Proust sets out to show that our salvation lays in art. This means showing us that our salvation does not lay in anything else. Specifically, Proust must demonstrate that social status and romantic love, two universal human aspirations, are will-o’-the-wisps. He does this subtly and slowly. First, as a young man, the Protagonist is awed by high society. The names of famous actresses, writers, composers, and most of all socialites—the aristocratic Guermantes—hold a mysterious allure that he finds irresistible. He slowly learns how to behave in salons and to hold his own in conversation, eventually meeting all the people he idolized from afar. But when he finally does make the acquaintance of these elite socialites, he finds that their wit is exaggerated, their knowledge superficial, their opinions conventional, their artistic taste deficient. In short, the allure of status was empty.

And not only that, temporary. In the final volume, Proust demonstrates that status waxes and wanes with changes of fashion, often in unforeseen ways. By the end of the book, Rachel, who began as a prostitute, is a celebrated actress; while Berma, who began as a celebrated actress, ends as a broken down old women, still respected but no longer fashionable. The Protagonist’s friend, Bloch, who is a flatfooted, stupid, and awkward man, ends the book as a celebrated author, despite a total lack of originality or wit. The Baron de Charlus, an intensely proud man, ends up doffing his hat to nearly anyone he runs into in the street, while the rest of society ostracizes him. Status, in other words, being based on nothing but mass whim, is liable to change whimsically.

Proust’s views of love are even more cynical. The Protagonist does have a genuine affection for his mother and grandmother; but these are almost the only genuine bonds in the entire long novel. When Proust looks at romantic love, he sees only delusion and jealousy: an inability to see another person accurately combined with a narcissistic urge to possess and a paranoia of losing them. The archetypical Proustian relationship is that between Swann and Odette, wherein Swann, a figure in high-society, has a casual dalliance with Odette, a courtesan, and despite not thinking much of Odette, Swann nearly loses his mind when he begins to suspect she is cheating on him. He marries Odette, not out of romantic passion, but in order to gain some measure of peace from his paranoid jealousy.

Summarized in this way, Proust’s views seem, if somewhat disenchanted, hardly radical. But the real thrust of Proust’s thinking depends on a truly radical subjectivism. This book, as Harold Bloom points out, is wisdom literature, firmly rooted in the introspective tradition of Montaigne. But Proust is more than introspective. A true Cartesian, Proust is solipsistic. And much of his rejection of worldly sources of happiness, and his concomitant embrace of art, depends on this intensely first-person view of the world.

In his emphasis on the subjective basis of reality, Proust’s thought is often oddly reminiscent of Buddhism. Our personalities, far from being stable, are nothing but an endless flux that changes from moment to moment; each second we die and are born again. What’s more, we perceive other people through the lens of our own desires, knowledge, opinions, and biases, and therefore never perceive accurately. There are as many versions of you as there are people to perceive you. Thus we never really know another person. Our relationships with friends and lovers are really relationships with mental constructions that have only a tenuous connection with the real person:

The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.

You might think that this is a shockingly cynical view, and it is; but Proust adheres to it consistently. Here he is on friendship:

… our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusions of the man who talks to furniture because he believes that it is alive…

And love, of course, comes off much even worse than friendship:

Almost everyone was surprised at the marriage, and that in itself is surprising. No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves.

In the dissolving acid of Proust’s solipsism, one can see why he considers both social status and romantic love as vain pursuits, since they are not, and can never be, based on anything but a delusion.

Of course, status and love do bring people happiness, at least temporarily. But Proust is careful to show that all happiness and sadness caused by these things have nothing to do with their reality, but only with our subjective understanding of that reality. Depending on how we interpret a word or analyze an intention; depending on whether we hold someone in esteem or in contempt—depending, in short, on how we subjectively understand what we experience—we will be happy or sad. The source of all suffering and bliss is in the mind, not the world, but we are normally blind to this fact and thus so on mistakenly trying to alter the world: “I had realized before now that it is only a clumsy and erroneous perception which places everything in the object, when really everything is in the mind…”

As you can see, we are moving in a strikingly mystical direction, where love and success are just egotistic delusions, hypostatized mental artifacts that we mistake for solid reality. Proust’s answer to this predicament is also mystical in flavor. Normally we are trapped by our perspective, thinking that we are viewing reality when we are actually just experiencing our own warped mental apparatus. To break us out of this trap we must first experience unhappiness: “As for happiness, that is really useful only in one way only, by making unhappiness possible.” And unhappiness results when something we mistook to be solid—reputation, love, even life itself—is shown to be fleeting and unreal, that our everyday reality is based on nothing but lies, mistakes, and misunderstandings. You might say this is Proust’s version of Christian consolation. For in the despair that opens up during these crises, we can give up our fantasies and partake in Proustian mysticism.

This mysticism consists in reconnecting with our basic sensations. To do this, Proust does not, like the Buddhists, turn to meditation on the present moment. Instead, he relies on art and memory. Normal language is totally inadequate to this task. Our words, being universally used, only convey that aspect of experience that is common to everyone; all the individual savor of a perception, its most essential quality, is lost. But great artists—like the fictitious Vinteuil, Bergotte, or Elstir—can use their medium to overcome the usual limits of discourse, transmitting the full power of their perspectives. Even so, this artistic communication can only act as a spur for our own introspective quest. Shorn of illusory happiness, inspired by example, we can probe our own memory and experience the bliss of pure experience.

Memory is essential in this, for Proust thinks that it is only by juxtaposing one experience with another that we can see the perception in its pure form, without any reference to our conventional reality. This is why moments of involuntary memory, like the madeleine episode, are so important for Proust: it is in these moments, when a present experience triggers a long-buried memory, that we can re-visit the experiences of our past, free from delusion, as a pure impartial spectator. The final Proustian wisdom is essentially contemplative, passive, aesthetic, able to see the ironies of human life and to appreciate the recurring patterns of human existence.

Proust’s goal, then, is to do for the reader what Bergotte, Elstir, and Vinteuil did for his Narrator: to create art that acts as a window to the self. And his style is exactly suited to this purpose. In my review of a book on meditation, I noted what I called the “novelistic imagination,” which is our tendency to see the world as a setting and ourselves as the Protagonist, beset by trials and tribulations. Meditation aims to break out of this rather unrealistic mindset by focusing on the present moment. Proust’s aim is similar but his method is different. He takes the narrative tendency of the novelistic imagination, and stretches and stretches, pulling each sentence apart, twisting it around itself, extending the form and padding the structure until the narration is hardly narration at all, until you are simply swimming in a sea of sounds.

By doing so, Proust allows you to feel the passage of time, to make time palpable and real, and to feel our memory processing and being activated over and over again in response to passing sensations. This way, Proust hopes to bring us in contact with reality: “An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them…”

This is my attempt to elucidate Proust’s aesthetic religion. Of course, like any religion of art, it is objectionable for manifold reasons: it lacks any moral compass, it is elitist, it is purely passive. Not only that, but Proust connects with his religion a solipsism that is questionable on philosophic grounds, not to mention cynical in the extreme. It is a cold, antisocial, unsympathetic doctrine, with appeal only to disenchanted aesthetes. But of course, this is ultimately a work of art and not of philosophy; and so In Search of Lost Time must be judged on literary grounds.

When it comes to the criteria by which we judge a usual novelist—characterization, dialogue, plot—I think Proust is somewhat weak. There is, of course, little plot to speak of. And although Harold Bloom thought that Proust was a rival of Shakespeare when it came to characterization—a judgment that baffles me—I felt very little for any of the people in this novel. They all speak in Proust’s longwinded voice, and so never came alive for me. It always seems as if I am overhearing Proust describe someone rather than meeting them myself.

But of course one cannot appraise Proust using these standards. This novel is, above all, audacious. It is a modernist tour de force, which turns nearly every novelistic convention on its head. More than that, it is a novel of ideas, which puts forward a radical view of the human predicament and its own answers to the perennial questions of life. It is wisdom literature rooted deeply in tradition, while being absolutely original and uncompromising in its newness. It is both intensely beautiful and intensely ugly—hideously sublime. For anyone who can pull themselves through all its pages, it will leave them deeply marked. I know I have been.

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Review: The Jungle

Review: The Jungle

The JungleThe Jungle by Upton Sinclair

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every day in New York they slaughter
four million ducks
five million pigs
and two thousand doves for the pleasure of the dying,
a million cows
a million lambs
and two million roosters,
that leave the sky in splinters.

—Federico García Lorca

I expected to dislike this book, because it is a book aimed at provoking outrage. Outrage is a species of anger, and, like all species of anger, it can feel oddly pleasurable. True, anger always contains dissatisfaction of some kind; but anger can also be an enormously enlivening feeling—the feeling that we are infinitely right and our opponents infinitely wrong. Outrage joins with this moral superiority a certain smugness, since we feel outrage on behalf of others, about things that do not affect us personally, and so we can feel satisfied that we would never do something so egregious. Judging from how ephemeral public outrage tends to be, and how infrequently it leads to action, outrage can be, and often is, engaged in for its own sake—as a periodic reminder to ourselves that we are not villains, since villains couldn’t feel so angry at injustice inflicted on so distant a party.

In a way, the history of this book justifies my suspicion. Upton Sinclair spent seven weeks working in the meatpacking industry in Chicago, and wrote a muckraking novel about the experience. An avowed and proud socialist, his aim was to raise public awareness of the terrible conditions of the working poor—to write the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” as Jack London called the book. The book did cause a lot of outrage, but not for the intended reasons. The public interpreted the book as an exposé on the unsanitary conditions in the meat factories; and the legislation that resulted was purely to remedy this problem. As Sinclair himself said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” This is one of those ironies of history that make you want to laugh or cry: a book aimed to publicize the plight of the working poor made an impact solely in the way that working conditions affected the middle class.

About halfway through, I had decided that this was a brilliant piece of journalism and a mediocre novel. But the second half made me revise my opinion: it is a surprisingly decent novel, too. This is impressive, since fiction is not Sinclair’s strength. His characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional and static; in this book they serve as mere loci of pity. Furthermore, they never really come alive, since Sinclair writes almost no dialogue. In the first half, when the protagonists are at work in the yards, the plot is drearily predicable: things go from bad to worse; and, as Shakespeare reminds us, every time you tell yourself “This is the worst,” there is worse yet still to come. But after Jurgis, our hero, finally leaves the meat factories, the novel really comes alive. Things still go from bad to worse, for the most part, but there are some surprising reversals and exciting adventures.

In any case, this book is primarily a work of journalism, and on that level it is absolutely successful. Sinclair is an expert writer. He deploys language with extreme precision; his descriptions are vivid and exact. And what he describes is unforgettable. His portrayal of grinding poverty, and the desperation and despair it drives people to, is almost Dostoyevskyan in its gruesomeness. And unlike that Russian author, Sinclair is very clear that the problem is systematic and social—how decent and hardworking people can fall into an economic trap with no options and no escape. He shows how and why the working poor are free only in theory, how and why the oppressed and exploited are virtually owned by their bosses. And it must be said that his descriptions of factory processes are viscerally disgusting—so disgusting that they do distract a little from Sinclair’s message. The meat factory is the book’s central metaphor: a giant slaughterhouse where hapless animals are herded and butchered. As becomes painfully clear by the end of the book, the working poor are hardly in a better situation than the pigs.

By the end, Sinclair succeeds in producing that rare sensation: reasoned outrage. For there are, of course, situations in which outrage is the only logical response—monstrous injustice and inhuman cruelty—and the working and living conditions in the meatpacking district was one of them. Sinclair succeeds in this by relating facts instead of preaching. (Well, he does some preaching at the end, but it is forgivable.) He does not sentimentalize his characters or exaggerate their nobility; they are ordinary and flawed people. He does not use mawkish or cloying language; his narrative voice is pitiless and cold, like the world he describes. This book is a testament to the positive potential of outrage. The world needs more muckrakers.

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Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prose writers are voluminous and unwieldy; their pages crowded with commonplaces, and their thoughts expanded into tediousness.

I am a child of Sleepy Hollow, and I have lived in Irving’s shadow almost as long as I can remember.

Every Halloween, this town is inundated with tourists, who come to wander around the lovely old cemetery where the legend is set, and where Irving himself is buried. Behind my house is where they put on the “haunted hayride.” I went every year as a kid. A pickup truck drags groups of twenty in a trailer through a stretch of forest, where volunteers dressed in masks jumped out and scared the kids half to death. And of course no hayride was complete without the headless horseman himself, riding out of the shadows on a black horse with a jack-o’-lantern on his knee.

The town nextdoor is called ‘Irvington’ in Washington Irving’s honor, and it is there that his old house, Sunnyside, is situated. The house is a delightful little dwelling, a small jumble of architectural styles—gothic, Dutch, Spanish—overlooking the Hudson River. Irving was an amateur architect and landscaper, very much of the Romantic school, and re-made the old farm he bought into a charming park, with a little pond, a babbling brook, and paths that wind through the forest nearby. On the property is a sycamore tree that has been growing since 1776, seven years before Irving himself was born.

When Irving bought the property, he had unimpeded access to the river; but that changed when, ten years later, the Hudson Line railroad was built at the river’s edge. Nowadays, trains rattle by every ten minutes or so. All the old train cars have names printed on their sides; and as I sat there on a recent visit, I saw that one of the cars on the passing Amtrak was named “Washington Irving.” He is simply everywhere. There is a statue of Rip Van Winkle outside the Irvington Town Hall Theater. On the walk back to my house I passed by the Washington Irving Middle School, which I attended, the Tarrytown High School, where our football team is the Horsemen, and the Christ Episcopal Church, where Irving himself worshiped, and where his pew is still preserved.*

Right outside Philipsburg Manor—an old colonial farm that now serves as a historical site—is an ugly metal sculpture of the Headless Horseman. Right next to it is where the old bridge stood where Ichabod Crane met his fate. There is not much to see now, just a modern concrete construction. But if you keep walking into the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery you can see the Old Dutch Church, and, a little farther on, you will come across the man’s tombstone. Like his house, his grave is neither ostentatious nor grandiose, just a simple stone that lays in a family plot.

The man’s influence is inescapable. It was Washington Irving who originated the nickname ‘Knickerbockers’ (after an imaginary Dutch historian he used as a nom de plume) for the denizens of New York. The New York Knicks owe their name to Irving, and the word ‘knickers’ also derives, through devious channels, to this writer. It was Irving who popularized the myth that Christopher Columbus thought the earth was flat, which he included in a biography of Columbus that Irving wrote while living in Spain. It was Irving, too, who originated the nickname ‘Gotham’ for New York City.

We even owe our holiday celebrations to Irving, since it was he, along with Charles Dickens, who helped to make Christmas into the secular holiday of gift-giving and merry-making that it is today. Irving played a hand in the creation of Santa Claus, too, with a story about St. Nicholas in his first book. With his love of ghost stories, Irving is also one of the architects of Halloween—and thousands still make the pilgrimage to visit his tombstone in that ghoulish time of the year. I cannot even escape his influence in Spain, since it was Irving who helped to spread the exotic, enchanted image of Andalusia, and who thus helped make Spain a tourist destination; and it was also thanks to his book of stories about the Alhambra that people began taking an interest in restoring that old ruin.

Washington Irving was named after George Washington, and was born just a few weeks before the Revolutionary War was officially concluded. He was a new man for a new land. An often-told story—difficult to verify—has it that he was taken by his maid to visit George Washington when he was just six years old; there’s a watercolor drawing, still hanging in Irving’s hold house, of the old general patting the young boy on the head. Whether it happened or not, the story seems symbolic of the role that Irving would play in American literature—exactly analogous to George Washington in politics—as a pioneering leader. For it was Washington Irving who was the first American writer to be respected by his English peers. He showed that these unruly savages overseas could aspire to eloquence too.

This book is often marketed as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories; but its original title is The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and was published under that pseudonym rather than Irving’s own name. The book, often merely called The Sketchbook, is a sort of parody of the sketchbooks that other wealthy American travelers made on their visits to Europe. It is framed as a travel book, and contains many vignettes about places Irving visited. But Irving does not stick to this theme very diligently. The book also contains some short pieces about Native Americans; and the two most famous stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” are both set in New York, and purport to be found among the old papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, another of Irving’s pseudonyms.

Although the collection is miscellaneous, Irving was not a writer of great breadth, and his distinctive style is consistent throughout. Thematically, Irving was a purebred Romantic. He has a taste for quaint customs, forgotten ruins, exotic places, and old yarns—in short, everything antique, out-of-the-way, and foreign, everything that allows his imagination to run wild with conjecture. These preoccupations lead him to investigate old English Christmas customs in the country, and to rail against their disappearance. It also leads him to treat the Native Americans as noble savages, the pure emblems of a disappearing culture, as well as to focus his eye on the old Dutch lore lingering about his native New York.

In truth there is not much substance to his writing. The closest he ever gets to philosophy is the Romantic, Ozymandian sentiment that all things yield to time. Rather, Irving is a stylist. His prose is fluent and easygoing—indeed, remarkably easy to read considering its age—so effortless that the prose practically reads itself. The subject-matter is usually a description of some kind—of what someone is wearing, of a farm or a tavern, of a funeral or a wedding—and he steers clear of all argument and dialogue, maintaining the fluid rhythm of his pen as it flies forward. When he is not describing a gothic ruin, an old curiosity, or a picturesque landscape, he is involved in some ghost story or traveler’s anecdote. Some of these, indeed many, involve love affairs between gallant soldiers and young women who possess “that mysterious but impassive charm of virgin purity in whose hallowed sphere no guilty thought can live”—it’s quite revolting.

But if Irving nowadays strikes one as lightweight and Romantic to the point of silliness, one should remember that he was a pioneer and an innovator—the first American man of letters, and one of the champions of Romanticism when that movement had hardly reached this country. And if he seems more style than substance, one should also remember that Irving wrote to amuse, not to instruct; and it is by that goal that he should be measured. Even now, Irving is a champion amuser; and even if he has some unfashionable tastes, he it still fresh and good-natured after all these years:

If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself—surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.

Surely, surely, he has not.

*I recently went to visit this church. As luck would have it, I was about to knock on the door just as the rector, Susan, was on her way out of the building. When I asked about Irving’s pew, she very kindly gave me a quick tour. The old pew sits in a corner now, set aside to preserve it. The church also has Irving’s bible and prayer book—tattered old things in a glass case—as well as a copy of the 1859 issue of Harper’s Magazine that carried a front-page story about Irving’s funeral. “So many people came in, they were worried the floorboards would break,” Susan said.


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Review: King Lear

Review: King Lear

King LearKing Lear by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

King Lear, along with Hamlet, forms the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s art. As such, the play seems beyond criticism, or even analysis. The greatest artists set their own standards; they can only be measured against themselves; and as Shakespeare is a giant among giants, his masterpieces are doubly beyond reckoning. Even Harold Bloom, who has something to say about everything, insists that these two plays “baffle commentary”—although it doesn’t stop him from trying. I have difficulty even doing that. Hamlet is among my favorite works of literature, one I have read and seen many times, and yet I cannot think of a single thing to say about it.

Silence is probably the wisest and best course in these situations. But I will stick my neck out a little and try to digest the indigestible, and write a little something about Lear.

This play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters. From the first, we are both attracted and repelled by Lear. He is foolish, vain, egotistical, irritable, rash, and imperious. He is clearly not fit to govern a house, much less a kingdom. The transparent flattery of Regan and Goneril, and the equally transparent sincerity of Cordelia, produce the exact opposite response that they should in Lear. Such a poor judge of character, coupled with such a quick temper and a dogmatic devotion to his own impulses—evidenced by his disinheritance of Cordelia and his banishment of Kent—can be neither loved nor respected.

But Lear demands the viewer’s love. He cannot be simply dismissed as a bumbling old man. He is a bumbling old man, yes, but he is also charismatic beyond measure. Every utterance of his is supercharged with passion. He is histrionic, even hysterical; and yet his wounded pride, his kingly dignity, is utterly persuasive. He is every inch a king. Nothing but lifelong power and command could produce a man so totally unable to control his impulses, and so regally disdainful of everything that opposes his will. What is perhaps most lovable about Lear is his directness. Those whom he loves, he loves unstintingly; and unstinting is his pain and disenchantment when his love is not returned. There is nothing dispassionate about Lear; he lacks completely the ability to be calculating and shrewd. And this is both a weakness and a mark of nobility; it makes him vulnerable, but it also makes him loveable.

His foil in this is Edmund. Edmund is pure calculation. He feels nothing for nobody—not for his brother, nor his father, nor his two lovers. It is his total lack of sentiment that allows him to shrewdly manipulate others, much like Iago does. Gloucester, Edgar, Goneril, and Regan all assume that Edmund would not betray them, since he is seemingly tied to them by emotional bonds, and they are all deceived. This description makes Edmund sound psychotic; and yet, for many, he is the most likable character in the play. It is such a relief when he comes on stage. His cool cynicism and dry wit are a necessary reprieve from the ceaseless torrents and whiplashing anger of Lear. Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking that Edmund, so stealthy, so cunning, so self-controlled, would make a far better king than Lear ever did.

Aside from passion and placidity, another theme in this play is sanity and madness, wisdom and folly. The Fool, despite his name, is perhaps the wisest characters in the play, constantly upbraiding Lear for his mistakes. Although dressed like a jester, he lives like a sage, abiding simply and apart from the machinations of power. He bestows his love on the worthiest characters, Lear and Cordelia, and is the loyalist of friends and servants. Edgar, disguised as a madman, is hailed by Lear as a philosopher; and Edgar himself, upon witnessing Lear’s descent into madness, notes that Lear’s ravings have some strange sense: “O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness!” Meanwhile, all the sober plans of Edmund eventually come to naught. Is Shakespeare implying that true wisdom and reason cannot be expressed in ordinary language, but must take the form of poetic ravings or lewd jokes?

Few scenes in literature, if any, are as tragic as when Lear walks out with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms. There is no silver lining in the tragedy. He loses everything—and then dies. Audiences in previous ages thought that this was too harsh, and the play was often performed with a happy ending. We moderns have re-acquired a taste for the bleak. Yet the play is still heartrending. Gloucester in particular attracts my sympathy. Fooled into betraying his loyal son, and betrayed in turn by his disloyal son, blinded for showing kindness to Lear, cast out a broken man intent on ending his own life—it’s a torture to watch. Lear’s story is even darker, for at least Gloucester dies of a happy shock. With Lear we witness a noble and kingly soul, who loves and is loved by many, who is reduced to a babbling fool, who is stripped of everything he owned, even his senses, and who finally dies of heartbreak.

Well, there’s my meager attempt at a review. At least now I can say that I’ve tried.

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Review: The Captive & The Fugitive

Review: The Captive & The Fugitive

The Captive & The Fugitive (In Search of Lost Time, #5-6)The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than a year has intervened between my reading of the last volume and this one; and yet I find that my reaction to Proust has remained constant. Constant, yes, and complicated.

I have this relentless back and forth, tug-of-war reaction to Proust, a mixture of the most intense admiration and absolute disgust. My thinking and writing bear the scar of his influence; it is a scar I wear proudly, but which still stings if I poke at it. Whenever I read Proust, I feel so irritated and sometimes so dreadfully bored—a palpable and suffocating boredom—that I want to tear my hair out by the roots; and when I finish I have the mad desire to yell vulgarities at the top of my lungs, both as a celebration and a way to vent pent up anger. But I keep coming back, I keep rolling the rock patiently up the hill, and I keep watching it tumble back down.

I have had difficulty identifying why I’ve had this reaction. In previous reviews I’ve attributed it to Proust’s Cartesianism: his entrapment in his own ego, his relentless subjectivity. But the fact that this book is so deeply rooted in the first-person does not adequately explain the Proustian effect. There are plenty of autobiographies and memoirs that do not produce this same sensation of being trapped in the writer’s head and buried alive by their cogitations. No, it is not the subjectivism alone. Although you wouldn’t guess it from Proust’s elegant, smoothly drifting prose, or his perpetually calm narrative voice, the upshot of his reams of analysis is not only Cartesian, but deeply cynical. This passage perhaps sums up the cynicism better than any other.

The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.

For Proust, the essential error of human life is forgetting this essential subjectivity. This error is most obvious with love. We think we fall in love with other people; but we really fall in love with creatures of our own fancy. The person we love has only an oblique reference to the real person, and is mostly a collection of desires, hopes, fantasies, fears, memories, and other sundry emotions—a jumble of mental propensities only associated, by chance, with another person. Indeed, our beloved is not even singular; we have as many beloveds as we have moods. Proust goes even further. His bleak conclusion is that love not only has very little to do with the other person, but that love, far from a tender emotion, is just an expression of sexual jealousy.

In his Cartesian worldview, there is literally no action, however apparently generous and kind, that is not ultimately selfish. That is inevitable, since we can only ever know ourselves, and all our ideas of other people are just veiled ideas of ourselves. And can we even know ourselves?

Time is constantly stripping our identity away. Our thoughts can never stand still, but ceaselessly rush downstream, and the refuse is swept down the drain. We are trapped in our own perspective; and there is no stable point from which to even come to grips with that perspective. The mind reacts to this existential instability by imbuing its environment with meaning, and then trying to control it. We fall in love—thus imbuing a specific person with all the magic charm of our thoughts—and then do our best to keep our beloved near us. Sexual jealousy is just this attempt to control the beloved; and love, for Proust, is just the anguished feeling that our beloved, whose presence helps to define us, might break away. This is why love evaporates for Swann after marriage, and for the Narrator after Albertine’s death; they no longer feel jealous.

Without going into tedious argument, I will say that I disagree with this intense subjectivism. If you begin, like Descartes and like Proust, with the ego and then try to build the world back up again, you will find, like Proust, that you can’t and that you’re stuck with your own ego. But far from being the most solitary of animals, humans are the most social. And the very fact that the world doesn’t make sense when you take your solitary ego as the starting point—which Proust’s Narrator continually finds—is why you ought not to. Yes, we see other people through the distorting lens of our own personality—as any mortal creature must—but experience so often shows that we are much better judges of other people than they are of themselves, and even, in a way, we know them better than they know themselves—something impossible in Proust’s world.

This is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of truth in Proust’s perspective. Specifically, I think he is brilliant at showing how our happiness depends on our interpretation of events rather than events themselves. Like any patient historian, he catalogues all the ways that the Narrator interprets, misinterprets, and re-interprets Albertine’s words and actions; and he shows again and again that the Narrator’s emotional state depends exclusively on these interpretations, not on the words or actions themselves. He is happy when he thinks Albertine loves him, desparing when he thinks she is cheating (but did she ever love him, and did she cheat?); and he begins to get over her when he stops defining himself in reference to her.

As you might have guessed, art plays a large role in Proust’s worldview. For it is only through art that we can, just barely, break out of our perspectives and reveal ourselves to others. The phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata is the prime example of this, which reappears in Vinteuil’s septet, transformed, in a different context, with different emotional overtones, and yet unmistakably the same basic phrase of music. This phrase communicated the stamp of Vinteuil’s mind so unmistakably because, being the product of focused and impassioned artistic creation, it carries with it something of the composer’s unchanging soul, an identity impossible to discern using formal analysis but which is immediately recognizable nevertheless. (Proust was, you see, no advocate of the death of the author.)

It is only through this artistic communion that we can transcend, however briefly, the limitations of our perspective: “the harmony of a Wagner, the colour of an Elstir, enable us to know that essential quality of another person’s sensations into which love for another person does not allow us to penetrate.” The reference to love is crucial here, since for Proust love is the false idol that leads most people astray. It is only through art, not love, that we really get to know another person; it is only through art that the boundaries that separate mind from mind are bridged; and this, presumably, is why Proust is writing this in the first place. Here is Proust putting this into his own inimitable words:

… is it not true that those elements—all the residuum of reality which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even from friend to friend, from master to disciple, from lover to mistress, that ineffable something which differentiates qualitatively what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with others only by limiting himself to externals, common to all and of no interest—are brought out by art, the art of a Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, which exteriorises in the colours of the spectrum the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, but for art, we should never now? A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect of things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we really do fly from star to star.

Notice how intense is Proust’s subjectivism here. Even if we go visit another planet, he thinks, we really only see ourselves. The exterior world has almost nothing to do with what we observe, think, or feel, and it is only through art, which opens up other perspectives, that we have a window to something new, a temporary escape from ourselves.

At present, I am not sure I agree with Proust about the ability of art to transcend the boundaries that separate consciousness from consciousness; and I certainly do not agree with his cynical views on love, or his subjectivist vision of human life. As a writer of prose, in short bursts I find him extraordinarily eloquent, and in longer sittings I find him soporific and tedious. His books simply wear you out. Proust himself died at 51 while completing the last volume; and his English translator, Scott Moncrieff, died at 40 midway through the same volume. I myself feel as if every page of Proust ages me internally. Time is not only a theme of this book, but an essential aspect of reading it. In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann says:

Can one narrate time—time as such, in and of itself? Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be. The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein. No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.

But Proust comes perilously close to narrating time. His prose never changes pace, never speeds up nor slows down, but slides by like time itself, uniformly moving along, flowing, drifting, with the same mannerisms repeated again and again, the same sorts of observations, the same themes that repeatedly return—a placid voice narrating a story that makes me neither laugh nor cry, only yawn on occasion—and yet, and yet, you cannot make your way through these pages without being transformed, however subtly, in the process. Just as Proust’s Narrator feels as if great artists and musicians allow him to see the world with a hundred eyes, I feel as if I have lived several lives so far; when I put down Proust my bones ache and I feel weary, I feel weak and dizzy as if I were just breathing a thin atmosphere. And yet, and yet, who would change a word, who would alter a line, and who would consider any time spent in these pages to be lost?

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Review: Antony and Cleopatra

Review: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and CleopatraAntony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LEPIDUS: What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?

ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and, the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.

LEPIDUS: What color is it?

ANTONY: Of its own color too.

This is Shakespeare’s most exiting play. The many and rapid changes of scene function like the shaky, shifting camera angles in a Jason Bourne movie: both accelerating the pace, and showing us a variety of perspectives from which to view the action, all the while keeping some angles carefully hidden from view. We see too much and not enough. The play is exhausting to read or watch, a constant torrent of development and action; and yet, by the end, it is terribly difficult to decide what stance to take towards the principle characters.

Antony cuts a poor figure in this play. Unlike the persuasive and savvy politician of Julius Caesar, here he is a bungler past his prime. In this he reminded me most strongly of Macbeth, another ruler who botches everything he tries to do (Antony even botches his own suicide). The two of them are charismatic, independent, and powerful personalities who, nevertheless, are much too susceptible to suggestion. I should say, rather, that they are too apt to ignore good and to follow bad advice. Antony illustrates this even more than Macbeth: all the play long, he is continually waving away his best counselors to follow the unruly impulses of his heart. He has no ability to put aside pleasure for practicality. It is impossible not to sympathize with him—the play would be tedious and dreary if he were totally unsympathetic—but it was, for me, also impossible to root for him.

Octavius is the perfect foil for this passionate hero. I admit that I like Octavius perhaps more than Shakespeare intended. He is so wonderfully efficient and commanding. In every scene he is issuing orders, rapid-fire, and every one of these orders is calculated and shrewd. He takes in all the essential facts of every situation at a glance, and at once his mind hits upon the correct course of action. He is unbending and unrelenting in his pursuit of his goal. Compared with Antony’s agonizing indecision about whether he wants to be a Roman commander or an Egyptian paramour, this is terribly refreshing. There is no question—in my mind at least—that he should and must be the ruler of Rome, since Antony is so manifestly unfit for the role. And yet, for all his single-minded pursuit of his aims, there is an undercurrent of pity and tenderness—his love of his sister and his outrage at her betrayal, and his tears for Antony’s death—that makes him a complete, sympathetic character.

Cleopatra is the most complex character in this play. Like Antony, she is passionate and mercurial; but unlike Antony, there always seems to be a part of herself that is unconquered by her impulses, a more calculating awareness that allows her to cast a spell over everyone in her presence. Like Iago, she is always acting, playing the part of herself, although to what end is not always clear. Unlike Iago, we never see Cleopatra in private, and have no windows into her solitary consciousness. Also unlike Iago, Cleopatra is constantly overwhelmed by her circumstances; the play she is trying to write never goes according to plan, usually thanks to Octavius. Indeed, the only person impervious to her is Octavius, whose cold, stiff demeanor wards off her dramatic performance. That being said, Cleopatra is the only character whom Octavius can neither understand nor conquer. His silver-tongued messengers to her end up getting manipulated, ignored, or conquered themselves (as in the case of Dolabella).

By chance, I watched this play while making my way through Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, much of which focuses on the famous Master-Slave dialectic. Whatever the applicability of Kojève’s thesis to Hegel’s ideas (that’s for another review), it strikes me that this scheme sheds some light on this play. The Master, in Hegel’s famous chapter, is stuck in a paradoxical situation. He craves the recognition of another self-consciousness, and will risk his life for this recognition; and yet his desire leads him to subjugate the Other to the role of Slave, whose recognition cannot satisfy the Master, since the Slave is not supposed to have any perspective whatever.

Now, it seems that Antony and Cleopatra’s erratic and passionate behavior is shaped by this paradox. The two of them are the masters of the world, surrounded by servants and slaves. They command, and are obeyed. But—unlike Octavius, who is comfortable with the role of impersonal master—neither can be satisfied with this obedience. They are bored by it. The two of them do not wish to be recognized simply as “masters,” but as individuals: as Antony and as Cleopatra. Yet this recognition can only come from an equal, from another master: from each other. This is why, in every scene, they always seem to be performing for each other. They are the only suitable audience for each other’s performance, the only audience that can give the satisfaction of individual recognition.

I think this is why critics have disagreed about whether they truly “love” one another. They seem to be using one another, intimately but self-interestedly, to achieve the full feeling of selfhood. They are like two mirrors reflecting each other’s light. This recognition is so vital that they will risk power, fortune, even life itself, only to sustain it one moment longer. Octavius cannot play this role for either of them. He wishes only to be obeyed; his personality, his private feelings and sympathies, are ruthlessly repressed in order to be the ideal master. Likewise, neither Antony nor Cleopatra can give Octavius what he wants: unconditional obedience. Octavius quite literally wants to reduce them to slavery, dragged in chains in a triumphal procession. This would be a fate worse than death for these two actors.

It is only in the final act, after Antony’s death, that Cleopatra seems to discover that she does not need Antony: she can be an audience to herself, she can recognize her own individuality. This is what makes her performance in Act V so overwhelming. She emerges from the circumstances that constantly thwart her plans, she breaks free of the need to be seen to feel complete. At this moment, the only action which will preserve her autonomy and her individuality is her self-destruction, since Octavius will reduce her to the level of a trophy if she allows herself to live. Her death is not wholly tragic, therefore, but has the pathos of self-transcendence.

Then Octavius strides in, and true to form he begins issuing orders for their burial and mourning. (I wonder what percentage of his lines are direct orders.) This is the play’s emotionally ambiguous end. We miss the passionate intensity of Antony and Cleopatra. Octavius may be compelling in his way, but he is certainly not charismatic. And yet we can’t helping feeling—or I can’t, at least—that the self-destructive, wasteful, and egotistical love affair between these two mortal gods had to end, for the world’s sake if not for theirs.

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Review: Poet in New York

Review: Poet in New York

Poet in New York: A Bilingual EditionPoet in New York: A Bilingual Edition by Federico García Lorca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to cry because I feel like it
as the boys in the back row cry,
because I am not a man nor a poet nor a leaf
but a wounded pulse that probes the things of the other side.

Poetry is an odd thing. You notice this when you encounter poetry in a second language. This happened to me a few weeks ago, when I went to a poetry reading in Madrid. There were four or five poets there, some of them fairly well-known, with a crowd of hushed listeners hanging on their every word. Meanwhile, with my very imperfect Spanish, I was only able to catch bits of phrases and scattered words that added up to nothing.

“Look, I can be a poet,” I said to a friend after the show: “A cow is a moon, / a moon is a balloon.” That’s really how it sounded to me.

In a way, this isn’t surprising, of course; but it got me thinking how strange a thing is poetry. We string phrases together that, interpreted literally, are either false, absurd, meaningless, or banal; and yet somehow, when the poetry works, these phrases open up subtle emotional reactions in their listeners. Why is it that a certain phrase seems just right, inexhaustibly expressive and unutterably perfect, while a similar phrase may be dead on arrival, impotent, sterile, and maybe even unpleasant? Bad poetry, indeed, can be excruciating and embarrassing to witness, perhaps because it is in bad poetry that the essential strangeness of the act of poetry is most acutely manifest. We feel that this whole thing is silly—trying to make portentous sounding phrases that signify close to nothing. And yet the genuine article, once witnessed, is undeniable.

I usually group poetry along with novels and short stories, as literature; but lately I think that poetry may be closer to another art form: dance. Dance is distinct from every other kind of movement—from walking to golf to sign language—in that it is not oriented towards any external goal. That is, the movement itself is the goal; the point is to move, and to move well. In poetry, too, our words—which normally point us towards the world, if only to an imaginary or a hypothetical world—are stripped as much as possible of their normal denoting function; the point becomes, rather, the pure manipulation of diction and grammar, in much the same way that, in dance, the point becomes the pure movement of limb and trunk.

This is a healthy thing, I think, since in life we can get so preoccupied with the attainment of a goal that we become blind to everything that does not advance our progress towards our object. A coach of a football team, for example, is only concerned with how well his players’ actions increase the likelihood of winning; and likewise, normally when we use language, we are using it to accomplish something specific, from ordering pizza to chiding children. Dance and poetry, by stripping away the intentionality of the act, reveal the subtle beauty in the activity itself, allowing us to slow down, to appreciate the rhythm of a word or the gentle flexion of an arm.

I must hasten to add that this description of poetry and dance does not apply equally to all examples. Alexander Pope’s poetry approaches very nearly to prose in its use of denotation; and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is on the other side of the spectrum. A similar spectrum applies in the case of dance, I suppose.

Federico García Lorca’s poetry is much closer to Eliot’s in this regard, perhaps even further along in its tendency towards connotation. This makes his poetry doubly hard for a foreigner like me to appreciate, since the specific emotional flavors of his words are bland in my mouth. As a young man Lorca lived in the famous Residencia de Estudiantes, in Madrid, where he became close friends with Dalí. The two exerted a mutual influence on each other, both moving towards the surrealism that was becoming trendy in the art world.

Lorca wrote this book many years later, during and after his visit to New York City in 1929-30, during which he witnessed the Stock Market Crash. Economic depression or not, however, the inhuman vastness of the city, the crowds and concrete, the money-obsessed workers and the poor and the homeless, the racial discrimination and the absence of nature, seems to have made a deep impression on the rural Andalusian poet. These poems are his anguished response to this experience.

Lorca’s poetry is surreal in the textbook sense that he uses a succession of vivid, concrete images that, taken together, add up to something nebulous and unreal. Much like Dalí, Lorca has a talent for creating bizarre images that nevertheless manage to be emotionally compelling. Opening the collection more or less at random I find:

All is broken in the night,
its legs spread wide over the terraces.
All is broken in the warm pipes
of a terrible, silent fountain.

Admittedly it does take some time to find the odd beauty in the apparently random, unconnected pictures. My first instinct was to read them like metaphors; but if Lorca did indeed have something specific in mind that he was trying to allegorize, the allegories are much too complicated and disjointed to be deciphered. Rather, I think these poems must be read simply for the beauty of the language, the striking collisions of words, the flashes of light and the rumblings of sound. The poems seem to capture nothing more nor less than an emotional mood—different shades of desolation—that presents itself to the conscious mind in a kind of personal mythology, as in a dream. Dalí was deeply influenced by Freud during his stay in the student residence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lorca was too.

Even if it is difficult to articulate the structure and meaning of Lorca’s image-world, it is certainly not random. Certain words and images come up again and again, as in a dream sequence, being shuffled and re-shuffled throughout the collection. Some of these words are oil, ant, worm, thigh, moon, void, footprint, hollow, glass, night, wounded, agony, sky, cracked, death, coffin, iron… The ultimate effect of these words, recombined again and again, is cumulative; they create echoes of themselves in the reader’s mind, calling up half-remembered associations from other poems, creating an emotional coherence in the literally incoherent text.

Look at concrete shapes seeking their void.
Mistaken dogs and bitten apples.
Look at the longing, the anguish of a sad fossil world
that cannot find the accent of its first sob.

The emotional resonance of the words themselves is also important, something that is unfortunately lost in translation. For example, the word for “oil,” aceite, has an interesting blend of comforting familiarity and a tint of the exotic. I think this is because the word originally comes from Arabic, and maintains a certain foreign flavor, even as it denotes something absolutely integral to the Spanish culture: olive oil, which is used in everything. The word also brings up the rolling olive fields, stumpy trees on sandy soil, that fill Lorca’s Andalucía; and this again calls to mind the age-old farming tradition, the intimate connection with the land, totally absent in New York City. There is also the double association of oil as integral to cooking and as something potentially toxic and polluting. A native Spaniard will likely disagree with this chain of associations, but I think the word is undeniably resonant.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think I can articulate exactly why the text of these poems is gripping, in the same way that I cannot articulate exactly why I find some dancers compelling and others not. You cannot learn anything about New York City from these poems, and arguably you can’t learn very much about Lorca, either. I’m not even sure that the cliché is correct, that these poems can “teach you about yourself.” Maybe they don’t teach anything except how to feel as Lorca felt. I don’t think that’s a problem, though, since the point of reading is not always to learn about something, just as the point of moving isn’t always to get somewhere. Sometimes we read simply for the pleasure of the text.

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