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.

View all my reviews

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 next door 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.

 

View all my reviews

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—evidences by his disinheritance of Cordelia and his banishment of Kent—can by 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. This description makes him 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.

View all my reviews

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?

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Review: The Stranger

Review: The Stranger

The StrangerThe Stranger by Albert Camus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In Search of Lost Time

The Stranger is a perplexing book: on the surface, the story and writing are simple and straightforward; yet what exactly lies underneath this surface is difficult to decipher. We can all agree that it is a philosophical novel; yet many readers, I suspect, are left unsure what the philosophical lesson was. This isn’t one of Aesop’s fables. Yes, Camus hits you over the head with something; but the hard impact makes it difficult to remember quite what.

After a long and embarrassingly difficult reread (I’d decided to struggle through the original French this time), my original guess as to the deeper meaning of this book was confirmed: this is a book about time. It is, I think, an allegorical exploration of how our experience of time shapes who we are, what we think, and how we live.

Time is highlighted in the very first sentence: Meursault isn’t quite sure what day his mother passed. Then, he makes another blunder in requesting two days off for the funeral, instead of one—for he forgot that the weekend was coming. How old was his mother when she died? Meursault isn’t sure. Clearly, time is a problem for this fellow. What sort of a man is this, who doesn’t keep track of the days of the week or his mother’s age? What does he think about, then?

For the first half of the book, Meursault is entirely absorbed in the present moment: sensations, desires, fleeting thoughts. He thinks neither of the past nor of the future, but only of what’s right in front of him. This is the root of his apathy. When you are absolutely absorbed in the present, the only things that can occupy your attention are bodily desires and passing fancies. Genuine care or concern, real interest of any kind, is dependent on a past and a future: in our past, we undergo experiences, develop affections, and emotionally invest; and these investments, in turn, shape our actions—we tailor our behavior to bring us closer to the things we care about. Without ever thinking of the past or the future, therefore, our life is a passing dream, a causeless chaos that dances in front of our eyes.

This is reflected in the language Camus uses. As Sartre noted, “The sentences in The Stranger are islands. We tumble from sentence to sentence, from nothingness to nothingness.” By this, Sartre merely wishes to highlight one aspect of Meursault’s thought-process, as mirrored in Camus’s prose: it avoids all causal connection. One thing happens, another thing happens, and then a third thing. This is why Camus so often sounds like Hemingway in this book: the clipped sentences reflect the discontinuous instants of time that pass like disjointed photographs before the eyes of Meursault. There is no making sense of your environment when you are residing in the immediate, for making sense of anything requires abstraction, and abstraction requires memory (how can you abstract a quality from two separate instances if you cannot hold the two instances in your mind at once?).

Now, the really disturbing thing, for me, is how easily Meursault gets along in this condition. He makes friends, he has a job, he even gets a girlfriend; and for quite a long time, at least, he didn’t get into trouble. Yet the reader is aware that Meursault is, if not a sociopath, at least quite close to being one. So how is he getting along so well? This, I think, is the social critique hidden in this book.

Meursault lives a perfectly conventional life; for a Frenchman living in Algeria during this time, his life could hardly be more ordinary. This is no coincidence; because he’s not interested in or capable of making decisions, Meusault has simply fallen into the path provided for him by his society. In fact, Meursault’s society had pre-fabricated everything a person might need, pre-determining his options to such an extent that he could go through life without ever making a decision. Meursault got along so well without having to make decisions because he was never asked to make one. Every decision was made by convention, every option conscribed by custom. If Meursault had not been locked up, chances are he would have simply married Marie. Why? Because that’s what one does.

So Camus lays out a problem: custom prevents us from thinking by circumscribing our decisions. But Camus does not only offer a diagnoses; he prescribes a solution. For this, we must return to the subject of time. When Meursault gets imprisoned, he is at first unhappy because he is no longer able to satisfy his immediate desires. He has been removed from society and from its resources. This produces a fascinating change in him: instead of being totally absorbed in the present moment, Meursault begins to cultivate a sense of the past. He explores his memories. For the first time, he is able, by pure force of will, to redirect his attention from what is right in front of him to something that is distant and gone. He now has a present and a past; and his psychology develops a concomitant depth. The language gets less jerky towards the end, and more like a proper narrative.

This real breakthrough, however, doesn’t happen until Meursault is forced to contemplate the future; and this, of course, happens when he is sentenced to death. His thoughts are suddenly flung towards some future event—the vanishing of his existence. Thus, the circle opened at the beginning is closed at the end, with a perfect loop: the novel ends with a hope for what will come, just as it began with ignorance and apathy for what has passed. Meursault’s final breakthrough is a complete sense of time—past, present, and future—giving him a fascinating depth and profundity wholly lacking at the beginning of the book.

In order to regain this sense of time, Meursault had to do two things: first, remove himself from the tyranny of custom; second, contemplate his own death. And these two are, you see, related: for custom discourages us from thinking about our mortality. Here we have another opened and closed circle. In the beginning of the book, Meusault goes through the rituals associated with the death of a family member. These rituals are pre-determined and conventional; death is covered with a patina of familiarity—it is made into a routine matter, to be dealt with like paying taxes or organizing a trip to the beach. Meusault has to do nothing except show up. The ceremony he witnesses is more or less the same ceremony given to everyone. (Also note that the ceremony is so scripted that he is later chastised for not properly playing the part.)

At the end of the book, society attempts once again to cover up death—this time, in the form of the chaplain. The chaplain is doing just what the funeral ceremony did: conceal death, this time with a belief about God and repentance and the afterlife. You see, even on death row, society has its conventions for death; death is intentionally obscured with rituals and ceremonies and beliefs.

Meursault’s repentance comes by penetrating this illusion, by throwing off the veil of convention and staring directly at his own end. In this one act, he transcends the tyranny of custom and, for the first time in his life, becomes free. This is the closest I can come to an Aesopian moral: Without directly facing our own mortality, we have no impetus to break out of the hamster-wheel of conventional choices. Our lives are pre-arranged and organized, even before we are born; but when death is understood for what it is—a complete and irreversible end—then it spurs us to reject the idle-talk and comforting beliefs presented to us, and to live freely.

This is what Camus would have all of us do: project our thoughts towards our own inescapable end, free of all illusions, so as to regain our ability to make real choices, rather than to chose from a pre-determined menu. Only this way will we cease to be strangers to ourselves.

(At least, that is the Heideggerian fable I think he was going for.)

View all my reviews

Review: The Trial

Review: The Trial

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back in university, I had a part-time job at a research center. It was nothing glamorous: I conducted surveys over the phone. Some studies were nation-wide, others were only in Long Island. A few were directed towards small businesses. There I would sit in my little half-cubicle, with a headset on, navigating through the survey on a multiple-choice click screen.

During the small business studies, a definite pattern would emerge. I would call, spend a few minutes navigating the badly recorded voice menu, and then reach a secretary. Then the survey instructed me to ask for the president, vice-president, or manager. “Oh, sure,” the receptionist would say, “regarding?” I would explain that I was conducting a study. “Oh…” their voice would trail off, “let me check if he’s here.” Then would follow three to five minutes of being on hold, with the usual soul-sucking on-hold music. Finally, she would pick up: “Sorry, he’s out of the office.” “When will he be back?” would be my next question. “I’m not sure…” “Okay, I’ll call back tomorrow,” I would say, and the call would end.

Now imagine this process repeating again and again. As the study went on, I would be returning calls to dozens of small businesses where the owners were always mysteriously away. I had no choice what to say—it was all in the survey—and no choice who to call—the computer did that. By the end, I felt like I was getting to know some of these secretaries. They would recognize my voice, and their announcement of the boss’s absence would be given with a strain of annoyance, or exhaustion, or pity. I would grow adept at navigating particular voice menus, and remembered the particular sounds of being on hold at certain businesses. It was strait out of this novel.

When I picked up The Trial, I was expecting it to be great. I had read Kafka’s short stories—many times, actually—and he has long been one of my favorite writers. But by no means did I expect to be so disturbed. Maybe it was because I was groggy, because I hadn’t eaten yet, or because I was on a train surrounded by strangers. But by the time I reached my destination, I was completely unnerved. For a few moments, I even managed to convince myself that this actually was a nightmare. No book could do this.

What will follow in this already-too-long review will be some interpretation and analysis. But it should be remarked that, whatever conclusions you or I may draw, interpretation is a second-level activity. In Kafka’s own words: “You shouldn’t pay too much attention to people’s opinions. The text cannot be altered, and the various opinions are often no more than an expression of despair over it.” Attempts to understand Kafka should not entail a rationalizing away of his power. This is a constant danger in literary criticism, where the words sit mutely on the page, and passages can be pasted together at the analyst’s behest. This is mere illusion. If someone were to tell you that Picasso’s Guernica is about the Spanish Civil War, you may appreciate the information; but by no means should this information come between you and the visceral experience of standing in front of the painting. Just so with literature.

To repeat something that I once remarked of Dostoyevsky, Kafka is a great writer, but a bad novelist. His books do not have even remotely believable characters, character development, or a plot in any traditional sense. Placing The Trial alongside Jane Eyre or Lolita will make this abundantly clear. Rather, Kafka’s stories are somewhere in-between dream and allegory. Symbolism is heavy, and Kafka seems to be more intent on establishing a particular feeling than in telling a story. The characters are tools, not people

So the question naturally arises: what does the story represent? Like any good work of art, any strict, one-sided reading is insufficient. Great art is multivalent—it means different things to different people. The Trial may have meant only one thing to Kafka (I doubt it), but once a book (or symphony, or painting) is out in the world, all bets are off.

The broadest possible interpretation of The Trial is as an allegory of life. And isn’t this exactly what happens? You wake up one day, someone announces that you’re alive. But no one seems to be able to tell you why or how or what for. You don’t know when it will end or what you should do about it. You try to ignore the question, but the more you evade it, the more it comes back to haunt you. You ask your friends for advice. They tell you that they don’t really know, but you’d better hire a lawyer. Then you die like a dog.

Another interpretation is based on Freud. Extraordinary feelings of guilt is characteristic of Kafka’s work, and several of his short stories (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis”) portray Kafka’s own unhealthy relationship with his father. Moreover, the nightmarish, nonsensical quality of his books, and his fascination with symbols and allegories, cannot help but remind one of Freud’s work on dreams. If I was a proper Freudian, I would say that The Trial is an expression of Kafka’s extraordinary guilt at his patricidal fantasies.

A different take would group this book along with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as a satire of bureaucracy. And, in the right light, parts of this book are hilarious. Kafka’s humor is right on. He perfectly captures the inefficiency of organizations in helping you, but their horrifying efficiency when screwing you over. And as my experience in phone surveys goes to show, this is more relevant than ever.

If we dip into Kafka’s biography, we can read this book as a depiction of the anguish caused by his relationship with Felice Bauer. (For those who don’t know, Kafka was engaged with her twice, and twice broke it off. Imagine dating Kafka. Poor woman.) This would explain the odd current of sexuality that undergirds this novel.

Here is one idea that I’ve been playing with. I can’t help but see The Trial as a response to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As their names suggest, they deal with similar themes: guilt, depression, alienation, the legal system, etc. But they couldn’t end more differently. Mulling this over, I was considering whether this had anything to do with the respective faiths of their authors. Dostoyevsky found Jesus during his imprisonment, and never turned back. His novels, however dark, always offer a glimmer of the hope of salvation. Kafka’s universe, on the other hand, is proverbially devoid of hope. Kafka was from a Jewish family, and was interested in Judaism throughout his life. Is this book Crime and Punishment without a Messiah?

I can go on and on, but I’ll leave it at that. There can be no one answer, and the book will mean something different to all who read it. And what does that say about Kafka?

View all my reviews

Review: Middlemarch

Review: Middlemarch

MiddlemarchMiddlemarch by George Eliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some gentlemen have made an amazing figure in literature by general discontent with the universe as a trap of dullness into which their great souls have fallen by mistake; but the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world may have its consolations.

I did not think a book like this was possible. A work of fiction with a thesis statement, a narrator who analyzes more often than describes, a morality play and an existential drama, and all this in the context of a realistic, historical novel—such a combination seems unwieldy and pretentious, to say the least. Yet Middlemarch never struck me as over-reaching or overly ambitious. Eliot not only manages to make this piece of universal art seem plausible, but her mastery is so perfect that the result is as natural and inevitable as a lullaby.

Eliot begins her story with a question: What would happen if a woman with the spiritual ardor of St. Theresa were born in 19th century rural England? This woman is Dorothea; and this book, although it includes dozens of characters, is her story. But Dorothea, and the rest of the people who populate her Middlemarch, is not only a character; she is a test-subject in a massive thought experiment, an examination intended to answer several questions:

To what extent is an individual responsible for her success or failure? How exactly does the social environment act upon the individual—in daily words and deeds—to aid or impede her potential? And how, in turn, does the potent individual act to alter her environment? What does it mean to be a failure, and what does it mean to be successful? And in the absence of a coherent social faith, as Christianity receded, what does it mean to be good?

As in any social experiment, we must have an experimental group, in the form of Dorothea, as well as a control group, in the form of Lydgate. The two are alike in their ambition. Lydgate’s ambition is for knowledge. He is a country doctor, but he longs to do important medical research, to pioneer new methods of treatment, and to solve the mysteries of sickness, death, and the human frame. Dorothea’s ambitions are more vague and spiritual. She is full of passionate longing, a hunger for something which would give coherence and meaning to her life, an object to which she could dedicate herself body and soul.

Lydgate begins with many advantages. For one, his mission is not a vague hope, but a concrete goal, the path to which he can chart and see clearly. Even more important, he is a man from a respectable family. Yes, there is some prejudice against him in Middlemarch, for being an outsider, educated abroad and with strange notions; but this barrier can hardly be compared with the those which faced even the most privileged woman in Middlemarch. For her part, Dorothea is born into a respectable family with adequate means. But her sex closes so many paths to action that the only important decision she can make is whom she will marry.

Dorothea’s choice of a husband sets the tone for the rest of her story. Faced with two options—the young, handsome, and rich Sir James Chettam, and the dry, old scholar, Mr. Casaubon—she surprises and disappoints nearly everyone by choosing the latter. Dorothea does this because she knows herself and she trusts herself; she is not afraid of being judged, and she does not care about status or wealth.

The first important decision Lydgate makes is who to recommend as chaplain for the new hospital, and this, too, sets the tone for the rest of his story. His choice is between Mr. Tyke, a disagreeable, doctrinaire puritan, and Mr. Farebrother, his friend and an honest, humane, and intelligent man. Lydgate’s inclination is towards the latter, but under pressure from Bulstrode, the rich financier of the new hospital, Lydgate chooses Mr. Tyke. In other words, he distinctly does not trust himself, and he allows his intuition of right and wrong to be swayed by public opinion and self-interest.

Dorothea’s choice soon turns out to be disastrous, while Lydgate’s works in his favor, as Bulstrode puts him in charge of the new hospital. Yet Eliot shows us that Dorothea’s choice was ultimately right and Lydgate’s ultimately wrong. For we cannot know beforehand how our choices will turn out; the future is hidden, and we must dedicate ourselves to both people and projects in ignorance. The determining factor is not whether it turned out well for you, but whether the choices was motivated by brave resolve or cowardly capitulation. You might say that this is the existentialist theme of Eliot’s novel: the necessity to act boldly in the absence of knowledge.

Dorothea’s act was bold and courageous; and even though Mr. Casaubon is soon revealed to be a wearisome, passionless, and selfish academic, her choice was nonetheless right, because she did her best to act authentically, fully in accordance with her moral intuition. Lydgate’s choice, even though it benefited him, established a pattern that ends in his bitter disappointment. He allowed himself to yield to circumstances; he allowed his self-interest to overrule his moral intuition: and this dooms him.

(Eliot, I should mention, seems to prefer what philosophers call an intuitionist view of moral action: that is, we must obey our conscience. Time and again Eliot shows how immoral acts are made to appear justified through conscious reasoning, and how hypocrites use religious or social ideologies to quiet their uneasy inner voice: “when gratitude becomes a matter of reasoning there are many ways of escaping from its bonds.”)

Eliot’s view of success or failure stems from this exploration of choice: success means being true to one’s moral intuition, and failure means betraying it. Dorothea continues to trust herself and to choose boldly, without regard for her worldly well-being or for conventional opinion. Lydgate, meanwhile, keeps buckling under pressure. He marries almost by accident, breaking a strong resolution he made beforehand, and then goes on to betray, one after the other, every other strong resolution of his, until his life’s plan has been lost entirely, chipped away by a thousand small circumstances.

Dorothea ends up on a lower social level than she started, married to an eccentric man of questionable blood, gossiped about in town and widely seen as a social failure. Lydgate, meanwhile, becomes “successful”; his beautiful wife is universally admired, and his practice is profitable and popular. But this conventional judgment means nothing; for Dorothea can live in good conscience, while Lydgate cannot.

But is success, for Eliot, so entirely dependent on intention, and so entirely divorced from results? Not exactly. For the person who is true to her moral intuition—even if she fails in her plans, even if she falls far short of her potential, and even if she is disgraced in the eyes of society—still exerts a beneficent effect on her surroundings.

Anyone who selflessly and boldly follows her moral intuition encourages everyone she meets, however subtly, to follow this example: as Eliot says of Dorothea, “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.” Eliot shows this most touchingly in the meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond. Although Rosamond is vain, selfish, and superficial, the presence of Dorothea prompts her to one of the only unselfish acts of her life.

From reading this review, you might get the idea that this book is merely a philosophical exercise. But Eliot’s most miraculous accomplishment is to combine this analysis with an immaculate novel. The portrait she gives of Middlemarch is so fully realized, without any hint of strain or artifice, that the reader feels that he has bought a cottage there himself.

Normally at this point in a review, I add some criticisms; but I cannot think of a single bad thing to say about this book. Eliot’s command of dialogue and characterization, of pacing and plot-development, cannot be faulted. She moves effortlessly from scene to scene, from storyline to storyline, showing how the private is interwoven with the public, the social with the psychological, the economical with the amorous—how our vices are implicated in our virtues, how our good intentions shot through with ulterior motives, how our hopes and fears are mixed up with our routine reality—never simplifying the ambiguities of perspective or collapsing the many layers of meaning—and yet she is always in perfect command of her mountains of material.

A host of minor characters marches through these pages, each one individualized, many of them charming, some hilarious, a few irritating, and all of them vividly real. I could see parts of myself in every one of them, from the petulant Fred Vincey, to the blunt Mary Garth, to the frigid Mr. Casaubon, to the muddle-headed Mr. Brooke—almost Dickensian in his comic exaggeration—to every gossip, loony, miser, dissolute, profilage, and tender heart—the list cannot be finished.

Perhaps Eliot’s most astounding feat is to combine the aesthetic, with the ethical, with the analytic, in such a way that you can no longer view them separately. Eliot’s masterpiece charms as it preaches; it is both beautiful and wise; it pulls on the heart while engaging the head; and it is, in the words of Virgina Woolf, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

View all my reviews

Review: Romeo and Juliet

Review: Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ROMEO: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.

MERCUTIO: True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind.

My memories from my high school literature classes are largely a blank. Books held no interest for me. I spent one year skipping my classes completely. And when I did drag myself to class, I almost never did the reading. A quick look through the Cliffnotes the night before was usually enough to pass the exam—which inevitably consisted of a bunch of multiple-choice questions about plot details, and short-answer questions of ‘analysis’ that could easily be fudged by some clever-sounding nonsense.

We occasionally ‘acted-out’ plays in class. This was normally a cue to space-out while my classmates labored through Shakespeare’s language, and hope the teacher didn’t call on me. I liked to day-dream about videogames and action movies. Shakespeare, I thought, was stuffy boring nonsense, hopelessly cliché and old-fashioned. But despite my apathy, one moment of Romeo and Juliet did manage to worm its way into my memory. This was Mercutio’s enormous, phantasmagoric monologue about Queen Mab:

She is the fairies midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate stone / On the forefinger of an alderman, / Drawn with a team of little atomi / Over men’s noses as they lie asleep. / Her chariot is an empty hazelnut made by the joiner squirrel or old grub, / Time out o’ mind the faries’ coachmakers; / Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs; / The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, / Her traces of the smallest spider web, / Her collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, / Her whip of cricket’s bone, her lash of film, / Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat, / Not half so big as a round little worm / Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid; / And in this state she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love…

The speech goes on much further, describing how the Queen “gallops ov’e a courtiers’ noses” and “driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,” filling their dreams with vain fantasies. I am sure that I didn’t understand even half of it; what is an agate stone, an alderman, or an atomi? But the speech is so exuberant, and interrupted the play’s action so pointlessly (or so it seemed), that I couldn’t help being interested. Yes, I was actually interested in Shakespeare for a moment, and found myself wondering what this fairy queen, so decorously bedecked, had to do with this ridiculous story of love.

I admit that, even now, I find it hard to love this play. It has has become such a ubiquitous cultural reference-point that reading it is rather like seeing the Mona Lisa in person—seeing an icon that is already so relentlessly seen that it is almost impossible to unsee and see afresh. But this is hardly the play’s fault, or Shakespeare’s. Indeed, it is a mark of supreme merit that we can hardly speak of the passions of romantic love without these two lovers coming to mind; and, though we laugh at these outbursts of adolescent passion in our more cynical moments, there is hardly anything more simple and sublime in love poetry than Juliet’s declaration:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

A few months ago, I was given a bilingual copy of this book, in English and Italian, from a thoughtful friend who traveled to Verona. I myself was lucky enough to have gone to Verona when I was back in high school, the very same year that I was skipping all my English classes.

I remember getting off the bus, still jetlagged and dazed, but feeling elated and happy in sunny winter’s day. I looked at the stony ruin of the Verona Arena and thought of gladiators wielding tridents and swords. Back then I even knew some Italian—long since forgotten, from lack of both interest and practice—which I was learning in school. So it seems a fitting testament to my misspent youth to quote from this most romantic of plays in that most romantic of languages:

Oh, Romeo, Romeo, perché sei tu Romeo?
Rinnega tuo padre e rifiuta il tuo nome,
o, se non vuoi, giurami solo amore,
e non saró piú una Capuleti.

View all my reviews