MUSINGS ON LITERATURE AS COMMUNICATION AND A SOURCE OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE.
Welcome ter the 13th Edition of Serf Under_ground Journal. Say, hope yer not superstitious.
Apropos the above heading I wish ter put forward a modest proposal with reference ter reading literature, and it is this: ‘that literature, in mysterious ways, expands our human experience and understanding of our human condition.’
Now I know yer likely ter disagree with this in a number of ways. Considering that we’ve all experienced the difficulties of communicating with real people out there, difficulties in decoding their language, in reading their expressions, interpreting their actions, and much of the time they, us (?) are practising a certain amount of obfuscation, how much more tricky then, the problem of communication from books. – mere squiggles on a page, word things representing non-word-things, tsk!
Regarding interpreting written documents of history, in me 5th Edition of Serf Underground, ”History’s Chequered History,’ I argued that contextual studies and identifying problem situations of protagonists can help overcome present bias and the tyranny of distance. I concluded that a study of real people in the past, studied in context, can be a feasible and rich and chastening experience, enlarging our understanding of human behaviour. Yer could say, someone did, that ‘the proper
study of mankind is man,’ so studying history is okay.
But what about studying literature? A second question yer might ask is ‘how can the papery whispers of fictional characters mimicking real life expand human experience, offer, as Inga Clendinning describes it, ‘an indexed guide to life,’ adultery, anger, ambition, angst, even sometimes altruism? My answer is that behind these fictional characters and plots hides a silent creator, the author, a real person. The canon of literature that avid readers turn to for enjoyment again and again, a canon that includes many points of view and modes of exploring them, are written by authors with rich imagination and perception, who turn the characters in their creations into living human beings involved in a particular aspect of human experience.
So do we read literature for instruction? I don’t think so. Is it written to teach virtue? Generally no, long sermons do not make for engrossing literature. Do we feel that literature is authentic communication that expands our experience so that we may appreciate, however precariously, something even of a society separated from our own by more than two millennia? As a reader this is what I feel … So dear reader, let’s take a walk through literature, an indexed study, adultery ter angst, and see what we will see.
When it comes to big drama regarding adultery and anger, the Greeks did it well, not too much introspection but lots of big effects and grand panoramas befitting the consequences of revengeful and treacherous behaviour, and these enhanced by seductive patterning, making sure we’re caught up in the action.
In The Iliad of Homer, here the adulterers, Paris and Helen, speak with Hector, hero, brother of Paris, pretty boy, who is later killed defending Troy. Hector rebukes his brother:
‘ Strange man! It is not fair to keep in your heart this coldness.
The people are dying in the city and round the steep wall
as they fight hard; and it is for you that this war with its clamour
has flared up about our city….
‘ It was not so much in coldness and bitter will toward the Trojans
that I sat in my room, but I wished to give myself over to sorrow…
Come then, wait for me while I put on my armour of battle.
or go and I will follow, and I think that I can overtake you.’
Helen addresses Hector:
by marriage to me, who am a nasty bitch evil-intriguing,
how I wish that on that day when my mother first bore me
the foul whirlwind of the storm had caught me away before all these things had happened.
Yet since the gods had brought it about that these vile things must be,
I wish I had been the wife of a better man than this is,
one who knew more modesty and all things of shame that men say.
But this man’s heart is no steadfast thing, nor yet will it be so
ever hereafter: for that I think he will take the consequences.’
(Bk 6, lines 326-354. R. Lattimore Translation)
Helen here acknowledges the repercussions of her actions, whole armies battling , families destroyed, and as we know, after the fall of Troy, dangerous homecomings, the wily Odysseus taking all those years to make it back to Ithaca … Agamemnon, say, we won’t go into that! All this echoing down the ages told in poetic tributes to the beauty of Helen of Troy. In Yeat’s poem ‘Long-Legged Fly,’ we see Helen practising the perfections of her dance, part of her legendary allure that will become one of the great myths of Western literature:
‘That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall the face,
move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child.,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up in a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.’
Helen is perhaps the first femme fatale adulteress in literature, for another where the focus is her own destruction, Tolstoy’s novel ‘Anna Karenina.’
… Indexed guide ter life, up ter ‘Anger.’ Hmmm, concerning revenge, Euripides’ Media is hard ter beat.
A little context is required. To interpret the plays of the great dramatists of the 5th century BC in terms of modern theatre or modern political or social movements is likely to lead to a skewed reading of the action. The three tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote their plays in a period of great political and social experiment. Their plays were presented at Athenian festivals that took place in an open theatre accommodating around 1,700 spectators. The Athenian audience witnessed ‘a cycle of dramatic performances presented amid high civic splendour and religious ritual.’ These festivals were considered more than mere entertainment. The competing dramatists had a solemn responsibility, as E.F. Watling points out. Their dramas were expected to ‘touch the deepest centres of man’s individual and corporate consciousness.’
This is what Euripides aimed at in his play Medea. In the heroic tradition, Euripides makes Medea the central figure on stage, the tragic hero whose violent actions and rescue by the gods, (the play’s ‘deux ex machina’ ending,) must have presented some puzzling features for its Athenian audience.
When Euripides wrote his tragedy, he had many variants on the Medea legend to choose from but chose to create a more shocking version than any of the old stories. The play’s exploration of Medea’s psychological states, her actions and language and the surprise ending which implies that the gods are on her side, do not fit with any narrowly defined role, ‘evil witch,’ woman scorned’ or ‘barbarian outsider.’
Medea’s first speech describes her as a loyal wife to a self-serving husband. In describing her own plight to a sympathetic chorus of women, Medea relates how all women are oppressed in a society controlled by men, how a husband is bought with a woman’s dowry and she must go into her husband’s home, not knowing how he will treat her. And should:
‘a man grow tired:
Of the tediousness at home, he can go out and find
A cure for tediousness. We wives are forced to look
To one man only.’
The women’s chorus are on Medea’s side. They consider she should punish Jason and even support her planned revenge on Creon and his daughter. Only when Media commits infanticide are the chorus repelled:
‘ O miserable mother to destroy your own increase.
Murder the babes of your body, stone and iron you are, as you resolved to be.’
Stone and iron Medea has become. Euripides presents her in the play in heroic terms reacting to dishonour like Sophocles’ Ajax:
‘Let no one,’ she says, ‘think of me
As humble or weak or passive; let them understand
I am of a different kind; dangerous to my enemies,
Loyal to my friends. To such a life glory belongs.’
In this tradition Medea overcomes all obstacles to carry out her terrifying plan of revenge. For breaking his marriage vows, Jason will be denied all family, new wife, powerful father in law, and his own two sons will be taken from him.
As Medea is about to murder her children the audience witnesses the psychological struggle between her maternal feelings, ‘…don’t, don’t do it! and her grim resolve, ‘ I must steel myself to it,’ Medea’s language reflects her uncompromising determination to act which is the mark of the tragic hero. In the scene where we might expect Medea to pay for her hubris and crime against her children, she is rescued by the gods. Seated in the chariot of the sun god she addresses Jason like a god. ‘Go,’ she commands him, ‘and bury your wife.’
When Jason dismisses his oath breaking as insufficient cause for Medea’s acts of vengeance she replies:
‘And is that injury
A slight one, do you imagine, to a woman?’
Medea does not doubt that the gods do not find it a slight injury. In the final scene where they rescue Medea, Euripides is posing a challenging question for Athenian individual and corporate consciousness at the festival: Should a society in which men have the power to carelessly break a solemn marriage oath with impunity be surprised if moral chaos and social disintegration follow?
… Could hardly stand writin’ this … On a lighter note, fer a good novel on revenge yer might like ter try Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’
Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth,’ is a psychological drama exploring through metaphors of darkness and light, themes of moral order and disorder, betrayal and guilt, and a descent into darkness by Macbeth and his wife, which is brought about by their overriding ambition.
Although the play is set in Medieval Scotland, it reflects the Christian tradition and politics of Elizabethan England, the belief that society reflected God’s heavenly harmony. As God ruled in heaven, the natural order on Earth mirrored this harmony and included loyalty to king and kinsmen, protection of women and children and guests in the home.
In the play’s opening scene an incantation by three witches from the underworld introduces the audience to the central metaphor of the play:
‘Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.’
I think we are seduced by this metaphor, not only by the paradox expressed, how has ‘fair’ become ‘foul,’ but also by the patterning in the language, the alliteration and the rhythmic balance, at odds with the negative message. Say, it’s off key, warning of things ter come.
At the beginning of the play, believing the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become king, Macbeth and his wife, planning to murder the king, welcome darkness. Darkness allows them to conceal the enormity of what they intend to do, and allows them to commit the crime without being seen. When Macbeth first considers killing Duncan the king, he invokes darkness:
‘Stars hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.’
Listen ter Lady Macbeth’s violent incantation when she considers killing Duncan herself. It could have been an incantation by the three witches, ‘thick’ night,’ ‘fog’ and filthy air’:
‘ Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunniest smoke of hell
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, ‘Hold, hold’ ‘
After Duncan’s death, as Macbeth is planning to murder his friend Banquo, we are able to respond to what his psychological state by his words as he looks out into the gathering dusk waiting for darkness:
And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.’
The imagery suggests that Macbeth has become other than human. Tsk! He has become one of night’s black agents. By the end of the play, Macbeth has not only violated the natural order by murdering his king and kinsman, and then his friend, but by brutally murdering Macduff’s wife and children as well.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth believed that they could overthrow the moral order without suffering the consequences. Later, as they begin to feel their guilt, darkness is no longer valued but feared and becomes a metaphor for guilt and despair. Lady Macbeth, maddened by guilt must keep a candle by her bed. She walks in her sleep, symbolically washing her hands. ‘What, will these hands never be clean?’
As Macbeth watches the army of Macduff approaching, he learns of his wife’s suicide.
A digression before the drama’s finale, concerning Shakespeare’s innovations with blank verse. Blank verse and the iambic pentameter as a medium for drama was less than fifty years old when Shakespeare wrote his tragedies. An insightful study, ‘The language of tragedy,’ by Russ McDonald, analyses Shakespeare’s exploration of its rhythmic possibilities to signal or underscore the emotional and psychological moods of his protagonists. For example, in Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking speech, the disjointed monosyllable and broken repetitions communicate her agitation:
‘The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? -
What, will these hands ne’er be clean? – No more o’ that,
my lord, no more o’ that. You mar all with this starting.’
While Macbeth waits to confront Macduff, believing the witches’ prophecy that he will not be killed by ‘man born of woman,’ he gains no joy from his powerful position.
The famously reiterated polysyllables of his last soliloquy:
‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day’
To the last syllable of recorded time,’
communicate to us how interminable life has become for Macbeth.The surprise break in rhythm with ‘the acoustically matched, monosyllable doublet, ‘struts’ and ‘frets,’ ‘ and final stress falling on the word, ‘nothing’ give a feeling of Macbeth’s inner darkness. .
‘Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
And yer know the rest … Those witches with their ‘man born of woman,’ are as duplicitous as Macbeth himself. Now on ter Angst.
When it comes to insight into a protagonist’s state of mind, no idiom does it better than a well written novel. Here the stage soliloquy is by-passed fer a reader’s god-like access to a character’s thinking, and sometimes varied perspectives, significant events revisited by other actors in the drama.
‘Dinner at The Homesick Restaurant’ by Anne Tyler is this kind of novel, a witty, okay a wise, exploration of angst, the anxiety, pain and guilt experienced in one family, the problem situation seemingly the cost of parental truancy.
The novel is more subtle than that.The initial focus on the central character, Pearl Tull, aged eighty-five years and dying, her drifting remembrances partly focus on the moment, thirty-five years ago, when her husband, travelling salesman Beck Tull, suddenly announces he is leaving for good, partly on the years that follow, the struggle to make ends meet and on the mystery of her children’s development …
‘Something was wrong with all her children – attractive, likeable people, the three of them, but closed off from her in some perverse way ….she wondered if her children blamed her for something.’
The novel opens with Pearl recalling her first son, Cody, a difficult baby, born late in her life, developing croup, that was in 1931 when croup was serious. Her frantic efforts, alone with Cody, trying to restore his breathing. Telling Beck they needed to have more children : ‘I don’t know why I thought just one little boy would suffice.’ Pearl’s anxiety about her children remains central to the novel, but gradually the focus expands as we see the family’s life through her children’s eyes, the unexplained absence of their father, the episodes which shape each child’s relationships with Pearl and with each other…
‘Their mother was on one of her rampages. “Pearl has hit the warpath,” Cody told his brother and sister. He always called her Pearl at such times. ” Better look out.” he said. “She’s dumped Jenny’s drawers.”…”Jen?” Cody asked her, “What did you do?’
“Nothing. Jenny said in a wavery voice.’
They file downstairs. In the kitchen Pearl is slicing a brick of Spam. The recriminations begin, … not enough that she works till five, comes home, chores not done …tales from her customers about Cody’s disreputable behaviour, … Pearl over hearing Jenny on the church steps last Sunday, … makes her voice shrill, ” Melanie I just love your dress. I wish I had a dress like that.” your sister says so everyone thinks, “Poor Mrs Tull, she can’t even afford a Sears and Roebuck dress with artificial flowers …”
“But that was Sunday.” … “This is Wednesday, dammit. So why bring up something from Sunday?”
‘Pearl threw the spoon in his face. “You upstart,” she said. She rose and slapped him across the cheek. “You ugly horror.” She grabbed one of Jenny’s braids and yanked it ….”Stupid clod,” she said to Ezra and she took the bowl of peas and brought it down on his head.’
Cody suffers from obscure guilt, ‘ Did I make my father go away?’ But mostly feels anger, directing his anger at his mother and his brother, ‘his mother’s favourite.’ the theme of Cody’s remorseless recriminations. Cody constantly teases Ezra, finally stealing and marrying Ezra’s fiance and later subjecting her and his son, Luke, to jealous protectiveness from Ezra and his mother. Cody becomes a wealthy time study expert. In his personal life he is dissatisfied with the present, revisiting past slights, and is always making plans for the future.
Jenny, a pediatrician, always feels unworthy. Abandoned by her second husband, lashing out at her young child, she seems destined to follow her mother’s path. Ironically, it is her mother’s visit that rescues her:
‘Pearl stayed two weeks, using all of her vacation time. The first thing she did was call Jenny’s hospital, arranging for sick leave.Then she set about putting the world in order again. … Becky, who had hardly seen her grandmother till now fell in love with her.’
Adversity instructs. Jenny marries a divorcee with a large family and becomes a loving and cheerful stepmother. The eldest stepchild, looking at a photograph of Jenny, aged thirteen, sees a “concentration camp person.” “It’s somebody else, he told her. “Not you, you’re always laughing and having fun”
Ezra, always the most selfless of Pearl’s children tries to keep the peace. He inherits a restaurant from a friend and turns it into the Homesick Restaurant, a place for lonely people. He regularly arranges reunion dinners for his family at the restaurant. Pearl in her veiled hat, fretful, spending much of the time in the powder room, Cody resentful, Jenny toying with a lettuce leaf, none of the family except Ezra enjoy food. They never finish one of his dinners, fighting and stamping out halfway through, or sometimes not even managing to get seated in the first place.
There is one dinner they do finish. In the novels insightful ending, Pearl’s funeral dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, with all the extended family present, Beck Tull appears.There’s a revelation, particularly for Cody.
But before that another insight. In Pearl’s last years, almost blind, she asks Ezra, who never married and lives at home, to read the diaries she’s kept from her youth. She’s looking for something:
“I hitched Prince and rode downtown for brown silk gloves and an ice bag. Then got out my hat frames and washed my straw hat. For supper fixed a batch of -’
“Move on,” his mother said.
He riffled through the pages, glimpsing buttonhole stitch and watermelon social and set of fine furs for $22.50. “Early this morning,” he read to his mother, ” I went out behind the house to weed. Was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a mess and the perspiration running down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel, and all at once thought, Why I believe that at just this moment I am absolutely happy.”
His mother stopped rocking and grew very still.
“The Bedloe girl’s scales were floating out her window,” he read, “and a bottle fly was buzzing in the grass, and I saw that I was kneeling on a beautiful little green planet.
I don’t care what else might come about, I have had this moment. It belongs to me.”
That was the end of the entry.”Thank you, Ezra,” his mother said. “There’s no need to read any more.”
Heh, so many ways of viewing situations in fiction and er …the real world. Novelist
Henry James created an insightful metaphor regardin’ literary creation, his ‘house of fiction,’ how writers create their fiction from different vantage points, some in the house of fiction’s upper story, balconies all around – you know who I mean – lower down, windows some large, others small, some mere slits, some jest gouged out chinks low to the ground.
Regardin’ the last item in our indexed guide ter life, ‘Altruism,’ altruism, we saw it in
Ezra, now fer Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Pierre Ryckmans has written a perceptive essay, ‘The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote’ in which he argues that Cervantes’ novel transcends Cervantes conscious intention Ryckmans’ essay explores how in a novel’s deeper meaning, authors, like the characters they create, may sometimes fool themselves.
Ryckmans tells us that Don Quixote was written for a practical purpose, to produce a best seller that would make its author lots of money. Cervantes, prior to ‘The Don’ was a hack writer and soldier of fortune, captured by pirates, sold as a slave, and after years in captivity returning destitute to Spain. With Don Quixote intended as lampoon against the literature of chivalry and knight-errantcy, but which became a work of art, suggests that it is unlikely that Cervantes had full control of what he wrote.
The novel begins with Cervantes describing Don Quixote:
‘This gentleman in the times when he had nothing to do, which was the case for most of the year, – gave himself to the reading of books of knight-errantcy … and so, from
little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.’
Don Quixote resolves to turn himself into a knight. The conflict between his lofty ideals and trivial reality become the subject of the novel, the series of preposterous mishaps that take place, mostly as the result of cruel practical jokes that others play on him. In the end he wakes up from his dream and realises that what he has chased with such absurd heroism is an illusion and he literally dies from a broken heart.
On the subject of Cervantes unsympathetic treatment of his protagonist, Ryckmans
cites Vladimir Nabakov’s distaste for Cervantes and his admiration for his creature:
‘Don Quixote has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought-and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant.’
Ryckmans points out that that when we reproach Cervantes for his lack of compassion the more we believe in the reality of the world he has created and his creatures.
So was Don Quixote mad? Ryckmans refers to another essay ‘Don Quixote’s Profession,’ by Mark Van Doren regarding Don Quixote’s illusion .Van Doren argues that the don was not mad and was not under a delusion that he was a knight and does not play at being one, what he undertakes is a ‘profound apprenticeship, the true way of learning.and key to understanding.’
In Chapter X1, Don Quixote says to Sancho Panza:
‘ I will no longer conceal my design from thee. Know then my faithful squire, that Amadis de Gaul was one of the most accomplished knights-errant; nay, I should not have said he was one of them, but the most perfect, the chief, and prince of them all …In the same manner, Amadis, having been the Polar star and sun, of valorous and amorous knights, it is him we ought to set before our eyes as our great example, all of us that fight under the banner of love and chivalry; for it is certain that the adventurer who shall emulate him best, shall consequently arrive nearest the perfection of knight-errantry.’
Van Doren observes that we talk of Cervantes’ protagonist now ‘because we suspect that in the end he has become a knight.’
‘He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant.’ (VN)
Well we’ve come ter the end of our walk through literature, So many ways in literature narratives are created, narratives confirming ways that characters perceive their world. So many ways, yer might say, that we livin’ on our green planet, also reconcile ‘facts’ to our fictions with consequences not generally good. You might also say, that life fer those not Socrates, wisest of men, or Michel de Montaigne, arch skeptic, or Jane Austin, in her character portrayal, mistress of the Dunning Kruger effect, (say, if yer haven’t read her, no hope fer yer) … is by and large, created narrative.
So we revisit the modest proposal : ‘that literature in mysterious ways expands our human experience and understanding of our human condition.’ Let each and all of yer decide … I would not expect a unanimous decision.