Sunday, January 29, 2012

At Home in Hogwarts

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

J.K. Rowling does so many things so well, it feels a shame to assign Harry Potter to the category of commercial fiction. The Dursleys who plague Harry at the beginning are not so much stereotypes as demonic annelids of the Roald Dahl variety. They represent bourgeois timidity and conventionality, sure, and crude consumerism too, but like Boggis, Bunce, and Bean in The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge in James and the Giant Peach, their greater offense is an appetitive form of neglect.

You can almost feel the air stir under the exaction of their voracious sucking appetites--in Dudley's case for food, but more palpably in Vernon and Petunia Dursley's case, an appetite for the esteem of their peers. These sorts of villains are villainous because of the strength of their appetites, which render them unfit to love and care for children--they attend too much to themselves to attend to Harry--and their 'appetitive neglect' creates in Harry, and in literary forerunners like James Henry Trotter, an ache of homelessness that's truly uncomfortable. Surely this nightmare, wherein desire precludes love, arises in part from a child's suspicion that his own desires are so antisocial that he may be forced to relinquish his citizenship in the world and wander the loveless wastes like Grendel, crazed with hunger and self-hate, until Beowulf pulls off his arm.

On the other hand, the stress of leaving home for a child really does depend on his realization that other people who are not his parents don't care for him in the same way. Other people have their own needs and their own problems. What can be even more troubling is that even inside his own home, a child is not always at home; while a child's parents might care for him more than outsiders do, his parents are people too with their own needs and problems. And troubles may compromise an adult's ability to tend to a child, which leaves the child to his own resources in a somewhat homeless, lonely condition.

In Harry Potter's case, his parents are compromised totally--they're dead--and there is nowhere he feels at home. Harry's room in the cupboard under the stairs calls to mind the hilarious character Block in Franz Kafka's The Trial--Block lives under the stairs of his attorney in a little closet!--and the sense of universal un-ease, of no place to hide or rest in Harry's life partakes of Kafkaesque paranoia.

More than any other magic spell, Hogwarts casts one to ward off that Kafkaesque plague. It casts the spell of home away from home. It's fantastically cozy, reachable only by a train whose platform is concealed by a secret passage, and then by crossing a moat. It has houses within it--Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin--each sealed up behind painted portraits whose subjects are their guardians. Though the figures wander away from their picture frames occasionally, they protect each house in a manner both secure and manageable to a child--with a password--and they're irreproachably immortal, as are the ghosts appointed to each house like masters with infinite tenure. Hogwarts abounds with friends to sit with by the common room fire on a snowy day and to study with when exams approach. Harry has Hermione and the comfortingly populous Weasley clan, with so many older brothers to help look after Harry and Ron that there are one or two brothers to spare, and from the start Harry also has the friendship of Hagrid the friendly giant and Hogwarts groundskeeper. This romantic version of boarding school infrastructure is wonderfully redundant with parallel systems of attention and assistance: prefects, valets at the doors, watchful professors, deputy headmistresses, team captains, and Albus Dumbledore sitting high above all as the final backstop should all these redundant systems ever fail.

Rowling decorates Hogwarts unerringly to emphasize this coziness. She has a very strong sense of connotation and shows it in the fanciful names she chooses. There are none of those awful names that refer to no emotional address or to the wrong ones as in the work of Isaac Asimov, whose every character name sounds like an anagram that should be unscrambled to either 'salivary gland' or 'dental mold.' Rowling makes you at home in her fictional world by reference to the real, familiar one, and Hogwarts is a place that one doesn't want to leave, where danger and exploration feel fun and never too threatening, where all is infused with an idealized mother's love.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Leopold Bloom's Open-Closed Marriage

from Wikipedia which states public domain Last week one of Newt Gingrich’s several wives told ABC news that in 1999 he asked her for an open marriage. Evidently, she didn’t possess the amphibian flexibility required for marriage to newts or salamanders, because she declined, and they divorced.

Newt Gingrich isn’t the first organism to propose an innovative mating arrangement. Banana slugs, for example, are hermaphrodites that prefer sex with another slug, but when times are dry or they’re very busy, they can self-fertilize, that is, literally “fuck themselves.” Perhaps Newt Gingrich ought to consider this.

Of course, I mention Newt Gingrich only in part because of an interest in cold-blooded invertebrates. His affection for “open marriage” also calls to mind a question raised by the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

In Ulysses Molly Bloom cuckolds her husband Leopold with Blazes Boylan, a concert manager. Bloom knows about the affair, but when he lies down that night in the same space where Boylan lay with Molly earlier, he doesn’t confront his wife. She in turn suspects he gratified himself that day, which he did, having surreptitiously masturbated while looking at a girl at a seaside fireworks display. Bloom also conducts a flirtatious correspondence with another woman under the pen name Henry Flower.

But these extramarital activities don’t drive Leopold and Molly apart. Molly’s thoughts in the end return to Bloom and the day of their engagement, and Bloom is satisfied to lie in bed beside her the wrong way round, with her head at one end and his at the other, and in fact he kisses “the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump.” I understood this wrong-way embrace to celebrate the imperfect, homely, and polymorphous realities over the sort of polarized conscience-driven ideals that Newt Gingrich inflicts on everything but his own banana. The realistic couple turned askew in bed specifically revises Homer’s mythic image of Odysseus returned to the bed of Penelope after years of wandering in Book XXIII of The Odyssey. As Odysseus himself pompously explains, he built his marital bed on the immovable stump of a big olive tree with its roots deep in the earth and used his conscientious carpenter’s tools to straighten the curved wood. (Read your Kant, Odie: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”) Penelope in turn breathlessly reassures him that “no human being has ever seen [our bed] but you and I and a single maid servant.”

Molly is no waiting Penelope knitting a shroud for her father-in-law—and she’s better for it. But was Joyce really endorsing “open marriage,” and is that the best we can hope for? It still seems to me the least we mortals can expect from life is loyalty from ourselves and from each other, honest though we may be about the polymorphous infidelities in our hearts.

Two touching biographical details show the value Joyce placed on constancy in the marital bed, which is not only a place for sex but for love and caretaking: when Nora had surgery in 1928, he insisted that he sleep beside her in her hospital room. And when he was himself dying from a perforated duodenal ulcer in 1941, he asked that Nora come to sleep beside him. Alas, she couldn’t get there in time and he died alone. (Ellmann, James Joyce, pp. 607, 741)

In aspiring to write a “complete all-round” character like Odysseus, Joyce always touted Bloom’s status as family man. He told Frank Budgen that Jesus Christ was not so complete: “He was a bachelor and never lived with a woman. Surely living with a woman is one of the most difficult things a man has to do, and he never did it.” (Ellmann, p. 435)

Ulysses is an epithalamium (i.e., song in celebration of conjugal love) as Joyce biographer Ellmann says (p. 379), but one that aspires to fidelity in the context of relentless human desires, imperfections, anxieties, and even grief. It doesn’t depict an open marriage so much as it does an imperfect and real one torn by grief and anxiety and convalescing towards closure. While the text buries references to the Blooms’ despair—like Molly’s glancing thought “our 1st death too it was we were never the same since”—it provides indisputable evidence of grief’s influence on their marriage.

In the penultimate “Ithaca” chapter, structured in questions and answers like a catechism, Joyce writes that Molly and Leopold did not have “complete carnal intercourse” for a period of 10 years, 5 months, and 18 days. It also says they last had “complete carnal intercourse” on November 27 1893—while Molly was pregnant with their first child. Their son Rudy was born shortly after and then died at 11 days old. Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated instructs that the ten year fallow period is an allusion to the ten years Odysseus spent wandering apart from his wife after the fall of Troy, and to the beginning of Canto XXXII of Dante’s Purgatorio, where Dante says he hasn’t seen Beatrice in ten years. But more importantly, if you add 10 years 5 months and 18 days to November 27 1893, you find that Molly and Leopold broke their fallow streak on May 14, 1904, about a month before the day on which the novel’s action takes place. It suggests that the adultery belonged to a troubled, grief-stricken period that is drawing to a close rather than to Molly and Leopold’s future. And this makes Molly’s climactic reaffirmation of her marital vows yes I will yes all the more meaningful.

I have the sense that Joyce’s high reputation is partly based on the admiration of those who don’t really appreciate what’s great about him, but only assume anything so confusing must be profound. His profundity lies not in his abstruseness but in his naturalism, his parody of primitive myth, and his insistence that even in so imperfect a world, the center can hold, and not everything falls apart. Joyce was imperfect, for sure, but he was no amphibian.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Resolved: Debate Team = Birth Control

The Social ContractThe Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in high school, Locke and Rousseau used to be paired off against each other; Locke would be called in against some proposition meant to protect the public good, but deemed by the 'negative' side incompatible with vital individual liberties; and Rousseau would be called upon by the 'affirmative' side in support of the common good, even if such support came at the partial expense of "private interests." "Eminent domain," where the government can buy your house and make you move to make room for a highway, is an example of the sort of resolutions the affirmative side would be asked to argue for.

Our Lincoln-Douglas debates were at bottom the same as the debates that take place over pretty much everything in our constitutional democracy, with the main difference being that in the U.S. electorate a large block of voters appears to be mentally ill with impaired reality-testing, under the sway of snake-oil selling charlatans and propaganda-wielding demagogues, whereas in high school the worst that could be said of the debate team was that we were afraid of girls.

"Resolved: teenage boys should debate each other until their shins hurt, and should not try to have sex with anyone."

I don't think either Locke or Rousseau could in good faith be brought in on the affirmative side of that resolution, but especially not Rousseau (especially neither). Rousseau's celebration of the "natural man" is considered antecedent to the Romantic movement. He was a complex thinker with varied views, always clearly expounded in The Social Contract. He supposedly went mad at the end of his life, but was undoubtedly saner all the way to the end than Andrew Breitbart and Kevin Trudeau.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Shakespeare and the Mystery of Psalm 46

Holy Bible: King James VersionHoly Bible: King James Version by Anonymous

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, and it remains the finest English translation there is. "No other book has given more to the English-speaking world," writes Adam Nicolson in the December 2011 issue of National Geographic. Robert Alter's latest book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, studies the King James Bible's influence on the writing styles of the greatest American writers from Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville to Faulkner. Alter laments that "the King James Bible has ceased to be the almost universally used translation as readers have been encouraged to read more 'accessible' versions, which also happen to be stylistically inferior in virtually all respects." (pp. 9-10) By some counts the KJV has contributed even more idioms to English than Shakespeare did; Nicolson declares that "It molded the English language."

The KJV was produced during Shakespeare's lifetime, in the first decade of the 17th century. According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shak read the Geneva Bible of 1560 like most other Englishmen, and it's obvious to me that Shakespeare owed much to the excellent studies of character and of psychical change in the Hebrew Bible. It's also tempting to imagine that he repaid that debt, and did so with characteristic magnificence and humility. To argue as much is careless speculation, and the argument's entanglement with the number 46 imparts to it an odor of cabbala or other voodoo thinking (an odor that it ultimately merits). If it seems miraculous that Shakespeare may have contributed to the King James translation of the Bible, however, then it seems at first glance like a miracle that satisfies David Hume's criteria for credibility: that is to say, the idea of Shakespeare having contributed to the King James Bible, miraculous or no, at first looks more plausible than the alternative (that he didn't). To an amateur scholar like me, it appeared the most plausible explanation, namely, for the King James version of Psalm 46.

As I learned from Goodreads trivia, if you count 46 words from the beginning of Psalm 46 and 46 words from the ending of the psalm (not counting the "Selahs"), you arrive at these two words: "shake" and "spear." Try it. It also happens that Shakespeare would have been 46 years old in 1610, when scholars were finalizing the translations for publication the following year. So was this the translators' birthday tribute to Shakespeare in April 1610? Or did Shakespeare actually look at the drafts and buff them up here and there like a Hollywood script doctor? Did he perhaps insert a disguised autograph into Psalm 46? Given Shakespeare's connections at court with both Queen Elizabeth and King James, and given King James's assemblage of a committee of over 50 known scholars, writers, and translators to work on the text, it's tempting to imagine that King James asked Shakespeare to take a peek at the translations and weigh in or even contribute edits.

And yet, Shakespeare, with his "small Latin and less Greek," as Ben Jonson said, was not quite a scholar like the rest of the King's biblical team--and neither am I! A letter in the January 11, 2012 Times Literary Supplement from a bonafide scholar points to pretty conclusive proof that Shakespeare's authorship of Psalm 46 is no more than a "hoary myth." It seems that Miles Coverdale's translation of the psalms, published in a 1549 edition of The Book of Common Prayer--fifteen years before Shakespeare's birth--reads just about the same, with the word "shake" exactly 46 words from the beginning and "spear" almost exactly 46 words from the end (in fact 48). Alas, the miracle fails Hume's credibility test after all and must be attributed to weird coincidence.

I suppose it appealed to my innate sense of belligerence to defend the Bard's honor against that other hoary myth--that he didn't write the plays--by fighting the fire of dubious speculation with the fire of possibly slightly less dubious speculation. This article does a better job in Shakespeare's defense. And in the end, the notion that Shakespeare helped out the KJV probably slights the KJV in the same way that the theory of an earl writing Shakespeare's plays slights the writer from Stratford. The truth is that the ancient writers of the Bible needed no help, and neither did their magnificent English translators.

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