Monday, May 25, 2015

Ruined Cottage Cheese

When I was in medical school, a GI surgeon opened a lecture with a statement I’m sure has never been uttered before or since. “I have a confession to make,” he said with a weird grin. “I love infected pancreatic necrosis.” This surgeon, who so enjoyed the debridement of dead pancreas, had an infamous temper and was rumored once to have thrown a chunk of human liver at somebody in the O.R. A visceral reaction, you might say. I don’t know why I’m telling you this except that I have a confession to make that’s equally unseemly and visceral, but not towards any viscera so literal as liver, or even pancreas. My confession is: I hate Wordsworth’s poems.

When you consider that Wordsworth’s contemporaries ranked him next to Milton and Shak-Daddy, and many critics still do, my dislike of his poetry looks almost as sick as love of infected pancreatic necrosis. Wordsworth was brilliant and totally sincere, and he had a hard life; he was an orphan. He’s written lines that other poets will forever envy, lines that sound as old as the Lake District hills. For example: “The Child is father of the Man.” The famed literary critic William Hazlitt regarded Wordsworth as “the most original poet now living.”

I can see why Hazlitt says so; WW is so passionate, so cerebral, so revolutionary for his time. He would never throw a liver at anyone. Not even if they deserved it. His poetry, written in the afterglow of the French Revolution, imported to English lit the progressive philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Like Rousseau, WW champions individuality, a deist sense of God in Nature and of harmony between Nature and humanity, and a belief in universal human dignity that extends across ethnicities and class divisions. WW’s suspicion of civilization, of nationalism and primitive religion, his attempt to de-repress emotion, his validation of introspection, and his interest in the personal sphere carried modernity a long way downfield. First down, Wordsworth.

On the other hand, WW’s advocate William Hazlitt seems himself to acknowledge the difficult qualities of stillness and abstraction in WW’s poetry. To his praise of Wordsworth, Hazlitt adds this fairly unambiguous criticism: “He is totally deficient in all the machinery of poetry.” Hmmm. That is a problem. Then Hazlitt goes on to cite the example of The Excursion, the first Book of which, informally called “The Ruined Cottage,” is regarded as “one of Wordsworth’s greatest poems” by Encyclopedia Britannica. Here is the rest of the passage from Hazlitt:
His Excursion, taken as a whole, notwithstanding the noble materials thrown away in it, is a proof of this [i.e. that he is “totally deficient in all the machinery of poetry”]. The line labours, the sentiment moves slow, but the poem stands stock-still. The reader makes no way from the first line to the last. It is more than any thing in the world like Robinson Crusoe’s boat, which would have been an excellent good boat, and would have carried him to the other side of the globe, but that he could not get it out of the sand where it stuck fast. English Romantic Writers, David Perkins, ed., p. 639
I have tried many times to like WW’s pastoral poems, much as I’ve tried to like religion. Neither matzah nor “Tintern Abbey” go down easy. Yeast is matzah’s problem. Wordsworth’s may be his consistent disregard for two of Strunk and White’s cardinal principles: omit needless words, and write with specificity. Strunk says particulars power the work of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare because they call up pictures in the mind. By contrast, Hazlitt says of WW, “his descriptions of natural scenery are not brought home distinctly to the naked eye…. The image is lost in the sentiment….” (Perkins, p. 614).

Sometimes WW makes keen, specific observations—as when at twilight “hills / Grow larger in the darkness” (“The Ruined Cottage,” ll. 127-128)—but more often he favors archetype and abstraction—as when a herdsman leaves his wife with some “soldiers, going to a distant land” (l. 677). What soldiers? Which distant land? WW doesn’t care. Fables may successfully employ such abstractions, but fables are usually spare in language and rich in incident, and “The Ruined Cottage” is the opposite: long, wordy, philosophical, and almost without human motives or dramatic conflict.

Abstraction is a means of avoiding reality that shows up particularly in WW’s tendency to cloying idealizations of peasant men and women. Margaret, the last tenant of the eponymous ruined cottage, is “One whose stock / Of virtues bloomed beneath this lowly roof” (ll. 511-512). The Wanderer who narrates Margaret’s story “lived a long and innocent life” (l. 396). One of Margaret’s children seems to remain an “infant in her arms” (l. 843) and a “little babe” (l. 856) for as long as ten years.

“The Ruined Cottage” develops profound thoughts and a sophisticated, intricate extended meshadow and light, dream and waking, but its phony idealizations rebuff the reader. It does not take much account of the difficult realities that have stimulated twee reaction formations inside him, but rather just keeps selling the dream to himself.

Did Wordsworth beatify peasants in order to deny their vulnerability, much as he devoted so many lines to denying death? Did he idealize peasants in order to defend them from aristocratic bigotry of Hazlitt’s variety? Either way, his poems certify the aesthetic risks of taking too little account of reality and of mixing art and well-meaning politics.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Paysannes: Madame Bovary Part III

What’s the difference between a work of art and a dream? Legendary literary critic Jacques Barzun gives a concise and convincing answer: “the difference between a work of art and a dream is precisely this, that the work of art leads us back to the outer reality by taking account of it.” (Quoted by Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, pp. 190-191.)

Lionel Trilling, also legendary and literary, observes that Romanticism “despite its avowals, was itself scientific, for it was passionately devoted to a research into the self.” (Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, p. 182) Literary fantasies are in other words composed by conscious minds, which apprehend dreamlike subject matter from the vantage point of reality and within the context of reality.

But it’s also true that Romantic writers sometimes rebel against reality so fiercely as to misrepresent it without acknowledging the lie—without being aware of it, maybe. There is no more blatant case of such distortion among the English Romantic poets than Wordsworth’s saccharine depictions of peasants. Take, for example, WW’s poem “The Solitary Reaper” about a peasant woman working a Scottish field, cutting and binding grain, and singing while she works. Here is the last stanza:

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work
And o’er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Trilling says the Romantics were preoccupied “with children, women, peasants, savages, because their mental life, it is felt, is less overlaid than that of the educated adult male by the proprieties of social habit.” (Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, p. 184) That is well-meaning, I guess, if patronizing. Wordsworth was terribly well-meaning, socially progressive, and had a revolutionary and salutary effect on English literature. He didn’t have a particularly easy life either, being orphaned by age 13. But he misrepresents and sentimentalizes the hard work of reaping grain in a way that rings particularly false. He is selling himself the fantasy that peasant girls sing because they live simple lives, free of modern problems. But even a horse has been known to object to manual labor, and I’ve never seen a bucket list with the line item, before I die, I must reap some grain.

What is unfortunately irritating about Wordsworth’s poem is that it’s an extreme sort of fantasy that does not seem to take hardly any account of reality. I will speculate that his mother’s death when he was 7 caused him to wish to idealize suffering women in his poetry and to want to make their suffering disappear in visions of imperturbable beauty and unstained, unstainable virtue. If we could see the ground of real suffering out of which this keening hallucination sprang—that is, if the fantasy poem took some slight account of the difficult realities underpinning it, it would be more artistically successful. As such, it’s too insubstantial for me to swallow.

The irony is that the associations and etymology of the very word peasant completely undermine the airy, patronizing, Wordsworthian fantasy of the carefree singing Solitary Reaper. Peasant comes from paysanne in French, which comes from pays, meaning land. WW has tried to fill his peasant girl with helium and untether her from the hard material ground that gave peasants their earthy name. Gustave Flaubert, who effected a rebellion against the excesses of literary romance, by contrast weighs his peasants down with crude, unflattering reality. To juxtapose “The Solitary Reaper” and this passage from Madame Bovary about a naïve peasant woman being honored at the Yonville Agricultural Show is to puncture the Wordsworthian fantasy in a comic way:

Then to the platform came a frightened-looking little old lady who seemed shrunken in her shabby garments. On her feet were heavy wooden clogs and around her hips a large blue apron. Her scrawny face, framed by a borderless cap, was more wrinkled than a shriveled apple, and bony knuckles dangled from the sleeves of her red bodice. They were so encrusted, roughened, and gnarled from barn dust, soapsuds and grease from sheep’s wool that they seemed dirty even though they had been washed in clean water. They remained half bent from having worked so long, humble witnesses of so much suffering. The expression on her face was of an almost nunlike inflexibility. Having lived in the company of animals, she had acquired their muteness and placidity. This was the first time that she found herself in the midst of such a numerous group, and inwardly frightened by the flags and drums, by the gentlemen in frock coats, and by the counselor’s Cross of Honor, she remained stock-still, not knowing whether to move forward or run off, nor why the people were pushing her and the examiners smiling. There, before these expansive townspeople, stood this half-century of servitude.
“Come forth, venerable Catherine-Nicaise-Elizabeth Leroux!” said the counselor, who had taken the list of winners from the president’s hands. “Come up, come up,” he repeated in a paternal tone, alternately looking at the sheet of paper and the old woman.
“Are you deaf?” said Tuvache, hopping up from his chair.
He began to shout in her ear: “Fifty-four years of service! A silver medal. Twenty-five francs. For you.”
Madame Bovary, Signet Classics trans., pp. 153-154

Flaubert’s hilarious description of the peasant lady crushed and compacted by a lifetime of menial labor is a far cry from the fairy-creature singing in that Scottish field with her magic sickle. The counselor figure in the above passage seems to satirize Wordsworth in his unseeing fantasy. It’s funny; but in the pairing you can also see a tectonic movement in literary history. There is Romanticism—and in particular Wordsworth’s denial of death mixed with Rousseau’s rebellion against the starched aristocratic order—giving way to a later generation’s rebellion in the form of a radical modern realism.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Allagash Rule of Perpetual Motion and Brouillard dans la tête: Madame Bovary Part II

Flaubert shows the reader early on that Madame Bovary’s flight from one place to another brings her no relief, for her complaint is with no particular place but the universe itself. She runs like a rat in a maze, finding each new place as damned and disappointingly real as the one before. She can’t stop looking to the next horizon, however, in a way I find touching despite her famously off-putting egoism and ruthless vanity. Again and again Flaubert writes stuff like this: “She was filled with temptations to run off with Léon, somewhere, far away, to try a new destiny” p. 119. Emma continues to dream of moving away to a foreign land or to Paris—as if there were no problems in Paris!

When she actually does leave home for other places and other men like Rodolphe and Léon, she never seems to arrive at her intended destination. Rather she looks to new fantasies, new lovers, or new romantic settings for her present affair. Her despair causes her to seek escape in a mirage of happiness that’s always a moving target. During one scene that dramatically equates romance with travel, she has sex on an interminable carriage ride through Paris, displaying a “rage for locomotion” (fureur de la locomotion p. 234). It calls to mind the opening pages of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, in which the narrator cites “the Allagash rule of perpetual motion.” His shallow friend Tad Allagash never has more than one drink per bar because “Tad’s mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren’t is more fun than where you are.”

Place, as in the opening of Bright Lights, Big City—as in every case of despair, maybe—is in Madame Bovary a method of escaping reality and a crucial substrate of dreams. As such, Flaubert’s many beautiful landscape descriptions tend to involve naturalistic symbols of dream: fog (brouillard), haze (brume) and mist (vapeur). Flaubert’s landscapes are like old movie stars photographed with Vaseline on the lens in order to create a candle-like glow that obscures imperfections and welcomes the imagination to fill in the obscure blanks as it pleases.* The fog, like the Vaseline, clearly serves and represents the mind’s will to distort and obscure what it really sees. It’s there because Madame Bovary has unwittingly put it there. Her mind is a romantic fog.

Flaubert makes this link explicit when the housemaid Félicité observes that Madame Bovary suffers from a brouillard dans la tête—“a fog in the head” p. 119. But Madame Bovary doesn’t understand that her head is befogged with corrupt “unrealistic dreams” (rêves trop haut p. 118) that prevent her from accommodating herself to reality. She imagines that the mélancholies de la passion stem from her accursed inability to satisfy those passions and to realize her fantasies. She never guesses that it’s in fact the other way around—that melancholy attaching to the difficulties of civilized life in the real world could cause her to seek relief in a fog of childish fantasies. But that is exactly the nature of her brouillard dans la tête and the nature of all those dreamy, adulterous affairs Woody Allen writes about so incessantly.

Woody Allen generally writes about brouillard dans la tête as though it were inevitable, and Flaubert might agree, though Sigmund Freud’s oeuvre is based on the opposite idea—that human beings not only can see clearly if they dispel their defensive illusions but must dispel those illusions if they want to be free of the vicious cycle of despair. For that is what brouillard dans la tête really is: depression, and all the mind’s most inadequate and infantile romantic remedies for it.

With the possible exception of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Madame Bovary in fact lays bare the intricacies of depression better than any other novel. Because Madame Bovary’s melancholy arises from within and follows her wherever she goes, because it’s psychological in nature and not geographical, her efforts to erase it through fantasy escapes and affairs are all doomed to fail. Each one must be followed by another in endless pursuit of mirages of happiness that lie just there on the horizon. This leads to “her flighty airs” (ses airs évaporés p. 132) and “her continually youthful illusions” (ses illusions toujours jeunes p. 191). She cannot address her problems in the real world because she can’t look at the real world long enough to see herself naked of her vain dreams. Such is the “invasion of reverie” in her life (l’envahissement de leur rêveries, as is said of Emma and her lover Rodolphe, p. 194) that she remains always a child, dreaming, running, unconsciously fleeing and thinking all the while that she’s going to make the melancholy go away once and for all. Madame Bovary is cruel, yes, but she’s also suffering in earnest. She is overcome by guilt, self-hatred, and melancholy, “by an immense regret that stimulated passion, instead of suppressing it” p. 277. The roaring passion to escape leads to more damage and more self-loathing in a death spiral from which Flaubert won’t allow us to avert our eyes.

Emma Bovary is like many people, maybe, as she sits in the opera in a fog, dreaming of another more perfect, more romantic, more glamorous life. “She bemoaned love, and yearned to have wings. Emma, too, would have wanted to escape from life and fly off in an embrace” p. 215.

In the end Madame Bovary, who is often described as having her eyes only half-open, is like Flaubert’s blind beggar, who cannot see even with his eyes open wide. It’s a perfect novel and a perfect cautionary tragedy that draws inspiration from those tales of blindness by the ancient Greek dramatists. It whispers to us what the Delphic oracle did: know thyself….

*When master portrait photographer Philippe Halsman began his career in Paris in the 1930s, the prevailing style of portrait involved this sort of romantic distortion using filters and manipulation of the images. Halsman was one of a new generation who would make realistic photographs, only manipulating the images through lighting and exposure.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lieuvain: Madame Bovary Part I

In 2006 David Foster Wallace wrote in the New York Times Magazine that you can appreciate tennis great Roger Federer even more “if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.” I feel that way about Gustave Flaubert. It’s possible that you have to have worked as a fiction writer yourself to fully appreciate the finesse with which Flaubert shifts viewpoints and narrative speeds. That’s partly because he would prefer the reader didn’t detect his artistry. In accordance with his famous credo (quoted below), he intends that his characters and events appear to have been found in nature, not created by an author, and Madame Bovary pulls it off like no other book. In an almost supernatural way, it lives up to Flaubert’s principle of artistic invisibility, a principle that deeply inspired the young James Joyce:
L’artiste doit être dans son oeuvre comme Dieu dans la création, invisible et tout-puissant, qu’on le sente partout, mais qu’on ne le voit pas.

The artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and almighty, felt everywhere but seen nowhere. –Flaubert, letter to Mlle Leroyer de Chantepie, 18 March 1857
There is a hardcore realist devotion to Platonic Truth in this aesthetic (to which Flaubert directly attests in his correspondence) and that devotion carries over into Madame Bovary’s themes, which circumscribe a tight circle around Truth’s foremost enemy—human vanity.

Like Cervantes, Flaubert objects to romantic, idealistic lies in the service of human vanity and depicts a protagonist, Emma Bovary, whose temptation to indulge such self-deceits leads to her ruin. But where Don Quixote satirizes vain romances, the reality-fueled engine of Flaubert’s novel leaves no air for fantasy at all. There are elements of satire in Madame Bovary, to be sure, but mainly Flaubert applies an assiduously realist scalpel to his characters to depict and dissect the vanity afflicting them just as though vanity were a disease to be understood and resected.

I am tempted to turn to the original French text in order to investigate Flaubert’s complex idea of vanity. I say that not because I’ve read Madame Bovary in the original French but because I want to make it look like I have. You see? “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

But the translation of at least one character’s name from French into English does, I think, help to explicate the nature of vanity in Madame Bovary in a quick and capsular way. The character, named “Lieuvain,” is a minor state official who comes to the muddy provincial town of Yonville to speak at Yonville’s ridiculous “Agricultural Show.” Town officials use the show to tout Yonville’s distinction and modernity, though it doesn’t have much. Flaubert emphasizes the contrast between the attendees’ pretentions and their earthbound vocations in cows and fertilizer.

Lieuvain’s appearance in the context of the pompous fertilizer trade show is no accident but rather derives from Flaubert’s “name game,” as North Texas State University prof Lloyd Parks put it in 1971. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that you haven’t read the 1971 winter bulletin of the South Central Modern Languages Association. In it, Parks notes that character names are one facet of Madame Bovary where Flaubert loosens his orthodox naturalism to make a subtle point:
Names and place names are used throughout Madame Bovary to extend its dimension and support its theme. To this end Flaubert exercised the greatest care in his choice of names … but so ingeniously that their meaning becomes apparent only after the closest examination.
Parks quotes, for instance, Flaubert’s explanation of how he settled on the name Monsieur Homais for his pharmacist, possibly the most pretentious character of all in Madame Bovary: “Homais comes from homo = homme.” Homo and homme of course mean “man.” If Monsieur Homais represents humanity, then Flaubert suggests our species is defined not by wisdom but by bullshit—Carolus Linnaeus, meet homo vanitatis. Flaubert gives other strivers names that suggest a lowly, bovine materiality in direct contradiction of their vain aspirations—Yonville’s mayor, for example, is named Tuvache, which literally means “you cow.” Parks also points out that the name of the chateau where Madame Bovary sees her first mirage of ‘the beautiful people,’ Vaubyessard, is a phonetic anagram of Bovary, the family name of her bovine husband Charles.

But Lieuvain is perhaps the most interesting name of all, and Parks notices the lieu part, but curiously ignores the vain part. Lieuvain looks like a sort of hieroglyph composed of two root words, lieu and vain, meaning “place” and “vain.” The insignificant Lieuvain speaks pompously (and inaudibly) through the lowing of the cows at the Agricultural Show, unaware that Flaubert has put a hieroglyph over his head saying PLACE-VAIN. He has come as the inadequate substitute for, that is in lieu of, a more important personage, but PLACE-VAIN means more than that to Madame Bovary when one considers the strength of the connection in the novel between geography and vanity.

From her days as a schoolgirl, Madame Bovary despises her own world and she daydreams of living the glamorous lives she’s glimpsed in her excessive reading of romantic novels. As the novel progresses, Emma Bovary’s catastrophic daydreams continue to unfold in connection with faraway, romantic places free from the angst of her real life:
She felt that certain places on the earth must produce happiness, just as a plant that languishes everywhere else thrives only in special soil. Why couldn’t she be leaning her elbow on the balcony of a Swiss chalet or indulging her moods in a Scottish cottage with a husband dressed in a black velvet suit with long coattails, soft boots, a pointed hat, and elegant cuffs! Madame Bovary, Signet Classic edition, Mildred Marmur trans., p. 60
Her pedestrian husband Charles, whose “conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, with everyone’s ideas walking through it in ordinary dress, arousing neither emotion, nor laughter, nor dreams” p. 60, cannot transport Emma to such idyllic realms as the ones she’s read about in books. Charles in turn does not understand his wife’s unhappiness. He too thinks that a change of venue will cure her depression and, with his typical imperceptiveness, moves his depressed wife from one provincial town to another that’s just the same. His mother bans Madame Bovary from reading any more romance novels!

It’s as though none of the Bovarys have heard of psychology! The problem with Madame Bovary lies not in her reading habits, not in a book or a place, but within. And her tragedy develops from her inability to look within, and to see what she’s looking at.

More on blindness, Madame Bovary’s “fog in the head,” and the invasion of dreams in Part II.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Freed Men

A number of the heavy-weights of Roman literature were freed slaves. Terence, for example, was an African slave, brought to Rome by a senator. His master became impressed with his literary talent and, insensitive to the demotion in quality of life and pay it would mean, freed him from slavery to become a playwright. (Terence wrote six plays and died young.) Horace, one of Rome’s most revered poets along with Virgil and Ovid, proudly admitted he was the son of a freed slave. The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus was himself a freed slave. And these writers overcame the disadvantages of slavery to influence the course of intellectual history—and even cast their shadows into the political sphere. The editors of the Dover edition of Epictetus say “Epictetus was considered the greatest of the Stoic philosophers by Herodes Atticus, a teacher of Marcus Aurelius,” who ruled Rome in the second century C.E. and wrote perhaps the most famous works of Stoic philosophy we have.

Our academy labels Horace and many other Roman writers ‘dead white males’ of the ruling class and so casts them aside. Most people won’t have even heard of Epictetus. The not ignoble idea is of course to give a voice instead to those who’ve been historically deprived of one. The irony is: who better meets this exact criterion than a poet like Horace or philosopher like Epictetus! A ruling class can impose no more thorough a silence on the powerless than through slavery, and Horace shares this heritage with the great African-American writers of today, only it was even closer to him—his father was a slave! Virgil was not a slave (though he did come from Gaul), but he was the sort of un-elitist man to give a chance to the son of a freed slave. Virgil gave Horace his shot by introducing him to the great Roman literary patron Maecenas. You see, the enlightened Roman Republic wasn’t just good for aqueducts. It was good for outsider literature too; its finest writers brought to their work a worldview from outside Rome’s ruling class.

Epictetus’s history as a slave has a special importance to his work. It not only marks him as an outsider but also, I would argue, forms the basis of his Stoic philosophies. His writings frequently criticize the institution of slavery—clearly, he didn’t forget about his early life as a slave—but more importantly the condition of helplessness of which slavery is the apogee colors all his thinking. He returns again and again to the theme of freedom of mind versus that of body; every line of his work speaks to all that we can’t control in life and seeks to define the correct terms of happiness and freedom given this limitation.

A collection of his teachings called the Enchiridion, or “Manual,” begins:

Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinions, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. p. 1, Dover Thrift Edition

From this premise he draws the conclusion that one can only secure happiness “by withdrawing from the things which are not in our power, and by placing the good and the evil only in those things which are in our power.” (p. 13) The job is therefore to be master over one’s own thoughts, not one’s fortunes, over one’s deeds but not over their consequences. It is what might be called the art of assent, as it’s put in the 177th “fragment” attributed to Epictetus (p. 56). Paleo-Christian monks handed down these fragments across the centuries like Roman pottery, getting more and more broken with each transfer, and it’s just this sort of shabby treatment that’s out of Epictetus’s control and to which, I imagine, Epictetus therefore grants a certain assent. “Let it be,” “Let it go,” “It is what it is,” and like sayings seem to me to have this kind of assent in mind. It’s what I have in mind with my kids when I decide to pick my battles and give in. You want ice cream before dinner? OK, yes. The blessed freedom of it!

The Stoic philosophy is not idle speculation but rather a discipline. It’s meant for practical application to help you live a better life. The Stoics find happiness in the regulation of one’s feelings instead of in victory or salvation in realms outside the self. The idea belongs to a humanistic, rationalist movement of two millennia that begins with Socrates and ends, perhaps, with Freud. Could there be any talking therapy without a Stoic expectation of happiness attainable from within?

The pleasures of Stoic self-sovereignty allow the gladiator-slave Spartacus, at the end of the 1960 movie of that name, to conquer his enemy even as he is crucified by refusing to answer his interrogator’s question. As screenwriter Dalton Trumbo said, it was a movie about men “who in the end preferred to die as free men than live as slaves.” In this calculus, the freedom given to all human beings as a birthright trumps even death. But the pleasures of a free mind exceed Spartacus’s right to disobey—they include also a freedom of imagination. André Breton, the father of surrealism, makes a Stoical retreat from reality towards an inner freedom of thought that knows no bounds. He writes: “Among the many misfortunes to which we are heir, it is only fair to admit that we are allowed the greatest degree of freedom of thought.” (Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, p. 4)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Little Prince

It was a magnetic Israeli poet-warrior who, during my second visit to Israel, thrust The Little Prince into my hands. He declared it his favorite book with an absolute conviction that, it must be said, characterized a large number of his statements. On the other hand the book obviously spoke to him personally and individually—so much so that he’d asked all his troops to read it, exhorting them to model their leadership skills after the example of Saint-Exupéry’s humble king. This Israeli soldier, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War and many other conflicts, a man with a metal plate in his head and a knife scar on his back, told me he often thought of The Little Prince on desert nights after a mission, when the stars seemed to echo with a beautiful loneliness.

Beautiful loneliness saturates every page of Saint-Exupéry’s tale, which was written and published during the two years Saint-Exupéry lived in New York. The story’s loneliness flies before it like a banner, though the reasons for that loneliness remain obscure, in keeping with Saint-Exupéry’s declaration at the end of chapter VII: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.” He constructs his land of tears and solitude from poetry, fantasy, and fable: A small boy lives by himself on an asteroid ten or twenty paces in circumference—he has only to move his chair to see a sunset. It’s as if he never had parents, and except for a talking rose with whom the prince has a thorny and abstract love-affair, he has on his asteroid no one to converse with at all. The prince visits others whose barren asteroids and desolate solipsism isolate them even more deeply. On Earth, a certain doom haunts the prince’s encounters with a snake, then a fox, and with the stranded pilot who narrates the tale. Each relationship accordingly succumbs like a tragic hero to a prophecy. T.V.F. Cuffe, Saint-Exupéry’s Penguin translator, says of the narrator-airman: “Like everyone else in his story, the narrator is alone, marooned in the solitude of the desert, and in the desert of his solitude.”

And yet: another person, the prince, disturbs the narrator’s solitude, and it’s this temporary suspension of solitude that becomes the story’s focus. The prince likewise tells of glancing contacts that resemble proverbial ships passing in the night. So Saint-Exupéry fashions the loneliness of his tale not only from solitude but from specific absences. The lonely people in The Little Prince remember visits, seek out whatever new encounters emerge from the screen of nothingness, and even court real relationships before continuing on in their solitary orbits. This flirtation between absence and presence befits James Joyce’s paradox, “Absence is the highest form of presence,” which reflects the heavy footprint that absent people leave in the minds of those who miss them.

Something like Joyce’s theorem seems to underlie the surface movements of The Little Prince, and Saint-Exupéry was as poetic as Joyce on the subject of absence. In Saint-Exupéry’s essay “Letter to a Hostage,” he writes of families who continue to set a dinner place for a loved one who has died. He criticizes such mourners: “They make the dead into missing persons for eternity, into guests who will forever be late.” Of course, precisely this sense of unstable absence—absence that might have been presence, and still may become presence—pervades The Little Prince. One wonders if it came from Saint-Exupéry’s personal experience since he lost his father at the impressionable age of four. Did that imprint him with a sense of the inevitable failure of love and relationship? Did it prepare him not only for a troubled marriage and a life roaming empty African skies in a solo cockpit, but also for writing The Little Prince?

And did it prevent redemption from finding a way into his tale of desolation? Redemption was of course not Saint-Exupéry’s aim. Like other French writers of the 1940s, he saw the end of France as he knew it, the Destruction of the Temple, which seems to have given that generation a certain license to indulge in despair. My Israeli soldier, however, doesn’t see The Little Prince as entirely bleak. That it speaks to him so much and has consoled him in the loneliness of the desert is its own form of redemption. It evidently speaks to many people in this way; Cuffe tells us that The Little Prince has been translated more than any other French title in history. In his loneliness, Saint-Exupéry seems ironically to have united many lonely souls in mutual identification with his lonely airman and his little prince.