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. 639I 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.
Monday, May 25, 2015
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
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. 153-154Flaubert’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
Sunday, May 3, 2015
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 1857There 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. 60Her 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
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 EditionFrom 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)