Tag Archives: literature and rhetoric

On viewing “The Handmaid’s Tale” with My Daughter

Note: What follows (with the aim of getting it out quickly, without the usual belabored perfectionism, a little rough around the edges) is adapted from this morning’s handwritten journal entry. As with the disclaimer attached to the TV series: Mature audiences only; readers’ discretion advised.

Invited over to youngest daughter Stephanie’s last night to watch the first three episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I had read the novel years ago, introduced it, I think, to her and Nadina. I remembered the dystopian premise and mood without a great deal of meaningful detail. Some details, now, have been updated to make it resonate all the more explicitly with our historical moment, but without harm to the story’s integrity. The author (Stephanie pointed out to me, she and Rachel having already seen the whole series) was allowed a role in the script: she stepped forward and slapped the face of the lead protagonist and handmaid-in-training—played by Elisabeth Moss—for not taking her cues with sufficient show of hatefulness.

So many disturbing scenes in these first segments, there’s no point in enumerating them. The ritualized sexual intercourse of the “commander” and handmaid could not be more antiseptic or less erotic. His zipper is open, instrument properly inserted (one presumes, for sake of the narrative) at the precise and proper point of access, but otherwise both of them are covered in all modesty; her head cradled by the barren wife whose legs might someday again be symbolically spread for the ritualized act of childbirth by proxy. The ritual is only sensual to the degree that a bowel movement is sensual—from her standpoint, at least, who perhaps derives more satisfaction from the latter, while the man in his procreative labor does enjoy some rudimentary orgasm.

But the sequence that finally brought me past moral disgust to the verge of tears is the execution of another handmaid’s judgment of “redemption” from the crime of “gender treason” (read: lesbianism), played by the actor (Alexis Bledel) formerly known as Rory on The Gilmore Girls TV show that Anita and I used to watch with our daughters.

The closing scene in that segment is sickening enough: when that redeemed captive of Biblical sin awakens in a sterile white room to discover that she has been surgically (and genitally) mutilated; so that, as the hateful matron puts it to her, while she can still experience the great joy of impregnation and giving birth to someone else’s child, she will no longer be tempted by physical desire for what she cannot have. But the really gut-wrenching scene, the one that had already devastated the father (and father-in-law) of Stephanie and Rachel, occurs just previous to that: the woman’s abbreviated last parting from her lover, cuffed hands clutched in the back of the penal van until the beloved one is ripped from her and she left screaming at the spectacle of rope being placed around loved one’s neck, her body lifted into the air by a construction crane.

Atwood with actors Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley

Now, let’s be clear: whatever not-so-distant dystopia might actually threaten us, if the retrograde would-be theocrats and other powermongers of the moment get their way, it is unlikely that it will exactly resemble this one of Margaret Atwood’s imagination. But the defunding of Planned Parenthood; a return to back-alley abortions and increased maternal deaths (already the United States has greater child mortality—more in some states than others—than any other “advanced” Western nation); opposition, even, to the very concepts of contraception and family planning, unless for the wealthy and hypocritical and privileged; well, we already see how easily something like that might happen, and to no small degree already has happened to those women and families least equipped for survival in this country. However much American women might remain, superficially, free, they might be forgiven for feeling so perilously close to becoming—body and soul—tied to the will of the men who rule the roost at home or who pull the legislative and judicial strings in Washington D.C. and/or their state capitals.

But the real take-home here, from last night’s viewing, is the degree to which some women will stand against other women for their own security within an essentially and abusively patriarchal order. Not just the obvious fanatics like the hate-filled doctrinaire matron who seethes at the very thought of lesbianism, and enjoys the infliction of pain on other women with repeated, violent thrusts of a sort of electrical taser-stick to neck or shoulder or face. Nor just the genuinely religious women of our Heartland who, beaten down by economic and other exigencies, are persuaded to see the source of their problems in the liberal or culturally depraved other. But also the privileged wife (like the mafia wife on The Sopranos, who tries not to think about the murderous activity that underwrites her privilege) who is so pleased to flourish tender care on her husband’s almost subhuman sex slave so long as she might be going to bear her a child. How oblivious she is to the handmaid’s very human feelings as she listens to her mistress exclaim at how God-blessed she is to have her there to bear the child that, as soon as she’s done nursing it, will be ripped from her arms forever without a thought! And then, when it turns out that our protagonist is really not pregnant after all, how swiftly cooing wife turns into vicious hellcat, dragging the presumed tramp upstairs to her attic bedroom and throwing her on the floor, hissing: Things can get so much worse for you here!, or words to that effect.

Similar phenomena that continue to occur in the real world we inhabit include Blacks and other racial minorities who align themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, with the party or class of privilege. I suspect, too, that it is manifest, however precariously, in working- and lower-middle class individuals who still dream of winning the lottery or of acquiring celebrity status by means of reality TV. If we can still get rich, too, or can talk ourselves into still believing in that possibility, then what social or economic ill might we not tolerate in the spirit of selfish self-interest?

All of which brings me back to Orlando Patterson’s argument in his history of the making of the idea of freedom in Western civilization, which emerges from and is defined by its relationship to slavery. Numerous other writers and activists have made the point: that the relative prosperity that we defend was built on the backs of indentured servants and slaves. What has lately been unveiled (though not for the first time) as “America’s original sin,” which we continue to ignore at our own peril. The tragic secret of our history that resurgent voices of white supremacy—however rabid or muted the assumption of racial or cultural or class superiority might be, however conscious or unconscious.

This hearkens back to Jay-Z’s 2010 interview with Terry Gross, which I heard the other day on Fresh Air after he became the first rapper to be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; and what he said about his hip-hop version of “It’s a Hard-knock Life” from the Broadway musical Annie—and of why, despite the complaints of offended white pride by some detractors, there is nothing more natural than an African American Annie, given Black experience in the era between the post-Civil War overthrow of Reconstruction and the present era of police shootings of unarmed Black men and BLM.

The Handmaid’s Tale, in any case, is just one manifestation of humanity’s original sin of power and privilege built on the backs of others. And it is true original sin, if we may set aside the religious-mythological model that paints the woman as eternal temptress and authorizes condescending patriarchy to act on womankind’s behalf and for her good as established by the male to whom she is a help meet and proper. Take the issue of race and extend it universally, and we are likewise faced with our national sins of territorial and economic imperialism. The ecological sinning against Nature and against poor nations and Indigenous peoples whose mineral wealth we have robbed and will hold onto until it is pried (like Charlton Heston’s guns) from our cold, dead hands. The sin is original and sticks to us all to the extent that we stubbornly refuse to see that we are not a truly “exceptional” nation or “self-made” success story whose wealth and privilege do not depend to any appreciable degree on the labor and the exploitation of our fellow (and presumed lesser) humans.

This is the hard truth behind the increasingly—and inhumanely—punitive state in which our increasingly undemocratic handlers continue to sustain a perpetual-war economy by sending bombs to Saudi Arabia and by locking up the malcontents in our country, warehousing them in prisons rather than grant them the dignity of “socialized” healthcare and food and shelter for all. Even the squatters—“unworthy” poor, we are supposed to believe—who encamp in the house next door, with its overgrowth of grass and weeds, with its electricity and water cut until the state can finally evict them. If it were a national priority—if we were really pro-life instead of merely pro-birth, as the radical Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister has put it—we could guarantee a dignified life for all our citizens. And might be surprised at how many hopeless bums become respectable neighbors. It has been demonstrated, after all, even in this land of hard-wired libertarianism, that given their dignity, seeing to their basic human needs and giving them a hand up, without drowning them in punitive bureaucratic regulations aimed at reducing or withdrawing those benefits, the members of that potential community will make it a functioning and mutually-reliant, democratically-run space.

Even in conservative Republican Utah, in Salt Lake City, and outside of the theocratic strictures of traditionalist “United Orders,” it has recently been proved that, if you give the homeless a home and a social system to help them get on their feet, they will become grateful and responsible neighbors and citizens. Give them their dignity first, without strings attached, without punitive regimes—African Americans, Latinos, the Native or Indigenous communities, downtrodden and homeless, even poor and struggling Caucasians everywhere—and we might become a healed and sustaining community. But as long as we insist on separation, on greed and war and death, on law and order, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later, on the punitive economic regime of privilege for the few on the backs of the many, we will continue to unravel as a civilization and as a coherent, once-relatively-functional society.

All things are related. We sink or swim together. The power of the oligarchs and the militarists will have to be overthrown, since entrenched power will not give itself up easily. One hopes that it might be done nonviolently, by means of firm and multiplying resistance to the wreakers of under-acknowledged violence who are amassed against would be, small-d democrats. The odds are against us, and pessimism may be the most sane and realistic attitude to have in the face of potential nuclear and climate catastrophe. Especially if that realism awakens us to the critical nature of the struggle we face. But if we leaven that natural pessimism with a modicum of hope joined to enlightened, collective action of the many, then Naomi Klein (with her call to action against the multiple shocks that the world’s political and economic powers continually unleash on us) is right, and our future might indeed still be redeemable.

Otherwise, it seems to me that we are royally screwed. If I may say so, not only bluntly, but in the most polite manner possible, under the circumstances.

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Literature, the Canons, and Immortality

images5HX0A6S7Caleb Crain, in his essay “Counter Culture: Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms” (Harper’s Magazine, July 2015), shares a delightful anecdote of literary subversion:

I worked in the town library when I was in high school, and one of the librarians, a former nun, used to wander through the stacks from time to time and save her favorite books from being discarded by stamping them with false due dates.

This in the context of “what you might call the working myth of the life of literature – the half-conscious way that people decide which texts they consider literature, and how they carry those texts forward.” Or in other words, a discussion of what it means to have literary canons at all: of what good they are and how they are best established and nurtured.

images[7]In the build-up to addressing those questions he mentions the early 19th-century English Romantic poet John Keats, he of the “Ode to a Grecian Urn” which many of us probably encountered in high school. In the spirit of his belief in literature’s power to transcend time and space (this in an era long before commercial transatlantic flights, let alone email, Facebook, and Twitter), Keats once proposed to his brother, from whom he was then separated by thousands of miles and by several time zones, that they each read Shakespeare at 10:00 Sunday mornings so they could each feel the other’s presence. And later, while bedridden with the tuberculosis that in a year almost to the day – when he was not yet twenty-six – would finish killing him, he proposed something similar to his lover Fanny Brawne: “Do not send any more of my books home. I have a great pleasure in the thought of you looking on them.”

“What does it take to believe in such a communion?” Crain asks.

 I think it requires the belief that reading, or at least a certain kind of reading, is sensuous, invisible, and soulful. Each instance of this kind of reading is unique. In its ideal form, it occurs on a plane that is oblique to the physical location of the people doing it, even when they happen to be in the same room.

Anyway, while not in favor of a narrowly selected canon, carved in stone, Crain argues that “some notion of a literary canon was essential to the ideal of soulful reading, because not all texts repaid soulful attention.” This becomes a question, then, of how to read literature: how to make judgments about it and how to distinguish between good and bad, better and worse, informed or thoughtful and uninformed or thoughtless.

How, in any case, does a reasonably flexible and evolving canon of the better kind of writing get established? “In my imagination, at least,” he writes, it has always been created by an elite, but not necessarily

any particular sociopolitical elite. Anyone who could persuade another person to listen to her literary opinion belonged. It was a kind of freemasonry, crossing time as well as space. Though some communications were transmitted instantly, others might not reach another member for years, perhaps centuries.

In respect to that latter possibility of centuries-delayed literary connections, Crain also addresses H. J. Jackson’s belief, expressed in her book Those Who Write for Immortality, that a literary reputation is not necessarily built on merit alone “but also by quirks of publishing history, unforeseeable shifts in readerly tastes, and acts of advocacy and partisanship.” To anyone writing for immortality she would propose, among other things, tasking some younger relative with the management of their estate and with the creation of “a personal myth contradictory enough to keep biographers occupied.”

“Jackson considers the canon a bit of a sham,” Crain adds, “and potentially dangerous.” He disagrees with her on this point because, among other things, even if she were to demonstrate the worthiness of an author previously excluded from the canon, she wouldn’t overthrow but merely refine that canon; because it “has long been understood to be an imperfect and continuous approximation.” Its very instability, in fact, “is part of the myth’s appeal, solacing authors who feel underappreciated – who hope that the judgment of posterity in, say, 2015 might be revised come 2050. The canon is a mystical sum,” he concludes, “which can never be tallied: its only true index is written in living and fallible hearts.”

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As one of those writers who from time to time has felt underappreciated, I am “solaced,” to borrow Crain’s usage, by the notion that my day might yet come – never mind that when it finally does I might be decades or even centuries dead.

This speaks to an old vanity of mine which began in earnest approximately three and a half decades ago when I was just returned from a Mormon proselytizing mission in Argentina. But it had already taken shape before I hit the ground in that country; and was more vaguely intuited when as a senior in high school, after a series of miserable attempts, I finally wrote a short story worthy of the accolades of my creative writing teacher; who told me it was one of the two best she had seen, in her several years of teaching, from a student at that level.

Miguel de Cervantes (as imagined by the artist)

Miguel de Cervantes (as imagined by the artist)

She first goaded me by writing, at the top of a particuarly execrable attempt at a comedic imitation of the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: “A Cervantes you’re not.”Oh yeah? my offended pride soon told myself. I’ll show you! And then spent the necessary weeks, between school and home, crafting my definitive literary response. And while I understood that what I had pulled off was still not quite on the level of the great master Miguel de Cervantes, I began to think that maybe I could eventually write something of comparable worth.

The other story, undoubtedly superior to mine at least in execution but probably also in other respects, was a stream-of-consciousness piece after the fashion of Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” which my classmate (a junior) would have read in Miss Meadors’s non-elective English class that school year. In particular hers would not have been burdened, as mine was, by rampant sentimentality and a painfully naive religious sensibility.

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

Mine, the ingenuous narrative of a boy barely distinguishable from the self that wrote it, was at least in its best and central scene – fragmented somewhat clumsily by flashbacks – realistic and gritty. My fictional alter ego, in any case, after enduring years of bullying both physical and moral, took one last beating for chivalrous and perhaps heroic defense of a girl’s reputation and honor: the girl he loved but was too shy to tell her so. The story fairly dripped with the anguished sincerity of troubled adolescence and overwrought symbolism: the protagonist, as in a pre-writing exercise I had worked out to the finest detail, was named Peter Stone to reflect the disciple Peter’s name which represented the Rock the ancient Church was built on; and beyond that traveled through darkness to light, through the world’s wickedness to the borders of divine bliss, redeemed at last by his own determination and by the declared love (sealed with a chaste kiss) of his personal Dulcinea.

Within the first couple of years of my return from South America, anyway, simultaneously with my early and still tentative questionings of certain of the faith’s pieties and of the abyss between the appearance and essence of holiness, my literary conceit was fully in place: writing was for me a priestly vocation. It was my destiny, I felt certain, if only by sheer force of will, to become what in Mormon parlance would be “the great writer of the Restoration.” And I would surpass those faithful and believing writers who had come before me by virtue of my position as a virtual outsider, faraway from “the Mormon corridor” of Utah and its surrounding regions with their particular Western geography and cultures. I would do so at least at first – with my unique “insider-outsider” perspective, as a certain non-Mormon historian of Mormonism might put it – from back in Indiana where the early saints had scarcely left a trace; passing through on their route from New York and Ohio to Missouri and Illinois, final stops before the martyrdom of their first prophet Joseph Smith and the great exodus, under Brigham Young’s sure leadership, to the Salt Lake Valley.

By the mid to late Eighties, after several drafts of a novella and a set of related stories set principally in a geographically vague Latin American town called Magdalena, inhabited on its peripheries by missionaries, members, and converts to a millenarian “rainbow cult” founded on Joseph Smith’s elaborate take on the apocryphal lore of a prophet named Enoch (scarcely a footnote in the canonized book of Genesis); by this time, as I was saying, I had completed my first book-length manuscript: Saint Mary of Magdalene. Its central tale, simply “Magdalena,” was encouraged and guided through a thorough rewrite by an editor with a regional press specializing in history and culture (including Mormon history and culture) of the American West. But in the end, while he had many good things to say about it, he still thought my writing a bit heavy-handed in its witness of faith, my style having not quite attained the universal perspective and broad appeal of a Jewish narrative by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Though one of the stories, called “Satyagraha” after Gandhi’s concept of “love-force” or “truth-force,” was modestly published by an undergraduate journal at Indiana University. It was modeled somewhat on the style of story-as-legend as exemplified by John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and inspired at once by a written account of the ongoing slaughter of native peoples in Guatemala, and by my own acquaintance with a man who had formerly been a hitman in Argentina – for the military dictatorship of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Brett with Books

The author among his books, ca. 1990

Later there would be (among various other projects including literary criticism, literary translation, and travel memoir) the still-evolving collection of stories called No One Assured in God, after a phrase by 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. It includes stories based on episodes from my childhood, with nothing at all to do with my yet-future religious conversion, as well as others in which the Mormon universe plays, for the most part, only a peripheral role or in which Mormon lives are caught up in less explicitly faith-centered situations. Over the years the manuscript has dropped some stories and added others, and while the whole remains unpublished several of the stories have appeared in obscure (and now mostly defunct) print or online journals.

I submitted an earlier draft of the manuscript to a Utah publisher of unofficial and often controversial Mormon topics, and in the end one of the editors sent me the comments of two readers. One of them unhesitatingly recommended publication, stating that while some of the stories were stronger than others, it represented something new and original in Mormon letters, a distinct and often disturbing though always moral voice; and left him, on the whole, with such a powerful impression that he thought he could never forget some of its most affecting stories and images. The other, however, thoroughly trashed the manuscript and seemed to call into question my moral and religious character: he accused me, in particular, of an unseemly obsession with sex; not entirely fair, though some of the stories were, to greater or lesser degree, concerned with human sexuality.

For whatever reasons, the editorial team went with the latter recommendation. I confess that I didn’t understand why they should give preference to the most prejudiced and curmudgeonly reading, but there must have been others – principally, perhaps, the editors themselves – with their own hesitations. It seemed to me, in any case, that the other review, discounting some things but praising more, should have carried the day. I was in any case thrilled with its assessment. There is something to be said for rough edges, after all. Why, especially, should a debut performance have to be perfection itself?

Though in the end I tend to be rather a perfectionist, and if there was a will to publish it, I would by no means have shied away from further revision. Still, you can edit and refine forever: in some sense a text is only “finished” by virtue of its having finally been given up for publication.

As for the earlier collection, when I picked it up again recently and re-read it, I was surprised that it didn’t seem half as bad as I had come over the years to think it was. Its audience might have been fatally limited, but it too was certainly something new and wholly original in Mormon letters and thus deserved, I longingly thought, to stand in that company. I regretted that I hadn’t pushed a bit longer and harder; any little press, however small and insignificant, would have done.

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When to Go into the Water, by Lawrence Sutin

When to Go into the Water, by Lawrence Sutin

While reading the lines cited above from Caleb Crain’s Harper’s essay, I immediately thought of a slim volume called When to Go into the Water, written by Lawrence Sutin and published by Sarabande Books, an excellent small press from my neck of the woods in Kentuckiana (Louisville, to be precise). After pulling my copy off the shelf again, I went so far as to locate the November 7, 2010 journal entry that I had dedicated in part to it; and in which I first wrote about a book of poetry by Yehoshua November, a young Hasidic Jew whose faith-affirming and universally appealing verses evoked in me “that old yearning after holiness …”

“… a yearning, though, that is often satisfied in the most unlikely of places,” I wrote [and quote here with only the slightest edits], as in this little jewel of a novel whose sublime insights and wisdom are laced intimately with what would generally pass as the profane (which is not absent, by any means, in November’s book, though in those pages God’s presence is the source of healing; whereas here that source is a sensual and, it might seem, a-moral (a-theistic?) ethos of fleshly comforts and soothing waters.) The author’s conceit …

[and this is what I was reminded of by Crain’s text]

 … is a kind of epigramic, scattered glimpse of the life and words of one Hector de Saint-Aureole, through his own travels and the parallel journeys of copies of his book – also called When to Go into the Water – which was printed privately in a small edition; and which we only glimpse from his point of view and from those of the various people who encounter the book.

In one passage one of his readers, a woman who had been seriously wounded by her relationships with men, after sitting down to read the book one night in a Starbuck’s, “poured the glass of water that the waitperson had brought with her coffee over her own head in response to the book’s admonition: ‘There is no prison so vast, so various in its tortures, as our own memories. Can we ever hope to be pardoned and released? But then, to whom are we pleading? We are the wardens of our own prisons. Wash the grime of the past from your skin and stand free in the present that is yours alone to live.’ The woman, who loved to read, let the water drip down her. The waitperson brought her a towel and asked if everything was okay. Inside herself the woman felt the water flowing into the cataracts of her heart.”

The passage, to me, was like a baptism of sorts, intensely moving, though in Nietszche’s sense, perhaps, of beyond good and evil – not, in other words, the baptism of any narrow religious (or secular, for that matter) dogma: “‘The drowning man looks upon water as the source of his doom,’ Hector wrote late that night. ‘The parched man sees it as the source of life. Water itself is without desire and washes all philosophies away.’” But not that this novel doesn’t suggest something of a latent ethical, if not narrowly moralistic, set of values, whether one think of them as humanistic or something else. Certainly, throughout, there is a hatred of war and all forms of violence against the human spirit. This is evident in a very early scene, by whose end the child Hector – in German-occupied France during World War I – has come to wish for “the war to slaughter the soldiers on both sides, as he already knew in his heart that all armies talked about love that way” – which is to say, falsely, cruelly. A later scene, which takes place in Argentina where Hector has fled to avoid the next European war, is so brutal that it took my breath away; but the shock is redeemed by this passage: “Hector didn’t so much as dare to write of it in his own book – only these three lines were entered that night as he smoked the American Lucky Strikes that were widely sold in Buenos Aires: ‘The war is everywhere. It was folly to hide. Leave Buenos Aires tomorrow and never linger anywhere again.’”

Lawrence Sutin

Lawrence Sutin

I still humor myself , now and then, with the secular promise of a kind of literary immortality that whether decades from now or centuries might yet come to pass, long after I am gone. Perhaps because of the diligence of a child or grandchild who kept the texts alive or even a more remote descendant who manages to bring them to a larger public. Or maybe, as in Hector de Saint-Aureole’s case, quite randomly and anonymously by the chance discovery of the rare copy of an old, privately-printed edition.

But I no longer suffer under the delusion of ever becoming “the great writer of the Restoration” or the epitome of anything. Though I still sometimes fancy that the literary work I do, original and in translation, matters in some critical sense; so that if not exactly a priestly profession, in some predominantly secular way those combined labors might be sainted.

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imagesRPRJ9KONIn fighting for literature in this age of instantaneous counting and valuing of things, Crain identifies three temptations in regard to all things countable.

First on that list “is to imagine that instances of [the thing] are interchangeable. The average, rather than the ideal, becomes the archetype.” This, Crain says, is the equivalent of saying, as a certain scholar of religious studies has claimed, that since “Jesus was one of a number of Aramaic-speaking magician-messiah figures with a revolutionary message in first-century Jerusalem,” then he obviously resembled the others and so a unified portrait of them all “would be tantamount to a portrait of Jesus. The trouble,” Crain insists, “is that even though such an assumption might be sensible in economics, it isn’t quite safe in history, and in religion it won’t do at all.” Nor, by implication, in literature.

Second, he writes, “is to imagine that no single instance of a thing matters – that the individual case is no more than a rounding error. In the old myth, by contrast, it was possible to believe that a work of literature succeeded if it reached just one person for whom it was a key.”

But third, he adds, “and perhaps most crucial,” is to equate value with popularity. And it is here that we come to the heart of the questions we started with: on the nature of judgment, of an established if ever-fluid canon (or set of canons).

This concept of instability that we discussed in relation to Jackson’s reservations on the subjecg “is being replaced,” Crain writes, “by an illusion of certainty. As I write this sentence, the Amazon sales rank of John Keats’s Selected Letters is 796,426, and the new Oxford Authors edition of William Wordsworth’s poetry and prose has a rank of 2,337,250.”

Fanny Brawne, ca. 1850 (about 30 years after Keats's death)

Fanny Brawne, ca. 1850 (about 30 years after Keats’s death)

“Literature will survive,” he suggests at the end of an essay infinitely more involved and thoughtful than I can convey here,

if readers declare war on counting, if they insist that literature is defined by the judgment of the ideal critic and not the average one, and if they are able to build new communities of critics and readers with borders that are porous and expansive but nonetheless meaningful. “For this week past,” Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne, on July 4, 1820, “I have been employed in marking the most beautiful passages in Spenser, intending it for you, and comforting myself in being somehow occupied to give you however small a pleasure.” The communion imagined by Keats here is on a continuum with those he imagined in his other letters to Brawne or to his brother, but in this case no mysticism is required. As soon as Keats was healthy enough he would be able to visit Brawne and share with her the Spenser verses that he had marked. But I wonder if the sharing, when it took place, would have been able to bring him as much pleasure as his imagination of the sharing had. Or to put it another way, I wonder if what he would have most enjoyed, in the act of sharing, was his imagination of Brawne’s pleasure – which, even if she were sitting beside him, would have been invisible to him – and his imagined perception that it brought their souls together. The deepest literary pleasures, even when they involve others, are a little dreamy and lonely.

Pierre and the peasant Karatayev

equipment150[1]Today I was happy to receive a package containing several books that I purchased with the money my friends and colleagues at Perry Central gave me for my teacher retirement, which has just recently been made official. Among those is a volume of literary criticism: Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke. It is a thick and attractive volume, edited by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber and published in West Lafayette, Indiana by the Parlor Press (www.parlorpress.com). Nathaniel Rivers is known to me as the son of my professor of rhetoric Thomas M. Rivers, who is acknowledged in the prologue for his feedback regarding the book’s introduction.

I have mentioned Kenneth Burke previously in this blog. As a lead-in to the theme of today’s entry I will quote just a couple of sentences from Rivers’s and Weber’s introduction to these collected literary reviews: “One of the many nuances of the ‘equipment for living’ metaphor is that it applies as equally to the creation of literature as to its criticism. We seek strategies for life in literature, whether we are writing it or reading it.”

This, I recognize, has been true of my efforts since young adulthood when I began to keep the journal that since then has grown into more than thirty mostly hand-written volumes, and which I am in the early stages of transcribing / editing / annotating into electronic format. I guess you could say that I am doing this in hopes that those volumes might themselves become equipment for living for the children and grandchildren who inherit them. But in the meantime they are becoming that – again; through the new encounter – for me.

Much of what I have written has been about the writing process itself and my thoughts about whatever I happened to be reading. The first volume contains my re-copied high-school creative-writing-course journal, with accompanying dialogue with my teacher Margaret Meadors. The volume I have just now been transcribing – the writer / reader from age 22 to 24 – contains a great deal about what I was writing at the time and about how I was using it to make sense of recently lived experience. But there is also a pretty fair record of what I was reading, though I am often frustrated by the little to nothing that I wrote about a good deal of it. But when the impact was really strong, the writing showed it.

images[2] In May and June of 1981 I read War and Peace. In the portion of an entry that I am going to share, dated June 27, I wrote about it in the real-life context of whatever disappointment (it hardly matters which) I was facing at the time. What follows is the substance of how I turned Tolstoy into equipment for living:

“I quote Karatayev, the wise and kindly peasant who teaches our hero Pierre: ‘Well, dear man, we thought it was a misfortune, but it turned out to be a blessing! If it had not been for my sin, my brother would have had to go. And he, my younger brother, has five little ones, while I, don’t you see, left only a wife behind … Father, he says: “All my children are the same to me, no matter which finger gets nipped it still hurts. If they hadn’t shaved Platon (Karatayev) for a soldier, then Mikhailo would have had to go” … That’s how it is, my dear friend. Fate has its reasons. But we are always judging: “That’s not right, this is wrong …” Our happiness, my friend, is like water in a dragnet: pull – it expands, take it out – it’s empty. That’s how it is.’ (War and Peace, Anna Dunnigan’s translation, pp. 1159-60)

“Later as Tolstoy narrates: ‘… Pierre was very close to experiencing the utmost privation that a man can endure, but thanks to his good health and strong constitution, of which he had hardly been aware till then, and still more to the fact that these privations came upon him so gradually that it was impossible to say when they began, he bore his position not only lightly but joyfully. And just at this time he attained the serenity and content for which he had long striven in vain. In the course of his life, he had sought in various ways for that peace of mind, that inner harmony, which so impressed him in the soldiers at the battle of Borodino. He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of society, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning – and all these quests and endeavors had failed him. And now, without thinking about it, he had found that peace and inner harmony only through what he perceived in Karatayev. Those terrible moments that he had lived through at the executions had, as it were, washed forever from imagination and memory the disquieting thoughts and feelings that had formerly seemed of paramount importance. It did not now occur to him to think about Russia, or the war, or politics, or Napoleon. It was clear to him that all this did not concern him, that he was not called upon to judge these matters and therefore could not do so. “Russia and summer – like oil and water,” he thought, repeating Karatayev’s words, which were singularly comforting …” (pp. 1207-08)

“And further: ‘That feeing of readiness for anything, of moral alertness, was reinforced in Pierre by the high opinion his fellow prisoners formed of him soon after his arrival at the shed. With his knowledge of languages, the respect shown him by the French, the simplicity and alacrity with which he gave away anything that was asked of him (he received the allowance of three rubles a week made to officers), his gentleness to his companions and his great physical strength, which he demonstrated to the soldiers by pressing nails into the walls of the shed, to say nothing of his capacity incomprehensible to them – for sitting still and thinking without doing anything, he appeared to the soldiers a somewhat mysterious and superior being. The very qualities that had been a source of embarrassment if not actually disadvantageous to him in the world in which he lived – his strength, his disdain for the comforts of life, his absentmindedness and simplicity – among these people gave him almost the status of a hero. And Pierre felt that their regard imposed responsibilities on him.’ (pp. 1209-10)

“Note the lessons that are taught here. We are too quick to judge what is good or bad for us and thus our happiness is shallow, for we do not find strength in trials. Pierre searched everywhere but finally found peace and happiness in the most unlikely circumstances. And note at the end that the very same qualities that society shuns and mocks are the same qualities that really make him a man, that bring him true honor and respect, the respect of other men that imposes on him the responsibility of being a positive influence and example for others.

“As Prince Andrei learns in his experience with death, Christ-like love is a healing balm that puts all our trials in proper perspective. With that love, with that peace that Pierre has begun to taste, our problems and preoccupations are trivial, even laughable. Our worldly concerns vanish into nothingness as the doors of eternity open up to us and we are transformed into different beings, much happier and more satisfied, incomprehensible to those who are enslaved by society and worldly forces but free from accountability to them. This is true beauty. This is what I believe.”

Tolstoy writing

Leo Tolstoy

It is a different man who reads this passage 32 years later. I am not as naively religious as I was then, for one thing, and am more skeptical of Tolstoy the moralist, whose peasant virtues would cause him to flee society completely and disavow his greatest works – including the present one. But today as I sit down to read the great Pevear / Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina I realize how deeply I still value what Pierre and Karatayev and Tolstoy himself once taught me about how to face adversity with dignity. It has even come in handy during the course of my latest travails. Though admittedly I have never completely mastered it.

Passionate Nomads and its Environmental Theme

Passionate Nomads

“The ancient powers have already fallen: the power of gods and elves, of secret forest dwellers and goblins. The glory of haughty animals has fallen: the magnificent masters of woods and mountains, the slippery lunar fishes of river and sea, all constituting just one bit of evidence that likewise the kingdom of man, victim and tyrant of the world, is about to pass away.”

So narrates the fictional but visionary Rosaura dos Carballos in the opening lines of Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publications, 2011: www.aliformgroup.com), my translation of Buenos Aires master wordsmith María Rosa Lojo’s award-winning historical fantasy La pasión de los nómades (Atlántida, 1994). Rosaura, though present in the novel principally in her human form, is a water fairy, daughter of the famous Morgan Le Fay and “a plebeian Galician goblin of no standing whatsoever, one of those vagabonds (trasnos to my Galician compatriots) who like to roam about playing practical jokes on people.” The Galicia she speaks of is Spanish Galicia, which lies in Spain’s green northwestern Celtic country where Rosaura was to be raised by her political uncle Merlin the Magician. Merlin, you see, after the ultimate fiasco of the Knights of the Round Table, has retired in privacy to a rural estate in this land so reminiscent of the Irish countryside. Until, found out by tourists who afflict his solitude and litter up the surroundings, he and Rosaura end up emigrating (via Switzerland) to Buenos Aires.

It is there, on the Argentine pampas, that the færie world of Western Europe meets that of indigenous Argentina, where Rosaura confronts her own destiny on those rolling pampas. She travels in the company of an old military man, writer, globetrotter and dandy named Lucio V. Mansilla who has escaped from Paradise and now, restored with Rosaura’s and Merlin’s help to the physical form of his youthful glory, returns to the land of his most famous adventure among the Ranquel Indians – whom he immortalized in a book that has never fallen out of print in the Spanish language – to face the judgment of History.

The poet / novelist in Buenos Aires

María Rosa in Buenos Aires, 2005

The novel is narrated, alternately, by Rosaura and Mansilla. Lojo re-creates Mansilla’s voice with remarkable fidelity to the historical voice set down in his writings, but Rosaura’s voice with which the novel begins is pure invention and among the greatest imaginative achievements of a prolific and well-regarded literary career. Rosaura’s charming account of the circumstances of her birth and approximately 200 years of youth is by itself almost worth the price of the book. But that is not what I would focus on at the moment. I am more interested, immediately, in the environmental theme suggested in the above-cited warning about the demise of the ancient powers and “the kingdom of man, victim and tyrant of the world, [which] is about to pass away.”

I have had this topic in mind for some time, but it is made even more pertinent by New York Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of Barack Obama last week for environmental reasons. I understand that this comes too late to much influence this coming Tuesday’s election, but it has long seemed particularly terrifying to contemplate the possibility of a President Romney who has aligned himself with the global-warming deniers and made fun of President Obama’s efforts to promote alternative forms of energy. Granted, the President has not gone far enough in this direction, and has indulged with nearly everyone else in touting the benefits of a “clean” coal that does not really exist, but he has been moving in the right direction. There is at least reason to hope that he might accomplish bolder strides in a second administration.

But my interest, as is often the case in these essays, is in the rhetorical power of literature to direct the reader’s attention, to persuade toward attitude which is the necessary prelude to action.  I would not say that Passionate Nomads is an environmental treatise – for one thing, it is not a didactic work; what “message” there may be is sublimated to the detail of image and story – but the convergence of Old World and indigenous American mythologies paints a picture that the thoughtful reader will pick up on.

Spanish editions of La pasión de los nómades

Spanish editions

Below I will excerpt, from later in this first chapter, a serious-humorous interview between Rosaura and Merlin on the subject of that environmental theme. For another excerpt, see my earlier blog of October 8, 2011. And if this one and that other seem compelling – if you haven’t already done so – I hope you’ll consider supporting the literary arts (not to mention the career of this struggling literary artist! :) by purchasing a copy of the translation from the publisher’s website (www.aliformgroup.com). If not for yourself, perhaps as a gift (during the upcoming holiday season) for someone you love.

Pardon the crass appeal to self-interest, but this website does exist in the first place to promote my literary work. Though in my defense, I have spent more time promoting others’ work. The interest in the literary arts, in any case, is (I hope) mutual. If I were just in it for the money I would have long ago given up in despair.

But enough of that. I hope you will enjoy the following excerpt. Pleasant and profitable reading!

***

One fine day Merlin called me to his office-laboratory. He had lit his pipe of aromatic herbs and the air was a deep blue.

“My dear niece,” he began, “things are getting worse. I didn’t feel so worried even at the time of Spain’s civil war or this century’s second European war, which after all were human matters: crazy, foolish, unjust, and cruel, like all of men’s struggles for power. But now they’re destroying the world for us, our world, in an even more serious way.”

He took hold of a thick book of archives crammed with jumbled newspaper clippings.

“Look: the North Sea polluted, the Mediterranean going the same way, crystalline German rivers turned into drainage ditches, the beaches of Galicia adorned with corks, broken bottles, and beer cans. Thousands of factories dirtying mother waters and eternal forests everywhere. Surely you’re not going to tell me you don’t know.” And he planted an accusing finger almost on my nose. “To top it all off,” he continued, giving me no time to respond, “just take a look at these idiots who come here day after day, invading the grounds with cookie wrappers and plastic baggies, trampling like hogs on the new pansy blossoms. All because a reckless fellow had the blasted idea of divulging that this is Merlin’s residence. The truth is they couldn’t care less about me. They would come just the same if someone told them Jack the Ripper or Spiderman lived here. Probably even more. They’re only interested in taking a few bad photos, filling a little bottle with dirt, and when they get home saying that the mansion was very curious (a mixture of Galician manor and Scottish castle, with Gothic touches) but that the owner was an old lunatic and eccentric who refused to perform a single magic show of any sort despite the fact they had unfailingly paid their tour fares to the last cent.”

My uncle sat down and flung all of the embers from his pipe at a tender little plant that adorned the corner of his great sculpted desk, which was a sign of the most severe, uncontrollable indignation.

“Well, aren’t you going to answer me?”

“But uncle, you won’t let me get a word in edgewise.”

Merlin’s gray eyes grew calm. He smiled with an expression of slight annoyance.

“That’s true, lass. But it’s been almost fifty years since I’ve been so upset. Can’t I allow myself the luxury twice a century of getting worked up?”

I stood, attempting a courtly reverence.

“Milord, you are the master, you are in your own house. I kiss your archiepiscopal hand and your foot shod with silver buckle.”

“Clearly, niece, you’ll always be the same impudent mocker! And unobservant besides. I replaced the silver buckles and cork soles years ago with these very stylish suede boots.”

By now my godfather’s brow had relaxed, and the fleeting interest in fashion had erased from his mind, for a moment, his obsession with the Destiny of the World. He had returned to being the usual Merlin: that jovial and good-humored gentleman who governed his house with silken hands and steely lucidity.

“Come on, uncle, tell the truth. Don’t you already have a solution for this mess?”

“Not the broad solution, far from it. We ceased having dominion over men many years ago, too many. In Europe especially, whom would we convince? At most we’re objects of curiosity or derision, but not respect. Besides, since the law of the human world is – as I have repeatedly told you – governed by gold, you know very well I don’t have enough to be really powerful. And you also know we’re forbidden from making it.”

That left me pondering. I was sure my uncle was lying about the size of his fortune. It is extremely unlikely that a Scot (or a Galician) will proclaim that he’s rich. Rather, he will shed tears over the very place where his possessions (generally coins or ingots of the purest gold) lie buried, and foreswear himself to say that in so many years of work and/or enterprising speculation he has only been able to accumulate a modest little income, barely enough to live on. But I thought that if Merlin was lying, he was only lying a little. Unfortunately for us he was neither Onassis nor Getty nor Rockefeller. Just a well-to-do gentleman (an ordinary millionaire with only a few zeros) who had made some appreciable investments in Switzerland. This last thought was confirmed by his next words:

“I’ve been thinking, and I take your approval for granted, that it’s in our interest to sell this property, now visited by so many unpleasant people (which will no doubt increase its value in the ridiculous hotel market), and move for the time being to a peaceful country like Switzerland, where we’ll certainly have enough to eat.”

The reference to eating is not a metaphor. We do eat. We don’t need to but have become accustomed to it. It’s one of the pleasures of life. And as I have said already, we finally did leave. We installed ourselves comfortably in a little town in the Alps, located at such an altitude that it was not reached by atmospheric or any other sort of pollution. We might have remained there for several years, for Merlin was tired and had become very sedentary.

1st Spanish edition

Rosaura on cover of 1st Spanish edition