Monday, February 28, 2011

Money by Edward Bulwer Lytton

Edition: Money: A Comedy in Five Acts : As Performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket
Money (1840) along with The Lady of Lyons (1838) are his most successful plays. Money was first produced at the Theater Royal on December 8, 1840 and at the Old Park Theater in New York on February 1, 1841.

Act I: The play opens with Sir John Vesey discussing with his daughter Georgina the matter of a her Uncle Mordaunt's will, which will be read to them in the afternoon. Sir John expects that Georgina will be the primary heiress of Mordaunt's India fortune, and decides to tell his daughter a "secret"--that her father wasn't very rich. Indeed, Sir John's precepts are: "First, men are not valued for what they are but what they seem to be. Secondly, if you have no merit or money of your own, you must trade on the merits and money of other people." Eventually, the relations pour in--Lady Franklin (sister to Sir John) and Clara (a poor orphan cousin), Evelyn (a poor scholar cousin that many of them exploit the services of), Sir Frederick Blount (a "man of fashion" who pronounces his r's as w's), Benjamin Stout (a "great political economist"), and Lord Glossmore. With the exception of Evelyn, Clara, and Lady Franklin, they all eagerly expect to gain from the will. Evelyn reveals that his old nurse is dying, and needs charity;  Sir John wiggles out of this but Georgina takes down her name and address, thinking that she would give the money if she ends up being an heiress. The poor Clara immediately plans to help Evelyn anonymously. In conversation, Evelyn reveals that he loves Clara, but she refuses him because she doesn't want to worsen the burden of their mutual poverty. As Stout and Glossmore come in, they demonstrate the hypocrisy in their "liberal" principles--Stout embodying reform bill views of the poor as "ignorant," and Glossmore refusing to give to the poor because he thinks it good to force the parish to do so. Mr. Graves, the executor (whose tyrannical wife has died and who now goes around talking about her as a saint), and the lawyer, Mr. Sharp, arrive and read the will. Mordaunt insults them all (for example, leaving Sir John the empty bottles of "Cheltenham water" Sir John had sent to win his favor), and leave Evelyn most of his fortune. To herself, Clara thinks that her hopes of marrying Evelyn are even less, as she would not want to bring him down.

Act II: Painters, architects, horse dealers, silversmiths, and tailors all want to do business with Evelyn. Stout and Glossmore push Evelyn to support their candidates in a local election (Stout's candidate is for the "enlightenment" and Glossmore's for "the constitution"--Evelyn mocks their empty rhetoric). In conversation with Sharp, Evelyn laments the world's hypocrisies, and confesses his failed love with Clara. He thinks maybe he should marry Georgina, and thinks that it is probably her who gave the money to his nurse. He nevertheless pretends that there was a codicil in the will leaving twenty-thousand pounds to Clara to take care of her. Clara talks to Lady Franklin about Evelyn--she is proud and doesn't allow Lady Franklin to tell Evelyn she gave the money to his nurse because she says, "he would have guessed it had his love been like mine." Meanwhile, Lady Franklin has designs on Graves, successfully jolting out of his miserable demeanor by making him laugh. Sir John schemes to get Georgina married to Evelyn, hinting to others that there has been a prior attachment. Thus Blount, who has previously wanted  to court Georgina, goes after Clara and asks Evelyn to help him. Misunderstanding each other, Evelyn and Clara both try to make each other jealous--Evelyn attending to Georgina, and Clara to Blount. Sir John has Evelyn look at Georgina's drawings (which include a portrait of Evelyn) and tells Evelyn it is Georgina who sent money to his nurse. Overcome, Evelyn offers marriage to Georgina (though admitting, that it is more "esteem" and "gratitude" and not the same love that he has borne for another). Clara overhears, and falls into a chair, though wishes him happiness.

Act III: Georgina is still in love with Frederick, but Sir John pushes the union. Craftily, he sends Clara out of town with one Mrs. Carlton, aunt to his late wife--she agrees because Sir John has hinted that everyone had been gossiping about her attachment to Evelyn and so he was acting nobly in the interests of his own daughter. Evelyn finds Clara by herself, and Clara attempts a reconciliation, as friends. Clara expresses some concern that Evelyn has been engaging in follies of wealth lately; he in return reveals that he has been engaging in luxury and folly because he thought she had rejected him due to his poverty. They remain not completely reconciled, Clara leaving him to Georgina in hopes that he will be happy, and Evelyn deeming her "Let us part friends" as cruel. Evelyn thinks, however, that it seems she loves him since she's interested in her fate. Graves tells Evelyn that Clara has rejected Frederick, and that he sees Georgina with Frederick at times. He also tells him that Sir John is concerned about his gambling, and Evelyn hatches a plan to have Sir John watch him lose money so that Sir John might give him up as well. Meanwhile Lady Franklin advances in her plan to get Graves to fall in love with her. Evelyn whispers a plan to a fellow gambler, Dudley Smooth, and it appears to Sir John that Evelyn loses at least fifteen-thousand pounds to Smooth.

Act IV: To further make it look like he is on the brink of ruin, Evelyn asks Blount, Glossmore, and Sir John if he may borrow money from them. Additionally, he asks Georgina if she might let him have the ten-thousand pounds that she was to inherit from her uncle Mordaunt, and suggests to her that they may have to live in the country and "confine [them]selves to a modest competence." At a dinner at Evelyn's, Evelyn asks his "friends" if they think he has spent his money well. They flatter him that he has. A number of messengers come in, including a sheriff, informing Evelyn that he has debts to settle on extravagances that he has purchased; Graves agrees to lend Evelyn 150 pounds. As Blount, Glossmore, Stout, Sir John and Georgina all prepare to leave, Evelyn suddenly presents dinner and abruptly asks if they might lend ten pounds for his nurse. They all fall back, and he scolds them for being willing to lend him much more money, before, for his extravagances but not now much less for charity. Evelyn sends them all away, and retains his truer friends around him--Graves and Smooth.

Act V: Evelyn means to test Georgina to see if she will help him out with her ten-thousand pounds; meanwhile, Clara hears from Graves that the codicil bequeathing her money was made up. She (accompanied by Lady Franklin) plans  to Evelyn's side. Meanwhile, Evelyn has decided to run for the local election himself, making it seem like he is doing it to avoid going to jail. Evelyn is soon surprised by the news that Georgina is willing to bail him out (from a letter), so he resigns himself to renew the engagement because she is true. Moments after, Clara rushes in, confesses her love for him and explains her past behavior. Evelyn is moved, but says it is too late. When Sir John and Georgina arrive, it is revealed that Georgina has not sent the letter and that it is Clara, once again. Furthermore, Georgina has been engaged to Blount--Sir John is at first horrified, because he has since found out that Evelyn has been faking his ruin. The play ends happily with Evelyn and Clara are reconciled, Georgina and Blount betrothed, and Lady Franklin and Graves also betrothed.


The Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton though generally unknown to modern audiences, was an imposing and influential figure in Victorian literature and politics. He wrote a number of popular novels as well as poetry. In the realm of drama, Bulwer-Lytton also met with writerly success, and additionally was involved in the politics of the Victorian theater. Bulwer-Lytton (in his position as an MP) sought to give writers more rights to their plays, to do away with the Covent Garden and Drury Lane duopoly, and to relax the strict censorship rules under Lord Chamberlain. (Source: Mitchell biography)

Money is pretty standard as far as the historical conventions of comedy go: it pokes fun at social ills and manners, and it ends with the three marriages in which everyone is in the "right" couple. One of the more interesting aspects of the play for me was that its treatment of the topic of "money" isn't one that merely indicates the expected "money corrupts" or "one shouldn't be greedy or materialistic." In fact, Evelyn is a character that money can't seem to corrupt--even when he is being extravagant, he is only performing extravagance either to impress Clara or to trick Sir John, Blount, Glossmore, and Stout. Evelyn is oddly devoid of the desire to consume or purchase things: at the beginning of Act II in which people go to his house to try to get him to buy their wares or services, Evelyn shows that he is so far outside the logic of consumption that he doesn't even look at what is offered, he might agree to buy just so he may rid himself of the individuals pestering him. Yet his strange exemption from the influences of the market doesn't quite make him a hero: if he had not come by his fortune, he would have likely ended up as poorly as Clara's father, who, as Clara says to Evelyn "was poor--generous; gifted, like you, with genius--ambition; sensitive, like you..." and yet he met with "struggle...humiliation...the early death." Through no merit of his own, Evelyn ends up okay because he gets money. Furthermore, though Evelyn ends up being the moral compass of the story in that he reveals the hypocrisy of others in relation to money, he is only able to conduct such revelations because he has inherited money. At the beginning of the play, he is abject, and resigned to being at the beck and call of others and only allowed here and there to create dramatic irony by inserting a snarky comment. The play's ending reflects the irony of Evelyn's morality's dependence on money: when Graves says, "But for the truth and the love, when found, to make us tolerably happy, we should not be without--" each of the characters fill their answers (good health, good spirits, a good heart, an innocent rubber, congenial tempers, etc.), Evelyn ending with "And--plenty of money!" Evelyn is aware that money is needed for him to live life according to the moral principles that he believes in, even while he is independent from it as far as the usual desires for buying and consuming go.    

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

Edition: The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays (The Complete Plays of J. M. Synge)

J. M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World premiered in 1907 at the Irish National Theater and has become famous largely because of the riots surrounding its performance. The play was nearly shut down by radical nationalists (Sinn Fein was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith) who felt the play to be an offensive portrayal of Irish identity.

All three acts of Playboy take place at a public house owned by Michael James Flaherty.
Act I: As the play opens, Pegeen (Margaret Flaherty, Michael's daughter) is ordering supplies for the pub and for her wedding. Shawn, whom she is set to marry once a bishop's dispensation has been received, comes in and it is revealed that he is no match for her. He fears that the parish priest, Father Reilly, will disapprove of his visiting, and also fears a man that he has heard outside. Pegeen's father arrives, with his friends, Jimmy and Philly. They are off to Kate Cassidy's wake, where they plan on getting drunk; Shawn is afraid to go with them and the men make fun of him. Suddenly, Christy Mahon breaks in, a shy, timid and "slight young man" who asks for a glass of porter. Christy asks if the police come by there, and so they all begin to speculate about what he has done to be running from the police. Christy can barely get a word in but finally he admits he has killed his father. Amazed, more speculations follow as to what weapon he has used; it turns out to be a loy (a club). Christy immediately becomes of great interest to the party, and potentially even useful, as Jimmy notes, "Bravery's a treasure in a lonesome place, and a lad would kill his father, I'm thinking, would face a foxy divil with a pitchpike on the flags of hell." They decide to let him stay with them as their pot-boy, and the men leave. Shawn tries to stick around, but Pegeen sends him away, clearly interested in Christy. Encouraged by Pegeen's imaginings that he has been on the road regaling many girls with his story, and that he is a fiery soul much like a poet, Christy begins to come out of his shell. He tells her that his father ill treated him. The Widow Quin now arrives, and is also interested in Christy; the two women argue over who should keep him, and timidly, Christy expresses a preference to stay with Pegeen.

Act II: In the morning, Christy is cheerfully cleaning a pair of boots, when a group of village girls come in, having heard from Shawn that a murderer was at the Flaherty's. They too are delighted with Christy, and bring him suggestive gifts--"I brought you a little laying pullett--Feel the fat of that breast, mister," one village girl says. The widow comes in again, and proclaims that she is going to engage him in the sports of the town. Christy, happy with the attention that he is getting, tells them that his father was going to wed him to an old, overweight widow who had suckled him, and that thus he had gotten up the courage to kill him. Pegeen returns, and is angry at the visitors, and with Christy for entertaining them. Christy talks to her about how he is lonely in the world, but she dismisses him as merely posturing. They come to an understanding of their mutual interest in each other and Pegeen says she is single, when Shawn comes running in to tell Pegeen that the sheep are eating cabbages in Jimmy's field. She goes out, and Christy "with a new arrogance" (as the stage directions indicate), resists Shawn who tells him that he will give him some of his nice clothes if he will quit the town. The widow, meanwhile, has re-entered and she suggests to Shawn that she marry Christy, and then in return, Shawn should give her some material rewards. Shawn leaves, and as the widow and Christy are talking, Old Mahon bursts in--he is not dead but merely injured. Christy hides and the widow gets from Mahon that his son is a poor, timid idiot. The widow sends him off of Christy's track. She then finds out that Christy is stuck on Pegeen, so makes a deal with him that she won't reveal his secret and aid him, if he will promise her "a right of way I want...a mountainy ram, and a load of dung at Michaelmas" after he becomes master.

Act III: Jimmy and Philly come into the pub later in the day, drunk, and encounter Mahon lurking around. Widow Quin allays their suspicions that this may be Christy's father by suggesting that Mahon is mad. Meanwhile, Christy has been engaged a race, which he triumphantly wins atop an old mule. Mahon discerns Christy and runs after him. The widow, thinking quickly, gets the men to restrain him and manages to convince Mahon that he is mad, because he had said his son was an idiot, and clearly, the man on the mule was "the wonder of the Western World." Mahon is sent on his way as Christy returns, victorious, with Pegeen, other girls, and men surrounding him. Pegeen sends them all away, and Pegeen and Christy exchange some loving words. Pegeen's father returns drunk from the wake (with Shawn in tow) and informs them that the bishop's dispensation has been gotten, so that she must then marry Shawn. Pegeen rejects him and informs her father that she will be marrying Christy instead. Michael and Shawn fight over who should attack Christy--Shawn, of course, is too cowardly to do so and flees. Michael, seeing how cowardly Shawn is, agrees to the marriage: "A daring fellow is the jewel of the world, and a man did split his father's middle with a single clout, should have the bravery of ten." Just then, Mahon rushes in and all is revealed. A crowd, which has accompanied Mahon to the pub, eggs Chrsity and Mahon on in a fight. Outside, it seems that Christy has killed his dad this time for sure. Horrified, and fearing that they will be accomplices, Pegeen, Michael and the others decide to hang Christy with a rope. Christy by this time seems a changed character; fierce, and insolent. Mahon returns one more time, still not dead. He tells his father that they are taking him off to be hanged because he has killed his father. Mahon suggests that he and his son go away together, and so off they go, but in the words of Christy, "like a gallant captain with his heathen slave," himself ascendant over his father. Shawn expects to wed Pegeen after all, but the play ends with her lament that she has "lost the only Playboy of the Western World."

Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century was politically wracked with competing sentiments as to how the Irish were to define themselves independently of British colonial subjugation. Fervent nationalists resented Synge's portrayal of Irish peasant life because they felt he was suggesting that they possessed such degraded and savage morals that they would deem a murderer of his own father a hero.

As George Cusack points out, however, the villagers make Christy in a hero largely because there is such a lack of bravery in the town--Pegeen makes fun of Shawn and upholds the likes of "Daneen Sullivan" and "Marcus Quinn," two figures who oppose British authority (Source: LitEncyc). The biggest surprise in Synge's drama is that this desire actually has a transformative effect: Christy begins a timid man but then actually becomes confident (in love and in fighting--he becomes both a poet and a warrior) because everyone has believed him to be so. Synge's play reveals the power of words in forming identities even when these words are not actively intended to form any sort of identity. Although the hero leaves town, Pegeen's lament that she has lost "the only Playboy of the Western World" suggests her awareness of Christy's transformation by their words--perhaps Synge suggests to his audiences a more conscious and careful use of language to forge a lasting Irish identity. As he indicates in his own preface to the work (January 1907), his own words are chosen carefully: "In every good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips to poetry." He is talking about the "joyless and pallid words" of modern drama such as that, specifically, of Ibsen and Zola--against this, Synge draws from the "fiery and magnificent" quality of the "popular imagination," locating in Irish peasant life the power necessary for forging together a Irish identity that they all might be proud of.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Edition: Cloud Atlas: A Novel
Cloud Atlas was published in 2004 in Britain and the United States. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, which is awarded annually to the best original full-length novel written in English by anyone in the Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe.

Cloud Atlas contains six different stories, each connected intertextually via a surviving document or other verbal artifact that gets passed on. Five of the stories are broken in half; the book is structured like a Russian matryoshka doll, where the oldest story occupies the outer layer (the beginning and ending of the book), the next oldest story occupies the layer inside this outer layer, and so forth until the sixth story, which is the intact "core" of the doll. The doll metaphor is conceived by one of the characters, Robert Frobisher, in the second oldest story. The stories are summarized below:

"The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" - For a book that stresses intertextuality, this first story is (self-consciously) a rip-off of Melville's Benito Cereno. A clueless American notary from San Francisco during the gold-rush era is shipwrecked and awaiting the repairs of the ship in the Chatham Islands. There, he befriends a doctor named Henry Goose (who later poisons Adam on the pretense that he is administering medicine to him in order to take his money--like Captain Delaney, Adam has no idea, but the readers are meant to at least suspect that something was up). While ashore, Adam learns about the enslavement of the Moriori tribe via the warlike Maori, and has the harrowing experience of falling into a crater, where he observes dendroglyphs. He thinks he might have also seen a human heart in the crater. In the second part of the diary, Henry and Adam are taken along with the irreverent, commercially-minded Captain to see if they might be of help in finding out if they might be able to make some money off of the Raiatea missionaries. When they arrive ashore, it turns out that the mission is extremely corrupt: for example, they have "smoking schools" which promote addiction in order to get natives to be less lazy (since they have to work to support their addictions). The preacher, Horrox, believes in what he terms the "ladder of civilization," a warped-Darwinianism which believes in the extermination of the least fit. Back on the Prophetess, Adam has a number of other adventures: he helps a Moriori stowaway to get a job aboard the ship, he witnesses the suicide of Rafael, a young New Zealander who has been repeatedly raped by Dutch sailors on board. Adam finally realizes that Henry has been poisoning him, and is saved by the Moriori stowaway. He recovers in Hawaii, and his diary ends with his pledge to the abolitionist cause back in America.

"Letters from Zedelghem": Robert Frobisher, a privileged Cambridge dropout and musician in the 1930s, writes to his friend, Rufus Sixsmith, about a plan to apprentice himself to a Belgium musician named Ayrs. He succeeds, and indeed even begins an affair with the musician's wife, Jocasta. While at Zedelghem, Frobisher discovers Ewing's manuscript and reads it with relish. In the second section, Frobisher no longer relishes his work for Ayrs because Ayrs has been plagiarizing his work. It turns out that Ayrs also knows about Jocasta's affairs, and threatens him with blackmail so that Frobished can't leave. Frobisher leavaes anyways, but as he is leaving, he falls in love with Eva, Ayr's daughter. He thinks that she returns the affection, but he is mistaken. While leaving town, Frobisher gets into a fight with Eva's fiance. Eva's fiance is well-connected, and Frobisher is informed by a policeman he has befriended that he would be hunted down if he didn't leave immediately. In the meantime, Frobisher has written a great work called the Cloud Atlas Sestet. In a final letter, he tells Sixsmith that he will commit suicide. He leaves Sixsmith with his Cloud Atlas Sestet with directions to publish it, and also Ewing's journal.

"Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery": This is the first account in 3rd person narration, we find out later that it is a novel written by someone named Hilary V. Hush. Luisa Rey, a young reporter in Buenas Yerbas, CA gets stuck in an elevator with Rufus Sixsmith, who is now in his sixties. They get into a conversation, and the two of them connect. It is suggested that Luisa might be Frobisher reincarnated, since she shares the same comet-shaped birthmark with him (she finds out about his birthmark through receiving Frobisher's letters after Rufus's death). Rufus hints to Luisa that he has an important story for her but he doesn't get to tell her about it because the elevator has begun to work again. After some digging around, Luisa finds out that Rufus has written a report about the new power plant at Swannekke Island, which bore the high risk of leaking radiation all over California, and that the company which built the plant, Seaboard, was silencing scientists by coercive measures. Luisa's fellow journalists at her tabloid-esque newspaper scott at her investigative journalism. At Swannekke, Luisa meets a PR officer for Seaboard named Fay Li, whom she doesn't know if she can trust. Meanwhile, Sixsmith is killed by a hitman, Bill Smokes, as he is trying to get out of town. Another scientist, Isaac Sachs, has given Luisa Sixsmith's report, but as Luisa is driving off with it, Smokes runs her off a bridge.
In the second half we learn that Luisa has survived, but that the report was in the ocean. Isaac's plane crashes; oddly, the CEO of Seaboard was also on board. It turns out that Lloyd Hooks, the federal power commissioner, is behind the whole conspiracy, and he becomes CEO. Napier, a security official whose life has been saved by Luisa's journalist father while they were both serving as policemen, tries to protect Luisa, and saves her life in the following scenario: Luisa goes to a bank safe that Sixsmith has directed her to, but when she gets there, Fay Li is there first with some goons--apparently she had sold out Seaboard as well and her new clients will pay big money to have the report. Fay reaches for the report, but it is connected to a bomb (planted by Smokes); Luisa escapes with Napier. Napier takes Luisa to Megan Sixsmith, Rufus's niece, and together they go to a yacht (which is harbored behind the Prophetess) to retrieve another copy of the report. Smokes gets there too, and he shoot Napier, but Napier is able to shoot him back before dying. Everything ends up being revealed, and Lloyd Hooks disappears.  

"The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish": Dermot Hoggins writes a book which becomes a best-seller after he throws a critic off of his balcony during an awards banquet. Cavendish, his editor, claims he has the rights the book's royalties after it becomes big; Hoggins retalieates by sending his brothers to get money out of him. Cavendish asks his own brother for money, but his brother refuses, instead sending him off to stay at a place called Aurora House for safety. It turns out that Aurora House is not a hotel as Cavendish expects, but a nursing home. At the nursing home, Cavendish tells of how he is subjected to a number of coercive measures. He suffers a stroke (potentially medicinally induced, Cavendish's friends at the nursing home suggest). At the nursing home, he reads the account of Luisa Rey and dreams of making it a bestseller. Eventually, Cavendish and his friends Ernie and Veronica plan to escape the home: they are successful, having stolen a younger man's car by tricking him into visiting his aging mother. Back in London, Cavendish plans to sell Dermot's book as a screenplay, and asks the author of the Luisa Rey book for the second half.

"The Orison of Sonmi-451": This story catapults us into the future, where clones (called fabricants) in what used to be Korea act as servers to pureblood "consumers" under a totalitarian regime. Sonmi-451 is a fabricant interviewed by a historian (called an Archivist). She gives her story to create an "orison" which is a kind of holographic memory/record (later possessed by Meronym in the final story). As part of an experiment, Sonmi becomes the first stable "ascendant" (fabricant who can think critically, essentially, and who therefore experiences the "hunger" of humans). When a lazy post-grad nearly kills her, she is rescued by a professor and one Hae Joo Im. These people are revealed later to be Union members, an organization who wants to foment a rebellion against the Unanimity (who has set up the totalitarian regime). Hae Joo has taken Sonmi to view a "disney" (or movie) called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Before they can finish, captors are outside. In the second half, Sonmi and Hae Joo run away. She gets a face transformation so she won't be recognized as a fabricant. Hae Joo takes her to visit the Golden Ark in Hawaii, where Papa Song (the God that the fabricants are forced to believe in) supposedly grants "Xultation" to the fabricants who have won twelve stars for their lifetime of work. What Sonmi finds out is that this is where fabricants are actually slaughtered, and then recycled as food for consumers and fabricants. Horrified, Sonmi, encouraged by Hae Joo, takes up a revolutionary cause and writes a "declaration." At the end of the interview, it turns out the entire revolution (and Union) had been scripted, in order that the Unanimity could manufacture an enemy, which in the end it would defeat. Nevertheless, Sonmi's testimony and declaration survives...

"Sloosha's Crossin' an Ev'rythin' after": This story is set in a post-apocalpytic Hawaii, and is told in the first person by someone named Zachary Bailey, a member of a tribe known as the "valleymen." The valleymen believe in Sonmi as their goddess, and "Old Georgie" as the devil. At nine years of age, at Sloosha's crossing, Zachary accidentally leads the evil Kona tribe to his father and brother: his brother is enslaved, and his father killed. Though guilty, Zachary doesn't own up to this for a while. One day, a Prescient (Prescients were supposedly the most civilized tribes left over from "the Old 'Uns") named Meronym arrives on a ship and asks to live with them, ostensibly to study their habits. The Bailey's take her in, and Zachary is suspicious of her at first. He eventually learns to trust her after she saves his sister's life and also accompanies her up to a dangerous mountain. There, he and Meronym witness some well-preserved ruins of the old civilization including an astronomical observatory and a generator. Meronym also tells Zachary (who had previously rifled through Meronym's stuff and discovered the orison of Sonmi) that Sonmi was a historical person and that the Prescients didn't believe she was a god. Also during the time with Meronym up on the mountain, Zachary is tempted by Old Georgie to kill Meronym because Old Georgie says that the rest of his family will die otherwise. Sonmi deflects his arrow. Upon their return from the mountain, the Valleymen are ambushed and slaughtered by the Kona at Honakaa, where they are participating in bartering. Zachary's family indeed disappears, but he is saved by Meronym. Meronym needs to be taken to a place called Ikat's Finger, where she will be taken away by Prescient kayaks. Zachary accompanies her, and learns more of the truth: that a plague had hit the Prescient civilization, and that they had sent out scouts to see if there were other lands on which they could build their civilization. Zachary has to choose whether to go with Meronym on the kayaks, or to stay on Big I (the name of his island). He goes with Meronym. The narrative closes with Zachary's son who says he believes that some of his father's story must be true, but some of it must be made up.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas has repeatedly been called "postmodern" because of its experimental form, awareness of textual multiplicity, global narratives, and so forth. Mitchell himself acknowledges his work's entanglement within and awareness of textual systems, providing interviewers with sources for each of his six sections in a Washington Post interview. Yet, postmodernism, unlike modernism, stays at the level of representation. As Fredric Jameson says, modernism has "residual zones of 'nature' or 'being.'" In this sense, Jameson goes on to point out, postmodernism's remove from discovering "nature" or "being" actually makes it more human in that it stays at the level of the signs and systems of culture, realms which are discoverable and known because we made these realms. While Mitchell's novel has the symptoms of the postmodern insofar as its meta-awareness of form and representation, its content (and in particular, its sense of history) tends to resist the idea that all that can be talked about is form.

In the same interview that I just mentioned above, Mitchell responds that Cloud Atlas is different from his other books because "It has more of a conscience." Mitchell continues, "I think this is because I am now a dad. I need the world to last another century and a half, not just see me to happy old age." The comment might easily be dismissed in a "oh-it's-sweet-now-that-he's-a-parent" but I think that there's more to it when considering the book's sense of history. The birthmark thing (where different characters share the same comet-shaped birthmark) is a bit gimmicky (though, Mitchell knowingly comments on this via Luisa Rey, who dismisses her own credulity when she feels alarmed about it), but does it not suggest a sense of "being" beyond the signs and systems of representation? Reincarnation is deeply suggested by the book, and in that sense, it reaches for a "nature" which operates unknowingly and mysteriously outside of typically human ways of knowing. The continuity and resilience which reincarnation suggests resounds with Mitchell's comment about needing the world to last; Cloud Atlas suggests in "Sloosha's Crossing" that even if we dissolve the world with our desire for more and more, the world will regenerate itself--the story not only ends with Zachary going off with Meronym out of a will to continue living, it ends with Zachary's son, who is the living proof that there is in fact continuity. This sense that human life will continue even if we continue to mess up is kind of hopeful. Of course, that's not to say that we can do whatever we want: the "conscience" of Mitchell's book is really the same one offered by Orwell or Huxley (both books that Sonmi reads on her sony device): the human hunger and competition to acquire more and more (whether of power and/or material wealth) is wrong. And again, like in the works of Orwell and Huxley, an individual's power is sufficient to the task of speaking back to those who seek to take all, whether s/he is a(n) fervent abolitionist, impassioned artist, freelance journalist, ascended clone, or post-apocalyptic tribesman.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Edition: Aurora Leigh (Oxford World's Classics)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's epic novel-poem (she herself, when conceiving it called it "a sort of novel poem") was published late in her career, in 1856. It met with significant success. Aurora Leigh was begun soon after Barrett Browning had published Casa Guidi Windows, political reflections on the Italian Risorgimento.

First Book: In first person, Aurora Leigh tells us that she is writing for her own uses, and that she is still young. She begins with her mother: "I write. My mother was a Florentine." Her mother died when she was four, and her father (a scholar, and not as good as her mother at raising and loving a child) took her to live in the mountains, where she remembers worshipping a portrait of her mother. Her father learns to love and his advice to her just before he too dies is to "Love, my child, love, love!" She is bereft of both parents by the time she was just thirteen. She then tells of being sent to England to live with her father's sister, who is strict and constraining: "A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage." She receives an English education for girls, which rather cramps her style (Aurora Leigh critiques the conduct books of the Victorian era). She is furthermore disappointed with the English natural landscape, which is hedged in, trimmed, and less free than the nature that she is used to in Italy: "A nature tamed / And grown domestic like a barn-door fowl." Yet she maintains her resilience, catching moments of "Life" from nature, and from her own thoughts. She tells of how the world of books were rather dangerous for a child --  after all, "The world of books is still the world, I write." She eventually learns to love England as she discovers poetry, idolizing Romantic poets like Keats who were young but old with respect to their soul. Like the first generation Romantics like Wordsworth, she privileges a child's guileless appreciation of nature.

Second Book: As a teen, she plays at being a poet, haughtily trying on a crown of ivy. She is caught by her cousin Romney, who playfully says he has seen her "to be a woman also." He tells her that the profession of poet is not for women, saying at best "You write as well...and ill..upon the whole / As other women. If as well, what then?"He argues that she has not seen enough of the world to know it, and says that in the modern age there is enough ill to contend with in the world to deal with abstractions. Thus begins Romney and Aurora's deep rivalry which will define the rest of the "epic." Aurora argues that it is her truncated English education for girls that makes her know not enough of the world: "A woman's always younger than a man / At equal years, because she is disallowed / Maturing by the outdoor sun and air." When Romney proposes to her that day, Aurora rejects him because it's a proposal that she believes asks her to merely be a complement to man. Her aunt chides her and tells her that she won't get an inheritance unless she marries Romney - Aurora's uncle, Romney's father, apparently made a deal so that she could be included in the Leigh line if she married Romney (out of kindness, since the law customarily disallowed half-foreign inheritors). When her aunt dies, her last wishes are for the cousins to marry so that Aurora might get some of the money. This does not happen, and the cousins go their separate ways; Romney to do practical work against the ills of the world, Aurora to devote herself to art via poetry.

Third Book: Aurora labors at poetry, and gains success insofar as winning some acclaim: she receives many letters from admirers and critics. Vincent Carrington, a friend from the time that she was with Romney, is an artist (painter and sketcher) and sends her a letter detailing to her Romney's latest pursuits:   "Strange it is, / Such sudden madness seizing a young man / To make the earth over again, - while I'm content / To make the pictures." Aurora finds that the attention from the public meant that she needed to work harder for something greater than "frivolous fame." She resolves to work for "better ends." She works on in her poetry and since "In England no one lives by verse that lives" she makes her living instead from writing for "cyclopedias, magazines, and weekly papers," learning to use the editorial "we" in review, and wrote tales: these writings were just so she could have "breathing room / for body and verse." She gains one day a visit from Lady Waldemar, an young widow of high connections who loves Romney. Aurora is haughty towards her at first, until she warns her that Romney's exertions are leading him to a fall, unless he makes a marriage which will save him. Lady Waldemar then tells Aurora that Romney wants to make a match with one Marian Erle, "a child of the poor" for political principles and asks if Aurora would meet her and then perhaps influence Romney against it. Aurora meets with Marian, who tells Aurora her story. Marian had been born in a hut. Her father and mother had to move around a lot with odd jobs here and there, but despite such deprivations, she early on felt that there was a "grand, blind Love" coming from heaven. She was able to catch fragments of reading here and there, in her words: "If a flower / Were thrown you out of heaven at intervals, / You'd soon attain to a trick of looking up." One day her mother sold her to a squire and she ran away. She fainted in a ditch, and was rescued and taken to a hospital. The institution cared for her but once she was well they turned her out and she had nowhere to go. Romney found her there though, and sent her to work at a sempstress house.

Fourth Book: Marian's story continues into the fourth book. A sempstress named Lucy was dying and though others are kind of callous about it, Marian leaves her work to be at Lucy's bedside. There she encounters Romney again and he proposes to her so that they may be "fellow-workers." The account is a mix of Marian's words mediated by Aurora; Aurora "cannot render right / Her quick gesticulation, wild yet soft." Marian's voice tells of how she is not afraid to submit to Romney, and this provides a counterpoint to Aurora's independence. Marian recognizes that her submission is because of her class and comparative lack of opportunity. Romney comes in and he and Aurora converse (Marian is not involved in their dialogue). They rehearse the same conflict from before. Romney says of he and Marian: "We two who are not poets, when to wed / Requires less mutual love than common love." The cousins part. On the wedding day, however, Marian leaves Romney at the altar. Aurora's descriptions of the poor people in the church are somewhat dehumanizing, but the portrait she paints of the gossipy gentry is not too flattering either. It seems that the two classes just can't mingle. Marian has written Romney a letter to explain herself: it seems that maybe Lady Waldemar has gotten to her, though it also seems like Aurora's question as to whether Romney loved her also affected her. She describes Aurora's question as one which "a mother asks / her babe, "You'll touch that star, you think?" Romney afterwards begins to concede some things to Aurora, just as she has conceded some things to him: he says that though as a poet removed from the world, she is like a shepherd-maiden "asleep i' the sun, her head upon her knees, / the flocks all scattered, - is more laudable / Than any sheep-dog trained imperfectly, / Who bites the kids through too much zeal." Aurora, however, proudly resents that he thinks her asleep. Romney takes leave telling her that Art has to stand upon the "lower life."

Fifth Book: Romney has clearly had an effect on Aurora, as this book begins: "Aurora Leigh, be humble." In the first part of this book, Aurora remakes her poetic philosophy. She muses on how true poets should not write for fame or even for reaching any one man. Poets should aspire to write to please God. Aurora is nevertheless bothered that she can't reach Romney. Further elucidating her growing philosophy, she says that she doesn't think that epics have died out in their time, but that "every age / Appears to souls who live in't (ask Carlyle) / Most unheroic." Poets should have a "double-vision" which accounts both for seeing things "comprehensively" and also "intimately deep." She sharply critiques (Tennyson's) focus on medieval times or other past ages. The modern poet ought to "Never flinch, / But still, unscrupulously epic, catch / Upon the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age." She asks herself what form may be best, and answers that the spirit of a poem should be left to shape itself. She won't write plays, because they are too dependent on the audience. Finally, though, she admits that she misses human love (which fame is equal to), but asserts that it is better to hunger for "man's love" than to hunger for "God's truth." As far as the plot goes, she tells of going over to one Lord Howe's and hearing people talk about Romney marrying Lady Waldemar, and remarking whether he has lost his ideals. There, she encounters Lady Waldemar. Feeling this whole environment to be hostile to her poetic ideals, she decides to leave England for Italy, selling her father's books in order to raise enough money to do so.

Sixth Book: In Paris (on her way to Italy) Aurora Leigh muses on France, which unlike England, is a "poet of nations, who dreams on / And wails on (while the household goes to wreck) / For ever, after some ideal good." She begins to think about how scientists are better in some ways than poets in that they are not afraid to look at the ugly specimens as equally beautiful and interesting. Her account of what it means to be an artist still grows, to the point where she's making more concessions to Romney's way of life, though she still values the power of the word in addition to that of "phalansteries, material institutes, / The civil conscriptions and lay monasteries / Preferred by modern thinkers." Suddenly she sees Marian's face amidst the crowds, with a child in her arms. She assumes she is "damned" because of the child, but then berates herself for thinking the worst of Marian. She encounters Marian again at a marketplace selling flowers, and talks to her. Marian takes Aurora back to where she is living, and shows her the baby. At first,  Aurora assumes Marian's weaknesses have led to her seduction, and she berates Marian for taking joy in her child: "We make henceforth a cushion of our faults / To sit and practise easy virtues on?" Aurora thinks of the child as stolen redemption, in a sense that Marian shouldn't think that she is redeemed because she is a mother. Marian sets Aurora right (saying she was "murdered" and not "seduced") with a story of Lady Waldemar convincing her that she was not good enough for Romney (offering bits of Lady Waldemar's dialogue with her) and that class differences are difficult to uproot. She became convinced that she would have been like a kid (goat) who would trample a garden unknowingly if she had married Romney. She tells of how Lady Waldemar dispatches her to Australia but those that were supposed to take her there took her to Paris instead, where she was drugged and raped. Some peasants took her in later.  

Seventh Book: Marian tells of how a miller's wife took her in but then turned on her when she found out that she was with child. Eventually she found a sempstress to take her in. Aurora then asks Marian to go live with her in Tuscany. Marian agrees (though importantly, "She looked me in the face and answered not, / Nor signed she was unworthy, nor gave thanks, / But took the sleeping child and held it out / To meet my kiss, as if requiting me / And trusting me at once.") It is revealed that Aurora does have feelings for Romney though she intends to live with Marian and that the baby should have two mothers. She writes to Lord Howe and tells him that she and Marian are fine, and tells him not to reveal to Romney Marian's strife. To Lady Waldemar, Aurora reveals that she knows her treachery and tells her that she and Marian will leave her alone as long as she is good to Romney, that she will be obedient to him and even pretend sympathy when unsympathetic (basically condemning her to the role that Aurora herself did not want, as a wife). Aurora receives a letter from Carrington praising her latest book and telling her that he has a wife, who also admires her verses, but also telling the news that Romney isn't well. In Tuscany, Aurora reflects on art and experiences a restorative, humbling time. "Thus is Art / Self-magnified in magnifying a truth / Which, fully recognised, would change the world / And shift its morals. If a man could feel, / Not a day, in the artist's ecstasy, / But every day, feast, fast, or working-day, / The spiritual significance burn through / The heiroglyphic of material shows, / Henceforward he would paint the globe with wingsm / And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree, / And even his very body as a man." Truth is God and Art. She visits her old home, but realizes she will not find her parents there (earth is hell, and where they are is heaven).

Eighth Book: Aurora, while dreaming on a terrace of a "sea-king" while before a vision of the Maria Novella Place (church with phallic obelisks in the front), Romney appears. He says something to her about her not receiving a letter from Lord Howe. Instead of revealing the contents now of the letter,  they reconcile--Romney making most of the concessions: he has read Aurora's book, and says that it has shown him something beyond herself that he now believes in (this is the task of the poet/art as she outlined in the final part of the Seventh Book). He knows now that toiling in the mud of humanity was not enough because he didn't recognize the universal vision of God and the individual's place in that universal vision that poetry might reveal. "To move a body, - it takes a high-souled man." Aurora owns that she had been too arrogant and also too narrow in her vision to recognize the necessity of such toiling and its heroism (even if Romney failed). Still, she accepts his concession that "poets get directlier at the soul, / Than any of your economists: - for which / You must not overlook the poet's work / When scheming for the world's necessities." The cousins basically confess their love but it seems too late, as it is "night," and all they can say is that at least they may look upon the stars. The end of the book closes with Romney revealing that Lady Waldemar was not actually his wife. He brings out a letter from her that Aurora never received.

Ninth Book: In her letter, Lady Waldemar proves that she is not as bad as Aurora has made her out to be. She handed over Marian to an old maid of hers which she trusted, and did not know that she would fall into bad hands. Moreover, she genuinely did not think that Marian and Romney loved as she could have loved him. Waldemar says that she hates Aurora, and says that her letter is "insolent" and "absurd." Romney offers marriage to Marian and she at first accepts, but then on second thought, says that she is "dead" and won't love another other than her child. Perhaps she never loved him, she muses (only that she had wanted to be his slave). She exits the scene and Aurora and Romney reconcile. Romney at first feels that he is unworthy of Aurora but she further humbles herself, saying she is not a generous woman, and that she forgot that she was a woman who loved like the rest. "He mistook the world, / But I mistook my heart" so she judges her crime more seriously. She even admits that his aunt, Lady Waldemar, and finally Marian were all right in seeing that she loved him. The epic ends with the two of them setting off to do God's work and an image of a New Jerusalem.

As a "novel-poem," the form of Aurora Leigh mirrors the eventual joining of Romney and Aurora. After all, the Victorian realist novel's ascendancy in this period consolidated the notion that the novel was the socially-minded genre, and heightened anxieties about poetry's place in social progress. Such anxieties over art's role in life were repeatedly expressed by the most prominent poets of the era, poet laureate Tennyson included. Still, poetry as a genre maintained its status as the more expansive, artistic form which channeled principles that reached beyond the material contingencies of earthly life. Thus Barrett-Browning's yoking together of a socially-mired form and a spiritually-independent form experimentally attempts to forge a unified genre which might better speak to the requirements of modern life. The work is novelistic in its heteroglossia; it includes many other voices than Aurora Leigh's through letters, dialogue, and more subtly, via free-indirect discourse. The poetic form is blank verse, in remarkably regular and controlled pentameter lines--indeed, Barrett Browning's poetry seems to fall into this form quite easily and readily; Aurora Leigh's description of the spirit of a poem shaping its form seems apt here.

Marian perhaps presents the greatest problem for novelistic discourse because she points out important class inequities: while Browning manages to allow the working-class Marian a voice, Marian conveniently "disappears" when necessary, bowing out of marrying Romney once again at the end so that Aurora and Romney may reconcile. Perhaps, though, such a disappearance was meant to seem problematic, and realistic, which indicates an interesting potential critique of Victorian liberalism. Essentially, while Victorian liberalism imagined that individuals might transcend their class situations to realize an abstracted, ideal, higher self, here Browning might be showing that this is a myth, and that this "ideal" self is constructed along class lines. Aurora and Romney are able to meet while espousing "equality" between themselves only because they are both well-off enough to have developed such notions of equality. The terminology and rhetoric of equality which constructs it isn't something which was available to someone who was only able to snatch at fragments of reading in her crucial years of youth. Elaine Hadley's critique of Victorian liberalism today was made by Barrett Browning, if we read Marian's quick exit as intentionally problematic.

Finally, an additional generic label might add to the evidence of an imbedded liberal critique. Aurora Leigh is a kuntslerroman, a story of an artist's growth and maturity. Narrated retrospectively, Aurora ironizes earlier moments in her history (the reader knows, for example, that she is silly as she tries on her crown of ivy because of the exaggerated way in which she describes the moment paired with the anticlimactic arrival of her public--"Romney"). Retrospective narration also enables Aurora to heighten the reader's sense of where she has been wrong by delaying revelations of her wrong. For example, she allows the reader to think badly of Lady Waldemar when presenting her own hateful letter to her, heightening the sense of wrong when it is finally revealed, in Waldemar's own words, that such accusations as Aurora made were "insolent and absurd." The same thing happens with Marian; we don't find out what has happened to her until after Aurora accuses her of weakness. Along with Aurora, the reader experiences the shame of knowledge revealed later, thus making the wrong seem more poignant since it belongs to the (presumably well-off, liberal?) reader as well.

Selections from Robert Browning

"Porphyria's Lover" and "Johannes Agricola in Meditation"
"Porphyria": A deranged narrator tells of his lover, Porphyria coming in from the rain, (unreliably) saying that she seduced him ("She put my arm about her waist / And made her smooth white shoulder bare / And all her yellow hair displaced"). He doesn't know what to do at first, but then realizing that she "worshipped [him]," he becomes obsessive: "The moment she was mine, mine, fair." He then "found a thing to do," which was to strangle her with her own hair. He has frozen this moment of worship. The form of the speech is roughly iambic tetrameter, metrically, with an irregular rhyme scheme.

"Johannes Agricola": Johannes Agricola (historically a 16th-century Protestant antinomian) in Browning's formulation blindly believes in his own pre-destination and plucking out by God for salvation to the extent that he claims he need not act by good works nor try for theological understanding: "Guiltless for ever, like a tree / That buds and blooms, nor seeks to know / The law by which it prospers so. It's form is similar to "Porphyria."

Isobel Armstrong reads both of these poems as an expression of "monomaniacal hubris" which indicates the limits of Mill's ideas on poetic soliloquy. Mill argues that poetry is the expression of an emotional or psychological state which is "pure" in its exclusion from the realm of objective, scientific knowledge. All poetry then, is soliloquy since it shouldn't be self-conscious about its own expression (this would make it more objective). Browning's "Porphyria" and "Johannes Agricola" indicate expressive, private emotion gone awry--in which "mania, delusion, and visions of total power" scarily exclude all external connections.

"My Last Duchess"
Browning's famous dramatic monologue of Duke Ferrara (historically a 16th-century Duke) begins with an address to a specific "you" but the relations between the Duke and this addressee are not revealed until near the end of the speech. He tells his addressee of a portrait of his "last duchess" and how she was none too discreet as far as her attentions went. Instead of "stooping" to correct her actions, it seems that he killed her: "Oh sir, she smiler, no doubt, / When'er I passed her'; but who passed without / Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together," he says simply. It is then revealed that the speaker is addressing some ambassador from a Count whose daughter the Duke wishes to wed. He evinces some interest in her dowry in a matter of fact way. Without hesitation, he begins to talk of other works of art on his wall: "Notice Neptune, though, / Taming a sea-horse..." The monologue is in pentameter and rhymed couplets with enjambed lines.

The speaker says that he struggles with speech, yet his regular rhymes suggest otherwise. The enjambment conveys a sense not of disorder but of his forceful, violent drive which is nonetheless contained by measured metrics and rhyme. Like the speaker of "Porphyria" or "Johannes Agricola," the Duke seems all the more frightful and grotesque because of the contrast between a seemingly regular, logical speech (and tone) and the darkness of the (barely veiled) content.

"Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister"
This dramatic monologue, which begins "G-r-r" consists of the angry ravings of a Spanish monk against one "Brother Lawrence." In the second stanza, the speaker mocks Brother Lawrence's pretentious talk of the weather and of his crops, giving the kinds of words BL might say in italics and his own reply in regular type: "Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely / Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt: / What's the Latin name for "parsely"? / What's the Greek name for Swine's Snout? In the following stanzas he mocks BL's fastidious habits with his utensils, his lecherous eyeing of "brown Dolores" squatting "outside the Convent Bank," and his gluttony. The speaker, after reading from Galatians, is inspired to find a way to condemn BL. He thinks about getting him to read a French novel, or perhaps to sell his own soul to Satan in order to have the power to condemn BL. The irony of the poem is in the speaker's unawareness of his hypocrisy--while he condemns BL, he clearly shares the same sins and is angry only with BL because he is jealous. The poem is in irregular tetrameter and stanzas rhyming ababcdcd.

This is a good example of dramatic irony generated from soliloquy. The speaker unwittingly reveals something about himself (his hypocrisy) which readers recognize while also knowing that the speaker is unaware of what he has revealed.

"Pictor Ignotus"
The speaker (a monastic Renaissance painter) brags that his work could have been just as good as the youth which the addressee apparently praises. The reason he has not exhibited his work, he says, because he could not bear to have his work "not go to heaven, but linger here / Here on my earth..." Fame and praise from the marketplace would soil his work. "At least no merchant traffics in my heart," he concludes. The monologue is in iambic pentameter and has a regular ababcdcdefef rhyme scheme.

George Bornstein in Victorian Poetry 19:1 charts this poem's stages from rational explanations of his position to greater and greater imaginative visions of "fame and friendship" and then an abrupt fall back into rational language. Indeed, the height of the poem's imaginative vision has to do with earthly fame: "Nor will I say I have not dreamed (how well!) / Of going--I, in each new picture--forth, / As, making new hearts beat and bosoms swell, / To Pope or Kaiser, East, West, South or North." This undermines, of course, the rational argument against earthly fame and creation of poems which are to have a place in heaven.

"The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church"
In this poem, a Bishop provides specific instructions to his nephews as to his burial in a certain niche at St. Praxed's Church. Besides the details of these instructions, the Bishop reveals a rivalry with one "Old Gandolf" over a woman, whom the Bishop seems to have won in the end. The instructions reveal that the Bishop has a aggressively high view of himself--he wishes his nephews to place lapis-lazuli between his knees as if he were God with a globe. By the end of the poem, however, the Bishop admits that his instructions are probably futile, and admits that in death such things are not for him to ensure. The speech is in blank verse and roughly iambic pentameter.

Armstrong argues that this poem combines "extreme intellectual and epistemological sophistication and an extreme commitment to the voracious power of anarchic, libidinal, emotion, and desire." This seems similar to the contrast I mentioned in "My Last Duchess" between logical speech and violent force. This poem was specifically admired by Ruskin, who felt that it perfectly expressed his notion of the "grotesque."

"Love Among the Ruins"
This is an oddly structured poem in which a longer line is followed by a short phrase which rhymes with it. These pairs are then structured into  stanzas consisting each of six pairs. The poem chronicles what used to stand upon the now empty land: "a city great and gay," "a domed and daring palace," a "hundred-gated circuit of a wall," "collonades," "causeys, bridges, aqueducts" and so on and so forth. Only a "single little turret remains. After such emphasis on the absence of all of these markers of civilization of old, the speaker shifts to tell of how in the present, "a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair" waits for him by the turret. Love has replaced these symbols of old, and the poem ends thus: "For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin! / Shut them in, / With their triumphs and their glories and the rest! / Love is best."

It is tempting to read "love" in this poem as the new kind of life which ought to replace the heroic, masculine codes of the march of civilization. However, the final "Love is best" does sound a bit lame next to the lengthy lines expended on the civilization which is absent. Their negation doesn't negate the fact that these imagined ruins take up most of the space of the poem and the girl (who moreover is "breathless, dumb" until the speaker comes) and love receive only a few lines and phrases. Thus, Armstrong reads this poem as ambivalent about a new "mythos" (see Carlyle's ideas in Sartor Resartus, she suggests) of love -- old symbols of power might be exhausted, but the new one might not be so new either.

"Fra Lippo Lippi"
Fra Lippo Lippi, a painter commissioned for the Medici, has been shut up "A-painting for the great man, saints and saints / And saints again." He "could not paint all night" so finally he let himself out by means of ripping his curtains up and lowering himself out of the window, having been distracted by singing outside. Later in the poem he tells of how he came to the convent because he was a hungry boy and so became ensnared into a cloistered life because of his wants. Noticing his talents at painting (Fra Lippo Lippi details the lively painting that he did at first, capturing real and colorful life around him), the authorities take him up and tell him: "Your business is not to catch men with show, / With homage to the perishable clay, / But lift them over it, ignore it all, /Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh." In a word, they tell him to "paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!" Fra Lippo Lippi, however, still has his own creed for art, despite being forced to paint in this new way which ignores the world and strives for something higher. Instead, he believes that what God has created must be good to reproduce: "This world's no blot for us, / Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good." The poem ends with Fra Lippo Lippi engaging in some secret sexual encounter: after all, "You should not take a fellow eight years old / And make him swear to never kiss the girls."

At the center of "Fra Lippo Lippi" is the question of art's role in relation to life. Browning clearly falls on the side of art which falls on the side of capturing life in its variety, color, and vivacity. Art which strives for an ideal beyond human life constrains the artist who feels it to be natural to engage in the world. Lippi's sexual repression becomes a metaphor for this constraint; he has great energy, but the type of art which the authorities want him to do doesn't allow for an outlet for this energy.

"Andrea del Sarto"
"Andrea del Sarto" is addressed to his wife, Lucrezia, whom he asks for a moment of rest at the beginning of the poem, signaling that she is quite demanding on him: "But do not let us quarrel any more, / No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once." Like Lippi, the historical del Sarto was a painter in Florence, and was known for his technical precision, though has been overshadowed by the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Rafael. Sarto comments on this skill of his, but laments that he has not the spiritual passion of these latter artists: "Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know, / Reach many a time a heaven that's shut to me...My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here." He is the opposite of Fra Lippo Lippi--he lacks energy connected to life and the world, though he obsesses about this lack and desires the energy. Sarto blames his wife for this lack, saying that "Had the mouth there urged / 'God and the glory!' never care for gain," he might have been able to rise beyond such petty material thoughts to reach a greater sense of heaven in his heart. At the end of the poem, it is revealed that Sarto's money has been going to a cousin (potentially also a lover) of Lucrezia's, and it is partially for this that he has been laboring.

Armstrong links "Fra Lippo Lippi" and "Andrea del Sarto" as both poems which, like many of Browning's poems, are especially "about energy"--"whether it is the overflow" (Fra Lippo Lippi) or the "experience of its lack." Sarto's "lack" as well as Lippi's excess, Armstrong points out, is kind of a "distortion" of artistic energy. In both poems, this distortion of artistic energy is paired with the distortion of sexual energy. To bring these poems into Browning's contemporary context via a Marxist reading, Browning could be describing the results of alienated labor.

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"
The subject matter of "Child Roland" is taken from Edgar's speech pretending to be a madman in King Lear. In Browning's "Childe Roland" a young man who has not yet been knighted tells of his quest for a "dark tower." An "old hoary cripple" at the beginning of the poem points out the direction and though he isn't particularly optimistic about this direction, he goes anyways. He wanders through a dark wasteland, where "grass...grew as scant as hair / In leprosy" and where "a sudden little river" yields "a water rat" which he spears and which cries out "a baby's shriek." Roland eventually reaches the dark tower, but he doesn't know that he has, at first. "Here ended, then, / Progress this way," he thinks, but then "Burningly it came on me all at once, / This was the place!" Before the tower, he sees a vision of all the "lost adventurers my peers" and before this vision, blew his horn to signal the end of his quest. "Childe Roland" is written in abbaab six line stanzas and in irregular pentameter.

Written a day before "Love Ruins," "Childe Roland" also seems to make a critique of masculine values, this time of the heroic quest which believes in linear progress. Armstrong suggests that this poem reveals Browning's critique of the violent destruction in the Crimean War (1853-1856). Roland's blindness throughout the quest and inability to parse his surroundings (he thinks he spears a water-rat, but hears a baby's shriek) and also at the end of the quest when he hasn't realized that he has arrived undo the sense of a directed, heroic quest. This sense of not really getting anywhere might be mirrored in the abbaab stanza, which kind of folds back on itself first (abba, envelope rhyme) and then ends with a kind of truncated ramble outwards, "ab." 

“Caliban upon Setebos” 
This poem imagines Caliban of "The Tempest" pausing in his labors to reflect on existential questions. Unlike most of Browning's dramatic monologues, this monologue is framed by a beginning which narrates Caliban looking upon his surroundings while Prospero and Miranda sleep. Caliban's speech begins: "Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!" signaling the name of his God. The first four stanzas (of varying length) begin with "Thinketh" followed by reflections on God's creations, analogizing his creations to his own acts, and ending with "So He." For example, in the fourth stanza Caliban talks about how he is "strong myself compared to yonder crabs...Let twenty pass and stone the twenty first / Loving not, hating not, just choosing so," signaling that God similarly wields power. Caliban further ponders if there might be some higher power than Setebos himself, and since Setebos cannot soar to this height, "looks down here, and out of very spite / Makes this a bauble world to ape yon real." Caliban can find no "good" nor "evil" motives in what Setebos creates, it seems that "He has a spite against me, that I know, / Just as He favours Prosper, who knows why?" He concludes rather bleakly, "here are we, / And there is He, and nowhere help at all." The poem closes with the frame which narrates a thunderstorm, "Fool to gibe at Him!" the narration says of Caliban. The meter is irregular pentameter and without a rhyming pattern. 

As critics have remarked, Caliban expresses many modern Victorian ideas; in particular, he tests out for himself Darwinian theories of natural selection as well as questions of whether God is just or not. Caliban is a kind of naturalist, observing lesser creatures around him and how he acts on them, and also on how those such as Prospero act on him. He notes a kind of hierarchy and posits a "Quiet" who is greater even than Setebos. Seeing how such hierarchies work, however, doesn't answer the question "why" which he repeatedly come back to throughout the poem.   

“A Death in the Desert"
"A Death in the Desert" wrestles with issues of textual scholarship and religion via an imagining of the apostle John's death in the desert. John is the primary speaker of the poem, though he is framed by other voices throughout. The poem is written in iambic pentameter without a rhyming pattern. 

Critics point out that Browning challenges many of the assumptions of contemporary "Higher Criticism" (Renan, Strauss) which approached biblical text as an accretion of fact and myth. The separation of these two aspects tended to lead to arguments which undermine Christ's divinity (a historical Jesus who had supernatural myths attached to him). Browning rejects the equation between fact and truth, however, basically rejecting the terms of Renan or Strauss's arguments altogether. For Browning, there are other alternative models for knowing. According to Ian Lancashire: "The key to much of the poem's pattern is to be found in the "glossa of Theotypas" enclosed in square brackets (lines 81-103). Here Browning develops an important analogy between the human soul and the divine in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity." Specifically, "Power (or Will), Knowledge, and Love [are] attributes which man, in his finite way, shares with God (as Father, Holy Spirit, Christ)" (see Representative Poetry Online entry). In other words, Browning's model for truth involves cognition via these three different aspects which are all unified (and not opposed) within an individual. These three aspects may be roughly taken as "the faculty of sensation," of "the mind or intellect," and love. Truth therefore derives from all three of these means of cognition, and not "fact" gleaned from the first two epistemological models. 

"Bishop Blougram's Apology" and "An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician”
"Karshish": In this dramatic monologue, the empirical Karshish consigns Lazarus's miracle to a diagnosis of mania: "Tis but a case of mania, subinduced / By epilepsy, at the turning point / Of trance prolonged unduly some three days." Still, at the end of his empirical proofs, Karshish admits that he can't explain "the awe indeed this man has touched me with." He ends also with a musing on what "the madman" says God has said through Christ: that humans have no power to comprehend the love which He gave, but that humans must love Him nevertheless who "died for thee."

"Blougram": The Bishop Blougram talks to one Mr. Gigadib (a humanist who disbelieves Catholic doctrine) over wine. In this dramatic monologue, the Bishop makes the case that material, worldly interests coincide with spiritual interests. The distance enabled by the dramatic monologue, however, reveals the Bishop's arguments to be clever but ultimately casuistic.  

Armstrong reads these two poems together, because of their special preoccupation with "what it means to believe anything...'Karshish' and 'Blougram' are concerned with the myth of Christianity at two different historical moments, its beginning and its end, AD 66, at the time of the Emperor Vespasian's invasion of Palestine, and contemporary England." Karshish is an empiricist whose empirical beliefs are satirized and ironized by the dramatic monologue. Karshish mistakenly assumes his own detachment and objectivity in observing Lazarus's resurrection, which is shown to be at least as much a "fiction" as the supernatural. 

Blougram's arguments dissolve the oppositional categories of "belief" and "unbelief," revealing that "belief becomes a mirror image of unbelief," in Armstrong's summary. This is brought about by the form of the poem, in which the first section which gives arguments for "unbelief" mirrors the arguments for "belief" in the second half. Through showing these categories to be mirrors and not opposites, the Bishop is able to make the case for his own spirituality in terms of his own material comfort.    

Cleon was historically an Athenian statesmen with a reputation for being power-hungry propagandist. This dramatic monologue, unlike many of the others, is given as an epistle to his King Protus. In this letter, Cleon thinks that intellectual labor as the labor which moves history, writing off the physical labor done by slaves. When he gets to thinking about the present as a composite of the past, he faces the problem of being only "part" of this composite. This presents the problem of fragmentation, which he solves by saying that the development of the reflexive mind who can see that it is a "part" and reflect on this means higher development: "We called it an advance, the rendering plain / Man's spirit might grow conscious of man's life."
Armstrong points out that Cleon's "solution" to fragmentation fails because it is tautological. His lines "duplicate the subject as object so that they fail to proceed to a new object: they include the categories of the subject in the object or they end with a preposition or infinitive which appears to seek a new predicate but doubles back to an antecedent one." In other words, the reflexive mind can't move beyond itself towards any sense of real progress. It traps itself within itself.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Molloy by Samuel Beckett

Edition: Molloy

Beckett's Molloy was originally written in French and published in 1951. For Beckett, writing in French first was a way of distancing himself from the works of English contemporaries like Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf. The English version did not come out until 1955, after the success of the world premiere of "Waiting for Godot" in 1953 (and even then, it was an English version in a French publication). The English version was written with the assistance of Patrick Bowles. and it was finally published in England in 1966. Molloy is the first of what became known as "The Beckett Trilogy" which also includes Malone Dies and The Unnamable.

Part I:
Molloy is divided into two parts. The first begins with a frame narrative - the narrator, Molloy, is being compelled by someone to write (it is unclear who, and for what purpose). At the end of the first paragraph, Molloy says: "Here's my beginning." This first paragraph is followed by a long paragraph which continues through the rest of the first part. Molloy's account of "what happens" isn't organized as narrative; in a way, Molloy is Beckett's portrait of what would happen if someone who didn't tell stories were compelled to tell one. He begins not even with the pseudo-quest of going to see his mother but with some observations of two people, A and C. From there, he tells of the pleasures of being on his bicycle, which he says he will not call a bike. It is after these accounts that he reveals a fraught relationship with his mother; he doesn't calls her mother but Mag, and she calls him Dan. When he loiters around on his bicycle Mollloy is arrested by a policeman. Molloy, who knows no names or geography, thwarts the officials' efforts to compile a report: "To apply the letter of the law to a creature like me is not an easy matter." At the station, he also encounters a social worker, who foists bad food on him which he resents having to fall into the social worker's narrative which would entail him expressing that he was grateful. He says that he learns some "points of detail" as far as such things go, but not "the essence of the system," in other words, he might learn some aspects of narrative to make his work seem like a narrative, but it isn't, as a whole. He tells of seeing a shepherd and his dog. His pseudo-quest is finally revealed, but no reason is given. On his bicycle, Molloy runs over a dog that its owner was going to have euthanized, and he is captured by the owner, a woman, who wants to engage Molloy to bury her dog. Molloy is unsure if her name is Sophie or Mrs. Loy or Lousse--she might even be a man because she is rather hairy. Since Molloy has a bad leg, he doesn't do much of the work of burying. Lousse contracts him into further obligations by feeding him, and washing his clothes--she reasons that this means he ought to stay with her. He thus stays with Lousse for a while but doesn't know for how long. While at Lousse's, he muses on an older woman named Ruth that he was "in love with" because that's what she told him. They met in a rubbish dump, she paid him for sex, and she died in a tub one day. He eventually leaves Lousse's place on his crutches (his bicycle has been taken away). On his way to his mother's again, he encounters a problem with some stones that he sucks on in his pockets ("sucking stones"): he can't figure out how to suck them evenly since he puts them back in his pocket and can't figure out which one he has sucked last. Molloy becomes obsessed with solving this problem, and he finds an "inelegant solution" which allows him to guarantee some measure of even sucking through the use of his four pockets. He feels some elation at discovering it. Molloy's leg (one is shorter than the other) starts to really bother him, but then the other leg gets stiff from his uneven walking. He encounters with a charcoal burner, whom Molloy says he might have loved, though not in the same way as he had loved Ruth. Molloy hits him with his crutches, though, in a moment of annoyance. At the end of the first part, Molloy finds himself in a forest, applying the logic that if he crawled around in a circle he would actually go straight. When he finally gets out of the forest, he falls into a ditch.

Part II:
Another first person narrator (Moran) begins this part. Moran is some kind of agent, and he accepts a commission from a messenger named Gaber; this is the Molloy Affair. He accepts the mission in part because he is flattered that Youdi, the boss, has supposedly said that "he wants it to be [him]." It is Sunday when the message is delivered, so Moran is forced to skips church. He is a methodical, and principled man, as he calls himself, and so he goes to get communion afterwards. Moran has a son, whom he has orders to take with him. Moran tells him to prepare to leave, giving him strict instructions that he can bring one album of stamps. When his son tries to transfer stamps from another album to the one he was bringing, Moran tells him he can't bring either album. A principled man, Moran wants his son to learn a sense of "sollst entbehren" ("thou shalt abstain," Goethe). Moran tells us that Molloy is somehow already in Moran's head before Gaber mentioned it to him. He's unsure about the ending of the name; this is one of the first clues that the Moran and Molloy character might be one and the same. Moran reasons though that there are five Molloys: the one that "inhabited" him, his "caricature of the same," Gaber's, Youdi's, and the man of flesh. Before the journey, his son gets sick with some kind of stomach complaint. Moran's gruff style of taking care of him involves telling him to take his own temperature (sneaking in a joke about where he ought to put the thermometer), giving his son an enema, and forcing him to eat. They soon begin the journey. Moran doesn't let Martha (the housekeeper) know when they'll be back. Like Molloy, Moran is  "scrivening" because he is "obeying orders," he says. Father and son are then off to "Molloy Country." During this quest, he doesn't remember or didn't get directions from Gaber about what to do with Molloy after finding him. As the quest progresses, Moran becomes more and more like Molloy as his narrative unravels and his "method" gets more and more nonsensical. It is also revealed that Moran has knee problems, much as Molloy had leg problems. Unable to walk, he instructs son to go buy a bicycle from a town called Hole (fourteen miles away), giving him four shillings, ten pence to spend on it. While his son is gone, he meets a foreign-looking man who asks for bread. Moran obliges and asks to look at his walking stick. Another man comes later, who kind of resembles Moran. This man asks if the old man passed by, and annoyed at him, Moran beats him up (and possibly kills him). His son finally returns after being gone for three days. It is clear that he is tired and weak, but Moran makes his son pedal him around on the bicycle. They come at last to "Ballyba," the heart of "Molloy Country" where they see a shepherd and a dog. Ostensibly because he can't take it anymore, Moran's son abandons him, and Moran is kind of touched that his son leaves him 15 shillings. Moran's health declines, his legs are further crippled, and finally Gaber arrives but doesn't really help Moran. Moran asks for a message from Youdi, who said that "life is a thing of beauty...and a joy for ever." Moran is ordered home so he does his best to head home. He reaches home in the spring, even though he was ordered home by the fall. The second part closes with some of Moran's nonsensical theological questions, which are ordered numerically but don't offer much of a clue as far as content goes. By the end, he really seems like Molloy, and even has crutches.

In Waiting for Godot, narrative is repeatedly thwarted. Molloy (the character) functions similarly as the play, in that he is a person who is unable to narrate according to acceptable models for living. Moran, who begins as a methodical, principled man, eventually becomes more and more like Molloy, signaling the inevitability of this kind of system-breakdown. Molloy is "passionate about truth," he says, so it seems that the doing away with all of the models or systems by which lives are lived is a way of getting at what is real at bottom. Of his journey, Molloy also asserts: "Yes, my progress reduced me to stopping more and more often, it was the only way to progress, to stop." Progress in the realm of true existence outside of narrative teleology (and any and all signs and systems of life representation) requires one to stop the kinds of progress driven by narrative teleology.

Yet, there is a way, just as in "Godot," in which there seem to be moments of narrative potentiality. In Molloy, these moments (the sucking stones episode, Moran's theological principles) are shown to be shams, however. There isn't anything approaching purpose in any narrative sense in Molloy's logic while figuring out his "inelegant solution" to the sucking stones problem; we feel that there's no point to the logic beyond Molloy's own elation over performing this logic. For Moran, the organization of his theological principles at the end of the book seems more pathological, and while Molloy's sucking stones logic actually does make sense mathematically, Moran's words do not make sense (perhaps because mathematical systems are different from the kinds of systems whereby we organize life narrratives--they seem outside of the human, in some other realm of the real). Thus, it seems that Beckett doesn't reject all systems altogether: mathematical systems that seem to have some deeper connection to ontological reality    (than sign and referent) are okay.

It might seem that Molloy's mode of living, and finally Moran's disintegration into the same state, seems formal in the artistic sense, especially in the context of modernist artists focusing at the level of form to escape narratives of meaning and significance that tend to pour into art objects. But Molloy rejects this too: "I saw it in a way inordinately formal, though I was far from being an aesthete, or an artist." He admits to the "formal" focus he has (when he thwarts the policeman's report, he says that he does focus on "points of detail" but not systems, almost like how a painter might focus on the colors and shapes but not what the picture as a whole might signify) but also goes a step further than the artist, in a way, to escape artistic purpose as well. In other words, Molloy also discards the purpose of focusing on form in order to escape meanings because that is a significant purpose in itself.

Thus, finally, to try to ascribe historical contexts to Beckett seems almost sacrilegious but here goes anyways: after the traumatic experiences of WWII, people's faith in literature as a moral or ethical force severely declined (e.g., the Germans had Beethoven, and yet the Holocaust could happen). Beckett's new kind of literature conveys the notion that literature may be worthless and pointless but nevertheless we keep doing it. (SOURCE: Notes from a lecture, Prof. Michael North).