Saturday, April 30, 2011

Selections from Seamus Heaney

Edition: Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996
Collection: Death of a Naturalist (1966) 
These early poems present local, rural images associated with Heaney's childhood--Heaney lived from his birth until his teenage years at Mossbawn, a family farmhouse. These poems, though pastoral, are not exactly peaceful ones. These poems were written before the so-called "troubles" beginning around 1968 in Northern Ireland so they don't wrestle specifically with recent political violence, but seem to nevertheless register a more abstract violence in the rhythms of natural life and farm-work which interacts with nature. The language and images of these poems are extremely physical and tactile, metrically, the poems possess a Hopkins-esque assertiveness and energy appropriate to images of rural disruption and violence. Sonically, these poems are filled with onomotapoeic effects. In his Nobel Prize speech later, Heaney would describe his early life at the farm as a kind of "creaturely existence," which I think is exactly what the tactility and physicality of these early poems convey.

Specific examples:
"Digging" links his father's digging for potatoes with his spade with his own "digging" with a pen. Tactile images like the "cool hardness in our hands" of the potatoes and the physicality of his father's work, "Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, doing down and down" bring words close to the feeling of this kind of rural labor. This is, after all, the main subject of the poem: through the physicality of his language and the linked images of the pen and the spade, the poet is able to trace a kind of genealogy between the work of his father and his own work.
"Death of a Naturalist" describes the violence of "frogspawn" bursting; also the rot, the festering which surrounds this "frogspawn." The poet recalls filling "jampotfuls of jellied / Specks to range on window-sills at home...and wait and watch until / The fattening dots burst into nimble-/Swimming tadpoles." This "frogspawn" takes its revenge, however, on a hot day when he hears the frogs' "coarse croaking," the "slap" and "plop" of their "obscene threats." Similarly, in "Blackberry Picking," nature kind of fights back "where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots" and when the bath of blackberries inevitably rots. The poet writes, disappointingly, "I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. / Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not."
"The Diviner" describes the art of finding water with a "forked hazel stick." When it strikes water, the movement is sudden, live, and violent: "The pluck came sharp as a sting. / The rod jerked with precise convulsions / Spring water suddenly broadcasting / Through a green hazel its secret stations." Everywhere, nature seems to be bursting and rupturing, leaving in the wake of such violence a messy decay.

Collection: North (1975)
This collection was published following the breakout of intense political violence which had reached a peak in 1972 (the more violent Provisional IRA formed in this period, the infamous Bloody Sunday or Bogside Massacre also happened in 1972). In efforts to contain the violence, London issued a "direct rule" over the north of Ireland as a sort of temporary solution. North's attention to this violence is worked through images of bodies (ancient and recent) recovered from boglands; the ways in which these poems aestheticize corpses and the violence done to them has been fairly controversial. The second half of this collection moves away from these aestheticized images of violence, turning towards issues of the poet's place and responsibility towards the violence of the contemporary world.

Specific examples:
In "Funeral Rites" the poet is lifting coffins of dead relations and looking upon their corpses: "their eyelids glistening, / their dough-white hands / shackled in rosary beads." These are not merely aestheticized corpses but also Catholicized ones by the rosary beads, and later, melting candles, and "gleaming crosses" complete the picture. The lines are short (generally trimeter) and move quickly down the page grouped in an orderly fashion of four lines each to a stanza, reminding one of ritual and regular rhythms of religious ceremony. The poet seems to imagine that the religiously tinged aestheticization of the dead brings something redeeming to the violence, though it might be inadequate. This tension is expressed best in by following lines: "...Gunnar / who lay beautiful / inside his burial mound, / though dead by violence / and unavenged."

In poems like "Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces" and "Bone Dreams," words are associated with biological debris, as if words can do the work of ordering these bodily fragments, making them valuable and beautiful. The words are literally in "bits" in "Bone Dreams," fragmented but aestheticized: "White bone found / on the grazin: / the rough porous / language of touch" an "flit-find, nugget / of chalk, / I touch it again, / I wind it in / the sling of mind / to pitch it at England / and follow its drop / to strange fields." The "pitching" of these bone bits at England deliberately situates these bone bits in the history of and continual violence of English colonialism.

"Bog Queen" is a first-person imagining of the decaying matter having a sort of consciousness: she says that her body "was braille / for the creeping influences: / dawn suns groped over my head / and cooled at my feet." Later, the account talks about a memory of violence and (sexualized) trauma: "I was barbered and stripped / by a turf-cutter's spade."
Works like "Grauballe Man," "Strange Fruit," and "Punishment" seem to ask whether violence done in the past to a corpse is mitigated somehow by the absence of human physicality in the "matter" which makes up the corpse in the present. The "grain" of the Grauballe man's wrists "is like bog oak, / the ball of his heel / like a basalt egg. / His instep has shrunk / cold as a swan's foot / or a wet swamp root." The girl's head in the next poem is like an "exhumed gourd," a "strange fruit." These images suggest that neither of them are human anymore, so what does that mean for past violence? "Punishment" wrestles with this question, and even more specifically asks if calling attention to a body's state as non-human mitigates sexual trauma. In the beginning, the poet sexualizes the body, trying to imagine feeling "the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck, the wind / on her naked front." Yet she is "oak-bone, brain-firkin," so when the wind "blows her nipples / to amber beads," perhaps there isn't anything lurid about it at all. Still, the poet persists in imagining her history as a "Little adultress," but again, her current state resists these human characteristics that would make violence, sexual or otherwise, a problem. Now, she's just "darkened combs," "muscles' webbing," and "numbered bones."

The later poems in this collection move away from these more abstract wrestlings with violence, aestheticization, language, and "matter," drawing attention to the specific political contexts under which Heaney was writing. "Act of Union" are two sonnets in the first-person voice of England essentially raping Ireland: Ireland is eroticized as a female, England says, "Your back is a firm line of eastern coast / And arms and legs are thrown / Beyond your gradual hills." The moment of violence is in the second stanza, ending with England leaving Ireland ruined for all time: "No treaty / I foresee will salve completely your tracked / And stretchmarked body, the big pain / That leaves you raw, liked opened ground, again." Not particularly positive, to say the least, about the history of colonization and the continuing conflict into the late twentieth-century. "Summer 1969" describes the poet in Madrid, while hearing of violence happening on television. He retreats to the Prado, seeing paintings of violence (like Goya's "Third of May") and suggests that these images of art make violence seem more real than the journalistic accounts in newspapers and television. Both this poem and "Exposure" work through Heaney's own place, as a poet, in all of this violence and express anxiety over what poetry can do (or maybe can't do). "How did I end up like this," he asks in this latter poem, "As I sit weighing and weighing / My responsible tristia. / For what? For the ear? For the people? / For what is said behind-backs?" The tone here is self-mocking and severely ironic in using a rather "high" term like "tristia." In his Nobel lecture, Heaney explains that at the time he had moved with his family to Wicklow, south of Dublin, "Feeling puny in my predicaments as I read about the tragic logic of Osip Mandelstam's fate in the nineteen-thirties, feeling challenged yet steadfast in my non-combatant status..."
Collection: Station Island (1984)
This collection, highly autobiographical, works out on a very personal level Heaney's own sense of his vocation as a poet. Loosely recalling Dante's Purgatorio, the poet encounters deceased friends and literary precursors. Helen Vendler describes the eponymous long central sequence (divided into twelve parts) of this collection as a series of potential "alter-egos" of Heaney's, which he imagines he might have been instead. As a whole, the collection doesn't seem to resolve the central question of what a poet is to do amidst the reality of violence, what to do with his guilt or his responsibility.

Specific examples:
"Station Island" takes its name from a medieval place of pilgrimage which remains up to the contemporary age as such. The sections vary widely as far as form goes; many are dialogic, with the poet in conversation with different "alter egos" as Vendler argues. The sections detail available vocations, like farm, priest, or schoolmaster. The poet speaks with a missionary who has been disillusioned, failing and returning from the rain forest. The poet at first feels a "strange reversal," having come for confession, but then he is rebuked for his poetry might be the same kind of failed mission: "what are you doing here / but the same thing?" the father asks. "I at least was young and unaware." Many of these dialogues are difficult for the poet; another particularly damning one is his conversation with Colum, his cousin who died as a result of sectarian violence: Colum says, "You saw that, and you wrote that--not the fact. / You confused evation and artistic tact. / The Protestant who shot me through the head / I accuse directly, but indirectly, you / who now atone perhaps upon this bed / for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew / the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio / and saccharined my death with morning dew." The voice of Colum charges Heaney with the crime of aestheticizing death and violence, belittling its horror. Joyce is perhaps the kindest to him, telling him, essentially, to stop worrying about these issues and to just write: "Let go, let fly, forget." Joyce is belittling though, about the "pilgrimage," calling it "infantile," and a "peasant pilgrimage."

Collection: Spirit Level (1996)
Written a year after receiving the Nobel Prize, and two years after Ulster paramilitaries and the IRA signed a truce, this collection represents for many critics a break from Heaney's earlier work. Certainly the impasse which seems to characterize "Station Island" seems broken, and many of these poems lay claim to adequacy and value. In his prize speech, Heaney refers to the story of a minibus stopped on the side of a road by IRA terrorists. The passengers were directed to stand in a line, and Catholics were encouraged to step aside to acknowledge their beliefs. Assuming those who had stopped them to be Protestant militants, a Protestant squeezes the hand of the one Catholic old man in their company to signal he needn't step out. The old Catholic steps out to acknowledge his faith, and the rest of the Protestants are slaughtered. Heaney describes the work of poetry as "credit[ing] as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures." In another section of the speech, Heaney expresses his faith that there is an "adequacy" in lyric poetry for doing such work.

Specific examples:
Vendler characterizes the "value" of many poems in this collection as a kind of middle-age stoicism not particularly common to lyric (if only because so many lyric poets happened to die young). Characters in this collection, perhaps most obviously Hugh Heaney in "Keeping Going" move on with the business of everyday, seemingly mundane, everyday living in the face of the violence of man's brains being shot out against the whitewashed building: "My dear brother, you have good stamina. / You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor / Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people, / You shout and laugh above the revs, you keep / Old roads open by driving on the new ones." As if paralleling the saving grace in the performance of the ordinary after the trauma of violence, the language in this collection seems much simpler, concrete, and less abstract than in "Station Island." Poems like "Rain Stick" celebrate the simply joys of hearing the sounds of the rain stick; "Mint" calls upon the reader to look for "newness in the back yard of our life," the sprigs of mint that grow wild "beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles." These are both calls to regard the power of what might be overlooked and disregarded after so much of the horrific had happened. These sentiments are related to the poet's re-valuation of his vocation in this section: like St. Kevin in "St. Kevin and the Blackbird," the poet must strive "To labour and not seek reward," or like the "journeyman tailor" in "At Banagher," never "question[s] what it all amounts to." This steady, stoic work which the poet strives for isn't exactly the same as what Joyce suggests to him in "Station Island" which seems more revolutionary and "high," the middle-age poet doesn't seek to fly but to return to earth and work, as Caedmon sings during the time that he isn't doing yardwork ("Caedmon"). In these figurations of stoicism there is an obvious echo through allusion to the ancient world (e.g., the poet figuring himself as a lookout in "Mycenae Lookout" who is simply there to watch, with a "frozen stare" the destruction of Troy) and also to an Eastern, Buddhist sort of denial of self (again, as in St. Kevin's forgetting his own pain or self in the labor of holding his arms out for the blackbird's eggs to hatch). The poet no longer wrestles with writing to exorcise guilt or take responsibility, but chooses to write as a kind of witness to the other ordinary things of value that remain even after scenes of destruction and violence.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. Southworth

Edition: The Hidden Hand (Oxford Popular Fiction)
The Hidden Hand was serialized in The New York Ledger beginning in February, 1859. At the time, Southworth was the most widely-read woman novelist and also the Ledger was the most widely-circulated newspaper, making The Hidden Hand a clear best-seller. In 1857, Robert Bonner of the Ledger recognized Southworth's selling power and asked for exclusive rights to serialize her fiction. Furthermore, The Hidden Hand was serialized two more times before its book publication in 1888, and reissues continued for thirty years after that.

The old Major Ira Warfield, alternatively known as "Old Hurricane," lived alone at his mansion in the mountains of Virginia known as Hurricane Hall. The estate is surrounded by gothic natural surroundings. Warfield is a grumpy old man, who prefers not to leave the comforts of his home. At the beginning of the novel, he is telling his slave Wool to warm his bed as he will soon retire for the evening. It is late, but a parson arrives in the night, with the urgent message that Warfield must go with him to hear the last testament of a dying old woman. Warfield has been recently appointed a Justice of the Peace and his duty charges him to go. The two men go out then into the cold, stormy night. The old woman turns out to be Nancy Grewell, a mid-wife who has disappeared from the area for thirteen years. She tells a harrowing story of being caught up in the night by two villains. The villains charge her with delivering the twin babies of a masked woman: her baby boy dies, but the girl survives. The woman enjoins Nancy to hide and take away her living girl, bequeathing Nancy with a wedding ring of hers which reads "Eugene--Capitola." Nancy and the baby (whom she says she had hidden with her all along) are sold on board a ship bound for New York which is wrecked. The only survivors are herself, the baby (whom she has named Capitola), and a young sailor named Herbert Greyson. In New York, Greyson helps them get situated, and Nancy and her charge make do in an area called Rags Alley. The woman says that she raised the girl, and after thirteen years, has finally managed to make enough to come back to Virginia to tell this story. Before she dies, Warfield promises to take on Capitola as his own charge; it is clear that he is more intimately involved with this story than is revealed, since he and Nancy whisper knowingly about the house where the masked woman gave birth.

In New York, Capitola actually comes upon Warfield--dressed as a newspaper boy, since that was the only way she was able to make enough money to keep herself. The tenement houses in Rags Alley had been torn down for over a year so she had been cast out. Major Warfield also makes the acquaintance of Herbert Greyson through Capitola, who turns out to be Warfield's nephew--his mother had become estranged from her brother when she made a marriage which Warfield objected to. Warfield wanted to do well by Herbert, and promises to send him to West Point, and also to do well by a widow, Marah Rocke, and her son who had taken in Herbert and his mother long ago, and who had continued to care for him after his mother died. When Herbert tells Marah the good news, she is elated and seems to know more about Warfield than she will reveal at present. Meanwhile, back at Hurricane Hall, Capitola hears a ghastly story from Mrs. Condiment, the housekeeper, about how a former tenant, Henry Le Noir, had let six Indian warriors to their deaths through a trapdoor, and of how Le Noir's family was later murdered by the vengeful sons of these warriors and thrown into the same pit. Apparently one son of Le Noir's escaped.

Unfortunately, when Old Hurricane actually hears that the widow's name is Marah Rocke, he rages and takes back his offer. It turns out that she was once his young wife when he was an officer, and he had found her with a younger man, Gabriel Le Noir. Marah's version of the story, however, was that he had stolen into her room one night when Old Hurricane was out late and she had already been asleep. Marah is then thrown into despair once again that her lover does not believe her even after eighteen years, and begins to waste away. Concerned, Traverse goes to Doctor Day, who had been generously allowing Traverse to study with him for free. The doctor realizes that Marah was wasting away largely because of lack of human sympathy. With his beautiful daughter Clara's prompting, the doctor takes in both Traverse as an apprentice and Marah Rocke as a housekeeper. Naturally, by this time, Traverse has fallen in love with Clara. Capitola, meanwhile, feels trapped by her new guardian's rules; despite the bounty which he has lavished on her, she is used to having the freedom of roaming about. She breaks his rules and rides out further than she should have alone, and meets with an unsavory young man. She manages to outwit this young man and run away from him; back at Hurricane Hall, Warfield fumes and sputters. On another night when Warfield rides out on an errand alone, he comes home to Capitola parodying his fuming and sputtering.

The scene shifts to a meeting of outlaws, "Black Donald" and his gang, at an old woman's inn. This is the house where Capitola was born, and where Nancy Grewell had been taken many years ago. Gabriel Le Noir has stopped by to speak with Black Donald, telling him that his son (the young man outwitted by Capitola) had found Capitola Le Noir, apparently the daughter of the woman whom Nancy tended. The conversation makes known too that Capitola is a heiress to a fortune, and Le Noir says that Black Donald and his gang must hunt down and kill her. Black Donald manages to exact a large sum for the work: ten-thousand dollars, which he dreams he will put to go use in order to move west, join Congress, the Senate, and maybe even become president one day. Gabe reluctantly agrees. Black Donald hatches a plan to do some surveillance, pretending to stop by Hurricane Hall as a peddler of fine goods when the women are home alone. They get to talking about Black Donald, and Capitola bravely says that she'd like to see him. Black Donald takes off his disguise, and Capitola latches on to him screaming for his arrest. Black Donald runs away, though he could have killed her, he doesn't because he thinks her worth having some fun with before killing.

More is revealed about Gabe Le Noir's past when Old Hurricane tells the parson about the murder of Eugene Le Noir, Capitola's father and Gabe Le Noir's brother. Gabe killed Eugene and got his wife out of the way in order to secure his own inheritance of the large estate at Hidden House. Black Donald sends three outlaws to capture Capitola, who ends up being too smart for them, having seen them under her bed in her mirror's reflection. She manages to trap the outlaws in the house and call for help; luckily, Herbert has just come by and the three outlaws are carted off to prison. As all of these things were happening, Doctor Day had sent Traverse to Washington for college, and he manages to get a diploma in just three years. Doctor Day has plans for Traverse to set up his career further west, and to thereafter take Clara as his wife. The young couple is overjoyed. Black Donald soon manages a ruse to spring his comrades from jail by disguising himself as an elderly preacher. Tragedy soon strikes when the Doctor has met with an accident with a cart--eventually, he dies from his injuries, but not before telling Traverse that Gabe Le Noir is Clara's guardian (the will having been made years ago). Neither Traverse nor the Doctor know much about Gabe, and because he was the Doctor's wife's half-brother and a reputable man, the Doctor didn't think much of it. Verbally, though, the Doctor has told two people, Traverse and a Doctor Williams, that he would like Clara to continue to live with Marah Rocke. Marah of course knows Gabe, and worries about what to do when Gabe comes upon the scene.

Gabe refuses to honor the verbal directions of Doctor Day and the court decides in favor of him. Clara goes to live at the Hidden House estate. Capitola hears of a young woman staying at Hidden House and gets curious; she sneaks out and spends the night there. On her way, she runs into the clairvoyant old woman, "Old Hat" who tells her that she will destroy someone dear to her in order that she will rise in the world. Capitola scoffs. At Hidden House, Clara and Capitola (Day and Night) become fast friends, and luckily for Capitola, Gabe is not home. During the night, Capitola fancies she sees the ghastly figure of a woman who takes her ring. When she leaves Hidden House, she has indeed lost her ring.

At Hidden House, Clara fancies hearing a body being dragged downstairs, screaming. Soon, Craven Le Noir, Gabe's son, falls in "love" with Clara, or rather he and his father are plotting to get her inheritance.  She escapes matrimony by a plan hatched by Capitola in which the two of them trade places. Clara goes to Marah, while Capitola goes with a veil with Craven to the altar. In front of a large audience at the wedding, Capitol offers compelling testimony against Gabe Le Noir and his son; in court, she makes a similar statement which leads to Clara being restored to Willow Heights, her father's property, taking Marah with her. Unfortunately, Traverse who is trying to make his career in the West doesn't hear about this, and having been unsuccessful in establishing a practice, enlists to go into the army bound for the Mexican War in order to pay off his debts. Herbert and the Gabe Le Noir (who is a colonel) also go off to war.

Back at Hurricane Hall, Craven Le Noir has fallen in love with Capitola and eventually proposes to her. She refuses him, and he slanders her reputation. She then challenges him to a duel and shoots him in the face with split peas in order to teach him a lesson. Capitola triumphs yet again when Black Donald makes another attempt to carry her away: she manages to trick him into sitting in an armchair placed over  the trapdoor in her room. She springs it upon him and he falls, though he survives the fall (the trapdoor goes down to a cellar). Black Donald is taken to prison and receives a sentence for execution. Meanwhile, the scene shifts to the Mexican War, where Colonel Le Noir and another officer conspire to deprive Traverse of sleep, hence orchestrating his falling asleep at an important post and his execution. Herbert manages to eloquently defend Traverse in court, however, and Traverse goes free. At the end of the war, Le Noir is on his deathbed from his war injuries. He becomes repentant and gives Traverse's letters from Clara and his mother to him, raises him to the honor of ensign, and also gives a parcel to Herbert to be opened after his death.

Traverse doesn't go home, though, because he wants to return having made his career first. He goes to New Orleans, where he cures a rich Frenchman who heads a mental institution. It turns out that Capitola's mother is at the mental institution: she has been kept at Hidden House by Gabriel Le Noir for nearly eighteen years until dragged out of the house to the mental institution recently (hence the screams Clara heard during her stay). Gabe's confession in the parcel which Herbert opens upon his death concurs what Traverse learns from Capitola's mother. Traverse, Herbert, and Capitola's mom all return to Hurricane Hall, where Herbert is set to marry Capitola, Clara to marry Traverse, and Marah and Warfield are reconciled as well. Capitola, however, can't be happy because Black Donald is to be executed on their wedding day. At the last minute, she comes up with a plan to spring him from prison, giving him some tools that he had left behind in the woods. Donald becomes a reformed robber, and confesses to Capitola that he wouldn't have killed her anyways. The ending remarks that they didn't quite live "happily ever after," as each of the women would make necessary corrections of their men when they would be out of line.

Issues of serial publication: The success of periodical literature for a middle-class audience like The Hidden Hand was owed at least in part to the contexts of its circulation. Its serial publication was a closely-orchestrated event; it was common that before one novel's serialization was ended, advertisements would show up for the next. Specifically with respect to The Hidden Hand, the Ledger's Bonner sneakily bought room to print two installments of The Hidden Hand in the National Era, then announced that readers would need to buy the "great family paper," the Ledger, to read the rest.  

Yet, cliffhangers are perhaps not as common as what one might expect from serial fiction whose subject was sensational, melodramatic, and (respectably) lurid. For example, Black Donald's plunge down the trapdoor happened in the middle of an installment, and readers are let in on the secret that he has survived the plunge in this installment before Capitola finds out later. I argue that there is a certain satisfaction for readers in observing characters finding out truths that readers already know, perhaps akin to something like being excited for someone's reaction to their own surprise party. This is, I believe, a more often overlooked feature of serialization--withholding not the truth of a mystery, necessarily, but characters' reactions to the truth. The Hidden Hand employs this trick throughout; indeed, the narrator herself acknowledges at the end when everything is revealed to Capitola about her past that the reader already knows all of this. It doesn't make it any less satisfying to witness the revelation to Capitola, however.

Genre, audience, and respectability: Certainly the sensational aspects of crime, murder, hired outlaws, mental institutions, etc. rendered some readers critical of such literature. A character like Capitola, too, breaks gender stereotypes and is clearly the "heroine" of the story, equally effectual in neutralizing Major Warfield's strict patriarchal authority (usually by revealing it to be humorous with strategies like parody), countering marriage proposals, and capturing a feared outlaw. 

Yet Southworth's Hidden Hand is ultimately within the bounds of middle-class respectability. Readers are left to imagine what outlaws carrying away a young girl will do to her, what would be "worse" than murder, but these things are always left unsaid. In the end, any readerly assumption of Black Donald's lurid and sadistic tendencies is neutralized by his saying that he was not planning on killing her at all, and that he was just in love with her like any other honorable suitor. Capitola's gender-bending is often in the service of her own chastity, as Nina Baym points out in this article: she dresses up as a newsboy in order to protect her chastity, and this is why gender-bending ends up being okay. And ultimately, though she has boyish tendencies, she isn't just a boy with a girl's exterior, she is more sympathetic (and hence, womanly) than men, as evidenced in her capacity to love Black Donald and see him for who he was beyond his occupation as an outlaw. Her weapons against men are never violence but humor and strategem, and when she actually thinks that she has hurt Black Donald in springing the trapdoor, she is clearly distressed, like an "ideal woman" would be, if she had hurt someone. Thus, Capitola certainly crosses boundaries, but perhaps not quite as radically as one might perceive at first.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Autobiographical Vignettes by Zitkala-Sa

Edition: American Indian Stories
Zitkala-Sa's three autobiographical vignettes were published in the Atlantic Monthly in January, February, and March 1900: "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," "The School Days of an Indian Girl," and "An Indian Teacher among Indians." Zitakala-Sa was by this time taken up by the Boston literary coterie, and also published a number of stories and essays in Atlantic, Harper's, and Everybody's Magazine. One of her most controversial pieces was an essay entitled "Why I am a Pagan" in Harpter's, 1902.  Eventually, the vignettes and other stories were collected under American Indian Stories by Hayworth Press of Washington D.C. in 1921.

Zitkala-Sa, a member of the Sioux American Indians, came of age during a time when American Indian writers had begun to transform traditionally oral literature into written literature, for purposes of preservation and also reaching larger audiences via the mechanisms of periodical culture. Much of Zitkala-Sa's literary career was concentrated earlier in her life; later on she became an important advocate for American Indians in Washington D.C., creating the National Council of American Indians in 1926 and holding a position as its president until her death in 1938. (Source: Deter Fisher, Introduction to American Indian Stories)

"Impressions of an Indian Childhood" chronicles a carefree and idyllic time for Zitkala-Sa, dominated by memories of spending time with her mother. The account is written from a retrospective viewpoint tinged with a tone of loss and remembrance--in noting, for example, how she recalls feeling "not wholly conscious of [her]self, but was more keenly alive to the fire within" she draws a direct contrast to how she felt stared down by "palefaces" on her way to school. From her birth to the age of seven, Zitkala-Sa learns of her mother's sadness at the deaths of Zitkala-Sa's uncle and sister at the hands of the white men,  eagerly hears legends during the evenings from elders coming over to their wigwam for dinner, learns the craft of beadwork, and roams free outdoors with her childhood friends, chasing her own shadow or eating roots and gum from the earth. There are many humorous moments, such as when she poured lukewarm water from the Missouri onto some used coffee grinds to serve her grandfather when he came over. In retrospect, she is deeply grateful that he nevertheless drank, and when her mother returned to the wigwam, she too refrained from embarrassing her. Again, this is later contrasted with experiences of belittling and embarrassment at school. In her eight year, Zitkala-Sa encountered "two paleface missionaries" who offered to take her away to school. Yearning to ride the "iron horse" and to experience new places (her brother had already been away to school), she deeply wanted to go away to school despite her mother's deep reservations. Her mother relents, and speeding away on the horses and looking back at her mother's lonely figure, Zitkala-Sa says that she "no longer felt free to be myself, or to voice my own feelings."

"The School Days of an Indian Girl": The lines of regret that conclude the "Impressions" set up the lonely, self-conscious days that Zitkala-Sa spends at school. Though she would end up being an extremely apt pupil, even winning a state speech competition, her account downplays her successes and focuses on her difficulties. They begin on the train to the Quaker school she would attend--white mothers and children would stare at her and point at her moccasins. The school is a sterile, cold building with white walls, in direct contrast the colorful and warm surroundings of her home. She underscores in particular the loud noises of hard shoes on the floors, and the clanging bell which imprisoned them under a routinized regime. In a particularly traumatic episode, Zitkala-Sa remembers running away to hide because she did not want her hair to be cut; they drag her out and tie her to a chair and do it anyways. She remembers, "Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only on e of the many little animals driven by a herder." After this initial breaking in period, Zitkala-Sa began to learn some English, and to rebel in quieter ways--one time, she was supposed to mash turnips for a meal and she mashed so hard that the bottom of the jar broke and all the mashed turnips fell to the floor. Still, she learned the paleface's curriculum, including about the white man's devil, in addition to the "iron routine" of "the civilizing machine." After three years of school, she returned home, feeling alienated and unhappy, having lost her carefree innocence of her early years. Eventually, she decides to go back for a college career, which meets with displeasure from her mother. It was during this time that she won the oratorical contests, a victory downplayed by her sketch's focus on the racist white flag depicting an Indian girl which an audience member waved as she gave her oratory. When a prize is given to her, it almost seems like an afterthought.

"An Indian Teacher Among Indians":
She decides to become a teacher in an Eastern Indian school, avoiding going home to her mother on account, she says, of her "pride." She recalls her employer looking disappointed when he sees that she is "the little Indian girl who created the excitement among the college orators." She finally returns to her mother's house, when she is sent off by the school to find pupils. Her mother doesn't immediately welcome her into her arms, since at first she thinks that her driver is someone she has brought home. The misunderstanding cleared, her mother welcomes her. They have fallen on hard times--Dawee, her brother, had been fired from his position as a government clerk because he had spoken up against injustice perpetuated on their tribe. Returning to the school after visiting with her mother, Zitkala-Sa finds it to be woefully inadequate: student work was done up just so that the inspectors could grant approval and it was all about the satisfaction of those who "were paying a liberal fee to government employees in whose able hands lay the small forest of Indian timber."

CRITICAL APPROACH/ANALYSIS: (Quotations from this section are from Fisher's Introduction)
A Harper's Bazaar piece on "Persons Who Interest Us" describes Zitkala-Sa as a "young Indian girl, who is attracting much attention in Eastern cities on account of her beauty and many talents...until her ninth year she was a veritable little savage, running wild over the prairie" but that "she has...published lately a series of articles in a leading magazine...which display a rare command of English and much artistic feeling." The description is indeed very much at odds with Zitkala's own account of herself and rather seems to treat her with the very attitudes that she seeks to resist in her account. Her stories far from tell of her progress from "little savage" to educated literary elite, rather, they are intensely critical of the sterile, routinized, surveillance-heavy, and freedom-killing nature of the "paleface" education system. As mentioned above, she hardly celebrates the moments which put her on the map as far as mastering a "white education" goes; winning the oratorical state competition is dramatized more for its triumph over racist attitudes than mastery of a white, rhetorical form. Back at home, she was treated as a valuable and reasonable individual, in both trivial situations like when her mother and uncle refrained from laughing at her mistake in making coffee and more important ones, like when her mother allows her to make the decision to go to school. Upon entering the train car, she is treated like an object to be stared at, and once at school, she is thrown up into the air like a doll and herded along with the rest of her classmates like animals. The piece in Harper's simply does the same thing to her, appropriating her as a celebrity-object to be stared at for her "youth," "beauty," and (vaguely enough), "many talents."

Zitkala-Sa's vignettes clearly show that she is not proud of her beauty or her ability to excel in a "civilized" world--she would rather not feel like she was being "looked at" and self-conscious, and she doesn't view her education as really all that valuable at all, compared to the things which her mother and older members of the Sioux knew. Learning to function in the white man's "system" is not necessarily to have a voice, as borne out by such statements as the one above, or by her brother's firing because he had spoken up against injustice. Interestingly, it is a negative review of one of her stories in a school newspaper that actually gets closer, perhaps, to getting her right: "All that Zitkalasa has in the way of literary ability and culture she owes to the good people, who, from time to time, have taken her into their homes and hearts and given her aid. Yet not a word of gratitude or allusion to such kindness on the part of her friends has ever escaped her in any line of anything that she has written for the public." This seems true in my own readings of her autobiographical material and I suspect she isn't "grateful" because getting a white man's education was something of a necessity for survival in a time during which her people, culture, and traditions would soon be entirely wiped out. There was no choice, and the education was no "gift."

It is, perhaps, not surprising, finally, that Zitkala-Sa moved from a more literary sphere to a more politically active sphere. There seems to be a way in which speaking at all in the press means subjecting oneself to be its property and losing control over one's own intended image and ideas.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Herland Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Edition: Herland and Selected Stories (Signet classics)
Herland published in 1915 in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's own Forerunner Magazine (written, edited, and published all by Gilman herself--at its height of circulation, it had a readership of about 1,500), was the second of her three "Utopian" novels espousing her feminist and socialist commitments. Herland was preceded by Moving the Mountain (1911) and followed by With Her in Ourland (1916).

Gilman's commitments to feminist and socialist causes began around the time that she moved to California with her friend Grace Channing, in order to escape an unhappy first marriage. There, Gilman came into contact with the likes of Edward Bellamy, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her subequent travels also put her into contact with the Fabians, in particular, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Gilman herself became a popular essayist and lecturer on her social and political beliefs.

The account is written from memory by one of three male explorers, Vandyck Jennings. Jennings tells the reader that he will not divulge any specifics about the location of their adventures, "for fear some self-appointed missionaries, or traders, or land-greedy expansionists, will take it upon themselves to push in." Jennings begins by introducing himself and his fellow explorers: Terry O. Nicholson is a well-off individual who enjoyed exploration and was good at mechanics and electricity, Jeff Margrave was a poet and a botanist, though he had taken the profession of a doctor. The narrator perceives himself to be the most "scientific" of the bunch; majoring in sociology with a wide interest in all sciences. Terry presents the most problems during their discovery of Herland, a civilization of only women, because of his man's man sexist attitudes towards women.

The idea to find Herland came to them during another expedition the men had been a part of. They had heard from the "savages" that there was such a place and decided to see for themselves. They indeed fly in on their biplane to a civilization of all women. The first women they encounter are three younger women in trees, who outrun the men when Terry has the idea of trapping them by using a necklace to lure them. The narrator describes these women as more like mischievous little boys than shy girls. More breaking of gender stereotypes occur when the men are easily captured by a bunch of older women, made comfortable, and enjoined to learn the women's language and to teach them their own. As comfortable as the women make the men, they decide to escape, through tying together bedclothes and other linen to lower out of the window. The men imagine having made their escape successfully, but it turns out that the women have been surveying their movement and they are brought back and made to understand that they will be treated as guests as long as they promise non-violence and cooperation. The men then apply themselves in greater earnest to their studies. During the course of their studies, they find out that Herland has not had men for two-thousand years: their civilization began with a group of captured women who rose up against male tormentors (who in turn had been enslaved by men who died out from wars and natural disasters). These women created a cooperative society based on united action and sisterhood, and soon a miracle happened: one of their women became pregnant with a girl child. This original mother brought forth four more girlchildren, who in turn brought forth more girlchildren when they reached adulthood. Apparently, parthenogenesis was spontaneously evolved, and this is how Herland came about without men.

As the exchange of information continues between the women and the explorers, it becomes more and more awkward for the men to explain some of their own practices, which clearly shock the women (though they are not judgmental or arrogant). The notions of taking milk away from cattle, killing them for meat, chaining up dogs, women confined to domestic duties, class distinctions, Darwinian economics, and competitive work are completely alien to this utopian, cooperative civilization. Instead, these women are what the narrator terms "Conscious Makers of People" - for them, motherhood and the growth and progress of their civilization make up the raison d'etre of their lives. Of course, not everyone can be mothers in the sense of bearing children; this problem of population is solved by women directing their mothering instincts towards raising children rather than bearing them. As the narrator learns more and more about their society, the more appreciation he has for their ingenuity. As far as education goes, they cultivated two kinds of minds, critics and inventors. The task of educating children is a privileged task reserved for only a chosen elite as education was seen as an essential part of motherhood and people making. As far as innovations in food supply, the women have found a way to enrich soil with waste products, thus preventing depletion.  When the narrator asks about criminality, he is told that criminality has been eradicated by a negative eugenics, in which women with flawed tendencies are asked not to bear children.

When the men invited to lecture to young girls so that they might learn about other civilizations, it doesn't go too well for Terry; his narrow conceptions of gender leads him to think them all too boy like. Terry's rigid notions of gender presents significant problems later on when the women allow the possibility of restoring a bi-sexual civilization. The men end up naturally developing attractions for the three women which they encountered in the trees the day they "landed" in Herland. Jennings starts to develop a friendship with Ellador, Jeff with Celis, and Terry with Alima. Terry, seeing girls as a sexual conquest, ends up in many quarrels with the strong-willed Alima. Jeff is another kind of extreme as far as how he views women--he likes to play the role of gallant male, and hence deems women as a sex to be idolized and worshipped. Jennings strongly suggests that his and Ellador's relationship is the most healthful one; the two of them develop a natural friendship consolidated by mutual respect.

Through Ellador, Jennings continues to gain more and more intimacy with Herland. Education is not forced or compulsory, and there are no schools. Everyone learns a set of common knowledge, and then a separate set of specialized knowledge. To check the mind-narrowing aspects of specialization, everyone also takes on a few other branches of knowledge on the side. Because everything is geared towards growth, Jennings finds it odd that there is no real reverence for the past. Hence, their religion is very different, because like everything else, it has thrown of what it has deemed to be "backwards" ideas. Ellador is shocked, for example, to think of a belief in God as polluting infants with original sin as a lasting one. Additionally, the concept of eternal life sounds odious to her because of how natural it is to think of growth and progress through generations. The primary difficulty for the narrator after marrying Ellador is that she has no sense of male-female love. There is only love as mothers, and consequently they assign to fatherhood a similar importance. Try as he might to explain the mutual love between lovers to Ellador, she doesn't feel it. This problem manifests itself much more problematically for Terry, who tries one night to rape Alima because of his belief in having the right to "master" his wife in bed. He is successfully repulsed by Alima and a cadre of strong women, who subsequently decide that he must be sent home. In the end, it is decided that Terry, the narrator, and Ellador will all go to America, while Jeff will stay with his now pregnant wife Celis. The women of Herland also decide that there will be no bridge between the worlds established until Ellador brings back report; after all, they decide that though there are many wonders about the world from which the men came, there seems to be a lot of problems as well which they would best keep themselves apart from until there is more information.

It is clear that for Gilman in these novels, fiction is more of a vehicle for social and political commentary; the story barely matters--the plot isn't particularly riveting or novel, the characters are rather flat caricatures, and formally, the first-person retrospective account of an adventurer is hardly a new format. This is something which Gilman's novels share with the utopian tradition more generally though, in which the conveyance of ideals of that utopian society reigns supreme. Gilman's most famous American antecedent is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards (1888) which featured a socialist utopia and which was second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur in popularity.

Gilman's utopia distinguishes itself in two major ways: first, she envisions a true socialist utopia as led by women, and second, for Gilman, the bringing about of a cooperative society requires first an intellectual awakening. Whereas novels like Bellamy's envision utopian social institutions that will carry out the necessary reform, Gilman's Herland advocates changes in thinking within each individual. The major change which she advocates is can be fairly straightforwardly gleaned from Herland: The basis of an ideal society must be cooperative rather than competitive, a shift in thinking which requires a revaluing of women's innate leadership as far as cooperation goes. In other words, the realization of a socialist utopia requires both men and women to re-orient themselves away from notions of marriage and female education that designate women to the domestic sphere and a support to men who accomplish the building of society outside of the home. Though Gilman clearly thinks of women as better at cooperation than men, she claims to have a greater commitment to humanity than a narrow "feminism"--she means to deconstruct false gendered binaries in order that both men and women can come together as people to recognize the constructive properties of cooperative society. When the women recognize Jennings as more like themselves than the other men, they clarify that they mean he is more like a person rather than a male (after all, Jeff and Terry are less whole people because of their stereotypical male behavior as the gallant and the cad, respectively).  

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Edition: Voyage in the Dark (Norton Paperback Fiction)
Voyage in the Dark was Jean Rhys's third published novel, appearing in 1934 (but set in 1914, unlike her previous two novels which reflected contemporaneous times). The novel features portions from an earlier unpublished novel, Triple Sec. Rhys's original ending was to have Anna die, but her publisher thought this was too dark.

The novel is narrated in four parts first-person by eighteen-year-old Anna Morgan, who spent her childhood on the island of Dominica in the West Indies. She now lives in England as a touring actress with uncertain work opportunities. She begins with an account of her difficulty settling in England, where she always felt cold, and the towns seemed always alike, drab, and dark. At the opening of the novel, she lives with Maudie, an actress of twenty-eight years old. One day, she and Maudie meet two men on the street who work in "the city," signaling that they are pretty well-off. Anna becomes involved with one of them, Walter Jeffries. She becomes fairly attached to him even though she sees him only intermittently. He gives her money with which she is able to buy new clothes, and also takes care of her when she is sick. Anna is disappointed that she won't spend her birthday with him, because her birthday falls on a Sunday when he won't be around. Instead, she goes out with Maudie, who advises that Anna get as much money out of him as possible.

Walter introduces her to his cousin, Vincent, who connects her with a singing instructor. Patronizingly, Walter tells Anna that she should "get on" and that he would like to help her. One night, when drunk, Anna tells Walter of Dominica--of her father, a list of slaves which she had once seen, their church services--but he isn't too interested. Anna's stepmother Hester visits London, and shows Anna a letter from her uncle back in Dominica berating Hester for not sharing her deceased father's wealth with her. Hester doesn't respect Anna's uncle because he drinks, and because he has fathered many illegitimate children with natives. She reveals too that she feel she has done right by Anna. Anna tells Hester that she does not need her help and can do on her own, thinking she can depend on walter. Hester brings back many home memories to Anna; she thinks especially fondly of a native caretaker, Francine, whom she remembers eating mangoes and telling her stories. Soon, Walter decides to take Anna to the countryside with Vincent and his girl, Germaine. The trip is cut short because Germaine argues with Vincent. Anna is silent for much of the conversations, and the three of them often talk about her as if she is not there, infantilizing her. In one moment of anger, Anna smashes a cigarette but on Walter's hand, but she is sorry for it afterwards.

Walter eventually tires of Anna and drops her, charging Vincent with writing her an impersonal and patronizing letter telling her that he is "sure she is a nice girl" and that she should, simply move on. Walter has promised, however, to take care of her financially should it be necessary. Crushed, Anna sort of floats from one thing to another. She first runs into a woman named Ethel Matthews, a masseuse, who offers her to share rooms with her and to earn her keep as a manicurist. Anna also runs into Laurie, another of her actress friends, who introduces her to two men, Carl and Joe. Carl eventually pursues her, and they sleep together, but it turns out that Carl has a wife and must leave. Anna then spends one night with an unnamed man with a bandaged wrist, by whom she accidentally gets pregnant. Meanwhile, Ethel has decided to drop Anna because she has not really been a good business partner; Ethel writes a letter to Laurie telling her that Anna owes her money. Laurie takes care of Anna and suggest that she write to Walter to get money for an abortion. Walter sends Vincent over, who gives her the money but also asks for the letters that Walter has sent her back. Anna is sickly during her pregnancy and eventually gets a abortion; the whole ordeal occurs in a sort of haze for Anna, amidst more nightmarish memories of the Caribbean such as of being frightened of zombies and soucriants (devil women).

Rhys's Voyage in the Dark bears some similarities to Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (Rhys had a brief affair with Ford Madox Ford in 1924) in that it features a first-person narrator writing in such a way as to suggest an absence of artifice or pre-meditated structure. Both narrators write as if their words flow freely from them with very little sense of constructing a coherent story.

The form of Rhys's novel is significantly more radical, however. While the narrator of The Good Soldier gives a reason for the fragmented nature of his account--he is writing because of a retrospective psychological need to do so in order to deal with the trauma of his botched relationships--it isn't clear how or why Anna is writing her fragmented first-person account. Presumably, the account is also retrospective (in past tense), but it really feels more like she is speaking of what happens to her pretty much as it happens to her. The associations that she makes between her surroundings and what happens to her and her childhood experiences in Dominica give the narration a sense that somehow she is able to communicate to us what feelings and associations she had in the moment of her experiences. There is a strange tension, then, between the apparent lack of artifice in Anna's account, and the necessity of this being a crafted retrospective account in order for it to make sense as to when she would have the opportunity of writing. After all, Anna seems to passively allow things to happen to her and different people to come into her life, and the assertive act of writing hardly seems in keeping with the passive affect which her simple diction, flash-backs, associations, and stream of consciousness writing calls up.

And what are we to make of Anna's inclusions of letters--from Vincent, her uncle, and Ethel? It seems the first-person narrator is doing some kind of scrapbooking, which also seems pretty inconsistent with the Anna who describes finding the greatest relief in sleep. Finally, just to add one more complication to the notion of the narrative as a telling-as-it-happens first-person account: how would Anna have narrated her own death in Rhys's original version?

Perhaps these difficulties suggest a need to suspend disbelief, to recognize that it is not important that Anna probably couldn't have written this account. What simply accepting that we're able to enter into her first-person consciousness as things happen to her does is to allow us access to the impressions of an individual normally evacuated of all agency in telling her own story: the young, emigrant, working class chorus girl. This is partly Rhys's unusual recovery of her own autobiographical past (as she was from Dominica, and worked as a chorus girl for a time), not as a retrospectively constructed, reflective account which is the most "usual" type of memoir, but as a re-imagining of what that life was like as it was being lived.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

Edition: Four Quartets
Eliot's Four Quartets grew out of a what was initially a single poem, "Burnt Norton," which ended up being the first of four poems. "Burnt Norton" was made up of discarded passages from his dramatic work from the 1930s, specifically, Murder in the Cathedral. After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, interest in the theater declined, and Eliot turned back to poetry, writing a second poem which takes the same five-part structure of "Burnt Norton" called "East Coker." During the writing of this second poem, Eliot decided on the overall sequence of the Four Quartets. The third poem, "The Dry Salvages," was completed in 1940, and the last poem, "Little Gidding," was completed in 1942. Their first publication as a set was in 1943 in New York, and 1944 in London.

Burnt Norton
I. The poet expresses abstractions of time which privileges the notion that "time is eternally present" in reflective yet simple lines. A bird calls "us" into a rose-garden, "our first world" (alluding to Eden), where an unnamed "they" are, "dignified, invisible / Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves..." We look into an empty pool which fills "with water out of sunlight" and "they" stand behind us, reflected. The moment "they" are identified as children (our own past?) the bird tells us to leave.
II. The beginning of this second section is metrically nursery-rhyme like: "Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle tree." The lines expand with the introduction of a recurring image in this poem, "the still point of the turning world," which the poet insists, is stillness and not "fixity." This still point is this eternal present, a Buddhist-like state free from "practical desire" "release[d] from action and suffering."
III. The poet indicates "a place of disaffection," which is being stuck in "Time before and time after." To escape this temporality, one could descend, "Into a world of perpetual solitude / World not world, but that which is not world, / Internal darkness, depirvation / And destitution of all property / Dessication of the world of sense, / Evacuation of the world of fancy, / Inoperancy of the world of spirit." This begins to sound like Hell rather than Heaven, though both are empty of desire and notions of "time past and time future."
IV. This is a short stanza; it plays with the images of a bell, nature, and again, the still point of the turning world.
V. This final section admits and explores the limitations of words and music. Even though words and music don't die like people do, they aren't "still" and are subject to the burden of movement. "Form" and "pattern" perpetuate stillness, though, and might help words and music to get closer to the divine stillness  of an eternal present which the poem has been holding up throughout.

East Coker
I. The poem begins, "In my beginning is my end." Images of destruction, decay, restoration, and renewal, collapses beginnings and endings. In an "open field," archaic, rustic rituals celebrating "matrimonie" and coupling go on, alongside the time of seasons, milking, harvest. "Eating and drinking" are juxtaposed with "Dung and death."
II. Again, the first part of this section begins with clipped, nursery-rhyme like lines which mix together imagines from different seasons, again collapsing linear time. The words which he has just used to try to collapse linear time, the poet says in the next section, are inadequate to the task. The section ends bleakly with the adage that "[t]he only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."
III. "O dark dark dark" reminds us of Milton's blindness, but also his faith: the dark is not a place of despair, but it "shall be the darkness of God." Didactic negations turn out to be the way of reaching (the inexpressible state of spiritual fulfillment--but it can't really be "fulfillment" since that signals progression). This is how Eliot expresses it: "To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not, / You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy. / In order to arrive at what you do not know / You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance...And what you do not know is the only thing you know / And what you own is what you do not own / And where you are is where you are not."
IV. Sin is figured as a disease and sickness, and earth is "our hospital." In battling fevers here on earth, the poet says he "must freeze / And quake in frigid purgatorial fires."
V. This section contains a direct reference to the World Wars, and the poets own "twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres / Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt / Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure..." Again, words aren't up to the task of expressing the still point of the world, the time eternal, the spiritual state which we need to realize. Yet, the fight to get there, to "recover what has been lost" is what we do. In fact, "for us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business," in other words, that's the business of Christ.

The Dry Salvages
I. The first section figures (the Mississippi?) river as a "strong brown god," who is forgotten in the building up of cities and the living in them. Yet, the divine presence of the sea remains everywhere though it may be "unhonoured, unpropitiated, / By worshippers of the machine."
II. This section revises the notion of an "end" and suggests that in time, there is only "addition" or accumulation. As one gets older, the poet says, time seems less and less like development or sequence (linear), but more like a pattern, which is another way of thinking of it as accumulation. The only true happiness is not in the things that we usually think of as "well-being," like "fruition, fulfilment, security or affection, / Or even a very good dinner" but a "sudden illumination" which can't be expressed as any kind of "meaning." This happiness is only available through Christ.
III. "I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant" links Eliot's poem to Eastern concepts of transmigration of the soul. The poet enjoins life travellers to "fare forward" and not to fare well; there is a sense of inevitability in change and to "fare forward" is to let these changes happen and to face them bravely.
IV. The poet prays to the Virgin on behalf of people living by the seaside, those who have embarked voyages, and the women who have been left behind.
V. This section condemns all sorts of life occupations to tell the future ("To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits, / To report the behaviour of the sea monster, / Describe the horoscope,  haruspicate or scry, / Observe disease in signatures, evoke / Biography from the wrinkles of the palm...") as unreal--they are merely "pastimes and drugs." Instead, one ought to try to "apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / with time." This is the "occupation for the saint," although Eliot stops here and admits it isn't an "occupation." Ultimately, the closest we may get here on earth are to gain "only hints and guesses," "the rest / Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action."

Little Gidding
I. The poem begins with "midwinter spring" is a divine, eternal sort of season which feels "suspended in time, between pole and tropic." The second part of this section breaks into second-person address conditionals which essentially say that regardless what route you take, the notion of "purpose" will break apart. "You are not here to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid."
II. After images of water and fire destroying the earth, a dead master speaks with the poet in terza rima, preaching purification and refinement of the soul by fire. Specifically, the master refers to the disciplined movement of "dancing" in the fire, again suggesting the importance of pattern (as in poems, music) in aiding a soul towards realizing the divine state of stillness.
III. This section explores problems of attachment (such as to country, "faces and places") and levels these kinds of loyalties in death: "We cannot revive old factions / We cannot restore old policies / Or follow an antique drum. / These men, and those who opposed them / And those whom they opposed / Accept the constitution of silence / And are folded in a single party."
IV. This is a short section on redemption by fire.
V. The poet asserts that "What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning," destroying once again the linear conception of time. A similar sentiment is expressed in "history is a pattern / Of timeless moments." He suggests a continuing exploration throughout ones life, however, but that the "end" of such exploration will be to get back to where we started "And know the place for the first time," strongly signaling a return to a state before original sin.

The five-part structures of the poems in Four Quartets are reminiscent of The Waste Land, but late Eliot is significantly different from earlier Eliot. For one, Eliot's subject is more obviously Christian; Four Quartets primarily and explicitly works out the subject of time and mankind in relation to the divine. Stylistically, the poems feel like they are spoken by a "single consciousness" (according to critic Margaret Thormahlen, SOURCE: LitEncyc) rather than the fragmented consciousness of The Waste Land. Relatedly, Four Quartets feels much more personal in nature--indeed, autobiographical snippets further this overall sense (each poem is named after a place which was personally significant to Eliot). The invocation of a musical form of "quartets" alongside Leavis's reading of The Waste Land, however, forges an important connection between these works: both reject narrative as an archaic organizational principle and favor the abstraction of musical relationships as a substitute in modern times.  In The Waste Land this new form is less explicitly aligned with a new conception of Christianity for the modern world, and the art itself seems to hold its own kind of power, but in Four Quartets, this new conception of Christianity is the whole point which art strives towards (but inevitably fails to completely reach).

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

Edition: The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions)
The Waste Land was published first in October 1922 in Eliot's own monthly, The Criterion. The poem subsequently appeared in November in the American literary magazine, The Dial. A hardcover version was published by the New York's Boni and Liveright in December, and a handprinted version was generated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Hogarth Press in 1923. Lawrence Rainey suggests that this tripartite publication of The Waste Land--in journals, as a limited edition, and as a wider commercial edition--reflects Eliot's desire to produce a complex relationship between The Waste Land to a public greater than just the literary elite.

Epigraph: Reference to Sibyl in a jar wanting to die, she had asked for as many years of life as grains of sand, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. This is followed by a dedication to Ezra Pound (il miglior fabbro, the better craftsman, what Dante said to Arnaut Daniel in Purgatorio).

I. Burial of the Dead
The poem begins with images of April, the winter, and the summer followed by snippets of conversation between Marie (the Countess Marie Larisch, friend to Eliot) and her cousin the arch-duke who took her out on a sled when they were children. In the second stanza, the voice of God interrupts, following with images of a wasteland: "Son of man, / You cannot say or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water." Excerpts from Tristan und Isolde interrupt. A famous scene with Madame Sosostris follows, there are descriptions of her Tarot cards: some characters on the cards are actually in the Tarot deck, and others are not. There is the drowned Phoenician Sailor, the Lady of the Rocks (Da Vinci), the one-eyed merchant, and the Hanged Man. The next stanza details images of London as an "Unreal City," where a crowd of dead people flow over London Bridge. The poet sees one he knows, and asks him about the corpse he planted in the garden last year.

II. A Game of Chess
An opulent scene with Cleopatra in her chair opens this section. A "sylvan scene" with Philomel appears above an "antique mantel" (the story is that Philomel was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus who then subsequently cut out her tongue so that she could not tell the story; some versions say that Philomel was transformed into a nightingale, which sings a sad song). A fragmented conversation between lovers (?) follows, one voice anxiously asking questions like what the other thinks, if he is thinking at all, what noise there is, what he knows, and what they shall do. The lover, who is in first-person, answers that they will play a game of chess. He then begins to talk about a woman named Lil's husband, who got "demobbed" or demobilized (released from armed services). In conversation with Lil, the first-person speaker callously tells her that she better give him a good time, because "if you don't give it him, there's others will." This conversation is interrupted by the pub announcement at closing time, "Hurry up please its time." The section closes with a string of goodnights merging into Ophelia of Hamlet's "Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night."

III. The Fire Sermon (title from Buddha's sermon against things of the world)
This section begins with an image of the Thames and a reference to Spenser's Prothalamion ("The nymphs are departed") juxtaposed with a bunch of modern, mundane images: "The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights." Another brief reference to Philomel interrupts, the "twit twit twit" and "jug jug jug" sounds of the nightingale. The famous Tiresias scene is in the middle of this section: Tiresias is an all-seeing seer, both male and female. S/he sees a typist at home awaiting "the expected guest," "the young man's carbuncular," "a small house agent's clerk." This young man seems to rape the typist; it is a rape in the modern city in the same poem as a classical rape. The rest of the section includes fragments from Das Rheingold, fragmented images of the river and what flows down it, another reference to a rape structured like an epitaph drawn from Dante ("Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me"), and finally ending with Augustine's "burning" which in Confessions refers to sensual temptations.

IV. Death by Water
This very short ten-line section brings together images of the sea's rising and swelling with profit and loss, age and youth. Phlebas the Phonecian's death is a central image, whose bones were picked by currents under the sea, and who rose and fell passing the "stages of his age and youth."

V. What the Thunder Said
This final section begins with people present at Christ's crucifixion, followed by a lengthy description of mountains of rock where there is no water. Three people are walking, and one of the men don't recognize the third person--this is a direct reference to how in Luke 24 two men on the road to Emmaus do not recognize the resurrected Christ. Cities fall down and are destroyed; the poet levels all of the great cities to the same status by including them all together: "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal." The penultimate part of the poem explores three different interpretations of a syllable God presents ("Da") in the Upanishads to three different disciples. "Datta" means "give to men," "Damyata" means "control for the gods," and dayadhyam means "compassion for the demons." The final section of the poem mixes "London Bridge is falling down" with references to the swallow (sometimes Philomel is a swallow and not a nightingale), a sonnet by Nerval, Kyd's Spanish Tragedie and the three words from the Upanishads. The final three words, centered and apart from the rest of the poem are "shantih    shantih    shantih" which means peace, rest, or tranquility.

Michael North's introduction to Norton edition of The Waste Land divides critical reception into basically two camps: formalist, New Critical readings which seek to crack the "code" and provide coherent explications of the work, and readings beyond the New Critics which seek to undo the integrity of some of these readings. Not having the space or time here to offer a more extensive survey of the criticism, I'll focus here on two that I like in particular, and which sort of go together, despite the one being a New Critical reading and the other a Marxist critical reading.

F.R. Leavis's formalist reading is a good example of the former - according to Leavis, The Waste Land was an effort achieve an "inclusive human consciousness" in the face of Machine Age fragmentation. Because the development of technology and mass culture led to an increased pace of life--a "breach of continuity" and "uprooting of life"--alternative forms of coherence were needed. The Waste Land is Eliot's solution to this problem of fragmentation because its organization is one which is based on something other than traditional notions of historicity or narrative continuity, namely, something analogous to musical organization. The different fragments of culture from different times and places exist together in the poem and are related to each other in the way that musical notes and phrases relate to each other in a single piece.

Franco Moretti complicates Leavis's formal reading by contextualizing what he refers to as the mythic arrangement of The Waste Land in a Marxist account of history. Prior to the modern age, the novel was supreme because the novel gets its form from the culture that it springs from. If there is a sense of rootedness and coherence in the culture, so too will there be in the novel. The rise of capitalism loosens the system linking of referents and signs; thus, a new genre is required which is independent of such relationships of historical reality and form. This genre is poetry, which subsumes past and present, far and near, under a new mythos.


The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party and Other Stories is a collection of short stories previously published in periodicals. The first edition came out in 1922, by which time Mansfield's health was on the decline. Mansfield's short stories are considered to exemplify and perfect many of the distinctive features of modernist fiction writing.

At the Bay consists of impressionistic snippets of family life by Crescent Bay. It begins with the early morning, the misty bay, sheep plodding along, and a shepherd and his dog. In one of the bungalows, Stanley Joseph Burnell runs out for a swim and is disappointed when Jonathan is there before him. Stanley is a regimented, "practical" man and Jonathan is much more free-spirited. Stanley goes back home and is in such a rush to get to work that he doesn't have time to say goodbye to the women. He expects them to all help him get out the door, and resents them for not doing enough. When he leaves, the women are relieved. The children, Kezia, Lottie, and Isabel run out to play with their cousins Rag and Pip. Pip has found an "nemeral" in the sand and shows it to the girls. Beryl, sister to Linda, Stanley's wife, joins a Mrs. Kember at the beach, whom her mother and many other people in the town disapprove of. Mrs. Kember is married to a man ten years younger to her, and likes to skirt improprieties. Beryl is shy as she changes in front of Mrs. Kember, who remarks on her beauty. Back at the Bungalow, Linda is alone. She thinks back to living with her father in Tasmania, on how Stanley is actually very soft-hearted and simple beneath his outer shell, and on how she doesn't love her children. A kind of conversation is exchanged between Linda and her little son in which it isn't clear what is outwardly expressed or simply thought, or imagined to be thought. In the afternoon, Kezia takes a nap with her grandma and they talk about Uncle William, who died of sunstroke working as a miner. They talk also of death, and Kezia tries to get her grandma to promise never to die. Alice, the servant, goes to visit Mrs. Stubbs at her shop, looking over some pictures of Mrs. Stubbs's late husband. Back at the house, the children play a card game in the warehouse, pretending that they are each an animal. Uncle Jonathan comes to pick up the boys, Pip and Rag, and speaks briefly to Linda, confessing that he hates his job and feels like an insect that keeps flying into a room and dashing itself between the walls. Linda appreciates his free-spiritedness, but knows that he will never be as reliable as Stanley. When Stanley returns home, he is apologetic about having not said goodbye to Linda; he has also bought some gloves for himself. She tells him it is okay, and tries on one of his gloves. At night, Beryl thinks about her desire for a lover, to not be lonely growing old. Harry Kember, Mrs. Kember's husband, turns up in the garden and asks her to go on a walk with him. She is torn and goes out at first, but then realizing that he is drunk, she runs away. The story closes with an image of the bay at night.

The Garden Party tells of a garden party given by a well-off family, the Sheridans. The story opens describing the ideal weather, the setting up of a marquee, and food preparations; the narration generally focalizes the thoughts of Laura Sheridan, one of the grown children of Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan. Laura fetishizes the working class men who set up the marquee, thinking to herself that class distinctions were "absurd" and ascribing to them a simple, naturalistic, and sincere existence which she would so much prefer to the "silly boys she danced with." In the midst of the preparations, they hear that a man who lived in one of the working-class cottages nearby had been thrown off of his horse and killed when the horse shied at a traction-engine. He had left behind a wife and half a dozen children. Laura thinks that they should perhaps stop the party; her sister Jose and her mother call her "extravagant" (ironically), sentimental, and lacking in common sense. Sympathy is a matter of proximity--of class, and of physical distance: after Mrs. Sheridan hears that the death isn't in the garden, she breathes a sigh of relief. The garden party goes on with great success. Afterwards, Mrs. Sheridan decides that it might be nice to send over a basket to the widow, and she lets Laura go over to the cottages. Faced with the reality of actually interacting with working class in the intimacy of their everyday living, Laura is deeply uncomfortable. The woman is ugly, puffed up, swollen, and red. Laura drops off her burden, and prepares to leave immediately, but manages to get a glance at the corpse, which, unexpectedly, she finds rather beautiful in its repose. She cries. On her way back, she is intercepted by her brother Laurie and the two of them can't find the words to express life: "'Isn't life,' she stammered," to which Laurie replies, "'Isn't it, darling?'

Daughters of the Late Colonel details the daily life of Josephine and Constantia, the two daughters of a  tyrannical colonel who has just died. The two women have never married, and though they are unable to express the anguish of their limited living, it is apparent from their snippets of conversation. They are deeply afraid to settle their father's things, or to bury him in the ground. One of them even imagines their father inhabiting his clothing drawers. Small decisions like whether to keep the nurse or maid around, if they should wear black dressing gowns in addition to the black they wear out, or whom they should bestow their father's watch to become nerve-wracking ones for the two women. At the end of the story, Constantia recalls how she felt like she was living a more real life whenever she would creep out of her nightgown to see the moon and then thinks she has something "frightfully important" to say to Josephine. She forgets what this is mid-sentence, and Josephine says she has forgotten too what she has had to say.

Mr. and Mrs. Dove is a short scene in which Reggie, a man living with his overbearing mother, goes out to see the girl he loves, Anne, the last night before he is to leave for Rhodesia. Anne always laughs in his presence, even if nothing is particularly funny. Reggie is about to be rather sentimental about leaving her, but Anne snubs him by telling him to watch some doves outside. She describes how Mrs. Dove runs away laughing at Mr. Dove, but Mr. Dove keeps following her. This is an allegory for how she views their interactions. She explains this to him explicitly, and moreover says that she is unable to feel for him as he feels for her. Reggie turns to go and says he'll be able to take it if she lets him go, but, feeling badly because she is selfish and can't bear to be the reason for his loneliness in Rhodesia, she calls him back and he comes.

The Young Girl is a brief sketch of a seventeen-year old girl at a casino with her gambling mother. The mother wants to take her into the casino and leaves her little brother, Hennie, with the first-person narrator (a care-taker?). The young girl is very rude and dismissive towards her mother and has no interest in trying to get into the casino. Since she isn't twenty-one, she ends up having to spend time with the narrator and Hennie. They go sit somewhere, eating pastries, drinking tea, and chocolate. They go back to meet her mother, who, not surprisingly, is not ready for them. The narrator asks if the girl will stay in the car but she said she'd rather wait on the steps. She gives the most sincere, broken speech yet: "I love waiting! Really--really I do! I'm always waiting--in all kinds of places..." The narrator describes her "soft young body in the blue dress" at that moment as like a "flower emerging from its dark bud."

Life of Ma Parker is about the "hard life" of Ma Parker, who waits on an oblivious "literary gentleman." She has just buried her young grandson. The gentleman has had to "do" by himself for a week, and the kitchen which Ma Parker come back to is an atrocious mess. The gentleman, however, has thought that he has gotten along fine and that people made too much of "housekeeping." Ma Parker reflects on how she has never had a break, burying her husband, seven of her children, and now her grandson. She wishes to go somewhere, finally, to cry, but there is nowhere she can go--in most places she will be watched or questioned, the literary gentleman's house was not her space. The story ends with her standing in the rain.

Marriage A La Mode is about an estranged marriage between William and Isabel. William goes weekly to work in London; from the papers he reads on his train trip home, it seems he is a lawyer. On one particular weekend on his way back from London, William decides to buy fruit for his children because the last few times he has gotten them candy from the train station and they had gotten bored with the same gift. On the train back, William can't focus on anything except his idealized vision of what Isabel will be like at the station. When he gets there, Isabel meets him with a taxi full of her artist friends. Their conversation is full of banter, allusions, and vanities. Back at the house, Isabel and her friends ignore William and he even overhears some dismissive remarks they make about him. Soon, the weekend is over and he is to go back to London again. William decides to write Isabel a long, sentimental letter while in London. Isabel receives this letter and reads parts of it aloud to her artist friends, who, of course, ridicule William for his sentimentality. Isabel runs up to her room, and thinks to respond to him, but when she tries, she finds it is too hard and goes back out to join her friends.

The Voyage is the story of a young woman, Fenella, accompanied by her grandmother on a Picton boat taking her away from her father. It is evident that some kind of tragedy has happened involving her mother, but what it is isn't fully revealed by the snippets of dialogue. Her father sends them off for the voyage (he is clearly emotionally strained) and on the other side, they are picked up by a carriage and taken to the house of her grandmother and grandfather.

Miss Brill wears a fur animal around her neck to a weekly Sunday band performance. She goes to this performance every Sunday, reveling in people watching. As she takes great pleasure in thinking about people's lives as performance, she realizes that she too is an "actress" in this great drama of life. She is elated nearly to tears by her realization. A young boy and a girl sit next to her, and they make remarks about Miss Brill's faded looks and her ugly fur. Back at home, Miss Brill lays her fur to rest in a box and imagines that the creature sadly crying in there.

Her First Ball tells of Leila (the country cousin of the Sheridan children of "The Garden Party") at her first ball in the city. The story opens with Leila in a cab with her cousins, feeling jealous of Laura having a brother, and of their sophistication more generally. At the ball, Leila is whirled up into dancing, hardly knowing who any of her partners were. At one point she dances with an old, fat man, who disturbingly communicates to her a vision of herself growing old and watching the young women dance before long, while thinking vapid thoughts about the attention her young daughter is getting. Leila feels disturbed for a moment, but soon forgets him in the whirl of continued dancing.

The Singing Lesson intersperses the telling of Miss Meadow's singing lesson to her girl students and her distraught thoughts on a letter she had recently gotten from her lover breaking off their engagement. As she forces her pupils to sing a melancholy song, she rehearses snippets of the letter in her head, including a particularly cringeworthy line in which he had said he couldn't imagine marrying her without a sense of regret. She had noted that he had rubbed out the word "disgust" before replacing it with regret. Miss Meadow is totally unaware of the strain that she puts on her pupils as a result of her own feelings. The lesson is interrupted by a telegram from her lover saying that she should ignore his last letter. Miss Meadow's mood is immediately uplifted, and she returns to her pupils demanding that they sing mirthful lines with joyful feeling.

The Stranger opens with Mr. Hammond waiting with a crowd on the wharf for the arrival of his wife aboard an approaching ship. Mrs. Hammond had been abroad in Europe visiting their eldest girl who had just married. Mr. Hammond is extremely anxious and cannot wait to be alone with his wife, but when she finally gets off the boat, it is evident that she has made friends with everyone on it and must say goodbye to everyone individually. Mr. Hammond's impatience reveals a disturbing possessiveness; he can barely stand it when she goes alone to say good-bye to a doctor. Back at the hotel he has booked so that they might have some privacy, Mrs. Hammond's first thoughts were to read letters from her children. Mr. Hammond tries to get her to be with him, together, and not think on the letters for now. Soon, she reveals that a young man on the boat has died in her arms. Mr. Hammond cannot take that she has had such an intimate moment with someone else; his thoughts burst out in broken frustration on how "She'd--who'd never--never once in all these years--never on one single solitary occasion--" but he cannot finish the thought. The story ends with these lines: "They would never be alone together again."

Bank Holiday is a very brief sketch of the various entertainments that people engage in during the bank holiday. It seems mostly like mindless consumption, and the sketch ends with a vision of a crowd going up a hill towards the sun, not knowing why or for what.

An Ideal Family refers to Old Mr. Neave's family, whom people on the outside all imagine to be perfectly "ideal." He has a beautiful and capable son, Harold, who is a suave and handsome businessman, and then there was "Charlotte and the girls." Everyone thought the girls didn't marry because they were all just so happy together. And yet, something isn't quite right--Old Neave feels like his family has moved on without him, that he is too old to share their joys.

The Lady's Maid is an unusual account in the words of a lady's maid, Ellen, who is being asked questions by a new madame that she serves. The madame's questions are not given--only Ellen's responses.

Overall, Mansfield's modernist style is characterized by abrupt narrative breaks, snippets of vivid impressions, fragmented dialogue, and fluid boundaries between narration and the inner thoughts of her characters. These aspects of her writing allow readers an encounter with people and places which bears resemblance to how one lives life everyday. To explain this further, one of the recurring formal features of Mansfield's short stories is how she launches the reader into the story in such a way that it takes a while for the reader to feel oriented. It is usually unclear how the people that have been introduced are connected to one another, and even the impressionistic descriptions of the setting resist any sense of specific, geographical placement. This is how Mansfield suggests we experience everyday life; the stories become apparent to us only through our gradual apprehension of our confusing surroundings and our slow construction of relationships and causality. Relatedly, conversation in Mansfield's stories is often stilted or fragmentary, stylistically calling attention to the stilted and fragmentary experience of life as it is being lived. Her stories feel temporally concerned with the present, narrative often flitting in and out of characters's thoughts as they are having them in the moment--even if the thoughts are retrospective, they rarely reveal completely coherent life histories (as flitting memories rarely do as we experience them).

A distinguishing feature of Mansfield's "modernism" (as opposed to "postmodernism") is how her characters, despite being unable to express their deep suffering or their "real feelings" under the surfaces of the everyday lives, seem to evince that they do feel deeply a kind of "greater" and existence. Laura and Laurie's exchange at the end of "The Garden Party" is the perfect example of how characters who have generally shown themselves incapable of feeling anything beyond a false, sentimental sympathy at best actually feel that there is something to life which they cannot express with the language available to them. There are numerous other examples where inexpressibility actually marks the boundary between characters acting out their expected, scripted social roles and their existence beyond these roles. This latter kind of existence is in what Josephine and Constantia "forget" to say to each other about their suffering, in the young girl's broken speech about waiting, Isabel's inability to write to William, Mr. Hammond's broken thoughts on the inadequacy of intimacy in his marriage, Ma Parker's inability to find a place where she can cry, and Ellen (the lady's maid) saying that she will prevent herself from thinking about the marriage which she had given up in order to serve the lady. These moments of inexpressibility, rather than frustrate access to life's depths, actually call attention to them (unlike in postmodernism, which tends more to use language to call attention to inaccessibility or absence of life's depths).