Tag Archives: passion

A Bit of Naughty-Naughty

When Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography (95).
– George Orwell, from the essay Inside the Whale,  in All Art is Propaganda

IMG_2651

Ah, Henry Miller. We have something going on….Henry and I…. It began in the spring when I was bemusedly alerted by a shallow online quiz that my literary soulmate was M. Miller himself. Well. What to make of that, I hardly knew. I decided I better at least read his work which I wrote about here and where I blathered on a bit about the literary soulmate bit and Tropic of Cancer.

For the most part it is a story of bug-ridden rooms in workingmen’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs. And the whole atmosphere of the poor quarters of Paris as a foreigner sees them–the cobbled alleys, the sour reek of refuse, the bistros with their greasy zinc counters[…]the peculiar sweetish smell of the Metro, the cigarettes that come to pieces[…]–it is all there, or at any rate the feeling of it is there.
On the face of it no material could be less promising (96) –
 George Orwell, Inside the Whale.

Miller and I took some heat for my praise, but then, by pure good fortune I worked with a beautiful poet/artist/activist Cecilia Vicuña this summer and on my first day of work discovered that she had had a small but lovely correspondence with Miller. She adored him, his love and passion for life. I told her the trouble I was having convincing people of his (rather lovely) sincerity, she confirmed, on a personal level, what I had felt reading his book.

Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened. This brings me back to Henry Miller (129).

That, Orwell writes, after a thirty-something page discourse on the history of early 2oth century literature and the effect of politics: fascism, communism, laissez-faire capitalism and many more isms on writers and literature. But, yes– Miller, where were we?- after another of his novels Black Spring, was thrown on my path I started to wonder what was in the water–what was in my water?!  Over the course of the summer as I worked archiving collections of books, books about books, and the art of books with Granary Books, as well as Vicuña’s archive and copious notes and writing….I had compiled a long list of artists, poets, and books that I would read when I got some time. Orwell’s All Art is Propaganda was one of those books. He is, by far, one of my favorite essayist, and what a title! Imagine my lack of surprise when after flipping around reading the essays in odd order as to my interest, I came upon a quite long (45 p.) essay all about, yes, my dear soulmate Henry.

The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible (136).

Inside the Whale is sweeping, discursive, and at the very heart, brilliantly true. Orwell elucidates on the conditions which make good novels possible, how politics affect writers, directly or obliquely, and how Miller’s insouciance, and refusal to get taken in by the flimsy dictats of nation, class, and persuasion, is so sincerely expressed that one can, if one lets oneself, marvel at his genius (a human scale of genius, but genius can be writ small).

Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism–robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale–or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, “constructive” lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine (138).

Orwell’s essay is fascinating historically, but his concerns and thoughts transport the mere temporal- finding a way to stay human in any time is the challenge. For myself, I’m convinced Miller met that challenge, and had fun doing it, I am convinced he had a good heart, and if that is what makes a soulmate for me – I’ll take it.

*title from: From a mere account of the subject-matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the ‘twenties (97).

Gehenna on Earth

Exceptionally endowed with those qualities which make for great gastronomic achievement she had, under the direction of the king of gourmets, the lord of perfect eating, lavished upon them the rarest of sensations, the most thrilling experiences; she exalted them, blissful souls, to the highest peaks of cloudless joy (17).
– Marcel Rouff, The Passionate Epicure

The nature of a perfect doughnut is one whose center of satiation is everywhere, its circumference nowhere,

The nature of a perfect doughnut is one whose center of satiation is everywhere, its circumference nowhere,

Who is this “lord of perfect eating” ? the fantastic, if fanatic,  M. Dodin-Bouffant whose brilliant chef, has suddenly died, much to his distress. He is thrown, at the start of the novel, into a search for a replacement, to restore meaning to his life.

We have learned by bitter experience that there is no crisis, no illness, even no death that can equal in suffering and horror the weeks imposed upon us by those sawbones, those abominable “cures” which leave you weak, sick, and breathless. Whatever may lie in store for us, we are henceforth fully enlightened upon the worthless deceit of diets (159).

Okay, so perhaps an out-of-print book (Actually, Ruth Reichl did reissue it as part of the Delectable Modern Library Food Series, so the novel based very loosely on Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had a second life) on the reverence of French cookery is solely my kind of summer reading, but, well, it meets the requirements – fun and delightful. Not  unlike a doughnut made to near perfection (not difficult, but you’d never know that by the travesty of doughnut shops not worth my breath…oh but my latest batch!…when I presented my creation to my daughter, well – we nearly wept with joy – they were sublime, ahhh cloudless joys!…but I digress…happily, but still). M. Dodin-Bouffant’s search, discovery, and philosophy is, in my opinion,  the very stuff of sumptuous summer nights.

When confronted with a choice between a luscious young female candidate, to replace the late Eugenie Chatagne, but who is, tragically, of uninspiring ability compared to another candidate, the  luscious chef, Adèle, who is, regrettably, of uninspiring physicality. A moment of weakness overcomes the hero– but just a moment:

To possess this girl was to sign an irrevocable contract, it was the abandonment of his reputation to the unschooled hands and uninspired soul of an apprentice incapable, alas, of any improvement. 

A man of priorities, indeed! I came across this book amongst the rare book collection of one of my workplaces and was taken in by Lawrence Durrell who wrote the forward. At once frivolous and excessive, it is also beautiful in its purity and fidelity to the importance of reaching for greatness within one of the pleasures afforded us humans – cuisine.

Adèle Pidou could not restrain herself; she began, for no reason at all save the pleasure of touching them, to seize the handles of frying-pans and skillets, of copper saucepans, to stroke the rounded flanks of the earthenware pots, to feel the bottles of spices, the boxes of ingredients, to open them, sniff them, examine the stove, inspect the spits and the fish-kettles. Dobin, throbbing with hope, allowed her to pleasure herself (78).

Needless to say, she gets the job. What’s more, when a more lucrative one tempts her away, Dodin immediately and hilariously propose marriage. Ah, love!

The joys of the senses are well represented in the visuals of art, the sound of music, the touch of physical love, but the smell and taste of culinary pleasures are sadly relegated to a lower, greedy order. Certainly, as Dodin discovers, moderation is necessary, gout hurts! still, it is my firm belief that while less is more, the less need never be compromised. Compromise is truly the only Gehenna on earth.

Cuisine is still victim of low and deplorable prejudice. Its most noble geniuses have not yet conquered their rights to sit between Raphael and Beethoven, and before some modest learning could be recognized in this humble collection of stories, we should have to write a fat book to maintain in theses, antithesis, and synthesis the view that the gastronomic art, like all other arts, comprise a philosophy, a psychology and an ethic, that it is an integral part of universal thought, that it is bound to the civilization of our earth, to the cultivation of our taste, and thereby to the superior essence of humanity (161).

* title inspired from pg 155: The afternoon seemed delicious to the epicure emerging from his Germanic Gehenna. – In other words – Dunkin Donuts.

 

 

 

Heartache’s Élan

There is nothing more tiresome, is there, than to answer in cold blood a letter that has been written in emotion, but you know you needn’t (10, 24th Nov. 1918).

IMG_1920

If one thing can be said about Dorothy Bussy, it is that she is a woman of emotion. Selected Letters of  André Gide and Dorothy Bussy recounts the thirty year span of their correspondence, begun over her work as his chief translator into English and which began late in their lives, in their fifties! Their undeniably passionate, mutual yet skewed love, and devotion to their friendship is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, but inspiring too.

Dear Gide,
I always feel in such a fearful panic after I have sent you a letter. I want to go and drown myself. Such intolerable stuff I write you. I can’t imagine how you bear it. Shameless it seems to me after it has gone, and worse than shameless–stupid–often not true. Can you tell what is true and what is false? I suppose you can. I suppose that is why you put up with me and why I always find the courage to begin again. Because in reality I’m not ashamed of the essential part–the part that is true. No. I’m proud of it (52, 16th Aug ’20).

She was in love with him, but alas, one can not feel what they don’t feel, and Gide did not return that sort of feeling. They were both married, and Gide had homesexual lovers and other heterosexual lovers as well (of more particular heartbreak for Bussy) and yet, he writes to her a day after her letter above:

Very Dear Friend,
Your letters send my heart and mind into corkscrews spirals–but delightfully (55, 17th Aug. ’20).

The relationship is rich in its intellectual depth, and wonderously complex regarding what it means to love someone. Where she loves body and soul, Gide can only offer his soul and wonders if that is not superior:

I cannot convince myself that what I feel for you in my heart is not really better than what you are looking for –and stronger, more constant, more serious (121, 9 April ’28).

And yet it is something of a constant torment to them both. The letters are historically, culturally, and intellectually fascinating. But it is Bussy that is truly remarkable. Her love, which she is aware is considered a humiliation, (and she battles those feelings in herself) she also understands to be the most authentic force of her life. She writes again and again about her inability to suppress her feelings. Her inability to be anything but completely nakedly honest with Gide. Why shouldn’t she? Most people don’t allow themselves to love so intensely. On his part, he writes again and again to her, beseeching her to write, to continuing writing her way. Sometimes with nothing to say, he writes only that he must write her. His words are achingly beautiful:

I read your letter of the 8th; that little swallow of pure friendship refreshes the soul (173,  12 Jan ’37)

I devoured this book. I have correspondences of my own, heartbreaks, and vigorous exchanges with people I love, and I am aware that letter writing is not so fashionable in this day and age, but there is something freeing and deeply enrichening to me in the practice, (even in email form, mine more often than not adhere to the long format letter length exchanges of former days..) which is perhaps why I was compelled to read this book.

My only disappointment was the inclusion in the epilogue  of a third party’s take on the letters. Gide’s friend Martin du Gard had certain papers in reference to “Madame Simon Bussy” and he added his own thoughts. He wrote of Bussy’s “delusion” and recalled Gide “avoid[ing] her, flee[ing] from her” noting that Gide’s love was only compassionate – to me, a condescending word in this context. Oh, how my heart burned in indignation at his take on the matter!

This morning you were very near to me, your check on mine, your lips so near to mine. But no, I did not dare. That must be reserved for dreams. They have sometimes come.
Good night my very dear.
Tear this into a thousand pieces & drop it into the sea.
Yr. D (210, 29 April ’42)

Five months later Gide, responding to her accusation that he didn’t read her letters, writes, “It goes without saying that I miscalculated, but you immediately accuse me of not reading your letters carefully…Shame! How mean! I read and reread your letters; there is even one (simply dated ‘Wednesday evening’) that I always carry with me.

The letter to which he refers is the above account of her dreaming about him….

It was no wonder at all to me that he loved her, and I felt deeply sorry that his feelings (that strange chemical reaction) differed from hers. But all the same. I found her a brilliant force of love and feeling. If that is humiliating, then so be it. Should she have humiliated herself by revealing all? Yes. By God Yes. What else is there?

Not a saint–not a boy–just your hopeless and yet not altogether unhappy

Lover
D.B. (74, July ’21)

*edited by Richard Tedeschi, Oxford University Press.

The Great Maniacs of Love

When I say “health” I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the nineteenth century. I’m a bit retarded, like most Americans – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (49).

IMG_1733

A few months ago I took one of those personality quizzes that pop up like weeds on the internet. I took a few, in fact. That is until this last one, which left me fairly flummoxed. ‘Who is your literary soulmate?’ After answering what seemed like a few benign questions I discovered that my literary soul mate is – Henry Miller.

The whole point about Bessie was that she couldn’t, or just wouldn’t, regard herself as a lay. She talked about passion, as if it were a brand new word. She was passionate about things, even a little thing like a lay. She had to put her soul into it (135).

I hadn’t even ever read him. Well, I said to myself, maybe I should. I was a little afraid. In truth I had avoided my literary soul mate’s work, after all, his reputation does precede him. And I wondered if I was past the appropriate age for his ‘dirty’ book (that was the word someone used when I told them I was reading Tropic of Cancer). In fact,  I  pretty much skipped over my naughty youthful years, what with being busy with babies and all that…still, Ms. Nin and I had our mutual admiration society of D.H. Lawrence, and my literary soul mate was pals with Lawrence Durrell…so what the hell.

It’s hard to read proof when you’re not all there. It requires more concentration to detect a missing comma than to epitomize Nietzsche’s philosophy. You can be brilliant sometimes, when you’re drunk, but brilliance is out of place in the proofreading department. Dates, fractions, semicolons – these are the things that count. And these are the things that are most difficult to track down when your mind is ablaze (175).

It just so happens that my literary soul mate and I find a certain joy in the same work. I have been archiving and proofreading these past few weeks, and who knew it could be so satisfying in its concrete exactitude? – My literary soul mate, that’s who.

I feel her body close to mine-all mine now-and I stop to rub my hands over the warm velvet. Everything around us is crumbling, crumbling and the warm body under the warm velvet is aching for me…(19).

Putting aside, momentarily, the misogyny, racism, and misanthropy, (none of which I think he actually propagates or truly is, so perhaps we ought to just put it aside altogether, and read deeper, feel the current.) the book is quite wonderful. It is very funny, thoughtful, and moving. Miller has a genius for description, or what he himself would say, “…it’s one of those little details which makes a thing psychologically real….you can’t get it out of your head afterward” (118). From each individual relentless  louse shacking up with him in the down-at-the-heels digs he stays in, to his bosom buddy louts he hangs out with – he has an instinct for the details, the perfect turn of a phrase or punctuation that brings his world, such as it is, to teeming life.

There are people in this world who cut such a grotesque figure that even death renders them ridiculous (138).

Miller makes full use of grotesque language, there is indeed a plethora of words I would not use (the ‘c’ word – wow, never read that so many times in one sitting), or ones that I would not use in the same way (the ‘f’ word -I maintain a policy of [just approaching the border of absolute] ‘exclusively for expletive use only’)  But, even his harsh language does not mask the real sympathy that he has for men and women. Especially the downtrodden, used up, broken-down type. True, most of his friends are jackasses, but at the reader’s happy distance, we can laugh with Miller over their hilarious ridiculousness.

My literary soul mate and I will have to argue (long into the night, no doubt) over our differing opinions of Hugo (194), but I suppose that’s a tussle that’s only suitable for a true literary soul mate. Where we are in perfect harmony is our desire to experience joy and live the ecstasy that is life. Where mine is an instinct, his was fully realized, for good and bad, cold nights and grimy days- but it is fully felt, and that’s the thing that binds us.

Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy. So much crowds into my head when I say this to myself: images, gay ones, terrible ones, maddening ones, the wolf and the goat, the spider, the crab, syphilis with her wings outstretched and the door of the womb always on the latch, always open, ready like a tomb. Lust, crime, holiness: the lives of my adored ones, the failures of my adored ones, the words they left behind them, the words they left unfinished; the good they dragged after them and the evil, the sorrow, the discord, the rancor, the strife they created. But above all, the ecstasy! (252)

 

*title from pg. 181: “I understood why Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love.”

Etiolated Lives

She was the doorway to him, he to her.  At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, whilst the light flooded out from behind on to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission. 
-D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (87)

IMG_1258I recently watched an adaptation of Women in Love. I like it well enough, but there were more than a few mystery bits that I had no recollection of from the book. Upon closer inspection I saw that the adaptation was actually of both Women in Love and The Rainbow.  Now that I’ve read The Rainbow I’m sorry I didn’t read it first, not least of all because Women in Love continues the story of Ursula and Gudren. But more than that, for missing out on the natural development of the story in which Lawrence shows an unraveling of human confidence in love over the generations.

Is heaven impatient for me, and bitter against this earth, that I should hurry off, or that I should linger pale and untouched? (265)

The story follows three generations of women, finding, failing, or groping with anguished hope towards love: “the admission”- I love that. Admitting entrance to the other into one’s soul as well as admitting to oneself that the possibility exists. Running  forward chronologically, the story seems almost to run backwards novelistically. The satisfaction of true love comes early in the first section concerning the Polish immigrant widowed mother, Lydia Lensky. Tom Brangwen falls in love with her, and after the usual bouts of trammeled passion they arrive at their font of love. Things are more difficult for Anna, Lydia’s daughter adopted by Tom:

And in this state, her sexual life flamed into a kind of disease within her. She was overwrought and sensitive, that the mere touch of coarse wool seemed to tear her nerves. (314)

The tragedy here is passion without love. Lawrence describes with startling insight the gaps that motherhood fills, still, when Anna marries Will Brangwen having made the all important physical connection,  emotional  communion eludes them. Through their children the painful smolder of life and love half-lived is abated until eventually, separately yet peaceably, they find a lesser path, but at least it is a path –

And since she was nearly forty years old, she began to come awake from the sleep of motherhood, her energy moved outwards. The din of growing lives roused her from her apathy. She too must have her hand in making life. (395)

Let’s pause here for one brief moment to remind ourselves that this book was written in 1915. What Lawrence so boldly put forward- the physicality of life’s desires, is a truly remarkable thing. Sure, it’s no longer difficult to find myriad books focused on sex, even focused on the female’s perspective of sex, but it takes profound nerve to combine those human needs with a divine call to love.

Always, always she was spitting out of her mouth the ash and grit of disillusion, of falsity. (412)

The story ends with Ursula. The depth into which Lawrence takes the reader is awing and inspiring. The questions and possible answers he raises become deeply embedded in the reader’s thinking and feeling soul. Woven into each part of the story are philosophical musings on religion, God, the suffragette movement, the horrors of corporal punishment, the sickness of institutions, the emptiness of formal education, social hypocrisy, and then, at long last he gives us – the rainbow, spread over it all, in regal refulgent splendor.  The beauty. The beauty.

She wanted so many things. she wanted to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them forever; she wanted to know big, free people; and there remained always the want she could put no name to. (384)

One’s Place

The idea of ruin and dereliction, out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself, attached to myself.
-V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (15)

DSC_0831To see oneself defined in relation to others, not in the modern sense, in which one hustles to keep up with the chimera of societal and class expectations, but in the deeper sense, perhaps not shared universally, but by those who are uprooted, or never properly rooted;  a keen notion develops of judging the hue, depth and contrast of all the places in which  one does not belong.

To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moments of creation: it was my temperament (52).

V.S. Naipaul in his memoir, The Enigma of Arrival describes with perfect tone the feeling of the observer who, by observation of other people and other places, describes oneself. Rather than the traditional I am this style of memoir, Naipaul is an arithmetic of I am not. I am, rather, the undefined difference between what I see and what I am.

Something in Naipaul’s remote but precise voice sent my own mind into an existential reverie. His calm prose emotes understanding, empathy and loneliness. The subtlety of his observations and musings of farm and garden life in bucolic England contrasted harshly with the surroundings in which I read most of this book: sitting in a down and out government agency for down and out citizens after I had gotten lost in a bad neighborhood and then been involved in the first car accident of my life. I sat in the hot waiting room and let his book of psychological disorientation, which perfectly suited my fractured frame of mind, sooth my shaking hands.

When I lived in Italy I often thought about the common exchange- Tutto a posto? how are you? – Response: A posto. Posto means place. All in place? In place.

Her life had repeated; she had lived the same life or versions of the same life. Or, looking at it another way, almost as soon as it had begun, her life of choice and passion had ended – as it had ended for her father, her mother, and possibly for generations of her ancestors (78).

Where we are forms something essential about ourselves and how we think we fit into that place or are stuck in that place, colors our experience of ourselves. The enigma of arrival however is that one never arrives, we find meaning in the journey and place or we perish. As long as choice and passion are alive, then we are too.

Sire, remember the Athenians

In order to contemplate [my  wandering thought’s] ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself. – Montaigne, The Complete essays of Montaigne, from Of Idleness (21)

DSCI0014One of the wonderful things about Montaigne is his prodigious use of ancient writers to shape his ideas. He flings one quote after another onto the page at a furious pace. In the essay That our desire is increased by difficulty there is this gem:

The courtesan Flora used to say that she had never lain with Pompey without making him carry away the marks of her bites:
They hurt the longed-for body with their viselike grip,
And with their teeth they lacerate the tender lip,
Goaded by the secret stings to hurt the very thing,
Whate’er it be, from which these germs of madness spring.- Lucretius (464)

I found this essay particularly interesting having recently finished Love in the Western World because Montaigne discusses the same subject but his conclusion is slightly less hysterical.

What is allowed, we scorn; what’s not allowed, we burn for. – Ovid (466)

Rather than Rougemont’s pointing the finger of blame for this inclination at a “Pagan” mindset, which he argued had loose ideas about love and marriage that now makes us all confused by an addiction to the “pain of passion,” Montaigne describes the very same pain of passion as belonging to all time and all men (I have to resist my temptation to italicize the word men, but if woman had written more history and philosophy would we constantly be having this argument?).

Considering Montaigne’s liberal use of ancient sources, it is clear- if it’s true- we are and have always been warped, nothing particularly Christian or Pagan about it. Never the less, Montaigne very soon gets a little off the track of love, and uses this principle for a diversion into social engineering. He argues it is the bars on the windows, so to speak, that increases the desire to do wrong. If you do not want your house to be robbed- don’t lock it. If you do not want someone to walk across your garden, better to put a little silk cord across it than a tempting  fence which will perversely induce the desire.

Locked places invite the thief. The burglar passes by what is open. -Seneca (467)

I hesitantly agree with much of this principle- forbidden things are given allure that they do not necessarily possess.  But, as I mentioned in my ramblings regarding Love in the Western World,  the  I love her more because I can’t have her meme is as insulting as it is immature. Obviously there are plenty of odious rakes throughout history that are only occupied with their ennui and narcissism: those that seek merely to play with other people’s hearts until they are captured, only to be abandoned. But isn’t it possible that there is a lot written and thought about the pain of love because it’s often…painful? Real hearts get broken. This is life. Whether by death, circumstances, or simply unrequited (although that last one I am not convinced of – seems more a form of masochism than true love), a broken heart is the sort of pain that is so excruciating the only means of encompassing the throbbing aura of ache is art- consequently the intensity of poetry looms large in this domain. I will go out on a limb and suggest that Montaigne might agree, which may be why he wanders away from love in his essay and widens the scope to the dangers of unnecessarily forbidding our desires to more mundane aspects of life.

There are many thought provoking pieces in this collection, but I will mention just one more, because I loved the humor and truth (those two are always hand in hand in my mind). Of liars begins with a discourse on memory, as Montaigne puts it,  It is not unreasonably said that anyone who does not feel sufficiently strong in memory should not meddle with lying (23) He bemoans his own inferior power to recall, but then adds a couple of silver linings, one being:

My second consolation is that I remember injuries received less, as that ancient said; I should need a prompter, like Darius, who, so as not to forget the harm he had received from the Athenians, had a page come every time he sat down to table and sing three times in his ear: “Sire, remember the Athenians.” (23)

That one made me laugh aloud because, while I am sadly lacking in servants, I should at least probably make a note or two for myself to try to counter-act  my failures of memory. I have more than once had to stop myself whilst talking with someone (usually my children) and exclaim, “Wait a minute, I forgot- I’m mad at you!” Instead of Sire, remember the Athenians, mine will be- Jessica, remember the child that finished all the milk so you had none for coffee this morning.

It is always a marvel to me that from before the time that we humans had even begun putting pen to paper we have puzzled over the same unanswerable questions. It is never enough that someone else has done it before me, it’s not even enough that I have done it before. Whoever I will be tomorrow, the next day, and beyond, will continue mulling over the sometimes beautiful and sometimes painful mystery of life.

I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.
from Of repentance (611)

*The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame

That Dweam within a Dweam

Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering. There we have the fundamental fact.
-Denis De Rougemont, Love In The Western World

300px-Correggio_028c

Jupiter and Io c. 1530 Correggio

Looking at slides in my art history class recently I saw a painting of Tristan and Isolde. Or maybe it was in the text book as I was reading. I see it in my mind. It was a depiction of the moment when King Marc switches his sword for that of Tristan’s which lay between the sleeping lovers (Isolde being the King’s wife). Perhaps I imagined it. I can not find it now, nor clearly remember where I saw it.  I didn’t even like the painting that much, at the time I think I compared it to Correggio’s passionate Jupitor and Io which is wonderful.  But I had one of those countless moments of curiosity–what about Tristan and Isolde? I then went on to look for the myth–which I also did not immediately find. I instead happened upon a book about the myth. This is the sort of thing that will drive me mad. I swear I saw a painting. It was real. But there is no proof. The painting in my mind does not exist as far as Google is concerned–certain death if ever there was.  Which is actually perfectly to the point of the book I read as a consequence of my apparently imagined painting.

Suffering and understanding are deeply connected; death and self-awareness are in league; and European romanticism may compare to a man for whom sufferings, and especially the sufferings of love, are a privileged mode of understanding  (51).

M. Rougemont book (published in 1940, France) has an interesting, if depressing thesis of what has made the myth of Tristin and Isolde (or Iseult as he calls her) so enduring. He frames it as a kind of Christian heresy and then goes on to relate it to the modern breakdown of marriage. I must necessarily skim the surface here. Rougemont’s idea is complex and he offers up a lot of evidence as a defensive measure against his critics. He wants to understand the preponderance of adultery as a plot line and fixates on Tristen as a subverted reaction against marriage. He implicates the Troubadours and the Cathars as misguided primary sources, and then goes on to expose the literary thread that supports his thinking.

But Racine, in being content to represent ‘passions excited’ and to produce the ‘sadness’ in which he invites us to find an indefinite ‘enjoyment’, betrays a rather morbid acceptance of the defeat of mind and of the resignation of the senses (202).

This is “love” that can never be consummated because that would be the death of the romance–the only proper release being actual death as in Romeo and Juliet. Cervantes ridicules the pain-of-passion novel, while Stendhal, and many or most others revere it–mistakenly, according to Rougemont:

On this theory, falling in love is to endow a woman with perfections she does not in the least possess. And why do we do this? Because we need to love, and because the only thing that can be loved is beauty (225).

This is a tragedy of objectification. I am sure it can go both ways, but more often than not women are mere two-dimensional objects in which their true selves are not valued and ignored. The fact that most of Rougemont’s examples are married woman (thereby creating an unattainable object of desire for the man) matters to his idea that the love is of an object (because, again, it is not a stretch, traditionally, to view a woman as an object) That a “passion” of epic, religious proportions (like the passion for God or Jesus which can never, by virtue of its very nature, until death, be realized) is foisted upon actual feeling breathing humans is a serious failing indeed. But Rougemont describes the problem as a confusion that the worship of (the pagan idea of) Eros has wrought on the Christian concept of love which is a communion (with God, ultimately). But, it is significant to me that he defines the word passion as it means in the Christian Biblical sense instead of how I might mean it, not to mention D. H. Lawrence, where passion is simply a deeply felt awe of our shared humanity.

As I have said, passion means suffering. Therefore, inasmuch as our notion of love enfolds our notion of woman, it is linked with a theory of the fruitfulness of suffering which encourages or obscurely justifies in the recesses of the Western mind a liking for war (243).

There were many moments while reading this book that I felt a strong need for a good therapist. One for everyone in fact. But, let’s calm down here for a moment. Anna Karenina without adultery is Levin and Kitty: a sweet but far less complex and riveting story. Can not a snake just be a snake? Or drama be drama? One could just as easily argue that the preponderance of the adulteress is better drama–being that much more outside the patriarchal norm of our society.

Rougemont waits until the near end to give his assessment of the state of things. In his view ‘passion,’ as he defines it, is a throwback to paganism, and paganism he casts as some sort of debauched bacchanal. In order to have a compliant society, which is, I think, one of his concerns, marriage must be preserved. How does one preserve marriage when we are all, according to him, infected with the desire for romantic passion, which marriage destroys? By adhering to the contract (a nod to Deuteronomy?). He emphasizes making a decision to put the contract above all else. It is a sort of because-I-said-so mentality that smacks of the sort of  patriarchal thrust the non-secular world is founded upon. I am not a hedonist, but the free-thinker in me provokes me to ask: is there nothing in between, or dare I say–outside the choice of being a martyr to contract or debauched excess?

It is interesting to take a moment to consider the more matriarchal aspects that paganism can represent, which Rougemont ignores. What?! a man dismissing a female perspective? How unusual. One doesn’t have to be a scholar of the ancients to figure out that the earliest pagan societies were not all a sexual free for all or societal anarchy. So much of philosophy, history, and religion is written and thought out by men that alternative perspectives are regrettably absent.  The more I read, the more I really started to go in a very different direction from Rougemont. When I got to this line from page 312: “Christianity has asserted the complete equality of the sexes…” I was truly perplexed, but then, the Bible has always been abused as a book of selective interpretation.

While Rougemont is onto something regarding the fundamental selfishness of love borne of vanity and boredom: love that is in love with love rather than a person (whom if one actually loved they couldn’t help feeling concern or in other words, that “feminine” sensibility called caring) He does not allow for actual romantic love, which of course exists. There are far more examples of couples, married or not, that show two people whom want to spend time with one another and want to make love to one another. It’s not complicated, it’s just perhaps not great drama. I am not prepared to be declared ill for appreciating desire or for caring about the happiness of those I love. After all, there is evolution and progress in the balance of personal and societal good. We should always strive to thoughtfully make a more lovely life for ourselves and for all.

Passion’s Lacunae

It is said that between two human beings there can be a moment of bending down, of drawing strength from deep within, of holding breath- a moment of utmost inner tension under a surface of silence. It is, as it were, the shadow that coming passion casts ahead of it.
-Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless  (59-60)

DSCI0028

Oh, it is easy to be clever if one does not know all the questions… (130)

The Confusions of Young Törless, or Young Törless is another title I swiped off of Wuthering Expectations reading list. I will admit that I was a little frightened when I got a hold of it. A story, published in 1908 Germany, of boarding school boys brutalizing and shaming each other fills me with a quick dread. But I was very soon enraptured by this mesmerizing book.

“Törless was glad when the master stopped talking. Since he had heard that door slam it had seemed to him that the words were moving farther and farther away from him…towards that other, indifferent realm where all correct and yet utterly irrelevant explanations lie. (112)

I love that one of the catalysts of Törless’ confusions is the mathematical idea of imaginary numbers.  Musil does such an exquisite job of detailing what must be a common experience when one encounters complex, abstract problems (mathematical or other). At least I can say that I have felt it- the coming and going of perfect clarity, the knowledge that the only way to understand it (whatever it may be at the moment) is to come at it obliquely, and then I have it! Bliss!- and then it’s gone. Damn! Like the sun, you can’t look right at it, the glare of understanding is in the periphery. That ever present light of comprehension shines but only intermittently sheds its warmth. For Törless, in the midst of a disturbing moral dilemma, the obsession with solving this mystery robs him of the ability or even desire to act or think clearly about the events that are occurring around him.

A sudden thought made his whole body grow tense. Are even older people like that? Is the world like that? Is it a universal law that there’s something in us stronger, bigger, more beautiful, more passionate and darker than ourselves? Something we have so little power over that all we can do is aimlessly strew thousands 0f seeds, until suddenly out of one seed it shoots up like a dark flame and grows out over our heads?…And every nerve in his body quivered with the impatient answer: Yes. (137)

There is a similarity between Musil’s description of the frustrations and yearnings that interpolate the lives of the introspective with D.H. Lawrence’s ideas and investigations. That passion of feeling that possesses, scares and  exhilarates us all at one point or another, and that Lawrence advises us to cleave to without compromise, is shown in Musli’s book to become sentient, but often goes by the wayside, in youthful development. Musli also shows the danger and perversity that this feeling can become when realized in a disjointed and cold environment. The dark cloud of stupidity and cruelty fills the gaps.

There was no longer any trace of thought in him, only mute, inert repugnance. (186)

Perhaps the problem arises  in that period of life called adolescents, when the burgeoning individual confronts the solitude of individuality. What had been  a natural attribute of childhood, a passionate synergy, becomes a feeling that an emerging intellect strives to “make sense” of. For many people, it would seem, the effort to intellectually or scientifically understand their own natural passion for…the all-connecting everything – kills it.

All he felt was an impassioned longing to escape from this confused, whirling state of things, a longing for quietness, for books. (195)

Törless however, in this extraordinary novel, is determined to at least  acknowledge it. That seems a good start.

Yes, there are dead and living thoughts. The process of thinking that takes place on the illuminated surface, and which can always be checked and tested by means of the thread of causality, is not necessarily the living one. (210)

Flickering Sanity

“Well,” said Paul, “if she looks at a man she says haughtily ‘Nevermore,’ and if she looks at herself in the looking-glass she says disdainfully ‘Nevermore,’ and if she thinks back she says it in disgust, and if she looks forward she says it cynically.”  –D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (254)

DSCI0027

There is a satisfying onomatopoeia in the word frustrate. Your mouth must build up steam to run up and down all the central consonants and then just when things start going again- full stop on the hard “ate.” There is plenty of time to consider the word in one’s mouth while reading Part Two of Sons and Lovers- the sentiment sputters out of the novel at a consistent rate. Part Two’s focus is the “Lovers” of the title, but only frustrated lovers lie therein. Perhaps it is…. Englishness that lends even the dialog a frustrated rhythm, the fits and starts of people full of something to say fracturing under the magnitude of self-edits, fears, and censures.

But no; she dared not put her arms round it, take it up, and say, “It is mine, this body. Leave it to me.” And she wanted to. It called all her woman’s instinct. But she crouched, and dared not. She was afraid he would not let her. She was afraid it was too much.

Lawrence develops the character of Paul so slowly and naturally from boy to man that even though I wanted to throttle him, my heart ached for him, as a mother and as a woman.

Paul’s inability to Love anyone other than his mother, whose own passion was sacrificed to an unhappy marriage, renders his heart an otiose, useless thing. And yet it still beats. So what to do? The usual course in love and novels is: act stupidly.

So he left her, and she was alone. Very few people cared for her, and she cared for very few people. She remained alone with herself, waiting.

Knowing that you want something is not the same thing as knowing what you want. This is Paul’s problem, his heart calls, but he has hidden it behind the door of his loyal and passionate love for his mother. He tries to love, but only makes misery.

Everyone tries to love, in fact. There is Miriam and Clara, Clara’s husband and more mothers, the fellas in the mines, the girls in the office, all trying to satisfy their hearts. The bucolic beauty described throughout the novel where one loses oneself  and dirties their shoes on amorous walks in the wood makes it more bearable, but also more poignant.  You just want someone to become sane for a moment, like that wonderful moment in E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View when George climbs a tree in a spectacular field and just starts shouting the truth, “Beauty! Beauuttyyy!!!!” I love that. Sons and Lovers is a beautifully told story, but it is all a maddening circle that coils and festers.

There is a wonderful scene towards the end of the story when Paul and his sister are smashing up morphine pills to essentially kill their mother. She is already dying, but they wish to relieve the suffering- hers and theirs.

“What are you doing?” said Annie.
“I s’ll put ’em in her night milk.”
Then they both laughed together like two conspiring children.
On top of all their horror flicked this little sanity.

It’s a lovely, touching, funny moment: Paul trying to disguise the bitterness of the pills in the sweet milk, just as he had tried so valiantly to disguise the bitterness of his mother’s life. It’s so bitter, is all she can say. And it is. The heartbreak is that Paul’s effort has shut his heart off from ever really being pierced, and fulfilled. His heart lives in the shadow of his mother’s trying to fill the space that should have been absorbed by her husband, her man.

No; her life’s nothing to her, so what’s the worth of nothing? She goes with me – it becomes something. Then she must pay – we both must pay! Folk are so frightened of paying; they’d rather starve and die.”

And that is Lawrence’s point- people starve themselves. Suffering from an emotional anorexia nervosa, the frustrations create a sort of insanity: the insanity of an inability to love, and a reluctance to feel. To go so forcefully against our nature is not possible without damage. In the end I think Paul will be alright. I want him to be. I want to agree with Lawrence: listen to Forster’s George – open your heart.