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All that and a bag of books

Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol she’d seen the other night in The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by the absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.
—Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (65)

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I brought Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 with me to Italy. It met all the requirements: it had spent way too much time on my book shelf unread, I had never read Pynchon and felt the need to remedy that situation, and my paperback copy was small and lightweight. This last point was actually the sine qua non of my reasoning as I had a 10 kilo limit on my carry-on and no check-in luggage in order to save a few bucks.

I left Rome at 5:00am on a Sunday morning. I flew out of CIA which is like a domestic airport except it does travel to EU countries. It was the day before fiere which is when the entire country takes a two week holiday. I had the feeling I was leaving in the nick of time as all the local stores I relied on for nontourist-trap foods (read—fruits and vegetables) were closing, but the airport was a madhouse which was lucky for me since the check-in man was so flustered he forgot to weigh my bag.

I didn’t get to Pynchon until I arrived around 11:00am in Gothenburg, Sweden. I was mildly surprised to find myself in Sweden because I had only paid attention to my airline: Norwegian Air, and so had figured I would be going to Norway first before my second layover in Stockholm. Needless to say, traveling produces a lot of anxiety in me and traveling alone is about 17 times harder than having someone to helpfully say, no idiot—we are on Norwegian Air but going to Sweden! Not that it matters much, one airport is like any other, although Swedish airports do sell a bevy of those cute orange horses and I am after all half-Swedish so I recognized my people straight away and was glad I was a proper Scandinavian and had not been tempted to be overly friendly or talk to my fellow travelers commenting about how beautiful Norway was! Lesson learned:look at other info provided on ticket besides flight number. So, it was there in Gothenburg, in a haze of acute travel panic suppression, that I began The Crying of Lot 49. 

Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (13)

I managed to make my connecting flight to Stockholm by sitting patiently in a glass box of a waiting room hoping that the glass wall which was standing between me and my departing gate would magically open. After about two and half hours, it did. I got to Stockholm around 2:00pm and upon disembarking the plane, stood in the middle of the terminal, which was in constant, steady motion with two thoughts in my head: 1) I have been traveling for 9 hours in the opposite direction to my final destination and that is depressing; and 2) Do I want food badly enough to justify torturing my shoulders and back with these over-packed and yes! I admit it and I am sorry! over-weight bags—it was so bad I had a third bag, a cheap plastic bag with five books in it that I figured I could sacrifice if called upon to do so. And I didn’t even buy that much stuff while there—true, I have five children so just buying them little trinkets at the excellent Porta Portese flea market did me in, and then, yes whatever—there were the few books I bought—but I had also LEFT books in Rome too (and that was a project! No one wants free books it seems!). My bags could not fit so much as a sewing needle by the time I was done, so the books were in the sacrificial bag. At least that was the plan. In reality I would have descended into a pit of madness without a book to read all the long hours of sitting and waiting for tubular flying machines to take me to the next sitting and waiting place. So it was a ‘no’ to food.

Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even only a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie. Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the forging of stamps and ancient books, constant surveillance of your movements, planting of post horn images all over San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional actors and Pierce Inverarity only knows what-all besides, all financed out of the estate in a way either too secret or too involved for your nonlegal mind to know about even though you are co-executer, so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond a practical joke. Or you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a nut, Oedipa, out of your skull (165/6).

And I think that pretty much sums up international travel on the cheap these days. As I mentioned, I have had this book hanging around for years waiting patiently, as books do, to be read. So the fact that I eventually read it in Sweden—or better—in that never-never abstraction and parody-land of international airports—was so brilliant on my part I could not have actually planned it. The craziness of the Pynchon perfected a loop in my head which was struggling mightily to make sense of the mystery, quagmire, and relentless conspiracy to frustrate and discomfort beyond human endurance—that thing we prettily refer to as flying. Trying to solve Oedipa’s puzzle was a highly entertaining and magically perfect thing to do at the moment I was doing it.

By 6:00pm I was on the plane waiting for take-off to New York. I finished The Crying of Lot 49 and decided a little sleep (such as it was crushed between a nice woman and her near tw0-year-old baby on my left and a man and woman who had presumably said goodbye to his mother, perhaps for the last time judging from his tears, to my right). What happen next, I’ll save for the last book I had yet to read in my pseudo-sacrificial book bag.

*photo is actually taken over England on my way to Rome, but since I was in the middle of the plane, on all three flights coming back from Rome, this photo will have to do.

 

 

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The Common Good

Momina was younger than I, but not by much: she dressed very well, a gray suit under her beaver coat, her skin massaged, her face fresh; she took advantage of her nearsightedness by passing it off as detachment. I recalled her violet dress on the first night and looked at her naked ring finger.
—Cesare Pavese, Among Women Only (207)

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The final two stories in The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese are similarly structured: the first “Among Women Only” is told from the point of view of the solitary Clelia: a dressmaker returning to her hometown of Turin to set up a shop for her boss back in Rome. All of Pavese’s stories touch on issues of class and money in post-war Italy. Clelia, an independent working woman, tries to balance the necessity of tending to her clientele, with a mild disgust for the upper-class in which she navigates through the story.

Mariella was by no means a fool; she was the presiding hostess and had been born to such talk. I wondered if she would have known how to make out if she had begun at the bottom like her grandmother (200).

The story is unusual for several reasons, not least of which is that it is compellingly told from a female perspective. I don’t simply mean that the protagonist is female—that is easily enough done for many good writers male or female—but it is a distinctly female perspective. It matters that she is a woman. The nuances of a woman traveling alone, of being single (particularly for this era—although an era with a distinct loosening of conventions), of simply being in a female body. Without being ham-fisted in any way, Pavese tends to the details of that reality.

Like all of Pavasese’s stories, not much in the way of action happens, although this story does center its emotional tone around an attempted suicide by one of the young women traveling in the “fast” crowd. Pavese manages, through sober character studies— from the inside out—to touch upon issues of class, depression, sexuality: both heterosexual and homosexual, as well as his abiding theme of psychological isolation.

If you thought about it, it was terrible to have her with us this way and talk this way, terrible but also ridiculous, comic. I tried to recall what I was like at twenty, at eighteen—how I was during the first days with Guido. How I was before, when mother used to tell me not to believe in anyone or anything. Poor thing, what had she got for it all? I would have liked to know what advice her father and mother gave to that only daughter of theirs, so crazy and so alone (270).

We never do find out exactly who Guido was, but Clelia’s references to herself in terms of before and after Guido are telling, and, to this particular reader at least, very moving.

I could not help thinking, while reading this story, that it may have been the most personal and revealing of Pavese himself. His power of observation, his ability to express isolation both externally imposed and internally, and his ability to create richly nuanced glimpses into the lives of complex but ordinary people is quite astounding.

The last story in the book is “The Devil in the Hills.” This one focuses on a group of young men, or boys really, wandering the hills. It is told from the perspective of one (unnamed—I think) boy who is still young enough to simply crave the hills, swim naked, and enjoy long aimless exploratory walks.

“That’s one thing,” I said, that can’t be done—stripping naked in the woods and filling up with wine.”
“Why not?” Oreste said.
“No more can you make love in the woods. In real woods. Love and drinking are civilized things. when I went boating…”
Pieretto interrupted: “You’ve never understood anything.”
“When you went boating…” Oreste said (334).

Pavese never attempts to make his protagonists the smartest or most insightful or most reliable narrator—but in this way he engenders enormous sympathy for the figure that is telling the story—after all, who among us is all that?

As in his other stories, the “devil” seems to refer to the festering money-ed class: the nouveau riche as hanger ons to the old riche. The lack of guile with which the young protagonist finds himself in a very different world from his former cloistered student-days is endearing. Pavese is gentle with his characters, never hurried to tell the story, always tender and subtly told. He has a way of dropping seemingly insignificant details to signal changes in his characters:

I’d forgotten the blond honey of the head, her bare, sandaled feet, and her air of always being on the verge of leaving for the beach” (348).

The woman being observed is Gabriella, wife of the degenerate Poli. The boys are transfixed by her and also fascinated by her relationship with their husband which they struggle to understand. Pavese seems to deeply understand and communicate the ways in which people are often misunderstood, as well as the ways in which people often misunderstand themselves.

Except for the work in the library of The American Academy in Rome I have been doing here, I have been alone for my time in Rome and that may be why these stories have so strongly affected me. As I walk the labyrinth streets, observing all the people and their interactions with each other,  it is very much like the experience of reading: a solitary, and even isolating, activity, and yet, one that makes me feel more connected and empathetic to others.

In one of the early stories of the book Pavese writes something like, I like Italians; I don’t like Italy. It is a line that stays with me. I read it in its larger sense and see it as a mark of a true humanitarian. Someone who clearly wants to understand others and who can’t help loving people. Not countries, or religions, or politics or any other tribal designation: just people and a common goodness, a common struggle, that unites us all.

 

 

Grasping Truth

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When I came to the sea, I was afraid I might have to spend whole days with hordes of strangers, shaking hands and passing compliments and making conversation—a regular labor of Sisyphus.
—Cesare Pavese, “The Beach” from The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese (22)

Once I got settled into my room and daily life here in Rome, I knew I had a problem. The book I had brought with me to fill in the hours I was not at my internship was all wrong. I don’t often give up on books, and it was not as if it was a bad book—it simply was not the right book.

I spend my hours on the weekends and after work walking the city. It is not unusual for me to get back to my room having walked ten miles or more (lately, a little more often on the less side of ten as I become more familiar with the labyrinth streets and therefore spend less time doubling back upon my lost way). But even I can not walk all day, and so, once I knew my reading situation was in a bad state—the book, being set in an even more foreign setting increased my feeling of disorientation, I could barely find the will to get ahold of the specific nomenclature of the trades and dialects discussed and I had no feeling for the characters and so nothing at all to hold on to in my own state of loneliness in a foreign city. What I wanted was someone here to speak to me. I headed to the first bookstore that came up on google—a far walk but well worth the effort. As soon as I began reading I knew I had found a friend.

I was finding my boyhood just to have a companion, a colleague, a son. I saw this country where I grew up with new eyes. We were alone together, the boy and myself; I relived the wild discoveries of earlier days. I was suffering, of course, but in the peevish spirit of someone who neither recognizes nor loves his neighbor. And I talked to myself incessantly, kept myself company. We were two people alone (66 “The House on the Hill”).

I had not heard of Cesare Pavese’s work before I picked the book up off the shelf: an acclaimed Italian writer and influential translator who lived from 1908–1950, but he is the one keeping me company now. His stories, mostly set in his hometown of Turin, in and around World War II are beautifully told. There is a melancholy I respond to here in my own isolation—which is to some degree self-imposed by my rather reserved personality which sees in Pavese a kindred spirit. As well as a familiarity and sheer interest of reading stories set in the country where I am, once again, temporarily situated. Having lived in Italy for a short while over ten years ago, but now here alone, I found myself getting lost in the labyrinth of my own mind. Feeling lonely, yes, and deeply reflective, but also the wonder of it all—the beauty of the sights, sounds, and energy of this ancient city.

The second story in my book of selected works is The House on the Hill. It is one of the most accomplished anti-war stories I have every read. Most anti-war stories can hardly avoid glorifying the very thing they are critiquing, but not Pavese’s. There are no heroes, just people—people who get tangled up in the war in the middle of their own already tangled lives.

They promised punishments, pardons, tortures. Disbanded soldiers, they said, your fatherland understands you and calls you back. Hitherto we were mistaken, they said; we promise you to do better. Come and save yourselves, come and save us, for the love of God. You are the people, you are our sons, you are scoundrels, traitors, cowards. I saw that the old empty phrases weren’t funny any more. Chains and death and the common hope took on a terrible daily immediacy. What had once floated around in the void, mere words, now gripped one’s insides. There is something indecent in words. Sometimes I wished I were more ashamed of using them (126).

Corrado is the emotionally distant protagonist of the story. His elegiac telling of the chaos and danger in the period of Nazi withdrawal and fascist defeat of Italy is terrifying. Not just because it is terrifying, but also because it is so hard to imagine and at the same time, given the recent lean towards neo-fascsim in the world—all too easy. And that is preciously the same feeling that Pavese relates in the midst of it all—does one worry about having a coffee in the morning, or whether or not the son of a woman whose heart he broke is his? Or does one worry about being arrested, murdered—or worse evading arrest when all your friends are taken? Life is big enough for all those worries at once. And then:

I came up below the spring, in a hollow of thick, muddy grasses. Patches of sky and airy hillsides showed among the trees. The coolness there smelled of the sea, almost briny. What did the war, what did bloodshed matter, I thought, when this kind of sky shone amid the trees? (92)

But, of course, it does matter, and it all begins to lose sense in the senselessness of war.

It wasn’t discomfort or the ruins, perhaps not even a threat of death from the sky; rather it was a final grasp of truth that sweet hills could exist, a city softened by fog, a comfortable tomorrow, while at any moment bestial things might be taking place only a few yards away, things people only discussed in whispers (125).

As I wander, mostly in a wonderful, timeless, aimlessness around the city of Rome, I can not help but be struck by the beauty, yes—but also by the ravages—the evidence of the rise and fall of empires, religions, individual fortunes, even the Tiber itself.  “At any moment bestial things” have and are still taking place. We are all human beings on this planet, and so, for Pavese, “every war is a civil war” and every victim of war a body that calls us to account.

Pavese’s voice comforts me in a cautionary sort of way, and gives context to the country that I am immersed in. Of course I am watching my own nation’s news from afar. So while I  worry about where to get coffee without getting lost and missing my loves while relishing being here, I also read the news and worry about whether or not the unimaginable will happen….because we must grasp the truth that it can.

*The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese is translated by R.W. Flint

 

 

 

A Turning Tongue

The peculiar flexibility of human languages to bend themselves to new meanings is part of what makes translation not only possible but a basic aspect of language use. Using one word for another isn’t special; it’s what we do all the time. Translators just do it in two languages.
—David Bellows, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (89)

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reflection at Belrespiro in Rome, Italy

Once I realized I was several kilos under my weight restriction for baggage on the cheap-o airline, I packed a few more books. I reasoned—why not take advantage of the countless hours in transit to read a book long-awaiting my attention? And since I am going overseas, what better book than one on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos?

As I find myself having to turn my English words into Italian, I wonder what is a word anyway? An impossible thing to describe with perfection. And yet, according to Bellos, the same can be said for all things. But of course there are some things that are, as he writes, symptomatic.

Smells, noises, physical sensations, the presence of this or that natural or manufactured object, have symptomatic meanings all the time (70).

Which I know well, as hand gestures and pointing fill in many a linguistic gap for me and my intermediate fluency. Even having said something gives it symptomatic meaning. In other words, the physical world provides tremendous context to our words, many of which would otherwise be meaningless, or difficult to comprehend. Writers are aware of the difficulty—so many words that verbally, in situ, bridge precise meaning, tone, and sense, for the speaker, must be laboriously explained on the blank, sterile, page.

In this way, as Bellos compellingly argues, we are all speaking in translation, trying to find the right word or words—we just usually do it one language as opposed to, like the translator, in two. The aspiration of the nomenclaturista (I just made that word up, but I mean one who clings to the idea of nomenclaturism—the belief that everything has a name—that “words are essentially names” (85)) will never be realized because the words themselves resist meaning only one thing!

Take the word ‘word.’ When did the group of letters, as a single concept, which we named ‘word’ come to signify an oath? as in—you have my word. Indeed, when did it come to signify ‘totally awesome, man.’ My kids say that to me all the time—I might say, “Guess what guys! I’m making your favorite pasta al forno tonight.” And they will invariably answer, “Word.”

As Bellos explains, the oft-abused word ‘literal’ as an adjective, stems from “the noun littera, meaning “letter” in Latin” (109). Sorry to disappoint the purists, but literal was something that was worth writing down, its figurative or literal truth was not the important quality. Its hard to imagine a world in which the skills and instruments of writing were rare, but for a long time they were, and so not every damn thing was written down, only important and “true” things. The literal truth.

To Bellos’ mind, the very act of language is a form of perpetual translation. When people say that poetry is lost in translation, Bellos cries foul. It is not poetry that is lost, he argues. The only thing that a translation from one language to another can not accomplish with ease, or at all, is the embedded sense of the community that speaks with true fluency, which manifests itself in all sorts of assumptions and particularities of grammar which may signal customs, tone, power dynamics, and myriad other subtitles which come with the singularity of really knowing the language and the people that speak it.

It makes no sense to imagine transporting the ethnic, self-identifying dimensions of any utterance. Absolutely any other formulation of the expression, in the same or any other dialect or language, constructs a different identity (338).

It’s a fascinating read, and one that has me thinking deeply about language as I struggle with two.

Because, like many people, I have enough trouble with one. What gives any word I choose to use its meaning? Think of the many concepts we don’t bother to name, or worse, name vaguely—which does not at all preclude our readiness to articulate—or have fun trying. Philosophers love to torture themselves by trying to describe things like ‘freedom,’ ‘human nature,’ and ‘friendship’ and yet these things elude precise meaning. And thank goodness, where would we be, really, if we could describe words like ‘love’—thousands of years of music, poetry, art, and film wiped away in an instant. A pity, e un peccato, in any language.

*Title inspired from page 29: “In Sumerian, the language of ancient Babylon, the word for “translator,” written in cuneiform script, […is] pronounced eme-bal, it means “language turner.”In classical Latin, too, what translators did was vertere, “to turn” (Greek) expressions into the language of Rome.”

 

Imperfect, But Trying

He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy.
—Alain De Botton, The Course of Love (42)

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We’re all nuts and merely tolerating our beloved is the crux of love. At least according to Alain De Botton’s sweet and insightful novel The Course of Love. His novel takes off where most end: at the end of the beginning—the “happily ever after”—after the event of falling in love, where most novels, films, and love songs end.

We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane (85).

Interpolated in the story is the narrator’s calm analysis explaining the effects of the certain disillusionment that comes from close contact with another person. In the case of this particular story the persons involved are Rabih and Kirsten, an Edinburgh couple who are disappointed to discover in each other flaws that exasperate their own shortcomings. These exasperations result in the sorts of fights in which, for example, the absurdity of railing against a wife who is competent and nice seems logical, at least to Rabih. Kristen’s of a differing opinion in regard to her character but is also paralyzed by her own reasonableness which stems solely from fear of the out-of-control situations she experienced in her formative years.

“He’s calm, he likes to go walking, he doesn’t seem to think it’s such a terrible flaw that I’m ‘reasonable.’ Anyway, to get back to the larger point: How can I make it any clearer? Being nice is not boring: it’s an enormous achievement, one that ninety-nine percent of humanity can’t manage from day to day. If ‘nice’ is boring, then I love boring (171).

De Botton succeeds in making the reader care about the individuals and about the couple, and yet, his talent lies in the way in which one also identifies with the characters—maybe one more than the other (am I anxiously attached like Rabih or is Kirsten’s avoidance attachment more me? Jesus, I think I’m both. Is it possible it be both? That probably bodes ill, right? Damnit.) —and in this way the novel gives the reader a perspicuity into their own pathos. It’s an enormously clever book.

That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood (64).

It is temping, of course, to hold out for a mind-reader, but barring that, this book offers to frame love very differently than the classic, (albeit deeply appealing) romantic fantasy, and it is in many ways a more daunting, mature, but satisfying kind of love—a love that trusts. As I wrote here, in regard to De Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, I don’t particularly care for books that might be found on the self-help shelf, but I do rather like De Botton’s sly hand in delivering a penetrating look into where we misstep and why. His voice is at once forgiving and hopeful, and that is reassuring.

Fundamentally, De Botton advocates for the examined life. Empathy and caring can carry us through the landmines perpetually detonating as a result of our flawed childhoods. The glorious thing is, none of us are perfect. Not a one! There is no perfect one. There is just you and me. When we let go of the romanic ideal and let the beloved be imperfect, let ourselves be imperfect without hiding in either silence or acrimony, then we can all be ourselves—imperfect, but trying. That is the course of love.

 

That Goodly Mansion

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There is something truly wonderful about a very long book. And Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is indeed a very long book. With so much time to develop the characters the reader can sink deeply into the story no matter the pace at which they read it. Life, being what it is, forced me to renew this book at the library an embarrassing number of times. But this book, being what it is, will stay within me indefinitely.

“Do not let me think of them too often, too much, too fondly,” I implored. “let me be content with a temperate draught of this living stream: let me not run athirst, and apply passionately to its welcome waters: let me not imagine in them a sweeter taste than earth’s fountains know. Oh! Would to God I may be enabled to feel enough sustained by an occasional, amicable intercourse, rare, brief, engrossing and tranquil: quite tranquil!” (223)

Anyone familiar with one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre,  will be familiar with Brontë’s typical heroine. Both Jane and Lucy Snowe are sober, realistic, controlled but deeply feeling. They are orphans, not just in actual fact—but emotionally—they absorb the losses of their lives with equanimity to the point of capriciousness. This book, more than in Jane Eyre, deeply examines the English and Protestant underpinnings of that disposition. Set in Catholic France the cultural differences are pronounced by the added condition of expatria, and yet, what is truly wonderful about the book is the human feeling of loneliness and yearning for a true and intimate companionship that Brontë beautifully captures.

“As if one could let you alone, when you are so peculiar and so mysterious!”
“The mystery and peculiarity being entirely the conception of your own brain—maggots—neither more nor less, be so good as to keep them out of my sight.” (391)

Lucy can be a little sharp-tongued, but her honesty is refreshing and her wit is true and never malicious. Brontë’s characters are,to me, deeply appealing. Villette is not constructed like other novels of this genre. The plot takes time to get going, and the narrator’s relationship to the reader is fascinating.

Of course it was a particular style of the time for the narrator to address the reader—it is intimate—one becomes the special confidant and is subtly elevated to an active role. The famous closing remarks in Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him,” still warms my heart, but in Villette there is an oddity in that the Lucy’s reserve extends to the reader as well—she does not reveal some of her thoughts or reactions, and sometimes she even refers back to times in which she did not relate all that her heart felt. In a subtle manner her relationship to the reader is like her relationships to the other characters int he book. If you listen to her, and withhold judgment or projection, the fineness of her character comes through.

“Happiness is the cure—a cheerful mind the preventative: cultivate both.”
No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to
cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” (315)

The novel takes place in the interior of Lucy Snowe’s mind. The brilliant thing that Brontë accomplishes with this mode of narration is that one understands that the mind is not the perfect narrator—there are things which we hide from ourselves before we even have a thought of hiding them from others. It is the complexity and isolation of the interior terrain of the mind that Brontë develops in a surprisingly avant-garde manner considering the pre-Freudian era it seems to have forecasted.

“If,” muttered she, “if he should write, what then: Do you mediate pleasure in replying? Ah, fool! I warn you! Brief in your answer. Hope no delight of heart—no indulgence of intellect: grant no expansion to feeling—give holiday to no single faculty: dally with no friendly exchange: foster no genial intercommunication” (287)

Ah, romance. Yes! of course it is a romance! One to swoon the heart at that. But it is the battle between the mind and heart that is Brontë’s specialty—and what I particularly love about her books. For all of Lucy’s quirks and stringent coping mechanism, Brontë makes clear that her heart’s raging passions are valued above all. And it is that estimation alone that makes her novels so deeply satisfying and pleasurable.

Villette. Everyman’s Library, 1909 edition.

*Title from pg 581: “I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call.”

**photo by Augustus Accardi

The Meaning is the Question

[O]ne might refer without irony to man’s superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, ‘original sin,’ and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (11)

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I love that excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine because it appeals to our myopic sense of superiority and then makes plain that, truly, it is our irrationality with which we maintain a clear lead. As I always say, if you’re not laughing—it’s just fucking depressing. I am not suggesting that Mumford’s book is a laugh-riot, only that he does have a certain level of wryness which he employs to point out many ridiculous qualities of the culturally induced assumptions that we seem to hold dear about ourselves.

For man to feel belittled, as so many now do, by the vastness of the universe or the interminable corridors of time is precisely like his being frightened by his own shadow (33).

Why? Because “time,” as we understand it, is a human construction—the vast universe cares nothing about the particular matrix we use to describe time. But this misunderstanding of how we see ourselves in relation to all else is at the heart of Mumford’s thesis. The myth is that human beings are foremost toolmakers, and machine makers—that our tools describe us better than any other measure, and therefore our tools are our only means of progress.

In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge (5).

We are so inured in the idea that our tools have been the formative objects of our human development we can hardly see that tools are merely the formative objects our our human history. It’s simply the story as we tell it. Just think of how we define the ages: the stone age, bronze age and, iron age without ever taking into account the more ephemeral aspects of our history—the greatest of which must be language. And what of our imaginative minds? our playful (and ernest)curiosity? which are elements without which we can not even begin to explain ourselves.

[F]or ninety-five percent of man’s existence, as Forde points out, man was dependent upon food-gathering for his daily nourishment. Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested. Constantly picking and choosing, identifying, sampling, and exploring, watching over his young and caring for his own kind—all this did more to develop human intelligence than any intermittent chipping of tools could have done (101).

This book was first published in 1967, and so there were times when I felt it was, of course, dated—there seems to me much more consensus on these ideas by this point in time. But it is still well worth the read because what Mumford does is alter the reader’s perspective, and then shows other possible explanations for rituals, social organization, and onto the “magamachines” (his term) which are “composed solely of human parts.” Meaning our long history of kingships, priesthoods and bureaucracies that make these human machines (slavery, feudalism, serfdom, slave minimum-wages, debt-based societies) a necessity for their own existence: “forced poverty made possible forced labor” (206). The ritualization and moralization of work have long held sway and are forces that, in many ways, describes capitalism.

In sum, where capitalism prospered, it established three main canons for successful economic enterprise: the calculation of quantity, the observation and regimentation of time (‘Time is Money’), and the concentration on abstract pecuniary rewards. Its ultimate values—Power, Profit, Prestige—derive from these sources and all of them can be traced back, under the flimsiest of disguises, to the Pyramid Age (279).

What happens if one acknowledges that there may be something built into the power structure that gives us a propensity to view ourselves as inherently selfish and warlike beings, and that that may in fact, and very likely is, simply untrue? What is not, and never will be dated about Mumford’s work is that one must always question. Question our beliefs, question authority, question! That is our human gift.

Is intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purpose of life? (288)

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development
Lewis Mumford
London, Secker & Warburg, 1966