Friday, December 26, 2008

HAMLET: The Death of Ophelia

Modernity has thoroughly institutionalized Hamlet ; we've lost our sense, if we ever had it, of its essential strangeness. A friend of mine asked me an innocent question the other day that snapped me to attention. It was a question about the Queen's--Gertrude's--description of Ophelia's death:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them;
There on the pendent bows her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, a while they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her won distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

If Ophelia has enough to time to sing songs before she drowns, said my friend, and someone (the queen presumably) is there to hear them, then there should be time enough for that someone to pull her out of that brook. Most brooks aren't deep enough to drown in and the spot where Ophelia falls, under a willow tree, is close to shore. Something doesn't make sense.

Maybe the only thing that Gertrude knows is that Ophelia drowned and is trying to explain how it happened? In other words, she's making it up?

These questions have been asked before but no one seems to have made much of them.

How did Shakespeare get himself into this little tangle of contradictions? Think about the dramatic problem he was trying to solve.

The tragedy is getting ready for its final bloody conclusion in which nothing is concluded, but it needs a proper place and occasion where the chief personages can be assembled for one last confrontation before the final cock-fight. Hamlet has to have a time and place where the jokes inspired by the death of Polonius can be suitably polished and delivered. He needs a cemetary, some grave diggers, and a body. Polonius is already dead and buried; Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are also out of the way. That leaves Ophelia. But what is she to die of? People don't--as Rosalinde says--die of broken hearts. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves but not out of heart-break; they die because of a series of accidents and misunderstandings and because they think they have no other choice.

So the death of Ophelia is a problem. It can't be accidental because that would make it meaningless and it can't be intentional because that would be unbelievable. And her death has to connect with the rest of the play. Shakespeare solves this problem (more or less) by having her lose her wits: she becomes even more helpless than she has been all along, and that's saying a lot. (Ophelia is a lost motherless child who is used by her father and brother for their own purposes; they are not thinking of their own welfare when they tell her to stay away from Hamlet but their own. Her name, appropriately, is the ancient Greek word for 'advantage.') Does she kill herself or doesn't she? Hard to say. This necessary ambiguity--the fact that Ophelia's death is neither accidental nor intentional--is put to use in the conversation of the grave-diggers that opens that wonderful and insufficiently appreciated scene.

But the problem remains because it is a logical problem. Since the death of Ophelia had to be narrated instead of enacted, it doesn't quite make sense; the fact that her death is ambiguous only makes it worse. Since she doesn't know what she is doing, the observer is in a position to interfere. And Shakespeare must have known this, for he deals with it by so richly elaborating the Queen's account that the bare facts sort of disappear in the beautiful pathos of her poetry. And pathos, clearly, is what Ophelia's story is all about.

Please don't misunderstand me. I want to understand this play not score points off it. This play gives us a hero who doesn't want to be a hero, and an actor who doesn't know how to act, in a play that goes about as far as it can to create the illusion that it is not a play at all. In this play, it is not always easy to say what makes sense and what doesn't. The death of Ophelia is not the only thing that doesn't make sense. Maybe some things aren't supposed to make sense? This work of art goes where art had never gone before.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Notes From the Underground (2)

What did Dostoevsky mean by the word 'underground'? The political meaning, familiar to anyone who remembers the Nazi or Soviet 'occupations' of the 20th century, is clearly irrelevant; the Underground Man has no political beliefs, belongs to no political organization. Nor is he a criminal; the current meaning of 'underworld' can also be ruled out. Yet, though the word has to be a literal translation of some Russian word, Dostoevsky's use of it is clearly metaphorical--unlike the Paris underground in Les Miserables which is literal. While the reader can think of the Paris sewers as a metaphor for the dark, fillthy places inhabited by the forgotten wretches of world, Hugo does not himself insist on it. He doesn't have to.

Dostoevsky's Underground Man is so far beneath the notice of the various social and political establishments that he might as well be living under the ground. That is not, however, quite how he sees himself. I don't think he ever uses the term 'underground' as a metaphor for his place in the world; the word he uses is 'insect.' Franz Kafka, fifty-one years later, would take him literally in a story he entitled The Metamorphosis (1915). Why does the hero (so to speak) of that tale, Gregor Samsa, wake up one morning as a giant bug? Because that's how the world, including his father, sees--or doesn't see--him. He is beneath notice, a nobody, a person of no significance. He might as well be a bug. And how does one become such non-person? Or, rather, what does one have to do not to become such a person? The answer is obvious, is it not? Since the powerful, not the meek, inherit the earth, get power anyway you can. Some are born powerful, others seize power, others have it thrust upon them. Money is power as long as you know how to use it, or as long it lasts. Inherited social status helps a lot; luck and natural ability count for more: the 19th century is an age of (a few) self-made millionaires and tycoons; Napoleon, the greatest of them all, became the hero of poor but energetic and ambitious young men everywhere. But those young men would have had a tougher time of it in mid 19th century Russia than anywhere else in northern Europe--and Russia did in those days consider itself a part of Europe.

There is another way to make the world notice you: invent or join a political party; acquire a group or corporate identity. But the Underground Man does not want to be successful or noticed or happy; having consciously internalized the world's contempt for powerless people such as he, he welcomes it, embraces it even in order to prove a point--or rather to disprove one: the argument of modern utilitarian economics that each of us, acting in his or her own self-interest (within the rule of law) will automatically bring about the greatest good of the greatest number. And so the Underground Man repeatedly demonstrates his power to act freely against his own interests by going out of his way to humiliate himself--thus making a sort of political point, despite his own intentions. Doesn't he warn us from the beginning that he is a sick man, a spiteful man? But of course the political point is Dostoevsky's.

If that were all, this little book would not matter as much as it does. You want to know what its like down in the belly of the beast, down in the guts of our modern, urban Leviathans? Let the Underground Man tell you about life in that dismal Hobbesian state where everyone preys on someone weaker, powerlessness leads relentlessly to humiliation, and the humiliated take it out on those who are more powerless still.

The UM is willing do anything no matter how shameful to make people notice him; why does he want to be noticed? So he can shit on them.

What makes this book such a discomforting and painful read?--it has no equal in this way, nothing else is quite like it. Dostoevsky has managed to write a book that does to the reader what the Underground Man does to himself.

Like any story written in the person, this one draws you in; you begin to identify with or at least share the teller's point of view. Dostoevsky takes advantage of this literary habit to trap the reader in the skin of a man who despises him or her as much as he despises himself.

Why is Dostoevsky trapping his readers in this way? I don't know.

If there is one person the UM despises even more than himself--if that's possible-- it is the French novelist and romantic, or romantic novelist, George Sand, who stood up for the rights of women and taught what Keats calls "the holiness of the heart's affections." She taught generations of young readers, men and women, that love is a divine instinct: follow the dictates of your heart and you can't go wrong. (She practised what she preached, with results that were not always entirely happy.) The UM does not believe in any of this; he is a cynic: he does not believe in virtue or the goodness of the human heart, which he thinks is capable of nothing but humbug and hypocrisy. He believes in nothing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dostoevsky: "Notes from the Underground" (1864)

Two years separate Dostoevsky's short book (you could hardly call it a novel, even a short one) from Hugo's long one, Les Miserables (1862) but these two writers inhabit different literary as well as moral and philosophical worlds: Hugo is a 19th century Romantic who looks back to the revolution that had occurred before he was born and forward to the brave new world of modern, enlightened, democracy which he knows in his heart is just around the corner. Dostoevsky, living in a land that had never had a revolution, a more feudal, more rigidly hierarchical and authoritarian place than anything Hugo could have known, writes as if he has seen the future and concluded that things can only get worse--but worse in a way that the big-wigs & power-brokers, the rich & the beautiful, or those who aspire to enter that world of power and privilege, will never appreciate; only a fellow spirit, another underground man, Kafka for example, can understand what Dostoevsky means by 'worse'--or what he means by that word, 'underground'.

Dostoevsky, thinking the title of his tale required some explanation, has this to say in a foot-note: "The author of the Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the author of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances under which our society was formed... In this fragment [he] introduces himself and his views, and, as it were, tries to explain the causes owing to which he has made his appearance and was bound to make his appearance in our midst."

How often have you heard explanations that don't explain very much? That raise more questions than they answer? Dostoevsky writes as one who is even more detached from his tale than his readers. He writes as one who belongs to the very upper-crust world that the nameless character he has invented (whom we can only identify as 'the underground man', or OU) is not merely excluded from but has willfully excluded himself from.

If you have read this tale, you may remember that the OU is not someone who makes detachment easy; he grabs you from his opening words, "I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man": he holds on to you and makes you listen; whoever or whatever he is, he is real, authentic. (Don't underestimate the magnitude of Dostoevsky's achievement here.)

What does Dostoevsky mean when he says that the existence of such a man is inevitable "in our society"? What is it about our society that virtually requires an underground? Who is included in that word 'our'?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Shelley's OZYMANDIAS: A Romantic Poem?

Some of you may find my question a little odd: Shelley is a 'romantic' poet, therefore Ozymandias is romantic poem. As you probably know, things aren't that simple. So let's look at the poem:


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This would seem to be a simple, straightforward, unproblematical poem, and it would be if it weren't for one small, grammatical glitch--a slight ambiguity--which I shall get to shortly. What the poem seems to be saying--and is, in part--is pretty much what the Old Testament says, in Ecclesiastes: all is vanity. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Anyone can come up with other such deep and traditional apothegms.

Now for the grammatical glitch. We tend to take the grammar of the stuff we read for granted, unless it happens to go seriously wrong. This reading habit, and others which are easily acquired from a steady diet of journalistic prose, can be dysfunctional (there must be a better word) when one is reading poetry. Poetry may pack several meanings into a few words, thereby putting pressure on grammar and syntax, whereas journalistic prose is diffuse, spreading its meanings and ideas across many.

The glitch in this poem occurs with the verb "survive": is it transitive or intransitive--meaning, does it or does it not, 'take' an object? Or both? Well, it can't be intransitive because then the clause, "The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed" would be left dangling, uselessly. So "survive" has to have, as its object, the words "hand" and "heart": the hand of the sculptor, the heart of Ozymandias. The subject of the verb is "passions", naturally, i.e. the passions written all over this (partially) shattered visage with its "frown/And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command" which is all that's left of both Ozymandius and the nameless artist who carved it. Who carved it knowing that this is how Ozymandias wanted to look; it is how he thought a king should look. But Ozymandias didn't understand that this is the look of a man who cares for nothing but power.

The fact that anyone who sees that visage now can tell at a glance what Ozymandias was really all about tells us something important: that ancient sculptor read the face of Ozymandias just as we do, ironically, and he "stamped" it, i.e. carved it into this block of stone in a way that both pleased the king and deceived him: Ozymandias did not understand that he was being mocked by a man whom he thought of (if he thought at all) as a mere lackey, a worm. Now, thanks to that worm, we can look at this face and see him for what he was. That sneer of cold command, which perfectly fits his arrogant and empty boasting, is all that's left of him--like the smile of the Cheshire cat in Alice In Wonderland. Here, thinks Shelley, something worth knowing: all these bastards are the same; human nature doesn't change. Art lasts longer than power. To Shelley that annonymous artist is a kindred spirit.

It is, in one way, a curiously unromantic poem: the idea that human nature is everywhere and at all times the same is not romantic but neo-classic. Samuel Johnson (see his great poem, "The Vanity Of Human Wishes") would have approved. On the other hand, the idea that Art is timeless is new. I think. It was the romantics who began to spell the word 'art' with an upper-case 'A' and turned artists into heroes.

Should you not be satisfied with my reading of Shelley's poem, consider the following bit (which I found recently on another blog):

The theme of this poem is the passing of human glory. The once great king, Ozymandias, modeled on an Egyptian Pharaoh, ruled domineeringly over a great empire. In his own lifetime he had a huge statue of himself erected to impress his subjects, who must have been then numerous in this part of the world, but it is now desert. The colossal statue has likewise been wasted by the passing of time, so that of the once bustling imperial scene nothing now remains but wreckage and sand–“Sic transit gloria mundi,” said the Latins–thus passes the glory of the world.... The imagery of the poem lies in the description of the desert scene. It is a vivid description, with one dramatic word after another that punches over the message: “antique…vast…shattered…frown…sneer…stamped…despair…colossal…wreck…boundless.” Such vocabulary builds up a powerful effect, climaxing in the eleventh line, dying away again in the return of the last three lines to the desert, where the poem began. In the beginning there is nature. Then man comes to “strut and fret his hour upon the stage,” but finally all that is left is – nature. Deserted nature at that. “Despair!” is indeed the key-word of the poem. Nothing in the 14 lines gives the hope that human affairs have any final meaning. The most that can be said, Shelley seems to tell us, is that human affairs can be impressive and mighty for as long as they last, but–as he clearly suggests through the inscription on the pedestal of the broken statue–they never do last.
Ozymandias was indeed once great. His ambition to command as King of Kings went well beyond reasonable bounds. Like Solomon in the Old Testament, he was driven to recognize that “all is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2), but even if he failed to achieve anything that lasted, nevertheless he affirmed by the striving of his “works” that there is more to life than just living out one’s life-span in material comfort with social security.
So against the complacent materialism of a modern world shutting out God and closing down human beings, the Romantics score heavily. Where they fail is that their affirmation of the Something More is not usually hooked to any reality tougher than their own instincts and feelings that there must be Something More. But supposing there is not? Feelings alone are not enough. And that is why Ozymandias finishes in despair. He sensed that human greatness had a meaning, and he lived greatly as though it did, but he never found that meaning. And so for Shelley there seems to remain nothing but the desert, forerunner of T. S. Eliot’s famous “Wasteland.”
Therefore the Romantics correctly see that sick modern man is making life into a poor affair. They protest, eloquently. They are right to protest. But unless they diagnose the sickness as being the cutting out of God, and unless they re-anchor their instincts and feelings in the greatness of the true God who invites all men to Heaven, then a few generations later the Romantics’ beautiful “feelings” and noble “instincts” and great “longings” will be cast out as so much kidology. Man lives by Truth. He demands truth to live by. And that is why the 20th century, however much it may have “longed” to be able to continue “feeling good” about life, saw a strong anti-Romantic reaction.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

LES MISERABLES And The Meaning of 'Romantic'

I remarked in an earlier post that in romantic poetry the pronoun 'I' has weight, power, authority as never before. Or, to say the same thing a little differently, poets before Blake did not think of themselves as actors in their poems or that the poems they were writing were 'about' themselves as well as things; they wrote about things and people in an objective world independent of themselves. But when poetry becomes subjective it must also sound authentic; that pronoun 'I' has to be more than a place-holder. It is not enough for the poet-as-actor-in-the poem to talk about his or her feelings and thoughts; the poem itself must enact or dramatize them. If a poem is any good, it authenticates itself--like any other work of art. And how do they do that? Well, that's the enduring mystery that artists--and critics, if they are any good--never stop thinking about. (Critics used to think there were rules and they tried to apply them to Shakespeare's plays--which trampled them into the dust.)

Hugo the story-teller is a tremendous presence in Les Miserables. Sometimes he takes on the role of historian-- of his own times, one who is very much engaged: a partisan historian who is also something of a scientist, drilling down to get at the facts, down through the mud and geological strata deposited by the various attempts of right-thinking society to obscure or obliterate the vital currents of hot magma let loose by the great volcanic eruptions of '89 and '93 and Napoleon. Paris, France, like the Revolution, are shown to be a work in progress. Paris changes before our eyes. The maze of streets that Jean Valjean, with Cosset, lose Javert in, no longer exists, we are told, but has been replaced by something more 'modern.' This historian may take us on an extended tour of the battle of Waterloo or the sewers of Paris and these tours are always relevant. Do we really need to know quite so much? Do we need to know, for instance, how successive governments beginning (at least) in medieval times have rebuilt or extended the sewer system? That successive 19th century regimes have extended the system by 226 kilometers? That by dumping its shit into the rivers and the sea instead of using it as fertilizer, as in China, France is wasting half-a-billion Francs a year? "With this five hundred million you could cover a quarter of our budget outlays. Man is so smart that he prefers to chuck this five hundred million in the gutter. It is the people's very substance that is being carried away, here drop by drop, there in gushing torrents, by the miserable vomiting of our sewers into the rivers and copious vomiting of our rivers into the ocean. Every time our cesspools hiccup, it costs us a thousand francs. This has two results: the soil is impoverished and the water is contaminated." This is a good sample of Hugo's prose, colloquial, 'earthy' as we say, and about as close as he can get to the language of the people he is writing about. The point is clear: their lives and talents are treated--wasted-- by this society and its laws as if they were no better than shit.

The vast, labyrinthian Paris sewer-system is thus a possible metaphor for the underground world that Jean Valjean has been trying to escape from for most of the novel. And this is the inky-black world where he, his future son-in-law, Marius (slung, unconscious across his shoulders), and Thenardier, the villain of this fantastic and improbable tale meet. And wonder of wonders, it is Thenardier (the Minotaur of this labyrinth) who has the key to the grate that blocks their escape and--for completely villainous reasons--uses it to let them out. Where--yet another fateful meeting--they fall into the hands of Javert.
That's how things work in such wildly improbable, larger-than-life tales as Les Miserables and Homer's Odyssey. That's what makes them 'romantic.'

One final note: it is appropriate and not the least bit improbable that Thenardier should escape, finally, to America and become a slave trader. Hugo thought we deserved him. His two nameless boys, aged seven and five, long since abandoned, are last seen in the Luxembourg Gardens eating a bit of bread that they have managed to snatch from the water before one of the swans could get it.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Les Miserables (2)

So, romantic epic or an epic romance? What's the difference? Why does it matter? Right names matter. An epic is not the same thing as a romance. A romance is a love story, which Les Miserables is not. What is an epic? First of all the epic is an invention of the ancient Greeks, specifically Homer. The Greek work 'epos' means that which is spoken or sung in words. The first epics, the Iliad and Odyssey recounted the heroic deeds of great men and were probably sung or chanted to music by professional poet-singers. The Iliad is the first tragedy; the Odyssey is harder to describe. It is the story of the strange and wonderful adventures of one of the warriors of the Iliad, Odysseus, who, following the fall of Troy, just wants to go home and never have to fight or be a hero again. Unfortunately, he has managed to offend one of the gods, Neptune, who thereupon becomes his implacable enemy. Sound familiar? Sounds like Jean Valjean and Javert does it not? Javert is not a god, to be sure; the god, in this case is the Law and Javert is merely one of its honest, honorable and uncorruptible servants--like the Gatekeeper in the great parable at the heart of Kafka's Trial. But the Law, in Hugo's novel as in Kafka's tale, is indistinguishable from Maistre's: if order is all you care about, anything goes.

Jean Valvjean has no home: that's what he is trying to find or create. For a time he thinks he has found one as Father Madeleine, mayor of Montreuil-Sur-Mer, a town that had had no future until he comes along and gives it one by reinventing its single industry. For a time all is well. No one thinks to inquire into the past of their great benefactor. And no one

One day, Jean Valjean hears about some poor bastard who is being accused of being Jean Valjean; if he (the poor bastard) can't prove that he isn't Jean Valjean, he will end his days as a galley slave. Jean Valjean responds heroically. As he sees it, he must either leave the poor bastard to his fate, or abandon the people of this town, whom he has saved from abject poverty, by obeying the dictates of the categorical imperative that his conscience is now in the process of making its own. After an inner struggle that turns his hair white, he decides to save the poor bastard at the expense of the town; utility, the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, is considered only be rejected.

So once more, Jean Valjean is on the lam with Javert and the Law in hot pursuit. He is caught, escapes (no one, including the author) knows quite how, buries the money he has made in business, is retaken, returned to the galleys, escapes again (some of the details are supplied, this time, but much is left unexplained), makes his way to Paris (with money, acquired who knows how), disappears. All of which happens with lightning speed, just a few pages, which is very unnusual in this novel which is now about one-quarter of the way to its conclusion, the death and burial of the hero.

The Iliad ends with the burial of Hector, Breaker of Horses, but this is not a conclusion; the war will continue, as it must, because that is the will of the Gods--an arbitrary and capricious lot, as Homer makes perfectly clear. At the end of Les Miserables, the reader knows that the war for liberty and equality will continue, as it must--not because it is the will of God, as Hugo believes, but because that is the will of an increasingly well-informed people (as Hugo also believes).

The warriors of the Iliad know what they are fighting for: by being in the forefront of battle, they justify their privileged positions back home. The hero of this book is not fighting for anything but the right to be left alone; the battle that's being fought--over his head, so to speak--is Hugo's (and that of the liberal left, generally) for liberty (the rights set forth in our Bill of Rights, for example) and equality (equality before the law and equality of opportunity).

Since Jean Valjean himself is apolitical, what made the political bite of this book so painful that the Catholic Church wanted to have every copy confiscated and burned (and would have if it had the power)? What I think the Church found objectionable in this novel was the role of the narrator--Hugo--not the tale he is telling: the teller, not the tale. Hugo is very busy throughout the novel telling the reader what it all means; you would never know that Les Miserables is 'about' the on-ward march of history toward the destined goal of democracy if Hugo hadn't been constantly telling you so.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Victor Hugo's Romantic Epic, LES MISERABLES (1862)

This a a huge book and not just because of the number of pages it contains (1195 not including notes, in the Modern Library edition from which I have just emerged, blinking my eyes, as if from a vast cavern); it has a huge subject, post-revolutionary France (or Europe or the World), or: the human condition and the progress of the eighteenth century's enlightenment project in the nineteenth. (Whew! What a mouthfull.) I don't suppose many of you have read it, or will (here I am, at 77, just getting round to it) which is too bad because it is, as I now realize, the one book that just about says it all on the subject of modernity--or about as a much as anyone could have said on this subject in 1862. If there is one book that Joseph de Maistre. the great enemy of modernity, would have hated and feared beyond any other, this is it.

Size or heft, back then, was no deterrent. "In Paris, bookstores sold every copy within three days. Factory workers pooled their money to buy shared copies. Conservatives denounced a book that represented a criminal as a hero. Pope Pius IX placed Les Miserables on the Church's Index of proscribed books, and copies were publicly burned in Spain. In Paris and all around the world, Les Miserables solidified Hugo's reputation as the champion of the poor and the enemy of tyranny. The novel was devoured by everyone from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to soldiers on both sides in the American Civil War." Dickens and Scott had had that sort transatlantic popular readership as well.

Some other big books were appearing at around this time:Moby Dick was published in 1851, The Origin of Species in 1859. What do these books have in common? They posit an entirely natural world in which god is irrelevant. Schopenhauer's World As Will And Idea(1819) which eliminates God altogether, was beginning to be taken seriously at this time. None of these writers would ever be as popular with the masses as Hugo, and especially Les Miserables. Why? Because Hugo, in this book at least, never swerves from his belief in a providential God.

Les Miserables is permeated by a philosophy of history. History, it says repeatedly, is the same as Providence which is the same as destiny, is on the side of enlightenment and democracy. What looks like chance or randomness in history is really the will of God with his thumb on the scales. So to speak. Such a view of history is very convenient for a novelist, a 19th century novelist at any rate: the reader can feel that the coincidences, accidents, chances that knit the novel together, connecting high and low, good and evil, great and small, and moves the grand design of the plot along to its appointed destiny is not a mere fabrication of the novelist's but a figure in the larger carpet of history. When the plot connects people who would never in the real world connect, and when wonderful things happen as a result, it is not novelistic artifice or sleight of hand, not a mere deus ex machina, but a reflection of how things actually are. Yet Hugo, as a passionate prophet of modern enlightenment, also believed in modern science as its agent. I don't know how it is for other religions, but modern science is enlightening in ways that are not only incompatible with Catholic orthodoxy, as Maistre understood very well, but probably also with Hugo's vague faith in divine providence.

Victor Hugo died in 1885. He could never have imagined that the worst was yet to come, that Joseph de Maistre's Executioner would come into his own in the 20th century, that the lights would go out in 1914 and stay out for more than 30 years (and a lot longer than that in Russia and China.) He knew that explosions like the French Revolution create demons, as supernovas create metals, but neither he nor anyone else could have predicted Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot. He thought that the energies released or generated--the fears, hopes, hatreds--by that revolution would work themselves out in the 19th century. No such luck.

When we first meet the hero of this novel, Jean Valjean at the house of the superlatively wise and good Bishop of Digne, Monseignor Bienvenu, he is a partially literate peasant who has spent the last nineteen years as a convict and a galley slave. It is the year of Waterloo, 1815. He is in his early forties. Somehow or other during those 19 years, he had managed to learn how to read, but he is still an inarticulate and savage animal. That same year, he pops up in another town and invents a process that changes its single industry from a marginal business to a profitable one. The town, enriched by his industry and good works, makes him its Mayor. Having literally reinvented himself, he is no longer a virtually illiterate peasant but an educated man of the world.

I know of no other novel of that century whose hero is so very nearly superhuman. Like Edward in King Lear, Jean Valjean can appear or disappear at will. He has the strength four ordinary men and perfect presence of mind--he never loses his cool, no matter how desperate his situation. He can climb walls like Spider Man and get out of tight spots like Houdini. His conscience, or moral imagination, is superhuman as well thanks to the shock of his encounter with Bishop Bienvenu, a man whose character--a cross between Socrates and Jesus--Hugo has devoted the first 50 pages of the book developing. The action of the novel is determined at key points by this conscience.

Why epic, why romance? Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

President Obama

In his moment of triumph (the first of many, perhaps) the other night, Mr. Obama alluded tellingly and movingly to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as he was giving credit to all those millions of annonymous people (of which I was one) "who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth." What, or how much, should we make of this implied comparison between the Civil War and the Bush presidency (for which Mr. McCain has taken the rap)? Well, had the Confederacy won that war, the Constitution would have been amended beyond recognition afterwards, and democracy would have become a losing if not a lost cause. Lincoln was right about that. You can't say the same for a McCain victory in this last election. What we can say, though, is that for eight years the Bush administration has, for the most "patriotic" of motives, conducted the most sustained assault on the Constitution that we have ever seen. Patriotism, said Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

The phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" naturally raises the question: Who are the people and what do they expect of government? Should their expectations always be satisfied? Are there times when Presidents (or Kings) ought to be telling the people, their putative masters, be careful what you wish for? Well, of course the answer is yes. What many people mainly want is happiness as defined by Hobbes (see my posting, 2-2-08) but a state that gives itself over to liberty and the pursuit of happiness on these terms will soon find itself with a happy few on top and a resentful multitude down below.

These reflections were occasioned, in part, by a paragraph in a book I have been reading--for the first time!--Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo. Hugo, here, is talking about the 'ethics' of success.

We live in a somber society. How to get ahead, succeed--that is the lesson that trickles down, drop by drop from the overriding corruption on high.
We might say, by the way, that success is pretty awful. Its deceptive resemblance to merit has people fooled. For the hordes, success looks just like supremacy. Success, that dead ringer for talent, has a dupe, history. Only Juvenal and Tacitus grumble about it. In our time, a more or less official philosophy has entered into service as Success's handmaiden, wears its livery and works its antechamber. Succeed: That's the whole idea. Prosperity presupposes capability. Win the lottery and you are a clever man. The winner is revered. Be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that's all that counts. Be lucky and the rest will fall into place. Be fortunate and you'll be thought great.... All that glitters IS gold.

Does that sound familiar? Isn't that the siren song and rhythm from Republican woofers that never ceases to pound our minds and sensibilities? But liberty and the pursuit of happiness is but a part of the American dream--and, naturally, the American nightmare; equality, the other part, is what we don't hear so much about, or haven't for a while, though it is generally one of the great preoccupations of the Democratic party in all its deliberations. McCain poured scorn on the idea that one purpose of taxation is to spread the wealth around. There we have the great difference between these two parties--these two halves of the American constitution and the American soul: Liberty AND equality. If liberty is all that matters, we have people going around equating taxation and theft, and claiming that we deserve our fate, good or bad. If we happen to be lucky we deserve our luck and the wealth that comes with it; if unlucky, too bad--you probably deserved it. You know how it goes in Republican minds: the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. As for equality, well, we have seen and learned from the terrible experiences of the 20th century: when equality is all the matters, liberty disappears and life for many becomes poor, nasty, brutish and short. That is the brush that McCain was trying to paint Obama with. But communism is dead and with it the idea that perfect equality justifies the destruction of liberty. We now live in an imperfect world where liberty and equality must always exist in an uneasy relationship with each other, and all we know is we have to have as much of both as is consistent with anyone's having any.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ted Hughes: The Last Romantic?

Mark Ford's review of Birthday Letters in the latest NY Review, set me thinking and remembering. I knew Ted slightly (we were more than acquaintances, less than friends) at Cambridge in 1954-5. I met him and Sylvia Plath twice in Boston when I got out of the army in the fall of '57, once at their apartment once at mine. I had never heard of her, knew nothing about her poetry. She didn't say a word. I thought she was weird. That was all. We never met again.

I got down his first book, Hawk In The Rain (1957) and began to read. These early poems are full of wild things, especially predators. He admired their fierce intensity. I came to the following poem:

The Dove Breeder

Love struck into his life
Like a hawk into a dovecote.
What a cry went up!
Every gentle pedigree dove
Blindly clattered and beat,
And the mild mannered dove-breeder
Shrieked at that raider.

He might well wring his hands
And let his tears drop:
He will win no more prizes
With fantails or pouters,
(After all these years
Through third, up through second places
Till they were all world beaters...)

Yet he soon dried his tears

Now he rides the morning mist
With a big-eyed hawk on his fist.

Well. Why would one carry a hawk on one's fist when it's too foggy for the bird to see or catch its prey? Ted Hughes as dove-breeder before he met Sylvia? I don't think so. But that doesn't matter. Here's what does: little did he know; if anything, he was the hawk on HER fist. If you know the sad, tragic tale of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and have a taste for dramatic irony, this poem is for you. Also, Birthday Letters which tells that tale in a series of efficiently written and (so far as I can tell) honest poems. But then why not tell it in prose, the natural medium if honesty and efficiency is what you are after? Why use your own tragedy as material for poetry? He does mythologize this tragedy. But doesn't tragedy virtually asks for it?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Art And Science

What do these two truly basic departments or compartments of modern culture have in common? I got to thinking about this question as I was trying to say something, in my last posting, about the meaning of 'revolutionary' in art and it occurred to me that this is a label that can only be applied after the fact. For every Gauguin or Cezanne (you name it) there must be thousands of aspirants who disappear without even making a splash. Why don't they make it? No one knows. They just don't, that's all. Only the art historian, looking back can see what it was that the age was looking for and Gauguin (say) supplied. What the modern age characteristically is looking for is "the new, the truly new" (as Eliot says in an essay that is still worth reading, "Tradition and The Individual Talent"), but it doesn't know the truly new from the merely novel, usually, until someone important announces that the thing that everyone has been looking for, without knowing it, has been found. And once found, the new thing takes on a look of inevitability.

The sciences don't proceed in this way, as you can see for yourself by comparing art history and the history of science. In modern science, inquirers know what they are looking for. How do they know? Because they have well founded theories which make it possible to make predictions; they know what, given certain boundary conditions, they should be able to expect. Theories that fail to make verifiable predictions become obsolete

No masterpiece of literature or art is ever superseded, made obsolete. We don't, couldn't, read the Homer's Iliad the way Aristotle or Cicero did. But it is not obsolete. Aristotle's Physics is philosophically interesting but scientifically useless.

Now Paul Gauguin has a secure, well-understood place in art history (a thing which he probably would have despised). How did all this come about? We don't know. All we know is that by guts, audacity, will, talent, he managed to force himself on the attention of the world. Many others, equally talented so far as anyone can see, fail. So, unlike the history of science, art history is deep down irrational. There are no Gauguins in the history of science.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Romanticism and Primitivism: Wordsworth and Gauguin

We all know or think we know what political revolutions are all about: those who used to be on top are now on the bottom, or dead. The wheel of fortune has revolved. When painters are referred to as 'revolutionary', something similar (at a minimum I suppose) is going on: those who were on the top, getting good prices for their pictures, will soon suffer the fate of all those who fall from favor. But that cannot exhaust the meaning of 'revolutionary' when applied to some new thing in the arts; the word has to mean--if it means anything at all--something more than merely another turn of fortune's wheel.

When the Impressionists changed the language of art, they must have been changing, subtly, the language of politics as well. Why otherwise make such a fuss? But how does that work? How can changes in the way people use paint to make representations of the world, change the world? For that's what was happening in Europe--in all the arts-- during the decades leading up to the First World War and the Twentieth Century. Or maybe the artists weren't actually changing the world but rather, like those famous canaries down in the coal-mines, registering historic changes that ordinary people were unable to observe.

Paul Gauguin was not exactly an Impressionist but he hung out with that crowd. They were his friends; Pisarro was his teacher.
What makes Gauguin a revolutionary, in art-historical terms? His art is increasingly non-naturalistic, less and less interested in the imitation of nature. So what? There is a paragraph of Wordsworth's (from his Preface to the 1800 edition of his--and Coleridge's--Lyrical Ballads that I at least find illuminating. Explaining why he chose to write poems about humble, ordinary, rustic folk, he has this to say:

"Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that situation the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." (My italics.)

That last phrase tells us what Gauguin found in Tahiti--or rather found after he had created it in the extraordinary pictures he painted there.

Paul Gauguin did not know what he was looking for, exactly, when he went first to Martinique in 1887 and then four years later to Tahiti. He thought he was looking for places where the living would be cheap and easy and he could paint far from the madding crowd of art critics and historians. What he seems to have found, and painted, was a thing or state of mind that he probably did not know he was looking for until he found it: 'unity of being' -- a phrase or an ideal that was just beginning to haunt modern art and poetry and would continue to do so throughout the 20th century. (T. S. Eliot called it, in a memorably ugly phrase, the undissociated sensibility.)

Gauguin painted the women (and a few men) of Tahiti as if had found a place at last "where the passions... are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature": a place and society outside history. Tahiti may once have looked like that, but by the time Gauguin got there the island like many others had become the toy of the Europeans, which they were busily destroying.

Gauguin liked to refer to himself as a "savage" on the strength of some family connections in Peru.

When Tahiti began to seem insufficiently savage as well as too expensive, he moved to another island, Mataiea, in the Marquesas, where life was cheaper and--he was thrilled to discover--cannibalism had been practised in the not very distant past.

And here I must throw in some lines from a poem that T.S. Eliot wrote, in music hall style, about life on a cannibal isle. Sweeney is trying to present the attractions of such a life, among the "Gauguin maids," to a young woman named Doris who isn't having any:

There's no telephones
There's no gramophones
There's no motorcars....
Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows
Nothing to see but the palmtrees one way
And the sea the other way,
Nothing to hear but the sound of the surf.
Nothing at all but three things
DORIS: What things?
SWEENEY: Birth and copulation and death.
That's all, that's all, that's all, that's all.
Birth and copulation and death.
DORIS: I'd be bored.
SWEENEY: You'd be bored.
Birth and copulation and death.
DORIS: I'd be bored
SWEENEY: You'd be bored.
Birth, and copulation and death.
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth and copulation and death.
I've been born and once is enough.
You don't remember, but I remember,
Once is enough.

So much for the romantic primitivism of Paul Gauguin--and many others.

It is very odd to think of those tom-toms in Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring as somehow originating in the profoundly conservative mind of William Wordsworth.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Strangeness of Thoreau

I don't know if 'strange' is the best way to describe that 'manifesto' of Thoreau's, which I quoted in my last posting, but it will have to do.

Thoreau says he went to live in the woods at Walden Pond because he wanted to find out what life is all about: "to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived." To which he adds, in curiously combative and even defiant language, that he intends to "to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world...." For most of the people who have ever lived on this planet, sex is one of the essential facts of life (like it or not) and marriage (of some sort)--or not--and children. So it is at least a little strange that such matters do not rate even casual recognition; they are not, for him, essential. Yet his prose is so rich, so full of life, that many readers--myself included--may not notice at first that Thoreau has averted his gaze from so large a part of human experience.

Similarly, the vitality and metaphorical density of Thoreau's prose may obscure the philosophical point he is making a little later, in his great call for critical intelligence: "Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe... till we come to hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake..." This distinction between knowledge and opinion, or knowledge and delusion, is sophisticated and civilized; you don't learn it by living alone in the woods. Is that what Thoreau is implying? Well, it is hard to be sure but there were plenty of romantically disposed intellectuals who would have been willing to say so. Still are, I guess.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Back to Basics: Thoreau and Gauguin

Thoreau goes to live in the woods because he wishes to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of men here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."....

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge...[or] a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Paul Gauguin went to live and paint in exotic Tahiti, in 1892, for reasons that are similar to Thoreau's. Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond partly for the reasons he gives in the passages I have just quoted, but mainly to write a book about the necessary struggle of intelligence in modern times to find bedrock beneath the "mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance..."
Gauguin did not go to Tahiti because that was a romantic thing to do but because he had to paint and painting for him meant finding bedrock beneath the shams, appearances and proprieties of the bourgeois art market in France with its official canons of taste and beauty. He thought he could live in Tahiti more cheaply than he could in France. He soon realized his mistake: to live like one of the islanders, he would have had to possess the skills that they had spent a lifetime learning. He could not climb a palm tree to get a coconut--besides those trees were the property of others; he had no idea how to catch fish. So for a time he almost starved.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Romanticism of Sir Walter Scott: QUENTIN DURWARD (1823)

Mark Twain said, famously, that Scott's novels caused the Civil War. He meant that the Southern landowners, having acquired their romantic notions of chivalry and aristocracy from Scott's novels, were more than willing to idealize themselves as heroic cavaliers defending their organic agrarian utopia--and the honor of their women--against the commercial, money-grubbing, ignoble North. In Faulkner's allegory, Sanctuary, a beautiful, and very silly, southern belle who is looking for thrills is raped with a corn-cob by an impotent northern gangster.

I have only read a few of Scott's novels--has anyone, in recent times, read them all?--but I think Mark Twain got it wrong. Scott is not a romantic but a realist; it was his audience that was romantic. If Quentin Durward is a representative sample, its historical setting in the 15th century, during the reign of Louis XI, is nearly accidental. As the story of a bright, brave young Scot who makes his fortune in a brutal, treacherous, Machiavellian world, this novel could just as well have taken place in Napoleon's Europe--like the novels of Stendahl. But Napoleon was finished by the time Scott began to write fiction.

Scott knew by the time he wrote this book that there was a market out there for medieval materials. Waverley (1814) had been a huge hit. Scott saw that he had found a sort of literary gold mine: an audience that wanted to hear more about the 'romantic' semi-feudal world of those old Highland clans. By satisfying this new literary appetite, Scott became the most popular writer of his time--in Europe and America as well as England. In his Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Waverley, Andrew Hook says that "Scott's novels made an impact upon the reading public and literary culture of Europe and America unequalled by any literary phenomenon before or since."

The hero of Waverley, Edward Waverly, is not much more than a place-holder, a passive zone of consciousness, who is pushed hither-and-thither by historical events. Quentin Durward, published nine years later shows that Scott had learned how to tell a first-rate romance of love and adventure. Unlike Waverley, Durward actually makes thing happen. It is not my purpose, however, to discuss this novel but only to remark that it is not the least bit romantic: the King whom Durward, a young solder of fortune, finds himself serving is no different from any other modern Machiavellian tyrant: his is a police state, with a brutish chief of secret police and a death-squad; the first thing Durward notices as he approaches the King's castle is the number of trees from which men, like strange fruit, are hanging. (Since Durward is a man of principle, he thinks better of his plan to enlist in the King's elite guard, but accidents force him to change his mind.) Why would an intelligent King--and Louis XI is supposed to be highly intelligent--advertise his wares in this way? For a good Machiavellian King or President knows how to make himself appear virtuous. But now I have wandered away from my point.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Romanticism of Sir Walter Scott: WAVERLEY (1814)

The word 'romantic' occurs at least 20 times in this romance, which is how Scott himself refers to it; the word 'romance' is used almost as often. Waverley was Scott's first novel though it is not so much a novel as a historical romance. It is not the sort of book that anyone is likely to read now, for very good reasons: it is too long, too long-winded and its subject is an event--the Stuart rebellion (or insurrection) which ended at Colloden in 1746--which could only be of interest to a Scot, if any. What interests me is Scott's use of the word 'romantic' to make a point about that rebellion: the clans who tried to restore the last of the Stuarts (Prince Charles) to the throne of England were all romantics i.e. as deluded in their way as Don Quixote by the 'romance' of chivalry and the largely mythical trappings and glamor of the ancient feudal world.

As Scott sees it, this 'romantic' rebellion and its defeat was a turning point in the history of Scotland and, by implication, the modern world. Here is what he has to say in his Postcript to the story he has just told: "There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century, or little more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland. The effects of the insurrection of 1745--the destruction of the patriarchal power of the Highland chiefs, the abolition of the heritable jurisdictions of the Lowland nobility and barons (i.e. legal rights of landowners over their tenants i.e. serfs), the total eradication of the Jacobite party--commenced this innovation. The gradual influx of wealth, and extension of commerce, have since united to render the present people of Scotland a class of beings as different from their grandfathers as the existing English are from those of Queen Elizabeth's time."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bentham: The Greatest Happiness of Greatest Number

When, Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651) defined 'felicity', i.e. 'happiness', as the maximal satisfaction of desires (whatever they may be), why did it not occur to him to generalize his principle across an entire society?--as Bentham would do at the end of the 18th century. If you are thinking about the basic principles of a democratic state (Bentham was a great admirer of the U.S.), you have to be thinking about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Politicians who don't satisfy the demands of their constituents for ever increasing levels of happiness, don't get reelected. That's just common sense, right? Common sense now, maybe, but not in 1800 and certainly not in 1651. England at that time had just emerged from a bloody civil war about religious principles which had been won by the religious left-wingers of that time, i.e. Puritans. The King, Charles I had been beheaded by the victors in 1649. In 1648, Europe had emerged, so to speak, from 30 years of even bloodier religious warfare, wich had reduced the population of the German states, or statelets, by about 30%. What the world needed, thought Hobbes, was a new kind of state, a secular state, based on secular not religious principles, a state so well organized and so powerful as to make rebellion impossible. Having seen or heard what happens--a war of all against all--when government collapses and the citizenry are thrown back on their own resources, he thought anything was better than that.

Happiness for Hobbes is happiness of this world; there is for him no other. Bentham, who often sounds like Hobbes, clearly shares his secular bias. The legal and political theory he invented, applied, and taught is known as Utilitarianism, which is an unfortunate name--Bentham was not thinking of usefulness in any narrow sense. By 'utility' Bentham means whatever increases pleasure and minimizes pain. So defined, utility can be measured and claims about either increasing or decreasing utility can be verified. Reformers have something real to point to, instead of abstractions. Bentham, through his voluminous writings and many disciples (James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill, were the first and most famous) became the master spirit of his age. In his very fine book on Bentham (1983), Ross Harrison says that "to a large extent the Benthamite state has come to pass: for better or worse, the Benthamite state is our state."

The Benthamite state has its detractors, of whom John Rawls is the most recent and now, following the collapse of Marxism, the most influential. Rawls' main point is that the
Benthamite state does not do enough to protect the rights of minorities and the disadvantaged and Rawls is right. It is not entirely clear, however, how the structure of the Benthamite state--which is the state we've got--should or can be modified to guarantee for all time that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is not practically and therefore politically inconsistant with the greatest possible happiness of all.

Slavery was implicitly recognized in the U.S. constitution and we fought a desperate and bloody war (costing us at least 2% of the population) over the principle (now clear in retrospect) that the rights of minorities cannot be trumped by the rights of majorities. The 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution now guarantees due process and equal protection of the laws to everyone. As our subsequent history has taught us, however, such constitutional guarantees or rights are empty so long as the political will to enforce them is lacking.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tristan & The Wasteland: A Foot-Note

Near the beginning of T.S. Eliot's Wasteland, two quotations from Tristan And Isolde are used to bracket some cryptic lines about a young woman and a hyacinth garden. Here is how it goes:

Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?

'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
'They called me the hyacinth girl.'
--Yet when we came back,late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed' und leer das Meer.

The first lines ("Fresh blows the wind/ Homeward bound/ My Irish girl/ Where are waiting?") occur at the beginning of Wagner's opera, as Tristan's ship is bringing Isolde back from Ireland to Cornwall, to marry King Marke, Tristan's uncle and stepfather. One of the sailors is singing this song, which Isolde (an Irish princess) can only hear with bitterness, having fallen in love with Tristan--who has, almost unbeknownst to himself, fallen love with her. His efforts to resist are thwarted by the intentions of others, beginning with Isolde who asks him to seal a pact of atonement with her since they both have crimes to atone for (don't ask me to explain). Isolde, in her desperation, really intends to poison them both and Tristan, guessing her intention, agrees to drink with her. Her handmaid, Brangwen, doesn't like this idea and gives them a love potion instead of poison. As you might expect, the effects are the same; it just takes a little longer.

Naturally, these two adulterers are discovered. Tristan is mortally wounded and carried off to his home island by a faithful friend and retainer. He thinks that Isolde will come to heal his wound and keeps asking if her ship can be seen coming into the harbor. "Empty and barren the sea," says the lookout. We never hear what happened to Isolde; no doubt she drinks that poisonous draught. Tristan, happily self-deceived, dies dreaming not only that Isolde has come to heal him but that King Marke has followed her in order to forgive them both.

The question is--I invite comments--what is the connection between Eliot's lines about the hyacinth garden and girl, and Wagner's opera?

Here is what I think:

Eliot's lines, bracketed as they are by those lines from Tristan would seem to be about impotence and failure. The phrase "heart of light" also occurs in a later poem, "Burnt Norton", which is about possibilities never realized, a rose- garden that was never entered, children that were never born. Eliot's own marriage was a disaster. "Empty and barren the sea." Why the lover (so to speak) in these lines is looking helplessly into "the heart of light, the silence" instead of at his hyacinth girl is anybody's guess. Wagner's tragic opera is about passion, betrayal, delusion on a grand scale; Eliot's lovers seem diminished by the implied comparison.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Wagner's Anti-Romance: Parsifal

Combine equal parts of superstition and sanctimony and what do you get? A loathsome and possibly toxic cocktail known as a Parsifal. Having shown us how cold and merciless Heaven could be in Tannhauser and Lohengrin, and given us a great romance, i.e. a tale of love, sex and violence, Tristan and Isolde, oh yes and the intellectual confusion of The Ring, Wagner must have thought he had something to atone for; perhaps he also thought he might be losing his audience. But what do I know? Nietzsche hated it as the Mt. Everest of hypocrisy (not his exact words) but thought the music sublime, which I guess it is. No doubt the superstitious and sanctimonious Germans of Bismark's new Reich found it intoxicating.

How I wish Saul Bellow's Herzog had finished his great work on Romanticism and Christianity!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Nietzsche, Romance and Christianity

OK, so a romance is a tale of love, sex and violence; why is romance such a large part of romanticism? Why does the great change in the uses of subjectivity (and not just in the arts but in philosophy as well) that I am defining as the essence of the romantic revolution coincide with the rise of the romance as a popular art form? Well, here is what Nietzsche had to say; it is the best answer to my question that I know of.

The passions become evil and insidious and they are considered evil and insidious. Thus Christianity has succeeded in turning Eros and Aphrodite--great powers, capable of idealization--into hellish goblins... In themselves the sexual feelings, like those of pity and adoration, are such that one human being gives pleasure to another human being through his delight; one does not encounter such beneficent arrangements too frequently in nature. And to slander just such a one and corrupt it through bad conscience! To associate the procreation of man with bad conscience!

In the end this transformation of Eros into a devil wound up as a comedy: gradually the "devil" Eros became more interesting to men than all the angels and saints, thanks to the whispering and the secret-mongering of the Church in all erotic matters: this had the effect, right into our own time, of making the love story the only real interest shared by ALL circles--in an exaggeration which would have been incomprehensible in antiquity and which will yet be laughed at someday....

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Wagner's Tristan and Isolde

I want to take back what I said about about this opera some time ago. Tristan And Isolde is certainly one of the great romantic operas. I'm not going to discuss it in detail here or now; if you care about great music and great opera--or if you want to understand the meaning of 'romantic', you should acquire the DVD in one way or another and watch it.

(Someone remarked, recently, that Wagner's music is all very well but the librettos are "stupid."
Name-calling is not an acceptable form of criticism. Whatever you make think about Wagner, he was not a stupid man. The operas I've just been discussing are brilliant works of art--even The Ring, which I don't care for and find incoherent on its own terms. Whatever its faults, it is not stupid.)

What is a 'romance'? As I remarked some time ago, a romance in medieval times was a story written in French, a romance language, i.e. a language based on the language of Rome. These romances acquired a certain character which is exemplified in a remark by a very proper, very moral English humanist of the late 16th century, Roger Ascham: profane tales, he called them, of "bawdry and open manslaughter," unfit for Christian consumption. Well, there you have it: a romance is a profane tale of love, sex and violence. It is a long way from the medieval romances to the new found subjectivity of romantic poetry and fiction in the 19th century.

Tales of love, sex and violence will never lose their popular appeal. It was the genius of Wagner to take the ancient materials of myth and legend and use them for his own modern purposes. Tannhauser is a critique of contemporary sexual hypocrisy. Both Tannhauser and Lohengrin attack Chritianity at its roots by showing us "the injustice of the skies." I'm still not sure I understand what The Flying Dutchman is all about but I took it in with rapt attention nevertheless. The tragedy of Tristan and Isolde seems timeless. I have still not seen Parsifal.

Here is the poem by Yeats, "The Cold Heaven" (published in 1914) that I referred to earlier:

The Cold Heaven

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that or this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

Friday, August 1, 2008

'romantic' and 'cynic'

Looking back at some of the stuff I've said about the words 'romantic' and 'romanticism' I feel slightly ashamed. So superficial! And while it is true that these words were coined after the fact by literary historians trying to get a handle on the way the mentality of western Europe had changed in the early 19th century (none of the poets we call 'romantic' now would have used that word in talking about themselves or their work. I don't think Wordsworth ever uses it in his "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads that he and Coleridge had planned to jointly publish), that doesn't mean we should discard them; what would we use instead? What would I use? I call The Flying Dutchman a romantic image and the young woman, Senta, who falls in love with it a romantic. That seems right, does it not? What other word should I use?

Romantic poets, so-called, use the pronoun 'I' in a way that none of the poets that preceded them would have done. "I wandered lonely as a cloud...." says Wordsworth... Or Blake:

I travel'd thro' a Land of Men,
A land of Men & Women too,
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold Earth wanderers never knew....


As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy....

'Romanticism' is the word we use to describe the revolution in the uses of subjectivity that occurred sometime around the end of the 18th and the early years of the 19th.

The romantics were idealists; they believed in truth and beauty and justice. Wordsworth welcomed the French Revolution, before it went sour.

The word 'cynic' has a very different history, and very different uses, but it enters our modern vocabulary at about the same time as the romantic revolution in the uses of subjectivity.

The original Cynics composed a philosophical school or sect in the Hellenistic era, after the deaths of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, and before the rise of Christianity. They regarded themselves as the only true followers of Socrates. They thought and taught that virtue is the only good and that none of the goods prized by the Greek and Roman elites--wealth, power, fame--were goods at all but vicious shams and delusions. The only goods are honesty, integrity, and--a modern word for which there was no ancient equivalent--authenticity. They adopted lives of voluntary poverty and went about teaching the poor. The ancient philosophical and literary elites regarded them with scorn and, since they had the power, were able to define them on their own terms which may be why we don't really know very much about them. They were called Cynics, from the Greek 'kunakos' or dog-like, by those who despised them and the name stuck. It may be that Christianity made them irrelevant for they disappeared sometime in the second or third century A.D. And then the word 'cynic' essentially died, existing only the lexicons written by their enemies.

Now here is something strange: sometime in the early 19th century, the word 'cynic' got dusted off and came back into use, not as the name of a philosophical school, but as the name of someone who disbelieves in the very possibility of honesty, integrity, authenticity. He or she might agree with the ancient cynics that these are the highest virtues, but deny that anyone actually practices them. And this revival of the word 'cynic' happened at about the same time as the romantic revolution.

Romanticism and (modern) cynicism, are polar opposites it seems to me. One can't be a romantic and a cynic at the same time. Is that right? What do you think?

The Flying Dutchman As Romantic Image

Elsa (in Lohengren) has already dreamed of just such a knight and fallen in love with him well before she meets him. So much for dreams! Senta, the captain's daughter in The Flying Dutchman has fallen in love with his portrait and his story, before she meets him. Falling in love with an image, actual or dreamed, is a romantic trope--is it not? I'm trying to think of instances but all I can think of are some lines by Yeats:

What portion in the world can the artist have
Who has awakened from the common dream
But dissipation and despair?

And then there is Desdemona, in Othello, who falls in love with him because of the romantic tale he tells about his own life.

Anyway, Senta's father meets the Dutchman at a nearby anchorage and corrupted by the treasure his ship is carrying, sells his daughter to him. He has no idea who he is. The Dutchman (he has no other name) asks him if he will take him home with him; then he asks if he can live with him as part of his family; then, when he learns that the Captain has a daughter, he pulls from his pocket a handful of pearls and other gems and asks for the daughter's hand in marriage. And the Captain, with a covetous grin and gleam in his eye, says it's a deal.

Here I must digress, You all know the story but here it is: the Dutchman's ship, some centuries ago, had been trying to round Cape Horn and, repeatedly twarted by contrary winds, had sworn to keep trying for all eternity if necessary. Satan heard his prayer and cursed him and his ship to sail the seas forever, or until he found a woman who would be true to him till death should them part. Every seven years he is allowed to go ashore to seek such a wife. Every seven years he has tried--and failed. Desperate, he has been trying to end his life but without success. Even pirates flee from him when they find out how he is. Now he fears that only the extinction of the world will end his misery.

When the Dutchman enters the Captain's house, Senta recognizes him from his picture--her dream suddenly becomes reality--and agrees to marry him. But there is a difficulty. Unbeknownst to all, she has already promised to marry a local boy, Erik, a professional hunter. When Erik hears what's going on, he comes to plead with Senta. The Dutchman overhears this conversation and says that's it, I'm outa here.

As the Dutchman is returning to his ship, Senta throws herself into the sea and swims after him. He grabs her, they both sink out of sight, the ship sinks also and that is the end of the story.
Be careful what you wish for.

What attracted Wagner to this story? I'm still thinking about this....

Monday, July 28, 2008

Richard Wagner's Cold Heaven: Lohengrin

Lohengrin begins as the struggle for power between Elsa von Brabant and Friedrich von Telramund (a count of Brabant) and his wife, Ortrud. Friedrich has accused Elsa of murdering her younger brother, Gottfried, so that she and her lover (unnamed and unknown) can take over as rulers of Brabant and, it would seem, the entire Holy Roman Empire (which was almost entirely a German fiction and fixation.) Meanwhile, the Hungarian heathens are threatening to invade from the east.

Since Elsa swears innocence, there is only one way to handle this dispute: trial by combat. But who is to defend her? Well, she has been praying for a deliverer, for I suppose she had to have known that she was going to need one. In any case, King Heinrich orders the herald to proclaim the trial, and ask if there is anyone who wishes to step forward as Elsa's defender. Twice the proclamation is issued; following the third a Swan appears pulling a boat, out of which steps Lohengrin, who then asks Elsa three questions: Do you entrust yourself to my protection? If I win this trial for you, will you marry me? If I promise never to leave you, will you promise never to ask or seek to know who I am, what my origin, or where I came from? Yes, yes, yes says Elsa, I give you all of me, body and soul. The trial then begins which, being a sort of superman, Lohengrin wins easily, casually brushing Friedrich's sword out of the way and out of his hands. Once disarmed and at Lohengrin's mercy, his life is spared--without a word from Lohengrin about how this immense favor is to be returned.

Friedrich and Ortrud are crushed but she recovers quickly. Being a bit of witch herself, she knows something about magic. (She also knows exactly what happened to Elsa's kid brother, Gottfried.) There are two ways to break Lohengrin's power, she says: get a piece of him, however small, and/or get Elsa to ask the forbidden questions. Elsa is mine, she tells her husband; you get me a piece of Lohengrin.

Next morning, before the wedding, Ortrud gets to work on Elsa. How can you marry a man you know nothing about? Suppose he has a disreputable past; just imagine how that would dishonor you should it ever come to light. But Otrud's second point is the one that rankles: How do you know he won't leave you as mysteriously as he came? Easy come, easy go.

That night, Elsa and Lohengrin are ceremoniously escorted to the marriage bed and for the first time they are alone. The huge bed is in an open field in a ring of boulders, some of which appear on closer inspection to be recumbent wolves and bears. The presence of these menacing creatures is never explained. (I mean they are there for a reason, which will suddenly appear, but not for a reason that would make sense to Elsa or Lohengrin, were they to ask--which they don't.) Something is obviously bothering Elsa, and it is not the presence of these animals. As Lohengrin tries to lead her bedwards, she becomes more and more distraught, until finally she begins to ask the forbidden questions. (Some of you may be thinking of the Pandora's Box story, but the relevant myth here is that of Cupid and Psyche--to which Wagner has given a new twist.) Now Friedrich and his minions arise from where they have been lying in wait among the wolves and bears and rush to attack Lohengrin. If they think he will have lost his power once Elsa asks the forbidden question, they are mistaken; Lohengrin kills Friedrich as easily as he had disarmed him before. Snow begins to fall, a metaphor surely for the coldness of Heaven.

Now the death of Friedrich has to be accounted for. His body is brought and laid before King Heinrich. Lohengrin says now I must reveal who I am and where I came from. I am Lohengrin and I am a knight of the Grail which sent me here. Now I must return but I would have had to return in any case after my year of earthly bliss had expired. Gottfried however will be given back to you.

The Swan boat arrives and Gottfried, who had been turned into a swan, recovers his human shape--though not that of the boy he had once been; he is now an exhausted, emaciated, waif. Lohengrin gets into the boat and leaves, though we have no idea what or who is pulling or propelling it. Perhaps the Grail has found another slave.

So Lohengrin had lied when he promised Elsa he would never leave her. We also learn that Ortrud had captured Gottfried and turned him over, or sold him, to the Grail.

Does it not begin to seem that the Grail, along with the heavenly powers it represents, is as cold, remote and cruel as the Law in Kafka's Trial--and even, perhaps, as corrupt?

This is, decidedly, a new note and a new line of thought in European art and literature.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Richard Wagner's Cold Heaven: Tannhauser

In Tannhauser, Lohengrin, and The Flying Dutchman, the heroines and heroes are crushed, in part by Christian illusions, delusions, or confusions but mainly by what Yeats calls "the injustice of the skies." (Yeats' poem is called The Cold Heaven and I shall show it to you a little later in these postings.)

First let us review the essential plot lines of these three operatic tragedies--Wagner's greatest in my opinion.

Tannhauser, the hero of the first of these operas faces a classic choice. It is the choice that Odysseus faces when he rejects the call of the Sirens and again when he decides to flee Calypso's island paradise, and once again when he forces his men to leave the land of the Lotus Eaters--Tennyson wrote a great poem about that. You may know Shakespeare's version of the heroic choice in Venus And Adonis, or Spenser's in the Bower of Bliss episode in The Faerie Queene. In the last of these, the hero (or rather a would-be hero) has to be rescued from a life of perpetual sensual and sexual indulgence. Tannhauser has been living in just such a place, the Venusberg, deep underground where Venus the Goddess of Love has retreated in order to get away from the cold, mean, hypocritical world that the human race has created. Everyone in this part of 10th century Germany (which called itself the Holy Roman Empire--which as everyone now knows was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire) knows all about "the Venusberg" but of course no good Christian would ever go there.

It is not clear (at first anyway) why Tannhauser is living in this bower of bliss, but in any case he wants to leave. Perhaps he is bored. He wants a normal human life of strife and conflict. Venus tries to prevent him from leaving and tells him, truthfully as it turns out, what a mean, cold, hypocrital place he is returning to. Those people will destroy you, she says, and they do.

The first people Tannhauser meets on his return are his former friends and fellow knights. They are suspicious at first. They want to know if he is still one of them, still a friend. When he reassures them on this point, they want to know where he has been. He is evasive but they welcome him back nevertheless. They tell him that there is to be a singing contest in the great hall of the castle where his old flame, Elizabeth lives. She is very happy when she hears that he has rerturned and will be one of the contestants.

The subject that the singers are to sing about is love. Of course. The first singer sings the praises of spiritual love, purity, chastity--never an unchaste thought. Tannhauser listens scornfully, sneering silently to himself. When it is his turn to pick up his harp, he sings the praises of unabashed physical love--that, after all, was what he must have gone to the Venusberg to find. His audience reacts with horror, loathing, hatred. "He's been to the Venusberg!" they scream. All the men draw their swords and Tannhauser is about to slaughtered, when someone--the king, duke or maybe Elizabeth (I forget)--intervenes and says that Tannhauser ought at least to be given a chance to repent by joining the pilgrimage to Rome that is about to set out. This he agrees to do.

And he does genuinely repent. All he wants is to be received back into the Christian community.
When the pilgrims return, Elizabeth is waiting anxiously. She is joined by a friend (and would-be lover, perhaps), Wolfram. Looking for Tannhauser, she runs through the crowd of piously rejoicing people, all of whom have been forgiven by the Pope. Tannhauser is not among them. Elizabeth sinks down in despair. Time passes. Then Tannhauser appears, in rags, and tells his story. All the way to Rome he had done everything he could think of to mortify the flesh, as they say, all the while praying fervently. When he finally gets to see the Pope--he is the last in line--his prayer for forgivness is scornfully rejected. That staff of yours, says the Pope, will be sprouting leaves before you get forgiven.

Now its Tannhauser's turn to be outraged. He's had a lot of time to think about his reception by the Pope and the more he thinks about it the more he despises the hypocrisy (he doesn't use this word, but that's the point) of the Christian community that has rejected him. You can all go to hell, he says in effect; I'm going back to the Venusberg; just show me the way. Wolfram is outraged, in turn, at being asked such a question--as if he of all people might know the answer. Elizabeth, crushed, almost literally heart-broken, staggers off and dies. Tannhauser too is dying, as we hear Venus and her followers welcoming him home. As he lies there, dying or dead, Wolfram returns with stretcher-bearers carrying the body of Elizabeth. Just then, someone holds up Tannhauser's staff from which green leaves have just begun to sprout--irrelevantly: the miracle occurs but only when it is too late, as if with a shrug of divine indifference or absent-mindedness.

There was a production of this opera in Paris in 1861. According to Baudelaire, the critics and other guardians of public morality hated it and tried--literally in one instance--to laugh it off the stage. You can see why Nietzche became Wagner's great admirer and supporter, but turned against him over The Ring which, not surprisingly, he found intolerable.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Kafka's fable, published in 1925 (a year after he died), is work of purely imaginative art. It has no basis in fact, serves no political interest, earned Kafka no money. It's object is truth, not literal, of course, but poetic or metaphorical: here is what the rule of law is really like, a sort of spider-web into which a human insect, Joseph K., happens through no mistake of his own to fall. He struggles, feebly, to free himself only to become more hopelessly entangled, observed from afar by some higher power whose existence is only hinted at. He never knows, or even thinks to ask, what he has been accused of; he is never detained; the only court he ever sees or enters is a spooky farce which could have no parallel in anything but your worst nightmare; the lawyers are all part of the 'system'(if any: if there is a 'system' of justice here, we never learn what it is or how it works); and when the higher power has toyed with him for long enough--this all takes about a year--it kills him. Not directly, for nothing is ever done directly in this tale, or rather parable: a pair of fat, pale, simple-minded goons in top-hats lead him--or rather he leads them, for by this time he only wants to die--into an old quarry where, after passing the knife back and forth between them (ceremonially or indecisively?) one of them stabs him in the heart, giving the knife--as if to make a point--one last twist.

All of this is described or presented in great detail, with busy, ant-like industry, without the slightest affect, in prose of dead-pan banality.

Toward the end, K. is granted a hearing of sorts by the prison chaplain. This hearing, like everything else is arranged, duplicitously, by the powers that be. K. is lured into the cathedral, ostensibly to meet a visitor for whom he is to act as guide. The visitor never appears and K. wanders aimlessly about the cathedral as the light rapidly fades until he is led by the ambiguous signals of the sexton toward a small, cramped, pulpit where a young priest seems about to deliver a sermon even though it is late in the day and it is in the middle of the week. As K. is about to leave, the priest calls his name, not because he has something of material importance to say about K.'s trial but because he wants to tell him something about The Law. But The Law is so strange and mysterious that, like God, it can only be understood as parable. So, at the heart of this parable about the rule of law, we encounter another parable. Be patient, it's worth reading. Here is how it goes:

"Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can't grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he'll be allowed to enter later. 'It's possible,' says the doorkeeper, 'but not now.' Since the gate to the Law stands open as always, and the doorkeeper steps aside, the man bends down to look through the gate into the interior. When the doorkeeper sees this he laughs and says: 'If you're so drawn to it, go ahead and try to enter, even though I've forbidden it. But bear this in mind: I'm powerful. And I'm only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, however, stand doorkeepers each more powerful than the one before. The mere sight of the third is more than even I can bear.' The man from the country has not anticipated such difficulties; the Law should be accessible to anyone at any time, he thinks, but as he now examines the doorkeeper in his fur coat more closely, his large, sharply pointed nose, his long, thin, black tartar's beard, he decides he would prefer to wait until he receives permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. He sits there for days and years. He asks time and again to be admitted and wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties. The doorkeeper often conducts brief interrogations, inquiring about his home and many other matters, but he asks such questions indifferently, as great men do, and in the end he always tells him that he can't admit him. The man, who has equipped himself well for his journey, uses everything he has, no matter how valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. And the doorkeeper accepts everything, but as he does so he says: 'I'm taking this just you won't think you've neglected something.' Over the many years, the man observes the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets the other doorkeepers and this first one seems to him the only obstacle to his admittance to the Law. He curses his unhappy fate, loudly during the first years, later, as he grows older, merely grumbling himself. He turns childish, and since he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's collar over his years of study, he asks the fleas too to help him change the doorkeeper's mind. Finally his eyes grow dim and he no longer knows whether it's really getting darker around him or if his eyes are merely deceiving him. And yet in the darkness he now sees a radiance that streams forth inextinguishably from the door of the Law. He doesn't have much longer to live now. Before he dies, everything he has experienced over the years coalesces in his mind into single question he has never asked the doorkeeper. He motions to him, since he can no longer straighten his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend down to him, for the difference in size between them has altered greatly to the man's disadvantage. 'What do you want to know now,' asks the doorkeeper, 'you're insatiable.' 'Everyone strives to reach the Law,' says the man, 'how does it happen, then, that in all these years no one but me has requested admittance.' The doorkeeper sees that the man is nearing his end, and in order to reach his failing hearing, he roars at him: 'No one else could gain admittance here, because this entrance was meant solely for you. I'm going to shut it now.'
"So the doorkeeper deceived the man," K. said at once, strongly attracted by the story. "Don't be too hasty," said the priest, "don't accept another person's opinion unthinkingly. I've told you the story word for word according to the text. It says nothing about deception." "But it's clear," said K., and your initial interpretation was quite correct. The doorkeeper conveyed the crucial information only when it could no longer be of use to the man." He wasn't asked earlier," said the priest, and remember he was only a doorkeeper and as such fulfilled his duty." "What makes you think he fulfilled his duty?" asked K.; "he didn't fulfill it. It may have his duty to turn away anyone else, but he should have admitted this man for whom the entrance was meant." "You don't have sufficient respect for the text and are changing the story," said the priest. "The story contains two important statements by the doorkeeper concerning admittance to the Law, one at the beginning and one at the end. The one passage says: 'that he can't grant him admittance now'; and the other: 'this entrance was meant solely for you you.' If a contradiction existed between these two statements you would be right, and the doorkeeper would have deceived the man. But there is no contradiction. On the contrary, the first statement even implies the second. One could almost argue the doorkeeper exceeded his duty by holding out to the man the prospect of a possible future entry. At that time his sole duty appears to have been to turn the man away. And indeed, many commentators on the text are surprised that the doorkeeper intimated it at all, for he appears to love precision and the strict fulfillment of his duty. He never leaves his post in all those years, and he waits till the very end to close the gate; he's well aware of the importance of his office, for he says 'I'm powerful'; he respects his superiors, for he says 'I'm only the lowest doorkeeper'; when it comes to fulfilling his duty he can neither be moved nor prevailed upon, for it says of the man 'he wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties'; he is not garrulous, for in all those years he only asks questions 'indifferently'; he can't be bribed, for he says of a gift 'I'm taking this just so you won't think you've neglected something'.... Can there be a more conscientious doorkeeper? But certain other elements enter into the basic character of the doorkeeper which are quite favorable to the person seeking to enter, and which in spite of everything, help us understand how and why the doorkeeper might exceed his duty somewhat by the intimation of the future possibility. For it can't be denied that he's somewhat simpleminded, and consequently somewhat conceited as well. Even if his remarks about his own power and that of the other doorkeepers, and about how unbearable their sight is even for hims--I say even if all these remarks are correct in themselves, the manner in which he brings them forth shows that his understanding is clouded by simplemindedness and presumption. The commentators tell us: the correct understanding of a matter and misunderstanding the matter are not mutually exclusive. At any rate one must assume that this simplemindedness and presumption, trivial as their manifestations might be, could still weaken his defense of the entrance; they are breaches in the doorkeeper's character. To this may added the fact that the doorkeeper seems friendly by nature; he's by no means always the official. Within the first few minutes he allows himself the jest of inviting the man to enter, in spite of the fact that he has strictly forbidden it; and he doesn't send him away, but instead, we are told, gives him a stool and lets sit at the side of the door. The patience with which he endures the man's entreaties over the years, the brief interrogations, the acceptance of the gifts, the polite sensitivity with which he permits the man beside him to curse aloud the unhappy fate which has placed the doorkeeper in his way--all this points toward feelings of compassion. Not every doorkeeper would have acted thus. And finally he bends down low when the man motions to him, to give him the opportunity to ask a final question. Only a slight impatience--after all the doorkeeper knows the end is at hand--is expressed in the words 'you're insatiable.' Some go so far in such commentaries as to maintain that the words 'you're insatiable' express a sort of friendly admiration, which of course is not entirely free of condescension. At any rate the figure of the doorkeeper that emerges is quite different from your perception of him." "You know the story much better than I do, and have known it for a longer time," said K. Then K. said: "So you think the man wasn't deceived?" "Don't misunderstand me," said the priest, "I'm just pointing out the various opinions that exist on the matter. You mustn't pay too much attentions to opinions. The text is immutable, and the opinions are often only an expression of despair over it. In this case there is even an opinion according to which the doorkeeper is the one deceived." "That's an extreme opinion," said K. "What's it based on?" "It's based," answered the priest, on the simplemindedness of the doorkeeper. It's said that he doesn't know the interior of the Law, but only the path he constantly patrols back and forth before it. His ideas about the interior are considered childish, and it's assumed that he himself fears the very thing with which he tries to frighten the man. Indeed he fears it more than the man, for the latter wants nothing more than to enter, even after he's been told of the terrifying doorkeepers within, while the doorkeeper has no wish to enter, or at any rate we hear nothing about it. Others say he must have already been inside, for after all he has been taken into the service of the Law, and that could only have happened within. To this it may be replied that he might well have been named a doorkeeper by a shout from within, and at any rate could not have progressed far into the interior, since he is unable to bear the sight of even the third doorkeeper. Moreover there is no report of his saying anything over the years about the interior, other than the remark about the doorkeepers. Perhaps he was forbidden to do so, but he never mentions such a prohibition either. From all this it is concluded that he knows nothing about the appearance and significance of the interior, and is himself deceived about it. But he is also in a state of deception about the man from the country, for he is subordinate to him and doesn't know it. It is evident in several places that he treats the man as a subordinate, as I'm sure you will recall. But it is equally clear, according to this opinion, that he is in fact subordinate to him. First of all, the free man is superior to the bound man. Now man is in fact free: he can go wherever he wishes, the entrance to the Law alone is denied to him, and this only by one person, the doorkeeper. If he sits on the stool at the side of the door and spends the rest of his life there, he does so of his own free will; the story mentions no element of force. The doorkeeper, on the other hand, is bound to his post by his office; he is not permitted to go elsewhere outside, but to all appearances he is not permitted to go inside either, even if he wishes to. Moreover he is in the service of the Law but serves only at this entrance, and thus serves only this man, for whom the entrance is solely meant. For this reason as well he is subordinate to him. It can be assumed that for many years, as long as it takes a man to mature, his service has been an empty formality, for it said that a man comes, that is, a mature man, so that the doorkeeper had to wait a long time to fulfill his duty, and in fact had to wait as long as the man wished, who after all came of his own free will. But the end of his service is also determined by the end of the man's life, and he therefore remains subordinate to him until the very end. And it is constantly emphasized that the doorkeeper realizes none of this. But nothing striking is seen in this, for according to this opinion, the doorkeeper in an even greater state of deception with regard to his office. For at the very end he speaks of the entrance and says 'I'm going to go now and shut it,' but at the beginning it's said that the gate to the Law always stand open; if it always stand open, however, that is, independent of how long the man lives for whom it is meant, then even the doorkeeper can't shut it. Opinions vary as to whether the doorkeeper intends the announcement that he is going to shut the gate merely as an answer, or to emphasize his devotion to duty, or because he wants to arouse remorse and sorrow in the man at the last moment. Many agree, however, that he will not be able to shut the gate. They even think that, at least at the end, he's subordinate to the man in knowledge as well, for the former sees the radiance which streams forth from the entrance to the Law, while the doorkeeper, by profession, is probably standing with his back to the entrance, nor does he show by anything he says that he might have noticed a change." "That's well reasoned," said K., who had repeated various parts of the priest's explanation to himself under his breath. It's well reasoned, and now I too believe that the doorkeeper is deceived. But that doesn't change my earlier opinion, for in part they coincide. It makes no difference if the doorkeeper sees clearly or is deceived. I said the man was deceived. If the doorkeeper sees clearly, one might have doubts about that, but if the doorkeeper is deceived, the deception must necessarily carry over to the man. In that case the doorkeeper is indeed no deceiver, but is so simpleminded that he should be dismissed immediately from service. You have to realize that the deception in which the doorkeeper finds himself doesn't harm him but harms the man a thousandfold." "You run up against a contrary opinion there," said the priest. "Namely, there are those who say that the story give no one the right to pass judgment on the doorkeeper. No matter how he appears to us, he's still a servant of the Law; he belongs to the Law, and is thus beyond human judgment. In that case one can't see the doorkeeper as subordinate to the man. To be bound by his office, even if only at the entrance to the Law, is incomparably better than to live freely in the world. The man has only just arrived at the Law, the doorkeeper is already there. He has been appointed to his post by the Law, to doubt his dignity is to doubt the Law itself." "I don't agree with that opinion," said K. shaking his head, "for if you accept it, you have to consider everything the doorkeeper says as true. But you've proved conclusively that that's not possible." "No," said the priest, "you don't have to consider everything true, you just have to consider it necessary." "A depressing opinion," said K. "Lies are made into a universal system."

And with this remark, which exposes the whole system of lies that the priest has been defending, in this parody of Talmudic analysis, K.'s fate is sealed.