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."