Against Celebration: Bloomsday vs. Dallowayday

Two years ago, Elaine Showalter suggested that we balance Bloomsday (June 16, the day whereon Joyce’s Ulysses is set) with Dallowayday:

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is set in a single city on a single day: London on 13 June 1923. But while Bloomsday on 16 June is the occasion of riotous celebrations in Dublin and around the world, the day of Mrs Dalloway’s party is ignored. I think Dallowday is a date worth celebrating – it should be the occasion of readings, exhibitions, performances and revelry. Why is Leopold Bloom more important than Clarissa Dalloway? How did Dublin get to own a single day in literary history, and London miss out?

Showalter’s brief essay is in fact a list of fairly good reasons for the predominance of Bloomsday over Dallowayday, reasons including Woolf’s characteristic vagueness as to the actual day her novel takes place and Dublin’s greater need than London for stimulants to the tourist trade. She does not neglect, either, the differing class character of the two novels:

Indeed, I suspect that the absence of a pub crawl has been the major drawback to the institution of Dallowday. Mrs Dalloway’s party in Westminster is a sedate and sober affair. It’s more about the guest list (the prime minister!), the decor (new chair covers!) and the Imperial Tokay, than the wild escapades of Nighttown. A feminine party, in short. I don’t think there’s a pub in the entire book. Women didn’t go to them in the 1920s; Woolf was not celebrated for her heroic drinking. Clarissa Dalloway and her friends do not slip off for nightcaps or dance on the tables like Zelda Fitzgerald.

Showalter is serious in condemning a gendered condescension toward Woolf as against Joyce. She quotes her own undergraduate lecture notes from the 1960s: “VW: more intellectually limited than James Joyce,” which is not only false but the direct opposite of the truth.

Joyce’s genius was for converting perceptions into unimprovable orders of words and then making larger symbolic and narrative patterns out of them, but he was not, that I can detect, interested in ideas at all, and some of his patterns are more technically or mechanically fascinating than they are in any way profound. Woolf, by contrast, and as shown by her vast achievement in the essay form as well as the novel, was an intellectual and woman of letters, discursively engaged in the literary and cultural debates of her time; she was, with Eliot, modernism’s greatest artist-critic.

I would advise against, though, pitting Bloomsday against Dallowayday merely on the grounds of identity politics: boys vs. girls. We are currently in the midst, not without reason, of a gender-first variant of identitarian cultural critique and political activism, the fourth wave reprising the second; “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” is the reductio ad absurdum, which the Washington Post inexplicably saw fit to publish. But my cynical (and no doubt toxically masculine) suspicion is that this is the expedient of a left-liberalism that is, throughout the West, electorally on the defensive, and women tout court are a larger constituency than those conceived in race or class terms. But when left-liberalism was more robust, only half a decade ago, the watchword was “intersectionality,” and an elite white woman with rather amoralist aesthetic and consumerist proclivities like Woolf would have found herself in the crosshairs of identitarian polemic. I myself wrote a doctoral dissertation partially on Woolf and Joyce supervised by a scholar who was arguing almost 15 years ago for a greater critical awareness of Woolf and her modernist cohort as “cultural capitalists” and enclosers of the artistic commons.

With a more intersectional approach, there is not even any guarantee that Woolf comes out ahead in this kind of victimological relay with Joyce anyway. Which identity is the more oppressed and thus more in need of redress, that of a male Catholic colonial of the downwardly-mobile lower middle class, prey to alcoholism and, albeit heterosexual, emancipatorily intrigued by polymorphous sexual expression; or that of the queer upper-class Englishwoman, subject to mental illness? An answer is not so readily forthcoming. Furthermore, the logic of displacement on the grounds of political redress would certainly not stop with Woolf’s ouster of Joyce. Why celebrate white, Anglophone authors at all? Or for that matter, why celebrate authors? Isn’t literacy the ultimate agent of civilizational exploitation, more potent than because the source of superior weaponry?

But Showalter’s own early work betrays just such an awareness of Woolf’s limitations from the point of view of the committed political imagination, so much so that I suspect her Dallowayday article is just in part, as they say across the pond, taking the piss. Here is Showalter’s verdict on Woolf from her pioneering feminist literary history, A Literature of Their Own (1977), bringing to a close a chapter titled “The Flight into Androgyny”:

In George Lukacs’ formulation, the ethic of a novelist becomes an aesthetic problem in his writing. Thus it is not surprising to recognize in Virginia Woolf’s memorable definition of life: “a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,” another metaphor of uterine withdrawal and containment. Woolf’s fictional record of the perceptions of this state describes consciousness as passive receptivity: “The mind receives a myriad impressions…an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” In one sense, Woolf’s female aesthetic is an extension of her view of women’s social role: receptivity to the point of self-destruction, creative synthesis to the point of exhaustion and sterility. […] Refined to its essences, abstracted from its physicality and anger, denied any action, Woolf’s vision of womanhood is as deadly as it is disembodied. The ultimate room of one’s own is the grave.

“Receptivity to the point of self-destruction” is another word for modernism. Showalter, wishing in the ’70s to found her feminism on the revolutionary Marxist agency theorized by Lukács, rejects the “feminized” (or androgynous) role both male and female modernists since Pater sought for the artist as a receptacle of “sensations and ideas.” But in this, Woolf and Joyce are not at odds but are rather perfectly allied, and their day-in-the-life novels can be celebrated in tandem and without contradiction as epics of the everyday perceiving consciousness in its encounter with the modern cityscape.

But for all these qualifications, Dallowayday is a good idea on two grounds: 1. Mrs. Dalloway is a masterpiece; and 2. its celebration might serve as a corrective to some of the boozy sentimentality that has grown up around Bloomsday.

I have written on prior Junes 16 about how this day’s sacralization of Joyce’s mock-epic tends to misconstrue its tone and some of its implications, or to elevate some misleadingly at the expense of others. That the novel endorses alcoholic dissipation is one mistake I have mentioned, which should be obvious enough to anyone who reads the book with any superficial comprehension: one of Bloom’s heroic qualities is drinking in moderation.

Bloom’s unquestioned heroism is another problem. Joyce was an adept of Defoe, Flaubert, and Ibsen, three writers who, despite their differences of period, nation, language, and genre, insisted on the objective portrayal of everyday life without superimposed authorial moralism. Bloom is meant to be an outsider to the sickly self-enclosed world of Dublin’s moral, cultural, and political paralysis, and thus a challenge to that stasis. And some of his qualities are morally appealing ones, above all his liberalism, which is this novel’s commendation to the contemporary literati. But Bloom’s existing outside the bounds of conventional morality, whether those of Victorian domesticity or Irish Catholicism, perhaps transgresses boundaries we still recognize, or should.


For instance: “Why is Milly in Mullingar?” to quote the title of a 1977 James Joyce Quarterly essay by Jane Ford (1977 is also the year of Showalter’s study, and this essay’s interest in father/daughter incest bespeaks the feminist priorities of the period). Ford speculates:

A “piecing together of hints” scattered throughout the novel seems to indicate that Milly is in exile in Mullingar due to three transgressions that have occurred with her father: “once by inadvertence, twice by design” (U 692). […] Notwithstanding Mark Shechner’s contention that “despite the ubiquity of confession in Ulysses and Joyce’s other books, that crime remains as mysterious as Earwicker’s crime in Phoenix Park,” my conviction is that there is sufficient textual support in the novel, not only for fantasies of father/daughter incest, but for the actual occurrence as well. Overwhelmed by guilt, Bloom might well succumb to the temptation to jump into the Liffey.

One doesn’t have to agree with the specifics of this argument, though I think I do, to perceive Bloom’s unseemly sexual interest in his daughter: “Sex breaking out even then.”

My larger point, though, is that celebration, at least in the modern sense of moral approval (as opposed to an ancient sense involving the worship and the propitiation of hungry gods), is the wrong approach to literary texts that make a priority of encompassing all that actually is, which includes so much not worth celebrating. The ludic qualities of Ulysses as well its cyclopedic Homeric vastness, tend to conceal this aspect of Joyce’s vision, however, while the briefer (and more violent) Mrs. Dalloway makes it obvious.


In fact, I suspect one reason we celebrate Bloomsday over Dallowayday is the flagrant amoralism of Woolf’s novel. I don’t know that Woolf herself, an intellectual of the left, thought Clarissa Dalloway, society wife to a right-wing politician, particularly worth celebrating except as a specimen of humanity as such. Were Mrs. Dalloway written today, it would be a sympathetic treatment of Melania or Ivanka, and its irrecuperability to left activism, correctly perceived by Showalter, would be immediately evident. Moreover, the novel climaxes when this elite protagonist’s sensibility is energized by her aesthetic delectation in the death of a shell-shocked soldier of a lower class:

She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

Do you want to drink to that? Actually, in some moods, I do. This is what literature is fundamentally for: a confrontation with all that is repressed by those discourses and disciplines, from religion to philosophy to sociology to psychology, that have to put a brave face on things. But things are what they are; existence is hierarchy and death, the attractions of doom, the sublime beauties of terror, the appeal of power, the cruelty of consciousness, and the impersonal ecstasies of art. Because Mrs. Dalloway is the shorter and more obviously didactic book than Ulysses, it brings this all-too-human but anti-humane quality of literature to the fore, and is thus less the tourist trap than its Dublin counterpart.

(Speaking of psychology, I saw a comment to the effect that we might celebrate Dallowayday by calling for better mental health treatment in deference to the novel’s attack on the imperial psychologist Bradshaw. But on the evidence of the text, Woolf rejects the medical model of the psyche entirely, regarding it as a means of social control and the squelching of art, and she anticipates the anti-psychiatry of Foucault and Szasz. This is part of Mrs. Dalloway’s glorious if elite anarchism, its Nietzschean rather than Freudian modernism. As I said, celebration, as a social act, may not be appropriate to any of modernism’s wonderfully anti-social books.)

In conclusion, though, I would like to “celebrate” or at least to commend Mrs. Dalloway for its formal differences from Ulysses. I have never been good at reading Woolf’s diary (I don’t want to read strangers’ diaries; I want to read the diaries of my friends and family), but I am aware of some astute commentary there on Joyce’s big book. While Woolf is better known for her discreditably or even disgustingly haughty belittlement of Joyce (“the book of a self-taught working-man,” which he wasn’t, at least not in Woolf’s English caste-system sense of the relevant terms, not that it should matter anyway), there is also some acute criticism of Ulysses in the diary:

It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. […] I feel that myriads of tiny bullets pepper one and spatter one; but one does not get one deadly wound straight in the face—as from Tolstoy, for instance; but it is entirely absurd to compare him with Tolstoy. (September 6, 1922)

Joyce didn’t think it absurd: he thought “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” the greatest story in the world. But, if we can forget “the obvious sense” (oh Virginia, you incorrigible snob!) and focus on the literary one, doesn’t she have a point about the novel’s “underbreeding”? (Breeding is a trope in Joyce’s novel, by the way; contrary to his otherwise ultra-modernist attitudes and postmodern anticipations of third-wave feminism, the Jesuit-trained author stands up in the most old-fashioned Catholic or even Tolstoyan way for natural childbirth as his hero offers paeans to maternity.)

That is, Mrs. Dalloway‘s Shakespearean amplitude in brevity (as opposed to Ulysses‘s mock-Homeric exhaustiveness), its enlivening flood of earnest unbroken language (as opposed to Ulysses‘s fragmentary kaleidoscope of styles), its suggestiveness rather than precision (as opposed to Ulysses‘s heavily-researched commitment to the facticity of June 16, 1904), makes it the more affecting work, the Tolstoyan shot straight to the face.

We should not neglect the anti- and postcolonial importance of Joyce’s desire to put the whole of his colonized city onto the map of world literature, but even so, it is a bit of a relief not to know the precise date whereon the events of Mrs. Dalloway occur, and I doubt that Woolf gave it much thought. She did not consult newspapers and directories, just as I have not thoroughly read her diary.

Though Ulysses scrupulously if rather literally mimics the dream-state in “Circe,” which is a just a warm-up for Finnegans Wake, Mrs. Dalloway, with its transience of perception from character to character across expanses of consciousness as well as social space, is the more winningly dream-like achievement. It is Joyce’s formalist literalism, his resolute commitment to achieving every (sometimes inorganic) experiment, that Woolf lacks: this is what she means in her censure of the “tricky,” and I think she is more right than wrong.

But, pace Showalter, we do not have to be little Lukácses, would-be commissars of culture, judging [X] progressive and sending [Y] off to the gulag for reactionary tendencies. Both books sit comfortably on my shelf (two copies of each, in fact), and I love them both. It is only the zero-sum politics of celebration that make literature seem such a dreary attempt to effect political ends by aesthetic means. We can read both of these books, anti-social as they are, in the privacy of home and library, and take them for what they are worth to us: the unspeakable thoughts they so compellingly insist on whispering into our inner ear.


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Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books are so famous, so ubiquitous in the culture, that you feel you have read them well before you ever read them. You feel, in fact, that you don’t need to read them. This is what kept me from reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) for so long. (And I should note that I’ve seen neither the 1990 film nor the recent series.) Then, as with so many other famous books, I read it and found it to be very different from what I was expecting.

Often summarized as a dystopian/feminist riposte to the rise of the Christian Right in 1980s America, and moreover a riposte with ongoing relevance as this movement remains a potent political force in U.S. life, The Handmaid’s Tale is in fact a defense of liberal culture and as much an entrant in the so-called sex wars dividing the feminist movement in the 1980s as it is an attack on conservatism. It is, as well, a recursive and unreliable metafiction rather than a straightforward narrative, though this is not made clear until the conclusion.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person narrative of a 33-year-old woman who serves as a conscripted surrogate mother to an elite family in a near-future America, rechristened Gilead, and ruled by an authoritarian fundamentalist regime called the Sons of Jacob. Now named Offred (“of Fred,” signaling her possession by the Commander in whose house she serves), our heroine has vivid memories of life before the country’s takeover. Through her eyes, we see the new world of Gilead, with its ordered hierarchies of class and gender and its organized violence, and we also see the old world—our world—defamiliarized through her recollections of her husband and child, her gay best friend, her feminist mother. In a move that likely influenced Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Offred is an avowedly normal person, one without exceptional reserves of heroism:

I’ll say anything they like, I’ll incriminate anyone. It’s true, the first scream, whimper even, and I’ll turn to jelly, I’ll confess to any crime, I’ll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall. Keep your head down, I used to tell myself, and see it through. It’s no use.

Her observant passivity, as well as exhibiting realism about most people’s capacity for heroism, also makes her an ideal guide to the landscape Atwood wants to explore, and her sardonic, lyrical monologue, full of wordplay and symbolism, makes what could be a one-note narrative of misery more emotionally various.

Offred’s narrative ends ambiguously, in media res, but an epilogue, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” set at an academic conference two centuries in the future, both contextualizes her narrative and makes us doubt its reliability. We learn that we have been reading a future (male) academic’s transcription and organization of an audio recording of Offred. The text is presumably colored by his own—and his time’s—bias and agenda, which, Atwood carefully hints, is not at all free from the misogyny informing Gilead.

From its Chaucerian title and Swiftian epigraph to its Orwellian afterword, then, The Handmaid’s Tale places its main narrative—an impassioned, intelligent monologue associated with the realist novel and akin to those of Moll Flanders, Pamela Andrews, or Jane Eyre—within a tradition of satire (of which the dystopian, with its caricatural extrapolation of bad present-day tendencies into a future defined solely by them, is a subgenre). Of satire, Atwood’s teacher Northrop Frye observes in The Anatomy of Criticism:

The satiric attitude here is neither philosophical nor anti-philosophical, but an expression of the hypothetical form of art. Satire on ideas is only the special kind of art that defends its own creative detachment. The demand for order in thought produces a supply of intellectual systems: some of these attract and convert artists, but as an equally great poet could defend any other system equally well, no one system can contain the arts as they stand. Hence a systematic reasoner, given the power, would be likely to establish hierarchies in the arts, or censor and expurgate as Plato wished to do to Homer. Satire on systems of reasoning, especially on the social effects of such systems, is art’s first line of defense against all such invasion.

In other words, satire is literature’s immune response to religious, political, and philosophical encroachments on its autonomy. Frye sees this autonomy as beginning with Homer, who in the Iliad describes both Greeks and Trojans with sympathetic understanding, thus turning the poem into complex, dialectical art rather than a propaganda tract that speaks for only one side. It is this vision of literature, which arguably came to fruition with the dialogism of the realistic novel, that Atwood is protecting within the carapace of her satire. In the high tradition of the twentieth-century dystopia—a basically liberal genre—Atwood is warning us against extremism, totalitarianism: in a word, ideology.

This admonition accounts for the elements of the novel that I was not expecting: not only the anticipated critique of religious patriarchy, but also Atwood’s accusations of complicity directed against second-wave feminism. Early in the novel, Offred recalls attending a book-burning with her mother and her mother’s feminist friends; their immolation of pornography seems of a piece with the novel’s other images of women abused and tortured for sexual transgression:

I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.

Likewise, the language of the “aunts,” those who instruct the handmaids in Gilead’s ideology, echo certain strains of feminist complaint:

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Offred even at one point addresses her absent mother with the accusation that feminist separatism is adjacent to female subordination:

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

Atwood is here not only at one with the dystopian Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also with Orwell as the inner critic of his own party, the Orwell who wrote in “Inside the Whale,” “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”

With the novel’s floral motif (“They’re the genital organs of plants”), Atwood announces that nature (a vital feminine force) is on the side of her heroine, even if this sacred feminine, this real Holy Grail, is presently in thrall to man:

The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.

Nature, like Offred’s own complicated inner life, itself often moved by love and desire even in the most atrocious circumstances, suggests that there is always an outside and an underside to ideology, a nature and a human nature that surges up, that expresses itself in literature and art, despite all attempts at repression.

The novel’s argument, therefore, is only locally against American fundamentalism; it is more broadly directed against any and all reductionisms, whatever their alibi (right or left, Christian or feminist), taking the helm of the state, controlling culture, and subduing the individual. She specifies the female individual not only to advance feminist ideals but to take a stance within the broad and various field of feminism. This stance no doubt accounts for Atwood’s controversial objection to what she sees as the potentially totalitarian excesses of today’s #metoo movement:

If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

Writing in the Guardian, Moira Donegan observes that this debate about the #metoo movement reveals a divide in feminism between individualist and social visions; I think it is fair to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is a consummate work of the individualist imagination. In any case, the apparent longevity of these cultural debates, and the political context that necessitates them, mean that The Handmaid’s Tale will retain its relevance for some time to come.Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 8.38.07 AM

Because Atwood does seem to believe in the autonomy of art, its inability to be reduced to ideology, I would like to pay her the compliment of concluding with an aesthetic evaluation of her work. My ideological analysis aside, did I, do I, like The Handmaid’s Tale qua novel? Well, I have mixed feelings, some of them unrelated to this specific book.

I increasingly distrust dystopia as a genre, on grounds both aesthetic and political. It just makes everything too easy, I think: yes, if [X] in contemporary society were magnified times 100 and [Y] diminished times 100, it would be a terrible thing. But in the world I live in, [X] and [Y] (let us say liberal cultural norms and the conservative backlash thereto) exist in a precise and complex interrelation, and if this relation were to shift, everything would be so different as to have little relevance to my actual existence right now. Why not write about [X] and [Y] in all their present-day singularity, Henry James’s “present palpable intimate”? Aren’t the oversimplifications of dystopia for children, a moral pedagogy for those not yet equipped with the tragic awareness of competing goods? This will be a too-extreme argument in the present atmosphere of total aesthetic relativism, so let me move on to some more specific observations.

For one, Atwood is uninterested in the theology of Gilead; she seems to regard it solely as the alibi of power-hungry brutes. But the novel would have been much more interesting had it contained any element of ideological debate or awareness, something comparable to Goldstein’s tract in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And while Atwood amusingly sets the tale in Cambridge, MA, and bases her theocracy on the Puritans, her novel gives no flavor of the most interesting aspect of Puritan culture: its incessant and paranoid inwardness—the self-scrutiny, self-doubt, and self-torment of John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, a quality of interiority from which the liberal individualism Atwood seems to celebrate took some cues. An Offred who actually begins to doubt herself, to search herself, would be a richer character, and the novel would thereby be deepened. Or what if her oppressors—the Commander and his wife—were wracked with Puritan self-consciousness, and a defiant Offred were able to turn it against them? Evoking Puritanism without doing its specificity any justice seems a missed opportunity for inner and outer conflict in a novel that sometimes plods along with its passive protagonist.

Meant to be a statement on America, a warning that “it can happen here,” The Handmaid’s Tale actually evades cultural specificity. Would American fundamentalists really rename the country? They love America—real American fundamentalists would dress Offred in the flag! Gilead, by contrast, resorts to quasi-Orientalist stereotype: it just looks like the Iranian Revolution with more Catholic iconography—veiled women and sinister Gothic ceremonies. Moreover, the American experience that most resembles what Atwood describes is slavery rather than Puritan theocracy. In fact, it would be useful to know when Atwood first read Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a book whose themes—and whose problems of textual transmission and verification—are echoed in and by Offred’s own narrative. Such resemblances account for charges that Atwood perpetuates “white feminism.”

Offred as narrator, too, never comes into focus for me. Her trauma is often implied—she has lost not only her freedom, but all of her loved ones—and I suspect Atwood intended the sarcastic tone of her narration to come across as a compensatory avoidance of feeling. Yet Offred often sounds too much like, well, a satirical novelist, like Margaret Atwood. As Mary McCarthy complained in an early review:

But the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of ”A Clockwork Orange” – the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed. The writing of ”The Handmaid’s Tale” is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality.

I agree with McCarthy when she finds Atwood’s science fictional imagination wanting; as Jennifer Helinek wittily observes of the novel’s “compubanks” and “compucounts” and the like (not to mention its “prayvaganza”), “the people in charge of pre-Gilead America appear to have been underpaid Fisher-Price employees.” As for the novel’s lyricism—McCarthy dryly refers to the book as “a poet’s novel”—it sometimes “dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry,” to quote Zoë Heller’s actually rather unfair comment on a better novel that treats Atwood’s themes, Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory. I become the earth I set my ear against, for rumors of the future. Each twinge, each murmur of slight pain, ripples of sloughed-off matter, swellings and diminishings of tissue, the droolings of the flesh, these are signs, these are the things I need to know about.

But there is also much to admire in The Handmaid’s Tale. Its rich and allusive imagery turns it into a summa of and a metacommentary on the novel of female experience; Atwood so often implicitly asks us to think of Hawthorne’s red letter and Brontë’s red room that her book gives us another view of a vital literary tradition.

Further, the intense irony introduced by the epilogue, with its snickering sexist and relativist professors in a multicultural far future, undoes the oversimplifications of dystopia and practically enjoins us, as Gerry Canavan argues, to read the novel again and again with different perspectives and possibilities in mind. Atwood so brilliantly alters her tale in its last 20 pages that its preceding 300-some pages become bewildering complex, an interpretive labyrinth, whereas they had appeared on a first reading to be almost transparent.

To say that a novel remains relevant because the themes it treats are still with us is to say nothing about the quality of the novel. The quality of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to me mixed—as befits a defense of impurity and ambivalence, of the liberal imagination—but I believe its textual richness and intelligence will keep it alive, as alive as Chaucer or Swift, even after the likely disappearance of its polemical targets from the earth.


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Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck

Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the blurb on the cover of this paperback, Margaret Atwood promises that this book “forces you to decide not just what you think about it, but what you think about yourself.” Rich’s seventh collection, written in the early ’70s, in an atmosphere of intense political protest and the private crises of those for whom the personal was political, Diving into the Wreck is a series of lyrics on war and exploitation, and the poet’s responsibility to bear witness and prophesy a new future.

Women, Rich argues, are subject to the myths and fantasies of men:

A man is asleep in the next room
We are his dreams
We have the heads and breasts of women
the bodies of birds of prey
Sometimes we turn into silver serpents
While we sit up smoking and talking of how to live
he turns on the bed and murmurs


Note the reversal of classic stereotype: irrational man, asleep and dreaming, refuses to heed women’s alert dialectic. As implied, the solution to the problem of male mythology is women’s narration of their own experiences, stories, and sensibilities, as Rich describes in several poems, from “Dialogue,” wherein a woman explains that she has never had pleasure in sex with men—

I do not know
who I was when I did those things
or who I said I was
or whether I willed to feel
what I had read about
or who in fact was there with me

—to “The Mirror in Which Two Are Seen as One,” in which the speaker’s interlocutor, whose mother died in childbed, becomes a midwife birthing herself:

your mother dead and you unborn
your two hands grasping your head
drawing it down against the blade of life
your nerves the nerves of a midwife
learning her trade

Sisterhood might provide a solution, were it not compromised by heterosexuality; a poem called “Translations” imagines that sexual jealousy among women might be remediated politically:

         …this way of grief
is shared, unnecessary
and political

And, as the poem called “Rape” makes clear, these are not merely cultural problems, but affect every level of experience, and their consequence is unchecked violence: the poem’s second-person addressee has been raped by the very policeman, a friend of her brothers’, to whom she must report the rape. The poet sees into women’s anger and shapes from it a new past—

His mind is too simple, I cannot go on
sharing his nightmares

My own are becoming clearer, they open
into prehistory

which looks like a village lit with blood
​where all the fathers are crying: My son is mine!


—and a new future—

          I write out my life
hour by hour, word by word
gazing into the anger of old women in the bus
measuring the striations
of air inside the ice-cube
imagining the existence
of something uncreated
this poem
our lives


But something worse than, even if sprung from, the perennial sexism is haunting Rich:

Taking off in a plane
I look down at the city
which meant life to me, not death
and think that somewhere there
a cold center, composed
of pieces of human beings
metabolized, restructured
by a process they do not feel
is spreading in our midst
and taking over our minds
a thing that feels neither guilt
nor rage: that is unable
to hate, therefore to love.

Rich determines not to shut her eye against the period’s televised violence, as she writes in poem with the Wordsworthian title “From the Prison House”—

Underneath my lids another eye has opened
it looks nakedly
at the light

that soaks in from the world of pain
even when I sleep

—but the poet on the tumultuous ’60s/’70s streets, heaving with the return of what civilized violence represses, must be something other than only a woman if her “visionary anger” is to birth a better world:

my visionary anger cleansing my sight
and the detailed perceptions of mercy
flowering from that anger

if I come into a room out of the sharp misty light
and hear them talking a dead language
if they ask me my identity
what can I say but
I am the androgyne
I am the living mind you fail to describe
in your dead language

(“The Stranger”)

She must, as in the title poem, dive into the wreck that is civilization, find what went wrong, and examine what is salvageable. Still, her tools of technology and civilization, made from the exploitation of the oppressed, seem not to avail:

carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

For this collection, then, civilization is an unremitting nightmare that begins in rape and leads straight to My Lai and the H-bomb. Hence its conclusion in a long poem saluting the Wild Boy of Averyon, reared outside patriarchy and capitalism and so trailing clouds of glory until his capture by the forceps of his physicians, after which the shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy:

they tried to make you feel
the importance of
a piece of cowhide
sewn around a bundle
of leaves impressed with signs

to teach you language:
the thread their lives
were strung on

In a review essay of Rich’s work-to-date from 1973, Helen Vendler sums up the concluding poem, and the whole spirit of the collection (I quote from the Norton Critical Edition of Rich’s poems and prose):

In [“Meditations for a Savage Child”], Rich forsakes distinctions between men and women, for the most part, and sees us all as crippled creatures, scarred by that process of socialization and nature which had been, when she began writing, her possession, her treasure; tapestries, Europe, recorders, Bach—the whole edifice of civilization, of which she now sees the dark side—war, exploitation, and the deadening of instinct.

Vendler’s final phrase brings me now to my own decision, as prophesied by Atwood, of what I think about myself and the world I live in. I think the three items in Vendler’s list are radically incommensurate; I think war and exploitation are instinct. While human artifice—from the ax and the flame to nuclear weaponry—has often enough abetted this instinct, it has also often proved the best restraint upon it, from language and art to law and science. In the name of a countervailing instinct toward peace and comity? Yes, of course; why not? My point isn’t that instinct, or nature, is only bad, just that it is certainly not only good. Rich shows an awareness of this possibility, but it does not seem to lift the ponderous certainty that weighs down her portentous free verse, its “visionary anger”:

Every act of becoming conscious
(it says here in this book)
is an unnatural act

(“The Phenomenology of Anger”)

If that is so, then why make a belated Romantic fetish of the Wild Boy of Averyon, as if exposing infants conferred an advantage on them? I very much take her point about overweening scientism and the arrogance of physicians, but when she says that “his”—i.e. man’s—mind is too simple and then reduces all history to wounded male pride, when she writes a poem in which Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is “understood” (I think this word is exactly wrong) “as a sexual message,” the furious tantrum of an impotent solipsist, I begin to wonder who is peddling simplicities.

Moreover, the way the poet derives visionary authority from beholding other’s sorrows comes to feel unseemly, sometimes with comical lack of self-awareness. Consider the ludicrous poem (“Burning Oneself In”) that begins with the speaker reading in a bookstore about an old woman murdered in Vietnam and concludes with this:

in bookstores, in the parks
however we may scream we are
suffering quietly

Somehow I think the old Vietnamese woman probably got the worst of it, though I don’t doubt that Rich felt genuine pain as she refused to shut her eyes against the television glare (even if she does relate her labors with a certain self-congratulatory relish). Cynthia Haven’s 2013 criticism of Rich puts it well:

At what point is suffering used to fortify one’s sense of self, one’s sense of oneself as a compassionate person? If one is using “transfusions of poetic language” for utilitarian ends, even noble ones, it’s unlikely to remain art.

As some allusions above should indicate, Rich reminds me of my least favorite canonical English poet, William Wordsworth. There is the same humorless somnolent turgidity in each at his and her worst, the same self-impressed and histrionic concern for others placed at the service of self-concern. Wordsworth’s readers noted these flaws: witness the acute parody of “Resolution and Independence” by Lewis Carroll, which could be updated easily for Rich’s work, not to mention Keats’s censure of the earlier poet’s “egotistical sublime,” his dislike of any poetry that has “too palpable a design upon us,” two phrases that come to mind when perusing Rich.

Keats, citing the “chameleon poet” Shakespeare in distinction to Wordsworth, is the patron saint of all us irresponsible apolitical poets. Playwrights and novelists submerge the self in their art as a feature of their chosen form, but even lyric poets ought not simply to be swollen egos and political pamphleteers. Irony, even outright self-mockery, punctures the bubble and lets some afflatus escape. Compare Rich and her “visionary anger” to Emily Dickinson:

They’re here, though; not a creature failed—
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me—
The Queen of Calvary—

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums –

I am sure Rich would blame Dickinson’s sly, ironic diffidence, her serious mockery of her own martyrdom, on the Victorian patriarchy that refused to accept a female poet of more robust voice, as if anyone not raving and crying were simply being gagged, as if emotional incontinence were not its own special form of coercion. But what if irony—what if “silence, exile, and cunning”—were signs not of oppression but of intelligence? What if they were protections for the modern individual, he and she and we of the imperial selves living in the monster mega-state, against smothering the earth?

As Camus explained, Rich’s revolutionary tradition has been no less oppressive than the liberal and conservative traditions it warred against. At the conclusion of her titular dive into the wreck that signifies both the unconscious mind and the history of capitalism and patriarchy, the speaker of the title poem disparages the accumulated knowledge and culture she has brought with her as merely “a book of myths / in which our names / do not appear.”

While Rich was writing, more literal ideologues of her anti-civilizational persuasion dispensed with the myths in the customary fashion as they burned books and Buddhas and crushed the hands of pianists. Rich is not responsible for the crimes of Mao, anymore than, say, Eliot is responsible for those of Hitler, and the Cultural Revolution doesn’t answer for Vietnam—and I am certainly not denying that Rich writes about very real problems—but it does go to show that immolating the works of human culture is no solution to war, rape, and exploitation. Such destructiveness usually gives rise to war, rape, and exploitation themselves, albeit with other, perhaps more hypocritical, justifications.

The left, right, and center will all turn murderous if it’s to their advantage; and the Vietnam War, like the Iraq War, like western imperialism generally, is probably better understood as the violence of the political center rather than that of the right, disproving the so-called “horseshoe theory.” The whole horseshoe is indivisible from tip to tip and useful mainly for striking one’s enemies—unless you play a game with it, which is what poetry is for. This is why we need sensibilities in the Shakespearean-Keatsian-Dickinsonian line: their poetry gives us a livable life—a possible civilization—not determined by the murderous simplicities of almost all modern ideologies and their revolutions that usually return us back to where we started from, stuck in the mire and spinning our wheels.

As to whether one’s name appears in the great books—were we expecting the social register?—well, the names of my obscure ancestors were certainly not known to Shakespeare, and the civilization that reared them he tended to treat as a quasi-Oriental pleasure palace for his imagination, but nonetheless I found and find myself in his book. I would take it as my sole token of civilization to the proverbial desert island, as comfort against the menaces of unadulterated nature and instinct. This expansion of sensibility, this creative collaboration between past and present, is how a better civilization becomes possible—Robert Pogue Harrison calls it juvenescence—not through the mindless, violent bonfire of vanities proposed by puritans of all sects, for whom Rich mainly and unfortunately speaks in this dour, eloquent volume.

But now I am only here reprising Susan Sontag’s classic riposte to Rich from 1975, so I will end with a quotation:

However opposed I am to authority based on privileges of gender (and of race), I cannot imagine any form of human life or society without some forms of authority, of hierarchy. I am not against elders having some authority over young people, not against authority that is publicly accountable, not against all meritocracy. The hope of abolishing authority as such is part of a childish, sentimental fantasy about the human condition.


Adrienne Rich, whom I have always admired as poet and phenomenologist of anger, is a piker compared to some self-styled radical feminists, all too eager to dump the life of reason (along with the idea of authority) into the dustbin of “patriarchal history.” Still, her well-intentioned letter does illustrate a persistent indiscretion of feminist rhetoric: anti-intellectualism. […] For precisely this kind of banal disparagement of the normative virtues of the intellect (its acknowledgement of the inevitable plurality of moral claims; the rights it accords, alongside passion, to tentativeness and detachment) is also one of the roots of fascism…


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Toni Morrison, Paradise

ParadiseParadise by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paradise was not well received upon its publication in 1997—influential critics like Michiko Kakutani, James Wood, and Zoë Heller disparaged it, and even Oprah’s audience, instructed to read it for the talk show host’s book club, demurred, prompting Oprah to call Morrison to offer the viewers encouragement. One of the studio audience members protested that, confused by the novel’s multiple perspectives and non-linear chronology, she was lost on page 19; Oprah asked Morrison what the poor woman was to do; and Morrison’s reply—which I have never forgotten—was, “Read page 20.” Unsurpassable advice! Profiling Morrison in 2012, Boris Kachka summarizes the case against Paradise:

Both Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld came out in 1997, the year Paradise did. Both addressed historical eras and themes, as Morrison does, but both spoke directly to contemporary anxieties in a way that Paradise did not. Roth and DeLillo were nostalgic for an old American consensus and alarmed at its disintegration, and both used voices resonant with modern paranoia and neurosis. In contrast, Morrison still seemed to be in cross-racial dialogue with the same long-dead ­Modernists on whom she’d written her thesis in the fifties.

This is both right and wrong: Morrison does reject any nostalgia for postwar consensus (whether or not Roth and DeLillo express this nostalgia is another matter), but in so doing she very much speaks to “contemporary anxieties”; the problem is simply that many readers did not like either what she said or how she said it. They are entitled to their opinions about the “what,” but once you have allowed such opinions to cloud your view of the “how”—for example, none of the above critics show any awareness that Paradise is often supposed to be funny—then you have lost critical control.

Let’s get the “what” out of the way right now: Paradise bears an epigraph from a gnostic gospel narrated by a female deity, and it concludes with the theophany of a black madonna. Searching for a term to describe its apparent ideology, I could come up with nothing more neutral than “New Age.” It is a novel that, parodying the Bible, at least entertains the notion that our religious sensibilities must expand to include female divinity. While this view would undoubtedly not interest Philip Roth much, it, along with other dissident religious approaches harking back to gnostic and pagan cults, was undoubtedly reflected in much late-twentieth-century Anglo-American culture. Such views are embarrassing to the liberal intelligentsia because said intelligentsia legitimates itself by its appeal to secular knowledge and often materialist or at least spiritually orthodox intellectual methods, and not without reason. This religious reflex, I believe, and not simply snobbism or sexism, accounts for the critical cringe Nick Salvato writes about with respect to Tori Amos, some of whose songs (see “Marys of the Sea,” for instance) could furnish a soundtrack to Paradise.

But I did write above that Paradise “entertains” its religious thesis rather than straightforwardly promoting it. As Boris Kachka notes, Morrison remains faithful to modernism. If modernist writers from Eliot to Woolf shared one thing in common, it was a commitment to putting forth their spiritual intuitions in obsessively fragmented and recursive literary forms, to remind readers to take no single narrative on faith, especially not narratives about faith. This brings us back to Oprah’s audience and their problem with Paradise: the novel has no single viewpoint, no clear chronology, no central character, and no reliable perspective. The most basic facts of the narrative remain in doubt by its conclusion. Even the miraculous resurrections with which it seems to end could be explained by a mixture of lucky escape and hallucination. Condemning religious orthodoxy and political ethno-nationalism for their shared demand of unthinking assent, Morrison leaves her readers free to differ with her suggestion that they worship the goddess.

“They shoot the white girl first,” the novel famously begins. Its opening chapter is really its penultimate one, narrating the story’s climax: in July 1976, nine leading male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby, OK, murder five women who are living in a former convent near the town. This first chapter is maddeningly indirect, as none of the men or women is named; moreover, we see through the men’s POV so that the perspective is unreliable from the start (“They are nine, over twice the number of the women” they are seeking, the second paragraph begins; but, as Ron David long ago pointed out, nine is not “over twice” five; these little word problems occur throughout the text, making it impossible to read passively). The opposite of a mystery novel—though something of a mystery play—Paradise tells us who committed the murder in the first chapter and then spends the rest of the book seeking an explanation.

The next eight chapters, each bearing a woman’s name, tell the story of how four women on the run assembled in the late 1960s and early 1970s in an embezzler’s mansion that became a Catholic convent and Indian boarding school before falling into disuse. In the stories of these women—Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas—Morrison enumerates the threats faced by the poor, the young, or the female, such as poverty, state violence, domestic violence, and sexual predation from the “mundane” (Mavis’s marital rape at the hands of her husband) to the more outlandish (the Eyes Wide Shut scenario to which Seneca is subjected by a wealthy woman named Norma Keene Fox). Animal imagery abounds in the women’s stories, from aforementioned predator “Keene Fox” to the name of Mavis’s mother (Birdie Goodroe), as does classical and mythical allusion (Pallas, Seneca), to signal that this novel asks to be read skeptically as a work of exaggeration, as fable and myth rather than strict social realism.

In fact, Morrison parodies realism with aplomb in the Mavis chapter, throwing brand names and other “dirty realist” paraphernalia onto the page with witty abandon—this to trick us into thinking that Mavis is “the white girl” of the first sentence by writing about her in the literary idiom associated with the white lower class. Realism too, Morrison here tells us, is a fable, one whose moral we might distrust. As in her oft-misunderstood statement about Bill Clinton as the first black president, Morrison is making the point that “tropes of blackness” are often simply tropes of poverty, the latter fact deliberately obscured by the powers-that-be to divide the poor.

Those eight chapters also interleave the women’s stories with the story of the founding of Ruby, “the one all-black town worth the pain.” Summarizing this straightforwardly is no easy feat since the narrative comes piecemeal and from partial perspectives. The basic story is this: a group of very dark-skinned black people who had lived near Louisiana since the mid-eighteenth-century found themselves, at the end of Reconstruction, dismissed or oppressed not only by whites but also by lighter-skinned blacks. This led them to found their own town called Haven in 1890 in Oklahoma, when many all-black towns were created due to the federal government’s encouragement of homesteading. When Haven fell into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth-century, the grandchildren of Haven’s founders set out again and founded a new town called Ruby.

In the 1960s and ’70s, however, Ruby is torn by the social conflicts tearing apart the rest of the country—between men and women, old and young, conservative and radical. These conflicts center on the town’s symbolic center, a brick oven that bears the words “the furrow of his brow.” The contending ideological forces in the town differ over how this message is the be completed: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” as the conservative town elders insist, or, in the preferred message of the young radicals, echoing the gnosticism that Morrison evokes with her epigraph, “Be the Furrow of His Brow”? Or even, as one of the town’s female citizens thinks, “Be the Furrow of Her Brow.” Eventually, the town elders come to see the convent women as the source of their troubles—”not a convent but a coven”—and go on a witch hunt.

Just before they are hunted down, the women consolidate themselves into a quasi-religious order. The old woman Consolata, who was kidnapped from a Rio slum by the nuns and who has lived in the convent ever since, becomes the “new revised Reverend Mother” for a kind of mystery cult wherein the women shave their heads and heal themselves with “loud dreaming” and artistic expression. These scenes provoked a not entirely unpersuasive objection from Zoë Heller in the London Review of Books (“the narrative itself dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry”), but just as Morrison is unsparing in her portrayal of the racism and colorism that led the men of Ruby to their extremes of intolerance, so her tongue never quite leaves her cheek in her depiction of this New Age religion, which makes the women too otherworldly to function: “Gradually they lost the days.” Warned by a female citizen of Ruby that they are about to be attacked, the women “yawned and smiled,” a small detail but a crucial one: Morrison, who once rather hair-raisingly wrote that it is “wildly irresponsible” not to inquire about women’s complicity in their own rape or abuse, places supreme importance on personal autonomy and the material means of self-reliance. In the last glimpse we get of the convent women, after they have either come back from the dead or are appearing as ghosts to their loved ones, they are on the road and they are armed.

“Come back from the dead”: yes, however hedged by modernist technique, Paradise entertains a spiritual notion. It does not entirely dismiss Christianity; Ruby’s newest clergyman, Rev. Misner, is sympathetic to the young radicals in the town and muses with eloquence and authority on liberation theology:

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fastened to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO and supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives.

All the same, the definition and defense of female divinity comes into view as the novel’s theme. To the men of Ruby, the women they hunt are “[b]odacious black Eves, unredeemed by Mary.” But Consolata tells us that “Eve is Mary’s mother,” and the novel ends, very beautifully, with Consolata in the arms of black madonna, presumably like that worshipped in her native Brazil:

In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.

There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.

When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.

In other words, don’t divide Eve from Mary, whore from madonna, but adopt a holistic spiritual view capable of embracing flesh and spirit, capable of leading us away from domination based on or justified by difference.

Do not miss, as the early critics did, the ending’s emphasis on “endless work” (nor the admission that “down here” is all the paradise we’re likely to get). What is the “endless work”? The work of interpretation. Midway through the novel, Ruby’s resident writer Patricia, who has been assembling a genealogy, discovers that the men of the town have been maintaining their racial purity through incest in a parody of white racism (“They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him”). Upon finding this out, she burns her family trees—this to suggest that any attempt at purification is to be rejected as an arbitrary imposition. Ruby’s elderly midwife, Lone, takes a view of God that is more in keeping with the novel’s narrative mode:

Playing blind was to avoid the language God spoke in. He did not thunder instructions or whisper messages into ears. Oh no. He was a liberating God. A teacher who taught you how to learn, to see for yourself. His signs were clear, abundantly so, if you stopped steeping in vanity’s sour juice and paid attention to His world.

Read the clues, try to assemble the narrative, but accept in advance your defeat even as you press forward in trying to understand. I accept—there is so much more to say about Paradise. About characters and their names (“His grandfather had named his twins Deacon and Steward for a reason”), about twins and doubles. I have merely alluded to Morrison’s parody of the Biblical Exodus and its American re-creation by the Puritan settlers, and I have not even mentioned how the novel emphasizes that both Ruby and the convent exist only because the land was cleared by the state of its prior Native American inhabitants. I have not mentioned the novel’s love of nature, its endless invention, its food (the hot peppers that grow only at the convent).

Nor have I mentioned Paradise‘s flaws: it really is too short and feels thinner than it should as a result, with poetic prose often doing duty for narrative and characterization (James Wood was not wrong in this complaint). A novel of this spiritual and political ambition should be as long as The Brothers Karamazov, and I am convinced that Morrison would not bore us at that length.

Well, every narrative is flawed, including that of Paradise, as Paradise itself tells us. Even so, after twenty years we can say that its first critics judged it too hastily or too ideologically. It sits on the shelf without embarrassment next to the most ambitious fictions of its time. Don’t take my word for it. Read it and “see for yourself.”


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C. G. Jung, Answer to Job

Answer to JobAnswer to Job by C.G. Jung

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The back cover advertises Answer to Job as “one of Jung’s most controversial works.” He wrote it toward the end of his life, in the early 1950s, and according to the introduction to the 2010 edition by Sonu Shamdasani, he composed it in a kind of fever and later considered it the only one of his works he would not wish to alter. A short, swift book, written in a dryly sardonic style, it is a plea to update Christianity, or monotheism more generally, so that it can face the dangers of the atomic age.

Answer to Job‘s thesis is that Judeo-Christian monotheism dangerously denies that God, as a concept of wholeness and totality, must contain both evil and the feminine, and that much of western religious history, from the moral protest against God’s injustice in the Book of Job to Pope Pius XII’s 1950 doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, has been an attempt to redress these imbalances in the deity.

Answer to Job also has a meta-thesis: because “[w]e cannot tell whether God and the unconscious are two different entities,” and because God as an image of wholeness is the archetype of the self, humanity has to get God right—our idea of God is in a sense our own self-concept, and now that we have the power to destroy the world, we cannot afford to be insensible to our own dark side or to the appeal of affects and values other than masculinist domination:

Since [man] has been granted an almost godlike power, he can no longer remain blind and unconscious. He must know something of God’s nature and of metaphysical processes if he is to understand himself…

Jung’s method of demonstrating these theses, which will probably not persuade either the Biblical scholar or contemporary psychologists but which should not offend the literary critic at all, is to treat the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation as a single continuous narrative, albeit composed at different historical moments by different sensibilities, that shows the development (or circular non-development) of God’s personality from the jealous and dangerous deity of the early books through the attempt at reform and atonement running from the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom literature through the Incarnation in the New Testament, back to the unintegrated omni-destructive force described by John of Patmos (whom Jung construes, wrongly I believe, as the John of the Gospels and Epistles).

Throughout the Bible, Jung claims, both God and His people made many attempts to reform the God-image. Job is a turning point because it is the first time God is called to moral account by a mortal man as Job continues despite his suffering to believe in God’s justice and thus, according to Jung, becomes more just than God: “a mortal man is raised by his moral behaviour above the stars in heaven, from which position of advantage he can see the back of Yahweh,” Jung writes. The Book of Job coincides, Jung further argues, with a body of Hebrew wisdom writing that describes a feminine force called Sophia, which supplements the excessively masculine deity with a feminine counterpart. Jung argues that “[p]erfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature to completeness“; so this “anamnesis of Sophia” portends the next stage in God’s development, wherein God—through the agency of a mortal but perfect woman—will incarnate himself as a man in his continuing quest for wholeness rather than unconscious self-division. In the crucifixion, we find the “answer to Job” of Jung’s title: “God experiences what it is to be a mortal man and drinks to the dregs what he made his faithful servant Job suffer.”

The elevation of Mary to the status of quasi-divinity shows that the feminine becomes more central to the God-concept, but Mary’s immaculateness, i.e., sinlessness, means that though God now at least partially includes the feminine, He still excludes the evil that is necessarily part of any whole: Mary is “the incarnation of her prototype, namely Sophia,” but because “[b]oth mother and son are not real human beings at all, but gods,” then “Yahweh’s perfectionism is carried over from the Old Testament to the New” and “the feminine principle…never prevailed against the patriarchal supremacy.”

God’s dispatch of the Holy Spirit to dwell in humanity implies that all human beings, not only Christ, should incarnate God, a “Christification” of man that will realize divinity on earth, yet, again, as long as God, however newly feminized or humanized, remains an impossible idea of perfect goodness, the evil part of the psyche remains unintegrated, which means that it will continue to be expressed in destructively unconscious ways. Hence the Bible’s concluding outburst in the wild violence and apocalypticism of Revelations, on the images and scenes of which Jung offers this mildly sarcastic clinical opinion: “Their author need not necessarily be an unbalanced psychopath.” Nevertheless, Revelations also imagines a female divinity and a new birth (the sun woman and her child): the struggle to integrate the God-concept will continue.

Accordingly, Jung concludes by praising the Catholic Church for its doctrinal enshrinement in 1950 of Mary’s Assumption, itself a response to a popular cult of the Blessed Mother including visions and revelations, which restores to the court of Heaven a figure of female divinity, a mother-bride of the deity: “The feminine, like the masculine, demands an equally personal representation.”[1] This flexibility on the part of Christian religious authority, Jung suspects, is a good sign that we might still productively revise the God-image now that, with modern technology and weaponry, we really have put on God’s power and so cannot afford fantasies of self-righteousness.

What to think of Jung’s ideas? As long as they are stated at a high level of generality, I largely agree with them. An enormous amount of trouble in the world is caused by wishing away unpleasantly intractable emotions and psychic forces or imputing them wholly to “the enemy,” in which locus they can be annihilated. Jung’s recommendation of psychic balance based on a realistic assessment of the individual and collective personality and what it cannot help but contain seems unexceptionable to me—and even timely: we may be in less danger from nuclear apocalypse than in Jung’s time, but no one can deny that American and perhaps global politics is in death spiral of self-devouring self-righteousness and hypertrophic “identities” that blame all badness on others. While there is very often real justification for blaming others for bad behavior, this cannot be accompanied by a refusal to recognize the complexity of the self or the absolutely universal capacity for evil. Keep this Jungian sentence in mind as you browse social media: “Irritability, bad moods, and outbursts of affect are the classic symptoms of chronic virtuousness.” In this way, Jung is faithful to Freud’s Enlightenment intention for psychoanalysis: we cannot deny the irrational, but must strive to understand it so that we are not wholly controlled by it.

On the other hand, there is the New Agey side of Jung. He can, like Job’s annoying counsellors, seem a bit too optimistic about the possibility of cosmic justice. What if it is not only our psyches but the universe itself that is out of order? What if there is no containing evil? What if the psychic forces cannot be brought into an alignment that will remove the possibility of danger? What if Jung is a bit of a chivalric sexist and overrates the beneficence of what he calls “the feminine”? For my part, I was raised within mid-to-late-twentieth century Catholicism, in the atmosphere of Mariolatry that Jung praises—every spring, we schoolchildren would be lined up in the garden of the rectory to crown the Blessed Mother statue Queen of May—and it did not notably reduce the puritanical attitudes of the faith, nor did it prevent various abuses in the school or in the church at large. I actually agree with Jung that the feminine, however construed, needs to be a part of metaphysics, but I do not agree that this will make the moral difference he seems to think it will.[2]

I wonder, ultimately, about Jung’s own need for a humane monotheism. He seems to find polytheism superior in some ways (“in Greek mythology matriarchal and patriarchal elements are about equally mixed,” he observes), but believes that the human self and the God-image are too united for us not to need an idea of one God. Plenty of people throughout history and culture, though, have gotten along without this idea, have relied on multiple psychic and cosmic agencies controlled, perhaps, by a single law, but not ruled by anything that looks like a human person. This is why the Book of Job itself may in the end be more compelling (and more radical) than Jung’s answer to it, for its disturbing message out of the whirlwind is that we should not and must not assume the humanity of the universe:

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?


Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.


[1] Jung’s contemporary and fellow psychologist William Moulton Marston had a similar conviction about the necessity of female divinity to modern consciousness, which is why he created Wonder Woman, whose latest adventure is now playing at a theater near you. I saw it yesterday and found it a bland, inoffensive film, more Marvel than DC in mood and tone; but Gal Gadot’s emotionally complex performance, persuasively uniting iron will and conviction to winsomeness and compassion, does justice to the idea of bringing together traditionally masculine and feminine ideals.

[2] On the other hand, I don’t read Jung’s positing of the masculine and the feminine oppressively essentialist as it touches on actual people; here, Jung’s controversial idealism saves him, as masculinity and femininity for him are not rooted in bodies but are autonomous psychic vectors that can be imagined or incarnated in various ways. This rejection of Freud’s biological determinism is probably what Deleuze and Guattari had in mind when they observed in passing in A Thousand Plateaus that “Jung is in any event profounder than Freud.” For a good essay on Jung in a Deleuzean vein, see here.


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Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple

Charlotte TempleCharlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Often called America’s first bestseller, Charlotte Temple (1791) is a short didactic novel of primarily historical interest. In this, it is similar to Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette; both short novels urge their young female readers against corrupting entanglements with men and against extramarital romantic and sexual relations more generally. Both novels were very popular in their own time and then later dropped out of fashion, until they both were revived at the end of the twentieth century by feminist critics examining women’s fiction and by American literature scholars who wished to historicize the republic’s early fiction beyond Charles Brockden Brown. Rowson, though, eschews Foster’s cumbersome epistolary style in favor of a preachy but brisk third-person narrator. Her politics, too, are different: Foster’s novel promotes American republicanism while Rowson was a British Loyalist whose novel implies that America is not coincidentally the disorderly terrain to which her wayward heroine is seduced.

Charlotte Temple tells of a young woman who might be expected to behave well, as she is the daughter of a love match made by a man who charitably rescued his future father-in-law from debt and penury. But Charlotte is seduced as a teenager from her boarding school (with the help of a stereotypically corrupt French schoolmistress) by an English officer bound for America to serve in the Revolutionary War. Rowson introduces many complications that would give me less pleasure to recall than they did to read, but the upshot is that Charlotte finds herself pregnant and abandoned; she eventually dies, but not before her family re-embraces her and promises to rear her child. Moreover, those responsible for her trouble are duly punished—though not her seducer himself; as the only remotely complex character in the novel, he suffers remorse, often tries to do the right thing, and is sometimes extenuated by the plot (as when he is misled that Charlotte has been unfaithful).

The novel’s narrator is exceedingly interventionist, often sermonizing the reader on the necessity of rectitude and, more intriguingly, of mercy for the penitent unrighteous. In a late chapter, the narrator even reproves the reader for the anticipated objection that Charlotte Temple is melodramatic and tiresome:

“Bless my heart!” cries my young, volatile reader, “I shall never have patience to get through these volumes, there are so many ahs! and ohs! so much fainting, tears and distress, I am sick to death of the subject.” My dear, cheerful, innocent girl, for innocent I will suppose you to be, or you would acutely feel the woes of Charlotte, did conscience say, thus might it have been with me, had not Providence interposed to snatch me from destruction: therefore, my lively, innocent girl, I must request your patience; I am writing a tale of truth: I mean to write it to the heart: but, if perchance the heart is rendered impenetrable by unbounded prosperity, or a continuance in vice, I expect not my tale to please, nay, I even expect it will be thrown by with disgust. But softly, gentle fair one; I pray you throw it not aside till you have perused the whole; mayhap you may find something therein to repay you for the trouble.

Similarly, in her 2004 preface to this Modern Library edition, Jane Smiley distinctly implies that those who dislike Charlotte Temple are akin to her male classmates at Yale in the 1960s who challenged her to name one great female American novelist. According to Rowson, if her novel bores you, you are corrupt and un-Christian; according to Smiley, if Rowson’s novel bores you, you are reactionary and sexist.

You might think that all this special pleading from then till now suggests that Charlotte Temple is just not very good qua novel, and you would be right. While Rowson’s high-spirited narratorial persona is sometimes amusingly witty, as when in faux-irritation she answers the objection of an overly-literal reader wondering about some minor details (“I hope, sir, your prejudices are now removed in regard to the probability of my story? Oh, they are. Well, then, with your leave, I will proceed.”), this cannot allay the main literary problems. The characters are not even two-dimensional, the narrative arrangement is unbearably tendentious, the narrator constantly hectors the reader, the action is devoid of enlivening imagery, and the style is plain to the point of non-existence. But I reject Smiley’s implicit claim that to judge Charlotte Temple not very aesthetically interesting is to disparage women’s literary achievement: the first great American poet was a woman, Anne Bradstreet, as was Rowson’s English contemporary, the writer who would revolutionize the realist novel, Jane Austen. Recognizing that Bradstreet and Austen are better writers than Rowson is discriminating properly—on artistic, rather than identitarian, grounds.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to write off Charlotte Temple because its moral—counseling girls away from rakes and eroticism and toward marriage—is out of date. Is not, for instance, the point of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room to renovate for gay desire exactly this celebration of love and fidelity, exactly this disparagement of loveless sex and sensuality? Turning to popular culture, we find much the same sermon from some prominent pulpits. For example, those disappointed by the ending of Gilmore Girls missed the signals the series was sending all along: there is a reason Paris was the comic relief and not the heroine, a reason why Hillary Clinton was never mentioned on the show as anything other than a punchline, a reason why the earthy Luke and Jess form the show’s romantic horizon as against the Euro-identified aristo rakes Christopher and Logan, a reason why the series ends with the promise of progeny, with an intimation that Rory will abandon, like her mother before her, her worldly ambitions so that she can settle down with Jess. This recommendation against individualism and for sentimental community is the aboriginal form of middle-class feminism and will be with us as long as we have the middle class. We now allow for more forms of sexual desire and more sexual acts than Rowson would countenance (though she does advocate mercy toward sexually active girls), but is her morality, her culture, really so different from ours?


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Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham, Nameless

NamelessNameless by Grant Morrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

But did Grant Morrison deserve my bitchy crack about Coldplay toward the end of my review of Greg Carpenter’s British Invasion? After being too pleased with myself for its cleverness, it occurred to me that I had not read a Morrison comic all the way through after All-Star Superman, which is about a decade old and the sentimentality of which I found grating, despite its other many virtues, especially its iconicism. (I have flipped through some of his Batman material, but it seemed too complicated for a Batman story, and I say this as someone who enjoyed the hell out of New X-Men.) So I saw Nameless, a work in the undersung genre of “space horror,” and decided to read it to find out if I had indeed been unjust to Morrison’s later career.

Of the events in Nameless, one character metafictionally explains/exclaims, “It’s like the goddamn ‘Exorcist’ meets ‘Apollo 13’!” Even allowing that such a film has already been made—such that the line of dialogue should have run, “It’s like goddamn Event Horizon!”—that description aptly capture’s Nameless‘s mix of space adventure with unsettling and sometimes subliminal demonism. Unlike The Exorcist‘s ingenious and intense crypto-papist propaganda, though, Morrison’s book is not trying to make us consider a conversion or reconversion; the villain of Nameless is God, the God of monotheism, stranded in our universe as the prisoner of a long-ago galactic and interdimensional war, and accordingly psychopathic and the incitement of psychopathy in His worshippers. The graphic novel spins around a scene of murderous horror inspired by the Deity. The conceit of Nameless is something like the following: what if Lovecraft’s fiction describes not a cold mechanical materialistic universe, as it is often taken to do by the Rhode Islander’s admirers, but rather the universe as seen by traditional monotheism?

For readers keeping score in the great and largely one-sided Alan Moore vs. Grant Morrison feud, Nameless may be read as a furious riposte to Moore’s Neonomicon. In Moore’s notoriously hideous book, the weakness and squalor of humanity brings Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors into being; as in Rorschach’s famous soliloquy from Watchmen, it is us, not fate or the gods, who butchers the children and feeds them to the dogs. Nameless, by contrast, places the blame for Cthulhu—which is to say, those aspects of human experience for which Cthulhu is a metaphor—on the metaphysical forces that Moore sees as elaborations or avatars of human consciousness. “God made me do it,” says the murderous anti-hero near the book’s conclusion, and Morrison’s narrative design ensures that we read it that way. Morrison is, in a sense, both more and less humanistic than Moore, seeing humanity as kinder than the gods (or whatever universal forces the gods allegorize) but also less powerful than they are, whereas in Moore’s more traditional Romantic view, the gods are, as he says somewhere, “ourselves unfolded.”

A set of endnotes far more compelling than the actual graphic novel concludes Nameless; in them, Morrison explains the novel’s elaborate Tarot and Kaballah symbolism, its autobiographical and local Glaswegian roots, its debt to contemporary nihilistic metaphysics (Brassier and the ubiquitous Ligotti), and more. He further explains that his intention was to dramatize the passing of the Son’s Aeon to that of the Daughter—a shift in cosmic consciousness wherein the feminine principle defeats the masculine, with the latter typified by monotheism’s insane Gnostic demiurge (AKA God) and His malevolent male worshippers, to initiate an era of peace and mysticism. Is it me or are male thinkers more prone to these flights of mawkish fancy than female thinkers? Perhaps because I was educated by sometimes physically violent nuns and brought up in the suburbs where all those white Republican women (the ones we hear so much about every election year) live, I am unable to appreciate this worldview wherein girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice; and say what you will about contemporary feminism, especially in its popular or vernacular forms, but it is certainly a force devoted to extirpating the so-called feminine principle from the world, givens its advice to Lean In (i.e., project oneself phallically) and its elevation of such warmongering women (“phallic mothers,” I believe the psychoanalysts like to say) as Hillary Clinton to political authority. In short, I am not so unimaginative as to refuse to accept that there are psychic forces that might provisionally be labeled “masculine” and “feminine,” but I also think the world is far more complex than such a philosophy as Morrison’s chivalric sexism can capture.

But what about Nameless itself? Morrison claims that he wanted to write more of a poem or piece of music than a narrative, so the narrative is consequently fragmented and half hallucinated. Characters are archetypes, undeveloped, and most of the book’s plot—the aforementioned space adventure—is a red herring in the form of a dream or psychic trip that merely symbolizes the actual content of the narrative, which is the conflict between Son/Daughter or Brother/Sister leading to the defeat of the threat posed by God and the subsequent apotheosis of the eternal feminine. This fact renders the whole middle of the book somewhat extraneous to the far more fascinating nightmare lyricism of the first and last chapters; the first, in particular, offers moving narration seemingly straight from Morrison’s psyche:

Sometimes you ask yourself, what’s real and what’s not these days? Way I see it, everything’s been fucked up since 2001 anyway. Since the towers came down—since the pylons fell on Trump 18 and Malkuth was gathered up into Yesod— My mum died just up the road at the Western.

This is all much better than a disavowed Event Horizon homage, and much closer to the ambition of producing comics as poetry. But if a poem is what Morrison wanted, why even bother with characters who never do anything or come to life as they go on a conventional action-adventure quest without an actual stake? You can write this way about characters readers already accept as archetypes and about whom readers already have many thoughts and feelings—such as Superman and Batman—but not about characters we’re meeting for the first time. Is the veiled woman in this book anything at all other than Woman?

As for Chris Burnham’s art, its shagginess—evocative of ’70s horror and French SF comics—was very effective, but such ink-heavy styles often look awkward against today’s computer coloring, with its relentlessly mimetic modeling and color gradients that seem to make black-spotting appear primitive or redundant. (This excellent article applies to more than just its ostensible topic, Frank Miller.) The grotesque imagery throughout is effectively discomforting, though probably best where most subtle (somehow the image of an eel about to eat its own tail in a way suggestive of copulation is far more nauseating than the image of a man getting his face hammered off in an explosion of blood and bone).

So, all in all, Nameless is not Coldplay, but it probably capitulates too much to conventional SF/horror tropes and structures to come into its own. A book whose tacked-on didactic essay is more interesting to read than the main narrative suggests an author more interested in lecturing than dramatizing or even lyricizing. If Morrison moves even closer toward such essayism, though, I think it may be all to the good. Piling up archetypal and occult correspondences does not really make for deep characters or involving narratives, but if those concepts are involving in themselves, sans narrative, there is no reason not to explore them as such.


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Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat

The Driver's SeatThe Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Murlel Spark’s 1970 short novel The Driver’s Seat, recommended to me by a friend and former student, reminds me of a phrase from another short novel, César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, wherein the protagonist’s life is described as “without secrets and yet somehow still mysterious.”

It is true that Spark’s novel refuses to explain its strange story via the usual post-Austen novelistic strategy of narrating from within its protagonist’s mind; at one point the narrative voice, a present-tense camera-like observer, except one with knowledge of the future, exclaims, “Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?” So this is not a conventional literary novel of inwardness. What is it instead? Spark tells us twice—I will return to these explanations at the end.

The Driver’s Seat is about a 34-year-old single female professional named Lise who goes on vacation at the behest of her supervisor. She travels from an unnamed Northern city (probably London) to an unnamed Southern city (probably Rome). She buys an unusual outfit—loud clashing colors and odd shapes—and sets off, looking all the while for a man who is her “type.” Lise’s behavior is too weird from the start—as in the opening scene in which she berates a saleswoman for trying to sell her a stain-resistant dress (‘Do you think I spill things on my clothes?’)—for the reader to think that this will be a love story, but Spark’s foreknowing narrator gives the game away at the opening of chapter three:

She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in the park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.

Whoever occupies the driver’s seat, the car is heading toward death; and who occupies the driver’s seat is the novel’s animating question. Lise meets all kinds of people in her journey, and all of them are trying to control and manipulate her in some way, from the saleswomen who need to make a sale from her to the the various men she encounters, all of whom (despite every protestation and excuse) just want to fuck her. But Lise takes charge in an ultimate way: the man she is looking for is the one who will kill her, and the purpose of her journey is to arrange her own murder.

Lise is the apotheosis of the liberated woman. Spark does not stint on portraying the constraints from which women wish to be liberated, as the novel’s parade of male predators demonstrates. But this, despite its publication date, is not a “sixties” novel—in fact, it relentlessly mocks what it depicts as that decade’s crankish delusions, from macrobiotics to student revolt. Spark is entirely above imagining a sociopolitical solution to the problems of existence she describes. When Lise takes up with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness from Canada, Mrs. Fiedke, the old lady delivers a marvelous speech against feminism, which she interprets as a vast abdication of male responsibility:

‘They are demanding equal rights with us,’ says Mrs. Fiedke. ‘That’s why I never vote with the Liberals. Perfume, jewellery, hair down to their shoulders, and I’m not talking about the ones who were born like that. I mean, the ones that can’t help it should be put on an island. It’s the others I’m talking about. There was a time they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality today. All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn’t have made them different from us to the naked eye. They don’t want to be all dressed alike any more. Which is only a move against us. You couldn’t run an army like that, let alone the male sex.’ […] ‘If we don’t look lively,’ she says, ‘they will be taking over the homes and the children, and sitting about having chats while we go and fight to defend them and work to keep them. They won’t be content with equal rights only. Next thing they’ll want the upper hand, mark my words. Diamond earrings, I’ve read in the paper.’*

But if Lise can be understood as taking “the driver’s seat” just as so many death-driving male heroes before her have done, from Oedipus to Hamlet to Captain Ahab to Meursault, then she may be the exponent of a tragic non-political nihilist feminism—women having an equal share in the void (not a sign you’d carry at a protest). She says that she’ll miss when she’s gone “all that lonely grief,” the loneliness of people after the cafés have closed, the artist-flâneur-thinker’s share in death while living.

Lise tries to explain the book she is in when she gives to her hotel porter the trashy book she bought in the airport:

‘…it’s a whydunnit in q-sharp major and it has a message: never talk to the sort of girls that you wouldn’t leave lying about in your drawing-room for the servants to pick up.’

So this is not a proper literary novel with all that Virginia Woolf free indirect discourse and it is not a genre thriller about who did what (the narrator spoils the plot in chapter three); it is a novel to make us ask why, it is “off the scale” of its form’s traditional aesthetics, and it runs counter to typical portrayals of domestic woman. It is avant-garde and ancient, its protagonist a mobile tragic heroine. The last sentence, describing the moment before Lise’s killer is captured, carefully guides us toward the tragic interpretation:

He sees already the gleaming buttons of the policemen’s uniforms, hears the cold and the confiding, the hot and the barking voices, sees already the holsters and epaulets and all those trappings devised to protect them from the indecent exposure of fear and pity, pity and fear.

“Pity and fear” were Aristotle’s words in the Poetics for the emotions tragedy was meant to purge:

…Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.


…for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.

Lise, a [wo]man like ourselves—a modern middle-class consumer—arranges by “design” an action that will arouse the proper emotions in those who see it on the news or read about it in the newspapers. Spark spells all this out, but the novel’s action is still mysterious.

Back to the final sentence: the police and the press are represented as wishing to evade their purgative—the literature Lise (who never reads) has made of her life and death. Modern life, from conventional gender politics to sixties radicalism, is a conspiracy against feeling the monstrousness of fate, the lonely grief. In the novel’s first chapter, Lise’s apartment is described; made of pine by an architect who later became famous, it stands for the tame kind of order to which Lise’s pursuit of sublime order—order in the chaos of death and destruction—will be contrasted. Of the architect’s work, Spark observes:

The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into silence and into obedient bulks.

Lise is both the tree that will not be subdued and the architect of a spectacle that will display the anarchic forces man (and woman) will never master.


*I enjoyed this passage not only because its predictions have come to pass, but because it is roughly what my grandmothers and great aunts and the nuns at Catholic school thought of feminism when I was a child.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

Rappaccini's DaughterRappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I am not in the habit of reviewing individual short stories, this is almost novella-length anyway and is one of my all-time favorites. Someone should publish it in a lavish illustrated edition: I imagine mixed media, photos of floral tendrils and marble ruins that frame sketchier figure drawing and landscapes, probably in oil pastels. Alternately, I could see puppets being involved.

The story is prefaced by a self-parodic author biography, in which Hawthorne, in a fit of Romantic irony, Frenchifies himself as M. de l’Aubépine, emphasizing his outsider’s perspective on an America too controlled by Puritan and mercantile values to reward his dreamy and proto-decadent sensibility. I will spare the reader my identification with Hawthorne’s difficulties—well, almost, but the following so well describes one of my own problems that I have to quote it:

As a writer, he seems to occupy an unfortunate position between the Transcendentalists (who, under one name or another, have their share in all the current literature of the world) and the great body of pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude. If not too refined, at all events too remote, too shadowy, and unsubstantial in his modes of development to suit the taste of the latter class, and yet too popular to satisfy the spiritual or metaphysical requisitions of the former, he must necessarily find himself without an audience, except here and there an individual or possibly an isolated clique.

When Hawthorne says that the Transcendentalists “under one name or another, have their share in all the current literature of the world,” I believe he means to identify them with literary avant-gardes in general. It is as difficult today as it was in Hawthorne’s time, in my experience, to find a publisher for fiction that neither announces a radical intention on its surface (a gesture I find facile and overdone—how many more novels do we need with no paragraph breaks or with numbered sections à la Wittgenstein?) nor provides all the traditional satisfactions of the mainstream and popular (which would of course be a far too conventional thing to do for any writer interested in the possibilities of form).

The words “Aubépine” and “Hawthorne” both refer to a flowering plant. Hawthorne himself added the “w” (for “writer”?) to his family name, granting himself a floral appellation in an attempt to expiate the Puritanical crimes against nature and pleasure committed by the witch-hunting Hathornes.

In this particular tale, flowers are at issue: set in Renaissance Italy, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” tells of a young man named Giovanni who comes to Padua to study and takes an apartment overlooking a garden where he spies a beautiful maiden named, like Dante’s beloved, Beatrice. Alas, as the tale unfolds, we learn that Beatrice has been turned by her scientist father into an ambulatory poison flower, contaminating Giovanni through his very love of her. Aubépine, the self-mocking preface tells us, has “an inveterate love of allegory,” and this tale’s allegory seems clear enough at first: men, whether Dante or Rappaccini, make women into angels or demons, pure flowers or poison ones, and then hold them responsible for it despite their lack of control in the matter. As Beatrice tells Giovanni at the conclusion, “‘ Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?'” She’s not wrong: his obsessive voyeurism and idealism draws him into a relationship with her, and his refusal to countenance anything less than spiritually beatified in that relation causes him to fall prey to her father’s machinations and then to blame her for the poison with which the old scientist has corrupted her. Allegorically, then, we have a prophetically feminist statement from an author better remembered for complaining about the female authors who were his more successful rivals.

I’m not sure, though, that finding a satisfyingly “progressive” thesis is the only way to read this strange story. First of all, it should be admitted that the story is strange; apparently based on an ancient tale that Hawthorne found in Burton, its depiction of a mad scientist turning his daughter into a super-villain was pulpy enough to inspire both DC and Marvel comics to create characters based on Beatrice, according to Wikipedia. And Hawthorne, perhaps more like both Giovanni (the voyeur of the garden) and Rappaccini (the master of the garden) than he lets on, enjoys himself amid the floral perfumes, creating an aesthetic and sensory prose that in its near opiation looks forward to Pater, Huysmans, and Wilde:

Giovanni still found no better occupation than to look down into the garden beneath his window. From its appearance, he judged it to be one of those botanic gardens which were of earlier date in Padua than elsewhere in Italy or in the world. Or, not improbably, it might once have been the pleasure-place of an opulent family; for there was the ruin of a marble fountain in the centre, sculptured with rare art, but so wofully shattered that it was impossible to trace the original design from the chaos of remaining fragments. The water, however, continued to gush and sparkle into the sunbeams as cheerfully as ever. A little gurgling sound ascended to the young man’s window, and made him feel as if the fountain were an immortal spirit that sung its song unceasingly and without heeding the vicissitudes around it, while one century imbodied it in marble and another scattered the perishable garniture on the soil. All about the pool into which the water subsided grew various plants, that seemed to require a plentiful supply of moisture for the nourishment of gigantic leaves, and, in some instances, flowers gorgeously magnificent. There was one shrub in particular, set in a marble vase in the midst of the pool, that bore a profusion of purple blossoms, each of which had the lustre and richness of a gem; and the whole together made a show so resplendent that it seemed enough to illuminate the garden, even had there been no sunshine. Every portion of the soil was peopled with plants and herbs, which, if less beautiful, still bore tokens of assiduous care, as if all had their individual virtues, known to the scientific mind that fostered them. Some were placed in urns, rich with old carving, and others in common garden pots; some crept serpent-like along the ground or climbed on high, using whatever means of ascent was offered them. One plant had wreathed itself round a statue of Vertumnus, which was thus quite veiled and shrouded in a drapery of hanging foliage, so happily arranged that it might have served a sculptor for a study.

As in so much of Hawthorne’s writing, an ineliminable Puritan sense of guilt runs under the aesthetic pleasure, creating a powerful sense of irony. The story is both a richly lurid tale of sin and a self-critique—recalling Calvinist self-examination and anticipating the postmodern progressivism that is that Calvinism’s legacy—for writing such a wicked thing at all.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Samuel Richardson, Pamela

PamelaPamela by Samuel Richardson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a number of observers have stated, a classic may be defined most simply as any work of art that has endured beyond the time of its production. If it is still in circulation after a few generations, then it is a classic. But this definition still leaves room for nuances; for one thing, there are different reasons why a work may endure.

Consider eighteenth-century Anglophone fictional prose narrative. One such narrative that is still widely read in the present is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Why is it widely read today? First, we might say it deals with still-relevant issues: it is a satire whose targets remain with us, from the superficialities of upper-class life to the arrogance of scientists to the base human desires that lead to war, poverty, and crime. But, as Ben Okri has recently angered a lot of smart people by observing, subject matter and theme are probably the least important elements of literature. I think we still read Gulliver’s Travels because it is an elegantly-designed narrative; it is very funny in its caricatural metaphors for those social forms it attacks, as well as being just bawdy and scatological enough to make us all laugh with rueful recognition of our common creaturely life; it is a source of rich and unforgettable imagery; it is written in a clear, descriptive style that allows for deadpan comedy but also an undertone of angry sorrow. In short, we still read Swift’s book because it is fun to read. This is one kind of classic.

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded is another classic of eighteenth-century Anglophone prose narrative, but it is a different kind of classic: one we continue to read less for its intrinsic merit or interest than for its immense influence on later works. Pamela is an early realist novel told by the titular heroine in the first person as a series of letters to her parents, letters that come to be read as morally exemplary literature by the novel’s other characters. Pamela famously, concerns a poor servant girl who is sexually menaced by the noble son of her dead mistress until he undergoes a reform of character that leads the pair to fall in love and marry.

Richardson’s 1740 novel was revolutionary for a number of reasons. Sociopolitically speaking, Pamela gives unprecedented voice to a woman of the lower class, insisting on her intelligence, rectitude, and all-around human worth. The novel boldly challenges both the unwarranted hauteur of the dissolute upper classes and the sexual privilege of the landowning or noble male, empowered by social custom to treat young women of the servant or working classes as erotic prey. Richardson, himself of the working class and religiously a Puritan, dramatizes his conviction that God is no respecter of persons and values only right action and virtuous behavior. The aesthetic consequences of this ideological revolt are significant: the realist novel as a literary form becomes in Richardson’s hands a conduit for the voices of the socially marginal or excluded, the most expansive and inclusive and progressive of literary forms. When critics today call for diversity, feminism, multiculturalism, etc., in literary curricula, they are following the path cleared by Richardson (as well as his contemporary, Defoe).

Despite the novel’s troubling (from a contemporary perspective) endorsement of marriage as a male-headed institution in which the wife must obey her master, Pamela might well be called an early feminist novel due to its sympathetic narrative of a poor young woman subject to sexual assault. The scene that is the heart of the novel occurs when Mr. B., Pamela’s master, begins tearing off her clothes to get at the portions of her letters and diaries that she conceals on her person. This scene is almost more shocking than the moment of attempted rape elsewhere in the novel, for when Mr. B. assaults Pamela’s body and her narrative at once, Richardson transforms rape from its archaic meaning as a property crime (the theft of a woman from her family) to a sin against a sacred individual. Because Pamela is not only her body or her social status but also her story and her language, Mr. B. trespasses in this moment against humanity as reasoning image of God. With this new understanding of women, sexual violence, and narrative, Richardson made a revolution, one still ongoing today. With Pamela more than any other work, the novel becomes the literary form corresponding to the modern individual, and the guarantor of that individual’s rights, even if said individual is just a poor girl.

(That these rights are ultimately property rights, guaranteed not only by narrative but by bourgeois virtue, is the underside of the seemingly upbeat transformation in political consciousness effected by Richardson’s novel, as left-wing critics such as Nancy Armstrong have explained at length; Pamela may therefore exemplify the complicity of individualism, feminism, and the novel with class domination, racism, and imperialism—too big a topic to discuss here, but too important to go completely unmentioned.)

By giving direct access to the feelings of a common person through epistolary form, Richardson opens up a new dimension in fictional narrative: the concern with human consciousness that will preoccupy the realist novel from Austen to James to Woolf to Bellow to today. As Margaret A. Doody notes in her introduction to my Penguin Classics edition, Richardson begins the novelistic project that in many ways culminates in high modernism with stream of consciousness narration.

So this novel is an important one in literary history—far more important, in most ways, than Gulliver’s Travels, which was an honorable and brilliant entrant in several longstanding literary traditions (satire, travel narrative, utopia, romance) but not a world-shakingly original, genre-defining work. Swift’s book is a masterful narrative, but Richardson’s has a claim to being one of the first modern novels, a book that influenced the whole course of European literature, affecting everyone from Rousseau to Goethe.

On the other hand, Pamela is not very much fun to read. The narrative is shapeless, moving from intense and active scenes of confrontation or flight to plodding descriptions of minor matters with no sense of design for emotional effect. Richardson blundered into writing a novel; his initial goal was to write a set of model letters for young ladies. Thus, the novel is relentlessly didactic, instructing us over and over and over again about God’s Providence, the importance of virtue, and the necessity of social forms. The only well-developed characters are Pamela herself, Mr. B., his sister, and his grotesque servant Mrs Jewkes. The latter is perhaps the novel’s most vital character, a sharp-tongued and cynical woman who is possibly—we are never quite sure, because Pamela is not—a former procuress or bawd and who seems to harbor homoerotic designs on the heroine. Alas, she repents too by the end: no one is spared the novel’s culminating reign of virtue. Most other characters blur together, insufficiently developed. Also, while I grasp the novelty of Richardson’s emphasis on emotion, the novel’s endless effusions, and the ocean of tears shed by every character in it, become tiresome.

In her introduction, Margaret A. Doody puts a positive face on all these flaws, praising the novel for its life-like impurities, excesses, and organic vagaries. I suppose I understand that assessment of Richardson’s achievement in a purely intellectual sense, but it does not lessen my extreme boredom with the novel qua novel—especially its lethal second half, a pageant of “virtue rewarded” wherein Mr. B. shows off Pamela to all his friends and demonstrates her many merits. Thankfully, Mr. B.’s sister shows up late in the second half to create some drama—poor Pamela has to jump out of a window to get away from her—but she ends up repentantly weeping too. No wonder I immediately thought of Swift on finishing Pamela: his bitterness is a needed corrective to Richardson’s sentimentality.

But more than making me wish for Swift, Pamela made me grateful for Jane Austen: she was the one who took Richardson’s materials and put them in order, discovering how to write a realistic novel of consciousness and common life in a more effective and economical way: she dispenses with the cumbersome and occasionally ludicrous epistolary apparatus (where does Pamela find the time and energy amid all these other events to write what is effectively a 500-page novel?) and instead conveys thought and emotion through a supple third-person narration marked by free indirect discourse. It is via Austen that we get from Richardson to Woolf, and through Austen that the realist novel becomes a form of art rather than a vehicle for didacticism.

Those less aesthetically reactionary than myself and Austen will no doubt see the transition from Richardson’s loose and baggy propagandistic monsters to the mute and well-wrought urns of modern fiction as a loss in cultural energy and complexity, a sacrifice of the radically social to aesthetic quietism; for Richardson was not only a proto-modernist explorer of the inner life, but (as Terry Eagleton discusses in his study of the writer) the popular ringleader of a coterie of devoted (largely female) readers, whose revisions and redactions he solicited and incorporated into his texts. A contemporary analogue to Richardson would be less a distinguished literary novelist like Philip Roth or Ian McEwan and more a master of a sentimental YA fan empire, such as John Green or Stephanie Meyer. Isn’t Twilight just Pamela with a dark Gothic glitter, the same old story of a girl from nowhere who tames the fierce and dangerous bad-boy aristocrat so as to be assimilated into the ruling elite? I would rather read Philip Roth.

For all that, any student of the novel’s history or of cultural history more broadly should read Pamela. A massive bestseller and cultural phenomenon in its own time, it is a book that helped to make our world and our literature, for better and for worse, and that is enough to make it a classic that cannot be ignored.


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