Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.

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Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Long Day's Journey Into NightLong Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Long Day’s Journey into Night, often considered one of the finest American dramas and as its author’s masterpiece, was first published posthumously in 1955. The sources of its plot and characters in the Nobel-winning author’s autobiography, his tortured family life marked by regret and addiction, seemed to demand its withholding until O’Neill’s death in 1953.

The play’s title is apt as it obeys the Aristotelian unities of time and place: it is set from morning to night on one summer day in one room of the Tyrone family’s New England summer home. The offstage sea, with its encroaching fog and sounding foghorn, contribute much of the solemn, oneiric mood.

The patriarch of the Tyrone family, James, is a wildly successful stage actor who came from impoverished Irish immigrants, including a father who abandoned the family. This poor beginning led him to sell out his Shakespearean gifts and ambitions for a moneymaking role that made him rich and famous but vitiated his talent; it also caused him to become a lifelong miser, no matter how much money he makes.

His wife, Mary, is a morphine addict who became hooked on the opiate after the birth of their son, Edmund. Edmund is their third son, but their second, Eugene, died in childhood; this tragedy, along with a punishing life on the road as an actor’s wife, has contributed to Mary’s addiction and despair, her endless reminiscing upon her long-vanished youthful promise when she was a convent-school girl.

Jamie and Edmund are their grown sons, Jamie a dissolute and cynical actor and Edmund a budding intellectual and artist devoted to the most pessimistic currents of modern thought. (Biographical critics note that Edmund is transparently a stand-in for O’Neill, though observe, too, the poignance with which the author gives his own name to the dead child.) The two sons, like the father, are alcoholics. Much of the play’s rhythm is structured by their increasing drunkenness throughout the day, and by Mary’s increasing disappearance into her morphine haze, “night” being not only a time of day but a state of mental darkness.

Long Day’s Journey is not quite plotless: its two dramatic foci are the family’s discovery that Mary has relapsed into addiction, when they’d thought she was cured, and Edmund’s diagnosis of tuberculosis, which casts a shadow of death over the proceedings. Both events provoke the play’s intense dialogues between and among the family members as they hurl recriminations at one another or deliver monologues about their failed promise, speeches gathering emotional force and bitter honesty as day turns to night.

Brief quotation cannot suggest the play’s mounting power of confrontation and scenic construction; I imagine it, like Death of a Salesman, is more powerful staged than read. O’Neill and Miller share a perhaps greater gift for dramaturgy than a way with words (which is not quite true of other major American dramatists, like Tennessee Williams and August Wilson). The play’s tableaux, particularly the concluding one, might be more powerful than the rather slangy and verbose speeches.

On the other hand, Long Day’s Journey also has a novelistic quality that comes out in its extensive stage directions, the descriptive passages of which seem meant to be read rather than staged. O’Neill’s impossibly detailed renditions of his characters’ appearances, which no casting director could hope to approximate, demand an inner theater:

Edmund is ten years younger than his brother, a couple of inches taller, thin and wiry. Where Jamie takes after his father, with little resemblance to his mother, Edmund looks like both his parents, but is more like his mother. Her big, dark eyes are the dominant feature in his long, narrow Irish face. His mouth has the same quality of hypersensitiveness hers possesses. His high forehead is hers accentuated, with dark brown hair, sunbleached to red at the ends, brushed straight back from it. But his nose is his father’s, and his face in profile recalls Tyrone’s, Edmund’s hands are noticeably like his mother’s, with the same exceptionally long fingers. They even have to a minor degree the same nervousness It is in the quality of extreme nervous sensibility that the likeness of Edmund to his mother is most marked.

What most fascinates me about this play is the debate about literature itself that O’Neill stages between the generations. The living room that is the play’s setting features two bookshelves. One represents the rebellious modernity of the sons and the other represents the old man’s comparative classicism:

Against the wall between the doorways is a small bookcase, with a picture of Shakespeare above it, containing novels by Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, philosophical and sociological works by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Max Stirner, plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, poetry by Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Kipling, etc.

[…]

Farther back is a large, glassed-in bookcase with sets of Dumas, Victor Hugo, Charles Lever, three sets of Shakespeare, The World’s Best Literature in fifty large volumes, Hume’s History of England, Thiers’ History of the Consulate and Empire, Smollett’s History of England, Gibbon’s Roman Empire and miscellaneous volumes of old plays, poetry, and several histories of Ireland.

As opposed to the supposedly calm universality of the father’s classic and romantic drama and enlightened historiography, the sons incline toward anarchism and socialism in politics, naturalism and aestheticism in literature, all of which entail a rejection of Christian metaphysics and morality. In later scenes, the sons quote from Baudelaire, Swinburne, and Wilde, whose aesthetics Tyrone pronounces “morbid”; he goes on to claim that Shakespeare contains both the genuine truths expressed by the morbid moderns but also much more:

Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters? You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him—as you’ll find everything else worth saying.

When we learn in a monologue what Shakespeare means to Tyrone, nothing less than a total transcendence of his desperate origins, we are less inclined to condescend with the radical youth to the elder’s classicism:

I was wild with ambition. I read all the plays ever written. I studied Shakespeare as you’d study the Bible. I educated myself. I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife. I loved Shakespeare. I would have acted in any of his plays for nothing, for the joy of being alive in his great poetry.

And when Edmund mocks Tyrone’s possibly parochial insistence that “Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic,” we might be invited to appreciate the English dramatist’s universality as much as to laugh at the Irish-American’s credulity (and history has caught up with half of Tyrone’s equation, anyway: Shakespeare is nowadays widely regarded as a Catholic writer, if not an Irish one).

O’Neill intends, I think, to synthesize the classics with the moderns. If his characters are trapped in a fate they can’t escape, marked indelibly by their family and class origins and controlled by addictions they can’t evade through force of will, is this any less true of the personae in Sophocles and Shakespeare? How great a departure is Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Zola’s naturalism, or Wilde’s aestheticism, with their insistence on humanity’s determination by inhuman forces and on art’s amorality, from Greek tragedy’s celebratory hymns to crushing fate? Mary insists that “life,” a mysterious determining force, is the agent in their lives, rather than they themselves:

But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it. None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self for ever.

Mary, though, retains a transcendent belief in some “true self” for “life” to betray and abuse. Edmund, for his part, praises the dissolution of the self in the engulfing sea as his most authentic experience, which we could easily compare to Hamlet’s concluding admission, “Let be,” or the manifest death-drive of Sophocles’s Antigone or Euripides’s Pentheus:

When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself. To God, if you want to put it that way. […] Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Edmund’s artistic-mystic vision is the authentic experience of which alcohol and morphine offer only the degraded copy; this insight is why Edmund, the O’Neill stand-in, is alone among the characters in being able to write the play.

Browsing through Harold Bloom’s introduction to a later edition of the text (Yale UP, 2002), I see that Bloom dwells on the un- or anti-Americanism of O’Neill’s aesthetic. For Bloom, this means un- or anti-Emersonian, a rejection of Transcendentalist self-reliance and progressive optimism, against which the Irish-American O’Neill posits the pessimism of Schopenhauer and the severity of Jansenist Catholicism. In this vein, I have also sometimes heard O’Neill discussed by others as not American at all, but an honorary Irish author working somewhere between the “scrupulous meanness” of Joyce’s naturalism in Dubliners and the surrealist inertia of Beckett’s drama.

Leaving aside the perhaps beside-the-point national question, Long Day‘s modernist combination of a naturalistic with a more symbolic or expressionistic mode makes O’Neill’s drama exemplary of a heightened or mythic realism, like so much of the 20th-century’s most powerful fiction and drama from Henrik Ibsen to Toni Morrison. O’Neill’s intellectual conviction that his characters’ wills are not their own, that they are lived by their fates, is embodied strikingly by their wild changes of mood, tone, and posture, as if O’Neill were asking the actors to be successively possessed by different spirits:

He forces a laugh in which she makes herself join. Then he goes out on the porch and disappears down the steps. Her first reaction is one of relief. She appears to relax. She sinks down in one of the wicker armchairs at rear of table and leans her head back, closing her eyes But suddenly she grows terribly tense again. Her eyes open and she strains forward, seized by a fit of nervous panic. She begins a desperate battle with herself. Her long fingers, warped and knotted by rheumatism, drum on the arms of the chair, driven by an insistent life of their own, without her consent.

In this way, O’Neill’s dramaturgy literalizes his famous description, in the drama’s opening dedication to his wife, of “the four haunted Tyrones,” protagonists of this haunting modern tragedy.

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Against Celebration: Bloomsday vs. Dallowayday

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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.

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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.

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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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Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories

Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other StoriesSnows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hemingway used to be overrated and is now if anything underrated. Once venerated for promoting a code of restrained masculine heroism forged in war, he is now execrated by the ideologists of “toxic masculinity.” Neither variant of gender politics, however, provides an answer to the question of whether or not his works are any good.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro offers a convenient opportunity for a literary reappraisal of Hemingway’s stylings. The book is a brief showcase of Hemingway’s short fiction published in 1961—the year of the author’s death—though almost all the stories in the collection, some of the author’s most famous, appeared in the modernist decades of the 1920s and ’30s.

The title story, first published in 1938, and “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” (1936)—two expansive tales of white men on safari in Africa—bookend the shorter stories that make up the middle of the collection. These shorter stories are the most “Hemingwayesque.” Like their dual inspirations in high and low culture—Imagist poetry, journalism, perhaps even early radio and talkie cinema—their narratives are pared down to just the telling detail and their stories are conveyed mostly in dialogue. Moreover, the dialogues are never straightforward; characters only imply what they mean, they talk past each other, they repeat themselves, they circle difficult subjects. Above all they try never to disclose what they feel, even as the means they use to conceal their affect only heightens attention to their anguished inner lives.

The self-enclosed tough-guy universes Hemingway writes about, from the armies of the Great War to the criminal underworld to the culture of sport, are ruled by codes of decorum as inflexible as anything in the epicene cosmos of Henry James’s transatlantic upper class. James’s dictum for the fiction writer to “dramatize” rather than employing the expository narration that dominated in the novel from Walter Scott to George Eliot fits Hemingway’s subject matter as much as it fit James’s.

“The Killers” (1927) is the classic example. In this famous story, Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams is working in a diner when two hired hitmen come in to wait for a boxer they plan to murder. Most of The story’s suspense is created by the evasive dialogue of the titular killers. Empty patter occupies our attention while we wait for an “orgastic” (to borrow from Fitzgerald) climax that that may or may not come. As a number of other critics have noted, all of Tarantino comes out of this story:

“Well, bright boy,” Max said, looking into the mirror, “why don’t you say something?”

“What’s it all about?”

“Hey, Al,” Max called, “bright boy wants to know what it’s all about.”

“Why don’t you tell him?” Al’s voice came from the kitchen.

“What do you think it’s all about?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think?”

Max looked into the mirror all the time he was talking.

“I wouldn’t say.”

“Hey, Al, bright boy says he wouldn’t say what he thinks it’s all about.”

Another classic example of the “Hemingwayesque” can be found in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933), a beautiful mood piece about a late-night cafe and the pleasures and sorrows of urban alienation, about the need for a “third place” (neither home nor work) to go to be alone among strangers and stave off the nihilism that descends on us all from time to time:

“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waiter said.

“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

“I want to go home and into bed.”

“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.”

“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”

“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”

The longer stories in this pared-down and dialogue-driven vein, such as “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio” (first published in this collection) and “Fifty Grand” (1927), strike me as less successful. Hemingway’s techniques pursued at length come to seem gimmicky, especially with third-person narration where you can’t explain the distinctive style as the narrator’s essential voice (as you can with Jake Barnes: this is why The Sun Also Rises is so effective). As well, the stories that lavish the “Hemingwayesque” on traditionally sentimental subjects, such as the Nick Adams tale “Fathers and Sons” (1933), make one wonder that this variant of modernism was ever thought anti-sentimental when it is only another route to the tearjerker.

The technique is also dispiritingly easy to historicize—we can just arrogate this way of writing to the Age of Freud and its theses on repression. Because Hemingway provides so little beyond bare narrative and dialogue and the rather simple emotions they imply, his stories are unable to circumscribe the contemporaneous ideas that would explain and contain them within any larger context of their own. This is one difference between major work and minor work. Faulkner, with his ever unreliable narrators and opacities of grand language, is able to throw back in the critic’s face the ultimate futility of explaining anything. Can Hemingway’s work do the same? A writer needs a total vision; Hemingway, unfortunately, had only a total style.

The two stories that begin and end the collection are larger than the stories they encompass, and both take us further afield—to the hunting grounds of eastern Africa where rich white men go to live the “strenuous life” on safari with their trophy wives. This is an experience more difficult to relate to or to admire—for me at least!—and I found the claustrophobia of the Hemingway hero’s straitened consciousness all the more confining for the African vista it here commands.

Nevertheless, the title story’s authorial surrogate Harry, dying of gangrene, is the occasion for some poignant recollections of both the war and of shell shock in ex-pat interwar Paris, as if providing a little digest of modernist living. You also get a glimpse of a Hemingway who is less remarked these days: the man of the Left:

Around that Place there were two kinds; the drunkards and the sportifs. The drunkards killed their poverty that way; the sportifs took it out in exercise. They were the descendants of the Communards and it was no struggle for them to know their politics. They knew who had shot their fathers, their relatives, their brothers, and their friends when the Versailles troops came in and took the town after the Commune and executed any one they could catch with calloused hands, or who wore a cap, or carried any other sign he was a working man. And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard. The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tires, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died. There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.

“The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” (1936), about a love triangle on safari among a callow rich American, his actress wife, and a British “white hunter” who leads his clients on the hunt, is a brilliantly constructed tale of masculine initiation and dissolution. This dissolution—that is, the end of the initiation in futile death—calls the story’s polemically male ethos into question and serves to cut its fairly flagrant misogyny with a bit of irony.

Be a damn fire eater now. He’d seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.

So how good is Hemingway’s work? As a primer on basic techniques for relieving fictional narrative of extraneous details or emotions, it is superb; as a guide to the inner lives of the men of a certain generation—and these men, it should be said, suffered enormously in and as a result of the Great War, a fact often neglected in today’s sometimes flip dismissal of “white male” etc.—it remains moving and helpful. On the other hand, there are writers of the same era—I think of a variety from Joyce to Cather—who were able to do what Hemingway could and also much more. Rated at his proper value, and to use a military idiom he might appreciate, he is a writer of the second rank.

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Hart Crane, The Bridge

The BridgeThe Bridge by Hart Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bridge (1930) is a long poem seven years in the making. It was written under several varieties of duress, alcoholism and despair chief among them, by a poet who would, within two years of his masterpiece’s composition, take his own life at the age of 32. All the more remarkable, then, that it was a brief epic intended as an affirmation—a rebuttal to T. S. Eliot’s epoch-making 1922 poem, The Waste Land, which adumbrated the modernist’s sense of his time as an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” (Ulysses, Order, and Myth”). Crane was a follower of Whitman and Emerson, a latter-day Transcendentalist, and wished to write a poem that would be “a mystical synthesis of ‘America.'”

In a review of Crane’s 1926 volume, White Buildings, I noted the difficulties of reading this poet: it is not so much, as with Eliot or Pound or Joyce, a matter of recondite allusion as it is his commitment to a high style combining Elizabethan grandeur with modernist abstraction. Crane’s words seem to live a life of their own, decoupled not only from easily understood reference (as in, say, Gertrude Stein), but also sometimes from conventions of grammar or usage. This is no less true of The Bridge than of White Buildings, and I will confess before I begin a commentary that there are a number of lines and passages I do not claim to understand. I am confident, though, that Crane intended his work as much to be experienced as a roiling verbal sea as he did for it to be decrypted—he was a Late Romantic, meaning to move us, to entrance us, to overwhelm us, more than to involve us in linguistic puzzles. In any case, even a first reading is enough for a reader to get the drift (the “sea drift,” Whitman might have said) of The Bridge.

The epic begins with a proem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” announcing the topic, tone, and theme. Crane imagines the eponymous structure, with its suspension wires like an instrument’s strings, as an Aeolian harp, that celebrated trope of the Romantics. Coleridge and Shelley saw a likeness between the poet’s service as a medium making ambient spiritual forces articulate, and the Aeolian harp’s transformation of the wind into eerie music.[1] The proem concludes by advising the bridge to “lend a myth to God”—in other words, and contra Eliot & Co., modernity is not a declension from an older spiritual wholeness, but a force capable of making its own spirit and forms of worship.

The first section, “Ave Maria,” is a fierce dramatic monologue spoken by Christopher Columbus on his return voyage, lauding God and the Virgin for guiding him to “Cathay” (i.e., China, the intended destination), before sounding blasphemously like Dante’s and Tennyson’s Ulysses: “still one shore beyond desire!”

The next division is named for Pocahontas, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” and offers a morning montage, from the poet’s waking with his lover, allegorically both the titular Algonquin princess and America itself, in “The Harbor Dawn” (“a forest shudders in your hair“) to a brilliant scene of Rip van Winkle walking modern New York streets:

And Rip forgot the office hours,
and he forgot the pay;
Van Winkle sweeps a tenement
way down on Avenue A,—

Next we follow “The River” and the laboring or lumpen life of America’s “ancient men—wifeless or runaway / Hobo-trekkers that forever search / An empire wilderness of freight and rails.” The section next envisions the poet’s (to me obscure) participation in a Native American dance and fusion of a Pocahontas-like figure with the “eternal feminine” for which America stands[2]:

High unto Labrador the sun strikes free
Her speechless dream of snow, and stirred again,
She is the torrent and the singing tree;
And she is virgin to the last of men…

Note that all these juxtapositions serve Crane to achieve his “synthesis” as different cultural elements come together: Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Native American culture, and Romantic literature. Finally, the division ends with “Indiana,” a pioneer woman’s moving monologue—generally judged mawkish and extraneous by critics for whom modern poetry is not supposed to tell a coherent story or share a legible emotion—to her peregrine son: “oh, I shall always wait / You Larry, traveller— / stranger, / son, / —my friend—”

The next division is “Cutty Sark,” a tribute to Melville wherein the speaker encounters an old salt in South Street Seaport speakeasy: “Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke, / and rum was Plato in our heads…” Another great American writer appears in the next division—my favorite and perhaps the most intricately organized; in “Cape Hatteras,” the speaker both encounters Walt Whitman and recounts the history of aviation, both the man and the science undergoing the same transformation from hope and promise (Song of Myself, the Wright Brothers) to violence, death, and despair (Whitman as wound dresser, aviation as Great War death from the air). Crane’s verse in this section goes from daring Futurism—

Thine eyes bicarbonated white by speed, O Skygak, see
How from thy path above the levin’s lance
Thou sowest doom thou has nor time nor chance
To reckon—as thy stilly eyes partake
What alcohol of space…!

—to moving tribute: “yes, Walt, / Afoot again, and onward without halt,— / Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never let go / My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman— / so—”

“Three Songs” gives three glimpses into different aspects of American life and desire, most notably a garish poem set in a burlesque theater (“Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh, / O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone”), and “Quaker Hill” provides an Eliotic (even unfortunately anti-Semitic) elegy over the decay from Quaker to commercial values in American life: “This was the Promised Land,” the speaker laments, before noting an “ancient” table purchased at a cut rate by “Powitzky” at “Adams’ auction.”

Penultimately is “The Tunnel,” a Homeric/Virgilian/Dantean subway katabasis where the poet, who had earlier soared with Whitman, now travels underground with Poe:

And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
—And did their riding eyes right through your side,
And did their eyes like unwashed platters ride?
And Death, aloft,—gigantically down
Probing through you—toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you,
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?

Here the demographic and social shifts in American urban life are hymned, a new myth of fecundity, as Crane looks upon, let us say, my great-grandmother with a kindlier eye than Eliot (or Pound or James or Lovecraft or etc.) ever did:

And does the Daemon take you home, also,
Wop washerwoman, with the bandaged hair?
After the corridors are swept, the cuspidors—
The gaunt sky-barracks cleanly now, and bare,
O Genoese, do you bring mother eyes and hands
Back home to children and to golden hair?

Finally, the whole poem ends with “Atlantis,” reprising the theme of bridge as Aeolian harp, giving voice to all America:

And through that cordage, threading with its call
One arc synoptic of all tides below—
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply as though all ships at sea
Complighted in one vibrant breath made cry,—
“Make thy love sure—to weave whose song we ply!”
—From black embankments, moveless soundings hailed,
So seven oceans answer from their dream.

The Bridge has never had the prestige of either its admired precursor, Whitman’s Song of Myself, or its polemical target, Eliot’s Waste Land. Consider two data points: 1. Whitman’s and Eliot’s poems are printed whole in the canon-defining Norton Anthology textbook, while Crane’s is present only in brief excerpts; 2. a fully annotated scholarly edition of The Bridge was only published in the current decade, over eighty years after the poem’s first appearance.

Whitman’s greater accessibility is obvious: while his use of language was original in its context, it does not depend on extensive allusion. Similarly, while the earlier poet makes creative use of lexis and syntax, he rarely becomes so abstract as to be incomprehensible, as Crane’s does. Whitman is simply easier to read. Moreover, Whitman was writing in the nineteenth century, when it was still possible to take progress for granted, to see technological change as portending new wonders, to imagine that atrocities like slavery—often Gothicized by nineteenth-century American liberal writers (both white and black) as a feudal or even Catholic remainder—would be trampled in the march of progress and left in the dust. A progressive case in the aftermath of the Great War is less immediately creditable.

Eliot’s greater distinction is more of a mystery, except for the cynical explanation that he and his cohort (especially the impresario Pound) were much better publicists than Crane. For one thing, The Waste Land alludes to texts and ideas far more obscure, then and now, than anything in The Bridge: Eliot sends us, often in multiple languages, to Frazier’s anthropology, minor Jacobean drama, and ancient Sanskrit scriptures, while Crane’s primary allusions are to historical figures and classic writers that every American high-schooler knows: Columbus, Pocahontas, and the Wright Brothers; Poe, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman. Moreover, doesn’t Crane’s ultimate celebration of American possibility and progressive modernity fit in better with our civic religion, our incorrigible patriotism?

But perhaps these last two points are actually the problem: Eliot’s greater obscurity—which he both called attention to and partially helped to dispel when he annotated his own poem—is appealing to readers who want to feel as if they are being let in on a great secret. (This was in part, if I may be so crass, half the sales pitch of modernism.) Eliot’s seemingly greater difficulty is less trouble to decode—a matter of looking up references and translations, most of them provided by the poet himself—whereas Crane’s verbal surface, allusions aside, is often unintelligible no matter what research you do, which make you feel less intelligent as a reader.

Politically, Eliot’s conservative lament over the ruins of modernity allows him perceptions of social damage that even—or especially—the left accepts today: consider his prescient depiction in “The Fire Sermon” of a female typist being date-raped by a clerk, the scene witnessed and narrated by a mythically non-binary seer mourning the wounds inflicted by gender. Crane, by contrast, and despite his own stigmatized queerness and the poem’s homoerotic subtext, strikes the old poetic pose, going back to Dante and Petrarch and the Troubadours, of a male speaker and agent seeking consummation with a mute, abstract bride, a quest object as inert as its vulvic counterpart, the Holy Grail. The reactionary Eliot is here the true feminist and postmodernist, while the progressive Crane masculinizes and medievalizes.[3]

Even taking into account all of the above, The Bridge is magnificent. More than magnificent, it might even be exemplary. Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” tasks modern poets not with turning their backs on the rapid changes in a scientific and industrial or post-industrial culture but with aestheticizing these dizzying shifts so that the imagination, fully as much as the reasoning faculty, may have access to them:

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.

This is what Crane tries to do by articulating the “intrinsic Myth” that the Brooklyn Bridge is. He was writing, moreover, in the 1920s, which was in some spiritual sense the first decade of the twentieth century. As we approach our own century’s first decade—and these last few years are the first years that have felt like “the future” to me, something radically different both for worse and for better from the years in which I grew up—we could do worse than to emulate Hart Crane.
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 [1] This, by the way, is what “Romantic genius” means—the poet as receptive vessel, not as commanding—still less a swaggering—intelligence. Most of today’s attacks on “Romantic genius” are assailing a straw man. 

[2] The sexual politics of the poem are mixed—or maybe even deliberately split along exoteric-esoteric lines. For the hoi polloi Crane provides a poetic speaker seeking union with the bridge as holy bride and moreover traversing an American landscape feminized since the English Renaissance poetry of Donne and Drayton (“whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon?”); but for the insider, the poet’s wanderings are a mythologized cruising near waterfronts and in speakeasies, a testament to occulted queer living.

[3] Perhaps a parable for the present: literary attempts to be politically up-to-the-minute, to be “on the right side of history,” not only fail to guarantee literary quality but cannot even promise permanent political value according to progressive standards themselves.

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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!

Anna Kavan, Ice

IceIce by Anna Kavan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jonathan Lethem begins his introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of this 1967 novel, “Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book like the moon is the moon. There is only one.” Luckily, as he goes on he outgrows this meaningless blurb-babble (blurble?) and suggests Kavan’s antecedents and cognates: Poe and Kafka, Ballard’s Crash and Ishiguro’s Unconsoled, Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Godard’s Alphaville, and more. This critical gesture is more important than it would otherwise be because Ice has been advertised as science fiction, whereas its tradition is actually oneiric modernism. Like medieval literature, modernist fiction has a strong tradition of dream-inspired narrative; modern writers from Poe to Ishiguro are not seeking religious wisdom in their dreams, however, but the personae and landscapes of the unconscious, the revelation of the repressed.

Such fiction tends to be more interesting when the unconscious it explores is a collective or social one rather than merely the author’s. Despite that, Kavan is a fascinating figure: born Helen Woods to an upper-class English family, she published realist novels under her married name Helen Ferguson in the 1930s; following a nervous breakdown, she took the name of one of her protagonists, Anna Kavan, and began publishing fiction in a much stranger vein (in this edition’s afterword, Kate Zambreno mentions that the “K” in Kavan “has been read for Kafka”); during World War II, she traveled around the world; she spent time in and out of institutions and moreover became addicted to heroin. Combine such a twentieth-century life with such offbeat fiction, and you will get the work explained in terms of the biography. Accordingly, Ice seems to have been freighted beyond reason with biographical interpretations—particularly focused on Kavan’s heroin addition, presumably the source of the novel’s titular apocalyptic imagery, an all-encroaching white oblivion.

But reading from Kavan’s life is even less satisfying than reading Ice as straight science fiction; the novel’s catastrophic ice age is presented as a public and political matter, a kind of nuclear winter unleashed by irresponsible scientists and superpowers, and when Kavan writes about more ostensibly private issues of obsession and control, they are portrayed through the theme of men’s sadistic sexual domination of women (and women’s masochistic complicity therein—Kavan does not seem to be an orthodox feminist). Kavan is working through issues of much broader relevance than her particular story. When critics tear right through the texture of the text to find the writer’s “real life” as if rummaging through closets and drawers, I am reminded that Nabokov associated psychoanalysis with totalitarianism—the abolition of privacy to control what the public can think and say. Even more so in the case of a writer like Kavan, who takes whatever experience was hers and devises a fable that, because its real-world referents are so unclear (no country is named in this novel, nor is any character, and no time period is specified), is virtually unlimited in its scope. Why should we be so sure this is only Helen Woods’s story? What if it is yours or mine? Scholarship has its place, but it should not become a defense against literature.

The story of Ice: a male narrator returns to his home country in quest of an “old friend” or former lover, a fragile young woman whose psyche was permanently damaged by “a sadistic mother.” The narrator claims that the woman sees herself as a perennial victim and will submit to any cruel fate, but he himself is afflicted with sadism. Ironically, given his own sadistic desires, one of the narrator’s goals is to free the woman from “the warden,” her other husband or lover, who is far more overtly domineering and cruel—and not only of her, as he is depicted variously as a kind of sheriff, general, mafioso, or warlord at various points in the tale. But the narrator frequently experiences visions of the young woman in various tortured and submissive postures, of which this is the first:

An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the the walls moving slowly toward her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the center. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was. Various factors had combined to produce it, although they were not extenuating circumstances.

The surrealism, the stark black-and-white imagery, the blandly descriptive and formal tone, the fetishistic and incantatory repetitions (four whites, four ices in one paragraph), the sadism, the instability of perspective (is the author condemning the narrator or identifying with him?), the unapologetic examination of cruelty without commending it—all are characteristic of the novel’s mode and style.

Ice‘s narrative has the feel of a dream or compulsive sequence of dreams, stopping and restarting as the characters re-negotiate their relationship to each other—at times, the warden allows the narrator to see the young woman; at times, she accepts him and at others rebuffs him; at times he pursues her obsessively and at other times strives to put her out of his mind. Because the narrator is constantly in motion, traveling by ship from one country to another, the narrative is never stable. Each chapter when completed, in my experience, evanesces from the mind, and the narrator himself remarks on reaching a safe port at the beginning of a late chapter:

Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been dreamed or imagined. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.

The novel’s vagueness, then, should not be regarded as a fault or flaw but as a deliberately sought technique of disorientation. The narrator, by the way, remarks frequently that “[r]eality has always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” and also that “the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind,” so how much of this is to be taken as real and how much a hallucination is persistently in question. As Lethem remarks, Kavan introduces visions and dream-sequences into a narrative whose grounding tone is already hallucinatory and oneiric, layering unreality upon unreality.

The unreality, however, has real meaning. Kavan is investigating the instinct for destruction—both self-destruction and the destruction of others—which is the only thing that can explain humanity’s potentially world-ending violence. Both nature and civilization are collapsing around our trio of narrator, woman, and warden: walls of ice are closing in on the world from north and south poles, cities are destroyed, refugees massacred, nuclear weapons deployed, and in the few temperate zones hysteria reigns. Their menage—and folieà trois is the microcosm of a more general catastrophe, one that could only have been written in the middle of the twentieth century, the world’s first epoch in which a secular and man-made apocalypse is possible. Hence the novel’s seeming villain, the warden, is presented as a charismatic and attractive figure with his piercing blue eyes (“his arrogant, ice-blue gaze,” clearly meant to evoke the ice), even as the young woman is doom-eager and submits to her degradation—

Something in her demanded victimization and terror, so she corrupted my dreams, led me into dark places I had no wish to explore. It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim. Perhaps we were victims of one another.

—and as the narrator remarks again and again on his kinship to or identity with the cruel warden—”we were like brothers, like identical twin brothers.” The point is not to “blame the victim” but to understand the capacities of the human psyche that make us all victims and victimizers, sometimes of ourselves. We are all entangled in the potential catastrophe, just as this book’s presiding consciousness is dispersed among the three characters who keep flowing into one another and losing their discrete identities—with all of them, perhaps, echoes of the “sadistic mother” named at the beginning of the story and of the author composing it.

As with even the most dreamy of dystopias, there is a moralistic streak in Ice. The narrator is some kind of naturalist who desultorily intends to research the Indris, a species of singing lemur who seem to figure as the opposite of the ice, nature as a redemptive or utopian force. When the narrator finds them in the equatorial jungle after attempting to put his obsession with the young woman behind him, he is given a vision of bliss and peace:

It seemed more as if I received a message of hope from another world; a world without violence or cruelty, in which despair was unknown. I had often dreamed of this place, where life was a thousand times more exciting and splendid than on earth.

He quickly decides that this is not for him, not for humanity at large in their present state: “But I knew that my place was here, in our world under sentence of death…I was committed to violence and must keep to my pattern.” Humanity seems to deserve its destruction at the hands of sadistic mother nature, in the narrator’s (and author’s?) opinion:

Instead of my world, there would soon be only ice, snow, stillness, death; no more violence, no war, no victims; nothing but frozen silence, absence of life. […] A frightful crime had been committed, against nature, against the universe, against life. By rejecting life, man had destroyed the immemorial order, destroyed the world; now everything was about to crash down in ruins.

Earlier, the narrator observes of the ice spreading over the world that “the sight…did not seem intended for human eyes,” suggesting with the modernist writer’s characteristic religious diffidence the vague potential of another, higher intelligence that can make sense of the mess we have made. In the meantime, we have the mysteries of fiction, our public dreaming, to ponder, and Kavan dreams them up brilliantly.

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Jack Kerouac, On the Road

On the RoadOn the Road by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You will say, “You should have read this book when you were sixteen!” Reader, I wouldn’t have liked it. My spell with the counterculture was tantalizing but brief, consisting mainly of Grant Morrison comics and a small short-lived occult shop on Pittsburgh’s South Side (the Eye of Horus!); by my priggish late teens, I was into Shakespeare and Joyce and would have found, or did find without even reading it, On the Road to be a spate of slovenly raving. Much better to read it now, nel mezzo del cammin, when I can hope to achieve artistic appreciation via historical awareness.

And I surprise myself by in fact appreciating, even liking, On the Road. The novel, a thinly fictionalized memoir, narrates about four years in the life of Sal Paradise, a young veteran, divorcee, and writer who takes to the eponymous road alongside “the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining.” While the educated Paradise is the novel’s narrator, its hero is Dean Moriarty, “a new kind of American saint,” a self-taught orphan from the west who spent much of his early life in prison and lives his adulthood as a blur of unfocused excitement and broken commitments. A kind of Beat Gatsby, Dean Moriarty is the tragic hero of an America that will not allow a man to bounce as high as he thinks he can.

On the Road is picaresque and episodic, structured around four separate road trips; in its loose organization and one-thing-after-another style, it reminds me of early novels like those of Defoe. Just as Defoe wrote of upstarts and adventurers—Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders—who inaugurate an age of the individual and of bourgeois civilization, Kerouac tells us what happens two centuries on, when that culture’s burnouts and dropouts take to the road again, this time not to rise in commercial society but to flee its trappings and confinements.

But Kerouac’s muse does not hail from the age of reason; our author calls instead on the Transcendentalist or (forgive me) Whitmaniacal tradition of American visionary writing, as well as modernist stream-of-consciousness. Instead of describing the world objectively—an aesthetic he mocks through a character besotted with the comparatively staid Hemingway, idol of a previous generation—he seeks to express tedium, fear, rapture, delirium, and ecstasy from the inside. Such conscious pursuit of unconsciousness, though, renders unpersuasive the old myth of On the Road as an infinite scroll typed in a trance in some back seat on a benny bender. I, or my priggish inner sixteen-year-old, am surprised and impressed by the control of Kerouac’s prose performance, from the perfectly sensible paragraph design to the complex layering of imagery and irony. I should have read it in my teens only to have my own arrogance punctured: On the Road is a work of commendable artistry.

Kerouac’s artistry is not merely technical but extends as well to thematic level. Aside from the scroll, the other bit of received wisdom everybody knows about On the Road is that its countercultural pretensions are spoiled by its character’s uninterrogated biases of race and gender. Such a critique is made in and by the novel itself, however. Even Sal Paradise, to say nothing of his author, is aware from the beginning of the book that his desire to be a “a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned” is both bathetic and untenable. Despite his and his cohort’s endless quest through the U.S. and Mexico for exotica that will redeem them from their drearily blank identities, Kerouac always carefully describes their irresponsibility as well as Sal’s growing consciousness that the object of his quest is, as his surname suggests, beyond any terrestrial society. At the end of the Mexican orgy that draws the novel to its climax (set in a brothel, thus linking On the Road to two icons of modernism, Ulysses and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), Sal, who had once boldly claimed of white Californians, “They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and in a way I am,” and who has compared Mexico to Africa and Arabia, is disburdened on the comedown of his exotifying illusions:

…somewhere I heard a baby wail in a sudden lull, remembering I was in Mexico after all and not in a pornographic hasheesh daydream in heaven.

Later, as he is devoured by insects, he “realize[s] the jungle takes you over and you become it,” which is to say that his desire is properly for a fusion with nature or the force behind it rather than for cultural consumption. This epiphany (Kerouac, like Joyce, was of Catholic background) harks back to an earlier episode in the novel when Sal attains a higher perspective on life:

I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water.

Thoreau could hardly have said it better. The novel’s metaphysics defeat its politics by ultimately raising its protagonist’s and readers’ perspectives above the cultures they may otherwise wish to consume instead of attaining a more universal enlightenment.

Kerouac is even more pointed in his portrayal of his wandering man-boys’ gender trouble. For reasons both persuasive and not, the American counterculture, even in some of its feminist variants, has since the nineteenth century opposed itself to what I once called “the cultural authority of middle-class domestic woman.” This authority is signified in On the Road—an almost entirely motherless novel—by its heroes’ comical profusion of aunts (“‘Yes! Yes!’ he yelled. ‘We’ve all got aunts'”), like Huckleberry Finn‘s Aunt Sally and her threat to “sivilize” the recalcitrant boy. But Kerouac is coming late enough in this tradition to be able to analyze it, even to psychoanalyze it.

Dean Moriarty, who “had never seen his mother’s face,” is plainly searching for a womb to return to, despite his more overt search for his lost father. His psychological and physical abuse of women—he almost loses a thumb as a result of his battery of his second wife—is a defense against the fear of castration: in a scene wherein several of the novel’s female characters sit in judgment on Dean, he cries out, “‘Gawd damn…we’re all losing our fingers—hawr-hawr-hawr,'” and even though it’s his thumb that is injured, and even though three other male characters suffer wounds or amputations to finger, toe, and arm, we can imagine that Kerouac, writing in the dead middle of the Freudian century, expects us to be thinking of another appendage entirely. When “the girls [look] at Dean the way a mother looks at the dearest and most errant child,” we are invited, I think, to read this against the grain, as serious satire on our wandering hero, now revealed as hopeless crybaby.

Here my praise runs short: Sal Paradise may be a lucid and intelligent narrator, but Dean Moriarty is not large enough or strong enough or complex enough to be the hero of a great novel. He is more a jumpy collection of cartoonish tics and exclamations (does any other canonical novel contain more shouts of whoopee, whooee, whoo, wow, and the like?) than a man, and he really does not bear comparison to the historical or fictional figures he might seem to evoke, such as Thoreau or Ahab. Early on, Paradise muses:

I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was “Wow!”

Even allowing for self-satire, “Wow” does seem to sum up most of the novel’s wisdom. Passages like the one I quoted above on reincarnation are disappointingly few; mostly, the narrative is concerned with drug-fueled antics. Despite Kerouac’s aforementioned artistry, there is a steep decline here in intellectual acuity or complexity from the heights of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries’ adversary cultures. I am tempted, were I not afraid of sounding like Jeff Sessions, to blame Kerouac’s and his characters’ over-reliance on the pharmacopeia as a shortcut to wisdom. But forget Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and listen instead to Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “The Poet”:

But never can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body. That is not an inspiration which we owe to narcotics, but some counterfeit excitement and fury. Milton says, that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods, and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl.

Anyway, while more intricately mapped than I had imagined, On the Road, like all picaresques, is a book of local pleasures. My favorite is probably the little sketch of William S. Burroughs, “a Kansas minister with exotic, phenomenal fires and mysteries,” here disguised as Old Bull Lee, experimenting with various drugs alongside his doomed (but we don’t know it) wife Jane down in Louisiana.

Bull had a sentimental streak about the old days in America, especially 1910, when you could get morphine in a drugstore without prescription and Chinese smoked opium in their evening windows and the country was wild and brawling and free, with abundance and any kind of freedom for everyone. His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals; then cops.

Burroughs was, by moral standards both traditional and contemporary, an elaborately bad person, but freedom by its nature makes no promises. His, and this novel’s, wild libertarianism has an appeal, even to literary prigs, that it would be unwise to dismiss. Moral standards are indispensable, but the trouble begins when they have to be enforced, at which time morality may tumble clear into its opposite and justice becomes the same as injustice:

The American police are involved in psychological warfare against those Americans who don’t frighten them with imposing papers and threats. It’s a Victorian police force; it peers out of musty windows and wants to inquire about everything, and can make crimes if the crimes don’t exist to its satisfaction.

The novel ends elegiacally, at what one of Moriarty’s wives self-consciously calls “‘the end of the first half of the century.'” You might as well write an elegy, for these morality/immoralty and justice/injustice problems are harder to solve than they appear, even if this novel is too philosophically indolent to make as much of an effort as did those greater writers (Dostoevsky, Kafka) it alludes to. Its propulsive final sentence, with its lovely concluding diminuendo, gives us the emotion if not the idea at least:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

“God is Pooh Bear”: an odd, discordant note to strike at the end, but also perfectly right. We have been reading not about Ishmael or Raskolnikov or Dedalus or even Huckleberry Finn; we have not been reading about Robinson Crusoe but about Christopher Robin and his adventures in a bestiary made cuddly rather than menacing, and soon to be commodified for distribution among all the children of the civilization to which it is falsely advertised to be the antidote or escape. Even so, a much better book than I expected it to be.

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Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

The Annotated LolitaThe Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lolita, if you don’t know, is a novel cast in the form of a murderer’s confession. The self-named Humbert Humbert, a European scion of a wealthy Riviera hotel owner, tells of his erotic obsession with certain young girls who seem to him daemonic in their attractions; these he calls, with classical erudition, “nymphets.” After recounting incidents in his early erotic history, Humbert narrates his arrival in America in 1947, when he was 38, and of his targeting, grooming, and rape of a twelve-year-old girl named Dolores Haze, daughter of a woman he married for the sole purpose of molesting her daughter. His predation on Dolores, or Lolita, is accelerated by her mother’s accidental death, after which Humbert takes to the road with the girl. They travel all around America, and it eventually transpires that Humbert must confront a rival and double, the playwright Clare Quilty, who is also fixated on Lolita. All of this is conveyed in high-spirited, scornful, lyrical, and punningly multilingual prose, prose so dense, lush, or simply distracting that you almost do not notice the narrator’s evasions, at least until the novel’s conclusion when the enormity of his crime becomes too weighty for even him, let alone the reader, to ignore. Humbert’s narrative is framed by a sanctimonious psychiatrist’s preface—his name, a first taste of the novel’s commitment to mirroring, doubling, and general textual sportiveness, is John Ray, Jr., or JRJR. The preface, a second reading reveals, tells us the end of the novel’s story on its second page, an emotionally devastating and aesthetically breathtaking discovery when you first make it.

It has taken me three readings conducted over the second half of my life to figure out the problem with Lolita. I have never quite liked it as much as everyone else seems to—I don’t think it’s the fourth best English-language novel of the twentieth century, for instance—and have never been satisfied by the essentially liberal ethical and political terms in which it has been defended (for instance, by Richard Rorty, D. G. Myers, or Azar Nafisi), which seem to neglect too much poetry and perversity in the text; but the deadening and ultimately puerile terms in which Lolita has been attacked—whether by moralists from the political right (e.g., Norman Podhoretz) or the political left (e.g., Roxana Robinson)—have been sufficiently hostile to the autonomy of art, a bedrock value I share with Nabokov, that I have not wanted to support them either. Now, having taken the perhaps ill-advised step of actually teaching that novel in this political climate, I think I understand what Nabokov was trying to do and why he does not finally succeed.

The first time I read Lolita, I was eighteen years old (also, and somewhat mortifyingly, I was sitting next to my mother on a long plane ride!). At first I read it simply as a bitter satire on America, as its first readers seemed to do—see, for instance, the interviewer’s apparent stance in this vintage clip. For context, my first reading took place in the year 2000. As we are now ruefully reminding ourselves, the Clinton affair and its aftermath had apparently demonstrated to all broad-minded liberal individuals the fallacy of too closely scrutinizing sexual conduct in private life. (For a torrid literary statement of this political thesis, see the opening pages of The Human Stain by Philip Roth, wherein Nathan Zuckerman, citing Rushdie and quoting Hawthorne, delivers a memorable tirade against “the ecstasy of sanctimony.”) Missing from today’s chastened recollections and mea culpas, it should be said, is any memory of the power wielded at the time by the religious right; circa 1999, sexual transgression, for better and worse, seemed less like an adjunct to patriarchy than like a blow, so to speak, against incipient theocracy. On the more radical fringes of culture, third-wave feminism and its echo in the libertarianism of Camille Paglia and kin had seemed to sweep away second-wave sex negativism, itself associated by the late ’90s with the aforementioned Christian right. Sex-positive or at least sexually amoral ideas had penetrated popular culture and private behavior, moreover, which meant that the young people I went to school with, not at all excluding the young women, talked tough and talked a big game about matters sexual, just as young Dolores does. Under these influences, I believe, I took Lolita to be not a serious portrayal of abuse and exploitation but an extended satire on the John Ray, Jr.s (or Kenneth Starrs and Bill Bennetts) of America, with their ambition to “[bring] up a better generation in a safer world.” The worldly and erudite pervert Nabokov seemed to grow afraid of his own subject though—lost his nerve, I think I thought at the time—and so struck the sentimental notes of penitence at the conclusion. Mostly I just loved the prose, which is as “Argus-eyed,” as Humbert describes the eastern sky of New England:

Had I been a painter, had the management of The Enchanted Hunters lost its mind one summer day and commissioned me to redecorate their dining room with murals of my own making, this is what I might have thought up, let me list some fragments: There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been nature studies—a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat. There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been all kinds of camp activities on the part of the intermediate group. Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.

The second time I read Lolita was five years ago, with a former student who wanted to do a kind of informal independent study on modern fiction with me. By then, I had fully absorbed the Rorty/Nafisi/Myers ethical interpretation of the novel as well as having been exposed to more sophisticated feminist counters to libertinage, all of which I dutifully relayed to the student. She proceeded, however, to criticize this interpretation by pointing to elements of the novel that it could not quite assimilate—its air of fantasy, for instance, which would be dull if merely a madman’s delusion to be bypassed by the reader; or its earnest eroticism in description, which seems to run against the moralizing current, since it takes Rorty’s reading of the novel as a warning to “pay attention to what we are doing” as advice for the pornographic imagination:

What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet—of every nymphet, perhaps; this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and sweat); and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels; and then again, all this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God.

My student’s cogent objections led me to formulate my more recent understanding of Lolita as a neo-Platonic text, whose beauty and sexuality need not be objected to since it is so clearly distinct from anything that happens in the sublunary sphere.

Now my third reading has clarified things still further. The satire I had noticed the first time and the ethical reading I had tried to promote the second time are in fact perfectly conjoined whenever Nabokov writes about his heroine and her world: Lolita is a catalogue of every discourse and institution that allow a twelve-year-old girl in 1947 to be thought of as disposable: elite and popular psychoanalytic theory, which together license adult sexual intrusion into adolescence—

I knew, of course, it was but an innocent game on her part, a bit of backfisch foolery in imitation of some simulacrum of some fake romance and since (as the psychotherapist, as well as the rapist, will tell you) the limits and rules of such girlish games are fluid, or at least too childishly subtle for the senior partner to grasp—I was dreadfully afraid I might go too far and cause her to start back in revision and terror.

—and reductively label the child (Charlotte plucks only imputations and imprecations from “a fool’s book she had (A Guide to Your Child’s Development),” just as Humbert later consults the punningly-titled Know Your Child); girls’ domestic ill-education at midcentury (“the position of a star is important, but the most practical spot for an icebox in the kitchen may be even more important to the budding housewife,” explains the headmistress of Lolita’s school of her pedagogical theory); European high culture, with its folkloric “enchanted hunters” and endemic romance with adolescence; American pop culture, with its hyper-sexualized shallowness that encourages erotic performance in the young: “‘Bad, bad girl,’ said Lo comfortably. ‘Juvenile delickwent, but frank and fetching.'”

When Nabokov claims in his famous afterword, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” that his novel “has no moral in tow,” we should not confuse this with an inability of novels to conduct social and political thought. In fact, simple moralizing probably interferes with the kind of systemic analysis Nabokov’s novel undertakes and enables. That Nabokov excessively protested against the very idea of ethics and politics in fiction—to the extent of ludicrously dismissing, in his very often wrong “strong opinions,” such writers as Dostoevsky and Mann—is probably due to an understandable overreaction to the fascist and communist instrumentalization and censorship of the arts, but it can also help us to read the political much more subtly into his fiction. Lolita‘s politics are on the side of those traduced, reduced, and excluded by rationalizing systems or profitable industries hostile to the young and/or the female. To read through the screen of her predator’s misprisions and her culture’s self-interest Dolores’s clever and resourceful resistance to a world arranged against her is to be reminded that Nabokov defended Dickens’s sentimentality in his Lectures on Literature. Likewise, Nabokov’s ultimately angry rebuke to modern dehumanization not only recalls Dickens’s but also anticipates that of his student, Thomas Pynchon.

Despite all of the above, despite the beautiful prose and the trenchant insight and the subtle compassion, Lolita has a flaw: its narrator. Nabokov famously mocked E. M. Forster for claiming that his characters sometimes got away from him, but the fact is that Dolores Haze gloriously gets away from Nabokov while Humbert disastrously never does. Supposed by his creator to be a baboon or ape, Humbert is more like a mannequin, compelled to strike whatever pose will make any given scene comical or moving. Because Nabokov needs the prose to be beautiful and insightful, he makes Humbert wise and hyper-observant; but because he also needs Humbert to be morally obtuse, he somehow expects us to believe that Humbert is not registering his own impressions even as he recalls and records them. The “barber of Kasbeam” celebrated by Rorty in his reading of the novel strikes me as a phony effect, though Nabokov deploys it throughout the book:

In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce new paper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient gray lotions, that the mustached young ball player had been dead the last thirty years.

The act of noticing the barber’s loss and pain would obviate the ignorance of it, by definition. And if obviating the ignorance of suffering does not remedy the indifference to suffering, then there is no moral point to the aesthetic maneuver of calling attention to others’ sorrows while seeming to disavow this same attention.

Similarly, Nabokov gives Humbert wrong or distasteful opinions seemingly willy-nilly (“I was always a good little follower of the Viennese medicine man [i.e., Freud]”—would a true follower put it that way? who is really talking here?), all the while expecting us to accept Humbert as a genius-level observer capable, as he himself claims at the conclusion, of immortalizing Lolita in art though he abused her in life. This is a poor, even illogical mixture of cynicism and sincerity. If Nabokov sincerely thinks art can save us from a murderous inattention to others’ suffering, then Humbert’s artistic capacity should have prevented his inattention and therefore crimes in the first place; if Nabokov cynically thinks that supreme artistry belongs even to the pedophiliac rapist, then whence the argument for the morality of art at all? Trying to have it both ways, to be moralist and aesthete at once, leads Nabokov to his own lapses in taste, such as the tiresomely cartoonish killing of Quilty, which follows the novel’s most moving scene (the reunion of Humbert and a married, pregnant Dolores), and which also includes a parody of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” (I suppose Humbert must be a follower of Eliot, just as he is of Freud, though we know Nabokov despised both men). It is far too late in the novel, I think, for that kind of silliness. Aren’t we supposed to be construing Humbert as a penitent by then? If so, why mock the very idea of penitence by aiming such a cheap shot at Eliot’s conversion poem?

The critical answer to my objection is, no doubt, that Nabokov is reminding us of the artificiality of his own discourse, which is in line with his critique of the discourses that have allowed for the brutalization of Dolores. In other words, Nabokov is metafictionally saying, don’t accept anyone’s narrative on trust, not America’s or Europe’s or Humbert’s or even Nabokov’s. I respond by objecting that if the critique was ever to be understood seriously, then the fiction manifesting the critique must take itself more seriously. Nabokov is trying to serve two masters, with the usual results. Humbert’s zany irrealism makes the novel unsatisfying as work of ethical realism, while Dolores’s suffering and resistance makes it impossible to appreciate as an aesthete’s airy game or a nihilist’s exhilarating play with language and consciousness.

I suspect Nabokov paid too high a price for his extreme subject matter. Woolf dares to allow Clarissa Dalloway to approve of Septimus’s suicide because it “made her feel the fun”; the Nabokovian equivalent would be to have Humbert declare himself glad he had raped the girl for the same reason—a much more appalling position, one that almost every reader would find intolerable (it is not as if Clarissa personally murdered Septimus for her own pleasure). Perhaps Nabokov should have found Toni Morrison’s courage: her heroine, Sula, actually kills a child, which act the author defends outright as part of life’s design. On the other hand, had Nabokov portrayed Humbert’s predation as the logical act of a coherently conceived character who functions as a vivid exemplar in a logical (if fictional) argument against nihilism, then he would only be following in the footsteps of his hated Dostoevsky, in effect writing a book that had already been written (I mean Demons). Lolita is, in this sense, a failure, even if the most brilliant of failures.

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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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Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Few novels have been as ill-served by their canonization as Mrs. Dalloway has. Assimilated to the classic tradition of the English novel, read alongside Austen by moodboard autumn rainlight with tea and crumpets, this slim modernist anti-novel was in fact a small-press (effectively self-published) attempt to make good on a set of brash manifestos rejecting realism, sentimentalism, and didacticism in fiction. Mrs. Dalloway is a remarkable spate of almost Futurist prose; set firmly in the present, a post-Ulysses day-in-the life novel, it rejoices at the passing of all senescent social orders.

In the opening section, which narrates a busy June morning in London in 1923, a VIP—probably a royal—in a motor car passes down Bond St., near where Clarissa Dalloway is buying flowers for the party she plans to throw that night. While the car is delayed in traffic, the public is suitably impressed by the presence of England’s traditional authority, and the people’s postwar thoughts turn to patriotism. Even the narrative voice, ever in motion as it flows from mind to mind, is moved to the famous digression that was to inspire the vertiginous magical-realist temporalities of One Hundred Years of Solitude:

But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand’s-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth. The face in the motor car will then be known.

Yet the monarch in the motorcar is upstaged in short order by a skywriting airplane zipping through the sky and bearing an inscrutable message (its words are never clarified for the reader, but we are given to understand it is a candy ad):

Dropping dead down the aeroplane soared straight up, curved in a loop, raced, sank, rose, and whatever it did, wherever it went, out fluttered behind it a thick ruffled bar of white smoke which curled and wreathed upon the sky in letters. But what letters? A C was it? an E, then an L? Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?

The plane is an image of the narrative itself, flying all around modern London, a technology that barely pre-existed the twentieth century at all, inscribing an ambiguous message (one with no single K-E-Y) across our eyes.

Another modern experience Woolf insists upon in her novel is that of the Great War: the novel is an ensemble piece, but its co-protagonist, alongside the titular heroine, is the shell-shocked veteran Septimus Warren Smith. A member of the lower middle class who went to London for a clerkship and culture, his love of literature and his literature lecturer, Miss Isabel Pole, lures him to a war he had supposed would be romantic but proved apocalyptic:

Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.

When Septimus’s beloved officer and friend (“It was a case of two dogs playing on a hearth-rug”) is killed, Septimus—who is essentially bisexual, like most of this novel’s characters—”congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably,” and even marries an Italian woman on his way back to England. This code of English masculinity, however, cannot repress his trauma forever: the day upon which Mrs. Dalloway is set proves to be the day of his terminal breakdown—a destructive instance of the novel’s concern with everything that flows, passes, and vanishes.

But Mrs. Dalloway narrates this break-up of order from within the consciousness of a very unlikely heroine. Clarissa Dalloway is a wealthy middle-aged hostess, wife to a conservative politician, bred to Victorian standards and to that extent (from Woolf’s modernist feminist viewpoint) ill-educated. In other words, she has nothing in common with her author, and in fact appeared in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, as a minor comic character, a satirical sketch of a self-admiring bigot. But in her own eponymous novel, Clarissa, though occasionally gently mocked by the narrative, absorbs much of Woolf’s own aesthetic energy. Her desire to bring people together through the parties she throws echoes this novel’s own universalism of consciousness and the city, what critic Robert Alter has called its “urban pastoral.” And when Clarissa, in one of the novel’s central passages, questions the ethical status of her existence as she juxtaposes her love of roses and parties with the Armenian genocide, I imagine we are also to hear Woolf’s dismay at the human relevance of her own artistry:

And people would say, “Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.” She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again)—no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)—the only flowers she could bear to see cut.

A critic I once knew commented years ago that in this moment the English novel attains self-awareness and raises in the body of its text all those questions about itself that Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak taught us to ask of Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre. Even so, Woolf was not a postcolonial theorist but an aesthete, tutored by Clara Pater, sister of the writer who introduced art-for-art’s-sake into English literature. Clarissa, looking into the next house and seeing her elderly neighbor, muses on the mystery of human connection:

…that’s the miracle, that’s the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing-table. She could still see her. And the supreme mystery…was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?

Well, no: what solves it is the text we’re reading: art, literature. And the solution goes little further than the mere act of juxtaposition as stimulant to thought and feeling. On the other hand, Mrs. Dalloway in certain of its passages discloses a frank supernaturalism. When I visualize the novel, I see flows of shimmering CGI soul linking character to character across the space of London they traverse and the lifetimes they recall. Clarissa agrees, almost:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

In another of the text’s self-images, a mysterious beggar sings on the street a song of love without beginning or end or even clear meaning, like this very in medias res and stream-of-consciousness novel:

…a frail quivering sound, a voice bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning…the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth; which issued, just opposite Regent’s Park Tube station from a tall quivering shape, like a funnel, like a rusty pump, like a wind-beaten tree for ever barren of leaves which lets the wind run up and down its branches singing… Through all ages—when the pavement was grass, when it was swamp, through the age of tusk and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise, the battered woman—for she wore a skirt—with her right hand exposed, her left clutching at her side, stood singing of love…

Again the narrator sees centuries or millennia beyond the narrative, this time in the direction of the past; Mrs. Dalloway takes place in one day, and also in eternity, and eternity is traditionally perceived by the artist and visionary.

There are real stakes to aesthetics, then, even if aesthetics leads us to see everything as sufficiently transient within the endless flow of time to inspire a cosmic quietism. Woolf’s narrator only surfaces once from immersion in narrative to deliver a Dickensian address to the reader. This is when Septimus visits the psychologist Bradshaw, a smug, self-made, self-satisfied rapist of the psyche (“Sir William Bradshaw, a great doctor yet to her obscurely evil, without sex or lust, extremely polite to women, but capable of some indescribable outrage—forcing your soul, that was it,” Clarissa later observes). In an extraordinary tirade, the narrator links Bradshaw’s moralizing counsel of “Proportion” to imperialism:

But Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged—in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus of London, wherever in short the climate or the devil tempts men to fall from the true belief which is her own—is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance. Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace. […] But conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will.

Psychology, like sociology and other emerging disciplines that address themselves as sciences to the human condition, were taken by a number of twentieth-century writers (Woolf, Lawrence, Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon) as deadly and dangerous rivals who would schematize the soul and perfect forms of social control of which church and state could previously only dream. We like to think we know better; but I wonder if I do know better than Virginia Woolf.

The turn toward the human sciences, then, is a change the novel does not celebrate, precisely because Woolf seems to suspect those very human sciences of serving as a conservative force. Elsewhere, the novel imagines Clarissa’s ambitious, curious daughter riding an omnibus, portending a very different future for women than women’s present as exhibited in the life of Mrs. Dalloway:

…and to each movement of the omnibus the beautiful body in the fawn-coloured coat responded freely like a rider, like the figure-head of a ship, for the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture.

And the novel gently mocks its men: the kind, solicitous, faintly ridiculous Mr. Dalloway, “[b]earing his flowers like a weapon”; the definitely ridiculous Hugh Whitbread, brandishing his prize fountain pen; and the disappointed radical, colonial administrator, and would-be lover of Clarissa, Peter Walsh, always fiddling with his knife—all trying to stave off the passing of their reign with the prosthetic phalluses they wield. Peter alone understands; walking to Clarissa’s part at the novel’s conclusion, he thinks:

…envying young people their summer time and the rest of it, and more than suspecting from the words of a girl, from a housemaid’s laughter—intangible things you couldn’t lay your hands on—that shift in the whole pyramidal accumulation which in his youth had seemed immovable. On top of them it had pressed; weighed them down, the women especially…

Cultural revolution, however, has no internal brake. How aware of this fact was Woolf? As she denounced men’s illegitimate dominance over literature, did she quite foresee the time when students would dismiss her own work as elitist mystification, a poor substitute for a novel by a worker or woman of color? I suspect her amoralism registers her awareness of this possibility that history would devour her own work just as it devours the works and rules of men. If Woolf’s amoralism makes available and at least partially articulate suppressed energies of interest to the progressive, as in this remarkable passage on Clarissa’s queer excitation—

…yet she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older, or some accident—like a faint scent, or a violin next door (so strange is the power of sounds at certain moments), she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.

—it also discloses a nihilistic individualism that may disturb the public-spirited reader even as it touches indelibly the private spirit. Yet the “common reader” Woolf championed, who is not retained by the state to instruct the young or by vast corporations to provide “cultural” alibis for monopolistic predation, often loves literature precisely because it offers an escape from morality, a vicarious experience of what life could be if it were lived elsewise and more intensely, or at least more alertly, not so much without regard for others (one is always regarding others) but without regard for the socially-sanctioned image of “the other” (think of the children, etc.), for whose often purely notional sake we are to behave well.

Mrs. Dalloway is a scandalously amoral novel; Woolf might have said with Melville, “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.” Recall what Septimus discovers in the pages of his beloved books when he returns from the war:

Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language—Antony and Cleopatra—had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity—the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.

Is this canonical nihilism so bad, really? If he, if his generation, if England had perceived this literary nihilism beforehand, if it had been allowed to be voiced in their educations, they might have been spared material devastation by an acknowledgement of the spiritual devastation that we are all heir to. (But Woolf is not all spirit: note the fierce but sympathetic social observation compressed into that one parenthetical word, “translated.”)

When Clarissa learns of the death of Septimus, a man she has never met and was not, given the disparities in their social standings, likely to meet, she is as empathetic as anyone could wish, literally enduring his death in her flesh, though she has not even been told how he died (and in fact, Clarissa exhibits psychic powers throughout the novel, reading Peter Walsh’s mind and unwittingly sharing Septimus’s visions):

He had killed himself—but how? Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness.

This allows her to see—but don’t tell Bradshaw this, or you will be locked away by protocol, now as then—that there are fates worse than death:

A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

And finally, his death recalls her to her life in a passage that would probably annoy and offend if it were ventured by a contemporary writer:

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.

This passage never goes well in the classroom—in a social setting, neither I nor the students can get past condemning Clarissa here, though every honest person knows just how she feels. I had a good moment with it the other day, though. I said to the class, “Who approves of Clarissa’s reaction?” They looked at me blankly; no one raised a hand. “Who disapproves of it?” I asked, imagining I would get a livelier response. But they still looked at me blankly, and only one or two hands straggled up. Finally, I said, “Who knows you’re supposed to disapprove of this, but the complexities of human emotion being what they are, you see where Clarissa is coming from?” Most hands shot into the air, and one student even exclaimed, “Oh yeah, definitely!” I call that a victory for aesthetics, and I imagine the pupil of Clara Pater and the self-elected sister of Shakespeare smiling slyly somewhere further back or further on in the stream of time.

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