Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Pynchon’s freewheeling narrator of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) tells us, “Well, and keep in mind where those Masonic Mysteries came from in the first place. (Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you will ever find here.)” Similarly, the underground cult classic compendium of conspiracy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy (an important influence on both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) opens with this epigraph from Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo: “Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.” Anyone seeking the crossroads where modern or postmodern literature, the occult, and fringe politics converge should acquaint themselves with Reed’s strange and brilliant book.

Mumbo Jumbo is set during the 1920s, “[t]hat 1 decade which doesn’t seem so much a part of American history as the hidden After-Hours of America struggling to jam. To get through.” America is experiencing an outbreak of the phenomenon (“an anti-plague“) called Jes Grew, essentially Reed’s name for the culture of the black diaspora, especially as expressed through music, whether ragtime, jazz, or blues (the name derives from an epigraph attributed to James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry: “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew,'” both an ironic appropriation of a racist artifact [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] and a refusal of individualist proprietary attitudes toward culture). As in the 1890s with its ragtime vogue, the Jazz Age threatens to overwhelm “Western Civilization” with a pleasure-loving and peaceable way of life opposed to the sterile and exploitative lifeworld of, locally, “neuter-living Protestants,” or those whom Reed more broadly calls Atonists, or monotheists (worshippers of the sun):

The Atonists got rid of their spirit 1000s of years ago with Him. The flesh is next. Plastic will soon prevail over flesh and bones. Death will have taken over. Why is it Death you like? Because then no 1 will keep you up all night with that racket dancing and singing. The next morning you can get up and build, drill, progress putting up skyscrapers and…and….and…working and stuff. You know? Keeping busy. [Reed’s ellipses.]

The novel, though relatively short, tells the labyrinthine story of the agencies trying to advance or stop the spread of Jes Grew.

On the pro side, there is the novel’s hero, the Harlem houngan PaPa LaBas, proprietor of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral. He teams with a cadre of magicians from Haiti—itself under U.S. occupation—stationed on a Marcus Garvey ship in New York harbor as they strive to recover the fragmentary text or scripture of Africa’s diaspora magic, dance-dictated in the night of time by Osiris to Thoth. In the absence of this book, Jes Grew is only an aural, oral, and bodily tradition and is therefore at a disadvantage under monotheism’s textual onslaught, its Bibles, Korans, Constitutions, Interpretations of Dreams, Communist Manifestoes, academic treatises, high literary traditions, and yellow journalism. Similarly, the novel also bears a significant subplot about a group of art “thieves” who strive to liberate the works of the global East and South from Europe’s and America’s museums; in his portrait of this multicultural group, Reed charts some of the fissures and fractures among people of color, noting that, for instance, a common enemy in European empire does not necessarily make for frictionless comity between black and Asian peoples.

Against Jes Grew’s supporters is the Wallflower Order, who are in their time of Jazz Age extremity forced to call in white intellectual and ageless Knight Templar Hinckle von Hampton (Reed’s satire on white Harlem Renaissance impresario Carl Van Vechten), who plans to defeat black insurgency by coopting it. He starts a little magazine called The Benign Monster, the title itself suggesting the intelligentsia’s gentrification of radical energies, and seeks a “Talking Robot”—i.e., a black intellectual who will mislead black audiences back to the monotheistic path of Atonism. Hinckle’s pathetic struggle is actually portrayed with some sympathy amid the satire—I got the sense that, racial polemics aside, Reed knows he has more in common with a modernist literary intellectual than with a Voodoo magician. Nevertheless, Reed unsparingly excoriates European literature from Milton to Freud to Styron:

John Milton, Atonist apologist extraordinary himself, saw the coming of the minor geek and sorcerer Jesus Christ as a way of ending the cult of Osiris and Isis forever. […] It is interesting that he worked for Cromwell, a man who banned theater from England and was also a hero of Sigmund Freud. Well the mud-slingers kept up the attack on Osiris, a writer Bilious Styronicus even rewriting Osirian history in a book called the Confessions of the Black Bull God Osiris in which he justified Set’s murder of Osiris on the grounds that Osiris made “illicit” love to Isis who, he wrote, was Set’s wife. He was awarded the Atonists’ contemporary equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for this whopper.

In fact, an overhasty reading of Mumbo Jumbo might lead one to expect that its ideological conflict is a matter of black vs. white—because in modern Europe and America, it is. But Reed’s most ambitious joke is delivered in a climactic thirty-page summing-up that parodies detective-novel exposition resolutions, conspiracy theories, and religious revelations all at once. PaPa LaBas, attempting to arrest Hinckle von Hampton, explains to a Harlem society gathering that, “if you must know, it all began 1000s of years ago in Egypt.”

The conflict between Jes Grew and the Atonists dates back to the fraternal quarrel between Set and Osiris in the Egyptian pantheon: Osiris learns the arts of peace and plenty at college from Ethiopian and Nubian students, and he disseminates this gnosis throughout the world, particularly to Native Americans. Set, by contrast, is “the stick crook and flail man,” advocates for discipline and thus eventually ends up worshipping Aton, the transcendent sun god, and beginning the monotheist cult that in various iterations—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and capitalist—would war throughout history on Jes Grew and the liberation it stands, or dances, for. Moses himself is revealed to have effectively swindled the secrets of Osiris for himself, which resulted in his getting only the negative side of the magic; this negative side became monotheism as we know it, everything that “the people of the book” have wrought.

In other words, all human culture, like the human race itself, comes out of Africa: European cultures are without autochthony or autonomy and are only offshoots, even where they are most racist or conservative, of one or another side in an intra-African quarrel, the latest round of which is presumably Kanye West vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.[1]

Which brings us around to the perhaps less salubrious politics of the novel. Mumbo Jumbo is not really “woke” or “PC” or whatever we’re calling it now. For one thing, it expresses sufficient quantities of anti-Islam sentiment to get Reed brought up on hate speech charges in Europe, as he seems to think that Islam is, no less than any other form of religious or secular monotheism, an attempt to repress the authentic black mysteries. It is the black Muslim intellectual Abdul who comes into possession of the scripture that is the novel’s quest object, and he burns it: “Censorship until the very last.” And despite the attractions of Reed’s emancipatory occultism, what does his displacement of Hebrew religion with Egyptian magic, his execration of Moses, Marx, and Freud imply? A reader can surely be forgiven for detecting a classically anti-Semitic subtext here. And, as befitting the work of a male author who has been known to worry that feminism is a tool of the white power structure used to disarticulate black and brown traditions and scapegoat men of color, the novel’s female characters tend to be either helpmeets or harridans (or both), even the goddesses Isis and Erzulie.

On the other hand, the lessons of Mumbo Jumbo might well be applied to today’s cultural appropriation debate. Reed’s position is quite subtle: he mocks and derides cultural exploitation and co-optation at the level of production, which is the point of his satire on modernist literary culture’s attempts to capture and neutralize the energies of black rebellion; on the consumption side, however, Reed seems to see the diffusion of Jes Grew as humanity’s only salvation—to see black culture as a force that, at the level of the dancing body, takes over whites rather than being taken over by them. The novel, I therefore take it, counsels against castigating every white person who takes a selfie while wearing an item of non-western origin, even as it also takes aim at corporations, universities, and other institutions profiting from the creativity of populaces they exclude and exploit.[2]

Finally, I have not yet mentioned the novel’s form. I have made it sound too linear, too much like a thriller with philosophical weight. But it is rather a collage and a montage, written in telegraphic prose, splicing in quotations and images, doing without quotation marks, transitions, or the pretense of God-like objectivity. One of its dedicatees is “George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat,” and the novel’s style of radical juxtaposition and teasing polyglot wordplay is a fitting homage to Herriman’s brilliant Jazz Age achievement in comics. Reed’s ludic style protects his conspiracy theory from seeming like the work of a mere crank, though I’m sure he believes the spirit, if not the letter, of it. The novel promotes play and humor as against the droning solemn seriousness of monotheistic religion and literary culture:

LaBas could understand the certain North American Indian tribe reputed to have punished a man for lacking a sense of humor. For LaBas, anyone who couldn’t titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian connoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation. Nowhere is there an account or portrait of Christ laughing. Like the Marxists who secularized his doctrine, he is always stern, serious and as gloomy as a prison guard. Never does 1 see him laughing until tears appear in his eyes like the roly-poly squint-eyed Buddha guffawing with arms upraised, or certain African loas, Orishas.

So, if you are looking for a serious laugh, I highly recommend Mumbo Jumbo.
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[1] Note that, by the terms laid out in Mumbo Jumbo, Coates, despite a superficially Reedian invocation after Zora Neale Hurston of “the bone and drum,” is arguably the authoritarian Atonist, promoting the traditional cypto-monotheist political left as the black man’s salvation in a white man’s magazine, while West disseminates magickal-musical thinking far and wide in a popular idiom on a populist platform, even quoting Carl Jung’s contemporary avatar Jordan Peterson just as Reed approvingly quotes Jung. My point is not to side with West over Coates or Reed over the western world, but to get the tally correct; I will say that “left” and “right” are becoming ever less reliable guides to cultural politics, though the comrades tell me that that is itself a right-wing position. “[A]s gloomy as a prison guard” indeed.

[2] Speaking of appropriation, Ted Gioia notes all the elements E. L. Doctorow seems to have lifted from Mumbo Jumbo for his own Ragtime, published just three years later. It’s not for me to judge who has the right to what; I will only suggest that Reed’s novel is about a hundred times more interesting than Doctorow’s.

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William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Hamlet (Norton Critical Edition)Hamlet by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why is this bizarre, disorderly, long, and poorly transmitted tragedy from the turn of the seventeenth century the central work of the western literary tradition, its hero the keystone in the arch of modern literature? Because the distance he created between himself and the world is the chasm across which the serious artist has ever after beheld society—not as celebrant bard (Homer) or religious preceptor (Dante), but rather as jeering fool or insurgent radical.

Hamlet, the son who cannot fill his father’s armor, the poet and playwright who would rather compose a play than plot revenge, the inward emigrant who sniffs something rotten in the state, the maddened misogynist whose abuse compels his spurned lover to become a mad artist in her turn—it is Hamlet that and who taught the Romantics and the modernists, the Marxists and the feminists, everything they know. Unless we are satisfied that the social, political, and metaphysical world in which we find ourselves makes sense and can appease our desires, we are all the children of this prince who died before he could reproduce anything but his skepticism, disgust, and spoiled faith, which are his bequest to us.

But let’s not look directly at this black sun (“Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun”), lest we be blinded. To approach obliquely, consider the tragedy’s comic-relief villains, or rather henchmen to the main villain, the sycophantic and hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are the perfect pair, nearly twins; who can tell them apart?

Claudius. Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.
Gertrude. Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz…

They are the play’s only perfectly symmetrical pair; they stand for difference in perfect accord, a world that can successfully make unity out of disparity, and yet they are wholly contemptible. All the other doublings in the play are distorted reflections: the two Danish kings, the warrior who smote the sledded Polacks on the ice and the smooth-talking Machiavel who favors diplomacy to war, are as “Hyperion to a satyr”; the two Hamlets, father and son, are as different as demigod and man (“no more like my father / Than I to Hercules”); the two vengeful sons, Hamlet and Laertes, dither manically and speed to vengeance, respectively; the two princes, Hamlet and Fortinbras, are polished intellectual and warlike general, respectively; the play’s two women, Gertrude and Ophelia, are passionate sensualist and pious nymph, respectively; the play’s two mad artists, Hamlet and Ophelia, differ in being man and woman, respectively, which means they have access to drastically different resources and levels of freedom in elaborating their dissent from the sane world.

We are invited endlessly to compare by the play’s seeming symmetries, but find in comparison only failed alliances and missed connections. Perfect understanding is mocked in the image of the bumbling duo, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are easily dispatched in the prince’s only planned act of violence. Before he hoists them on their own petard, the prince even reproves them for imagining that they can understand him—reproves them, that is, for thinking even that a man may be identical to himself, let alone to another:

You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?

He upbraids his mother in similar terms earlier in the drama, when she encourages him to “cast [his] nighted color off” and asks why “seems it so particular” to him that his father should have died, since the death of fathers is both natural and common:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Those trappings and suits of woe, which would become the uniform of European and American bohemia, did in fact come to denote Hamlet’s followers truly, just as they do denote Hamlet truly. Consider the genuine strangeness of what he is actually telling Gertrude: don’t let my sad clothes fool you, he says, I really am sad. Even in identity, there is no union but always some surplus or deficit. That is a paradox this play, so much concerned with the difference between appearance and essence, would appreciate. “The apparel oft proclaims the man,” the superservicable and prying courtier Polonius informs his son in the course of a long speech advising the young man to cunningly manage his social role—a speech that concludes, in hilarious contradiction, with “To thine own self be true.”

Anyway, when Hamlet appears in excessive mourning before his mother at the beginning of the play, he does not know that his father was murdered. His crisis, the heart of his mystery, inheres in something other than the drama’s central conflict of regicide and revenge. It is nature and the common themselves that throw Hamlet into grief, woe, and dolor. Given this fact, the news from the ghost that his own death was in fact “unnatural,” in the sense that fratricide transgresses natural bonds of affection, should lift Hamlet’s spirits. Death is now a matter of justice; it is morally comprehensible. Rebalancing the scales of nature by taking Claudius’s life for the old king’s will end the mystery and restore nature. But as with all the play’s maladjusted pairs and doubles, the scales cannot balance—and even if they could, as with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their adjustment would necessitate stupidity, unthinking compliance to authority.

The ghost does Hamlet a different service than suggesting a path back to sanity: he provides an excuse for insanity. “I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on,” Hamlet tells Horatio and the night watch after his colloquy with the spirit; but his disposition hasn’t been quite right since he came onstage in scene two. His madman act is the goad and alibi for three acts worth of improvisatory genius, as the prince cavorts about the stage delivering quasi-esoteric observations about the various sites of rot in the prison called Denmark. Providing a hint to psychoanalysis[1], the “science” that would base itself on this play, Hamlet also freely and recklessly disgorges his hatred and disgust, particularly at women. We can understand, though, that these misogynistic expectorations are an attempt to exorcizes what he is ashamed to behold as the woman in himself. Himself in disguise, himself in the act of infidelity to his beloved, he rails at women’s putative deceit and betrayal:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance.

But Hamlet, in an act of bizarre symmetry, reveals to Ophelia the suppurating core at the heart of even the most eminent men’s sexual facade; and when Hamlet kills her father, Ophelia, now fatherless as the prince, has as little reason as he does not to spill Denmark’s secrets in riddling, punning poetry. She becomes in act four what her ex-lover has been since act two: a modern artist, attempting to evade the illusions of ideology that constrain her with cryptogrammic truths:

By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;
By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

These lines, in which Shakespeare reveals as clearly as he possibly can that Hamlet and Ophelia have made love, expose the prince’s abuse of his lover as more far-reaching than even his cruel behavior (“get thee to a nunnery”) had previously intimated. Yet telling the truth in the face in the lying world changes nothing for the better and offers no relief to Ophelia, just as it will not do for Hamlet, because the wound, the “imposthume,” is inward—inside the self as well as inside the state. One of the play’s cautions is against warmongering, but we can also read it as a warning against projection: Denmark, the “warlike state,” per Claudius, likes to find its enemies outside itself, just as Hamlet blames women for his own problems and Ophelia’s inner life fails her after her men have left her in turn. The enemy in each of these cases is as much the self as the other. Neglect of this intimate enmity in the state and in the psyche causes so many of the play’s catastrophes, up to and including the climactic fall of the state to a foreign invader, Fortinbras—precisely the threat feared in the first place. And so Ophelia dies, submitting herself to the killing flux of nature that only social identity—here figured, again, as clothing—prevents us from confronting every day:

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

Note, though, that Ophelia does not commit suicide (a topic of mocking dispute for the gravediggers of act five); she simply “goes with the flow” and allows herself to drown.

Doesn’t Hamlet do just the same? Consider the famous question: why does Hamlet delay? Because he is enjoying himself—uttering “wild and whirling words,” “words, words, words,” even writing some words—the “dozen or sixteen lines” he interpolates into The Murder of Gonzago, which Harold Bloom once tantalizingly speculated were not additions to the plot but rather the player king’s speech on the evanescence of affection and the futility of intention, a kind of stealth soliloquy on the prince’s part:

But, orderly to end where I begun,
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own…

More unbalanced pairs: will/fate, purpose/result. Intention and action are no guarantees. Perhaps it is better to act only in the sense of the theatrical masquerade, where no one expects real results. The play’s elaborate metatheatrical and metafictional gestures, its self-interrogation about what it means to act vs. to be, offer an amusing commentary to Shakespeare’s own artistic wildness, which was so to trouble and even offend critics of neoclassical (Johnson, Voltaire), realist (Tolstoy, Shaw), or religious (Tolstoy again, George Steiner) sensibility. For Hamlet is himself such an anti-Shakespearean critic, advising austerity to the players while he himself plays the fool:

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o’erstep not them modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure…

Our hero “recks not his own rede.” By the time he says these lines, he has lost all faith in “the modesty of nature,” and in the play itself, the mirror fails as a motif, as discussed above. To quote Oscar Wilde:

[T]his unfortunate aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to Nature, is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.

Hamlet’s true artistic gift is not for the composition of poetry (“I am so ill at these numbers”) but rather for an extravagant and improvisatory and paradoxical performance of authentic self, one staged in the hearing, to sound in the “mildew’d ear,” of Denmark’s eavesdropping auditory-surveillance state, where there may be a listener behind every arras. Hamlet goes so far in crafting a persona that may pierce all veils with the madman’s impunity that he prophesies centuries of regicide and revolution in one aphorism: “The king is a thing…of nothing.” Hence his inability to leave off playing (in all senses) and act (only in the one sense: that of changing the world for real). Hamlet is playing at the otherwise unspeakable truth.

As with Ophelia, though, the truth cannot save Hamlet. Nature is unnatural, “an unweeded garden” full of wandering spirits and incestuous killers and faithless lovers, and every attempt to rationalize it only creates the hypocrisy and organized violence of the court and the state. Polonius, a prying soulless dishonest sycophant, is the deep truth of the state, its “imposthume of much wealth and peace” that leads to meaningless slaughter; hence his own slaying does not draw to an end with him but is only succeeded by his resurrection as the equally verbose and officious Osric, an otherwise puzzling character who shows up just before the end of the play so we will not mourn the court that is about to be vanquished.

Because nature and culture are only two expressions of the one underlying disorder, because death is the final truth of essence and appearance (“let her paint an inch thick, to this favor must she come”), the only solution is to ride the wave to its crashing, to let the waters take you when and where they will. This is what Ophelia does, and, at the end, what Hamlet does too. In act five, still uncertain about his revenge, he agrees to the fatal fencing match with Laertes. Intuiting something amiss, he nevertheless tells Horatio that he plans to go ahead with the game:

[T]here’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

The black mass which ensues, parodying the play’s earlier resort to Catholic imagery by turning communion into poisoning, both does and does not contradict Hamlet’s rather Protestant assurances about God’s Providence.[2] It also shows the inseparability of play, whether at theater or fencing, and reality. Just as everything is natural and nothing is, just as everything is real and nothing is, so everything is and is not fated to happen. If it exists, how can it be unnatural, still less unreal? If it happened, how could it have happened otherwise? Because death (as well as war and betrayal and falsity and disease and hatred) is both natural and common, nothing adds up or balances. It may make sense to God, but it never will to us.

Shakespeare thus not only invents the modern artist in Hamlet and Ophelia, but offers us, in their final passivity, their dead-end faith, a way out of our black-clad if high-spirited and eloquent despair: give up the dream of putting the time or the world back into joint. “The readiness is all,” so we had better get ready. “Let be”—and what will be, in the end, is the unbeing of death. Before the curtain closes, though, the author of this purgatorial play—not to mention its hero—put on a hell of a show.
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[1] Perhaps the social sciences—psychology, anthropology, sociology—are just the codifications of poets’ tropes and narratives.

[2] Every age creates its own Shakespeare, and our epoch’s bard is, we have decided, a crypto-Catholic (whereas previous eras have posited a Romantic genius, an English patriot, a psychoanalyst, an Existentialist, a dead white male, etc.). This is not because we have any particular concern for Catholicism, but because it allows Shakespeare to survive the postcolonial and feminist critique of the canon in the guise of an oppressed minority, which Catholics were in the England of Elizabeth’s reign. How to explain Hamlet‘s provocative evocation of the Catholic vs. Protestant conflict, with its ghost on leave from Dante’s Purgatory and its hero on leave from Luther’s Wittenberg? Whether our poet was reflecting on his own “double consciousness” or just brilliantly manipulating that of the audience, his aesthetic aim in this play is the same: to give us in the two sects yet another irreconcilable pair that demonstrates the inherent disorder or imbalance at the heart of being.

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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!

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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Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic GospelsThe Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this 1979 classic of popular non-fiction, religious scholar Elaine Pagels explains to a broad audience the theological significance of the trove of early Christian writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Not only that, but she also places these documents in their social and political context, largely to explain why the diverse body of thought labeled “gnostic” was so decisively defeated by the ideas and institutions of what would become Christian orthodoxy. Finally, Pagels, while unsurprised by gnosticism’s defeat, suggests the perennial appeal—if only to artists, mystics, and other anti-social types—of the gnostic vision, with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience as against all hierarchies and establishments.

What is gnosticism? While Pagels is at pains to emphasize the diversity of the Nag Hammadi writings (the “gnostic gospels” of her title), some generalizations can be made. Gnosticism tends to posit the creator God of the Hebrew Bible as a mere demiurge, who fashioned this botched reality we inhabit out of malice or stupidity; the true God lies well beyond nature, and is only evidenced by the sparks of divinity lodged in the souls of human beings, like gems scattered amid offal. Because this world is not merely fallen but evil or illusory, then human hierarchies and institutions are religiously irrelevant, and the believer comes to God not by following someone else’s rules but by attaining private knowledge (gnosis) of the God within. Having dismissed nature and the body, the figure of Christ becomes less important as the incarnate God, a God who is also flesh and who died a real death; Christ is rather a kind of alien emissary modeling the ascended human rather than the descended deity: “Jesus was not a human being at all; instead, he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception,” Pagels explains. Finally, with hierarchies made irrelevant by the distance of the true God, the gender distinction so important to Christian orthodoxy is de-emphasized and a greater place allotted to female spirituality and indeed female divinity. Gnostics have no need of codes and canons: “like artists, they express their own insight—their own gnosis—by creating new myths, poems, rituals, ‘dialogues’ with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions.”

The body of thought that would win out over gnosticism stressed, by contrast, an ordered hierarchy:

As God reigns in Heaven as master, lord, commander, judge, and king, so on earth he delegates his rule to members of the church hierarchy, who serve as generals who command an army of subordinates; kings who rules over “the people”; judges who preside in God’s place.

As Christianity expanded, its institutions could not sustain the kind of spiritual anarchy gnosticism portended if it was to organize a mass constituency:

Seeking to unify the diverse churches scattered throughout the world into a single network, the bishops eliminated qualitative criteria for church membership. Evaluating each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness, as the gnostics did, would require a far more complex administration.

Pagels concludes that “the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion.”

The above summary hints at who Pagels seems to be asking us to root for: the plucky anarcho-feminist artists against the stodgy authoritarian bishops. This is a more serious book than that, though. In one chapter, Pagels stresses the importance to believers of Christ’s incarnation, especially in the context of Christian persecution: how gravely moving it is to worship a God who was willing to suffer just as you suffer. The gnostic’s quasi-Platonic hologram Christ is, in a sense, much less interesting or original, another theophany who doesn’t really bleed or weep as we do. Moreover, gnosticism is a private religion, with each member his or her own church, whereas, Pagels explains, “[r]ejecting such religious elitism, orthodox leaders attempted instead to construct a universal church.” Pagels understands that in religion (as in politics) there is a necessary tension between the individual and the collective, insight and iteration, agency and structure, anarchy and community. She shows the gnostic traces in orthodox thought from the Gospel of John to the dissents of the church fathers—because even the orthodox sometimes sense the need to make a separate peace with our alien cosmos—just as she carefully notes the less appealing qualities of gnosticism’s more chaotic theology.

But gnosticism is appealing for all that. Pagels observes that, while it was extirpated by orthodoxy, it survived throughout the Christian era from medieval heresies (e.g., the Cathars) to Protestant mysticism. She several times mentions psychoanalysis as a modern manifestation of gnosticism: “For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly—a religious quest.” Not to mention the Romantic poets and post-Christian philosophers and proto-Existentialist novelists who have been drawn to a sublime of spiritual insight beyond matter and humanity:

William Blake, noting such different portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, sided with the one the gnostics preferred against “the vision of Christ that all men see” […] Nietzsche, who detested what he knew of Christianity, nevertheless wrote: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, attributes to Ivan a vision of the Christ rejected by the church, the Christ who “desired man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely,” choosing the truth of one’s own conscience over material well-being, social approval, and religious certainty.

Pagels does not mention, because, I assume, it was much less visible in 1979, gnosticism’s massive influence in late-twentieth-century popular culture, an influence that is probably at least partially attributable to her own book; see a semi-whimsical old Tumblr post of mine for details, and see Victoria Nelson for a more responsible treatment.

Most disappointingly to me, she also does not mention the political interpretation of gnosticism: Eric Voeglin, for instance, believed that modern political movements like Marxism and fascism, with their “ruthless critique of everything existing” (per Marx) and their consequent desire to re-organize all human life via the state according to otherworldly ideas of justice, derived essentially from gnostic thought—a controversial idea updated for the post-Cold-War period and its perhaps now collapsing neoconservative/neoliberal consensus by such thinkers as John Gray and Peter Y. Paik. Pagels’s focus on gnostic anarchy and individualism may well be an antidote to such attempts to materialize the alien God through the bloody rites of mass politics. Likewise, Herman Melville imagined in his remarkable short lyric “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century” that gnosticism enjoins withdrawal from all activity, an ineradicable spiritual impulse despite its worse-than-uselessness to the organization of humanity:

Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.

Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.

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Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Gilead (Gilead, #1)Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), to be literally stunning. That is, every time I picked it up to read a few pages I would become dazed with boredom or would even fall asleep, knocked out by the novel’s descriptive vagueness and tonal self-effacement. This is a beloved book, a contemporary classic, as we are told, so I’m sure this reaction marks me out as a bad person—but if you’ve been reading these reviews for any length of time you already knew that about me. Anyway, this novel is not against bad people per se; it even quietly argues that, in unheroic times, bad people might be the only people with spirit enough to be heroes. This is an insight pursued in major Christian fiction from Stowe and Dostoevsky to O’Connor and Coetzee, but Robinson’s choice to narrate this tale of sinning one’s way to Jesus in the voice of a quietly good, heroically unheroic man mutes the paradox and weakens the irony.

Gilead is set in 1956 in the eponymous Iowa town (Robinson’s invention) founded by Christian abolitionists before the Civil War. Its narrator is the Congregationalist minister John Ames, an old man nearing death. Ames has found romance and marriage with a young woman late in life and Gilead takes the form of a letter for his son to read when he comes of age. Given this structure, Gilead is a very expository and seemingly even aleatory novel, its narrator following chains of association as he writes every day to an imagined interlocutor—his son as he will be as an adult. Ames details his daily life, reminisces about his past, tells stories about his family and friends, and vouchsafes his thoughts on theology.

Gradually, though, the novel reveals itself to be less Ames’s story than the story of two other, more active characters: his long-deceased grandfather, a fiery and fanatical prophet-like old preacher who helped to found the town and who was the comrade of John Brown, and Ames’s namesake and godson John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the prodigal son of the old man’s best friend who has returned to Gilead from a long and mysterious period of wandering. While Robinson certainly invites readers to admire Ames’s humility, his diffidence, his reticence, his devotion to the commonplace, his readiness to praise others, his gratitude for his good fortune in having found the love of a good woman in the twilight of his life, his humane religiosity, the novel remains an elegy to the vanished heroism of his grandfather’s generation, who fought to free the slaves, and a paean to the rising generation represented by Jack, who risks all, we learn at the novel’s climax, for interracial love.

Like Robinson’s nonfiction, such as the drubbingly tendentious and self-righteous essays collected in The Death of Adam, Gilead presents us with a moral history of the United States whose collective protagonist is the Puritan diaspora of Calvin’s Geneva and Winthrop’s Boston, those Christian radicals who founded the Midwest as a bulwark against slavery and built modern liberalism from Calvinist doctrines of individual perfectionism and mutual aid.[1] It is almost too easy to complain about how much is left out of this story—Catholics and Jews, as William Deresiewicz points out; or the agency and independent political thought of black people, who figure in Robinson’s historiography largely as index and object of Calvinist morality; or even the inner complexities of Puritanism and its legacy themselves, Jonathan Edwards’s assurance to his fainting congregation that God hates them or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s need to abandon the pulpit. For the purposes of literary criticism, though, Robinson should be granted her historical and political donnée. The problem with Gilead is not necessarily its message, which seemed so timely in 2004, but its message’s vehicle: prose too devoted to the Protestant plain style, to my mind, to bring a fictional world alive.

It is not that the novel simply argues a thesis; it is as irony-rich as any serious fiction needs to be. For one thing, Ames is clear enough that the moral fanaticism of his grandfather came at the cost of any practicable or peaceable social life, and also that the white abolitionists’ quest had an element of quixotism in it—a comic episode in the novel, wherein one of the abolitionists’ underground railroad tunnels collapses under a horse, leading the only black man in Gilead to flee for fear of his would-be saviors’ incompetence, makes the latter point. Ames’s father speaks up for pacifism, and Ames himself laments that, since the Great War, “we have had war continuously,” thus calling into question his grandfather’s belligerence even in a good cause.[2]

Similarly, we are led for much of the novel to see Jack Boughton as a menacing, Stavrogin-like figure, a charming atheist and predator: his youthful mischief is described with hints of sociopathy and, after Ames reveals that Jack fathered a child on a very young and impoverished woman whom he later abandoned, we begin to worry with Ames about what is portended by Jack’s attention to Ames’s young wife and son.

In short, it is precisely because Ames’s grandfather and his godson were and are so ill-adjusted to the ordinary—unlike the supremely quotidian Ames himself—that they were and are able to advance, however problematically, the causes of justice and faith. Abraham and Isaac are alluded to, just so we know what story is being avoided, what Kierkegaardian existentialism and extremity are being evaded. There is no sense here, as there is in The Idiot or Wise Blood or The Schooldays of Jesus, that faith might be inhuman, desolating, shattering.

I even dallied with the idea that Gilead should be understood as a Nabokov-like or Ishiguro-like novel of morally unreliable narration, a Browningesque dramatic monologue whose speaker stands inadvertently self-condemned: Ames the impotent, too well-behaved to be good and so obscurely evil, contemptible in comparison to the Civil War generation:

They had been to Lane and Oberlin, and they knew their Hebrew and their Greek and their Locke and their Milton. […] Still, they were bodacious old men, the lot of them. It was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather’s grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.

I gather that Robinson’s later novels in the Gilead saga, which I do not care to read just now, make at least a gentler version of such an interpretation available.

But Gilead is too rhetorically invested in Ames’s praise of the everyday for readers to come away with anything other than conviction that Ames is right: the evidence of grace and the warrant for faith is the beauty of the ordinary rather than any extravagant gesture of nonconformism or annihilating experience of the divine. The problem is that this beauty is asserted more than it is described in the novel. While Ames does not really write like a man of his age, background, and time period would write such a letter to his son—he writes, in fact, like a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in fragmentary epiphanies destined not for family but for a literary journal—Robinson’s concession to verisimilitude is that Ames is no shimmering stylist. If I am to be convinced, though, that the loveliness of the world is justification enough for faith, I am going to need prose more precise and intense and alive than this:

Sometimes the visionary experience of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature. I believe there are visions that come to us only in vision, in retrospect. That’s the pulpit speaking, but it’s telling the truth.

Gilead has far too much of this abstract pulpit language for a novel ostensibly about beauty. There are memorable descriptions throughout—fireflies rising from a field, a stream near a farm, the baptism of cats—but Ames’s tone is so rambling and ingratiating, the language so bereft of any dazzle, that I just never became absorbed in the novel or persuaded by it.

Gilead felt urgent upon its publication, hence the gratitude in its reception, evidenced by the breathless blurbs that adorn the paperback. Robinson implicitly promised nothing less, in the midst of what Philip Roth once called “the ministry of George W. Bush,” than a reclamation of Protestantism or even Christianity itself from the preachers of the prosperity gospel and the masters of war. Whether or not the novel’s polemical calm in the midst of crisis can survive its moment, though, I for one tend to doubt. Gilead defends the local from the imputation that it is parochial, and its concluding benediction—”I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country”—makes of Gilead the microcosm of the nation; but prose as plain, a voice as muted, as that of John Ames may not be saved even by such authorial self-defense. Maybe reading Home and Lila, if ever I do, will change my mind, but I found Gilead, thirteen years after its publication, unable to transcend its place and time.
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[1] Now that the first accounts of alt-right thought are being written, it is worth noting that the thesis of contemporary American liberalism’s direct and linear descent from Calvinism is the key historical claim of neoreaction as elaborated in the political philosophy of Curtis Yarvin and Nick Land. Marilynne Robinson and Mencius Moldbug: strange bedfellows, to say the least.

[2] When the novel was published, fanaticism for freedom leading to emancipatory war would have been associated in the minds of the liberal literati with George W. Bush’s destruction of Mesopotamia, hence the political need for Robinson’s irony about the quixotic abolitionists. It was only during the Obama administration that the myth of the good war was redeemed for liberalism by a shift in the focus of historical memory from World War II, tarnished by its constant rhetorical use as a war-justification from the 1980s through the 2000s, to the American Civil War, understood as the second American Revolution and absolute sine qua non of African-American freedom. One need not hedge about the justice of defeating both the Nazis and the Confederacy, however, to allow that the question of whether democracy can or should be brought to recalcitrant territories at the point of a gun remains open.

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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!

Albert Camus, The Rebel

The Rebel: An Essay on Man in RevoltThe Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Rebel is Albert Camus’s answer, written in 1951, to the painful question of why the human attempt to overcome oppression, to destroy all religiously and socially prescribed hierarchies, led instead to fascism, communism, imperialism, and the softer but still decisive tyranny of the machine in the industrial and administrative states of capitalism. Camus is not a conservative commending acquiescence in the status quo. An atheist, existentialist, and absurdist, he revises Descartes so that human beings only affirm their identity by rebelling. Yet this rebellion is paradoxical, in that one man’s rebellion may be another man’s tyranny.

In his introduction to The Rebel, Camus states the paradox that rebellion both forbids the rebel to kill other human beings—because rebellion itself is premised on the recognition of absolute individual human rights, compelling the rebel to universal solidarity—and enjoins the rebel to kill others in seeking his own freedom—because rebellion has no internal limit and sweeps away all moral and metaphysical limitations. Whether he becomes Sade celebrating torture and rape in the boudoir or Stalin overseeing secret police and sending dissidents to the gulag, the rebel is likely to depose God only to become a murderous deity in his turn. To affirm rebellion, then, Camus needs to find its internal limit, what forestalls its turn to murder.

Most of The Rebel is a literary and philosophical history of how modern thinkers have failed to find this limit and so have abetted the transformation of rebellion into oppression. Camus begins in antiquity, finding the ancestor of the rebel in Prometheus and Cain and locating early attempts to limit rebellion. The Greeks are this book’s philosophical and artistic heroes, largely, I take it, because of their beneficent lack of monotheism. For Camus, rebellion, a human universal, begins to go seriously wrong with the idea of one tyrannical God, which the rebel, in deposing, may merely replace as unaccountable lord of all the earth: “To kill God and to build a Church are the constant and contradictory purpose of rebellion.” A myriad of divine and natural agencies, though, moderates this contradiction, which is why Camus finds it in his heart to praise even Christianity, with its functional or pragmatic polytheistic distribution of authority among Christ, the Virgin, the saints, the church hierarchy, etc. (Compare The Rebel in this respect to Jung’s otherwise very dissimilar Answer to Job, written almost contemporaneously.)

It is with the modern period of revolutions, following the early modern “deicide,” though, that rebellion and its dangers come into their own. Consequently, Camus analyzes the French Revolution and its dictatorship of virtue (which he ambivalently lauds for at least upholding an ideal—virtue itself—that could serve as a standard for the rebellion’s moral worth), the “thirty years apostolate of blood” that concluded the nineteenth century with a rash of anarchist terrorism and assassination (which he reads as a lamentable embrace of the irrational, but by activists who were at least willing to die for their nihilist convictions), the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler (which he condemns utterly as pathetic attempts to cover brutality with the moral prestige of rebellion), and the Russian Revolution and its aftermath (which he likewise damns as the cynical apotheosis of an ideology of force-without-restraint empowering murderous bureaucrats and a hypertrophic state).

When it leaves the realm of myth and becomes history, when it goes from rebellion to revolution, humanity’s resistance to its lot seems to follow a fateful cycle, which Camus describes archetypally in a passage the beauty of which will give you a sense of this book’s lyricism (in Anthony Bower’s translation):

Here ends Prometheus’ surprising itinerary. Proclaiming his hatred of the gods and his love of mankind, he turns away from Zeus with scorn and approaches mortal men in order to lead them in an assault against the heavens. But men are weak and cowardly; they must be organized. They love pleasure and immediate happiness; they must be taught to refuse, in order to grow up, immediate rewards. Thus Prometheus becomes, in his turn, a master who first teaches and then commands. Men doubt that they can safely attack the city of light and are even uncertain whether the city exists. They must be saved from themselves. The hero then tells them that he, and he alone, knows the city. Those who doubt his word will be thrown into the desert, chained to a rock, offered to the vultures. The others will march henceforth in darkness, behind the pensive and solitary master. Prometheus alone has become god and reigns over the solitude of men. But from Zeus he has gained only solitude and cruelty; he is no longer Prometheus, he is Caesar. The real, the eternal Prometheus has now assumed the aspect of one of his victims. The same cry, springing from the depths of the past, rings forever through the Scythian desert.

The Rebel, though, is a history of ideas rather than of events, and Camus’s philosophical bill of indictment will perhaps interest readers more than his impressionistic historiography. Throughout the book, Camus addresses Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and the artistic avant-gardes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of this list, he expresses outright contempt only for Hegel.

Rousseau may have claimed that people should be “forced to be free,” but at least he maintained a fortifying idealism; Marx may have, in his political imprecision and messianism, left an opening in his political theory big enough for Stalinism to get through, but at least he was criticizing a genuinely exploitative social system in the name of genuine compassion; Nietzsche may have, in his embrace of amor fati, robbed the individual of moral resources to challenge fascism’s modern refurbishment of the claim that might is right, but at least he was standing up for the irrepressible insurgency of free human beings and their inability to be captured fully by any system (and the avant-garde from Baudelaire to Surrealism, for all its sometimes troubling irrationalism and nihilism, joined or followed Nietzsche in this).

But Hegel, charges Camus, is the philosopher of tyranny: his understanding of social life as the dialectic of master and slave reduces history to “a prolonged fight to the death for the conquest of universal prestige and absolute power.” Hegel dissolves reason into history, seeing it as an immanent human attribute rather than a transcendent value; thus, all values are historically relative, and the “slave” (which refers not only to the literally enslaved but to any dependent or subordinate class, e.g., the peasantry, the industrial proletariat, the petit bourgeoisie, etc.) is without moral limitation in the means he may use to rebel. This in turn implies that “the slave could only free himself by enslaving in his turn,” aided by Hegel’s theory of the modern state, with its vast technical capacity for domination, as the ultimate embodiment of collective human reason. History, defined by Hegel as the contest for universal freedom and the equal recognition of each by all, will end when there are no more slaves. Morality will then be possible, but until then, “every human activity is sinful,” a claim that entails the inability to discriminate morally between any human activities. Hegel, therefore, implicitly or unwittingly licenses any and all means to the end of a utopian freedom on an ever-receding horizon.

Hegel is the most totalizing of modern thinkers, his system a complete answer to the question of what we are to do with ourselves if there is no transcendent God nor any transcendent values such a God could support. If his system is irredeemably corrupt because Hitler and Stalin are already coiled in its deep structure, where is Camus to go if he does not go back to God? He seeks two places of intellectual refuge.

First, he claims, we must have recourse to nature, as the Greeks did. If we abandon the idea that there is a universal human nature, then the human being is only clay to be molded by Hegel’s new gods in the bureaucracy of the administrative state. This is a common position on the political right today, but the left—to include liberals—have necessarily abandoned it in the wake of postmodernism; even a brief contemplation of contemporary progressive thought about gender, to take the most salient example, should suffice to show why.

Camus’s second recourse is to art: “Rebellion can be observed [in art] in its pure state and in its original complexities.” In rejecting given reality for a created one, the artist is the prototypical rebel. But the artist cannot be a nihilist, dismissing the real in its entirety, the way anarchist terrorists or Hegelian historicists can. Silently following Aristotle, for whom art was mimesis, Camus argues that the artist is always representing reality so as to give it a shape it does not possess in its unmediated state: “To create beauty, [the artist] must simultaneously reject reality and exalt certain of its aspects,” which leads the artist to imagine a “living transcendence” (as opposed to the merely ideal transcendence of monotheism and the deadening immanence of Marxism and related ideologies).

Camus singles out the novel, because it is the literary form that coincides with the modern era of rebellion; prior literature tended toward what Camus calls “consent” to the status quo, whereas the novel, with its restive protagonists, answers the “metaphysical need” of rebelling by giving ethical form to experience, which form in turn tempers the rebellion so that it does not spin off into totalitarianism. Camus further argues that contemporary literature must go beyond the psychological novel, with its treatment of private passions, to attempt to control “collective passions and the historical struggle.”

Camus notes that “all revolutionary reformers” must show “hostility” to art, because it demonstrates forces of nature and beauty beyond their puritanical control. The danger to art in the twentieth century is found on two sides, two versions of nihilism: either an over-stressing of mimesis, as in Marxism’s exaltation of realism, or an over-emphasis on form, as in the abstractions of the avant-garde, neither capable of creating a living art that holds reality and form in vital tension.

In sum, art transfigures reality and so provides a better model for politics than the modern period’s revolutionary systems.

Art, at least, teaches us that man cannot be explained by history alone and that he also finds a reason for existence in the order of nature. The rebels who wish to ignore nature and beauty are condemned to banish from history everything with which they want to construct the dignity of existence and of labor. Every great reformer tries to create in history what Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, and Tolstoy knew how to create: a world always ready to satisfy the hunger for freedom and dignity which every man carries in his heart.

Needless to say, I agree with just about all of that. I even wrote it out at regrettable length, with the professionally necessary concessions to Hegel & Co., in my doctoral dissertation many years before reading The Rebel.

It must be said, though, that Camus’s more practical political recommendations leave much to be desired. He endorses a vague anarcho-syndicalism (shades of Simone Weil) that has been made irrelevant for Europe and the U.S. by the deindustrialization of western society. This is moreover premised on an even less creditable ethnic distinction between what Camus sees as the libertarianism and rationalism of Mediterranean civilization as against the seemingly perennial Gothic irrationalism of “German ideology.” (If ideology is reducible to ethnos, then Camus’s struggle against fascism may have been in vain. I will leave the implications of this remark for some contemporary currents in American liberalism to your imagination.) Camus states, at the book’s conclusion, that “[r]ebellion itself is moderation,” and that we need to read all of the thinkers he has discussed because they will, in our rebellion, “correct one another,” as “[e]ach tells the other that he is not God.” He concludes that “in order to be a man” we have “to refuse to be a god.” Not bad advice, but its concrete application is unclear. Here Camus’s charge against Marx may redound upon himself: his vagueness invited his philosophy’s abuse—for instance, its use to provide intellectual cover for America’s disastrous interventions in the Middle East.

It is when he champions art and the novel that Camus speaks for durable and still relevant values. I myself am only qualified to rebel through the exercise of the artistic intelligence; that Camus reconciles me to this fate is doubtless why he has, in some quarters, a reputation for bourgeois cowardice and mediocrity, but all the same it is a good thing to find a philosophical warrant to go on with one’s life. Moreover, today’s much-remarked upsurge of neo-fascist and neo-Stalinist thinking is enough to convince me that Camus’s controversial advocacy for balance and caution, even in the face of real oppression, might not be amiss. Unfashionable as it may be, The Rebel is a book to read.

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C. G. Jung, Answer to Job

Answer to JobAnswer to Job by C.G. Jung

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

[…]

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

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

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

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William Shakespeare, King Lear

King LearKing Lear by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is King Lear about? “[T]he fierce dispute, / Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay,” wrote Keats, but both terms seem inapt: “clay”—as in the moist earth from which the Creator molded us—suggests a different image from the acid, sandy soil of the heathland where Lear rages, while “damnation,” with its intimation of cosmic reward and punishment, is a concept difficult to apply to this pre- and post-Christian tragedy. Or is it? I will try to answer that question in what follows.

The play’s plot is fairy-tale simple, though Shakespeare convulutes it with his usual flurry of misdirected letters and changeable personae. The aged king, though at one with his enormous authority, decides to abdicate his throne and divide his kingdom among his daughters (or, more precisely, their husbands) as a reward for their pledges of filial love. His eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, make elaborate professions of their reverence, while the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to “heave [her] heart into her mouth.” Lear banishes her, along with his plain-speaking courtier Kent, but he soon finds that his elder daughters regard him and his retinue as a nuisance to be disciplined. Attended only by his fool and Kent in disguise, Lear is dismissed from his daughters’ dwellings and put out on the heath in a storm. Meanwhile, Lear’s courtier Gloucester is being manipulated by his bastard son Edmund; Edmund convinces his father to banish his legitimate son, Edgar, as Lear had banished Cordelia. Edmund, Goneril, and Regan join together in villainy, and eventually Gloucester is blinded and sent into the storm also, attended by Edgar disguised as a Bedlam beggar. Cordelia, in the meantime, has married the King of France; she returns to Britain with the French army to restore the kingdom to her father. This being a tragedy, her rescue comes too late and almost every character save Edgar and Kent lose their lives.

A reader could find a Christian message in the play, despite its ostensibly being set in ancient Britain. Shakespeare is the playwright who gave us the coast of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale and striking clocks in Julius Caesar: with his sublime indifference to consistency or verisimilitude, he fills King Lear‘s dialogue with demonological references in the speeches of Edgar-guised-as-Mad-Tom, and seems to give the dying Lear several visions, including a final one, of Cordelia as a saint in Heaven. Their trials, moreover, inspire both Lear and Gloucester to embrace Christian charity if not outright communism. Lear at 3.3:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Gloucester at 4.1:

Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens’ plagues
Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched
Makes thee the happier: heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.

The play’s philosophy turns on definitions of nature. The villain and “natural” son Edmund calls on nature as his goddess; he seems to construe by the word an amoral and vitalistic force whereby strength triumphs not only over weakness but also over humanity’s customary restraints on the strong. Nature is the will to power and the right of might. Goneril and Regan, who share Edmund’s outlook, are compared to serpents and sea monsters and “monsters of the deep”—in other words, the most frightful of natural beings, living without morality or mercy. On the other hand, their behavior is consistently denounced by the other characters as unnatural, since by nature children should respect their parents; but Lear comes eventually to understand that nature is not a concept that can come to his aid. When Goneril asks him why he needs such a large retinue, he replies:

O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s…

And when he sees Edgar in his reduced state as beggar, he laments:

Thou art the thing itself:
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,
forked animal as thou art.

By the end, he is consumed with misogyny, because he understands the proliferation of life itself as the origin of suffering, and he moreover associates sex (and perforce reproduction) with the devil, king of this world, whose fiends have been plaguing Poor Tom all play:

The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ‘tween the lawful sheets.
To ‘t, luxury, pell-mell! for I lack soldiers.
Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name;
The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to ‘t
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’;
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the
sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption…

Edmund’s deathbed repentance gathers these motifs together when his turn toward goodness takes place in spite of nature:

I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature.

The play’s other major motifs reinforce the point that whatever in us is worthwhile is necessarily out of nature, even out of the phenomenal world. The pervasive references to eyes and vision, culminating in Gloucester’s blinding, suggest that the only way to see truly is with the more-than-earthly eye: “I stumbled when I saw,” says Gloucester. Folly and madness grant insight that the respectable, the worldly, and the “superservicable” do not have, and the riddling fool’s implied spiritual identity with the ethereally good and true Cordelia (“And my poor fool is hang’d!”) reinforces the point. Finally, the need for truth (Kent, Edgar) to disguise itself in a world of false appearance (Goneril, Regan, Edmund), down to the revelatory power of the fool’s punning and jesting as against the mundane impotence of Cordelia’s and Kent’s plain speech, suggests that Lear’s ultimate kingdom is not of this earth.

Still, I have my doubts. The blasted Beckettian heathland where so much of the play is set suggests a nature fundamentally evil, not merely fallen; if Shakespearean comedy is based on an opposition between the corrupt court and the redemptive “green world” (per Northrop Frye), the opposition here is between a rotting civilization and a storm-tormented desert, which is to say that there is no opposition at all. Even the characters can be read against the grain: is Lear, who seems to lived for more than eighty years in a state of imperious arrogance, really “more sinned against than sinning”? is Cordelia’s self-righteousness (“So young, my lord, and true”) not a defect equal to her sisters’ flattery? are Goneril and Regan so wrong to fear their father’s fierce temper and riotous retinue? is Edmund so misguided in hating his callous father? And should we take Shakespeare—loving creator of Portia, Beatrice, Juliet, and Rosalind—to endorse Lear’s staggering and grotesque misogyny? Perhaps discriminating between good and evil is misreading the play’s monstrous cosmos, where quiet endurance is more relevant than morality. On this reading, violence of all kinds—including Lear’s and Kent’s intemperate speech, Cordelia’s quietly self-aggrandizing stubbornness, and the vulgar raillery of Gloucester’s that opens the play—is the sin, repose the salvation (and the only one nature offers):

Our foster-nurse of nature is repose,
The which he lacks; that to provoke in him,
Are many simples operative, whose power
Will close the eye of anguish.

George Orwell, in defending the play against Tolstoy’s religious imprecations, writes, “It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God,” because “[a] tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.” Tragedy was devised by men who believed that the gods and the universe may be against human beings, but that human beings could attain grandeur in meeting their fate. Oedipus, for example, never had a chance; he was doomed before his birth; but his fearless quest for knowledge and his endurance of his destiny show the gods to be if anything less admirable than such a man. Christianity, by contrast, is a divine comedy; Dante’s damnation of the polytropic questing Ulysses is Christianity’s contemptuous verdict on the tragic temper.

It is less the purged Lear and Gloucester, pleading for universal charity, who seem to speak for the pragmatic playwright than Edgar. The cautious Shakespeare—Orwell, who took a bullet in the throat for his own beliefs, calls him “cowardly”—was very probably a man in disguise himself. A writer of uneasy government propaganda, he kept his true, apparently anarchic, political views to himself by putting them in the mouths of fictional fools and madmen; likewise his religious views, whatever those were or if there were any at all, his family’s apparent Catholic background notwithstanding. Edgar calls not for communism but more modestly declares himself made “pregnant to good pity” by “the art of known and feeling sorrows,” associating his endurance of his travails with knowledge and artifice, those gifts of the poet, rather than moral impulse. “Ripeness is all,” he stoically counsels his father, whom he saves from suicide to suffer a living death. Gloucester, sensing his disguised son’s amoral equivocation (why live just for the sake of life?), equivocally replies, “And that’s true too.” It might be the best response to the devastating vision the play discloses, the wounds it opens that its artifice cannot heal; to return to where we began, its relativistic admission of more than one truth is the insight of Keats’s Shakespeare considered as “chameleon poet,” master of “negative capability”—in short, what Keats understood to be the highest art.

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Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Don’t ask me why I didn’t read Brave New World when I was sixteen the way everybody else did—the powers-that-be never assigned it to me in school, and I’m only now catching up to it on my own. I should have read it when I was sixteen, because then it probably would have seemed profound; but now I confess I find it a superficial and confused fiction.

Since you read this 1932 novel when you were sixteen, gentle reader, you don’t need me to tell you the conceit and the plot, but just in case: it is the 26th century and humanity, under the rational and utilitarian governance of a world state, has achieved happiness. Humans are grown in laboratories and conditioned in childhood for specific life roles, from the knowledge-worker Alphas to the proletarian Epsilons, and their entire lives are chemically and technologically regulated to prevent their developing inner lives capable of subverting this utopia of universal satisfaction.

Huxley shows culture reduced to base sensationalism, religion banished, the family obsolesced in favor of non-reproductive sexual pleasures beginning in early childhood, and even science itself firmly kept at the level of technical application lest it induce metaphysical speculation; his imagined future is based on a conflation of laissez-faire capitalism’s rationalized inequality and socialism or communism’s subsumption of the individual in the state, thus suggesting that modernity in all its varieties, whether left or right, is moving toward a single end: the abolition of the soul. So we don’t miss the point, all the novel’s characters are named after a deliberately wide range of modernizing figures, from Lenin to Mussolini to Malthus to Ataturk, and the prophet of its utopia is Henry Ford.

Huxley sets a perfunctory plot, half based on The Tempest, in this projected future: a dissatisfied inhabitant of the Fordist utopia visits a reservation for “savages” (here Southwestern Indians) and brings back a man who was raised on the reservation after being born to an accidentally exiled Londoner—who was, in a coincidence perhaps derived from Dickens’s Hard Times and its Bounderby subplot, the girlfriend of one of London’s main officials. The second half of the novel features this “Savage,” reared on a melange of Native American and Christian religion and Shakespeare’s plays, as he moves through and comments on the “brave new world,” even though the persistent dry irony of Huxley’s narrator in the novel’s expository first half makes explicit critical comment largely unnecessary.

That the novel seems, in its witty shallowness, to fail as fiction does not concern me—Northrop Frye points out in his comprehensive Anatomy of Criticism that Huxley’s genre is satire, not realism, and if anything, I wish Brave New World had made less obeisance to the traditional novel, as its characters are almost entirely illustrations of abstract concepts and accordingly do not require the consciousness-probing free indirect discourse that Huxley rather boringly grants them. But as satire, the novel mounts an argument, and it is this argument I would like to consider critically.

For one thing, Huxley’s thesis on the cultural consequences of omnipresent technologization is too unsubtle. Fascism and communism summoned the citizen and the worker to religious ecstasies of collective self-sacrifice; laissez-faire capitalism, in the United States, produced a modern state of uniquely intense and militantly antirational religiosity; the spread of mass communications technology today has emboldened the postmodern atavisms of ISIS (as well as, at a much reduced and not morally equivalent scale of course, the scarcely-concealed millenarianism of the “alt-right” partisans and the “social justice warriors”), which are both a product of and a challenge to a world where traditional centralized hierarchies have been undone by technics. In short, technological society dialectically produces its own correctives in the form of anti-modern resistance both large and small, both left and right, both benign and malign. In fact, Huxley’s own use of free indirect discourse as a narrative technique is telling here, since it was this development in fictional prose that signaled the novelist’s desire to resist dehumanization by spiritualizing the masses of the modern city, as in Huxley’s older contemporaries, Joyce and Woolf. (Personally, I can’t think of a more benign corrective to modernity’s coercions than the modernist novel.)

It is inevitable to compare Brave New World to Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Orwell’s description of mass-mediated totalitarianism, with its two-minutes’ hate and Junior Anti-Sex League and war fevers and hard pornography, seems truer and more profound: technology will not wipe out the traditional, the irrational, the perverse, or even the puritanical but will become wedded to them. Look at how feminist sexual ethics have supplanted Christian sexual ethics in our society—it goes to show that Huxley’s prediction of unfettered libertinage, the replacement of morality with utilitarian calculation, falls short, probably because it is indeed against human nature, which seems to be ineluctably driven to create values.[1] Huxley’s argument admittedly depends on advances in reproductive and chemical technology that have still, to my knowledge, not been achieved—but even these, it seems to me, will no more eradicate the chaos of the human heart or the vagaries of human morality than did the birth control pill or anti-depressants.

Frankly, my decorous citation of Northrop Frye aside, I find the linear extrapolations of science-fictional satire a cheap trick, so flattening of life’s complexity that I always wonder why authors of such fiction even bother. Huxley’s social thought seems shallow enough to be a product of his utilitarian dystopia rather than an objection to it.

This flattened conceptual horizon leads me to my next objection. As I have said, against his “brave new world,” Huxley counterposes contradictory elements: Christianity, Shakespeare, Native American religion, nature, maternal and filial love, and more. If the vice of the revolutionary is fecklessly hurtling toward a wholly notional future, the reactionary’s vice is in advocating a weird hodgepodge of disparate elements called “tradition,” even though the bygone values to which they contrast the ugly present and uglier future may have nothing to do with each other or may even be at odds. So it is with Huxley.

It is strange above all that Shakespeare should be the novel’s major symbol of the archaic, since the bard would more persuasively stand not for intractable pre-modernity but for the first wave of literature’s adaptation to modern conditions. Shakespeare wrote largely secular fictions for a mass and mixed audience in a burgeoning commercial empire and showcased the roiling interior life of the modern subject and the rich resources of modern language, anticipating (and inspiring) romanticism and modernism after him. When Winston Smith wakes up with the name of Shakespeare on his lips in Nineteen Eighty-Four or when the anarchist hero makes his first public appearance by quoting a long speech from Macbeth in V for Vendetta, Orwell and Moore are responding to Shakespeare’s status as icon of modern restive individuality, which shows up their dystopias as regressive; Huxley likewise deploys Shakespeare to evoke passion, but he also has him stand, no less than Christianity or paganism, for the past as such.[2]

Consider by contrast two nineteenth-century novels that must have informed Brave New World. In Dickens’s Hard Times, utilitarianism is opposed by the ethics of the Gospels and the immemorial wisdom of the people; in Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov, the notion of a beneficent and totalizing government (modeled on the Catholic Church, which Dostoevsky saw as the forerunner of the overweening secular state) is opposed by the incalculable love of Christ and the irrational freedom of Christian conscience. Huxley is plainly envious of these older authors’ ability to enlist the Lord in their struggle against the world’s encroachment on the soul; but he does not feel that he can appeal to religion for any but, ironically enough, secular reasons—because, the novel cynically implies, belief would make people more soulful and passionate and intelligent, make them, in a word, more interesting, though it would not make them happier.

In a key passage of the novel, wherein the Controller Mustapha Mond[3] reads a scientific paper he decides to censor, Huxley reveals that the real animating principle of his dystopia is the proscription on any concept of transcending the material, because once the very idea of transcending the material is admitted, the mind will presumably ascend Plato’s ladder all the way to God:

“A New Theory of Biology” was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading. He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title-page: “The author’s mathematical treatment of the conception of purpose is novel and highly ingenious, but heretical and, so far as the present social order is concerned, dangerous and potentially subversive. Not to be published.” He underlined the words. “The author will be kept under supervision. His transference to the Marine Biological Station of St. Helena may become necessary.” A pity, he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose—well, you didn’t know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere, that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstance, admissible. He picked up his pen again, and under the words “Not to be published” drew a second line, thicker and blacker than the first; then sighed, “What fun it would be,” he thought, “if one didn’t have to think about happiness!”

Huxley’s attack on the modern is so total it is hard to see any reprieve besides a full-scale return to religion, except for the relentlessly and self-aggrandizingly ironic voice that narrates the novel, holding out the hope of a mind’s somehow remaining lively beyond technical control. According to Orwell, Chesterton said that Dickens was not out against this or that institution, but rather an expression on the human face. Huxley’s sour smirking expression, as conveyed by his telegraphic and self-amused prose, is perhaps not much better than the institutions he attacks. More radical satirists—such as scabrous Swift and his descendant Beckett—were out against the human face itself, but Huxley’s satire is too pleased with itself, the tone of his novel too relentlessly facetious, to allow him to encompass himself in his otherwise all-embracing judgment.

Putting narratorial arrogance to one side, Huxley’s need for God, the God-shaped hole in his argument, leads him to derogate anything less when it comes to staving off the rationalizers’ dystopia, and this is the source of his insensibility to the real meaning of Shakespeare or to the potential of modernism. If only a god can save us, then irreligious art can only be decadence, and so Huxley writes a novel that he himself admits, in his later foreword, is nothing but a puerile and rueful amusement. I imagine that for Huxley, a work such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which re-writes dystopian satire as psychological novel, and which forgoes either revolutionary hope or reactionary despair to offer instead the small but very real consolation of an acknowledged and universal sorrow, would seem scandalous when held against the enormous absence of faith that has allowed Ford to usurp God.[4]

While I have said or implied in the course of this review that William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Kazuo Ishiguro all wrote better, more insightful, more coherent books than Brave New World, I will praise Huxley for lucidly displaying a set of human problems we will probably never stop trying to solve.
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[1] It has become commonplace to insist that readers should not evaluate science fiction novels based on their predictive capacities but only for their statements about their own societies and for their literary values. While there is some truth to this admonition, let’s not toss all common sense out the window: if a work’s speculative portrayal of the future is lacking, that has many implications for its meaning and thus can indicate a real political or literary failure. Huxley, to his credit, writes as much in his foreword: “whatever its artistic or philosophical qualities, a book about the future can interest us only if its prophecies look as though they might conceivably come true.”

[2] I am drawing on George Steiner’s censure of Shakespeare as incorrigibly secular writer, which I discuss at some length here.

[3] According the Internet, Mustapha Mond is named for Ataturk and the industrialist Sir Alfred Mond, but “Mond” surely also signifies le monde, the mundane, this world—the domain of the devil.

[4] Huxley repented of his despair by the time he wrote his foreword in the late 1940s; he allows that he gave the Savage the option of two versions of insanity—an antiseptic dystopia of the future and a painful dystopia of tradition—and suggests a third, genuinely utopian alternative:

If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the utopian and the primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity—a possibility already actualized, to some extent, in a community of exiles and refugees from the Brave New World, living within the borders of the Reservation. In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque cooperative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man’s Final End, the unitive knowledge of the immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman. And the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle — the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: “How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?”

To which I can only say, perhaps with a little neoliberal cynicism, “Good luck!”

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William Faulkner, Light in August

Light in AugustLight in August by William Faulkner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Light in August, published in 1932, is Faulkner’s seventh novel and generally considered one of the major works of his best period—roughly the 1930s—alongside The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Light in August is longer and looser than these, and more conventionally told (via third-person omniscient narration). Often said to be a good place to start with Faulkner, it is less committed than the other novels I named to the modernist techniques of stream-of-consciousness narration and fragmentary structure.* If Joyce and Conrad preside over the others, the master-spirit of Light in August is probably Dickens.

The flashback-driven narrative is not conveyed linearly, however; events are mentioned, and then explained a hundred pages later. Each individual page is more linear than a page of, say, Quentin’s monologue in The Sound and the Fury, but the narrative overall is elliptical and recursive. The thought of summarizing its three intricately-braided stories intimidates me, but here is my best attempt:

Lena Grove, a pregnant young woman from Alabama, arrives in Jefferson, MS, looking for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. There she finds not Burch but Byron Bunch, a lonely man in his 30s who works in a planing mill alongside two bootleggers named Joe Brown and Joe Christmas. Bunch falls in love with Lena at first sight and resolves to help her find Burch, whom he quickly realizes is actually his co-worker, Brown.

Bunch discusses these sudden complications in his life with his friend, the former Reverend Gail Hightower, a minister disgraced and ostracized due to his wife’s adultery and eventual suicide. Hightower is furthermore disablingly obsessed with the exploits, heroic and anti-heroic, of his Confederate grandfather.

On the day Lena Grove arrives in Jefferson, a woman named Joanna Burden is murdered and her house burned down. It transpires that her killer is Bunch’s other co-worker, Joe Christmas, who had been having a tortured affair with Joanna. Christmas, a foundling (so named because he was dropped at an orphanage on Christmas Eve), believes that he is half black, though he can pass for white and though he was raised by a white family headed by a religiously fanatical and sadistic father. Joanna, for her part, is the descendant of Northern abolitionists who came to Mississippi to uplift is black population during Reconstruction, for which her grandfather and brother were both assassinated; despite this, she remained a resident in the town, albeit near its black district, and from her “dark house” (the novel’s first title) she writes to and maintains a network of colleges and other organizations for African-Americans.

Her affair with Christmas, then, is a fatal entanglement complicated by Joanna’s racial fetishization and paternalism (due to her high-handed and Puritanical “sympathy for the Negro” as well as her attraction to the racially and sexually forbidden) and by Christmas’s masochism and misogyny (based on his racial self-hatred and his perceived emasculation by white women’s charity throughout his foundling’s life). Once Joanna decides to stop sleeping with Christmas and start “saving” him, he murders her (though there is a hint that it may partially have been in self-defense as she has brandished a gun at him before) and goes on the run.

How these three narratives conjoin, I will leave the reader to discover, except to say that Christmas—as his Christ-imitating and Christ-parodying name clearly foreshadows—is eventually lynched by the community, led by the proto-fascist paramilitary racist Percy Grimm, who not only shoots Christmas but also castrates him.

As full of characters and incidents as a nineteenth-century realist novel (though much more violent and sexually frank), Light in August is often said to be incoherent or disunified, with its strong modernist central narrative of Joe Christmas’s racial crisis weakened by its being conjoined to the country comedy of Lena and Byron and the Confederate nostalgia of Reverend Hightower’s verbose reveries. But the novel does cohere, I believe: the stories of Hightower, Christmas, and Burden together form a devastatingly critical portrayal of American Protestant Christianity, in both its Northern and Southern variants, as an oppressive, pain-worshipping, race-obsessed, and inherently violent creed that creates and destroys humans as outcasts; to this, the story of Lena and Byron serve as a comic-pastoral contrast, showing the gentle persistence of natural human desire that Christianity distorts or denies.

Hightower’s reflections center on this theme as he comes to realize that his own Rebel-inflected Christian vision was destructive and responsible for the death of his wife (and, indirectly, the death of Christmas). Close to the novel’s conclusion, he reflects:

…that which is destroying the Church is not the outward groping of those within it nor the inward groping of those without, but the professionals who control it and who have removed the bells from its steeples. He seems to see them, endless, without order, empty, symbolical, bleak, skypointed not with ecstasy or passion but in adjuration, threat, and doom. He seems to see the churches of the world like a rampart, like one of those barricades of the middleages planted with dead and sharpened stakes, against truth and against that peace in which to sin and be forgiven which is the life of man.

And even earlier than this, before the lynching of Joe Christmas, he concludes that the white church crucifies itself as it projects its flaws onto the African-Americans it abjects and oppresses:

Yet even then the music has a still quality stern and implacable, deliberate, without passion so much as immolation, pleading, asking, for not love, not life, forbidding it to others, demanding in sonorous tones death as though death were the boon, like all Protestant music. […] Pleasure, ecstasy, they cannot seem to bear: their escape from it is in violence, in drinking and fighting and praying; catastrophe too, the violence identical and apparently inescapable         And so why should not their religion drive them to crucifixion of themselves and one another? he thinks. It seems to him that he can hear within the music the declaration and dedication of that which they know that on the morrow they will have to do [i.e., lynch Christmas].

But Faulkner does not leave it at that. In perhaps his most startling passage, Joanna explains to Christmas her New England Puritan forebears’ theology and theory of race, through which Faulkner shows that the Calvinist-descended progressive anti-racism of the Northern white is no less patronizing and dehumanizing than overt Southern racism. In the following passage, Joanna’s father has just told her that the white race is cursed by God for having enslaved the black race, which is cursed in turn to be the scourge of the white race’s inexpiable sin; there is much contemporary relevance, difficult to discuss, in this portrayal of the white supremacism and paternalism and, above all, Calvinist self-flagellation that persists beneath so many secular expressions and manifestations of what has been called “white guilt.” Joanna tells Christmas:

“I had seen and known negroes since I could remember. I just looked at them as I did at rain, or furniture, or food or sleep. But after that [i.e., her father’s speech] I seemed to see them for the first time not as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people, all other people. I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of a cross. And it seemed like the white babies were struggling, even before they drew breath, to escape from the shadow that was not only upon them but was beneath them too, flung out like their arms were flung out, as if they were nailed to the cross.”

Joe Christmas, anticipating Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas of Native Son, attempts to achieve existential freedom by killing the well-intentioned white woman who bears this constrictive racial ideology, but, like Thomas, he only imprisons himself further in the racist script he wishes to evade by casting himself as killer (and this is not to mention the misogyny on which Faulkner’s and Wright’s narratives rest, of which neither author seems quite sufficiently aware). Light in August, though, is more humanistic than Faulkner’s previous novels, grim as it is; a handful of references to “white blood” and “black blood” aside, it blames its tragic anti-hero’s fate almost entirely on his society, and not on any natural forces—which are themselves represented (problematically from a feminist perspective) in the figure of Lena as female fecundity, and therefore as positive and life-affirming.

Faulkner’s style in this novel is, as he might say, a myriad thing. Anticipating later trends in fictional prose, he narrates in the present tense; he also, though inconsistently, uses typographical devices—double quotation marks for dialogue, single quotation marks for conscious thought, italics for subconscious thought. There are passages of humorous vernacular dialogue, passages of Hemingway-clear linear narrative with sentences as transparent as this:

It is just dawn, daylight. He rises and descends to the spring and takes from his pocket the razor, the brush, the soap.

And then there are sentences like these, a torrent of language more sonorous than sensible, and wittingly or unwittingly defiant of traditional grammar, describing the grim orphanage in which Christmas grew up:

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled [sic—gabled?] cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten-foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.

This novel’s narrator, or, better, its language, is a character in itself, a viscous medium that thins and thickens at will, a haze of autumnal heaviness, a mood weary (and somewhat erotically sickened) with the violence it knows but also curiously hopeful. A modern editor or MFA workshop leader would find something to blue-pencil or red-pen or MSWord “comment” on every page, but for Faulkner, as for Blake, the path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Most criticisms of this novel implicitly wish it to be something other than it is and are therefore unpersuasive. My one major criticism is that too much in Joanna’s relationship with Christmas is sketchily summed up rather than dramatized, and Joanna herself is perhaps more of an idea than a character. Discussions of “writing the other” so often center around obvious racial divides, but I find that Faulkner’s black characters are more credible (or at least more substantial) than this slightly shadowy Puritan Yankee.

I won’t say Light in August never exasperated or even bored me, but it is a novel of undiminished relevance written in a style of intriguing yet symphonic strangeness, the strangeness of the strangers the novel evokes and elegizes. Highly recommended.
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* I don’t agree with this advice, by the way. To start with Faulkner, drop yourself straight into the deep end with The Sound and the Fury, which contains pretty much everything Faulkner can do in one book, from the tour-de-force of the first chapter, narrated through the prismatic consciousness of a so-called “idiot,” to the Ulysses-derived and delirious interior monologue of the disintegrating young intellectual in the second chapter, to the third chapter’s vernacular clarity and bigotry and the final chapter’s stately third-person rhetoric, both of which lead on to Light in August‘s somewhat more traditionally realist aspirations.

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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!