Wednesday, April 16, 2014

He and his Man

When The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, was published in 1719, it was received by many as a factual account. And there was good reason to do so; many sailors who had been castaways had written narratives, and in an era when not all the globe had yet been charted, there was still plenty of room for unknown "desert isles" (the phrase means deserted isles -- no sand is present or implied!).

But it turned out that the book was the work of Daniel Defoe, whose other great claim to fame was a similar portmanteau of fact and fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year. In both texts, Defoe used actual journals, reminiscences, and newspaper articles as his sources, mimicking the language, tone, and apparatus of his sources, tossing in numbers and dates and longitudes and latitudes to set the seal of truth upon his sly fictions. The story of Alexander Selkirk, who really had been stranded on a remote island for four years, provided the thread in this case. And, as Defoe's latter-day follower Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in a review, "how wonderful has been the result!"

We must now fast forward to some point in the 1940's, when the young John Maxwell Coetzee got his hands upon a copy of the book; it became a treasured favorite, and when, some time later, he found an encyclopedia article saying that Daniel Defoe was the author of Robinson Crusoe, he experienced, by his own account, an existential crisis: how could Robinson Crusoe, the man, have an author? Thus the preamble, and the title, to the lecture he delivered on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Crusoe, of course, already had a "man" (in English usage of the day, "man" was short for "manservant"), whom he'd dubbed "Friday." But now, stranger still, he had another man, or another man had him -- the author.

Coetzee had explored this years earlier in his own novel, Foe - but the Nobel lecture gives us a shorter, sweeter apothegm of the curious postcolonial echoes of Defoe's original story.

NB: Be sure to watch the video starting with the preamble (which is in the video, but not in the transcript below it)!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The postcolonial turn

Postcolonial literature is a very broad category; it includes African writers such as Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ama Ata Aidoo, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe; Indian-British and Indian-American writers such as Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, and Jhumpa Lahiri, and Caribbean writers such as Maryse Condé, Marlene Nourbese Philip, and Michelle Cliff, among many others. They are part of a movement in which, to quote one critical assessment, the "Empire Writes Back" -- the former subjects of Colonialism send their rich and sharply-tones missives back towards that center which cannot hold. There are even some "white" writers (in the sense in which that term has been employed, deployed, and invoked) on the fringes of the former empire whose works may belong here as well: Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee.

Postcolonial literature has its own particular power, and particular problems. Should a po-co writer use the language of the colonizer in his or her work? Or is it true that, as Audre Lorde argued, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"? Should postcolonial writers embody the vernacular literature of their home countries, as did (for example) Amos Tutuola? Or should they garner laurels by embracing highly contemporary, international forms and genres, as did Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe? Or does "literature" itself, as a category, constitute an artificial boundary left over from the colonial era; why shouldn't postcolonial "writing include" (for example) the lyrics of Bob Marley or the oral poetry of griots? What role do the old demarcations of race, caste, and class do to the potential solidarity of postcolonial writing -- or what does gender? And, lastly, is it best to see postcolonial writing as an international, or transnational phenomenon, or is it preferable not to group together writers from different nations, cultures, and epochs?

Finally, there is the question of the reader of this literature. Are we, ourselves, as residents of "developed" nations which have long benefitted from being atop the economic and social heap (at the expense of poorer nations and peoples), in a sense 'the enemy' of these writings? Are they meant for us at all? Should such work then be, as Manuel Puig entitled one of his novels, an "Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages"? These are the questions which animate the field of postcolonial literature, and which we'll consider -- albeit all too briefly -- as we read a few of its exemplary texts.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Couple of Stories by Mansfield and Joyce

Modernism has always, it seems, had a bit of a gender problem. For decades, there was a critical double-standard that relegated women -- Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Jean Rhys, and Katherine Mansfield -- to a second tier -- while enfolding men such as Joyce, Kafka, Forster, and Fitzgerald in canonical vestments.  Perhaps the only woman of the period to escape this phenomenon was Gertrude Stein -- but then, her modernism was quite unlike anyone else's, and she was at the center of an artistic circle filled with male writers and artists.  But now, at last, there does seem to be a correction, and many now see Virginia Woolf as the pre-eminent novelist of the period. Another beneficiary of our corrected hindsight is Katherine Mansfield, whose short stories are perhaps the finest of the entire Modernist movement, including one -- "Prelude" -- which became just the second publication of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press. Mansfield, too, was a bit of an outsider, a New Zealander who never felt entirely at home in Britain. She had the misfortune of striking up a long, on-again, off-again relationship with John Middleton Murry, a man who never really grasped her genius but nevertheless made himself the guardian of her; her early death from tuberculosis in 1923 put Murry in charge of her literary estate, and he extensively censored her letters and journals when they were published.

Joyce, during his career, sought to establish himself as the great voice of Modernism, and something more, its representative. Although he did not originate the technique of "stream of consciousness," his "eiphanies" -- which began with Dubliners in 1914 -- recast the notion, and with Ulysses (1922) he had his greatest triumph. Here was a novel the action of which took place all in a single day (16 June), in a single town (Dublin), and wove its words through the streams of every street, tarrying amidst idle thoughts of one of its idlest characters, Leopold Bloom. Joyce's presence was felt throughout the period from the early twenties to the outbreak of WWII, and not simply through his books, but via his habit of putting forth sections of his "Work in Progress" in literary magazinesjournals, and chapbooks throughout this period. His final work, Finnegans Wake (note the absence of an apostrophe) was his densest, written in what one critic has called "the language of the night" -- polyglot, punning, and peristrephic.

To give but a few examples: In FW, Joyce coins the word "fadograph" -- of course this is "photograph," with the punning suggestion that it "fades" over time -- but it is also a pun on the Irish Gaelic word fádo, which means "long ago" (many Irish folktales start with this word). There are also any number of other collusions and collisions of language, ranging from the "hundred letter thunder word" (made up of the word for thunder in dozens of languages) to the endless acronymic variations on the letters HCE ("Here Comes Everybody," "Haveth Childers Everywhere," "Howth Castle and Environs," and many more). It's a work of genius, surely, but one so closely-woven and multi-layered that it can really only be digested in small doses.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Modernism and its Discontents

Many years ago, a friend of mine penned a quatrain which for some reason still lingers in my mind:

Mr. Eliot, beloved of Pound
Is riding his crafty go-cart 'round
While many a gifted latter-day poet
Is eating his dust (they sure can't sow it).

There remains this curious notion of Modernism as somehow sterile, without any progeny (other than the mutant offspring known as "postmodernism") -- and yet its influence remains broad and profound. Just as with Romanticism, we are its children precisely to the extent that we're unaware of it.

The idea that the fragmentary is in many ways preferable to the whole ("The Waste Land"), that a 'stream' of consciousness is the most vivid and accurate embodiment of narrative movement (Ulysses, The Waves), that our lives are made of moments, suddenly illuminated by the same flash that obliterates them ("Araby," "Daughters of the Late Colonel"), that innovations in content demand innovations in form -- all these are the birthmarks of Modernism's legacy and its continuing sway over us.

The one thing the Modernists probably wanted least was to become part of a standard curriculum. BLAST canonical texts, critical reading, and all the middle-class middle-brow MUDDLE of EDUCATION!!, one can almost hear Wyndham Lewis saying. When, late in both their lives, T.S. Eliot and his wife had dinner with Groucho Marx and his -- both were fans of the other -- Groucho happened to mention that his daughter was studying Eliot's poetry at Beverly Hills High. "I'm sorry to hear that," the great poet replied, "I've no wish to become compulsory reading." I love that anecdote because it gives us a direct sense of the contradiction inherent in literary study of any kind: if indeed, like Rilke in the presence of the statue of Apollo, we receive the message of all art -- "You must change your life!" -- then what are we doing reducing this revolution in our minds into a mere historical exercise? What indeed.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Age of War

The twentieth century may have been the first to be dreaded even before it arrived; for every imagined progressive force, there was an unequal and opposite reactionary force; almost overnight, the stage darkened. Some have argued, in fact, it had already begun in 1889, the year Nietzsche went mad and Hitler was born. Some sense of doom often precedes the dawn of a new century or millennium, but this time it seemed different, and it was: the new century would bring war, death, and genocide on a scale hitherto unimaginable; it would witness the despotism of Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Pol Pot, and Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo; it would see the emergence of nations from oppressive colonial regimes hurled into far worse ones; it would see the invention of the ultimate weapon of destruction: the nuclear bomb.

One could list a number of other things that were actually quite good about this century -- Penicillin, the Polio vaccine, manned travel to the Moon, the Civil Rights movements in the United States, and microwave popcorn -- but that would be beside the point. The fortunate are not always happy, nor are the poor necessarily miserable; the texture of lived experience owes something, but not everything, to its material conditions. Our feelings often cathect toward moments and symbols that seem to bring us together or tear us apart, and at these untimely interstices we are gathered for a moment, so that literature and the arts may take our picture.

There were a number of such moments in the early years of the twentieth century: one thinks of the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901, the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912, and the opening battles of WWI in 1914. In literary and cultural terms, there's the first issue of Wyndham Lewis's Blast!, the 1913 Armory Show, the serialization of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1914-15, and the "Great War" itself, which permanently altered the careers of many writers, both those who survived (J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon) and those who didn't (Wilfred Owen, W.N. Hodgson, Rupert Brooke). And then there were those who survived physically, but were shattered, such as Ivor Gurney.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Yeats & Co.

One of the little ironies of twentieth-century 'British' literature is that most of the best of it was written by people who were born outside of Britain, places like Bombay, Dublin, Cape TownBloemfonteinOgidi, AbeokutaBerdychiv, and even (in the case of adopted Brit T.S. Eliot) St. Louis, Missouri. And the first harbinger of this shift from the purported center of Anglophone writing was, without doubt, the 'Irish Literary Renaissance' that had its origins in Dublin in the 1880's and 1890's. Ironically, the first wave of this movement sought to restore Irish Gaelic language and culture; its leaders, such as Douglas Hyde and his Gaelic League, scorned English as the tongue of the oppressor. At the same time, however, a small and loosely affiliated group of writers in Dublin were starting to establish a national literature and theatre in English; among their numbers were the poet George William Russell (known as Æ), the playwright John Millington Synge, along with James Stephens, Ella Young, Lady Gregory, and George Moore. Yeats, a brash young poet, was among the first to gain wider recognition, and in fact after a relatively brief period when he was active in Dublin's Abbey Theatre, spent most of the rest of his life in London. His early poems were steeped in the old Irish tradition, beginning in 1889 with The Wanderings of Oisin (a sort of Irish 'Ancient Mariner') and evocations of traditional ballads ("The Song of the Wandering Aengus")  In his middle years, he dabbled in occultism, joining the somewhat infamous Order of the Golden Dawn (which counted Aleister Crowley and S.L. MacGregor Mathers among its members) and becoming enamored of Wyndam Lewis and the "Vorticist" movement. He captured the spirit of Irish resentment ("An Irish Airman Foresees his Death") and memorialized the Irish rebellion with "Easter 1916." His poetry continued to evolve throughout his career, culminating in the rich, dark, ironic modernism of "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Second Coming," and "The Circus Animals' Desertion." By the end of his life, Yeats could be seen to represent a new efflorescence of lyricism, something not known in English since the Romantics, and not -- alas -- heard much since.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Jekyll and Hyde

Since its first publication in 1886, "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" has never been out of print. Stage adaptations began the next year, 1887, and the first film version was released in 1910. By one count, there have been 123 film versions in all. In both stage and film versions, the same actor is traditionally cast in both roles, and the high point of the drama is the "transformation scene" in which Jekyll becomes Hyde. Happily, many of these are now available on YouTube; you can see the earliest surviving film version from 1912, along with the performances of Frederic March, John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Boris Karloff, and even Bugs Bunny.

It's too bad, though, that nearly every version of this story has Mr. Hyde physically looking monstrous. The stage transformations, of course, relied more on the actors' ability to manipulate their expression, stance, and movements, but nearly every film gives Hyde fangs, hair, and a hunchback. This misses the whole point of Stevenson's story, which is that Hyde's "deformity" was inward; no one who saw him could quite put their finger on why his appearance made them suddenly want to kill him. Simply put: Mr. Hyde walks among us, or perhaps within us, and there is no sure way of detecting the transformation from the respectable to the detestable.

Perhaps we all have "secret selves." After all, we're social creatures, and there's no reason we should act or feel the same when we are in different company, or by ourselves. But the million small acts of repression required to shape our social identities can't help but have some effect on our psyche. These repressed thoughts may surface briefly in dreams or nightmares, may spur the creativity of artists. Indeed, some performers, such as Marilyn Manson, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Ghoulardi, or the Gravediggaz, have made careers out of wearing their horror on their sleeve. We can then be reassured when we see that, off stageand out of makeup, these performers are "nice" people -- but what of the reverse? What of those who, though outwardly nice, respectable citizens, are leading double lives, in one of which they are cheating on their partners, betting on dogfights, frequenting prostitutes, or gambling away their life savings?

So perhaps Jekyll and Hyde are, more or less, symptoms of civilization, a double metaphor for what we must all do to survive in a world of pressures and performances. The common view is that the Victorian society of Stevenson's day was far more restricted and repressed than ours; no wonder such men created monsters! Or are we just as repressed, perhaps even more so?

Is Jekyll and Hyde a story for its time, or for all time? What parallels do you see between the psychological world it presents and the world of today? How far from us, in 2014, is that decrepit old house with its mouldering green door? And who of us has the key?