Friday, March 31, 2017

the names of things

A great deal of effort in Sodom and Gomorrah is devoted to the ways in which language hides the world rather than revealing it. The second half of the book returns Marcel to Balbec and surrounds, where the once-mysterious place names from Swann's Way are transformed for Marcel into symbols for people he knows, stations along the local railway where the little train stops long enough for people in the carriages to get out and chat or have a drink with residents of the towns. Marcel has also learned several possible etymologies of many of the local place names (traditional etymologies from a local vicar's book on the subject, and possibly-more-exact etymologies from Brichot, a scholar in one of the social circles Marcel joins). The names found on maps or train timetables are vestiges of names that once signified the agrarian use of lands or the ownership of property, of places where one could fish or cut trees for lumber. Many of the place names are connected (directly or indirectly) with names of France's great families, depending on who is giving the etymologies or genealogies (there is no clear consensus on any of this). This business with the historical ("true, original") meaning of names, which mean one thing in common use but also carry hidden--sometimes quite different--meanings of their own, is a metaphor for the whole of language, for the whole of human discourse. Charlus speaks in a kind of doublespeak code--revealing his sexuality while attempting to disguise it--in conversations with people who are quite sure about Charlus' tastes but speak to him as if they are unaware of it, all the while making private jokes to each other about Charlus, right in front of him. Morel--after whom Charlus longs with a passion so powerful it could destroy him, a passion that makes him abase himself before Morel even in front of witnesses--says whatever is convenient at any given moment in order to maintain his childish pride and his control over Charlus. Everyone says one thing and means something else. Everyone is in an agony of desire, pretending otherwise when they can and humiliating themselves when they cannot, all the while smiling and leaving visiting cards and shaking hands on the train station platform as they are all carried from hotel to hotel, party to party, during a long summer vacation that must, of course, come to an end. We lie to one another and ourselves without realizing we are lying, without knowing that we lie to push back our despair, we stuff ourselves with lies to fill holes in ourselves we don't even know we have. Marcel, aware that he does not want Albertine, must have her because he knows she does not want him. Everyone becomes Swann or Odette, though by now we must realize how miserable Odette must've been, with Swann relentlessly pursuing her, misunderstanding her lies though she was certain he knew what she was really saying. How dumb we all are.

The place names/family names theme also reveals to us how the mysteries of life (once where Marcel would look at a map of France he'd imagine all sorts of romances behind the exotic names of towns he'd never seen, or when he would see the names of the nobility in the papers or overhear them in the conversation of adults he would imagine the glittering and brilliant lives connected to those names) become mundane once encountered and examined (the exotic locales of Brittany transform into a mere list of places where one can shake hands with an acquaintance one can very well live without, and the famous names reveal themselves as belonging to wealthy but shallow folks who are no better than those people to whom they refuse to be introduced). Which is not to say that this new perception of reality is true; it is merely another thing we tell ourselves, merely another layer of language obscuring whatever reality actually is. Language is what we tell ourselves, not a map of the world.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

he himself wanted

...And people even went so far as to seek out, in an isolated past, men of independent talent upon whose reputation the present movement would not have seemed likely to have any influence, but of whom one of the new masters was understood to have spoken favorably. Often it was because a master, whoever he may be, however exclusive his school, judges in the light of his own untutored instincts, gives credit to talent wherever it is to be found, or rather not so much to talent as to some agreeable inspiration which he has enjoyed in the past, which reminds him of a precious moment in his adolescence. At other times it was because certain artists of an earlier generation have in some fragment of their work achieved achieved something that resembles what the master has gradually become aware that he himself wanted to do. Then he sees the old master as a sort of precursor; he values in him, under a wholly different form, an effort that is momentarily, partially fraternal. There are bits of Turner in the work of Poussin, phrases of Flaubert in Montesquieu. Sometimes, again, this rumored predilection of a master was due to an error, starting heaven knows where and circulated among his followers.
--from The Anxiety of Influence, by M. Proust, (C. Montcrieff, trans.)

Friday, March 17, 2017

not as good as Anna Karenina, though

Everybody feels the greater force of the climax that assumes its right place without an effort, when the time comes, compared with that in which a strain and an exaggerated stress are perceptible. The process of writing a novel seems to be one of continual forestalling and anticipating ; far more important than the immediate page is the page to come, still in the distance, on behalf of which this one is secretly working. The writer makes a point and reserves it at the same time, creates an effect and holds it back, till in due course it is appropriated and used by the page for which it is intended. It must be a pleasure to the writer, it is certainly a great pleasure to the critic, when the stroke is cleanly brought off. It is the same pleasure indeed ; the novelist makes the stroke, but the critic makes it again by perceiving it, and is legitimately satisfied by the sense of having perceived it with good artistry. It is spoilt, of course, if the stroke is handled tactlessly and obtrusively ; the art of preparation is no art if it betrays itself at the outset, calling attention to its purpose. By definition it is unrecognizable until it attains its end ; it is the art of rendering an impression that is found to have been made, later on, but that evades detection at the moment.
Percy Lubbuck on Balzac, characterization and foreshadowing, from The Craft of Fiction, 1921

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?

We are not among those who have had faith in Herman Melville's South Pacific travels so much as in his strength of imagination. The Confidence-Man shows him in a new character -- that of a satirist, and a very keen, somewhat bitter, observer. His hero, like Mr. Melville in his earlier works, asks confidence of everybody under different masks of mendicancy, and is, on the whole, pretty successful.... It required close knowledge of the world, and of the Yankee world, to write such a book and make the satire acute and telling, and the scenes not too improbable for the faith given to fiction. Perhaps the moral is the gullibility of the great Republic, when taken on its own tack. At all events, it is a wide enough moral to have numerous applications, and sends minor shafts to right and left. Several capital anecdotes are told, and well told; but we are conscious of a certain hardness in the book, from the absence of humour, where so much humanity is shuffled into close neighbourhood. And with the absence of humour, too, there is an absence of kindliness. The view of human nature is severe and sombre -- at least, that is the impression left on our mind.... Few Americans write so powerfully as Mr. Melville, or in better English, and we shall look forward with pleasure to his promised continuation of the masquerade. The first part is a remarkable work, and will add to his reputation. --London Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, July 1857
"a certain hardness in the book," yes, that's it exactly. This is a stern book, an upwelling of Melville's disappointment and frustration with his America. I am not sure what to say about this novel, or why I'd say it or to whom I'd say it. And yet, look at me go.

The Confidence-Man is the last Herman Melville novel published during his lifetime. On the whole, it baffled American reviewers; the English reviewers, such as the above-quoted writer, were able to make more of the book. I don't know what that means, if anything, except that perhaps it's hard to have a sense of humor about oneself, to understand when one is the subject of a powerful and cutting satire.

The Confidence-Man is a powerful and cutting satire of America, Melville focusing his "certain hardness" on the American love of profit and the American casual objectification of Native Americans. It is a social critique in the form of a sort of picaresque folk tale: a riverboat sails up the Mississippi River on April Fool's Day of 1851 or so, filled with Americans from all walks of life. Onto this boat steps The Confidence-Man, a professional swindler with no fixed identity, who changes his name, costume, and persona about once an hour, seeking victims who will "have confidence" in him. "Confidence" here means something like "trust", as in "will you trust this man with your money?" He is at one time a beggar, at another a hawker of medicines, turning up later as a representative of a mining firm who'll sell you as many shares in the mine as you can buy. He is made of air, mostly, lies and air. The Confidence-Man preaches tolerance and charity, chiding his fellows when they show selfishness, getting money from many of them by a wide variety of ruses. If you were to call the Confidence-Man a fraud, a thief, he would put on a wounded expression and quote the gospels at you.

This is a funny book, an insightful book, a terrifying book. Melville was angry.

A few nights ago I was struck by how similar The Confidence-Man is to Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Not just because the Rabelais book has a cast of characters on a boat and each chapter is a comic episode, and not just because the character who gradually takes over the "Pantagruel" books is a dishonest and selfish liar, but there is also something in the tone of both books that is similar, and I realized for the first time that Gargantua and Pantagruel must be a satire of 16th-century France, when all this time I was thinking it was mostly just a bawdy comedy. Shows what I know.

I am also delighted to find so many references to the plays of Shakespeare in The Confidence-Man. They're scattered liberally across the whole narrative, which is quite fun for a guy like me.