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Monday, September 4, 2017

Costa Rica: Land of Peace

A month ago, Roger and Nick and I were in Costa Rica.

Nick was going there to do a two-week project, and we thought we should go with him--and have a vacation too :). My summer class was cancelled for the first time in six years, so I had more time to travel mid-summer.
Lovely flower in Monteverde cloud forest

Butterfly at a restaurant amid gardens

Monteverde is a creative community: a rooster made of trash had just been placed on top of a dumpster while we were there.

We flew into San Jose, the capital, but our first destination was Monteverde, at the top of a mountain. It was a long bus ride up, slowed down by a dirt road the last 20 miles or so.

A locally owned grocery and restaurant where our big bus stopped on the way up the mountain.

When the bus dropped us off at the end of the narrow drive leading up to our hosts' house, we were glad we had come along with Nick: it was pitch dark and as we were standing there uncertainly, a storm of Frankenstein proportions hit: thunder, bolts of lightning, driving rain pouring down as we trudged we knew not exactly where. Nobody would want to arrive in a strange place in another country all alone to this kind of weather.

We made it to our kind hosts the Castillos and from there on, had a very good time.

Cats and dogs are part of the Costa Rican landscape

Montverde was essentially started by Quakers who settled there to farm in 1949. Costa Rica was and is a country without an army, so young Quaker men who were being jailed in the U.S. for being conscientious objectors could literally live in peace in Costa Rica. In the 1950s, they cleared cloud forest in order to dairy farm and start a cheese factory. In the 1960s, as scientists worried about climate change and species extinction began to descend on the cloud forest, the Quakers turned their energies to cloud forest preservation and ecological concerns. However, the cheese (and ice cream) factory is still there, and one of our highlights was getting the local ice cream.

Hummingbird at cloud forest feeder. There were dozens of hummingbirds around the feeders.

Today, the various Monteverde cloud forests are international tourist destinations and tourism drives the local economy. We saw and heard tourists from all over Europe: France, England, Germany and more. Monteverde has many coffeeshops and restaurants because of the tourists.

A highlight was a private guided tour of the cloudforest. We learned that the forest high up in the mountains is not officially in the rainforest but the cloudforest. The rain forest is the next level down the mountain and at the bottom, near the ocean, is the dry forest.

Hushed cloud forest

Touring the cloudforest was a spiritual experience. Our guide, who was excellent, didn't feel compelled to talk non-stop, so we were able to experience the profound stillness and peace of the forest. It was a remarkable experience. Unlike Barnesville, where the birds often create a cacophony of sound with their many raucous songs and loud cries, we at most heard the muted song of a bird in the distance. The forest was hushed and still.

As Quakers, it was a treat for us to visit the Monteverde Quaker school and meeting, and to have lunch at a small local outdoor restaurant run by Rockwells--relatives of Barnesville Quaker Rockwells.

View of the Monteverde school library, which is open 24/7. I always love seeing a card catalogue. 

The food in Costa Rica was wonderful--all fresh and home cooked. We enjoyed the "tipico" meal of black beans, rice, fried plantains and salad. The internet was quite good as well.

We learned that despite pressure from the business interests in San Jose who have put up hotels in Monteverde, the government sees no need to pave the last 20 miles of road up the mountain: from their point of view, there is a health clinic and a hospital at the top of the mountain, so no human need for rushing up the road. That kind of thinking was stunning to me, so indoctrinated am I into the idea that everything must be subordinated to business needs. One of the pleasures of international travel is, of course,  being exposed to different ideas and ways of life.

After a few days in Monteverde, Roger and I left Nick and headed down the mountain in the public bus to the Pacific coast. The three-hour ride cost each of us about $4 versus the $50 per person for the shuttle bus. The ride was pleasant and we watched as people talked to each other, children in school uniforms headed for the classroom, and people got on and off with shopping.

Ferry station

The ferry ride to the island where our tiny Mal Pais beach house was located was lovely. The public bus ride to the beach was not too lovely--very long and very hot--but very cheap.

Our beautiful beach house

Beach area: the jungle comes down the beach and you can hear monkeys.

We loved our beach house and the neighborhood feeling of our locale. We found a wonderful open air restaurant right on the beach, very reasonably priced. We also enjoyed swimming in the very warm ocean water. One day we bought fresh grouper right off the boat.

Restaurant on the beach. Really wonderful.

Fish market.  Our grouper had just been caught--and the fish market owner knew we would want it filleted. 

Costa Rica is a lovely, friendly, low-key place. Because it is so attuned to tourism, people there anticipated our needs before we knew what they were, which was helpful to us. At the same time, little to none of our trip felt conventionally "touristy."

Me on main dirt road in Mal Pais

Same road after rain

While Barnesville is hardly the epitome of consumerist, it was still a pleasure to stay for some days in a country even less consumer oriented. Costa Rica is dedicated to becoming energy self-sufficient and has put aside a large amount of its land as state park. Health care and education are available to all citizens--even higher education is free or very low cost to those who qualify. There is much the U.S. can learn from this tiny country.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Austen first lines

If we take seriously the idea that the first line of a novel sets the tone, and more importantly, encapsulates a novel's central theme, what clues do first lines in Jane Austen's novels offer? How can examining these first lines influence our reading of these works? Below, I've copied the opening sentence of the six published novels and three other works Austen began or revised in her mature years, with some comments--and I invite your comments.

Northanger Abbey
First line: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine." 

 The novel's first line communicate a theme that threads throughout the book: all is not as it seems. The story's dark comedy hinges on mercenary people misreading Catherine's finances and naive Catherine misreading their hearts. Add a sub-theme about novel reading, and Catherine's own misreadings of Northanger Abbey--or, as Arnie Perlstein asks, are they misreadings?--and Austen's first line leads us straight to the heart of this novel. If all is not as it seems in the microcosm of Catherine's world, what about in the macrocosm of British society, where, after all, every neighbor is a spy?

Sense and Sensibility
First sentence: "The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex." 
 This is the shortest and seemingly most straightforward Austen first line. It tells us the  book will centrally concern the Dashwood family, and it does:  Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the novel's central figures. But the line also suggest this book is centrally about history, the history of families who have "long been settled." The opening line leads us towards the back story of family history, such as the back story of Edward Ferrars. Tangentially a part of the Dashwood family through his sister's marriage, he has his own secrets. Informing the novel too is the deeper backstory of Elizabeth Austen, Jane's great-great grandmother, whose harrowing experiences of inheritance runs like a hidden scar through the Dashwood's hideous treatment. The Dashwood women begin the novel anything but "settled," for primogeniture and patriarchy (even as embodied in a toddler) have upended their existence. This is centrally a novel about the effects of family cruelty and custom on displaced females.

Pride and Prejudice

Charlotte Lucas
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
As we know, this is the most famous first line in Austen and one of the most famous in the entire literary canon, used repeatedly as a classic example of irony. The joke is usually on us: first, almost everyone will accept that the line is ironic, as they have been taught to do so, and then proceed to read the novel as a straight romance, missing much of the irony and zany misdirection that threads through it, as if the first line floats in a cloud of ether divorced from the rest of the novel. Second, as is typical of Austen, the irony is multi-layered: yes, it is avaricious relatives with daughters, not single men, who think rich men must need to get married, but the final irony is that this irony reverses itself: in this novel the men "in possession of a good fortune--" Darcy, Bingley and yes, Collins--are in want of wives.

If this first line signals to us we will be entering a land of irony, where we have to take the events as they unfold with a grain of salt, it also signals that this is not a romance. This is a novel about marriage--marriage as separated from romance--marriage as financial transaction. And marriage is a financial transaction in this novel: Charlotte Lucas is frank about it, as is Mr. Collins, heightening the disjuncture between his rhetorical love language and his admission that he has been assigned by Lady Catherine the job of obtaining a wife, as one would a pot of jam--and that he knows full well that his income and prospects are his chief calling cards. Wickham is frank too--money greases the skids of marriage--or stops it from happening. When Lizzie sees Pemberley, her heart warms at the idea she could have been its mistress, and this mercenary motive miraculously transforms into misty love for its owner. Only Jane and Bingley, whose interiority we never see, remain ambiguous. Are they in love? Or does the enigmatic Jane recognize Bingley as her ticket out of life with Mrs. Bennet? We never know--or perhaps the hints are all there, and we've missed them.

More fundamentally, the emphasis on "fortune" in the first line pulls us toward Charlotte as the submerged central character in this novel. She tells the truth--a truth that even her best friend Lizzie can't hear. When Charlotte, early on in the novel, outlines  the hard-headed pragmatism with which she would go about catching a husband should the opportunity arise, Lizzie can't believe it, dismissing her: "You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself." Yet this is exactly how Charlotte does act, in plain sight of Elizabeth, who doesn't notice what she doesn't want to see.

This leads us to wonder if Charlotte's words about marriage act as a bookend to the novel's opening lines. What does it say about Lizzie's or Jane's fate if what Charlotte asserts is true:
Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.
Mansfield Park
"About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income."
Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris sit in the shade while Fanny works, but all these family Ward relations are together.

 Given the title of the book and the importance of location to the novel, one would expect the opening line to  focus on the place, not a person--and if a person, not Miss Maria Ward, aka Lady Bertram. Yet there's a poetic rhythm to this first line, with all its alliterations: "captivate" and "county," "comforts" and "consequences," "lady" and "large." 

Lady Bertram is, of course, the lynchpin pulling together the major actors as she links together the Ward and Bertram families. Without her,  Mrs. Norris and  Fanny Price would not be partaking of the wealth and privilege of a baronet's estate. The opening line hints that  his novel will centrally concern "all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income," and we soon enough learn that is not simply for Miss Maria Ward. 

 Jane Austen, with her typical sleight of hand, adds one letter to a word we can too easily slide over: we tend to read "all the comfort and consequence ..." but Austen has added an "s:" "consequences." What are these consequences? The word consequences, unlike consequence, has an ominous undertone. This is a novel about consequences--but is it more centrally than we suspect about Miss Maria Ward? Is she behind the scenes, pulling strings, or, conversely, is she a symbol of the Deleuzian statis that Mansfield Park represents? Or is she something else?

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. 
 We expect a novel called Emma to open proclaiming the centrality of its eponymous character and the first line doesn't disappoint us. 

We are told in a compact, even beautiful, way about Emma Woodhouse, but who is doing the telling? Because it's the opening sentence, we believe this to be knowledge from on high offered by an omniscient narrator: however, we're faced with another instance of sleight-of-hand that hinges on the words "seems." This authorial voice, if it is that, doesn't speak too authoritatively. Emma only seems.
Could this be the condensed voice of the village choir, the distillation of the opinions of the people of Highbury? As with the opening line of Northanger Abbey (another novel originally named for its lead character) we are in the world of supposition: what appears to be true in this novel seldom is, and the opening line points to the centrality of distrusting appearances.

This central theme of this novel, which beneath the Midsummer's Night Dream inspired love romps, asks these questions: what is real? what is illusion? How do we know? This draws us, centrally, to inquire what else and who else in the novel may not be what they seem. Is Miss Bates really as silly as she appears? Harriet as innocent? Besides the secret engagement between Frank and Jane, what else might we the readers be missing that is hiding in plain sight? 

A mystery lies at the heart of this novel: to quote Wallace Stevens out of context, "let be be finale of seem."

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened: "ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL. 
Discussions about renting Kellynch Hall
 In a story filled with long sentences, this  longest opening line in an Austen novel sets the tone. Would Austen have broken up this first line in another draft of the novel? We don't know, but the sentence reads with a polished, finished cadence, as if it is what she intended.

Here, as in Sense and Sensibility, the focus is on family history. 

This appears to be omniscient narration: no "seems" or "supposed" interrupts the confident flow of this text.  Sir Walter Eliot loves his Baronetage; we find him self-defined not as individual but a person who finds his meaning, pride and solace in being part of a greater whole, a great chain of being. His orientation is, paradoxically, both external and escapist: he selectively chooses the external to escape any troubling interiority or self-reflection that might disturb his self image or his worldview. To him, we suspect, the names of his daughters in a book--names not mentioned until sentence two and then read, not thought-- might have more reality than the living beings. 

We do get encapsulation of the novel as whole in this line: we are introduced from the start to the euphemistically labelled  "unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs," which will be the driver of this plot, and we begin to understand, as we study the text, that our narrator provides primarily an annotated distillation of Sir Walter's thoughts. 

Leaving aside the idea that Austen would have revised this opening before publishing the book (we can only use what we have), this first line is perplexing. Sir Walter's lack of ability to face reality, his insistence on living, paradoxically, in a made up world consisting of carefully selected externals, causes the family a level of debt that requires the rental of the their hall and the removal to the anonymous world Bath--and the rental to Captain Wentworth's sister and brother-in-law brings Wentworth back on the scene. In that sense, Sir Walter is central to the story, but other ways he seems peripheral, so as with Lady Bertram, one wonders at him at the focus of the opening line. It hints that the core of the novel explores the way status and money (or lack thereof) distorts genuine feeling and truth. 

The Watsons
"The first winter assembly in the town of D. in Surrey was to be held on Tuesday, October 13th and it was generally expected to be a very good one."

 One can have little doubt that Jane Austen would have added a framing first paragraph ahead of this, if not an entire first section or chapter. The line is apt, however, in signaling that this will be a novel about community, like Emma. Parallels to Emma are striking, and it's easy to envision the later novel as a reworking of this one, with Austen distancing herself from whatever painful associations the original caused her by switching the point of view. The Watsons' Emma is a compelling character, and it's too bad--anguishing even--that Austen laid this novel aside. Here the central point of view emerges from the character who evolved into Emma's Jane Fairfax, a woman of sensitivity and refinement raised in comfortable surroundings but forced by circumstances back into a poorer home with less elegant company (shades of Fanny at Portsmouth too). How wonderful it would be to have the full novel.

Lady Susan

"MY DEAR BROTHER,—I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchhill, and, therefore, if quite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with."

Lady Susan, Austen's only mature epistolary, uses the form which gets, I believe, to the heart of Austen's method, because, by definition, the epistolary defies an omniscient point of view. The opening is seemingly innocent: what reason would we have to suspect Lady Susan of subterfuge and evil? And yet we do, in retrospect: the first ten words include both "pleasure" and
"profiting," both of which are aims of Lady Susan's existence. We see a dereliction of duty tooin the length of time it has taken Lady Susan to meet her sister: she, like Frank Churchill, has subordinated duty to pleasure. The common name Churchill in the two novels and the like event of avoiding a visit to a relative until there's an hidden motive, bring us back again to Emma. One can imagine Frank's letter to his new stepmother as somewhat like this one. 

"A gentleman and a lady traveling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand."

This  opening line immediately pulls us into a scene and into the action. We begin, not uncharacteristically, being located geographically (see Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility), but then we immediately dive into the drama of a coach overturned. The line hints at what might be the central matters of the novel: business, risk taking, and lives upended. As with The Watsons, one suspects, however, that Austen would have fronted this first line with an opening more distant and universal,  but I hope she would have broken loose and kept this lead sentence for her finished novel. A novel opening so dramatically would have marked a departure, and one suspects, after the artistic (if not commercial) triumph of Emma, Austen was ready to break new ground. As with The Watsons, one is anguished that she didn't get further with Sanditon. If only her father had lived a year longer, to allow her to complete The Watsons, and  she herself had stayed healthy a year longer, so that she might have finished Sanditon. But we do have the fragments. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Austin, June 2017

Roger and I visited Sophie in Austin in early June.

Sophie and I at an Austin park

The air travel was surprising low stress. We had expedited precheck with TSA. (What would that mean to a time traveller? In simple language, we had a special pass which allowed us to bypass the long security line and we didn't have to take our shoes off at the security checkpoint.)

Then, we flew United ... yes, the airline that concussed a passenger who was trying to get back to work at a hospital. At least for our trip, the flight attendants were very pleasant and even chatted with the customers. We imagine the airline encourages this for the moment. It felt like the old days.

I hadn't been to Austin in June before. I loved it there this time of year in a way I couldn't in the cooler seasons. The weather was warm but not too hot.

Roger and I at a popular photo spot. 

We saw Wonder Woman at an Imax theater. It offered a surprisingly humane "just war" message. We still need to get to peace, but this is a step.

While Sophie was at work, Roger and I spent two mornings at a French bakery. We tried and enjoyed cronuts the first morning, which happened to be National Donut Day. And the next morning, we shared a small but delicious macaroon with an avocado filling. It was pleasant to sit at a table in a calm setting and read, talk, drink coffee.

The cronut

We  walked around the neighborhood near the French bakery. Once it was a sleepy middle to working class neighborhood of modest homes. Now it's being taken over by sleek million dollar plus architect-designed houses. All the high end houses these days seem repetitively ultra modern.

One of many architect-designed modern houses going up in once modest neighborhoods.

A house original to the Austin neighborhood that is now going to homes in the multi- millions.

Sophie and Ben made us dinner one night, an eggplant dish with a bottle of $2 wine from Trader Joe's. It was very good: Sophie is a good cook. We also went to the free day at the Texas (Austin?) History Museum. Very crowded--and I wish we had had more time. Interesting exhibits. As we saw at Lexington and Concord years ago, a lot of violence led to ousting the ruling power and taking over: in this case, knocking out Mexico.

Attending the Austin Quaker Meeting was a pleasure.

Posters at the Austin Quaker Meeting: Quakers have a long tradition of welcoming the despised.

I saw an emotionally moving small exhibit on Apollo 13. The phrase "Houston, we have a problem" originated with that flight, but was, originally, "Houston, we had a problem." Living in a time when incompetency is celebrated and scientific consensus ridiculed, I almost cried to see how competency and applying scientific precision to a problem saved lives 40 years ago.

Sophie introduced us to the Great British Bake Off, season three. We played Scattegory, also new to me.

We ate wonderful food: lots of vegetarian and vegan, Mexican, Indian, a wonderful snack at a Mexican food truck ... a wine bar with a salmon and a cheese plate ... all good. Sophie has a talent for finding the best places to eat in a city with a great number of choices... When I got home I wished we had taken more photos, but when enjoying the moment, stopping for picture taken can be a burden.

We saw a  production of Taming of the Shrew, described in my last blog.

Sophie took us swimming--there's much public swimming in Austin because it gets so hot. The particular pool we used, which allows nude sunbathing (not our thing)-- the nude bathers stayed discreetly up the hill, away from the children in the pool--had the look of a 1930s CCC project: a huge (filtered) fresh water arena paved in slippery stones. The water felt very cold this time of year but no doubt warms over the summer.
Austin telephone poles are decorated, reflecting the city's vibrancy.

What a vibrant, alive and multi-cultural community Austin is. Art is everywhere. Life is everywhere. It encapsulated all the reasons we want to keep the U.S. a forward looking, open and welcoming culture. It's creative, crackling and joyful. If only that ethos could spread ... :)

Mosaic wall in Austin

Friday, June 9, 2017

In Austin: The Taming of the Shrew with a nod to A Handmaid's Tale: Patriarchy comic and otherwise

One of the delights of being in Austin was the chance to see a staging Taming of the Shrew. We saw it at a small venue, The City Theater. The main change the director, Kevin Gates made was to cast a woman as Petruchio. Gates states in the program: 
"I wanted to experiment to casting female actors in the two leading roles. I expected that this woud make the play land very differently, but I wasn't sure how. Would the abuse be heightened or muted by the casting choice? I leave it to you to decide."
While Gates cast a woman, Shelby Miller, as Petruchio, he didn't change Petruchio's gender in the play: Petruchio didn't become Petruchia. In part because of Miller's strong acting, in part because of dramatic convention, I found myself simply suspending disbelief and accepting Miller as a male. After all, she looked like a male, was greeted as a "he" by all the characters, treated as male, dressed as a male, and had the mannerisms of a complacent, egotistical male: for all intents and purposes, the character was a male. (In contrast, I saw a Tempest last year in which Ariel was played by a woman and changed into a female within the context of the play--greeted as a "she" etc.--which made a huge difference.)

So the play became a traditional rendering of Shrew, nonetheless very well done.  Brittany Flurry, a tall, thin Keira Knightley look-alike minus the feral teeth, made an excellent Kate, convincingly fierce, while Bianca's (the sweet sister who cannot marry until Kate is wed) would-be suitors were convincingly craven in their fear of Kate and desire to marry the docile and beautiful angel of the household. Bianca herself (Angelica Elliot) made a good foil to Flurry--the two look alike, tall, thin and long limbed-- and Elliot played Bianca as crafty and manipulative, using her fluttering eyelashes and ability to play an acceptable female role to her advantage.

I have not read more than snippets of the play in many years and forgotten that the main story was staged as a play within a play, thus adding an extra layer of unreality: the framing calls into question just how much this tale of a woman subdued is fantasy--or perhaps highlights its underlying reality.

This production offered little or no rationale or explanation for Kate's personality: she simply is what she is. Does she act this way because she doesn't want to marry? Because she has been allowed to get away with it? Because something traumatic has happened to her?  While it's suggested that Kate is angry because her father favors Bianca, we don't know why her behavior is so extreme.

Her "taming," occurs as Petruchio denies her food and rest under the pretense of doing her a favor: he pretends the food and the bedding are not good enough for her, and even goes so far as to suggest they "fast" together. This is a good example of Stockholm syndrome at work: in order to survive, Kate learns (of course, with comic hyperbole) to identify with and align her views to her captor's. She quickly decided that if he says two plus two equals five she will agree and that if he then decides that two plus two equals four she will agree again.

I couldn't help but be reminded of A Handmaid's Tale. In both, patriarchy is all-powerful and women, to survive, bend themselves to the male will despite the personal cost. I especially appreciated how Shakespeare ripped the veil from the idea that those in power frame making subalterns suffer as solicitude for their "own good," rather than as a naked display of power that serves their own interests.

In the end, Kate is tamed and gives her final, public speech about woman's subordination creating the right "order" to create a harmonious society. It's cringe-worthy, reminding me strongly of the Handmaid  episode in which Offred is trotted out to talk to the Mexican diplomats about the joys of being a handmaid. It seemed to me it would have been more realistic--more of apiece with her personality-- had Kate delivered her speech with irony. But her sincere delivery and abjection were powerful: irony allows us perhaps to escape the full lash and import of the language by implying that none of this is really real. In this production, the words inspired anger: making us as angry as perhaps Shakespeare, creator of such strong females as Portia, Juliet and Hermia, wanted us to be in the face of a cruel system. Perhaps by "exaggerating" male power in this play within a play, he managed, paradoxically, to highlight how real that power was.

As an end note, I find it interesting that both Shakespeare and Jane Austen chose to show raw patriarchal power "slant" in male-female relationships. This comic approach shows the silliness of the ideology of the system, but the shying away also suggests how brutal the system really is, too brutal to reveal directly, if only because a direct approach might drive people into denial.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Handmaid's Tale: episode six: nothing to lose but their chains?

As others have commented, this episode ends a more upbeat note, but the framing continues to be quite dark. 

One dark moment comes when the Commander (Fred) demands a kiss from Offred as a pure power play, not a matter of erotic desire. Sex is again used openly to punish and control.

Offred and the Commander: it's all about power. (I couldn't find a still of the two kissing.)

He is at angry at her for not focusing her attention on him in his study. He has privileged her by inviting her into this sanctum where his wife does not enter. But this evening Offred is disinterested in him. She does not adequately play her role of an adoring handmaid grateful for the favor of his company. 

So he dismisses her abruptly for not being attentive enough to him. This means she will have to return to her room, where she has nothing to do but sit around. She is forbidden to read. She also knows that for him to perform sexually, very important as she now is having sex with Nick, he needs to be in emotional relationship with her. She may be killed if it becomes obvious that the sperm impregnating her is not Fred's. Moreover, to be protected by the victimization of his wife, she needs his patronage.

We see her, in a raw, painful moment, with her back to him, her hand on the study's door handle. The camera moves in on her face, showing her chokingly intense struggle to compose herself. We see what it costs her to force herself, by sheer dint of will, to overcome her revulsion against the lies she must tell to survive and her desire to assert her independence. At what is clearly a shattering soul cost, she manages  to compose her face and turn around to grovel to him, begging him to let her stay. He can't see her face during her struggle, but he must sense her inner battle in the time she spends at the door, and he must intuit what it costs her to swallow her pride and perform abjectly.

This scene reminded me of one in Sophie's Choice, where the young daughter of the Nazi family with which Sophie is staying as a servant discovers she has a radio. If the parents find out, it will mean death for Sophie, and we witness her throwing herself on her knees, begging this little girl not to betray her. In this case it works, as the little girl likes having power over a grown woman. In the story of Inkle and Yarico, Yarico's only hope is also abjection: she begs on her knees for him not to sell into slavery, but in this case it doesn't work. 

Offred's abjection does not engender any sympathy in the Commander. Instead, he is determined to punish her. He makes her kiss him with her tongue in his mouth, as if she wants to, because he can. He thus communicates his power over her. He can force her to that. It is a form of rape, but a form of rape or coerced oral sex in which he insists, as he can't in the Ceremony, that she further degrade herself by pretending she likes it. She does it as part of an implicit bargain that he'll let her stay in the room. But once he forces the humiliating concession, he dismisses her--because he can. This is Orwell's boot in the face. I do agree with Ellen that his power--he has too much power--corrupts him. When we see Offred violently brushing her teeth afterwards and spitting into the sink, this conveys that she understands the extent of her degradation and underscores that this act was a proxy for the oral sex he wouldn't let his wife perform. I wonder now if in refusing his wife's gesture he was not rejecting her sexually but attempting to shield her from humiliation. I give the series credit for creating him as a complex character.

Serena Joy: the backstory shows how the regime change she worked for as a powerful woman led to her chains.

This coerced kiss acted as the counterpart to the powerful scene in which Offred tells the ambassador--and summarizes for us as an audience who have witnessed it--the truth about the abuse, enslavement and degradation she and the other handmaids have suffered. At this point,  Offred  can't pretend anymore. Her summary is direct and harrowing, and yet the ambassador's dehumanizing response is very real: too often the "greater good" and "dire need" arguments are used to justify unneeded cruelty. The series cries out between the lines that it doesn't have to be this way. Fertile women can provide children to a society without having to be enslaved and forced to play a part in a sick, twisted fantasy. When you view events from the subaltern perspective, you long to shake the ambassador and say to her, you can achieve your goals without throwing away these women's lives.

The ambassador is no different from Aunt Lydia: she offers sweet talk and some chocolates, but will do nothing to help the handmaids. There's talk and there's walk ...

I found the serendipity of the ambassador's assistant just happening to know Luke and to know who June (Offred) a bit much, at the same time noting that serendipities like that do occur in real life. We all have only, at most, five degrees of separation from most other people on the planet and all that ... but still. However, the hope that Offred can be in touch with Luke  does move the plot in a more hopeful direction. We also now know that the handmaids are more important than we thought: they do have power if they can only realize it, and nothing to lose but their chains. The regime can't kill them, as they are the only commodity it has to shore up their collapsing currency.

As an aside, I initially thought the Mexicans wanting to trade for handmaids a completely new twist on the novel, but I began rereading it and realized the seeds of that plot are embedded in the original: a  Japanese woman tourist asks Offred if she is happy. I recognize that the novel also problematizes our time/culture by emphasizing that ours is a world in which a woman has to very careful, where date rape occurs, and where male power poses a different kind of threat.

I appreciate this series for, as does Man in the High Castle, showing us life from the subaltern point of view, not glamorizing violence and depicting how degrading coerced sex is. I wonder if the entrance of two powerful series told from "below" in the last six months indicates, an awareness that this is the reality for a growing number of Americans. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fens serendipities

Lately I have been coming across literature set in the English fens, so I thought I would write about three "fen" settings I have encountered in the past few weeks: a Father Brown story (my first) by G.K. Chesterton called "The Sins of Prince Saradine," the movie version of Waterland, based on the Graham Swift novel, and just today, Virginia Woolf's "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn." All three use the fens--the emptiness, the melancholy marshes, the waterways--to lyrical effect, and to evoke the fairyland, both enchanting and frightful, of childhood.

In "The Sins of Prince Saradine," Father Brown accompanies his friend Flambeau on a month's holiday, traveling in a small boat on "little rivers in the Eastern counties ... [rivers] so small that the boat looked like a magic boat, sailing on land through meadows and cornfields."  The men delight in "overhanging gardens and meadows, the mirrored mansions or villages, lingering to fish in the pools and corners ..."

A narrow waterway through the fens

They end up, by design, at the home of Prince Saradine, called Reed House, on Reed Island, Norfolk. The day they arrive there, they awake before daylight:
" ... a large lemon moon was only just setting in the forest of high grass about their heads, and the sky was of a vivid violet-blue, nocturnal but bright. Both men had a simultaneous a reminiscence of childhood, of the elfin and adventurous time when tall weeds close over us like woods. Standing up thus against the large low moon, the daisies really seemed to be giant daisies, the dandelions to be giant dandelions. ... 'By Jove!'  said Flambeau, 'it's like being in fairyland.'"
Reed House has an Asian fairytale quality:
"... in the middle of this wider piece of water, fringed on every side with rushes, lay a long, low islet, along which ran a low, long house or bungalow built of bamboo or some kind of tough tropic cane."
Fittingly enough, they stumble on a murder and a mystery involving an Orientalized Sicilian in this exotic island fairyland: exotic in the midst of the ironically all-too-ordinary English fens.

Memories of childhood and adolescence on the fens also crowd the thoughts of middle-aged high-school history teacher Tom Crick (Jeremy Irons) as he tries to reach his disinterested students in the movie Waterland.  Here the fens also provide a lyrical  backdrop for a story about love, family and fractures that explores why history matters. The cinematography is breathtaking, the fens a land of magic and memory, as murky, insubstantial, real, and bittersweet as the past itself.

What can be said about "The Journal of Joan Martyn," an early, fictional exploration of woman's biography, written in 1906 when Woolf was 24? Woolf is brilliant and this story, set (mostly) in the 15th century village of East Harling, a real place, captures the poetry and intensity of what it is like to be a quiveringly free and alive adolescent girl on the brink of marriage,  a matrimony that is perhaps a too-majestic estate of "great honor and ... great burden."

Joan's story is framed by the modern-day tale of narrator Miss Rosamond Merridew, aged 45, a brittle and long-winded maiden historian, yet perceptive, imaginative, and thus linked to her subject, Joan. Miss Merridew writes:
I have not scrupled ... to show, vividly as in a picture, some scenes from the life of the time; here I knock at the serf's door, and find him roasting rabbits he has poached ... [Joan will describe a scene far harsher]
Rosamond, through instinct and intuition, and her "archaeological eyes" which "telegram" her, comes to
long low walls of buff coloured plaster; and on top of them, at no great distance was the roof of ruddy tiles, and finally, I beheld in front of me the whole of the dignified little house, built like the letter E with the middle notch smooth out of it.
This is Joan's ancestral manor, "one of those humble little old Halls," now owned by the middle-aged Martyns. They give Rosamond a tour and then reveal to her old papers. Mr. Martyn, like Austen's Sir Walter Elliot, is primarily interested in the family genealogy, "an elaborate ... tree ... [that] his finger travelled sagaciously ... as though it were so well used to this occupation it could almost be trusted to perform it itself."

He is far less concerned about what excites Miss Merridew, the journal of Joan Martyn. In his defense, he is matter-of-fact rather than pompous (like Sir Walter) about his heritage. His ancestors are casually alive to him not as status symbols but as friends, as if there were no gulf between past and present.

He is carelessly pleased to lend Rosamond Joan's journal, though bemused as to why she wouldn't want Willoughby's, yes Willoughby's, Stud book, no doubt a nod to the horse gifting and randy Mr. Willoughby of Jane Austen fame.

Miss Merridew, however, eschews the Stud book for the teenage girl's journal and the rest of the story comes from the journal as our focus moves to Joan.

For the duration of her account, Joan, though every day closer to matrimony, is the light, dancing, vibrant, happy daughter with "a clear vision." She writes;
"Oh, how blessed it would be never to marry or grow old; but to spend one's life innocently and indifferently among the trees and rivers which can alone keep one childlike in the midst of the troubles of the world! Marriage of any other great joy would confuse the clear vision which is still mine."
We hear the voice and vision of the young Virginia Woolf echoing through the words of Joan Martyn. Or, for that matter, the voice of Jane Austen, who never let marriage confuse her clear vision.

Joan is alive to the wonder of the world. On a winter day she perceives the sun as
"made of gleaming ice and not fire; and its rays were long icicles that reached from sky to earth. They splintered on our cheeks and went glancing across the fen."
One could weep at the beauty of that language. When the wandering storyteller, Master Richard, arrives at the small castle, Joan, aquiver with desire, admires his book:
"the capital letters framed bright blue skies, and golden robes; and in the midst of the writing their came broad spaces of color, where you might see princes and princesses, walking in procession and towns with churches on steep hills, and the sea breaking blue beneath them. They were like little mirrors, held up to those visions which I had seen passing in the air but here they were caught and stayed forever."

Joan has arrived at a time when her feelings are "true" and she
"saw them as solid globes of crystal; enclosing a round ball of earth and air, in which tiny men and women labored, as beneath the dome of the sky itself."
But Joan must prepare for marriage, which means the loss of childhood's fairyland, represented by the fens, and instead assume the adult mantle of colonization, possession, domination of one's surround, as her mother explains to her in "theory of ownership:"
"one is as the Ruler of a small island set in the midst of turbulent waters; how one must plant it and cultivate it; and drive roads through it, and fence it securely from the tides; and one day perhaps the waters will abate and this plot of ground will be ready to make part of a new world."
Joan's mother wants "one firm spot of ground to tread on."

But Joan yearns something more insubstantial, mysterious and ephemeral:
"Yet what it is I want, I cannot tell, although I crave for it, and in some secret way, expect it. For often, and oftener as time goes by, I find myself suddenly halting in my walk, as though I were stopped by a strange new look on the surface of the land which I know so well. It hints at something, but is gone before I know what it means."
Joan grasps for the numinous "more" just out of reach. We fear that she has reached her zenith at journal's end.

Friday, May 12, 2017

A Handmaid's Tale, Episode 5: When dystopia is better than real life, do we worry?

Near the end of episode five, the genitally mutilated Emily engages in a spontaneous act of desperation: she leaps into a car and brutally runs over a guard. While we sympathize with her anger, it's an appallingly inhumane act (she is disconnected from reality) and accomplishes all of nothing. It's political energy wasted in the form of inchoate rage. It reminded me of the real woman named Miriam Carey in Washington D.C. shot to death for ramming her car into Congressional barricades, ( obviously confused, perhaps angry, but not deserving to die. She had an infant in the back seat. Clearly the US situation is worse than in Atwood's dystopia: the real woman who rammed the Congressional barricades killed nobody but was killed by the police (I still can't get over it) and in contrast, Emily, who killed somebody in the dystopic world was not killed herself on the spot--she will presumably be subject to some sort of legal process, no matter how dubious. Should we worry--or at least think-- when a dystopic world is not as bad as our own reality?

Episode five is interesting as well in stepping outside of the frame of Atwood's novel to a problematize the time before the new world order. It is troubling that Offred takes such a cavalier attitude--utterly insensitive--towards her lover's wife, demanding that he leave her, and that he agrees, saying that he will divorce her because it is Offred he loves. If Offred is dehumanized, she has previously dehumanized another woman. And what happens when her husband falls "in love" with someone else? That's apparently grounds for moving on. We learn from  Offred's new handmaid walking partner, who comes from a background of drugs and poverty, that her life is better now than it was, and she's not about to mess it up. So we see an intelligent calibrating of what could have become a "the past good, the future bad" dichotomy. The commander speaks the truth, loathsome as he is, about the magazines Offred loves--women in the pages of those kinds of pubs never are good enough, young, enough, pretty enough--because the magazines have to sell product. The trade off seems far worse, but yes, the point is made: social revolutions don't arise in a vacuum.

So this seems to me an interesting gloss on Atwood, who, as I remember, is more unequivocally positive about the old days to show those days as also fraught with problems and cruelties. She shows too the importance of the seemingly trivial rights women in our society have--being able, for instance, to walk boldly down the street with long strides, head held high, boots tucked into jeans.

Ellen makes a good point that the Offred of the past (our time) always appears in some sort of mechanized jungle: she is walking down a city street, or in a hotel, an office, at an amusement park. Beyond that her old existence presents as largely vacuous: she "hangs" with Moira, she goes to work, she has a lover, she bears a child she loves, she gets a latte, but she doesn't have any interests that distinguish her as an individual human in her past any more than she does in her dystopic world. Is the series saying that our world flattens women into banal stereotypes as thoroughly as the new world does? Or is Offred supposed to be "everywoman," at least educated, privileged white everywoman, in both past and future? Why does she seem so vacuous and superficial in her past life? Are we supposed to think that her lack of thinking or substance led to the dystopia? And while it's relieving to see some decent sex at the end of the episode after all the horrifyingly dehumanized sex "acts," a sad desperation drove that final connection.

And then I return to pondering that it is easier to get killed in the United States today, at least if you are black, than it is in a dystopic fiction.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, episode 4: nothing sexy about men or violence: subversive television

The men in episode four of A Handmaid's Tale are impotent. This is shocking in a mainstream drama. Fred Waterford, the commander-pater of his dysfunctional fundamentalist family, becomes the most important and literal representation of this impotence. In a normal series, pandering to patriarchy, the handsome and politically powerful Fred would be the hero figure. But heros have erections; virility is essential to the package.  I remember the Jeremy Irons character in The Borgias, playing a pope who uses the ruse of erectile dysfunction to rid himself of an aging lover: the joke (and con)  is on her, because after all with the right (younger) woman, he has no problems.

Fred, however, in this episode, can't manage an erection. So much rides on the Ceremony, and he has a young, fertile woman at his knees, but you can hardly blame him for his troubles, given the nature of this dehumanized sex act. Nevertheless, it's painful and embarrassing to watch him trying desperately to arouse himself with his hand down his pants. It's worse when he goes into the bathroom and his wife follows: he still can't manage an erection, we register his distress in his flailing, pacing and furious rubbling, and yet, for reasons too complicated to be easily understood, he rejects his wife's offer of oral sex. The all-important Ceremony has to be postponed.  Patriarchy doesn't portray its alpha-males this way: this kind of vulnerability and emasculation makes for very subversive TV.

In another, earlier scene, Offred rejects another form of dehumanized sex when her gynecologist, arguing that Fred is infertile, proposes to impregnate her himself on the examination table.  It's a favor that Offred, for all her helplessness, rightly refuses from this creepy unseen man on the other side of a curtain. Her refusal--her agency--leaves him as impotent, if metaphorically so, as Fred.

It's hard to imagine humanity propagated so joylessly as through the sex that is offered Offred.

Offred's handsome young chauffeur is equally impotent: he has no wife, and adultery is clearly out of the question in this new world order, at least for subalterns, so we assume he has no sex life. He is unable to protect or save Offred, though he clearly empathizes: no Rambo he, again muddying our expectations of male potency and protectiveness. In a normal drama, he would have jumped in by this time to use violence and virility to save her. Here, more realistically, he is at the mercy of larger forces.

Offred, however, realizes that she has the power over Fred's sex life. She recognizes that Fred needs an emotional connection to maintain an erection--and she uses that to her advantage, manipulating him so that he forces his wife to free her from her imprisonment in her room. This "punishment" for a "crime" Offed has no control over (though she abjectly apologizes for it to try to get some humane treatment) shows the cruelly arbitrary nature of power and violence.

We see Offred exercise power too in a flashback in which she and her friend Moira kidnap an "aunt" in their training institute and use her garb to get past their guards. Offred is captured, but Moria escapes: that is a striking display of power.  Offred faces torture, but the series relies on fearful, anxious anticipation (Hitchcockian) rather than the actual violence itself to make its point. We know the grammar of this society well enough to understand that something terrible will happen to Offred for her flagrant crime (it is surprising, except that they need her womb, that she is not killed).

We see her strapped by her wrists and ankles face down on a table. She is writhing, terrified and begging for mercy. We feel a sense of deep dread as we witness her vulnerable body. The woman she kidnapped shows up with a switch. Offred heaves and writhes, moans in fear. The woman beats her not on the buttocks, which might sexualize the violence, but on the soles of her bare feet. We know if we have read the novel that the feet are full of nerve endings, so this is very painful, torture, not punishment. The woman strikes her soles, Offred screams, the woman strikes again, Offred screams in agony, and the scene ends. We next see Offred, the soles of her feet bloody, being dragging half conscious and dumped in her dormitory bed. This is desexualized (unless perhaps you have a foot fetish) violence perpetrated on a defenseless person. It is not empowering, not sexy, not glamorous, but simply sordid: violence-torture stripped to its essentials.

At the end of this flashback, we see a glimpse of humanity that creates a stark contrast with the dehumanizing society in which these women are trapped: Offred's dormitory mates, as they file past, each drop a bit of food on the bed for her--tiny, gentle, domestic gestures that signify empathy and humane connection. In essay called “The Pacifist Image,”  Mary Evelyn Jegen writes:
"Goodness expresses itself in love, trust, truth and justice; evil shows itself in deception, injustice, and the reduction of other persons to instruments of self-aggrandizement—three dimensions of violence."
She writes as well that:
"An insight into goodness is born in pain.” 
A Handmaid's Tale dramatizes both Jegen's truths. Evil dehumanizes everyone, even Fred. But the starker victims of its cruelty understand what humanity is. The women's small acts of kindness are not trivial. They show the women haven't capitulated, haven't accepted the cruelty inherent in their overlords. The show intuitively understands that it must, at the risk of triteness and sentimentality ( I have some reservations and could have wished for something more original, less clobbering and cloying, yet ...),  let the camera linger on this scene of quiet generosity, showing the power of genuine connection in which hope lies. 


Monday, May 8, 2017

A Handmaid's Tale: violence unvarnished, episodes 1-4

The question buzzes: will the "sex" and violence perpetrated against women in A Handmaid's Tale be taken up and enjoyed by people hostile to women? Does showing a high level of violence inure us to it, and make it acceptable and even pleasurable?

Any work of art, once it is released into the world, is open to interpretation and appropriation, often in unexpected ways. And any work of art that includes sex and violence will seized on in the wrong ways by people who relish and perhaps want to reenact the cruelty and sadism they see: they will approve of it. And one can worry greatly that the high levels of ultra-violence in popular miniseries can inure us to it and make it seem normal. I worry when over and over we are inundated with the message that the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and 100th response to any provocation is violence and more violence, and then more, as if this is the only form of power, and the only solution we can possibly conceive to any problem.

A Handmaid's Tale: violence enforces docility 

So the question is not if A Handmaid's Tale may be misappropriated--it will. If that becomes a reason to disavow a mini-series, it is a weak reason indeed: we would at that point have to condemn every program with the faintest whiff of non-redemptive sex or violence. We would, in fact, have to go back to the Hayes rules censoring film. And that we do not want to do.

So while a work of art opens itself to alternative interpretations and while the depiction of violence always holds the danger of valorizing, glamorizing or inuring us to brutality, it seems more fruitful to look at what a particular series might be really be communicating about (sex and) violence.

No filmed media that aspires to critical applause will admit to aiming at the basest instincts, and so we have a history of disingenuousness in many highly-acclaimed works. In a trend possibly started by the original Godfather movies, a film will focus on a single, extraordinary, heroic male, such as Don Corleone. He is a mafia boss, initially shown as a person to respect, soft-spoken but ruthless, cunning but conscious of a strict honor code, willing to kill cold-bloodedly when needed but one who takes care of women, children and his weaker Italian neighbors. Gradually, he and his underworld are then shown to be sordid and reprehensible--but it is the initial, positive, heroic version of this "great" man that lodges and persists in our imaginations. The directors know too well, as did Jane Austen, the power of the first impression, the near impossibility of dislodging it.

Don Corleone, a rich, respected alpha male, attaining an enviable place through violence.

So other filmed series--and now I turn to miniseries that are righty acclaimed for their marvelous acting, scripts and production values--follow the paradigm. The Sopranos, for example, initially sets up Tony Soprano, mafia boss, as a hero and a sympathetic one at that (his own gruesome mother wants to kill him)--and if the series shows him as ever more flawed and ugly, this doesn't dislodge our first impression.

Likewise Walter White in Breaking Bad. How can we not initially feel sympathy--and a condescending pity-- for this downtrodden sad sack of a high school chemistry teacher, moonlighting at a car wash, abused by his boss there, henpecked by his controlling wife, and then diagnosed with lung cancer?  How can we not feel some sense of pleasure when he develops a spine and begins to fight back, using his keen intelligence and science skills to cook the best crystal meth on the street? How can we not feel vindicated as he grows in confidence and begins to outsmart and outdare--to become more audacious--than the most brutally weird sociopaths he deals with? By the time he himself has become the ruthless sociopath, it's too late--we may be appalled when, for instance, he murders his best friend's girlfriend--but we are on his side. If the series increasingly pretends to condemn his behavior, in reality it does not: it admires him for his cunning, brains and ruthlessness. It celebrates that the most ruthless man wins.

Glamorized violence, from the point-of-view of the aggressors.

And it is a man. Always. Women are always put in their place in these series, and it would be a rare woman watching who didn't take away the message "don't ever dare to compete in a man's world or you will be destroyed." (And if nature imitates art, we saw that enacted in the last election: our miniseries propagandized well.) In these series, any woman who has ever in any way stood up to dominant male can expect some form of humiliation, if not death.

But then there are extraordinary series that are rife with violence that don't convey this message message of misogyny or that violence is the only effective form of power. One is the recent Man in a High Tower. Another, so far (and I take the caveat so far seriously) is A Handmaid's Tale.

The show is saturated with disturbing sex and violence, depicting a Christian fundamentalist dystopia in which women are firmly put into their place as subordinate to men. Sterility is a huge problem in this culture and women of a liberal, secular background who happen to be fertile are saved from a slow death sentence cleaning up radioactive waste in order to be bred with important males in the new hierarchy. They are handmaids, like the handmaid Rachel in the Bible used to have children with Jacob. (The series entirely stays away, as the novel does, from Mary as a handmaid to God.)

De-individualized handmaids sit, a hanged body dangling as a reminder of state power.

These women are unequivocally coerced through ever-present violence that ranges from the mundane to the life-threatening into lives they would not in any way choose--dressed in long gowns and ridiculous bonnets, forced to be submissive and docile, compelled to submit to ritualized, unpleasant rape in "The Ceremony," in which, sitting between the spread legs of an older woman, the wife of the man in question, they are subjected to a cold-blooded, humiliating, ritualized intercourse meant to impregnate them.

Rape ritual: Offred is frozen, trying to be elsewhere.

If one has to show violence and coercive sex (rape) in a series, A Handmaid's Tale does it in the best possible way. This is unvarnished, unromanticized violence, that, if we are to see violence, we need to see: real violence that is not heroic, not "empowering," not "ennobling", not even "necessary" and not for a greater good: not to defend one's home or children (a common fantasy encouraging violence), not to defend one's country, and not to enhance one's masculinity (the perpetrators of violence in this series are by and large women so far and unattractive women at that; the men are mere automatons with machine guns): it is violence, as Ellen Moody rightly notes, meant solely to destroy and control less fortunate people, which is what violence most often IS: shown naked, ugly, brutal, and applied both in physical and psychological ways to break its victims. The series reveals the brutality relentlessly and doesn't allow us a way to justify it. It shows us as much as we need to see (which is and should be very uncomfortable--after all, this IS what violence IS) and not more--the camera cuts away once it has made its point.

Further, and this is significant, compared to shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, in A Handmaid's Tale we are wholly meant to identify with the victims of the violence, not the perpetrators. We are, unusually in a mini-series, running with the hare, not the hounds. This is not Walter White achieving confidence and selfhood through murder and mayhem and crushing his enemies to a pulp to become the man at the top of the heap (there are no Walter Whites or Tony Sopranos or Don Corleones in this series): we witness ordinary women (and men, if we include the young chauffeur) who are coerced through violence--witnessing endless hangings and themselves subjected to slaps, kicks, punches, beatings, electric shocks, imprisonment, isolation, cruelty--with no chance (which is very realistic) to fight back in kind. We ought to find it hard to become inured to this violence because it isn't heroicized violence and it is not justified or made palatable as for a greater good in any way: it would be a strange mind indeed that would attracted to or inured to this kind of un-aesthetic terror rather than repelled. It is the ugly violence of bullies, applied to people who can't fight back. The series thus attacks our comforting paradigms about paternalistic violence.

To be continued ...

Friday, May 5, 2017

Jane Austen and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The parallels between Agatha Christie and Jane Austen are striking, leading one to wonder: could Jane Austen have been the famous crime writer's literary mentor?

Certain clues tantalize us and suggest yes. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie names a character Mrs. Ferrars. Like the Mrs. Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, this Mrs. Ferrars is a wealthy widow. Christie, however, adds her own wicked twist: the new Mrs. Ferrars is widowed because she poisoned her abusive, alcoholic husband (though nobody knows it for sure but her blackmailer).

In another possible Austen parallel, Ursula Bourne, who comes to Roger Ackroyd's home as a parlor maid, is beautiful and elegant and from an impoverished family of Irish "gentlefolk." She is secretly married to Ralph Patton, both the stepson and "adopted" son of Roger Ackroyd. Like Frank Churchill, he is under the thumb of a frugal and controlling guardian, in this case Ackroyd. He dares not announce his marriage, despite Ursula's distress at the secrecy, for fear his stepfather will cut him off without a penny. He uses a pretend engagement to Flora, his pretty and wealthy step cousin, to cover up his marriage and get his debts paid. Flora doesn't know that Ralph, as unstable and charming as Frank Churchill, is married and simply using her, but she doesn't really care a fig for Ralph either. She is in love with an older man, Hector Blunt, who is around 45, who has all along secretly been in love with her, shades of Mr. Knightley.

The parallels to Emma seem almost too obvious to state: Flora is Emma, pretty, in love with an older man, and used by a capricious younger man who doesn't want his guardian to know of his involvement with a penniless lover for fear of losing his inheritance. Further, we're told explicitly that the penniless beauty Ursula could have become a governess--Jane Fairfax's threatened and dreaded fate-- and chose to be a parlor maid:
  Detemined to earn her living and not attracted to the idea of being a nursery governess - the one profession open to an untrained girl, Ursula preferred the job of parlourmaid. She scorned to label herself a 'lady parlourmaid.' ... At Fernly, despite an aloofness which, as has been seen, caused some comment, she was a success at her job - quick, competent, and thorough.
This sounds very much like Jane Fairfax, not only beautiful, but aloof and competent.

Of course, Christie has ratcheted up the stakes, perhaps reflecting a novel written in 1926 rather than 1816: Ursula and the happy-go-lucky Ralph are secretly married, not secretly engaged, but the point remains. (And who is to say that the wedding we never see at the end of Emma is a clue by omission that the two have been wed all along?)

Further, our first introduction to Flora has echoes of  Emma Woodhouse:
Quite a lot of people do not like Flora Ackroyd [as with Emma], but nobody can help admiring her. And to her friends she can be very charming. The first thing that strikes you about her is her extraordinary fairness. .... her skin is cream and roses. She has square, boyish shoulders and slight hips. And to a jaded medical man it is very refreshing to come across such perfect health.
Flora is blond and blue-eyed in contrast to Emma, but the similarities also pop out: not well liked but charming to her friends, good looking and radiating perfect health.

Roger Ackroyd picks up the small village setting of Emma and narrator James Sheppard's sister has some uncanny parallels to Miss Bates: they are both middle-aged spinsters who know everything that is going on in the village. And as in Austen's novels, characters get together to plays games, though in this case it is Mah Jong rather than whist or backgammon.

Thus, Christie points us towards Austen, via Mrs. Ferrars (who in Christie's novel has committed suicide at its opening so is never onstage)  as well as through the stories of Ralph and Ursula, Hector and Flora, and the small English village setting, complete with its own Miss Bates figure.


To me, however, a more important parallel emerges from the way both writers tell a story through conscious omission, misdirection, euphemism, and understatement as well as the use of the throwaway comment. In Persuasion, for example,"about a week or ten days after the Croft's arrival [in Bath] it suited her [Anne] best to leave her friend, or her friend's carriage ... and return alone to Camden place." It's easy to skim over this sentence, but it indicates -- with the euphemism "it suited her"--that Anne doesn't just "accidentally" run into Admiral Croft a few minutes later: she has planned this. She is not without craftiness. And why a "week or ten days" when we know Austen kept careful story calendars? And why "her friend, or her friend's carriage:" was she in it alone that day? If so, where was Lady Russell?

Similarly, Roger Ackroyd hinges on the reader skimming over certain words. The novel's twist is that its narrator, Dr. James Sheppard, tells the story accurately and in first person, even though he himself is the murderer! This works because the reader will slide over his careful euphemisms. He praises himself at the end for his "neat" phraseology, as he stated the facts of the case in his narrative but passed over the crucial detail that between twenty to nine and ten to nine on the day in question, he murdered Roger Ackroyd:
'The letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread."
The moral issues of are of different magnitudes, but the technique of euphemism is the same.

Likewise, omitted thefts. In Emma, during Mr. Elton's courtship of Emma, which is supposed to be (in Emma's mind) a courtship of Harriet, Harriet steals several worthless remembrances of Mr. Elton's, such as a bit of lead pencil and a bit of plaster. However, these thefts are omitted from the narrative at the time of the courtship, presumably because Emma, whose point of view we follow, never notices them. We learn later, after Mr. Elton has married and long since ceased to visit Emma, that Harriet had previously purloined these items when she reveals them to Emma. A small detail, but it serves to raise questions: what else hasn't Emma seen? What else might Harriet have stolen?

In Roger Ackroyd, Sheppard describes looking through an unlocked curio table:
Then my eye was caught by what, I believe, is called a silver table, the lid of which lifts, and through the glass of which you can see the contents. I crossed over to it, studying the contents. There were one or two pieces of old silver, a baby shoe belonging to King Charles the First, some Chinese jade figures, and quite a number of African implements and curios. Wanting to examine one of the jade figures more closely, I lifted the lid. It slipped through my fingers and fell. At once I recognized the sound I had heard. It was this same table lid being shut down gently and carefully. I repeated the action once or twice for my own satisfaction. Then I lifted the lid to scrutinize the contents more closely. I was still bending over the open silver table when Flora Ackroyd came into the room.
Sheppard omits to mention that he steals a knife from this table to murder Roger Ackroyd. Again, the moral magnitude of stealing a murder weapon is far greater than stealing a pencil nub, but the technique is the same: not until the end of the mystery do we find out that in this table Sheppard found his murder weapon.

Sheppard crows too about his careful wording:
Then later, when the body was discovered, and I sent Parker to telephone for the police, what a judicious use of words: 'I did what little had to be done!' It was quite little just to shove the dictaphone into my bag and push back the chair against the wall in its proper place [covering up his crime].
As easily as the reader slides over Sheppard's initial words about doing what had to be done, so a reader might, in Emma, slide over the incident in which Mrs. Martin, Robert Martin's mother, happy with Harriet as a potential daughter-in-law and obviously meaning to please her, sends a "Mrs. Goddard a beautiful goose ....  Mrs. Goddard had it dressed on a Sunday and invited all the three teachers, Miss Nash, and Miss Prince, and Miss Richardson, to sup with her." But Harriet isn't invited to the party. If Harriet hopes Emma might note the unfairness, she never does, nor do most readers. Nevertheless, such an aside is hardly in the text by accident, any more than is Sheppard's "I did what little had to be done," and an astute reader might begin to suspect that the prerogatives of power might overrun fairness in Highbury Village.

At the end of Roger Ackroyd, Christie points explicitly to Sheppard's word choice, so that the reader can't miss what he has been doing. Austen, on the other hand, never loses her cool, slips her mask or blinks an eye. Christie is by far the less skillful writer, if far more successful in her day, but it may take someone like her to loop us back to what Austen herself was doing.