Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Otello/Othello: An opera/play about middle age

"Dangerous conceits are in themselves a poison," Othello says. As I watched the Pittsburgh opera company's production of Verdi's Otello SundayI saw behind the triggering events a lifetime's well of slow poison. Both play and opera are preoccupied with the fears and insecurities of middle-age, with the way distrust and cynicism accumulate over time. 

Otello and Desdemona in the Pittsburgh Opera's recent staging of Otello. As with La Boheme last season, the opera was staged in a somber, even dismal, palette of grays and dark tones, a choice I question. However, Carl Tanner and Danielle Paston as Otello and Desdemona sang and acted beautifully. 

Coleridge famously assigns to Iago, Otello/Othello's evil nemesis, a "motiveless malignity." In this reading, Iago perpetrates evil for its own sake, his motives pretexts for spreading pain. He'd always manufacture an excuse to hurt people, because his goal is to hurt for hurting's sake. His age doesn't matter. He was born evil and will remain so, timelessly. 

Iago (Anthony Michaels Moore) in the Pittsburgh Opera production, declaring that God is evil.

But perhaps Iago does have motive. Perhaps, as I will argue, the play/opera is an exploration not of evil incarnate, but of the way the wounds of middle age manifest, especially in ambitious men, who have the skills and power to damage others. 

As the opera/play opens Iago feels wounded and unfairly used, his trust betrayed: Othello has passed him over for a promotion and given it to Cassio. Iago describes Cassio as one who "never set a squadron in the field/ Nor the division of a battle knows ... Mere prattle without practice/Is all his soldiership." In other words, in Iago's mind the young and handsome Cassio has politicked his way up the career ladder. Iago, on the other hand, has fought in Rhodes and Cyprus and "on other grounds Christian and heathen." 

What better way for Iago to get revenge on Cassio (Daniel Curran) than to pretend to be helping him? Here we see Cassio a in his virile prime, Iago as the fading soldier.

 As a mid-career, middle-aged soldier Iago could be forgiven for perceiving losing this promotion as the blow from which he can't recover. Time is not on his side. He will now have to answer to a younger man, a special humiliation for a person of Iago's temperament. We see him from the beginning of the play Iago drawing his strength and meaning from his ambition and machinations, well aware of his force of personality and his ability both to strategize and to manipulate others--arguably not wholly undesirable traits in a military leader. 

But rather than rewarded for his talents, Iago has been demoted to Othello's ancient or standard bearer. As his friend Roderigo says, "I would rather have been his hangman" (the one to hang Othello) than his "ancient," the term  "ancient," clearly punning on Iago's age. Iago states he has no forum for appealing Othello's decision or discussing the issue: "There is no remedy." The will of the commander is absolute. Iago notes that  his seniority carries no weight: "preferment goes by letter and affection." He may be self-serving and inaccurate in his understanding of what has blocked his promotion, but clearly he feels the pain. But he does not feel sorry for himself: this ambitious man acts.

The lion represents Venice and male power. 

Did the mercurial Othello make a blunder in overlooking Iago, a person he says he trusts? Perhaps he did not mean to humiliate his friend, but a more skillful and sensitive leader might have saved Iago's face and feelings. Could not Othello have found a position other than standard bearer for a man of Iago's ambitions and energies? Surely we can understand the anger and distress Iago feels--and understand, given his personality, that he would try to retaliate in a way that would humiliate Othello--to strike Othello back in his most sensitive area as Othello has struck him in his. 

If Iago chiefly fears falling down the career ladder and becoming unimportant, Othello's middle aged insecurity lies in the domestic realm: does his young wife truly love him? Can such a love really be?  Othello openly shows an awareness of his vulnerabilities including age: "I am black/ And have not those soft parts of conversation/ That chamberers have ... I am declined/ Into the vale of years."

Like Iago, Othello understands people's capacity for treachery. He doesn't trust Iago naively. His seemingly wild vacillations in his evaluation of Iago's false news that Desdemona and Claudio are having an affair show that he understands betrayal's potential all too well. At first he enters into Iago's story in the context of knowing that "a false disloyal knave" would feign Iago's hesitations and shrinking reluctance to talk (in other words, he knows people put on acts)  "but in a man that’s just [Iago]/They are close dilations, working from the heart." Not long afterwards, however, he begins to suspect Iago, lashing out and threatening him: " If thou dost slander her and torture me, Never pray more. Abandon all remorse. On horror’s head horrors accumulate." Othello demands empirical proof of adultery.Without it, Othello's revenge will be ruthless and unrelenting. Although Iago has already shown himself Machiavellian and unsavory, one might understand that at this moment he has gotten in over his head, backed into a corner in which he must betray Cassio and Desdemona or die himself. The two men, each facing his own "now or never" middle life crisis, face off.

Iago triumphs over Otello, reducing him to an abject emotional rag by playing on his fears that Desdemona loves another.

Othello's vacillating distrust extends quickly to Desdemona. He says "I think my wife be honest and think she is not," before moving back to Iago: "I think that thou art just and think thou art not. I’ll have some proof. Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face." Not only Iago  fuels this uncertainty. Desdemona's middle-aged father also knows a thing or two about betrayal: "Keep an eye on her, Moor. She lied to me, and she may lie to you."

Humiliated, Otello must humiliate. He flings Desdemona to the ground in public. This meme of ritual humiliation of the woman has descended to modern films. Today, however, the humiliated woman is usually redeemed, having accepted her rightful place. Is this an improvement?

Othello has in the past been betrayed and hurt. His deep longing for domestic happiness--"But I do love thee!" militates against his fear of what has been and can be again: "And when I love thee not Chaos is come again." Love is as fragile and elusive as it is precious. Othello knows that without it life descends into a place of undifferentiated fear and uncertainty. Yet can he trust love?

In Verdi, unlike Shakespeare, Desdemona sings the Hail Mary and a long prayer as she awaits Otello. In the Shakespeare play, Othello asks Desdemona if she has said her prayers, not wanting to kill her if her sins are not cleared. This is a marked contrast to Hamlet's desire to kill Claudius in an unredeemed state. 

 The tragedy of the play is the tragedy of middle age: the years of living by his wits and alert to people's treachery, all no doubt valuable in making him a general, are now Othello's undoing: He cannot trust the trustworthy one. Life has been too hard for him. His fears overtake him. Othello is a mirror of Iago. Othello destroys love that is real because he can no longer, any more than Iago, believe it possible. 

Having killed Desdemona and realized he made a mistake, Otello kills himself. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sir Charles Grandison

My husband and I started reading Sir Charles Grandison this summer during car trips and finished volume I yesterday. (Only six to go.) This novel was a favorite of Jane Austen's, according to her brother Henry.

The plot line thus far is similar to The Sylph by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire--the innocent, high spirited, forthright, and beautiful Harriet travels to London where many suitors pursue her and she encounters wickedness. The standout evil suitor, the arrogant, vain and wealthy Sir Hargrave Pollexfen,  arranges to kidnap Harriet from a masquerade ball by hiring unscrupulous servants to commandeer her chariot (strong shades of The Sylph). Sir Hargrave plans to force Harriet to marry him, but  Sir Charles Grandison foils the plan when he rescues her. At his home, she meets and becomes friends with his sister, Miss Grandison, a spicy figure, who later visits Harriet and demands breakfast immediately because "I can't eat my gloves." As the volume ends, Sir Charles refuses a duel with Sir Hargrave and makes a strong argument against duels for their spread of unneeded suffering. Certainly it seems as if Sir Charles and Harriet are destined to marry one another.

Probably my favorite letter in this volume was from a servant, Wilson, who helped with the kidnapping. The letter is a masterwork of rationalization and an expression of the limitations of the powerless--an apt psychological portrait as he tries to exonerate himself for his part in the misdeed. After all, he was just obeying orders. 

I can understand where Jane Austen loved Grandison, for in it women are allowed to be intelligent, strong and to have common sense. Richardson offers much proto-feminist rumination, calling for rationality to reign between the sexes, and advocating strongly for marriages based on love and mutual compatibility. I can see the seeds of Elizabeth Bennett in Harriet and can see Darcy as an amalgam of Sir Hargrave without the depravity (Arnie will no doubt argue that the shadow Darcy IS Sir Hargrave) and Sir Charles. Interestingly, however, we never encounter a masquerade ball in Austen. 

If Grandison is one source of many for Pride and Prejudice, Austen complicates the marriage plot by making the Bennet family's reputation questionable and the daughters fortuneless, problems Harriet does not have to contend with.

I still find myself amazed that the only novel Darwin took with him on The Beagle was Sir Charles Grandison. This novel is part of a stream of works that have fallen out of the canon because of changed tastes--yet this stream reamined influential into the first half of the 20th century. Others of this ilk, which I would characterize as too slow-moving for modern sensibilities, include Queechy by American Susan Warner and Swiss Adalbert Stifler's Indian Summer, to name two I have read or tried to read. 

Grandison is an exploration of point of view, but in a very different way from Austen. What Grandison does is use the epistolary form to layer various point of view, essentially retelling an episode from multiple perspectives. This creates tedium (in spots--in other spots the book is delightful) but also is integral to his purpose. What Austen has done is grasp the importance of point of view while dispensing with the tedium. She deliberately narrows her focus to one point of view and drops enough hints to let the reader figure out what is going on (or not).

Arnie tells me that Darwin was Mrs. Pole's grandson. Mrs. Pole was a friend of Austen and a perceptive reader of her novels. Darwin also married a Wedgewood daughter. The Wedgewood connection has long nagged at me as I think Austen must have had some interaction with the family. Wedgewood did finance the young, radical Coleridge, another link to the radical movement. Austen was not a radical but tantalizing hints of links or sympathy with some strands of radical thinking dance through her writing.  

Theopoetics and Quakerism II

I am reading Amos Wilder's seminal 1976 book, Theopoetic. Theopoetics, which I will define as the intersection of the literary with the theological, the manifestation of faith in art, has come to forefront as I have been thinking about Quaker literature.  I will, therefore, be working through Theopoetic in light of its relevance for Quakerism. 

In Theopoetic, Wilder begins with what theopoetics is not. First, it's not a shallow aestheticism. It's not ornamentation nor is it window dressing that prettifies religion by making it look more beautiful on the outside. It emerges from "the essential dynamics of the heart and soul." (2) Second, while it does not supersede love and action, it "orients" and "empowers" action. Third, a truly powerful theopoetic is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Instead, a generative theopoetic is exorcising and revelatory: it challenges us, presumably by changing how we see ourselves or the world. Finally, it is not meant to displace but to enhance and enlarge tradition theology. (3) Part of that enrichment involves taking seriously secular literary criticism. (4) Renewing faith through renewing language is not a quick fix nor is it easy. "It is a costly transaction and cannot be manipulated." (5) 

Wilder notes that the work of the greatest theologians has been "shot through with the imagination." He lists Augustine, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. (3) We might add to that list George Fox, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly.

In part II of chapter 1, Wilder mentions several motifs in the contemporary world he believes not adequately addressed in the current religious imagination. The first he calls a "hunger for innocence and naivete." (7) Another is the transformative "experience of glory" or "intoxication."  The intoxication theme also includes the "revolt of the beggars or vagabonds." Finally, he mentions the apocalypse, noting the "vision of an End can mean catastrophe to some, a new heaven and new earth to others." (10)

Quaker literature has been preoccupied in the last two centuries with a "hunger for innocence of naivete"--but in ways that look backward nostalgically rather than forward to become exorcising and revelatory. The social justice theme expressed in the revolt of the beggars, with its promise of transformative Jubilee, has been another Quaker preoccupation, but in its work in the world rather than its fiction. Would Quakers be better equipped for effective work with a more creative fiction? Finally, Quakerism is founded on a apocalyptic vision of a new heaven and new earth emerging  in the present moment. We live on the fumes of that vision today, but do little imaginatively to express this ecstatic future as a counterweight to the dark forebodings that dominate our times.

A Quaker fiction of the heart and soul would shatter us, not soothe us. 

Theopoetics and Quakerism: I

I am reading Amos Wilder's seminal 1976 book, Theopoetic. Theopoetics, which I will define as the intersection of the literary with the theological, the manifestation of faith in art, has come to forefront as I have been thinking about Quaker literature.  I will, therefore, be working through Theopoetic in light of its relevance for Quakerism. 

Theopoetic is first of all a response to the 1960s--a period crystallized in the social upheavals of 1968 whose effects are still with us--and the kind of creativity and turbulence that upheaval unleashed. That dizzying, revolutionary, futuristic backdrop of the 1960s, that sense of the whole world shaking and ready to tumble, couldn't, on the surface, be more different than our own frozen and backward-looking times. On the other hand, the 1960s represents the last heyday of Quakerism (whether a heyday of happiness or horror is a matter of perspective) and the fervor of that period harkens back even further to the revolutionary upheavals that produced the earliest Quakerism.

I see truths about Quakerism looking at it through the lens of its fictions. But let's first focus on Wilder, whose concern is the way Christian imagination had not, by the early 1970s, kept pace with the revolutionary changes he saw in the world around him.

"It is at the level of the imagination," writes Wilder, "that the fateful issues of our new world experience must first be mastered. ... Old words do not reach across the new gulfs, and it is only in vision in oracle that we can chart the unknown and new name the creatures. Before the message their must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem." (1)

We are motivated, he writes, by images and stories, because these move us more than ideas. Imagination is the life's blood of religion. Without it, "doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden ... litanies empty, consolations hollows and ethics legalistic." Without imagination, "doctrine becomes a caricature of itself" and begins to "suffocate" us. (2)

And thus ends his prelude.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Wife of the Author of Beltraffio

After reading Henry James's "The Author of Beltraffio," one of the most misogynist in the James canon: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/3145/pg3145.html, I thought it only fit to publish his wife's response. 

"The Wife of the Author of Beltraffio"
by Beatrice Ambient

I am not dead. 

As my would-be murderer knows, I want little more than to be left in peace. Yet, because people are taking this man’s writings seriously, I must rise from my imagined grave to say that I did not kill my young son.  

My only crime was to marry the wrong person.

Before I met Mark, “Mr Ambient,” I had been pursued by a wealthy and well-connected gentleman, tall and handsome with auburn hair, beginning to recede, so that his shiny forehead seemed all the higher. He had a noble look, people said, strong features, a Roman nose, good teeth. Attention turned his way when he entered a room.  As for me, I saw a man with slightly protruding eyes that became glassy when he was displeased, a purple vein in the side of his forehead that pulsed when he was annoyed, and a trumpeting voice underlaced with a snarl. He pursued me—I can’t say courted—with a brutal impatience, as if bored from the start with forms.

Although my family was almost in raptures over the idea of the match, I sidestepped him. I often thought of myself as a white feathered bird, flitting away from him from leafy tree to tree, he a panther with bulging cold eyes.

 I was relieved when Mark—the author of Beltraffio as my writer so coyly calls him—appeared, languid, slim, large eyed, fine boned and dark-haired. He’d just returned from Switzerland and carried with him the scent of clean snow, the look of clear blue lakes, a complexion made lively  by a tint of ruddiness in his cheeks. He was gentle, gracious, lightly earnest, deliberate and detached in his courtship. My family approved of him.

Mark in the days of our courtship

Mark was almost as acceptable to my parents and cousins as my brute, and my preference for him was so marked that the family gave way.

He had taken his time to marry. He had been careful, people said, waiting for the right woman. I was the kind of fair, slender beauty Mark might have dreamed up, a porcelain figurine with a long neck and pretty eyes. Nature imitates art, Mark said to me over and over. What you dream shall be. He liked that I was delicate and still and wore white gowns. We made a breathtaking couple, people said, with our clear eyes, shining hair, our delicacy and good breeding. It didn’t hurt either that I was “connected with the aristocracy,” as my young biographer remarked.

Me in happier times, reading

Mark was exquisitely gentle during our courtship, tentative even. He liked to smooth my stray hairs behind my ears, to run delicate fingertips over the lace of my cuffs or, after we were engaged, to touch the cameo I wore pinned at my neck.  Carefully, quietly, he would show me prints of the Italian paintings he loved, pointing out the details, the folds of Mary’s dark blue robe, the rich velvet, deep pink, of an angel’s tunic, the pointed tracery of its wingtips. I felt safe in his presence. He must have thought me endlessly malleable.

He took longer than I expected to propose. That was to be expected people said, for, after all, he was a writer, a thinker, an artist.

He was pensive during the wedding, tremulous, preoccupied. I found it touching, for he seemed to understand the gravity of the ceremony, uttering his vows with an almost funereal solemnity.

Yet he remained distant as we set off on our honeymoon, first to France, then to Italy. It was as if I were made of the same shimmering gauze as my gowns, my corporeality not quite real to him, as if I were an angel and might disappear into the ether. He treated me both as ethereal and as a precious artifact, exercising towards me a sort of adoration or veneration. He touched my hair and gown as if I were a saint. It was not until we were Rome that he consummated the marriage, and then pulled away as if shocked by the vulgarity of the act.

I was confused. Before I met the brute and before Mark, I had fallen in love with a neighborhood boy. Alone together in his father’s high walled garden, amid the scents of medicinal herbs and lavender, in a shaded corner, we had kissed and embraced with heart-pounding passion. And then in the small pantry filled with hanging herbs and glass jars of crushed potions and pills and a shelf with a neat row of mortars and pestles, we’d found transporting joys that fell short of the final act. 

No such heart stopping lust drove Mark towards me. He was attentive, well mannered, even tremulous, his large eyes catching mine bright with joy as he showed me a beautiful enameled box he wanted to buy or the Lacocoon, that tangle of snakes and nude males bodies, fathers and sons, a sculpture that he said transported him with bliss.

It was only when I saw the attention he paid the sturdy, square shouldered Italian youth we somehow got caught up with in Rome that I began to suspect, and when we took up with the delicate, long limbed young man with brown ringlets in Venice that I understood.

Back in England, we assembled an artistic home, a work of mellow, understated beauty. He had taste. He knew how to put together what was opulent with what was faded. Our home was infinitely, gently lovely. I planted flowers and herbs in the walled garden. Mark crucified the fruit trees and trained the rose against the garden’s crumbling brick walls.

A grove of beech trees cast the house in shadow, while the little creaking lattices and  tangles of ivy covering the walls sometimes oppressed me. Mark  now began to affect a Bohemian pose, donning velvet jackets, smoking cigarettes, and loosening his shirt collars to look disheveled.

In our new house, I became pregnant from one of our few encounters, and Mark seemed relieved. Relations stopped. He treated me even more as a priceless fragile piece of china. I noticed at the same time the steady stream of men that gathered around him, acolytes, disciples, devotees of his books and poems, all young and smooth, beautiful. At last, I confronted him about them. Again, he seemed relieved.

Me pregnant with Dolcino and already sadder.

“Finally,” he said, “the last barrier is down. Now we truly can be one. Now you will understand my art, everything in it I am not allowed to say.” He showed me his private collection of nude male sculptures, his gathered sheets of nude male drawings and photographs. As I reread his poems, I understood what they meant for the first time.

The last barrier was down but that led to a recognition that what lay between us was an unfathomable chasm, a thousand feet deep.

The author of “The Author of Beltraffio” accused me of narrow mindedness, of not understanding my husband’s art, of willful, even cruel, conventionality. He called me objectionable, cold and bland. But let me put to you, dear Reader, how you would feel had you discovered, after you were married, that your spouse had been unfaithful? How would you have responded had you realized he or she had never loved you and never could have, but had always loved others, a series of favorites who were not you? Would it matter if they were male or female, this run of servants, synocphants and scholars? Would it matter if some of them were hardly teenagers?

I felt played for a fool, betrayed, angry, used. Why, Mark, I wondered, marry at all if your desires run in a different direction? Why use me? Plenty of men lived together as confirmed bachelors. People knew enough not to know. Why pull me into this?

Perhaps because I was in the placid glow of pregnancy I was able to believe for a time his protestations that he cared for me, but the truth he had hoped would dissolve all barriers and bring us closer—closer mentally, that is—instead erected such a barrier that he had to bring his sister Gwendolyn to mediate between us. Our author tried to paint her as ridiculous, odd and unsavory—but even he could not. She is a person of rare intelligence and insight, as well as kindness and compassion.

The baby was born, our son. Mark named him Mark over my protests. I was glad to call him Dolcino, affected as I found the name. I thought he was the most beautiful baby ever born, perfect.

He grew. The more Gwendolyn and I focused on him and each other, the more we could drown out the ever more open situation between Mark and his friends.

The writer was just another in a series. He’d gotten in our door through what he coyly called a “very frank expression” of his “sentiments.” In other words, he'd made it clear he would be an easy conquest.

Mark in our lovely home, with a friend.

Gwendolyn loathed him on sight. He was condescending to us, a fawning syncophant to Mark, not half as good looking as he believed himself, with a nose destined to grow bulbous , a midriff already running to fat, a roundish face. If he fancied himself of good blood lines, he hardly looked the part.

Gwendolyn, dear forthright person that she is, never could fake her civility well. Our writer sensed her contempt and so called her “a fatuous artificial creature.” Yes, she was artificial —to him. He would have hardly liked the alternative of hearing what she really thought of him. He called her “disappointed” and she was--disappointed in Mark. Our writer accused her of being vain, of wanting to be looked at. He wrote that “she wished to be thought original,” but all these were all traits he paraded shamelessly before Mark—and perhaps her “dejection” was his own, as Mark was less impressed with him than he would have wished. It was our writer guest, not my sister-in-law, who “parted with a hope he couldn’t have sanely entertained”-- of a conquest in Mark.  It was his “affectations,” not Gwendolyn’s,  that brought a faint blush of shame to her brother’s cheek, though that wouldn’t stop Mark from fulfilling his desires.

We sat in the garden while Mark worked in his study. Our writer went on endlessly about him until Gwendolyn jumped up, pacing  and quoting Dante with affected theatricality. I tried to ignore him as much as possible whilst keeping a polite smile pinned to my face, but when his patronizing talk became too much—how good of him to bestow such time on me, as if he had a choice!—I told him, glancing pointedly at his groin, that Mark was very fond of plums,  hoping he would take the hint that I was not a fool.  Did he really think I didn’t know what kind of “ramble” through fields he and Mark took while Gwendolyn and I were at church?

I did try to keep Dolcino from his father, from that confusing world of lies and innuendo, where everything meant something else. I wanted to keep him from the harshness Mark, with good intentions, planned to subject him to to make him strong: cold baths, too much exercise, strenuous swims, what he called a Spartan regime. But I did not let him die to keep him from his father. I did not like our writer or the contempt he showed for my sister-in-law or his vague disdain of women, and I did hope to protect my son from him as well. However, it never occurred to me he would spin the fantasy that I had killed my child.

Of course, that story—that I locked Mark out of the nursery, refused the doctor, that I kept the sick child to myself to die—was utterly untrue. Anyone could come and go. The doctor had reassured me that all was well and implied the child would be fine. Mark simply didn’t visit during that long night. Perhaps the possibilities offered with his new young friend were too tantalizing. I don’t mean to imply he was a bad father—I am sure he felt secure, as I did, that Dolcino would recover. Our child dying was unfathomable to both of us.

I remember that night vividly. Dolcino’s body was hot and drafts blew through the cracks between the window and the frame. I never questioned the doctor’s assurance that Dolcino would be well. It was not his first fever. I had seen him worse. I stayed with him. Finally, when he seemed settled, I fell asleep beside him on the bed, his little arms around my waist in an innocent, uncomplicated love unlike anything his father ever expressed or felt for me. His little heart pounded against my back, but he was not tossing or turning or calling out. His peace and warmth became mine and I fell asleep. I dreamed he was three and I was carrying him in the garden in late summer. The apples were ripening and we were under a tree. He put his warm hands on my cheeks and  looked into my eyes. “Be happy mother,” he said in a childish voice. “Aren't you happy?” His eyes scanned my face, all concern. I held him tight for a moment in the dream, then woke up, crying.  I turned around and pulled him into my arms, hugging him tight as I had in the dream, determined I would keep my troubles from him and never let anything hurt him.

The first traces of a grayish yellow sunlight were coming through the window—not quite dawn. It was then that he shuddered, stiffened and moaned through parched lips, and I jolted fully awake. He was burning up. Something was wrong. I scrambled out of bed and lifted him into my arms, calling for Gwendolyn, and then for a servant to run get the doctor. “Right now!” I cried. “Quickly! Hurry!”

Gwendolyn, all good sense, came rushing in, pulling on her dressing gown as she ran, her hair tumbling down her shoulders in a disarray. Dolcino was unconscious, his head lolling back. She dashed water on him, called for smelling salts, sent the alarm through the house that alerted our writer I was frightened.

I tried and tried to wake Dolcino but I could feel him drawing further away. I smashed his favorite teddy bear in his arms, forced juice through his lips, called to him, shook him. He no longer moaned, just drifted farther from me.

The doctor turned ashen in the lamplight when he saw him. “Oh my God,” he said. “Oh my dear woman,” he said, turning to me.  “Your son will go to heaven with a unblemished soul,” he said at last.

I couldn’t stop crying. It was a lament for my child that seemed bottomless but also a lament for my sham of a marriage, for my life.

The fear our guest witnessed that morning, what he called “my revulsion,” “the fright” that allegedly “betrayed” me into trying to save my child—the reality of my distress that  even he could not deny—represented no change of heart. Never, for one instant, did I want my child to die, not for any reason. As for my sister-in-law confiding in him that I had chosen not to seek help so the child would die—that’s an utter fabrication. He thought her strange, as he wrote, and he thought women fools—if she had said such a thing, he would have dismissed it as mad ravings. I imagine it was Mark who said that to him.

What kind of mind could write that the child “was more exquisitely beautiful in death than he had been in life?”

After the funeral, after Gwendolyn had thrown our eager writer out of the house, Mark and I separated. I now live abroad. He pays for me to stay away and not betray his secrets. If I were to have another child, although we have not seen each other for two years, he would accept it as his own. Dolcino—the living boy with his runny nose and scratched legs and dirt under his fingernails, not the corpse that so entranced Mark’s friend—still haunts me.

Mark continues with his young men.  And what if they were young women? Would those who sympathize with his plight sympathize then? Mark wants to be seen a tragic figure, a noble sufferer, martyred by cruel conventions. I might have more compassion had he not married me. 

What I have trouble forgiving is not so much the contemptuous, priggish portrait the young author painted of me, but his romanticizing of Mark. Mark was nothing more than selfish to marry me, and he coldly used me for his own ends as he uses his string of paramours.  There’s nothing sublime in that, nothing to celebrate.

The young guest wished me dead because my presence disturbed him. He wanted my son dead too, to become an exquisite statue under the ground, cold and still, both of us out of the way. So in his fiction, not satisfied with witnessing the one death, he killed me too. 

I didn’t read my husband’s book, the one he was working on when Dolcino died, much as the young man author thought it the ultimate sin that I refused. What he didn’t want to understand was that I didn’t care about Mark’s book. It wasn’t that the so-called daring, radical subject matter would have shocked me—what could I read in a book that would be different from what I had seen? Indifference is worse than hate, I have read, and neither Mark nor his young friend could bear that.

I now lead a quiet life with Gwendolyn and tend my herb garden, and between us, we keep the world at bay. We use some of the money Mark sends us to finance schooling for young orphan boys. Gwendolyn handles it as it is too much for me to see these youngsters who remind  me of my son, and we say nothing to Mark, for fear our project might cause him to visit. Dolcino is buried near us, and in the garden I keep a statue of an angel, pretending it marks my husband’s grave. I don't think the affectation would please him, as the angel is not attractive.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Revenge's Emily Thorne: A Shadow Nancy Drew?

     Imagine Nancy Drew's father, Carson, going up against the corrupt, nouveau-riche Tophams from Nancy's very first case, The Secret of the Old Clock--and losing. Imagine Carson framed for the Topham's fraud, ending up in prison, and dying behind bars as a result of a murder the Tophams have orchestrated to silence him forever. Imagine Nancy Drew in foster care and then juvenile prison. In this alternative scenario, instead of launching her on a successful run of solving mysteries that right injustices and help the downtrodden, Nancy's very first case leads to disaster.

In this new universe, by the time young adult Nancy learns of her father's innocence and inherits the fortune he has safeguarded for her, she's changed. A desire for justice has warped into a desire for revenge.

Say hello to Emily Thorne, the shadow Nancy Drew.

Emily Thorne

In Revenge, Emily's father has been framed as a terrorist who blew up a plane. The adult Emily, with a fortune and computer hacker friend behind her, plans to destroy the people who destroyed her father.

I didn't recognize the parallels with Nancy Drew right away. I knew Emily reminded me of someone, but the association lurked, fittingly, as a shadow that kept flitting out of view. It wasn't until I watched a Revenge episode with a masquerade ball and another  in which Emily saves a friend from a sinking boat that the similarity clicked into place. These are exactly the kind of situations in which Nancy finds herself.  Emily is Nancy, updated for a grimmer time.

Like Nancy Drew, Emily is a WASP. She has long golden blond hair, unlimited supplies of money, is slim, athletic, independent, and wears any number of pretty frocks that she doesn't really care about. She's multi-talented, highly intelligent and never loses her poise. As an added bonus, she has learned the arts of fighting and revenge from a mysterious Asian master. Although it's never spoken, she's old money against the declasse Graysons, the enemies who destroyed her father. They live in a monstrosity: an oversized fortress of a stone beach home decorated like a generic hotel chain; in contrast, Emily's beach house, which once was her family home, is a tasteful frame cottage--large, but never crass, windswept, cozy, understated, with sea foam colored walls and cosy wooden outdoor rockers on a big wraparound porch.

Emily succeeds at all she tries with near effortless aplomb and stays one step ahead of her enemies. Despite her passion to take people down, we know she's kind-hearted, caring and generous at core. She attracts loyal friends, who will do anything to help her. Men fall in love with her. Bad women see her as a dangerous rival; good women, like her friend from juvenile detention, want to be with her.

As we move back towards a 1930s world of great disparities between rich and poor, it's no wonder we recreate Nancy Drew. And at time when most people know the very wealthy have often amassed their fortunes at the expense of the hopes and dreams of the little people, as the Tophams attempt to do at the expense of impoverished widows and orphans, we look for the avenger--the Nancy Drew--capable of taking them on.

Yet today, our patrician angel is dark. This is nostalgia gone bad. If Nancy Drew met deviousness and deception with straightforward ingenuity and courage rather than moral compromise, our new heroine fights fire with fire, adopting the tactics of the enemy. On the outside she looks and acts like Nancy Drew. On the inside, she's follows the game plan of the morally bankrupt and ruthless Graysons.

I think this doubleness says something about the world we live in. No longer does it seem as if we can win following the straight ethical path. In The Sopranos, Carmela, wife of the Mafia boss, finally decides that what the Mafia does, while deplorable, is no different, morally, from the ways and means of the "legitimate" rich--it's all a rip off of the weaker. In Breaking Bad, high school teacher Walter White leaves the straight and narrow after a cancer diagnosis--and an inability to afford "good" treatments--convince him that only an illegal meth business, predicated on murder and exploitation, will get him ahead. Emily views the world through a hard Machiavellian lens of treachery that justifies lies, deception and cheating.

All three shows problematize their characters' actions. Emily's friends have increasingly challenged her quest for revenge and what it is doing to her, as well as the damage--and even death--it has caused innocent people. But none of these series offer an alternative to behavior that we might label evil--behavior that causes death and the destruction of lives. None of them challenges the basic premises under which our society operates. I also think it's not by accident that the more recent series, clearly aimed at white audiences, have chosen WASPs as their problematized protagonists: Walter White, blond haired Nancy Drew clone Emily Thorne.

Everyman gone bad: Walter White

If our arts--literature, movies, drama, painting--show us the part of ourselves as a society that we don't want to see, we might say that these series show us in dire straits: we've lost our moorings. Is it a measure of how powerless we feel that we can only imagine amassing power through cruelty, subterfuge and violence?

One could argue that in all these series, hardness, with its focus on the quick fix and ego aggrandizement, has become the substitute for strength. But more on that next time.

I am interested in what others might think.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

On Tysoe Hancock in The Austen Papers

On the Jane Austen lists, a handful of us are reading The Austen Papers, the Austen family letters and documents retrieved and published by Jane Austen's great-great nephew, Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. I find these papers a rich trove of information for understanding Jane Austen within a wider social context than that of her family of origin. Right now, we are up to the letters Jane's uncle by marriage Tysoe Hancock wrote from India, primarily to his wife, Philadelphia, and to his daughter Eliza or Betsy.

Eliza Hancock

Philadelphia was Jane's aunt, the sister to her father. While falling short of spelling it out, the letters make obvious what most Jane Austen scholars have already surmised: the wealthy and powerful Warren Hastings, not Hancock, was Eliza's father.

Hancock wrote these letters in the early 1770s, in the years before Jane Austen's birth. Jane later became close with Eliza, who ended up married to Jane's brother Henry.

I include some remarks I made on the lists about the letters Hancock wrote from 29 March 1772 to 27 February 1773. He lived in India at the time; Philadelphia and Eliza (also called Betsy) lived in England. The family was deeply in debt, but Hancock, driven by money, couldn't seem to stop spending and insisted that Betsy have the best of everything. I am grateful for Hancock's candor and the window it opens on how people in Austen's milieu made--or didn't make-- money. He is possiby more to be pitied than scorned: he is caught in India in a culture of systemic injustice. The pursuit of money makes him miserable, but he can't think beyond a paradigm that values money above all else, even human life: In my last post, I wrote about the mass starvation caused by British East India Company policy, in which 10 million Bengalis died.

An idealized portrait of the British in India by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810).
Zoffany actually visited India on occasion, but lived mostly in England

My comments are below. 

Ellen Moody has noted the lewdness of the garters story Hancock shared with Miss Freeman. Miss Freeman was an older spinster whose family helped raised Philadelphia, and who sent Hancock a frugally made pair of garters. Hancock doesn't repeat this lewd garter story to his wife.

 In Hancock's telling, at a party of his, women apparently wanted to tie him up to his bed with the garters. Why tell this story to Miss Freeman?  He follows this story with a joke to Miss Freeman that again strikes an off note, teasingly reminding her that her "flattery" of him doesn't make him believe she has "thrown aside the Courtier." Miss Freeman, on the other hand, knows how to say what he wants to hear, for he tells her he hopes Eliza is "what you describe Her."

Earlier,  on receiving the handmade, frugal garters, Hancock had rhapsodized to Philadelphia, wishing he had economized, as Miss Freeman still does, years ago (which has all the persuasiveness of Donald Trump saying he'd wished he'd joined an ashram). 

As for Betsy, the letters continue the admonishments that she be the person he wants her to be: accomplished, musical, beautiful, always deserving "the good opinion" of her friends. In this, he shares similarities with the parents of Jesse in Breaking Bad, for those of us who have watched the series. Jesse's upper middle class parents want to produce perfectly programmed upper middle class children, sons who play the piano and go to college. However, Jesse's parents lack any emotional connection to their sons, merely robotically repeating a middle class script that has no relation to the reality of their children's lives. Hancock is equally ludicrous in wanting Eliza not be herself but a manufactured object. Of course, as we have noted before, he is Midas. Lucky for Betsy/Eliza, she had a humane mother. 

Hancock writes a masterful letter telling Philadelphia that Hastings has replaced her with the pretty, vivacious, 26-year-old German, Mrs. Imhoff. While this could not have been good news for a man whose chief sources of revenue seem to have been pimping his wife and sponging off her rich uncle Francis, he doesn't altogether seem to mind that she's been displaced. By December 11, the buy off has been sent in the form of 40,000 rupees or 5,000 pounds (about $500,000) for Betsy from Hastings. Hancock anxiously insists that this amount be kept secret--Philadelphia is to suggest a token gift for Eliza. I imagine Hancock still trying to keep Eliza's parentage secret.

Warren Hastings

 Hancock shares similarities with Mr. Imhoff, the new favorite's husband, a painter of miniatures who, according to Hancock, couldn't make it as a solider. Imhoff was possibly physically impaired in some way, if Hancock's comments about the failure at soldiering functions as coded language. Possibly he was gay--as possibly Hancock was (no children). Did Hastings have an eye for vulnerable men with pretty wives--men who couldn't or wouldn't make the situation messy, want a duel or threaten him?

We hear of an apparently lost letter in which Hancock describes India to Philadelphia. I imagine it as a grim post-famine picture. We do have another forceful letter telling her in no uncertain terms to keep herself and Betsy away. He also says he has no idea of the state of his debts and says this "embarrasses" him "very much." How much easier it all is to be far from the people who could cause you to feel acute humiliation in person.

Finally, Hancock writes several letters about Mr. Imhoff's son, who is coming to England to deliver the money to Eliza. Mr. Imhoff must be much older than his 26-year-old wife if his son can travel independently and deliver money. Hancock wants Philadelphia to be helpful to this son.

I will say I appreciate Hancock's candor, which offers unvarnished insights into how upper class English society functioned. How close Jane Austen was to this world of corruption that ranged from ruthless colonial exploitation of native peoples to profiting through the extramarital sexual liaisons of one's wife!  We see more glimmers of this world in Austen's juvenilia, however, than in the novels, by which time the corruption is carefully submerged, but not forgotten.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

India and Austen

Much attention in the Austen world has been lavished on the West Indian slave plantations that financed wealthy families like the Bertrams in Mansfield Park. Less attention has been paid to Jane Austen's proximity, via close relatives, to the ruthless exploitation of native peoples in India.

In The Austen Papers, Austen's uncle, Tysoe Hancock, mentions the Bengal famine of 1770 in a letter of 7 March 1770 to his wife Philadelphia, Jane Austen's aunt:

"The diseases which have been and continue to be very fatal here are chiefly owing to putrefaction occasioned by the prodigious number of dead bodies lying in the streets and all places adjacent. This mortality is the effect of a most terrible famine which had half depopulated Bengal."

The Bengal famine, probably caused by British East India Company policies.

Hancock is too focused on his own not inconsiderable woes, including a long bout of sickness amid the stench of rotting corpses, ceaseless financial worries, and fear he would be "perpetually banished" to India to put the famine in context--and he probably knew little of the context.

The Bengal famine killed 10 million Indians and caused vast sections of Bengal to go back to jungle because of depopulation. The British East India Company's policies of forcing farmers to plant indigo rather than food crops, raising rents fivefold, which forced farmers to plant opium poppies rather than food, and forbidding the "hoarding" of rice largely caused or exacerbated the famine. The company did little to respond to the crisis. 

During the famine, Warren Hastings was the first governor-general of British India, a powerful position. He probably fathered Eliza, Jane Austen's first cousin and friend. Philadelphia,  Eliza's mother, was Jane's father's sister.

Warren Hastings. We wish he had been kinder to the Indian people. 

Hastings treated Philadelphia and Eliza generously, at one point bestowing 10,000 pounds on them, roughly a million dollars in today's money. He also, among other acts of generosity, provided Hancock with diamonds he could send to Philadelphia to sell to offset expenses. 

Eliza Hancock

Hancock wasn't the only Englishman who arrived in India at great risk to seek a fortune. The pressures on Hastings to provide not just sustenance but wealth for this English population must have been intense.

Yet at what cost to the Indian people, who were starved en masse in the process? 

If Hastings is a hero in the Austen family drama, not so much in India. There, Hastings engaged "violent" tax collecting after 1771. This resulted in revenues earned by the East India Company that were higher in 1771 than in 1768. 

It is chilling to think how Hastings got the money he bestowed on Philadelphia and Eliza--and in what close proximity Eliza was to Jane Austen. None of this was their fault. We live in the world we are given, and Austen was born into a privileged place in a world of systemic injustice. And yet living on the peripheries of a glittering society in which vast wealth poured into a few laps from all over the globe, Jane often felt her relative poverty. Ironies pile upon ironies. 

Maybe one less crystal chandelier and instead some rice for the starving Indians?

One thinks of the line from Great Expectations that "some must live rough that other might live fine." One wishes that the English upper classes of Austen's time could have lived less lavishly so that many others might have lived. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Jane Austen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This may be the first blog post ever to mash together Jane Austen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but in honor of both my upcoming Bonhoeffer book and my favorite English author, I write about some of the similarities between the two. 

What could an early nineteenth century English woman novelist with no political involvement  have in common with a twentieth century German theologian executed for his part in conspiring against Hitler? Even I was surprised at the number of parallels:

Both probably had bouts of depression.

Both Dietrich and Jane had a serious streak and periods of depressions (or so has often been assumed about Austen in the years after the family moved to Bath.) Bonhoeffer wrote of spells of accidie or dejection. 

Both were the second-to-youngest in close knit families of eight children. 

This image, probably not of the Austens, though the possibility has been raised, shows a close knit gentry family of Jane Austen's era. Only four  children are in this, casting doubt on its authenticity: Why would the Austens leave the other children out? If it is the Austens,  Jane would be the girl on the center left, her arm raised in the air. 

An idealized family portrait shows all eight Bonhoeffer children gathered around  their mother in 1911 or 12. Dietrich is the blond boy standing with his arm on the table. The father is not in this photo but was very much the paterfamilias.

Both were talented pianists. Bonhoeffer's family thought he might pursue a career in music before he turned to theology.

Austen's piano. 

This shows a Bechstein piano of 1920s vintage, of the sort that might have travelled with Dietrich to London and later Finkenwalde seminary. Bonhoeffer made a special effort to have the piano removed before the Gestapo closed Finkenwalde. The wife of the owner of the Bechstein company supported Hitler early on, introducing him to polite society in Berlin and Munich and wishing he were her son. That the Bonhoeffers owned these pianos (purchased prior to Hitler's ascent) show the complications of German life and politics. 

Both were exceptionally close to a sister. We know of Jane and Cassandra’s lifelong devotion. Likewise, Dietrich remained extraordinarily close to his twin sister Sabine. Though Sabine and Dietrich necessarily developed independent lives as adults, arguably the greatest rupture in his life was her marriage and removal from the family of origin. This left him groping for almost a decade for  "a ground to stand on." Being cut adrift led him first to Spain and then to a transformative year at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Later in life, Bonhoeffer wrote that Sabine was one of the two people in the world--the other Eberhard Bethge--who seemed entirely real to him.

Dietrich and the darker-haired Sabine. We have no portrait of Jane and Cassandra together.

Both had a sibling tragedy, Jane in her older brother George, who was mentally disabled, and Dietrich when his brother Walter was killed in WWI after only two weeks at the front.

Both came from families that nurtured their talents and both maintained strong relationships with siblings all their lives. For both, the necessary adult breakup of the family of origin as siblings married was devastating.

Both were good with children. Some of the most delightful images of Austen from her nephew's memoir, and her own letters, depict her joy in a good slide on the ice with her nephews or engaging with her nieces and nephews in lively games and stories. Bonhoeffer shone as a youth minister in Barcelona who grew the youth program from one to 40 students. In Berlin, he worked as a youth pastor in a poor neighborhood and former students remember him taking them to his family's vacation home in the Harz mountains --a great treat for kids who never got to leave Berlin. 

Both had a close friend who was--or could have been--the replacement for the beloved sibling. 
Bethge, taller and darker, with Bonhoeffer. He filled in the empty space left by the marriages of Bonhoeffer's siblings.

Martha Lloyd. She eventually married Jane's brother Frank, but had Cassandra married, it's likely Martha would have become Jane's closest supporter. 

Both came from roughly the same gentry class background. Like the Austens, the Bonhoeffer family was not aristocratic but had relatives in the aristocracy and circulated on the periphery of the highest social circles. Unlike the Austens, the Bonhoeffers were wealthy and, leaving aside wars and the German hyper-inflation of 1923-24, did not suffer from financial worries.

Austen grew up in a respected family in a rural parsonage.

Bonhoeffer spent much of his childhood in this grand house in a well-heeled Berlin suburb called Grunewald.

Neither family would have ever imagined, in their wildest dreams that Jane or Dietrich would be the child to catapult them to fame. Jane was a spinster, Dietrich the son the family thought had thrown his talents away by pursuing a pastoral career.

Neither was well-known in his or her lifetime.

Both grew famous because of the power of their writing, Jane through the four novels she published in her lifetime and the two released after her death, and Dietrich through two books published while alive (he also published three scholarly tomes)--Discipleship and Life Together--and through the posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison

The writing desk from Dietrich's attic bedroom in the house his parent's moved to in his adult years. Dietrich often wrote standing. Did Jane?

Jane's writing desk

Both died young, cut off in their prime. Austen was 42 when disease took her. Bonhoeffer was 39 when the Nazis hanged him in the last weeks of the war. The loss of their talent at relatively young ages is incalculable.

Austen died wanting more of  life. She had a long, slow decline, but died with her sister and Martha Lloyd in attendance and was buried in Winchester Cathedral, shown above.

Bonhoeffer did not suffer a lingering illness but was hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp in the last days of the war, far from family, alone, also young. He was most likely thrown in a mass grave and cremated. 

Both transcended limitations of their time and class to achieve greatness: they wrought more than they knew. 

Both came from families that closed ranks to protect, control and ultimately distort the image of their most famous member. (We can argue that in each family, some did this more than others.)

Neither could have imagined the impact their small body of work would have on the world. Austen could hardly have envisioned herself as one of the pivotal, canonical novelists in English literature, rated with Shakespeare as among the greatest English authors of all time. Bonhoeffer could hardly have conceived the worldwide impact his writing would have on theology, including liberation theology in places like South Africa and Latin America. He could hardly have imagined that he would often be rated with Barth as one of the two greatest theologians of the 20th century or become an object of popular fascination.

Jane no doubt would have been amused to see her face depicted on a ten pound note. This idealized portrait dates to the publication of her nephew James Arthur Edward Leigh's Memoir. Given her almost constant concern for money, ending up on a bank note would have constituted a wonderful irony to this supreme ironist.

Bonhoeffer specifically wrote that he did not want to become  a "pillar saint." Naturally, he became a pillar saint. 

Both had enough sense of humor and self irony that it is easy to imagine that they would have been amused and bemused at the adulation now paid them. Bonhoeffer said more than once he didn't want to be considered a saint; about Jane Austen we need only direct ourselves to her novels.

Would they have liked each other? That's a difficult question to answer.