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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Canvas Truisms

I've been spending a lot of time at a Barnes & Noble in Falls Church. They've got a really nice solid pine table that comfortably seats 6 or so perfect strangers, good Wi-Fi, and a Starbucks cafe with all the tea I could want. I'm sorry; I hope I don't sound too much like a, well, snobby person who spends her time at Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. Does it help that I usually get black unsweetened iced tea instead of a chai tea latte? (Confession: today I did get a chai tea latte...) It's a good work space, and it's led to at least one interesting conversation with a guy who asked me if I was writing a book and then proceeded to tell me all about his.

But, I digress.
As I was heading over to the work table this evening, I passed by the canvas bags they have for sale up by the check out, the ones with quotes about reading and vintage-y looking covers of classic books printed on them. Often I like those bags; I've thought seriously about buying one for the last 4 years. But, today, I scoffed. For what did I see? "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." Well, obviously! As if anyone needed to print that on a bag! And, what makes it worse, not one but two, count 'em, TWO people were credited with saying it! Happily for them, I've forgotten both of their names. And hell, I'm sure I've said lots of obvious things in my time. Let's start campaigning to get one of them printed on a canvas bag at the check out.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Three Books I Will Never Buy

On a recommendation from a recent acquaintance, I drove out to Middleburg last Friday. It's very quaint and sweet in the same way Cape Cod and Concord are, but Virginia style, and a little more upscale. There are some real pretty horse farms and vineyards along the way, which I found to be a surprisingly welcome respite from the city. I am so not a city girl. Anyway, although every store in town prices its merchandise far beyond my humble reach, I did enjoy browsing, and just looking at all the pretty things. In the back room of a shop, which mostly sold imported Italian pottery and over-priced table linens, I found some books. I found some very silly books, as a matter of fact -- books I will never buy:

1. $180 leather-bound blank scrap book
2. The Chic Shopper's Guide to Paris
3. A History of Underwear Fashion in Detail


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Idols and Ideals in Love

(Spoiler alert: I give away the endings of some of the books I talk about in this post.)
Ah, but I miss her.
All I have is a picture of her.
It was taken years ago,
I was a kid, you know,
Just leanin' up against that El Dorado.
All of you bluegrass folk music fans out there probably recognize these lyrics from Old Crow Medicine Show's "My Good Gal." I was listening to them last week, and realized how well this song seems to fit into what I've been trying to write about. How are we supposed to draw the line between making an ideal out of love and our beloved, and being a cynic about the impossibility of love? Are we supposed to believe all the poems and songs and movies that talk about how powerful it is, how eternal it is, how transforming and beatific it is? Or, if we see other people who believe all that, perhaps we should shake our heads and say, wow, you poor dumb suckers, and walk away as the "sadder but wiser" participants in the game. I suppose I'm not the only one to wonder, as it seems that just about every book I've read during the last month or so seems to have quite a bit to say on the subject. But perhaps I should start further back than that.

The play I directed last year was Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. If you aren't familiar with it, it's about a man whom everyone thought to be outstanding and perfect, intelligent and kind, and who turns out to have a less-than-perfect past. His wife is a woman of high moral character and unyielding principles. When she discovers his history, it almost destroys their marriage. The scene of discovery has some of the most poignant lines of the play, words that choked me up almost every time I heard my students deliver them.
Lady Chiltern: You were to me something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain. The world seemed to me finer because you were in it, and goodness more real because you lived. And now -- oh, when I think that I made of a man like you my ideal! the ideal of my life!
photo courtesy of Maria Cross
Sir Robert Chiltern: There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can't you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men: but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hand, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us -- else what use is love at all? ... Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me, and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses. I was afraid I might lose your love, as I have lost it now... Let women make no more ideals of men! let them not put them on altars and bow before them, or they may ruin other lives as completely as you -- you whom I have so wildly loved -- have ruined mine! (43-44, Dover Thrift Editions)
Certainly, we can agree with Sir Robert that women make ideals of men. Young women are in love with love, and, when they find an object (and I say object though I am talking about a man, for he is functionally an object in the worst of these cases) which can supposedly carry the weight of all their fairy tales, well, they get used to the idea that this is it. This is "the perfect guy," the one who will "make all their dreams come true". It's natural that every woman should assume that she will be the one to have the perfect life, because really, with any amount of self-respect, we recognize that we are worthy of perfection and so expect that we will have it. That's a good thing, stemming from a sense of our dignity and worth and our privileged place in creation. And when we find that guy who makes the world seem like a better place, a finer world, who makes goodness seem more real merely by the fact of his existence, it's easy to get carried away and decide that yes, here is the perfection for which I was made.

Where I disagree with Sir Robert is that men love women knowing all of their faults. Perhaps in some cases that is true, but certainly not in every case. It's a two-way street; men are not immune from making ideals of the women they love. For instance, the concept of medieval love, which was by no means localized or specific to a certain place or story, was all about the man pedestalizing the woman whom he didn't actually know. Think about Dante and Beatrice, or Arcite and Palamon falling in love with Emily in The Canterbury Tales. (There's an impressive passage in Neville Coghill's introduction to Chaucer that talks about the intensity of this practice -- thanks Joe Swope for the reminder.) And in the Old Crow song up at the top, guess what happens with his "El Dorado"?
And she don't have the courtesy
To shut the door
when she's been playin' whore
Don't wanna see his rags piled on the floor.
My good gal ain't no good to me
And I only wish that she could see
That I miss her...
I drove her out of town,
And I shot her down,
And I left her there in the cold, cold ground.
El Dorado, huh? Bad for her, bad for him. For a little more development on this idea, let's look at Jay Gatsby. Why did he ever fall for a flake like Daisy, anyway? Perhaps I'm being too harsh with her, but given the outcome of the book, I have very little energy to spend on pitying the ignoramus (ignorama?). Perhaps she had been more equal to him in her younger years, but, based on the following passage, I don't think she ever deserved him. Here the narrator recounts the moment that Gatsby first kissed Daisy, shackled himself to a mortal, and limited his godly potential:
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. (112, Scribners, 1953)
Does he have any inkling of what that kiss would later compel him to do? He's completely gone over her, and shapes his whole life, where and how he lives, in order to pursue her and win her back, years after this moment, years after she was married to someone else. She has perishable breath, and he is giving up his incredible potential, for indeed he is a man of great talent and intelligence, to join himself with this perishable white-faced girl. Certainly, she is beautiful. And certainly love requires sacrifice. But he gave up everything for her, remade himself, allowed himself to be incarnated in wedding his "unutterable visions" to her weak offering. He makes himself a slave to a woman unworthy of his great devotion, his star-struck love, and is killed because of it. Meanwhile, she lives without outward consequence for the harm she has done, the evil she has inflicted. Gatsby perhaps begins to realize his mistake as he is trying to convince Daisy to run away with him. In this scene, she is trapped between her husband (Tom) and her lover. She is too weak and torn to make a decision, as both press her, in turn, to stay and to flee. Her cousin, Nick, and her friend, Jordan, watch awkwardly. (I've curtailed the exchange here to the essential bits.)
Gatsby walked over and stood beside her.
"Daisy, that's all over now," he said earnestly. "It doesn't matter anymore. Just tell him the truth -- that you never loved him -- and it's all wiped out forever... You never loved him."
She hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing -- and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all.
"I never loved him, " she said, with perceptible reluctance.
"Not at Kapiolani?" demanded Tom suddenly. "Not that day I carried you down from the punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?" There was a husky tenderness in his tone . . . . "Daisy?"
"Oh, you want too much!" she cried to Gatsby. "I love you now -- isn't that enough? I can't help what's past." She began to sob helplessly. "I did love him once -- but I loved you too."
Gatsby's eyes opened and closed.
"You loved me too?" he repeated. (132-133)
Gatsby is perhaps realizing that Daisy is not what he once thought. No wonder she can't stand under the weight of his expectations. She's right -- he does ask too much. Is it such a crime that she once loved her husband, perhaps does still love him? And besides, how many of us have only ever loved one person? I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but I think that it's far more likely that most of us fall in love more than once. It would be glorious if each of us could end happily with the first person we fell in love with, and never had the distraction or memory of someone else who might at odd and unexpected times come back to our consciousness. But, realistically, how likely is that? And should we really hold it against someone else if they too have loved someone else before they loved us? Daisy's predicament is slightly worse, of course, because she loved Gatsby "too". I can understand his hurt in that situation. A little healthy jealousy in love is, well, healthy. But Daisy was set up for failure from the start, because she simply is no match for Gatsby. And, really, from the moment of her marriage, Gatsby's destruction is marked. He's charted himself, listening to the tuning of the stars, to pursue a woman who is not for him. Of course it ends in tragedy. He lived in a dream, just as did the speaker of the Old Crow song, and just as Lady Chiltern did.

Clearly, then, at this point we can all agree that making ideals of the man or woman that we love doesn't end well for them, and it doesn't end well for us. Pedestalizing and idolizing mere humans sets them up to fall short of our expectations, that is, sets them up for failure, and also sets us up to blame and perhaps hate them for it when it was really our fault in the first place. But does this mean that we have to throw up our hands and embrace a life of celibacy, because really, why should we put ourselves in a less than ideal situation? Why commit to something we know will only end in imperfection? Let's hold out for that perfect situation, whatever it might be. That's what we're worth, after all. But, hold on. As Charles Ryder puts it in that most brilliantly and subtlely Catholic of all Catholic novels, "To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom." (We could have a long discussion on what he means exactly, and various qualifications about how to understand that and how celibacy fits into it, but let's accept it for now and hash it out later if you're not happy.)

So, if that really is the root of all wisdom, perhaps it's something we should contemplate doing. And if we should contemplate doing it, how on earth can we do it without lowering our self-respect by accepting something less than perfect, without lowering our standards, and without hurting either ourselves or the person we allow ourselves to love? Well, friends, this brings us full circle back to The Moviegoer. At the end of it, incredibly enough, Jack "Binx" Bolling relinquishes his fascination with those big-bottomed sturdy western girls and weds his cousin, Kate (she's not blood-related, in case you're worried). Although Jack has his own issues to sort out, Kate is a mess, too. The following conversation takes place on Jack's 30th birthday. He had promised his aunt that he would visit her that day and tell her his life plan. Kate asks him:
"What do you plan to do?"
I shrug. There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons. It only remains to decide whether this vocation is best pursued in a service station or --
"Are you going to medical school?"
"If she wants me to."
"Does that mean you can't marry me now?"
"No. You have plenty of money."
"Then let us understand each other."
"All right."
"I don't know whether I can succeed."
"I know you don't."
"It seems the wildest sort of thing to do."
"We had better make it fast."
"All right."
"I am so afraid." (233, Vintage International, 1989)
The "it" of the conversation is marriage, and Kate doesn't know whether she can do it, thinks it the wildest sort of thing to do, and is terribly afraid of it. And Jack doesn't seem to think that life is such a treat either, based on the one thing he thinks he can do. But watch what happens:
"If I could be sure you knew how frightened I am, it would help a great deal."
"You can be sure."
"Not merely of marriage. This afternoon I wanted some cigarettes, but the thought of going to the drugstore turned me to jelly."
I am silent.
"I am frightened when I am alone and I am frightened when I am with people. The only time I'm not frightened is when I'm with you. You'll have to be with me a great deal."
"I will."
"It seems that if we are together a great deal and you tell me the simplest things and not laugh at me -- I beg you for pity's own sake never to laugh at me -- tell me things like: Kate, it is all right for you to go down to the drugstore, and give me a kiss, then I will believe you. Will you do that?"
"Yes, I'll do that."
She has started plucking at her thumb in earnest, tearing away little shreds of flesh. I take her hand and kiss the blood.
"But you must try not to hurt yourself so much."
"I will try! I will!" (234)
Intelligent as she is, Kate can have no misunderstanding about the flaws in Jack's character, about how long he takes to make something of his life, about his lazy dalliances, and his constant attempts to escape from a reality that he is actually terrified of as well. But her weakness, her dependency on him, gives him a reason to step up and do something. He sees her need, and actually decides to be something to help her conquer her fears, to help her be something. Because really, that's what love is. Real human love doesn't mean perfection on earth -- of course we were intended for perfection, and of course we should never abandon that goal, never forget the dignity and the beatification of the perfection that is our birthright. But human love, in its best form, is a perfecting force. Because it is human, it is flawed. Because those participating in it are human, they are flawed. And yet, Jack says, I'll take care of you, but in return, you have to promise to stop hurting yourself. And voila! She promises and is one step closer to perfection. So if you can look at a fellow human squarely and honestly, and, like Robert Chiltern said, love them despite their flaws and their shortcomings and perhaps sometimes because of the peculiarities of character that those flaws lend them -- if you can look at them like that and still decide that they are worth the wedding, worth the incarnation that takes you away from the dreams of deity that are no more than dreams in the sky, then you might, one day, actually achieve that share in divinity. Love is a perfecting force. The best love sees somebody for what they are, and, though content with that, tries to help them to become the most worthy version of themselves. Love sees the actuality and the potential, and is not solely focused on either one.

So, long story short, don't make an ideal of human love or the object of it. Love involves fear, shedding of blood, stripping of flesh, tears, uncertainty, and, as we see with Gatsby, the possibility of failure. But wouldn't it be worse not to have it at all? CS Lewis says something in The Four Loves about the heart of the one who refuses to love being all safe in a nice airtight little box, which then suffocates the heart, dries it up, and leaves its owner with no heart at all. Jack Bolling can't dispel Kate's fear of what surrounds her, and her attachment to him makes her all the more vulnerable to her fear of the outside world. For, once she begins to depend on him, what will happen if all of the sudden he is gone? Then she might really kill herself, as she once almost did. But it's a risk worth taking. There is a peace, a calmness, an easing of all tensions at the end of The Moviegoer. They have an understanding with each other, help each other, are kind to each other, and are able to do what they need to do in this life because of each other. That, if nothing else, seems like a good enough reason to allow ourselves to know and love one other human being. Don't expect perfection, don't expect unmarred bliss, but do expect human happiness, and don't sell yourself short by settling for someone who can't even give you that. I'll leave you with a bit of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's letters:

"Zelda and I sometimes indulge in terrible four day rows that always start with a drinking party but we're still enormously in love and about the only truly happily married couple I know. The cheerfullest things in life are first Zelda and second the hope that my book has something extraordinary about it. I want to be admired again." source

Zelda burned in a hospital fire eight years after Fitzgerald died at the home of his mistress, so perhaps they are not the best example of marital bliss. But this letter, written almost 25 years before her death, does paint a somewhat attractive picture. Perhaps, though, we'd best stick with Binx and Kate.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Pleasure of Political Pseudo-Alignment

I have a few bigger thoughts on the back burner right now that I'm ruminating on, sketching out, and trying to organize into a somewhat cohesive and comprehensible whole (Spoiler Alert: Idols and Ideals in Love: Gatsby, Brideshead, The Moviegoer, An Ideal Husband). Something about that much-discussed Common Man, too, coming from Coriolanus and, yes, The Moviegoer. But, I don't want to leave you hanging any longer with no new posts, and I know it's been a shamefully long while since I've put up anything new for you, so here's a less thought out, um, thought.

I recently spent a few weeks job hunting in DC, and hopefully will land before long as an editorial assistant in that area (shameless plug: hire me!). Of course, when people heard I was looking for work, they'd politely inquire as to what I'm interested in, and my response would always conclude with "and not politics." A little unusual, I'll grant you, to move to DC with a staunch resolve not to get on the political bandwagon, but we're allowed to have our personal preferences, right? Which is why, though I do have certain political view points, I'm not going to make a job out of them. I will say, though, that I at least hold myself to higher standards of claiming political identity than does Binx Bolling, the hero (?) of Percy's The Moviegoer. It took me a while to get through that book for some reason; I'm not sure why. I love the way he writes. But he is rather bleakly honest and unflinchingly accurate in his descriptions of essential and common human flaws. 
Ernest Hemingway
Virginia Woolf
I've been listening to other 20th century lit during the long hours in the car, and even I, who had an extended and desperate affair with Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, can only take so much of the "life is hopeless, man is lost, love is twisted, and all happiness is staged" viewpoint before my spirit cries out in painful protest. But before I scare you away from Percy, let me assure you that somehow he wrote a good ending, and I was far happier and relieved by it than I had any expectation of being. I've got a lot to share with you from it, and will in my next few posts, but for now, let's look at Binx's ambivalent relationship with politics.
After the lunch conference I run into my cousin Nell Lovell on the steps of the library -- where I go occasionally to read liberal and conservative periodicals. Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upsidedown: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.
Hugo Scheiber's "Man Reading a Newspaper"
Down I plunk myself with a liberal weekly at one of the massive tables, read it from cover to cover, nodding to myself whenever the writer scores a point. Damn right, old son, I say, jerking my chair in approval. Pour it on them. Then up and over to the rack for a conservative monthly and down in a fresh cool chair to join the counterattack. Oh ho, say I, and hold fast to the arm chair: that one did it: eviscerated! And then out and away into the sunlight, my neck prickling with satisfaction.
I had to laugh the first few times I read this passage. But gosh, it's sad isn't it? It's a little scary how easy it is to convince people of one view point or another, how quickly they change their "beliefs", and how shiftless they are. His point about "the haters" being the only ones who are alive is, I think, one of those moments where he is uncannily clear in his unhappy portrayal of modern man. No, actually, forget about "modern" man. Man period. And yet there is part of me that is glad of this fact, and approves of it. After all, if everything is really happy and smooth and there's actually no reason to stand in defense of a just cause or a noble ideal, or a vulnerable person, well, then sure, let all those friendly and likable people keep on being friendly and likable. But last time I checked, the world hadn't quite reached Utopia. I hope there are people fighting; once they stop, then you know the causes really will be lost. This is, I suspect, why Binx is such a mess for most of the book. He's a lovable mess, and I'm a little alarmed at how easily I'm able to look past his significant failings and think he's a pretty nice guy (Yes, nice. I said it.). But, lovable or not, he is flawed because he doesn't, when push comes to shove, identify himself with a cause worth fighting for, and goes on being an on-the-surface fairly friendly and happy guy even though he so clearly knows better. He derives temporary satisfaction out of mimicking what is a necessary and primal human need to be not only a part of society, but a participating and well-informed contributor. He mentally throws himself in first with one cause, then another, choosing and switching sides with no real deliberation or reflection, and only for the pleasure it gives him of feeling like he belongs and is justified in getting outraged about... well, something, anyway. Anything. And that prickle on his neck feels good, too.

Starting to sound familiar? Fads and fashions, diet crazes, Occupiers, crocs, skinny jeans, mocking Clinton, mocking Bush, barefoot running... well, hell, let's align ourselves with SOMEthing. Because it would scare the crap out of us, and, let's face it, be just too much work to actually figure out what the real causes are and lay down our lives for them.