Life Among the Lowly

September 20, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of those tremendously important novels that I never wanted to read.  Yes, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the remark, “Here is the little lady who made this great war,” and it incited the howling protest of the south (as well as scores of ‘rebuttals’), but I expected a melodramatic and not very satisfying literary experience.  I was wrong.  The book is suspenseful, direct, and extremely powerful.  As an American, that is a person who lives with the political and social legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow all around me, it is at times, a harrowing read.

In American English, an Uncle Tom is a black man who is compliant and subservient to his masters, often in an obsequious and fawning manner – that’s the cliché.  The character of Tom in the novel, however, is not like this at all.  In the introduction to my edition, and this NYTimes piece on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the book, the writers account for this contradiction by pointing out that the novel, which was incredibly popular, was immediately copied, parodied, adapted to the stage, and eventually found its way into, of all things, Minstrel Shows.  Along the way, a novelistic broadside against racism and slavery became a comedic entertainment perpetuating racist stereotypes.  Such is the wending path of culture.

The book is sentimental at times, particularly in two areas:  the description of the slaves; and the treatment of religion.  Stowe portrays the slaves almost always a fine souls, at the worst, a little ridiculous:  not genuine people who will be good, bad, or indifferent.  They are filled with noble sentiments, and their faults are only the product of their degraded state in life.  They are described often as having the positive attributes of childhood:  sincerity, directness, empathy.  Whether this was Stowe’s actual view or a means to make her characters more attractive to her readers I do not know. As the editor remarks in the introduction, this sentimentality has a radical element in that directing such feelings toward African slaves involved contradicting their status as chattel, often regarded as members of a non-human or sub-human species. 

The treatment of religion, especially in the depiction of the death of the little angel, Eva, is a fine example of Victorian religious sentimentality, and might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.   But it is sincere nevertheless:  Stowe was serious in her belief that adherence to Christian teaching would make the institution of slavery impossible.

Abolitionists, of which Stowe was one, sometimes criticized Uncle Tom for being too light in its criticism of slavery.  This may have to do with the fact that the slaves are, for the most part, house servants and higher level members of the plantation staff, and have relatively good masters.  Perhaps Stowe felt she could not write convincingly of the thoughts and feelings of workers spending their days toiling in sugar cane and the like, and in this, she followed an important writers’ guideline:  write what you know.  By focusing on the hardships of slaves under benign masters, who nevertheless face servitude and the potential breakup of their families, she opens, but leaves unanswered the question, how much worse would it be for those with hard masters?  The slaves live in fear of “being sold down the river,” (I never knew the origin of that phrase!)  i.e. shipped off to plantations further south where the hard labor kills them off quickly.  Then she brings that about for Tom, who is sold to the vile Simon Legree.

Stowe is not the least sentimental when she skewers the hypocrisy, intellectual, theological, and political, that surrounds the peculiar institution.  A lengthy section in which Tom is owned by Augustine, a jaded and refined member of the plantation élite, provides a stage to walk on and dismantle all sorts of notions that were argued about slavery in the pre-Civil War days.  Augustine knows all the arguments, and dismisses them all as humbug.  He knows it’s wrong, and that slavery is based on nothing but might and self-interest, but he does nothing about it – does not free his slaves – because he claims to be lazy and indifferent, but he is kind and thoughtful to his human property.  His cynicism masks the corruption and despair of a soul polluted by the institution that makes his leisured affluence possible.  His wife, a clear ancestor of Tennessee Williams’ neurotic belle, Blanche Dubois, spends her days in bed with headaches and complaints, and has nothing but contempt for her servants.  Augustine is also an atheist, which Stowe sees as the cause of his moral inertia, but with the death of his daughter, he is shaken loose of his torpor, but too late.

Augustine, a typical Victorian ideal figure – he has a Grecian profile, alabaster skin, golden curls, and a noble temperament – may represent the class of people Stowe was trying to influence.  Certainly the grim and vulgar Simon Legree is a species of the white trash, in the North and South, with whom she would not bother.  Ophelia, Augustine’s Yankee cousin who comes to stay with him, represents a properly religious northerner.  Although she is abolitionist to the core, she is stung when Augustine truthfully points out to her that she is disgusted by the Africans in her midst.  As always, the southerners claim that you northerners don’t know how to treat our negroes.  Ophelia, in touch with her Christian faith, changes however, and repents of her moral error.

Very often, Stowe points out with brutal clarity how what would be considered immoral and intolerable among whites is considered perfectly normal for whites to inflict on the slaves:  breaking up families and selling them off like horses at auction, for example.  In one stunning passage, she explicitly compares an escaped slave, George, who holds off his pursuers with a rifle, to Hungarian freedom fighters opposing Austrian oppression, a cause supported by many Americans.  What is the difference, she asks, other than color?  So much for sentimentality.

In many passages of the novel, Stowe references the sexual degradation that awaits pretty girls sold to less than humane masters, something which brought to my mind the statue The Greek Slave Girl by Hiram Powers, one of the most popular pieces of art in the 19th century.  Copies were made and widely distributed, and crowds lined up to see it.  The press did not often make the connection between Greeks sold into slavery by Turks and American enslavement of Africans, but some people did.  Moreover, literary accounts of ‘white’ girls, i.e. women who were legally black although of very light skin and hair, and were sold as slaves, were sometimes a sensation:  perhaps a truly white girl could, by mistake, find herself enslaved?  The knot of social/sexual issues surrounding all this is so huge, how can one hope to cut through it?  It is just this sort of mental/moral frisson, if not outrage, that Stowe calculated on producing in her readers.  Her armory was large:  if expositions of intellectual hypocrisy don’t convince try religion; If appeals to religious truth and values doesn’t work, try sex and violence; If that doesn’t work, try the sentimental.  They all lead to the same place – abolitionism.

I’m nearly through with the book, and I still don’t know why it’s called Uncle Tom’s Cabin…


Pynchon Fan

August 10, 2011

Initiating conversations with strangers on the NYC subway is not something I do often:  there’s too much uncertainty about the possible responses.  Yesterday, however, I broke my rule when I found myself crushed against the door of a crowded train next to a young man with a tattoo on his inner forearm just like the image above.  After screwing up my resolve, I quietly asked, “Are you a Pynchon fan?”  His eyes lit up, and he replied, “Yes, I am a Pynchon fan!  How many people get that!

For those not in the know, the symbol is a post-horn (used by mail carriers in Europe) and it figures prominently in Pynchon’s only short novel, The Crying of Lot 49.  It’s bound up with the history of the noble family, von Thurn und Taxis (here’s one of them) and their role in setting up one of the first national systems for moving mail.  A rare stamp for sale (crying a lot is an old bit of jargon – obsolete, I was told by a gentleman from Swann Galleries – that means putting an item up for auction) that shows a mail delivery airplane, accidentally printed upside-down, is the source of the title and the key to the mystery of the book.

Hmm..,” I replied.  “Don’t go overboard..,” I said, obliquely referring to all that conspiracy-paranoia stuff in Pynchon’s oeuvre.  Wonder if he caught my meaning.

Here is a link to all my posts tagged Pynchon.


It was I who killed the official’s old widow and her sister Lizaveta with an axe…

July 28, 2011

I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I was in the ninth grade, and I loved it.  Heaven knows what I understood of it.  Generations later, I have tried to read again all those novels that I devoured then – Karamazov, Demons, Idiots – and I could get nowhere.  I found Dostoyevsky’s style repellant and impenetrable, with the exception of Notes from Underground, which has always been a favorite.  Maybe it was the translation.

I am more than half through the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of this novel, and I am amazed at the novelty of the book, its outrageous inventiveness.  The phrase I find myself coming back to is avant garde.  It seems so, even now, after 140 years – fresh, challenging, bizarre, and direct.  Compared to this, Dostoyevksy’s contemporary ‘realists’ such as Dickens (whom he loved), Turgenev (whom he loathed) and Flaubert (I don’t know what opinions of each other they entertained, but Flaubert and Turgenev were fast friends) seem almost pedestrian.  The point of view shifts, the mood varies wildly, the characters often seem to speak to the reader directly, and there is no sense of a cool, omniscient consciousness directing the action.  More like real life?

The novel observes a lot of the conventions of 19th century realism:  the place and person names obscured with a hyphen as if to protect the identities of the real people; the fully realized portraits of the city, its classes, and the grit of everyday life – but it seems profoundly stagey, literally as if a play, not a novel, which makes it seem unrealistic at the same time.  Characters enter, declaim, moan, howl, rave, and exit.  So much of the action takes place in crowded rooms.  People are forever making decisions, talking, arguing, and falling into reverie on stairs, going up and going down.

Unusual also is the recounting of dreams:  they are utterly credible, in a way that I associate with writing of the 20th century only.  Earlier writers tend towards romantic notions of what the dormant mind produces – Raskolnikov’s are completely believable, especially the first in which he imagines following a man, a man who knows his crime, a man who stops, turns, and waves to him from across the street, saying nothing.

Finally, Dostoyevsky gets the jump on all the existentialist notions that would become trite in generations to come.  Listen to this deliciously funny, dark, exchange as Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov discuss the afterlife and eternity:

“We keep imagining eternity as an idea that cannot be grasped, something vast, vast!  But why must it be vast?  Instead of all that, imagine suddenly that there will be one little room there, something like a village bathhouse, covered with soot, with spiders in all the corners, and that’s the whole of eternity.  I sometimes fancy something of the sort.”

“But surely, surely you can imagine something more just and comforting than that!” Raskolnikov cried out with painful feeling.

“More just?  Who knows, perhaps that is just- and, you know, if I had my way, it’s certainly how I would do it!”  Svidrigailov answered, smiling vaguely.

How many episodes of the Twilight Zone, how many adolescent rock lyrics, what pile of scripts and plays start with notions like this?

With the climate of political extremism being what it is these days, I think I just might get myself a copy of The Demons next.


People of the Heart

April 11, 2011

Ice is the middle volume of a trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin.  (NYRB published Ice first, and has just now published the entire set in translation.)  It tells of a weird, blonde-haired, blue-eyed brotherhood of souls who are awakened to true life after being hammered in the chest with sledges made of blocks of ice from the comet that nearly slammed into the Earth in 1908.  Other humans are regarded as “empties,” empty of spiritual heart, that is, and simply die under the impact of the hammer.  It’s a mix of vulgarity, pulp, sci-fi, absurd New Age fantasy, and social satire.  Among the most biting passages were those that depicted the ruthlessness of Stalin’s minions among whom the Brothers and Sisters of the ice move in an effort to find the rest of their group.  Can’t say I feel tempted to read the other two volumes, but this was a quick read that started off really well, and then just petered out.


Tolstoy Epilogue – Boney Demolished

December 30, 2010

I am wrapping up my re-reading of War and Peace, and have reached the Epilogue in which Tolstoy gives us a peek at the settled lives his characters lead after the tumult of 1812.  He starts off with another round in his demolition of Napoleon and The Great Man Theory of History, and then descends into rather tedious domestic relations, before returning to a lengthy essay on causation in history.  A few years later, Tolstoy would begin Anna Karenina with one of literature’s most famous first lines:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

but in his Epilogue, he hasn’t realized this yet, and he is quite boring and almost sentimental in his description of the endless happiness of his happily married figures.  It’s only a few false steps after a journey of a thousand miles though, and they are preceded by one of Tolstoy’s wonderfully condensed valentines to young lovers on the brink of joy as Pierre and Natasha get together:

She glanced back.  For a few seconds they looked silently into each other’s eyes, and the distant and impossible suddenly became near, possible, and inevitable.        .            .            .             .              .              .          .              .            .

What could be the stuff of soap opera melodrama is nothing more than this.  The two lines of evenly spaced dots are in the original.

Tolstoy then goes on to dissect and discard the myth of Napoleon Bonaparte, treating him as an egotistical, short-sighted, vainglorious man, with “childish boldness and self-confidence,” (which echoes Tolstoy’s description of Prince Andrei’s sally at Austerlitz),  who managed to be at the right place at the right time to ride the crest of historical waves, and then be crushed beneath them as they broke.  He was certainly making a valuable correction to the romantic hero-worship of people such as Carlyle, but he goes too far, confusing and conflating the moral and historical meanings of the word “great.”

He describes the invasion of Russia in 1812 in pseudo-scientific, metaphorical terms as waves of migration moving one way and another, causing backwashes, as though he is discussing the great Asiatic migrations of the 5th or 12th centuries, that gave us the barbarian invasions of Rome and the Mongol Hordes.  He never says what causes those waves, and he doesn’t entertain the idea that perhaps a “great man” is simply one who knows when he is at the right place in the right time.  He sees it as simply chance upon chance.  He refers mysteriously to the “purposes” of history, and uses metaphors of the theatre – the last act, the script, the role figures play – and so on.  Perhaps he thinks that God is the director, but it’s a short jump from Tolstoy to Karl Marx who thought he had scientifically described the same laws of history that Tolstoy mystifies.

Perhaps history is bunk, or just one damned thing after another.  Or perhaps there are causes to be discerned in history, but they only hold true for specific instances, and are never universal laws.  Or perhaps causes only exist in retrospect…Tolstoy seems to prefigure Lichanos’ Iron Law of Historical Causation when he says:

Why did it happen this way and not otherwise?                                                                                                                                            Because this is how it happened.

Tolstoy did his historical debunking of Napoleon some fifty years after the fact, but James Gillray was onto the same ideas while Boney was in his glory.  One of his caricatures is at the top of this post, and another, a comic strip political cartoon nearly two centuries before Doonesbury, is shown below.  It illustrates several of the episodes alluded to by Tolstoy in his acid recounting of the rise of the Great Man.

For more Gillray images of Napoleon, visit this excellent site:  Brown University Digial Library



Sweet Dreams of a Slaver

November 11, 2010

From Eugene Sue’s novel, Atar-Gull:  The Slave’s Revenge -

THE MYSTERY.

Brulart had carefully closed, bolted, padlocked, the door of his cabin. Without, not the slightest sound was to be heard, except at times the whisper of the breeze among the rigging, the rustling of the sails, and the murmur of the waves as they beat gently against the vessel’s poop, and opened in her wake into a long furrow of phosphorescent light; no more.

Again he listened; again gazed eagerly to see that no one was watching his movements. Then he advanced toward his great chest and opened it.

At first, you would have thought that the old hutch contained nothing; but, on examining it attentively, you would have discovered that it had a false bottom.

He raised the false bottom, and from one corner of that secret place drew out a little coffer covered with Russia leather.

That small casket, which was richly ornamented, bore a handsomely-emblazoned escutcheon. . ‘ It was, perhaps, Brulart^ coat armorial.

Brulart hermetically closed the curtains of the cabin window, and placed the precious casket upon his foul and greasy table, which he drew up toward the cot .

He stretched himself out in a half-reclining posture, after having disdainfully cast away the hat, the crown, the vest, and the trousers, of the late M. Benoit. Then he lifted the lid of the casket, and his eyes gleamed with a singular fire.

His face, ordinarily rude and savage, seemed to clear itself of its coarse and thick mask, and his powerfully-marked features appeared really handsome, so sudden and inimitable an expression of sweetness was displayed on them. He shook his thick hair, as a lion who scatters his mane from his eyes, parted the long, wild locks, and drew forth from the casket a little flask of crystal beautifully cut, and almost entirely concealed under the gold and jewels which adorned it.

Then he placed that marvellous toy close to the smoky and ill-savored lamp, and by its ruddy light observed its contents.

It was a thick, viscous, dark-colored liquid, at once deeper hued and more brilliant than coffee. It would seem that to him it was almost above price, for his eyes beamed with a sort of celestial joy, when he perceived that the precious flask was still nearly three quarters full.

He kissed it with unction, almost with affection, as one would kiss the hand of a virgin, and eet it down, not on his filthy table, — O, not so!— but on a little cushion of black velvet, all embroidered with pearls and with silver.

He also drew out from the same casket a little cup of gold, and a large flask of the same metal.

But during all these operations, there was on the face of Brulart as much reverence and adoration as there is on the face of a priest who is producing the sacrificial chalice from the tabernacle.

And delicately opening the little phial, he passed out drop by drop the seductive liquor, which fell in gouts brilliant as rubies.

Of these he counted twenty. Then he filled the cup with another liquor, as limpid and as clear as crystal, which thereupon assumed a ruddy, golden tint.

And he raised the cup to his greedy lips, drank it off slowly, with his eyes closed and his broad hand pressed upon his bosom. After this was done, he again locked up the cup and flask in the small casket, and the small casket in the chest, with the same reverence, the same care, the same adoration.

And when he arose, you would almost have lowered your eyes before his glance of inspiration, which seemed to dim the lustre of his lamp. He was handsome, magnificent, nay, admirable. His rags, his long beard, all were forgotten, all seemed to disappear before the incredible consciousness of bliss, which glowed over that brow, of late so dark and frowning, now smooth and pure as that of a young maiden.

“Farewell earth! now come heaven!” Such were his words, as he cast himself into bed.

Within ten minutes he was buried in deep sleep.

He had just taken his nightly dose of opium.

Now, by a singular phantasy, which can, however, readily be explained by custom and the continued practice of taking that drug, Brulart had come at last to take the factitious existence which he procured to himself by means of opium, with all its marvellous poetical creations, all its delirious imaginations, all its ravishing visions, for his true and actual life, the vague and confused memory of which seemed to glitter at moments through his spirit, in the daytime, amid the frightful scenes which were the usage of his days, even as the consciousness of some day of happiness will at times cause our hearts to expand even in the midst of some horrid dream. While, at the same time, he regarded his real life, — the life which he spent in the midst of his brigands, of robbery, and of murder, — almost as a dream, as a hideous night-mare, into which he allowed himself to be carelessly inveigled, and which he mechanically urged onward into the darkest horrors, according to the impulse, the whim of the moment, without reflection, without remorse, nay, even with a sort of secret enjoyment, like that of those persons who say to themselves vaguely, in the midst of some hideous dream, ” What matters it to me ? I shall awake, and all will bo well.”

In one word, it was a life reversed.

The fantastical had taken the place of the positive.

A dream had taken the place of reality.

It is difficult to believe,I know it. But try opium, madam, and you will believe me.

Moreover, it is well to put some confidence in a man of experience.


Heureux de faire la connaissance de votre décolletage*.

October 17, 2010

I have been thoroughly enjoying the new translation of War and Peace by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  I read the novel first when I was about fifteen, and parts of it remain with me yet.  Memory is amazing!  I also recall avidly watching the full set of BBC episodes dramatizing the novel with Anthony Hopkins starring as the naive, but genuine Pierre Bezukhov.  The image above shows him enduring a dinner next to the woman, Helen, intended to be his wife.

Just now, I read the passage where he realizes that Helen, stunningly beautiful, but very stupid, could be his.  Really, physically his.  Never mind that he is nearsighted, bumbling, plump, filled with strange liberal ideas, and prone to being tactlessly honest.  He’s just been elevated to the nobility from the state of bastardy:  his father died and adopted him in his will, making him sole heir to a humongus fortune!  Everyone thinks it’s the perfect match, and she is…so…icily beautiful.  Look at that … at those…  Oh well, that was the fashion of the day.

An amazing piece of fiction, it draws one in immediately.  It’s strange too.  There is no plot, only history.  No real hero, although, I guess Pierre comes close.  War is shown as brutal, stupid, filled with vanity and destruction, but also heroism.  The action cuts back and forth across space like a contemporary film.  The Russian upper crust is depicted as filled with scheming, vain, shallow, money-grubbing twits.  Tolstoy spends much time describing the sad and confusing mental state of several young people aching for love, physical love too, and not understanding the circumstances and conventions surrounding it.  And events move slowly, inevitably towards that dreadful calamity.

* Happy to meet your cleavage.


Mirrors

September 1, 2010

In Second Part of Don Quixote, chapter LIX, p. 845 in the wonderful translation by Edith Grossman that I am reading, we are nearly at the end of our journey, or the Don’s journey.  He and his squire, Sancho, find themselves at an inn that is, or the proprietor claims it to be well supplied with foods of all kinds.  Sancho is elated, but when he orders dinner, nothing on the menu is available.  He and the Don settle for a simple rustic stew.

While they are eating, they hear through the thin wall a discussion next door.  Some travelers, well fed by their own private cook, are discussing how to entertain themselves.  One suggests that they read the second part of Don Quixote.  “Why does your grace want us to read this nonsense?  Whoever has read the first part of the history of Don Quixote of La Mancha cannot possibly derive any pleasure from reading this second part.

They refer, of course, to a false edition of the Don’s adventures, that was circulating.  In fact, there was a true-false edition.  The Don makes his presence known, and they, delighted to meet the real Don Quixote, invite him to their table.  He takes a quick look at their edition and pronounces it utter trash: there are so many basic errors, one must assume that the entire book is false.  For instance, it refers to Sancho’s wife, Teresa, as Mari Gutierrez.

A translator’s note informs us that this fictionalized error, a jab at the true-false edition, was not true, or completely true, since Cervantes himself, in his own First Part, refers to Teresa Sancho as Mari Gutierrez!


Mockingbirds

August 2, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of those books that everyone in decent schools in America reads before they are fifteen.  Somehow, I never did, and I assumed that it must not be very good – sentimental and simple – if everyone else thought it was so great.  As an adult, I didn’t read it, assuming that it was probably pretty good since it was so widely admired, but not all that worth going out of my way to read, and for me, to read something published in 1960 is a bit of a detour.  I have seen bits of the film from 1962, and thought them fine, but never watched it either.   

I just read the novel, and I now know that my snobby aloofness was horribly misguided.  The book is, well, almost eerily perfect.  How this woman could write of brutal racism, stifling small-town life, time-honored class antagonism, the bonds of family, and the stubborn tendency of people to assume that everyone who is at all different from them is worth ridiculing, and do it in such simple, direct, blindingly honest prose is a wonderful mystery to me.  It treats of sentiments, and things sentimental, without being that itself.  I wish I had read it earlier.

Now I will watch the movie to see how it compares.  And by way of the character Dill, (Truman Capote as a boy) I find myself drawn to find out just why Breakfast at Tiffany’s is such a milepost of the 1960s.  Is it only Audrey Hepburn, or is there more?  Stay tuned.


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