Literature: March 2008 Archives

Plus ça change. . .


plus c'est la même chose.

Oh my, but isn't it a day for the French?

Lunching with Mr. Faulkner and one of the most deplorable characters in the canon--by which I refer to Mr. Jason Compson the younger. But he has an observation that will probably sound a little familiar.

from The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner

I went back to the store. Thirteen points. Dam if I believe anybody who knows anything about the dam thing except the ones that sit back in those New York offices and watch the country suckers come up and beg them to take their money. Well, a man that just calls shows he has no faith in himself, and like I say if you aren't going to take the advice, what's the use in paying money for it. Besides, these people are right up there on the ground; they know everything that's going on. I could feel the telegram in my pocket. I'd just have to prove that they were using the telegraph company to defraud. That would constitute a bucket shop. And I wouldn't hesitate that long, either. Only be damned if it doesn't look like a company as big and rich as the Western Union could get a market report out on time. Half as quick as they'll get a wire to you saying Your account closed out. But what the hell do they care about the people. They're hand in glove with that New York Crowd. Anybody could see that.

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mon ami, Charles Baudelaire.

And while I'm not saying the intent is my intent, the capitalization of Toi allows me to read it in a way that perhaps M. Baudelaire did not intend. (Almost certainly did not intend given the title of his chief work--Les Fleurs du Mal.)

De profundis clamavi
Charles Baudelaire

J'implore ta pitié, Toi, l'unique que j'aime,
Du fond du gouffre obscur où mon coeur est tombé.
C'est un univers morne à l'horizon plombé,
Où nagent dans la nuit l'horreur et le blasphème;

Un soleil sans chaleur plane au-dessus six mois,
Et les six autres mois la nuit couvre la terre;
C'est un pays plus nu que la terre polaire
— Ni bêtes, ni ruisseaux, ni verdure, ni bois!

Or il n'est pas d'horreur au monde qui surpasse
La froide cruauté de ce soleil de glace
Et cette immense nuit semblable au vieux Chaos;

Je jalouse le sort des plus vils animaux
Qui peuvent se plonger dans un sommeil stupide,
Tant l'écheveau du temps lentement se dévide!

A translation, more poetic than accurate, but aiming at the spirit:

De Profundis Clamavi
Roy Campbell

Have pity, my one love and sole delight!
Down to a dark abyss my heart has sounded,
A mournful world, by grey horizons bounded,
Where blasphemy and horror swim by night.

For half the year a heatless sun gives light,
The other half the night obscures the earth.
The arctic regions never knew such dearth.
No woods, nor streams, nor creatures meet the sight.

No horror in the world could match in dread
The cruelty of that dire sun of frost,
And that huge night like primal chaos spread.

I envy creatures of the vilest kind
That they in stupid slumber can be lost —
So slowly does the skein of time unwind!

And another, again, poetic, not literal

Out of the Depths
Jacques LeClercq

Sole Being I love, Your mercy I implore
Out of the bitter pit of my heart's night,
With leaden skyscapes on a dismal shore,
Peopled only by blasphemy and fright;
For six months frigid suns float overhead,
For six months more darkness and solitude.
No polar wastes are bleaker and more dead,
With never beast nor stream nor plant nor wood.

No horror in this world but is outdone
By the cold razor of this glacial sun
And this chaotic night's immensities.
I envy the most humble beast that ease
Which brings dull slumber to his brutish soul
So slowly does my skein of time unroll.

And then this, which comes from the same hand that gave us the delights of The Importance of Being Earnest

from De Profundis
Oscar Wilde

Prosperity, pleasure and success, may be rough of grain and common in fibre, but sorrow is the most sensitive of all created things. There is nothing that stirs in the whole world of thought to which sorrow does not vibrate in terrible and exquisite pulsation. The thin beaten-out leaf of tremulous gold that chronicles the direction of forces the eye cannot see is in comparison coarse. It is a wound that bleeds when any hand but that of love touches it, and even then must bleed again, though not in pain.

Which leads us to:

Psalm 129/130

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;

Domine, exaudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuæ intendentes in vocem deprecationis meæ.

Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine,
Domine, quis sustinebit?

Quia apud te propitiatio est;
et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus:

speravit anima mea in Domino.

A custodia matutina usque ad noctem,
speret Israël in Domino.

Quia apud Dominum misericordia,
et copiosa apud eum redemptio.

Et ipse redimet Israël
ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.

Which, in those most magnificent of translations are:

Psalm 130

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.

Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?

But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.

My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.

And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

1662 BOCP

OUT of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord : Lord, hear my voice.

O let thine ears consider well : the voice of my complaint.

If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss : O Lord, who may abide it?

For there is mercy with thee : therefore shalt thou be feared.

I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust.

My soul fleeth unto the Lord : before the morning watch, I say, before the morning watch.

O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy : and with him is plenteous redemption.

And he shall redeem Israel : from all his sins.

To which I append,

[temp title] The Cloud of Unknowing

And so I move from knowing
to unknowing--not merely ignorance
but undoing the knowing I have
untying the knots and staring underneath
at what cannot be known once it is known.

Later: Upon review I discovered that I was remiss in citing my sources. This very fine site presents the original poems from Les Fleurs du Mals with several different English translations. I took the poem and the translations from that site.

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Synchronicty, not coincidence.

Reading The Sound and the Fury and what should transpire other than a trip to Boston. Why is this remarkable? Well, I can't really tell you straight out without giving away much of the book; however, suffice to say that one of the main characters has something critical and large happen to him in Boston.

So, reading The Sound and the Fury during Holy Week when it occurs during Holy Week, and visiting Boston, the site of one of the main events of the book. Wow! What a tremendous experience.

I have more to share on this. But now a delightful little tidbit. Arrived in Boston, walked down to the commons, stopped in a small used book shop near Emerson College and happened to pick up a first edition of The Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner for less than it would cost me to pick up a paperback edition. Oh, how wonderful to be back in a city where literacy is valued, perhaps even treasured.

One last point--the soaps and lotions and shampoos in this hotel are all verbena-scented. I have to come to the chilly late-winter north to smell "The Odor of Verbena." If the significance of that is not clear, google the phrase in quotation marks.

May God bless all who read this during this Holy Week. Indeed, may He bless anyone who reads this every--so few are my readers, I can afford to cast my blessings far abroad.

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Light in August--William Faulkner


I'm sure you all must be sick-to-death of reporting on William Faulkner, and yet, I am not sick-to-death of reading and enjoying him. Indeed, as a result of finishing Light in August yesterday, I went out to the library and got Sound and the Fury. (I think I have at least one copy in the house, but it wasn't in the LOA series that I've collected and the shelves are a mess right now.)

What to say about Light in August? Well, let's say that it is one of the most accessible of all of Faulkner's works with some of the most powerful portraits of some of the most unpleasant people you're ever likely to encounter. It plays with time in the way that almost all Faulkner books do, taking place over the period of perhaps 1 week to 1 month, from the arrival of Lena Grove who observes a house burning when she arrives in the small town of Jefferson Mississippi to the end when Lena, escorted by her husband wannabe goes in search of the father of her child. The time encopassed in the book is something like 60-100 years--stretching back to the time of Colonel Sartoris, and perhaps before and moving into the present (late 1920s Mississippi.)

The story centers on Joe Christmas a person who may or may not be of mixed race descent. If so, his skin tone does not betray it and he needs to tell those around him that he is "half-black." He is the ultimately conflicted character, laying his conflict on everyone he meets and it is his actions that precipitate all the main events of the novel.

In fact, that's part of what makes the book so facinating. When it starts, you get the impression that you're going to spend a good deal of time with Lena Burden who is out looking for the man who is the father of her child, who left Alabama (probably when he realized that she was pregnant) with the promise of sending for her. After following her path a little way, we find it convergent with the story of Joe Christmas and the rest of the novel follows him.

There is no point in going into too many plot details. Suffice to say that the events of the book result in an indictment of racism that is as harrowing and as biting as that in Absalom, Absalom!. All of Joe's conflict comes from his own self-indictment for what in today's terms is utterly without stigma (Praise God!) and (1) may not even be true, and (2) even if true was nothing he had any control over. Being part black was nothing he could control and yet the virulanet internalized racism and misogyny that he develops turns what should be not-even-worthy of note (in today's world) into a crisis for Joe and the community.

What is fascinating in Faulkner is his obsession with and dexterity with weaving the past into the present. One example that struck me in this book is that one of the main characters--Joanna is a direct descendant of two people that Colonel Sartoris rides to town to shoot in The Unvanquished. These two were responsible for holding the polls open and encouraging or trying to encourage the blacks in the area to vote. They were buried far away from prying eyes because the son/father of the two though that they might otherwise be disinterred.

The intrusion of the past into the present is one of the themes that makes such rick reading in Faulkner because one gets the sense that he has his fingers clearly on the pulse of something that we have lost any real sense of--even though the truth of it holds today in the same way that it held in Faulkner's day. The present is the living extension of the past: shaped by it, informed by it, and ultimately pervaded by it, if looked at properly.

Faulkner's gothic obsessions get full play in this magnificent work. And it is, for Faulkner, relatively undemanding on the reader--requiring merely the attention of an ordinary novel to keep most of the threads straight. However, it is, as Frost would have it, "lovely, dark, and deep." And it is, as a result, most worthy of nearly any reader's time.

Later: I realize that I've put together a lot of words about Faulkner but have ended by saying very little of import. The problem is that anything I might say would deprive the prospective reader of some of the joy of discovery. Another problem is that I am not a particularly deep reader, pulling out symbols, signs, and meanings at every turn. Indeed, I prefer to enjoy what I'm reading and allow it to mean as it will at the time. Most authors simply don't spend that much time planning and putting these things into motion. And those that do (Rowling and her ilk) often don't produce work that stands up to any kind of scrutiny. It seems that more than 90% of great art is unconscious art--you feel your way around it and end up with a miracle. Authors who pontificate on their purpose either (a) miss the point that their purpose is often subjugated to a greater one if the work is good or (b) haven't written a work that supports the kind of scrutiny it would take to divine the author's purpose.

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The first person we have speak to us from the realm of the Inconstant (the lowest and slowest sphere of heaven) is a woman named Piccarda. She is consigned to this realm because of her "inconstancy" to her holy vows of a religious. However:

from Paradiso
notes by John Ciardi

Piccarda was already a nun and living in her convent when her brother Corso, needing to establish a political alliance, forced her to marry Rossellino della Tossa of Florence. Various commentators report that Piccarda sickened and soon died as aconsequence of having been so forced against her will and vows.

It is this kind of reasoning that throughout time has bred atheists. Circumstances that we do not will nor do we consent to force us to actions that we would not take for which God, who created and allowed these very circumstances, then punishes or demotes us.

Piccarda had no choice in this matter. For much of medieval time in many places women were just a step (and a very small step) above chattel. A few extraordinary women did rise above these circumstances--but for the most part your lot in life as a woman was to do what the men around you told you to.

But in Dante's mind, a woman who against her will is forced to marry and is basically raped, is inconstant to her vow. I'm surprised she isn't in The Inferno for being false to her vow. Instead God in his infinite love and mercy says--"you were trapped by circumstance and by the situations my will allows, and couldn't puzzle your way out of it--so off to the lowest circle of beatitude and be glad I don't kick you downstairs."

Yuck! This is what I constantly run up against in Paradise. A strange sort of paradise it makes it.

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Beatrice--Snide and Smug

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Here's an example of what I spoke of before. Beatrice speaks to Dante:

from Paradiso
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"Are you surprised that I smile at this childish act
of reasoning?" she said, "since even now
you dare not trust your sense of the true fact,

but turn, as usual back to vacancy?

Charming. Simply charming. There's nothing to inspire love and admiration like some smug, self-righteous, overly informed combatant smiling at your stupidity and then telling you so. I'm supposd to be enchanted/enthralled by this? Color me appalled.

Fortunately Dante's goal was not entirely to make me love Beatrice as he did. If so, his cause is utterly lost. Unfortunately, I perceive that this guide to the celestial realms will not be nearly so convivial as our guide through the other two. We can expect to be laughed at, lectured sternly, and variously assaulted and accosted as we try to enjoy the scenery.

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The Divine Comedy Act III


As often as I have read the Divine Comedy, I have found profound difficulty with the third part--the part that should be so compelling. It seems that all forward motion stops and Dante enters into a realm of airy speculation (mostly wrong) and cosmology that is both weird and vaguely uninteresting. The people in paradise maunder on and on about abstruse theological theories and oddities of the medieval sort. In short, it is the "most dated" and least "useful" of the three acts. And yet, I am sure that I am missing something in the reading. I am sure that as often as I have been through it, I have been left out of paradise through my own fault.

So I try again. And once again I am treated so some odd explanation of the spheres of the cosmos and to Beatrice (who if you ask me isn't some Divine avatar but a relentless and self-righteous harridan--see the end of Purgatorio. One is left to ponder what in the world Dante saw in this woman.

Not that the rest of the comedy isn't riddled with similar lectures, cosmologies, and oddities, but somehow amid the grotesques and the "poetic justice" they seem to fit in. If the realm of perfection is nothing other than an endless lecture series on the Divine glories, unless I become a completely different person (by which I do not mean simply abandoning sin and growing closer to God, but having something approaching a spiritual lobotomy) I think that the suffering there would be akin to the suffering of some of the souls in Dante's Inferno.

But then, why might Dante think that this endless lecture circuit is Divine? Perhaps because knowledge was so highly valued a commodity in a time when its dissemination was so difficult? Perhaps it was just that particular poet's mind? I don't know, but perhaps that is a focus to pay attention to as I try to ignore the lectures that get in the way of a tourists view of paradise.

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Hidden Humor

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Where else, but in Faulkner. Light in August is an interesting study in neurosis and psychosis and how one feeds the other until disaster. It is also a repudiation of Calvinist fatalism, even though there seems to be that about it which suggests inevitability. But regardless of the dire and drear events, we have in the midst of them this:

from Light in August
William Faulkner

Presently the fire truck came up gallantly, with noise, with whistles and bells. It was new, painted red, with gilt trim and a handpower siren and a bell gold in color and in tone serene, arrogant, and proud. About it hatless men and youths clung with the astonishing disregard of physical laws that flies possess. It had mechanical ladders that sprang to prodigious heights at the touch of a hand, like opera hats; only there was now nothing for them to spring to. It had neat and virgin coils of hose evocative of telephone trust advertistements in the popular magazines; but there was nothing to hook them to and nothing to flow through them. So the hatless men, who had desert edcounters and desks swung down, even including the one who gound the siren. They came too and were shown several places where the sheet had lain, and some of them with pistols already in their pockets began to canvass about for someone to crucify.

But there wasn't anybody. She had lived such a quiet life, attended so to her own affairs, that she bequeathed to the town in which she had been born and lived and died a foreigner, an outlander, a kind of heritage of astonishment and outrage, for which, even though she had supplied them at last with an emotional barecue, a Roman holiday almost, the would never forgive her and let her be dead in peace and quiet.

In and among the solemn events, these flies in their brand new and utterly useless fire engine provide the kind of comic relief that Shakespeare (and probably a good many playwright of lesser compass before him) employed so effectively with the drunken porter in Macbeth.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from March 2008.

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