Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second Set Of Thoughts On To Kill A Mockingbird

I'm just at the point at which the repressed, imperious  aunt has moved in for a spell and is trying to suppress everybody else, inflicting her life denying snobbery, classism, racism, and "manners" on our poor Finches, including Atticus who's engaged in an eternal struggle within himself in how to deal with his minor monster of a sister. The point is made by Jean Louise narrating from an adult distance how in all her imperious negation Alexandra makes for a perfect fit with Maycomb and it with her. 

The argument between Atticus and Alexandra about her wanting to get rid of Calpurnia, which Atticus calmly disposes of without high emotion of any kind, not even a hint of intemperateness, add another notch to the gun-handle of his seeming saintliness. 

But when he makes Jean Louise apologize after she rightly and righteously lashes out at Alexandra for piping up that she, Jean Louise, "certainly cannot visit Calpurnia at her home," paraphrase, intoning in that opinion everything that is wrong with her and the attitudes she typifies, we may be seeing the first chink in the armour of his saintliness, a too ready inclination to bow down before, or at least give in to even by merely putting up with,  all that Alexandran negation. 

Same touch of human failure when he comes onto Jem and Jean Louise to deliver the Alexandran directed sermon as to how these kids must understand their superior Finch lineage and live up to it, not down from it as they have been, as Alexandra sees it. 

Conflicted and taken out of himself, against his own inclinations, Atticus delivers this sermon, shocking his kids into thinking their world has been turned upside down, that everything they've been taught and how they've lived are wrong and must be corrected, and shocked and made panicky and tearful at the thought that they have "lost" their father. 

Thankfully, in an instant it all passes. They know they have him back as Atticus of old, back to himself, as he tells them they should forget what he just told him. Here's another rare display of something transitorily weak and indeterminate, therefore human, therefore psychologically rounded and more real, in Atticus.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Some Initial And Interim Thoughts On To Kill A Mockingbird


I'm approaching the 1/3d mark of To Kill A Mockingbird.

A few interim thoughts.

Why not?

I generally know the story and saw the movie quite some time ago. So I do have a few preconceptions I'm trying to keep in check. And I'm not looking at any reviews or criticism as I read. My responses are straight from what I've read so far. I'm seeing something quite wonderful and one thing in particular that is raising some doubt.

The wonderful part so far, first 1/3d, is the portrayal of childhood in a particular setting, a small Alabama town seething right at its surface with racism, backwardness, violence and white trash. Foreboding is in the air as childhood innocence slowly recedes.  

A few things occur to me as to what makes the portrayal so vividly and beautifully affecting. One is that the first person telling is framed by Jean Louise as an adult recounting her young years simultaneously from the perspective of how she took in things back then, including her thoughts and words in her own young kid words merged with her adult understanding and explanations of that understanding in her own grown up thoughts and words. 

Another is how Lee so sharply delineates Jean Louise, Jem and Dill too, making them come alive in the consistent particularity of each with all their childish behaving and misbehaving and talk. What is remarkable is how Lee seems to penetrate the essence of what it means to be 6 or 7 or 12, in this place at this time as revealed in these kids' playing, their deviltry, their wonder, their incipient strengths, their weaknesses, their hard and growing education in the ways the world goes, and their experiences with others, relatives, elderly neighbours, other kids, and principally of course with Atticus. 

Calling him "Atticus" rather than "Dad" or "Father" seems a perfect touch, consistent with him being an older father, 50, both righteous and slightly world weary, a little bit detached yet warm and loving too. It's amazing how without saying so Lee makes us feel the absence of a mother in Jean Louise's and Jem's lives, makes us feel what it's like for them to live only with their relatively elderly and only slightly starchy father. His kids calling him "Atticus" conveys so much of all this.

Enhancing this seeming penetration of the essence of their childhood are two things at least (among others I'm sure): one is the detailed, concrete sense of place, local colour, revealed in virtually every sentence; and what makes that revelation striking among other things is the unerring use of language to convey this sense of place, the colloquialisms, the tropes--the poetry of them, the formalities and informalities in the ways of speaking, the idioms, the manner, forms and rhythms of southern speech, all of it adding up to a particularly identifiable and believable sensibility and world, making, in short, setting resonant in language. 

....Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum...

One aspect of that resonance is the mixture of high sounding elegant language with the all the informalities, the colloquialisms ungrammaticalnesses, ain'ts" for one instance, and such. I'm reminded of Huck Finn's use of the verb "commence" as in (say) "I commenced to wonderin,'" such a peculiar and resonant Southern phrasing, fusing the high sounding with the slightly ungrammatical, informal and contracted, each setting the other off to form a vividly perfect phrase. To Kill A Mockingbird is filled with these kinds of locutions.

My one seed of doubt is the portrayal of Atticus. He's, so far, so idealized and so filled with such mighty rectitude, sympathy, empathy (and all the other good thies), compassion, wisdom, patience, wry humour, strength, and all like that, with no discernible chinks in his upright, righteous armour that he's verging on caricature, on the utterly and rather unbelievably saintly. I'm not rushing to this judgment. It's but a gnawing partially formed sense that I'll keep an internal tab on.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Supplementary Note On The Mayor Of Casterbridge

In response to comments from a friend:

Phil it's only circumstantial that I spent time on EJ. Sometimes when I want to write a note that tries to say something short but synoptic about a novel, I "reverse engineer" it by starting with the ending, where all threads come together or purposefully fray or do some of both and then go backwards, so to say, from there. 

EJ's a major minor character who quietly changes over the course of the story and who as you say functions as an ongoing contrast to what are Henchard's big down, big ups then big downs. It's not insignificant that Hardy ends with her thoughts and viewpoints in a vision of burgher contentment laced with trepidation and hints of subversion of her own seemingly settled resolution.

I both do and don't see her and Farfrae as harbingers of something modern, rationally systematic and smaller than larger than life. Of course it is evident in for example Farfrae's modernizing and systemizing what Henchard sloppily, intuitively and by dint of overweening will does in the way of business and in Farfrae's application of science and use of new machinery. And there is something admirable but inhuman in his near perfect ability to reason out not after all to seek vengeance on the low lifes who caused Lucetta's death but didn't intend to. 

There is some romance in the notion that Henchard larger than life is a figure of the past whose like we will not see again. Yet while, as I say, there is an element of that, I don't totally see it. I see, too, a complicated, massively strong man, a force of nature, who exists in paradoxical relation to everyone in the novel by reason of his outsizedness and to us as readers too. He's not, I'd argue, something, a phenomenon, that has passed by, forever gone. The theme of him, in his outsizedness, could apply, I may read Hardy to imply, in any variety of human settings, including what the, to those times, new age heralds and as you acutely note.

I like your last paragraph a lot. It gets at differences between Henchard and Farfrae both rhetorically and substantively more aptly and penetratingly than did I in my note. I'm not, though, seeing the "sacrifice" exactly, insofar as that suggests some wilful act by Farfrae. Henchard by reason of his nature is completely the cause of his own undoing, I think. And as we will always have our natures, our human natures, Henchards will always be amongst us, troubled, charismatic, forces unto themselves that lesser others circle around even as they may survive better and prosper, not flame out. 

Finally it's been a pleasure reading your comments and thinking about them. And making this small response to them. They have already deepened my sense of the novel, adding layers to what I had begun to think about it.

So I thank ye for that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Few Unresearched Thoughts On The Mayor Of Casterbridge


A few unresearched thoughts on The Mayor Of Casterbridge:

Elizabeth Jane after regretting her final coldness to and rejection of Henchard reaches some equipoise and calm in her life. That her regret and guilt are short lived is due in part to her understanding that Henchard, apart from cruelly and selfishly keeping her real father, Newson, from her, is not of her blood and is in the way of blood a stranger to her save for how circumstances forged a temporary and false relation between them.

At novel's end she finds herself in a "latitude of calm weather" and "...doubly so after the Capharnaum in which some of her preceding years had been spent." So her discovery of an actual blood relation, her father, who finally chooses to live in a town nearby so that, old salt that he is, he can see the sea yet still be close enough to his daughter, contributes as much to her final equanimity as her escape from the darkness of a false and fraught relation with Henchard.

Yet her final attitude to Henchard is balanced and fitting.

While she finally moves past the darkness he had created for her, and while she at first, in her last acts towards him, coldly rebuffs him, all that she has gone through with him thinking he was her father registers in her regret and proaction in acting on her regret. She tries to find him after she at last understands the provenance of the dead goldfinch at the bottom of the bird-cage:

....When her husband came in she told him her solution of the bird-cage mystery; and begged Donald to help her in finding out, as soon as possible, whither Henchard had banished himself, that she might make her peace with him; try to do something to render his life less that of an outcast, and more tolerable to him. Although Farfrae had never so passionately liked Henchard as Henchard had liked him, he had, on the other hand, never so passionately hated in the same direction as his former friend had done, and he was therefore not the least indisposed to assist Elizabeth-Jane in her laudable plan....

She understands Henchard well enough to see his Will reflecting the man he was: "She knew the directions to be a piece of the same stuff that his whole life was made of, and hence were not to be tampered with to give herself a mournful pleasure, or her husband credit for large-heartedness." And so she obeys its austere strictures.

Her final being at peace with herself derives from the happiness she has found in marriage to Farfrae, her discovery of her true father, her relief at her emergence from what had been a certain kind of darkly veiled life imposed upon her, her largeness of spirt that has her try to do justice to what had been for years a kind of filial relation to  Henchard. That doing justice involves knowing him well enough to do in the end, his end, what he has willed, and involves, too, the good mature sense finally to leave in the past what has passed, that past containing no turpitude that will haunt her and that she must always answer to.

In this, in her innocence, in her passivity later evolving to a certain temperate strength, she differs from Henchard, whose demons, essentially comprised by his overpowering and unflinching singularity, selfishness, pride and wilfulness, allow him no peace even as they coexist with some instinct for compassion, with longing for fellowship and relationship, and with outbreaks of resolve to do good and their sudden breaches.

Henchard, however, cannot deny or surmount his own nature. So even when he has achieved some temporary respite from himself in his reconciliation with Elizabeth Jane, feels sympathy for her, is tender and solicitous towards her, he is as much as anything else prompted by his fear of losing her, is irritated by what seem to him signs of her profligacy with her expensive new muff and the profusion of new books in her room, is jealous of what is evidently growing between her and Farfrae and, ultimately, is utterly deceitful and life-denying in telling Newson that she died some years ago.

With Elizabeth Jane's calmness so derived, come her insights into the nature of her fortunate being in the world. What are at first excitement and enthusiasm in marriage settle into "equable serenity."  The key to her ongoing contentment  is to enlarge to an extent possible the bits of pleasure that come to most save those in complete pain. Elizabeth Jane understands that enlarging these specks of satisfaction in life are as inspiring as is the cursory embrace of "wider interests." (The oddness of this insight as conveyed by the narrator is not to be overlooked or gainsaid. It contains some seeds of its own subversion for reasons I'll soon set out.)

Her insights do contain for her their own liberating dynamism, allowing her a healthy indifference to how she is seen by rich and by poor. Rather, she is quietly thankful for her good lot in life, quietly thankful because demonstrativeness is both not in her nature and is at odds with what she has learned of the world: life is too sorrowful for effusion even when one's lot, as has Elizabeth Jane's, turns out (at least for a time) well.

Rather, what is wanted is an understanding that chance can visit anyway it chooses and that all are subject to contingency for good and for ill. None deserve any less than what has been accorded them even as many deserve more. Elizabeth Jane is in the end full of wonder at how chance and contingency have blessed her even as when younger she saw, felt and thought that, in the novel's last words, "...happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain."

Yet for all her new found equanimity, I find that a tension exists between these life calming insights and the inescapable shadow cast by Henchard's towering stature, even when he is reduced and broken at the end. The resoluteness of his will evident in his Will reminds us for all his good and greater ill, for all his strength and greater weakness, for all his continual resolve and its continual  breaking, reminds us, that is to say, what a towering figure he has been and perhaps, and this would be my argument, how pallid and colourless in comparison are all the others, including those notably admirable and good like Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane.

They and all the others are passionless pale shadows next to Henchard's strengths, despondent weaknesses, massive flaws, and utter humanness writ large. If the others are life, if Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane's marriage is life as happiness and contentment, if Elizabeth Jane's final understandings, insights and due behaviour, balanced and measured, reflect  a kind of golden mean, a moral, then I say, and I'd argue, Henchard is larger than life.

In the explosions of his life, his fall, rise and fall, capped off by his final indomitable yet selfless will as writ in his Will, abrim with self-unforgiving, austere rectitude, signing his name to direct his ultimate namelessness, exists a man beyond, in a Nietzschean way, life that is smaller than larger than life, beyond burgher life, beyond Elizabeth Jane's balancing final insights. These insights seem in contrast to the explosions of his life, lighting up then darkening down this novel, bromidic.

In these contrasts, explosions against pallidity, do I see the essence of this novel, which gives what its title promises: a story about The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Trey Gowdy v Kamala Harris

What Harris is doing precedes her going back in our moment to for example the Bork hearings. That said, it's interesting to contrast Gowdy as a committee questioner with Harris, both former prosecutors. She's smart and tough with well thought out questions meant to make an ideological point. So is he. But I sense he was a better trial lawyer than she was including being a more adroit cross examiner. He's certainly more impressive than her in legislative oversight work. One reason why is that her impetuous questioning, not allowing time for an answer, asking open ended questions that need more than a yes or no, but interrupting the answer being given to the point of her being chastised and constrained, overwhelms signs of her skill. But Gowdy is patient, asks closed, thought out questions that yield only a yes or no, and goes on unruffled to make clear points and get clear concessions damaging to the side represented by the examinee. As I see this moment's legislators doing this kind of work, examining witnesses, Trey Gowdy stands out as the best. And mine is entirely a non ideological observation.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bob Dylan's Nobel Speech


I just listened to, while I read, Bob Dylan's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in which he tries to connect his song writing to literature. It has lightly heard and unobtrusive piano accompaniment. 

I liked it a lot and think in a deep way I understand him, having spent a good chunk of my music listening and reading life having listened to the kind of roots music he immersed himself in after hearing a Leadbelly record maybe the day after Buddy Holly died, who he and I both love too, and spent it reading many of the same books. 

What he's talking about is typified in the Smithsonian Folkways American Roots Collection for one example or in Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music for another, the unseen republic. 

Dylan talks about how the themes from Moby Dick, All Quiet On The Western Front and The Odyssey find their way into his songs as he got past the vocabulary of the folk songs he learned. He got past it to write songs in his own way.

I think he connected his song writing to literature well and in a particular way, and it's the way most people hear and read songs, poems and stories, which is to say in ways that connect to their common but deeply felt experiences, and I think it is good and fitting that he won the Nobel Prize.

One disagreement: encapsulated by Dylan saying meaning is not so important as hearing the beauty of lyrics or hearing an overall story or taking in the large themes, or all these together, that--here's the precise encapsulation--for an example he gives, Shakespeare is meant to be seen on stage not read as a text whilst pouring over its meaning. 

I'm guessing that that's what Shakespeare intended. But his intention in this is irrelevant: his works aren't his anymore; he's dead; they're his audience's. Seeing them performed, reading them closely aren't exclusive. If poetry isn't amenable to understanding, to paraphrase, to why did Donne say that this way, then it's sounds, images and rhythms of compelling qualities but meaningless.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman


I broke a promise to myself. 

What promise?

Never to pay to see any blockbuster superhero crap unless maybe I was taking a kid to the movies. 

But my wife mentioned she wanted to something superheroish, and that and all the foofara about Gal Gadot, who I had to tell to stop calling me, poor obsessed kid, and about the movie as a feminist statement (as if) blah blah blah overcame my self insistence to give superheroes and heroines a wide berth.

We went to see it tonight and I regretted it. Lots of sensational effects, a gorgeous lead actress, a story of sorts, a puerile theme. All in all, it wasn't for me. I'd rather see a 83' quiet black and white French film about a 16 year old boy losing his virginity to his best friend's mother or some such, with a lot of talking and prosaic coming and going.

Seeing the movie reminds me of something I have tucked away in my mind: in Toronto, as in other fair sized cities, you can pay hundreds of dollars to go see mind numbing musicals and other such mediocre stuff. But, in contrast, on Saturday afternoons at the Pilot Tavern on Cumberland Street just on the outer eastern edge of Yorkville or at the Rex on Queen Street East, both for free, though you'll likely order a beer or two, maybe some food as well, but maybe not, you can see and hear some of the the best jazz and blues musicians in Canada, some being world class. 

That's what Wonder Woman reminded me of, the difference between paying money to see loud blaring effects, all kinds of sensational craft but having no aesthetic, sensual or emotional depth, just sensational noise and images, and seeing something without anything sensational in it, without a lot of staged hullabaloo, but that has in it something insightful, or thoughtful, or moving, or funny, or stirring, or outrageous, or satirical, or sexy, or romantic, or tragic, or one or more of eight thousand other qualities that might be encapsulated by the word human. 

Not to get too censorious but Wonder Woman seems to me an instance of us amusing ourselves to death, (or at least to a bad cold.)