All posts by Kelly

The Awakening And Her Sisters

theawakening

“It may all sound very petty to complain about, but I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust.”
-Warner, Lolly Willowes

This book is an early distillation of a particular kind of novel that was being written periodically throughout the early twentieth century. These novels are all variations on the same theme, but the basic outline is the same. This one will serve to give you a pretty good idea of the lot:

Edna Pontellier is the rather well-to-do wife of a New Orleans businessman with two children, a well-appointed home, servants and a clear, clearly fulfilled place in her particular social circle. Her husband is kind to her in many conventional ways: he spares no expense on the household, takes something of an interest in the raising of the children, buys her personal and lavish presents and summer holidays, seems to offer periodic compliments and is not at all jealous or possessive. He has his faults of course- he likes his routines to be how they are and he places great importance on his wife fulfilling her “feminine” role in the household and society- dealing with the servants, ensuring high quality dinners, ministering to his needs and generally putting him first when he is home, being constantly involved with children, paying the same morning calls to the same wives of business associates that she always has. None of these expectations is particularly out-of-line for her time and place, and indeed she has never had to bear some of the extra morally horrible but legally acceptable extra burdens other wives have to shoulder without questioning. Her husband is occasionally rude and out of temper, he sometimes spends his evening out with his friends and blames her unfairly for occurrences that are blown all out of proportion. But that’s about it.

And yet, “It may all sound very petty to complain about, but I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust.”

Of course, as we know, this is not the real problem. The problem is with the underlying foundations of the Patriarchal System of Various Assumptions and Ground Rules. In this case, the System manifests in her husband’s casual assumption that she sees her “occupation” as he does, to live her life as a recommendation and added enticement to her husband’s business career, or even to further it. There’s a scene where he recommends that she accept and reject calling cards and invitations on the basis of whether each woman in question has a husband that will further his career. He expects to everything at home reflect his success out of the home, including the dinner he eats (which he seems to be more upset about on the basis that it does not suit his status than anything). He conceptualizes her private life as a “public” one (since she has no “public” one to add to his), bound by all the same accommodations and professional decisions that a person in a career might make. When she deviates from her conventionally feminine choices, he assumes she may need medical treatment.

Like the feminine version of Bartleby the Scrivener, the rebellion phase begins with “I would prefer not to,” and continues until she’s figured out she would simply prefer not to live most of her life at all. Then of course, she has to decide what to do next.

This is where a lot of the stories differ. In Lolly Willowes, perhaps the clearest parallel to this book, the book brings to the surface all the guilt and self-hatred that the “fine dust” can arouse in a woman used to a lifetime of its constraints. Lolly actually conceives herself to be a witch, an actual servant of the devil, because she finally chooses to live a life according to her desires, to ignore the claims and needs of others that she has spent her life seeing to. This especially dramatic is encouraged by the fact that Lolly has never achieved that supposed “highest calling” for women: a husband and children. Thus, all she is supposed to have to offer is a life of selfless service to others that she is dependent on. Thus it makes sense for her to consider herself not only less than nothing, but actually actively evil for denying to further repay what is seen as her only natural duty and place. All Passion Spent is another, perhaps more mature parallel. In this iteration, Lady Slane actually has achieved the husband and children. What is more, they are grown and successful, with children of their own. Her husband was an eminent public servant, and she fulfilled her “role” (just like Edna’s husband had requested) for all of her life. As Edna states clearly and expressively in The Awakening:

“at a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life- that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”

Lady Slane has maintained this and chosen not to tell anyone for decades upon decades of marriage, so much so that even her family forgot that she was an actual person rather than a precious objects, of sorts, to be taken care of much as an heirloom might be. Her Bartleby moment comes through in a meeting deciding her future where her children have almost forgotten that she is a participant in the conversation. She decides to live out her life, like Lolly, in a house of her own. In this case it is the house itself, rather than an imaginary relationship with the devil, that becomes Lady Slane’s rebellion. A quirky, falling apart house with a sympathetic caretaker, becomes, bafflingly to her family, of greater interest to her than her children and grandchildren.

The Enchanted April is a luxurious, loving and-all-too-temporary bath of the golden sunlight of the prime of this story. It’s presented as a fantasy of escape. The women involved take a house in Italy and spend charmed, perpetually-twilight-hour weeks of stillness, contemplation, repressed anger and joy escaping their obligations to their family, to their husbands or other men, their poses to the world and their need to repress their feelings. There is one woman, indeed, who sometimes barely seems to move at all, perpetually walking around with a suppressed, blissful smile on her face. There are men in the novel, but they enter what is clearly a world of women, enchanted indeed by their fantasies and repressed longings. Some women place more boundaries and limitations on letting themselves go than others, but the trend is there, and it is the opposite of what is found on the outside. Even this brief moment of suspension and stillness restores some of the women enough to go on, some couples leave transformed, more or less, and we fade out with quiet, with sheer quiet still the ultimate dream of nirvana.

Mrs. Dalloway provides a different, more kaleidoscopic perspective on the same theme, perhaps even a slightly more optimistic and loving one in its own way. Clarissa Dalloway actually finds a kind of fulfillment in her duties as a housewife, in her every day errands and domestic creations. The interesting change of perspective here is that it seems like Woolf’s attempt to understand how this can be the case when she herself is so unlike this, rather than having the perspective be explaining a “different” woman to a mass of people who understand and live her opposite. Clarissa Dalloway, like Edna, understands that split between the interior and exterior life and instinctively lives it out each day. She, like these other women, has desires beyond her household, but has found reasons not to fulfill them. She has found her own way of making her life her own- even with a husband that she seems to have not much connection to, with a former lover for whom she can still have strong feelings after all these years, and with an unsatisfying daughter who is decidedly not her double in any way. She’s able to make these obligations into a kind of mission and to see the tiny beauty in the every day things that she achieves, or at least to come to see it after a daily struggle with her whole situation that mirrors some of the feelings these other women have, even if she justifies it to herself and thinks through it differently. Her slightly more optimistic conclusion (in its way) about the business of fulfilling her role as a woman and what it can lead to, at its best, does not at all lessen the struggles and doubts and reflections that we see her go through. Her success in repressing them might make her stronger in some ways, but it doesn’t mean that she, like Lady Slane, has seemingly ceased to be a person in the eyes and become only outward show. She maintains her personhood throughout, which is triumph most of these ladies desire to achieve anyway.

Of course, the most obvious precursor to all this is the infamous Emma Bovary’s disastrous venture into speculation and dreams, due to her insatiable longing for something more, something higher to believe in than the calling she’s been given as a woman. Anna Karenina has its own piece to share as well, of course, in its way. But these headlong, rush-to-the-head statements, these explosions of joy and rage are screams in the night, almost in a category by themselves, one separate from the whispers, the candlelight dreams and embedded-in-the-everyday transformations that are the rest of these books. Those ladies seek to destroy, to smash, in a way, whereas these ladies seek to simply… exist in a different way. They want to find a way for themselves that is slightly different, not the expected, but not…publicly. These are still private individuals still interested in keeping their privacy and existing within most bounds. They are at most…. Slightly off, in the context of their day, or perhaps in the case of Clarissa Dalloway, not outwardly “off” at all. They are interested in delving into and acting on some specific and long cherished thoughts that are not necessarily radically out of the norm. It is the sort of “odd” that earns you sideways looks from your children and a “Well, I just never thought that you,” or “I just don’t know what you mean by…,” when you push them as to what exactly is wrong. It’s eccentricity, not revolutionary.

I think the better predecessors are the more-or-less coded versions of the narrative that we find in Villette and Jane Eyre, and a wistful, painful statement of it through Dorothea in Middlemarch. Charlotte’s versions of it are covered over with the Victorian balm of marriage, of course, in the end. But both Lucy and Jane are interested in the sort of honesty, the sort of “to thine own self be true” that leads so many of the other ladies above to question what it is that they want and why. Villette, especially, offers its audience an ending that is, at best, deeply ambiguous as to whether it is marriage itself (rather than the act of it) that sets Lucy free or not. Her husband will never be any sort of ideal, and the way that he speaks to her has what would politely be called bracing honesty for a virtue. With Jane, of course, while she allows marriage to be more of an ideal achieved for her, the ideal is not achieved until they can meet as both financial and intellectual equals with something both material and spiritual to bring to the marriage, to assure anyone judging them that Jane has something worthwhile to contribute. This echoes Edna’s abandonment of her home and everything her husband ever bought her, her fixation on her husband’s money as the thing that binds her and keeps her in servitude, the same way that Jane refused the finery Rochester offered for their first wedding.

Dorothea’s Saint Theresa is a more or less open presentation of a woman with more passion, intelligence and drive to achieve something than the bounds of her life will allow. Like Lolly, her dreams and thoughts of how to conceptualize these capacities inside of her are bounded by the perceptions and assumptions that are presented to her by society. Thus, she dreams of assisting a “Great Man,” of the sort of loving service that Lolly has been condemned to provide, if of a more intellectual sort. When women are encouraged to make ideals of men, to see them as the “superior sex,” those sorts of personalities that are inclined to want the best for themselves, to reach for all life has to offer, will take actions to see that they are a part of that. Her disillusionment is both expected and painful to read about. What is interesting about her is that she actually is a person who wants obligations to fulfill and to provide the sort of self-sacrificial service that women are demanded to provide. She’s begging for it- her problem is that the obligations given to her are not enough. In the end, she too finds happiness in the “better marriage,” that allows her more outlet to take on more obligations and be happy doing it. And yet, her end still leads to one of my favorite expressions of the reasons why feminism exists and is still so necessary:

“Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done.”

It’s tossed in the middle of a paragraph in the midst of an epilogue that includes the entire main cast- coded, in its own way then and robbed of the end-of-book statement it should have enjoyed, but we still end on Saint Teresa, contemplating the great sacrifices that Dorothea was capable of, and questioning what more she might have achieved without these every day obligations pressing on her.

Thus Edna Pontellier had many eloquent sisters saying, painting, singing, and subliminally messaging all the shades of this message for decades before The Awakening gained a wide, or almost any, audience. But she was one of the ones who did it both first and openly (remember again that the Brontes and George Eliot did it in more coded ways, and that Madame Bovary was, after all French and a scandal for decades.) In 1899, while not banned, the book was widely rejected and shunned by the reading public. Libraries refused to carry it. It got mixed reviews, but even the good ones who shied away from prudish or “conventional” condemnation of morality and unorthodox gender roles chose the secondary criticism of those who find it distasteful but realize that to say so would make them look backwards of bourgeois: the condescending complaint that she could have chosen a loftier, better subject for her talents rather than “entering into the overworked field of sex-fiction,” as a writer for the Chicago Times Herald put it.

Of course I understand that in 1899 writing about women having any sort of sexual feeling or longing would have made this smut, automatically. But looking at the book from a modern reader’s point of view, I would be hard pressed to call this “sex fiction” of any kind. What I appreciate, and what I think other modern readers may appreciate about this particular iteration of the theme was how honest and free of…. devices, I guess would be the best word, that it was. There were minimal metaphors used to try to describe what she was trying to say, nor was the thing encased in the alternate, inner universe of thought. The book was almost… naïve, childlike, even sentimental about the way that it depicted Edna’s realization and actualization of her freedom. I thought that it was very earnest about trying to just… almost just record a series of moments that added up to Edna’s inability to deny what she had been feeling.

Therefore, like these other quiet, figuring-it-out- ladies above, we get to go from her smallest feeling of “oddness” and difference through to her growing desire to act on it. The first major stand-off starts from a desire that Edna has to sleep outside on a hammock on a warm evening, rather than come inside. It is a small thing that increasingly becomes important the harder her husband pushes her on it. Eventually, he joins her outside to smoke his cigar and pretend to anyone watching that this was a communal desire. Slowly, this crushes out any magic her rebellion has until she slowly slips inside. We see her little by little move from stand-offs to the simple refusal to do ever larger things, withdrawing herself by choice from her life, from every thing that does not matter in itself, but, when added up, constitutes the life that she has been living in its entire. I think that this method of doing it was quite powerful, since we get to see all the little things that prick her and needle her into, after years of repetition, making the huge change that she does.

Eventually, Edna has a frank conversation with one of her closest friends, trying to explain the essential difference between this woman’s priorities and her own. She finally tells her:

“I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”

The woman doesn’t understand, and says so, but the important part is that we see Edna trying to think through this and express her own new limits and boundaries and define them as different than others. Which is of course, as we saw above, the real work of becoming a person on your own, rather than an accessory, or someone acting out a defined role for themselves that does not require them to think out their own feelings or desires.

This was my favorite part about what Edna’s journey tries to show us. That, sexuality and all, one of the major essences of feminism is, as someone said, that women are people. All Edna is doing in this book is testing out her likes and dislikes, finding friends that she herself enjoys, finding an occupation that fulfills her, and rooting out those things from her life which she does not like or need.

I mean, that sounds like college to me. High school, college, my twenties. Edna is twenty-eight and has had really, none of that experience except brief infatuations, conquered quickly. She’s missed out on it all, and this is about her realizing that she has missed out on something. Which, as Chopin eloquently tells us, is more than most women of her class and status get the chance to realize, given the confines, expectations, obligations and, frankly, apparent rewards and the something-like-happiness endings that many are able to achieve, at least according to the script they’ve had since they were little girls:

“A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her- the light which, showing the way, forbids [her realization of why she was doing what she was doing]. At that early period it served but to bewilder her. It moved her to dreams, to thoughtfulness, to the shadowy anguish which had overcome her the midnight when she had abandoned herself to tears.

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight- perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually vouchsafed to any woman.

But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such a beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!”

Do you see what I mean by how straightforward it is? Naïve, even? It’ s so earnest it is almost cloying to read at times. And yet it’s so crystal clear and honestly stated that I have absolutely no desire to roll my eyes. It’s extraordinary, even, for a woman of her time and situation to express it in such a still-relatable and recognizable way. Chopin thought this through admirably. I respond to it in the same way that I respond to Tolstoy’s writing, head-in-his-hands and tearing out his hair because he honestly can’t solve the problem he has, so he’s just presenting his thought process on it as best he can.

“It moved her to dreams,” may become one of those phrases that haunts me.)

I didn’t quite understand why she needed to meet the end that she did. I suppose I do, in the abstract, but I didn’t think we had been building towards a train in this one. I thought that we had been building towards Great Mop, towards a house in Italy, a faded artist’s garret, a husband denying reality for as long as possible. I didn’t think her heroine was out of options. Whether her lover left her or not, even she seemed to realize what she was doing was not entirely about him.

The only explanation that Chopin offers is somewhat mystical, bound up with the myths and spirituality of women that we were to see revived in the ‘60s (perhaps another reason that explains this book’s discovery during that time period):

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

The only real peace I could make with the end was to think of it like the Enchanted April. A house in Italy, with swirling voices all silenced, after a struggle of passions, in your head. It is the escape hatch that is always offered when the pressure is too much. While I didn’t see the need to press the button to jettison in this particular book, perhaps that is also part of the point. You never know when the pressure building is too much for the woman in particular, and, in most cases, it is not considered by those around her. “Abysses of solitude.” That’s the sort of phrase that it seems that one can never get enough of. It was hard for me to judge someone overindulging in it, in the end.

Republic of Thieves

republic of thieves

There are some spoilers herein. I’m not giving away the whole book or anything, but if you’re sensitive to them I would stay away. That is all.

This was a vast improvement over the previous installment. It corrected almost all the problems I had with the previous book, as well as picking out and keeping some elements that I really did cheer for.

By this book, Scott Lynch has found a formula that appears to be working for him. Just as with the second book, the beginning of the third book finds Locke and Jean struggling with the aftermath of all the things that went wrong with the disaster that ended their previous adventure.  Jean lost his lady love (in a move that I still feel was unnecessary and the fate of all too many fantasy novel ladies), and Locke is still poisoned with the apocryphal substance that, it seemed, would turn out to be the bullshit that 80% of what they are involved in winds up being- until the final few pages when it was made clear it was not. Locke secretly makes Jean take the only antidote to the poison, which means that Locke is the only one left poisoned- effects to be made apparent six weeks or so after the close of the second novel. To boot, they are left with not much alternative but to leave their current city, with very much less than the funds that they had planned to have (because for all their cleverness, they are not as clever as they think they are- this is the part where George Clooney and the gang discover that Vincent Cassel beat them to their mark and all their cleverness doesn’t matter so much. Only there’s not much of a clever back-up plan to redeem them in the rest of the movie.)

As before, Scott Lynch uses this time to indulge in a pause in the plot that allows for him to tie up loose ends and show off some of both the most and least attractive traits of his protagonists. It picks up two months or so after we’ve last seen the boys, in a new city where they’ve landed by virtue of Locke being too sick to go on and running out of funds. Jean is desperately trying to find Locke a cure for the poison, no doctor can help, Locke has reached the point of self-pityingly trying to get Jean to leave him to die (is this sounding familiar?). As in the second novel, Scott Lynch writes accurately and incisively about the ugly, dark nature of depression, and how hard it is to continue to like someone when they’ve sunk that far down- often everyone around the person has to get ugly themselves. He does some interesting psychological analysis of the “death wish” and what we would call Locke’s manic depressiveness or possibly some form of bipolar disorder. Having kept up with the reasons behind the late publishing of this book, it is hard not to see some personal experience creeping into the book here, but it makes what could have been a meandering opening powerful and persuasive.

At this point, Lynch introduces the ever convenient fantasy deus ex machina of magic and intrigue that swoop in to change the boys’ life and give them the kick in the ass to keep going on to the next high flying con. The proposal comes to them from a member of the Bondsmages, which fans of the series will remember from the delightfully evil Falconer in the first book. Her proposal is to help Locke in exchange for his help in a little matter of her own. There are elections happening in Bondsmage-ville, which this lady would very much like to turn out a certain way, and which for Reasons she can’t interfere with directly. But she would like to interfere indirectly very much by putting Locke and Jean on the case. Oh and did we mention, because OF COURSE, this case pits Locke and Jean against their old friend and Locke’s forever-lady-love Sabetha?

Hijinx (interspersed with some capital-D drama), you can safely say, ensue.

Lynch doubles back to his manner of storytelling from the first book. He opens us in the midst of the present action, and then once we get going, he does his character development and adds pathos and history and humor and breaks from the action through episodic throwback memories to the days of glory of the Gentleman Bastards. In this case, there is a heavy dose of memories of Locke’s growing relationship with and then feelings for, Sabetha, the only female member of their little gang. This evolves into a progressing ancient-history con (including some long-dead friends who get to come back to play!) that moves forward alongside the present day con.

At times this device can break up the action a bit too much for my taste- to the point where I feel and I feel that Lynch is much less invested in the present day plot because it gets so much less attention than the one being told through memories. But then again, by book three we’re all in it for the characters and we’ve waited this long to meet Sabetha so I’m betting that not too many people are complaining.

Although Locke’s love-at-first-sight-from-childhood thing was less than convincing, once I accepted it as a fact, I got over it and ended up finding it as charming as I was meant to. I also liked her, overall. I do feel that she’s a bit much of a standard fantasy type of woman- beautiful, intimidatingly smart, and very very prickly and ill-tempered for no apparent reason but making her seem cool and not girly-girl typical in any way. I appreciated her insistence on independence and having her own life. I liked how self-aware she was about her hang-ups and how aware of Locke’s flaws she was. It made her more distant than I liked, but as the book progressed we saw the shell crack and I suspect that we’ll find out later on that she’s much less distant than she appears. I also really liked the time that Lynch took to let her and Jean have a relationship too- and remember that she and Locke with their Twooo Wuuuvv were not the only ones with a history.

The con/plot itself is fun, and much more tightly plotted than the last one. It mostly consists of “What crazy thing did Sabetha do now? How are we going to respond to that crazy thing and get crazier ourselves?” It was episodic and cinematic and I could hear the soundtrack of wackiness playing as I read it, but that, I thought, was a sign that everything was moving along as it should be, at least in the present day section of the plot. The whole Locke/Sabetha  courtship aspect was a wee bit unrealistic given the apparent danger both of them would have been in from both sides (although I suppose there’s an argument to be made for Locke’s near-death experience and his general impetuousness/possible impulse control issues), but who the fuck cares at this point? Again, I defy you to tell me that anyone wanted less screen time for their romance by this point in the series.

By the end of the book, Lynch seems to be finally giving hints that the rest of the series may start to operate at a more macro level, with the whole book universe getting involved in a larger plot, more like a traditional epic. Heretofore, and for the most part in this book, Locke and Jean’s world is heavily confined to the present city and moment that Lynch has built- but it seems all this world building will not be for nothing. I suspect it is going to start all being woven together slowly over the course of the next few books until the boys (and possibly and more than likely Sabetha) will somehow be involved in the central A plot climax this has all be leading to.

But there’s also plenty of personal drama to come as well. Sabetha is fled, and the character who seems to be being set up as a Big Bad or at least Locke’s personal long-term nemesis basically ends this book running off maniacally into the night laughing, “Mwahahaahaha!”

I’m not sure how I feel about this whole “Locke is magic and fantasy” element that’s being introduced, but Lynch has left the door open for it all to turn out to be bullshit, and I must say that I hope it does turn out to be just that because one of the strengths of Locke Lamora’s character is that he has avoided being caught up in a lot of the tropes of fantasy epics. Going in for the “magical, dark unknown past, hey it turns out you are a prince with important parents and are a special snowflake!” thing would be a bit much. But hey, Lynch proved me wrong with this book- it was much better than I had hoped. Here’s hoping he can pull that off too if that’s the way that’s going.

This is getting exciting, sports fans! I’ll see you at the next installment. Seems we’re gearing up for another Sabetha centered plotline, the one that was hinted at  in this book, moving around the governmental collapse we’ve heard about distantly in Emberlain. New city, new characters, and you know what that means… new con! Can’t hardly wait.

Four Quartets

fourquartets

I am sure that the scholarship on this work must be legion. I am sure that it has approached Ulysses levels of annotation of every line, of AS Byatt’s mockery of the Ash Factory chasing down every half illusion for a quarter century. I am sure that it is of the highest quality and that in the years to come, I will delight in pouring over every line of it and forming opinions of my own.

For now, I have read none of it. I have no idea if anything I am about to write is true, or comes anywhere close to the poet’s intentions or his feelings when he wrote it. And that’s exactly the way that I wanted it. As a wonderful fictional lady once said, Forgive its faults, forgive me…., but this time… this time it was just between me and whatever phantasms, images and impressions I have gathered. There’s time enough for me to be correct.

For now, I just wanted to be true.

Burnt Norton

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities–mapped the minds–of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity–to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back.

-          The Odyssey, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Word games. That’s probably what your first quick glance at the opening lines of this quartet would reveal. Just simplistic word reversion like the most typical Wildean wit, but taking itself so seriously that there’s no possibility of a punchline coming. It’s all nonsense isn’t it? You’re playing with me. You don’t want me here, not if your welcome mat is this:

“Time present and time past,

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past,

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.”

God, I can hear the judging starting now- pretentious twaddle, What are you even on about?, Say what you mean, Ugh- this is why I don’t like poetry I may not know much about TS Eliot, but even I know enough from my short acquaintance to know that he is famously overeducated- if there is such a thing-  I know that I don’t need another project, some puzzle to unwind-

No. Please. Stop. Just stop. Stop and read a little farther with me.

None of it could be farther from the truth. Please keep reading and give him a chance to welcome you properly, let him lead you the way it should be done, let him speak slow and measured and hold out a hand:

“… Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Toward the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

                                                But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

                                Other echoes

Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them

Round the corner. Through the first gate

Into our first world, shall we follow…”

It’s not a word game at all. It isn’t something pretentious, something modern and new and twisted into form to dance for the sake of dancing in a new fashion. It’s the oldest thing there is- it’s an incantation, a prologue. It’s the words that break you out of whatever world you’re in and guide you into the one where you should be. Eliot starts with something gentle, something we’re used to from fairy stories and nursery rhymes from our childhood- the talking animal, the wilderness tamed in a garden that offers artificial enchantments, necessary and fenced in politely:

“And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music in the shrubbery

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern…

To look down at the drained pool.

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly

The surface glittered out of the heart of light

And they were behind us reflected in the pool

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

 

Go, go, go said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality….”

Now we have passed into another realm and the light has changed, it has dappled around us, so now we can begin to speak of the magic underneath the reality, the blood magic that is no longer so polite, with harder words and harder truths gathered in among his continued recital, with syllables that are no longer quite so smooth or reassuring, but have begun to form, gradually, the rhythms of a chant:

 “Garlic and sapphires in the mud

Clot the bedded axle-tree

The trilling wire in the blood

Sings below inveterate scars

Appeasing long-forgotten wars.

The dance along the artery

The circulation of the lymph

Are figured in the drift of stars…”

Garlic and sapphires, a witch’s brew. “Clot,” a hard effect for a soft “bedded” tree- a modern “wire” introduced among the blood, words that are no longer so conversational, but have instead acquired the rhythms of poetry, the sounds and parts that echo off each other gently and loudly and pause only on the word where it seems eminently suitable for them to do so.

And then there’s an invocation, an incantation, where we all join hands and circle faster around the fire and jump in its shadows, speeding up in perfect unison:

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point….”

… of the turning world , never said, just understood in a blank space as the chant continues, hoping for “inner freedom from practical desire,” “by a grace of sense, a white light still and moving”.

Then we get back to the part everyone knows, the Our Father that we know we will be reciting in many languages without needing to know what the person next to us is saying before too long. It’s recited with a driving intensity, a continuous beat, but softly, softly:

 “Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future

Only through time is time conquered…”

And he has us now. We’re moving with him wherever he needs to show us- his rhythmic, circular structure is quickly interrupted by a slideshow of striking imagery delivered immediately on the other side of the rabbit hole:

“Only a flicker over the strained time ridden faces….. Distracted from distraction by distractions… Tumid apathy with no concentration… Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind that blows before and after time…  fingers of yew be curled… After the kingfisher’s wing has answered light to light, and is silent the light is still and the still point of the turning world…”

And see, there, he keeps it controlled, he brings us back on-point, on the path, so we don’t go too far into someone else’s fancies, but stay inside a tightly controlled series of opposites that blend.

We end, once again, in seeming simplicity, moving en pointe, delicately, half-inch by half-inch across a tiled floor filled with eggshells, as Eliot lays out our problem and our hopes for us:

“Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight.”

And…. There you are.

Where is that? Tell me, please. For myself… nowhere near where I started from, in the strict physical sense, but everywhere that I dream. Everywhere that I escape to in music and film and art. Everywhere that is too intense to live all the time, but which gives the beauty and the impetus to the everyday that we seek out between the cracks. This is falling through those cracks to that place.

This section should be read over opening orienting shots and montages that lead us into quiet end credits. It should be read calmly from an audiobook out of the radio in Wallander’s solitary Sweden, it should be sung throughout the opening five minutes of Melancholia- Wagner’s got nothing on it. It should be read like a prayer from the pulpit and turned into a Gregorian chant. It’s the words that should fill the silence when you look at a truly great landscape for the first time and there’s all that space just sitting there.

This section is the key, the rusty key to the garden gate that we haven’t found in years.

***

East Coker

“For the spell is older than experience. For the tale is older than the record.”

- Marina Tsvetaeva

After an opening section so determined to transport us, to translate us to somewhere else strange and yet entirely familiar in ways we would not expect, it makes sense that our next subject is history. We invoked the muse and now we must give her something to sing about- so then this moves into the other oldest kind of tale- the epic poem, the historical chronicle beautifully told:

“Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended.

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires

Old fires to ashes and ashes to earth…

Houses live and die: there is a time for building

And a time for living and for generation

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots…”

Rot, decay, recycle, reuse, begin again in the same pattern, mourn the loss and preserve the monuments… there’s a roundup of historical notions, negative and giving all round up into one. The time passing sense in a straightforward stanza, nonetheless placing us in the here and now, “leaning against a bank while a van passes/And the deep lane insists on the direction/Into the village, in the electric heat/Hypnotised.”

But Eliot is true to his slippery relationship with time and takes us back and beyond those more common reasons for “history,” for the record of materials put together in pleasing fashion to be remembered, as a record of man’s industry and the rise and fall of civilizations, back to something more elemental and essential- the slippery nature of chronological time when all the timeless things are what matter

“In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire….”

I don’t have to go on- you know where it’s going. Pure Catholic paganistic fascination- perhaps. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is only ruin lust carried over into the middle of the twentieth century after a horror show that forced it back into the front and center, but that’s not all of it. It’s still about time, and it’s even more so about Eliot rejecting history itself as complete bullshit. Experience doesn’t get you a goddamn thing, and no one is going to learn from it the next time- especially not you- you’re too old to profit from it:

“There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience

The knowledge imposes a pattern and falsifies,

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived

Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.

In the middle, not only in the middle of the way

But all the way, in a dark wood in a bramble…”

What is the use, he asks, of history? History is nothing, not next to myth. Not next to the story. Not next to the eternal things that I can stop telling you about five lines in because you can fill in the rest.  History will teach us nothing and the democracy of death will take us all after which it will mean nothing to God who you were.

I love that with the greatest of poets, the greatest of writers, touched by even a hint of Catholicism (and it may not even be all they possess- and it is not at all with Eliot- eastern religions and paganism and doctrinal protestant preaching brimstone is all in there)…. it all comes down to love. It’s all a nursery rhyme in the end, a catechism to remind us:

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting,

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing

Whisper of running streams and winter lightning

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy…”

 

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

 

It’s NEVER more complicated than that. History couldn’t possibly matter less next to that, but we get lost in it, we forget the essentials, we get too bound up with the van and the electricity and we forget the mystery- for a man like this, the Mystery.

Don’t you see? All that matters is

“The houses have gone under the sea.

The dancers have gone under the hill.”

And we’ll never recover from that.

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

 

The Dry Salvages

First Voice

‘But why drives on that ship so fast,

Without or wave or wind?’

 

Second Voice

‘The air is cut away before,

And closes from behind.

 

Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!

Or we shall be belated:

For slow and slow that ship will go,

When the Mariner’s trance is abated.’

-Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Sea, The Sea… there is no framing needed for this section other than that. There’s no formal structure other than the seafaring tale. It’s a brilliant choice for two opening sections so bounded by ancient, formal rules and so immediately engaged with discourse, with human speech and record and sound, to free itself by taking to the waves.

Eliot wanted to put us back in touch with the Mystery in the last section- to make use remember what is wild and untamable and untouchable and unforgettable- and being forgotten. He lived through a time that was broken and broken again until it seemed all the threads had been cut and we began again, Modern Man, anew, without history to bind us, of course.. but without history to steady us and steer us and embrace us close.

He wants to give us back what matters- the threads that, we have to realize, can never be cut, the things that will always continue, whether we like them or not. Experience is bullshit and aging is a lying thief, but continuity and recognition is there, and will always be there, despairingly. And what better place to realize that than The Sea, The Sea:

“Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing

Into the wind’s tail, where the fog cowers?

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless…”

It is not all irredeemable, though, not if you can live through it and realize that you might have

“had the experience but missed the meaning

and approach to the meaning restores the experience….

Past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generations-not forgetting something that is probably quite ineffable:

The backward look behind the assurance of recorded history,

over the shoulder, towards primitive terror…”

But we don’t do that. We live in experience, our bodies connect the moment with what is happening and we process it through our senses the way we were meant to do and we can only say what our senses told us a moment later and our brain is often quite left out- we cannot gather data as we experience the world in that half-way.:

“For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning,

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music,

While the music lasts. There are only hints and guesses

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action

The hint have guessed, the gift half understood, is

Incarnation.”

And so return to the sea, breathe deeply and remember the Ancient Mariner- remember the things that last and then step away again and try to remember what it was that mattered to you before.

Little Gidding

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Prologues have epilogues, especially in Eliot’s tightly circled world where stanzas and refrains return, straightforward or twisted to read between the lines of the poetry.  The chant rises again and the images return for us to drink in and for us to remember how we got here at the start. Funny, the chant sooth-said us enough to walk us down the path into somewhere new, to forget the cultivated home that we came from, and upon returning, he reminds us that there was once a garden that we came from with an empty pool where the birds spoke and the surface “glittered out of the heart of light.”

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallejuah that we’ve found it again, as inevitably as we would have, that we can now step into the circle around the bonfire and join hands with the others as easily as if we always knew how, Pater Noster and blessings of the gods. Of course it is the gods and the mystery he’s on about once again, but it isn’t even that so much as it is the image of that, it is the essentials, dying and being given back to you once more- earth, water, air, fire. There’s not a van in site and I don’t know what electricity is. History is still bullshit, and don’t be deceived that just because you’ve made it to the end into this kaleidoscope of beauty that I give you, into this repeating waltz of glory- don’t be deceived that we have found the place where this all happily wraps up in a bow. All we have found is the way that it always was, and we can join in, for a moment, at least:

    “We shall not cease from exploration

                And the end of our exploring

                Will be to arrive where we started

                And know the place for the first time

                Through the unknown, remembered gate

                When the last of earth left to discover

                Is that which was the beginning

                At the source of the longest river

                The voice of the hidden waterfall

                And the children of the apple-tree

                Not known, because not looked for

                But heard, half heard, in the stillness

                Between two waves of the sea…”

We will forget again and fall out of the circle, we will need to be lead through the garden by an innocent thrush once more and find the pool filled with sunlight and the garlic and sapphires by the yew-tree, but we have the key now. We can return.

And I will be. Again and again and again.

“Say not fare well, but fare forward, voyager.”

gardengate