Hello, readers! It’s not that I’m getting lazy, just that I have been busy with many other things, including reading things to post about. I will be back when I have something else read, I hope another post for Halloween. Until then, feel free to browse back posts if they interest or motivate you–I’ll be glad to hear from you.
When I was young, my family owned a small-town bookstore. It was at the center of town, and was not only a favorite spot for people to pick up their periodicals and bestsellers, but was as well the best source of literary novels and authors which students in the local schools and colleges were being asked to read for class. We lived in a community which was fairly literate, but even so, we still had many odd encounters and requests for books that were strange and peculiar. So is it any wonder that when I encountered Jen Campbell’s book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores that I felt an immediate sense of kinship, and laughed my fool head off while reading from cover to cover?
Just to give you a few examples, under the chapter “Literary Pursuits,” Jen lists this gem: “Where’s your true fiction section?” Or this one: “This Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter book has to be the most historically accurate fiction book I’ve read.” Under “What Was That Title Again?” Jen quotes this: “I’m looking for some books on my kid’s summer reading list. Do you have Tequila Mockingbird?” Or, “Do you have Fiddler on a Hot Tin Roof?” Under “Parents and Kids”: “Customer: These books are really stupid, aren’t they? Bookseller: Which ones? Customer: You know, the ones where animals, such as cats and mice, are best friends. Bookseller: I suppose they’re not very realistic, but then that’s fiction. Customer: They’re more than unrealistic; they’re really stupid. Bookseller: Well, writers use that kind of thing to teach kids about accepting people different to themselves, you know? Customer: Yeah, well, books shouldn’t pretend that different people get on like that, and that everything is “la de da” and wonderful, should they? Kids should learn that life’s a bitch, and the sooner the better.” Under “You Want What?”: “Customer: Didn’t this place used to be a camera store? Bookseller: Yes, it did, but we bought the place a year ago. Customer: And now you’re a… Bookseller: …a bookstore. Customer: Right. Yes. So, where do you keep the cameras?” Under “Customers Behaving Badly”: “Customer: I’d like a refund on this book please. Bookseller: What seems to be the problem? Customer: I barely touched it. It’s ridiculous! Bookseller: What do you mean? Customer: I mean all I did was drop it in the bath by accident. And now, I mean, just look at it: the thing’s unreadable!” Under “Isn’t It Obvious?”: Customer: Excuse me, do you have any signed copies of Shakespeare plays? Bookseller: Er…do you mean signed by the people who performed the play? Customer: No, I mean signed by William Shakespeare. Bookseller: …” Under “Books for Kindling”: Customer: Do you guys sell used e-books? Bookseller (laughing): No… Customer (angrily): Why not?” Under “The Adult Section”: “Customer: Hi, do you have that sperm cookbook? Bookseller: No. Customer: That’s a shame. I really wanted to try it. Have you tried it? Bookseller: I have not.” Under “Higher Powers”: “Customer: Do you have a book that interprets life? Bookseller: I’m not sure I know what you mean. Customer: Well, I was out hiking the other day, and I saw a wolf. I want to know what that meant.” Under “Out of Print: “Customer: What kind of bookstore is this? Bookseller: We’re an antiquarian bookstore. Customer: Oh, so you sell books about fish.” And these I’ve blurbed about are only the beginning: for the small price of $15.00 in the U.S. (in Canada it’s $16.00), you can read many, many more and longer exchanges, even more fraught with those sources of constant comedy and commiseration, human intellectual frailty and sometimes sheer thoughtlessness.
To give a bit about the history of this book, here’s Jen Campbell (a native of the U.K. where she currently works in a bookstore). In the introduction about her work at the bookstore Ripping Yarns in London (the bookstore named after Monty Pythoners Terry Jones and Michael Palin), she says: “After a particularly strange day about a year ago in which I was asked if books were edible, I started putting some choice ‘Weird Things Customers Say…’ quotes up on my blog (jen-campbell.blogspot.com). The intent wasn’t to mock or antagonize our customers. Far from it. Most of the people I meet everyday are amazing, an integral part of our north London neighborhood and the lifeblood of our business in a tough time for booksellers. But, as anyone who works in retail probably knows, there are some encounters that simply leave you speechless.”
Other bookstores and book fiends quoted Jen Campbell on Twitter, Neil Gaiman blogged about them, and Jen was finally asked to publish a book of them by a book publishing company in the U.K. Booksellers from many different states of the union and provinces in Canada joined in the fun and contributed their favorite quotes to the book, and their stores and general locations are identified (though no individuals are named) in the coda of each quote. For a great light read and a real hoot of an experience with how one may oneself come across to strangers on days when one isn’t at one’s best, perhaps, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this book for yourself and your friends. One thing’s for sure: you can’t imagine many people trying to return this one!
William Gaddis’s monumental book “The Recognitions”–Faith, fraud, belief, and “cross questions and silly answers”
Finally, I have finished reading William Gaddis’s 956 page novel The Recognitions and have to report that it, like David Foster Wallace’s book Infinite Jest (which is even longer) is another satiric group of novels-within-a-novel. There are several sets of characters cross-relating and interacting in Gaddis’s novel, but even though the ends are more neatly tied up than in Wallace’s book, there’s the same tendency to switch from protagonist to protagonist (and even to the occasional anti-hero) and back again.
The main protagonist for much of the book is Wyatt Gwyon, whose father is a Protestant minister of a strict sect. But unlike most such ministers, Reverend Gwyon has a wide and varied education about other religions and especially seems to prefer those considered pagan by most Christians. As time goes on, he becomes more and more wound up in such subjects as animal and human sacrifice, and as a sort of side note to all the other things going on in the novel, ends his days in an asylum. His son is another case. Wyatt is an accomplished artist from early on, but his Aunt May has shamed him about “taking the Lord’s works in vain” by presuming to copy them artistically to such an extent that it has affected his sanity too, to satirical and humorous ends. Here’s an early section of the novel in which Aunt May, his only living female relative, expounds upon her beliefs and scolds him:
“–Don’t you love our Lord Jesus, after all? He said he did. –Then why do you try to take His place? Our Lord is the only true creator, and only sinful people try to emulate Him, she went on, her voice sinking to that patient tone it assumed when it promised most danger. –Do you remember Lucifer? who Lucifer is? –Lucifer is the morning star, he began hopefully, –Father says… –Father says!…her voice cut him through. –Lucifer was the archangel who refused to serve Our Lord. To sin is to falsify something in the Divine Order, and that is what Lucifer did. His name means Bringer of Light but he was not satisfied to bring the light of Our Lord to man, he tried to steal the power of Our Lord and to bring his own light to man. He tried to become original, she pronounced malignantly, shaping that word round the whole structure of damnation, repeating it, crumpling the drawing of the robin in her hand, –original, to steal Our Lord’s authority, to command his own destiny, to bear his own light! That is why Satan is the Fallen Angel, for he rebelled when he tried to emulate Our Lord Jesus. And he won his own dominion, didn’t he. Didn’t he! And his own light is the light of the fires of Hell! Is that what you want? Is that what you want? Is that what you want? There may have been, by now, many things that Wyatt wanted to do to Jesus: emulate was not one of them.”
The punctuation is a trifle difficult to follow, since Gaddis uses dashes and not quotation marks, and often runs sentences into each other which rightly belong in separate paragraphs. Still, I think it’s easy to grasp the dark satiric humor of Aunt May’s homily and its reaction on the timid though artistically gifted boy Wyatt, as he grows up. He matures convinced that he is damned, but still unable to stop drawing. The upshot of it all, however, is that he is very inept at completing his own original pictures, but instead only feels at home when creating fradulent pictures. He is original in spite of himself, however: he doesn’t facsimilate already existing pictures and sell these fake copies. Instead, he paints “new” and “original” pictures never before seen and passes them off as the works of famous artists which have only recently “surfaced.” Thus, his psyche manages to have it both ways.
From the topic of Wyatt, the topic switches to all sorts of social and societal frauds going on in his immediate circle of friends, a real bohemian crowd with no actual artistic pretentions to support or excuse their lifestyles. There is the further question of spiritual belief as it affects a man named Stanley, a devout man who wants to lead to God a worldly woman called Agnes Deigh (a pun on “Agnes Dei,” “Lamb of God”). His continual misadventures with her as they discuss their beliefs back and forth and he gets her to go on a pilgrimage with him to Europe to see the canonization of a young female saint are fraught with a different set of religious traditions and questions, as Stanley is a Catholic. But one very funny element in all this is the presence of a Mister Sinisterra, a forger who also regards himself as an artist. In a very amusing crosstalk act of “cross questions and silly answers” which happens as a matter of mistaken identity when he passes forged notes for distribution to a man named Otto, an acquaintance of Wyatt’s, he gets involved in going to Europe as well, and tries to “forge” a mummy out of Wyatt’s mother Camilla’s bones (which ironically and highly coincidentally were interred next to those of the young female saint aforementioned, in San Zwingli, Spain). Instead, he causes the mother’s bones to get mistaken by the celebrants of the canonization as the young girl’s, and he himself drags the young girl’s corpse around all over the place disguised as an old woman in heavy dress and a mantilla. Much comedy ensues, though of a highly equivocal nature.
There are several other cases of mistaken identity or mistaken intent in the book, and the slowest portions are in fact those about the lurid parties of the group of Wyatt’s one-time associates, as they party across New York City and other world cities. Wyatt dies well before the end of the book, so it’s not a book tied to one protagonist. The book in fact ends with Stanley’s demise, as he finally achieves his ambition of playing his organ works on a famous old organ in Italy. But due to the fact that he is unable to understand Italian, he doesn’t understand what the sacristan of the church has tried to tell him, which is to leave out the bass notes, as the building is too old to stand up under the reverberations of the bass as well as treble. After the sacristan leaves, Stanley performs his of course genuine works (in opposition to all the fake things and people there have been in the book), complete of course with the bass notes. The building falls on him, supplying the ironic ending: faking is a way of contemptuously or wryly or in some state of disbelief withstanding the world; the genuine and sincere end up getting the short end of the stick.
There are many, many incidents in the book and not a few characters that I haven’t described, but the book is so rich and so long that I fear I will have to leave you to read it for yourself. It’s another one of those books that you may find you want to read slowly and live with for a while; you’ll find many a dark and sardonic laugh inside, I can guarantee you that much. Also, I at least found many passages, such as the incidents when characters were mistaking someone else’s identity and no one discovered the mistake until much later, which just tickled my funny bone enough to make me laugh aloud, repeatedly. I hope you too will find this book to your liking, and I recommend it highly, though again wanting to point out that Gaddis’s form of notating his conversations and enclosing paragraphs is irregular, and so will probably provide a challenge. No matter, though: at least no one can say it isn’t genuine and original!
Well, folks, I’ve recently returned from a trip with my immediate family to my and my brother’s undergraduate institution for fun, merriment, and one of those notable trips down Memory Lane, and though we had a great time going there, I have to report that Cornell University and the environs have changed considerably. A lot of businesses which one thought would be there forever are no longer, and ones which remain have changed almost out of recognition, though sometimes for the better. We eschewed the formal reunions and the organized trips and went where we remembered things being the best, the most interesting, or sometimes the most grueling (because of course since we had my young nephew with us, we had to impress him with tales of just how horrific things could be, as well as reassuring him that should he go there later, he would be able to surmount difficulties as well). We started out the trip with breakfast near the beginning of our trip, and then met a good friend in another town later for lunch at a Belgian restaurant, which was a new cuisine for us. Suffice it to say, it was excellent. Then, we headed straight for Ithaca. We got to our motel, and then went to an exceptional Thai restaurant down on The Commons (what the level ground is called downtown, which is not on one of the two mountainsides where Cornell University and Ithaca College are respectively located). It was called Thai Basil, and was one of the best restaurants around of any kind. Not only did they make special room for us on a very crowded night when we somewhat inconsiderately came by without a reservation, but the food and the ambience were outstanding. The waitstaff was accomodating and very polite, coming by the table quite frequently to see what else we needed even though they were filled to capacity and clearly expecting many more. It was a happy, happy time to end the first leg of our trip.
The next morning and day were the heart of our trip, as we toured around the campus and saw what had changed. After taking the car around to show my nephew all the places my brother and I had lived (he came through 6 years after me), we parked it (though so booming and hearty, Ithaca is still a city where even up around the university it’s possible to find parking fairly quickly). Then, I went (like a city dweller) to sit on the corner of College Ave. at Collegetown Bagels. This is a place with a rich history, and one of the places that has changed much since our first exposure to it. In the old days, there was no seating; you went into a large room and up to a counter where there were bins of numerous different kinds of bagels, and the man or woman behind the counter took your order and slathered whatever you’d chosen onto your bagel. Someone rang you up at the register and you left. Because I didn’t come from a bagel-conscious area, and I got to Ithaca back in the 1970’s, before bagels were popular all over the U.S., I’d never tasted one before; it was a real novelty, one which I hastened to introduce my family to when they came up to visit. When my mother first tasted them years ago, she wasn’t impressed, being used to the softer bread products of our own hometown. But in about six months or so, she was strangely longing to have one again. And thus another cuisine touched our family. Still, Collegetown Bagels has vastly expanded its operations in the time since even my brother was there after me. The whole corner of College Ave. is now Collegetown Bagels, and they have tons of outdoor seating. As well, the counter space is totally new (at least to me) with a complicated “filing-past” procedure of ordering, and beer choices, and a very innovative and ornate menu of items, as well as additional food and juice items of every sort that you could want. So, I chose to sit and take in the pedestrian traffic and watch the crowds (and incidentally, save a table) for my mother, brother, and nephew, who were planning to hike down one of the several gorges–the motto? “Ithaca is Gorges”–before having a late breakfast. I had chosen a plain whole wheat bagel with butter, a bit of yoghurt, and a juice to wait for them with, and soon got into conversation with someone who’d been there when I was and had been in the town since. He was able to tell me that sadly, some campus traditions no longer prevailed. For example, dogs are no longer allowed to roam free on the Cornell campus (into the classrooms and etc., where before they were always good for a diversion from our studies); students no longer “borrow” lunch trays from the main dining halls to slide down the steep slope behind Uris Library in the snow anymore; and other such sad passings. But when I queried as to why there were now such big nets underneath the bridges, he was able to reassure me that at least one unenviable tradition had changed for the better: despairing students have been prevented from “gorging out” (jumping into the gorges in mostly successful and regrettable suicide attempts). As well, when my family rejoined me for a late breakfast (and like a hobbit, I had a little something else to help fill up the spaces), they had to report that the gorge they had hiked up was perhaps a bit less scenic than before, because it had had to be paved along the side and reinforced due to a recent flood, which had washed some trees away. We ate then moved on to tour the campus.
There were people waving to us from the bell tower of the library as the carillon concert began. As if just to please my nephew (who had at his first sight of the campus up on the hill from a distance said that it reminded him of Harry Potter’s school Hogwarts), students were playing a non-levitational form of quidditch when we got to the Arts Quad. We watched for a while, and then went round looking at the old buildings, noticing as well places where new constructions had been added (nothing’s ever totally the same way you left it, and I suppose that’s as it should be). Nevertheless, I was dismayed to learn that the coffeehouse “The Temple of Zeus” in the English building of Goldwin Smith Hall is no longer there or perhaps not what it was, and I saw no happy outpouring of students from “The Green Dragon” in the Architecture and Fine Arts building of Sibley Hall, though that’s not to say they weren’t there at least lurking in spirit somewhere. I was nostalgic for this area because it’s where I spent most of my time, as an English major in Goldwin Smith and as a dual Theatre major in Lincoln Hall. But I have to be happy for the English majors that they are getting a new Humanities Building right next door, and the Theatre students now have a grand new performing arts center in Schwarz, which I saw when I was sitting having breakfast in the morning, as it was centrally located.
Next, we went to show my nephew where my brother and I had lived in our respective dorms on North Campus, and the North Campus Union, and other sights. I, of course, was mournful to observe that the Pancake House–scene of many an early and riotous breakfast after a night of heavy carousing for me and my undergraduate friends–was no longer above the power house along another waterway, but we were rewarded with the sight of a baby blue egret perched on the dam fishing, so it wasn’t all bad. Finally, we went back to the car and once again my nephew was rewarded in his hopes and ambitions: earlier, when we had been driving past a sign on the road that said “Deer Crossing,” he had hoped to be able to see a deer. Now, however, as we were parked just by someone’s backyard in hillside Ithaca, we saw a deer, an older female, standing quietly feeding on someone’s flower bed. My brother pointed out the tumor which had unfortunately formed on her back knee joint. She was not really afraid of us, but just kept a watchful eye out as we quietly started the car and pulled out. We had our last group touring session of the day by going down to Lake Cayuga and sitting there in Stewart Park, under the willows. It was very warm and yet breezy in a pleasant way; we in fact had good weather the entire weekend. Next, my brother wanted to take my mother to see the falls at Taughhannock Park, so we went there. I, however, had worn my weary legs out, so while the three of them hiked five miles in and five miles back out, I sat in the car park under a shade tree and watched all the young families and their kids and dogs coming to enjoy the lawns and water. Finally, it was time to go out to dinner again, and man! were we ready for it this day!
My brother found us a wonderful Indian restaurant up on the hill on Eddy St., where though I was very sad to see that the magnificent Cabbagetown Café of vegetarian fame and excellence was no longer on a corner, I was amply requited with a fine Indian dinner. I wish I could remember the exact name of the restaurant, but there were two Indian restaurants side by side, and my brother left us to choose one, and as they both looked very inviting and hospitable, I cannot recall which one we visited. But both had a five-star rating, so if you happen to be visiting, we went to the one a little further down the hill of Eddy Street toward Martin Luther King St., and if you can’t find room there, maybe the one a little further just up the hill will have room for you. Again, we were welcomed without a reservation, which was excellent, and the dinner moreover was absolutely first-rate. We ended the evening by driving downtown to Purity Ice Cream, a favorite haunt of my brother’s in the old days, and my nephew was rendered replete with good fare and happy memories.
The next morning, we had to go, but we started out in a leisurely fashion and went to see some more falls at the bottom of another gorge (my brother is clearly training my nephew to be a vigorous fellow). Then, we went to another fine restaurant (I know, it sounds like all we did was walk and eat!). We had our breakfast at the Sunset Grill, which was up on one of the high hills of Ithaca, and from which we could see Cornell University sitting on another mountaintop at a distance. It was several notches up from the average diner food, everything was pristine and clean and bright and cheery, they had an “endless cup of coffee,” and we got to eat out on their porch area, in the gorgeous morning air. Now, it really was time to go. We gassed up the car and headed back, stopping in the evening to have dinner at a restaurant just an hour from my brother’s house, where we were not let down either from all the fine fare we had already been served. It was a “country style” restaurant, but though I’d had premonitions of everything being covered in cheap gravy and being served overboiled vegetables, that’s not what it was about at all. It was instead just as fine a dining experience as all the rest, and concluded our trip in a perfect manner.
We drove to my brother’s house full of our experiences and adventures, and busy discussing the traditions which still seemed to be observed, and the things that had changed for the better or worse. One thing is certain: as one might expect (though older people like us never quite seem to get the gist of this the first time they encounter it, and need repeated exposures to this awareness to “get the picture”), the torch has been passed to a new generation, and they are happy with what they have in the main, just as we were happy with what we had, mostly. And that’s all as it should be! Heaven only knows what my nephew will see if and when he goes to Ithaca. Or maybe he will break tradition and go somewhere else, where he will likely discover his own favorite things to expose his family to. Only time will tell! In the meantime, we had a great family outing, and yet another good experience of family bonding. And after all, that’s what it was all about!
There was a song current in my mother’s youth, now complete with anachronisms, the first verse of which went “School days, school days, dear ol’ Golden Rule days; Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick; I was your maid in calico, you were my bashful, barefoot beau; And you wrote on my slate, ‘I love you so!’/When we were a couple of kids.” Of course, hickory sticks were replaced by paddles in my mother’s youth, and they were no longer using slates, but there was still some corporal punishment by teachers (now mostly and happily a thing of the past), and there is, was, and one hopes always will be youthful romances to tide us over until the long school day is through.
And though this is a song largely about those who are in school pre-university, this post is just by way of saying that I will in fact be away from posting at length for a few days, because I am going with my immediate family to visit my undergraduate alma mater. I hope to have lots to write about when I get back; if I don’t have much of anything to write about the trip itself, I will I hope have a renewed spirit to return to my literary posting with. Until then, have a great autumn!
Today, I am going to tell you the very brief, horrific (and admittedly whimsical) tale of a naughty little girl of my acquaintance and how she (for some time at least) lost the friendship of a near relative through a lie about wolves, radiators, and lights out! time. If you suspect that I know that little girl a bit better than I am letting on, so be it (heaven forbid you should think it is actually myself I am talking about, though they do say that confession is good for the soul).
Cast your mind back to the early 1960’s, when little girls still wore puffy petticoats with short skirts over them, and either had to have pigtails and ponytails or Shirley Temple curls (made arduously, if not “natural,” by painstaking mothers using bobby pins, at least on school nights, when everyone the next day had to believe the curls were genuine). Picture to yourself a weedy young imp who preferred to lie curled up with a good book all day, and hated being told to go outside and play (hey! that rhymes!). This young person of the female persuasion only liked going out to play or even playing inside with dolls, for that matter, when one or the other of her female cousins were around to make the game interesting.
Of course, Halloween comes in the fall of the year, and at that time, vampires, spooks, and werewolves are in the juvenile mind in abundance, not only for trick-or-treat, but even after, to spice up daily conversation and slumber parties. And, of course, to supply material for ghastly nightmares, which, once they’re over continue to supply a pleasurable frisson of fright, a harking back to horror.
Well, it so happened that this little girl had never acquired a fear of the dark. She was afraid of many things, but unlike her female cousins, had never become afraid of the dark, or required a night-light to sleep. But she was afraid of wolves. Not just werewolves, but the real animal, which she’d never seen except in books, nor was likely to. But her cousins slept with a night-light, because it was decreed that parents had different verdicts about what was the best way to deal with nightmares, and theirs had been known to give way more easily to the specific of waking only to find the light shining, and nothing wrong.
Now, our little girl, we’ll call her Beth (for nothing would induce me to reveal her true identity), abhorred a night-light. She was proud of not needing one, and when she had an occasional fright in the night, she simply stumbled out of bed and went to her parents’ room for comfort and reassurance, or better yet, and more often, called out for the long-suffering (and perhaps overindulgent) parent(s) to come to her. But one other thing that she was perhaps less rational about than even wolves was floor registers to radiator systems, the kind that have a few little slots in the floor that can be made to shut firmly by pushing the knob. Doing so of course shut off the warm air flow to the room, but it at least produced a firm surface which didn’t show a long, mysterious floor passageway below it, leading off into who knew where. Nevertheless, Beth had been warned to leave the floor vents open, and by and large she was a good child and not too terribly mischievous. She did tell the occasional untruth when it was advisable in her view, but as she usually got found out and punished, it didn’t often strike her as a viable option.
There was one notable occasion, however, when Beth found it to be the sine qua non, the absolutely necessary element, to add comfort to her existence. And this was when her cousin Bella came to stay the night. Now Bella was about a year or two younger, and wasn’t used to being lied to by Beth, so she was unprepared for what happened when the two girls were left alone for the night. Just as Bella had requested, there was a night-light burning to one side of the bedroom, and while Bella found this a fine method of reassurance in a strange place, Beth found it irksome and just knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink with it on. She had been warned by her mother to leave the light burning if Bella wanted it on, as a mark of courtesy to her guest, yet since it was her bedroom they were sleeping in, in her nice warm bed, and everything was beckoning for an evening of confidences and strange stories in the dark, she just knew there must be some other way to arrange things to her satisfaction.
Suddenly, it came to her in a flash of inspiration! She’d share with Bella one of her own nightmares that had happened once or twice to trouble her own sleep; only, she’d pretend that it had really happened, and surely Bella couldn’t refuse to allow her to turn off the light then! So, slowly and carefully, trying to suit her story to what Bella was likely to believe, Beth explained, with many a gesture and fearsome expression:
“Well, see, Bella, it’s not that I don’t want the light on; but at night, there’s a big, fat, mean ol’ wolf that comes up in the floor register, and if he can see us, he might eat us. Or tear us up to pieces, and then eat us. But if we have the lights all out, then he can’t even see where we are, and all we have to do is go to sleep, and he’ll leave us alone and go away.”
Bella’s eyes grew large. “But won’t he hear us talking?” she asked, her voice shaking with the faithful tremors of the new convert, gullible but still with questions. “Naw,” said Beth airily, “He never hears me when I sing to myself in the dark.” “Well, then, won’t he smell us?” Bella persisted, not liking this strange mutated creature of frightful fairy tales at all. “NO! He doesn’t smell; something is wrong with his nose.” “Well, can’t we just close the register and keep him out?” This example of independent thinking, which moreover had all the marks of her own previous thoughts on the subject, riled Beth. “NO! Not unless you want to be a baby and freeze all night, without any heat. I’m telling you, the only thing to do is to turn out the light. And we’d better hurry, because I think I hear him coming now!”
Had Beth had time to think the matter through at leisure, before her parents had sprung the surprise on her that she was expected to endure a night-light all night, she might probably have thought of a better solution. Because this one clearly had serious drawbacks, one of which was that Bella now wailed in a loud voice, “I want my mama! I want my mama, and I want to go home!” Why this lie? Especially since no wolf or even any self-respecting werewolf was likely to come up through a floor register in a modern house at night? Suffice it to say that this took place back in the 1960’s, when naughty children were still likely to be punished with at least a mild spanking, as well as having privileges taken away, and such methods were enough to reassure the erring Beth that whatever wolves lurked below the floorboards were best left unmentioned when company came. Bella went home still frightened, though in a huff as well for a few weeks when she was assured that Beth had only been “telling a story,” as such matters were euphemistically called by the children’s doting grandmother.
And there ends this whimsical (and true) tale of the fall season, my second early contribution to the Halloween holiday which will come next month. But you should know that if it’s ever a choice between being in the dark all night and managing to sleep, or sleeping with a light on in a room with a floor register, old memories have convinced me that the dark room is the best (and for good measure, I might even pile up extra blankets on the bed and shut the floor register as Bella suggested–after all, even a cousin who’s a ‘fraidy-cat can’t be all wrong!).
A (very) early post for Halloween–Does Edgar Allan Poe’s long poem “The Raven” have an adequate “objective correlative”?
Well, everybody in the continental U.S. seems to feel that fall weather is here early this year, that instead of having a blissfully warm autumn in September, we are already into October weather, and in some parts of the western mountain chains, it’s already snowed. So now I’m going to celebrate Halloween a little bit earlier than I usually do, and do a sort of partial Halloween post, for fun and edification, mine as well as yours. And since it’s officially a Halloween post, I’m going to make some of your worst dreams come true and involve T. S. Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative,” a concept which has made the rounds more often and sometimes more drunkenly than Mrs. Murphy’s sousing poodle (a dog of fame in some quarters, mainly amongst fellow spirits at the bars).
Before beginning the fun of Poe, therefore, let’s suffer through a little literary theory. The concept of the “objective correlative,” according to Wikipedia, comes originally from Washington Allston and his 1840 Lectures on Art. You can find his explanation on Wikipedia in brief. The modernist poet T. S. Eliot popularized the concept, however, in an essay called “Hamlet and His Problems,” and so it’s more important for the nonce (and for us too) to look at his essay. Here are some quotes, also gleaned secondhand from Wikipedia: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Eliot felt that Hamlet was an artistic flop because Hamlet’s “strong emotions ‘exceeded the facts’ of the play, which is to say they were not supported by an ‘objective correlative.’ He acknowledged that such a circumstance is ‘something every person of sensibility has known'; but felt that in trying to represent it dramatically, ‘Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him.'”
Now let’s turn to Poe’s poetical excursion into his usual macabre fare, “The Raven.” I’m sure most of you are familiar with at least some of the poem’s setting and probably have been jounced and bounced around by the alliteration and rhyme scheme a couple of times at least in reading. The poem has a lot of alliteration and rhyme, including internal line rhymes, and a repetitive structure and refrain, which depends upon variations of the “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” variety. Just to refresh our memories, let’s look at how the poem starts out:
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door./'”‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–/Only this, and nothing more.”‘/Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,/And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor./Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had tried to borrow/From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–/For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–/Nameless here for evermore.”
This fearing and questioning and apprehensive meditation goes on for four more sing-song stanzas, and then the speaker decides that it’s actually something at the window, and so goes to open it. Here’s what happens when he does:
“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,/In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;/Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;/But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–/Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–/Perched, and sat, and nothing more.”
Next, for seven or eight more stanzas, the human speaker persists in speculating about “the lost Lenore,” and whether he will see her again, and while his own soul answers “Nevermore,” he also persists in directing his loaded questions to the bird, who eerily answers, “Nevermore.” Though the speaker is intelligent enough, and the circumstances possible enough, at least earlier in the poem, to consider that perhaps this is the only word the bird knows (“‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store….'”), he shows himself to be in tune with the bird’s apparent “predictions” to the extent that his questions are all shaped to fit this early form of “magic eight ball”: for example, why doesn’t the speaker say something more cogent, like “Will I be alone for the rest of my life?” and thus “spike” the question to go his way? Or, he could say, “Will I continue to be unhappy?” Since the bird always replies “Nevermore,” the speaker could thus get a better prediction if he tried, but instead of this, he asks sad and negative questions which portray a depressive obsessive frame of mind.
Finally, the speaker becomes irate enough to tell the bird to leave, and of course the bird replies, “Nevermore.” So far, the mysterious death of Lenore isn’t made enough of to function as an objective correlative, and just having a (possible pet, trained by somebody) raven peck at the window and fly in isn’t enough to act as an objective correlative either, by T. S. Eliot’s explanation of that phenomenon. It’s not actually until the very last stanza (of the 1845 edition of the poem) that anything sufficiently supernatural or odd happens, which doesn’t rely on the human speaker’s rigging of the game by asking the “right” questions. Here is that stanza:
“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;/And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,/And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;/And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted–nevermore!”
This stanza is truly weird: the bird, without the mention of its being fed, or given water, or stirring from its place, is still there, apparently not having died or decayed. The same seems to be proposed or at least implied of the man, who can’t really be imagined to have broken his concentration by getting up to get a sandwich or a Scotch and soda, and then come back. Yes, in the last stanza I think we find a wee bit of an objective correlative in Eliot’s terms in the set of circumstances being what they are, the man’s enslavement to the bird’s malevolent spell, the neverendingness of his torment.
Now see, we had fun, didn’t we? At least I did, and I hope you did too. If not, comfort yourself with the reflection that your “torment” of reading this post has not been “neverending” (and I hope you’re not sitting in a dark room staring meaningly at your pet mynah bird, as I can’t answer for the consequences)!