Ours is a time in which people of conscience are becoming more and more aware of the cruelties of wars and “police actions” which have been fought across the globe from times so far back we have lost count of them, and often it’s the “big” conflicts which have been memorialized, the battles which have resulted in more deaths in sheer numbers which are remembered and moralized on most. In modern times, some of these are the French Revolution, the American Civil War, WWI, WWII, fighting in Korea, the Vietnam War, the wars in Sarajevo, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. Many of these wars are remembered at least in the North American continent because the United States has been involved, and the United States, to whatever degree right or wrong, sees itself as a “major player,” and often people in the United States either ignore or are not aware of conflicts in which they play mainly a passing role. But in order to realize that there is no such thing as a “small” war or massacre, one has only to understand from the testimonies from writers around the world that cruelty is an absolute, not something of numbers and degrees, which when it is employed wreaks havoc and shock and causes a maximum of human suffering regardless of how many people exactly were persecuted or died. One such writer who leaves vital and pertinent testimony is Edwidge Danticat, in her novel The Farming of Bones, a book about the 1937 “unrest” between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in which Haitians were massacred and brutalized in their thousands by the Dominican Republican dictator Trujillo’s forces and also by civilians. I call it “unrest” ironically, because it was much more than that, but the “Yankis” who are referred to only as a former interfering force in the book would have called it so, from their perspective of “big” wars and conflicts. They are merely a shadow in this book, which is upclose and personal when it comes to the characters who are affected.
The book begins with a quote which is not only thematic, but also becomes part of the plot structure in a later incarnation of event. The quote is from Judges 12:4-6, describing how in a war between the men of Gilead and the Ephraimites, the men of Gilead held the fords, and tested all passersby by their ability to say the word “Shibboleth.” If instead they were unable to pronounce the word and said “Sibboleth,” they were killed. The Bible records that 40,000 were killed in this manner, and though the number is not the issue, it shows the extent to which a by-word can be applied and misapplied in a world of danger and cruelty.
But for at least half the book The Farming of Bones, the setting is in the Dominican Republic, in which the French and Kreyol-speaking immigrants from Haiti are employed as house servants, workers in the cane fields, and otherwise “peasant” labor, while the Spanish-influenced Dominicans are the gentry and aristocracy of the area. And at least half the book tells the story, both in the present and through flashbacks, of Amabelle Désir, a daughter of herb healers and an employee of the Duarte household, her daily life in the Dominican Republic as a second-class citizen, and her love for Sebastien Onius, her man, who comes to her at night sometimes.
The gentility with which the two treat each other is an indirect comment upon the harshness of Pico Duarte, Amabelle’s employer, and his relationship with his wife, Valencia, with whom Amabelle was raised after her parents died in a flood and she was left an orphan. Sebastien lives at a distance from Amabelle, and one night he wants her to undress and they simply sit in the dark, for as he tells her, “It is good for you to learn and trust that I am near you even when you can’t place the balls of your eyes on me.” By contrast, Pico leaves his wife in childbirth and goes to support the Generalissimo in various actions, returning to see the babies (twins), but leaving again after the boy baby dies, and not perhaps valuing the girl baby as much. As Amabelle says of Sebastien, “When he’s not there, I’m afraid I know no one, and no one knows me.” Again by contrast, Valencia, her “milk sister,” is supported by her whole family, her father “Papi” (Don Ignacio), his estate, the local doctor and priests, and the servants.
When word first comes that the Dominicans under Trujillo are killing Haitians (who have been employed by them and who are currently living in the Dominican Republic, where the first part of the story is set), Amabelle does not believe it to be true, and many around her also think of it as a rumor. She finally makes plans to meet up with Sebastien in order to go back to Haiti by cart with the local priests and the doctor, all of whom are thinking of helping to get Haitians safely across the river and the mountains back to Haiti. The sad results of the delay with which the original news was greeted by many, however, have their part to play, and it is in a company mostly of strangers that Amabelle finally leaves the place which has been her home for many years.
When the group Amabelle is escaping with reach a town nearer to their destination, where they are hoping to meet up with others, they are greeted by a rowdy and violent crowd of Dominicans, who “try” them by the verbal system with the word “perejil,” or “parsley,” a common herb to both parts of the island. When they can only say “pesi,” they are brutalized, though in fact their tormenters already have made their minds up about them in advance. Amabelle thinks that she could say the word the “right” way if she had time to gather her thoughts, but she isn’t given the chance.
The rest of the story deals with Amabelle’s life without Sebastien, on the Haitian side of the border, except for the end, some years later, when she bribes a driver to drive her back across the border. She goes to visit Señora Valencia and hear about her daughter Rosalinda, who is now married, and also meets Sylvie, the current servant. It is now that she mentally revisits the past and realizes that she and Valencia were really ever only strangers to each other, for all that they played together as children, their different parts and roles in the household of Papi holding them apart. Finally, she goes to try and find a cave which she associates with Sebastien, but has no success in finding it for certain. Much of this novel is in fact the mourning for people and things lost through wars, battles, conflicts, actions, hostilities, and quarrels. As Edwidge Danticat writes on her last page, “And the very last words, last on the page but always first in my memory, must be offered to those who died in the massacre of 1937, to those who survived to testify, and to the constant struggle of those who still toil in the cane fields.” Truly, there are no small massacres; numbers are not what we should be concentrating on when we discuss genocide and political murder, but the sheer inhumanity of the manner in which we often use other people, and the quick escalation of hatred which threatens to sink us all into obliquity, both victims and persecutors.
Danticat’s book is simultaneously a beautifully written testiment to human survival, which persists though the human spirit is insulted and damaged by its encounter with the dregs of harshness and meanness that inspire people to consider others less than themselves because of factors of birth and nationality, caste and class. All of us can surely benefit by exposure to her marvelously supple prose and insight into what really constitutes a loving human situation, and her cues as to where the human equation needs to be re-configured. Danticat writes with love even of the loveless, with compassion even of those who show they have none, and with certainty that in the moments of uncertainty we have our survival, when we hesitate to pronounce on someone else’s fate. This book is one of the simplest and yet most complicated I think I have ever read, and is in my estimation one of the best books of its time.
I am imagining to myself as I begin this post that it will probably be one of the shortest I will write or have written, because I can think of very little to say about this book. I didn’t enjoy reading it, but read it as a follow-up investigation of a book called The End of the Novel of Love, which was reviewed in a very interesting, informative, and vital post by Caroline on her site. The theme of this novel is the living through of frustration and angst caused by the failure to achieve freedom of chosen lifestyle, and because it is the living through that is illustrated copiously, I call it an anatomy of a failure. Once again, as occasionally happens, I feel the need to compare this book to Andy Warhol’s eight-hour movie on sleep, which is simply a movie of a person sleeping. This book has no really strong climaxes or surprises, it’s simply a book about a woman’s failure to leave her mother and home and achieve a fresh life of her own, either with a man who wants to support her career and marry her, or another woman, who also wants to do much the same. Instead, Joan Ogden (the main character) is too weak and indecisive to insist that her hypochondriacal mother release her to a life of independence, and the book instead traces every step of her failure to achieve a free life, and the consequences.
As Zoë Fairbairns says in her 1980 introduction to the Dial Press edition of the book, “It pre-dates by four years The Well of Loneliness, the lesbian love story for which [Radclyffe Hall] is best known and which was banned as obscene in 1928, but it is much better written: both novels suffer, in their accounts of women’s love for each other, from purple passages, moments of overstatement, pedantry and authorial intrusion; but The Unlit Lamp is more powerful because more controlled. It is also remarkable as a first novel for its management of three main characters as well as a number of important minor ones, only a few of whom degenerate into mouthpieces and devices.” Frankly, the novel is so bad that a few more “purple passages” might even have made it more interesting; the “moments of overstatement” are ones about which the reader senses the writer nearly pulling her hair out in frustration with her own characters because there’s nothing else to be done with them, they simply won’t move and breathe on the page with any independence from the main theme; the “pedantry” is all of a piece with the turgidity and constipation of the prose; and the “authorial intrusion” isn’t nearly as obnoxious as the fact that the same message is being given over and over again, without variety or change. It’s like being beaten over the head with a stick until one is dull and senseless. In order to make it through the book, one has to remind oneself that the book was a new and different thing for its time, and thus the value in terms of which one is reading is that of pure historical interest in a form, a solely cerebral function which leaves the emotional catharsis of the reader unsatisfied with the torture the character goes through from beginning to end.
I guess I’m saying that it takes a certain amount of masochism on the reader’s part to get through this book, at least the kind of masochism which recites the mantra in the back of the reader’s head: “My education won’t be complete unless I finish this book; my education won’t be complete unless I finish this book…” etc. The best of authors sometimes torture their characters to make a point to the reader, and not every book can be a sunlit fantasy world of birds, trees, dappled clouds, and flowers, nor am I asking it to be. But this book is like an unpleasant grimace or rictus on the author’s face as it is fronting the reader, and I have only limited patience for staring at a gargoyle.
Finally, this book is not an art work which flows as freely as song, hitting high notes, low notes, and some in-between: rather it is like a long-drawn-out screech without variety, or a prolonged unpleasant discordant chord which won’t go away. By all means, read it if you’re curious about Radclyffe Hall’s works or her first novel, if you’re interested in what used to be called “Boston marriages” between two women, if you are a psychologist in need of a case study of repression, manipulation, and misery: but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much Is True,” Wayne Booth’s “types of literary interest,” and the fictional “memoir” form
Having within the month finished another huge book, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and feeling nostalgia for the slow but steady pace of reading a long book and the satisfaction that comes from completing it and having a certain vision of the whole, I picked up next Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, lured by the philosophical glamour of the title as much as by the heft of the book itself. It wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. The idea of a bare minimum of knowledge that could be absolutely counted on, I figured (that title again) was something I or anyone might want to know about. In its neatness, it reminded me of Paul Simon’s lyric from his Graceland album, which I dearly love: “I know what I know/I’ll sing what I’ve said/We come and we go/It’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head….” As we’re all aware who have even a smattering of Greek philosophy, Socrates is responsible for the notion that the wise man knows only that he knows nothing, and any time someone claims to know even a smidgen or a smattering, I want “to know” about it.
And as I said, I enjoyed the book, but it wasn’t what I expected, and the philosophical statement as such came only at the very end of the book, and didn’t really satisfy my curiosity, though it did represent fairly adequately the growth of knowledge in the primary narrator. It’s a strangely uneven book, one which is too long perhaps, and which perhaps could’ve used another editing than the one it received, but I remain unsure of those conclusions because after all, I had been interested enough to follow it cover to cover, and to complain of the length or editing once one has “eaten the sweet” is perhaps a bit precious. I Know This Much Is True uses matter-of-fact, work-a-day, rarely technical language thoughout most of the book except for the short philosophical lyrical passage at the very end which somehow seems insufficient for all the weight of the story as it’s told. There is an interior story as well, the written narrative of the main character and primary narrator Domenick Birdsey’s grandfather Domenico Tempesta, full of grandeur and bombast and thoroughly unlikeable even to the primary narrator himself. But it is by way of the past and this narrative, as well as through contemporary events and psychological analysis, that Domenick, the “sane” brother, learns to understand his twin brother Thomas (afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia), his family, and even his own place in the world. And it is because of the closeness with which this narrative sticks to plain, ordinary, everyday (if sometimes harsh and brutal) events that I happened to recall what the renowned scholar Wayne Booth said about “types of literary interest (and distance)” in his famous work The Rhetoric of Fiction, and to see how it might be applied to this novel.
Wayne Booth said: “The values which interest us, and which are thus available for technical manipulation in fiction, may be roughly divided into three kinds. (1) Intellectual or cognitive: We have, or can be made to have, strong intellectual curiosity about ‘the facts,’ the true interpretation, the true reasons, the true origins, the true motives, or the truth about life itself. (2) Qualitative: We have, or can be made to have, a strong desire to see any pattern or form completed, or to experience a further development of qualities of any kind. We might call this kind ‘aesthetic,’ if to do so did not suggest that a literary form using this interest was necessarily of more artistic value than one based on other interests. (3) Practical: We have, or can be made to have, a strong desire for the success or failure of those we love or hate, admire or detest; or we can be made to hope for or fear a change in the quality of a character. We might call this kind ‘human,’ if to do so did not imply that 1 and 2 were somehow less than human. This hope or fear may be for an intellectual change in a character or for a change in his fortune; one finds this practical aspect even in the most uncompromising novel of ideas that might seem to fall entirely under 1. Our desire may, second, be for a change of quality in a character; one finds this practical aspect even in the purely ‘aesthetic’ novel of sensibility that might seem to fall under entirely under 2. Finally, our desire may for for a moral change in a character, or for a change in his fortune–that is, we can be made to hope for or to fear particular moral choices and their results” (p. 125).
In Lamb’s work, Booth’s categories 1 and 3 are strongly marked, category 2 not so much: the burden of carrying the category 1 rhetoric falls fairly strongly on the interior narration of the grandfather’s handed-down manuscript, in which our curiosity and interest in “the facts” of the family history are satisfied. Booth’s category 3 rhetoric is developed in the main narrative, which I would refer to as the “external frame story” were it not for the fact that it is much more voluminous than the average frame, yet that is in effect what it is. Perhaps for those who have read or will read this book, the best way to understand the way in which the category 2 rhetoric is less significant herein is to place this book side by side for comparison and contrast purposes with some of the heavily “aesthetic” novels of Virginia Woolf, like The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway, in which the completion of pattern and form is of a sublimated, almost entirely thematic kind.
Finally, the shape that comes most strongly to mind in reference to this work is that of a memoir (albeit a fictional one) as I have come to understand it from the website of Richard Gilbert, an expert in the form. The three elements which Gilbert mentions as essential to the development of the memoir in his reviews, interviews, and guest posts from other memoir writers and teachers are: structure, scene, and persona. This work of fiction reads very much like a memoir in its development because of the strength of the persona ( or since it is a work of fiction actually, the voice) of Domenick Birdsey and the tight structuring of scenes with flashbacks closely tied to each cautious step forward in the contemporary day action. As well, as has been commented on in Gilbert’s site, a memoir is different from an autobiography in that an autobiography attempts a chronological development, whereas a memoir attempts a more “thematic” development. In I Know This Much Is True, the overall theme is one of Domenick’s attempting to overcome the fear and anger he feels at his twin brother Thomas’s insanity. That he manages to deal with his demons is clear from that last, atypical, lyrical passage, which I give here not only to prove my point, but because it will not be necessary to issue a “spoiler alert” for types 1 and 3 of literary interest, and I think it will encourage readers to pick up the book to see “how” the novel develops: “I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family’s, and my country’s past, holding in my hands these truths: that love grows from the rich loam of forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things./This much, at least, I’ve figured out. I know this much is true.”
The beauty of that final passage points up the only real quarrel I have with this book, which is that I wish it had more such fine lyrical passages in the rest of the novel. Putting this one in at the ultimate position does give it major emphasis, but I would feel more comfortable with the book as a whole if it were all of a piece, and did not leave that final summation to do for all the narration what needs to be done in the way of ending things with the correct emphasis. Be that as it may, this is a good novel, and should be read by anyone who has an interest in the topics of mental illness, twins, the history of family generations, period history, feminism, in short, it covers a lot of ground. And for its good qualities, I would recommend making it your next long read.
After trying to purchase the audiobook and getting the book itself by mistake (a gift for my mother a year or so ago), I finally took it upon myself to read Kathryn Stockett’s book about an aspect of civil rights in the American South of the last mid-century, The Help. I was curious as to why so many people, most of whom I knew had feelings and politics on the correct side of the civil rights question, seemed lukewarm about the book. Why, hadn’t it been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by more than one of the reviewers? Wasn’t it a genuine effort to capture the voices and sentiments of the women who worked as maids and nannies for the southern white supremacists?
Well, the voices weren’t the problem, as it turned out. The voices, once one got over that rather ordinary reader’s annoyance with having to follow a dialect, a perplexing dilemma from Mark Twain on up, the voices, I say, were a delight. They seemed genuine, and insightful, and heartfelt. Once I hit my stride with following the dialect and spelling, it was far less troublesome than Mark Twain himself, and I got into the rhythm of it, eager to read more of what the women had to say.
But the truth is, since reading the book, I’ve realized that no, it isn’t like Harper Lee, who was writing more or less at the same time as some major civil rights changes were arduously making their way onto the scene. Harper Lee’s book was courageous, whereas unfortunately, as popular and right as The Help is, it’s got a much larger choir to preach to, and by that much is the more run-of-the-mill. As my brother put it, “It’s been done before, been done better, and I guess I have to say I’m just tired of seeing yet another privileged white slowly clue in to what’s at stake.” He wasn’t talking about Kathryn Stockett herself, the author, I don’t think, but about the character of “Miss Skeeter,” who helps the maids publish their book so that the world will know what actually goes on from their point of view in the houses of their white employers.
This is why I think that the book quite possibly is better as a movie, though I never thought I would say that about any book. I’m planning to see the movie to verify my impressions, but somehow I think that once the topic is as mainstream as this one is, a movie is the proper venue for it. This is a form that allows people to congregate in a public space and share what they (by this time) almost certainly all agree about, which is the uncontestable opinion that civil rights is an important and valid endeavor with which to engage and something that has a continued reality and force whose ever rights we’re talking about. And if there are some who don’t agree, in all likelihood they will be shamed into silence by the internal logic of the characters’ modest demands, though they may possibly continue to defy public opinion in private.
While I realize that this book has become the darling of book clubs all over the country, I would just ask this question about its literary quality: is there that sense that the author had to pay the penalty of serious insight in order to write it, or is it a little flimsy, a little thin? Though To Kill a Mockingbird is uplifting in the end, there is a sense of genuine penalty paid about it, a feeling of tragedy and at the same time a feeling of being borne aloft. Though the intentions of The Help may not have been exactly the same, what penalty is actually paid by Miss Skeeter for what she does? She goes to NYC and becomes a writer, at least that is what is predicted of her future. She escapes the consequences of at least some of her actions, and though her mother is dying, for some reason this is not played upon in the same way we can imagine Harper Lee using it. It’s instead a sort of “feel good” book. So, maybe this is a good book-to-movie script, but after all, let’s not exaggerate and compare it to something it cannot reach to. It’s a well-written, workmanlike bit of writing, which follows all the rules and touches most of the bases, but it’s not a great American novel. It’s enjoyable seeing the white supremacists–particularly a real bitch named “Miss Hilly”–get their comeuppance, but it’s important to remember that the challenges that were there when Harper Lee was writing are far less now than they were then, and by that much exactly is The Help the lesser novel.
It’s still worth reading, however, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the period and in the stories and feelings of the ordinary people who stood in the shadows of the great integrationists and civil rights leaders, for they too have their stories, real or imagined, and this is a capable imagining of some things we know from other documents to be true. I did enjoy the book, and we can all use some reinforcement of what we already believe to be true, as long as what we believe is on the fair side of things. But we should also find books that enable us to be challenged in the fair things we have difficulty believing at first, in the things which provoke our imagination to allow us to grow closer and closer to the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. It is only then that we can award the highest accolades to a work of art and place it in the pantheon of great works.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1817 text of the Biographia Literaria, he records that he and William Wordsworth, while neighbors, discussed often the “two cardinal points of poetry,” with Wordsworth more invested in the “faithful adherence to the truth of nature” and Coleridge more involved in the “interest of novelty…[introduced] by the modifying colours of imagination” in their mutual work, the Lyrical Ballads. Whereas Wordsworth composed the poems of which the “subjects….[were] drawn from ordinary life,” Coleridge says “my endeavours…[were] directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief [italics mine] for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” These words are among the most famous words in the English literary critical canon now, and yet so often it is easy to forget that this is that which we must practice when we meet up with something literary, whether in poetry, fiction, non-fiction even, a “willing suspension of disbelief.” It is this which encourages us to keep reading at some of those inevitable points where our own feelings, thoughts, and personalities fail to click with that of our erstwhile authors. Now, bookmark that series of thoughts while I pull up my second series, on mimesis, or to put it simply and complexly at once, “imitation,” as the mimicry of thoughts, feelings, actions, and characters is called in literary theory.
In Mimetic Reflections: A Study in Hermeneutics, Theology, and Ethics, William Schweiker quotes Paul Ricoeur (from “Metaphorical Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling”) thus: “‘To feel, in the emotional sense of the word, is to make ours what has been put at a distance by thought in its objectifying phase. Feelings, therefore, have a very complex kind of intentionality. [T]hey accompany and complete the work of the imagination as a schematizing, a synthetic operation: they make the schematized thoughts our own’” (p. 107). Though I may be interpreting this too facilely, at least one thing that this passage means to me is that it is the reader as well as the writer who “mimics” the emotions, “thinks” the ideas, and even “performs” the actions which the writer is putting in the text, because the reader, according to Schweiker and Ricoeur, is part creator of the text, in following it.
Now as to the particular text I have it in mind to consider in the light of these two rather heavyweight bits of literary theory–they are heavyweight, that is, by contrast with the rather more currently topical and popular (as of 2009) Eat, Pray, Love, which I am apparently one of the least topical in reading, as I have only just finished it yesterday, and I don’t plan to see the movie. It’s necessary to say up front that I didn’t expect to find anything much in it for me, expected to be bored or annoyed or both by the topic as well as by the execution and writing style. I had been warned that the writer herself said something about having gone off her medication, and having had visions of sorts, and of having bizarre religious (or pseudo-religious, so the story went) experiences, as well as being well-off by average standards and therefore more privileged than the rest of us to slide by with these sorts of shenanigans. We all know that the wealthy do as they please. But when I actually got into the book, I found it likeable rather than not, certainly not sensible in strict terms, perhaps, but touching, exploratory, sincere, and in short, I kept reading. I read and read, and though I have to confess that the happily-ever-after ending gave me pause (as why wouldn’t it in this skeptical age), all in all I was glad, very glad, that I had read the book. It opened up a window and gave me fresh air to breathe, which is where the whole involved tangle of “willing suspension of disbelief,” “poetic faith,” and “mimesis” comes in. Because I was able to suspend judgement once I got even a little way into the book, I felt at least poetic faith in Elizabeth Gilbert’s claims and assertions about her experiences in Italy, India, and Bali, and it seemed to me afterwards that I had in a more intimate sense than usual taken the trip with her, “mimicked,” in fact, her escape from unhappiness.
Who can say what exactly brought this about? Was the freedom to read something not strictly logical or praised for its literary quality granted by the warm weather that has come and gone and teased and gone again for the last week? Did I just fall victim to all the early spring sunlight and fresh air, and therefore reach for a book that I wouldn’t normally have read without scoffing, and therefore gained a different kind, an internal kind, of “fresh air”? Was I responding to some other hidden more mysterious personal impetus that drove me to keep reading? All I can say is, though I will probably never again visit Italy even briefly (I was in Northern Italy for a day or so when I was seventeen), will never join an ashram in India (or practice serious yoga again), and will certainly never find myself in Bali teaching and learning from a Balinese medicine man and woman, the book brought me, by my “imitation” of its currents and prevailing winds as I read, permission to let myself out of some dark dungeon of the mind–though I haven’t truly been depressed or anxious in any specific sense.
It is for this reason that I recommend it to my readers, because if you can find sufficient “poetic faith” (that “willing suspension of disbelief”) to allow yourself to encounter some new thing, some fresh thing, something pleasantly unexpected (even if it’s another book entirely which you have been blocking yourself off from reading), and then “imitate” its patterns of feeling and thought as you read, there’s a good chance that eventually you may land upon some more hospitable shore than that of mere humdrum habit and routine. True, Eat, Pray, Love is not what I would call a great work of art, or a monument to the ages–but everything worthwhile doesn’t have to be: sometimes, a book can be simply a helping hand held out by an explorer of the fraught “human highway” (as Neil Young referred to it), and sometimes that is enough.
I am a devout reader of fiction, poetry, sometimes plays, occasionally essays, even once in a while catching sight of the back of a cereal box that for some reason or other merits my attention. And I’m always trying to situate or re-situate myself in relation to what I read, what I learn, and what I have learned to celebrate. This is why, perhaps, a particular poem by W. H. Auden has so earned my allegiance, though whether or not he himself would think it one of his rhetorically best, I don’t know. What I appreciate most about it is its imagistic succinctness and suggestive power, and its ability to use very conventional poetic and writerly tactics and techniques to tell a thematic story.
For, the story in this poem is less about the events and actions contained therein, and more about the opposed voices, each playing its role in the poem, with the hero’s voice speaking penultimately, which gives it a certain force. As will be familiar to lots of readers, he (or she) speaks best who speaks last, or so many an argument would have us believe. The only thing after the hero’s last speech is a “stage direction” in the quizzical, mysterious, external voice–external, that is, to the quarrel–and this leaves us wondering if in fact it is after all the hero who has won the argument, or if the poem itself encapsulates the constant back and forth of the hero’s actions and the reader who demands action of the hero, with the “he” in the final line being the reader of the poem itself. But enough of my being mysterious–here’s the poem, with its rhyming, sing-song, alliterative and assonantal qualities in full swing:
“‘O where are you going?’ said reader to rider,/’That valley is fatal where furnaces burn,/Yonder’s the midden whose odors will madden,/That gap is the grave where the tall return.’/
‘O do you imagine,’ said fearer to farer,/’That dusk will delay on your path to the pass,/Your diligent looking discover the lacking/Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?’/
‘O what was that bird,’ said horror to hearer,/’Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?/Behind you swiftly the figure comes softly,/The spot on your skin is a shocking disease?’/
‘Out of this house’–said rider to reader/’Yours never will’–said farer to fearer/’They’re looking for you’–said hearer to horror/As he left them there, as he left them there.”
As should be apparent from perusing the poem carefully, the “reader,” “fearer,” and “horror” (or perhaps “feeler of horror”) are aligned in passive observation on one side of the situation, whereas the “rider,” “farer,” and “hearer” are aligned in action on the other. The first voices, which occupy the first three stanzas, are cautionary and fearful, warning and pointing out dangers (real or imagined) of the hero’s destiny. In the final stanza, the hero (or the “rider,” “farer,” and “hearer”) answers the previous stanzas one by one. Where is he going? “Out of this house.” As to whether or not his “footsteps” will successfully fulfill their destiny by defying adversity, the “farer” is able to say at least to the apparently stay-at-home “fearer”: “Yours never will.” When the purveyor of “horror” in the third stanza attempts to scare either sense or timidity–whichever it is–into the “hearer,” to this the “hearer” retorts in the fourth stanza “They’re looking for you,” meaning something perhaps like what Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar, that “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once,” or perhaps as in the lines of F. D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
There’s a final bit of mystery in the last line, as I indicated before, as to who exactly is speaking in the non-quotation mark enclosed last line. One possibility, if one reads it as following directly from the tail end of the line before it, says that the “hearer” is the one who “left them there,” whoever “they” might be. Does it mean that the “hearer” left the “horror” (or again, the horrified spectator, perhaps the aghast reader) to the not-so-tender mercies of the “bird,” “shape,” “figure,” and “shocking disease,” or is there some other person or speaker being identified who left the two interior voices alone with their quarrel? Or is it both things at once, as can happen in literature in general, because it is a magical realm (and nothing more magical than a poem like this one, in which so many and various things are being hinted at once)?
Whatever readers may make of this poem’s hints and intimations, its arch and exaggerated playfulness with word sounds and rhythms, one thing is for sure: it is a work of art, made by one of the major poets of the twentieth century, and has earned its place amid many another of Auden’s poems by its quality of an elevated teasing out of the special relationship obtaining between the reader (or spectator) and the writer (or actor). It is the poem I think of every time I have trouble trying to understand another poem, whether or not of Auden’s, and a poem I find myself turning to again and again for the sheer love of its sound and the dance it leads my mind through the figures of. I hope my readers have enjoyed exploring this poem with me, and have gained something from my suggestions, tentative though some of them must necessarily be. Now if only it’s not necessary entirely to rid myself of that delicious readerly apprehension for the good of a hero or character which Auden seems to be joshing his own readers about! But I don’t for a minute think that he would have gotten rid of that reaction in reality: what else keeps readers coming back for more, if not for the traps and conundrums set them by writers and poets???
This morning at 7 I thought I would have an early breakfast and then do something smart, beautiful, or fun. At first, I had the idea to work on my newest novel, which until about the end of January had been stalled for almost a year. I suddenly started working on it again then, and have worked on it every day or so ever since. So, what’s wrong with today? How is today different? Dunno. But I didn’t work on the novel.
Then, I thought that I would watch an opera on Met Opera on Demand on my computer. But I left it too long to start, and when I calculated how long I had to listen and watch before an important call comes in early tonight, I knew I would get interrupted if I started it, and so bailed on that opportunity as well.
Oh, well, there’s always that computer game I like to play, I thought. Maybe I should go through the dungeon and defeat a few more monsters and villains. But frankly, enthusiasm was lacking. I was bored with the easy battles and didn’t have the interest or energy for the hard ones. Besides, my characters needed to buy more equipment and change some things, and I was bored with them too.
That eliminated smart, beautiful, and fun. What was left? By the time I’d finished lunch, that left doing something by rote just to pass the time. So, I went for a walk. And suddenly, I knew what was wrong. It’s 56 F today, gorgeous sunny weather, and yet another big storm is expected to hit tomorrow (one hopes the last of the season, but then who can tell?). I had spring fever, as plain as the nose on anybody’s face. And I still have it.
So, I thought, what can I do until dinner time? Write a post. But I just started another book and haven’t had a chance to prepare anything literary yet, so what am I supposed to post about? What are other people doing? Are they enjoying the same break from the winter blahs while realizing that it’s short-lived and that snow or at least rain in buckets is back with us tomorrow and Thursday? And then, I just decided to write about that. Nothing, really. Just a post to say “hello readers, I hope you’re reading my site, and won’t mind too much if I cause you to waste a little time today on ‘nothing, really.’”
Or, you can talk to me. If you’re in a different part of the world, your weather may be different, and instead of trying to last out the tail-end of a miserable winter, you may be whinging and complaining about the last of a hot, arid summer. Or maybe you’ve already had the rain and snow that was predicted, and are just stepping back in from shovelling out or are wringing out your clothes and taking off soaked galoshes. Whatever your situation, feel free to drop a line if you want, just to communicate with the great outside world. That’s all I’m doing today, after all. And now it’s time for iced coffee, one of the first of the season (we live in hope); ta for now!