Friday, October 9, 2015

Elizabeth Gaskell writes about Twitter

I am an old woman now, and things are very different to what they were in my youth. Then we, who travelled, travelled in coaches, carrying six inside, and making a two days' journey out of what people now go over in a couple of hours with a whizz and a flash, and a screaming whistle, enough to deafen one. Then letters came in but three times a week: indeed, in some places in Scotland where I have stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month;--but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken. Well, well! they may all be improvements,--I dare say they are; but you will never meet with a Lady Ludlow in these days.
from My Lady Ludlow, 1858

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

There is nothing more dreary than old age in animals

Her old blind dog, Baby, was sick and like to die. Baby had been the first gift from her friend the widow, Mrs. Lehntman in the old days when Anna had been with Miss Mary Wadsmith, and when these two women had first come together.

Through all the years of change, Baby had stayed with the good Anna, growing old and fat and blind and lazy. Baby had been active and a ratter when she was young, but that was so long ago it was forgotten, and for many years now Baby had wanted only her warm basket and her dinner.

Anna in her active life found need of others, of Peter and the funny little Rags, but always Baby was the eldest and held her with the ties of old affection. Anna was harsh when the young ones tried to keep poor Baby out and use her basket. Baby had been blind now for some years as dogs get, when they are no longer active. She got weak and fat and breathless and she could not even stand long any more. Anna had always to see that she got her dinner and that the young active ones did not deprive her.

Baby did not die with a real sickness. She just got older and more blind and coughed and then more quiet, and then slowly one bright summer's day she died.

There is nothing more dreary than old age in animals. Somehow it is all wrong that they should have grey hair and withered skin, and blind old eyes, and decayed and useless teeth. An old man or an old woman almost always has some tie that seems to bind them to the younger, realer life. They have children or the remembrance of old duties, but a dog that's old and so cut off from all its world of struggle, is like a dreary, deathless Struldbrug, the dreary dragger on of death through life.
From "The Good Anna" section of Three Lives by Gertrude Stein. A struldbrug is a creature from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a human who does not die, but does age, getting older and older and older and sticking around on the earth, ancient.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

an arduous and troubled life in Gertrude Stein's "Three Lives"

Anna led an arduous and troubled life.

Anna managed the whole little house for Miss Mathilda. [...] This one little house was always very full with Miss Mathilda, an under servant, stray dogs and cats and Anna's voice that scolded, managed, grumbled all day long.

"Sallie! can't I leave you alone a minute but you must run to the door to see the butcher boy come down the street and there is Miss Mathilda calling for her shoes. Can I do everything while you go around always thinking about nothing at all? If I ain't after you every minute you would be forgetting all the time, and I take all this pains, and when you come to me you was as ragged as a buzzard and as dirty as a dog. Go and find Miss Mathilda her shoes where you put them this morning."

"Peter!",--her voice rose higher,--"Peter!",--Peter was the youngest and the favorite dog,--"Peter, if you don't leave Baby alone,"--Baby was an old, blind terrier that Anna had loved for many years,--"Peter if you don't leave Baby alone, I take a rawhide to you, you bad dog."

The good Anna had high ideals for canine chastity and discipline. The three regular dogs [...] together with the [...] many stray ones that Anna always kept until she found them homes, were all under strict orders never to be bad one with the other.

A sad disgrace did once happen in the family. A little transient terrier for whom Anna had found a home suddenly produced a crop of pups. The new owners were certain that this Foxy had known no dog since she was in their care. The good Anna held to it stoutly that her Peter and her Rags were guiltless, and she made her statement with so much heat that Foxy's owners were at last convinced that these results were due to their neglect.

"You bad dog," Anna said to Peter that night, "you bad dog."

[...]Innocent blind old Baby was the only one who preserved the dignity becoming in a dog.

You see that Anna led an arduous and troubled life.
I'm reading Gertrude Stein's first novel, Three Lives, published in 1909 by a vanity press in America while Stein lived in Paris. The book's sideways Brothers Grimm sort of prose made the publisher think that English was not Stein's first language, and he vainly pressured her to have it professionally edited and rewritten into standard English prose. Stein's first publisher did not get what was going on, but he was a publisher of primarily books about genealogy and family histories, not a publisher of novels. All of the major publishing houses had passed on it and so Stein was forced to finance the book herself. She was lucky to have a large inheritance. It's amazing, really, that this book made it to market.

I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get around to reading Stein. She's doing, in Three Lives anyway, the sort of thing I do in my own writing. There is no plot, no principle action of the story; the narrative is made up of events, surely, events that illustrate the psychology of the characters, and so things are constantly happening, but the only connectedness between those events are the characters. There's no real causation in the novel, no puzzle to solve, no goal to be reached. In other words, it's a lot like life. I'm really enjoying the book so far. Stein could clearly see the comedy of being human. Yes, yes, stereotypes of immigrants and minorities, and all of that. She had her prejudices and blind spots. But she could write, and she knew what she was about with her ideas of structure, of making everything in the narrative of equal importance, of writing about character rather than quest.

Before an unhappy romance drove her to flee to Paris, Stein was a medical student. I am constantly amazed at the link between physicians and novelists. Though perhaps there is a greater link between, say, taxi drivers or bricklayers and novelists. I have done no particular research into this.

I am reading the Penguin Classics edition of the book, which contains as back matter Stein's early unpublished attempt at a novel (QED). That's a nice touch, editors of Penguin Classics, but what the hell is going on with the layout of this book? The gutter is so tight that it is nearly impossible to read the text along the right-hand margin of the left-hand pages. I could become quite cross about this were I so inclined. Gertrude Stein gets none of the blame for this, I hasten to add.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"move out the old prejudices and make room for new ones" Edith Wharton in old New York

Her house, in a minor way, bore witness to the craving. One felt it to be the result of a series of eliminations: there was nothing fortuitous in its blending of line and color. The almost morbid finish of every material detail of her life suggested the possibility that a diversity of energies had, by some pressure of circumstance, been forced into the channel of a narrow dilettanteism. Mrs. Quentin's fastidiousness had, indeed, the flaw of being too one-sided. Her friends were not always worthy of the chairs they sat in, and she overlooked in her associates defects she would not have tolerated in her bric-a-brac. Her house was, in fact, never so distinguished as when it was empty; and it was at its best in the warm fire-lit silence that now received her.
Mrs Quentin is the protagonist of Edith Wharton's short story "The Quicksand." Mrs Quentin has returned home one evening to encounter her son, Alan, in a dark mood. Only moments after she has cast off her furs and begun laying out tea, Mrs Quentin is suffering "the mother's instinctive anger that the girl she has not wanted for her son should have dared to refuse him."
Aloud she murmured, "You must give her time."


"To move out the old prejudices and make room for new ones."

"My dear mother, those she has are brand-new; that's the trouble with them. She's tremendously up-to-date. She takes in all the moral fashion-papers, and wears the newest thing in ethics."

Her resentment lost its way in the intricacies of his metaphor. "Is she so very religious?"

"You dear archaic woman! She's hopelessly irreligious; that's the difficulty. You can make a religious woman believe almost anything: there's the habit of credulity to work on. But when a girl's faith in the Deluge has been shaken, it's very hard to inspire her with confidence. She makes you feel that, before believing in you, it's her duty as a conscientious agnostic to find out whether you're not obsolete, or whether the text isn't corrupt, or somebody hasn't proved conclusively that you never existed, anyhow."
Mrs Quentin and her Alan are shallow and wicked, contemptuous of the whole world and even--though they'd never admit it even to themselves--of each other. "Her friends were not always worthy of the chairs they sat in" is such a great line; I'm probably going to steal it and claim it as my own.

Wharton's stories are full of this sort of thing, of people blind to their own shortcomings, or mistaking their character flaws for virtue. I am reading the NYRB volume of The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. So far, they are all very much structurally of the Maupassant school of "naturalism," which means of course that they all have a quite unnatural plot twist at the end. The quality of having a moral lesson also gives Wharton's tales a sort of O. Henry feel to them. I try hard to overlook both this moral lesson and the plot twist, because otherwise they are fine stories, generally well-observed character studies with some beautiful descriptive passages. I am reading them as research, of course, of turn-of-the-century New York culture. When I'm done with the Wharton, I'll read NYRB's The New York Stories of Henry James, which contains much I've previously read but it will be good to have them all crammed together at me in one big chunk.

photo credit: Mighty Reader

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"if the men wore scarlet trousers" a last gasp from Lady Chatterley's Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover is a wish-fulfillment novel, a social and sexual fantasy that attempts to put the world--damaged irreparably by the competing forces of capitalism and Marxism--back to rights. It is a failure, both as a social program and as a novel, but at least as a novel the book is a spectacular failure, a failure worth having been done. A good half of it is an artistic success, a wild and reckless thing shining with aesthetic joys and madness. Lawrence thought--as I believe he thought of all his novels--that he was making something important and useful and beautiful. Chatterley is nowhere as successful as Sons and Lovers or Women in Love, and I've found myself rather mocking the novel when I think I should be praising it.

Some of it, admittedly, is easy to mock. Lawrence's conviction that uninhibited sex between men and women (Lawrence dismisses gays and lesbians as less than genuine humans), combined with a return to a pre-industrial economy where luxury is eliminated and humans seek the simple animal pleasures of life, is naive and Lawrence's attempts at uninhibited writing about sex are very often as clumsy as his writing about neoprimitive society. I pause to admit that my own prudishness might be a force behind my giggles over these sex passages, but a lot of it's merely inelegant prose, unworthy of Lawrence. Some of it's pretty good, though. All of it, even when it fails, demonstrates that Lawrence was writing with furious courage and I admire that a great deal. He doesn't pause when saying things that might embarrass him or his reader; he just pushes on, his eyes aflame, a bit like William Blake's loonier moments.

Though perhaps I'm trying too hard: "Come, ladies and gents, join me in applauding the erotic dance of Lawrence's limping spawn!" Why am I so concerned about defending this malformed novel? I am of course less interested in the late David Lawrence's reception than I am about my own writing, yes? Am I so intent on holding up Lawrence's book--which was banned and never published in complete form until well after the author's death--because as a writer I sympathize with his difficulty in getting a very personal and wacky and weirdly moral(istic) book published? Yes, yes, I think that's so. Every critical stance is an implicit claim about reality, you know. So maybe I'm done with Lady Chatterley's Lover. I will leave you with a bit of the book's ending:
The pits are working badly; this is a colliery district like Tevershall, only prettier. I sometimes sit in the Wellington and talk to the men. They grumble a lot, but they're not going to alter anything. As everybody says, the Notts-Derby miners have got their hearts in the right place. But the rest of their anatomy must be in the wrong place, in a world that has no use for them. I like them, but they don't cheer me much: not enough of the old fighting-cock in them. They talk a lot about nationalization, nationalization of royalties, nationalization of the whole industry. But you can't nationalize coal and leave all the other industries as they are. They talk about putting coal to new uses, like Sir Clifford is trying to do. It may work here and there, but not as a general thing, I doubt. Whatever you make you've got to sell it. The men are very apathetic. They feel the whole damned thing is doomed, and I believe it is. And they are doomed along with it. Some of the young ones spout about a Soviet, but there's not much conviction in them. There's no sort of conviction about anything, except that it's all a muddle and a hole. Even under a Soviet you've still got to sell coal: and that's the difficulty.

We've got this great industrial population, and they've got to be fed, so the damn show has to be kept going somehow. The women talk a lot more than the men, nowadays, and they are a sight more cock-sure. The men are limp, they feel a doom somewhere, and they go about as if there was nothing to be done. Anyhow, nobody knows what should be done in spite of all the talk, the young ones get mad because they've no money to spend. Their whole life depends on spending money, and now they've got none to spend. That's our civilization and our education: bring up the masses to depend entirely on spending money, and then the money gives out. The pits are working two days, two and a half days a week, and there's no sign of betterment even for the winter. It means a man bringing up a family on twenty-five and thirty shillings. The women are the maddest of all. But then they're the maddest for spending, nowadays.

If you could only tell them that living and spending isn't the same thing! But it's no good. If only they were educated to LIVE instead of earn and spend, they could manage very happily on twenty-five shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers as I said, they wouldn't think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on, and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn't need money. And that's the only way to solve the industrial problem: train the people to be able to live and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend. But you can't do it. They're all one-track minds nowadays. Whereas the mass of people oughtn't even to try to think, because they can't. They should be alive and frisky, and acknowledge the great god Pan. He's the only god for the masses, forever. The few can go in for higher cults if they like. But let the mass be forever pagan.

But the colliers aren't pagan, far from it. They're a sad lot, a deadened lot of men: dead to their women, dead to life. The young ones scoot about on motor-bikes with girls, and jazz when they get a chance, But they're very dead. And it needs money. Money poisons you when you've got it, and starves you when you haven't.
These pages, the end of the final act, are the real Lady Chatterley's Lover, not the fucking and the flowers woven into pubic hair and the phallos. Lawrence wants an antidote for the poisons of the modern age. Lawrence was a romantic. I almost called this post What is to be Done?

photos: Mighty Reader

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

D.H. Lawrence looks for love in the broken world of Lady Chatterley's Lover

photo credit: Mighty Reader

What it's not is a book about sex, not really. There is sex, there is explicit writing about sex and sexual anatomy, but not a great deal of it because Lady Chatterley's Lover is not a book about sex; it's a book about people, a book about striving toward love and truth and beauty and meaning in a world that seems to contain none of those things, a world in which love and truth and beauty and meaning have been trampled into mud and had factories built over them. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a book that searches for life among the ruins of culture. Where it finds life is in a strange and idiosyncratic sensuality that Lawrence attempts to describe, which is where the sex comes into the novel. A strange and idiosyncratic sex.

A lot of the writing about sex is awkward, it's true. Lawrence had no model, and so he was making it up as he went along, writing explicitly and seriously about sex and genitalia and trying not to embarrass himself. Some of it is painful but much of it seems honest and compassionate, as Lawrence has great compassion for humanity even while he runs amok scourging humanity for it's vanity and selfishness. Lawrence writes about sex the same way he writes about motor cars, the same fascinated way he writes about flowers or the moon, taking it all earnestly and layering it with emotion. The second act, the long midsection of the novel that tells the story of Lady Chatterley's affair with her husband's gamekeeper Mellors, has an internal structure of increasingly intensified writing about sex (interpolated with a great deal of social commentary), of gradual coarsening of language, of Lawrence's battle to strip shame away from sex and sensuality. He's not successful in the battle, but he fights it bravely. For the characters, at least, the battle is won, and that's good enough. Idiosyncratic phallocentric sexuality carries the day and Connie--Lady Chatterley--is delivered into freedom. After that, the novel sort of unravels and becomes far less interesting.

The third act of the novel is, regrettably, pretty conventional stuff. It ties up plot threads and solves the logistical problems of the action and contains a good number of commonplace and talky scenes, sometimes swerving drunkenly into Jane Austen denouement territory. The groundskeeper, the man with whom Lady Chatterley has her affair, turns out to be less of an outsider than a misunderstood solid chap who is really a straight shooter with management potential. Even Lawrence could not bring his socialite heroine to lower herself to the level of the working class, a powerful irony the author was no doubt unaware of:
"...his name is Oliver Mellors."

"And how would you like to be Mrs Oliver Mellors, instead of Lady Chatterley?"

"I'd love it."

There was nothing to be done with Connie. And anyhow, if the man had been a lieutenant in the army in India for four or five years, he must be more or less presentable. Apparently he had character. Hilda began to relent a little.

"But you'll be through with him in awhile," she said, "and then you'll be ashamed of having been connected with him. One CAN'T mix up with the working people."

"But you are such a socialist! you're always on the side of the working classes."

"I may be on their side in a political crisis, but being on their side makes me know how impossible it is to mix one's life with theirs. Not out of snobbery, but just because the whole rhythm is different."

Hilda had lived among the real political intellectuals, so she was disastrously unanswerable.
Lawrence, too, is on their side in a political crisis, but he has no wish to be a collier like his father, or to accept that a collier has the same ultimate worth as an artist. That's an argument for another day, though. In Lady Chatterley, Lawrence is singing the praises of common humanity:
The nondescript evening in the hotel dragged out, and at last they had a nondescript dinner. Then Connie slipped a few things into a little silk bag, and combed her hair once more.

"After all, Hilda," she said, "love can be wonderful: when you feel you LIVE, and are in the very middle of creation." It was almost like bragging on her part.

"I suppose every mosquito feels the same," said Hilda.

"Do you think it does? How nice for it!"
In praise of mosquitoes, then. Maybe tomorrow I'll get around to talking about the mosquitoes, the machines, the mine-owning dukes and the bolshevists.

photo: Mighty Reader

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"jigging English sisters" DH Lawrence in Paris with Lady Chatterley

In Paris at any rate she felt a bit of sensuality still. But what a weary, tired, worn-out sensuality. Worn-out for lack of tenderness. Oh! Paris was sad. One of the saddest towns: weary of its now-mechanical sensuality, weary of the tension of money, money, money, weary even of resentment and conceit, just weary to death, and still not sufficiently Americanized or Londonized to hide the weariness under a mechanical jig-jig-jig! Ah, these manly he-men, these FLANEURS, the oglers, these eaters of good dinners! How weary they were! weary, worn-out for lack of a little tenderness, given and taken. The efficient, sometimes charming women knew a thing or two about the sensual realities: they had that pull over their jigging English sisters. But they knew even less of tenderness. Dry, with the endless dry tension of will, they too were wearing out. The human world was just getting worn out. Perhaps it would turn fiercely destructive. A sort of anarchy! Clifford and his conservative anarchy! Perhaps it wouldn't be conservative much longer. Perhaps it would develop into a very radical anarchy.

Connie found herself shrinking and afraid of the world. Sometimes she was happy for a little while in the Boulevards or in the Bois or the Luxembourg Gardens. But already Paris was full of Americans and English, strange Americans in the oddest uniforms, and the usual dreary English that are so hopeless abroad.

She was glad to drive on.
I, on the other hand, was quite happy to find myself in Paris. But I'm not making the argument that Lawrence is making in Lady Chatterley's Lover, the argument based upon false nostalgia, that mankind should return to some primitive, pre-industrial state, that the straining after money has emasculated men which has in turn unsexed women and there is nothing left of real humanity except walking corpses modeled psychically upon machines, machines that have no purpose and will eventually--even hopefully (says one of Lawrence's characters in a nod to Nietzsche)--destroy themselves and leave nothing left except a space for the next species to come along and inhabit the earth as masters. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a political novel, a social novel, a big Dickensian argument against the status quo and the grinding down of the working classes. Dickens' solutions were always social, a diverting of money and an awareness of the dignity of the poor. Lawrence's solutions are quite different, and alien, and it might surprise Lawrence to see how they are also patronizing and don't actually solve the problems of real life. Yet he makes them, because he has conflated the economic problems of England with the psychological problem of true love. To solve the one, Lawrence argues, is to solve the other.

It also occurred to me on the walk from the bus to my front door this evening that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is a weak version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, a version that takes the phallos (as DHL would say) seriously but has none of the bravery, humanity, or originality of Lawrence's narrative. Chatterley is a risky novel, in a number of ways.

photo credits: Mighty Reader