Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Book and the Ring, a parting word or two from Mr Browning

it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth

Regarding two books I'm reading that I probably won't post about:

Nazarin by Benito Perez Galdos
"He is not mad," said Sancho. "But he is venturesome."

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
"Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Perversely 'neath the tower

So what exactly is The Ring and the Book? A very very long poem, but it's also similar to a novel in the way it develops, the story told over time with flashbacks and new information coming in each chapter. It's also similar to a theatrical drama, each "act" being a long dramatic monologue delivered by one of the central characters. That might be the best way to look at this thing. The story each of these characters tells is more or less the same story, and the individual variations and interpretations of that story are not important because of what we might learn of the crime and subsequent trial upon which the whole poem is based, but because of what we might learn of the characters who deliver these monologues. This is a work about people, not about jurisprudence.

I'm in the middle of Book X, the dramatic monologue delivered by Pope Innocent XII, and it's here where Browning finally really tips his hand. The subject of The Ring &cet is not the crime story, but rather it's the relationship of man to God, of how one chooses to live in the world. The Pope has judged against Guido, and will not overturn the court's death sentence. Why? Because Guido should've known better--no, did know better--than to place his greed and pride above the commandments of Christ:
Wherein I see a trial fair and fit
For one else too unfairly fenced about,
Set above sin, beyond his fellows here,
Guarded from the arch-tempter, all must fight,
By a great birth, traditionary name,
Diligent culture, choice companionship,
Above all, conversancy with the faith
Which puts forth for its base of doctrine just
"Man is born nowise to content himself
But please God." He accepted such a rule,
Recognised man’s obedience;
Guido is only able to appeal his case to the Pope because Guido has taken a few vows--he's a member of a minor religious order, a lay minister of a sort. The irony is that Guido is appealing to a man who sees through the hypocrisy of Guido's sham religious leanings, a Pope who condemns Guido for being a hypocrite:
Professed so much of priesthood as might sue
For priest’s-exemption where the layman sinned —
Got his arm frocked which, bare, the law would bruise.
Hence, at this moment, what’s his last resource,
His extreme stray and utmost stretch of hope
But that — convicted of such crime as law
Wipes not away save with a worldling’s blood —
Guido, the three-parts consecrate, may ’scape?
[...]
This is the man proves irreligiousest
Of all mankind, religion’s parasite!
This may forsooth plead dinned ear, jaded sense,
The vice o’ the watcher who bides near the bell,
Sleeps sound because the clock is vigilant,
And cares not whether it be shade or shine,
Doling out day and night to all men else!
Why was the choice o’ the man to niche himself
Perversely ’neath the tower where Time’s own tongue
Thus undertakes to sermonise the world?
Why, but because the solemn is safe too
Pope Innocent XII is an old man, 86 years, and he is tired. He doesn't look forward to writing the note that will affirm Guido's execution, but he knows he will do it. He puts off writing this little sentence, tells himself that he knows he might be mistaking the character of Guido but he's only got as much sense as God has given him and he's using that sense as well as he can and what else can he do? He thinks about sin, and goodness, and good Pompilia who was murdered by prideful, greedy Guido and the Pope transforms the dishonest, legalistic briefs of the lawyers into some kind of truth about real humans. He brings Guido and Pompilia back to life for the reader of the poem, working the same sort of magic Browning himself works for us. This might be my last post about The Ring and the Book. You'll be glad to hear that.

Monday, October 13, 2014

a shilling's worth

Cheap Art Is Bad Art

I am sorry to say, the great tendency of this age is to expend its genius in perishable art of this kind, as if it were a triumph to burn its thoughts away in bonfires. There is a vast quantity of intellect and of labour consumed annually in our cheap illustrated publications; you triumph in them; and you think it is so grand a thing to get so many woodcuts for a penny. Why, woodcuts, penny and all, are as much lost to you as if you had invested your money in gossamer. More lost, for the gossamer could only tickle your face, and glitter in your eyes; it could not catch your feet and trip you up: but the bad art can, and does; for you can't like good woodcuts as long as you look at the bad ones. If we were at this moment to come across a Titian woodcut, or a Durer woodcut, we should not like it—those of us at least who are accustomed to the cheap work of the day. We don't like, and can't like, that long; but when we are tired of one bad cheap thing, we throw it aside and buy another bad cheap thing; and, so keep looking at bad things all our lives. Now, the very men who do all that quick bad work for us are capable of doing perfect work. Only, perfect work can't be hurried, and therefore it can't be cheap beyond a certain point. But suppose you pay twelve times as much as you do now, and you have one woodcut for a shilling instead of twelve; and the one woodcut for a shilling is as good as art can be, so that you will never tire of looking at it; and is struck on good paper with good ink, so that you will never wear it out by handling it; while you are sick of your penny-each cuts by the end of the week, and have torn them mostly in half too. Isn't your shilling's worth the best bargain?
--John Ruskin, The Political Economy of Art, 1857

Friday, October 10, 2014

"One might wait years and never find the chance which now finds me!" Browning, at work and play

Where am I in The Ring and the Book? I'm in Book IX, I see, which means that I've finished Book VIII, the tale of Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, the "protector of the poor," the lawyer Guido Franceschini has hired to defend him against multiple murder charges. Hyacinth is spending the day writing up his initial notes for the brief he'll submit to the court, lining up his arguments, marshalling some pithy and poetical Latin phrases. He tries to focus on the job at hand, which is a difficult task because it is the eighth birthday of his son, a boy the lawyer dotes upon, and all sorts of festivities and foodstuffs are planned for the evening. But Hyacinth is glad to have this case
Now, how good God is! How falls plumb to point
This murder, gives me Guido to defend
Now, of all days i’ the year, just when the boy
Verges on Virgil, reaches the right age
For some such illustration from his sire,
Stimulus to himself! One might wait years
And never find the chance which now finds me!
The fact is, there’s a blessing on the hearth,
A special providence for fatherhood!
Here's the opportunity to shine, to show his son How It's Done, a chance to face off against Johannes-Baptista Bottinius, the advocate for the prosecution and Dom Hyacinth's adversary. Hyacinth has a low opinion of Bottinius and Guido's case is a public stage whereon Hyacinth can show his brilliance at law and rhetoric, outfoxing and outarguing Bottinius, who will of course look a real fool when Hyacinth is done with him. Oh, what larks for our Protector of the Poor! Does it matter that Guido is guilty as charged? No, it does not, because Hyacinth will argue for an acquittal despite all the facts of the case. He plans to be brilliant and witty and dazzling and thus win the field. That Guido has actually admitted to hiring four armed thugs and with them butchering his estranged wife (and her adopted parents into the bargain) is beside the point. Dom Hyacinth will walk the court through the morality of the case, and show them their obligation to set the perpetrators free. This case can all be assembled in an afternoon, and then there will be birthday cake and roast porcupine and games for the children. This victory, in fact, will be dedicated to Hyacinth's son. So there, old Bottinius!
I defend Guido and his comrades — I!
Pray God, I keep me humble: not to me —
Non nobis, Domine, sed tibi laus!
How the fop chuckled when they made him Fisc!
We’ll beat you, my Bottinius, all for love,
All for our tribute to Cinotto’s day!
The heart of Hyacinth's defense is a complicated argument that says, essentially, that because Christ forbids the stoning of adulterous wives, and because Canon law forbids the divorcing of adulterous wives, and because Roman civil law forbids the slaying of adulterous wives, there is no legal recourse for poor Count Guido, an otherwise upstanding citizen who believes his wife has had an adulterous affair with a handsome young priest (and it doesn't matter if this belief is untrue, because Guido acted on his beliefs, as do we all and what choice have we?). The law leaves Guido no way to defend his honor! What's a dishonored nobleman to do? Friends, Romans, countrymen, et alia, there was nothing for it but for Guido to step beyond the bounds of the law, to do the work of the law in preserving civil order, to execute the bawd and her lying parents since nobody else was going to do it. Yes, gentlemen, Guido was forced to take this drastic step; you can't really blame him.
Why cite more? Enough
Is good as a feast —(unless a birthday-feast
For one’s Cinuccio: so, we’ll finish here)
My lords, we rather need defend ourselves
Inasmuch as for a twinkling of an eye
We hesitatingly appealed to law —
Rather than deny that, on mature advice,
We blushingly bethought us, bade revenge
Back to the simple proper private way
Of decent self-dealt gentlemanly death.
Judges, there is the law, and this beside,
The testimony! Look to it!
Hyacinth spends some time working out the best poetic language in which to couch his argument, which is important here because one of the three judges bases his decisions more upon the beauty of the language than on the facts of the case, but the law must be actually addressed because a second judge cares nothing for the prose style and everything for the form of the law if not the spirit of it. So Hyacinth must think this all through. "Virgil is little help to who writes prose." Cicero, though, is a great aid, we learn.

We also learn more facts about the case. Guido, it turns out, had a loaded pistol with him when he followed Pompilia's flight away from his castle. Malice aforethought. And those four henchmen, to whom Guido had promised payment in gold once the deed was done? They were, at the time of their arrest, planning the murder of Guido himself, Guido who it turns out had decided not to pay them after all. You might say that Guido is a dishonest old dog, but Dom Hyacinth will argue the opposite:
What fact could hope to make more manifest
Their rectitude, Guido’s integrity?
[...]
He, dreaming of no argument for death
Except the vengeance worthy noble hearts,
Would be to desecrate the deed forsooth,
Vulgarise vengeance, as defray its cost
By money dug out of the dirty earth,
Mere irritant, in Maro’s phrase, to ill?
What though he lured base hinds by lucre’s hope —
The only motive they could masticate,
Milk for babes, not stong meat which men require?
The deed done, those coarse hands were soiled enough,
He spared them the pollution of the pay.
Oh, wise Guido, to keep his henchmen so morally upright! All of this sideways logic is part of Hyacinth's overall tactic, "You perceive, the cards are all against us. Make a push, kick over table, as our gamesters do!" Hyacinth keeps kicking over the table, keeps claiming that the game is different from the one the court thought it was playing, and that the pieces were not set up on the board the way we supposed they were. He can't argue the law, or the evidence, but Dom Hyacinth can certainly argue. And he does. Great, great fun. The bit where he claims that Pompilia is dead because the Court didn't lock her up to protect her from her vengeful husband, that's good stuff.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

$410.63 as of June 30 2014

Writing fiction is the road to riches, kids.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

so many names for one poor child: more from The Ring and the Book

Even though the "testimony" of the three principal characters in The Ring and the Book is addressed directly to three judges, and even though these judges do not get to speak in the book, the reader is not put in the place of those judges and given the task of evaluating the testimony and deciding what is true. Browning takes it as given that the court eventually made the correct move, condemning Guido and his henchmen to death for the violent murder of Pompilia and her parents. A search for truth, or even a realization on the part of the reader that truth might be provisional, is a newfangled moral relativistic idea that is not part of Browning's project. What I think Browning is doing is giving life to his characters--the same thing he does in his other "ventriloqism" poems. Browning actually does more than bring life to these historical figures: he makes them individuals, with distinct voices; they are not puppets of the poet, mouthing mere ideas. That individual life, that unique soul walking the stage once again, is Browning's art. He says so, there in Book I. He might say it again in Book XII, but I've only skimmed a couple of passages of that and I must wait impatiently for my slowly reading self to make my way to the end of the book.

Today, though, I can see how Browning's characters are unique, alive, full of spirit. Here are the three principals, in order of appearance:

Count Guido Franceschini:
Softly, Sirs!
Will the Court of its charity teach poor me
Anxious to learn, of any way i’ the world,
Allowed by custom and convenience, save
This same which, taught from my youth up, I trod?
Take me along with you; where was the wrong step?
If what I gave in barter, style and state
And all that hangs to Franceschinihood,
Were worthless — why, society goes to ground,
Its rules are idiot’s-rambling. Honour of birth —
If that thing has no value, cannot buy
Something with value of another sort,
You’ve no reward nor punishment to give
I’ the giving or the taking honour; straight
Your social fabric, pinnacle to base,
Comes down a-clatter like a house of cards.
Guido maintains that tone throughout his speech, the tone of a nobleman done wrong, or at least misunderstood, a defense of his pride, his pride being a defense of his actions. If nobility--which is what he shares with the three men who sit as his judges--means nothing, if upholding the meaning of "nobility" means nothing, if nobles can be hoodwinked by the vulgar, then civilization must fall. Guido's argument is that to convict him is to bring ruin to the world itself. Guido imagines that the world is a mere reflection of Guido. Pride is the first sin, you know. Today is the feast day of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the "Little Flower." Guido would've hated Thérèse.

Giuseppe Caponsacchi:
How shall holiest flesh
Engage to keep such vow inviolate,
How much less mine — I know myself too weak,
Unworthy! Choose a worthier stronger man!
Thus exclaimed Giuseppe before he took his priestly vows, because he knew himself to be a weak man, a nobleman also, a pampered son of pampered sons, not a man with a holy calling. He was advised not to worry, to put on cassock and collar and spend his days writing sonnets and entertaining wealthy noblewomen, enjoying the easy life and acting the public image of the church. Giuseppe lived this life, flirting and courting and dressing like a man of God, leading a harmless and empty existence. Then he met Pompilia, who he did not seduce; the holiness and purity of Pompilia seduced the priest, or rather touched his inner (dormant) sense of the holy, and Giuseppe loved her as a saint, as an angel, not as a woman. That is why he helped to free her from captivity in Guido's house. "In rushed new things, the old were rapt away; Alike abolished — the imprisonment Of the outside air, the inside weight o’ the world That pulled me down."
I am a priest
Duty to God is duty to her: I think
God, who created her, will save her too
[...]
I stand here guiltless in thought, word and deed,
To the point that I apprise you — in contempt
For all misapprehending ignorance
O’ the human heart, much more the mind of Christ —
That I assuredly did bow, was blessed
By the revelation of Pompilia. There!
Such is the final fact I fling you, Sirs,
To mouth and mumble and misinterpret: there!
"The priest’s in love," have it the vulgar way!
Unpriest me, rend the rags o’ the vestment, do —
Degrade deep, disenfranchise all you dare —
Remove me from the midst, no longer priest
And fit companion for the like of you —
For Pompilia — be advised,
Build churches, go pray! You will find me there,
I know, if you come — and you will come, I know.
Why, there’s a Judge weeping! Did not I say
You were good and true at bottom? You see the truth —
I am glad I helped you: she helped me just so.
Love, yes. Love of goodness, of innocence. Giuseppe will take whatever punishment is handed him, for God will judge him better than man, so be it, etc.

Pompilia Comparini:
I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I lived one day more, three full weeks;
’Tis writ so in the church’s register,
Lorenzo in Lucina, all my names
At length, so many names for one poor child,
— Francesca Camilla Vittoria Angela
Pompilia Comparini — laughable!
Also ’tis writ that I was married there
Four years ago; and they will add, I hope,
When they insert my death, a word or two —
Omitting all about the mode of death —
This, in its place, this which one cares to know,
That I had been a mother of a son
Exactly two weeks.
She is simple, plainspoken, humble and honest. Browning would have us see in her a Christ figure, or at least a wounded saint, slandered and murdered but free of hate, bewildered at the violent mess life has become around her. We are, I think, intended to share Giuseppe's worshipful love of Pompilia, and perhaps Browning used these last two characters to show--indirectly--his love of Elizabeth, whose death left him, like Pompilia's priest, daily "awakening to the old solitary nothingness" in the absence of his beloved (he outlived her by 28 years). Maybe, and also beside the point of this rambling post.

I am not doing a good job showing how Guido, Giuseppe and Pompilia each breathes a different air, as it were. I keep getting distracted by the drama of the story, and by poetic turns of phrase. But these characters are distinct, remarkable, living beings. Honest.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

D. G. Myers

When Myers asked me last April when I was going to send him a review copy of The Astrologer, I felt like a real novelist for the first time. The Astrologer must be the worst novel Myers has ever recommended to people, but I will be forever struck by the interest he showed in new authors, and in books nobody had heard of. No one will be surprised when I say that I met him first through an online disagreement. Myers was a strong personality and he'd argue with anyone if he thought the topic important enough. So my first exposure to him was through internet scraps, scraps which for me quickly became exercises in overcoming fear; during any exchange with him, I was aware that Myers was the adult in the room and I should think carefully before I typed, even when I was calling him wrong-headed. "Respect me enough to argue with me," he said (or something very like that) on Twitter. Myers respected others enough to argue with them; if he addressed you, he thought you were smart enough to evaluate the opinions being batted around, yours and his both. I'm another one of those folks who knew Myers primarily through his blog, and while his taste in fiction did not greatly overlap mine, I find that his opinions on the cultural and personal worth of fiction and the duty of writers to "write well" (by which he meant to write with absolute honesty) have changed me, hopefully into a better reader and writer. His life touched mine but briefly, mine his but barely. And yet. Go with God, David Myers.