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Bathsheba Everdene & The Predicament of the Attractive Woman in Power Posted on 07 Sep 19:26

Thomas Hardy has many masterpieces in his oeuvre (Tess of the d’Urbervilles andJude the Obscure are other strong contenders among Hardy’s best), but Far From the Madding Crowd stands out as his most accurate depiction of an attractive woman’s struggle with power. The heroine of the story, Bathsheba Everdene, is confident, proud and very well-aware of the effect she has on men. Over the course of the narrative, she encounters three ardent suitors: Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood and Francis “Frank” Troy.

The first man she meets is Gabriel, a modest farmer who lives in the town of Norcombe Hill, where he has purchased a sheep farm of his own. As he sees her riding into town on her way to her Aunt Hurst’s, he immediately cites that the greatest of Bathsheba’s faults is her vanity. As Hardy puts it, “She simply observed herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind, in which men would play a part–vistas of probable triumphs–the smiles being of a phase suggesting that hearts were imagined as lost and won.” And yet, Gabriel can’t help but be in love with her, both as a result of her beauty and her unique willfulness. Fascinated by her aura and movements, Gabriel often observes her unnoticed (it’s romantic, not creepy, when told in the Hardyan way). His enamor of her is fortified after she saves him from dying of smoke inhalation upon falling asleep in his shepherd’s hut with the hearth still lit. Even so, she still refuses to tell him her name in the wake of her heroic act. After going to the source–her aunt–to find out the details of the girl he learns is Bathsheba Everdene, he asks for her hand in marriage. Bathsheba declines him repeatedly during the exchange, and yet, Gabriel vows to love her for all time in spite of her dismissive treatment.

 When next they meet, Bathsheba’s haughtiness has gained even more traction as she has inherited the farm and estate of her wealthy uncle in a nearby town called Weatherbury. Gabriel, on the other hand, has lost his entire flock of sheep thanks to an untrained dog that led them off of a cliff. At risk of pennilessness, Gabriel sells everything he owns just to break even from his losses. He unexpectedly learns of Bathsheba’s new station in life upon helping her farmhands put out a fire as he’s passing through in search of work. When a veiled Bathsheba comes to thank him for his good deed, they are both momentarily caught off guard, but Bathsheba is the first to regain her stoic air and accept him as an employee on the farm.

Bathsheba has little time to worry over Gabriel’s opinion of her between establishing herself as a worthy heir to the farm and dealing with meeting local farmer William Boldwood, an impenetrable man in his forties who is known for his perpetual state of bachelorhood. He comes to visit Bathsheba for the first time to inquire after one of her servants, Fanny Robin, who recently ran away, as he used to look after her when she was younger. Based on Boldwood’s lack of acknowledgement of her “specialness” at a subsequent meeting at the local market, Bathsheba agrees to her confidante and servant Liddy’s playful suggestion to fill out a valentine to Boldwood, in which she inscribes “Marry Me,” assuming it will have no effect on Boldwood’s seemingly apathetic demeanor. In contrast, Boldwood falls in love with Bathsheba upon learning from Gabriel that it is her handwriting. Indeed, this is the most succinct case of Bathsheba’s carelessness with the hearts of men, merely because she is so aware of how desirable she is, and that, in short, she has her pick of any of them. Again, Hardy puts Bathsheba in her place by noting, “Women are never tired of bewailing a man’s fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub his constancy.”

It is not until the third suitor in her life, Sergeant Troy, comes to town that she is given a taste of her own painful medicine. Hesitant to fall for someone so clearly roguish, it is precisely because of this that “Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.”

It is, in fact, this sort of dichotomy in the archetypal powerful female personality that makes Bathsheba one of the most interesting characters in literature. She knows she has been made weak against her better judgment, and that the one thing men found truly attractive about her–her strength–is now cut down to size due to the folly of her formerly excessive self-confidence. Her emotional decimation, however, gives her a new form of courage, a toughness that makes her appeal more than ever to the one man who has ever truly loved her from a pure and non-motive laden place.


Ron Kolm Resuscitates 80s New York in Duke & Jill Posted on 22 Aug 13:22

For anyone who has ever moved to New York with the sort of romantic idea of struggle that seems to exist only in Susan Seidelman movies, yet was disappointed to find a lack of any grit in a post-Bloomberg era, Ron Kolm is the man to help you find your way back to that time you so desperately wanted to be a part of. His latest book, Duke & Jill, offers tales that now sound folkloric in nature–one would never be able to rent out their apartment and collect multiple deposits from different people without comeuppance in the New York of now.

The harebrained schemes that would make you enough money to get by while still enjoying yourself are all alive in Duke & Jill, as evidenced by the eponymous characters fleeing New York for awhile to lie low after snorting and flushing all the coke they were supposed to sell. To make ends meet, “Jill applied for an American Express card and got her boss to lie about her salary. She’d call around, using the phone at work, and find out which of her friends were about to go on a shopping spree–go to the store with them on her days off–and then get the cash later.”

While it was easier to be poor then, it didn’t mean the financial plight didn’t take its toll. Like most artists/junkies, “Duke was feeling pretty discouraged… He had no money, no job, and no prospects of getting either in the near future.” What makes this quandary worse is having no desire whatsoever to work. Duke and Jill represent the sort of Sid and Nancy archetype synonymous with not giving a fuck, with living simply for the debauched pleasures of it.

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is feeling like you’re somehow the only one in New York without any money. As Duke notes to himself while walking through the East Village, “It seemed as if most of the people he passed on the street had more money than he did…” 

Yet, somehow, Duke always finds another item to sell–whether managing to allure a passerby with a piece of graffitied metal by passing it off as some sort of “Keith Haring-esque” art or stealing someone else’s mint condition Playboys to pawn off himself. And with each new moneymaking plan comes a new obstacle (rain down-pouring–in typical NYC summer fashion–on the magazines he wants to sell, for instance).

As the narrative draws to a close, presumably sometime at the end of the 1980s, it becomes clear that a paradigm shift is in the air in New York City. Ed Koch wasn’t going to be mayor forever, after all. And now, sadly, “There wasn’t anyone who was going to give [Duke] free food and rent these days, ’cause times had changed.” Granted, the 1990s still had plenty of roguish allure, but it was merely a transition to the corporate-mindedness the city has now suited up in. The art, the drugs–none of it has any heart behind it now. Duke’s not even with Jill anymore. But maybe, one day, they’ll find each other again. Just like finding a glimmer of the old New York in unexpected places.


Zeno's Conscience & The Vindication of Self-Publishing Posted on 22 Aug 13:10

Self-publishing, although increasingly easy to do with the conveniences furnished by the twenty-first century, still remains, by and large, looked down upon by the literary powers that be. And yet, so many fantastic works have been put forth into the world in this manner. From Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Pastto James Joyce’s Ulysses, the masterworks that have been birthed thanks to the sheer tenacity of these famed authors might never have entered into existence without the so-called gall of self-publishing. Also among this list is Italo Svevo’sZeno’s Conscience, published in 1923.

The semi-unreliable tale of a man driven to record his every thought and memory as a result of adhering to his psychoanalyst’s advice, Zeno’s Conscience is the type of novel that very few publishers at that time (and even now) would have an interest in printing. The reason being, of course, that the neurosis of a veritable madman (though he’s no madder than the average person subjected to the woes of everyday life) is not what most publishers would deem “marketable.”

With a preface from Zeno’s doctor that states, “I am the doctor occasionally mentioned in this story, in unflattering terms. Anyone familiar with psychoanalysis knows how to assess the patient’s obvious hostility toward me,” we are uncertain of who to trust in this novel. The doctor's immediate undercutting of our narrator makes it clear that he is only releasing this work to the public for the purpose of vengeance (Zeno refused to continue going to his sessions, after all)--yet it's still obvious that Zeno is not totally objective. At this time in the twentieth century, such literary irreverence was not a pervasive trend. People instead preferred the social intrigue and sensationalism of authors like Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The overarching theme of the novel centers around the notion that there is no one better at deceiving oneself than his own mind (which is kind of what it takes to be able to self-publish with any amount of confidence). So able are we to convince ourselves of the reality we want to see that we rarely seem to know anything that’s truly real from a neutral and unbiased standpoint. While, at the time of the book’s publication, psychology was still in its infancy, Svevo brought the tenets of the field to the forefront–particularly in Italy, where psychology is still often balked at. And yet, had he chosen to accept the defeat of rejection and not publish the work with his own money (a gamble that paid off when considering his legacy and the ranking of the work on most Greatest Books of All-Time lists), we would never have glimpsed the inner-workings of Zeno. Of course, not every self-published book is a gem–Fifty Shades of Grey being a case in point–but it iscomforting to know that even some of the most profound novels ever created suffered through some of the same misjudgment and rejection as yours.


Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch & Killing Your Idols Posted on 10 Aug 20:14

The outpouring of interest in and hostility toward Harper Lee’s unpublished first draft (billed as a sequel) of To Kill A Mockingbird raises the question of why it is so generally loathed by enthusiasts of the original. Go Set A Watchman, at its core, is a good novel–one that, at best, far outweighs most of the slop modern writers are putting out today and, at worst, one that is clearly rough-hewn.

So what is it that’s truly plaguing readers? Like Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, they are grappling with the notion that Atticus Finch, moral compass extraordinaire, is not the man of ironclad principles presented in To Kill a Mockingbird. Now in his seventies, Atticus doesn’t necessarily look different to his daughter upon her return home from New York for a visit, but there is something she automatically inuits as being off kilter. After their longtime housekeeper and caretaker, Calpurnia, has moved out of Atticus’ house and been replaced by his sister, Alexandra, an archetype of the uppity Southern hen, it’s almost as though–at least as far as Jean-Louise is concerned–Atticus has forgotten entirely what she once meant to them. This is evident in his approach to taking on Zeebo, one of Calpurnia’s children, as his client after he accidentally runs over a drunk white man crossing the street in the middle of the night. His reasons for doing so are not out of kindness, but obligation.

Although his protégé (and Jean-Louise’s longtime love interest), Henry “Hank” Clinton (a nonexistent character inTKAM), is the one who will be handling the brass tacks of the case, Atticus’ is still running the show, with his reasoning (and seeming lack of compassion) behind defending Zeebo stemming from his ardent desire to keep the NAACP out of it. Set during the height of the tension spurred on by the Supreme Court decision regarding Brown v. Board of Education, Jean-Louise is appalled at Atticus’ cold statements about the black population. His antiquated views on “Negroes” are summed up with the belittling sentiment, “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.”

And yet, Atticus is not a bad person, just an old school one–and a stickler for doing things that are right not because he feels they are, but because the law deems it so. At one point in defense of his segregationist ways, Atticus tells Jean-Louise, “The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in.”

Jean-Louise, who feels that either she’s changed too much after living in New York City or everyone else has transformed into a monster behind her back, can’t believe that both Henry and Atticus are so utterly unemotional about the racism running amok in Maycomb. Indeed the timing of Go Set A Watchman‘s release is eerily apropos to the rampant racial divide that continues to torment the South. Regardless of the allegations against those who published the book supposedly against the wishes of Harper Lee, a sweet, good-natured person who has lost many of her senses in old age, there is something almost kismet about the timing of its release–as though the world needed to be reminded, yet again, of its own prejudices.

As for other shocking revelations about Atticus, well, he was apparently involved with the Ku Klux Klan back in the day, a bomb that Henry drops on Jean-Louise at the height of her rage over the state of Maycomb and one that Henry explains by noting, “A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them.” Jean-Louise, described as a bigot herself by her Uncle Jack because of her dictionary definition actions of “one obstinately or intolerably [being] devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion,” realizes that in cutting Atticus down to size with her verbal lashing, she is the one who has exhibited a closed mind. It is only through killing her ultimate idol–her watchman–that she is finally able to see things as they truly are. As Harper Lee writes, “Sometimes we have to kill a little so we can live.” In destroying the vision of the Atticus she kept on a pedestal, Jean-Louise is finally able to move forward with her own life, her own conscience. And maybe, just maybe, so are the devotees of To Kill A Mockingbird.


The Unexpected Twists & Turns of Doris Lessing’s Briefing For A Descent Into Hell Posted on 29 Jul 19:50

There is something deeper within every human consciousness that allows him to tap into the desires he suppresses, the memories he wishes he had. In Charles Watkins’ case, those memories are a cocktail of wartime imagery and a Lord of the Flies meets The Beach island experience.

Of course, when we first meet Charles, we are just as clueless about his identity as he is. Found wandering near the Thames in a state of essential catatonia, he is then taken into a mental institution where Dr. X and Dr. Y offer their medical attention–though Charles insists Dr. X isn’t there and blatantly seems to favor Dr. Y. Initially told in a play-like format with dialogue exchanges between the patient and his doctors (Lessing had originally intended the book as a screenplay), the narrative then transforms into a stream of consciousness type of flashback that may or may not have occurred–what’s real and imagined is extremely subjective both in this novel and in life.

One second Charles is on a boat being left behind by his friends who are being beamed up by some sort of Other, the next he’s riding a porpoise to shore and happening upon rat-dogs of a hyper-sexual nature who have dominion over subservient monkeys. From there, we’re taken out of his consciousness and into an epistolary rehashing of just who exactly Charles was before being admitted into the hospital. And who he was, exactly, appears to be a stodgy and infuriating professor of Greek Classics.

By and large, the accounts of Charles’ persona are unfavorable, as confirmed by his longtime colleague and childhood friend, Jeremy Thorne, who notes in his letter to Dr. Y, “I am at this moment in the usual frame of mind when it comes to thinking about Charles–he forces me to ask myself what it means to like or dislike a person? I conclude from all this that we do not know very much about human relationships.” And then there is his mistress, Constance Mayne, who became intimate with Charles while she was one of his students and changed her focus to Greek and the Classics instead of something more practical while at university. In spite of her fervor for him, Charles ultimately drops her coldly, which, of course, inspires within her a need to prove herself to him before she finally ends up hating him completely whilst carrying his child.

Still, there are those who actually quite like Charles, particularly a woman named Rosemary Baines, who caught a lecture of Charles’ that moved her to write him a gushing letter about how much the speech meant to her and how she would be happy to have him visit her anytime in London. Apparently, this is just what he did the night he lost his memory, according to Rosemary’s account in a letter to Dr. Y. He seemed to be acting disturbed while in her house, but she didn’t see the need to call for help as it’s one’s prerogative to act a little loony now and then. Indeed, Rosemary represents a small sect of society willing to accept “abnormality” rather than trying to stamp out any traces of it. Charles’ wife, Felicity, on the other hand, is the very embodiment of societal convention, manifesting that part of Charles’ life that he is so far removed from now that he’s achieved a more elevated metaphysical state of being.

And yet, this is exactly what Drs. X and Y want to get him away from, so that he can again go on as an obedient member of the race. After dosing him with Librium and other sedatives, Charles lapses into a coma and then comes out somewhat more “normal,” but this still isn’t enough for the doctors, who have to have him removed from the facility within a certain timeframe. Thus, electroshock therapy is the next method of treatment recommended for Charles’ “recovery.”

Although he is fully functional and comes across as happy, restoring his memory is key to the doctors deeming him well. He tells Dr. Y that he feels close to recalling the revelation that led him to the Thames in the first place, but this isn’t what Dr. Y wants from him. What he wants is for Charles to go back to being a professor and family man. This is what will allow him to be deemed “mentally stable” in the eyes of the average.

Before Charles agrees to go through with the electroshock treatment, he meets with his friend, Violet, a fellow mental patient who prefers to act like a little girl. Charles tells her, “My sense of urgency is very simple. I’ve remembered that much. It’s because what I have to remember has to do with time running out. And that’s what anxiety is, in a lot of people. They know they have to do something, they should be doing something else, not just living hand-to-mouth, putting paint on their faces and decorating their caves and playing nasty tricks on their rivals. No. They have to do something else before they die–and so the mental hospitals are full and the chemists flourishing.” The next day, Charles’ gets shocked and remembers his old self, never again to return to that outer sense of being that prompted his amnesia.


Jean-Baptiste Grenouille: That Rare Breed of Protagonist & Antagonist Posted on 30 Jun 20:25

Patrick Süskind’s seminal 1985 novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, achieves that rare feat of creating a main character who is both protagonist and antagonist, all while being, of course, completely loathsome to the average person. Following the nefarious and odorless Grenouille from his infancy, Süskind shows us a man driven by one thing and one thing only: scent.

The irony of Grenouille being unable to smell himself, yet being able to so keenly detect even the kernel of an odor emanating from anyone or anything else is his great blessing and curse. His entire raison d’être, thus, becomes to be able to know what his own personal aroma is. It is in this way, that we become faintly sympathetic toward him and his unshakeable quest to discover it–by whatever means necessary.

Content to live off anything that comes his way, Grenouille grows up in an orphanage run by a soulless woman named Madame Gaillard who has no sense of smell as a result of being stubbed in the face with a fireplace poker as a child. Because she can’t process that Grenouille is odorless, she isn’t offput or alarmed by his creepiness as the other children are. It isn’t until he displays what she perceives to be “psychic” abilities that she begins to grow wary of him–particularly after he uses his nose to sniff out where her hidden money is when she can’t find it herself.

This leads Grenouille into the heartless arms of a tanner named Grimal, who treats Grenouille very slightly better than a dog. Once Grenouille proves indispensable by overcoming an anthrax infection, Grimal improves his accommodations greatly, all too aware that someone immune to this affliction after surviving it is instrumental to a tannery. Compared to a tick throughout the novel, with his ability to wait for years until smelling an opportunity on which to prey, Grenouille becomes increasingly loathsome as the tale progresses. At the core of his persona is this: “The tick had scented blood. It had been dormant for years, encapsulated, and had waited.” Grenouille’s skill for patient standby escalates him to the heights of working for famed but failing Paris parfumeur Giuseppe Baldini, who reluctantly makes him his assistant after smelling the intoxicating results of his concoctions.

Grenouille bides his time again, waiting for the next way to elevate his station in some way. While Baldini becomes world-renown off the scents that Grenouille creates, Grenouille decides to ask for journeyman papers that will take him to the south of France so that he can learn more about how to distill and preserve certain scents. Happy to see him go in exchange for more perfume formulae, Baldini’s building falls off the bridge and into the water immediately after Grenouille departs–telling of the destruction he quietly wreaks wherever he goes.

It is at this point in the story that Grenouille’s shift toward complete antagonist begins, as he retreats into a mountaintop cave where he can smell no other human beings and drink only of himself. But it is here that he comes to the distinct and sobering conclusion that he is truly odorless. A nightmare in which he drowns in his own scent prompts him to leave the cave after seven years with a new plan in mind: create a perfume that will make him the most loved and worshipped man in the world.

After being questioned and regarded as some sort of Neanderthal specimen, Grenouille is allowed reentry into society in the small town of Grasse, where he becomes a second journeyman to Druot, the lover of the woman who owns a perfumery. It is now, in all his tick-like fashion that Grenouille waits and collects the materials he needs to cultivate the most magical aroma ever known to man. The key ingredients? Lushly scented virgins, naturally. Going about the business of murdering twenty-four women throughout Grasse during the span of a year, Grenouille instills fear in every member of the population.

No one dreams of suspecting him because of his particular lack of scent. Because of this, “he succeeded in being considered totally uninteresting. People left him alone. And that was all he wanted.” To go about collecting his final and most prized kill, Laure Richis, the red-headed daughter of the richest man in town, Grenouille does what he is best at and waits for just the right moment to complete his perfume with Laure as the crowing piece. Caught leaving the scene of the crime, however, Grenouille is tried for murder and sentenced to a torturous end in the town square. Calm and unmoved as he is told his sentence, Grenouille chooses the moment of his release in the square to daub himself with a mere drop of the elixir he has created. Instantly, everyone in town forgets everything they thought he was capable of and throw themselves at him, digressing into a mass orgy–the sight of which sickens Grenouille and prompts the epiphany:

“…in that moment, as he saw and smelled how irresistible its effect was and how with lightning speed it spread and made captives of the people all around him—in that moment his whole disgust for humankind rose up again within him and completely soured his triumph, so that he felt not only no joy, but not even the least bit of satisfaction. What he had always longed for—that other people should love him—became at the moment of his achievement unbearable, because he did not love them himself, he hated them. And suddenly he knew that he had never found gratification in love, but always only in hatred—in hating and in being hated.”

And so, regardless of how diabolical Grenouille is and the ending his life comes to, he’s the only protagonist we’ve got in Perfume. Who are we supposed to root for, after all? Humanity? Certainly not.

 


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