A piebald parliament (From Melville’s The Confidence-Man)

As among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, or those oriental ones crossing the Red Sea towards Mecca in the festival month, there was no lack of variety. Natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters. Fine ladies in slippers, and moccasined squaws; Northern speculators and Eastern philosophers; English, Irish, German, Scotch, Danes; Santa Fé traders in striped blankets, and Broadway bucks in cravats of cloth of gold; fine-looking Kentucky boatmen, and Japanese-looking Mississippi cotton-planters; Quakers in full drab, and United States soldiers in full regimentals; slaves, black, mulatto, quadroon; modish young Spanish Creoles, and old-fashioned French Jews; Mormons and Papists Dives and Lazarus; jesters and mourners, teetotalers and convivialists, deacons and blacklegs; hard-shell Baptists and clay-eaters; grinning negroes, and Sioux chiefs solemn as high-priests. In short, a piebald parliament, an Anacharsis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man.

As pine, beech, birch, ash, hackmatack, hemlock, spruce, bass-wood, maple, interweave their foliage in the natural wood, so these mortals blended their varieties of visage and garb. A Tartar-like picturesqueness; a sort of pagan abandonment and assurance. Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.

From Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.

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Scenes and characters | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 11th, 1838

August 11th.–This morning, it being cloudy and boding of rain, the clouds had settled upon the mountains, both on the summits and ridges, all round the town, so that there seemed to be no way of gaining access to the rest of the world, unless by climbing above the clouds. By and by they partially dispersed, giving glimpses of the mountain ramparts through their obscurity, the separate clouds lying heavily upon the mountain’s breast. In warm mornings, after rain, the mist breaks forth from the forests on the ascent of the mountains, like smoke,–the smoke of a volcano; then it soars up, and becomes a cloud in heaven. But these clouds to-day were real rain-clouds. Sometimes, it is said, while laboring up the mountain-side, they suddenly burst, and pour down their moisture in a cataract, sweeping all before it.

Every new aspect of the mountains, or view from a different position, creates a surprise in the mind.

Scenes and characters–A young country fellow, twenty or thereabouts, decently dressed, pained with the toothache. A doctor, passing on horseback, with his black leather saddle-bags behind him, a thin, frosty-haired man. Being asked to operate, he looks at the tooth, lances the gum, and the fellow being content to be dealt with on the spot, he seats himself in a chair on the stoop with great heroism. The doctor produces a rusty pair of iron forceps; a man holds the patient’s head; the doctor perceives that, it being a difficult tooth to get at, wedged between the two largest in his jaws, he must pull very hard; and the instrument is introduced. A turn of the doctor’s hand; the patient begins to utter a cry, but the tooth comes out first, with four prongs . The patient gets up, half amazed, pays the doctor ninepence, pockets the tooth, and the spectators are in glee and admiration.

There was a fat woman, a stage-passenger to-day,–a wonder how she could possibly get through the door, which seemed not so wide as she. When she put her foot on the step, the stage gave a great lurch, she joking all the while. A great, coarse, red-faced dame. Other passengers,–three or four slender Williamstown students, a young girl, and a man with one leg and two crutches.

One of the most sensible men in this village is a plain, tall, elderly person, who is overseeing the mending of a road,–humorous, intelligent, with much thought about matters and things; and while at work he has a sort of dignity in handling the hoe or crowbar, which shows him to be the chief. In the evening he sits under the stoop, silent and observant from under the brim of his hat; but, occasion calling, he holds an argument about the benefit or otherwise of manufactories or other things. A simplicity characterizes him more than appertains to most Yankees.

A man in a pea-green frock-coat, with velvet collar. Another in a flowered chintz frock-coat. There is a great diversity of hues in garments. A doctor, a stout, tall, round-paunched, red-faced, brutal-looking old fellow, who gets drunk daily. He sat down on the step of our stoop, looking surly, and speaking to nobody; then got up and walked homeward, with a morose swagger and a slight unevenness of gait, attended by a fine Newfoundland dog.

A barouche with driver returned from beyond Greenfield or Troy empty, the passengers being left at the former place. The driver stops here for the night, and, while washing, enters into talk with an old man about the different roads over the mountain.

People washing themselves at a common basin in the bar-room! and using the common hair-brushes! perhaps with a consciousness of praiseworthy neatness!

A man with a cradle on his shoulder, having been cradling oats. I attended a child’s funeral yesterday afternoon. There was an assemblage of people in a plain, homely apartment. Most of the men were dressed in their ordinary clothes, and one or two were in shirtsleeves. The coffin was placed in the midst of us, covered with a velvet pall. A bepaid clergyman prayed (the audience remaining seated, while he stood up at the head of the coffin), read a passage of Scripture and commented upon it. While he read and prayed and expounded there was a heavy thunderstorm rumbling among the surrounding hills, and the lightning flashed fiercely through the gloomy room; and the preacher alluded to GOD’S voice of thunder.

It is the custom in this part of the country–and perhaps extensively in the interior of New England–to bury the dead first in a charnel-house, or common tomb, where they remain till decay has so far progressed as to secure them from the resurrectionists. They are then reburied, with certain ceremonies, in their own peculiar graves.

O. E. S—-, a widower of forty or upwards, with a son of twelve and a pair of infant twins. He is a sharp, shrewd Yankee, with a Yankee’s license of honesty. He drinks sometimes more than enough, and is guilty of peccadilloes with the fair sex; yet speaks most affectionately of his wife, and is a fond and careful father. He is a tall, thin, hard-featured man, with a sly expression of almost hidden grave humor, as if there were some deviltry pretty constantly in his mind,–which is probably the case. His brother tells me that he was driven almost crazy by the loss of his wife. It appears to me that men are more affected by the deaths of their wives than wives by the deaths of their husbands. Orrin S—- smokes a pipe, as do many of the guests.

A walk this forenoon up the mountain ridge that walls in the town towards the east. The road is cut zigzag, the mountain being generally as steep as the roof of a house; yet the stage to Greenfield passes over this road two or three times a week. Graylock rose up behind me, appearing, with its two summits and a long ridge between, like a huge monster crouching down slumbering, with its head slightly elevated. Graylock is properly the name for the highest elevation. It appeared to better advantage the higher the point from which I viewed it. There were houses scattered here and there up the mountain-side, growing poorer as I ascended; the last that I passed was a mean log-hut, rough, rude, and dilapidated, with the smoke issuing from a chimney of small stones, plastered with clay; around it a garden of beans, with some attempt at flowers, and a green creeper running over the side of the cottage. Above this point there were various excellent views of mountain scenery, far off and near, and one village lying below in the hollow vale.

Having climbed so far that the road seemed now to go downward, I retraced my steps. There was a wagon descending behind me; and as it followed the zigzag of the road I could hear the voices of the men high over my head, and sometimes I caught a glimpse of the wagon almost perpendicularly above me, while I was looking almost perpendicularly down to the log-hut aforementioned. Trees were thick on either hand,–oaks, pines, and others; and marble occasionally peeped up in the road; and there was a lime-kiln by the wayside, ready for burning.

Graylock had a cloud on his head this morning, the base of a heavy white cloud. The distribution of the sunshine amid mountain scenery is very striking; one does not see exactly why one spot should be in deep obscurity while others are all bright. The clouds throw their shadows upon the hill-sides as they move slowly along,–a transitory blackness. 

I passed a doctor high up the road in a sulky, with his black leather saddle-bags.

Hudson’s Cave is formed by Hudson’s Brook. There is a natural arch of marble still in one part of it. The cliffs are partly made verdant with green moss, chiefly gray with oxidation; on some parts the white of the marble is seen; in interstices grow brake and other shrubs, so that there is naked sublimity seen through a good deal of clustering beauty. Above, the birch, poplars, and pines grow on the utmost verge of the cliffs, which jut far over, so that they are suspended in air; and whenever the sunshine finds its way into the depths of the chasm, the branches wave across it. There is a lightness, however, about their foliage, which greatly relieves what would otherwise be a gloomy scene. After the passage of the stream through the cliffs of marble, the cliffs separate on either side, and leave it to flow onward; intercepting its passage, however, by fragments of marble, some of them huge ones, which the cliffs have flung down, thundering into the bed of the stream through numberless ages. Doubtless some of these immense fragments had trees growing on them, which have now mouldered away. Decaying trunks are heaped in various parts of the gorge. The pieces of marble that are washed by the water are of a snow-white, and partially covered with a bright green water-moss, making a beautiful contrast.

Among the cliffs, strips of earth-beach extend downward, and trees and large shrubs root themselves in that earth, thus further contrasting the nakedness of the stone with their green foliage. But the immediate part where the stream forces its winding passage through the rock is stern, dark, and mysterious. 

Along the road, where it runs beneath a steep, there are high ridges, covered with trees,–the dew of midnight damping the earth, far towards midnoon. I observed the shadows of water-insects, as they swam in the pools of a stream. Looking down a streamlet, I saw a trunk of a tree, which has been overthrown by the wind, so as to form a bridge, yet sticking up all its branches, as if it were unwilling to assist anybody over.

Green leaves, following the eddies of the rivulet, were now borne deep under water, and now emerged. Great uprooted trees, adhering midway down a precipice of earth, hung with their tops downward.

There is an old man, selling the meats of butternuts under the stoop of the hotel. He makes that his station during a part of the season. He was dressed in a dark thin coat, ribbed velvet pantaloons, and a sort of moccasons, or shoes, appended to the legs of woollen stockings. He had on a straw hat, and his hair was gray, with a long, thin visage. His nuts were contained in a square tin box, having two compartments, one for the nuts, and another for maple sugar, which he sells in small cakes. He had three small tin measures for nuts,–one at one cent, others at two, four, and six cents; and as fast as they were emptied, he filled them again, and put them on the top of his box. He smoked a pipe, and talked with one man about whether it would be worth while to grow young again, and the duty of being contented with old age; about predestination and freewill and other metaphysics. I asked him what his sales amounted to in the course of a day. He said that butternuts did not sell so well as walnuts, which are not yet in season; that he might to-day have sold fifty cents’ worth; of walnuts, never less than a dollar’s worth, often more; and when he went round with a caravan, he had sold fifteen dollars’ worth per day, and once as much as twenty dollars’ worth. This promises to be an excellent year for walnuts. Chestnuts have been scarce for two or three years. He had one hundred chestnut-trees on his own land, and last year he offered a man twenty-five cents if he would find him a quart of good chestnuts on them. A bushel of walnuts would cost about ten dollars. He wears a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles.

A drunken fellow sat down by him, and bought a cent’s worth of his butternuts, and inquired what he would sell out to him for. The old man made an estimate, though evidently in jest, and then reckoned his box, measures, meats, and what little maple sugar he had, at four dollars. He had a very quiet manner, and expressed an intention of going to the Commencement at Williamstown to-morrow; His name, I believe, is Captain Gavett.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 11th, 1838. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Among the productions of the river’s margin | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 6th, 1842

After breakfast I took my fishing-rod, and went down through our orchard to the river-side; but as three or four boys were already in possession of the best spots along the shore, I did not fish. This river of ours is the most sluggish stream that I ever was acquainted with. I had spent three weeks by its side, and swam across it every day, before I could determine which way its current ran; and then I was compelled to decide the question by the testimony of others, and not by my own observation. Owing to this torpor of the stream, it has nowhere a bright, pebbly shore, nor is there so much as a narrow strip of glistening sand in any part of its course; but it slumbers along between broad meadows, or kisses the tangled grass of mowing-fields and pastures, or bathes the overhanging boughs of elder-bushes and other water-loving plants. Flags and rushes grow along its shallow margin. The yellow water-lily spreads its broad flat leaves upon its surface; and the fragrant white pond-lily occurs in many favored spots,–generally selecting a situation just so far from the river’s brink that it cannot be grasped except at the hazardof plunging in. But thanks be to the beautiful flower for growing at any rate. It is a marvel whence it derives its loveliness and perfume, sprouting as it does from the black mud over which the river sleeps, and from which the yellow lily likewise draws its unclean life and noisome odor. So it is with many people in this world; the same soil and circumstances may produce the good and beautiful, and the wicked and ugly. Some have the faculty of assimilating to themselves only what is evil, and so they become as noisome as the yellow water-lily. Some assimilate none but good influences, and their emblem is the fragrant and spotless pond-lily, whose very breath is a blessing to all the region round about. . . . Among the productions of the river’s margin, I must not forget the pickerel-weed, which grows just on the edge of the water, and shoots up a long stalk crowned with a blue spire, from among large green leaves. Both the flower and the leaves look well in a vase with pond-lilies, and relieve the unvaried whiteness of the latter; and, being all alike children of the waters, they are perfectly in keeping with one another. . . .

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 6th, 1842. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

“Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth (Thomas Pynchon)

By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.

From Thomas Pynchon’s 1993 essay “Sloth; Nearer, My Couch, to Thee.”

A nest of chimney-swallows was washed down the chimney into the fireplace | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 1st, 1837

August 1st.–There having been a heavy rain yesterday, a nest of chimney-swallows was washed down the chimney into the fireplace of one of the front rooms. My attention was drawn to them by a most obstreperous twittering; and looking behind the fire-board, there were three young birds, clinging with their feet against one of the jambs, looking at me, open-mouthed, and all clamoring together, so as quite to fill the room with the short, eager, frightened sound. The old birds, by certain signs upon the floor of the room, appeared to have fallen victims to the appetite of the cat. La belle Nancy provided a basket filled with cotton-wool, into which the poor little devils were put; and I tried to feed them with soaked bread, of which, however, they did not eat with much relish. Tom, the Irish boy, gave it as his opinion that they were not old enough to be weaned. I hung the basket out of the window, in the sunshine, and uponlooking in, an hour or two after, found that two of the birds had escaped. The other I tried to feed, and sometimes, when a morsel of bread was thrust into its open mouth, it would swallow it. But it appeared to suffer very much, vociferating loudly when disturbed, and panting, in a sluggish agony, with eyes closed, or half opened, when let alone. It distressed me a good deal; and I felt relieved, though somewhat shocked, when B—- put an end to its misery by squeezing its head and throwing it out of the window. They were of a slate-color, and might, I suppose, have been able to shift for themselves.–The other day a little yellow bird flew into one of the empty rooms, of which there are half a dozen on the lower floor, and could not find his way out again, flying at the glass of the windows, instead of at the door, thumping his head against the panes or against the ceiling. I drove him into the entry and chased him from end to end, endeavoring to make him fly through one of the open doors. He would fly at the circular light over the door, clinging to the casement, sometimes alighting on one of the two glass lamps, or on the cords that suspended them, uttering an affrighted and melancholy cry whenever I came near and flapped my handkerchief, and appearing quite tired and sinking into despair. At last he happened to fly low enough to pass through the door, and immediately vanished into the gladsome sunshine.–Ludicrous situation of a man, drawing his chaise down a sloping bank, to wash in the river. The chaise got the better of him, and, rushing downward as if it were possessed, compelled him to run at full speed, and drove him up to his chin into the water. A singular instance, that a chaise may run away with a man without a horse!

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 1st, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Melville’s Moby-Dick

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. To be very clear, I think Moby-Dick is fantasticbut I also enjoy seeing what people compelled to write negative reviews of the book on Amazon had to say. What follows are selections of one-star Amazon reviews; I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling].


Yechh.

It made for a smashing movie.

If you want to read lots of meaningless whale trivia read the book.

Boy gets whale. Boy loses whale. Boy gets whale. Spawns yawns

I think if you made it into a short comic strip, you would have liked it.

I bought this book for a friend in jail. Alas, he was unable to read it because the font was too small.

Ray Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay for this novel, (a la Gregory Peck) couldn’t even finish the damn thing!

If you like a story with nonessential information and an author that is entirely to verbose, then this book is for you.

I am quite the fan of stories which involve man eating sea creatures, such as Jaws. Moby Dick is nothing compared to such classics, I fear.

Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.

Moby Dick, was a horrible waiste of time. Along with its wordy paragraphs, it also talked about uninteresting issues. It is also to long, and you don’t hear of them encountering the whale until the end of the book.

The only people who like this book are english teachers who derive a feeling of moral superiority from forcing others to read this incredibly bad novel.

First of all, classiflying it as fiction is a mistake. Probably a good 60% of the book is non-fiction – chapter after chapter dedicated to every imaginable detail of the biology of the whale and every imaginable nuance of whaling.

I love literatur just as much as the next guy but we must face it 100 years or so ago American literature was reall weak and lagging from the rest of the world, perhaps now they’re starting to catch up with writers like Ann Rice and them.

I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!

Those chapters about Ishmael sleeping with whatever his name was and Ishamel had such a good time with the other guy’s arm over him and leg over him that he didn’t know if he was straight or gay any more.

i personally didn’t enjoy the philosophical or deep side of the book, i have read much much better books in that regard.

There is no suspense, and I find the idea of people hunting whales offensive. Offensive with a capital O.

Honestly, Over 400 pages devoted to killing a whale because it ate your hand? Come on.

It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today.

What is the whales motivation? You dont know.

It is 540somepages of boring whaling details.

No wonder Melville flopped as a writter.

OMG, this is tedious and torture to read.

I HATE this book. Why? It’s BORING!

Moby Ick’s more like it.

They will not do us any good—the good books (William H. Gass)

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They will not do us any good—the good books—no—if by good we mean good looks, good times, good shoes; yet they still offer us salvation, for salvation does not wait for the next life, which is anyhow a vain and incautious delusion, but is to be had, if at all, only here—in this one. It is we who must do them honor by searching for our truth there, by taking their heart as our heart, by refusing to let our mind flag so that we close their covers forever, and spend our future forgetting them, denying the mind’s best moments. They extend the hand; we must grip it. Spinach never made Popeye strong sitting in the can. And the finest cookbook ever compiled put not one pot upon the stove or dish upon the table. Here, in the library that has rendered you suspect, you have made their acquaintance—some of the good books. So now that you’ve been nabbed for it, you must become their lover, their friend, their loyal ally. But that is what the rest of your life is for. Go now, break jail, and get about it.

From William H. Gass’s essay “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics.” Collected in A Temple of Texts.

A review of Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile

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Toward the end of the 130 page monologue that is Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile, narrator Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix claims that “An individual is no match for history.” His statement neatly encapsulates (what might be) the dominant theme of By Night in Chile, namely an individual person’s capacity and ability to correctly–and sanely–somehow measure, attest to, confront, and witness the horror and brutality of history. In this case, Bolaño’s narrator, a Catholic priest–and conservative literary critic (and, of course, failed poet)–Father Urrutia, via a sweeping deathbed confession of sorts, recounts his life story, leading inexorably to Pinochet’s coup and its attendant subsequent draconian reforms and abuses. While it would be a mistake to reduce Bolaño’s rich novella to one conflict, I think the root of Urrutia’s struggle emanates from his inability to come to terms with his role as an intellectual (let alone an artist, critic, or priest) complicit somehow in Pinochet’s crimes. Throughout the book, from the very beginning, Urrutia blames his inner turmoil on a “wizened youth” (I don’t want to spoil this antagonist’s identity, but puzzling out that paradoxical appellation provides a major clue), a kind of idealist who stands apart from the dying priest, mocking and taunting him. After his claim that “An individual is no match for history,” Urrutia avers that “The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.” For Urrutia, this is of paramount importance, not just as a Catholic priest (which, it must be pointed out, is a role he doesn’t seem particularly suited for) but also as a literary critic and intellectual: Urrutia wants to systematize and critique history, to be “on the right side of history,” to quote Barack Obama. And yet his own attempt to narrativize his own life ironizes and critiques this very possibility at every turn–he is a sham, a charlatan, motivated and prompted by fear and even hate.

And on that attempt to narrativize a life: I would call By Night in Chile an anti-bildungsroman. Although Urrutia relates a life story, the free flow of psychic impressions that characterizes his telling slip and sail and rock and crash throughout years and over decades, often flowing backwards and forwards, sometimes spending pages on what could only be considered inconsequential minutiae, while at times glossing over the profoundest events with little more than a word or two. It is often what Urrutia does not remark upon that characterizes what is of the greatest importance in this work, and this is a testament to the power of Bolaño’s writing, to his command of voice. In one of the greatest performances of the novel, Urrutia describes the time right before, during, and after Pinochet’s coup. The passage is less than four pages, and for every contemporary action of immediate consequence, Urrutia seems to provide twice as many examples of his retreat into the past: ” . . . the first anti-Allende march was organized, with people banging pots and pans, and I read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, all the tragedies, and Alkaios of Mytilene and Aesop and Hesiod and Herodotus . . . .” Urrutia doesn’t bother to scrutinize or analyze the visceral reality of history in the making around him, regressing instead to the comfort of established philosophical tradition–the history of Herodotus in favor of the chaos, anarchy, and brutality happening around him. He’s really quite a terrible priest, and as an intellectual he refuses to be engaged. Confident that he will always be “on history’s side,” he refuses to actively even try come to terms with history until he’s dying. And thus we get the narrative of By Night in Chile.

This reckoning with the past takes the form of a long monologue but, as those familiar with Bolaño will attest, there are plenty of other voices here, stories nested within stories like Russian dolls. The force and vitality of Urrutia’s speech is astonishing; one envisions the monologue as a single immediate and discrete exhalation, a stream of memory, the living wail of a dying man. Bolaño’s rhetorical style here conveys this ironic energy. He employs long (very, very long) sentences, sometimes going on for several pages, and often uses little or no transitions between what should be major shifts of space and time. There are plenty of references to writers, of course, many obscure, and more motifs and leitmotifs than I can work out here (or elsewhere, to be honest). I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the book is probably even more intense in the original Spanish, although I think Chris Andrews has done a brilliant job translating here, just as he did in Last Evenings on Earth. And since I’ve brought up that book, I’m going to make another suggestion: if you’ve yet to read Bolaño, you should, and Last Evenings of Earth (or 2666 if nearly a thousand pages doesn’t seem too daunting)is probably the best place to start–which is kind of another way of saying that By Night in Chile is not the best entry point to Bolaño–at least not for anyone intimately familiar with Latin American history. It’s not that By Night is particularly challenging or hard to read. However, I think that this particular book will probably be better enjoyed with more context. As Rodrigo Fresán points out in his essay “The Savage Detective,” (published in the March 2007 issue of The Believer), By Night in Chile could be (should be?) read as part of one cohesive book along with Amulet and Distant Star. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, Bolaño’s works seem to coalesce into one great work, a secret universe parallel to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Urrutia’s voice enriches this universe, but one must have something of a foothold on Bolaño’s themes in order to appreciate the complex ironies of By Night in Chile. Or maybe not. Maybe this is a great entry point to Bolaño. Either way, great book. Highly recommended.


Editorial note: Biblioklept ran the original version of this review in July of 2010. I saw the new cover for By Night in Chile today in a bookstore I was visiting in a town that I do not live in, and the new cover—the picture of which is the only new “content” for this review—is the occasion for republishing this Bolaño review.

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “Strangler Bob”

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Detail from Newgate Exercise Yard by Gustave Dore, 1872

Denis Johnson’s story “Strangler Bob” is the third selection in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. At about 20 pages, it’s also the shortest piece in the collection (the other four stories run between 40 and 50 pages). While still a bit longer than the stories in Johnson’s seminal collection Jesus’ Son, “Strangler Bob” nevertheless seems to pulse from that same vein, its narrator Dink another iteration of Jesus’ Son’s Fuckhead. Indeed, “Strangler Bob” feels a bit like an old sketch that’s been reworked by Johnson into something that fits thematically into Largesse.

Here’s the opening paragraph of “Strangler Bob” in full, which gives us the basic premise and setting (and you can’t beat those two opening sentences):

You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail. I remember a monstrous tangle of arms and legs and fists, with me at the bottom gouging at eyes and doing my utmost to mangle throats, but I arrived at the facility without a scratch or a bruise. I must have been easy to subdue. The following Monday I pled guilty to disturbing the peace and malicious mischief, reduced from felony vehicular theft and resisting arrest because—well, because all this occurs on another planet, the planet of Thanksgiving, 1967. I was eighteen and hadn’t been in too much trouble. I was sentenced to forty-one days.

Those forty-one days take us from Thanksgiving to the New Year, with the story’s spiritual climax occurring on Christmas Eve.

Before we get to that climax Johnson builds an unexpectedly rich world in the county lockup, populating it with young toughs who can’t yet see how bad the paths they’ve chosen will be. The men of Johnson’s jail aren’t simply down on their luck or somehow morally misunderstood. They are jovial young fuck-ups who plan to continue fucking up their lives the minute they get out.

A lot of the stage-setting and background characterization in “Strangler Bob” reads like picaresque sketches that Johnson had lying about unused from decades ago. Much of the early part of the story is dedicated to “the blond sociopathic giant Jocko,” a sort of prince of the jail who saves a crazy kid from being murdered by the other inmates. Such scenes give the story a ballast of baroque energy and even an unexpectedly-comic realism, but they don’t fully fit into the main theme of the story, which is hunger.

On his first day in the jail the narrator Dink is warned not to oversleep or he will have his breakfast stolen. Hardheaded, he sleeps in anyway, but learns from his mistake:

After that I had no trouble rousing myself for the first meal, because other than the arrival of food we had nothing in our lives to look forward to, and the hunger we felt in that place was more ferocious than any infant’s. Corn flakes for breakfast. Lunch: baloney on white. For dinner, one of the canned creations of Chef Boyardee, or, on lucky days, Dinty Moore. The most wonderful meals I’ve ever tasted.

Hunger in “Strangler Bob” is an expression of the deep boredom the prisoners feel, and mealtimes become the only way these men measure the passing of time. The hunger in “Strangler Bob” is not just a desire for food, but rather something to fill up the void, the space, the empty feeling. In this world, romantic adventure is ironized into confined torpor:

Dundun, BD and I formed a congress and became the Three Musketeers—no hijinks or swashbuckling, just hour upon hour of pointless conversation, misshapen cigarettes, and lethargy.

Dundun and BD are perhaps unlikely friends for Dink—

Dundun was short and muscled, I was short and puny, and BD was the tallest man in the jail, with a thick body that tapered up toward freakishly narrow shoulders.

—but their fellowship holds together because they had “long hair and chased after any kind of intoxicating substance.” Thanks to BD they get their mitts on some LSD:

BD told us he had a little brother, still in high school, who sold psychedelic drugs to his classmates. This brother came to visit BD and left him a hotrod magazine, one page of which he’d soaked in what he told BD was psilocybin, but was likelier just, BD figured, LSD plus some sort of large-animal veterinary tranquilizer. In any case: BD was most generous. He tore the page from the magazine, divided it into thirds, and shared one third with me and one with Donald Dundun, offering us this shredded contraband as a surprise on Christmas Eve.

The ink from the newsprint turns their tongues black. Narrator Dink seems to think that the LSD was not evenly distributed on the page though—BD trips the hardest, seeing snow falling indoors, but Dink seems to think he’s mostly unaffected, while Dundun denies any effect at all. However, consider this exchange between Dink and Dundun, which suggests that they might be tripping harder than they think:

“I’m feeling all the way back to my roots. To the caves. To the apes.” He turned his head and looked at us. His face was dark, but his eyeballs gave out sparks. He seemed to be positioned at the portal, bathed in prehistoric memories. He was summoning the ancient trees—their foliage was growing out of the walls of our prison, writhing and shrugging, hemming us in.

A sloppy and unnecessary Freudian analysis of the three kids parcels them out easily as id (Dundun the apeman), super ego (BD the strange moralist), and ego, our narrator who rejects any kind of spirituality in a world where “Asian babies fried in napalm.”

Dink’s cellmate, the eponymous Strangler Bob, poses a challenge to the narrator’s easy nihilism though. Even though Dink believes that he’s not affected by the LSD, his encounter with Bob on Christmas Eve reads like a bad trip:

The only effect I felt seemed to coalesce around the presence of Strangler Bob, who laughed again—“Hah!”—and, when he had our attention, said, “It was nice, you know, it being just the two of us, me and the missus. We charcoaled a couple T-bone steaks and drank a bottle of imported Beaujolais red wine, and then I sort of killed her a little bit.”

To demonstrate, he wrapped his fingers around his own neck while we Musketeers studied him like something we’d come on in a magic forest.

Dundun then exclaims that Strangler Bob is “the man who ate his wife” — but Bob admonishes that his cannibalism was greatly exaggerated:

Strangler Bob said, “That was a false exaggeration. I did not eat my wife. What happened was, she kept a few chickens, and I ate one of those. I wrung my wife’s neck, then I wrung a chicken’s neck for my dinner, and then I boiled and ate the chicken.”

The hunger in Strangler Bob is perverse and abject; his crime is of a moral magnitude far more intense than the malicious hijinks the youthful Musketeers have perpetrated–it’s taboo, a challenge to all moral order. He’s also an oracle of strange dooms:

He said, “I have a message for you from God. Sooner or later, you’ll all three end up doing murder.” His finger materialized in front of him, pointing at each of us in turn—“Murderer. Murderer. Murderer”

We learn in the final melancholy paragraphs of the story that Bob’s prophecy comes true, more or less. In those paragraphs too there is a moment of grace, albeit a grace hard purchased. Of the latter part of his life, the Dink tells us:

I was constantly drunk, treated myself as a garbage can for pharmaceuticals, and within a few years lost everything and became a wino on the street, drifting from city to city, sleeping in missions, eating at giveaway programs.

It’s worth noting that if Dink were 18 in the fall of 1967, he would likely have been born in 1949, the year that Denis Johnson was born. The narrators of two other stories in Largesse are also born in or around 1949, and it’s my belief that all of the narrators are essentially the same age, and all are pseudoautofictional iterations of Johnson.

In “Strangler Bob,” Dink is an iteration that fails to thrive, that can’t survive addiction and recovery and enter into a new life. He does not heed Bob’s warning, and at the end of the story he laments that he is a poisoned person who has poisoned others:

When I die myself, B.D. and Dundun, the angels of the God I sneered at, will come to tally up my victims and tell me how many people I killed with my blood.

These final lines push the narrator into a place of bare remorse and regret, as he reflects back on his time in the jail, which he describes in retrospect as “some kind of intersection for souls.” Dink now sees that he’s failed to acknowledge the messengers that might have sent him on a better path. Angels come in strange forms.

Very early Christmas morning on the planet of 1967, after “the festival of horrors” that constituted the LSD trip, Strangler Bob gives one last message, a strange delivered in Dink’s grandmother’s voice:

I studied him surreptitiously over the edge of the bunk, and soon I could see alien features forming on the face below me, Martian mouth, Andromedan eyes, staring back at me with evil curiosity. It made me feel weightless and dizzy when the mouth spoke to me with the voice of my grandmother: “Right now,” Strangler Bob said, “you don’t get it. You’re too young.” My grandmother’s voice, the same aggrieved tone, the same sorrow and resignation.

“You’re too young” — wisdom is purchased through folly, pain, terrible mistakes, crimes and sins. The narrator’s grandmother ventriloquizes Strangler Bob, but she doesn’t have a moral message, just tired pain.

The voice here is Denis Johnson’s voice too, inhabiting a mad oracle, warning some version of himself that exists today.


You can read “Stranger Bob” online here.

I wrote about the title story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden here.

I wrote about the second story, “The Starlight on Idaho” here.

 

Bamboozle the inspectors (Thomas Pynchon on Donald Barthelme)

One out of several humiliating features about writing fiction for a living is that here after all is just about everybody else, all along the capitalist spectrum from piano movers to systems analysts, cheerfully selling their bodies or body parts according to time-honored custom and usage, while it’s only writers, out at the fringes of the entertainment sector, wretched and despised, who are obliged, more intimately and painfully, actually to sell their dreams, yes, dreams these days you’ll find are every bit as commoditized as any pork bellies there on the financial page. To be upbeat about it, though, in most cases it doesn’t present much moral problem, since dreams seldom make it through into print with anything like the original production values anyway. Even if you do good recovery, learning to write legibly in the dark and so forth, there’s still the matter of getting it down in words that can bring back even a little of the clarity and sweep, the intensity of emotion, the transcendent weirdness of the primary experience. So it’s a safe bet that most writers’ dreams, maybe even including the best ones, manage to stay untranslated and private after all.

Barthelme, however, happens to be one of a handful of American authors there to make the rest of us look bad, who know instinctively how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight “reality.” What he called his “secret vice” of “cutting up and pasting together pictures” bears an analogy, at least, to what is supposed to go on in dreams, where images from the public domain are said likewise to combine in unique, private, and, with luck, spiritually useful ways. How exactly Barthelme then got this into print, or for that matter pictorial, form, kept the transitions flowing the way he did and so on, is way too mysterious for me, though out of guild solidarity I probably wouldn’t share it even if I did know. The effect each time, at any rate, is to put us in the presence of something already eerily familiar … to remind us that we have lived in these visionary cities and haunted forests, that the ancient faces we gaze into are faces we know.

From Thomas Pynchon’s introduction to The Teachings of Don B. The introduction was republished yesterday in The Paris Review in a version that omits the first two paragraphs. You can read the full version of Thomas Pynchon’s essay on Donald Barthelme at ThomasPynchon.com.

In order to be shown the sign (Gerald Murnane)

The shabbily dressed man spoke to his students at their first class as follows. The best service he could perform for them was to persuade them to give up writing fiction as soon as they had finished his course—or even before then. The writing of fiction was something that a certain sort of person had to do in order to explain himself or herself to an imagined parent or an imagined loved one or an imagined god. He himself had had two novels published more than ten years before but had had nothing published since then and had no intention of writing so much as a sentence of fiction during the remainder of his life. He had stopped writing fiction after having been shown a sign. He had had to write or to prepare to write fiction in order to be shown the sign, but having been shown the sign he no longer wished to write fiction. The shabbily dressed man then said to his class that he had probably said too much to them already and had probably confused them thoroughly. He then said that their first class was over, that their classes for the next month were cancelled, and that they should go away and write their first piece of fiction and deliver it to him three weeks later so that he could prepare photocopies for the workshop classes that would occupy him and them for the rest of the year.

From Gerald Murnane’s short story “The White Cattle of Uppington,” (1995); collected in Stream System (2018).

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”

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I finished reading Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection of short stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden a few weeks ago. I felt a bit stunned by the time I got to the fourth story in the collection, “Triumph Over the Grave,” which ends with these words: “It’s plain to you that at the time I wrote this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Denis Johnson died just over a year ago, of course, a fact that haunts any reading of Sea Maiden (at least for fans, and I am a fan). The collection was released just half a year after his death, and I managed to avoid reading any reviews of it. I held out on picking it up for reasons I don’t really know how to explain, but I when I finally read it, I consumed it in a greedy rush.

Anyway, since I finished the book I’ve tried a few times to put together a “review,” but each time I get some words down I find myself sprawling out all over the place, rereading bits of the stories, picking out new motifs, new questions, new parallels between Johnson’s life and the lives of his narrators. Very short review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is one of Johnson’s best books, a perfect gift to his readers—his own tragicomic obituary in fictional form. It’s a book about death and writing and art and commerce and regret and salvation, and each time I go back to it I find more in there than I saw the first time–more order, more threads, more design. So instead of a full long review, I’ll offer instead a series of blogs about each of the five stories in the collection. (Perhaps this form is simply an excuse to reread The Largesse of the Sea Maiden).

The first story is the title track, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” First published in The New Yorker back in 2014, this long short story (it runs to not-quite 40 pages) introduces the major themes and tones of the entire collection. “Largesse” is told by a first-person narrator in ten titled vignettes. Some of the titles, like “Widow,” “Orphan,” “Farewell,” and “Memorial,” directly name the themes of both the story and the book.

The narrator of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a writer—but not a writer of literature or fiction—of art—but of commercials. Although “Largesse” shows him somewhat comfortable in his life in San Diego with his third wife, the narrator nevertheless is melancholy, even dour at times. In the beginning of the vignette “Ad Man,” he declares:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life—the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.

(Is there a subtle nod there to one of Johnson’s most well-known stories, “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking”? I think so. If not, I find a thread).

“Ad Man” initiates the major plot trajectory of “Largesse”: Our narrator has won an award for an advertisement he wrote and directed decades ago, and he will have to return to New York City to be given the award at a special dinner. Floating through the vignettes is the ad man’s anxiety about his own legacy of work against the backdrop of the finer arts. We learn in “Accomplices” that he cares enough about the arts to object that his host has hung a Mardsen Hartley oil landscape above a lit fireplace—but he doesn’t prevent the man from burning the painting—his “property”—in a moment where Johnson subtly critiques the relationship between art and commerce. The narrator turns the burning of the painting into a new art though—storytelling.

The narrator later tells us that “looking at art for an hour or so always changes the way I see things afterward,” and “Largesse” is riddled with encounters with art and artists, like the outsider painter Tony Fido, whom the narrator meets at a gallery. The artist offers, unprompted, a scathing critique of a Edward Hopper’s painting Gas:

“You’re a painter yourself.”

“A better painter than this guy,” he said of Edward Hopper.

“Well, whose work would you say is any good?”

“The only painter I admire is God. He’s my biggest influence.”

That attribution — “he said of Edward Hopper” — is a lovely example of Johnson’s sharply-controlled wit.

Tony Fido plays a major minor role in “Largesse.” Fido tells the narrator the story of his encounter with a widow—one of several widows in both “Largesse” and Largesse, and his own suicide—Fido’s—becomes a strange moment for the narrator to realize how little he actually knows about his friend. And of course, all of these plot points give Johnson a chance to riff on the themes of death, loss and regret.

“Largesse” is loaded with thoughts on regret and forgiveness. Talking with a friend, the narrator muses that “we wandered into a discussion of the difference between repentance and regret. You repent the things you’ve done, and regret the chances you let get away.” The vignette “Farewell” stages a chance for the narrator to repent his past sins; his ex-wife, dying of cancer, calls him up to (possibly) forgive him:

In the middle of this I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake—if this wasn’t my first wife Ginny, no, but rather my second wife, Jennifer, often called Jenny. Because of the weakness of her voice and my own humming shock at the news, also the situation around her as she tried to speak to me on this very important occasion—folks coming and going, and the sounds of a respirator, I supposed—now, fifteen minutes into this call, I couldn’t remember if she’d actually said her name when I picked up the phone and I suddenly didn’t know which set of crimes I was regretting, wasn’t sure if this dying farewell clobbering me to my knees in true repentance beside the kitchen table was Virginia’s, or Jennifer’s.

I’ve quoted at such length because the moment is an example of Johnson’s tragicomic genius—a sick punchline that disconnects crime from punishment and punishment from forgiveness. The narrator ends up making the connections himself in the end: “after all, both sets of crimes had been the same.” And yet Johnson keeps pushing his character past reconciliation into a midnight walk to clear his conscience:

I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasseled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it. The sign said “Sky and Celery.”

Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”

“Farewell” ends on this note of a winking Mystery—on the profound insight that we are always susceptible to misreading the signs in front of us.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is very much a story about trying to put together a cohesive narrative from the strands and fragments around us. Indeed, its very form points to this—the fractured vignettes have to be pieced together by the reader. Johnson fractures not just form but tone. The deadpan, tragicomic, pathos-laden humor that’s run throughout Johnson’s oeuvre dominates in “Largesse,” yes, but there are strange eruptions of sentimental fantasy, particularly in “Mermaid,” a vignette that reads like the narrator’s own imaginative construction, and not the (often banal) reality that most of the narrative is grounded in. After receiving his award in New York, the narrator makes his way to a bar, and here conjures a scene like something from a film noir:

I couldn’t see the musician at all. In front of the piano a big tenor saxophone rested upright on a stand. With no one around to play it, it seemed like just another of the personalities here: the invisible pianist, the disenchanted old bartender, the big glamorous blonde, the shipwrecked, solitary saxophone…And the man who’d walked here through the snow…And as soon as the name of the song popped into my head I thought I heard a voice say, “Her name is Maria Elena.” The scene had a moonlit, black-and-white quality. Ten feet away at her table the blond woman waited, her shoulders back, her face raised. She lifted one hand and beckoned me with her fingers. She was weeping. The lines of her tears sparkled on her cheeks. “I am a prisoner here,” she said. I took the chair across from her and watched her cry. I sat upright, one hand on the table’s surface and the other around my drink. I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.”

The ecstasy here—internalized and “still”—is the ecstasy of storytelling, imagination, art. This is the gift of the mermaid, the largesse of the sea maiden. The minor moment is the real award for our ad man hero, who finds no real transcendence in commercial writing.

I’ve been using “the narrator” in this riff, but our hero has a name, which he reveals to us in the final vignette, “Whit.” It’s here that he describes the ad he’s (not exactly) famous for, an “animated 30-second spot [where] you see a brown bear chasing a gray rabbit.” The chase ends when the rabbit gives the bear a dollar bill.” Narrator Whit explains that this ad for a bank “referred, really, to nothing at all, and yet it was actually very moving.” He goes on:

I think it pointed to orderly financial exchange as the basis of harmony. Money tames the beast. Money is peace. Money is civilization. The end of the story is money.

And yet our ad man, despite his commercial interpretation of his own writing, recognizes too that this work “was better than cryptic—mysterious, untranslatable.” The word “untranslatable” is one of several clues that link the final section of “Largesse” to the final section of Walt Whitman’s long poem, Song of Myself. Whitman’s narrator (“Walt Whitman, a kosmos”) claims that he is, like the spotted hawk who swoops to disturb his reverie, “untranslatable.” Bequeathing himself to us—a gift for our good graces—he reminds us that “You will hardly know who I am,” a line that Johnson echoes in the beginning of “Whit”: “My name would mean nothing to you, but there’s a very good chance you’re familiar with my work.” And then of course, there’s the big tell—Johnson’s narrator is Bill Whitman, a pun that works on several levels. Walt Whitman’s language has seeped into the language of advertising—in a way it is the genesis of a new commercial American idiom—and here Johnson slyly pushes it back into the realm of art.

Just as the conclusion of Song of Myself builds to a self-penned elegy for its self-subject, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” reads like Johnson’s elegy for an alter-ego. We learn in the final paragraphs that Bill Whitman is “just shy of sixty-three” — roughly the same age as Johnson would’ve been when the story was published. (We learn that the narrator of “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” the final story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is also the same age as Johnson. That narrator was born on “July 20, 1949.” Johnson’s birthday was July 1, 1949).

Narrator Whit reflects on his life in the story’s melancholy penultimate paragraph:

I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.

However, there’s still a restlessness to his spirit, a questing desire to answer the final lines of Song of Myself, perhaps, where Whitman writes:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

The last paragraph of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is Johnson’s narrator’s implicit response to these lines, and as I cannot improve upon his prose, they will be my last lines as well:

Once in a while, I lie there as the television runs, and I read something wild and ancient from one of several collections of folktales I own. Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.

“Breughel” — Aldous Huxley

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“Breughel”

by

Aldous Huxley

from Along the Road, 1925


Most of our mistakes are fundamentally grammatical. We create our own difficulties by employing an inadequate language to describe facts. Thus, to take one example, we are constantly giving the same name to more than one thing, and more than one name to the same thing. The results, when we come to argue, are deplorable. For we are using a language which does not adequately describe the things about which we are arguing.

The word “painter” is one of those names whose indiscriminate application has led to the worst results. All those who, for whatever reason and with whatever intentions, put brushes to canvas and make pictures, are called without distinction, painters. Deceived by the uniqueness of the name, aestheticians have tried to make us believe that there is a single painter-psychology, a single function of painting, a single standard of criticism. Fashion changes and the views of art critics with it. At the present time it is fashionable to believe in form to the exclusion of subject. Young people almost swoon away with excess of aesthetic emotion before a Matisse. Two generations ago they would have been wiping their eyes before the latest Landseer. (Ah, those more than human, those positively Christ-like dogs—how they moved, what lessons they taught! There had been no religious painting like Landseer’s since Carlo Dolci died.)

These historical considerations should make us chary of believing too exclusively in any single theory of art. One kind of painting, one set of ideas are fashionable at any given moment. They are made the basis of a theory which condemns all other kinds of painting and all preceding critical theories. The process constantly repeats itself. Continue reading ““Breughel” — Aldous Huxley”

Sometimes not so adequate | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 14th, 1850

Lenox, July 14th.–The tops of the chestnut-trees have a whitish appearance, they being, I suppose, in bloom. Red raspberries are just through the season.

Language,–human language,–after all, is but little better than the croak and cackle of fowls and other utterances of brute nature,–sometimes not so adequate.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 14th, 1850. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Then would she wheedle and laugh and blarney, beginning in a rage, and ending as if she had been in jest | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 9th, 1837

July 9th.–Went with B—- to pay a visit to the shanties of the Irish and Canadians. He says that they sell and exchange these small houses among themselves continually. They may be built in three or four days, and are valued at four or five dollars. When the turf that is piled against the walls of some of them becomes covered with grass, it makes quite a picturesque object. It was almost dusk–just candle-lighting time–when we visited them. A young Frenchwoman, with a baby in her arms, came to the door of one of them, smiling, and looking pretty and happy. Her husband, a dark, black-haired, lively little fellow, caressed the child, laughing and singing to it; and there was a red-bearded Irishman, who likewise fondled the little brat. Then we could hear them within the hut, gabbling merrily, and could see them moving about briskly in the candlelight, through the window and open door. An old Irishwoman sat in the door of another hut, under the influence of an extra dose of rum,–she being an old lady of somewhat dissipated habits. She called to B—-, and began to talk to him about her resolution not to give up her house: for it is his design to get her out of it. She is a true virago, and, though somewhat restrained by respect for him, she evinced a sturdy design to remain here through the winter, or at least for a considerable time longer. He persisting, she took her stand in the doorway of the hut, and stretched out her fist in a very Amazonian attitude. “Nobody,” quoth she, “shall drive me out of this house, till my praties are out of the ground.” Then would she wheedle and laugh and blarney, beginning in a rage, and ending as if she had been in jest. Meanwhile her husband stood by very quiet, occasionally trying to still her; but itis to be presumed, that, after our departure, they came to blows, it being a custom with the Irish husbands and wives to settle their disputes with blows; and it is said the woman often proves the better man. The different families also have battles, and occasionally the Irish fight with the Canadians. The latter, however, are much the more peaceable, never quarrelling among themselves, and seldom with their neighbors. They are frugal, and often go back to Canada with considerable sums of money. B—- has gained much influence both with the Irish and the French,–with the latter, by dint of speaking to them in their own language. He is the umpire in their disputes, and their adviser, and they look up to him as a protector and patron-friend. I have been struck to see with what careful integrity and wisdom he manages matters among them, hitherto having known him only as a free and gay young man. He appears perfectly to understand their general character, of which he gives no very flattering description. In these huts, less than twenty feet square, he tells me that upwards of twenty people have sometimes been lodged.

A description of a young lady who had formerly been insane, and now felt the approach of a new fit of madness. She had been out to ride, had exerted herself much, and had been very vivacious. On her return, she sat down in a thoughtful and despondent attitude, looking very sad, but one of the loveliest objects that ever were seen. The family spoke to her, but she made no answer, nor took the least notice; but still sat like a statue in her chair,–a statue of melancholy and beauty. At last they led her away to her chamber.

We went to meeting this forenoon. I saw nothing remarkable, unless a little girl in the next pew to us, three or four years old, who fell asleep, with her head in the lap of her maid, and looked very pretty: a picture of sleeping innocence.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 9th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Riff on finishing Middlemarch, George Eliot’s novel of consciousness

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Detail of a portrait of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) at age 30 by François d’Albert Durade (1804–1886)

I finally finished George Eliot’s long and marvelous 1872 novel Middlemarch.

When I wrote about reading Middlemarch last month, from not-quite-the-middle of the book, I lamented that I’d rather be rereading the book than reading it. Rich and dense, it’s the kind of big book that clearly offers more on repeat readings. And yes, I will reread Middlemarch, but I’ll give it a year or three to mellow in the back of my consciousness.

Middlemarch is a novel about consciousness, and what the novel does best in my estimation is show how different kinds of consciousness mediate and are mediated by the social forces they inhabit (and are inhabited by).

(The word consciousness appears 90 times in Middlemarch. If we include similar iterations, like consciousconsciouslyunconscious, and unconsciously, the count grows to a total of 172 times. In contrast, iterations of the word conscience appear only 38 times).

Dorothea Brooke remained my favorite consciousness throughout the novel, and I missed her when she wasn’t there, when Eliot had us hovering around or even fully inhabiting another consciousness.

I’ll admit that in the final quarter of Middlemarch I found myself a bit weary of the Bulstrode disgrace plot—and yet I appreciate how Eliot inhabited that consciousness as well. Bulstrode provides Eliot a sharp tool to show how consciousness is blind, or even self-blinding—how consciousness massages conscience in order to survive. In a passage that illustrates this process, Eliot writes,

Bulstrode shrank from a direct lie with an intensity disproportionate to the number of his more indirect misdeeds. But many of these misdeeds were like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness, though they bring about the end that we fix our mind on and desire. And it is only what we are vividly conscious of that we can vividly imagine to be seen by Omniscience.

Consciousness cannot lay claim to conceiving of an absolute omniscient conscience, an absolute and ever-present moral consciousness. Too, earlier in the novel, Eliot’s narrator observes,

For the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.

Egoism is a central problem in Middlemarch; indeed, Eliot seems to posit egoism as the greatest threat to how individual consciousnesses navigate social reality. Here is here narrator again:

Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.

I cannot improve upon “no speck so troublesome as self” and will not adventure an attempt.

But back to the consciousness I liked best in Middlemarch: Dorothea.

Dorothea is a kind of genius of intention, and Eliot harnesses that genius—she shows us Dorothea’s consciousness-in-action. Eliot doesn’t just tell us what’s happening in Dorothea’s head; she makes that consciousness live in our own heads.

Dorothea’s life, like all lives, is beset with foiled plans and terrible mistakes. Still, Middlemarch grants Dorothea something of a happy ending in her marriage to Will Ladislaw, and yet refuses the conclusion of a classical comedy. There is no wedding scene. Indeed, the last time Dorothea speaks in the novel it is to reconcile with her sister Celia—a conclusion that confirms their love story the equal to that of Dorothea and Ladislaw’s love story.

Eliot’s novel is too sophisticated and too realistic for a simplistic happy or tragic conclusion, of course. In the novel’s “Finale,” the narrator reminds us that,

Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending…the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web.

The narrator then gives us broad details of the fates of the novel’s principal couples: Lydgate and Rosamond, skewing depressive; Mary and Fred, skewing comic; and finally Ladislaw and Dorothea. We learn of Ladislaw’s success as a reform politician and understand that Dorothea is an instrumental force in this success.

Eliot’s conclusion for this final pair skews neither comic nor tragic, but is something more complex—more realistic. Dorothea becomes a cautionary tale in the town of Middlemarch; her legacy is one of misspent potential in the eyes of society. The novel ends without indicating that any of the grand plans of Dorothea’s youth have been achieved. And yet the novel concludes with an oblique revelation about Dorothea’s misunderstood legacy.

In the second-to-final paragraph of Middlemarch, Eliot writes that,

those determining acts of [Dorothea’s] life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.

Eliot refuses a simple happy ending here; her heroine is still a consciousness subject to the social forces around it. Dorothea’s great utopian ambitions are ultimately tempered by the cultural constraints her consciousness would otherwise seek to transcend.

But then the final paragraph of the novel points towards transcendence:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. … But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Dorothea—and, more significantly, the spirit of Dorothea—did real grand good in the world, an immeasurable good, “incalculably diffusive.” Even if she lived ultimately a “hidden life,” Eliot insists that it is people like Dorothea who have made the world better for “you and me.”

While “hidden life” and “unvisited tombs” may harbor negative connotations, these phrases are ultimately ironic: Eliot’s novel itself is the key to the hidden life of Dorothea Brooke. Middlemarch is a vivid and vivifying tomb for Dorothea, and we readers are the lucky visitors.

Growing dark with a pleasant gloom | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 8th, 1837

 July 8th.–Yesterday afternoon, a stroll with B—- up a large brook, he fishing for trout, and I looking on. The brook runs through a valley, on one side bordered by a high and precipitous bank; on the other there is an interval, and then the bank rises upward and upward into a high hill, with gorges and ravines separating one summit from another, and here and there are bare places, where the rain-streams have washed away the grass. The brook is bestrewn with stones, some bare, some partially moss-grown, and sometimes so huge as–once at least–to occupy almost the whole breadth of the current. Amongst these the stream brawls, only that this word does not express its good-natured voice, and “murmur” is too quiet. It sings along, sometimes smooth, with the pebbles visible beneath, sometimes rushing dark and swift, eddying and whitening past some rock, or underneath the hither or the farther bank; and at these places B—- cast his line, and sometimes drew out a trout, small, not more than five or six inches long. The farther we went up the brook, the wilder it grew. The opposite bank was covered with pines and hemlocks, ascending high upwards, black and solemn. One knew that there must be almost a precipice behind, yet we could not see it. At the foot you could spy, a little way within the darksome shade, the roots and branches of the trees; but soon all sight was obstructed amidst the trunks. On the hither side, at first the bank was bare, then fringed with alder-bushes, bending and dipping into the stream, which, farther on, flowed through the midst of a forest of maple, beech, and other trees, its course growing wilder and wilder as we proceeded. For a considerable distance there was a causeway, built long ago of logs, to drag lumber upon; it was now decayed and rotten, a red decay, sometimes sunken down in the midst, here and there a knotty trunk stretching across, apparently sound. The sun being now low towards the west, a pleasant gloom and brightness were diffused through the forest, spots of brightness scattered upon the branches, or thrown down in gold upon the last year’s leaves among the trees. At last we came to where a dam had been built across the many years ago, and was now gone to ruin, so as to make the spot look more solitary and wilder than if man had never left vestiges of his toil there. It was a framework of logs, with a covering of plank sufficient to obstruct the onward flow of the brook; but it found its way past the side, and came foaming and struggling along among scattered rocks. Above the dam there was a broad and deep pool, one side of which was bordered by a precipitous wall of rocks, as smooth as if hewn out and squared, and piled one upon another, above which rose the forest. On the other side there was still a gently shelving bank, and the shore was covered with tall trees, among which I particularly remarked a stately pine, wholly devoid of bark, rising white in aged and majestic ruin, thrusting out its barkless arms. It must have stood there in death many years, its own ghost. Above the dam the brook flowed through the forest, a glistening and babbling water-path, illuminated by the sun, which sent its rays almost straight along its course. It was as lovely and wild and peaceful as it could possibly have been a hundred years ago; and the traces of labors of men long departed added a deeper peace to it. I bathed in the pool, and then pursued my way down beside the brook, growing dark with a pleasant gloom, as the sun sank and the water became more shadowy. B—- says that there was formerly a tradition that the Indians used to go up this brook, and return, after a brief absence, with large masses of lead, which they sold at the trading-stations in Augusta; whence there has always been an idea that there is a lead-mine hereabouts. Great toadstools were under the trees, and some small ones as yellow and almost the size of a half-broiled yolk of an egg. Strawberries were scattered along the brookside.

Dined at the hotel or Mansion House to-day. Men were playing checkers in the parlor. The Marshal of Maine, a corpulent, jolly fellow, famed for humor. A passenger left by the stage, hiring an express onward. A bottle of champagne was quaffed at the bar.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 8th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.