The plot of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves involves a spatially unbounded, ever-shifting labyrinth that sprawls beneath a suburban Virginia home,The plot of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves involves a spatially unbounded, ever-shifting labyrinth that sprawls beneath a suburban Virginia home, exhausting, maddening, and eventually devouring (almost) everyone who dares to enter—and on many occasions while reading the novel I too felt in danger of getting crushed under the book's labyrinthine narrative. Not because of the effectiveness of the author's scene-setting, or even the creative typesetting which twists and writhes on the page, but because of the sheer weight of the elaborate metafictional apparatus with which the novel is encrusted. More than a haunted house story or an examination of family, history, and the beast within (though it is all of these things), House of Leaves strikes me as an exercise in the aesthetics of excess.
For example. Danielewski, not content with a straight-ahead story or a single frame narrative, gives us a setup wherein anonymous editors remark on the copious, Charles Kinbote-style footnoting job done by young punk Johnny Truant on a faux-scholarly manuscript written by blind immigrant Zampanò—a mass of analysis on a film, The Navidson Report, which does not exist even in the world of the book, being either Zampanò's delusion or his fictional creation. And in case this triple-nested narrative, in which every level of editor comments on every other level, is not enough, Danielewski throws in an extra 200 pages of appendices containing everything from scrawled sketches, to personal letters, to surprisingly sophisticated poems supposedly written by Johnny Truant while in Europe. (The only things missing from the appendices are, of course, the materials Zampanò himself intended to include; this is the kind of joke Danielewski loves.) There is a film-within-a-film-within-the-book in which real-life celebrities like Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia and Stephen King comment on The Navidson Record while trying to hit on its director's wife—an section that, while hilarious and well-executed, is also insanely self-indulgent and seems, at least at first, to add little to the novel as a whole. Everything about House of Leaves is so flamboyantly complicated, self-consciously clever and self-referential that I passed through phases of eye-rolling impatience and muttered imprecations until eventually emerging into a clearing of wry amusement, in which I was forced to take the book on its own terms: calling it "overdone" seems beside the point. Like so much gothic fiction, the novel's overdoneness is part of its charm, even if it is overdone in a slightly different way than most.
Take the footnotes. Regular readers know I strongly dislike the Foster-Wallace-esque use of ironically overdone footnotes in modern fiction. Blogging friend Anthony provided me with the perfect articulation of my feelings when he quoted Noel Coward's quip that encountering a footnote is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love. But In Danielewski's hands the footnotes get so bizarrely baroque that the experience is more like: making love; getting interrupted by the doorbell; going downstairs; opening the door to some kid delivering a pizza you didn't order; following the pizza delivery kid down to the docks; getting into a fistfight; stowing away and ending up somewhere in Japan. At which point complaining about lack of sexual satisfaction seems strangely inadequate. Not only are the footnotes often themselves footnoted—and every possible clever footnote joke is carried out here, from hiding all the sex scenes in the footnotes, to footnotes on foreign-language passages which refuse to translate them, to footnotes that go on for several pages, to footnotes that refer back or forward 100 pages from one's current textual location, to footnote feedback loops that lock the reader into a referential circle, to footnotes that consist of only blank lines—but in one case we get footnotes six levels deep, with most of the page-long sixth-level footnote being itself crossed out. Plainly, at this stage criticizing the text for lack of restraint is missing some kind of fundamental precept: the whole enterprise is intentionally eschewing restraint and (perhaps) hoping to come out the other side.
But why is excess so important to this novel? The question plaguing all such postmodern and/or experimental fiction must rear its ugly head: is there any substance to House of Leaves, beyond all its structural pyrotechnics? As Karen asks her bevy of enamored experts in the film-within-a-film-within-a-book, does it all mean anything, or is it just scary? For most of the novel, I assumed that the whole elaborate apparatus of House of Leaves was a very complex way of making the point that everything is open to interpretation, that it's impossible to tell a true story because as soon as you begin documenting events you are already dealing with a simulacra, and that even if you could somehow manage to speak truth, it wouldn't matter as there is no "meaning" behind events to begin with. And Danielewski certainly dwells at length on points like these, conjuring a heated (if imaginary—remember that in the "real world" of the book, the film doesn't exist) debate about the authenticity of the Navidson Record, in which "slick" and "grainy" filmic aesthetics are exposed as equally manufactured, and one of the most compelling arguments for this film's documentary reality is simply that none of the filmmakers had the money to fake it:
They just never had enough money.
Sonny Beauregard conservatively estimates the special effects in The Navidson Record would cost a minimum of six and a half million dollars. Taking into account the total received for the Guggenheim Fellowship, the NEA Grant, everyone's credit limit on Visa, Mastercard, Amex etc., etc., not to mention savings and equity, Navidson comes up five and a half million dollars short. Beauregard again: "Considering the cost of special effects these days, it is inconceivable how Navidson could have created his house. Strangely then, the best argument for fact is the absolute unaffordability of fiction.
Thus reality becomes a kind of default for the poor man who can't afford anything better, and IRS records are more convincing then the evidence of our own eyes. Of course, given that the entire fiction of the Navidson Record film is created, in the world of the book, by an ancient and poverty-stricken blind man, we are, perhaps, meant to dwell on differences between media, the resources required to create convincing simulacra in words versus images, and the corresponding differences in our levels of belief. Is it easier to believe in the truth of a film because we see it with our own eyes, or more difficult because we know all the ways in which film can be manipulated? Are Johnny Truant's dread-filled and sometimes unreliable footnotes and appendices more convincing than Zampanò's text, since Truant's commentary creates the illusion that he shares our world, the world of the observer and analyst? And if there is no "meaning" attached to any of these real or faked stories, what is our investment in their reality or lack thereof?
Besides, not only can we not tell—or even sometimes care—what's real outside ourselves, but we're likely reading little more than ourselves into a work in the first place. One of the functions of all the elaborate setup is that, like the panel of experts whom Karen asks to respond to her film-within-a-film-within-the-book, Danielewski's hall of mirrors eventually makes it clear that most people, when they look at a piece of art, see only the reflection of themselves. When Johnny Truant reads and becomes obsessed with The Navidson Record, it's the ghosts of his own past that come back to him; when Harold Bloom watches Karen's film about the haunted house, he sees his own pet theories on the anxiety of influence, and when Navidson himself enters the labyrinth under his house, he's eventually left with absolutely no visual or tactile input except what's inside his own body and head. The minotaur at the center of the labyrinth is us, as all the unsuccessfully expunged footnotes indicate, and we are perfectly capable of tearing ourselves into shreds—or, occasionally, showing ourselves compassion.
Notes on Disgust (for more information on the disgust project, see here)
For a book that's ostensibly a horror story (at least part-time), there is remarkably little explicit disgust in House of Leaves. Less than your average Edith Wharton novel, for example. And this is interesting on a couple of levels. On one hand, suggests that disgust is a bit of an intermediate emotion: generally characters can't be simultaneously disgusted and petrified with horror. In House of Leaves, the characters' experiences progress from domestic or mundane, to slightly creepy, and then straight from there to shuddering with existential dread or outright terror. There is one scene, for example, in which our post-punk narrator Johnny Truant is so scared that he loses control of his bowels while at work; in most situations, having one's pants full of shit would be a gross-out, but since Johnny believes he is about to get ripped limb from limb by some kind of vicious monster, it's not his top concern. Likewise, by the time Truant allows his apartment to generate into a filthy mess that probably would disgust us could we see or smell it, his mental state is too far gone to register that disgust or communicate it to us. Most of the book works like this: there's just not a lot of space in which the characters have the luxury of being disgusted without the disgust being trumped by terror, and it's tempting to extrapolate from here some general rule about disgust.
On the other hand, this split between fear and disgust isn't necessarily a constant. There are plenty of horror films, for example, that combine the scary with the disgusting. Over Twitter the past few days, Sarah and I have been having come great conversations about House of Leaves and the Aliens franchise (two different, unrelated conversations). Regular readers here probably imagine I have a strong stomach because of the disgust project, but in reality I'm a total wuss about gross-out films, and I've been avoiding the Aliens movies for that reason, even though the prospect of a kick-ass Sigourney Weaver is hard to pass up. Anyway, it got me thinking: films featuring monsters or zombies that drip pus, ooze, or other bodily substances while also threatening the protagonists manage to combine disgust and fear with very little problem. Maybe the difference is that, while the film's audience can be startled and drawn into the suspense of the story, they still know that they are not in real danger and so have that part of their brains free for the disgust reaction. Whereas, even in a film, when a character is in a life-or-death situation he or she is probably going to prioritize the fear and adrenaline over the "eww" factor.
In House of Leaves, in any case, the horror is all pretty non-disgusting. Unless you consider getting hit on by Harold Bloom or Camille Paglia disgusting, that is....more
You know what sucks? Reading slumps. All the while I've not been blogging over the past few weeks (with the exception of the sex scene entry, which, TYou know what sucks? Reading slumps. All the while I've not been blogging over the past few weeks (with the exception of the sex scene entry, which, THANKS, by the way, for all those amazing comments), I bet that some of you were imagining that was due to writer's block or a busy social life or some such thing but I tell you now it's because I've barely picked up a book in all that time. I just can't seem to settle to anything. Whenever this happens to me, which is luckily not often, it makes me twitchy and irritable and generally unpleasant, but there's no use forcing the issue: it will come to an end eventually.
In any case, I did, finally, in dribs and drabs, finish Patricia Highsmith's classic psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, so I can at least post about that. The Ripley novels, I think, are examples of those books whose basic premises most people either know or think they know, to wit: charismatic psychopath social climber kills a wealthy friend of his and steals friend's identity. Yet I was surprised at the degree to which Tom Ripley (in this first book, at least) is not so much the winning, charismatic charmer he may later become—not yet quite so talented, perhaps—but more of a sullen, insecure kid one step ahead of the law, with the most unnervingly and convincingly unstable personalities I've ever run across in fiction. Ripley does not come across, to my surprise, as constantly on top of things, or particularly premeditating, and although he does have a fairly good ability to win people over, at least temporarily, it takes a gargantuan effort for him to overcome his distaste for "normal" behavior and for most of the people surrounding him, in order to do so. Nor can he rely on his own mental processes or moods being at all predictable. In this early scene, for example, Tom is being wined and dined by his "friend"'s parents in their Manhattan apartment, and has a sudden near-break with his own sense of identity:
When he had said to Mrs. Greenleaf just now, I'll do everything I can ... Well, he meant it. He wasn't trying to fool anybody.
He felt himself beginning to sweat, and he tried to relax. What was he so worried about? He'd felt so well tonight! When he had said that about Aunt Dottie—
Tom straightened, glancing at the door, but the door had not opened. That had been the only time tonight when he had felt uncomfortable, unreal, the way he might have felt if he had been lying, yet it had been practically the only thing he had said that was true: My parents died when I was very small. I was raised by my aunt in Boston.
What Highsmith does so well, I think, is to portray the difficulty Tom has in distinguishing between real and imaginary, fact and fiction. Logically, he knows that he ought to associate his true statements ("My parents died when I was very small") with a feeling of groundedness, of the reality of his own person-hood—and logically, he knows that lying ought to make him feel less real, more uncomfortable. He runs into two problems: one, that his sense of reality is tenuous at best, not particularly tethered one way or another to the truthfulness of his statements or the genuineness of his current persona. He is prone to bursts of manic confidence alternating with near-baseless panic attacks, and although the reader can see Tom attempting to correlate these moods with external causes ("He'd felt so well tonight!") and his own motivations ("He wasn't tying to fool anybody"), the truth of Highsmith's portrayal seems to me to reflect the fluctuations of severely unbalanced brain chemistry more than logical cause and effect. Tom's psychopathic blankness of personality lend him his frightening ability to inhabit whatever persona he chooses, but Highsmith also lets us glimpse how that lack of mooring within his own head is profoundly frightening (and exhilarating) for Tom himself.
A state which only worsens, of course, since Tom's second problem is that as the novel progresses he spends so much time crafting convincing lies, truly inhabiting his roles and becoming the characters he pretends to be—"Tom Ripley" just one among many—that there really is no longer much difference in his mind between the factually true and false, or between the imagined and actual. In one vertiginous scene, Tom imagines that he has killed someone who is actually still alive, and reels with the inability to reverse the action, not wanting to have taken that irrevocable step into the state of murderer. The irony being, of course, that while the object of his imaginary crime still lives, the victims of his two real murders do not: and Tom is not hyperventilating over them.
I definitely want to mention in this post the uneasy place this novel must hold in the emerging canon of queer literature. Citing The Talented Mr. Ripley as "LGBT Lit" might be similar to arguing a point about abortion using Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants": it's a masterful piece of work that has the issue as a prominent theme, yet offers no particular conclusions on the subject. Though Highsmith slept with both men and women ("relationships" might be too soft a word), and though Tom is a semi-closeted gay man whose issues around his sexuality play into his eventual crimes, The Talented Mr. Ripley comes across as neither a "pro-gay" or "anti-gay" novel. In fact, it seems perfectly possible to me to argue any of three positions, based on the text:
Tom's homosexuality is another facet of the mental illness or "wrongness" that leads to him becoming a murderer.
The social pressures that force Tom to remain closeted and ashamed gradually destroy his sense of self and lead him into murder.
Tom is a born psychopath who also happens to be gay. The two elements of his personality are unconnected.
Perhaps it goes without saying that I prefer the third analysis. However, I do honestly think one could cite evidence for any of the three, and it's hard to dismiss whispers of any of any of them completely. Highsmith is many things, but she is neither didactic nor reassuring. I can't help but respect her more because of it.
Notes on Disgust (for more information on the disgust project, see here)
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a great choice for the disgust project, because disgust features in the novel just enough to be interesting, but not so much that it overwhelms the narrative. Most often, Tom's disgust is used to mark out his conflicted sexual feelings, especially where Marge, the friend and would-be girlfriend of Dickie Greenleaf, is concerned. Tom only admits to himself in flashes his desire to kiss, be close to, and later kill and replace Dickie, but his possessiveness and unacknowledged homosexuality make their way into the open via his extreme aversion to anything relating to Marge, from her clothes hanging to dry on the lines to her very presence on outings with Dickie. When Tom sees the two of them kissing, he feels nauseated:
Now Marge's face was tipped straight up to Dickie's, as if she were fairly lost in ecstasy, and what disgusted Tom was that he knew Dickie didn't mean it, that Dickie was only using this cheap obvious, easy way to hold on to her friendship. What disgusted him was the big bulge of her behind in the peasant skirt below Dickie's arm that circled her waist. And Dickie—! Tom really wouldn't have believed it possible of Dickie!
Tom turned away and ran down the steps, wanting to scream.
He then runs back to the house he's sharing with Dickie, puts on Dickie's clothes, and pretends to break up with Marge in Dickie's voice—all of which foreshadows his eventual crimes toward Dickie, and adds another level of significance to Tom's disgust at seeing Marge's bras on the clothes line. Later on, Tom's disgust becomes ever more closely linked with his murders (he feels disgust on seeing the body of his second victim lying on the floor, and on recalling that person's actions leading up to the crime) and his contemplated murders (while thinking about committing the murder that never quite happens, he is disgusted by incidentals: people at a party, and some algae growing by his doorstep).
In none of these cases is the disgust directed inwards, towards Tom Ripley and the acts he has committed. In none of them does Tom feel moral disgust, only physical or circumstantial repulsion (the closest he gets to righteous disgust is late in the book, when he is being hounded by the Italian press and claims to be "irritated and disgusted" with them). Significantly, though, not only does Tom fail to apply any standards of disgust to himself, but the feeling usually indicates the bubbling up of feelings or memories he is trying to repress. Although Tom himself seems not to make the connection, disgust here seems to be a sign of cognitive dissonance which the rest of Tom's wildly swinging moods don't necessarily acknowledge. It often makes him seem less human—as when he's practically vomiting over a kiss between Marge and Dickie, or when he feels repulsed rather than horrified while gazing at the body of his victim—but in a way, the disgust is one of the most humane aspects of his reactions, one of the lingering remnants of whatever morality he may once have possessed....more
As a break from the theoretical turn Evening All Afternoon has been taking of late, let me rhapsodize straightforwardly about the numerous things I loAs a break from the theoretical turn Evening All Afternoon has been taking of late, let me rhapsodize straightforwardly about the numerous things I love in the writing of Lydia Davis. In particular, I've just finished her 2004 The End of the Story, which treats of the end, beginning, and aftermath (in that order) of a love affair, and also of the process of transforming that love affair into a novel.
I was particularly intrigued to pick up Davis's novel, as her stories tend to the radically succinct—one or two paragraphs each, a page or less. Nor is her work overtly affective, consisting of schematic yet detailed accounts of a character's actions, surroundings, habits, or mental processes. Like Proust, whose Swann's Way she translated, Davis pays attention to nuance and is intrigued by the often-perverse twistings and turnings of the human psyche. Unlike Proust, her paragraphs tend to fit on one page, and can usually be enjoyed on their own as single, jewel-like units. While some writers are most impressive at the level of the sentence or the chapter, Davis shines on the level of the paragraph—either single paragraphs or, often, a longer paragraph followed by a shorter paragraph, which shows the earlier paragraph in a new light. It reminds me of the way haikus often work, with the last line casting the first two in a new perspective. In this paragraph pair, for example, the narrator is describing a dream she had just after embarking on the relationship around which the book revolves:
Later that night I dreamed I had found a short piece of his writing on the hall floor. It had a title page and my name on it and my address at the university. Most of it was plainly written, but it contained a passage about Paris in which the writing became suddenly more lyrical, including a phrase about the "shudder of war." Then the style became plain again. The last sentence was briefer than the rest: "We are always surprising our bookkeepers." In the dream, I liked the piece and was relieved by that, although I did not like the last sentence. Once I was awake, I liked the last sentence too, even more than the rest.
I see now that since I hadn't yet read anything by him at the time of the dream, what I was doing was composing something by him that I would like. And although this was my dream and he did not write what I dreamed he wrote, the words I remember still seem to belong to him, not to me.
I find Davis's paragraphs so compelling because, while each one does suggest narrative motion, they are short enough that no real resolution is expected. They allow the reader simply to notice contradiction and live within it at the level of the thought or the moment, without requiring that contradiction to be resolved. Above, for example, the narrator observes the contrast between the lyrical passage and the plain writing that surrounds it; between the brevity of the final sentence and those that preceded it; between her opinions of the last sentence before and after waking. In the second paragraph we have the narrator's feeling that her dream-composition belongs to her ex-lover, which contrasts with her intellectual knowledge that it was created in her own mind. She doesn't seek to explain or interpret any of this in any explicit way, or decide that one impression is correct and the other incorrect. She simply lays out paradox in clean lines, and allows the reader to do with it what she will. I enjoy the aesthetics of art that simply dwells within contradiction, possibly because I find this so difficult to do in my own life.
Nor is it easy for Davis's narrator. Despite the detachment of the narrative style, and the fact that reading this book imparted to me a sense of calm, the narrator in her daily life appears anything but peaceful. She is anxious and high-strung, and her behavior both during and after the relationship is often less than admirable—although she seldom makes this explicit judgment herself, writing instead simply, "At that time I liked to drink. I always needed a drink if I was going to sit and talk to someone," or "Most of his friends were as young as he was, and [...] I did not regard people of that age as very interesting, even though I had been that age myself." Oddly, it's the understatement in Davis's prose that makes her depictions of depression and bad behavior particularly uncomfortable for me, as if, in calmly acknowledging these unattractive aspects of her own personality, the narrator is making room for me to do the same. The emotions felt at a given time are simply another piece of information to be recounted, no more freighted or difficult than anything else. Or, if they are more difficult, then this difficulty can in turn be acknowledged, and the narrator can live beside it.
But no matter how clearly I saw what I was doing, I would go on doing it, as though I simply allowed my shame to sit there alongside my need to do it, one separate from the other. I often chose to do the wrong thing and feel bad about it rather than do the right thing, if the wrong thing was what I wanted.
Although it can sometimes be sobering, Davis's un-emotive delivery can also be dryly hilarious. I was particularly tickled by her portraits of her own compulsive or inconvenient habits of thought, which often had me chuckling and insisting on reading passages aloud to my partner David. The same technique I outlined above, of returning to things previously discussed in order to cast them in a new light, can be extremely funny as well as meditative and thought-provoking, and Davis uses it in all these applications to good effect. My favorite humorous example of this technique, involving the narrator's confusion in the face of her own elaborate filing system for different types of fictional material, is too long to share here, but trust me, it's worth a read. Instead I'll give you this passage on lying awake scheming, which strikes me as both funny and a great union of form and content. Just as the brain of the sleepless narrator becomes more and more fixated on her crusading busy-bodying, the paragraph itself focuses in on a particular, esoteric scheme:
Now and then I am too excited to sleep, because I have a plan to reform something: if not what we eat, which should be the diet of the hunter-gatherers, then what we have in our house, which should include as little plastic as possible and as much wood, clay, stone, cotton, and wool; or the habits of the people in our town, who should not cut down trees in their yards or burn leaves or rubbish; or the administration of our town, which should create more parks and lay down a sidewalk by the side of every road to encourage people to walk, etc. I wonder what I can do to help save local farms. Then I think we should keep a pig here to eat our table scraps, and that the Senior Citizens Center should keep a pig, too, because so much food is thrown out when the old people don't eat it, as I used to see when I went to pick up Vincent's father at lunchtime. The pig could be fattened on these scraps until the holiday season, and then provide the senior citizens with a holiday meal. A new baby pig could be bought in the spring and amuse the senior citizens with its antics.
For some reason, the isolated sentence "I wonder what I can do to help save local farms" is especially funny to me.
But as much as I enjoy the humor, my favorite thing about Davis might be her examination of the subjectivity involved in our experiences of reality and in the truths we believe we know. The narrator continually struggles with what to include in her story and how to tell it. The same incident appears differently in her memory each time she remembers it, depending on her mood at the time of remembering, information she has learned in the meantime, or other external factors. In one case, she remembers the same house as three completely different settings: the kitchen in which she played a word game; the back yard through which she entered a party with her lover; the front door and living room she visited after he left her. What is the reality? Are these "really" the same place, or three separate places? Likewise, Davis explores the mental tricks of perception which create a surprising percentage of the texture of one's reality.
In the same way, I will decide to include a certain thought in a certain place in the novel and then discover that several months before, I made a note to include the same thought in the same place and then did not do it. I have the curious feeling that my decision of several months ago was made by someone else. Now there has been a consensus and I am suddenly more confident: if she had the same plan, it must be a good one.
Of course there is not actually another person making editorial decisions for the narrator, but her lived reality includes a ghost or an impression of this other woman helping her write. In combination with her koan-like style, it's Davis's insights into the unexpected reverses of human consciousness and behavior that will keep me coming back to her work. And although I think she's probably more accomplished as a "micro-story" writer than a novelist, The End of the Story has no problem sustaining its novelistic momentum from beginning to end. I look forward to more of Davis's work, in any format at all.
Notes on Disgust (for more information on the disgust project, see here.)
Davis's style tends toward the schematic and is unlikely to provoke any disgust in the reader. Still, there is this interesting passage, in which the narrator, just before her lover leaves her, encounters him unexpectedly at a party:
It was a feeling of absolute displeasure to see him there, as though he were a hostile element in that place, a thing that intruded where it didn't belong, so that as I watched him among the moving figures, over the shoulders of the other people in the crowded place, those same features of his that had held such a positive attraction for me not long before, and that would exert such a fascinating force again not long after, were just then repugnant to me, blunt and deadly, primitive and vicious, without intelligence, without humanity, the color of clay.
What struck me so forcibly about this passage is the narrator's extremely Douglasian description of her own revulsion. Seeing her lover at this party disgusts her because he seems "a thing that intruded where it didn't belong"—matter out of place, just as Douglas describes. The narrator's momentary revulsion even causes her to perceive her lover's feature as "primitive," and we notice the dehumanizing tendency that so often goes hand-in-hand with the disgust emotion. The lover's appearance in a place that the narrator doesn't expect to see him, when she is feeling alienated from him, gives him a repulsive and marginal appearance, almost seeming to melt back into an undifferentiated lump "the color of clay," yet in his distorted, sub-human form is still monstrous, "deadly" and "vicious."
True to form, there were also times when the narrator is disgusted at herself, in particular a passage in which she remembers with loathing the chips and playing cards she and her lover bought at the store in an attempt to disguise their growing boredom with each other. But it's this passage that really stood out as intriguing and oddly extreme....more
That James Joyce and his final paragraphs. I have to hand it to the man, he sure knew how to end a book. The final passage of Ulysses is justly famousThat James Joyce and his final paragraphs. I have to hand it to the man, he sure knew how to end a book. The final passage of Ulysses is justly famous for Molly Bloom's orgasmic "Yes I said Yes I will Yes," but it's possible that the somnolent incantation of snow-blanketed Ireland in the final pages of The Dead is just as strong, with its repetitions and inversions ("falling softly"/"softly falling") and its vast but muted vistas. It's certainly one of those passages, like Mrs. Dalloway's "What a lark! What a plunge!" or The Unnamable's "I can't go on, I'll go on," whose echoes I hear in my head on a regular basis, triggered by a fragment of casual conversation, an everyday action, or another written phrase:
It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: the snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Thus Gabriel Conroy, would-be cosmopolitan and darling of his elderly aunts, drifts off to sleep after attending the aunts' annual Epiphany dance. Having tipped the caretaker's daughter, gotten into an awkward conversation with a nationalist colleague, expertly carved the goose, and made a speech, he then leaves the party and experiences an attack of longing for his wife, only to find out a long-kept secret about her youthful past. This time through, I was surprised that most of what I remember as powerful, including Gabriel's lust for Gretta, her story and his pre-sleep musing—happens in the final fifth of the novella, with the rest being devoted to the Epiphany party. Bibliographing Nicole had a similar trick of memory, which sounds maybe more extreme than mine.
Knowing what was coming, it was interesting to re-read the long party section for elucidation of what comes later. Gabriel, for example, though the golden nephew in his aunts' eyes, is several times severely discomfited when women challenge him, or react to his pleasantries differently than he expects. The caretaker's daughter Lily makes an unexpectedly dark comment about men in response to Gabriel's teasing, and Gabriel "coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake," awkwardly making amends by slipping her a coin. Later on, he's similarly ill at ease when his colleague Miss Ivors confronts him for having (in her eyes) insufficient pride in his Irish heritage—deciding to alter his annual speech out of deference to her. In fact, he spends a good deal of the party worrying about his speech, about whether it will come off conceited or whether he will alienate his audience if he quotes poetry too sophisticated for their palates. Like Stephen Dedalus after him, Gabriel is too self-conscious to feel natural in his own skin most of the time. Even his yearning for Gretta late in the book is beset by similarly uncertain moments, intermixed with a powerful warmth of memory and strength of desire. This makes her final revelation, which seems to exclude him from an important part of her inner life, that much more of a blow—for Gabriel, if not for the reader.
And indeed, I was thinking throughout this reading of a debate I got into in a British Modernism class once, about whether Gretta's sadness at remembering the death of her young lover actually does invalidate somehow the years of warmth and memories that Gabriel is remembering just before she tells him the story:
Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory. A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing on the crowded platform and he was placing a ticket inside the warm palm of his glove. He was standing with her in the cold, looking in through a grated window at a man making bottles in a roaring furnace...
At the time, I felt very strongly that a single tragic incident from Gretta's past does not "trump" the years of quotidian connection between husband and wife, however jarring it might be for Gabriel to hear his wife's story when he is in such a different mood. My own prejudice remains one that would privilege Gabriel's stockpile of seemingly mundane shared experiences over a more Romantic tragic love story. Now that I'm less invested in the idea that Joyce must necessarily be expressing my own feelings, though, I can see both sides. To take my original position, we are not presented with an incompatible or unhappy couple. Gretta's gentle ribbing of Gabriel as they arrive at the party, about the care he takes of their children and the way he makes her wear galoshes to keep her from getting a cold, makes clear their mutual affection. So too, Gabriel's indignant thoughts when he remembers that his mother never quite approved of Gretta, and always thought that he married slightly beneath him, would vouch for the store he sets by her even if his later lustiness did not. So it still seems to me that this is a portrait of one melancholic night in a more or less successful marriage—or, more generally, of the way in which we can never achieve complete knowledge of another person, even if we are close to them—rather than a picture of an unhappy woman putting on a brave face as she secretly pines away for her lost lover.
Still, Gabriel definitely has his self-deluding moments, in large part due to his insecurity. He is cold with Gretta when she says she would love to see Galway again, because he has just been made to feel uncomfortable by Miss Ivors and he doesn't want to hear enthusiasm for Miss Ivors's plans. He's unable to access Gretta's own excitement, and it's only when he sees his wife look melancholy and romantic that he feels the desire to reconnect with her. Even then, his desire takes a kind of scripted form: he wants to "defend her against something and then to be alone with her"; or to spirit her away to a never-never land far from their daily commitments. Perhaps some of his devastation at hearing the tale of Michael Furey speaks to his own investment in Romantic tropes like that of the of gallant male savior and damsel in distress, or that of the great tragic love that ends in death. Although Joyce's own commitment to these tropes might be significantly less (and given Ulysses it's hard to think differently), his portrayal of Gabriel's disillusionment is still affecting.
Revisiting that closing paragraph, I was struck by the odd-seeming sentence, "The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward." I hadn't remembered it, I'm still not clear exactly what it's doing there. It seems, in the context of the novella's title and Gabriel's mood, imbued with intimations of mortality, as if traveling west would be synonymous with starting down the road toward death. (Possibly this is backed by religious and/or mythic traditions of which I'm not aware?) Alternately, it could tie in with the scene in which Miss Ivors proposes that Gabriel and Gretta come with her on a trip to the Aran Islands, which are in the far West of Ireland (as opposed to the eastern-situated Dublin, where the action is taking place). Gabriel, would-be man of the world, prefers to take his holidays on the Continent, in France or Germany. In a subsequent conversation with Gretta, as noted above, she's more enthusiastic than Gabriel about visiting western Ireland, as she would "love to see Galway again"—the city in which she lived during her youth. Thus western Ireland is presented as particularly Irish, being both the favored destination of the nationalist Miss Ivors and the hometown of the slightly earthy Gretta. Perhaps Gabriel's journey "westward" is one of coming to terms with the Irishness he has been trying to escape, in addition to a journey in imagination back to the site of his wife's youthful tragedy.
Notes on Disgust (for more information on the disgust project, see here)
Since I've started the disgust project, this is the first thing I've read in which I neither felt any disgust while reading, or noticed any characters feeling disgust. A disgust-free read, unless I'm missing something, for those who aren't as fascinated by the disgusting as I am! ...more
The most surprising thing about reading Mary Douglas's 1966 anthropological classic Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo,The most surprising thing about reading Mary Douglas's 1966 anthropological classic Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, was my sheer enjoyment of the thing. This is a theoretical work, written less for a lay audience than for Douglas's fellow cultural anthropologists, and yet her style is clean and lively, with barbs of wit to keep things interesting. ("This fashionable presentation," she quips at one point, "was supported by no evidence whatever.") As a result, it was far more entertaining than I had anticipated, and although Douglas's approach is now out of fashion for being overly rigid and/or simplistic, she introduced me to some ideas and dichotomies that will be worth thinking about during my ongoing disgust project. (On which subject, I haven't forgotten that second post on Mary Gaitskill's Veronica, but it occurred to me that the Douglas may be relevant to Gaitskill, so I thought I'd post on Douglas first.)
That said, there is a lot contained in this slim book, and I'm sorting out exactly what relation it may hold to analyzing disgust in non-ritual settings. Essentially, Douglas is writing about ritual cleanness and uncleanness, and the role that rituals of purity and pollution play in both "primitive" and "advanced" societies. Since her focus is on ritual cleanliness and pollution, she is only addressing certain kinds of situations in which disgust may or may not arise, and the disgust itself is not her main focus—something that makes William Ian Miller's dismissal of her points a bit unfair, in my opinion. Her overarching claim is that ritual pollution tends to reinforce the structure of a given society, defending the boundaries of that structure when they're threatened. As such (although this idea is more mine than Douglas's) the idea of pollution is fundamentally conservative, helping to maintain the status quo in the face of whatever forces may the threatening it.
For example, in one chapter she analyzes the esoteric food restrictions in the biblical book of Leviticus. Here the link with disgust seems relatively strong: foods forbidden the Israelites are described as unclean abominations, even when, to the casual reader, there seems little difference between them and the permitted foods. Following her usual pattern, Douglas first debunks a couple of previous schools of thought that attempted to explain the food prohibitions: she is satisfied neither by the idea that the prohibited foods are those associated with neighboring "heathen" clans (since the Israelites often incorporated foods and behaviors from their neighbors elsewhere), nor by the notion of an allegorical reading of these prohibitions (since it's possible for a reader to construct an allegorical reading of any combination of animals, and nothing of the sort is mentioned in the actual text). She neatly pokes holes in both theories, and is even more dismissive of the idea that these prohibitions rested on a pre-knowledge of modern hygienic requirements.
She suggests instead that the prohibited animals are those which exist at the uneasy boundaries of animal types, and which therefore are unclassifiable, seen as hybrid or monstrous. What makes her argument so persuasive, at least to this theological innocent, is that this is actually what the text itself says, whereas other interpretations are deductions away from textual evidence. For example, Leviticus specifically states that the category of animals which chew the cud and have cloven hooves are permitted for eating. If this is a distinct type of animal by the Hebrew classification system, then animals which have only one of these traits (cud-chewing or cloven hooves) would be seen as odd border-cases and possibly contaminating. And indeed, "unclean" animals include "the camel, the hare and the rock badger [hyrax], because they chew the cud but do not part the hoof...and the swine, because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud." Similarly, animals which move by "swarming" are forbidden because the Hebrew word for "swarming" is an intermediate form of locomotion somewhere between walking and slithering, and can be applied to both earth-bound and water-bound creatures—disrupting more boundaries. Thus, in Leviticus,
[I}n general the underlying principle of cleanness in animals is that they shall conform fully to their class. Those species are unclean which are imperfect members of their class, or whose class itself confounds the general scheme of the world. (55)
Through declaring certain animals unclean for eating, the Leviticus author was helping to "create and control experience," (65), which Douglas argues is a key role for all ritual, both religious and secular. And indeed, she argues passionately that many of the dichotomies used by previous anthropologists working in this area are either totally misguided (the separation of "magic" from "religion," for example, which Douglas sees as residual Protestant bias against Catholics, and establishes a dichotomy unsupported by actual conversations with tribal people) or irrelevant to the questions she is asking. In both primitive and modern cultures, "dirt" occupies a similar systemic niche:
[D]irt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. If we shun dirt, it is not because of craven fear, still less dread or holy terror. Nor do our ideas about disease account for the range of our behaviour in cleaning or avoiding dirt. Dirt offends against order. [...] For I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. (2 - 4)
Thus ritual, and the ideas of purification and cleanliness, hold power to impose order against the threatening chaos. Despite Miller's complaints against Douglas, this is essentially the flipside of his own argument: he claims that a major component of our experience of disgust is a confrontation with the ever-changing, chaotic flux of "life soup," itself the perfect symbol of Douglas's "essential disorder." Yet "life soup" also holds huge amounts of power and potential—in fact, one of the threatening things about it is that it reminds each of us that our bodies and brains are only temporary organizations of matter. In the chapter "Power and Danger," Douglas analyzes this idea on the level of social structures:
Granted that disorder spoils pattern; it also provides the materials of pattern. Order implies restriction; from all possible materials, a limited selection has been made and from all possible relations a limited set has been used. So disorder by implication is unlimited, no pattern has been realised in it, but its potential for patterning is infinite. This is why, though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognise that it is destructive to existing patterns; also that it has potentiality. It symbolises both power and danger. (94)
She goes on to elucidate who, in a given society, is likely to be endowed with the conscious use of the power of disorder (often termed witchcraft or sorcery), and who is likely to be thought to inflict the danger of disorder unconsciously. This section seems particularly relevant to Veronica and to modern disgust in general, since our disgust is so often directed toward those in the margins (homo- and bisexuals; the homeless; the visibly mentally ill), and their contagion is often felt to endanger those around them without any conscious malicious effort on their part. This accords with Douglas's analysis: in the tribal cultures she cites, conscious and directed use of sorcery is usually associated with those who possess structural power: chieftans, kings, patriarchs. The magic associated with those on the structural margins is often thought to emanate from them without their conscious intention. In this passage, which strikes me as profoundly relevant to Mary Gaitskill, Douglas moves from general points to a discussion of Maori boys undergoing an initiation rite into adulthood:
Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable. The person who must pass from one to another is himself in danger and emanates danger to others. The danger is controlled by ritual which precisely separates him from his old status, segregates him for a time and then publicly declares his entry into his new status. [...] To behave anti-socially is the proper expression of [the Maori boys'] marginal condition. To have been in the margins is to have been in contact with danger, to have been at a source of power. (96-97)
I'm drawn to this idea of the disordered margins (source of so much of the disgusting) as both dangerous and powerful or compelling. And it's not just people passing through one stage of life into another: those who occupy ambiguous or double roles in a social structure are sometimes thought to be sources of dangerous pollution by the mere fact of their existence. Douglas brings up a number of examples in which groups or individuals who in practice hold some level of unacknowledged or uncertain power (Kachin wives, Jews in England, Joan of Arc, or the serf-like Mandari "clients," all of whom occupy uneasy, intermediate power positions) are thought to be involuntary sources of witchcraft.
[The witchcraft] may lie dormant as they live their life peacefully in the corner of the sub-system in which they are intruders. But this role is in practice difficult to play coolly. If anything goes wrong, if they feel resentment or grief, then their double loyalties and their ambiguous status in the structure where they are concerned makes them appear as a danger to those belonging fully in it. It is the existence of an angry person in an interstitial position which is dangerous, and this has nothing to do with the particular intentions of the person. (102, emphasis mine)
"An angry person in an interstitial position": surely a useful formula to keep in mind.
There are certainly problematic elements in Purity and Danger. Probably the section which gave me the most pause was Chapter 5, "Primitive Worlds," in which the author searches for a principle to distinguish "primitive" societies from those properly classed "advanced." And there's a reason I've used some variation of the word "structure" so many times in this post: Douglas is a proponent of high anthropological Structuralism, which has since fallen out of favor for its reductionism and simplification of human societies. She herself is not unconscious of these criticisms, though, and does address them in the book. And although her Anglo-centrism is grating at times to a modern ear—when she uses the word "we" it is always synonymous with English Protestant, as if she expects that these will be her only readers—she also makes a genuine and respectable effort to demolish many of the more egregious assumptions made by early 20th-century anthropologists and psychologists about "primitive" peoples. Her chapter debunking psychology's equation of primitive rituals with infant and childhood stages of development is particularly scathing. So, as I said, surprisingly enjoyable as well as very thought-provoking.
I am left with some questions vis-à-vis Douglas and my own project. Principally, what is the relationship between a person in a ritual state of pollution, a person who is disgusted, and a person who is (to some third party) disgusting? Is pollution synonymous with, or totally unrelated to, disgust? Obviously, given that I've spent this long writing about Douglas, I don't believe the two are irrelevant to one another, but neither do I believe they're identical. For one thing, pollution as Douglas is describing it is almost by definition a codified element of a social structure. Whereas the circumstances of the disgust emotion are socially constructed as well, it's not formalized in the same way, and it seems to me more individualized as well. There are things whole societies will find disgusting—indeed, there are things almost all humans, cross-culturally, find disgusting—but there are also many idiosyncratic quirks to the disgust reactions of individuals. There's no equivalent of Leviticus to tell us what's disgusting and what's not. In any case, teasing out exactly which of Douglas's writings on pollution are relevant to disgust, and what the relationship between the two might be, will be interesting fodder for future thought. In the meantime, I can't resist closing with one more quote, this one from Douglas's rich final chapter, examining rituals in which dirt and filth are sometimes re-contextualized as creative, positive forces. Those concerned about finding Douglas insensitive to the complexity of human society should rest easy:
Of course, the yearning for rigidity is in us all. It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts. When we have them we have to either face the fact that some realities elude them, or else blind ourselves to the inadequacy of the concepts.
The final paradox of the search for purity is that it is an attempt to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction. But experience is not amenable and those who make the attempt find themselves led into contradiction. (162)
I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Joseph Conrad, with his tropical marine settings and his thoughtful, melancholy narrators. Spending a sunny afternoon wI'd forgotten how much I enjoy Joseph Conrad, with his tropical marine settings and his thoughtful, melancholy narrators. Spending a sunny afternoon with Freya of the Seven Isles kindled my interest in revisiting Lord Jim, Victory and Heart of Darkness, and in exploring the rest of his work that I haven't read.
Freya is a classic tragedy of the kind the reader sees coming from the opening pages due to the flaws-which-are-often-actually-virtues of the characters, yet still hopes will turn out right in the end. As we open, the narrator tells us he has just received a letter from an old sea buddy of his, who asks if he remembers "old Nelson"—an Englishman and former settler in the Dutch East Indies who, it turns out, is actually named "Nielsen." The narrator continues to call his old acquaintance by both names—"Nelson (or Nielsen)"—throughout the novella, and the this double moniker, marking him as somewhat English, or at least cozy with the English (Nelson) but also somewhat Scandinavian (Nielsen), turns out to be key to his character and the unfolding action. Nelson (or Nielsen) is Scandinavian enough to be permitted to settle in the Dutch-controlled Seven Isles group, but not Dutch enough to feel secure there, and is so perpetually terrified of the Dutch "authorities" that he allows himself and his daughter Freya to be walked all over by a petty officer named Heemskirk. Add into the mix the pride and attractiveness of Freya herself; the high-spirited English man she actually loves and who loves her; and the failure of the characters to communicate at key moments, and you have the makings of an inevitable love-triangle-cum-disaster. In case we were not getting the message, the narrator gives us passages like this one, in which he's talking with Freya's secret fiancé Jasper Allen:
"Mind you don't come to grief trying to do too much," I admonished him. But he dismissed my caution with a laugh and an elated gesture. Pooh! Nothing, nothing could happen to the brig, he cried, as if the flame of his heart could light up the dark nights of uncharted seas, and the image of Freya serve for an unerring beacon amongst hidden shoals; as if the winds had to wait on his future, and the stars fight for it in their courses; as if the magic of his passion had the power to float a ship on a drop of dew or wail her through the eye of a needle—simply because it was her magnificent lot to be the servant of a love so full of grace as to make all the ways of the earth safe, resplendent, and easy.
Oh man, the kid is doomed. "Nothing could happen to the brig," indeed. It's pretty plain that the earth will not remain for him safe or resplendent, and least of all easy. Still, with his parallel constructions and heightened imagery Conrad manages to elicit (in me, at least) a bit of the soaring feeling Jasper describes, even as my gut sinks with the dismal knowledge that his confidence is about to be crushed.
In contrast to Jasper's romanticism we have Freya's supposed "sensibleness," which her father believes will prevent her from falling in love with anyone in the first place, and which in reality means that even when she has fallen in love, she still wants a well-planned and executed elopement rather than a rushing off pell-mell into the wide blue yonder. Conrad's attitude toward Freya's seeming sensibleness is interesting to me. The narrator seems to admire it, contrasting it favorably with the "absurdity" (fearfulness in Nelson, jealousy in Heemskirk, impetuousness in Jasper) of all the men around her, and in a way it's refreshing to read a 1911 novella where the most down-to-earth character is the single woman. On the other hand, though, one wonders about how positive this quality really is; after all, had Freya simply consented to run away with Jasper earlier in the book, the couple would probably have had a happy life together—or at least some kind of life, which is more than either one ends up with in the end. Freya is a managerial type, and although her insights into others' characters—her father's likelihood to descend into anxiety attacks if she tells him her marriage plans ahead of time, for example—are spot-on, her fatal flaw is, perhaps, taking too much on her own shoulders and failing to communicate to any of the other characters until it's far too late. As the narrator laments,
And yet there was something she might have told a friend. But she didn't. We parted silently.
Freya's extreme self-sufficiency is part and parcel of her sensibleness, and is indeed opposite of the frailties so often laid at female doors (hysteria, clinginess, indecisiveness, etc.). Yet Conrad depicts even this as something that can be taken too far, however admirable it might be.
Notes on Disgust (for more information on the disgust project, see here)
Disgust is mentioned twice in Freya of the Seven Isles, and in both cases it's used to underline the mutual aversion felt between the Dutch and English traders. As in Pamuk's Snow, this is very much a disgust marking the boundaries of "us versus them." In the first instance, the narrator is speaking about the Dutch attitude toward Freya's lover Jasper:
They considered him much too enterprising in his trading. I don't know that he ever did anything illegal, but it seems to me that his immense activity was repulsive to their stolid character and slow-going methods.
One senses here that the narrator is being slightly flip here: the Dutch are probably not literally repulsed by Jasper's level of industry. Still, as Willian Ian Miller points out, the rhetoric of disgust is still strong even when used in jest. The Dutch may not quite retch when they see Jasper approach in the Bonito, but they are averse to him; they distrust him. His way of being in the world does not accord with their own. To the Dutch "we," in other words, he is a "they." The narrator's own lightness in this paragraph perhaps mimics Jasper's own lack of seriousness around Heemskirk and the Dutch in general, while at the same time foreshadowing the tale's tragic end. In any case, the reader is certainly not supposed to share the Dutch disgust for Jasper. The boy may be a little foolish, but he's essentially a sympathetic, if doomed, character. Thus the Dutch revulsion against him makes them less sympathetic generally, or at least signals a tragic lack of understanding between the two parties.
In the second instance, Freya thinks of Heemskirk as "odiously...absurd" and a "grotesquely supine creature" as he sits sulking that she prefers Jasper, and she avoids going to talk with him, instead sitting down at the piano to play. Here the reader is meant to share her revulsion, especially since we have seen his thoughts and they are petty, selfish and vindictive. Disgust here marks true moral flaws in the person eliciting the disgust, reflecting our own opinion of Heemskirk and confirming Freya as a good judge of character. Given the passage quoted above, it's probably not irrelevant that Heemskirk is Dutch and dark-complected (that is, in opposition to the fair-haired, attractive English characters who would otherwise find happiness on the island). Conrad isn't above a bit of jingoism (infamously). Still, he makes Heemskirk a sufficiently loathsome and petty little man in his own right that I felt justified in sharing Freya's view. At the same time, her disgust in this scene prevents her from sweet-talking Heemskirk out of his funk, which might potentially have saved the entire progression of events from veering out of control....more
Except for Flush and The Voyage Out, which I have yet to read at all (!), Jacob's Room is one of Virginia Woolf's titles with which I'm least familiarExcept for Flush and The Voyage Out, which I have yet to read at all (!), Jacob's Room is one of Virginia Woolf's titles with which I'm least familiar: this is only my second time through. The first one came shortly after my initial, world-changing discovery of Woolf, and I remembered the novella as being quite minor, a bridge work between her "apprenticeship" novels and the full-blown genius of her mid-career work. I had fallen in love with Mrs. Dalloway's rare but brilliant flashes of true communion between two people—the reunion of Peter and Clarissa, for example, or the hat scene with Septimus and Rezia—and by contrast the isolation of souls presented in Jacob's Room was a disappointment. Re-reading now, though, over a decade later, I quickly revised that low assessment. While perhaps not quite as finely-toned as Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, perhaps a little wilder and less perfectly-controlled, Jacob's Room is its own project, different from that dyad of novels and stunning in its own right. This time through I was intoxicated as always by Woolf's language, and also intrigued by the questions this novella raises about the impossibility of knowing another person. Woolf delves into the ways in which the subjective reality of a human life compares to the evidence that life leaves behind—the high water-mark of physical and emotional detritus that remains after a human being has washed through the world.
What Woolf gives us here, after all, is Jacob's room—not Jacob himself. That's not absolutely true: we do catch glimpses of Jacob Flanders himself as he grows up; goes to University; gets a job; dies in the Great War. Direct contact doesn't happen very much, however. In the whole course of the novel, Jacob actually speaks only 29 times—and most of these are seemingly trivial remarks along the lines of "About this opera now..." or "Shall I hold your wool?" We get inside Jacob's head at even more infrequent intervals: he is said to have "thought," "wondered" or similar only 22 times, and most of these thoughts are similarly fleeting (though there are other passages in which his consciousness seems to be coloring the narration to some degree). It's as if the narrator, a roaming third-person voice who is far from omniscient—whose view of events is partial, and prone to infection by the perspective of any character she approaches—is struggling toward Jacob through a thick sea of information, washed this way and that when she encounters the thoughts of Jacob's friend, or the midnight walks of his neighbor, or the wicker chair in which he was sitting not two hours ago. On those few occasions when the she does manage to strive forward until she finds herself actually inside Jacob's mind, the feat lasts only a moment or two, and the thought she manages to extract gives the artful impression of chance—as might happen if one accessed another mind with no warning, at no time in particular. "A rude old lady, Jacob thought." Or again: "The dinner would never end, Jacob thought, and he did not wish it to." These thoughts fail to express any great depth of individuality or soulfulness, certainly.
The vast majority of the narration, then, focuses not on Jacob himself, but on his wake: rooms he has just left; artifacts he has used and abandoned; essays he is halfway through writing; and the thoughts and actions of people with whom, be it intimately or ever so slightly, he interacts. Much of Jacob's Room consists of details that Jacob himself would likely deem unimportant, toward which he is either unconscious or apathetic, such as the faded letter from his mother, sitting on the hall table:
Meanwhile, poor Betty Flanders's letter, having caught the second post, lay on the hall table—poor Betty Flanders writing her son's name, Jacob Alan Flanders, Esq., as mothers do, and the ink pale, profuse, suggesting how mothers down at Scarborough scribble over the fire with their feet on the fender, when tea's cleared away, and can never, never say, whatever it may be—probably this—Don't go with bad women, do be a good boy; wear your thick shirts; and come back, come back, come back to me.
But she said nothing of the kind. "Do you remember old Miss Wargrave, who used to be so kind when you had the whooping cough?" she wrote; "she's dead at last, poor thing."
One of the things I so love about Woolf is her complex understanding of how truly roundabout human methods of communication can be—how most of the time, the words we actually say or write bear no resemblance to our actual meaning, as when Betty Flanders writes words describing the death of Miss Wargrave, but the meaning of her missive is the silent plea "come back, come back, come back to me." When you consider that the letter's recipient brings his own set of associations and preoccupations to bear, it's remarkable that humans manage to communicate anything at all—and this is what makes the flashes of successful communication in Mrs. Dalloway so glorious.
But it's also what gives Jacob's Room much of its pathos. How to sum up a human life? One can deduce a certain amount by examining a person's home, and the items they owned; by retracing the paths they walked and the places they visited; by eavesdropping on their conversation; by surveying the thoughts and feelings of the people who knew them. But in the end, it's impossible to enter into the being of another person. There is an emptiness at the center of Jacob's Room, which could only be occupied by the missing person: Jacob himself. And Jacob is gone forever, in a moment and a place which are themselves completely absent from the novella.
Although Woolf's brother Thoby Stephen died of typhoid rather than war wounds, he was undeniably the model for Jacob Flanders, and Jacob's Room performs a kind of mourning work for a lost sibling as well as for an entire generation of young men killed in the trenches of the Great War. And it occurs to me that Woolf's novella makes an interesting juxtaposition to a more recent work on a similar subject, Anne Carson's Nox. Both works deal with the loss of a young man, a brother, and both touch on the essential inability of one person truly to comprehend and make sense of another. Both too, in my opinion, verge on masterpieces.
It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows. And why, if this and much more than this is true, why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us—why indeed? For the moment after we know nothing about him.
Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.
Notes on Disgust
In a move with which I have deep sympathy, one of the two mentions of disgust in Jacob's Room refers to moral disgust with a bowdlerizer:
Professor Bulteel, of Leeds, had issued an edition of Wycherley without stating that he had left out, disembowelled, or indicated only by asterisks, several indecent words and some indecent phrases. An outrage, Jacob said; a breach of faith; sheer prudery; token of a lewd mind and a disgusting nature.
Here the strength of Jacob's condemnatory adjectives demonstrates to the reader his intoxicated (on ideas, and possibly also alcohol) undergraduate enthusiasm and allegiance to the great and mediocre men of English letters. Here is a boy who cares enough about seventeenth-century English drama, or literature in general, that he is uses the rhetoric of disgust to express his feelings when someone monkeys with the text. Jacob also demonstrates in this passage the phenomenon whereby an overly fastidious person—a prude, or a censor—can actually elicit disgust in people observing his or her prudish or censorious behavior. The censor's tendency to perceive filth everywhere he looks (his own overactive disgust reaction) begins to suggest to the his acquaintances that the censor himself has a dirty mind, and is by extension generally dirty and disgusting. It's a similar mechanism to how people who perceive sexual subtext in everything they see often come to be regarded as perverts. (This is, by the way, a pitfall of choosing to write about disgust and something I hope doesn't happen to me!)
One of the only other hints of disgust comes later in the novella, when Jacob visits the prostitute Laurette:
Altogether a most reasonable conversation; a most respectable room; an intelligent girl. Only Madame herself seeing Jacob out had about her that leer, that lewdness, that quake of the surface (visible in the eyes chiefly), which threatens to spill the whole bag of ordure, with difficulty held together, over the pavement. In short, something was wrong.
The brothel's veneer of respectability, although largely convincing, is thus called into question by the faint tinge of something disgusting about its madame. William Ian Miller writes in The Anatomy of Disgust about the ways in which disgust polices the boundaries between fair and foul, but does so in contradictory ways that sometimes imply that what seems foul is really fair, and at other times hints that what seems fair is really foul. It seems to be the latter that's going on here: Jacob dimly perceives that the attractive façade conceals a "bag of ordure, with difficulty held together." ...more