Sunday, January 31, 2010

THE DREADFUL HOLLOW


William Faulkner As I Lay Dying (New York: Random House, 1930)

I recently reread and taught Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, sharing with my class the timeworn themes of the book, the strange family dynamism of the Bundren family, the narrative Rashoman-like structure of the work, the social and economic situations of the family in relation to the financially depressed South (As I Lay Dying was originally published in October 1930, the same month as the stock market crash), and the mythic journey of the family from their home to Jefferson to bury Addie, where they endure nearly unbearable trials of earth, air, water, wind, and fire.

But as I began teaching the book this time around, particularly during the discussion of their tribulations, I was forced to admit that while in most classical works these trials generally resulted in redemption and/or transformation, in Faulkner’s novel only Anse, the father, receives any benefit: a set of new teeth and a wife to replace the one whom he has just buried. Cash nearly loses his leg, and, if the doctor is to be believed, will be partially crippled for the rest of his life; Darl loses his mind and is taken away to the Mississippi State Hospital in Jackson; Jewel loses his horse and any possibility of mythic potentiality that lay in his centaur-like being (early on, his body is described as “in midair shaped to the horse” [p. 13]); Dewey Dell is stripped of the money Lafe has given her for an abortion (and stripped of any remaining respectability by the salesman MacGowan), dooming her to the kind of servitude to family-life that Addie has had to endure; and even the young boy Vardaman loses, if nothing else, his innocence, perhaps even his future sanity. In his desperation to get Addie to her own “flesh and blood” in the Jefferson burial ground, Anse has sucked the very life out of his sons and daughters, one by one, so that he might obtain the set of teeth and, almost magically, be able to remarry.

And just as suddenly, it became clear to me that the family’s trip from their mountain-top home (the location of which is made clear in Peabody’s visit to the Bundrens, where he has to be towed up to the top by a rope) into civilization is not only a trip to Hell, but a sort of metaphorical rendering of what has already happened in Addie’s life. The Bundren shack lies at the entrance of Hell, a place in which the light appears to be “the color of sulphur matches,” “The boards look like strips of sulphur” (p. 43) and “The air smells like sulphur” (p. 76), their hellish voyage presaged by Faulkner’s title, a quote by Agamemnon in Homer’s Odyssey, “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.” Even before Addie’s death we begin to perceive that the family members she has borne are no longer whole beings.

As Michael Neal Morris has noted in his internet essay, “Wood Imagery in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying,” in many ways the Bundrens are a people made of wood, “The Bundrens are rigid in that they are hard, unbending people who stick to their principles, no matter how absurd or impractical. Death in the novel is not only the physical death of the matriarch, but also the spiritual death of those who retain their foolish pride.”

Cash, quite obviously, is a carpenter who spends most of the early part of the novel constructing the coffin of wood, with adze and saw endlessly constructing a container of death, his saw like a tongue lapping away at life, “one lick less, one lick less.” Cash’s major statements in this book are numbered, as in a sort of maddened series of notes on how to build a coffin. Jewel is described as having a face made of wood and is represented in several places in the book as being “wooden-faced”: "He sits lightly, poised, upright, wooden-faced in the saddle, the broken hat raked at a swaggering angle.” Although Darl is not described as wooden, he is, as Cora and Tull make quite clear, “queer,” with something wrong in his head. Dewey Dell is characterized as having “a dazed way.”

Darl notes of his father: "He had that wooden look on his face again; that bold, surly, high-colored rigid look like his face and eyes were two colors of wood, the wrong one pale and the wrong one dark.” At several points, moreover, Anse’s whole being is described as hollow, his arms dangling from his shirts, his “chin collapsing slowly,” a man, “dangle-armed, humped, motionless” (p. 51). The name Anse means, in French, a cove, defined in its first meaning in Webster’s English dictionary as “a recessed place: concavity,” which, as we know is something “hollow.”

In short, the Bundren family members are not just living at the lip of Hell but are themselves already dead in Hell, hunkering, as Eliot describes it in his poem “The Hollow Men,” at the “last of meeting places,” groping together, avoiding speech, “gathered on [the] beach of the tumid river.”

In her horrible apologia spoken from the dead—Faulkner’s strange, almost “postmodern” tour de force—Addie expresses Anse’s condition quite clearly: “He did not know that he was dead.” She means this, obviously, metaphorically, that he is one of the “living dead,” one who, because has he no imagination nor vision, is, as Morris argues, “spiritually dead.”

Yet I think, given the events of the novel, that we have to understand this sentence also as being literal, that Anse is actually one of the living dead, a vampire if you will, a man who early in the novel is described as never sweating, afraid that if he were to sweat he would die (p. 17). Anse also admits that he has no heart: “…I just cant seem to get no heart into anything,” “…I just cant seem to get no heart into it" (p. 38). In the same chapter, Anse complains of being unable to “eat God’s own victuals as a man should,” and throughout the book he refuses to enter any other man’s house, insisting that he “wouldn’t crave nothing,” and can subsist on what little food they have brought with them, despite the fact that their voyage takes several days.

Once one begins down this path, it quickly becomes apparent that Faulkner is interested in the vampire myth and even in the story of Dracula at a much deeper level than it might first appear. If Anse is one of the living dead, a vampire who sucks the blood from Addie and his children, we begin to comprehend many of the mysterious aspects of the book. Jewel’s wasting away—which his brothers attribute first to an affair with a married woman, only to later discover that he has nightly been felling trees (another reference to the woodenness of this family) to make enough money to buy a horse—can also be comprehended, metaphorically, as a disease resulting from a loss of blood. Indeed the scenes describing his condition (pp. 128-136) closely resemble Bram Stoker’s descriptions of Lucy Westenra as she wastes away from the vampire’s bites.

Blood, in fact, is mentioned throughout the book, not only in Anse’s repeated creed of flesh and blood, but particularly in the scene describing Vardaman being “bloody as a hog to his knees, (p. 38),” ordered by Anse to clean and cut up the large fish he has caught, the fish representing forces against which the Bundren's are allied, Christianity and Christ.

While Dracula and his vampire family escape their mountain-topped mansion as bats, the hollow men and women of the Bundren family leave their home as buzzards. Early in the book, Jewel sees his family members sitting like buzzards (p. 15), and soon thereafter buzzards begin to appear in the skies. By the middle of their voyage Vardaman, the youngest, and, therefore, perhaps the least dead of this vampire-like family, is kept busy chasing the seven buzzards (the number of family members) away, wondering where they go at night.

We know that secret, and if we recognize Anse and the others as being transformed into the buzzards that follow along with Addie’s stinking corpse—a smell which horrifies everyone but the family itself—we can better understand, moreover, Anse’s humped body and his propensity, described several times early in the novel (see pp. 18, 19, 29 and 30, for example), to “rub his knees.” In his one section, Samson clearly seems to link the buzzard he sees with the family:

I saw something. It kind of hunkered up when I come in and I
thought at first it was one of them [the Bundrens] got left, then
I saw what it was. It was a buzzard. It looked around and saw me
and went on down the hall, spraddle-legged, with its wings kind
of hunkered out, watching me first over one shoulder and then
over the other, like an old baldheaded man. When it got outdoors
it began to fly. It had to fly a long time before it ever got up into the
air, with it thick and heavy and full of rain like it was.


By novel’s end, accordingly, we understand how Anse has “worn out” his wife, sucking the blood from her body—just as he almost crucifies Cash upon the coffin of his own making by embedding his leg in concrete; transforms Darl into a maddened Renfield-like figure (and in this context we can also better understand Addie’s statement that her family “uses one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam” [p. 172]); robs Jewel of any transformative potential by selling his horse, the beast that is described almost as being part of Jewel’s body; and dooms Dewey Dell to a life of patriarchal servitude. And Vardaman? Perhaps he is destined to commit suicide, his blood already having been drained by the suck of his own teeth:

From behind pa’s leg Vardaman peers, his mouth open and all color
draining from his face into his mouth, as though he has by some means
fleshed his own teeth in himself, sucking. (p. 49)


At work’s end only Anse, the original vampire, remains intact, with a new set of teeth and a new bride into which he can sink them.


When I first read As I Lay Dying as an M.A. student in Lewis Lawson’s 1973 Faulkner seminar at the University of Maryland, a woman in the class suddenly burst into tears one day as we were discussing this novel. “I’m sorry,” she whimpered, “but you are all speaking of this work from an objective position which I simply cannot share, having just gone through the death of my mother.” For years I have described this incident as being one the earliest indicators to me that the New Critical perspective of literature was about to crumble. The woman in our class, I now perceive, was correct in her assessment; by enfolding the popular vampire myth within this modernist masterpiece, perhaps Faulkner himself knew that he had created—as Darl describes Anse’s face upon the death of Addie—“a monstrous burlesque of all bereavement.”

As I began research on this short essay, I came upon a brief piece from 2006 in the Los Angeles Times reporting that among the manuscripts found in Faulkner’s papers by his daughter Jill was a full-length, unpublished screenplay about vampires titled, unsurprisingly, Dreadful Hollow!

Los Angeles, October 9, 2008

Saturday, January 30, 2010

THREE CHILDREN OF THE FIFTIES


J. D. Salinger

Vladimir Nabokov

James Purdy

J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye (Boston: Little Brown, 1951)
J. D. Salinger Nine Stories (Boston: Little Brown, 1953)
Vladimir Nabokov Lolita (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955)
James Purdy Malcolm (New York: Farrar, Straus & Company, 1959)

It’s notable, I believe, that the three major characters of some of the most interesting 1950s American fictions are all children, and that their names represent significant signposts—The Catcher in the Rye appearing in 1951, Lolita appearing in 1955 and Malcolm published in 1959—of American writing in general. Although these three have many characteristics that separate them from each other, it is the similarities that ultimately define them. These three adolescents are, in most respects, still innocents. Although Holden Caulfield, for example, certainly talks a tough line, claiming complete knowledge on all sorts of subjects sexual and sociological, his major failure is that he is and will continue to be an eternal child. Because of his childlike disappointment with both society and individuals he sees everyone and everything as “crumby” and “phony,” and accordingly feels completely alienated from the world at large. He may wish to protect other young people from the disillusionment he has undergone—to become a “catcher in the rye”—but he will clearly never complete school or even help to change the society which has so disenchanted him because he cannot participate in it sufficiently to effect his own maturation and transformation into an adult. Like so many American adolescent men (and a bit like the young Meaulnes of Alain-Fournier’s Le grand Meaulnes), he is doomed to feel a romanticized separation; and we can imagine him, if he survives, years later, as he sits spinning his tales of frustration to other such child-men in some dimly lit bar with all eyes glued to the television presentation of their favorite childhood sports.

Lolita, we discover, is more sexually experienced than she pretends. But one has to recognize her encounter with young Charlie in Camp Q as the sexual grappling of a young teenage girl as opposed to the perverted if comical “flutters and probes” of Humbert Humbert, the sex-starved adult. Lolita is precocious and even appears to have significant sexual awareness, but as many parents know, that is the self-recognized power of girls on the verge of becoming women. I recall my friend Charles Bernstein bemoaning the fact that his teenage daughter, Emma, dressed daily in outfits that at one time our ancestors might have described as undergarments. “We fear for her as she travels the various subways on her way to school. She doesn’t understand that what she sees as provocative in a good sense, might provoke behavior in others that she would find undesirable—and dangerous.”

Performer and poet Fiona Templeton responded that she too, at the same age, had dressed quite outrageously. “It’s the existence of their innocence that allows the young to take outrageous chances.” So too, I suggest, must we comprehend Lolita’s seeming sexual advances. She may look like an experienced seducer to Humbert, but her mind is still trapped in the world of comic books and “lurid movie magazines.”

Malcolm, of James Purdy’s lesser-known novel, has so little sense of self and awareness that it is almost pointless to describe his as an innocent. Like a cocoon enveloped in its protective silkiness, Malcolm is in a state of waiting, the “boy on the bench,” whose sexual force lies outside, in the presence of Mr. Cox (pun intended). And it is only when Cox sends the boy on his way through the maze of psycho-sexual adult encounters that he discovers anything outside himself. Of all three characters, Malcolm is the most extreme, beyond innocence because there is so little awareness of anything else. Unlike Holden, Malcolm can feel little disappointment, only a vague sense of loss from his father’s disappearance. Nearly narcoleptic, he attends to new “friends,” Estel Blanc, Kermit, Laureen, Mr. and Madame Girard, Eliosa and George Leeds, and others with a kind of vague comprehension, often falling to sleep in the midst of their “lessons.”

Innocence, accordingly, is the driving force that binds these three, and which makes them so attractive to adults. And it is, of course, that very quality, along with the beauty of their youth, that makes them so appealing to the predators they encounter along their paths. We can almost forgive Holden’s grandiose sense of being betrayed when he recounts, as he does late in the novel (in an admission I had forgotten from when I read the book as a young man, at almost the same age as Holden) that the sexual advances of his former school teacher Mr. Antolini are not the first he has encountered. “When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.”

Although we know that Holden is given to some exaggeration, the fact that he has encountered such sexual advances several times before is more than shocking. The world of the 50s these three novels present is far from that presentation of the mythical clean-cut and tightly-knit nuclear family so often represented as the generational image. We need hardly even speak of Lolita, for her story is infamous. Even if we see her, as Nabokov has himself tougue-in-cheekly suggested, as a picture of a young American debauching old Europe,” it is obvious that Lolita is an abused child. Humbert Humbert himself admits his guilt for having stolen Lolita’s youth and—through her counter-reactions against him—perhaps even her life. As Humbert recalls (standing on a hill and hearing transparent sounds from a small village):

What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

As Fiona Templeton said, perhaps the truly innocent are sometimes protected by their own lack of recognition of evil. That is certainly what protects Malcolm from the various abuses he undergoes. Madame Girard wants Malcolm, not so much as a sexual object, but as a social one, a member of her traveling entourage of self-congratulators. Mr. Girard wants him as a son. Recognizing that such a total innocent can offer him, in his world of “fag décor,” very little, the undertaker Estel Blanc demands that the boy visit him when he becomes older. Although Malcolm shares beds with various black jazz performers in George and Eliosa’s house, no overt sexual action seems to take place. No, Malcolm’s predator is of his own age, “a contemporary” as James Purdy puts it, a kind of praying mantis who through her intense demand for sex and the never-ending quantities of alcohol she provides sucks the very life from him. Malcolm is most certainly abused, but not by those of an older generation, simply by one more experienced.

All three of these books of the 1950s, accordingly, are very much centered on issues of innocence and experience. But they also reveal something much deeper: the inherently destructive forces behind our collective desire for that innocence. These three children, all products of the baby boom of the heady postwar years, are destroyed by the very forces from which their parents sought to protect them—or at least sought through their children to protect American culture from: disillusionment, debauchery, violent death—you know, all those things that “The Greatest Generation” (as Tom Brokaw has dubbed them) saw themselves as fighting against. Ironically, of course, the very isolation in which they enwrapped their families, the very lies and myths they told their children and themselves in order to protect, and the very material objects they heaped upon themselves and families to better their world, created the situations of children such as these three, who are unable to grow, to act, to think, even to experience things in the world around. Americans love the idea of being innocent, but as Blake and numerous authors have made clear, innocence is often the most dangerous of forces. As early as 1850, a century before Lolita, Charles Dickens was amused and a bit disgusted by the American riposte: “Well, we’re still a young nation.” There comes a time when one has to recognize that childhood is over, Dickens suggests. I think Graham Greene expressed it best in connection with his novel The Quiet American: “You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.” If innocence has, in part, protected these children, it has also done them in, destroyed them in the end.

If one can see Holden as an aged child-man, one can just as easily imagine him, like another Salinger figure, Seymour Glass, on the seashore with a young girl who reminds him of his beloved sister, before going indoors to shoot a bullet through his head. Mrs. Richard Schiller, nee Dolores Haze—better known to readers as Lolita—escapes the clutches of Humbert only to face what promises be a dreary marriage with a beer-guzzling inarticulate “lamb”: “arctic blue eyes, black hair, ruddy cheeks, unshaven chin.” Nabokov, perhaps out of pity, kills her off. She dies in childbirth, it is reported, long before the supposed publication of Humbert’s recounting of their life, published purportedly in “the first years of 2000 A.D.” Of Malcolm—a figure at the end of this decade, who, as I have pointed out, has been so encapsulated in the protective shell of childhood that he has nothing about which to be disillusioned and so little sense of existence that he literally sleepwalks through his life—one can question whether or not he really existed; both coroner and undertaker claim no one was buried in his casket. Purdy seems to suggest that innocence so severe actually consumes the individual. Whatever the case, what these three children represented of their generation’s American dreams evaporated before they had a chance to take root.

Los Angeles, August-September 2004
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, II, no. 2 (April 2005).
Reprinted in My Year 2004: Under our Skin (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008)

A NECESSARY REMEDY


Jane Bowles (with music by Paul Bowles) In the Summer House, Playhouse Theatre, New York, December 29, 1953

The play was revived at the Vivian Beaumont theatre of the Lincoln Center, New York, August 1, 1993, (incidental music by Philip Glass)

It was the year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the year that saw the first color television set, the great flood in the North Sea and “great” tornadoes in Michigan (the storms killing more than 200 people). The Platters and The Four Tops began their musical careers. The year saw the deaths of two great theater legends, Eugene O’Neill and Lee Shubert (one of the three legendary Shubert brothers). Broadway saw productions of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. I was six years of age. Despite all these facts and my long-standing conviction that the 1950s is today a highly misunderstood decade — more sophisticated than we imagine it today — I am still trying to comprehend what it must have been like to encounter Jane Bowles’ play that year of 1953, which ran for only 55 performances on Broadway.

The play actually had a history that went back to the late 1940s. Bowles’ friend Oliver Smith evidently had been trying to convince Jane to write a play for several years, and in 1946 and 1947, in Vermont and Paris, she wrote much of the play, the first act of which was published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1947.

In 1951 the play was performed at the Hedgerow Theater in Moylan, Pennsylvania, with Miriam Hopkins in the lead. Just before the Broadway production, Jane’s husband Paul came from Morocco to New York and wrote music for the work, seeing it through rehearsals and production.

How could actors and audiences of that time be prepared for such a work? Bowles’ writing is so original that it is hard to compare it with any other writer of the day — or perhaps even now. The expressionist and fantastic aspects of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire might be described as the work closest in tone to Bowles’ play. Williams, in fact, was a close friend of Jane’s. Bowles’ work, however, is far more comically surreal than even the most “campy” of Blanche’s observations in Williams’ 1947 production.

If Paul Bowles is to be believed, it is clear that the lead actor of the play, the great Judith Anderson, did not know what to make of the character. “Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?” she often asked in her frustrated interruptions of rehearsals. Evidently even the onstage psychoanalyst could not answer her. No one seemed to understand what the play was about. Bowles herself clearly wanted actors that could play their roles in the grand manner of highly theatrical performance. She hand-selected both Judith Anderson for the role of Mrs. Eastman Cuevas and the divine Mildred Dunnock for Mrs. Constable. A young actor named James Dean was rejected for the lesser role of Lionel because he was too “normal.”

For Bowles narrative does not function in a traditional manner. There is no straightforward “plot” to this play, nor any of the tightly knit interconnecting patterns of scenes and acts that make up most so called Broadway plays. Indeed the set changes in every scene of Act One — as it moves from a garden in Southern California to the beach and back to the garden — and Act Two, which occurs in the nearby popular restaurant. The characters shift focus throughout, as the major figure of Act I disappears — along with numerous other characters, including husband, sister-in-law, her daughter, and servants — from the very center of the play. Casual figures such as Lionel, whom we first encounter carrying an advertising placard displaying Neptune, become central characters. A young girl who appears briefly in two scenes (becoming a victim of either accident or murder) is “replaced” by her mother, who ultimately becomes perhaps the central figure in the play. A restaurant worker — Jean Stapleton in the original production — is later introduced, becoming an important voice of the second act. In short, the play moves forward through a near structureless series of “surprises,” twists, and turns in characters, plot, and meaning.

It is the emotional states of its figures that drive this work forward — and, at times, backward. Act One establishes the central character’s role and symbolic position immediately as Gertrude Eastman Cuevas stands upon the balcony of her beach home calling to her daughter below : “Are you in the summer house?....Are you in the summer house?” wherein her daughter indeed has sequestered herself. Although she is front and center in the scene, Mrs. Eastman Cuevas is equally removed from all, even from the man whom she admits she may marry, Mr. Solares, who soon enters with sister, her daughter, and servants in tow.

The comical picnic that follows — with Solares and family in the garden, Gertrude on the balcony, and Molly hidden away—sets the tone of the entire work: absurdity, imperiousness, humility, and complete acceptance of all of these are its matter. Solares, the courtier of the haughty Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, politely attempts to present the strange scene as one of normality, while his sister, Esperanza, crudely pokes holes in the pretense of both. When Mrs. Eastman Cuevas expresses her love of the ocean, Esperanza declares that she “hates it.” When Gertrude (believing her first husband was not sufficiently interested in his job) asks Solares if he likes his work, Esperanza interrupts: “He don’t like no business — he likes to stay home and sleep — and eat.” Later, upon Gertrude’s disapproval of such a heavy meal in the middle of the day, the overweight Esperanza quickly catalogues the heavy breakfasts and lunches she and her family consume: “For breakfast: chocolate and sugar bread: for lunch: soup, beans, eggs, rice, roast pork with potatoes and guava paste…Next day: soup, eggs, beans, rice, chicken with rice and guava paste — other day: soup, eggs, beans, rice, stewed meat, roasted baby pig and guava paste. Other day: soup, rice, beans, grilled red snapper, roasted goat meat and guava paste.” So much for normality!

Enter Lionel and friends bearing placards of Neptune and a mermaid to advertise the local restaurant, The Lobster Bowl. Molly, called out of her hideaway to give them water, is delighted by the marvel of their costumes, and Lionel, clearly attracted to her, gives her a little plastic lobster as a gift. As if the stage were not filled enough as it was with its strange assortment of characters, Gertrude’s new lodger, Vivian, suddenly appears. She is as enthusiastic and excitable as Esperanza has been sarcastically honest. As quickly as she is whisked away into the house, her mother, Mrs. Constable, appears, worried about her overwrought daughter’s mental health.

In short, within a single scene Bowles has spilled 14 characters onto the stage — all but one in the
play — expressing their various emotional states as if midway through a grand opera. And, in this sense, no further scenes can quite compare with the play’s first. The rest of the work, scene by scene, explores the various relations between these bigger-than-life figures.


Scene Two presents Molly one month later, temporarily out of hiding, as she encounters the
vivacious and avaricious Vivian skillfully attempting to take her place in the hearts of both Gertrude and Lionel. The scene ends with Gertrude, Solares and his extended family, and Mrs. Constable in search of her beloved “bird.” The audience can only suspect what — through her slightly hysterical interrogations of her daughter — Gertrude clearly also suspects, that Molly has pushed Vivian over the cliff.

Scene Three, one month later, presents the aftermath (celebration is an incorrect word) of the double weddings of Gertrude and her daughter. As the women each prepare to leave their homes and face separation, with neither one seeming to perceive any future with her new husband, the dramatic attention shifts to the drunken Mrs. Constable, who, with her daughter’s death and no other purpose in life, has stayed on in the beach community. The interchange between these strong women, where Mrs. Constable expresses her preference for the sharp-tongued truth-teller Mrs. Lopez over the imposing bitch-liar she perceives in Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, presents a stunning encounter between a being who struggles to keep in control and another who has freed herself from nearly all constraints. It is as comical as it is shocking.

Act II, made up of two scenes, is nearly emptied of the first act’s dramatic force. The Lobster Bowl, where Lionel works, has become merely another “summer house” for Molly, as she passes the time with card games and reading and rereading her mother’s letters from Mexico. The witty interchanges between Inez, waitress in the restaurant, and Mrs. Constable are
what saves these dark and dreary scenes from bringing the play to a near standstill. Yet, the play does begin to unwind, and Lionel, recognizing the need for change, suddenly becomes courageous enough to demand that he and Molly move away to St. Louis, where his brother is involved in selling barbecues.

The hilarious irony of his shift from boiler to barbie is almost lost in the darkly comic, but often wise, discussions between Mrs. Constable and Molly, and the older woman’s attempts to convince her to follow Lionel, to escape the dark confines of her life.

Molly, however, has word that her mother is returning, and she awaits her arrival with joy and consternation. Her mother’s entry and her declarations of the horrible (and to the viewer/reader, hilarious) life with the family in Mexico merely point up her selfishness. She is happy nowhere, neither on the balcony of the vine-covered beach house nor the highly peopled rooms of her husband’s abode. Now nearly powerless, she is must again find someone she can control. But just as the view of the garden was altered with her mother’s departure, so does her mother now seem changed in Molly’s perception.

As her mother desperately tries to rein in her daughter by telling Mrs. Constable that Molly killed Vivian (which, interestingly enough, Mrs. Constable denies), Molly suddenly recognizes that she must escape, that she must leave with Lionel. Mrs. Eastman Cuevas, like Mrs. Constable, is left without a purpose, almost a child again herself, recalling some horrible unnamed event that we suspect was probably centered around an attempt to gain love.

Without wishing to sound as if I have undergone too many viewings of The Wizard of Oz (a movie, I admit, I saw again quite recently), I might suggest that Bowles’s characters could be compared with the three friends of Dorothy in search of a heart (Mrs. Eastman-Cuevas), a brain (Mrs. Constable), and courage (Lionel) in order to save the young heroine from the mistakes of their lives. The poignant conversation between Mrs. Constable and Molly near the end of the play point up the problems of nearly everyone involved in Bowles’ fantastical journey. Warned in her mother’s letters not to dream, Molly is nearly ready to give up her life and submit again to her mother’s control. “Why shouldn’t you dream?” asks Mrs. Constable (I can hear Mildred Dunnock’s voice in the very question). “I used to waste a lot of time day-dreaming,” answers Molly. “Why shouldn’t you dream? Why didn’t she want you to?” Mrs. Constable persists. “Because she wanted me to grow up to be wonderful and strong like she is,” responds the young girl. Mrs. Constable and we, the audience, know that her mother — having abandoned all dreams — is neither wonderful nor strong. Like Vivian at the cliff, the balcony is merely a height from which one can easily fall.

And so too is the ephemeral surf Mrs. Constable prefers — the foam on her face that makes her believe, momentarily, that life is beginning once more — insufficient to help one go on living. The needs of the heart and mind alone are never enough. One must have the courage to act. As Lionel puts it, the longer one puts off acting the harder it is to do so. “Suppose I kept on closing that door against the ocean every night because the ocean made me sad and then one night I went to open it and I couldn’t even find the door. Suppose I couldn’t tell it apart from the wall any more. Then it would be too late and we’d be shut in here forever once and for all.”

Jane Bowles describes the necessary remedy simply as a stage direction: Molly’s flight is sudden.

Los Angeles, July 14, 2005
Reprinted from
My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).

Friday, January 29, 2010

ANATOMY OF SELF


Bernadette Mayer Eruditio ex Memoria (New York: Angel Hair Books, 1977)

Memory, history, personal history, autobiography, metaphysical autobiography, Eruditio ex Memoria is all of these. Yet this book projects a memory not of self, but of the self as defined by the knowledge which makes up the self, which perceives the world in which the self lives. And in this sense Bernadette Mayer’s new work is a cosmology, an encyclopedic anatomy, which as a genre is related to Menippean or Varronian verse satire, from the Greek cynic Menippus and the Roman satirist Varro, both of whose works are now lost. The anatomy has continued in Lucian, Petronius, Apuleius, Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, Rousseau, Peacock, and, in our own century, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Djuna Barnes, and, most recently, in Seeking Air by Barbara Guest. Unlike the picaresque—which is a satire of society and of its structures—the anatomy is a satire built up through a presentation of a vision “of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.” Northrup Frye continues (in Anatomy of Criticism), “The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative, though the appearance of carelessness that reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction.” The shortest form of the anatomy is the dialogue, but there is a strong tendency toward a display of erudition, of encyclopedic knowledge, of complications, catalogues and lists (see Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Tristam Shandy, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet, Norman Douglas’s South Wind, and portions of Moby Dick).

Does Mayer know anatomies? Perhaps not. The impulse here seems to come as much from her obsession with memory, from a compulsion towards autobiography that is related to the confession such as Saint Augustine’s. But for Mayer memory is never an end in itself. It is not memory past that most interests her, but memory continuing, repeating, memory in the present made new through language in Pound’s sense of that concept. Mayer’s art is not a seeking for what was but what is, and how what is was made by that past. Mayer’s memory is not nostalgic—as in Proust—but is a past that makes the new, makes possible the new: an ending that is a beginning (“Each end is a beginning”). She seeks not for old structures, not for a recreation but for a decreation: “I put these words on paper because they were once written by me, no, I too yearn for a world without meaning.” As she previously wrote in her fiction Memory, “A whole new language is a temptation.”

But Mayer’s world, the world she discovers, is not without meaning. The past decreated gives rise to a new created or recreated world. As with Adam, Mayer calls things into meaning by naming. Through memory’s order “Hemispheres become loose in the country, there are new forms.”

Is this different from a Surrealist allowing the subconscious to create new structures, using dream images as the basis for a new reality? Yes. Mayer’s past is not a dream, not archetypal, not mythical, but a socially lived experience. These are school notes, a pre-existent text rewritten (?) or almost intact, a life wrenched out of chronological context not by chance but by fact, a life perhaps not experienced as discontinuous but was (and because was can only be is in memory), is in fact.

No coy discontinuity is this, no clever dissociations. Actually there is an attempt in Eruditio at lucidness, to see through the veil of experience to a reality of flux, of life, of duration. And in this there is a basic recognition of the ineffectuality, of the destructiveness of the written word as opposed to spoken language. “There’s no use writing down Greek words if no one is going to know what I’m saying.” Mayer is always after language, then, after the reality that is language. Eruditio is a search for that reality not as written word but as language, which as a thought process is the thing itself. Saying is thinking is perceiving is knowing. In fact, although this work may often seem ineffable, there is throughout a drive for an absolute clarity of language: “Add up a column of numbers, it comes to William Carlos Williams.”

All of which brings us back to the genre of the anatomy, which comes from the Greek anatomé, a cutting up, an analysis or minute examination, to show or examine the position, structure, and relation of the parts. That is what this book is to me; it is an attempt to explain, to demonstrate, to show how Mayer has come to know whatever it is she has come to know. And in that sense, this book is a sharing, a removal of the veil, an admission, an apology, a true confession.

In doing so, moreover, it is itself a sign, an image, an emblem of language which stands for Mayer and the world she has recreated, an emblem like the red letter Hester Prynne wears. Eruditio ex Memoria ends with such an image: “In a painting I am a Chinese woman turning away from a bowl of fruit.” Is this an Eve with a second chance, this time redeeming by giving up the knowledge, by releasing it? To pin the image down that way is to miss the point, is to turn back to the fruit and eat it. It is nothing more than itself, a Chinese woman turning away from a bowl of fruit, “its own sure image.”

Reprinted from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, no. 7 (March 1979).
Collected in
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984).

HIDING OUT


Don DeLillo The Body Artist (New York: Scribner, 2001)

We first glimpse Lauren Hartke and her husband Rey Robles at breakfast in the seaside New England house they have rented. Like any couple, they go through the mechanics of eating, side by side, with little conversation, he awaiting the toast which must go through two cycles of toasting, she mostly staring into her bowl of soya, cereal and fruit which she is about to eat. They meet only at the edges of life to discuss a hair she has found in the juice, the birds darting across their window, and a strange noise in the house they have both heard. While in their silence, however, we not only recognize the normal patterns of a married couple, but the fact that they are also resisting something—trying to hide something from themselves not only about their relationship, but to escape living. Both, we later discover, are performers of sorts: Lauren, a body artist, a woman who performs less with language than her entire body, transforming herself into other figures; Rey, a film director who has apparently spent his life entertaining others in order to transform himself from a Spanish "war baby" into a Hollywood figure, uses his gifts of language and sex to obtain his version of the American dream.

That same morning, we discover later in the book, Rey has disappears on a long drive, ultimately arriving in the New York City apartment of his ex-wife, where he puts a gun to his head and commits suicide. DeLillo makes no attempt to explain these actions, nor does he give us much evidence through which to psychologically analyze their obviously failed relationship. Indeed the author almost seems to hide any possible information which might help us understand their acts.

Why, for instance, after the death, does Lauren remain at the isolated summer house, despite the pleas of her friends to return to New York? Far more importantly, why does she allow the man she discovers hiding out in that house—the source, perhaps, of the noise they have both heard—to remain there? Although she ruminates that she should be contacting mental institutions, old people's homes, and other places from which the strange man living in her house may have escaped, she passively accepts his entry into her life, even going so far as to bathe and shave him.

One obviously suspects that this being, whom she calls Mr. Tuttle, a person unable to speak coherent sentences, may be a figment of her imagination, a replacement for the missing Rey. It is tempting to see him as a kind of ghost-like figure created by her imagination to help alleviate the loneliness she must now endure. Indeed DeLillo, in several vaguely suggestive passages, presents this stranger as just such a transformative figure:

He moved uneasily in space, indoors or out, as if the air had bends
and warps. She watched him sidle into the house, walking with a
slight shuffle. He feared levitation maybe.

At another point, after Mr. Tuttle attempts to explain her situation ("I know how much." He said, "I know how much this house. Alone by the sea."), Lauren attempts to fill in the spaces of his conversation:

He looked not pleased exactly but otherwise satisfied, technically
satisfied to have managed the last cluster of words. And it was in
fact, coming from Mr. Tuttle, a formulation she heard in its echoing
depths. Four words only. But he'd placed her in a set of counter-
surroundings, of simultaneous insides and outsides. The house, the
sea-planet outside it, and how the word alone referred to her and to
the house and how the word sea reinforced the idea of solitude but
suggested a vigorous release as well, a means of escape from the
book-walled limits of self.


When Mr. Tuttle does speak at greater length, she realizes that the words coming from his mouth are not his own, but fragments of conversations between herself and Rey, remnants from the lives of two beings as hidden from reality as Mr. Tuttle has been from them.

In short, The Body Artist is less about the performance of living (although the situations Lauren experiences are later performed by her in New York) as about the traces of lives. It is as if DeLillo were creating characters by drawing his fingers across a mirror or a window, revealing them momentarily as the light, air, and flickering movements of nature just a quickly shift our attention away, so that we discover, upon refocusing on the sketches, they have all but disappeared. The author, accordingly, seems less interested in the humans populating his work than in the fragmentary images of their body parts:

She was looking at the backs of her hands, fingers stretched, looking
and thinking, recalling moments with Rey, not moments exactly but
times, or moments flowing into composite time, an erotic of see and
touch, and she curled one hand over and into the other, missing him
in her body and feeling sexually and abysmally alone and staring at the
points where her knuckles shone bloodless from the pressure of her
grip.


In other words, DeLillo presents this work less in old-fashioned literary terms than in snippets of images, as in film. Moreover, we gradually come to see that it is a filmy, hazy world, a fabrication of reality, in which Lauren and Rey have lived.

By the work's end, we can only wonder whether or not Lauren will give into her hidden world, inhabit the vision of a sexual hysteric, or step out into the "real" world which with she has seldom engaged. Even she is uncertain, as she expects to enter a room where he (Rey, Mr. Tuttle, whoever he is) sits smoking. Instead, she enters the room to find no one there, only her own imprint on the side of the bed where she has slept:

The room was empty when she looked. No one was there. The
light was so vibrant she could see the true colors of the walls and floor.
She'd never seen the walls before....

She walked into the room and went to the window. She opened it.
She threw the window open. She didn't know why she did this.
Then she knew. She wanted to feel the sea tang on her face and the
flow of time in her body, to tell her who she was.


From the fragmentary images of a life, a hidden life, Lauren has seemingly emerged as a real being, a person with a true identity. But then, as we all know, just as the pretense of fiction depends upon the words detailed into pattern, the pretense of film depends upon light.

February 3, 2009

IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE




Burt Kennedy (screenplay), based on a story by Elmore Leonard, Budd Boetticher (director), The Tall T / 1957

On his way into town to buy a bull, homesteader Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) stops by the stagecoach waystation to visit his friend Hank Parker and his young son. In this early scene we already sense the dangers and tension in director Budd Boetticher’s vision of the frontier, as, observing someone riding his way, Parker immediately grabs his rifle. The boy, however, has better eyes than his father and recognizes the man immediately as their friend, ignoring the calls of his father warning him to remain still, instead running forward with anticipation. As Parker soon after tells Brennan, living “stuck out in the middle of nowhere, all by yourself, knowin’ nobody but stage drivers and shotguns,” “ain’t no fit life at all"; certainly it is not a life he wishes for his son.

The child asks Brennan to bring him some candy back from town, a task to which the laconic and kindly farmer readily agrees. But once in town he is tricked by his former employer—a man who would like Brennan to return to work with him—to bet his horse against his ability to break the bull, which if he succeeds he will receive for free. Tossed into a nearby watering trough, Brennan comically loses, forfeiting his horse. After a quick visit to the candy shop, he is forced to walk the several miles back to his farm. While on route, however, the stage, driven by his friend Ed Rintoon, passes him, and he hails a ride—over the protests of the couple who have hired it—back to his stead.

Within the coach sits a cowardly bookkeeper, Willard Mims, and his new bride, a severely plain woman (Maureen O’Sullivan) who is the daughter of a wealthy copper miner. Clearly, the bookkeeper has married for money, and although the daughter may look plain, we see her through the eyes of Brennan as a quietly beautiful woman (she is after all Tarzan’s beloved Jane). Thus far, accordingly, Boetticher has set up the structure of a seemingly typical Western. We know love will blossom between the lonely Brennan and the miner’s daughter; it is just a question of when or how.

But Boetticher’s Westerns are not usually what they seem, and a few seconds later we enter an entirely different world, where simple black and white values suddenly disappear. When the stage reaches Parker’s station house, we see it has been taken over by three men, Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his quick-to-draw partners Chink and Billy Jack. Parker and his son are nowhere to be seen, and we suddenly perceive that what we are about to witness in the next hour is a terribly dark vision of western life when Chink shoots the coach driver dead and, upon Brennan’s inquiry into the whereabouts of Parker and his son, he is told that their bodies have been tossed into the well where a few hours earlier Brennan had watered his horse.

Before we can even catch our breath from this horrific announcement, Usher orders Mims’s wife to the house to cook, while Mims quickly strikes a bargain to leave his wife behind while he goes back to demand a ransom payment from her father. Accompanied by Usher, Mims speeds away, while the nearly speechless Brennan—the only one of the group who recognizes it may be best to hold his tongue—and Doretta Mims are cornered into a small cave-like shack from which any attempt to exit is met with gunshots.

Mims and Usher return with the news that the miner will be sending ransom by the next day; but if there is question of possible salvation in that fact, one of Usher’s men quickly shoots Mims dead. While Brennan has hidden the fact from the wife that Mims has offered her up for ransom, Usher and his boys now make it clear just how disgusting his role has been, and Doretta beaks down into fearful sobs. Later, Brennan, trying to help her regain her equilibrium, discusses the ridiculousness of her marriage:

Pat Brennan: Did you love him?
Doretta Mims: I married him.
Brennan: That’s not what I asked.
Doretta: Yes! Yes, I did.
Brennan: Mrs. Mims, you’re a liar. You didn’t love him, and never for
one minute thought he loved you. That’s true, isn’t it?
Doretta: Do you know what it’s like to be alone in a camp full of
roughneck miners, and a father who holds a quiet hatred
for you because you’re not the son he’s always wanted?
Yes, I married Willard Mims because I couldn’t stand being
alone anymore. I knew all the time he didn’t love me, but
I didn’t care. I thought I’d make him love me….by the time
he asked me to marry him, I’d told myself inside for so long
that I believed it was me he cared for and not the money.


Such language seems to belong more to the psychological stage dramas of the day—works by William Inge and Tennessee Williams—than the adventure genre of Western movies.

Soon after, moreover, Boetticher’s screenplay writer, Burt Kennedy, takes the drama even further into new territory as the cruel murderer Usher reveals in a conversation with Brennan that he hopes one day to get himself a place, “something to belong to,” and settle down. Usher goes so far as to insult the two men with whom he rides as “nothin’ but animals.” Brennan sees through the murderer’s self-delusions, however, reminding Usher, “You run with ‘em.” “Nothin’ you can do with ‘em,” Usher replies. “Nobody ever tried,” rejoins Brennan.

Indeed, there is something almost homoerotic about Usher’s controlling and manipulative relationship with the two younger villains. And in this fact, there is also a quality in Usher—in his inability to control his own apparent instincts despite his ideals—that makes him oddly likeable, as if given half a chance he might have turned into a man more like Brennan.

We know however, despite Brennan’s absurd assurances to Mrs. Mims, (“Come on now. It’s gonna be a nice day”) that if he does not act quickly they too will be destroyed. As Usher rides off to collect the ransom, Brennan tricks Chink into believing that Usher intends to leave without them, and the young man quickly rides after Usher. Suggesting to Billy Jack that he “look in on the woman,” he captures the boy’s gun and kills him. When Usher and Chink return, Brennan shoots them dead, walking off into the sunset with Doretta Mims. He will no longer be alone in “the middle of nowhere.”

There is something so dark and grandly absurd about this work that one recognizes its influence upon the work of a contemporary, postmodern dramatist such as Sam Shepard.

Los Angeles, October 17, 2008

A WAY OUT


Gwen Verdon, rehearsing on Broadway

George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (writers, based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics) Damn Yankees / New York, 46th Street Theatre, May 5, 1955

George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (writers, based on the novel by Douglass Wallop), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics), George Abbott and Stanley Donen (directors) Damn Yankees [film version] / 1958

George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (writers, based on the novel by Douglass Wallop), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics) Damn Yankees / New York, Marquis Theatre, March 3, 1994 / The performance I saw was in 1995.

About twice every summer, Howard and I watch the 1958 movie version of the American hit musical Damn Yankees. In 1995, moreover, we saw the Broadway revival of that musical with Bebe Neuwirth as Lola and Jerry Lewis as Mr. Applegate.

It was only the other night, however, that I realized that this work—which I believe I first witnessed at a community theater production as a child in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—metaphorically expresses the tribulations of those I have described throughout my critical memoirs as the American boy-men: adult males who, through their obsession with their memories of childhood activities, particularly sports, appear unable to cope when faced with their older selves.
I am sure women also have a parallel phenomenon (perhaps in the form of the eternal “beauty queen”), but I have particularly noticed this painful condition in American males when they reach what is generally described as “mid-life crises,” of which the character at the center of Damn Yankees, Joe Boyd, “the most devoted fan of the Washington Senators,” is a perfect example. Six months out of every year, he literally abandons his wife as his attention turns to sports, particularly baseball. But this year, more than ever, he is furious with the Yankees, and is willing to sell his soul for “one long ball hitter.”

Suddenly the devil appears in the form of Mr. Applegate (played on stage and in the film by Ray Walton, who died on New Year’s Day this year), whom passing friends of his wife cannot even see. To them Joe appears to be aging, muttering to himself. No matter; as fast as you can say Hannibal, Mo., Joe signs away his life, and, transformed into a much younger man (played in the movie, somewhat ironically given his gay sexuality, by Tab Hunter), leaves his wife a short note that explains that, while he’ll miss his “old girl,” he must be off.

Although we recognize that in the movie the separation will likely be only temporarily (after all Joe has insisted upon an escape clause), metaphorically speaking his disappearance stands for the thousands of American boy-men who at middle age suddenly seek out women other than their wives and/or are convinced they must escape the “confines” of their marriages (we’ve seen public examples of that behavior in all walks of life, including our Presidents, and I have personally observed such behavior by several of my relatives and friends).
Like many such males, without his marital ties, Joe feels like (and in terms of the play’s device, actually is) a younger man. But we all know that youth, after one has lost it, can never be regained “as it was.” Joe can suddenly hit the ball out of the ballpark, but he is clearly unprepared for his transformation—he literally cannot fit into his shoes—and as he explores his new-found youth, he is as shy and bashful as a virgin.

In his newly discovered role as a handsome young man, he can barely tolerate the advances of Applegate’s minion, Lola, a sexy bombshell (brilliantly played in the original production and the movie by Gwen Verdon) who climbs around, over, and across his body in her attempt to seduce him (“Whatever Lola Wants”). Tab Hunter’s obvious discomfort in the role is absolutely perfect, for whatever new-found power and freedom Joe now feels, he is quite unable to consummate a new relationship, and, consequently, seeks out a way to return secretly to his abandoned wife.
But then Joe has the advantage of looking unlike his previous self, and it is likely that, having him rent a room in her house, Joe’s wife, Meg, feels some vague sexual excitement herself.

The joy of this work is our observation of the mad machinations of the Devil in disguise, Applegate, as he attempts to cheat Joe out of the agreement and send him on his way to eternal damnation—which in the 1950s was what some folk deemed as the natural punishment for such behavior. And ultimately, Joe feels as lost in his new identity as Lola is in hers—having been centuries ago transformed from the ugliest woman in Provincetown, Rhode Island to the beauty she is now. Ross and Adler’s lovely lament of their condition, “Two Lost Souls”—

Two lost sheep, in the wilds of the hills
Far from the other Jacks and Jills, we wandered away and went astray
But we ain't fussin'
Cuz we've got "us'n"

We're two lost souls on the highway of life
And there's no one with
whom we would ruther
Say, "Ain't it just great, ain't it just grand?"
We've got each other!

—speaks of their estrangement from life. Enraged by Lola’s betrayal, Applegate transforms Lola back into an ugly hag, and, as Joe reaches for a catch at the end of the final game, changes him back into the middle-aged misfit he was at the beginning of the movie. Suddenly, they do not even have that lamentable friendship.

Despite Applegate’s fury, however, Joe does catch the ball, saving the day and dashing off to return to his marriage with Meg.

As the Devil attempts to convince Joe to return, Joe begs Meg to hold him tightly as he sings of his failed attempt to solve the fears and frustrations of old age:

A man doesn't know what he has until he loses it,
When a man has the love of a woman he abuses it,
I didn't know what I had when I had my old love,
I didn't know what I had 'til I said, "Goodbye, old love!"
Yes, a man doesn't know what he has 'til it is no longer around
But the happy thought is
Whatever it is he's lost, may some day once again be found!

So ends Douglass Wallop’s and George Abbott’s fable about mid-life male infidelity in the “Age of Anxiety.” Would that all such suffering men could so clearly perceive their inevitable fates.

Los Angeles, August 16, 2008

A WORLD DETACHED

William Carlos Williams Spring and All (Paris: Contact Editions, 1923)

Among critics and scholars of American poetry, it has long been generally acknowledged, if less generally discussed, that Ezra Pound was the dominating influence upon the early poetics of William Carlos Williams. The irascible “missionary”—an epithet to which Pound himself admitted (see The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907-1941, in which Pound writes to George Santayana: “I plead the missionary sperrit: GUILTY!!”)—began what amounted to a personal jihad to convert Williams to his viewpoints. This effort began as early as their first encounters in the University of Pennsylvania dormitories and would last throughout Williams’ life. It is as if upon taking up his violin to antiphonally respond to the piano music of Morrison Robb Van Cleve—which led, a short while later, to his being introduced to Pound—Williams interned himself to a mentor more zealous and jealous than any university don or religious guru could have been. The relationship with Pound, unquestionably, was “a painful experience”—as Williams decries what it was like to listen to Pound read from the poems of A Lume Spento (Williams, The Autobiography). “…He bore with me for sixty years,” Pound confessed via cable upon hearing of Williams’ death.

It is easy to envision Williams, in this context, as a grandly patient assimilator, quietly enduring Pound’s harangues to sort out those truths applicable to his own poetry and life—a picture Williams himself encourages throughout his writings by stressing his uncertainty about his own critical comments and by emphasizing his early stance as observer and listener. “I paid attention very assiduously to what I was told,” he writes in his 1948 “autobiography” I Wanted to Write a Poem; “I often reacted violently, but I weighed what had been told me thoroughly.”

There is little doubt that Williams did seriously pay “attention to what he was told,” particularly by Pound. The radical differences between Williams’ Poems of 1909—of which Pound writes, “Your book would not attract even passing attention here” [here being London]—and The Tempers of 1913, reveal the enormous influence of Pound’s and the Imagists’ manifestoes, the origins of which Pound outlined in his famous letter to Williams of 1908. One need only compare a poem such as the 1909 poem “The Uses of Poetry”:

I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,

Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frightened with our boat’s long sway.

with “Contemporania” of 1913:

I go back and forth now
And the little leaves follow me
Talking of the great rain,
Of branches broken,
And the farmer’s curses!

But I go back and forth
In this corner of a garden
And the green shoots follow me
Praising the great rain.


to perceive that the “mushy technique” of Williams’ earlier work (Pound’s phrase used to describe the poetry of the Symbolists) had given way in a few short years to a “direct treatment of the thing” and “rhythm composed in the sequence of the metrical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome” (statements from the Imagist manifesto published in Poetry in 1913). Williams’ critical observations in Five Philosophical Essays, written during this period, often parallel Pound’s ideas as expressed in the first decade or so of their acquaintance. Arguments Williams makes for economy in living, for example—

Insofar as life is to see, it is: “Do not waste space.” Thus we see that life is to confine our energy and for us to expand our view. Which, again, shows that a perfection is the object of our activity, any perfection which alone at once contains a universal expansion concentrated into a minimum of elements constituting it, for in a perfection is no waste.—

unavoidably remind one of Pound’s and the Imagists’ insistence upon using “absolutely no word” in poetry “that does not contribute to the presentation.” While Pound aspires to a poetry free from didacticism (“The poet grinds the axe for no dogma,” from “The Wisdom of Poetry,” 1912), Williams attacks dead words “which are symbols of symbols, twice removed from vitality” (The Embodiment of Knowledge), contending that man’s only actions can be “to prance to cheer and to point, all of which are but one thing: praise.” And like Pound, Williams links these ideas of art and poetry with his concept of beauty:

We shall have the most beautiful before us; singing and architecture and painting and poetry, not as the dirty Cinderella of worship as it is now but as the thing itself [EoK, p. 181].

Certainly, several of these ideas were current among poets and painters in these years from 1902 to 1913, and some of Williams’ concepts have roots that go back farther than his first encounter with “sweet Ezra” (Williams’ endearment for Pound expressed in The Autobiography), but one cannot dismiss the impact of Pound upon Williams’ critical writings of this period, and, particularly, upon what was to become the rallying-cry of Williams’ poetics: “Nothing is good save the new” [Kora in Hell]. Observations such as those Williams makes in his Philosophical Essays—

But shall we not find this freedom appearing under other names? …It is universal change, it is the new, it is that no two trees are alike, it is the thrill of surprise, mystery, the unaccountable against the accountable…. It is change, then, against the unchanged…[EoK, p. 171]—

and in his chastisement of Harriet Monroe in 1913—

Now life is above all things else at any moment subversive to life as it was the moment before—always new, irregular. Verse to be alive must have infused into it something of the same order, some tincture of disestablishment, something in the nature of an impalpable revolution, an ethereal reversal, let me say. I am speaking of modern verse. [Selected Letters, pp. 23-24]—

clearly re-echo Pound’s statements expressed in The Spirit of Romance in 1910:

Art is a fluid moving above or over the minds of men.


Let us consider the body as pure mechanism. Our kinship to the ox we have constantly thrust upon us; but beneath this is our kinship to the vital universe, to the tree and the living rock, and, because this is less obvious—and possibly more interesting—we forget it.

We have about us the universe of fluid force, and below us the germinal universe of the wood alive, of stone alive….

Indeed, Pound’s continual exhortation for a poetry that functions as a “liberating force” [“The Wisdom of Poetry”], for a poetry through which the poet can create experience anew, was quickly to become the major issue of Williams’ aesthetics. Not surprisingly, Williams acknowledges in I Wanted to Write a Poem that “Before meeting Ezra Pound is like B.C. and A.D.”

Yet, on the very next page of that 1958 text, Williams states what seems to be a contradiction: “I was a listener. I always kept myself free from anything Pound said” [p. 6]. One may, a first, simply shrug off such a comment—which appears to be a disavowal of Pound’s influence—as part of Williams’ endeavor to establish a poetic identity separate from that of his mentor-friend’s, an endeavor that began with his quoting of Pound’s letter in the 1920 introduction to Kora in Hell and with his criticism of Pound in “Yours, O Youth” a few months later. But, by the late 1950s, when Williams surely had sufficiently accomplished that dissociation, it seems somewhat insincere of him to admit to the impact of Pound upon his life while denying the influence of what Pound said—irrational almost, unless in his use of the word “free,” Williams means something other than a disregard of or a disconnection from Pound’s early poetics. If we explore this issue a bit further, perhaps we can better comprehend why in 1958 Williams takes this position.

Several of Williams’ concepts of freedom—that it is inextricably connected with universal change, which opposes it to the “unchanged,” “The old,” and the “permanent”—have already been mentioned. In his early essay, “Constancy and Freedom,” Williams further explores how those notions of freedom seem diametrically opposed to the values of “persistency, solidity, permanency,” opposed even to the constancy necessary for friendships and love [EoK, p. 170]. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that such an opposition between the two does not really exist—at least in the abstract. The knowledge of our limitations and possibilities is the “ultimate freedom,” Williams argues, and it is only in knowledge that a human can be truly free. For knowledge or truth seeks to distinguish natural laws—laws to which we are subject by ignorance; and, in that distinction, it points to our human limitations, one of the most obvious of which is our inability to explore all possibilities equally. Because of time and energy, human beings cannot seek for truth in all its forms through all vocations; recognizing the law of economy, knowledge teaches humankind the need for constancy, which, when enacted, leads to the revelation of similar abstract truths in each vocation. Thus, in theory, there can be no opposition between constancy and freedom, since they result in the same knowledge. It is only ignorance, Williams claims, that leads us to see these two forces as a duality. As Williams restates time and again in his later work, however, humankind, as the embodiment of that knowledge, wanders through “the forests of ignorance” [EoK, p. 64], unable to resolve the duality and to live with the paradox.

Without giving undue emphasis to Edith Heal’s records of Williams’ statements or the philosophical musings of an adolescent poet, I suggest that it is in the context of this paradox or tension between freedom and continuity in which we must consider Williams’ accounts of Pound and of his relationships with his fellow poets in general. Although Williams apparently comprehended that his poetic development was dependent, in part, upon a contiguity and continuity of personal friendships with poets—was dependent, if you will, upon contact—his aggrandizement of freedom led him throughout his life to argue not only against the past and for renewal, but to actively work against his own past, his friends, and their influence—to detach himself from all that might preclude growth and divergence. Ezra Pound, for Williams, was just such a force.

Certainly, there were more aggravating opponents in Williams’ career. In 1920 he took on Wallace Stevens in Kora in Hell, addressing him as “dear fat Stevens,” and likening him (in a description borrowed from Skipworth Cannell) to “a Pennsylvania Dutchman who has suddenly become aware of his habits and taken to ‘society’ in self defense.” And in the same work, Williams begins what was to become a lifelong campaign against T. S. Eliot [KiH, p. 24]—the whipping boy of Pound and Wynham Lewis as well—that can be summed up in his 1958 reflections:

I had a violent feeling that Eliot had betrayed what I believed in. He was looking backward; I was looking forward. He was a conformist, with wit, learning I did not possess. He knew French, Latin, Arabic, god knows what.

I was interested in that. But I felt he had rejected America and I refused to be rejected and so my reaction was violent [IWTWAP, p. 30].


But the fact that he also sounds off in the Prologue about his friends Hilda Doolittle and Pound should indicate that Williams’ gripes were not simply an evincing of “sour grapes" (the words Williams chose to title the book of poetry he published in the following year), that he was not just lashing back at his fellow poets for their criticism of his poetry, but was responding to specific attitudes that belied their criticisms: attitudes which he felt demanded a constancy—consistency of viewpoint (Stevens), uniformity of language (H. D.), and continuation of the Tradition (Eliot)—which translated in his thinking to arrestment and death. For Williams, reaction was directly bound to his ideas on personal freedom, a phenomenon which he most clearly reveals in his response to the letter from H.D.:

There is nothing in a literature but change and change is mockery. I’ll write whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please and it’ll be good if the authentic spirit of change is on it [KiH, p. 13].

Predictably, his reactions to Pound are related to these very issues of change and freedom. For Pound, according to Williams’ logic, had committed two major sins: like Eliot, he overvalued the Tradition and he had abandoned his country to write. To Williams these were inseparable issues; his lifelong commitment to primary knowledge over authoritarian knowledge, to the modern over the Tradition, and to the present over the past were grounded in his belief that such values were peculiarly American; that American culture had made a necessary and irreparable “break” with the classical valuation of education over knowledge [EoK, p. 146]. The American artist, accordingly, cannot go to Paris to study art, Williams avers, because there he can learn only French art; as an American, the artist can come to his own art only through contact with his culture and country. “France is France,” he wrote Harriet Monroe in 1913, “We are not France” [SL, pp. 25-26]. Or, as he put it in Contact 4:

Nothing will be forwarded, as it is persistently coughed at us for our children to believe, by a conscious regard for traditions which have arrived at their perfection by force of the stimuli of special circumstances foreign
to us, the same which gave them birth and dynamise them to-day [“Sample Critical Statement/Comment,” Contact 4, 18].


By essay’s end, Pound is linked with Eliot to those who Williams is soon to call the “Traditionalists of Plagiarism,” those who would tell him to read Laforgue rather than “believe in [his] bayonets” [see Williams’ “The Writers of the American Revolution,” Selected Essays]. A few years later, Williams proclaims, “Ezra Pound is already looking backward” ["A Novelette" in Imaginations, p. 54].

This reaction against Pound, however, was not limited to such literal accusations, but found more artful expression in Spring and All, the document central to Williams’ early critical theory. For in the first half of his pivotal work—a work which I read as a more-or-less coherent manifesto rather than as a potpourri of poetry and prose—Williams chooses the most common of poetic subjects: night, spring, and flowers, not to mention trees, wind, clouds, rain, and war—the very subjects, in fact, which Pound ridiculed in his letter to Williams of 1908:

Why write what I can translate out of Renaissance Latin or crib from the sainted dead?

Here are a list of facts on which I and 9,000,000 other poets have spieled endlessly:

1. Spring is a pleasant season. The flower, etc. etc. sprout, bloom
etc. etc.
2. Young man’s fancy. Lightly, heavily gaily etc. etc.
3. Love, a delightsome tickling. Indefinable etc.
4. Trees, hills etc. are by a provident nature arranged diversely, in
diverse places.
5. Winds, clouds, rains, etc. flop thru and over ‘em.
6. Men love women….

7 Men fight battles, etc. etc.
8. Men go on voyages.
[Pound, Selected Letters, 4-5]

It seems extraordinarily unlikely, after having accused Pound of being too reliant upon the Tradition, that Williams should accidentally have taken up the subjects which Pound argues are better copied than re-employed by modern poets. Rather, it is apparent that in Spring and All Williams confronts Pound on his own turf, so to speak. For what Williams seems previously to have been unable to convey to Pound—let alone to Stevens, Eliot, and the American reader—is that his pursuit of the NEW—his focus on change as freedom—does not demand a break with reality, the commonplace, or nature. To the contrary, as Williams comes to perceive in Spring and All, spring, love, flowers, trees, winds, clouds, war, and rain are subjects worthy of a lifelong investigation. “Thank you, I know well that I am plagiarizing,” he exclaims in the midst of his commentary in Chapter XIII [printed reversed], as if addressing his 1908 correspondent. However, as Williams is soon to explain, what he means by plagiarism is something different from what Pound argues. The confusion arose, Williams suggests, at least as far back as Samuel Butler, who observed that “There are two who can invent some extraordinary thing to one who can properly employ that which has been made use of before” [S&A, p. 97]. The Traditionalists of Plagiarism have seized upon this statement, Williams argues, to proclaim the value of past traditions in literature, which has resulted, he hints, in poets like Eliot and Pound looking backwards and in a constant reference to the poets of the past, their metrics, their rhetorical devices, their themes. Williams, on the other hand, would retain the same subjects as past poets, but would endow them, through the imagination (the key word of Spring and All), with new life, a life detached from that of the everyday world because it emanates not from nature itself, or from an illusionary presentation of nature, but from an emotionally-charged consciousness reflecting its existence from moment to moment in nature. Pound, Williams implies, has got it all wrong; the plagiarism does not lie in using the same subjects, but in cribbing from “the sainted dead” (something Pound would do in poetry throughout his life). While Pound argues in his 1908 letter for a manipulation of past methods (“Sometimes I use rules of Spanish, Anglo-Saxon and Greek metric that are not common in the English of Milton’s and Miss Austen’s day,” [SL, p. 4] and against the use of timeworn subjects, Williams contends in Spring and All that the subjects of the past can be revitalized, but its methods are unusable because they do not permit the expression of the modern poets’ imagination. As a subject for poetry, “The rose is obsolete,” he tentatively admits, (and his conjunction is the pivot of the poem), "but each petal ends in / an edge”… “so that to engage in roses / becomes a geometry…” as polymorphic as the individual personality [S&A, p. 107-108].

This distinction between his own thinking and Pound’s is an important one, for it recapitulates the same duality that Williams attempted to tackle in his early essay on “Constancy and Freedom.” Obviously, Williams understood that Pound was an ally in his struggle for a new poetry, for a freedom of poetic expression; in his attachment to the methods of the Tradition, however, Pound could not but have appeared to Williams as opting for constancy over freedom, to be electing the European tradition over the American landscape and the predisposition of its artists to remain separate, detached, even isolate. “My whole life,” Williams summarizes in Spring and All, “has been spent (so far) in seeking to place a value upon experience that would satisfy my sense of inclusiveness without redundancy—completeness…with the liberty of choice” [italics mine, S&A, p. 116].

Williams comprehended that, as a modern American poet, as a representative of the new American poetics—in short, as a leonine abstraction—Pound stood for causes similar to his own. Wrote Williams in 1919, two years before his attack on Pound in Contact:

I find matter for serious attention in Ezra Pound’s discordant shrieking….
It is the NEW! not one more youthful singer, one more lovely poem.
The NEW, the everlasting NEW, the everlasting defiance. Ezra has the smell
of it. Any man can slip into the mud, Any man can go to school [“Belly Music,”
Others 5 (July 1919), 28].

From this perspective, in his vision of Pound as a pioneer of American poetics, there was no question of influence. “Ain’t it enuf that you so deeply influenced my formative years without your wanting to influence also my later ones?” he asked Pound in a letter of 1954. But as a fellow poet, as a living, breathing, speaking, shrieking being, Pound, like so many others, was someone from whom Williams felt he had to free himself, was someone against whom he had to fight to live in “A world detached from the necessity of recording it, sufficient to itself, removed from him…with which he has bitter and delicious relations and from which he is independent—moving at will from one thing to another—as he pleases, unbound, complete” [S&A, p. 121].

Philadelphia, 1983
Reprinted from
Sagetrieb
, III, no. 2 (Fall 1984).
Presented as a talk on August 24th, 1983 at the University of Maine, Williams Carlos Williams Centennial Conference.

UP IN SMOKE





Leonard Bernstein (libretto and music) Trouble in Tahiti, premiered at Brandeis University on June 12, 1952 / what I describe below was performed by the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Paul Daniel, a film version directed by Tom Cairns / 2001

I have always been a great admirer of Leonard Bernstein's short opera, Trouble in Tahiti, and, accordingly, I was delighted when my companion Howard recently brought home from the library the 2001 DVD cinematic recording, performed by the City of London Sinfonia and directed by Tom Cairns.

Using iconographical advertising images of the early 1950s, and moving the opera between each of its seven scenes into the city streets, Cairns presents a fantasy-like vision of suburbia in Bernstein's "pop"-artist like conception of the period.

But behind the post-war paean to the joys of life, sung mostly by the three-person chorus—

Mornin' sun kisses the windows,
Kisses the walls
Of the little white house;
Kisses the door-knob, kisses the roof,
Kisses the door-knob and pretty red roof
Of the little white house in Scarsdale.

—there is a crueler reality within that suburban household that shares much with the writings of period by J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Allen Ginsberg, and, later, Edward Albee. Dinah and Sam have seemingly everything they might want, he a good job, she a beautiful home with the latest appliances, and a child right out of a Norman Rockwell catalogue, shown in the first scene dressed in cowboy suit watching a cartoon that seems to be teaching the important lesson of American accumulation of goods. The couple begins their interchange with full hostility, Sam (Karl Daymond) singing "How could you say that thing that you did in front of the kid!," Dinah (Stephanie Novacek) reacting, "You were the first to go up in smoke." Both are "sick of this life," the humiliations, "the nagging," the impossibility of having a friendly conversation.

Together they seem oblivious of their son, who slips away at the first sign of the argument. Sam hasn't even time to attend an evening play in which Junior acts; a handball tournament at his gym is of greater importance; and despite her criticism of his values, Dinah too, we later discover, misses the event.

The couple are both trapped in their own worlds: Sam in a job that keeps money away from some while openly giving it to others through a value system where, he argues, some men "are flabby and some men are thin," Dinah torn between sentimental self-analysis (her beautiful aria "A Quiet Place" is little more than a dream of desire instead of a deep subconscious revelation) and total fantasy, wonderfully acted out in a drunken retelling of the plot of the movie "Trouble in Tahiti." Both are adult children who live in a world no more real than the Technicolor advertisements surrounding them. Even as they encounter one another on the street, they lie to escape each other's company. Their promised "talk" turns into a another trip to the "Super Silver Screen." Any possibility of real communication vanishes like smoke as they truly "Skid a lit day" (one of the scat phrases sung by the chorus).

In short, there is no real solution possible in this short satire, and we understand why Bernstein would want to revisit this material in his more substantial late opera, A Quiet Place, wherein Dinah has just died, and Sam's two children, Junior and Dede, return home, along with Dede's husband and Junior's former boyfriend, Francois. These figures are no freer from angst than Sam and Dinah had been, but they do find, by opera's end, at least a temporary release from their own histories, signified most clearly by Junior's tossing the pages of Dinah's diary (in which she has revealed both her hate of the marriage and her love for her family) into the air, after which a short-lived quietude descends upon "the little white house in Scarsdale....Highland Park, Shaker Heights, Michigan Falls, Beverly Hills, Suburbia."

It is interesting to note that Bernstein's own parents were named Sam and Dinah. And one wonders, despite Bernstein's more successful marriage, how much the tensions between man and wife are an expression of his own homosexual desires. He was himself a man torn between a need for a quiet life in which to compose and the reality, as an internationally renowned conductor, of a completely public one.

Los Angeles, December 20, 2009

Thursday, January 28, 2010

COMMON AND UNCOMMON SENSE


Thomas Paine Common Sense (Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1776)
Craig Nelson Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Viking, 2006)

One of the most important documents of American history and perhaps the most influential work in swaying the American public to declare independence, Common Sense hardly needs my commentary added to the numerous far more learned commentaries I am sure exist. What struck me upon my first adult reading of the pamphlet was just how “uncommon,” in some regards, Paine’s work is, and, at times, how nonsensical it is, a few examples of which I will mention.

Paine definitely convinces with his highly Protestant-based arguments against monarchies in general and against the English in particular. Given the complex role government plays and its current self-aggrandizement, however, it will surprise new readers perhaps that, against the natural good of society, Paine sees government as a necessary evil, as a force needed only when society has grown large and diverse enough that it can no longer control aberrant behavior, and, accordingly, needs laws to rule man’s nature. “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.” Tell that to Washington!

Paine then proposes a congress of annually changing individuals. But, from a seemingly contradictory position, argues for a large number of representatives in order to better reflect the diversity of viewpoints. Lest he seem to be arguing from a Libertarian viewpoint, however, by work’s end he has conjured up a rather active and complex government, one raising money through commercial land and accruing a national debt, which, he posits, is not only necessary for the fight against England, but an actual good in that it helps to bond its people together.

His positions against British rule of the colonies, indeed, make a great deal of common sense. But, in the end, his arguments seem to center upon two tenants: 1.) that America will ultimately divorce itself from England anyway, and 2.) that it is now the best time to do so. Not only does he see it as the perfect time in terms of size of population and resources, but also the best time to act before civil unrest forces other kinds of government upon the people or—without a sufficient navy—American cities will be attacked by rebel pirates invading seaports. Why have we no Philadelphia pirate stories? The pirate invasion of Newport? It appears that from the very beginning the settlement of our country had to do with embattlement against lawless and violent forces: the concerns with the pirates of the 18th century would become problems with the renegade gunfighters and the Western Indian tribes of the 19th century.

One of Paine’s most unusual “commonsensical” observations against English rule is that it is “unnatural” for such a small island to rule such a large land mass. Alas, history—not all of which Paine could be cognizant of—has shown us many such examples, including Britain’s rule of India, Portugal’s of Brazil, Spain of a great many of its conquests, and tiny Belgium’s rule of the Congo. Of course, he might have recalled tiny Rome’s rule of most of the then known world. Yes, it is unnatural.

Finally, in a later edition, Paine takes on the protests of a Quaker group against his pamphlet by arguing that, since the Quakers believe it is wrong to interfere with any government’s course, it is “un-Quaker-like” to argue against his positions. Putting aside the illogic of the Quaker position, Paine seems to use Quaker theology as a means to quiet any Quaker disagreement. Return to your shells, ye turtles! He might rather have perceived the immense effect of his statements to have engaged such a generally silent gathering. In a sense, with the Quaker involvement in political discussion, one might have recognized his battle had already been won.

Rome, Giardino del Lago, Villa Borghese, October 17, 2003


I have no idea what led me to reread Paine’s important text (I must have read Common Sense in high school, but I have no memory of it). Perhaps I had just revisited a movie I have seen dozens of times, Born Yesterday, wherein William Holden as journalist Paul Verrall educates the “junk” king’s moll, “Billie” Dawn, played Judy Holliday, by encouraging her to read, among other writers, Thomas Paine. I do recall that I was considering reprinting it in my Green Integer series (and perhaps someday will do so). In any event, as these annuals have long-ago evidenced, there are few unrelated events in my world. In 2006 a splendid new biography of Paine was published, and I leapt at the chance of knowing more about this American hero.

After reading Nelson’s elucidating and well-written biography, I realized that, despite my belief of 2003 that many “learned” writings already existed, if Nelson is to be given credence, many of the biographies and evaluations of Paine have been lacking in their understanding of this multifaceted hero, and some have been outright fabrications of his life.

Nelson’s book begins with the strange disinterment of Paine’s body (unburying and reburying the dead seems to be a minor theme running through the pages of My Year 2003) from a Westchester, New York rural cemetery by former enemy William Cobbett, who attempted to return the corpse to Paine’s native England in order to place it in a proper memorial. He failed to raise money for such a monument, and Nelson’s book ends with the realization that Paine’s body parts, inherited by Cobbett’s family and passed on to others, had completely disappeared, scattered as it were throughout England. It is a fit ending to the adventures of this great American patriot, born Thomas Pain [sic], who, after attempting to awaken the sentiments of freedom-loving Britishers, escaped impending imprisonment by traveling to the British American colonies, and soon after—as a close friend and ally to figures such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others—literally ignited the American Revolution through his best-selling Common Sense. The American Paine attempted to join the battle as a soldier in Washington’s unit, but was told to return to Philadelphia where he could better serve the cause through his writings.

Nelson’s portraits of not only Paine but numerous other American patriots who, after the Revolution, felt that all they stood for had failed, are particularly touching, as one realizes that the perspectives of one’s own lifetime are always limited. But in Paine’s case, the despair was not based only upon changes of reputation, but on his inability—despite being one of the best-selling authors of all time—to survive; he received little remuneration or compensation from the American government for his great role in its founding, and was forced to give up the only government position as a governmental clerk because of his literary attacks on special ambassador Silas Deane, whom Paine felt had brokered treaties that also included commercial gains for himself. Although Deane was asked to present Congress with his financial records, and he was replaced by John Adams, he was ultimately found not guilty, after his death, and his heirs were paid a significant amount for recompense. Later, however, it was revealed that Deane had been working as a British informant for most of the Revolution. For Paine, however, it meant from the start of the “affair” that he must fend financially for himself, and within a few years he returned to England, raising so much anti-royalist sentiment in that country that he was forced to flee to France.

Paine, now a hero in France, equally helped in the French Revolution, becoming a member of the National Convention and joining the French legislation—until various factions made it such a violent affair that his own life was in danger. Without the help of the American representatives Adams and Gouverneur Morris, now his sworn enemies, and receiving only silence from his former friend Washington, Paine had no choice but to remain in harm’s way. Eventually imprisoned, his life was (as Nelson describes it) almost accidentally spared, but his health was ruined, his spirit sapped. Upon his return to the US he had little monies and great responsibilities in his caring from Mme. Bonneville and her three sons, in whose home he had stayed during his last years in France. And despite his continued publications—mostly in support of the Jeffersonians and attacks on the Federalists—he had a difficult time surviving. Certainly, his reputation had been nearly destroyed in America, in part because of his anti-religious affirmations—beliefs, in fact, shared by most of the Revolutionary patriots— in The Age of Reason.

Beyond the painful story of Paine, his contributions, and his ultimate downfall in the US and France (his reputation had already been destroyed in the British press and public opinion), Nelson reminds us of the conservatism of Hamilton, Marshall, Jay, Madison, the Morrises, and Washington as opposed to those I perceive as more enlightened men such as Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin. Indeed, politics in the early days of our nation often seem to have been as corrupt, petty, and insular as they are today.

While clearly oversensitive and often vain—in Nelson’s portraiture of him—Paine comes alive as an impassioned speaker for reasoned governments in opposition to those who would delimit human rights. Not having previously realized that Paine’s father had been a Quaker and that Paine had been reared with Quaker values, I can now more clearly understand his outrage for the Quaker attacks on Common Sense. Yet my closing comments of 2003 seem even more relevant after reading Nelson’s brilliant biography: despite any feelings of failure or necessary defense of his positions, Paine had already won the battle for the hearts of all freedom-loving people of the world.

Los Angeles, December 21, 2006