A Matter of Time

When the twentieth century novelists decided that those plots which frame our
lives and those masks we wear every day for the sake of conventions and society were no longer “interesting”, but rather, what’s hidden behind those masks, the very first victim to be sacrificed to the altar of modern narrative was time, or
better, chronological time .

As Sterne taught us, under the mask there is not hypocrisy, but chaos, the freedom of
thought, no fear of judgement, it is exactly what we are: naked. In that precious
tabernacle which is our mind, time flows free and ruthless. Hence, whoever dared
represent it should have employed new writing techniques, as the old ones could not go under the surface, the mask. Freud, with his studies on the unconscious, Bergson,
with his theory on mental time processes called ” la Durée” and William James, who
theorized “the stream of consciousness” gave those writers what they needed to forge the modern novel.

Rather than following actions linked by a cause-effect pattern, readers were involved by the train of thoughts of the characters that caused those actions. Therefore, at the beginning of a modern novel we don’t find any longer introductory pages with all the information we need to have about the central character/s, as in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example:

I WAS born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me(…)”. (Robinson Crusoe Chpt.1)

Or Jane Austen’s Emma:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.”(Emma Chpt.1)

The heroes that people modern novels may remain without a face or details about their personal lives for many pages till those details cross the mind of the character and only then it is possible to attempt a picture of one of them. Novels become as treasure chests that chronologically may last even one day only, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, chests that keep together the warm, virulent, indomitable power of the characters’ thoughts which freely skip from one way to another thanks to their association of ideas.

The fresh morning air of London”( What a lark! What a plunge!“) and the sound of the hinges of the doors which are to be removed to make more room for Mrs Dalloway’s party, take her to the past when she was eighteen at her summer-house by the sea and the ghost of Peter Walsh appears without any introduction, just few lines she remembers which are apparently meaningful for her, but absolutely meaningless for us :

Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh.” (Mrs Dalloway Chpt.1)

Peter Welsh is a central character of Mrs Dalloway’s life, even he is physically distant, he is constantly present in her mind, in fact he is the very first person we meet in her train of thoughts.

In Dubliners, Eveline has been motionless at the window for some time when she hears somebody’s footsteps:

“The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.”

The sound of the footsteps, which turns from cracking to crunching takes her to the red houses where once there was a field, where she used to play with her brothers and friends and was happy. In that memory the censorious shadow of her father materializes, with a “blackthorn” stick in his hands. Her father is first in her thoughts rather than Frank, the young man with whom she had consented to an elopement that very night, as it is Eveline’s relationship with him the core of the story.

In this new way of writing, pages may chronologically cover few seconds, while a
line hours, as for the individual, time may speed up or slow down even if for the clock pace remains the same. Joyce tells us that “She(Eveline) sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue“, however, how long had she been sitting there? Hours? Maybe, as we are brought to understand that there was still light when she sat there, but the day had then become night as pointed out by the alliteration of the “w”, which turns into a “v”, and the vowel sound, which grows darker and darker word after word. The incoming night presses her to go while her sense of guilt keeps her there, at the window motionless. Eveline feels both as an invasion of her soul. Very likely she would have preferred a third option, but hadn’t we plunged into the secrecy of her thoughts, we would have seen only a girl sitting at the window and not a word would have been spent on her.

 

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And I Had Done a Hellish Thing

The beginning of the second part of the Rime is strikingly modern in my eyes. Coleridge shows here a great insight of human nature and the dynamics that rule relations among men and I may say nowadays more than ever. The first part had ended with the Ancient Mariner’s unforeseen killing of the albatross. There is not a  particular reason that may justify such senseless and despicable action. He just did it. That is why this crime is somehow even more terrible than that of Cain, who had killed, for sure, but because he envied his brother. At least he had a reason. The killing of the albatross has no justification at all, that is why it represents absolute evil, the evil that does not need motives: ” I shot the Albatross“. Full stop. Evil is a seed  that resides in every human soul and can blossom in any moment, just responding to our basest instincts and this is a fact for Coleridge.

Particularly interesting is how the crew, who represents the Mariner’s community of friends and connections he has to interact with daily, reacts to the killing of the albatross.  Coleridge,at this point, leaves the quiet pace of the ballad made of quatrains and marks a change employing two sestets where he can better develop the repercussions of the incident on the mariners’ souls:

“And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!”

The seafarers at first blame the mariner for having killed the bird of good omen they had believed to be the cause of their good fortune, thus, managing to escape from the mist and the wondrous cold of the South Pole and move Northward. There is not a single word of condemnation on the moral implication of his action.They are just superstitious and believe that the infamous behaviour of the mariner, somehow, will have consequences on their welfare. They are 200 in all, but they speak as if they had one voice. The scenario, however, suddenly changes:

“Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.”

Against all odds, after many days of suffering and fear the glorious sun rises and under that warm and comforting light the seafarers now believe to see the truth clearly : that albatross was not the bird of good omen, but quite the contrary. They all agree, with no exception, that the killing of the Albatross was rightly done as the bird must have been the cause of their misfortune. In this way they all become accomplices to the Mariner. In these few lines Coleridge tells us how mutable human nature is.The members of the crew are prompt to change their minds according to the new situations and beliefs, but above all they move en masse. This herding behaviour makes them feel stronger and ready to attack like wolves whoever acts differently or is seen like a danger. I may say that social medias provide the most fertile ground where this kind of human attitude manifests itself nowadays.

For better or worse the killing of the Albatross places the Mariner in a condition of seclusion and solitude. Furthemore, he is the only one who realizes the extent of what he had done when he says it was a ” hellish thing“, an action that ” would work ’em woe”. In fact, pleasant warmth becomes unbearable heat and when the wind drops and the men find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean, with no water to drink, the wolves attack the Mariner again and hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

By the way, the crew is eventually punished with death for not having blamed the crime of the Ancient Mariner for its moral implications. As only survivor the Mariner is now condemned to live persecuted by the memory of his dead comrades. His punishment is even more terrible than death itself: to live in solitude, without the hope of God’s piety, with a tormented soul and in constant agitation.  Even when, eventually, he expiates his sin and manages to go back home, he is not allowed to enjoy the communion of other men. He will have the mission of admonishing them, impart the lesson he had learnt from his experience, but nothing more. He’ll remain at the margin of the feast of life, doomed to stop men, with his “glittering eye” to which no one can escape, trying to make them wiser, if possible, even if this means being sadder.

 

 

 

Rain

Rain is a very powerful symbol. Chaucer makes it, in fact, the great protagonist of the very first lines of his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. It’s April and the “sweet showers “ have soaked deep into the dry ground to water the roots of the flowers. The combination of this spring rain with Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, is so powerful that the “tender shoots” are quickly transformed into “buds”  under the eyes of a “young sun” and with the background music of birds singing. It is the joyful natural rebirth which also stirs man’s spiritual rebirth. That’s why spring was symbolically chosen as the perfect time of the year by Chaucer and his pilgrims to set on a pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Beckett. Chaucer, therefore, gives us an image of a man totally integrated and in harmony with the world and its natural forces. But that was more or less seven hundred years ago.

When The Waste Land  was published in 1922 , the world had just witnessed the horrors and follies of  World War I and what remained in the present was perceived only as a “heap of broken images”  on  a “dead land “. Among the ruins of the certainties and values of a glorious past, Eliot’s modern man is at loss, he is a “dried tuber”  forced to live a meaningless life. Therefore, the coming of the joyous spring produces a rather depressive mood, if man finds no reasons to live. What’s worse, if you have ever experienced such a state of the soul, than somebody that lightly tells you how wonderful life is, but you can’t see it?  It is not. It can’t be.

Eliot’s world is, in fact, deaf to the seasonal call to life. The feeble rain, which makes its presence in the first lines of the poem as in Chaucer’s Prologue, has, however, lost its invigorating power either on nature and on man.The drops of water try to stir the roots that seem to rest safely covered by the “forgetful” winter snow, but they are “dull“, hence, unwilling to put their heads out of the ground. That’s why April for Eliot is “the cruellest month”: man must emerge from his hibernation only to live in the desolate“stony rubbish” which is the present without the smallest idea of where to go and what to do. Eliot’s modern man, in fact, walks in circle and fixes “his eyes before his feet”, as there is no future to pursue.

Then there is a third option, that is, when men are ready to the natural call of life, and I am, but you feel depressed as you realize that it is the 23rd of March and there is still no spring at sight, only a lot of rain; it has been raining for an entire month, to be precise. So, my question is: “If winter comes can spring be far behind?”

The Aesthetic Retreat

Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common: the rejection of materialism in general, an emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to life and more. There are many similarities, for sure, but the Romantics had a distinctive optimistic feature: they were dreamers and revolutionaries at the same time.They believed in the power of poetry and in particular in the mission of the artist, a super sensitive genius, whose task was to defend man’s natural sensibility, which they felt was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial and capitalistic society.

Their ambition was to talk to the heart of men, any man, however, if they wanted to reach a wider public, the dominant taste of the time would not do for the purpose. That is why Romantic poetry became a “bourgeois” sort of poetry, as it was purged of all classic refinements, thus losing its aristocratic trait and with a selection of a new simple language which made accessible to anybody  the poet’s message. As their noble minds were fueled by the inspiring principles of the French Revolution, they aimed at fighting against conformism, indifference, ignorance but very soon, when that revolutionary wind weakened, the artists started to question: must art have a purpose of some kind? Must artists pursue goals different from giving life and form to their creative inspiration? A Romantic poet like Keats had developed pretty soon another opinion about it, in fact, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he had clearly stated that art has only one goal : beauty. He even reinforced the concept adding : “That is all… Ye need to know“, thus anticipating the Aesthetic creed.

For the Aesthetes, in fact, those people, whose hearts the Romantics wanted to touch with their lines, resembled the crew of Baudelaire‘s poem: Albatros, that is, hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive. A poet, who, like the Albatross, happens to descend among them, cannot but become the martyr of common ignorance and blindness. In his flight the poet/Albatross is magnificent and elegant with his vast wings, he is “the prince of sky and clouds“, but when the men of the crew catch him and place him on the deck, well, everything changes. The bird has to walk now, seems to have lost all the confidence he had before, thus becoming pathetic,clumsy, ashamed and those beautiful wings which used to take him up to the sky, now seem like oars that drag him down. This fallen angel has become so gauche and weak that appears to be like a cripple.The men show no pity, but rather, they sneer at him.

The poet/Albatross belongs to the sky and he is used to facing the tempest. Only up there he is the king that laughs at the(bow)man, but when he is on the earth, when he is “exiled” among the jeering men, his wings become useless, as they “prevent him from walking“. Modern society, like the deck of that ship is no longer for poets, as it is peopled by men who do not wish to learn anything from them. Any attempt of communicative effort cannot but be destined to failure whatever the choice of language might be; they couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. Poetry, just like the wings of the Albatross, is of no use.That is why the aesthetes chose to keep on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty, thus avoiding the risk of being entrapped by men’s ignorance and violence. Art is for art’s sake and nothing more. On this point they were quite firm, as we understand reading Wilde‘s “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an art. Full stop. An artist should not pursue a didactic or moral aim. Full stop.  All art is quite useless. The end.

Primitive Modernity

A Scene from Tristram Shandy (‘Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman’) 1829-30, exhibited 1831 Charles Robert Leslie 1794-1859 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00403

I’ve always been of the opinion that Sterne would have been wonderfully at ease with modern means of communications: his great irony and wit would have made him a great blogger, for sure, but even twitter might have been his natural scene with its short, sharp, effective messages. And how he would have enjoyed scattering emoticons here and there throughout his “The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” only if he could, but since there was nothing of the kind at his time, he used hyphens, dashes, asterisks, crosses, symbols  with the same function. He understood, in fact, that signs had a quick and powerful impact on the mind of readers, exciting their curiosity with the effect of drawing them into the story.

This is exactly what I felt when I first read Tristram Shandy,  I was part of it. The reader, in fact, is so central that very often becomes a character among characters but without a definite script. We are invited to make drawings of the people the author doesn’t feel like describing himself, share his feelings, whether of joy or sorrow, or furthermore he demands our undivided attention whenever he pretends to say something important. All of a sudden, we find ourselves part of a fictitious world just like sometimes it happens in the stagings of some modern plays, when actors arrive from the back of the theatre, thus making you feel baffled.

The characters we have to interact with have not the typical stamp of bourgeois heroes, but they are common people like us, with dreams, passions or better hobby-horses, frustrations and disappointed hopes mostly. There is nothing relevant to say, actually. In Tristram’s life, in fact, there are not grand events to be told, but incidents that make him the hero of ordinariness. Of course, his father, just like any other father, had dreamt for his son a future made of success and glory, that’s why he wanted him to be named Hermes Trismegistus, that means not one but three times great, however, it unfortunately turned out to be Tristram only because of a misunderstanding between his father and his Uncle Toby, thus descending from the Olympus of the gods and becoming one of the many, one of us.

The bits and pieces of his life are disorderly narrated and this is the other element of Sterne’s modernity. He was the very first one to focus his attention not only on the life of his protagonist, but on his “opinions”, that is: his mind. He instinctively understood that if he wanted to deal with his mental processes, he should sacrifice the backbone of the novel structure: chronological time. It is, actually, impossible to delineate its plot. Just few examples: the preface is unusually placed in third chapter, he is the ironic judge and spectator of his own conception in the first one – and what a taboo he breaks talking about his own parents having sex -, any attempt of narration is interrupted by digressions and associations, he decides to skip from page 146 to 156 on account of missing chapter 24 – he didn’t feel like writing it –  etc.  Therefore, even if Sterne couldn’t have the support of the studies of psychoanalysis, he succeeded in representing the chaos of our mind on paper anyhow, in a rather primitive way, of course, but it allowed him to have his place among the gods of English modern novel as their forefather.

 

 

The Darkness behind the Locked Door

One of the most fascinating take on Wuthering Heights, in my opinion, is the Jungian interpretation,  which sees  Heathcliff as Catherine‘s dark side, her shadow. In the personal unconscious, the shadow consists of those desires, feelings, which are unacceptable, for both emotional or moral reasons : it is the dark side of human nature. Heathcliff represents her repressed sexuality, her unconfessed desire which, however, is arduous to control, as the shadow is impulsive, powerful, wild, and hence can become obsessive or possessive. When Catherine marries Edgar, she tries to reject that secret part of her,  that’s why Heathcliff mysteriously disappears. But Heathcliff, as the shadow, refuses to be suppressed permanently, in fact, he surfaces after two years to claim his place next to Catherine, who, despite her desperate efforts to integrate him, is eventually defeated and dies.

This paradigm can also be applied to Jane Eyre as well. In this novel the role of the shadow belongs to Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester‘s first wife. Both Bertha Mason‘s and Heathcliff‘s descriptions conform to the archetype of the shadow. Heathcliff is always portrayed as dark as a gypsy , while Bertha is a Creole, the daughter of a white European settler in the West Indies with “dark hair” and “discoloured black face“. At those time the Creoles were more associated with the native Caribbean populations than the white, civilized Europeans. Creole women were often described as obstinate, dissolute and untrustworthy, which is exactly what Rochester will tell about Bertha.

Rochester had been entrapped  in this marriage. He had been beguiled by her uncommon beauty, wealth and that Creole sensuality, but only when it is too late, he open his eyes to face the real truth: his wife is mad. Once back to England and to the strict conventions of the Victorian society he cannot but hide and lock Bertha in a remote chamber of Thornfield, thus caging his own sexuality.  Thornfield will represent for him from that moment on, what the very name foreshadows, a field, as his soul, tormented by the thorns or guilt, sexual frustration and disappointment. That’s why he is often away. Till Jane Eyre crosses his way.

The growing attachment he feels forJane will make him spend more time at Thornfield, thus it will be impossible for him to ignore his surfacing powerful shadow. As I mentioned before, the shadow cannot be repressed forever, in fact, Bertha walks the night undisturbed, her screams and hideous laughter can be heard by everybody and she even attempts at punishing Mr Rochester setting his room on fire for having been thus neglected and confined, but above all for having brought in the household the “other” woman, Jane Eyre.

 Bertha is, of course, Jane’s polar opposite but she is also her truest and darkest double. Her confinement in the attic mirrors Jane’s imprisonment in the Red Room at Gateshead, a punishment for her anger and lack of conformity. This doubling  makes Bertha’s role within the novel much more complex, and  that means that any analysis of her character must take account of her relationship with Jane. For example one night, when Jane sees Bertha  at the foot of her bed, dressed in white with a bridal veil, while she is looking in the mirror, Jane continuously repeats that she has never seen such a face. Only a few pages later, the morning of her marriage, Jane looks at herself in the mirror and says:” I saw a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger. It is impossible not to notice that the two scenes are almost identical.

Mr Rochester‘s attempt to marry Jane is but his extreme effort to reject that contemptible part of himself and be free to live his life. But in vain. The disclosure of the truth will have as consequence the disappearance of the “good ” self, Jane, who will come back only when Bertha Mason dies, committing suicide. It is interesting to notice that Mr Rochester will be permanently injured in the endeavour of saving Bertha from the fire she had herself set. After all, as his shadow, she was part of him, therefore, letting Bertha die was just like dying himself.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaser and Seductive

It is true: when it happens to re-read a book after many years, even one that you think to know very well, it will inevitably appear under a different light. The book is just the same, but the reader has changed in sensibility and life experience, hence; words, actions unexpectedly take different forms and meanings and the novel, like a precious jewel case, opens to your mind to reveal its new treasure.

So, when I recently analyzed with my students chapter XXXVIII of Jane Eyre, I couldn’t help but noticing a tension in the book, that I had missed before and, I have to say, I quite enjoyed it. Whoever has bumped into my old articles about Jane Eyre, knows that she is not exactly my favorite heroine and not certainly one I naturally emphatize with. I have often found tedious such display of prudery, modesty and self-righteousness, however, between the lines of that chapter I could perceive a new aspect of Jane which I had totally missed.

First of all, I felt that Charlotte Bronte, through Jane, must have really had a great deal of fun ( mixed with a little degree sadism) in humiliating her Byronic hero: Mr Rochester. She tortures him slowly in this very long chapter, which apparently celebrates the re-union of the two lovers. When Jane Eyre comes back to Thorfield after a year, she only finds physical and spiritual ruins. Thorfield has been destroyed by a fire set by Mr Rochester’s wife Bertha Mason and Mr Rochester, in the attempt of rescuing her, has become lame and blind. When Jane approaches him for the first time, what she sees is only a shuttered, miserable, brooding man: a pale shadow of the man he used to be. However; after she has revealed her presence to him( which, I have to admit, is one of the most effective love scenes ever) thus giving Mr Rochester a sparkle of joy, she soon inflicts him one last terrible blow confessing that she is a rich and independent woman now.

Jane had left Thornfield a year before penniless, that is why Rochester had believed her  “dead in some ditch under some stream” or  “pining outcast amongst strangers”. Now that she has turned up rich and independent and being in such a wretched physical and mental state, he is convinced he has no longer any power on her. No more. Nevertheless, our heroine doesn’t seem to show any real mercy and keeps teasing him, in fact, right before going to sleep, somehow she hints at the presence af a man near her in the time she had been missing. The pangs of jealousy work during the night till the next morning, when the two meet again, Mr Rochester will flood a super satisfied Jane with questions on whom he perceives as his rival.

Her answers will just add pain to his tortured soul. That man is Jane’s cousin St. John Rivers, whom she describes at first as a sort of cultivated, refined, handsome Apollo with a Grecian profile too, exactly the kind of person that in that moment makes him feel undeserving of Jane’s love and attentions. At a certain point, probably feeling that this game was lasting a bit too long, Jane justifies her behaviour saying that she was doing this for his own good: to relieve him from his state of melancholy. Maybe she was right, but I could see her exultant smile between the lines. When Jane hears that Mr Rochester has been wearing  her little pearl necklace fastened round his bronze scrag under his cravat since the day he left, she cannot but triumph over the ashes of somebody who once could be rightly defined a true Byronic hero. What an end!

What is surprising in these last scenes is the sensual tension between the two lovers and it is Jane who makes the rules of the game. She is seductive. She approaches silently Mr Rochester till he feels her presence and only then she allows him to touch her fingers, her face and her entire body so that he might have the joy and the pleasure of identifying her.  Mr Rochester’s joy for having his Jane back at last is balanced by the uncertainties due to his condition and our heroine plays this bitter-sweet game as long as she can, till she eventually accepts to be his wife. From the ashes of the Byronic hero a dominant, self-confident woman is born.