Hippolytus

(Ἱππολυτος)

Euripides

429 BC

(Disaster follows when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)

Pierre-Narcisse Guerin - Phaedra and Hippolytus 1815Crop of Phaedra and Hippolytus (1802), by the French neoclassical painter Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (Louvre, Paris). The painting manages dramatically to squeeze in several elements of the plot: the youth expresses his resistance to Phaedra, even as the nurse whispers in her ear; meanwhile Theseus clenches his fist in rage.

The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.

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The History of Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells

1910

(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)

 John Mills stars in the 1949 film version of the History of Mr Polly.John Mills as Alfred Polly in the 1949 Anthony Pelissier film.  Mills’ expression seems to capture Polly’s listless anomie.  This still was also chosen to head the description of the novel for The Guardian‘s list of the 100 Greatest Novels (Robert McCrum named it #39– but meant it to represent all of H. G. Wells’ work).  This photograph is in the Ronald Grant Archive

 

“HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!”  He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”

Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port.  Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole.  And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.

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early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

MunchMelancholyCrop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).

 

“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, spiritual, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe

1852

(Two slaves struggle mightily: one for her liberty, the other for his integrity.)

Group of SlavesCrop of A Group of Slaves leaving to Work in the Field on James Hopkinson’s Plantation in Edisto Island, New Hampshire, circa 1862 by Henry P. Moore. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

 

This novel, the best selling book in the nineteenth century besides the Bible, is a remarkably forceful argument against the world’s most blatant form of widespread institutionalized violation of human rights. It is a collage of slave lives and lifestyles assembled with a thin glue of plot, all combining to urge our sympathies with the slaves and our antipathy to the injustice of their condition. It is an effort to bring free people to the realization that slaves are real persons who have the same sorts of spirits and minds as their masters, and yet they are and will always be subject to all sorts of anguish, suffering, and torture until slavery is abolished. “It is a comfort to hope,” Harriet Beecher Stowe writes in the Preface, “as so many of the world’s sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.” We can be thankful that the author’s hope came true– the book served phenomenally well the purpose for which Stowe designed it. Testament to this are its enormous sales, the several hasty rebuttal “slavery isn’t so bad” novels, and, perhaps more than anything else, the comment of Abraham Lincoln when he met the author, calling her the “little woman whose book started this big war”.

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Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

1973

(Little do a frustrated writer and a troubled car dealer realize, that their impolite author is using their journey to meet each other as an excuse to mastermind a deconstruction of modern values!)

RaboKarabekianTheTemptationOfSaintAnthonySort of The Temptation of St. Anthony, sort of by Rabo Karabekian, 1950. Sort of Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. This can sort of be seen in the Midland City Art Gallery, to which it was sort of sold by the artist for $50,000.

 

A Vonnegut novel grows on you… like an exquisite acquired taste… or else a nagging corn on the foot. All three experiences are underestimated at first, and with time a realization dawns that there is something here that cannot be ignored. Some deride Breakfast of Champions as one of his “lesser”, although more popular, novels. For my part, I think that here we have a wine that is initially very peculiar on the palate, and its apparent confusion will conceal the vibrant undertones if one is not careful to taste it slowly and carefully. Or else, here we have a blasted gadfly of a corn that starts insidiously in a part of the foot’s ball that is unlikely to feel it until the thing has incubated for a mighty long time, insinuating deeply into one’s tissues. And when finally noticed, ouch does that root go deep!

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“The Judgment”

(“Das Urteil”)

Franz Kafka

1912

(After treating a needy friend superficially for years, Georg finally pays the price.)

CharlesBridge_PaulCookCrop of Charles Bridge (2009), by Paul Cook.  Charles Bridge (Karlův most) lies over the Vitava River in Kafka’s hometown of Prague.

 

This is an existentialist horror tale about a man Georg who treats a distant friend superficially, then pays for this crime with his life.  The distant friend is sick, poor and unmarried.  Georg cannot think of what to say to him, so he writes only trivial things.  He offers no advice or heartfelt consolation.  He conceals his own prosperity and even (for a while) his own engagement.  His father, meanwhile, behind his back, has been revealing the truth about Georg to the friend, and has been lying in wait for Georg to raise the situation in conversation.  When Georg finally does broach the subject, his father condemns him as a betrayer of his friend and a selfish cold-hearted bum, and orders him to drown himself.  As elderly as the father is, he is stronger of will than his son, who feels himself urged out of the room and to a nearby bridge.  Georg flings himself to his death.

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The Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger

1951

(He may not know what he wants to be in life, but he sure knows one thing he doesn’t want to be—phony! Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to agree with him).

the_catcher_in_the_rye_EdwardAaronCrop of The Catcher in the Rye by edwardaaronart on DeviantArt.

 

Holden Caulfield is a unique and precious personality in literature.  Although I surely would not want to be subjected in all my reading to the starkness of The Catcher in the Rye, the book is curiously invigorating and liberating.  Despite what one might call the main character’s cynicism, almost paradoxically the strongest draw of the novel for me is that he is refreshing.  Holden is thoughtful, genuine, unsettled, and uninhibited, and these qualities allow the author to portray our secret thoughts and the culture of our time, in the evident hope that we can be enlightened by them.

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Tom Jones

Henry Fielding

1749

(Tom really wants to be good for the sake of his love Sophia, but his nature keeps getting in the way!)

TomJonesMovie1963Albert Finney as Tom Jones, and Susannah York as Sophia Western, in Tony Richardson’s 1963 film adaptation. Courtesy of the British Film Institute.

 

It is prudent to be morally pure– there can be weighty unseen consequences to any moral failure.  Fielding’s signature novel has this ponderous theme, and yet manages not to be at all heavy-handed but funny, colloquial, at times bawdy, ironic, rollicking.  The theme is kicked here and there and tossed around like a ball, but it is pervasive nonetheless– throughout this History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, from his birth to the point at which he finally comes to the beginning of what promises to be a good and happy life with Sophia, all of Tom’s sundry dilemmas and anguishes are a result of his own moral weakness.  Although an otherwise upstanding and honorable individual, poor Tom cannot seem to surmount two kinds of temptation: to lust and to folly.  He repeatedly places himself into compromising situations with women that– even if Fielding’s presentation of them makes us smirk– only prove disastrous to him through his family or his beloved.  Also, to achieve his goals he often resorts to schemes that involve some deceit, and that always backfire on him in the worst way imaginable.  We see Tom, and rightly so, as a victim of Fortune throughout the book; but he lays himself open to Fortune’s whims by his actions, and so he has lured his own fate.  No elements of the plot of this book are foreign to this theme.

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Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

1860-1861

(Pip tells us of his lifelong love, the unexpected rise and fall of his fortune, and the lessons he learned about what makes a gentleman.)

MissHavisham&PipDetail from an 1860s illustration by John McLenan, “‘Who is it?’ said the lady at the table. ‘Pip, ma’am.'” Courtesy of The Victorian Web

 

In describing a novel, everyone, myself included, seems to have as the central focus an explanation of what the book is about, whether plotwise or themewise. So it has always been a curiosity to me that such a description rarely lures me to a novel, or, if I have already read it, rarely captures what I loved about it. Tell me that Great Expectations is Pip’s life story where such and such happens, and I will probably not care too much. Tell me that it is a story of foolish desires and their detriment to our good and healthy existence, or of the confusion we often suffer between our expectations and reality, or of the functions and effects of guilt or love or human sympathy– tell me that the book is about these things and I am likely to nod in agreement, but I’ll not be for the sake of those things very much impassioned to read the novel. It is not because I do not care about these things. In fact, I loved the novel and these are precisely what the novel is about, and I loved it at least partially because of them. But I suspect that there are situations where our experience of reading the novel results in our loving the novel for what it is, as distinct from what it is about. I think Dickens is one of those authors for whom this is regularly the case. Another orphan novel? the uninitiated might ask, having read David Copperfield. And we would have to say “Yes, Dickens is returning to theme of our human condition being one in which we are as orphans, trying to find our way through a world filled with few safe people and places but many threatening people and places. We must learn life’s lessons for ourselves, for our parents are not here to help us.” Now, as true and interesting as this is, does this statement shake the cynic from his negativity towards Dickens? Or, for the person who has read Great Expectations, does it nail down what is so endearing about the book? Probably not.

 

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Pearl

The West Midlands Poet

14th century

(A father struggles to recover faith and peace after losing his baby daughter.)

 PearlIllustration2Illustration of the vision of the narrator of the Pearl poem, from its only manuscript: Cotton Nero A.x.  Courtesy of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project at the University of Calgary

 

Diversity of structure is one of the wonders of poetry.  Today’s poets often celebrate freedom from structure, which has its own beauty.  The medieval mind cherished a different kind of beauty, one that is neither extinct nor obsolete today, just overlooked.  It is the elegant euphony of placing what one wishes to convey into a strict, unifying framework.  Rather than delivering a point casually or even haphazardly as we may do in everyday life, the medieval poet would conform ideas to a predetermined scheme of alliteration, rhyme, stress, mid-line breaks (caesurae), and a multilevel organization of lines into stanzas and groups of stanzas, interconnected by strands of repetition.  Surely it is a handicap to expression—but this is part of its charm!  The skill required to create a meaningful poem that has a detailed or complicated structure is so great that its demands separate the geniuses from the dabblers.  Modern poetic sensibilities may balk at this comment, but in this age where much art and poetry is still very polarized into distinct “high” and “low” forms, I think these sensibilities are a little hypocritical.  It seems in fashion today both to create art that only a fraction of society can understand, and at the same time to repudiate notions of hierarchy, including hierarchy of understanding, wherever they appear.  Generally the medieval mind, cultivated within the feudal economic and political system and a strongly hierarchical Church, was more candid about social stratification.  Medievals did not tend to preach egalitarianism except under God, which would be realized only in another world.  This perspective characterized their art as well as society.  Thus, I would argue that the structured medieval poem’s handicap to expression is in itself, aside from its resulting euphony or atmosphere, a badge of excellence.

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