Thursday, January 18, 2007

# 94 Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

About ten pages into Wide Sargasso Sea, the 1966 novel by Jean Rhys, the centathlete realized he could literally hear the narrator, because he’d heard the pacing, tone and subject matter before—in the 1992 movie The Lover.

Jeanne Moreau, the French actress and singer, distinctively narrated off-camera as the elder personage of the Young Girl decades after the events on screen, channeling the “morning-after voice” of Marguerite Duras, who wrote the 1984 novel, L’Amant, on which the movie is based, about her childhood in Vietnam.

Some critics took issue with The Lover’s indisputably erotic emphasis through its exhibition of the prolific Hong Kong actor,
Tony Leung, and the exquisitely photogenic nymphet, Jane March, an 18 year-old English model with no prior acting experience. Roger Ebert, who liked the movie less than the centathlete did, thought it offered little more than “soft-core sensuality,” and he added:

“I wanted to know more. I believe true eroticism resides in the mind; what happens between bodies is more or less the same, but what it means to the occupants of those bodies is another question.”
At first blush, the complaint seems curious coming from an unblushing former B-movie practitioner like Ebert, who wrote the screenplay for the bawdy 1969 satire,
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, directed by skin-flick grandmaster Russ Meyer. His call for “serious” character development is a familiar refrain of dramatic and literature criticism, one the centathlete has never shared.

The centathlete has never “wanted to know more” about a book or film’s dramatis personae. Vividness or strangeness of environment, originality and intricacy of technique, expansiveness of perspective, and dynamism of plot all attract him more than the fullness of the characters. There are plenty—6.6 billion—of people; the centathlete doesn’t hinge his indulgence in a work of art on the envisioning of characters as virtual human reference-points. This seems a matter of taste and personality, though, and the way you interact or want to interact with books and with people may differ.

We could tear down many of the greatest stories ever told, such as those in the Old and New Testaments, or epics such as The Odyssey or Beowulf, or novels such as Animal Farm and Brave New World (both in the Top 100 list), for giving their heroes little inner depth. Furthermore, most of children’s literature and genre (mystery, sci-fi, etc.) fiction lacks “realistic” psychological complexity. Scrolling down beloved entries in the AFI’s greatest 100 movies (Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Some Like It Hot, etc.) suggests that this particular critical demand is applied rather selectively.

Still, many novelists themselves obey the impulse to know more, to great success. Gregory Maguire took The Wizard of Oz and wrote the 1995 novel, Wicked, a backstory-prequel based on Glinda's nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West. He said in
an interview:
“…I did think that because it is a familiar subject and people have a preconception they might be intrigued to follow and see whether their preconceptions hold any water. That's what I was intrigued in, too. They might feel the same as I do. Oh, the Wicked Witch of the West. Gee, we don't know much about her, do we? She wears black and she's kind of ugly; she doesn't seem to take care of her skin very well; but she's still interested in those ruby slippers. Why? There's a complication there. What is it? She always tells the truth. In the movie, the Wicked Witch might be scary, but she never lies.”
Three decades before Maguire, Jean Rhys complicated a one-dimensional witch. She took the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontё’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, and wrote a backstory-prequel that became Wide Sargasso Sea, as she
explained:

“When I read Jane Eyre as a child, I thought, why should she think Creole women are lunatics and all that? What a shame to make Rochester's first wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I'd write the story as it might really have been. She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I'd try to write her a life.”
Like Bertha Mason, Rhys was a Creole, defined for her as a white European from the West Indies, having been born in 1890 in
Dominica, where she lived until she was 16. Her novel’s title refers to the seaweed-matted Sargasso Sea and the symbolic distance between the cultures on its opposite sides.

After going to school in England and working as a chorus girl, Rhys lived a bohemian life in Paris, where she wrote journals that were given to the novelist Ford Madox Ford, who encouraged and taught her to write novels. In the mid-1920’s the two had an
affair while Rhys’s husband did prison time for embezzlement, making them—perhaps—the only amorously linked novelists of the Top 100 list. Each donned a pseudonym: Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams; Ford was born Ford Hermann Hueffer.

Rhys was an alcoholic prone to depression for much of her life, as was Duras (whose surname is also pseudonymal, chosen in honor of a town where the author’s father lived; she was born Marguerite Donnadieu). Their late, respective books, Wide Sargasso Sea (published when Rhys was 76) and L’Amant (published when Duras was 70) display an astonishing number of parallels; each could be described as the semi-autobiographical study of a white girl’s coming of age in a decaying, fraught colonial setting, featuring a brittle, unmaternal mother, a Catholic girls school, cultural clashes, and contentious conjugal negotiations that intertwine passion and wealth.

There’s a similarity of style too. Rhys’s writing has been
called “stunningly sensual and mellifluous yet pared-down and immediate.” Her unsentimental minimalism, a firm foundation for the hysteria and tragic conflagrations she depicts, incorporates physical curiosities such as a glacis, a glass-covered veranda, and frangipani, a flower exotic in appearance and name. (The repeated references to tropical flora calls to mind the bougainvillea that grows everywhere in southern Mexico in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, as well as the evocative wisteria that populates William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.)

Duras has been
described as a minimalist who, “…talks about the melancholy of love in a style so simple, so pure, so raw too, that you are marked by it for ever.” She was identified with the French literary movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Le Nouveau Roman (The New Novel), characterized by:

“…an austere narrative tone which often eschews metaphor and simile in favor of precise physical descriptions, a heightened sense of ambiguity with regards to point of view, radical disjunctions of time and space, and self-reflexive commentary on the processes of literary composition.”
Her screenplay for 1959’s
Hiroshima Mon Amour, so evident through the voice-overs, is fascinating and unforgettable. The film moves back and forth between the heroine’s life during World War II in France and 14 years later during a brief stay in Japan. Cinematic montage juxtaposes Nevers and Hiroshima, two small river-bordering cities that were and are nondescript relative to their respective countries’ capitals and other major metropolises.

Last year the centathlete toured western Burgundy with his future fiancée, at one point embarking on a canoe trip from Nevers down the Loire, ending at its confluence with the Allier. A persistent, robust headwind tripled the envisioned effort, doubled the allocated time, and halved the pleasure. On the return ride the van was shared with a group of local schoolchildren (maybe third-graders) who had also been paddling but experienced only fun, in light of their collective good humor. Over and over they yelped “Bus!” while giggling, indicating that they had given it a new meaning only they shared. Bus! Bus!

The centathlete also biked around the area, but not as demonstrably care-free as the character of She in Hiroshima Mon Amour first biked through Nevers, nor anywhere near as rigorously as She did ultimately, riding all the way to Paris (161 miles!) in two days (the terrain is flat, as seen by train, but still…).

Duras wrote and directed many other movies in addition to her novels, developing a multimedia perspective that Jean Rhys, 24 years her elder, never uploaded. If we take this sensibility—the emphasis on sensory perception; the flat, philosophizing commentary—and subtract a novelist’s skill and a confessor’s anguish, we get… the eye and voice of Terence Malick, the American director/screenwriter.

Before the 2005 release of Malick’s
The New World, Hwanhee Lee wrote that the director’s first three films:

“…are concerned with bringing cinema back to its humble origins, of presenting unmediated and uninterpreted reality, before its natures have split into different theoretical positions and approaches, such as the dichotomy between realism and expressionism, fiction and documentary, and the division of cinema into various genres and movements. Rather than merely paying homage to silent cinema, it appears to be a certain fundamental or primitive condition of cinema that he seeks, for most silent films are neither primitive, unmediated, nor uninterpreted presentations of reality.”
Interesting, to say the least, that Lee failed to mention Alain Resnais, the director of Hiroshima Mon Amour, as an obvious
influence on Malick…

Q'Orianka Kilcher, another exquisitely photogenic nymphet, and 14 when she was cast as Pocahontas in The New World, provided a more accessible, direct assessment of Malick, who hasn’t given an interview in more than 30 years:

“He was a really wonderful director. He allowed all the actors to fully immerse themselves in their characters and to bring the characters to life in their own way. He was a very spirit-of-the-moment kind of director. If he saw the wind blowing in the grass a certain way, he suddenly started filming it…We stayed pretty close to the script except that almost all the dialogue was cut out…”
Like Duras and Rhys, Malick
moved to France as an adult. There must have been something in le vin that spawned their mutually “elliptical” and “obscure” style.

Sipping a
Pouilly Fumé (produced a leisurely bike-ride beside the Loire north of Nevers), we’re not surprised to recognize that The New World, like Wide Sargasso Sea, portrays a young girl’s coming of age against a combative backdrop of colonialism, or that Pocahontas, like Annette Cosway (Rhys’s name for Brontё’s Bertha Mason), is fatefully taken to England by her older husband by boat…

But not by bike of course. And not by…Bus!


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

# 38 Howards End – E.M. Forster

On Two Introductions

While mulling over Howards End, the 1910 novel by
E.M. Forster, its motto of “Only connect...,” and its dramatic mediation between socioeconomic classes, the centathlete received an email from an acquaintance alerting friends to an upcoming community-theater production. A college professor who directs plays in her spare time, she led off with:

“I try not to send mass emails promoting my life, but I thought you might be interested in my latest project!”

This innocuous introduction, what could be skipped over as an electronic clearing of the throat, was followed by the nitty-gritty of the play’s subject and schedule—the text on which prospective or committed attendees would naturally focus. Let’s consider another innocuous introduction, the initial sentence of
Chapter 22 of Howards End:

“Margaret greeted her lord with peculiar tenderness on the morrow.”

Immediately following is the nitty-gritty of the novel, the elegant articulation of theme that attracted such admiring focus that it is
quoted on the home page of a web site devoted to Forster:
"Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire."
The site’s author omitted the chapter’s first sentence presumably because it is a stage-setter and superfluous to the theme—every citer has to cut somewhere—but the centathlete got stuck on it.

The use of “her lord” and “on the morrow” exemplify Forster’s proclivity for, in David Lodge’s words in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, “slightly archaic literary diction...to give solemnity and weight to the sentiments expressed...” The entire passage is in fact described by the narrator as a “sermon.”

Feminists,
womanists, and many others today might cringe at “her lord” after the sustained presentation of the enlightened, active, independent Margaret Schlegel and her sister Helen. The term connotes the quaintness of Margaret’s status as a newlywed, acknowledges the authoritarianism of her husband Henry Wilcox, the conservative capitalist, and reinforces Forster’s pragmatic approach to reform: Margaret is subservient according to the historical institution of marriage as it was generally understood in 1910; she can change him and their relationship in that context alone.

The “peculiar tenderness” Margaret carried into her sermon was elaborated on in 1927’s Aspects of the Novel by Forster, and in 1999’s Philosophy and Social Hope by the philosopher
Richard Rorty, who, while quoting Forster, explained:
“’The development of the novel’ which is the same as ‘the development of humanity’...is a shy crablike movement towards tenderness, the tenderness which makes connection possible.”
In 1984 the ska-pop band
General Public sang of the personal longing for “Tenderness” above merely carnal pleasures, a notion Forster had amplified on the social scale:
“Far more mysterious than the call of sex to sex is the tenderness that we throw into that call; far wider is the gulf between us and the farmyard than that between the farmyard and the garbage that nourishes it.”
The latter clause indicates that this sentiment is linked to a sufficiently comfortable lifestyle. Before her marriage, Margaret tirelessly contemplated and debated poverty and socialism, and she expressed such thoughts as, “The poor cannot always reach those whom they want to love...”

Rorty expounded, “[Forster] knows that tenderness only appears...when there is enough money to produce a little leisure, a little time in which to love.” This awareness informs the
Tin Pan Alley tune from the Depression, “Try a Little Tenderness (popularized in 1933 by Ruth Etting, then in 1946 by Frank Sinatra on the first concept album, and again in 1967 by Otis Redding), which advocates tenderness “in the hustle of the day” to successfully romance “weary” women who wear “that same shabby dress.”

Pejorative economic contextualization and well-meaning outreach also attend the first introduction, in which the professor apologized in advance for “promoting my life.”

Rampant mercantilism, not poverty, looms behind this email. In contrasting the world of Howards End, in which many intellectuals like Forster and the Schlegels lived on inherited income, with today’s, Lodge observed, “...most of us are enmeshed in capitalist economies...” The mesh is the message: today more than 80% of email is
spam and therefore adding to that unsolicited, promotional clutter is understandably repellant to most.

Beyond spam, the introduction suggests the author’s sensitivity to perceived egotism. Even though each recipient of the email was a friend or acquaintance, and even though a modest community-theater play is about as benign an enterprise as there is, the professor was uncomfortable simply launching into an energetic invitation.

This unease could well have something to do with the relatively common aversion to the
hard sell; many people don’t want to urge or coerce others to spend money. A limited-run musical, however, like any temporary or perishable product, requires such hardness according to business principles.

Thus compelled, the professor-
cum-director, with tickets to sell and an approaching deadline, continued with the commercially inappropriate, tentative, generic phrase, “I thought you might be interested...,” which posits a preexisting rapport between the author and the recipient and suggests there are intellectual or otherwise non-commercial benefits related to the subsequent message. Such tone exemplifies the gentle persuasion of the soft sell used by savvy marketers when the product has long-term or repeated use.

Through her active engagement with the arts, the professor resembles the cultured Schlegels. Can we correlate her “softness” with the “tenderness” with which Margaret Wilcox née Schlegel greeted her lord on the morrow? Don’t they both reach out gently in mindful consideration of their audience?

Splitting so many hairs, reflecting on this verbiage—even if it was casually chosen—seems appropriate because the professor teaches language arts to future teachers of writing. And it’s time for a disclosure: the centathlete periodically emails friends and acquaintances announcing new blog posts. To be candid, he’d rather not send them, but he knows through traffic reports that he wouldn’t have many readers otherwise...

Only Connect?

“Only Connect...” is the name of the web site that left out Chapter 22’s first sentence; its source is Howards End’s epigraph, which Forster plucked from the following:
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die... Nor was the message difficult to give. It need not take the form of a good 'talking.' By quiet indications the bridge would be built and span their lives with beauty.”
Henry Wilcox, the money-obsessed businessman, represents the “prose” and his new wife Margaret the “passion” by virtue of her embodiment of many ideals of
humanism. While striving for tolerance and greater aesthetic spirit, she respects the necessity of the energy and stability provided by people like Henry; she recognizes that human completeness involves paying the bills, building factories, marshalling resources, administering companies and empires.

“Only connect...” is understood as a
humanist credo, an advocacy of:
“...the need for two parts of society—the intellectual and cultural, and the commercial, to meet and understand each other...the need for society to be interlinked as a whole...[and] the need for individuals to...link their rational and emotional sides.”
It is like the
Golden Rule, a moral and ethical precept on which we should act, but the centathlete instinctively bridles at universal directives—is connecting really the “only” thing we should do in all situations? Never create? Compete? Politely overlook?

A web search shows how powerfully
resonant the distilled message has become, though the electronic zeitgeist seems to stress one side of the equation—the passion for connectivity—while overlooking the necessity of prosaic attention to detail. One study of hyperconnectivity via computers and the Internet evoked the promises and difficulties Forster dramatized:
“We need to consider the dynamics between these electronic forums and the communities and persons for which they serve as a meeting place. We must unpack the challenge of Forster to ‘only connect,’ and consider the meanings and nuances of various types of computer-mediated connections. Furthermore, we should consider the implications for a society whose people so easily move in and out of these virtual spaces.”
For these researchers, the ease with which people join and opt out of virtual communities, often concealing or lying about their identities, presents both pros and cons. This applies to the
1 billion people in the world who use the Internet—what about the 5.5 billion others?

What about the quality and importance of connections between, say, a
Darfur refugee, a janjaweed raider, a foreign journalist in Sudan, and an American watching a news report at home? In fact, the narrator of Howards End suggests the motto only applies to certain segments of society, when he begins Chapter 6 with:
“We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.”
Lodge noted this “objectionable” passage has “irked” many readers, presumably on account of exclusionism. He stressed that in 1910 Forster was referring to “...what we call the Underclass, but before the institution of state welfare it was a bottomless pit of misery and degradation.”

In considering Forster’s motto as it regards the present-day illiterate, unhealthy Underclass—which could be
defined as the nearly 3 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day—Richard Rorty wrote, “’Only connect’ has no relevance to them, for they cannot afford any disinterested actions. The light shed by novels does not reach them.”

One of the preeminent living philosophers, Rorty is considered a neoliberal
pragmatist. In his essay on Howards End he discussed social justice and the distribution of wealth—issues which also concerned the two most influential political philosophers of the last 50 years, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, who were colleagues at Harvard.

In advocating an egalitarian welfare state in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls famously proposed conditions for a fair social contract. He envisioned an
original position in which people are prevented from knowing their class, social status and natural assets by a veil of ignorance and are therefore disinclined to act and decide out of self-interest.

Nozick, a free-market libertarian, rebutted Rawls’s theory in his 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, featuring the
Wilt Chamberlain argument. Born with decidedly uncommon traits, Wilt Chamberlain was an apotheosis of statistical greatness. Most of his feats are well-known, but the centathlete is fond of a few:

- In high school he high jumped 6 feet 6 inches, ran the 440 in 49.0 seconds, ran the 880 in 1:58.3, threw the shotput 53 feet 4 inches, and long jumped 22 feet.
- At the University of Kansas, he ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds, threw the shotput 56 feet, and triple jumped more than 50 feet (in eighth grade the centathlete triple-jumped 30 feet, his all-time personal best, and won the event because his springier teammate was absent from the meet).
- In college he dunked on an experimental 12-foot tall basket (the centathlete was once able to graze the bottom of a 10-foot rim with his fingertips).
- In his 14-year NBA career he never fouled out of a game.
- He is the only player in NBA history to record a double-triple-double (meaning 20 points, 20 rebounds, 20 assists in one game). In
1968 he logged 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists.

By choosing Chamberlain as his subject, Nozick was taking the world and people as they are, even in exaggerated form, unlike Rawls, who required an unnatural thought-experiment as a basis for justice. Rorty, as a pragmatist, takes the world and people as they are in the manner of Nozick, but he shares an egalitarian emphasis with Rawls. Likewise, Forster addressed
Edwardian England as he found it, and dramatized attempts at progress through Howards End.

The three philosophers offered divergent methods of dealing with the historical exclusion of the Underclass from comfort and development. The novelist offers Helen Schlegel’s attempt to connect to the poor (but not “very poor”) Leonard Bast through a brief affair that ends very badly for him.

Notably, Forster also addresses another group that is excluded from connectivity: the privileged but non-cultural and therefore non-humanist capitalists represented by Henry Wilcox. Margaret’s overture to her husband fails on account of his obdurate “concentration.” The “light shed by novels” would not fall on Henry Wilcox, who would not have read a book like Howards End—nor would a like-minded businessperson, so focused and specialized, read it today.

The two heroines of Howards End alone perceive the importance of connection; they are the only characters who actually attempt to meaningfully connect, save one exception. In other words, “only connect” is a humanist ideal that is understood and practiced by humanist characters—and is articulated in a humanist vehicle, the novel Howards End. So, for the centathlete, Forster is essentially preaching to the book-loving humanist choir. The sermon of Margaret Schlegel seems to be an exhortation to other humanists that it is incumbent on them to inspire or educate the non-cultural, business-focused specialists about the importance of connecting.

Only Women Connect?

The connection exception is Ruth Wilcox, Henry’s first wife, who bequeaths Margaret the house (which was modeled on Forster’s childhood home of
Rooksnest) without sharing a progressive world view. Her legacy, like her character, is mysterious but prosaic, in that a comfortable brick domicile is required for a better future for the extended Schlegel family. Ruth Wilcox thereby completes the “rainbow bridge.”

Forster’s three connectors are exclusively women. If we grant that education is essential to humanist connecting or sermonizing about it, we are not surprised that our Schlegel incarnate, the emailing professor, is a female educator. Approximately
79% of K-12 teachers in the U.S. are women. Conversely, about 88% of the superintendents—the prose-minded managers who administer budgets and details—are male. (When we examine a community of book-loving centathletes, we are not surprised to find 67% of the members who have posted more than once are women.) Forster’s one-sided presentation of gender is affirmed here and now.

Another woman, a novelist who has
lectured and conducted workshops at Harvard, notably practices connectivity. In 2005’s On Beauty, Zadie Smith retells Howards End through a multi-cultural lens. The legacy passed from woman to woman becomes the painting, “Mistress Erzulie,” by the Haitian voodoo artist Hector Hippolyte.

Smith’s facility in navigating between races, ethnicities, sexes, ages and walks of life contradicts the epigraph of On Beauty, “We refuse to be each other,” a quotation by
H.J. Blackham, a noted British humanist like Forster. Smith can be anyone on the page.

Rather than delve into On Beauty, the centathlete will simply recommend it, and note one superficial comparison with its template. Forster entertains mainly when the Schlegel sisters speak—as so animatedly and aptly portrayed by Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter in the 1992 movie
Howards End. Forster's men are dull. Smith, in contrast, presents lively, engrossing interactions between and among both sexes, as well as among characters of varied ages. She inhabits others more readily than Forster did, but she lives in an England with more kinds of “others.”

In her numerous
interviews, Smith demonstrates a remarkable, if not preternatural, politeness in illuminating her perspective and craftsmanship—to the point that the centathlete sometimes wishes for unpredictable bursts of irascibility or dismissiveness. Smith addressed her sensibility with The Atlantic in an interview about On Beauty:

Q: It's evenhanded, but you do deliver a sharp line here and there.

A: Every now and then. A bitch slap. It's one of the tricks of high art. You're constantly told in college and elsewhere that good taste and good fiction are about not pushing, about not expressing your opinion too forcefully... if I was going to be a proper writer, I'd better be as polite as possible and as calm as possible and as un-angry as possible—and recently I've been thinking, you know, fuck that, basically.

Even when slapping and cussing, Smith remains polite, as far as the centathlete is concerned. Her few impulses toward brazenness and ill temper are mitigated by her Forsterian connectivity between all people and all ideas.

Just as Howards End does, the first sentence of On Beauty begins with “One may as will begin with...” Smith then switches the subject from a letter to an email as she introduces her novel’s world of art professors, mirroring our world of language arts professors who email their friends about musicals.

Without introductions, books, emails and connections, this running of the centathlon would cease to exist as if it had been a dream—not exactly an innocuous conclusion.