At the beginning of this week, I discussed the morality of Middlemarch, and how the results that Rohan Maitzen was somewhat uncomfortable with rest on the problem that Eliot’s morality is not based on dessert. Today, I’ve got a book about exactly the opposite problem.
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, a 1973 novel by British avant-garde writer B.S. Johnson, features a protagonist who applies the principles of accounting to everyday life. Not in the sense that he balances his checkbook every night, though; he’s balancing his moral accounts with the rest of the world. I should say that there are a lot of stylistic features of Christie Malry that I’m not going to write about, at least not right now, that are wonderful fun (and I have more Johnson sitting next to me as I type).
Christie’s “first reckoning” with the world gives a general idea of what he’s doing. In the debit column, he puts “aggravation[s],” like “unpleasantness of bank manager” (his boss), “restriction of movement due to Edwardian Office Block,” (referring to the fact that he had to walk around rather than through a particular building), and “bulb importuning” (referring to a flower bulb sales flier). Christie assigns monetary values to all these debits—values which are, as they must be, arbitrary, though they seem to have at least some relation to each other. Bulb importuning costs a lot less than his office supervisor’s lack of sympathy about the death of Christie’s mother. But they don’t seem to be related to any external scale.
Meanwhile, the credit column consists of “recompense” for these debits, some of which are actions by others (“small kindnesses from Joan”), but most of which are Christie taking action on his own in an attempt to balance the accounts: he scratches the facade of the office block, refuses to pay his undertaker’s bill, and sends the reply-paid envelope back to the flower bulb company empty. These actions also receive largely arbitrary monetary values, and Christie balances the accounts. But at each reckoning, Christie is owed more and more.
Why would Christie do such strange things? Christie’s motives “are of no importance to use, though the usual clues will certainly be given,” he warns after the first reckoning.
We are concerned with his actions. A man may be defined through his actions, you will remember. We may guess at his motives, of course; he may do so as well. We may also guess at the winner of the three-fifteen at the next meeting at Market Rasen.
The narrator goes on to explore Christie’s childhood and adolescence, explicitly noting that he is creating the character as he goes and that these things will not help the reader understand why Christie had and implemented his “Great Idea,” nor should they be used to judge the use of that idea.
Oh, I could go on and on for pages and pages about Christie’s young life, inventing and observing, remembering and borrowing. But why? All is chaos and unexplainable. These things happened. He is as he is, you are as you are. Act on that: all is chaos. The end is coming, truly. It is just so much wasted effort to attempt to understand anything. Lots of people never had a chance, are ground down, and other clichés. Far from kicking against the pricks, they love their condition and vote conservative.*
So if we should judge Christie based on his actions, on just how he does kick against the pricks, we can look at a few things: the very fact of his reckoning, the way he conducts it, and the actions he takes in life outside of the reckoning. For one thing, he has a girlfriend, and nothing between Christie and his girlfriend is reckoned (nor anything between Christie and his mother, who dies early on). Just as his mother still figures into the reckoning through the actions of other people (e.g., the supervisor’s lack of sympathy), so can his girlfriend, the Shrike. But there is no Shrike vs. Christie reckoning.
The fact of his reckoning at all would put off Eliot and go clearly against the morality of Middlemarch; it also seems it would go equally against the Christian morality from which this is largely based. But revenge is not wrong under all moral systems, though the dangers of revenge are often illustrated exactly as they are here: when an imperfect human passes arbitrary, incorrect, or unfair judgment on someone or something else, and chooses for his revenge something that is thus arbitrary, incorrect, or unfair. Christie wants to take an eye for an eye, but since he can’t, he resorts to imagining equivalent harms for all the harms against him, harming innocents in the process. Christie is reckoning against the world-at-large, against organizations and groups, not against the specific individuals who have harmed him even when they can be identified. And many times they can’t.
Of course, since this is a novel, just like Middlemarch, there is an ultimate reckoner: the author. Eliot, perhaps, uses a mini-miracle to evade the worst outcomes of her moral system, but in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, the narrator pretty blatantly steps in to balance accounts in his own way, putting the world even with Christie in the end—perhaps, at least.
*I am unable to reproduce the actual look of this paragraph on the page; Johnson uses white space extensively here.
The Tournament of Books kicked off this week with a preliminary round featuring three books about the Iraq War. You’ve probably seen this list dozens of times by now so forgive me for noting once more, they are The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.
I have yet to read the first of these books, and at this point the likelihood of my doing so is pretty low, but before completely burning out on the subject mentally (because, of course, I’ve written hardly anything on it—primarily this discussion) I wanted to respond to the selection of Billy Lynn as the round’s winner (and, less specifically, as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction).
Billy Lynn seems to be a general favorite among the three books, and in many ways I can see why. Billy himself is a likeable protagonist. His fellow soldiers are fun, and their relationships genuine if not untroubled. These kids are real; they have been through the real shit; and they are going to keep it real at the positive madhouse that is a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.
US army officer and writer Nathan Bradley writes at the ToB that he “want[s] to know what the ‘road meat’ thought, what they felt and feared when, limbs still attached, eyes still bright, they were deployed to a country gone unhinged and blood-crazed. Neither Fobbit nor The Yellow Birds does so.” Billy Lynn certainly does, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not a bad place to start. But I’ve been left for a while wondering what exactly Fountain’s novel offers beyond this. The end of the novel, which is supposed to offer some kind of resolution, left me cold (I’m still not sure exactly what was resolved and how), but more importantly I think the novel suffers from some major distractions. Bradley notes that “it would be a great shame if the author’s often naked partisanship alienates some readers—not that I disagree with it, but rather that some Americans are still so tearfully committed to the notion that we were always winning in Iraq, even when it comes to picking books for their local libraries,” but the specific issues he cites as “things that have rubbed conservative readers the wrong way” are not the ones I (not, however, a conservative reader) thought were the worst: “that the bulbous Texans and effusively patriotic rich folks are portrayed as gasbag self-parodies, or that the soldiers do and say bad things (like smoke a joint with a stadium employee, or get in scuffles with patrons, or get in a fight with the Destiny’s Child roadies).” I did think those “effusively patriotic rich folks” were depicted absurdly, but what rankled more was Lynn’s reflexive, unexamined, rather overweening anticonsumerism. A red-blooded Texan himself, Billy does love football, but so many things at the game sicken him.
It’s not like you’re supposed to watch the actual game anyway, no, you watch the Jumbotron, which displays not just the game in real and replay time but a nonstop filler of commercials, a barrage of sensory overload that accounts for far more content than the game itself. Could it be that advertising is the main thing? And maybe the game is just an ad for the ads. It’s too much anyway, what they want from it. Such a humongous burden the game has to bear, so many advertising dollars, such huge salaries, such enormous outlays for physical plant and infrastructure that you can practically hear the sport groaning under the massive load, and the idea of it stresses Billy out, the gross imbalance triggers a tweezing in his gut like the first queasy tugs of a general unraveling.
“It is infuriating, the psyche of the American consumer,” the narrator free-indirectly channels from Billy when he sees a kid without a coat, assuming he doesn’t have proper winter attire though his parents spent hundreds of dollars on Cowboys tickets. Of course, Billy can’t know the kid doesn’t have a coat he simply isn’t wearing, but his default is negative judgment, just as he defaults against advertising and the “burden” of dollars instead of wonder at how a game—a game!—can create so much wealth. On some level, I see this as the idealism of a young man who would probably get off on reading Siddhartha, but I also saw it as extremely hypocritical, considering Billy’s actual getting-off.
What was soothing and not something Billy had even anticipated was the pleasure of masturbating in his old room. …What a luxury not to have to meet your masculine needs in some stinking horror of a port-a-potty, or even worse in a hardpan Ranger grave out in the field with mortal enemies all about and always, always, always some torment of nature with which to content, bugs, rain, wind, dust, extremes of temperature, no misery too small for such a small thing as a man. So give it up for America, yes! And God shed His grace on thee, where a boy can grow up having a room of his own with a door that locks and a bottomless stash of Internet porn.
Why on earth should I take this last sentence as a successfully ironic jab? Are a room of one’s own and internet access not some of the most amazing things to ever happen to humanity? Billy doesn’t want to masturbate outdoors in the middle of sweltering heat and a sandstorm, and I don’t blame him. He wants to judge the appropriateness of others’ decided consumer comfort levels, but would clearly disagree with anyone who thought a port-a-potty was all he really needed. The Jumbotron is what’s bringing you your internet porn, Billy, and it’s all good.
I was also surprised at Bradley’s reaction to Fobbit. Though I have seen a few lukewarm responses so far, I took immediately to Fobbit in a way that Billy Lynn never clicked for me. The idea that Fobbit is, though, of all things “boring,” was a genuine surprise, as was Bradley’s wonder that “anyone unfamiliar with the military could muster the enthusiasm to finish it, unless from purest anthropological curiosity.” I thought Fobbit was funnier than Billy Lynn, and probably more compelling overall, so it just goes to show how subjective these things can be.
But the humor of Fobbit is dark and cynical. That is not to say that Billy Lynn is light or naïve, far from it. As Nathan notes, Fobbit is more in the spirit of Catch-22, but I construe that spirit much more broadly. These are war novels but also novels about the state, the machinery of bureaucracy, and the bizarro world of the cogs therein. It is less ha-ha funny, more horrifying funny. Bradley complains that he doesn’t “really give a damn about Abrams’s Byzantine office drama. Tell me a story.” In my view, the Byzantine office drama is the real story—the cause of all the “road meat,” the cause of everything, and the site of horrific impersonal unaccountability and irresponsibility. Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, one of the more odious characters in the novel and a middle-aged fobbit dedicated to PR, getting nosebleeds, and writing pathetic letters to his church-lady mother, includes this parenthetical in one of them: “Remember, Sunnis are the bad guys, Shi’ites are the good guys—I know, it’s hard for me to remember, too, because the bad guys sound ‘Sunny’ and the good guys sound ‘Shitty’—oops, language again.”
Not only do I find that funny, cloying “oops” included, I also find Harkleroad’s existence dramatically more problematic than that of the Jumbotron or the entire Cowboys apparatus. Billy Lynn seems to rail against American culture broadly in an effort to discredit supporters of the war and their lame patriotism, but if you haven’t already bundled consumerism and patriotism together in a basket labelled something like “ugly brash Americanism,” this may be less than effective. While Fobbit may not be the best bureaucratic satire ever written, it is better than fair (and better than boring) and concerned with problems I consider uglier than brash Americanism.
Full Disclosure: David Abrams is a fellow contributor to BookRiot, though we have never met or directly communicated with each other.
As a child, I had a reasonable amount of exposure to, if not very good instruction in, Christianity and its texts. One story I didn’t understand until very recently (as in, a couple months ago when the consumption partner finally explained it to me) was that of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Chances are good that you know it: a man has two sons, the younger asks for his share of the estate in advance, then goes away and squanders the cash. Destitute, he returns home and is welcomed by his father, who “said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
The older son, who’s been home and working hard the whole time, isn’t very happy about this. He refuses to party with the rest of the household, eventually yelling at his dad, “‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’”
Despite knowing now that the point of the story (again, according to the CP) is something like, “God’s reward is equal for everyone,” my only reaction is the same: this shit is completely unfair. And when my man told me this, I immediately shouted back, “Then it’s just like the other one that makes no sense about the workers in the vineyard!” That parable, Matthew 20:1-16, is somewhat less well known, but the gist is that a vineyard owner hires people at different times to do different amounts of work but pays them all the same amount of money.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Surely you’ve heard the last line, and far be it from me to say the landowner shouldn’t be allowed to pay whatever he wants to whomever he wants, but the point remains that it is completely unfair. And the reason it was impossible for me to understand these stories as religious texts was that I could not see them as anything other than immoral. The prodigal son’s older brother gets completely screwed and his father is a horrible person—no wonder I thought I didn’t “get” it. What I didn’t get was Christian morality.
Which brings me to the actual point at hand, Rohan Maitzen’s excellent essay in this month’s Open Letters Monthly on George Eliot, Middlemarch, and what she characterizes as a “kind of…terrifying” moral philosophy. Eliot may have been a free-thinker, but the morality she develops in her work is a decidedly Christian one. When I wrote about Middlemarch last summer, I didn’t focus overmuch on the sympathy question (except a bit here), which is the key theme of both the novel and Prof. Maitzen’s essay.
Dorothea Brooke and her sad marriage to Mr. Casaubon figure prominently in the piece, in which Maitzen shows how Eliot uses the narrative to forward the moral lessons of sympathy. Late in the novel, it’s clear that Casaubon is near death, and we have seen him from his own point of view as well as Dorothea’s (and those of the other characters in the novel):
Free by now of illusions about the man she married, she can’t help but reflect bitterly on “all the paths of her young hope which she should never find again.” She knows that she is stifling her own needs in service to someone who offers her no corresponding sympathy: “He never knows what is in my mind — he never cares.” “In such a crisis as this,” the narrator warns, “some women begin to hate.”
Dorothea does not, but it’s a close call, and one that turns on her ability to imagine (as the narrator has just helped us to do) the full pathos of Mr. Casaubon’s situation, and to respond (as we have been prompted to do) with charity, rather than condemnation: “He had been asking about the possible arrest of all his work . . . the answer must have wrung his heart.” Finally “the resolved submission did come,” and she emerges from her struggle to offer this unworthy man, once more, her support and compassion.
For Eliot, it is precisely the idea of offering compassion and sympathy to the unworthy—because we are all fallen and flawed and imperfect and thus unworthy—that is the height of morality. But let me repeat: Mr. Casaubon is unworthy. Eminently unworthy. So far below Dorothea on the scale of goodness and worthiness it is not even funny. Maitzen goes on to point out in this specific instance how Eliot’s morality leads to an uncomfortable place:
[T]he dangerous downside of this beautiful idea becomes hard to ignore, and thus our sympathy and admiration might become tinged with fear. Remember: the “lamed creature” in this analogy is not physically but morally deficient. Even when faced with death, Mr. Casaubon does not overcome his “lifelong bias” but remains himself as we have always known him, ignobly preoccupied with “the petty anxieties of self-assertion”….
While Dorothea tenderly imagines him to be grieving for his lost ambitions, he is in fact more concerned with thwarting “possibilities for the future which were somehow more embittering to him than anything his mind had dwelt on before” — specifically, what he believes to be Dorothea’s desire, once freed of him, to marry his cousin Will. He interprets her well-intentioned repression with morbid suspicion, adding to his own paranoid observations.
So Mr. Casaubon is not simply as bad as Dorothea believes— he is worse. And when she subordinates herself to him, it’s his petty, vindictive nature that gets free rein, while Dorothea’s generous ardor is stifled by her “nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread.” The fundamental question of moral philosophy is “how ought I to live?”: how can this be the right answer?
My response is: it’s not. Just because no one is perfect does not mean everyone is equally imperfect. Eliot’s moral philosophy can feel uplifting in the same way many people find Christian morality uplifting; forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it is graceful. But dessert exists, even if we humans are not always able to get it exactly right. If “Eliot’s morality…is a trap in which the saint rather than the sinner is most likely to suffer,” I’m going to go ahead and say she is wrong. And I would also dispute Maitzen’s defense that “the purpose of ethics is to make us do good, not feel good.” I believe that, but who is to say that giving kindness and happiness to a certified asshole is in any way doing good? It seems, in fact, that to someone who holds altruism as a good in itself, it is more likely to make you feel good while doing wrong. Dorothea feels noble and moral for submitting herself to her awful husband, and Dr. Lydgate feels the same way about submitting himself to his awful wife. In their own cases, they are too legally tied to these people to get away, so it makes some amount of rational sense that they must go along to get along. But their spouses are worse than they are, and Eliot’s morality is concerned far more with altruistic compassion than with justice (or, let’s be real, rationality). If Eliot’s doctrine seems to have “potentially appalling results,” it is at least in part because it is severely unjust.
It’s important to remember, of course, as Maitzen discusses toward the end of the piece, that most people are not the Dorothea Brookes of the world, and I would never claim to be so. Humility, civility, and kindness go a long way. But the idea that “[t]hose of us who are not heroes or rarities can find comfort in Middlemarch precisely because the novel insists that we don’t have to earn sympathy: the moral obligation is all on the other side” also fails to appeal. Justice and fairness are just more my bag. I won’t say I don’t like Middlemarch and find it very persuasive. Insofar as it admonishes people to be kind to each other, especially people who are in relationships and are supposed to love each other, I think it’s right on—but that’s only part of what it’s doing. It’s also telling you to sacrifice yourself on an altar built by assholes, just because. Even Middlemarch needs an authorial “miraculous intervention” in order for this morality not to appear evil and appalling. I’m going to take that as a sign.
Several passages in Sartor Resartus focus on the attainment of happiness or contentment, and I have not yet assembled the whole Meta-Philosophy of Clothes into a coherent whole to explain exactly what Teufelsdröckh and Carlyle might think about it. A start.
Teufelsdröckh attributes the unhappiness of humans to their “Greatness,” that is, “there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite.” He goes on to elucidate the problem:
Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two; for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose. Oceans of Hochheimer, a Throat like that Ophiuchus! Speak not of them; to the infinite Shoeblack they are as nothing. No sooner is your ocean filled, than he grumbles that it might have been of better vintage. Try him with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men. —Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.
Teufelsdröckh’s answer to this is renunciation; we must move on from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of blessedness only. There is a strain throughout Sartor Resartus exploring the continuation of spirituality and some kind of religion after the Romantic death of God. This was very important to Teufelsdröckh, who lost his faith as a young man and found it crushing: “for a pure moral nature, the loss of his religious Belief was the loss of every thing.” Here Teufelsdröckh feels Dostoevskian to me (which may be another way of saying squishy and pathetic), thanking “Destiny” for being “broken with manifold merciful Afflictions, even till thou become contrite.” Self-annihilation is the path to blessedness, is about the most I can make out.
You could make an argument that Ishmael is annihilating himself when he leaves Manhattan in the first chapter of Moby-Dick, with his depression and plans to join a whaling crew, but I wouldn’t. The passage that tells me most about Ishmael and happiness doesn’t use the word at all—nor “blessedness”—and while it suggests a lowering might be necessary, it actually changes its mind about that.
For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally.
But this, too, echoes Sartor Resartus elsewhere, where Teufelsdröckh (or perhaps only his Editor, whom I quote below) is less concerned with selfless blessedness and more concerned with how much “attainable felicity” people are probably missing in their everyday lives, by disregarding the miracles all around them all the time:
[T]hrough the Clothes-Screen…thou lookest, even for moments, into the region of the Wonderful, and seest and feelest that they daily life is girt with Wonder, and based on Wonder, and thy very blankets and breeches are Miracles….
“Wonder”—now that, certainly, is the name of Ishmael’s game.
So what of the Philosophy of Clothes? It’s quite possible I may not really get to that at all until a re-reading rolls around, but one piece of pre-clothing philosophy stuck out as particularly Melvillean:
The first purpose of Clothes, as our Professor imagines, was not warmth or decency, but ornament. …”[T]he pains of Hunger and Revenge once satisfied, his next care was not Comfort but Decoration (Putz). Warmth he found in the toils of the chase; or amid dried leaves, in his hollow tree, in his bark shed, or natural grotto: but for Decoration he must have Clothes. Nay, among wild people, we find tattooing and painting even prior to Clothes.
Melville read Sartor Resartus in 1850, long after he had already started writing about tattoos (and clothes more generally). Tattoos first show up in Typee, where they get in the way of reading people’s faces (or not—Fayaway’s relatively mild tattooing is one reason Tommo is able to court her). The issue of reading, whether skin or a garment, comes up again in Redburn and still more strongly in White-Jacket—and again, the discussion of clothes in these two prefigures Melville’s reading of Sartor Resartus, which has even more to say about clothes than it does about tattoos.
Of course, after reading Carlyle Melville gives us the most well-known and memorable tattooed character, Moby-Dick‘s Queequeg, along with more clothing issues in Israel Potter and blankness in short stories.
So what does Carlyle give him, that he doesn’t already have? A language for talking about these things more clearly? A framework on which to crystallize the ideas? A greater meaning around which to hang it all? Questions for a re-read, perhaps—perhaps the next read through Melville should include things like this in situ. Now that’s a fun idea! Until then, I’d have to say Carlyle gave him at least some language, some style. Never until Sartor Resartus have I felt more like I was reading Melville when I wasn’t.
I will continue out of pattern, and write this week about Sartor Resartus even though I only just read it and have lots of things waiting in the queue. But (a) reading this was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, and (b) a big part of that was the joy of knowing that I would definitely be re-reading this book (and probably more than once), and therefore did not need to stress over every last word in it.
That is to say, I could simply enjoy it, knowing there would be more to enjoy for years to come! What else can a reader want?
Well, here’s an idea of what a reader might want—the best description I think I’ve read in a long time of what a “good” book should be like:
[W]e admitted that the Book had in a high degree excited us to self-activity, which is the best effect of any book; that it had even operated changes in our way of thought; nay, that it promised to prove, as it were, the opening of a new mine-shaft, wherein the whole world of Speculation might henceforth dig to unknown depths.
The Book in question—for I suppose I should explain something of what Sartor Resartus is—is a Philosophy of Clothes, written by the (fictional) Professor Teufelsdröckh and commented upon exensively by the “editor” of Sartor Resartus. The introduction to the Oxford World’s Classic edition notes that Thomas Carlyle’s book “makes the transition from the Romantic to the Victorian periods…[and] enacts within itself the dislocations of the passage.” Those lines are well worth stealing because I can’t imagine a better encapsulation of Sartor Resartus (other than ones like “awesome” or “super sweet”—but then few will be surprised I fell in love with one of the most important precursors to Moby-Dick).
While the Philosophy of Clothes is a good book, it’s also a bad book in the special way of such good books:
More specially it may now be declared that Professor Teufelsdröckh’s acquirements, patience of research, philosophic and even poetic vigour, are here made indisputably manifest; and unhappily no less his prolixity and tortuosity and manifold inaptitude; that, on the whole, as in opening new mine-shafts is not unreasonable, there is much rubbish in his Book, though likewise specimens of almost invaluable ore. A paramount popularity in England we cannot promise him.
New mineshafts full of rubbish: just how I look, with love, on a monster like Mardi or the cleaned-up, but still baggy, Moby-Dick. But is it rubbish? Is any of it really rubbish? Kevin finds purpose in even the boredom of M-D, and why not? After all, you can’t open the mineshaft without getting the rubbish somewhere, and there are always a few mad people like myself willing to sift through it just to be sure.
I want to blog only in grand runs, posts daisy-chained together by a theme or place or time or whatever else, attacking one or a few books for a while so that out of a few hits I can land one or so and feel good about it. But if I keep waiting to get organized enough for that I’ll miss completely telling you about some of what I read in my long quiet months that I do want to write about.
Richard Beard’s 2012 novel Lazarus Is Dead is one such. I read it for a very simple reason: I was looking for a Europa Editions title that wasn’t translated from a language I read. If you haven’t been with me long enough to know that’s how we pick out books over here, there it is. The front-cover blurb was from Philip Hensher, which can’t hurt, and taught me that Beard was “one of the most ingenious, resourceful and entertaining novelists in England.” I can’t exactly vouch for the superlative, but Lazarus Is Dead is ingenious, resourceful, and entertaining.
It tells the story of Lazarus, but not, of course, quite the story you already know. Oh, the main points are all the same—there’s just a lot more added in. Beard embroiders the biblical tale, fleshing out the narrative and openly speculating about history, exegesis, and the meaning of the Lazarus story. There’s romance, there’s intrigue, there’s a thriller element complete with Roman spies. It’s titillating, it’s disgusting, and it’s genuinely thought-provoking. Just as Judas can be seen less as betraying Christ and more as fulfilling what the story had to be, Lazarus too is a stepping-stone on Jesus’ road to messiah-hood, an actor in a different scene of the same play.
If words like “contrived” and “pomo” come to mind, I’m not surprised, but Lazarus Is Dead doesn’t fall into the usual traps of preciousness or precocity. By the end it comes to feel like nothing so much as the highly engaging story of “the only named friend of Jesus”—that is, exactly what it purports to be, speculative and exciting and tragicomic and uncertain.
So who cares about all these Raj orphans anyway? I mean, other than Jane Gardam and Rudyard Kipling?
They make an interesting subject around which to weave a plot and some character psychology, but their real significant, I think, is in their being what I called last week a “casualty of Empire.” They are a breed of tiny, utterly innocent soldier: damaged in service of the state, and therefore somewhat glorious, and in that service entirely by chance and through no fault of their own, like some unfortunate draftee. Filth grows up as the kid version of a Tommy shell-shocked from the trenches—never quite right, and perhaps deserving of a vague kind of respect, especially if he keeps his own stiff upper lip and continues, sideways, now that Empire is over, his own version of service to the Crown. Just as Pat Ingoldby told him:
“[T]hey didn’t moan because they had this safety net. The Empire. Wherever you went you wore the Crown, and wherever you went you could find your own kind. A club. There are still thousands round the world thinking they own it. It’s vaguely mixed up with Christian duty. Even now. Even here, at Home.”
So as Gardam weaves most of the 20th century around the coelocanth that is her special subject, there is always a feeling that he is not just a witness to history, not just a party to it, but his entire life is constructed by the fortunes of his “Home” country. His birth in a place like Malaya completely contingent on Empire. As is his journey Home and dreadful upbringing—and thus nearly his whole psychology. The choice of his wife is similarly contingent, between its relation to his psychology and the fact of Betty’s existence itself depending on Empire. And his whole career is made possible by the fallout from WWII and the dismantling of the Empire. Even his retirement is dictated by it, his function dissolving with Britain’s hold on its colonies.
But is Filth’s suffocating closeness to history really due to his state-fostered orphanhood? Gardam can do this, it seems, with more than just Raj orphans. The protagonist of Crusoe’s Daughter is also a child raised without her parents, first because her ship’s-captain father is away all the time, leaving her with an alcoholic and promiscuous guardian (but who, in this case, is at least for the most part kind) and then when he dies and she passes to the care of her mother’s sisters. Her aunts, like Filth’s, are not exactly adept at caring for a young child but they don’t stint on Polly and do what they can to bring her up well.
So it’s not history writ large that takes Polly from her parents—nothing special or glorious about her sort of orphanhood—and history can’t really be said to affect her any more than it does your average Briton of the time. She writes letters to a young poet who will die in the Great War. She sees the love of her life return from that war traumatized and changed. While Polly has stayed on in the north of England, her girlhood friend cuts her hair and takes to nursing and the rest of London life between the wars. The factories grow, new neighborhoods are built, the empty marsh disappears. She sees German Jews eyed with suspicion, interned, their property forfeit. And that’s just it: Polly has, at most, an average relation to history, but even that is exhausting.
After all, none of this really has anything to do with Polly, who much of the time studiously avoids the outside world in favor of re-reading Robinson Crusoe over and over again. She’s an outside observer—or at least that’s what she wishes she was. History keeps creeping in to hurt her all the same, and her long, slow decline into middle age is a sign that growing up with her aunts (themselves locked in their own particular point in history) did not teach her how to live inside a changing world.
Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” was published in 1888, and its origins are, sadly, autobiographical. It tells of young siblings Punch and Judy, who live a happy, near-carefree life in India with their young, loving parents—until it’s time to go Home.
First the idea of going Home must be introduced. Neither Punch nor Judy (several years younger) really understands—and certainly they don’t understand they will be left there. The story is told from Punch’s perspective, and he doesn’t really understand “Mamma’s passionate appeal to him never to let Judy forget Mamma,” though he promises to do his best on this front. When Papa and Mamma have actually left the two children at Downe Lodge, the foster home where they will spend the next several years, Punch and Judy are bereft.
When a matured man discovers that he has been deserted by Providence, deprived of his God, and cast, without help, comfort, or sympathy, upon a world which is new and strange to him, his despair, which may find expression in evil-living, the writing of his experiences, or the more satisfactory diversion of suicide, is generally supposed to be impressive. A child, under exactly similar circumstances as far as its knowledge goes, cannot very well curse God and die. It howls till its nose is red, its eyes are sore, and its head aches. Punch and Judy, through no fault of their own, had lost all their world. They sat in the hall and cried; the black-haired boy looking on from afar.
Claire, who is young and impressionable—and easier to forget Mamma—quickly becomes a favorite of foster mother Aunty Rosa, who frankly despises Punch and makes him into a household scapegoat. The formerly spoiled young Sahib now finds himself caned for no offense at all, berated with Aunty Rosa’s twisted religion, known as “Black Sheep” in the household, and, over time, convinced that even his parents will hate him and punish him when they finally return. After Uncle Harry, his foster father and the fairer of the two guardians, dies, Punch’s despair is complete—even as Judy spends her time with the family of the house, sitting on Auntie Rosa’s lap to have her hair brushed.
As time went on and the memory of Pap and Mamma became wholly overlaid by the unpleasant task of writing them letters, under Aunty Rosa’s eye, each Sunday, Black Sheep forgot what manner of life he had led in the beginning of things. Even Judy’s appeals to “try and remember about Bombay” failed to quicken him.
When Punch’s mother does arrive years later she sees right away what has happened. When “she drew him to her again…[h]e came awkwardly, with many angles. ‘Not used to petting,’ said the quick Mother-soul. ‘The girl is.’” Later, at bedtime:
“Oh, my son—my little, little son! It was my fault—my fault, darling—and yet how could we help it? Forgive me, Punch.” The voice died out in a broken whisper, and two hot tears fell on Black Sheep’s forehead.
“Hush, Punch, hush! My boy, don’t talk like that. Try to love me a little bit—a little bit. You don’t know how I want it. Punch-baba, come back to me! I am your Mother—your own Mother—and never mind the rest. I know—yes, I know, dear. It doesn’t matter now. Punch, won’t you care for me a little?”
But once away from Aunty Rosa, life improves so quickly for Punch and Judy. Punch’s Mamma is right when she writes his father that she “shall win Punch to [her] before long.” But the horror of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” isn’t in the beatings or the exquisite psychological torture practiced on poor Punch. The narrator, at the end of the story, contradicts Punch’s claim that it’s “as if she had never gone.”
Not altogether, O Punch, for when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.
This is also the message Gardam has adopted for Filth. Nothing—not even the resolution of the mystery that absolves Filth of a foolish childhood guilty, not the love of a woman who stays with him until death, not the care of a friend who would never let harm come to him—nothing stops Filth’s fear or his dread of being alone.
Filth himself engages with history from a conservative, though self-effacing, perspective. “Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.” He may be bitter, at times, but he also recognizes he’s an old man now, that his time is past. But the Filth books are far from nostalgic for Empire, just as Filth himself is conflicted about it. The books are, in large part, an elegy for one particular casualty of Empire: the Raj orphans.
As the British sent hundreds and thousands of officers and civil servants to India and the other colonies, so too went wives and families. Marriages contracted, babies born, and eventually they would all reach the magical age at which it was quasi-officially time to send them “Home”—that is, back to Britain, a place they had never been. As babies and toddlers, children would remain in the bosom of the family, if looked after by an ayah or amah. But somewhere around age five they would have to go Home, either to family who agreed to take them in or to foster families, many of which existed semi-professionally for this purpose.
After years spent abroad, with little to no contact with parents, children often became adults with various emotional problems. Old Filth outlines, in several places, several different possibilities. When missionary Auntie May shows up to tell Filth’s father that it’s time to send little Teddy Home, the elder Feathers remembers how he was one such Raj orphan himself, and what it meant for his personal relationships.
“He seems well and happy,” he said. “I have never seen the need for him to go Home. It’s not the law.”
“You know perfectly well that it is the custom. Because of the risk of childhood illnesses out here. You went Home yourself.”
“I did,” said Alistair. “So help me God.”
Auntie May on the whole agreed with him. She’d seen great damage. Some children forgot their parents, clung to their adoptive families who later often forgot them. There were bad tales. Others grew to say they’d had a much better time in England away from their parents, whom they did not care for. There were children who worked hard at growing solid and boring, and made marriages only in order to have roots of their own at last. They never told anything. And Auntie May had never been sure about the ferocity of Eastern childhood diseases. But in this case there was no mother.”
As a teenager, Eddie spends all his holidays with the Ingoldbys, the family of his best school friend. The mother of the family is wonderful, “[c]alm and dreamy, often carrying someone a cup of tea for no reason but love.” When Eddie praises his mother to his friend Pat, he finds she too is a member of a previous generation of Raj orphans, and dealing with it in her own way.
“She’s not bitter at all. Nobody liked her. Her parents sound awful if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“You’ve had Aunt Rose and the footman? They were all barmy, if you ask me. Raj loonies.”
“She seems to feel—well, to like everybody, though.”
“Oh, no, she doesn’t. They were brought up like that. Most of them never learned to like anyone, ever, their whole lives. But they didn’t moan because they had this safety net. The Empire. Wherever you went you wore the Crown, and wherever you went you could find your own kind. A club. There are still thousands round the world thinking they own it. It’s vaguely mixed up with Christian duty. Even now. Even here, at Home. Every house of our sort you go into, Liverpool to the Isle if Wight—there’s big game on the wall and tiger skins on the floor and tables made of Benares brass trays and a photograph of the Great Durbar. Nowadays you can even fake it, with plenty of servants. It wasn’t like that in my grandfather’s generation. They were better people. Better educated, Bible-readers, not showy. Got on with the job. There was a job for everyone and they did it and often died in it.”
“I think my father will die in his. He thinks of nothing else. Sweats and slogs. Sick with malaria. And lost his family.”
The elder Feathers does, indeed, die in his job, but before this Filth reunites with Babs, his cousin and foster sister. The two of them spent their childhood, along with Babs’s younger sister Claire, at the Welsh home of one Ma Didds, alcoholic and child abuser. And though Filth spent his holidays with the Ingoldbys, his nominal guardians in England in his older years were two maiden aunts, strange and awful women. At a chance meeting in a cafe, Filth tells Babs that “[t]hey are psychologically deaf.”
“They’re just reacting against your pa,” she said. “Don’t forget they were all Raj Orphans themselves. They say it suits some. They come out fizzing and yelling, ‘I didn’t need parents,’ and waving the red, white and blue. Snooty for life. But we’re all touched, one way or another.”
“I don’t think it suited my father,” said Eddie. “He’s gone entirely barmy.”
“Yep. I heard. You know, my lot and Claire’s are still in India, and I never give them a thought. Not after ten years.”
Eddie realized that since the Ma Didds’ horror he had never given a thought to either Babs or Claire. Not a thought.
Decades on, after “Betty had grown expert in her replies” to those who asked about her and Filth’s childlessness, she would tell people:
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think either of us was very child-minded. We knew nothing of children. We’d never had brothers or sisters ourselves. Poor Filth was a Raj orphan, you know. My parents died very young, too. We were ignorant.”
For Betty, this is a sad lie, but for Filth it is the truth. He wanted only Betty, not children, and he spent his life terrified that she, like everyone else, would leave him. He makes it a condition of their engagement that he does not believe in divorce. “I’ve been left all my life,” he tells her. “From being a baby, I’ve been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I’m unusual there. And it’s supposed to have given us all backbone.” It does, but as Filth says, “[i]t did not destroy me but it made me bloody unsure.”
Jane Gardam told the Daily Mail in 2005 that she was very much concerned with the Raj orphan phenomenon when conceiving the novels. She was inspired by another Raj orphan who was a writer himself: Rudyard Kipling.
Jane read his story Baa Baa, Black Sheep, an account of Kipling’s own experiences when he was sent to Britain from his birthplace in India.
“I couldn’t bear to be in the same room as that book; it was horrifying,” says Jane.
“Before that, I’d always thought it was rather smart to be a Raj Orphan. They seemed slightly superior, and very confident; it was only later I realised how terrible it was.
“It was accepted as quite normal to send your children overseas for years, but it was absolutely barmy,” she continues.
“I wanted to show what it does to a child ? and how it shapes the grown-up he or she becomes.
“In many ways, Filth becomes a quintessential Englishman. Savagely separated from everything he loves, he is successful in everything except his own emotional responses.
“In lonely retirement, odd things happen to Filth. He finds himself befriending his neighbour, a rival lawyer, and the lover of his dead wife; and he drives across England to visit the two female cousins with whom he shared his orphan years.
“He is looking for a place where he can belong, and the resolution to a terrible secret that we don’t learn about until the end of the book.”
I’ll take up Kipling’s “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” later this week. I hesitate to diminish the power of that story or the effects of this practice on Kipling’s generation, but at least they did have the “club” mentioned above.” Filth’s tragedy as a Raj orphan is doubled, with him one of the absolute last. Only a matter of time until his kind are forgotten, and cursed to live to see—and see the justice of—the end of everything he and his family had sacrificed a normal life for.