Is the morality of Middlemarch appalling?

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

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The infinite Shoeblack

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

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“The first spiritual want of a barbarous man is Decoration; as indeed we still see among the barbarous classes in civilised countries.”

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!

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“It were a piece of vain flattery to pretend that this Work on Clothes entirely contents us…”

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

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“We are only one case among hundreds”

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

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McDonald and the Missouri bachelor

This will certainly be my most spoilerific Butcher’s Crossing post, so, fair warning.

I mentioned earlier in the week that Will Andrews had gone out to Butcher’s Crossing because a family friend was based there, working in the hide trade. This man, McDonald, is a trader and outfitter of buffalo-hunting trips. Most of the hunters in the town work for him, and he pays them for their skins before sending them back East, where they are in demand.

McDonald makes another connection to Melville, and to the book cited in the epigraph—The Confidence-Man. My best overview of that novel is here, but I am most interested in a particular character: the Missouri bachelor, Pitch.

Seen in one light, the Missouri bachelor could be Miller. Possibly modelled on James Feminore Cooper, he is a man of the West (or at least the Midwest). He is cool and calculating, and recognizes that the forces of nature are more often arrayed against man than not. But these are, I think, superficial resemblances, and it is at the end of Butcher’s Crossing that McDonald comes to channel him most.

The Missouri bachelor enters the scene of Melville’s riverboat of the damned after witnessing the confidence-man, here and herb-doctor, sell an old man one of his remedies. “Yarbs and natur will cure your incurable cough, you think,” he sneers to the old man.

“Think it will cure me?” coughed the miser in echo; [165] “why shouldn’t it? The medicine is nat’ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me.”

“Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?”

“Sure, you don’t think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?”

“Natur is good

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The Alienist by Machado de Assis

The Alienist, another of the recent Art of the Novella publications, is, shamefully, the first thing I have managed to read in full by Machado de Assis. (Dom Casmurro, I hear you calling my name, and loudly, don’t worry!) The title may be a bit puzzling—it’s a little-used synonym for psychiatriast, and probably chosen because it is closer to the original O alienista.

The scene is set with a description of the rise of Simão Bacamarte, “one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains”—at least, according to “[t]he chronicles of Itaguai,” a town in Brazil somewhat distant from Rio de Janeiro. After distinguishing himself around South America and Europe, the doctor decides he wants to specialize in what he describes as “[t]he loftist possible goal for a doctor,” that is, “[t]he health of the soul.” Dr. Bacamarte, now settled back in Itaguai, decides to open an asylum—something never before contemplated there, and which makes people a bit nervous. But the town council comes around right away, and The Green House is established.

As the brilliant doctor that he is, Bacamarte not only treats people in The Green House, but he also decides who must be treated there. And I do mean “must.” Involuntary confinement begins first for those widely recognized as mad, but soon extends to those who aren’t so recognized—and soon, to anyone who dares to question Bacamarte’s decisions on the subject. After all, if you’re questioning the opinions of a psychiatrist on someone’s insanity, you must be insane! This all comes from Bacamarte’s special theory about insanity: “Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that it is not an island at all but a continent.” That is, most people are insane.

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“Is it true what you told me jest now, that you never done a hand’s turn o’ work in all your born life? Must feel kinder awful, don’t it?”

I don’t like to say that “the work project is under way,” or that it’s gotten under way, since my last week’s post on it, because really the work project was always under way—or at least, it has been for several years. It’s just one of those things that I notice when I read, which is probably, of course, why I thought about doing a “project” on it to begin with. But I have dug in. To some work, you could say.

Anthony suggested the anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, a volume that had been on my shelf for several months, making me feel rather guilty for not working on this project in earnest sooner. I hoped it would give me some ideas for further reading at the very least*, so I started in on it shortly after writing my description of the project. I have read the first six stories: “Business Talk,” by Max Apple; “The Gully,” by Russell Banks; “Me and Miss Mandible,” by Donald Barthelme; “Unjust,” by Richard Bausch; “The Working Girl,” by Ann Beattie; and “Zapatos,” by T.C. Boyle.

Of these six, two show absolutely no work—in “Unjust,” a sheriff is accused of sexual harassment and the story follows his difficulties at home while he’s on administrative leave, and “Working Girl” gallops away from work as quickly as it can and into what one might call “the rest of life.”

In a third story, “Me and Miss Mandible,” Miss Mandible is at work during most of the present action of the story, but she’s teaching the narrator, which is at the very least an unusual depiction of work.** There is also some reference to the work the narrator used to do, though only in very general

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“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same”

Earlier this week when I began writing about Wuthering Heights Amateur Reader joked that I was “mak[ing] the novel sound almost sane, as if it were about humans.” Whether or not this approach is in fact productive, it’s something I was conscious of throughout my read: how realistic any of the characters’ psychologies are.

One, I think, oft-cited passage meant to show those psychologies aren’t realistic is Cathy’s speech to Nelly about her love for Heathcliff—a speech she gives in the middle of explaining why she’s going to marry another man. I, at least, have seen this mentioned as an instance of the ridiculous obsessive love portrayed in the novel, and I’d like to quote it in full:

“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. —My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable;

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It’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home

This is probably something that’s been done to death, and I don’t have the heart to look it up, so I’ll just address it briefly my way. I’ve been thinking, as I always do, but perhaps slightly more articulately this time, about character names in Wuthering Heights. Specifically about the two Catherines. In brief:

Catherine Earnshaw loves both Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. She marries Edgar Linton, becoming Mrs. Catherine Linton.

Catherine Linton dies in childbirth, and her baby is likewise named Catherine Linton—but this is, of course, her birth name rather than her married name.

As a teenager, Miss Catherine Linton marries Linton Heathcliff, the main Heathcliff’s son, becoming Mrs. Catherine Heathcliff.

It’s clear from Heathcliff’s reaction to his daughter-in-law that he can’t stand to be around her. Surely this has at least something to do with her eyes, which resemble those of her mother. It also likely has to do with the other traits she has inherited from her father, an odious person to Heathcliff, having effectively stolen away the love of his life. But I would conjecture that it’s also her identity in a much more basic sense—her very name. Nelly Dean notes that Mr. Linton, who always called the elder Catherine by her full name (while Heathcliff called her Cathy), calls the younger one Cathy instead. For Heathcliff, this would bring her even closer to her mother. But most importantly, the Catherine whom Heathcliff loved could never become a Heathcliff. Instead, another Catherine did so—the wrong Catherine, and the wrong Heathcliff! Her very name is a cruel tease against the master of the household. And yet it’s only through this circuitous and painful path that any Catherine could become a Heathcliff.

Meanwhile, after Linton’s death, Catherine begins to strike up a great friendship with Hareton, the last

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