|Praesidium Archive||Favorite Websites||Favorite Books||Favorite Music and Films|
|The Blog of Virtues||Make a Contribution||Search This Site||Contact Us|
P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
6.4 (Fall 2006)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (Executive Director)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Summer 2006) may be viewed by clicking here.
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2006), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
No particular theme emerges in this edition—but the vectors of “pop culture” and academic trend continue to point toward the danger zone.
Just What Did Robin Hood Really DO for the Poor?
This essay, ranging from William Caxton’s printing press to the strange moods of Hollywood , discovers that most—but not all—ages in history embrace merry green anarchists.
Realist Fiction and the Femina Immolata: Comparative Literature on Trial
John R. Harris
Academic feminists are fond of viewing characters like Emma Bovary and Hedda Gabler as early standard-bearers… but perhaps they should consider the march’s direction..
Work, Holidays, Leisure, Recreation, and the Search for Meaning in Late Modernity
What Remains Creative in the Heritage of Marx's Thought
The holiday season seems a proper occasion to reflect upon the nature of “holy days”—and, of course, on the evaporation of the holy. In the second of two essays, Mr. Wegierski allows that Karl Marx may be the secular saint of Labor Day—but notes that even Marx has been cruelly used by his faithful.
An Interview with Michael Lythgoe, Poet of Brass
Lt. Col. Michael Lythgoe discusses both the poet’s craft and the military man’s paradoxically creative exile from scenes of bohemian leisure.
That That "That" Restricts... Rules for Snobby Fools
That which is restrictive must employ “that”, sayeth sages of little sagacity.
J. S. Moseby
In a send-up of reality shows in the not-to-distant future, this author foresees infernal carnivals readily packaged for mass consumption.
To make a donation, address your check or money order to The Center for Literate Values or to John Harris (NOT to Praesidium) and post to:
c/o John Harris, Editor
2707 Patriot Drive
Tyler TX, 75701
A Few Words from the Editor
Dating officially from September 1 of this year, The Center for Literate Values is a federally recognized 501(c)3 charity, which means that donations are now fully tax deductible. I hope and believe that it means numerous other things, as well. Among the most prominent of these is the opened path to major foundations required by their charter to give only to 501(c)3 organizations. Our lack of the necessary tax status in the past has severely hampered us in obtaining funds for certain kinds of rudimentary maintenance, let alone for grandiose projects of expansion. If we are successful in attracting such donations next year, look for our website to become a bit tidier and more professional, at a minimum. My own favorite grandiose design is a series of hardbound publications on various issues often discussed in Praesidium: the importance of true literacy to our culture, the undermining of literary taste and judgment on the contemporary campus, the future of foreign language instruction, the proper role of “popular culture” in education, the probable future of a post-literate America (most certainly a “dystopic” future)… these and other topics could be addressed by anthologies featuring (mostly or entirely) essays previously published in the pages of Praesidium. The books could be produced in a small run (say, 500) and distributed gratis to educational institutions, columnists, public servants, and interested parties.
All well in the future… but no longer in the “unforeseeable future”. The means of getting from here to there is now visible. Of course, the irony has not escaped me (I am a constant, if often unwilling, consumer of ironies) that our tiny organization, having heretofore existed on an annual budget of about $500, should suddenly sneak into the big time by clarioning with a dwarf’s trumpet the dismal collapse of the times. It may be altogether too late to attempt such a venture: there may be no one left with ears to hear. What, however, would be the alternative? Should our board members and contributors devote themselves fully to paying employment, the better to build a concrete bunker in the Ozarks or the Adirondacks and line it with canned food? Will our children fit into the bunker? Will those children we have taught and worried over as our own over the years in our classrooms fit in?
Hope, it turns out, is a moral duty—and nobody appreciates this better than the person temperamentally disposed (as I am) to despair. A world such as that portrayed in J. S. Moseby’s short story this quarter is not the sort of heritage any os us wants to bequeath to posterity. The story is plainly a sally into dark humor, yet brooding men like Jonathan Swift have been known to lean upon humor when they could no longer bear the sight of the writing on the wall. Personally, I was fascinated to discover that the story contains an example (albeit minor and compromised) of what I call the femina immolata in my essay. It seems to me that literature periodically “beats up” on willful female characters when culture collectively feels betrayed by sentiment, or at least has determined that the finer sentiments expose one to annihilation. Perhaps we are headed for another trough in this sine curve.
Jim Stebinger sees a downward turn, too, in how the perennial legend of Robin Hood has been handled lately. Jim delves back into what were among the first printed and bound books in England , then traverses the turbulent twentieth century through film history. The result? As any thoughtful person will have observed in countless other venues, splendor of special effect is inversely proportional to depth of character analysis and finesse of humor.
We had hoped to offer Mark Wegierski’s essay about Marx before Labor Day, where a logical link seemed to await easy forging. The Summer issue took another course, however, and now the essay follows a piece more generally about holidays—forming a pair whose connection with the current season appears even more appropriate. Yet the mood of Mr. Wegierski’s reflections is not exactly festive; and we could all do worse, in my opinion, than give some serious thought to where our culture-in-shambles is going.
This issue has also provided an opportunity to celebrate the publication of Michael Lythgoe’s chapbook of poems, Brass. The particular poem which lent its title to the book was in fact first published in Praesidium several months ago. I have arranged a series of e-mail exchanges with Col. Lythgoe as an interview on subjects ranging from warfare and the poetic imagination to candor of style in a morally complex age. Col. Lythgoe, by the way, has very generously pledged to forward a complimentary copy of Brass to anyone who contributes at least $11.00 to The Center.Finally, our sincerest felicitations to Board member Kelly Hampton upon her marriage this fall… and equally sincere condolences to Tom Bertonneau upon the loss of his father. Is it de mauvaise grace to put two such sentiments in the same sentence? But joy and grief, you know, are two strands in every day’s fabric.
Just What Did Robin Hood Really DO For The Poor?
Jim Stebinger is a freelance writer residing in Los Angeles . His special interests are history and film. He graduated from UCLA in 1977 with B.A. in English Literature and an enthusiasm for Robin Hood.
If it seems impossible that comedian Mel Brooks has anything in common with either the “Father” of English popular printing or an unfortunate furrier shot in the hind end by an arrow, think again. For all three have profited, more or less mightily, by conversion of the outlaw sweat of Robin Hood into gold.
That unlikely trio is representative of a stark fact: Robin Hood has made far more for other people than he ever made for himself by daylight banditry. Publishers, authors, booksellers and playwrights have all earned tidy sums. So have actors, archery equipment suppliers, theme park owners, cereal sellers and movie studio executives.
In 1991, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Kevin Costner’s film for Warner Brothers, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is estimated to have grossed more than $165 million in first release, making it one of the top films in its time frame. But 1991 was a watershed year in Robin Hood films, as it was a “Year of Three Robins”. Not only did Warner Brothers seek to recapture the box-office magic of its 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood—rival 20th Century Fox starred Patrick Bergin in its own Robin Hood. A third script was ready for production, but is producer backed off from the competition, although he told the Los Angeles Times his was the best script of all. Fox appears to have been intimidated by the size of the Warner’s release and didn’t battle head to head with is rival. Instead, the studio released its film on television in the U.S. and in theaters overseas. Numbers are harder to come by but the strategy is said to have worked as planned and Fox did well with the movie, especially in Germany .
Today, “Tales of Robin Hood” is a Nottingham , England , theme park, reputedly one of the city’s biggest tourist draws, with rides, movies, interactive events and a medieval banquet. Since 1908, there have been at least a dozen successful major release movies, and two or three of them have been blockbusters. The earliest films are for the most part considered lost. The survivors are rather crude and quite short. But no one gave up. No less than five television series have aired and a river of printed words began flowing which continues today. A search of “Robin Hood” in the books section of Amazon.com returns 816 entries. A similar search on IMDB yields 86 entries ranging from famous moneymakers to unjustly forgotten films. There are also lots of curios along the way, including films about sons and daughters of Robin, animated films (at least one with cartoon animals in the familiar roles), the odd “Adult” film, and even westerns.
Some of these “Robin Hood” films simply appropriate his name and a vague storyline, such as Robin Hood of the Pecos (1941), in which Roy Rogers essays a “Robin Hood type” character in a run-of-the-mill (or worse) B picture set after the U.S. Civil War, with the Southerners as oppressed Saxons (more or less). Others, such as Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), bring the story into modern times. Frank Sinatra, Sammie Davis, Jr, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby are the leads in this Chicago gangland musical tale featuring Robbo, Guy Gisborne and Allen A. Dale (a lawyer).
It is clear that Robin Hood and his equivocal exploits remain among the most popular (and profitable) subjects in English literature. They haven’t done badly in more recent entertainment genres, either. If one considers knock-offs and thinly disguised re-workings such as the comic book character Green Arrow and Burt Lancaster in The Flame and the Arrow. the list is almost endless. A comprehensive bibliography of Robin Hood was last gathered in 1939, a comprehensive bibliography today might be impossible.
If he is watching from The Beyond, the jolly outlaw is doubtless chagrined. The handfuls of coins wrested from fat abbots and tossed to the grateful poor are peanuts compared to the good loot gone legit. And it all stems from his two greatest—and totally unwitting—gifts to the poor: his role in the development of the popular press and an attendant role in the definition of popular culture. A role the “real” Robin Hood might well have shunned both.
Ironically, the “real” Robin was a self-interested outlaw with little time for idealism, rescuing maidens or securing kingdoms. The “real” Robin Hood likely would have burned a printing press if he saw one. He was also curiously conservative for a revolutionary. Yet he had roles in one of the great revolutions of all time—the development of the popular book trade.
It is important to halt here and recognize a second stark fact: Robin’s history is about 800 years old and as full of paths and byways as Sherwood (or Barnsdale) ever was. This history makes for an interesting walk, and some of it is significant, even undervalued.
1377 is the first solid date along the main path of Robin’s history, for that is the accepted date for the first printed reference to the outlaw. It occurs in Piers Plowman, presumably written by William Langland.
Langland is almost as difficult to pin down as Robin Hood. His biography is deduced from hints in Piers Plowman, according to the venerable Norton Anthology of English literature, which will only go so far as to say his name is “associated” with the poem. The online source Wikipedia concurs. “His entire identity,” Wikipedia says, “rests on a string of conjectures and vague hints.” Things are much the same for Robin. It is probably accurate to say that a consensus exists that the orally circulated tales likely began in the otherwise undistinguished reign of Henry III , perhaps around 1220 A.D. The use of “Robynhood” as a surname was first traced to 1296, but that date has crept forward. Whatever the original Robin Hood was (and since nothing survives, speculation should be avoided), he appears to have been popular. This may well have been his first, and arguably greatest, gift to popular culture and the poor. It is possible that the popularity of the stories helped to fuel an interest in native subjects, and that the humble tales, whatever they may have been, were an integral part of the development of an English popular literary identity.
Robin’s subsequent importance may be merely the result of his early popularity. About 100 years after Piers Plowman, the ground gets somewhat firmer. We have recently passed the 500th anniversary of Robin Hood’s first foray into print under his own name. That book is known by various titles, but A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode is a fairly representative one. The Geste was published between 1493 and 1503 by a publisher with the name, curious to modern ears, of Wynkyn de Worde. It was a smash success, and it is the bedrock on which Robin Hood studies rest. De Worde, less-than-familiar to most people, is actually almost as important as William Caxton, the very first English printer. Caxton was a successful and well-connected Kentish businessman who tired of copying books by hand. He went to Europe to learn the new art of printing and imported it to England sometime after 1472.
Virtually all the technology and manpower had to be imported, including de Worde (Alsatian by birth), who began as Caxton’s assistant. Upon Caxton’s death in 1491, de Worde took over the business and its tangled skein of financial worries. After a slow start, de Worde set up shop on Fleet Street in 1493. Because of de Worde, “Fleet Street” still calls to mind journalists of a particular cast. But de Worde’s legacy is varied and he can just as easily be said to have put us on the road to Praesidium.
According to de Worde’s biographer, Caxton was scholarly, devotional and dependent on wealthy patrons. De Worde was by no means an old stick-in-the-mud and sounds curiously modern. He set up shop near booksellers to keep an eye on what sold, printed illustrated works when they weren’t too common, and tended toward inexpensive productions, soon called chapbooks, that would sell in quantity. He had sales instincts, a good eye for popular taste and was shrewd enough to move the printing business out of the shadow of patronage toward popular acceptance. Some 750 titles survive that he printed. Doubtless many have been lost.
If one accepts the 1493 publication date for the Geste, then Robin may have been the hero of the first best seller.
The English public liked Robin Hood. And why not? A man with a sword in his hand and a bow at his back had an obvious appeal to his war-on-three fronts countrymen. Henry VII was on the throne in 1493. He was the last man standing in the Wars of the Roses, which had seen the throne tossed like a shuttlecock between various branches of the royal family—hardnosed men and women each with a touch of the outlaw in them. Later that century, England would honor Sir Francis Drake (known as The Dragon in Spain ), chase Fingerless Will Nixon, terror of the Scots border, and obey good Queen Bess, a firebrand in skirts.
J. C. Holt of Cambridge University says the increase in the number of people able to sign their names proves the literacy rate soared in the century after de Worde’s death. Three out of four tradesmen or craftsmen were illiterate in the 1560’s, but only one out of four couldn’t read 100 years later.
Entertaining tales such as those enormously popular stories about Robin Hood and his life-long pursuit of fleeing the wealthy gave incentive to read to a broad new audience. De Worde and other publishers rushed into the new market, churning out new editions which helped both to educate and to entertain the new mass audience, which was no more inclined to a total diet of Uplifting Reading than we are. By Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603), London had become a center for a reading public much like ours today. “Among the books that survived [from that era],” writes Shakespearian scholar H. N. Gibson, “are works on surveying land; how to play musical instruments without a teacher; how to ride, write, garden and take spots out of velvet; first aid in the absence of a physician, navigation for amateur mariners, hunting, hawking and other outdoor sports.” There were, of course, other works, including chronicles and translations of classics and foreign works.
Outlaws and publishers did have some things is common. De Worde was pioneering in the years before Elizabeth ’s reign and faced strong sentiment against the popular book. Robin Hood was heavily disparaged by literary authorities, who regarded such works as “jests and trifles” unworthy and mentally debilitating.
As late as 1528, religious commentator William Tyndale lumped Robin Hood, Hercules and Troilus (a Trojan son of Priam) as representatives of “a thousand histories and fables of love and wantonness, and of ribaldry, as filthy as heart can think, to corrupt the minds of youth withal.” Tyndale benefited from the printing press, too, for his were early printed religious texts. Ironically, Tyndale died in the manner Robin managed to avoid. Caught in religious upheaval when Henry VIII turned England upside down, he fled but was captured on the Continent and handed over to Henry’s authorities, who strangled him (apparently as a merciful favor) before burning him at the stake.
Tyndale and his fellows railed against the popular taste whose size and power printers like de Worde were at once discovering and creating. Part of the problem, then as now, was the relationship between authority and the general public. Langland’s sole reference to the Sherwood outlaw is spoken by Sloth, a negligent priest, who admits he knows Robin Hood tales better than his pater nosters. From early in his career, Robin apparently was a potent symbol of independence, self-reliance and defiance in ways large and small.
Among his many appealing facets was his status as a yeoman. The nature of yeomanry is still somewhat disputed, but it seems clear that yeomen were a rising social class and that they liked the bold outlaw.
It is important that Robin stands for a kind of conservatism in his outlawry. He is never in rebellion against the king or antagonistic to the system. He is personally loyal to the king and good government—his enemies are those who abuse the system. Robin seems to represent upward social mobility—and to protect social mobility in the system. His efforts on behalf of the knight in the Geste are calculated to maintain the knight’s status against those—often churchmen, a point probably not lost on Tyndale—who would impoverish him and drive him down the social ladder.
The Geste was most likely put in manuscript before 1450, but its basis is much older. It is unclear whether the tales in the Geste are re-workings of the original material, as perhaps 200 years elapsed between the very first Robin Hood tales and the creation of the Geste. The story is roughly 13,900 words and remains the longest outlaw tale in English literature. There were plenty of others, but who remembers Adam Bell or Clym of the Clough today? From the very beginning, Robin appears to have had recognizable appeal, what Hollywood eventually would label “star quality”. A product of stitch-work from older tales, its hero is hard to recognize today. This Robin doesn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor. That concept is vexed in Robin Hood studies, and although it is now a fixture in the canon, it was added later.
It must be noted, however, that the end of the Geste notes he was “always good to poor men”. That off hand comment is apparently the earliest connection between Robin and the poor. Evidently, he did not prey on the weakest and poorest as so many criminals have done. His goodness is not necessarily monetary largesse. He lets poor men do their work and survive in peace, and he seems to defend the just system and make sure it works. He is not a socially motivated guerrilla.
There are other differences. His relationship with Little John is stormy almost to the point of murder. A certain Will Scarlett is around, and there may be rivalry for the lieutenant’s post. There is no Marian or other love interest whatever. Give him credit for strength and boldness plus a sense of what the fifteenth century called “courtesy”. We might call it panache, style, “good manners” and a sense of appropriateness. These, of course, are precisely the kinds of qualities needed in a rising social class. Ultimately, however, he is a bandit. He is a dangerous man to cross, and he and Little John both have tempers.
Robin may have “curteyse”, but he and his company rain death on those who foil them—including the Sheriff of Nottingham. In another early ballad, an unfortunate page—perhaps ten years of age—is slain because witnesses are a perennial liability.
One of many difficulties with studying Robin Hood is that the very earliest tales and references assumed a good deal of understanding on the part of the audience. There is little in the way of introduction or exposition.
The Geste opens with Robin happily searching the woods for “sport”, which turns up in the form of an honest knight wandering desolate among the trees. His son, it seems, has slain another knight in a tournament and the father has had to hock his lands to a wealthy churchman to buy pardon. Robin grubstakes him and thus saves the knight’s land. Known for his luck, Robin captures one of the wealthy churchmen and is able to get his 400 pounds back even before the knight repays him: a double repayment, if you will, that was especially popular with his readers.
In other sections of the tale, Robin fights and kills the Sheriff, rescues the knight again (perhaps it is another knight), fights a pitched battle and eventually meets and receives pardon from a certain King Edward who has arrived to see what all the commotion is about.
Edward approves of him enough to take Robin into his service, where he remains for twenty-two years before his leopard spots grow out and he returns to his old ways. Alas, he is soon treacherously slain by a relative and her lover.
In short, he is the kind of person likely to rise far in medieval service.: bold, skilled with arms, acquisitive yet generous to friends, a believer in what may be called “enlightened self-interest” and wise enough to see that the system can work tolerably well if the outright crooks are bested. It is not an uncommon way to pursue social mobility in Medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature, as Beowulf and the Knights of the Round Table behave in somewhat similar fashion.
Whether he was an identifiable individual is hard to judge.
With Robin Hood, the farther back you go, the less you know. The historical Robin is as elusive as any roughneck cutpurse. He may have lived in two different centuries, and there are six
identified historical Robert (or Robin) Hoods (or Hodes). Another complication is that although he is today strongly associated with Nottingham and Sherwood Forest , the earliest tales place him in the vicinity of Barnesdale. It would not have been impossible to be active in both forests, but they are distinct, and “Robin Hood in Barnsdale stood” is a formula in the earliest tales.
Despite the fact that some of the historical Hoods were… well, hoods, none can be conclusively identified with Robin.
J. C. Holt upholds a certain outlaw named Robert Hode active in the 1220’s with the nickname “Hobbehod”—which shows he had local notoriety. On points, this man seems a little more likely. Based on a temporal coincidence, “Hobbehod” was suggested as the leader of a band that knocked over a granary in which monks were hoarding grain during a famine. Other researchers, led by professor John Bellamy, hold out for a Robert Hood who lived a century later—and served with King Edward II. It is an appealing argument on paper, but it ignores important facts—such as the popularity of Robynhood surnames well before that date and the short time between Edward’s reign and Langland’s work. It is also possible that fiction-writers and ballad-compilers with limited knowledge of dates and history would use a king’s name that their audience would recognize and find plausible. There was an Edward on the throne from 1272-1377 inclusive, and the use of Edward may not be a historical reference in the true sense at all. Much of England may not have known there were any other kings but Edwards.
Even dedicated searchers must admit that “Robin Hood” may have been an alias, in which case we may really be searching for a guy named Delbert Allen Buttercup.
Whether a man or a symbol, Robin Hood was popular in a changing society which was modifying social status and its descriptive terms. Yeoman Robin has been something of a social barometer, being redefined at least once a century. He has moved from simple outlaw to nobleman to Noble Man to closet environmentalist and finally to social outlaw. People took him to heart, took his name, told proverbs and stories of his trees and barns. They also began to sell things. Books appear to have been the first moneymakers, followed by ballad broadsides and song.
But Robin has appeared in almost all popular entertainment media and did his share in spreading the wealth and defining popular culture along the way.
He was prominent in the outdoor celebrations called May Games, and Maid Marian, a French import, was probably called in specifically to partner him in these Spring festivities. There is a rear guard that suggests he is of Gallic origin, but it is not the mainstream view. In the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to give him Germanic roots based on Odin or Wotan or Hudekin. This, too, has fallen out of favor.
He was the toast of ballad singers and writers from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century—marking another stage in the development of literacy and of popular culture as people began to pay pennies for broadsheet stories of the hero. In one ballad, he was even sent to sea to defeat the French. On stage by 1500, Robin has since been a subject for playwrights as obscure today as
Anthony Munday and Reginald de Koven and as well-known as Ben
Jonson and William Shakespeare. Jonson wrote a Robin Hood play, The Sad Shepherd; and Shakespeare peppered a few plays with Robin Hood references, and seems to have based the outlaw leader in As You Like It on the merry brigand.
Poet Geoffrey Chaucer appears to have been thinking of
Lincoln Green when he wrote a few passages, and Robin remained a poetic staple until at least Alfred Lord Tennyson’s time. Sir Walter Scott, primary inventor of the historical novel, rekindled the legend and placed Robin alongside that bully English hero Richard Lionheart. It is a fitting match, if highly unlikely. It is also a fine irony, in that pairing the villain is always Prince John, who is disparaged for his usurious taxation. In reality, Richard was every bit as bloodthirsty as John and had a fine skill at double- and triple-taxing. He also sold lucrative offices to the highest bidder – and then placed a surcharge on the already sky-high price.
Shortly after 1900, the printing press began to be upstaged. A last hurrah for the booksellers was Howard Pyle’s million-seller retelling of the Robin Hood tales, which debuted in 1883. Pyle was a skilled illustrator as well as a gifted reteller of the tales, and his Robin Hood is still in print. Pyle may perhaps be seen as a bridge to the contemporary world because his illustrations are a step toward our almost exclusively visual world. Slowly at first, but with gathering speed as the twentieth century progressed, Robin Hood became a staple of the movie theater. The first Robin Hood film was produced in 1908, but does not survive. More were produced in 1912 and 1913. One reportedly survives but is considered ham-handed, as the film maker reportedly made too obvious parallels between the human characters and vile or virtuous animals. In 1922 Robin was ready for his first great cinematic flourish.
Douglas Fairbanks made Robin a star and defined the genre of Robin Hood films. Fairbanks also made a mint while establishing a film sub-genre of Robin Hood films—not to mention stories of sons and daughters, reunions, returns, time-tunnel travels and Robin Hood Way out West.
Surprisingly, Fairbanks had initial qualms—he first saw Robin as a “flat-footed Englishmen”—but he was persuaded, reportedly by the promise of breakneck stunts, and released Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood in October, 1922.
The film was an early sensation—thanks to abundant swordfights, a full-scale joust, firefights with bows, and a 12-acre set with a centerpiece castle set towering 90 feet. Fairbanks invested $750,000 and made millions. It was so popular that seats became scarce and Fairbanks had to hold after-hours screenings for VIP friends.
Fairbanks shoots many arrows in the movie, with his boyish grin and a practiced panache. The shots often look improbable, if not impossible. He apparently claimed to be an archer, a boast derided by some hardnosed reporters on a New York press junket in support of the film. So Doug grabbed a bow provided by the studio as a prop and let an arrow fly from the roof of a Manhattan hotel. It lodged, so the story goes, in the tail end of a furrier bent over in his loft a block or so away. Abraham Seligman earned $5,000 for his minor injuries (mostly fright: he allegedly thought Native Americans come to reclaim New York had shot him) and a private visit with the star (and his attorney), who popped round to his hospital. It sounds like a scene in a Mel Brooks movie, and thus we’ve come full circle (or chorus line): for one centerpiece in the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a male chorus line of high stepping Merry Men.
One more outrage for hardworking outlaws.
In closing, it is worthwhile to wonder why Robin Hood is so popular. There have been a number of scholarly efforts at answering the question, but perhaps there is another way. One can look critically at themes in the six major Robin Hood films. In chronological order they are Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Storie of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952), Robin and Marian (1976), and Robin Hood and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (both 1991). The themes to be looked at are Courage, Loyalty, Good Nature (courtesy), Humor, Wonder and Romance. All of the films have them, as do the original tales, but emphases are quite different.
The first point to make is that they are all vastly different, but each is truly enjoyable in its own way. In a sense, they serve as time capsules of the spirit of America and
American film-making when they were made. Several of them involve British and Commonwealth film-makers and that, too, flavors the mix. They are at once timeless and very much of the moment. That is one of the traditional appeals of Robin Hood, who is always at once archaic and contemporary, and it is a feature of the films.
Courage, for example, is a byword in the films, and perhaps Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood is the most courageous Robin Hood. Not only does Flynn’s character combine raw physical courage with a moral courage that owes much to traditions of chivalry. There is another dimension: Flynn’s Robin Hood simply has no fear and no hesitation whatsoever. He instinctively knows what is right and does it. Perhaps the bravest scene in all six films is the moment in which Flynn enters Guy of Gisbourne’s castle in the film’s beginning. It is a physically courageous act and must have struck a nerve with audiences becoming familiar with Nazi and Soviet atrocities. The “telling truth to power” dialog is morally courageous, as it is a form of Christian witness and a promise of retribution to come. Quickly, the scene devolves into fighting prowess with a breath-taking escape. But Robin is clearly incredibly courageous. His moral courage is matched by Maid Marian, portrayed by Olivia de Havilland, who consciously decides to risk everything on a point of honor for the man she loves and the cause he represents. Both Robin and Marian are willing to die for what is right with little immediate regard for gain. The absolute sense of right and the fact that the honorable thing is done without hesitation mark the film as a “greatest Generation” film.
Loyalty is something of a slippery quality in the original ballads. Robin does appear to be loyal to friends and even steadfast, but he is not tested. Loyalty in the Middle Ages was always professed and almost always relative. Frequently, it was measured in a negative sense, as hatred of an enemy faction translated into support of their opponents. As an example, John de Vere, Thirteenth Earl of Oxford (1442-1513), was resolutely opposed to the Yorkist faction after the execution of his father, and remained a staunch Lancastrian ever after. He was a pivotal figure in securing the throne for Henry VII . Henry was truly a “last man standing” sort of choice for Lancastrian hopes, but de Vere was completely loyal because of his hatred for the family of York.
Loyalty is a revered quality and Douglas Fairbanks is perhaps the most loyal of Robin Hoods. As one of Richard’s earls, he accompanies him on Crusade, but receives a letter from home advising of treachery in England (curiously, no word reaches Richard). Torn by conflicting duties, he decides his greater duty is to return to England in disguise (becoming Robin Hood) in order to save Richard’s kingdom without diverting Richard from his sacred goal of Crusading victory. He is shanghaied by Prince John’s henchman and left in a cell to die. Rescued by Little John (Alan Hale in his first effort as Little John), he escapes across the desert, fords the sea and raises rebellion in England.
In the ballads, Robin’s good nature is frequently attested, but he has a temper and is dangerous when angry. Similarly, Patrick Bergin’s Robin Hood is a Saxon earl who has come to terms, more or less, with the Normans and is on good terms with them, especially Daguerre, who appears to have appropriated some of Hood’s property. A truce and accommodation appears to be in place. The arrival of Jurgen Prochnow as a nasty French knight (with a scowl and an accent worthy of a Nazi heavy in a World War Two potboiler) sets Bergin on the boil. A coquettish Marian played by Uma Thurman tips the kettle, and the good-natured Robin becomes a deadly adversary. The motives are simple, ordinary and human. Good nature is pressed to its limit and the world is righted by combat. Robin is usually scrupulously “courteous”, although not as perfect ethically as Flynn can be.
Good nature’s more intense relative is humor, and the films are full of humor in various forms. Oddly, outright Robin Hood comedies have not done well. Mel Brook’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a forgotten footnote, as is The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood, a comedy remake of the Flynn vehicle with Morgan Fairchild and George Segal. Perhaps it is because the comedies are unsubtle and work on a fairly obvious series of oppositions. Successful comedy needs more than that, and so far no film-maker has developed a more subtle approach. A partial exception is Time Bandits (1981), an offering from some of the Monty Python crowd featuring John Cleese as a comic Robin. A successful film, its creators understood that a Robin Hood parody was rather a one-trick pony and couldn’t sustain 90 minutes or so of screen time. Perhaps it is simply that the regular films are full of humor and fun. Comic characters such as Friar Tuck abound, and the discomfiture of the Sheriff is always risible. Most film-goers can remember the broad comedy of the Friar Tuck characters, but may forget the almost entirely humorous byplay of Much the Miller’s son and his sweetheart Bess in that film.
The example of humor highlighted here occurs in The Storie of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. Peter Finch as the Sheriff, and Hubert Gregg as Prince John, are seeking to abscond with the customary ransom for Richard. Standing in the way is Richard Todd as Robin Hood. Richard’s mother (Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine) and the Archbishop of Canterbury have come to Nottingham to see why Nottingham is not contributing. At a public gathering to raise ransom money, Finch pleads poverty and theft by Robin. Maid Marian as a proxy deposits 1,000 marks from the band. Finch protests the accepting of “tainted money”, which prompts Robin (disguised in the audience) to ask, “Where’s your 1,000 marks, Sir Sheriff?” An ugly chant of “1,000 marks from the Sheriff” rises in the crowd, forcing Finch to open his purse and deposit 1,200 marks. Meanwhile, Robin and his gang have broken into the Sheriff’s headquarters and found a pirate-sized chest full of loot. Outside, the Sheriff is accepting the plaudits for his 1,200 marks and wishing to Heaven he had 10 times as much to give. “Heaven has heard you, Sir Sheriff!” Robin says, and the band dumps the contents of the chest at the Queen’s feet. A shocked Sheriff is suddenly the hero of the hour, and is raised on the crowd’s shoulders and paraded to the city drawbridge. The Sheriff enjoys the adulation until he looks closely at the faces of the men who are hoisting him and recognizes Little John et al. His look of horror at their wicked grins precedes their tossing him into his own moat. It is by terms a serious and humorous scene—and walks an edge as so many of the films do.
Wonder and romance are now part of all the films and expressed very differently in each. Fairbanks had his huge sets and casts of thousands. In that film, knights and ladies and villains and exotic locales vie for the viewer’s attention. Flynn’s film is shot in gorgeous three-strip Technicolor and is a love story between two very beautiful people lucky enough to work from a scintillating script. Richard Todd’s film is the only one with a balladeer to open and close the picture—a singer whose actions lodge the film firmly in a Never-Never Land. It is also a story of young love, as Robin’s modest stature and youthful appearance are matched with a virginal Maid Marian who appears sixteen years old; and the love story, complete with a charming love song, “Whistle My Love”, is as pure and innocent as first love should be and as threatened as any love can be by the evil pair of John and the Sheriff.
But romance can take other forms, and although deliberately “unromantic”, Robin and Marian shows the complex way romance can be worked into the Robin Hood stories. It is based on the “death of Robin Hood” ballads and opens with the death of King Richard in France. A sordid, painful death, it releases Robin and Little John from service, and they are now men with no master and few friends. Their enemy John is on the throne and their nemesis the Sheriff is confirmed in his power. Their return to England is bittersweet and they do, in fact, find the old band. They also find Marian. Nothing is as it was, but, to paraphrase Tennyson’s Ulysses, “that which they are, they are.” They attempt another “voyage”, another recreation of the old days; and, briefly, they do have each other. The tone is wintry and the ending sad. The embers of romance reflect the past glories. Yet they have courage, they have loyalty, they have love.
One film has been left for last, not for the traditional reason of ending with a shout, but because it represents a thoroughly modern and not wholly pleasant change in the Robin Hood film genre.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is confused and guilty—and confusion and guilt, heretofore, have not been a part of the canon. But this particular Castor and Pollux are now an inescapable part of our age, and this film reflects it. Costner’s Robin Hood is self-conscious in a negative way, guilty over his role in the Crusades, tormented by arguments with his late father and completely flummoxed by Marian. He is far from the traditional man of action and seems to make decisions by committee. You have to add all the males in the band together to get one man.
The producers were confused by the utter simplicity of the material and evidently didn’t trust it. Into the Robin, Little John, Will Scarlett matrix they thrust Morgan Freeman as Azeem, evidently because they wanted to appeal to black audiences. Fortunately, Freeman is a great actor and his Islamophilic part is well played. But it is confusing to an audience that Little John becomes weak—weaker, in fact, than his wife. These changes lead us into the wilds of modern multiculturalism. Azeem the Moor has to be shown in a favorable light and by the conventions of multiculturalism has to be, in fact, braver, wiser, more educated and just plain “badder” than the locals.
Maid Marian is horribly confounded by life as she sees it. She has a feminist side with a total distrust of men, and tries to kill Robin at their first meeting. By the end of the film, however, she is a screaming bundle of nerves waiting to be rescued from a ludicrous and rather disturbing attempted rape. Many critics have commented on Alan Rickman’s “over the top” Sheriff. It is worse than that. The producers evidently decided to pander to certain very recent “New Age” interpretations of the tale by adding witches and a Satanist subplot. In a sense, this film turns all of the conventions thus far mentioned upside down. Courage is what happens when you are trapped like a rat, it is not a part of your being. Good nature has become an end in itself, not a minor part of character. Loyalty is rarely mentioned. Azeem is loyal to Robin—but it is a superstitious loyalty and is really no more than a cash-and-carry debt. The film is a stitchwork and plays very much as if it was concocted out of focus-group sessions rather than actually having been written. It is politically correct in that it tries hard to please everyone and cover all bases while stealing from all genres. It even apes Tarzan movies by building a giant tree city and lofting Costner from treehouse to treehouse. Mercifully, Azeem did not bring a Barbary Ape with him.
It is, however, a technical marvel. This film was apparently the first to use a spectacular camera technique. Robin shoots an arrow and the viewer is given a POV shot as if he was being shot at the tree. This “arrow’s eye view” was a sensation and is now seen in almost every action film made. The theme song was a major hit—and far more old-fashioned in its romance than the film. The film is definitely spectacular.
The film was released more than fifteen years ago and so far no one has gone back to the well in a significant way. That is a longish period for Robin Hood. One may fear that this last film was the flaccid final gasp of a remarkable English literary tradition, but with an 800 year tradition behind him, I’m still betting on the outlaw.
Realist Fiction and the Femina Immolata: Comparative Literature on Trial
John R. Harris
I. Comparative Literature’s Identity Crisis
Literary criticism (as any bibliophile survivor graduate school well knows) has been degraded far too readily since about 1980 to the application of one or more political litmus tests to a work’s superficial content. The text must deal with the right matter in the right way: it must commiserate with the right victims and revile the right oppressors. Chinua Achebe has virtually chased Joseph Conrad from college anthologies on the basis of such Procrustean sizing-up; and the contemporary sensibility has air-brushed some of the greatest stylists of twentieth-century French literature (such as Jules Romains and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) from the record. Not that secret police are flexing their muscle behind the scenes—sometimes. but not usually. Rather, the ideological purging of the canon (which no one who has seen it close-up can mistake for anti-canonical liberalism) owes most of its triumphs to sheer lack of erudition. A culture of scant reading inevitably nurtures a culture of shallow reading—or is it the other way around? When you are only scanning lines for orthodoxy, you naturally skip thousands of texts “known” to be outrightly infidel.
However this ivory colonnade of indefinite regression was engineered, it is a practical sure thing that the final column needed to close a circle has been laid. Young assistant professors required to teach two or three freshman comp sections per semester while publishing at survival rate must deeply appreciate the reduction of the reading list by seven-eighths. Wide reading takes time: an article-length gender critique can be hammered out in a few weeks.
As a result, the postmodern feminist critic, in particular, has an “over-specialized” look. He or she has often not read enough honest-to-goodness literature to test those ideological strictures which are themselves posed as tests of literature.1 The late Jean-Pierre Barricelli, inaugurating a “round table” discussion in a special issue of The Comparatist, dared to protest the tendency to narrow-minded dogmatism in current comparative literature programs. “The true breadth of Comparative Literature,” he summarized, “consists primarily in developing its literary and linguistic base, with judicious [i.e. severely limited] use of translations, and secondarily in applying this base to interdisciplinary inquiry with a proper application of cultural and critical Theory” (16). The volume’s subsequent essayists, however, uniformly disparaged this suggestion that comparatists exert themselves to learn foreign languages. And so forests continue to be missed because of trees—or because we are allowed to look only at a modest stand of one species.
I wish to offer the following observations in the humble spirit of one who knows a forest when he sees it, though perhaps not all the flora therein. I am trained primarily neither as a feminist critic nor as an expert on nineteenth-century realism. As a comparatist of the old school, however (i.e., one whose mentors thought that “comparatism” should mean polyglot bibliophilia in search of an aesthetic), I find the mainline feminist response to this literature alarmingly naive and reductive. If the word “alarm” seems needlessly dramatic, I insist upon it because the correctness at stake is not, after all, merely political or even aesthetic, but also moral. For feminist critics have this much right (though few of them would ever admit to it in these terms): art and morality have a necessary and indissoluble interface. The plot of a story implies a life lived in consequence of certain choices; and the open-endedness of metaphor implies the informulable, ineffable character of ultimate human value which those who live only by the letter of the law must betray. To understand that goodness possesses the same paradoxical, complementary binarism as literary art—that it is form ever struggling to emerge from chaos and greater intensity ever struggling to emerge from the shackles of form—is to learn much about our duty and destiny as human beings.
Now, feminist critique tends not to interest itself in this dynamic—this aesthetic—interplay as it pursues its moralistic ends in literature. On the contrary, typical feminist procedure involves giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the degree of victimhood lavished upon female characters in such works as those produced by nineteenth-century realists. The critic thus not only turns a blind eye to aesthetics, but also closes the other to genuine ethical concerns (as opposed to behaviorist triage). The text’s implications for a “life well lived” are likely to be skewed toward an extra-textual, quite possibly anachronistic paradigm. The enigmatic fact is that attending to things aesthetic is an indispensable means of measuring a literary work’s moral value. Precisely because one wants to gauge the relevance of an Ibsen female’s example to one’s own life, one must go well beyond highlighting two or three speeches full of battlecries and prophecies (as the Norton anthologies do, for instance, with Medea’s “we women are the most miserable of all creatures” oration). One must consider the speech’s context, the speaker’s motivation, the presence or absence of similar sentiment elsewhere in the text—the “ripple effect”, in short, which each component has upon the literary whole, and which the whole’s sum of other components has upon each isolated moment. This is more than a hearkening back to the old New Criticism, and to Kant and Aristotle: it is a basic awareness of the moral reality that everything each of us does influences, in some infinitesimal way, what we will do hereafter, and even what everyone else will ever do.
Nevertheless, my method of rebuttal in the remarks that follow will seldom involve “close reading”. I believe that feminist assumptions about the realist female character are generally mistaken at a level which does not even demand a high power of magnification (and hence will not demand of me a degree of expertise in this literary period which I do not possess). This level is, in a primitive sense, the most human one of literature: the archetypal. I am convinced that the clues missed by feminist critics about their favorite fictive women are indeed in the text, but not merely in subtle intra-textual echoes. They are in the skeletal sequence concerning the female. They are in the resonance which that sequence creates in most sane, reflective human beings; and—to reverse the perspective from the artist as individual creator to the artist as obedient registrant of cultural phenomena—they are in the “high tide” consequence which the work of art expresses as it reaches impressionable sand from culture’s vast sea.
So rather than making a point specifically about Ibsen or Flaubert or Zola, I am more occupied with the tendencies of this entire literary epoch, widely credited with a keener sympathy for the woman’s plight than preceding centuries. Naturally, the archetype is not indifferent to aesthetics. Authors may integrate it more or less well into their broader narrative, and may represent its crude sequence more or less powerfully. The work of art is, indeed, its conveyance in a literate culture which no longer assembles the community for mass rituals. Yet the same work is also a cultural artifact, even in the hands of the most individual stylist. The comparatist’s reason for being is supposed to be a special dedication to this obscure interface between art and culture; yet too many comparatists (most of whom are now feminists) would have us believe that the exercise involves nothing more than excavating sentiments (or sediments, as they like to say) with a sudden currency and declaring, preposterously, that they were hidden in the past. Whenever the past has not trumpeted the present’s preferred themes, we are called to bear witness to a cover-up.
Clearly, the comparatist should be inserting mild corrections in the natural tendency of any reader to mangle the text by cutting away and carrying off one or two parts suggestive of his or her personal experience. There is such a thing as common humanity, to be sure, though this bright pedestal is anathematic to contemporary critical theory’s gods. The truth is that student readers often feel sorry for the women depicted by realism and proceed naively to ally themselves with feminism (if they are graduate students) because their laudable compassion seems to have found an outlet therein. I shall argue, however, that the pathos of these suffering women is so presented, both by its crude archetypal structure and by the subtler clues of most specific texts, that a cool, even icy remove is essential to the observation. A warm embrace of one’s toiling sisters should be made of less stern stuff.
II. The Gender Split in Realist Pathologies
From the orientation which I have cursorily described above, I am convinced that many feminist treatments of European realism are not just missing the point in how such texts represent women, but creating major misconceptions. Emma Bovary is constantly portrayed as the victim of a patriarchal society, driven to escape her “enforced domesticity” (Gerrard 11) through unwholesome romances, extramarital affairs, and ultimately suicide. Michael Danahy even transforms Emma’s doting, invertebrate husband Charles into a tyrant (e.g., 134). The critical wisdom has it that Nora Helmer is similarly afflicted but triumphantly breaks the lock of her doll’s house. Hedda Gabler and Anna Karenina are more typical in following Emma’s path to a half-crazed suicide.
Well, that all seems tenable, if not exactly fair. We know that Ibsen, at least, felt particularly compelled to introduce straight-laced audiences to the plight of women, as he saw it. According to Gail Finney, the “vexed question” in Ibsen studies is whether his dramas are “narrowly feminist” or “politically but broadly human” (89-90). One assumes, given the current climate in academe, that the former would be cheered far more resonantly, though the latter seems far more probable historically.
Yet more probable still, it seems to me, is that Flaubert, Ibsen, and their contemporaries, while censorious of unfair social and political distinctions based on gender, nevertheless considered women radically unequal to men. Of course, nervous breakdowns are not gender-specific in realist fiction, as the critics above seem to imply. The difference lies not in breaking down, but in how one breaks down. Of the male protagonists whose psyche famously disintegrates during this period, one might mention Raskolnikov, the hard-drinking Golovlyovs, the title character of Il Marchese di Roccaverdina, and the haunted narrators of Maupassant’s final short stories (as the author himself battled insanity).
Now consider the causes of breakdown in male and female cases. Males lose their grip upon reality because the prosaic forces of social conditioning (realism proper) or the horrid, sometimes lurid forces of physical environment and heredity (naturalism) grind them down. Female characters have little exposure to coal mines, shipyards, or even urban backstreets (those who go insane, that is: streetwalkers always seem to cling to the driftwood). Though Zola’s women may drown in a flood or drink themselves to death, only the tightly laced bourgeoise imprisoned behind quiet window panes actually loses her mind in this period’s literary landscape. While male breakdowns also occur primarily indoors, they ensue upon the collapse of “the good life”, often under financial strains. Women go mad in the “triumph” of polite, secure comfort.
Why the disparity? Why can men be driven insane by greed (“Little Judas” Golovlyov) or by lust and guilt (Capuana’s Marchese of Roccaverdina) but women only by the Respectable Male’s Gilded Cages? In the best-known works of realism’s most representative authors, characters like Emma and Hedda seem to lack sufficient volition to contribute something to their own demise. Instead, they are more than dimly reminiscent of delicate, pitiful creatures—canaries, perhaps—incapable of understanding that their doom is sealed in a narrowly controlled laboratory experiment. Call this a sympathy with the plight of women if you wish… but the poignancy of the expiring, uncomprehending “test subject” should itself suffice to suggest something quite different, as well: something of that appallingly pleasant on account of whose accurate portrayal Baudelaire was once convicted of obscenity.2
But first things first: let us work closer toward this dark, inadmissible pleasure by continuing to remark what the realist female character is not. By no means would I suggest that a man like Ibsen was not sincerely distressed by the tedium in which middle-class women around him languished. As a matter of fact, Ibsen seems to me to write into his women infinitely more moral courage than Flaubert puts into Emma; and the more of a will one finds in realist women, the more intricately their ordeal is tied to the men who seek to govern them. Nora’s predicament is very much a result of her husband’s domination—an abuse of authority at which she herself has connived. Emma, in contrast, rather bullies her milquetoast of a man: the contagion which eats her to death is far more inexorable than her malignant marriage.
It is difficult (I may as well say impossible, for anyone possessed of common sense) to read these varying instances of feminine anguish as a monolithic social phenomenon. In fact, the causes of the middle-class female’s psychic malaise in realist fiction are quite diverse. Nora finally admits herself to be victimized by her own pusillanimity; Anna Karenina is caught in a tragic trap which is not gender-specific in Tolstoy (cf. the arduous spiritual growth of Kitty and Levin, a kind of off-setting also visible in the downward-spiraling Prince Andrei and the resilient Natasha and Pierre—sensitive spirits all). Emma Bovary, frankly, is just a bloody-minded petite bourgeoise whom Nina Auerbach is pleased to style “fastidiously spiritual” (106) in a surge of misplaced sympathy.
To the extent that there is something sui generic in these representations of the female, it surely involves the superficial artistic datum—the powerful image of an appealing but tormented young woman—rather than the resonant broadcast of a certain social or political doctrine. The postmodern professional woman has apparently read into literary portraits of her great grandmothers a kind of tension which is prominent in her own life. (“Kate Chopin’s The Awakening,” wrote Jean Kennard thirty years ago with unconscious irony, “[is] now enjoying a revival of popularity precisely because it is so like a novel of the nineteen seventies” .) Yet the nineteenth-century female protagonist, even in Ibsen, is anything but a self-actualizing dynamo. In most realist authors besides Ibsen, she does not yet dream of becoming such a being. She scarcely dreams at all; and when she does, her fantasies are more often the afterglow of some quotidian drudgery pitifully gilded, like a mule’s memories of clover, than the epiphany of a lofty ambition. The women of these fictions are indeed sometimes paralleled overtly to starved, scrofulous beasts of burden destined to die in the traces. Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “Vergine Anna” actually forms a series of fanciful “friendships” with such dull animals as an ass and a turtle.
We cannot avoid noticing that male protagonists register the pressures of a ruthless environment rather differently from their female counterparts in these works. I have stressed that those who ultimately crack under such pressure seem to be victims of hard times when male and of “good times”—relative comfort and prosperity—when female. If the implication here is that men in realist fiction are somehow more firmly braced against harsh necessity than women—that, in Darwinian terms, they largely perish in fierce competition, whereas women mysteriously wither in relative peace like ineffectual mutations—then the stifling hypocrisy of bourgeois existence may not be the real culprit behind the feminine “die-off”. Just maybe, the realist female is (in a phrase of novelist Antonio Fogazzaro’s) inetta a vivere—unsuited to life in the world as it must be.3
To be sure, men and women can be equally sensitive to life’s vagaries in the humane Tolstoy’s works and fall prey equally to psychic degeneration. I am inclined to disqualify Tolstoy from consideration here, since neither his style nor his moral assumptions are remotely those of the realist. So for Balzac, Dickens, and Manzoni: while their productive years somewhat overlapped the textbook termini for realism, their novels transparently do not belong within such brackets. Frankly, I have no idea why such writers are ever included in discussion of realism but for a rather obtuse coincidence in chronology and the occasional character whom today’s highly politicized criticism wishes to cull as rhetorical ammunition.
I think, rather, of the sort of contrast exquisitely seen in Gorky’s short story, “Twenty-Six Men and a Girl”. The convicts doing forced labor in a bakery have stunningly romantic illusions about the strength of Tanya’s virtue—but they turn into a vile crew of cynics when the baker succeeds in seducing her. They are neither as high nor as low as Tanya. They are physically abused, but not physically soiled: morally corrupted, but not morally out-maneuvered. Neither polarity of the whore/martyr applies to them. Their debasement is thorough, but it has the quality of a fine steel edge beaten into a blunt rod rather than that of fine china shattered into a million pieces.
Giuseppe Verga’s cutthroat, nihilist bandit Gramigna (in the short story “L’Amante di Gramigna”) ends up shot full of holes and rotting away in prison; but the dumbly besotted Peppa, who left a respectable life after conceiving a passion for the desperado’s airy legend, finishes as a volunteer drudge for the soldiers garrisoned outside the prison, having born a child to a scoundrel who routinely beat her black and blue.
The eponymous courtesan of Maupassant’s “Boule-de-Suif”, having extricated her fellow wayfarers from danger by giving sex to a Prussian officer, is repaid for her sacrifice by being branded, not just the lowest sort of whore, but a traitor to her country. Morally superior to the “respectable” people who had eventually finessed her into the Prussian’s bed, she is nevertheless destroyed in a manner which no male in Maupassant ever endures. A man might sweat his way slimily through a duel at ten paces or succumb to an wildly insane persecution complex (though there is no such male victim here). His anguish, however, would be comparatively Promethean—his moral squalor would remain concealed rather than leave him writhing in full view of hypocritical passers-by.
III . The Male’s Dark Shadow
To restate this disparity between male and female victims of literary realism’s pressure-cooker, we might supplement the Darwinian survivor/crippled mutant contrast thus. The man has a rigidly distinct outer life and inner life: the woman does not. Capuana’s Marchese of Roccaverdina often meditates upon his family’s device: frangor non flector—“I break but do not bend.” Just so: the realist portrayal of maleness gives us a rather unsavory but very resourceful being capable of combating an immensely hypocritical world on its own terms. The wounds of betrayed trust and the guilt of a trust betrayed are alike repressed. The paradoxically servile courage needed to repeat daily motions which one loathes for people whom one detests and the abject devotion to a respectable façade are alike mastered. The male who would make his way during the nineteenth century’s notorious Rise of the Middle Class is braced for his task by a necessary, if contemptible, ability to sever his feelings from his doings. The realist female does not share this facility for absorbing the shock of a self-contradictory existence. When her psyche splits, the fissure is both ruinous to her soul’s peace and fully visible to an “outraged” society. The woman’s constitution (and, once again, we are speaking here of the bourgeoise, not a two-fisted strumpet: even Boule-de-Suif is the cream of pricey concubinage) is unfitted to the contests of this primal savanna whose fauna are thinly disguised in frock coats, beaver hats, corsets, and high-laced boots.
In further evidence whereof, consider that the voluminous literary presence of the Doppelgänger throughout the nineteenth century offers not a ghost’s footprint of any female intrusion. All the sinister pairings of this period are male, properly speaking (with a few examples of males beset by female opposites). Not one of these Jekyll-and-Hyde dyads occurs in what may be called a mainstream realist or naturalist work, although the phenomenon both precedes and survives the realist period. I shall later suggest why I find the failure of the Doppelgänger to intersect realism a highly significant case of mutual repulsion. I will anticipate that moment by observing now that I believe the “immolated female” to be realism’s answer to the schizoid male.
Of course, the Man-and-his-Shadow archetype is profoundly romantic. It patently rejects a rationalist notion of the soul, and also indicts “civilization” for suffocating the Noble Savage within a tight shroud of decorum. An awareness of such distasteful duplicity’s lubricating the operation of daily human affairs is perceptible long before the days of Queen Victoria. One can find it during the floruit of neoclassicism—in Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, for instance, and Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau. (It is easy to forget that Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality was penned a mere twenty years after Manon’s publication.) The ensuing decades elevated to literary immortality the opposition of Faust to Mephistopheles and of Dr. Frankenstein to his monster. Sir Walter Scott’s novels abound in “doubling”, with a noble-savage Highlander like Rob Roy usually contrasting with some superficially cultured villain like Rashleigh Osbaldistone (and a Waverly-like narrator caught in between). Pushkin explored a very similar kind of dualism with Pugachov, the wicked Shvabrin, and the bemused young narrator of The Captain’s Daughter.
Yet to say that the romantic pairing of Aspiring Young Man and Outlaw—or even of Frankenstein and his Monster—opposes social respectability to spiritual honesty would be anachronistic. Furthermore, the young man often wanders indecisively between the forbidden but attractive outlaw and a severe social system whose worst elements are crystallized in a thoroughly hypocritical rival. The dyad verges on becoming a triad—or it is a dyad perched, perhaps, on either shoulder of a callow, vacillating seeker. Women may sometimes represent the polarities in such a scenario, as in Coleridge’s Christabel. The “either/or” choice here seems to be between a happiness which declines to plumb dark truths and a satisfied thirst for knowledge which carries a curse.
Only in the mid-nineteenth century, then, do we see the Doppelgänger grow indissolubly attached to the socially fluent male’s soul—not a bad angel facing a good angel at either ear of some ingénue, but a sordid shadow riveted to a “responsible” adult’s well-cobbled heels. The self-righteous middle class which brought both Baudelaire and Flaubert to trial for obscenity and patronizingly Christianized its empires while quietly pocketing immense profits (‘I am amazed at my own restraint,” had sputtered Lord Clive before India was surrendered to civil servants) carried the art of hypocrisy to new depths. Baudelaire actually dedicated one of his Petits Poèmes en Prose to one bounder who kept a pocketful of counterfeit coins because he so enjoyed the warm feeling of bestowing them upon beggars!
As a result of such chasmically divided values, some of the most famous split-personalities in literary history populate the pages of these days—beginning on romanticism’s doorstep with Stevenson’s version of the nobly savage Rob Roy. Kidnapped’s Ian Breck, though more complex than Rob, remains heroically simple-hearted against the legalistic machinations of Edinburgh bureaucrats. A genuine shift to something palpably post- romantic occurs, however, in The Master of Ballantrae. Here the swaggering Highland ruffian (one-half owner of the title’s ambiguous honor) is far less sympathetic than the brother against whom he is murderously pitted. The work actually postdates Stevenson’s infinitely better known (but less artful) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, wherein basic human nature has clearly become the more evil of the two halves. The hypocrisy of common decency has now grown entirely defensible as a firewall between a functional society and the ravenous, intractable animal within us all.
Sigmund Freud, of course, must be stirred into the troubled brew as the twentieth century ominously looms. The Id represented by the Doppelgänger in European fiction is perhaps less sexual than Freud proposed of his case studies, though sexual taboos were no doubt both the most rigid of nineteenth-century bourgeois society and the most commonly broken in secret (rendering them the preferred hunting ground of The Beast). Friedrich Nietzsche may have been still closer to the mark in identifying the core of resistance to social conditioning as the will to power—and not to just any sort of power, but to power over convention, precisely: the power to annihilate all preconceived boundaries, renewed day after day. Nietzsche envisioned something rather like the psychic equivalent of nuclear fission.
And indeed, a society populated by Dorian Grays—or leavened with one Dorian, perhaps, per hundred drones and drudges—would become a medium very hostile to domestic tranquility. Everybody has seen and laughed heartily at Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. All the more shocking, then, that so few seem to notice how narrowly the expressions of the demonic Lord Henry resonate with those of the merry nihilist Algernon Moncrieff. Algie’s senses have the upper hand over his will in virtually all circumstances. Otherwise, we should have been treated to a graphic demonstration—perhaps sublime, certainly not comic—of the difference between a merely animal lust for fine food and beautiful women and a serious nihilist’s contempt for fatuous or pusillanimous restrictions.
Conrad’s Kurtz is that nihilist. As his name implies in German, he has cut to the quick in Africa, lopping off Europe’s inhibitive layers of propriety. At the far end of realism’s rather brief life-cycle is the age’s most honest pronouncement upon the human soul (whose utterance required a subjectivity of style denied to realist grammar): the horror. Yet Conrad has not just broken with the technique of holding subjects at arm’s length. The Doppelgänger has also lost its seamless attachment to the flesh it shadows, such that the writhing efforts of the suited homme d’affaires to catch a glimpse produce the spectacle of a dog chasing its tail. The unflappable Marlow, friend of socially proper lies, is far from being Kurtz’s alter ego, since he already knows himself—and everyone else—to be a hypocrite. With whom, then, should we pair Kurtz? With his former self, the missionary idealist? But the whole drama of the Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon lies exactly in the coexistence of two radically incompatible halves. The tension has been relaxed. The alarmingly innocent observer fashioned by the romantics in Waverly has been replaced by a care-worn, worldly-wise Marlow. Tawdry compromises have lost their grand camouflage, but have also been conceded a certain necessity in all their loathsome squalor. Modernity is born.
Somewhere in between, it appears that the occasional realist occasionally dabbled in dramatic oppositions à la Jekyll-and-Hyde. We should most certainly note that when this happens, the author at issue is surprised in his least realist moment. For some reason which must have to do purely with style, the French have always offered Gustav Flaubert’s extraordinary historical novel Salammbô as evidence that one of their literary giants was not without romantic tendencies. Perhaps the contrast of the barbarically courageous Mathô with the bloodthirsty yet “civilized” Hamilcar (and, of course, with the deviously servile Greek’s guiles) is indeed a faintly warmed-over serving of Rousseau. Yet Mathô lacks the innocence and idealism of Frankenstein’s monster: if he is not the pure Id we find in Mr. Hyde, it is because his crude fantasies, like Emma’s, create in him the illusion of idealism.
So let it be stipulated that Salammbô is a half-hearted salute to romanticism. Another commonplace in French literary criticism holds that Flaubert punishes romanticism in the unfortunate person of Emma Bovary. This insight, which has much to recommend it, takes us back into the gravity of the Immolated Female. And the question about this disturbing sequence’s provenance in the creative mind of the nineteenth century can now be posed more finely: in what sense was the femina immolata an alternative—a competing expression of deeply felt truth—to the strictly male sequence of a respected citizen haunted by his Doppelgänger?
An answer to this question is not to be found in the common suggestion that male oppositions in nineteenth-century literature are in fact presided over by females. It turns out that such feminist attempts to appropriate the Doppelgänger motif are usually of the “third-party observer” genre, with the third party being a female and the warring pair having become two suitors who represent opposite qualities. Of course, the stakes and tensions of such an arrangement are entirely different from what I have been describing. The males are not yoked together except in the female who considers their implicit alternatives: either man may be wholly unaware of the other’s existence. The lady’s criteria for distinguishing between her beaux, furthermore, have far less to do with embracing either decorous prosperity or libidinous primitivism than with calculating a complex interaction, perhaps even a contrapuntal one. By no means does the woman truly fuse with the man, though she may anticipate doing so. The frustration of such an ambition, indeed, is often part of her torment. She doesn’t begin to have the information necessary to arbitrate between Dr. Jekyll and his evil twin.
It is simply absurd, therefore, to contend that the female character anchors the doubling phenomenon found in nineteenth-century fiction. Contrast the penitent last moments of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich with the embittered exit of Kate Chopin’s Granny Weatherall: extreme anguish in both cases—but the female remains consumed by the sheer emotional pain of a socially exacted Hobson’s choice, whereas the male has finally taken the full measure of human society and his complicity in its imposture. Kennard is well within reasonable bounds, writing mostly of female authors, when she asserts, “the great Victorian novels are... illustrations of a convention based on the binary opposition of two suitors” (11). To Chopin might be added (or placed atop the list which includes her) Jane Austen and the Bronté sisters. Yes, male opposites do most certainly show up in realist novels and short stories—distantly—as crystallizations of a young female’s bemusement. They have nothing of that harrowing dynamism which they enjoy outside of realist representation, however, and the deeper meaning of their polarities is seldom divined beneath the woman’s own dilemma. This is part of why the femina immolata supplants the Doppelgänger in realism, I suppose—part, but not so much as half of the whole reason; for the woman surely assumes center-stage, not just because of a shift in perspective, but primarily because her anguish has a unique fascination.
Barbara Rigney, building upon the work of critics like Otto Rank and Robert Rogers who have discussed the male Doppelgänger, fumbles in the vicinity of this profound fascination, but ultimately cannot close her hand upon it. Rigney prizes the female character’s madness (from the title page onward) as expressive of victimization: so far, so good. But Rigney does not grasp the distinctive panic of this madness, misidentifying it with the male schizoid’s psychic incoherence. Of the female characters created by authors like Woolf and Lessing (but also Charlotte Bronté), she advances the following observations:
The protagonist inevitably finds, whether in an actual mother or in an image of her own split psyche, a doppelganger who is a manifestation of her schizophrenia.... In these novels, then, the doppelganger serves an essentially positive function and is therefore a departure from the figure of the demonic double traditional in the psychological works of fiction by male writers like Dostoevsky and Poe. (122)
As with trying to dramatize the female dilemma by having recourse to her two suitors, this stylization of the Doppelgänger has no bite. One might as well argue that any sympathetic female minor character at all—take your pick—doubles the female protagonist. Such pairs are “essentially positive” because they are not involved in taut psychological opposition. That the sequestered Lady Rochester, for instance, should be considered Jane Eyre’s shadow rather than, say, Lord Rochester’s (it is his attic she occupies like Dorian Gray’s sinister picture) is grossly tendentious. At most, the two are paired as alternatives confronting Rochester’s ego, not as intimately opposed halves of one personality. The absence of tension between Rigney’s other female pairs similarly deprives her examples of the Doppelgänger’s basic psychological value and ignores the literary work’s refusal to exploit that value.
In her introduction, Rigney had volunteered that each of these women is also a scapegoat “questing for some form of truth” and “somehow justified in her hatred and violence” (12). Now, neither of the functions named—questing or venting ecstatic rage—has anything to do with the psycho-cultural phenomenon of scapegoating. The archetype of the scapegoat, however, is well worth holding in reserve, though Rigney seems almost to have blundered upon it. Perhaps an acute critical instinct has taken her through a morass of positions assumed à parti pris with a view to advancing current political claims rather than comprehending literature… but this particular patch of ground, however she reached it, is solid.4 Let us try to grope our own way there by reviewing and comparing the evidence gathered so far.
IV. The Sacrificed Female’s Archetypal Function
A single body cannot contain a man’s warring halves, it seems. “This fragmentation of divine/demonic man into two distinct faces [in contrast to the woman’s single face] represents a radical fragmentation of his spiritual power,” observes Nina Auerbach—both finely and, I fear, a bit archly. For Auerbach has noticed, as few critics of her period and ideology, that no nineteenth-century author would have endorsed a simplistic notion of male and female equality. Yet she attributes this reluctance to the century’s having recognized Woman’s spiritual superiority over Man—a notion from which she does little to distance herself as a critic. In fact, there can be no doubt that the Victorian male viewed his pedestal-fitted wife as a little household goddess suitable for worship (if not for consultation on worldly affairs: a competence in such matters, of course, would have desecrated her irrevocably). The exquisitely posed saint, however, is the very being whose marble flesh the realist author will proceed to torture. For some reason, the next step after bringing Galatea to life is to chain her like Andromeda to her domestic plinth as an Awful Horror licks her delicate limbs.
I see no evidence that even so canny an observer as Auerbach has noted how this gift of spiritual superiority is something of a “set-up”, at least in the fiction of the time. The bourgeoise is a pretty young thing, modest and virtuous, a dutiful spouse, a loving mother, successfully protected from the social and moral pollution beyond her doorstep—and she must die. Her death must be slow, its agency largely or entirely a torturer seen only in her imagination. With superiority like this, who needs malevolence?
I have conceded already—indeed, stressed—that the males of realist literature suffer their share of agony, as well. It is an agony of the “front line”, however—not the unwholesome fantasy of a non-combatant. Capuana’s Marchese is torn apart by a nervous degeneration culminating in a stroke for very material causes. He has committed murder undetected, and the wrong man has died in jail for the crime. His guilt is magnified by the unresolved passion which led him to the act: in violent opposition to the aristocratic breeding of which he is so inordinately proud, he yet longs to pass his life with the peasant woman Agrippina whom he had once “married off” to his foreman and eventual victim. Nobody ever knows the precise identity of the Marchese’s demons (except for a priest who carries the secret to his grave); but a spurt of feverish activity, including a costly updating of farm equipment, a remodeling of the palazzo, and a “correct” marriage to the irreproachable Zósima—offers the community a credible reason for the stroke which reduces the Marchese to an imbecile until his soon-ensuing death.
Such a portrayal of the schizoid psyche fully satisfies the demands of realism (or verismo, as Capuana’s friend Verga christened Italian naturalism). The lurid morality play (in which one of science-fiction’s first roots fed) of a man fighting his secret devil every hour of the day has been translated into the dismal tones of prosaic existence (much as Saltykov-Shchedrin had done in The Golovlyov Family). The resultant battle produced real corpses, if not fully valid motives for public consumption. The Marchese, finally, does not commit suicide. He never considers it, even though, in his final days of functional intelligence, he believes himself to be visited at night by his victim’s ghost.
The realist female never dies in this sort of fray. She is always, at worst, a “flibbertigibbet” (as that bourgeois par excellence, Soames Forsyte, would have called her)—a lost but harmless spirit who has flown like a sparrow into a labyrinth of rooms without open windows. She is not even, in realist hands, one half of a romantic “Christabel/Geraldine” polarity. That is to say, when a male character vacillates between two women in choosing a wife or mistress (for the “conflicted arbiter” is just as likely to be a male as a female, feminist criticism notwithstanding), he invariably sees his options as alternative self-indulgences—not as forking spiritual paths. Despite the Marchese’s seeking to bury his passion for a peasant by marrying a woman of his class, he is not remotely as preoccupied by either female as much as by his murderous deed and the remorse which he cannot imperiously overrule. There is no mystery in the realist pairs of females who beckon the central male in opposing directions. Most often, they seem to represent sexual fulfillment, on the one hand, and widening social vistas, on the other. Such is the choice contemplated by Stendhal’s Julien Sorel (Le Rouge et le Noir) and Maupassant’s Duroy (Bel Ami). D’Annunzio’s narcissistic protagonist Andrea in Il Piacere does not even enter a dowry into his calculations, for both the women upon whom he sets his sights belong to another man. The ravishing Elena marries for money, though the decision does little to degrade her sexual availability. If the virtuous Maria’s virtuous seems briefly more desirable, it is precisely her committed monogamy represents to Andrea an added attraction (after the fashion of Les Liaisons Dangéreuses). In what may be the century’s greatest (and surely its least publicized) literary anticlimax, Andrea begins placidly to redecorate his room immediately after Maria, at long last seduced but called Elena in the final instant of love-making, has departed stunned and speechless.
In an entirely different novel, Maria might indeed have been transformed from a titillation on the surface of a male ego’s muddy pond to another immolated female. She might have thrown herself beneath the wheels of a bypassing coach, or have drunk poison. We have no idea what actually becomes of her—but the fact of her having been sexually soiled in the terms of the day would dictate her fate as much as the fact of her being morally innocent. There is a kind of rape in the sad destiny of such figures, often involving sexual seduction à la lettre, but not always. (The protagonist of D’Annunzio’s Vergine Orsola is quite literally raped, and later bleeds to death staggering through the village in search of help.) The “sin” of these female characters seems to be precisely that they have not measured, or cannot measure, the sin which rages in the world beyond their threshold; and the “rapist”, in a more profound sense than whatever man abuses or betrays them, is that very world. Reality. The delicate goddess carefully cloistered beside the male’s hearth would be devoured like a lamb by wolves if she were to stray from the hearth alone.
This much, I believe, is essential to understanding the nineteenth-century bourgeois female’s domestic deification. She was provisionally uncorrupt, and maintaining her in such a state of purity—a largely illusory state, in that it could only be preserved apart from reality—was a duty richly cherished by the male. In proof whereof, the literature of the time ritually represents, in anguishing yet perversely delightful detail, what happens to lambs who stray from the fold.
I alluded earlier to Baudelaire’s condemned poem, “À celle qui est trop gaie”. The poet imagines himself entering, by night and undetected, the bedroom of a young woman whom he has often observed publicly laughing and exuding health. “The gloomy passer-by you brush / Is dazzled by your wholesomeness / Which bursts forth like a beam of light / From your plump arms and rounded shoulders.”5 The poet is oddly troubled by these displays (“I love and hate you in equal shares”). He nurses the fantasy of a nocturnal visit, therefore, “to chastise your joyous flesh” and “to make in your astonished side / a wound both gaping and profound”. That Baudelaire’s bourgeois censors found this composition intolerable may well be taken as a sign of its symbolic power (for lunatics only offend other lunatics). He had described a rape, yes—or perhaps a murder: a rape-murder. But he had devoted most of his description to the healthy, beaming, vivacious girl who was to be raped and murdered—and he had made no secret of his motive. Not lust, but an insufferable insult—the same kind of insult, he explains, which has sometimes “humiliated my heart so much / That I have punished on a flower / The insolence of springtime’s beauty.”
The ideal should know better than to forget its pedestal and go strutting down the sidewalk. Man needs ideals—but he needs them to stay put, creating an alternate reality for him (or an “artificial paradise”, as Baudelaire might say) rather than stupidly straying into a hell of a world. The ideal should remember its—should remember her—humility.
V. Further Explanation of the Archetype
I can well imagine a couple of immediate and obvious objections to the proposition that the femina immolata in realist fiction is a sublimated punishment of rash idealism—of a vulnerable ideal, to be exact (and all ideals are so at this historical moment), which doesn’t keep itself under cover. The first objection would surely be that realist authors were no friends of the bourgeoisie, and hence would have no interest, subliminal or otherwise, in nursing along hypocrisy. The second might well be that such a thing as a female realist-author is not unheard-of, and that a Kate Chopin could hardly be supposed to desire the torture of her sisters at any level for their daring to confront harsh realities. To this might be added numerous further protests tailored to individual authors known, for one reason or another, to violate the profile of Baudelaire’s rapist-murderer.
To all such resistance and indignation, I would say very simply that I have in mind a complex of images endowed with an archetypal kind of power—not a conscious, rational capsulization of specific historical grievances in a specific literary symbol. There are a great many theories, drawing upon various degrees of prehistoric/ritual conditioning or genetic/biological programming, to explain how an archetypal compulsion comes to work its magic.6 I do not particularly care for any of them (since I believe that the “irrational” in art has its own logic of associations needing no apologies from extrinsic sources); but, in any case, the archetype whose existence I am presently alleging bears sufficient resemblance to “scapegoating” that it does not require the dubious justification of a theory. “Taking it out” on a relative innocent is a universal human behavior (and among the least attractive of such behaviors). In Western civilization, the crucified Christ is the preeminent example of such vented frustration. I would venture so far as to say, in fact, that the Schadenfreude of the Crucifixion—the “piteous joy” of contemplating the noble innocent voluntarily murdered in our place—often dominates the emotional life of professed Christians far more than a passionate attachment to self-sacrificing nobility of conduct.
This is as much as to say that a woman could indeed find catharsis at some level in the suffering of another woman, and a philanthropic activist like Ibsen in the slow anguish of a victim. As for the argument that attendance upon this literary rite would somehow amount to an approval of the bourgeois “split reality”—jungle beyond the threshold, idyll within it—the exponent of such opposition cannot have pondered the archetype’s nature for very long. By foregrounding the immolation of the “foolish virgin”, the sequence actually reveals the bourgeois outlook’s self-contradiction in ways which could make no respectable barrister or churchman or petty inspector of railroads very happy. The myth of the femina immolata is not a cautionary tale told to young girls at bedtime by their papa: it is the forcible unveiling, rather, of a goddess whose powers are illusory, imaginary. It is the dramatic assertion that the bourgeois’s penates are mere marble figurines.
The following perspective may soothe the skeptic’s furrowed brow, for human beings are always enticed by an apprehended truth which allows them to have their cake and eat it, too. The rite of the femina immolata defines just such a “win/win” moral terrain for its celebrants. For idealists, the young woman who strays into torture and ruin is not without sin (which, of course, disqualifies her as a Christ-figure). Her insistent attempt to intercept brutal reality has cost her everything—but the ideal can still exist in a parallel reality free of intersections with terrestrial life. So it was for Baudelaire: the land of his dreams was n’importe où hors du monde—“anywhere beyond this world”. The l’art pour l’art generation (which he repudiated, by the way) was quite capable of existing on pure aestheticism, a hope in sensuous awakening which bore no practical consequences.
On the other hand, the grim realist could satisfy himself that insolently assertive expressions of beauty in an ugly world had been duly punished, much as Baudelaire’s splenetic poet might have lopped off a rose with his walking stick. The tortured female character affirms a jaundiced, “beguile me no more” disdain of daydreaming romanticism. If Flaubert did indeed, consciously or otherwise, find a kind of revenge upon romantic naiveté in his emotional dismemberment of Emma Bovary, he would not have been chastising spirituality, but punishing pretensions to the spiritual, rather, made in a crude and unmalleable medium.
That something of the archetypal is going on behind the pathos of the female realist character is implied by history itself—by the absence of historical “sufficient cause”, I mean, for such agony. Quite frankly, middle-class Western European women had never enjoyed as many opportunities as they did in the dynamic nineteenth century. Increasingly admitted to higher education and on the verge of political enfranchisement, females seem strange candidates for a knife at the altar if the sacrifice is intended to represent the vector of their social progress. As cipher for the exorcising of some subconscious but intense torment, however, their gruesome “punishment” can scarcely be called excessive—for it is the essential nature of mythic/ritual sequences to be grotesquely excessive by rational standards. That, one presumes, is what accomplishes the cathartic exorcism.
Auerbach seems to me to remark (unwittingly) one aspect of the scapegoat sacrifice when she stresses the chilling oddity of Freud’s distance from his subjects. “Freud as narrator/healer/magus/master is always in control” in his case studies, she writes, “as if to galvanize in anticipation the feeble magic of Svengali and Little Billee, Dracula and Van Helsing” (Auerbach 27). The participants who observe the scapegoat’s exile and ruin are, naturally, withdrawn from the struggle though deeply implicated in it: for its purpose is precisely to leave them unfettered. I would also draw attention to Auerbach’s mention of Dracula, a work with which I am largely unfamiliar and which, in any case, has few realist qualities, yet which certainly underscores the immolation of helpless young females during the very years at issue here.
Auerbach pursues this alarming dispassion of the nineteenth-century literate class’s ethos by noting R. L. Stevenson’s overt frustration with it. “I divined... the existence of a certain impotence in many minds to-day,” wrote Stevenson ruefully, “which prevents them from living in a book or a character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators of a puppet show” (quoted in Auerbach 219). Stevenson, to be sure, is alert to the ritual quality of this aloofness no more than Auerbach. Yet one could find a much worse image to translate the scapegoat into a more domestic idiom than a puppet on a string—and women in realist narratives are puppets par excellence in their obscenely delectable contortions.
VI. Specific Cases of “Immolation”
Now that I have tipped my own theoretical hand, such as it is, let me return to specific cases so as to highlight certain points relevant to the theory. That the immolated female of realist fiction is indeed a species of scapegoat explains the whiff of sadism surrounding her representation in many texts.6 I do not for an instant argue that Ibsen, Tolstoy, and their ilk (or even Flaubert and Baudelaire) were secret votaries of the Marquis de Sade. I suggest, however, that there is a subtly traitorous quality in their method of dwelling upon the subject’s pain. One can sometimes divine a sigh from between the text’s lines whispering, “Poor, innocent creature! How prettily she writhes!” This is not the sort feeling imparted, for instance, by the adventures of rebellious females in the Renaissance mock-epics of Ariosto and Cervantes—both of whom choose the urbane road of parodic comedy over the grim descent into anguishing sacrifice.
The contrast, I believe, is highly instructive. Even though the psychological novel was not yet born in the sixteenth century (or perhaps was being midwived by these two wry chroniclers of aberrant knights-errant), the distinctly feminine miseries of forced dependency, forced marriage, forced cloistering, and so on might easily have been portrayed in great pathos. Marie de France had found a way to do so more than four centuries earlier. Instead, the Orlando Furioso‘s Bradamante and Marfisa succeed in willing themselves—thanks to a physically outrageous allegory—to a level of full moral equality with men, the allegorical thrust being emphasized by their retention of a charming feminine physique; while the eternal victim Angelica is never actually anyone’s victim, except perhaps her own for “letting herself become identified with the lowest common denominator of her femininity—a sexual organ” (Wiggins 173). Angelica manages to give herself at last to the man of her choice after leaving murderous havoc everywhere she goes. As for Cervantes’s Marcela, she combines the seductive beauty of an Angelica with the assertive good sense of a Bradamante. Perhaps no one along Don Quixote’s mad meander better avoids pathological self-absorption, on the one side, and unprincipled cynicism, on the other. Marcela might easily have been pulled limb from limb during the riot at the end of her idyll… but Cervantes has a ringing moral condemnation flow from her enchanting lips which silences all foolish males on the spot and leaves The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure, for a change, looking relatively compos mentis.
For whatever reason, when young women in realist fiction seem in no particular danger from anyone—when they seem, indeed, to be almost suffocated by their highly protective environment—they nonetheless manage to be raped or driven mad. The very shelter of their conjugal bonds becomes an instrument of torture. (In his short story “Les Amants de Tolède”, Villiers de L’Isle Adam had stitched up two idealized young lovers alive in a shroud for three days, not killing them but curing forever their ardor.) Several nineteenth-century authors, in fact, are guilty of what one might well call excessively long close-up views of such improbable anguish: scrutiny of the torment seems little less than the essential narrative of their fictions.
Gustav Flaubert’s novel leaps to mind. Prosecuted unsuccessfully for obscenity (shortly before the legal assault on Baudelaire met with a “better” fate), Flaubert managed to outrage bourgeois sensibility in Madame Bovary—and it isn’t hard to see how. Emma’s unraveling is traced in what could accurately be styled (considering Flaubert’s other talents) surgical detail. Here I shall only stress that she very nearly dies at the end of Part Two, when Rodolphe abandons her, and that her ultimate end is drug-induced, excruciating, and quite drawn out. That is to say, her agony is as sustained, narrowly observed, artificially engineered, and ill-comprehended by its “subject” as would be so of a butterfly spread-eagled with pins beneath a scientist’s magnifying glass. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” remarked Flaubert famously after the work’s publication—a claim as revealing in its falsity as in its candor. For the statement is and is not true: the participant in the scapegoat sacrifice is both intimately involved and mystically detached (as was stressed at the end of the previous section). Emma Bovary very probably represented for Flaubert an nexus of inclinations or sympathies which he wished to pull by the roots from his own soul—and an integral part of the “purification” was to watch the roots wither and die.
Yet as thoroughly as Flaubert had cauterized every romantic opening in his heart that he could locate, the novel remains intensely focused upon one person. Such was not Émile Zola’s technique. The naturalist model of the female crafted by Zola is less simpatica, less profound, more obscured by a cast of surrounding characters, and generally more like the naturalist male: an animate carcass driven by instinct, hunger, and social conditioning. The rapacious courtesan Nana (Boule-de-Suif entirely purged of idealism) leaves as much male wreckage in her wake as Lord Nelson’s flagship, though quite without any intelligent plan in mind (e.g., the desire for vengeance upon men). She stupidly surrenders herself for destruction to the most indigent and dissolute man of her acquaintance, who predictably batters her and steals from her. She recovers most of her meretricious plunder, however, in time to die like a fatted beast amid a mysterious, agonizing epidemic. All in all, there is a susceptibility, an incomprehension—an objectified otherness—to her undoing which one does not quite find in Zola’s males.
An earlier, more sympathetic incarnation of Nana, her lame, long-suffering mother Gervaise of L’Assommoir, having also been abused by a shiftless mate, dies less dramatically than he. Yet Coupeau’s alcohol-induced dementia, which consumes him in a supernova of raving, may be said to have “infected” Gervaise in a more degenerative and no less fatal form. The man’s squalor is paradoxically sublime, almost a prophetic possession: the woman’s is vile, utterly annihilating her soul. This is Nana’s fate, though she perishes in the lap of luxury rather than in the gutter. Both women have no insight, no “horrible” Kurtz-like ecstasy. If we may style Zola a great pathologist of the human condition, then his men may be said to die like improperly sanitized technicians whom the virus of modernity has invaded, his women like lab rats under close observation.
Even in Zola, then, the female’s demise is distinguished a) by the victim’s incomprehension, and b) by a quasi-clinical distance enforced between victim and audience. These are essential elements of the scapegoat ritual. I have already mentioned Giovanni Verga’s Peppa in “L’Amante di Gramigna”. Verga fashioned verismo after French naturalism, yet Peppa is far less equivocal as a “lovingly tortured” sacrifice than Zola’s women. Once a “good girl” destined to marry a “good man”, Peppa conceives an insatiable passion for the notorious outlaw Gramigna without even the benefit of having seen him. Despite the priest’s exorcisms and her mother’s tears and talismans, she slips away from home at night and joins the scoundrel amid a hail of bullets, to be left abandoned and disgraced weeks later when he is finally captured and carted off to prison. She is reduced to scrubbing floors and polishing boots for the garrison which sent her man away. In his closing words, Verga tells us that whenever her tormentors march off on some desperate mission, the guns and the danger make her remember Gramigna, and she fears for all their lives.
Peppa, to be sure, is not slain: she is reduced, instead, to a contemptible and (again) uncomprehending servility, like a beast raised to toil. Luigi Capuana somewhat anticipated this short story with his Profili di Donne, though he never matched his friend Verga’s sense of dry, dispassionate remove. The author expressed his fascination with one subject of these profiles in the following terms: “My sympathies were not at all with the housewife, the old-fashioned woman, but with my nervous, agitated, utterly tormented Fasma” (quoted in Cappello 138). Embellishing this citation, Cappello adds,
This is the nineteenth-century stereotype of the feminine as seen by science and culture. The female is constitutionally “fragile” and thus easy prey for hysteria—the more so in that female sensibility is, as it were, physiologically connected to a design of the “nervous mechanism” more intricate than the male’s and covered by a more delicate skin. (138)
Exactly. The science of the day had joined literature in banishing romantic sentimentality and irrationality to the female organism, by and large. To purge one’s heart of toxically sentimental inclinations, therefore—and, at the same time, to lament the loss of something exquisitely gentle—one had only to find an especially feminine female, release her into the “real world” (as a scientist might lift a door in the rat’s labyrinth), and note the successive stages of the pale creature’s anguishing decline. Objectivity by one name… blood rite by another.
Besides the rather theatrical exploitation of the macabre which one finds in authors like Auguste Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam (author of Contes Cruels), the most pitiless immolation of the female scapegoat—much the most among genuinely realist writers—appears in the works of Gabriele D’Annunzio. I mentioned the tortured character Orsola above (in La Vergine Orsola) very briefly above. The longest novella in Novelle della Pescara, this disturbing work minutely traces a devout young woman’s recovery from typhoid fever and concurrent awakening to her long-repressed sensuality. Though her life remains tightly cloistered, Orsola finds occasion to draw the lascivious stare of a dashing officer—but it is not he who will deflower her. Rather, the squalid knave who serves as their go-between takes advantage of a quiet afternoon and Orsola’s state of semi-dress to rape her. When she later realizes that she is pregnant in consequence of this single unwilling sexual experience, she weighs both suicide and the abortion-inducing drugs of a local medicine man. She opts for the latter. Unfortunately, the herbalist’s wife ministers to Orsola in the man’s absence, and apparently misjudges the dose. The virgin who had received extreme unction only months before and been snatched from death’s grasp now staggers back into town through the impure hands of rude laborers (who assume her to be drunk) to die of excessive bleeding on the first threshold she reaches. A blind old peasant, “believing that the butcher’s mastiff had gotten in, extended his cane to chase it out, and he poked the expiring woman over and over” (101).
The two encounters with death and the extreme agony of the final one may well have been D’Annunzio’s homage to Madame Bovary, for he consciously emulated Flaubert and other French realists (see n. 7 below). Benedetto Croce compared the author’s descriptions of Orsola’s physical state to a medical diagnosis (quoted in Sabbadini 25). These similarities between the French and Italian narratives are much more than a case of literary admiration, I believe. The archetype of the cruelly sacrificed young virgin has clearly traveled across national, linguistic, and to some extent even chronological boundaries (Flaubert’s peak of productivity having anticipated D’Annunzio’s by several decades). A root cause in upbringing or local culture thus seems highly improbable. We see something much more basic here—something about the way European males, particularly, are facing up to the new pressures of modernity.
VII . The Archetype in Other Times and Places
It would be a mistake to seek a full explanation of the femina immolata phenomenon in too narrow a context. I would expect, for instance, that it might be viewed in some quarters as representing a religious crisis. Certainly that dimension has relevance. Cappello, in commenting upon Capuana’s Marchese di Roccaverdina, stresses that the Marchese is haunted by a large crucifix stored away in his cellar, and his torment generally has a spiritual quality which foreshadows the twentieth century’s crisis of faith (127). Otherwise, biblical symbolism is almost universally eschewed in the classics of realism, naturalism, and verismo. D’Annunzio deliberately devalues the Virgin Mary’s associations by naming his protagonist the “Virgin Orsola”; and he repeats the innuendo in La Vergine Anna, whose protagonist dies in the same imbecilic doting of pseudo-religious ecstasy as Flaubert’s Félicité in Un Coeur Simple.7 The qualities implicit in Christianity’s “holy maid”—tenderness, mercy, and hopeful suffering—are indeed consistently disparaged by Flaubert, Ibsen, and all the major authors of the time. Is the femina immolata, then, a crucifixion of the Virgin Mary in compact rejection both of Christ’s divinity and of Christian virtue?
I think not: I think such conclusions are reached entirely too haphazardly in contemporary criticism on the basis of a superficial resonance or two. The real contrast operative in the literature of this time, as we have seen, is not between a male and a female scapegoat (cf. Christ and Mary), but between realist scapegoating and the more fantastical sequence of the Doppelgänger. That the former function is allotted almost always to female characters (and my “almost” does not defer to any specific example within my knowledge, only to its possibility) is simply a measure of the function’s parameters in the nineteenth century. The victim was required to be comely (so as to represent life’s beleaguered aesthetic side), wanting in comprehension (so as to explain how “reality” had failed to corrupt her for the time being), and childishly naïve (so as to account for her foolish straying into a death zone). Reigning assumptions about female nature accommodated these requirements far better than assumptions about male nature.
On the other hand, the male had exclusive run of the schizoid’s province: as the sex expected to wrestle hand-to-hand with quotidian existence, the man would come face-to-face with the incoherence of being—the impossibility of balancing truth and necessity or social success and fulfillment of desire. Having observed earlier that both Ariosto and Cervantes wrote females into very tight spots without ever submitting them to torturous anguish, we should also note the obvious: that the title heroes of their great works are driven mad—are not Jekyll-and-Hyde, yet wander much closer to that dismal border than do Bradamante and Marcela into Emma Bovary’s proximity. In the Europe of realism (if not in Western culture generally), males go mad or “go monster”: females blunder into a suicidal descent mistaking it, every step of the way, for a possible exit.
I might add that the penchant of realist females to commit suicide is really anything but realistic. In contemporary Western society, males tend to succeed at killing themselves (as opposed to “botching” a suicide) about five times as often as females. If we reckon that two major causes of suicide are emotional isolation and financial hardship, and that females of a century ago (at least in the middle class) were screened from both of these pressures far better than they are today, the prominence of female self-destruction in realist fiction is indeed remarkable for its improbability. The explanation, once again, lies clearly in the power of the archetypal sacrifice—the catharsis with which writers are always primarily concerned, no matter how often and loudly they protest their devotion to clinical fact.
I would go so far as to write in these concluding comments that the most fundamental difference between the femina immolata and the Doppelgänger sequences rests not in the former’s being more plausible or objectively presentable, but in the opposing types of catharsis which the two offer to the same anxiety. The consumer of both archetypes is oppressed by the sense that life as it should be lived (honoring truth and beauty) and life as it must be lived (resisting the disastrous high imperatives of the heart) cannot be reconciled. Such racking tension can only be relieved by accepting the coexistence of contradictions—the Janus having one face for public display and another for private spaces—or “killing” fine sentiments when they trespass upon the one real existence. The latter option seems to be favored by the “manly” energies of a culture struggling through such a crisis. (It is no accident, I would argue, that D’Annunzio would end his days lending his prestige to Mussolini’s growing movement.) The more reflective and more bemused, perhaps, prefer the insoluble Riddle of the Two Faces—for merely having formulated the enigma is something in the nature of a solution. Reason is at least given an irrational image in place of a tempestuous chaos.
I will further venture that the truly Christian approach to this tragic incoherence really has no special affinity with the scapegoat, so that examining certain cases of scapegoating with intent to declare them either the Crucifixion or its parody is pure pedantry. At a deeper level, Christianity is fully, painfully aware of the split running through human nature. The witnessing of a sacrifice cannot license a person of faith to dismiss finer feelings as cumbersome, ineffectual, or materially ruinous (or the ignoring of those feelings as “forgiven”, in the parlance). On the contrary, the believer’s rightful place is on the Cross as a comprehending sacrifice: in no other way can Day draw its sinister twin, Night, into daylight. Christianity, in short, combines, modifies, and turns topsy-turvy these ageless archetypes in ways which few among the falsely pious bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century ever imagined, and which realist authors simply did not explore. The stakes of realist literature are not without spirituality, but they interpret the spirit persistently in the positivist terms of an empirical age. Frankly, there is very little intersection between their species of imaginative representation and mature metaphysical belief. A large cross may be collecting dust in the unhappy Marchese’s cellar, but the Cross’s meaning cannot be expressed in the polarities of this age’s map.8
If realism’s tormented females should not be further agonized on a Procrustean bed of quasi-religious criticism, neither should they be narrowly imprisoned within the period of realism—or within Europe itself. I hearkened to the Renaissance for an example of literature wherein female characters toiled under immense social pressure yet without lasting harmful side-effects. One could easily find still other moments in Western history, however, where a very similar immolation of women is often represented by authors—not a literal sacrifice, such as Iphigeneia’s, but an allegorical one, such as Queen Dido’s. Virgil offers us an oddly erotic picture of Dido writhing on her marriage bed cum funeral pyre until Juno gives her a special dispensation to die before her time (Aeneid 4.663-705). The valiant Camilla has an only slightly less protracted end after being pierced by a spear just under her breast (11.801-831). The enigmatic Amata ends up hanging herself after several appallingly irrational transports which leave us wondering if her dedication to making Turnus her son-in-law is an altogether licit fondness; and her daughter Lavinia, at least in metaphor, joins Dido in catching fire from passion.9
Ovid also delighted in fine studies of agonized women, from Daphne to Philomela to Scylla. In fact, there has perhaps never been a more thorough manual of uncomprehendingly tormented female victims, all young, lovely, and relatively guiltless, than what we find in the Metamorphoses.
Ovid’s stock had risen high enough by the early fourteenth century that Dante confidently enrolled him among the great pagan poets passing eternity in Limbo. Rarely is there observable among Ovid’s medieval enthusiasts an appreciation—or even an inkling—of his ironic distance from his sympathetic agonisées. These tortured figures were serious business to the allegory-saturated Quattrocento. About a century earlier, a Norman adaptor of the Aeneid had similarly found such fascination in Dido’s highly suggestive suicide that he decided to “sharpen up” the Virgilian innuendo. The wretched queen is reported—in considerable detail—to burn alive in the pyre’s flames, the sword of Eneas having failed to dispatch her.10 Boccaccio’s Decameron is certainly not devoid of immolated females, either. The Eight Story of the Fifth Day relates how Nastagio degli Onesto witnessed a phantom hunting down his cruel mistress and feeding her entrails to his hounds—a gruesome scene which (the ghost assures Nastagio) is repeated regularly.
The early days of the Roman Empire, the concluding centuries of the Middle Ages… dare I reach so far as post-colonial Africa for yet more examples? They are there, in abundance. To chronicle such cases would be the work both of another essay and of an investigator more knowledgeable than I; but the curious reader might begin with “The Black Girl” (Sembene Ousmane) and “Minutes of Glory” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o). These short stories are in some respects more realist in style than European realism—and one can scarcely charge their authors with sycophantically imitating the art of the oppressor. Few writers of this period in sub-Saharan Africa more vocally denounced the influence of Europe upon their homeland.
IX. The Dubious Future of Comparative Studies
All of this is not to say that nineteenth-century European realism should not be treated as a distinct phenomenon, separated even from American naturalism (about which I have written virtually nothing, owing—once again—to the limits of my expertise). What I intended to argue in the previous section, and no doubt argued hyperbolically in places, is that European realism should not necessarily be considered as hermetically self-contained, either. Quite honestly, I have no very well-developed idea of what Augustan Rome and late-medieval Florence or Normandy might have in common with Victorian England or the new Italian republic—or if the Renaissance of Ariosto and Cervantes might revealingly lack this critical common denominator. My purpose is merely to indicate that such vastly framed questions should be possible for a specialist in the field of Comparative Literature to pursue—possible, and thoroughly enticing. For the crucial first data which hint at the presence of a question here are literary: historical and psychological and even spiritual theories may come after, collaborating or competing to explain the data plausibly—but the original symptom of this exotic species of contagion in the body politic is lengthy literary depiction of anguished young females.
Of course, Comparative Literature as practiced throughout its brief and disappointing history has undertaken no such projects of study. As Hippocrates once exhorted his disciples, “First do no harm,” so the unwritten Comparatist Oath begins, “Resist and deplore universalism in all its forms.” The merciless coinage of this particular –ism was aimed wildly at the vicinity of classical aesthetics, wherein certain qualities (pattern within complexity, subtle shading between bright polarities, the intricate balance of opposite forces, and so forth) were seen as bestowing a beauty appreciable to any developed human intelligence. That a field whose essential purpose was to have been comparing things should clarion, militantly and from the start, the impossibility of an inherently human ground of comparison reveals what inane powers immediately seized control of the designing board. Clearly, human reason—or at least a shared variety of human sentiment based upon the fundamental nature of human perception—had to be ruled out, banished, excommunicated. The sole acceptable (politically acceptable) cause of recurrent phenomena in world literature had to be—by default—certain cultural forces which are not—by definition—fundamental to human nature. Common literary denominators had to indict a conspiracy.
For literary theory in Comparative Literature is always a species of conspiracy theory, for two reasons. The first is that the often very alienated young people who devote themselves exclusively to literary studies in our grossly utilitarian culture take immense solace in reading their lives as the microcosm of an epochal struggle. The second is that conspiracies are circumstantial, and circumstances can always be altered, and the alteration of history to create a utopia never before seen by sublunary eyes is a delightful prospect to the cultural exile. Comparative studies, that is, unmask the past’s villainy and unveil the future’s glory to the unending excitement of people at odds with the present.
To be sure, such academic therapy probably keeps a certain number of Molotov cocktails from flying through the windows of corporate headquarters around the nation. It does not, however, advance our understanding either of the past or of literature. I have sought to demonstrate in the present essay a specific instance of this failure. Nineteenth-century realism is really not bursting with compassion for women at all: it is far more interested in them as central figures in a ritualistic allegory, wherein their part is in fact an anguishing one viewed from a coolly distant remove. We might be happy, I suppose, that some of today’s scholarly women enjoy overlooking the ritual’s masks and paint and discovering in it, rather, an excuse to break into a dance. Maybe the games we play in academe are themselves a necessary—or at least a salutary—ritual which renders our collective existence a little less annoying.
It annoys me, however, that we cannot study art in its own right even as a game devised to placate the strange few who wish to see to the bottom of things. I would stress, by the way (as I did in my introduction), that I do not consider “archetypal criticism” to lie at the bottom of things artistic. My study in this space had veered from artistic data into a speculation about cultural pressures in the early modern Western world. At no point have I equated (or would I equate) the forceful expression of the “immolated female” archetype with the accomplishment of fine art. Eighth-graders in chemistry lab who gather to watch a fly blunder into a tube of poison gas (all of them boys, most likely) are perhaps exorcising that sentimentality which terrifies them in much the same way that Flaubert was slaughtering his inner romantic through Madame Bovary. In terms of vision and humanity, I’m afraid I don’t see Flaubert as having graduated from adolescence—which is a moral judgment, but in being so (as I also opened this paper by pleading) closely akin to aesthetic judgment. The art of realism is simply not Europe’s greatest art. Flaubert, of course, was one of French literature’s finest stylists. Fortunately, there are different criteria involved in satisfying the love of beauty than in passing Chemistry class.
Finally, I hope against hope that some day literary scholars and critics may again divest themselves of their bombastic quasi-scientific posturing. I would infinitely prefer to read an essay replete with literary examples than one saturated in “scholarly references”, for I join Professor Barricelli in believing literary texts to be the atomic particles of our research—not critical theories inter-refracted up and down a dizzying hall of mirrors. In literary studies, the latest theory may prove nothing at all beyond preceding theories: literary judgment does not “build upon” previous literary judgments as empirical research builds upon the latest experiments. Judgments, of course, can go awry. There is an irreducibly subjective element in them. The best corrective to such vulnerability is further exposure to more texts, and still more texts—not a thinning out of relevant texts so as to preserve a favorite theory’s absurdities from daylight. There are gaping deficiencies in my own knowledge of nineteenth-century realism, which is assuredly not my area of special preparation. All the more dismaying, then, when someone like me observes that specialists in this period have neither the slightest inkling of what the Italians (for instance) were doing at the time nor the least interest in finding out.
Far too often, the tail is wagging the dog in comparative work. I will surrender my own theory about the female victim’s true meaning in realist fiction when I see a case presented which overwhelms me with literary evidence rather than theoretical jargon. Not before.
Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.
Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. “A View From Balcony: Perspectives on Comparative Literature in 1995.” The Comparatist 20 (1996): 6-20.
Cappello, Angelo Piero. Invito alla Lettura diLuigi Capuana, Milan: Mursia, 1995.
Danahy, Michael. The Feminization of the Novel. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1991.
D’Annunzio, Gabriele. Le Novele della Pescara. Milano: Mondadori, 1980.
Gerrard, Lisa. “Romantic Heroines in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Feminist View.” International Journal of Women’s Studies 7.1 (1984): 10-16.
Finney, Gail. “Ibsen and Feminism.” The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Ed. James McFarlane. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994: 89-105.
Kennard, Jean E. Victims of Convention. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1978.
Rigney, Barbara Hill. Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978.
Sabbadini, Silvano. “Antologia Critica.” Gabriele D’Annunzio: Le Novelle della Pescara. Milan: Mondadori, 1980: 23-31.
Wiggins, Peter DeSa. Figures in Ariosto’sTapestry: Character and Design in the Orlando Furioso. Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
A Partial Chronology of Primary Texts
1733 Manon Lescaut (Abbé Prévost)
1753 Discours sur l’Origine de l’Inégalité (Rousseau)
1762 Le Neveu de Rameau (Diderot)
1797 Christabel (Coleridge)
1818 Frankenstein (Shelley)
1831 Le Rouge et le Noir (Stendhal)
1857 Madame Bovary (Flaubert)
Several of Baudelaire’s poems condemned
1869 War and Peace (Tolstoy)
1877 Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
Profili di Donne (Capuana)
1879 A Doll’s House (Ibsen)
1880 Boule-de-Suif (Maupassant)
“L’Amante de Gramigna” (Verga)
1881 Malombra (Fogazzaro)
1883 Also Sprach Zarathustra (Nietzsche)
1884 La Vergine Anna (D’Annunzio)
The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde)
1885 Bel Ami (Maupassant)
1886 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stevenson)
1888 es Amants de Tolède” (Villiers de l’Isle Adam)
1889 Il Piacere (D’Annunzio)
The Master of Ballantrae (Stevenson)
1890 Hedda Gabler (Ibsen)
1891 The Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde)
1897 Dracula (Bram Stoker)
1899 The Awakening (Chopin)
Heart of Darkness (Conrad)
“Twenty-Six Men and a Girl (Gorky)
1901 Il Marchese di Roccaverdina (Caouana)
1904 “Dora” (Freud)
1 If I might offer a couple of anecdotal illustrations… in one case, the “rising star” of an elite private college’s English Department composed a program for distribution at a theater production wherein Goethe was said to have been influenced in writing The Sorrows of Young Werther by Schopenhauer—a claim which poses a new obstacle to abortionists, since it requires the human being to exist before the fetus. In another private college of my acquaintance, the English Department’s chair once paraded before the faculty the opus of an “A” student from her senior seminar—wherein was revealed the significant influence exerted upon Kafka’s writings by Nazi concentration camps. This link, of course, though no less metaphysical than that between Goethe and Schopenhauer, would require that Kafka survive his moldering mortal ruins by about two decades and then return to write up his ghostly testimony.
2 In 1857, six poems of Les Fleurs du Mal were legally suppressed and their author stiffly fined. Here I am alluding especially to the work among the six entitled “À celle qui est trop gaie”, in which he fantasizes about surprising a vivacious young coquette in her room one night. I shall write further about this poem later.
3 The phrase is actually employed in the masculine, of the male protagonist in Fogazzaro’s Malombra, Corrado Silla. Since Fogazzaro, despite his chronology, is no realist by any stretch of the imagination, and since Silla is eventually murdered by a crazed incarnation of the romantic heroine, the work is a fascinating commentary-by-contrast on the subject in hand.
4 When I write “political” in this context, I mean that popularity is certainly to be won by affirming of a certain group (in this case, women) that it a) has passively suffered extreme persecution and b) enjoys the natural right of employing self-defensive violence. Yet the terms of such an affirmation are self-contradictory, and hence of no use to analyzing a behavior objectively. A tragos would be incapable of self-defense, by definition—and a martyr would refuse the ability if it were offered. A victim unwillingly deprived of a chance to strike back is not a scapegoat, but a spoil of war.
5 My translation of the second stanza. All of the French and Italian authors from whose works I cite passages hereafter have likewise been subjected to my personal translating, which may sometimes elevate adherence to the text over elegance.
6 Those interested in pursuing the subject could do worse than to look among the works of Walter Burkert, Mircea Eliade, Eric Gans, and René Girard.
6 If sadism seems to strong a word, I will reprise Schadenfreude. In any case, having acquired a certain experience of the practice of Christianity in Appalachia, I can attest that the Crucifixion is usually represented there with emphasis upon the whip, the thorns, the nails, the blood—and that the faithful often register a kind of tearful exhilaration when treated to such gruesome depictions. So a “joyous grief”, I should say, is an integral part of witnessing the scapegoat’s sacrifice.
7 Le Novelle della Pescara, published in 1902, postdates Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) by 25 years. It is difficult to imagine that Anna is not patterned after Félicité, particularly in her death scene. Félicité had expired mistaking the play of sunlight in a window for the descending Holy Spirit; Anna dies in the same brutishly ignorant bliss, sent into rapture by the glinting metal work of an approaching nag’s saddle. D’Annunzio “was thoroughly familiar with French literature, especially with Flaubert whom he admired and cited almost constantly” (Giovanni Gullace, Gabriele D’Annunzio in France: A Study in Cultural Relations [Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1966], 10). Hence the debt is a virtual certainty—and it reflects a deliberate choice, I would stress, to replicate one of the most acidly derisive portraits of religious faith in literature. If the ultimate torture is to tantalize the victim with relief that turns out to be illusory, these arm’s-length studies of cretinous ecstasy on the ash heap may fairly be judged to represent victims just beneath the intelligence-threshold required for sadistic exploitation.
8 I am compelled to note, reluctantly, that the foregoing discussion is of how the Christian faith ought to be practiced. I do not deny that certain denominations or pockets of culture favor a heavy emphasis of the Crucifixion as the ultimate-but-ageless Scapegoat. The intent of Christian ritual was historically both to appropriate archetypal forms of worship and to channel them toward higher rather than lower human nature—to end their sway, that is, as well as to assume their old robes. Yet sometimes old wine skins are preferred to new ones.
9 Cui plurimus ignem / subiecit rubor et calefacta per ora cucurrit (Aen. 12.65-66).
10 Cf. ll. 2119-2124: “The flame had drawn so close to her / Her arm was severed from her body, / Her fair skin both lovely and tender / Could not defend itself from fire; / She flames and smolders and turns black. / In little time she melts away.”
Work, Holidays, Leisure, Recreation, and the Search for Meaning in Late Modernity
Mark Wegierski is a freelance Canadian journalist working out of Toronto . His book reviews and essays about pop culture, science fiction, and political and economic theory have frequently appeared in Praesidium.
This article will be looking at some issues around work, holidays, leisure, and recreation in late modern societies—mostly focussing on the United States , Canada , and Western Europe .
We should begin, first of all, by looking at holidays as they existed in earlier societies, and trying to distinguish between a few main types of holiday as they exist today. In the English language, the word “holiday” is derived from the word “holy day”. In earlier European societies, traditional holidays were usually bound up with the Christian religion—or what could be considered a social-cultural-religious-political complex called “Christendom”. Like with many other religious traditions on the planet, the Christian holidays (in addition to their explicitly religious provenance) were organically tied to nature and the rhythm of the seasons. Christmas represented the point when the Sun (the source of life) began to return—with the days slowly growing longer after the nadir of the Winter Solstice. Easter, which fell in the spring, was obviously tied to the rebirth of nature after the winter. Like in many other religious traditions, the Christian holidays were either tied to mortification (Advent, Lent) or, of course, feasting and celebration (Christmas and Easter). Indeed, the term “feast-days” was used for major Christian holidays. There was also the regular “pause-day” of Sunday—when work was definitely frowned upon. Insofar as the Industrial Revolution tended to break down the organic, mostly agriculture-based rhythm of life set by the Christian calendar, Christianity has tended to wither, although it did bravely endeavor to take the fight to the cities, so to speak, as exemplified in the De Rerum Novarum encyclical of Pope Leo XIII.
There are all sorts of interesting social, psychological, and health-related reasons for fasting, and for prohibitions against certain types of foods. Obviously, the period of Lent fell in the period of scarcity of late Winter and early Spring, when there was often very little food available. The ban on red meat on Fridays encouraged the healthy consumption of fish. Most interestingly, the Polish Wigilia (Christmas Eve celebration) combines elements of restraint and exuberance—the ban on red meat, but of course the hope of having a filling feast of (among other foods) fish. Wigilia has been a very special time for Poles; and it has been noted that, even in the direst of circumstances, such as in Soviet slave labor camps, Poles tried somehow to mark the holiday.
With the emergence of sharply defined nations from the Middle Ages, there arose a series of patriotic, so-called national holidays that marked momentous occasions in the life of a given nation. In Polish national life, these have come to include such holidays as May 3rd (commemorating the Constitution of 1791—a brave attempt to reform the Polish state before the night of the long Partition period set in), and November 11th (commemorating Poland’s regaining of national independence in 1918, after 123 years under Partition).
Another aspect of holidays is that of joyful recreation, which sometimes moves into a “transgressive” edge. This can be seen in the Roman Saturnalia, the medieval Lords of Misrule, and the Carnival before Lent. Premodern societies were, of course, normally characterized by very severe strictures on behaviors and multifarious levels of hierarchy. The brief “carnival” type of period was probably very important psychologically in making the other times of the year somewhat more bearable. A rather interesting holiday in the Irish tradition was Halloween, which later came to America and Canada .
It cannot be denied that life in premodern periods was often far harsher than it is today. The amount of time available for so-called leisure and recreation in premodern societies for the majority of the population—such as, for example, the poorer peasants –was usually nugatory.
From one perspective, it could be argued that disposable leisure hours have vastly increased, especially in countries like America and Canada . Nevertheless, as in the case of many tendencies in this confusing and contradictory period of late modernity, one could perceive a “hypertrophy” in the advance of the amount of time available for leisure and recreation, as well as a massive withering of what is considered the meaning of a “holiday” today: i.e., the abundance of such time may be both excessive and unhealthy.
Obviously, with the decline of the sacred in Western societies, the august, sublime aspects of religious as well as national holidays have vastly diminished. At the same time, the advance of technology and commercialism has made a “24-7” trading mentality ever more prevalent and actually possible. The “market” seems to demand that commercial activities must go on without interruption. At the same time, there has occurred a massive commercialization of such holidays as Christmas, where it is expected that young children, for example, will receive computers, cell-phones, or MP3 players as gifts. There is also a war in America and Canada being waged by the “politically correct” against the use of traditional terms such as “Merry Christmas”—which is supposedly “offensive” to non-Christians. The Afrocentrists in America invented in the 1960s a ridiculous holiday called Kwanzaa, which is supposed to counteract the “whiteness” of Christmas. An example of a long-standing national holiday in the U.S. which has been virtually annihilated by “political correctness” is Columbus Day. So “holidays”—as they have been traditionally understood—are under a many-sided assault.
The “hypertrophy” of leisure and recreation mainly occurs as a result of the cretinization or stupefaction of large portions of the American and Canadian population by a combination of factors which it is sometimes difficult to fully identify. There is the idiotic pop-culture, the failure of schools, libraries and other cultural institutions to nurture an appropriate “counter-ethic”, and the valorization of the lowest sorts of tastes and needs as equally valid with those involving reflection, contemplation, and real human sympathy.
The official unemployment rates in Canada and the United States (which may in fact be somewhat understated) are usually about 8% and 5%, respectively. These are, after all, societies of great prosperity, where the presence of pockets of poverty is probably greatly exaggerated by the media. The economic situation for very many people in Poland , Ukraine , or Russia , is clearly far, far worse. It is not very popular to state that much of the poverty in Canada and the United States is a subjective state that usually afflicts either those with severe mental problems (about 50% of the homeless are former mental patients whose “de-institutionalization” has probably been of rather dubious benefit to them) or those with various character problems. Since the discourse of character and responsibility has largely disappeared from Canadian and American society, the afflicted are not likely to find encouragement to change their ways.
There has usually been a very broad variety of employment available in Canada and the United States . The employment situation is curiously contradictory. For example, the “white-collaring” of most available work has not necessarily served the interests of those in the traditional working class who would probably be happy and competent working in the factory. It should also be remembered that around 45% of the population in Canada and the United States has some kind of post-secondary education—but the corollary of that is that the true meaning of such an education has greatly diminished. It has been estimated that, in America today, a person with a B. A. degree is roughly on the knowledge level of a high school graduate in 1951.
What is to be noticed is that there is virtually no discernible drive for self-cultivation among most of the persons in Canada and the United States who receive welfare support that is vastly more generous than that available, for example, in Poland or other East-Central European societies. (Except for the retirement pensions of certain former state officials, we should not delude ourselves about the “generosity” of the “welfare-state” in Poland , or other East-Central European societies.) Whether because of deficiencies of character or the stupefying nature of the mass-media and mass-education system, the typical welfare recipients are sunk into a morass of apathy.
Turning to the so-called middle classes in North America , one often finds some modicum of technical skills or competence, combined with unbelievable levels of shallowness, and the willingness to follow “politically correct” fads like sheep, regardless of common sense and human nature. Among many of the wealthier persons, and even among so-called “creative types” or “intellectual types”, one finds astounding levels of shallowness and faddish political conformity.
There are some people in North American society, such as “the working poor”, who are working very hard indeed. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, many Americans are extremely hard-working. There are many jobs at the lower end of the social scale that may not be particularly pleasant, yet many Americans work diligently at them. They are not shirkers. Hard work in America is frequently enough “rewarded” by the company’s outsourcing of one’s job abroad (typically to China) or the “in-sourcing” of one’s work at two levels: the more menial jobs go mostly to illegal Mexican immigrants, while computer industry jobs typically go to persons brought in from the Indian subcontinent, frequently on the basis of the so-called H1-B visas. Indeed, most U.S. corporations are international or transnational in their outlook and mentality. The ones that are more “national” in orientation are likely to be part of the “military-industrial complex”—i.e., their “patriotism” is flagrantly contingent on their receipt of lucrative government contracts rather than based on any more intrinsic love of the country and its people.
There are also such occupational groups as lawyers or stockbrokers, who are well rewarded financially, but work punitive hours. One wonders whether they are natural “workaholics” or if they are driven by the need for more and more money to support a ever more lavish lifestyle. On the other hand, there are some occupations where the work is comparatively light and lackadaisical. In Canada , for example, it is very common for those not working at government jobs to despise civil servants, whose positions are seen as rather cushy. Some have snidely argued that most government jobs in Canada could disappear without having any negative impact on the society; that, in fact, considering the meddlesome social engineering the government frequently engages in, the loss of such would probably improve Canada socially and culturally.
Paradoxically, we are seeing – in different parts of current-day society—such trends as “the end of work”; “the rise of leisure and recreation”; and “the end of leisure” -- at virtually the same time.
Although Western Europeans are considered to be devoted to their recreation and leisure, relative to North Americans, the current-day Western European embrace of recreation and leisure does not appear to be leading to much of an intellectual and cultural renaissance. Most Western Europeans seem just as sunk in “vidiocy” and pop-culture drivel as the stereotypical American. About the best that can usually be achieved is that “sophisticated” Western Europeans become epicures rather than gourmands in their self-indulgent decadence.
It’s clear that a given culture can be evaluated not only by the nature of its work, but by the nature of its holidays, leisure, and recreation. Even at the most stratospheric heights of wealth, one finds unbelievable shallowness. The life of Hollywood movie-stars, rock- and rap-stars, and sport-stars seems to finds its very definition in its “lowness” and “baseness”. Then there is the “billionaire serf” phenomenon—typified by Bill Gates. Not only does he have to spend a huge amount of time and effort to keep his company “on top”: he pretty well has to kow-tow to various politically correct shibboleths to keep aggressive government prosecutors off his back. This means such things as billions of dollars in scholarships to “minority youth”. The most intelligent and reflective billionaire of recent times was probably Sir James Goldsmith.
It does appear today that the reflective, humanities-oriented traditionalist has become a “superfluous person”. While such types often do not have an aptitude for the technical, scientific, or medical—which can usually assure a good income today–they also do not fit well into the “organizational culture” in government, in business, in the current-day humanities and social sciences, in increasingly technicized professions, in law, and in the media.
Nevertheless, apart from such somewhat “esoteric” examples, life in Canada and America is comparatively easy for most people. Towards the lower end of the social scale, it often resembles the life of the lower castes in Huxley’s Brave New World—a period of comparatively light work, and then “entertainment” unencumbered by any sense of the sacred, religion, history, or tasteful restraint. For the higher castes, it is pretty close to the admonition of the Brave New World society, “we should be adults at work, and infants at play.” It has also become possible, to a greater extent than in any earlier period in human history, to “take one’s holiday” in a location very remote from where one usually lives. Hence we see the flooding of Western tourists into various well- and less-trodden vacation spots. What then occurs could be called the “touristification” of indigenous cultures. One possible attitude to the explosion of tourism is that a mind and soul that is mostly empty upon embarking on the tourist trip is not suddenly going to become richly endowed after a trip to even the most spectacular cultural and natural vistas.
One of the main underpinnings of the issue of work vs. holiday today is the clearly “unbalanced” nature of late modernity. Today, some people are still working hard out of sheer necessity, others are working hard because work simply fills up the meaninglessness of their lives, while others are working hardly. It could be pointed out that the ever more raucous and “transgressive” celebration of holidays such as Halloween unbalances the psyche. A social commentator has described current-day America as a “carnival culture”. There was a famous song in the 1980s (by the rock-group Ministry) that proclaimed “that Halloween is every day.” In premodern societies, a comparatively short period of “carnival” offered a necessary psychological relief to the harsh strictures and multifarious hierarchies of those societies. Yet today, what possible social and psychological purpose is served by non-stop “partying” and self-indulgence—especially among popular celebrities? One also notices that life among university students (recently portrayed almost stereotypically in Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons) has become especially raucous and base. We are very far from the times of medieval clerks in the current-day academy, and the Lords of Misrule cannot reign every day of the year.
The issue of finding the so-called balance between work and play is largely conditioned by the fact that most people exist in a vacuum of meaninglessness in late modernity. For many people, work takes up time, and recreation takes up time, but there is a hollow core at the center of their existence. For some people, the curiously uneven dictates of “the market” mean that they cannot sacrifice hours that might otherwise be given to more creative labor; while others, no matter how successful they are at their career, or, in fact, how immensely wealthy they become, would not rise above a culturally vapid and shallow level through any expenditure of time. There is a certain distinct harshness in NOT being able to have one’s creative labor comparatively well rewarded on the so-called “open market”. “Yes, but how much does it PAY?” is a harsh, goading question—and it is pretty well an absolute taboo in Anglo-American societies to ask a person how much money he makes. The upholding of the taboo is probably out of the recognition that pay is usually considered the most important social indicator. One possible response to the crass calculus of orienting oneself to “the practical” or “the technical” or “the politically expedient” is the possibility that a kind of “cunning of reason” operates in society, where even the most supposedly “impractical” interests—if they are truly sincerely and diligently pursued—will eventually be somehow rewarded, perhaps even in financial terms. We cannot all be doctors, lawyers, technical workers, or MBA graduates. Ironically, it could be argued that the current-day frenzy for business studies (such as management and marketing) that is taking place in such countries like Poland , has reduced the concrete value of most such studies in the job-market to almost zero.
Nevertheless, regardless of the “practical” dictates of “finding a job”, most persons are well served by going on the path of a search for meaning through reflection and self-cultivation. It may be remembered that, in premodern societies, “the holiday” often constituted a reminder of the sacred. With society collectively having mostly lost that sense of “holiday” today, most of us are reduced to being individual seekers after something that will give meaning to our lives—whether in our work, holidays, leisure, or recreation.
What Remains Creative in the Heritage of Marx’s Thought
In the United States and Canada , the main holiday honoring workers, Labor Day, is celebrated on the first Monday of September—to avoid the radical connotations of May Day. However, in Europe and other parts of the world, May Day continues to be enthusiastically celebrated by various socialist and far left parties. In commemoration of Labor Day, this article will be examining that which may have been authentic and insightful in Marx’s ideas.
Karl Marx (and his intellectual collaborator and patron, Friedrich Engels) established a heritage of thought which is said today to be almost universally discredited, yet which has both today and historically also attracted a surprising variety of supporters and defenders, across virtually the entire conventional spectrum of left, right, and center. It could be argued that the Marxian tradition is more multivalent than its identification with the former East Bloc system, nominally called “Communist”, suggests. The article below endeavors, with a certain critical distance, to avoid both the simplistic condemnation of Marx common among some anti-Communists, and the panegyrics which were de rigueur in the former Eastern Bloc. The latter, along with the various depredations of the system, have today reduced Marx’s intellectual cachet far more in East-Central Europe than in the United States, Canada, and Western European societies that never experienced that “worker’s paradise”.
There are a number of interpretations of Marx’s thought which may be termed “mainline”—and a number which may be termed “dissident”. Intellectually speaking, Marx brought a certain zest into political philosophy, as well as a sharp style of writing that tries tenaciously to “get at” what certain political and philosophical pronouncements “actually say”. He may indeed be characterized as one of the modern “masters of suspicion”. Among Marx’s most famous statements is this very revealing judgment: “All of the philosophers have tried to describe the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Marx combined—in what was at that time a new, interesting way—philosophical thinking, the claim of being scientific, and what should honestly be called “ideology” or “polemics”. Some of the “mainline” aspects of Marx’s thought may include his central concept of the human desire for liberation, the ferocious condemning of economic inequality, a doctrinaire atheism, materialism, and hatred of traditional religion. It may be remembered that Marx’s chosen motto for his doctoral thesis was the quote from Shelley’s Prometheus: “Above all, I hate all the gods.”
Lenin’s elaboration of Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” seemed to be little more than a carte blanche for the exercise of power of a narrow ruling group that was supposed to be putting Marx’s egalitarian dreams into reality, but in fact ended up in horrific violence. To borrow the Marxian terminology, the “ideological superstructure” of the promise of the Communist utopia at the end of the road—where the state would famously “wither away”—failed utterly to reflect the reality of the brutal, coercive, totalitarian “base”. The fact that Soviet Marxism-Leninism and Maoism arose in “backward” societies like Russia and China may suggest that they had more in common with what Marx had disparagingly termed “the Oriental mode of production” than “scientific socialism”. The depredations of the North Korean, North Vietnamese, and Pol Pot regimes are comparatively well known today. The reception of Marxism in Africa also led to massacres, and usually intensified the deep problems of those societies. In Latin American societies, Marxism appeared to have acquired an almost romantic mystique, as typified by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Among the leading early-twentieth-century social-democratic re-interpreters of Marx was Bernstein—who largely launched the main lines of Marx’s interpretation by Western social democratic parties.
The reception of Marxism in America , Canada , and Western European countries was somewhat different from that in Russia . In the former societies, it seemed truly to have vast intellectual cachet and was apparently based on the appeal to “liberation” and “decent values”. The “liberation” aspects—especially in regard to the so-called Sexual Revolution—were given a huge play in the 1960s and post-1960s period, whereas over several decades of the twentieth century many people believed that what was imprecisely called Communism was simply about ensuring a decent life for the laboring masses. It was ignored that the imposition of Soviet Communism on Russia and especially on the East-Central European countries during World War II and its aftermath proceeded by means of mass slaughter and massive intellectual and cultural annihilation of indigenous national and religious traditions.
The apparent paradox of the highly disciplined Marx-inspired parties and movements had also acquired the admiration of the far right in various European countries, especially France and Germany . More decent ultra-traditionalists such as Oswald Spengler looked to the socialist parties as vehicles for conservative social restoration, whereas the extremal German Nazis (National Socialists) identified with the harsh, totalitarian, and anti-Jewish and anti-Polish aspects of the Soviet Communist regime. It may be remembered that between August 1939 to June 1941, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were close allies, united by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The admiration of the Nazis for the Soviet regime was, of course, mostly for reasons different from those of the legions of Western liberal “pilgrims” who genuflected before Stalin because they perceived Soviet Communism as realizing the “progressive” utopia.
Among the more fruitful re-interpretations of Marxism were those carried out by the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer et al.). The Frankfurt School has now emerged as a curiously bivalent tradition, which has inspired some of the most serious critics of what is considered the current-day “managerial-therapeutic regime” (such as Paul Piccone, the editor of the New York-based scholarly journal, Telos)—as well as providing one of the strongest “props” for that system, the theory of “the authoritarian personality”. The psychological critique of “personality” at its most pointed considers “authoritarian” political identifications a form of mental illness to be eradicated by mass-conditioning, and, if it is discovered in a person, to be “cured” by semi-coercive “therapy”. However, the Frankfurt School deep-level critique of consumerist, consumptionist society—which could be seen as one of their main contributions to intellectual inquiry—is clearly evocative of traditionalist cultural conservatism.
Another fruitful re-interpretation of Marx’s thought can be seen among the so-called “social conservatives of the Left”—such as William Morris, Jack London, George Orwell, and Christopher Lasch. In an age of a pre-totalitarian and pre-politically correct Left, John Ruskin, an aesthetic and cultural critic, could say, “I am a Tory of the sternest sort, a socialist, a communist.” However, it should be pointed out that these figures could probably be placed more in the ambit of “utopian socialism”, “guild-socialism”, or “feudal socialism”—tendencies which were polemically condemned in Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto. Another interesting off-shoot of Marx’s thought is the Syndicalist system represented by Georges Sorel, as well as by varieties of Anarchist ideas. The Papal encyclical De Rerum Novarum certainly was a reaction to Marx’s thought. It is apparent that the so-called “Catholic social teaching” tried to embrace what were seen as the positive aspects of Marx’s critique of capitalism and of extreme social inequality, while avoiding its iconoclastic radicalism and possibility of abuse by power-hungry ideologues. G. K. Chesterton’s Distributism and C. H. Douglas’s theory of Social Credit were two attempts to maintain the rights of decent small-property holders and workers against the depredations of monopoly finance-capital without recourse to violent dictatorship.
It has often been said that Marx’s critique of the iniquities of nineteenth-century capitalism was on the mark, but that his proposed solutions had turned out to be horrible in practice. Given the apparent irrelevance of “classical Marxism” by the 1960s—especially in regard to such areas as its underdeveloped theories of psychology, art, religion, and literature, and its thin materialism—there arose varieties of “neo-Marxism”. The presence of “neo-Marxism” allowed for the countering of the more common criticisms of earlier Marxist thought, which were now simply categorized as describing a “vulgar Marxism” that the new Marxist theorists did not themselves hold. In the attempt to “rescue” a more subtle Marx, great attention was paid to Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. There were also, among the leading innovations of neo-Marxism—especially as seen in the thought of Frantz Fanon—the embrace of social outcasts, racial and sexual minorities, and the Third World in the face of what were characterized as the “embourgoeoified” white working classes. What classical Marxism had disparagingly termed “the lumpenproletariat” now became to a large extent the focus of revolutionary energies for the neo-Marxist theorists.
Also important for neo-Marxism was Antonio Gramsci, whose claim to fame was the idea—in contrast to classical Marxism—that the “ideological superstructure” would actually bring into being the social and economic facts of “the base”: hence the need for “an intellectual war of position” and “the march through the institutions” in order “to capture the culture”. The existence of, and need to engage in, “cultural warfare” can be seen as an idea with great influence in virtually every part of today’s political spectrum.
While remaining within the broad confines of Marxist class categories, one may argue that what actually was happening in the 1960s “revolutions” in America was the creation by the now-deracinated haute bourgeoisie of new ideological structures that would allow it to re-establish its dominance over the working majority. The triumph of the working majority in America—when a factory-worker was able, by his own labor, to earn enough to support his wife and family—was to be short-lived. These new ideologies combined counter-cultural lifestyles, mass media saturation, juridical and administrative social engineering, consumerism, and corporate capitalism, which led to ensuring again the dominance of a narrow ruling group. Policies such as mass, dissimilar immigration and (as it is is now called) outsourcing were driven by the impulse to strengthen the consumerist-capitalist system—a system which was, of course, much different from nineteenth-century bourgeois capitalism.
Paul Edward Gottfried, a leading U.S. paleoconservative theorist, has argued that the Communists in the Soviet Union and East-Central Europe , as well as Communist party members in Western Europe , were to a large extent socially conservative. Indeed, the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), as the Communist party was formally called in Poland , had certain nationalist elements after 1956. It may be remembered that the quasi-Trotskyite opponents to the PZPR in the 1960s characterized the PZPR as “too nationalist”, “too traditionalist” and “too conservative”—in fact, they openly called it “fascist”. Indeed, it could be argued that the main thrust of the Mensheviks, Trotsky and his disciples, and such figures as Rosa Luxembourg has been to be more consistently anti-nationalist, anti-traditionalist, and anti-conservative than “mainline” Communism.
Gottfried’s central argument is that, as the Communist and former Communist Parties in Western and East-Central Europe mostly embraced capitalism, consumerism, multiculturalism, and anti-national high immigration policies, they objectively became less, not more “conservative”. The East-Central European Communist Parties’ embrace of capitalism also appears to have been characterized by the phenomenon of what is called “the empropertyment of the former nomenklatura” (in Polish: uwlaszczenie nomenklatury)—which was mainly achieved through the sell-out of state industries to former Communist party insiders and foreign companies at ridiculously low prices. So the former Communist party insiders have in many cases become fabulously wealthy, capitalist bosses.
It had also been argued in the 1970s and 1980s that the Soviet and Eastern European Communist regimes—with their “ruling Party caste” (nomenklatura)—were ripe for a “true Communist revolution”. Indeed, in many Western countries –though probably to a lesser extent in Poland itself—much of the rhetorical appeal of the Solidarity movement (which was said to be truly representing the Polish working class) was based on echoes of Marxist thought.
However, what can be said of the situation today, when the economic “shock-therapy” which supposedly represents capitalism has bitten hard, especially in Poland ? The contrasts of wealth and poverty in Poland have arguably increased beyond anything seen during the People’s Republic of Poland ( PRL ). It could be rhetorically asked, is now actually the time for a “true Communist revolution” in Poland ?
One of the most interesting interpreters of Marxism of Polish background—who seems to have moved through various Marxist phases, but has now apparently embraced elements of moderate conservatism—is Leszek Kolakowski.
It could be argued that Marxism, like most ideological systems, conveys a partial truth. In the nineteenth century, who could in good conscience support the exploitation of decent working people by various luxuriously living overlords? Serious and reflective traditionalist thought had always been opposed to the cruel impositions of various iniquities. The arising of the labor movement in the nineteenth century was precisely what was needed to counter the monstrous power of capital. In the minds of many Western liberals, Communism became associated with “decent values”. As an elderly British female spy, recently caught, said of the Soviet Communists, “They only wanted to give medicine and food to their people.” Obviously, what has happened is that the idealism of nineteenth-century workers’ protests were grotesquely transferred to Stalin’s regime. Interestingly enough, the Western apologists for the Soviet Union were virtually at their apogee precisely during what was later called the Stalinist period. It appears that when the Soviet Union was at its most “utopian”—and claiming to create “a new human life”—support for it was the strongest among Western intellectuals. After it had become more authoritarian (for example, under Brezhnev) rather than totalitarian, it no longer excited the same degree of enthusiasm among Western intellectuals. One does see today, however, a return to aggressive defenses of Soviet Communism—and even of Stalin—among some Western Marxist intellectuals.
In the twentieth century, Western societies have moved through various wrenching social revolutions and transformations whose radical nature is not always apparent to observers. In today’s consumerist, consumptionist society in America , the labor struggle is usually seen as part of a broader, left-liberal coalition of rich liberals and “recognized minority leaderships”. Traditionalists and members of the so-called “disaligned Left” such as Christopher Lasch would be hoping for a renewed labor struggle that could be detached from doctrinaire left-liberalism—and from its putative acceptance of the ruling structures of the current-day managerial-therapeutic regime.
If one is looking for what might be good in Marx-inspired thought, there is clearly the aspect of social protest against exploitation. There is also the notion of comradely struggle for a better world. At the same time, persons struggling against injustice must be careful to identify properly what true injustice and victimization actually consist of, and to avoid falling into the trap of excessively ranging ressentiment. For example, before the 1960s, the social democrats in most Western countries (such as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party in Canada), while ferociously fighting for equality and the betterment of the working majority, accepted most elements of traditional nation, family, and religion as simply a part of pre-political existence, which they had no desire to challenge. They were thus economically socialist, but socially conservative. The causes which animate much of today’s Left (such as multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, and cultural antinomianism), would have probably disgusted many of them. There is clearly something inappropriate happening when a wealthy, privileged left-liberal condemns a decent, careworn working man for the latter’s supposed racism, sexism, or homophobia.
In today’s world, when capitalism, as exemplified by globalization, is so overwhelmingly international (or transnational) and anti-traditional, perhaps the more independent-minded and less politically-correct Left should be re-examining the importance of nations, nationalism, and nationhood, as well as various traditionalisms, as part of the possible resistance to the incipient hypermodern dystopia.
An Interview with Michael Lythgoe, the Poet of Brass
John R. Harris
Lt. Col. Michael Hugh Lythgoe, USAF (Retired), has served helpfully and faithfully on the board of The Center for Literate Values since its inception. We were therefore eager to announce his new chapbook of poems, Brass, published this year by The Poetry Society of South Carolina (in Charleston ). The 32-page volume contains 18 poems about… well, about the intricacy and fragility of human existence, exposed often by the stresses of war or the concentration of art. Unhappily, I could not “sit down” with Col. Lythgoe and discuss his poems, some of which (such as the title piece) appeared in Praesidium. We did the next-best thing: we engaged in a conversation-like exchange by e-mail, which I have presented below with minimal editing.
JH: One thing that fascinates me about your poems with clearly wartime settings—or at least settings tense with potential destruction—is that they seem to morph into the natural or the homespun without any sense of irony. The title poem, “Brass”, which we published in Praesidium, is very much like this.
Before Qaddafi’s coup
Toppled King Idris in Tripoli ,
Gunnery ranges at Wheelus
Suffered daily strafing runs.
F-4 Phantoms and Super Sabres
Pitched their practice bombs
At desert targets….
Bedouins on their camels
Came scouring for the brass
Spewed from fighter planes,
Hauled off huge bomb casings,
Breaking them for crafts.
Next morning, in the alleys
Of the souk, Arab craftsmen
Beat the brass, melding metal
Into beveled trays—tattooed with
Islamic mosques, scimitars—
Treasures for the airmen’s wives.
Have you ever thought about the implications of this odd balance? What I mean is this, in terms of “Brass”. The beautiful trays crafted from bomb casings do not appear to me to undermine or diminish or in any way impugn the soldier’s job. Of course, their origins are immensely ironic—but the greatest irony seems to me to be that there is no irony of the expected sort. The irony lies, rather, in the hint that the evolution from shell casing to platter is almost natural. Do you think your poems are a kind of defense of the soldier’s task in that they integrate him into the vast cycle of things?
ML: The writer often learns something of his or her own work from the reader. I do not consider myself very ironic—not like former poet laureate Billy Collins, who writes with much irony and frequently much humor. In “Brass” I was conscious of the idea of swords into plowshares. Brass shells into artwork by Muslims who sell to Christians who left the brass shells in the Arab desert. There was also, back in 1969 when I was in Libya , right before Libya had its coup and the USAF left, a story told around the base at Wheelus. The story passed around that at night some super Arab with a camel would clean up large bomb shapes and carry them off in the night for scrap metal or whatever. I was vaguely aware of the story, since I had sat in the tower (like a forest ranger fire tower) monitoring fighters practicing strafing runs and bomb runs on targets in the empty, hot desert gunnery range. I have kept a brass tray in our home since that trip to Libya . I loved the thought of recycling part of a weapons system into art. I also have had my obsession with the art of the craftsman—since the
poet too tries to make things that last but in words, breath. I like the word brass—since it carries several meanings, that may have some irony.
This past week end, I met a former AF pilot who flew F-100s and served in Vietnam in 1966, and then in Libya while assigned to the UK . He was in one of the squadrons of the 31st TFW, as I once was. During a party someone mentioned Malta —and I said Malta (not Knights Templar) always reminded me of units flying there for duty-free booze. The fighter pilot said one of the pilots flying out of Wheelus shooting at a drone target being towed by another airplane flew into the debris and his jet engine shut down. The pilot bailed out over the Med and the rescue search was called off. It is very hard to see a tiny one-man dinghy in the big sea. Then a day or two later a transport flying to Malta out of Wheelus spotted the pilot floating—and got him rescued. The irony was saving a life while on a booze run for a party for fighter pilots. A very AF story. I floated in one of those small rafts with some of my pilots on a water survival course during temporary duty to Wheelus.
Later, of course, we sent the F-111 fighter-bombers in to kill Qaddafi, after his “finger prints” were detected in a bombing against airmen in Germany . He survived and then assisted or arranged for the bombing of flight 103 over Lockerbie , Scotland . An Eye For An Eye. I believe we in the military understand that kind of warfare… not that we like it when our airplanes get bombed from the sky. But we fight warriors as warriors, or fight terrorists as warriors.
JH: Perhaps the irony, then, is in the subject rather than the speaker. One destroys to defend, and one interrupts the patterns of domestic life in order to save them. I don’t know if it’s simply a result of my having written so much about the French aviator/author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry… but I often thought of his work while reading yours. The one book of Saint-Ex’s which is expressly about war is Pilote de Guerre—translated as Flight to Arras for some reason. (The translation came out in this country before the French original appeared in Europe . Would you believe that the Nazi censors allowed it to circulate for about a year before snapping it up?) Anyway, probably none of his other books is so crammed with references to his childhood, his home, his upbringing, his family, his favorite housemaid Paula who folded all the linens. I learned things about him from that little volume which I would only otherwise have found in a thick biography. It was the war which brought it all out of him—the so-called drole de guerre when the French front lines were being rolled back so fast that pilots didn’t know if they would still have a landing strip after finishing their mission. The near chaos of the situation sensitized him to quiet little civilized things, like a fountain in a village square, which he would otherwise have taken for granted.
ML: I have not read as much of Saint-Exupéry as I should. Your tributes to his writings are compelling. But I do like the references to how the pilot’s war is not the war of the foot soldier. To lose an air strip in the battle and have to recover somewhere other than where you took off is a very different kind of war than the one we waged in Vietnam . While not a pilot, I did fly with army choppers in combat, and with Forward Air Controllers in light unarmed aircraft (01-Birddog) marking targets and doing reconnaissance for the pilots of my squadron, who flew fast jets like the F-100. I also spent time on the ground with US advisors and South Vietnamese Rangers in the delta while our squadron flew close air support for their ground operations. The sense of combat and loss and destruction always makes the moment of silence, the little civilized moments in a peaceful atmosphere—a meal in a restaurant, a visit to a temple—so very meaningful. I can remember school children in white walking to school in Thailand on my first visit out of South Vietnam in 1965. I can also remember flying back to Bien Hoa on a Sunday afternoon over rice paddies and the Mekong after seeing days of combat in the Mekong Delta. It was so quiet and peaceful, and the landscape was like an embroidery of a dragon on a silk robe.
Unfortunately, we do destroy places and people in order to save them. As awful as that sounds, we have had to fight insurgents who deliberately try to become part of the civilian populations to hide and to use guerilla warfare techniques against the uniformed regular forces. The Israelis faced this enemy in Lebanon last summer. We see them in the cities now in Iraq . We are unable to show a picture or quote a statistic to the world press that erases the maimed child in a picture. The jihadists have a different history and world view, and yet they know how Americans cannot live long with American casualties—or sort out the media coverage of loses and civilian casualty reports.
JH: Of course, several of your poems have nothing whatever to do with martial or military settings—yet the whole seems strangely connected, just as your dragon embroidered on a silk robe is not unconnected, as an image or a Sunday afternoon experience, to the fire=breathing dragon of warfare. In fact, they are so perfectly absorbed into the natural setting that almost the only human presence in them is the poet’s eye registering a magically peaceful scene. Take “Wyeth Country, Overcast”—I’ll cite the first stanza:
The road to Chad ’s Ford snaked with turns.
The sky was threatening; the day cool.
I passed a barn of books and drove
With the Brandywine River in slow time.
Cattle posed for a still-life painting
Lyrical as guitar, flute, and cello.
Landmark in ruins: a stone country home.
Across the road was the artist’s barn, his studio.
These works exist quite comfortably beside others in your little volume. I’ve been asking myself why that is, or how that can be. I recall that when the narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front goes home from war for a brief leave, he ends up piling his whole personal library in the “irrelevant” stack because of what he has discovered about reality. Yet the shift in your poems has nothing of the contrapuntal that I can make out. Usually, nature is full of mystery in your poems, and that mystery usually lies in e hidden transformation under way or shortly to take place. Is this, perhaps, the connection with times of social unrest or political high alert? Perhaps I should just go ahead and cite “Black Holes, Caves & Craters” in its entirety, for it seems to the the quintessence of this paradox:
Long has mankind admired the mortal moon.
So Houston sent astronauts to mark her face,
To sink into the surface of La Luna, near
Her craters, always viewing the lunar face
From afar, from our blue planet. Rover
Sent photos of Sleepy Hollow from Mars.
A supernova exploded in the Hubble Telescope
Leaving a black hole. Only astronomers know
How the star that is gone sucks other matter
In, emitting x-rays. Jupiter’s moon is full
Of holes—Galileo spacecraft shows. Jupiter’s
Moon, Amalthe, looks blasted to bits by
Collisions, intensely bombarded, broken up—
Like parts of our world: the scars, the trenches.
Craters scar jungles, the karst caverns of Lao;
The Marble Mountains near Danang bear scars
Where caves now hold Buddhist shrines Bombs
Still fall from Russian bombers out of Khartoum ;
Muslims bomb Nubian rebels in Sudan . Holes
Have not all healed along the Tigris & Euphrates .
No bird songs sing in Mozambique after the war.
We dug wells for words; sculptors carved holes
For syllables; a Polish Pope worked the rock quarry.
Art is what is left. Mine the rock quarry of the soul.
Put your fingers in the wounds, the Shuttle’s scars
But dream of Capri ’s Blue Grotto, colors reflecting
out of this world. To dive is to pray, to heal, say,
In the sinkholes of Jamaica . Hold a bride’s gift—
Keyhole carved in myrtle wood: A Welsh love spoon.
Holes are not all lunacy, nor all for love & moons.
Do you think there is a confidence in your nature poems that human affairs, too, will continue to go through their seasons? I certainly don’t read in them a stark retreat from a horrid, unnatural human world, even though the human presence is only implicit in them.
ML: When I put the collection together, I made choices I might not have made on another day. I am grateful that it seems now to have been somewhat inspired, a grace, the Holy Ghost. I believe in the seasons, cycles, and in the rituals of the Church. I mixed poems on art with poems about military experience (my military themes are usually some sort of tribute to those who sacrifice or suffer) and poems on Faith. I take solace in the visual world, nature, paintings. But when a poet starts to write about a painting, or a sculpture, he inevitably brings in something else he has on his mind. Usually the ecphrastic work is not all about the inspiration. Usually it reveals something about the poet as well as the painting or painter in question. In the case of Wyeth—I had some notes that one day called to me to rework. I discovered the story of the model Helga caring for the elderly painter; she was herself older. I was moved. It is a very human story. I am getting older. Paintings of nudes take on new meanings somehow. I continue to believe in art and the human spirit despite 9/11, and believe poems (as poet laureate Donald Hall recently told ABC news) teach us to feel different ways at the same time. Our emotions are complicated. Poems let us express the different levels of our feelings, our thoughts. So my poems sometimes move from a narrative line to a tangent path lit by my imagination. When I went into a deep meditation on the subject of “holes” (a writing assignment for a contest), I found myself contemplating the lunar landscape—often associated with Vietnam after B-52 bombings, and space flights, and technology, and other wars still going on. But the AF allowed me to serve in the Caribbean , so I saw Jamaica , and in the UK where I first learned about the Welsh love spoons. My images do not come in linear fashion.
JH: I also wanted to solicit your comments about poetic style. I would call your style very direct. You tend to write in complete sentences, so there is no particular grammatical challenge to deciphering your meaning. The poetic effects are not entirely concentrated upon imagery, however, because you also favor clear, regular stanzaic divisions, and usually a distinct meter. I would call this a style which is the antithesis of the precious. It’s pretty close to the straightforward language of daily life, yet its rigid formal divisions also resist that “spontaneous overflow” kind of verbal spillage which can be just as much of an affectation as, say, non-verbal free verse. For instance, you include a rondeau, “Girl With Cello”, and the following piece of almost hypnotic sonority titled “Romanian Nurse”:,
I pray for a way to cope with the cold.
The orphans scurry as insects from me.
A glacial couple locked their young in cold.
The little ones I see are five years old;
But they look to be only two or three.
I pray for a way to cope with the cold
Stunting the wards of the State; their cold
Heads bang; tiny fists rub out their eyes.
The leading couple locked their young in cold.
In chills they cringe from touches— frozen souls
I would hold, heal and help survive.
I pray for a way to cope with their cold.
No in-service on healing hearts; we are told
How minds could mend; we memorize security.
The political couple froze their young and their old.
We long to learn of love, to thaw the cold,
Ache in hope the mute will speak, melt free.
Pray for a way to break the frost-bite hold
The glacial couple clamped on young and old.
So I suppose what I would ask you is this: does your style reflect a deep faith, perhaps, in the sense of things, the real presence of pattern behind life’s turbulence? Or why do you think such formal qualities as your poems use attract you? Maybe in the poem just cited, the sense is more one of tragic cyclicity—but that, too, offers a kind of sanity.
ML: Style. Well, I admire the sounds of poems, the way some syllables ring with other syllables, internal rhymes (end rhymes are tricky to pull off) appeal to me, clashing consonants (like Father Hopkins). Post-post modernist now seem to allow the spiritual (faith) back with not so much irony. I studied with the poet David Lehman, who is very New York School , very experimental, very jazzy, very into paintings and music. I learned to have fun with him in the Bennington MFA program some ten years ago. He knows and encourages writing in traditional forms. So a variation on the villanelle is what you hear in “Romanian Nurse”. The literal end—lingering Cold War. The rondeau is a form I have used several times, usually a loose version allowing some changes rather than exact repetitions. But repetition has its own strength, and can be compelling. I do not play a musical instrument but love the thought of learning from composers and trying to make music with language. Like the painter, sometimes I start off with a phrase or an idea, a painting, an incident—and look for the size canvas to paint with my words. Will it be a sonnet or a rondeau?
Thank you for seeing my poems as direct writing. I would like my lines to have punch as much as beauty. I would prefer complexity over ornamentation or mere decoration. I also like the idea that form can allow an emotion to be controlled, compressed. Maybe there is a double meaning, an allusion, that form makes happen with a choice of words used different ways. That is the magic poets look for. The lightning they want to strike that seldom does.
JH: Saint-Exupéry, once again, once made some very similar remarks about André Breton and the surrealists. He called their style a “rhombus”, by which I think he meant that they were creating complexity for the hermetic joy of playing a game accessible only to a tiny elite. I find myself torn in two on such issues. I think life today is already immensely complicated, and that the poet shouldn’t add to the confusion just in order to seem deeper than he is. That puts me out of patience very fast. But I also find myself sometimes rejecting poems for Praesidium because they have a facile metrical form and a sing-song rhyme I associate with grade school. That approach, it seems to me, refuses to measure reality soberly (always making exceptions, of course, for a possible ironic intent). I confess that I find Edwin Muir very powerful. His language is supremely simple… but his verse is what would be called free, I suppose—or I would prefer to say that the conventions of audible order have broken down for him. There’s a lot of internal echo in his lines, as if potential rhymes were stumbling about trying to get organized. And Muir, too, is a poet writing around the edges of war, so to speak.
ML: I was introduced to Muir’s work back in 92-93 by the Alaskan poet John Haines, whom I commented on once in Praesidium. Haines was Writer in Residence in George Washington U. when I first met him as a Creative Writing Fellow. I understand the difficulty with the metrical beat of the childhood poem. I am drawn to some of the formalists—and wish I could sometimes write more metrically. But using rhymes after the modernists is hard. Paul Muldoon does it well today, and a young Brit named Armitage, and a woman I met last year named Jill Alexander Essbaum. Seamus Heaney still uses rhymes well—and conveys the modern idiom and lexicon and complexities.
JH: I just happened, by the most serendipitous of chances, to be reading the late Oriana Fallaci’s Se Il Sole Muore, which is largely a European’s take on the American space program in the mid-sixties, while also preparing this interview. Fallaci recounts at one point how the city of Perth , in Australia , collectively turned on all its lights to help guide John Glenn back to earth. For some reason, it’s the kind of story that puts a “dry tear” of hope in one’s eye… and for some reason, it reminded me of your poem “Aviatrix”—nearly the last of the book—dedicated to Col. Eileen Collins, a mother/astronaut. I am not saying that Col. Collins’s gender gives me hope. Frankly, I find myself unexcited about such issues, and I have the feeling that what captured your imagination, as well, was the collection of feminine images involved in gestation and birth—not anything remotely connected to a social agenda. (Oriana asked the NASA crew why they had no female astronauts, by the way, and was told that they simply hadn’t made the cut.)
Anyway, these are to me some of your very best lines, if I may just pluck a few from the center of the poem:
With your daughter. She flew in your womb
In the Shuttle Discovery—alien sonogram,
Like Russian dolls, one cup within another O
You were the astronaut with two heartbeats,
daughter the echo,
The double beat, the rhythms within you
Off-beat to monitors on the ground in
Houston . The moon-O—
Is always female, La Luna; you dreamed into
a comet’s tale
As a woman, steered a shooting star across La
Descending like a meteor to a world of
tremors, you skim
A touch-down at Cape Canaveral east of
Alligator Alley, making
A little history, smiling through your fish
bowl, suited for
Travel, addressing the Press Club, parades—
Drifts and desert shifts and ocean tones aglow
Mother among astronauts—you will keep the
On a long umbilical cord from Mission
Linking space walks to telescopes imaging
Cloud-free of gravity, orbiting in space over
Seas, stormy-eyes, estuaries and shrinking
Colonel, wearing silver eagles now on your
Looking up is looking back at the sun, the O
of the moon,
As your daughter looks up, as your husband
reads a galaxy:
A wife’s winking fire rides a flight path in
Light years away; blinking, long dead stars
Does it not strike you as ironic, being a poet, a scholar, and a defender of your culture’s physical safety, that the rich female contribution to Western civilization should be so disparaged today, and that academic feminist doctrine would in fact decry the lines just cited for implying a gender distinction?
ML: I do not seem to hear as much from the so-called feminists any more. Although there is a balkanization in the poetry world. There are many schools and many different aesthetics out there. There are some schools and journals where your color or your gender or your sexual preferences seem to qualify you more than how you use the language as art. I believe my service and being a male writer would work against me in some publications. Once you learn that, you send your work somewhere else.
I am glad you like the “Aviatrix” poem. Col. Collins was one of my students at Syracuse U. I commissioned her class as second lieutenants in 1978. They asked me back, since I had been reassigned to DC after teaching AFROTC for three years. Her class was 50% women. She was in the first wave of graduates to go directly to AF pilot training after graduation and getting her gold bar. I took a special interest in her and several other graduates. They served in jobs I had held, they achieved more.
I worked with more women after 1980 and worked for senior female officers. I also followed Eileen’s career as I stayed in touch with some of her male classmates who were also pilots. She was exceptional. Her story of flight and space and the image of the capsule was just compelling to me—as was the beating heart of motherhood in the monitoring by Houston . As a student, she won a scholarship/transfer to SU from a community college; she was so poor she barely had a change of clothes. Women are doing everything now. The hang-ups from feminists or chauvinists are simply history and mostly out of place. As poems go, I find materials in human sacrifice and images like the flight
to the moon, and I use the language which describes the flights and controls and celebrates those who continue to serve. Some deep meditations or obsessions lead to a phrase or a line or a refrain that can surprise me as much as the reader. Those surprises are the real stuff of poetry. We do not always know where an idea will take us in our effort to use language for art. At Bennington , I enjoyed working against type, reading poems in my AF sweat shirt... I am always delighted to show the military guy can still write a poem, be romantic, talk about paintings. The young officers I met serving in the 60s were often Renaissance men, who read Marcus Aurelius, Lawrence of Arabia, James Dickey, and struggled with Guerrilla Warfare by Che, and learned to win hearts and minds with more than bullets.
Col. Lythgoe has very generously offered to forward a copy of Brass to anyone who contributes $11.00 or more to The Center for Literate Values. Contributions may be directed to one of the addresses mentioned above just before the “Contents” page. The Center is now a 501(c)3 organization: all such gifts are fully tax-deductible.
That That “That” Restricts…
Rules for Snobby Fools
Well-wishers occasionally undertake to alert the editorial staff of Praesidium to grammatical lapses. Like other sublunary beings, we make errors, and we have also been known to fight for lost causes (such as closing a quotation before comma or period unless that punctuation belongs in intent to the quoted matter). On one issue, however, we refuse even to concede the fight’s desperation: the interchangeable quality of “that” and “which” as relative pronouns. The elite of the Ivory Tower may often be heard insisting that the former be used in restrictive clauses (e.g., “The man that died was married”) and the latter only in non-restrictive clauses (e.g., “My front door, which I had just painted, was damaged”). The motive for this distinction, of course, is to distance elite-speak from common parlance and to lift the Tower (in its denizens’ estimate, if in no one else’s) a little closer to Olympus .
The distinction is absurd. It has no historical basis whatever. “That” is Germanic of origin, while “who”, “whom”, “whose”, and “which” are Latinate. Yet to follow pure German usage would require a comma before all relative clauses, restrictive or not; and, in any case, why would a genuine rule censure only “which” in certain circumstances and not its wh- first cousins? (Viz., “The daughter whom I had just hugged was wounded”—perfectly kosher.) Shakespeare interchanged the two pronouns: look at Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Jane Austen did so, as well. Read the first page of Joseph Conrad’s Victory, and you will find “an indolent volcano which smoked faintly all day”. In a rambling sentence toward the beginning of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “especially by that highest branch of it which… has been called… analysis.”
The “that… which” pairing is a trump. No native Anglophone of sound mind would ever say, “That that goes up comes down.” Rarely will one even see the equivalent of, “He that is first will be last.” “That” has no valid claim to exclusive ownership of restrictive clauses. You protest, “But That that goes up is hideous style!” Just so: the whole matter is one of style, not of grammatical logic. Choose the word which pleases your ear.
And, o ye gods of ivory Olympus … go pester your shadows with proofs of your divinity.
The Show Goes On
J. S. Moseby
(An aerial camera pans up and down the Interstate 20 corridor, parallel four-lane bands of tightly packed traffic moving at high speed. A staccato theme, consisting of dramatic percussion effects and computer-enhanced slides down the scale, plays simultaneously—and all but seamlessly—beside the “true life” sounds of a multitudinous hum and sigh, the whole punctuated by roaring tractor-trailers, powerful motors suddenly gunned, and the infinitely repeated and mixed Doppler Effect of vehicles swishing past. The outermost lane of either band (separated from its opposite only by a grassy median) is noticeably less traveled, its traffic moving noticeably faster. The airborne camera’s gradual zoom is all at once crossed—and thereafter riveted—by a distinctly exceptional peak-velocity convoy. Two motorcycles escort a Jeep-suggestive square followed by a grotesquely long, dark rectangle. The closing focus resolves an olive coloring to all four—a military tint— and also, much more gradually, clear bubbles atop the two larger vehicles. The rigid but hair-thin rods extending from these glassy balls at last characterize them as… gun mounts.
Cut now to a head-on shot, slightly elevated but embracing everything from the motorcycles’ front tires to the second Plexiglass turret and a blurred face within it. The shot bobs and weaves mildly as if itself taken from a high-speed vehicle. The title, Twenty-Hunters, bleeds onto the screen in daggered hot-orange letters as the percussions finally triumph over the surrounding traffic.)
(Close-up of Steve Buntline speaking through the opened passenger window of the Jeep, his short-sleeved khaki shirt rippling around the tanned elbow on which he leans, his left leg visibly bent within so that a boot rides heavily against the console. Steve speaks with a vaguely—and quite inexplicably—Australian accent.)
Steve: Welcome to another edition of America ’s favorite reality show, Twenty Hunters. Or as Chavo here likes to call it…
(Chavo Chavez looks around quickly from the steering wheel with a big smile—but he is also very intent upon the road.)
Chavo: Los Cazadores Dos-Cero!
Steve: Yeah. Took the words right out of me mouth. This is…
(Dirk Esasky squirms behind Steve’s seat, his face all but obliterated by Buntline’s rakishly tipped Safari hat.)
Dirk: Also known as the Rat Patrol!
Steve: Yeah, well… maybe to your granddad. Anyway, this is one of the most dangerous stretches of interstate highway in the country, in the whole world... Hooligans, smugglers bandits, punks, joyriders, slavers, shake-downers… you name it, mate, they’re all along this really nasty stretch of tarmac. The Stappies usually don’t come anywhere near this place in broad daylight. Seen any Staps this morning, Chavo?
Chavo: No, Steve. No patrols. Nothing on the radio, either.
Steve: What’s that? Ah, nothing on… yeah, that’s like I was saying. They’re outgunned by the bad guys, and they’re quaking in their boots about legal problems if they have to shoot. It’s up to us, mates—I mean, it’s up to the Twenty Hunters. Don’t you go trying this at home.
(Chavo laughs robustly.)
Chavo: How they gonna do this at home?
Steve:: C’mon, you know what I mean. Anyway, as you can see, we got that bullet-proof case put around the 50 caliber’s turret so you can see more of Dirk’s ugly face… just stay there, Dirk. Not that his ugly mug wouldn’t frighten away any bullets. The cage around the turret…
(Steve bangs the sheet metal of the Jeep just behind his head with the flat of his hand, reaching back rather awkwardly.)
Steve: Is it still there? Good! We’re likely to give it a good test-drive today, something tells me. Oh, and Solly sends his love from hospital. We love ya back, Solly. He wants to come back when he learns how to use that prosthesis, if you can believe that. But this reinforced steel cage will give us the extra protection we need so mishaps like that don’t happen again.
(Chavo can be seen nudging Steve and then reaching for the dashboard.)
Steve: Ho-oh! What’s this, then?
Chavo: Joyrider. Just south of Exit…
(Steve leans in toward Chavo, exchanges a word or two, and then calls some barely intelligible instructions into a radio receiver: “Charlie 15 bearing south in the fast lane… already one duck in the rough… approach FV…” and a little more of the same. Then he replaces the receiver and turns back to the camera.)
Steve: Here we go—this week’s first outing! The chopper’s called in a joyrider—just one, it seems. He’s already forced one car off the road. We’ve sent the bikers up ahead at full velocity. Frieda Burke and Kiyo Shenkashi, the Kick-Butt Duo!
(View from the chopper, with the electric shriek of its motor artfully piped into the background. The camera tilts the horizon at an alarming 20 degrees and steadily zooms in on a sportscar racing along the outside lane. The red car periodically overtakes others—also speeding with respect to the inner lanes, but not moving nearly as fast as the red culprit. The target vehicle narrowly shoots past some of the competition by threading the inner lanes with the most breathtaking margins between its bumpers and those of slower traffic. At other times, it bears down so hard on the vehicle in front that contact is made and the latter car can be observed to fishtail slightly. Two such victims veer off onto the shoulder without wrecking; another pair manage to steer themselves into a tiny inner-lane opening (one of them creating a ripple effect which sends a van skidding to a dusty halt on the right shoulder). As the scene proceeds, a fifth competitor for the rule of the fast lane is nudged onto the median at such a high speed that its tires cannot grip the road. It will be caught flipping over several times prior to landing upright—but in the fast lane of the highway’s northbound artery.)
Chopper Pilot: Big trouble in the making, Steve—you got that right! This idiot in the red Corvette is intent on terrorizing the road today. Man, what’s this guy on? Did you see that pass? I don’t know how he ever made it into that space! We need the bike crew on this automotive anus A-S-A-P! Whoa! There’s another close call! I hope there weren’t any kids in that van—or that they had their seatbelts on. Just a reminder to always buckle up, kids. You never know when one of these… oh, my God! Oh, my God! And he’s just spun out another car that goes flipping side over side, then end over end—one, two, three—I don’t believe it! And… oh, my God! The poor stiff ends up in oncoming traffic on the other side of the median! This isn’t going to be pretty, Steve! Where are those bikers?
(The camera lingers for several seconds on the wrecked vehicle at its extremely dangerous rest, the focus zooming in faintly, almost imperceptibly, so as to sustain the drama of oncoming high-speed traffic. A large blue sedan attempts both to decelerate and to work its way into an inside lane, but it strikes the wreck a glancing blow and then itself veers into a much smaller car, presumably creating a domino effect among the inner lanes. At this moment, however, the camera wobbles, zooms out, and then sways back to the south-bound lanes—desultorily at first, then picking up two arrow-swift motorcycles in tandem with the chopper pilot’s narration.)
Chopper Pilot: Wow! That was a close one! I’d sure hate to be the poor bleeper in that car! He’d like to get out and run for it, you can be sure—but how can he dare try it with traffic barreling down on him at 80 miles-per-hours? And there’s another… oops! Nope, that one didn’t quite make it. And look out… oh, my God! Now there’s a chain reaction on that side of the highway, too! Oh, my God! This is really getting ugly! And that joyrider’s still up there somewhere. Where’d he go? Let’s see if we can pick him up again… he’s kind of gotten away from us… and there’s… yeah, baby! There’s Frieda and Kiyo! Go get ’m, guys!
(The perspective shifts briefly to Frieda’s onboard camera. Though the traffic on the right hand must be averaging 70 mph, the low camera bobs past it like the prow of a speedboat taking sluggish waves. The roar of Frieda’s motor is very prominent, but in a couple of instances a vehicle can be heard honking as she passes as a figure, captured obliquely in the lens, smiles and waves from a window.
The perspective shifts back to the chopper. The red corvette has come into the aerial ken, and the bikers noticeably slacken their speed when the remaining vehicle between them and their quarry pulls into an inner lane.)
Chopper Pilot: There’s our bandit, dead ahead! Get out of the way, idiot! He’s moving over… and they’ve got their prey in their sights now. They… wait. I’m picking up their transmission.
(As the airborne camera zooms cautiously in on the group of three, a radio exchange can be heard, crackling and thin but not particularly garbled.)
Frieda’s Voice: Gnat to Dogfighter. Charlie 15 dead ahead, zero ob. V steady.
Steve’s Voice: He’s seen you, Gnat. Be careful. Code Orange . Suggest P-11.
Kiyo’s Voice: Skeeter to Gnat. Sorry to break up your sweet talk, Dogfighter. But there’s a glitch in the herd at 50 meters. Suggest Gnat go P-11 on the glitch.
Frieda’s Voice: I see it, Skeet. Catch ya later, Dogfighter.
Steve’s Voice: We’re closing FV if you need us, Gnat. Happy hunting! O-and-O.
Frieda’s Voice: Ciao, Skeeter.
Kiyo’s Voice: I’ve got your tail, Bonsai Girl.
(The following sequence of maneuvers is a complex ballet which the airborne camera struggles to hold in its frame, sometimes zooming out tactfully to a wider angle. The bikes have slowed enough to allow a gap in the inner lane to overtake them. The Corvette, which had also slowed as if daring the bikers to make a move on him, has just begun to accelerate again when Frieda peels off into the inner lanes. With mad audacity, she veers onto the painted stripe between two inner lanes and herself shows a sudden burst of speed which quickly catapults her ahead of three, four, five vehicles and counting. All she needs is an opening big enough to admit her back into the left lanes.
Meanwhile, and simultaneous with these actions, Kiyo also guns his motor and ends up almost on the joyrider’s rear bumper. The burst of power is in fact faintly audible above the chopper’s constant whirr. The bike makes a couple of feints to the outside, as if ready to pass the Corvette on the shoulder. The red sportscar appears to be snared by the distraction behind it, relenting its speed again and swerving onto the shoulder every time Kiyo explores it.)
Chopper Pilot: What you’re seeing is a classic cutting-out operation. It’s a series of feints, like when two small birds distract a crow by coming at it from several sides at once. And look at Frieda go! I don’t even think this ultra-maroon sees her on the inside now. He’s too busy trying to block off Kiyo, who doesn’t really want to pass—just to get his attention. I hope you guys can see this on your monitor, Steve.
Steve’s Voice: It’s good viewing, Hawkeye. Good stuff. We’re a bit stalled at the moment behind a T-and-T… may have to get by him on the shoulder…
Chopper Pilot: Don’t worry, Steve. These two know what they’re doing. They’ve done it often enough, haven’t they? This sucker’s putty in their hands. And there goes Frieda into the clear. I think… yeah, he’s seen her now. Man, is that joy-boy mad! He sees she’s gotten around him, and he wants a piece of her. My God… they must being doing at least 90! At least! This is Kiyo’s moment. He’ll let the Charlie get just far enough in front of him that the elevation of his nose gun is right to take out a tire. He’ll lean forward when he’s ready and activate the trigger with his chest. Let’s go down and have a closer look.
(The chopper actually slides a little farther behind the scene more than it drops down: ”ChopperCam” [as transparent letters read in the lower right-hand corner of the screen] does the rest, zooming in gradually and effectively. Sure enough, the faintest mist plays in front of Kiyo’s motorcycle briefly, and the rear license plate of the Corvette can be seen revolving gaily around one of its bolts, having been shot free of the other.)
Chopper Pilot: Try again, Skeeter! He just about…
(Suddenly the red sportscar appears, in an optical illusion, to be moving in reverse. Kiyo’s bike veers onto the shoulder and then out into the grass, no longer feigning a pass but zigzagging in an effort both to avoid hard contact with the larger vehicle and to lose speed. A collision is narrowly avoided by the cyclist’s expert anticipation, for the nose of the Corvette does indeed heal around to the outside without warning, as if an anchor had caught hold of the left-rear tire.)
Chopper Pilot: He’s got her! Good shooting, Skeeter!
Kiyo’s Voice: Skeeter to Dogfighter. Charlie in the grass, Steve. She’s about to lay an egg.
(An improbable haze of dust coils from the median’s green grass as the car skids slowly to a stop, without a flip. ChopperCam circles back lovingly over the scene.)
Frieda’s Voice: Gnat to Skeeter. Let’s make sure the Charlie is a good mother-hen. Don’t want him leaving the nest any time soon.
Kiyo: Yeah, he needs a few feathers plucked.
(Kiyo’s bike has managed to double back in its own plume of dust as the Corvette slides a final few meters. Kiyo can be seen from an almost directly overhead shot [feeling its way back to elongate the images] leaping from his machine and sprinting to the car’s driver-side window. He carries a lean, bat-like instrument in his left hand, with which he proceeds to smack at the window. In his right, sheltered and mostly hidden by a thigh, he holds a pistol.)
Chopper Pilot: There’s glass! Steve, are you seeing all this? I hope you’re seeing it at home—don’t take your bathroom break just yet.
(The driver’s door abruptly bursts open. Kiyo springs back reflexively—and a good thing, because the heavy door sweeps out the space where he had been standing. A dark figure barrels from the opening, coming low, hands held before face. Kiyo lifts his baton but has yet to recover his balance fully.)
Chopper Pilot: The Jack’s out of the Box, Steve! We may have a situation developing here! Where the hell are you guys, anyway?
(But at that critical instant, Frieda’s compact form is seen flying from the Corvette’s roof. The camera had entirely lost track of her, and her appearance is as shocking as a thunderclap.)
Chopper Pilot: Whoa—and here comes Womderwoman! Man where’d she come from? Frieda takes the guy down from behind, and now both of them are laying into him with their nunchucks. Give ’m a few for the kids in that van, tarbabies! Man, this dude’s getting softened up for the pot!
(As the camera zooms in very close—its closest shot yet—Frieda and Kiyo may indeed be observed walloping the culprit’s prone form around the shouldesr, ribs, and buttocks in a kind of relay, like lumberjacks alternating chops, that quickly mounts into dozens of blows. For a while, the body quivers in response to each smack; eventually it yields no reaction.)
Steve’s Voice: C’mon, bikers, let’s wrap it up. You know how the Stappies like to arrive right on the end of all the action. We wouldn’t want to get another ticket. Well done.
Chopper Pilot: Steve… when did you get here?
Steve’s Voice: Been here a while, mate. In fact, I’m moving on while this one’s wrapped up. Gotta keep moving.
(ChopperCam continues to survey the punishment protocol being executed by the motorcyclists—Frieda has now thrown open the Corvette’s hood and is busily tearing out wires, cables, and hoses; but the perspective also zooms out smoothly until it catches Steve’s Jeep merging from the shoulder back into the fast lane of traffic [now going exceptionally slow as drivers lean out their windows and gawk].)
Steve’s Voice: Code Blue, Stingers. Good job.
Scene Four (after commercial break)
(An onboard camera reprises Steve in the Jeep, but this time with all windows up and ordinary conversation easily audible. Steve’s safari hat and khaki-clad left shoulder are about all of him that the angle actually captures, while Chavo’s burly right forearm is visible on the steering wheel. Between their partial figures, the dashboard beams or blinks cryptically in green and red lights.)
Steve: That was a routine pick-up—but as you can tell, nothing is really routine on this stretch of highway except danger. That’s why we do this. If the people you and I pay to enforce the laws can’t or won’t do it, well, then, I guess someone like you or I just has to step in. I mean, this is really pitiful, ain’t it? You’d think that with all the technology at our disposal… what you got, Chavo?
(Chavo mutters something incomprehensible, but clearly gestures with his right index finger. Steve leans toward him, exposing his manly jaw-line to the camera as he apparently peers at traffic on the north-bound highway.)
Steve: Yep. I’m afraid you’re right. Chavo’s just seen a huge tractor-trailer going north and riding high. Nothing like that ever rides high going north—not unless his cargo is human. You wouldn’t believe the traffic in slaves along this stretch of tarmac. Some estimates have it that one in every four T-and-T’s have human cargo on board for sale to brothels and sweatshops.
Chavo (speaking up for once): You can tell by the way they bounce. People don’t stack… not like boxes. Makes for a light load.
Steve: Light, Chavvie, but lucrative.
(As Steve reaches for the radio transmitter, Chavo works the steering wheel vigorously. The picture lurches occasionally as the Jeep is brought off the shoulder and into the grass for a 180-degree turn.)
Steve: Dogfighter to all Twenty-Hunters. Slaver northbound, moving slow in inside lane. Red cab, gray trailer. Let’s pull her over and have a look under the apron.
(A moment of relative silence and peace follows as Chavo, who has fully turned the Jeep, awaits an opening into which the vehicle may be merged. His blinker may be heard ticking with the strangely homespun regularity of a clock, and his bearded face replaces Steve’s in the camera as both now peer to the right. Just as he begins to accelerate, glancing both forward and back in quick succession, a voice comes urgently over the radio: Rudy’s, the navigator of the heavy truck bringing up the rear in the show’s overture.)
Rudy’s Voice: Maverick to Dogfighter…
Steve (after reaching for receiver): Come in, Maverick.
Rudy’s Voice: We’ve got complications, Steve. The joyrider had a trailer. Chrome-green Mercedes. He pulled off the shoulder right in front of us. Two Charlies inside. One of them flipped the road kill, then they full-veed off. Already past us again.
Steve: Damn! (Turning his left shoulder slightly back toward the camera.) Joyriders work in pairs a good deal of the time. Usually the trailer will be only a few car lengths behind. This one must have stopped for gas, or… who knows? But he’s bound to have communicated with the Charlie that Kiyo and Frieda took down. Now he’ll be hunting for two bikes—with blood in his eye. (Talking into the receiver again.) Dogfighter to Stingers. Did you two copy that?
(The crackling response on the radio cannot be resolved into clear words, but the tone seems to be Kiyo’s.)
Steve: Listen, Skeeter. Use Protocol 15. Repeat, P-15. We’re northbound in pursuit of a slaver. You’ll have to buy some time for Maverick to come up and support you.
Kiyo’s Voice (now much clearer): Negative, Dogfighter. Gnat just peeled off to help you cut out the slaver…
Steve (his voice betraying anxiety for the first time): Then you do the same! Get out of there!
Kiyo’s Voice: Come on, Steve! I can handle this. You go get your bad guy. I’ll take this cool dude butterfly hunting until the truck catches up. Then we’ll blow out his bleeping bleeps.
Steve: Well, there’re two sets of bleeping bleeps in this buggy, Samurai! One’s riding shotgun. You mind your sweet ass.
Kiyo’s Voice: This one’s in the bag, bossman. Another assist for the K.
Steve: Rudy, are you copying? Kiyo wants to play superhero. Get the lead out before he makes himself a stat.
Rudy’s Voice: We’re on it, Steve. Taking the fast lane.
Steve (peering back toward the camera again): I’m not too happy about this one. Soloing’s the best way to get into trouble, and the joyrider’s twin has someone riding shotgun.
Chavo: Here comes Frieda!
(A single high-pitched beep from the bike’s horn precedes by barely an instant the appearance of Frieda’s machine shooting ahead in the far-left lane, clearly visible through the windshield.)
Steve: Dogfighter to Gnat. Rein it in, Frieda. The scow’s just ahead and moving slow. At that rate, you’ll pass her before you see her.
Frieda’s Voice: What’s with this her crap, Dogfighter?
Steve (wincing over his shoulder into the camera): Ah, Jeez! (Into the receiver.) Just watch yourself, Wonderperson.
(Switch to ChopperCam. The focus is broad and panning at first, its content no more specific than the eternally pullulating eight lanes of traffic moving north and south on Interstate 20.)
Chopper Pilot: Wow! It’s hard for your eye in the sky to know where to direct himself today! Go here, go there… I guess we’re going south now in search of Kiyo. And there’s Maverick—that buggy’s not very hard to spot at a distance. I’d get out of his way if I were you, bud. And farther south… let’s see. Looking for a green Mercedes. Man, can you believe the really nice wheels these dudes take out to run people down in? Where do they get their money? Obviously not from using their brains. Oh, yeah—there he is! Instead of passing the guy on the shoulder, he just gets under his bumper to flip him out. Fortunately, the guy was able to hold onto the road and find an inside lane just in time. Now it’s off to the races again for the Charlie.
Rudy’s Voice: Maverick to Chopper. Great show, Hawkeye. Now will you find Kiyo?
Chopper Pilot: Oh, is that what I’m supposed to be doing? Thanks for reminding me, Tank Top. I thought maybe I could find a little footage for our faithful viewers along the way. Do this, do that. One of these days, he’s going to try to shoot me out of the sky, just for target practice.
Rudy’s Voice: I said great show, dammit! What do you want, an Emmy? Now…
Chopper Pilot: Keep your powder dry, glamour boy! I’ve got Kiyo coming up on the screen right now. I didn’t see him at first—he’s already worked his way to the far right lane. He’s embedded behind a U-Haul. I don’t even know that the Charlie will see him. Course, there’s a shotgun riding with him…. Chopper to Skeeter. Listen up, Skeeter. The Charlie’s passing in the far-left lane right about now. Keep your nose down.
(But the green Mercedes does indeed halt its catapulting forward progress just after passing the U-Haul truck. In fact, the driver appears to have pulled his foot from the gas, for the Mercedes begins to lose ground against the right lanes with something like the deceleration curve of a ball tossed in the air just past its arc’s apex. The camera has zoomed in by now. It suddenly—and unequivocally—catches the emergence of a thin, dark rod from the Mercedes’ passenger window.)
Chopper Pilot (with an earnest excitement new to his voice-overs): Gunport open, Skeeter! Cannon in sight! Evade! Evade!
(The Mercedes marksman has lost his momentary advantage, for the car has decelerated too quickly and is now blocked from Kiyo by a postal van. The driver gets on the gas hard, and the green sportscar leaps to recover its clear shot; but Kiyo has meanwhile started to veer onto the right shoulder, wobbling a little as he hits a rough spot. A bare head can now be seen twitching from the car’s passengers window at the end of the gun barrel. A smudge of hot vapors briefly registers on the lens, and at the same time a dusting of glass may be seen spurting from the postal van, which instantly veers out of control. The blunt thump and tingle of colliding vehicles may be dimly heard over the chopper’s incessant whirr. Yet the ChopperCam remains riveted close-up on the back-and-forth of the deadly duel, now actually deserting the highway to follow Kiyo into the grassy countryside.)
Chopper Pilot: Oh, my God! Shots fired, Skeeter! Shots fired, Maverick! Skeeter, are you…
Kiyo’s Voice: Stop yelling into the mike, will you? I can’t hear what’s going on. That sounded like a shotgun.
Chopper Pilot (laughing, greatly relieved): Yeah, how about that! A shotgun with a shotgun! You don’t see that every day. He’s coming right after you, boy—you’d better make tracks.
Kiyo’s Voice: I’m off to find some butterflies.
(All three lanes to the right of the Mercedes have quickly opened up following the shot and the pile-up, so the resplendently dark car at once slides to the right shoulder after Kiyo. Yet the motorcycle is long gone. ChopperCam is forced to return to the countryside after briefly recording the car’s movements, its focus struggling to widen enough for both ends of the pursuit. Kiyo’s bike now appears to bound merrily along a rolling pasture like a cavorting goat. The Mercedes, hard pressed to follow, comes to an abrupt stop. Armed figures instantly emerge from both doors, which they leave open to use, evidently, as props for their weapons.)
Chopper Pilot (once again anxious): Hey, kid, look out, now! They’re about to use you for target practice. And I don’t think… I can’t tell from this angle, but… those barrels…
(ChopperCam loses Kiyo momentarily as it zooms in with almost disorienting abruptness; but at the end of a faintly nauseating reel, the picture shows the two assailants plainly quivering with the discharges of their weapons.)
Chopper Pilot (more agitated now than ever before): Hellfire—those are automatics! They’re spraying the whole terrain! Kiyo, get your ass down!
(Now Choppercam is zooming out and sweeping upward again. It quickly finds the speeding bike and focuses back in. Bits of turf and grass are faintly reminiscent of hailstones bounding off a hard surface as they spring spontaneously from the landscape surrounding the two-wheeler. Without visible warning, the bike spins around in a tight circle and then falls flat alongside its rider.)
Chopper Pilot: Hunter down! Hunter down! All units! Hunter down!
Kiyo’s Voice (calm, but panting): Ah, shut the hell up, Hawkeye! You just burst my eardrums.
Chopper Pilot: Are you hit?
Kiyo’s Voice (still panting): Nah, I’m good. Found a low spot. Thought I better get down. They’re no marksmen, but… only takes one.
Chopper Pilot: Damn! This is almost too much excitement for one episode! They can’t get him for the moment, but he also can’t move if they decide to close in. Let’s see what those two Tootsie Rolls are up to…
(ChopperCam has hardly begun to perform its efficient zoom-out and pan when it picks up the sleek green roadster, now bouncing over the pasture at a fair velocity.)
Chopper Pilot: Oh, my God! Skeeter, this is… they’re coming fast, Kiyo! You’d better dig in! Your best chance is to hold ’em off a while—use your sidearm!
(This scenario completely evaporates, however, when the turf just in front of the Mercedes vomits forth its dark bowels in a detonation whose thud doesn’t reach the chopper until the vehicle has already been stood up nose-first in the air and then laid roughly to rest on its roof.)
Chopper Pilot: Oh, my God! Did you see that, Kiyo?
Kiyo’s Voice (very small): I did, actually.
Chopper Pilot: Cavalry to the rescue! Just when we’d forgotten all about Maverick…
(The camera seems reluctant to leave the thick swirl of dust through which a spinning back tire is about the only visible detail of the Mercedes. Finally, still with a trace of lingering, it withdraws and then pans far outward, moving up the metallic gray-white band of what has become a nightmarish traffic jam. Like a dark praying mantis on a light tablecloth, the truck appears distantly off to the side of the automotive catalepsy, immobile and strangely distended. A zoom-in reveals that what seemed a giraffe-like neck is really an artillery piece; but the bi-part muzzle has already begun its crouch back inside a retractable roof, and the heavy stanchions lowered from either side of the vehicle also start to tremble and ascend as the chopper pilot speaks merrily.)
Chopper Pilot: Touch ’em all, slugger! A home run on the first swing.
Rudy’s Voice (grimly): Maybe. We’re going to make sure here in a minute.
Chopper Pilot: Man, you don’t see that every day! Not even on Twenty-Hunters! A direct hit on a moving target from half a mile out on the first try! Well, almost a direct hit… just a minute, Steve. Let’s get that camera back on the Charlie. There he is. Man, he’s had a really bad day. Maverick gave him just enough of a lead—he drove right into the exploding shell! There might be just enough of that shotgun to use as a tombstone. That’ll make me sleep better tonight, just knowing… okay, Steve. Steve’s on the horn. What ya got, boss?
Steve’s Voice: Hawkeye, if the show’s over there, I need you to find Frieda. Glad you had a good outcome.
Chopper Pilot: A great outcome!
Steve’s Voice: Yeah, well… we’re about to shut down over here with the slaver. Pretty routine. But we gotta find Frieda. No sign of her, and she’s not answering her radio.
Chopper Pilot: So the blonde biker beauty has gotten herself lost, and Hawkeye has to go lead her home by the hand. Okay, Dogfighter, I’m on it. Whoa! Hey, just let me catch this last bit! The truck is coming across the field at full-vee now, right for the wreck, and I don’t think he intends to stop!
(Sure enough, the camera [which had returned to the wreckage and now zooms back without really altering its aim] steadies at a wide angle just in time to put an instant of horrified expectancy into the lumbering charge of the artillery truck’s olive mass. The impression is one of having turned around at a-second-minus-one to see an elephant trample an unsuspecting tribesman. The Mercedes had been a sooty, smoldering tool box with tires on top before: after the truck’s lightning strike, it seems an oily hole from which nuts and bolts go swirling aloft with the dust.)
Chopper Pilot: Oh, my God! Did you see that? No tombstone for those two!
Scene Six (after another commercial break)
(Steve, standing behind the silver sheet-iron trailer of an eighteen-wheeler. Dozens of mop-headed women and children, all clad in rags and most of them barefoot, may be seen in the huge trailer’s opened maw. A few are seated with their legs dangling over the edge: many more crouch in the shadows. All are peeking in complete silence over Steve’s shoulder, as it were, though he must be at least ten feet from the truck’s bumper. They appear not to know if the distance is safe or if the camera is being deployed to mark them for life.
In the foreground, at Steve’s feet, four men kneel and try to hide their faces. Their hands are bound behind them by plastic chords. Chavo and Dirk are standing over them, the former with an automatic pistol in his hand, the latter fingering a heavy assault rifle slung from his shoulder. As Steve begins to speak, Chavo may be heard muttering something in Spanish to one of the prisoners after whipping a baseball cap off the bowed head and pelting the man with it.)
Steve: Welcome back to Twenty-Hunters! We don’t have a lot longer to run in this week’s segment, but there’re still some loose ends. It seems that… (Steve glances over his shoulder at the slight distraction behind him) that the second joyrider would have done better to stay home today, or at least to get his bruised buddy to hospital. Well, that’s two psychos that won’t be bothering you on the way home from work… no, three. And as you can see here… (he steps aside ever so slightly) we’ve wrapped up the situation with the slavers. Wasn’t much to see this time out. We didn’t even have to shoot out a tire or two—the sight of the 50 caliber did the trick. One of ’em tried to make a run for it, but Dirk fired a burst that brought him back twice as fast as he’d left. As per protocol, we’ll lock the four bad guys up in the trailer with their cargo—mostly women and children. We don’t want to let ’em get away, but we also don’t want these poor human chicken fritters walking up and down the highway, getting run over or kidnapped or sold into slavery all over again. So we leave ’em all boxed up for the State Patrol, and we contact the Staps as we pull out. We’ve never known that lot to take more than four hours to get to a scene, so everything should be okay back there.
What really worries me… (here Steve steps into full view, virtually filling the screen, and lowers his voice to a murmur) is that we’ve heard nothing at all from Frieda. Haven’t seen her since she passed us before the take-down. Can’t raise her on the waves. A lot of things can happen to a curvy young creature out here with her blonde hair streaming out the back of her helmet. It’s strictly against protocol for one biker to split apart from the other, except in the direst circumstances.
(Rather theatrically, Steve now stiffens a bit and stares off into the car-littered distance [for the highway and its sounds have always remained in the background] as he depresses a button on the transmitter strapped across his chest.)
Steve (continued): Dogfighter to Chopper. I’m not picking you up on the horizon, Chopper. Where the hell are you?
Chopper Pilot’s Voice: I’m just wrapping it up here, Steve. We’ve had a really spectacular chase, and…
Steve: Yeah, I know, and you thought you might get the MAV to drive over the Charlie one more time.
Chopper Pilot’s Voice: No, Steve. I…
Steve (torn between growing anger and a disinclination to rage before the camera): Now listen here, you… listen here, Hawkeye. I want you heading north along the highway as of five minutes ago. If I have to…
Chopper Pilot’s Voice: Alright, already! I’m on my way. When did you last see the bike chick from hell, anyway?
Steve (his jaw muscles working): I told you already. There’s been no contact, audio or visual, since she passed us before the take-down.
Chopper Pilot’s Voice: Okay, big guy…
Steve (cutting off the transmission impulsively and laboring for something like a smile): The smog can get really bad at this time of the afternoon. Hawkeye could be just up ahead, but the visibility is down to just a few miles now. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky an hour ago, but now you can’t see the sun. That’s another reason I want to find Frieda—before the smog gets any worse, I mean. That in itself can lead to incidents along the highway. Last week…
(A wide-angle shot from the chopper. As the brief scene proceeds, the chopper both nears its target in a faintly circular approach and zooms in slowly, but more quickly as the pilot realizes the target image’s true content. Even before then, however, there is a special urgency to this footage: at no other point in the show has one scene starkly interrupted another. The director has played the trump card well.)
Chopper Pilot: Chopper to all units! This is an all-points bulletin! I… I can’t quite make it out… but I’m getting something off the right shoulder of the north-bound lanes. I’m still coming up on it… can’t see your position, Dogfighter—I must be south of you by a few miles. Very dense traffic… but off on the shoulder here, I’m getting a sedan-like vehicle at full stop… doors open, I think… and another, much smaller object in the grass… could be a bike. Could be Frieda’s bike. I see figures down the slope away from the vehicles. Eight, ten meters away. A group of them. Can’t make out the number, but… must be about half a dozen. The figures are down, some of them… they’re leaning over or lying down, and… and there’s movement. What are they doing? Can’t make it out, but… (the pilot’s voice turns so sickened as to be almost inaudible) that’s Frieda’s blonde hair. (More animated now, and increasingly so with every word.) Frieda’s on the ground! Frieda’s down, and the other figures are grouped around her. I…just let me come around and zoom in, so I can get a look over their shoulders.
Steve (oblivious to the camera, which remains riveted where it had previously recorded his monologue): Code Red! Code Red, Chavo! Hunter down! Stow these buggers, Dirk, and lay low! We’ll be back for you soon! Go, go, go, go, go!
(He kicks one of the kneeling prisoners over without apparent purpose as something between haste and fury takes control of him. Chavo has already disappeared, but the Jeep’s engine can be heard revving over Steve’s final shouts—it is, indeed, what drowns them out. Amid a splutter of gravel, the Jeep threads the space between the sidelined trailer and the interminable north-bound traffic, slightly slowing down—not stopping—so that Steve can sprint for the rear bumper and heave himself on board by means of a support bar. The camera turns as the vehicle races south along the shoulder. Steve’s gymnastic figure can be seen swinging up on the sheet-iron casing around the gun mount and sliding through a whole in the Plexiglass turret. The breathtaking maneuver has all the agility of a Pony Express rider changing horses at a gallop.
(The airborne camera has now steadied and drawn intimately close to the group in the grass. It is immediately obvious that Frieda is not lying in a coma and being treated by a team of bypassing Good Samaritans. Rather, her blonde hair is plainly visible thrashing against the ground over the shoulders of two men crouched by her upper torso. Three more men are bunched tightly around her lower body—where her legs are yet more eye-catching than was her unhelmeted hair, both in their white nakedness and in their incensed kicking at thin air.
ChopperCam gapes upon this grouping for perhaps ten seconds before the pilot’s voice breaks in—curiously calm and monotone, as if pointing out the presence of a nearby sleeping lion to a companion. One of the assailants, wrestling with a lovely white leg, happens to look up at this instant. He smiles broadly and waves at the camera.)
Chopper Pilot: Uh, Steve… Dogfighter… I think you’ve better get over here fast. We’ve got a C-3 going down here… or a C-4, I guess. Multiple assailants. Looks like five.
Steve’s Voice (shockingly clear over the radio’s crackle): God dammit, Hawkeye, do something! Where’s Kiyo?
Chopper Pilot (very pensively): Uh… bad log jam on that side. He should be here soon, but… well, you know, every second…
Steve’s Voice (furious as ever): Then you do something, you floating turd!
Chopper Pilot (a little livelier, perhaps offended): Ah, come on, Steve! This is expensive equipment, and I’m a sitting duck. You know the protocol. One lucky shot, and I’m… and they’re waving at me. I mean, some of them. That’s always a bad sign.
(Whether by stroke of genius, happy inspiration, or devious design, the director happens to switch to the Jeep’s onboard camera at this moment. Very little can be made out through the windshield, in fact, since the heavy tires moving at high speed are providing a less-than-ideal base from which to film. But the intensity of this near-chaotic trembling is hypnotic—and grows more so as the staccato thunder of a large-caliber automatic weapon is suddenly heard, all but commandeering the mental impression of the unstable picture. More bursts follow, and the bouncing brown-gray mass before Chavo’s sinuous arm indeed seems now to become a kind of visual accompaniment to the hail of bullets.
(From ChopperCam, as before. The pilot’s voice begins in the same querulous uncertainty, then acquires depth and vigor as the scene proceeds.)
Chopper Pilot: Wow, I… I hope they’re not getting mad at me. Something’s making them jump up… four of them, anyway. Maybe I’d better move to a safer… but wait a minute, they’re pointing back up the highway. They’re running for the sedan! Steve—Dogfighter! Come in, Dogfighter! Charlies dispersing! All but one, anyway. Oh, my God! It looks like they’re getting weapons from the vehicle! Are you there, Dogfighter? Code Red, Dogfighter! The sharks have teeth now! Where are you, Dogfighter?
(Following the aim of several leveled barrels, the camera pans and wide-angles back up the highway. It doesn’t have to go far. The Jeep comes smoking into view almost at once, dust trailing its tires, heat blurring the mouth of its busy machine-gun.)
Chopper Pilot: Yeeee-haaah! Shoot their ass off, Steve! Look at those idiots run. (The pilot’s voice rises as if the figures below might actually hear him.) You can’t outrun bullets, idiots! But you might as well try!
(The camera’s operation through the following sequence is a work of art, if not of utter mastery. Constantly on the move, it is nevertheless able to keep the two ends of various chases just within its frame: human figures running for their lives on one side, the plummeting Jeep closing on the other with infinitely greater speed yet turning out while the gap remains wide. For the machine-gun visibly spits a boil of dust all around each figure from twenty car-lengths away which engulfs it and, as it were, dissolves it into the ruptured sod. In an elegant arabesque of circles, the death-dealing vehicle works back to another fugitive, and another, and finally to the sedan which is just beginning to move. This massive target it circles, as well: the vehicle erupts into a fizz of shattered glass and soon sheers to a halt.
Chopper Pilot: Whoa, boy! Whoa, man! Bllll-OUwie! Kazzoo-ee! God! My God, this is great! Oh, wow! Oh, my… wow! Oh, wow! That was so cool! Cool and two-thirds, man! Wow… oh, and… hey, let’s see how Frieda’s doing. Frieda… she’s… there she is. Well, she’s just letting that Charlie out of an arm-lock. That a girl—get your pants back on. Bud, I don’t know where you think you’re crawling away to. Maybe he’s decided he’d rather take his chances with the Jeep than Frieda. I don’t blame him. Ooooh! Yep, his bad day’s about to come to an abrupt end.
(The angle is steady and sufficiently close-up that Frieda’s hands and shoulders can be seen to tremble, even though the vantage is far too distant to capture her facial features. Her pants restored but yet unbelted, her white feet still bare in the grass, she has found a pistol whose contents she proceeds to squeeze into her former assailant’s back. On its hands and knees a moment earlier, the body instantly falls hard to earth. It hops as if on a string after each of the first half-dozen shots or so. Then it lies as still as wet timber while Frieda stands directly over it, firing again and again into cranium and ribs and rump. She may be seen after a moment fumbling for another clip; then she begins anew.
(The entire short scene is a head-on of Hawkeye, the Chopper Pilot. He is perhaps more burly than his adolescent voice would have led one to believe. The scene also betrays the presence, by implication, of a cameraman on board, for the shot intelligently bends outward and focuses on the vast panorama of I-20 as the monologue concludes.)
Chopper Pilot: That was quite a high-risk gambit that old Steve ran at the end, but it worked. He discharged his machine-gun much too early to do any damage, and of course, he couldn’t fire into the group, anyway, for fear of hitting Frieda. But the racket and the whiz of bullets in the air distracted their attention from their naughty little playground games. Fortunately, those muck-suckers didn’t have anything on board like an anti-tank gun… you never know, in this business. But usually guys who cruise for action like that don’t pack a lot of firepower. After all, they’re looking for defenseless females. Not that Frieda’s defenseless… man, nothing like it! But they must have nudged her into a ditch and then ganged her before she could get her act together. Like Steve always says, nothing’s more dangerous than soloing. Oh… and all you lovesick guys out there who send Frieda mail? She wants everybody to know that nothing actually happened. Steve was just in time! She put up a good fight, and… well, Steve was just in time. Close, Charlie, but no cigar. The guy never quite got the combination to the safe.
Well, a blood-red sun’s breaking out of the western smog just in time to say goodbye for now. Man, look at all that traffic! So much work to be done, so few hunters to do it…
(The Twenty-Hunters are gathered in front of their parked vehicles, one big happy family [except for the chopper crew, not pictured]. Boots prop leaning figures up against the bumpers of the Jeep and the Mobile Artillery Vehicle. Steve stands in the foreground beside Rudy, a body-builder type with goggles withdrawn above the bill of his leather cap. The biking duo of Frieda and Kiyo poses off to the right of the frame. Kiyo is astride his machine, his gloved hands resting heavily on the handlebars as if ready to “rev her up” in an instant. Frieda, however—on the frame’s very margin—stands stiffly beside her cycle, allowing it to balance against her hip as she holds her arms tightly crossed. It is the show’s first shot of her unencumbered face, and her downward scowl only enhances her oval jaw-line and protruding cheekbones.)
Steve: That’s it for this week of America ’s favorite reality show. Next week, a new recruit sees her baptism of fire. If you would like to join us… well, the training process is rigorous, because it has to be. This is no game out here—lives will depend on your split-second decisions. But go ahead and click the red “volunteer” button under “fan-mail” at the bottom of your screen during the sign-off. It’s work that has to be done if our highways are to remain safe.
Rudy (pointing to the camera in an “Uncle Sam” gesture, which the rest of the cast [except for Frieda] imitates): We’re looking out for you—you need to look out for yourself!
(The percussion-heavy theme of the show begins to rumble. As pointing arms fall or, in a few cases, rise into a wave, Kiyo might be glimpsed off to the side reaching for Frieda’s shoulder. She slaps his hand away karate-like, then buries her fists under her armpits again. The force of the blow almost topples him off his motorcycle.A cut to the episode’s highlights as credits roll: Frieda’s daring pass between lanes of high-speed traffic… Kiyo’s nose-gunning of a culprit’s tire, the two collaboratively walloping the culprit… the shotgun blast shattering the postal van’s windshield, Kiyo racing just ahead of a trail of bullets… the detonation standing the green Mercedes on its nose, the MAV plowing the car’s remains deep into the earth…the slavers kneeling under Dirk’s assault rifle, Steve boarding the Jeep at a full sprint… the gang-rape of Frieda, the amorphous battleground beyond Chavo’s bouncing windshield, the Jeep’s lethal “round-up” of stray assailants, Frieda’s pumping shot after shot into an unresponsive corpse… the blood-red setting sun. Feedback tabs appear along the bottom of the screen throughout this montage. Finally, the last image fades into the producer’s signature logo, a rampant lion from heraldry whose paws [through digital ingenuity] suddenly deliver several boxer’s jabs and crosses. A half a dozen bars from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons [selected randomly, it seems] accompany the maneuver.)
back to Contents Home Page Recommended Reading
Praesidium Archive More About Us