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Archive for the ‘The Monastery of Extensive Happiness’ Category

Valentine’s Week Romances: Pride & Prejudice

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 @ 12:02 AM  posted by Mark

Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for television, film and stage eleven times, and now a series of derivative novels adds vampires and zombies to the basic story. What fascinates us about this book?

The novel has endured because of its multiple layers of satire (largely downplayed in film adaptations); but the story holds our attention to this day because Austen did something revolutionary—she domesticated the Myth of Romance for the first time, and both the myth and the taming of it still speak to us. Pride and Prejudice exchanges the original myth’s Yearning for the Impossible for something much more modest: a Longing for a Not-too-Repulsive Guy with a Decent Income (still a commodity in short supply, and something we all can relate to).

The story of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s union has become a Just So Story for modern middle class girls who are sure that their boredom is unjust and not their fault: the Happily-Ever-After ending entices women of all attitudes—debs, riot grrrls and post-post-feminists alike. Austen takes the basic story of love—unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart—and puts it into a quaint country drawing room. In the Bennets’ circle, among the nattering nabobs of nuptiality, romance is more calculation than consummation. The risk of romance is social humiliation, and failure means lifelong economic dependence on your own relatives; the reward, should you land your beau, is a settled life with a modest income. True Romance, on the other hand—the Romance of the original myth—carries the risk of immortal damnation, and failure means a prolonged death of a broken heart; the reward for success is also death, but a quicker, more violent one.

What? Death or Death? What kind of lame choice is that? That’s not a nice myth for genteel drawing room girls, to be sure, who prefer Matthew Macfadyen‘s tousled hair to the Grim Reaper‘s pitchfork.

Grim Reaper or Mr. Darcy? Which would you choose?

But wait. Exactly what is the Romantic Myth that Austen domesticates?

The basic story of Romance is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and then someone or everyone dies. Hooray!

The same pattern shows up in Tristan & Iseult, Romeo & Juliet, Guinevere & Launcelot, Don Giovanni, Faust & Gretchen, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Catherine & Heathcliff, Gatsby & Daisy—the list goes on and on. The contexts of each love affair change with the times, but the setup is always the same. The love is uncontrollable; the lovers are unavailable to each other, often already married to someone else; and indulging love means defying God, the government and/or the lovers’ families. Nothing ends well for lovers in the classic myth, and that’s part of the point: Romance, at its heart, is the longing for something that we simply cannot have until we die—the enveloping embrace of eternal, unconditional love—which we taste through our beloved but consume fully only when we can no longer desire anything any more.

(This attitude of Romance is clearly a heresy against the Christian church, since in Christianity God is the One who offers eternal unconditional love, just for the asking—the problem is, He won’t make a Valentine’s Day reservation for two at your favorite restaurant. What’s a lonely girl to do, then, on all the days between Sunday and Sunday? Pray? Join a convent? But what about my. . . needs. . .? Chastity, family and duty? Oh where oh where did I put Romeo’s cell number?)

“In living I die and in dying I live. I hunger to be united with Love.”—Jacopone da Todi (a contemporary of Dante)

What then of Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies)? Why is it an enduring work of Romance?

Rachel McAdams, non-Wedding Crasher, longs for a man with £2000 a year and a cottage.

Pride and Prejudice endures because it personalizes the myth of Romance for the first time, makes it safe and attainable for your average Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams (and you!), makes it something we can relate to and long for and actually get in our own lives (maybe). The Romance of Romeo and Juliet is nothing you’d want, but Darcy and Elizabeth? Why not? Love, stability, a nice cottage, no real risk. . . who needs “Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2), if all you really get in the end is a dagger in the gut?

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The Spoiler: Great Expectations

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 @ 02:02 AM  posted by Mark

Magwitch, the escaped convict who collars Pip in the book’s opening pages, is Pip’s real benefactor. Magwitch is also Estella’s father. Pip and Estella end up together. Miss Havisham accidentally immolates herself when her wedding dress catches fire.

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Shelf Life: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Monday, February 1, 2010 @ 02:02 AM  posted by Mark

For an ostensibly philosophical novel about class differences, The Elegance of the Hedgehog shows surprisingly little understanding of either the philosophies it cites or the politics it critiques, and its characters are mere fantasies, idealized notions of both the rich and the poor. Set in a posh apartment building in the upper-crusty 7th arrondissement of Paris, the novel concerns a poor but erudite concierge and a rich but erudite twelve-year-old girl, both of whom spend the novel having banal insights about life that the author attempts to pass off as profound. Though the author is a professor of philosophy, she mistakes the act of name-dropping famous philosophers with actually exploring the implications of philosophical ideas through her characters. The novel, from start to finish, congratulates itself and its readers for remembering who Husserl and Marx were, nevermind whether or not you ever read their writings, and the narrative is arch and precious. A consistently double-dealing book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog masquerades as a Marxist evaluation of bourgeois assumptions about class and personality, but it confirms the very assumptions it pretends to critique by offering us a bourgeois fantasy of poverty as a noble lifestyle choice. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a love letter to the egos of middle class readers, telling them that, as they always suspected, philosophy is a dish best served tepidly reheated.

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The Spoiler: Moby-Dick

Thursday, January 28, 2010 @ 02:01 AM  posted by Mark

The whale did it.

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Shelf Life: The Quixote Cult

Thursday, January 28, 2010 @ 12:01 AM  posted by Mark

Genaro Gonzalez’s The Quixote Cult, a droll coming-of-age novel set in an anonymous Texas town near the Rio Grande, is steeped in drugs, socialist politics and good humor. As a record of Chicano political activism and the struggles of barrio youth against poverty, The Quixote Cult offers an unsimplified glimpse at the intricacies of raza life.

The Quixote Cult describes the exploits of the budding teenage revolutionary De la O, a Chicano hippie, whose mother is illiterate and whose barrio shack has no hot water. The year is 1970, and though many of De la O’s friends are drop-outs, recidivists, or Army draftees, De la O himself has found an intellectual respite from his harsh surroundings by reading Kerouac, Nietzsche, and crime-and-punishment-style pulp comics. He excels in school and wins an honors scholarship to his local college, where he joins MANO (the Mexican-American National Organization), a group of grass-roots socialist activists.

With no clearly defined narrative arc, The Quixote Cult is less a novel than a prose elegy about the plight of Chicanos in general and the difficulty of coming of age in a minority culture in particular. Because Gonzalez’s narrator is just a teenager, the importance of individual events and people in his life are charmingly out of balance: an armed confrontation with some racist, good-old-boy hunters holds less weight in the narrator’s mind than an embarrassing attempt at flirtation with a girl in English class. In fact, even when De la O first decides to join MANO, he does so half for political reasons and half for the opportunity of meeting women.

The primary strength of “The Quixote Cult” is De la O’s recognition of the incredible diversity of opinion in the Chicano community about the best approach to economic advancement. Half of MANO’s members are steeped in the romance of Che Guevara’s militant stance and martyr’s death, and half are nuts-and-bolts organizers concerned with registering voters and raising enough money to print leaflets. No matter their particular behavior, though, everyone in De la O’s community shares one thing in common: nearly everything they do is a reaction to the majority white culture, since their own culture simply doesn’t have the economic legs to stand on its own.

The Quixote Cult shines when De la O describes MANO’s volatile confrontations with the law or with white conservatives: in these scenes, Gonzalez’s understated prose and skewering one-liners provide wry counterpoint to otherwise deadly-earnest encounters. However, the same understated prose becomes a liability when Gonzalez grapples with De la O’s more stereotypical concerns about losing his virginity: in scenes of less pointed action and more emotional subtlety, the reserve of Gonzalez’s observations leaves his narrative stagnant, and De la O’s clumsy attempts at getting women into bed often fall flat.

As a paean to the lives of the poor, The Quixote Cult doesn’t suffer much in comparison to The Grapes of Wrath. Though Gonzalez’s narrative is flawed by a lack of clear purpose and his prose isn’t always lucid, his writing has a wry glint of humor that Steinbeck’s lacks.

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