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Archive for February, 2010

Inside the Human Body: A Collection of Extraordinary Images

Thursday, February 25, 2010 @ 08:02 PM  posted by Mark

As President Obama and a deeply divided Congress wrangle over health care reform and Americans spend more and more money every year on insurance, the medical and scientific community continues to make extraordinary advances in medical technology. According to the New York Times, Americans’ annual spending on health care has risen from approximately 5% of GDP in 1960 to approximately 15% of GDP today—so where’s all that extra money going? Though both insurance and everyday medicines are more expensive today than they were 50 years ago, the lion’s share of the spending increase comes from the ever more sophisticated technology that keeps us healthy.

Inside Information, William A. Ewing’s extraordinary collection of images of the human body, shows where some of that money is going. Tracing the history of medical imaging from low-power medieval microscopes through today’s state-of-the-art Transmission Electron Micrography, Ewing provides a thumbnail sketch of how we’ve seen the human body in the past and how our understanding of the body has changed because of how we precisely we can see its internal processes in the present. The book consists primarily of full-color Transmission Electron Micrographs—ultra-close-ups of the cells inside the body—that reveal the stunning beauty of our own viscera.

Microscopic images of striated muscles resemble satellite images of Nebraska wheat fields, red blood vessels floating into a capillary look like the moons orbiting Jupiter and a Light Micrograph of the cerebellum could be mistaken for an image of the Mississippi Delta. The consonance of shapes that make up our internal universe create eerie resonances with the external universe, the macroscopic and microscopic forms holding up a weird cosmic mirror.

Inside Information makes the internal landscape of our bodies seem as beautiful and mysterious as the grandeur of the largest and most distant forms in the universe. Have a look:

Of the 100 billion neurons in your brain, Purkinje neurons are some of the largest.

Colored image of a six-day old human emryo.

This transmission electron micrograph revealed the presence of hepatitis B virions. Image Credit: CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer

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The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 @ 07:02 PM  posted by Mark

The only difference between diseases like cholera, malaria and the Bubonic plague and lesser-known ailments like Bone Leprosy and Inverted Drowning Syndrome is that the former actually exist. Western medicine, though, has rarely let a formality like actual existence get in the way of a good diagnosis.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases collects some of the most fearsome syndromes, diseases and disorders ever cataloged by human beings, and the fact that these diseases are fictional should not stop you from using the guide to diagnosis your family and friends. Edited by Jeff Vandermeer and Mark Roberts, the book is a tribute to the fictional Thackery Lambshead—early twentieth century explorer, scientist, medicine show barker and adventurer—and contains detailed explanations of bizarre ailments observed in all four corners of the world, dating from ancient times to the present. Contributors to the collection include Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Alan Moore, each of whom offers the history of moderately plausible, bizarre diseases in prose that mimics nineteenth century medical books.

The entries are hit and miss, ranging from the brilliant to the juvenile, but when individual contributions work, they critique the very idea of western taxonomies, comment on the gulf between knowledge and belief (which can still be wide when it comes to ailments of the human body) and tap into our fears about the truly weird and alien things that can actually happen to us.

My favorite entry is Stepan Chapman’s Bone Leprosy, a medieval disease first diagnosed in Turkey in 1510, in which the victim’s bones gradually disintegrate, leaving the unfortunate person completely well except for the absence of a skeleton. Due to ignorant prejudice against them, these puddles of human flesh are cast out of society in medieval Turkey and form their own community, which is persecuted until an obscure saint named Calamaro ministers to them and brings peace to their colony. The text and accompanying illustrations are funny, but the entry also makes a serious (albeit sideways) point about medical prejudice, such as the modern prejudice against AIDS victims, that raises it above mere cleverness or self-indulgence. Fun especially for medical students and fans of real-life medical dramas, the Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases makes actual medical books seem exactly as weird as they really are.

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Memories of Amnesia—or, Is Your Brain Out to Get You?

Monday, February 22, 2010 @ 11:02 PM  posted by Mark

Today begins a week-long series I’m calling Sickness, Death and Other Inconveniences, whose theme you’ve no doubt already gathered. Since the body is our vehicle through this world, its splendid daily operation, occasional breakdowns and eventual and inevitable failure fascinate us. Even a common illness like a head cold (from which I’m now suffering, and which inspired this series), can seem like a harbinger of death and cause metaphysical reflections. (Perhaps I just need a better grade of chamomile tea. . .)

As our organ of primary understanding and the seat of our self-awareness, the brain holds a special place in the pantheon of the body, and not just its literal special place in the bony bowl at the top of our spines. The brain’s illnesses pose potentially unresolvable paradoxes about the nature of identity itself and about the accuracy of our understanding of the world. Memories of Amnesia, a novel of brain damage and its effects, by neuropathologist Lawrence Shainberg, addresses issues of mind and body and the curiously circular self-awareness of a mind investigating its own brain.

The narrator, brain surgeon Isaac Drogin, notices early on in the novel that he is suffering symptoms of a brain irregularity that he commonly diagnoses in his patients. When Drogin asks a colleague to examine him, his fears are confirmed—Drogin has a progressive brain disorder—and he begins a highly self-conscious observation of his own deterioration, in which he is both doctor and patient. The problem, for the reader, is that Shainberg’s narrator has told us that the condition he suffers from makes his grasp of reality unreliable, so it quickly becomes unclear whether or not anything Drogin observes about himself and his surroundings is true, despite the accurate and complicated jargon that the doctor uses to describe his condition.

The novel’s highly readable medical passages take us behind the scenes in the theater of surgery and in the grand opera of the self, describing neurosurgical procedures with disturbing clinical accuracy and explaining correlations between brain chemistry and thoughts with uncanny metaphysical insight. Sometimes, as you read, you become so aware of your own brain processing the language you’re reading that the language itself become secondary to your thoughts about yourself processing it. The ultimate paradox of the book—that the brain constructs a self that the self cannot find in the brain, even when the self is a neurosurgeon—comprises the main metaphor of the book, which is the hall of mirrors that modern self-consciousness has become.

Shainberg handles the philosophical implications of his story with perverse wit. Once Dr. Drogin decides that a belief in a Self separate from the body is the ultimate neurological function, he declares war on his own brain: in order to prove that he really does exist apart from his brain and that his sense of identity is not merely an illusion of his own neurology, Drogin attempts to undermine his brain’s functioning and liberate himself from it.

His wife, who may or may not be named Martha or Marjorie or Marcia, cheers him on. “You’ve got more courage than anyone I know!” she says. “You’ve challenged your brain! Rebelled against the tyranny of thought! The whole charade of language and memory.”

The doctor’s rebellion leads to an extraordinary climax, in which narrative point of view, the concept of the self and even observable reality are all called into question. Memories of Amnesia begins off-kilter and grows more convincingly askew as it progresses, until, when you put it down, the world of the book seems normal and the world around you seems to have shifted.

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How to Live on Nothing

Friday, February 19, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

Since the collapse of the sub-prime market a year and a half ago, hand-wringing has become our nation’s most popular parlor game. The rules are simple: just watch the news and worry.

It’s still unclear if the government bailout of the banks, the economic stimulus package and the Fed‘s manipulation of interest rates have saved us from a worldwide collapse or merely forestalled an even worse downturn to come, and an extraordinary number of recent books, by eminent economists and armchair egomaniacs alike, have not settled the matter. What should we do when our nation’s economic prospects are uncertain and everything seems beyond our personal control?

Joan Ranson Shortney’s How to Live on Nothing offers hundreds of time-saving, cost-saving answers that bring economics back down to a personal scale. This guide, written in 1968, when “going green” went by the name “getting back to nature,” contains practical advice on everything from making healthy meals cheap, customizing vintage clothing, taking great vacations even when you’re broke and choosing doctors that make sense to your health and your budget. Because the book’s prices are in 1968 figures, the exact costs of furnishing your house on the cheap have to be recalculated, but the method of doing so is clever, sensible and still completely relevant (as are almost all of its tips and tidbits).

Most of the book’s charm comes from its gentle tone. As a time capsule from 1968, its analog attitudes contrast starkly with today’s digital disquiet, and it’s great fun to see how our approach to everyday living has changed in the last forty years and how it remains the same.

The great service of How to Live on Nothing, even beyond its countless nuggets of money-saving wisdom, is how matter-of-factly it humanizes the economy, giving you a sense of personal control—there are many things you can do right now to improve your life while saving cash—and Shortney advocates a philosophy that places time above money and family and friends above everything. As the Whole Earth Catalog said in its 1968 review, How to Live on Nothing could just as aptly be called Living for Something, and it reminds us that saving our sanity is as valuable as saving money, and the things we really care about retain their value even when the stock market doesn’t.

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A Brief Yet Helpful Guide to Literary Suicide

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 @ 02:02 PM  posted by Mark

The sheer wealth of material available for Dead Letters: The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides suggests that writers are an unnaturally melancholy bunch, but why? Do writers draw inspiration from the waters of some specially poisoned well that sculptors, composers or, for that matter, pastry chefs know not to taste? To be sure, there are plenty of painters and actors who have offed themselves, as well, and the writers who choose not to kill themselves far outnumber those who do; but the roster of literary suicides is extensive, impressive and illustrious, so much so that the question is more than academic: what is it about literature that makes writers reach for their revolvers?

Author Gary Lachman’s exhaustive survey of writer-suicides manages a neat trick: witty without cruelty, sympathetic without becoming maudlin, serious without taking itself seriously, Dead Letters presents a taxonomy of self-destruction that allows the reader to meditate on the strangely circular relationships between reality and the written word, the written word and the writer, and the writer and the ungraspable phantasm of reality.

To call Dead Letters fun would be to diminish the gravity of its subject, but how else to describe the many bizarre suicide methods Lachman chronicles? The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles jumped into an active volcano. Polish writer Jan Potocki, convinced he had become a werewolf, filed the silver handle of a sugar bowl down to the shape of a bullet, had it blessed by a priest, and then shot himself with it. French poet Gerard de Nerval, most famous for walking a lobster on a leash through the Palais-Royal in Paris, hanged himself with an apron tie that he claimed was the Queen of Sheba’s garter.

Lachman divides his writers by the motives for their suicides, rather than by literary genres or historical periods, allowing him to jump back and forth across times and cultures. He identifies Romantic, Manic-Depressive, Political, Existential and Surreal suicides as classes, and also serves up ambiguous, fake, unsuccessful and possibly ironic suicides for our consideration. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft unsuccessfully attempted suicide twice before she died in childbirth, making her death a quixotic non-suicide; as a teen, Graham Greene played Russian Roulette to relieve his boredom but never triggered a live round, so he’s not a suicide and not really even an attempted suicide, per se. Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who published under a variety of pseudonyms, caused one of his pseudonyms to commit suicide in print, though he himself lived on. And what of the many writers like Jack Kerouac, who drank or drugged themselves to death slowly—suicide or not?

All of the famous suicides you already know are here—Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Jack London—plus innumerable examples of lesser known and obscure writers who all reached the same conclusion. Lachman also offers poetry and prose about suicide from a variety of authors, the production of which gave some of them enough consolation not to commit the act itself.

Dead Letters may be a special interest collection, but for those especially interested, it’s a gem.

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Lust: What if Beauty is dumb and the Beast is just a beast?

Monday, February 15, 2010 @ 05:02 PM  posted by Mark

Now that Valentine’s Day is over and the best chocolates have long since disappeared from that heart-shaped box, let’s talk about the real heart of the matter, the secret we hide inside all of our flowery phrases and champagne dreams: Lust. Cambridge Philosophy Professor Simon Blackburn contributes this volume on life’s most guilty pleasure to Oxford University Press’s series on the Seven Deadly Sins, and, like the deliciously inviting urge that he examines, Blackburn leaves you momentarily satisfied and not so sure that what just happened was a good idea, but nevertheless craving more.

Lust is a slender, compact book, a sort of philosophical speed-date that introduces us to an extraordinary array of Western philosophers, who wrangle about the meaning of sex. Blackburn excels at pitting philosophers from different historical moments against each other in imaginary debates about the proper meaning and place of lust in morality and culture, and he can’t help cracking wise about the moral struggles of our ancestors, which he does in a knowing, even superior way. After all, it is difficult to take Kant’s notion that “marriage is a contract for each to use the other’s genitals” as the final word on marital ethics (even if you’re prepared to concede that that phrase might usefully be included in standard marriage vows).

Walter Crane's "Beauty and the Beast"

A priceless passage from Augustine’s City of God, in which sexual desire is compared to farting and the proper control of sexual desire is compared to musical farting, causes Blackburn much glee: “Such people can do some things with their bodies which are for others utterly impossible and well-nigh incredible when they are reported. Some can swallow an incredible number of articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please, in perfect condition. A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behinds (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.” Thus, the Will can control the natural functions of the body, just as you should be able to control your urge to sleep with that flirty, athletic, unshaven guy at your brother-in-law’s barbecue, or that new woman in accounting who wears the inexplicably alluring false eyelashes.

Blackburn’s lightning-fast tour of the nervous superhighway connecting our heads and hearts to our nether regions is over so quickly and is so enjoyable that it’s easy to forget that you didn’t fully appreciate all of the scenery as it whipped by. The author gives issues of marital fidelity short shrift, and he dismisses feminist arguments about the power of the objectifying gaze almost out of hand, but as a broad overview of historical attitudes about lust—ranging from Lucretius to Woody Allen, Schopenhauer to Barbara Herman, Plato to Proust—Lust is seductive and fun. But it returns you to the genuine article of lust with all the same doubts you had when you started.

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Romeo & Juliet Make an Omelet

Sunday, February 14, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

The classical idea of romance is tragic—the lovers want something they really can’t have in this lifetime, and so someone must ultimately be sacrificed to the idea of love. Romance survives as an ideal precisely because it can never quite be realized in this imperfect world, where a collicky baby keeps Juliet up half the night and then Romeo prattles irritatingly at the breakfast table about the Veronese government. Imagine Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, surrounded by a brood of yammering children, Romeo with a paunch and baggy eyes, Juliet with stretch marks. Their days are filled with the (possibly happy) tedium of everyday life, but happy or sad, the idea of eternal union was not what Shakespeare was going for—that’s not romance—it was the ideal of eternal longing.

Romance has a tough time in this modern world because of our many freedoms: we are free to marry or not, to sleep with our lovers or not, to divorce and remarry without censure, and no one really believes in immortal damnation for the soul who commits adultery or divorces or defies the will of the parents by eloping with someone from another kingdom. In our individual lives, the barriers to love that once inspired romance have disappeared, and without real obstacles, the ideal of romance simply does not apply. That’s why there are so many absurd, unbelievable obstacles thrown in the way of modern lovers, which make both their romance and their union ridiculous (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, anyone?). But does the ideal of romance survive today?

Happily, yes.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is not, in its main concerns, a romance. It asserts the redemptive value of art in a world where not all mistakes can be confessed or forgiven. However, the romance around which the major action revolves is classically romantic with a modern twist—not only are the lovers sacrificed for the ideal of Love, their romance takes place only after the lovers are already dead. It’s an ingenious way for us to eat our cake and have it to: by displacing the romance with a metafictional device, McEwan creates a satisfying romance in the classical sense and uses it to make a statement about storytelling itself. One of the best novels of the aughts.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient features a straight up classical romance, with real obstacles of class, adultery, enmity and the lure of Impossible. The fact that it won the Booker Prize indicates how much we still long for the classical myth of Romance in our fictions and that, however self-aware and detached our modern attitude toward love, compared with earlier eras, we’re not beyond believing that our feelings are more important than life itself. The tragic sacrifice of the lovers in this novel return us to a conception of romance as ethereal, impossible and desirable.

Alain de Botton’s charming novel On Love is a prime example of what happens to romance in modern times. Witty and deft, the novel nevertheless replaces all the tragedy of classical Love with mathematical calculations, the exaltation of the everyday over transcendent passion, and the acknowledgment that any particular romance is just one in a string of romances that you will indulge and that will fail before you settle into marriage. A delightful book, with its share of surprise, discovery and romantic gestures, On Love captures the true-life experience of love for many of us moderns: engaging, essential but not transcendent. The One True Love has been replaced by the one you happen, by luck and effort, to work out all the details with. No lightning strikes or love potions here.

Finally, I would like to recommend the tale that started it all, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Quite a few versions exist, with minor variations, but this is the Bedier version. It’s a medieval story, so it has a fairy tale ring to our modern ears, and it has everything you want in a romance: passion, longing, adultery, battles with giants, dangerous voyages and most of all, a love to die for. As the model for all romances that came after it, right down to The English Patient, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is still the best tale of love you can find: quick-paced, moving and tragic, it will make you long for the days when everyone knew what romance was and knew how to make real romantic gestures.

On a personal note: though the story of romance has been degraded by modern freedoms, I would still say that it’s possible to use the old, tragic gestures to express true love. Today, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I will be attending a matinee of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, after which I will make her favorite dish for dinner, which we’ll eat by candlelight. Is that romantic??

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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During this Valentine’s Week survey of Romances, we’ve noticed that a lot of characters in literary romances kill themselves for love. So we’ve invited some of the most notable lover-suicides here today to discuss their choices, along with Lucy Moderatz, the main character of the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping, who does not kill herself for love but lives happily ever after. This discussion is open for anyone’s comments, but let’s begin by asking Emma Bovary, wife of a successful doctor in a quiet town—why? Why kill yourself?

Emma Bovary: Of course, my first thought was to kill Charles, but he’s so boring he probably wouldn’t have noticed, and then I’d still be stuck in that backwater Tostes with all that debt! Then I thought of killing Rodolphe, who wouldn’t give me any money—you’d think he’d owe me something, after what he did. Honestly, I thought of killing everyone—Leon, the priest, even the butcher—but I was really, really depressed at the time, and flat broke, so I just got tired of it all and took the arsenic. I mean, if Rodolphe had just eloped with me in the first place, like he said he would, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, so maybe you should ask Rodolphe why he killed me!

Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

Lucy Moderatz: But why not just get a divorce, declare bankruptcy and move to Rouen? There must be lots of nice guys in Rouen.

Emma: Divorce? Not possible! Bankruptcy? And go to prison? This is 19th Century France, you nitwit!

Lucy: Hey!

Bookmarkzero: Anna, can you relate to Emma’s suicide? Were you motivated by the same concerns?

Anna Karenina: Of course, I can relate. When divorce is not possible, and you can’t express your true love—

Zero: But Anna, did you kill yourself because of Karenin’s refusal to grant a divorce, or because Vronsky was cheating on you?

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Anna: First of all, there’s no proof that he actually was cheating on me. So there’s that. And it’s true, everything just got to be too much. I mean, even if I get a divorce, I’m out of society, and I’m done for. I couldn’t have gone to the balls or the races, I had no friends, and I obviously couldn’t hang around with peasants all day. It was horrible—if I had gotten the divorce and then Vronsky had left me, it would have been the end of me. I don’t know—I think the morphine was messing with my head, too, but I honestly didn’t see any way out.

Lucy: But what about your children, what about Seryozha and Annie? Didn’t you think of them?

Anna (stares at Lucy): Annie didn’t like me anyway, and Seryozha. . . well, obviously, I didn’t want things to work out like they did. I killed myself—I’m not proud of it!

Lucy: But why not just demand a divorce, get the alimony and take the kids to Moscow? You could get a job! What were you good at?

Anna (to moderator): Who is this bitch?

Zero: Let’s bring in Juliet Capulet, who killed herself at her dead lover’s side. Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?

Claire Danes as Juliet

Juliet: What do I know now? My one true love is still dead. What did I have to live for?

Emma: That totally makes sense to me. If Rodolphe had died in my arms, I would have killed myself, too.

Anna: Me, too. You go, Juliet!

Emma: Right, better to get it over with early. No offense, but if he had lived, Romeo would probably have turned into a jerk like every other man.

Juliet: What! Take that back, you fusty baggage!

Zero: All right, let’s keep this civil. Lucy, did you ever think of killing yourself for love?

Lucy: Well. . . (thinks). . . not really. I mean, it was sad that Peter was in that coma, and then when he woke up. . .and Jack found out about everything. I mean, I quit my job—does that count?

Anna (bewildered): Quit your job?

Emma: This bitch doesn’t know anything. She has a job, she can sleep with anybody she wants and nobody cares, she can have a kid by herself, get divorced and remarried and divorced. What the hell does she know about love?

Juliet: That’s right! My family would have slain me in an honor killing if I had slept with Romeo out of wedlock, and then they would have killed Romeo and half his family. Marriage and sex and fidelity obviously mean nothing to you!

Lucy: Hey, that’s not fair. All I ever wanted was to be married.

Sandra Bullock as Lucy Moderatz

Anna: Sure, but you have choices. You can vote. You can sleep with that guy down the hall and who cares? No one ostracizes you from society, if a peasant like you could be said to have a society.

Lucy: You know, just because you lived in different times, that doesn’t give you a right to judge my feelings. I feel just as deeply about love as all of you did.

Juliet: Oh yeah?  (withdraws a dagger from her skirts and offers it to Lucy) Prove it.

Emma: Yeah, prove it.

Lucy (recoils): But I’m not going to kill myself. I’m happily married.

Emma (to moderator): Why did you invite her? What does she know about anything? (turns to Juliet) Give me that dagger!

Lucy: I’m getting out of here! (jumps up and runs away, followed closely by Emma, Anna and Juliet)

Zero: I guess we’ll have to resume this discussion at another time. Until then, let me leave you with this final question: Would you kill yourself for love?

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Does Romance lead to Marriage? Turgenev’s Spring Torrents

Thursday, February 11, 2010 @ 01:02 PM  posted by Mark

Several of you took issue with my Valentine’s Week post about Pride and Prejudice, saying that I was unjustly dismissive of Austen only because the romances in P&P lead to happy marriages. Isn’t that where romance is supposed to lead, to a happy marriage? What’s wrong with a happy ending?

There’s nothing wrong with happy endings. Personally, I like happy endings. But Romance does not lead to happy marriages (at least, not in literature), and if you see a happy ending, you’ll know that something other than true Romance is really happening.

Romance in literature is, by its very nature, against marriage. In fact, even the “romantic” stories that end happily in marriage end with the wedding: these “happy ending” novels and plays and movies have no interest whatsoever in the married couple or their happiness, since there is no drama in marriage, no ideal of longing—all these stories care about is the obstacles to love. The happy ending wedding brings characters who have been in defiance of community morals back into line with accepted codes. We don’t go to romances for happy endings, because that’s not what they’re designed to deliver: we go to romances because we want rapturous longing that doesn’t care about society’s rules, the superiority of noble feelings to everyday morality, and the exaltation of the individual over the community. When they end happily in marriage, these stories reaffirm a basic covenant that they’ve spent their entire length contradicting.

Nastassja Kinski played Polozova in a 1989 film of Spring Torrents.

Great romances always make their protagonists contend against arranged or loveless marriages, hypocrisy, duty and necessity; they are in favor of a transcendent emotion that cannot be contained by society. When a great romance ends in marriage, the great romance itself ends and the lovers are absorbed back into society; when a great romance ends in death or exile, the great romance lives on past the lives of the lovers, as a grand, swooning ideal of love superior to the mere laws of the community (or physics). In the story of Romance, the lovers must die so that Romance itself can live.

Ivan Turgenev‘s curious little novel Spring Torrents is an excellent example of the great love that refuses to end in marriage. It’s especially telling that there are no good reasons in the story of the novel for the protagonists not to have a happy ending—the main character, Sanin, simply chooses not to marry his beloved. This choice is represented as an unhappy one, made seemingly against his will, but in fact he must choose not to marry his beloved in order to prolong his romantic feelings for her and not ruin them with the less dramatic comforts of marriage.

As Jane Austen captures the plight of middle class Englishwomen with wit and clarity, Turgenev describes the stranger in a strange land with insight and sympathy. The protagonist of Spring Torrents is Sanin, a minor Russian aristocrat traveling abroad for the first time, having adventures and falling in love. (Here‘s a clip of Timothy Hutton as Sanin in the 1989 film, doing a Russian mating dance for Gemma). Through a series of mishaps, he is stranded temporarily in Frankfurt, where he falls in love with Gemma, a clerk in her family’s pastry shop. Gemma is already engaged to another man, Herr Kluber, but Sanin falls instantly in love with her, anyway (why not?). In the course of events, Sanin saves Gemma’s brother’s life; and, more importantly, when a soldier insults Gemma, Sanin defends her honor when her fiance will not. Eventually, Gemma rejects Herr Kluber and agrees to marry Sanin. Sanin is overjoyed, the family is happy, Gemma is happy: cue music, roll credits.

Not so fast! Jane Austen might have Sanin marry Gemma, now that the obstacles to their love have been examined and exorcised, but Turgenev is not interested in affirming the basic structure of marriage or society’s rules. He’s so interested in keeping his Romance between Gemma and Sanin alive that he subverts it with a ruinous, unmotivated, even cruel plot twist. In order to pay for the wedding, Sanin agrees to sell some land in Russia to an aristocratic Russian woman, Polozova, who is sojourning in a nearby town. While away from Gemma transacting this business, he has an affair with the woman (who is married!), and then he abandons Gemma and follows Poozova and her husband to Paris. There, he is tormented by both Polozova and his love for Gemma and ultimately returns to Petersburg a broken man. In a coda, we learn that Sanin loved Gemma for the rest of his life; in his old age, he travels back to Frankfurt to find her and learns that she is happily married. Gemma forgives him for abandoning her.

If we didn’t understand that Romance is about eternal longing rather than happy marriage, the plot of Spring Torrents would be incoherent. As an instance of Romance, though, it’s perfectly realized. Sanin himself doesn’t even understand why he chooses to undermine his great love for Gemma, but we as readers know it is because, in the myth of Romance, great love is always opposed to marriage. Sanin chooses to desperately desire Gemma forever rather than have her because by doing so he may pine for an ideal that is always alive in his heart rather than live in an untranscendent reality.

Despite the fact that I’ve just spilled the plot to Spring Torrents, I would still recommend it, because, like all great literature, its value is not in its plot, and there is one sublime extended scene near the end of the book that will stay with you long after you finish reading this slender volume.

Romance is an ideal of passionate desire. Marriage is a reality of devotion. Romance places the lover’s own satisfaction above everything—God, family, law. Marriage places the partner’s well-being above one’s own. Are these two kinds of love mutually exclusive? Maybe not in life, but in literature?

If you know a passionate novel of romance whose main couple is already married to each other at the beginning and stays together through the end, please let me know.

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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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