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Archive for February, 2010

Today in the Holocene: Valentine’s Week

Monday, February 8, 2010 @ 04:02 PM  posted by Mark

All this week, leading up to Valentine’s Day, I’ll be writing about romances, so I thought it best to kick off the series with a little background. By romance, I don’t mean the quasi-pornographic bustier-busters you see at grocery store checkouts or the heroic medieval verse narratives of knights like Gawain and Orlando; instead, I mean the middle ground that romance has settled into for most of us, the novels and movies of mainstream Western culture, which form the very heart of what we consider romantic love today. The novels I’ll be discussing—ranging from Pride & Prejudice through Atonement, with stops along the way at Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville, Flaubert and Turgenev—have so thoroughly shaped our personal, individual ideas of “falling in love” that it’s easy to forget that romance is just a Western European invention.

To start Valentine’s Week, I’d like to recommend three entertaining critical books about what romance is, how it developed and how its earliest forms continue to influence our lives. Sandra Bullock‘s romantic comedies, the novels we read to forget our often unromantic lives, and the very assumptions we unconsciously make about our lovers, wives and husbands all began as radical new ideas in the early Middle Ages, though now those ideas are so familiar that they’re nearly invisible.

Paul Zweig’s The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism looks at how Narcissism influences our ideas of love, religion and society. Ever been with someone you’ve just fallen in love with and get the feeling that, when they look deeply into your eyes, they might actually be seeing themselves and not you at all? You’re not alone. Zweig analyzes the work of the medieval authors of Romance (Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chretien de Troyes) to show how Narcissism is built into the very idea of romantic attraction. He also explores how the romantic exaltation of the individual affects our ideas of God, government and art.

Denis de Rougement’s classic study of the origins of Romance, Love in the Western World, describes how all the traditional elements of love came together: the damsel in distress, the shining knight on the white horse, and the forbidden desires that must be hidden from the lovers’ families. He covers everything from the Iberian poetry of Sufi mystics in the 9th Century to the screwball romantic comedies of the 1940s. He also discusses how the basic ideas of love solidified in the popular imagination with the real-life love affair of Heloise and Abelard and the fictional tragedies of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet. Engaging and polemical, de Rougement occasionally makes leaps that other historians have disputed (he connects the chansons of Provençal bards to the Catharist heresy that inspired the first Catholic Inquisition in a way that evidence does not entirely support), but the originality of his insights is impressive and his thoroughness in exploring the implications of his thesis, in literature and in everyday life, ultimately convinces.

Finally, to get even more “meta” on the lit/crit side of things, Northrop Frye‘s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance offers a free-wheeling study of the different forms Romantic literature takes and why the form (epic verse, chanson, play, opera, novel, pop song) matters to the meaning of the work. Our ideas of what Romance means change when the forms of the stories change, and his wide-ranging discussion includes Classical Greek and Roman drama, the stories of O. Henry, William Golding, Benjamin Franklin and The Magic Flute. Frye’s digression into the differences between the erotic and the pornographic is entertaining.

Romance is a complex myth, one of the founding myths of our modern culture, and Valentine’s Day has reduced it to flowers and chocolates and happily-ever-afters. But Cupid still has some poisoned arrows in his quiver, and if you see him coming, you might just want to run for cover.

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Belles-Lettres: Grunt

Thursday, February 4, 2010 @ 08:02 PM  posted by Mark

Illustrator Sandra Boynton‘s perverse love letter to Gregorian Chant, Grunt, is a multimedia satire of Medieval earnestness and the only classical recording I know that offers rigorously arranged, beautifully performed songs in Pig Latin. The package includes a lovely hardcover book, generously and humorously illustrated, detailing the history and mission of the fictitious monastic community of Snouto Domoinko de Silo; and a lavishly produced CD of Gregorian Chants, performed by classically trained vocalists singing beautiful monophonies and polyphonies from the perspective of pigs. The Snouto Domoinko de Silo is a collective of humble, worshipful pigs and their “lesser” barnyard companions, chickens, cows and farmers, and the text of the chants (in Pig Latin, with English translation) chronicles the existential struggles and religious philosophies of domesticated beasts. For example, this Chant is a call and response at dinnertime between a Farmer and some hungry Chickens:

Vocatio Secunda (Second Call)

All songs are written by the author and performed by the Ad Hog Camerata, a joyful choir under the direction of Fenno Heath (former Director of the Yale Glee Club) and Choirmaster Bruce McInnes. Grunt is that rare novelty whose art is as accomplished as its satire. Play it at a gathering and classical music buffs will roll on the floor with laughter, while your less medievally hip friends will simply wonder what on earth possessed you to play such solemn religious music at a party.

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Library of Babel: My Friends

Thursday, February 4, 2010 @ 12:02 AM  posted by Mark

Emmanuel Bove’s slender first novel My Friends follows World War One veteran Victor Baton down some of the the seediest alleys in Paris in a futile search for companionship. The novel’s title is ironic because, in fact, Baton has no friends, and though his misery would love to find some company, Baton chooses potential friends poorly and is either betrayed by or alienates them each in short order. The novel is charming in its sympathy for the down-and-out, for characters who don’t fit into the obvious order of things, and it shines when it portrays the emotional complexities of well-intentioned but damaged and ultimately self-serving people. The wry glint and ironic humor of the scenes keeps them from becoming maudlin or depressing.

The highlight of the book is Baton’s encounter with Neveu, a friendless, depressed man who is collecting stones along the Seine. When Baton approaches to ask why Neveu is collecting stones, Neveu tells him that he is about to drown himself, and he needs ballast to drag him to the bottom of the river. Baton decides to help Neveu collect stones, and then he decides to throw himself into the river as well. By the time they’ve collected enough stones to do the job, Neveu and Baton have become friends, and they decide to go to a cafe instead of killing themselves; but Neveu takes advantage of Baton’s generosity, spends all of his money on wine and then disappears into a brothel with Baton’s last penny. Baton never sees him again. It is difficult to imagine from this description that the scene is funny, but it is.

The novel’s clarity, wit and emotional complexity save it from pathos, and Baton’s plight, like the plight of Gregor in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” represents the dilemma of the alienated modern individual. Baton is ambitious in his way but does not want the mind-numbing low-wage jobs he can get; he’s poor and lonely, but he can’t connect to the impoverished loners around him; and his war injuries make him both a hero and an embarrassment to his society, which can no longer understand him. My Friends is smart, droll and surprisingly companionable for a book about alienation; it makes you feel—just as Baton feels about his absent friends in the novel—affectionate toward its author and certain that you could never get along with him. Originally published in 1924, the English translation by Janet Louth appeared in 2000.

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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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