Posts Tagged ‘ Fyodor Dostoevsky ’

“… before an unknown hollow darkness of the heart”

Carson McCullers at 100

Isaiah Berlin based his most famous essay1 on a fragment of Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin forced this enigmatic apophthegm into a classification for writers and thinkers: “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” The first group are the hedgehogs, and the second the foxes. He illustrated this division by putting, among others, Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky and Proust among the hedgehogs and Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac with the foxes. His use of this dichotomy is something of a rhetorical trick, because his essay is about Tolstoy for whom he says the division does not apply. But it is, perhaps, much better suited to the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967), who, unlike almost all  American novelists, is a hedgehog.

When one considers the celebrated novelists of the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine any of them conceiving of the need for a systematic organization of thought into a single way of looking at things. Such thinkers are rare enough throughout history, and American fiction writers, with the exception, perhaps, of Hawthorne and certainly, of Melville, have not been been systematic moralists or practicing metaphysicians; rather, they have usually preferred psychological, and occasionally political, approaches to stories, and both are notoriously digressive methods.

Nabokov hated the kinds of novels hedgehogs produced, deriding them as books with “messages.” But all novels more-or-less have messages, even Tolstoy’s. (Anna Karenina after all begins with the epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”) The difference with hedgehogs, however, is that the central view is not a moral of a particular story or even an organizing principle for a work; it is rather a way of looking at the world which informs (and usually is the reason for undertaking) a writers total output. And given that the author so concentrates on that central vision (it is perhaps the reason why he becomes an author), it casts the story in a slightly heightened light, immediately noticeable, often by the adoption of a tone that is emotionally noncommittal and measured, although Dostoevsky’s prose is often urgent and frenetic.

T.S. Eliot (descendant of the Puritans, America’s quintessential hedgehogs) may have been America’s chief literary hedgehog. But the system he tried to construct, involving old -fashioned reactionary politics and unintelligible Catholic-Buddhist mysticism, was too solipsistic to be seriously entertained by anyone. McCullers was quite different. Her systematic quest was the result of experience and self-knowledge, and it appealed viscerally. And regardless of any limitations she might be accused of, one always feels she is driving at something beyond ordinary literary insight.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

From the beginning of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter it is obvious that McCullers had in her sights the roots of human isolation. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together,” is the opening sentence. The picture it produces is the paradigm of isolation. Cut off from the rest of the town not only by their disabilities but also by the social segregation the disabled suffer, they have only each other. The chapter describes, in precise, unsentimental prose, the life these two lead. One, John Singer, a tall, thin, impeccably neat and refined man; the other, Spiros Antonapoulos, short and obese, and, we soon learn, mentally challenged. The two, over the course of the decade they lived together, made a life out of their simple and unvaried routine. Antonapoulos worked for his cousin, the owner of a fruit store. Singer was a silverware engraver. They would walk together to work, arm in arm, and come home together at night, where Antonapoulos cooked the meal (food was his one joy), and Singer washed the dishes. Singer did all the communicating, often signing for great stretches of time. Antonapoulos rarely “spoke,” except before bed when he prayed to “Holy Jesus” or “Darling Mary.” Silver did not know how much his friend understood of what he signed. “But the two mutes were not lonely at all.” Until one day, when Singer was 32, Antonapoulos became ill. He was ordered on a strict diet—a great privation for him—and he blamed Singer, who enforced the doctor’s regimen. Antonapoulos became spiteful and soon began acting out by committing small misdemeanors and indecencies in public. Eventually, without consulting Singer, Antanapoulos’s cousin had him committed to the state mental institution. The loss of his friend was a devastating blow from which he struggled to recover. At first, and for a long time, Singer wandered the streets of this deep Southern town until late at night. Singer was not of this place (“more like a Northerner or a Jew,” the town’s African American doctor concluded after receiving a small kindness from him), and this made him even lonelier. After weeks of this solitude, his grief changed him: “His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” He reached that state of numbness that is the only outcome of deep heartache.

That first chapter, we realize after finishing the novel, is really an encapsulation of the entire novel, like a sonata movement in a Classical era work, whose statements would be developed in various ways by the rest of the work. But Singer’s fate is not just emblematic; it sets him on a course that would make him a central character in the lives of others. In fact his relationships with the other major characters becomes a unifying plot device as well as a central metaphor in its own right. In each of the next four chapters we meet in turn the other four main characters who would become unlikely (and unsought for) disciples of Singer and whose stories unfold as something like variations on the theme of Singer’s.

The second chapter introduces us to Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, the owner of the town’s dinner, the New York Café. Biff was not a man of action: “[h]e usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arm folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him.” His perch on the edge of this world allows him to watch, cogitate and try to puzzle together the half-conclusions he comes to. We meet his wife, Alice, who has no respect for him, and it’s clear that there is no longer any love in this marriage. Their current point of contention is a drunk, Jake Blount, who has taken up something like permanent residency in the diner. Alice wants him out, but Biff is too passive to take action. And he finds Blount an interesting object of his contemplation. Meanwhile, as Saturday turns to Sunday, Blount passed the stage of inebriation and has become a sloppy drunk, trying to declaim radical politics to the late-night diners and drinkers, most of whom consider him an object of ridicule. As a result of the outcome of that evening Blount would become a major character in his own right.

In this second chapter, we meet the two other new major characters, Mick Kelley, a 14 year old member of a large, downwardly mobile family who operate a run-down boarding house. Mick is one of six children and is barely supervised by her overworked parents, and this explains how she is at the diner past midnight buying cigarettes. Biff finds himself strangely attracted to the tomboyish girl. In this chapter we also meet the town’s African American doctor, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland, who in the middle of that night is brought by Blount into the diner and is enraged when he believes that he has been tricked into coming to a segregated eating establishment soley to be mocked. Even John Singer is there, having during his wanderings made arrangements with Biff to take all of his meals at the café every day. Through Mick we learn that Singer has taken up lodgings at the Kellys’ boarding house, and after Blount that night makes a scene owing to acute alcohol poisoning, Singer offers taking Blount to his room for the night. To continue the symphony analogy, this chapter is something like a scherzo, and there are three movements left.

The third chapter follows Mick’s around the next day, Sunday, and shows us her family and acquaints us with her aspirations, at the same time both unrealistic and cramped. She is obsessed by music. But her parents cannot afford any additional expenses (even if they knew her interest); almost any connection she might have with music is out of the question, so she listens outside the room of a boarder who has a radio. She discovers that the music she is particularly entranced by was written long ago by someone named “Motsart.” She dreams of someday having a piano, but for now she has tried to make a violin from a broken mandolin and wires. When she realizes it won’t work, she is disgusted with her own foolishness. She wonders why she so enthusiastically worked on a thing that was so ridiculous. ‘Maybe,” she thinks, “when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”

We also discover in this chapter that the black cook at the boardinghouse, Portia, is Dr. Copeland’s daughter, and while she maintains her filial regard for him, she tells Mick of his estrangement from the family. She attributes his loneliness (despite being “full of books”) to his rejection of religion,. Religion gives peace, she explains, like what she, her husband, her brother Willie (who works in the kitchen of the New York Café), and their boarder Mr. Singer. (By using the same word as the narrator, peace, to describe the current state of John Singer, Portia ironically compares the numbness of personal devastation with the grace of God.) She warns Mick that she will experience the same emptiness of her father without God. “Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t have love and you don’t have peace.” Mick is cut to the quick by the accusation that she hadn’t loved, but she keeps her own counsel. When she wanders off she is gripped by an indescribable agitation and wrestles with an unquenchable longing for what she knows not. While sitting on the stairs hoping a boarder will turn on her radio she became lost in thought: 

“She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.”

In the fourth chapter we come to understand the obsession that Blount was unable to articulate during the previous night’s binge. Having been cleaned up by Singer he goes off to look for work. In the want ads he learns of a broken down amusement show looking for a mechanic. He finds the owner and tells him of his experience in all sorts of mechanical work is hired to run the flying jinny, an aging and splintered carousel that is taken from one vacant lot to the other to provide amusement for the town’s underbelly—mill hands, children and blacks. After taking the job he walks back through the white mill workers’ part of town. The buildings and inhabitants are both dreary and hopeless. He sidles up to three workers with “mill-sallow, dead pan faces” sitting on a porch. After offering them tobacco, he begins asking about strikes and their opinions about the owners of the mill. He asks them if their exploitation makes them mad, but all he can elicit is mocking laughter. “The men laughed in the slow and easy way that three men laugh at one.” He is enraged, but returns to Singer with bottles of beer because he knows that Singer is an empathetic soul and can provide him solace. He explains how he has spent his life studying the system that chews up people for profit on capital. He tells Singer that they are two of the very few who understand and when two such find each other it is something like a miracle. Singer, who clearly does not understand, writes a question on a card: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Blount looks into Singer’s eyes, which seem to hypnotize him. “‘You get it,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘You know what I mean.'”

Chapter five tells the story of Dr. Copeland, a man dedicated to the liberation of his people. So certain of the righteousness of his goal, he tried to enlist his children into the fight, giving them the names Karl Marx, Hamilton, Willie and Portia. Hs book study and life experience have taught him what it will take for the Negro to reclaim his rights: discipline, hard work, dignity and exemplary behavior to emulate. He knows this to his core; spreading this word has become his “real true cause.” He saw his children as agents in this work and hoped to teach them of their special places and their own real true cause, but they wanted to fit in with their peers, to avoid the stigma of being “uppity.” Dr. Copeland’s wife did not openly resist him, but she sided with them. She allowed the children their minor vices and childish wishes, and worse, she took them to church and instilled in them “the cult of meekness.”  It was more than he could bear, and the result of the conflict was his wife moving to the farm of her father and taking the children. She died, but the children remained estranged. Only Portia occasionally visited her father, but neither she nor any of the others became the scientists, lawyers and teachers Copeland knew his people needed, and he was now bereft of his family and his dreams.

These introductions are followed by the large central part of the work, where the destinies of these characters play out. The stories are presented much like the introductions, with one chapter for each of the characters, although the stories occasionally cross paths. Each chapter has subtly different narrative language appropriate to the character whose story is told.  Words or phrases that peculiar to a particular character are inserted in a non-intrusive way, and this softens the artificiality of an omniscient narrator’s voice. But these insertions do not substitute for the characters’s internal dialogue, they merely illustrate the level of intellectual maturity and social adjustment of the character. The narrator’s tone remains the same throughout: sympathetic without pathos, exposition without any unnecessary emphasis, objective rather than like-minded, all accomplished with clear expository sentences designed to show the reader external events and the characters’ responses, suggesting some deeper meaning, but without idiosyncratic style or obvious technique. She always allows the structure of the narrative (with occasional rhetorical emphasis) to permit the reader to form conclusions of a deeper sort.

As for the key feature of the structure most critical comment has focused on the relation of Singer to the three who most avidly seek out his attention. (Biff is too busy at the café to spend much time with Singer at the boarding house and doesn’t sit with him at the diner. Besides, his interest in Singer is clinical: Unlike the other three, he sees that Singer does not understand what they offer up to him. He tries to understand why they delude themselves.) The three become more and more dependent on Singer: “Each person addressed his words mainly to the mute. Their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub.” Singer does not seek this position, nor does he do much to maintain it. He barely understands what they tell him, and they interpret his smiles or nods as suits them. He is happy for the company but finds them strange. One night he has a dream where Antonapoulos was knelling atop a set of stone stairs holding something above his head and he seemed in an attitude of prayer. Below him Singer himself, also naked, was looking up at Antonapoulos. Below Singer were the four other main characters looking at him. The dream ends when the stairs crumble. Much has been made of the metaphorical implications of Singer’s relation to the others. And just as Singer’s “disciples” attribute to his reactions the meaning they wish them to have, critics have assigned as the meaning of the metaphor their own hobbyhorses. I’ll give one example: Harold Bloom, one of America’s most prolific critics, and one who often appeals to non-academic readers, sees this metaphor in terms of classic (early) psychoanalysis and refers to Freud’s “The Dynamics of Transference” (1912) to note that inability to love results from early channelling of libidinal impulses in ways that withhold it from conscious personality (etc., etc.).2 But McCullers in this novel does not addressing the expression of erotic love by this metaphor. She is not even dealing with any of he other forms of love that bear Greek names (such as agape or philos). What the “disciples” want, is not “love,” but rather affirmation of the meaning they have chosen for their lives, the meaning they have selected consciously, not as a result of innate drives. This may or may not be susceptible to psychoanalytic description, but not in the reductive way Bloom suggests.

In much the same way other academic critics have forced this work into the confines of their own specialties. Let’s put aside feminist and queer theory critics and look at earlier critics who regarded the novel as another of the Southern Gothic genre begun by Faulkner. Most of the support for that categorization stems solely from the southern location and the supposed treatment of “freaks” and “outcasts.” (The reed that often supports the claim that McCullers is obsessed with “freaks” is Biff’s statement to Alice that “I like freaks.” But when he thinks of it Blount (to whom he applied the term) is not a freak, and those he was thinking of do not appear in the novel.) That the characters were ground down by poverty, the Depression and racism does not make them freaks or otherwise bizarre. In fact, McCullers treats each of the characters with a kind of respect, and thereby gives them a dignity that is apparent even in the first glance. McCullers’s characters are overall much more articulate than Faulkner’s, her African American characters in particular are real people rather than props. Her style and narrative structure avoid any self-referential “literary” technique. Nor does she emphasize the morbid or construct elaborate but implausible plot developments. In short, there seems really very little in common between McCullers and Faulkner. But for me the most important difference and what makes McCullers unique is how she can make a novel of ideas out of people and events that remain realistic throughout. In this novel almost all the characters are living on the edge of financial disaster. Privation distorts their possibilities as well as their relations to others. And yet in addition to trying to retain their dignity, the main characters are also searching for deeper meanings to life, and it is that quest and the answers they tell themselves that are at the heart of the mystery that we feel reading her novels.

Characters searching for meaning was not a Southern, or even American, literary commonplace. Of course, there were all sorts of existentialist theories and treatments of existentialist themes and outlooks from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. (One could even go earlier with Büchner’s Woyzeck.) But whether one could (or even should) define a meaning for one’s self was a question that would become a central issue only in the middle of the twentieth century and later. An important early step in that direction was Camus’s The Stranger, but that novel was published a year after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And the French work dealt only with the preliminary issue: the absurdity of our isolation (to translate it into more McCullers-friendly concepts). Camus would elaborate his concept (and its consequences) in many essays and criticisms, which gave him intellectual heft among academics. McCullers was never an accomplished essayist, possibly because she formulated her ideas in terms of stories. (In this she might be said to be Southern.) But in her first extended story she examined her existential (or absurdist, for she is more like Camus than either the atheist Sartre or the deist Kierkegaard) thesis from several different angles, not just one  (exceedingly abnormal) point of view as in The Stranger.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is also the only work that puts her existential thesis in the context of common religious beliefs (for the South in the late 1930s). There are only two characters (and they are secondary) who subscribe to any form of systematic religious belief. The first is Antonapoulos, whose religious rituals, as far as we can tell, are extremely childlike and rote, almost superstitious. Singer’s dream acknowledges his friend’s superiority ot him in matters spiritual (and in the same sense his superiority to his own “disciples”), but in the end the edifice collapses. Portia is the other believer (or at least practitioner) in the work. She believes that membership in her denomination and moderate practice of ritual (not too “sanctified” she insists) results in peace and the ability to love.  It is true that she is the only character who demonstrates something close to selfless concern for others, even those outside her own insular race (for she expresses concern for the Kelly children). Her behavior, however, seems more in keeping with the cult of meekness (as Dr. Copeland calls it), the kind which reinforces conventional social and ethical rules without any appeal to heightened consciousness (the kind, in short, that William James seems to prefer in The Variety of Religious Experiences), and nothing she says shows it gives any meaning to her life. It certainly is not a motivation to seek social justice. The other characters dismiss religion outright. Mick believes no more in God than in Santa Claus, she says, but her early indoctrination bubbles up in snatches of scripture at an oddly inappropriate moment. Blount is plagued by a street preacher out to convert him, but Blount’s response is mere mockery. He regards it all as a lie, unlike the gospel of worker liberation which he preaches and for which he himself is mocked. Biff is also reminded of religion. His wife teaches Sunday School and at the beginning of the novel, he hears her preparing a lesson involving the verse from Mark, to the effect that all men seek for Him. The talk only effects nostalgia in Biff, who remembers the days before he gave it all up. When each reach their own crisis, none considers religion as a sensible recourse.

Even the one central teaching of conventional Christianity, altruistic love (Christ-like in its self-abnegation) does not give us permanent relief from the isolation the characters experience, because it depends on the existence of the object of our devotion. When Singer loses Antanapoulos, his reason for living disappears, and with that, he takes away the affirmation he was supplying to the others. The short denouement part of the novel concludes their stories in reverse order of the characters’ introductions. Copeland, having met his wall, the realization that his life work of self-actualizing into a respectable, dignified man was no match for the entrenched institutionalized forces of racism, gives up. He is carted off (literally) to the farm of his father-in-law, whose meekness and religiosity Copeland spent his lifetime opposing. It is perhaps the fact that the farm is away from the town, itself isolated from the arena that Copeland had tried to contend in, that makes it any refuge at all. Blount, having not convinced any person of the idea he found so simple, and indeed becomes the reason that the oppressed end up attacking each other, has to leave town, to escape questions and possibly to find converts elsewhere. Biff gives him a little help, but without Singer, Blount has not reason to stay. Mick made a decision, forced by circumstances that effectually compelled it, which for all practical purposes will end her dream of pursuing music. Barely on the edge of adulthood she can expect a future as dreary of her father’s, but evidently because we cannot live without meaning, however illusory, she thinks she can save $2 out of $10 weekly salary to some day buy a piano. These thoughts console her while she drinks a beer and has a chocolate sundae at the café at the same time realizing that she is angry all the time. Only there is no on to be angry at. Biff suffers no great trouble, because he had no meaning he would commit to. He realized he would no longer love again, and he never understood the mystery of Singer. But suddenly in the middle of the night, as he tends the customer-free café, he comes to a transcendent realization. “For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded.” But the exhilaration of the vision soon turns to terror. What he was looking at was the past; the future, however, holds “blackness, error, and ruin.” It was necessary to wash his face with a wet handkerchief and to actively impose self discipline to dispel the terror. He was, after all, a “sensible man.” And so he composed himself “soberly to await the morning sun.”

There are two influences that I think profoundly influence the organization and approach of this novel, and both are Russian.3 The first is the mature work of Dostoevsky. In the first place, the techniques of Dostoevsky’s first effort to mesh more than one story into a single work, Crime and Punishment, are evident. Long stretches of independent stories, occasionally crossing with the other story, are allowed to develop under their own logic, almost independent of the design of the others. What gives The Heart is a Lonely Hunter such expansiveness is the careful construction of the separate stories, not as accessories to each other, but almost in their own right. The parallels are not overstated, and the details allow us to consider the psychological makeup of each character. A particular point of comparison is the introduction of Blount in McCullers’s book and the introduction of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment (in both cases in the second chapters of the respective novels). Like Blount, Marmeladov is quite drunk and attempts to tell his story. Like the customers in the New York Café, those in Dostoevsky’s bar treat the drunk with ridicule. But out of the encounter a relationship is formed between the two drunks and the two central characters in the novels. A second characteristic of Dostoevsky that McCullers also uses is the sudden shocking moment that drastically changes the relationships of the characters and their possible future courses of action. This is probably best seen in Demons (The Possessed) and The Idiot. Finally, Dostoevsky also dwell on the human need to express out inner thoughts to others. This is what in Crime and Punishment undoes Raskolnikov legally (although we are led to believe at the end, it formed the basis for his spiritual renewal). It is also evident, more perversely, in the character of Stavrogin in Demons. What McCullers does not take from Dostoevsky, however, is his tendency to descend into the maudlin. For her restrained tone and objective recounting of narrative, she more closely resembles Chekhov.  Both of these two Russian influences also  can be seen in the next two novels.

With her first novel McCullers staked out a territory that became her own over the next two decades—the mystery of human isolation and its consequence. Dostoevsky likewise spent his career exploring the spiritual dimensions of human suffering. Although neither fully answered the questions they posed, they both came near an answer by the final novel. In the next post I’ll discuss how McCullers came to almost know that “one big thing.”

Notes

1“The Hedgehog and the Fox” in Russian Thinkers (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays ed. by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [Return to text.]

2Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Carson McCullers (Modern Critical Views) ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), pp. 1–2. [Return to text.]

3McCullers wrote an essay in 1941 entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Writers” in which she compared the Russian aristocracy to the Southern social order: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.” It is not for this reason, however, or at least not for this reason alone, that I think she owes a debt to the Russians. [Return to text.]

Rodoreda’s last novel: A haunting portrayal of a disordered world

We read certain novelists, like Dostoevsky and especially Dickens, relatively quickly, anticipating something astonishing around the corner. There are others, like Mercè Rodoreda, that one reads slowly, anticipating something astonishing in every paragraph.

Mural of Mercè Rodoreda at 163 Numancia Street during Barcelona's 2014 exhibition Discover 10. (Photo by diveuniversefest under CC licennse at Flickr.

Mural of Mercè Rodoreda at 163 Numancia Street during Barcelona’s 2014 exhibition Discover 10. (Photo by diveuniversefest under CC license at Flickr).

Rodoreda is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Catalan language. Her modernist novel La Plaça del Diamant (“Diamond Square” after a place in Barcelona), first published in English as The Time of the Doves (New York: Taplinger, ©1981), a woman’s growing understanding of love and life over two decades, has been acclaimed as the best fictional treatment of the Spanish Civil War in any language. All of her mature works, both novels and stories, are characterized by simple yet meticulously concise expression, making her one of the greatest stylists of any language.

It is therefore a major event that Open Letter, the press of the University of Rochester dedicated to new translations of literary works, publishes this month War, So Much War, a translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennant of Rodoreda’s Quanta, quanta guerra… the last novel published during Rodoreda’s lifetime (Barcelona: Club Editor, 1980). (Open Book first published in 2009 Death in Spring, a translation of the posthumously published and unfinished La mort i la primavera (Barcelona: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 1997). In September, Open Letter came out with a paperback edition.) As for the newly translated novel, unlike many major events, this one does not disappoint expectations.

Her Life, in Brief

Rodoreda with her grandfather, Pere Gurguí, and bouquet of flowers. Photo from the collection of Carme Arnau.

Merc¡e Rodoreda i Gurguí was born in the Sarrià-Sant Gervasi section of Barcelona (where the Diamond Plaza was located) at a time (October 1908) when modernity and tradition were vying for supremacy. This conflict took place in the fields of culture and politics. In culture Modernisme was temporarily defeated by Noucentisme but the dialectics of these opposites produced a synthesis which led to a modern Catalan nationalism. In politics, Barcelona (the largest center of industry in Spain) found both its bourgeois and working class interests unrepresented in parliament, where both the Conservatives and Liberals were captives of the land-holding classes. Not willing to admit other groups the two parliamentary parties managed elections and agreed to a rotation in office (el turno) and left it to the Army to manage dissent without interference by the civil authorities. In Barcelona anti-militarism, on the rise among the workers and the intelligentsia, especially after the loss of the empire in the war with the United States in 1898,  was met with open hostility on the part of the local barracks. The climax came a year after Rodoreda was born with the demonstrations against the Army’s call up for the Moroccan. The Army responded during the Tragic Week, la Setmana Tràgica in 1909, with an iron fist, and the civilian government supported the unauthorized repression by executing five protestors and sentencing 59 others to life for their opposition and supposedly participating in the violence that followed. This event proved the turning point for Catalonia, and the working class would now organize for serious confrontations, a pose that would last for nearly three decades until Franco’s forces permanently subdued the region and executed, imprisoned or expelled everyone associated with Catalan nationalism, socialism, anarchism and democracy.

Exiles in Roissy-en-Brie (l to r): Magin Muria, Armand Obiols, Rodoreda, Jordi Murià, Amalia Casals, Agusti Bartra, Muria Anna and Anna Romero at Villa Rosset in Roissy-en-Brie. October 16, 1939. (Source: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Exiles in Roissy-en-Brie (l to r): Director Magí Murià, writer Armand Obiols, Mercè Rodoreda, Jordi Murià, Amàlia Casals (wife of Enric Cluselles), poet Agustí Bartra, writer Anna Murià and Anna Romaní at the Muria house, Villa Rosset in Roissy-en-Brie. October 16, 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

According to Rodoreda’s elliptical memoirs, she was an unlikely participant (as activist or memorialist) in these struggles, growing impoverished and only receiving two years of formal education. But a recent examination of her childhood shows that it was less impoverished and disadvantaged than she suggested. In El paradís perdut de Mercè Rodoreda (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 2015) (available since last month on Amazon, but only for Kindle and only in Catalan) Carme Arnau Faidella reconstructed Rodoreda’s childhood from unpublished letters and other memorabilia. She concludes that Mercè had a happy, somewhat Bohemian life. Her parents were devoted to the theater (both had taken classes at l’ Escola d’Art Dramàtic) and books. Her mother was fond of music as well. But she was especially fond of her maternal grandfather, Pere Gurguí, in whose house they lived. Gurguí was a journalist who had once been editor for the short-lived L’Arc de Sant Martí (“Rainbow”) and La Renaixença (“the Renaissance”), both conservative Catalan newspapers, which promoted the cultural identity of Catalans. Gurguí was dedicated to Catalonian history and culture and imparted his love to his granddaughter. He had been a friend of Jacint Verdaguer, poet and member of  the generation of Restoration of 1874, which led to La Renaixença, the rebirth of Catalan language and culture. Mercè remembered her grandfather telling her that a guardian angel watched over her, and occasionally those angels appear in her writing. He also read to her the works of Català, Ruyra and other Catalan modernists. The most important to him was Verdaguer.  In 1910, eight years after the poet’s death and two years after Mercè’s birth, Gurguí built a monument to Verdaguer in his garden,

“a hill of big stones, with pans of dirt in between, where rosemary plants and other typical Mediterranean plants grew, surrounded by a strip of pink cement that wound around the rocks and had the titles of Verdaguer’s main works engraved in it, El Canigó, L’Atlàntida, etc.” (from Images of Childhood.)

Rodoreda in 1980. Photo by Tomi Socies for Revista Canigó. (Universitat d'Alacant.)

Rodoreda in 1980. Photo by Tomi Socies for Revista Canigó. (Universitat d’Alacant.)

The garden and its flowers became a recurring figure in her writing especially after her exile. Almost as if flowers represented the Catalan culture they were associated with in the garden, flowers would spring up everywhere in her stories and novels. They could be symbols of love as in “Blood”: “My husband would say the dahlias were our children.” Disinterest in flowers could signal a breach in a relationship as in “Engaged”: “‘ I don’t understand your obsession with flowers. All that …’ he made a gesture with his head as if shaking off something that suddenly vexed him.” Flowers are sometimes provide subtle symbolism, as the bougainvillea in Isabel i Maria, a plant whose bracts imitate flower petals and in the story reflects the duplicity between the characters. But mostly flowers represented home, especially in exile. As Rodoreda herself said (in the preface to Mirall trencat (Broken Mirror) Rodoreda explained why she made a gardener and his garden the center of her novel Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea), the first novel after her exile: “Linked to flowers, without flowers for years, I felt the need to talk about flowers, and to make my main character a gardener.” Flowers therefore represented above all homesickness, which is probably why an idolized and innocent childhood is part of almost all her works. Arnau said that the nostalgia for a lost childhood is always contrasted with adult hypocrisy and corruption.

Her own childhood paradise came abrupt to an end when she was 20. After her grandfather’s death, evidently her uncle, her mother’s brother, who had been in the Americas to make his fortune, sent stipends to her family to keep it afloat. When he returned, he married Mercè. A year later she had a son. Her marriage and domestic life made her miserable. She chose to escape the life she seemed destined for by means of journalism and then through novels.By 1936 she had published her fourth novel. The the Civil War came. Barcelona, which had already been a center of great intellectual and artistic activity under the Second Republic, as well as one vastly more liberal when it came to the place of women in society, became one of the strongest centers of loyalist resistance to Franco. The eventual victory of fascism in Spain was a calamity of historic proportions, not only putting the resisters in physical danger but also bringing about a spiritual and cultural disaster much like the Saints experienced when Charles II was restored, or the proletariat in Paris in 1849 or the partisans in France only a few years after the defeat of the Spanish Republic.

When the civil war began the great liberal experiment of the Second Republic with its benefits for intellectual women, for Catalans and for many others came to an end with the victory of Franco’s fascist army. Catalonia, one of the centers of loyalist defense of the Republic (and more significantly from the rightist point of view, one of the most advance workers’ movements ever undertaken), felt the heel of repression. Though not technically banned, the local forces suppressed Catalan in many ways, including signs that said: “Don’t bark, speak Spanish!”

Rodoreda and Armand Obiols in 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Rodoreda and Armand Obiols in 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Rodoreda escaped repression and her family in well fell swoop. She left behind her son as well as her husband. She lived from 1939 to the Nazi occupation in Roissy-en-Brie, a small commune in the Île-de-France region east of Paris. She was doubly exiled: away from her country, but also because of the suppression of Catalan by the Falangists, exiled from her native tongue, and therefore from writing. In 1938 she had written Aloma, according to Pope dealt with “the violence of society, the degrading routine of marriage, the dangers of romantic delusions, the repression of the body, and the exploitation and abuse of women.” In France Rodoreda would meet writer Armand Obiols, with whom she would live until his death in 1971.

Obiols would offer extensive editorial advice to Rodoreda and her work thereafter became what made her internationally famous: objective, dispassionate, sparse and concrete. Pope showed, for example, how the influence of Obiols changed the narrative tone of Aloma between the time it was first published (before he knew her) and the 1969 edition. For years there were rumors that Obiols wrote her books, a charge that she told Castellet was “stupidity” (una bestiesa). As proof she said that most of her books were “women’s books” and men know nothing about women.

Untitled by Mercè Rodoreda. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1950? Institut s'Estudis de Catalan.

Untitled by Mercè Rodoreda. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1950? Institut d’Estudis Catalans.

In France Rodoreda did not complete any writing. She supported herself by sewing. When she fled the Nazi she moved to Switzerland. There she took up painting. Over 80 of her watercolors, gouaches and collages are held by the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 30 of which were exhibited at Barcelona’s La Pedrera in 2008 during the centenary of her birth. They were stark portraits of women (mostly) with expressions of wonderment and silence.This would become a characteristic of her narrators when she took up writing in earnest again in 1958.

Her Writing, Briefly

Rodoreda’s writing spanned the styles of the twentieth century beginning with psychological realism, to modernist interior explorations to a unique form of fantastic realism. But in all these styles the narrative approach was much the same. The protagonist/narrator was usually a women of lower socio-economic status. José Ortega says that this helps contribute to her ingenuísmo. The nature of the narrative voice is unique, and the effect at first is hard to pinpoint. Scarlett points out that unlike most first person narrators the narration is almost exclusively testimonial and not confessional. Moreover, Restina says that by shutting off the “intellectual function” the narration achieves a descriptive power making the things observed more “real” and “concrete.”

Because there is no “intellectual filter” between the narrator and the reader the narration gives the effect of the kind of writing André Breton described as “pure psychic automatism.” The surrealist techniques of Rodoreda are anything but subliminal. Her “disorientation, random association and misogyny” in The Time of the Doves (as Everly points out) have specific and quite precise narrative functions. But beyond the surrealistic technique, the oddities that permeate her stories (especially the later ones) create what Garcia Marquez called an  “atmosphere”  from which her revelations take place. And the last novel, War, So Much War is the culmination of her experiments in this regard.

In 1973, with Franco turning over his role as head of government to Carrero Blanco, Rodereda returned to Catalonia where she would live until her death in 1983. Franco was in ill health for much of the time after her return, and he died in 1975.  Perhaps his death made partisanship reside in her last novel, published in 1980, because no sides are expressly identified. (It is possible to surmise, however, that the narrator belongs to the loyalist militia, given how the enemy has airplanes and repeatedly bombs civilians.) The novel is not so much about a war, as it is that the war is the thing that makes everything else the way it is.

War, So Much War

war, so much warRodoreda’s last novel is a story told (or experienced for the most part) by Adrià Guinart, a young man who goes to war to escape his mother and see the world. But he soon regrets his decision to fight and he runs away when he can. Although unlike almost all other works by Rodoreda the narrator is male, his youth (he is barely past puberty) and his conduct make his gender ambiguous. When he was young and taken to school for the first time, Father Sebastià told his mother that they did not admit girls. The priest soon found him to be a “veritable archangel” and had his desk placed next to his own.

We know very little about his childhood but what we are told is told lyrically and so we seem to get a full sense of him. He evidently loved his father dearly, and his time with him is described tenderly: “On the Sundays when my father wasn’t of a mind to visit his cousins, he would take me for a walk. We spent hours sitting by the side of the road, and sometimes the air winnowed threads from the hearts of stunted flowers, and some would catch in my clothes.” His father, a railroad engineer, was haunted by a ghost—a man who would walk on the tracks, causing his father to screech the train to a halt, but in the examination later, no trace of the man would be found, and he received criticism. On the third time, he closed his eyes when the man refused to leave the tracks, and he felt bones being crushed when the train passed over him. The father died shortly after that experience, when Adrià was 11.

Adrià had a birthmark on his forehead, and when angry his mother told him it he reminded her of Cain. She raised carnations for sale near the train line, where trains could be heard all night from the house. The house had a yellow rose bush growing up its side. He grew to find the house suffocating, and began escaping from night to dawn. Then when he was 15, the war gave him an excuse to leave, and he went with his friend Rossend to join the fighting.

Adrià was not meant to fight, and they put him to work in the kitchen. Still he deserts. He can’t defend himself even when forced to fight and suffers severe beatings as a result. Even when they attempt to teach him to first a rifle, he refuses to learn, purposely aiming wide, because he had no interest in killing. (In fact the only two people he strikes are women: the miller’s wife, when she tries to seduce him and the old woman in the woods, when she discloses her vile acts.) His escapes are often fortuitous, often by deus ex machina. But his story is not about war directly. In fact, Rodoreda says in the prologue that the novel is not an account of war in terms of weapons but rather an internalized ordeal of disruption displacement and dead bodies. And most of the takes place outside the war zone but still where the state of war has untethered all bonds of normal morality and traditional attachments. The people Adrià meets live solipsistically in a world that offers nothing beyond their self-interest.

It is unfortunate that the Open Letter edition does not contain Rodoreda’s prologue, because it gives a good perspective on what she was trying to achieve. She says that the story was inspired by the 1965 Polish movie The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie), a movie directed by Wojciech Has and released in 1965. The film is based on a novel of the same title (and subtitled “A Collection of Weird Tales”) by Count Jon Potocki published a century and a half previously (and released by Orion Press in 1960 in an English translation by Elizabeth Abbot). Both the movie and book begin with a battle in Saragossa, Spain, where an invading soldier, entering an abandoned building discovers and becomes engrossed by a manuscript and while reading it is captured by Spanish soldiers. He gets his captures to translate the story and the film proceeds mis en abîme fashion with the captive and the soldiers playing out the scenes in the manuscript. The main character (the prisoner) becomes the captain of the Walloon guards under the King of Spain, and he sets off on various adventures to prove his courage and worthiness to during his travels through Spain. This 19th century Don Juan must pass numerous tests to prove his courage and worthiness. The witty and intricate interlocking of the stories influenced none other than Spanish director Luis Buñuel. The Polish novel it was based on may have had an equally distinguished literary influence. Rodoreda  says that her motivation was to create a story that experiences the world as poets do, “surprised at everything seen.” And while the novel and the film contain several symbolic images in common (eyes, hanged men, sleeping next to dead bodies) and while the protagonist in both is more a witness than actor, the novel is unlike the film. While the film is the unfolding of a gothic story, Rodoreda’s novel is a metaphysical exploration undertaken by one who has no experience in the world or in philosophy and therefore learns as he goes along.

The world Adrià wanders is fantastical, nightmarish and insubstantial, and his deep unconscious soul reverberates with what he sees. His experiences are sometimes no more than fleeting encounters, such as when, shortly after his first desertion he sees a boy in this distance about is age while artillery is being fired. The boy points to the direction of the cannon sound and shouts “Go home,” then disappears. Other encounters amount to complete episodes with conflict and resolution and then the need for Adria to move on. All of the encounters seem at first unrelated, except by subtly related symbols. For example a girl he falls in love with asks “out of the blue” whether he liked soap bubbles. She said: “The best thing about them was that, after one has waited so patiently to see them emerge from the tip of the reed and admire their iridescence, they burst while floating away as if they had been pricked.” He love her because she is unafraid, because she is independent, because it pained her to think of him dead and because she wants no one to follow her. Rather than have her reject him, he lets her go. Once gone, however, he decides he needs her and sets out to find her. Along the way the symbol returns. One night he fell asleep with uncommon peace and dreamed: “a boy who looked like me was blowing soap bubbles with a cane he periodically dipped in a tin can; the bubbles hovered over a drowned girl whose body was being swept in and out by the waves. … Many of the bubbles turned into human heads  that floated upward gazing at the sky. … Death, with green teeth, sat on the belly of a cloud. Seven women with feet of gold huddled together blowing seven long trumpets that spewed bubbles into the sea, while death’s scythe awaited th order to begin reaping the floating heads …” His encounter at last with the girl provides the climax of the novel, it follows with the most fantastical elaboration on the symbol.

Despite the disorder, the horror and the fantastic of an unrecognizable world Adrià is constantly befriended by strangers who offer him unsolicited charity at crucial moments. Perhaps it is because he is young, or has blond hair, or looks like a girl or, as old woman who feeds him says, “those helpless creature eyes of yours.” Or maybe they recognize as disoriented by the world being out of joint as they are. Even nature reflects the disorder of the times. When Adria sees a meteor shower for the first time, the old man watching with him says: “The stars are weeping because we are at war.”

Even when war is far distant, the people Adria meets seemed hollowed out, or maybe it is just that with everyone looking after himself those who would be hollowed out whether or not there was war are now understandable. In the longest episode in the book Adria lives with a man who has a house, income and books. Unlike most, he doesn’t need to scramble for food, or indeed to do anything but contemplate. He goes to the sea at night to think quietly.  His library is filled with mystical philosophy, which he practices by means of a mirror. When he dies Adri¡a reads his papers and learns of his discovery, one that involves a vision that haunts Adrià and a discovery that earns him nothing but hostility in the future.

The adventures that Adrià experiences are enough to earn the description “weird tales” but they are not gothic like Potocki’s are. In fact, their weirdness stems from their surreal nature in the literal sense of the term as above real or extra real. Everything that happens is strange only when we think of the world as normal and ordinary. But it is only ordinary when we stop examining the strangeness of it, the incompatibility of everyone’s selfish motives. Perhaps war is simply the metaphor for that incompatibility. And even those who want nothing more than to be ordinary (like the bricklayer whose house and wife are destroyed by the lone airplane on dropping a single bomb or the mother who amid all the corpses refuses to believe her baby is dead) can’t escape the immense incompatibility of others. Adrià’s travels, his quest, when he is forced to articulate it, is an expression of his need to see all the oddity in the world, to express his own selfish interests: “[T]he only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it.” The generous man who wants him to quit his journeys, to stay and be his son, understands and pats him on his back: “… but the moment will come when you have a false life on your hands. You, what do you have inside? A garden or an inferno?” They discuss what it means to be Cain and the old man says: “… whenever you want to go, just go. Don’t say anything. I don’t like goodbyes.”

The novel races to its end. It is not a picaresque with a satisfying moral. Rather, like all great literature it ends with hard truth about the disparity between our desires and our possible attainments. It woud be almost unbearable but for the poetic telling, lyrical enough to soften the blow.

Sources

Carme Arnau, Introducció a la narrativa de Mercè Rodoreda: El mite de la infantesa (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1976).

Emelie L. Bergmann, “Flowers at the North Pole: Mercè Rodoreda and the Female Imagination in Exile,” Catalan Review 2:83-99 (1987).

J.M. Castellet, “Mercè Rodoreda,” Êls escenaris de la memòria (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1988).

Kathryn A. Everly, Catalan Women Writers and Artists: Revisionist Views from a Feminist Space (Lewisburg, [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press, ©2003).

Josefina Gonzalez, “Verbal Absences and Visual Silences in Quanta, quanta guerra …La mort i la primavera, and Isabel i Maria,” in Voices and Visions: The Words and Works of Mercè Rodoreda edited by Kathleen McNerney (Selinsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1999).

José Ortega, “Mujer, guerra, y neurosis in dos novelas de M. Rodoreda (La plaza de Diamante y La calle de las Camelias“) in Novelistas femeninas de la postguerra española, ed. Janet W. Perez (Madrid: Porrúa, 1983).

Randolph D. Pope, “Aloma‘s Two Faces and the Chacter of Her True Nature,’ in The Garden across the Border: Mercè Rodoreda’s Fiction ed. Kathleen McNerney & Mancy Vosburg (Selingsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1994).

Joan Ramon Resina, “The Link in Consciousness: Time and Community in Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant,” Catalan Review 2:22-46 (1987).

Elizabeth A. Scarlett, Under Construction: The Body in Spanish Novels (Charlottesville [Va.]: University Press of Virginia, 1994).

Stories by Machado de Assis

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. 1890.)

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. ca. 1880.)

Dalkey Archive Press has just released a collection of newly translated stories written by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. The collection is a good occasion for noting that Modernism in fiction was not the exclusive province of Europe and did not have to wait for Joyce. The stories in this collection were published in various Brazilian journals between the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s. This is the period that Machado made a radical shift in style, transforming himself from an amusing teller of parlor romances to a clear-sighted social critic who experimented with a variety of narrative techniques and plot structures.

Machado wrote approximately 200 short stores (in addition to his acclaimed novels) and before this publication only 33 had been translated into English. So the addition of these  13 stories is certainly a boon for that reason alone. But the translation, by Rhett McNeil, is so skillful in following the subtleties in the different narrative voices Macho employs that the volume is both enjoyable and instructive.

What makes the late Machado stories starkly unique is the combination of; (1) blurring the line between naturalism and the fantastic; (2) subtly ironic commentary, which acts as counterpoint to deep psychological insight into the characters and their predicaments; and (3) narrative structures that usually involve at least one significant misdirection and often coil back on themselves to make an ironic or unexpected comment on the nature of the narrative itself.

Other writers around the time were injecting stories with elements of the fantastic. Mark Twain, for example, published Connecticut Yankee in 1889. Maeterlinck would begin his symbolist plays at the end of Machado’s career. Both, however, used fantasy as an effect unto itself. For Twain, it was mainly to produce humorous (or dark humorous) effects. For Maeterlinck the fairy tale structures advertised the symbolism of the themes. Machado, by contrast, admitted fantastic elements as accepted facts, much like a naturalist would use social structures as a given. There is never any mugging over the unreal; when the narrator comments at all it is ordinarily about the characters’ reactions in the given situation, not about the situation. Couples can exchange souls, a psychiatrist is given carte blanche to commit any resident of a town to his asylum, a man drinks an Indian potion that allows him to live forever, Alcibiades returns to life by means of spiritualism. Are these things actually true? In some cases the narrator may have reason to dissemble. But Machado makes no attempt to explain or justify these extravagances. In this way, he was something of a pioneer for later Spanish-speaking Latin American story-tellers, such as Borges (who took this technique to its absurdist conclusions) and the later realismo mágico writers (who employed the fantastic more freely and for other purposes).

As for the narrative point of view, Machado is unflinching in how he reveals the characters’ inner workings and is unsparing in showing the causes and often tragic consequences of the characters’ limited awareness. In this respect, his “psychological” approach was similar to approaches developing in France and Russia. Machado allows the reader to see the inner workings but does not concentrate on the tragedy (as would, for example, Flaubert), preferring instead to allow the character some privacy. Moreover, while Machado was willing to show flaws, some which lead to murder, he never dissects a character to his humiliating core the way Dostoevsky would do. Machado’s view of human nature was no more sanguine than Dostoevsky’s, but his gently sardonic pose made it unnecessary to detail all the attributes of a character’s shortcomings. There is a lightness of touch to his critiques and a willingness to allow the reader to exercise his own judgment. In this respect he reminds one of Jorge Amado, who would be selected to the same Brazilian Academy of Letters 66 years after Machado was chosen its first President.

The last aspect I highlighted, Machado’s plotting technique, is one that I find most interesting. Machado could write a compact short story with an initial premise which picks up momentum before delivering a directly flowing conclusion. A good example is “The Fortune-Teller,” which you can read in a collection of Brazilian tales translated by Isaac Goldberg, Brazilian Tales (Boson: The Four Seas Co.: 1921), found at Project Gutenberg (here). (That book also has two other stories by Machado and is the earliest English version of any of Machado’s short stories.) But Machado’s best short fiction involves narratives which meander as if under their own logic and land in places that are entirely unexpected. Occasionally, the stories do not even land, but just trail off. The effect is something like one has at the conclusion of certain of Chekhov’s tales, when an abrupt or unexpected results induces more reflection than they would if they were inherent in the story’s beginning.

I hesitate to discuss the plot structure of these essentially brand new stories (to English readers) for fear of depriving the reader of the discovery of novelties. Let me simply refer to the story “The Academies of Siam,” which subscribers to Harper’s Monthly can read in the March 2014 issue (here). The story begins with a provocative narration:

Do you know about the academies of Siam? I am well aware that there have never been any academies in Siam, but suppose that there were, and that there were four of them, and just listen to my tale.

The tale begins with a dispute among these academies over a theological point, the gender of the soul. This dispute, as most academic disputes do, becomes intense well beyond its importance. But it soon provides the pretext for one of the concubines in the King’s harem to engineer an intrigue, which will involve the exchanging of souls. The planting of a different soul into an existing person has consequences in the outlook of the new transplant. This in turn requires consultation with the surviving academy, and so the story continues, back and forth, between the concubines’ plottings and the plottings of the academics, neither of which determine the ultimate outcome, which resolves from a different source and yet manages to place in doubt her reliance on the academy in the first place. But of course, as we were told at the outset, that academy never existed. The final sentence is as wry as the opening.

I should note that the stories are both highly imaginative and gracefully told. Beautiful images and flourishes appear unexpectedly, but do not detract from the narrative voice. It is as thought, like the author we are in on some grand joke. “Comedy” exactly as Dante used the term. And while the tales are steeped in learning (classical and Arabic), none of it is flaunted, as it is in too much of European modernism. All of this causes me to wonder why more of these tales are not made available in English.

100 Years Ago Today: The Russians Claim Ballet for Modernism

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

Posed photgraph of original dancers from Le Sacre du printemps (Wikipedia, from a 1913 issue of the English weekly The Sketch).

One hundred years ago today, on May 29, 1913, occurred one of the defining moments of modernism: the premiere of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The riot that took place to greet Stravinsky’s score and Nijinsky’s choreography is often used to show how violently New Music or Modernity in general was an offensive shock to an unsuspecting public. The fact is the “riot” was almost certainly staged by a faction with a preconceived agenda, and it likely represented nothing other than the expression of self-satisfied “patrons” who were offended that the theater was not catering to their narrow views on entertainment. I saw something of the same thing back in the early 1970s when Pierre Boulez was routinely heckled in New York for daring to introduce pieces that were not at least 75 years old. On one occasion a gentlemen in a dinner jacket stood up on his folding seat to better offer up boos at the premiere of a Ligety piece. He undoubtedly felt that he belonged to the honorable tradition that goes back now 100 years, a tradition where wealthy arts patrons act like children in the name of preserving artistic traditions. (Or perhaps he simply hadn’t yet learned that Leonard Bernstein was no longer the musical director of the New York Philharmonic.)

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Nicholas K. Roerich, ethnographer, mystic, philosopher, lawyer and artist, designed the sets of Rite of Spring from his research into Russian folk history. This painting shows the first scene, “The Kissing of the Earth,” which depicts a sacred Slavic guessing game with dancing in the Valley at the sacred hill. In the score this part is titled “L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth).” (roerichsibur.ru.)

The actual “riot” in Paris in 1913 was shabby enough, according to the New York Times cable report (which translated the title of the work as “Consecration of Spring”).  It apparently amounted to hissing and some shoving. The affair was summarized by Alfred Capus (who would go on the defend the “purity” of French culture as one of the “immortels” ) in Le Figaro. Capus claimed that the production itself was nothing more than an attempt by the Russians to flatter the “idle rich” of Paris into paying double ticket prices and then insult them with “the last degree of stupidity.” He was referring to the stupidity of the ballet, not the Parisian idle rich. The Times correspondent noted that since “M. Capus’s article there have been disorderly scenes at the Champs-Élysées Théâtre …” (The writer also noted that management learned to quell the disorders by turning on the lights; Parisian upper crust, unlike those of 1970s New York, were not willing to be seen acting the boor and settled down.)

Roelrich's design for the second part, "The Great Sacrifice." which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead.

Roelrich’s design for the second part, “The Sacrifice on High.” which takes place on top of a hill in the stone maze, where the girls are playing a secret games. They end with the choice of the sacrifice, who dances her last dance and then falls dead. In the score the part is called “Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice).” (roerichsibur.ru.)

The vulgarity of the riots notwithstanding (their intensity and significance undoubtedly increased as the memory of the witnesses grew older), there was no better place or time for Modernity to throw down the gauntlet. If anywhere, Paris had for decades been the center of advanced ideas. In fact, the taproot of Modernism goes back to the Paris of the 1860s and 70s with Baudelaire and the Impressionists. And poetry and art had made significant leaps in those areas since then. 1913 was also the year that the first installment of Proust’s great experiment in memory, autobiography and art, À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), would be published. Even in music Debussy was working his way out of the prevailing Romanticism. Nowhere else were there such combustible elements waiting for an ignition to explode.

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

The Woolworth Building in Manhattan at night in 1913. (Library of Congress; from Wiki Commons.)

New York, of course, was a backwater at the time, looking to Europe for all its cultural instruction. It generally did not criticize its betters. The New York Armory Show, which opened in February 1913 and put together the largest collection of Post-Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists ever seen outside of Europe, offended mainly cranks and was embraced, as these kinds of things usually are in New York, by self-satisfied financial and business elites as a sign of their enlightenment, particularly inasmuch as more than 160 pieces were purchased. This was much the reaction when Mahler conducted in New York a few years before, although he remained in safe territory by not straying far from Mozart and Beethoven. Perhaps because it married business, finance and industrial enterprise with design, architecture, in the form of office skyscrapers, would become the first quintessentially American art form. If so, 1913 was a signal year in New York arts, because the newly completed Woolworth Building became the world’s tallest structure.

London’s musical scene, at least as far as English composers went, was barren at the time. In art it had never really assimilated Impressionism, much less Post-Impressionist advances, dominated as the London art scene was by Whistler’s legacy. Theater appeared ready for a change, but the only real avant-garde was taking place in poetry and fiction. Yet the various proclamations of Ezra Pound, including the introduction of the Vortex (which would take place in 1914), seemed to spark debate mainly in high-brow literary and cultural journals. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 to mainly indifferent reviews. Joyce would begin writing Ulysses the following year and it only later dribbled out in a small literary journal in the United States, but when it finally attracted notice, it was more as an example of modern smut rather than modern sensibilities.

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on

First fights end the debut of the masters of the Second Viennese School at the Konzertskandal on March 31, 1913. (Die Zeit, April 5, 1913 from Wikipedia.)

Visual expression in Berlin and Vienna was still primarily in the design phase; Expressionism was only in its tentative beginnings. Much of music there was exploring the end of chromatic Romantic music and (still) the implications of Tristan (which fittingly enough had its premiere in Vienna rather than Paris, because of the ridiculous antics of the Jockey Club in Paris at the perforance of Tannhäuser in 1861). It is true that Schoenberg (Schönberg then) had broken more or less completely from diatonic tonality with his second string quartet (of 1907/08), Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, op. 15 (1908/09), his Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909), Erwartung (1909) and most dramatically in Pierrot Lunaire, op. 12 (1912). But these pieces were not well known in the big capitals, although Sir Henry Wood performed the Five Orchestral Pieces (the most conservative of these works) to disapproving audiences in London in September 1912. Just weeks before the Rite of Spring premiere, Schoenberg himself reprised his Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9 (1906) and debuted two pieces by his students, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1909/10) and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, op. 4 (1911/12), as well as a more conventional new piece by his father-in-law, Zemlinsky’s Six Songs after poems by Maeterlinck, op. 13 (1913). Webern’s work produced taunting laughter and Berg’s both taunts and fist fights. The disorder was so great that Schoenberg did not attempt to finish Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The outbreaks were greater and the violence more genuine (the concert produced one more lawsuit than the affair in Pairs), but the event (now known as the Konzertskandal) never became The Case in Point of the clash of the New with the Old, possibly because much worse would befall Schoenberg and his students in the future (and not just humiliation), or because Austrian thuggery, more than a little tinged with virulent anti-semitism, would become much more the rule than the exception not too much longer in the future, or maybe because then as now the music of the Second Viennese School was not considered “serious” in the way that upper class consumers of classical entertainment demand.

Non-representational painting and sculpture was bubbling out of many other corners of Europe, but it would take a while to fully comprehend how radical and permanent a departure this would signal.

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

So if a Modernist bomb was going to be ignited, Paris was the perfect place to light the fuse. It seems likely, however, that neither Stravinsky nor Nijinsky intended to light a fuse (at least in the way that Ezra Pound kept trying to do in London), and Stravinsky seemed genuinely hurt that the work was not appreciated on the merits. And much of the fireworks had to do, not with the merits of the music, but rather with French xenophobia. Capus was plain in his contempt for the Russians (the Russians, he wrote, “are not entirely acquainted with the manners and customs of the countries they visit …”). But it also had to do with the French belief that they defined ballet. (The Times piece noted that Parisians admitted that Nijinsky was “a wonderful dancer,” but “they add that he knows little about stage setting.” The reporter from this observation labelled the Rite of Spring performance a “failure.”)

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

Jardin du Lexuembourg, 1913 (Bibliothèque national de France).

The French believed that they invented and perfected the art form. And even if they didn’t invent it, ballet was certainly central to French art music and performance from the beginning. Jean-Baptiste Lully, himself a dancer, had organized one of the oldest ballet schools, and the choreographer for Lully’s operas, Pierre Beauchamps, established the standard positions for classical dance and  invented the written notation for recording choreography. And while the Russians had a ballet company in the mid-eighteenth century, that was still nearly a century after Lully had founded the Paris Opera Ballet. (Diaghilev himself produced his first French performances of the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera Ballet.)

So all of this was enough to offend French hauteur, but was the event really revolutionary?

First, the company.

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by  August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen).

Russisches Ballett (I), oil on canvas by
August Macke (1912) (Kunsthalle, Bremen). Click to enlarge.

The Ballets Russes, as a money-making enterprise, was not revolutionary, although it would increasingly look to the future. Its founder and impressario, Serge Diaghilev, a Russian critic turned performance producer, was educated, urbane, forward looking and a risk taker. He had ideas how ballet should be presented, and it involved using the latest in art, choreography and music. More important, he was willing to raise and spend money to realize his vision. The Ballets Russes would soon number among its set and costume designers giants in the world of art (including Picasso,  Matisse, Braque and Rouault). Its choreographers would become the definers of Modernity in dance (including Nijinsky, Massine and Balanchine). And of course Diaghilev championed the composers of modern music, at least programmatic music. The company not only employed avant-garde artists, it influenced the arts outside of ballet.

The pairing of Nijinsky and Stravinsky was the ignition for the bomb. Nijinksky was an incendiary dancer. His performance in the Ballets Russes production of L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), choreographed by Nijinksy himself in 1912, was expressly erotic and, as a dance, was itself controversial. Diaghilev had commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate a Chopin piece for the Ballets Russes in 1910. After that came Firebird and the more conventional Petrushka. Nijinsky would choreograph Debussy’s score Jeux, an eccentric ballet about tennis and (possibly) homosexuality, and that odd piece would immediately precede Rite of Spring, which would be the first time Nijinsky choreographed Stravinsky. The combination of the two Russians proved too much for the French audience.

The ballet was based on the great Russian political belief that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic comunal harmony with nature. (roerichsibur.ru.)

The ballet was based on the great Russian political-religious mythos that there was a golden peasant past, before serfdom, before Peter the Great, where the people lived in an idyllic communal harmony with nature. (roerichsibur.ru.)

But there was a third Russian involved. Nicholas Roerich, a polymath whose tastes ran to mysticism and Russian folk history, designed the sets and costumes. His settings were based on his own scholarly recreation of Russian folk past, which was undoubtedly influenced by the great Russian politico-religious mythos first championed by Pan-Slavists of the middle of the previous century, whose central tenet was eventually adopted (to a greater or lesser extent) by thinkers as diverse as the Socialist Alexander Herzen and the reactionary Dostoevsky: The myth held that in some remote past, before the rot of Western Europe corrupted Russia, and even before Orthodox Christianity, the Russian folk lived in a kind of blissful communal state whose economy was governed by principles of common ownership as radical as anything proposed in 19th century Europe and that Russia’s “salvation” would come from that past, separate from all outside influences.

The hidden ideological motif of the performance was therefore a look to the future in the ancient. (In Russia’s case the myth system was a surrogate political language arising from the fact that political repression prevented any real political discussion.) This would not be the only modern work with that subtext, but the particular mythos embedded in the Rite of Spring may have been the one with the longest pedigree of promotion by one country’s intellectuals.

The music.

To recreate the ancient, Stravinsky stripped his score of everything that could be considered modern sophistication. There was no irony, no subtlety and no self-reference. Rhythms were strictly defined and metric. In parts rhythmic patterns were so clearly defined by accented notes that it carried through the section even against loudly articulated counter-rhythms. In other parts the march-like rhythm is so strongly felt that it gives an impression of  exultant euphoria. The forward-driving propulsive effect is achieved through steady crescendos. Climaxes come with rapid crescendos and often with instruments filling a larger and more densely packed range.

All of these things, far from being “new,” are many steps back from the prevailing overly refined Romanticism and Post-Romanticism of both Paris and Vienna. The instrumental tonal color was somewhat novel. In many places it is the strings that act as the time-keepers and the woodwinds and brass convey the melody. The introduction is played by a solo bassoon in an extremely high register creating a odd and ethereal mood, much like the beginnings of spring, arising from the melting snows. Other unconventional instrumentations occur, but this hardly placed the piece out of the mainstream of European art music.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant "harmonizations." Click to enlarge.

Stravinskys attention to detail is shown by the score to one bar (!) of the work. The tonal balance and rhythmic interrelations tend to be overlooked when concentrating on the dissonant “harmonizations.” Click to enlarge.

The stripping down and simplification was necessary for Stravinsky to undertake and highlight what was in fact his true achievement: dispensing with traditional harmonization. The first critics recognized this experimentation as the most radical. When the ballet premiered on Drury Lane in London on July 11, 1913, the New York Times correspondent sent a cable summarizing the overnight responses of the critics. The consensus was that the music “apparently has no relations whatever to the ordinary rules of harmony and leaves Strauss and even Schönberg behind …” In fact, Stravinsky was not trying to develop new rules for harmonization, but rather dispensing with the ordinary concept that harmony arises out of the melody and instead radically extended the concept he first tried out in Firebird of a sort of ditonality: using unrelated harmonies, or even different keys, against a melody. The melodies were simple enough. They were both “catchy” (Schoenberg’s unachieved desire that cab drivers would hum the tunes of modern music in the future) and grounded in folk music. The “harmonies” were not simply, or even at all, chromatic, they were unrelated to the melody, except through some intuitive (and evidently not rule-based) concept of Stravinsky. (Stravinsky’s instinct in this piece proved true, because many works thereafter, for many years, contain quotes and snatches of the melodies or angular “harmonies.”)

Because it’s nearly impossible to explain music without examples, and because Anthony Newman is insightful and clear, it is useful to hear his  explaination of how Stravinsky used musical “archetypes” with “wrong note” harmonization to create his exotic effects:

The video unfortunately breaks in the middle of a musical example and continues here:

It’s a fair bet that almost everyone reading this encountered the Rite of Spring first either as an audio recording or in the concert hall without the dance. As a disembodied piece of music even today it is jarring on first hearing. But even accounting for our immensely more degraded (or enhanced, depending on your viewpoint) sensibilities, it does not strike one as something a full-scale riot would ensue from. In fact, in hide-bound, conservative London, while it was not a hit is any sense, the New York Times correspondent reported that the first reception was greeted with “a mixture of applause and hisses, although the applause won finally.”

What really offended the French, and what made the piece one of the advanced posts of Modernity, was the combination of the music with the dance.

The Choreography.

Drawing of Marie Piltz in the “Sacrificial Dance” from The Rite of Spring, Paris, 29 May 1913, in Montjoie! (magazine), Paris, June 1913 (Wikipedia).

If you have only encountered the work as a concert piece, you lose altogether its programmatic aspect. The music is clearly program music; it is not organized as a piece of “absolute” music. So a listener needs to know what the music is “about.” It undoubtedly helps to see one of the 200 or so different productions that have been mounted since the original. But modern versions tend to (wrongly) emphasize the outlandish and promote a supposed modernist take by, for example, using naked or nearly naked dancers or appealing to an erotic undertow in the music. It took Millicent Hodson’s tireless choreographic archaeology to recreate what Nijinsky designed. The Joffrey Ballet then nearly a quarter century ago put on the nearest approximation we are ever likely to see of the “intention” of the creators, and it was a stunning eye-opener.

Even today the movements of the dancers can be described, as the New York Times London correspondent did in 1913, as not involving “dancing in the ordinary sense of the word.” It is more like an architecture of movement, where geometric patterns are achieved by groups of dancers using angular movements of legs and arms and posture. The dancers introduce themselves by emphatically stomping on the stage, as though to test whether the earth has returned solid from its capture by winter. One figure, the old lady conjurer, is characterized by an extremely bent body and small shuffling steps. Groups of dancers arrange themselves as you would think ancient tribes did. Celebrations and mysteries are performed according to ancient rules, the antiquity of which provide their justification.

No attempt is made to display virtuosity. Instead, groups move as integrated units in simple and repetitive motions. The secret game to pick the sacrificial victim is repeated with small variations, just as is the music highlighted by pizzicato strings, until one is selected. She briefly shows her grim deference to custom, then her terror, and then her grief in the only solo dance of the performance. She finally succumbs to the communal rules and forfeits her life to ensure that the tribe endures for one more year.

It is extraordinarily effective and had to have come as an electric current to those looking forward to seeing divas performing en pointe. It is difficult to understate how this piece represented a decisive break with the past. You owe it to yourself to see the original:

The Effect.

All together, the piece delivers a shocking, visceral and powerful emotional jolt. And, yes, even if the riot was largely preconceived rather than spontaneous, the French had a right to see in it the revolution that would come. The Future, as the Twentieth Century would tell over and over, was in our ancient past. The New is what we originally were. And whether it came from pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, African masks, Egyptian poetry or Russian folk myths, we are forced to confront what we are by looking to our original fears and aspirations. And a large part of what we are is determined by the Irrational.

Modernity was a way of looking at things that radically departed from not only Romanticism but also the Age of Reason. At a time that science was pursuing a method that validated concepts by trying to eliminate the random, biased and irrational, art proclaimed that we could never escape the irrational, and in fact held out that by celebrating it we help excoriate it. (That, after all, is the original purpose of rites, then religion, then philosophy, then psychoanalysis, and so forth, throughout the progression of history.)

But Modernism was not an unqualified success. In politics, for example, “Modernist” movements that looked to the Aryan or Roman past produced untold suffering and sorrow. Modernism did not automatically bring with it a moral compass and it often sat precariously between progress and vicious reaction. Not all who felt uneasy in Paris that night 100 years ago were necessarily overly privileged snobs who played the connoisseur. There might have been some among the original Parisian viewers who, at least subconsciously, felt the actual (not just artistic) terror of the Modernist revolution at at hand. After all, not much more than a year later France and all of Europe would experience the first consequences of modernity’s political quest for the essence. Those sacrifices were not one at a time as in the ballet that night, and no one had time or interest in experiencing the terror and grief of each victim. It would cost more lives than anyone ever expected or, indeed, could have conceived, but it was just the beginning. That, however, is a different story.

Destroying the Old is not always the way forward. But that was not what Modernism was about. And in any event, there was no choice. The world was changing and art had to reflect that reality or become irrelevant.

It did not become irrelevant. So today we should at least acknowledge that 100 years of the modern have revealed things that the Ancient Order never could have conceived. Many of those things we can celebrate.

An Unreal Dream, An Uncommon Man

An extraordinarily powerful documentary premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin this past week, An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story. In an era when civilization has allowed us to avoid most of our primal terrors, this film tells the true story of a civilized terror: An innocent man wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife.

Michael Morton in the grip of the nightmare, wrongly convicted for the murder of his young wife.

Michael Morton in the grip of the nightmare, wrongly convicted for the murder of his young wife. (Photo: 1986, Williamson County Sun.)

The story itself incorporates all the elements of an American tragedy. A young husband, Michael Morton, the day after his birthday, returns home to his young wife and three-year old son, only to find his house surrounded by police cars. Unemotional and sinister police inform him that his wife has been brutally beaten to death. They refuse his request to see her body and that night question him in a menacing way. In an instant his nightmare begins. The suffocating reality of an amoral system unfolds with the logic of a modernist fable.

Anderson_jpg_312x1000_q100

Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, right, and Sheriff Jim Boutwell speak with reporters. Both knew of exculpatory evidence. Both hid it. (Photo: 1986, Williamson County Sun.)

The nightmare, it turns out, was no accidental miscarriage of justice.  Rather, behind it were the decisions of a Texas sheriff and a ruthlessly ambitious District Attorney, Ken Anderson of Williamson County, who withheld exculpatory evidence in order to get the cheap conviction that helped make his reputation and allowed Anderson to take his place on the Texas bench, where he now administers justice. His successor as District Attorney continued the fight for years, opposing efforts to test physical evidence that might expose the injustice perpetrated by his mentor. We who believe in justice force ourselves to hope for a special corner of hell for those who corrupt justice. That is not this story, however.

Director Al Reinert in 2013 SXSW publicity photo.

Director Al Reinert in 2013 SXSW publicity photo.

This story is told in a sparse, unobtrusive way by director Al Reinart, one-time Texas journalist and two-time Academy Award nominee (for director of the documentary For All Mankind and as screenwriter of Apollo 13), who never lingers over any element of the tragedy, whether it was the love shared by the young couple, the travesty of the trial, the years of incarceration of the innocent man or the efforts of a new legal team to do the work that the Texas police and District Attorney failed to do, because they had a much easier way to close the case. The title of the film comes from an observation by Justice Learned Hand: “Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.” The unreality and dream-like logic of this nightmare unfolds simply with the statements of the witnesses who talk directly to the camera. Everyone speaks as though haunted by their participation (except Anderson and the other perpetrators who are only seen in archival footage, unrepentant), each trying to explain why they acted as they did. It is Morton’s fellow inmates, however, who provide the lucid and nuanced commentary. It is they who spotted his innocence, his grace and his strength and who provide the most trenchant analysis of Morton’s story.

Michael Morton quietly tells his story in the courtroom where justice miscarried.

Michael Morton quietly tells his story in the courtroom where justice miscarried.

But what makes the film emotionally stunning is Michael Morton himself. He tells most of the story, sitting in a chair in the Georgetown, Texas, courtroom where he was wrongly convicted. He talks to us quietly, objectively, without bitterness and, at times, even with humor, the kind of humor that only a man who has suffered to the core of his being can express. There are no theatrics, no obvious accusations, no dramatic courtroom scenes, only a quiet telling of the story that is both heart-breaking and in surprising ways up-lifting. The courtroom is bathed in a brown, diffuse light and is unnaturally quiet, like any other crime scene years after the criminals plied their trade.

Wedding photograph of Michael and Christine Morton.

Wedding photograph of Michael and Christine Morton.

Morton tells how he met his wife Christine in college. He says he was attracted on observing her see through a line his roommate tried on her. Morton quietly listed her virtues, the things he remembers a quarter of a century after her death, things that still make his face light up and bring a barely noticeable smile to his face. He tells how the birth of his son, Eric, changed his life, in the way any young parent explains it, although he is now the age of a grandfather. (He is now in fact a grandfather.) He explains in a simple and tender manner the heart problem his son was born with, the anguish of three years of fearful concern, the surgery and the joy of discovering that his son would live like any normal child. He tells of the happiness of his birthday in August 1986, when he, his wife and son dined out and how “great” he felt walking home, each parent holding one of Eric’s hands. And he directly says how he went to bed that night on his birthday with Christine not in the mood for lovemaking and how he left a note for her on the subject that would help undo him.

The story of the trial is told by his lawyer, who though devoted over many years, did not seem the match for the ruthless Anderson, and by two jurors. The woman juror’s defense of the verdict was perhaps most horrifying. She explained how DA Anderson was so handsome and so sure of himself, how Morton did not show the emotion she expected and, most tellingly, how there was no evidence about anyone else. With no showing that she ever reflected on her role or ever had a real understanding of how American criminal justice is supposed to work, she tells the camera that Morton did not put up enough evidence to show that he was innocent. This earnest juror probably dutifully voted to make Anderson the District Attorney, cheered him on when he won his reward for years of dirtying his hands in the retail dispensing of punishment. At the trial she certainly did his bidding.

The key feature of the trial was the testimony of a doctor, who concluded from stomach digestion that Christine had died at 1:00 a.m., hours before Morton told the police he had gone to work. (John Raley, the Houston civil attorney who was instrumental in Morton’s recent release, explained in a session after the film that the doctor himself admitted that his conclusion was not based on generally accepted scientific principles. In other words, the opinion evidence was incompetent and should not have been admitted.) Defense witnesses showed how stomach digestion analysis was “junk science” in terms of fixing the time of death. But the jury duly convicted nonetheless. The jury foreman told the camera that in most cases the husband is responsible and that belief was in the back of their minds. The testimony of these two Williamson County citizens helps explain why Texas has so many wrongful convictions. But that is not the point of the film.

Christine Morton with son Eric.

Christine Morton with son Eric.

The heart of the film is the resurrection of Michael Morton. He explains how for years he fantasized the murder of those he believed responsible for his plight: the DA, the sheriff, the foreman of the jury and others. He said that his wallowing in his revenge wish was like drinking poison so that someone else might die. He quietly described the horrors of prison life, details of which were supplied by fellow inmates. They explained how visitations were the one thing that brought hope, a breath of air, a show that there was order and freedom out there. The court had ordered that Morton’s son be brought to visit him every six months. He was raised by Morton’s sister-in-law. Morton explained how in the course of these visits he could see how his son was being taken from him. An inmate described how the sister-in-law stared at Morton throughout the visits with hatred. During one visitation, Morton was startled when he heard Eric call his sister-in-law Mom. But the estrangement only was beginning. By the time Eric was a teenager he decided that he knew nothing of his father and did not want to participate any longer in this man’s life. He wrote to Morton asking to be relieved of the visits. Morton replied that he would grant the wish if Eric would come to put his request to his face. Come the visit, his son could not look at him, but insisted he wished that it would be the last. Morton granted his request and left the visit after two minutes.

As Morton tells the story he is gripped by visible anguish, something that is almost completely absent from the rest of his narration. Morton tells the camera that of all the disappointments and tragedies, this one nearly did him in. An inmate explains how visitations can crush a man. And this one put a period to a part of Morton’s life.

In his travails in the Texas penal system Morton eventually asks God for a sign that He exists. And he got “Nothing,” he says. But in a couple of weeks, he has a profound and mystical experience that reveals to him the Three Truths that would sustains him through the remainder of his ordeal: That God exists. That He is wise. And that He loves him.

Soon through efforts of his trial lawyer Barry Scheck’s New York Innocence Project becomes involved. They engage a Houston medical malpractice lawyer, John Raley, who becomes a dogged advocate for Morton, and even better, Morton calls him “my friend.” It would take years to battle the hostile Williamson County Attorney’s office (who played with underhanded tricks) and to interest an apathetic Texas court system, but through DNA evidence, the pro bono lawyers are able to show that a piece of physical evidence ties a known felon to the murder, and tragically, to a later murder committed in nearby Austin in similar style after Anderson had closed the case by charging and urging the conviction of an innocent man. Morton is eventually released, the felon faces trial which will begin tomorrow, March 18, 2013, and the state bar association and a commission of inquiry are deciding the fate of the Honorable Ken Anderson.

Eric Olson and his father Michael Morton.

Eric Olson and his father Michael Morton.

The ending is not so pat. It takes time and reconciliation for Eric (now legally Olson) to reconcile with his father. Eric had long believed that his father had killed his mother. But at their first meeting, arranged at John Raley’s home, Eric listens to his father talk of his love for his mother, and the healing begins. Director Reinert wisely waits to this point to show the homemade videos of the young couple’s life with their child. It is as though only now does their life begin. Even Eric says that as he was always told his mother was his guardian angel, he believed that his mother was present for the reunion, smiling.

From left to right: Director Al Reinert, Michael Morton and Attorney John Raley at media event after film premier in Austin, Texas.

From left to right: Director Al Reinert, Michael Morton and Attorney John Raley at media event after film premier in Austin, Texas.

The film concludes with Morton again explaining how he discovered the Three Truths about God and how he believes that there can be nothing wrong as long as he lives with that knowledge. A clip of Morton testifying at the inquiry on Anderson shows him telling the commissioners that they have to do what must be done, but urges them to treat Anderson “gently.”

I go to this excessive length to describe this film, first to suggest that it be seen. But also for another reason. What struck me about the story of the imprisonment was how similar his description of his resurrection was to that told by Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead. Of course there are significant differences. Dostoevsky tells how he was not accepted by the peasant convicts, who could not overcome class barriers. The inmates interviewed in the film, however, universally testified to how they respected Morton and believed in his innocence (and after his conversion his unworldly unselfishness). But the outline of the years of brooding, the time it took to reconcile to his lot (this also has echoes in the epilogue to Crime and Punishment) and to the eventual salvation through suffering are strikingly similar. Morton (much like Dostoevsky explicitly does) explains how he discovered God through his suffering, and how that suffering is responsible for his present joy. The epiphany that both undergo (as does Raskonikov as well), accompanied as it was by a visual aura (one that Dostoevsky would experience from time to time for the rest of his life, accompanied with his epileptic seizures) seem not only real but palpable. The fervor that both use to describe salvation born through suffering is genuine and convincing.

The inmate who knew Morton the longest concludes that while he would not wish it on him, nevertheless, the sufferings of Morton made him, the inmate, a better person and Morton as well. This observation is delivered with the kind of quiet knowingness that those of us who have not suffered (whether innocent or not) cannot question. This is the same hard theology that Dostoevsky tells from The House of the Dead all the way through The Brothers Karamazov. It is hard not to conclude, at least only from considering it from the foreign perspective of Siberia 150 years ago, that the psychology of imprisonment, the forced labor, the lack of privacy (a thing emphasized especially by both Dostoevsky and Morton), the slow drain of one’s life must have both a debilitating and yet mystical effect on the inmate, much like the self-inflicted physical suffering and privations effected in Western Christian mystics (and perhaps Zen Buddhists). Is this all a matter of human psychology? Is there really anything sacred in a philosophic system that requires a man to be stripped of all personality, dignity, self-worth and freedom in order to attain enlightenment and salvation? Dostoevsky, at least, understands this objection and tries to meet it head on in The Brothers Karamazov, which in the end nearly meets the challenge. Morton is not a philosopher; his “proof” is in his almost beatific manner, his calm dignity and a willingness to forgive that an astonished audience could not fathom.

This, as I said, is a hard theology and one that is not immediately convincing. In the questioning period following the film, Morton himself was asked how he would feel about the real killer when he sees him this week in the trial for the death of his wife. Morton, in life no more given to dramatics or dissembling than in the film, answered that he knew that in the long run forgiveness was required, yet he said, point blank, “But I’m not there yet.”

Whatever you might think of this hard theology, it is worth seeing this man, Michael Morton. We have grown loud, and insincere, and opinionated. (These of course are the characteristics of the legal system that wrongfully imprisoned Morton.) We rarely (if ever) see a man with the dignity and grace of Michael Morton. A man who should be bitter, but who finds more joy in life than most of the rest of us do. Morton explains that in prison it’s possible to have a monastic retreat. He says that it is never easy, but in prison he had the time for intense self-analysis, time to review every word he ever spoke. That undoubtedly is why this rebuilt man says everything with such uncommon depth. Whatever your view on God, the Universe and Everything Else, you will marvel that Great Souls, Mahatmas, still exist. Even in unlikely places like Williamson County, Texas.

The Ephemeral with Hugo von Hofmannsthal in Fin de Siècle Vienna

Hugo von Hofmannsthal at 19 in 1893. (Wikipedia.) Click to enlage.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal at 19 in 1893. (Wikipedia.) Click to enlage.

Last time, we looked at a German who was a prominent member of the first generation of poets to write in vernacular German. Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau lived during the greatest physical destruction of Germany (before the twentieth century) but because he was connected with the Austrian victors, he and his poetry were little affected by the catastrophe.

Today we look at an Austrian poet, writing in German, at a time when Austrian cultural traditions were about to unravel, years before Austria would be first dismantled then destroyed by its association with Germany. The time was the late nineteenth century, and the poet was the young Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929). Both the Baroque and the Late Romantic poems in these two posts deal with transience. (And both, in different ways, are connected to Sigmund Freud.)

Hofmannsthal is known today, if at all, as the librettist of several Richard Strauss operas, notably Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. The former is a powerful psychological probing of rage-induced madness set to a highly chromatic score; the latter is an acquired taste (one that I have yet to acquire). In his day he was known mainly as a playwright. But Hofmannsthal never saw himself as an entertainer and had no illusions about his popularity. In 1908 (admittedly at the early stages of his stage career) he told an American, “I realize that I write for only about five hundred people in Europe.”1

Before he devoted himself to the stage, Hofmannsthal was the preeminent poet of fin de siècle Vienna.

If fin de siècle Vienna is what is on the other side of a giant wall separating overly refined, highly wrought Romanticism from Modernism, then Hofmannsthal never made it to this side of the wall. He had no interest in making the attempt. In this respect he resembled Strauss, who never ventured into the new music. But Hofmannsthal haled from Vienna, where Klimpt, Kokoschka, Otto Wagner, Schoenberg (at the time Schönberg), Berg and Webern, and others were all at various times  and to different extents midwifing modernism. And of course, the man who discovered and interpreted the unconscious irrationality of humanity, the aspect that would form the basis of modernity’s view of us, Sigmund Freud, was just beginning to publish his views at the turn of the century. This collection of cultural radicals produced an intellectual revolution as fundamental as anything since the Renaissance. But Hofmannsthal would not be a revolutionary.

Cafe Giensteidl sometime befoe 1897. Photograph by Carl von Zamboni for he illusrated newspaper Die vornehme Welt. From collection of Vienna Museum.

Cafe Giensteidl sometime before 1897. Photograph by Carl von Zamboni for he illustrated newspaper Die vornehme Welt. From collection of Vienna Museum.

It’s even more curious, at first glance, that Hofmannsthal did not join the radicals given that he belonged to something of the literary vanguard, the Jung-Wien (the “Young Vienna” movement). This group of writers of literature and criticism gathered in coffee-houses, under the leadership of playwright and critic Hermann Bahr. The manifesto involved the death of naturalism. Their principal haunt was the Café Griensteidl until it closed in 1897. It was at these meetings that Hofmannsthal met Arthur Schnitzler (who was a member) and Stefan George. After the café closed, the club soon ended, and so did Hofmannsthal’s poetry career.

In the twentieth century he attempted a few novels and tales as well as criticism, but exerted himself largely to those nineteenth century forms, the theater and opera. But for that last decade of the nineteenth century, and only during that time, Hofmannsthal composed a series of compact, highly imaginative poems, gemlike in their polish and dreamlike in their delicacy. They immediately grasp the reader’s attention with vivid images suffused in a mood of impersonal mysticism. A deep wisdom appears to underly each of the poems, but as Elisabeth Walter noted: “They were not written to instruct, but to arouse sensation, to awaken the indescribable.”2

The 2005 production of Der Rosenkavalier by the Los Angeles Opera,. Production directed by Maximilian Schell.

The 2005 production of Der Rosenkavalier by the Los Angeles Opera,. Production directed by Maximilian Schell.

His poetry is not idiosyncratic, but it has personal characteristics (although not personal references). This can be described as his style, but style was not a decoration. “Style with him is not a trick, but a gift; the mood clothes itself with the fitting expression, that is all one can say. As the mood is so often somber, the sound of the words is correspondingly sonorous and full of gloomy dignity.”3

Hofmannsthal’s poetry is filled with symbols, although he was not a Symbolist. It is true that Hofmannsthal said that his most important influence was Stefan George. Hofmannsthal said of George: “He so completely conquered life, so absolutely mastered it, that from his poems the rare, indescribable peace and refreshing coolness of a still, dark temple are wafted upon our noise-racked senses.”4 George himself was closely affiliated with Mallarmé  and Verlaine. But the symbols in Hofmannsthal’s poems were not the flamboyant dressings to the obscure referents of an aesthete. (See for example Mallarmé’s “Tristesse d’été,” which I translate and comment on here, although that poem is hardly the most gaudy of the output of the Symbolists.) Rather, Hofmannsthal’s symbols were the images steeped in primal meaning, the ones that float in our dreams. And as we’ll see in today’s poem, the verses themselves are dreamlike, tightly written, with simple, recurring vocabulary, and as in the most haunting dreams, the symbols transform themselves with new uses in order to suggest more fully their meaning.

The great Austrian novelist (and critic, among other things) Hermann Broch says that Hofmannsthal’s “rapport with symbols” showed that he was a child of his time. (In this quotation Broch is referring Hofmannsthal’s stage pieces and in particular two works from 1895 and 1919, respectively, but his specific references are not important, as we’ll see later):

“A work as early as The Tale of the 672d Night probes into a symbolic realm whose reality would reveal itself to him more deeply with every year of his life. The Woman Without a Shadow forms the pinnacle of his voyage of discovery into the primal forest of symbols. But is this primal forest at all penetrable? Baudelaire’s primal symbols foreshadow it; they are like screams breaking through into the world of man from the solid impenetrability of an unreachable, faraway jungle. Hofmannsthal entered the jungle, but proves that it is not that of the primal forest; no, it is a symbolic garden and nevertheless a primal garden, perhaps the primal garden. For the voyage to the symbolic occurs in dream, and not only are these dreams remarkably refined and even ceremonious; they are totally so—how could it be otherwise with Hofmannsthal?—when they make their appearance as dream within dream and even as a dream transposed to the stage.”5

Stefan George, photographed in 1893. Click to enlarge.

Stefan George, photographed in 1893. Click to enlarge.

As for Stefan George, who published Hofmannsthal’s poems and even portions of some verse plays in his Blaette fuer die Kunst (the journal had highly stylized orthography), while Hofmannsthal admired his meandering, flowing lines and his hazy images, Hofmannsthal did not subscribe to belief that art was something spiritual or a substitute religion. And he certainly did not believe that the artist was a high priest, as George thought of himself. Hofmannsthal thought of art as a way to truth and never confused it for truth itself. George’s mistake in this regard is why he became (against his own intention) a favorite of Nazis later on. And despite Hofmannsthal’s fondness for George’s poetry, he didn’t need George to show him the work of the Symbolists or any other modern writers because he knew them before they met.

In fact, even before he met the Jung-Wien his poetry was strikingly mature and individual. And yet it epitomized the fin de siècle. When he first read his verses at the Café Griensteidl, the members of Vienna’s new literature movement were astounded. Schnitzler recorded later:

“We had never heard verses of such perfection, such faultless plasticity, such musical feeling, from any living being, nor had we thought them possible since Goethe. But more wondrous than this unique mastery of form (which has never since been achieved by anyone else in the German language) was his knowledge of the world, which could only have come from a magical intuition in a youth whose days were spent sitting on a school bench.”

Lest Schnitzler’s praise seem over-the-top, Zweig wrote that Hofmannsthal was one “in whom our youth saw not only its highest ambition but also absolute poetic perfection come into being …”6

Weiner Akademisches Gymnasium from Moritz Bermann, Alt- und Neu-Wien. Geschichte der Kaiserstadt und ihrer Umgebungen (Vienna: U. Hartleben’s Verlag: 1880). Click to enlarge.

Weiner Akademisches Gymnasium from Moritz Bermann, Alt- und Neu-Wien: Geschichte der Kaiserstadt und ihrer Umgebungen (Vienna: U. Hartleben’s Verlag: 1880). Click to enlarge.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the debut of this new Goethe was that he was 17 at the time, and he would complete his entire poetic career before he was 25. And in none of the poetry is there any trace of immaturity, confessional egocentrism or mawkish sentimentality. Broch attributed Hofmannsthal’s remarkable poetic maturity to his being a “Wunderkind, wunderschauendes Kind7 (a prodigy, a marvel-gazing child). Aside from the poetry itself , Broch has only thin biographical evidence to support that conclusion. But what anecdotes he has, he spins into a cultural psychoanalysis which places Hofmannsthal near the turning point of nineteenth century European culture and also explains him in a way that a modernist of Broch’s preeminent rank can empathize with.

Broch sees the formation of Hofmannthal’s character take place in the 1880s (when Hofmannsthal was 6-15). Broch finds significant that Hofmannthal was an introvert at the Wiener Akademisches Gymnasium: “Hofmannsthal the schoolboy kept to himself, courteously to be sure and never offensively, yet consistent with the Wunderkind whose unchildlike nature no longer wishes, indeed is no longer able, to have anything in common with the childishness of his peers.”8 Broch supposes that the von in young Hugo’s surname inspired some awe in his teachers in that solidly burgher school. From the attention given to a social superior, and from the fact that “he was mentally far superior [and] better looking than most of the others” “emerged an exceptionality which was justified at least in part but became hypertrophied by young Hofmannrthal’s childlike sensibility and thus burdened his still too weak shoulders with an all too heavy burden, all too proud, indeed almost mystical experience.”9

Into this rarefied air (according to Broch) stepped his father. The elder Hugo Hofmann von Hofmannsthal, lawyer and director of the Wiener Grossbank, filled young Hugo’s head with art, particularly theater. Young Hugo’s father did not see his duty as preparing Hugo for a career. Rather he believed it as necessary to show Hugo the things that made up the full life, and to a wealthy Viennese professional, that meant art, particularly theater and music.  Broch contrasts Hugo’s father with the father of another Austrian who would reside for his brief adult life in Vienna:

Hermann Broch in 19337, one year before his arrest and then escape from the Nazis. © Österreichischer Bundesverlag, Wien. Click to enlarge.

Hermann Broch in 1937, one year before his arrest and then escape from the Nazis. © Österreichischer Bundesverlag, Wien. Click to enlarge.

“The educational influence of Dr. von Hofmann can be compared with the influence Leopold Mozart exerted on his son; the parallel will also show the difference between the two eras. Mozart learned from his father the profession practiced by his father; yet it could hardly have occurred for more than an instant to Dr. Hofmannsthal to prepare his son for the legal profession or, for that matter, for a banking career. He concentrated his guidance far more on imparting Bildung {culture: dkf} and a keen eye [Schaufähigkeit], that is to say, on the development of those abilities through which the leisure hours of the burgher class {the bourgeoisie: dkf} were being transformed to ‘noble enjoyment,’ … Whereas Leopold Mozart wished to bring up his son to be an able musical craftsman and held all other worldly conduct as self-evident and needy of no individual prescription, it was the opposite with Hofmannsthal. His father abstained from any direct interference in the son’s choice of vocation, yet he would certainly have considered it an insult if his son had not followed in his world view. Both Leopold Mozart and Hugo von Hofmann acted ‘morally,’ each in his way; both found reward for their efforts in the genius of the objects of their education; yet it was the difference between the ethical and the aesthetic that proclaimed itself in the goals of their education, the difference between the Mozartean, active and production-directed ‘ethical morality’ on the one hand, the bourgeois ‘aesthetic morality,’ as it can best be called, on the other; for the latter in essence remains directed toward passive ‘appreciation,’ even when it revolves around an appreciation as noble as that of Hofmannsthal.”10

But these are not the only things resulting in Hofmannsthal’s narcissism. Broch (himself the son of wealthy Viennese Jewish parents, but who converted to Roman Catholicism when he was 23) believed that even the Hofmannsthal family’s rejection of Judaism contributed to young Hugo’s perception of “exceptionality.”

“It is well known that there exists a collective narcissism—the principal instrument of all politics—which expresses itself as group consciousness. … Ruling groups, conquering peoples, stabilized upper classes, in short, all who have become ‘style-setting’ exude an ‘aesthetic’ pride, a pride in the specific, corporal ‘beauty’ of the gr0up … In the case of  ‘subjected’ peoples, however, it is somewhat more complicated. They assimilate the style of the national, economic, or however-defined upper class in order to take part in the latter’s narcissism, which is meanwhile compounded by the pride of successful assimilation; hence their one-time humiliating situation can never be forgotten. All assimilated minorities reveal this curious ‘two-tiered’ narcissism, fundamentally a mechanism of overcompensation, yet one that does not eliminate the original sense of inferiority but endeavors to conserve it as a springboard for the joy of compensation. Not only does this type of narcissism in assimilated … minorities surpass that of the upper class; it is, moreover, a throughly knowing self-irony, which the ruling class totally lacks. In this manner the strange ‘inner anti-Semitism’ of assimilated Jewry is a phenomenon of ‘two-tiered narcissism.’ Even after an assimilation achieved through the course of several generations, a ‘nobly isolated’ externality is held onto (if only in the twilight of unconsciousness); and the milieu of assimilation, long familiar as a homeland, is seen through a psychic distance that turns it into something foreign. The assimilated individual thus perceives himself as a chosen one of high degree, a chosen one among the chosen people.”11

So it seems that Hofmannsthal’s narcissism was overdetermined (just as Freud would say that hysteria or the content of dreams were overdetermined). So what conclusion does Broch draw from this evidence for narcissism? Broch believes (based on Hofmannsthal’s “most mature work” (The Tower)) that he had long resented the “bourgeois aesthetic” with which he had been instilled:

“It is clear that already as a child he was led to suffering and confusion by the gap in his education—hedonistic or, at the very least, hedonoid aestheticism alongside morality. This narcissistic, exaggerated set of problems would have been insoluble had the guardian angel of genius not arisen and found the solution. The solution was that of dreams, of the fairy tales embedded in dreams.”12

Death mask of Hermann Broch. Beinkie Library, Yale University.

Death mask of Hermann Broch. Beinkie Library, Yale University.

Hofmannsthal’s life-long use of dream motif was Broch’s principal connection with a man who he otherwise had little interest in. When Broch was first asked to provide the introductory essay to a collection of Hofmannsthal’s writing, he accepted only because he had no other position (his hoped for job at Princeton never materialized). He thought of the project as “financing 1948,” but otherwise found the prospect “repulsive.”13 Broch was living in New Haven trudging away at his “life work,” a study, which he began in 1941, entitled Mass Psychology which attempted to explain the popular appeal of totalitarianism by means of a social psychology rooted in a version of Freudianism (or at least using basic Freudian concepts). Broch’s interest in social psychology pre-dated his own fiction (he published articles first stating his theory of cultural values during and right after World War I). His view of the value of (indeed the morality of) art drastically changed over his life. When he wrote the Hofmannsthal essays, he had concluded that literature no longer provided the means to examine the ethical basis of our time. Nevertheless, his two major novels (which  attempted such a task), both relied on dream concepts for their organization, narrative and message. The Sleepwalkers used unconscious sleep state as the unifying concept of the three novels. The Death of Virgil, completed only after he had escaped the Nazis, is an elaborate dream-hallucination rumination of the meaning of life and art on the Roman poet’s last day. The unconscious life made evident through dreams thus informed all Broch’s works in all the disciplines he attempted. But is his explanation of Hofmannsthal’s dream poetry valid?

The brief biography he gives can of course be interpreted many ways. The use of later theater works to explain young Hugo’s childhood psychology is not outlandish. Freud used the fiction of writers to explain their own psychic makeup, usually coming to conclusions at odds with biography, however. Broch’s attempt is at least as good as Freud’s. But does psychology say anything more than the writing itself suggests, and, if not, what purpose does it serve?

Portrait of Arthur Schnitzler, Atelier Madame d’Ora, 1915. (ONB/Vienna.)

Portrait of Arthur Schnitzler, Atelier Madame d’Ora, 1915. (ONB/Vienna.)

A simpler explanation of Hofmannsthal’s literary career is probably the one Broch held before wrestling with Hofmannsthal in the context of nineteenth century literary culture: Hofmannsthal’s goal was to distinguish himself in the literary tradition most favored by the ancient aristocracy, solely because it was so favored by them. Let’s consider some additional biographical facts. First, Hofmannsthal proved himself to be politically highly conservative. This is shown by the significant fact (omitted in Broch’s essays) that during World War I Hofmannsthal not only held a position in the ministry supporting the Emperor, he also actively supported the Emperor’s war efforts with various propaganda efforts. None of the Jung-Wein and certainly none of the avant-garde displayed anything like this level of identification with imperial Austria. (Broch himself, who was managing his father’s textile manufactures and presumably would have had more economic interest in defending the existing order, took no such actions. He spent the war working with the Austrian Red Cross.) In the pre-war years Hofmannsthal’s works found acceptance by Richard Strauss and other conservatives. The New Music composers, who used verses by Stefan George (and even poets like Maeterlinck, who were less progressive from a literary point of view than Hofmannsthal) never used Hofmannsthal’s poems. Moreover, Hofmannsthal did not simply acquiesce in the conversion of his grandfather to Catholicism: His wife, though Jewish, converted to Catholicism before she married Hofmannsthal. Schnitzler was openly critical of Hofmannsthal’s rejection of his ethnic Judaism. Finally, Hofmannsthal’s own father’s inculcation of young Hugo with things aesthetic was not the “moral” duty of the upper bourgeoisie; if that were the case surely there would have been examples of others. It seems rather that it was the calculated attempt to have young Hugo regain the aristocratic prestige of the family, which faded when Hugo’s grandfather lost the family fortune in the crash of May 1873 and the subsequent Long Depression. Professor Schorske noted how the aristocracy in those days refused to admit to the life of the imperial court those who won a patent of nobility. “Direct social assimilation to the aristocracy occurred rarely in Austria.” Money itself (of which the Hofmannsthals no longer had much) was itself not sufficient.

“But assimilation could be pursued along another, more open road: that of culture. This too had its difficulties. The traditional culture of the Austrian aristocracy was far removed from the legalistic, puritanical culture of both bourgeois and Jew. Profoundly Catholic, it was a sensuous, plastic culture. Where traditional bourgeois culture saw nature as a sphere to be mastered by imposing order under divine law, Austrian aristocratic culture viewed nature as a scene of joy, a manifestation of divine grace to be glorified in art. Traditional Austrian culture was not, like that of the German north, moral, philosophical, and scientific, but primarily aesthetic. Its greatest achievements were in the applied and performing arts: architecture, the theater, and music.”14

The conflict was not between ethics and aesthetics; it was between Jewish bourgeoise ethically informed aesthetics and aristocratic Catholic aesthetics. Hofmannsthal chose aristocratic aesthetics, but to the extent his bourgeois ethical-aesthetics could not be repressed, it was cast in dreamlike form.

Klimt not only painted the classical theater scenes to decorate the new Burgtheater, he showed the audience of the old one. Aristocrats clamored for special sittings to be immortalized as patrons of the theater. (Shorske at 212 n.*.)The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater. Oil on canvas by Gustav Klimt (1888) (Historisches Museum Der Stadt Wien, Vienna).

Klimt not only painted the classical theater scenes to decorate the new Burgtheater, he showed the audience of the old one. Aristocrats clamored for special sittings to be immortalized as patrons of the theater. (Shorske at 212 n.*.) The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater. Oil on canvas by Gustav Klimt (1888) (Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Vienna).

Of course Hofmannsthal’s rejection of social naturalism was unlikely to have been motivated by the same reason Broch himself would later reject it: its exhaustion as a form and its inability to speak to fundamental “ethical” questions. (Broch spends a great deal of effort in the first of his Hofmannsthal essays explaining his view of the history of European literary and visual art from the middle of the nineteenth century to Joyce and Kafka. The discussion is very dense and like German writing since Kant depends on the juxtaposition of opposites and their resolution. Neither Marx nor Nietzsche had been able to root out Hegel in Broch’s mental structure. I distill one strand of his thought without attempting to replicate the subtlety of his reasoning.) An aspiring aristocrat like Hofmannsthal could hardly help himself advance his cause by producing novels like Zola’s (or even those of the arch-conservative Dostoevsky for that matter, who was at least as anti-Semitic as the Austrian aristocrats, although perhaps not quite as much as the Christian Socialists whose popularity among the petite bourgeoisie rose to the mayoralty in 1897 Karl Leuger, a man later praised in Mein Kampf).

Freud's consulting room at Berggasse 19, Vienna. (One of the clandestine photographs by Edmund Engelmund in 1938.)*

Freud’s consulting room at Berggasse 19, Vienna. (One of the clandestine photographs by Edmund Engelmund in 1938.)

So the imperial theater was the preferred way to regain aristocratic prestige, and that was Hofmanntsthal’s aim from early on (he wrote verse dramas even while producing lyrical poems for the Jung-Wein). He used dream-motivs in his poems and plays, not because it was the inspiration of the personification of some psychic savior, but because dreams were everywhere in fin-de-siècle Vienna. They were the medium of transcendence and constituted the essence of psychic life. The Hofburgtheater itself was not simply the nobility’s metaphor of a dream, but it was itself, in its own national repertory, composed of dream. Austria’s greatest playwright was Franz Grillparzer, a Romantic so imposing that his oratorio graced Beethoven’s funeral. Gillparzer’s masterpiece, Der Traum, ein Leben (“A Dream, a Life”), was based on the seventeenth century play from Spain’s Golden Age, La vida es sueño (“Life is a Dream”) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the existential drama often compared with Hamlet.  Hofmannsthal undoubtedly saw the play as a young boy. Even if he did not, clearly he studied Grillparzer (and his immediate disciples) because Gillparzer is the link between Hofmannsthal and Goethe both in the selection of dramatic material, the artistic view of the material and the nature of the verse used in the dramas. “As Goethe introduced modern characterization into the story of Iphigenia, Grillparzer followed with his plays on Hero and Leander, Sappho, and Medea.”15 In all of these, the psychology of the actors were examined. Hofmannsthal would follow with his own examinations of classics, the most notable being Elektra. His close reading of Grillprazer led him to publish in 1915 a collection of Grillparzer’s poems: Grillparzers politisches Vermächtnis (Leipzig : Insel-Verlag, [1915]). In his study of Grillparzer, Hofmannsthal could hardly have ignored Grillparzer’s great attachment to Calderón. Hofmannsthal himself explored the relation of life and dreams and dreaming from early on, and their equation is found in much of his lyrical poetry. (See, for example, “Leben, Traum, und Tod,” “Life, Dream and Death.”)

Dreams were not confined to theater in the last decade of the nineteenth century in Vienna, however. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1899. Broch’s own fascination with dreams as both metaphor and entrance to unconscious both in literature and in his social psychology work stemmed from Freud’s work and techniques. Freud himself was undoubtedly guided in his own thinking by the dreams that were everywhere in Vienna, but that is for another story.

*     *     *

That Hofmannsthal was goaded by ambition (isn’t ambition the very lifespring of the burgher?) and that the dream life of Hofmannsthal’s poems were not dictated by the Angel of Genius does not mean that the works are trivial. They are immediately arresting, but at the same time are composed with a subtlety that bears careful analysis. The poem today illustrates these points.

The poem is named for its form: the terza rima. This form, perfected, if not invented by Dante for the Divine Comedy, is made up of three-lines stanzas where the first and third lines rhyme. The second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next stanza, so on until the end. In this poem Hofmannsthal doesn’t interlock the stanzas in the first part, but does rhyme the first and third lines. In the final three parts the stanzas are interlocked.

The dream of the poem is created by the simple language (a child’s?) describing familiar objects in odd settings or described with in a way to emphasize their strangeness. The dog in the first part is alien (fremd) because it is (permanently?) silent. This inability to speak, voicelessness, is repeated twice more in different visions. Both times it adds to the strangeness of the image. Inability to express oneself and the inadequacy of language became central themes in Hofmannsthal’s later works. Indeed, his famous Lord Chandos Letter published at about the time that Hofmannsthal concludes his lyric poetry career but before he committed himself entirely to the stage, tells the story of an Elizabethan writer who has “lost completely the ability to think or speak of anything coherently.” Nearly two decades later, in 1921, the main character in his play The Difficult Man (Der Schwierige (Berlin: S. Fischer: 1922)) concludes that language is not merely useless but improper in the face of the enormity of the human condition:

“Everything one utters is indecent. Merely to put anything into words is an indecency. And when one looks at it closely, my dear Aldo, except that men never look closely at anything in the world, there is something positively shameless in our daring even to experience some things.”

Everything has a strangeness, no matter how familiar. It is the nature of the “Thing.” Each Thing whether a mute dog or the full moon over the tree tops is “an uninterpretable interpretability” (as he writes in his Buch der Freunde (Leipzig: Insel-Verlag: 1922). We can understand the Thing without being able to explain it. Everyone confronts external reality, and our only connection with it is the Dream.

The content of the poem (its “ethical” component in Broch’s language) suggests that the transience of life is not, as Hofmannswaldau saw it, the end of things beautiful and precious, but rather in their transformation into other Things. What relieves us of despair is the knowledge of our connection with some others by descent and all other things by physical action, like the fertilizing power of the martyr’s blood. While we may not comprehend it, Life itself is fully aware of its own logic and power.

Terzinen
Über Verganglichkeit

from Gedichte
(Leipzig: Insel-Verlag: 1922)

by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

I

Noch spür ich ihren Atem auf den Wangen:
Wie kann das sein, daß diese nahen Tage
Fort sind, für immer fort, und ganz vergangen?

Dies ist ein Ding, das keiner voll aussinnt,
Und viel zu grauenvoll, als daß man klage:
Daß alles gleitet und vorüberrinnt

Und daß mein eignes Ich, durch nichts gehemmt,
Herüberglitt aus einem kleinen Kind
Mir wie ein Hund unheimlich stumm und fremd.

Dann: daß ich auch vor hundert Jahren war
Und meine Ahnen, die im Totenhemd,
Mit mir verwandt sind wie mein eignes Haar,

So eins mit mir als wie mein eignes Haar.

II

Die Stunden! wo wir auf das helle Blauen
Des Meeres starren und den Tod verstehn,
So leicht und feierlich und ohne Grauen,

Wie kleine Mädchen, die sehr blaß aussehn,
Mit großen Augen, und die immer frieren,
An einem Abend stumm vor sich hinsehn

Und wissen, daß das Leben jetzt aus ihren
Schlaftrunknen Gliedern still hinüberfließt
In Bäum’ und Gras, und sich matt lächelnd zieren

Wie eine Heilige, die ihr Blut vergießt.

III

Wir sind aus solchem Zeug, wie das zu Träumen,
Und Träume schlagen so die Augen auf
Wie kleine Kinder unter Kirschenbäumen,

Aus deren Krone den blaßgoldnen Lauf
Der Vollmond anhebt durch die große Nacht.
… Nicht anders tauchen unsre Träume auf,

Sind da und leben wie ein Kind, das lacht,
Nicht minder groß im Auf- und Niederschweben
Als Vollmond, aus Baumkronen aufgewacht.

Das Innerste ist offen ihrem Weben,
Wie Geisterhände in versperrtem Raum
Sind sie in uns und haben immer Leben.

Und drei sind Eins: ein Mensch, ein Ding, ein Traum.

IV

Zuweilen kommen niegeliebte Frauen
Im Traum als kleine Mädchen uns entgegen
Und sind unsäglich rührend anzuschauen,

Als wären sie mit uns auf fernen Wegen
Einmal an einem Abend lang gegangen,
Indes die Wipfel atmend sich bewegen

Und Duft herunterfällt und Nacht und Bangen,
Und längs des Weges, unsres Wegs, des dunkeln,
Im Abendschein die stummen Weiher prangen

Und, Spiegel unsrer Sehnsucht, traumhaft funkeln,
Und allen leisen Worten, allem Schweben
Der Abendluft und erstem Sternefunkeln

Die Seelen schwesterlich und tief erbeben
Und traurig sind und voll Triumphgepränge
Vor tiefer Ahnung, die das große Leben

Begreift und seine Herrlichkeit und Strenge.

Terzas Rimas
On the Transitory

[translated by DK Fennell]

I

Still yet I feel their breathing on my cheeks:
So how is it that these quite recent days
Are gone, forever gone, and wholly lost?

This is the thing that no one clearly sees,
And much too full of horror to lament:
That all there is slips by, then goes away,

That everything I am, without restraint
Is emanated from a little child
Unnatural as a silent, foreign hound.

And more: I lived a hundred years ago,
And all my forbears (long now wrapped in shrouds),
Relate to me just as my very hair,

Are one with me just as my very hair.

II

And oh the hours! When we on sun-lit blue
At sea observe and comprehend our death
So light, so free of care, without the least despair,

Like little girls with striking pallid skin
And big round eyes, and always seeming cold,
Each silent, staring straight ahead at dusk,

And knowing that right now the very life
From out their weary limbs is flowing forth
To trees and grass, to dress them with sad smile

Just like a martyr pouring out her blood.

III

We are from stuff that dreams come from as well,
And dreams have eyes that open in this way:
Like little children under cherry trees,

Along the pallid golden path on top
The waxing moon appears through darkest night.
… No other way do dreams appear to us,

Here they live just like a laughing child,
No less sublime when wafting up and down,
Than is the moon awaking through treetops.

The inner life is open to their plait,
Like phantom’s hands inside a locked up room
They are inside of us and always live.

And three are one: the man, the thing, the dream.

IV

Sometimes the women who were never loved
Appear to us in dreams as little girls,
Unutterably touching to behold,

As though with us upon a distant path
One time at evening quite a while ago,
All while the trees bestir themselves with sighs

And fragrance settles down and night and fears,
Along the path, our very path, unlit,
In evening luster twinkle silent ponds

And, mirror to our longing, dreamlike wink,
And all the gentle words, all things afloat
In evening air as well the first star-gleam

Like sisters do, their souls profoundly shake
And they are sad but full of jubilance
Before an inner thought, that Life Itself

Perceives its very majesty and strength.

*      *      *

Italian is easier to rhyme than German (and so Dante could complete a three volume epic in (terzas rimas), and German is easier than English, not only because more words and word-forms rhyme, but also because in English it is more difficult to put rhyming words in the end position of lines. I therefore have omitted rhyming here, because otherwise the laconic visions would be disturbed. Compare the rhymed version, as close to literal as the rhyme scheme allowed, by Charles Wharton Stork:16

Of Mutability [Terzinen I].

Still, still upon my cheek I feel their breath:
How can it be that days which seem so near
Are gone, forever gone, and lost in death?

This is a thing that none may rightly grasp,
A thing too dreadful for the trivial tear:
That all things glide away from out our clasp;—

And that this I, unchecked by years, has come
Across into me from a little child,
Like an uncanny creature, strangely dumb;—

That I existed centuries past—somewhere,
That ancestors on whom the earth is piled
Are yet as close to me as my very hair.

As much a part of me as my very hair.

Death [Terzinen II].

What hours are those! when, shiningly outspread,
The ocean lures us, and we lightly learn
The solemn lore of death, and feel no dread:

As little girls, whose great eyes seem to yearn,
Girls that have pallid cheeks and limbs a-cold,
Some evening look far out and do not turn

Their feebly-smiling gaze, for, loosing hold
Upon their slumber-drunken limbs, the flood
Of life glides over into grass and wold;—

Or as a saint pours out her martyr blood.

“Such Stuff as Dreams” [Terzinen III],

Such stuff as dreaming is we mortals be,
And every dream doth open wide its eyes
Like a small child beneath a cherry tree,

Above whose top across the deepening skies
The pale full-moon emerges for its flight.
Not otherwise than so our dreams arise.

They live as a child that laughs, and to the sight
Appear no smaller on their curving way
Than the full-moon awakening on the night.

Our inmost self is open to their sway.
As spirit hands in sealed chambers gleam
They dwell in us and have their life alway.

And three are one: the man, the thing, the dream.

Note on Text: You see that Stork only translates the first three parts of the poem. The reason is that he translated from the 1907 edition of the collected poems of Hofmannsthal, which did not include the fourth part. In fact, I have been unable to find a published version of the fourth part before the 1922 edition (the one I used). The publication history of the poem is somewhat curious. Evidently the first publication was in 1895 in Stefan George’s Blätter für die Kunst (Leaves for Art or Album for Art). The individual issues of this journal were circulated only among a small circle, so I cannot tell what the original version was. But the collected volume for the years 1892-1898, published by Georg Bondi in Berlin in 1899 (entitled: Blaetter fuer die Kunst: Eine Auslese aus den Jahren 1892-98) contains only the first part of the poem (on page 73) under the title “Terzinen über Vergänglichkeit.” That version is the same as Part I above, except for the idiosyncratic orthography of G. Bondi, where nouns are not capitalized, the double s is used instead of the ligature symbol ß, and a general carelessness with commas (although in this version the commas are identical to the version in the 1922 edition). G. Bondi as Verlag der Blaetter fuer die Kunst in Berlin published two editions of the collected poems of Hofmannsthal (Ausgewaehlte Gedichte) in 1903 and 1904. Those versions show the carelessness with the commas (which are represented by a middle dot). The first three parts of the poem are included in these two collections. Thereafter, Insel-Verlag in Leipzig published Hofmannsthal’s collected poems. The following version have only the first three parts (and they use the orthography as in the text above): Die gesammelten Gedichte (1907) (pp. 19-21); Die Gedichte und kleinen Dramen (1911) (pp. 14-15); Die Gedichte und kleinen Dramen (1916, stated to be the 3rd edition) (pp. 14-15); and Die Gedichte und kleinen Dramen (1919, stated to be the fifth edition) (pp. 14-15). I was unable to located either the second or fourth editions, but since the three I did see seemed to use the same plates, it’s unlikely the other two editions differed in any way. The next edition is the one I use, called simply Gedichte on the title page and Die geammelten Gedichte on the succeeding page. The poem is found on pages 26-28. Before this edition the title “Über Vergänglichkeit” is placed under the Roman I. In this edition the title comes first and is the title for the complete four part poem.

Notes

1Charles Wharton Stork (trans. & ed.), The Lyrical Poems of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Yale University Press: 1918), p. 17. [“Stork”]

2Elisabeth Walter, “Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Exponent of Modern Lyricism,” Colonnade (December 1916). [“Walter”]

3Stork at 19.

4Walter.

5Hermann Broch, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his Time: The European Imagination, 1860-1920, translated and edited by Michael P. Steinberg (University of Chicago Press: ©1984), p. 151. [“Broch”]

6J.D. McClatchy, The Whole Diifference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press: 2008), p. 4.

7Broch at 192 n.3.

8Broch at 89-90.

9Broch at 89.

10Broch at 87-88.

11Broch at 90.

12Broch at 91.

13Broch at 4 (Steinberg’s introduction).

14Carl E. Schorske, Fin-De-Siècle Vienna (NY: Viking Books: 1981), p. 7. [“Schorske”]

15Stork at 4.

16Stork  at 34-36.

100 Novels: #91. Anna Karenin

I had promised to offer some thoughts on my list of the 100 novels literate people should read, but like all good intentions here, time slowly erodes the ability to perform.

I had not planned on dealing with Tolstoy’s masterpiece so soon. In fact, the later it was pushed back the better, because, after all, how can anyone formulate something interesting to say about such a near perfect work of art? Rather than essay a futile task, better to postpone it.

I was forced to change my mind when I saw a trailer of a movie version, by Tom Stoppard, starring Keira Knightley. I have not come to praise this film. Tom Stoppard, however, is probably the person best suited to turing the novel into a movie, and Knightley certainly appears like one would imagine Anna. The trailer has some of the feel of the novel, and you can see hints of all the great scenes with steam locomotive, ice skating, the famous ball, etc. The language also seems to come right out of Tolstoy’s mouth (via Constance Garnett). But I am not suggesting you see it. In fact, if you have not read the novel, I plead that you not see it before you do so.

And this should be a spur for you to read it right away.

Reading the novel is one of the experiences you should not deprive yourself of. The hard bopper Art Blakey used to say at the end of his sets, “Tell your square friends to check this out before leaving the planet.” That advice is definitely true of Anna Karenin. (I use the form of her last name used by the her husband, because some translators Anglicize it this way, and because we are unused to having the husband’s and wife’s last names differ, even by the added -a.) Reading it for the first time is an enveloping experience. The two main story lines slowly unfurl down different lines with the pace of inevitability. The more famous of the lines (because who could deny priority to a character whose black curls lying on her neck are as lovingly described as here) become dreadful in its certainty, just like all truly mythic stories.

So why not just get it over with in a couple of hours while watching Knightley? Well, because the essence of the novel is the author’s ability to portray the interior of characters. Movies can’t do that. And in this case, though the story is compelling in itself, one can’t ignore how the great artist portrays the inner lives of the characters.

Even the scenes known so well by Tolstoyites that just the name of them brings up wells of memories: the ice rink, the race track, the ball, the train station, all these are visualized not because Tolstoy describes the picture like a camera, but because he illuminates the characters’ souls so perfectly that we can populate the scenes with the physical props by ourselves. The bashfullness of Levin, for example, at the ice rink is so perfectly drawn that we don’t need details about the furs worn by the women, the boots of the men and how the rink physically appeared. All of that is more or less irrelevant. But in the movie that will be what is shown.

By the time Tolstoy wrote this book, he was a master of psychological understatement. The scenes are drawn with humanizing subtlety. Take, for example, when Levin goes to visit his impoverished, bohemian brother. His woman companion is described with empathy. Tolstoy saw no need to emphasize the urban pathology that Dostoevsky dwelled on. And yet, the clash of cultures could not be better explained. In fact, all the major characters emphasize a specific aspect of the socio-economic problems of the professional and aristocratic classes. But the book is no manifesto, merely a couple of moral tales taking place in a three-dimensional jungle that was late nineteenth century Russia.

I have in another post described how Tolstoy artfully introduces new characters, organically:

Characters are introduced, not by an assessment but rather simply as they come in contact.  Their personalities become apparent in their relationships.  In fact, the entire story is largely propelled by the handing off of one character to another, much like an elaborate partner trade in square dancing.

The characters gradually populate the tale to the point that stories begin to have increasing lengths, which grow and intertwine. And all this happens under an overall architecture where symbols, like trains, associate with internal crisis points. This great cathedral is described by the opening biblical aphorism: “Vengeance is Mine.” But the steps to damnation and salvation are so small, we have to pay close attention to see what path is being taken.

Anna is truly one of the great tragic figures in all Western art. Like Milton’s Satan in how she pays for violating divine rules, but a hero motivated not by ego or willfulness but by tender passion. And she pays out of proportion to her crime. Levin achieves something like salvation, although it is never certain and not something that brings ecstasy, by being truer, emptied of driving selfishness, and too willing to believe his ardor defeated. Is that the moral? And what of Count Vronsky? Is he spared grand suffering because he is hollow or does he truly understand the destruction he is bringing down?

Tolstoy was on the edge of giving up art to become a moral thinker. This work happily sees his power as both artist and moralist. In both he is subtle. It is a subtlety that brings one back over and over to the text. It cannot be captured on film, which is why there have been so many attempts.

This abridged and unfocused look at the novel deserves additional thought, which I hope to give later, after we look at some of the other 100 novels.