Might be a rabbit, might be a mole.

In trying to convey to you something of the flavor of Mrs. Ramsay and then Mr. Ramsay, I suspect you have seen what an odd couple they are, and that must be how Virginia remembered them. Mrs. Ramsay has a richness and generosity, a lyrical warm affirmative feeling about her, generousness. Whereas, Mr.Ramsay comes to us as much more of the professional philosopher, much more of an abstract, arid, perhaps stingy figure, self absorbed, less capable of giving and needier. An odd couple.

What about the proposition that every couple is an odd couple? What makes us think that couples are not intrinsically odd? Why should we assume that couples are normal? Manon Lescaut, a tragic love story, filled with misunderstandings, sort of articulated really. The plot was nothing but a series of separations, how they’re pulled apart from each other. I wonder how Prévost could have written what they were like when they were with each other. Woolf’s books have a kind of gentle comic texture to them as well. It’s not always as throbbing and violent as some of the passages I’ve cited. There is, in her work, a kind of intuition that something quite miraculous happens whenever we actually make sense to each other.

Now, when I think about the books I have read, think about the way dialogue is usually written in novels, you have people usually pronouncing correct sentences, subject, verb, object,And the interlocutor hears it, and responds to it. It’s neat, it’s clean, it looks like a kind of bridge of sorts that is successful between A and B. And yet, compare or contrast that with your own experience with the conversations that you actually have. How often do you think conversation works? Works in the sense of you really attending to the specifics of what you’re hearing or the person you’re speaking with doing that for you. And it’s not that we’re bad listeners. It’s rather that we are frequently distracted by the fact that there’s a lot of noise outside and inside of us. And that we construe or misconstrue what people say, because of our own agendas. We get in our own way when we are with others,not just in conversations, but doubtless in all of the exchanges that take place from the verbal, to the emotional, to the sexual. How much do we ever really connect with, or to take it to its furthest extension, fuse with another? Now these are complex matters, or maybe they’re simple matters, it’s hard to know, seems to me that perhaps they’re both and they are certainly quotidian issues for all of us.

That short of living by yourself in a cave or in a room, a room of one’s own, Woolf might have said, you’ve had some firsthand experience with these matters. There’s a kind of buzz that takes place in our own brains that is between us and the people we talk with, and Woolf has the genius to write that. And so I want to quote for you two sequences which are among the most lovable moments in this novel – because this is a marriage novel, unlike Manon Lescaut,  this is a novel about marriage, about a man and a woman who do love each other;but we’ve come to see what a miraculous event that is, not because they’ve got great moral qualities, but because it is such a challenge for two people to be able to make sense to each other, for each other.

And so one of the passages, they both have to do with Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay taking a walk, pedestrian, literally pedestrian moment. They’re on their feet. They’re walking together. They’re speaking a little bit. They’re sort of joking about poor Charles Tansley. One moment of fear is expressed that maybe he’s going to woo one of the daughters,they hope not, because they think that even if he’s Mr.Ramsay’s student, he’s something of a fool. And then the text moves into the mind of Mr. Ramsay as they’re walking together. Mrs.Ramsay, we know, thinks a great deal about flowers. And so this is how Woolf writes it, “He,” Mr.Ramsay, “-did not look at the flowers which his wife was considering, but at a spot about a foot or so above them. There was no harm in him, he added, and was just about to say anyhow that he was the only young man in England who admired his-” Now we have to pinch ourselves here. Well, wait a minute. It’s not flowers. “There was no harm in him, he added.” And that, of course, is a reference to Charles Tansley. Now why would Mr.Ramsay reference Charles Tansley? Because Mr.Ramsay needs people who admire him. “Anyhow, he was the only young man in England who admired his-“ Woolf puts in a dash, “-when he choked it back. He would not bother her again about his books. These flowers seemed creditable, Mr. Ramsay said, lowering his gaze, and noticing something red, something brown.”

To me, it’s just a delicious passage. Here is this man, filled with his own business, like, what is my particular sort of stake, or stature in the intellectual world I inhabit, Charles Tansley is at least one way of validating it, anyway, at least he thinks I’m brilliant. That’s what’s on his mind; it’s on his mind all the time, I’m sure he dreams of that. But he’s walking with his wife, and they’re looking at flowers, and he knows that she loves flowers. And so, with considerable, I think, discipline, he tries to push aside that which he cares about, which is Charles Tansley’s estimate of himself, a philosopher, and instead, tries to move towards her. “These flowers seemed creditable, Mr. Ramsay said, lowering his gaze, and noticing something red, something brown.” I don’t even think it’s satirical, because I think it’s mostly tender. He can’t get further than that. He cannot describe in any detail these flowers. He doesn’t know how to make that trip. It’s not a trip to the lighthouse. It’s simply a trip to the field of vision and field of interest of his own wife, but he tries.

And I think Woolf suggests that all of us stutter, try, something red, something brown. We don’t always get very far, but maybe it’s the most epic voyage in human life, which is to exit your own precincts by dint of love into those of another. And maybe it matters less how far you get then that you even seek to do it. Certainly she understands him. Then Woolf continues this conversation in an even more remarkable fashion. She too has her own running commentary in her mind, just as he does, just as all of us do. And so whereas he is thinking about Charles Tansley as the student who admires him, she’s thinking about a lot of other things. About the fact that they need money, that this property is getting rundown, that there are expenses. And then she’s looking as well at the terrain where they’re walking.
She thinks as well about his, her husband’s strange habit of all of a sudden screaming out poetry to people who don’t see it coming. And as they’re walking up a hill, Woolf writes it like this, “Intimating by a little pressure on his arm that he walked up the hill too fast for her,
and she must stop for a moment to see whether those were fresh mole hills on the bank.”

Now this was in her mind. He’s moving too fast. Her arm is on his. She squeezes it a little bit. It’s a very sweet tender notations, physical. Because she wants to look at these holes that she’s seeing, molehills, “-for a moment to see whether those were fresh mole hills on the bank. Then, she thought, stooping down to look, a great mind like his must be different in every way from ours. All the great men she’d ever known, she thought, deciding that a rabbit must have got in, were like that, and it was good for young men (though the atmosphere of lecture-rooms was stuffy and depressing to her beyond endurance almost) simply to hear him, simply to look at him. But without shooting rabbits, how is one to keep them down? She wondered. It might be a rabbit, it might be a mole.”  I think this passage is prodigious. She, like he in the earlier passage, is in fact trying to keep her mind on her husband. Yes, he’s a great man. Great men are different from others. Students need people like that. At the same time, she is also noting these holes in the terrain and trying to determine whether it’s a mole or a rabbit. “-deciding that a rabbit must have got in, were like that, and it was good for young men simply to hear him, but without shooting rabbits how was one to keep them down? Might be a rabbit, might be a mole.”

Well, nothing could be more muddled and messy than the passage I just quoted. Is it about Mr. Ramsay? Or is it about rabbits? Or is it about moles? If someone were to write a paper using the same principles of composition that we see in this passage, they would fail the test. However, what papers seem to fail is the reality test. What’s exquisite about what Woolf has written is that she has conveyed the actual living, pulsating, muddle of the mind. Logic says, either Mr. Ramsay or rabbits and moles; the mind says, oh no, it’s all mushed up,  flowing up together. And so, rational order compartmentalizes things, keeps them separate, which is the way we think we can corral and order the world around us. But the brain is promiscuous. The brain mixes things up. Life comes to us in many colors, and many categories are put together, fused together. Now I have argued that fusion, that’s how I began this piece of the talk, fusion between people is perhaps impossible. And yet what our eyes and what our brain takes in all the time, is fusion, is an unholy mess in which everything cohabits, coexists next to everything else. The very project of order, of compartmentalizing, of sorting things out, which we pride ourselves on, is also a way of distorting reality. Reality, itself, is fresh, intermixed, interwoven,except that, ordinarily, we don’t have a clue of it. Woolf’s writing reminds us of what a spectacle our actual world is, inside and outside.

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Q to R.

 In order to pick up from where we left Mrs. Ramsay, I’d like to return for a moment to the passage that I cited which depicts a man, a woman and a child. And I did my utmost to convey to you its incredible violence, its sort of lyrical intensity, as we see this encounter between a hungry man who is desiring, who needs sympathy, needs approval, and needs love, and this woman who is prepared to give it to him, and then the son who resists it.

Note how tame and boring my terms are in contrast to the terms that Woolf uses. A kind of scimitar, a male beak, a flow, a kind of energy, a column of spray. She finds words to convey something of the violence and something of the splendor of this encounter. Now one might say, well, here’s a writing that goes underneath the surface, that shows us what’s taking place on the inside. But I believe you can take that formulation and perhaps upend it by suggesting that maybe surface notations are the cheat. That maybe the surface, docile depiction of things is what locks us out of the teeming, throbbing, affective, emotional, libidinal world that we also inhabit because it inhabits us. And that relationship is precisely the arena where all of this comes to the force, where it speaks. Once again, relationship can be thought of, sort of, theorized as A and B. What is so fascinating in Woolf is the bridge, the commerce, between A and B, what it gives rise to.

And we see how far it goes in the passage that I quoted. Here is this brass beak, this sterile male. Here is this woman who offers the kind of
either love or support or affection or herself, that is required. And we see this as a kind of flow, we see this as a flow that is outright generative. The text suggests that she creates life, she creates the rooms, bids him, take his ease there, the rooms are filled with children.
I think this goes beyond motherhood. This is not a question of the, sort of, archetypal role of the woman in 1925, of the mother, it’s also the creation of life in the very intimate intense encounter between two people. I think that Woolf offers us in this image of him as he has had his fill, seeming like a man, a child, an infant who has suckled and her with her petals, as a woman, sort of, in a moment of post- coital exhaustion. We see in this encounter something as barbaric and primeval as the mating rituals of peacocks, or of strange animals who signal their interest and passion for each other in ways that must seem exotic to us,except maybe they’re not. That this passage suggests that that too is our domain, that these too are the fields that we inhabit.

So Woolf’s book is almost colonializing in that way. It annexes entire arenas of experiences that we all do in fact partake of, but it finds words for it even though this had never appeared in any kind of photograph or any kind of literal account of human exchange. I think she makes a mockery then, of the kind of dry, arid categories that we customarily use to either depict or, in a sense, imprison human experience. So with Mrs.Ramsay, we get this really vivid rich language of human creation, she is the fertile source of the novel, of life. She’s not just Virginia’s mother, but she seeds, which is customarily male work, she seeds and nurtures the life force of the novel. And against her, we have a remarkable portrait of her husband, Mr.Ramsay, based again on Leslie Steven, with his insatiable need for approval. And he is a much more angular figure, a very ambitious figure, a philosopher, who is presented to us in his philosophical quest.

And Woolf puts it in a rather satirical way, because it’s described in a passage like this. “For if thought-“ this is Mr.Ramsay’s thought, his mind, “-for if thought is like the keyboard of a piano divided into so many notes,or like the alphabet is arranged into 26 letters all in order.
then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He had reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.” Well, of course, now his grand challenge is how to get beyond Q, how to make good on his quest. “But after Q, what comes next? After Q there are a number of letters, the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R-“ which follows Q of course, “-if he could reach R, it would be something. Here at least was Q.He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q – R – Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. ‘Then R,’ he braced himself, he clenched himself.”

How do you depict the mind trying to go one step further? Which of course, is what the project of philosophy can be. Note the way Woolf writes this, right after the passage I just quoted, “Qualities that would have saved a ship’s company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water – endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help.” So immediately paralleled with a kind of desperate situation at sea where heroism is required, “R is then. What is R? Quality that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counselor, whose temper, neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity what is to be and faces it,” And all these images of heroes, “-it came to his help again, R-“ And we see this man clinched, straining – seeking to deliver, seeking to produce and coming up short, being stuck in his tracks, not being able to go the next step.

Now, many readers have understandably taken this to be a form of satire. That the business of philosophers is to try to get from A to Z, or from Q to R. If we add to it that R is his last name, Ramsay, we could in fact, if we chose to read this as a kind of parable of the failure of self-knowledge. He cannot get to R, he cannot get to himself, he cannot take his own measure. We can’t miss seeing that this is a kind of puffed up form of prose. And it’s also narrow. It’s puffed and narrow, if I can say that. That there is a kind of egoism in it, a kind of egomania as he presses his brain, squeezes it, strains it, tries to make it yield one more insight, one beyond what it can and seems to be stuck. So, many readers have taken the view that that kind of rather lean, angular, schematic, dry language of Q to R, that language is quite poor, impoverished in contrast with the rich throbbing lyricism that is used to denote Mrs. Ramsay’s achievements. And so we may have the feeling that this philosopher comes across really as a much more limited figure, which is exactly the way I think Virginia felt about her father, and which is the way Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell, who read the book, felt also. And yet they both felt that father had also been given his proper portrait.

I’d like to suggest that this philosopher, father, is arguably a more interesting figure than it’s easy for us always to see, that there is a sense in which his efforts are also moving,that he is, we overhear this man thinking at times, he’s musing now about Shakespeare. “If Shakespeare had never existed, he asked,” he’s asking himself, “would the world have ever differed much from what it is today? Does the progress of civilization depend upon great men?” this is a good question that we don’t ask enough. “Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs? Is the lot of the average human being, however, he asked himself, the criterion by which we judge the measure of civilization? Possibly not. Possibly the greatest good requires the existence of a slave class.” We watch all these ideas sort of flitting through his mind. “The lift man in the tube was an eternal necessity.” And then we watch him think, “the thought was distasteful to him. He tossed his head.”

And so, you watch this man moving through his own mind, thinking what he’s going to, as he says, dish up for the students in the next semester in his courses. And we overhear him, we overhear the quite lively thought processes of a man who inhabits a world of mental constructs, but that has some imagination as well. Would the world be better off with or without Shakespeare? Could we ever document that the great achievements in the arts have added one wit to the actual texture or quality of life for human beings? I am not sure that we have answers for those questions. But I do want to say that this man who can appear so angular, and arid and sterile in contrast to his wife, seems to me, he’s an interesting partner for her. And that he is a character whom we can also saddle up to and learn something from.

Neruda Interlude.

I Do Not Love You
(Pablo Neruda)
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
 
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the Earth, lives darkly in my body.
 
I love you, without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
 
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Mrs. Ramsay

Everybody knows the famous line in Hamlet: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” It seems to me that it’s not all that far-fetched to say that the operative line in To the Lighthouse is, “to go or not to go.” We will have plenty of time to wonder what it means to go to a Lighthouse, what a Lighthouse is, whether or not one goes.

This book starts and closes with that particular query and with all that is implied by it. The first line of the book, “yes of course, if it’s fine tomorrow, but you’ll have to be up with the lark.” That’s of course, Mrs.Ramsay speaking to her young son James. She is sitting there with him, he’s cutting out little pictures from a magazine, she’s also knitting, it’s a wonderful domestic moment. But on the second page of the novel, Mr. Ramsay, the husband, the father, steps out in front of the drawing room window and says, “but it won’t be fine.” So, to go or not to go.

Woolf writes James’ response to his father. “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.” Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence. And Mr.Ramsay is consistently conveyed as the truth seeker, the man who indulges in no fantasies, no escapism whatsoever. So, there too, I raise the question, what could you have seen, had you been, a spectator in this particular moment? You would have seen, Mr.Ramsay step out, and say, “but it won’t be fine.” You would not have seen an axe or a poker, or any hole being gashed in the fathers breast, because it didn’t happen. It was only desired, it was only felt, It was only wanted. It only expresses the intense violent anger of the son when the father puts down this particular desire and fantasy of his. It’s not even a fantasy, it’s a project, a joint project being put down. You know, in the simplest sense this is really, again, what literature brings to the table. This is an entire, sort of, landscape on the inside – axes, pokers, holes being gashed – that conveys the violence of our emotions, our sentiments and sensations, which we do not, most of us, act out. That life is punctuated by these bouts of affect and anger or desire, most of which again escapes any observation and escapes language. Woolf provides a language for that.

She also, in the passage I just quoted with James’s anger at his father, offers us a kind of Oedipal tension that is really as strong as anything in Kafka’s letter to his father. I suggested that Kafka’s work is shot through with a kind of warfare, lethal warfare between father and son,and the son almost invariably goes down. And Woolf, we also have a sense of the terrible conflict between the generations. This book is a tribute to the generations, this book makes it possible for the children to actually deliver a portrait of their own parents who are dead. It’s overcoming time, it’s like almost an Orphic trip, where you go into the underworld and retrieve your dead loved ones. Well, that is accompanied as well by tremendous violence, by the day to day tensions between generations, and between husband and wife. Woolf finds a remarkable discourse for conveying the circus, the merry-go-round, the roller coaster that takes place 24/7 between ourselves and our loved ones, inside -none of it usually crosses the threshold of language.

And so, I’m going to quote one of the most explosive passages. This is, once again, the same trio: it’s James, the son, the young son, and it’s Mrs.Ramsay, and it’s Mr.Ramsay. And I’ve already said that Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father, was a man who had this voracious need for reassurance, and for being proven not just right but, but being validated in the eyes of his wife until she died, and then the eyes of of his daughter afterwards. And so, he comes, and the only word I know how to use here is that, he storms his wife. She’s sitting there with James, and Woolf writes it this way:“There he stood, demanding sympathy.” And Woolf has written, “nothing would make him move.” Now, how does Woolf then write Mrs. Ramsay? “Mrs.Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm braced herself and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy.” Now, you just try visualizing this. You can’t, there is no visual, you know, component here. These are all figures, metaphors. “-to raise herself with an effort and at once to pour erect-” erect usually a male term, “-pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly as though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare. He wanted sympathy. He was a failure, he said. Mrs.Ramsay flashed her needles. Mr.Ramsay repeated, never taking his eyes from her face, that he was a failure.” I don’t think it’s actually being spoken, this is the unspoken commerce between the two. “She blew back the words at him. ‘Charles Tansley,'” of course that’s his acolyte, the graduate student who worships him, “He must have more than that. It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life- the drawing room; behind the drawing room the kitchen; above the kitchen the bedrooms; beyond them the nurseries; they must be furnished, they must be filled with life.” Here is the narrative that is un-announceable. It can’t be articulated and yet she finds word to articulate it.

This is what he needs, she is the earth mother, the light source, she’s the generative figure. I said she’s being stormed by her husband. There’s no combat, in any kind of visual, ordinary, realistic sense. And yet it’s a combat nonetheless between a man and a woman, a man having to get his fill of the nurturance that she might offer. “Flashing her needles, confident, upright, she created drawing-room and kitchen, set them all aglow; bade him take his ease there, go in and out, enjoy himself. She laughed, she knitted. Standing between her knees, very stiff, James felt all her strength flaring up to be drunk and quenched by the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of the male, which smote mercilessly, again and again, demanding sympathy.” I mean there’s something archaic, barbaric in this sequence between this man and this woman and this child. Each one knows what is at stake. She is finding this language for the tumultuous feelings that course inside us,that rarely, as I say, cross the threshold into spoken language. But this has all of the violence of warfare, or all of the violence of sexual encounter. Because you can’t have missed the bitonal images, scimitar beaks, but also spray energy. And the man continues to plunge, and finally he gets all that he needs, “filled with her words, like a child that drops off satisfied,” that’s a child whose finished suckling at the breast, “he said, at last, looking at her with humbled gratitude, restored, renewed, that he would take a turn; he would watch the children playing cricket.” And if you’d been there, that’s all you would’ve heard. I’ll take a turn now, I’ll watch the children playing cricket. “He went,” this is how Woolf describes Mrs Ramsay after his exit, “Immediately, Mrs.Ramsay seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in on another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself,so that she had only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion, across the page of Grimm’s fairy story,while they throbbed through her, like the pulse in a spring which is expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation.”

This is as close to sexual intercourse that is not consummated as anything that I’ve ever seen in writing. This has been a contact between the man and the woman. He has sought her softness, her giving, her feeling, her nurturance, her love. She has given it, nothing has been spoken, it’s just been felt between the two. This has been a prodigious exchange. How has it taken place? Between a man who comes and says virtually nothing, a woman who was reading a fairy tale to her son while knitting, a totally domestic scene and she has satisfied all parties. Here then, is why I compare this book to Lear. It has the same violence, what I just quoted to you, as Leer’s experience on the heath. And yet it is all within a domestic setup between a man and his wife and a child, we don’t need a heath for this. Here then is the richness of Woolf’s discourse, her language, what she brings to literature, and therefore to us, to enlarge but also deepen our sense of our actual commerce with those whom we love or those whom we hate.

To the Lighthouse. II

I’ve suggested that Woolf succeeds remarkably in conveying to her readers something of the texture and feel of her mother and father. And that I tried to also argue that that’s really a much more epic achievement than we might initially think. But that’s not a reason for reading the book. How many of us really care about Virginia Woolf’s mother and father?

I also implied something about time, that Mrs.Ramsay, her excellence may seem quite different to a generation in the 21st century, particularly women readers, than it might have in the mid 20th century, because roles change, because books have their own historicity. But of course time matters still more than that. That time is arguably the greatest and most tragic force that regulates, perhaps cashiers human relationship. And whether or not Mrs.Ramsay is our perfect image of a mother, the relation between children and parents has a kind of timeless dimension to it. Yet, even that perhaps is not ultimately the most important reason for reading her.

One reads her, I believe, because no one has ever quite written like this, that her language is simply remarkable, stunning; it challenges our notions of how we think about and talk about our lives. And to try to situate that, I’m going to quote you a passage from Kafka. I used the adjective cold in describing Kafka, and this was something Kafka wrote about his own work, about what sort of unreality in a sense he was trying to achieve.
“Somewhat”, I quote, “as if I were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say ‘Hammering a table together is really nothing to him,’ but rather, ‘hammering the table together is really hammering a table together to him but, at the same time it is nothing.'”

Against that, I’m going to quote a passage late in To the Lighthouse. One wanted, and this is Lily Briscoe, who is really the surrogate figure of Virginia – she is not the daughter of Mrs.Ramsay but she’s the figurative daughter and she’s the artist, so clearly she stands in for Woolf herself -and this is Lily trying to complete her painting at the end of the book.
“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply, that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”
And I think Woolf pulls that off. Now miracles and ecstasy are terms that may seem a little bit banal to you. That is to say, do they really convey great writing? And so I want to look at some of the ways in which Woolf conveys Mrs.Ramsay’s uniqueness, but also conveys something of her own prodigious style, and really the kind of revolutionary mark that she brings to modern fiction, a new way of trying to write, brings – hers is the most throbbing, full-throated language of any text that I’ve looked at yet. She, I think, makes us re-imagine what lyricism might be and what human senses and imagination might be and might produce, because those are really on the page here.

So, I want to start with a tamer passage, it’s where Woolf is getting Mrs.Ramsay across through the perceptions of other people. In this case it’s William Banks, who is a friend of the family. Mr. and Mrs.Ramsay – this book takes place at their summer house in the Hebrides, and one of the guests is William Banks, or one of the friends who’s over – and Woolf writes, this is in a quotation mark within a parenthesis,“‘Nature has but little clay,’ said Mr.Banks once, much moved by her voice on the telephone, though she was only telling him a fact about a train,’Like that of which she molded you.’ He saw her at the end of the line, very Greek, straight, blue-eyed. How incongruous it seemed to be telephoning to a woman like that. The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of Asphodel to compose that face. He would catch the 10:30 at Euston.”

If you’re confused by the passage, then there’s reason for this. That it persistently conflates two totally different scenes and languages. One is the pastoral, classical past, the Graces, Greek, meadows of Asphodel and the other is the modern, technological, industrial London telephone, taking a train that gets in at 10:30. Now, the most famous poem in the early 20th century, Eliot’s The Wasteland, derives much of its power from the kind of dissonance between a rich past and an impoverished technological present.

Woolf makes poetry of that. That this conflation of the modern London and the Arcadian past, all come together in the figure of Mrs.Ramsay. We’re seeing her through his eyes and he can only imagine her in some sense as a synthesis of an older pagan culture and the modern moment. Perhaps, a still more interesting version of how she’s conveyed -she’s conveyed through the impact that she has on others – is done with through her impact on Charles Tansley, who was a guest at the summer house. Charles Tansley is a graduate student who was studying under Mr.Ramsay, Professor Ramsay, the philosopher. He’s a rather unlikable figure; he’s quite insecure at this summer house. And in particular, the sequence I want to read to you is quite early in the book, where he has been asked to accompany her, Mrs.Ramsay, as she goes on an errand in town. And immediately this man who, is insecure, senses that this woman has a kind of stature that is – I don’t want to use the word gender -it’s physical it’s a stature of beauty,it’s a kind of presence and that he feels something quite special to his surprise in walking next to her. He thinks maybe he should carry her purse. And as they’re walking, all of a sudden, the prose simply stops. We leave Charles Tansley, and the prose writes about something else. She’s looking at something. Tansley’s trying to tell her about his own professional ambitions, that he wants to be a professor one day, and he thinks, well what’s she looking at?

And the prose says, “at a man pasting a bill. The vast flapping sheet flattened itself out, and each shove of the brush revealed fresh legs, hoops, horses, glistening reds and blues, beautifully smooth, until half the wall was covered with the advertisement of a circus.” This is the Woolf style. You simply have hoops, legs, horses and finally you’re told, this is a poster of a circus. And then you read the circus poster, 100 horsemen, 20 performing seals, lions, tigers. All of this breaks into the text, the circus is coming to town. I think that’s a phrase one could use for Woolf’s prose. Well, Mrs.Ramsay is delighted when she looks at this. “‘Let us all go!’ she cried,” but poor Tansley was never much taken to circuses. He tries to do his part, “Let us all go to the circus,” he says but he couldn’t put much into it, “He couldn’t say it right. He could not feel it right.” This is Mrs Ramsay, wondering now, why does he feel so lame or so limp? “Why not? What was so wrong with him then? She liked him warmly at that moment. Had they not been taken, she asked, to circuses when they were children? Never, he answered, as if she asked the very thing he wanted, had been longing all these days to say, how they did not go to circuses. It was a large family, nine brothers and sisters. And his father was a working man. ‘My father is a chemist, Mrs.Ramsay, he keeps a shop.’ He himself paid his own way since he was 13. Often he worked without a greatcoat in winter. He could never ‘return hospitality’ (those were his own arched stiff words). He had to make things last twice the time other people did.”

Woolf is sometimes thought of as a kind of effete writer. I think she has a remarkable sense of class differences. We are getting a portrait of Charles Tansley: he smoked the cheapest tobacco; he worked hard seven hours a day; “his subject was now the influence of something upon somebody.” This line to me is delicious, “The influence of something upon somebody.” That’s how people do their business in the University. They were walking on, and Mrs Ramsay did not quite catch the meaning, only words here and there. Dissertation, fellowship, readership, lectureship. That’s the way professors talk. That’s the way graduate students talk.

Here’s what Woolf writes about it. “She,” Mrs Ramsay, “could not follow that ugly academic jargon that rattled itself off so glibly, but said to herself that she saw now why going to the circus had knocked him off his perch, poor little man,and why he came out, instantly, with all that about father and mother and brothers and sisters, and she would see to it that they didn’t laugh at him quite as much anymore.” There’s a kind of intuitive understanding here about what this young disgruntled, angry, defensive man is like, and why he is like that. And so as they continue walking, she goes in to do an errand. She comes back out of the house, she’s been helping a woman who is ill and he looks at her, Charles Tansley, and Woolf writes it like this, With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets, What nonsense was he thinking? She was 50 at least; She had 8 children. Stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair – he took her bag.

To me, it’s one of the sweetest notations in the book. It, again, uses the same kind of conflation of two different worlds. Stars, pastoral flowers, buds and yet, she’s 50, she has 8 children. This is not a romance but it is a moment of imagination and lyricism as he sees this woman and he takes her bag. As he sees this woman, and he takes her bag. What if you’d seen this woman? What if you’d been there watching this scene? What would you have seen? You’d have seen a woman coming out of a building, and a younger man standing there, taking her bag. And therefore, you would have seen nothing. What you would never have been able to see, because it’s not visible, is the way Woolf wrote this, which is, stars, wild violets, cyclamen, veils in her hair. This is the internal landscape of this young, disgruntled, insecure man who is experiencing something magic with this woman and he takes her bag. Taking her bag has a kind of significance that is emotional, moral, lyrical, and nothing in our own sort of retinal sense of the world could deliver that. That’s what literature does.

To the Lighthouse

How can I possibly presume to talk about this novel?  I think this novel raises the question, is this a book that men can understand?  Virginia Woolf is the great foremother of much modern literature; there are many many women writers who look to her as a kind of beacon of light but also of power. And I think that her work really is pioneering in a way that sometimes is hard for us to understand today.

In this novel, for example, there will be a refrain that’s heard several times: “women can’t write, women can’t paint.” And yet today, in the 21st century, we take it for granted that women can write, and women can paint. But that was much less taken for granted in the mid 1920’s, when Virginia Woolf was writing her novels, at least what I take to be her greatest novels. Now, it seems to me, that she makes us understand as well that much of our assumptions concerning what’s important and what’s trivial, have a gender dimension that we rarely fully consider. And I’m going to quote a passage from one of her most famous texts, called A Room of One’s Own, and it goes like this: “Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”

A Room of One’s Own, which is the text where Woolf argued that women writers need a certain kind of material security, the capacity to be allowed to be able to write their vision of the world, that they were regarded as either as outsiders or ineligible.  I sort of regret this, that I think a Room of One’s Own, which is a marvelous book, and a key kind of feminist document, has overshadowed her extraordinary novels, the two greatest of which, in my opinion, are Mrs.Dalloway and this book- To the Lighthouse.  But I absolutely think she’s on the money with that remark about what we instinctively, unthinkingly take to be important and less important, that a novel about war gets our attention, a novel about fashion is easily dismissed, perhaps at least as either frivolous or less significant. And I don’t think it’s only a question of inverting this and saying that, well, we need to read more novels about fashion and fewer novels about war. But perhaps we need also to consider that what takes place in a drawing room has as much ferocity and power and significance perhaps, as what takes place on a battlefield.

Perhaps what we most need to understand, is that these terms are transposable in ways that we often lose sight of. And that to write about the so-called little things, the domestic things, is also to write about the great world. It’s not an accident that I fine myself  referencing King Lear more than once. It’s not an accident, that Shakespeare’s Tragedy of the Lear is also a familiar story about a man and his daughters. It has two stories of fathers and children and yet, it’s also a kind of story of a paroxystic change in England about the change of regime, about the nature of power. It’s an apocalyptic play, but in it, Shakespeare constantly brings together the domestic, the intimate, the familial and the political, the cosmic. And I believe that Woolf does the same thing. In the novel we’re going to look at, To the Lighthouse, we will see that she explores that room of one’s own. And I would like to say that it is a room that we all live in and arguably a room that we all die in and I want to raise the question, is it in fact a room of our own?

How much does one ever own? These are some of the questions in Woolf’s work. Mrs.Ramsey, the great central character, in my view, in this book, helps us to understand that we may not even own ourselves, or that the notion of what an enclosed self is, the room that one inhabits, the room that one is, is much more up for grabs than we usually think. This book is also domestic, it’s very much about marriage, it’s about family. After all, it takes Brontë almost her entire novel to be able to write, “Reader, I married him”, a book like Manon Lescaut doesn’t get that far – the couple is separated constantly,and then finally separated for good when Manon dies. This is a book that starts with Mr and Mrs.Ramsay being married, and it’s very much a book about marriage and about family – family as a cocoon, but family also as the place where self lives and where self might die.

And that’s not an idle remark, Woolf has written in her journals what she had in mind when she wrote this novel, and how difficult it was to write it. And I want to quote her, because I really think it conveys something of the pathos that was true for her, as she needed to write this book. And I say “needed to” because this is the way she put it. This is a journal entry, in 1928, and she says, “father’s birthday. He would have been,” and in the journal you see three dates, 1832, then she has 1928 which is the date that she’s writing this, and then 96 she does the arithmetic,

“He would have been 96, yes, today and could have been 96 like other people one is known, but, mercifully, was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books. Inconceivable. I used to think of him and mother daily, but writing The Lighthouse laid them in my mind, and now he comes back sometimes,but differently. I believe this to be true, that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily, and writing of them was a necessary act.” It’s a remarkable quote because it suggests that in some ways your parents are your source of nurture and also your source of paralysis, and that she could not have written this book in some signal way unless father had been dead. Now you need to know that her mother died when she was in her early teens; it was a trauma that I think, arguably, she never got over – but her father was a very distinguished literary figure, an intellectual historian, Leslie Stephen. This book is about her mother and father, he was a person with a voracious need for cuddling, for massaging, for being constantly reassured of his own stature and Virginia took on that kind of task. He had to die in some ways before she could write these books.

And I want to read from that, a larger type of question, which is could we, any of us, write the story of our parents, which is in some real sense what Virginia did. Could you write the story of your parents? That’s not merely a question about subjectivity, do you know enough – and to me the answer is automatically no – do you know enough to be able to create your parents from the inside, what their lives were like as they lived them. She has, I think, attempted and succeeded in doing that, but I said it’s not only about subjectivity, because it’s also about time and I refer back to the quote. There is some serious implacable sense in which they had to be dead for her to write about them, and I find that to be a tragic but fascinating perception. They had to be dead for her to understand them. They had to be dead for her to write about them. And with that, I’m alluding to the difference in the generational chain that each of us experiences all the time. That it is altogether too often the case that we have no understanding of who our grandparents were, until they’re dead. And even frequently enough, too frequently, it’s true for our parents that we cannot picture them as young as they were when we are young and that we only begin to understand these things when they have left. And it’s a kind of tragic notation, because it suggests the kind of bitter sense of causality, that the generational  chain, locks us out of understanding those, whom we love the most.

So the project that Woolf takes on here, of creating a kind of double portrait of her mother and father, is really quite fascinating. It is also a kind of symbolic portrait. The father, who is the great, swollen, needy, intellectual historian and then the mother, Mrs.Ramsay, who comes across as a kind of earth mother in this text, who is, the most mesmerizing figure in the novel. Mrs.Ramsey, for me, is a very immediate kind of mother figure. Perhaps a grand-motherly figure, to be more precise. So all of these issues having to do with how, perhaps, dated or continuously viable this book is with its images of women, will be on our plate. The reading of this somehow comes at a very opportune time for me. I have been reading some existential literature, particularly Kierkegaard and notion of self and despair and I am beginning to trace in Virginia Woolf’s writing, a brilliant realization of what it is to confront your self, and even more painfully- the people you love.

To exit the Human

Apart from the family setting about the son finding that he will be quashed by the father, which is what the bug plot makes monstrously visible to us, Kafka’s story has even more complexity. And with that, we turn to the sister, Greta.

She, it turns out, really becomes promoted to the role of mother because the mother is so stricken by what she sees as her son’s condition that, that she can no longer deal with anything. And so, Greta is the one who cares for Gregor, who tends to him, who feeds him. Which is not an easy proposition, just to figure out what he can eat. It turns out that the formally favorite foods that he used to like are no longer tolerable to him. He himself is surprised. This is also part of the bug realism of the story, that once you become a bug you like to eat garbage rather than the kinds of foods that you used to enjoy. This is all part of the kind of really extraordinarily potent realism that this story has from the insect angle. So Greta is the one who ministers to him. She sees this as her role. This is clearly a kind of rite of passage of sorts for her. And yet what we also see in these, in this relationship is that his room becomes increasingly a lair. He finds that he’s more comfortable sleeping or hiding under the sofa, partly out of delicacy. He wants to spare Greta the view of his own monstrous insect body. He also finds that he is actually more comfortable on the ceiling than he is on the floor. Part, again, of his insect equipment, his new modus vivendi. And it’s more complex even than that because as these transformations happen, as he becomes more and more completely an insect, he retains nonetheless his sense that he is leaving his formerly human status. And we know he’s left it physiologically, he’s a bug.

But you can leave that in ways beyond just the physiological. We watch them removing furniture from the room. Familiar items are removed and with that in mind what I really want to suggest is, is that here is one of the central principles at work. One of the most alarming features, I think of Kafka’s stories, which is that you could exit the human.

That’s what of course, Gregor has done from the first line of the story. But the story is there to measure what that really means, to exit the human. The wonderful critique of Kafka’s work bythe French pair of writers Deleuze and Guattari suggests that becoming animal is what seems to happen over and over in some fashion, sometimes directly, literally, as in this story, in Kafka’s work. And I want to suggest that that’s not a form of science fiction in Kafka. I mean we have to think maybe it is science fiction. We never knew anybody who became ananimal in that overt, literal fashion. That the creature that’s on four legs,and two, and then three, is an animal, it has legs and it seems to me that Kafka never loses sight of that. That becoming an animal and leaving the human is the recurrent plot of his work. It is perhaps also the recurrent struggle of humanism itself, to remain Homo Sapiens, the thinking creature, and not just a body itself.
And, so all of this is, I think, on show for us in the relationship between Gregor and his sister, Gregor and his family,and finally I think Gregor and his readers, which is all of us. That is to say the great dilemma for the Samsa family– Is how do we interpret and this is not literary criticism anymore because I mean after all, this is your son. But is this your son? Could it possibly be your son? And at one point, Greta has a powerful statement to them. In great anger, she says, “He must go! It’s the only solution Father. You must just try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor.” This is an absolutely central line. You must try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we’ve believed it for so long is the root of all our trouble. But how can it be Gregor? If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can’t live with such a creature, and he’d have gone away on his own accord.

People are frequently pretty severe and harsh about the Samsa family. They wonder how can this family be so heartless? Because at the end of the story, Gregor is going to be tossed out, essentially as garbage. And that’s why the question and exhortation of Greta’s is so interesting. You must rid yourself of the idea, she says, that this is Gregor. Can you see that the family does not perceive Gregor, the way the reader does?  The family knows only that this is a huge insect living in a room that used to be Gregor’s. Gregor can no longer speak to them. He cannot communicate with them. He is reduced to being only a huge insect. Now, how long would mother and father, and sister be able to continue the notion that this is Gregor. He can’t hold up his end of it. He cannot respond. We’re talking about a one way relationship, aren’t we? We’re talking about the failure of communication. Gregor cannot in any way convey to them his humanity. That’s what they see.

Now you, and I, who read this story, we see nothing. We see print on a page. We cannot see the animal. That print tells us over and over, in ways that are virtually heartbreaking, the story of Gregor Samsa, and it tells it to us from Gregor’s own perspective. And what does that mean? Well it means exactly that what can not be conveyed to the family is exactly what is conveyed to us. We never ever, I’m going to use the same figure of speech, lose sight of Gregor’s humanity. We can’t see it, but in reading his story, we know that he loves his parents, we know that he loves his sister. We know everything about the pathos of this story.

So this is the timeless mission of literature, which is to persuade us, to make us understand the humanity of its characters, of its people. That is to say, we are, we have access to the tragic thoughts and feelings of Gregor Samsa. We grant, therefore, human status to this figure who happens to look like a bug. We can’t see the bug. For us it’s very easy, it’s very simple. It’s also easier to be generous with figures in literature than it is to be with figures in life. And therefore I want them to ask the question, what does it mean to exit the human? Because that’s what Gregor’s done in the eyes of his family. And I would suggest here it happens all the time.

Genocide is only possible when an entire group of people has exited the human. This is a feature, often, of tribal warfare. Issues of race and religion often play into it. the notion that you could exit the human is an all too familiar notion. We see it throughout history . I’d suggest that we see it at moments when terrible decisions have to be made. Do we pull the plug on this or that old family member who is being kept alive by mechanical means. Is this still a person? It’s a legal issue, even. Is this still a person? At what point do we stop granting human status? It seems to me that Kafka’s story, in the most radical way, raises that question and it puts us as readers, utterly at odds with the Samsa family, and you can’t really easily say who’s right and who’s wrong.

One of the most moving episodes inKafka’s story The Metamorphosis comes late in the narrative. The Samsa family is under considerable stress. Not just for having this son, the breadwinner son who has become an insect. And so they’ve had to let out some rooms to these boarders who were described really in rather grotesque fashion. And at one, the, the scene that I have in mind here is the late scene where Greta is performing, she’s playing the violin for these boarders. And Gregor is described, this is towards the end as covered with dust. Fluff, ad hair, and remnants of food trailed with him, caught on his back and along his sides. So he really looks like garbage. He looks like sewage and yet when he hears the music he crawls out of his room. To get closer to it. What’s human and what’s not human in this sequence, and what it is that Kafka is trying to tell us. Gregor crawled a little farther forward and lowered his head to the ground so that it might be possible for his eyes to meet hers. That’s his sister Greta’s. Was he an animal that music had such an effect upon him?

He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved. Let me interrupt this and say he will die in part of the apple that is lodged inside his flesh thrown by his father but he will also die of starvation. He was determined, I continue quoting, to “push forward until he reached his sister. To pull at her skirt. And so let her know that she was to come into his room with her violin. For no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. “He would never let her out of his room at least. Not so long as he lived. His frightful appearance would become, for the first time, useful for her. He would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders. But his sister should feel no constraint. She should stay with him of her own free will. She should sit beside him on the sofa. Bend down her ear to him. And hear him confide that he had the firm intention of sending her to the conservatorium. And that but for his mishap.”  His mishap being that he became a bug.
“Last Christmas, surely Christmas was long passed. Last Christmas he would have announced it to everybody without allowing a single objection.”  It strikes me that all of the tragedy of his life. What’s most moving and touching about it is encapsulated there. That he comes out, he still, bug or not is possessed by this desire to help the sister he loves. To make it possible for her to go to the conservatory. And yet, we obviously see more than that in this. That he approaches her with a kind of hunger and appetite. He will bring her close to him, that they will have a kind of physical intimacy. He will lock her up, more or less, into his room. People have said it has an element of Beauty and the Beast. She would sit beside him, bend down her ear to him. It’s very tender as well. There’s no violence involved here. And yet you must have noticed too, that it literally mentions eating. He listens to her music, and he asks himself, was he an animal? That music had such an effect upon him. He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved.”  

And I think it’s a really significant line, “the unknown nourishment he craved.”  One is, in a sense, landlocked or imprisoned in a world of matter. In an empirical scheme, a measurable scheme. But that one longs for something else beyond that whether it spirit or soul, beauty. And it strikes me that this sequence, this passage. With it’s particular notation about music, that in listening to the music he senses that he might have found the type of nourishment he craved. That this passage is telling us something about the needs of the soul, that we are more than just bodies.
The unknown nourishment he craved. One of Kafka’s most beautiful, haunting little stories is called The Hunger Artist about a person who is a professional faster in a circus set far back in time. And the people come to see him and watch him fast. And at the end of that rather brutal story, he fasts and fasts and fasts and will eventually die of starvation. And will eventually be replaced by a panther who will become a really popular item for the people who come to the fair or to the circus. But while he is dying, he’s asked the question why he fasted so long, why he never ate? And the answer is, I never found the food that might have tasted good to me, that might have appealed to me, that might have been for me. And I think all of Kafka is caught in that, I never found the food that would have been right for me. I never found the nurturance that would have been right for me. After all, we’re born into a physical regime, our body, that must, in order to live, have it’s intake of food, just as the same body, for the race to survive, the human race must, in some fashion,produce offspring, which involves one body having “commerce” with another body. At least, until we figured out ways to do this without direct involvement of bodies.

But nonetheless, these are exactly the operations that Franz Kafka finds almost impossible to negotiate: eating and sex. And in a sense, this story is about someone being weaned from the human, exiting the human, exiting precisely from that regime of food and sex, of erotic life, of the life of the body. And we see this really longing for the soul, that music itself is construed as this kind of nurturance that nothing else in life would make possible to us. So, Gregor does not succeed here. He ends up as garbage, as sewage. The cleaning lady finally sends him out with the rest of the garbage. Uh,and he does exit the human. And he exits the family that he was part of. And so, that tells us the fate of Gregor.

The last line of this story, or the last notation of this story, is post-Gregor that once he is finally dead and gone, the family sort of thinks about its prospects, realizes that they actually do have some resources. They’ve got a little bit of money saved up. They’re not in such terrible shape and it’s a beautiful day. Let’s go out together. And they exit the house, because they’ve been, in a sense, prisoners of Gregor of this house, of this horrible secret in this bedroom. They exit the house. And they get on a tram and they’re talking with each other and Kafka writes the last line, while they were thus conversing it struck both Mr.and Mrs.Samsa almost at the same moment as they became aware of their daughter’s increasing vivacity that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams. And at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body. It’s kind of a lovely line there. You can see her stretching her young nubile body and I would contrast it with another position that we’re accustomed to. Which is that of a man on a cross. And I want finally to suggest that, that is the weird dialectic, the weird relationship that this story has made visible to us. Because you could argue that the title of the story shouldn’t be “The Metamorphosis”, it should be The Metamorphoses. That we see the father revitalized, but we also see the daughter. Now, a young woman, ready. Ready for what? Ready for mating, ready for entering into more life and that’s why the Christ like dimensions of this fable bear thinking on.

I died, he died so that you might live. It’s as if Gregor’s death makes possible this transformation of his entire family. That he is weaned from life and they are ushered into life, into a second life, a new life. That is a rather brutal transaction. I think it’s harder for us as readers than it is for the Samsas to fully come to terms with it, in part because every page of this story has conveyed to us the feelings and thoughts and longings of this insect.

Anti-Oedipal Kafka

You wake up one morning. You’re a bug. What is it that you are concerned with?  How to get to work on time. Here is Kafka’s universe. You will note that the huge question never asked by Gregor Samsa is why, why, why, or even how is this possible. Nope. As I said, in Kafka’s work, anything can happen, that it will.

So, we, however, who presumably, are not bugs, have never woken up in those circumstances. We ask the question, and of course this is one of the great I think narrative techniques, as to write in such a way as to provoke or oblige the read to pose these exact questions. And here is an extreme case of it. We ask the question, why is he a bug? What does it mean for this man to be a bug? And I think if you look at the range of things that have been written about this book, and that’s probably a small number in comparison to the kinds of things that readers have wondered about. If they wonder at all. Like, what does this mean? What’s the significance of this? There’s a kind of interpretive parade of possibilities. So, he’s a bug because….. ?? Has he always lived like a bug? In other words, if he is this automaton, would just goes to work five days a week ecetera. And can only think about that and can’t even take account of the fact that his whole body has changed. Well, that’s maybe what a bug is.

But, as you can imagine, some of the other interpretive venues, are a little more exalted, a little more ideal. So, for example, he has been called an artist. Which is a hard case to make, but nonetheless, here’s this person who’s been singled out for this weird fate. Maybe it’s a parallel to the fate of the artist in a kind of commercial or material society. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s one that’s been made. By the way, you have to ask yourself, is there anything artistic about Gregor Samsa? Maybe it’s artistic to try to get the body off the bed. One that’s further still a field, but one that in fact I think has some real traction. Which is, is he Jesus Christ? Now that should shock you. Nothing overtly Christ-like about Gregor Samsa. And I think most of us would take the view that there’s nothing Christ-like about insects. And yet, what this does at least convey, is that he could be a sacrificial figure. And now, what’s a sacrificial figure? A sacrificial figure has to be someone who’s life is given in order that, and then you can go further, in order that what? Well we’ll see that this story corresponds a little bit to that kind of logic and, of course, Christ can be seen as the supreme victim of certain arrangements whether they’re divine or human.

All Kafka criticism essentially is, is, is speculative, is guesswork. Because he doesn’t tell us what his stories mean. Let me begin then with a particular line of inquiry which is to focus precisely on his body. I am not going to take the insect line, in other words, I don’t know much about insect lives, and insect bodies, and insect forms. But I do want to say something about bodies, that after all, he wakes up one morning no longer having a human shape, but he has instead an insect shape. What does it mean when a body changes that drastically?  The title, Metamorphosis, is a kind of immediate transformation. And we know that it exists in the world of nature. We know about caterpillars and butterflies. We know about the earlier works of writers like Ovid. that people can be transformed. And yet, if we think bodies, then it’s a little more queasy. It’s a little more uncomfortable about the way that bodies change, evolve, metamorphose. So, in a more extreme way, think about what happens when bodies acquire tumors, pulses, when the limbs of a body become twisted, and bent. What happens when paralysis strikes? Then strokes become infirmities of all stripes, and these are things that are in fact for many of us slated to arrive if we live long enough. So that’s the kind of somatic marathon from infancy to death, but in the last stages of it, bodies really become very bizarre. One sees the enormous changes that due to in fact over the course of any lifetime from infancy to old age. It’s a kind of stunning, a physical set of alterations that does take place. But that’s to put it in it’s more extreme terms. What about in its more everyday fashion. The garden variety stuff. Growing hair, growing fingernails, growing toenails, rashes, pimples. These are the little things that show that our body is altering, often in an unwanted fashion. All the time as long as we live. And that preoccupy us frequently. And it keep pharmacies and beauty salons in business. The sheer alterations that a body is slated for. Doctors, I think are particular well positioned to read Kafka even though frequently they don’t like what they read. Bodies, to take this further, are in a sense, alien. I use the word alienation in the first bit here about Kafka. But bodies themselves are alien. You didn’t choose the body that you’re born into. And it is slated to die. You don’t elect necessarily when it’s going to go out of business. Bodies have their own internal logic. They have their own internal language. People have used the term body language. It ranges from blushing to other things, including arousal and other kinds of manifestations of body interest. This is also a way of saying that bodies lead us. Now that, should be a disturbing phrase, bodies lead us. Because our customary fantasy I think, is that we lead bodies, that we are in control of them. In that sense, I want to say that Kafka’s text is staging really perhaps the oldest relationship of all, which is that between ourselves and our bodies.

And I’d like to reference one of the oldest stories of all, which is that of Oedipus and the Sphinx. And you may remember the question that is put to Oedipus by the Sphinx, what is the creature who is on four legs in the morning, two legs in midday, and three legs in the evening? And of course, the reply to that Oedipus wins the prize, is that man is the answer. The human being, who is born and crawls, therefore a creature on four legs, who at the apex, the midday, the noonday, noontime of his life stands on two. And then in old age either on a cane or leaning on the shoulder on someone else is on three. It’s not the happiest response actually when you think about what Oedipus himself is slated for, but one of the things that it suggests is this business about legs. I mean Sophocles did not tell us that we could wake up one day as an insect. But he does tell us that we are characterized by our legs, and one of the most interesting readings of the Oedipus story is the anthropologist Levi Strauss’ reading. Who says that the Oedipal myth is about the difficulty in walking and behaving straight. And if you think for a moment about the issue itself in that Oedipal situation, you’ve got a man being posed this riddle by this gigantic sphinx, this huge animal god, and there’s this little man. And people have rightly seen in this interrogation and in this reply the kind of triumph of humanism itself. Humanism as the human scale. And yet we are struck by the difficulty that is implicit in that relationship. Can the two-legged regime, the human regime, homo sapiens, can that regime in fact prevail? It would seem to be that medicine, as a field, is constantly exercised by this question. That is, to say, the relation between subject and body. Spirit and matter. Between the animal that we are and the person that we want to be. Between what some neurologist have called I and it. It being the body, the somatic material that we are made of and that we try to learn to understand and to make express us as we go through life. So that too is a kind of central, I think, deep seated relationship that’s at issue in Kafka’s text.

One of Kafka’s most revealing texts is called Letter to the Father, Brief an den Vater. It’s a letter that he actually wrote for his father in 1919. He did not give it to his father.He gave it to his mother and it turns out that the mother never delivered it to her husband, but gave it back to her son. But it’s a remarkable document. It’s a long-ish text, and it really gives you in harrowing detail, the extraordinary sense of, of humiliation and persecution, and inferiority that Franz Kafka felt, vis-a-vis his father, Hermann. Franz was a kind of thin effete young man. And in particular, he was odd and felt sort of crushed by the sheer physical energy and bulk of his father, who was a muscular, big man. And we have passages where he talks about how embarrassed he was when they would go swimming together, things like that. But of course, it’s not swimming that’s most interesting. You read this text and you get the feeling that Kafka felt sort of humiliated all his life by this strong man, and that there’s kind of an ongoing, incessant competition between the two of them. In this text as well Franz wonders about the desirability of marriage. and if you know anything about Kafka’s life, he had a number of relationships with women and even engagements, but they always failed. That is to say, that he was unable to carry them through and people have written a good bit about this. Perhaps it’s his artistic calling, perhaps for other reasons. But, I want to read you a passage from The Letter to the Father where he talks about marriage. And he says that “Marriage is certainly the pledge of the most acute form of self liberation and independence. I would have a family. “‘I would be your equal. All old and ever new shame and tyranny would be mere history. It would be like a fairy tale.” But precisely there does the questionable element lie.

It is too much. So much cannot be achieved’. “‘It’s precisely this close relation that lures me towards marrying. I picture the equality which would then arise between us. And which you would be able to understand better than any other form of equality and so beautiful because then I could be a free, grateful, guiltless, upright, son.And you could be an untroubled, untyrannical, sympathetic, contented father” Obviously this is the fairy tale. But he says to this end, ‘Everything that ever happened would have to be undone. That is, we ourselves should have to be cancelled out. But, we being what we are, marrying is barred to me. Because it is your very own domain”.  Sometimes, this is a remarkable image here, ‘Sometimes I imagine the map of the world spread out, and you stretched diagonally across it. And I feel as if I could consider living in only those regions that either are not covered by you or are not within your reach. And in keeping with the conception I have of your magnitude, these are not many and not very comforting regions and marriage is not among them”. 

Now, that strikes me as germane for The Metamorphosis. Because it’s a story really about the relationship, or competition, or conflict, or sacrificial logic between father and son. It’s something that Franz Kafka constantly wrestled with. And constantly found new ways to write. And so, returning to our story, if you think about the way the father is represented in this story. Initially we see him, don’t forget Gregor, before turning into a bug, is the reliable breadwinner of the family. He’s the one who puts food on the table. He’s the one who has dreams of sending his sister Greta to the conservatory. Because father is already a decrepit figure. And late in the story or midway in, I suppose. Gregor, who is obviously, for understandable reasons, kept in his room, his lair, comes out. He breaks loose, and when he does he has this remarkable vision of his father as an altered person. He looks at this man and he says truly this was not the father he’d imagined to himself. Says that this person, the father that he remembered, was a person who used to lie wearily sunk in bed. Who would welcome him back in the evening lying in a long chair with a dressing gown. Who could not really rise to his feet, but only lifted his arms in greeting. That’s the memory he’s got. That’s the man that he knew when he was the breadwinner. But now in his insect form, exiting the room, as an insect and seeing this man, he sees something very different. Now he was standing there in fine shape. Dressed in a smart blue uniform with gold buttons. His strong double chin bulged over the stiff high collar of his jacket. From under his bushy eyebrows, his black eyes darted fresh and  penetrating glances. His one time tangled white hair had been combed flat on either side of a shining and carefully exact parting. This is a man of considerable power. A considerable energy in force who is being seen, and I would argue he’s become this.

Gregor also, rather provocatively for the reader, pays particular attention to his father’s feet. He lifted his feet uncommonly high, and Gregor was dumbfounded by at the enormous size of his shoe soles. That is really the perspective of a bug. Is that he could be stomped on?  We use the word, you say that somebody stomped on me and we always think figuratively, not necessarily so in this particular story.You actually could be stepped on. Gregor could be. Well this scene becomes quickly monstrous and awful because the father is there to defend his women, his wife, and his daughter Greta against not Gregor but the bug. He doesn’t think of this as necessarily as Gregor. This is the monster who is threatening his women and therefore he begins to respond. And he starts to chase the bug back into its room. Except that, that’s not an easy thing for the bug to maneuver. That this bug has all of these legs, this bug finds turning to be complicated. And so, Gregor, having noted the enormous size of his father’s shoe soles, is trying to escape. And so he, I quote, ‘Ran before his father, stopping when he stopped, and scuttling forward again when his father made any kind of a move’. It’s an awful sequence between a father and son. In this way they circle the room several times without anything decisive happening, except that soon enough, something decisive does start to happen Gregor begins to feel breathless. Apparently his lungs are not what they should be, if in fact insects have lungs of the same sort.

He’s staggering, he’s having trouble remaining conscious, his eyes are, are difficult to keep open, he’s dazed. And then all of sudden, we read, something suddenly lightly flung, landed close behind him and rolled before him. It was an apple. A second apple followed immediately. Gregor came to stop in alarm, for his father was determined to bombard him. And so the father is lobbing these apples at Gregor. I think it’s a, it’s a painful scene, because it ratchets up in intensity. He’d filled his pockets with fruit, and was now shying apple after apple without taking particularly good aim. And we learn that one apple was thrown without much force and only grazed Gregor’s back. But another following immediately landed right on his back and sank in, horrible notation. Because obviously, unlike our skin, which has a thick epidermis, presuming if someone lobs an apple at you it bounces off. But now that we’ve got this insect, it turns out that his shell or skin is not sufficiently hard. And so this apple, and this will be the source eventually, at least one source of his death. That it goes in, inside. And he feels extraordinary pain, and he feels nailed to the spot. Which is really virtually a crucifixion image. But he finally collapses and this is his last look. He saw the door of his room being torn open. His mother rushing out ahead of his screaming sister. His mother was in her under-bodice, for her daughter had loosened her clothing. And he saw his mother rushing toward his father leaving one after another behind her on the floor, her loosened petticoats. Stumbling over her petticoats, straight to his father. And embracing him, in complete union with him. But here, Gregor’s sight began to fail. With her hands clasped around his father’s neck as she begged for her son’s life. It’s a remarkable notation. It’s Gregor as he is swooning, getting ready to lose lose consciousness, seeing his mother as her clothes are falling off of her, rushing to embrace his father and to beg for the son’s life. You can say it’s a scene of great mercy.

But I do think that the logic that’s implicit in that, that the father has been strengthened, all of that is inseparably related to the son’s status as a bug. Here is a relationship, that one turns into a bug and that the other is empowered.This is the father son relationship that is central in Kafka’s work and it is also a sacrificial model of sorts. And it is fascinating because Kafka who wrote the story, or wrote the text, Letter to The Father, is having a kind of peculiar revenge here. He writes the story about the son being crushed, apples lobbed into his flesh. And yet in writing it, here is a strange kind of self affirmation on the part of the son. Kafka will write over and over, stories where the son is put down, for the father is rejuvenated. It’s as if these are stories overtly, but are in a sense, anti Oedipal, where the father slays the son. And yet, the very writing of them must have had some kind of irresistible therapeutic appeal to Kafka. It’s as if by writing the story of himself as sacrificial victim, he is finding a form of self-assertion.

And in evoking Kafka’s letter to the father, and talking about marriage as the domain of the father, and the area where the son cannot compete, cannot follow him, I have wanted to suggest that the anti-Oedipal dimensions of this, The father slaying the son instead of the son slaying the father has a profound social, structural dimension to it. Which is to say that, the son cannot grow
up. Cannot become a father. Cannot become a, a provider, as his own father was. That this is what the metamorphosis tends to bring about, that there is some peculiar logic in this being the story that the son writes. One theory about Kafka’s refusal of marriage is that writing was a kind of priestly occupation for him, a calling, all of which is true, I think. But its also the strange sense in which writing becomes the alternative to an erotic life, or a, a life as a father yourself, adulthood even?  That writing is the alternative. It has its own energies, its own, perhaps libidinal power as well.

Kafka’s bug problem.

Kafka is the coldest writer I have read. His work is not about erotic connections, it’s not about love relationships but it is about relationships. Kafka has been thought of as triply alienated. He was a German speaking Jew in Prague. German and Jew and Prague and therefore, he was a double minority. Doubly exiled, as it were in Prague but, he felt very little kinship with these communities in the first place. He is known to have said that the word mutter, the German word for mother, seemed alien to him, seemed strange, didn’t make sense when he was speaking to the woman who had given birth to him. Likewise he was once asked about his feelings for Jews and his response is really quite fascinating. He says, what do I have in common with the Jews. I have nothing in common with myself.  So, Kafka’s really I think is our prime example of what a literature of alienation might look like.

But, alienation is often such a cheap word. It doesn’t tell us everything that we want to really know about it. Kafka’s stories are   insistently material, they’re about matter, they’re about the world of empirical surfaces. And in his work one senses a kind of longing to get beyond that. A longing for what we might want to term spirit or soul or truth. That’s where the quest is involved. How to reach the castle, how to reach the truth? And I think that his work intrigues because that’s the relationship that his stories make us ponder.

What is the relationship between matter and spirit? A culture in which people are essentially shipwrecked in their bodies and in the world of matter. And his stories suggest or seem to target, aim for, a kind of commerce, traffic as it were, between this material scheme which is the only one we can empirically know and that other, perhaps fairy-tale world of spirit or soul. Kafka’s texts are texts where anything can happen. And it will.

And that’s why The Metamorphosis has unquestionably, in my mind, the most fascinating, first line in literature. “as Gregor saw himself, awoke one morning from uneasy dreams. He found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The first thing I would say there is that this is a great shocker. I mean, it’s not like he waits until the third page. This is how you start the story. You negotiate this story realizing that your title figure has been transformed into an insect. I want you to think about my verb here, to realize this, because it means a lot of things. To make it real, but also to try to come to an understanding of it. Kafka does not write that Gregor Samsa felt like an insect. That is the use of simile. Like enables us to compare our station or our state to all number of things without anybody thinking that it’s literal. Kafka is literal.

Gregor Samsa is not like an insect, he is an insect. And I think that that is the bottom line in Kafka. It’s also the starting line in Kafka-
his willingness to show us what it means to be a bug. And I hope you can imagine here that this is inseparable from the unusual reading experience with Kafka. Often we are told, well read this book because it will show you what a, b, or c feels like. In other words what it feels like to be a slave, what it feels like to be a woman in a culture where men’s value seem to be dominate. What it feels like to be of this or that minority in a culture where the mainstream is victimizing those people. These are all extremely valid ways of reading. To understand a point of view outside of the, norm or of the mainstream view. Kafka’s work is absolutely drastic.

None of us has ever tried, quite wondered, what it feels like, to be a bug. Well that suggested that if you read The Metamorphosis, you get some clues. There’s no way by the way, to test whether he got it right. I have not yet found any bug who has sort of come back, and said well, actually it feels a little bit different. But, nonetheless, Kafka tells us how it feels to wake up one morning or what you
do when you wake up one morning as a bug. As an insect. For our understanding of Kafka’s work, there’s very little angst in Kafka. Instead, there’s something absolutely pedestrian, absolutely prosaic that you wake up with finding yourself turned into a bug. And what sorts of things do you think about. It’s difficult if it turns out that you are a bug to get yourself to work. Except, well maybe it’s not so bad, he thinks. His meeting intention was to get up quietly without being disturbed, to put on his clothes, and above all eat his breakfast, and only then consider what else must be done. Since in bed, he was well aware, his meditations would come to no sensible conclusion. He remembered that often enough in bed he had felt small aches and pains probably caused by awkward postures. Which it proved purely imaginary once he got up. And he looked forward eagerly to seeing this morning’s delusions gradually fall away. That the change in his voice, because his voice sounds a little bit unrecognizable, was nothing but the precursor of a severe chill. A standing ailment of commercial travelers, he had not the least possible doubt. Now, for me this is quite wonderful, quite delicious because I ask myself and so I ask you. What would you be thinking about if you woke up one morning and found yourself transformed into a gigantic insect?
Would your first and last thoughts be about whether or not you’re going to be late for work? For most of us, the answer would be no, but in Kafka it is different. That instead we realize it’s all about the routines of life and it’s about trying to. Make good on those routines even if our circumstances are altogether different. What are our circumstances? Well he looks at the beginning of the story and sees he has a dome like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments, okay. He has numerous legs, okay. So this looks like a kind of strange equipment. To be working with. He also, he says it, he says he felt a slight itching on his belly, and he pushed himself up on his back near the top so he could lift his head. He identified the itching place surrounded by many small white spots. He couldn’t understand those. He tried to touch it, touch it, but he drew the leg back because created a cold shiver. So he’s beginning to discover that this equipment that he has is not exactly what he is accustomed to working with. Well, this is tricky. This is very tricky. He thought he might get out of bed with the lower part of his body first, but this lower part, which he had not yet seen, and of which he could form no pure conception, proved too difficult to move. It shifted so slowly and when finally, almost wild with annoyance he gathered his forces together and thrust out recklessly. He had miscalculated the direction and bumped heavily against the lower end of the bed, and the stinging pain he felt informed him that precisely this lower part of his body was at the moment, probably the most sensitive.

So, this is the discovery of a new world, a brave new world — Kafka’s world.

Fidelity of the heart. (Gender and Ownership)

We who read this book with almost three centuries of distance can see the kind of rift between this noble protagonist’s ideal view of human love, of the affairs of the heart and the actual material setting that he has to negotiate. Every time he is separated from Manon, he not only rants and raves, I’ve already told you that, but he curses the gods, he curses fate, he curses fortune, he curses the heavens. What he cannot quite see is the money nexus, the cash nexus, that his love may not stem from material need, but that the possibility of maintaining that love hinges grotesquely on material assets and resources, which of course he doesn’t have. And the reason that intrigues me is, I think this book suggests over and over, that he misreads his world. That there is a marvelous sequence where he is in his underwear, telling this rich older lover of Manon that he, des Grieux is of a more noble birth: “I come from higher stock than you do.” And he cannot see how grotesque it is, standing there in his underwear when the old man has all of the leverage. One reason this interests me is not so much to take the measure of Des Grieux, to take a measure that he can’t take, but also to suggest something broader and more general, which is the potential gap between all of our expectations, tools of measurement, ways of gauging reality and the actual stage that we’re on. I suppose it’s something that old people might feel, that when they look at the digital culture today, and they still would like to get inside the computer and wind it up the way they used to wind up a clock, that they realize that much has changed and that they are out of phase with the world of the young.

But there is a question about whether any of us has up-to-date tools for making sense of our world. For example we still operate by Newtonian physics, it’s what governs our notion of gravity, of the operation of time and space. Could you imagine having your own psyche, so to perceive the world in terms that were those of Einstein? Where time and space and energy are locked in a kind of dance that is unimaginable to us in terms of what we take to be normal. What I’m implying is that maybe we are always out of phase, that we’re always obliged, condemned to be using tools that graph the world wrongly, that belong to an earlier paradigm in any event.

Objectification 

We see that to be the case for this love story. In this case, it’s a love paradigm that hasn’t yet come of age. And so we watch the way people in this text respond to the love gospel of des Grieux: the father, when he learns how much des Grieux is in love with this Manon Lescaut, whom he doesn’t think much of, he says to him, “my boy, until now I had proposed to put you into the order of Malta. But it’s plain that your natural inclinations do not lie in that direction. You are fond of pretty women. I think we shall have to find one to your liking.”

And he says, you know, we’ve got money, I can afford to buy you somebody absolutely as pretty as Manon. Needless to say this is nothing but offensive to des Grieux. He’s not interested in pretty women, he’s interested in Manon. One of the other really quite intriguing characters of this novel is Manon’s brother, Lescaut, and he also is not quite up to the exalted level of des Grieux’s love ethos. So, when Des Grieux complains to him that the fates and the heavens and the gods are opposed to them, how can he possibly find a way to secure his relationship with Manon, this is the answer: “Manon, why worry about her? Surely, with her you’ve always got the means to end your worries whenever you like. A girl like her ought to be able to keep all three of us.” So in other words, this beautiful girl, my sister, hey, this is the cash cow, she’s going to take care of us entirely. This too, is not particularly what des Grieux wants to hear. Just send her out on the streets, attach her to some wealthy male lover, which of course is what’s going to happen. But then the brother takes a good look at des Grieux and hear this: “He next proposed that I should make capital out of my own youth and good looks, and make up to some elderly party who was free with her money.” And we begin to see the prostitution theme here. Hey, you’re good looking, you’re attractive, you’re seductive, we can find a match for you, we can even get some income out of this, this’ll work out. All of this, in a sense is the kind of crass, vulgar materialism, the marketplace, the exchange ethos that des Grieux is at war with.

He has this noble exalted picture of love as the equivalent to religion. In fact, this book will argue about that, that one of the character whom I’ve not mentioned, his friend Tiberge, is also destined for the church, and it’s Tiberge’s life project to rescue des Grieux for virtue, because he sees des Grieux going off the deep end with this crazy love affair of his. And in some of the really quite fine sequences, we see des Grieux giving back as good as he gets. because he explains, “my love is what you think of as your religion, except unlike religion, my desire for Manon is bliss on earth, rather than the much more interrogative notion that you’ve got, which is, you’re hoping for bliss after you die, I have it right now, so it seems to me to be preferable to your code.”

This, of course, is one of the reasons that this book is a little bit disruptive for many readers. It was felt that this book is flirting with some very dangerous social theories. But above all, it seems to me that des Grieuxis is not equipped to measure the exchange model, the commodification view of human bodies that the marketplace of Paris seems to deal with, and that this plot runs headlong into. That when Manon takes up with an older rich man, Misseur de Bet, Prevost writes it this way: “He wooed her in true former general,” that’s the position he’s got in the society, rich man, “-style. That is to say by stating in a letter that payment would be in proportion to favors received.” So, this is quite clearly notched out, regulated, measured: If you give me this much, I pay you that much. That’s why prostitution seems to me to be not a metaphor at all.

And later in the book, when the two have been separated, and this time in a much more fateful way, she has been arrested, she’s being brought to be sent away, she is being brought to the coast to be sent away to the new world along with other female prisoners who’d been caught and charged with prostitution, des Grieux is following her on horseback, he is desperate to spend time with her. And the people who were guarding her charge him for the amount of time he can spend with her. And they put it like this: “We will treat you generously, it will cost you only this amount per hour to see whichever of our young ladies you like best. That is the usual Paris rate,”  It’s like this is the cost of making a long-distance telephone call, “this is the Paris rate.” Now, this, in a sense, this misfit  between the exalted aristocratic love code of des Grieux, that love is a mere ethos, and the rather crass material world in which he finds himself.

This is, I think, one of the central features of the book, but the book has more parts to it, even, than that. The book outruns des Grieux beyond even in terms of his grasp of the world he inhabits. It takes his measure. There is a theatrical scene where Manon is being fit together with this very wealthy lover, and des Grieux is actually going to be brought into the sequence, and he will be introduced to this lover as Manon’s younger brother. And so he’s going to look like a kind of hayseed from the country and he  is brought into the room, snd the old lover taps him on the cheek, tells him to be careful in Paris,

“it’s a dangerous place. Young people can fall into bad habits.”  And des Grieux then starts to perform, and he looks at the old man, and he says, and I’m going to exaggerate this, “Sir, you see, we two are one.” He’s speaking of himself and Manon. “One flesh, and I love my sister like a second self.” And of course we who know that the two of them have a very powerful erotic bond, know that loving his sister as one flesh, has a kind of meaning that the old man doesn’t quite get.

The old man thinks this is really funny, “‘Isn’t he clever it’s a pity this man hasn’t seen a little more of the world.’ ‘Oh sir, I see plenty of folk in the churches at home. I think I shall find lots of people in Paris, who are not as clever as I am.'” And they are laughing, all of them are laughing; Manon is laughing and her brother is laughing, and they’re shrieking with laughter.

And Prevost writes, “I contrive to tell him his own story.” In other words, des Grieux is trying to tell the old man in this comic way, without the old man understanding, what’s going to happen to him. “Not excluding the nasty denouement in store for him,” because they planned the two of them to get in bed together, in the old man’s bed perhaps that night.

And so, it a moment where they’re making fun of the old man, and des Grieux is posturing and he is giving us this farcical rendition of things, and he claims that the old man was blind to his own self image, he didn’t recognize himself. The reason that I mention this passage is that the person who is being mocked here is not the old man, that figure of the young naive person who believes in God and who is a kind of true person who never cheats and who always plays straight and narrow, that’s the kind of hayseed figure that des Grieux pretends to be here, that’s his former self, that’s the self that was destined for the church, that’s what’s being made fun of, that’s something that the novel shows us that the character can’t see at all.

Politics of Gender

 The first time that we see actually see Manon and De Grieux, at the very beginning of this novel, is when the two of them are in route to being expelled from France and sent over to the New World, she as a prisoner, he as her lover who cannot abandon her and who will go with her. And so, the stakes of this are unmistakable, that you realize that they cannot survive in the Old World. They are being sent off to the New World, which of course in 18th Century Europe would have been America.

But instead I want to point out that notion because we can see that it’s bristling with significance, Old World versus New World, what’s possible in one and impossible in the other. Do you understand the new world? Do you know something about the old one?

And what I’d like to suggest, is that Manon Lescaut is herself the book’s New World. She is the New World that De Grieux has to learn, to understand.

We know that he loves her, that he desires her, that he erects this huge exalted love code about her, but does he understand her? Does he know her? Do we as a reader know much about her? This is why, the fact that this book is narrated entirely through his perspective. It’s like instead of being stereophonic, it’s monophonic. It’s his voice, we rarely get her voice. How adequate, how commensurate would that be for telling the story of the couple.

Who is the couple? If each of us is an individual, can there be a story of the couple?  Could there be a narrative of mutuality? We talk a lot about the struggles and obstacles that he faces but, what he most collides with is not so much the old people of society, and it’s not so much the even commoditizing notion of the society–he collides with her.

He collides with her own values and assumptions and it’s not always easy to see this. Frequently people are quite contemptuous of her, they think of her as a whore, someone who doesn’t seem to have the maturity of love, and yet I suggest that the book presents Manon as a person with her own values, and her own integrity, and her own philosophy. In one of the early betrayal moments of the text, she has left De Grieux to be with a wealthy older lover and she sends him a note that goes like this:

“I swear that you are the idol of my heart, my dear chevalier. And there is nobody else in the world I love as I love you”, but don’t you see, my poor darling, that loyalty is a silly virtue in the pass we are in? Do you really think we can love each other, with nothing to eat? One fine day, hunger would lead me into some fatal mistake. And thinking I was sighing for love, I should really be drawing my last breath.”
That turned out to be prophetic. That’s how this book is going to end, almost.
But it raises an awfully fundamental question, which is: Do you think we can love each other with nothing to eat? And it’s an issue about which she knows a great deal. She knows about what her trumps are, her resources. They’re not the same as De Grieux’s; he comes from a good family, even though he does not have much money. Because of his social rank he is able to persuade others about the merits of his case, particularly like-minded young men who are also gentlemen. They think it’s wonderful that this man is in love with this beautiful girl. They help lend him money; they help him out.

What assets or trumps does she have? She tries to tell him the same thing in a further sequence after they have been separated. This one I’ve already alluded to. This is when she goes off with a younger lover, and he has been expecting to meet her at the theater where they’re going to head off together with all of the stolen money that they’ve managed to get. But instead, the amount of money and riches and jewelry that are made shown to her that will be hers if she stays with this young man are so impressive and so irresistible that instead she sends another girl to the theater to meet De Grieux and she writes a little note, and it’s described to us this way, that “to make up a little for the disappointment she foresaw this news might give me…

That she’s going to stay with this rich young man. “…she had managed to procure me one of the prettiest girls in Paris who was the bearer of the letter.”
And it’s this lovely young girl who hands De Grieux this letter, who’s obviously been hard to replace Manon as an ersatz–substitute.
He of course is stunned; he goes through all of those emotions that I described to you early on: rage, silence, weeping, tears. And then, when he finally gets to her because he catches her and he berates her for the incredible vulgarity of what she’s done, that she could have sent this other girl as a kind of substitute.

She says this to him: “I’m keeping nothing back. Either of what I did or what I propose to do. The girl came, she struck me as pretty,
and as I felt sure that my absence would make you unhappy, I was quite sincere in wishing that she might alleviate a little of your boredom. For the fidelity I expect of you is that of the heart.”

I really, believe that we’re dead center in this book with that last piece.

“For the fidelity I expect of you is that of the heart.”
This is what I think readers of both genders choke on today: the fidelity I expect of you is that of the heart. We of course understand what its alternative is because that’s part of an economics that we understand perfectly, the fidelity of the body. That’s what fidelity usually means: the fidelity of the body. I keep my body for you. I do not use it with others. That’s not what she says. She says, “the fidelity I expect of you is that of the heart.” Here I think, is what is most revolutionary in this book.

Beyond De Grieux being a love apostle, perhaps it is Manon articulating a new code altogether. The fidelity of the heart. Which is a way of saying, “my body is my currency.” She’d never put it in those terms, but I’m saying it. My body and my beauty are the only things  that I have.  And if you put that together with notions that are quite familiar to us today, in terms of feminist thinking, who should own a woman’s body? Should it be her male lover? Should he dictate to her how and when she can use that body with other people? Here is, then, an issue: the fidelity of the heart versus the fidelity of the body that I think readers today, in different cultures, of different genders, with different views of sexual morality, will come to a different understanding of this text. That is to say it really offers us a challenge to a kind of patriarchal model of possession. The male possesses the body of the loved one. There’s a kind of gender politics in this book. What can we make of that kind of assertion?
One reason, I think is, the fidelity of the heart is not an easy code to get your head around, to get your own value system around. But another is that Manon herself speaks so little. And that quotation I gave you is all part of De Grieux’s own response of rage. He certainly can’t get his head around the notion of the fidelity of the heart. But it may be part of the legacy of this book. Does it actually have its own integrity? Is it possible that Manon who has none of the privileges that De Grieux does given his family background, his expectations, because he will in fact at the end of the book inherit money. Is it possible that this book is making visible to us if we can attend to it, making audible to us if we can hear it, tiding of a different ethos  a different ideology all together,much more of a materialist picture of things.

Do you think we could be happy if we had no money? Is it possible that love depends as much on money as it does on some exalted view of the emotions? Those are, I think, modern issues that this novel of 1731 puts on our plate.

Prevost’s Emotional Landscape.

This is a post about emotions. How they’re expressed in life, how they’re expressed in literature. I mean, are they really? If I look at my resume I don’t think I’m going to see a lot of affect in it, a lot of emotion underneath it. Perhaps if you keep a journal or a diary, some of it goes into it. But is it possible that all of what Faulkner might, or Shakespeare called “the sound and fury” that goes on inside of us, all the time really, never, ever gets over the threshold into language. Perhaps in moments of great passion or rage we express these things. But what, where do they acquire written form at all? I mean after all, they are the very texture of our feelings and some of the major events and matters of our life. And yet I’m not sure where they get represented, and that’s one reason that literature intrigues me, is that it is that “inside story”. It’s what, in Hamlet, is called “that which passes show.” It’s something that would otherwise not be articulated or expressed. And again, one reason this novel is important is that it is obsessed with affect, with emotion. And they take over, the emotions.

Prévost is, I think, drawn to this in a way that even he can’t see clearly. And so we are, from the outside made to understand that the love between this couple is so tumultuous that it becomes something of a spectacle. And this is true, very early on, when the two first meet. As I say, des Grieux is destined for the church. Instead he cashiers that game plan. And, and elopes, more or less, with Manon as they run away towards Paris in a carriage. Except that Prévost writes it this way: “Passionately as I loved her, he found ways of showing me that her love for me was no less passionate. And we cared so little about other people that we gave ourselves up to our embraces without waiting to be alone.” So they begin embracing madly. With  à la fureur, is what the French says. “The Postellians,” these are the people, you know, driving the carriage, “and the folk at the end looked on with amazement. And, I noticed that they were surprised to see such transports of love in two youngsters of our age.”

So it is a public spectacle and not only then. Throughout the book we’re going to see particularly in the figure of the protagonist, the male, des Grieux, this almost circus of exploding feelings in a kind of public setting. And not just erotic feelings, feelings. I could use the word affect, which is sort of a clinical term. All of the emotions that inhabit us that really often don’t have an easy to find format or arena for expression — we know that we often repress them, we keep them locked up, they eat us alive sometimes — in this book there’s not much, self discipline in this way. There’s not much repression in this novel. They come out. And I think that Prévost loves to write how they come out. He understands how democratic this is. That it’s not happiness, particularly. Sadness and misery are even better catalysts and triggers of emotion. And so when des Grieux is separated from Manon by his Father’s lackeys who have come to take him away and when he’s brought back home, his father tells him, “Did you realize that she was betraying you with some rich, older lover, and that’s why we came and grabbed you?” He can’t believe it. He collapses. And it’s written like this: “I got up and made for the door. But had only taken a few steps when I collapsed on the floor in a dead faint. I was quickly revived, but only to fall into paroxysms of weeping, interspersed with lamentations and heart rending cries.”  Here’s what a later one sounds like: “You cannot imagine how I shouted and wept.” You, by the way, is you. I mean, this is his readers. This is the person that he’s speaking to, which is the conceit of the novel that all of this is a story that is told orally. “You can not imagine how I shouted and wept in my anguish. And my behavior was so frenzied that the others, not knowing the reason, looked at each other with as much alarm as amazement.” And still another later sequence after Manon has cheated on him, was supposed to meet him at the theater, doesn’t come because there’s this beguiling rich lover who is going to offer her untold riches, she sends instead a substitute and this also drives him crazy. And this time it’s going to be detailed, again, almost in a kind of pathological way of the various steps and phases of this sort of outbreak of emotion. At first we read that he was suspended, he tells us, “I remained suspended between rage and grief. Then,” it’s as if he’s sort of checking out the various moods that he goes through. “Then the deadly jealousy rending my heart took the form of song and gloomy calm. He thinks, therefore, maybe he’s going to get over this. But instead all of a sudden there’s another revulsion. A complete, terrible outburst of rage. And then he drops into a chair, his hat falls on the floor, “tears begin to run down my cheeks, as my fit of rage turned into abject misery. I was reduced to weeping, groans, and sighs.” It’s as if there was something outright clinical here.

As if Prévost knows, he knows deep down in his gut as a writer that this is his material. That this kind of tumultuous life of affect, of the feelings, of sensations, of the kind of fury that young people can experience — This is pay dirt. This is what his novel is meant to be commensurate with, to do justice to. So he’s kidnapped by his Father’s lackeys. He’s brought back home. He spends months at home. He thinks that he’s finally gotten over this young girl Manon. And then he goes to, sort of make his great presentation in the church, at St. Sulpice in Paris. This is part, again, of his becoming recognized as a figure that is headed toward a position. In the church and without his knowing it, Manon has also learned of the speech that he’s going to make and she is in the audience. And then she comes to see him afterwards, and of course every reader knows what’s going to happen. He explodes once again with feeling. He’s, he explains, that all she wants is for him to give her back his love. She says, “Without that I cannot live. He says, “Then why don’t you ask for my life. Ask for my life, which is all I have left to give you, for you have had my love all along.” But he hadn’t known that. That’s what seeing her has made him understand. And Prévost writes this in a kind of fascinating way that this, sort of, encounter which stupefies him, because all of the intensity of his feelings for her, which he had thought had become quiescent, and that now he could go on with a priestly career — all of that comes back to the fore. I call this a sentimental education, but I mean it literally. That we become educated about the nature of the things that are cooking inside of us.

And so he’s dazed as she is embracing him. And I’m going to quote this passage because it has a pretty astonishing figure of speech and metaphor in it.  “I only half responded, for I was horror- stricken, at the contrast between the serenity of but a few moments ago, and the wild stirrings of desire I could already feel within me. I was shuddering, as you do,” and here comes the extended metaphor, “as you do when you find yourself alone at night on some desolate moorland. When all familiar bearings are lost, and a panicked fear comes over you, that you can only dispel by calmly studying all the landmarks.”

I suggest to you that this is the landscape of human passion. It’s a kind of literal landscape, if you want, it’s an abandoned landscape at night, lost in the country, having no bearings, no orientation. It’s a picture, perhaps, of a new world that is coming into view. And I make that, I use that term intentionally. This is a novel that’s going to end up taking its two young characters out of the old world, which is Europe, France, into the new world, which is New Orleans, it turns out. But I want to suggest that perhaps affect, passion, the reasons that this book is still read, the very currency of human relationship, maybe that too, is a planet, is a new world. And could there be- what sort of stature is in this, even what sort of politics is in this. In one later passage, des Grieux goes onto claim that these feelings are not only what is best in him. But that these feelings constitute a rival code of behavior and of values. He says that most people feel only two or three feelings, sensations. They’re driven by this or by that or by that. But that a man of real feeling, a man of real delicacy, and you begin to hear that this is almost an aristocratic code, is a person whose heart is subject to an entire range, a much greater range, of feelings. It’s as if affect itself were being promoted into an ethos. Your capacity to feel is a sign of your stature.

That is an astonishing character cultural position. That in the traditional view of it, your susceptibility to passion is the weakness that has to be disciplined, regulated, and overcome. This book, it seems to me, is insurrectionary in just this way. That the appeal to feeling, which I think this book makes, which is why this book is read, is also a way of gaining power over other people. That you, in a sense, go directly to their own heart because this is the surest route. And so, there are sequences where des Grieux, because don’t forget, the guy has no money and he’s in love with this girl and he’s got to get money, he has to figure out ways how to get money from other people. And so he addresses their, not their interests, not their thoughts, but their feelings. And there are moments, as well, after this where we watch him intentionally let his eyes start to tear up. We realize that the display of feeling is perhaps also the tool of a conman, the strategy of someone who wants to take advantage or exploit others. And so we begin to see that feeling has lots of legs to it, lots of edges to it. That its not simply the direct expression of your heart. But it may also be tactical.

Quite a melange really – of intents and affectations!

Love and The Degraded Hero in Prevost.

I shall begin the literary sojourn of my blog with the first part of the long review of an old French love story.

It’s called Manon Lescaut. It’s written by the French author, the Abbe Prevost. It’s first published in 1731. It is considered a masterpiece in the French tradition. But fundamentally, the general public probably doesn’t know much about it. It is the quintessential story of the couple. It is a fiction about relationship and it is about the fiction of relationship. What an easy phrase that is, the story of the couple. Does the couple have a story? Can there be the story of a couple? What would it be, to put it more sharply, whose would it be? And so, this intense, I think quite beautiful, enigmatic, little novel, about the couple, is going to be bursting, it seems to me, with issues, questions, concerns about the theme we’re going to be wrestling with. And a theme, most of us, if we don’t wrestle with it, we live with it in our lives.
It is certainly about relationship as most of us initially in a knee-jerk way, think of it, which is a relationship that’s an emotional, erotic relationship between two people. However, it is essentially the voice of the lover, of one person, of the male figure and I can scarcely overstate the significance of all of those issues. The voice of one person, the voice of the lover, the voice of the male.  That are not narrowly literary questions. They’re not theoretical questions. They’re questions that are hardwired to the very notion, reality, and threats of human relationship.

Notions of Literature and the Formula.

By doing that I’m going to be trying to get across one of the basic notions, which is that literature itself, particularly narrative literature, the novel, brings to visibility things in our own lives that we’re not equipped to see. That’s a huge claim. So, let me backtrack now and talk more  about the, the, this novel itself. This book is published in 1731.  Hence many of the things that may look
self-evident and even normative in this book, which is a kind of apology for human love, and for passion, and I mean an apology in the strict sense, arguing for, that all of this is something that is much more counter-cultural, much more problematic in this novel and at that time. So, one text that is familiar to all of  us , that could be thought of as a kind of  benchmark text, would be Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, which we think of as one of our great stories of young lovers.  Shakespeare’s play is famously thought of as star-crossed lovers. And their problems have to do with a family feud. On the other hand, what we have in this little novel is a story of class-crossed lovers.

That a young aristocrat or a young man of noble background, at least, high bourgeois background, falls in love with a young beautiful girl who really comes from the common people. And, that has a set of fireworks and issues and problems altogether of its own. But here’s the second less obvious, contrast with Shakespeare.  Shakespeare’s text is play, which means that in Shakespeare’s text we get the viewpoint of Romeo, of Juliet, and of all the other characters in that play. Theater gives us a kind of vision of life in the round. Each figure has his or her own language, own viewpoint. We take that for granted. That is not the case in fiction. And it’s certainly not the case in this little fiction. There would, be a kind of formula for what I think is happening in this novel, which is, it’s the story of, and here’s my claim, the problematic hero in a degraded world. This claim, has all of the sort of stacked deck reality of hindsight.

Again, Prevost could scarcely have had that in mind as his goal. But that is how we, centuries later perhaps, read this book. Problematic hero. That is to say, a hero who is full of problems, not necessarily for himself. We’ll see that this hero, this protagonist, des Grieux, is enormously pleased with himself. And yet, most readers, either choke on him or have trouble with him. And his own family member, his own father dies. So, this is a character where the reader has a different stance on this figure than the figure himself has. These are some of the things that literature brings to the table. Is that we can read a character and sense that our assessment and judgment of this character is quite different from his or her own.

I’m going to show that Paris in 1715 –because, in fact, is as a degraded world. Probably, every moment of history offers us a picture of society that shows some degradation, some corruption, some fault lines. I don’t know that he had that kind of critical objective at all. I don’t think that that was his target and yet that is what we see. We see that this is a world that is some, 50 years almost, before the French Revolution. And yet it’s a depiction of a set of class structures, of a particular ancien regime, old regime world that is slated for some convulsive moments that we, that we call the French revolution. So, we read this book in a sense, with a critical eye about the makeup and self-assumptions of the protagonist, the problematic hero, but also, of the culture of the setting and the stage on which this protagonist or this couple carries out their affairs, the degraded world.

And then we ask the really vexing question, what would be the connection between the problematic hero and the degraded world? That’s what makes for all of the bubbling, bristling interest of literature that it begins to speak of all of these matters. So, it’s the story of the couple. As I said, this young man who was well born, falls madly, faithfully in love with this young girl Manon Lescaut. And the plot of this novel could not be simpler. It is their plot, which is to keep their relationship intact, which is to be able to stay together. It’s the fundamental requirement of a couple. At least it used to be. That they will stay together against all odds. And there are many odds that they have to work against. Because, as this plot shows us over and over, they are constantly being separated By what? Sometimes by the forces of the family, his family. Sometimes by the forces of authority, of the culture at large. And so the plot is about them getting back together.

We who read this text realize that money plays a central role in whether or not this couple can maintain their alliance. We will want to examine that as we go. That the great philosopher of the enlightenment, Montesquieu, who is one of the first great philosophers of history, said that this was the arrival in French literature of what he called <i>un fripon et une catin</i> and that means “a scoundrel and a strumpet.” And he wasn’t very happy about that, that this text he thought brought the, sort of, dregs of society, and also sort of rather embarrassing behavior into narrative literature. The novel itself, you should understand, is a much vexed genre in the eighteenth century, it has none of the seriousness and prestige that today we ascribe to it. And so, the genre itself was a little bit dicey, and these characters and this plot didn’t seem to have much dignity. So, all of that says something about the way this story was read then. It was popular. It has become the story of a kind of, immortal love affair. It has become a, kind of, story of tragic love. Puccini made a famous opera about it later. And yet, we will want to examine all of the issues and questions in it, about the nature of love, the nature of couple, the obstacles that are against the couple, against relationship, both then and perhaps now, whether they are material or whether they are also more hardwired, that is to say, perceptual and affective also.

Ethos of Love.

So, why do we call a text, a literary text, an immortal love story? It’s got to be in part because the language of that story – whether it’s
Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet – the language is somehow, not only commensurate with the splendor of young love, but it creates an awareness in us: yes, this is what love means. This is the excitement of human passion, this is what our hearts are about, our bodies are about, and our minds are taken over by this as well. And I believe that when we think about the novel in the eighteenth century,that’s part, I think, of the story of how it becomes an important genre, how it gets accepted, why people read novels. It is a good question, why do people read novels? It is an even better question, do people read novels? haha

But certainly one reason for reading novels is that it gives us, as it were, an inside picture of the way people think and feel. But readers flock to text like this,because they seem to have a kind of immediacy that they put onto the page, The actual roiling feelings of the human heart. In a way that was not the case in literature earlier than this. The eighteenth century is, the age of the heart, the age of human sensibility, of emotions. And all of that is very much, it seems to me, at play and at issue in this story. That this novel we can look at historically, I do, and we can see that it’s a novel about crisis, it’s a novel about generational warfare. Actually reminds me a little bit of the 1960’s in both America and in Europe, where you had a kind of edible conflict between the young and their elders. This book lines up, according to that same type of binary, it seems to me. And we see that it’s studded with images of imprisonment, of what happens to the people who challenge the existing mainstream order. That people are thrown into prison, literally; that both Manon and des Grieux end up being incarcerated, and the family itself can be figured as a form of incarceration when des Grieux is essentially abducted by his father after this affair with Manon begins and brought back forcibly home. But you won’t understand any of that unless you sort of feel like – this is back to immortal love story – that you know why these people are together as they are.

Des Grieux, who is the protagonist, is slated for a career in the church for an ecclesiastical career. He is the second son in the family, which means he will inherit, but he won’t inherit the lion’s share of the family assets. And he knows that, and so therefore, as was often the case, slated for the church. And it’s in that situation where he is en route, more or less, to his, sort of, religious, continuing his religious studies, that he comes upon Manon Lescaut and sees her for the first time. And I want you to hear what this sounds like when this young boy sees this young girl. He’s maybe 18, she’s maybe 15, and he speaks to her and they’re infatuated with each other. Once they get close to each other, physically close to each other, intimacy becomes possible. We read something like this, “In a very short time I realized, I was not nearly as callow as I thought. “I was less of a child than I thought. I had all sorts of pleasurable sensations, the like of which I’d never dreamed of before. A kind of ineffable warmth, a kind of soft heat.” And I experienced such overpowering emotion – “The French says “transport”, -transport, which to an English ear sounds like a train or something, but it gets across the kind of vehemence and also the actual kinetic power of human feeling – it can take you somewhere else. “I experienced such an overpowering emotion that for some time I could not utter a sound. But let my passion, only let my passion declare itself through my eyes.” And we’re meant to understand that this is a sensual, sexual education. That this is something he, des Grieux tells us that in part in meeting Manon Lescaut he scarcely knew the difference between boys and girls.

Well he’s learning it quick. And the two of them are like glued to each other. And he knows early on that this is fate, that this matters.

And it matters to me too, because I think it’s an almost incredible story today. It’s not clear in the 21st century that any young couple would have this kind, they might have the same passionate encounter, but whether they would construe this as fate, and to see this as the markers of their life is less certain today. It’s not clear that we can still read text, such as Romeo and Juliet or Manon Lescaut. Des Grieux is convinced that this is what is best in him. This, too, is easy for us to agree to today, but this seemed quite shocking in 1731. He says, “L’amour et de passion la innocent”, love is an innocent passion. Well if you look at the great literature of earlier periods, often love is not an innocent passion. Love even, as far back as Greek tragedy, love is something that smites you, something that is almost akin to a disease,something that robs you of your self control and of your dignity. That’s not the way it is construed or at least depicted in this novel, that this is what goes deepest in him, cuts deepest in him, this is how he finds who he is, this is his soul. These are all the reasons we can call it pre-Romantic. Well, what is fascinating is because these are class crossed lovers, because this young man, coming as he does, from a good family, nonetheless, has no money to speak of, because Manon, when he meets her, has been sent fundamentally, to a convent, with a very small amount of money herself, then it turns out that they have no funds that they can’t live out the lover’s dream, very easily at least, which is what they attempt to do. And that’s going to be the enduring problem of their relationship do they have funds, can they get funds. in order to stay together as a couple? He, by the way, given his social rank, cannot simply go out and get a job – that’s just not in the cards. So what can he do to get money in order, not so much to keep this woman, but to keep themselves? Well, we will watch him, in short order, become a liar, a sponger, a professional card sharper, and even a murderer. In other words he goes right off a cliff, that there’s a kind of societal descent into hell in this story and I think he knows it early on. He senses that this is going to really be life altering when he separated from Manon earlier because he’s abducted by his father’s servants. And he thinks once again staying at home, sort of imprisoned at home, that he will perhaps seek a career in the church,and he goes and he meets her. She surprises him by being there and he realizes that once again, this is his fate. And he says, “I am going to throw away my career and good name for you. Yes, I know I am. I can read it in your eyes. But what sacrifices will not be fully repaid by your love?” And the same sort of language is heard throughout the novel, that he does not repent, he does not feel that he has made a mistake. At one point he is getting ready to undertake some particularly risky gesture, action, that it perhaps is going to cost him his life, it may have to do with murdering somebody, and then he says, “But what has my blood got to do with it? What matters is Manon’s life and how to keep her alive. All that matters is her love, her loyalty. Have I anything worthy to be weighed in the balance against her?”This is what a love ethos sounds like: “Have I anything in the balance to be weighed against her? ”
For me, she is -” and here comes the list of things that would have mattered earlier, would have trumped love, “For me she is glory, happiness, and fortune. So, it’s almost existential. She replaces all of the traditional values,all of the traditional horizons of a young man with his future in front of him. This is love as an ethos. This character, flawed though he is, is to become a love apostle. And what is intriguing about the book is that no one wants to hear these tidings. That this doctrine of love, and it is really close to a doctrine at times where she replaces God, she replaces glory, she replaces, because after all he was destined for the church, she replaces everything else. This is what is new about this book.

And so, it does lead us to the question about how love calls into question the assumptions, values of society. But I’d rather say how a love story calls these values into questions,and that’s what helps to us look at this book as a kind of thick text, as a text, in the ethological sense, that it’s written in a way that we see what is overt and we say what is covert, that we see the fault lines of his society in a way that it’s not even clear he intended, but he felt it. And that’s what makes it’s way into these novels, into this story in particular. That we understand the way in which feeling gangs up other values and that this novel, which became famous because it was such a powerful tribute, a powerful representation of human feeling, is in fact a troubling book that it doesn’t quite preach insurrection.

But it shows you that human love is a wayward experience, it could be a tragic experience. It could be the end of any sort of shot for dignity or control or success. It also says something about the economy of art, that I don’t think that history or sociology tells us these things, that in this novel, which is going to give us a deep reading of this character, what he says but what he feels also, we’re going to get a sense of the complexity of human drive,the complexity of what makes relationship not just desirable but in some sense irresistible in this book, because of the way it’s written, because of the impetuousness and the authority of what this man feels.

Poetry from the Ancient Orient.

Like a whiff of fresh air, the Indian heritage of poetry has me gasping and begging for more. My ignorance of classical Sanskrit poetry, owing mostly to my terrible understanding of the language and the paucity of good translated literature, has been slightly cured over the last few days. And this is my euphoric celebration! (a note on facebook and my blog -seriously!)
In the interest of brevity, I will keep my thoughts to a minimum. Generally Indian classical poetry has been criticized in the West for being over-ornate, even artificial, lacking in true feeling and as examples of wasted and perverted ingenuity. Although there is a grain of truth there, let me add a few contrary notes. Modern India has been deeply influenced by European aesthetic standards and judging our heritage to those unfamiliar paradigms is unfair. The poetry in India was written for performance at the court, for elite circles of litterati, all well versed in the canons of convention and highly appreciative of verbal ingenuity. It is naive to expect the natural mysticism of Wordsworth, or the rebellion against the social system which we see in Shelley. Well-integrated court performers will not generally have the spiritual anguish of Cowper or the social pessimism of T.S. Eliot. That said, the chief raw materials for Indian poetry are love, nature, morality and story-telling. The passionately physical love of the Indian poets is something strikingly different from anything in comparative ancient or even modern cultures.
And now, I feel I have already said too much. Let the poets reveal their mysteries! 

The first few lines are from the doyen of Indian poets – Kalidasa, and they should set the tone quite nicely : 

“where the wind from the Sipra river prolongs the shrill melodious cry of the cranes,
 fragrant at early dawn from the scent of the opening lotus,
 and, like a lover, with flattering requests,
 dispels the morning languor of women, and refreshes their limbs.

Your body will grow fat with the smoke of incense from open windows 
where women dress their hair.
You will be greeted by palace peacocks, dancing to welcome you,
their friend.
If your heart is weary from travel you may pass the night above mansions
fragrant with flowers,
whose pavements are marked with red dye from the feet of beautiful girls.”

Bhartrihari, in his erotic verses, often shows an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, as though trying to convince himself that love is not a futile waste of time after all. In the throes of his amours he feels the call of the religious life, and in one remarkable stanza he indulges in striking punning to this effect.
The obvious meaning of his lines is –

“Your hair well combed, your eyes reaching to your ears,
your mouth filled with ranks of teeth that are white by nature,
your breasts charmingly adorned with a necklace of pearls,
slim girl, your body, though at rest, disturbs me.”

But this might also be fancifully translated as –

“Your hair self-denying, your eyes understanding the whole of scripture
your mouth full of groups of naturally pure brahmans,
your breasts lovely from the presence of emancipated souls,
slim girl, your body, though free from passion, disturbs me.”  

The pun gives expression to the poet’s own divided mind. The following lines further elucidate the same conflict, where the forest denotes the life of a hermit   (this also curiously reminds me of a scene from the 1992 classic, Scent of a Woman, where Al Pacino famously instructs everyone on the only two syllables in the English language worth listening to — pussy!)

” What is the use of many idle speeches!
Only two things are worth a man’s attention –
the youth of full-breasted women, prone to fresh pleasures, 
and the forest. “

It seems that in the end he gives up the love of women for the love of God however — (sadly, no more erotic poetry)
“When I was ignorant in the dark night of passion
I thought the world completely made of women,
but now my eyes are cleansed with the salve of wisdom,
and my clear vision sees only God in everything. “

Amaru describes a poignant moment in a human relationship in a single verse where the reader is given only the climax of the story, the reconstruction of which is left to his imagination.

“I’ll see what comes of it” I thought, and hardened my heart against her.
“What, won’t the villain speak to me?” she thought, flying into a rage.
And there we stood, sedulously refusing to look one another in the face,
until at last I managed an unconvincing laugh, and her tears robbed me of my resolution.” 

Bilhana‘s “Fifty Stanzas of the Thief”, purporting to describe the secret love of young thief and a princess, are full of intense emotion recollected without tranquility. Each stanza begins with “even today” —

“Even today I can see her, her slender arms encircling my neck,
my breast held tight against hers,
her playful eyes half-closed in ecstasy,
her dear face drinking mine in a kiss.

Even today, if this evening
I might see my beloved, with eyes like those of a fawn,
with the bowls of her breasts the hue of milk,
I’d leave the joys of kingship and heaven and final bliss.” 


I shall end this eclectic and all-too-brief selection with these lines from Kalidasa which delight me the most, and I am not alone in sharing that feeling. Goethe agrees with me!  “Shakespeare of the East”, the appellation is well-earned!

Yaksa’s message to the cloud, about the constancy of love and the hope of reunion, in the famous Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger)
 “
I see your body in the sinuous creeper, 
your gaze in the startled eyes of deer,
your cheek in the moon,
your hair in the plumage of peacocks,
and in the tiny ripples of the river I see your sidelong glances,
but alas, my dearest, 
Nowhere do I find your whole likeness!

I hope this was as much of an eye-opener for everyone as it was for me. There is so much poetry to be had, drunk in on lazy afternoons, so many sighs of joy and moments of utter heart-wrenching sadness – out there, in the past and hidden. We are missing out.
Well, no more.

Post-Modern Zarathustra

Nietzsche speaks in proverbs and unconnected metaphors. Try and keep up, if you can. — 

1. Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his blood. Write with blood and you will find that blood is spirit. 

2. It is no easy task to understand unfamiliar blood; I hate the reading idlers!

3. He who knows the reader, does nothing more for the reader. Another century of readers and the spirit itself will stink.

4. Every one being allowed to learn to read ruins, in the long run, not only writing but also thinking.

5. He who writes in blood and proverbs does not want to be read but learnt by heart.

6. In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route you must have long legs. Proverbs should be peaks, and those spoken to should be big and tall.

7. I want to have goblins about me, for I am courageous. The courage which scares away ghosts, creates for itself goblins – it wants to laugh.

8. You look aloft when you long for exaltation; and I look downward because I am exalted. Who among you can at the same time laugh and be exalted ?

9. You tell me, “Life is hard to bear.” But for what purpose should you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the evening?

10. It is true that we love life; but not because we are wont to live but because we are wont to love.

11. There is always some madness in love. But there is always, also, some method in madness.

12. To see these light, foolish, pretty, lively little sprites flit about -that moves Zarathustra to tears and songs.

13. I should only believe in a God that knows how to dance.

14. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity – through him all things fall.

15. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity. Now I am light, now do I fly; now do I see myself under myself. Now there dances a God in me —-

Thus Spake Zarathustra.

A detailed discussion in the next post … cheers!