Thursday, February 28, 2013
Upon its publication in 1862, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables was received with varied, albeit frequently negative, reviews; some critics pronounced the subject matter immoral or derided its excessive sentimentality, others were disquieted by its apparent sympathy with the revolutionaries. Edmond and Jules Goncourt (the literary darlings of the period) lamented its lack of 'first-hand observation' and likened its author to 'those English preachers who harangue strollers in the park on a Sunday.'
Perhaps for a modern reader, who is perturbed by neither reference to prostitution nor revolution, the novel's greatest impediment remains Hugo's digressions; for Les Misérables is not merely an opulent opus of an age, but it is also a comprehensive social, political and moral document embracing a wider field than any literary contemporaries. The narrative is interspersed with digressions, interpolated discourses, passages of moralizing rhetoric and pedagogic disquisitions - the most famous being the protracted recounting of the Battle of Waterloo, the discourse on religious orders (which Hugo's publisher urged him in vain to remove) and another on the street lingo argot - certainly fascinating historical tidbits, but segments which do nothing to advance the storyline. Self indulgent? Certainly. These unrestrained literary extravagances are wholly unsparing of the reader and comprise a good fifth of the completed work, serving nothing more than to illustrate Hugo's encyclopedic intellectual span.
To condemn Hugo on one particular or another is simply too easy, and bespeaks a certain narrowness of perspective - examining the manuscript through the blinkered gaze of preconceived notions of political, social or literary appropriateness, without due appreciation for the poignantly lyrical work as a whole. For modern critics unaccustomed to digressionary asides it requires a certain effort to sustain attentive grasp of the narrative while Hugo is enumerating the particulars of closeted convents (during which Valjean and Cosette are relegated to dusty stage-wings awaiting their cue to re-emerge beneath the brilliant literary spotlight). But as Hugo's biographer Davidson notes: "the digressions of genius are easily pardoned" and if truth be told - I rather revel in them. They seem amendments most particular to the personality that was Hugo and complementary to the sweeping epic in which they are found; being an avid reader of the classical tome with a decided interest in the history of military strategy I am deterred by neither the length nor the topic - quite the opposite in fact - a delectable literary enticement that is seldom to be found in modern literature.
Les Misérables however, is infinitely more than the selectively nit-picked parts; it is Hugo encapsulated, it is Hugo living, breathing and passionately depicting an era behind us, but one that continues to echo across the centuries, a strident clamor that has subsequently called nations to arms and their people to revolution. It is also a searing social indictment of the abandonment of so many to the affliction of acute penury: the degradation of man, the utter ruin of women, and the unloved urchin child. As Hugo himself noted, "So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth...so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless." Charles Baudelaire begged to differ; in a newspaper review, while he praised Hugo's illumination of social misfortune, privately he castigated it as "tasteless and inept" (immonde et inepte) believing that such propaganda was the opposite of art.
Despite Baudelaire's wide poetic acclaim, I would, from my obdurate vantage point of 21st century Florida Keys, have the temerity to, quite frankly, disagree. For what is literature if it does not serve to examine the very depths of ourselves? And reflected therein should be all constituent parts - the ominous and shadowy outcasts who lingered on the peripheries as well as the nobility who tended to systematically ignore them; the destitute and hungry, the workers and the students, and the dark mutterings in the fauborgs that housed them; the mushrooming of clandestine societies stridently proclaiming the rights of the people, and the ignition of discontent into the conflagration of revolution.
The novel's title finds its derivation from the French misère meaning simply misery; the second definition being utmost poverty and destitution; but Hugo's misérables are not merely the poor and wretched, they are the outcasts, the underdogs, the rejected of society and those that rebelled against it. And this, more than anything else, is their story; Hugo's literary mirror served to convey a deep and distasteful truth about Parisian society and those that scavenged in the sewers beneath. Certainly Hugo is championing a cause, raising high the flag of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, broadly lamenting the social asphyxia of the teeming majority of Parisians. Hugo was a passionate example of the French engagé, or one deeply and perpetually concerned with the social and political developments of his time; but can not all literature overtly or covertly concerned with social reform or political repression be deemed propaganda of some kind or another? And is that really such a negative literary attribute if it brings about desperately needed reform? If it casts a compassionate eye on the dark turbulence of the acutely deprived?
In regard to Hugo's propensity to digress one must also be cognizant of authorial context - this work was written over twenty years during which time Hugo departed from his bourgeois origins (and the inherited Bonapartism of his father and monarchism of his mother) to become an avowed and outspoken republican. Inevitably a manuscript penned over such a interval required subsequent amendments to sustain the evolving beliefs of its author; and to dismiss, deride and purse one's lips in literary disapproval is to miss Hugo's glorious epic in its entirety. And that, my friends, would be a tragedy indeed.
I for one remain utterly enthralled by Les Misérables, having just completed Chapter xx of book two; it is an utterly sublime combination of tense physicality and imaginative terror: Marius is poised at a peephole peering into the demonic depths of Thénardier's lair, stricken between the seemingly impossible choice of saving his beloved's father (Valjean) or honoring the memory of his own. In the heart-stopping action that follows Valjean leaps up and proceeds to self-brand his flesh in a dramatic display of stoic resistance, imminently followed by the dreaded entrance of the ruthless Javert who has yet to realize the identity of his quarry. It is a masterful scene of literary tautness that succeeds only because of the substantial investment we, the reader, have already made in each and every character so depicted. And despite being quite familiar with the narrative I admit to anxiously flipping through several pages just to reassure myself (before returning to the present engagement) that Valjean did indeed escape their notorious clutches! We should all wish for such enthralled engagement on the part of our audience (and to have achieved it in one who might be forgiven a languid re-read after several previous) It is a sublime scene indeed where all of Hugo's manifest skill is brought to bear, and the reader, beguiled and quivering with nervous apprehension, desires simultaneously an end to the current predicament Valjean finds himself in, and concurrently and paradoxically, the narrative itself to weave its magic eternal.
But perhaps I too am a romantic. Of course in Hugo's age romanticism (born out of the German Sturm und Drang) meant elevating emotion and intuition over the rationalism of the Enlightenment; and none fulfill that role more gloriously than Jean Valjean with his heroic isolation, tortured colloquies and frenzied mental perambulations...but that is another musing.
Upton Sinclair proclaimed Les Misérables to be "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world;" an assessment I am delighted to endorse. The final word on the matter, however, belongs to Hugo himself, who writes to his Italian publishers regarding authorial intention: " I don't know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone.... Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind's wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: "open up, I am here for you".
Monday, February 18, 2013
Under the pen of this sublime writer, time becomes a fluid stream of consciousness; we travel along its tributaries accompanying Rod on his journey of discovery, traversing the landscape of self - mind as unfettered as his body was confined. The seamless narrative weave depicts a back and forth, past events that loom larger then fade, to be followed by another, all intertwined with vibrant dreamscapes that serve to place the reader within the darkly fetid confines of cell - the mind unleashed and unheeded, overrun by recollections, remembrances, disjointed and untethered from flesh and bone; all transcending time and place in a restless quest for meaning, for the urgent need to define self when confronted with the dark horror of nothingness.
The powerfully lucid narrative propels the reader to the South African coast, to the divisions of apartheid and the experience of a small boy growing to maturity. The childhood episodes are recounted with a clarity of precision - almost as if we are seeing them through the crisply brilliant kaleidoscope of dreams that possesses the imprisoned man....he is an adolescent, then a child, remembering his fervent devotion to his first tricycle that incurs his stepfather's wrath....the raising of chickens, pigs, gruesome axe-death of a cow, the stiff obedience of Villiersdorp school and the horrific cliff-hurtling accident that killed a schoolmate...his memories are recounted in matter-of-fact narrative that is utterly engaging.
Not only does MacKenzie deftly intertwine memory, dream and the darkness of confinement, but he also scrutinizes the essential attribute of humanity; the distillation of the soul laid bare in the crucible of appalling physical and mental suffering. This literary work pulls apart religious and cultural suppositions, examining ritual through the independently curious perspective of a self-proclaimed outsider - whose young life has been spent on the peripheries, but who possesses penetrating insights into his own uncertain family life, as well as religious and political conventions...ultimately it is Roderick's resilient courage in asserting and maintaining his independence that decide his prison fate. Unwilling to submit, defiant in the face of military intractability, Rod endures the unendurable: 118 days of dark ravenous solitude; where one reverts to the most primal of states, visceral, raw, traveling through the emotional gamut of an almost blissful resignation to death to the clawing despair of crumbling fortitude; constantly plagued by the ever-present fear that as the body loses flesh the mind is similarly becoming altogether unhinged. Prior to his incarceration the young man was broadly (and rightly so!) derisive of the religious hypocrisy of obfuscating materialism that distances one from the divine, and, ironically, it is only when he is so confined, so restrained, so weakened by neglect and abuse, that he makes the most epic odyssey of all: the night journey into the very depths of himself where, confronted by the abyss, he embraces the inner divine and reconciles the warring polarities that define the human struggle.
A deeply philosophical work, Night Journey chronicles the disintegration of the external self, examining the roots and nature of the inner man when all extraneous trappings have been stripped away. While the body is chained and weakened, the mind soars, and given flight expands through the blackness like the birth of a star; a consciousness far-flung across the reaches of the universe, musing on the the mythic underpinnings of self, the archetypes and dream-states that define us not only as individuals but the broader connections that unite us as meaning-seekers. The imprisoned man is broken down to nothingness and in the process discovers the essential attributes of self, the visceral fragments of soul that are buried, layered over and hidden beneath, slumbering and dark. MacKenzie renders them translucent, as he recounts the horrendous grappling with darktime hours, with the pervasive memories of youth, of poignant love and loss and yearning - of unbearable loneliness and hunger - and the intervening segments of dream sequences where fears and desires are given evocative form.
These symbols and motifs (so eloquently presented in MacKenzie's dreams) are representative of Jungian archetypes, those that connect us to our deeper selves. I ponder the manner in which one enables access to this inner divine, and am also reminded of Viktor Frankl's work Man's Search for Meaning where in the desperate deprivation of a concentration camp he formulates a stripped-down strategy for finding value in the ability to choose, to hope, an inner strength and fortitude that resides within even the most extreme of suffering; perhaps it is when one is stripped down to fundamental things, to skin and bones, to hunger and fear of the cornered animal kind; perhaps this is when we penetrate ourselves so deeply, when the glittering trappings of materialism, consumerism, rationalism and other cultural facades are removed; perhaps we find true inner bliss when only the dark shadows of soul remain, and to know it, to embrace it, that, perhaps, is the brilliant gift that accompanies such grievous suffering.
MacKenzie's narrative is simply beautiful. One feels a poignant affection for the boyish scrawny young man as he comes of age, deeply impressed by his unmitigated courage and determined resilience, his unfailing curiosity and deeply intrinsic awe for the beauty of the natural world. I did not read this novel as much as I devoured it, and in those intervening moments between reading-times, it lingered in my mind - having cast it's gossamer tendrils into speculative thought, the poignant journey into the darkest depths is one that finds echo in our own perpetual quest for self.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Like many writers who have yet to derive more than a sparsely intermittent income from their work (constituting the vast majority of us I would assume) we are obliged to labor at other things, to cover the expenses of life with extraneous occupations of one sort or another. I say extraneous because the yearning to write, and the resultant joy derived from doing so, is one that moves me profoundly. It is an obsession that infiltrates and imbues, a literary virus that reconfigures the DNA to promote and intensify fictional need. And our task is a solitary one, a quiet solo affair to which all others are excluded, a feverish preoccupation, a compulsion for wordplay, and the exquisite bliss of hitting the literary sweetspot when the formulated words achieve some measure of hard-won poetry; but a drive not necessarily so easily understood by others not similarly inclined.John Updike postulates an interesting literary hierarchy differentiated by obsession: "The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all." But obsession, by definition, is a ravenous beast is it not? One not inclined to observe neat parameters, or be tidily confined to regimented time. My literary obsession spills over bounds - meandering into activities, events and moments where it has no place being. Perhaps because my beast feels inadequately fed - provided with scraps here and there, a need partially-met in time hard-carved and entirely too brief.
When I am not actively engaged in a literary fashion (reading or writing), I find myself musing upon the implications of one or the other, pondering character-connections, or completing partially-composed dialogue that was left dangling...and by necessity, given the economic imperative that fuels life, my literary time is stolen from the grinding regime of obligatory work. Yes, dramatically espoused I realize, and while being utterly cognizant of my many advantages, I still bemoan my lack of constructed writing time (as does my bony beast referenced above): a slot of subsequent moments, however small, that is sacrosanct, observed and respected with all due deference. Instead, my literary focus is snatched here and there, furtively and surreptitiously, time stolen from in between the expected transition of quotidian tasks.
And then there is what I call the 'Cave Compulsion' - the driving impulse to retreat to a darkly quiet place. A cosy cubby that is unlisted and misplaced, hovering between space and time, with a single door to which you hold the only key. A quiet place in which to write. And that, more than all else, is what I covet with an unmitigated greed. I tend towards hermit-hood regardless, and doubtless my literary vocation has hastened my steps in that direction - but my currently recounted desperation is primarily a product of the here and now. Being necessarily deprived of concentrated writing time (financial obligations and familial responsibilities) I am lamenting not the beloved influences that keep me social (family) but the frustration of time passing without literary opportunity....I am indeed singularly gluttonous.
Browsing black holes and thinking about the 'Cave Compulsion' I find some thought-connections of a random musing kind...I have always been enthralled by the idea of black holes; the thought of them summons powerfully dark forces, an exerted gravitational pull of unimaginable strength; like the pull on writer and pen - the literary allure that casts it's gossamer weave on mind and motive - and we are engulfed, willingly so, into the dark depths of the writing singularity (the 'Cave Compulsion'). While black holes voraciously ensnare matter (intersecting and colliding in hypervelocity loops as it approaches the event horizon) it also expels ultraviolet and x-ray radiation that propels windlike regions of heated gas outwards, washing over galaxy's star-forming regions like hot-weather fronts - an effect which, while not completely understood, seems to play a role in the emergence and dampening of stars elsewhere. The general trend of this galactic influence seems not unlike the writing endeavor where a writer disappears in the black hole of deeply-creative process - devouring energy in the production of matter (as opposed to black holes for which the opposite is true) - and the resultant literary work that broadly impacts (at least for those truly great writers) society at large, sweeping evocative themes and re-invented insights across the reading demographic.
To equate the 'Cave Compulsion' with the singularity of a black hole seems, on the surface, a rather dubious analogy....but perhaps it springs to mind because I associate the dark, the silence (however densely impenetrable) with the intensity of focused time without peripheral distraction or associated guilt. And the molecular tug to pen, to keyboard, to a mind drifting to phrase-crafting, ear attuned to the fictional character whispering in one's ear...it, at times, seems to possess the fire and fervency that might metaphorically correlate to the gravitational tug of black-hole. And while we abide in our Cave (diminished to outside perspective as we maintain an intensely inward-focus) the world we inhabit is a shadowed one that plays out upon the recesses of our mind.
However perhaps there is a terrible price for feeding the beast, for overlong cave-dwelling in the dark to the exclusion of light and life and the elements that draw us out into the world. Musing on the vibrancy of Dickensian narrative, and encountering within his biography his personal distance from family; as a father, as a husband he was remote, distanced - perhaps because rendering life and breath to his fictional world required a physical and emotional immersion to such a degree that little remained, that some 'vital force' requisite for successful depiction departed from this 'real' world as we are materially aware of it. There is a famous illustration of Dickens at his desk with his novel-characters drawn in clouds around his head - implying that they were really the ones who intrinsically peopled his world rather than those that lived and breathed in the next room. It seems a pyrrhic victory of sorts - with his indubitably masterful literary works being penned at some cost to personal intimacy and happiness.
So - to feed the ravenous beast of literary obsession, to close up the Cave entrance, to dwell within the black hole, to create a world rather than inhabit one (just for a moment) - to lay out the dazzling beauty of a fabricated environment, to immerse oneself in the emotional tension of a dramatic encounter, to be a part (as the author always is) of a literary dreamscape- this is something indeed! But a writer is a thief of time, purloined from income-generating occupations...and from the literary dream we must eventually awake (aye, there's the rub!) shuffle off the lingering shadows of our imagined world, and return to necessary tasks; but there is a quiet joy in the knowledge that it awaits us still, frozen and static within the Cave depths, or perhaps evolving and shifting in our deeper unconscious musings as we wend our way through the day, or infiltrating dreams as we slumber.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Perhaps each of us is traveling our own particular literary pathway, defined and directed by circumstance and personality; in the course of our lives we are exposed to particular environmental influences: from infancy and schooldays that are reading-rich or book-barren, to an adolescence of novel-immersion of one kind or another - where nebulous thoughts and vague unformed musings are given literary wing, and thence adulthood where the nurtured trends of literary predispositions become increasingly well-formed. I do not mean to say that we are intellectually closed upon reaching maturity, but perhaps our literary preferences, if you will, tend to have solidified; that those who read narrowly in adolescence maintained similar reading habits as adults and conversely so.
And what in particular prompts and forges literary proclivity? Each of us, in the cultivation of specific knowledge, in the unique accumulation of experience, in the gathering of thought and influence that mold and shape subsequent attitude and mindset - these define our particular literary paths and impact our bookstore predilections. I do not advocate environmental determinism, nor do I favor the old genetic adage of nature versus nurture (rather an advocate of amalgamation: a mutually entwined back and forth between the two); I similarly believe that a voracious, trans-genre reader in adulthood has not only enjoyed a literary-nourished youth, but also possesses a thirsting intellectual curiosity of a kind that can never be quenched. To refine and expand upon the literary parallel: nature (an insatiable appetite for expanding intellectual horizons as enabled within the confines of books - a predisposition coded in nucleotides within the undulations of double helix - the genetic component) and nurture (the climate within which this appetite operates - benign and balmy, where reading-seeds are not only provided but actively cultivated). For a half-hearted reader of casual and remote acquaintance with literature, a subtle interplay of genetic parameters and environmental influence are also at work.
E.M Forster, the English novelist, suggests that "the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves." I would take the opportunity to reiterate the phrase 'particular path' in the context of this humble musing. So let us again imagine the literary travels of a commonplace everyman or woman, who has received an average dose of book availability at libraries and within the course of schooling, maintains a modest bookcase of various novels recommended by friends, who enjoys a sprinkling of reading here and there as time and opportunity permits - both circumscribed by work constraints and familial imperatives - perhaps novels tend to be of an 'easier read' - a chapter or two before slumber beckons. I propose this as the average literary pathway traveled (perhaps more aptly a highway to accommodate increased traffic) - the primary demographic for publishing houses - the inveterate purchasers of airport paperbacks and bestselling quick-read thrillers. A market which is well-filled by those writers singularly suited to provide it.
However, perhaps writers of a different sort (and I do not mean to diminish the talent of those who produce prolific bestselling quick-read thrillers of the kind publishing houses covet - what author would not want to be so desired?) such as those who produce a complicated work that is not so readily classified into literary pigeonholes, whose work cannot, with lucid clarity, be demonstrated to resonate with this or that particular demographic, but who labor beyond available years and ink with furrowed brow and rapidly-arthritic fingers, whose hair grows gray in the service of the muse, who are deeply compelled in the penning of a particular narrative without which there is scarcely rest nor reason...for those writers, I believe, (as well as the readers who love them) must have traveled a circuitous literary path peppered with an admixture of intellectually stimulating book-samplings. And perhaps, like Frost's, it is one less-traveled through the lushly tangled profusion of exotic undergrowth (to extend the botanical metaphor - one does imagine pathside books perched like the fleshy Rafflesia keithii, an improbably massive parasitic flower that blooms in the dark of the Malaysian rainforest - like books of brilliance that lack advocacy or blossom similarly deprived of both light and readership.) A jungle springs to mind simply due to the unprecedented diversity of plant life that thrives in the moist damp of mulch and filtered sunlight; and perhaps also to my propensity to emulate Livingston and lose myself in tangential jungle trails, lured ever onwards by one impossibly marvelous book after another...
The noun 'path' implies the singular, distinct from all other literary trails - which of course is indubitably not the case. As Forster submits above we are perpetually influenced by other readers, other authors, other books - if we all travel our unique literary paths, shadowed by the foliage of selective perception, it is those books that are slightly advanced in certain ideas, but ones to which we already incline, to which we are receptive; the literature that hang tantalizing from boughs ahead like glistening fruit which we are eager to taste...they are incorporated, welcomed into the literary lexicon and the journey continues. For those on a disparate path, who travel in a different direction, their particular literary receptivity is entirely distinct from our own. Paths criss-cross, intersect and weave away, we meet others at crossroads, sharing and exclaiming upon the mutually-agreed upon brilliance of a particular work - but for those on a disparate path through an entirely different environment - they will seek, find and display a receptivity for an entirely different kind of work. Perhaps a period of particular intellectual fruitfulness is defined by a crossroads, by a literary hub, where trails converge and individual horizons expand. Reminiscent of certain places at certain times that produce a prolific intellectual flowering of near-dwelling cerebrals: Athens in the fifth century BCE, Florence in the sixteenth century, and in 1820's Concord, Massachusetts (the golden age of American literature) where Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott (to name but a few) coalesced in the relative darkness to initiate the sweeping phenomenon that was Transcendentalism.
Perhaps this analogy of an individually-traveled reading path provides some insight into literary subjectivity, and that each of us as readers and writers are a product at any given time of our genetic predispositions for intellectual exploration as well as the environment through which we have passed. Our journey, so distinctly influenced, takes us into the depths of things, the way brightly lit by the sharp pinpricks of literary works (like stars in the dark expanse of sky) that illuminate both our minds and the numerous tangential paths that branch off in dendritic complexity, each veering off on another kind of subject entirely... barely discernible tracks lit by the warmly incandescent glow of books. I have been lost in this literary jungle for decades now and fervently hope I will never find my way out....wandering from Dostoyevsky to molecular biology, from anthropological treatises on early man to philosophical ramblings, from Hardy and Shakespeare to biographies of Mozart and Frederick II...so many paths lit by a multitude of meaningful works! So if I see you there similarly enthralled with a particular book - you may query "PJ, I presume?" but like the most famous explorer to whom this question was originally posed, I will never leave the jungle, not while breath sustains me, or books beckon me onward in that perpetual literary adventure that is reading and writing.