Archive for July, 2015

Look back in embarrassment

A good friend and fellow blogger tells me that she is going through her past posts and deleting those that, in retrospect, make her squirm in embarrassment. I know the feeling. I’d guess most bloggers do. All those posts in my back catalogue that are inelegantly written, shoddily structured, badly argued; all those posts expressing views that I no longer hold, or critical of views that I nowadays do; all those many posts that do little but bespeak the sheer muddle-headedness and stupidity of the author … should I go back and delete them? The temptation certainly is great.

But no – whatever the temptation, I think it best to let them all stay. Although this blog is primarily about literature, I tend to write about whatever comes to mind, and thus, over more than five years now of blogging, these posts, the good, the bad, and also the ugly, cohere together to form a sort of composite self-portrait. And the best self-portraits tend to be the warts-and-all portraits, honest and unsanitised.

In short, if I am a prat at times, why should the world not know about it? Let he who has never been a prat cast the first stone, say I.

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On Heaven and Hell, and a few other matters

It is a commonplace observation that it is much easier to imagine Hell than it is to imagine Heaven, but since this blog has no pretension of being anything other than commonplace, it is an observation I am happy to make.

There are a great many works that move from Hell to Heaven, from Inferno to Paradiso, from Dark to Light. And in each of these, how much more vivid in our imaginations is the Dark! Is there anyone, apart, perhaps, from the most devoted of Danteans, in whose mind images of Purgatorio or of Paradiso are as deeply imprinted as those of Inferno? Who in their right minds read of the Regaining of Paradise with the same relish with which they read of its Loss? And even after we have witnessed the triumphant torchlit parade through the civic streets of Athens, is it not the prophetic terror of Cassandra before the House of Atreus that weighs more powerfully on our consciousness? Even when we have made the journey from Hell into Heaven; even when Paradise is Regained; even when we have journeyed from the Dark into the Light; it is still the Dark that continues to oppress the imagination.

Quite frequently, the glimpses we are given of Paradise are just that – glimpses. Mozart allows us to glimpse Paradise towards the end of Le Nozze di Figaro, but it lasts only a few minutes: we know that after the final curtain falls, the Count will return to his usual ways, the Countess will continue to be unhappy, and Susanna and Figaro must continue to fight to protect the sanctity of their marriage. The Heaven we had glimpsed – brought about, incidentally, by human forgiveness, not divine – is but an image of what might be, but isn’t. Shakespeare’s images of Heaven are also compromised: present mirth only hath present laughter, and what’s to come is still very much unsure. Even when, at the end of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare presents us with an image of the Resurrection itself, what joy there is is subdued. Not much is said, and this very reticence is telling: Perdita is restored, as is Hermione, but Mamilius isn’t; and there can be no compensation for the lost years, for all the grief of separation and the anguish of guilt. No triumphant torchlit parade here: even the Resurrection cannot restore all that has been lost.

The only convincing image of an eternal and triumphant Heaven that I can think of, off the top of my head, is van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, and, apart from the Christian image of the bleeding Lamb at the centre, it is a Heaven conceived in very

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

earthly terms. The angels’ music-making is not ethereal and effortless: rather, they strain to sing and to play their instruments, much as their earthly counterparts do; the love with which the blades of grass and the leaves are painted bespeak an attachment to the here-and-now rather than a yearning for anything beyond; and it is an earthly light rather than a heavenly in which the gemstones gleam. It is still a matter of scholarly debate how much of this altarpiece was the work of Jan van Eyck, and how much should be credited to his brother Hubert, but whomever we credit, this is Heaven as imagined by artists who were so much in love with this life, that they could not imagine the next one in any other terms.

My own picture of Heaven, not surprisingly, lacks the visionary gleam of the van Eycks, but it too is in earthly terms. I see myself seated comfortably in an armchair before a roaring log fire, a glass of malt whisky in my hand, a volume of the Sherlock Holmes stories open on my knee; once in a while I doze off, as Heaven surely does not impose the tyranny of constant wakefulness; and at other times, good friends appear to share my fireside

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

and my whisky, filling the air with the warmth of convivial conversation. Outside, I imagine, would be a forest; snow would be falling, and the white ground would be sparkling in the moonlight. Why does that strike me as the very image of Heaven, I wonder? I don’t really need to search too far for the answer: shallow and trivial that I am, my idea of Eternal Bliss is nothing other than Badger’s fireside in The Wind in the Willows. I remember reading that as a child, and thinking how fine it would be to be Ratty and Mole, lost in the blizzard in the Wild Woods, and finding shelter and warmth in Badger’s house And even as a fully grown adult, it strikes me as a convincing image of Heaven – as convincing, at least, as any other I can think of. But could I stand that for all Eternity? Could I stand anything for all Eternity?

We are promised in the Epistle to the Corinthians that we shall be changed, and surely the first change required for us to enjoy Heaven for Eternity must be the removal, by surgical operation or otherwise, of that part of us that makes us bored. Indeed, that single operation may be the sole difference between Heaven and Hell, for the Hell in which we are forced to endure for all Eternity even that which we love, where we cannot even harbour an image in our minds of anything that might conceivably be better, is, it seems to me, more horrific than anything even in Dante’s infernal circles.

And this possibly is why we find Heaven so difficult to imagine; this is why we find the idea so impossible to respond to. For the changes required to enjoy Eternal Bliss are such that we cannot possibly be the same persons afterwards. The Romantics urged us to strive – to discover our humanity, no less, in the very act of striving; but this act of striving implies that which is desired, but which is not present. Heaven, however, cannot be characterised in such terms: in Heaven, all that is desired is, by definition, eternally present. How then can our selves, which find meaning, and, indeed, self-definition, in the act of striving itself, feel at home in Heaven? Even with our capacity for boredom surgically removed, we must surely find ourselves alienated from such a place. Perhaps this is what T. S. Eliot had meant when he said “Teach us to be still.” But then again, who knows what the old boy had meant? His poetry, like the peace of God, passeth all understanding.

However much we may long for Eternal Bliss, the very idea is, it seems, alien to our sensibilities: even Badger’s cosy fireside can but be enjoyed for a while only. But Hell – now, there our imaginations run wild. I’ll refrain from listing all the examples that come all to readily to mind: readers can, I am sure, come up quite easily with their own – from the various Hells depicted by Dante or Bosch or Goya, to the hells that Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists damn themselves to even while alive, right down to the images of unspeakable horrors, real horrors, that, from around the world, are emerging on our very laptops, even in these civilized times of ours. Perhaps because we find it so much easier to imagine Hell than to imagine Heaven, we seem to find it easier also to create Hell. Even as we set out to create Heaven, we create Hell. For we don’t have the first idea, after all, what Heaven is: Hell, however, we don’t even need to stretch our imaginations to picture. It may well be that I am now more aware, or more sensitive, to certain things than I had been before, but I do get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the times I am living in now are darker than any other time I think I have lived in. I can no longer read of Universal Darkness burying all and study Pope’s imagery with a scholarly detachment. I cannot, even in my imagination, find shelter from the blizzard by Badger’s fireside, as I used to do consciously as a child, and less consciously as an adult. Heaven has never seemed quite so far away, or less capable of being imagined. Possibly Shakespeare’s vision of a sorrowful and subdued quiet is the best we can hope for. If we’re lucky.

***

Reading through what I have written so far, I see that this post has taken a more serious turn than I had intended. I am, after all, on holiday now, and thought I would while away a few idle hours by writing a whimsical and fanciful post, but the tone has become so serious that I cannot very easily turn it back again. But, while we wait for Universal Darkness to bury all, let me at least invite all of you – metaphorically at least, since my stock of whisky will not stretch so far – to join me at my fireside for a convivial tipple.

Your very good health!

whisky-dram

“We have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

Please note: It is not possible to discuss a novel such as this without referring to some of the plot details. I personally do not think that twists and turns of the plot are of primary interest except in mystery stories – i.e. stories where solution to a mystery is the whole point of the work – or adventure stories, where the question of “What happens next?” is paramount. In other types of fiction, spoilers don’t really bother me. But since they clearly bother others, it is only fair to preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”.

Had Shirley Jackson been from the southern states, her works could safely have been labelled “Southern Gothic”, but since she wasn’t, no-one is quite sure how to classify her. And, as we all know, inability to classify a writer causes us literary bloggers and critics no end of headaches: we find ourselves having no option but to try to evaluate the writer on her own terms rather than refer to some handy pre-formulated labels, and that really doesn’t make for easy blogging.

This is the second novel of Shirley Jackson’s that I have read – the other being The Haunting of Hill House – and it seems fair to say she had a weird and macabre imagination. One hesitates to use the term “horror”, especially as the horror genre seems all too often to denote the explicitly gruesome; but her fiction does most certainly communicate a deep sense of unease. But in neither of the two novels of hers that I have read is this sense of unease an end in itself: they may make the flesh creep, but making the flesh creep is not – primarily, at least – what these novels are about. The Haunting of Hill House may be read as a traditional ghost story, but it is also a psychological study of the disintegration of a human mind, and it is this disintegrating mind, rather than the supernatural element, that seems to be at the centre of the work. Indeed, the supernatural manifestations, terrifying though they are, may quite legitimately seen as emanations from Eleanor’s disturbed and fragile mind rather than as ghostly hauntings. We Have Always Lived in the Castle does not contain any supernatural elements, but right from the opening sentences, we find ourselves in a very weird fictional world:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Quite clearly, the narrator, Mary Katherine – Merricat – Blackwood is mentally unbalanced, but hers is the only voice we hear, and her perspective the only one to which we are privy. The opening chapter depicts Merricat going into the village to buy groceries, and gives us a rather disturbing picture not only of the deep hostility of the villagers, but of Merricat’s own grotesquely violent fantasies:

… I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with pain and dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over the bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, perhaps with a kick for Mrs Donell as she lay there.

Generally, a first person narrator, by the virtue of the fact that she is telling us the story and is taking us into her confidence, invites some measure of sympathy from the reader; this sympathy is even more strongly due to someone who, like Merricat, is reviled and taunted. But Jackson seems determined to alienate our sympathies from the start: we are interested, intrigued, fascinated – but we are not necessarily on her side: we are not rooting for her. Those readers who insist in their fiction on characters they can “relate to” may have a problem here.

Soon, the reason for the villagers’ hostility becomes apparent: some six years previously, the entire Blackwood family – Merricat’s mother, father, brother, and an aunt – had been poisoned: the sugar with which the sprinkled their blackberries had been heavily laced with poison. Merricat had escaped because she, a twelve-year-old at the time, had been sent to bed with no supper that evening; her uncle Julian had escaped because he hadn’t eaten enough blackberries; and Merricat’s older sister, Constance, did not take sugar. Constance had been charged with murder, but had been released due to lack of evidence. Now, the two surviving sisters, and their surviving Uncle Julian, his aged and battered mind in shreds, live together in their ancestral home, their castle, shunning and shunned by the hostile villagers.

Naturally, the reader cannot help but speculate whether Merricat’s precarious mental state was the cause or the consequence of the family tragedy. The answer is given some two thirds of the way through the novel, but since the possibility is already in the reader’s mind, it cannot really count as a “plot twist”. The key to the drama presented in the novel is not so much the question of “who done it?” but, rather, the curious network of relationships between the three characters still living in the castle, and, especially, between the two sisters, who, despite the quite bizarre circumstances in which they live, deeply love and are devoted to each other. Merricat, we know from the first, is unbalanced and disturbed – too off-centre, perhaps, to be understood by reasoned analysis, or, indeed, understood at all. More intriguing is her devoted sister Constance. Whatever may or may not have happened in the past, it is her unquestioning loyalty to and indulgence of her utterly mad sister that remains, perhaps, the greatest enigma in this deeply enigmatic novel. Certainly this is not a point Merricat herself ever pauses to consider, so we get no help from her on this.

Neither do we get much help on what the family relationships were like before the poisoning. From some of the fragments of memory that surfaces in Merricat’s mid, and from the equally fragmentary scraps spoken by Uncle Julius, we may guess at a family not at peace with itself, but the exact nature of their disturbed state remains tantalisingly elusive.

Into this weird set-up comes their cousin Charles. His branch of the family had been estranged from Constance and Merricat, and in his appearance, Merricat senses a danger: he is trying, as far as Merricat’ can see, to prise Constance away from her. And what develops is one of those struggles for individual power that we are so familiar with from the novels of Henry James – two characters struggling with each other, for motives not always clear, even to themselves, for the possession of a third. Charles appears a brash and bumptious young man, barely bothering to conceal his mercenary motives, and making no attempt at all to hide his impatience and contempt for Merricat. But the repressed and agoraphobic Constance, who does not leave the house even to go to the village, is clearly attracted: the danger Merricat senses is real, but, as with any insight filtered through Merricat’s consciousness, one should add the rider “perhaps”: we can never really be sure of anything Merricat tells us.

By the end of the drama, Constance remains constant: Cousin Charles, once his mercenary motives become apparent, is rejected – much as Morris Townsend is towards the end of Washington Square – and Constance, for reasons we can never quite be sure of, becomes drawn completely into Merricat’s mad world. The great battle Merricat had fought to win Constance for herself is unequivocally won: Merricat’s victory, by the end, is complete. It is the triumph of utter unreason – but it is a happy ending, of sorts.

***

This short novel leaves a very strange taste in the mouth, a taste which lingers long after one has finished reading. It is not entirely an unpleasant taste: in its way, it is actually rather seductive. We may not have been rooting for Merricat – Jackson is careful not to encourage the reader’s empathy, or even the reader’s sympathy, on her behalf – but her triumph, because it is so very hard won, and so much against the odds, seems somehow deserved. It is almost as if we, too, have been won over into Merricat’s macabre and lunatic world. The sense of unease that permeates this novel stays with us right to the end – and beyond.