Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Place Of Greater Refuge

"In my cowardice I became at once a man and did what all we grown men do when face to face with suffering and injustice: I preferred not to see them; I ran up to the top of the house to cry myself in a little room beside the schoolroom and beneath the roof, which smelled of orris root and was scented also by a wild outer wall and thrust a flowering branch in through the half opened window.  Intended for a more special and a baser use, this room, from which, in the daytime, I could see as far as the keep of Roussainville-le-Pin, was for a long time my place of refuge, doubtless because it was the only room whose door I was allowed to lock, whenever my occupation was such as required an inviolable solitude: reading or day-dreaming, secret tears or sensual gratification."

Everything is in Proust, even the necessity of a child's retreat to the bathroom for privacy for "reading or day-dreaming, secret tears, or sensual gratification."

This is part of what is going to be a major theme in the Novel--minor social cruelties are everywhere, forcing themselves on the notice of the Narrator and shaping his life. He is constantly bewildered by and horrified by the petty domestic tyrannies on which he spies--his Great-Aunt's spiteful teasing of his beloved Grandmother, Francoise's secret war against the scullery maid.  His family see him as feeble, neurasthenic, difficult, weird but in reality when he hides away from them he is becoming  a man" and "doing what all we grown men do when face to face with suffering and injustice: I preferred not to see them."  Running away to the top of the house gives him distance, a vista, and the "perspective" he is always seeking by pulling back from the minutiae of life.  And in the bathroom as a child as in the bedroom as an adult, he can experience freedom from the emotional and social demands of the all encompassing family world.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bangle is the Essential Part

I guess I need to headline this a bit better or it reads like spam.  As few of you will know the Jethi Aimai or oldest daughter is heading for her Aurangetram. This is her "ascent to the stage" or final dance recital before she is considered a real Bharata Natyam dancer.  For me, its something like a cross between a mixed ethnic wedding and live mud wrestling an alligator since we have been paired up with the lovely parents of a lovely girl to share the costs with. Shared costs are halved costs, of course but in a more realistic vein shared decisionmaking is doubled decisionmaking. No, wait, let that be tripled.  At any rate while googling around looking for serious, honest, fake, imitation, professional, high quality, pure "gold" and "silver" "kemp stones" Temple Set jewelry I stumbled on this very helpful sizing information:
Friday, July 6, 2012Size of bangle for your child - dance jewelry Set
How do I know my daughter's bangle size? Many parents call us and ask this question while buying Bharatanatyam dance Jewelry set from our online store. Probably more than 15% of the questions we get are related to bangle size.
Selecting the correct bangle size is very important. Obviously you don't want the bangles come our of your daughters hands while she is performing a hastha during her Bharatanatyam recital. On the other hand you need to make sure she is comfortable wearing them and not bothered about them being so tight on the hands.
So what is the trick? Well, there are two methods to do this. One is very complicated and involves math and theorems - Uhh !!!  Even though most of the stay home Indian Moms have double degrees, I don't want to remind them of their good old math homework days. I will explain the most simplest methd here.
First let me tell you the different bangle sizes available. The most common sizes are 2.2, 2.4, 2.6 and 2.8. If your hands are really big, then you need size 3.0, but we don't sell them. What is 2.2? Is it in inches or centimeters?  Well, all the measurements are in inches. Find out if the dancer already has a bangle she is comfortable with. Take it and place it on a white A4 size sheet. Use a pencil to mark the inner circle of the bangle on the paper. Use a ruler to measure the diameter of the circle. That is the size of bangle for your dancer. Usually schildren under 6 will be comfortable with a size 2.2. Six to 10 year old ones can fit 2.4 or 2.6 size. 12 and above will have sizes 2.6 and 2.8
Bangle is the essential part of the dance jewelry set. 

This struck me as incredibly funny because, of course, its so true. One hundred percent of the other mothers involved in this process are high powered Indian multi-degreed women whose resumes run from being Professors at MIT to Neuroscientists at local hospitals. Hell, the other dancers are sometimes professors in their spare time.

Friday, April 26, 2013

In Memoriam, J.A.

We've known for a few days he was missing. Now we know for sure that his dark star enveloped him.   He was a beautiful person. He always looked to me like a child's version of an old owl, and quite a bit like the Edward Lear figures and even of Lear himself:  Shocking to realize that when I first came to know him, 12 years ago, he was probably my age now.  He was my children's teacher for two marvellous sets of first and second grades, which he team taught with another wonderful teacher and family friend, J.  He was a kind, quiet, generous, druid like figure.  It was a school, and a classroom, where everything done was done with gentleness and with dedication and a kind of unique patience with the trajectory of each child.  J.A. had an enormous capacity for wonder and he moved through that classroom--were the children really that tiny?--with its knee high tables and its turtles and areas set aside for quiet reading or noisy "take apart" like a little tramp steamer moving through familiar shoals. With a touch on one child's shoulder, and a shy smile for another, he brought a kind of organic flow to the room. Everyone was always busy, busy, busy. But there seemed an infinite amount of time for learning, for dreaming, for snuggling, for loving.

I'm trying to find it in my notes for that period of my life but I can't--one of my signature memories of J.A. is the day we came "up" to his class. My older daughter was in it and my younger daughter came with us for a visit to her big sister's classroom.  They must have been...four and six?  A, our youngest, kept her hand in the air all through morning meeting. She had something to say and she needed to say it.  We were all sitting around in a group--he was a master of negotiating the separate needs of his puling, squalling, squeaking, excited group of kids--and she had that hand up for what seemed like an hour. Finally he called on her and gave her his full attention and she made her point and he considered it. He considered it deeply (and it was worth considering deeply) and then he said "Thank you, A, I'm sure we will all be thinking about that for a long time."  She was thrown into ecstasies, transported in an instant into a world of civility, calm, and the intellect.

He and I had a separate relationship. We were co-conspirators in the hallways.  We bumped into each other, over the years, many times and talked a little politics.  9/11 happened before we got to the school but there were other major political incidents, school shootings, invasions and although we didn't talk about them directly we shared a political sensibility and his dry, quiet, shy wit jumped to something in my more noisy style.  I never knew anything about his personal life. We just shared a love for my children and an admiration for all new, young, growing things.  And for my hot fudge, which I made for him every year.  It doesn't amount to much--maybe 12 Pints? If I thought it could have kept him here I would have made him a gallon every year. More.

But we don't get to keep people, if they don't want to be kept.  I know this must have been a long time coming, and perhaps there was nothing that could have intervened.  But its my great personal fear that he did it, now, because of the Boston Marathon Bombing.  That one thing happening over school vacation, when we couldn't embrace him and hold him up, was the tipping point.

When I was an undergraduate, many years ago, I used to go and sit in the stacks at Widener Library and just read whatever was to hand.  For some weeks I found myself sitting near the section of World War II Concentration Camp Memoires.  Reading through those books I stumbled on two memoires of the same Camp and even, though the writers did not know of it, the same night.  It was a night when the Camp Authorities had decided to punish everyone by forming the Prisoners, weakened by starvation and cold, into a square and forcing them to stand at attention in the yard for the entire night.  For one of my diarists it was a night of unrelieved horror as prisoners froze and fell out only to be further punished for their weakness.  But for the other diarist it was a night to be remembered for the supreme humanity shown by the other prisoners.  For unbenknownst to some in the crowd the prisoners at the edge, who were the coldest because they were exposed on one side to the frigid air, were being rotated and shuffled from the edge to the center.  They were being relieved by other prisoners who would silently and stealthily take their place at the edge.

The Marathon Bombing, which in reality rockets from tragedy to bathos almost daily as the reality of who the bombers were becomes clear, is just such an instance.  Looked at one way it was a horror--and I certainly experienced it that way as I waited to find out what had happened to an unknown number of friends and acquaintances and the news rolled in.  But as we said to the children, echoing what was said later by a number of public figures "more people ran in to help than ran away."  And that was true.  The city survived, our friends survived, we go on.  Carlos Aredondo was there, a man who nearly threw his life away twice with the loss of his sons and lived on, in his words, "for an unknown purpose." That dark uncertainty came to fruition on that day when he was instrumental in saving someone's life.  If J.A. could have hung on a few more days would he have seen what we saw? Would he have felt that outpouring of love and that uprush of strength that we saw and felt?

But these thoughts are not his thoughts, and I feel silly even writing them down.  I wish he could have stayed with us a little longer.  I told the girls what I honestly feel: few people are as loved, were as loved, as J.A.  Few people have the honor to have been central in so many lives, to have lived such a fulfilled and fulfilling life.  If it was too brief and if he chose to end it that is still the case.  He was loved.  And he knew it.  He felt it every day, even if it wasn't enough.  He lived beautifully.  It was an honor to have known him.  I cherish his memory.

The temple bell stops.
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.--Basho

Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Other Favorite Reading Pleasure is Wonkette

Proust is Proust but for really great writing you have to go to Wonkette. Every Morning. Without Fail.

In his quest to misunderstand/misrepresent/ignore the context of everything ever, web-toed glandular mutant Matthew Boyle of Dead Andy Breitbart’s Embalming Fluid Emporium...Read more at http://wonkette.com/513704/barack-obama-ignoring-immigration-laws-probably-jaywalking-while-doing-rape-and-murder#xbRLTSiHddhVMd23.99 

That's right up there with Charlie Pierce's description of Scott Walker as a "goggle eyed homunculus."

Oh, I'm sorry, I have a new favorite:

Matthew Yglesias—a Norelco marketing experiment to see if a hand-drawn Sharpie beard on a peeled potato could sell men's earrings—wrote a morally and intellectually odious article at his second job yesterday. His Slate column, "Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That's OK," addressed the deaths of 161 workers in a factory collapse in Bangladesh with the tone they so richly deserved: bored.

Proust Makes Fun of His Characters

There's a lighter side to Proust and its in this marvellous passage. Its a kind of a shaggy dog story that meanders through a typically Proustian bit of purple prose, a character who speaks as Proust himself writes, and winds up with a brutal bit of self parody. He is describing how two close social acquaintances can torture each other—the one by demanding a social favor and the other by refusing it, while both seek to obscure the reality of what is a kind of life and death matter: the protection of social networks and social value.  Legrandin doesn't want to share his social consequence with his competitors or unequals but, caught in a friendly social interaction (in which he is, himself, indulging in a kind of self promotion) he can't quite figure out how to escape without being deliberately rude and directly turning down his "friend."(1)

The Narrator's father has a friend, Legrandin, with whom they have a kind of close intellectual and familial relationship—but its one that can't be used to extend influence beyond the local into wider and more important world of other kinds of social relations up the ladder.

Legrandin has met them by chance and is extolling the virtues of nature and of the seaside towns:

“Balbec! The most ancient bone in the geological skeleton that underlies our soil, the true Ar-mor, the sea, the land's end, the accursed region which Anatole France—an enchanter whose works our young friend ought to read—has so well depicted, beneath its eternal fogs, as though it were indeed the land of the Cimmerians in the Odyssey.  Balbec; yes, they are building hotels there now...” 
“Indeed! And do you know anyone at Balbec?” inquired my father.  “As it happens, this young man is going to spend a couple of months there with his grandmother, and my wife too, perhaps.” 
Legrandin, taken unawares by the question at a moment when he was looking directly at my father, was unable to avert his eyes, so fastened them with steadily increasing intensity—smiling mournfully the while—upon the eyes of his questioner, with an air of friendliness and frankness and of not being afraid to look him in the face, until he seemed to have penetrated my father's skull as if it had become transparent, and to be seeing at that moment, far beyond and behind it, a brightly colored cloud which provided him with a mental alibi and would enable him to establish that at the moment when he was asked whether he knew anyone at Balbec, he had been thinking of something else and so had not heard the question. As a rule such tactics make the questioner proceed to ask “Why, what are you thinking about?” But my father, inquisitive, irritated and cruel, repeated: “Have you friends, then, in the neighborhood, since you know Balbec so well?” 
In a final and desperate effort, Legrandin's smiling gaze struggled to the extreme limits of tenderness, vagueness, candour and abstraction; but, feeling no doubt that there was nothing left for it now but to answer, he said to us: “I have friends wherever there are clusters of trees, stricken but not defeated, which have come together with touching perseverance to offer a common supplication to an inclement sky which has no mercy upon them.” 
“That is not quite what I meant,” interrupted my father, as obstinate as the trees and as merciless as the sky. “I asked you in case anything should happen to my mother-in-law and she wanted to feel that she was not all alone there in an out-of-the-way place, whether you knew anyone in the neighborhood.” 
“There as elsewhere, I know everyone and I know no one,” replied Legrandin, who did not give in so easily. “The places I know well, the people very slightly. But the places themselves seem like people, rare and wonderful people, of a delicate quality easily disillusioned by life....” (143)

The emphasis is mine, because I can't have the pleasure of reading this passage out loud to you.

(1) Proust has a lot to say about the ways in which friendship is limited or fostered by social distance--sometimes people interact more freely across great cultural and class divides, sometimes they are so competitive with their near equals that years of quarrelling and estrangement can follow very minor infractions.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Just a Little Crumb

Its harder than I thought to post on Proust because...its hard to let go.  Everything seems to lead to everything else.  I should also add that although I am re-reading Painter's Biography of Proust I don't find the biographical approach to reading very satisfying. I'm just interested in reading the Narrator's Narrative for its own sake, in its own terms or, as we used to say? Hermeneutically.  I'll try to keep Proust and the Narrator separate but I may slip a bit.

As I read Proust this time around I take out my pen and I find almost every word to be so carefully chosen, placed like a tiny stone in an immense mosaic, that I feel the need to circle and connect every word and phrase--forward and backward in the book lines scrawl across the page like Proust's own copy which, eternally emended and annotated, glued out with flying bits of paper, is like an enormous  post-it note avant la lettre.  Its all here, every opposition and metaphor and allusion of the book--and despite his extreme sensuality and profligacy of words and of imagery I do think there is a very clear structuralist style rigidity underlying his vision. One is always either the traveller heading home, or out into the unknown, things are always either light or dark. Maybe that's just being French or maybe he spends more time in the mid-tones than I give him credit for at this moment. I think I might even have changed my mind about this by the end of the third paragraph. (yes, I will).

I'll jump back to the very beginning of the book--what is Proust doing in the very first pages?  He's tackling the very subject of the entire work: Memory. He is going to explore in a dry, literary format something that is profoundly wet and slippery: how memory functions, how it is born, how it is understood, how it builds us as we build it.  He does so, to my mind, with a complicated joke: the text begins with something atextual--a reference to music.  The beginning is the "Overture."   Right away, as we scan the page, we see that Proust is going to joggle up our senses and ask to us hear with our eyes and read with our hearts and noses.  Information from one sense is going to contradict, or expand, on information from other senses. The goal is to recreate and explore the very foundations of the self and the ego in the transient and idiosyncratic and sensual experiences of the person, from child to adult. Experiences which can only occasionally be reduced to a single set of sense perceptions.

But OK, enough of that: What does Proust think about Memory? Its something which is necessary to us--we can't even understand what we see, hear, taste, touch without the memories which secretly enrich the experience.  But Memory is also a thing that happens in particular times and places. In fact its the thing that your mind does when your  body is at rest, isolated from the very society which is the focus of your interest.  In the first pages he describes, tediously to some, bizarrely to others, his anxiety over being left alone in his bedroom as a child and, later, the many bedrooms and instances of loneliness have marked his existence.  In describing this terrible isolation and loneliness he raids science, art, and an ethnoscience of the body to explore how memory and consciousness iteslf, is composed, held, reflected upon, recaptured, lost, revalued, enjoyed.

This section rockets from the quotidian to the obscene.  Proust runs through a number of  the Narrator's experiences as a child alone in bed, including memories of his fear of having his hair pulled by a Great-Uncle (why is it always Great Uncles?), his memory of erotic dreams and fantasies, hell he even tells us about his nocturnal emissions.  And we are only on page three! We barely know the guy.  But he's trying to tell us something, or trying to figure something out, about how a typical time of day, state of posture, and of rest can produce a unique individual, an "ego" which is composed of so many tiny, moving, parts.  About how we need time and habitude, and travel and fear and isolation and society, in order to create meaningful memories and perhaps how we need that lonely bedroom in order to review and understand our memories.

He begins: "For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: "I'm falling asleep."" Proust says this happens so fast that nothing intervenes--but he will soon show us that a lot happens during that seeming instant.  Embedded in this terse and rather flat sentence--it might be one of the only "just the facts" sentences in Proust--are all the themes he is going to explore:  time, duration, habitude, light, sleep, eyes, self perception, understanding, speech (self instruction, self observation)--these are right there in the first lines.  If we pass over this too quickly or think that Proust is just interested in a boring recitation of the facts we miss the point. He's going to return again and again to each of these concepts.

As a child the Narrator's experience of falling asleep was mediated and softened by the familiarity of the room and the tedium and anxiety of being separated from his mother and grandmother.  His mother used to read to him to help him sleep, but on important social occasions she would be forbidden to come to him and he would have to get himself to sleep.  Some kind soul had given him a "magic lantern" which projected onto the wall a series of images from literature--children's fairytales and myths.  He found these both absorbing and horrifying.  Even here, in his pre-literate youth you can see the importance of literature, books, and text in shaping his understanding of the world around him.  Right from the start of the book the Narrator's memory of the bedroom and his isolation in it is actually peopled with...people, experiences, and texts even if those things are phantasmagorical (as when he is afraid of the curtains), mythical (the magic lantern slides), or mere memories of people and jokes and incidents from a time long past.  The viewpoint of the first pages slides from the viewpoint of the child Narrator to that of the Writer/Philosopher Adult Narrator.  Although his earliest memories may be pre-textual, or involve an intermediary like the Magic Lantern or his mother, he will continue the practice of wakefulness and review into his adult life.  He will continue  putting the world into order by telling over his acquaintance (as one "tells the bees"), the day's incidents, and past experiences, at night in bedrooms far distant from the one he describes in the beginning of the book.  In fact one of his points is that when you wake in a strange bedroom you don't really know you aren't back to being one of your earlier selves, in another bedroom, on another street, in a long lost town.

I said in the first paragraph that Proust is a typical structuralist and binary thinker. I think I have to take that back, here, because a closer reading of the text demonstrates that Proust is interested in the gray area between categories and between states of mind. Take his discussion of falling asleep while reading a book--which happens on the first and second pages.  For a reader the book and the individual are separate--we hold the book and we read it, we take in the information and perhaps we put it down and turn to another book.  We are "free" the Narrator says later "to apply [ourselves] to it or not."   Perhaps Proust is insinuating that ordinary people think in this binary fashion--we are either a person or a book, awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious--but not the Narrator. The Narrator often exists between states and he is exploring this in between place. In fact,  for this Narrator, in this half awake state when he rouses from slumber, the person ("I myself") turns out to be the subject of the book that sent him to sleep.  "I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V."  A common, dreamy, error? Natural to all who read themselves to sleep, a byproduct of the drowsy period between wakefulness and dreams? Sure.  But ultimately, of course, this is the central fact of the Novel itself: the Narrator is the subject of his own book. Not only that--the way the book will be written and the vignettes and metaphors Proust is going to use--hell, his tendency to put his readers to sleep--is going to be an attempt to evoke in the reader a near identical set of emotions and recognitions as those his Narrator undergoes. In uncovering the Narrator's experience of his own life we are going to end up incorporating this Narrator and his experiences into our lives. His memories, and his memory of memory, are going to become ours.

The identification of the text with the dreamer, the hazy world in which the Narrator is entwined with the Narration and the reader with the book lasts for but a moment and then we return to the darkened bedroom and the half awake state.   The previous dream state "would begin to seem unintelligible as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for my eyes, but even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed." (1)

Although his eyes are open and the dark is "pleasant and restful..." the state of being awake when others sleep, being alone when one could be with others, being isolated in the bedroom is pretty terrifying to the Narrator.   He goes in and out of awareness, in and out of a perception of where he is and who he is or has been.  He agonizes over being alone, he passes in review memories of other rooms and times.  He goes in and out of human consciousness entirely and sometimes ends up, or has to begin again, as a lower life form or a caveman ("for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal's consciousness; I was more destitute than the cave-dweller...") [ I particularly like the notion that cave dwellers were "destitute" of things to think about, as though things to think about are identical to objects that you might own, real property. It reminds me of a line from Henry James "It seemed to her she had been living a life utterly devoid of festoons."  It also seems to confuse the idea of a "dawn of time" with some notion that humanity, itself, was waking up from a confused dream state.]

The Narrator is slowly recalled to the present time and his present self through sound ("I could hear the whistling of trains...") But even the actual sound is refracted through a typically long Proustian social metaphor composed of art ("perspective"), nature ("bird in a forest,") dialogue and society ("the conversation he has had...farewells exchanged) and a focus on an identity as a traveller travelling between the known and the unknown, the dark and the light, conversation and silence.

"I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller is hurrying towards the nearby station and the path he is taking will be engraved (1a)  in his memory by the excitement induced by strange surroundings, by unaccustomed activities, by the conversation he has had and the farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp, still echoing in his ears amid the silence of the night, by the imminent joy of going home."

That sounds all very well--one is, after all, rushing home! But in reality, as the Narrator recalls it, one often became  fully conscious, again in the same frightening state (alone) in the same terrifying place (the bedroom).  The horror of awareness without social connection--to be alone in that bedroom!--strikes the Narrator as a terrible fate.  Proust compares the experience of being fully awake and alone, again, to being a traveller and also to being an invalid- both in many ways are in the same position as a child because both are forced to wait for the servants to arrive to care for them. Midnight is "the hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to set out on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakened by a sudden spasm, sees with glad relief a streak of daylight showing under his door. Thank God, it is morning! The servants will be about in a minute...."(2)  The traveler's belief that the servants will be there any minute is a trick of the night, in reality it is Midnight and there are hours to go before he is relieved.

This is part of his other interest--not in capital "M" Memory so much as his formative memory of life itself: isolation, illness, alienation and the state of demanding, helpless, rage that both the invalid and the child feel when they must wait for others to care for them.  He's looking for a way to touch the reader with a description that they can intuitively and instantly grasp as perfectly evocative of a shared experience. This is one of his extended, Scheherezadhian social metaphors when he brings you along, by degrees, by making his experience stand in for yours, making a quintessential experience of a certain social time and place (an invalid, a traveller, alone, with friends, heading home, heading away from home) into a way of understanding a state of being (awake/asleep, aware/unaware).

(1) Is it totally uncool to have a footnote in a blog post? Probably. I just want to point out that for the Narrator "things without a cause" are "dark."  It makes me think of the beginning of genesis when (KJV Genesis 1:2):

"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

(1a) We are going to hear a lot about Engravings in the first fifty pages--the Narrator's grandmother doesn't like anything that isn't elevated from the boring and utilitarian by time and artifice so she prefers engravings of artistic renderings of real places to photographs of real places.

(2) I recently read The Hare with the Amber Eyes and the descriptions of the lives the upper class Jewish women--the real life sister-in-law of one of the models for Proust's Swann--is quite striking for this one comparison: women and invalids were very much at the mercy of their servants.  This made the  little metaphor of the sick traveller leap out at me. In THWTAE the writer's great-grandmother is described as spending hours in her dressing room choosing her various toilettes. Some of her clothes were so fitted that she had to be sewn into them by her faithful maid.  It is only quite late in the novel that this dependence on her servants to dress and undress her and care for her clothing is tied to the fact that her many, serial, love affairs were thus by definition common knowledge in the Servant's hall.  The Narrator in Proust (and Proust himself as an invalid of a certain class) was a prisoner of the conventions surrounding travellers, invalids, and the upper class in which they can do nothing for themselves.  The model of this, of course, in the Novel is Aunt Leonie who is the owner and prisoner of her own household.

"Why Walking Through a Doorway Makes You Forget"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Filed Under Duh

Really? Really?

But a century and a half earlier, Mr. Chwe argues, Austen was very deliberately trying to lay philosophical groundwork for a new theory of strategic action, sometimes charting territory that today’s theoreticians have themselves failed to reach.
First among her as yet unequaled concepts is “cluelessness,” which in Mr. Chwe’s analysis isn’t just tween-friendly slang but an analytic concept worthy of consideration alongside game-theoretic chestnuts like “zero-sum,” “risk dominance” and “prisoner’s dilemma.”Most game theory, he noted, treats players as equally “rational” parties sitting across a chessboard. But many situations, Mr. Chwe points out, involve parties with unequal levels of strategic thinking. Sometimes a party may simply lack ability. But sometimes a powerful party faced with a weaker one may not realize it even needs to think strategically.
Take the scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands that Elizabeth Bennet promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to promise, and Lady Catherine repeats this to Mr. Darcy as an example of her insolence — not realizing that she is helping Elizabeth indirectly signal to Mr. Darcy that she is still interested.
It’s a classic case of cluelessness, which is distinct from garden-variety stupidity, Mr. Chwe argues. “Lady Catherine doesn’t even think that Elizabeth” — her social inferior — “could be manipulating her,” he said. (Ditto for Mr. Darcy: gender differences can also “cause cluelessness,” he noted, though Austen was generally more tolerant of the male variety.)

My god, what happens when he discovers Proust, LGBTQ Theory, and Racism? Alternate Title: This Book Took Him Substantially Longer Than A Good English Lit Class or Sleeping With A Feminist.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Harder Than You Think

Its harder than you think to keep up with a daily vow of Proust. Not because I didn't do my homework but because writing about Proust is the equivalent of the All England Sing About Proust Contest Batocchio mentioned below. Not only is the Novel incredibly long, it is impossible to know where and when to come up for breath.  Proust barely has any page breaks, let alone paragraph breaks or periods and as you unwind those long, sonorous, bizarre sentences you are trapped in a Scheherezade like maze in which each thought leads to the next in an unbroken and unbreakable stream of consciousness.

Friday, April 19, 2013

When Poets Let Other Poets Know About a Manhunt

Actually, I got nothing. Woken up at 6:00 AM by my mother, a poet, calling to tell me that another Poet friend of hers who lives on our street had notified her by email that the BPD, Cambridge Police, Watertown Police and "helicopter, police boat, 50 cops, robot, homeland security, state troopers, dogs, etc." were all apparently doing a house to house search of every street where every Cambridge Poet had ever lived. Its almost a parody of "Universe Ends: Hub Man Injured." I'll see what Proust has to say about this later. I know my mother recently re-finished Beowulf so maybe he has some insights.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Daily Proust

The day before yesterday the Boston Marathon Bombings occurred in my backyard, as it were.  I decided, in revulsion at the horror, to start re-reading Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past."  The three volume, silver bound, paperback, edition--translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, is not the most recent translation but it is the translation I had in Nepal twenty some years ago, when my Great Uncle (such a Proustian relationship) sent me all three volumes straight from the 8th street bookstore to my little village in Nepal, three days walk from the end of the road.  Did it really come to me on someone's back?  Or am I misremembering and did it come to me in Kathmandu and did I bring it in with me? I didn't write it down, and I don't remember.

That, too, is Proust, by the way, that we only apprehend reality and ourselves and even our own lives slowly, through a process of composition and reflection, reduction to writing and reading of the works of ourselves and others--which is different from, adjacent to, but necessary to lived experience.  We don't remember reality, we remember how things made us feel. We don't know the world, we build up how we will remember it from associations that stretch backwards and anticipations that stretch forwards along our own personal timeline, in terms of our own personal and limited viewpoint and experiences.  The more we discover--the more we see, hear, smell, touch, read, view, analyse, or are told the more we rewrite our own history and that of the people around us, the closer we come to an approximation of our reality and their reality--but its always at a distance, always a construct.

 At the time it was a refuge from the blooming, buzzing, confusion of life in my village. Now it feels like a refuge from our anarchic, ungovernable, riven and crazed society.  I pulled it off the shelf and started reading it again, sinking deeply into the prose and pulling out my pen for the kind of close reading my beloved highschool English teachers JS and ED taught me. This time I didn't need my mother's "first fifty pages"dispensation, under which you are not required to read the first fifty pages but can take a running jump.  In 3000 or so pages just how important can the first fifty be, after all?  Twenty--no, twenty-five years on--I'm a different person and I covered those first fifty pages with annotations and exclamations as fast as the book itself, dried and untouched for 15 years on the shelf, began to spring apart and shower me with hardened glue and drifting signatures.

Let me cut to the chase: Proust is right about everything and though I read him to escape, he actually brings me, painfully, closer to the world that surrounds me.  At first his prose pushes you away--it is purple, to say the least, and the sentences wander on for pages. He's obsessed with comparing everyday life with then popular art or imaginary music, obscure historical references and descriptions of churches and prostitutes.  But the deeper you go into it, marking out his use of color, light, imagery, history, and acerbic observation the more you realize that what is distinctively and alienly French or 19th century dissolves into the universal: who are we? Who are the people around us? How do we know what we know? What is memory? How do we gain access to our own interior life and motivations, let alone those of others?

This morning this ugly little twitter exchange threw itself over my transom:

Burn it down. Burn Twitter to the ground.

What does Proust have to tell us about this?

Rather a lot, actually. Here's what he says about the human inability to empathize and sympathize with the sufferings of certain kinds of others (as we'd say today) and specifically the role of texts in creating in us a connection to others that we enjoy and explore and then renounce when it becomes too painful.

In the first pages of the Novel Proust is describing the foundational experiences of his childhood, his visits to his Great Aunt Leonie, who lives a pampered invalid in her house in the village of Combray, waited on by her servant Francoise.  Proust slides imperceptibly between his understanding of this duo, and this world, as a child and as a young man returning after his Aunt has died.  He describes incidents in minute detail, but seems only slowly to uncover the human reality underneath the incidents he observed.  One thing he more or less stumbles across is the tragi-comic but epic battle between Francoise, the most important servant, and the scullery maid, who he calls (in a typically Proustian elevation of the mundane into the artistic) "Giotto's Charity." He sees its effects, but does not know its cause, except in retrospect:

"There is a species of hymenoptera observed by Fabre, the burrowing wasp, which in order to provide a supply of fresh meat for her offspring after her own decease, calls in the science of anatomy to amplify the resources of her instinctive cruelty, and, having made a collection of weevils and spiders, proceeds with marvellous knowledge and skill to pierce the nerve center on which their power of locomotion...depends...in the same way Francoise had adopted, to minister to her unfaltering resolution to render the house uninhabitable to any other servant, a series of stratagems so cunning and so pitiless that, many years later, we discovered that if we had been fed on asparagus day after day throughout that summer, it was because their smell gave the poor kitchen-maid who had to prepare them such violent attacks of asthma that she was finally obliged to leave my aunt's service."

What does it have to do with Glenn Reynold's tweet? Well, this:

"For my Aunt Leonie knew (though I was still in ignorance of this) that Francoise, who for her own daughter or for her nephews, would have given her life without a murmur, showed a singular implacability in her dealings with the rest of the world...I began gradually to realise that Francoise's kindness, her compunction, her numerous virtues, concealed many of these kitchen tragedies, just as history reveals to us that the reigns of the kings and queens who are portrayed as kneeling with their hands joined in prayer in the windows of churches were stained by oppression and bloodshed.  I came to recognise that, apart from her own  kinfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself.  The tears that flowed from her in torrents when she read in a newspaper of the misfortunes of persons unknown to her were quickly stemmed once she had been able to form a more precise mental picture of the victims.  One night, shortly after her confinement, the kitchen maid was seized with the most appalling pains; Mamma heard her groans, and rose and awakened Francoise, who, quite unmoved, declared that all the outcry was mere malingering, that the girl wanted to "play the mistress."  The doctor, who had been afraid of some such attack, had left a marker in a medical dictionary which we had, at the page on which the symptoms were described, and had told us to turn up this passage to discover the measures of "first aid" to be adopted.  My mother sent Francoise to fetch the book, warning her not to let the marker drop out.  An hour elapsed, and Francoise had not returned; my mother, supposing that she had gone back to bed, grew vexed, and told me to go myself to the library and fetch the volume.  I did so, and there found Francoise who, in her curiosity to know what the marker indicated, had begun to read the clinical account of these after-pains, and was violently sobbing, now that it was a question of a prototype patient with whom she was unacquainted. At each painful symptom mentioned by the writer she would exclaim: "Oh, oh, Holy Virgin, is it possible that God wishes a wretched human creature to suffer so? Oh, the poor girl!"

But when I had called her, and she had returned to the bedside of Giotto's Charity, her tears at once ceased to flow; she could find no stimulus for that pleasant sensation of tenderness and pity with which she was familiar, having been moved to it often enough by the perusal of newspapers, nor any other pleasure of the same kind, in her boredom and irritation at being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night for the kitchen-maid; so that at the sight of those very sufferings the printed account of which had moved her to tears, she relapsed into ill-tempered mutterings, mingled with bitter sarcasm, saying, when she thought that we were out of earshot: "Well, she should have been careful not to do what got her into this! she enjoyed it well enough, I dare say, so she'd better not put on any airs now!..." (133-134. My emphasis.)

For the sake of argument lets say, as my father in law would say "I'm sure Glenn Reynolds is a fine fellow."  But is not his tweet the perfect example of how he both empathizes with (certain) others and as soon as he is tasked with actually ministering to them determines that they got what they deserved and no further action is needed on his part? The closer he gets to needing to behave like an actual human, at some apparent discomfort to himself, the more he pushes back and rejects the very cause of his discomfort. He transforms the victim into the aggressor--why? So that he can comfortably go back to bed, like Francoise wants to, and wrap himself in his own imagined virtue.

My Dog Ate My Blogspot

Am I the only person in the world to have lost her own address to her own blogspot? Deutas and Devis I hope not.