Sunday, 15 September 2019

The lustful Emma Bovary

Discussing Madame Bovary, people tend to write about Emma’s sentimentality, silliness, and extravagance, and the way she foolishly expects life to be grand and exciting as in books, and feels disillusioned when it isn’t. I forgot, since the last read about 5-6 years ago, that Emma is actually very sensual, with lots of appetite for sex. 
Just look at these passages, when Emma’s falling for Léon: 
“… she was full of lust, anger, hatred.” (P.2, ch.5)  
(For friends who haven’t read Madame Bovary: the hatred is for her husband, for being mediocre and boring, but not beating her up or giving her some other reason to hate him). 
“The desires of the flesh, the lust for money and the melancholia of passion all merged in a single agony—but instead of turning her mind away she bound herself to it even more closely, stimulated by pain and looking everywhere for opportunities to indulge herself.” (ibid.) 
2 chapters later, Flaubert also uses the phrase “carnal desires” (in Christopher Moncrieff’s translation).     
At this point, Emma hasn’t had an affair yet, but today her behaviour would most probably be called micro-cheating, whatever that means. 
“She could make out tiny gold flecks in his eyes, fanning out round his black pupils, and could even smell the pomade that made his hair shine. Then suddenly she felt weak, she remembered the Vicomte who had waltzed with her at La Vaubyessard, and whose beard gave off the same scents of vanilla and lemon, and instinctively she half-closed her eyes in order to breathe it in. But as she did so she sat up in her chair, and saw the old stagecoach Hirondelle on the horizon, coming slowly down Les Leux hill trailing a long plume of dust. It was in that same yellow carriage that Léon had so often returned to her; and it was on the same road that he had left forever! She thought she saw him at his window opposite; then everything became confused, the clouds passed; it was as if she were still waltzing in the Vicomte’s arms in the light of the chandeliers, and Léon wasn’t far away, he was coming… and yet she could still sense Rodolphe’s head beside her. The sweetness of the sensation found its way into her old desires, and like grains of sand in the wind they whirled round in the delicate waft of perfume that was spreading through her soul.” (P.2, ch.8) 
All the men blur together. It’s obvious that what Emma needs, and wants, is some good sex, which she doesn’t get from her husband. 
Just go back to the beginning and look at this scene of Emma and Charles before they get married:  
“She got a bottle of curacao from the armoire, reached down 2 small glasses, filled one to the top, put almost nothing in the other and then, having clinked it with his, lifted it to her mouth. Since it was virtually empty she had to tip her head back to drink; and in that position, with her lips extended, neck craning, she laughed because she couldn’t taste anything, while between her shapely little teeth the tip of her tongue gently licked the bottom of the glass.” (P.1, ch.3) 
Her sensual nature has been hinted from the start. 
It becomes clear that Emma craves sex. She fantasises about the Vicomte, then falls for Léon; after Léon, she quickly succumbs to Rodolphe’s seductions, then she also gets over him, and starts a new affair with Léon. 
With Rodolphe, she has sex with him the 1st time they ride horses together, and during the affair, sneaks out of house several times a week to be with him. 
“1 morning when Charles had left before dawn, she was seized by a sudden desire to see Rodolphe that very second. […] The thought made her breast heave with lust…” (P.2, ch.9) 
And then: 
“All winter, 3 or 4 times a week, he came to her garden when it was completely dark. Emma had taken the key out of the gate, and Charles thought it had been lost. 
[…] To let her know he was there, Rodolphe always threw a handful of sand at the shutters. She would jump up; but sometimes she had to wait, because Charles had a habit of chatting by the fire and would go on ad infinitum. She would be consumed with impatience; if they would have done, her eyes would have leapt out of the window.” (P.2, ch.10) 
Note: “consumed with impatience”. 
Later, when Emma meets Léon again, after 3 years, she has “an irresistible urge to put her lips to” his cheeks (P.3, ch.1). She arranges a meeting in a church, which leads to the famous carriage scene: 
“Among wagons and barrels at the harbour, in the streets and at the marker stones, local people stared in amazement at this unheard-of thing for a provincial town, a carriage with its blind pulled down, and which kept reappearing, more tightly sealed than a tomb, pitching and tossing like a ship at sea.” (ibid.)
What a scene indeed. Subtle, but masterfully suggestive.   
Later, Flaubert is plain about Emma’s high libido. Just look at these lines: 
“… she came back more voracious, more impassioned than before. She would undress violently, ripping the laces of her corset, which slipped over her hips like a snake. Tiptoeing in bare feet she would check the door was locked then throw aside her clothes in a single movement—and pale, silent, serious, she collapsed into his arms with a shudder.” (P.3, ch.6) 
The detail I find interesting is the effort Emma makes to see Léon: “she never lost the distinct sensation of having a long way to go.” (P.3, ch.5) Emma lies about taking music lessons, in order to see Léon every week. So how far does she have to travel? The Bovarys live in Yonville, Léon lives in Rouen—the distance, Flaubert says, is 24 miles, or 38.6 km. That is about the distance from Leeds, where I live, to York—I’m lazy to travel to York by train (for the Aesthetical Short Film Festival, for instance), Emma travels by carriage. Imagine the time and effort. 
Note that Emma is the one travelling to see Léon, not the other way around, when it is easier for a man to travel (19th century). That shows how much she craves sex.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Motifs in Madame Bovary: the cigar cases

“As Charles was giving the harness a final check he noticed something on the ground between the horse’s legs; he picked up a cigar case edged with green silk which had a coat of arms in the middle, like on a carriage door. 
‘There are even 2 cigars in it,’ he said. ‘They’ll do for this evening after dinner.” (P.1, ch.8) 
This is the 1st time Flaubert uses the motif of the cigar case in Madame Bovary. It is after the Marquise’s ball. 
“Snatching up the cigar case, Emma threw it at the back of the armoire.” (ibid.)  
It is only a cigar case, but to Emma, it becomes a symbol.
“When Charles was out, she would often take the green silk cigar case from among the folded linen in the cupboard where she had put it. 
She would look at it, open it, even sniff the scent of its lining, a mixture of vervain and tobacco. Whom did it belong to?... To the Vicomte. Perhaps it was a present from his mistress. It had been worked on some rosewood embroidery frame, a pretty little possession that was kept hidden from prying eyes, and had taken many long hours, with the soft curls of the musing female head bent over it. A breath of love had blown through the fine net of the canvas; every stitch of the needle had woven a hope or memory into it, and the intertwined silk threads were all inseparable from that same silent passion. And then one morning the Vicomte had taken it with him.” (P.1, ch.9) 
Flaubert, like Jane Austen, is a master of the free indirect speech. Such a short passage is enough to reveal the ennui, sentimentality, and melodramatic tendencies in Emma Bovary. To someone else, a cigar case is a cigar case is a cigar case. To Emma, she imagines that it belongs to the Vicomte and comes from a mistress, and attaches meaning to it. 
This moment, after the Marquise’s ball, is when Emma becomes disillusioned, regrets her marriage, and dreams of a life of luxury, excitement, and passion that her husband cannot provide. This is also when she starts betraying Charles, for Emma betrays him and their marriage long before she has sex with Rodolphe. 
In the structure of the novel, the cigar case becomes part of a pattern. But it’s not the only one. Look at this passage: 
“The conversation flagged, Madame Bovary kept breaking off every few minutes, while he seemed rooted in self-consciousness. Sitting in a low chair by the fire he turned an ivory cigarette case round in his fingers; she carried on with her sewing…” (P.2, ch.5) 
A cigarette case appears in this moment, around the time Emma realises she and Léon are in love (well, that’s what she thinks—I think they just want to bang). 
Later on, there’s another cigarette case, when Rodolphe enters the story. 
“… At this the peasant dropped the cigarette case he was holding.” (P.2, ch.7)
In this scene, Emma doesn’t feel anything yet, but on Rodolphe’s side, the 1st time they meet, he already wants sex with her. And they would become lovers. 
“As well as the whip with a silver gilt handle, Rodolphe had been given a seal with the motto: Amor nel cor, plus a muffler and a cigar case exactly like the Vicomte’s that Charles had picked up on the road years ago, and which Emma had kept.” (P.2, ch.2) 
As Rodolphe becomes Emma’s lover and therefore the embodiment and subject of her fantasies, she gives him a copy of the green silk cigar case.
In short, Flaubert creates a motif of a cigar or cigarette case to link with the 3 men whom Emma fantasises about and/or cheats on Charles with. 
Interestingly, the passages in this blog post come from the copy I’m reading, translated by Christopher Moncrieff. In the Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation, Léon plays with a thimble-case, and Rodolphe’s peasant drops a lancet-case. Can anyone who reads French please check? But even if the Moncrieff’s translation is inaccurate and the cases of Léon and the peasant have no meaning, the original green silk cigar case and the one Emma gives Rodolphe are still part of an important pattern.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Charles Mingus and the year 1959

After John Coltrane, I spent some time with Miles Davis, and, finding myself unable to get into Porgy and Bess, In a Silent Way, Sketches of Spain, or even Birth of the Cool, I chose not to listen to Bitches Brew or any more Davis for the moment, and decided to focus on Charles Mingus instead.
Charles Mingus was a bassist, composer, and bandleader. He’s one of the greatest figures in jazz, though probably not as well known in popular culture as some other musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane. I’ve been listening to Mingus Ah Um lately.

What a great album. It doesn’t have a strong sense of unity like the Coltrane albums I’ve been listening to, but it’s diverse—for example, right after “Better Git It in Yo’ Soul”, full of warmth and energy, is the mournful “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, an elegy for saxophonist Lester Young, who wore a pork pie hat, then it is followed by the fun, swing-style composition “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, and so on. Such a ride.
Mingus Ah Um also contains the instrumental version of “Fables of Faubus”, a protest against, and mockery of, Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, who sent out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent 9 black students from entering an all-white high school in 1957.
This is the song with lyrics, re-titled “Original Faubus Fables”, from the album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

Anyway, as I’ve been listening to the album over and over, I’ve just realised that 1959 was such a fantastic year for jazz. That was the year Kind of Blue was released! BBC4 even made a documentary named 1959: The Year that Changed Jazz.
Here are a few articles talking about the year 1959 in jazz:

Here are some important albums for anyone interested:
Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (with John Coltrane):

Dave Brubeck’s Time Out:

The famous “Take Five” is in this album.

Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come:

Bill Evans’s Portrait in Jazz:

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’:

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book:

Duke Ellington’s soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder:

Sun Ra & His Arkestra’s Jazz in Silhouette:

Also in 1959, John Coltrane recorded Giant Steps, which was released in 1960.
What a year.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Motifs in Madame Bovary: Cupid and the plaster priest

Motifs abound in Flaubert’s works. They are not symbols, but patterns and repeated images and associations. 
1 of the main ones is the horse motif. I’ve now noticed the statue motif. 
This is the Bovarys’ wedding: 
“A confectioner of Yvetot had been intrusted with the tarts and sweets. As he had only just set up on the place, he had taken a lot of trouble, and at dessert he himself brought in a set dish that evoked loud cries of wonderment. To begin with, at its base there was a square of blue cardboard, representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades, and stucco statuettes all round, and in the niches constellations of gilt paper stars; then on the second stage was a dungeon of Savoy cake, surrounded by many fortifications in candied angelica, almonds, raisins, and quarters of oranges; and finally, on the upper platform a green field with rocks set in lakes of jam, nutshell boats, and a small Cupid balancing himself in a chocolate swing whose two uprights ended in real roses for balls at the top.” (P.1, ch.4) 
Contrast that with the Marquis’s party: 
“The silver dish covers reflected the lighted wax candles in the candelabra, the cut crystal covered with light steam reflected from one to the other pale rays; bouquets were placed in a row the whole length of the table; and in the large-bordered plates each napkin, arranged after the fashion of a bishop’s mitre, held between its two gaping folds a small oval shaped roll. The red claws of lobsters hung over the dishes; rich fruit in open baskets was piled up on moss; there were quails in their plumage; smoke was rising; and in silk stockings, knee-breeches, white cravat, and frilled shirt, the steward, grave as a judge, offering ready carved dishes between the shoulders of the guests, with a touch of the spoon gave you the piece chosen. On the large stove of porcelain inlaid with copper baguettes the statue of a woman, draped to the chin, gazed motionless on the room full of life.” (P.1, ch.8) 
Much more luxurious. 
There’s another Cupid when the Bovarys move to Yonville: 
“Then across an open space appears a white house beyond a grass mound ornamented by a Cupid, his finger on his lips; two brass vases are at each end of a flight of steps; scutcheons blaze upon the door. It is the notary’s house, and the finest in the place.” (P.2, ch.1) 
And another sculpture: 
“Farther on, at a spot where the building narrows, the confessional forms a pendant to a statuette of the Virgin, clothed in a satin robe, coifed with a tulle veil sprinkled with silver stars, and with red cheeks, like an idol of the Sandwich Islands; and, finally, a copy of the “Holy Family, presented by the Minister of the Interior,” overlooking the high altar, between four candlesticks, closes in the perspective.” (ibid.) 
Soon after the appearance of the 2nd Cupid, Emma meets Léon for the 1st time. 
A quick search tells me that there is a 3rd Cupid near the end of the novel: 
“On the clock there was a bronze cupid, who smirked as he bent his arm beneath a golden garland. They had laughed at it many a time, but when they had to part everything seemed serious to them.” (P.3, ch.5) 
This is during the time Emma has an affair with Léon. The 3 Cupids in the novel are all different, but 2 of them are associated with Léon. 
All of the quotes above come from the translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, on Gutenberg, just so I don’t have to type. 
“Then how many things had been spoilt or lost during their carriage from Tostes to Yonville, without counting the plaster cure, who falling out of the coach at an over-severe jolt, had been dashed into a thousand fragments on the pavements of Quincampoix!” (P.2, ch.3) 
What is the plaster cure? It is actually the plaster priest I was looking for. 
This comes from the Christopher Moncrieff translation I’m reading: 
“Then there were the things that had been lost or damaged in transit from Tostes to Yonville, to say nothing of the plaster priest, which had fallen off the cart after a violent jolt and smashed on the cobbles in Quincampoix.” (P.2, ch.3)
The plaster priest is linked to the 1st part of the Bovarys’ marriage: 
“At the far end, beneath some small fir trees, a plasterwork priest was reading his breviary.” (P.1, ch.5) 
It appears again the day after the Marquis’s ball: 
“She walked in the garden, up and down the same old paths, stopping at the flower beds, the espaliers, the plaster priest, studying all these things from the past that she knew so well with a sense of astonishment. How far away the ball seemed already!” (P.1, ch.8) 
This is when there are cracks in their relationship—a taste of the luxury, riches, and excitement at the party only makes Emma see more clearly her husband’s mediocrity and contentment (or lack of ambition) and the tedium of her life. 
“Under the fir trees by the hedge, the priest in the 3-corned hat reading his breviary had lost his right foot, and there were white pockmarks on his face where the frost had chipped off the plaster.” (P.1, ch.9) 
More cracks. 
In the end, the plaster priest gets broken to pieces on the way to Yonville, which is where the marriage starts to go wrong. 
(All these plaster priest passages come from the Christopher Moncrieff translation). 
There are also other statues and statuettes in the novel, but the plaster priest and the Cupids are the main ones. 

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Jazz standard: “In a Sentimental Mood”

“In a Sentimental Mood” as performed by Duke Ellington (its composer) and John Coltrane is one of my favourite pieces in jazz. It’s tender, melancholic, and just wonderful.

Ellington and Coltrane are 2 of the greatest figures in jazz, and we also have Elvin Jones on drums. I’m a peasant, but even I can hear that the drums are great.
Here is the song with lyrics, performed by Ella Fitzgerald.

Much as I love her silky voice, nothing beats the John Coltrane version.
Today, I’ve just heard for the 1st time the original, performed by Duke Ellington and the orchestra. Here it is, if you haven’t heard it.

I mean, what happened? How is this the same one?

Emma Bovary’s boredom

Look at these lines—Flaubert describes the people at the Marquis’s party that Emma Bovary looks at: 
“Their clothes, of better cut, seemed to be of softer material, and their hair, gathered in curls at their temples, had the sheen of finest pomade. Their complexion was that of wealth, the shade of white that enhances the pallor of porcelain, the watered shimmer of satin, the shine of beautiful furniture, maintained in the peak of health by a simple and exquisite diet.” (P.1, Ch.8) 
It has been quite some time since I read a Flaubert novel, I forgot how rich, how thick with details Madame Bovary was. He doesn’t describe everything a character does, the way Tolstoy would, but like Tolstoy, he describes everything there is to see in a scene. But this is not a neutral, objective description, it is description of the rich people through Emma’s eyes. 
Madame Bovary is about boredom, but it’s never boring. I love the metaphors and similes. 
“... deep down she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, her desperate eyes stared out across the isolation of her life, searching for a white sail in the mist on the distant horizon. She didn’t know what this stroke of fate would be, which wind would blow it towards her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it would be a rowing boat or an ocean-going ship, filled with worries or enough bliss to make it sink. But each morning when she woke up she hoped it would be that day, and would listen to every sound, leap out of bed, be amazed that it hadn’t come, and then at sunset, unhappier than ever, she would wish it were tomorrow.” (P.1, Ch.9) 
Isn’t that such a wonderful passage to describe boredom? 
“But nothing ever happened to her: it was God’s will! Her future was a long dark corridor, and the door at the end was locked.” (ibid.) 
And then this bit: 
“But it was at mealtimes particularly that she thought she couldn’t bear it any longer, in the little dining room on the ground floor with its smoky stove, squeaky door, walls that streamed with damp, its dank flagstones; all life’s bitterness seemed to be heaped on her plate, and along with the stream from the boiled beef it rose from the depths of her being like so many other insipid odours.” (ibid.) 
Now and then I can understand. I know boredom—when we moved to Norway, it was Kristiansand that we first lived in, for some time, so imagine moving from Saigon to Kristiansand. The quiet and uneventfulness could have driven me mad if not for the IB. Being busy helps. Still, we moved to Oslo after a few years. 
But Madame Bovary is not only about boredom. As I reread the novel, it’s amusing to think about the readers who see Emma as a heroine who is stifled by marriage and constrained by the patriarchy and defies social conventions and breaks free by having affairs. It is obvious from the start that she is doomed and would cause her own downfall. Her main fault is that she identifies with characters in books and expects life to be like books—she wants luxury and romance, she wants something grand, romantic, and tragic, she is sentimental and needs something to fill the hollowness of her own soul. In a sense, Madame Bovary is a book about a bad reader, and the book itself becomes a test for readers. 

About 2 years and a half ago, I read Effi Briest. These were my blog posts comparing the 3 adultery novels:

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Rereading Madame Bovary: 1st notes

I’m rereading Madame Bovary after 6-7 years. The translation is by Christopher Moncrieff. This is a read-along, everyone is welcomed to join and discuss the novel. 
Guess what, I’ve just realised that I never blogged about it before. Strange. 
Some thoughts: 
1/ About Charles Bovary’s early years: 
“… As a result of applying himself he was always around the middle of the class, once he even got a certificate of merit for natural history. But at the end of his remove year his parents took him away from school to study medicine, convinced he would be able to pass the baccalaureate on his own.” (P.1, Ch.1) 
I forgot this point. Bovary’s a dimwit, but maybe he studies the wrong thing and has the wrong career. 

2/ I almost forgot that he had a 1st wife, before meeting Emma. There are 3 Madame Bovarys in the book: the mother, the 1st wife, and Emma. Isn’t it curious how the book is called Madame Bovary, and not Emma Bovary? Think of Anna Karenina
The 1st wife is killed off quite conveniently—what would happen if she didn’t die, and Charles Bovary fell in love with Emma? Such fun. That’s not the story Flaubert chose to tell, but it’s fun to ponder over.

3/ The image of the sad, misanthropic Flaubert I have in my head makes me forget how funny he can be sometimes. 
Look at these lines—Monsieur Rouault tries to cheer up Bovary after the death of his 1st wife: 
“Thinking it was his duty to lavish as much courtesy as possible on the doctor because he was still grieving, he urged him not to think of taking his hat off, spoke to him quietly as if he were ill, even pretended to be annoyed that lighter dishes hadn’t been prepared for him, such as pots de crème or pears baked in the oven. He told stories. Charlies found himself laughing, but memories of his wife immediately came back to him and filled him with gloom. But then they brought coffee, and he stopped thinking about her.” (P.1, Ch.3) 
Now look at the wedding party: 
“They ate till evening. When people were tired of sitting down they took a stroll in the yard or had a game of bouchons in the barn then they came back to the table. Towards the end, a few nodded off and began snoring. But when coffee was served everything came back to life…” (P.1, Ch.4) 
Coffee solves everything indeed. 

4/ I notice the horse motif. 
Charles Bovary comes to treat Monsieur Rouault, and later visits him, on a horse. 
Emma in the convent reads sentimental stories, with “horses killed on every page” (Ch.6), and: 
“The Sisters, who had greatly overestimated her calling, were astonished to find Mademoiselle Rouault apparently slipping through their fingers. But they had lavished so many church services on her, so many retreats, novenas and sermons, preached so much about the respect owed to saints and martyrs, given so much good advice about maidenly modesty and the salvation of the soul, that she did what a horse does when you drag it by the mouth: she pulled up sharp, and the bit came out from between her teeth.” (ibid.) 
I’m sure the horse image will come up again. 

5/ The lines about Emma’s reaction to her mother’s death are the 1st indication that she is sentimental and affected, and likes to put on a show, but has no depth of feeling. That is what Madame Bovary is about, it’s not about adultery.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Listening to Coltrane: the favourites

I’ve now listened to 12 John Coltrane albums: the 9 albums in the earlier post, plus Soultrane (1958), Dakar (recorded in 1957, released in 1963), and Olé Coltrane (1961).
Instead of writing something to expose my ignorance of music, I’m just going to say that my personal favourite albums are Blue Train, Kind of Blue, and Crescent. If Kind of Blue doesn’t count because it’s Miles Davis’s album and John Coltrane was only playing in the band, swap it with A Love Supreme.
So not Giant Steps. Not Ascension. That probably says something about me.
What about favourite tracks?
I struggle to pick a favourite from Blue Train and Kind of Blue, as I love the entire albums. A Love Supreme should be listened to in its entirety.
Crescent is wonderful as a whole, lyrical, sorrowful, but 2 tracks stand out: “Wise One” and “Lonnie’s Lament”.

Here are my other favourite tracks:
“Equinox” from Coltrane’s Sound:

“In a Sentimental Mood” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“Big Nick” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“Angelica” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“My Favorite Things” from My Favorite Things:

“Giant Steps” from Giant Steps:

 “Milestones” from Milestones:

“Good Bait” from Soultrane:

“Route 4” from Dakar:

Here is someone talking about the albums in a more articulate way:

My listening to Coltrane stopped at Ascension, which means that I haven’t listened to music of his later periods—avant-garde jazz and all that, like Living Space, Transition, Sun Ship, First Meditations, Interstellar Space, etc. That can wait. I don’t want to listen to him so obsessively that I can’t touch his music again in my life.
Next, I’ll probably focus on Miles Davis.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

On the idea of relevance and relatableness in the arts

Recently I saw an article in The Guardian which argued that instead of Shakespeare and Dickens, students in English classes should be taught the kind of literature that would be more relevant to their lives.
These arguments are nothing new. Complaints about the teaching of Shakespeare and classic literature always amount to the same word—“relevance”. Even in the book blog world, lots of times I’ve found people criticising a book because they couldn’t relate to the characters or the characters were not relatable—just look at the things people have said about Lolita, Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park, Madame Bovary, and so on and so forth.  
As someone who love 19th century Russian literature, 50s-70s cinema, jazz, etc. I don’t understand. If you look at it that way, in literature and the other arts, I was born and grew up in Vietnam, then moved to Norway at the age of 15, and now live in the UK, and I’m in my mid-20s, how do you think I relate to the experience of Anna Karenina or Marya Bolkonskaya or Natasha Rostova? How do I find whaling relevant? How do I relate to black people’s experience and feel the pain in “Black and Blue” or “Strange Fruit” or “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”? 
But that is missing the point.  
The idea that readers have to find the story and themes relevant, and the characters relatable, is amusing. You’re facing a work of art, and if a classic, it’s a work of art that has stood the test of time and been recognised as part of the literary canon, why does it have to be about you? 
Don’t you care about history and its legacy?  
Don’t you care about the work of writers who have changed literature and influenced generations of readers and writers, perhaps including the modern writers you now like? 
Don’t you care about literary merit, and the power of literature?  
Don’t you care about the great achievements of the human mind? 
Don’t you care to learn about different lives, and different experiences you never (have to) go through?    
Don’t you have the imagination to see beyond your own lot, and seek to understand people who are very different from you? 
Don’t you care to expand your perspective? 
Why does reading have to be about you? 
I could go on and talk about empathy and some utilitarian values of literature, but it’s unnecessary. If as a reader you can only enjoy books that you personally find relevant and relatable, you’re limiting yourself, but I have no say in what you choose to read in your own spare time. It’s when people talk about the teaching of literature that the idea of relevance becomes a problem. 
One of the common arguments is that it puts you off reading. I don’t know where it comes from, I’ve heard people blame their dislike of reading on the books they read in high school, but how do they know that reading just isn’t their thing anyway, regardless of high school? I could say the same thing about physical education I had in school, but the fact is that I’ve never been athletic anyway. 
There are different kinds of students. There are students who, once they finish school, never touch a book again in their lives. And there are students who otherwise may not have opened these works of art themselves in their free time but appreciate being introduced to them, and would expand their reading beyond these works. Classes are the place for this. I’m lucky to come from a family of readers, but there would be students who don’t get that at home, and who are forced to read the literary works that they come to love. It’s similar to the way I was introduced to jazz—if not for that class at University of Oslo, I probably would never have got to jazz myself, and now I love it more than anything else. 
Another argument is that you don’t need Shakespeare to survive or get a job. Let’s be honest, just to survive or get a job, you don’t need most of the stuff you learn in school—when do you ever need those theorems in maths class or those physics equations or those chemical formulas, unless you choose to follow that particular field? But that’s not the point of education. 
All the talks about relevance and relatableness in literature and the arts are just stupid and nonsensical statements made by philistines. And if teachers think this way, they shouldn’t be teaching.


Announcing a read-along: 
I’m organising a (re)read-along of Madame Bovary. At the moment it’s me, Himadri (Argumentative Old Git), and my friend Anne. 
Does anyone else want to join?

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Reading What a Fish Knows as a fish eater

After writing about fishes and their social relationships, Jonathan Balcombe devotes Part VI to fishes’ sexual behaviours and parenting styles. 
The chapter about fishes’ sex lives is, again, full of fascinating facts: promiscuous fishes (Balcombe’s word), polygamous fishes, monogamous fishes, fish harems, fishes that produce eggs and sperm at the same time (simultaneous hermaphrodites), fishes that change sex (sequential hermaphrodites, such as the clownfish of Finding Nemo), courtship, mating, oral sex and sperm drinking (yeah, you read that right), faking orgasms (you didn’t read that wrong either), external fertilisation, and so on. 
The chapter about parenting is also interesting, talking about protecting eggs and taking care of the young, helpers, and freeloaders (brood parasitism—a fish leaving its eggs with other fishes’ eggs to be protected and raised, like some birds do). 
Then we get to Part VII: “Fish out of Water”. That’s when I felt the book was starting to have a different tone. Or did I imagine it? Balcombe discusses fishing, bycatch (the fishes caught that are not wanted and thrown back into the sea), fish-farming, problems of hatchery-reared fishes that are released into the wild, different killing methods, different ways a fish may die when caught, shark finning, recreational fishing, and the practice of eating fish. 
As he talked about cruelty, fishes’ suffering, and moral concerns (the word “moral” gets repeated a lot in this section of the book), I started to realise that the whole point of the book was not only to tell people more about fishes and make them realise that fishes are smart and have individuality, but to get people to stop eating fish. 
Do I feel bad? In a way, yes. But would I stop eating fish? No. I eat meat and fish (and dairy and vegetables and so on). 
I’m not going to debate the subject of meat eating vs vegetarianism/ veganism—it’s not the point of this blog post. Vegetarianism/ veganism is a legitimate cause, if you do it for animal rights and the environment, and if you can commit to it, that’s good for you. It’s the preaching that is annoying. Perhaps my perception of the final part of the book and its epilogue is coloured by my experience with many vegetarians and vegans in real life and on social media, though I think that the book borders on preaching and trying to make you feel bad for eating eat and taking part in the cruel and inhumane treatment of fishes. People have different causes, just as they have different interests. With interests, we also have priorities and can’t get to know everything in depth, even things we do enjoy, because life is short—a friend of mine, for example, enjoys jazz but has to “neglect” it because he spends time on classical music and opera, whereas my decision to listen to John Coltrane properly at the moment means that I don’t have time for other kinds of music.  
It’s similar with causes. Some people do everything they can to limit their negative impact on the environment, that’s good. Some people fight for animal rights, that’s good. I come from a single-party state which doesn’t respect freedom or human rights, where people don’t have the most basic rights that Westerners take for granted, such as the right to vote for leaders or the right to remain silent. Dissidents get years in prison, people get killed whilst in custody… It’s hard to really care about animal rights. My main focus is on free speech, freedom, equality, and human rights. I care enough about animal rights to be against trophy hunting, hunting and killing endangered species, cruel treatment of animals in tourism, and that sort of thing, but not enough to be ready for the difficult commitment to a vegetarian or vegan diet. 
I can’t imagine a Vietnamese vegan either. A vegetarian, yes, but not a vegan. Compared to Westerners, we eat more kinds of animals, and also eat more of an animal—for example, with chicken, Westerners only eat the meat, we also eat the skin and feet, and make bone broth. Everything we eat has animal products—we have fish sauce, shrimp paste, and lots of other sauces and other kinds of food. Replace all ingredients with plant-based products, you don’t really have a Vietnamese dish. A vegan fresh spring roll isn’t a fresh spring roll. 
Having left my country, I only have the language, and the food. To become a vegetarian, or further (because, as vegans say, “it’s not enough to be a vegetarian, veganism is the way”) requires sacrifice, commitment, and a strong belief in the cause, all of which I lack.
Anyway, this is getting more personal, so let’s go back What a Fish Knows. It is a very interesting book, but it’s tiresome in the final part. I suppose that says more about me than about the book itself.