Wednesday 27 June 2018

Joys and complaints in White Jacket

Look at this passage from chapter 19: 
“I am of a meditative humour, and at sea used often to mount aloft at night, and seating myself on one of the upper yards, tuck my jacket about me and give loose to reflection. In some ships in which. I have done this, the sailors used to fancy that I must be studying astronomy—which, indeed, to some extent, was the case—and that my object in mounting aloft was to get a nearer view of the stars, supposing me, of course, to be short-sighted. A very silly conceit of theirs, some may say, but not so silly after all; for surely the advantage of getting nearer an object by two hundred feet is not to be underrated. Then, to study the stars upon the wide, boundless sea, is divine as it was to the Chaldean Magi, who observed their revolutions from the plains.
And it is a very fine feeling, and one that fuses us into the universe of things, and mates us a part of the All, to think that, wherever we ocean-wanderers rove, we have still the same glorious old stars to keep us company; that they still shine onward and on, forever beautiful and bright, and luring us, by every ray, to die and be glorified with them.
Ay, ay! we sailors sail not in vain, We expatriate ourselves to nationalise with the universe; and in all our voyages round the world, we are still accompanied by those old circumnavigators, the stars, who are shipmates and fellow-sailors of ours—sailing in heaven's blue, as we on the azure main. Let genteel generations scoff at our hardened hands, and finger-nails tipped with tar—did they ever clasp truer palms than ours? Let them feel of our sturdy hearts beating like sledge-hammers in those hot smithies, our bosoms; with their amber-headed canes, let them feel of our generous pulses, and swear that they go off like thirty-two-pounders.
Oh, give me again the rover's life—the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares; sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves. Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze! and whinny in thy spray. Forbid it, sea-gods! intercede for me with Neptune, O sweet Amphitrite, that no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with Drake, where he sleeps in the sea.” 
Such ecstasy. 
Now White-Jacket writes about his hammock, in chapter 20: 
“Give me plenty of room to swing it in; let me swing it between two date-trees on an Arabian plain; or extend it diagonally from Moorish pillar to pillar, in the open marble Court of the Lions in Granada's Alhambra: let me swing it on a high bluff of the Mississippi—one swing in the pure ether for every swing over the green grass; or let me oscillate in it beneath the cool dome of St. Peter's; or drop me in it, as in a balloon, from the zenith, with the whole firmament to rock and expatiate in; and I would not exchange my coarse canvas hammock for the grand state-bed, like a stately coach-and-four, in which they tuck in a king when he passes a night at Blenheim Castle.
When you have the requisite room, you always have "spreaders" in your hammock; that is, two horizontal sticks, one at each end, which serve to keep the sides apart, and create a wide vacancy between, wherein you can turn over and over—lay on this side or that; on your back, if you please; stretch out your legs; in short, take your ease in your hammock; for of all inns, your bed is the best.” 
Reading White-Jacket reminds me of why I gave up on The Mill on the Floss halfway through and returned to Melville. George Eliot is great, but to me she’s so stiff, so moralistic, so dry, that she seems unable to write about joy and pleasure and passion and bliss and enthusiasm and love of life, which are in abundance in Melville. Melville makes me feel alive, and for a moment, he makes me feel excited and feel at one with him, even though I’m a city person who don’t go to sea and don’t ever look at stars. 


Now on chapter 20, I’ve concluded that White-Jacket is a book about complaints. 
“But when White-Jacket speaks of the rover's life, he means not life in a man-of-war, which, with its martial formalities and thousand vices, stabs to the heart the soul of all free-and-easy honourable rovers.” (ch.19) 
White-Jacket complains about the hard life on the man-of-war; about tyrannical officers; about hierarchies and injustices; about the nonsensical rules for breakfast, dinner, and supper (“all the meals of the twenty-four hours are crowded into a space of less than eight! Sixteen mortal hours elapse between supper and breakfast; including, to one watch, eight hours on deck!”); about thieves and pickpockets; about people who don’t appreciate poetry (or so it appears, in the chapter about his poet friend Lemsford); about grumpy, irritable men on deck; about mobs; about training for war, the general quarters (“Are our officers of the Navy utterly unacquainted with the laws of good health? Do they not know that this violent exercise, taking place just after a hearty dinner, as it generally does, is eminently calculated to breed the dyspepsia? There was no satisfaction in dining; the flavour of every mouthful was destroyed by the thought that the next moment the cannonading drum might be beating to quarters.”), and so on and so forth. 
Now he’s complaining about hammocks. 
“Eighteen inches a man is all they allow you; eighteen inches in width; in that you must swing. Dreadful! they give you more swing than that at the gallows.” 
“During warm nights in the Tropics, your hammock is as a stew-pan; where you stew and stew, till you can almost hear yourself hiss.” 
“One extremely warm night, during a calm, when it was so hot that only a skeleton could keep cool (from the free current of air through its bones), after being drenched in my own perspiration, I managed to wedge myself out of my hammock…” 
“… My luckless hammock was stiff and straight as a board; and there I was—laid out in it, with my nose against the ceiling, like a dead man's against the lid of his coffin.” 
Melville’s hilarious.

Monday 25 June 2018

Return to sea with Herman Melville

This time on a man-of-war—I’m reading White-Jacket
The structure is similar to Moby Dick—the book is broken up into lots of short chapters, which allows Melville to jump from 1 subject to another and to explore and expand on each topic till exhaustion. It is, I suppose, the form that works best for his capacious mind and his way of writing—his digressions as people say, his insistence on describing, detailing, elaborating on everything, on covering all aspects, on serving everything full and whole. 
My 1st impression is that, as in Moby Dick, I can see Melville’s rich, beautiful prose and humour, but the tone is different. Read Moby Dick and then White-Jacket, you’ll prefer a whaler to a man-of-war. The man-of-war, the Neversink, is a microcosm of the real world, a world of hierarchies, nonsensical laws, and injustices, a world of tyrants at the top and merciless thieves at the bottom. Life is harsh and cruel, one must constantly be on watch. 
Then I come to chapter 12, about the effect of duties and surroundings on a man’s temper, and here it is, the joy, the enthusiasm, the love of the sea that so much reminds me of Ishmael: 
“… Who were more liberal-hearted, lofty-minded, gayer, more jocund, elastic, adventurous, given to fun and frolic, than the top-men of the fore, main, and mizzen masts? The reason of their liberal-heartedness was, that they were daily called upon to expatiate themselves all over the rigging. The reason of their lofty-mindedness was, that they were high lifted above the petty tumults, carping cares, and paltrinesses of the decks below.
And I feel persuaded in my inmost soul, that it is to the fact of my having been a main-top-man; and especially my particular post being on the loftiest yard of the frigate, the main-royal-yard; that I am now enabled to give such a free, broad, off-hand, bird's-eye, and, more than all, impartial account of our man-of-war world; withholding nothing; inventing nothing; nor flattering, nor scandalising any; but meting out to all—commodore and messenger-boy alike—their precise descriptions and deserts.
The reason of the mirthfulness of these top-men was, that they always looked out upon the blue, boundless, dimpled, laughing, sunny sea.” 
That’s a lovely passage.

Friday 22 June 2018

Lars von Trier's Dogville

The film is about Dogville, a small town of 15 people in the mountains, somewhere in the US. It is hard times and they are living in harsh conditions. Among the 15 people, the most talkative and intellectual is Tom Edison Jr (Paul Bettany), a writer who never writes and who sees himself as a philosopher, developing theories about the town and its people. One day comes an outsider, a beautiful fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman), running away from gangsters. People in the town look at her with suspicion, but Tom speaks to them about openness and acceptance, and convinces them to give her a 2-week trial. She gets accepted, and starts working for everyone to pay for the refuge. Slowly she receives pay for her labour. Then the police come searching for Grace, everything gets worse, people get suspicious and fearful, seeing her presence as an inconvenience, a burden, a cost to themselves, and demand more back. As she becomes more dependent and therefore more vulnerable, people in the town start to exploit her, use her, abuse her—gradually, Grace becomes the town’s slave, and sex slave, chained and collared. 

Dogville is an experimental film, perhaps Lars von Trier’s most inventive in form. Emphasising artifice and theatricality, the film is set in black box theatre, with white outlines in place of walls and large letters on the floor to indicate buildings, and with few props. Lars von Trier fearlessly (or carelessly?) uses zoom and jumpy cuts, paying no regard to continuity, as one may expect from one of the founders of Dogme 95. However, Dogville is not a careless mess done for the sake of being different. It is artistic in its use of light, and sound, and the film, when stripped off realistic sets and all that, forces the audience to focus more on the story and the performances. 
At the same time, the bare stage works well for the story of a small, closed, and barren town, where each person’s business is everyone’s business, and where people gradually drop their social niceties and masks to reveal their narrow-mindedness, meanness, and maliciousness. It also works brilliantly for the film as a parable—about capitalism; about xenophobia, suspicion, and exploitation of a vulnerable outsider; about selfishness, cowardice, self-justification, and hypocrisy; about trust, mistrust, and betrayal; about the US in particular and humanity in general; about evil. 

Moreover, the film is not only about exploitation and betrayal of a vulnerable outsider, as lots of reviews I read seem to suggest. The ending is a different turn, raising questions about saint vs sinner, empathy, acceptance, suffering as masochism or a form of self-flagellation, and most interesting of all, hypocrisy, and the arrogance and condescension in (Christian) forgiveness. The townspeople are hypocrites. Tom, the moral voice of the town, is even more hypocritical, a false intellectual full of empty words— he is hollow, selfish, cowardly, dishonest, and self-serving. Grace is no better, she too is hypocritical, and sanctimonious. 
But that is where the problem with Dogville lies, as with other films by Lars von Trier. He is without doubt among the most creative and inventive directors working today—he is bold, daring, extreme, therefore provocative and controversial. But is he truly great? I’d say not. His vision makes his films hollow in their extreme negativity. That is Lars von Trier’s chief fault—his misanthropy, his lack of humanity, his bleak, depressing view of the world as cruel, hypocritical and hopeless, and his insistence on forcing it down our throats and making us suffer without giving much in return. When I watch anything by him, if I manage to suffer to the end, I might be glad to have seen it, but generally don’t want to watch it again. That comes from a fan of Ingmar Bergman (I’ve seen Persona 3 times, Cries and Whispers twice, Autumn Sonata twice). The difference between the 2 is that in Ingmar Bergman’s films, we still see magic, love, joy, happiness, and hope; we see none in Lars von Trier’s films. The ugliness of his world is to me unnecessary and unfair, and doesn’t reflect the real world—for all misery and suffering, life as I see it still has its joys and hopes. 
Lars von Trier’s films can be interesting, creative and provocative, but in the end, they are hollow.

Monday 4 June 2018

The Mill on the Floss: Hair

I’m reading George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.
What motif do I pick up on? Hair. 
From chapter 2, Mrs Tulliver talking about Tom: 
“’… so far as talking proper, and knowing everything, and walking with a bend in his back, and setting his hair up, I shouldn't mind the lad being brought up to that…’”
(my emphasis) 
Then about her daughter Maggie: “’ … I'm sure the child's half an idiot i' some things; for if I send her upstairs to fetch anything, she forgets what she's gone for, an' perhaps 'ull sit down on the floor i' the sunshine an' plait her hair an' sing to herself like a Bedlam creatur', all the while I'm waiting for her downstairs.” 
Note: forgetful, contemplative, imaginative. 
This is chapter 2—a conversation about hair reveals a lot about our heroine Maggie Tulliver, and other characters. 
“’… But her hair won't curl all I can do with it, and she's so franzy about having it put i' paper, and I've such work as never was to make her stand and have it pinched with th' irons’”. 
She is such a rebel that even her hair doesn’t conform. 
“’ Cut it off–cut it off short,’ said the father, rashly.
‘How can you talk so, Mr. Tulliver? She's too big a gell–gone nine, and tall of her age–to have her hair cut short; an' there's her cousin Lucy's got a row o' curls round her head, an' not a hair out o' place.’ 
Maggie's hair, as she threw off her bonnet, painfully confirmed her mother's accusation. Mrs. Tulliver, desiring her daughter to have a curled crop, ‘like other folks's children,’ had had it cut too short in front to be pushed behind the ears; and as it was usually straight an hour after it had been taken out of paper, Maggie was incessantly tossing her head to keep the dark, heavy locks out of her gleaming black eyes,–an action which gave her very much the air of a small Shetland pony.
‘Oh, dear, oh, dear, Maggie, what are you thinkin' of, to throw your bonnet down there? Take it upstairs, there's a good gell, an' let your hair be brushed, an' put your other pinafore on, an' change your shoes, do, for shame; an' come an' go on with your patchwork, like a little lady.’” 
A passage about hair reveals to us readers that Maggie is unconventional, different from other girls; Mrs Tulliver wishes her to conform, and doesn’t see her merits; Mr Tulliver doesn’t seem to care much about other people, and takes Maggie’s side; Lucy is the pretty girl, the “perfect” (meaning conventional) girl, who is often used for comparison and who is probably Maggie’s foil in the novel. 
The contrast is clearer in chapter 7, when the 2 girls stand next to each other: 
“She did to-day, when she and Tom came in from the garden with their father and their uncle Glegg. Maggie had thrown her bonnet off very carelessly, and coming in with her hair rough as well as out of curl, rushed at once to Lucy, who was standing by her mother's knee. Certainly the contrast between the cousins was conspicuous, and to superficial eyes was very much to the disadvantage of Maggie though a connoisseur might have seen "points" in her which had a higher promise for maturity than Lucy's natty completeness. It was like the contrast between a rough, dark, overgrown puppy and a white kitten. Lucy put up the neatest little rosebud mouth to be kissed; everything about her was neat,–her little round neck, with the row of coral beads; her little straight nose, not at all snubby; her little clear eyebrows, rather darker than her curls, to match hazel eyes, which looked up with shy pleasure at Maggie, taller by the head, though scarcely a year older.” 
George Eliot also uses hair as a means to show Maggie’s passionate, excitable nature. 
From chapter 3: 
“At the sound of this name, Maggie, who was seated on a low stool close by the fire, with a large book open on her lap, shook her heavy hair back and looked up eagerly.” 
From chapter 4: 
“Maggie tossed her hair back and ran downstairs, seized her bonnet without putting it on, peeped, and then dashed along the passage lest she should encounter her mother, and was quickly out in the yard, whirling round like a Pythoness, and singing as she whirled…” 
“Maggie loved to linger in the great spaces of the mill, and often came out with her black hair powdered to a soft whiteness that made her dark eyes flash out with new fire.” 
And her disregard for looks. 
From chapter 5: 
“It was Tom's step, then, that Maggie heard on the stairs, when her need of love had triumphed over her pride, and she was going down with her swollen eyes and dishevelled hair to beg for pity.” 
Also in chapter 5, we get to see Maggie in comparison with her brother Tom: 
“He was one of those lads that grow everywhere in England, and at twelve or thirteen years of age look as much alike as goslings,–a lad with light-brown hair, cheeks of cream and roses, full lips, indeterminate nose and eyebrows,–a physiognomy in which it seems impossible to discern anything but the generic character to boyhood; as different as possible from poor Maggie's phiz, which Nature seemed to have moulded and colored with the most decided intention.” 
Hair reveals character, and conventions. 
Look at the description of Bob, Tom’s friend, from chapter 6: 
“For a person suspected of preternatural wickedness, Bob was really not so very villanous-looking; there was even something agreeable in his snub-nosed face, with its close-curled border of red hair.”
And then Mrs Glegg, one of Mrs Tulliver’s sisters, from chapter 7: 
“The Dodsons were certainly a handsome family, and Mrs. Glegg was not the least handsome of the sisters. As she sat in Mrs. Tulliver's arm-chair, no impartial observer could have denied that for a woman of fifty she had a very comely face and figure, though Tom and Maggie considered their aunt Glegg as the type of ugliness. It is true she despised the advantages of costume, for though, as she often observed, no woman had better clothes, it was not her way to wear her new things out before her old ones. Other women, if they liked, might have their best thread-lace in every wash; but when Mrs. Glegg died, it would be found that she had better lace laid by in the right-hand drawer of her wardrobe in the Spotted Chamber than ever Mrs. Wooll of St. Ogg's had bought in her life, although Mrs. Wooll wore her lace before it was paid for. So of her curled fronts: Mrs. Glegg had doubtless the glossiest and crispest brown curls in her drawers, as well as curls in various degrees of fuzzy laxness; but to look out on the week-day world from under a crisp and glossy front would be to introduce a most dreamlike and unpleasant confusion between the sacred and the secular. Occasionally, indeed, Mrs. Glegg wore one of her third-best fronts on a week-day visit, but not at a sister's house; especially not at Mrs. Tulliver's, who, since her marriage, had hurt her sister's feelings greatly by wearing her own hair, though, as Mrs. Glegg observed to Mrs. Deane, a mother of a family, like Bessy, with a husband always going to law, might have been expected to know better. But Bessy was always weak!
So if Mrs. Glegg's front to-day was more fuzzy and lax than usual, she had a design under it: she intended the most pointed and cutting allusion to Mrs. Tulliver's bunches of blond curls, separated from each other by a due wave of smoothness on each side of the parting. Mrs. Tulliver had shed tears several times at sister Glegg's unkindness on the subject of these unmatronly curls, but the consciousness of looking the handsomer for them naturally administered support…” 
I’m not sure about George Eliot’s other novels, but hair seems to be a central motif in The Mill on the Floss, and strongly linked to Maggie. 
In chapter 7, again there’s a conversation about her hair: 
“’Go and speak to your aunts and uncles, my dears,’ said Mrs. Tulliver, looking anxious and melancholy. She wanted to whisper to Maggie a command to go and have her hair brushed.
‘Well, and how do you do? And I hope you're good children, are you?’ said Aunt Glegg, in the same loud, emphatic way, as she took their hands, hurting them with her large rings, and kissing their cheeks much against their desire. ‘Look up, Tom, look up. Boys as go to boarding-schools should hold their heads up. Look at me now.’ Tom declined that pleasure apparently, for he tried to draw his hand away. ‘Put your hair behind your ears, Maggie, and keep your frock on your shoulder.’
[…] ‘Well, my dears,’ said aunt Pullet, in a compassionate voice, ‘you grow wonderful fast. I doubt they'll outgrow their strength,’ she added, looking over their heads, with a melancholy expression, at their mother. ‘I think the gell has too much hair. I'd have it thinned and cut shorter, sister, if I was you; it isn't good for her health. It's that as makes her skin so brown, I shouldn't wonder. Don't you think so, sister Deane?’
‘I can't say, I'm sure, sister,’ said Mrs. Deane, shutting her lips close again, and looking at Maggie with a critical eye.
‘No, no,’ said Mr. Tulliver, ‘the child's healthy enough; there's nothing ails her. There's red wheat as well as white, for that matter, and some like the dark grain best. But it 'ud be as well if Bessy 'ud have the child's hair cut, so as it 'ud lie smooth.’”  
Mrs Tulliver tells Maggie: 
“’… go and get your hair brushed, do, for shame. I told you not to come in without going to Martha first, you know I did.” 
All that leads to the delightful scene of one of Maggie’s early rebellions—she cuts her hair herself and makes a mess of it. 1 scene reveals everything we need to know about Maggie—her disregard for physical appearance, and wish to be seen as clever only; her unconventionality and rebelliousness; her passionate and impulsive nature; her deep-down yearning to be loved and accept, whilst refusing to conform; the humiliation; people’s disapproval of her “misbehavior” and misunderstanding of her motivations and her character; people’s narrow-mindedness and the consequences for Maggie; her own brother’s insensitivity, and inability to understand her. This is a set-up, a preparation of sorts, for her later rebellion. 
I’m on chapter 11. I can tell the hair motif will come up again and again in the novel. 
A quick search reveals that in The Mill on the Floss, the word “hair” appears 76 times, and “curls” 14 times.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Emoji Dick, or Moby Dick in emoji

I saw this book at my university library in Leeds. 

What is the point of this nonsense? Is nothing sacred?

Friday 1 June 2018

Possession: themes, ideas, weaknesses

Possession, as I seem to see in all reviews, is about possession in different senses of the word—possession, ownership, copyright; items, belongings; the feeling of possession that the biographer has towards their subject; the lover’s possession of the beloved, possession in the sexual sense.
What interests me more about A. S. Byatt’s novel is that it is ultimately about writing, reading, and interpretation, or misinterpretation; the difficulties in writing biography, and impossibility of truly understanding a writer, or anyone, through their writings and other people’s accounts; and the idea that you easily misinterpret things and form false conceptions of a dead writer when ignorant of their intentions and context. The story of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte makes you think about hidden clues and gaps of knowledge—once the academics discover the previously unknown truth about their connection and the Yorkshire trip, and know that they, in a way, wrote the poems for each other, everything takes on a new meaning, things that don’t fit now fall into place, all the theories are dismantled, and the 2 figures now appear in a completely different light. The form, the make-up of the book, in which the story is told through the 3rd person narrator as well as the characters’ letters, journals, biographies, literary criticism, poems… is a perfect choice for the subject matter and Byatt’s ideas. It works well because Byatt can adopt different tones and write in different styles; most excellent are her parodies of certain kinds of literary criticism. Possession also suggests the danger of reading through the lens of something—feminist criticism or Freudian criticism or whatever ism, instead of taking the work for what it is. 
The weakest point, which in my opinion does hurt the book, is the poems. When Nabokov writes about a character in his book who is a great writer, he convincingly demonstrates the writer’s talent, because he is a genius. It’s hard to say the same about Ash’s and LaMotte’s poems by Byatt. They are an integral part of the novel (though it seems that lots of readers skip them for the story), and they are there to create the illusion of realism and a world outside the book, to make the characters appear more authentic, more real. They however produce an opposite effect, or at least to me, because the poems aren’t great, they make Ash and LaMotte less real, who are meant to be among the most acclaimed poets of Victorian times, and that consequently makes it difficult to take the academics in the book seriously. 
When I ignore the poems and choose to suspend my disbelief, the story of Ash and LaMotte is moving. But the characters I think more about are Ellen (Ash’s wife) and Blanche Glover. They are not even there, their voices aren’t heard, their thoughts aren’t known, but their implied suffering and baffling actions make me curious and concerned about them, make me want to know them and their thoughts and their motivations. That gives them a vivid existence.  
Another weakness of Possession is the ending. It makes everything fall apart. We have a beautiful and moving story, about love and loss and buried secrets, about things that only last briefly, about a couple that might have been, about a letter undelivered and unread, about a child that is never known… It is beautiful whilst it is tragic, or beautiful because it is tragic. I don’t mind the chapters that take us back to the 19th century and tell us about Ash and LaMotte through the 3rd person narrator, and thus let us know things about the 2 poets that the modern characters don’t know, which works effectively and is incorporated well in a novel that already mixes various genres and different styles of writing. But I hate the ending. It is a cheap device, a silly solution, as though Byatt tries to comfort the audience and wants to pander to them. 
The book would be so much better without that cheap ending.