Tennessee Williams: “Camino Real” (1953): In Praise of the Vagabonds

Camino Real was written in 1952 while Tennessee Williams was living in Key West. It was not well-received and the bad reviews left Williams depressed. The play was dedicated to Elia Kazan who directed the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I must say, I tried to find a performance I could watch from Youtube or download, without much luck. I am not sure this is a play that was meant to read. (Williams deals with this in an afterward to the published version where he says that reading the play will not improve the experience for those who did not like it performed.) Perhaps its magic is hidden in the performances. The first draft of Camino Real was called something like Ten Blocks on the Camino Real. The final version contained fifteen of these “blocks.” We are fortunate that Williams wrote a rather reflective forward to the published version of the play, which deals with some of the negative feedback he received and gives some guidance to interpretation. He explains that the main motif of the play was intended to be freedom.

My desire was to give these audiences my own sense of something wild and unrestricted like water in the mountains, or clouds changing shape in a gale, or the continually dissolving and transforming images of a dream. This sort of freedom is not chaos nor anarchy. On the contrary, it is the result of painstaking design, and in this work I have given more conscious attention to form and construction than I have in any work before. Freedom is not achieved simply by working freely. (743—744)

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There so a lot of wisdom in there for libertarians who actual want to create a free society, and not just talk about it. What Tennessee Williams said he was after in Camino Real was a well-planned and thoughtfully-designed joyous experience of release.

The setting, which Williams insists is no real place but a separate existence, is an open plaza with a great deal of life and openness, but also a tension between vagabonds who pass through or well in the “Skid Row” part of the plaza and those on the luxury side. Class is not directly theorized in the play. It is just assumed as the context. Almost all of the characters in the play (and there are great many minor and significant) are from one or the other side of the town, or act as the gate keepers keeping the two separate. Many literary figures find their way into the play from Don Quixote, in the opening scene, to Jacque Casanova, a major character to takes on a role of a tramp.

All of the literary characters who take the stage in Camino Real have been pushed to the margins and are no longer really necessary for the world. Casanova, for instance, relies on remittance checks for survival. (Casanova is historical, no literary, but he has been internalized enough to work as an archetype.) Williams may be mourning the declining interest in this impressive gang of rebels and freethinkers.

The play read to me like a prolonged meditation on the freedom of mobility of the poor, marginalized, and criminalized against the restrictive forces of order. The central action of Block Six is about the efforts to capture the vagabond Kilroy. After dodging the police he says:

How do I git out? Which way do I go, which way do I get out? Where’s the Greyhound depot? Hey, do you know where the Greyhound bus depot is? What’s the best way out, if there is any way out? I got to find one> I had enough of this place. I had too much of this place. I’m free. I’m a free man with equal rights in this world! You better believe it because that’s news for you and you had better believe it! Kilroy’s a free man with equal rights in this world! All right, now, help me, somebody, help me find a way out. (780)

Help comes in the form of Esmeralda and the gypsies, but Kilroy ends the scene in the hands of the police. A very similar scene is acted out in the final block with a happier outcome. There Esmeralda give the following speech in praise of the vagabonds.

God bless all con men and hustlers and pitchmen who hawk their hearts on the street, all two-time losers who’re likely to lose once more, the courtesan who made the mistake of love, the greatest of lovers crowned with the longest horns, the poet who wandered far from his heart’s green country and possibly will and possibly won’t be bale to find his way back, look down with a smile tonight on the last cavaliers, the ones with the rusty armor and soiled white plumes, and visit with understanding and something that’s almost tender those fading legends that come and go in this plaza like songs not clearly remembered, oh, sometime and somewhere, let these be something to mean the word honor again! (839)

I guess that is as nice a place to stop as any. I am not sure what quite to make of Camino Real. I am interested in seeing it performed and would appreciate any leads.

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Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1896–1900

Mark Twain spent the last half decade of the nineteenth century abroad, most of the time, first on a tour of the world (which would become the foundation of the only book he wrote during this period, Following the Equator) and then settling in Vienna. During his tour he lectured, but he seemed to have been more silent while in Vienna, writing little. When he did speak it to protest American foreign policy. After the publication of Following the Equator he became more and more involved in anti-Imperialist politics. This was also a period intense tragedy for Twain, who endured the death of his daughter in 1896. Of the sixteen pieces collected in the Library of America volume for these years, the three most sizable were not published during his lifetime and exist in fragmentary form (“My Platonic Sweetheart,” “Which Was the Dream?” and “The Great Dark”). Some smaller works were also delayed until after Twain’s death: “Man’s Place in the Animal Kingdom” and “A Word of Encouragement for Our Blushing Exiles.” Thus, we have only eleven short pieces, one of which is a poem dedicated to the memory of his daughter Susy and another a short speech introducing Winston Churchill.

As for the works published during his lifetime we find a handful of crucial themes. One of these is Twain’s anti-imperialism. This is the theme of “A Word of Encouragement for Our Blushing Exiles,” which urges the United States not to get involved in the games of national pride and supremacy that motivates European empire-building at the end of the century. There is no reason, Twain points out, to play the game of empire, since the United States has nothing to prove to Europeans, with their ignoble history. “Is it France’s respect that we are going to lose? Is our unchivalric conduct troubling a nation which exists to-day because a brave young girl saved it when its poltroons had lost it—a nation which deserted her as one man when her day of peril came? Is our treacherous assault upon a weak people distressing a nation which contributed to Bartholomew’s Day to human history?” (260–261) In a slightly different way, Twain makes the same point in “Diplomatic Pay and Clothes,” which mocks the expenses of American diplomats and their efforts to impress Europeans with excessive lifestyles. His farewell to the nineteenth century is also a poke at empire. “I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pockets full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking glass.” (456) “Man’s Place in the Animal Kingdom” works for us as a summary of Twain’s attitude toward humanity. It is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a highlight. “Man is the only animal that robs his helpless fellow of his country—takes possession of it and drives him out of it or destroys him.”

Another theme is the corruption caused by money. This is not a new theme, of course. It runs through his entire critique of the Gilded Age and American capitalism, infused with the corruptive power of money and influence. The most relevant story regarding this is “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg,” which is about a man slighted by a town that prides itself on its purity (even taking the slogan “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.” Corrupting and embarrassing the town is a trifle; the man needs only use a fake bag of gold and a contest. For Twain, the exposure of the corruption is a moment for celebration, because it means that for the first time the town could be honest, evening changing its slogan to the more honest “Lead Us Into Temptation.”

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A third theme is general hucksterism. This is also not a new observation of Twain’s (see the Duke and the King from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but it has new targets. I suppose the two at issue in these works are anti-Semitism and Christian Science. His essay on anti-Semitism is quite serious. He attempts, and fails, to understand the reasons for European anti-Semitism. (He also is amazed at the longevity of the Jews as a distinct people.) The closest he gets to an answer is that persecution of Jews is another form of hucksterism by non-Jews attempting to explain away their success, while also attempting to grab their piece of their success. “It [the Golden Rule] is strictly religious furniture, like an acolyte, or a contribution-plate, or any of those things. It has never been intruded into business; and Jewish persecution is not a religious passion, it is a business passion.” (369) More humorous to readers is Twain’s takedown on Christian Science (something developed into a later book, for some reason not collected by the Library of America). Their main position was that human existence is ethereal and that illness was strictly an idealistic ailment. Actually, quite an easy idea for someone of Twain’s satiric power to humiliate. Although I fear technocracy for good reason, my anarchism is a product of a scientific view of the world, from the Enlightenment if you will. Today, as in Twain’s day, there are many stupid ideas out there. Some wrong ideas can be liberating, but they would still be wrong. And those wrong ideas could be easily replaced by positions that are both more liberating and more correct. Anarchism does not mean the “liberal” acceptance of every stupid delusion religion.

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There are two short stories, published after Twain died: “Which Was the Dream” and “The Great Dark.” Both are very modernist and very personal. “Which Was the Dream” spends much of the time reflecting on a young woman seems to be a reflection of Twain’s recently deceased daughter. I was most touched by its comments on the raising of children and the horrible consequences of introducing military style discipline and education to the home. These lines should be the starting point of any educational program. “The child soon learned that her mother was not a tyrant, but her thoughtful and considerate friend. . . . It is a shameful thing to insult a little child. It has its feelings, it has its small dignity; and since it cannot defend them, it is surely an ignoble act to injure them.” (230) “The Great Dark” is about a man, who imagines himself shrunk down with a whaling crew in order to explore a drop of water. Although a rather dreary tale of the endless, unsatisfying darkness of exploring the unknown, there is a Promethean spark that encourages us to embrace those dangers as we search for something fresh in life. “An ocean in a drop of water—and unknown, uncharted, unexplored by man! BY man, who gives all his time to the Africas and the poles, with this unsearched marvelous world right at his elbow!” (299)

Herman Melville, “The Confidence-Man” (1857)

“If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life. As elsewhere, experience is the only guide here; but as no one man’s experience can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.” (914)

Well, this is the world we live in to some degree, in constant war with our intellect and education. In The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade Herman Melville dreams up an incredible host of characters on a riverboat on their way South. Some of them certainly do not fit our taxonomy of life—such as the white man posing as a black man—, but they are all rendered so as to appear from life. This novel was Melville’s farewell to the world of publishing. Facing failure after failure since he wrote Redburn, he gave up on the public. He made some money from lecturing but eventually took to simply working at the New York customs office until he retired. His only outlet to the public was a few works of poetry. I still do not know for sure if Melville has spoken his peace or if he had more to say but lost faith in his listeners. As a farewell, The Confidence-Man does not disappoint. It is a brilliant tale and is endless quotable. As I am already prone to over quoting, I will try to avoid the temptation to go overboard.

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What makes this novel work is the cast of characters, each of whom has a story, an agenda, or a scheme. In this way, it is a microcosm of mid-nineteenth century democratic America. But in the mixture of people trying to take advantage of each other, sell their scheme or idea, there is a shared solidarity that Melville touched on previously in regards to the ship and its crew, but not seems to come from the shared experiences of all sorts of people. As the narrator points out, the riverboat is a great place to explore the full diversity of humanity because at every stop people get on and others get off. The population is steady but always changing. Perhaps more darkly we could read this as a story of liquidity. As soon as someone bores us we can take comfort in the fact that they will be gone and someone different will be talking to us in a few minutes. Reflecting this impatience, The Confidence-Man never dwells long on one person. Even the styles shift, with short chapters devoted to tangential points of philosophy. The narrator seems to be in the position of someone in a bar, drinking all day, eavesdropping on every conversation. (Maybe the narrator is a bee moving amongst the riverboat.) Whatever the narrator is, it is always able to learn something from the interactions, even to the point of offering commentary.

Melville makes it clear that we are dealing with America in all its diversity and energy. “As pine, beech, birch, ash, hackmatack, hemlock, spruce, bass-wood, maple, interweave their foliage in the natural wood, so these varieties of mortals blended their varieties of visage and garb. A Tartar-like picturesqueness; a sort of pagan abandonment and assurance. Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.” (848) The stories these varied people told revealed many aspects of American life, turning the novel into something closer to an American version of The Canterbury Tales.

The people on the riverboat are more or less equal (in part because there seems to be no end to the masks that people are wearing and no one can know the real status or condition of others). Despite this equality—or maybe because of it—there is a constant give and take as people try to recruit others into their various schemes. One person invented the “Protean easy-chair” during “odd intervals stolen from meals and sleep.” (881) But that is not the limit of his inventiveness. He has also come up with a scheme to reduce poverty in the world by imposing a global progressive income tax that would produce almost one billion dollars a year. (Notice that this plan is not so different from the proposal of Peter Singer to reduce poverty with a 1% voluntary tax on the wealthy people of the world.) It is not a spur of the moment idea, this particular character through long and hard about this scheme. But it exists only in the realm of ideas. He lacks, of course, the power to implement it. The entire thing may be (actually probably is) a scheme. For all the machinations, because no one has power over any of the others, it comes off as a bit of a game. And the concept of “confidence” (required by any schemer) runs through the story as a type of common vocabulary.

Other subplots revealed during this single day on a riverboat reveal a darker side to the American experience. We meet an Indian hater, for instance, who spends considerable time discussing his life-consuming ambition to slaughter Indians in revenge for the murder of his family (a crime for which was already avenged earlier in his life). As is so common in Melville’s work, the dark undercurrent of American democracy and diversity comes in the form of brutal violence and authoritarian sentiments.

“Well, there is sorrow in the world, but goodness too; and goodness is not greenness, either, no more than sorrow is.” (865)

Herman Melville, “The Piazza Tales” (1856): “I would prefer not to”

Herman Melville’s The Piazza Tales, collecting five short stories and an introductory tale, include two stunning stories of resistance and their limits: “Bartleby, The Scrinvner” and “Benito Cereno.” The are often put in the same category as Melville’s greatest prose works, so it is notable that they both have at the core an act of seemingly successful rebellion. The Piazza Tales came out in 1856, collecting five of the pieces he wrote in the previous two years for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. 

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“Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” is endlessly fascinating and can be re-read for new meaning almost every time. The narrator is an employer at a law office, who hires a small group of copyists (scriveners), whose job it is to copy and double-check the accuracy of various of the copies. We have a mini-example of the Pequod here, with a diverse (but much smaller group) of workers, that accomplish their task with little oversight. The profession has rules that its members know. The boss, lacking any bold scheme like an Ahad, is simply content to manage the smooth-working office. Bartleby enters as the workload of the office increases. He is a diligent worker, who comes in every day and does his job, apparently without major defect. He does not seem to eat much except nuts and eventually takes to sleeping in the office. However, he also develops a strange habit of refusing requests from his employer. To all requests he responds: “I would prefer not to,” or some variation of. It is not that he does not do his work. His refusal is only when asked by the boss. This torments the narrator who has authority but is not used to using it. He seems to prefer an office well running without the need to apply authority.

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This probably describes most middle managers in office settings, always careful to assert their authority, but afraid to undermine the harmony of the office with a too authoritarian intervention. Having recently worked in an office, I can attest that most of the time discipline was enforced morally. “Don’t you want to help your co-workers?” “Do work that you can be proud of.” Explicit threats of being fired were not there. In this context, Bartleby’s resistance to the authority — and the banality — of office life is quite effective. Bartleby is brilliantly calling the employers’ bluff but forcing him to use more explicit uses of power.  In response to a refusal to cooperative, the narrator responds: “I am seriously displeased. I am pained, Bartleby I had thought better of you.” (660) That power beings as moral pleading, expressions of concern, threats of firing, and eventually the introduction of state authorities. Only the state is able to finally remove him from the office (an act the narrator cannot bear to witness although he precipitated it). Eventually Bartleby dies of starvation, literally bored to death from his job. His strategy may be the ultimate form of resistance and the exact way to challenge the power of the petty tyrants in offices around the world. Instead of refusing to work, one works but refuses to listen to the silly preachings and time-wasting dictates of those with a slightest bit of authority.

“Benito Cereno” is about a ship master who comes across another ship that had just experienced a mutiny by slaves. The transatlantic slave trade had already ended, banned by Congress in 1808, but the threat of slave revolt was still very alive in the minds of many Americans, Nat Turner’s revolt taking place in 1830. The story (really a short novel) is told through two sides. First from the perspective of a fictionalized Amasa Delano and then through an official report. The mutiny actually took place prior to Delano’s arrival, but the enslaved men and women kept the captain, Benito Cereno, alive in order to sail back to Africa. Delano is actually walking into a “world turned upside down” but does not know it. Cereno is commanded by the leader of the mutiny, a former slave called Bado. The reality of the situation is revealed at the end the mutiny is suppressed and Bado executed. This leads to the death of Cereno who is grief stricken by Bado’s death, turning on its head the cliché of the loyal slave.

In some ways, this suggests the fragility of power on the ship, in which captains really do keep their authority with the consent of the crew and the (at times) backing of external state powers. More broadly, the story speaks to the reality of empire in the 19th century. They were apparently ruled by whites, but really functioned through the labor and efforts of the enslaved.

“The Encantadas” reminded me of Mardi in how they toured a series of mystical islands. Lacking a narrative, the story is really more of a tourist guide to these various locations, some with hierarchical states, some left to nature, and yet others as libertarian realms for runaway sailors and slaves. While life if brutal there: full of institutions of power such as jails and gravestones testifying to unspoken horrors. In this sense it parallels the reality of the Atlantic world. Sketch seven of the story even has an example of a war between a colonial state (which proclaimed itself a republic) and a population of creole rebels. “Nay, it was no democracy at all, but a permanent Riotocracy, which gloried in having no law but lawlessness.” (791) As other sketches show, slavery is worked into the dynamics of life on the Encantadas.

However, like the Atlantic world system itself–and the emerging global capitalism that Melville knew about first hand–there are built in wild spaces where freedom can be secured and tyranny contested.  The section on runaways shows this. But by and large we see, in the Encantadas, the brutal extremes that authority will go to assert itself. “Nor have there been wanting instances where in inhumanity of some captains has led them to wreak a secure revenge upon seamen who have given their caprice or pride some singular offense. Thrust ashore upon the scorching marl, such mariners are abandoned to perish outright, unless by solitary labors they succeed in discovering some precious dribblets of moisture oozing from a rock or stagnant in a mountain pool.” (816) It seems to me that “The Encantadas” should be read as a likely description of a world of unrestrained capitalism.

The reality of the Enchantadas

The reality of the Enchantadas

slavery2floggingThis is the world that capitalism created. Melville was genius at describing it in almost all of his works. Much of his significance for us is in how he exposed the violence of empire and commerce. With this in mind, I think we should learn from Bartleby and “prefer not to” cooperate a bit more often.

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories” (1973)

The twenty four stories in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories shift across the Jewish Diaspora creating a network of relationships and themes across Poland, New York, and Palestine. His most common characters are scholars frustrated by profound questions or hedonists without an ultimate purpose. The stories set in the United States are mostly shrouded by the legacy of the Holocaust. This was not a strong theme in some of his earlier stories that I looked at months ago in this blog. It seems that the Holocaust became a greater part of Singer’s consciousness over time. In the same way, the Diaspora becomes more significant. His first stories were all set in Poland and emerged from Jewish folklore. These carry on elements of that folklore tradition but thrust them onto a global stage. One thing that seems to run throughout his work without too much alternation is the feeling that characters have lost control of their lives, whether due to malevolent beings, malevolent historical burden, or others powers (institutions, family, and ideas). As with A Friend of Kafka, the characters in A Crown of Feathers are unable to find freedom under the heavy weight of the historical burden they carry. Even in the mundane and slightly beneficial this is true. “The man in the white uniform must have been the owner, or the manager, and the cashier didn’t want him to see that he was a customer get by without paying. The powers were conspiring to provide me with one stroke of luck after another. I went out, and through the glass door I saw the cashier and the man in the white uniform laughing. They were laughing at me, the greenhorn, with my Yiddish.” (304)

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One thing we can consistently take away from Singer’s work is that freedom is difficult and the institutions that surround us shape so much of the details of our lives that escape is often unthinkable. The solution is either resistance, flight, or acceptance. However, none of these really work out. Flight most of all, because if the demons from Poland can come to haunt Jewish immigrants in New York (or more to the point the brutal legacy of the Holocaust). I am often reminded of Melville’s thesis in Omoo when I ponder desertion, flight and migration in respect to freedom. In his maritime fiction, Melville’s characters were often seeking something better elsewhere but always feel short, necessitating a permanent state of wandering. This may be seen most strongly in Mardi, where the wandering is truly endless.  Singer’s scale is less grand and his characters less able to move. Whether due to family, tradition, language, or age, their mobility cannot take them much farther than New York (or more rarely Miami). These migrants had one chance to leave the burdens of their homeland and they failed.

A Crown of Feathers also discusses the legacy of Jewish radicalism in the later twentieth century. Movement anarchists do not often come up in American literature despite the fact that vernacular anarchists are almost always there (a point I am trying to make in this blog). Singer’s Jewish intellectuals in Poland or New York often had ties to anarchists movements, but he describes these people as used up radicals, sometimes akin to the dried up and useless hedonists he also likes to describe. This point is strongest in the story “Property,” which is a deeply nostalgic look at these radicals. “Our Socialists have completely cooled off. They use the old phrases, but the spirit isn’t there. As for our Communists, they read the Red Sheet every morning, and repeat it like gospel… If their paper came out saying that Stalin was an enemy of the people and a mad dog, they would repeat it too.” (338) The anarchists were in decline even though Singer asserts that they were the ones with individuality (“even the ignorant ones had a kind of independence.”) Most of the story is a conversation with a movement anarchist Max Peshkin, who like the narrator, has moved to New York from Poland. However, his old radicalism exists only in memory, like the pictures of radical thinkers hanging on the apartment walls of washed up movement activists. Peshkin’s story moves from discussing the state of the movement to giving a rather gratuitous account of one of his affairs. The affair becomes metaphoric for the movement. “Strange, I remember in all its details how our affair began, but I have forgotten how it collapsed.” (346) If you read any histories of radical movements and revolutions you will know that this is commonly true.  (This is actually a good thing, since it means that movements and currents never fully die. Their body is never found.)

A second story on the theme of radicalism in Jewish life takes a look from the completely opposite perspective. “Grandfather and Grandson” is about a young man who rejects his grandfather’s strong Jewish identity through the emergence of his anti-capitalist beliefs. Instead of “Property,” which looked at a dying radical spirit this story considers it at its birth. As an idealistic and rather uninformed socialist, the youth thinks that all exploitation is rooted in capitalism. His grandfather tries to correct him by looking (like Singer does in these stories) at the numerous powers working to take away our freedom. The son thinks that capitalism is the only cause of Antisemitism. But his grandfather reminds him that “whoever rules will persecute Jews.” (552) I suppose both views are narrow and can be broken down without too much trouble, but we do find in this generational tale how the immigrants were ultimately able to break free of one form of ideological confinement (only to enter another one).

Singer wrote these tales at a time when cultural malaise was strong across America, affecting not only Jewish immigrants burdened by the legacy of the Holocaust. The paralysis evident in these tales is as horrifying as any of the demons that Singer’s characters encounter.

Here is Studs Terkel’s interview with Singer.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1970) Part 2: “Something Is There”

One story from the second half of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, A Friend of Kafka seems to me to summarize the thematic running through all the stories: the feeling of paralysis most of us get from the banality of life, whether it comes from our relationships, our community, our job, or even our religions. The early  story of the book, “Dr. Beeber,” is about a hedonist and libertine who finds boredom first in his lifestyle and then later in his a marriage he uses to replace his vulgar pursuit of pleasure. In “Something Is There,” the final story of the collection, Rabbit Nechemia fights a war against God, emerging from his growing disgust with religion, largely due to the problem of evil. “Yes, you are great, eternal, all mighty, wise, even full of mercy. But with whom do you play hide-and-seek—with flies? What help is your greatness to the fly when it falls into the net of the spider that sucks out its life?” (240) He projected all of the evils of the world – evils that as the head of the local Jewish court he helped perpetuate – onto God, his laws, and capricious nature.  His final thoughts before turning away from God was “God, is this your world?” (247)

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His choice is to reject entirely his world, the village, and as much as he could, his religion, thinking that he can learn from the “heretics” in the city. He does this by moving to the city, where his brother resides. He finds it hard to escape the life of his village. He does not know how to order food to ensure it is kosher and he notices openly blasphemous books in the window of booksellers. He even toys with prostitution, but does not go through with it. He is completely out of his element. Despite his desire to leave the village he is unable to break free at the foundational level. His freedom is confined by all the experiences of his life. “Each time the rabbi asked how to reach Smotcha Street, where Simcho David [his younger brother] lived, he was advised to take a trolley car or a droshky, but the trolley seemed too formidable and a droshky was too expensive. Besides, the drive might be a Gentile. The rabbi spoke no Polish… He passed by stores that sold leather, hardware, dry-goods, and ready-made clothes. The salesman vied for customers, tore at their sleeves, winking and interspersing their Yiddish with Polish.” (249) Such disorientation shapes almost all experiences in the novel. The rabbi has detached himself from what he knew and whatever intellectual freedom he enjoyed is illusionary and burdened by the challenges of getting through life. Even his brother, he learns, is no longer familiar. He has become “a modern.” “What they worship is the ego,” he said pondering his brother’s change.

Things begin to change for Nechemia when he takes a closer look at a book on cosmology, How the Universe Came into Being. He discusses with the storekeeper about science. He warms him that the book is dated and that while the author can describe evolution, he cannot state how the universe began. He tells him to pick up the book in a few weeks and points out to him that urban life is beyond the dilemma of belief or unbelief. “In my time there were a few [unbelievers], but the old ones died and the new generation is practical. They want to improve the world but they don’t know to go about it.” (254)

In addition to learning a bit about modern science, the rabbit discovered much about the modern institutions, the prison, the hospital, and the police from a coal dealer. He mocks his stated desire to be a coal dealer, and like the book store owner suggested, had a practical understanding of God. He does not know if God exists, punishment comes in this world, not the next, and the way to make it in this world is to learn a trade, not teach ancient books. He is friendly, however, and allows the rabbi to stay with him, while he tries to teach him of the city (where to find healthy prostitutes, where he might get a job teaching if that is all he is good for).

There has been almost no progress in the rabbi. He is as mixed up as ever about life in Warsaw. He has managed to create a routine that gives his life some semblance of normalcy, but in truth he is still fully in the world of the village. This is most evidenced by this ongoing conflict with God, while surrounded people who have moved beyond such fears and concerns.  But all of that changes when the rabbi reads the cosmology book at the library. For the first time he learns of the scientific perspective. “Man descended from an ape—but where did the ape come from? And since the auuthor wasn’t present when all this happened, how could be be so sure? Their science explained everything away in distance of time and space. The first cell appeared hundreds of millions of years ago, in the slime at the edge of the ocean. The sun will be extinguished billions of years hence. Millions of stars, planets, comets, move in a space with no beginning and no end, without a plan or purpose. In the future all people will be alike, there will be a Kingdom of Freedom without competition, crises, wars, jealousy, or hatred… All books had one thing in common: they avoided the essential, spoke vaguely, and gave different names to the same object. They knew neither how the grass grew nor what light was.” (262) Bold certainty, optimism and confidence intersected with ambiguity and doubt.

At this point the story ends and the rabbi returns to the village, his spiritual conflict ended. He concludes that the entire world “worships idols” or “invented gods,” but that there are no heretics Heresy, it would seem, requires a certain engagement with religion that is lost on the urbanites.

The rabbi resolves his spiritual conflict by returning home but accepting some of the randomness, possibility, and diversity of human potential. He did not find freedom in the physical vagabondage that he pursued when he left the village, but rather in the intellectual uncertainty which is home to curiosity and wonder.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” (Conclusions)

I have just finished up with the Library of America collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. While I have read some of his stories previously, I never read through his major stories systematically before.  Five stories wrapped up the volume. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about a young student who visits the Massachusetts town of Innsmouth to discover a cult worshiping Dagon, and worse a population of half-fish people. In the end he decides to embrace his family legacy and embrace a transformation into one of those creatures. “The Dreams of the Witch House” connects the Cthulhu mythos to new developments in uncertainty in math and science at the turn of the last century. In this story, a math student investigates the Arkham “Witch House” and learns of its role as a portal. It is particularly interesting for its use of mathematics as a device of horror and the unknown. The student ends up a sacrifice victim of yet another cult to the Elder gods.  “The Thing on the Doorstep” tells the story of the killing of an aparently insane man, who was able to reside in other people’s bodies and even corpses. “The Shadow Out of Time” is about the “Great Race” of aliens who visit Earth through body possessions. Finally, “The Haunter of the Dark” is notable as the only story in the collection with Nyarlathotep as an antagonist.

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I avoided reading Lovecraft in my youth, despite an almost total mastery of his works by a fair number of my close friends. I knew the name early enough and he may even be the first American writer I knew by name (saving for children’s writers, of course). Of course, I knew of his works my osmosis and by the massive cultural influence he had. Lovecraft’s works have inspired writings that far surpass in quantity his original works. (Can anyone show me an anthology of stories inspired by the works of Herman Melville?) He has also inspired board games, role playing games, music, a “NecronomiCon,” and more B-films than most of us would want to watch. As I was considering before, there is something odd about this popularity considering the values of the American people, focusing on progress, freedom, personal autonomy, equality (and let’s not forget Christianity). If we look at some of the major components of Lovecraft’s writings we can see that they seem to run at odds with these values. In other words, Lovecraft is perhaps not what Tocqueville would have predicted to be one of the most important cultural artifacts of a democracy.

arkham horror

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1. Cargo Cult religions pop up all over the world based on the worship of indifferent, powerful, aliens.
2. Science fails to explain the world.
3. Fear is the primary emotion of humanity.
4. Knowledge should be feared and the curious are punished.
5. The senses are incapable of describing most of the universe.

So what can we make of this?

I am wondering now if Lovecraft’s popularity and cultural influence is akin to the rise of religious fundamentalism or new religious movements in this country. (I cannot speak to Lovecraft’s popularity outside of the English-speaking world. He is certainly mostly unknown in Taiwan.) Perhaps we can return to Lovecraft’s conservatism for an answer to this. The core of his conservatism seems to be directed at the consequences of industrialization: the city, immigration, manufacturing.  In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” a small town is literally left behind by the rest of the world.  What was once a vibrant merchant town because a marginalized fishing town, just barely scraping by.  That trope shows up in other stories as well, showing the entire communities left behind by progress and modernity.  Innsmouth was actually once quite a cosmopolitan place, with many Pacific Islanders living there as a byproduct of New England’s place in Pacific trade. When being left behind, what did Innsmouth turn to but the “Esoteric Order o’ Dagon.” Is this not a reading of late capitalist America.  Never fully industrialized (it is far too big for that), with huge sections of the country filled with truck stop towns, old mining villages, and rust belt cities, America has been hit hard by global capitalism’s tendency to bypass the areas that are not of immediate value. Facing the uncertainty of liquid modernity, people turned to fatalism of the unknown (comforting themselves that it is unknowable), new religions or revived old faiths.  In this sense, maybe we can identify and describe the malevolent external horrors that so terrified Lovecraft and his characters.  Perhaps it is in an embrace of the religious realm that many of us were capable of understanding a world that really is indifferent to us.

I still think that unknowability is politically vapid and works to confine us and makes excuses for inaction, I do think its popularity is at least explicable.