Charles Brockden Brown: “Arthur Mervyn” (1799)

He knew how to value the thoughts of other people, but he could not part with the privilege of observing and thinking for himself. He wanted business which would suffer at least nine tenths of his attention to go free. If it afforded agreeable employment that that part of his attention which it applied to its own use, so much the better; but if it did not, he should not repine. He should be content with a life whose pleasures were to its pains as nine are to one. He had tried the trade of a copyist, and in circumstances more favourable than it was likely he should ever again have opportunity of trying it, and he had found that it did not fulfil the requisite conditions. Whereas the trade of plowman was friendly to health, liberty, and pleasure. (238)

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I have just noticed, looking at the dates of Charles Brockden Brown’s major works, that he published his three most well-known works—the three collected in the Library of America anthology—within two years. One of these, Arthur Mervyn, is a complex and elaborate tale that alone would have made Brown part of the American canon of literature. It comes quite close to make Brown the American William Godwin. Like Wieland, Arthur Mervyn takes on the “contrast” (to borrow from Royall Tyler’s play exposing the division between European/urban society and America/rural, republican, virtuous. In Wieland the ominous urban civilization is imported from Europe through characters. In Arthur Mervyn the city is looked at as a dark corner of American civilization. It is almost as if the cancer hinted at in the earlier work had taken root in America.

What struck me most of all when reading the first half of Arthur Mervyn was how psychological traumatic the protagonist’s wanderings between these two worlds was. He was really thrust into a world where there was no solid foundation to his life. His searching for work brought him into a position where he was completely alienated from what he was doing—forging documents as it turns out. Much of the anxiety and dark suggestion of the story is rooted in the bizarre relationship between the boss and the employee, starting from the arbitrary way he was hired to the ambiguous nature of the wealth he is producing. To be specific, one common theme in the story is rooted in the profession of forgery and counterfeiting money, which both appears to have real wealth, but certainly does not. So, what we have in this novel is a curious exploration of the nature of urban capitalism to disturb our comfortable categories. In the background of all of this is an ominous yellow fever epidemic that hits everyone regardless of class and status, yet another ambiguity of urban civilization. Long before Philip K. Dick mastered this theme, Brown laid it out with amazing clarity.

The novel tracks the adventures of Arthur Mervyn as he arrives destitute in the city. He begs for some money only to be hired by a strange man with an unclear profession. At first, Mervyn is not even clear on what he is to do. He knows only that he has a job. (How common is this feeling in late industrial society?) He discovers that the man—Welbeck—is a quite odious character all around. He makes his living by counterfeiting and forging documents. Welbeck apparently dies in a boating accident and Mervyn eventually gets sick with yellow fever when trying to transport Wallace, a man who robbed him earlier in the novel, to a farm for recuperation. Wallace tries to apologize for his earlier wrongs against Mervyn. The protagonist returns to Welbeck’s mansion. He begins to consider what to do with the money he got from Welbeck, who he thinks is dead. He decides whether to put it to public use or give it to Clemenza—a woman Welbeck claimed was his daughter, but whom Welbeck seduced and impregnated. Welbeck appears, apparently having faked his own death. When confronted on the money, Welbeck claims they are forged, so Mervyn burns them. This horrifies Welbeck, who confesses that they were real. He only claimed they were forged to get Mervyn to hand them over. All of this story is told in flashback to a Dr. Stevens, who had saved his life after Welbeck in anger turned out on the streets to die on the streets.

There is a hint in the first part of the novel of solutions to these disruptions. One that Arthur Meryvn is constantly struggling for is a return to the more stable life of the countryside. A braver response comes to him in the context of the yellow fever epidemic.

It is vain to hope to escape the malady by which my mother and my brothers have died. We are a race, whose existence some inherent property has limited to the short space of twenty years. We are exposed, in common with the rest of mankind, to innumerable casualties; but if these be shunned, we are unalterably fated to perish by consumption. Why then should I scruple to lay fown my life in the cause of virtue and humanity? It is better to die, in consciousness of having offered an heroic sacrifice; to die by a speedy stroke, than by the perverseness of nature, in ignominious inactivity, and lingering agonics. (351)

It seems to me that this is a suggestion that we should work in the terrible world we live in, and not incessantly seek escape to some idyllic paradise that may in actuality be a figment of our imagination. The disease of yellow fever, like the urban capitalist civilization, will spread regardless of our will. As it was for Caleb Williams (William Godwin), escape is not an option. Goodwill and solidarity, however, do offer a form of solidity in a liquid world.

Next time I will look at the rest of the novel.

Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)

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Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)

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Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

Tennessee Williams: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955)

Life is important. There’s nothing else to hold onto. A man that drinks is throwing his life away. Don’t do it, hold onto your life. There’s nothing else to hold onto. (Big Daddy, 927)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was first performed in 1955. It was written by Tennessee Williams and direct by Elia Kazan (who previously directed the Broadway version of A Streetcar Named Desire). The entire play takes place over the course of a single evening in the wealthy plantation household. The news has just arrived that the patriarch of the family. Big Daddy, will soon die of cancer. The imminence of this unavoidable date is made clear in the third act. There are two major related tensions throughout the play. The first about when the break the news to Big Daddy and Big Mama and how to talk to them about the inheritance, which Big Daddy has postponed dealing with by not writing a will. The second tension is about the younger son Brick, who has started drinking after the death of his close friend Skipper. As we learn later in the play, not long before he died, Skipper confessed homosexual desires toward Brick. Brick becomes disgusted with the “mendacity” of life, his family, and himself. He starts drinking, refuses to have sex with his wife Margaret (who apparel he was always a bit sexually aloof toward). This sparks rumors in the household that Brick shared Skipper’s homosexuality. Margaret’s inability to convince of a child connects these two tensions. Brick’s brother and sister-in-law have many children and use that to bolster their claim to the inheritance, although Big Daddy and Big Mama clearly favor Brick. I am sure the plot is mostly well-known, so I will get right into it.

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Williams was fascinated and horrified by the emotional burden placed on people by their family. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the clearest examples of family suppressing honesty and openness about desire that I can think of in literature. Saying that is immediately undermined by the fact that there is a whole lot of confessional in the three hours that follow the play’s story. Margaret confesses sleeping with Skipper again. While it turns out that was Skipper’s attempt to know the truth about his sexuality, Margaret saw it as a more spiritual effort to be closer to Brick. She also confesses to her sexual needs. Brick’s elder brother, Gooper, more or less confesses to his clear desire to inherit the plantation despite the lack of sentiment between him and the family. The doctors and the family confess to Big Mama and Big Daddy about the cancer diagnosis. Brick confesses to Big Daddy about why he drinks and the details of his love for Skipper. Big Daddy confesses to everyone his contempt for his wife. Big Daddy confesses in private to Brick about his own sexual desires and his regret for not experiencing more women when he could. With all this confessing you would think they were the most open family in the United States. Yet, this explosive night comes at the end of years of lies, subterfuge, and false faces. As Brick explains, he drinks because of disgust over “mendacity.”

I would like to take a close look at Big Daddy. His confession is not a death bed confession. He comes back from the doctor rejuvenated. Sick for quite a while, he was certain he was to die. The family and the doctors tell him that he will live and that he has only a “spastic colon.” This is presumably to protect Big Daddy on his birthday party, but we suspect the real reason for the subterfuge is to give Mae (Brick’s sister-in-law) and Gooper time to prepare their scheme to secure the plantation. No, Big Daddy’s confession is a confession of someone reborn into the world. He feels momentarily reborn. He wants to use this fresh start to knock Brick out of his premature death through the same kind of embrace of radical honesty. I am convinced that Big Daddy wanted to knock Brick correct so that they could go off together on some sort of adventure.

The core of Big Daddy’s confession is that he has been sexually repressed by his obligation to his family, the plantation, and to his wife. Big Mama is surprised at the contempt Big Daddy levels are her. I did not read this as the lies of a long-suffering wife. It sounded to me that she was authentically shocked. Big Daddy is bringing something new to the table and we need to read it as a blueprint for the future, a future he believes will go on for a number of years.

Ignorance—of morality—is a comfort. A man don’t have that comfort, he’s the only living thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing which is the way that anything living should go, go without knowing, without any knowledge of it, and yet a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it. [. . .] Yes, boy. I’ll tell you something that you might not guess. I still have desire for woman and this is my sixty-fifth birthday. [. . .] It is, remarkable and admirable both. I realize now that I never had me enough. I let many chances slip by because of scruples about it, scruples, convention—crap . . . . All that stuff is bull, bull, bull!—It took the shadow of death to make me see it. Now that shadow’s lifted, I’m doing to cut loose and have, what is it they call it, have me a—ball! (932–933)

A few minutes later, he takes on a less lurid and more philosophical tone, highlighting the absolute confinement that the plantation and his family has burdened him with. When he discusses cancer it is in the terms of imprisonment.

The human machine is not no different from the animal machine or the fish machine or the bird machine or the reptile machine or the insect machine! It’s just a whole God damn lot more complicated and consequently more trouble to keep together. Yep. I thought I had it. The earth shook under my foot, the sky come down like the black lid of a kettle and I couldn’t breathe!—Today!!—that lid was lifted, I drew my first free breath in —how many years? (937–938)

I cannot help to read that as a long-term perspective on his marriage. I do not want to give too much sympathy to Big Daddy. He is, after all, a quite brutal planter. He made his fortune starting as an overseers (and we know how those tended to be during the height of Jim Crow). If the plantation household was a den of mendacity, it was that way due to the design of Big Daddy. His brutality to his wife and elder son is hard to read at times. Yet, for one evening he was also to taste the freedom from the moral burden of the family. This is a harness around people of all classes and of all ages. It is also comforting to know that he is not alone. Many other characters taste a bit of freedom from that “disgust” that Brick is most honest about.

Frank Norris: “McTeague” (1899): Part One

The major theme of Frank Norris’ breakout novel McTeague is clearly fetishization. Primarily, it is the fetish for money and gold, which is given superhuman characteristics by almost all of the characters. At the same time we notice the fetish for people, particularly the dentist McTeague’s infatuation with his patient Trina. Other items are given a similar treatment, such as the diploma (which in the age of professionalization is lifted above talent, training, and experience) and the sign that McTeague desires to have in from of his “Dental Parlors.” All of the tragedy of the novel comes from giving these things almost divine significance. While we can label how Trina and McTeague come into money as greed, it is much beyond that. Money (and other things) really become idols.

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As the novel opens, we meet McTeague, a rather dull dentist. He entered the craft by working with an artisan dentist before professionalization became that important (this becomes crucial later on in the story). He runs a small dentist office and makes enough to support his life. McTeague, despite calling himself “doctor,” is really of the working class. He practices his craft like a craftsman. The books on his shelves are really for show. His best friend is named Marcus and they share beers every week. Marcus is the limit of McTeague’s social circle. Things change when Marcus brings his cousin Trina (who he is courting) to have a couple teeth fixed. McTeague, enamored with the elegant beauty of Trina, makes a bold decision to fix her mouth rather than simply pull two teeth. It leads to a series of visits. Eventaully, McTeague falls in love with Trina and begins courting her. Marcus agrees to step aside for his friend. Eventually, McTeague and Trina agree to marry. Before the marriage, Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery. (I put this into a historical currency converter—using 1890—and found a purchasing power of $120,000 in current U.S. dollars.) This is a nice nest egg, but not really what one could retire on. In those days of high interest rates, it did mean the couple could save the money and enjoy a steady and modest income from the interest. Marcus, of course, regrets immediately his choice not to pursue Trina himself.

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The money becomes the main frustration in their marriage. Trina refuses to spend any of the original $5,000, even to furnish an apartment. She is meanwhile working on making small animals for Noah’s Ark displays and is carefully saving in unknown amount of money (she always claims poverty but it is at least a few hundred dollars more squirreled away). McTeague this remains the sole breadwinner. Their income supplemented by interest from the $5,000. Spending any money becomes a battle in the household. Furthermore, Marcus is constantly resentful of what he sees as the loss of $5,000 that he could have won through courting Trina himself.

Here is a sample of Trina’s rhetoric, after McTeague made a payment on a new apartment in hopes of moving and upgrading their life.

You’ve got to pay the first month’s rent, anyhow—to forfeit it. Oh, you are so stupid! There’s thirty-five dollars just thrown away. I shan’t go into that house; we won’t move a foot out of here. I’ve changed my mind about it, and there’s water in the basement besides. Thirty-five dollars just thrown out the window. Oh , you are the thick-wittedest man that I ever knew. Do you think we’re millionaires? Oh, to think of losing thirty-five dollars like that.” (407)

At the mid-point in the novel, McTeague and Marcus’ friendship is shattered by jealousy over the money, reflected in a picnic wrestling match turned violent.

The money, the $5,000, is basically imaginary in that it is not being used. McTeague does not understand why it is not being used to make their life easier or more comfortable. For Trina, preserving that money is paramount. At one point, when she breaks down and loans McTeague some money she does it with silver (not gold) coins from what she was saving. The nest-egg cannot be touched. From Norris’ perspective, this is clearly an irrational activity. It parallels a second, similar story. McTeague’s neighbor Maria Macapa tells stories about how she was rich in her youth, suggesting that she still has some golden plates. Another neighbor, Zerkow, always wants to hear the stories about the gold dishes and has a similar longing for them as Marcus has for Trina’s $5,000. In practice, however, the gold plates and the $5,000 are equally as real. Both exists as imaginary depositories of wealth and have immense psychological power over those who imagine it.

McTeague is not blameless, although it is easy to see Trina as the worst miser. McTeague has his own fetishes, particularly for Trina herself, who he treats like a pretty doll. “He saw her as he had seen her the day that Marcus had introduced them: saw her pale, round face; her narrow, half-open eyes, blue like the eyes of a baby; her tiny, pale ears, suggestive of anaemia; the freckles across the bridge of her nose; her pale lips; the tiara of royal black hair; and, above all, the delicious poise of the head, tipped back as through by the weight of all that hair—the poise that thrust out her chin a little, with the movement that was so confiding, so innocent, so nearly infantile. (318)

From the film version called "Greed."

From the film version called “Greed.”

Another important element of the story is the alienation between McTeague and Trina. McTeague seems happy (when not fighting about money) to have his doll. We get a closer glimpse at Trina’s feelings of horror about committing her life to who she learns is a stranger. McTeague, for his part, never made an effort to understand Trina. We as readers do not learn she is a miser until well into the story. “She could not love him. It has all been a dreadful mistake, and now it was irrevocable; she was bound to this man for life. If it was as bad as this now, only three weeks after her marriage, how would it be in the years to come? Year after year, month after month, hour after hour, she was to see this same face, with its salient jaw, was to feel the touch of this enormous red hand, was to hear the heavy, elephantine tread of those huge feet.” (393–394) Of course, we should question as social system that gives women few options accept marriage. Here is the foundation of the critique of modern marriage. If we cannot really know each other due to the liquid status of the world, how can we pretend to understand a spouse? Trina makes due by creating yet another fetish. She constantly demands that McTeague express his undying love for her. His “love” so expressed becomes like the money in the bank. It is something she can rely on but is immaterial.

 

William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part One

Even a sick man, unable to be militant outwardly, can carry on the moral warfare. He can willfully turn his attention away from his own future, whether in this world or the next. He can train himself to indifference to his present drawbacks and immerse himself in whatever objective interests still remain accessible. He can follow public news, and sympathize with other people’s affairs. He can cultivate cheerful manners, and be silent about his miseries. He can contemplate whatever ideal aspects of existence his philosophy is able to present to him, and practice whatever duties, such as patience, resignation, trust, his ethical system requires. Such a man lives on his loftiest, largest plane. He is a high-hearted freeman and no pining slave. (48—49)

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Psychologist and philosopher William James delivered the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1899 and 1900.  As I am working on a book on Philip K. Dick, I read this book with great interest. Dick’s religious experiences have become the center of scholarship and have been offered up as the key to understanding his work. I explored Dick’s works earlier in this blog from a more political and sociological point of view. But with James, I can appreciate the attraction that those religious experiences have for readers. James’ central argument in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that religious experiences are historically real in that they seem to happen. What matters is the result of belief, not their origins. This is his pragmatism. James worked on this idea in some of his earlier writings as well (I looked at them before in this blog). For him, what matters in psychology is action when precedes thought and habits. (To be simple, one learns to play the piano by playing the piano, not by thinking about how to play the piano.) In the same way, it may be true that George Fox was crazy, but this does not make Quakerism theologically wrong or even factually untrue. It certainly does not make the good feelings and actions that Quakerism inspires delusional. In short: “Religious happiness is happiness.” (30)

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I was raised Lutheran and I recall having religious experiences as defined by James (both the positive and negative aspects he mentions). I no longer have such experiences and am an atheist. But I accept James’ point that there are numerous experiences that I am not having, many feelings I may be missing out on, because of that choice. Is this not true of any lifestyle or intellectual choice one makes?

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One important point James makes is that if what really matters is the religious experience rather than truth, religious can be studied scientifically through the regular tools of psychological, biological, and social scientific research. Since James day many—including many atheists—have embraced this approach. The controversial point is here. “To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connection spiritual values in general with determinante sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even out disbeliefs, could retain any values as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor’s body at the time.” (22)

The first three lectures map out his general thesis about the nature of religious experiences, the definition of religion (which he defined quite broadly), its role in creating states of mind that are not “logically deducible from anything else,” and creating positive action in the world. This final point James summarizes under “The Reality of the Unseen.” He borrows from Kant the following idea. “We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our life.” (56) One thing that is noticeable in leftist Internet culture is the willingness to attack thought (because what else can one discuss when we exchange ideas instead of actions) rather than action. I think something that we can learn from American pragmatism is that we should focus less on the thought that leads to good actions than we should focus on actions. In this sense, imagining prefigurative politics is less important than actually tearing down the institutions of power. There is some value when prefiguarative politics is acted out (as in Occupy Wall Street), but it is objectively a failure if it cannot undermine power. This is a bit off of James’ point, but seems to flow from his perspective on religion.

The next two lectures examine “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness,” which is general are religious belief that seem to creative positive emotions and healthy living in human beings. At this point in the lectures, James moves to giving quite a few case studies of various religious experiences documented in psychological practice and in history. If is of this type. “It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than the dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.” (79) Well, I can agree that the more religious thought promotes happiness, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and beauty the better. I am less certain it always does so, which brings us to the next set of lectures.

Lectures six and seven are titled “The Sick Soul.” Bad thoughts and bad actions can be as easily derived from religion as the positive “healthy-mindedness.” To the degree religion promotes obsessions on sin, guilt, death, and punishment they promote what James is calling the “sick soul.” Religious melancholy is very real in the world, James points out with several case studies. Significantly, James likens materialism and atheism to promoting the “sick soul.” I am not sure that can be empiraclly sustained now.

In the next three lectures, James looks at the experience of religious conversion. Conversion is yet another religious experience like the positive expressions of religious joy and the religious melancholy. Conversion allows a rapid and dramatic change in a person’s values and perspective on life. The actual role of some spiritual agent is irrelevant to the truthfulness of those experiences and emotions. “It is natural that those who personally have traversed such an experience should carry away a feeling of its being a miracle rather than a natural process. Voices are often heard, lights seen, or visions witnessed; automatic motor phenomenon occur; and it always seems, after the surrender of the personal will, as if an extraneous higher power had flooded in and taken possession.” (211)

I will look at the rest of this book and try to reach some more conclusions in my next post.

William and Ellen Craft: “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” (1860)

I have often seen slaves tortured in every conceivable manner. I have seen them hunted down and torn by bloodhounds. I have seen them shamefully beaten, and branded with hot irons. I have seen them hunted, and even burned alive at the stake, frequently for offenses that would be applauded if committed by white persons for similar purposes. (742)

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The story of William and Ellen Craft is a fascinating look at Atlantic history. This couple were born as slaves in Georgia but they ended their lives active in the suppression of international slavery, working in Africa and England, even starting a school in Africa. Later they became active in the Reconstruction South before their efforts to start up an industrial school in their home town, before it was destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan, agents of the post-Civil War counter-revolution. They eventually started a cooperative farm. Their life forms a nice circle of Atlantic currents.

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The narrative has no byline and is written from William Craft’s perspective, but I will assume that they were shared authors since they shared the experiences that led to the publication of the narrative. It seems that the two of them were together on all of their travels and labors. For all we know, the inspiration for this narrative was Ellen Craft but the voice was given to William to meet the expectations of a patriarchal audience.

The main story of Ellen and William Craft’s narrative is the means of their escape from slavery in the Deep South. Most of the slave narratives came from slaves who escaped from the Border States. It was rare for slaves from Georgia to escape. The Crafts’ method involved Ellen—a light skinned woman—posing as an invalid with William posing as his personal servant. The plan worked fairly well, with only a few snags. The train station in Baltimore was the most troublesome, which was on close lookout for escaping slaves.

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The narrative begins with a point essential to the Crafts’ escape: the flexibility of the color line in the United States. The Crafts discuss how even whites could be enslaved, mistaken for biracial people. White parents even sold some of their children into slavery. They discuss at length a case of a German girl who was enslaved until she was properly identified. This same ambiguity helped Ellen and William Craft escape slavery, but the Crafts want to go father and use it to suggest an internal weakness of the logic of slavery, at least among those who argued that slavery was a good system because it was based on race. (This is a common thread in antebellum pro-slavery thought, which argued for the system from a position of natural law.) In an interesting way the Crafts hacked the system of slavery, including the tendency of masters to move slaves around the country.

The Crafts’ main audience seems to be English readers, so they spend quite a bit of time describing the system of slavery in the United States, going over things that would have been obvious to readers in the United States. I wonder how much impact slave narratives like this one had on the Civil War era diplomacy, which led to the effective isolation of the Confederacy despite the economic ties between England and the South. I would like to know more about this history of reading slave narratives around the world. And of course, it was not strictly a U.S. genre.

The Crafts are also a useful introduction to the dilemma of free blacks in the antebellum South, or more precisely the reasons for the intense hatred toward free blacks shared by the white Southern planting class. “They have no mercy upon, nor sympathy for, any negro whom they cannot enslave. They say that God made the black man to be a slave for the white, and act as though they really believed that all free persons of colour are in open rebellion to a direct command from heave, and that they (the whites) are God’s chosen agents to out upon them unlimited vengeance.” (701–702) They follow this with a description of legal efforts to make freedom impossible for blacks in the South, by expelling such people.

Although not one of the most well-known slave narratives, it is one of the best to explore the subtle line between freedom and slavery and the flexibility of the color line, which is itself a major theme of post-war black writing. I think we can also look at the Crafts as a couple of Atlantic radicals and use them to articulate the international dimension of their struggle.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Image and other Stories” (1985): Part One

I am continuing my slow slog through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected short stories. In order to read through them as leisurely as they seem to demand and prevent it from slowing down my blog too much, I am going to start reading the slave narrative collection. To be blunt, I will be mixing in works that are easier to interpret and quicker to process rather than slow this entire blog down yet again with Singer’s stories. I cannot fully explain why this seems to always happen. I actually enjoy these stories. Perhaps it is their richness that causes my difficulties. They are certainly not straight forward and not conducive to my reckless (let my typos and numerous interpretative errors be forever forgiven) and accelerated approach.

The Image and Other Stories collects twenty-two stories. In a shift from his previous two collections, the stories are less personal. He seems to have exhausted his autobiographical insights. The aging Yiddish scholar, teacher, and writer living out his days in post-Holocaust New York fades to the background. Instead, he returns to the site of his earliest stories: pre-war Poland. It is from this setting that he is able to explore fate and free will. Even stories that are technically set in the post-war world are much more tied to that past. Is this a thematic shift for Singer? His earliest writings was interested in Poland as a means to preserve some folklore and tradition among a Diaspora community. His middle work moved to the personal and results in a series of works of profound alienation, loneliness, failure, and loss. Now I only half way through The Image, but it seems that alienation is gone as we once again find characters deeply tied to communities, traditions, and cultures. The question of fate v. free will is necessarily rooted in this social milieu.  Although I am often hostile to traditions, I find that communities can often be the foundation from which individualism emerges. In this I found some common ground with the conservative Singer. But for now I will focus on fate.

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In his brief introduction to these stories Singer wrote: “Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand. Literature is the story of love and fate, a description of the made hurricane of human passions and the struggle with them.” (291) We can read fate religiously or mystically but this is not necessary. We are fated in the sense that the vast majority of the things that affect us on a daily basis are outside of our control. The arena were free will exists is incredibly small, but not insignificant. This situation has been worsened in late capitalism with its atomizing institutions, oppressive workplace cultures, and macroeconomic trends that limit our capacity for free choice. Singer seems to agree with this in broad terms. When people do express their individual freedom, the results are often catastrophic. But if fate is a common theme in Singer’s later stories, so is resistance to fate. Fate is often connected to “the Angel of Death” in these stories.

This dilemma is explored in the opening story “Advice” about a cuckold husband who falls deeper in love with his wife after she abandons him only to accept her and her new lover under his roof. He becomes a believer that he is fated saying: “When a man stands before the gallows with a noose around his neck and they bring him the good tidings that the execution has been postponed, he does not ask any questions.” (295) The narrator later meets the man and finds that his wife died, her love left for the Soviet Union and he “became king.” While all of this may have also been prescripted, especially his rival’s doom in the Soviet Union, the man starts to take the view that he is wrestling with “the Angel of Death,” not its passive victim.

“One Day of Happiness” is a devastating story about a ugly young woman – Penna Fela – who writes a love letter to a celebrity (a general) that she loved. The general invites her for a tryst, taking her virginity and pushing her out of the door as soon as he was done, citing his need to meet a superior officer. Despite bleeding profusely (almost unnaturally) she makes it home. She slits her wrists. While her parents are trying to stop the bleeding the general’s aide comes with flowers. At the end she welcomes death having had her one day of happiness. Now while her doom seems inevitable, she was an active architect. She wrote the letter, sent it, prepared herself carefully for the tryst, and willingly went to bed with him. She is more in control than we perhaps want to admit at the first reading, where we want to condemn the general, obviously taking advantage of the women’s silly infatuation. Penna Fela is in rebellion against her family and its expectations and in many ways the active role in the story. I actually imagine the general as more bound, probably unable to refuse a meeting with any woman who writes him love letters.

“The Interview” is philosophically profound and explores the aftermath of the First World War in Poland. The narrator is a young journalist who meets a conservative writer for an interview but ends up meeting a woman who was visiting the writer at the same time. She is the minor poet Machla Krumbein. Her poems offend the older writer because they are aggressively sexual and libertine. “I had never before read such obscenities. I didn’t know what was stronger in me, my passion or my nausea.” (332) We learn that her perspective emerged during the Austrian occupation of the war, where she was traumatized by rape and violence. The narrator reports some of this to his girlfriend who is horrified and kicks him out. Years later, after the war, he discovers one copy of Machla Krumbein’s poetry that survived and sees her as a more malevolent figure, understanding her less as a fascinating libertine and more like a woman who “wanted all males for herself and no one else.” (328)

“Why Heisherik was Born” is about a delusion writer who suffers greatly first in the Polish-Bolshevik war and then in travels through the Holy Land. He is poor and barely holding his family together. But he spends much of his time writing, most of it barely literate. He leaves his family to go to the Holy Land and returns with more writings. He asks the narrator to edit his work, which focuses on how he struggled to maintain Jewish rituals despite his situation. We learn later that he died in the Second World War performing an important job as an illegal underground courier. The narrator realizes that he was being prepared for this task by his earlier adventures, giving new meaning to the neglected manuscript.

He could never have become a holy messenger without having going through all the ordeals he had described in his pathetic book and had recited to me at such length. I believe that there must be, somewhere in the universe, an archive in which all human sufferings and acts of self-sacrifice are stored. There could be no divine justice if Heinsherik’s story did not grace God’s infinite library for time eternal. (365)

Perhaps his life was simply preparation for his minor role in the war. If so, he was fated to suffer through life. That may be easier to get our head around than one’s freedom to suffer.

In these four stories we have people who have chosen to destroy relationships, accept humiliation, or willingly suffered greatly for strange reasons, youthful infatuation, religious devotion, an idea implanted in their mind by a strange vengeful woman. By looking at these figures as wrestling with fate rather than being passive servants, even the fatalist can find room for free will even if it is only in resistance to predestination.