Tennessee Williams: “The Rose Tattoo” (1950)

A man that’s wild is hard for a woman to hold, huh? But if he was tame—would the woman want to hold him? (Estelle, p. 662)

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In Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo we see yet another example of a strangely dysfunctional family that works to control or limit the options of younger members through the imposition of the values of the elders. As a comedy, the tale is light and ends with everyone ending up with the right person. In this case, the example is a Sicilian immigrant family in the Gulf Coast. Throughout the play it is largely isolated from the rest of the South, the contact from the outside coming in the form of a love interest to the young lady Rosa and a salesman who reminds us how closed off the South was to immigrants for much of the twentieth century. The plot mostly revolves around Rosa’s mother Serafina and her efforts to prevent the sailor, Jack, from courting her daughter. After the death of her husband, Serafina withdrawals more and more into her home and her work as a seamstress. This happens at the same time that Rose attempts to move away from those familial confines causing the central family drama.

Serafina is essentially incapable of thinking of a life without her husband. We cannot know the full reason why she became this way, but it is not hard to imagine similar people. She talks at length about the centrality of him in her life. It is presented in the context of an erotic discussion about monogamy.

When I think of men I think about my husband. My husband was a Sicilian. We had love together every night of the week, we never skipped one, from the night we was married till the night he was killed in his fruit truck on that road there! . . . I could up all the nights I held him all night in my arms, and I can tell you how many. Each night for twelve years. Four thousand—three hundred—and eighty. The number of nights I held him all night in my arms. (678–679)

Well, if truthful apparently monogamy works for her. Of course for the people that it works effortlessly for, the suggestion that others may feel the need to stray is unthinkable. The suggestion in the same conversation that her husband had an affair nearly drives her to madness. The traffic undercurrent of the incident is that you realize that Serafina is so fixated on the memory of her husband, she will not change. She is rooted in the past. This informs her interventions into her daughter’s love life with Jack. Jack is burdened with expectations since he is a sailor and presumed to be morally fallen.

Catholicism dwells in the background of The Rose Tattoo. Along with her widowhood, religion is the major restraint on Serafina’s moral independence. Her struggle is played out in a romance with Alvaro. In the end it works out well for everyone. Two new relationships are born and the past is overcome, at least temporarily. The tension of the play is still worth taking seriously despite it all ending quite nicely. Serafina spends most of the play in dreadful fear of the moral influence of the outside world. This protectionism has real consequences as Williams has shown in his more serious plays. She even strikes out at the Catholic schools, blaming them for what she saw as the moral decline of Rosa.

Today you give out the diplomas, today at the high school you give out the prizes, diplomas! You give to my daughter a set of books call the Digest of Knowledge! What does she know? How to be cheap already?—Of, yes, that is what to learn, how to be cheap and to cheat!—You know what they do at this high school? They ruin the girls there! They give the spring dance because the girls are man-crazy. (697)

It is, of course, our great joy when Serafina becomes man-crazy herself.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Old Love” (1979)

As in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s other short story collections, Old Love is thematically diverse but largely confined to the experiences of the Jewish Disapora, being set either in pre-war Poland or in the United States. The most common character is someone like Singer, an aging scholar or writer who emigrated to the United States and enjoys rising fame. Singer himself was never a radical, although many of his themes touch on the struggle for locating human freedom within familial, institutional and cultural confines. In the introduction to Old Love he writes on what he sees as the major theme uniting this collection of stories.

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The love of the old and middle-aged is a theme that is recurring more and more in my work of fiction. Literature has neglected the old and their emotions. The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience. Furthermore, while many of the young believe that the world can be made better by sudden changes in social order and by bloody and exhausting revolutions, most older people have learned that hatred and cruelty never produce anything by their own kind. The only hope of mankind is love in its various forms and manifestations.

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Now, while I certainly agree with the first point and would submit that much suffering would be removed from the world if marriages entered into by people in their 20s expired after five years. The centrality of young people to romantic comedies is ridiculous beyond measure to anyone who actually gone through a dozen relations in as many years (especially the happily ever after parts). I do not think the logical conclusion of this is to reject youthful revolt, and his claim that revolt against the social order is always bloody and exhausting. I think Singer’s own evidence reveals a great number of older people in revolt against the central institution of their lives: family and marriage. Despite wanting to approach the theme of love among older people, we find it quite elusive and frustrated.

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Take for instance the first story in the collection, “One Night in Brazil.” The narrator visits an intellectual friend and finds his friend married an old acquaintance from Warsaw. She claims she has been possessed by a dybbuk. The husband goes off with a girlfriend. Lena, the woman, attempts to seduce the narrator but they are consumed by mosquitoes, return home full of bugs and blood. They wash it off in a grotesque scene just as the husband returns. We see in this story the themes of serial monogamy, the resultant alienation in marriage (seemingly made worse by the third or fourth attempt) and a strange pining for lost love. If this is an attempt at love among the old, the next story “Yochna and Schmelke” is about young people. Yochna is raised pious and arranged to marry Scmelk through her father. The story discusses the early feelings of Yochna during the marriage, especially the wedding night and its rituals. Contrary to tradition Scmelke left on the holy days with his father in law. The later returns, with the other assumed lost. She is abandoned and pregnant, because she cannot remarry if they do not find a body. Of course, this is not unlike marriages once they pass the honeymoon which quickly become corpses.

“The Psychic Journey” explores the banality of marriage, the attraction to novelty and the desire for companionship in late capitalist marriages that often keep couples separated. A psychic connection provides some hope for a more meaningful relationship. The narrator meets a woman interested in the occult while feeding birds. They begin a friendship based on mutual interests. It turns out she has been watching him and following his work and interests.  They take a trip together to Israel at the time the 1976 war breaks out. She abandons him. After the trip, he stops seeing Margaret and reunites with wife, Dora. He tells her he went to California, never mentioning the trip to Israel although Dora was in Tel Aviv at the time of their illicit trip. He later learns that Margaret has started psychic business in New York leading him to confess his trip with the strange woman.

Readers can easily come away from this collection with a feeling that married couples are required to scheme to keep sane, crafting elaborate images of each other or themselves just to keep the facade of the institution together. In “The Bus,” Singer uses the device of changing seats on a tour bus in Spain to allow the narrator to see two sides of each couple. Here is how one married couple talks about each other:

One good trait she did have—she could attact a man. Sexually, she was amazingly strong. I don’t believe myself that I am speaking of these things—in my circles, talk of sex is taboo. But why? Man thinks of it from cradle to grave. She has a powerful imagination, a perverse fantasy. I’ve had experiences with women and I know. She has said things to me that drove me to frenzy. She has more stories in her than Scheherazade. Our days were cursed, but the nights were wild. . .

Nothing is left me except my imagination. He drained my blood like a vampire. He isn’t sexually normal. He is a latent homosexual—not so latent—although when I tell him this he denies it vehemently. He only wants to be with men, and when we still shared a bedroom he spent whole nights questioning me about my relationships with other men. I had to invent affairs to satisfy him. Late, he threw these imaginary sins up to me and called me filthy names. (214–216)

Well, if Singer is after a description of love among middle-aged people, he may have succeeded in convincing me that as we get older our relationships get only more sociopathic and absurd. Maybe there is some wisdom in this. There are limits to how much any one of us can overturn our cultural and social baggage. This must explain the remarriage rates. Rationally, a marriage as a youthful mistake makes since, but remarriage must be insanity (more than once Since shows affairs to have the same banalities of regular relationships). But if for whatever reason staying is impossible and one finds themselves back into relationships, perhaps a bit of playful fatalism is the best we can hope for. But always beware that the strange sleeping next to you may burn your life’s work, decide to put a knife in your chest, or become possessed by the spirits of the dead. This is all to be expected.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner: “The Gilded Age” (1873): Assorted Thoughts

The major action in the second part of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age is about the failure of the Hawkins family attempt to sell their 75,000 acres of land in Tennessee to the U.S. government. Their scheme was to promote the establishment of a college of science and technology, which would have led to the purchase of the land for millions. Without getting into the details of this scheme, despite massive efforts of lobbying and bribing politicians, it fails catastrophically when taken to the floor of Congress for a vote. A second plot is about Laura Hawkins’ arrest for the murder of Colonel Selby, her lover who was pursuing a bigamist relationship with Laura. They actually married in the first half of the novel, but Selby quickly abandoned her before the marriage was reported.

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The impact of this relationship on Laura is quite significant. The authors connection it to the malevolent shift in her character. “Laura was ill for a long time, be she recovered she had that resolution in her that could conquer death almost. And with her health can back her beauty, and an added fascination, a something that might be mistaken for sadness. Is there a beauty in the knowledge of evil, a beauty that shines out in the face of a person whose inward life is transformed by some terrible experience? Is the pathos in the eyes of the Beatrice Cenci from her guilt or her innocence? Laura was not much changed. The lovely woman had a devil in her heart. That was all.” (140 – 141) There is an important message about the dysfunction of marriage that reminds me a bit of some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s depictions of marriage. If we look at Laura and Selby there is a basic conflict in their relationship as each is attempting to possess the other on their own terms. Too often we look at our relationships in this way, and this works into our culture. Women want men to themselves. Men will seek out to possess as many women as casually as possible. When Laura finds Selby in Washington with his “real” wife, she seeks to own him and when that fails she kills him. This murder and the trial that follows leads to much of the tension of the second half of the novel. If possession is at the heart of our relationships, then violence seems to be the inevitable result. On this, Twain and Warner and correct. Listen to Laura’s outrage (perhaps acceptable) but it is filled with the assumption of ownership, not unlike Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni. “And you dare come here with her, here, and tell me of it, here and mock me with it! And you think I will have it, George? You think I will let you live with that woman? You think I am as powerless as that day I fell dead at your feet?” (281) Later the narrator asks: “Had she not a right to him?” In response to this dilemma, both turn toward plotting. It is all very unfortunate and ugly. It makes the nonmonogamists seem much more mature (of course because they are).

Twain and Warner spend lots of time cultivating the aura of Washington in the post-Civil War era, discussing the class divisions between the different political families, their social life, the networks that fueled corruption, and even how the environment tended to corrupt those who were not of Washington (Such as Washington Hawkins). “Renowned generals and admirals who had seemed but colossal myths when he was in the far west, went in and out before him or sat at the Senator’s table, solidified into palpable flesh and blood; famous statesmen crossed his path daily; that once rare and awe-inspiriting being, a Congressman, was become a common spectacle.” (181) Of course, after the Civil War, there were plenty of these awe-inspiring heroes. The authors seem to mourn how easily these people fell into the corruption of politics after the war ended.

We see several hints throughout The Gilded Age of the growing American empire. Many of the Western land schemes discussed in the book presuppose an imperial agenda, both in how the land was original secured and in the plans for development. At one point Colonel Sellers suggests overseas expansion in the context of the plan to annex Santo Domingo (a real but often forgotten effort at Reconstruction-era empire building). Sellers sold the plan as a way to gain Southern support for some of his other policies. Even the plan to build an industrial college on the Hawkins land is suggested as a part of the modernization of the South, bringing into the nation after the Civil War, establishing the South as a fundamental part of the U.S. empire. The former slaves are presented as semi-colonial subjects to be brought up under the tutelage of Washington. “We understand that a philanthropic plan is on foot in relation to the colored race that will, if successful, revolutionize the whole character of southern industry.” (287)

The novel ends with an acquitted Laura taking stock of her live and attempting to turn away from the evil woman that being jilted and working in Washington made her into. If there is a lesson here it is that the nation also could turn from that path (but perhaps only after coming to terms with itself through the equivalent of a trial). Her question for wealth from nothing, paralleled the quest of many others, but was shown to be vapid. “Her life has been a failure. That was plain, she said. No more of that. She would now look to the future in the face; she would mark her course upon the chart of life, and follow it; follow it without swerving, through rocks and shoals, through storm and calm, to a haven of rest and peace—or, shipwreck.” (432) It would have been a banal ending for Laura without the final ambiguity. Without the possibility of shipwreck, I do not think Laura would be completely happy. Do any of us really want a “haven of rest and peace.”

Philip K. Dick, “Confessions of a Crap Artist” (1959, published in 1974): Insanity of the Bourgeois Marriage

As everyone knows, Philip K. Dick wrote several non-science-ficition novels in his life.  He had hoped to make a career in “mainstream” writing but never quite escaped his branding as a science-fiction pulp writer.  Thankfully these novels that he wrote have been published.  The division between his science-fiction and “mainstream” work is dubious.  Many of his science fiction tales deal with mundane questions of marriage, work, and politics.  This is why his work always seems so familiar to us.  Eye in the Sky is set fully in this world.  Most of Time Out of Joint is set in a familiar world.  Even publishers fail to make the distinction, perhaps for marketing purposes.  In the Vintage publication of his work, Confessions of a Crap Artist, is labelled as Fiction/Science Fiction.

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In Confessions of a Crap Artist: A Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact, 1945-1959 we are confronted with the adaptability of the apparently insane and the real insanity of the apparently rational bourgeois relationship.  As I brought up in my musings on Counter-Clock World, Dick was personally and artistically ambivalent about monogamy.  Confessions of a Crap Artist is one of his several dissertations on this question, and perhaps the most fully developed.  His argument, a balanced, scientific examination of a middle-class, suburban, typical marriage reveals that such a marriage can only be sustained by psychopathy.

The story begins by introducing us to the crap artist, Jack Isidore.  Jack seems to have some mental illnesses, but if he is insane, many of us are.  He is a collector of odd ideas, unverified scientific theories, and bizarre eschatologies.  He is an admirable figure as an autodidact, but that led him to lack an objective teacher who can correct his heresies and delusions.  One does not need to spend much time on the Internet to realize that we are all in dangers of falling into the excesses of autodidactism.  Every bizarre theory now has its own wiki, internet community, and Facebook page. Is this an American perversion.  It seems that Europeans were mostly capable of becoming secular without filling the gap left with religion by bizarre theories.  In the United States, the religious are becoming nuttier and those who leave the religion of their birth often choose to become eclectic heretics grabbing a bit of New Age, deep ecology, Buddhism, and UFO cults.  In a significant sub-plot to the novel, Jack meets Claudia Hambro, one of these Californian cultivators of New Age cosmologies.  She and her group just borrow whatever craziness seems to work.  Someone like Jack is open to these claims, lacking the filters created by a rational education.  Here is part of Claudia’s message.  “Over the house there was a huge blue light hanging, like cracking electric fire.  I laid on the ground and that fire consumed me, from that spaceship. The whole house became a spaceship ready to go into space. . . . It’s the force that’s pulling us all together.  Throughout the world.  There’s groups forming everywhere.  The message is the same: suffer and die to save the world.  Christ was not suffering for our sings, he was suffering to show us the way.  We all have to suffer.  We all have to ascend the cross to gain eternal life, each in his own way.  Christ was from another planet.  From a more evolved race.”
It is not just Americans.  We find this craziness around the world.

And do not take it the wrong way.  “Loving Hut” is my favorite vegan restaurant in Taiwan (my new home), but these people are nuts.

Jack move into the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Charley and Fay Hume.  They have two kids, a nice home, and an ideal bourgeois marriage.  In other words, they are completely insane.  Virtually every interaction they have is framed in capitalist logic.  They compete with each other for money, for friends, for connections, and for leadership.  They are good friends with an academic couple Nat and Gwen Anteil.  Both Charley and Fay assume the other is out to get them (and neither would be wrong).  Their marriage exists only for the material benefit, image, and propriety.  Charley has a heart-attack, which he immediately blames on Fay’s machinations.  For what good is a bourgeois marriage without paranoia.  He is not wrong to be a bit paranoid, Fay does take her husband’s hospitalization to seduce Nat Anteil.  Why does she do it?  Does she just want to break up the Anteil’s marriage?  Does she want to revenge on Charley?  Does he truly love Nat?  Whatever her motives are, Dick is convinced that they are psychopathic.  At one point, Fay suggests to Nat that if her husband would die, she would remarry Nat.  Interestingly, Charley does not care about the affair when Jack brings it up (with a full scientific documentation).  He does want to ruin Fay, however.  This he finally achieves by killing himself and writing Fay out of half of the marriage property, giving it to Jack.

In all of this craziness, Nat seems to us to be the one character with authentic motives.  He seems to truly fall in love with Fay.  But when his internal monologue struggles with committing to the affair with Fay, we learn that he was attempting to express his autonomous will.  “Then he asked himself why he was doing it.  I have a really wonderful wife, he thought.  And I like Charley Hume.  And, he thought, Fay is married and has two children.  Why, then? Because I want to, he decided.”  While refreshing compared to the mind Jack, Charley, and Fay it is not much of an improvement.  Why does Jack believe that sunlight has weight?  Why does Claudia follow UFO cults?  Why does Fay choose to torture her husband? Why does Charley kill himself?  These are all expressions of the characters triumph over rationality.

In Confessions of a Crap Artist, Philip K. Dick is giving us a close look at the world of bourgeois liquid modernity.  Like the worlds of his science fiction novels, this one contains flexible realities, dubious loyalties, false facades, and psychopathy instead of humanity.

Vintage, trying to make it look all science-fictioney.

Vintage, trying to make it look all science-fictioney.

It seems to me that there is evidence that Dick is assaulting a particular form of marriage, that he saw in suburban America of the 1950s.  We are presented with a healthier, more natural, more rational, and more cooperative marriage with Nat and Gwen Anteil.  When learning of the affair, Gwen does not seek revenge but approached the situation with objective rationality.  They are not concerned with appearances to the level that the Humes are (their income could not allow it).  Standing on a real education, they are also apparently immune from the crazy sub-cultures and heresies that infect Jack’s mind.  Ultimately Dick is calling for relationships based on solidarity and love instead of social expectation, image, and wealth accumulation.

 

Philip K. Dick, “Counter-Clock World” (1967)

I am actually not sure how the reverse time schema (Hobart’s Phase) is supposed to work in Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World.  For instance, the dead come back to life, smoking and eating are in reverse, and at the end of your life the sperm and egg separate (and this requires a sex act).  In other ways, the reverse time is institutionally enforced, as with the Library.  This is actually a reverse library.  Instead of acquiring information, they destroy it as the creators of books reach the age (in reverse-time) that they created the work.  The reason people do not die in their graves after being resurrected is that agencies called Vitarium try to predict when people will awaken, work with police to get them out of the ground, and profit from their rebirth, not unlike how funeral agencies profit from our deaths.  People do not relive their lives backward.  Indeed their lives can change, taking on new lovers or new careers.  The United States remained politically divided between races; black nationalism was victorious in this timeline.  People still talk in a linear fashion and people still seem to live with an eye to their “future”.  It seems to me that Counter-Clock World is Dick’s attempt to play with the themes of religion and resurrection, creating a universe in which a religious leader can literally return from the dead.  The reverse-time structure he uses requires a soul.

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I was also reminded of Origen of Alexandria.  He believed that all of creation (including the devil and all sinners) would return to God at the end.  It seems, that given a fallen world, Dick’s Hobart Phase would provide a means for this to happen.  The fact the plot here involved the resurrection, albeit non-miraculous, of a religious leader leading to a epic religious conflict lead me to think Dick is more mindful of the resurrection of Jesus than the eschatology of an early Christian thinker.  The resurrected spiritual leader, Anarch Peak, even comes back with a spiritual message from God.  It is not clear if this is not something that all of the “old-born” experience.  Other “old-born” reference certain mystical memories from their death.  The chapter epigraphs are all religious in tone and source, suggesting again that Dick is trying to make a theological argument.  Here is a bit.  “Eidos is form.  Like Plato’s category–the absolute reality.  It exists; Plato was right.  Eidos is imprinted on passive matter; matter isn’t evil, it’s just inert, like clay.  There’s an anti-eidos, too; a form-destroying factor.  This is what people experience as evil, the decay of forms.  But the antiedos is an eidolon, a delusion; once impressed, the form is eternal–it’s just that it undergoes a constant evolution, so that we can’t perceive the form.  The way, for instance, the child disappears into the man, or, like we have now, the man swindles away into the child.  It looks like the man is gone, but actually the universal, the category, the form–it’s still there.” Dick is presenting what could be the heart of his rebellion against the liquid world of late capitalism.  This conflict can actually best be looked at through Dick’s conflict with monogamy.  On the one hand, it seems that the liquid world means flexible relationships and loose commitments and given that challenge, perhaps it is absolute loyalty that provides a means of resistance to our displacements.

Origen- An early proponent of inverse time?

Origen- An early proponent of inverse time?

Philip K. Dick was clearly conflicted about monogamy.  This marital dilemmas often are honestly retold in his novels.  The fact that he married five times tells us he had a deep personal commitment to at least the concept of monogamy, having married most (perhaps all) of the women he slept with.  Of course, these marriages did not tend to work out well for Dick.  Counter-Clock World is one of his novels that explores the nature of relationships.   A major subplot of Counter-Clock World covers the broken marriage (due to adultery) between an owner of a Vitarium, Sebastian, and Ann Fisher a philosophically-inclined associate of his.  Significant amount of ink is spent describing Ann’s attempts to convince Sebastian that his marriage is failed and that he should go to bed with her.  “I see no barrier to our relationship.  Lotta is shacking up with someone else; you’re alone.  I’m alone.  What’s the problem?  We’ve done nothing illegal; your wife is a phobic child, scared by everything–you’re making a mistake, taking her neurotic fears seriously; you ought to tell her, swim or drown. I would. ”  The woman as seducer, the mentally ill wife, and the failed marriage comes up again and again in Dick’s work.  Staying on the theme of Philip K. Dick’s relevance to our world today, I wonder if even Dick’s conflict with monogamy is not prescient.  We are still bombarded with images telling us that monogamy is natural and ideal.  Most of us will marry at some point in our lives, despite growing divorce rates.  I am convinced that many of these divorces are due to the inevitable crisis between the ideal of monogamy promoted by culture, education, and family meets a brutal reality of a liquid world.  Relationships lack permanence because we are incapable of establishing ourselves anywhere.  We change careers, like we change partners.  Forcing monogamy and marriage on such a structure seems foolish.  Dick may have been on the edge of defining this dilemma.  Dan Savage is close to making this point.

I will try to come back to this question in later posts.  I will leave you with a photo of Dick with one of his wives.  He divorced the old one before moving on, so we do not have a photo of all of them together.  Such a traditionalist.

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