Tennessee Williams, “Battle of Angels” (1939)

Tennessee Williams wrote Battle of Angels in 1939. Its initial run was quite brief, running only for about a week or so at the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941. It would be published six years later. As I can tell, it was not performed until reworked into Orpheus Descending in the 1950s, after Williams had secured some success. The two plays are often published together. There are several themes at work in this play mostly about the nature of Southern small town life. It takes on a rather mystical angel at various times through the elusive character of the Conjure Man. I was to mention only one theme: the oppression of law both informal and formal. (It is a Sunday and I have a bit of other work to do on top of this blog, so I will be brief.)

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The plot surrounds a migrant worker Val who arrives in a small town and takes a job in a general store. He piques the interest of an unmarried woman Cassandra (whose failure to marry has made a notorious figure in the community). Their date goes badly when she seems to expect sex from Val. Val later falls in love with the married manager of the store, Myra. Myra’s husband is old and dying and she is attracted to Val so they eventually become lovers. Val has a past. He fled Waco due to accusations of rape (he is apparently innocent but we really only has his claim that the woman from Waco was slighted by Val’s regrets the next day). During his employment, Val comes to the aid of an unemployed black man who is threatened with arrest for vagrancy. These four characters are bound by legal expectations. Val, like Caleb Williams or Jean Valjean, is being chased throughout the country for alleged crimes. This makes it impossible for him to settle in one place. The opposite is the fate of Loom, the black migrant, who by not being tied to the employment of a white man is considered a dangerous element in the small town. Cassandra is scorned by the other women in the town for her sexual liberty. Myra is bound to a banal and lifeless marriage. She is so desperate to escape that she has to lock the backroom door at one point and hide the key so as not to be driven to adultery with Val, who she is quickly falling in love with.

Cassandra has actually thought long and hard about the limitations she faces. Mocked by the other women in the town and even rejected by the rather sensuous and free Val, she has internalized her role as a pariah. It does, however, limit her freedom in the town. She is typecast and in fact she is presented to use as a bit of a tramp before we learn how she interprets her world. Williams may have been hacking the values he critiqued in structuring the introduction of Cassandra’s character that way. Cassandra’s monologue is fascinatingly rich. “You must be blind. You—savage. And me—aristocrat. Both of us things whose license has been revoked in the civilized world. Both of us equally damned and for the good reason. Because we both want freedom. Of course, I knew you were really better than me. A whole lot better. I’m rotten. Neurotic. Our blood’s gone bad from too much inter-breeding. They’ve set up the guillotine not in the Place de Concorde, but here, inside our own bodies.” (220) She sums up later on that the same truth confines Myra using some of the same language. “They’ve passed a law against passion. Our license has been revoked.”

Cassandra is facing the informal laws of the community, but the expectations are just as odious on Loon. In fact, the law against vagrancy builds on social expectations of their own. One of the thugs who question his “vagrancy” says: “Yeh, you all hush up. I’m talkin’ to this young fellow. Now, looky here: a nigger works on a white man’s property, don’t he? White man houses him an’ feeds him an’ pays him living’ wages as long as he produces. But when he don’t, it’s like my daddy said, he’s gotta be blasted out a th’ ground like a daid tree stump befo’ you can run a plow th’ought it!” (237–238)

I found the play to be worth reading. I cannot yet say if Orpheus Descending improves on Battle of Angels. I suspect it does, but this work stands on its own and parallels some of the transgressive themes of Not About Nightingales.

 

Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part One. Old America, Young America

“Love was first begot by Mirth and Peace, in Eden, when the world was young. The man oppressed with cares, he cannot love; the man of gloom finds not the god. So, as youth, for the most part, has no cares, and knows no gloom, therefore, ever since time did begin, youth belongs to love. Love may end in grief and age, and pain and need, and all other modes of human mournfulness; but love begins in joy. Love’s first sign is never breathed, till after love hath laughed. Love laughs first, and then sighs after. Love has not hands, but cymbals; Love’s mouth is chambered like a bugle, and the instinctive breathings of his life breathe jubilee notes of joy!” (41–42)

It has been almost a year since I started my series on Melville, but I abandoned it after completing my reading of Moby-Dick. One of my goals this year is to roll up all these lose threads and starting looking at authors in complete sets. (We will see about Henry James—fourteen volumes—when we get there.) The third volume of the Library of America collection of Herman Melville includes his final three novels (Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence-Man), the short-story collection The Piazza Tales, various prose writing—including some of his awesome stories and reviews—, and finally the posthumously published Billy Budd. Only the final work represents a return to sea fiction. Notice with me that Melville produced his six works of sea fiction between 1846 and 1851 (ponder that G.R.R. Martin). Pierre came out a year later in 1852. He had another period of rapid production between 1855 and 1857. During the rest of his life—he died in 1891, over twenty years after his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne died—he published only poems and some small pieces. Reviewers and his family thought Melville insane during this period. In order to meet expenses, Melville took a job from 1866 until 1885 as customs inspector for New York, following Hawthorne’s path. But while the position served as a temporary measure for Hawthorne before he produced his great novels, the customs house would be were America’s greatest writer would spend the rest of his days. He made only $10,400 from the sales of his books. How many great works are lost to us because of that job in the custom house?

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Pierre, or the Ambiguities begins with Melville’s praise for the “Majesty” of the Berkshires, followed almost immediately with the genealogical history of the tale’s protagonist Pierre Glendinning, rooted in an aristocratic family. The contrast between the monarchical and aristocratic England with the democratic America is one of the major tensions through the story. While in Hawthorne we see the endurance of family traditions, in Melville’s America these legacies are more distant and seem to have less hold, or at least are overwhelmed by the tide of democracy. In the first chapter is the quite political statement: “In our cities families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us; forever producing new things by corroding the old.” (13) A few pages later, he makes clear that the American elite migrate to the cities and build houses, while in Europe they would build country estates. Pierre was of the European type¬¬—a country aristocrat—in urbanizing America. What is left of Pierre’s family maintains the symbols of aristocracy, but are truly a family in decline. The past generations are even taller, with more grand careers, and more “majesty.” Moby-Dick thrust us right into the multiple, democratic world of the whaling whip. Pierre starts us someplace more static but moves us into the city, transforming the young Pierre Glendinning in the processes.

As the novel opens he is slated to marry Lucy. Soon enough Pierre learns that he has a half-sister Isabel, announced in the form of a letter. She announces her desire to see him and the deep connection she shares with him. The letter has a profound impact on Pierre who wants to seek out his sister rather than pursue the marriage with Luck. “Well may this head hang on my breast,—it holds too much; well may my heart knock at my ribs,—prisoner impatient of his iron bars. Oh, men are jailers all; jailers of themselves; and in Opinion’s world ignorantly hold their noblest part a captive to their vilest.” (110) With his commitment to seek out his sister, Melville shifts to telling the back story of Isabel. Unlike Pierre, who was raised by a matriarch intensely interested in dynasty and family reputation, Isabel was thrust into the world detached and in the wild. “Pierre, the lips that do now speak to thee, never touched a woman’s breast; I seem not of women born. My first dim life-thoughts cluster round an old, half-ruinous house in some region, for which I now have no chart to seek it out. . . . It was a wild, dark house, planted in the midst of a round, cleared, deeply-sloping space, scooped out in the middle of deep stunted pine woods.” (137)
Isabel seems to be a metaphor for America. In her early years, her only company were “an old man and woman,” both all but silent toward her and only mumble about her to each other. Like Europe looking on the infant America. Isabel began to speak her own polyglot, language (again, like America). Isabel is eventually taken in by a woman, who educates her, especially in music. She still lacked any ties to her heritage, but her father was sending money in support.

In many ways, Pierre and Isabel seem to represent two sides of America. Isabel is longer in the wilderness, primal, free, musical, lacking the need for guidance of adults, liberated. Pierre is younger but closer to the mythical traditions of his family, more obedient to his family, and more civilized, growing up under relatively strict guidance. There is the America that could not entirely break free of European traditions of hierarchy, obedience and power: the side of America that was never quite comfortable with freedom.

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After hearing the story of Isabel, Pierre decides to redeem her place in the family, which is attempts by marrying her. By telling her story, Isabel is able to pull Pierre away from his family and lead him on a path to rebellion.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The House of the Seven Gables” (1851)

“Shall we never, never rid of this Past! It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment; and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times–to Death, if we give the matter the right word!” (509)

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Through my exploration of Nathaniel’s Hawthorne’s works over the past few weeks, I kept coming back to the question stated in the above quote from his The House of the Seven Gables. It is not only that the young tend to me more creative (at least until they are educated), more energetic, and seem to have a better conception of freedom than adults. More troubling is that our elders have created a world that is hard to free ourselves from. Perhaps it is inevitable that the elders attempt to pass on their values to their children through education, but they also more unknowingly create systems and institutions that bind us to their values, whether we agree or not. How could it be otherwise? Without being too hard on my parents and grandparents, it is hard not to accuse them of exasperating the ecological crisis to the point where repair and sustainability is unlikely and of codifying a system of exploitation that is now global in its reach. And it is unlikely that it will be that generation that either dismantles those systems or is left to pick up the pieces after it falls. That is the job of the youth. So why do so many of us feel that we owe our parents so much loyalty?

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

That quote is spoken by Holgrave, the photographer, who is actually the scion of the Maule family, who had their home (The House of the Seven Gables) taken in the aftermath of the murder of witches in Salem by the Pyncheons. The Pyncheons hold onto the home with their dying grasp, while the surviving Maule cannot let go of the past, hiding out in the house under a false name. Here is some of the rest of what he had to say. “A Dead Man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he died intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A Dean Man sits on all our judgement-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! We are sick of Dead Men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity, according to Dead Men’s forms and creeds! Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!” (509)  Yes, what more do we owe these zombies.

Hawthorne’s main argument running through The House of the Seven Gables is the almost unbearable decrepitude of life for all the characters. Most of the characters are old and cannot help but live in the past. Hepzibah Pyncheon and Judge Pyncheon and Clifford Pyncheon are all of the same old and barren generation. The Judge, the man responsible for putting Clifford in prison for thirty years, is searching for ancient land titles to provide wealth for the family, which is soon to die out anyway. Clifford, just out of jail, is so frozen that the loss of the one youthful element in the home, Phoebe, sends him into a catatonic state. You must read the novel to get a full feeling of the paralysis and banality of aging. However, it is not easy to recover from. For the Maule’s the past is so alive, they seem to truly maintain the witchcraft that their ancestor was killed for practicing. Whether it was real then or not, it became real in the resentful heirs to the Maule line. In one of the more horrifying episodes, we learn how witchcraft was used to literally enslave the body and mind of Alice Pyncheon, an act of an Maule eager for revenge.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne's day.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne’s day.

This was written and published one year after The Scarlet Letter and is thematically similar. Both deal with dead sins and their burden on the living. The House of the Seven Gables is vastly more disturbing to me. At least in The Scarlet Letter, there were signs of the youthful potential in Pearl’s disobedience and impertinence. In Phoebe we find someone who can and does escape the home but is still of the Pyncheon clan. In both novels, the solution to the burden of the past was simply letting go. For Hester Prynne it was the symbolic removal of the red “A” for the Pyncheon’s it only took moving out of the House of the Seven Gables and leaving the past dead.

Another important message of The House of the Seven Gables (and perhaps its only hopeful message) is that our individual clinging to the past may not necessarily result in social stagnation. The Pyncheon wealth was in land and social prestige, but was largely used up by the opening of the story. When we meet Hepzibah, she is opening a small shop near the home in order to make ends meet. This may symbolize the shift to a democratic, commercial economy. Judge Pyncheon’s obsessive over the old land deeds and his position is really of the old colonial ways. Interestingly, the Pyncheons escape from the judge on a modern train. Holgrave–full of resentments to be sure–was the most modern character in profession and social mobility. (Was this a legacy of his witch heritage?) “Thought now bu twenty-two years old . . . he had already been, first, a county-schoolmaster; next, a salesman in a country-store; and, either at the same time or afterwards, the political-editor of a country-newspapers. He has subsequently travelled New England and the middle states as a peddler, in the employment of a Connecticut manufactory of Cologne water and other essences. In an episodical way, he had studies and practiced dentistry.” (503-504) It actually goes on, with his adventures in a utopian community, his participation in mesmeism, and his travels to Europe. It is hard not to see him as a symbol for democratic America.

 

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1837–1838)

“Patience, patience! You have been too long growing old. Surely, you might be content to grow young in half and hour! But the water is in your service.” (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 475)

Wow, the stories from this set are all lovely and full of a great deal of joy. In his stories from 1837 and 1838, Hawthorne is continuing his warning against what is old and static and praising the creative, young, and daring. In this attempt, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” must be seen as a central text, taking this one directly with the administering of the waters of the Fountain of Youth on a group of boring old people. For those that are not following, I am reading Hawthorne’s works chronologically, going through the stories ten at a time. Today’s stories are “David Swan,” “The Great Carbuncle,” Fancy’s Show Box,” “The Prophetic Pictures,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “A Bell’s Biography,” “A Journal of a Solitary Man,” “Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” “The Toll-Gatherer’s Day,” and “Sylph Etherege.” Here are some of my random thoughts.
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“David Swan” is a direct reminder of how much life is passing us by day by day. It is about a man sleeping through three life-changing events. The arrival of a rich man seeking an heir, a beautiful woman eager for a husband, and a gang of criminals. Had he woken up during any of the encounters he would have, respectively, won a large inheritance, gotten married, or been killed. How many of us sleep through events because of the danger of the robbers, forgetting the possibilities that our slumber also denies us.

In a similar vein, “The Great Carbuncle” warns against looking for meaning in symbols, ideologies, or precious items. The Great Carbuncle, the target of a quest by a group of people becomes simply an extension of their individual desires and perspectives. In this way, it loses its real function, while simultaneous reifying the perspectives of the various explorers searching for it. For an old experienced wanderer, the Great Carbuncle is valuable only as the question. He is the “Seeker.” For another, it is of scientific interests. For a third, it is a source of immense financial gain. For a poet is a source of inspiration. For an aristocrat, it is a potential symbol of his fame. For a married couple, the Great Carbuncle is a possible source of light for their humble home. Finally, for the “Cynic,” the Great Carbuncle cannot exist. He only seeks it to discredit the others who believe in the potential of beauty in the world. He wears glasses that corrupt his view of the world. It is the young couple who first gaze upon the glorious Great Carbuncle and when the show it to the Cynic without his glasses, he is blinded. They agree it is too much for their humble home and leave it for other seekers. Of course, the Great Carbuncle could symbolize anything we want it to. It could be the American Dream, anarchy, or the good life. Hawthorne’s point seems to be that it is reckless to invest too much in the search (the “Seeker” is killed in the attempt) and it is often fruitless to give it a singular meaning, but it does exist and should exist as a point of a projectral life. “Some few believe that this inestimable stone is blazing, as of old, and say that they have caught its radiance, like a flash of summer lightening, far down the valley of the Saco. And be it owned, that, many a mile from the Crystal Hills, I saw a wondrous light around their summits, and was lured, by the faith of poesy, to be the latest pilgrim of the GREAT CARBUNCLE.” (449)

 

“Dr. Hiedegger’s Experiment” is a strong and convincing tale about a bunch of old people who taste the water of the Fountain of Youth in order to relive their younger days and, they hope, approach it with more maturity—not making the same mistakes. This is a very adult way of pondering youthfulness. How often do we presume to be able to improve on our younger selves? It is the same arrogance that convinces us that we can teach children the right way to live, an arrogance institutionalized in universal public education. The Fountain of Youth (and I need to point out that I am not convinced it was much more potent than liquor, and maybe we should approach drunkenness as an elixir of agelessness. Acting in the same silliness their did the first time around (largely about jealously, failed courtship, and petty rivalries), we learn not that it is impossible to reform the youth, but that is an odious proposition. Here is part of Hawthorne’s description of the old’s transformation into youth. “Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. . . . But they were young: their burning passions proved them so. Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances.” (478) That Hawthorne sees this as a beneficial transformation, even if temporary, is suggested in how his characters end searching for the Foundation of Youth (a rather silly youthful quest in its own right).

I am trying to phase out more commentary on Hawthorne’s celebration of youth and disgust with the old and static, but I see it again and again in his work. Placing this theme into the historical context of a young nation attempting to find its own culture amid long standing English traditions (political, social, religious), Hawthorne is presenting a deeply important political critique as well as a path for life. So let me dwell on it a bit more. It is a good reminder.

“There is hardly a more difficult exercise of fancy, than, while gazing at a figure of melancholy age, to re-create its youth, and, without entirely obliterating the identity of form and features, to restore those graces which time as snatched away. Some old people, especially women, so ageworn and woful are they, seem never to have been young and gay.” (“Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” 501) Yes, growing old and leaving beyond childish things is murder. We should stop doing it so often. We have too much to learn from the young and even ourselves when we were young.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835): Fear the Gerontocracy

“Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments. I wonder how mariners feel, when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean—that wide and nameless sepulchre.” (306, from “The Ambitious Guest”)

The ten stories I looked at for today all appeared in print first in 1835 and carry with them some common themes as might be expected from such an aggressive expression of creative energies. Actually, he published fifteen stories in that year, including stories I looked at yesterday. One strong common thread is Hawthorne’s ominous presentation of the old, the ancient, the static, and the traditional. When set next to a work such as “Little Alice’s Ramble” (a story I feel in love with yesterday), this contrast becomes much clearer. Can we say that Hawthorne was at roots a Promethean, optimistic when it came to the  youthful, like the American republic itself during his life, and dark only when looking at the decrepit?  I will try to show that, in 1835 at least, Hawthorne consistently presented the old with a degree of suspicion and fear. If he is right, let me say that I totally agree with him. The idea that we have something special to learn from elders (by virtue of age and experience alone) is one of the most dangerous views out there. All things being equal, I will trust the child for a host of reasons, not least of which is that they need to live in this world much longer than the ancient.

The stories for today were “The Gray Champion,” “My Visit to Niagara,” “Old News,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Ambitious Guest,” “A Rill from the Town-Pump,” “The White Old Maid,” “The Vision of the Fountain,” and “The Devil in Manuscript.”

Hawthorne has a gerontocracy to work against thanks to the historical memory of New England and its Puritan elite. They are never far from his pen and they are the most common symbol of destructive, useless, rigid, or just plain silly values. He wants to tell his readers that despite a revolution and a century of distance, the Puritan elders maintain control over the minds of the people of New England, and rarely for the better. This is expressed in several places, including “The Gray Champion.” This story is essentially about the long-standing political and moral power of Puritanism in New England, even during a period of dramatic change brought on by James II’s attempt to rein in the colonies and the later Glorious Revolution. During the tyrannical rule of Sir Edmund Andros, the people of New England were challenged to stand up for liberty against tyranny, but the spirit of fierce independence that brought the Puritans to New England was weakening. This spirit lives on in the “gray champion” who appeared—it seems—out of the mists of time. He condemns Andros and threatens him with the return of the gallows, before retreating back to the shadows. The end of the story meditates on the meaning of these events, suggesting that this same spirit lived on in other events particularly the American Revolution. “But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come; for he is the type of New-England’s hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the even of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New-England’s son’s will vindicate their ancestry.” (243) This is actually a fairly positive image of the Puritan spirit, at least the part of it that led thousands to flee England and attempt to establish a new society away from the shackles of the king and his church. The ominous part of this is the Gray Champion’s unending moral authority and his authoritarian personality, his ability to command the attention of all and his immediate willingness to combine independence with the domination of morality, enforced by the gallows. It is also a reminder of how fine the line can be between tradition and liberty.

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

“Old News” is a summary of the highlights of New England’s history, including the French and Indian War and the Revolution. He makes some wonderful observations, including the way in which the newspaper record the minutiae of the life of the elite. Whatever nostalgia Hawthorne feels over this bygone age, is tempered by the realization that these newspapers are records of a dead world. “Whether it be something in the literary execution, or the ancient print and paper, and the idea, that those same musty pages have been handled by people—once alive and bustling amid the scenes there recorded, yet now in their graves beyond the memory of men—so it is, that in those elder volumes, we seem to find the life of a past age preserved between the leaves, like a dry specimen of foliage.” (275) We are ashamed not to reflect on those glories but cannot escape the fact that they are dead and poor models for the living.

The horrific nature of the Puritan past is the major theme of the famous “Young Goodman Brown,” about a man who attends a Witch’s Sabbath, populated by many of the town elders, who learns about the deep connection between New England’s traditions and the works of the devil. The events take on a dream-like quality when the protagonist, Goodman Brown, escapes the proceedings (which involve his wife he thought he left behind), but nevertheless, the hypocrisy of the community is exposed. Goodman Brown’s guide into the forest provides this historical context. “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war.” (278)

In other stories, the ancient is just associated with oddness or a vapid stability. A character in “The Ambitious Guest” said: “Old folks have their notions as well as young ones. You’ve been wishing and planning; and letting your heads run on one thing and another, till you’ve set my mind a wandering too. Now what should an old woman wish for, when she can go but a step or two before she comes to her grave? Children, it will haunt me night and day, till I tell you.” (305) In “A Rill from the Town-Pump” it appears as a location in the town that is home to deep traditions and many ghosts. The story contains a warning against inherited sin and a celebration of alternatives freed from these traditions. “Until now, the phrensy of hereditary fever has raged in the human blood, transmitted from sire to son, and re-kindled, in every generation, by fresh draughts of liquid flame. When that inward fire shall be extinguished, the heat of passion cannot but grow cool, and war–the drunkenness of nations–perhaps will cease. At least, there will be no war of households. The husband and wife, drinking deep of peaceful joy–a calm bliss of temperate affections–shall pass hand in hand through life, and lie down, not reluctantly, at its protracted close. To them, the past will be no turmoil of mad dreams, nor the future an eternity of such moments as follow the delirium of the drunkard. Their dead faces shall express what their spirits were, and are to be, by a lingering smile of memory and hope.” (312)

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The stories go on like this. “White Old Maid” gives us a quasi-ghost story about a widow who wanders through the town stuck in her grief for years. While the woman grows old from grief, we witness decaying buildings and the dominance of death and woe, which can only from from a world dominated by the past.

Ah, how I much prefer Little Annie and her ramble.

 

 

 

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)

kafka

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.