Friends and readers,
My week of mostly quietly reading, writing in the new world order unfolding all around me, included two masterpiece books I can write briefly about here:
Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge:
By the time I came to the end of the perhaps nameless woman’s journal (and I only realized she had not named herself or had anyone else called her by her first or last name in the last few pages), I felt in a state of terror. Realistic terror, nothing supernatural here. 2/3s of the book an uncanny imitation of an upper class white woman come to live in the West Indies on a plantation where black people are being worked to death, or savagely used for sex, flogged viciously. It’s hard to put why the single word I’d use most strongly is terrifying since so much is left out. We often don’t know why something happened. Phillips imitates diaries in leaving out significant information in the way diarists do. Things suddenly happen without explanation — like Emily (she may be naming herself in her last sentences) is suddenly having sex (an affair) with the white overseer of the plantation she’s been sent to by her father. Quite why we don’t know: her explanation to report on the plantation doesn’t make sense as you need to know something first and clearly she is utterly ignorant of businesses and slavery and plantation life in the West Indies. Maybe her father did this to force her to accept a much older man he wants her to marry whom she is to marry when she returns (and why she realize she doesn’t want to).
The terror insofar as I can account for it does not come from what these human beings are doing to one another or forced to allow others to do to them. It’s presented so prosaically and the white woman repeats the worst ugly cliches about black people — that they deserve this treatment is what her words all amount to, are not worth any other. comes from the evils of slavery which this book has uncovered more than any other I’ve read in the sense of more deeply. It sounds so obvious but what Phillips makes you realize is the true evil of slavery is that the worst aspects of human nature emerge from everyone (slaves and owners, and non-owners and free or partly free black people, and whites in indentured servitude alike) and there is no control, no law. Law is a sham when at any point someone can murder someone else with impunity. White owners can blog a black to death or hang them with them having no recourse (if there is a pretense trial, it’s transparently ridiculous). This leads them to want to murder anyone and everyone who hurts them back. Or at least enough slaves or half-slaves. Everyone lies too, nothing to be depended upon.
So a white woman who has been so foolish as to go to bed with a white man without marriage (unacknowledged desperation) and offered to stay longer and lost her respectability as lost what little safety net she had. Much as I’m led to dislike the unnamed diarist or Emily the terror is for her, as she feels it.
The first text I read which brought all this home to me was Fanny Kemble’s journal of her two years (1839-40 or so) on a South Carolina plantation run on slave labor. Rice the crop. The last two chapters on women: how they are made playthings for violence, scarred for fun, whipped, gang-raped, and then expected to breed; after the birth of the child, forced out within a week to work from dawn to dusk. Mary Prince’s diary tells of how for 12 hours in row 6 days a week she was forced to work in salt waters. Made her blind. Cambridge shows us what life was life in extermination camps too. Today in US prisons. The analogy with the US today is in fact striking. A lawless lying president. Police in the streets permitted to kill with impunity. Fake news that leads white men with assault rifles to come to “self-investigate” and kill people in a family pizza place in Washington, D.C. I begin to be paranoiac and wonder if Trump is manufacturing more fake news to shut down the internet. Now we hear of fake news about Iraq making some of these followers want to go there and kill people.
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, especially the central section, Time Past, all about death, dying, disintegration, creating both artificial objects and natural ones as animate
The front “story” is like The Years: the text focuses on what is surrounding description, context, the weather, in most novels: nature, natural forces, the weather, air, light shade, with almost as an afterthought, bits of plot, and what are they? death. there is the sudden sentence that Mr Ramsay stretched out his arm and of course Mrs Ramsay wasn’t there “having died suddenly the night before.” Suddenly their daughter Prue is getting married and all say how wonderful, but then we are told in afterthought fashion she died in childbirth (indirectly said).
While there is no ghost in the manner of M.R. James or psychological projections, the whole section is haunted with the presence of Mrs Ramsay: the house is empty because she’s not there. The narrator slips into third person indirect every once in a while and we are in Lily’s mind or near Mr Ramsay’s or the housekeeper Mrs McNab dusting under the empty beds. That last is so characteristic of Woolf: she usually has some old impoverished woman about. She suddenly turns her mind to Andrew, blown to bits on a battlefield, died immediately she says, relieved to think so.
On one level it’s an ode to Mrs Ramsay, to mother. The lead-in to the central section is Mr and Mrs Ramsay in bed, he reading Scott’s The Antiquary to reassure himself his kind of writing and his hegemony with Scott not superceded, but the emphasis is on the death of Steenie – sudden, grieving his frustrated-in-life father so, for many one of the best passages Scott ever wrote, and the sonnet by Shakespeare that Mrs Ramsay quotes is also haunted, “as with your shadows I did play – the lover is absent, has gone, and you are left darkling and deeply at a loss.” Mr Ramsay apparently doesn’t approve of his wife’s pessimism. There is a luxuriating in death as release at last. And we catalogue the dead (for Mr Ramsay goes too) – there’s a futility in all human beings do is one part of the feel.
The film adapted from the last two of Proust’s novels, Time Past, was one of Jim’s favorites: he’d watch it over and over again.
Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in your Living Room:
among much twaddle (the sign you have a book meant for a popular non-reader is that you are given only a couple of nuggets of information or insight every four pages or so lest that reader be intimidated by “too much density”) she is on about how house cats became domesticated by interacting with human beings chasing the same food supply (meat) and what a tremendously successful species they have become. There’s a downsize to this as one could take away from this book, cats are a danger to the earth as this all too numerous predator. She writes in this non-focused meander so her perspective has a way of oozing in unintended directions. She also does not want to offend her readers’ pride so the deep reason we like cats — because they love us, cling to us, create a private hidden world of play, physical affection, interspecies communication omitted.
In Ian’s mind you see he and I are together for say several hours. He is nearby, in various postures close, he does small things, puts out a paw once in a while, when I get up, he follows; he makes a meow; he jumps on my lap, squats, then turns and pushes his whole body against my chest. We are together. Clarycat is just loving me on and off all day. Once in a while she retires to rest in another room or rests in her catbed as you see in the photo. This aspect of the cat Tucker doesn’t acknowledge. They are not lions in living rooms. They are domesticated small feline deep companions.
He likes to play with toys still. A small catnip mouse has been a great success. He pushes it around the house with his paw; he has a small bird with a rattle and feathers on a string that he pulls about with his mouth. then he stops and wrestles with it.
I mean to write much more at length, separate blog, on Margaret Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor, Jane Hill’s The Art of Carrington (to say nothing of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, book and 1972 BBC mini-series).
So, outside activities: Three times to the gym in the morning for “body strengthening” classes (a large bunch of older people first semi-dancing and then semi-exercising with chair, plastic ball, weights and stretch chord) at a gym. I put up that tree at the top of this blog. I climbed a ladder thinking to try to put the lights into the higher branches, but realized I’d fall so gave it up. My across-the-street neighbor helped me put a cap on my outside faucet lest the pipes freeze
I have a volume of poetry by women which is titled The Widow’s handbook. It’s very fat, one or two poems each poet. One of the many things it taught me was how varied widowing is — some women lose their husbands to death as early as their 30s (not just an accident but illness) and there’s a great variety of circumstances as well as how he left you. Some husbands don’t tell their wives the truth and she finds herself badly in debt or without a pension. There are devastating reinforcements. The book is organized so as to begin in grief, show some interim time and then the last more upbeat.
I’m finding I can hardly believe 4 years have gone by. They felt in the experience but swift now that it’s 4. When I first was widowed I knew a woman who was so hurt when I seemed to imply that after 4 years she should be doing something other, moving on; now I know I was naive and why she was so hurt.
I came home yesterday late afternoon to discover that my machine had updated itself, and would no longer support “safari” and my gmail was gone to pot, back to some incoherent html system. I emailed my IT guy in a shaking panic and he sensed I needed him NOW. Came right on, and within half an hour I was using a new browser, Internet Explorer, with all my stuff from safari transferred over. I’m having some minor trouble with Yahoo as not all my mail is going there, and each time I come on I must fill in my password once again. But I can live with it. A huge glass of wine gulped down while I watched him. It calmed me, I was able to cope then. He said, “Good way to begin Friday night, Ellen.” I wasn’t so sure.
I had seen a remarkable film, Manchester by the Sea, well worth going to (I became so involved I cried out at one point). Tides of grief the reviewer says. It is a relief to see some accuracy in depicting the economic and social lives of average Americans today, only it’s fake because no one anywhere isn’t white and none of them are overtly desperate for money, or even complain about their status, no one angry but our hero.
The US situation is hard to capture because it is so complicated and made up of so many peoples who are not integrated together, but exist as separate ethnic and other groups, each in tiny world of family, few friends, long hours of work, moving with and to jobs: but basically, reductively, there seems to be a vast body of people living on the edge of economic disaster, just making ends meet, and needing to borrow — sometimes larger sums, but often just using credit cards to do that,”maxing them out” as the vicious man at the head of US power urged his salesmen when they were pressuring people to go to Trump university. There is another group where people seem comfortable, not in debt, have savings, even investments, and houses and cars, but take away some social benefits (pensions) have the stock market collapse and are up shit’s creek. Can’t make ends meet. Evicted, have to move. Now there is a tiny minority of very rich, say 10% and they are not at risk and they want to take back whatever they supply to the others. Massive cuts to social security starts the game. If they manage to do that will there be finally a civil war, an eruption, a revolution. It could go to bring an even more rightist to power as people are so self-centered by every instinct. People don’t revolt easily either; they don’t want to put their lives, their bodies on the line. It’s so easy to kill someone – and with a gun it’s nothing. As yet his Trump followers liking his tweets (oh yes) and only beginning to murmur as they see themselves individually betrayed here and there — like putting in charge of treasury the Goldman Sacks man who was known as a foreclosure “king:” (didnt go to jail for false foreclosures but others did, he just grew richer).
And otherwise Trump leading the pack to “drain the swamp” into which he is stashing alligators. Take away the little people have beyond the bits they can earn. You’re right that they are dependent on consumers buying but do they see that. Apparently Assad thinks he need not have any people in his country. They get in the way of extracting oil and selling it for huge profits. The man put at the head of Labor apparently has said robots are much better as workers at his fast food restaurants; they don’t get sick, don’t ask for vacation, smile at customers, are efficient, never complain. So he’d like to replace as many workers as possible with robots and what does he care of they die of sicken or distress (having no access to medicine, or having it are hounded for debts). Suicides among white women in their 40s going up; life expectancy of US people going down. Minority rule. He and his “mad dog” military demonizing Arabs and Muslims in the ongoing colonialist grabs of oil and natural resources, selling arms (LeCarre’s Night Manager was my topic in a previous diary entry). The real voting choices of the majority stifled, nullified.
The real problem with the movie Manchester by the Sea on its own terms (not its political inferences which are important) is that Kenneth Lonergan thinks in order to make people sympathize with someone going around with such a hurt in him is he has to invent this devastating loss. The hero is responsible — it was an accident but he had been drinking hard, enjoying as it’s said the company of friends over billiards to 3 in the morning, and left the fire on (as his wife insisted she could not bear the heat high in winter) in the fireplace, went out for more beer, and came back to find his home a furnace and his three children dead. But in truth all one needs is to be alive, go through life, see others and be treated by them in various ways for say a few years of teenagehood. Abrasive aggressive and mockery and coldness when I tried to confide, another person telling yet others what I said and a third shocked – you don’t tell such things. Such one small moment. And one can go through life with this terrible hurt within. The hero does have it well before the accident: we see in his eyes how he yearns and how he is rejected — by his wife in bed, by others who don’t understand.
Today Izzy and I saw the HD screening of Kaija Saarianho’s L’Amour de loin (love from afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf. I’ll write a separate blog for this: it was remarkable, taking within its allegory Tristan and Isolde (especially in an 1890s version by Joseph Bedier, in French), the dying fisher king, Aymntas (especially in Wolfram’s Parzival), fear of existence itself (dying and living) so retreat into dreams. Yet it was deeply reactionary: the chorus allowed to bring only parts of their bodies and heads out of some constrained barred area. The worship of the supposed numinous.
Tomorrow is Sunday and I used to put a poem on this blog every Sunday:
BY: Yannis Ritsos,
translated by Ryan Bloom
Women can seem a world away, their sheets smelling of “goodnight.”
Setting a small loaf of bread on the table so we don’t notice the distance, don’t feel them
We understand, though, that we are to blame; we rise from our sleep and say:
“Let me burn the flame tonight,” or “You’ve worked too hard today.”
We strike a match; she turns, drifts slowly out of sight, her gaze
inexplicably fixed on the dull kitchen light. Her back,
a bitter slope, bears the weight of death:
family dead, her dead, our own death.
We listen; ancient floorboards creak under her footsteps,
dried streaks of water stain dishes in the dish rack—listen…
there’s the train come to take our soldiers to the front.
What women are enduring everywhere in these crazed wars making terror: Yemen, Syria. What can one begin to say or feel that’s adequate to the case. I began this blog with terror; I had some reference to a cunning clown and his henchman and the immiseration of vast numbers of disenfranchised people I end on horror, dismay, should we not feel helpless rage.
I live vicariously too, gentle reader. My social life is getting on the Net, seeing letters from friends and answering and feeling so grateful when they do answer. One group reading group I manage to stay with by having two other people support it who I can write with. Others I look in on. Blogs where I see others like me spend most of their hours among books. Face-book chatting with like-minded people. Twitter hearing how others are reacting to the day’s news or moments of their outward social lives, what they have just read. Just a thought he or she had.
I do love my long hours with books and writing. I love the movies I spend time watching. I see people from afar and a couple close who live my way. I finally understood what went wrong between me and that women Clare Shepherd who I visited for a week in Cornwall and tried so desperately to be friends face-to-face and living around. The thing, the area that made us friends is a self or experience that comes out in writing and from a distance. When encountering one another directly, a very different self comes out and that was one when both of us saw neither of us could relate to.
And how do you get through your days, gentle reader?