gall and gumption

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Angry People IV -- Coriolanus

He's pretty steamed when they accuse him of treason and debate throwing him off a cliff.

CORIOLANUS. I'll know no further.
Let them pronounce the steep Tarpeian death,
Vagabond exile, flaying, pent to linger
But with a grain a day, I would not buy
Their mercy at the price of one fair word,
Nor check my courage for what they can give,
To have't with saying 'Good morrow.'

I must say it sounds very Jamaican to me. One of the things I missed about the Caribbean is the rhetoric. Caribbean people are great at soliloquies, and the trope above is one you frequently hear.

Yeah and I will confess that when I get angry I resort to some form of this one. It's basically, if you can't do me justice I don't want any [insert lonnnnnng string of adjectival obscenity here] favors. You have to be prepared to live up to it too.


Banish him? I don't think so.

CORIOLANUS. YOU common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o' th' rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air- I banish you.
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts;
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders, till at length
Your ignorance- which finds not till it feels,
Making but reservation of yourselves
Still your own foes- deliver you
As most abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising
For you the city, thus I turn my back;
There is a world elsewhere.

I don't know -- maybe there aren't that many things you can say in his situation. You tell them, "You banish me? No, I banish you!" and then you basically tell them, "Without me you are nothing, you are fucked!" I suppose Brutus would say something polite and dignified before letting himself be thrown off the cliff. And those Kleist heroes I cited would have probably burned the whole place down. But Coriolanus's response at this point is even more than most people I know would do.

You aren't supposed to say stuff like he does. It's not going to save him. It's not going to make him any friends among the people who are throwing him overboard.

My own feeling is that he is right to speak out. Because he must make it clear that he does not consent to the deceit, the betrayal. Also, I'm with Burke: "What is not just should not be convenient." Of course his enemies would like him to assent, to agree that he deserves to be banished and mistreated. He is letting them know by the violence of his expression just how strongly he is revolted by what's happening. The feeling is there first.

It's very good that he says there is a world elsewhere. At this point the best thing he can do with these pathetic traitors is go to that place as soon as possible -- unless he has some more labrish for them.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Angry People III -- More Kleist

Piachi may well be the angriest man ever. The foundling who he adopted has grown up into a scoundrel who tricked and seduced Piachi's wife, causing her to die, and who then recruits the help of some shady monks to swindle Piachi out of his house.

Only the previous day Piachi had buried the unhappy Elvira who as a result of the recent episode had fallen into a burning fever and died. Maddened by this double blow he went into the house with the injunction in his pocket, and with rage lending him strength he felled Nicolo, who was of weaker build, to the floor, and crushed out his brains against the wall. No one else in the house noticed his presence until the deed was already done; by the time they found he he was holding Nicolo between his knees and stuffing the injunction into his mouth. Having done so he stood up, surrendered all his weapons, and was then imprisoned, tried and condemned to death by hanging.

In the Papal State there is a law by which no criminal may be led to his death before he has received absolution. This Piachi, when his life had been declared forfeit, stubbornly refused to do. After all the arguments of religion had been vainly adduced to convince him of the heinousness of his behaviourr, he was led out to the gallows in the hope that the sight of the death that awaited him might frighten him into penitence. On one side stood a priest who in a voice like the last trump described to him all the terrors of hell in to which his soul was about to be plunged; opposite stood another, holding in his hand the Body of Christ, the sacred means of redemption, and spoke to him of the glorious abodes of eternal peace. ‘Will you accept the blessed gift of salvation?’ they both asked him. ‘Will you receive the sacrament?’ ‘No,’ replied Piachi. ‘Why not?’ ‘I do not want to go to saved. I want to go down into the deepest pit of hell, I want to find Nicolo again — for he will not be in heaven — and continue my vengeance on him which I could not finish here to my full satisfaction.’ And so saying he ascended the ladder and called upon the hangman to perform his duty,.

In the end the execution had to be stayed and the wretched man taken back to prison, for the law protected him. On three successive days similar attempts were made and every time without avail. On the third day, forced once more to come down from the ladder unhyanged, he raised his fists in a gesture of bitter rage and cursed the inhuman law that forbade him to go to hell. He called upon the whole legion of devils to come and fetch him, swore he had no other wish but to be doomed and damned, and vowed he would throttle the first priest who came to hand if by so doing he might get to hell and lay hold of Nicolo again!’

I really can't think of anything to say about this. It's yer genuine grotesque. I like it. It's got a funky beat.

Angry People II

About the middle of the sixteenth century there lived beside the banks of the River Havel a horse-dealer called Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, who was one of the most honourable as well as one of the most terrible men of his age. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man could have been considered a paragon of civil virtues. In a village that still bears his name he owned a farm where he peacefully earned a living by his trade; his wife bore him children whom he brought up in the fear of God to be hardworking and honest; he had not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness; in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursued one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer.
emphasis mine

I used to find this story painful to read. First of all the mistreatment of the horses was always a big sticking point. But once I got past that the unrelenting horribleness of the Junker Wenzel von Tronka was also distressing. Maybe it’s just me but another thing that was more subtly disturbing was the feeling of commitment to Kohlhaas’s actions and destiny. Kohlhaas’s sense of justice is after all one of the highest fruits of civilization. It’s significant that he is the son of a schoolmaster. The justice that he has been taught so scrupulously to honor is denied him at every turn, on the first appeal he has ever had to make to it. It’s like the story keeps telling you that civilization teaches you a sense of justice that you can never hope to have satisfied.

As he pursues satisfaction, Kohlhaas discovers outrage upon outrage; justice and social order have parted company. Each person who has contact with Kohlhaas’s case only interests himself as far as his own interest is concerned. No one sees all the small failures of justice all the way to their remotest implications — Kohlhaas does. That’s his sense of justice.

What does Kohlhaas want? A seemingly trivial thing. He wants the two black horses that the Junker abused to be restored to their former health, and some small expenses that he has been out by the whole affair. By the time he sneaks into the study of Martin Luther, his wife is dead, he has sold his farm, and he is at the top of the Most Wanted list. He explains himself to Luther. It is a really touching scene, because Luther is about the last person in authority Kohlhaas can trust, he’s the one person to whom he can reveal the sadness.

’You impious and terrible man!’ cried Luther… ‘who gave you the right to attack Junker von Tronka in pursuance of decrees issued on no authority but your own, and when you could not find him in his castle to come down with fire and sword on the whole community that gave him shelter?’
‘No one, your Reverence,’ replied Kohlhaas, ‘from this moment on! Information I had received from Dresden deceived me and led me astray! The war I am waging against human society becomes a crime if this assurance you give me is true and society had not cast me out!’
‘Cast you out!’ cried Luther, staring at him. ‘What mad idea has taken possession of you? Who do you say has cast you out from the community of the state in which you have lived? Has there ever, so long as states have existed, been a case of anyone, no matter who, becoming an outcast of society?’
‘I call that man an outcast,’ answered Kohlhaas, clenching his fist, ‘who is denied the protection of the law! For I need that protection if my peaceful trade is to prosper; indeed it is for the sake of that protection that I take refuge, with all the goods I have acquired, in that community. Whoever withholds it from me drives me out into the wilderness among savages. It is he — how can you deny it? — who puts into my hands the club I am wielding to protect myself.’(emphasis mine)

Luther tells him that the Elector has not yet seen Kohlhaas’s petition.

’If state officials suppress lawsuits behind his back or make a mockery of his otherwise sacred name without his knowledge, who but God can call him to account for appointing such servants? Is a cursed wretch like you entitled to judge him for it?

(Sixteenth century Germany was not a democracy. Luther invokes the divine right of kings with such assurance! )

Kohlhaas, still not intimidated, says fine, then take him my petition if I haven’t been cast out and get me the justice I want. Then, it’s like Luther has trouble wrapping his brain around exactly what it is that Kohlhaas wants.

Luther, with an expression of annoyance, pushed papers to and fro on his desk and said nothing. He was angered by the defiant attitude this strange man adopted towards the state, and thinking of the writ which he had serviced on the Junker from Kohlhaasenbruck, he asked him what he expected of the Dresden court.

When Kohlhaas explains just exactly what he wants, calculated, apparently, down to the last pfennig,

’You insane, incomprehensible, terrible man!’ exclaimed Luther, staring at him.

Do try to remember that the Luther of this story is the greatest living moral authority in the Protestant world. There is no higher moral judge — not, at least, till you get to Heaven. And the two of them, Kohlhaas and Luther, proceed to haggle. In the end Kohlhaas asks for the sacrament. Luther refuses it to him because Kohlhaas refuses to forgive the Junker.

You understand at this point, if you didn’t already, that Kohlhaas is doomed. When he calls himself outcast from society by the withholding of justice, you know this feels true. Your heart is totally with him. And you know that society will destroy a splendid figure of a man to implement its own “justice” — a justice about which while you see the necessity of it (self-defense), you now have a fair amount of moral skepticism.

The Elector at last delivers the justice that Kohlhaas has been seeking, as the horse trader, carrying his two children, is being led to the scaffold. His horses are returned to him in good condition, and the small sum of money that he claimed.

Kohlhaas took the court’s verdict which was passed to him at a sign from the High Chanecllor, and setting down beside him the two children he had been carrying, his eyes wide and sparkling with triumph; then when he also found a clause condemning the Junker Wenzel to two years’ imprisonment, he knelt down at a distance before the Elector with his hands crossed over his breast, completely overwhelmed with emotion. Rising again and putting his hand to his bosom, he joyfully assured the High Chancellor that his dearest wish on earth had been fulfilled…

Kohlhaas is one of those people that see beyond. To see himself as cast among savages is not just self-dramatization. You can’t judge Kohlhaas without also considering that a society in which Kohlhaas could not hope for justice was not a peaceful place. When the Junker was allowed to get away with cheating him, Kohlhaas truly found himself among savages.

He sees the damage to his material interests but what is infinitely more important to him is the violation of an essential principle of society — that protection the law owes to the citizen. Violated in him. Why should it be violated in his particular case?

He gets the letter from the governor and the State Chancellery’s resolution, two documents that basically tell him to stop making a nuisance of himself and that utterly fail to grasp the principles involved. By this time, also, Kohlhaas is aware of the nepotism and corruption among those to whom he has gone for justice — they’re looking out for each other, denying him what he asks, simply because they can.

His refusal to take his horses back in their degraded condition now makes him into a nuisance to people who think that in giving him back two nearly nearly ruined nags for the healthy young animals he left, was an act of great liberality and condescension on their part. And if that isn’t good enough for him, if he doesn’t look at their kindness the same way they do, well, it’s because he is a troublemaker. The expectation that he will take the horses after the best of them has been used up is a legally sanctioned cheat, a lie, an insult.

This contemptuous dishonesty is what makes Kohlhaas “foam with rage.”

Do they take him for a person with no claim to justice or respect? Do they take him for a person whose claim can be comfortably ignored or evaded? Is this really all he has deserved? Do they take him for an asshole?

Since for Kohlhaas the horses were not the issue — he would have been equally aggrieved had they been a couple of dogs — this letter made him foam with rage. A feeling of repugnance such as he had never experienced before filled his heart as he looked towards the gate whenever he heard a sound in the courtyard, expecting to see the Junker’s men appear and, perhaps even with some excuse, hand the starved and emaciated horses back to him. Well schooled in the world’s ways though he was, this would have been the one eventuality to which his feelings could have found no fitting response. Shortly afterwards, however, he heard, from a friend who had traveled that way, that the nags were as heretofore being used on the fields at Tronka Castle with the Junker’s other horses.

The Junker, you see, has moved on.

It’s when he realizes that the Junker has moved on that Kohlhaas gets a made up mind. He starts preparing for war. His wife pleads with him to give the Junker and his people one last chance, offering to go to them herself. She pleads for their lives, for their goodness, and he honors her plea. This isn’t like saying “I’m giving you one last chance.” He is thinking, “Maybe I haven’t been fair to them.” What is the result of this granting of the benefit of the doubt? His wife is brought home in a wagon, brutalized out of her mind and fatally wounded. For what? Whoever did it to her did it in the defense of callousness, casual brutality, unthinking self-interest and dishonesty. This pointless crime is a final unneeded proof, for Kohlhaas, of the Junker's moral incoherence.

Her last words to him are a plea to forgive them. And he can’t do it. A man who would love to have given his dying, beloved wife what she wanted.

Anyway the first few times I read this story I really couldn’t understand Kohlhaas’s motivation to drag things on as he did. Like I said it just made me uncomfortable. But then the last couple times I read it something clicked. I do identify with Kohlhaas. With the quality of his feelings, with his inability to “let it go.” With the blazing light of his outrage. With his relentless rationality and his care to do justice to all claims.

I can’t think of anybody in this story who I would rather be than Michael Kohlhaas. If I had all of fiction to choose from I might like to be Elizabeth Bennett. Things do work out nicely for her. But the person who it seems to me lives the life of highest purpose, selflessness, courage and truthfulness in this story is Kohlhaas. What vitality he has! People are supposed to give up and go away quietly. And he just can’t.

Kohlhaas’s death occurs amid general lamentation. He has been publicly executed as a criminal but his character is intact. In fact, from that sort of high peak when his anger turns to a purpose, he sets out, with harmony restored to his heart, to show the world who he is, he has already accepted death. Because of that same inner consistency and clarity of character, that same sense of justice. The Junker is still alive at the end, but his character (which lacked structural integrity) is totally destroyed. No one will ever consider him a man of truth or integrity or courage or honor, ever again.

I suppose there are people who could read this story as a fantastic and lively allegory or romance. I know when I read this I keep thinking of Kafka’s fantastic tales of punishment and criminality — the ones as it happens that I find almost unreadable for their tediousness. The story’s setting in the sixteenth century makes it seem like a sort of romance. But in my experience, I could throw a stone on any street and hit someone who would act as Kohlhaas’s enemies act. And I know, from my own experience, that anger at such conduct feels a lot like what Kohlhaas feels. The psychological truth of this story isn't buried under symbols or devices; it is pretty much right up on the surface of the narrative.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Jane Eyre Nausea Challenge

Well, this is nice. Bob and Max have been heard from. Yes, Max, iti totally works. Geez I wish I had done this earlier. Anyway, Bob's comment that Jane Eyre makes him want to run out of the room, brought out my sadistic side. I read the rest of it (finished it Thursday night/Friday morning) and then went back and looked for the most cringe-inducing passage I could find.

This is the one I found. It's from Chapter 24. Rochester has just gotten up from the piano, where he sang a song about his beloved being with him in death or something. The song, of course, is a poem of Bronte's composition.

He rose and came towards me, and I saw his face all kindled, and his full falcon-eye flashing, and tenderness and passion in every lineament. I quailed momentarily--then I rallied. Soft scene, daring demonstration, I would not have; and I stood in peril of both: a weapon of defence must be prepared--I whetted my tongue: as he reached me, I asked with asperity, "whom he was going to marry now?"

"That was a strange question to be put by his darling Jane."

"Indeed! I considered it a very natural and necessary one: he had talked of his future wife dying with him. What did he mean by such a pagan idea? I had no intention of dying with him--he might depend on that."

"Oh, all he longed, all he prayed for, was that I might live with him! Death was not for such as I."

"Indeed it was: I had as good a right to die when my time came as he had: but I should bide that time, and not be hurried away in a suttee."

"Would I forgive him for the selfish idea, and prove my pardon by a reconciling kiss?"

"No: I would rather be excused."

Here I heard myself apostrophised as a "hard little thing;" and it was added, "any other woman would have been melted to marrow at hearing such stanzas crooned in her praise."

I assured him I was naturally hard--very flinty, and that he would often find me so; and that, moreover, I was determined to show him divers rugged points in my character before the ensuing four weeks elapsed: he should know fully what sort of a bargain he had made, while there was yet time to rescind it.

"Would I be quiet and talk rationally?"

"I would be quiet if he liked, and as to talking rationally, I flattered myself I was doing that now."

He fretted, pished, and pshawed. "Very good," I thought; "you may fume and fidget as you please: but this is the best plan to pursue with you, I am certain. I like you more than I can say; but I'll not sink into a bathos of sentiment: and with this needle of repartee I'll keep you from the edge of the gulf too; and, moreover, maintain by its pungent aid that distance between you and myself most conducive to our real mutual advantage."

From less to more, I worked him up to considerable irritation; then, after he had retired, in dudgeon, quite to the other end of the room, I got up, and saying, "I wish you good-night, sir," in my natural and wonted respectful manner, I slipped out by the side-door and got away.

The system thus entered on, I pursued during the whole season of probation; and with the best success. He was kept, to be sure, rather cross and crusty; but on the whole I could see he was excellently entertained, and that a lamb-like submission and turtle- dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism more, would have pleased his judgment, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste less.

Well, as Bronte reminds us, they are a couple of weird birds. But it is a little disconcerting to be unsure whether she knows just how weird this is. Don't you think one thing that makes it strange is that her account of feelings in other parts of the book, for instance in the bit I quoted before, is sometimes so persuasive?

Any challengers? Anyone remember a passage that would really make Bob bolt for the airsick bag? To save you some keystrokes, you can find the whole text of the novel here.

If no one rises to this one it's OK. Other schemes and plots are in the works for this book. So much to do, so little battery power.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


I've changed my settings. I didn't know I had it so that you had to be all signed up with Blogger to post comments. Now all it needs is your name and email and a word verification thingie. So try again.


Over at Alicublog, a site that does book chat every once in a while, I stuck my oar into an argument about Philip Larkin:

Here's my comment:

Larkin was, it seems to me, a pretty typical provincial British xenophobe, and he had a perverse streak that went along with it -- he liked to shock people. He has never seemed to me to be an advocate for anything except his own personal quirks and preferences (and public libraries). A lot of his poetry and his other writing are about the fact that he didn't really expect anyone else to share his feelings about anything.

I think the comment was meant to be more about his own taste in jazz than about civil rights. Hate to bring my own carcass into it but as a black woman I've never found Larkin's racist expressions in his letters interfere much with the interest I find in his poems. I'm interested in him as a craftsman and as a person who pays attention to the texture of certain experiences that interest me as well. I haven't seen anything in his writing to suggest that he would find my interest less important than my skin color. Plus, I have a weakness for odd cranky people like him. There's no need to take his privately expressed adolescent clowning on these attitudes personally. Not much of a reader of Andrew Sullivan, I would guess that the first person to laugh at the idea that there was some deeper political subtext to Larkin's remark would probably be Larkin himself.

Larkin's remark was meant to be a joke on the fringes of good taste. That is a realm of humor where the British, for one, are a lot more comfortable than Americans.

As for the idea that there needs to be a political explanation for Larkin's taste in jazz and it must necessarily be bound up with embracing a new political or aesthetic consciousness, per DJH:

It is important to see that Larkin is taking a stance that was typical of the generation of critics that ridiculed the emergent sounds of be-bop and urban blues, in preference for the more familiar harmonies of the earlier eras of jazz and blues.

This stance was marked, not only by its failure to grasp the internal dynamic of development of the musical form taking place before their eyes (ears), but also the intimate connection between the music and its cultural and social context from the very beginning.

Jeebus on a scooter! If I had to put this load of responsibility on all my mere small harmless essential pleasures (listening to old Cuban music or Mozart in my car) my life would be even more depressing than it is. Besides, all the arts work so much more interestingly than that, even the art that DJH is attempting to defend from Larkin; to imply that early jazz was "merely" entertainment" or didn't have political significance seems really strange to me. It's political in a more subtle and effective sense than "message" art. When you hear the trombone positively leering in Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues," you are not hearing a message calling for sexual liberation, you are hearing the sound of liberated sex, it's rubbing up against your ears and inviting you to own up to your own nasty thoughts. This isn't a speech or message, it's the deed, done, the revolution occurring in your own flesh. That's something, I am sure, that Larkin was smart enough to have understood about early jazz. It is not Larkin who is trivializing early jazz as "mere entertainment."

If Larkin couldn't take to new forms of jazz, well, for many people, musical history simply stops somewhere about their mid-twenties. They look back at the music of adolescence and early adulthood as a sort of peak from which it's all downhill thenceforth. Larkin, who held the same job for his entire life and lived in the same residence and never got married and objected to change on just about every single front on which it approached, was not the man to take up a new form and a new sound that brought no pleasure simply because of some obligation to "grasp the internal dynamic." That phrase alone would have brought out his sharpest tools of ridicule. He had views about the use of language, as well as about jazz. A positive preference is not necessarily a failure to grasp something else. It is always a mistake to underestimate the value and significance of pleasure as a component of the experience of any art. It's not the whole thing but there would be no thing at all without it.

The poster DJH whose comments I made rather mild fun of, I thought, responded in shall we say an oh too familiar fashion.

If there is any ridicule to be dispensed here, it is better directed at Larkin himself who is reported (by his good friend Alistair Cook [sic]) to have “called Thelonious Monk ‘the elephant on the keyboard’ " (“Letter from America”, BBC broadcast, 12/24/01).

As for your own taste in music and, for that matter, poetry, feel free to continue to revel in whatever groove gives you your “small harmless essential pleasures”. That really tells us nothing of substance or worthy of note about the broader landscape out there which, in the case of jazz, continues to undergo an extraordinary dynamic of development.

And if you are one of those people for whom, as you seem to admire so much, “musical history simply stops somewhere about their mid-twenties”, then you simply rule yourself out of any informed discussion of the subject.

Actually, it’s telling that you would seek to drag into this discussion your skin color “as a black woman”, as if that somehow provides you a prop of authority on the issues involved here. I, as a black man, would find it quite distasteful to have to rely on that crutch.

Where to begin on something like this? Whether to begin at all? You have to have a lot of educational investment to be dense in this particular way.

A Few Themes

I haven't been here for some time, as you've noticed. Upheaval in life and busy busy time at work.

It's interesting to come back and look at a good year almost of (granted, intermittent) blog entries, to see what I want to read again and what I wish would just vanish. Once upon a time my shame at the things I didn't like any more would have totally inhibited me from writing again until I had forgotten the whole experience.

Another thing I realized is I do feel better about life when I can drop in here and write for the pleasure of it. So some of the grumps of late is probably owing to just not having done any new me-writing for several weeks. A couple people have had emails so that's something but not quite the same.

So anyway here are a few literary topics I've been thinking about that it would be fun to write about: 1) anger 2) Jane Eyre 3) Books you read often and often, and books you read just once: what qualifies as "really experiencing" a work of art? I'm thinking about all these questions and want to play with them.

A commentary nudge is most welcome. Oh I know some of you say the comments technology is too complicated. I'll see if I can figure out a way to simplify it.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Jane Eyre

I was left there alone--winner of the field. It was the hardest battle I had fought, and the first victory I had gained: I stood awhile on the rug, where Mr. Brocklehurst had stood, and I enjoyed my conqueror's solitude. First, I smiled to myself and felt elate; but this fierce pleasure subsided in me as fast as did the accelerated throb of my pulses. A child cannot quarrel with its elders, as I had done; cannot give its furious feelings uncontrolled play, as I had given mine, without experiencing afterwards the pang of remorse and the chill of reaction. A ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring, would have been a meet emblem of my mind when I accused and menaced Mrs. Reed: the same ridge, black and blasted after the flames are dead, would have represented as meetly my subsequent condition, when half-an-hour's silence and reflection had shown me the madness of my conduct, and the dreariness of my hated and hating position.

Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavour, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned. Willingly would I now have gone and asked Mrs. Reed's pardon; but I knew, partly from experience and partly from instinct, that was the way to make her repulse me with double scorn, thereby re-exciting every turbulent impulse of my nature.

--Chapter Four

More angry people to come soon!