David Foster Wallace and Macaulay Culkin: Two aperçus
David Foster Wallace was a sudorific pseudo-author.
Macaulay Culkin only holds one thing in common with the young Lou Reed: a heroin addiction.
David Foster Wallace and Macaulay Culkin: Two aperçus
David Foster Wallace was a sudorific pseudo-author.
Macaulay Culkin only holds one thing in common with the young Lou Reed: a heroin addiction.
An analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
No play in the Shakespearean canon is as politically radical as Measure for Measure, suggesting, as it does, that all political authority is corrupt at its core. It is the antithesis of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most reactionary play.
The title, Measure for Measure, is richly ambiguous. It refers directly to the Hebraic and Christian Bibles–in particular, to the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” [Matthew 7:2]. This is Jesus’ endorsement of divine justice. While Jesus repudiates the endless cycle of human eye-for-an-eye violence, he has no problem endorsing a divine lex talionis.
In Shakespeare’s play, the character Angelo, who is no angel, makes of himself a figure of divine justice. He is invested with secular authority, as well. Before Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, withdraws from the city, he deputizes Angelo, delegating to him all of the powers of the state:
Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart [I:i].
Well, mortality does, at least. But no mercy lives in Angelo’s reptilian heart.
The Duke only pretends to withdraw from Vienna and to migrate to Poland (others say to Russia or Rome); all the while, he remains in the city, disguised as a friar.
In the Duke’s (apparent) absence, Angelo sentences to death a young man named Claudio for lechery. Claudio is betrothed to his beloved Juliet, but their marriage has not yet been consecrated:
[S]he is fast my wife, / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order [I:ii].
“Outward order” is indeed the problem of the play. She has been impregnated out of wedlock. For this, the sin of fornication, Claudio is to be beheaded.
Angelo is a theocrat who does not distinguish between secular and religious authority. He recognizes no nuance, no degree between offenses. Every crime is equal to him. In accordance with his absolutist morality, all of the bordellos in Vienna are ordered to be plucked down [I:ii]. When the demi-god Authority [I:ii] hammers down on the city of Vienna, it knows no distinction between murder and fornication. Prostitution is a secular and a spiritual offense in Angelo’s eyes. Unlicensed sex is the same as murder and deserves the same penalty as murder:
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen / A man already made, as to remit / Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image / In stamps that are forbid. ’Tis all as easy / Falsely to take away a life true made, / As to put mettle in restrained means / To make a false one [II:iv].
Angelo’s moralism is anti-sexual, and what is anti-sexual is anti-life. It is also, of course, an unreachable ideal. As Lucio puts it, it is impossible to extirpate human sexuality. You might as well condemn the sparrows for lechery. Pompey’s question (to Escalus) is a propos: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” [II:i]. Indeed, Angelo’s New Vienna is much like Giuliani’s Times Square in the 1990s. Like Giuliani, Angelo would desexualize the city, eunuchizing its populace.
A more measured justice, against the moralistic extremism of Angelo, is represented by Vincentio. And this is the second connotation of the title: As opposed to the absolutism of measure-for-measure religious violence, a more moderate, more measured secular justice is desirable.
There is a third connotation in the play’s title that I would like to illuminate. The entire play is a web of substitutions. Measure for Measure means, in this context, taking one thing for another. Angelo replaces Vincentio—when the surrogate takes the place of the original, disaster results. Ragozine’s head replaces Claudio’s head. The violation of Isabella’s virginity would substitute for Claudio’s death. There are linguistic transpositions, as well: Pompey says, “benefactor” instead of “malefactor,” “varlets” instead of “honourable men,” “Hannibal” instead of “cannibal,” etc. [II:i].
* * * * *
Claudio asks his sister Isabella (by way of Lucio, friend to Claudio) to prostrate herself before the deputy and plead for his life. He knows the erotic power that she radiates:
For in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men [I:ii]
In the city of pimps and whores, brother prostitutes sister. Claudio would be his sister’s procurer. One should recall that “prone” connotes “lying down.” It is unclear what the denotative meaning is supposed to be. “Move” suggests the contagion of sexual desire. Her words would not be a logical appeal, an appeal by reason to reason, but an erotic appeal, an appeal by reason to the libido.
Isabella isn’t a very strong advocate for her brother’s life. “I’ll see what I can do” [I:iv], she tells Lucio. And she gives up far too easily when her petition is rejected. During the first interview with Angelo, she says, weakly, “O just but severe law! I had a brother, then: heaven keep your honour” [II:ii]. After her appeal seems to be rejected during the second interview, she says, unimpressively, “Even so. Heaven keep your honour” [II:iv].
Isabella’s argument for her brother’s life is a biblical one: Hate the sin, but not the sinner. Angelo sees himself as a vehicle for divine law. It is the law, not he, who is responsible for condemning her brother to death. Both Isabella and Angelo depersonalize in their arguments for and against the death penalty as punishment for “illegitimate” sexual intercourse. Here is what Isabella says at the beginning of her argument:
There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice; / For which I would not plead, but that I must; / For which I must not plead, but that I am / At war ’twixt will and will not [I:ii].
Who would consider this a strong appeal for someone’s life? If your brother were sentenced to death, I would hope that you would plead more forcefully. She speaks of her brother’s death with such flippancy that one must question whether or not she even cares if he will die:
Dar’st thou die? / The sense of death is most in apprehension; / And the poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies [III:i].
The Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, says nearly the same thing to Claudio: Be absolute for death, since it is better to die than to live fearing death. The argument is specious.
Like all moralists, Angelo is a sanctimonious hypocrite. When Isabella pleads with the corrupt deputy for mercy, he makes a bargain: Only if Isabella surrenders her body to Angelo’s sexual desires will her brother be released from the death sentence. As commentators have suggested before me, Isabella is more concerned with her own vanity, her narcissistic self-regard, than with her brother’s mortality:
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame? [III:i].
Harold Bloom might have been correct when he asserted that Isabella is unable to distinguish sexuality from incest. Notice that Isabella not only accuses her brother of incest for attempting to recruit his sister as an advocate, but claims that he cohabitated with her cousin [I:iv].
Though her basic position might be an anti-sexual one, others have noticed before me that Isabella uses an erotic language to persuade the corrupt magistrate Angelo:
Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess / A natural guiltiness, such as is his, / Let it sound a thought upon your tongue / Against my brother’s life [II:ii].
She speaks, and ’tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it [II:ii].
William Empson pointed out, cogently, that the first “sense” connotes reason, while the second “sense” connotes sensuality. Angelo is clearly turned on by Isabella’s coldness (and rationality). The colder (and more rational) she appears, the more he desires her (of course). Isabella wishes “a more strict restraint” than her nun colleagues enjoy [I:iv]. She plays on Angelo’s masochism AND sadism:
[W]ere I under the terms of death, / Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame [II:iv].
There is no question that Isabella is trying to turn Angelo on by talking about “stripping herself.” Nor is there any question that she is succeeding. There is no question, either, that Isabella is exciting Angelo’s masochism by her refusal to submit to his sexual will. She is quite revealing when she says to Angelo: “I had rather give my body than my soul” [II:iv]. And yet she never gives her body to the reprobate deputy. When Angelo, in one of Shakespeare’s wondrous soliloquies, listens to himself speak, we get a glimpse into the character’s inner experience:
Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good? [II:ii].
The question is rhetorical. Angelo is thrilled by the idea of violating her celibacy. Polluting what is holy and dragging it down into the mud–that is what excites him. He is corrupt. Why shouldn’t everyone else in the world be? I hear in Angelo’s “We are all frail” [II:iv] a failed attempt at identification with Isabella: He can never be as pure as she, so she must become as impure as he.
As I stated at the beginning of this analysis, Measure for Measure suggests that corruption is inherent to the structure of all political authority. The Duke has the same designs as his substitute. After all, both Angelo and Vincentio desire and pursue the same person: the celibate Isabella.
When the Duke visits Friar Thomas, the former quickly waves away the idea that he could ever have a sexual thought:
No. Holy father, throw away that thought; / Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom [I:iii].
This is trickery. The Duke might not seem as aggressively amorous as Angelo or as libertine as Lucio, but he does desire women or, at least, a particular woman: Isabella.
Is Duke Vincentio indeed a “gentleman of all temperance” [III:ii]? According to Lucio, “He’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for” [IV:iii]. A “woodman” is a hunter of women. What if Lucio is telling the truth? And why does the thin-skinned Duke castigate and punish Lucio for having insinuated that the latter has a pulse?
Is the Duke’s self-withdrawal and self-disguising a cunning stratagem to seduce Isabella? This cannot be exactly the case, for the Duke never, in fact, seduces Isabella. He commands her to marry him. And then the Duke compels others to be married, whether they want to be married or not: Lucio is forced to marry the punk Kate Keep-down and Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, whom he abandoned once the dowry was lost. As they enter into compulsory matrimony, the Duke must say goodbye to the “life remov’d” [I:iii] as the novice nun Isabella must say goodbye to her celibacy and dedication to things atemporal.
Isabella never says a word after the Duke compels her to marry him. Her silence is ear-splitting. How are we to understand Isabella’s silence? Is it the silence of shock? The silence of assent? And who is Varrius, and why does he have nothing to say?
Reading the play is like looking into an abyss. Every depth leads to a deeper profundity. It would be impossible to exhaust the meanings that this magnificent play generates.
THE TRACE OF THE FATHER
by Joseph Suglia
One of the most enduring myths in the history of literature is that the traces of a writer’s paternity can be erased, that the literary artist is parthenogenetically or autogenetically created. One witnesses this myth not merely in the work of authors who have taken it explicitly as their subject, such as Joyce or Artaud; as Peter Schuenemann suggests in Spur des Vaters, the reader may also discover the lineaments of this myth in less likely places. Each of the five authors Schuenemann analyzes–Lessing, Goethe, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Benn, all giants of the German literary canon–self-deceptively struggles to wipe out the traces of fatherhood in his writing, only to discover, despairingly and belatedly, that these traces are, in fact, ineffaceable.
Schuenemann examines the points at which each author’s psychological history collides with the trajectory of his writing. Lessing’s desire to detach himself from the sway of the father corresponds to his desire to detach himself from all forms of heteronomy and religious orthodoxy. According to Schuenemann, “Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts” is, at once, a history of humanity’s progress from intellectual obscurity to enlightenment and also Lessing’s self-interpretive attempt to document his movement from slavish dependence on the father to the attainment of total self-sufficiency. When, in the “Duplik,” Lessing voluntarily loosens his grip on “the truth itself,” this renunciation corresponds to Lessing’s own disillusionment with his father, who, like a mendacious and deceptive god, reserves the truth “for himself alone.” The Patheismusstreit and the quarrel with the apoplectic pastor of Hamburg are interpreted through the speculum of Lessing’s conflict with his father’s dogmatism. Lessing’s transcendental interpretation of Goethe’s “Prometheus,” for instance, is derived from a personal desire for self-sovereignty that, in its extremism, anticipates Stirnerian egoism. Nonetheless, there is no absolute break with the father, no clear point at which Lessing moved toward self-sufficiency. One of the central contradictions in Lessing’s work–and, by extension, in the Aufklaerung as such–consists in its uncanny resemblance to the conventional theologies that it professes to despise.
Schuenemann discovers analogous traces of fatherhood in the writing of Goethe. In the years following his return from Italy (1797), Goethe takes on his father’s resemblance, in spite of his repeated attempts to dissolve all ties to his biological provenance. For his entire life, Freud is deeply preoccupied with parricide (Die Traumdeutung, Totem und Tabu, Dostojewski und die Vatertoetung, and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion all contain this motif). Nonetheless, Freud is unable to kill off the father, and his seeming atheism (Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Unbehagen in der Kultur) does nothing to change this fact. Classical psychoanalysis is inextricably entwined with Talmudic religiosity. Soldiers sacrifice their lives to satisfy their fathers’ bloodlust in the danse macabre that concludes Mann’s Der Zauberberg. Though his Nietzschean anti-humanism explicitly distances Benn from involvement in the forms of religiosity, there persists in his lyric a “Fanatismus zur Transcendenz.” In every context, the author in question confronts the paradox of sublation.
Since Hegel, it has been assumed that what is annihilated is absorbed and brought to a higher level. One of the meanings to be derived from Schuenemann’s account is that the dialectic of paternity is merciless in its omnipresence. Try to destroy the father. Try to erase every trace of his existence. The more you try to negate the father, the more you shall resemble him.
EMO ISLAND by Joseph Suglia
As many of you know, I have gathered a great deal of attention as the host of the reality-television program Emo Island, which premiered last Monday on FOX. The show has brought me both envy and admiration; I am, it would be fair to say, the most reviled and revered man in America. Ryan Seacrest, look out!
“Controversial” is the most common epithet used to describe the program, which has drawn equal hostility from the Religious Right and the Warm-Hearted Left.
The premise of Emo Island is a complex one. Seven emoes (three girls, four boys) are shipped to Easter Island, the ghastly South Pacific haunt of stone Moai and anthropophagous tunnel-dwellers known as the “kai-tangata.” The kai-tangata prefer their seclusion. When disturbed at night, they strike out, thrashing the air with spears and ivory knives clenched between rodent-like teeth.
The emoes are given minimal shelter: huts, open hangers, and dilapidated barns. They have almost no weaponry to speak of. Their only mechanisms of defense consist of a.) shrieking a primal screech that the kai-tangata find intolerable; b.) spraying bottles of Windex that do not, in fact, contain Windex at all, but rather water tainted with a luminescent blue dye. The skin of the kai-tangata dissolves when brought into contact with the dyed water.
Yelping and gasping, the emo tribe, donning square-rimmed spectacles with black frames and dirty woolen sweaters, seethes with a peculiar brand of suburban middle-class self-pity. The girls quote Amelie (2001) and name themselves “nerds.”
This sort of melodrama quickly whips the kai-tangata into blank submission. They cannot endure, it seems, and are unprepared for, the emoes’ “specialness,” their intensely exaggerated version of unearned misery.
I’ve been mockingly imitated for declaiming the program’s slogan and mantra, which is: “LET’S GIVE THE EMOES SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!”
The original musical soundtrack for EMO ISLAND was composed by Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, Sleepytime Trio, and Sunny Day Real Estate.
A review of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
We fall in love with our own hallucinations, according to the most rigorous of the “comedies” (if it is one), Love’s Labour’s Lost (circa 1595-1597). As the title itself announces, this will not be a typical Shakespearean comedy in which everyone gets married, whether they want to or not. From the final scene:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill [V:ii].
Courtship does not result in conjugality, but rather in the weak promise of deferred gratification: King Ferdinand “falls in love” with the Princess of France, who forces the Navarrean ruler to wait for her for an entire year. Berowne “falls in love” with the mysterious Rosaline, who forces the Navarrean lord to wait for her for an entire year (all while doing charity work at a hospital). There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Princess of France will give herself to King Ferdinand, nor is there any reason to believe that any of the French ladies will give themselves to the Navarrean lords, Berowne, Dumain, and Longaville. The play ends, without ever ending, with the indefinite postponement of erotic fulfillment.
The King demands payment for the province of Aquitaine from the Princess of France. In vain. Just as his desire to be paid for Aquitaine is disappointed, the King’s lust for the Princess is disappointed. Not merely is it the case that the male desire to conquer the female fades into libidinal nonfulfillment (or “erotic defeat,” to use Harold Bloom’s term); the male desire to accumulate wealth fades into financial nonfulfillment. Women outwit their male suitors in this puckish farce, a sophisticated problematical comedy that ridicules all of its male characters and extols the brilliance of its ladies, who emerge looking far from foolish. To quote the Princess of France:
[P]raise we may afford
To any lady that subdues a lord [IV:i].
A feast of language in which the characters dine on scraps, the play mocks the speech of the hypereducated and of the undereducated alike. The speech of the pedants Holofernes and Nathaniel is all but unintelligible, since they speak Latin as often as they speak English and obsessively employ synonymia. (Synonymia: a long sequence of successive synonyms.) The magnificent Don Adriano de Armado, who avoids common expressions as if they were strains of the Ebola virus, is admirable and ridiculous at the same time. He obsessively employs synonymia and tatutologia. (Tautologia: a tiresome repetition of the same idea in different words.) The rustic Costard only talks in malapropisms, mistaking “reprehend” for “represent,” “adversity” for “prosperity,” “manner” for “manor,” “desolation” for “consolation,” “collusion” for “allusion,” and so forth. Somewhat implausibly, Costard is also the bearer of a word that seems above him, one of the longest words in the English language: honorificabilitudinitatibus (“to be gifted with honors”). Berowne is perhaps Shakespeare’s linguistic ideal, since he neither utters malapropisms nor translates his every word into Latin. He is mocked in other ways.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is probably Shakespeare’s filthiest play, as well, with at least two lines that sound like they belong to a hit song by Ke$ha:
Thou canst not hit it, hit it, hit it,
Thou canst not hit it, my good man [IV:i].
Two metaphorical strands are woven throughout the play. The first series of metaphors concerns the opposition between the spring and the winter. This one leaves me cold. The second metaphorical filament is immeasurably more interesting than the first: Ocular and optical metaphors proliferate throughout the play, which concerns the act of seeing and the relationship between seeing and desiring.
The men of this imaginary world have a purely visual interest in their female “beloveds.” For example, the entire sensorium of Navarre, according to Boyet, attending lord to the Princess of France, is housed in his eyesight:
All senses to that sense [eyesight] did make their repair,
To feel only looking on fairest of fair.
Methought all his senses were lock’d in his eye,
As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy [II:i].
Berowne’s fear, or so he says, is the loss of his eyesight from reading too much. He would much rather study a woman’s physiognomy:
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye [I:i].
The meaning of the first verse quoted seems to be: “Eyes that seek intellectual enlightenment are distracted from the light of truth, which comes from the eyes of a woman.” In the late sixteenth century, it was still believed that the human eye produced light beams. This idea, known as the “emission theory,” is at least as old as Plato.
All the eyes disclose are illusions. Moth, Armado’s page, makes this point in rhyme:
If she be made of white and red,
Her faults will ne’er be known;
For blushing cheeks by faults are bred,
And fears by pale white shown.
Then if she fear, or be to blame,
By this you shall not know;
For still her cheeks possess the same
Which native she doth owe [I:ii].
What the peasant woman Jaquenetta is thinking and feeling Armado will never know. (Here we have the charming mixing of social classes that is so common in Shakespeare.) What the even more enigmatic Rosaline is thinking and feeling Berowne will never know. Again, the desire to master the totality of Woman is frustrated.
The unknowability of the object of desire is perfectly dramatized in the second scene of the fifth act. At the beginning of the scene (the scene itself is 1,003 lines long), the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting are in the park, ridiculing the gifts, letters, and attentions that they have received from their gentlemen callers. Boyet informs the Princess that he eavesdropped upon the king and his lords, who are planning to accost the ladies while disguised as Russians. The Princess orders the ladies to wear masks and swap the gifts that they received from the lords so that Katherine will be mistaken for Maria, and the Princess will be confused with Rosaline. When the men arrive, disguised, the ladies have their backs turned to them. As Moth remarks:
A holy parcel of the fairest dames / That ever turn’d their—backs—to mortal views!
Each man is disguised and therefore exchangeable with another; each woman’s face is veiled and is therefore exchangeable with another. Bodies are clothed; faces are inscrutable. All that is visible is the eyes. If you would like to find the authentic precursors of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), look no further.
The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost are unknowable to the male characters, for the men only know the figures that they have created. In scene after scene of Shakespeare’s great play, we encounter men who love themselves more than the women they profess to adore. For instance, Boyet loves not his mistress, but his own language. As the Princess says of his overblown encomium to her beauty:
I am less proud to hear you tell my worth
Than you much willing to be counted wise
In spending your wit in the praise of mine [II:i].
Ingenuously or disingenuously (which will never be discovered), Berowne asks Rosaline (some versions, erroneously, say ‘Katherine’):
Did I not dance with you in Brabant once? [II:i].
Berowne does not even seem to recognize the woman whom he “loves.” She mockingly repeats his leading question:
Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
Repeating his question, she neither confirms nor denies its suggestion that such a dance had ever taken place. Whereas Bloom proposed Did I Not Dance with You in Brabant Once? as an alternative title to the play, I would suggest Last Year at Brabant, echoing, of course, the cinematic masterwork of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad (1962). We know nothing of the prehistory of these lovers, if lovers they be. It is indeed entirely possible that their prehistory is wholly imaginary, that Rosaline is playfully assuming the fictitious role that Berowne has imposed on her. For Berowne loves only his own reflection, the mirror image that is reflected in her eyes. As he says (in prose):
By this light, but for her eye, I would not love her—yes, for her two eyes [IV:iii].
Berowne loves Rosaline, then, because she is a reflective surface. “What do you see when you look at me?”: This is Berowne’s implicit question. And Berowne is not the only autoeroticist in the play. From the King of Navarre himself, in a letter to the Princess of France:
But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep [IV:iii].
Translation: “Don’t love yourself! Love me!”
With these words Berowne describes the beauty of Rosaline:
A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed,
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard [III:i].
Argus, the monster with one hundred eyes, is the castrated guard who protects the woman with sightless eyes. And into those null eyes Berowne looks and sees what he wants to see. He introjects his own images into the blackness. What does he see in Rosaline’s eyeless eyes? Nothing but himself. Her pitch balls are as black as the eyes of a chicken, and there is nothing but his own Self to be seen within their unfathomable, fathomless blackness.
All interpretation is projection, since interpretation is drawn not to objects, but to the absence of objects. We desire to interpret not when there is something to interpret, but when there is nothing to interpret.
THE HORSE DEALER’S DAUGHTER (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
from England, My England (1922)
“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest… what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all new!”
—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce
“James Joyce bores me stiff—too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.”
—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce
“What a stupid olla podrida of the Bible and so forth James Joyce is: just stewed-up fragments of quotation in the sauce of a would-be dirty mind. Such effort! Such exertion! sforzato davvero!”
—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce
“[D.H. Lawrence] is a propagandist and a very bad writer.”
—James Joyce on D.H. Lawrence
From the third paragraph of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence is the following sentence:
There was a strange air of ineffectuality about the three men, as they sprawled at table, smoking and reflecting vaguely on their own condition.
The word sprawl is used for the first time here (it will be used twice more in the text). To sprawl is to spread oneself out irregularly and unevenly. The three Pervin brothers—Joe, Fred Henry, and Malcolm—are positioned perversely around the table, positioned in a way that suggests their collective stupidity; they are asprawl. Sprawled makes them appear insensate, callous, obtuse, stolid. They are doing what rather careless people carelessly call “manspreading”—a fuzz word that has to do with sitting on a New York subway with one’s legs splayed frog-like. Sprawling denotes a mindless subhuman inactivity (I will return to the motif of subhumanity below).
Stupidity is the inability to grasp even basic concepts, and in that sense, all three brothers are stupid. They are not even individual entities (they are not “alone” in the sense that Mabel is “alone”); they form an undifferentiated “ineffectual conclave.” They cannot apprehend that their sister is geared toward the absence of all relations which is death–self-imposed death.
Safe in their stupidity, the brothers are sprawlingly looking forward to their eviction from their father’s house, whereas the youngest (?) daughter in the family, Mabel Pervin, is hyper-conscious of, and sensitively sensitive to the loss of her dignity, to the loss of her status, and to the curtailing of her possibilities. The men in the story propose that she might become a nurse, she might become a skivvy, or, worst of all, she might become someone’s wife. It is important to stress that she wants to become none of these things.
Mabel is not sprawling around the table: Unlike her brothers, who are only able to reflect “vaguely,” her external “impassive fixity” masquerades a hive of conscious activity (I will return to the “impassiveness” of Mabel’s exterior below).
The great draught-horses swung past.
The word swing comes into play for the first time here (it will be deployed four times altogether in the text). Swung: This connotes a mechanical back-and-forth movement. Motion without any consciousness. The idiocy of the boys’ sprawling is correlated with the idiocy of the horses’ swinging. The horses are swinging their great rounded haunches sumptuously (in a manner that pleases the senses, but not the intellect). Their movement shows a massive, slumbrous strength (the intellect is asleep). They rock behind the hedges in a motionlike sleep (they only seem to be kinetic; they are mindlessly static).
Draught-horse: a large horse that is used for bearing heavy loads.
Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes. The horses were almost like his own body to him… He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.
D.H. Lawrence gets himself into some trouble here. He tells too much (which is unlike him) and shows too little (which is unlike him). I can write without fear of repudiation or of exaggeration that this is the weakest passage in the story. The writing of this passage is didactic / propagandistic (to refer to the Joycean epigraph above). It is far too explicit and spells out what should have been left to the reader to decode: Joe is looking forward to an engagement to a woman as old as himself and therefore to financial safety, and this “safety” is the safety of a kept animal. A domesticated animal. Marriage will reduce him to subjection. He will lose his vitality. He will lose his human spontaneity.
[W]ith foolish restlessness, [Joe] reached for the scraps of bacon-rind from the plates, and making a faint whistling sound, flung them to the terrier that lay against the fender. He watched the dog swallow them, and waited till the creature looked into his eyes.
And what is in those doggy eyes other than the nullity of animal stupidity, a stupidity that reflects his own stupidity? What is in those eyes other than the likeness of his own animal insensibility?
The flinging of the bacon corresponds to the swinging of the horses. The word swing, etymologically, means “to fling”—the Old High German word swingan means “to rush” or “to fling.” The idiocy of the mechanical movement of swinging corresponds the idiocy of the mechanical movement of flinging. The etymology of swing further establishes a metaphorical connection between Joe and the animals of the story (the dog, the horses).
The equine and canine metaphors bestialize all of the brothers. (Joe, in particular, is described as straddling his knees “in real horsy fashion”; he seems “to have his tail between his legs,” etc.) They are all dull, dim beasts, animals that will soon be subjected to the yoke of marriage and of other forms of servitude (labor, etc.). As all domestic beasts, they will become subject to human authority. To be an animal, according to the metaphorics of the text, means to be subjected to human power. As mentioned above, Joe will soon be subordinated to the bestial subjection of marriage. To draw out one the implications of the text: A married couple resembles two animals yoked together.
The face of the young woman darkened, but she sat on immutable.
Mabel, on the other hand, is described as seeming immutable (once) and impassive (four times): not incapable of emotion or without affectability, but inscrutable, as withholding herself from expression, from saying and speaking. Impassivity, here, means not the absence of emotion, but rather, inexpressiveness. Expression will become important in the third and final act of the story.
‘I’ll be seeing you tonight, shall I?’ he said to his friend.
‘Ay—where’s it to be? Are we going over to Jessdale?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve got such a cold on me. I’ll come round to the Moon and Stars, anyway.’
‘Let Lizzie and May miss their night for once, eh?’
‘That’s it—if I feel as I do now.’
No one appears to know what “Jessdale” refers to—whether it is the name of a fabricated city or the name of an inn or a bar–-but I suspect that it is the name of a bordello and that Lizzie and May are prostitutes therein. If I am correct about this (and I am), Jack Fergusson is (initially) a rogue and a roué, someone who isn’t the least interested in marriage. What, then, draws Mabel to him in the first place? Could it be his relative freedom from convention and from the constraints of bourgeois society?
But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.
Her father was once a well-off horse dealer. No more. Now comes the shame that is killing her.
She would follow her own way just the same. She would always hold the keys of her own situation. Mindless and persistent, she endured from day to day. Why should she think? Why should she answer anybody? It was enough that this was the end, and there was no way out. She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye. She need not demean herself any more, going into the shops and buying the cheapest food. This was at an end. She thought of nobody, not even of herself. Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.
Suicide would be an authentically superhuman act, elevating her to the status of godhood. Self-drowning would be an act of freedom that would propel her beyond human-animal subjection. An act of radical individualism. Would it not be divine for her to take her own life? Unhappily, Jack Fergusson will (try to) take away her godlike freedom and subjugate her to the conjugal yoke.
It was a grey, wintry day, with saddened, dark-green fields and an atmosphere blackened by the smoke of foundries not far off.
As Martin Amis reminds us, D.H. Lawrence never took a breath without pain. Lawrence died of emphysema at the age of forty-four. He knew too well the colliers of Northampton, near where this story takes place. Could it be that the smoke from the foundries that are blackening the sky also blackened Lawrence’s lungs? Are the black billows that Mabel sees the same black billows that killed her creator?
It gave [Mabel] sincere satisfaction to [tidy her mother’s grave]. She felt in immediate contact with the world of her mother. She took minute pains, went through the park in a state bordering on pure happiness, as if in performing this task she came into a subtle, intimate connexion with her mother. For the life she followed here in the world was far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother.
Here, I would like to make the rather obvious point that suicide, not merely the tiding of her mother’s grave, would bring Mabel into a subtle and intimate connection with her mother.
[Fergusson] slowly ventured into the pond. The bottom was deep, soft clay, he sank in, and the water clasped dead cold round his legs. As he stirred he could smell the cold, rotten clay that fouled up into the water. It was objectionable in his lungs. Still, repelled and yet not heeding, he moved deeper into the pond. The cold water rose over his thighs, over his loins, upon his abdomen. The lower part of his body was all sunk in the hideous cold element. And the bottom was so deeply soft and uncertain, he was afraid of pitching with his mouth underneath. He could not swim, and was afraid.
It is as if Jack Fergusson’s body were being liquefied, as if his body were being fluidified in the aqueous deeps of the pond. Or is his body being softened into clay? The clay suggests, perhaps, the amorphous clay of the golem. In Jewish mysticism, the golem is a clay figure that comes alive once a magical combination of letters is inscribed on its forehead: emeth (“truth” in Hebrew). If you erase the aleph from the word emeth, the golem will collapse into dust (meth means “dead”). (See Gershom Scholem’s seminal book On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Chapter Five.)
And so doing he lost his balance and went under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water, struggling madly for a few moments. At last, after what seemed an eternity, he got his footing, rose again into the air and looked around. He gasped, and knew he was in the world. Then he looked at the water. She had risen near him. He grasped her clothing, and drawing her nearer, turned to take his way to land again.
He went very slowly, carefully, absorbed in the slow progress. He rose higher, climbing out of the pond. The water was now only about his legs; he was thankful, full of relief to be out of the clutches of the pond. He lifted her and staggered on to the bank, out of the horror of wet, grey clay.
He laid her down on the bank. She was quite unconscious and running with water. He made the water come from her mouth, he worked to restore her. He did not have to work very long before he could feel the breathing begin again in her; she was breathing naturally. He worked a little longer. He could feel her live beneath his hands; she was coming back.
The pond is the uterine vessel through which Mabel undergoes her palingenesis, her renaissance, her second birth. It is as if some tellurian current were transferred within her. She dies in the pond and is brought back to the life upon the bank. Her body has been revived, and yet her consciousness is still slumbering. Her total revivification will take place in the house, now desolate, upon the hearthrug, by the fireplace.
Who dwells within the house? Consider the following: Mabel’s father has died. Her three brothers have evacuated the house. Her sister is long gone. The dog and the horses are gone.
No one is alive in the house except for the spirit of her dead mother.
‘Do you love me then?’ she asked.
He only stood and stared at her, fascinated. His soul seemed to melt.
She shuffled forward on her knees, and put her arms round him, round his legs, as he stood there, pressing her breasts against his knees and thighs, clutching him with strange, convulsive certainty, pressing his thighs against her, drawing him to her face, her throat, as she looked up at him with flaring, humble eyes, of transfiguration, triumphant in first possession.
Emerging from the pond an amorphous mass of clay, Jack will now be resculpted by Mabel into her own creature. He will be completely reconstructed. His body was already likened to clay when it was immersed in the pond. Now his soul, too, is melting into the shapeless stuff of the pond-clay. Note that Mabel’s eyes are “of transfiguration”: It is she who is transfiguring Jack into her own effigy. She is the creator; he is the golem.
He had never thought of loving her. He had never wanted to love her. When he rescued her and restored her, he was a doctor, and she was a patient. He had had no single personal thought of her. Nay, this introduction of the personal element was very distasteful to him, a violation of his professional honour. It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees. It was horrible. He revolted from it, violently. And yet—and yet—he had not the power to break away.
There is indeed something horrible going on in this passage, given that Jack is powerlessly being shaped, rounded, molded into something that is not of his own making.
‘You love me,’ she repeated, in a murmur of deep, rhapsodic assurance. ‘You love me.’
Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her. He was afraid, even a little horrified. For he had, really, no intention of loving her. Yet her hands were drawing him towards her.
I only want to underline something in the text: She is drawing him toward her. Repeatedly, it is emphasized that Jack is being reconstructed against his own will into something that is not of his own creation.
The assertion “You love me” is a performative speech act. But is it an illocutionary or perlocutionary speech act? If it were an illocutionary speech act, “You love me” would be a description of what is being done, such as, “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I move that we adjourn the meeting.” And yet Mabel is not saying, “I seduce you” or “I make you love me.”
It is, rather, a perlocutionary speech act: that is, a speech act that is designed to have an effect on someone’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.
Every human being you meet will want to impress one’s fingerprints upon you, as if you were a ball of clay. A perlocutionary speech act is the attempt to mold someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or actions through words.
‘You love me?’ she said, rather faltering.
‘Yes.’ The word cost him a painful effort. Not because it wasn’t true. But because it was too newly true, the saying seemed to tear open again his newly-torn heart. And he hardly wanted it to be true, even now.
D.H. Lawrence has been called a “misogynist” for over a century now, most recently on Wikipedia. (Thankfully, the sensationalist accusation of misogyny has been redacted.) I don’t think that the paper Lawrence is misogynistic at all, except in his titanic, uncomfortable novel The Plumed Serpent.
However, there might be a kind of misogyny in this passage. There is a kind of love-violation going on, a tearing-open of the heart, a violation of interiority. Here we have a woman who is metaphorically violating a man.
Much in the way that letters inscribed on the forehead of the statue bring to life the golem, the words “You love me” form a perlocutionary performative speech act that gives Jack Fergusson a second birth. Mabel Pervin has destroyed and recreated him.
‘And my hair smells so horrible,’ she murmured in distraction. ‘And I’m so awful, I’m so awful! Oh, no, I’m too awful.’ And she broke into bitter, heart-broken sobbing. ‘You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.’
‘Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,’ he said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding her in his arms. ‘I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—to-morrow if I can.’
But she only sobbed terribly, and cried:
‘I feel awful. I feel awful. I feel I’m horrible to you.’
‘No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.
There are two “horrors” intimated in these words, the final words of the story. The first horror is the horrified apprehension that Mabel will become her mother. That is to say, Mabel is horrified that she will be mired in the same soul-deadening stupidity in which her mother was steeped and in which her brothers are steeped. We return, then, to the opening moments of the text: to the image of the yoked horses (which figures marriage as subordination and subjection to the will of another). The second horror is that she will be undesired or no longer desired.
Consider this: Mabel has created a golem that will desire her, a male Pygmalion, a Frankensteinian monster. And now, her creation desires her too much. Golem-making is dangerous, as Scholem reminds us, but the source of danger is not the golem itself, or the forces emanating from the golem, but rather the conflict that arises within the golem-maker herself. It is a conflict between the horror of being desired by one’s creature and the horror of not being desired enough by one’s creature or the horror of not being desired at all, the horror of undesirability. It is a conflict between the horror of being-desired and the horror of the absence of being-desired.