Living in The Other House

An affluent womanizer, Tony Bream.  The nicest, sweetest girl, Jean Martle.  A desperate lover abroad too long in China, Dennis Vidal.  The odd Rose Arminger.

They all seem like characters from the famed game Clue. 

Who was the murderer of the little girl Effie Bream; who held this child’s delicate body under the water until she drowned?

In The Other House, Henry James writes an awkward murder mystery vis a vis a  novel of manners that begins with some piquant flavor of the supernatural.  As in many of James’s works (such as The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age), a child is in grave danger of a horrific and unnameable threat from the adult world.  And as all good fairy tales do, this wayward genre-shifter begins with the death of a damned good mother.

Julia Bream, the ostensibly good mother, experiences a drawn-out death resulting from supposed hysteria (thanks, Dr. Ramage, for your accurate diagnosis) after the birth of her child, Effie.  She becomes obsessed with doing anything in her power to articulate how important it is that her playboy husband Tony not remarry after she dies.  But this request comes with a reason far beyond that of a wife scared of losing the top place in her husband’s heart.  The woman knows that there are many women in her husband’s heart — who doesn’t? — he’s the hottest dish in town.  Her fear is that Effie will have a step-mother, as Julia herself did (what princess hasn’t?).  Her desire is so pronounced that at every turn the reader waits to see a ghost rise up from the bedroom to physically restrain her husband’s phallus, or to encounter a walking Carrie gown dripping with blood and moaning her warning.  Nothing so exciting happens.

Instead, Rose Arminger, Julia’s oldest friend closes Book I with a real struggle of allegiance.  She vows to honor her sister-friend’s wishes, and uphold them at any cost; but to do so, she must keep herself from marrying Tony Bream.

And then, once the alluringJean Martle enters, she must stand between two women marrying Tony Bream.

Arminger, who is so two-faced that she is “awfully plain or strikingly handsome” (13), does what seems a good solution all ’round — murder Effie so that there is no longer any child to protect.

The central action of the plot, the murder of the child, is almost glossed over in the story so that it made its effects so much worse to read.  The only character who genuinely seems upset simply for the loss of an innocent child, is the marginal servant Mrs. Grantham who is said to be wringing her hands and weeping on a bench outside Wilverley, the “other house,” which belongs to Mrs. Julia Beever, while everyone inside juggles around their desires and hopes for the future in a most disturbing way.

Everyone knows that Rose has killed Effie, and everyone knows why.  Tony Bream, the charming dad, steps up and lies that he killed his own daughter so that he could marry Jean, as he knows that he won’t really be punished since, seriously, he is so good-looking that no one will punish him long or hard.  Paul Beever observes at the close of the novel that “they like you too much,” and Tony responds “Oh, too much, Paul!” (324).

Rose gets her punishment by having to marry Dennis Vidal, who seems to have been corrupted by his time in China, by returning with her lover to that country.  Going to live in China is, apparently for James and Tony Bream alike, as good as going to the guillotine.

While reading the back-and-forth love affairs of Tony Bream, which I found immensely fascinating, and all of the triangles that they create, what I wanted to understand most was the function of this “other house,” and of its “queen mother” (89) Mrs. Julia Beever.

Firstly, Wilverly seems important since the novel is named after it (ostensibly).  And secondly Mrs. Beever has Julia Bream’s first name and is also named the “queen mother” early on.  But I am completely perplexed (by a James novel, you scoff?  How unforeseen!).  There doesn’t seem to be any real meaning to be found in Wilverley or in Julia Beever.

To unpack: Beever is mother to Paul who seems like a kind of dud and doesn’t play an overly significant role except to be under his mother’s thumb and to be in love with the evil Rose Arminger.  Beever is not a good mother, but neither is she a bad mother.  I am open to viewing her as the “queen mother” of a dysfunctional family that includes all of the cast of characters.  Sure.  But no one ever goes to her for advice or comfort; no one confides in her — she seems completely on the outside…hence the “other house.”  She and Paul, both, are left out of the mess at Bounds, yet they are bound up in it too. In this way, they are “others.”

This suggests to me that the “mother” figure is the “other” figure in The Other House.  Beever, like the other Julia, watches  over but doesn’t act; she is scared and suspicious but can’t do much to stop what is to come.  These mothers are powerless and contained to their respective homes.  The motherless world is one is which children can be killed simply for reasons of passion.

 

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The Littlest Demon: Pedophilia and Paranoia in Sologub’s The Little Demon

The theatrical nature and content of Sologub’s The Little Demon had me envisioning a play on the stage for the first third of the novel.  Hilarious dialogue, telling imagery, and one of the most paranoid and depraved characters in fiction made visualizing this text taking place physically before me easy.  For much of this novel, I thought that Sologub would surely continue to circuitously loop Peredenov’s mad antics into infinity.  He “loved nothing and no one, and as a result the real world could only have a depressing effect on him.”  Depression surmounts as his extreme paranoia builds and he believes that his friends intend to poison him, his lover wants to shoot him, colleagues are jealous of his success, and children want to have sex with him.

This last revelation in Peredenov’s flight shifted my impression of the novel — perhaps Sologub was, actually, going to say something important.

Sasha appears on the scene of Demon almost out of thin air.  Not surprisingly, his appearance is timed with the sudden coming of “a dimly outlined creature […] a small, spritely, gray demon” to Peredenov during Church.  This demon taunts Peredenov always directly after readers are unapologetically exposed to Sasha’s sexual expose. Sasha, like Peredenov, has an aspect of sadness:

his black eyes, with their long blue-black lashes, full of entreaty and sadness. Dark-skinned and shapely — this was particularly noticeable as he knelt there, calm and upright as if under someone’s strict surveillance, and with that broad, prominent chest — he appeared to Peredenov just like a girl.

Sasha’s perceived sadness is connected  here to three very important aspects of his character: his femininity, dark skin, and the theme of surveillance.  Sasha, a school boy under Peredenov’s care in the district, is carefully watched by not only Peredenov but also by the reader who is subjected by Sologub to every succulent detail of Sasha’s innocent/sexual encounters behind closed doors with a young woman much older than him.  The descriptions that Sologub offers concerning Sasha’s and Lyudmila’s intimacies are some of the most tantalizing sexual encounters that I have ever read in fiction (and I have read some pretty enticing narratives). Firstly, the innocence is undeniable as Sasha and Lyudmila subconsciously move through gestures of love-making without full awareness of their desires.  Sologub posits that Sasha has a ripe sexuality, but lacks a clear awareness of it despite his prolific blushing.  This “ripe sexuality” vacillates between heteronormative and homosocial as Sasha is not only read as a female by certain groups — including Peredenov — but enjoys cross-dressing and performing more feminine roles in public and private spaces. Yet, he relishes his masculinity, too, and is treated as a potent, virile potential sexual partner by girls and women.This nature is eroticized by Sologub and by the adult characters in the novel who, for example, are willing to harm others and Sasha to find out who the sexy “geisha” (Sasha in disguise) is at a costume party.  Yet, Sologub invites readers to objectify Sasha, too, in a way that feels uncomfortable but not extremely dangerous — he is, after all, unaware of his attractive power:

Confused, agonized feelings of shame and attraction disturbed him and fed his imagination with vaguely erotic visions.

The “vague” eroticism of Sasha’s and Lyudmila’s playful, sexual actions comes to drive the plot. With the introduction of Sasha this novel changed direction for me.  The novel confusingly shifted from centering on Peredenov — and his funny, mad descent — to taking the intersection between Sasha’s sexuality and Peredenov’s morbidity as its center.  This change, while (extremely) interesting in terms of examining child sexuality in literature, did not do much to propel Peredenov as a character. To the contrary.  He seems just as mad, perhaps more so (although not enough to really mark).  He seems, in fact, nearly stagnant when his obsession with Sasha enters the scene. The only real change is that others begin to take courage in ousting him from society.

I am left with the impression that Sasha is really the main character of The Little Demon because he is the titular character.  His eroticized body and nature appear to be the fulcrum of Peredenov’s disposition: a gray longing that never comes to fruition.  The narrative appears to be a silent cry of desire that manifests as baleful paranoia.

Children’s Literature Offers Something

Earlier today I wrote a post called “Danger: No Children.” It offered an overview and critique of Doris Lessing’s novel The Four-Gated City.  While the meat of the blog may have been drab (you know, a review of sorts), the title was damn sexy.  Danger: No Children.

Driving to Londonderry today I had time to think about that title.  Particularly, I had to come back to an earlier piece of writing that I did about children’s literature and the importance of children as revolutionary actors in the national framework.

Like children, children’s literature has a lot to offer. Both are vital to understanding the culture of literacy, the relationship between aesthetics and language, and the pursuit of imagination in the modern world. Like children, too, children’s literature has been considered inferior in numerous academic circles despite the fact that some of the most celebrated authors have contributed, not only to the literary canon of great works, but also to the large body of children’s literature. “Speaking to the child” is something that, perhaps, adults feel they must do with force or intention. Adults tend to approach children’s literature the way that they approach children: looking for heuristic value, searching for signs of moral decomposition, and hoping that they might find a key to imagination. Adults think they are different from children, and so require a different literature. This fantasy of difference is dangerous because children, in some ways more than adults, have the potential to challenge the rationalistic, empirical thought-processes that threaten to stagnate cultural progression.

Children’s literary theory gives adults the rare opportunity to reassess formative literatures that work silently in the underbelly of modern politics; children’s literature threatens to deconstruct “realistic” perceptions of the materialistic world through a celebration of fantasy, dreams, and possibilities. What would our government, our school systems, our families, look like if the law which governs children’s literature were the law of the adult world? We tend to fear the open-endedness of this world.

My interest in children’s literature and theory comes from my lost faith the governing body of philosophical thinking that rules our academic institutions. As an educator, I want to open doors and challenge social and cultural constructs. To do this well, I believe we need to approach these constructs as outsiders – and who are bigger outsiders in this world than children?

Peter Hunt claims that “it is clear that adult readers can never share the same background as children.” He identifies three primary ways that adults read children’s books: as if they were peer-texts, on behalf of the child, and with an eye to discussing them with other adults. But these ways of reading feed into the exact constructs that children’s literature has the potential to deconstruct. In order to dismantle the politics that restrict our modes of creative thought most, adult readers need to approach children’s texts as children would: with a willingness to disjoint the ego, displace the rational mind, and embrace the possibilities that lurk in the obscure distance for human evolution.

Danger: Children.

Danger: Missing Children in Doris Lessing’s City

Finally, I have read my first Doris Lessing novel.  I admit, it may not have been the best one to wet my feet. 

The Four-Gated City is the final book of a five-book series called the “Children of Violence.”  I didn’t read the first four but only the last.  I felt as if I was doing what I told myself I would never do anymore when I was fifteen: like I was reading the last pages of the novel before beginning it.

Lessing is touted as a major British writer for a reason.  I see that clearly.  Her exploration of Martha Quest’s psychology is intricately bound to a complex critique of the political climate in post-World War II Britain.  Not having read the earlier novels of the series, I was pleased to find that I could jump onto the caravan and understand the story.

Firstly, The Four-Gated City is a novel about ways of being — and of knowing oneself.  Quest is a receptor (“recording instrument”) for other characters’ personas as she struggles to locate exactly who (what) she is.  She used to be a “communist” but isn’t anymore. So what is she now?  Now she is a middle-aged woman in the 1950s coming to terms with her ravaged past: a shady childhood, a failed marriage, a dead second husband (apparently), a lost daughter. This past coincides with the past of her nations of South Africa and Britain (this “country where people could not communicate across the dark that separated them”).  Like these nations she is without a clear identity or direction. As she meets people she drifts into new (or old) ways of being.  At one moment she may assume the pesona of “Matty” (who she created “as an act of survival”), at another she is Phyllis Jones, at another she is the “Watcher,” an anonymous body used for sex, or a corporeal “machine.”

She maintains a sense of dislocation until a house finds her.

Martha Quest is a woman who has been on the run and has finally settled down in a house that seems to hold her hostage.  Mark’s house is, like Quest, an empty space filled with ways of being.  Like the unfathomable house in The House of Leaves, Mark’s space eats memory and consumes identity.  Yet, it also reveals the darkest secrets, locates the hidden fears, and pushes the boundaries of human capacity.  For Quest this means that she, by plugging into the space and into the many people who inhabit it, is closer to understanding who “Martha Quest” is.  She is no one.  Like her nations, like every nation, she is devoid of meaning.

So secondly The Four-Gated City is a story about madness because when any character gets close to a Nietzchian perspective about self-identity then insanity is on the table.  Lynda, Mark’s estranged wife who lives alternately in asylums and in the basement of the house, is the alter-ego of Martha (but then, so is every character).  Like Martha’s mother and Marth herself, Lynda is the “madwoman in the basement,” which is altogether different than the “madwoman in the attic” that Gilbert and Gubar applied to Victorian prototypes.

Not that Lessing has wandered very far from the “Victorian,” mind you.

The “madwoman in the basement” is at the bottom — not the top — of the household hierarchy.  She is the foundation, the stability, in a weird way.  For example, I thought at first that Lynda was a wrecker.  She hates to be touched by her husband (and he pines pathetically for her), she is incapable of being a proper mother to her son Frances, she even seems to desire her bouts of “insanity” to a certain extent. These characteristics seem, on the surface, to wreak havoc on the home. Then I came to understand that she is, in fact, the glue that holds the family — the “self,” if you’re Martha Quest — together.  Maybe she’s doing a shabby job.  After all, the “family” is not what anyone would call functional.  Yet, its disfunction is precisely the thing that dymystifies the “haunted” house.  Lynda’s madness is, really, the only functional thing.  It is so functional that Quest adopts it — uses it — in order to find her way out of psychological imprisonment.  The story ends and she leaves the house.  True, she may be the only one (Paul and Frances may have moved to new homes but they are the same as Mark’s), but Quest has finally found a way out.

When Quest’s quest ends, one thing seems clear.  There are no children.

Thirdly, The Four-Gated City is about the absence of children.  This is strange, because children populate the plot.  There’s Frances, the son of Mark and Lynda who eventually marries Phoebe’s daugther and has children with her — and raises her two children from other relations — before she leaves him for a new lover. There’s Paul whose mother has killed herself and whose father has fled the country and remarried to have children in Russia.  Lessing takes time to tell the stories of these children and all of their friends.  Children plague the pages of the novel.  Yet, she is quick to acknowledge that “England was no longer a place to bring children up.”  The earliest scene of the novel finds Quest noting the proliferation of signs that read “Danger: No Children.”  Children are restricted from the nation, yet they overun the pages of the novel.

Lessing’s series is called the “Children of Violence” but The Four-Gated City frames children whose violence dwindles to a barely audible meow by the end.  The lack of violence screams almost as loudly as the lack of children.  At the end, the children are gone. At the end, the nation is sick.  At the end, there is an Appendix in which Lessing has included letters from grown children to grown children.

The novel is a hodge-podge that sometimes is brilliant.  Are children the nation? Is the nation violent?  Lessing suggests that the answer to both questions is yes.  Martha Quest has no identity.  She ends by maintaining that.  She also has no children.

Adventures in Emotion: Death in Venice

When I was called out for teaching some provocative contexts in my “Strange Children” course this quarter, my supervisor came to my defense by saying, “Well, it’s not like you’re teaching Death in Venice, or anything.”  I had heard of Thomas Mann’s novella — and really enjoyed reading the obscure The Transposed Heads, which I consider a really masterful work despite some scathing criticisms to the contrary — but had never read it.  I headed to the library and checked it out right away.  Would Mann prove to be more dirty and provocative than Alice’s Adventures? Was it possible?

Death in Venice is plenty provocative and dirty, alright, if you’re into affect theory. If you’re a gender or sexuality theorist, however, I must say, it misses the mark somewhat. The story alarmed me much more for its depiction of feeling than it ever could have for its wispy, barely lukewarm invocation of pedophilia.

After four pages of Mann’s text I was struck by his fierce exploration of both hidden and blatant affect — which occurs sometimes simultaneously.  (In fact, I am determined to teach it as a course on emotion in literature.)

The foreboding lifelessness that stretches itself out before Gustav Aschenbach’s life can be summarized by a series of words/phrases that arise consistently or at key moments, such as: “red,” “false midsummer,” or “diseased city.”  But the “unchastity and fury of decay” that epitomizes Aschenbach’s experience in Venice — and with the sickly Polish “god” with whom he falls in love from afar —  is best articulated through Mann’s overuse of adjectives that relate directly to rampant emotion and, conversely, emotionlessness.

Feeling is a sense like smell. The graying legend Aschenbach is surrounded by smells (of hospital, gaiety, food, beach) that bring out depth of affect which runs the gamut of “sinister revels of emotion:” sympathy, fear, pity, hopelessness, desire, shame, elation, anxiety, satisfaction, etc.

For Mann’s protagonist, “passion is our exultation” but also his demise.  Passion is the strong feeling of desire or excitement, but I am also reminded of the definition of passion from House of Leaves: “Passion has little do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance.  Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance.  It means to suffer.”

Aschenbach’s passion reflects both definitions: it is suffering and jubilation.

Yet, despite the war of feeling that he locks in his aged body, he shows little external signal of such power until, on the day of his death, he heads to the salon to be made up in a fashion that reflects the grotesque fop whom he criticizes on the ship. The disease that finally kills him seems less the sickness of Venice from the Middle East (which reminded me somewhat of Bruges-la-Morte) and more the inevitable finale of emotion of this caliber.

Death is the ultimate portrayal of patience.

Is it, then, a useful symbol of passion?  For Aschenbach, such seems to be the case.

How beautiful.

So beautiful, in fact, that I almost forgot about the Platonic “beautiful boy,” that god Eros who catalyzes the war.  Then again, Mann suggests that this war was raging before Tadzio comes along, doesn’t he?  I was inclined to toss Tadzio away.

He is like the wine that brings out the flavor of an aged and beautiful cheese.

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Songs of Searching

William Blake, in many ways, polarizes innocence and experience in his book of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience.  His exploration of these are literally separated by a frontispiece and title page.  Moreover, he marks the primary differences between innocence and experience by showing the evolution of poems — “Infant Joy” in the first half becomes “Infant Sorrow” in the second, for example.

For Blake, there is, I think, a too-clean cut between the states of innocence and of experience.  But then again, such dichotomy reflects the nature of each enterprise well.  Innocence is an extremely isolated state, as it is pure and even natural (if you’re a Romantic).  Experience, on the other hand, is dredged in the muck of “reality:” labor, questions of faith, and urbanization.

What strikes me most as I read Songs is Blake’s moderate suggestion that innocence and experience should be considered as separate but also inseparable.  They are, like husband and wife, clearly bound to each other. A colleague of mine argued that they are actually the same thing (based on his analysis of Blake’s “call and answer” style — I was very nearly convinced but refuse to be completely convinced about anything).

Experience comes from innocence.

But can innocence come from experience?

The voice of almost every poem in Songs is one of searching for a leader.  The chosen leader, however, appears to be one that brings the child — literal and figurative — out of innocence and into experience.  As the last plate (sometimes considered the penultimate plate) relays: we, readers, have followed leaders who “wish to lead others when they should be led.”

In “The Little Boy Lost,” the child searches for his “father” who can’t be found.  He is led, instead, to his mother in “The Little Boy Found.”  But does she lead him astray?

Is the missing “father” and substitute mother what leads the child to the Tygers and, as a result, toward experience?

Of Girls and Meat: The Art of Mark Ryden

Today one of my soon-to-be students for my Spring quarter course called “Strange Children” mentioned that the course description reminded her of Mark Ryden‘s art.  I, of course, looked into his work directly.

Indeed, Ryden’s oeuvre is almost entirely dedicated to depictions of children  — mostly prepubescent girls — and nature.  The children are grotesque with large comical eyes and predominantly pale skin (except for one rare portrayal of the face of a Black girl in wood), and appear in natural settings, often alongside flora and/or fauna.

Ryden’s skillful lowbrow art problematizes the child-body in nature.

The natural child seems…extremely unnatural.

But the aspect of Ryden’s work that tugged on me most aggressively was his integration of children — particularly prepubescent, white girls — and meat.  His “The Gay ’90s” portfolio seems to piggy-back on his earlier “The Meat Show” works in which slabs of meat — primarily fat rib-eyes — connote a kind of religiosity.  For example, in “The Meat Show” works, Christic imagery pervades and the slabs of meat are positioned as a form of religious nourishment.  The meat often seems too large to be functional as sustenance, yet it seems intended to be more decorative than functional (see The Angel of Meat, for example).

In “The Gay 90s,” however, Ryden pushes the meat and religious imagery further, depicting semi-born babies in their embryonic sacs as types of meat (see Virgin and Child), or depicting girls in dresses of meat.

Tellingly, no girls are ever eating meat or cooking meat.  Meat may appear on the table — as it does in The Grinder — but meat seems a form of garb, even an expression of a way of being (see Inside Sue).

Meat is what these girls display and yet it is also what is inside of them.  They are meat.

In his book Meat, Nick Fiddes argues that the consumption of meats and the human desire to control meat production relates to our desire to control the natural world.  Do Ryden’s white meat girls suggest a certain degree of control enforced in the world around them?

I think so.  I think that is precisely the function of meat in Ryden’s work.  Whoever displays the meat, has the authority or power; and meat is what little girls are made of.