Emma Courtney’s Memoirs of Stalking

Mary Hays is an eighteenth-century author obsessed with proving that she — like her romantic contemporaries — can use highfaluting language as an argument for virtue: her own virtue.  Memoirs of Emma Courtney is not an easy read although it is short, but the pay-offs are big.  My jaw was hanging down to my feet from practically the first page.  I have rarely — never? — encountered such a female heroine in English literature in my oh-so-many dimly-lit reading frenzies.

At first, there is nothing really astonishing about Emma Courtney, a well-read, imaginative orphan who blames her heightened sensibilities on her education.  You think, of course, of Victoria de Lauredani or Oliphant’s Hester, or Isabel Gilbert. Except, there never was such a sentimental heroine in all of human existence.  Marianne Dashwood, stand back!

When I learned about the “cult of sensibility” in my “Making Sex” class at Clark University many years ago I wish that Professor Kasmer had made me read Hays’s novel.  There never was such a clear exploration of sentimentality, such a over-the-top articulation of the power of a girl gone wild with emotion.  Hays’s novel, which is often in an epistolary style, becomes repetitive and excessive as Courtney actually makes her obsessive love apparent to a young man she has only seen in a portrait, stuffing a letter into his hand before he departs his mother’s estate, where Courtney is hiding out from her cruel caregivers.

I was shocked.  Never before have I read of a woman from the eighteenth century who is so bold as to confess her plump lust and love for a man.  But she goes on to expound about her passion many times over yet Hays never calls into question her heroine’s virtue.  Contrarily, Hays insists, like Courtney, that she is an exemplar of virtue and is blameless of the havoc wreaked on characters, including a man she marries to rescue herself from poverty.

The novel was not pleasant to read: overwrought.  Yet, reading this novel is a must for anyone interested in gender play during this time in England.  I was floored.  Here is a heroine — virtuous, no less — who throws herself at a married man, drives a husband to suicide, neglects her daughter for love, and blatantly tells off her elders and superiors (men, no less).  To say that Courtney is “a romantic enthusiast” as she “melts into tears” at every turn, is a bit of an understatement.  She won’t leave the object of her passion alone, stalking him endlessly until I had a headache.  She practically masturbates herself through the whole novel.  Three cheers.


Eating Books

Is there anything more delicious than sitting down with a book?

A few days ago I attended a talk about publishing and one of the hot topics was e-publishing and the technological possibilities for the future of the book.  Audience members wanted to know when academic texts in the humanities, particularly, would find acceptance among peers in digital form.

In many ways this approach to literature dissemination makes sense.  It’s ostensibly cheaper for publishers (once it takes flight), has the potential to reach a wider and even unlikely readership, and can even invite revision and reader interaction if that is its aim.  These are all very sweet sounding things.

On the other hand, when I see my neighbor on the bus reading texts from Kindle or some other electronic interface, I can’t help but to think — in my old-fashioned way — that she’s missing out on the loveliness of the book.

How lovely is the book?

Well, first there is the excitement of finding a book.  Finding a book is not as easy as locating an e-text.  For example, if I want a first edition Marie Corelli I will have to search to the ends of the earth to find it.  But how rewarding when I possess it!  It’s like finding your soul mate after years of dragging the oceans.   Then, when one is prompted to get up and physically locate a text, she merges — feels — the electricity that is so useful in connecting human experience to language (maybe I’m over-reaching.  But no).

Next, a book smells.  It has been handled by flesh — much flesh — and it evidences this.  How glorious!  What a connection to the human!  (Excuse my excitement, if you would.) I stick my nose to its broken binding and rejoice.

People write in books, they spill food and drink on them.  I love to read what others have said, to see what they have underlined.  The book becomes alive.  There are “alive” e-texts as well.  Shelly Jackson’s “My Body” comes to mind.   Then again, the permanence of the ink has a different feel than that of the typed word, for me.

E-texts are reliant upon electricity.  Books are reliant upon human electricity.  One may vanish.  The other, never!

I like the grime of literature.

I like to stick my face into pages.

I like to eat books.

Then, a book can eat me back.


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.


The Devil is a Woman, Part III: Love is War

Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s 1956 novel Grande Sertao: Veradas (Translated in English by James L. Taylor and Harriet De Onis as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) brought me back to my The Devil is a Woman series, from which I have taken a small break.

The Devil to Pay is the first Brazilian novel that I’ve ever read and it is one of the most explicit and beautiful explorations of gender and sexuality in literature: particularly of masculinity and male love. (It’s a shame that it’s out of print.)

In short, the narrator is Riobaldo who, like Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights, seems to be storytelling as away to save his life.  The narrative is winding, out of order, repetitive and somewhat unreliable but it functions as a way to learn about Riobaldo’s two true passions: brutal war in the backlands and violent love for his fellow soldier Diadorim.

And who is the calm and speechless listener to whom Riobaldo narrates his tale?  It must be the devil to whom Riobaldo fears that he accidentally sold his soul in order to become leader of a large group  of jacuncos when, one night when he can’t stand his burning passion for Diadorim’s body, he walks out to the crossroad and beseeches the devil to erase his fears so that he can be the hero to lead his men to avenge the death of Diadorim’s father, Joca Ramiro.

Riobaldo loves to be in love, but the first time he falls in love it is with a nameless boy — later, we learn that this boy was Diadorim — whom he spies across the way at market.  The boy is beautiful with glowing green eyes and the softness/hardness that always puzzles Riobaldo later.  The boy invites Riobaldo out on a boat with him and Riobaldo is very scared because  he can’t swim.  He is intoxicated by the boy’s blunt courage on the boat as it rocks violently.  He asks, “Aren’t you ever scared?,” to which the boy says that he never is, even though he, too, can’t swim.  They arrive on a bank where they hide in the grass to enjoy each other’s company.  The boy teaches Riobaldo about birds, particularly the long-, red-legged birds that come to symbolize the men’s deep love for each other as they grow older.

Later, Riobaldo’s mother dies and he is sent to live with his “godfather” who is really his dead-beat dad.  When he finds out he abandons his rich father and takes refuge in the dangerous sertao (backlands) where life is hard.  He falls in with a band of jacuncos headed by the intellectual Ze Bebelo but he leaves them due to his distaste for their violence. He ends up in the cottage of a group of supporters of Ze Bebelo’s enemy where he sees Diadorim again.  His burning passion for Diadorim prompts him to join these jacuncos and travel with them until he grows old, so that he can be close to his friend.

In some of the most beautiful phrases I have ever read about love, Riobaldo tells his listener (the devil?) about the difficult time that he had coming to terms with his love for Diadorim.

Diadorim and Riobaldo are two of the bravest and most violent fighters among the jacuncos.  They live and breathe war.  Riobaldo is a sharp-shooter.  He never misses and is the team’s prize player.  Diadorim is the bravest hand-to-hand fighter with courage like a lion.  These two men are probably the most “manly” characters next to Hemingway’s figures.  Diadorim observes of Riobaldo: “You’re a man’s man” (122). There is no doubt in the text, ever, about their manhood.  Literature never knew more “masculine” characters.

At the same time, their romantic love for each other is unparalleled.  They yearn, independently, for what they believe that they can never have.  No matter how bad the yearning, neither Diadorim nor Riobaldo give in to their feelings with physical action.  Only once, before their last battle in which Diadorim dies, does Riobaldo shyly call his lover “My loved-one,” to which Diadorim feigns anger.  They play with each other like this, repelling that which they desire most.

Literature has never known more beautiful a love than that which Riobaldo and Diadorim share.  What is most lovely about it is their futile resistance to it: “I loved Diadorim in a way that I frowned upon; I no longer thought about loving him, I just knew that I would love him always” (77).

Of all the affective experiences that describe the two love-birds, fear and shame are paramount for Riobaldo. In this way, his love — and Diadorim himself — are demonized to a certain extent, suggesting that the real devil to whom Riobaldo has sold his soul is Diadorim: the perpetual tempter. Riobaldo constantly asks, “could love be sent by the Devil?” (118).

Nevertheless, their love blossoms with time rather than diminishes. What persists, also, is Riobaldo’s debate about the justness of his love:

“It was a kind of spell.  Let him be near me and I lacked for nothing. Let him frown or look sad, and I would lose my peace of mind. Let him be far from me, and I thought only of him.  And did I myself, then, no understand what this was?  I know that I did.  But no.  I didn’t really want to understand it.  […] That rough tenderness which he concealed most of the time.  And in me a desire to get as close to him as I could, a craving almost to inhale the odor of his body, of his arms, which at times I madly imagined.  This temptation made me feel weak, and I upbraided myself severely” (124).

What Riobaldo feels for Diadorim is like nothing else due, in part, to Diadorim’s nature as truly “different from everyone else” (91).  Indeed, when his corpse is laid on the table Riobaldo sees that he is actually a woman.

Riobaldo says that “every girl is gentle, white, and dainty” (159), yet the bravest and most violent of all men is actually a woman, Maria Diadora.

Gender-shifting is a familiar theme in much literature, from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child.  In The Devil to Pay, however, Diadorim’s gender is not really of much concern.  Riobaldo, for example, reveals Diadorim’s gender at the end.  That’s it.  He continues to call her “him” and doesn’t make the kind of observations that one might expect — such as surprise or a rethinking of gender roles.

Rather, the truth of Diadorim’s body reveals only one truth to Riobaldo: that sometimes “selling” the soul is actually “buying” it back.

Anne After a Decade

My childhood friends must grimace and wince when they hear “Anne of Green Gables.”  During sleepovers I would make them watch all eight hours of the PBS miniseries that was based on Lucy Montgomery’s very long fiction works.

The first time that I watched it, I was in love.  With everything.  Anne.  Prince Edward Island.  The turn of the century fashion. The teaching profession. Female friendships.  Changing the world.  Idealism.

In private, I would watch the film or read the novels over and again.  When I had a boyfriend, he had to watch the film if was he going to understand me.

Really, I wanted to be Anne Shirley.

Anne of Green Gables — and the novels to follow — helped cultivate my passion for Victorian literature.  It was my first taste and boy, was it delicious.  Something about it appealed to me.  She’s just so damn ambitious, temperamental, and capable, isn’t she?  I wanted to be that.

Or, more realistically, I related to that because I was like that myself.

Last weekend I made my husband watch it for the first time.  For my birthday, I wanted to revisit this classic because I hadn’t seen it in more than TEN YEARS!  I wondered: would I still like it?

It was wonderful.  As an adult now with years of teaching, reading, publishing, and love behind me I found Anne’s exploits so joyfully over-the-top that I couldn’t help being whisked away.  I wondered: what does Montgomery’s portrayal of Green Gables suggest about the turn of the century, particularly about the Victorian period of its past?

Anne is really the embodiment of Romantic sentiment.  She exults nature, believes that the mind is the light in the dark, and champions love as the cure to every disease.  Poetry is her food.  Montgomery suggests that these Romantic notions are necessary to catalyze change in a post-Victorian world, as she — with these weapons in hand — disrupts imminent institutions and redirects ways of thinking among her friends and colleagues.

At the same time, Anne is Victorian.  She’s an orphan who is headstrong, violent, verging on the New Woman (but not completely), bound up in fantasies of urbanity, triumphant in her fashion, and obsessed with death.  Yet, these attributes, too, empower her to be a symbol of progress and change.

Then again, she is unmistakably modern: a part of the new world.

She herself changes and she also manipulates the world around her as if it’s putty.

In the end, she returns to the country and to woman’s  prescribed role.  But her method of departure (no matter how temporary) is what has always intrigued me most.

I delight in her marriage to Gil much less than I celebrate her wayward and mischievous nonconformity to the rules of Western civilization.  Those moments of protest are what I love about Victorian texts in particular.  They are so VIOLENTLY PASSIONATE!

Anne is just as close to my heart now as it ever was.  Her PASSION is real revolution.  I wish there were a bigger helping of it in the world today.

Passion in House of Leaves

Danielewski’s book House of Leaves had me sucked into its weird orbit from the first page: the dedication that reads “This is not for you.”

I thought: precisely.  How did he know?

As a passionate lover of nineteenth-century texts — especially the thick, long Victorian novel — I am not often drawn to the postmodern self-referential crap that circulates today as fiction.  On the other hand, I am.

A couple of my students noticed my officemate’s copy of House of Leaves last week.  They both seemed genuinely confused.  Their faces spoke for them.

I thought: any book that can inspire a person to make a face like that deserves a serious read.

So I checked it out of the library and it consumed my life.  Licked it like a flame of unbearable heat.  And then it moved on.

The book is beautiful.  It’s truth.  It’s truth’s antithesis.

It is, in fact, a Victorian novel.

The major difference between House of Leaves and, say, Eliot’s Mill on the Floss is its expression of passion.  The postmodernist keeps his passion hidden — that is a very important aspect of postmodernity as far as I’m concerned.  Passion is the THING that the postmodernist is too afraid to reveal.  Everything else (his desire for his mother, his stained underwear, his alcoholism, his abysmal sorrow etc.) is considered part of his art.

But passion.

That’s elusive.

Take, for example, the most salient quote from the text:

“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” (527).

Go ahead, and read that again.

And a third time.

This quote is footnoted as a quote from Daphne Kaplan. Is there really a Kaplan?  I don’t care.  I didn’t look it up.  I’m not supposed to.  Only, this definition of passion lingers with  me.

It tastes bad.  It’s true.

It’s true.

….{                                    }…..(!): nNn