To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, ‘I am guarding you—I am your support," but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway were the first books of Woolf's I ever read. I don't remember which came first (I believe it was To the Lighthouse), but I remember the contrast in my experience of them. Mrs Dalloway was dark, far away, it did no seem to wish me to come in. As a book, it was forbidding and self-contained, a fortress of a book, filled I was sure with something beautiful, something which I could smell and hear at times, but which I was forbidden to see, simply because I was not worthy of the experience. (I've since peeked my eyes just over the fortress wall, mind you, but nonetheless...).

To the Lighthouse was none of these things. It was inscrutable perhaps, yes, but not inscrutable in the way that the interior of a fortress is, none of the feeling of being kept out of a thing. To the Lighthouse had the inscrutability of the sea - vast, eminently available, explorable, considerable, but nonetheless, unknowable - even as we know it. I feel about To the Lighthouse the way boys in old books felt about the sea: that it is a place where souls are forged, where experiences are had, a place with a certain home-ness to it. To the Lighthouse, like the sea, was a lover, or a harsh mistress. Mrs. Dalloway was a cloud, eminently arrayed but ever out of reach.

Over the past month, it's come to my attention from different people that this is not the normal way of things - that most people feel the opposite way, in fact. I want to tell you what I see in To the Lighthouse, that makes me feel at home - unavoidably my little essay will fail, because the very reason that the book is inscrutable is because the experience of immensity is supposed to be indescribable. That is, I guess, what makes it immense. But, I will have, at least, made the attempt.

For me, To the Lighthouse is a book about inbetween places and people. The lighthouse itself is a perfect example of this - it is a building that is at once of the sea and the sky, built on land that barely exists. It clings to earth - it is immersed in sea and sky. The house has a similar story, particularly in the second part, when it is invaded by the sand and the wind, and starts to decay - before being put aright again by the servants. Mrs Ramsay herself is, in many ways, the same sort of symbol - at once her hands are in the practical world, of raising children and worrying over molehills, of setting up love matches and entertaining guests, while her mind, at a moments notice, is lost in the immensities of thought, ranging over the great questions of philosophy with an easy authenticity that paints the efforts of her husband, or Charles Tannsley as what they are - gropings, accidental spelunkings obtained in pursuit of other ends. The towers of this novel are immensely tied into this to me, into this balance between the great and sensual sea, and the immensity of the sky.

Of course, I know that sounds like a kind of paragraph of nonsense, but there is a reason, for me, that it isn't. The lighthouse, the house, Mrs Ramsay (for everyone but herself), the sea, the sky, the tidal regions of the beach, all these twilit places would seem to tease an obvious question - what do they mean? OR to solidify the question more - these things are like life, halfway between the heavens and the grave, and inevitably bound for one or the other (or both, depending on your philosophy). Humans are, after all, this strange mixture of the sensual and the spiritual, and for eons, man has over and over asked the question - why? Why are we here? Why are we what we are? What are we, eminent strugglers, supposed to struggle against?

I think, though, in To the Lighthouse, this is a deceptive question: the very central point of the book, for me, is that the answer doesn't really matter. Asking the purpose of life is like asking the purpose of the sea, or the purpose of a painting, or the purpose of a child. They are things that simply are.

This may sound like simple old-fashioned Atheism - in a sense it is. It is and it isn't. The character of Charles Tansley shows this - he is the 'quintessential atheist' of the book (I put this in quotes because I don't mean to imply that atheists are like this, or like that, simply that the literary IDEA of an atheist is like Charles Tansley). Charles doesn't believe in nothing, rather he believes in believing in nothing. He believes there is no God, whereas the novel simply doesn't bother believing there is a God - or that there isn't. It accepts that there is a world, that is is here, that we are here, that we will die, and other people will live, that none of will accomplish immortality, and then gently, gently, ever so gently, whispers to us that we will live in it anyway. Like Mrs Ramsey, sometimes that will terrify us, sometimes it will comfort us. And that's okay, and there is no answer that will resolve it for us. In a world with no particular purpose, we must define our own, and we can never be wrong - and we can never be right. We simply will all live, try to do things we think are good, try not to do what we think is bad, and then, one day, we will die. We will paint, or write, or fix computers, and perhaps we'll be remembered for a very long time, or perhaps barely a moment, but eventually, we'll be forgotten. Our happiness will not last, but we will, in spite of that - or maybe because of that - be happy for our moment.

From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at the escape, at the adventure (that she should be alive, that she should be there). And the drops falling from this sudden and unthinking fountain of joy fell here and there on the dark, the slumbrous shapes in her mind; shapes of a world not realised but turning in their darkness, catching here and there, a spark of light; Greece, Rome, Constantinople."
"Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision."

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Florence Nightingale

(The below is a sort of boiling down of some of the notes I took reading a recent biography of Florence Nightingale. The biography itself was excellent, I literally marked about 90 different places that I wanted to go back and sketch notes from. If you'd like to learn more about her, I highly recommend it, it's by Mark Bostridge)

After a week on the Nile river, Florence Nightingale's dress was crawling. Sand, heat, slithered up and down with each movement, and despite the tortuous confinement to the cabin, vermin probably shared these chases. To Florence, the filth was secondary - or more, the filth was symbolic - it was the tenuous fingers of the shoreline reaching to her, the shore where she saw men live in hovels to low to stand up straight in, digging through the refuse the tourists dropped off to support a meager diet, killing and dying like animals.

The idea of this was horrific in the immediate, of course. Florence, more even than most men at the time, understood the effects of poverty on health: mental, physical and spiritual. She was a statistician, a woman who would write glowing letters of thanks when she received books of government figures from friends, a woman who, upon meeting a mathematician a few years after the trip to the Nile, played the part of an awed worshipper. The spread of souls dissolving slowly into their own filth was a series of figures, a math problem with a very definite final product - death, decay, degeneration, the transofrmation of man into beast.

But, for Florence, it was more than this, for Egypt, to her, was history itself, was a portrait of a lost cause of God. With a sense of religious universalism uniquely her own, Florence saw the gods and progress of the Egyptians as reflections of the same truths she learned in terms of Christ and the Abrahamic God: after visiting the Temple of Isis at Philae, Florence had snuck back alone, to lie her crucifix in the sandy floor of the chamber of Osiris. For her, the call of Shelley's Ozymandias wasn't destiny, it was a warning, a spur to strive and strive, so that the monuments of her day would not dissolve slowly into the earth of England, so that her people would not stoop down again, to pick at the refuse of a future struggle.

The overpowering presence of Egypt for Nightingale was in it's brown-ness, it's sterility. The weight of the endless, hopeless stretch of the Sahara fell on her through the narrow windows of her cabin, mile after mile. The ship itself they had named Parthenope, after Florence's sister - she embroidered a banner with her sister's name, and it flew behind them in long, neat greek letters - the banner can be seen today, I believe in the British Museum. She had sewn it in good earnest, for the love Parthenope and Florence felt for each other had an intensity we would normally associate with lovers, not sisters - Parthenope herself was to say one day "I never thought to marry any one but Florence". But by 1850, as Florence sailed up the Nile, the fire of her sister's love - a jealous love by all accounts - had burned her almost to the very sterility of the desert. The trip had been, in part, to escape her home: a doctor was to proclaim that Parthenope's love for Florence was so intense that the two needed to be seperated lest it disrupt her own health. And Florence's mother and father struggled with the genius of their daughter, struggling, continuously to understand how someone in such a comfortable position could turn from marriage, could become so upset at the social world, at the drawing room (she was later to refuse to have a drawing room in her home, declaring it an instrument of torture for women). But Florence was simply not capable of supporting the life she was born into.

"Unconsiousness is all that I desire. I remain in bed as late as I can, for what have I to wake for? I am perishing for want of food... Therefore I spend my days in dreams fo other situations which will afford me food...

Starvation does not lead a man to exertion, it only weakens him. Oh weary days, oh evenings that never seem to end. For how many long years I have watched that drawing room clock and thoguht it never would reach the ten & for 20 or so more years to do this. It is not the misery, the unhappiness that I feel so insupportable, but to feel this habit, this disease gaining power upon me - & no hope, no help. This is the sting of death."

Her 'dreams of other situations' were more than simply the fancy of an lonely mind - they were intense, physical experiences, and experience at once addictive and dangerous. She compared the habit to 'gin drinking', said it sapped 'her vital strength', spoke of dreams and moonlight giving her a "A queer feeling... not to be quite certain of which is true and which is imaginary." The feeling persisted, even in Egypt, which was to be an escape from all of the lonely boredom of home: she described her hazy dreams as she floated the torpid Nil as her 'enemy', the 'constant murderer of my thoughts,' and abused herself as she felt the quickening force of the ancient splendor tug at her soul, for '[dreaming] even in the very face of God', begging God to free her from the 'enslavement'.

The weeks crawled, she dreamt and melted into teh slithering stillness of the river, or the hazy cabin windows, of her own skin. She left to shore to look at great and ancient sites she'd read of all her life, and dreamily wandered back on the ship, forgetting even what she'd seen. She read page after droning page of novels aloud to her companions, to the maid even. And then, just before they returned to Alexandria, she heard the voice of God.

To her, this voice was dramatic, and very real - and this was not the first time she'd heard it speak. She first heard it on the 7th of February, 1837, when it came and told her that she was to do a great and holy work in the world, to bring men closer to God. This closeness was, to her, not faith, in the sense of the CAtholic mystics, not a surrendering or even a worshipping action. Sanctity, goodness, was the process of digging out and discovering the laws of God, and following them - and this did not mean the Ten Commandments. To her, evil was all that made misery in the world, and holiness was all that made joy. To her, there was more godly law in discovering the laws of sanitation than in praying for things to happen. An enemy would later describe her sneeringly as finding Christ in a drainpipe, and it is a description that was not only apt, but for her, likely a compliment. This mixture of mysticism and practical effort was the very soul of her life - and as a result, the banal and the impractical were the enemies of her existence. God had called her to do, not to chat, to marry, to entertain.

The call came again there on the Nile, and her letters, previously almost daily letters, ceased for two weeks. Her journals paint this period as a long, Jacob-like, wrestling with God. At the end, she wrote that she had 'settled the question with god,' that, in the spirit of her faith, she had worked out what she was to do, not simply submitted in blind trust. In the ensuing week - a whirlwind tour of Greece - she was strangely at peace, able to enjoy herself. She bought a pet - an owl named Athena which she kept frequently in her pocket. She made jokes. She bantered with locals.

The year then was 1850. Within a few years, the first 'modern' war would begin between Russia and Great Britain, over the seaports of the Crimean Penninsula. By 1854, she was walking the floors of the Scutari Barracks, holding a lamp out in the deeps of night as she nursed the decimated British army (notably, the only actual mention of her using a lamp in her Nurse's notes was to chase rats from the hospital). By 1856, she was one of the great heroines of humanitarian history, and for the next 50 years, she woulud loom large as one of the driving forces in the growth of nursing and public health.

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Poor Kitties Memorial Fund

Neil Gaiman recently put up a very touching tribute to his cat-in-the-attic, Zoe, a blind, but very sweet creature who has prevented masterpieces from being written and had bathtubs installed on top of her (see here, here, and here). This isn't the only sad story about cats lately - our friend at Bookfoolery also lost a dear cat friend recently, a poor, blind old creature, and it broke her heart as well, I know. My kitties have been off and on sick, but are thankfully alive and well, though I have had sad kitty stories on the brain lately (hence my recent terrible poem on the subject). And then I happen to KNOW certain other friends (hr-hrm, nymethdebichris) love kittehs too.

Well, long story short, I thought, wouldn't it be nice to have a little mini charity drive in memoriam of poor kitties? And, lo and behold The Neil even suggested a charity for it: The Great Lakes Bengal Rescue, which helps to rescue and find homes for Bengal Cats (which are beautiful by the way :). I have to admit, I originally thought it meant tigers!), which The Neal's friend @fabulouslorrain works with a lot. So, I'm not a great fundraiser, but I thought, why not throw up a link, and we can all try to give a few dollars to Help the Kittehs, as a way to say thank to all the Poor Kitties we've loved over the years? Feel free to donate, if you want to write something about your Poor Kitties, link to it, or just link to your blog, as you wish :). You can donate through Paypal, here. and if you give $35, you get a free laser pointer :).

BTW, does 'Poor Kitties' make anyone else think of the "Poor Claires" and give you an image of a lot of kittehs in white wimpels? Hurrah for the Abbess of Cats!

(UPDATE: Please, please, PLEASE visit http://www.michellewatersart.com where you'll find the beautiful art I originally (wickedly) had borrowed to put on the site. Ms Waters art is uniformally lovely, and I hope you'll find things on it to love and appreciate. Sorry Ms Waters for the inadvertent thievery.)

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(This is still a draft, I know)

Tickling tips of leather whips
     The flagellant's cat gnaws -
A monster made of broken shards
     The flagellant beats on.
Some sins sink too deep for the stroke,
     Sink right into the bones.
Atonement is an empty room,
Atonement is a pretty tomb,
     Of endlessly-alone.

Put down the cat, I'll put down mine
     Come here, and take my hand.
And if God rips our hands apart
I'll give you pieces of my heart
And if God tears it from your chest
I'll put the pieces in my breast
And if God drives you down to death,
I'll carry you in every breath
And I'll refuse to be alone -
I'll make me bed beside thy own
And we'll dissolve into the earth
So fine, we'll both escape rebirth --
     We'll sleep, the self-same sand.

(Image by valeriebb, and isn't it beautiful?)

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Black Juice by Margo Lanagan

A long time ago, I took a creative writing class once (it was terrible, btw, but I'm afraid I can't blame my poor fiction skills on that...). Our instructor was a great believer in exercises. You know, like "Write a 26 line poem where each line starts with a different letter," or "write a story about Robin Hood, set in the old west."

Well, one of his favorite tricks was to take two random words or phrases, and make us write a story that combines them. Like 'treadmill' and 'pickles'. Or 'pistol' and 'nun'. I hated these exercises, probably in part because I wasn't very good at them. In fact, I'm not sure ANYONE was good at them. There was always someone who THOUGHT they'd done a fine job, and they'd stand up and you'd listen, and go 'why yes, that story DOES sound just like you were finding a way to include nuns and pistols in the same story beause some strange, wicked god told you you had to.'

Ms Lanagan, I think, was the exception. Ms Lanagan must have been very good at this game. 'Clown' and 'Sniper'. 'Accordion' and 'Progress'. 'Pretty, Pretty Princess' and 'French Revolution'. Because each of these stories, as strange, sometimes disturbing, as they are, feels at the same time convincing. Cohesive.

Of course, that makes it sound like Ms Lanagan's purpose is simply virtuosity, that these stories come across as clever or smug - they don't. Reading Ms Lanagan is more like Synaptic Tango - Invigorating and exhausting, strangely intoxicating, moving the synapses in ways you didn't expect you were capable, and absolutely gorgeous to participate in. Ms Lanagan takes a long step into a place where clowns and snipers belong together, and then dips you down in a slow, hard arc of the mental back, and murmurs 'There now, what do you see?' One can almost imagine the metaphorical rose in her teeth.

And the footwork is mesmerizing in this book. The first story ('La Brea Tarpits' and 'Fried Green Tomatoes') is one of the most gut-wrenching, vivid stories I have ever read, ever, somehow managing to simultaneously be as sickeningly horrific as Edgar Allen Poe and as starkly kind as Willa Cather. Yowlinin ('killer weasel' and 'caste system') hides combines a heavy handed sense of injustice with the gentle tickling reminder of the feeling of falling in love. Every story in here does this, reminding me with the violence and subtelty of a tango, that these conflicting things - love and fear, friendship and intolerance, blood and soul - exist, and HAVE to exist, in the same world, in the same instants of life, no matter how much we might like to imagine them forming separate narratives.

(Image by Sean Dreilinger)

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

(NOTE: There is really only one 'spoiler' I imagine in Mrs Dalloway, but really, the spoilers in my opinion aren't the point. Said spoiler will be referred to throughout this review)
(NOTE 2: I'm not an expert on Virginia Woolf, so I quite possibly have no idea what I'm talking about.)
(NOTE 3: I use the word God in this review as a genderless word, neither male nor female)

A woman wakes up and prepares for a party. A man meets with his old friends. A former soldier struggles with (what we would now call, I imagine) PTSD. Much walking about the streets of London ensues. The woman's party goes off well. The man learns, more or less, absolutely nothing despite having the opportunity to do so. The soldier kills himself.

That's about it, that's the lump sum plot of Mrs Dalloway (OK, there's a few other small plots as well). The narrative voice maintains the same quiet distance from each of these threads of narrative, calmly switching between flowers and suicidal thoughts, between old memories and morning traffic.

If this sounds boring, or trite, please try the book anyway. If, like me, you don't 'get it' the first time you read it, try it again. If you persist in not understanding or missing the point, wait a few years, read lots of other books, and try it again. Reading Mrs Dalloway and having it 'click' for you is a transcendant, holy literary experience.

Septimus half rose from his chair... and with legions of men prostrate behind him he, the giant mourner, receives for one moment on his face the whole... The millions lamented; for ages they had sorrowed. HE would turn round, he would tell them in a few moments, only a few moments more, of this relief, of this joy, of this astonishing revelation--

With most authors who write deeply, humanly charactered books, one senses the author hiding just behind at least one of the many masks scattered across the pages. In Hemingway, you feel him just behind the lead male, in pretty much every book. James Joyce is autobiographical to a fault. Dickens lies in the voice of his narrator - no matter who said narrator might be (even in Great Expectations where Pip really doesn't seem much like Charles Dickens, you still feel Charles inside Pip's first person narration).

In fact, Joyce is a particularly powerful comparison, because this is the powerful myopia of his work, for me - I wrote about this, in fact, a little bit in my review of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man last year, how one is so intimately engaged inside the narrator's skin that one feels in it the contours of one's own skin, one sees clearly things about themselves, without the protective displacement that fiction usually gives. Virginia Woolf, in a sense, is just the opposite: In a Virginia Woolf novel, one feels the author dissolve from the book, and the world - as small and 'petty' as that world might be - blooms into an existence with no lifelines, no points of reference, no escape into the author's life. Virginia Woolf does not write her soul into her characters because, with the true godlike power of the creator, she creates souls, free and independent of her own, then lets them into a world to live (and die) in.

Elizabeth rather wondered whether Miss Kilman could be hungry. IT was her way of eating, eating with intensity, then looking, again and again, at a plate of sugared cakes on the table next theml then, when a lady and a child sat down and the child took the cake, could Miss Kilman really mind it? Yes... She had wanted that cake -- the pink one. The pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her, and then to be baffled even in that!

This was disorienting the first time I read the book, this dizzying feeling of continuously moving from one soul to another, from one internal world to another. You feel a sort of motion sickness, like you want to find that 'one character', the soul that is the voice of the book. Only there isn't one. Like life itself, the book exists without a central thread. It's messy, powerfully messy, and unresolvable. This is not an immediately gratifying experience - for me, it was easy to feel a certain... coldness I guess, the first time I read a Woolf novel, a certain sense that there is a God here, but the God simply does not care a straw what happens to her children.

I began to unravel this when I first read Eliot's 'Middlemarch', which Woolf famously described as the first book ever written for grownup people. At first blush I simply took this as a bit of snobbery (honestly, I imagine there IS a BIT of snobbery to the comment. Virginia was never a PERFECT person). But there is a certain truth behind the snobbery, because Eliot, in some ways, does this same thing - she creates a world, and populates with souls, whole, free souls, and then draws them out through simple mundanities to an inconclusive point of finishing.

And that's it to me. Reading, say, Wives and Daughters - a beautiful novel mind you, and I'm not saying this is a bad thing - one feels as if Mrs Gaskell is trying to teach us and help us, to guide us to her truth. Like a mother. Like we are her children, and she is teaching us. Dickens is this to the Nth degree - I love the guy, but he's a wee bit paternal...

Woolf is not. Woolf speaks to us as an equal. I think this is why I found her so intimidating, because she refuses to speak down to me, even though I'm not at her level. She simply tells the truth, the messy, nonsensical, irritating truth. Then, she steps back, and lets me build my own faiths inside of her truth. More than any other I've read, and in spite of the fact that I don't deserve it, I feel that Ms Woolf trusts me with her book. She allows me to make it what I will, not what she will.

The clock was striking -- one, two, three: how sensible the sound was; compared with all this thumping and whispering; like Septimus himself. She was falling asleep. But the lock went on striking, four, five, six and Mrs Filmer waving her apron... seemed part of that garden; or a flag. She had once seen a flag slowly rippling out from a mast... Men killed in battle were thus saluted, and Septimus had been through the War. Of her memories, most were happy. She put on her hat, and ran through cornfields -- where could it have been? -- on to some hill, somewhere near the sea...

And so, I am not obliged to love or unlove, to hope or despair. I am simply given souls, and left withe only one instruction: to decide what I think of them. This is powerful for me in a very simple way - that because the author does not exist in the story, she does not obscure it. Dalloway is almost like journalism, only more perfect. It is like being able to, for a short time, see much more clearly than I am normally capable of. So, the characters shine with a vividity and clarity that few authors ever approach. The quote about Miss Kilman above typifies this for me, for example.

On the other hand, for me (and this, I suppose, may be my attempts to build a faith inside of the truth), because I am not told to be any certain soul as I read, but instead must be each soul, in turn, I feel, in a very sacred way, a soul not of any certain soul, but of a community. Where reading Joyce is a walk as deep into one's self as one can go, reading Woolf is a walk as far out of one's self as one can go, until you enter a sort of Nirvana, where you can, for just tiny glimpses of moments, feel what it is to be a world of souls. And, for me, it is there that I finally DO meet Virginia Woolf, the great creator, who stands above her creations with the cold, loving heart of a god.

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Why GLBT Issues are Important to Me (NSFW, many trigger words)

(Please note, this is a very ugly post, please navigate away if you're not okay with that)

fag - faggot - nancy - sissy - queen - dyke - homo - poof - poove - pouf - bulldyke - batty boy - bulldagger - Pansy - chicken - fruit - fairy - sprite - auntie - invert - bent - nance - pantywaist - ottoman - milksop - tabby - dam - cocksucker - cuntsucker - pussylicker - cuntlicker - dick licker - ass pirate - ass master - buttfucker - butt slut - pervert - Shirley - Judy - Dorothy - lesbo - shitpacker - fudgepacker - shit dicker - pussy-pop

Read the whole list again, out loud. Read it in the voice the words are said in. Look at your partner, lover, spouse, mother, sibling and read it again. Look at yourself in the mirror, read it again. Now, don't say anything, but close your eyes, and concentrate on that little spot just above your belly that feels sick at things that are ugly and wrong. Concentrate on how it feels. Read the list again.

That's why I support GLBT issues.

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The Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

I know I don't do a very good job of living up to my ideals, but social justice is a subject dear to my heart. This shows in my reading, I imagine - I love books that struggle with what it means to be a just society, that highlight injustice, that try to show the road to justice - Upton Sinclair, Victor Hugo, Charlotte Gilman Perkins, Karl Marx, Anne Bronte : each of these writers stirs me first and foremost as visionaries trying to imagine a world that is more equitable and just. Even in my admittedly humble work (I fix computers, if you didn't know), the thing that get's me to the office every day is the idea that somehow, my little drop labors might free people from the constraints of ugliness and dehumanization that is sadly such a big part of a post-industrial world. I like to dream, and social justice is the grandest, most beautiful of dreams.

In Fruit of the Tree, with the quiet impartiality of Dame Justice herself, Wharton carefully deconstructs what this dream costs, in real, human sorrow. This is not a story of revolution, but it is akin to one, in that it tells the tale of what must be sacrificed at the altars of progress, and how unsure the outcomes of that sacrifice really are. This doesn't make the book reactionary - Wharton really seems to champion the causes that the characters sacrifice for. But it is brutally, calmly realistic. If you cannot understand how the wealthy class in turn of the century America (or any inequitable society) can have be so blind to the misery that they extracted their wealth from, read this book - it opened my eyes, and gave me a new compassion for those who have wealth, but have a conscience at the same time.


This is the story of two very idealized idealists: John Amherst and Justine Brent. Amherst is a socially-conscious engineer, working in the mills owned by the recently widowed Bessie Langhope. At the beginning an accident has befallen one of Amherst's workers, and he is being cared for by the intelligent, sympathetic young nurse, Justine Brent. The accident is due to the terrible conditions of the mill town, and when Bessie comes to visit the mills for the first time, Amherst sees the opportunity to try to change some of the inequities of the system. Beginning simply with the desire to open Bessie's eyes to the inequities, things progress quickly, and the two are married. The marriage is a difficult one, as Amherst comes to realize that he entered it in large part as a means to the end of improving the mills, and as Bessie ceases to be interested in his larger social questions. This leads to a painful series of events, and an ending that I won't ruin for you, even in a spoiler free section. But sufficeth to say, the book grapples with social justice, euthanasia, women's equality, the value of the individual, and the basic questions of what is and is not a moral act.


This was Wharton's third novel, and lacks some of the polish of, for instance, Age of Innocence (a difficult standard to judge against...). The dialogue feels wooden at times, the characters too consistent, if that makes sense (the idealists are ALWAYS idealists, for instance). But the strength of this novel is that each one of the characters has, by the end of the book, a real soul, full of blacks, greys and whites, and deserving of human respect and pity, even at their ugliest moments. You see how someone can take away the chance for basic schooling and medical care for a town full of people, because they want to build a private luxury gymnasium, without just being a soulless monster. You see how a devotion to seeing good done on a social scale, can make someone treat the people closest to them abominably. You see how good people turn wicked, how morally ambiguous people can strice for moments of heroism.

And in a sense, the absolutes of this book - the extreme idealists for instance - are part of the point. While the book is presented as a tragedy, in a sense, it presents an ideal scenario for social change - the perfect idealist, obtains the means to effect change, then gains total freedom to enact his plans, then gets all the help he could ask for, and even succeeds in his aims, making thousands of lives infinitely better. And in the process, still takes away the greatest possible happiness he himself, and those he loves best, could have ever enjoyed. It's a novel that shows that you cannot really change the world simply through self sacrifice - you inevitably, unavaoidably sacrifice the people you love as well, and for that reason idealism itself takes a special sort of callousness and cruelty - even if it is the road to the best of all possible worlds.

And, while Wharton is NOT perfect, the writing IS vintage Wharton - beautiful, overgrown, rich with a deep layering of gorgeous, fragrant language:

There [the marsh] lay in charmed solitude, shut in by a tawny growth of larch and swamp-maple, its edges burnt out to smouldering shades of russet, ember-red and ashen-grey, while the quaking centre still preserved a jewel-like green where hidden lanes of moisture wound between islets tufted with swamp-cranberry and with the charred browns of fern and wild rose and bay. Sodden earth adn decaying branches gave forth a sweet odour, as of the aromatic essence embalming a dead summer; and the air charged with this scent was so still that the snapping of witch-hazel pods, the drop of a nut, the leap of a startled fron, pricked the silence with separate points of sound.

And her careful observation of what it is to be human is laced throughout the entire book:

Bessy's mind was not made for introspection, and chance had burdened it with unintelligible problems. She felt herself the victim of circumstances to which her imagination attributed the deliberate malice that children ascribe to the furniture they run against in playing. This helped her to cultivate a sense of helpless injury and to disdain in advance the advice she was perpetually seeking.

Fruit of the Tree was out of print for 90 years after it was first published (there is now an off-brand press edition available through Amazon, I believe). Different places on line describe it as a soap opera, and invariably as one of Wharton's lesser works. But, for it's unique comination of an acute eye, a deep knowledge of the upper class, and an earnest desire to understand why the world has so much trouble changing, this book deserves a revival.

(Image from Stitch)

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If I could sip dust and honey
      It would feel like this --
A flower -- of a fashion --
      If a penny is verdigris --
A solvent of emotions
      And a dessicant of bliss.
(Picture from annosvixit)

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