Familiarity and Contempt (What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller)

Good god, I forgot what it's like to read a book where each page takes less than 15 minutes! It feels strange to be in the realm of books one can read as an activity instead of a journey. Not that I mean I regret Ulysses - just sometimes it's nice to simply take a day-trip to the park, rather than hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.

If you haven't read What Was She Thinking (also called Notes on a Scandal, after the title of the movie it inspired), or seen the movie, there will be spoilers in these thoughts, because I'm really not sure where to end before ruining any surprises.  So, now then, only us spoiled or spoilable folks left? Alright, then...

The very first page of the book presents for us what appears to be an easily parsed framework for interpreting Sheba, the nominal heroine of the book: she is a woman who has had an illicit affair with a 15 year old boy. She has been caught. It's a nasty business. The news has introduced this particular character type, in the real world more than once (seemingly every time it happens), and in the beginning, there is a natural tendency, I think to assume that any further story will be simply the salacious details. The narrator, Barbara (in many senses, I think, the true protagonist of the novel), is much more of a mystery - she's older. She's loyal to this woman who has done something impardonable. She is a bit cold and bitter.

By the end of the book, Barbara has done her very best to show us that Sheba is a faulty, essentially non-evil woman who committed a horrible mistake. One can (if one wishes) pity her, sympathize with her. On the other hand, unwittingly, Barbara reveals herself to be, as most people I know describe her, very creepy. Sheba let her hormones overtake her. Barbara seems to have something very distrubing wrong with her.

The interesting thing to me is this: Barbara, I think, one knows fairly well by the end of the book, and one despises her. Sheba, who one is given the opportunity to pity, one knows in many ways LESS than they did on the first page of the book. The narrator is clearly not terrifically reliable, and obviously sees Sheba in a way that suits the fantasies she needs to uphold for herself - how are we to trust that anything she says really accurately reflects on Sheba's character? Take, for a moment, the mere facts apart from the very artfully applied layers of interpretation, and one has learned very little by the end of the book, really - some details of Sheba's family life. A rough timeline of how the affair went. A highly coloured personal account of some of the day to days of the end of the affair. A frankly unreliable account of second hand knowledge that we don't know if it's even accurate. The image of Barbara, is, inadvertently, more or less an honest one. The image of Sheba is a more or less dishonest, or at least dubious, one. And it's much easier to like Sheba than Barbara.

This particularly caught my eye because the way Barbara details her life reminded me in some ways of Ulysses (sorry, I know). Barbara, perhaps because she lives alone and has no particular center or direction to her life outside of Sheba, is left, in between the periods in which she is merely reinterpreting Sheba's life, describing her life in very exacting detail. By the end, one knows how Barbara gets dressed, how she feeds the cat, the manner of cook she is, the way she keeps her bedroom and living room, her personal grooming habits, the way she sleeps even. Bloom's journey through Dublin is told in the same exacting detail (we were not, perhaps, left with a description of how Ms Barbara goes to the bathroom - but she did comment on the menstrual habits of her coworkers, so I think this was more an issue of space and first person narration than any sort of actual fastidiousness). And I've heard more than one person who read Ulysses mention how surprised they were at how much they disliked Bloom, and in much the same way that one dislikes Barbara - he's a little off, a little bit disturbing. Revolting.

In many novels one gains a certain intimacy with the characters, and understand please that the comments Im about to offer are not belittling that. But most of that intimacy is only with their inner selves - in some sense I think this is what we turn to literature for, to look at someone and be able to see something more 'real' than the everyday. Joyce turned this around and presented the everyday as the framework of the epic, and so I think that it's easy to look at his characters and think 'how disgusting', because one must see all the detritus of their daily thought patterns. I daresay that many of our hero's thought patterns would be equally ugly if we took them in unexpurgated. In part, I think this is the problem with living in Barbara's everyday world - familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt (or horror, or disgust).

I am not everyone I know, I'm only me, but I will say that a tepid toe dipped deep in the stream of my consciousness would be equally loathsome. I say this as impassively as I can. I think any number of ugly, unpleasant things, I'm plagued by a discordant, disturbing mishmash of non-cohesive patterns of internal life, most of them worn deep enoguh that the groove has gone smooth with time. This isn't, I don't think, because I'm deeply secretive - I try to fairly honest and forthcoming (not that I always have in my life). It's simply that writing about one's self naturally condenses identity into something cohesive. Maybe this is a sort of innate dishonesty, for my own benefit - I need to believe there is a self to build an identity around, instead of a raucous blend of things, most of which should be ignored or suppressed in order to function in the world. I don't know, I wonder sometimes if the feeling is more universal, if perhaps many or most of us have internal selves that stoke at a fire of contradictions.

There are two points to this. In some ways, it is a simple one: simply that knowing a person might tell us things about them we might not be glad we learned, and that we should, thus, take our knowing with a grain of salt - not becaus what we know is necessarily untrue, but because it is confusing to know a person intimately that way. The everyday has a way of bringing up the tics and highlighting them, leaving us blind, ironically, to the virtues of a person - which ironically intensifies the tics in our subject themselves, and declines the influence of virtue. Theory of PErsonality Relativity, I guess.

The other point, though, is I think it's interesting that the repulsive Barbara is, in fact, a writer herself - her manner of writingis not simply narrative, it's 'writerly' - complex, beautiful, very funny at times, poignant at others. She is not a diarist, but a novelist. And what's interesting about that to me is that she is making a novel of Sheba. The difference between the book and a real novel is simply that the ACTUAL author works so hard to see the machinations of the false author in producing the false account of the protagonist - we see, in essence, the making up of a hero from scratch, from the eyes of the novelist, without her explicit awareness of the revelation. Which makes one turn back for a moment to all the heroes in all the other novels they've seen created. Jane Eyre, for instance - it's difficult in a moment of clarity not to see how much Bronte needed her to be a hero. Or Stephen Dedalus. Or any of a thousand others. Authors write heroes, as often as not, because they need the validation of seeing someone else worship their illusions.

I don't mean this as a dig against literature - clearly I'm not opposed to Jane Eyre or Ulysses. I think that in truth of truths, though, there is no 'true portrait' of anyone. To make others feel for a character, one must describe the character artfully, art implies passion, and passion, by definition, precludes dispassionate honesty. I'm not sure it's even really a 'warning' per se. In some sense, I will admit, I believe that this lack of clarity is wonderful, because when you really look at a person, you're not looking for a catalog of their attributes - a catalog of attributes, after all, is the whole problem with knowing someone to intimately. You're looking for a story, for someone to connect little cohesive webs that let you wrap your mind around a person. Those webs can't be complete images of a person, of course - a person is made of the paints the web stretches between, not of the threads that you actually see. But something like the way an artist will use a color that is absent in nature to produce an illusion that's realistic, this sort of skewed portrayal can be far more 'honest', in some senses, than a clinical description

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Ulysses (10:30, St. Patrick's Day)

It's late in the evening of St. Patrick's. What a strange holiday it is, here in the states! I was at work today, and heard a tongue in cheek conversation in which someone stated that they don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day, because they don't drink, and someone else who followed up by saying they didn't understand why we celebrated St. Patrick's anyway - why not just have a 'British People Day'? (a slight shudder chased my spine for the Irish of the world on that one) I don't know why we do - or I do know why we STARTED to, but let's start there.

The celebration of St. Patrick's Day in America is actually very old, in some ways - all the way to George Washington, in fact. In 1780, on St. Patrick's, Washington gave all his troops a holiday, in solidarity with the Irish, who struggled for freedom in much the same way, even against the same imperial power (it probably helped, as well, that a good sized contingent of his troops were of Irish extraction). The holiday pops up here and there in American history afterwards. It doesn't become the great spectacle we know today until the age of immigration - the St Patrick's Parade in New York, for instnace, began before the First World War, and even then was traceable back to the celebrations of the regiments of Irish cannon fodder that fought in the Union army during the Civil War (for a chilling image of that particular aspect of Irish history, I recommend some of the scenes from 'Gangs of New York', a film full of strange and disturbing visuals). It's interesting, because the holiday didn't become a national holiday in Ireland itself until 1905. In part, of course, this was simply because Ireland was still a colony of Great Britain (colony, protectorate, whatever, call it what you will), and displays of Irish patriotism were frankly frowned upon. 

In part I think there is more to it than that - the Irish in New York were an interesting sort of immigrant, in many ways like, say, a Palestinian today. The Irish were refugees, nominal citizens of a nation that treated them as either amusing comics or terrifying beasts - Catholics in Ireland were, until the 19th century, not even allowed to learn to read and write. So where, say, a German immigrant had chosen to leave his nation behind, the Irish immigrants to America were still looking for their country - not for America, but for Ireland. Sinn Fein and other Irish revolutionary bodies had considerable financial backing from American Irish, and much of their leadership ended up New York for extended periods of time. So the Irish, in many ways, found Ireland wherever they went - and there thick cultural cohesivity showed this. 

In good and bad ways. The reputation for St. Patrick's now as a drunken revel with no religious or cultural significance whatsoever is, in most of the states, not entirely undeserved. The only Irish products most Americans come into contact with, now, or Bushmills, Baileys, Jamesons, and Guinness. The only Irish stories they know are vague, highly distorted versions of the Leprachaun - a story which, in Ireland, was never even terribly significant really. This is completely acceptable in most of our minds, and jokes about Irish culture as being essentially concerned with alcohol are common and well-accepted - amongst those of Irish extraction even. Guinness puts up signs every year saying 'On March 17th, everyone is Irish', and that's not because they're encouraging people to read Lady Gregory. 

I finished James Joyce's Ulysses today. Joyce himself was not shy about pointing about the more irritating edges of Irish culture. Drinking, in fact, is not a small part of Ulysses, and in Finnegan's Wake, Whisky is elevated to it's celtic etymological roots: usquebaugh, literally the 'water of life. Joyce, in fact, exiled himself from Ireland in large part because of his frustration with it's culture, and said many rather unpleasant things about Ireland over the years. At the same time, I mentioned in my review of Finnegan's Wake last year, I had a friend at Pearson who was born in Dublin, and she read Ulysses because it felt so much like home. In a sense, this is the forgotten context of St. Patrick's, and perhaps, in some little ways, it's redeeming message (I wonder, sometimes, if this is how Mardi Gras feels for New Orleansers) - that yes, there is a lot of faults in a culture, any culture, but that's because it's human - to make a holiday that only celebrates an idealized, sanitized vision of identity is just as pointless. You can do either on St. Patricks, you can elegize Ireland, or treat it as an excuse to get drunk and tell dirty limericks. Either will get you a host of sympathizers. And Ireland - or what we call Ireland, which is much more, and much less, than a country, is both of these things.

I am somewhat infamous for being dubious of holidays. But, I suppose, more than anything, this is what I learned from Joyce this time around - that Ulysses, like the real, three dimensional mundanity of every-day life that it seeks to enshrine, is messy. It is neither one thing or the other, it doesn't come to any conclusions. Real life doesn't have tidy stories and pretty characters - it has people. Which is so wonderful, and so terrible all at the same time. Real history does not have heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. The sublime is ridiculous, but it's still sacred. The ribald is fun in the most wonderful, needful way, but it's also self-indulgetnt and ugly. Holidays are the same way - we mean them to celebrate these beautiful, grand ideas, btu they don't - in spite of us, they celebrate us exactly as we are. In some ways, that's very sad, and ugly. But in some ways - why celebrate angels that don't exist? Human beings are messy, but they're so, so beautiful.

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Happy Birthday, Amanda!

Today is my favorite person's birthday! We actually alll really wanted pizza yesterday, so we did a party and presents a WEE bit early, but still - HAPPY BIRTHDAY AMANDA! Go visit her over at the Zen Leaf and wish her a happy birthday.

Otherwise, sorry to have been missing the last two weeks. Will start catching up tomorrow if possible.

Happy Birthday, jewel of my heart! :)

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