Sunday, May 31, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe" The Black Cat " (Excerpt)

The Black Cat" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in the August 19, 1843, edition of The Saturday Evening Post. It is a study of the psychology of guilt, often paired in analysis with Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart".[1] In both, a murderer carefully conceals his crime and believes himself unassailable, but eventually breaks down and reveals himself, impelled by a nagging reminder of his guilt.

Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 October 7, 1849) was an American writer, poet, editor and literary critic, and is considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

He was born Edgar Poe in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second child of actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. He had an elder brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, and a younger sister, Rosalie Poe.[4] Edgar may have been named after a character in William Shakespeare's King Lear, a play the couple was performing in 1809.[5] His father abandoned their family in 1810,[6] and his mother died a year later from consumption. Poe was then taken into the home of John Allan, a successful Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia, who dealt in a variety of goods including tobacco, cloth, wheat, tombstones, and slaves.[7] The Allans served as a foster family but never formally adopted Poe,[8] though they gave him the name "Edgar Allan Poe.

Kind Regards

Jim Clark
All rights are reserved on this video recording copyright JimClark 2009
Excerpt from "The Black Cat"................

With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk it would get between my feet and thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my breast. At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly - let me confess it at once - by absolute dread of the beast.

This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil - and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own - yes, even in this felon's cell, I am almost ashamed to own - that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimaeras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees - degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful - it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name - and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared - it was now, I say, the image of a hideous - of a ghastly thing - of the GALLOWS ! - oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime - of Agony and of Death !

And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity. And a brute beast - whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed - a brute beast to work out for me - for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God - so much of insufferable wo! Alas! neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of Rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight - an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off - incumbent eternally upon my heart !

Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates - the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.

Edgar Allan Poe " The Pit and the Pendulum" Chapter one

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and first published in 1842. The story is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, though Poe skews historical facts. The narrator of the story is deemed guilty for an unnamed crime and put into a completely dark room. He passes out while trying to determine the size of the room. When he wakes up, he realizes there is a large, deep pit in the middle of the room. He loses consciousness again and awakens strapped on his back, unable to move more than his head. He soon realizes there is a large blade-like pendulum hanging above him, slowly getting closer to cutting through his chest. He finds a way to escape but the burning iron walls of his prison start to move and close in on him, pushing him closer and closer to falling into the pit.

Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 October 7, 1849) was an American writer, poet, editor and literary critic, and is considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

He was born Edgar Poe in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second child of actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. He had an elder brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, and a younger sister, Rosalie Poe.[4] Edgar may have been named after a character in William Shakespeare's King Lear, a play the couple was performing in 1809.[5] His father abandoned their family in 1810,[6] and his mother died a year later from consumption. Poe was then taken into the home of John Allan, a successful Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia, who dealt in a variety of goods including tobacco, cloth, wheat, tombstones, and slaves.[7] The Allans served as a foster family but never formally adopted Poe,[8] though they gave him the name "Edgar Allan Poe.

Kind Regards

Jim Clark
All rights are reserved on this video recording copyright Jim Clark 2009

The Pit and the Pendulum - Chapter one...............

WAS sick, sick unto death, with that long agony, and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence, the dread sentence of death, was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of REVOLUTION, perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill-wheel. This only for a brief period, for presently I heard no more. Yet, for a while, I saw, but with how terrible an exaggeration ! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white -- whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words -- and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness, of immovable resolution, of stern contempt of human torture. I saw that the decrees of what to me was fate were still issuing from those lips. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables of my name, and I shuddered, because no sound succeeded. I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment; and then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white slender angels who would save me: but then all at once there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill, as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help. And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily, and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation; but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it, the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness superened ; all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. Then silence, and stillness, and night were the universe.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

Der Schweizerische Robinson was published in 1812 and tells the story of a pious Swiss family, a mother, father and four young sons, marooned on an island in the East Indies following a shipwreck. It is 600 pages long. The father, who narrates the book, uses the shipwreck as a pedagogical opportunity:

‘I believe,’ said Ernest [aged 12], ‘that mangoes grow on the sea-shore in marshy soil.’
‘You are partly right, my boy,’ I said, ‘but what you say applies to the black mango, not to the grey or red species, which bear small berries and do not grow so high.’

During their stay on the island the family undertake a destruction of its creatures. Among the species butchered are kangaroos, penguins, bears, giant land crabs, capybaras, apes, jackals, ostriches and turtles (the island contains the fauna of six continents). To keep themselves in comfort the family build a luxurious treehouse, plant and harvest corn, milk cows (rescued from the ship), boil up a whale, manufacture isinglass and cochineal, breed doves, gather honey, tap rubber and salt herrings. There is no difficulty of island life that their ingenuity and perseverance cannot resolve. By the end of the book they have created a Calvinist paradise in which nature has been subdued and largely exterminated, and where disease, sex and conflict (between humans) have been banished. In a final act of dour appropriation they christen their island ‘New Switzerland’.

The family is not, of course, called Robinson. They are never named. The title refers instead to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe of 1719 (see post 73). In an odd twist of literary fate the word ‘Robinson’ had taken on a life of its own in eighteenth-century European publishing, appearing in the titles of hundreds of adventure stories, mainly German and Dutch, but also French, Danish, Swiss, Swedish and Italian, known collectively as ‘Robinsonades’: Teutsche Robinson (1722), Americanische Robinson (1724), Nordische Robinson (1741), Hollandsche Robinson (1743), Dänische Robinson (1750), Walchersche Robinson (1752), Maldivschen Philosophen Robine (1753), Oude en Jongen Robinson (1753), Isländische Robinson (1755), Hartz-Robinson (1755), Robinson vom Berge Libonon (1755), Haagsche Robinson (1758), Robertson (sic) aux terres australes (1766), Steyerische Robinson (1791) and Böhmische Robinson (1796), among many others, all by different authors. ‘Robinson’ simply denoted an adventure tale. They didn't even have to take place on desert islands: there were Robinsonades set on mountain-tops, in jungles, among corsairs or in Turkish prisons. Many of the tales dispensed with the idea of the isolated adventurer altogether. There were even Robinsonades without ‘Robinson’ in the title.

Scholars first began to examine the Robinsonade phenomenon as early as the mid 1700s. Among the Robinsonade sub-groups identified by a French scholar were the robinsonnade gullivérienne, the robinsonnade en famille (such as the Swiss Family) and the robinsonnade de l’enfant. There were satirical Robinsonades, fantastical Robinsonades, Utopian Robinsonades and interplanetary Robinsonades. Life was a Robinsonade. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Robinsonade had mutated still further: Tarzan of the Apes, looked at in a certain way, is a Robinsonade (a robinsonnade de l’enfant?), and so is The Island of Doctor Moreau and Lord of the Flies (dystopian Robinsonades). In film and television, Lost in Space was obviously a Robinsonade (being based on the Swiss Family), and there were TV dramas such as Mountain Family Robinson and Swiss Family Robinson Lost in the Jungle.

But strangely, of the eighteenth and nineteenth century continental Robinsonades, only The Swiss Family Robinson took root when transplanted back onto English-speaking soil. Why, it is difficult to say. Perhaps the title had something to do with it. Originally, of course, it had been Der Schweizerische Robinson, and as such was indistinguishable from all the other Hollandsche Robinsons, Dänische Robinsons and Haagsche Robinsons. But the insertion of the word ‘Family’ in translation put it in a class of its own. ‘Family’ acted as a sort of pivot. Substitute anything for the ‘Swiss’ or the ‘Robinson’ and you get an infinite number of delightfully silly variations: Space Family Robinson, Beverly Hills Family Robinson, Swiss Family Treehouse, Swiss Family Orbison, Swiss Family Guy Robinson, Mouse Family Robinson, Swiss Family Mouse House, Stick Family Robinson, Swiss Bank Family Robinson, Swiss Cheese Family Robinson, and on and on (all real examples). The words ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ are close to nonsense in any case: tinkering with them reduces them to gibberish. Perhaps the reason only one Robinson made it back home was because it could be endlessly parodied.
Gove, Philip Babcock: The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction (Holland Press, 1961)

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud

Freud had something of a genius for titles. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is startling and witty; Beyond the Pleasure Principle is intriguing and titillating. The Ego and the Id demonstrates the same mastery. With all the confidence of his forty clinical years, Freud introduced in his title a completely new term, the ‘Id’.

Although it wasn’t quite new. A couple of weeks previously, another book had appeared: The Book of the It. The author was the analyst George Groddeck. Both Freud and Groddeck used the same German term for their ‘Id’ and ‘It’ respectively: das Es. Freud was quite open about his debt: rather shockingly, he announced that The Ego and the Id was ‘under the sponsorship of Groddeck.’ It was shocking because Groddeck was regarded in some quarters as little better than a lunatic.

In the early years of psychoanalysis, practitioners were very anxious to establish their respectability as legitimate medical men. This was still an age of sexual puritanism, in which the sexual organs and sexual functions were not generally mentioned in polite conversation, and in which sexual categories as we now know them, or think we know them — homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, transsexualism — were still at an early and controversial stage of development. In this atmosphere, George Groddeck delivered a notorious speech to the congress of psychoanalysts at The Hague in 1920, opening his address with the words: ‘I am a wild analyst.’ This was somewhat crass. Analysts were regarded by the public as ‘wild’ already: it was exactly the image the profession wished to avoid. In his speech Groddeck went on to develop the idea that unconscious forces were the rulers of the human organism: even bodily diseases were caused by unconscious conflicts and neuroses. Groddeck moreover insisted on bringing his mistress to conferences and was the author of a risqué novel, The Seeker of Souls.

Nevertheless Freud liked Groddeck personally. He wrote to Max Eitingon that Groddeck was ‘a bit of a fantasist, but an original fellow who has the rare gift of good humour. I should not like to do without him.’ And Freud and Groddeck were in regular correspondence about their projects in 1923. Groddeck wrote to Freud, explaining his concept of the It, an idea partially derived from Nietzsche:

I am of the opinion that man is animated by the unknown. There is an It in him, something marvellous that regulates everything that he does and that happens to him. The sentence ‘I live’ is only partially correct; it expresses a little partial phenomenon of the fundamental truth: ‘Man is lived by the It.’

Groddeck sent Freud the chapters as he completed them, and Freud sent back letters of encouragement, also revealing the direction of his own thinking on the composition of the psyche. Taking Groddeck’s idea of the ‘It’, along with previous notions of the unconscious, as well as other speculations on the nature of personality, Freud was crafting the model that came to dominate psychiatry in the twentieth century. This was the tripartite model of Ego, Id and Superego, which he set out for the first time in the book The Ego and the Id.

It is important to look at the actual terms Freud used. In German the title of his book was Das Ich und das Es — ‘The I and the It’. It was only in the Standard Edition of Freud’s works in English that the latinate ‘Ego’, ‘Id’ and ‘Superego’ were used. Freud’s Id was therefore, as already mentioned, terminologically identical with Groddeck’s It in The Book of the It (in German Das Buch vom Es). But in analytical practice there were some important differences between It and Id. Groddeck saw the It as the dominant, though entirely unconscious, fount of personality: Freud’s Id was the ultimately subordinate repository of sex and death drives. For Freud, the Ego, although largely controlled by the Id, was in some senses an agency: it had limited powers of will, despite its unhappy position at the centre of pressures from the Id, the Superego, and the external world. For Groddeck, the psyche had no conscious agency at all. The unconscious It regulated everything.

Some time after the publication of both books, on the occasion of Groddeck’s sixtieth birthday, Freud sent him a letter with his best wishes, in a form which neatly encapsulated his debt. It was as if the elements of Freud’s psyche were wishing happy birthday to the single hidden force of Groddeck’s: ‘My Ego and my Id congratulate your It.’

Gay, Peter: Freud: A Life for our Time (Little, 2006)
Groddeck, Georg: The Book of the It (introduction by Lawrence Durrell, Vision Press, 1949)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Why Gulliver exactly? It’s now such a familiar name that we no longer ask. But it seems to have been carefully chosen. A ‘gull’ is slang for a fool or dupe, a trustful person, an ‘innocent abroad’; and to ‘gull’ someone is to trick or fleece them. The term was common in Swift’s day; the OED gives the earliest citation as 1594, from the work of Thomas Nashe: 'Liues there anie such slowe yce-braind beefe-witted gull.’ From 1748, closer to the publication-date of Gulliver’s Travels (in 1726), we have a citation in Smollett: ‘If I had been such a gull...I would without more ado tuck myself up.’ By the late nineteenth century the term was dying out. The OED’s last citation is from 1885 in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘He perceived by what...unmanly fear of ridicule he had been brought down to be the gull of this intriguer.’ Gulliver is not a fool, nor a dupe, but he is certainly trusting. And he is met everywhere with freaks and impossibilities which he is expected to take seriously - as are we, the readers. Gulliver may not be a fool but there is no shortage of fools in Gulliver.

The syllable ‘ver’ seems also to have been significant. It suggests truth (as in ‘veracity’), a point echoed in Swift’s foreword to Gulliver’s Travels, written under the pseudonym of Richard Sympson and itself an exercise in pseudo-deception: ‘There is an air of truth apparent through the whole; and indeed the author was so distinguished for his veracity, that it became a sort of proverb among his neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a thing, to say, “it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoken it.”’ Gulliver, then, as a name, opposes deception with truth. What better nomenclature for the hero of a work of satire, in which the satirist peddles monsters and exaggerations in the service of righteous and truth-telling anger?

On a final note of pedantry: Gulliver’s Travels is not the title of the book at all. It was originally Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.

Seronsy, Cecil C: ‘Some Proper Names in Gulliver’s Travels’, Notes and Queries 202 (1957), 471

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The title of the original hand-lettered book was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. As is well known, it had its origin in stories told by Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) to Alice Liddell and her two sisters in the early 1860s; particularly in a set of stories told on the afternoon of 4 July 1862, when they went on a boating trip on the Isis at Oxford.

Dodgson illustrated the hand-lettered book himself, and presented it to Alice in 1864. But by this time he was barely on speaking terms with Alice and her family: relations with the Liddells had suffered a mysterious rupture. One guess is that Dodgson offered Alice his hand in marriage, and the offer was not well received by the Liddells. Alice was only 11, of course. Possibly of greater importance was that she was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College (where Dodgson was a Fellow). Alice’s mother was a social climber, and Dodgson was not a very good prospect.

Still, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was the fruit of those golden days on the Isis: and it was so well liked by the friends Dodgson showed it to that he determined to have it properly published, with proper illustrations. He decided on John Tenniel as the illustrator – thus bringing to being the most famous marriage of author and illustrator in the history of literature – any other candidates?

However, he worried that the title Alice’s Adventures Under Ground might be a little too prosaic for the published version (he even joked that readers might guess it had something to do with mining). Accordingly he wrote on 10 June 1864 to a friend, Tom Taylor, for advice. He enclosed several titular possibilities in his letter, including Alice Among the Elves, Alice Among the Goblins, Alice’s Hour in Elfland, Alice’s Hour in Wonderland, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Taylor picked the latter, and Dodgson concurred. Of the possibilities, it stands out as the superior choice, but in rather a poor field. The original title – Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – is easily better, with its mythic connotations and its modern sense of a parallel social reality.

Taylor went on to be editor of Punch and a minor member of the Victorian literati. He had one other claim to fame: he was the author of a play called Our American Cousin. This was the play being performed when Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

Brown, Sally: The Original Alice (1997)
Gardner, Martin: The Annotated Alice (1970)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe was inspired, as is well known, by the travails of Alexander Selkirk, marooned on the island of Más Atierra in the Pacific Juan Fernandez group in 1704. Selkirk got into an argument with the captain of his ship and it was decided, it seems by mutual agreement, that it might be best just to stop and let him off. He survived on the island for four years, and on his return to civilization his story became famous. Defoe took what was already a very well known story and raised it from the plane of the famous to the plane of the immortal.

But this doesn’t explain the title. The actual name ‘Crusoe’ very probably came from Timothy Cruso, a schoolfellow of Defoe’s and a friend in later life. Cruso, like Defoe, was a Dissenter: in fact he was a dissenting minister in the church of the Crutched Friars, London, and the author of God the Guide of Youth (1695). Members of the Dissenting or Nonconforming churches (ie Christian believers without the Anglican faith) were denied a university education or a civil or military career. The History of Dissenters gives a short character-sketch of Cruso:

While his popular talents were crowned with great success, his amiable disposition and conduct endeared him not only to his own family but also to a very large circle of valuable friends. But the heavenly treasure was deposited in an earthen vessel, and his soul, like that of Watts, perhaps also of Paul, and some other distinguished men, was not well lodged; for his body was contemptible in its appearance, and frail in its texture. Exhausted therefore by the constant studies and hard labour which his indefatigable mind, ever eager to increase both his knowledge and his usefulness, imposed upon the feeble frame, he sunk under his work in the prime of life, and died on the twenty-sixth day of November, in the year one thousand six hundred and ninety-seven, when only forty-one years of age.

Robinson Crusoe is of course a highly theological work, representing one man’s dialogue with the Almighty shorn of any institutional trappings, a tale of survival through personal resourcefulness and faith. There a strong dissenting theme, therefore, in Robinson Crusoe. It seems very likely that Defoe’s use of his friend’s name was intended not only as a personal tribute but as a codified sign of support for Nonconformism.

Bogue, David, and Bennett, James: History of Dissenters, from the Revolution in 1688, to the Year 1808‎ (1809)
Backscheider, Paula R: Daniel Defoe: His Life‎ (1992)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is apparently the temperature at which paper spontaneously catches fire and burns. It was used by Bradbury as the title of his dystopian novel about a society in which reading is illegal.

The concept began life in a series of short stories on the theme of book-burning, including ‘Bright Phoenix’ and ‘Bonfire’, and developed into a 1951 novella ‘The Fireman’, about a municipal employee paid to burn books, before finding final form in Fahrenheit 451.

But Bradbury said that another short story, ‘The Pedestrian’ (1950), was also an important staging-post on the way to Fahrenheit 451. It was based on a real incident. Bradbury and a friend were taking an after-dinner walk when they were stopped and questioned by police. Indignant, Bradbury wrote a story about a future in which policemen arrest pedestrians instead of protecting them; this finds obvious parallels in a story about a future in which firemen start fires instead of stopping them. An evening stroll thus led to a critique of McCarthyist America. Bradbury later said: ‘When the wind is right, a faint odour of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.’

This still doesn’t quite explain the title, though. Perhaps Bradbury had been reading a precursor to the Handbook of Physical Testing of Paper By Jens Borch (2001). This states:

The ignition temperature of paper is about 450 degrees C, but it is somewhat dependent upon the paper quality. The ignition temperature is 450 degrees C for rayon fibers, 475 degrees C for cotton, and 550 degrees C for flame-resistant cotton (treated with N-methyl-dimethyl-phosphonopropionamide). From the data published the ignition temperature of paper treated with fire retardants seems to be about 100 degrees C higher than that of an untreated sample.

What seems to have happened is that Bradbury mixed up his Fahrenheit with his Celsius. 450 degrees C is correct for paper – only one off from 451 – but this is Celsius (or Centigrade), not Fahrenheit. The equivalent in Fahrenheit would be about 843 degrees. The famous formulation ‘Fahrenheit 451: The Temperature at which Book Paper Catches Fire, and Burns’, should perhaps be changed: I would suggest something such as: ‘Fahrenheit 843: The Approximate Temperature at which Rayon Fiber Untreated with N-methyl-dimethyl-phosphonopropionamide Catches Fire, and Burns’.

Bradbury, Ray: Match to Flame: The Fictional Paths to Fahrenheit 451 (2006)
Borch, Jens: Handbook of Physical Testing of Paper (2001)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ulyssis By James Joyce[0])

Friday, May 8, 2009

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Nathanael West’s harrowing novel of life in 1930s New York is about a young man who poses as the female writer of an agony column. The pivotal moment in its creation occurred in 1929, while West was working as an assistant manager at the Kenmore Hall Hotel on East 23rd Street, New York. One night in March, West’s friend, the satirist SJ Perelman, dropped by and asked West if he would care to come along to Siegel’s, a restaurant in Greenwich Village, where he was going to meet a friend who wrote an agony column for the Brooklyn Eagle under the name of ‘Susan Chester’. ‘Susan’ had said that she had some readers’ letters that Perelman might be able to use as comic material. West agreed, and they all read the letters over dinner. It soon became clear that the letters were not really suitable for Perelman: they were full of tragic tales of unwanted pregnancies, hopeless love, tubercular husbands and dead children, and were signed with pseudonyms such as ‘Despairing’, ‘Down-hearted wife’ or ‘Broad Shoulders’. But they were a revelation to West. Deeply moved by the simplicity of the appeals for help, he took the bundle of letters back to the hotel with him and for the next few weeks studied them. He read aloud them to friends, who reported that, uncharacteristically, he seemed to be experiencing strong empathy with these toilers: he was, one reported, ‘terribly...hurt by them.’

At the same time West received a promotion. In 1930 he moved from the Kenmore Hall Hotel to the position of full manager at the Sutton Club Hotel on East 56th Street. His friends now referred to him as ‘PN West, the great writer and bordello-keeper’ (the ‘P’ was for ‘Pep’, West’s nickname). In his capacity as manager he was free to allocate any of the empty rooms gratis to friends, many of whom happened to be struggling writers. As time went by the Sutton was occupied by, among others, the Perelmans, Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellmann, James T Farrell, Dashiell Hammett and Erskine Caldwell. The hotel underwent a transformation into a nexus of 1930s literary talent. West’s position as manager meant that he had full control of the hotel’s mail, and he and Lillian Hellmann began to entertain themselves by steaming open the letters of the guests. They found that the clientele led lives richer in grotesquerie and self-destructiveness even than the correspondents of the Brooklyn Eagle. Ex-movie extras were selling themselves to any takers, male or female; suicides were planned and executed, one person leaping from the hotel terrace through the glass ceiling of the dining room while dinner was in progress.

The two influences fused. West took the ‘Susan Chester’ lonely hearts letters and combined them with his secret knowledge of the inhabitants of the Sutton, and between 1930 and 1932 produced Miss Lonelyhearts. It is generally considered his finest work. Miss Lonelyhearts went beyond the practised cynicism of Dorothy Parker, Perelman and West’s other literary friends of the 1930s into an area of quite terrifying human degradation.

It is interesting to think that it would have never happened had it not been for the rather pernicious habit of reading other people’s letters.

Martin, Jay: Nathanael West (Secker and Warburg, 1971)

The Republic by Plato

If Plato could be put into a time machine and brought to the twenty-first century, he would find many things to surprise him. Electricity, votes for women, competitive hot-dog eating — and the title of his most famous work, the Republic. For a start, he would not understand it: it's Latin, not Greek. And if someone translated it for him, he would probably be rather astonished to find it attached to his book.

The book was titled in Greek Politeia, which referred to the polis, or city-state, and can be rendered ‘the state’, ‘affairs of the state’ or, more broadly, ‘the life of the people’. Foreign translations give some idea of how far the title of the Republic has strayed from its origins: it is Der Staat in German, De Staat in Dutch, Stat in Slovak, Ustava (‘Constitution’) in Czech and Valsts (‘the State’) in Latvian. The book was intended as a manual on the good governance of a particular type of Greek political unit. It explored the political models on offer at the time, rejected all of them, and came to one, single, surprising conclusion.

Of the available models, timarchy was judged to be the best of a bad bunch. This was the system currently prevailing in Sparta, in which a small class of landed warriors lived amidst a slave-population, the helots, subduing them by means of military dictatorship and athletics. Oligarchy, the next most desirable, was government by a wealthy minority of unelected bureaucrat-politicians. The next was democracy, in which there was government by popular demagogues. The lowest of all, tyranny, was a state in which one terribly unhappy man, ‘surrounded by boyfriends and girlfriends’, enacted the destruction of the state through his own personal moral degradation.

Socrates/Plato, having demolished the opposition, then described his ideal state. This was an entirely theoretical polity, one ruled by ‘Guardians’, or specially-trained philosopher-rulers. The Guardians, unelected and set apart from the rest of the population (the Workers) from birth, would be bred eugenically by means of ‘marriage festivals’ (in fact state-sponsored orgies, since marriage was not their main purpose, but acts of intercourse by the fittest individuals). They would receive philosophical training for fifty years before being allowed to emerge and govern. A sub-set of the Guardians were the Auxiliaries, who would exist to keep order and prosecute wars. In order to keep the Workers loyal, a founding myth (sometimes translated as a ‘noble lie’) would be deliberately fabricated, ‘the Myth of Er’.

The title of the Republic, then, is rather strange: Plato’s ideal state is about as far away from representative republican democracy as it is possible to get. The reason lies essentially in the very great swathes of time that have elapsed since it was first translated. In its first Latin translation the title was Respublica, a word similar in meaning to Plato’s Politeia, and signifying ‘public matters’ or ‘matters of state’. Our modern word ’republic’, meaning democratic government shorn of unelected bodies, evolved from the term respublica, and its evolution in meaning twisted the meaning of Plato’s title. The Republic used to be a good translation, but evolved into a mistranslation.

Plato: The Republic (translation, introduction and notes by HDP Lee, Penguin, 1955)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the blockbuster sensation of 1962. At first greeted with shocked incomprehension (‘a sick play for sick people’; ‘for dirty-minded females only’) it went on to win numerous major awards, transferred to Broadway, was made into a multi-Oscar-winning film and took Europe by storm (in Prague it was billed as Who’s Afraid of Franz Kafka?). As a study in matrimonial attrition it went deeper, was more savage and uncompromising than anything yet seen in the American theatre. ‘Total war’ is the formula George and Martha agree on in Act Two; and in Act Three, George, humiliated and angry, avails himself of the atomic option.

The title was a major part of the play’s success. It originated from 1954. Albee was in the habit of drinking at an establishment in Greenwich Village called ‘The College of Complexes’, and behind the bar was a large mirror on which patrons were free to scrawl messages in soap. One night he saw the legend ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and it amused him. But it was not originally the title of anything: in the early stages of writing, the play was called Exorcism, and ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ was merely a line in the play. The line later moved to become the play’s subtitle, and then, at some point in the writing, with ‘Exorcism’ relegated to the third-act title (the first two acts are ‘Fun and Games’ and ‘Walpurgisnacht’) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became the main title. Albee said that its meaning was ‘who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf, which means who’s afraid of living life without delusions?’

Strangely enough for a title with such a concrete starting-point, there was at least one other possible influence on it, in the work of James Thurber, an author whom Albee admired (and admires) greatly. Thurber was, to many, the greatest twentieth-century observer of marital conflict, particularly in his short stories: much of the dialogue of these pieces, in which contests are played out between domineering wives and resentful husbands, finds an echo in the private-language bitching of Albee’s play. There is ‘The Curb in the Sky’ (‘He always gets that line wrong’), ‘Am I Not Your Rosalind?’ (‘Shut up, George, and give me some more ice’) or ‘Mr Pendly and the Poindexter’ (‘What’s the matter; are you in a trance, or what?’). There is even a Thurber short story called ‘The Interview’ in which the protagonists are a husband and wife called George and Martha, and in which George, a writer, gets drunk and taunts Martha, in front of a guest, over their failing marriage. More pertinently as regards the title, in 1939 Thurber co-wrote, with Elliott Nugent, the play The Male Animal. Its main character is Tommy Turner, a college professor (like George) with an emasculating wife (like Martha) who is attracted to a younger football-player (like Nick, the boxer and biology professor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Turner wants to read to his class a letter by the anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti, but is warned by his wife that if he does so he risks being fired. He must make a decision either to stand up for himself or back down, and if he backs down he will very probably be cuckolded too. ‘I won't,’ he says. ‘I'm scared of those Neanderthal men. I'll talk about football.’ But then he sings: ‘Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? The Big Bad Wolf? The Big Bad Wolf?’ Staking all on one throw, he reads the letter and is supported not only by his faculty but, surprisingly, by the football team.

A second possible influence came from the work of Virginia Woolf herself. In around 1962 Albee wrote to Leonard Woolf to ask him if it would be all right to use his wife’s name as part of the title. Leonard Woolf said it would. Later, when the play transferred to the West End of London, Woolf went to see it with Peggy Ashcroft, and wrote to Albee: ‘We both enjoyed it immensely. It is so amusing and at the same time moving and is really about the important things in life. Nothing is rarer, at any rate, on the English stage. I wonder if you have ever read a short story which my wife wrote and is printed in A Haunted House? It is called “Lappin and Lapinova.” The details are quite dif­ferent but the theme is the same as that of the imaginary child in your play.’ Leonard Woolf was perhaps being tactful. ‘Lappin and Lapinova’ is about a married couple who, in the absence of children of their own, invent a secret fantasy-world. In it the husband is a rabbit and the wife a hare:

Thus when they came back from their honeymoon they possessed a private world [...] No one guessed that there was such a place, and that of course made it all the more amusing. It made them feel, more even than most young married couples, in league together against the rest of the world [...] Without that world, how, Rosalind wondered, that winter could she have lived at all?

But the breakdown of the marriage leads to a breakdown of the shared fantasy, and it is dealt a cruel coup de grâce by the husband:

‘Oh, Ernest, Ernest!’ she cried, starting up in her chair.
‘Well, what’s up now?’ he asked briskly, warming his hands at the fire.
‘It’s Lapinova...’ she faltered, glancing wildly at him out of her great startled eyes. ‘She’s gone, Ernest. I’ve lost her!’ [...]
‘Yes,’ he said at length. ‘Poor Lapinova...’ He straightened his tie at the looking-glass over the mantelpiece.
‘Caught in a trap,’ he said, ‘killed,’ and sat down and read the newspaper.
So that was the end of that marriage.

Albee claimed never to have read the short story.

Ardolino, Frank: ‘Nugent and Thurber's The Male Animal and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Explicator (Spring 2003)
Bigsby, Christopher: Albee (Oliver & Boyd, 1969)
Gussow, Mel: Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (Oberon Books, 1999)
Woolf, Virginia: ‘Lappin and Lapinova’, A Haunted House and Other Stories (Harvest, 2002)