Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”

What is the “relation between literature and life” in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”? Maybe just this, that they both might move us to tears. But moving readers to tears may not have been Flaubert’s intent. If readers want to be moved to tears, all they need do is hit the streets, where reality resides, or watch the news. They don’t need books. But is crying into a book a kind of pleasure?

“’A Simple Heart’…moved me to tears,” Russell Baker said, in “Hymns to Joy,” a New York Times article, the quote selected for the back of a New Directions “Bibelot” (NDP819, 64 pages). What was omitted in the ellipsis was Baker’s simple guess that most literary folks probably will have read Flaubert’s tale of the long life of a 19th Century French servant, Felicite, but he had not. Baker selected it as he was gathering reading material to take on a vacation. But the angle of his article wasn’t about Flaubert or reading that moves one to cry, but the suggestion that reading for pleasure has become a lost pastime. But wouldn’t a common reader going on vacation want something a bit more éclair than Flaubert? But what is pleasure?

Like Baker, I had never read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” and I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Russell Baker. A cursory search found a witty, prolific journalist, and a host of Masterpiece Theatre – ah, of course. But I was sure of Harry Levin, also quoted on the back cover, having read his “Critical Introduction” to James Joyce. In Levin’s book “Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists” (1963), he says his subject is “the relation between literature and life.” Can literature not true to life move a reader to tears? Should literature resemble life? But what is life? In any case, while I wasn’t moved to tears by Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” I was moved to put something up on the blog – but what?

A recent post over at Bristlehound’s “navelgazer” blog takes on death as its topic. It’s a good post, witty and courageous. But as I get older, I think less of death than I do of getting older. Jenny Diski recently put something up at the Guardian on the topic of aging, concluding aging might be something easier to read about than to live through. I’ve written a bit about aging in past posts, and Flaubert’s passages on Felicite’s aging and passing reminded me of Atul Gawande’s moving articles on aging. How we respond to death may simply reflect how we respond to life. If life is a bummer, so too is death. If we take grudges to the grave, or we let others pass without our making amends, life is constriction. But none of this should bring tears to any reader’s eyes. Flaubert named his heroine Felicite for a reason, and he was a master of realism. Felicite is happiness, happy, another Gawande theme. But what is happiness?

Felicite is happy in spite of her predicament. This is why Flaubert named her Felicite – she is Flaubert’s definition of happiness. Her life begins with the existential decision to leave home after a potential partner jilts her for a chance with a woman with some dough. The only dough Felicite knows is the kind made into bread. But while Felicite is dependent on her mistress, she is independent in her capabilities, her skills, her ability to read others. It all seems so random, yet the plot elements also seem to fall into place naturally, inevitably, logically. Felicite examines her life, and it is worth living. Her every day is part of the exam, a test, in the end, she passes, even as the house decays and implodes upon her, while life in the street explodes with color and ritual and motion.

Fickle Moon

Plum blossoms fall in a cool moonglow,
and the calico cat cleans alone
in the delicate shower,
thinking, “How silly is this want of words,
where so much moonglow goes to waste.
She’s in the house, behind the curtains,
can’t see me awash in falling petals,
her face stuck in a moonless book.”

Another moon passes with more moonglow.
The ocean sky fills with gleeful moons.
The cat bats at the sweeping beams,
catching moon drops in her paws,
wiping moon balm across her lips and whiskers,
chasing yellow shadows in her tea garden,
thinking, “The television emits no moonglow,”
and cherry blossoms fall.

Another moon passes, and again she misses the moonglow.
Another moon passes, no moonglow for her.
The ocean sky rises and falls with full moons,
but no moonbeams come her way,
no moon drops fill her hands,
no moon balm wipes her lips.
The cat’s tail brushes daylily flowers,
and she bathes in a lavender mulch.

A loony moon glowers along,
heavy with a surplus of moonglow.
“Here, Kitty…Here, Kitty, Kitty…,”
but no moonbeams come her way,
no moon drops wet her palms,
no moon balm soaks her lips,
and no cat graces her garden,
ripe plums soon falling.

On Discussion

IMG_2347 "Let's dialogue"

“Let’s dialogue!” “Oh, please.”

What is there to discuss-ion? “Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said.* “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words.” As both a jazz and Cage fan, I’ve often reflected on the paradox, for discourse, “running to and fro,” seems an accurate description of jazz, with or without words.

According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the word discussion in American English is on the decline, following a peak around 1960. Interested readers may follow the link to an Ngram Viewer chart that graphs the word discussion found in “lots of books” from 1800 through 2008 using the corpus “American English.” But what is the difference between being involved in a discussion and having a conversation? Again using Ngram Viewer, we find conversation and discussion crossing just after 1900, discussion on the rise, conversation falling off, but recently apparently headed for another crossing, discussion dying, conversation on the upswing, beginning around 1980. What does all this mean, if anything? But it looks interesting, even if it does not provoke a good discussion question.

Are discussions weightier than conversations? We may not associate the chitchat, the tete-a-tete, with discussion, but with conversation. Do we gossip during a discussion? We prattle on. Are you still with us? Maybe conversations are more intimate than discussions. Can we have a conversation question in the same sense we have discussion questions? If words have meanings, then perhaps a discussion on discussion might mean something. But is mere meaning ever enough, or must we have entertainment to boot? To mean is to mind, as we mine for meaning. And Cage added, immediately following his seemingly anti-jazz comment, in parentheses, “(Dialogue is another matter).” What did he mean by that?

What are discussion questions, and should we have them? Can we have a discussion without a question to prompt one? What is the discussion question that can only result in silence? And is that the discussion we desire?

                                                 Give any one thought
                a push       :     it falls down easily
          but the pusher  and the pushed    pro-duce      that enter-
tainment          called    a dis-cussion       .
                  Shall we have one later ?

Cage, "Lecture on Nothing," Silence, 1961 (1973), 109 (the text is 
arranged in four columns, here approximate).

Without further ado:

7 Short Discussion Questions with Equally Short Suggested Answers:

  1. Q: Are discussion questions deconstructive? A: Pour the lecture neat.
  2. Q: Where would you like to sit? A: In separate sections.
  3. Q: Has education become entertainment? A: You’re taking me out tonight?
  4. Q: How can we improve the world? A: How long is this supposed to last?
  5. Q: What can we learn from randomness? A: Noise counts – percussion discussion.
  6. Q: Why even when diligently minding our own business are we often snared by a discussion question? A: “Do you know the way to San Jose?”
  7. Q: Does wasted time pay for itself? A: Time will never tell.
* John Cage, "DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD 
(YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965," 
A Year From Monday, 1967, 12.

On Setting and Narration

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the Mississippi – Reading the Waves

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s explanation of Lawrence Buell’s reading preferences informed by historical setting (New Yorker, “Go Giants: A new survey of the Great American Novel,” 21 Apr, 104), there’s an ambiguity, whether caused by Buell, Adam Gopnik, or both, I’m not sure, but Gopnik says Buell thinks Huck helping Jim escape is a less radical act in the eighteen-eighties, after slavery has already been abolished. The argument is made in the context of a comparison to Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, an inferior work, according to Buell, but one, the argument continues, that Mark Twain must have read in order to write his better book. That’s probable, but while “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published in the US in 1885, Twain set Huck and Jim’s story in “The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty to fifty years ago,” before the Civil War and before Stowe’s book. Would a common reader in 1885 have understood the costs to a kid of deciding against the values of his immediate, local culture “forty to fifty years ago”? The answer to that question seems vital to Buell’s method of reading literature.

A common mishap reading any text occurs when readers confuse the author with the narrator. And often, indeed, writers struggle separating themselves from their narrator, trying to turn memoir into fiction, unwittingly revealing more about themselves than they intend. But crafty authors often deliberately create unreliable narrators. The lying or self-deluded narrator is most easily detected in the first person, but hidden behind the credible screen of the third person omniscient narrator, an author may still turn deceitful, sleight of hand tricks. And authors, too, often suffer from self-delusions. This isn’t so much about how literature works as how the making of literature works. But either way, readers may be easily confused. But how does that confusion matter to the reading of a text open to multiple possibilities?

Buell thinks it’s important that readers understand something of the times of the author; or does he mean the times of the character the author created? Either way, a reader who knows something of the setting of a novel will no doubt read it differently than a reader unfamiliar with the novel’s setting. But there’s another problem: how does a reader come to know settings of the past? Through narratives, some of which may be unreliable, even if cast in the non-fiction mode. And even if reliable, history is constantly undergoing revision. How does historical revisionism impact the reading of literature?

But the question of whether or not readers in 1885 understood Huck’s predicament given the novel’s setting is an important one. It’s a question we might ask of any number of literary works. Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957), for example, gets a new reading with each new generation of readers, but the further we get from the so called Beat Generation, the more we might need other works surveying the period of the work’s setting – a good companion piece to “On the Road” is “Go” (1952) by John Clellon Holmes. How readers respond to a narrative is dependent on many variables. Non-Catholics, for example, are likely to read Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” differently than Catholics, and Catholics who actually attended Catholic schools will read it differently again.

Where is the reader who brings no experience or expectation whatsoever to a text? They just might be the author’s best target audience. And likewise, why wouldn’t readers search for that very book, the experience about which they know nothing?

On Description

A Cat Egg

Where did that egg come from? What egg? Why are you sitting on an egg? What egg? Cats are not supposed to sit on eggs. You see eggs? I see nine eggs in the carton. I see nine missing eggs in the carton. Where are the missing eggs? “The future is in eggs,” Eugene Ionesco said, his name a perfect description of an egg. That does not even begin to describe this situation. Do you want to say situation, or predicament? A cat egg is like a mare’s nest. Let’s blow this joint before someone asks what makes a cat purr.

Embedded in most descriptions is a prescription, instructions for viewing, boundaries stipulated and promoted. What might look at first glance objective enough turns around and around on an axis of theory.

Qualifications: from a distance; in the waning light of a neon-like moon; on a particularly hot, steamy day, out of season. Adjectives and adverbs cloud the way. References.

How do we describe description, the process we use to describe, carry across? And why bother? Why describe something others are free to experience for themselves?In any review, isn’t there an implicit recommendation based on a prescription of what is being described, how it ought to have been done, or at least how otherwise it might have been carried out?

A description of a painting, a Rothko: What is blue, size, warp; from what distance, in what light? Does our description of the Rothko change if others come into the room? The paintings are on the move, constantly changing, even as the museum makes every effort to still them. Description is a distillation of a sensory happening. McLuhan advised touch is the most involving of the five senses. When we paint, we use all five senses at once: paint odors; the brush splash sounds as we touch bristles to canvas. We take a break for lunch and taste oil in our bread. But are all descriptions sensory? What happens when we describe a process, an idea. Must description use words? What does a cat’s purr describe? Can we describe a cat’s purr in a painting?

Easter Eggs 2014

Egg Culture

We come, then, naturally enough, to the egg. We are reminded of Duchamp, his hidden object, if it is an object, which gets us nowhere. We need to get inside the egg for a full description, but once we crack the egg open, it’s not the same egg. We decorate our description.

It’s easy enough to say that descriptive writing is language that appeals to one or more of the five senses. But words can’t capture experience. Where is the description that activates our taste buds, such that we taste the bread and wine even as our fast continues? Is all description vicarious? We write down, distil, drop away. Description is at the distal end of experience.

Juice and Joy

“What is all this juice and all this joy?” Gerard Manley Hopkins asks of Spring. And no sooner does he sing the push and fuss, the ballyhoo, of a sea sky blue slurred song of fresh thrushes than he announces the sound of a melancholy note, a bell of vespers, the turning of the promise of spring, spring’s quick morning suddenly fallen, the promise of its baby blue sky now overcast, what was in the seed of his poem from the beginning, “a strain.”

Is spring for the earth painful? It might be, born in a bed of industrial pollution, which even in Hopkins’s time was already something to brood over, and in spring he’s already grieving.

Not for Hopkins will spring last, and every spring grieves for its unwinding even as it unwinds in juice and joy. It’s the climate change of the “Sea of Faith” again that seems to sully his spring. To his coy mistress he does not even bother calling. He doesn’t want to make the sun run; he wants to see it stand still.

And Hopkins twists Herrick’s argument’s ear, and Herrick’s sin of staying becomes for Hopkins a sin of leaving. Where in Herrick, Corinna is told,

And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying,

in Hopkins, the children are told:

Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Hopkins does not seem to sing to the virgins. Somehow, he’s unable to seize his day. Hopkins disliked cages: “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.” In Hopkins, spring is not sustainable, but this abstract thought becomes itself a cage. And age is a cage.

So it was of Hopkins and his springs and falls I thought as I walked past this Flowering Japanese Crabapple tree the other day. And I remembered a line from Hopkins’s poem, “God’s Grandeur”: “And for all this, nature is never spent.”

041220141136 Flowering Japanese Crabapple 1

At least, I think it’s a Flowering Japanese Crabapple. Hopkins would probably know. He despaired, among the many things he seems to have despaired over, of the toil and wear and tear already evident upon nature of the effects of urbanization and industrialization. Yet here I saw these lovely blooms persisting, in the middle of the city, surrounded by construction. For the tree, as you can now see in the pic below, is a caged skylark. But it’s been there awhile, wedged into a corner of a parking lot up against an old brick apartment house, but it continues to sing to me, and will sing to you, too, and to anyone who cares to take a walk in spring. Alas, as Hopkins and the carpe diem poets remind us, spring won’t last, so get it while you can, while the juice still runs freely and the joy escapes confinement.

But, no, wait, why go under such a stricture and structure? That seed grows into a tree of melancholy. Why not simply go? Not put out, but go out. Ah, now there’s some juice and joy to go by.

041320141137 Crabapple road construction