Beowulf: A Cautionary Love Story

At an initial glance, Beowulf may strike a reader as entirely devoid of romance and sensuality. The heterosexual conventions seen in other ancient epics: marriage, heterosexual sex, and pregnancy are largely invisible, though we know that they exist; the marginal presence of wives and the survival of the warrior tribe’s lineage provide evidence of heterosexual relationships. These relationships are largely understated and marginal. (Lees, 140) At a second glance, it becomes clear that Beowulf is not devoid of sensuousness at all; the most sensuous sections of Beowulf are simply not classic scenes of heterosexual romance, but scenes of violence and power dynamics. The homoerotic undertones of Beowulf can be read as evidence of the epic’s warrior culture’s valuation of men, particularly of physicality of the male body. The most emotive and sexual scenes are depiction of battles and the scenes between king and warrior. The language in these scenes reveal what is most valued in the warrior culture of Beowulf. While the epic celebrates male-male relationships, warrior culture, valorous deeds, and masculine power, the ending of the epic raises questions about those very same cultural practices. Beowulf’s failure to produce a biological heir, and his misguided determination to do battle even after he has aged results in the destruction of his kingdom. (Lees, 141) His adherence to the value system of his culture lead to the demise of his people. The narrative of Beowulf reads as both a celebration and criticism of a patriarchal warrior culture.

The most overtly sexualized scenes occur when Beowulf is engaging in battle. While these scenes are particularly action packed, these scenes are also narrated with sensuous language that is largely absent in the rest of the narrative. In his fight with Grendel, Beowulf is unable to penetrate him with his sword, “[The] best iron in the world, the sharpest blade, /could not harm him, the evil demon, /not touch him at all.” (Beowulf, 95) While the sword acts as a surrogate for the penis, penetration would signal conquest. Because Beowulf’s proxy phallus is unable to pierce Grendel, Beowulf fights Grendel with his bare hands. “That Hygelac’s kinsman, the bold-hearted man, / had him in hand. It was hateful to each/ that the other lived. / The terrible creature took a body wound there; a gaping tear/ opened in his shoulder; tendons popped, / muscle slipped the bone. Glory in battle / was given to Beowulf.” (Beowulf, 95) This “gaping tear” seems to represent the forceful creation of a vagina. Because Beowulf could not penetrate Grendel with his phallic sword, he entirely feminizes Grendel. This battle reads much like a rape scene. The same is true of the following battle scene with Grendel’s mother.

This scene is particularly striking because it is the most intense female-male interaction in which Beowulf participates. Initially Grendel’s mother is portrayed as a lesser opponent to her son, yet her battle with Beowulf is much more drawn out and dramatic. (Puhvel, 81) This fight also has distinctly sexual undertones. (Acker, 708) The importance and value of the scene is highlighted with incredibly sensual and active language: “Now that he was battle-furious, / [he] threw up his opponent so she fell to the ground. / Up again quickly, she gave him hand-payment / with a terrible crush, again grabbed him tight.” (Beowulf, 139) This blow-by blow fighting is incredibly different from the fight scene with Grendel. The Grendel-Beowulf scene only lasts a few lines before he is defeated. (Puhvel, 82) In that scene Beowulf is very much the aggressor and conqueror, while Grendel seems to be a more passive party. In contrast, Grendel’s mother tries several times to penetrate Beowulf. “She sat on her hall-guest and drew her broad knife /a sharp weapon, to buy back her son, / her only kinsman. Across his chest / lay the iron net; it saved his life / as she hacked and stabbed, would give her no entry.” (Beowulf, 139) In this case, Beowulf proves impenetrable and thus maintains his masculinity and power. His opponent does not prove as lucky,

“Then he saw among the armor a victory bright blade / made by the giants, an uncracking edge, /…longer and heavier than any other man / could ever have carried in the play of war-strokes, /…The bold Scylding drew it from its magic scabbard, /savage in battle-lust, despairing of life, / angrily raised the shearer of life-threads, / swung hard on her throat, broke through he spine, / halved the doomed body.” (Beowulf, 139)

Beowulf succeeds in entirely penetrating her body, to the point that he exposes her womb. In order to do so he uses a sword of giant proportions. While Grendel’s mother is supposedly a woman, her monster status brings into question the physicality of her sex. She is described as “in the likeness of a woman,” (Beowulf, 127) which suggests that her sex is not definite. Thus, this cannot be read as a firmly heterosexual encounter.
It is clear by the sensual nature of both scenes that success in physical battle was valued and celebrated in this warrior culture. Deeds won a warrior respect and power. (Drout, 202) In both of these battles, the warrior body is treated as conqueror or conquered, penetrator or penetrated. Valor and strength, both traditionally masculine traits, are the characteristics valued by this warrior society. While men are more highly valued in this culture, their lives are constantly at risk, their strength and valor constantly tested. These men have to continently reaffirm their value to society or die. Beowulf earns his position and right to rule through these deeds. (Drout, 202)

Arguably, the most important male-male bond in Beowulf is between Beowulf and Hrothgar. (Fox, 205) This relationship highlights the two most highly valued men in a warrior society: the king and his champion. The scenes depicting Hrothgar and Beowulf are emotionally rich in comparison with the majority of the narrative. When Hrothgar bids farewell to Beowulf, we observe a man acting without emotional reserve.
“Then that good king, of a noble race, / great Scylding prince, held that best thane / round the neck and kissed him; his tears ran down, / streaked his gray beard. Wise in his age, / he expected two things, but one more strongly / that never again would they look on each other / as in this brave meeting. That man was so dear / that he could not withhold those deep tears; / fixed in his heart by the bonds of thought. / a deep felt longing for the beloved man / burned in his blood.” (Beowulf 157-159)

There are certainly homoerotic undertones in this passage. It seems that Hrothgar desires the body of Beowulf. However this may not be a sexual desire, rather a desire for him to have that body as his own. The warrior cultures values of strength and fierceness cannot be maintained in Hrothgar’s old age. Indeed, he is said to be a good king, until he fails to physically protect his people from Grendel’s attacks. (Drout, 201) “He was one king / blameless in everything, till age took from him / the joy of strength—a thing that harms many.” (Beowulf, 159) If Hrothgar had Beowulf’s strength in addition to his continued line through his sons, he would be considered the perfect king. Once Hrothgar’s physical strength has drained, he is no longer seen as a “blameless” king. This perception can help explain Beowulf’s own continuation of battle after he becomes king.
While Beowulf is a king, he fails to produce his own heir. While he may have married, there is no mention of a wife. It is possibly that Beowulf only nurtured homosocial relationships with men. Robin Fox explains the valuation of male-male bonds over male-female bonds in his chapter “In the Company of Men: Tribal Bonds in Warrior Epics”: “Males hunting or fighting together had to develop a special kind of trust that wend beyond simple friendship…the heterosexual bond was ritually downgraded…and exclusive male groups were formed…” (197) Certainly in Beowulf the constant threat of trespassing enemies required men to create strong bonds of trust and loyalty.

We can also see that the marriage bond is downgraded in favor for the king-warrior relationship. This is visible in Hrothgar’s “adoption” of Beowulf to which his wife, Wealtheow nervously objects. (Drout, 201) “Now, my Beowulf, / best of men, I will love you like a son, / cherish you for life. Keep this new kinship / deep in your heart. Nothing I own, / of my worldly goods, would I keep from you.” (Beowulf, 103) Hrothgar’s adoption gives Beowulf a chance of inheriting Hrothgar’s throne even though he is not of the bloodline. The fact that this is a possibly is made clear when Wealtheow protests, reminding Hrothgar he has blood relatives who are strong enough to rule. (Drout, 201) “Full well I know / of my gracious Hrothulf that he would rule / the young men in honor, would keep all well, / if you should give up this world before him. / I expect he will want to repay our sons / only with good once he recalls / all we have done.” (Beowulf, 117) Hrothgar fails to consult his wife and consider the implications this adoption could have on their sons. Hrothgar clearly values his alliance with a warrior more than his own marriage with his wife, or even his blood bond with his own biological sons. Their youth makes them deemed temporarily useless in a warrior culture, thus his relationship with Beowulf is more highly valued.

This tension between husband and wife reflects Fox’s views of the opposing desires of men and women in warrior culture: “The heterosexual bond was necessary for reproduction but…also as inimical to the male bond… There was…a constant tension between the demands of the reproductive bond and those of the male bond. Men would be ambivalent about the heterosexual bond insofar as it threatened the male association.” (197) While reproduction is necessary in this society to create a male heir, it also seems to weaken the male himself. Hrothgar must consider the affects his actions have on his family as well as attempt to do what is best for his kingdom. Beowulf avoids this tension by not having children, however this leads to the uncertain future of his own kingdom.

As Beowulf dies after his defeat of the dragon, he mourns the fact that he does not have a male heir: “Now I would want to give to my son / these war-garments, had it been granted / that I have a guardian born from my body / for this inheritance.” (Beowulf, 213) Because Beowulf only engaged, as far as we know, with the male warrior world, he had no means of producing an heir. He was by the standards of his warrior culture, a good king: “I ruled this people / for fifty winters, and there was no ruler / of surrounding nations, not any, who dared / meet me with armies, see out a battle, / make any onslaught, terror, oppression, / upon Geatish men.” (Beowulf, 213) While Hrothgar failed in his age, Beowulf, in the eyes of this culture, has succeeded by continuing to physically protect his people until death. Hrothgar has left sons and nephews who can take his place, while Beowulf must ask his fellow warrior, Wiglaf to succeed him. Whether Wiglaf will be acknowledged remains to be seen. All the treasure he earns in his defeat of the dragon that causes his death is burned with his body, further emphasizing the pointlessness and fruitlessness of Beowulf’s death. The treasure that could give life to his people is destroyed with the leader who failed to give life to a successor.

While this warrior culture encourages the marginalization of all things female, and the celebration of warriors, the two sides need each other in order to survive. Hrothgar seems to acknowledge and accept this. He has both a champion to protect his people and a wife to ensure the future of his kingdom. Beowulf does not seek a champion or a wife but continues to fight until he is at least in his sixties. He plays both the role of warrior and king without foresight. In Beowulf’s strict adherence to the highest values of his culture, he actually endangers the people whom he rules. The narrative of Beowulf reveals its two most important players, warrior and king through either sensual or emotive language. These two most valued roles are complicated by the values of warrior culture. Men must be able to protect their people physically and provide a lineage for in the future. Beowulf and Hrothgar provide us with two opposing examples of kingship, a wise yet weak king with sons, and a warrior king without foresight or heirs. Both kings, in an attempt to achieve value within the warrior culture, are unable to entirely succeed. Beowulf, who is celebrated in his own epic poem for his his valor and strength, leaves his people in a worse state that Hrothgar does, even though Hrothgar is viewed as a deficient aged king. Beowulf, in its celebration of a great warrior, illustrates the paradoxical and problematic value system within patriarchal warrior culture.

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The Monkey or the Monk: The Tension Between Arthur Waley and Anthony Yu’s Translations of The Journey to the West

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Arthur Waley and Anthony Yu both add their own interpretation in their translations of The Journey to the West. Waley’s translation focuses primarily on the heroism of Monkey, a fact that is apparent in his exclusion of Tripitaka entirely from the title of his book, Monkey. Yu, though he certainly exalts Monkey’s heroism, he also notes Tripitaka for his superior willpower. They thus both appear in the title of his translation, The Monkey and the Monk. Though the Journey would certainly not be possible without the immortals, Yu’s Tripitaka is also seen as an integral part of the group. Waley’s Tripitaka is almost seen as a hindrance to the pilgrimage; when faced with a challenge, he dissolves into tears and despair. Yu’s Tripitaka, in contrast, though he may not be as powerful as the immortals, certainly has a superior will and moral code. This is particularly notable in his strength when confronted with sexual temptation. Interestingly, Waley’s Tripitaka is portrayed as a sexless, weak being while Yu’s Tripitaka is humanized by the acknowledgement of his sexuality. His humanity makes his self-denial all the more impressive. Waley’s portrayal of Tripitaka gives all power to the immortals, while Yu’s characterization exemplifies the value of mortality and humanity.

In Waley’s Preface of Monkey he says, “It is clear that Tripitaka stands for the ordinary man, blundering anxiously through the difficulties of life, while Monkey stands for the restless instability of genius.” (Waley, 8) This interpretation of the role of Tripitaka explains Waley’s portrayal of the Monk. Waley’s translation is deemed by Hu Shih, to be ,“freed from all kinds of allegorical interpretation by Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist commentators, Monkey is simply a book of good humor, profound nonsense, good-natured satire and delightful entertainment.” (Waley, 5) For Waley, Monkey is considered the unstable, yet utterly lovable hero. Many of the episodes in Monkey support this claim. When Monkey and Tripitaka are confronted by a band of robbers, Monkey’s over zealousness is contrasted with Tripitaka’s powerlessness and impracticality. To Tripitaka’s horror, Monkey kills all of the robbers and takes their possessions: “In an instant he was among them and striking right and left he slew them all, stripped off their clothing and seized their baggage. Then he came back to Tripitaka and said laughing, ‘Master. I have killed them all.’’’ (Waley, 132) Tripitaka responds with moral authority, but without an alternative plan: “I am very sorry to hear it…One has no right to kill robbers, however violent and wicked they may be…Why kill them? You have behaved with a cruelty that ill becomes one of your sacred calling.” (Waley, 132) Monkey does not appreciate this scolding, responding by defending the practicality of his actions. “If I had not killed them…they would have killed you.” (Waley, 132) Tripitka responds, “A priest…should be ready to die rather than commit acts of violence.” (Waley, 132-133) What Tripitaka does not acknowledge that his death would mean his mission would not succeed, thus the wisdom of his way of life would not be brought to China. Though Tripitaka is able to articulate his own beliefs, he is not able act in defense of them.

Waley’s Tripitaka’s impracticality and weakness is revealed again when his horse is eaten. He immediately reverts to despair and hopelessness: “‘Well, suppose it has been eaten…how am I to travel? It’s a great deal too far to walk,’ and as he spoke his tears began to fall like rain.” (Waley, 139) Monkey responds to this display with disgust and presents Tripitaka with a suggestion to how he can solve their quandary. “Don’t make such an object of yourself…Just sit here, while I go and look for the wretch and make him give us back the horse.” (Waley, 139) Instead of responding with thanks and grace, Tripitaka whines to the Monkey about the possibility of failure: “You can’t do anything unless he comes out of the water…if he does it will be me that he will eat this time.” (Waley, 139) Monkey replies in anger, “You’re impossible, impossible…you say you need the horse to ride, and yet you won’t let me go and recover it. At this rate, you’ll sit here staring at the luggage forever.” (Waley, 139) Tripitaka is consistently unwilling to brainstorm other ideas, rather he wallows in despair. If it weren’t for Monkey’s ingenuity and hope, their mission would surely have failed. Though Tripitaka is supposedly the “master” of the expedition, it is Monkey’s leadership that brings the journey to success.

Waley’s Tripitaka is also easily manipulated. In order to gain revenge upon Monkey, Pigsy tells Tripitaka that Monkey is capable of bringing a dead king back to life. While Monkey does end up resurrecting the king, it is because Pigsy manipulates Tripitaka into torturing monkey. The narrator claims that Tripitaka is an easy target for manipulation: “Tripitaka, being by nature as pliable as water was easily moved by that fools story.” (Waley, 194) Not only was Tripitaka manipulated, he was “easily” maneuvered by a “fool”. This speaks to Tripitaka’s weakness and stupidity. Tripitaka is actually more of a hindrance than a positive force on their mission. Waley’s focus on Monkey and lack of faith in Tripitaka shows his favor toward the immortals. Waley has little faith in the strength of humanity, putting his trust in the power of the immortals, rather than the moral strength that would and should be possessed by a monk. The potential power of humanity is revealed in Anthony Yu’s interpretation of Tripitaka.

Anthony Yu wrote his version of The Journey to the West in response to Waley’s translation. Yu objected to several aspects of Waley’s tranlation. In his Preface to his own translation, Yu writes, “My labor on The Journey to the West begun in 1970 was… motivated…to rectify the acclaimed but distorted picture provided by Arthur Waley’s justly popular abridgement.” (Yu, 33) Yu complains that Waley’s translation does not show the true scope of the epic because he cut many chapters that Yu considers important. He also feels that Waley neglects religious allegory in his translation. “The distantly collaborative result of our studies has mad it clear that religion is not only crucial to the novel’s conception and formation, but also that its nearly unique embodiment need not clash with ‘good humor, profound nonsense, good natured satire, and delighted entertainment.’” (Yu, 34) Thus, Yu seeks out to reassert the concept of religious commentary, which profoundly affects his portrayal of Tripitaka. In contrast to the sexless and weak version of Tripitaka presented in Arthur Waley’s translation, Yu offers another view in his translation, The Monkey and the Monk. Though Yu shows the power and ingenuity of Monkey, he also shows Tripitaka’s discipline and wisdom, traits that Monkey lacks. Yu highlights these traits in Tripitaka by acknowledging Tripitaka’s sexuality, which thus reasserts the importance of religious strength that is missing in Waley’s translation.

In Waley’s translation, hardly any women appear, let alone ones who sexually tempt Tripitaka. Yu’s emphasis on Tripitaka’s sexuality allows him to be seen as spiritually superior. His humanity is juxtaposed with his willpower, making him a more impressive and useful character to the narrative. There are several scenes in which women in Yu’s translation tempt Tripitaka. In chapter 24, Tripitaka and the pilgrims arrive at the women’s nation. The Queen is determined to make Tripitaka her husband, and offers him her hand in marriage. In this proposal, Tripitaka is not only offered a beautiful women, but a position of power and lots of money. Bajie (in Waley’s translation, Pigsy) responds to this proposal for his master, “Go back an tell your ruler that my master happens to be an arhat who has attained the Way after a long process of cultivation. He will never fall in love the dowry of a nation’s wealth, nor will be enamored with even beauty that can topple an empire…Let me be the live in husband.” (Yu, 375) Bajie has already proven his weakness when confronted with the opportunity to indulge himself in the physical world of both food and women. His immortality does not make him more holy than Tripitaka, on the contrary, Tripitaka is much more disciplined. It becomes clear that without Tripitaka’s agreement to the marriage, they will not be allowed to continued on their journey, thus Monkey hatches a plan to make it seem that Tripitaka will marry the queen without actually going through with the marriage. Tripitaka’s fears are not entirely quelled. He worries the queen will want to engage sexually with him, something that Tripitaka has renounced as a monk. “I fear that if the queen asks me to enter the palace, she will want me to perform the conjugal rite with her. How could I consent to lose my original yang and destroy the virtue of Buddhism, to leak my true sperm and fall from the humanity of our faith?” (376) Tripitaka’s devotion to his faith supersedes his desire to engage sexually.

Even when faced with the beautiful queen, Tripitaka is not swayed from his vow. A poem describes her in the chapter: “Brows like kingfisher hair,/ And flesh like mutton jade./ Peach petals bedeck her face;/ Her bun piles gold-phoenix hair./ Her eyes’ cool liquid gaze—such seductive charm./ Her hands’ young, tender shoots—such dainty form.” ( Yu, 379) While Bajie literally drools at the prospect of the queen, Tripitaka maintains his chastity. The language surrounding the woman is very sumptuous, suggesting that her qualities are not lost upon Tripitaka. “She leaned her fragrant shoulder over the to the elder and put her peachlike cheeks up to his face. Opening her scented mouth, she said softly, ‘Royal Brother darling.’” (Yu, 381) While Tripitaka remains polite, he does not yield to the beautiful woman offering herself to him.

After avoiding this marriage, Tripitaka is taken captive by another woman who would like to engage sexually with him. The epigraph at the beginning of chapter twenty-five reads, “Deviant form makes lustful play for Tripitaka Tang; upright nature safeguards the uncorrupted self.” (Yu, 386) Indeed, it is only Tripitaka’s moral nature that protects him from the seduction of the fiend. Tripitaka is very worried about his fate, “I can remain silent and refuse to eat anything, but this fiend is not like the queen. The queen, after all, is a human being whose actions are governed by propriety. This fiend is a monster spirit most capable of hurting me.” (388) Thus if Tripitaka does not yield to this woman’s desires, his life could be in danger. Instead of giving in to the fiend, Tripitaka bravely denies her, “The elder Tang showed no sign whatever that he had been aroused. Though the female fiend tugged and pulled at him and refused to let go, our master doggedly rejected her advances.” (393) Tripitaka’s capability to give in, makes his not doing so much more impressive. The fragility of his mortal life makes his denial all the braver. While Monkey is certainly a heroic character that is involved in more impressive action and fighting, Tripitaka in these scenes reveals why he is master and the true hero of the epic. Tripitaka needs the immortals to help him attain the scriptures, however the immortals are unworthy to get the scriptures on their own. Thus Tripitaka’s superior morality makes him a necessary character, one that has a role in the mission. In Waley’s translation, it’s unclear why Tripitaka would have been chosen to pursue the scriptures at all. His presence is important because he was chosen, however he doesn’t show any traits that set him above average men. He does not reveal any of the strength of character that Yu’s Tripitaka does.

The translations of Waley and Yu serve differing purposes. While Waley’s is perhaps more action-packed and full of fun, Yu’s translation puts more emphasis on the religious connotations of the story. Arguably, the humor and action in Yu’s translation is hardly lessened in his mission to bring attention to the religious aspects of the epic. The largest difference between the two translations can be observed in their portrayal of Tripitaka. While Waley portrays him as an ordinary man unable to cope with the challenges he is faced with, Yu counters this with a character full of bravery and strength of character. While Waley’s Tripitaka is faced with devastating challenges, Yu’s is additionally faced with moral challenges. The emphasis of Tripitaka’s humanity, particularly in Yu’s acknowledgment of the monk as a sexual being, allows his character to be tested, revealing his superior moral strength. Particularly compared with his powerful yet unruly disciples, Tripitaka is revealed as a hero, a human with superior moral strength to immortals. Waley, in contrast, is much more inclined to portray Monkey as the hero, despite his moral shortcomings. He views immortals as the true heroes because they are more involved in battle and action. Yu seems to have more faith in humanity, portraying a mortal as superior in wisdom and faith to his immortal deciples. Yu’s focus on morality can be explained by his concentration on the Chinese religions in his translation, an area that he felt Waley neglected in his version. Both of these translations have value in their own right. They attempt to realize different goals, providing two different interpretations and portrayals of the same story. There is value reading the two side by side; this allows the reader to note the similarities and differences between the two translations. The analysis of these differences allows the reader to discover the different aspects of the story the authors favor. For Waley, the portrayal of monkey as a humorous, yet ultimately brilliant and entertaining hero was more important than Yu’s focus on religion. These focuses affected their portrayal of Tripitaka. Both translations have value and provide a glimpse into different facets of a brilliant Chinese epic.

About Muscle by Marylen Grigas*

FCA-64-sea-squirt-Clavelina-sp.

If there’s no need for movement, then no need for a brain, I’ve learned, 

a fact demonstrated by the sea squirt, a small creature that swims

freely in its youth until it settles on a rock. Then it devours its own brain. 

And spinal cord. It simply doesn’t require them any longer. 

(God, don’t let me settle.) Need for movement leads to need for muscle. 

The brain evolves in order to plan and execute reaching, grasping, 

turning, according to the expert on Charlie Rose, which I watch

on my iPad while walking on the treadmill to rebuild my strength. 

Plenty of species thrive without brains, he says. It could be different. 

on another planet, I suppose, but here evolution of the brain is about muscle. 

Just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger or an evolutionary biologist. 

Yet the brainless sea squirt still gets upset, still squirts. 

Maybe it’s innate, like a horse’s hide shuddering to dislodge a fly. 

Maybe that’s why I started moving and arranging boulders last fall. 

I thought I was making a terrace. But afterward it looked more like a grave. 

 

*Published in the September 1, 2014 issue of The New Yorker

Before by Sean O’Brien*

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Make over the alleys and gardens to birdsong,
The hour of not-for-an-hour. Lie still.
Leave the socks you forgot on the clothesline.
Leave slugs to make free with the pansies.
The jets will give Gatwick a miss
And from here you could feel the springs
Wake by the doorstep and under the precinct
Where now there is nobody frozenly waiting.
This is free time, in the sense that a handbill
Goes cartwheeling over the crossroads
Past stoplights rehearsing in private
And has neither witness nor outcome.
This is before the first bus has been late
Or the knickers sought under the bed
Or the first cigarette undertaken,
Before the first flush and cross word.
Viaducts, tunnels and motorways: still.
The mines and the Japanese sunrise: still.
The high bridges lean out in the wind
On the curve of their pinkening lights,
And the coast is inert as a model.
The wavebands are empty, the mail unimagined
And bacon still wrapped in the freezer
Like evidence aimed to intrigue our successors.
The island is dreamless, its slack-jawed insomniacs
Stunned by the final long shot of the movie,
Its murderers innocent, elsewhere.
The policemen have slipped from their helmets
And money forgets how to count.
In the bowels of Wapping the telephones
Shamelessly rest in their cradles.
The bomb in the conference centre’s
A harmless confection of elements
Strapped to a duct like an art installation.
The Première sleeps in her fashion,
Her majesty, all the princesses, tucked up
With the Bishops, the glueys, the DHSS,
In the people’s Republic of Zeds.
And you sleep at my shoulder, the cat at your feet,
And deserve to be spared the irruption
Of if, but and ought, which is why
I declare this an hour of general safety
When even the personal monster-
Example the Kraken-is dead to the world
Like the deaf submarines with their crewmen
Spark out at their fathomless consoles.
For we do not exist, and I promise
I shall not wake anyone yet.

*Published in Emergency Kit, Edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney, Published in 2004 by Faber and Faber

On Daydreaming: A Writer’s Perspective

Kobo Writing Life

By Shayna Krishnasamy

Remember when you used to be scolded for daydreaming? Dreaming rather than paying attention in class was a real no-no in my elementary school. Daydreaming the afternoon away was also frowned upon when there were chores or homework to be done. To this day, being labelled a “daydreamer” is similar to being called “special”—not exactly a compliment. We’re taught to view this activity as lazy and a waste of time, something with little value. “Stop daydreaming and help me bring in these groceries,” your spouse/roommate/parent might say, and you jump up and comply, duly chastened, fully complicit in this vast conspiracy that daydreaming is of no importance.

Well, I’m here to tell you that everything you’ve ever been told about daydreaming is a total LIE.

DaydreaminDaydreaming_(1)g is essential to being a writer. If there weren’t authors the world over walking around bumping into things because their…

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The Role of an Editor: When to Put Down the Red Pen

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In 1980, the author Raymond Carver famously confronted Gordon Lish, his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, for stepping over the editorial line. Carver in his impassioned letter wrote that his stories no longer felt like his own, particularly objecting to Lish’s “edits” of “A Small Good Thing”. I say “edits” but it would be more accurate refer to Lish’s contributions as a rewrite. Gordon Lish had not only shortened the story by over 20 pages (leaving eight), he had also renamed characters and changed the title of the story to “The Bath”. Carver felt his integrity as a writer had been compromised, writing, “I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here”. Lish felt he was simply doing his job.
This raises the question, what is the role of an editor? Henry James referred to editing as “the butchers’ craft”, and Christopher Hitchens says, “Authors who moan with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome;” however Steven King famously instructed writers to “kill your darlings”, a task easier said than done. Perhaps it is the editor’s job to be the merciful executioner of those darlings. Betsy Lerner, author of The Forest for the Trees, an advice book for writers speaks favorably of the editorial department, asserting, “For the writer who truly loves language, a trip to the copy editor is like a week at a spa. You come out looking younger, trimmer, and standing straighter”.
The role of an editor goes far beyond that of manuscript alterations. An editor is also responsible for acquiring manuscripts, acting as a psychologist for their authors, and pitching their manuscripts to their publishers. While the author-editor relationship can be fraught, it is often a relationship of trust and mutual respect. So where should the line between editor and writer be drawn? Comment below with your thoughts!

The Ever-Enigmatic Ezra Pound: From Foreign Languages to Fascism

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Does anyone know how hard it is to get a hold of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? I mean, they don’t even have the damn thing on eBook and they have everything on eBook these days. Since I have boycotted Amazon for their unacceptable treatment of Hachette, the less popular titles I’m after have started to seem less attainable. (While Amazon is a nasty monopoly who is literally squeezing money out of the fragile publishing industry, they have an unparalleled selection.) But as a principled book buyer, I went to Strand, talked to a human, ordered the book, waited two days (agony), and picked it up. I sort of felt like Ezra Pound was playing hard to get.

I liked Ezra Pound ever since I read this quote: “Use either no ornament or good ornament.” I’m entirely guilty of the occasional mediocre ornament, but this simple, straightforward statement on writing made me feel an immediate kinship with him. Then I started reading his biography…

Ezra Pound was a fascist. He supported Hitler and Mussolini, wrote for fascist publications, and was prosecuted as a traitor of the United States of America. How could I possibly like a poet like that!?

But that raises the question, do you have approve of the artist to like the art?

The recent Wood Allen Controversy has made many avid fans answer this question. After his stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow came forward with an open letter accusing Allen of sexual abuse, fans and colleagues had to decide if this mattered. Are Allen’s films now ruined because he’s a bad person? People don’t argue if Allen’s films are good. Everyone knows they are. But does his personal life change the way we feel about them?

I decided I could live with Ezra Pound’s political past, separate the poems from the poet. The poems are good. Undeniably good, but they’re also pretentious and alienating. Pound alludes to obscure figures in classical mythology and switches without warning into Italian and Greek. The reader gets the feeling that he’s got something to prove. I wish my hard-to-get copy was footnoted, but even without fully understanding the content of Pound’s poems I am still drawn to them. I sit in my room, reading the poems aloud, feeling delight at the lines that are just perfect. Below is my favorite Canto thus far.

 

Canto V

Great bulk, huge mass, thesaurus;

Ecbatan, the clock ticks and fades out

The bride awaiting the god’s tough; Ecbatan

City of patterned streets; again the vision:

Down in the viae stradae, toga’d the crowd, and arme’d,

Rushing on the populous business,

And from parapet looked down

And North was Egypt

The celestial Nile, blue deep

Cutting low barren land,

Old men and camels

Working the water-wheels;

Iamblichus’ light,

The souls ascending

Sparks like a partridge covey,

Like the “ciocco”, brand struck in the game.

“Et omniformis”: Air, fire, the pale soft light.

Topaz I manage, and three sorts of blue;

But on the barb of time.

The fire? Always, and the vision always,

Ear dull, perhaps, with the vision, flitting

And fading at will.     Weaving with points of gold,

Gold-yellow, saffron…     The roman shoe, Aurunculeia’s

And come shuffling feet, and cries “Da nuces!

“Nuces!” praise, and Hymenaeus “brings the girl to her man”

Or “here Suxtus had seen her.”

Titter of sound about me, always

And from “Hesperus…”

Hush of the older song: “Fades light from sea-crest,

“And in Lydia walks with pair’d women

“Peerless among the pairs, that ones in Sardis

“In satieties…

Fades the light from the sea, and many things

“Are set abroad and brought to mind of thee”

And the vinestocks lie untended, new leaves come one the shoots,

North wind nips on the bough, and seas in heart

Toss up chill crests,

And the vine stocks lie untended

And many things are set abroad and brought to mind

Of thee, Atthis, unfruitful.

The talks ran long into the night.

And from Mauleon, fresh with a new earned grade,

In maze of approaching rain-steps, Poicebot—

The air was full of women,

And Savairic Mauleon

Gave him his land and knight’s fee, and he wed the woman.

Came lust of travel on him, of romerya;

And out of England a knight with slow-lifting eyelids

Lei fassa furar a del, put glamour upon her…

And left her an eight months gone

“Came lust of women upon him,”

Poicebot, now on north road from Spain

(Sea-change, a grey in the water)

And in small house by town’s edge

Found a woman, changed and familiar face;

Hard night, and parting at morning.

 

And Pieire won the singing, Pieire de Maensac,

Song or land on the throw, and was dreitz hom

And had De Tierci’s wife and with the war they made:

Troy in Auvergnat

While Menelaus piled up the curch at port

He kept Tyndarida.   Dauphin stood with de Maensac.

 

John Borgia is bathed at last.           (Clock-tick pierces the vision)

Tiber, dark with the cloak, wet cat gleaming in patches.

Click of the hooves, through garbage,

Clutching the greasy stone. “And the clock floated.”

Slander is up betimes.

But Varchi of Florence,

Steeped in a different year, and pondering Brutus,

Then Σιγα μαλ ανΘις σεντεραν!

“Dog-eye!!”” (to Alessandro)

“Whether for love of Florence,” Varchi leaves it,

Saying  “I saw the man, came up with him at Venice,

“I, one wanting the facts,

“And no means labor… Or for a privy spite?”

Our Benedetto leaves it,

O empia? For Lorenzaccio had thought of stroke in the open

But uncertain (for the Duke went never unguarded)

“And would have thrown him from the wall

“Yet feared this might not end him,” or lest Alessandro

Know not by whom death came, O se credesse

“If when the foot slipped, when death came upon him,

“Lest cousin Duke Alessandro think he had fallen alone,

“No friend to aid him falling.”

Caina attende.

The lake of ice there below me.

And all of this, runs Varchi, dreamed out beforehand

In Perugia, caught in the star-maze by Del Carmine,

Cast on a natal paper, set with an exegesis, told,

All told to Alessandro, told thrice over,

Who held his death for a doom.

In abuleia.      But Don Lorenzino

Whether for love of Florence…but

“O se morisse, credesse caduto da sé”

Σιγα σιγα

Schiavoni, caught on the wood-barge,

Gives out the afterbirth, Giovanni Borgia,

Trails out no more at nights, where Barabello

Prods the Pope’s elephant, and gets no crown, where Mozarello

Takes the Calabrian roadway, and for ending

Is smothered beneath a mule,

a poet’s ending,

Down a stale well-hole, oh a poet’s ending.           “Sanazarro

“Alone out of all the court was faithful to him”

For the gossip of Naples’ trouble drifts to North,

Fracastor (lightning was midwife) Cotta, and Ser D’Alviano,

Al poco giorno ed al gran cerchio d’ombra,

Talk the talks out with Navighero,

Burner of yearly Martials

(The slavelet is nourned in vain)

And the next comer says “Were nine wounds,

“Four men, white hourse. Held on the saddle before him…”

Hooves clink and slick on the cobbles.

Schiavoni…cloak… “Sink the damn thing!”

Splash wakes that chap on the wood-barge.

Tiber catching the nap, the moonlit velvet,

A wet cat gleaming in patches.

“Se pia,” Varchi,

“O empia, ma risoluto

“E terribile deliberazione.”

Both sayings rule in the wine,

Ma se morisse!

Bruise by Michael Ondaatje*

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In the medieval darkness of the Holland Tunnel

with luminous green paint, on whitewashed walls

of the Madrid zoo, in his thick fingered handwriting

onto dust at the dry Casablanca aquarium

 

When last I held you in my arms

my love, the West African Black

Rhinoceros was still magnificent 

and still alive…”

 

What have you been doing to Paul Vermeersch?

He has searched for you encyclopedically

in Albacete, in Zagora, in those cities

whose names have changed,

till the maps he relies on wear out.

In what disguise did you leave him?

So he will not recognize

your gait anymore,

or your stare out from a diorama.

 

Hunt and Torment. Call by no Response.

In the end words of love reveal

just yourself. Not why

or the wished-for thing. Only the Spanish

consider his plea, only the drivers

deep in a tunnel into New York

nod wisely, agree with him.

But it is the black rhino whose loss they mourn,

not the person he once held in his arms

 

When it is over, it is over,

they say in the passing dark.

There are no longer great nostrils

to scent out the source of torment.

It is a generation since our love,

to justify anger, had a horn, a tusk.

 

*Originally published in the January, 13 2014 issue of The New Yorker. 

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

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The characters in the novels of the postwar moment are characterized by a determined, almost defensive normalcy. Characters that break the mold of the defined “normal” flaunt their otherness in the face of the conventional, challenging the ordinary. While these characters delight readers with their unapologetic oddness, they also confront society’s vision of normality causing the normal characters to react to this challenging of their values. In Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the nameless protagonist has suffered a mysterious accident, causing him to have to relearn basic physical behaviors. While he reviews how to perform physical tasks, his cognitive and emotional capacity has clearly been affected. He no longer feels natural in the world he inhabits, rather he feels as though he hardly exists. After winning eight and a half million dollars in a settlement, the protagonist is able to pursue his bizarre fantasy of acting out mundane scenarios over and over; these re-enactments make him feel real, even though the events are entirely staged. Fascinatingly, the supposed “normal” characters are roped into his concept, accepting his orders in return for money. By the end of the novel, the protagonist has managed to involve an enormous number of people in his fantasy, people who seem to do his bidding without questioning his motives. The protagonist in the Remainder spreads his “otherness”, expanding London’s perception of the “normal” through his re-enactments. However, his disregard for human life surpasses the sphere of the natural and enters into the realm of the deviant and inhuman.

The protagonist’s greatest desire is to feel natural and real in a world of which he no longer feels a part. He believes there is too much thought associated with his actions, which frustrates him immensely: “That’s the way I had to do things after the accident: understand them first, then do them.” (McCarthy, 14) He watches a movie starring Robert De Niro, admiring the naturalness of his motions, his realness: “He flows into his movements, even the most basic ones. Opening fridge doors, lighting cigarettes. He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand.” (McCarthy, 24) Initially the protagonist sees himself as abnormal and De Niro as normal, the unnaturalness of his movements a sign of unusualness. His friend, Greg convinces him, however, that unnaturalness is actually more ordinary than naturalness. “You’re not unusual. You know what you are?…You’re just more usual than everyone else.” (McCarthy, 24) In this scene, our protagonist is deemed extra-ordinary, which begins his foray into extraordinary behavior. Thus, it is in a desire for normalcy, that the protagonist delves into the distinctly abnormal.

The protagonist’s plans start relatively small. He initially wants to create a house for himself that mimics a scene that may or may not have happened. When in the bathroom at a party, he has a moment of intense déjà vu when looking at a crack in a wall. This moment of memory or imagination makes the protagonist feel real for the first time since his accident. He thus decides he will spend his money on re-enacting this scene perfectly: “I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again. I wanted to; I had to; I would.” (McCarthy, 67) Thus, begins his concept of re-enactments. He hires a logistical “executor”, Naz, to help him realize his vision. (McCarthy, 77) Naz doesn’t treat the protagonist’s requests as odd, rather he responds as though the desires are perfectly natural. Naz’s enthusiasm for tackling logistical challenges quells any unvoiced doubts he may have about the sanity of the project. The protagonist recognizes in order to construct his fantasy world he will have to, “buy a whole building, and fill it with people who’d behave just as [he] told them to.” (McCarthy, 69) Naz responds to the protagonist’s bizarre requests succinctly and unquestioningly. When the protagonist describes a certain woman he would like to be a part of his re-enactment, “There’ll be an old woman downstairs, immediately below me…her main duty will be to cook liver. Constantly…She’ll also be required to deposit a bin bag outside her door as I descend the staircase, and to exchange certain words with me which I’ll work out and assign to her,” Naz simply replies, “Understood…who next?” (McCarthy, 87) Naz’s affinity for logistics causes him to lose sight of the normal and be sucked into the protagonist’s otherness. Neither the protagonist nor Naz considers the lives of these re-enactors; they do not acknowledge that a continuous and physically exhausting job, dependent upon the whims of the protagonist could be unethical. While the protagonist has suffered a trauma, Naz has not, evidencing that the protagonist’s zeal and otherness is spreading to Naz who was previously “normal”.

The intricacy and immensity of the protagonist’s vision causes Naz to hire a huge number of staff members:

We hired an architect. We hired an interior designer. We hired a landscape gardener for the courtyard. We hired contractors, who hired builders, electricians and plumbers. There were site managers and sub-site managers, delivery coordinators, and coordination supervisors. We took on performers, props and wardrobe people, hair and make-up artists. We hired security guards. We fired the interior designer and hired another one. We hired people to liaise between Naz and the builders and managers and supervisors, and people to run errands for the liaisers so that they could liaise better. (McCarthy, 111)

As the staff grows, the protagonist’s sphere of influence grows larger, causing a large number of “normal” people to become involved in his abnormality. As the protagonist is the narrator, readers have little insight into the minds of his staff; however, their participation in his project suggests complicity. None of the people the protagonist hires to participate in his re-enactments question why he is doing these re-enactments. The only questions they ask are logistical. When explaining the pianist’s role in his re-enactment, the protagonist says, “You make mistakes…then you go over the passage you got wrong again, slowing right down into the bit where you messed up. You play it again and again and again—and then when you’ve got down how to do it without messing up, play it some more times, coming back to normal speed…you with me?” The pianist’s only response is, “I make the mistakes deliberately?” (McCarthy, 119) The obedient and unthinking behavior of the protagonist’s staff is nearly as odd as the protagonist’s vision itself. The protagonist spreads his peculiarity with the simple incentive of money. The compensation for their actions cause the staff not to question the idiosyncratic vision the protagonist is attempting to realize.

While the protagonist shows a blatant lack of concern for the convenience of his employees, even employing children at all hours to satisfy his desires, his re-enactment of a shooting reveals his lack of reverence for human life. He procures the part of the street where the shooting took place, not imagining that this re-enactment could be upsetting for the family of the dead man. He is only concerned with the “realness” of the event and must re-enact it. “Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it is real. Take just one aspect of it—say the diagrams: with all their outlines, arrows and shaded blocks they look like abstract paintings…but they’re not abstract at all. They’re records of atrocities.” (McCarthy, 185) While the protagonist may not show reverence for the dead man’s life, he does actually honor him in his own way. “This man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him—and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extend of having no more consciousness of them.” (McCarthy, 198) The supposed “normal” people are not having the same semi-reverent experience with the dead man; none of them have undergone a trauma like the protagonist. Their concept of humanity should not be affected, yet, they participate in a re-enactment that, in their view, should be considered unethical. These people should be held to a higher moral standard, yet the prospect of money causes them to forget their qualms about impersonating a recent death. The protagonist has extended the morally acceptable with and money.

As the novel progresses, Naz becomes increasingly affected and obsessed with exacting the protagonist’s vision. It isn’t the re-enactments themselves that excite him, rather the opportunity to put all of his logistical genius to work. The narrator notes a change in the behavior and demeanor of Naz, “He’d always been dedicated to my projects…but back then his dedication had been purely professional. Now, though, his inbuilt genius for logistics was mixed with something else: a kind of measured zeal, a quiet passion. He defended my work with a fierceness that was muted but unshakable.” (McCarthy, 233) Naz is grateful to the narrator for allowing him into his fantasy, providing him the opportunity to exert his logistical abilities. He says to the narrator, “‘Thank you…for the…just for the…I’ve never managed so much information before…’ His eyes were sparking now.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s suspicions are confirmed, “Yes. Naz was a zealot—but his zealotry wasn’t religious: it was bureaucratic. And he was drunk: infected, driven onwards, on towards a kind of ecstasy just by the possibilities of information management my projects were opening up for him, each one more complex, more extreme.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s abnormal desires allow Naz a professional opportunity that is inconceivable in the normal world. He pushes the boundaries of conventionality, which then allows Naz to also pursue his passion. However, Naz’s zealotry for his work soon competes with his humanity.

The narrator decides that he would like to re-enact a bank heist. He procures a warehouse and meticulously plans out the event. The narrator soon realizes that his re-enactment would be more genuine if it were a real bank heist. He decides to plan a re-enactment without obtaining permission of the bank or telling the re-enactors that the heist is real. The re-enactment becomes a real robbery. “In law we’d be robbing a bank. There were no two ways about it. In the eyes of the staff, the customers and bystanders and police it wouldn’t be a performance, a simulation, a re-staging: it would be a heist—pure and simple, straight up.” (McCarthy, 263) The narrator and Naz plan the heist, but soon realize that there is great potential for information leakage about their plan. Naz comes up with the plan to kill all of the re-enactors in planes. “One way to guarantee there’ll be no information leakage…is to eliminate the channels it could leak through.” (McCarthy, 274) When the protagonist asks Naz what he means by ‘eliminate’, Naz replies: “‘Eliminate…’ his voice was shaking so much it reminded me of spoons in egg-and-spoon races, the way they shake and rattle—as though the task of carrying what it had to say were too much…‘Remove, take out, vaporize.’” (McCarthy, 274) The narrator is unperturbed about the deaths of hundreds of people. His reply to Naz’s suggestion is, “Wow!…That’s beautiful.” (McCarthy, 276) At this point of the novel, the complete inhumanity and extreme otherness of the protagonist becomes clear; “I lay there for the rest of the night, picturing planes bursting, flowers dehiscing. I felt happy—happy to have seen such a beautiful image…My pyramid was like a Pharaoh’s pyramid. I was like the Pharaoh. There were my loyal servants…my reward to them was to allow them to accompany me on the first segment of my final voyage.” (McCarthy, 276) His lack of compassion for human beings and concern for human life turn his oddness and peculiarity into deviance.

The bank heist goes horribly wrong. One of the protagonist’s hired re-enactors is shot and killed during the re-enactment. “The only thing that moved was a deep red flow coming from Four’s chest. It emerged from his chest and advanced onto the carpet…‘Beautiful!’ I whispered.” (McCarthy, 291) It is not only the protagonist’s lack of concern about his employee’s death that point to his complete ambivalence toward human life. The fact that he does not know any of his employees’ names and refers to them as numbers further emphasizes his unnaturalness and inhumanity. When the other re-enactors try to call off the re-enactment, they realize that they have been duped, that the re-enactment was a real heist.  Naz’s reaction to the failure of the re-enactment and the messiness of the mistakes cause him to break down. “It wasn’t dramatic or hysterical: it was more like a computer crashing—the way the screen, rather than explode or send its figures dancing higgledy-piggledy around, simply freezes.” (McCarthy, 297-298)

Though the protagonist is responsible for the death of Four, it is still possible to consider his death an accident. However, that is not the case with the death of Two. The protagonist blatantly and needlessly shoots Two, simply because he feels like it. “Two was as far from me as Four had been when he, Two had shot him, Four, in the back…I shot him. It was half instinctive, a reflex, as I’d first suspected: to tug against the last solid thing there was, which was the trigger…but I’d be lying if I said it was only that that made me pull the trigger and shoot Two. I did it because I wanted to.” (McCarthy, 299)The protagonist feels no guilt or shame when Naz sees Two’s body. The protagonist cheerfully says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” (McCarthy, 300) At this point the normal and the deviant separate. While the protagonist is untroubled by the murder he just committed, Naz is unable to cope with the reality of death, particularly one that is messy and disorganized. “Naz didn’t answer. He just stood there, looked up, closed down, vacant.” (McCarthy, 300) While Naz is able to plan the conceptual murders of hundreds of people in planes, when faced with the reality of death he shuts down. Perhaps normal isn’t the right word for Naz, however he is more certainly more so that the protagonist who cheerfully considers the death of two of his nameless employees as “beautiful”. It is the protagonist who infects Naz with the his vision, the prospect of exercising his logistical genius with an intricate project. However, Naz is not entirely soulless. He is horrified at the prospect of a dead man in front of him, while the protagonist’s reaction to the death is happiness.

The narrator, in his effort to feel real and normal becomes abnormal and deviant. Though his actions allow for the gainful employment of hundreds of people, and provide professional opportunities for people like Naz, his expansion of the realm of the normal snaps with his decision to kill all of his employees. His enormous amount of wealth allows him to challenge the status quo without being challenged by dubious staff. His oddness is initially acceptable, despite some of his unethical practices, like making people, adults and children work extreme hours and failing to learn his employees’ names. However once humans are harmed in the execution of his fantasy, he enters the realm of positive evil. While a character like Naz is certainly changed and affected by his association with the narrator, his humanity is not entirely lost like the protagonist’s. He still regards murder with shock and horror, rather than an unconcerned euphoria. While the protagonist expands London’s concept of normal, he eventually crosses the line. His otherness becomes blaring and unacceptable in the face of normality.