Expats and the beauty of language

I stumbled upon some comments by the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, an exile in Canada, about how expatriates appreciate their native language in a distinct way. Skvorecky offered this:

Henry Miller recommended that writers live abroad, because their native language suddenly becomes precious to them. They see its possibilities and beauty, which they hadn’t noticed at home, because there everyone spoke Czech. I think that is confirmed by the fact that Hemingway, who was probably the most influential stylist in American literature, wrote his early stories and novels abroad.

Miller’s theory is interesting (if not self-serving, since Miller was an expat), one which obviously resonated with Skvorecky. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or the ear sharper? Does separation from the familiar bring it into better focus?

I’m not so sure. I look at those American writers today who clearly love the language, who play with it, and they are not expats: Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Tim O’Brien. Each offers us different American voices, rhythms, cadences, and their home-bound lyricism seems to suggest Henry Miller had it wrong.

For that matter, today there is no isolation for an American living overseas in the age of global culture. English is everywhere (admittedly in different flavors), but it’s harder to be homesick in Paris, to miss the American idiom, with Le Big Mac available at the corner MacDonalds.

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

‘The deeper they burn’

‘The deeper they burn’

Robert Pinsky asks and answers an interesting question in his Poet's Choice column in the Washington Post's Bookworld: "What is a prose poem? Who knows?"

Pinsky then dances around the definition, suggesting it has something to do with "speed and compression," or the "deft, mysterious creation of feeling from a few words," or the idea of movement in prose.

The Academy of American Poets offers us a somewhat more precise explanation:

While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

Say again? The Academy acknowledges the confusion: "the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry."

Hmm. Where should we place Ernest Hemingway's six-word story (composed in response to a challenge)?

Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.

That certainly meets Pinsky's definition of a "deft, mysterious creation of feeling from a few words." What becomes harder is drawing the line between poetic prose and prosey poems. For example, take the following passage from Marguerite Duras' novel The Malady of Death:

And she, in the room, sleeps on. Sleeps, and you don't wake her. As her sleep goes on, sorrow grows in the room. You sleep once, on the floor at the foot of her bed.

She goes on sleeping, evenly. So deeply, she sometimes smiles. She wakes only if you touch her body, the breasts, the eyes. Sometimes she wakes for no reason, except to ask if the noise is the wind or high tide.

She wakes. She looks at you. She says: The malady's getting more and more of a hold on you. It's reached your eyes, your voice.

You ask: What malady?

She says she can't say, yet.

Prose or poetry? It has the feel of poetry to me, a sparseness and yet an emotional depth. Duras' entire novel, (in a minimalist translation from the French by Barbara Bray), strikes me as an extended poem in prose. Yet, despite its brevity, The Malady of Death meets all the requirements of fiction (a narrative, characters, etc.) and it has the ambition of fiction: to explore the depths of human heart.

When I consider some of my favorite authors and the elegance and beauty in their choice of words, the manner in which they evoke the felt life, I am reminded of Pinsky's "deft, mysterious creation of feeling." Consider the final two sentences from Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses:

He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.

Poetry or prose? Does it matter? It's the control over words that these authors/poets have, their economy, their ability to hint at something profound with one descriptive adjective ("darkening") or the use of cadence or repetition, that gratifies the reader.

As England's poet laureate in the early 19th century, Robert Southey, once wrote: "It is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn."

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Joseph Conrad and “The Secret Sharer”

Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” is usually grouped with his other sea stories for critical consideration, but the nautical setting is incidental—it is the “conflict within” that fascinated the Polish-English writer, a reflection, we can conjecture, of Conrad’s own identification as a homo duplex—a “double man.”

The Secret Sharer

English was Conrad’s second language, and he acknowledged his own dual loyalties when he told a British friend in 1903: “Both at sea and on land, my point of view is English, from which the conclusion should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.”

The immigrant Conrad struggled with this dual national identity, balancing two cultures and allegiances, knowing that he would always be considered somewhat less than truly English. Conrad understood full well the potential for alienation and conflict that such a straddling act could produce.

“The Secret Sharer,” published in 1911 in Harper’s Magazine, was, according to Conrad, based on both his own experiences as a young captain and on the highly publicized murder of a sailor on the clipper ship Cutty Sark in 1880 by the first mate (who subsequently killed himself).

Not much occurs in the “The Secret Sharer”per se: there are no shipwrecks or mutinies, no sea battles or feats of seamanship. The drama, for the most part, takes place in the mind (and heart) of the unnamed young English captain—the narrator—who has recently assumed command, his first, of an unnamed ship off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Siam (Thailand).

As the story opens, another young Englishman, Lassatt, swims to the ship, a fugitive from justice. An officer aboard the ship Sephora, Lassatt has killed a sailor during a crisis in bad weather; he openly explains his situation and acknowledges his guilt in the matter to the captain. Like the story’s narrator, Lassatt has been schooled on the Conway—the training vessel for the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine—and the young captain immediately identifies with him.

He decides to shelter Lassatt, hiding him in his cabin, concealing his presence from the crew. It’s never made clear why he identifies with the fugitive so deeply: is it the bond between two sensitive men of the same social class? Is there an element of sexual attraction? Is Lassatt his doppelganger, his double?

Conrad’s unnamed narrator struggles with this, drawn to the fugitive, and yet aware of the twisted aspects to the relationship.

He was not a bit like me, really; yet, as we stood leaning over my bed place, whispering side by side, with our dark heads together and our backs to the door, anybody bold enough to open it stealthily would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self.

“The Secret Sharer” is about duality (the text is crammed with references to “my other self,” “my double, “the secret sharer of my life,” “my intelligent double”), a common theme in 19th century literature: think of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s William Wilson, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In fact, Conrad revised the title of the story from “The Secret-Sharer” to “The Secret Sharer” so that dualism was recognized from the start.

The question of command

While the Other Self fascinates Conrad, the story is also about command—command in the sense of commanding a ship, but also of commanding one’s destiny. One critical interpretation of the story sees the episode with Leggatt as the mechanism by which the young captain faces down his self-doubts and assumes his responsibilities as the authority figure on his own ship. Certainly the resolution of the story suggests that Conrad introduced the fugitive as a way to force his young narrator to confront the very question of command. It is an unabashedly male question for Conrad: does the captain have the strength and resolve to deserve command? Can he gain the respect of his crew—who wait to see that his titular authority is matched by competence and judgment?

Joseph Conrad

Where Conrad’s work rises above the conventional sea story is in his portrait of his hesitant, conflicted captain. The narrator confesses: “But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” He doubts himself: “…I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.”

In contrast to this hesitancy, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey—perhaps the two best-known protagonists in 20th century nautical fiction—rarely if ever suffer from self-doubt or second thoughts: they are “men of action” and natural leaders, cool and collected in times of crisis.

It is now clear that neither Forester (the pen name of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) nor O’Brian (named Richard Patrick Russ at birth) were the naval experts they made themselves out to be; both fashioned public biographies that veered sharply from the truth. Indeed, Patrick O’Brian, who was neither Irish nor a retired naval officer as assumed by many readers, apparently had limited hands-on sailing skills! It is a testament to his skills as a researcher, and his imaginative powers, that he could produce the Aubrey–Maturin series. Perhaps Conrad’s stint as a sea captain freed him to explore the ambiguity of command in ways that Forester and O’Brian—concerned about “authenticity”— could not.

By the close of “The Secret Sharer,” Conrad’s young captain embraces his command, just as he bids farewell to “the secret sharer of my life.” He confronts this alone, having faced down his prior doubts (made human in the form of Lassatt?), and he now turns eagerly to this new responsibility. “Nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.”

The Amazon.com link for the reviewed story:

Joseph Conrad: “The Secret Sharer” and Other Stories

©2006, 2015 by Jefferson Flanders

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

We have been drawn to stories from the time our ancestors huddled around the fire and listened and learned and were entertained and enthralled by the tales of others.

Joseph Conrad
Those stories with mythic qualities have even more power, for they tap into our collective unconscious, those memories that seem hard-coded into us. The Hero’s Journey, what Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth,” borrowing from James Joyce, has always seemed right to me in its depiction of an underlying collective memory that storytellers tap into (Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers admirably decodes literary myth-making with its incisive analysis of both classic literature and more popular fiction). The power of storytelling and myth is real, whether or not Jung’s theory about archetypes is correct. We respond instinctively to certain symbolic tales, and find literary themes that address elemental human concerns to be compelling.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” is—she has written—based on the “psychomyth” of the scapegoat; she says she was inspired by William James’ statement that “one could not accept a happiness shared with millions if the condition of that happiness were the suffering of one lonely soul.” The story, which won the Hugo Award, has been included in a number of literary short story anthologies—even though the prolific Le Guin is best known for her science fiction and fantasy—and it surfaces on the reading list in some English and Philosophy classes.

The story is very simple. Le Guin introduces us to an exotic, mystical city, Omelas, “bright-towered by the sea,” whose fortunate residents (“the people of Omelas are happy people”) enjoy a Utopian existence, with plentiful creature comforts (drugs, sex, and music–if not rock-and-roll), magnificent public buildings, ideal weather, and without “monarchy and slavery… the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb.” And, as the narrator hastens to tell us, without guilt. (Is Omelas the model society Swedish socialists thought they were building?)

But this fairy tale has a flaw. This society is founded on the misery and degradation of one child, imprisoned in a dirty, dark cellar room furnished with a bucket and two mops, kept from human contact and sunlight. (A number of critics have seen Christ-like symbolism in the description of the child). What is worse, everyone in this “joyous city” knows about the child; they are complicit in its inhumane treatment.

…Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

It is carefully explained to every citizen of the city that freeing the child will destroy all “the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas.” So, while they may come to view the child, no one intervenes.

And it is easy to rationalize the situation with a coldly logical Utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. The narrator tells us that “the terrible justice of reality” is that this child has been so damaged by its environment that freedom would be relatively meaningless. Indeed, perhaps (drawing from Eastern religious thought) the wretchedness of the child makes possible the beauty of Omelas by stirring the compassion of the city’s denizens.

Except, we are told, there are some who cannot accept the rationalizations and the treatment of the child. These are “the ones who walk away,” who are so disgusted and troubled by the “wretched child” in the basement that they leave. Where they are bound when they leave Omelas is not revealed, but “they seem to know where they are going.”

There is some ambiguity about their departure. Unlike Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” where we can identify with the heroic Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who risks all to expose the contaminated water supply in his town, the “ones who walk away” are—by comparison—passive, not active, in their resistance. By choosing exile they have tacitly accepted the continued depravity of the child’s imprisonment. They have walked away.

What should we think of those who do leave? Are they to be admired or pitied? Have they just enough moral clarity to separate themselves from the ongoing evil at the heart of Omelas, but not enough courage to resist?

The acceptance of the necessary evil, always in the name of the greater good, has a long (if not admirable) history. It was the argument used by otherwise thoughtful American Southerners to justify slavery. In the days before the collapse of Communism, I remember those on the Left who would quote Mao that you could not make an omelette without breaking a few eggs–a rationalization of the horrid things done to the Chinese people in order to create a “soclalist paradise.” There is always a justification available.

In portraying the “happy people of Omelas” Le Guin borrows a bit from an earlier science fiction master, H.G. Wells. The Eloi, his hedonistic “beautiful people” of 802,701 AD in “The Time Machine,” are also apathetic; they passively allow the evil race of subterranean Morlocks to periodically consume some of their own people in exchange for their comfort. In the 1960 film version of the novel, Wells’ hero, The Time Traveller (played by Rod Taylor) incites the Eloi to successfully resist the Morlocks (blue monsterish creatures designed to scare millions of American children).

Le Guin will have none of the Hollywood heroics. Her story—this myth of Omelas—has no figure who prizes justice above the status quo in Utopia. There is no one saying “Fiat justitia, ruat coelum“—“Let justice be done, though Heavens fall.”

I think she sells us short with this—by us, I mean humans. Doesn’t history teach that there will always be someone who resists injustice (real or perceived)? We are too cranky a lot, in some ways, too volatile, too violent. Too skeptical of authority. We are not the Eloi, nor the “happy people of Omelas.” We don’t always settle for scapegoats.

Where in Omelas is Spartacus? Andrei Sakharov? Joan of Arc? Cesar Chavez? Harriet Tubman? Rosa Park? William Wallace? Oskar Schindler? Aung San Suu Kyi? Nelson Mandela? Lech Walesa? Whether you accept force as an appropriate way to confront injustice and oppression, or believe only in non-violent means of resistance, where are those who say no, the individuals who resolutely confront that which is wrong? Don’t we have something hard coded in us that occasionally drives us to fight for human dignity? True, courage is often in short supply, and compromise—looking the other way—is a classic survival technique. But I think of the times when someone has refused to get in line when the personal and societal consequences were severe: The Ones Who Stay and Fight.

So while “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” cannot be faulted for its technique or structure, nor for its prose, there is something hollow, something writerly and contrived, about Le Guin’s tale. Or perhaps more precisely, there is something inhuman about it: the people of Omelas do not share the DNA of homo sapiens, or at least not the ones trapped in this stage of our evolutionary history.

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

The Amazon.com link for the reviewed story: Ursula K. Le Guin: “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

The mind of the maker

The mind of the maker

Ernest Hemingway once hit out at critics who had analyzed his Nobel-prize winning The Old Man and the Sea:

“There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

So was Papa right? After all, it can be argued, he wrote the novella. He is the maker, shouldn’t he know what he has put into his own writing? If he wanted the book to be loaded with symbols, he would have, correct? Who better to tell us what the text means?

And yet the insights of Freud and Lacan and others about how stuff in the unconscious can be manifested in unintended ways gives us pause. Some Freudian literary critics have tried viewing the text as the dream (the expression of the unconscious) and comparing it to the author’s biography (looking for links between the two).

When considering how what is in the mind of a writer is translated into the work, there are several layers. There is the personal experiences of the maker, everything that has happened and has been recorded by the mind, that may surface in different ways. Then there are the social and cultural images and ideas that have been implanted.

All of this ends up being transferred from the author to the page–whether or not the author is completely aware of what is happening.

The English author and mystery writer Dorothy Sayers has a marvelous little book, The Mind of the Maker, in which she compares the process of artistic creation with that of God’s relationship to man (through the Trinity). What is in God’s mind (the Word) is made real (in the Son) and is connected to man by the Holy Spirit. What is in the author’s mind (the Word) becomes real (the book or film) and is connected to the reader’s mind by the act of reading or watching.

So despite Hemingway’s protestations, it is very possible that there are deeper meanings in The Old Man and the Sea, some he intended (and is being disingenuous in denying) and others he did not intend.

And once released from the mind of the maker, and connected to the reader, the doctrine of free will suggests that the book takes on a life of its own.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders