≡ Menu

Madame Bovary

We could say we long for someone, or we could better say that someone has triggered our longing. Certain mechanisms exist in the human brain that when brushed by a combination of memory and bodily functions, demand interpretation. Feeling is situational interpretation. The same chemicals and hormones, and even, to an extent the same physical manifestations that define being “in love” also accompany the fight, freeze, and flee complex of fear: increased heart rate, dilation of the eyes, blood flow to the hands, feet, lips, and genitalia, a rise in blood pressure, an increased sharpness yet reduction of our focus to the matter at hand. We must interpret these sensations as either love or fear depending on the situation and all our past experiences, and very often, we waver between our interpretations: this is the basic fodder of romantic comedies. Boy meets girl: fight, freeze, or flee (usually some combination of all three). When working with students in poetry, many of whom are preoccupied with romantic love, usually its pain and infamy. I find certain tools useful for punching holes in the cliches, and helping them find a way in to what matters to them. It is stupid to rid them of the mechanisms that has lead to “piercing blue eyes” and “melting brown eyes” and all that crap. They are right: blue eyes have certain atavistic advantages insofar as they display to better visibility the dilation of the pupils that indicate interest, including romantic interest. Melting brown eyes are hardly ever used to indicate evil or coldness because, well, because they are “melting” which means warmth and a sense of depth. Madame Bovary’s large brown eyes fooled Charles into thinking her noble and full of womanly virtue. Blue eyes show interest, but brown eyes appear bigger and trigger an atavistic mammalian tendency to protect. The larger the eyes, provided they are symmetrical, the more we are likely to ooze oxytocin, the chemical of well being, maternal care, and post-orgasmic bonding. Joan Baez, in her thinly veiled tribute to Dylan, wrote:

You gave to me oh so many things,
it makes me wonder, how they could belong to me.
And I gave you only my brown eyes
which melted your soul down
to the place it longed to be.

This is what I would do if confronted with a student wallowing in cold piercing blue eyes, or melting brown eyes, or (and this is rare) emerald green eyes. I’d say: remove the eyes, and distill their qualities throughout the poem. For example piercing blue eyes:

Something sharp, something being pierced (not a heart), but perhaps a shirt or stitch that is being woven into a fabric of different color. All things blue: sky, a robin’s egg, some semi-precious stone. Then, if your eyes are brown, remove those too, and play with the “warmth” of brown: old rivers, dead leaves, chocolate, whatever. It might go something like this:

You who have stitched your bright blue thread
through the flow of my dark river,’
who have pierced the sparrow of my eyes,
who have pulled the needle out and in,
until pain has its own rhythm, and moves
through the brown thistle of my day: blue thing that looked at me:
a robin’s egg falls from the highest branch,
a shrike impales its prey:
the small brown wren, the thrush
whose song rose from the secret wood,
they have lost both thrift and song.
On a blue thorn the sky god descends,
earth moves through its umber rounds,
knows all winds pierce and sting
yet blesses them. Blesses what tears and rends,
what breaks: this brown word that is on the tongue
of blue, this mud deeper than all time.

The point is to take the essence of piercing, and blue, and longing, of sharpness, and pain, and mingle it with the warmth of brown—its humility, its less dazzling, yet deeper beauty. The point of “piercing blue eyes” has not been lost. The student has not conceded his or her interest, but has rather distilled to give it both more original detail and a greater ontology. In the next post I will take some cliches and show how they can be the raw material for this process of distillation. It is important to respect cliches as well as vanquish them, and we do that by treating them seriously, and using whatever force they once had–using their vestige power.

I had downloaded an off-line map of Vancouver for my iPad to prepare for our trip. But when I searched its catalogue for bookstores, it yielded only the BC Marijuana Party Bookstore, located in the back of the BC Marijuana Party establishment just east of Gastown (I eventually visited at the end of the trip). Luckily, Google maps yielded considerably more options, spread across the city. But how to discern which to visit, on my limited conference schedule and lack of motorized transport? Our decided upon method was a combination of combing the neighborhoods that we already wanted to see, and tossing a net around the area of our hotel (Fairmont Downtown, conference headquarters, swank city, abuzz with hipster theorists).

Kitsilano proved to be gorgeous. Located on the west end of the Burrard and Granville bridges, it is home to the University of British Columbia and surrounding neighborhoods. We toured Point Grey Road along the water’s edge, admiring the view of the bay and mountains that was actually rivaled by the coastline mansions of diverse styles. We made it all the way to Jericho Park before turning back along West 4th. After passing ABC Books, a Chinese children’s textbook shop, we came to Kestrel Books. They prioritize quaintness over selection, but they do sport sections devoted entirely to different branches of Eastern spirituality, nature writing, travel narratives, and the like. The juxtaposition of titles in the fiction and poetry sections is particularly fun:

burgess

Further down West 4th we stopped at the considerably larger Banyen Books and Sound (“Sound” refers to their collection of wind chimes and flutes on the left side of the store). That, actually, may be an indication of the type of store we were dealing with. Consider these lists of topics:

list

There is an overall peaceful vibe there, though the fiction and poetry section sports only Beat meditations on Buddhism.

Between Banyen and the bridge are Comicshop and Drexoll Games (“Board Games & More”), but as it began to rain, we stopped for dinner before redoubling our effort to return to the Fairmont.

The following morning – still raining – we set out for MacLeod’s Books, on the corner of Richards and West Pender. Along the way we stumbled upon manga heaven (as well as a $2 copy of Madame Bovary):

manga

This bright homogeny (the whole store had that fluorescent Japanese flavor) contrasted sharply with what we found in MacLeod’s. But, as soon as we walked in, we knew we had found what we came for. Namely, beautiful used and rare books. Everywhere:

booksmorebooks
tons

 

This is the type of place that requires maximum restraint. Simply browsing will lead you to decades old copies and even originals from Bellow, Barth, Roth, Rushdie, and, well, pretty much every major novelist you like. When I get into situations like these, I tend to leave them all behind, so as not to open the floodgates. But I had to come away with something here. And then it hit me (really, it did, much more than I found it). The Mother Lode:

burgess

Disclaimer, now, for clairification. I collect used Anthony Burgess novels. There, I said it. Except for maybe Sam Weller’s in Salt Lake City, this was the best Burgess collection I have ever seen. But which to choose? I own most of the books in the photograph, so mostly I just wanted to choose something hard and small, for packing and travel. Moses simply stood out as the best choice. It’s a lyric narrative much like Byrne, and very much in Burgess’ preferred vein of historiography and biographical novels. Moses is the story of (yes, that) Moses in lyric epic, for $5. Quite an outing.

As a post script, we returned to MacLeod’s on our last day in Vancouver, after touring Gastown and backtracking to the Fairmont. I wanted to re-view their Barth section, just to see. Letters was under $10, but it’s bulky. I stopped in the bathroom before heading to the street again, and, mirabile dictu, even it was flooded with text. Books, magazines, posters, etc. I could easily have just shoved that copy of Adventures of Augie March into my pack. But of course that would be to desecrate this holy space (not only the bathroom, but, you know, the whole store). There was even a note pinned near the mirror – a customer apologizing for having stolen a book from here many years ago, with the appropriate $7 payment.

Respect.

If you go to Vancouver, go to MacLeod’s. But also go to shops that I didn’t get to, and comment here about it.

I tell my students that sentimentality is the appropriate emotion at the most predictable time rendered in the most obvious weather, and all of it covered with a thin scum of false compassion. But you can get away with all that, yes, even a tear falling for a dead mother on a cloudy day, if you let it be what it is, in its full poverty, if you don’t wield it like some huge club of sensitive “feeling” with which you knock the reader over the head. True feeling has the force of grace; sentimentality has the stench of morals. The word “should” and “must” cling to its fat cherubic legs. Half comprised of self regard, and the other half a mixture of cliche, the sentimental is close to the feigned regard of the funeral director: appropriate, and grave, but with one eye on the itemized bill. Hitler wept when he watched a pair of boiling lobsters, but showed no particular compassion for those he exterminated.

A mind too utilitarian and selfish, too unable to see its own contradictions, too willing to be its own hero will often have an undeveloped feeling sense. This might go a long way towards explaining why a man might cry at his spoiled brat of a daughter’s wedding (my baby, my little girl) and not even slow down to drop a quarter in the cup of a beggar. He has scenarios for his emotions: beggars are all worthless pieces of shit who cause their own troubles, but daughters getting married are video worthy–extensions of his delusion that all is right with the world, and he is a wonderful daddy. Much of what we call sensitivity is no deeper than Madame Bovary’s fantasies about being a cloistered nun. It’s horseshit.

The difficult, the ambiguous, the nuanced call for an integrity of equivocation: this does not mean we should blunt all emotions or feelings when we write. Just as some people like sappy stories, others consider any direct feeling to be a sin against their aesthetics. Both represent different species of limited. I tell my students compassion and feeling are not in the feelings themselves, but in the artistic selection of details that bring them to life. In a story where a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, you might create a far better feeling sense if you have him peek through the half opened door, see his wife’s clothes holding a press conference with the man’s belt and neck tie, and, instead of having the husband break in and attempt to kill the wife and lover, or having him break down in sobs, he quietly goes down stairs, and sets the tea kettle to boil, very carefully removes his eye glasses, wipes them, waits for the kettle to scream for him, a whistle that will no doubt alert the lovers that he has arrived. Good actors know that emotion can be implied through a procedural of small actions, none of which are spectacular in and of themselves, but which, cumulatively, achieve an effect of the genuine.

It is also important to remember that subtle is not always better than overt and obvious.Some writers, especially those trained in writing programs, go overboard being nuanced. I call this Chekhov syndrome. They never met an emotion they liked, and yet, their stories (or poems) can be so understated that they never show up on the page at all. This is just as god awful and boring as being maudlin, and, worse, you may even win awards for it! Others of an equally “nuanced” bent might see themselves and their values reflected in your work and consider you a “subtle” artist even when it is actually a case of you being a cold hearted snob ass. Cold hearted snob asses too often run the arts. Chekhov, unlike his followers, knew how to be openly emotional and direct. I love Chekhov better than almost any other artist, but many of his followers bore me. They almost make me want to watch “The Sound of Music” (Love Richard Rogers, hate that musical.) So what to do?

Einstein said: “Things are as simple as they are, and no simpler.” I think this applies to the feeling sense in poems and stories as well. One of the safest things you can do is teach students to “show don’t tell,” but that can lead to two errors: one, overly describing and indulging in detail for its own sake. Two, the sort of “overly nuanced” feeling sense I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I prefer: “make sure your telling shows, and your showing tells, and that the two are not so easily separated since it is the miracle of art that showing and telling be one living force, just as character and plot be one living force.

This morning, I was very happily sipping coffee, eating a hard boiled egg, and reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. These lectures are as much an aesthetic pleasure to read as a good novel. At any rate, Nabokov recognized Tolstoy as the greater artist, but Chekhov’s stories were what this great writer and, yes, snob would have taken with him if exiled to another planet. He went on in great detail about the story usually translated as “The Ravine” (Nabakov prefers “The Gully”). Nabokov’s love and admiration for Chekhov were so evident that I found myself moved to tears. I was quite pleased with my noble soul. Then I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stare at the snow swirling in thirty mile an hour gusts. Tree branches were strewn about the yard. My garbage can had made it half way down the drive way and looked as if it might hurl itself at the next available Volvo.

Still full of my artistic sensitivity, I spied a slate grey Junco hopping about near the porch. I said: “hello, Mr. Junco.” I approached it, thinking it would fly off, but the Junco only hopped rather less than frantically, and I noticed its left wing was broken. I chased that Junco half way through my yard, determined to catch it and mend it, and show how compassionate I am. He tried to escape my kindness by making a run for a Lilac bush. This exposed him to a sharp shinned hawk who swooped down and put the pretty pink billed bird out of its misery. I may have covered my eyes. I may have hated the hawk, or myself, but I watched fascinated. The grace and ferocity, and the snow swirling all about gave me a sense that this moment was memorable, that I must witness it without judgment or editorial prejudice. The Junco gave forth only one small cry of distress, and then it was dead in the talons of the hawk, and I thought of the character Lipa in Chekhov’s story, how her child is murdered by a miserable woman who throws a cup of boiling water on him. At the end of this story, long after the murder, Lipa gives a piece of buck wheat cake to the senile and cuckolded husband of the murderer, her former father-in-law. She then dissolves into the story’s end, singing a song into the evening light. I thought how mercy and ferocity might be difficult to parse out, how they might fall upon each other in such odd and frightening and glorious ways. I thought that my recent feelings of self ennoblement for being such a sensitive reader had been foolish and petty, and that the “gift” I was being given was exactly this moment in which nothing in my heart or conscience could be clearly agreed upon. This is the truth of feeling. This is where I must begin.