Monday, October 02, 2023

Scarlet Letter And Ethan Frome


Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome

I read both The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome in high school, under that obligation. Both have New England as a setting in a dire way. SL’s setting seems primordial, a long distant past. EH sits later in time but far from contemporary. 

SL was a tester for me because the lengthy Custom House section hardly makes clear what the story is about. I recognize it now as a delightful meditation by Hawthorne but I wasn't ready for that in high school. I saw it as a long grey patch of writing, required reading. The story itself lacks action and couldn't compete with the sci-fi I was reading, and certainly not Lord of the Rings

I don't remember how either book was taught but reading for pleasure never seemed a priority among the teachers I had nor did I expect assigned reading to offer pleasure. One can think of all the books that one was lucky enough NOT to read in school.

EH is a more normal sort of novel. I believe stolidwas used to describe the New England archetype. This archetype accepts that New Englander’s are tight-lipped and emotionally withdrawn. I have had to consult the internet to remember the plot. The setting is the fictitious town of Starkville, so Edith Wharton was unafraid to push buttons.

EH came to my mind today because it culminates in the protagonist attempting to escape his circumstances for a less stolid life. SL does likewise with Hester and Arthur. I remember hoping for a successful escape of Ethan and Mattie as they try to leave Ethan’s wife behind for a new life together. Wharton presents such hopelessness in the circumstances. The ruinous sled ride that quashes all hope seems ridiculous now with its irony and almost gothic bleakness. 

The escape for Hester and Arthur proves different. Hester, by virtue of her strength and character, had already defeated the Puritanism of 17th century Boston. She had defined herself outside the prevalent moral morass. Arthur, sickly and weak, was never going to escape, but he did manage to uphold his moral code, a sort of redemption for him. EH reads more like a soap opera. I don't remember Wharton's prose stylings but the plot follows a normative course so that the characters become chess pieces in her narrative game. Hawthorne's meditative prose suits the story of SL. Much of his writing resides in a place both historical and fantastical, Hawthorne's playground and battlefield. 

I hadn’t intended a counterpoint between the two books. I took notice of a shared moral climate in both owing, one can posit, to New England’s Puritan foundation. It also occurred to me how students were served these weighty emanations of Puritanism, as if fortifying the regional obligation. SL ends on a high if tragic note whereas EH seems like utter chastisement. I don’t recall either book presented in terms of their artistry or any sort of reading pleasure. They were just dutiful requirements in the school year

Thursday, March 16, 2023

One Route

 And there was the time crossing the I-states Beth and I taking Erin to visit his father in a summer exchange. Highway tide rushing thru nondescript Illinois skirting the big Windy City which had a gravitational pull even as we passed then dun-coloured Indiana where rest stops were something crushing and barely relief and excited nearing a bridge over the Mississippi was that ever a challenge to spell and over the great river father so called and found the motel where we would meet on a hillside above. It got to be a good downpour there while I gathered suitcases from the car in rising wind and only after did I learn a siren sounded tornado warning just a mile or so away while I scrambled inside with our luggage. And in the lobby we saw a pen and ink drawing of the North Bridge in Concord by an artist we met at the North Bridge in Concord who drew as he sat by the North Bridge in Concord and sold us some prints of local interest. All interest should become local it just takes a bigger hand. The homely and not so majestic Concord River thereby tied us to the very Father of Waters tho it looked more industrial and smelled a smell but it was history and context and even trumped up riverboats and the map has life and eyes into the world however we want to read it then and now.

Monday, February 13, 2023

The Grungy Henry Miller

 The extended philosophical passages in Henry Miller’s work have little resonance for me. It’s just argle-bargle, written in glib confidence. His use of slurs also exhibits glibness. He sounds enclosed when using slurs. Rather than showing rugged power, as profanity can, his usage deflects towards emptiness and cold hell. I acknowledge that he wrote at a time when profanity and obscenity were synonymous and offensive. Nowadays one hears fuck commonly used as an intensifier. The word becomes more a flimsy noise and distraction than a meaningful stun gun. Miller’s slurs have the same effect. They sound unexamined, and barely give testament. I see Miller’s method as sluice-like where the quantum of writing involves unleashing the stream. He wants to get as much out as he can where much means ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, as Keats lastingly had it. Some of ‘it’ is malarkey and literary tripe. When his acerbic beam is working, as well his sense of the absurd, matters gain a raiment of wonder.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Kerouac Note

 Neither On The Road or The Dharma Bums give much picture of him as a writer. Both give passing mention to his modest success as a writer, and he speaks of his notebooks here and there. No sense of him banging away at a typewriter. Given his peregrinations, filling notebooks would maybe not be a practical priority. The record of these books falls outside ‘pure facts’.

Monday, February 06, 2023

Miller and Kerouac

 Henry Miller seems like a writer who would resonate with the Beats. Anyway, I have started Tropic of Capricorn for the sake of perspective. I read Tropic of Cancer a couple years ago in a bold attempt to figure things out. Both writers write self-reflectively, in a torrential way. What are the shining rocks in that stream?

Miller is worth reading, thanks for asking, but he is crass and coarse. His philosophical musings favour vitriol, and don’t exactly swing. The forthright determination to lay it all out produces some keen insights and acerbic bite along with pompous detritus. He’s ready to wring it all out.

In contrast, Kerouac seems almost innocent. Kerouac lacks Miller’s world-weariness; he believes the kicks are still there, even as semi-colons appear. Where Kerouac welcomes the choices of the world, Miller infatuates in priapic devastation. I detect no sweetness in Miller’s work, tho brave and chilling,  whereas Kerouac’s sweetness reproves Miller’s taut and clumsy hedgerows.

The connections are interesting: Anaïs Nin, Laurence Durrell, the boho wanderers and dilettantes in the pre post war years, meeting an angry, fluttering, and almost round world. We can only be forgiving as we read. I am just the nobody reader who has chosen this task.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

On The Road and Dharma Bums

 Jack Kerouac’s recklessness or carelessness interests me. This attitude manifests in two ways: in his writing, and in his actions and life choices. Both cases lead to a cloudy charisma, simultaneously inspired and loutish.

I am unsure what I knew of Kerouac when I was a teenager, I surely hadn’t read him. I can see the attraction for young minds, the sense of freedom. As a writer, words poured out for him. In sooth, he sometimes wrote awkwardly. That awkwardness was a grace. 

Kerouac trusted the energy of writing and kept the internal editor at bay. He doesn’t just outpour. He carefully reads the Zen script of the moment. He releases into that, not literature, not career. He is stalwart that way. This is important because typing fast supplies no rare glory. The sloppiness and abrupt oddity of his prose offers testament of singular integrity. 

As a naive teen writer, I moved to the typewriter soon after starting to write for myself. I didn’t know how to type but it made the writing act more serious for me. When I eventually learned to use all my fingers, the act of writing quickly (and legibly) became possible. I realized that I needed to outrun the internal editor that pressed me to overthink. I had no idea what to write, only that I wanted to. Kerouac probably had a clearer mission from the start.

T S Eliot’s constructions, for instance, seem very thought out in comparison to Kerouac’s methods. I don’t see Eliot hitchhiking across the country with ten salami sandwiches in his pack thinking this is a good idea. Kerouac committed himself to being on the edge of something happening.

Those passages where Kerouac writes of his travels (and travails) ring with energy. He proceeds with a romantic vision but endures the realities. A compelling wonder instills his words. However literally accurate his accounts are—mayhap his memory is of Proustian order—they proceed with cork-on-water determination. Thru thick and thin. Those long, waiting stretches and nowhere near home, and he just awaits the next and next destination.

Neal Cassady hardly appears in The Dharma Bums, and is hidden by the name Cody Pomeray whereas he stands central to the On The Road narrative. I will continue believing that the pseudonyms Kerouac had to use create a perplexing distance between Kerouac the writer and those of which he writes. My original version of On the Road enjoys greater immediacy of characters as Kerouac writes directly to the real name.

Cassady, Kerouac’s angel, is not quite lovable. Whatever clinical description that might be made, he is an original perplexity. Forces drive him and Kerouac follows in awe. The difference between Ryder/Snyder and Pomeray/Cassady shows in Kerouac’s reaction to each. Snyder offers a calm while Cassady offers ruction, however divine. Kerouac seems envious of Snyder’s determined path. Cassady leaves Kerouac in tantalized delectation.

The women in these two books barely survive scrutiny. They seem mostly tinny voices distracting men from enviable impulse. Kerouac the character remarks that friend and fellow traveler Al Hinkle got married for carfare, which indeed is the gist of it.

I don’t want to read Kerouac as a map to self-destruction tho I gather his latter years were less than glorious. In On The Road his peregrinations seem like a path inchoate. In The Dharma Bums he seems desperate to find the Zen path. But he was guided by a centripetal force from which he could not free himself. The romanticized account overwhelmed the living sparks.

Monday, December 26, 2022

When The Mahabharata Becomes Boring

The Mahabharata goes slightly less a-pace. I slipped off reading other things. The war is over for the Pandava’s, they have their kingdom again. Yudhisthira now feels the weight of kingly responsibility. He goes to his uncle Bhishma for advice. Bhishma fought for the Kaurava’s out of a sense of duty that doesn’t add up for me. Well there you are. His lessons for Yudhisthira bring Confucius to mind, not that I claim any breadth to that statement. Class distinctions stand inviolable. Warriors are warriors, Brahmins are Brahmins. Caste is understood as a sanctity. It is hard to wrap around this from my vantage. It reads like the bland list of advice that Polonius gives. I believe more action awaits, this part drags.