Monday, July 31, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“WHITE TRASH – The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg (Atlantic Books / Allen and Unwin, $NZ45)

One of my sons used to relate with amusement the opinions of some American students, who were in the same History class as he at university. No matter how much evidence was presented to them, they refused to believe that the United States had ever participated in imperialism in the age when empire-building was common among European nations. The British, the French, the Dutch and others built empires, they thought, but the democratic USA wasn’t part of this perfidious business. Somehow they failed to recognise as acts of imperialism the progressive taking of Native American territory, the annexation of half of Mexico in the 1840s, the Spanish-American War, the capture of Puerto Rico and Guam, turning the Philippines and Cuba into client states and the forcible expropriation of Central American territory to build the Panama Canal.

Apparently, because these acts were American, they were not imperialism.

This is an example of the phenomenon of national “exceptionalism” – the idea that somehow a country is exempt from the social pressures and movements that activate other countries. I’m not so crass as to think that only Americans suffer from this delusion. When I tutored German history at university, I often heard of the German belief in the “Sonderweg” (“special way”) that their country had become unified. Some Germans apparently forgot that the unification of any country has its own unique features and is therefore as “special” as Germany is.

A foolish American belief in “exceptionalism” with regard to imperialism is less pervasive, however, than the foolish American belief that the USA is a classless society. Here again there is “exceptionalism”. The USA, goes the belief, was founded on democratic principles. All its citizens are equal and have the same rights. There is no hereditary ruler or aristocracy. Sure, there are differences in wealth, but anybody who works hard can make it to the top – “log cabin to White House” – so there are no real class differences. The USA is a meritocracy.

If Nancy Isenberg’s large (300 big pages, plus over 100 pages of notes, references and index) book White Trash has any mission, it is to shatter this illusion. By focusing on the most deprived, poorest and least educated whites in the USA (yes, there are deprived blacks, but they are not the focus of this narrative), Isenberg wants to show that there has always been an underclass in the USA, and that claims to “classlessness” are mere rhetoric. “Throughout its history”, she says in her preface, “the United States has always had a class system. It is not only directed by the top 1 per cent and supported by a contented middle class. We can no longer ignore the stagnant, expendable bottom layers of society in explaining the national identity.” (Preface, p.xv). In the modern context, Republicans are more likely to condemn the poor for being idle and dependent but, says Isenberg, Democrats have their own condescension: “Democrats, in general, endorse the liberal idea of meritocracy, in which talent is rewarded through the acquisition of earned academic credentials. Yet this dream is not possible for all Americans. Only 30% of Americans today graduate college, which means the majority does not imagine this path up the social ladder is a ticket to success.” (2017 Preface p.xxvii).

So she launches into the long history of “white trash”, whose origins predate the invention of the USA. In the 17th century, colonising England attempted to off-load many of its poorest classes as indentured labour to the wealthy colonists and plantation owners.  They were already known as “lubbers”, “rubbers”, “clay-eaters” and “crackers” before 13 colonies asserted that they were now the United States of America. “First known as ‘waste people’, and later ‘white trash’, marginalised Americans were stigmatised for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children – the sense of uplift on which the American dream was predicated.” (Preface, p.xv)

In both the New England (Puritan) colonies and the Virginian (tobacco-growing plantation) colonies, there was a rigid social hierarchy and many landless indentured labourers. Of the Puritan colonies Isenberg writes: “By the 1630s, New Englanders reinvented a hierarchical society of ‘stations’,  from ruling elite to household servants. In their number were plenty of poor boys, meant for exploitation. Some were religious, but they were in the minority among the waves of migrants that followed [the first few ships]. The elites owned Indian and African slaves, but the population they most exploited were their child labourers.” (Introduction, p.10)

Men who are now considered to represent the Enlightenment took it for granted that any society settled in American had to have social inequalities. John Locke (Chapter 2) wrote a constitution for the Carolinas which showed an essentially feudal mindset. Tenants of landowners, in Locke’s Utopia, were to be allowed no land. They and their descendants would be bound to the landowner’s land. Only thus would there be social stability.

The men who founded the American Republic had many of the same attitudes. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine (Chapter 3) both exalted the hard-working, industrious and philoprogenitive middle class, who they believed would create a new sort of society in America. They spoke of the benefits of industry, trade and commerce while pretending that social class didn’t exist. Neither of them had anything to say about slavery or about the huge classes of servants and indentured labourers. Indeed their words for the young republic’s poor were most often words of contempt. They were idle, a rabble etc.

In response to Thomas Paine’s view that America was to be the home of able, hardworking men and women, Isenberg tartly remarks: “This overly sanguine portrait cleaned up class and ignored what was unpleasant to look at. Indentured servitude and convict labour were still very much in evidence as the Revolution neared, and slavery was a fact of life. Philadelphia had a slave auction outside the London Coffee House, at the centre of the town on Front and Market Streets, which was directly across from Paine’s lodgings. In Common Sense, the propagandist mentioned ‘Negroes’ and ‘Indians’ solely to discredit them for being mindless pawns of the British, when they were incited to harass and kill white Americans and undermine the worthy cause of independence…. Civilized America was being pitted against the barbarous hordes set upon them by the ‘hellish’ power of London.” (Chapter 3, p.82)

A major framer of the American constitution was equally limited in his views. Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 4) had the habits of thought of the wealthy Virginian gentleman and plantation-owner that he was. His aim was to create an agrarian republic based on trade in agricultural produce, but headed by a “natural” aristocracy, which he believed would arise by its own talent. In effect, he wanted to perpetuate a squirearchy based on land ownership and he refused to recognise that there was an underclass, even if he did often speak of “rubbish people”. Notes Isenberg:

The question that Jefferson never answered was this: What happened to those who were not part of the talented elite? How would one describe the ‘concourse of breeders’ living on the bottom layer of society? No matter how one finessed it, rubbish produced more rubbish, even if a select few might be salvaged. If the fortuitous breeders naturally rose up the social ladder, the unfortunate, the degenerate, remained mired in the morass of meaner sorts.” (Chapter 4, p.102)

There were many “squatters” and “crackers” on the pre- and post-Revolutionary “frontier” – that is, the margin where British (and later American) territory met country occupied by “Indians”.  Many of the founders of the republic, and many of the middle classes, regarded these people as landless scum but, just as the British had recruited vagrants for their armies, their descendants the Americans used these “frontier” people to fight Indians and break open the land for later settlement. There was also (Chapter 5) the growing awareness that the votes of the “squatters” and “crackers” could be solicited in elections. The ephemeral figure of Davy Crockett gave the frontiersmen an heroic image. But the first person to appeal systematically to the underclass was Andrew Jackson, the bellicose, profoundly racist military man. Framing himself as the champion of the frontiersmen and uncouth rural lower classes, Jackson made it to the White House. But in the end, he too saw the lower classes as not being part of the political nation, given that he never moved to enlarge (manhood) suffrage and kept to a high property qualification for voting.

As she approaches chapters concerning the American Civil War, Isenberg  tends to concentrate more and more on the American South. The term “poor white trash” was already in circulation early in the 19th century, but it became a widespread usage in the years just before the civil war. As Isenberg tells it (Chapter 6), anti-slavery (abolitionist) Northerners saw the South’s poor white underclass as enfeebled because the institution of slavery had denied them the opportunity to labour honestly. Isenberg at this point surprises me by pointing out that the “Free Soil” movement, which wanted slavery not to be extended beyond the existing “frontier”, also wanted newly-settled territories to segregate white from black, so that poor whites would not drift into habits of idleness.  Meanwhile, the pro-slavery leaders of the South saw their white underclass as the products of bad biology. Even if nobody yet knew about genetics, there were already widespread theories of poor biological inheritance. This allowed the slave-owning gentry to ignore the issue of class, and to believe that the illiterate, uncouth whites among them simply had the wrong ancestors.

In the Confederate South, however, quite apart from the issue of slavery, there were huge class differentials between whites with regard to the prosecution of the war. (Chapter 7) Plantation owners with more than 20 slaves were exempted from military service. Wealthier men were allowed to send substitutes off to fight. This meant that the Confederacy relied on mass conscription of poor non-slave-owning whites, many of whom felt no loyalty to the Confederacy. This really was, as the poorer soldiers said, “the rich man’s war but the poor man’s fight”. The result was a very high rate of desertions and, in effect, a class war. As the war dragged on, Confederate posses were sent out to round up some of the more than 100,000 deserters, many of whom hid out in swamps and wasteland. As often as not, the deserters fought them off. Says Isenberg:

Wars in general, and civil wars to a greater degree, have the effect of exacerbating class tensions, because the sacrifices of war are always distributed unequally, and the poor are hit hardest. North and South had staked so much on their class-based definitions of nationhood that it is no exaggeration to say that in the grand scheme of things, Union and Confederate leaders saw the war as a clash of class systems wherein the superior system would reign triumphant.”  (Chapter 7, p.173)

It was after the civil war that the plague of eugenics swept America. Always seeking ways to “explain” why there was a deprived underclass without having to examine the unequal economic basis of society, and leaning on social Darwinism, academics and those in positions of power hit on eugenics. The “poor white trash” must be the result of poor breeding. Many who believed this came from the North. After the civil war, Freedmen’s Bureaux were set up in the South by the federal government to assist former slaves in establishing themselves in business or farming. But they also offered assistance to poor landless whites. Again and again, bureau men discovered that black freedmen were more industrious, more literate and more willing to work  than were the “white trash”. Very soon “They invoked a vocabulary that highlighted unnatural breeding, unfit governance, and the degenerate nature of the worst stocks. At the centre of the argument was the struggle that pitted poor whites against freed slaves.” (Chapter 8, p.176)

The eugenicists had a number of plans – forced sterilisation and castration; quarantining of the “unfit”; even systematic killing of the “unfit”. These ideas were mainstream.  As Isenberg notes; “Such proposals were not merely fringe ideas. By 1931, twenty-seven states had sterilisation laws on their books, along with an unwieldy thirty-four categories delineating the kind of people who might be subject to the surgical procedure. ….” (Chapter 8, p.195) As late as 1927, the much-respected justice Oliver Wendell Holmes endorsed compulsory sterilisation in the case of Burke vs. Bell (p.205). It is no accident that it was when eugenics was still mainstream that novels by William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell began to perpetuate the stereotype of slobbering, degenerate, white trash with their overlarge families of idiot children and uncontrollable sexual lusts. It was much easier to deny people decent schooling and incomes when you could say they were subhuman anyway.

When Isenberg gets to the Great Depression after 1929, she notes that class consciousness was suddenly given a boost as millions of middle-class and working-class people were thrown out of work and realised how precarious their class status had been. The white underclass in the South expanded as “…the South’s one-crop system and ‘rural slum areas’ in the countryside… guaranteed the pernicious cycle of poor white and black sharecroppers’ poverty from one generation to the next. Two-thirds of the nation’s tenant farmers were in the South, and two-thirds were white. These facts cannot be overstated. The agricultural distress of the Depression exposed the South’s long-standing dependence on sub-marginal land and sub-marginal farmers.” (Chapter 9, p.215) This was the world of Steinbeck’s Okies and Arkies and The Grapes of Wrath. Yet even in these conditions, many leading Southern politicians clung to the idea that poverty was simply the result of sloth. Hence there was sometimes in the South resistance to New Deal programmes that would have provided some social uplift. This was at the time that journalists – and especially photo-journalists – were documenting the South’s rural white poverty and esposing wide class divisions.

When Isenberg comes to the 1940s and 1950s (Chapter 10), she switches to a concern for media interpretations of “white trash” and gets into the related (and mainly Southern) phenomenon of trailer parks and “trailer trash”. She also notes the extreme shock that the ending of racial segregation was to poor whtes, focusing on the events in Little Rock in 1957. And it is only at this point that she gives some thought to the separate, but related, topic of hillbillies. Reaching the near past and the present (Chapters 11 and 12), Isenberg notes the rise of identity politics and hence the rise of “white trash” nostalgia and “white trash” pride. But there was still much middle-class condescension, as in James Dickey’s novel (and film) Deliverance, which harked back to the days of eugenics with its stereotypes of inbred, moronic white trash.

By the time we get to these chapters, Isenberg surrenders much of her detailed social analysis and – something in the manner of post-modernists – becomes more concerned with appearances and perception than with quantifiable facts. So there are detailed accounts of the appeal of Elvis Presley or of the Southern good o’ boy President Jimmy Carter and of his loudmouth slob brother Billy Carter. And there are wry pages on Dolly Parton and the wealthy (and fraudulent) preacher Jimmy Bakker and his tacky wife Tammy Fae and how they represent the “trailer trash” ethos almost driven to high camp. And there are notes on how “Slick Willie” Bill Clinton won the White House partly by manipulating his supposed “poor Southern white boy” appeal; and how Sarah Palin played to a similar audience. Indeed after all these commentaries and character profiles, Isenberg returns to sober class analysis only in the very last paragraph of Chapter 12 (p. 309).

So to her Epilogue, which stridently returns to her key theme – that America is not exceptional, does have a class structure and has always had an ignored white underclass – the “white trash” of the title. She sums up much of their historical plight thus:

They are blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning, they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defctive breed. Sexual deviance? That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilisation, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in the town has been lost. We think of the left-behind groups as extinct, and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility. But today’s trailer trash are merely yesterday’s vagrants on wheels, and updated version of Okies in jalopies and Florida crackers in their carts.” (Epilogue, p.320)

            After all this, let me make it clear that I do not disagree with Isenberg’s essential thesis. In fact a big part of me wants to say that Isenberg is stating the bleeding obvious. Most informed and thinking Americans are fully aware that they live in a class-based society – as does every other human being on the planet. Essentially, rhetoric about “classlessness” is there for public orations and the cheesiest of high school civics courses. Perhaps the American “exceptionalism” is merely the fact that the lowest stratum of their society is so overtly and so aggressively ridiculed.

And here I take issue with one of Isenberg’s assertions. She speaks of middle-class condescension towards the white poor, and notes Republicans are fond of preaching the value of hard work as a means of social improvement rather than government assistance to the impoverished. But Isenberg could have made it clear that the “liberal” – and presumably Democrat-voting - urbanites are just as prone to ridiculing the “poor white trash”. Look at any late night New York satire show to see what I mean. While I’m nitpicking, I should also note that while she (quite rightly) condemns the eugenics movement, Isenberg neatly sidesteps its relationship with the push for birth control and ultimately abortion, which Isenberg clearly supports. Let’s remember that Margaret Sanger, in effect the founder of Planned Parenthood, and her colleagues were ardent eugenicists who hoped that birth control would wipe out the “unfit”, and limit the number of blacks in America, to ensure the dominance of white middle-class people who were having fewer children. My point here is that Isenberg cherry-picks her cast of characters.

One final point. In her second preface, Isenberg notes The book was originally published in the middle of the contentious 2016 presidential election season.” (2017 Preface p.xix) The impetus to write it may have come from her fears about the looming presidency of Donald Trump and the populist appeals he made. But as it happens, the book makes no further mention of Trump and his presumed fan base.

I am worried by the way White Trash wobbles in some chapters away from the social analysis that is given elsewhere; and I am not as amazed as some American reviewers seem to have been by the revelation that America does have social classes. But, messy and rambling though it is in structure, this book does give much food for thought and it is certainly a repository of many interesting anecdotes and insights.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“LA FAUTE DE L’ABBE MOURET” by Emile Zola (first published in 1875)

            You may or may not recall that I have a number of times on this blog referred to my long-term project of reading, in the original French, all twenty of the Rougon-Macquart series of novels by Emile Zola (1840-1902). I am still far from achieving this goal. So far I have presented you with postings on La Fortune des Rougon and La Curee and Le Ventre de Paris and La Conquete de Plassans and Son Excellence Eugene Rougon. As a proponent of determinist Naturalism and an atheist, Zola was a vigorous anti-clerical who spilt much ink condemning and attacking the Catholic Church. He was free to do this as he was writing early in Third Republic, but his novels cover the years of Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852-70), when the church had more official protection from the state. The two novels in the Rougon-Macquart series in which Zola directly attacks the church are La Conquete de Plassans, which deals with the church’s political power; and La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret.

La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret is structured into three long parts. Characters from La Conquete de Plassans recur in La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret, but I will not bother you with connections between the two novels as I spin one of my verbose synopses.

In the first part, Serge Mouret is the young (25-year-old) parish priest of the Provencal village of Les Artaud. He lives at the presbytery with his mentally-retarded younger sister Desiree, who is preoccupied with looking after pet animals, and with the bustling old housekeeper La Teuse. The whole of the first part of the novel takes place on one spring day (in May). Serge Mouret says the morning mass and breakfasts and there is chatter with La Teuse who does not like Desiree being allowed to let her pets run about near the church. They are visited by the stern Christian Brother Le Frere Archangias, who has more of the earthy peasant zeal in him than Serge does. Archangias vigorously chastises the boy Vincent who served mass but who skips classes by playing around in the bushes near the cemetery. They discuss the habits of the local peasants – for the village of Les Artaud seems to be made up exclusively of peasant families related to each other. Archangias says the peasant boy Fortune Brichet has got the girl Rosalie pregnant but Rosalie’s father won’t let them get married. Reluctantly Serge, who finds sexual matters repugnant, sets off to persuade the families to save the girl’s honour by letting Fortune and Serge marry. He confronts Fortune’s family first, but Fortune says it’s not his fault that they’re not marrying. It’s the fault of Rosalie’s father the rich peasant Bambousse, who thinks Fortune’s family are beneath him. So Serge goes and confronts Bambousse, but he says he’s not going to send his daughter off to marry such lowly fortune-hunters. Besides, why should he lose a good farm-worker like his daughter? And who said the baby would live anyway?

The priest is walking along disconsolate from these discouraging and immoral replies when a coach draws up. In it is his cousin Dr.Pascal Rougon, who is going to visit the elderly eccentric Jeanbernat. He invites the priest to come with him. So Dr Pascal and Fr Serge Mouret visit Jeanbernat’s estate, which is in effect a run-down stately home where Jeanbernat lives a solitary life. Jeanbernat, having read all the work of the philosophes in the library, is a convinced atheist, is amused by the presence of the priest, and loudly declares the non-existence of God. Fr Serge would dispute this with him, but at this juncture in bursts Jeanbernat’s 16-year-old wild child of a daughter Albine, out of the wild overgrowth around the house that is her natural environment. She is sun-bronzed and vigorous and skips and hops like an animal, and when Pascal’s coach is returning to the village she cheerfully chases behind it for some distance….

Back at the presbytery, Serge is castigated by the housekeeper for being late for lunch. Le Frere Archangias  adopts a pragmatic tone towards the non-marriage of the pregnant girl, saying it’s understandable that peasants protect their property, but also seeing the peasants as irredeemably immoral. Fr.Serge is curiously disturbed, and cannot understand why. As the day closes, he prays for hours before the statue of the Virgin, and then he retires to bed as the moonlight blazes. The first part of the novel ends with three long chapters in which we hear of Serge’s lifelong adoration of the Blessed Virgin, who was seen by him first as a mother, then as a playmate and friend and now as some sort of bride. We are told of his seminary training – how, even when compared to other seminarians, he was noted for his purity, and how the only time he was profoundly embarrassed was when he had to read a theological manual on how to deal with the 6th. Commandment in the confessional. Finally, he dimly realizes that he has been sexually stirred [presumably by Albine, but this is not yet made explicit] and so he prays to the Virgin that his virility and sexual potency be taken away and that in effect he will become a eunuch.

            Unlike Part One, Part Two reads like a fantasy or daydream. For the whole of this second part of the novel, the only two characters to appear are Serge and Albine. Without any explanation or transition for the first part, Serge wakes up in a bed on the estate Le Paradou, being looked after by Albine. Apparently he has been delirious and sick for a long time and she has been nursing him. The whole of Part Two is taken up with their idyllic relationship. They ramble through the woods. There are long descriptions and lists of trees. They ramble through the undergrowth. There are long descriptions and lists of flowers and animals. The image of the Garden of Eden is built up and becomes explicit in the final chapters of this part. They are Adam and Eve in complete innocence before the Fall. As Serge and Albine grow closer, Zola repeatedly emphasises that their love is pure and chaste. In the decaying mansion that is Albine’s home there are decaying and flaking murals [perhaps from the 18th century] of Watteau-ish erotic scenes of shepherdesses and fauns and the like. Serge and Albine laugh at such images like innocent children, but later they come to fear them and find them distasteful as their own genuine, natural and non-artificial love grows. Albine says that somewhere in the estate there is a tree and clearing where she has found real peace. On their last ramble, Nature, in the form of friendly caressing trees and animal calls, leads them to the clearing. And here at last they find real peace and oneness and Serge finds manhood in his adoration of Albine and in the consummation of the sexual act… and at once they come to a breach in the wall through which the village of Les Artaud can be seen and Serge is reminded of the life he had forgotten and Albine, tearfully, realizes she is naked and they attempt to hide their nakedness with leaves. But Brother Archangias sees them and calls to Serge to quit this abomination of bodily lust.

            In Part Three of the novel, Serge is once again the village priest and this part opens with him celebrating the nuptial mass of the peasants Fortune and Rosalie, who has had her baby despite her father’s best efforts to get rid of it. Peasant girls snicker at the back of the church in this morning mass when Serge speaks the traditional words of advice to the married couple. After the hole-and-corner wedding is over, Serge is once again talking to Desiree, who says she saw a bull servicing a cow and how natural it was and how that’s how babies are made. Serge is sick and sad at his prayers. La Teuse rebukes him for not letting her look after him when he was sick, and for the first time we learn that it was his cousin Dr Pascal who recommended that he go to Le Paradou for his cure and to get away from the oppressive atmosphere of the presbytery where the religious images were giving him hallucinations. La Teuse hints that she understands he has been looked after by another woman and has had an affair with her; and she tells the story of a fallen priest who was assigned to this village after his disgrace. She advises Serge not to be so proud. We all sin.

But Serge says he will find the strength to cure himself.

Without the help of tradespeople, he throws himself into redecorating the church. Against the wishes of Frere Archangias, Serge goes to bless the bedroom of the peasant couple. On the road Serge and Archangias meet 80-year-old Jeanbernat, who urges Serge to come back to Albine, who is pining for him. Archangias denounces Jeanbernat as the son of the Devil and curses him and the two have a fight on the road. Serge tells Jeanberat to tell Albine to pray for salvation. Jeanbernat walks away. The brother and the priest go to the peasants’ home and perform the perfunctory blessing….

Back at the church, we learn that Serge has now switched his devotion from the Blessed Virgin to the crucified Jesus, and sees himself as a martyred figure wearing a crown of thorns. Dr Pascal comes to see him and likewise urges Serge to go to Albine. He refuses. When Desiree is in the graveyard, collecting food for her pet rabbits, she meets Albine, who has come down to see Serge. Desiree artlessly says she cannot see him while he is taking the catechism class, but she takes him to her pets, who are breathing out their animal sensuality.

Albine goes into the church when Serge’s class has gone and we have the big confrontation scene between them. Albine begs him to come back to her, reminding him of the paths they walked and the flowers and plants and delightful nature that they loved. In contrast to this Serge (or rather Zola) sets up the Way of the Cross, taking Albine around the images of Jesus’ suffering and saying that this is more important to him than all of nature and that the world may perish so long as souls are saved. He ushers her out of the church, she saying that she will continue to wait for him where there is a breach in the wall at Paradou. Yet when she has gone, Serge suffers a strange reversal. At first he thinks of the triumph of the church in the late evening sun and of himself at the centre of it; but then he suddenly has the feeling that God really doesn’t exist and he has a vision of the Earth rising up and swallowing Heaven and the church being undermined by the roots of growing plants. His sister Desiree calls him into the presbytery.

Serge broods as La Teuse and Frere Archangias play cards.

Secretly he decides that he will go to Albine after all. For days he puts his resolve off until at last he walks up to the breach in the wall at Paradou (guarded by a sleeping Archangias) and rejoins the waiting Albine. They walk through he places they used to love, with Albine inciting Serge to relive their love. He says he wants to love her, but he feels emotionally dead, and even at the Tree of Life that was their special tree, he is not aroused. And finally she senses that he is dead to her appeals and tells him to go away. He goes.

Back at the church, he gives thanks to God that he has at last overcome the call of the flesh. And Albine gathers flowers from her wild garden and arranges them around her and lies down and dies. [Given this obviously contrived symbolic scene, the novel later makes a half-hearted attempt to explain that the odour of flowers asphyxiated her.]

In a fury, some days later, Dr Pascal comes to the presbytery and explains that Albine was pregnant. The doctor explains to Jeanbernat that he is not allowed to bury her in his garden. The priest must do it. So it is l’Abbe Mouret who conducts Albine’s funeral service, at which Jeanbernat appears and cuts off one of Frere Archangias’ ears as he promised he would when they fought. And as the body is being lowered the animals break out with a braying and Desiree rushes in to explain that the cow has just had a calf.

I hope that in giving you the “plot” of this novel in such exhaustive detail, I have made clear not only what Zola’s intentions were, but how badly the novel falls down in its own dead-obvious symbolism.

The set-up of the novel in the first section is neatly schematic. Zola contrasts bustling, burgeoning nature (on this one spring day) with the virginal and repressed priest. The flowers are blooming. Desiree is playing with her baby animals. The unmarried peasant girl is pregnant. Albine is running around bare-legged in the overgrown estate. And the priest isn’t part of any of it. Zola does suggest (in the seminary flashback) that l’Abbe Mouret is extreme in his virginity, even by the standards of his fellow-priests. The “natural” girl Desiree, with her mental retardation and love of animals is by implication the companion image of Serge, who is mentally backward in another way. This ties in with Zola’s determinist philosophy of the inherited biological weaknesses of families, as we have seen insanity in his depiction of the Mourets in the preceding novel La Conquete de Plassans.

            The wild child Albine is, of course, a fantasy figure.

The second part of the novel is a sustained Garden-of-Eden fantasy, so much so that one could almost interpret it as the priest’s suppressed erotic dreams. But the implication and message are clear. L’Abbe Mouret is virginal and childlike because he is not a real man, and he will only find real manhood in sexual intercourse. His worship of the Virgin Mary is simply sex-gone-bad. What confounds this intended message somewhat is that Zola has had to leap out of what is more-or-less realism into fantasy in order to preach it. Would the novel have been stronger if he had stuck closer to his usual naturalist method and shown the priest having an affair with a credible woman, living and moving in society, rather than with a symbolic woman in an idyllic Eden? After all, Paradou is Eden, complete with angel with flaming sword to expel Adam. Zola’s second criticism of clerical celibacy is the notion, expressed in the church-set confrontation of Serge and Albine in Part Three, that asceticism and denial are in themselves sensuous responses to the world. Finally, even when Serge would go back to Albine, he is in effect impotent. His upbringing has robbed him of his manhood.

            The symbolism is laid on so heavily that it kills the novel stone dead, although there are some moments of real psychological insight. Odd, however, how Zola has to lift himself out of the world of real men and women to make the case for sensuality. If anti-clericalism, and especially a critique of the celibacy of Catholic priests, is your thing, then I think you might find a more compelling novel, with a more credible female lead character, in George Moore’s TheLake.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Long ago on this blog (February 2014, to be precise) I wrote a piece called Leo Hates Me, which set out how I feel about cats. I admitted that I have always had a pet cat, that I admire the grace and beauty of cats, and that I enjoy the illusion of companionship they give, even if my rational brain tells me that no cat would stick around for long if it were not fed.
I love sharing the universe with cats, as I love sharing it with other species. The variety of the animal kingdom gives me great delight.
But I made it very clear that cats are not human beings and therefore should not be anthropomorphised by the sentimental. A cat is a cat. A dog is a dog. And a human being is a human being. We reach our own fullness as human beings only in the way we react to, and interrelate with, our own kind.
Recently, a dog-lover posted on Facebook an article written by a psychiatrist about what a great and enriching thing it was to have a “deep and lasting relationship” with an animal.
I shuddered, as I always do when I see such tosh.
I do not believe in inflicting pain on animals. I believe in treating animals with respect and – as much as we can – allowing them to live their lives. But I do not confuse any relationship with an animal (short of bestiality) as real intimacy. To spell out the bleeding obvious, the cat or the dog has a different brain structure and capacity from the human being, does not see the universe as human beings do, does not interpret the universe as human beings do, and does not feel what human beings feel. (Please note, dear carper, that I did not say the animal does not think or feel – I said it does not do these things as a human being does.)
Of course I can see what a great comfort it is to children, and to the old and infirm, to have what passes for a “relationship” with a pet animal. I know that there are thousands of pensioners and widows who derive great joy from the company of Puss or Rover, and there’s no harm in that. I am also aware that studies have shown what pleasure the chronically ill take in pets. Should my time come to be bedridden or heading for death, I would be delighted to have a comforting cat purring on my bedspread as I stroked her or him.
Not for the first time, however, I am forced to note that dog-lovers tend to be most prone to anthropomorphising sentimentality about their pets, perhaps because dogs (unlike cats) tend to be obedient, servile and order-obeying creatures –and can therefore delude their owners into thinking that they are in synch with them.  One neurotic of my ken refers to her pets dogs as “my little people”, and seems to think they really are.
And here comes my real beef in these matters.
To upgrade animals as our emotional equals always tends towards degrading the unique inportance of human beings. Animals as a substitute for human intimacy easily curdles into regarding other human beings as only animals.
I think of one devoted dog-lover (and vegetarian) who had a “deep and lasting relationship” with a dog, but wasn’t so hot with human beings.
Yes, for many years Adolf really did love his Blondi.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE ONES WHO KEEP QUIET” by David Howard (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “AMBIENT TERROR” by Victor Billot (Limetone Singularity Media, Dunedin $NZ19:99)

I approach a new colletion of poems by David Howard with something like excitement. Back in August 2012, I had the privilege of reviewing David Howard’s In-Complete Poems for Landfall Review on Line. That large collection was the poet’s complete poems up to that date. The poet (who at the time was 53) called it “in-complete” because he knew full well that a poet’s works are “complete” only when the poet is dead. I noted the consistency of many of Howard’s preoccupations – sex, cultural dislocation and religious enquiry – from poetry he wrote in his twenties to poems he was writing in middle age. While there was a certain opaqueness to the poet’s earlier work, there was in his more mature poems intellectual robustness, wide cultural reference and what is for some poets now a lost art – the sheer craftsmanship of rhythm, rhyme and stanzaic form. Particularly I praised Howard’s ability to write long poems that cohered as ongoing argument and observation.

How many poets now can really write long-form poems, as opposed to the “concept albums” (short poems arranged around a theme) that sometimes seem to dominate the poetry market?

All Howard’s skills are on display in his latest volume The Ones Who Keep Quiet. The blurb helpfully reminds us that “the ones who keep quiet” are the dead, but we would soon infer this from the collection’s contents. ALL the longer poems in this collection are, in effect, dialogues with the dead. All are portraits or reveries of either the dead or of the worldviews of past ages. Death hangs over them. God flashes through them in small shards, not fully revealed but piquing the quest of the spiritual (but undecided) poet. It is quite clear that David Howard has spent many years working on this collection – through a Burns Fellowship and three other residencies, including one in Prague. It should also be clear that the poet knows the full irony of his chosen title. The dead may keep quiet in a literal sense, but they still shape us, buzz in our minds and memories and force us to see the roots of our culture.

Let’s look at this volume’s longer poems in order of appearance.

The Ones Who Keep Quiet opens with the12 pages of “The Ghost of James Williamson”. It is a ruminative poem split in two. The first part is the monologue of the 19th century trader and businessman James Williamson himself. The second part is a monologue of….who? Or what? The ghost of Williamson or the poet? For the second part references the present age and the art exhibition for which this poem was written. There is here once again a long wrestle with God – does he or does he not exist or is he our plaything? And what of the afterlife and the fate of the dead? The very last line of this sequence is bathetic – perhaps intentionally so. Perhaps the narrator is an unreliable narrator. But there is the sure and certain weight of the past and the awareness that a maker of this country (even if a flawed one like Williamson) is in part the maker of us and of our environment. As always, this poet is a determined craftsman, forming the whole of “The Ghost of James Williamson” out of six-line stanzas with the rhyming scheme abc-cba

Though it is shorter, the poem “The Speak House” (ten pages) is built on a larger scale. Dense with literary and historical alusions [there are four pages explaining them at the end of the volume] “The Speak House” situates itself in the two last two hours of Robert Louis Stevenson’s consciousness as he faces his relatively youthful death in Samoa. Stevenson remembers, regrets, fears, exults – there are here the smells and sights of the Pacific island, but also those of Stevenson’s unco dour childhood in Edinburgh. There is much reflection on the inadequacy [or deadening effects] of words (as there is in “The Ghost of James Williamson”). There is a strong sense of God, but of God as shattered into different creeds and in the impact of Europeans upon the Pacific. This is a remarkably rich and evocative poem as its rolls from one reflection to another through its five-lined stanzas.

I am in two minds about “The Mica Pavilion” a  12 page poetic drama. It is moonlit and it has echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice. In 19th century Otago, as the (Chinese) moon goddess directs them and the (Maori) goddess of death confronts them, a Chinese miner woos a Maori woman against her father’s wishes. As in “The Speak House”, there is a sense of the fuidity and cultural formation of God; and the different conceptions of heaven and hell that are seen when diverse cultures meet. But is the poem in the end guilty of chinoiserie? Is this a European fantasy of two alien cultures? Read it and decide.

I feel a curious connection with the seven pages of Howard’s “Prague Casebook”. This is a poem about  the New Zealand academic (suspected by some of being a spy) Ian Milner, who spent some of the Cold War years in what was then Communist Prague. In my own first collection The Little Enemy (2011), I wrote a poem about Milner called “The Student of Prague”. I interpreted the man as a self-justifying ideologue who knew he had taken a wrong turn but was too proud to admit it. I think Howard’s interpretation of Milner in “Prague Casebook” is rather more forgiving than mine; but even so, the first section of Milner’s sickbed reveries comes through as the sophistry of one who hides behind tautology and musings on the power of language – but beween two musings by Milner, Howard sandwiches some of the unpleasant realities of the Communist state wherein Milner chose to live. Frankly, I think Howard is taking Milner down in a rather more subtle way than I did. Again I note the craftsmanlike care with which Howard presents Milner’s thought in 4-line stanzas of crossed rhymes.

The last of the five long poems that make up the bulk of this collection is the eighteen pages of “Because Love is Something Left”, about the nineteenth century naturalist and taxidermist Andreas Reishek in New Zealand. Most impressive is the central  section of this sequence entitled “apostrophe”, again written in abc-cba rhymed stanzas, expanding on the central image of a taxidermist as one who seeks perfection by trying to stop time and flux.

I would warn readers of any of these poems that David Howard’s work has to be read slowly and carefully. His poems are not “raves”. They are carefully structured and make demands upon the reader’s cultural capital. How easily can you recognise all those literary and historic allusions?

I would fail to present a clear view of The Ones Who Keep Quiet if I did not note that, while five long poems dominate the volume, there are many shorter lyrics.

“The World of Letters” is like an acount of the insufficiency of words to capture (or replicate) lived experience. “The Vanishing Line” is in effect a series of aphorisms, such as  “each perception is private, essential, isolating / like a poem.”  Or “A love song is a child climbing a tree / for the first, the perfect time / until the missed foothold.” “Family Secrets” presents a jaundiced view of (nuclear) family life forty or fifty years ago; and in the second of its three sections uses very unnerving imagery related to [but not explicit about] sex and reproduction. These are three shorter poems that stood out to me.

I grant that there are here some very personal poems that are opaque for the unintitiated – meaning for those who are not au fait with intimate details of the poet’s life – such as “The Impossibility of Strawberries” and “Being Prepared”. In many there is a recall of childhood and the sense of “instant eternity”, in that the recalled and preserved moment is the only possible eternity and the finality of death looms. You will note this tendency in  the pattern poem “Venture My Word”, where “I thought / the known world / at my disposal / … / it disposes of me / and you, the reader / we both go west / with the sun, another / /symbol of the centre / where every thing / made sense for one day.”

This is an intellectually challenging collection by a master poet who knows exactly what he is about.

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As I have noted before on this blog, if I review two collections of poetry one after the other in the same post, I am not implying a comparison between the two volumes. It is simply that both have come to my attention at about the same time. I can note, however, that Victor Billot is a very different sort of poet from David Howard. Committed politically to left-wing and working class causes (he has for years worked in a clerical capacity for a trade union), Billot in his collection Ambient Terror practises poetry as provocation, as direct social, political and historical commentary, as satire and as protest. This is not the poetry of dense cultural and literary allusion (like David Howard’s).

And that is the last comparison between these two volumes that I wish to make.

If I were at a poetry evening in a pub or city bar, I think I would enjoy listening to Victor Billot reading his poetry. The alcohol, the cameraderie, the desire that is always there to like what one is listening to, would all make me enjoy his angry diatribes against life’s and society’s injustices. Victor Billot presents poems of global ecological disaster (“Ocean of Tentacles”, “The Earth From Space”).  He writes an angry protest poem on the death of a young Vietnamese crew member on a non-unionised rust-bucket Korean fishing vessel (“48 14.5S, 168 18.76’ E”). In “The Prince of Darkness Attends a Work and Income Interview” he creates a nice piece of satire mocking the tone of such interviews. The long poem “Meat City” (apparently written twenty years ago) is a fun specimen of bohemian or old “Beat” blank verse, taking down the city of Auckland from a worm’s eye view. Billot also gets some mileage out of wistful descriptive poems like “Port Chalmers” and “Polar Flight”.

As performance pieces I think these would be great.

But here’s my problem (and, dare I say it, the problem of most performance poetry). Once you see such poems in cold print on the page, they often fall apart. Their populist rhetoric, their tricks and their political appeals lack nuance or (in many cases) craft.

Experienced from the page, an anti-Donald Trump poem (the “pussy grabber in chief”) called “Beast of the Hour” tells us “The old it is dying, the new cannot be born, / and shadows stalk through this night before dawn.” Oh dear! These lines sound like a socialist chant from c.1910. Rhyme requires great skill, but in “Heat Death of the Universe” or “2016, the Unauthorised Biography” or “The Walking Dead”, the rhyming couplets come too close to sheer doggerel. The same is true of “Trans Pacific Express” and “FVEY” (about the “five eyes” spy system). They would probably get cheers at a poetry slam or rap competition, but witty they ain’t. “New Year’s Eve 2015” is a great rant about bad media and New Zealand going down the gurgler, but it is already dated in its very perishable topical references. When I read “Brexit” I am basically reading a rant which tells us the poet doesn’t like the smelly English working class; and there are a number of “poor lonesome me” poems like “Christmas Rain”.

I would like to make it absolutely clear that I do not disagree with Victor Billot’s politics or his desire to satirise some things. But no matter how much I sympathise with his rave against electronic and social media “The Oversharing Economy”, the poem itself remains a rave.

I guess I’m experiencing Ambient Terror in the wrong medium. Perhaps I should go to more pub readings to get into the spirit of this sort of thing.