Saturday, October 31, 2009

A New Sex Gives New Perspective

(Orlando as a woman in Sally Potter's filmic interpretation of Virginia Woolf's novel)

In “Orlando: A Biography” (1928) Virginia Woolf gives us a revisionist romp through English literary history, satirically engaging with the spirit of each age from 1585 to 1928. After reading Woolf's “A Room of One's Own” (1929) just a few months ago, I can now detect a feminist dialogue between both of these works that were published just one year apart.

Orlando is a man until the age of thirty when he awakes as a woman in the seventeenth century. With this in mind I hope you'll forgive the rapid oscillation between gendered pronouns in the following. You see, Orlando as a young man had "insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature" (141). Yet after he awakes as a woman, making a complicated start with "plaguy" petticoats (137), Orlando then reflects on how she will have to pay for her previous demands on women. Only now does she realise that "women are not (judging by her own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, and scented ... by nature, they can only attain these graces by the most tedious discipline" (141). When compared to the kind of feminist polemic found in Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (for the benighted check this), you can see how the figure of Orlando offers us a deeper insight into historical construction of the feminine. Orlando's swift change of sex is a much more imaginative, thereby more effective, way to access the kind of deflation (horror?) a seventeenth-century woman would feel when suddenly sentenced to life as a tea-pourer.

Echoes of Enlightenment feminism are in abundance here as Orlando realises just how "ignorant and poor” women are when “compared with the other sex." Men "debar [women] even from a knowledge of the alphabet" (143). The humour of Orlando's predicament also helps Woolf's cause, as we see the effect a woman's exposed calf can have on an observing sailor who stumbles so violently that he misses his footing, only "saving himself by the skin of his teeth" (141). Today it is laughable that the sight of an ankle could cause such a fuss, but this scene is set during a time when women directed all effort toward preservation of their chastity. Only after laughter subsides can we reflect on the role chastity played in the social government of women during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was the foundation stone of female subjugation.

(Virginia Woolf)

A similar use of gender shifting is found in Woolf’s fictional creation of Shakespeare’s sister (Judith) in “A Room of One’s Own”. In this later work, Woolf suggests that “it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” (48). To prove her point, she imagines a Judith Shakespeare, and takes a deeper look at this hypothetical life. You see Judith “was not sent to school, she had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone reading Horace and Virgil” (49). She may have “picked up a book every now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages, but then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew, and not moon about with books and papers” (49). Like the historical Shakespeare, our hypothetical Judith Shakespeare “had a taste for the theatre” and wanted to act, but "she could get no training in her craft". Whenever she approached the stage door “men laughed in her face” (49). I think this case provides a number of plausible reasons why men have figured so large in historical records of achievement. If a woman was gifted with Shakespeare's potential during his age, she would have had no means to cultivate that talent, and no female tradition to turn to for inspiration.

Both of Woolf's works have proven to be personally inspiring, and I'm quick to recognise that even this inspiration is a luxury in itself. Why? Because the presence of a strong, female literary tradition was not afforded to any women during Judith Shakespeare's time, or even during Orlando's time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Therefore, as a twenty-first century woman I consider it a privilege to review works such as those discussed above, and hope to add to a tradition many of us take for granted today.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Narcissus and Eve

Narcissus, by Mchelangelo Caravaggio, ca. 1598.

If you are familiar with the Narcissus and Echo episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses, then you would have no problem spotting Milton’s own echo of this scene in Book Nine of his Paradise Lost. We know from Ovid’s work that Narcissus becomes transfixed with his own image reflected in a “clear, unmuddied pool of silvery, shimmering water” (3.407-408). He falls in love with his own “fraudulent image of beauty” (3.439), which ultimately leads to his demise. Moving forward some sixteen hundred years later, we can see that this episode still commands attention when it appears again in Milton’s epic. The scene that corresponds so closely to Ovid’s Narcissus episode begins with Eve’s looking “into a clear / smooth lake, that to [her] seemed another sky” (9.458-459). First, it’s apparent that this lake has the same mirror-like qualities as the pool in Ovid’s narrative. Like Narcissus, Eve is “pleased” with her image, and even hesitates to seek out Adam because she thinks he might be “less fair, less winning soft, less amiably mild, than [her] smooth watery image” (9.463-480). Dennis Danielson recalls a common critical response to the episode. He notes a majority of critics view Eve’s “Narcissus-like” infatuation “with her own image” (152) as evidence that she is “fallen before the fall” (153). But Danielson improves on this interpretation, showing that Milton is in fact “presenting Adam and Eve’s potential for falling." Eve's vanity reflects her “fallibility, not [her] fallenness” (153). Danielson’s argument is convincing considering Milton's narrative draws on Eve's fallibility to enrich the setting for a plausible fall following the lake scene. We know that Eve eventually succumbs to Satan’s flattery. She is so easily duped because she has already shown that vanity is her dominating weakness.

Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy”. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Cambridge: CUP, 1999. 144-59.

The Recurring Image of Stone in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Pygmalion, by Gerome, 1881.

One theme that connects a number of stories within Metamorphoses is that of stone. Ovid's recurrent use of stone comes under close inspection by Douglas F. Bauer, proving how such imagery plays an "important function in the scheme not only of the whole work, but also of each individual book” (2). Admittedly, Bauer’s taxonomic assessment borders on the ludicrous when in the closing pages of his study we find him bogged down in mathematical calculations used to audit the number of verses surrounding the Pygmalion episode. The mathematical preoccupations of a literary scholar can be a dry experience indeed. Quibbles aside, his examination of stone and its many manifestations provided enough impetus for me to dig a little deeper for more stone imagery. I uncovered three connected episodes showing how Ovid uses stone literally and metaphorically to convey the presence, or lack thereof, of life. Deucalion and Pyrrha are commanded by an oracle to “cast the bones [stones]” of the earth behind them in order to “repair the loss of [their] wretched race” (1.379-383). The rocks soften with the help of moisture from the earth, eventually transforming into an “outline of human form” featuring a “nature more gentle than stone” (1.400-403). Thus, the evolution of man from stone gives us one of the first striking pictures of human life in the poem. Moving to Book Three, the scorned and rejected Echo receives no love from Narcissus. The pain and shame drags her to the depths of despair, reflected in the loss of “all moisture” that shrivels “the lovely bloom of her flesh” (395-400). She is eventually transformed into stone, conveying both a haunting (only the echo survives) and chilling picture of unrequited love. We are reminded that love and life are associated with moisture and flesh; the inverse seen in Echo’s emotional death marked by stone. Moving finally to Book Ten, the ivory statue carved by Pygmalion “gradually loses its hardness, softening, sinking, [and] yielding” to her master’s loving hands (280-285). This transformation from the inanimate to the animate, from stone to soft and malleable flesh, recalls the first Deucalion episode in Book One. However, what differs in the Pygmalion episode is that it telescopes human creation down to the level of the individual and not the entirety of humanity as displayed in the Deucalion episode.

Bauer, Douglas F. “The Function of Pygmalion in the Metamorphoses of Ovid”. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93 (1962): 1-21.

Milton's Satan

Satan As A Serpent, Enters Paradise In Search Of Eve, by Gustave Dore 1832-1883

"... Then from his loftie stand on that high Tree
Down he alights among the sportful Herd
Of those fourfooted kindes, himself now one,
Now other, as thir shape servd best his end
Neerer to view his prey, and unespi'd
To mark what of thir state he more might learn
By word or action markt: about them round
A Lion now he stalkes with fierie glare,
Then as a Tyger, who by chance hath spi'd
In some Purlieu two gentle Fawnes at play,
Strait couches close, then rising changes oft
His couchant watch, as one who chose his ground
Whence rushing he might surest seize them both
Gript in each paw..." (Paradise Lost Book Four)

In order to get closer to Adam and Eve, Satan momentarily embodies a number of animals that already exist in the garden. Initially he surveys Eden from his “lofty stand” on a “high tree” (4.395). Then he decides to get closer, so he “alights” from the tree and starts to mingle with the “four-footed” beasts (4.396-397). He does this primarily by taking on the shape of any animal that “serve[s] best his end” to spy on “his prey” (read Adam and Eve) (4.398-399). What is intriguing is how the behaviour of the animals change as he possesses them. Once Satan enters the lion, it starts to “stalk with fiery glare” (4.402). As he takes on the form of the tiger, it “couches close… watching” two fawns at play (4.405-405). The pattern shows that each animal he embodies starts to prowl, stalk, and monitor their prey. This picture is markedly different from the one shown before Satan entered Eden. In the pre-lapsarian garden, those same animals were initially found “frisking” (4.340), playing, and gamboling in Eden. Here Milton is showing how Satan’s blood-thirsty nature still shines through as he possesses any one of those animals, who now behave with intent to kill. It reveals a similar transformation to those found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Numerous episodes in that work show how an essential characteristic, be it Io’s beauty or Lycaon’s bestial nature, shines through after transformation takes place. In Satan’s case, his evil tendencies never leave him. He retains his essential nature, even when he shape-shifts into an animal. This is significant because it reveals his true character, which is evil.

Milton's Pandemonium

Pendemonium, by John Martin, 1841.

In the following I've taken a closer look at John Milton's Paradise Lost, Book One lines 700-722:

... Nigh on the plain, in many cells prepared,
That underneath had veins of liquid fire
Sluiced from the lake, a second multitude
With wondrous art founded the massy ore,
Severing each kind, and scummed the bullion-dross.
A third as soon had formed within the ground
A various mould, and from the boiling cells
By strange conveyance filled each hollow nook;
As in an organ, from one blast of wind,
To many a row of pipes the sound-board breathes.
Anon out of the earth a fabric huge
Rose like an exhalation, with the sound
Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet--
Built like a temple, where pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
With golden architrave; nor did there want
Cornice or frieze, with bossy sculptures graven;
The roof was fretted gold. Not Babylon
Nor great Alcairo such magnificence
Equalled in all their glories, to enshrine
Belus or Serapis their gods, or seat
Their kings, when Egypt with Assyria strove
In wealth and luxury...

This extract appears immediately after Mammon has directed the fallen angels to rifle the “bowels” of hell so they can access gold for the construction of Pandemonium – their new capital of hell (687-690). From the outset I followed Geoff Page’s advice by reading the piece “first solely for the sound and second for the sense” (58). During the first reading I found the effects of alliteration and assonance created a perfect euphony that provided a wonderful aural accompaniment to the visual detail found in the passage. I could hear the slippery lakes of gold described as “liquid fire sluiced from the lake” (701-702). The emphasis on the double ‘s’ sound in “sluiced” and the alliterated ‘l’ sound on first and second syllables helps us imagine the lapping channels of slick gold rushing through to fuel the creation of Hell’s first palace. The dregs have to be skimmed from the boiling gold and we can hear that too with a similar emphasis on the ubiquitous ‘s’ sound, as Satan’s crew “scummed the bullion dross” (704). The emphasis on ‘s’ evokes the wet and messy work of preparing the materials to fill out the temple.

We know that Milton “played the organ” (Tesky xvi). This piece of biographical information goes some way in helping us understand how he developed the kind of skill required to replicate in verse the sonorities associated with organ music. The imaginative organ simile features the ever present ‘s’ sound again as we are told that the palace rises “with the sound / of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet”. This inventive pneumatic sequence, where the temple rises from the channels of gold, is described by Milton as a process based on inflation by the “sweet” sounding winds of an organ. It’s just one example of Milton’s ability to fuse two seemingly dissimilar elements (air and gold) into an image of a titanic proportion.

Of course, a second reading brings out many of the subtleties in Milton’s writing that may not be apparent in the first reading. Time is needed to unpack ambiguities within the passage, and one such ambiguity can be found in Milton’s description of the palace “built like a temple where pilasters round were set” (713-714). A quick dig in the dictionary tells us that a pilaster is a rectangular shaped column, which makes us wonder why Milton is using “round” as the adjective to the noun. You would assume that with blank verse you would encounter noun/adjective inversions, that is, “round” as the adjective may be placed after the noun, instead of before. But in this instance “round” means “set around”, that is, the columns are set around the palace in a decorative fashion. This example is an instructive case for Page’s argument for a second reading. The example shows that careful examination can bring out the full detail and skill invested in Milton’s verse.

The extract under consideration here shows the range of Milton’s knowledge of music, mining, architecture, Greek and biblical mythology, and the classical canon. Milton's range of expertise is reflected in his impressive vocabulary, featuring technical terms that betray a poet with formidable intelligence. His descriptions of the decorative work around the beams, roof, and columns of the temple, are strikingly ornamental just like the “fretted gold” roofs and “golden architraves” he is envisioning (715-717). These descriptions are effective in evoking images of opulence and grandeur in Satan’s new home – a home that could be seen to rival heaven.

Immediately preceding this passage the narrator says Satan's palace will show “how the greatest monuments of fame… are easily outdone by Spirits reprobate” (695-697). Further, we are told that the angels can create “in an hour” what others can “scarce perform” in an age (697-698). The angels certainly follow through on these claims with the kind of intricate and impressive craftsmanship that would match monuments found in the ancient biblical empire of “Babylon”, or in the land of ancient Egyptian King “Belus” 717-720). Milton’s careful selection of comparable empires, known for their “wealth and luxury” (722) is conveyed effectively through epic simile, the kind of extended comparison we find peppered throughout this sprawling epic.

The quick erection of this palace with such lavish detail is credible because Milton had already drawn Satan’s army as an unrivalled and swift-working “brigade” (675), proceeding in military fashion with "incessant toil" (698). We know that Satan needs a secure base of stability in what is essentially an unstable hell for him and his army. By showing us what this highly efficient crew can achieve, in just one hour, Milton rightly demonstrates the level of organised power expected from a figure that has always been regarded as God’s only truly threatening rival.

Page, Geoff. 80 Great Poems. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006.

Tesky, Gordan. “The Life of John Milton”. Paradise Lost. Gordan Tesky. New York: Norton, 2005.

Ben Jonson's The Alchemist: A Closer Inspection of The Great Plague

(Picture: Ben Jonson, after Abraham van Blyenberch)

Cheryl Lynn Ross’s “The Plague of The Alchemist” goes some way to explain how the social fabric of London was transformed with the arrival of the plague in the early 1700s. She explains geographically how the rogues and swindlers, who normally “haunted the margins of London” (445) in the liberties, were able to penetrate London’s boundaries and take dominion as a “temporary aristocracy” (439). Members of the original ruling class could afford to decamp during the plague, leaving the city to metamorphose into a “macabre carnival” of “license” (439) teeming with cozeners and vagabonds who enjoyed the freedom the plague granted them. Similarly, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist shows in microcosm the kind of metamorphosis that was taking shape throughout London. From the view inside Lovewit’s house, we can see the plague is the primary agent for change to the collective livelihood of Subtle, Face and Dol. We know, for example, that Subtle previously had no secure position in London’s social hierarchy. The arrival of the plague gives him temporary access to Lovewit’s house so he can pretend to a higher social standing, and make even more money from cheating clueless aristocrats such as Mammon and Kastril. The reversal of the venture tripartite’s fortune in the final act coincides with Face’s return to his original identity (Jeremy the servant), as he hands over the rich Dame Pliant to the propertied Lovewit. This symbolises the reassertion of the dominance of the ruling elite, rendering the temporary metamorphosis of Face and his criminal cronies as fleeting and powerless against the secure hegemony of the aristocracy that Lovewit represents.

Ross, Cheryl Lyn. “The Plague of The Alchemist”. Renaissance Quarterly 41.3 (1988): 439-458.