Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Against Nature

A reader wrote in to correct something I wrote in this post, that "this cultivated nostalgia for a carefully modified-and-tamed-by-humans Nature is an artifact of modernity.  It's a luxury we moderns can indulge because we can keep Nature at bay.  (Most of the time, anyway.)"  My reader pointed out "the Roman poets and their longing for simple country life," and I sit corrected.

I should also have remembered Socrates, who according to Plato, reacted against a similar romanticizing of nature even before the Romans.  In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that "the country places and the trees won't teach me anything, but the people in the city do."  The trick to getting him out of the city, he continues, is to dangle a book in front of him, as people dangle carrots in front of hungry draft animals to get them moving.

I noticed this too when I read The Tale of Genji about a decade ago.  It's a vast novel a thousand years old about Japanese court life.  The title character likes to send flowers on branches, wrapped in poems of his own composition, to the ladies he pursues.  (And rapes, as often as not.)  But when Genji goes out in the rain or snow to collect these romantic gifts, he is wrapped in oilcloth against the elements.  It's his servant, less well covered, who does the work of breaking the branches off their trees.  Japanese culture is famous for its aestheticization of nature, but I noticed that "nature" in Genji's day was something to be cut up and gift-wrapped.  Just like my co-worker, taking her backlit e-reader with her when she goes camping to commune with nature.  So I admit, this fetish isn't a product of modernity.

This might also be the place to mention a couple of related things I've read lately.  Today I noticed a collection of C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry sword-and-sorcery stories.  The stories themselves date back to the 1930s, but the collection was published in 2007, with an introduction by the science-fiction writer Suzy McKee Charnas.  I liked some of what Charnas had to say, but much of it baffles me.

For example, she discusses the popularity of "two-fisted action" in pulp writing of the early twentieth century, and contrasts it with literary fiction of the period:
Meanwhile back at the library, the stuff called “literature” in the United States was dominated by people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, stylists of a terse, “masculine” mode touted as the truest voice of serious American writing.  This hard, stripped-down style was clearly intended to challenge the more ornate, emotional, and melodramatic style of novel that had been popular (especially with middle-class women) for generations – think Dickens, and you’re definitely in the ballpark.  World War One had a powerful effect in concentrating the cultural mind on consensual reality.  After all that killing and dying in reality, mere “fancy” had come to be considered childish and insignificant in literary quarters.  Or, worse, decadent (code for – gasp! – homosexual) [12].
First, Hemingway I can see (though he learned his "terse, 'masculine' node" from the much butcher Gertrude Stein), but Fitzgerald?  His writing is only "terse" compared to, say, Dickens.  I just took another look at the opening pages of This Side of Paradise, thanks to Project Gutenberg:
When Amory was five he was already a delightful companion for her. He was an auburn-haired boy, with great, handsome eyes which he would grow up to in time, a facile imaginative mind and a taste for fancy dress. From his fourth to his tenth year he did the country with his mother in her father's private car, from Coronado, where his mother became so bored that she had a nervous breakdown in a fashionable hotel, down to Mexico City, where she took a mild, almost epidemic consumption. This trouble pleased her, and later she made use of it as an intrinsic part of her atmosphere—especially after several astounding bracers.
Young Amory sounds more like Truman Capote than Conan the Barbarian.  I also know from reading Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture (Knopf, 1977) that nineteenth-century American male writers were obsessed with writing what Julian Hawthorne called "Man-books."  Herman Melville, says Douglas, "regarded the reception of his books as a test which would ascertain what genuine masculinity, or, as he tacitly defined it, what health and independence of mind, remained in American culture" (296).  "Over and over, Melville assures us that he will "set forth things as they actually exist"; he writes to correct 'high-raised romantic notions' about life at sea; no 'sentimental' illusions motivate him; he will give us 'facts'" (301).  Self-conscious striving after "literature" by American males seems to go along quite often with masculine anxiety and homosexual panic; it's not specific to any particular period.

About Jirel of Joiry, whose adventures take place in a version of medieval Europe, Charnas goes on to say that of course both her parents are dead by the time she's an adult, because "In such a violent age if you reached maturity your parents were likely dead, leaving you to replace them as you were meant to" (17).  True, the feudal period was violent, but violence wasn't the only thing that killed people then.  Plague swept through Europe periodically, decimating the population, and women often died in childbirth.  Also, says Charnas, "The feudal, rural France of 'Joiry' is nothing like the Renaissance world of reason, light, and beauty we’re familiar with from history" (15).  Renaissance Europe was still a violent, dirty, stinking, plague-ridden place, with "reason, light, and beauty" kept within strict limits.  Charnas seems to be relying on some outdated histories here, which depicted the medieval period as much 'darker' than it was, and the Renaissance as much 'lighter' and more rational.

I've just begun reading George Sturt's The Wheelwright's Shop (Cambridge UP, 1923), several months after I learned about it from David Ellis's Memoirs of a Leavisite.  Ellis accuses Sturt of romanticizing the old ways of working and living, but this seems at odds with this lovely passage:
The shop was still but half opened when the two front doors had been unfastened.  On either hand was a window, shuttered at night with two shutters put up from within and then fixed with a wooden bar.  When the shutters had been taken down from the windows there was nothing to take their place.  Snow, freezing wind, had a clear run.  With so much chopping to do one could keep fairly warm; but I have stood all aglow from yet resenting the open windows, feeling my feet cold as ice though covered with chips.  To supply some glass shutters for day-time was one of the first changes I made in the shop.  Nowadays, when all the heavy work is done by machinery, men would not and probably could not work at all in such a place; yet it must have sufficed for several generations.  My grandfather and my father had put up with it, and so did I until the winter came round again and the men began to ask me for sundry small indulgences, of which this was one.

Six o’clock in the morning was well enough in the summer; none the less I liked the dark winter mornings better.  Truly they were dark!  At that time the Farnham Local Board, caring nothing for working-class convenience and caring much to save money, had all the street lamps in the town put out at midnight.  The result was that, in the depth of winter, every man who went to work at six in the morning, and most artisans did, had to find his way without any light.  To be sure, there were moonlight mornings.  Sometimes, too, snowy roofs showed clear enough under glittering starlight.  But, on the other hand, there was freezing fog, there was the blackness of dense rain.  One foggy morning I lost my whereabouts in the familiar street; no building could be seen nor any sky distinguished; nothing but a slight difference in the feel of the pavement under my feet told me that I was passing So and So’s shop.  Another time a little glimmering light that met and passed me proved to be a lighted candle-end between the fingers of a chimney sweep, against whom one might otherwise have uncomfortably blundered.  And one black morning I walked through and was conscious of what I took to be the aura of a man on the pavement whom I never saw – probably a motionless policeman [13-14].
Lately I've been thinking often about what life was like in the days before electric light, about town streets -- let alone country roads and paths -- at night; or what it would be like to work in a place like the shop Sturt describes.  Sturt gives a striking picture of that time, and he doesn't seem unduly nostalgic about it.  Well, I've only read the first chapter or so, but I suspect I'll find more nuance here than Ellis allowed.