Sunday, May 22, 2011

Last of the Mohicans

This is the second (in order of publication) of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, following The Pioneers, which I read in March.  Once again, I embarked upon a mental portage for the first 300 pages, after which the plot sped up somewhat, but although I patiently awaited some of the thoughtful, even philosophical musings encountered near the end of The Pioneers, I was ultimately disappointed. Don't get me wrong, as a plot-based historical novel Mohicans can hold the reader's interest, but it lacked the depth of Cooper's earlier volume. There are three more novels in the Leatherstocking Tales, and I am interested to see which precedent they will follow.  I know I will be reading The Prairie at some point this year, as it is already in my possession, but The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder will likely wait until next year.

The plot of the novel differs noticeably from that of the 1992 film, so if you've seen the movie but haven't read the book, don't worry, I'm not mixing up the sisters....not that it would be difficult to do so when both characters are one-dimensional stereotypes of 19th century women.  Speaking of which, let's talk about Cora. One piece of information that is fairly important in the novel but omitted from the movie is the fact that Cora is one-quarter black (but technically not African-American, as her mother was from the Caribbean). Why would the screenwriter (or casting director? whoever) skip over this? Probably because it is implied as a reason for Magua's attraction for her as well as for her more strong-willed and intense temperament. This then begs the question of why it would be problematic for Magua to be attracted to her due to her racial origins. To the 21st century reader it seems obvious that individuals have varying levels of attraction to people of different ethnicities. Part of the difficulty lies in the stereotypical representation of Magua as a sly, sneaky, violent and deceptive Indian. To put it bluntly, in Cooper's world, the villain of inferior race, when presented with two women, chooses the one who is also of inferior race.  So you can see why Hollywood wasn't going to touch that with a ten-foot canoe paddle.

     Now, before you get the idea that I think Cooper is a racist pig, I must state that I stand by my previous opinion of him as quite advanced for his time in his ideas of race and culture. Let's look at Uncas, for example.  If Magua is the sly, sneaky Indian and Chingachgook is the stoic noble savage, Uncas is an admirable and courageous hero whose depiction rises above ethnic stereotype. Hawkeye and Cora point out at different times that Uncas' behavior is commendable. Hawkeye comments that Uncas is pretty awesome for an Indian (my paraphrase) *sigh*, while Cora states that anyone who observed Uncas' actions would forget the color of his skin. Cooper then portrays the other characters as being uncomfortable with Cora's statement, which would have indeed been a historically accurate response. Cora (and Cooper) were ahead of their time.

    Related but not identical to Cooper's exploration of interracial relationships is his portrayal of culture conflict. Heyward represents the soldier ideal in American culture, while David Gamut is the Calvinist Protestant and Hawkeye is the frontiersman. These three men clash with each other throughout the novel, so how can such an internally discordant culture, one which can't even agree with itself, be expected to instantly enter civil discourse with not just one completely foreign Native American tribe, but many? Thus, Cooper makes his point more clearly than would have been possible had he permitted less conflict among the male American characters.

     Cooper further sets out issues of cultural conflict through his use of several names to refer to one person, tribe or place. To name something or someone is to assert dominance over that person or thing, and the fact that each group had their own names for other groups/people is used as a device by Cooper to signify the struggle between them. Nathaniel Bumppo calls himself Natty but is also known as Hawkeye by the Mohicans and La Longue Carabine by the French and Huron. The Iroquois are alternately Maquas and Mingoes, the Delaware are the Leni-Lenape, Chingachgook is Le Gros Serpent and Magua is Sly Fox. Even Lake Horican is also Lake George and Le Lac du St. Sacrament. Uncas originally carries the title Last of the Mohicans because he was the last born of his tribe, but after his death, his father, Chingachgook becomes Last of the Mohicans. Symbolically, Chingachgook represents not only the last of his tribe, but the last of all Indian culture, ultimately destroyed by the coming of the Europeans and their settlement of the frontier.

Heroes: Uncas, Hawkeye
Villain: Magua
More sappy prairie women: Cora and Alice, but especially Alice
Over sensationalized: Indian massacre
Under explored: character of Hawkeye...but I do have 3 more volumes to go so I'll let it slide
There was a lot of: dialogue, tracking, descriptions of nature, hiking through the forest
There should have been more: comic relief. I think Cooper was trying with David Gamut, but I personally don't find much humor in strict Calvinists...
This book makes you want to: appreciate the alien beauty of the wilderness, appreciate the alien beauty of a person you don't understand (hmm...think Cooper chose his setting to correspond with his themes?)
This book makes you glad you don't have to: faint regularly as proof of your XX chromosomes, engage in hand-to-hand combat as proof of your XY chromosomes, rely on a guide who is trying to trick you, be the last living member of your tribe

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hard Times

You know how in the good old days shiny new factories fairly employed industrious workers? Yeah, neither does Charles Dickens. Hard Times is a critique against utilitarianism, laissez-faire capitalism, and the idea that the most prosperous are also the most moral. Dickens presents characters like Gradgrind, a factory superintendent who cares only for facts, figures and statistics.  As a utilitarian, he forbids his children the experiences of imagination and humankindness, driving them to ruin. Gradgrind's friend Bounderby is a materialist merchant who believes that his success as a businessman is somehow due to his moral superiority over the working-class people he employs.  Ironically, the only character who displays imagination and warm-heartedness is Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a traveling circus performer.

Sweatshops: Old news? urban legend? fact of life?

Hard TImes takes place in Coketown, a fictional city resembling industrial Manchester or Preston. Dickens' opinion of factory labor was certainly influenced by his childhood experience pasting labels onto bottles in a shoe polish factory.  In the 21st century, child labor and harsh working conditions haven't been abolished, they have merely been removed to distant locations. Is this a necessary fact of industrialism? Is it necessary to capitalism? Can industrialism be separated from capitalism?  Some critics in Dickens' time, including George Bernard Shaw, disagreed with him, calling Hard Times an example of "sullen socialism" and a revolt against the industrial order. Others, such as George Orwell and John Ruskin, praised the novel. I advise you not to venture an opinion until you have read it. Whether you agree or disagree with Dickens' conclusions, you may be surprised at the grotesque portrayal of capitalism.

Themes: fact vs. fancy;  honesty; officiousness and bureaucracy;  utilitarianism
Cold, calculating factory superintendent: Thomas Gradgrind
Unfortunate victim of imagination-ectomy: Louisa Gradgrind
Fully human despite (because of?) inefficient upbringing: Sissy Jupe
Pompous blowhard you love to hate: Josiah Bounderby
Working class man with higher moral character than his employer: Stephen Blackpool
There was a lot of: immovable social stratification, facts, boasting, lying, spying, secret reflection, regret, bad guys who didn't get their just desserts
There should have been more: views into Louisa's thoughts, development of the character of Sissy's father
This book makes you glad you don't have to: work in a textile mill, fear being blacklisted by the union, think all aspects of human experience can be quantified
This book makes you want to: pay attention to where your purchases come from, remind stressed friends that climbing the corporate ladder or improving their material lifestyle doesn't increase satisfaction or make them more successful (and somehow better?) people

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fahrenheit 451

Having read 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World, I steeled myself for another bleak dystopia, but Ray Bradbury surprised me with a happy ending. Perhaps it is more of a commentary on my outlook than on the novel that I considered the destruction of civilization by atomic bombs to be a happy ending...  I will qualify that  by pointing out that it is not the destruction of civilization in general, but the destruction of that civilization, which garnered my approval. 
     A society built on destruction and violence, one which forbids critical thought and medicates humans with entertainment, sounds unfortunately familiar. Fahrenheit 451's ubiquitous seashells which distract and pacify their wearers while cutting them off from other people are an obvious parallel to the earbuds and headphones worn by many.  Current Western governments don't normally censor, edit or forbid certain books, let alone books in general, but society often does the job itself.  Publishers delete or change portions of older books that are now considered offensive, as the recent fate of Huckleberry Finn demonstrates. Over time, larger segments of the work are removed until the current incarnation scarcely resembles the original.  Indeed, a case of classic irony occurred in the 1990s when high school students wrote to Ray Bradbury telling him that the version of Fahrenheit 451 they were reading in school had been censored in over 70 places.
     So what's the problem with removing the swear words from Fahrenheit 451 or the "n" word from Huckleberry Finn?  This is exactly what Ray Bradbury predicted; each subgroup of society deletes the portion it finds offensive, until there is nothing left.  This is particularly troubling when references to offensive parts of history are removed; eventually we may be left with a revisionist history.  Obviously the "n" word is offensive; so is slavery and the mistreatment of black people (or any group). Why not also remove references to slavery from Huck Finn, and from any other book that children may come across? I disagree with this in part because in not knowing anything about that era of history, people step closer to repeating it, and later historical events also become meaningless or nonsensical when their causal link has been deleted.  Again, Bradbury points this out near the end of the novel. Human society is like a phoenix, consuming itself and then rising from the ashes time after time, in part because it doesn't learn from its mistakes.  So if you're in a tizzy about the end of the Mayan calendar on 12-21-2012, the coming of Ragnarok, the setting of the fifth sun or the end of the Kali Yuga, don't worry.  It's not the end of the world.

Slightly sinister guy who is reborn as a good guy: Guy Montag
Main villain: not Beatty....not tv...but society itself in its desire to be placated, entertained, anything to avoid occasional unhappiness
Guide who introduces main character to his quest: Clarisse McClellan
Weapons of mass sedation: television, radio with earbuds, (what would Bradbury say about FarmVille?!)
There was a lot of: burning, lights, heat, hiding things, mentally vacuous people, mechanical/electronic things that resemble insects, mention of specific banned authors and books
There should have been more of: I would have liked Montag to read more books and have his thought life develop more before he was forced into his final life-changing dilemma, even though it would have slowed down the plot
This book makes you want to: read more books, explore books that have been censored at various times, unplug the tv, spend time in nature and with other people
This book makes you glad you don't have to:  live superficially just because everybody else does, run for your life from a creepy mechanical hound, undergo therapy to recall from your subconscious the entire text of a book you read which has since been destroyed

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Madame Bovary

I spent the week of April 17-23 in rural France with Emma Bovary, who unfortunately did not receive the  psychological help which would have so greatly benefited her.  If you have a friend who is exhibiting Bovary-like symptoms, such as lounging all day in a silk dressing gown while reading Danielle Steele novels and maxing out credit cards on, I beg you to stage an intervention. I recommended that Emma get herself an education and a sense-of-entitlement-ectomy immediately, but she refused to comply.  Charles told me quite seriously that such a surgical procedure would be dangerous, as it could disturb the spleen. I complimented his mental vacuity, at which he became choked up and said, "Aw shucks" (direct quote).

     Upon my return home, I was initially relieved to get away from the unpleasant situation in the Bovary household.  However, an unsettling awareness soon crept upon me. Emma Bovary is everywhere. Gustave Flaubert, that terrible genius, took the flaws which occasionally arise in nearly every western individual and fashioned them into a formidable literary character.  You know that guy down the street with the average job and the really expensive car (and wristwatch, and tv)? Conspicuous consumption. Madame Bovary.  How about the girl who always tells you how perfect her boyfriend is, even though you get a little confused because it's a different boyfriend every month? Emotional insecurity and romantic idealization. Madame Bovary.  That friend who is always bored because everything is so cliche, so unoriginal, so beneath him, and he really deserves something better? Ennui plus sense of entitlement. Madame Bovary.  And how about that thing I just spent the entire paragraph doing: pointing the finger at everyone but myself?  You know it. Madame Bovary!  Now that you're depressed to the point of eating arsenic directly from the jar, remember that there was no escape for Emma because she chose to isolate herself and wallow in self-pity.  When we see a little of Madame Bovary in ourselves, we can make the opposite choice and perform the sometimes painful -ectomy.

     Whether you think Emma's dissatisfaction with life was caused by anomie, ennui, acedia, boredom or general malaise, the result is her melodramatic refusal to integrate herself into her social reality, followed by a descent into manic dysfunctionality complete with fainting spells, (not so) secret infidelities, massive debt and arsenic. Oh, Emma!  Flaubert's talent shines in his creation of a masterpiece novel which is built on these incredibly banal characters and a rather boring but realistic plot. It's as though he were competing in an Iron Author competition in which the announcer states, "For characters you have a stupid doctor, his spoiled and dissatisfied wife, a scheming pharmacist and a greedy moneylender.  The plot: their deluded, self-satisfied daily lives. You have five years to finish...Go!" And so he went. The result was this scathing commentary on the bourgeoisie which Flaubert so detested. In lauding Flaubert for his realism and his influence on later authors, I offer you the words of James Wood in How Fiction Works:

      Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is   
       almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling of brilliant detail; that it 
       privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, 
       like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even 
       at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You 
       can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert.

Country bumpkin: Charles Bovary
Archetypal fool: Emma Bovary
Swindler: Monsieur Lheureux
Dangerous liaisons: Rodolphe and Leon
Two-faced saboteur and enabler: Monsieur Homais
There was a lot of: spending money, fainting, pouting, wishful thinking, cheating (financial and marital)
There should have been more: descriptions of food and eating. Come on, this is France! Couldn't she have bought some fancy cheese once in a while?
This book makes you want to: live an examined life, clearly label all household poisons and store them on a shelf away from the sugar
This book makes you glad you don't have to: stare into an empty abyss of meaningless years stretching before you...then shrug and pick up a haute couture magazine