Home » Culture
Category Archives: Culture
I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.
The history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant who Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant.
Marguerite returned to France and her story became known, maybe even well known. The chronicle of Marguerite’s adventure was first put into writing by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, and other elaborated versions by other writers have followed. Douglas Glover, limiting himself to the skimpiest handful of facts, has written the most spirited and strangest story of all.
Glover’s novel opens with this three-sentence paragraph:
Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I am aroused beyond all reckoning, beyond memory, in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland, with the so-called Comte D’Epirgny, five years since bad-boy tennis champion of Orleans, tucked between my legs. Admittedly, Richard is turning green from the ship’s violent motions, and if he notices the rat hiding behind the shit bucket, he will surely puke. But I have looped a cord round the base of his cock to keep him hard.
Clearly, this is a Marguerite de La Rocque we haven’t heard from before. What has always intrigued me about Marguerite’s voice isn’t her charming salacious tongue, but her amazing leaps of thought. Douglas Glover is a skilled writer and one of the things I admire in his work is the unobtrusive way he packs his paragraphs. Most writers, following the instructions of their high-school English teachers, use each paragraph to perform one step, do one thing; Glover can write a paragraph that does a lot of different things at once. He gets his characters and the reader located “in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland” and at the same time engages the reader by presenting a dramatic sexual encounter just as it struggles toward a climax. Indeed, the dull expository fact of place – a gulf west of Newfoundland – is camouflaged by being part of the sexual scene, for the sea is “spumy” and the ship is rolling and heaving even more than the lovers – a conceit that is carried on between the lines as the scene progresses.
Both Marguerite and her lover Richard are in commonplace unheroic pain. Richard is about to throw up from seasickness and Marguerite has a colossal toothache. “My tooth feels bigger than my head, bigger than a house. My tooth has colonized the world.” So in the midst of this bout of lovemaking Marguerite prays to St. Apollonia, the patron of “toothache cures.” (Apollonia was martyred by a mob who smashed all her teeth, and such terrible tortures excite Marguerite sexually.) Marguerite can’t quite get to the climax she’s seeking and Richard, violently ill with his seasickness, has stuffed his fists into his mouth, and can’t use his hands to help her get there. “I recall, not for the first time,” Marguerite tells us parenthetically, “that the learned Democritus described coitus as a form of epilepsy.”
This story follows a woman into solitude and readers are fortunate that she has an exceptionally wide ranging and lively mind. In the midst of this sexual scene she pauses to tell us that “In Orleans, in 1542, there are forty-three tennis courts. Perhaps this is not the time to bring this up, but it makes you think. There are only thirty-seven churches. Yet we burn Protestant heretics (also horse thieves, book publishers, books themselves and the occasional impolitic author when we can get one) and not maladroit tennis players. What one is to make of this odd circumstance, I cannot say.” (That note about publishers and writers is the first of a scattering of similar remarks about books throughout the novel.) Happily for Marguerite, she remembers a certain apostate nun she saw burned the previous summer and that memory drives her to her orgasm “and I come, shouting Hail Mary.”
Not only does no one know why the historical Marguerite was among those sailing to New France under the command of General Roberval – whatever his family relationship to her – also, no one knows what caused him to abandon her with her lover and her maid on a desolate island. As happens in one of the earliest accounts of this event, Douglas Glover has her lover, Richard, leap from the ship to the small boat carrying her ashore. In this version the ardent Richard misses the boat and plunges into the water, but emerges to share her fate, which was his intention.
The author invents freely and believably the circumstances of her being among those colonists in a chapter called What Do You Do with a Headstrong Girl? in which Marguerite describes herself as not only headstrong, but too sensual, too curious, too brave, too forward, and especially as having a too great an interest in books. Her exasperated father wanted to be rid of her and she wanted to escape her home; her going was a convenience for both of them.
Marguerite doesn’t suggest any reason for her punishment beyond bad behavior. As for the nature of the punishment, she says at one point “I am particularly reminded of the Greek princess Iphigenia, whose father Agamemnon put her to death on a lonely beach on the shaky theory that this act would ensure decent sailing over to Troy, where he hoped to win back his brother’s runaway wife Helen (another woman led astray by her heart in a world of men). It’s a male thing, I suppose, not to be persuaded from murder by the threat of revenge, pangs of conscience, pity, justice, the tug of family affection, not to mention the purely unscientific basis of the premise that killing a virgin will cause sunshine and warm, westerly breezes.”
Other aspects of this novel that set it apart are its fascinating surreal passages. Very few novels depicting historical events are also, in part, surrealist fictions. I recall a novel by Curzio Malaparte, La Pelle, that came out shortly after the second world war, a novel in which the real horrors of the war joined easily and smoothly with surreal passages. Douglas Glover makes similar moves in Elle, transitioning from the factual terrors of being marooned on a small island in a merciless Canadian winter to Marguerite’s hallucinations to the presence of a real magical bear – or maybe it’s a real bear.
By the way, the surrealism in Douglas Glover’s novel isn’t just another name for authorial invention. In an earlier brilliant and underappreciated novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., published back in 1993, the author presents a horrific vision of battles in Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, but the nightmarish visions in that book are nailed to the commonplace world of human violence in realist fashion. In both novels, Glover mangles and distorts the facts to get at the truth.
Douglas Glover is a Canadian writer, but Canada isn’t far from the United States and if you live in a Northern state it’s quite close. Glover resides on both sides of the US-
Canada border and teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Our paths crossed many years ago when we were both teaching in upstate New York. That was so many years ago I cannot recall actual dates, but I was on the faculty of the State University of NY at Albany and Doug was hosting The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program. If it’s possible to remain in contact with another writer simply by reading his books – even when you haven’t seen each other for years — then I can say we’ve remained in touch.
In this little essay I’ve quoted a lot from the opening pages of Elle, because I know of no equally sensuous way to convey the voice of this narrative. Of course, the voice in Elle belongs to Marguerite and is merely transcribed by Doug Glover who has his own voice. And, naturally, it varies from novel to novel and from one short story to another. Though it may be impossible to find the writer’s own personal voice in his fictions, you can meet his literary mind directly in his non-fictional book on Cervantes, The Enamoured Knight. To be precise, the book isn’t about Cervantes but about his novel, Don Quixote – and, actually, and it’s not so much about that novel, as it is rather on Glover’s theory and craft of fiction writing. In addition to writing and teaching, Doug Glover also is the editor of the online literary magazine Numero Cinq which, despite it’s name, is in English. Finally, I must add that Douglass Glover is obscure. Let me quote from the masthead of Numero Cinq:
Douglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.”
There are a lot of dramas on TV and no matter how the plot zigs and zags you know how most, or maybe all of them, are going to turn out. The only time that’s not true when you’re watching a sporting event – like, say, Super Bowl Fifty-One. Only an incomplete mind, or a terribly deprived one, fails to engage the drama inherent in any game, and the Super Bowl Fifty-One was certainly dramatic.
Aristotle – I’m thinking of the Greek philosopher born in 385 BC, not “Big Aristotle,” Shaquille O’Neal – had some interesting things to say about the dramas that he and his countrymen saw performed in Greece. The play, Aristotle said, should have one action from start to finish, should occur in one place, and should begin and end in one day.Those happenings on stage, he said, weren’t true actions or events but “imitations of an action.”
Despite this, the spectators, were engaged as if the imitations were actual events – as if the actor on stage were really Oedipus, as if, at the close of the play, he has murdered his father and bedded his mother and now, blood streaming down his face, he has actually put out his own eyes in self-punishment.
Adults have the strange ability to simultaneously know that what they’re witnessing is merely a imitation of an action, and at the same time, says Aristotle, they are moved by genuine pity and terror by what they see. We know what the characters in the drama are scripted to feel, we identify ourselves with them and feel the emotions we’d feel if we were in the little world portrayed on stage. The drama played out in a football game engages us the same way, but it’s greatly heightened by our knowledge that what we witness is not bogus, but is actually happening to the players on the field.
The New England Patriots were favored to win by three points. Most New Englanders identified with the Patriots, of course, but despite the odds, the rest of the United States poured their emotions into the Atlanta Falcons. To put it bluntly, the Patriots had become the team to hate. Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady was thirty-nine years old, had already won four Super Bowl games, tying the best performance by any other quarterback in Super Bowl history, but he had also been tainted by a cheating scandal for which he was punished by being sidelined for four games, a staggering penalty. On the other hand, the Falcon’s quarterback, Matt Ryan, at thirty-one, was in charge of a team of comparative youngsters and had just won the Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player award. Ryan was leading an exceptional team, a team with a very bright future — a future that might arrive with this game. Maybe Brady was the past.
The trajectory of Super Bowl LI had a stunningly dramatic arc. Over 111 million viewers watched the game on TV, caught up in the emotion of a championship game that tied and went into overtime, a first in Super Bowl history. It obeyed the unities of time, place and action, but no spectator felt terror for the losing Falcons or Matt Ryan – pity, perhaps, but not terror. Super Bowl LI wasn’t an Aristotelian drama and nobody noticed. They were too caught up in the action, real action, not an imitation.
These Easter eggs were made a generation ago. Delicate little things, real egg shells painted by hand, and the kids who made them have kids of their own now. These lovely ornaments spend most of the year in boxes stored under the eves in the attic, then come into the light for a brief time once a year.There’s no question that for Christians such hollow decorated egg shells came to symbolize the empty tomb of the risen Christ, but precisely when and where the symbol got its start is a vexed piece of history. No matter. Humans have been decorating eggs for thousands of years and for sure a lot of life starts with an egg. For Romans of Christ’s time, all life comes from an egg or, as they say, omne vivum ex ovo. We too came from an egg and without kids all life would cease. So there they are, bowls of real hollowed egg shells painted by children. There’s resurrection for you!
A couple of years ago we published a post about taking down the Christmas tree. Whereas it is now a lazy New Year’s Day, and whereas we haven’t finished straightening up the house from our Christmas feast and our jolly guests, and whereas we celebrated the arrival of the New Year late last night, probably too late last night, we’re simply going to republish our old post:
Taking down the Christmas tree is one of the saddest domestic chores. For a week or longer this evergreen has been standing in the room with us, filling the air with the scent of balsam or other pines, glittering with lights and sparkling ornaments. And those ornaments are so important, so beautiful, no matter that they’re inexpensive baubles or, say, ordinary pine cones tinted with gold-like paint, or paper and glitter glued together by one of the children a dozen years ago. Each ornament has it’s family history — the history of which grandparents had it on their tree a generation ago, or who brought it as a gift, or made it just this year.
There’s no joy of recognition when taking these ornaments from the tree. That delight happened two weeks ago when, after an absence of a year, we carefully lifted this delicate trinket from it’s wrapping and — oh, yes! — we remember that one, the Santa with the paint chipping off, the glass sphere with Mother and Child inside, or those tiny gold balls we got forty years ago for our first Christmas. And if you turn off all the lamps in the room and leave only the strings of tiny tree lights — how magically beautiful it is!
Now we’re simply returning the faded old ornaments to their little egg-crate boxes, if we can find the right boxes that fit, and stacking them one upon the other in a corner of the attic, or in a closet behind the bag of swim suits and beach clothes. Then, after struggling to unfasten the tree from the stand, and after spilling water on the floor, we finally grapple with the brittle tree amid a shower of dried pine needles, drag it out the door and toss it on the snowbank down by the road. And there it will lie until the town truck comes to take it away, bits of glittering tinsel still fluttering here and there.
Some theories just feel right and true. They appeal to our common sense so strongly that we believe in them as soon as we hear them. And if the theory is about language, the language we speak and write, we feel pretty certain that we’re familiar enough with the way it works to assess whether some theory about it is true. Now, here’s a theory about language:
• Language channels the way we think and view the world.
That theory became popular among certain linguists in the 1930s and still circulate among many, perhaps most, educated people today.
One thing we know for certain, languages vary widely. One language may have only a single word for eating and drinking, still another makes uniquely fine discriminations between different shades of a color, yet another has no articles such as the or a.
Native American Hopi have no tense markers to indicate time and no words like later. And that led Benjamin Lee Whorf to propose that since the Hopi language has no way indicate past, present or future, they view time differently from English speakers and, further, the cyclical Hopi cosmology reflects this difference.
Whorf was not a professional linguist, but his ideas looked right to his mentor, the linguist Edward Sapir, and soon the theory — called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — spread among linguists, academics and the general public. However, no examination of people speaking one language or another has found evidence to support the theory. It’s generally conceded now that such linguistic differences as Whorf had in mind don’t actually channel thought or create a particular view of the world.
And now we have John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. McWhorter is a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, an excellent book that is both scholarly and readable. He’s the author of many other books on language, as well as works on race and cultural issues, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, and the New Yorker, among other publications.
The Language Hoax is a short book. The pages are small, only about 5 by 7 inches, and there are about 168 pages, excluding the introduction, notes and index. Even so — as an admirer of John McWhorter’s work I hate to say this — it’s too long.
McWhorter demonstrates again and again the inability of the neo-Whorfians to come up with credible evidence to support their theory. His examples of wild differences over a spectrum of languages are interesting and often amusing. But after a while even the most indulgent reader will wonder why McWhorter bothered to write this book if, as he says repeatedly and credibly, there’s no support for the theory he’s attacking.
He has been careful to acknowledge and praise academic work that does show how the workings of language can have a tiny, marginal effect on thought, and he’s shown the difference between those studies and the general notion held by some people that such differences in language guide thought and shape culture. McWhorter writes in a readable and engaging style — he’s a good writer — but his passion for bashing this moribund theory is hard to understand. And there is certainly no hoax involved in whatever misunderstanding the lay public may have about languages.
Languages change and develop in the most amazing ways, and the variety of ways that languages differ is wonderful. McWhorter believes linguistic changes come about spontaneously. They just bubble up, he says. How those bubble are made and where they come from — well, that would make a very interesting book.
We were unable to reach the web the past few days, so we arrive here at Easter out of breath and unprepared. We do have those eggs we’ve colored over the years (well, actually, the children did most of the work) and we’ve taken them from the little egg boxes that we keep beside the cartons filled with Christmas decorations. We haven’t anything new to say about Easter eggs, so we’re reposting our sentiments from last year. The photos are fresh. You’ll notice they’re the same decorated eggs, but rearranged — we couldn’t get the same arrangement even if we tried.Society finds it easier to give up religious belief, than to abandon the traditions and symbols of religion. Eggs have symbolized fertility, birth and rebirth, for a long, long time. And, as you probably know, you can find eggs used symbolically that way in a number of religious traditions. Here and now we’re celebrating Easter and what we have here are Easter eggs. Much of Christian lay society makes a greater celebration and display at Christmas, Christ’s birthday, but clearly in the sacred drama of Jesus’ life his rising from the dead on Easter morning is far, far more significant than his birth.
If you wish, the egg represents the stone that was rolled against the entrance to the tomb to seal it and was found rolled aside on the third day after his death. Or, if you wish, the egg being empty — and all those painted eggs are first punctured and drained — symbolizes the empty tomb of Christ on Easter day. But for many people, contemporary Easter eggs, as bright and colorful as flowers, simply call to mind springtime, fertility and that awakening we feel when we have come through another dark winter and are looking forward to more light and warmth.
Or maybe it’s simply Waffle Day in Sweden.
Here’s the story, take it as you will. In the liturgical calendar March 25 – exactly nine calendar months prior the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus – is the Feast of the Annunciation. The Annunciation, you recall, is the occasion when the angel Gabriel surprised Mary, telling her that she had been chosen to become the mother of the son of God, to be named Jesus. And Mary assented to God’s plan. That day, in Swedish, is called Vårfrudagen (Our Lady’s Day – the Lady being Mary, mother of God.) But Vårfrudagen sounds enough like Våffeldagen (waffle day) to easily conflate the two, hence the overlap of Waffle Day and Our Lady’s Day in Sweden.
(You can look up the story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke, and you can find the confusion over Våffeldagen and Vårfrudagen in Wikipedia under Waffle Day.)
In the United States, Waffle Day is celebrated on August 24, memorializing that day in August of 1869 when Cornelius Swartwout was awarded the first waffle-iron patent granted by the U.S. Patent Office. If we’re not otherwise occupied, we’ll write a post about waffles when August 24 rolls around.
We’re not going to post an image of a waffle.
But we do like this image of the Annunciation as envisioned by Sandro Botticelli. We like the ballet-like relationship between the angel and Mary, and the delicate space between their hands. We like the way the angel’s gossamer cloak, still billowing, is just settling down under the effect of earthly gravity. In this scene which links heaven and earth, we like the solidity of the red tile floor and the sense of spatial volume induced by those lines of perspective, and we like that distant scene in the deep background.
The astronomical diagram above was designed by Andreas Cellarius, the Dutch-German cartographer best known for his elaborately decorated maps of the heavens, the Harmonia Macrocosmica, which display the divine harmony of the macrocosm. The engraving reproduced above shows the earth tilted in regard to the plane of the ecliptic — and that’s important, because if the earth were not tilted we wouldn’t have seasons.
The earth travels around the sun in a nice flat path, but the earth is tilted in regard to the plane of that path, so that at different times of the year the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun (summer), and at other times it’s tilted away (winter.) And twice a year the angle is such that the northern and southern parts get an equal amount of sunshine — the equinox, when night and day are essentially equal in length. We’ve now gone through the vernal (spring) equinox.
John Milton, the heavy-weight Puritan poet of the 17th century, says that when God created the Garden of Eden, the earth’s axis was not tilted, and the weather remained wonderfully temperate. But after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, everything got slanted awry and we wound up with our freezing winters and hot, hot summers. Milton’s Paradise Lost is too long to quote here, so instead we’ve chosen a very, very short lyric.
“Sumer Is Icumen In” is a poem in Middle English, actually the lyrics to a round, or rota, from about the middle of the 13th century. The little verses celebrate the arrival of spring. The first stanza, below here, mentions the loud song of the cukoo bird, the growing seeds, the blossoming meadows, the new growth of trees in the woods.
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode nu;
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calue cu;
When we originally posted this we also posted Ezra Pound’s parody, “Winter is icumen in,” but we found it too depressing.It must have been posted by our evil twin brother. We’ll stick with spring.
If you read this on March 8, you’ll be reading it on the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach. Or we could say it’s the 300th birthday of CPE Bach — yes, CPE is what musicologists call him for short. CPE, born in Wiemar, was the second oldest son of JS, and one of the four surviving children of seven.
The Bach family was loaded with musicians. Johann Sebastian’s father, his uncles, his elder brother, his children — it would be a geneticist’s dream to study the DNA of that family. Most important, there was no jealous squelching or abuse of talent among the Bachs. Quite the contrary, they appear to have educated and helped each other in many way. Carl Philipp is the transitional figure between J.S. Bach and Mozart, and CPE broke new ground, composing a more emotional and more fluid music than his father. Here, also, it’s significant that the father didn’t stand in the way of the son — quite the contrary, he gave moral support to his son in that venture.
Most listeners probably cannot tell the difference between music written by JS Bach and CPE Bach. That includes us at Critical Pages. However, we’re reasonably familiar with certain pieces by JS and certain other piece by CPE. We know those when we hear them.
Here’s a brief stunning piece by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach. You’ll hear what we mean.