Monday, May 11, 2009

To the Canonization of my Cat: The Entrails of my Reading of Aurora Leigh

Warning: this post is going to be a bit hodge-podgey and bird-brained. And, if you ever plan on reading Aurora Leigh and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read this post. 

My cat has to be put down.  She is very sweet, docile—though still intelligent, I think—and very, very sick.  The vet thinks it is something viral (feline leukemia or AIDS, probably), which is to say whatever she has, it isn’t curable.  Treatment can only be supportive.  She is only five years old; she weighs 5.2 lbs (down from 6 lbs at the time of her last vet visit).  So I’ve been thinking today about death in perhaps a more real, pragmatic way than I usually think of it: I’ve been thinking about what steps should be taken with my cat (do we diagnose or put her down straightaway?—it’s $500 to diagnose, $600 to get her teeth out, and the vet practically told us she should be put down anyway); how much now I want to know about the workings of human and animal bodies; the things I want to do before I die, and how I want to treat my cat before she dies.  It’s perhaps a little dramatic to get so worked up over a cat, but she is a really lovely cat with a lovely face and lovely temperament.  In any case, the sum of my thinking in what I’ve called a ‘pragmatic’ way about death is really the idea of action and a basis for action when faced with these things.  So I’ve been thinking (and this is an illogical leap): I’m going to start a biography of Katherine Mansfield.  (She played cello, you know.)

On a somewhat related note (and as somewhat indicated by my last post), I’ve been thinking a lot about how one might talk about the body in various authors and pieces of literature.  As I told someone back in March, I’ve begun to think that ‘everything is rooted in the body.’  What I meant by that may seem untrue to some, overemphasized to others, and perhaps completely obvious to some others: so many things I’ve been encountering in literary criticism and literature refer to the limits of the human body, our perceptions of the body, and the analogies between the processes and boundaries of body and mind. 

All this as a quasi-related work-up to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (why does AL always get these lengthy preambles—always being twice, including this time)?* There is a lot about the importance of “‘stand[ing] on the earth’” in AL (9.854).  Marian’s rape and the resultant illegitimate child are the means by which Aurora must learn to stop elevating or idealizing her poetic task and the task of caring for the souls of others as somehow above or detached from the body, the claims of being a woman (socially, biologically), and something else to do with the earthly that I haven’t really been able to define.  We talked a bit about Aurora ‘learning’ from Marian in my Brownings course, but I’m sort of struggling to piece together the specific instances in which Aurora has rejected the so-called earthly and perhaps even abject claims embodied by Marian.  There is the scene in which Aurora learns of Marian’s rape, which may simply be the key instance of such a rejection; one could also interpret the description of the poor in Book 4 as some kind of coagulate mass as a picture of the abject; there is also Aurora’s resistance to her love for Romney, which could be a rejection of her role as a woman in a romantic relationship as much as an indicator of her maturity.  I think it’s just one of those things where I’ve sympathized too much with the protagonist and forgotten what are related specifics brought out in the heated debate I discussed in this post.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of passages in AL I’m thinking of that demonstrate the poem’s ideal awareness of soul and physical and social reality.  The following passage also fits in with the idea of an awareness of womanhood and the body as part of Aurora’s personal and poetic development.  Having returned to Italy, Aurora sees some women praying to the Madonna and she describes each in terms of “a tale/To fit [her] fortunes” (7.1229-30) (perhaps significantly, she fictionalizes or recognizes (which is it?) woman with her poet’s imagination)—a humpback woman whose mother is supposed to have just died, a lovesick young woman, and a very very old woman.  The scene described is, I think, meant to echo the prayer procession in which Aurora’s father first spots and falls in love with Aurora’s mother, a figure that haunts the poem.  The old woman in Aurora’s prayer picture

                                                fret[s] on

Against the sinful world which goes its rounds

In marrying and being married, just the same

As when ‘twas almost good and had the right,

(Her Gian alive, and she herself eighteen).

‘And yet, now even, if Madonna willed,

She’d win a tern in Thursday’s lottery

And better all things.  Did she dream for nought,

That, boiling cabbage for the fast-day’s soup,

It smelled like blessed entrails?’ (7.1242-51)

The most striking thing about this passage is the metaphor EBB is working with in the last two lines, and how this adds something semi-mystical to the emphasis on some necessary acknowledgement of the world and the earthly (‘And yet, now even . . .’).  The footnote to these lines in our Norton edition says, “Numerous legends of saints include as evidence of the sanctity of the holy life the fact that, after death, their entrails smelled so deliciously and did not rot, as is the way with normal people” (250 n2).  Isn’t that strange? Stranger still is how EBB extrapolates from this the notion of saintliness and spirituality as a matter of the body, furthermore suggesting that saints’ parts are edible and possibly delicious-smelling! --Although there is the Eucharist (the sacrifice of Christ turns up everywhere AL), and this might be connected to the eating of saints, no blasphemy or weirdness WHATSOEVER.

The other thing I notice about this passage is a relished detailing of the so-called earthly (the old woman, her preoccupations, her soup) that echoes parts of Robert Browning’s painter poem “Fra Lippo Lippi”; there is a similar kind of earthly-spiritual ideal going on in RB’s poetry and in “Fra Lippo” in particular (though I don’t know enough about EBB and RB to say how similar).  Like Aurora, Fra Lippo “dr[a]ws” what he sees:

                                folk at church,

From good old gossips waiting to confess

Their cribs of barrel-droppings, candle-ends—

To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot,

Fresh from murder, safe and sitting there

 . . .

Signing himself . . . because of Christ

(Whose sad face on the cross sees only this

After the passion of a thousand years)

Till some poor girl, her apron o’er her head,

(Which the intense eyes looked through) came at eve

On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,

Her pair of earrings and a bunch of flowers

(The brute took growling), prayed, and so was gone.

I painted all.  (146-63)

(I know one classmate from my Brownings class wrote on John Donne and the Brownings, and I would think all this sense/soul stuff and the contradictions it gets into would be a starting point for the comparison.) 

The second passage of AL I had in mind, particularly in thinking on Aurora and the abject, has another of those strange metaphors, and relates to a class discussion on “A Musical Instrument” referred to in this post.  Here, Aurora figures herself as Io.  The footnote reads that in one version of the myth of Zeus/Jove and Io, Zeus makes Io into a cow that must perpetually be ushered on wandering by a gnat/gadfly, to be at some point released from her form “on the banks of the Nile” (239 n1).

Truth, so far, in my book! A truth which draws

From all things upward.  I, Aurora, still

Have felt it hound me through the wastes of life

As Jove did Io; and, until that Hand

Shall overtake me wholly and on my head

Lay down its large unfluctuating peace,

The feverish gad-fly pricks me up and down.  (7.826-833)

When I think of Zeus and metamorphoses I think of Leda and Zeus as the swan, or Syrinx turned into a reed, pursued by Pan—I think of rape.  But Io’s is not a story of rape; she’s just a mistress of Zeus, hidden from the wife, which perhaps makes EBB’s metaphor all the more interesting.  What is a mistress? A woman defined by her sex, no power in the way a wife and mother might have power, though this, I realize, is quite a narrow definition perhaps only suitable to thinking about Aurora.  What I mean by that is, there is a rape in AL, and it’s Marian whose raped—Aurora isn’t raped, and yet somehow she must benefit from an understanding of Marian’s experience: if Aurora’s Jove is “Truth,” then she has some kind of sensualised union with it that is somehow one degree removed from and yet analogous to the situation of rape experienced by Marian and associated with, for instance, Syrinx, the muse and means of poetry.  Marian’s rape and child become the means of exalting Marian as a Mary figure, the rape rewritten as some immaculate conception, just as Io’s relation to Jove as mistress can be converted to the relationship between the (woman) poet and “Truth.” 

At the same time, saying that EBB is (only?) using Io as a mistress figure in this passage could be taking the hard way out.  There is rape ready in it: the image of “that Hand” that will “overtake [Aurora] wholly” is an ambiguous one, suggesting the possession of the body in rape and the possession of insight and inspiration.  Though I think the mistress interpretation might still stand if supported with other evidence from the poem.

Well, enough of this see-saw.  Bless my cat.

I’m reading a couple of things I’ll blog later—A. N. Wilson’s Winnie and Wolf (which is my daily gruel) and Gabrielle McIntire’s super-recent Modernism, Memory, and Desire: T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf.


 *Correction to my last post on AL: AL is a poem, or a kind of novelized poem, not a verse novel.

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