Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Medea Redux. I eat my children. Or not.

I realized I didn’t even give the bare premise of Winnie and Wolf last post. So I’ll do it here and get back to WW afterwards: WW is written in the form of a memoir of the adoptive father of the lovechild of Winnifred Wagner, Wagner’s daughter-in-law and runner of the Bayreuth festival, and Hitler. The narrator works for the festival for most of his recorded life, admiring Winnie from afar and watching the rise of Hitler from something like a small boy at a party to a kind of glorified ascetic. That’s all you really need to know to understand what I’m going to say.

[I wrote the following last Sunday, along with the title of this post:]

Because I’m so happy I’ve decided to write a silly title to my post that really has nothing to with its content, except for maybe some sense of re-doing; part two or sequel to the last post; or something to do with (and I don’t know why I find myself relying on this word as a concept so much lately) emesis (undoing; undoing then redoing?). But who can think of re-doing when everything is sun and happiness outside!!!! What a lovely day. Chocolate, book-browsing, coffee, gardens, Kate Bush revisits, oooooh! Not to mention looking forward to watching adaptation of Passage to India. Also found addictive read—now halfway through the second book of The Raj Quartet (The Day of the Scorpion). After a period of semi-drab reading: Mansfield Park (which I nonetheless admire greatly), Winnie and Wolf (of course), plotless but intriguing Flaubert’s Parrot (which I suppose I should blog), critical book on T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf (I’m sorry, I think Eliot is too clever for my taste). And meeting with old friends! Too much happiness and pleasure going around to be re-doing things. Also found a critical book just published this year by Cambridge UP called Virginia Woolf and the Victorians which should be interesting: I want to know more about what VW inherited, as opposed to (popular drum roll) rejected, in her parents’ generation.

But I really want to get Winnie and Wolf over-with, and I refuse to leave my commentary on it at what I said last post. It did occur to me, though, that I may be treating this blog too much as a place to blog books. I don’t want to be reviewing all the time, or acting as though I’m reviewing (because it’s so tempting to say one does or does not like something—vanity or a broadly defined concern for quality?), or writing responses. For instance, Andrew and I talk interesting things that I’d like to record on this blog. Today we talked about this silly comparison between two women made by a pro-life proponent; why so-called toilet-boil mentality (I don’t see it therefore it is not or my actions do not have consequences if I don’t see them) is not really something you can condemn on any logical grounds, if you are trying to find a logical way to prove morality or reasons for ethical behaviour, at least insofar as this applies to aborting a baby; will expand on this later. Andrew made an interesting point about literary value that would have been really useful to me in my Canonicity class that I’m sure arose at some point during the term but wasn’t articulated as well as he put it—about literature being a way of invoking scenarios, or (if not directly presenting a scenario) stimulating thought of a scenario, and the reader having to then imagine and understand the interplay of thought and feeling specific to the scenario—the particular problems and facets of it. Andrew said he thought one possible of way saying one piece of writing were more valuable than another would be by measuring each against its capacity to stimulate this kind of thought-discovery. I thought of my Canonicity instructor’s question: can one imagine a culture in which Shakespeare is not considered great? And I then thought of Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare saying Shakespeare was so ‘various,’ so explorative of different situations, as an alternate articulation of what Andrew was saying. I’m sure this was said in my Canonicity class. It was probably shot down by the instructor on some grounds (in the spirit of challenge, though, not correction—mucho importante).

So, back to Winnie and Wolf. Plod. Plod.

By question (posed at the end of my last post):

‘How much of the book’s faultiness is due to its potential as a sympathetic portrait of Hitler?'

[Zoom in to the present:]

11%. No, just joking. But I joke because, in retrospect, I think I’ve put out a bit of a loaded, unanswerable question. In fact, there is really no question of ‘how much’—and no question otherwise. The book simply seemed to me to appear more badly handled than it might otherwise appear because it was attempting something with so much fictional potential: the humanization of Hitler. It also seems a sort of delicate thing to attempt, especially through an unreliable narrator, and Wilson just goes clip-clop all over this terrain and its potentialities—there’s something so coarse-cut about the way these two things are handled, both individually and in relation to each other.

I also have to say, as a side note, that I hate it when books sigh all the time. You could summarize the novel as a lamentatious ode on the destructive and sublime nature of absolutist beliefs and people. But I sort of get frustrated whenever admiration is the mode of reflection. It’s something a bit different when it’s under question, which is what makes WW more interesting, from my pov. Take, for instance: “She wasn’t mad, Winnie—unless you think it is mad to live exclusively in a world of your own and to insist on life being understood exclusively on your terms” (360).

A passage related to the one above gives a sense of what annoys me about the tone Wilson uses with narrator (a tone which I’m not altogether sure we’re not meant to dissociate from Wilson himself):

I am unimaginative when meeting absolutism in other minds. I think, ‘You can’t really think that; you are telling yourself you think that because it is a system at present useful for your purposes’ . . . Apart from being patronizing, this attitude of mine is quite simply wrong. Absolutists do believe what they say they believe. How else can we account for their preparedness to die, and to kill, for their beliefs? (342)

This is one of those sticky passages where Wilson seems to be trying to say something deep but instead makes me feel whacked over the head with a ham, a perfumed ham . . . Let’s say that here the narrator is Wilson’s mouthpiece: how is the narrator/Wilson defining belief, and what of the circumstances in which so-called belief is generated? Okay, okay, we have examples of so-called absolutists throughout the novel, the circumstances in which they come to their beliefs, what these beliefs are. But somehow these examples seem quite disconnected from the narrator’s statements. Or is it my annoyance at the tone of these statements that prompts that disconnection, for me? The tone really does make me think of something some annoying, hot-headed, back-of-the-book reader student would say in class (which is not to say I have not at one time or another been that student).

Again, going back to the narrator, I’m a bit confused about what we’re supposed to think about ‘German pride’ in the book. (Third question: ‘What is “German pride” and why does Wilson seem so gung-ho about it?’) Wilson is talking about some kind of old German pride—having to do with Protestant villages, cleanliness, etc. Not Hitler’s German pride. The narrator talks about it quite a bit. But how is the reader meant to relate to it? Ironically, sympathetically? Perhaps the whole key of WW is this unsureness of how to regard things like German pride and hero-worship—both being kinds of beliefs. At the same time, German pride is never really tested and questioned in the same way hero-worship is. The narrator gets really earnest when talking about German pride, and there’s nothing to point to his feelings or observations being in any way misguided, misplaced, or wrong. Add to that the fact that he is our way of seeing into the past (before the Nazis and during) and into a particular culture, and I begin to wonder if we’re meant to take this pride stuff at face value, as purely descriptive of people in a time and place.

Second question: ‘Can art avoid being political?’

Throughout the novel we are reminded that Wagner is being interpreted by the Nazis for political and patriotic messages and that he never intended such messages. On the one hand, WW seems to be saying political interpretations of art are inevitable. On the other, it sort of mocks this tendency to interpret. And, strangely, if we are to sympathize with Hitler, we have to sympathize with the possibility of a world in which such interpretations do not exist. So, Hitler dreams of

a setting for the greatest music ever composed, which would transport the collective unconsciousness of one audience after the next in that packed opera house into the world of their true selves—not their world of petty debt or tedious work or party politics, but the true world of the spirit and the imagination. (254)

Knowledge of Schopenhauer would have been useful here; not knowing Schopenhauer I'm afraid of misunderstanding this passage. Still, the “true world of the spirit and the imagination” is, I think, simply a rephrasing of “a world of your own [in which] life [is] understood exclusively on your terms” (360). It poses the same problem: sympathize or criticize (with the understanding that accepting political interpretations of a piece of art does not mean one endorses, for instance, what one interprets as a Nazi message)?

Fourth question: ‘is Wilson just trying to write a pretty history-book?'

No. Yes. No.

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