Tuesday, December 11

Sometimes I can’t reconcile myself to Tolstoy’s optimistic view of humanity. At one point, Nekhlyudov comes to the conclusion that most people “have become bad only because of their office,” (449). I don’t know whether Tolstoy actually believes this, whether he wishes it were the truth, whether he’s just portraying Nekhlyudov as an optimist or a naïf, but sometimes it really bothers me! He says that, then shows umpteen examples of people treating others cruelly and inhumanely, and there is always a reason why they can’t feel compassion; they’re annoyed at dumb bureaucratic things like tedious paperwork, or they’re hot, or they had a fight with their wife. As much as I am enjoying this novel and think that Tolstoy is wonderful, I think he’s guilty of some rationalization himself. I’m sure his optimistic view of humanity makes him want to give rational explanations for peoples’ motivations at behaving cruelly, but I don’t think there always is a rational explanation, unfortunately.

Maybe Tolstoy is reacting to more pessimistic writers like Zola, and maybe it was just the trend of the time period he was writing in to try to discover and attribute psychological motives for all kinds of behavior because of the emergence of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. I haven’t read any of his other works, but it seems to me as I read this section that he is either naïve or doesn’t want to address the fact that sometimes people are cruel simply because they can be. The prison guards are always treating prisoners badly because they (the guards) are in a bad mood or don’t want to be bothered, but never because they are power-hungry or simply cruel. I know the point is that this system dehumanizes not only the prisoners, but everyone involved in the system, from guards to magistrates to cabinet members. I know he doesn’t think these are good excuses for treating others badly, but it’s like he’s saying that nobody would be this way if they didn’t work somewhere that dehumanized them and others, and I don’t believe that. I think people often seek those jobs because they already have a disregard for other humans and because they are compelled by self-interest and want to wield power over others.

I think it would be more realistic for me if, just once, a character would show up whose cruelty wasn’t explained in some way, or is explained thus, “he was cruel simply because he could get away with it/it made him feel powerful.” Maybe it sounds crazy, but I need that in order to make it fit better into my worldview. I don’t believe that all people are good at heart but have lost their way because they let self-interest guide them. Perhaps I’m too influenced by postmodern, nihilistic novels and films, but I think that part of the reason people would choose jobs like prison guard to begin with is because they need to feel powerful and they like pushing people around (I’ve met some ex-wives of cops who would agree).

I know many people take or stay at jobs they are not particularly well-suited for because they need the money or it’s convenient, (me included), but I also know that people like jobs where they get to exert power or control over people. For example, I work in a finance office. Our office collections rep loves to talk about how if people don’t shape up, he’ll repossess their cars. Every other male who comes within sniffing distance of our building asks my boss if they can help him repossess something. I’m sure that the excitement and adrenaline rush of the thing is very alluring, but I’m also sure part of that adrenaline rush is the feeling of power one gets from taking someone’s car from them. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable.

I did not address it specifically, but I did read the whole section, from the men dying of sunstroke and Princess Korchagina’s ironic exclamation that the heat is killing her, to the convicts’ march across Russia to Siberia (I didn’t know they had to do this. It is horrible), to the description of the unfair and seemingly arbitrary injustices suffered by the political prisoners (Simonson seems like a real pill), to the end where Nekhlyudov must interrupt the officer’s bawdy story about a Hungarian woman “with Persian eyes” (I.e. a gypsy. Good on Nekhlyudov for condemning “this kind of attitude to women”) in order to visit Maslova and the political prisoners. I am fairly certain that when I get to the end of the novel I am going to cry because I won’t want it to be over.

Sunday, December 9

A Field Trip to Dante’s Inferno

I had an interesting experience the other day that called to my mind the attitudes of certain people portrayed in Resurrection. We went to the landfill for a Geology field trip. We rode to the landfill site from school in a van and the van I was in contained about 9 people. On the way to the landfill, one of the guys in the back was talking about how he had to go to alcohol class for 8 hours because he’d gotten caught consuming alcohol and is a minor. Everyone had an anecdote or story to contribute on this subject, because twentysomethings tend to be familiar with that sort of thing.

When we got to the landfill, we picked up the landfill director and drove to the see the sights of the landfill. On our way around to the new landfill area (which is a large, many tiered hole in the ground very much resembling Dante’s description of the Inferno), we passed a white Ada County truck bringing in trash picked up by the alternative sentencing participants in the Sheriff’s Inmate Labor Detail (SILD). The landfill director, who was in the middle of describing the types of jobs available at the landfill, took this opportunity to say to all of us, “There’s the Inmate Labor truck,” and I asked what kind of work they did—because I thought maybe some people were sentenced to work at the actual landfill rather than just pick up trash on the roadside (like I said, twentysomethings tend to be familiar with the consequences of excess alcohol consumption). “Well, you want to be careful that you don’t have too much fun. The Inmate Labor Program is for those who get punished for their sins and indiscretions and have to do hard labor for the County.”

Everyone kind of stopped talking for a minute. Finally one guy said, “It’s better than sitting in jail,” and the director said, smiling, “They think so, too.” My friend was incredulous at his use of the word “sins”—apparently she didn’t realize that a trip to the landfill would entail a morality lesson! Truly, I have not heard anyone use the word “sin” in a non-church situation, (outside of a novel or movie), in so long that I can’t remember. After he got out, my friend and I spent a long time discussing how judgmental and inappropriate it seemed for the guy to use the word and I commented that he’s probably never read Tolstoy.

I’m guessing that the landfill director has never read Tolstoy because he would probably be in the camp of Nekhlyudov’s brother-in-law and his smug assertion that, “innocent people are never punished—or, at least, with very rare exceptions. But the guilty are punished…every thief knows that stealing is wrong and that he ought not to steal—that stealing is wicked,” (410-11). Now, I’m not arguing that the people sentenced to the SILD are innocent; I know several people who’ve had to do it because they drove drunk when they knew they shouldn’t have. My main objection is the guy’s use of the word “sin,” because it presumes the following: A) that everyone has the same notion of religious morality, and B) that we all feel the same as him in reserving the right to judge and condemn others based on this notion, or C) it’s his place to engage in such pedagogy because he has a carload of students at his facility. I don’t like it when people arbitrarily presume that I share their views, especially when it comes to religion.

In a way it resembles Nekhlyudov’s experience in this section of the novel. Everyone thinks he’s crazy for wanting to help the prisoners and peasants and they don’t want to try to understand either him or the people he’s trying to help. One of them, and I can’t remember who because there were so many of them and they all blend together, (Tolstoy makes a good example of government bureaucracy and red tape and the schmoozing it takes to get things done), is described as someone who doesn’t believe anything religion-wise, but he thinks it’s bad for the peasants to have religious views outside of the state-sponsored religion. Then he helps Nekhlyudov anyway and sets them free. Most of the people Nekhlyudov deals with are the same way; at first they are firmly resolved to refuse his requests because he is going against what they consider normal, then they sign over prisoners’ freedom as soon as he asks. So what happened to their resolve not to break with order and normalcy? Are they more humane than they appear at first, are they just indifferent, or are they spineless?

Tuesday, December 4

In this section Tolstoy gives us again a scene in which a bunch of upper class socialites are attending a party and behaving falsely. It reminds me of gatherings I’ve attended at art galleries, etc. Sometimes they can be really fun, but other times they are really boring, especially when you see it’s just a bunch of people who already know each other and seem to only be interested in talking about their own inside jokes or reliving their good old high school days or talking about people who have long since moved away. Then it can be pretty pointless and empty seeming.
Even worse, I once attended an annual party with the theme of “Pimps and Ho’s,” [sic]. In case you don’t know what this is, the Pimps & Ho’s theme party was popularized by rap musicians in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s. People attending these parties dress up like either hookers or pimps and drink a lot of whatever they imagine rappers or pimps and hos drink, (in other words, everything). Usually there is a lot of drug-doing going on as well. It ends up with everyone trying to outdo each other in crassness and debauched behavior, but in a very affected and pathetic way, (though I doubt any of them has ever heard the word “debauched” before). What it actually boils down to is a group of acquaintances who are drawn together by the fact that they frequent the same watering hole, parading around in too few clothes in mid-November, each hell-bent on doing something legendarily outrageous, most of whom end up puking on the host’s lawn before shambling away at sunrise.
The Pimps and Ho’s party was hardly the same as the soiree Nekhlyudov wades through to talk to Maslennikov, but there seemed to be a similar pervasive air of artificiality—the least of which were the ridiculous costumes worn by the pimps and hos. I heard several exchanges of phone numbers at that party that sounded like this, “Hey, give me your phone number again? Every time you tell me it I lose it, but this time I’m gonna call you and we’ll get drunk!” I’ve no doubt this was finally the magic occasion where they managed to make good on this promise.
There was a guy who was hugging everyone and who seemed genuinely friendly and interested in what other people had to say. As soon as he left, everyone complained about how much they hated him. Most people would be really friendly to someone when they walked past, then badmouth them as soon as they were out of earshot. This is what reminds me of the Maslennikovs’ party. The way everyone is offended by Nekhlyudov’s abrupt departure and talks about him afterwards reminds me the way everyone at the Pimps & Ho's was offended by the too-friendly guy and badmouthed him when he left. It seems more absurd, though, since Nekhlyudov actually did behave somewhat rudely whereas this guy was just being friendly. I remember Nekhlyudov geting annoyed at jury duty because an overly friendly guy ignored social mores and was too familiar with him until he (Nekhlyudov) found more important things to occupy his mind, namely Maslova.
There is an interesting contrast between the upper class social gatherings Nekhlyudov attends and the scenes at the prison. All of the interactions at the prison are more genuine than the upper class get-togethers, whether they take place in the cells or in the visiting room. I think part of what Tolstoy is saying is that the leisured classes have built up all of this affectation to cover up the fact that they have nothing better to do. At least learning and maintaining all of these social regulations gives them something to occupy their time when they aren’t depriving prisoners of their civil rights and/or having them flogged. I’m hoping to see Nekhlyudov interact with the peasants on his estate to see what that is like.
This is unrelated, but I don’t understand why the political prisoners seem to have it so much easier than the other prisoners, which is what we see when Nekhlyudov goes to visit Vera Oh-God-I-can’t-say-her-name-a. Their visiting room doesn’t have mesh wires between the visitors and the prisoners. I’m guessing it’s because they are probably mostly upper class and respectable middle class people. I think they would be the only ones who could afford the luxury of being radical; both literally because they have access to education and reading materials and free time, also because their status protects them from harsher punishment. If there are any poor “political” prisoners, they probably get thrown in the regular, lice-ridden jail on trumped-up or fabricated charges, like the Menshovs or the 130 men with expired passports.

Sunday, December 2

It’s interesting that Tolstoy actually sees fit to point out just how fake are the interactions of Sophia Vassilyevna and Kolossov: "Nekhlyudov saw, first, that neither of them cared anything about the play or each other, and that if they talked it was only to satisfy the physical need to exercise the muscles of the throat and tongue after eating," (132). It seems to me that most people don’t want to admit or break the illusion that sometimes conversation is just as Tolstoy describes it above. Every day at work I interact with people whose common greeting is "How are you?" and everyone knows you don't actually give any answer other than, "good" or "great!" or some sort of cliché such as, “living for the weekend.” You never say how you’re actually feeling or if you're having a bad day, because most people don’t want to hear that.
I’ve experimentally answered people a couple of times with things like, “Actually, I’ve been having a terrible week,” just to see what happened. On each occasion, the other person got visibly uncomfortable and was surprised that I gave an earnest answer. One time the other person just changed the subject entirely, and once an acquaintance actually said something like, “Oh, I don’t want to hear about anything bad!” which I found rather rude, because why ask if you don’t really care? I mean, why don’t we just ask some other meaningless question in greeting, such as, “Do you have a third nipple?” or something? It would be the same thing. Why not something totally nonsensical like, “Do bread lights have lice?” and the codified expected answer could be, “Mathematics!” To me it seems as pointless.
It always makes me feel like these exchanges are sort of empty, and like there isn’t any real exchange or communication occurring. It’s kind of the way the whole scene plays out between Sophia Vassilyevna, Kolossov, and Nekhlyudov. Nekhlyudov isn’t in the mood to play along with this ruse of talking for the sake of talking and going along with all of the Princess’s artificial nonsense, so she gets annoyed when he gives her short, dry, honest answers and doesn’t keep up his end of the conversation. She’s receiving all these men in her room because part of her youthful façade is that they are her admirers, and the rumor about her affair with her doctor is probably a false one started by Sophia Vassilyevna herself. Her power struggle with Philip the handsome footman on pages 133-4 is hilarious, and it further underscores her vanity and ridiculousness that she brings in her attractive servant and orders him around in front of her “admirers.” What a totally boring, pathetic life!
I am reminded of this artificiality in the scene where the prisoners attend a service in the ornate, glittering church. The priest is wearing a gold garment that he can’t move in; he leads the prisoners in prayers for the Emperor, which seems sort of blasphemous. The part, though, where Tolstoy describes the preparation of the communion bread and wine/Body and Blood of Christ on p. 181-2 is the best. Such dry sarcasm! He reduces the act of transubstantiation (or whatever they call it in the Russian Orthodox church) to the most ridiculous, comical sounding ritual, and the priest comes off sounding like a hypocrite and a bit of a buffoon: “hampered though he was by the gold cloth sack he had on…sinking to his knees and kissing the table and the objects on it…the most important operation was when the priest picked up a napkin in both hands and rhythmically and smoothly waved it over the saucer and the golden cup.” It reads like a weird ritual carried out by a superstitious child or a mentally challenged or a crazy person. Then Tolstoy tells the reader, “This was supposed to be the moment when the bread and wine turned into flesh and blood, and therefore this part of the service was performed with the utmost solemnity.”
How can anyone believe this silliness would effect a miracle? Indeed, Tolstoy tells us later that the priest himself doesn’t believe the bread and wine actually undergo a transformation—and that nobody can—but that the priest believes, “one ought to believe it,” (185). The part where the priest gives some of the blood and body to the children is a scene I can’t read without howling with laughter: “the priest carefully took a bit…and thrust it far into the mouth of each child in turn, while the subdeacon, wiping the children’s mouths, in a gay voice sang a song about the children eating God’s flesh and drinking His blood,” (p. 182). How utterly grotesque and morbid this sounds! But wait, it gets better: “the priest carried the cup back…and drinking up all the blood left in the cup and eating all the remaining bits of God’s body, and painstakingly licking round his moustaches and wiping his mouth and the cup, briskly marched out from behind the partition, in the most cheerful frame of mind…” There is so much wrong here. I’m not religious, but it is disgusting to imagine the priest licking the blood of Christ off his “moustaches,” as though it’s a tasty morsel. And if it’s supposed to be a solemn occasion, then maybe the priest shouldn’t be quite so cheerful. It’s not surprising, therefore, when Tolstoy breaks into the admonishment on the following pages about how blasphemous these practices are. It’s pretty obvious how disgusting he finds all of it by his description of this transubstantiation ritual.

Sunday, November 25

I knew an Effi when I was a child, and though she was as different from Effi Briest as anyone could possibly be, she too suffered from lonliness and boredom. She was a solid, ruddy Austrian divorcee with a deep voice and a deeper tan. If her son Hans Eric wasn’t home by dinnertime, she’d set the neighborhood dogs barking by standing on her driveway and bellowing, "Haaaannnnn Zzzzaaaaahhhhhhrrrrrrrick!" with that special Bavarian r-roll. For a long time I thought his name was spelled Han Zehrick, or something. Her perpetual summer wardrobe consisted of a faded lavender tube top or faded blue bikini top, white terrycloth short-shorts three sizes too small, and some rather menacing-looking gardening gloves. I remember this disco hit man uniform well.

Effi’s house lay at the corner of a major neighborhood intersection, and the yard contained a mound with a rock garden of sorts, strategically placed to be visible to as many motorists as possible. Effi spent Saturdays and Sundays weeding and planting in this garden, her butt rising ostentatiously into the air whenever she sensed the presence of a male, like a cat in heat. I’m pretty sure it operated of its own accord, like it was equipped with testosterone-sensing radar. You could be in the middle of a conversation with her, and she’d suddenly bend down, forcing you to crouch to continue your tete a tete. Thirty seconds later, the guy across the street would come out of his house to get his mail. It was amazing. The ass never went up if it was a woman or a kid heading for the mailbox. It was the same with cars; the butt could sense a male driving a vehicle from several blocks away. The intersection she lived on was so busy, however, that on Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays she basically had to spend the whole day bent over. I don’t know if this ploy ever lured any men or not.

I remember one winter day Hans Eric and I decided to sled down the little hill in the front yard. I toppled off the sled and onto a snow-covered clutch of cactus, and the needles went through my mittens and stuck in my palms and in between my fingers. Effi had little sympathy and mostly scolded me for potentially damaging her cactus garden.

Tuesday, November 13

The other night I read La Bete Humaine right before I went to bed. I stopped at the point when Jacques was lying in bed debating killing Roubaud and could not sleep a wink. Interestingly enough, I didn’t sleep well that night. I had several dreams where I thought I was awake and that there was someone in my room. I tried to turn on my bedside light, but the light bulb was burned out and wouldn’t turn on. I had a similar one where I woke up and I knew I needed to go to work, but the lamp was burned out again and my clock was broken. I couldn’t tell if it was time to get up or not, and for whatever reason, I was unable to get out of bed without the lamp being on. I have dreams like this all the time, but I thought of it just as I was reading scene on pages 319-20 where Jacques goes to strangle Severine but then she puts out the lamp and he is okay (for the time being, at least). Zola has made an interesting inversion of the typical cliché of the monster who comes out in the dark.

It’s interesting how Zola is able to make you dread the inevitable when Jacques kills Severine—and yet he must drag it out so that you both dread it but at the same time you just want him to get it the hell over with! And why does Severine have to get so clingy and annoying and murderous right before he kills her? I am very upset that Jacques kills her even though I knew all along he was going to do it. She loves him so much! She’s so childlike! Yet at the same time, she’s going kind of crazy. The scene is set up so that there is nothing Jacques can do but kill her—even if he hadn’t had the dark urge to kill a woman since childhood, I think he may have been driven over the edge anyway. And yet I wonder if that scene is set up on purpose to test the reader: which thing do you see? That Severine is a sweet devoted (though somewhat misguided) lover, she loves Jacques madly, and her desire to kill Roubaud is completely natural and justified; or that she has become a beast herself, desperate and cloying, and she drives Jacques over the edge? (All of the above, of course).

What drives me crazy is that if Severine wants Roubaud dead so badly, why doesn’t she just kill him herself? It’s interesting how many times you are told how docile and submissive she is, but she really stops being so much so after she has her sexual awakening with Jacques. So why does the narrator keep saying that she is? Clearly she is pushing her own agenda when she’s trying to “help” Jacques to kill Roubaud by using her “affectionate docile innocence,” (328), but she is so obsessed with this idea of she and Jacques being one that she believes they are completely of the same mind.

Severine and Jacques are a good example of the notion that love makes you crazy; and that passion and madness are so closely related that sometimes they are the same thing, and that passion often causes destruction. In the end, passion destroys everyone because it is the beast! Misard kills Phasie because his only passion is for her money, and her only passion is keeping it from him; Flore kills a bunch of people and herself because of her passion for Jacques; Cabuche gets dragged into everything due to his misguided idolizing of Severine and because the cops are so passionate to prove their own convoluted theories (and clearly aren’t familiar with the principle of Occam’s Razor), Pecqueux kills himself and Jacques and, everyone on earth (it seems like everyone metaphorically, anyway) in a jealous rage. I am that at least Roubaud gets what he deserves. And as for Jacques, I would be more upset if killing Severine had completely sated his lust for murder. It seems wrong, but it’s better that it’s entirely his problem and has nothing to do with her. Her life has been so sad, and the moment she finds love, it is her undoing. This novel forces you to think things that are unspeakable. Earlier, when Jacques cast about in the streets looking for a victim to murder, I thought, “No, don’t murder the poor sad woman,” and was relieved when he instead chose the happy woman to murder. Good God!

Can I just say that as I have been writing this paper, I have been listening to a CD I made myself at least 5 years ago and just found today. I couldn’t remember the songs on it, so I popped it into my CD player, and here are some of the eerily appropriate song titles that have been playing as I’ve been writing: “Where Is My Mind?” “Killer Queen,” “The Metro” (about a train), “Psycho Killer,” “Everything She Wants,” “She’s Come Undone,” and “Love is the Drug.” Kinda freaky.

Tuesday, October 23

The section where Svidrigailov talked about his little 15-year-old girl fiancée really creeped me out, and reminded me of some things I’ve known of recently. One of my office’s customers was recently arrested for installing a camera in a 14-year-old girl’s shower. He was able to do so because he is a contractor and his company was doing some sort of construction on her house. My friend’s boyfriend just dumped her for a 19-year-old, (he is 37). He first got together with my friend when she was 19, (she is now 24), and dumped his old girlfriend for her. I was talking to one of my friends recently about why some men (and some women, but it seems to occur more commonly with men), are attracted to women so much younger than them. The discussion originated because I recently had to cut off a friendship with a married guy friend who took things to an inappropriate level.
He started inviting himself over to my house on weekends, (when I’d have much rather been reading The Betrothed). His reasoning was that because he lives in Nampa, whenever he comes to Boise he considers it a “waste of time” if he doesn’t get to hang out with some of his Boise friends. Before he hit on me, I became really annoyed with him because I noticed that whenever I was around him, he’d constantly tell me what books to read, what movies to watch, what music to listen to—not because “I think you’d like Movie X if you like Movie Y,” or even, “Everyone should hear this band because they are amazing,” but more because he thought he could improve on my existing tastes. If I ever ran into him at a function, he’d interrupt my conversation with someone else in order to stick his iPod in my ears and play some annoying song he was enamored of, saying, “You gotta hear this—it’s phenomenal!” He’d stick CDs into my computer and upload them without asking. Once when he was at my house, he got onto my Netflix queue and rearranged the whole list, deleting movies he thought were stupid, and adding to it tons of things that I would never be interested in. Like Anime, or Naked Lunch. Never, ever will I watch Naked Lunch, nor will I read it. He would appraise my bookshelf, saying things like, “Good, good, you have Vonnegut…The Second Sex, good…hm…Flannery O’Connor, good…Kierkegaard, nice—What?! Art Nouveau? Art Nouveau sucks! Your Birthday Sign Through Time?!? This doesn’t belong here! This doesn’t belong on any bookshelf!” and on and on. I never ASKED for his bloody opinions! Amazingly, he is neither an English, nor a Philosophy major…
Ah, but I digress. I was telling my friend about him and saying that he needs a 19-year-old if he’s going to pull that sort of crap—if he wants to mold someone’s tastes in his own image. And though he’s married, he’d come up with a very Svidrigailovian sort of rationalization for hitting on me. He thought that I would jump at the chance to sleep with him—that I’d be grateful, because I’m single. And that it wasn’t really anything that should affect his marriage, because he was doing me such a huge service! (And this is not speculation, he made it clear by his actions and his words that this is what he thought. Yuck). He thought that all of this preaching to me about music, books, and movies was a compliment to me. He thought that I was flattered that he was taking so much time and energy to tell me what to be interested in. I made it obvious that it really annoyed the shit out of me, but he thought it was funny. He also thought he had my entire personality figured out. In short, he thought he knew better than me what I wanted or what was good for me, which motivated everything else he did. As I said earlier, Yuck.
Anyway, back to Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov is this same sort of pompous, presumptuous ass. It reminds me of my erstwhile friend when Svidrigailov tells Raskolnikov, “I shall continue to tell you things like that on purpose, just in order to hear your screams. It’s a real pleasure!” (575). His entire tirade on flattery as the key to “the subjugation of the female heart,” (568-9) disgusts me, and it’s the same sort of ironic, sexist B.S. that my ex-friend would say.
I can’t tell whether or not Svidrigailov really believes he’s made Dunya love him or whether he’s just pretending to himself. Maybe a little of both, and I think he’s attached to her because she’s been his biggest challenge in winning over. Plus the fact that he thinks he’s so wonderful, such a sexual conquistador, that she should fall at his feet simply because he deigned to notice her and compliment her. I also think it’s hard as an English speaker in the 21st Century to quite understand what it means when Dunya uses the “thou” form and why it is so devastating to Svidrigailov. I assume this means what we learned as the formal “you” in German—Sie/Ihnen vs. Du—and maybe the translator just didn’t know how to convey this to English-speaking readers? Whatever the case, I must say I will not be sorry when Svidrigailov kills himself.

Friday, October 5

The most memorable satanic character we have encountered among the three authors listed is the title character in E.T.A. Hoffman's The Sandman. Known either as Coppelius or Guiseppe Coppola, the sandman is a diabolical, wicked fiend who is able to possess Nathaniel's mind through the use of magic. Comparatively, Alessandro Manzoni's Unnamed and Honoré de Balzac's Vautrin are much more human characters who possess sharp intellects and keen powers of observation, yet no magic. These men both came into their evil ways by motives and intentions that are borne out of human desires, while the sandman wants only one thing—control over Nathaniel. The sandman is an elusive fellow and disappears whenever it is most prudent for him to do so. Vautrin may be able to cheat death sometimes, but is very dramatically arrested, while the Unnamed is moved from within to renounce his evil ways and come to God, thereby becoming a famous saint.
Call him Coppelius, call him Guiseppe Coppola, call him the sandman, whatever his name is, there is no doubt that this man possesses magical qualities that neither Vautrin nor the Unnamed possess. The very first time the reader encounters Coppelius in the flesh, he “unscrew[s] [Nathaniel’s] hands and feet, and fixe[s] them on again,” in differing configurations, (p. 92). This act—which foreshadows Coppelius’s eventual control over Nathaniels limbs and mind—is an act outside the realm of physical reality, and neither Vautrin nor the Unnamed command this type of power. These men undoubtedly have uncanny insight into the minds and motives of others, but it is a natural talent each man has developed because his success—and life—depended upon it.
One of Vautrin’s defining characteristics is his seemingly inexplicable ability to know things the other characters do not. On page 69 of Old Goriot he astounds Rastignac because he knows the name and errand of the beautiful woman Eugéne met in the street, “she was probably going to visit old Gobseck, a money-lender...her name is Anastasie de Restaud.” This type of knowledge becomes less mysterious when Vautrin is revealed to be a criminal mastermind who acts as “agent,” “banker,” and “legal adviser” to “every convict in three prisons,” plus many criminals too smart to get caught (p. 186-7). One can infer that Vautrin knows Gobseck and found the information out through him. Upon Vautrin’s arrest, the author alludes to the brilliance of criminals, “a barbarous…yet calmly logical and clear-headed race.” The terms “logical” and “clear-headed” deflate any notion that criminals like Vautrin possess supernatural abilities and reminds this reader more of the scientist de Balzac mentions in the novel’s dedication.
Alessandro Manzoni’s larger-than-life figure of evil, the Unnamed, has a similar heightened ability to observe and judge others as Vautrin, but again, there does not seem to be anything supernatural in it. “The Unnamed came forward…watching Don Rodrigo’s face and also keeping an eye on his hands. This was an old habit of his, almost an involuntary reaction,” (p. 368). These habits would have to be cultivated by an old soldier such as the Unnamed in order to become an old soldier, rather than a dead soldier. (need to cite where he’s shown to be a soldier). Later on, the Unnamed exhibits signs that his lot may be closer to Nathaniel’s than Coppelius’s. Nathaniel refers to himself on page 102 of The Sandman as, “the tortured plaything of mysterious powers…effectuated by some higher force from outside.” On page 369 of The Betrothed, The Unnamed volunteers to kidnap Lucia for Don Rodrigo, “as if some devil in his heart had given him an order.” The Unnamed is bewildered by this force and chides himself for giving in to it. If he had mastery over the supernatural, it seems that he would have control over this force, rather than it having control over him.

In fact, the very awareness they each have of their own mortality marks them as humans rather than magicians. (talk about intents & motives—good and bad)

The reader doesn’t get very much insight into the inner workings of Coppelius’s mind or a map of his motives. The most we know about his motives is that he wants eyes, and especially, it seems, Nathaniel’s eyes: “Now we have eyes—eyes—a lovely pair of children’s eyes!” he rhapsodizes on page 91. On page 109, Coppola says almost the same words to Nathaniel, “I also got lov-ely occe, lov-ely occe!” using the Italian word for “eyes” to describe glasses. Spalzani tells Nathaniel that the automaton Olympia’s eyes are, “the eyes, the eyes purloined from you!” (p. 120). The very fact that the word “eyes” is repeated at least twice every time eyes are mentioned shows what great significance they have for Coppelius and Coppola. This lust for eyes reflects Nathaniel’s childhood fear of the sandman who steals naughty children’s eyes and feeds them to his own children (p. 87).

Why does Coppelius want Nathaniel’s eyes so badly? Is it because the eyes are the windows to the soul, and Coppelius—fiend that he is—wants control over Nathaniel’s soul? Nathaniel claims that Coppelius is “an evil force which [took] possession of him” as a child and still holds sway over him as an adult (p. 103). Use of Coppola’s telescope brings him deeper under the man’s control; as he becomes more and more obsessed with looking at Olympia, she becomes more lifelike. Her eyes, which were cold and dead before, become convincingly realistic, and everyone is fooled into believing she’s a living human. Coppola’s enchanted telescope is drawing out Nathaniel’s soul and instilling it in Olympia. Once Olympia is destroyed—once her eyes, the eyes from Nathaniel, are removed, Nathaniel can’t get that part of his soul back. Afterwards, Nathaniel is more obviously under Coppelius’s control. The possession that previously affected only Nathaniel’s thoughts and moods now affects his words and movements. “Spin, puppet, spin!” he cries as when he tries to kill both Spalzani and Clara (120 and 124). Nathaniel is now Coppelius’s “lovely puppet.” I wonder if these are words that Coppelius wants him to say, or Nathaniel’s self is so destroyed that he is parroting the commands Coppelius is saying inside his head.

The author of The Sandman pits characters against each other in debate over the questionable reality of the man himself. The reader is asked to consider whether the sandman actually exists as Nathaniel sees him: is he an ugly, mean-spirited creature who maliciously torments Nathaniel and appears to him as both Coppelius and Coppola? Nathaniel's betrothed, Clara, offers a different theory on p. 95 and 103: Coppelius was undoubtedly a “repulsive” figure who frightened Nathaniel as a child, but it is Nathaniel who projects demonic characteristics and powers onto both Coppelius and Coppola. It is Nathaniel's own mind that won’t allow him to let go of this “spectral monster,” rather than “an evil force which ha[s] taken possession of him.” How does the famous quote go? “The Devil’s greatest trick was in fooling mankind that he didn’t exist.” Here lies the reason for the sandman’s great memorablity as a satanic character; months later, the reader is still pondering the same questions as those around Nathaniel—does the sandman really exist?

Wednesday, October 3

The Loathsome Tropatchov

First let me say that I could not have imagined anyone more perfect to play Tropatchov than Frank Langella. He is really good at playing haughty, evil slimebags (I actually imagined him playing the Inominata up until his miraculous reform). Tropatchov is just plain hateful. He is like the old-fashioned model of a particular personality type I’ve encountered many times in my life and which I hate. When I was a kid, my dad had a friend who could most politely be described as an asshole. He made fun of everyone, all the time. He told offensive jokes, all the time. He knew just how to get under everyone's skin, and proceeded to needle you until you exploded, then made fun of you.
His favorite game was make fun of you or tell offensive jokes until you got annoyed, then start telling you what a "spoilsport" you were, saying, "Come on, where's your sense of humor?," and insulting your intelligence. The more annoyed you got, the more opportunities it gave him to hurl tailor-made insults at you, in which he blamed your faulty sense of humor on your race, religion, gender, age, weight, financial status--whatever was most hurtful to you, and in the most vulgar language possible. He'd do this until you were ready to blow your top. Then he would laugh and laugh at you and point you out to whomever was around, saying things like, "Wow, look at her go! Must be her time of the month! Ha ha!" Eventually, the object of his “joking around” would start screaming and swearing and insulting him. Then he'd get mad, and I mean MAD at you and tell you that the whole thing was your fault because you don’t have a sense of humor! He was just joking around! He wasn't being serious! You're making him look like a jerk in front of other people and making him feel bad! You’re the one in the wrong! He’s just a good old boy from Missouri! And you just insulted him! And he’d continue until you were apologizing to him. He loved to do this in front of an audience.
I see a lot of parallels with Tropatchov here, though Tropatchov’s devices are certainly more refined. Obviously, what he likes to do is stir up trouble and rile up other people for his own entertainment. Wind the toys up, then sit back and watch them go! He’s also going to do what he wants, when he wants, period. He barges into Yeletsky’s home repeatedly; taking advantage of etiquette rules that won’t allow Yeletsky to ask him to leave—especially in the second act. In fact, he is masterful at twisting all social codes to his advantage. After he repeatedly baits, goads, mocks, and insults Kuzovkin in the first act, does Tropatchov have to apologize in the second act? Why, no! Kuzovkin must apologize, because in his drunkenness he lost his head and leveled an outright insult at Tropatchov: “infamous, fatuous, fop!”
Tropatchov, is much more insidious in his insults. He never says anything outright, but rather yanks people around by reminding them of their place in society and how manners demand they behave. The ruse he uses to get Kuzovkin drunk is, again, masterful. It would be unthinkably rude for Kuzovkin, impoverished as he is (“give the poor man a drink” p. 58), to refuse this drink, which is an offering of good will and good fortune from Tropatchov. Tropatchov, as a wealthy man acting out of noblesse oblige, (a phrase Tropatchov ironically misconstrues on p. 53), is condescending to offer this wine, provided by Yeletsky, at Yeletsky’s homecoming luncheon, in Yeletsky’s new home, where Kuzovkin has been kindly allowed to live for the past 20-odd years, so Kuzovkin has no choice but accept the wine poured for him. Not to mention the fact that Kuzovkin doesn’t seem too averse to a little bit of wine. (Alan Bates was wonderful in Gosford Park as the butler, who is found quite inebriated in the latter part of the film).
Tropatchov, puppetmaster that he is, missed his calling in St. Petersburg—or perhaps, the French Royal Court. He should be either a politician or a Royal Cabinet Member. I can’t help but think that he remains in the country because there he gets to be a big fish in a little pond, which is what I picked up from his ironic nickname for Karpatchov, “Little Fish.” By the end of the play, Tropatchov has planted himself more firmly in the middle of the Yeletsky’s household affairs than they would like. The way he comes in and makes himself at home in the billiard room makes it clear what he feels entitled to. He’s also not going to let Pavel Nicolaitch, new kid on the block, get uppity with him. He calls Yeletsky a “spoilsport” when Yeletsky tries to tell him he doesn’t want to go snipe-hunting (p. 94). (And what a good choice of game for Tropatchov! He could be talking about himself, and probably is—with a great internal chuckle). It’s clear from the way he turns Yeletsky’s admonishment of him on p. 96 and 97 to make Yeletsky feel guilty that he’s not going to let Yeletsky have control in his own home. He wants to make Yeletsky and Olga into his puppets to parade around in front of the local gentry, (p. 104 and 105), and I don’t think they will be able to resist him. One can only imagine how this would go, “Madame Kovrinskaya, let me introduce Olga Yeletsky, née Petrovna. You remember, I told you all about her a few months back, when she had all that unfortunate trouble with a certain Mr. Kuzovkin…ah, but this topic looks to make Madame Olga a bit uncomfortable, no? Come now, ma petit chere, we are all friends here! Perhaps some wine would be in order?”

Thursday, September 27

I don't know if my morals are screwy or what, but it really exasperated me when Eugene decided that he was going to do the right thing, as it were, on p. 232. I think I even said aloud, "Take it, you idiot!" I am continually surprised that Eugene seems to be able to keep more of his scruples than protagonists in some other stories--like, say, "Great Expectations." I like the fact that Eugene tends to be more gray than black-and-white. He was a complete bastard to woo Victorine when he knew how much she wanted him, but I think it was right that he broke it off as soon as she got her money, rather than keeping her on the back burner in case things didn't work out with Delphine, (which may change). He is definitely more interesting to me as a person who is still giving and kind to others (Old Goriot, his sisters) and who still has a conscience despite the fact that he's so focused on money and status, (again, this may change).
I think it would have been really easy, (and didactic—not to mention boring), to make Eugene become completely morally bankrupt as soon as he got some nice clothes or a little bit of notice by the crème de la crème of Parisian society. Some people would probably argue with me, but to me it doesn’t seem like he’s changed much from when he didn’t have any money. He was ambitious then, he’s ambitious now. Then, he studied incessantly and attended law school because his law degree was going to be the means for him to make his way in the world. Now, he studies the manners of the class he wants to emulate, and attends lessons in their drawing rooms and opera boxes.
But are Eugene and Delphine really in love? Their relationship just plagues me with questions. Is Eugene only interested in her because of obligation or pity that he feels towards Old Goriot? Is Old Goriot really just a spectacular puppet-master manipulating Eugene? There is definitely some of both going on. Does Eugene actually feel love for Delphine? I know there was some part earlier in the novel where it said, “He feel more deeply in love with her every day,” but this was shortly after he decided to take up with her because she was his best chance at advancing in society. I think his judgment is a little too clouded by money and status for him to truly love her, in the Renzo and Lucia sense. Although it could be that he only got into it for the social benefit at first, but he ended up falling in love with her for real. And the same with her; does she just want to be with him because he’s young, kind, malleable, moldable, the opposite of her husband? And who the hell am I to judge what “true” love is, anyway? It just seems to me to be very convenient that these two hooked up for convenience’s sake, and “poof!” now they are in love. It’s just so hard for me to believe people can really be in love under the circumstances, awash in the superficiality of Parisian society. The fact that the two haven’t consummated their relationship is something that I could use to argue either the idea of love-by-convenience for them, or that they are truly in love and are waiting for that special moment.
Also, there’s something to be said about the idea of wanting what you can’t have. At the beginning of the story, Eugene was mad for Madame de Restaud, whom he could not have, and that is what drove his ambition. Has he found some way to overcome that part of human nature that makes us prefer what we can’t have over that which we can have easily, (now I am like those authoritative 19th century narrators—but it is so true!), and if so, will he share that secret please? Are we to believe that he has overcome this and will happily settle with Delphine?
Will Eugene show up at de Restaud’s door years from now, making grandiose overtures to her, breaking Delphine’s heart and causing the elderly Goriot to kill him with his own last breath? Will Papa Taillefer call out Eugene in a duel for breaking his daughter’s heart and kill either Eugene or Old Goriot? Will Goriot be revealed as some sort of dastardly mastermind after ruining Eugene? Will Vautrin escape and seek revenge on Goriot for informing the police about him in the first place (which is where, we find out, Goriot got the money to purchase Eugene’s fancy new digs)? So many questions!

Wednesday, September 26

The Reporter from Hollywood

(This was an English assignment. We were required to make up our own character introduction in the manner of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales)

One Pilgrim was a man fresh out of his teens
who possessed extravagant taste in jeans.
No expense was spared acquiring that exquisite cut
which most expressively encased his exceptional butt—
for there wasn’t much that he loved more
than getting his cheeks squoze until they were sore.

To boast a fair derriere was his ace
considering that he had an unmemorable face!
The composition of his features made such an impression
that had Secret Agent been his chosen profession
it would have served him well,
because—hell!—(you’ll pardon my digression);
anybody who met him would be hard-pressed thereafter
to recall whether or not he looked quick to laughter,
or sharp of tooth, or square of jaw—
whether the skin ‘round his nose looked reddish or raw.
Had he eyes green and sly or soulful and black—
limpid pools like the sky or red-rimmed from smack?
Was he powerful or pallid, obese or just right?
Was he sexy and dashing—did he look like a knight?
Was his stride somewhat hinky?
Were his eyes too close-set? His nose a bit dinky?
Alack-a-day! Who are we to know
whether he looked as from Heaven or from down below!
(A rumor went ‘round, three years back—maybe four—
his own mom called him “Masher!” when he surprised her at a store).
I wonder: “Were his eyebrows joined as though musing a riddle,
bisecting his face where they met in the middle?”
One could ruin days ruminating on such stuff!

“But wait!” you ask, “What did this dandy do?”
Hush your mouth, little sawcebox, and I shall tell you!
From an esteemed journalism school he’d earned his degree
and now a reporter was he for the network of E!
The name he went by was Greg Orree.
The intricacies of Hollywood he studied carefully
because how can world events or D.C. dullness compare with showbiz—
would you rather have a man at a podium or an eyeful of Paris (Hilton, that is)?

Mr. Greg Orree owned book upon book
dissecting and labeling every possible look
or turn of phrase or nod of head
known to betray whom was sleeping in whom else’s bed.
Among his fellow correspondents he found nary a peer,
(actor wannabes who wouldn’t know a Hamlet from a King Lear),
not one of them could discern a slight from a spurn—
which in this business was a very necessary difference to learn!
(Celebrities are congenitally capricious creatures,
one needs a sixth sense to read their voices and features
and deduce when a curse is implied by a sigh,
or whether “Hello” means “Piss off” or “Hi!”).

The employees of E! thought Greg a real peach.
They took turns imitating his swagger and his speech,
‘cause as notorious as his need to be invitingly knickered
was the quirk at which these colleagues quietly snickered:
“Get the just of it,” had become his well-known catch-phrase
yet they were taxed to remember the most hackneyed clichés.
(Poor Greg was innocent of his pet malapropism,
for “gist” he confused with that crude substance, jism).

Truth be told, they were jealous, and here is the reason:
Orree was the most sought-after man in town come Awards Season!
In the off-season, too, invites to his mailbox flew,
he came to work often in frocks from last evening’s do.
From his lips fell reviews of each night’s best-dressed,
stories of sloshed starlets he’d managed to molest,
fairy tale weddings with fountains of champagne,
and epic gambling bashes with mountains of cocaine.

Last Christmas he’d spent at George Clooney’s house in Italy,
and the Lake Como terrain he’d photographed most prettily.
These photos ensured his workmates’ ill will did not waiver
when he used them for his office computer’s screen saver.
Anecdotes about Christmas with George had he plenty—
he would be Godfather to Brangelina child number twenty!
And Malibu beach parties? Man, he’d seen dozens—
at one his booty was grabbed by three of LiLo’s cousins!
Ah, if only that tush could but speak,
it would have its own talk show each night of the week!

Tuesday, September 18

Don Abbondio is funny, but his actions, or rather, inactions, are extremely frustrating. He is such a helpless idiot! If I were Perpetua or Agnese, I would have pushed him off the cliffs surrounding The Unnamed's castle during one of his frantic searches for an escape route, (except that Perpetua and Agnese, being industrious sorts of non-whiny people, would have been doing something useful with their time instead of bearing witness to Don Abbondio’s exasperating antics). His selfishness puts others in danger, but he is so wrapped up in himself that he doesn't notice or doesn't care. My favorite Don Abbondioism has to be, "What people there are in this place/world!"
I see the scene where they're leaving his house as a comic one: Perpetua, all business, picks up valuable items from around the house, piling them in a central location, such as the kitchen table. Don Abbondio, his pudgy face red with fear and self-interest, scuttles about behind her, picking up each item as she deposits it and, after staring at it for a bit without recognition, places it back on a shelf or table which was not its original home. At the same time he’s wringing his hands and shrieking profundities such as, "Heaven help me! What can we do? Where can we go?" He stops every few moments to tear his hair, run to the window, and shout at passers-by, "Can it really be that no one will help me? Do you really want to leave me to the mercy of those swine? What people there are in this place! What hard hearts! Each of them thinks of himself, and not one of them thinks of me!"
All he wants to do is run around panicking in order to avoid making a decision—it could be that making a decision is more terrifying for him than the possibility of falling into the clutches of the German soldiers. He's the type who could wait in line at Starbucks, (or your friendly independent coffeehouse, if you prefer), for 10 minutes, with the menu in front of him all the while in perfectly legible lettering. When he gets up to the counter, he doesn't know what he wants, because the whole time he's been waiting in line, instead of making up his mind, he's been worrying about the 7-year-old standing outside the shop with her mother. Though they are nowhere near his car, he’s terrified that the child will somehow manage to throw up on it.
Perhaps at the same time, he's been having a very loud conversation on his cell phone, shouting to the person on the other end things like, "But when did Marty say he's going to get there? But are you sure he'll really be there when he says he will? But are you sure? What about the roast? Are you sure he wouldn't like chicken better? He eats beef but he won't eat chicken?! I've never heard of such a thing! What people there are in this--I have to go! No! No, my—will you shut up a minute? I have to order now! What? I'm at Starbucks. STAR-BUCKS! I have to go! No!" and mutters to himself for another few minutes before starting his indecisive go-round with the barista, "What's an Americano? Oh, that sounds terrible! What about a Cap…cap…how on earth am I supposed to know how to pronounce these things? You need an encyclopedia just to get a drink in here! A what? A latte? No, no, young lady, I can't have milk! No dairy! A black coffee? That still means the same thing it used to—once upon a time? Well, yes! That's what I wanted—I don’t want any of this fancy stuff! I didn't think a guy could get a regular cup of coffee in this world anymore! What?! Young lady, would it interest you to know that there was a time, once, when you could buy a cup of coffee for less than it cost to…"
All the while, the 20 people who have accumulated in line behind him are giving him their most evil stares, clearing their throats insistently, tapping their feet, sighing loudly, or other—ruder—things. Some of them may even be on the verge of grabbing a coffee pot and knocking him out, or plotting something more sinister involving straws…
I just don’t understand; how on earth can someone get that far in life and be so totally unaware that there are other people in the world besides him- or herself?

Saturday, April 7

(One of) the grossest things I've ever seen

I've had this orchid for two years that I've nearly killed at least eight times. A couple of months ago I thought I had finally killed it for good by overwatering it, and so bought a new one. Last week, after almost two months without water, I was surprised to see the old one valiantly trying to grow a new, healthy leaf in addition to some new, healthy roots.
I decided to replant it to help it out and set about cutting off the many dead roots my previous rabid overwatering left behind. (Orchids have wild and wayward roots that look like the picture above).

As soon as I snipped one particularly black and flaccid root remnant, the bottom dropped out of the root clump and out fell what has to be the nastiest consequence ever precipitated by over-watering a houseplant.

It was hideous! Unraveling from the bottom of the plant was a clumpy chain of what looked like tiny, slimy, flesh-colored worms. Some parts of the chain were black and covered with spotty white mold or fungus. The whole thing shivered with simulated life thanks to my shaky hand. I gasped, shuddered, dropped the orchid back into its pot, and ran to the closet to get my gardening gloves. It looked a lot like the ball of worms pictured below. I was afraid to cut it with my scissors because I was sure it would coil up and attack me. I had been hungry up to that point but completely lost my appetite in that moment and I still feel sick now just remembering it. I eventually got the plant repotted, but did not eat dinner or plant anything else--as I had been planning to do--after that fiasco. I may never be able to eat ramen noodles or coconut or rice noodles ever again--for serious.

I know what my nightmares will be about tonight. I just thank fuck I didn't accidentally touch the slimy monstrosity.

(BTW, don't ever try to google images of maggots to, say, illustrate how disgusting something is in a blog entry or something. You will be extremely sorry that you did so).