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?”