A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion / An Analysis of A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion

An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)

What is one to say when the beloved dies?  There is nothing to say.  None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate.  My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead.  “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10).  What else is there to say?  There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.

A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne.  It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated.  After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.).  The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).

Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).

Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference.  Yet Didion is hardly apathetic.  She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch.  If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough.  If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché.  If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative.  Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.

Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well.  Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.”  (I deliberately omitted the question mark.)  The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life!  Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”

Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”

In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement.  What is it like to be bereaved?  You will never know until it happens to you.  Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death.  A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him.  Self-pity, of course, is inescapable.  She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.”  She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved.  When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes.  Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others.  Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.

Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss.  When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved.  Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible.  Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being.  She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness.  Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning.  The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name in the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water (226).

This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.”  They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything.  They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page.  Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech.  She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable.  What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said.  She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points.  There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death.  Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525

My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature.  His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the problematical plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost, are his masterworks.  All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.

One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda.  They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society.  In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.

But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage.  In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.

Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.

The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her.  As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate.  A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer.  She pursues Bertram relentlessly.  As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her.  Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play.  Quite the opposite, as I shall contend.  Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i].  And yet, does obsession ever end?

When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i].  She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.].  Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father…  I have forgot him.  My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.].  All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.

Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i].  Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status?  I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated.  I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.

When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii].  Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii].  No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be.  Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii].  Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram?  Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram.  Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him?  Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.

The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram.  As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play.  The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.

And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive.  And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.

Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram.  Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage.  She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].

Why not take Helena at her word?  On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her.  She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart.  On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own.  She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law.  All’s well that ends well.  She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body.  Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]?  She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband.  She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.

It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana.  He is revolted by Helena.  The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea.  Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her.  In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii].  He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].

Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century.  Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign.  However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor.  Again, he finds her physically repellent.

Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent.  Is this not rape?  According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.

And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology?  There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother.  But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother?  They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.

The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v].  Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.

Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv].  Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate.  When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.

Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences.  Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality.  Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors.  The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]).  The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii].  A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status.  One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena.  Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i].  She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays.  Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated.  His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time.  This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii].  The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think.  Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL.  Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.

For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v].  (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena.  Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.)  (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena.  He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].)  Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around.  (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.)  Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.

Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France.  When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more.  The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.

When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition.  It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.].  It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.

The King is revived from the dead.  Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena.  Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram.  In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena.  I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.”  The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision.  Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority.  Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne.  This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.

Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction.  Desire cannot be systematized.  We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.

Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not.  Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection.  Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her.  Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii].  When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.  It is not a statement of resignation.  Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal.  Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.

It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her.  However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy.  Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.”  Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother.  To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement.  She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.

Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him.  The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective.  The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern.  Treachery is circular; treason is circular.  This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:

We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors.  And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].

I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves.  We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal.  As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.”  According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603.  All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605.  If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.

All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves.  We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.

Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.

Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse.  Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage.  She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society.  In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong.  Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win?  Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality?  A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else.  No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.

Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself.  He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.

From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case.  In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin.  All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner.  It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii].  And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v].  “Fine” here means “ending.”  The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it.  The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning.  The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.

No one is innocent, and no one is guilty.  Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii].  The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.

One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite.  Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii].  Language kills.  That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean.  When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication.  When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.

Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect.  For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii].  He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.].  He often cannot finish his sentences.  Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis).  And yet there is some sense in his nonsense.  When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar?  When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i].  And yet are they gabbling?  Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest.  Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble.  Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless.  There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning.  Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.

At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii].  In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.”  He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion.  Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father.  The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test.  It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law.  Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.

Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage?  Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition.  But was Kant incorrect?  All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing.  It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.

When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii].  This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.

“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine].  There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending.  Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy.  All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well.  All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well.  All’s ill that ends well.

Joseph Suglia

Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”: A commentary

Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One

An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to C.S.

Composed on April 21, 1819, in a single afternoon or early evening, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has haunted the minds of readers for almost two centuries now.  In twelve stanzas, Keats says more than whole worships of writers say in their entire existence.  The poem is so sleekly, treacily, and elegantly composed, without a single false word, that it is imperishable.  Indeed, it is one of the few perfect English poems.

I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The question is the narrator’s—whoever the narrator might be—to the honey-starved zombie knight.  For the published edition, Keats foolishly substituted the words “wretched wight” for “knight-at-arms.”  “Wight” recalls the Isle of Wight, where Keats would indite lust letters to Fanny Brawne, the lust of his brief consumptive life, which makes the published text of the poem faintly ludicrous.  “Knight-at-arms” is a much better choice of words, since it invokes strength, which contrasts nicely with the knight’s ailment, which is clearly love-psychosis.  It also sounds and reads better, infinitely better, than “wretched wight.”

The narrator is asking an epidemiological question (when one compares the first stanza with the twelfth): What is the source of your illness?  Even though the autumnal landscape is withered and songless, the knight is loitering around as if he were a beggar.  The flora are desiccated, much like the knight; there are no fauna, it seems, in the loveless expanse.  Nature has dried and shriveled up.  The birds that are not there are perhaps nightingales.  Readers of Keats will know that the nightingale is emblematic of the supernatural.  If this is the case, then the supernatural has withdrawn from the deathscape.

A nice instance of parechesis appears in the first stanza—a repetition of the grapheme LON in the words “alone” and “loitering.”

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

The granaries and the harvest have yielded a superabundance of food–food that is suitable for human consumption–but our love-zombie will never eat it. He will never eat the food because he cannot eat the food.  The knight is famished, starving for food that no human mouth can eat: It is the food that only his beloved faery princess can feed him.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

The syntax here is confusing: The lily that is embroidered on the knight’s brow is moist with anguish and moist with fever-dew.  The anguish-moist lily and the fading rose embroidered on the knight’s face-flesh: These are symptoms of his love-starvation.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

This is where the knight’s answer begins—an answer to the question, “What ails thee?”  Already, the reader is getting subliminal cues from the poem that the knight should run like hell away from the faery princess.  For one, she is the daughter of a faery and therefore any romance between the knight and the princess would be an interspecies romance.  Secondly, the wildness of her eyes might very well be the wildness of craziness.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

The number three is important in the poem: The faery princess’s physical attributes come in threes (her long hair, her light foot, her wild eyes), the food that she feeds to the knight comes in threes (relish root, wild honey, manna-dew), and here we have a triumvirate of decorations for the Beautiful Lady to wear (garland, bracelets, perfumed belt).  We might know three of her physical attributes and three things that she is wearing, but who is she, really, on the inside?

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

What kind of a knight is he, to let a woman he does not know ride his pacing steed?  And how can someone set someone else on a steed that is pacing?  Her sidelong look–her askance glance–lets us know that she is unconcerned with him and that his love will be unreturned; sharp readers should question the integrity of her intentions.  That he can see nothing else besides her radiance suggests that the knight has already plunged into total lunacy.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

How, precisely, does the knight know that the faery princess has declared her love for him?  The answer is: He does not. Her words are inaudible to him.  She speaks in a language that he cannot understand, and the suggestion is that the knight has projected his desire-to-be-loved upon her incomprehensible dark words.

The fact that communication between the knight and the faery princess is impossible intimates that contact between the knight and the faery princess is impossible.

“Honey” is sensuous, but the manna-dew is ethereal, heavenly: bread that rains from heaven.  “Manna” is customarily a noun, but here, it is used as an adjective and evokes, of course, The Book of Exodus.

“Manna-dew” was not in Keats’ original draft.  The lines read, in the original version: “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and honey dew.”  Keats was very wise to modify the wording.  The manna-dew that she feeds the knight reminds us that the faery princess is not a child of nature, but rather an otherworldly entity, one who comes from a transcendental province, much like the Grecian urn and the nightingale.  She exists outside of time and is not bound by the laws of nature.

The food that she feeds the knight is supernatural nutriment, and he will never be able to eat anything else.  All other food has become inesculent to him, even though the granaries are full and the harvest is done.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

She dwells in an elfin grotto, then.  If there is still any question on the subject, at this point, the argument over whether she is human has been settled: She is a chthonic being.  The fact that she dwells in an elfin grotto might imply that she is the Queen of Elphame, the elf queen who transported Thomas the Rhymer into the otherworld.

Why is the elf-girl weeping and sighing?  Is it because she knows that contact between her and her human lover is impossible?  If she is weeping and sighing over the impossibility of interspecies romance, does this not militate against the interpretation that she is wicked?

“Wild wild”: the use of anaphora (repetition) underlines her chaos, her untrammeled nature.  In Stanza Four, her eyes were described as “wild.”  Her eyes appear even wilder now.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

The faery princess anaesthetizes the knight, drugging him with Ketamine.  “The latest dream I ever dreamt”: The knight will never dream again.  Will he ever sleep again?

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

Listen to the chorus of love-hungry kings, love-hospitalized princes, and love-hurt warriors.  They tell you who they think the girl really is: The Beautiful Lady without Pity! They are the ones who call her “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.”  She never identifies herself, nor does the narrator, nor does the love-slaughtered knight at arms.  We don’t know her perspective at all.  Why should you believe the chorus of pallid loverboys?

The word “thrall” connotes enslavement.  To be in thralldom is to be in bondage to a master or a mistress.  In this case, the chorus of once-powerful men, of which the knight is now a member, is enslaved, enthralled, to the Beautiful Lady without Pity.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

After the love-drug wears off, the knight awakens and finds himself in desolation and a place of natural destitution.  The only things in the dream-men’s mouths are warnings.  Much like the knight, only the food of the faery girl can nourish them; no other food can sate them.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The faery-intoxicated knight is doomed to walk along the withered shore of the lake in a perpetual autumn, sapped of his vitality and potency.  He has been enervated by the psychosis-inflicting Beautiful Lady without Pity.  The poem suggests that she is a witch, but she might as well be a lamia or a succubus.  The women in the Keatsean poetic universe are all Belles Dames sans Merci.  “Misogyny” is a label too easily applied these days, but how can we avoid calling this a misogynistic poem?

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Postscript

There is an alternative interpretation that is possible: The figure of the woman would be the vessel into which the misogynistic delusions of the knight are projected, into the vacuum which stands for that which cannot be symbolized.  This evacuates the pallid, forlorn night.  The figure of the female has now become an agglomeration of split-off parts that represents him.  The figure is then a void to which the knight is inexorably drawn and from which he is driven in horror.  Keats’s pallid, forlorn knight has an experience of horror vacui.

The knight-at-arms would then have projected all of his disjecta membra into the figure of the female, thus rendering himself as servile and exhausted.

In other words, the Beautiful Lady without Pity is a construction.  What we are left with is only the imaginary.  This is, sadly, psychosis.  It is all too common.  The poem might then be a descriptive instantiation of delusional misogyny.

My only reservation with this alternative interpretation is that it is ahistorical.

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET / Dr. Joseph Suglia on “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing.  (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”)  Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer.  Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.

Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following question: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write?  Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does.  He copies; he does not write.  He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator.  He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.

Not only does Bartleby never write.  He does not even seem to read.  The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”

And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office?  Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story?  Why not Nippers?  Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.

One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers.  There are indeed references to poeticism in the text.  John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth.  To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.

There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story?  Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing.  What is the story about?

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.

Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee.  He does exactly what he is paid to do.  Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.”  He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.”  He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do.  This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc.  Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.”  Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension.  The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.

One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination.  Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying.  It is a form of “passive resistance.”  It is a slippery slogan.  It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.

The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story.  One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.”  Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office.  Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock.  The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer.  The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby).  One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby.  This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.

Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee.  He super-agrees with the terms of the office.  He over-adheres to the policies of the office.  Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus.  Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.

Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby).  Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies.  He copies the office and thus undermines the office.

The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description.  He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness.  The logic of super-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity.  Kierkegaard was such a super-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being.  Kierkegaard’s super-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.

This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office.  Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel.  If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible.  His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.”  Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity.  At the core of his passivity is an active dimension.  He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations.  His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras.  He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”

What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?

The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business.  Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ.  [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.]  The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”)  “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.

Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience.  These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination.  We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”).  Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance.  His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.”  This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.

Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism.  A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington.  This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice).  He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

GIRL GONE ROGUE: On Sarah Palin

GIRL GONE ROGUE: A review of GOING ROGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Sarah Palin)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

The title of Sarah Palin’s martyrology, Going Rogue (2009), is richly significant.  “Rogue” can mean “renegade” and thus point to Palin’s illusory departure from the ever-redefinable “political” and “media elites,” as well as from the McCain camp.  Reactionary politicians, these days, like to style themselves as “mavericks”–when, in fact, they represent this country’s most powerful insiders.  They endorse tax cuts for the affluent; they serve the gluttonies of the wealthiest financiers, corporate executive officers, and industrialists in America.

A slight logogriphic substitution would transform “rogue” into “rouge.”  The title, then, could be rendered: The Reddening of Sarah Palin.  (“Rouge,” in particular, recalls a shade of lipstick. Would “rouge” refer to the pig’s lipstick-smeared mouth?).  Red, obviously, is the color of the Republican Party, but it is also the color of passion and evokes rage and lust.  It is, as well, the color of fury, of blood, of rapine and viciousness.  It is the color of ecclesiastics, of cardinals.  In the iconography of National Socialism, black swastikas were emblazoned on red backgrounds.

This is a book that is drenched in red.

There is discussion of the animals Sarah Palin enjoys slaughtering, the caribou and moose she takes pleasure in shooting, the salmon she skins.  A photograph of the Arctic Huntress beaming with the psychosexual thrill that comes from killing game, the bloodied corpse of a caribou under her heel.  “I love meat…  [I] especially love moose and caribou.  I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals–right next to the mashed potatoes” [18-19].  Little commentary is required; what is said is clear.  The only room for animals, even endangered animals, is inside of us.  Kill animals and then interiorize them, kill animals that prey upon those other animals we want to interiorize: “[W]e had to control predators, such as wolves, that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities” [134].

I wish someone would tell Sarah Palin that to decimate means “to kill every tenth being.”

Sarah Palin thinks that animals exist only in order to be devoured by human beings.  That is their purpose, their end, their divinely ordained telos.  As if it were a “red kite” [83], she tells us, her mind is connected by an invisible string to the mind of God.  She has immediate access to the divine understanding: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”

In other words,

1.) Animals can be meat–meat that is devoured by human beings.
2.) Therefore, animals exist only to be devoured by human beings.

We have here both a non sequitur and a teleological argument. It is equivalent to saying:

1.) The human hands may be used for strangulation.
2.) Therefore, the human hands exist only for the purpose of strangulation.

The color red may connote the blood of animals.  It may also connote shame.  One is reminded of the red face of the unnamed Alaskan politician who observes Sarah Palin with horror as she gleefully breastfeeds her daughter on a radio program: “I acted like I didn’t see the shocked look on the politician’s face as he turned red and pretended it didn’t bother him at all” [67].  In a single image, the flocculent creaminess of lactate mingles with the blood that rises to the politician’s cheeks.

Red reappears when Sarah Palin douses herself, Countess Bathory style, in the blood of political martyrdom or of “the popular political blood sport called ‘the politics of personal destruction'” [352].  Seldom has self-imposed victimhood been exploited so meretriciously as it is here.  Sarah Palin bemoans the fact that she was “slapped with an ethics accusation” [355].  And yet which “ethics accusation,” precisely?  There are many.  That she misappropriated her governorship for personal and political gain?  That she used the Alaska Fund Trust to cadge gifts and benefits?  She never tells us.  She merely dismisses all ethical grievances as personal attacks issued by the monolithic Left: “One of the left’s favorite weapons is frivolous ethics complaints” [363].

Sarah Palin’s silence over her ethical misconduct is only one of the many silences that perforate Going Rogue.  She never attempts to wash away the record of her ignorance of Africa, the Bush doctrine, or NAFTA.  Certain things are so shameful that they cannot be erased with lies.  Let me cite one more instance of this studied silence: As Mayor, our gentle authoress called for the banning of “objectionable” books from the Wasilla Public Library.  She claims to have merely asked librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, “What’s the common policy on selecting new titles?” [77].  And yet nowhere does Sarah Palin, meek and mild, mention that she fired Mary Ellen Emmons two days after this conversation took place.  So many of this book’s pages are devoted to assaulting her critics (169 out of 234, by my count), but those criticisms for which she has no rejoinder, those words and actions that are truly indefensible and cannot be mangled, are consigned to a willful silence.

The name of whoever wrote this book is unknown, but it is attributed to a ventriloquist’s doll, a cue-card reader, a red harpy, a Venus in Carmine.

Dr. Joseph Suglia