Monday, February 8, 2010
I find it enough to live, without spinning lies to account for life
The quotation from George Eliot's Romola which serves as the title of this post is spoken by the rather surly artist Piero di Cosimo; he says it in response to Tito's comment that perhaps he is a philosopher disguised as a painter, rather than simply a painter. (Tito conceives this idea based on Piero's habit of what Tito calls "the blending of the terrible with the gay" (p. 247).) Piero is distinguishing himself in this assertion, and therefore the art of painting, from other professions and modes of being distasteful to him.
This offhand comment, for me, in many ways lies at the heart of the first book of Romola. In these 200 or so pages we've met Tito Melema, a mysterious Greek washed ashore (literally) in Florence who, by dint of his intelligence and not inconsiderable and almost universally appealing charm, manages to create for himself a comfortable life out of almost nothing. Being good-looking, learned, and possessed of an easy self-confidence goes a long way in Eliot's 15th-century Florence. Tito quickly finds himself employed, attached to an old scholar who adores him, and engaged to the scholar's beautiful and good daughter.
And yet, Tito harbours a grave secret about a breach of familial duty so appalling that were it to be revealed, all his social successes would be stripped of him and shame would be heaped on his head. His secret appears to be safe by the end of the first book; however, as Eliot reminds us, even if Tito continually refuses to acknowledge it, "Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness" (p. 219).
Such an appalling image! (And so representative of the sharply observant ability to dissect what moves the human animal that, to me, makes Eliot stand out far beyond all her peers, even the beloved Dickens.) One can't help but think of Adam Bede and the literal murder of a child here - but a murder not even quite so visceral as strangling! The presence of such an image in the narrator's meditations on what will be the outcome of Tito's dissimulations speaks harrowingly to how his relationships and life - and the lives of those to whom he connects himself - will in all likelihood turn out.
Piero's comment is a negative reflection on Tito's character, even if neither of them has no real sense of how true, and darkly true, it is. Tito could be living his life, simply, with no self-protective or dishonest accounting necessary - what attracts Romola and her father and most others to him is mostly true, and under Romola's influence could have become wholly true - if he weren't carrying around his desperate secret like a rank cancer growing in his belly.
Tito isn't the only one who spins lies to account for life, however. On the one hand, Eliot outlines (in, to me, sometimes admittedly confusing detail) the political complexities of this central European medieval city at a time of political flux. On the other hand, the seemingly benign lies that Bardi and Romola tell one another and themselves regarding Tito - what he can and should mean to them, and what lies behind his passively pleasant eyes - are no less dangerous for being both conceived in sincere and honest ways, and based on all the information at hand. For there are clues, subtle though they may be (in the case of Dino's vision, not so subtle), that suggest that Romola's godfather is not simply being contrary by refusing to subscribe to the universal approbation of the young Greek golden boy.
The expectations Romola and her father hold for Tito - which are entirely reasonable - are nonetheless lies. And they are lies which not only help them to positively account for the blank spots in Tito's history and his current self-representation, but they also feed both his need and his ability to make false accounts for himself. The social ties that bind, in Romola, are tender and beautiful as well as toxic.
Tomorrow, on to book two! I am really enjoying Romola, although as Rohan over at Novel Readings warned me, the first several chapters are slow going. She also warned me to skip the chapter entitled "The Florentine Joke" altogether; I did not follow her advice in this regard, in part because she didn't tell me why to skip it and because I wanted to discover for myself whatever its "flaws" might be. My feeling is that there are two problems, at least from the point of view of being 1/3 through the novel: 1) It stands out for serving no purpose in terms of either narrative movement, establishing atmosphere, or introducing new and important characters; 2) It casts an until then seemingly nice enough character - the barber - in a rather shabby and cruel light. Okay, and 3) It's not actually funny.
While I am happily reading Romola - because in spite of the above, I am ridiculously happy to be deep into an Eliot novel - here's Piero di Cosimo's (I think) most famous painting for you to admire. And a poem by Wm. Blake, which I think much better than the above gestures towards the mood I feel lurking under the surface of Tito and Romola's current happiness. But maybe things will not turn out quite so luridly and gruesomely as I imagine.
"The Sick Worm"
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy. (From Songs of Experience)