Friday 17 June 2011

Sir, I was an inward of his

I re-read Measure for Measure last weekend to help me focus my thoughts on the conclusion of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit. But in revisiting this disturbing and incredibly compelling so-called problem play, I was struck anew by how discomfiting the Duke’s final assertion of his justice is. In particular, I marveled over how little sense Lucio’s death makes in the face of the Duke’s pardoning of Claudio and Juliet for concupiscence, forcing Angelo to marry a woman he no longer cares about for using his power to try to force Isabella to sleep with him, and releasing and absolving the unrepentant murderer Barnardine! This is all complicated as it is, but Lucio – for slandering the absent Duke to the Duke in disguise as a Friar – is punished with whipping and death. The question is: why, when the Duke shows so much mercy elsewhere?

There are, I think, two issues beneath the Duke’s refusal to show this foolish and generally harmless fop any leniency. The first is that the Duke’s power (including when he is playing the Friar) manifests primarily in the realm of the verbal; his execution of his plans for reviving his subjects’ proper fear of him means reviving their fear of his words, his decrees. And while Isabella, Mariana, the Provost, and others are willing to implicitly trust the Friar (and the Duke’s words through him), Lucio constantly mocks the Friar’s reverence for the Duke, and impugns his character in all sorts of outlandish and offensive ways. Complaining of Angelo's overly strict adherence to the laws of the state, Lucio compares him to the absent Vincentio:
    Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for the
    rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a
    man! Would the duke that is absent have done this?
    Ere he would have hanged a man for the getting a
    hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing
    a thousand: he had some feeling of the sport: he
    knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy.

    I never heard the absent duke much detected for
    women; he was not inclined that way.

    O, sir, you are deceived.

    'Tis not possible.

    Who, not the duke? yes, your beggar of fifty; and
    his use was to put a ducat in her clack-dish: the
    duke had crotchets in him. He would be drunk too;
    that let me inform you.

    You do him wrong, surely.

    Sir, I was an inward of his. A shy fellow was the
    duke: and I believe I know the cause of his

    What, I prithee, might be the cause?

    No, pardon; 'tis a secret must be locked within the
    teeth and the lips: but this I can let you
    understand, the greater file of the subject held the
    duke to be wise.

    Wise! why, no question but he was.

    A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow.

    Either this is the envy in you, folly, or mistaking:
    the very stream of his life and the business he hath
    helmed must upon a warranted need give him a better
    proclamation. Let him be but testimonied in his own
    bringings-forth, and he shall appear to the
    envious a scholar, a statesman and a soldier.
    Therefore you speak unskilfully: or if your
    knowledge be more it is much darkened in your malice.

    Sir, I know him, and I love him.

    Love talks with better knowledge, and knowledge with
    dearer love.

    Come, sir, I know what I know.

    I can hardly believe that, since you know not what
    you speak. But, if ever the duke return, as our
    prayers are he may, let me desire you to make your
    answer before him. If it be honest you have spoke,
    you have courage to maintain it: I am bound to call
    upon you; and, I pray you, your name?

    Sir, my name is Lucio; well known to the duke.

    He shall know you better, sir, if I may live to
    report you.

    I fear you not. (III.ii.108-55)
Note that while the Duke warns Lucio against the danger of his careless libeling, the real problem is, I think, Lucio's assertion that he knows the Duke and what drives him - and tells others what the Duke would and ought to do; he usurps the Duke's linguistic prerogative by ventriloquizing his decrees during his apparent absence. Indeed, at the play's conclusion, when Vincentio argues, reasons, and asserts his royal prerogative against Angelo and others who have committed crimes, he does so particularly against their presumption in speaking his power with their mouths – even when, in Angelo’s case, it was directly bestowed upon him by the Duke in the first place, who has, in a truly ominous turn of phrase, "lent him our terror" (I.i.19):
    Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope,
    'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
    For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done,
    When evil deeds have their permissive pass
    And not the punishment. Therefore indeed, my father,
    I have on Angelo imposed the office;
    Who may, in the ambush of my name, strike home,
    And yet my nature never in the fight
    To do in slander. (I.iii.35-43)
The Duke temporarily silences himself by pretending to leave precisely to reaffirm the inviolability of his linguistic and royal power. The Duke's terror may be lent but never possessed by another; his words may be used by others but not only will such usurpers not benefit from those borrowed or stolen words, they will be punished for the presumption even when (as in Angelo's case) they are compelled to do so!

Lucio is not the only subject guilty of linguistic presumption, so why is he the only one shown not only no clemency, but subjected to punishment so much more extreme than his crime could possibly seem to warrant? I submit that it's not actually that he so gleefully indulges in assassinating the Duke’s character, or even in claiming to know what the Duke might say, but rather in correctly identifying the Duke’s mad methods, motivations, and royal decrees. Angelo uses and abuses the power briefly borrowed, but he never comprehends it; Claudio's crime is one of the body, a crime that in itself doesn't truly destabilize the Duke's power.

On the other hand, when Lucio concludes near the end of the play that “if the old fantastical duke of dark corners had been at home, [Claudio] had lived" (IV.iii.156-57), he hits the mark in two ways. First, obviously, he’s right to insist that the Duke would not punish Claudio for something so human as desiring to make the beast with two backs with his beloved – especially given that their marriage is being unreasonably delayed by Juliet's family for no socially sensible reasons.

Secondly, and more dangerously, Lucio astutely notes that the Duke is both secret and savvy; he understands the Duke to govern at least in part through covert means and tricksy wordplay. For Lucio, the Duke is not mysterious and therefore not, in the older sense of the word, awful – and he ought to be. Without awe, the Duke’s linguistic control is greatly diminished, if not irreparably destroyed. The Duke’s dark corner methods are darker even than Lucio realizes and he pays, but not actually for misunderstanding the depths of the Duke’s Machiavellian machinations - but, rather, for detecting them at all. The success of the Duke’s fantastical exercising of his power relies on the mechanism being entirely mysterious to his subjects. The mystery of the mechanism is a much darker and more forbidding thing to contemplate in Measure for Measure than it is in Martin Chuzzlewit because for Dickens, the mystery is perhaps benevolent and divine; in Measure for Measure, it is deliberate, ruthless, and serves no purpose higher than the cold exercise of human might.

At the play's conclusion, it seems the Duke’s plan to use Angelo as a patsy to re-establish the terrible fullness of his power without harming his own reputation has been entirely successful, for the only figure to threaten his reign with comprehension of how it functions has been sentenced to death and none speak up against Lucio's sentence. And yet, the Duke's assertion of his right to marry the appalled Isabella is not met with prompt and absolute obedience. She has, on the astute Lucio’s urging, temporarily removed herself from the cloister she’s determined to spend her life in, to try to convince Angelo to show her brother mercy and not sentence him to death. This leads to the successful realization of all the Duke’s plans for catching Angelo at his hypocritical moral posturing, to release Claudio without appearing to be soft, and to help Mariana to the husband she deserves. By all rights, Isabella should be allowed to return to the life she has chosen; instead, the Duke re-enacts Angelo’s complete disinterest in her desires in the matter of her life's course and commands her to accept him as her husband:
    [To ISABELLA] If he be like your brother, for his sake
    Is he pardon'd; and, for your lovely sake,
    Give me your hand and say you will be mine.
    He is my brother too: but fitter time for that. (V.i.488-91)
In spite of the Duke's order here (made more irresistible by its terrible reminder of how precarious is her brother's safety in his hands), Isabella does not appear to comply, and the Duke is forced to ask her for her hand again as the actors leave the stage:
                                           Dear Isabel,
    I have a motion much imports your good;
    Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
    What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine.
    So, bring us to our palace; where we'll show
    What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know.

    Exeunt (V.i.532-37)
And still Isabella remains silent. The Duke's second proposal is more persuasively worded, and appeals to a more companionate model of marriage, but it's clear that she does not willingly her ear incline to him. Silence might be interpreted as consent in some situations, but here it clearly expresses consent withheld. And indeed, in the face of the Duke’s linguistic manipulations, silence is and can be Isabella's only form of resistance in a world of linguistic, Machiavellian trickery.

The meaning of her quietness, after five acts of loquaciously doing the his and Lucio’s bidding to help restore social order, cannot be lost on the savvy and observant Duke. Vincentio's perfectly neat, Comedic last words scurry around with no place to land because of her refusal to comply with his publicly expressed terms of their union. The Duke, it seems, will have to find even darker corners to lurk in to solve this problem called Isabella...

Sunday 12 June 2011

Old fantastical men lurking in dark corners

When I was first confronted with the strange double ending of Martin Chuzzlewit, I thought it perhaps reflected Dickens being doubly influenced by Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. I thought of Dostoevsky for the protracted scene in which the elder Martin semi-publicly (and with the constabulary very close at hand) calls out young Jonas for conspiring to murder his father. This scene, with its meticulous laying out of all the evidence against Jonas so that he could have no doubt of how fully his crime has been apprehended, reminded me of the prolonged revelations of Crime and Punishment (although, to be entirely honest, I haven't read that novel in over 10 years; I might well be misremembering). As it turns out, Crime and Punishment wasn’t published until approximately 20 years after Martin Chuzzlewit, and so that theory went out the window without my memory for beloved novels of the past being tested at all.

The Shakespeare connection remained in my mind for the second conclusion of Martin Chuzzlewit, however, and applies in a general way to the first novelistic conclusion, for one of the duties the Duke executes upon his return to Vienna is to publicly reveal Angelo’s guilt. The guilty parties in both novel and play having been publicly shamed, the revelation of the disguised old man - and the rewards he may dole out as such - must happen next. Old Martin, having feigned being in his dotage to accurately sound the depths of Pecksniff’s corruption, reveals himself, I think not surprisingly, first to Tom Pinch, our tale’s moral centre:
The door stood open. As the tread advanced, Tom looked impatiently and eagerly towards it. When a figure came upon the landing, and arriving in the doorway, stopped and gazed at him, he rose up from his chair, and half believed he saw a spirit.

Old Martin Chuzzlewit! The same whom he had left at Mr Pecksniff's, weak and sinking!

The same? No, not the same, for this old man, though old, was strong, and leaned upon his stick with a vigorous hand, while with the other he signed to Tom to make no noise. One glance at the resolute face, the watchful eye, the vigorous hand upon the staff, the triumphant purpose in the figure, and such a light broke in on Tom as blinded him.

'You have expected me,' said Martin, 'a long time.'

'I was told that my employer would arrive soon,' said Tom; 'but--'

'I know. You were ignorant who he was. It was my desire. I am glad it has been so well observed. I intended to have been with you much sooner. I thought the time had come. I thought I could know no more, and no worse, of him, than I did on that day when I saw you last. But I was wrong.'

He had by this time come up to Tom, and now he grasped his hand.

'I have lived in his house, Pinch, and had him fawning on me days and weeks and months. You know it. I have suffered him to treat me like his tool and instrument. You know it; you have seen me there. I have undergone ten thousand times as much as I could have endured if I had been the miserable weak old man he took me for. You know it. I have seen him offer love to Mary. You know it; who better--who better, my true heart! I have had his base soul bare before me, day by day, and have not betrayed myself once. I never could have undergone such torture but for looking forward to this time.' (p. 704)
Old Martin, like Shakespeare's "old fantastical duke of dark corners" (IV.iii.156-57), ascertains the level of his "subjects'" goodness by disguising himself as something less than he is (in Martin's case, a doddering old fool; in the Duke's, a friar), but a something less that inspires others, for good or ill, to drop their defenses and reveal themselves, totally. They walk disguised among those they would control, giving their hapless subjects/relations the illusion of controlling their own lives.

But, Dickens, what are you doing!? You set Tom up as the novel’s moral centre and align him as closely as possible with a literary mode of living and literary typology, but then destabilize such associations via Tom’s declaration that "There is a higher justice than poetical justice" (see previous post). But then, Chaz, you make the novel's conclusion as literary and meta-literary as can be, not only by revealing old Martin to have been actively attempting to author the paths and outcomes of almost every other character’s actions, but also by making it very difficult for readers familiar with Measure for Measure to not make comparisons between the novel and the play. Given how frequently, in every novel of his I’ve read, Dickens references Shakespeare either directly or obliquely, I can’t believe that 1) Dickens didn’t know precisely what he was doing with Martin Chuzzlewit, and 2) that he trusted his contemporary audience to be as familiar with the Bard as he was. (I had considered offering to write a book on Shakespeare and Dickens but, alas, it's already been done. Of course it has.)

Yet, in spite of the similarities between novel and play (and there are many more I could discuss, such as the similarities between old Martin's relationship to Mary and Martin alongside the Duke's to Claudio and Juliet; or, old Martin's apparent trust of Pecksniff and the Duke's analogous seeming faith in Angelo), there is one crucial difference: the mechanism by which old Martin’s plans eventually come to fruition remains entirely mysterious. It’s clear at the end of Shakespeare's play that the Duke is running the show, and has been doing so all along; conversely, the resolution of Martin Chuzzlewit's conflicts and disparate plot threads depends on old Martin admitting where he’s been wrong, both in behaviour and perception. All (almost – poor Tom’s love for Mary is, of course, never reciprocated) is well that ends well here, but how it ends well seems to refer back constantly to Tom’s higher than poetical justice – even if the poetical and literary can never be extracted from Dickens’s characters’ day-to-day lives. The poetical, and what transcends it, seem inseparable even if the latter will always eventually take precedence.

Martin Chuzzlewit seems to be a novel about the fiction we all indulge in about being able to completely control our own lives, as well as the lives of others when we see fit – when, in the long run, it’s in the hands of something higher that necessarily remains mysterious. That Dickens is careful not to spend much time implying that this higher thing is God (for godliness in his novels seems always to manifest only through one’s actions on earth, especially in The Old Curiosity Shop, but here as well) suggests to me a strangely quiet and gently resigned existential angst. Having read a number of Dickens novels in the past couple of years, and having noticed how much Shakespearean Comedy seems to influence him, I'm pleased to note that overall, even as he pays homage to the Bard, Dickens never completely succumbs to the very tidy conclusions the form allows. The discomfort Shakespeare reveals in the Duke's surveillance and absolute control is redistributed into something more human and humane in Dickens - the discomfort that comes with acknowledging the essential incompleteness of all happy endings.

Thursday 9 June 2011

The Passions: A Nemirovsky vs. Peters Cage Match

I’m probably the first person (and will likely also be the last) to compare the novels of Irene Nemirovsky and Ellis Peters. They are really nothing alike – while Nemirovsky wrote incredibly gorgeous, ruthless, and painful literary studies of the darkness that lurks in the heart of man(kind), Peters wrote (among other things, but this is what she’s most famous for) formulaic, homely, comfortable, reliable, and grammatically correct murder mysteries, whose mysteries are not usually very mysterious at all.

I am a fan of both these authors precisely for what they do; they appeal to very different parts of my reading soul. Having recently read a novel apiece of theirs (Nemirovsky’s Fire in the Blood and Peters’s 14th Brother Cadfael mystery, The Hermit of Eyton Forest), I was struck by how very differently these two authors (born just ten years, but unbridgeable worlds, apart) address the issue of human beings’ messy, inconvenient, and socially unacceptable human passions.

Fire in the Blood positively revels in adultery and murder, memory and regret, while The Hermit of Eyton Forest deals with treason, betrayal, robbery, and murder. For Nemirovsky, the fire that boils human blood from within is selfish, glorious, and liable to emerge or re-emerge at any time; the passions – sexual lust, especially – are unruly, messy, and containable by no human – or even probably divine – force. I recall reading in a book once, and I have no idea which one (which drives me crazy) that when it comes to marriage, it is always the dangerous time, that lust and adultery and boredom can kick in at any moment, with the full complement of extreme and disturbing consequences likely to accompany. I didn’t read this in Fire in the Blood but I may as well have, for that’s what it’s about - the absolutely primacy of the bodily passions.

Peters acknowledges such passions exist, of course, for murder generally arises from some variation of extreme human desire for sex, food, power, prestige, money, etc. But not only is the mystery in her novels always solved, but justice is always done. In the case of The Hermit of Eyton Forest, the man who dared betray the besieged Empress Maud is murdered by one of her loyal retainers – and not simply allowed to get away with it, but praised for making the betrayer pay the price! Almost no one suffers needlessly or in a way that doesn't have meaning.

There is a murder to solve, of course, but Cadfael has, again, helped a young couple who have become smitten with one another at first glance come together in socially appropriate and restrained ways; this is as necessary a piece of Peters's medieval whodunnits as the "dunnit" and "who" parts of the formula. Peters glories in the lust of youth, but only as always and ever tending towards one thing – legal, civilized, and contented matrimony. Those who experience unruly passions in Peters’s novels either die or are murdered – or both. But almost none suffering from the kind of uncontainable impulses so fearlessly invoked by Nemirovsky are allowed to live, even when they don’t act on their roiling impulses (I’m thinking of the poor lust-tortured, and of course murdered, brother in The Rose Rent)!

Peters’s world is defined by neatness, and Nemirovsky’s is defined precisely by the lack thereof. To recall, again, Amateur Reader’s assertion that all fiction is fantasy, what are we to make of the extreme dualities I’ve been confronted with by reading Nemirovsky and Peters almost back-to-back? That everything we imagine about what drives and regulates us is also fantasy? That our lives are neither as neat nor as sordid as either author would suggest, but some boring and inconvenient middle point between the two? Perhaps we read to engage in fantasies both of an easy regulation of our very human impulses, and the freedom to let them rule us...