Sunday, October 20, 2013

Emile Zola - 'Abbe Mouret's Transgression'

I took a break, but I'm still committed to my goal of reading all twenty novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle. I just finished the ninth book: Abbe Mouret's Transgression. This is likely the last book to deal with the offspring of Francois and Marthe Mouret, this pairing being of especial interest in the Cycle as they merge the Rougon and Macquart lines (Francois in the son of Ursule Macquart and Marthe is a Rougon).

There are three characters from the family in this novel. The main character is Francois and Marthe's younger son, Serge, who is the abbe of the title. He takes after his mother with his dreamy religious zeal that threatens his sanity. The youngest child of the Mourets', Desiree, also figures in the story. She is a mentally retarded young woman who has an affinity for handling and breeding animals. Lastly, Dr. Pascal Rougon has a small role. What Zola tells us about him is a foreshadowing of his interest in hereditary analysis, Zola's subtext for the entire Cycle.

Like an earlier novel in the Cycle, The DreamAbbe Mouret's Transgression centers on religious themes. Also like that book, there is a fairytale quality to the plot. However, that is where the similarities end. While The Dream was certainly not Zola's strongest work, it was far better than this one. In fact, I'd have to say Abbe Mouret's Transgression is easily the weakest book I've yet read in the Cycle and the first one that was anything less than good. The plot is anorexically undeveloped while the descriptive passages, especially those depicting the vast garden called the Paradou, are tedious and repetitive. So overgrown are these passages that I found myself skimming them, even though I'm well aware Zola often uses such passages to comment on the psychology of his characters. In this novel, the psychology of the characters is obvious so such extensive exposition is neither needed nor desirable.

I also found Zola's handling of his theme to be uncharacteristically obvious and one-dimensional. Serge is a chaste priest, even though his worship of the Virgin Mary verges on sexual desire. This weird tension is an amazing construct, but Zola doesn't go anywhere with it. Zola does depict Serge's ascetic life in a run-down church and how he shrinks from the world in favor of mystical religious musings that leave him terribly out of touch with the realities of his poverty-stricken flock. As part of this, he is repelled by the livestock Desiree breeds near the church. It's as if any sense for the vitality of life and/or sexual desire has been beaten out of him. Even the setting and plant life of the area around the church reflects the impotence of religion: a graveyard, a great dead tree, and stony infertile fields.

After Serge drives himself into a kind of amnesia through his zealous adorations of Mary, he is nursed back to health by Albine, the ward of the town atheist. Albine is a young woman who has been allowed to run free without the restraint of social conventions. She does nothing but roam the Paradou, a massive overgrown garden her guardian controls. Walled-in, the garden is cut off from the rest of the world. When Serge recovers - as an amnesiac - he wanders the Paradou with Albine and experiences the full vibrancy of its life and wild fertility. He and Albine also develop a chaste love. If you haven't scented the Garden of Eden symbolism and predicted the upcoming Fall at this point, then maybe the novel will hold more rewards for you than it did for me. I found it far too obvious, and that made the upcoming 'plot thickener' of Serge's transgression all too predictable.

Even worse, while this Fall - the transgression of the title - is the critical event of the story, the moment it happens is described so vaguely that I missed it and had to go back to locate it. Of course, this might be the fault of translator: Ernest Alfred Vizetelly. He is well-known for purging Zola's text of anything that might smack of an 'R' rating. What was interesting is how Zola cast the other man of the cloth in the novel as the 'serpent' in his Garden of Eden metaphor. Serge's reawakening to the outside world leading to expulsion from the garden.

Thematically, Zola seems to be juxtaposing the fecundity of nature and life, represented by the innocence of Desiree, the townspeople, the Paradou, and the freedom of Albine, with Catholicism's repressive and ascetic 'cult of death', represented by the ghoulish art in the church and the self-abnegation of Serge. By telling the doomed story of Serge's and Albine's relationship, Zola's seems to be illustrating the impossibility of reconciling these two worlds. Serge's dreary world of death kills the joy of everything it touches, and Zola gives us scads of autumn imagery in his descriptions of the Paradou in the last section of the novel to dramatize this (which I found rather trite). He also presents the pair's unborn child as indicative of the impossibility of blending ('breeding') the two world views. It's a fine theme, but the novel just doesn't have enough plot, fully drawn characters, or raw material to do anything interesting with it. It certainly has none of Zola's usual acidic satire or horrifying psychological studies. The only thing that comes close to this is Desiree's comment at the end of the novel regarding the birth of a calf. I may be reading too much into it, but it's almost as if Zola is saying that a mentally retarded woman has more potential to engage in the fundamental fruitfulness, joy, and reality of life than someone like Serge, who has been poisoned by religion's cult of death. He can't even make this reality work when paradise and love are handed to him on a silver platter. 

Like The Dream, this novel lacks Zola's typically dark realism. However, The Dream replaced that element with a mystical tone well-suited to the novel's theme. In Abbe Mouret's Transgression, Zola gives us nothing to replace his usual style. This leaves the novel feeling a bit empty and more like an exercise in descriptive writing.

As religious commentary, The Conquest of Plassans is a much better effort from Zola than this novel. More broadly, no one should start with Abbe Mouret's Transgression as an introduction to the Cycle or Zola and - unless you are planning to read the entire Cycle - I wouldn't suggest bothering with this novel at all.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mumonkan, Koan 24: Fuketsu's Speech and Silence

A monk asked Fuketsu, "Both speech and silence are faulty in being ri or bi. How can we escape these faults?" Fuketsu said,"I always remember the spring in Konan, where the partridges sing; how fragrant the countless flowers!"

Ri and bi are the inward and outward actions of the mind. We do not need to 'escape' these faults; we simply should not accept that they exist. There is no inward or outward action of the mind. There is only the mind.

I understood this while sitting in zazen during my first experiences with a meditation group I joined a little over two weeks ago. In joining, I was concerned I would not be able to attain samadhi as effectively (i.e., it would be 'bad'). To a certain extent, it is harder for me to attain samadhi in these sessions because I find myself being self-conscious or paying attention to the presence of the others. While this is 'bad' it is also 'good', because it demands from me a greater discipline of mind. So it is helpful to meditate in a group precisely for the reasons that it is unhelpful. I realized that allowing the concepts of good/bad, helpful/unhelpful into my thinking was the problem, not group meditation.

This was the key for me in solving this koan. Speech and silence are not different. Inward and outward actions of the mind are not different. Each is not good or bad. They are both...and neither. We do not admit them, nor try to escape from them. All that matters is the mind, being present in the moment. This is where there are no faults. So we do not escape these faults so much as we should refuse to shackle ourselves with them.

The significance of Fuketsu's response is that he is recalling an experience he had, namely the spring in Konan. This could be related to an experience of kensho he had or perhaps it simply evokes the idea of samadhi for him. Whatever the case, maintaining the right mindset is the path away from the monk's question.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jaime Manrique - "Cervantes Street"

I learned about Jaime Manrique through an interview in BOMB magazine, and it was a great lead. He's a wonderful writer. Manrique's latest work is Cervantes Street, a historical novel built around the life of Miguel de Cervantes who authored Don Quixote. My recollections of Don Quixote are fuzzy, so it's not necessary to know the novel to understand Manrique's piece. That said, it sounds as if Manrique interpolated structure and/or actual content from Don Quixote into his novel.

While the book barely breaks 300 pages, it evokes its world nearly as well as (usually) long works of historical fiction. Like most historical fiction, the facts are merely a skeleton upon which the author invents a good yarn with imagined (though perhaps researched) detail, dialogue, and characterization. As such, I wish Manrique had done more to describe details of setting: what were people wearing, what was the ambiance of a room, what was the character of a town. Sometimes I felt myself wanting to visualize things more, but there were insufficient details in the narrative for me to do so. I almost wish Manrique had expanded the length of his work to provide more 'canvas' with which to further develop his story, setting, and characters.

The rivalry between the two men at the heart of the book never heats up in any overtly dramatic sense, and there is little actual contact between them. While this side-stepped some potential sparks, I think the point of the novel is less about the rivalry than to contrast the life of the luckless Cervantes with the privileged life of Luis, with the final fortunes of Sancho and what we know about Cervantes place in history providing the insight into what pays off in life. What was most enjoyable about Manrique's work is that the story, the rivalry of the two characters, and even the flow of the text matches what you might read by Dumas or Sienkiewicz or other masters of the form.  Manrique can't touch them for scope or depth of characterization, but he's got the goods and if he attempted something more ambitious in scope I have the feeling he might be able to pull it off.

Overall, the strength of the plot, the energy of the language, and the overall vibe of Cervantes Street ring very true and are fantastic to immerse oneself in. I'll likely pick up other works by Manrique.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bodhidharma Day - Zen is inside us; stop running from it

Bodhidharma figurine
Hong Kong Museum of Art
I'm not sure when Bodhidharma Day is each year, but I thought it was October 5th in a previous year so...Happy Bodhidharma Day!

What better way to celebrate a day dedicated to the founder of Zen, than to commemorate some of his insights? The translations I'm using come from Red Pine's wonderful book The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. This short book (125 pages, including notes) contains translations of the four sermons of Bodhidharma which have come down to us. All the excerpts below come from the Bloodstream Sermon.

Bodhidharma believed we are all buddhas and, further, everything that we need to achieve enlightenment is already inside us. At any time, we only need to stop, look, and see. We don't find enlightenment; we stop running away from it. I've found this to be very true in my own experience with Zen, so much so that I believe reading books about Zen or listening to lectures about Zen is inherently wrong minded. Zen is inside us, ready to be experienced by a disciplined mindset (usually achieved through sitting in zazen). So there's no need for books or lectures, rules or how-tos. In fact, such outside influences are most likely to confuse us and keep us trapped in delusion. That said, the words of a master can point us toward right mindedness and be a helpful guide.

Here are some great nuggets from Bodhidharma relating to the idea that we have everything we need already inside us:

"Awareness isn't hidden. But you can only find it right now. It's only now. If you really want to find the Way, don't hold onto anything...Understanding comes naturally. You don't have to make any effort. But fanatics don't understand what the Buddha meant. And the harder they try, the further they get from the Sage's meaning. All day long they invoke buddhas and read sutras. But they remain blind to their own divine nature."
"Once you see your mind, why pay attention to doctrines?"
"Buddhas don't recite sutras. Buddhas don't keep percepts. And buddhas don't break percepts. Buddhas don't keep or break anything. Buddhas don't do good or evil." 
"Once you stop clinging and let things be, you'll be free, even of birth and death. You'll transform everything. You'll possess spiritual powers that can't be obstructed. And you'll be at peace wherever you are."

All quotes are from Bloodstream Sermon (translation: Red Pine), The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Paris (Day 4) - The Loire Valley

Jim and I at Chambord
The weather in Paris was not optimal during our trip, but it wasn't bad. Just cloudy, with a tendency to be cool. However, we got one absolutely sunny day and it was fortunately the day we took a day trip to the Loire Valley. The cloudless sky and plentiful sun were an asset to seeing the sights here. Plus we had a great tour guide named David who was able to give us a primer/refresher of the history and key characters: da Vinci, Francis I, Henry II, Catherine de Medici, and Diane de Poitiers. We stopped at three of the Loire chateaux: Chambord, Amboise, and Chenonceau.

While the drive to and through the Loire Valley is easy, I'm glad we did a tour. After walking all day, I was quite happy not have to deal with the crazy Paris traffic when we returned. Better to doze off and let someone else manage it!

We started with Chambord, which was less a chateau and more what I imagine a castle to be like: courtyards, huge stone staircases, and towers slicing like needles into the air. While much of Chambord is not decorated, I could feel what it must have been like when it was occupied by Francis I in the 1500s. I loved the hunting-lodge-on-steroids vibe: thick wood doors, imposing stonework, and the impressive scale. The best part was the terraces. They run all along the top perimeter of the castle, and we walked among the spires to enjoy the fantastic views.

The Loire and town of Amboise from the terrace
Next was Amboise. While Chambord was set in a forest (and apparently is home to a considerable population of wildlife), Amboise was located within a town that brings the word "quaint" to mind. While Amboise is an impressive building also offering fantastic views of the valley from its terrace, it is much closer to a home than Chambord. My favorite room was Henri II's bedchamber, which had a very masculine feeling for a room steeped in such ornate decor. Lots of wood and rich but uncluttered furnishings. The chateau is also the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci.

Finally, we stopped at Chenonceau, which is the most palatial of the three chateaux. It was here that the most detail seems to have survived (or at least has been restored/added). Beyond the chambers the royals used, there were many rooms - such as a kitchen - where servants would have worked. Catherine de Medici's bedroom was evocative for me, especially having read Alexandre Dumas' Queen Margot. In fact, dozens of famous royals lived here at one time or another, and the related stories are fun to know before going in (another reason I'm glad we had a guide). 

For example, the competition between Catherine de Medici and her husband's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, permeates the place. Mary Queen of Scots lived here. Henri III's queen retired to a room here after he was assassinated, and which she apparently set up as an over the top 'shrine' to her late husband (perhaps putting her in the running to be the first fag hag). There were huge bouquets of lilies in this room, which gave off an intoxicating, sweet fragrance. On top of the fantastic interiors, the grounds were also like something out of a fairytale. 

I'm sure there are plenty of other castles and places to visit in the Loire Valley, and I feel like we got a good sampling of a variety of buildings given that we only had the one day in the Valley. It was good to get out of Paris for a day, and this was a trip highlight for sure!