Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"On Monsieur's Departure" - Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1575
artist unknown
Oil on panel, 113 x 78.7 cm
One last poem for National Poetry Month!

Ever since I heard Glenda Jackson read this poem as she played Elizabeth I in the BBC series Elizabeth R, I haven't been able to get it out of my head. The music of the words, the opposition in the images, and the melancholy cadence just come together in a unique way. Plus there's the fact that it's a tantalizing glimpse into the mind and heart of a well-known - yet enigmatic and private - ruler.

Elizabeth wrote this poem shortly after ending her courtship with the Duke of Alencon, which was likely her last chance at a married life and for children of her own to continue the Tudor dynasty. 

For my part, I have always believed that Elizabeth never meant to marry and not for any of the overly dramatic or weird medical reasons put forth by historians. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that a highly intelligent woman, like Elizabeth, who had power and security would never wish to give up either to a husband. 

Even so, she must have had some moments of regret about having to make this choice. And I've always read that regret in these lines. I doubt she truly second-guessed her choice, as it was the only choice that made sense for her, but all of us sometimes wonder - in our introspective moments - what if...

On Monsieur's Departure

I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
    I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
    Since from myself another self I turned.

My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
    No means I find to rid him from my breast,
    Till by the end of things it be supprest.

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
    Or let me live with some more sweet content,
    Or die and so forget what love ere meant.

- Queen Elizabeth I

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

St. John (Day 3)

Honeymoon Bay (from
Once we got completely disconnected from normal life, it was time to dive in. Literally! We started off this day with an spontaneous return to Honeymoon Bay. We had been here before, but it's so close to Cruz Bay and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to go back. Plus, with only one cruise ship arriving at St. Thomas, the odds that hordes of people would a) take a side trip to St. John, and b) spend that trip at Honeymoon Bay instead of the more popular Trunk Bay was small.

We were right! And we were rewarded with an almost deserted beach and a morning of excellent snorkeling. Honeymoon Bay is shallow and sandy all along the beach, so even someone totally unused to snorkeling can feel good about getting started. Off to either side of the bay are reefs that spread away from the beach into deeper water. Also, in the deeper middle area of the bay, is a grassy bottom. So you have just about everything for everyone. We tend to stick to the reefs over by Salomon Bay (on the left side of the bay as you face it).

Visibility was terrific and the water was pretty warm. Pelicans skim the water, sometimes gliding quite close to us. In waist deep water we were surrounded by schools of small fry with silver-neon stripes on their backs. Bigger fish darted in and out of the schools looking for an early lunch. Off by the reefs, we peeked into a crevice and saw a huge, colorful fish hanging shyly in the shadows. He had to be three feet long with a rounded head about the size of my own with puckered lips. No idea what that fish was, but it was an awesome sighting. There was also a sea turtle encounter in the grassy region but, unlike most turtles, this one was content to munch on his grass despite my presence. He was probably a bit bigger than my torso in size, and it was cool to just hang out watching him for a while. And of course, we enjoyed the usual host of sea critters. As for the coral, there was plenty of elkhorn, sea fans, some brain coral, and a few other varieties that I don't know the names for.

Jim enjoying a gimlet
After we were done with the bay, we hit the gift shop. This was to cancel out the $20 parking fee with a purchase. Last visit, we picked up a set of wooden bowls, and we got a larger version this time to go with them. During this trip to St. John I was determined to have some shopping successes. However, this was the only purchase we made. The shopping on St. John is just not very good.

Back at Andante, we sunned and swam. As evening came on, Jimmy made gimlets! It was very relaxing to sit on the deck with the sea breeze around us, 'getting happy', and enjoying the view.

More so than in past visits, there were a good number of large sea birds gliding past and above the villa. Since we're quite high up the island the wind is pretty strong here, and yet these birds go minute after minute without so much as a twitch of a wing. I think I recall reading in Oceanus magazine about how they manage to do this (have to re-read that article!).

Later, Jim won his sixth game of hand and foot in a row. Bad cards. Jim twice went out while I had still had my foot, which contained a red three. Grrrrr! I was officially pissed off. Not that I'm competitive or anything but...I vowed that before the vacation was over that Jim was gonna go down!

Villa View: Sunset over Chocolate Hole
We watched the sun set and then, later at night, did some stargazing. While my knowledge of the sky is not what it used to be, I was able to pick out several objects my own: Mars, Orion, Sirius, Rigel, and the massive red supergiant Betelguese. A tablet app helped us with the rest: Jupiter was brilliant near the zenith and we also located Arcturus, Castor, Pollux, Aldebaran, and a bunch of others. The stars always shine so beautifully on St. John, and we could definitely see the reddish tint of Mars and Betelguese with the naked eye.

What we did not see was the meteor shower. We had heard that the Lyrid meteor shower was happening and stayed up a little later than usual to watch but...nothing. As we researched a little, we learned that the best time for observing would be between 230AM and dawn. Forget it! I'm on vacation! Further, since we planned to hike on the hot and dry South side of the island the next day, we needed our sleep.

Monday, April 28, 2014

St. John (Day 2)

one of the views from the villa (click to expand)
After the Arrival Day Blues were over, Day 2 was much better!

This is all part of our arrival day strategy. On our first full day on St. John, we always plan to have no plans. Going by the mantra that inaction is not inactivity, we spent all of Day 2 at the villa we rented (Andante by the Sea). No driving, no planning, no thinking, no potential stress. An entire day to do nothing but to lie in the sun, swim in the private pool, nap in the hammock, eat, and read. The sole point of this day is to sloooow the pace waaaaay down.

And we succeeded! Within a few hours, I was in a state of samadhi via osmosis. On the rare occasions I thought about anything outside the villa or beyond the bay, the thought was like a cloud blowing by in the sky. "Yup," I'd think, "there is an outside world...oh look, it's floating away...bye bye!" Back to my nap.

By the end of the day, we had a little color going from laying out in the sun. During midday, when the sun gets really hot, I set up camp in the hammock. It's shaded by the upper deck, and there's a constant breeze to keep this comfortable. I spent at least an hour there, napping while rocking in the breeze, reading about the latest in supersymmetry, staring over the turquoise water, and listening to the ocean.

The surprise of the day was when Jim spotted an iguana that had come very close to the edge of the deck. Usually the iguanas stick to the cacti, watching us without much interest. There are usually between three to six on any given day (hence the name for the road leading up to Andante: Iguana Road).

However, on this particular day, the juicy petals of a flowering tree that rose to the edge of the deck were too tempting for this particular guy to resist. As he munched away on his afternoon snack he was close enough to touch. Of course, we were smart enough to settle for some up-close photos Jim took with his tablet. You can click this photo to expand.

Having left behind the normal pace of life, our arrival strategy is officially complete. Day 3 is the day we begin actual vacation activities...fully rested and relaxed. It works every year.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

After Hours

Photo: Dave Dugdale/Flickr Creative Commons
Having fun going through my backlog of poetry to celebrate National Poetry Month...

I wrote 'After Hours' back in 1997 or 1998, during my last year living in Chicago proper. Techno music and its related sub-genres were bubbling just under the surface of pop culture, threatening to cross over and revitalize pop music. Unfortunately, this never really happened. However, it made for an exciting time to be into music and living in a city like Chicago where the dance music scene was so vibrant.

During this time, I was also reading very deeply about theoretical physics and planetary science. It was only natural that the science and music - two very different sources of inspiration - would surface in some fused format within the imagery of my poetry.

After Hours

Black garbed,
I rave solo -
a gold ankh
painted on my jeans
to say more
than words.

Addicted to goa trance,
tangential to the cliques,
like a mix
I don't stop.
I get on up,
then chill
and feel the DJ
til the cops come.

Afterwards -
on moonless nights -
I 5AM cab
to the sea
and watch starlight
shining from galaxies
I'll never visit
glisten on the waves
washing to my feet.

I am not small;
the universe is big.

- Peter Cholewinski

St. John (Day 1)

Our fourth trip to St. John has begun (and ended, since we're back now). I'll be posting about our adventures for anyone who might be thinking about visiting St. John.

This is our fourth trip to the island; we've gone every other year for eight years. We stay at the same villa (Andante by the Sea) each time, and we recommend staying on the island as opposed to a cruise for the privacy and freedom to explore.  Despite its small size, St. John encourages exploration and return trips because - even though we are now familiar with the island - we always find new things to do or experience each time we visit. This time out, the new stuff we planned on were deep sea fishing (which technically we've done before but just not here), snorkeling Great Lameshur Bay, and hiking Ram's Head Trail.

Another reason we like coming back to the island is that our familiarity with it sure comes in handy on arrival day. For me, arrival days are a mess wherever we travel. There's just no use planning otherwise or trying to avoid it; something always goes wrong and we end up so tired we just want to eat, chill out for a few hours, and go to bed. Day 2 is when good things start to happen.

So, because we know our routine for getting to and arriving at St. John, the 'Arrival Day Blues' sting a lot less. And we were certainly put to the test this time. Our connecting flight to St. Thomas was delayed by half an hour, which meant we wouldn't get to the villa until dinner time (and we'd have to go grocery shopping in order to have something to eat for dinner). When we got to St. Thomas, heavy rain kept us sitting on the runway long enough to miss the 4PM ferry to Cruz Bay. When we finally got to St. John, we learned there was no power on a good chunk of the island due to the storm (including Andante). On the one hand, it was no big deal since we never use AC when island breezes are so plentiful. On the other hand, island breezes don't keep a fridge cold or light an electric stove. Arrival Day Blues, for sure!  While we didn't get angry or bitchy, I won't lie that I was very bummed. What an awful start!

Soon enough, the rain stopped. We sat out under the stars, which were especially brilliant due to the outage. In a few hours, the power came on. We unpacked, got settled, had dinner, and went to bed knowing tomorrow would be better. Another arrival day survived!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

CIA-sponsored Torture vs. America

It's time for people to be held accountable for their actions. Help make sure that torture is not allowed to thrive in the shadows. Sign the ACLU petition to stop President Obama from letting the CIA 'edit' the Senate's report on CIA-sponsored torture since 9-11. America is about freedom and individual rights. Torture has no place in America, and we apparently need to reaffirm this. Follow this link to help: ACLU petition.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Emile Zola - 'La BĂȘte Humaine'

La Bete Humaine (The Human Beast, in English) is the fifteenth novel in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle (based on Zola's preferred reading order). With its focus on nascent serial killer Jacques Lantier and the lurid career of his married love interest Severine Roubaud, The Human Beast is a suspenseful page-turner with pacing unlike anything else in the Cycle (at least so far). This may be Zola's most tightly plotted novel in the Cycle. However, it is also one of the blackest in terms of characterization (but then the title should clue you in to that).

The Oxford University Press edition I read was translated by Roger Pearson and is eminently readable. Further, Pearson contributes a fantastic introduction crammed with astute observations about the novel's structure and themes. Unlike some introductions which come off as perfunctory (I'll use poor Vizetelly as an example), Pearson's introduction is genuinely helpful and provides excellent historical context for the action in the novel. A few of his assessments about imagery are a little overdone (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar) but, on the whole, he illuminates this work in a way that only someone who has spent a lot of time with Zola, the period, and the novel itself can offer. That said, if you want to enjoy the novel's plot to the greatest extent, read the novel first and then tackle the introduction, because it has loads of spoilers. In my humble opinion, the introduction would have been much better positioned as an afterword.

As to the novel itself, The Human Beast can definitely be read on its own, especially since the main character - Jacques Lantier - is not mentioned in any other novel. He doesn't even figure in L'Assommoir, where Gervaise Macquart and her progeny are laid out in detail. Early in The Human Beast, Zola fills out the back story. Jacques is the second illegitimate child Gervaise had with Antoine Lantier. This sudden introduction felt a little 'tacked on' to me, which is borne out in Pearson's notes where he indicates Jacques was a late addition by Zola to the family tree. It initially surprised me that Zola did this when there was an existing character, Victor Saccard, who could have been placed into this story fairly easily. However, I believe Zola didn't do this because Victor is a member of the Rougon branch of the family. In keeping with the degeneracy Zola is after at this point in the Cycle, he really needs the lead character in The Human Beast to be a Macquart.

When we meet Jacques, he is plagued by violent urges and seems to be hanging onto self-control by his fingernails. After scarcely resisting the urge to butcher Flore, he ponders his mental make-up, touching directly on the themes of heredity we know Zola is ultimately interested in exploring within the Cycle. Jacques tries to understand the cause of his desire to butcher women as follows:
"True, his mother Gervaise had had him when she was very young, when she was fifteen and a half; but...neither of this two brothers...seemed to suffer any ill effects...Perhaps each of his brothers had his own secret affliction, the elder one especially, who was devoured by ambition to become a painter, and so wildly obsessed, it was said, that his genius bordered on insanity. The family was hardly what you might call all there, many of them were half cracked. He could feel it well enough sometimes, this hereditary crack..."
Since The Human Beast is set amid the railroad industry where Jacques is employed, his inexorable urge to kill is given a physical parallel in the madly speeding railway trains which constantly figure in the novel. The indifference of the trains, both to the people they carry headlong towards their destinations (literal and figurative) and those they pass on their way, is a recurring symbol of the callous disregard human beings display towards one another as they pursue their private agendas. Zola portrays all his characters in this manner; they differ only in the degree to which society and social structure have softened or buried these innate predatory tendencies. As Phasie, who is slowly being poisoned by her husband, comments on page 41:
"Ah, yes, it's a fine invention, there's no denying. People go fast now, they know more...But wild beasts are still wild beasts, and they can go on inventing bigger and better machines for as long as they like, there'll still be wild beasts underneath there somewhere." 
Jacques nods in agreement while watching Flore guide a cart across the tracks; a brilliant juxtaposition that is only appreciated in retrospect. (No spoiler here!)

1895 photo of French railroad accident
All the characters have this "wild beast" within them, and Zola is clearly implying that we do too. Each character behaves like a train rushing towards its end goal, heedless of anything or anyone around it. And the number of characters who are murderers - or possessing murderous impulses - creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. In this novel, society is a pit of wild animals clawing and killing each other in order to prevail. The examples are everywhere, with Jacques homicidal urges only being the most obvious. There is Grandmorin's pedophilia, Roubaud's desire for vengeance and - later - his gambling, Denizet's criminal investigations which have the ruthlessness of justice without it's wisdom, Severine's lust for Jacques and her fantasies about their future together, and Misard's greed. The list goes on and on. Even the most peripheral characters are shown to have monomaniacal obsessions that defy reason and lead to destruction and/or self-destruction (e.g., Phasie wanting to die without anyone getting her inheritance or Madame Lebleu's recurring desire to catch Madame Guichon and Monsieur Dabadie 'in the act').

Zola has explored the destructive and predatory nature of human beings elsewhere in the Cycle. His view seems to be that of Phasie: society merely suppresses this basic nature or redirects it into other channels. The 'white collar criminals' in Money, for example, or Octave Mouret's cut-throat entrepreneur in The Ladies' Paradise. In the former (see the Zen Throw Down post), Zola suggests that the ponzi scheme which financially destroys some to the benefit of others is a natural expression of basic human nature and progress. In the latter (see post), Octave's giant department store is repeatedly described as an animal, a beast that devours everything around it. In fact, Octave is an interesting parallel for Jacques. Octave possesses women for economic gain, while Jacques does so to satiate his blood lust. Both men view women as commodities, and Jacques even thinks to himself in Chapter 6: "Did possessing and killing amount to the same thing deep within the dark recesses of the human beast?" (It's interesting to note that Octave only finds satisfaction with a woman whom he can neither commoditize nor exploit).

This dark view of humanity in The Human Beast, and elsewhere in the Cycle, is certainly a powerful tool in Zola's ultimate critique of the Second Empire period. Zola explicitly bashes the corruption and venality of the Empire in several passages of The Human Beast. However, a more subtle dissection occurs on page 143, when bureaucrat Camy-Lamotte muses over how the Empire is a machine and the murder of Grandmorin is a problem in the workings of that machine. There's ultimately little justice in pursued in the novel, despite all the drama. The real concern is not about guilt or innocence, life or death, but the inconvenience caused to the machinery of the Empire, the railway system, Jacques and Severine's affair, or to any of the headlong trajectories the various characters are hurtling upon. The apotheosis of this theme is the chilling image in the final pages of novel: drunken soldiers gleefully singing as they are packed like sardines into a train bound for the disastrous war with Prussia (the title "debacle" of another novel in the Cycle). The train ends as a runaway, which Zola sends off towards Paris before ending his novel.

There is no overt moral commentary from Zola, despite the fact that several of the characters die while on trains, being run over by them, or when trains are passing. Zola always links the predation of human on human to trains on some level in The Human Beast. However, it is not a causal link. He's not saying modern society or the machine age or whatever dehumanizes us and makes us into monsters. The link to the trains is merely to show a parallel for the mindset of his characters. It seems to me that Zola believe these urges are innate to all of us, and our setting or milieu only enters into things to provide a higher or lower level of repression. Another reason to assume Zola is not trashing modern technology or progress is that Jacques repeatedly clings to his intellect as a means of resisting his urges and the premeditated murder he and Severine plot.

Ultimately, the novel is driving towards the final collapse of the Second Empire regime. It seems that in many of the Macquart novels, the endings in some way foreshadow this collapse. In The Human Beast, we see the aforementioned soldiers headed to the war. Nana also has a reference to the war in its final chapter, with strong foreshadowing of destruction attached to it. Zola's Cycle is likely drawing a parallel between the rise and demise of the Rougon-Macquart family fortunes and the rise and collapse of the Second Empire. In fact, it would be an interesting exercise to see whether the Rougon novels tend to occur early in the Second Empire while the Macquart novels occur towards the end. On the surface, this does seem to be the case. However, it does seem that Zola's observations are rendered most often about human nature as a whole, rather than being mere political satire/commentary about a specific regime.

If I had one criticism to make of The Human Beast it would be that, in Jacques, Zola has committed the age-old writers' no-no of having "a character load a gun in Chapter 2 but then never fire it". The threat of Jacques' murderous desires breaking loose is a suspenseful device Zola employs to great effect throughout the novel. The most chilling is when Jacques stalks the streets of Paris burning to kill and randomly selecting and then changing his mind about who to victimize. While Pearson correctly suggests that Zola is making a point to show how his serial killer's restraint is one of the few moral efforts made by any character in novel, I feel there's still a bit of the "sizzle without the steak" here. Anyway, this is a minor criticism given the brilliant edifice of theme and plot Zola has constructed in this novel. The Human Beast is among the very best novels in the Cycle, and I highly recommend it.

After reading several Zola novels in a row, however, I need a break before tackling Germinal. This is one of Zola's most famous novels and, given that the subject matter is the working conditions of miners, I'm expecting it to be a very bleak read.

So maybe I'll read something Jane Austen-ish next, before returning to the land of Zola!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Power of Words

In another post, I compared writing rhymed poetry with spell casting, mainly referring to the rhythm of the poem when it's read or spoken. However, it also occurs to me that poetry is like spell casting because it makes such powerful use of words.

Unlike prose, poetry doesn't use or need full sentences. A good poem condenses meaning so as to be conveyed by a fraction of the words used in a story or novel. By choosing the most powerful words to convey all the nuance intended, poetry taps the power of words more than any other form of written communication. It takes into account connotation and denotation, they way things sound, and how it flows.

"Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it." - Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II

Saturday, April 12, 2014

If You Have No Wings

As April is National Poetry Month...

2014 has not been an easy year so far and, as often happens in such situations, this poem comes to mind. I wrote it in 1987 when I was transitioning (slowly) through college and into full, independent adulthood. At that time, I didn't have a plan. My friends had all gone away to college, I hadn't admitted to myself I was gay, I didn't know what I wanted to do career-wise, and - most difficult - I didn't have a passion to drive my life. I felt myself idling when I had a lot of big decisions to make. It was all too big and overwhelming to think about.

I started writing 'If You Have No Wings' to vent. Only during the writing process, did the poem change from a venting session into a solution (note how it changes between first person and me telling myself what to do - not a conscious thing!). Poetry and art have often served me in this manner. I can feel my way through something that I can't assess in a linear or logical manner.

I've re-read this poem at several tough times during life. And, just like when I wrote it, it doesn't give me any answers. It reminds me we don't need answers to live. Taking a small step causes the next step to suggest itself. Before long, there's a path. That can be all the answer we need and, sometimes, all the answer there is.

If You Have No Wings

So the angel said,
"Fly to me."

I have no wings.
I have no things
that shall let me do
that which I cannot.

But all our wisdom
is limited by poor vision,
and the powers we possess
stunted by indecision.

So if you have no wings -
then walk!
If you have not the things -
then do without!

Someday I will be
but for now,
I must do without.

- Peter Cholewinski

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Homophobia in a Nutshell

I never thought of it this way, but it's exactly right.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Emile Zola - 'The Masterpiece'

The fourteenth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle is, like L'Assommoir before it, a novel I'd read read prior to embarking on my mission to read all twenty novels in the Cycle in Zola's intended order. While I was tempted to reread novels I already had under my belt, I ultimately decided that the amount of Zola I'd undertaken to achieve my goal was more than enough! So this post is reaching back perhaps five or six years to when I read this book.

I read the Oxford University Press edition, translated by Thomas Walton. While I cannot comment on how well something is translated from a language I do not speak, I can say that the translation 'felt like' Zola to me and, in almost all passages, was fluid and enjoyable.

A bit of background. In L'Assommoir, we were briefly introduced to two of Gervaise Macquart Coupeau's three illegitimate sons through Auguste Lantier, as well as the daughter she had with Coupeau. We don't learn much about the boys in L'Assommoir, while we see that Nana seems to lack a moral compass pretty much from the start. The four novels that follow L'Assommoir give us the deeper stories of these four children. First up, The Masterpiece tells the story of the oldest child, Claude Lantier, who is a talented, obsessive painter.

a young Paul Cezanne
Claude has actually already made an appearance in the Cycle as the wandering bohemian who befriends Florent Quenu in The Belly of Paris. In The Masterpiece we are brought up to speed on the intervening years between Claude's early childhood in L'Assommoir and where things stand now.  Claude was essentially adopted at nine by an art collector intrigued by his drawings. When this protector died, he left Claude an annual income of a thousand francs but no power to touch the principle until he turned twenty-five. Claude has returned to Paris to become an artist.  His friendships in Paris seem to be somewhat autobiographical in flavor, because they resemble a close-knit set of friends Zola himself had as a young man, including painter Paul Cezanne. The story is that Zola modeled Claude in some measure on his friend Cezanne. When Cezanne read the novel and recognized himself, he was apparently less than thrilled. Their friendship suffered a serious rupture (and I'm not sure whether it ended or if something else finished off the relationship later on).

Anyway, The Masterpiece depicts the world of bohemian artists in Paris during the late 1800's. For this reason alone, it is a fascinating read for anyone interested in art or art history from this period. As in The Ladies' Paradise and Money, where Zola depicts the rise of the department store and the financial circles of the time, The Masterpiece explores its world in amazing detail. It's like using Professor Dumbledore's pensieve to take a trip into the past. I literally felt like I was seeing, hearing, and feeling what it was really like to be a starving artist in Paris at this amazing time. Most interesting were the passages detailing the Salon. The Salon was a major art show in Paris that ultimately seemed like it became the nemesis of the modern art movement, rejecting many innovative artists that came along and inspiring the establishment of the Salon des Refuses by all those artists who felt they were kept out of the Salon because they were innovators. Zola's novel depicts the press of the throngs visiting the Salon, the crowded walls of artwork, the politics, the noise, and even the food court with 'you are there' detail.

In terms of plot, like his mother Gervaise's story, Claude is character full of possibilities thwarted. He is clearly a talented artist, but he lacks the ability to complete paintings. The number of works he completes in the novel, as I recall, was well under ten. His drive to succeed and his repeated frustrations ultimately lead to tragedy.

Claude Lantier - now that I have enough novels of the Cycle under my belt and can see patterns - is a prime example of a type of character that repeatedly surfaces in Zola's Cycle: the idealistic dreamer who cannot bring his grand visions to life - usually through lack of persistence or a thirst for 'instant-mix success'. It is a hereditary disconnect between desire and the demands of the real world. Examples of this type can be found throughout The Fortune of the Rougons (Pierre and Felicite Rougon, Aristide Rougon, Silvere Mouret, and Antoine Macquart), as well as Lazare Chanteau in La Joie de Vivre and Florent Quenu in The Belly of Paris. The fact that Zola purposefully juxtaposes Claude and Florent in The Belly of Paris suggests he intended us to connect the common malaise shared by these two characters.

Claude's failure to prosper in the real world is given further concrete form by the early death of his child. This death is also something Zola replicates elsewhere in the Cycle. Throughout the novels there are examples of still-born children or children who suffer early deaths. Serge Mouret, Helene Mouret, Lazare Chanteau, and Nana all have children who die young or at birth. To expand the theme, there are also the 'dead ends': Desiree Mouret, Angelique, and Silvere Mouret. In all these cases the hereditary disease of the family leads not only to increasing moral decay, but the lack of productive talent is reflected in the inability to procreate physically or to reach adulthood. It's as if the ills of the family terminate its ability to propagate into the fourth and fifth generations.

Another theme that emerges - or which I first noticed - in The Masterpiece is the influence of the city versus the country. During Claude and Christine's time away from Paris in the country they seem to move towards a healthier life, just as Florent took pleasure in visiting the country. There is a cleaner, slower pace that is depicted here - as compared to Paris - that Zola also touches on in The Dream, Abbe Mouret's Transgression, and perhaps even in A Love Episode. One could probably go through the Cycle and work out a sub-theme related to the influence of environment on hereditary potential. It seems that the country is viewed as creating a kind of torpor, while the city stokes the inherited fevers of these damaged characters.

A final note relates to the brief appearance of two other Rougon-Macquart characters at a funeral at the end of the novel. Sidonie Rougon, one of the few members of the family not to be given a novel of her own, comes out of the woodwork once again. Zola describes her in the usual unsavory terms, portraying her as a bottom-feeder whose come to see what she might pick-up from her distant relation. The other attendee is Octave Mouret who - true to his middle class pretenses - seeks to siphon some vague air of arts patronage from his, up to now, non-existent relationship with Claude. In this final scene, the graft of the Rougons, the grasping materialism of the Mourets, and the moral decay of the Macquarts head towards the pauper's graveyard.

A painting of the Paris Salon, reflecting the crowd of paintings and people

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Invictus" - William Ernest Henley

It's national poetry month again! My first post for the month is this inspirational poem written by Wiliam Ernest Henley when he was 17 and recovering from having one of his legs amputated. It's a great anthem.


Out of the night that covers me, 
Black as the Pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be 
For my unconquerable soul. 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
I have not winced nor cried aloud. 
Under the bludgeonings of chance 
My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 
Looms but the Horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years 
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. 

It matters not how strait the gate, 
How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate: 
I am the captain of my soul.