Upham on Salem

I fell asleep last night reading Charles Wentworth Upham on the Salem witch trials. First published in 1867, the work is prey to racism common at the time, though Upham seems rather uneasy at the genocide of the Native Americans. He also doesn’t mention chattel slavery in the colonial period more than glancingly–of course, with the Civil War reaching its final bloody conclusion two years earlier, he may have thought it indelicate to refer to. There’s also a regrettable lack of women in his text–they’re wives or daughters, rarely even rating their own name. It will be interesting to see how he approaches the actual trial events themselves.

Right now (well, a good 200 pages in) he’s carefully laying out all the property disputes that set the stage for the witchcraft fury, untangling the resentments that no doubt gave it dry fuel. Surprisingly, for a man who no doubt had several Confederate sympathies, he seems to be trying to be…fair and even-handed? Kind of? At least, he has the idea that we cannot point out a mote of dust in historical eyes without dealing with the beams in our own to some extent.

“They did not understand the great truth which Hugh Peters preached to Parliament, “Why,” said he, “cannot Christians differ, and yet be friends? All children should be fed, though they have different faces and shapes: unity, not uniformity, is the Christian word.” They admitted no such notion as this. They thought uniformity the only basis of unity. They meant to make and to keep this a country after their own pattern, a Congregational, Puritan, Cambridge-Platform-man’s country. The time has not yet come when we can lift up clean hands against them. Two successive chief-magistrates of the United States have opened the door and signified to one-eighth part of our whole people, that it will be best for them to walk out. So long as the doctrine is maintained that this is the white man’s country, or any man’s, or any class or kind of men’s country, it becomes us to close our lips against denunciation of the Fathers of New England because they tried to keep the country to themselves.” Excerpt From: Charles Wentworth Upham. “Salem Witchcraft, Volumes I and II.” iBooks.

I’d be more impressed if he wasn’t the guy who got Hawthorne dismissed from the Salem customs-house, or if he hadn’t gotten Jones Very institutionalized. I’d be truly impressed if he went the extra step and denounced genocide and chattel slavery in America as the cancer it was, and remains. Still, the book is public domain, and it remains a good and careful tracing of a seminal event in American history.

One of the side effects of reading about the Puritans is a distressing feeling of having sinned just by breathing. (This was particularly marked when I read Cotton Mather and watched The Witch in short order; Puritanism is somewhat of a virus, and its infection of the American body politic is insidious.) This morning’s coffee felt like a stolen pleasure, hence all the more intensely enjoyable. I’m going to need a palate cleanser after going from Serge’s Russia: Twenty Years After straight to Upham. Maybe that latest Bernie Gunther novel.

*wanders away, muttering about the Colonial Era*

Poor Queequeg

I finished Moby-Dick this past week. A common complaint is that the middle part of the book, pages upon pages of whale biology and whaling history and and and, is somehow “boring.” I think Melville deliberately structured the book to follow the pacing of the hunt itself. A whaling voyage, he says, could last two to three years, and of course there were long stretches of sailing time full of nothing but daily work and one’s own thoughts. The spike of activity near the end when the hunt reaches its apotheosis comes as a jolt and pulls the reader on.

Miss B, of course, wanted to know why I was sniffling a little when the book ending. She kept sticking her nose in my face and asking who on earth I was crying for. I rubbed her ears and could only repeat, poor Queequeg.

Now it’s my headcanon that Queequeg somehow escaped the vortex, and while Ishmael clung to the coffin Queequeg drifted in the opposite direction clinging to a broken bit of the mainmast (clutching the doubloon, too, because he effing deserved it) and finally after many adventures reached his home island, where he was a king again, and like Conan wore a jeweled crown upon a troubled brow, thinking of his lost mate.

That’s my private story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

Weekend Reading

The weekend, with alternating sun and drenching cool rain, has spun spring into high gear. Fortunately, the winter’s hard freezes seem to have put a dent in the slug population, or my hostas have the jump on the things, I can’t tell which. It’s nice not to have them blasted by slug-trails as soon as they sprout this year. The apple trees are in bloom, the cherries are exuberant, and even the hail has been moderate. Of course, the squirrels dug up most of my favas, so I have to replant those to get some nitrogen-fixing into the soil, but after the winter I kind of don’t blame the little furry fuckers.

They’ve grown amazingly fat now. And they’ve taken to showing up on the deck during our dinner hour, which makes me frantically check to make sure everyone’s wearing shoes. The kids laugh at me, but I don’t find it very funny.

I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man this weekend. I thought it would feed Roadtrip Z, and my writing partner was reading it for her own purposes, so I picked it up from the library.

It’s been a long time since I hate-read a book, and this one I had to get furious over to finish. Not because of the author–Gilbert has serviceable prose, and does her best to present the subject fairly and honestly. I do wish she would have read The National Uncanny before spouting off about the “frontier”, though. (To be honest, I think The National Uncanny should be required reading for every American.)

No, what pissed me off to no end was the massive, entitled selfishness of her subject Eustace Conway. It’s similar to how I felt reading Krakauer’s Into the Wild–here are white boys from comfortable if not wealthy homes, leaving a trail of broken promises and people behind while they go off “into the wilderness” and, as if that’s not enough, have the sheer unmitigated gall to look down their noses at other people’s embrace of modernity. These jackasses keep being treated as if they’re somehow special, and it irks me to no end. Selfishness on this scale, while de rigueur for mediocre white men, is always irritating. I’ll use just one example here: Eustace Conway’s TED talk. Not only is it billed as him living a “deeper life” somehow, since he shits in the woods, but you’d have read Gilbert’s book to know that the horse trips he talks about were taken with other people–his brother and a female friend in the first case, and Conway’s then-girlfriend for the buggy ride. He completely discounts the work of others that make his little Davy Crockett dreams possible.

…yeah, you can tell what I thought of all of that. Massive, blinding privilege is all over this guy, and yet he gets kudos for being somehow “natural.” How many indigenous speakers could have used some of the PR air his blowhard self took up? Imagine, if he was a minority, how differently several parts of his story would have played out.

My fury, it has many parts. Suffice to say I finished the book, read some news articles about Conway’s legal troubles, and rolled my eyes so hard it probably caused a few of the neighbors to think there was spring thunder. To be stringently fair, my feelings about camping may have influenced me somewhat. Thousands of years we’ve spent as a species, getting away from being naked in the woods with no toilet paper, and some idiots think they want to go back.

Anyway, I’m on Sydenham’s The Girondins, after finishing Mathiez’s After Robespierre and a newer edition of Bruun’s Saint-Just: Apostle of the Terror. There really are no good in-depth biographies of Saint-Just, at least, in English. Part of that is probably that Robespierre eclipsed him, and another part is probably the paucity of documentary evidence. I have to say Tanith Lee’s The Gods are Thirsty has the best portrait of Saint-Just around, and it’s a novel, he’s only a secondary character.

The weekend encompassed much else, of course, including the washer acting up. Now that the coffee’s sunk in, I’m going to go prop it up and take a whack at fixing what I think the problem might be. Wish me luck, and if that doesn’t work, let’s hope the home warranty covers washers.

Over and out.

Restless Rain and Nineveh

Barn Owl
© Donfink | Dreamstime Stock Photos

There was a restless rain on the roof this morning, sweeping and tapping. Or maybe I was restless. The day after a release is not quite as fraught, but it’s still…well, I woke up several times last night.

It’s a funny thing. Even though the She Wolf was out as a serial, it didn’t cause me nearly as much angst as the revised novel going out into the world. Something about the words “new release” makes me catch my breath and doubt myself. Of course, that’s a common occurrence. Catching and doubt are part and parcel of the human experience.

Chuck Wendig is nicely letting me stink up his blog joint today, with the story of how She Wolf got written. He’s a peach, that Wendig man.

I spent yesterday decoupaging a craft box (with Odd Trundles’s help and Miss B’s supervision, which means LOTS OF DOG HAIR IN THE MOD PODGE) and reading Henrietta Rose-Innes‘s Nineveh. I heard of it over at Geoff Manaugh’s blog (highly recommended, by the way) and it was an intense, though somewhat short, read.

The writing is beautiful, and I was furious at the treatment of the main character Katya. As a picture of an abused child making constant excuses for the abuser, it was really spot-on. Showing how that trauma echoes, and how insidious is the urge to believe you’re at fault instead of your abuser–because if it’s your fault, you somehow retain some agency–was, I suspect, not what the book was written for. I’m not sure it was intended, but boy howdy, idd it ever strike a chord.

I’ve often said it doesn’t matter what the reaction is to your work, as long as there is some reaction. This isn’t to say being an asshole is the preferred mode for writers, nor is it a defense of shock-jock writing. Rather, it means it doesn’t matter if the reader reaction to your work is love or hate. What one must avoid is the middle ground, the meh. Nineveh made me furious on Katya’s behalf, especially at the ersatz freedom she gains at the end. I wanted to reach through the pages and smack her overbearing father. I also rolled my eyes at the obligatory “this is lit fic by a woman so of course she must try to sleep with someone” trap Rose-Innes fell into. Despite what what one might think, both are reasons for me to recommend the book. I was, if you can’t tell, fully invested in Katya and her work, and just as fully invested in the mystery of the goggas and the beautiful, beautiful writing.

Rose-Innes is a fine craftswoman; I almost never felt the urge to look under the hood, so to speak. It’s rare that I fall so completely into a story, shutting off the editor inside my head. Rose-Innes made me feel the mud and the insects, but my skin wasn’t crawling with loathing. Rather, she made me share Katya’s love for, and lack of fear of, creepy-crawlies and gluey dirt. That’s worth the price of admission alone.

I’m sure my second reading will yield up something closer to what the author obviously intended instead of fury at the mistreatment of Katya and her sister, but that’s for another day. At least (spoiler!) Soldier the dog made it, and that’s enough for me. TL;DR: great book, recommended, both thumbs way up.

As usual on Release Day + 1, I have to get back to work, catching up on wordcount from yesterday’s anxious uselessness. Miss B would also like a ramble, so it doesn’t matter if the rain is restless or not, we’re going to be in it at some point.

Over and out.

Don’t Fucking Mansplain Wagner, Thanks

Coming Home
© Kwest19 | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Everyone around us is saying “snow! snow!” We have not a flake, not a trickle. It’s not even cold enough.

I’m not complaining. The last incidence of snow-n-ice was more than enough for me, thanks.

The weekend was full of many things, not the least of which was trying to get some housecleaning done. I did try to get the glut of work dropped on me at the end of the working week done, but weekend means other priorities. (Don’t get me started, dear God.) I am almost done with the shawl, courtesy of last night’s knit-and-livetweet-an-opera.

It was Parsifal, the Met version, and I couldn’t make it. Four fucking hours of watching Wagner; I bailed at three. Everyone on the stage was moving through molasses. I should have done the livetweet on a drinking night, except I would have dropped even more stitches. (Look, Jonas Kaufmann was Parsifal, and dude is mega hot. I want to see that stone fucking fox as Don Jose now.)

I think a lot of the problem with Parsifal is Act I. It’s two goddamn hours of exposition. I really didn’t need two hours to figure out Amfortas got stabbed, wound won’t heal, Klingsor has the Spear, Kundry is the focus of Wagner’s HYOOOOJ misogyny. (He was as misogynistic as he was anti-Semitic, and that’s saying something.) It was interesting to see the endurance contest on stage, with singers forced to stand and look interested while the orchestra plows on through chord after chord. Really, you could have condensed that into a prelude and gone straight to Act II, which could have been crackerjack blazes–I mean, a garden of vampiric flowers! Blood on the stage! Kundry and Parsifal and their Oedipal little thing! Klingsor with the FUCKING SPEAR OF DESTINY!–but instead draaaaaaaaaags as well.

Even a mega-uber-hawt Parsifal couldn’t save the damn thing. Let the tenor sing, Wagner! JESUS WANTS TO HEAR THE TENOR SING.

Kundry, as usual with women in Wagner’s operas, is a powerful force just aching to escape the chains the composer tries to clap on everything female. Katarina Dalayman is just fantastic, a bright spot in the Catholic cannibal masturbation-fest Wagner wanted. Most of the time onstage she looks like an immortal woman who just wants some sleep, or, barring that, a soy latte to get her through the foolishness of the men around her. When she laughs at the knights, it’s a beautiful bitterness, and more than once I just wanted her and Kaufmann to run away and adopt little opera children.

The staging was innovative, but Jesus, I really would have liked this effort to have gone for some other opera that isn’t a gigantic snoozefest.

Anyway. The other highlight of the livetweet was neckbeards trying to mansplain Wagner to me. *eyeroll* I mock, true, but it’s in a loving fashion, and my patience for anyone mansplaining opera to me is infinitesimal. I love how neckbeards think my mockery means I must be Educated in the True Meaning of Wagner. For some reason, the Wags just brings out the asshole factor ramped up to eleven. (To be fair, I keep calling the Grail the Magic Vajayjay, but you know, I stand by that.)

SO that was my weekend, and I’ll probably livetweet the rest of Parsifal tonight, because I have a bottle of cheap wine and nowhere to drive this evening. Hopefully the third act will be all about Kundry finally getting her soy latte and my hope that Parsifal will again take his shirt off. Rawr.

Over & out.

On Don Giovanni

This morning, for some reason, I woke up wondering about a scene in Mozart’s Don GiovanniAct 1, Scene 5, in particular.

Zerlina’s lines include, “I am ruined!” I wondered if Mozart made it explicit that she’d been raped, or if the assault had been interrupted. I do love opera, but it’s hardly kind to women as a rule. (“Saturated in misogyny like most classical stage arts,” is closer to the truth.)

God bless the internet, for I was able to find (while abed, this was the reason I didn’t get up until later) quite a few interesting things.

Anna and Elvira convey attitudes close to those of the women activists who have raised awareness about the issues of rape and sexual harassment on college campuses. Their voices are strong and filled with anger.
“Never again another victim” is their message as Elvira sings Ah! Fuggi il traditor! (“Flee from this betrayer!”) and Anna steels herself for vengeance.

These women, whose wealth offers them a limited degree of autonomy, are ingenuous and inventive in plotting to catch the Don red-handed. The peasant girl Zerlina has fewer options. Zerlina is her bridegroom’s property and has to make her marriage work at any cost; she has no alternative.

“No need to worry about Zerlina,” says Kerman.

Why not? Is she not worth it? Her aria Batti, batti, the most famous invitation to domestic violence in the genre of opera, reveals a woman of the lowest social class employing the only tool available to her, that of her “feminine” sexuality, “feminine” in the traditional sense of completely submissive. (Liane Curtis, in SFGate)

I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Mozart’s not really a feminist, but several of his female characters speak almost despite him. (I don’t know enough about his mother or his fabulous wife Constance to guess if perhaps they had an effect.) And it’s really Donna Elvira who drives most of the story–she’s the active component, she vows revenge and openly threatens Giovanni, rescues Zerlina from him right after the peasant girl’s marriage, makes Ottavio and Donna Anna begin to doubt Giovanni’s urbane exterior, tries to save Giovanni despite his maltreatment of her, and is the first one to witness the spectre of the Commendatore as it arrives for the final supper. Donna Anna is another driver, though not the primary one. She uses the limited autonomy of a wealthy woman with a fiance to force Don Ottavio to swear vengeance, and while Ottavio is not a huge prize–he paternalistically declares he must either “enlighten or avenge” her–at least he doesn’t ever threaten Anna with the breaking of their betrothal, as a lesser man might have done.

Of course, Zerlina’s husband still may still hold the whole Giovanni incident over her head for the rest of their married life, Anna is going to marry Ottavio, and Donna Elvira has to lock herself in a convent for the rest of her days. There were precious few “good” choices for women in those days, but at least Giovanni was dragged (thrillingly, fittingly) to hell. Byron tried to make Don Juan/Giovanni a hero, and several (male) stage directors have, too. But it remains the women who drive the story, and in the end, Giovanni’s always dragged publicly and irrevocably to an eternal punishment. You could make the case that he was only done so because of property crimes–of course, a woman belonged to father or husband, and rape was only prosecuted or avenged successfully on those grounds–but the strength of Mozart’s opera is that it can surpass that.

I am not sure if Zerlina is actually raped, or if she’s “saved just in time”. Given Massetto’s behaviour, it’s probably the latter–as he’s written, I can’t see him going home for supper with Zerlina otherwise. That led me to a whole chain of thought on Donna Anna’s insistence that she fought Giovanni off, and how that was likely critical to the continuance of her betrothal, and how Zerlina, no matter what happened, might have had to convince Massetto over and over again that she was innocent. I’ve seen relationships like that over and over, in fiction and in real life. No doubt Mozart did too, it’s a function of patriarchy.

To finish, here’s a little something from October 2016:

Neither Mozart nor his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte ever meant Don Giovanni to be a role model; the opera’s original title was “I dissoluto punito, ossia Il Don Giovanni” (“The Immoral Man Punished, or Don Giovanni”). It is true that in the “Catalogue” aria Leperello recites the extent of Don Giovanni’s conquests: 1,003 in Spain, 100 in France, etc. But in the end the message is that even a rich charismatic guy can not get away with predatory behavior, groping, serial rape, and, I’m sure, the occasional pussy-grab. The Don ends up dragged to hell. (Bonnie Gordon, in Slate)

Nowadays, of course, it’s likely to be an army of pussyhatted protestors who will save us from the crotchgrabber in the White House. I’m sure, though, to His Majesty der Turmper, it’s just as much hell as Giovanni’s.

Mostly Unsurprised

Yesterday I took time off from housecleaning chores to finish Nicholas Stargardt’s The German War. It seemed incredibly apposite reading, given the American greased-slide into fascism. (Which I hope will be arrested, but it’s looking less and less likely.)

When an enraged Hitler Youth leader wrote to Rainier Schlosser, Goebbels’s head of theatres, denouncing the city’s Schauspielhaus as a ‘hotbed of reactionary sentiment’, it was Schlosser himself who explained that ‘theatres with a pronounced liberal atmosphere are essential because they cater for a certain section of the audience and ensure that [these people] ultimately remain under our control.’ (Stargardt, The German War, p410)

This led me, of course, to think of the “furor” over Pence being booed at Hamtilton. Which propelled me down an interesting mental road, classifying der Turmper as a somewhat accidental dictator with no real ideological fixation except self-aggrandizement. I have often wondered, if der Turmper didn’t exist, would the GOP eventually have had to create him? Der Turmper has no constellation of talent that he shares an ideology with to perform the services classical fascism depends on. Consider that Breitbart fellow, Bannon: he is, at best, a shabby bargain-basement imitation of Goebbels, not a pioneering propagandist in his own right.

I keep filtering news, movies, Twitterstorms, and much other media through a wad of “is this an opiate for the masses?” and being unable to decide. Then I wonder if that very confusion means the slide into fascism is accelerating, because it’s enough to overwhelm and paralyse.

Another aspect of the book was the sheer amount of projection authoritarians engage in. I understand it’s a very important part of the authoritarian mindset and personality, but the gigantic, endemic proportions continue to surprise me. (Related: Believe the authoritarian when they tell you what they’re going to do.) Again and again, the Nazi rulership accused its opponents, domestic and foreign, of the exact things it had already done or was planning to do. I don’t quite have the patience or the stomach to delve into American exceptionalism and the projection that accrues from such, but I cannot think it’s dissimilar.

What also surprised me was the amount of internal emigration, not just by intellectuals or artists, but by regular diary and letter writers. The problems and tensions of such emigration–and the conditions that make it an attractive or necessary option for survival–are particularly resonant. Just the sheer amount of ugliness and “what has that apricot narcissist done now” swimming around in the news is enough to make me want to retreat, to curl up in a ball and hope the storm will pass me by. Selfish? Probably. Tempting? Certainly. Fighting the urge takes emotional energy. No wonder people got tired and retreated. Engaging day after day, even just signal-boosting, becomes a burden. If one has the luxury, the privilege of internal emigration, one can easily mistake it for self-care.

Stargardt’s prose is finely tuned and his authorial voice manages not to shy away from the horrors he has to pitilessly show. Sometimes his disgust is palpable, yet his tone never wavers. It must have been exhausting to write, and it was exhausting to read and feel the shock of recognition over and over again. I see the same shifts in private conversations, the same shifts in propaganda, the very same excuses being used today as were used in the 30s and 40s. The signposts are all there; the only thing missing are guns and tanks on American soil. I’m still absorbing the thought that if there isn’t an existential threat (like Russia’s invasion of Germany after Germany’s 1941 almost-went-all-the-way invasion of Russia), fascists will create one; Trump’s neuroses and the GOP’s pandering to hatred has done its best to Frankenstein one together. (“Immigrants! They’re Taking Away Our Things!”)

I’ve gone straight from Stargardt to Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. The differences are only outweighed by the parallels. People are the same the world over, and the scourges of war, ethnic hatred, and authoritarianism are too. It’s not a particularly comforting thought right now, but at least I feel a little more prepared. After reading history, I am doomed to watch others repeat it, but at least I will be mostly unsurprised.

With that charming thought, I shall bid you adieu for the day. These copyedits aren’t gonna review themselves. Although sometimes I wish they would…