Tuesday, April 11, 2023

A Requiem for Logan Roy

Logan Roy's entrance into the second episode of "Succession" begins with a question: "Why does everybody ask how I'm doing?" 

It now looks like a signal to the audience of what's to come. Of course, the question hovering over all four seasons of "Succession" is the mortality of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and which of his children will succeed him at the head of his companies. Or, perhaps, none of them? 

But the question looms larger now after the third episode, "Connor's Wedding," where Connor (Alan Ruck) was once again upstaged by his father - this time, with the patriarch's death on board a plane headed to Stockholm in hopes of landing yet another deal. 

Looking back on how we got here, it's clear mortality was on Logan's mind, among other things. One wonders how conscious he was of the proximity of his end. 

It was in the season premiere, "The Munsters," that Logan, at his birthday party, compared his family to the denizens of Mockingbird Lane from the old 60s sitcom - a house of zany monsters, presided over by the creation of Dr. Frankenstein. 

Later, when Logan is lying on the floor of his private jet, with an aide administering chest compressions in a futile attempt to resuscitate him, his son Roman (Kieran Culkin) will whisper into his ear, through a phone, some words of encouragement to keep fighting: "You're a monster." He means this as a compliment, of course. 

Logan has had plenty of chances to prove how true the compliment is. Consider his actions in the second episode, the pregnantly-titled "Rehearsal." Logan knows something is close - if he sells his Waystar Royco holdings, it will only leave him with ATN, his prized news channel. We sense this is where his heart is, since he wanders the newsroom, critiquing how busy his employees may or may not be. When he refers to one staffer as a Stakhanovite, a Stalinist plaudit given to heroic workers, his voice drips with trademark scorn. 

No, Logan is ready to return to his roots, which is why he quizzes Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) about the cost of pizza in the newsroom kitchen, about the success of Kerry Castellabate's (Zoe Winters) disastrous anchor audition tape, why he mounts the steps on his final flight calling for everyone to be "a bit more f***ing aggressive." He is preparing, he says, for a "Night of the Long Knives," a cleaning out of the company to refocus it. It's never a good sign when the boss is throwing around verbal nods to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. 

But in the newsroom, he stands atop a hastily-assembled podium of copy paper boxes to give a "Man of the People" pep talk to his troops. He scorns Tom's kind words to the staff, browbeats one unlucky employee about numbers, then launches into a bellicose stemwinder familiar to anyone who watches cable news talk shows, or cleansing sessions during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Tom and Greg (Nicholas Braun) clap and look around uneasily for reassurance as Logan's ragged, manic voice reassures them - and him - of his plans: 

"I’m going to be spending a lot more time with you lot in here. Because I love it in here. I f***ing love it! I don’t want to know about 3 percent week-on-week. I want to know that we’re killing the opposition! I want to be cutting their throats! Our rivals should be checkin' in, up back of their chauffeured cars, because they can’t believe what we did! So f***ing spicy. So true. Something everyone knows, but nobody says, because they’re too f***ing lily-livered! Huh? They cannot believe what we said, and the fact that we f***ing said it! They’re f***ing jam smears on the highway! Now, anyone, anyone who believes that I'm getting out, please, shove the bunting up your a**! This is not the end. I’m going to build something better. Something faster, lighter, meaner, wilder, and I’m gonna do it, from in here, with you lot! You’re f***ing pirates!"

Probably not a lot of people in the newsroom will be getting Christmas bonuses this year. 

A lot of attention will be paid to Logan's farewell to his children. 

On the eve of Connor's wedding, the four siblings are gathered for an improbable Karaoke session. Connor wants an evening away from the usual posh surroundings, but they're still in a bar where someone probably needs six figures to get into the place. Their drink orders are ridiculously highbrow. Into this atmosphere, Logan enters, probably with an idea to satisfy his offspring, whom he regards as "spicy." This also is a compliment. 

What follows is a "show trial," with Kendall (Jeremy Strong) acting as prosecutor and Shiv (Sarah Snook) reveling in the effect on her father. But what happens? When Kendall and Shiv hurl the accusations at Logan, Connor and Roman make excuses for him. "He's trying," Connor says. 

Then Logan, sensing his children want an apology, offers an appropriately ham-fisted one: "then...sorry."  He can't even say "I'm sorry." It's not clear what exactly he's sorry for. Was it cancelling their helicopter earlier? Or the thousand indignities of their lives? Is he sorry, as he will say later, that his children haven't suffered enough to appreciate what they have? 

He's there, ostensibly, in an attempt to convince them not to sink the GoJo deal by pressing for more money. And neither he, nor the audience at this point, knows this will be the final conversation he has with his family. But he nevertheless delivers a memorable verdict - on them, his voice just over a whisper:

"You're such f***in' dopes. You're not serious figures. I love you, but you're not serious people." 

An easy observation, of course, is that he is absolutely right. Kendall, wounded by substance abuse and his father's abuse, still convinced of his business acumen. Connor, hovering at one percent in his Quixotic presidential campaign. Roman, self-amused and socially needy. Shiv, perhaps the wisest but with her own emotional blind spots. All of them, perpetually scornful, cynical, lacking in self-awareness. Yet as Greg pointed out when Logan asked for jokes at his expense, whose fault is that? 

One could ask why an actor like Bryan Cox wasn't given a grand death scene. Yet Logan's death, played out largely off-screen, is devastating in its emotional weight, mostly because the audience is unsure until the very end whether what they are watching is real. Which is the response of most of the human race to death, especially in the 21st century. We go to a great deal of trouble to insulate ourselves from death - socially, culturally, politically, spiritually. When it happens, or when we are confronted with the possibility of our own death, our first instinct is often denial or rejection. 

But one scene in particular, in "The Munsters," allowed Logan a moment to muse aloud on the possibilities of what was ahead of him. Sitting in a restaurant with his bodyguard, Logan, with no prompting, tells the man, "You’re a good guy." Then, "You’re my pal." Then further, "You’re my best pal." The man can only repeat an awkward "thank you" each time. 

The easy pathos of the moment - a titanically rich man, ostracized by his children, angling awkwardly to get his ambitious paramour a television job without leaving his fingerprints, tries to bond with the man paid to take care of him. It's a pathetic spectacle, and familiar. The mercies of God, the consolations of salvation, the balm of love, can only grasped with a humility that seems beyond the reach of this foul-mouthed billionaire culture warrior, yet one sees a vulnerable soul flicker for just a moment within sight of the inevitable, uncomfortable truth. 

Logan asks, "what are people?" before trying to pigeonhole them as mere "economic units" functioning within markets. If everything is a market, and all the actors merely units within, then he isn't obligated to adhere to any specific morality. Yet, is that all there is? This doesn't seem to satisfy him, even if he is "100 feet tall." Something is wrong. Something is missing. For all his grasping, something has eluded him. 

"Everything I try to do, people turned against me," he says. "Nothing tastes like it used to, does it? Nothing’s the same as it was." This is a deeply distrustful, dissatisfied man, aging, bewildered, alone. His ancient heart, damaged, wants something more. He has evaded death, but it has not left his sight. He is not the man he once was. Or was he ever that man at all? 

Then, seemingly from nowhere, comes the familiar question: 

"You think there’s anything after all this? Afterwards?" A man doesn't usually ask this question unless he's got reason to. But you could argue that we all have reasons to ask. 

When the bodyguard says he doesn't know. Logan replies, "I don’t think so. I think this is it. Right?" But he doesn't want the question answered. The other man begins with, "Maybe. My dad is very religious…"

Logan waves this away. What other people believe is distracting, inconsequential, annoying even. "Yeah, but realistically though." Realism, on its face, doesn't require faith. But that depends on who is defining realism. For each individual, what is real is what is felt. That which we see and hear may or may not be real, but if it is real to us, that is enough for us to believe. For all of his life, Logan Roy's reality has been the building of businesses, the shaping of opinion, the supplying of products, the manipulation of crowds, and the wielding of power. That is real. Never mind that there are millions of others disputing his own conception of reality. Much of his life's fight has been about who is right and who is wrong. 

He has spent his life in the commercialization of meaning. Political meaning. But that changes. What about beyond politics. What does it all mean? 

"We don’t know," the guard says. 

This satisfies Logan, for a moment. "That’s it. We don’t know. We can’t know."

One wonders how many times this question has occurred to him. We never know how long we will have to consider. 

Whatever satisfaction he receives in dismissing the question, though, doesn't last. 

"But I’ve got my suspicions," he says, only hours from having them either confirmed or denied, which is ultimately true of us all. 

And we are not serious people. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

In Search of Lost Eternities: Proust and the Life to Come


Toward the end of “Within a Budding Grove,” Marcel Proust’s second volume of “In Search of Lost Time,” his narrator speeds toward a hushed bedroom meeting with Albertine Simonet, the young woman who is the object of his present obsession.

The sight of her bare throat and flushed cheeks, he writes, “destroyed the equilibrium between the immense and indestructible life which circulated in my being and the life of the universe, so puny in comparison.”

In a rush of emotion, the character "Marcel" feels the immensity of experience is not enough to encompass all that is happening to him. He feels most like the dramatic self-conception he has assembled throughout his life, up to this point. But curiously, he also becomes conscious of his own mortality in a seaside town:

“I should have smiled pityingly had a philosopher then expressed the idea that some day, even some distant day, I should have to die, that the eternal forces of nature would survive me, the forces of that nature beneath whose godlike feet I was no more than a grain of dust; that, after me, there would still remain those rounded, swelling cliffs, that sea, that moonlight and that sky! How could it have been possible; how could the world have lasted longer than myself, since I was not lost in its vastness, since it was the world that was enclosed in me, in me that it fell far short of filling, in me who, feeling that there was room to store so many other treasures, flung sky and sea and cliffs contemptuously into a corner.”

The feeling, alas, does not last, and his romantic resolve disappears, not at the ceasing of his heartbeat, but at the ring of a bell.

The universe, immense and inscrutable, is only one subject touched on in the more than 4,000 pages of Proust’s seven-volume novel. As its title suggests, he is concerned with time – specifically, lost time. Our lives are eaten up in time, disappearing as quickly as it passes, so that we present two faces to the world – perceiving the past in retreat while in anticipation for what is to come.

Each of the episodes in Proust’s novels – with their long, endlessly winding sentences, digressions, and observations – shows how a life unfolds, with various lives passing back and forth in review, flashing in, retreating, reappearing. Meaning changes, meaning eludes, meaning varies. We form moral judgments on small things and elide them when confronted with larger obstructions. And all of these perceptions are made by a personality; distinctive, opinionated, informed by his own life choices and experiences.

But what of beyond time?

The experience of reading Proust, and specifically his observations about time, have made me think about the Christian conception of eternity, and what his novels can say about it. 

We know a great deal about the life of the writer Proust, but how much do we know about God? For the purposes of this piece, I will say that God can only be known insofar as He has revealed Himself - in the life of Jesus Christ, and through the Scriptures.

From a strictly Biblical sense, God is eternal, as we understand the concept. I say that because, while the word “eternity” exists, the mind reels at the simplest contemplation of something with no beginning and no end. The concept is foreign to our experience. Human beings grow up with the idea of continuous existence – “things have always been this way and always will be” – but life quickly disabuses us of this. Before one concludes this conception of eternity is a residue of the ancient world, it’s worth reminding yourself of the short duration of ancient lifespans and the transitory nature of nomadic people. What distinguishes the God of Abraham is His nature in contrast to the other pagan gods of the era – omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. First and last, without beginning, without ending. “But Israel shall be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded, world without end.” (Isaiah 45:17)

Genesis 1:1 makes no attempt to explain what God did, or where He came from, before the creation of the earth –the “beginning” of the heavens and the earth. John 1:1 describes the Logos, or Christ, as existing with God and being God from the “beginning,” and Jesus later tells His followers (and enemies) that He existed before Abraham. Eternity past, in other words, is a long corridor of unknowable experience and incalculable antiquity. Past and future wind in, out and around each other. Again, just considering the question beggars the imagination.

Furthermore, in the final two chapters of Revelation, Jesus says of his followers, “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Those with God will reign, we are told, “for ever and ever.” Just the simple explanation of this in the church of my boyhood was enough to send me into tears. I couldn’t comprehend it, and actively kept myself from trying.

What does this have to do with Proust? As Proust demonstrates, time and again, memory makes up much of who we are. We are shaped by the events of our lives and the people we encounter, and the memory of those events, and how those people affected us, leave their marks on us – “remembering again all the places and people I had known, what I had actually seen of them, and what others had told me.” (Swann’s Way)

Proust later says that “many years have passed since” the night that he waited for his mother to come and kiss him. By the time he wrote the lines, the house where it happened was gone. He had seen a finite number of days, as we all do, but the past, in all its tangibility, was gone forever, only to be recalled.

As he writes of the past:

“It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.”

Yet, it all resides sleeping within him. Proust’s narrator provides this insight just before the most famous incident in the novel, when he bites into a piece of madeleine infused with tea, when the past comes flooding back from some hidden corner of the mind, and “the truth that I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself.”

Much of Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” deals with desire and how it shapes his characters. Desire, and frustrated desire. Some things in life - relationships, careers, goals, people - are unattainable. There is the brave and cowardly struggle of the person we are against who we want to be. Having is not so pleasing as wanting.

“But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical to everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account book or the record of a will; our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people.”

Take my own example. At this moment, I’m a 52-year-old man. It goes without saying that I am a different person than I was yesterday, or a year ago, or 10 years ago, and so forth. Should I live long enough, it’s also true I will be different tomorrow, next week, next year, and on. There are a host of reasons for this.

Part of who I am is the physical part. When I was younger, I was shorter, less bulky. As I have aged, I’ve put on and shed pounds, my eyesight has gotten worse, I have high blood pressure and diabetes. Some of these conditions can be managed, but they still affect me, and constitute who I am, just as much as my eye color, my hair, my height. I’m also a white man living in the Southern United States, and I carry the historical, social and cultural baggage of that as well. Some aspects of life I perceive rather well. In other areas, I am totally blind.

Any side effects of my medical conditions will change who I am, and not just in a physical sense, but in potentially every other. I am reminded of my aunt and her diabetes, which she did not manage well and resulted eventually in several mini-strokes, which changed her personality. How much different might history have been, for instance, if George Washington had possessed a set of good strong teeth? How might Proust have been a different writer if his health had been better?

There’s also the intellectual part. I am influenced by my education, the people I encounter, the company that I keep, and the decisions I make to either enter a particular sphere of influence or withdraw from others. This is the most interesting realm, to me, of human conduct and development. It feels, many times, that we carry an idea within of who we are, without realizing that we may have made decisions that actually have changed our character. Sometimes the must humbling moments come when we realize we appear older than we actually feel, or that we are not as smart as we think we are, and we feel about ourselves, as Proust wrote, “whether indeed our senses have not been the victims of a hallucination.”

There is also environment. If, tomorrow, I receive a job offer in another country, and am spirited away at a different income and have to familiarize myself with new surroundings, new culture, etc., who I am will change whether I like it or not. Familiar haunts will be gone, and new routines built. This process, though often less radical, plays out over the course of our lives, consciously and unconsciously. And we do not experience it from the cold detachment of our bed in a room lined with cork. “In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind.”

“…we must bear in mind that the character which a man exhibits in the latter half of his life is not always, though it often is, his original character developed or withered, attenuated or enlarged; it is sometimes the exact reverse, like a garment that has been turned.” (Within a Budding Grove)


But what are we when we die? If consciousness survives the end of life, as I believe it does, what do we then become? How much of what we are survives, and is shaped by, the experience of death? It is impossible for us to go through the death of a loved one, or sometimes even the death of a stranger, without being profoundly altered in outlook and aftermath. If the body, for example, is removed from the equation, how does that change who we are? When we visualize life after death, what version of ourselves do we anticipate? And while we may die alone, we are not the only ones to have died. What of others? What will their presence, or absence, do to who we are?

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (I Corinthians 15:51-52)

The limited understanding we might glean just from these verses adds one detail – if we are “incorruptible,” then we will not be changed from the aspect bestowed on us at death. Corporeal life, a series of transitions, learning and unlearning, rise and decline, vitality and entropy, is all we have ever known.

So much of Proust is not just about himself, but what contact with others does to him. His longing for Gilberte, for Albertine, his fascination with the Swann family, the simple folk wisdom of Françoise, his bond with his mother – all of these fire off his writer’s nervous system, producing page after page of observation, rumination, conclusion, transition. It is through his conception that we view everything, mindful that “identical emotions do not spring up simultaneously in the hearts of men in accordance with a preestablished order.”

Proust was a French man living in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conversant in the dominant philosophies of his time, and therefore suffering from its limitations. Over a lifetime he became a creature of the salon and a machine for creating narrative. I have no wish to make his writing say something it does not.

Yes, I know that Proust was a gay man, and possibly an atheist, from a Jewish background, and possessing of a slightly mystic bent. I realize that to consider these questions may strike some readers as absurd, or in a secular way, blasphemous.

But to lay my cards on the table - I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He is returning to judge the quick and the dead. That belief is informed by a lifetime of reading the Bible under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

And I believe that the reality of eternal life is true for me and Marcel Proust and you, the reader, as well. And if there is life after death, how we will perceive it will matter to all of us, whether we like it or not. Because the reality of death is uncontestable. And by reading Proust, it makes me more conscious not of this life in all its weird grandeur, but of what it may say about the next one.

So how might we experience eternity, a country we have never seen, in a language we have only heard snippets of, taking our first, endless breath in an atmosphere of incorruptibility?

What would you be in a place where you are not frustrated by a lifetime’s worth of grudges, or nursing a wounded pride, or driven by an inchoate longing, or bearing up under a disability, real or imaged, but fully known and knowing, fully pleased and pleasing?

More importantly, what would you be in the unbroken presence of the one Being in all experience who knows you, your true self, the one buried under all the assumed guises of a lifetime? What would you be in the presence of the One who made you for the specific purpose of glorifying Him?

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (I John 3:1-3)

Much of our anxiety – my anxiety – about eternity comes from the curiosity of what it is that we’re supposed to do with all of it. How we might fill it up. The potentially endless monotony of stale experience, because that is the conception I have, based on what I have seen within this lifetime. But I won’t be myself – the self that is writing these lines and has spent years contemplating the ideas behind them. I won’t be like a child wondering what it’s like to be a married man, or a young girl contemplating the anguish of childbirth. I will know.

It was the actor Alec Guinness who once wrote about how people tend to visualize Heaven as a giant cocktail party, hobnobbing with the great figures of history, and tend to view the presence of God as only an occasion event, a random conversation. “Perhaps you know my Son?”

But Proust allows me to contemplate not how I will experience eternity, but how I will experience God Himself throughout eternity.

When Proust’s narrator first encounters Albertine, he tells us, his vision was cloudy. But each image from that time on, each encounter, is superimposed upon the last one. Later, he writes that pleasure is like a photograph; when in the presence of the beloved, we take a “negative” which must be developed later in our inner darkrooms that are barred to us as long as we are with others. 

But to be in the presence of God, for Whom the metaphors, titles, glories, pile up in page after page of Scripture, must be something else entirely. It is, we might suppose, a sensation of being overwhelmed by something else – Someone else - so overpowering, so complete, so awesome, that you don’t want to take your perception anywhere else. An incommunicable experience, beyond language, where one feels totally comprehended by an intelligence that cannot be reciprocated. A gorgeous incandescent presence, a personality that holds the conscience with absolute assurance, an awe-inducing confidence, a limitless and perfect facility, boundless creativity, a perfect moral wholeness unpolluted, a totality that cannot be apprehended – ever. When we encounter even a shadow of one of these qualities in another person, it is a stirring experience. To experience them all simultaneously would be a withering, terrifying catastrophe. Consider when “Marcel” meets the pompous Monsieur de Norpois, who dismisses his writing as well as his favorite writer:

“He has shown me, on the contrary, what an infinitely unimportant place was mine when I was judged from outside, objectively, by the best-disposed and most intelligent of experts.” (Within a Budding Grove)

This is magnified in those moments in the Bible when human beings encounter a vision of the Almighty. One remembers the words of Isaiah: "Woe is me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." (Isaiah 6:5)

Yet all the attributes I listed earlier left out the most important one – love. “God is love,” John writes. God can best be understood as love. God’s most descriptive quality is His perfect love. He is best understood through His love. His love is absolute, complete, perfectly exampled for all time by Jesus Christ. Not transactional, not self-seeking, but complete and total. Perfect, as He is perfect.   

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed," says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:10)

“The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing." (Zephaniah 3:17)

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

“His faithful love endures forever.” (Psalm 136:1)

We have never, in this life, in all our relationships, experienced an all-knowing, all-forgiving, all-encompassing love such as is described in these and other verses.

When “Marcel” encounters Albertine, they begin the charming and necessary ritual of “playing hard to get.” She gives him suggestions, even luring him to her bedroom, but teasing him. He compares this relationship to his earlier attachment to Gilberte, but each only hints at the other. Every relationship we have ever had on Earth across a lifetime will pale in comparison to an encounter with the Almighty.

The same fathomless personality I described earlier is made even more richer, more welcoming by the kind of love that goes beyond that of mother, father, lover, friend, to comprehend you not as you believe you are, but as you were truly meant to be, known only completely in the mind of the being who made you. No more self-dramatization. No more conformity to a perceived ideal, or an elusive momentary fashion. No more hypocrisies, no more posturing, no more enforced silences, no more cowering sublimation.

And though you share eternity with everyone saved by the grace of God, you are not one number among a multitude. You are not at the back of the crowd, straining on tiptoe for a glimpse. You are not Zacchaeus, climbing a tree limb in hopes of spotting the legendary figure in the crowd. You are Zacchaeus, personally invited to share His presence. You are experiencing no less what everyone else is, because God is large enough to fill every life, every particle of the universe, every moment of eternity. He is inexhaustible. There are no frantic glances at the watch, the pain of an expected parting making more exquisite the passing moments. It is a moment without end. 

"For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." (I Cor. 13:12)

For many people, it would be easy to write off the possibility of experiencing this as a fantasy. One reason is that concepts like eternity, unconditional love, absolute forgiveness, are foreign to our experience, just as the idea of total peace seems unattainable; an ideal or a hope that is forever beyond reach. For others, the knowledge is sure that if such a personality exists, it would demand something of us that we are unwilling or, we feel, unable to give. Yet denying oneself this would be a tragedy – indeed the worst kind of tragedy. Or as Proust himself expressed, in an 1892 piece on the anti-clerical measures of France, “Not to take sides over God, over the soul…is that not a way, and the worst, of taking a side?”

We approach these ideas as philosophical constructs, or intellectual assents. I choose not to believe, or I prefer to keep my own faith. But as Proust’s narrator writes, “Like everybody who is not in love, he imagined that one chooses the person one loves after endless deliberation and on the strength of diverse qualities and advantages.” We are speaking not of the head, but the heart – our tortured, restless, frustrated hearts, always in search of someone or something to ease them. If you were created to desire God, then to not desire Him is not an act of conscience, but of self-negation.  

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Friday, September 9, 2022

The opening bars of E.L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime'


E.L. Doctorow establishes the tone of his landmark 1974 novel "Ragtime" from the opening preamble - a rambling, eight-page opening that quickly introduces the era, the characters, and the personalities in precisely the light its author wishes through his prose style. It's a subtle, deft maneuver, mixing avant garde touches with historical research and a little bit of chicanery, burnishing the turn of the century with a murky fairy dust of legend - enough to hold readers for half a century. 

"Ragtime," named one of the 100 best American novels of the 20th century, has inspired an enduring film by Milos Foreman, as well as a Broadway musical. Now The New York Times last month adopted E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" for its T Book Club, and it's worth a second look at its beginning, just to see how Doctorow guides the reader into his world. 

Musicologists tell us one of the defining characteristics of ragtime music is its anticipatory notes that accentuate the beat, turning what might sound like a march into something that "swings." Using his style, characters, and the organization of his material, Doctorow accomplishes something very near this. 

The novel opens with a series of bland, placeholder sentences:

"In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows." 

A few details stand out. The first is "Father," the word through which this character, the first mentioned, will always be referenced. By capitalizing the word, the narrator's father takes on the mantle of deity, and because we are at the turn of the century, we might give the man a bland Jehovah quality. His actual name is not necessary. He is a personage. Doctorow does not tell us the color of the house, but gives its features, which is his way of telling us this is a family of means. When we learn that Father makes "the best part" of his income off flags and buntings, followed by the fact that Teddy Roosevelt is president, we are able to fill in the gaps as Sousa marches play in our imagination. 

Doctorow then gives a list to further punctuate the background:

"The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms."

In one sentence, he has sketched out great throngs of patriotic people, mass movements, entertainments, and though we have only encountered the names of Father and the president, we already have in our minds multitudes. But what is the character of the country? He answers this immediately:

"There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants." 

Without having it spelled out, the reader might also introduce another kind of mass throng into the picture - a lynch mob.

Now Doctorow is establishing rhythm. He has given us long paragraphs, long sentences with elaborations on the ways of society. He follows with a series of short declarative sentences. We are aware that he is talking about a white dominated society, and even though we are several pages away from the first appearance of Coalhouse Walker Jr., who will dominate the action of the book, a specific tone has been established. 

He then returns to Father, and Mother is introduced, as well as Grandfather and Mother's Younger Brother. The house is mentioned again. We get the image of Mother's Younger Brother as a nervous, aimless manchild "having difficulty finding himself." And as Doctorow tells the story, he continues to set scene, with the mention of the painter Winslow Homer and the "heavy dull menace" of the sea. Long sentences sit side-by-side with short ones. There is a sensation of the rhythm of rolling waves, just as Doctorow begins to introduce once again the idea previously hinted at - there is more going on beneath the surface; dark, unmentionable movements are trembling beneath the snapping flags:

"Odd things went on in lighthouses and in shacks nestled in the wild beach plum. Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes."

And between the lines of novels. America now assumes the tone Doctorow wishes to impart - that of white society in the midst of self-congratulation and self-regard, where human lives are being snuffed out with barely a whisper, where a pious, self-righteousness has no room in its heart for anything beyond its own interests, and those with more material wealth have the power to erase the evidence of their shortcomings, if not the residue. 

It is at this point that we have our first mention of Harry K. Thaw's assassination of Stanford White and the scandal of Evelyn Nesbit. Here, the prose becomes almost journalistic, sketching in the details of the case that dominated the headlines and conversations of the time. "Ragtime" was published in the immediately aftermath of Watergate, the kidnappings of Patricia Hearst and John Paul Getty III, when revolutionary bombings were happening every week in the U.S. Doctorow contrives what is believed to be a fictional meeting with Evelyn and the revolutionary Emma Goldman, and the anarchist's presence acts as a reminder in several ways:

"Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants. And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go." 

In addition to suddenly breaking through the wall that Doctorow has erected around the world of the narrator's family, he has also reminded the reader that this legendary past does not seem so remote or unrecognizable at all. And he gives the reader leave to imagine all the crimes of the century that will inevitably follow. At the time he wrote the novel, for example, O.J. Simpson was merely known as the star running back of the Buffalo Bills.

Another reason for introducing the Thaw-White case is because it further characterizes Mother's Younger Brother, who is in love with Evelyn Nesbit. In so doing, Doctorow not only touches on his theme of the dark side of America, but also introduces the allure of danger and celebrity. Eventually, this will lead not only to how Mother's Younger Brother becomes himself radicalized, but also points to the as-yet unmentioned character of Tateh. 

Up until now, we only have had hints of scenes. Mother and Father shut the door of their bedroom on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The reader might imagine a nap, a daytime romp, or the dutiful submission of a wife to her restless husband. Doctorow does not say (until the next section). Grandfather dozes on the divan. Mother's Younger Brother has ridden to the end of the line and walks barefoot in the tide marshes. The little boy, his name not capitalized, dressed in a sailor blouse, waves away the flies on the porch, but the narrator tells us he is precocious, his intelligence growing, unseen.

"He felt that the circumstances of his family's life operated against his need to see things and to go places."

Again, there is the recurring element of mystery, clouded menace, unspoken, either left beneath the surface or covered over. But the relative peace - or gathering anxiety - of the afternoon is broken by the serendipitous appearance of the boy's idol, the escape artist Harry Houdini, whose car breaks down right outside their home. 

The Houdini section of the preamble is where Doctorow returns to his prose rhythms, in enumerating the many different death-defying stunts of Houdini's career, followed each time by the words, "He escaped." The former Erik Weisz, son of a Eastern European rabbi, reminds us that there are indeed immigrants. He also sums up this section with, "Today, nearly fifty years since his death, the audience for escapes is even larger." Doctorow does not tell us what kind of escapes he means, but we can assume he is not referring to strait-jackets, rivers and giant sausage casings. No, it is the readers, the public, awash in non-hushed up scandals and killings, that craves escape. 

This might be the best place to mention how Doctorow deploys his real-life historical figures. John Updike's famous assessment was that "Ragtime" "smacked of playing with helpless dead puppets, and turned the historical novel into a gravity-free, faintly sadistic game." The only hint of this comes briefly with the imagined meeting between Nesbit and Goldman, though we do know that Evelyn Nesbit made a donation to her. Later on, Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and others will weave in and out of the story, and we trust that they act in character. But they act within the character of Doctorow's story, which means they serve his motives. 

Which is why Houdini feels trapped within the family's hot house with its shut windows, its "heavy square furnishings." If he seems depressed in his inappropriately worn tweed suit, we assume it is the demands of his fame. But he is different - a self-made, self-invented personality who is not totally at home in the domestic tension of New Rochelle. "He was very respectful to Mother and Father and spoke of his profession with diffidence. This struck them as appropriate." Doctorow has Houdini interact with Mother, turning his blue eyes on her, to which she lowers her gaze. The narrator doesn't have to mention Houdini's famous love of his departed mother. If the reader is aware of this part of the escape artist's biography, the work has already been done. This is in keeping with Doctorow's strategy of deploying history - the reader knows as much as necessary to explain the plot, to set tone. He isn't in a hurry to "show his work."

Throughout this scene, there is no dialogue. Doctorow sprinkles in phrases of the period. Took his leave. An annual disbursement. The car was parked correctly. Houdini thought the boy comely.

Order has been restored. At least for a time. Until the little boy says, "Warn the Duke." Who is the Duke, and what does he need to be warned about? Doctorow does not tell us, but the reader will know later that this is the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The boy, who is aware of more than he appears, gives a preternatural hint at the story that will play out in years to come beyond the novel.

Since the opening scene takes place during the first Thaw trial, we know it is 1907. That means the Duke has seven years of life left before his assassination in Sarajevo will trigger World War I, and the resulting chaos will wipe away the ragtime world that E.L. Doctorow has given us in a few pages, only pointing the way toward the first blasts to the wall that keeps Negroes and immigrants unmentionable, with the promise of more to come.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Salman Rushdie: The Laughing Exile


"This is what he thought: I'm a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left to live and thought the answer was probably a single-digit number." 

The passage appears on the first page of Salman Rushdie's 2012 memoir, "Joseph Anton," the story of how the author dealt with the 1989 fatwa leveled on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini following the publication of his novel, "The Satanic Verses." 

The stabbing of Rushdie shortly before a talk at New York State's Chautauqua Institution last Friday came more than 33 years after Khomeini's death sentence, a span during which Rushdie has written 17 books, including novels (with one publishing next year), collections of essays, and the aforementioned autobiography of his time on the run. 

Even before it began, as he documented many times, Rushdie’s career is one of exile – making a home away from the place where you were born, the feeling of disconnection which becomes a second skin. In “The Satanic Verses,” the novel that would define not only his career but his life, he wrote, “Paranoia, for the exile, is a prerequisite for survival.”

Rushdie is a figure of absolutes and extremes. An atheist, much of his work deals in characters who are believers. A figure of the cultural left, he found himself needing the protection of Margaret Thatcher and various right wing Western governments. He has attained the kind of world historical significance that most authors dream of, albeit at a terrible price, while surviving the traumatic period to occasionally make forays into films, pop music, and the general culture. At the same time, how many people who know his name have actually read his work?

And the attack comes at a time when Rushdie's creative star has been in decline. The New York Times last year trashed his novel “Quichotte” and accused him of a formula - "Classic Novel or Myth used as Scaffolding, Femme Fatale, Story within the Story (recounted by a Garrulous Narrator), Topical Concerns, Defense of Hybridity."

“The Satanic Verses” deals with the great obsessions of Rushdie’s life – the consciousness of the immigrant, the clash of belief and unbelief, and the question of identity. The two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are Indian Muslim actors living in the present onboard a hijacked plane. The aircraft explodes, but the two survive, with Gibreel at first transformed into the archangel Gabriel, and Saladin into a devil. The parts of the novel that prompted the fatwa involve extended dream sequences involving a character the reader will recognize as Muhammad. There is also a character who is functions as a parody of Khomeini.

Eventually, through a series of further transformations, the two men eventually make it back to India, but they cannot escape from who they are. The journey has changed them in some areas while leaving intact the loves and concerns that drove them through the story. Gibreel, struggling with mental illness, eventually kills himself. Saladin embraces his identity in his homeland. Each man clings defiantly to who he perceives himself to be. The end, he seems to be saying, does not look promising.

“Who is he? An exile. Which must not be confused with, allowed to run into, all the other words that people throw around: émigré, expatriate, refugee, immigrant, silence, cunning. Exile is a realm of glorious return. Exile is a vision of revolution: Elba, not St. Helena. It Is an endless paradox: looking forward by always looking back. The exile is a ball hurled high into the air. He hangs there, frozen in time, translated into a photograph; denied motion, suspended impossibly above his native earth, he awaits the inevitable moment at which the photograph must begin to move, and the earth reclaim its own.”

The tone of the work is so highly literary, but uniquely Rushdie – one can come from his culture and get all the winks without perhaps noticing homages and asides to Joyce, Shakespeare, Frank Herbert or Pynchon. By the same token, many western readers, who have no familiarity with the hosts of Hindu gods or Muslim apocrypha, might sail right past puns and wordplay devoted to them while seizing on some bit of literary filigree. I never read Rushdie that I don’t feel a bit lost, but that too, I believe, is a calculation on his part. To be an immigrant, an outsider, he appears to say, is to feel a concentrated disorientation, a hysterical blindness, as though you aren’t getting it all, that your understanding is incomplete, and that can be a blessing and a curse. For none of us are really getting it all all the time, are we? Having a pair of cultural blinders on can sometimes allow us to get a little bit farther faster. But what we blind to?

When “The Satanic Verses” appeared on bookshelves, followed by the hysteria, I dutifully bought my hardbound copy and began setting to read what all the fuss was about. The tone mystified me, I will admit. I was a very immature 18-year-old. My pride puffed up at the references I understood, the rest sailed over my head. It was only almost 20 years later, after the end of Rushdie’s exile, 9/11, and the Iraq War that I successfully made my way through the book, able to enjoy it and realize just how prescient Rushdie had been about the world that was about to burst forth. 

It’s upon reading “The Satanic Verses” that one realizes perhaps the harshest bit of irony – the audience Rushdie wrote for, the one who would have presumably appreciated what he was trying to do, was the segment of society which reacted the most violently toward it. Rushdie himself wrote that one of the paradoxes of Islam is that its conservative theology “looking backward with affection toward a vanishing culture, became a revolutionary idea, because the people whom it attracted most strongly were those who had been marginalized by urbanization…” Yet that same group of people reacted violently when they perceived a westernized, urbanized critique (or parody) of Islam. At one time, it was possible to believe in the inevitable triumph of Western-style objectivity against obscurantism, fanaticism, and conspiracy in the service of religion. But to do so, one had to employ one’s own bit of magical realism, chiefly by not consulting the rest of the world.

The constellations of Rushdie’s multiverse can best be viewed in miniature in “Chekov and Zulu,” a short story published in his collection “East/West.” In it, we encounter the title characters, Sikhs known by their nicknames borrowed from “Star Trek.” They are successful, professional men in their conversation, which is sprinkled with the codewords and linguistic vestiges of British colonialism. Why not “Sulu?” Because Zulu “sounds like a wild man” and evokes another image from England’s empire. Coincidentally, because they did not grow up in England, the two men first encountered “Star Trek” not as reruns of American television, but in the only way open to them at the time - paperback novelizations of the episodes.

But in approximately taking the names of the Starship Enterprise’s helmsman and ensign, they are honoring “the ultimate professional servants.” The story begins in 1984 on the day Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This sets in motion their mission to uncover intelligence about Sikh radicals in the U.K. England has always been a breeding ground for Indian radicals, they observe. Eventually, Chekov “by chance” finds himself with Indira’s son Rajiv on the day in 1991 when he was assassinated by a Tamil revolutionary – a threat closer to home.

“So, finally, we have learned to produce the goods at home, and no longer need to import,” Chekov thinks. “The tragedy is not how one dies… It is how one has lived.” In the calculus of East and West, as on the Enterprise, our two heroes are supposed to be the bit players. The pop mythology merges with their own stories, and all they have is the bond they share with each other.

It is the mind of the exile that Rushdie returns to – the idea of being simultaneously in two worlds, and neither. A richness of life that comes with a terrible poverty – a man who can solve a riddle that people are only asking thousands of miles away in another language, driven by the grudges and creeds recorded in history books that cannot be read in the tongue of those around him on the morning bus. If we find ourselves in such a world, we might feel like a punchline, but unaware of what the joke is supposed to signify. Rushdie might tell us the only option is to still laugh, as an act of defiance.

As of this writing, Rushdie is alive but his recovery appears to be long and uncertain. Many times over the last three decades, he has probably had occasion to imagine something like what occurred on that stage, but perhaps not what might happen after. He has only lived with the knowledge that any freedom is bitterly contested, a fact that one becomes numb to in a setting where nothing seems up for grabs. Rushdie's life, surviving as it has, may once again breathe vigor into the persistent idea that the life of the mind will eventually triumph over all its foes. It's a dangerously complacent idea, and he knew better. In May, speaking at the PEN America Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers, Rushdie said, "A poem will not stop a bullet. A novel cannot defuse a bomb. Not all satirists are heroes."

One particular quote from "Anton" jumps out at me: 

"Compromise destroyed the compromiser and did not placate the uncompromising foe. You did not become a blackbird by painting your wings black, but like an oil-slicked gull you lost the power of flight. The greatest danger of the growing menace was that good men would commit intellectual suicide and call it peace. Good men would give in to fear and call it respect."