Wednesday, December 12, 2018

In Praise of Lesser Lights

The way "canonical literature" supposedly works is that over time scholars figure out which authors are the best artists of their eras and which of their works are essential contributions to the literary form. Think of canonization as the notion of "the cream always rises to the top" mixed with a largely unseen political impetus. It's a comfortable myth that serves a variety of social and political ends; the intellectual deputies of the status quo tend include authors and works whose virtues just so happen to fit the current and persisting ideological goals of "culture" and "society" when formulating the literary canon. 

Canonization also has the unfortunate tendency to narrow focus on an author's works to a scant handful of their creative expressions; we know that Melville is the Moby-Dick guy and that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, even if we haven't read either--and the average reader will never even think of straying beyond those well-worn paths.

In this post I am going to draw your attention to some fantastic "lesser lights"--the novels, plays, and short fiction that have been overshadowed by their more famous counterparts and deserve a wider audience.

William Faulkner, The Unvanquished
Faulkner's reputation largely rests on his novel The Sound and the Fury and the oft-anthologized short stories "Barn Burning" and "A Rose for Emily." (Oddly, Oprah helped boost his modern profile with her book club, so some of his other novels have maintained some rediscovered prominence.) The Sound and the Fury has always struck me as a bit of a dodge; it sometimes gets away with really obvious symbolism by cloaking it in a stream of consciousness form that bowls over educated rubes. In contrast, The Unvanquished, though little-read, is a profoundly powerful novel-in-short-stories that addresses the Southern family, the nature of vengeance, and the violence inexorably tied to American history. It's also beautifully written. Consider this prose from a scene in which a young man of the modern world is offered deadly tools of honor and revenge--and is expected to use them as his forefathers would:

I could see that too, who had had no presentiment; I could see her, in the formal brilliant room arranged formally for obsequy, not tall, nor slender as a woman is but as a youth, a boy, is, motionless, in yellow, the face calm, almost bemused, the head simple and severe, the balancing sprig of verbena above each ear, the two arms bent at the elbows, the two hands shoulder high, the two identical dueling pistols lying upon, not clutched in, one to each: the Greek amphora priestess of a succinct and formal violence.

I give them to you. Oh you will thank me, you will remember me who put into your hands what they say is an attribute only of God’s, who took what belongs to heaven and gave it to you. Do you feel them? the long true barrels true as justice, the triggers (you have fired them) quick as retribution, the two of them slender and invincible and fatal as the physical shape of love?

Oscar Wilde, Vera; or, The Nihilists
Wilde was a celebrated playwright in his own lifetime, but that miraculous career writing for the stage got off to a rocky start. Before he hit on the winning formula behind successful dramas such as Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest--critique of British society adorned with witticisms and bon mots--Wilde tried his hand at political theater...and failed spectacularly. Vera; or The Nihilists was withdrawn from the theater within a week of its debut, and has rarely been revived since. And yet, although it isn't the kind of play that Wilde became known for, Vera is a moving and insightful look at political and social extremism that is perhaps more relevant today than it was when Wilde wrote it; neither the extremism that defends the status quo nor the extremism of revolutionaries willing to sacrifice their humanity for retaliation are allowed moral ground. For example, look at the internal struggle that results from the "Nihilist's oath," a catechism meant to harden the heart against the very feelings that make human life worthwhile:

Ay, red with the blood of that false heart. I shall not forget it. To strangle whatever nature is in me, neither to love nor to be loved, neither to pity nor to be pitied. Ay! it is an oath, an oath. Methinks the spirit of Charlotte Corday has entered my soul now. I shall carve my name on the world, and be ranked among the great heroines. Ay! the spirit of Charlotte Corday beats in each petty vein, and nerves my woman's hand to strike, as I have nerved my woman's heart to hate. Though he laughs in his dreams, I shall not falter.

Isak Dinesen's "The Monkey" 
Isak Dinesen, real name Karen Blixen, is most famous for her dream-like memoir Out of Africa and the story "Babette's Feast," but it is a shame that so many people miss out on her weirder and darker short fiction, which is a particularly strong vein of oddity. One of my favorites in her bibliography is "The Monkey," part of her collection Seven Gothic Tales. "The Monkey" ushers us in a strange world: we have a soldier wishing to marry to avoid censure for "inappropriate" sexual dalliances, his prioress aunt who is more than willing to engage in secular manipulation, a woman marked out as a potential love-match who towers over her intended with a Valkyrie-like form, uncanny transformations, and a crossing of the boundaries between rational man and irrational beast. Ultimately, we're adrift in a world to which we are poorly suited because we crave stability even amid the maelstrom: 

The real difference between God and human beings, he thought, was that God cannot stand continuance. No sooner has he created a season of a year, or a time of the day, than he wishes for something quite different, and sweeps it all away. No sooner was one a young man, and happy at that, than the nature of things would rush one into marriage, martyrdom, or old age. And human beings cleave to the existing state of things. All their lives they are striving to hold the moment fast, and are up against a force majeure. Their art itself is nothing but the attempt to catch by all means the one particular moment, one mood, one light, the momentary beauty of one woman or one flower, and make it everlasting. It is all wrong, he thought, to imagine paradise as a never-changing state of bliss. It will probably, on the contrary, turn out to be, in the true spirit of God, an incessant up and down, a whirlpool of change.