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Antiseptic Modernism

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Went to the optometrist today, because it’s time for reading glasses. (Was glad that the new floater, just at the focal point of the right eye, was the “good kind of floater” rather than the “bad kind”…)

Anyway, you know when the optometrist (or ophthalmologist, if you’re a snob like that) puts you through the “this one or that one” “one or two, two or three, three or four” game with the lenses. Well, one or two?

Here’s one:

And they went back over their lives.
    They’d both been failures, the one who’d dreamed of Love and the one who’d dreamed of Power. How had it come about?
    “Perhaps it was lack of perseverance?” said Frédéric.
    “For you maybe. For me, it was the other way round, I was too rigid, I didn’t take into account a hundred and one smaller things that are more crucial than all the rest. I was tooo logical and you were too sentimental.”
    Then they blamed it on bad luck, the circumstances, the times in which they had been born […]
So one Sunday, while everyone was at Vespers, Frédéric and Deslauriers, having previously got their hair curled, picked some flowers in Madame Moreau’s garden, left by the back way over the fields, took a roundabout path through the vineyards, came back via the fishery and slipped down to the Turkish woman’s house, still clasping their large bouquet.
Frédéric held his out like a sweetheart offering flowers to his bride-to-be. But the heat, fear of the unknown, a vague feeling of guilt, and even the thrill of seeing, at one glance, so many women at his disposal, upset him so much that he went very pale and stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak. The women were all laughing, amused by his embarrassment; thinking they were making fun of him, he turned tail and fled; and since he was holding the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.
    They were seen leaving the house; the scandal this aroused still lingered on three years later.
    They told each other the story at great length, each filling in the details left out by the other, and when they’d reached the end:
    “Ah, that was our best time!” said Frédéric.
    “Could be? Yes, that was our best time!” said Deslauriers.

Here’s two:

    Yes, society must go on; it must breed, like rabbits. That is what we are here for. But then, I don’t like society–much. I am that absurd figure, an American millionaire, who has bought one of the ancient haunts of English peace. I sit here, in Edward’s gun-room, all day and all day in a house that is absolutely quiet. No one visits me, for I visit no one. No one is interested in me, for I have no interests. In twenty minutes or so I shall walk down to the village, beneath my own oaks, alongside my own clumps of gorse, to get the American mail. My tenants, the village boys and the tradesmen will touch their hats to me. So life peters out. I shall return to dine and Nancy will sit opposite me with the old nurse standing behind her.  Enigmatic, silent, utterly well-behaved as far as her knife and fork go, Nancy will stare in front of her with the blue eyes that have over them strained, stretched brows. Once, or perhaps twice, during the meal her knife and fork will be suspended in mid-air as if she were trying to think of something that she had forgotten. Then she will say that she believes in an Omnipotent Deity or she will utter the one word "shuttle-cocks", perhaps. It is very extraordinary to see the perfect flush of health on her cheeks, to see the lustre of her coiled black hair, the poise of the head upon the neck, the grace of the white hands–and to think that it all means nothing–that it is a picture without a meaning. Yes, it is queer.

OK – it’s obvious that one wins. Not really fair. But why these two together? Both Flaubert and Ford, at the end of L’Education sentimentale and The Good Soldier are involved in the long secularization of literature that some like to call “modernism.” Flaubert after the romantically-inflected bildungsroman, and Ford after the society romance – the health-spa idyll or whatever it should be called. Straining the fluffy elsewhereness and otherwisity out of the forms – turning these forms so deeply affiliated with the event back toward the everyday.

But what’s interesting, I think, is the way that Flaubert’s everyday is always haunted by the event that explodes out of it – even if it never quite (never does) escape the gravity of the everyday. Starting from Madame Bovary, about the codependency of the two terms – what’s learned in his (first) novel of “education” is that what comes after the brotherly brothel episode

Ford has to turn his anticlimactic climax baroque – gothic – in order to sell it… Imagine leaving out the stuff about Nancy in the paragraph above. Ford wants – needs – the flatly round world of the secular and quotidian to cap his “exposure” of the base reality behind the appearance of the “good people” who hangout at German resort towns.

This dirty little bit of madwoman come down out of the attic to dinner, tea-party between Humbert Humbert and a lobotomized Lolita – it spoils the antiseptics of Ford’s novel, it’s true (if mindnumbingly tedious) modernity…

Anyway, just trying to figure out what to say about Ford, because I think I’m going to teach The Good Soldier in the fall… Hadn’t read it in awhile, and it’s not the most teachable book in the world…

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 24, 2005 at 2:15 am

Posted in literature

5 Responses

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  1. Since you seem to fancy yourself the Modernist scholar, where do you think someone such as Joseph Conrad (not to say Pound and Eliot) would be positioning himself in regards to the Iraqi war and terrorism, 9-11, and US Politics? They would most likely have detested the dixie-conservatives, yet I am quite sure they would have had much more vitriol and scorn towards the democrats and european Left. I suspect a Pound would have lined up to the right of Hitchens, regardless of his dislike of the yankees. I think you should keep that in mind when reading (or applauding) some of the marxist agit-prop crap on a site such as Long Sunday.


    May 27, 2005 at 11:17 pm

  2. Why? I study modernism – I don’t aspire to “be” a “modernist.” Not my role models…
    I’m not sure that the game you’re implicitly proposing is one that it really makes sense to play – guess the modernists’ reactions to 9/11…
    But you’re wrong about Pound, I think. Couldn’t we just as easily guess that Pound would have been doing radio or rather satellite tv broadcasts for Saddam – surely he would have thought (if we’re talking about the circa 1940 Pound) the jews were behind the whole game, no?


    May 28, 2005 at 12:06 am

  3. I dunno – I rather think down deep Pound was motivated by a deep, intractable contrarianism. “Make it new!” Think he always wanted to do exactly what he wasn’t supposed to – aesthetically and politically at least…


    May 28, 2005 at 11:16 am

  4. Yes and as the quintessential Modernist contrarian, he would have opposed the marxists: could a man who felt so close to Alexander Pope and John Donne, not to say classical greeks (and the Catholic tradition as well), have embraced the likes of shiite muslims and Zizek, not to say the sapphocrats?? Unlikely. Of course, it may be a moot point: though EP’s the linguist and classical poet par excellance, it is not impossible he really may have been insane, at least after the 40s, no?


    May 28, 2005 at 1:00 pm

  5. The world is always- must be- one of ‘enchantment’ to a novelist (or a lawyer)
    It’s critics and philosophers, needing to be right, who sponge off the poor fucks

    “Anyway, you know when the optometrist (or ophthalmologist, if you’re a snob like that) …”

    seth edenbaum

    May 30, 2005 at 9:18 pm

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