Sunday, November 30, 2008

Flaubert's First Time at the Writers' Group



I am reading Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary as part of my full-on assault on continental literature, begun this fall in an attempt to know all my Frenchman, Germans and Russians by their sentence structures in time for the GRE Subject Test.

I am disappointed! I had my hopes up, thought I would be blown away by the insight, romance, and sensuality of French literature. Flaubert misses the mark.

As an aside, before I start tearing Monsieur apart, I would like to note that I checked out a Proust reader from the library the next day, and I continue to be floored by it. Marcel Proust (along with other Marcels, i.e. Duchamp) is my new hero. Hope is not lost for me and French literature.

So, my problem (or one of them anyway) with Flaubert is this: the man cannot construct a scene. The entire novel is told in exposition, or in feeble attempts at scenes that are really very expository. How can you write a novel about love, sex, affairs, the wretchedness of women (if you will) without showing it in the charged, heated, fiery prose of the fully present immediate past tense?

To the first couple of chapters I gave the benefit of the doubt. Flaubert describes M. Bovary's upbringing, from which the narrator has some narrative distance. Exposition is fine for these scenes, and in 1857 I don't know if the world was ready for a novel that jumped between time periods a la Slaughterhouse V (Madame Bovary only moves forward in time but even that may have been confusing -- Flaubert doesn't announce it or anything). So the past tense, removed voice is probably the best choice. But then we move to the recent past (Bovary's first wife, his courtship of Emma), and then into the present (from Emma's wedding on), and we are still being "told" what happens, almost never "shown."

When describing Emma's life with Charles, everything is written as "She would walk the path," "He would say to her," "They would play games." This "would" sums up a series of walks on the path, exchanges between lovers, social evenings out, but almost never describes any particular day or night or passing emotion or passionate act.


There is some beautiful description in the work, but it is mostly of nature, houses, and men's attire. The rays of sunlight and the dusty road of Emma's walk with her Italian Greyhound, the noiseless bubbling water and glass-decorated walls of Emma's walk with Leon on the riverbanks, the curling eyelashes and creamy flushed cheeks of Emma's lovers. These images hold my attention.

Flaubert also makes some worthy attempts at describing very short scenes, which he peppers with literary devices. He seems to hit his stride when he gives himself over to a scene, and when he returns to expository language, it actually makes it hit just right. For instance, when Emma tosses her wedding bouquet into the flames and watches:

She threw it into the fire. It flared up fatser that a dry straw. Then it looked like a red bush in the ashes, slowly disintegrating. She watched it burn. The little cardboard berries burst, the brass wires twisted, the braiding melted; and the shriveled paper petals fluttered on the grate like black butterflies, then flew up the chimney.
When they left Tostes in the month of March, Madame Bovary was pregnant.
Gorgeous! The similies are nice, the symbolic disintegration of the bouquet with its twisting insides and melted edges is fantastic, and the return to expositon ("Madame Bovary was pregnant") actually give us a kick in the pants. It is then that he also returns from calling her "Emma." Emma is the girl who burned the bouquet. It is Madame who is pregnant.

Another problem. When some dialog miraculously appears, it is sandwiched by expository explanation, and then the first words of the very next paragraph will be "The next day..." When something like a scene takes place, Flaubert often runs away from it instead of using it to build momentum!

Only toward the end of the story does this get any better, a good example I remember being a scene between Leon and Emma where they actually play with each other's clothing while they talk. But even that is interrupted by expositon that stands in for dialog: "The clerk warmly explained that ideal natures were difficult to understand. He had loved her at first sight...[and so on]" Well, how the heck did he say all of that? If a character tells another "I loved you at first sight," shouldn't we get to be audience to that as it actually happens? Maybe Flaubert thinks that is unimportant?

And another thing -- if we've gotten into the clerk's pants, shouldn't we be calling him "Leon"?

So I pictured Flaubert at one of my writers' group meetings. We have certain syntactical and stylistic expectations, and most of us agree on some key points. Don't write fiction in the present tense. Don't use the passive voice unless you have to. Avoid the gerund when you can. Don't use ellipses or semicolons in fiction. And most importantly for Gustave, SHOW don't TELL, or SCENE not EXPOSITION.

After he reads a few pages, the best of us will begin to fear for him, to feel embarrassed for him at at listening to these words, knowing he'll never get anywhere unless he adds some dialog or brings the story into the "now." I picture the group leader looking over his manuscript, shaking her head, making the pages bleed with red ink.

There have been a few writers in the group who had Flaubertitis. My hand would get (haha...would get) tired of writing "dialog," "dialog," "dialog," "SHOW us," etc, in the margins.

Yeah, those ladies would tear Gus apart. I forgot to mention it's a women-only group. So even if Gustave were allowed to attend as a special guest, and even if we could get past his expository extravagance and find some enjoyment in it, we would all take exception to his chauvinistic treatment of Madame B -- er -- Emma.

Some Irishman wrote a line for the back of the book: "Possibly the most beautifully written book ever composed and the most important novel of the century." Um, do you read much? He should have had them underline "Possibly." Even if I conceded that some of my distaste for this novel is my own humble opinion, that the book really is a great work (I never said it should be stripped from the canon), I could still not begin to agree with the silly statement on the back of my Signet Classics edition. Regretfully, I cannot afford to buy reputable critical editions of every work, and even some of those must be taken with a box of sea salt.

So I think Flaubert may have a had a chance at that "most important novel," and at "beautifully written books" of all kinds if he had just attended a writers' group once in a while. I know it really helps me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Unfix that Prefix


On an idle night in Tucson, Arizona, my good friend Erica and I were drinking Framboise Lambic. While discussing the state of modern language, we became suddenly incensed at the words in English which have prefixes that cannot be "unfixed."

This is what happens when two friends who are semi-intellectual get together after two years of fond absence. She has a history degree and I (as the blog title indicates) am a student of English. Our conversations can get pretty outlandish. We've even invented our own philosophy: "Observationalism."

So in a bubbly raspberry haze we feverishly jotted down a list of the most egregiously prefixed offenders. Of course by the time we began making up definitions for our new prefix-less words (and had drunk more than one bottle of fizzy stuff), our tempers had cooled considerably. Having turned down an invitation to a comedy club that evening, we commenced at making our own comedy at the dining room table.

Our criteria for these words was that they have prefixes that can usually be separated from a word, and leave that word standing (i.e. un-, dis-, a-), and that they are not words for which the prefix's necessity can be easily explained by etymology (i.e. infiltrate, disgust). We also thought about words that have unnecessary or redundant prefixes, so that the word means the same thing without the prefix, or at least should mean the same thing without it.

My especial (there's a good one) thanks to a fat copy of the 1966 Oxford English Dictionary of English Etymology .

Disgruntled -- This is one of the most common words that people make fun of, probably because of its frequent use in the appellation "disgruntled employee." But really, you can't say someone is "gruntled." And if disgruntled means dissatisfied and angry, then gruntled would mean satisfied and happy. It certainly doesn't sound like it would mean that, even if it could be used as a word on its own. However, if you look into the word's Middle English origins, it makes sense when applied to someone who has been "made to grumble." Yet still -- shouldn't it be engruntled? Like when someone makes you angry you become enraged.

Nonchalant -- This bastard word has been kicked back and forth between Anglos and Francos for nearly a milleninum. So in its current form in the English language, nonchalant is far from pedigreed. To make a long story short, we only borrowed the verb from French (chaloir) that means "to be roused or fired with hope, zeal, or anger" and added our own "non-" prefix to make an adjective that suggests a negation of these intense feelings. For some reason we never borrowed the verb on its own to express our Anglophonic fires of hope, zeal, or anger.

Abyss -- The prefix "a-" has four different uses, all installed in the English language at different periods. In the case of abyss, it is used in its fourth listed form, as a prefix of negation or privation. These two types of uses seem to me to be at odds, but I am no etymologist. Lets go back further to find out why I think "byss" should stand on its own. The "byss" part of "abyss" comes from the Greek buthos, meaning depth. So when you tack an "a-" onto it, it means something that has depth, usually an immesurable depth, which is what the first person who added the "a-" probably intended. So why isn't a hole with a bottom (or a shallow hole) called a "byss?"

There are many more "a-" words that seem to be unnecessarily prefixed. The main part of the word is where the meaning is carried, and the "a-" just serves to tell us, "Yup, that's the way it is." For instance, when something is drifting, it is adrift, when something is in the air, it is aloft. But there are many more examples where the word has no meaning without its "a-" partner, like amazed or aghast. These "a-" words seem like products of a language figuring itself out, and many of them are remnants of late Old English. Shouldn't we have simplified by now? Perhaps it is our periodic return to metered poetry that keeps them alive. They are prettier than their often one-syllabled roots.

Unravel -- This word has a redundant prefix of "un-," which usually means a negation or deprivation. The word ravel does stand on its own, but it means precisely the same thing that unravel means. This is a case where we tacked on the "un-" because it felt right, and it has stuck. So from now on, try to say that your sweater is "raveling," not "unraveling."

Unloose -- Another interesting redundant "un-" sitiuation shows itself in the word unloose. To unloose is the same as to loose. Unloose, however, sounds more intense, even though "un-" is usually a negation.

Uplift
-- Another word made to sound more intense by adding an unnecesary prefix: "up-." In what other direction would one lift?

Disenfranchise -- The most logical and proper form of this word is disfranchise -- to take away franchise, i.e. civil rights etc. To enfranchise is to give these things. If you say "I've disenfranchised you," it's like you giveth and taketh away in the same breath! Perhaps if you are speaking of the very person who gave the rights who is now taking them away, the commonly used disenfranchise would be applicable. Otherwise, lets try to keep things simple and avoid double prefixing at all costs!

Uncouth -- I like this word's history, because it's been tampered with! It has existed since Old English as uncuth, and had the same meaning it does today. But in 1896 it was first used as couth to refer to someone with manners and refinement. This is called a back formation, and I think it is highly linguistically inappropriate! Doing this to a word is, in my opinion, like assigning our modern cultural values to Renaissance humanists or to early American slave owners. Though the philologists may disagree, it must be appreciated that the word couth doesn't even sound like what it means -- for it was never before meant to mean anything on its own.

Uncanny -- Canny is an archaic word meaning the same thing as uncanny. My amateur opinion of what happened here: the word faded out of common usage, and was reintroduced when "un-" began to be used as a negative that denotes some kind of evil. Uncanny, in a time when "un-" was a scary sort of prefix, probably would have sounded more frightening than canny. By the time uncanny was in use, canny, on its own, had come to have many more definitons that were entirely unrelated to the supernatural.

This is by no means a complete list. I am leaving out the more offensive unfixing we worked on, including finding a newly unfixed word that (to us) means masturbate.

The Oxford and a common usage errors website have given me much to think about. What pains me and excites me at the selfsame (another good one) instant, is how language takes on a mind of its own in the hands of a society, as it crosses borders, and as it spends centuries in the mouths and hands of poets.

What becomes "common usage" is oftentimes irreversible, whether it makes linguistic sense or not. Some folks think a hundred years of a usage is long enough to declare it a permanent alteration. I am more conservative -- I don't even consider Renaissance English usage to be all that archaic, much less the 18th and 19th century usages that decorate English novels, yet that have become passe in contemporary or post-modern English. I would argue that some of the stupidities of post-modern English are quite reversible, and that some of the rare beauties of middle and modern English could quite possibly be resurrected.

(For more in that vein, see "Talk Victorian To Me" below.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thoreau at the Mega-Mart


Today I spent over an hour and a half at a giant supermarket. Crowded aisles notwithstanding, the decision making was extremely stressful and was the most time-consuming factor leading to the obliteration of my afternoon. Did you know there are at least forty brands of spanish olives available in northern Illinois?

We have all read or heard about the paradox of choice (and I've written on it here), but today I really noticed it at its most paradoxical. I learned from that book about the issue. I learned not to do too much comparing of prices, to "satisfice" and buy what looks good without agonizing over whether it is the perfect choice or the highest value. So I thought I would be safe at the Mega-Mart.

This particular mega-mart is employee owned. It's old fashioned inside, with the shallow carts that old people have to use because they can't bend down to place groceries in a modern deep cart. They don't even accept credit cards. So, for many more reasons, I thought I would be safe at the Mega-Mart.

I was excited to go there. I hadn't been to a large store in months. In good financial times I do all my shopping at Trader Joes. I pick up the things they don't have (i.e. plastic wrap) at Target, but all my food comes from TJ's. They only have about two types or brands of each food. The store is only seven or eight aisles wide, and the products I love are always there. I buy the exact same things every time, and glance at the endcaps for some new ideas and for the new beers.

Indian Dinner = TJ's brand Masala Sauce, Couscous, Garlic Naan, Tofu.
Jewish Dinner = Spinoza Everything Bagels, Cream Cheese, Nova Lox, Latkes.
Snacks = Fage yogurt, Fruit Leathers, Bean Taquitos
Beer = Something different every time, but their selection only spans 12 feet of shelf space.

And so on. It's very easy to shop when you love the food and it's always in the same spot in a tiny little store! Sounds like it may get boring, but for me it doesn't. Eight aisles offer plenty of variety, and the quality is amazing.

Lately, however, I've had to do some shopping at an inferior market -- ALDI. At ALDI the food is not so great. And there are only five aisles. And they only have one of each thing. At first I loved how easy it was to choose, and that they make you bring your own bags. But after a few trips I was beginning to doubt my solemn oath that I would be just fine in a socialist country where the market has only one government issue brick of cheese, bag of rice, etc. I wanted variety!

I pictured myself in Soviet Russia, fighting with very strong women over the last bag of dried milk till Tuesday. Then I pictured myself writing home, begging for a care package of assorted breakfast cereals and a cornucopia of cooking sauces.

It didn't help that last weekend, while I was in Chicago for the Humanities Festival, our professor took my classmate and I to a veritable food-fantasy-land. At Foodlife in Water Tower Place they admit you through a turnstyle and hand you a plastic card -- a golden ticket by golly! Every sub-gourmet dish you can dream of can be found somewhere in that labyrinth of sushi, veggie burgers, Nutella crepes, pumpkin milkshakes, steak soups, flavored teas, and wine. Again I doubted my oath -- capitalism seemed almost acceptable for that hour and a half.

And so, after weeks of "grocery rut" my trip to the unnamed Mega-Mart was with great anticipation. But as I already gave away, it was mostly an hour and a half of staring at ten shelves of olives and winding between stacks of bread in 250 varieties in vain search of a "British Muffin," as they are called at my beloved TJ's.

For a few sublime minutes I relived the euphoria of Foodlife, when in the cereal aisle I found no less that three diverse varities that were wholly new to me. But once I got the shiny boxes home, the feeling passed. I had pictured myself furiously scarfing down a dinner of cereal melange, soymilk and oat squares flying willy nilly. I haven't touched the oaty treasures, and if it is possible to have buyers remorse for a two dollar item, I think I am experiencing it now.

Although, for my $96 and change I did make off with a boatload of food. But not as much as $96 would buy at ALDI. (It would probably fetch one of each item in the store!) So maybe I need to give up my urges for variety. It is expensive and time consuming. Even if our capitalism was doing well, that would mean we had the capital for variety, but certainly not the time.

So later this evening when I picked up a copy of Walden, I started skipping around from chapter to chapter hoping to serendipitously alight on some words of wisdom. Of course it didn't take long.

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
That was exactly what I needed.

I'd better set aside a quarter for the shopping cart. It's back to ALDI next week. And to the seed catalogs in the spring.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge -- Part Three: "Pedagogy Please?"

This entry has been long anticipated by my readers and myself alike. It was months ago that I started the "Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge" series, and it's taken me this long to get up the nerve to write this final installment. So for once, my writer's "voice" may tremble a little this evening (though I'll try my best, as usual, to hide it behind humor).

Let's start by laughing together at this Police video from 1980 -- "Don't Stand So Close To Me"

So every girl has wanted to be teacher's pet at some point, whether she was interested in the "subject" or not. In fourth grade there was Mr. Savage (what's in a name?) who danced on tabletops to songs about math, and in high school there was the incredibly young Mr. C. who taught English as dramatically as he taught theater. And after graduation came my first fateful foray into adult relationships -- an engagement to a mentor I'd known since I was fifteen. I am not the only young woman I know who has had these feelings and experiences.

Even watching that video I just posted, I don't really laugh. It actually gives me a thing for Sting. (The teacher's conventional "hotness" doesn't do it for me).

This video is about high school, but let's forget for a moment about "laws." Of course "teach" has a lot to worry about when it comes to resisting the "jailbait." But this situation doesn't just come up in the high school classroom. It continues at the university, and perhaps even intensifies there -- the age gap closes, and the law (though not university policy) no longer applies.

This is not to say that scores of university romances happen every day. But it is to say that they may be happening inside the minds of young women, and affecting their studies.

I read an article in Bitchfest magazine (an unhappily titled rag -- it really is a good read) aptly titled "Hot For Teacher -- On the Erotics of Pedagogy." In the article, Jennifer Maher compares the female attraction to male professors with the male attraction to female professors. To make a long article short, we young women channel our urges into a love of the subject. Sounds pretty good. Young men, however, act out, and in extreme cases, inflict sexual violence on the objects of their desire.

Here is a non-violent but telling video to contrast the types of desire I'm talking about here. Van Halen's 1984 song "Hot For Teacher" (the above article's name source) has no dramatic backstory like that of "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Van Halen's version is simply a bunch of boys lusting after a lingerie clad, catwalking schoolteacher. Not only is the attraction represented as one-sided (the woman does not need to reciprocate -- she has no choice), but the social taboo that haunts the Police video seems to be completely absent. Also, the boys' lust is shared publicly -- they are a grubby little group of future gang-rapers. In the video's "epilogue," one of the boys actually grows up to be a pimp.

No wonder some of the female professors I admire dress like they fell into a box of Goodwill clothes.

Although the Police's song is more realistic and deals with some issues, Sting and his Policemen seem to present the girl's crush on her teacher as if it is a source of agony only for the teacher, not for the student. But "Don't Stand So Close To Me" does show the more private and personal nature of a girl's lust. She idealizes her teacher rather than objectifying him.

Although, he does get naked at the end of the video. For whom, I'm not sure.

So the feminist in me took off with this one for awhile. Back to my point -- women's education is affected by the influence of men in positions of authority. Of course none of us are outside of influence, but I think that women may go so far as to choose the wrong subject of study, change their beliefs and attitudes to match their hero's, or even jeopardize relationships outside of school. Let's see what the experts say; hopefully Maher (of Bitchfest) and myself will be proven wrong, as exciting as her subtitle "On the Erotics of Pedagogy" may sound.

To quote a more scholarly source, Ernest T. Pascarella states in his article "Student-Faculty Informal Contact and College Outcomes" that "as faculty members occupy an increasing proportion of a particular student's interpersonal environment, the greater the likelihood of the student's being influenced by faculty attitudes and intellectual values." And I'm going to make the crazy assumption that informal contact with faculty members whom the student adores, idolizes, etc, would influence the student on an even more fundamental level than just their attitude and intellect.

The young women at my school mostly latch onto women faculty members. In my group of honors students, I am the minority in having two male advisers. Nearly the rest of the lady students report to one lady professor each. I can't help but wonder if they are afraid of working with "grown men." Or perhaps the higher number of female faculty these days allows the women more choice in their mentors. Or perhaps it's just a new "safer" version of the old university romance beast. As the Bitchfest article I mentioned earlier would tell us, this female/female situation can be just as problematic as the male/female professor/student relationship.

Another perhaps -- my university is not a member of the "liberal arts elite" which according to Pascarella is the typical backdrop for student-professor intimacy. So the perhaps is, perhaps these girls are just comfortable with women because they are like moms or older sisters, etc. The nature of their relationship is not on some transcendental immerse-myself-in-thought level. When you take the laurels and ivy leaves and book-strewn desktops out of the picture, it suddenly seems less romantic.

This is in no way a complete essay or article, and I don't think I can finish it at this point. Maybe when I am in the position of the authority figure I can look back an reevaluate my thoughts on these things.

My title "Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge" indicates that I started writing these entries because I felt we women are being handed down doctrines that we are inclined to subscribe to when they are delivered by men we admire. I'm not sure what I think today. The Pascarella article goes on to prove that students with "high-interaction" relationships with professors are more sure of their career choices, and more confident academics. That sounds like a good outcome. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, there's nothing wrong with a couple of years of professor idolatry if it leads to higher academic achievements.

Thanks to my friend L.J. for that reminder: "...speak your mind -- even if your voice shakes."