Book Review (THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin)

Reading Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING (first published in 1899) was like sitting under a full oak tree with sunlight streaming through its leaves while one savors fine chocolate truffles and languidly pets the sleek, soft fur of a sleeping panther at one’s side.  Her writing is at once intriguing and blissfully mellifluous.

Through the character of Mademoiselle Reisz, a cantankerous woman in her sixties (if I remember correctly), the story’s main message is relayed:

“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.  It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”

Much occurs in the narrative leading up to this foreshadowing quote and thereafter.

Edna Pontellier, aged twenty-eight and married to a respectable, social climbing Creole gentleman who works in high finance, is the story’s tragic heroine.  She is a woman stifled by the conventions of her day, filled with a longing to have an independent, more self-led life, free of social and marital-familial obligations.  Her meeting the attentive, amiable Robert Lebrun while summer vacationing at Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, slowly awakens her repressed passions.  The story unfolds from there.

Back at home in her fashionable house in 1890s New Orleans, Edna becomes absorbed in portrait painting as a way to express her passion and sensuality while inwardly feeling consumed with her friend and beloved Robert.  There is some hopefulness for her future as Edna begins to sell some of her artwork along with setting up a plan to collect a small annuity inheritance from her deceased mother.  These and visiting with local friends she had met on Grand Isle sustain her, since Robert had left to try his fortune in Mexico fairly early on in the book.

Ms. Chopin’s descriptions of people, places, and feeling states often enthralled me.  Here are just a few of many exciting moments in the book:

“She felt somewhat like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour………He sometimes talked in a way that astonished her at first and brought the crimson into her face; in a way that pleased her at last, appealing to the animalism that stirred impatiently within her.”

And then a little further along:

“It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.”

These passages are all in reference to Edna responding to the vain attentions of Alcee Arobin, a handsome playboy whose presence is a flattering yet frustrating distraction from the main character’s unrequited love for Robert, a man who remains off-stage for most of the story.

A sumptuous dinner scene, put on by Edna as her farewell from high society before transitioning into a more simplified lifestyle, away from her husband and two children, read like a three dimensional moving painting.  I felt like I was right there, watching and listening as Edna and her guests– all dressed as if for an extravagant ball– socialized.  Eventually, the gathering culminates in a crescendo of imaginative intensity, when the youngest guest, Victor Lebrun, aged nineteen and brother of the older, ever-absent Robert, drunkenly embodies Bacchus/Dionysus:

“As if a magician’s wand had touched him, the garland of roses transformed him into a vision of Oriental beauty.  His cheeks were the color of crushed grapes, and his dusky eyes glowed with a languishing fire.”

And, then, shortly, the hypnotic effect continues:

“The effect of the wine upon Victor was, to change his accustomed volubility into silence.  He seemed to have abandoned himself to a reverie, and to be seeing pleasing visions in the amber bead.”

The spell is broken when this youth tauntingly sings a song that reminds Edna of his brother, which jars her and– by extension– the other guests back into present-day reality.

The spell was also largely broken for me the reader after this turning point scene, which was most certainly the author’s intention.  The narrative proceeds to Edna leaving her old life of physical luxury and trying to make it on her own in the world while hoping to reconnect with her beloved Robert.  Therein lies one of her main inner conflicts:  on one hand Edna wishes to be self-sufficient and free while, on the other, she feels devoid of love and incomplete without her heart’s companion by her side.

Blatant yet beautiful symbolism abounds in this story.  As a youth being introduced to literature, I would have puzzled over much of it, but I did not at this time in my life.  The first part of the narrative has the recurring presence of two young lovers and a widowed woman in black often near them, clearly foreshadowing a grim outcome for Edna and her love for Robert.  The sea itself surrounding Grand Isle is the subconscious and unconscious, sensuality and sexual desire, and the longing for and achieving a nurturing womb-like state (often briefly experienced during and after orgasm), all of which directly pertain to Edna’s psyche.  These are but a handful of the symbols presented throughout the book.  Some readers may find such abundance of this type of literary device passe, uninteresting, over-the-top, and/or “overly” romantic, but I sure didn’t.

THE AWAKENING read like one long, exquisite build up of sexual and emotional tension, parallel to a symphony playing a classic piece of music crescendoing towards a grand finale of sorts.  That said, I felt somehow punched– or splashed with a bucket of frigid water– when I reached the last page.  My emotional and mental response was a complex one.  Ms. Chopin was working within a time period she was both ahead of and yet a product of.  So, while, days after finishing the novel, I continue to puzzle and even agonize a little over the ending, I also ultimately accept the author’s resolution to this overall deliciously-written joy of a book.

 

 

 

Book Review (THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras)

French author Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel THE LOVER (L’AMANT) is a fascinating, sad, sometimes puzzling, short read about alienation, classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and the human condition. Ms. Duras then shows how both lust and love serve as ephemeral ways around these socio-emotional and existential constraints.

I had to set my rigid thinking part of me aside while reading this book.  Specifically, I am more comfortable with a clearly non-stop linear narrative, as many of us are.  The author digresses at times, going off on tangents that do not always have an explicit link to the main story, which is about a French teenaged female (the periodic narrator) living in Indochina in the 1930s.  She embarks on a passionate, doomed affair with a wealthy Chinese man, her senior by twelve years.  I mention “periodic” narrator here because the point of view switches between first and third person.  I soon realized that Ms. Duras was basically thinking aloud on the page and reflecting, whereby thoughts naturally jump around a bit before eventually returning to a certain main subject of focus.  Clever and realistic.  The human brain is more than linear, and certainly so when impacted by childhood trauma.  The book’s impoverished young woman lives through the loss of her father and having a narcissistic, abusive older brother and a moody, depressed mother, all traumatic life disruptors to varying degrees.  The main character resides largely in her mind and through her writing, exploring different perspectives partly out of habit, as survivors can often do, and partly out of a longing to integrate her challenging, rift-filled life, find meaning in it all.

The determination of the main character’s intent to rebel via experiencing repeated fulfillment of her sexual desire with a socially forbidden lover (older and non-white) is compelling and erotically charged.  It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel so purely from a woman’s perspective that relays such believable immediacy of sexual longing.  And while her lover is able to match this urgency with his own, it is her libido that is the central energy or– ahem– thrust of the story.  The male lead is portrayed as sensitive, nervous, and love-struck, which I found refreshing and intriguing, whereby he is rendered just as vulnerable as she is if not more so.  On an emotional, psychic level, the gender roles of male and female are somewhat mixed up between them, unclear, which is wonderfully human.  On the surface, it seems that the man is the pursuer, per old convention, but she pursues him just as strongly, for experience and pleasure gratification, cutting off her emotions (many would say so “typically male”), per this being a protective pattern/defense for herself existing long before he came onto the scene.

The racism in THE LOVER saddened and angered me.  The book was published in 1984 and the author still was blatantly, unreflectingly racist, per, for example, her occasional reference throughout the story to “coolies,” the natives to Indochina (Vietnam).  Her guilt and despair over how her mother and brothers treat her Chinese lover, and the way she goes along with their awful behavior in their presence with him, is understandable.  On one side, the young woman uses her lover and allows her family to do so as well.  On the other, he also uses her sexually but with her full direct consent.  She requests that he treat her “like you treat all your women.”  This he does up to a point, but not completely, because he actually loves her.  It is unclear that she reciprocates this love.  Hence, like the land of Vietnam, colonized and exploited by the French, the Chinese man, also an exploiter of many Vietnamese, is in turn exploited, used.  There is a chain of hierarchy in which the young woman is close to the top, with her older brother, a white male, placed above her.  Then follows the rich, non-white lover, just below the narrator, and the colonized natives at the bottom.  The book is written by a colonizer, even if the main character’s own economic situation was fairly grim.  She operated from privilege, matching her lover’s access to money with her being white and not in love, or so she convinces herself of the latter during the affair.

Ms. Duras’ frequent references to death, including occasional thoughts of dying and committing violence on people she loves, were sometimes disturbing, at other times puzzling.  Given the lack of emotional connection between she and her mother, her father’s death from some illness during her childhood, and her raging, destructive older brother, it is no wonder she was occupied with death.  She suffered from depression brought on by both genetics, given her mother, who may have had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and painful circumstances.  The narrator writes in dramatic, absolutist statements, referring to herself as “dead” after the death of her younger brother, who she did clearly love.  The meaning behind such statements (among other ponderous passages in the book, such as musings about immortality) was not always clear to me.  Perhaps this is what Ms. Duras intended, since life often involves discerning meaning where it is not always apparent.

I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly discuss the writer’s description of the story’s surroundings.  The contrasts of city and countryside are stark and beautiful, such as how she describes light and shadow in each of these environments, or the uniqueness of the nights versus the sameness of the often brightly-lit days.  She sets a mood through her descriptions very effectively, which includes an overall sense of claustrophobia and isolation that come with the oppressive tropical heat coupled with her inability to leave her mother and brothers and their toxic ways of relating.  All that plus the repressive social norms she had to contend with as a young woman attending private, Western European-run schools during the first half of the twentieth century.  It is no wonder the main character is so fraught and seeks constant distraction and release the way she does.

I am glad I checked THE LOVER out of the library and read it, a modern classic for sure.  The one flaw I saw in it is a certain lack of awareness in the author’s writing of her own unresolved racism.  Somehow, it is doubtful if it dissipated much more by 1996, the year Marguerite Duras died.  For those readers with more of a literary education and background, I imagine other flaws about the writing come forth that I did not notice in this little gem of a book.

And, now, staying with little novels about precocious young women from another time and place, I have started on Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING.

On Humbleness

Humbleness has rarely been far from how I feel and live.  It was brief times away from humbleness here and there that soon resulted in me falling on my face, swiftly bringing me back to this initial state of being.

Confidence, on the other hand, felt ever-elusive for so much of my life. Now, I find myself thinking and acting more confidently, while out of a sense of humbleness. Among other things, staying humble keeps me open to learning and knowing more clearly what to actually feel confident about.

It is painful for me to witness how difficult it is for some to simply be humble, which, to be clear, does not mean groveling and/or being smaller/less than others.

Brief Reflection on My Travels and Openness

When I was 5 1/2 years old, I began over a year of travel with my parents that took me overseas to England and Europe, then back across the Atlantic down to Central America and up through Mexico, all before arriving back home, Northern CA. We moved around a lot, living for a while in ethnically diverse Berkeley of the 1970s. (Telegraph Avenue was hopping then with merchants selling their colorful wares.) We visited at least a few Native American Indian reservations. There were some other journeys too and peoples I met along the way.

I know that my openness to meeting and learning from others who are far different than myself stems in significant part from the various cultures and ways of life I was exposed to over extended periods of time at such a young age. In a sense, my own backyard was expanded early on to encompass whole other countries and peoples. And while I am often a homebody these days, feeling tired at times from a hard week’s work, in my heart I remain ever-open to meeting and welcoming an array of people into my life.

Taking Up Space

I walk this graceful and sometimes clumsy line of doing my best to take up my rightful physical (and otherwise) space in the world without over-stepping into others’ space. I’m very aware of my privilege as a white, professional male and how I’ve overly taken up a lot of space, some of which here and there was not rightfully mine to take. Then, there’s the actual space that I and my needs naturally fill up, which is ultimately non-negotiable. Between this delineation has been a confusing, gray seeming area for me, which, thankfully, has become less and less so over the years. I think this is a challenge many of us– if not all– humans learn to navigate better as we grow.

Hear hear to all the disenfranchised people taking up more of their rightful space!

Politicians Are Servants and, on Rare Occasion, Worthy of Celebrity Status

[Trigger warning:  The very end of my commentary is briefly irreverent and crude, to drive home my point, so to speak.  Hopefully, readers will glean the sense of humor that I meant to convey in an off-color way.  Sometimes, people take themselves far too seriously.]

The following words from blogger and political commentator Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) came my way via a friend’s post over on Facebook:

“I say to Beto fans, Trump fans, all fans of politicians: it is un-American, ridiculous, and dangerous to be a fan of a politician.  They aren’t pop stars.  Support them if you agree with their policies.  Criticize them when they go wrong.  They are servants, not celebrities.”

Okay, so let me unpack this.  First of all, I think it can be argued that all celebrities are servants.  They serve the public in assorted ways, pop stars providing entertainment as a service.  Hence, I find his delineation of servant and celebrity rather extreme and not always accurate.  Also, what the hell is wrong with fandom, including political fandom where truly earned?

Mr. Walsh’s tone here is harshly chastising, directly contributing to an already over-polarized discourse in the political arena, which is the last thing we need more of in America.  Upon sleeping on this statement of his after I first read it last night, what came to me was how intellectually elitist Matt Walsh comes across as being in this statement.  Instead of encouraging people to look within towards better understanding their deep hunger for leaders to look up to with devotion, he shames them for their attempts at doing so, as if they/we are ignorant children to be scorned.  It’s like he assumes everyone is or should be highly-educated (which many are not), purely objective (when one’s subjective life situation plays a central part in perceptions and judgments), and should minimize or not factor in genuine inspiration-filled, good feelings as part of one’s decision-making process when picking public leaders.  The implication is that including this third item is superficial and ignorant, i.e., uneducated and unpatriotic, childish.  This is no way to win over people into a more unified electorate to vote against Trump and his ilk, and most certainly not Beto fans, who are a swathe of people we can and should count as allies/fellow voting citizens.  Harshly shaming people for trying their best, which inevitably includes their natural impulses and human short-comings, is unproductive.  Rather, encouraging people to do better is what’s needed.  And please interweave within that encouragement the dissemination of accurate information, combined with underscoring how we are all in this together.  Also, devotion need not be completely dismissed out of hand as un-evolved and inappropriate within the political arena.  Some people occasionally earn such trust and admiration.

I say that you can celebrate excellent politicians while criticizing them where indicated, as they are certainly not infallible, just the opposite. In other words, be discerning and mindful, not a blind follower and praiser of a politician, or anyone for that matter.  I need to know much more about Beto O’Rourke and his policy positions, for example, before praising him/treating him as a celebrity.  And what little I do know about his policy stances doesn’t warrant much praise.  But, if a political leader is doing a great job, showing bravery and consistently putting their words into good actions, from a place of sincerity and true care — which is a very rare breed of politician– then I feel damn happy and glad to praise and celebrate them.  Alexandria Ocasio Cortez comes readily to mind, and not because of her looks, but what she says and does with passion, stridency, absolute sincerity, and compassion.  However, let’s be honest here.  It certainly does not detract in any way that AOC is also physically young, beautiful, and vibrant.  She speaks and works hard on behalf of her constituents and, by extension, so many of us who are not in her Congressional district.  From a place of joy and relief in my heart, I celebrate her.  I don’t think by doing so that I’m participating in being “un-American, ridiculous, or dangerous,” just the opposite.  Rather, via praise and, subsequently, some devotion to her, I wish to reinforce AOC in doing a great job, encouraging the new Congresswoman to stay with it, particularly given the fact that she receives hate mail and death threats constantly.  Also, another intention here is to encourage other political leaders to emulate Ms. Cortez in thought and action.  She is truly a celebrity because she has earned such status from me and others.  Supporting Ms. AOC’s ongoing upward (thus far) evolution as a great leader is truly being patriotic, safe-making (as opposed to dangerous– except for her toxically ignorant opponents), and anything but ridiculous.  It is possible, of course, that her integrity could weaken and she could rightfully lose this status.  My hope, of course, is that this will not happen.

This post by Mr. Walsh is broad-sweeping, though I do get the point he is trying to make. The phenomenon of creating and maintaining celebrities has been overdone time and again, unmindfully/with little thought, given the aforementioned desperate need in many people to have someone to follow, be it politically and/or spiritually. I get that.  But, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a need and efforts to fulfill it.  Some discerning celebrity-making is fine and healthy.  Devotion isn’t automatically a stupid, ridiculous, un-American thing in all instances.  Actually, it’s quite typically American to be devoted to public figures, however uninformed many are in doing so.  It’s simply that most people have not duly earned their celebrity, particularly in the political arena.  Many individuals are often far too trusting too soon, willing to go with little or no information to back up their first blush gut responses to an appealing persona put before them.  Often, this comes out of innocence, though, for even more, just plain ignorance, stemming from fear and initially not knowing any different.  Some of us start out in life with more available information due to privilege we are born into and next to, while others are less fortunate, starting with little to almost nothing.  That’s not to condescend to the latter in any way– which Mr. Walsh comes across as doing in his post.  Those of us who know more need to offer out our knowledge as best and creatively to as many as possible, as often as possible.  Share and share alike.  Therein lies good leadership.

Along with a weaponizing of knowledge (by both liberal/progressive elites and conservatives alike, albeit generally more calculatingly so by the latter) against those who lack it, there is a paucity of praise to others in the world and way too much harmful tearing down of people instead.  I’ve always valued the importance of frequent, thoughtful, honest praise.  I find there is joy in giving it where readily earned.  Everyone deserves it here and there, be it small or large praise, including to reinforce a quality we may wish to see more expression of from someone.

To my understanding, an origin of giving praise is a spiritual one.  We are recognizing the divine or higher, evolved, positive nature in someone when we praise them.  Devotion and its accompanying act of praising is an ancient practice done before gods in countless cultures across history.  It is a moment of wonder and goodness when we recognize and speak of the good/Goddess/God nature in someone before us.  Doing this often is an important part of a healthy spiritual practice or, for those who are strict atheists, simply good mental hygiene.

There is so much cynical judging and divisiveness going around– which is a large part of the problem in politics and elsewhere– and this post by Matt Walsh smacks of more of it to me, his judgments seemingly from a place of informed privilege and arrogance.  How tiring.  Join the rest of humanity, please, Matt.  I think you need to chill out for a bit, perhaps get a long series of deep tissue massages while having what seems like an uncomfortable big stick pulled out of your ass.

 

Mini Movie Review (DUMBO)

DUMBO was dark and dreary in overall look and tone, which is typical of director Tim Burton. Apart from some beautiful Art Deco inspired sets and, at the very end, lush jungle imagery, I did not find this movie memorable. Strong emotional connections between the characters were lacking. Eva Green as the leading lady, a French acrobat, was lovely in her feather-filled outfits. But, no-one else stood out as particularly interesting to me, not even Dumbo.

I have seen some impressive, compelling CGI beings up on the big screen, but Dumbo wasn’t one of them. His facial expressions, movements, and twitterings were cute but a very limited repertoire. The whole film smacked of unoriginality, with its stock/two dimensional characters, derivative script writing, and a tired, over-used ending.