Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary (Illustrated) by [Flaubert, Gustave]The same book that introduced me to Tess of the D’Urbervilles has introduced me now to Madame Bovary. This is a book I am thankful for, not because of any enjoyment in the reading of it, but because it spoke so truly on things society would rather you ignore. Gustave Flaubert released his book to a shocked audience. For a woman of his time to seek enjoyment in lovers outside her marriage was unthinkable. But as Karen Swallow Prior says,

Books meet with disapproval because of their objectionable content. Wisdom, however, considers not only what a book says (its content), but how it says it (its form). Just as important- or perhaps more important than- whether a book contains questionable themes….is how those topics are portrayed. Are they presented truthfully in terms of their context and their consequences?…Discerning judgments of literature consider form as much as content, just as with any other art.

This book is not so much about adultery as it is about the difference between love and passion, the oppression that follows the consumer, and the isolation and futility of disenchantment with reality.  Do not come to this book for entertainment. It will not deliver you that; but if you come to seek the reality of love, the repercussions of bottomless desire, come. This book has saved many from the errors of its heroine.

Emma Bovary, were she to enter upon 21st century music, would have been a fan of The Darkness:

Love is only a feeling
(drifting away)

She would have sung it with gusto. She is a woman searching for love, finding it, losing it, searching again, finding, losing, ad infinitum. For her, love is a feeling; it is synonymous with passion.

As to Emma, she did not ask herself whether she loved. Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings—a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.

We see it all over: in music, in film, in literature, we even feed it by the spoonful to our children (enter Disney). Emma realizes in the weeks following her wedding the stark difference between her idea of love and the reality of it:

Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.

But rather than question her idea of love, she assumes her mistake was in the finding of it as opposed to its definition.

As to me, I have found love to be a number of things in my life. It takes shape in a myriad of ways. It is a Person, an action, a choice, and sometimes a feeling. Feelings, even the feeling of love, is fleeting. It is susceptible to changes in circumstance, evolving personhood, or even things as fickle as the lighting of a room, the time of day, the latest story to influence imagination, or the mood one happens to be in- everyone knows this. I have walked into my daughter’s room to watch her sleep and felt so full of love for her I could burst. But when I was up in the middle of the night nursing a screaming baby, I was not feeling the love. I didn’t love her any less than eight hours before, but the feeling was gone. The love was still there, it was the very thing motivating me to hold her gently, nurse her, sing and rock her back to sleep- despite the hour, despite the cold, despite the exhaustion. Love was a choice; love was my act.

We cling to this romanticized version of love because the story sounds prettier. Because we want to believe that something or someone can fulfill every desire, even though deep down we know (don’t we?) that love reveals itself not in self satisfaction but in service to others. That is why this novel is truly novel. Gustave takes our culture’s mistaken understanding of love and pursuit of self and presents it truthfully in terms of its context and consequences. The result isn’t pretty at all. It doesn’t start pretty, and it certainly doesn’t end pretty. And in this way, Gustave becomes an artist.

She was not happy—she never had been. Whence came this insufficiency in life—this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she leant?… nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.

I always want to advise the characters I’m reading, not because I am a wealth of wisdom, but because in them I can see parts of myself, but without blindness. I wanted to give Emma Bovary this piece of a poem from Hans Ostrom’s “This is the Gazelle Ghazal”:

This is the love affair, so raging it convinced itself it would last forever but ended.
This is the friendship, which began before it knew it began and will not end.

Emma, said my soul, you cannot force the feeling of love to do what it cannot- remain. Pursue a love for others that exceeds your love of self. Rather than become a student of fantasy, become a student of friendship. Find in your husband a friend, rather than a lover, and you may find that he becomes both.  Love is so much more than a feeling.

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Image result for pictures of tess of the d'urbervilles I am currently reading a phenomenal book by Karen Swallow Prior in which each chapter brings the reader through her life like a memoir, but each chapter also centers around a piece of literature that shaped that life, that contributed something to her evolving identity, as good literature does, most especially in our very formative years. There are a few chapters that center on books I have not read, so as I get to those, I have stopped to read the books. That is how I came to this novel, written by Thomas Hardy in 1891.

It took me a while to start enjoying this book. I realized in the reading of it how much point of view really affects my ability to engage with the story. In the beginning, it felt like eavesdropping on the life of Tess. I could see what she did or what would happen to her, but I couldn’t see who she was. She seemed stoic, her thoughts and feelings hidden by a stony exterior. This made it hard for me to connect, so I didn’t. And then I met Angel Clare. If Tess is a charcoal sketch, Clare is a life size statue. In getting only rough images of her, he is a character you can walk right up to, look in the eyes, view from behind, take in the creases on a hand or the thought behind the brow. I connected immediately to him and began to enjoy the book. Still, as more and more characters are brought into the story, Hardy gives us more glimpses inside them than of our main character, choosing to keep her veiled for a good portion of the book. I found this so interesting as a writer, but it frustrated me as a reader.

This story is a tragedy, and you can feel the foreboding of it early on. There were times I wanted to throw down my book and plead with the characters to stop, to rethink their plan, to be brave and admit they were wrong, to surrender to the difficult and scary, but better choice before them.

This book was significant in that it presented a new understanding of purity, and that what made Tess pure was not her actions, but her will. Hardy wanted to show a woman who, though not a virgin, was pure in the real sense of the word, because she desired what was pure. The problem with this is that her will is veiled to the reader, and her actions are equivocal. In different editions of the novel, Hardy portrays different accounts of the first tragedy, ranging from full on rape to seduction. The edition I read leaned toward the latter. Nonetheless, Tess appears blameless, which is Hardy’s point. I loved this quote by Karen Swallow Prior on Tess’ tragic flaw: passivity.

This is why the ambiguous circumstances surrounding that night in The Chase are not important to her status as rape victim: whether she was taken by Alec through force or through seduction, equipped by neither nature nor circumstances to do otherwise, she passively succumbs to this fate. This passivity is both literal and symbolic: literal within the story’s plot and symbolic of her role as the archetypal tragic heroine victimized by a combination of her own choices and forces beyond her control. This is how Hardy could deem Tess as “pure” despite her “ruined” physical state: she does not will such a thing even as she does not know how to exert her will against it.

This not knowing how to exert her will against something happens on repeat throughout the story, constantly lowering her to circumstances she never chooses. But everything is a choice. Not making a choice is a choice. What was clear was that Tess did not want Alec, but he very much wanted her and was willing to use any opportunity he had to have her. Tess had no good choices on the night mentioned above. It seemed inevitable that Alec would use her. But isn’t there a great difference in how that happens and isn’t that Tess’ choice? It happens all throughout the story, not just with Alec, but with Clare too- Tess chooses not to exert her will. I have to wonder if it is because indifference is hidden beneath the weakness of her will. For all of her non-choices, she chooses to accept the very thing she doesn’t want. Then you get to the end and Tess finally wakes up from her stupor to decisively act. And what she chooses condemns her. She proves that there cannot be such a separation of will and action. The will should determine the action, and the strength of the will determines the action’s ability to endure.

Hardy, I have to disagree with you: where the will is good, but the action evil, what remains is guilt, not purity. A tragedy indeed.

A Rusted History

I spent last week at the farm. Each morning began with making my way through town, trading the softball fields for corn fields. Every now and then there would be livestock, but mostly field after field after rolling field of corn, sometimes bean. The farmers were out planting, so though the first day looked like an abandoned mess of dead stalks, by the end of the week each field bore signs of purpose and hope with their uniform rows. When I return in summer, the brown soil landscape will be green and spurting “knee high by Fourth of July” as my grandma says. As I turn from the paved road to the gravel one, I pull over. I can see my destination in the distance, which means they can see me. So I stop, take some deep breaths, before going on.  I drive these familiar roads like they are maps of my heart. I drive with windows down, cool morning breeze blowing my hair, rock pounding underneath, dust billowing up behind me, as if making the declaration, “Here she comes!” I pass lines of evergreen from memory. I pass the cemetery. I crest each hill with the tension of not seeing down the other side. I drive free, the only way you can in a car that isn’t yours but is as old as your license: I drive with no assumptions, and when I arrive in the gravel driveway, I put it in park and turn it off with grateful thanks.

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This place. Its field of dandelions: wishes or weeds? This place is both. As I walk the grounds in morning dew, memories flood me, bringing a confusing concoction of emotions. Every breath takes in youth, wonder, happiness; every exhale anger and betrayal and shame. I feel them all at once. I am a patchwork quilt. So my steps are slow and my breathing regulated, letting things sit in me just as they are. Letting these antitheses exist in me side by side. Letting go of being able to categorize each memory, each person, each part of me. I let them sit and I listen to the birds.

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I reach the top of a neighboring hill and look down. It is an empty shell of a place from long ago. Its fields sold, to be toiled and cultivated by other hands. The animals are gone- the barn housing only a riding lawnmower, old hay, broken glass, a creature in the back corner that was too shy to show himself to me. The hen house has broken windows, the clothes line is bare, the garden, a wasteland. I pass areas unmowed that hold rusted tractor equipment and burn piles, and I feel sorrow over the passing of this place, like the death of my childhood. I mourn as if the land was an appendage of my own body.

How did this place come to mean so much to me?  I did not grow up here. I grew up a thousand miles south where the weather is warmer and “everything is bigger,” even though the trees are not. My parents were born here- my dad growing up in this very house. This is where my family, as I knew it, began. We made trips- once, sometimes twice a year- back to my grandparents’ farm. When I was eight, I started flying here alone, to spend a week or so with them every summer. I adored everything about the farm: the smell of the animals, the reaping of what was sown, the sun shining off tall green stalks, grass blowing in the wind like waves across an ocean. The hymns, the strawberry jam, creaky stairwells, carpet from the 70s. It was the essence of summer, the essence of childhood. Each day was a wide open door: freedom and adventure beckoning me to bound through the threshold.

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Each day I walked this land alone, growing more and more at peace in the conglomeration of all it represents. I could close my eyes in the barn and breathe in my grandpa, nearly see him out in the distance working the land. I could stand at the kitchen sink, imagining my grandma bent in the garden looking up and calling, “Kati! Come see this cucumber!” I sit at their headstones and simply say, “I loved you. And I loved this place….except when I hated it. But you are what made it beautiful.” On my last day, before heading to the airport, feeling the suffocation of the city approaching, I took one last turn about the place and said goodbye.

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There is only one man
In the world I would follow
Into a corn field

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We’ve so much to say
That words could never convey
So we speak volumes
(without them)

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I’ll walk this gravel road with you
all the way to
the cemetery