Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Meaning of Communion in “A Painful Case” and “The Dead”

A throwback to graduate school.  Hope it holds up.  It was just sitting on the hard drive collecting virtual dust, and I was reminded of it by our associate pastor's review of what Epiphany means and how we use the term 'epiphany' (with no reference to Joyce, regrettably...):

Throughout Joyce’s Dubliners, the characters’ lives and their experience of reality are informed by the Sacraments of Catholicism, particularly the Sacrament of Eucharist, or Holy Communion.  Here, it is perhaps more useful to use the term “Communion,” which stresses the connection between the individuals partaking of the sacrament as well as their connection to the “Communion of Saints”—living and deceased—rather than the term “Eucharist,” or “thanksgiving,” which seems to have little connection to the themes expressed in the stories.  The chalice, a concrete symbol of Communion, figures prominently in “Two Sisters” and “Araby.”  However, the Eucharistic imagery combines with the plot and interaction of characters to capture the concept of “Communion” as a sacrament—sometimes defined as a physical manifestation of spiritual truth—in “A Painful Case” and “The Dead.”
Taken as individual stories, outside of the context of the work as a whole, both “A Painful Case” and “The Dead” may be read productively without any knowledge or consideration of Holy Communion.  In the context of Dubliners, however, which is peopled with priests and Catholic school boys, and littered with chalices and sacramental symbols, certain aspects of these stories take on additional meaning.  In “A Painful Case,” Holy Communion is suggested, first of all, by constant references to another sacrament—Confession (also Penance or Reconciliation).  This sacrament is considered necessary for the purification of the sinful individual—the individual who is out of communion with the Church—to allow for the reception of Holy Communion.  In the context of the story, Mr. Duffy, who “lived his spiritual life without any communion with others” (71*) becomes enamoured of a Mrs. Sinico, who “be[comes] his confessor” (72).  Their “union,” which may be read as a (comm)union resulting from the connection of their minds, “exalt[s] him,” and he expects that “he would ascend to an angelic stature” because of it (73).  When he suspects a physical attraction on her part, he refers to the scene of their meeting as a “ruined confessional” (73), making reference to the actual locus in a church in which confessions are made/heard.  His spiritual elation, made possible by the union with Mrs. Sinico—in essence, a spiritual communion—is ended, he believes, by her physical response to him;  however, the reader may conclude that he pulls back from the necessary physicality of the communion. 
Here, the image of Holy Communion, and Communion as a sacrament, becomes particularly important.  The spiritual communion within the plot is clear;  its physical implications are less so.  However, as a sacrament must have some physical sign, and since, according to Catholic belief, one makes physical connection to the Body of Christ through Holy Communion, the physical, corporeal nature of Mrs. Sinico is vital for the success of their spiritual communion.  By rejecting this, Mr. Duffy denies the reality of the sacrament, which is emphasized by his reading of Nietzsche.  The result is eventual self-annihilation.
When Duffy reads the news story of Mrs. Sinico’s death, his complex reaction is further defined in terms of the Sacrament of Communion.  When he rereads the newspaper story, he does so silently, “moving his lips as a priest does when he reads the prayers Secreto” (74).  In the Catholic Liturgy as it is celebrated today, the priest says prayers Secreto in preparation for the consecration of the host—the transformation of the physical by way of the spiritual that allows for the validity of the sacrament.  Though in the Latin Liturgy of the Catholic Church, with which Joyce would have been familiar, prayers are read in Secreto more frequently, a key moment is during the introductory Eucharistic prayer.  Upon reading of her death, then, he remembers his incomplete sacrament, which may be seen as ironic, as it is Christ’s death that allows, in Catholic belief, for the Sacrament of Communion.
His reaction to her death is defined first, perhaps, by shock, followed by disgust and realization.  When Duffy does begin to revisit Mrs. Sinico’s memory in more sympathetic terms, it is again in terms of a communion.  He senses his connection with her in spiritual and physical terms—feeling her touch and hearing her voice and her name, but also recognizing their common situation, including loneliness and the finality of death that joins all of humanity in a kind of communion (this communion of all humanity in the inevitability of death is related, though negatively, to the Catholic concept of the Communion of Saints).  Significantly, this loneliness is represented in terms of estrangement from a communal meal:  “He gnawed the rectitude of his life;  he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast” and “No one wanted him;  he was outcast from life’s feast” (77).  This repetition, which also resonates with other themes and scenes from Dubliners, draws attention to the phrasing, which echoes the language of the Catholic Mass—the Eucharist is described as a “feast,” a “supper,” while the altar is a “table.”
The insistence of the imagery in a story that is, on the surface, so far removed from religiosity as to imply an adulterous (if platonic) affair leads to the question of how Joyce, presumably subversive of Catholicism, is using this fundamentally Catholic imagery.  In “A Painful Case,” as elsewhere in Dubliners, Joyce emphasizes the sacramental nature of life—a fact that his characters can not escape even when the seek to deny it, as does Mr. Duffy.  Thus, physical existence always reaches toward the elucidation of some non-physical truth.  However, Joyce is not dealing in divine absolutes.  While the sacraments of Catholicism put humans in physical contact with divine truths, allowing for spiritual development, Joyce’s sacraments put humans in touch with purely human truths that are nevertheless hidden from humanity, due in part to the mundane operations of daily life.  However divorced from religious belief, the “sacramental imagination,” a term used by Andrew Greeley, is a fundamentally Catholic way of understanding the world.  Joyce draws from this rich source to inform his exploration of the human condition, almost celebrating the Catholic heritage of Ireland as he does so.  He certainly does not cancel out Catholicism by his appropriation of its imagery, and nowhere in Dubliners does his representation of Catholicism cancel or subvert its practice, however this position may have modulated in later works.
It is in “The Dead” that the image of the Communion of Saints comes to its fruition in Dubliners.  Gabriel, though comparable to Mr. Duffy in the sense that he feels alienated from the life around him—which, significantly, culminates in a communal meal—nevertheless seeks to understand his place among the living, especially his relation to his wife, as well as his communion with the dead.  Though the feast in “The Dead” can be read at face value, as an example of holiday cheer and hospitality, the Eucharistic themes in Dubliners, combined with the religious discussions and religiosity of the aunts, suggest that the feast be read in terms of an alternate, human communion feast.  Gabriel presides over the table—not preparing the meal, but carving it as an offering to the Three Graces—and later offers a thanksgiving—a sort of Eucharistic “nod”—to his aunts as representatives of a generation that has passed, with clear references to other generations that have died.  While the struggles of the main character in this story point to an alienation, even though he is not excluded from the feast, it is presumably the fault of the individual and not the sacrament.  Gabriel seems alienated from the living—most notably, from women—and from the dead, whom he fears, though life continues around him with its welcoming warmth.  Those around him carry on sacramentally, demonstrating to each other, through their physical presence and partaking of the meal, certain truths about hope and human connectedness, while Gabriel, who has somewhat ironically played the part of the Presider over a Mass, struggles with his relationships to others, which have been modulated by his education and emotional restraint.  Through his “epiphany,” Gabriel is able to enter into a fuller understanding of his communion with the living—his wife—and the dead, though his attempt at physical demonstration toward his wife was ill-timed and selfish in nature.  Nevertheless, he begins to understand the common humanity represented by (c/C)ommunion in the presence of snow, which becomes (like water) the physical sign of the sacrament:  “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (152).  Though the specific truth is not easy to identify, the sacramental presence of the snow, it is presumed, causes development in Gabriel’s soul and leaves the reader with a glimpse of a higher spiritual plane.

* My page numbers refer to the Dover Thrift Edition of Dubliners.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sex and the Romance Genre (pt. 1?)

The hardest thing about posting after a hiatus is knowing how to begin. So here I am, on December 28th, the 4th day of Christmas, having received a new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas, ready to post about sex and the Romance genre.  The replacement Kindle Paperwhite is amazing, as my original was a first generation, and there have been significant hardware upgrades, including more memory, meaning that I no longer have to wait and count to 10 between page flips, or delete books to make it run better.  Yay!  However, there have also been significant software upgrades, which I don't appreciate so much.  On my older Paperwhite, I had a simple list of the books I had purchased or borrowed via Kindle Unlimited.  Just a list.  Now, there's a "Home" screen with selections from my library and lists (including my Wish Lists) and recommendations based on these lists (thanks, Amazon), and the book covers are there.  Front and Center.  Which means that I--and anyone looking over my shoulder--gets to see the cheesy covers of the Romance novels that I have read, and I have, indeed, read a bunch lately.  It helps me to get out of myself sometimes, and while fantasy novels do that to a degree, I don't have the urge to analyze Romance novels the same way.  Note:  the same way.  Because alas! I do have a desire to analyze them, but in a more rhetorical and less literary criticism sort of way.  So here we are!  Merry Christmas.

I have been reading a lot of Romance novels--selectively.  This is where you might expect a disclaimer:  "But there's a lot of really good writing out there!"  The truth is, no.  There's not a lot of good writing.  There's a lot of really bad writing, really terrible plots, horrible or nonexistent characterization.  But there's a fair amount of cleverness, and there is some good writing.  I consider myself qualified to tell the difference.  Having started with Diana Gabaldon (not exactly Romance) and Gail Carriger (whose books can be categorized to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy as "Paranormal Romance" in a decidedly non-Twilight sense, but are better described in some cases as "Steampunk novels of manners," to borrow a term from a friend) on the more literary end of the spectrum (to be explained later, if I get there), I find that I can read Georgette Heyer (the founder of Regency Romance by many accounts), Julia Quinn (whose Romance novels are much, much better than those she cites as influences), and, recently, Grace Burrowes.  Excluding Georgette Heyer, whose novels do not depict sexual acts, these authors all participate in the Romance genre insofar as they do depict the sexual act.  But there, I find, the similarity ends, with the possible exception of Burrowes and Quinn, who are both more "typical" of the Romance genre than the other two. So yes.  I am not only okay with descriptions of sexual acts in fiction, I rather like it when done well.  This is longstanding, since I read Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon in high school at about 15 or so.  I was long curious about Anaïs Nin, but find that her dark erotica is not at all appealing to me now, for reasons I may mention later.

All of this brings me to perhaps a mundane question, which is how the novels of these writers use sex differently in their novels, and how that relates to genre classification, both what Romance novels do with sex, and how more "literary" fiction (a publishers' and booksellers' classification that I am not ready to accept as a genre) differs in its use of sexual acts as part of the action and overall (artistic?--let's call it rhetorical) effect of the novel.  Part of the phenomenon can be explained by use of the term "normalization."  Critics and fans alike can agree that to some degree, Romance novels normalize sex.  You walk in a room.  Probably the library, since that's the place where sexual encounters took place in the 18th and 19th Centuries, apparently.  There's a desk.  And books.  And our hero, pushing down the bodice of her dress to grasp... And however it plays out, how scandalous it is to the ladies of the ton, you the reader are left with the committed opinion that it is, at its most basic level, completely normal and natural.  Read 20 or so of these, and your ideas of what is completely normal and natural will, in fact, be reinforced with very little variation.** As the novels layer on different kinds of acts in various circumstances, the reader's repertoire might expand with the heroine's--or not, depending.  This is why there has been attention given to depiction of contraception in Romance novels--because what better way to normalize safe, at least among readers of Romance?

On the other side of the spectrum is defamiliarization.  Now, whenever you have the depiction of a virgin in a sexual encounter, you have some element of defamiliarization, just because the reader has to get the impression of how unfamiliar this is for the character.  But narrative defamiliarization would be something like:  you think you know something about sex.  But I'm going to present sex in this circumstance that makes you question what you know, for good or for bad.  Diana Gabaldon is particularly good at this one, especially in the earlier Outlander books, before literally everyone had been raped.  And frankly, this is where Anaïs Nin went waaaay too far for me, by telling the reader, "I can arouse and horrify you at the same time, ultimately making you horrified with yourself."  Yes.  Yes she can.  Defamiliarization acts on the reader in certain ways, but this is not just a function of the act itself, but also in its framing, how it figures into the plot, what it reveals about sex in relationships and in society, as a part of civilization or as part of our understanding of the sacred, how it hurts and how it heals.  These are not only defamiliarization, of course, but the use of one form of action within the whole thematic and plot structure of the novel, the setting, and the characterization.

I would outline the use of sex in fiction thus:
  • Plot action - how it contributes to the overall arc of the action
  • Progression - does the sexual act somehow move the plot along?
  • Consummation - is the sex act the thing to which the plot has been building?
  • Theme - is the reader supposed to think about sex in the context of larger ideas in the text?  Does sex itself become a major theme, in that the novel is making a point about sex rather than having it function as part of an everyday routine?  
  • Characterization - does the sexual act aid in the development of or the reader's understanding of a character?
This all seems pretty basic so far, but what should be clear is my assumption that sex is not gratuitous, or if it is gratuitous, it is gratuitous in a way that makes us seriously consider that gratuitousness (which would render it not gratuitous).  In this way, I think sex in fiction becomes different from the depiction of sex in visual media--in television and film.  It is easier, I would argue, for sex to be gratuitous in visual media--for it to simply titillate.  Which does not at all mean that to titillate is not a rhetorical function, because when words produce a bodily effect, that is absolutely a rhetorical function--with sexual feeling as much as with laughter or visceral horror.  I am actually not equipped to say whether this means that there is no such thing as gratuitous sex in print or visual media.  I wanted to add that I wasn't implying that gratuitous sex couldn't be a thing in fiction, but I may be.  Whether or not you like the function that it performs, whether it adds to or detracts from the purpose of the text or whether it is the purpose of the text, is a whole different notion.

As simple as the basic taxonomy seems, it provides a framework for noting the difference between texts in the same genre or different genres that feature explicit sex scenes--but for what purpose?  Perhaps none.  Perhaps to help to distinguish the good from the bad or the simplistic from the complex, or perhaps to create some common ground or understanding between people who favor one type of writing vs. another, or to explain the appeal to those who favor none of the above.  I haven't gotten there yet.  Right now, I am just interested in the difference in narrative functions, and perhaps to see why I gravitate towards certain novels and not others.

Leaving off on such a note of ambiguity, I wonder whether I will continue in another post by giving a brief analysis of the writers I list above (Gabaldon, Carriger, Quinn, Burrowes), who may not be mentioned again by a single author in a single post, or whether I will save this for an unrealized conference paper idea.  Or whether, prompted by Amazon's new interface, give up reading Romance novels altogether since the Paperwhite's new interface insists on confronting me with the cheesy embodiment of my prejudices against the genre instead of the relative anonymity of a list of titles...

**From here, we could get into "heteronormativity," which would be the accusation that heterosexual sex is, overwhelmingly, depicted as normal--as the norm, in fact.  Which would make any variations thereof into deviations.  This is not a conversation that concerns me, in part because it seems very obvious that most depictions of sexuality geared toward a heterosexual (female) audience would, in fact, depict heterosexual sex as the norm.  Heteronormativity in the Romance genre?  Check.  No dispute.  Are there critics and writers who challenge this?  Absolutely--both by writing the various options and by making the argument that all options should be provided in equal abundance and as equally normalized.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Tolkien on Tom Bombadil

In the course of research for an upcoming conference paper, I ran across the following illuminating passage about Tom Bombadil in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien:

Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron. (Letters179)
I am not usually one to "trust the author," so to speak, but Tolkien is different.  Everything he says here fits with what is represented in the text, and with the interpretation that close reading would yield--and yet there is insight here, too.  I find that I have nothing to add, but I am reminded quite sharply of Gandalf's intent, at the end of Return of the King, to visit and chat with Bombadil.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Immediate Book Meme

Hat Tip: Mrs. Darwin - thanks for bringing this one up again!

1. What book are you reading now?

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
So far, a fun read, though I'm stalled in the 'wizard' part of the book.  Ready to get back to DEATH and the other plotline now!

2. What book did you just finish?

Virgins by Diana Gabaldon
Decidedly uninspiring, whether because I'm more or less done with the Outlander series, or because this is really a sub-par addition.  Virgins is a novella about Jamie Fraser and his childhood friend Ian as mercenaries in France, and how they are hoodwinked while escorting a French Jewess to her fiancé.  There was not a lot of substance, and too much discussion of circumcision.

God's Eye by Susan Fanetti 
Rather forgettable; I actually couldn't remember what book I read before the Outlander novella above, though I knew it was something that irritated me.  The novel had potential - it was about a Norse girl who was considered "marked" by Odin and so shunned and feared, her decision to become a shieldmaiden, her sudden romance, and the fight that she and her husband had for her autonomy (from her lord - not Odin; religion is window dressing).  The most troubling thing was how brutal vengeance was celebrated--glorified--upheld as the right path, with no alternative.

Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge
There are things I want to say about Crimson Bound, but I first I need to reread it.  I found it, initially, too adrenaline-pumping for an evening read, and put it aside. But then I came back--because I had to come back--and found it original, compelling, and darkly enchanting (and, strangely, not too intense for a late-night read!)  I highly recommend it, and wish that I could work it in to one of my college-level courses.  Also, I want to read it side by side with The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, as I think the comparison would be very interesting.

The Incarnations by Susan Barker
A very disturbing read.  This novel, ostensibly set in a China preparing for the Olympics, winds back through Chinese History through the letters to Driver Wu, a taxi driver, from an unknown person bound to him through many past lives.  The novel is disturbing in its depictions of sexuality and violence, but both are central to the plot and seem consistent with the time period being depicted. It is a captivating novel, but not one that I am likely to revisit.

3. What do you plan to read next?

No definite plans.  Gearing up to teach summer sessions and writing a conference paper on Lord of the Rings.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett
I finally gave up and returned it to the library. Although I find Rincewind vaguely amusing, I am not a fan of the wizard thread in Discworld.

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
I'm not sure why this one is so hard for me to stick with when I loved the other three Tiffany Aching books, and anxiously awaited this one.  It might be that there is a difference between this one and the novels that Pratchett was actually able to polish himself.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
Restarting, in this case.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Mostly Fantasy, some Romance.  Some recommendations from Amazon or bargains from those bargain eBook emails.  In other words, fairly unfocused.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Farmer Maggot's Farm: If not locus amoenus, then what?

Since I am actively looking for places where the Hobbits and the ring company experience rest and rejuvenation along their journey, I feel compelled to pause and consider Farmer Maggot's farm.  Farmer Maggot's farm is a place of rest, yes.  They eat and drink as they rest.  But is it a locus amoenus?  And if not, then what?

The meal is a homely one--a homey one, we might say--farmhouse fare.  It consists of mushrooms and other appropriate foods, and it is eaten within man-made--or hobbit-made--walls rather than in nature.  In particular, there is no running water.  There is also no priest.  Farmer Maggot is a shrewd fellow, but he does not, in fact, preside over the meal.  His wife is more instrumental than he in laying the table, and his part in the tableau is to analyze recent events rather than to serve.  That the main part of the meal is made of mushrooms suggests an earthiness, or perhaps we might say an earthliness.  This is good, nourishing food, but it is food of the earth rather than heavenly food.  So perhaps sometimes a meal is just a meal? And yet, I'm not sure.

The meeting with Farmer Maggot follows close on the heels of the meeting with the elves at Woodhall.  In fact, it is the very next chapter.  Like the supper with the elves, this supper is communal:  the hobbits share a meal with others, bringing the total to 14--the same number (if memory serves) as the voyage to the Lonely Mountain in the Hobbit, without Gandalf.  Interestingly, it is also one more than the total of Jesus and his 12 disciples at the Last Supper (which some would say is the origin of 13 as an unlucky number).

Farmer Maggot, though not a priestly figure, offers sanctuary.  He shields Frodo from the Black Riders and transports him to the Ferry.  But in spite of not being a "priest" figure (there seem to be no priests among hobbits, even though Gildor calls Frodo a prince among hobbits), he has been in the Old Forest, and has even had some dealings with Tom Bombadil, who reveals his respect for Farmer Maggot later.  And while the food is earthly rather than spiritual, he and his wife provide food for Frodo, Sam, and Pippin for their journey, and they later share it with Merry and Fredegar Bolger.

The positioning of this "ordinary" scene of communal eating so close to the extraordinary scene of communal eating and celebration begs for the reader to consider the possible connections.  The spiritual food of the elves is different in kind than the homely, earthy food of the farmer, and yet both nourish the body.  The eating of the communal meal at Farmer Maggots does relieve their fears, but the communal nature seems to be responsible for that relief rather than the food itself.  While it is a man-made shadow of something that, with the elves, touches the divine, a communal meal nevertheless anticipates and participates, in a small way, in that taste of heaven.  Here, we glimpse how ordinary moments become elevated to the sacramental in Tolkien, and as we live in this world, such a moment can be equally significant.