Victor Hugo and the French Aesthetic

I have long admired, even loved, the French but I don’t think I ever quite understood why until I read Victor Hugo. Their commitment to liberty inspired two revolutions – America’s and their own – that created the best of the world we live in today. They are more responsible than anyone for the evolution of government from hereditary monarchy to a system that exists to serve its people, not the other way around.

Their culture, their devotion to beauty, their appreciation of romance inspires artists and lovers everywhere. Their lust is not simple desire, but desires, eternally mingled with playful affection. In addition to their reverence for fine wine, cheese, and bread, they have an appreciation for the peculiar wonders of femininity and masculinity that aren’t chained to rigid concepts of gender. Makeup, wigs, and high heels were always for men as well as women.

Love is not a rigid concept either. It flows. It mutates. It entices. It satisfies a hunger that even the finest meals cannot. In this passage from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo produces a fine reduction of the love between an old blind bishop and his adoring sister that could easily translate into the love between parent and child, or between lovers:

To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of her presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, and to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves; this conviction the blind have. Are they deprived of anything? No. Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! A love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty. The soul gropes in search of a soul, and finds it. And that soul, found and proven, is a woman. A hand sustains you, it is hers; lips lightly touch your forehead, they are her lips; you hear breathing near you, it is she. To have her wholly, from her devotion to her pity, never to be left alone, to have that sweet shyness as your aid, to lean on that unbending reed, to touch Providence with your hands and be able to grasp it in your arms; God made palpable, what transport!

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The Event

Going into the event, of course Joseph would have preferred success to failure but the final verdict on something like that can change over time. The important thing was for the event to take place. There was no way things could continue the way they were. There would be violence and possibly, even likely, war. If war came the judges would no longer be able to enforce the law.

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Joseph was as prepared for the event as he would ever be, to the point that he was growing impatient, as if the longer he waited now, the longer the odds of success.

The judges had been set for a while. The weather looked clear for the foreseeable future. Nobody was getting any younger.

“Now is the time,” somebody whispered and that was all it took to start the event.

Joseph looked around in a sick panic until he saw Sara. He made a slow, determined path to her. Whatever the event was going to be, he wanted to go through it with her. “Now is the time,” he said.

“I heard,” she said.

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The judges had heard too, so had mobilized to observe, record, analyze, and pass history’s first judgment on the event.

“I’ve been living in a dream,” he said.

“We all have,” she said.

The event spread from its epicenter at rate halfway between a crow and the speed of light. It enveloped Joseph and Sara in mid-breath.

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Uncle Kurt

Of all the people in the world who I don’t know personally, there is no person who has had a more profound and long-lasting impact on me than the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first novels I read and whenever I am asked to name my favorite book it is the first one that comes to mind. I found it, or it found me, at the time in my life when I was changing from a dependent boy to an independent man. I was becoming many things – atheist, pacifist, vegetarian, musician, writer, lover, pothead, drunk, and left-winger – that I still am today, more or less.

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The latest addition to the Vonnegut library, and one them I am up to my eyeballs in, is called Letters. It is a fascinating glimpse into a life deeply marked by tragedy and humor. His mother committed suicide while he was home on leave before being shipped off to fight in the second world war, where he would become a POW. The thoughts he shares about these incidents with those closest to him, as well as reflections on his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, depression, infidelity, professional accomplishments, and the deaths of those he loves, including himself, make for reading as satisfying as his novels.

My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jan, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it. What is it? Well – if I had to guess, I would say that it was caused by a combination of bad chemicals in my bloodstream and the fact that my mother committed suicide. I have finally dealt with that suicide, by the way, in the book I just finished. My mother appears briefly at the end, but keeps her distance – because she is embarrassed by the suicide. And so she should be.

The great appeal of Vonnegut’s writing goes beyond his direct style that reads like a letter from an intimate friend. The simplicity of his humanist message, like Christ’s, makes the truth impossible to deny: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christ’s came with the promise of heaven; Kurt’s did not.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of reward or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, like me, was a white man. People who aren’t white, and a lot of us who are, want to hear new stories from other perspectives. Fair enough. We have hogged the cultural conversation for centuries. But the greatest artists in any field illuminate eternal truths that transcend gender, nationality, “race”/culture, sexuality, income level, and age. Finding and sharing those universal truths is the artist’s only job.

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One of those truths is the great equalizer, Death. Kurt died in 2007, and left this thought behind for the end of his days:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

If, instead of carving messages in stone at the end of our lives, we were given little gold plaques at the beginning, with a message for the lives ahead of us, this one from Uncle Kurt might be a good place to start:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

This is Not Happening to You

I was introduced to Tim Tomlinson’s writing through his poetry, which I recommend highly to those who love poetry, and even more highly to those who don’t. You might find your distaste for poems is relieved after reading a few of his. Tim’s poems often feel like fiction, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up This Is Not Happening To You. I did not.

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cover painting by Mari Otsu

These are not easy stories to read. They are raw, pungent, and brutal, but tinged with the humor and beauty that lurk in the most unlikely places. Ranging from 2 to 30 pages long, they don’t feel like stories so much as 19 glimpses through the slats of a fence viewed from a moving train – startling and better comprehended after some digestion.

Like an expert marksman, the author draws a bead on each protagonist and does not blink until after each story’s final word. The characters are drawn with such attention to detail that the reader will almost certainly recognize some of them from their own lives. Their circumstances can be so real that they transcend truth, as in this excerpt from The Motive for Metaphor:

“Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, is what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.”

These stories cover a wide range of narrow insights, from painfully intimate first-person confessions to third-person observations of murder and rape that are told with almost clinical detachment. Two of the stories included in this collection, including the title piece, are written in the second-person. This rarely used perspective offers a unique relationship to the reader/protagonist. These two paragraphs from the title story are a perfect illustration of the book’s charms and dangers: the first one reveals the dark underbelly that hides the even darker underbellies of addiction:

“Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver….And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very thing that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and the objects of relief that lie therein.”

This second excerpt captures the impossible dream of every struggling artist, and of some successful ones:

“Some persons, you reflect, many even – that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragi-comic farce you know as “your life.” The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin…these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.”

I have reached the conclusion, after many years of pondering, that there is no such thing as “good art” or “bad art.” A work of art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. The 19 stories in This Is Not Happening To You resonate with me to a depth that is almost uncomfortable. Their unavoidable intensity should ring true to anyone with some experience of life. This is writing that will not just grab but hold the attention of any reader interested in contemporary literature. If you’re not careful, you might even find some pieces of these stories popping up in your memory, as if they had been happening to you.

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Tim Tomlinson

Candide

I thought Candide was funny at first. It is an easy mistake to make in the first chapter where we meet Candide and his beloved Cunegonde:

On her way back to the castle she met Candide. She blushed, and so did he. She greeted him in a faltering voice, and he spoke to her without knowing what he was saying. The next day, as they were leaving the table after dinner, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen. She dropped her handkerchief, he picked it up; she innocently took his hand, and he innocently kissed hers with extraordinary animation, ardor, and grace; their lips met, their eyes flashed, their knees trembled, their hands wandered. Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh happened to pass by the screen; seeing this cause and effect, he drove Candide from the castle with vigorous kicks in the backside. Cunegonde fainted. The baroness slapped her as soon as she revived, and consternation reigned in the most beautiful and agreeable of all possible castles.

I guess anything can be funny if human suffering doesn’t bother you, or if you have a good enough sense of humor, or if you can’t tell the difference between the two.

There is a lot of casual rape in Candide, and equally casual disembowelment, hanging, flogging, and castration. Voltaire must have been a pisser at parties. Not so much for the disembowelments as for being a physician who takes the pulse of a sick world and doesn’t sugar-coat his diagnosis for the sake of the patient.

As Will Durant put it:

Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He was first and best in his time in his conception and writing of history, in the grace of his poetry, in the charm and wit of his prose, in the range of his thought and his influence. His spirit moved like a flame over the continent and the century, and stirs a million souls in every generation.

No matter how interesting analysis is, there is no substitute for letting the authors words speak for themselves. In this passage, Voltaire betrays the beast that lurks behind such a well-developed sense of humor, hiding his insight within the character of Pope Urban X’s bastard daughter:

I’ve wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most pernicious inclinations. What could be more stupid than to persist in carrying a burden that we constantly want to cast off, to hold our existence in horror, yet cling to it nonetheless, to fondle the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our hearts.

There is a story, probably a lie, definitely a joke, that on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest if he would renounce Satan.

He answered, “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

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Francois-Marie Arouet (a/k/a Voltaire) by Jean-Antoine Houdon