Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Lucy's Sense of Snowe

As Kate has mentioned, I've been reading Villette, and finding it very odd. Part of the problem is that its companions on my nightstand are mostly Germans, which give an unfortunate contrast to anything written well. Reading translated German slowly begins to give one the false impression that anything incomprehensible is necessarily deep with meaning;¹, and contrariwise that anything one can enjoy is intellectually shallow, which Villette certainly is not.

But it is well written, and it is odd. For the first two or three chapters I was uncertain as to the identity of the main character. The narrator had a distinct voice, but Polly seemed to demand the reader's attention, as did young Graham. Polly shows up like a fairy-tale princess to the house; her father is ill, her mother dead, and she herself is "a neat, completely fashioned little figure, light, slight, and straight. Seated on my godmother's lap, she looked a mere doll; her neck, delicate as wax, her head of silky curls...."

A proper fairy-tale would have Lucy as its heroine. It is after all her godmother with whom she and Polly stay, and Lucy would therefore seem to have the rights to any bounty to be distributed by that time-honored agent of advancement. She refuses them. Later, she will refuse Graham himself, in a typically subtle, unacknowledged way. It is no accident that Lucy Snowe tells her story in the first person. She tells the reader as much as she pleases, which often pleases the reader rather less. We know nothing of Lucy's family, from start to finish. We are withheld information vital to our understanding of her actions, and even the ending is deliberately ambiguous. My wife continues to insist that the book ends happily; I am not as confident.

Lucy's relationships with others are, I think, all attempts to lessen the pain of their refusal to affect and be affected by her. She is desperate for someone who will take her seriously: consider not only her pleasure but her good; listen when she speaks and speak when she listens. When she cannot find such a person, she withdraws into loneliness.

The philosopher, we are told, is never lonesome. Socrates was noted not only for his ability to deal with all men as equals, but also for his long spells of silent thought, indifferent to his surroundings, presumably rapt in contemplation of the movement of the spheres.
He started wrestling with some problem or other about sunrise one morning, and stood there lost in thought, and when the answer wouldn't come he still stood there thinking and refused to give it up. Time went on, and by about midday the troops noticed what was happening, and naturally they were rather surprised and began telling each other how Socrates had been standing there thinking ever since daybreak....Well, he stood there till morning, and then at sunrise he said his prayers to the sun and went away.
Of course, Socrates has a constant companion in his daimon, which tells him what not to do. His method of inquiry, dialogue, requires this sort of doubled self, which apparently suffices for him. Indeed, "I think it better, my good friend, that my lyre should be discordant and out of tune, and any chorus I might train, and that the majority of mankind should disagree with and oppose me, rather than that I who am but one man should be out of tune with and contradict myself." (emphasis added, naturally). Harmony, of course, requires at least two notes, and Socrates, though one man, claims to have at least those two notes within himself. He is self-sufficient; within himself he finds a partner which allows him to set boundaries for himself--to define himself.

Lucy stands in stark challenge to this claim. She has no such company within her. Anything she finds within her is only herself, and therefore useless for the purpose of self-definition. Only through some outside interaction can she test the boundaries of her self and thereby discover and claim them. And only human interaction can accomplish this for her. The most harrowing passage in the book comes after Lucy is bereft of even the elemental company of Ginevra Fanshawe, Mme. Beck, and the other dim students and faculty of the school.
[T]he house was left quite empty, but for me, a servant, and a poor deformed and imbecile pupil, a sort of cretin whom her stepmother in a distant province would not allow to return home.

My heart almost died within me; miserable longings strained its chords. How long were the September days! How silent, how lifeless! How vast and void seemed the desolate premises!... My spirits had long been sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast. Even to look forward was not to hope: the dumb future spoke no comfort, offered no promise, gave no inducement to bear present evil in reliance on future good.


The cretin did not seem unhappy. I did my best to feed her well and keep her warm, and she asked only food and sunshine, or when that lacked, fire. Her weak faculties approved of inertion: her brain, her eyes, her ears, her heart slept content; they could not wake to work, so lethargy was their Paradise.


It was some relief when an aunt of the cretin, a kind old woman, came one day, and took away my strange, deformed companion. The hapless creature had been at times a heavy charge; I could not take her out beyond the garden, and I could not leave her a minute alone; for her poor mind, like her body, was warped: its propensity was to evil. A vague bent to mischief , an aimless malevolence made constant vigilance indispensable. As she very rarely spoke, and would sit for hours together moping and mowing and distorting her features with indescribable grimaces, it was more like being prisoned with some strange tameless animal, than associating with a human being. There were personal attentions to be rendered which required the nerve of a hospital nurse; my resolution was so tried, it sometimes fell dead-sick.
It has become common to speak of the wonders of nature, the joys of it, and to see divinity in its works. We forget what a world deprived of meaning and reason looks like--a speechless, mindless thing, twisting itself into new shapes, behind which is a dull malevolence. I am reminded of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, when, as the heroes pursue Sunday, they discuss their impressions of him. The fanatical secretary has just decribed pouring his heart out before him.
"Then, after a long silence, the Thing began to shake, and I thought it was shaken by some secret malady. It shook like a loathsome and living jelly. It reminded me of everything I had ever read about the base bodies that are the origin of life--the deep sea lumps and protoplasm. It seemed like the final form of matter, the most shapeless and most shameful.... And then it broke upon me that the bestial mountain was shaking with a lonely laughter, and the laughter was at me."
The sensible Inspector Radcliffe insists that Sunday's true creepiness lies elsewhere: he is absent-minded. "Now, absent-mindedness is just a bit too awful in a bad man.... [H]ow do you bear an absent-minded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went throught wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?" And Chesterton is echoing, like Lucy, the unanswerable voice which answered Job.
Behold, Behemoth
which I made as I made you;
he eats grass like an ox.
Behold, his strength in his loins,
and the power in the muscles of his belly.
He makes his tail stiff like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are tubes of bronze,
his limbs like bars of iron.

He is the first of the works of God;
let him who made him bring near his sword!
For the mountains yield food for him
where all the wild beasts play.
Under the lotus plants he lies,
in the covert of the reeds and in the marsh.
For his shade the lotus trees cover him;
the willows of the brook surround him.
Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightened;
he is confident though Jordan rushes against him.
Can one take him with hooks,
or pierce his nose with a snare?
This incomprehensible world is what is left to Lucy after the withdrawal of all speaking persons from her. It is notable that she faces the world in its appalling muteness, rather than retreating into a comfortable romanticism. Throughout the book we see this quality in her: she cannot be satisfied by less than true contact. Even when such contact is without any reason, without the element of humanity she longs for, she does not supply it herself. However, at the end of her vacation, the strain of this delirium drives her into what stands, for her, as the most abhorrent of creeds, and she enters into a Catholic church. "Any solemn rite, any spectacle of sincere worship, any opening for appeal to God was as welcome to me then as bread to one in extremity of want." This attitude mixes poorly with the amount of venom which is poured over Catholicism throughout the rest of the book. Lucy is at the last unable to bear this companionless world, and succumbs to seeking both divine and human company where she presumes neither is to be found. That the priest is revealed as the agent of her later distress drives home this point: never in falseness can one find relief (and seldom if ever in truth). Lucy leaves the chruch and collapses.

She awakes in a sort of dream: she has returned to the rooms of her youth, in her godmother's home. Every detail is just as it was years ago.

(More when I have time.)

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