Boccaccio: Day 2, Story 2

I can hardly believe I haven’t touched this book since October, though it’s been many times that I’ve needed it. This is about as close to success as I’ve ever been, and yet I still feel profoundly sad–the answer, of course, being to just say fuck it and ignore it. I do this by trying to work as much as possible. I avoid thoughtful conversation if at all possible. I had a great longing to sit all day in a coffee shop and read today–the weather reminded me of being a student, the last weeks of classes before exams. So I locate the book that I hope will bring me a smile before bed…Boccaccio.

Short stories of the O. Henry era relied on twists in their endings. The only other short stories I know, Gogol? Hawthorne? even at that early time relied on twists just the same. They’re now seen as somewhat juvenile. The same goes for the use of coincidence in all those novels like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. Twists and coincidences are seen as phony. But I don’t mind them. Because literature is phony. And I suppose I always reach that aesthetic viewpoint in this blog–that I care about what’s beautiful, and very little else.

So it goes in this story, a series of twists and coincidences tightly bundled. Such reflects the Catholic sense of fate due to saintly intervention, indiscernible from that older belief of Italy’s pagans. In this story, a merchant is traveling and ends up with some highwaymen who pretend to be nice guys and later rob him of his money, clothes, and horse. Earlier in the day they’d been discussing what prayers they say, and the merchant declared that every morning he says a prayer asking for safe lodging for the coming night. This night, however, he finds himself hungry and nearly naked in the snow, teeth chattering beside a door in the wall.

Well, it just so happens that on the other side of the door is a beautiful widow taking a bath, and the door he’s at is the one her secret lover uses to sneak in and fuck her. Unfortunately, her secret lover can’t make it that night, on account of some urgent business that’s come up. So she decides to take the bath she’d prepared for him herself.

Now, here’s where I began taking note of a series of events that seemed to me remarkable, being the repossession and sharing of things.

She’s taking the bath she’d prepared for her lover; when she asks her maid to bring in the merchant, she gets out and lets the merchant take the bath; after he finishes, she goes on and takes it. 

Second, her husband has only recently died. She still has all his clothes. The merchant puts on the dead husband’s clothes. And they fit perfectly. This is the glass slipper sort of thing that I love in a story–when by external means a spiritual match is discovered.

Third, she “[makes] him sit familiarly with her by the fire.”

And then, as they talk she “found him much to her liking, and her desires being already aroused for the Marquis, who was to have come to lie with her, she had taken a mind to him,” later explaining to him, “you are in your own house.”

She decides she definitely wants to fuck him, and since the Marquis isn’t coming that night, her maid encourages her to try hooking up with the merchant. Her pick-up line is, essentially, “you remind me of my dead husband, and all night long I’ve just wanted to make-out with you.” The merchant has no problem with this…and then comes the best description of sex I’ve ever read:

The lady, who was all afire with amorous longings, straightaway threw herself into his arms and after she had strained him desirefully to her bosom and bussed him a thousand times and had of him been kissed as often, they went off to her chamber and there without delay betaking themselves to bed, they fully and many a time, before the day should come, satisfied their desires of the other.

And somehow he still gets up in the morning and goes on his way. Oh, and the bad guys get caught and he gets all his stuff back.

Hilarious. And rewarding. I feel a lot better now!

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Boccaccio & Heloise…From My House to a Nearby Mexican Restaurant

spacetennisIt’s just about 5am. We have new tables. A whole bunch of new tables. We have four tables, and five chairs. That’s such a poor ratio that I’m afraid guests won’t know which are which. Anyway, I’m awake for two reasons. The most likely one is the nausea from my new round of antibiotics. The less likely one is that the steroids are doing it. The doctor was giggling as he prescribed me all this. And I suppose I feel a bit better than I did yesterday morning, at least in my sinus. Charlie asked “what did you do the last time you were sick for six months?”

And that’s when it struck me: “omg. I’m a sickly child.” There’s a pile of clothes by the wall in the living room. It’s the “put in trashcan and burn” clothes, like they do with children who die in London orphanages in the 1800s. I’ll just, you know, give them their own wash, or four, because walk-in clinics are frightening. They’re filled with doorknobs, armrests, and pens.

I don’t want to be sickly. I want to be strong and healthy. Okay, I just sat up straight. That’s a start. Overall, yesterday I felt…empty, confused, as if I had no purpose or anything to do with my life. Maybe it’s because I’m sick. Maybe it’s because I’m dreading this upcoming show at JMU because I’m increasingly tired of having my work-week schedule fouled up. Maybe it’s because Tyrone killed himself a whole month before Halloween.

This is what I remember of Tyrone. I remember he sat in the first column of seats in History class in 6th grade. But when you grow up someplace 99% white, you can’t help but begin by discussing skin color. Almost All the African-Americans I’d met before him lived in a nearby apartment complex where things happened like my friends’ parents being shot in their heads (this happened twice). I learned what it looks like when one’s parents beat you with a belt, the pink welts across bellies. And about being threatened and knocked ove for no reason. I tried to stand up for myself once; definitely not a good idea. Of course, they didn’t show any signs of antisemitism, like the white middle-class kids did! The apartments have since been demolished. But these were my associations, and they didn’t seem strange, I guess. I mean, I don’t remember feeling awkward while eating lunch with Jesse and asking him questions about his father killing his mother over the weekend.

So when Tyrone, slight, dressed like us, and carrying a violin, walked in on day 1 of 6th grade, I didn’t know what to think. He’d sometimes take it out, I guess he was in the row beside me, and we became friends to the point that in 7th grade we were eating lunch together every day and by my 14th birthday he was one of three friends I had spend the night. In our comic-book years his nickname became “BHJ” — that’s “Big Hairy Johnson” — and we’d chant it like we had any idea we knew what we were talking about. He would do things like ask for everyone’s birthdays and phone numbers and tell us that he’s studying the art of memory, that he’ll memorize them and come back in a few months and recite them to us. And then he’d do it.

In recent months I’ve kept thinking of him, that he was the only one in the group who never seemed to betray our friendship. He seemed to be everyone’s friend. And perhaps that should have been the first indication of something wrong–people who are everyone’s friend seem often to be distant or detached somehow. There’s only so far you reach before hitting a wall. What do I know? We were in high school. All my photos of him show him smiling. I’d written him recently in response to some photos I came across of his. He didn’t write back. And then it was last night that I found all the RIP notes on his facebook.

When you’re a child, bad things don’t really happen to other people so much as that kids just sort of come and go, appear and disappear like clouds, one day they show up as a new kid, the next they disappear forever because their parents split and now they’re in Kentucky. I don’t remember asking any questions or even wondering why people disappeared. Bad things happened, but look, we made it through the little years, and now we’re all big people. And so the countdown begins, it’s time for us to all start dying off, I guess. Stuart led the pack with the drunk driving incident. Dixon went on to get stabbed to death during a drug deal. A suicide here, an accident there. Old age must be horrifying. I’ve been dreaming a lot about war lately. I’m always in war with a BB gun, an air gun, forced to use bullets that somehow are useable after someone shoots at me with them.

Abelard was castrated. That happened because of a misunderstanding over what he was doing with Heloise. What exactly was he doing with Heloise? I haven’t figured that out. I thought he was only hiding her in a convent to make it easier to see her.  Why couldn’t they just be a normal married couple? And why did she go along with it for so long? She seems positively modern in her love for him. He shrinks back into the darkness.

When the young people leave town, day 1 of the Decameron, they walk “two short miles”–that’s the distance from my house to the nearby Mexican restaurant. Or the post office. That’s about a half hour walk. And after much deliberation that’s where they go to escape the plague. That opens all sorts of questions about population and political boundaries. I mean, that’s a shorter distance than between the Bennets’ home, Longbourne, and their town, or Bingley’s house, places everybody walks, all the time.

Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

I haven’t any idea why both Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart hold such happy places in my heart–but they do. This is the sort of Hitchcock I enjoy most, when I’m not left feeling sick and paranoid. Well, right now I’m feeling sick because I’ve been drinking coffee all night and that’s a miserable thing for one to do. Beyond everything else, what I found striking in this film was his character development, which extended beyond the individuals and into their relationships with one another. I argue that Hitchcock takes the archetype of the hero/homecoming story for his model, but improves and modernizes it (don’t the two always go hand in hand?) by giving us two heroes whose ‘home’ is contentment in marriage; and I don’t mean that marriage is the goal, as in much of comedic Shakespeare, but rather more like in Austen, where characters battle each other and themselves in order to discover why a marriage would be happy.

Hitchcock throws us in some sense in media res by placing us at what proves to be the crucial moment in a troubled marriage. And then, rather than relying on flashbacks a la Telemachus to divulge the prehistory, the characters themselves drop hints. The first indicator in the film that this Hitchcock follows the archetype is that the film is neatly divided into two segments, both of which begin and end abruptly, and all hints are found within the first segment. A third segment is the one that occurs before the film, being the one only hinted at. The Morocco segment lays out all the problems: the marriage is in trouble, and the son is kidnapped. The kidnapping of the son arguably is a result of the failing marriage, and the London segment is dedicated to saving the son and fixing the marriage.

The first thing I noticed was that the son talks a lot. He’s obnoxious because he’s constantly commenting on everything his parents say, usually in a way that serves to lift the mood of the conversation though he acts as if he doesn’t know he’s being witty or funny. I’ve seen children act like this before–it’s how they desperately attempt to keep everyone happy. It’s how they try to prevent their parents from arguing.

1. Ben (Jimmy Stewart) says he’s called his wife ‘Jo’ for so long that he’s forgotten that she’s called anything else–her name is actually Josephine. Not only has he forgotten who she is, but he’s also given her a new name, which, as in the first chapters of Genesis, is a way of acquiring domination over anyone/anything.

2. They easily get caught up in tiffs. This is maintained throughout the Morocco segment and ends with the London segment, when they immediately begin working together seamlessly.

3. He’s fickle about what he feels strongly about, or else he tries to take up her cause with excess vigor. When he pushes aside her distrust of Louis Bernard, after she insists he finally becomes enraged with Bernard, to the point that even Jo tries to calm him down–because his emotions don’t make any sense. This is what made me begin taking notes, because it made me believe they’d had a fight in the past to which he was reacting.

4. She wants to have another baby. She brings this fact up entirely out of the blue. To us. But it’s a continuation of a series of conversations that take place in the pre-film segment that we don’t see.

5. They have monthly fights. They let us know this–and the ‘monthly’ bit threw me off because it inevitably implies that it’s her fault, but it’s not Ben who says it. She asks, ‘Ben, are we about to have our monthly fight?’ when, if it was related to her, he would be looking to her for the answer. At the same time, this happens to be the same day that she’s mentioned that she wants another baby. The conclusion I reach is that everyone should be praised for not blaming the fights on monthly lunacy, but rather they should be blamed on a monthly reminder of fertility.

6. ‘Six months ago you told me I took too many pills,’ says Jo. They measure time with their fights; but also, if she’d merely taken one aspirin too many and had a stomach ache, she wouldn’t have pinned it to a date like this. I’m going to call it a suicide attempt. Ben says ‘you know what happens when you get excited and nervous’–and she usually becomes hysterical (whose Greek root suggests the stereotype I mean), the hysteria ultimately being what saves the day.

7. Ben’s big plan is to offer the kidnappers ‘every penny I have’ to get back their son. He’s thinking in terms of his own money, not what they share. This would be meaningless except for the detail that she’s a world-famous singer who he’s convinced to give up her career and move to a backwards town in the midwest and be supported by him. In fact, their whole Europe/Morocco vacation is being funded by him and his work as a small-town doctor. They begin and carry on a joke for quite too long about which fixed body-part or delivered baby is responsible for, i.e., ‘I’m wearing Johnny Matthews’ appendix’ and ‘All the way home we’ll be riding on Herbie Taylor’s ulcers.’ Jo’s the one who comes up with this concept–and it’s the first time they’ve discussed it, as Jo says she’s ‘never thought of it that way’ before. Where is her money, as one would expect her to be worth significantly more than he is? Who knows.

So, these are the hints. And I think what it comes down to is likely this: they made a ‘deal’ that meant her retirement, their marriage, some children, and their total settling down. It wasn’t in that order, as she’d played London four years before the film’s action, and their son is older than that, but since then she’s settled down–and another child hasn’t come. And I think this is why they fight, because he hasn’t held up his end of the deal, and he’s holding her down because he feels inadequate when he compares their respective financial values.

In the end, it takes what he regards as her weaknesses (her hysterics, when she screams and thwarts the murder; her music career, when she uses it to both find their son and keep all the bad guys occupied) to save them all. And while this occurs, he’s given the opportunity to deliver their son to her by rescuing him from near-murder. If the son was the most important focus of the film, it would have ended with his rescue, the happy family back together. But it doesn’t. There’s an additional, slightly jarring, brief scene in which the happy family returns to the hotel room: they open the hotel room door, Jo’s uppity friends who used to work with her in showbiz are waiting there for them, and only one line is spoken, Ben saying, ‘I’m sorry we were gone so long, but we go and pick up Hank’ [sorry, but the screenplay transcript I’m using was made by a Russian (seriously), and I don’t have the energy to go back and see what the actual Jimmy Stewart quote was, so you’re just going to have to imagine Jimmy Stewart speaking in broken English]. I think his apology indicates that he’s accepted Jo more fully as a person–accepted her past in music, and may be willing to give her back her career (he never flaunts her career in the film–though she’s happy to mention it, he’d prefer to discuss himself), and who knows, maybe they’ll make some more babies.

essay: Huxley – The Doors of Perception (1954)

This is one I’ve been putting off reading for years, ever since I reached the conclusion that I’m not really so much a fan of the Doors, maybe one or two albums are alright, but generally, I don’t care. And that book touted as scholarly but sold in every Barnes and Noble discussing Jim Morrison as compared to Rimbaud, I think it’s just a way to stir up some controversy, and make some money by cashing in on the significantly large population of young people who fancy themselves intellectuals because they listen to the Doors and really, really get it. The problem I’d had was that I kept running into these idiots who were convinced that after reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception, they had firmly digested the oeuvre of Blake also, maybe they’d read one of Blake’s early works and contented themselves that this was representative of the whole. And worse yet, the only thing they were able to squeeze out of Huxley was that, well, there’s a smart argument for using drugs, and if you don’t get it, just read this fucking book, okay? He’ll explain it. And essentially, by using drugs, you don’t even need the Doors, or Huxley, or Blake, because you’ve reached the world of the sensual already, through the most powerful medium of all, man, your…I don’t know, eyeballs or something.

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised that this is more like William James showing up to one his lectures a bit in love, and the most fascinating bits are that there was a time when someone took drugs and didn’t just play video games, stand around in 7-11, or hang out with their equally fucked up friends. Instead, he contemplates flowers, and then art, and then classical music. Thankfully he doesn’t do any of this for much more than a few pages, and the rest of the essay is historical, scientific, and when religious or philosophical, hardly different than what Emerson said a hundred years prior at Harvard’s commencement, hardly different than what the wise have known since the beginning of time.

Am I bitter? Yes. Because Huxley notes multiple times that mescaline (see the liner notes in James Taylor’s One Man Dog, in which his song whose only lyrics are ‘mescalito has opened up my mind’ includes a comment that the musicians don’t really agree) offers no negative effects, it brings all users to heaven…except those who have an anxious or depressed disposition, and instead, they will be in absolute hell.

In conclusion: Huxley will always hold a place in my heart since when I was 18 I read Island and, further, believed in it and its condemnation of male orgasm. But I cannot forget his godawful Crome Yellow origins that are perhaps only comparable to Jane Austen as a comedy of manners (no wonder that he was a screenwriter for the 1940 film Pride and Prejudice). I wonder if Huxley is entirely irrelevant? In short, I don’t care, and I’m not going to read the accompanying essay ‘Heaven and Hell’ because I can die contentedly without it.