Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A Discussion About Lavinia Part 2

[Niall Harrison, that tall man, has organised a quadriplex discussion of Le Guin's latest novel; the resulting exchange being posted four ways:
Introduction -- Torque Control
Lyric and Narrative -- Punkaddidle. Why, that's right here!
Fantasy -- Asking the Wrong Questions
History -- Eve's Alexandria

So, start here, with Part 1. Then read on:]

Abigail Nussbaum: Like Jo and Nic, I appreciated Le Guin's description of Lavinia's life and her religious practices, which was done with clarity and immediacy. But what I'm going to write about here are the things that interested me or stood out in my reading, which are not exactly the same as the things I liked about the novel.

For example, I was interested in Lavinia as a representative of the common trope of retelling a story through the eyes of a minor character, and most particularly a character whose race, gender or class marginalize them in the original story, because Le Guin doesn't actually do any of the things we expect that kind of story to do. We often criticize fiction for portraying characters who seem to be aware that they are minor players in another person's story, who seem to have been told what their role is and adjusted their dreams and desires to suit it, but this is exactly what Lavinia does. In his SH review, Adam mentions Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which I found interesting because Le Guin has written the antithesis of Bradley's novel (and not merely because she can write decent sentences and believable characters). There's no feminine underbelly to the male-run world here, and Lavinia herself is clearly male-oriented. When women's magic shows up, it's a farce -- a drunken bacchanalia which both terrifies and embarrasses Lavinia, and whose climax is to be her forced marriage (and presumably rape) to the man her mother desires. A recurring theme in the novel is that women (and some men) assume that Lavinia is a plaything, that she wants Turnus but has been forced to accept Aenas by her father, when really her desires track perfectly with Virgil's account of her actions. It's an interesting choice on Le Guin's part because we expect tension between her story and Virgil's and don't get it, which is, well, not disappointing, but a little odd, and maybe the reason why I found the last third of the novel, after both Turnus and Aenas had died, less compelling than its earlier parts -- because Lavinia, who had for so long surrendered to her fate, no longer had one to guide her (or at least not one that someone other than Le Guin had invented).

Adam Roberts: One problem in trying to put into words what it is about the novel that resonated so powerfully for me is that it may be nothing more than my personal maggot, and so may simply slide past other people's interest (or comprehension). But here goes.

It has to do with the two modes of art that engage me the most: the narrative and the lyric. These are not mutually exclusive modes of art, of course, but they do speak to particular and I'd argue very significant aesthetic emphases. Human culture is deeply invested in them. By "story" I mean essentially narrative + characters; and by "lyric" I mean moments of aesthetic intensity that stir and move us, art that captures "epiphanies" that make the hairs on the backs on our necks stand up, and so on.

So, I'd argue that almost all human beings crave stories, and most crave aesthetic intensities: finding the former in gossip, newspapers, novels, biographies, histories, TV soaps and dramas, film and many other forms; and finding the latter in what Wordsworth calls "spots of time" as evoked by art or literature, but also and more pervasively in religious experience, in sex and its culture, in music (certain sorts of music especially) and in various other ways.

Another way of putting this would be to invoke Jakobson's famous differentiation (well: famous in lit crit circles) between the "horizontal" metonymic level of signification, "this and then that and then the other"; and the "vertical" metaphoric level of signification, the transcendent (the magical, the sense-of-wonder) moment. Jakobson argues that metonymy works contiguously, contingently, leading from one term to a related other; metaphor works in a transcendent manner, leaping to something quite new.

It's easy to think of novels and stories that are, really, single pelt-tingling moments of lyric epiphany to which a narrative has been appended; stories that distil down into a fundamentally poetic moment ... "Nine Billion Names of God", say; or McEwan's Black Dog (which I'd argue is really just its chilling, final image); or Conrad's Heart of Darkness (which builds to a particular moment of "the horror, the horror" intensity). Fine. It's not that this is not enough by itself; but it is that that's not enough to tell a story … so it's not coincidental that I've just cited three relatively short works of prose. Now because story is closer to the experience of life -- life, after all, carries on in terms of its happening -- narrative art has more important things to say to us about our lives. More important if, perhaps, less flattering or romantically beguiling.

A lot of the literature that means the most to me is lyric, epiphanic, non-narrative. It is perhaps a contradictory thing that I myself work in a narrative/character mode (what I mean is: when I write, that's what I write). In part that's because my poetry, when I write it, isn't very good. But it's more to do with a belief that the lyric epiphany, in its various forms (spine-tingling beauty, the climax, the thrill), is not very good at capturing what the philosophers call Being-in-the-world -- life as a process, as living. That narrative is much better at this. Courtship is thrilling and exciting, but the real business of love is actually living with your partner day-by-day, and that's a horizontal, contingent, metonymic process, not a vertical, epiphanic one. One reason Hollywood blockbusters are not like life is because they seek continually to inject what amount to (commodified, or mass-produced) transcendental moments of climax. But excitement doesn't work this way; the returns diminish real quick, and attempts to ramp up the explosions, the kung-fu (if fighting one man is exciting, fighting a hundred must be a hundred times as exciting!) the speed, the spectacle very soon parlay the idiom into silliness.

Now the Aeneid isn't like this, but it is a series of exquisitely formed and distilled moments of poetry -- Vergil would sometimes spend all day working on a single line (and sometimes would end the day rubbing out what he had done). It's exquisitely, fantastically worked, all the way through. The structure of the whole is complex, starting (Aeneas and his followers land at Carthage), then moving back (as Aeneas recalls the Fall of Troy at length), moving on (Dido and Aeneas) and then bifurcating simultaneously into the past and the future -- in book six Aeneas travels into the underworld, dwells on what has happened before and is giving a prophesy of what will come. Even when it settles, in the second half (the basis of Le Guin's novel) into a more continuous narrative the poem nevertheless continues its batlike dartings back and forth: backward-looking in that the combat of Aeneas and Turnus is a deliberate recreation of the combat of Achilles and Hector at Troy, and forward-looking in that everything that happens is viewed proleptically as anticipating the rise and triumph of Rome (Aeneas goes into battle carrying a shield on which are pictures, described at great length, detailing the future glory of his descendents). If the larger narrative keeps jinking into the past and future, so too does the poetry continually interrupt the onward momentum with gorgeous but usually static images, descriptions, with epic similes or ekphrasis that temporarily, but repeatedly, drop us out of the story. It is a fine poem, but compared to the much more driven, onward-moving impetus of Homer's epics it is much more lyric than it is narrative. As the French general fellow never said: magnificent, mais c'est n'est pas la vie.

Le Guin intervenes into this text by, brilliantly, translating its idiom from one chiefly of lyric intensity into one of, mostly, narrative momentum. It is this, rather than the shift in gender of the main point of view, that makes this significant. Le Guin is certainly very good on evoking the various ways women in this world were marginalised; but there's an existential level to Lavinia's voice that I do not consider tied to gender. I'm talking about her way of getting on with life; not just in terms of practicalities (although those portions of the story where practical problems and obstacles tax but do not overcome her ingenuity makes compelling reading) but, to repeat myself, in terms of her being-in-the-world. This is what I meant when I said (to quote myself, from my SH review of the novel):
Against the hesitant figure of Virgil, and the intricate, backward-spiralling verse-narrative of the Aeneid, Le Guin draws Lavinia as a narrator whose tale moves swiftly straight. No bat, but an owl: "I fly among the trees on soft wings that make no sound. Sometimes I call out, but not in a human voice. My cry is soft and quavering: i, i, I cry: go on, go" (p. 250). I love that shift from the Latin 'i, i' to the English 'I': it embodies in little the most profound of shifts from being-in-time to egotistical subjectivity. Lavinia is surrounded by people, from Virgil, to her father, to her suitor Turnus and her stepson Ascanius, who trace out their lives in spiral tangles of ego. Lavinia herself sails through, always conscious of the fact that the key salient for life is not that it coalesces around particular moments, or particular subjectivities, but that it goes on. It is this that makes narrative the key mode of art for apprehending life. That's why Le Guin's story rolls smoothly not only past the death of Turnus (where the Aeneid stops), but also the death of Lavinia's loved husband Aeneas -- very touchingly understated, here -- and onward. That's why it ends so beautifully, inverting the solidly masculine I of I, Claudius and ending instead with the Molly-Bloomish i, i, of the hooting owl. Virgil has a story to tell, but he is a poet first, and his poem continually risks distilling into gem-like stuck moments. Le Guin is capable of very affecting poetry, but she is a storyteller first.
By "Molly Bloomish" I mean that there's a sense of ultimate affirmation in the book, and that this affirmation is embodied formally as well as on the level of content. The writing and structure is a triumph: always lucid, direct, clear, penetrating and evocative. Now, I could go on in this mode for a long time: I'd say, for instance, that this is why Le Guin was right to banish the gods from her pre-Roman Italy (gods, because they are immortal, are lyric, epiphanic entities; fine for a beautiful moment or two -- the fourteen lines of Yeats's "Leda and the Swan", say, that so brilliantly render divinity in terms of the twin epiphanies of sexual climax and the ecstasy of violence -- but immiscible with properly mortal, narrative art.) This also informs the novel's fascinations with trueness to life: with, for instance, true dreams and false dreams.

A more nuanced way of saying this would be to gloss what Niall says above: 'To me, the "We are all contingent" -- which comes from Lavinia's anxiety about her reality -- and "I live in awe" -- which speaks to the luminous world Le Guin is creating -- are inextricably linked.' I'm not saying that the narrative mode of art wholly drives out the luminous moments of lyric intensity. I'm saying that the former grounds the latter -- where in the Aeneid the lyric is, slightly incongruously, the ground for the narrative.

Nic Clarke: Adam, I thoroughly enjoyed that, and am in broad agreement. Le Guin does a marvellous job of humanising the Aeneid in her retelling -- by which I don't mean that the original lacked humanity, more that she enables a modern audience to see it more easily -- and she does so without mistaking "human" for "modern", the trap that so many writers of historical or mythical-past fiction fall into (Mists of Avalon, absorbing though I found it back in the day, is undoubtedly guilty of this).

Abigail Nussbaum: I think Adam's point about the difference between narrative and lyric is interesting, because what struck me about the novel was the way that, for the most part, it was almost pure narrative and no aesthetics, which is to say a story-fied history, with Lavinia telling us what happened next, and what happened after that, and after that. That is presumably where the I, Claudius comparisons are coming from, and they seem apt. All of the things we associate with modern literature -- complex characterization, evocative description -- are achieved in Lavinia almost exclusively through narrative.

[Now go to part three, here...]

1 comment:

Tony Keen said...

I have responded to the whole discussion here.