A Nice Little Essay for Warren Tallman by Joe Canuck

Allen Ginsberg in Vancouver (1963)
Poets gather outside the Vancouver home of Ellen and Warren Tallman in 1963. Tallman is the one with glasses, second right in the top row. Below him is Charles Olson. Allen Ginsberg is in the middle of the photo, the one with the Hasidic beard, of course. Dan McLeod next to Ginsberg’s right side.

Preface

I took three courses with Professor Tallman at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the early 1980s. Tallman passed away in 1994, but his contribution to the local literary scene and in particular to the poetry scene was and still is legendary, or at least it is among the literati. I have already written about Tallman, although rather obliquely and sentimentally in my 2010 essay, “Why Nobody wants a new Vancouver Art Gallery or gives a ratsass about Photoconceptualism.” In fact, that essay was dedicated to him and discusses in detail his influence not only on the poetry scene in Vancouver in the 1960s and 70s but also on the current visual arts scene and cultural scene in general.

I wrote this essay on D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound for him in an introductory poetry course that he taught at UBC in 1982. This is one of the first essays I ever wrote for him. This is also the only one that I was able to find in my mother’s basement. It’s not a great essay, but it’s not a bad essay, neither. It’s just a nice little essay. It’s still a nice and easy read 32 years later and not at all academic per se. I’m publishing it here more to get Professor Tallman’s comments recorded for the digital record than anything else. Nothing ever dies on the Internet. Incidentally, Professor Tallman really loved my essay and gave me an “A” and ever since that day, we got along famously. Here are his comments on my original essay:

“The word for this that comes most readily to mind is “brilliant”. You bring a twin force of perception and thought to bear. That womb guess is wonderful. But it all is — intelligence working at a much more than “½ watt rays” intensity. Now, then, there, those double spaces. [The original essay was hand-written and single-spaced.] An Excellent 1st Paper.”

Surrey, British Columbia. June 29, 2014

 

ezrapound
Young Ezra Pound

D.H. Lawrence’s “Piano” and Ezra Pound’s “Medallion”: Two poems that look back in time in search of refuge and remembrances of things loved and lost.

Written for Dr. Warren Tallman, Department of English, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. November 1982.

It is human nature: to run far away from your fears and problems, though you can never really escape, but, for a moment, you may seek refuge in the past. This is true for both D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound who seek refuge in the past. For Lawrence, the return to the past is fleeting and emotional. But for Pound, the return to the past is prolonged and intellectual. Whereas Lawrence’s return to the past in “Piano” is motivated by a yearning to recapture innocence, security, and the curiosity of childhood, Pound’s return to the past in “Medallion” is motivated by a yearning to recapture the tradition of Homer and of the Classicists.

Quite obviously, the memory of the closeness and love of Lawrence’s mother evoked by the singing woman causes Lawrence both pleasure and pain. He knows he cannot reverse the clock, yet it is his true desire to do so. The more he reminisces, the more pain, and the less pleasure he feels. This is why the poet uses the word “betray.” That part of him which longs for his childhood betrays his manhood. Clearly, the simplicity of childhood is preferred over to the complexities of adulthood, but the conflict within Lawrence goes beyond the tension between past and present, innocence and experience. I ask you, is the wish to return to “a mother who smiles as she sings; to the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside; to the cosy parlour” really not the wish to return to the womb? Do you not see that the “cosy parlour,” which provides warmth, protection, and an environment where child and mother are united, is analogous to the womb?

The desire and need to recapture the bond between child and mother go beyond mere escapism, however. It is true that Lawrence’s mother is a source of warmth and love, but more importantly, she is also a source of poetic inspiration and refinement and, evidently, Lawrence’s poem in particular and his art in general. Among those familiar with Lawrence’s oeuvre, there is a consensus that he was fixated with his mother, which some have argued, is best exemplified, if not exposed in his 1913 novel Sons and Lovers. This poem, “Piano,” was written just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and may be a condensed version of his novel, and a more telling example of his ‘mother fixation.’

Similarly, the woman with the “clear soprano” in “Medallion” the last mini-poem in Pound’s long poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” also stands for culture, but the culture she stands for is a culture more about glitz and shiny veneers than about substance and soul. Femininity, humility, good taste, some of the attributes usually associated with a woman of culture and class, are not to be found in Pound’s woman. Ostensibly, Pound’s complaint is with the post-war years after the Great War. The poem was written in 1920. The woman in “Medallion” may, from Pound’s viewpoint, be an unwanted symbol of her times and the dawning of the Jazz Age in the 1920s.

The definition of a medallion is a large medal usually given as a prize for outstanding achievement in sports — the Olympics come to mind. It is also sometimes given as a prize to award outstanding achievement in non-sports events, too, but it is always given out after a contest or competition. A medallion is also usually very ostentatious. If the woman in “Medallion” is glassy (“Luini in porcelain!”); if the woman is gaudy (“Honey-red, closing the face oval”); if the woman is snaky (“The sleek head emerges”); if the woman is devilish (“The eyes turn topaz”); and if the woman represents the culture of her times, then, certainly, it is a culture that is decorative, decadent, degenerate and demonic.

Is the woman in Pound’s “Medallion” a symbol or a parody of the crass capitalism that would make the 1920’s the most affluent and debauched decade in American history? Is she a real prize, something that we should cherish or is she ersatz, a parody of the real prize that cannot be taken seriously? Is she really the new Venus (“Anadyomene”) of her times?  No, the woman in “Medallion” is probably not Pound’s Venus or Helen of Troy, for that matter. Of course, Pound’s true Venus is by Botticelli, his true Helen of Troy is by Homer. What Pound desires to do is “to “resuscitate the dead art/Of poetry; to maintain ‘the sublime’/In the old sense.” But in order to do so, Pound must go back into time.

As we have seen, the past is a period of creative energy for both Lawrence and for Pound, but here the similarities end. “Piano” is written by a poet who places high priority on emotion, blood, and instinct. “Medallion” is written by a poet who places high priority on intellect, eclecticism, and academicism. In other words, “Piano” is wish fulfillment: Lawrence wants to live the present in the past. “Medallion,” on the other hand, is wishful thinking: Pound wants to live the past in the present. And the differences do not end here.

D.H.Lawrence
D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence is an Englishman, and he writes like one, too. The tendency of the English to think in sentences is revealed in “Piano,” a poem that closely resembles prose. Pound, the American, on the other hand, thinks in phrases. For this reason, “Medallion” seems more verbal, and more spontaneous. In fact, “Medallion” is a dramatic monologue. Indeed, much of our difficulty in trying to understand the poem stems from this fact. For many of us who have enough trouble understanding ourselves, the task of trying to comprehend the dramatic monologue of a man as complex as Ezra Pound seems impossible. Not exactly humble, but egocentric, it may very well be Pound’s intention to be difficult, to write “poetry of the classroom” as William Carlos Williams has accused him of doing. I suspect that this has something to do with the obscure references in “Medallion,” and throughout “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” it must be said.

However, and more likely, the difficulty in comprehending Pound is due to the fact that Pound is fighting what Lawrence is practicing in “Piano”: convention. Pound, the iconoclast, if not the maverick, is using a technique called vorticism. For example, “King Miho’s hall,” “Anadyomeme,” or “Luini” (Bernardino Luini) are nouns which imply a meaning outside their own meaning, and which cause the reader to spin off associations connected with these nouns. Hence, Pound’s approach to language is intellectual and associative. Furthermore, practically all of Pound’s allusions in his poems are classical and therefore the reader is forced to go back to a time of classical antiquity and myths in order to understand the poems. Needless to say, if Pound had it his way, the reader would remain there in classical antiquity forever, as that was where Pound was happiest and where he would like us to join him.

To say that “Piano” is straightforward and conventional is not to say that Lawrence is the lesser poet. Indeed, Lawrence is very much the craftsman “in the old sense.” Lawrence’s consistent use of the soft vowel “o” throughout “Piano” gives the poem its unity and resonance. In fact, the mood or atmosphere is very well developed in Lawrence’s poem. “Softly in the dusk,” and “Sunday evenings at home” contribute to the poem’s melancholy and reflective quality. Furthermore, it seems Lawrence writes long sentences that do not want to end anymore than Lawrence wants to end his “flood of remembrance.” It is as if rivers of sentences flow over with emotions which are overcoming him, until he is drowned by his own sorrow in the end.

In the tradition of classical poetry, both Lawrence and Pound are very, very meticulous, but with Pound it can sometimes be too academic. To explain, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is like a jigsaw puzzle: you really have to analyze the words and phrases carefully in and of themselves and also as part of a larger whole before you can see the entire picture and understand the larger themes and psychological gestalt of not so much the poem, itself, but of the mind of the poet. This is the key to understanding Pound. His poems are not so much finished products as they are in flux, as if the poet’s mind is at work and on display, in the moment, now! In this respect, Pound’s approach to poetry is similar to Chinese poetry, which he read and admired and emulated.

For many, Pound may be too innovative and too experimental and maybe even too oriental (too inscrutable?) to be easily understood or liked. And like a jigsaw puzzle, no word in “Medallion” is unnecessary; every word is exact, or else it would not fit. Again, this attests to Pound’s intellectualism, which tends to make his poetry meticulous, if not academic to the average reader. Lawrence was, of course, the more accessible of the two and is actually better known as a novelist. With different personalities and different backgrounds and different intentions, both Lawrence and Pound go back into time: the former to return to the metaphorical womb, the latter to return to a mythical culture. Although the differences between Lawrence and Pound are enormous, both have achieved poetry of the sublime.

End

Here are the 2 poems:

insanity-defense-Ezra-Pound
Ezra Pound (30 October 1885 – 1 November 1972)

Medallion

Luini in porcelain!
The grand piano
Utters a profane
Protest with her clear soprano.

The sleek head emerges
From the gold-yellow frock
As Anadyomene in the opening
Pages of Reinach.

Honey-red, closing the face-oval,
A basket-work of braids which seem as if they were
Spun in King Minos’ hall
From metal, or intractable amber;

The face-oval beneath the glaze,
Bright in its suave bounding-line, as,
Beneath half-watt rays,
The eyes turn topaz.

Lawrence
D.H. Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930)

Piano

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour

Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

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A Provocative Essay on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises by Joe Canuck

HemingwayatBullfights
Ernest Hemingway at the Bullfights

I wrote this essay in the summer of 1981 when I was 21-years-old and taking my first English course at the University of British Columbia. This is the first of three essays that I had to write for an American literature course focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. I am particularly fond of these essays because they bring back good memories. I actually prefer these essays much more than my academic papers, for I believe these essays were creative essays that are as fresh today as they were 33 years ago. It would be, well, “academic,” to reprint some of my academic papers; no one would be interested in reading them. I, myself, haven’t the inclination to read my own academic papers from university — all really dry and boring stuff. But this essay is special. All three essays I wrote for this course weren’t just critiques per se but attempted to be works of art in themselves.

That summer, the summer of 1981, for some reason, remains vivid, maybe because I had been trying to be a writer and I nearly found my voice and style that summer with these three essays. The style and the diction of these essays are closest to my writing style and diction today. Ironically, my subsequent years at university were strictly about fitting in and speaking in the collective and institutional voice. University was not about searching for my personal identity and speaking in my own individual voice. I also remember vividly reading my essays out loud in class, as did everyone else taking the course. It was an unusual approach taken by the Professor and the result was that it brought the class closer together and created a camaraderie that to this day I still remember with great nostalgia.

The name of my Professor was Bickford Sylvester, a truly unforgettable name and remarkable man, though I did not know it at the time. I did a search for him on the Internet and discovered that he is living in Bellingham, which is just south of the Canada/US border, about a 45-minutes drive from my apartment in Surrey. The article I found is dated June 16, 2013, from “The Bellingham Herald.” The newspaper article is entitled, “37 years after contest win, Bellingham man says his dad is still Father of the Year,” and is really more about his son, John Sylvester, and why he thinks his dad (Bickford) is the best dad in the world. It’s a rather sweet and sentimental story that was published for Father’s Day in 2013.

Bickford Sylvester is a well-known and respected Ernest Hemingway scholar and expert. The other two essays that I wrote for him that summer in 1981, incidentally, was on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I hadn’t seen or really thought about Bickford Sylvester in all these years. I am happy to see that one year ago at 87-years-of-age he still looks healthy and alert, though in the photo he has a walking cane. I assume and hope that nothing has changed from a year ago and that he is healthy and alert as before and still, without a doubt and hands down, the best Hemingway expert alive.

Surrey, June 12, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.

the-sun-also-rises-1957
Poster of 1957 film adaptation of the novel

Ernest Hemingway, as we all know or ought to know, was a mucho macho man. Of course, we all know about his big-game hunting expeditions in Africa, his deep-sea fishing off the coast of Cuba. And all of us, or most of us, at any rate, know he volunteered and served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross during World War I. Hemingway certainly crafted an ultra-masculine persona of himself for his adoring fans and public. But do you suppose such a manly man could be impotent?

On a superficial level, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is about a bunch of rich boozers romping around France and Spain sometime during the 1920s. Nothing really exciting ever happens to them until they hit Pamplona, where it is Fiesta time. At the bullfights, and like a cheap Mexican TV soap opera, jealousy and passion cause fistfights to break out between the men vying for the love of Lady Brett, the main female protagonist of the novel. In the end, however, nobody wins because in literature no man ever gets to win the heart of the femme fatale. That’s the novel in a nutshell. But is there anything deeper to this novel than just your boy-meets-girl and boy-gets-girl and then boy-gets-dumped-by-girl story? We shall find out soon enough.

Lady Brett is indeed a femme fatale, if she is not your average slut. She changes men as often as I change underwear. At one time or another, she has had affairs with four of the five major characters in the novel. She has had affairs with Jake, with Mike, with Robert and with Pedro. I wonder how having had so many men, how she doesn’t also have syphilis? Femme fatale, rich bitch, Euro-trash, or whatever you wish to call Lady Brett, she certainly has Jake, the central male protagonist of the novel, wrapped around her fingers. All she has to do is call and Jake comes running like an obedient dog, as this is precisely what he does when Lady Brett wires him to come and fetch her only a few days after she dumped the young matador, Pedro Romero. Incidentally, this scenario of a small clique of young men aimlessly romping and sleeping and whoring around Europe during the post-war years of the 1920s sums up Hemingway’s generation or the so-called Lost Generation to a tee.

At 34-years-of-age, Lady Brett is too old to be a mother, really. In fact, her best years to have a baby have long passed. Whatever Jake sees in Lady Brett, it certainly isn’t the quality of motherhood. However, Jake isn’t thinking of Lady Brett as the future mother of his children. No, Jake isn’t going to fool himself or be a fool; rather, he wants to be fooling around. Fooling around is really fun, but when you’ve got an old war wound that makes you impotent, fooling around can make you look very foolish, indeed. So rather than risk being found out in bed with Lady Brett, Jake tries to be the strong and silent type and feigns aloofness. Actually, what Jake really wants is to be young and virile and 18-years-old again, just like Pedro, the dashing young matador whom Jake secretly admires, even though Pedro is his main rival for Lady Brett’s affections and sexual favors.

But then again, I guess Jake wanting to be a naïve 18-year-old boy who believes he will turn a 34-year-old slut into an honest woman by marrying her is not so ridiculous if the same naïve 18-year-old boy pleases the woman you cannot please because you just can’t get it up anymore. What exactly do I mean by this? Here’s an old Hollywood joke circa the late-1960s that will hopefully make my point more clear and more memorable: Young Warren Beatty in a motel room with a beautiful starlet is speaking on the telephone to the old and aged George Raft: “George,” says Warren, “your erection is ready.”

To be precise, Jake lost his testicles on the battlefields of the Great War (1914-1918). I kid you not. When Jake was wounded in the war, he lost that thing, the thing, which brings not only the most enjoyable sexual satisfaction to a man, but also the most enjoyable sexual satisfaction to a woman. Whether we are honest enough to admit it or not, a man’s ability to attract the opposite sex depends greatly on his ability to make love and reproduce. How can a man feel good about himself if he can’t even get it up? What use was Jake to a sexually voracious woman like Lady Brett if he couldn’t even get an erection? Jake never had a chance with this femme fatale, with this ball-buster, to use the more descriptive vernacular.

Jake was literally ‘damaged goods.’ Thankfully, I personally do not have this problem and so cannot speak from first hand experience, but I would imagine that any man who did have Jake’s problem would really hate life, or himself; or both. No wonder Jake is bitter. If I were in Jake’s shoes, I would be bitter as hell. Of course, there is nothing funny at all about getting your balls blown off. Getting your balls blown off is the kind of thing that makes grown men cry:

“I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around. Then I couldn’t keep away from it, and I started to think about Brett and all of the rest went away. I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in a sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry.” [1]

OK, admittedly, the above passage does not prove that Jake got his balls blown off. I am guilty of being provocative. But then again, if there was nothing physically wrong with Jake, what the heck was really wrong with him? What could explain his self-absorption and maladjustment and misery?

If Jake’s personality was like that of the proverbial shell-shocked war veteran, no doubt it was because he had seen too much shit and was traumatized by it. The ‘shit’ I am referring to is the death and destruction of World War I. Jake was indeed very lucky to have come through that bloodbath alive. But having come through it (minus one or both testicles?) you can never ever be the same. Nor are you ever going to be the same after you’ve seen your buddy’s head explode as the bullet makes impact.

Poor disillusioned Jake. Poor disillusioned Hemingway? Did he have illusions of glory and chivalry in The War To End All Wars? Did he not know that war is about killing and maiming people? But if Jake is disillusioned, he is not the only one. Tens of thousands of young men eagerly volunteered and poured their manhood and blood into the battlefields and trenches of the First World War. And so, like the Vietnam veteran who today suffers from Post War Traumatic Syndrome, Jake also can’t get over the fact that the enemy shot back. Or am I being too harsh on Jake? Am I being too harsh on Hemingway?

Hemingway evidently paid a high price for his volunteerism, if not adventurism in the Great War. Even if he came out of that horrible war with his balls intact, he acted as if they had been blown off. The remainder of his rather long life was engaged in all manner of high-risk activities and any kind of sports that involved killing and maiming animals. He simply and sadly overcompensated. He had a death wish for both himself and others. But in those days people saw it differently and Hemingway was thought of as just being manly and living life to the fullest — that is until that fateful day in 1961 when he blasted his head off with a 12-guage shotgun. Were there any warning signs that he would do such a terrible and bloody thing? It was everywhere and nowhere. The clue is both here and not here in this passage, representative of both Hemingway’s deadpan prose style and deadpan attitude towards life:

“That winter Robert Cohn went over to America with his novel, and it was accepted by a fairly good publisher. His going made a row I heard, and I think that was where Frances lost him, because several women were nice to him in New York, and when he came back he was quite changed. He was more enthusiastic about America than ever, and he was not so simple, and he was not so nice.” [2]

Reading Hemingway’s deadpan if not lifeless dead prose like the above passage, the reader feels that the narrator (Hemingway) can’t get excited about life anymore; and that’s an understatement. Furthermore, the reader suspects something is not quite right in Paris, the famous city of lights and love, when it is described like this:

“It was a warm spring night and I sat at the table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clipperty clopping along the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules [prostitutes] going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal.” [3]

Incidentally, Pedro Romero was more than just a pretty boy in the novel. Pedro represents a masculinity that is foreign and therefore exotic and attractive to Jake (Hemingway) the American. But Pedro’s masculinity is more symbolic than practical, more stylized than spontaneous, more fake than real in other words. In Pedro Romero we have an intoxicating cocktail of eroticism and exoticism, of high drama and real danger, of both glory and gory in the spilling of blood, sweat, and tears in the bullring. Some may disagree and say that the stylized movements and mannerism of the matador are more feminine than masculine, but that’s for another essay entirely. Moreover, the ritualized slaughter and sacrifice of bulls (the bull is a phallic symbol) further complicates an already complicated and complex issue.

In the end, nothing ever seems to satisfactorily explain Jake and what it is he is searching for, if he is indeed searching for anything. They called Hemingway’s generation the Lost Generation, and here it is on splendid display and totally and truly LOST! To say that Jake got his balls blown off is probably too simple and simplistic. Whatever it was that Jake feels he has lost and why he, himself, is lost, adrift and rudderless in life, as it were, we will never know. Jake may or may not have had his balls blown off, we do not know for sure; but we do know with certainty that Hemingway didn’t. The proof is in the fact that Hemingway sired a rather large brood of descendants. He was prolific in life as well as in make-believe fiction and produced a voluminous body of work. By any standard, he was not impotent but very potent. There, I’ve answered my own question and I’m sorry to have led you on, if you had expected an answer in the affirmative.

Footnotes

[1] Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York). Page 31.

[2] Ibid., Page 8.

[3] Ibid., Page 14.

Essay on George Orwell’s 1984 by Joe Canuck

GeorgeOrwell
Newspeak: “War is Peace”

Newspeak is the fictional language in the novel 1984, written by George Orwell. It is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state Oceania as a tool to limit freedom of thought, and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, and peace. Any form of thought alternative to the party’s construct is classified as “thoughtcrime“. (Wikipedia)

Preface

This essay was written in the fall of 1983 at UBC (University of British Columbia) on George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. I found it in my mother’s basement, after being there and collecting dust for more than 30 years. There are a few more essays there. If I ever get around to digging them up, I’ll post them here one of these days, when I have more spare time.

Incidentally, my professor was Dr. Fred Stockholder, who gave me a split grade of B-minus/C-plus on this paper. Dr. Stockholder taught a literature course on the dystopian novel and this was my first essay for the term. The final term paper was on J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting For The Barbarians. This was the 2nd course I took with him. The other course was on the theories of literary criticism. Dr. Stockholder’s comments on this particular essay were: “Disorderly — this paper is filled with good ideas which need development. Go back and read Orwell’s essays. The style, the orderliness of his prose is a good model for so cynical a temperament as the one you displayed here.”

I remember Professor Stockholder well. He was one of the more intelligent professors whom I go along with swimmingly; perhaps this may explain my arrogance, which, along with my “cynical temperament” is also on full display in this essay. If I do say so myself, this paper strikes me as highly implausible for an academic paper. I was 23-years-old at the time, which may mitigate the bad writing.

Rereading my essay, I am rather shocked that I got as high a mark as I did. His comments were equally generous and forgiving. For the sake of clarity, I have slashed quite a bit from the original 10-page essay and rewritten some passages. Despite the heavy editing, some passages still read like a freshman essay. In retrospect, this is probably one of my first attempts at reinventing the essay and or first experiments at writing in the free-flowing, all-knowing voice of the Bard.

Surrey, August 6, 2013

1984

George Orwell’s relationship to the past, to history, and how he uses it in 1984 is more interesting to me than his critique of totalitarianism, which I believe is the standard reading of his famous novel. Like so many of his literary contemporaries, Orwell is obsessed with the past, with, ostensibly, the centre of power and the men who write our history. Hence, his famous dictum in the novel: Those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future. This is the greatest lesson and warning of 1984.

Evidently, the pining for a lost golden age has become a literary convention which, as early as the 18th-Century, was employed by English poets to convey their disaffection for the culture of their own time. And in the 20th-Century, this disaffection for the culture of their own time, or rather, the dissatisfaction with the lack of culture of modern times was most profoundly expressed by T.S. Eliot in his poem “The Waste Land” and by his lesser known contemporary but great mentor, Ezra Pound, in the latter’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Orwell’s novel 1984, too, it seems to me, is pining for a lost golden age.

But this pining for a golden age is made more complex and complicated by the fact that individuals in a totalitarian state are not permitted to have a memory. Everything is controlled in Oceania, where private memories are supplanted by collective memories manufactured by the State. For Winston, “everything faded away into a shadow world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.” Essentially, what you have here is a State induced amnesia and alienation, exactly what the Party must sustain in order to remain in control. However, Winston becomes aware of his past when fragments of his childhood memories resurface after years of being repressed:

“The first fragment of chocolate had melted on Winston’s tongue.The taste was delightful. But here was still that memory moving round the edges of his consciousness, something strongly felt but not reducible to the definite shape, like an object seen out of the corner of one’s eye. He pushed it away from him, aware only that it was the memory of some action which he would have liked to undo but could not.”

Indeed, Winston’s awakening directly corresponds with the surfacing of his subconscious. The faint memory of chocolate from his childhood is a catalyst of this awakening that reaches its climax with Winston’s analysis, if not psychoanalysis of his long repressed dream. For the first time in his life, he begins to question everything. Consequently, he not only gains insight into himself but also into the proles. More importantly, he now understands why he must rebel against the Party, which comes (no pun intended, and not insignificantly) after having sex with Julia.

“The terrible thing that the Party had done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world. When once you were in the grip of the Party, what you felt or did not feel, what you did or refrained from doing, made literally no difference. Whatever happened, you vanished, and neither you nor your actions were ever heard of again. You were lifted clean out of the stream of history. And yet to the people of only two generations ago this would not have seemed all-important, because they were not attempting to alter history. They were governed by private loyalties which they did not question. What mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself. The proles, it suddenly occurred to him, had remained in this condition. They were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another. For the first time in his life he did not despise the proles or think of them merely as an inert force which could one day spring to life and regenerate the world. The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside. They had held on to the primitive emotions which he himself had to re-learn by conscious effort. And in thinking this he remembered, without apparent relevance, how a few weeks ago he had seen a severed hand lying on the pavement and had kicked it into the gutter as though it had been a cabbage-stalk. ‘The proles are human beings,’ he said aloud. ‘We are not human.'”

In time, Winston arrives at a vision of the world not unlike William Blake’s vision. The original innocence of childhood lost and the natural sex impulse distorted, are for Blake and for Orwell, evidence of society and power corrupted. And just as Nature (with capital “N”), for Blake, is the restorative norm, so too, one senses that Winston’s and Julia’s countryside rendezvous and the act of making love is perhaps the closest thing to being natural or normal in Oceania.

“There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it into account.”

ControlWasNotDifficult

Blake, the idiot-savant of English poetry, is blissfully resigned to the universal truth that so long as evil men exist, evil things will be done to the good men and women on this earth. It matters not what form of government or political system is in place. Evil people will do evil things for the sake of simply being evil. Blake puts it concisely in his short poem, “The Human Abstract”: “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor / And Mercy no more could be, / If all were happy as we.” Orwell also comes to the same conclusion as Blake, but is much more prosaic when he writes:

“All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals, and some of them yield important vegetable products such as rubber which in colder climates it is necessary to synthesize by comparatively expensive methods. But above all they contain a bottomless reserve of cheap labour. Moreover, the labour of the exploited peoples round the equator is not really necessary to the world’s economy. They add nothing to the wealth of the world, since whatever they produce is used for the purposes of war, and the object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war. By their labour the slave populations allow the tempo of continuous warfare to be speeded up. But if they did not exist, the structure of world society, and the process by which it maintains itself, would not be essentially different.”

What is described in the above passage is arguably more akin to imperialism than to totalitarianism. Perhaps the two are not that different, not according to Orwell. Whereas the quintessential novel against imperialism is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Orwell’s 1984 is the quintessential novel against a totalitarian police state, against, what, some have argued, England was becoming in the post-war years. (1984 is the inverse of 1948, the year the novel was completed.) Both novels are stridently anti-authoritarian, if not overtly anti-imperialist works of literature in my opinion. Both novels argue against Imperialism and Totalitarianism in their own way, if the two aren’t really the same thing. If it’s the subjugation of an alien race, it is called Imperialism, but if it’s the subjugation of your own race, then it is called Totalitarianism. Same dif’, as we say here in Canada.

In conclusion, Orwell’s main thesis in 1984 is this: Those who rule the world get to write the history. In this respect, Orwell’s obsession with history, with, really, those at the centre of power who write our history, is typical of political writers of his generation. Indeed, the task of politically aware writers such as the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott has been to rewrite history for the oppressed peoples of the 3rd-world and former colonies. In his epic poem of self-discovery called “Star-Apple Kingdom” Walcott writes:

And these groined caves with barnacles
Pitted like stone
Are our cathedrals
And the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
Into marl and cornmeal
And that was Lamentations—
That was just Lamentations,
It was not history

So, truly, it’s relative, as Albert Einstein said it all was. The questioning of history, or rather, the rewriting of it is perhaps the most political and powerful act of dissent, the most dangerous threat to Power, in whatever form that power or system may take. And just as “TWO AND TWO MAKE FIVE” is “newspeak” to Winston, so “DOCTOR LIVINGSTONE DISCOVERED LAKE VICTORIA” was “newspeak” to the sons of the black men who carried the sick and dying Livingstone through the jungle to where he “discovered” the lake. This discovery, of course, is rubbish. Lake Victoria existed long before it was “discovered” and named by the White Man. This is the fallacy and folly of Empire that is exposed by Orwell. Newspeak is now part of our lexicon and I984, is, indeed, a classic novel and important lesson that we should never forget.

Vancouver, 1983

Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: An Appreciation by Joe Canuck

EH 1306N
July 1934 Ernest Hemingway with marlin. Havana Harbor, Cuba. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

This essay was originally written in the summer of 1981 when I was 21-years-old and taking my first English course at the University of British Columbia. This is the last essay of three essays that I had to write for an American literature course focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The Professor was Bickford Sylvester. The first essay I wrote for him was on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, followed by an essay on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and then this third and last essay for him on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

The first two essays were very rebellious essays. I was 21-years-old, after all, and the hormones were still raging. I was also a very angry young man. I was angry that my parents had recently divorced, angry that I wasn’t cut out to be a major league baseball player, angry that I had no clue what I wanted to do with the rest of life, really. I was the proverbial rebel without a cause. I was, in retrospect, like the wild marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. Much to his credit, Bickford Sylvester understood me. And he showed impeccable style and grace, too, which I can now fully appreciate as a mature man. I am 54-years-old or about the same age he was when I first met him in 1981.

Bickford Slyester
Bickford Sylvester

As a matter of fact, not only did he tolerate my arrogance, he was gracious enough to play the part of the old man to my part of the marlin in our little classroom tug-of-war. I somehow understood this at the time, and understand it even more profoundly today, 33 years later. In the end, I submitted to the master and showed him my respect and turned in this essay, my least provocative and most respectful one as a peace offering to him. I am indebted to him for pointing out the symbolism of the old man’s circular journey and the allusions to Christ at Calvary, which were incorporated into my essay and duly accredited to him in the footnotes.

Surrey, June 13, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.

the_old_man_and_the_sea_by_spybunny

There is no room for the meek and weak in The Old Man and the Sea. It is a hash world, indeed, where only the toughest and fittest survive, and this suits Santiago just fine. Santiago, the old fisherman of this sublime final novel by Ernest Hemingway, is probably the toughest guy I’ve ever known. They don’t come any tougher than Santiago. They certainly don’t make men like Hemingway’s Santiago any more — that’s for sure. If nothing else, Santiago’s stoicism sets him apart from the rest of the men in his small Cuban fishing village.

For Santiago, each day is a struggle and each fish caught is a battle and a small victory. In order to scrape by a subsistence living, Santiago must fish every day, alone and in his tiny skiff. But for 84 days in a row he hasn’t caught anything of substance that would give him any sustained sustenance. Beyond merely existing, he hasn’t been put to the real test. He hasn’t been physically or mentally challenged. He hasn’t known what it feels like to be alive, really alive, hyper-alive, for 84 days now. On the 85th day he sets out again, but this time it will be a voyage like no other. His voyage will be a condensed 72-hour version of Homer’s epic Odyssey. Insofar as Santiago’s solo fishing expedition seems more fantastical than believable, more myth than reality, he could very well be the Ulysses of our times.

There is no doubt in my mind that Santiago is a modern day warrior. He is not afraid to go way, way out into the Gulf Stream in search of the big prize, not even during the height of the hurricane season. He will go to the far corners of the earth if he has to. He must! The man is fearless. All he has with him when he goes to do battle with the giants is his pathetically tiny skiff and the bare basics, such as a harpoon and finishing lines. He tempts the Gods too much and on the 85th day the Gods humor him: the grand prize, the big fish he has searched for is found, and for the next 48 hours, he will literally be engaged in a tug-of-war with the biggest marlin he has ever encountered. He will be engaged in the biggest existential threat and toughest battle of his life, too.

The old man gives it his all, and before 48 grueling and bloody hours have passed by, Santiago will single-handedly kill a dolphin, a Mako shark, and two or more Shovel-nosed sharks who got in the way of this epic battle of wills and strength between himself and the big marlin. But really, and fundamentally, the battle is between Man and Mother Nature. Santiago’s trial and tribulations are worthy of sainthood. It was a marathon test of strength and endurance that would have humbled much younger and much stronger men. The triumph of Santiago’s will over physical pain and fatigue is truly transcendental, if not Christ-like.

Santiago is like Jesus Christ in one obvious respect: he, too, is an outcast. He is a prophet among sheep. Santiago’s contemporaries pity him while the younger fishermen do not understand him. His only fan and loyal companion is the young boy named Manolin. It is not clear if they are related or who adopted whom, but the young boy seems to be as devoted to Santiago as much as Santiago is devoted to him. Santiago is like a father to the boy. But more important than this father/son relationship is the master/pupil relationship. Santiago is a mentor to the boy. Santiago is a good teacher and Manolin is an eager pupil. What the boy learns from the old man, no one else can teach him. No one else is cut from the same cloth.

What is Santiago’s philosophy of life? Just what exactly is the boy learning from the old man? Santiago is an individualist: he likes to do things his own way. Santiago is resolute: he will not be dissuaded from doing what he knows he must do. Santiago is a realist: he does not want to kill the marlin, but he knows he must in order to survive. Santiago is steadfast: he suffers from physical aches and ailments, but he does not complain nor will he ever shirk his duty. The boy is in good hands. Manolin will grow up to be a good man.

Although it is true that Santiago does not want to kill the marlin, he knows he has no other choice. (The marlin really ought to get equal billing beside Santiago as the other central protagonist in this novel.) It is either kill the marlin or be killed by it. Life cannot exist without death. This, of course, is a paradox. The tragic tones of this paradox are underlined by the fact that Santiago calls the marlin his brother. Is it not indeed tragic and cruel to kill our “true brothers” to survive? [1]  Another paradox that this short and lovely novel deals with is this: It is through pain and suffering that we truly experience our beings to the utmost degree of intensity. This is why Santiago believes “fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” [2] The old man’s fight with the marlin is terribly painful, but he would not want it any other way.

Furthermore, Santiago believes that “pain does not matter to a man.” [3]  Hence, manliness is measured by how much pain you can endure, for necessary purposes and for the right reasons, of course: Santiago is neither a sadist nor masochist. For men like Santiago, there is an unwritten law that says you do not give in to your pain under any circumstances. Sigmund Freud said suppression leads to neurosis. Perhaps this is why in insane asylums men out number women. In any event, one thing is for certain, Santiago is not insane. However, he doesn’t fit into mainstream society neither. He is wise but his wisdom is ignored. Mainstream society has no room for wise men. Mainstream society is full of men who scorn Santiago. Mainstream men do not wish to labor and sweat like an ox when modern devices and gas-motored boats will make their work and lives easier. Mainstream men see Santiago as an anachronism, as a dinosaur. Mainstream men are lame.

Though small in numbers, Santiago has his admirers. He is called El Campeón (The Champion) or numero uno (number one) by those who appreciate the old man and the old ways and can remember when Santiago walked tall and proud in the village. Soft-minded and soft-bodied fishermen who use buoys rather than sticking to traditional ways and ‘good ol’ fashioned elbow-grease’ don’t get half the respect that Santiago gets, even if that respect is unspoken. But the narrator does not have this problem: he wants us to know that in a world full of common folk, Santiago is singularly uncommon, if not the ideal. Hence, scavenger sharks like the Shovel-nosed are “hateful” and “bad smelling”[4]  but Makos are all right because like Santiago, Makos have “no fear at all and would do exactly what [they] wished.” [5]  If Santiago could be reincarnated, he would probably wish to come back as a Great White Shark, the most feared and fearless top predator of all the oceans. In other words, Santiago is at the very top of the food chain. He is the majestic white king of the deep blue seas.

Of course, men do not want to be weak or to be perceived as weak, especially men like Santiago. I think Santiago would rather die than be weak or be perceived as weak. Nor should real men fear death. The old man is not afraid at all to die, but he will. He is very close to the end of his life and he knows it. This marlin, or what remains of it after the sharks were finished eating it, will be Santiago’s last. Against what’s fair and just — The Gods are cruel — he has brought back the 18-foot-long skeletal remains of the once mighty marlin back to his shack on the beach. Santiago may have won the battle but he has lost the war. He knows this all too well but he does not want our pity. Manolin will be his comfort and legacy. When Santiago dies, he knows that Manolin will take his place. And when it is Manolin’s turn and time to die, you can be sure someone else will take his place, too. So long as men and women procreate, life will be eternal. Death is inevitable; so is life. You cannot stop either death or life. Neither should be feared.

When Santiago dies, the world will continue to turn as always. This is the law of the Universe. Animals sense this intuitively even if they don’t know it intellectually. This is why the marlin makes “a very big circle” just before it dies. [6]  This is also why Santiago’s voyage is circular. Is the old man an archetype? More precisely, is Santiago our redeemer? It was not for no reason that Santiago’s humble fishing trip has miraculous and biblical overtones that allude to Christ at Calvary. [7]  This is sublime stuff. Hemingway is at his very best and spiritual here. He saved the best for last, in this, his final novel and his most mature work of literature. Knowing that the young Manolin will carry on after he is gone, the old man can die in peace. The circle is complete. [8]  The novel ends with Santiago lying down to sleep the eternal sleep. Totally spent from his 72-hour ordeal and odyssey, Santiago quickly fades away dreaming of the magnificent lions he once saw in Africa. Alone and in quiet solitude, he is finally at peace with himself and the cosmos.

Footnotes

[1] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York., p. 75.

[2] Ibid. p. 106.

[3] Ibid. p. 84.

[4] Ibid. pp. 107-108.

[5] Ibid. p.101.

[6] Ibid. p. 86.

[7] Ibid. p. 121.

[8] The circular theme and or circular scheme of Hemingway’s novel is well articulated by Bickford Sylvester in his essay, “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and The Sea” by Bickford Sylvester (Publication of the Modern-Language Association of America, New York, N.Y. 10003, March 1966). p. 132.

An Unwitting Feminist Attack on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night by Joe Canuck

F.Scott.Fitzgerald

This essay was originally entitled, “A Creative Approach to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night” and written when I was 21, in the summer of 1981 or 33 summers/years ago from today. In the summer of 1981, I was taking my first English literature course at the University of British Columbia. This essay was written for a course taught by Bickford Sylvester. I believe he is still alive and would be is his late-80s today. (I did a quick Internet search for him the other day.)

Bickford Sylvester is a well-known and respected Ernest Hemingway scholar who is the emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of British Columbia. He has served on the board of the Hemingway Foundation and the editorial board of the Hemingway Review. In February of this year, his latest book on Hemingway was published: Hemingway, Cuba and the Cuban Works, by Larry Grimes and Bickford Sylvester (Published by Kent State University: February 21, 2014.)

I found this old university essay recently in my mother’s basement when I helped her move house. I didn’t have the heart to trash it. Among all my university essays in my mother’s basement, I also found a copy of one of Bickford Sylvester’s first published essays on Hemingway that he had given the class as a handout for study. Apparently, I also hadn’t the heart to trash his essay neither, all those many years ago. I reread it yesterday, having not laid eyes on it for 33 years. His essay, “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and The Sea” (PMLA, March 1966) is now online.

I wrote 3 essays for Bickford Sylvester but I am particularly fond of this one on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I remember writing this essay, which is quite curious because I wrote a lot of essays at university that I have no memory of writing. This was the second essay that I wrote for Professor Sylvester. The other two essays were on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. In hindsight, his course on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway would have a profound effect on my life that, at the time, I had no way of knowing or realizing until many, many years later.

Surrey, British Columbia, June 14, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.

TenderIsTheNight

Once upon a time, in the summer of 1924, it seemed charm, humor, and money gushed out of Dick Diver with the intensity of a waterfall. At the age of thirty-four, Dick had everything going for him — a beautiful wife, two beautiful kids, and a beautiful villa in the Riviera. Thanks to his wife’s wealth, he literally bought glamour into his life, and into the lives of those who flocked to him. For a while it seemed the good times were never going to end. Like the rest of America, Dick never expected the stock market crash of 1929. Dick never expected the American dream to explode in his face. As the Roaring Twenties passed by; so too Dick, leaving only fragments and shards of a broken man.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night is classic American folklore: the poor boy climbing to the top of the social ladder, succeeding, and, therefore, confirming the superiority of the American way of life. Also euphemistically called the American Dream, the American way of life is ostensibly crass capitalism and mass consumerism, but this critique is nowhere to be found in Fitzgerald’s novel. Instead, we get all the clichés. We get the broad sweeps of the brush but no fine or refined details. People just automatically act and are inexplicably driven to succeed in America no matter what, and we are not told why they act the way they do or why Americans are so obsessed with success and being “winners.” The reader is left to fill in the blanks.

For example, I know that at the turn of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe poured into New York’s Ellis Island hoping to start a new and better life. For these weary and impoverished people running away from oppression and hunger, and also for the millions who came before them, America was the Promised Land. You could be anyone you wanted to be, and do anything that you wanted to do in America. If you were an American, nothing was impossible, improbable, or implausible. These are certainly the clichés and they are unabashedly writ large in Fitzgerald’s novel. But why?

Fitzgerald was not from this immigrant class or ethnic tribe, nor was he a publicist for the Dream Factory a.k.a. the United States of America. So why did Fitzgerald give us a cliché character in Dick Diver, the central protagonist of Tender Is The Night? Why did Dick Diver act like a fresh-off-the-boat Jewish immigrant who was maniacally driven to become a success, maniacally driven to be rich and famous or a ‘big shot’ as they used to say in Fitzgerald’s time? Implicit if not explicit in American culture is that there was something wrong with you if you weren’t a ‘big shot’. (This is an underlying theme or rather recurring psychosis in all of Fitzgerald’s major novels, incidentally.) Did Fitzgerald become a believer and victim or ‘sucker’ of his own fiction?

In any event, Dick Diver was certainly an American who wanted to be a winner and a ‘big shot.’ He wanted to be the best at everything he did. Trained as a psychologist (a peculiarly Jewish-cum-American profession) Dick was not content with being just a good psychologist; he wanted to be the very best. Asked about his goals in life, Dick replied: ‘I’ve only got one, Franz, and that’s to be a good psychologist — maybe to be the greatest one that ever lived.’ [1]  (This American obsession with being the very best and the leader of the pack is actually very Jewish; not that Fitzgerald was necessarily making this point about Dick’s character, if indeed Fitzgerald was conscious of just how Jewish a character he created in Dick Diver. In fact, the entire notion of American Greatness or  “Exceptionalism” is arguably Jewish and Talmudic, as in ‘We are God’s Chosen Ones.’ The quintessential American character is fundamentally Jewish!)

Dick’s mind, however, was not exceptionally brilliant; in the words of the narrator, Dick “had only one or two ideas — that his little collection of pamphlets now in the fifth German edition contained the germ of all he would think or know.”[2]  As a matter of fact, everything Dick Diver did seemed too great to be true, especially his parties. The narrator makes this observation: “The reaction came when he realized the waste and extravagance involved. He sometimes looked back with awe at the carnivals of affection he had given, as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust.”[3]

The truth of the matter is that Dick Diver did have his doubts. As a young man he had asked himself: “God, am I like the rest after all? Am I like the rest?” [4]  Of course, this was the bleak moment of truth. Furthermore and further on in the novel, the narrator writes: “In the dead white hours in Zurich staring into a stranger’s pantry across the up shine of a street-lamp, he used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in.” [5]

In the above quotation, the key word is “wanted,” and it is therefore repeated four times. The narrator, I believe, is suggesting that Dick wanted too much and so, in the end, got nothing. Notice also that the verb “want” is in the past tense. We know what Dick wanted, but it is uncertain what Dick now wants for the future. If Dick does have a future, we are not told about it. What, for example, are Dick’s desires and ‘wants’ for the future? It has been said that people who do not know what they want for the future (because basically they have no future and no hope) eventually commit suicide. This ambivalence about Dick’s future foreshadows his demise. Indeed, when his wife divorced him in 1929, it was just too much for Dick to take. Like the country in which he was born, Dick’s entire world shriveled up like a raisin in the sun. What could never happen happened: The Great Depression! America the Dust Bowl!

What happens to a man when he turns forty? Does his childhood dream of playing baseball in the major league recede like his hairline? Does the zip in his life suddenly fizzle out like soda pop that has gone flat? No one will disagree that life is filled with disappointments, but if you are to continue, you must try your best to fix up your life and look forward to the future. Sadly enough, this simple bit of advice is, for many men, easier said than done. Do you suppose Dick was one of these men who simply gave up on life? And if so, should we have any sympathy for him?

At the age of forty, if Dick had shown more insight into life or more remorse for the things he did wrong in life, he would have been a more sympathetic character. But Fitzgerald will not allow this. Dick will fade away into obscurity unrepentant and true to his American character and mythos. Nevertheless, reading this last sentence in the novel — “Perhaps, so she liked to think, his career was biding its time, again like Grant’s in Galena; his latest note was post-marked from Hornell, New York, which is some distance from Geneva and a very small town; in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.” — I am overwhelmed with pathos.

The final sentence of the novel is, of course, an elliptical sentence and what is unsaid is more meaningful and pitiful than what was actually said. The star that burns the brightest also burns the shortest. How sad and pathetic had Dick’s life turned out to be; how atypical and yet also how typical was Dick’s life in the end? Dick may have been rich and special for a brief period of time and in comparison to the rest of the anonymous men of his generation. But in the final analysis, Dick ended up just as hopeless and as anonymous as millions of other Americans whose careers and families and lives were all destroyed in the Great Depression. Dare I say destroyed in pursuit of the American Dream? Isn’t the American way of life just a big con, a rigged game at best? It was not Fitzgerald’s intention to make Dick Diver an allegory for America, the country, itself; but isn’t it incredibly ironic that he was, all the same?

And now for something completely different….

Judy Campbell, my good friend and sociology major from the University of Hawaii, had this to say about Dick Diver: “One thing is for sure, Dick was having a hell of a time coping. We all know the stereotype: the middle-aged man who abandons his wife and kids to live with a younger woman, and who turns in his station wagon for a foreign and exotic sports car in a desperate and pathetic attempt to be twenty-something again. As for Dick, this description fits him. Take for example the boating scenes near the end of the novel. Dick, at the age of forty, was doing water acrobatics that not even an experienced water-skier would attempt without practice. Unless Dick was immune to the physical deterioration which afflicts all living organisms, Dick was lucky he didn’t die of a heart attack.”

Ms. Campbell shook her head in disgust. Then she continued:

“Think about it. Dick was a loser; he was a failure at everything he did. He wasn’t satisfied with being a good psychologist, no, he wanted to be the best there was. So what happened?  He can’t even cure his wife. When he failed to cure his wife, he failed not only as a doctor, but he also failed as a husband. Dick was never at the clinic when he was needed most. When the anonymous woman-artist died of neurosyphilis, Dick was sprawled out drunk and nearly beaten to death in the back alleys of Rome. His relationship with his children was hardly a flesh-and-blood one. He was a miserable father!

“As a matter of fact, if it had not been for his wife’s money, he never would have been able to open his clinic. So to repay her generosity, he cheated behind her back! He had no true friends to speak of, and when his absenteeism and drinking got out of hand, not even his partner wanted anything to do with him. With no one else to blame, he blamed the closest person to him, his wife. He resented her wealth now, felt it belittled his work. What nerve! Finally, it was best for Dick and Nicole to break up before they stopped being human beings. The divorce was inevitable — the tension was so thick you could cut it. It’s a classic case of male menopause! Isn’t that obvious?”

I looked at Ms. Campbell and smiled. She is still the excitable and emotional person I met a year ago. I thought about what she had said, and then I thought about what my Professor would think about such an unorthodox, if not anti-literary interpretation of this classic American novel. No doubt, my Professor will not be pleased when I tell him that Dick Diver, the hero of one of the better-known novels about the Roaring Twenties and from one of America’s greatest novelists of the 20th Century, was simply a middle-aged man struggling with male-menopause. How banal then was Fitzgerald and his Tender Is The Night?

Footnotes

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is The Night, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, Copyright 1933, 1934, p. 32.

[2]  Ibid., p. 165.

[3]  Ibid., p. 27.

[4]  Ibid., p. 133.

[5]  Ibid., p. 13.