Edward T. Wheeler

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

By this author

Evil Within

In her essay, “Love of Religious Practices,” Simone Weil addresses the condition of those afflicted by “the ugliness in us. The more we feel it, the more it fills us with horror. The soul rejects it in the same way as we vomit. By a process of transference we pass it on to the things that surround us.”  Persons in such conditon include prisoners in cells, drudge workers in a factory, and patients in a ward or care home. “In this exchange the evil in us increases. It seems then that the very places where we are living and the things that surround us imprison us in evil. . . this is a terrible anguish. When the soul, worn out with this anguish, ceases to feel it any more, there is little hope of its salvation.”

Such dark analysis might serve as a thematic statement for a worryingly good novel, The Rack, by the pseudonymous A. E. Ellis, published almost sixty years ago and at least twice reprinted. Graham Green hailed it as one of the great books, rising “like monuments above the cemeteries of literature.” And he suggested that the novel ranked with Clarissa, Great Expectations, and Ulysses.  My wife called attention to the title when she looked up the website of a favorite author and found the book listed as a shaping influence. “The Rack”? Curiosity (and humiliation – I’ve not heard of it, and Green liked it!) had me ordering a copy and then, slowly and painfully, as befits the work’s title, I read it.

Simply put this is the story of a patient in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the French Alps set immediately following the end of the Second War. Reviewers noted similarity in concept to Mann’s Magic Mountain. But this is not a novel of philosophical discourse. Rather The Rack is a novel of treatment, excruciating clinical procedures, recurring x-rays, painful and intrusive puncturings of the chest wall, and attenuated hope withered by signs of improvement dashed – again and again.

Celastrus orbiculatus

Celastrus orbiculatus or Oriental Bittersweet – what is in a name? The sign signifies for me an elephant gray whorled trunk, perhaps three inches in diameter that has a serpentine strangle-hold on a tree. The vine spirals upwards, branching into many clinging and tangled strands. In the summer, in full leaf, the bittersweet will hide the tree, cover its leaves, and perhaps so weight its host that the tree will topple. The vine struggles up for light, and as it spreads its charming orange-eyed berries blink out of a yellowish caul. These are the apparently innocuous fruits and vines that we happily wreath at holiday time into hoops of Christmas colors – yes, we propagate this invasive pest in just that way – tolerating for its beauty the means of its reproduction.

I spent a few hours yesterday in a part of our property that borders a major road. Bittersweet came to this country from the Far East over a hundred years ago because of its vigorous growth and attractive berries. “it was planted as an ornamental, for erosion control along highways and for wildlife food and habitat” – so declares the Forest Invasive Plants Resource Center. Its delicate white flowers and orange berry fruits contrast against its glossy foliage. Type “oriental bittersweet” into Google and all the entries will point to control and elimination. It is an invasive species most happily adapted to the climate of the North East. It dominates, overgrows, and condemns its hosts.

Quirke and the Mother of Mercy Laundry

Benjamin Black, the noir disguise of Booker Prize winner John Banville, has returned us to 1950s Dublin and to its genteel but menacing mean streets. Even The Dead is the eighth in the series of detective fictions which follows the life of the functioning alcoholic and pathologist Dr. Quirke. A peculiar family history and the established powers of the church and government burden Quirke. Of course, family and church and politics are in league; the revelations of that alliance challenge the doctor and in some cases imperil him through his many professional years.

Black/Banville has layered remarkable complexity in developing Quirke’s character over these eight books. It would be a long paragraph to summarize them here, but the complications are as much a part of recreation of an Ireland of sixty years ago as the murders and violence that Quirke and his ally Inspector Hackett confront.

Quirke is burdened by a past: he was raised in a brutal orphanage, “adopted” by a powerful judge, well educated in Ireland, and as a doctor in Boston. His melancholy and self-doubt ground his alcoholism, just as the death of his beloved wife leads to his profound sense of loss. Not quite a Byronic figure, but certainly a man who would appreciate the notion that he is an ironic approximation of one. Quirke’s every pleasure is won from guilt and every self-assertion a claim for respect from an authority that will mock him. His compassion is his hair shirt. It is to strong women that he turns to face himself in their eyes.

Knowledge of Angels

Knowledge of Angels—an objective or subjective genitive? What angels know or what one knows of angels? The ambiguity of the expression, the title of Jill Paton Walsh’s remarkable novel (1994), poses a theological problem that teases throughout its pages. The author takes the issue head on in a disarming preface which promises us as readers the knowledge of angels, as we read this book and indeed virtually every text: “the position of a reader...is very like that occupied by angels in the world, when angels still have any credibility.” Note those sly tenses—“is” “still have”.

Jill Paton Walsh is veteran novelist; you might know her as the author of Peter Wimsey novels (which continue those of Dorothy Sayers) and of a score of children’s books. Knowledge of Angels was short-listed for the Booker prize when it appeared over twenty years ago, and reveals the author’s deep engagement with her Catholic faith. It is, for want of a better term, an allegory, the quest of a devout cardinal/prince for the assurance that the knowledge of God is both innate and discoverable by the application of reason. Such are the beliefs in the imagined fifteenth century, pre-reformation island world, presided over by Serveo. He is a just and learned lord, whose life is disrupted by two extraordinary events: the arrival of a mysterious cast-away who against all odds survives a fall from a ship to swim to the island’s shore, and the discovery of a feral child, suckled by wolves, and isolated virtually from birth from human contact. The cast-away declares himself a prince and, more troublingly, an atheist from a far-off land, unknown to the inhabitants of the island. The child, savage and without language, is more beast than human, eats only raw flesh, and attacks any who approach.

Serveo, in an act he ultimately comes to see as testing all his easy assurances, determines to conduct a trial: was the child born with an innate realization that God exists? Can his close friend and theologian Beneditx lead by reason the foreign atheist to the acknowledgment that there is a God. We have then a novel of ideas, worked out between Beneditx, the believe, and Palinor, the foreign atheist. In the latter we meet a tolerant, broad-minded ruler, now dispossesed of his kingdom by his chance fall into the sea. He converses ably in Latin, understands the arguments of his monk /educator Beneditx, and who lives an ethical materialist code—one might say a secular humanist, respectful but rejecting of the arguments for belief. Indeed so gracious an interlocutor is he, the Beneditx is increasingly drawn into admiration—as is the Cardinal Serveo. The caveat: atheism is punishable by death on the island.

"Romeo and Juliet" in Hartford

Hartford Stage’s production of Romeo and Juliet countered the effects of an icy Sunday afternoon. Happily the focus on young love had an effect on the age of the audience. There were many below sixty-five. The stage design was puzzling – an apparent back drop of large forms for pouring concrete, for some reason inset with flower sconces and lights – but then with the help of program notes it became clear. We were looking at crypts, stacked tomb enclosures that reached to the height of the curtain. Mourners who formed a mute chorus populated that back of the stage in many of the scenes, attentive to the players down-stage. We were not to forget the trajectory of the action: the maw of death.  My wife had to remind me that the costumes and design were inspired by post-war Italian neo-realist films (She read the program carefully.), and so the initial scene involving the brawl between the Monatgues and Capulets (“I do bite my thumb.”) made sense: street thugs taunting each other with shining knives, not sword blades.

Darko Tresnjak is a formidable director and designer. He made the setting work, certainly more so as the play evolved. Whether this is a look back to West Side story or not, the rivalry between the houses makes sense in a mean street context.

On the simplest level, I am continually admiring of actors’ feats of memory in learning lines. Surely the energy of passion has to drive the delivery, especially with the overwrought desires and fears of the speeches. Anyone who remembers reading Romeo and Juliet in school will attest that Shakespeare doesn’t always yield sense easily – especially in the punning interchanges of courtly love or in the confessions of longing or despair.

Memento Mori

We took an uncharacteristic winter break: seven days in Florida. New England weather has been mild, but today a winter storm is filling up the path to the house and the garden with wet, heavy snow. The air is white with it. Thirty-six hours ago we sat in eighty degree weather listening to the carillon at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wells, a nature retreat given to the nation by a publishing magnate.  The Spanish  Moss on the live oaks filtered the sun, palm trees and magnolias added to the canopy, and what are for us summer bedding plants bloomed in the borders. A garden Idyll.

Banjaxed

The front cover board of David Mitchell’s new novel, Slade House, is cut out in a squat rectangle to reveal on the facing page an intricate geometric design, the plan of the eponymous Slade House. Open the cover and even more detailed and cryptic symbols, faint scripts, and maze-like divisions are inscribed on the plan and suggest that the site will be mysterious, nay, nefarious. It is. The design promises revelations, but you have to squint to make out the signs. That in a way is the effect of the novel as a whole: psychic eye strain.

Readers of Mitchell’s previous, The Bone Clocks, will recognize the source of Slade House’s conflict, a spiritual war between the forces of light and darkness, delivered in the energetic, multi-voiced style that has made Mitchell such an entertaining writer:  witness Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. For whatever reason Mitchell has turned his imagination towards supernatural struggle, waged by Atemporals, those few individuals whose great power allows them to defy mortality by feeding on the souls of the “engifted” to preserve their shape-shifting lives. Their adversaries [particularly one Horologist, Marinus] equally powerful, but for the plot’s sake, fewer in number, muster a reactive defense, determined to stop the disappearances unto death of the victims of those who follow “the shaded path.” They have compassion, respect life, and have resources that appear to give hope for the future. (God is not present to assist.)

A reader gets hints of the larger superstructure loosely governing this duel of giant forces  whose combat literally swallows up hapless mortals. There are ancient savants, sites of power hidden in far lands, and, it would appear, schools of learning that allow the haughtiest of actors to speak with the condescension of all arch-villains. How much is camp, how much nudges and winks us into complicity? Is Mitchell wrong-footing us throughout with his apparently technical vocabulary: psychovoltage, orisons, and banjax?

Body of An American

We went to the Hartford Stage to see a performance of The Body of an American which will run there until the end of January. The play offered a great deal in a ninety minute, two-man performance. I scarcely felt the time pass, so quick and intense the shifts in characters’ voices and in the vignettes from the life of the photo-journalist , Paul Watson [Michael Cumpsty], who is the focus of the play. The playwright, Dan O’Brien, as his character [Michael Crane] makes clear, found Watson’s reporting from war zones, scenes of genocide, civil conflicts, and Artic Canada unavoidably compelling. He engaged in email correspondence and phone calls in an attempt to know the man who had taken such risks and witnessed appalling modern conflicts. The characters then offer the playwright’s personal search and the photographer’s response to his troubled experiences.

To make compelling theatre out of a series of stage interviews, by phone, email and finally in person, is a testimony to O’Brien’s art. The canny use of projected visuals and remarkable sound effects helped suspend disbelief. But in fact there was a distancing reassurance in the play’s mechanics, its notion of being a made thing. This was an imitation of an action – and with Aristotle in mind, there was a conflict, complication, and a muted climax, or perhaps series of high points.

The work of getting the story told, which could have caused awkward exposition, appeared effortless, in part because of the pace of the play and the ease with which the actors changed roles, dove-tailed their lines, and gave convincing portrayals.

Powder Treason

I had The Year of Lear for a Christmas present. This is James Shapiro’s extraordinary account of 1606, the year in which Shakespeare wrote Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. As he did in his earlier 1599, Shapiro puts the Bard in living context. I stress living in that the pressures, political, financial, religious and artistic that the critic discusses allow us to see Shakespeare as a working artist – as responsive to his times as say Miller was in writing The Crucible. The themes of the plays, the conflicts the playwright engages, in Hamlet’s words: “[hold] a mirror up to nature: to show...the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shapiro takes us into the expectations faced by Shakespeare and his company, the King’s Men. The Royal demand for entertainments stretched the repertoire of the players. Shakespeare broke years of silence to pen Lear in the context of James’ push for union between England and Scotland, and he wrote Macbeth in part as a response to The Gunpowder Plot.  The latter event had the king, as Shapiro notes, deeply distressed and frightened of further armed rebellion. How was he to deal with the violent discontent of recusant Catholics and the excommunication issued by the Pope? What license did the Pope appear to be giving to his Catholic subjects? That the playwright should find a form of exploration in The Scottish Play says much – about James’ concern for possession by the Devil, the torments of conscience, and the brutality of a mind reduced to the will to destroy.

Shapiro devotes almost two chapters to a consideration of the Gunpowder Plot. I had paid little more attention to this event than as the occasion of Bonfire Night and the epigraph of Eliot’s The Hollow Men.” But in Shapiro’s clear presentation of the conspiracy I realized that had the Plot been successful, the King, his chief ministers, Lords spiritual and temporal, virtually all those responsible for running the state, and thousands of attending citizens (Shapiro tells us that contemporaries saw as many as 30,000 at risk.) would have perished in an effort to restore Catholicism to the country and establish James’ wife, a convert to Catholicism, on the throne.

Genesis 3:16

It is not too far a stretch to say that Anne Enright’s Booker Prize winning The Gathering (2007) is a gloss on this verse from Genesis.

To the woman he said, “I will multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”

Here is Veronica, the forty year old narrator, an Irish middleclass mother of two, reflecting on her mother’s life.

[My father] did love my mother. There is always that unpalatable fact – the fact that my father loved my mother, and she loved him right back. But he did not love her enough to leave her alone. No. My father, I imagine, had sex the way his children got drunk – which is to say, against his better judgement; not for the pleasure of it, so much as to make it all stop.

The result: twelve children and six miscarriages. Veronica’s vision sees sex as a force to be managed, one that takes its toll, and leaves a woman burdened. Paradoxically, sex produces the children that are her joy, the living extensions of herself. In her ordeal, and this book traces Veronica’s ordeal, her husband is estranged by his very desire. What will he do “to make it all stop”? Veronica can imagine the worst, just as she condemns herself for such imagining.

Being a mother, a spouse, and a sibling in so large a family, is an issue that wraps itself around a secret—indeed, a putative crime. We learn in the novel’s first line that: [Veronica] “would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event.”

She does finally write “it” down; the impetus is the death by drowning, a suicide, of Liam, Veronica’s younger and closest brother. “The uncertain event” is the cause, so Veronica comes to believe, of self-murder.