Saturday, September 30, 2006

Dream: Silent attachment, anguish, and appeal

I was participating in a special service at my old church, where I was to read from a book. Suddenly, though, after reaching the platform, I had to go to the bathroom. I didn't know when I was supposed to read and didn't want to miss the opportunity, but I couldn't wait any longer and so I left.

To my horror, I found an odd-looking child with curly hair with me. I couldn't tell whether it was a boy or girl, and it had a large head and small body like a cartoon. The child didn't say anything but would not leave me. I thought I would be accused of abduction.

I found myself in a maze of hallways. This appeared to be a new building, constructed since my last visit in the place where the pastor's house used to be. I could see the parking lot at one point, although there did not appear to be windows. The walls were natural pine, complete with knotholes. Graffiti, mostly in white, covered them, which shocked me as I could not imagine the kids at the church treating it with such open disrespect. I tried to read it to see if it were at least spiritual in nature, but I couldn't.

I found the bathroom, but as is usual in my dreams, it was odd and required decisions about cleanliness, privacy, etc. By this time I was carrying the child, who seemed utterly attached to me. As I sat in a stall with no door, still holding the child, a man came toward me. I thought somehow that this child's father had lost his wife (the mother?) and had remarried. The man, the father, took the child from me wordlessly as I sat there.

When I came out, unsure if I'd missed the time for my reading, I looked down and saw that my formerly fresh yellow dress was streaked with lines of embedded dirt. I did not know how this could have happened, but between the father's silent accusation, the child's unspoken attachment and anguish, and the mysterious ruin of the dress, I wanted to fade away.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dream: "Magic Carpet Ride"

I was in a cave when a motley group of people roller skated by me. They seemed happy, and Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" was blasting. Someone told me that this was or would be the best movie ever and that I should join in. I can't roller skate, but I did. Perhaps I was running, but it felt like fluid motion. Then I learned that there was or had been a powerful vampire in a refrigerator, and someone had or was about to let him out. Now there was a sense of terror, although it was subtle and perhaps only I really felt it. Then I saw someone who looked more like a cat-like creature operating on a bag, and I had a feeling of foreboding. Suddenly metallic but animal teeth snatched the operator into the bag, and I was now terrified. The music and the flow of the skates never stopped.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Review: The Mysterious Island

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. Recommended.

After reading The Mysterious Island, I wonder how much Jules Verne's current reputation is based on 1950s and '60s movies loosely—very loosely—adapted from his novels. In this book, there are no giant crabs or bees, or aliens, or even women. There are five men and a dog seeking to escape besieged Richmond during the Civil War who are carried off in a balloon by hurricane winds to an uncharted island in the Pacific, where they find and make what they need to survive.

The "colonists," as they style themselves to avoid the negative connotations of "castaways," are an improbable assortment, each man having knowledge or skills that complement those of the others. Cyrus Harding, the engineer, is not only a bottomless well of information about mechanics, chemistry, navigation, and other practical topics, but is also a natural leader. Gideon Spillett, the reporter, is an expert hunter. Pencroft, the sailor, knows shipbuilding and is a willing worker, while his teenage ward, Herbert, is a knowledgeable naturalist and able hunter. Harding's servant, Neb, plays the role of cook and domestic, while Harding's dog, Top, provides keen senses and instinct. When Verne wrote, "It would have been difficult to unite five men, better fitted to struggle against fate, more certain to triumph over it," it cannot have been without some sense of irony, since he is the one who brought them together in his imagination.

While a mysterious influence, whose acts are ambiguous at first but become more tangible over time, rescues the settlers or provides them with just what they need just when they need it, the real mystery of the island is the island itself. Perhaps Verne misunderstood or misused common names; he calls Jup's troop both "orangutans" (apes) and "baboons" (monkeys). He might have been pandering to a Victorian taste for the exotic. The island that the settlers call "Lincoln" for their wartime president is an impossibility of nature. Creatures from nearly every continent and ecosystem roam among an equally unlikely mixture of geological formations and collection of plants. Onagers from the Asian steppes and Middle Eastern deserts, koalas (described as "large" and speedy) from Australia, jaguars from Central and South America, orangutans from the Borneo rain forest, and musmons from isles of the Mediterranean are among Nature's bounty found on this small temperate island. Here, tropical apes, cats, and parrots survive below-freezing winters as easily as the musmons and goats.

The mineral riches are equally diverse, but even as he wonders about this paradise, Harding tells his comrades, "Nature gives us these things. It is our business to make a right use of them," signaling the beginning of man's never-ending quest to conquer and destroy nature. Even the water must be tamed; the settlers must "borrow its power, actually lost without profit to any one."

Under Harding's leadership, and with the occasional help of the island's secret benefactor, the colonists build an incredible infrastructure that provides them with shelter, water, food, clothing, power, tools, and weapons. Harding is not the leader because he is rich, good looking, charismatic, well spoken, or the other things that appeal to civilized man; he is the leader because he knows what to do and how to do it, and has faith in his ability to do it—and because he has intelligent followers in whom he can instill that same faith. The lack of discord among the colonists is as unlikely as the flora and fauna, but it may be Verne's commentary on leadership when it is most needed. When an important decision must be made, Harding refuses to make it without obtaining the opinions of all concerned, including his own servant. Taken away from civilization and its layers of social, moral, and other complexities, and forced into a situation where able leadership and willing cooperation mean not only survival but comfort and satisfaction, these men rise to the occasion. It is no coincidence that the impetus for the arrival on Lincoln Island is the Civil War, one of America's bloodiest, most savage times.

In the afterword, author Isaac Asimov tried to determine the appeal of "robinsonades" like Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Mysterious Island. He came to the conclusion that such tales answer the question, "What do I do if civilization fails me?"—a question that could apply to castaways on an uncharted island or survivors of a civil war or a nuclear or chemical/biochemical holocaust. Perhaps, though, the question is more basic than that. It might be, "Do I need civilization at all?"

While the North and South were counting and burying their dead and trying to heal the nation—a process that in some ways has not been completed—Harding and his group were using both their minds and their hands to shape a near-paradise (interestingly, one in which tobacco is missed sorely, but not women).

The Mysterious Island starts off slowly; too much ink is dedicated to Pencroft's desire to kill eat every creature they encounter, and the characters can seem psychologically shallow and limited to a mature reader. At some point, however, I found myself so interested in Lincoln Island that I, like the colonists, was reluctant to leave it. I was even disappointed by the ultimate fate and home of the settlers, as it did not seem the right place for them to be. While not a literary masterpiece, The Mysterious Island does not need giant crabs, bees, or even women to be a good story of its kind.

Monday, 25 September 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Dream: My new room, husband, and boys

While showing guests my apartment, I found a huge room that I had forgotten about. It had hardwood floors, a solid walls of windows that was two stories high, and good but mismatched furniture (including the longed-for sofa). There were even a single-bowl sink and a door that led to a deck with the trash.

On the room's many shelves, tables, and stands, I found things I had forgotten were missing. Then I discovered teas and biscuits that were growing mealy bugs and tried to rush them out to the convenient trash as they were the room's only imperfection I could see.

Although the room had a television, I told someone that if it had a cable connection I would like their help moving my TV from the living room into this room. Subconsciously I saw myself moving into this room altogether.

I asked for assistance washing a mountain of dishes. It was really difficult with the single-bowl sink, and the two drain boards were small, pointed the wrong way, and dirty from disuse. I had no way to organize the dish washing, rinsing, and drying, and I became so frustrated that I almost cried. The water smelled and tasted terrible, too, and I wondered if that could be fixed.

Then we noticed that the room communicated across a divider, not quite a hallway, with a modern, frosted green glass room. I went to slide the doors shut, but someone from the other side was doing it already, a bit huffily. The glass walls went only part way up, though, but my wall was solid; I'm not sure how this worked with the narrow divider hallway. I decided that it was a conference room since it was so modern and offered no privacy.

I came back to find nearly everyone gone but a person (not sure of gender), who was my husband, apparently, and two boys who turned out to be my late husband's orphans. I did know them at first and feared them, but found they were loyal and devoted to me. They were the boys that I had always wanted.

Somehow the the topic became someone else, a friend of theirs perhaps, who needed to be told about birth control, at least I thought so. I'm not sure what the other remaining people thought.

Then the husband (I didn't remember having one, like I didn't remember having the boys) started talking to me about our children, the religion we would raise them in, and so forth. I saw the two loyal boys who were virtually my own and then thought of the spiritual responsibility for children of my own. I was also confused at having this person in my life whom I didn't know or even recognize. "Perhaps we should have discussed these things more before we got married," I said. "I am 45 and did not think to have children at this point." The person seemed stunned, although I could never quite see the face. The boys and the person then faded away, and they took the room with them.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Test Drive Unlimited

"I want it all . . . now." This darling quote is from a commercial for a video game. A sleazy-looking young man postures in front of endangered cat skins and brags about his "ladies" while fondling them and then going on to mention how he's "all hot"—all in a very odd, very girlish voice. Captions of "unlimited mansions," "unlimited cars," "unlimited money," etc., roll by. "I want it all . . . now. Right, Eugene?" he says to an equally sleazy-looking young man with a mindless babe hanging off him. Eugene answers in the affirmative in an equally weird, equally girlish voice.

And this game so charmingly advertised is deemed "appropriate" for "10 years old and up." Apparently, as long as there's no violence, greed and utter lack of scruples are okay for young children. Apparently it's worked for so many of our so-called leaders.

So if you've got a 10-year-old who's "all hot" to the ladies and who "wants it all now," legal or not, moral or not, ethical or not, and if you want to feed his worst impulses, then you'll want to get this game for him. But don't be surprised if, in five years, you get a late-night call about bail money.

Or in 20 years he wins his first election.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Dream: Vistas and vultures

17 September 2006

I was in a darkened room next to an accountant or actuary, discussing some numbers. I noticed a side window covered by a thick curtain with bright edges of light. I felt closed in, so I opened it. The window looked out onto an endless vista, with a few rows of colorful bushes filled with tightly packed flowers across from the window. I was shocked because there was supposed to be a home there. I couldn't believe the vista. Then I turned to find a second window in a perpendicular wall. It was like home, with the window in the extra room that faced the trailer across the driveway and the rear window that overlooked the back yard. The other person had joined me, and we saw fantastic, colorful birds that didn't seem real but did resemble real species. Then, at the rear of the yard, I spotted three very large, slightly cartoonish birds. "Raptors!" I exclaimed, or perhaps it was "Falcons!" or "Hawks!" When I looked again more carefully, I realized that the one in the middle was what would have been called a buzzard in a cartoon but it was really a vulture with a thick bill. This seemed important, but I hoped the accountant/actuary wouldn't notice. Perhaps it was a bad omen, perhaps I still wasn't sure, or perhaps I didn't want him to know that in my enthusiasm I had been mistaken.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. Highly recommended.

I had not seen the movie of The French Lieutenant's Woman until recently, so I did not know what to expect from the novel. I thought it might be a romantic thriller set during one of the world wars and was surprised to read a book set in one of my favorite English periods, the Victorian, written from the perspective of the late 1960s.

The waning aristocracy is represented by Charles Smithson, dilettante and heir to his aging, unmarried uncle's wealth and title. His bride-to-be, Ernestina Freeman, heiress to the fortune her father has accumulated at his enormous London emporium, represents the rising, affluent middle class. While Charles and Tina seem to share the idealized Victorian view of marriage and family life, they are also keenly aware that their engagement is a legal contract that will benefit each of them in different ways. After Mr. Freeman's death, Charles will gain control over the family's money. For Tina, marriage means an entrée into the aristocracy, elevating her above being a mere "tradesman's daughter."

This is only one of many Victorian dualities that Fowles highlights; he is not subtle about his theme. Darwin's theory, as seen by the science dabbler Charles, is as harsh as practitioners of Christianity like Mrs. Poulteney. The advantage of evolution seems to be its lack of bias and judgment. Charles, unwilling or unable to adapt to a changing society in which money is coming to matter more than manners, is as much a victim of evolution as Sarah appears to be of the hypocritical morality of Mrs. Poulteney's religion.

Idealized Victorian life centered on the home and family. The poem that Ernestina reads to her contracted lover is about a sterile, lofty form of love devoid of real passion—and it promptly puts Charles to sleep. According to Fowles, it was believed that respectable women merely tolerated men's carnal desires, but did not share them. Ernestina "must not" think about such things, even though they are natural. Nature is to be controlled. She is shown mostly within the confines of her aunt's house or social settings. In contrast, Sarah Woodruff, the French lieutenant's woman, is first seen at the end of the seawall, in the wind, exposed symbolically to the world. Later, Charles discovers her "on that wild cliff meadow"; at some point, he "recalled very vividly how she had lain that day." Charles sees her in a way in which he will never see Ernestina; she is sleeping openly in a natural position which is, not surprisingly, sexually suggestive.

If the close-minded, tightly clothed Ernestina represents the Victorian marriage-and-family ideal, Sarah seems to represent the unspoken male ideal, at least for men like Charles—a natural woman, a woman of intelligence, of spirit and independence, who is not afraid to shun the ideal in favor of the real, to prefer passion to posturing. Her interactions with Charles make the "love" of Charles and Ernestina seem like the play-acting of children. Even with Sarah, however, Charles cannot escape the duality of his perceptions and desires. "He was at one and the same time Varguennes enjoying her and the man who sprang forward and struck him down; just as Sarah was to him both an innocent victim and a wild, abandoned woman."

While Ernestina sees herself in the perfect Victorian marriage—one in which love is pure, and carnal demands are submitted to primarily to produce the ideal family—Fowles shows some of the alternatives. There is the prostitute mother, for whom sex is a mechanical means to the end of supporting herself and her child. There is Mrs. Tomkins, intent on producing the rich heir to what would have been Charles's title and inheritance. There is Mary, and the servants and country girls like her, who see sex as a way to land a man but who also seem to enjoy it for its own sake. There is Mrs. Poulteney, whom one can never imagine experiencing love of any kind, pure or not. There is the sexualized Sarah, the French lieutenant's whore, whom Charles encounters in the wild, in a natural state unencumbered by social expectations. There is also the Sarah of one proposed ending, the sophisticate artist's assistant in London, committed to her single status and her freedom.

The narrator often intrudes into the story, deliberately undermining it. Just as the reader may be getting wrapped up in the odd, tension-filled relationship between Charles and Sarah, the narrator interjects a comment from contemporary times; words like "computer" clash with the old-fashioned stays of Mrs. Poulteney's dress and the limits of her mentality. While drawing us into the Victorian world, the narrator pulls us back with his ironic, detached commentary on what he wants us to understand is fiction if not fantasy. Charles and Sarah are no more real to a man of the 1960s than the mores of Victorian society.

While the Victorians may have feared the power of sex and desire, the narrator points out that we have succeeded where the Victorians did not of stripping sex of that power. He notes that, by his time, any relationship that is more than casual quickly becomes sexual. For Charles and Sarah, the tension is cumulative, building to a proportional climax. By the 1960s, Charles would simply have dumped Ernestina and gone to bed with Sarah as a matter of routine, transforming sex into as casual an activity as changing the sheets. It is instant impulse fulfillment, which is no more satisfying than ongoing denial without release.

The French Lieutenant's Woman is filled with philosophical, historical, religious, scientific, and literary references that alone make it a fascinating novel. They reveal the numerous and often conflicting ideas that made Queen Victoria's time, a time of evolution, so vibrant and complex. With its twists on the conventional novel and love story and its sweeping perspective, The French Lieutenant's Woman is a remarkable achievement in 20th-century literature.

Sunday, 17 September 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.