Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 5 [Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper]

The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, translated by Anne Feldhaus

This 13th century devotional text, translated from Marathi, records anecdotes of the life of Gundam Raul, regarded as divine by followers of the Mahanubhava sect. This school, like Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other movements, split from Hinduism, objecting to the traditional pantheon of divinities, the caste system, and the stress of ritual purity and precisely performed sacrifices. The Mahanubhavas are virtually monotheistic and their divine Raul provocatively violated caste and ritual rules
The book consists of 323 short chapters recounting incidents in Gundam Raul’s life. Some are the ordinary stuff of hagiography; miracles including raising the dead, controlling the weather, bringing prosperity to those in his vicinity, and sometimes simply glowing with numinous light. But this is commonplace, universal stuff. What marks Gundam Raul’s particularity is his apparent madness. Apart from his intentional violation of caste, he is constantly playing with sacred images, pretending to ride horses that are really rocks; he scolds a squeaky gate and his own rear end for their noises; he loves food and is not above snatching sweets from others. The locals are sometimes moved to declare, “The Raul is mad, the Raul is possessed.” The book is a lively and entertaining account of the career of a figure whom might equally be viewed as a lunatic or as an enlightened reformer who used theatrical means to bring others wisdom.

Feldhaus does a tasteful job of editing, providing useful background and analysis but in no way overdetermining her readers’ responses. Apart from providing useful information specific to medieval India, her comments led me to read about St. Simeon Salos, the patron of “holy fools” and puppeteers, for, I believe, the first time. His story is a partial corrective for anyone thinking there is no analogue for the Raul or for mad Chinese mountain sages in Christian tradition.

Burney’s Evelina

Though it may seem to have close affinities to Richardson’s novels due to its epistolary form and its theme of a distressed young lady (familiar also from Perils of Pauline and Yuan Dynasty drama), Burney’s novel is ever so much funnier. Evelina is so artificial – surpassingly lovely and motivated by the highest morality, yet often paralyzed by social anxiety and quite passive -- her very helplessness is a sort of absurd exemplar of the restrictions on women in her day. If the jokes such as the Captain’s xenophobia become a bit repetitive, so were most people’s favorite bits of Seinfeld. The same circumlocutions that express the delicacy and sentiment of the Rev. Villars or Lord Orville make Sir Clement ridiculous. The book is as well an example of the common literary dodge of portraying forbidden material by making it, at the end, a negative example, as, in the 14th century Cleanness exhibited the dreadful doings of the Sodomites for readers both to savor and condemn. The author is then not only blameless, but improving to her audience.

The book throughout is comic from Villars’ too-serious (though highly emotional) tone to the marvelous expedient of the old ladies’ race and the ape at the end. Extraordinary coincidences shape the plot from the secret of the heroine’s birth to her chance meetings with her grandmother, brother, and foster sister in turn. Evelina has been read as a sly feminist heroine with Villars as the self-righteous chauvinist heavy, but surely the extreme characterizations are intended as just. Though often paralyzed by self-consciousness, she is the soul of virtue, her innocence and naïveté impenetrable. He is unfailingly high-minded and responsible, a model of sensibility in his devotion to his oh-so-feminine step-daughter.

Burney has great fun mocking Mme. Duval and the Brangtons, but their deepest sin seems not to be their thoughtlessness but their vulgarity. Lord Orville, on the other hand, must be rich and noble and good, but what matters is his courtly manner, inherited from the Renaissance ideal of the courtier as a sophisticated and sensitive lover. It is this primarily that excites Evelina’s admiration of his manly and genteel behavior. In this aesthetic standard the lower classes have very little place. Given sufficient education, keeping a low profile, they might be more or less respectable.

The author and her circle would have had no difficulty in recognizing Sir Clement’s note (purporting to be from Lord Orville) as an “outrageous, a wanton insult” utterly reversing Evelina’s good opinion. The note (which had been designed to offend) merely offered to correspond and expressed affection, but, in a cultural context of fetishized virginity and modesty, with the parameters for proper courtship rigorously defined, any violation signified barbarity, a failure of style but likely a giveaway to base motives as well. It’s a good thing Burney made a joke of the scene, though she had little choice but to live it as well.

Cooper’s Home as Found

Readers of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales will be forgiven for finding the chief appeal of those works in the mythic frontiersman and his Indian side-kick, a pair of a type known through American literature. Each plot, however, has a respectable couple to provide a conventional love story rather like the Marx brothers used to do. In Home as Found these less interesting characters are the entire novel, but, fortunately, given the field, they have divided themselves into the truly genteel and the objects of satire. We can delight in the sharp satire of what he called “this malign influence,” America’s cash-driven “mania” which “has so destroyed the usual balance of things, and money has got to be so completely the end of life, that few think about it as a means. In these days of right-wing demagoguery, I can even sympathize with his observation that “men have got to be afraid to speak the truth, when that truth is a little beyond the common apprehension.” He is on the mark as well about Americans’ restless instability, moving among places (notably Westward) and classes.

The fact is, that, though a major mythographer of America’s frontier, Cooper remained a convinced aristocrat. To Cooper, in spite of the class mixing that may have necessarily occurred in early days, once the land is settled, only a “gentleman” could possess “dignity and fair-mindedness.” Even the foolish and vulgar Aristabulus Bragg, had he only been brought up in “a better sphere,” might have improved and “most probably would have formed a gentleman, a scholar, and one who could have contributed largely to the welfare and tastes of his fellow-creatures.” For many years Cooper’s popularity was far greater abroad (where he lived for some years) than at home. No wonder he quarreled with the American public throughout his life.

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