Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus]

Romance of the Forest (Radcliffe)

Radcliffe’s novel has plenty of romance, raised to a high pitch the first half by Adeline’s distress at unwilling confinement and the threat of sexual exploitation. This exquisite but frustrated affection continues in the second as the true love that arises in the midst of her perils is then transformed into anxiety over the fate of her champion, unfairly condemned to death. Throughout the narrative, she has ample motive to weep and to swoon. The language, especially between lovers, is stilted and highly artificial – though I do recall an article demonstrating that actual fainting was apparently common during the age of the “man of sensibility,” so perhaps the delicate circumlocutions are all drawn from life. There are plenty of rhapsodic descriptions of wild landscape as well as Gothic ruins with endless rooms upon room, secret passages and all the machinery of the late eighteenth century thriller. A good number of the poetic quotations that head each chapter are drawn from Collins. The word “romance” is used often in a self-conscious reflex.
Yet the warm glow of Enlightenment confidence plays over the Romantic landscapes, and La Luc, Radcliffe’s philosopher, reminds the reader of Rasselas or Candide with his wise moderation.
Coleridge developed his notions on the “willing suspension of disbelief” specifically to defend artificial “romance” settings and plots, and to advocate for the free use of the supernatural in literature. This narrative, while it only plays with the metaphysical, pays scant heed to realism or even plausibility. Radcliffe did not even attempt to make the scene convincingly French, but then, millions are about to relish the concluding episode of the television series Breaking Bad which, its gritty detail notwithstanding, is altogether fantastic.

The Red and the Black (Stendhal)

Stendhal managed to make of Sorel a complex and satisfying antihero. He seems at first an absurdly mistaken provincial Napoleon, seeking advancement through his wits while pretending piety and love without any authentic feelings whatsoever. Utterly cynical and self-interested, interested only in self-advancement, still he regards himself as a person of the highest honor and standards. He wonders in prison whether he has acted the egotist and concludes “I abandoned a simple and modest merit for what was brilliant.” Thinking “I have loved the Truth,” this most hypocritical of men laments that he could find only hypocrisy in the wider world, little suspecting that each of the others who strike him as so fraudulent, may seem, no less than our hero, subjectively a wronged lover of the truth.

Whereas Samuel Richardson would have seen no moral ambiguity in the case of this ruiner of two women, their will no match for their passions, Stendhal constructs a more radical vision in which no one stands outside corruption. The epigraphs from Don Juan encourage a comedic/satiric reading until the sudden attack on Madame de la Renal, so injurious to Sorel’s own interests, irresistible and foolish as anything that those he felt so far above had done. Human character is finally revealed, not as wickedly duplicitous and cunning, but as blundering, absurd, and blind.

Colloquies (Erasmus)

Ordinarily, the most literary quality of the compositions written for language learners is a certain oddity. Yet the Colloquies, written at first simply for teaching Latin, are perhaps the best introduction to Erasmus’ work. In the fifteenth century, the great Christian humanist demonstrated that orthodoxy may coexist with tolerance rather in the style of the current pope. This benign regard for the follies of humanity extends in fact to such church-sanctioned activities as pilgrimages, exorcisms, and elaborate funerals. Erasmus regularly discerns the truly spiritual, at least what works for those of an intellectual cast of mind, and the polish of his Latinity signifies the high standard of his character.

The Colloquies are incidentally valuable as vignettes of sixteenth century life. In his piece on “Inns,” he describes the world of the Renaissance hospitality industry with color and humor. His piece on pilgrimage includes a catalogue of marvelous and magical stones as well as detail on religious practice. His anti-war “Charon” at once reflects its historic origins and speaks eloquently to today.

But the appeal of the collection is its free-ranging variety from a highly original takes on courtly love (“The Wooer and the Maiden”) and the pastoral with his servant playing Cyclops (“Cyclops, or the Gospel Bearer”) to a house party at the most civilized country estate ornamented with both nature and art (“The Godly Feast”). It is difficult to escape the conviction that Erasmus sought salvation from his sense of beauty as well as from his sense of the divine.

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