This Week in My Classes (March 10, 2009)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, it’s time for ‘A’ is for Alibi. I have fun with this one, putting as much interpretive pressure on it as I can to test our Reverse Thurber principle (in our very first reading for the course, “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” he shows it can be comical to read ‘real’ literature as detective fiction, while we turn the tables and read genre fiction as seriously as we would read MacBeth) . Will any of these novels collapse under the pressure? I’m helped a lot in this case by the fun Grafton is having playing with hard-boiled detective conventions as well as gothic and romance. That kind of self-consciousness is a critic’s good friend. I’ve been emphasizing the novel’s chronology, which places the story in the context of changes in gender politics and roles, particularly within marriage: the victim’s first wife marries him in 1957; they are divorced in 1970 (leaving her with bitter memories of her life as a Barbie doll); he is found dead in 1974 and his second wife is accused of the murder. Though she hires Kinsey Millhone to prove her innocence, she too recalls the deceased as controlling. I proposed last class that the poor fellow is doubly victimized, not only as the actual murder victim, but as the scapegoat for patriarchy. How much sympathy, if any, this earns him is another question: Grafton has said she devised the novel as a way to profit from her own revenge fantasies during a painful divorce. Tomorrow we’ll be focusing on the other murder plot, though, which involves the gender-bending “homme fatale” and culminates in Kinsey’s fairly unheroic last stand pant-less in a garbage can.

In Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt, ‘A’ is for Arnold, angst, and alienation. Our progression (as I was trying to explain in a rambling opening comment for the class yesterday) has been from writers wrestling with specific challenges to their faith (or, with Darwin, presenting findings with challenging implications) to writers reimagining society and morality in the absence of that faith (the secular fable of Silas Marner, in which the major value of church-going is that it fosters community and sympathy) or now, with Arnold, seeking in poetry and culture alternative sources of inspiration and spirituality. But while Eliot eases her readers through the transition, in his poetry at least Arnold captures the sense of dislocation and grief that could also be part of the weaning from religion. “Dover Beach,” of course, is the best known of his elegies for lost faith, but “The Buried Life” is also beautifully evocative:

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us–to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

I like the simplicity with which this poem resolves, as the speaker considers the soothing touch of “a beloved hand” and the “tones of a loved voice” carressing “our world-deafened ear” and the uneasy and irregular lines of pentameter and tetrameter that make up most of the poem soften, restfully, into easy (and rhyming) trimeter (actually, I guess the final line is anapestic):

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

To Marguerite–Continued,” all built around the conceit of us “mortal millions” as islands isolated by “the sea of life,” but longing to be reunited as “parts of a single continent,” also ends well, with one of my favourite lines of 19th-century poetry, actually:

Who ordered, that their longing’s fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?
Who renders vain their deep desire?–
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.

If there isn’t already a novel called The Estranging Sea, maybe I should write one.

For show and tell, I can bring in my old New Yorker cartoon (sadly, I can’t find an image of it to post here) that shows a bemused couple watching Old Sideburns on their TV; the caption is, “Here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night, Matthew Arnold, Fox News, Channel Five.”

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