July 31, 2017

Toxic Beauty in Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844) allegorizes the effect of scientific knowledge on human relationships. The three main characters, the young man Giovanni Guasconti, the mad botanist Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, and his daughter Beatrice, interact to narratively test the idea that perhaps the pursuit of scientific knowledge is toxic to romantic love.

The story takes place in medieval Padua in the botanical gardens of the University of Padua, which, through the logic of allegory, becomes a version of the Garden of Eden. In this view, Giovanni and Beatrice are the innocent Adam and Eve figures and Dr. Rappaccini is the serpent/satantic figure.

Dr. Rappaccini cultivates a variety of toxic plants and creates a few deadly plants through artificial means. In the course of doing this, he subjects his daughter, Beatrice, to a poisonous environment. Beatrice then develops a tolerance for poison but she also becomes poisonous herself. Her touch shrivels flowers. Her breath kills insects. Her kiss is deadly. And despite all of this, she is sublimely beautiful. Consider when Giovanni sees her for the first time:

There emerged from under a sculptured portal the figure of a young woman [...] beautiful as the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much. She looked redundant with life, health, and energy.

But, upon deeper scrutiny, there is revealed something sinister to her beauty:

The impression the stranger made upon him was as if here were another flower, the human sister of those vegetable ones, as beautiful as they--more beautiful than the richest of them--but still to be touched only with a glove, nor to be approached without a mask.

Beatrice here makes me think of the Batman villainess, Poison Ivy, although, unlike Poison Ivy, this particular poisonous woman hates the toxic garden her father has created.

The conflict of the story proceeds from the vexed love that Giovanni develops for Beatrice. He sees her strolling in the garden everyday and so falls hard, and she for him as well. Beatrice never allows Giovanni to kiss her and she never embraces him, and soon he discovers her tragically poisonous nature. Even more, he discovers that since he has been hanging out with her in this toxic garden he, too, has become toxic and therefore unable to return to society. Beatrice is wracked with guilt because she thinks she has doomed them both to social isolation. We she tries to cure herself by drinking an antidote to her poisons, she dies.

Beatrice is the first of many female personifications of knowledge, inspiration, and truth, a literary tradition going all the way back to the Muses of Greek Mythology. I find Beatrice's poisonous quality compelling. She combines the allure of knowledge with the threat it also holds. I find it intriguing that this ambivalent view toward science appears as early as it does, fourteen years before Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1959) decentered the human animal. Rappaccini isn't a Darwinian figure, though; he is one of our first SF mad scientists, a inhuman sorcerer whose pursuit of knowledge leaves no room for the human.

July 16, 2017

Lovecraft and Literature: A Depersonalized Process of Tranquility Creation

Consider H.P. Lovecraft's advice to a fellow amateur journalist, Rheinhart Kleiner, related in a letter dated March 7th, 1920:

My advice to you would be to re-enter active amateurdom and follow my example of accumulating a Johnsonian circle of literary dependents--worthy folk who suffer more than you, and whose pain cou'd be assuaged by the exercise of the critical gifts which you possess in so great an abundance.

Lovecraft then goes on to reveal the secret of true contentment, which consists of the adoption of two philosophical perspectives (numbering below is mine):

1. I am convinced the secret of true contentment [...] lies in the achievement of the cosmical point of view; whereby the most cruel distinctions between great and small things are shewn to be merely apparent and unreal. 

2. The next philosophical step is to acquire the impersonal attitude--to divest oneself of egocentric consciousness, and assume the role of a spectator at the comedy of man.

From my perspective, Lovecraft is reflecting, and in a sober way, on the value of literature and literary culture (read fandom, if you'd like). Why write, read, think, and discuss with others?

Lovecraft's primary value is very similar to Epicurus' idea of "ataraxia," which is basically the tranquil state of being free from worry and anxiety. For Lovecraft, a way of cultivating "ataraxia" is to read, to become a writer, and these things done, to inspire others to read and to become writers. This is a subtle utilitarian view of literature. Lovecraft sees literature as functional in the most practical sense; his time spent as an amateur journalist made him see participating in literary culture as transactional and collaborative, a group activity where everyone is less concerned with their own legend and more concerned with the activity as a mode of salvation.

What is that activity? One might say simply "writing," "learning," "imagining," "entertaining," or "fandom," but Lovecraft doesn't get that specific. Earlier in the letter he put the goal of literary activity quite simply: To enjoy tranquility and to promote tranquility in others.

I find this refreshing. Lovecraft views writing, reading, thinking, and discussing as a depersonalized process of tranquility creation.

July 12, 2017

"She is so beautiful, she is unnatural": Angela Carter's Beautiful Monster

Angela Carter's vampire story, "The Lady of the House of Love," is about how beauty held in stasis becomes a horror. What a compelling idea. It reminds me of John Keats' poem, "Bright Star," which is a thematically comparable meditation on how beautiful things cannot, and probably should not, endure. Beautiful things are, and perhaps should be, ephemeral.

The protagonist of a the story is a vampire, referred to only as "the Countess," and her horror derives from the fact that she is a beauty held in firm stasis. She is living yet she is dead, a paradox. Here is how she is described:

"She is so beautiful, she is unnatural; her beauty is an abnormality, a deformity, for none of her features exhibit any of those touching human imperfections that reconcile us to the imperfection of the human condition. Her beauty is a symptom of her disorder, her soullessness."

The Countess is characterized by her joy in tarot cards and augury. This fits thematically, a perfect brushstroke. What is an augur but someone who views the world not as an unfolding narrative driven and shaped by character but instead a finished tableau, a cartouche, a fully environed and unchanging form, beginning, middle, and end?

Carter's Countess allows us to imagine the unreal psychology of a vampire. This bizarre character allows us to think a strange thing, the possibility that a certain timeless perspective transforms one into a darkly beautiful monster. To come to view the unfolding cosmos not as an unfinished activity but as a completed gesture is a dark epiphany that dehumanizes.

July 3, 2017

"The Failings and Ambitions of Such Struggles as Himself: The Problem of Realism in Robert E. Howard's Post Oaks and Sand Roughs"

I gave a brief presentation this June as part of the Glenn Lord Academic Symposium, which, in turn, is part of Howard Days, an annual celebration in Cross Plains, Texas of the life and art of Robert E. Howard. My presentation treats Howard's unpublished novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. The videographer is Ben Friberg.