"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Silas Marner–A Moral Tale

Silas Marner, written by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in 1861 is a tale of money, greed, and the divisions of class in early 19th century England; but it is also a profoundly moral and Christian story where people do the right thing.

Silas Marner

Silas Marner was forced to leave his village because he was wrongfully accused of theft.  A Calvinist and man of strict rectitude and moral principle, he left Lantern Yard a bitter and resentful man.  He  settled in Raveloe, another small town to the south where he became a weaver.   He lived alone and never forgot the injustices done to him.  He mistrusted everyone, refused all but commercial engagements, and as a result began to be thought of as a conjurer.  His seemingly miraculous cure of a villager thanks to his knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs gave him immediate respect and social status; but because he refused all requests for assistance, only wanting to return to is solitary life, he became even more suspect and then once again shunned.

He was a talented weaver and his embroidered linens were in great demand; and over the years he became moderately wealthy; but choosing to live frugally he spent little of it.  Instead he kept his gold hidden in the floor of his cottage; and every night he spread the guineas on the table to look at and feel them.  Although Marner is often portrayed as a miser, he is a much more nuanced and complex character.  The monetary value of the gold meant nothing to him.  It was marker like stripes on a prison wall which delineated his limited and painful life.

Image result for images silas marner
Gradually the guineas, the crowns, and the half-crowns grew to a heap, and Marner drew less and less for his own wants, trying to solve the problem of keeping himself strong enough to work sixteen hours a-day on as small an outlay as possible. Have not men, shut up in solitary imprisonment, found an interest in marking the moments by straight strokes of a certain length on the wall, until the growth of the sum of straight strokes, arranged in triangles, has become a mastering purpose? Do we not wile away moments of inanity or fatigued waiting by repeating some trivial movement or sound, until the repetition has bred a want, which is incipient habit?

The gold was also a companion,  the only bright thing in his life.  After a long day of weaving, he removed the bags of gold which he had secreted in the cottage floor, spread them out on the table, ran his fingers through them.  He loved their weight, their color, and their shape.  They were to him what a wife and children were to others.
He began to think it was conscious of him, as his loom was, and he would on no account have exchanged those coins, which had become his familiars, for other coins with unknown faces. He handled them, he counted them, till their form and color were like the satisfaction of a thirst to him; but it was only in the night, when his work was done, that he drew them out to enjoy their companionship.
His money is stolen, and once again the injustice of theft returns.  Only his work keeps him sane although there is now no purpose to it.  At least in his lonely, solitary life, there was the gold; but now there was nothing.

By chance an opium addict falls asleep in the snow with her young child and dies of exposure.  The child, however, finds her way to Marner’s cottage.   She is the gold he has lost and he becomes a loving, devoted father to her.

The real father of the child, Godfrey Cass, a wealthy landowner of the region, has never acknowledged either his daughter or her mother – a low-class wife whom he disavows and keeps secret from everyone including his new wife whom he does not want to drive away because of the scandal the revelation would cause.  Only near the end of the story does he feel it time for honest and amends.  He and his wife have been childless for fifteen years, and they both hope that by reclaiming his daughter and giving her a well-to-do life will be right and just and will finally fill the empty space in their home.

Family matters become more complicated when the thief of Marner’s gold is discovered to be Godfrey’s wastrel brother; and when the gold is found and returned to Marner, Godfrey decides to make his appeal to take his daughter to live in his estate.

As a younger man Godfrey was as irresponsible, weak, and immoral as his brother, both cheating and lying to their father about their management of estate funds.   His offer to adopt Eppie, his biological daughter, give his wife the child she has always wanted, and to make  amends for his brother’s crime are his chance for moral redemption.  Marner and Eppie of course refuse.  Godfrey acquiesces but continues to provide financial support to Marner and his daughter.

The novel, like those of Thomas Hardy and other 19th century realist writers, relies on chance and circumstance to further both plot and character development. If Eppie had not wandered into Silas’s cottage, his life would have been irretrievably unhappy.  She, however, resuscitates the goodness that was always in Marner before his unjust accusation in Lantern Yard ; gives him purpose; elicits love and compassion; and returns him to path from which he was deprived.   Marner is a good person whom circumstances have condemned and redeemed.

Image result for images thomas hardy writer

Godfrey was a moral reprobate in his younger years, and the circumstances of his first wife’s death and the survival of his daughter reveal the goodness in him.  He finally is able to reveal his secret, live more openly and intimately with his second wife, and do the right thing.  At first he justifies his selfish ambitions by saying that taking Eppie will be good for her when in fact it is only to satisfy his wife who has for years pleaded for adoption and his long-hidden desire for reconciliation. Finally, however, Godfrey does the real right thing, renounces his claim to his daughter, and generously but quietly supports her and her adoptive father, Silas.

Godfrey’s wife, Nancy, has always been a moral person, although more because her limited intelligence has prevented her from observing anything but the few social and religious principles she has been taught as a child.  Nevertheless, despite her near implacable desire for an adopted child, she sees how wrong taking Eppie would be, and her understanding, compassion, and strength, helps Godfrey to find his moral ground.

Eppie is less a girl than a gift from God.  She is all love, obedience, loyalty, and respect for her father.  Silas Marner is a profoundly Christian book.  Eppie is a gift of grace.  Marner did nothing to earn it or merit her.  She was bestowed. 

In many ways she is similar to Pearl, the illegitimate daughter of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter who represents more than she exists. Pearl is precociously alert, intelligent, and for Puritanical Salem, dangerously elfin and otherworldly.  She is exuberant where Hester and Dimmesdale are unhappy, regretful, and guilty.  She is what God intended, not the spiteful, angry, witch-hunting Puritans.   In both books little girls, both innocent in their own ways, are the agents of change and denouement in the world of adults.

At the end of the novel when Godfrey and Nancy are adjusting to the new realities of their lives, she reiterates this sentiment, although couching it within a very different context - God’s will:
Nancy was silent: her spirit of rectitude would not let her try to
soften the edge of what she felt to be a just compunction. He spoke
again after a little while, but the tone was rather changed: there
was tenderness mingled with the previous self-reproach.

"And I got _you_, Nancy, in spite of all; and yet I've been
grumbling and uneasy because I hadn't something else--as if I
deserved it."

"You've never been wanting to me, Godfrey," said Nancy, with quiet
sincerity. "My only trouble would be gone if you resigned yourself
to the lot that's been given us."
Silas Marner is a moral book about good people, how they fall away, and how they are redeemed.  It is an optimistic book about goodness in the world; and it is a book that reconciles ideas of grace, morality, and the inevitable unforeseen circumstances of character and environment. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Recipes–Filet Mignon In A Cognac, Thyme, And Dijon Mustard Cream Sauce

Filet mignon is usually good enough by itself; and I have never been a fan of gussying up good meat; but I thought a complex sauce would be a good complement.  The recipe is simple – cognac (or bourbon), thyme, dried mushrooms, and spicy Dijon mustard in a cream sauce – so very little preparation is required.

Filet mignon

- 2 6 oz. filets filet mignon

- 1/2 small red onion, chopped

- 1 Tbsp. olive oil

- 1/2 cup cream

- 1/4 cup Cognac or bourbon

- 2 tsp. thyme leaves (approx.)

- 1 Tbsp. dried mushrooms

- 1 Tbsp. imported Dijon mustard

* Sautee the onion in the olive oil until soft

* Add the cognac, and cook for 2-3 minutes, low heat

* Add the cream, thyme, mushrooms, and mustard; mix well, stir

* Cook over low heat for approx. 5 minutes or until blended, stirring frequently

* Add salt, ground pepper to taste (lavender salt is wonderful)

* Grill the meat.  I sear it in very hot iron skillet; then turn heat down and cook

* Plate the meat, and serve with the sauce

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Imaginary Friends–How Ellis Marks Found God

Ellis Marks, like many young children, had an imaginary friend who was as real to him as any one of his classmates, brothers and sisters, or cousins.  Ellis’ imaginary friend was named Frankly, picked up from his father’s peculiar manner of speaking.

Imaginary friend
“Frankly”, said Norville Marks, “I would rather be in Philadelphia”; or “Frankly, Esther, I wish you wouldn’t dry your underwear in the bathroom.”  ‘Frankly’ was as much a part of Norville’s verbal repertoire as “Actually”, “You know what I’m saying?”, or “Admittedly”.

Ellis’ mother had gently suggested to her husband that he might think of changing his vocal entrance to be more emphatic; or better yet, just dropping the word ‘frankly’ altogether.  Esther Marks had been brought up in a strict household, one in which manner of speaking had no place.  One did not hesitate, hem and haw, and no overtures.  If you had something to say, you said it.

Now, Norville was by no means a stumbling speaker; and once he got underway, he was fluent and persuasive.  He simply needed a few seconds to gather his thoughts before pronouncement, and ‘Frankly’ was just enough.  Over the years it had become a habit, and later on in his marriage an annoying one.  “Frankly, the roast could have used a few more minutes, dear” became irritating as much for his insinuations as for his manner of speaking.  ‘Frankly’ in her mind was not a momentary pause of a thoughtful man; but a quiet intimidation.   ‘Frankly’ meant that criticism was coming.  If it wasn’t the meat or the bras in the bathroom, it was about punctuality, fitness, or manners. He could be insufferable.

So it was ironic that her young son adopted the name Frankly for his imaginary friend.  Not only was her husband saying frankly this and frankly that, but her son kept up the  irregular roll call all day long. 

Not only that but Frankly seemed to take the place of real flesh-and-blood friends.  When the boys gathered on the green for after-school baseball, Ellis sat under a tree and talked with Frankly. He never wanted to invite friends over, and never even walked across the street to play with the Popper twins, both boys and exactly his age.  He asked his mother to set a place for Frankly at the dinner table, arranged a rack of invisible clothes for Frankly in his closet, and reserved one whole drawer for Frankly’s socks and underwear.

Fifties boys baseball
“This is getting out of hand”, his mother said to his father. “What do you think we should do?” She was getting annoyed with having to set the table for four instead of three, to leave extra space in the already crowded hall closet for Frankly’s galoshes, and to ask Frankly’s opinion about the weather and schoolwork.  An imaginary friend was cute in The Shining, but Frankly was becoming a pain in the ass.

“He’ll get over it”, said Norville indifferently at the breakfast table. The stock market was getting edgy about recent events in China, and he was more concerned about his overseas investments than his son.  Fathers are notoriously indifferent about these things, so Norville’s response was typical.  Which was an added source of aggravation for Esther Marks.  Not only was her husband responsible for Frankly’s name; and not only did he drive her increasingly crazy with his impossibly predictable  speech patterns, he was unaware that Ellis was becoming weird.

Esther Marks hated to use that word about her own son; but there was no other way to describe it.   An imaginary friend was OK at three,  understandable at five, but totally unacceptable at six going on seven.

Ellis, however, had no intention of abandoning Frankly, and when he  eventually realized how childish his behavior seemed to others, he simply internalized all conversations with him.  His mother, always attentive to changes in her son, noticed that although he no longer talked directly to Frankly, he was  moving his lips as though in silent prayer; and she knew that he had simply taken the game indoors.

As Ellis grew older, Frankly did not disappear, but changed character.  He was no longer an imaginary friend, but a trusted adviser – not a conscience exactly, but a moral arbiter.  By the time Ellis was about to enter college, Ellis had elevated Frankly to a spiritual plane.  He had become a guardian angel, and in a final incarnation, the voice of God.

Image result for images old testament god

Not all children with imaginary friends have this same trajectory; nor do all people who hear the voice of God start off with them.  Although even his very perceptive mother had no inkling that Frankly was or would turn into a revered spirit, she had to admit that she had missed the clues.  When Ellis, deep into his religious phase, told her about the very tangible relationship he had with God, and how He was not only with him in spirit, but actually by his side every moment, she was surprised and not a little concerned. 

No one in her family or her husband’s had any religion in their makeup.  Grandfather Marshall had been an outspoken atheist.  Her father was a secular humanist to the core; and all her brothers, cousins, and uncles were dismissively snide when God or Jesus Christ came up in a discussion.  So when her own son started talking about God and Jesus Christ in a particularly reverential and intimate way,, she was flabbergasted.  Ellis had started to sound like a born-again Pentecostal.
Ellis, however, despite his mother’s concern was no different from other deeply spiritual pe0ple who had found Jesus or had a religious epiphany.  There had to be thousands of men and women who had had epiphanies – perhaps not as dramatic as Saul on the road to Damascus, but as important to their own much more modest lives.  Thousands more declared Jesus as their personal savior. 

Battlefield and deathbed epiphanies where the fallen and mortally ill see visions of God, Jesus, and their angels are as common as pear blossoms in the Spring.  Ellis had simply been born with a special intimation of the divine.  Although he didn’t know it at the time – his companionship with Frankly was as scratched and ragged as any five-year old – he had come equipped with a unique and special set of spiritual gears, wires, and electrodes. 

Image result for prince andrei tolstoy battlefield with horse

Whether or not Ellis actually had a dedicated line to Jesus was irrelevant.  If he felt that he was in heavenly company, that’s all that mattered.  Some scholars who study the historical Jesus have concluded that there is too little evidence to conclude that he was who Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John said he was; but have dismissed the debate as irrelevant and unnecessary.  If the early evangelists created the Resurrection story out of myth, legend, and Jewish and Roman theology; and if they developed key elements of the new religion (compassion, redemption, remission of sins, brotherhood, etc.)  to satisfy the unmet needs of both Jewish and Gentile populations and expand and extend its reach, so be it. It is a moot point whether or not Jesus Christ is God or whether God in fact exists.  Billions of people believe both, and for them no proof is needed.

Ellis’s communication with God came not via actual faith but peculiar secular circumstances.  If he had not had Frankly as his imaginary friend; had he not had a naturally reclusive personality; and had he not been a very sensitive boy, he would likely have stayed with Frankly until he was laughed out of class. Such is the nature of faith – it comes from places you’d least expect; and it is not less meaningful for it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Passion of Madame Bovary–Much To Understand, Little To Admire

Madame Bovary, the story of the frustrated wife of a simple doctor in rural France, was written in 1856.  When it was first serialized between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, the novel was attacked for obscenity by public prosecutors. The resulting trial, held in January 1857, made the story notorious. After Flaubert's acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller when it was published as a single volume in April 1857.  Its story of adultery and explicit sexual passions were considered unique and groundbreaking.

Madame Bovary

The story is familiar enough – a woman marries for conventional reasons but soon finds herself trapped in a small, narrow-minded community with an honest but dull and clueless man.   After much doubt and self-recrimination and guilt, Emma Bovary acts on her desires and takes a lover.  After the long affair with Rodolphe ends, she soon takes another.  Now that her passions have been awakened, she cannot live without a man who can satisfy them.  She is infatuated more than in love with both Rodolphe and Leon, and more than anything views them as instruments of sexual pleasure.  Neither one is the  dashing, chivalrous lover she has always dreamt of,  but they are available, interested, and well above the sexual, social, or intellectual caliber of her husband.

She is so consumed by her sexual desire, so demanding of her lovers, and so insistent on their reciprocal love and attention, that they grow impatient and disillusioned with her, and eventually leave. 
Emma was like all his other mistresses, thought Rodolphe; and as the charm of novelty gradually slipped from her like a piece of her clothing, he saw revealed in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion which always assumes the same forms and always speaks the same language.
Enough of the book’s notoriety has remained so that it is still considered an important work of French literature; but in fact it is a very familiar but one-dimensional portrait of a discontented and unsatisfied woman.  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a far more complex woman.   Although she also finds herself married to a similarly dull and passionless husband, she is not compulsive in her sexual desires.  Both women are intelligent, strong, and willful, but Anna , very aware of the moral, ethical, and religious implications of her love affair with Vronsky, pursues it nonetheless.  She is less rebelling against her husband’s oppression than searching for a more complete emotional relationship than he can provide.  One admires Anna because of her respect for her husband, her love for her son, and her devotion to Vronsky. 

Image result for images anna karenina
Although life is not easy for either woman , we feel empathy and respect for Anna just as we do for Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.   Nora is patient to a fault and suffers her obtuse husband  Torvald for too long.  Finally, the exhaustion of surviving such a suffocating relationship becomes overwhelming, and she walks out.  Anna is patient with Karenin, but for her forbearance has its limits.  She too walks out on the marriage but can never assuage the guilt of having abandoned her son by so doing.

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Emma Bovary has no such compunctions.  Her daughter Berthe is a second thought in her life.  The young girl is suckled by a wet nurse and cared for and brought up by nursemaids and nannies.  Emma is indifferent to her, and as she pursues her love affairs, her daughter is the last thing from her mind.  She wants only to satisfy her sexual desires and to defy her ignorant, plodding husband.

Carrie Kennicott, the heroine of Main Street is much more like Anna than Emma.  She marries for the same conventional reasons, moves to a small prairie town in Minnesota, and becomes increasingly frustrated with her husband, a rural doctor like M. Bovary, and the confines of the bourgeois society of Gopher Prairie. 

Main Street

At first Carrie has no thoughts of taking a lover.  Introducing ideas, books, art, and culture to the provincial and unlettered town is challenge and satisfaction enough.  Only when she realizes that even her modest initiatives to form a local theatre group, to enhance the library collection, and to encourage intellectual discussion groups, are ignored does she think of new personal relationships.  She does not permit herself to think that her male friendships are anything more than stimulating and Platonic, she eventually realizes that her frustration with Gopher Prairie is far more personal and intimate.  It is a question of her lack of sexual fulfillment and realization as a woman.

Emma has none of these concerns.  While all three women share a common frustration, only Emma is single-minded in her pursuit of of sexual satisfaction.  Her affair with Leon devolves into a purely animal coupling.  All pretense of a renewed womanhood or feminine expression is gone.  She becomes defiant in her sexual obsession.  She wants to be caught in her adultery, not to expiate or atone for her guilt, but to show up the bourgeois piety of the town.

She and Anna Karenina commit suicide; but it is for Anna that we have sympathy and compassion.  She has tried everything to accommodate her life within accepted social principles, but has failed.  She has lost her husband, her son, and is afraid of losing Vronsky.  Bitterly unhappy with herself for being unable to extricate herself from her dilemmas; and angry at a world which has no give or accommodation, she kills herself.

Emma has been profligate and irresponsible in the pursuit of her passions.  She has deceived her husband, ignored her child, and accumulated ruinous debts.  She feels sorry for herself when Leon and Rodolphe want  nothing more to do with her, and rather than accept a return to the rack of her marriage, she resorts to a painful, agonizing death by arsenic poisoning.

Feminists have always admired Emma Bovary for her independence, will, and determination.  Yet, while one can understand and commiserate with her plight – life for women in 19th century Europe and America was not an easy one – it is hard to admire her.  She is a self-centered, callous, dismissive woman only concerned with herself and her own satisfaction.  She has none of the dignity of Anna or Carrie Kennicott; none of the principle of Nora; or none of the strength, canniness, and ability of Shakespeare’s women.  She is shallow, insensitive, and deeply immoral.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, only six years before Madame Bovary; and it is a far more complex, nuanced story of ‘adultery’ than Flaubert’s work.  Hester Prynne, the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter has an adulterous relationship early in her life.  Hawthorne chooses not to describe the circumstances of the affair, preferring to focus on Hester’s absolute commitment to secrecy to protect the reputation of her lover.   She has risked death at the hands of the Puritan clerics of 17th century Salem because of her adultery, but she refuses to name the man with whom she has had her child, Pearl.  

The Scarlet Letter

Her lover suffers far more than she because he is too weak to admit his guilt and to at least share the town’s censure with Hester.  The story is more about the psychological torment of  her lover, Rev. Dimmesdale , the vengeful actions of her former husband Chillingworth, and the frighteningly otherworldliness of Pearl than Hester; but Hester is an admirable, fully-realized woman.  One has far more admiration for her than for Emma Bovary.

Flaubert never suggests why Emma is the way she is, tells very little about her childhood and adolescence, her relationships with her parents, or her growing up.  The reader has no clues as to what turned her into such a libidinous, immoral destroyer.   She is no more than a week into her marriage when she realizes she has done the wrong thing; frustration and anger set in quickly, the love affairs follow; she is abandoned and bankrupt; and she commits suicide.  But why?  We understand Anna, Carrie, and Nora; but not Emma.

Is she the stereotypical woman who always falls for the wrong man?  At her first ball at the estate of the local aristocrat, her childhood ambitions became much more real. This is what she wanted – wealth and the love of a powerful, confident, sexually mature man.   Yet she had no inkling that Rodolphe was a manipulative womanizer? How was this intelligent woman so ignorant of one of the most common masculine traits?  Why did she assume that there was a future in the relationship when there clearly was none?  Anna knew precisely what she was doing, and always felt that she would be able to negotiate a reasonable compromise with her husband; but Emma was ignorant of men, society, and life itself, blinded by her own self-centered passions.

Hester Prynne, Anna Karenina, Nora Helmer, and Carrie Kennicott are heroes – not Emma Bovary.