"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Raoul & Marguerite


Masqueraders, 1875–78
by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, 1841–1920

This darling little story by French humorist, Alphonse Allais is not always easy to locate, so I thought I'd take a minute this morning to type it up and pass it on to you here on my blog. It is perfect for Mardi Gras, Valentine's Day, or Purim, so I want to post it quick, before all the Fleeting February Feast Days slip away!

by Alphonse Allais (1854 - 1905)
translated by Fredric Jameson

Chapter I
In which we meet a Lady and a Gentleman who might have known happiness, had it not been for their constant misunderstandings.

At the time when this story begins, Raoul and Marguerite (splendid names for lovers) have been married for approximately five months.
Naturally, they married for love.
One fine night Raoul, while listening to Marguerite singing Colonel Henry d'Erville's lovely ballad:

L'averse, chere a la grenouille,
Parfume le bois rajeuni.
…Le bois, il est comme Nini.
Y sent bon quand y s'debarbouille.

Raoul, as I was saying, swore to himself that the divine Marguerite (diva Margarita) would never belong to any man but himself.
They would have been the happiest of all couples, except for their awful personalities.
At the slightest provocation, pow! a broken plate, a slap, a kick in the ass.
At such sounds, Love fled in tears, to await, in the neighborhood of a great park, the always imminent hour of reconciliation.
O then, kisses without number, infinite caresses, tender and knowing, ardors as burning as hell itself.
You would have thought the two of them had fights only so they could make up again.

Chapter II
A short episode which, without directly relating to the action, gives the clientele some notions of our heroes' way of life.

One day, however, it was worse than usual.
Or, rather, one night.
They were at the Theatre d'Application, where, among other things, a play by M. Porto-Riche, The Faithless Wife, was being given.
"Let me know," snarled Raoul, "when you're through looking at Grosclaude."
"And as for you," hissed Marguerite, "pass me the opera glasses when you've got Mademoiselle Moreno down pat."
Begun on this note, the conversation could end only in the most unfortunate reciprocal insults.
In the hansom cab that took them home, Marguerite delighted in plucking at Raoul's vanity as at an old, broken-down mandolin.
So it was that no sooner back home than the belligerents took up their respective positions.
Hand raised to strike, with a remorseless gaze, and a moustache bristling like that of a rabid cat, Raoul bore down on Marguerite, who quickly stopped showing off.
The poor thing fled, as hasty and furtive as the doe in the north woods.
Raoul was on the point of laying hands on her.
It was at that moment that the brilliant invention of the greatest anxieties flashed within her little brain.
Turning suddenly about, she threw herself into the arms of Raoul, crying, "Help, my darling Raoul, save me!"

Chapter III
In which our friends are reconciled as I would wish you also to be frequently reconciled.

[ellipses in original]

Chapter IV
As to how people who get involved in things that are none of their affair would do better to mind their own business.

One morning Raoul received the following message:

"If you would like just once to see your wife in a good mood,
go on Thursday to the Bal des Incoherents at the Moulin-Rouge.
She will be there, with a mask and disguised as a Congolese Dugout.
A word to the wise is sufficient! -- A FRIEND."

The same morning, Marguerite received the following message:

"If you would like just once to see your husband in a good mood,
go on Thursday to the Bal des Incoherents at the Moulin-Rouge.
He will be there, with a mask and disguised as a fin-de-siecle Knight Templar.
A word to the wise is sufficient! -- A FRIEND."

These missives did not fall on deaf ears.
With their intentions admirable dissimulated, when the fatal day arrived:

"My dear," Raoul said with his innocent look, "I shall be forced to leave you until tomorrow. Business of the greatest urgency summons me to Dunkirk."

"Why that's perfect," said Marguerite with delightful candor. "I've just received a telegram from Aunt Aspasia, who, desperately ill, bids me to her bedside."

Chapter V
In which today's wild youth is observed in the whirl of the most illusory and transitory pleasures, instead of thinking on eternity.

The social column of the Diable boiteux was unanimous in proclaiming this year's Bal des Incoherents as having unaccustomed brilliance.
Lots of shoulders, no few legs, not to mention accessories.
Two of those present seemed not to take part in the general madness: a fin-de-siecle Knight Templar and a Congolese Dugout, both hermetically masked.
At the stroke of three a.m. exactly, the Knight Templar approached the Dugout and invited her to dine with him.
In reply the Dugout placed a tiny hand on the robust arm of the Templar, and the couple went off.

Chapter VI
In which the plot thickens.
"Leave us for a moment," said the Templar to the waiter, "we will make our choice and call you."
The waiter withdrew, and the Templar locked the door to the private room with care.
Then, with a sudden gesture, having set his own helmet aside, he snatched away the Dugout's mask.
Both at the same instant cried out in astonishment, neither one recognizing the other.
He was not Raoul.
She was not Marguerite.
They apologized to each other and were not long in making acquaintance on the occasion of an excellent supper, need I say more.

Chapter VII
Happy ending for everyone, except the others.

This little mesaventure was a lesson to Raoul and Marguerite.
From that moment on, they no longer quarreled and were utterly happy.
They don't have lots of children yet, but they will.


CODA, by Anon.

In which Raoul and Marguerite and Scheherazade attend Whose Party and depart after an evening of fun, or so it seemed.

As the door shut behind them, Raoul muttered crudely and jealously, "He likes your ass."

Before Marguerite could formulate a response of any kind, Scheherazade announced brightly: "Who doesn't?"

See, that's what makes Scheherazade a storyteller. Because in one inspired, well-timed, and heart-felt remark, she rendered Marguerite innocent of any implied wrong-doing and established Raoul's remark as foolish and churlish. Simultaneously, raising the interpretation of Whose behavior from leering to admiration, and establishing her loyalty to Marguerite.

A good friend and a good storyteller -- Scheherazade was both!*

Harmony in Flesh Colour and Red, 1869
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1834 - 1903
[embellished by Yours Truly]

*"It is not often that
someone comes along
who is a true friend
and a good writer.
Charlotte was both."

from Charlotte's Web
by E. B. White


Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, March 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dark Within Dark Within Dark

Romantic Sheepskin ~♥~ Wallet

"Keep the Faith" might not be an obvious love poem, but I think it's a good one for today, with its theme of darkness and depression to match our collective SADness, winter blues, and sunlight deprivation. And, sweetly, after all the darkness, there's a happy ending that revolves around the image of a folded heart -- a Valentine!

I've had an fading, mimeographed copy of this poem by Jack Butler in one of my old notebooks since college days, though in all honesty I cannot recall how or where I first came across it, back in 1983 or so. Was it a class assignment? Did Butler visit campus and give a reading that I attended? Despite my hazy memory of how the poem made its way into my collection of favorites, I could never forget the narrator's despairing descent into that "darkness somewhere in which you do not love me":

Keep the Faith
I think perhaps there is some darkness somewhere
in which you do not love me. Falling to sleep,
I cross that simple zone in which I keep
my solitary vigil. I am there.
And the blue truth of my being is also there,
that I am worth nothing, a heatless flame.

I am that territory and its name.
It is no place for strangers: Beware, Beware
floats over its dark coast in letters of blue fire
that are not reflected in the dark water lapping rock.

Falling to sleep, I think there is some darkness somewhere
In which you do not love me, dark within dark within dark.
I think, Maybe my wallet, folded like a heart
in the dark of my locked briefcase, in the dark of our bedroom.

And then tomorrow, standing in the stink and fume
at the daylit gas-pump, all of us hurrying to work,
my blunt fingers will be astounded to discover
only green bills, that I love and have a lover.

by Jack Butler
American poet (b 1944)

Two more descriptions
of the interior of depression, the "solitary vigil":

1. from Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
by Harriet Chessman, American novelist (b 1951)

This is a work of historically accurate fiction narrated from the point of view of the artist Mary Cassatt's sister, Lydia. Chessman's lengthy description of the taunting message of self-doubt that plays over and over in Lydia's head reminded me of Butler's poem. Lydia's specific doubts are about being a suitable artist's model for her sister; but more generally, for Lydia and for everyone, the doubts are always about being lovable, worthy of love. In a vivid and painful image, Lydia refers to the emotional noise as a "thousand bees," buzzing all around and stinging her. She berates herself mentally, but her anguish feels nearly physical, akin to the tortured practice of girls cutting themselves. In a similar manner, she goes on to explain that she is both the queen bee and the "object of their attacks," which I now realize is the same thing Butler means when he says that "I am that territory and its name." The problem is circular, not linear:

". . . I think to myself, with hesitant pride, yes, I am, I am quite a good model, and as soon as I think this, I chasten and mock myself, sending my thousand little bees to sting me, and sing their disdain: How could you think, the song always begins, and the thousand bees hum and mumble and murmur into my ear, adding new verses as they find new places to thrust their stingers in. All you've done is sit here, they hum, and you're not even pretty, you're pale as a ghost and a bag of bones too, and then the fiercer ones sing, She's changed you into a figure of beauty, through oil and canvas, but how can you think she's pictured you as you really are? I'm used to these insects. I seem to own them, after all. They occupy a special place on my acre, complete with bee - boxes I myself seem to tend, in my veils and gloves. I'm their queen, as much as I'm the sorry object of their attacks. They fatten on my clover and apple - blossoms and honeysuckle, and they practice their songs in the warm sun on my meadow. So I can't blame anyone but myself when they come to sting" (31 - 32).

Five O'Clock Tea, 1880

2. from The Dogs of Babel
by Carolyn Parkhurst, American novelist (b 1971)
(see Highlights from 2006 on my Book List)

Parkhurst's character Lexy Ransome would understand the buzzing, stinging bees of Lydia's self - doubt. Lexy too is trapped in a relentless cycle of replaying the negative interior tapes, hearing the harsh criticism, trying to tune it out, recognizing that she herself is the source of the noise, imploring her smart voice to repeat all the wise mantras that she knows to be true, anything to shout down those bees. Again, I was reminded of Butler's poem: "the blue truth of my being is also there, / that I am worth nothing, a heatless flame." The voice of worthlessness, doubt, and insecurity keeps buzzing: you're so stupid, you're so stupid . . . you shouldn't be here, you shouldn't be here . . . sorry sorry sorry. Things like that. Lexy wonders how alien such internal conflict must seem to the self - confident:

"You wake up and you feel -- what? Heaviness, an ache inside, a weight, yes. A soft crumpling of flesh. A feeling like all the surfaces have been rubbed raw. A voice in your head -- no, not voices, not like hearing voices, nothing that crazy, just your own inner voice, the one that says 'Turn left at the corner' or 'Don't forget to stop at the post office,' only now it's saying 'I hate myself' . . . you try to find pleasure in little things . . . but you can tell you're trying too hard. You have breakfast with your husband, your sweet unknowing husband, who can't see anything but the promise of a bright new day. And you say your apologies -- you're sorry, you're always sorry, it's a feeling as familiar as the taste of water on your tongue" (252 - 253).

What would it take for Lydia and Lexy to feel "the promise of a bright new day," to "Keep the Faith," to believe that they are worthwhile as they are? What magical formula, prescription, philosophical stance or inner resources could redirect the bees and quiet the voice of judgment? How did the bees get in there in the first place? Who installed the tapes?

How profound, how accurate is Butler's description of the hurtful, doubtful landscape of isolation inside one's head: "no place for strangers . . . dark within dark within dark." The only way to feel loved once again is to extricate yourself from that "dark coast . . . the dark water lapping rock" -- not always easy. No one can come in and get you; you have to save your own life -- by believing that you are likeable and lovable. I've never really come up with a totally satisfactory interpretation of Butler's closing wallet image, except perhaps to assume that in broad daylight the narrator gains the perspective and security to see that his night fears are unfounded. To see, in the restorative light of day, "that I love and have a lover."

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, February 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Lydia Cassatt Working at the Tapestry Loom, 1881