Tuesday, 17 November 2015

on The Whistle
by Eudora Welty

Approaching the story
Must try not to judge it by how sad or happy it is.   Reading literature not only enlarges our sympathy but also creates a kind of joy out of sorrow.   You might want to look at the study of the way listening to sad music helps us[i].  And Aristotle had something to say on this in his essay on tragedy.

Narrative Point of View
Welty keeps herself well out of the scene.  At the beginning she simply describes the moon, the shack, the people without giving any thoughts of her own.   Their cold and poverty, as it were, ‘speak for themselves’.
It’s quite a while before we get any thoughts of the characters, and then only Sara’s.   First her tiredness and coldness, then her dream-like thoughts of spring, part longing for next spring, part memories of others.   This memory allows us, the readers, to get some idea of the work they do, and we hear about Mr Perkins who ‘owned their farm now’.   And that implies that they’d had to sell up to survive and go on as tenants.   This gives us some ‘back-story’,   that is information about their circumstances before the events in he story began.

The moon is continually mentioned as an image of coldness, both physical and social.   There’s a coldness in the way they’re treated by society, and a kind of co-operative coolness between the two of them.  They don’t cuddle up together to get a bit warm.
The fire flickers in the background weakly, and eventually goes out, and then another fire is created by Jason’s burning the furniture.

Cold is a basis for the description of their postures, their anxieties, a threat to them, and also to the tomato crop on which they depend and for which they sacrifice covers and clothes.   The cold sinks into them ‘like the teeth of a trap’.

The cold and whoever’s let this all happen seem to be ‘characters’.  But the main characters are sparsely drawn, and we only have the thoughts, and few of those, of Sara. Though, of course, it’s Jason who acts, and passionately.

Narrative Form
Most of the story’s taken up with a description of their problem, which has also become their routine way of life.   There is the wider problem of being so cold and poor (and exploited), and the immediate problem of how to get warm now, and Jason’s ‘solution’ to that problem.    Jason’s act seems both inspired and reckless and possibly suicidal.   What does it express?

[i] What do nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder all have in common? They're all healthy, feel-good emotions. “For many individuals, listening to sad music can actually lead to beneficial emotional effects,” the researchers, led by psychologist Liila Taruffi, report. “Music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but [it] also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.”
The study also revealed that a high number of participants reported listening to sad music in situations of emotional distress or when they’re feeling lonely, so it could be a form of self-medication. “For most of the people, the engagement with sad music in everyday life is correlated with its potential to regulate negative moods and emotions, as well as to provide consolation,” the researchers add.
These findings appear to have some connection to previous research into sad music that suggests listening to it changes the chemistry in our brains to help us get over our grief. According to David Huron, a professor of music at Ohio University in the US, listening to sad music likely causes a spike in the hormone prolactin in the brain.
"Prolactin is the chemical that is used to help curb grief because it's also released during basic human activities - like when we eat, when women ovulate or breastfeed and (perhaps most importantly) when we have sex,” says David Taylor Sloan at Mic.com. "So sad music actually activates a chemical that tones down your grief - suggesting that being sad (and listening to sad music to get there) has deep evolutionary benefits.  -     http://www.sciencealert.com/why-listening-to-sad-songs-is-good-for-you

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

handout for Liphook Group 7-9-15


1    There isn’t much ‘plot’.   GB goes off into the forest even though his wife doesn’t want  him to.   She feels vulnerable without him.  He feels a strong pull, just this once, to go.  At the outset we don’t know where he’s going, but gradually the quest gets clearer.  Nothing ‘happens’ except his new recognition  -   recognition of civic worthies at Satan’s gathering, and recognition that his faith is naïve.

2   His journey is portrayed first of all as a kind of duty, then as a temptation, especially when we meet his guide, like him but obviously sinister.  Like many journeys in literature it is a journey of discovery.   What he discovers is that all men are sinners.   And yet, should he be so distraught about that?  Surely that’s what the Bible teaches.   His reaction shows his character as, perhaps what later came to be called rigid or inflexible.  He’s naïve and he can’t get out of his naivety except into despair.

3  The story is very like a medieval mystery play in which Biblical themes are dramatised, and the characters personify ideas such as temptation, faith, or beings such as God or Satan. Perhaps when we first hear his wife’s name, though, we don’t think of her as a personification of the idea of faith.  

4  The atmosphere is strongly Puritan in its intense concern with virtue and faith and being devout.    What it brings out is the idea of hypocrisy, how the very people he’d respected as men and women of God in fact consort with the devil – like the Salem witches were supposed to have done.   Perhaps Hawthorne is saying that the dos and do nots of Puritanism are simplistic.

5  Faith is ambiguous.   She doesn’t want him to leave her (i.e. being a pious good man), but when he sees her among the gathering he calls to her to resist temptation.  We never know what happens next because  Hawthorne cuts at that point.

6  He wonders if the experience is a dream.   It’s never quite clear whether it is or not.  But certainly the atmosphere of the story makes it feel like one.  The dark wood is often seen as a frightening place where evil, pagans, and beasts live.

7   When he returns he refuses his wife’s kiss, and turns away from her.   Hypocritically he blames here for doing what he did.  But if he’d stayed at home with her?    Well, he’d not have learnt what the world was really like.  

8  Perhaps the story is a version  of the Fall of Man in Genesis.   GB ends the story no longer in his Garden of Eden.  He has found knowledge of good and evil.    But his wife does not seem much like Eve.   What is the meaning of her pink ribbons?  

9   How do we interpret the end of the story?  He becomes cynical?  He loses his faith?   Or she loses him?   What is he tempted by?   Sin as such?

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Notes on
The Duchess and the Jeweller
by Virginia Woolf

The narrative is simple enough.    Oliver has a visit from the Duchess who persuades him to buy some pearls.   He is dissuaded from checking if the pearls are genuine by her offer of an invitation to her high class home where he will be able to spend the weekend with her daughter with whom he obviously is in love.

Oliver is very aware of his status as ‘nouveau rich’, having begun as a street boy and petty crook before getting into the diamond trade in a way which is only half described by sounds sleazy.   Now he is the richest jeweller in England.   But he is not content, though he drools over his drawers of jewels like a miser.

The crux of the narrative comes when the Duchess visits him needed money to pay a gambling debt which he husband mustn’t find out about.  She is potentially vulnerable to an unscrupulous man, especially if he should find at that the pearls she wants him to buy are fakes.   But she has a bargaining counter, her beautiful daughter.

There’s a tension while Oliver decides if he is going to buy the pearls, and this has some sexual overtones.   She is not offering herself, however, but herself at one remove, as it were.   And Oliver allows himself to be deceived because he is not really buying the pearls but Diana.

The story brings out the unpleasant and dishonest materialism of the English upper class with its ill-gotten gains and sex (indirectly) for sale.

A question which arose at the time Woolf published the story (and she tone done some of the story because of it) was anti-Semitism.   Oliver is a Jew (with the ironical surname of Bacon).    He is not just a poor boy made himself rich, but a Jew getting admittance into English high society, a stereotypical Jew with a prominent nose and a lot of not quite honestly gained money.  

Some critics have seen the story as not anti-Semitic because Oliver is shown as the dupe of the Duchess, and so a victim rather than an exploiter.   She knows he knows the pearls are fake but also that he cannot resists her bribe.   At the time the story was published, 1938, anti-Semitism was far more strident than it is  now, and there was nothing like ‘political correctness’.    The myth pedalled was that Jews were a threat because they ‘stuck together’ in business and did not have a sincere allegiance to England – or whichever European country they lived in.   They were seen – according to this ideology – as therefore a threat to English tradition and business.

However, the story is  also a psychological study of the emotional insecurity of a rags-to-riches man.   His continual recall of his mother is a reaching back for the social roots which he has left behind.

I can’t comment at all expertly on Woolf’s anti-Semitism.   She seems to have fallen into the prejudiced jargon of the time,  but  perhaps as she got older repented it. “How I hated marrying a Jew . . .   what a snob I was,”  she wrote about her husband, Leonard.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Further   notes on
The Wall

Pablo doesn’t try to protect Gris out of patriotism, but because he funds it funny to see them rushing about.  Also this sense of the ridiculous is mixed with his stubbornness.   At the end of the story, also, he ends up laughing.   There’s an element of the ‘absurd’ here, perhaps.    But he does, he believes as the time, condemn himself to death. 

Always Pablo comes across as very street wise.  Nobody fools him.  We wonder perhaps if this itself isn’t a kind of mask, bravado, to help him deal with the situation.   Yet all through the story he finds himself showing pity.  Even though he claims to despise it.

Death itself is a kind of wall.  It is a blank end beyond which it isn’t possible to imagine.   So Sartre turns his back on the tradition that the fact of death enhances a person’s life, sense of life;   and certainly on the tradition which sees a life beyond death, and which has inspired so much European literature, art and music.

It’s worth remembering the advice which Siduri gives to the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, whose quest to overcome death has failed.

As for you, Gilgamesh,  fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man'.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

from Rodney Fisher

an 'Italian' version of Jack and the Beanstalk

Unas appona taim uasa boi name Giacche.  E uoroche anne fam.  E plante.
E plao. E milche de cause. E fidde chiccense.  Esai itse toffe laife.

Uan dei ise moma ghiv eme binne ana tell ime planta de binne ana ghetto
binnestocche.  Datsa guiste warri didde, ana soneeamagonne iffe binnestoche no gro
oppe uan, tu, tri, fifte fitte laiche fairaidran, ana itse gadde inoffe binnese tu fidde da cit e Bostin fo twenty irs.  Itte gro aire den ole de claudes.  Iu nevve sen saccie big e binnestocche in iur laiffe.

Giacche go picchene, picchene, and picchene aire en aire tille e pesse de claudes,
ana e se a cassel bilonghe tu a giante u uonse a biudefool uaite gus. Ole taime
disse giant ise singhe “ Fe, Fi, Fo Fum,  ai smella blode uva inglesmanne”.
Ittse onli songhe ino.  Giacche isa Americana so e don uarri. Uenne de giant folle sleppe enne snorene laiche Versuvio,  Giacche grob  de uaite gus enne ronne
 laiche elle. He getta om saif en e sei tu isa papa  “Lucche me !  Lucce uarri ai gotte!”

“Gudde” sei es papa. “Iu gonne ave ardboila heggeste for breggfeste.”
Neggeste dei ise moma boila de heggeste ana uarra iu tinghe? Dei uas gholen gus heggese, enna isa papa brecce ise folse titte.

“Moma” ei sei  “Demme titte costa me siveni faive dollars” Enne ghiva Giacche da bittenghe ova isa laif.

De morrale ove dissa stor ise “Iffa iu guarra enoffe trobbel inna iur onne becciard,donna go lucchen fo binnes”

Tuesday, 24 February 2015


Thoughts on

The Wall


Jean-Paul Sart

Sartre is one of the great figures in postwar philosophy as well as being a novelist and political activist.   This story was published in 1939 just after the Spanish Civil War which it deals with, and just before the Second World War in which Sartre was first a soldier, then a prisoner of war, and after escaping a member of the French Underground.   The Wall is his second publication, coming after the novel Nausea.   Both of these are about what is known as Existentialism, a philosophical movement which ask what it is for a person to ‘be’,  to live.   And it often focuses on the final meaninglessness of human life on the one hand, and on the other the need for us to try and be total honest with ourselves, to be in ‘good faith’, and not try to make up comforting myths and roles to hide from the starkness of existence as such.   Later, after the war, Sartre became interested in Marxism and social issues.   But in The Wall you can see how he works variations on the theme of death, the end of 'existence'  when it stares his characters in the face.  

The story deals with three prisoners of war who are about to be shot, and it looks at the ways they try to deal with this.

The main character and narrator, Pablo, is an anti-fascist revolutionary, who seems to represent Sartre’s own viewpoint.   He is able to remain stable, to deal with his fear, although it is not so much fear as acceptance that now everything is finished, and since it is his life doesn’t matter very because all human life is pointless.  He shows physical manifestations of fear in his sweating and so on,  but  has no regrets.   His decision to try to save Gris, one of his leaders, is made not out of bravery or dedication, but just for the hell of it.   We see at the end the link between his viewpoint and ‘absurdism’.

Pablo simply closes up and ceases to exist or to value anything, as it were ‘in advance’,

Juan, the youngster is concerned with the process of being shot, how long his death will take.   He’s concerned more with fear of suffering than the concept of death itself.

Tom,  is concerned primarily with his problem of registering that he’s actually going to stop existing.  

The Belgian doctor gives another viewpoint, that of the observer and student of how people behave in this situation.   He even tries little 'experiments'

Another view point we might forget is that of ourselves, the readers, who are observers, of course, but not dispassionate.   We identify with the characters and judge them from our own perspectives.  They make us reflect on our own mortality.  We imagine briefly ourselves in their final situation.  We don't necessarily take Pablo's authorial viewpoint.


How far do you sympathise with Pablo's viewpoint.  

Is he convincing?   Or is he also playing a role?

Is he 'macho'?  Realistic?  'Materialistic?

Does Sartre create a sense of 'before-death'?

Why DOES Pablo decide to give information about Gris?

What ARE Pablo's feelings at the end?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Jack and the Beanstalk

There was once a boy called Jack who was brave and quick-witted. He lived with his mother in a small cottage and their most valuable possession was their cow, Milky-White. But the day came when Milky-White gave them no milk and Jack's mother said she must be sold.
"Take her to market," she told Jack, "and mind you get a good price for her."
So Jack set out to market leading Milky-White by her halter. After a while he sat down to rest by the side of the road. An old man came by and Jack told him where he was going.
"Don't bother to go to the market," the old man said. "Sell your cow to me. I will pay you well. Look at these beans. Only plant them, and overnight you will find you have the finest bean plants in all the world. You'll be better off with these beans than with an old cow or money. Now, how many is five, Jack?"
"Two in each hand and one in your mouth," replied Jack, as sharp as a needle.
"Right you are, here are five beans," said the old man and he handed the beans to Jack and took Milky-White's halter.
When he reached home, his mother said, "Back so soon, Jack? Did you get a good price for Milky-White?"
Jack told her how he had exchanged the cow for five beans and before he could finish his account, his mother started to shout and box his ears. "You lazy good-for-nothing boy!" she screamed, "How could you hand over our cow for five old beans? What will we live on now? We shall starve to death, you stupid boy."
She flung the beans through the open window and sent Jack to bed without his supper.
When Jack woke the next morning there was a strange green light in his room. All he could see from, the window was green leaves. A huge beanstalk had shot up overnight. It grew higher than he could see. Quickly Jack got dressed and stepped out of the window right onto the beanstalk and started to climb.

"The old man said the beans would grow overnight," he thought. "They must indeed be very special beans."
Higher and higher Jack climbed until at last he reached the top and found himself on a strange road. Jack followed it until he came to a great castle where he could smell the most delicious breakfast. Jack was hungry. It had been a long climb and he had nothing to eat since midday the day before. Just as he reached the door of the castle he nearly tripped over the feet of an enormous woman.
"Here, boy," she called. "What are you doing? Don't you know my husband likes to eat boys for breakfast? It's lucky I have already fried up some bacon and mushrooms for him today, or I'd pop you in the frying pan. He can eat you tomorrow, though."
"Oh, please don't let him eat me," pleaded Jack. "I only came to ask you for a bite to eat. It smells so delicious."
Now the giant's wife had a kind heart and did not really enjoy cooking boys for breakfast, so she gave Jack a bacon sandwich. He was still eating it when the ground began to shake with heavy footsteps, and a loud voice boomed: "Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum."
"Quick, hide!" cried the giant's wife and she pushed Jack into the oven. "After breakfast, he'll fall asleep," she whispered. "That is when you must creep away." She left the oven door open a crack so that jack could see into the room. Again the terrible rumbling voice came:
"Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread."
A huge giant came into the room. "Boys, boys, I smell boys," he shouted. "Wife, have I got a boy for breakfast today?"
"No, dear," she said soothingly. "You have got bacon and mushrooms. You must still be smelling the boy you ate last week." The giant sniffed the air suspiciously but at last sat down. He wolfed his breakfast of bacon and mushrooms, drank a great bucketful of steaming tea and crunched up a massive slice of toast. Then he fetched a couple of bags of gold from a cupboard and started counting gold coins. Before long he dropped off to sleep.

Quietly Jack crept out of the oven.
Carefully he picked up two gold coins and ran as fast as he could to the top of the beanstalk. He threw the gold coins into his mother's garden and climbed after them. At the bottom he found his mother looking in amazement at the gold coins and the beanstalk. Jack told her of his adventures in the giant's castle and when she examined the gold she realized he must be speaking the truth.
Jack and his mother used the gold to buy food. But the day came when the money ran out and Jack decided to climb the beanstalk again.
It was all the same as before, the long climb, the road to the castle, the smell of breakfast and the giant's wife. But she was not so friendly this time.
"Aren't you the boy who was here before," she asked, "on that day some gold was stolen from under my husband's nose?"
        But Jack convinced her she was wrong and in time her heart softened again         and she gave him some breakfast. Once more Jack was eating then the ground shuddered and the great voice boomed: "Fee. Fi, Fo, Fum." Quickly, Jack jumped into the oven.
As he entered, the giant bellowed:
"Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum,
I smell the blood of cm Englishman,
Be he alive or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread."
The giant's wife put a plate of sizzling sausages before him, telling him he must be mistaken. After breakfast the giant fetched a hen from a back room. Every time he said "Lay!" the hen laid an egg of solid gold.
"I must steal that hen, if I can," thought Jack, and he waited until the giant fell asleep. Then he slipped out of the oven, snuck up to the top of the beanstalk, keeping the hen under one arm, he scrambled down the Beanstalk as fast as he could until he reached the bottom. Jack's mother was waiting but she was not pleased when she saw the hen.
"Another of your silly ideas, is it, bringing an old hen when you might have brought us some gold? I don't know, what is to be done with you?"
Then Jack set the hen down carefully, and commanded "Lay!" just as the giant had done. To his mother's surprise the hen laid an egg of solid gold.
Jack and his mother now lived in great luxury. But in time Jack became a little bored and decided to climb the beanstalk again.
This time he did not risk talking to the giant's wife in case she recognized him. He slipped into the kitchen when she was not looking and hid himself in the log basket. He watched the giant's wife prepare breakfast and then he heard the giant's roar:
"Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread."
"If it's that cheeky boy who stole your gold and our magic hen, then help you catch him," said the giant's wife. "Why don't we look in the oven? It's my guess he'll be hiding there."
You may be sure that Jack was glad he was not in the oven. The giant and his wife hunted high and low but never thought to look in the log basket. At last they gave up and the giant sat down to breakfast.
After he had eaten, the giant fetched a harp. When he commanded "Play!" the harp played the most beautiful music. Soon the giant fell asleep, and Jack crept out of the log basket. Quickly he snatched up the harp and ran. But the harp called out loudly, "Master, save me! Save me!" and the giant woke. With a roar of rage and he chased after Jack.
Jack raced down the road towards the beanstalk with the giant's footsteps thundering behind him. When he reached the top of the beanstalk he threw down the harp and started to slither down after it.
The giant followed, and now the whole beanstalk shook and shuddered with his weight and Jack feared for his life. At last he reached the ground and seizing an ax,  Jack chopped at the beanstalk with all his might. Snap!
"Look out, mother!" he called as the giant came tumbling down, head first. He lay dead at their feet with the beanstalk on the ground beside them. The harp was broken, but the hen continued to lay golden eggs for Jack and his mother and they lived happily and in great comfort for a long, long time.

Some Interpretations.

1   The story illustrates, metaphorically, the way Jack grows to maturity, from dependent child, to well-to-do man whose mother depends on him.

2   Jack is a layabout who gets into bad company, then into burglary, and ends up a very successful criminal

3  Jack works out a psychological problem. He enacts a kind of Oedipus complex in which he kills his father and controls replaces him as head of the household.

4  There’s a great emphasis of wealth in the story. It’s a struggle for gold.

5  There are two worlds, the real world of poverty and cattle markets, and a dream world of beanstalks and talking harps and ogres.   Jack manages to reconcile the two by destroying the dream world, but at the same time ‘milking it’ of its value.  

6   The ogre eats boys and Englishmen.  Obviously he deserves to be deceived by his wife and fleeced and killed by Jack.

7  The women in the story are foolish.  Jack’s Mum is wrong about the beanstalk, and doesn’t see the value of the hen.  The  giant’s wife deceives and indirectly causes his death.

8   The tale deals, as so often, with anxieties:  about poverty, about being killed, about leaving home.

9   Looking at the picture above don't you feel a little sorry for the Giant?

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Outlaws

The story’s ‘world’ moves from
  • ‘Primitive’ life to do with practical problems of living in the forest and avoiding capture
  • ‘Pantheism’ where they feel emotionally part of nature
  • ‘Paganism’  where they feel attacked by spirits
  • ‘Religion’  when Berg tells Tord about God and Tord is guided by divine ‘justice’

Tord worships Berg as a kind of father who knows everything, whom he loves, and whom he obeys in the traditional way as his ‘lord’.   Ironically the ‘education’ that Berg gives him in the end leads to his betrayal of Berg in the name of a ‘justice’ we don’t quite admire.

Berg too lives in terms of rank, and expects Tord’s obedience and respect.
He despises him because of his ‘rank’ as a thief.

Tord in fact is not a thief but allowed himself to be accused to save his father.  He lacks self-confidence, and is influenced not just by Berg but by the supernatural feel he gets from the forest and lake

Very little happens in the story.  It is taken up with representation of the ‘primeval’ world the outcasts live in, and with how they sort out what really happened in the past for one to be dubbed a murderer and the other a thief.

The main events are.
  • They live the forest life but not as criminal ‘outlaws’, Berg excited by the chase but only with ‘half’ of himself, Tord scared.
  • Tord reveals that he is not really a thief, but shielding his father, which Berg despises (ironically from the viewpoint of his final betrayal by Tord)
  • They see Unn, Berg’s former lover, perhaps, whom Tord now falls in love with.
  • Berg tells Tord about his wife’s jealousy of Unn, leading to the Bishop’s public humiliation of Berg and Tord and his murder of the Bishop for the sake of Unn’s honour.
  • Berg tells Tord about God and Tord thinks Berg ought to confess – which means being tortured.
  • Tord gathers villagers to take Berg and eventually tells Berg that he has done so, then has a last minute change of heart, but too late.
  • Berg turns on Tord but is killed by him, also to punish Unn, but is heartbroken.

At the end the reader is left with questions

1      What is the source of Tord’s overwhelming love and admiration of Berg?   Is he a kind of father?  It’s only as the story develops that he is concerned with his being a murderer.

2      What is the significant of Berg’s concern with self-assertion, and what we might call ‘rank’.  He despises Tord for being a thief, and falls ‘naturally’ into treating him as a servant.   At first he mocks Tord for not helping the villagers to capture him, then at the end wants to kill him for doing just that. 

3   Why is so much attention given to description of the landscape?   Are  we to see the atmosphere of the  place as                   more powerful than anything else in the story?

4    Berg’s murder would have been forgotten about, perhaps, if it were not a holy man whom he had killed. His murder of the Bishop is in keeping with an earlier moral code of honour and revenge in which Berg’s action would be ‘normal’ -  defending Unn’s and his own honour.

5      What do we assume about the relationship between Berg and Unn?  And how do we view the action of Berg’s wife, and of Unn herself?

6      What do we make of the God Berg teaches Tord about?  How do we react ourselves to the conflict between love and justice, as it seems at the end?

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


Notes on
‘Filial Sentiments of a Parricide’

The story is done in the form of a newspaper article, and is sometimes referred to as such, and seemed to be one when first published in Le Figaro sixteen months after his mother's death.    It was begun just before Proust began his major work,  In Remembrance of Times Past, but it does deal to an extent with our ways of recalling the past.  

Proust recalls his friend, M van Blarenberghe, and in the effort to recall what was a casual acquaintance sees more in him than he had been aware of at the time.   His enhanced view of the man is affected by the letters he receives from him in response to Proust’s own letters sympathising with van Blarenberghe for the loss of his father.   Also Proust sets his own consciousness partly in the past because he feels as if he is writing for his own dead parents, and this is an aspect of his sense, now, of living more as their son than as himself.

The modern reader may be surprised by the confidence with which Proust rethinks the nature of van Blarenberghe on what might seem very flimsy evidence, and himself still very much affected by grief for his own parents.

The story is provocative in that it raise a number of themes, which the reader is left to ‘add together’.   Proust puts off answering Blarenbergh’s sensitive reply to his, Proust’s’, original letter by thinking about two things which perhaps we are supposed to connect with the main event of the story.  The first is his sense of the weather coming from far off, and indeed of the universe being ‘close’ to him, and he connected to the stars as if by threads.  The second, and related to that, is again about distance and connection, but this time by the pleasure of reading the newspaper as if it were all tittle-tattle and quite distant from himself, when of course for the people involved the news stories are very closely part of their lives.   And this comes home suddenly to him when he sees the story far off but close to himself, the death of van Blarenberghe and his murder of his mother.   The closeness of this, and yet its distance sends Proust into all kinds of comparisons with great tragedies.   This may be a variation on the theme of close versus distance.  The drama is ‘real’ and yet imaginary,  horrific and yet beautiful,  noble and yet evil.   Being played on in the distance, and through letters and news stories, it is also something like a drama.

His tendency to see  van Blarenbergh generously leads him to see him as in some way mislead by the gods or himself into murdering his own mother.   One thing we don’t find out – because it is all so distant – is what lead van Blarenbergh to loose his self-control, or perhaps temporarily go mad, and in some way be deceived, and kill his own mother (“What have you done?”.   Proust is able to see in the stark opposition between mother-love and mother-murder ways in which for him children always destroy their mothers, through the anxiety they cause them.  Perhaps this was a part of Proust’s own experience.  But at the same time as being destroyed by their children, Proust allows, mothers are also blessed in them.   

On this contradiction of the difference or similarity (which?) between the life-enhancing and the death-dealing, that the story ends.   I don't know sufficient about Proust's life to comment on the idea that in some way this story is about Proust's own mother, and guilt he felt about her.


1   Is it credible that Proust should be so moved by a stranger’s letter?  Or is there something else driving him?

2  The story gives no motivation for van Blarenbergh.  Proust assumes something noble and tragic.   What does he really know about him?   Or do these questions miss the point?

3  What ‘evidence’ does Proust give for van Blarenbergh’s nobility?

4   What does Proust mean by his comparison of a newspaper murder to Greek tragedy?

5  In what sense do we kill our mothers?

6   In what way is the story about distances -  psychological, temporal, imaginative,  moral?

7  Proust denied that he was in some way excusing murder.  What is his attitude to this one?

by Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955) is a very well known German novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 1929.   He opposed Hitler from exile in Switzerland.

The story is about the German romantic poet and dramatist, Friedrich Schiller (1759- 1805) and refers from time to time to  Schiller’s friend and rival Goethe, perhaps the most famous of all German poets.  Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy has become well known from its setting in Beethoven’s 8th Symphony.

Goethe and Schiller, by L. Mühlbach
Schiller, in the story, laments what is sometimes called a ‘writer’s block’.  He is having trouble with current work, both getting on with it, and having sufficient confidence in it to do that.  The play is probably  the trilogy, Wallenstein.    He is emotionally drained by his inability to get the play right, also to get down to it again for fear of failure.  Schiller, also, is ill with a chronic lung disease.   In the background is his idea that his creativity is somehow bound up with, perhaps even caused by,  his sickness.

He criticises himself for inaction, and then laments that his work is not good enough, and contrasts himself with Goethe whom he represents as finding inspiration easily and fluently.

A good deal of the story deals with the relationship of creativity and suffering, the greater the suffering the greater the creativity, and then the creativity turns into a kind of joy.  But he also has doubts about that, whether that’s just fine words.

Towards the end he looks down at his wife and thinks about the way in which his love for her has to be shared with his love for his art, and perhaps it deprives her his fullest devotion.  Looking tenderly down at his sleeping wife seems to revives him and he is able at last to finish what he’s writing. 

He is able to go down into the area belong his consciousness and to dredge up things from the depths of the chaos there, to create art orphically (in the manner of the mythical poet Orpheus) out of that very chaos.   His words at one point echo the words of Genesis where God creates the world out of chaos

His concerns are typically those of the romantic to whom the process of composition, and the psychology of art, are of prime importance, placing art on a higher plane, and making it different from, anything else.   His last remarks about shaping chaos will remind the English reader, also,  of Kubla Khan,  Coleridge’s poem about inspiration.   Coleridge, of course, was a student of German romantic philosophers.   In Kubla Khan Coleridge describes a ‘sacred river’ coming up from under the earth rather like an earthquake, and this in turn is like the inspired words of the poet bursting up from his unconscious mind.

Besides talking about inspiration Schiller also talks about ‘greatness’, being a great artist, and how a great artist gains his greatness from his suffering.   He suggests that his agony is primarily to do with with completely his play so that it will show his greatness.  

One of the points worth talking about, perhaps, is the question of egotism.   How far does his individualism tip over into a form of egotism?   Then again, how far is it true that great artists always suffer?   And what exactly does he mean by the kind of mental suffering he talks of but does not describe?   What exactly is it that Mann describes in the last paragraph?