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?


Mark Twain has been called ‘the father of the American novel’ mainly because of his Huckleberry Finn, a book which among other things deals with slavery and hence with prejudice.   A Dog’s Tale, written at the end of his life, is also about prejudice of a kind,  the inability to see animals as ‘God’s creatures’ like us, and especially an inability to understand their pain.  Mark Twain wrote strongly against vivisection.

This story is like a fairy story, especially at the beginning, mainly because the animal speaks and is a character in it.  But it’s also a story with a moral.  The dog, Aileen, knows a lot more about ‘how to live’ than does the intellectual professor.   And Aileen’s mother knows more about teaching too, since she sees teaching as a matter of showing an example.  She and Aileen have learnt how,  whereas the professor and his colleagues have learn that.

Much is made of language in the story because living well has very little to do with knowing long bookish words.   Aileen’s mother finds long words fun.  They provide her with entertainment.  She plays with their sounds almost as a poet would.   She plays other people, too, through her often joking sometimes mischievous invention of meanings of long words.   It doesn’t matter to her that she’s ‘wrong’ because the etymological aspects of life don’t matter.

Words, of course, distinguish humans from animals.   And there is a sadness in the telling when Aileen hears but doesn’t understand the plans for killing her puppy as an experiment and for the good of humanity.   Language comes to the fore again when we hear the way the professor speaks about the now blinded and dying puppy: nothing but celebration because he was right.

Twain suggests that there’s something fundamental about living unselfishly as Aileen has been brought up to.   The humans can be cajoled into being good through fear of hellfire and hope of heaven.   The animals have no hope of an afterlife and yet still, Twain suggests,  love and unselfishness are worth having for their own sake.