Monday, September 28, 2020

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith

 Source of book: I own this


This is another of the lovely Easton Press hardbacks that I found at a library sale. 


Literature seems to go in cycles, with whole generations writing nothing memorable in a particular genre, for one reason or another. Sometimes, the reason is obvious, such as the ban on theater during the Puritan experiment after King Charles II. Other times, it is less obvious what happened. The muse seems to have departed, at least in hindsight. 


One of those weird gaps occurred in British theater in the 1700s and 1800s. After a brief flowering during the Restoration, there was a huge gap that lasted over 150 years, punctuated only by two truly great comedies (and one lesser one.) It wasn’t until Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw in the 1890s that British comedy can be said to have truly returned to greatness. 


So what about those exceptions to the wasteland? Well, Richard Sheridan wrote two plays which are still considered worthwhile. The Rivals, which I read earlier this year, is good but not as good as Sheridan’s other play, The School for Scandal, which is one of the finest satires ever written. 


The other great play from the era - also written in the 1770s like Sheridan’s works - is She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. 


Goldsmith was an interesting character, unique in that while he didn’t write prolifically, he managed to create a masterpiece in each of three different dramas. His long poem, “The Deserted Village,” is still considered to be the pinnacle of its form. The Vicar of Wakefield, his one novel, was widely read and beloved during the Victorian Era, and is referenced in many novels written later. It is not as popular these days, alas. I have yet to read it, but if it is as good as She Stoops to Conquer, it must be quite good. 


This play is of its own kind. It doesn’t have the biting satire of either Sheridan or Wilde, it isn’t as broadly farcical as a bawdy Restoration Era comedy, and it isn’t particularly serious either. It is just a rather funny, yet nuanced, comedy. 


The basic idea is that the Hardcastles are minor aristocracy, living in the countryside. Daughter Kate is of marriageable age, so Mr. Marlow, son of a family friend, comes to potentially court her. With him is Hastings, who is in a secret relationship with Kate’s cousin Constance. The older generation, however, wants Constance to marry Kate’s half-brother Tony Lumpkin, an immature but good natured prankster. By making this marriage, Constance’s inherited jewels stay in the family, so to speak. Tony and Constance are on good terms, but have no interest in marrying each other. 


As Hastings and Marlow travel to the Hardcastle residence, they become hopelessly lost. Fortunately - or not if you prefer - they run into Tony at the local pub. Tony, seeing a chance at some fun, directs Hastings and Marlow to the Hardcastle residence, but tells them that it is an old house now converted to an inn. 


Thus, when Hastings and Marlow arrive, they believe that they are simply staying at an inn. They treat Mr. Hardcastle like an innkeeper, the servants like barkeeps, and so on. To great hilarity. 


In addition, Kate, after a tipoff from Tony, decides to play two parts. She meets Marlow in her own name, but he, as usual for him, gets all tongue-tied and awkward and makes a mess of things. Kate then disguises herself, and pretends to be the barmaid. Marlow is able to loosen up, and the two of them fall in love. 


In the meantime, Constance conspires with Hastings and Tony to pilfer her own jewels, so she can elope with Hastings. Unfortunately, this successful purloining goes awry when Marlow, who is not in on the secret of the elopement, misunderstands what he is to do with the jewels he is handed, and returns them to Mrs. Hardcastle for safekeeping - he believes she is the landlady. 


Things go even crazier before they are resolved, in large part because of Tony’s chutzpah. 


The plot itself seems rather like one P. G. Wodehouse would later write, complete with dour aunts, secret engagements, stolen property, mistaken identity, and a good-natured rogue. 


The dialogue is quite witty. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, and it lacks the sharp edge of Wilde, but it is more gently humorous. Although there are a few funny innuendos, it isn’t bawdy. Here are some examples, starting with the opening dialogue. 


MRS. HARDCASTLE: I vow, Mr. Hardcastle, you’re very particular. Is there a creature in the whole country but ourselves that does not take a trip to town now and then, to rub off the rust a little? There’s the two Miss Hoggs, and our neighbor, Mrs. Grigsby, go to take a month’s polishing every winter. 

MR. HARDCASTLE: Ay, and bring back vanity and affectation to last them the whole year. I wonder why London cannot keep its own fools at home. In my time, the follies of the town crept slowly among us, but now they travel faster than a stage-coach. Its fopperies come down, not only as inside passengers, but in the very basket. 


The jokes at the expense of London don’t stop there, however. Tony Lumpkin and the pub landlord joke about Hastings and Marlow. 


LANDLORD: There be two gentlemen in a post-chaise at the door. They have lost their way upo’ the forest; and they are talking something about Mr. Hardcastle. 

TONY: As sure as can be, one of them must be the gentleman that’s coming down to court my sister. Do they seem to be Londoners?

LANDLORD: I believe they may. They look woundily like Frenchmen. 


Hey, a joke at the expense of both London and France. Tony at this point has an idea. He will soon inherit from his late father, and thus can prank his step father (“father-in-law”). 


TONY: Father-in-law has been calling me whelp and hound, this half year. Now, if I pleased, I could be so revenged upon the old grumbletonian. But then I’m afraid -- afraid of what? I shall soon be worth fifteen hundred a year, and let him frighten me out of that if he can!


I love the word “grumbletonian,” which really needs to be in common use again. The landlord knows Tony is up to something, and uses his supply of “colorful metaphors” along the way. 


LANDLORD: Ah, bless your heart, for a sweet, pleasant -- damn’d mischievous son of a whore. 


Meanwhile, Hardcastle, in preparation for his guests, lectures his staff, which are not, shall we say, the sharpest tools. After admonishing them that they need to serve the guests, and not eat until later, Diggory protests. 


DIGGORY: By the laws, your worship, that’s parfectly unpossible. Whenever Diggory sees yeating going forward, ecod, he’s always wishing for a mouthful himself.


There are some more fun words there. Unpossible is logically acceptable, although non standard, and thus amusing. There is also the less common version of “egad,” both meaning a minced oath version of “by god!” And, of course, an early use of “yeet.” At least that’s what I am going to tell the kids. 


Having realized that Kate is at the “inn,” Hastings tries to psych poor Marlow up to talk to her. Marlow is hopelessly intimidated by the idea of trying to court a girl, however.


HASTINGS: If you could but say half the fine things to them that I have heard you lavish upon the barmaid of an inn, or even a college bed maker --

MARLOW: Why, George, I can’t say fine things to them. They freeze, they petrify me. They may talk of a comet, or a burning mountain, or such bagatelle. But to me, a modest woman, drest out in all her finery, is the most tremendous object of the whole creation. 

HASTINGS: Ha! ha! ha! At this rate, man, how can you ever expect to marry?

MARLOW: Never, unless, as among kings and princes, my bride were to be courted by proxy. If, indeed, like an Eastern bridegroom, one were to be introduced to a wife he never saw before, it might be endured. But to go through all the terrors of a formal courtship, together with the episode of aunts, grandmothers and cousins, and at last to blurt out the broad, staring question of, Madam, will you marry me? No, no, that’s a strain much above me, I assure you!


Hence, Kate will have to “stoop to conquer” him, by allowing him to court her as if she were a barmaid. Because sure enough, when they meet, he ends up making a very unromantic conversation. 


MARLOW: Yes, madam. In this age of hypocrisy, there are few who upon strict enquiry do not--a--a--a--

MISS HARDCASTLE: I understand you perfectly, sir.

MARLOW [aside]: Egand, and that’s more than I do myself!

MISS HARDCASTLE: You mean that in this hypocritical age there are few that do not condemn in public what they practice in private, and think they pay every debt to virtue when they praise it.

MARLOW: True, madam; those who have most virtue in their mouths have least of it in their bosoms. But I’m sure I tire you, madam.


Later, Kate and her father discuss Marlow. Neither of them likes his particular style; Kate because he is boring and weird - when he is talking to “her.” And Hardcastle because of Marlow’s jokes at his expense, believing he is the proprietor of an inn. However, Kate has also had her exchange with Marlow in her disguise as the barmaid, so she thinks she can prove Marlow to be different than her father thinks. 


HARDCASTLE: If he be what he has shown himself, I’m determined he shall never have my consent. 

MISS HARDCASTLE: And if he be the sullen thing I take him, he shall never have mine.

HARDCASTLE: In one thing then we are agreed -- to reject him.

MISS HARDCASTLE: Yes. But upon conditions. For if you should find him less impudent, and I more presuming; if you find him more respectful, and I more importunate--I don’t know--the fellow is well enough for a man--Certainly we don’t meet many such at a horse race in the country. 


Meanwhile, Tony and Hastings have been scheming, unbeknownst to Constance Neville, who tries to gain access to her jewels from Aunt Hardcastle. 


MRS. HARDCASTLE: Indeed, Constance, you amaze me. Such a girl as you want jewels? It will be time enough for jewels, my dear, twenty years hence, when your beauty begins to want repairs.

MISS NEVILLE: But what will repair beauty at forty will certainly improve it at twenty, madam. 


Tony, who has by that time pilfered the jewels, overhears Mrs. Hardcastle - his mother - claim that the jewels have disappeared (which they have, but she doesn’t know it), as a way to make Constance go away. She enlists Tony - who is all too willing - to back her up, which he does. 


TONY: That I can bear witness to. They are missing, and not to be found, I’ll take my oath on’t.

MRS. HARDCASTLE: You must learn resignation, my dear; for tho’ we lose our fortune, yet we should not lose our patience. See me, how calm I am.

MISS NEVILLE: Ay, people are generally calm at the misfortune of others.


That’s a sick burn right there. And way too true. Tony can’t resist taking it further after Constance leaves. His mom checks...and discovers the jewels really ARE missing. Tony just plays along, assuring her that he will continue to keep the secret, and congratulates her on faking her “bitter passion” so convincingly. 


TONY: That’s right, that’s right! You must be in a bitter passion, and then nobody will suspect either of us. I’ll bear witness that they are gone. 

MRS. HARDCASTLE: Was there ever such a cross-grain’d brut, that won’t hear me! Can you bear witness that you’re no better than a fool? Was ever poor woman so beset with fools on one hand, and thieves on the other?

TONY: I can bear witness to that. 


Marlow now has a clear field so to speak, and can flirt with the “barmaid,” Kate. It goes much better, since he can relax without the pressure. I won’t quote all the banter, but he lays it on pretty thick, requesting that he fetch him some nectar...from her lips. She is his equal in repartee, however. 


MISS HARDCASTLE: Then it’s odd I should not know it. We brew all sorts of wines in this house, and I have lived here these eighteen years. 

MARLOW: Eighteen years! Why one would think, child, you kept the bar before you were born. How old are you?

MISS HARDCASTLE: O! sir, I must not tell my age. They say women and music should never be dated. 

MARLOW: To guess at this distance, you can’t be much above forty [approaching] Yet nearer, I don’t think so much. [approaching] By coming close to some women, they look younger still; but when we come very close indeed-- [attempting to kiss her]

MISS HARDCASTLE: Pray, sir, keep your distance. One would think you wanted to know one’s age as they do horses, by mark of mouth. 


As this is a comedy, everything does end well eventually. The aunt gets punked, Tony gets some laughs in, and the guys get their gals. It’s a good natured play, with gentle fun poked at the amusing characters. The stakes are low, nobody gets mean, and, well, it is a bunch of fun. 


It also seems like it would stage well in a modern setting. Just make the house into a Bed and Breakfast - plenty of well-to-do sorts dream of retiring and running one, right? The young men would be fine as grad student sorts, a bit awkward, and going to meet the girls because their mothers put them up to it. Someone really should make this happen locally when theaters are safe again. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This book was on a list of short novels on LitHub, and it sounded interesting, so I picked it up. It is short - 176 pages - and feels very much like a novella. It is also somewhat autobiographical, although I am not sure exactly how much is fiction or fact. The book was written in 1985, but has an intriguing blend of old and new stylistic traits. The book was later made into a BBC miniseries, with the author’s input on the screenplay. 

First and foremost, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a coming-of-age story. It is also a story of coming out, and the fallout from that. Young Jeanette, like the author, grows up in Lancashire, England, adopted as an infant by a devout and somewhat fanatical Pentacostal couple. In the book, Jeanette’s mother had a fling with a French young man and nearly (or maybe did) had sex, before giving up all sensuality and flinging herself obsessively into religion. It is strongly suggested that the reason that Jeanette was adopted is because her mother wanted a child but didn’t want to have sex to make one. 


Anyway, Jeanette grows up immersed in the Elim Pentacostal Church, and is believed to be destined to be a missionary, preaching sermons from age five on. However, at puberty, Jeanette realizes that she is attracted to girls, particularly a neighbor named Melanie. The two of them are eventually caught, and the church performs an exorcism on them. It...doesn’t work. Eventually, Jeanette realizes that she cannot reject who she is to follow church dogma, so her mother kicks her out of the home to fend for herself at age sixteen. 


Along with this narrative, there are brief “short stories” that are kind of like fairy tales or maybe Arthurian legends. There are also constant biblical references, including the chapter names, taken from the first eight books of the Bible; and literary references throughout. One particularly interesting one is the version of Jane Eyre Jeanette’s mother reads her - in which Jane marries St. John. (Wait, what?? - that’s what Jeanette thinks when she finally reads the book herself…) 


I found the writing style to be interesting. As the story progresses from childhood to adulthood, so does the writing. Simple words and sentences at first, then more complexity and nuance as Jeanette grows up. 


As regular readers of my blog know, I am strongly cishet, a Kinsey Zero, so I was surprised at how familiar Jeanette’s journey felt. I never had to “come out” regarding my sexuality, but I did have to “come out,” so to speak, as an adult, as a non-Fundie. While my parents were and are not as fanatical and crazy (or as abusive) as Jeanette’s mother, they - particularly my mom - did not adjust well to my wife and I choosing to live differently than they did, and the relationships have been badly damaged as a result. Also, the cult we spent time in was every bit as inherently abusive as the Pentacostal cultic church portrayed in the book. So some things really felt familiar. 


In particular, the feeling of being raised to be a weapon in the cultural/religious wars was instantly recognizable. It wasn’t so much my parents, but the Evangelical subculture, the homeschool subculture, and eventually the Gothard cult, in which all of us were expected to be foot soldiers in his organization. 


Oh, and this too: the viewing of everything as black and white, which I still struggle with today - it is a hard paradigm to shake. Particularly, of course, when our political moment involves some decidedly black and white issues, like whether truth even matters. Anyway, here is what the book says near the beginning:


She never had heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.


Enemies were:    The Devil (in his many forms)

Next Door

Sex (in its many forms)


Friends were:        God

Our dog

Auntie Madge

The Novels of Charlotte Bronte

Slug pellets


and me, at first. 


“Next Door,” by the way, is the next door neighbors, who are clearly heathens because they enjoy alcohol and sex. And bought stuff at the cheap store. 


This black and white thinking, as well as the fact that she was strong enough to bully her husband and child meant that Jeanette really didn’t have any protection from her. When she decided not to cook, that as that, and they ate cold.


Her husband was an easygoing man, but I knew it depressed him. He would have cooked it himself but for my mother’s complete conviction that she was the only person in our house who could tell a saucepan from a piano. She was wrong, as far as we were concerned, but right as far as she was concerned, and really, that’s all that mattered. 


As a child, Jeanette (the character) was a bit odd, and exasperated her teachers. Well, let me back up. Jeanette’s mom taught her at home, sort of, until the British equivalent of CPS threatened her with arrest unless Jeanette went to school. Raised just on books, and not a big variety, but mostly adult classics, she had her own way of doing things, such as putting morbid Bible verses on craft projects, and drawing in black, not bright colors. Her teachers just do not understand, unfortunately. As Jeanette says about one:


My teacher suffered from a problem of vision. She recognized things according to expectation and environment. If you were in a particular place, you expected to see particular things. Sheep and hills, sea and fish; if there was an elephant in the supermarket, she’d either not see it at all, or call it Mrs. Jones and talk about fishcakes. But most likely, she’d do what most people do when confronted with something they don’t understand:



As most of us (former) children can recount, there are plenty of other awkward moments with adults who can’t seem to treat us as actual people. (I swear, everyone has to have had a teacher like that at one time or another.) Here is another episode in the book that is interesting. 


The man who ran the post office was bald and shiny with hands too fat for the sweet jars. He called me poppet, which my mother said was nice. He gave me sweets too, which was an improvement. 

One day he had a new sort. 

“Sweet hearts for a sweet heart,” he said and laughed. That day I had almost strangled my dog with rage, and been dragged from the house by a desperate mother. Sweet I was not. But I was a little girl, ergo, I was sweet, and here were sweets to prove it. 


The gendered socialization process starts at birth, honestly, and that is problematic. My wife and girls too are not particularly “sweet,” which is one reason why we have never fit well in Fundie circles. These early episodes are portents of the storm to come, as Jeanette grows up and becomes more independent. 


The chapter entitled “Deuteronomy,” which comes soon after Jeanette and Melanie realize they have feelings for each other. It is kind of a philosophical musing, a calm before all hell breaks loose. This bit stood out to me:


Very often history is a means of denying the past. Denying the past is to refuse to recognize its integrity. To fit it, force it, function it, to suck out the spirit until it looks the way you think it should. We are all historians in our small way. 


This particularly hit home given the ongoing war over history in the United States. With non-white voices demanding the right to tell their stories, reactionary white people are freaking out. As the 1619 Project seeks to reframe the American story from the perspective of those enslaved and oppressed since our origin, people like Il Toupee push back with “Patriotic Education,” which is every bit as jingoistic and - dare I say it? - reminiscent of Communist propaganda as it sounds. It is a means of denying the past, insisting that it is a story of strong, noble white men who created the perfect country, before all those liberal bastards came along with their social democracy and civil rights movements and stuff. 


When Jeanette’s relationship with Melanie is discovered, they are both subjected to exorcism, after which Jeanette becomes gravely ill. During that time, her mother purges her possessions. 


While I lay shivering in the parlour, she took a toothcomb to my room and found all the letters, all the cards, all the jottings of my own, and burnt them one night in the backyard. There are different sorts of treachery, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. She burnt a lot more than the letters that night in the backyard. I don’t think she knew. In her head she was still queen, but not my queen any more, not the White Queen any more. Walls protect and walls limit. It is in the nature of walls that they should fall. That walls should fall is the consequence of blowing your own trumpet.


Yeah, this one hit home. While I never had that kind of betrayal (which would have ENDED my relationship with my parents then and there, I have had a sadly long series of betrayals over the years, both from family and my faith tradition. I’m not going to get into them here, but may some day tell more about the church betrayal. But believe me, I can remember each incident with fresh pain. The line, “betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it” becomes a repeated phrase throughout the second half of the book, as Jeanette is backstabbed over and over again, at the end, sadly and devastatingly, by Melanie. 


Also so familiar is that moment when a parent burns something that cannot be rebuilt. It is particularly frustrating to me that my parents seemed so clueless as they barrelled ahead with things that a moment’s forethought would have told them was a Rubicon in the relationship. In particular, the refusal to respect a “no.” But also the assumption that we shared their bigotry. There was genuine shock when I walked out on a conversation and refused to discuss politics further. There are some lines that you cannot cross without consequences. 


And yes, walls fall when you decide to blow your own trumpet - and plot your own life course regardless of the walls others insist on placing in your way. 


The final betrayal by Jeanette’s mother, of course, is when she kicks her out. After that, Jeanette does not let herself be put in a situation where her mother can damage her. She does, though, go back home for a visit as a young adult. Before that, though, she muses on the problem of going back. 


“Don’t you ever think of going back?”

Silly question. There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intend to bring you back. Mind turns to the pull, it’s hard to pull away. I’m always thinking of going back. When Lot’s wife looked over her shoulder, she turned into a pillar of salt. Pillars hold things up, and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing yourself. People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between the two realities. There is much pain here. 


This is really why I have not returned to organized religion. I could go back, but am aware that I probably wouldn’t survive. The reality of the evil that organized religion has done and is doing in our society is just too much. The pain for me is too much. But, like the narrator (who seems to be the author at the end), it isn’t as simple as just walking away from religion all together. 


I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky. If the servants hadn’t rushed in and parted us, I might have been disappointed, might have snatched off the white samite to find a bowl of soup. As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. 


And I agree. God is not my betrayer. But many who claim his name have betrayed me, and betrayed God too, in order to follow after an antichristian ideology that destroys. Whether that ideology is patriarchy and misogyny, or white nationalism (and they are strongly linked, of course) it is a destructive belief that puts dogma ahead of people, relationships, and even reality itself. There is one final bit of betrayal in the book, when Jeanette runs into Melanie, now married with a kid and another on the way. And Melanie dismisses their relationship as a mere fling that never meant anything to her. 


It’s not a word people use very often, which confuses me, because there are different kinds of infidelity, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. By betrayal, I mean promising to be on your side, then being on somebody else’s. 


That is what hurts the most. People promised to be on my side, on my wife’s side, on my family’s side. And it turned out they weren’t. Not really. The first time our wellbeing conflicted with ideology, ideology won. And the people who confirmed and validated the ideology were and will always be more important to them. Melanie is an example of that. She apparently decided to choose her religious beliefs, and her family’s preferences. Whether a heterosexual marriage was what she wanted (and if she was bisexual, it probably was), her choice made it necessary to deny the passion that she and Jeanette had, even though it was fiercely emotional to both of them at the time. 


That too resonates for me. The values that I was raised with and that I thought I shared with so many, have turned out to not be shared after all. The values never meant anything, apparently. Not enough to be too important to betray later when the time came. It is sad, and it has meant tremendous loss to me, of people and community - both of which I really did think were better than that. 


Betrayal is betrayal, wherever you find it. 


And that really is the takeaway from the book for me, and why it affected me as much as it did. To understand what I experienced as a betrayal, a betrayal of values, a betrayal of loyalty, and my emotional response to that as the natural result was helpful. Winterson creates an emotional landscape in this book, wherein Jeanette (and perhaps the author) has nowhere safe to turn, and has to get out and take care of herself, leaving everything behind. It isn’t the easiest thing to read, but it is true in the deepest sense. And that a cithet male like myself can see so much of my own experience is a testament to Winterson’s skill and vulnerability. 




There is one more thing I wanted to mention, but it didn’t fit anywhere else well. Jeanette realizes that she is surrounded by lesbians without knowing it. There is the couple that own her favorite store, probably one of the little old church ladies who is convinced that if she hadn’t gotten sick, she could have prevented the blowup at the church over Jeanette and Melanie. 


And there is also the oboe player, another woman at the church, who facilitates a visit between Jeanette and Melanie...but also has a not exactly consensual sexual encounter with the young Jeanette after plying her with brandy. 


“Perhaps this will help.” And she began to stroke my head and shoulders. I turned over so she could reach my back. Her hand crept lower and lower. She bent over me; I could feel her breath on my neck. Quite suddenly I turned and kissed her. We made love and I hated it and hated it, but would not stop.


Yeah, that’s both great writing and disturbing as hell. I wonder if it is also autobiographical. 




And, music, of course: 


Oh, life is bigger

It's bigger

Than you and you are not me

The lengths that I will go to

The distance in your eyes

Oh no, I've said too much

I set it up

That's me in the corner

That's me in the spotlight

Losing my religion

Trying to keep up with you

And I don't know if I can do it

Oh no, I've said too much

I haven't said enough

I thought that I heard you laughing

I thought that I heard you sing

I think I thought I saw you try

Every whisper

Of every waking hour

I'm choosing my confessions

Trying to keep an eye on you

Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool

Oh no, I've said too much

I set it up

Consider this

Consider this

The hint of the century

Consider this

The slip

That brought me to my knees


What if all these fantasies

Come flailing around

Now I've said too much

I thought that I heard you laughing

I thought that I heard you sing

I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream

That was just a dream

That's me in the corner

That's me in the spotlight

Losing my religion

Trying to keep up with you

And I don't know if I can do it

Oh no, I've said too much

I haven't said enough

I thought that I heard you laughing

I thought that I heard you sing

I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream

Try, cry

Fly, try

That was just a dream, just a dream, just a dream



Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Although we often tend to read books I would not have otherwise discovered, this one was an exception. I really enjoyed reading Kindred back in 2015, and had intended to read this one at some point. In what is an interesting coincidence, our current political and environmental climate - massive wildfires across the western United States yet again, civil unrest, police brutality, vigilantes with guns, and so on - led to this book shooting to the top of the bestseller lists. Which is something that Octavia Butler never achieved during her lifetime. 


Parable of the Sower is a dystopian book. It might even be considered “post-apocalyptic,” but it lacks the usual catastrophic single event that you would expect. Instead, it is a gradual disintegration of society as the result of specific forces that were obvious back in 1993 when Butler wrote the book, and even more so now. 


Climate change has rendered large areas of the United States nearly uninhabitable. Southern California, where the book is set, hasn’t experienced rain in over a year, and water must be purchased at exorbitant cost. Wildfires have scorched most of the forests. Cuts to social programs combined with runaway corporate power have led to mass homelessness and joblessness, which means Los Angeles and other cities are filled with the desperately poor and starving, armed gangs and looters, and police that are privatized and thus make their money from fees for investigations - and whatever they can extort. Inequality has divided society into the ultra-wealthy who have private armies, and everyone else, who are reduced to fighting each other for survival. While the federal government is nominally intact, the states themselves are creating borders to keep out refugees from other states. 


There are only a few safe(ish) havens. Lauren, an African American teen, lives in a neighborhood in what is either the western San Fernando Valley, Simi Valley, or the Thousand Oaks area. (That’s my old stomping ground, so I know it from the description, despite the fictional name.) The neighborhood is racially integrated, and cooperates to defend itself, building walls, keeping armed watch, and so on. The residents generally have some means of support, unlike the poor outside the walls. Lauren’s dad works as a college professor and moonlights as the preacher for the neighborhood church. 


The only other safe alternatives are the enclaves of the ultra-rich, defended by automatic weapons and private soldiers, and newly created company towns, owned by foreign - Asian - corporations and paying starvation wages in exchange for security. Unsurprisingly, jobs at the company towns are limited - in practice - to whites and Asians.


Lauren knows that her relative security can’t last. As the ranks of the desperate grow, and use of the drug “pyro,” which gives its users an orgasmic reaction to fire increases, their neighborhood will be under increasing attack. 


This does in fact happen, after which, her family dead, Lauren sets off with two surviving neighbors, heading north to where she can carry out her “earthseed” plan. Once she reaches an out-of-the-way place where it still rains, she can use her stock of seeds (and knowledge) to establish a sustainable community. As part of this, she essentially creates her own religious tradition, based on the foundational precept that “God is Change.” 


The book is divided into two sections by that catastrophic event. The first half is rather domestic, centering around the drama in Lauren’s family. Her younger half-brother Keith, who she thinks has sociopathic tendencies, steals one of the family guns and goes outside the neighborhood. While we never know the details, he probably gets involved with one of the gangs, eventually dying violently. 


The second half is the story of the journey Lauren makes, picking up followers as she goes. In some ways, the book forms a pyramid (or inverted pyramid) shape. From relative security and cohesion through an utter breakdown and catastrophe, then a gradual building back of society on a very small scale, as the group learns (re-learns, really) how to trust each other. 


One final piece to the puzzle is that Lauren is a “sharer.” That is, she has hyperempathy. She feels the pain and pleasure of others whether she wants to or not. When she was younger, she would literally bleed when others did, but has learned to protect herself a bit better. This causes issues later, because she and others have to kill to defend themselves, which incapacitates her for a period afterward. 


Added to all of the outside stuff happening, we get to experience Lauren’s interior life, as she narrates the story. The tale opens with Lauren explaining how she lost her belief in the Christian god, and has begun to formulate her own philosophy or religion. 


A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. And nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of.

Some say God is a spirit, a force, an ultimate reality. Ask seven people what all of that means and you’ll get seven different answers. So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected? 


Lauren goes on to muse about a hurricane that has killed hundreds of people, most of them poor. 


That’s nature. Is it God? Most of the dead are the street poor who have nowhere to go and who don’t hear the warnings until it’s too late for their feet to take them to safety. Where’s safety for them anyway? Is it a sin against God to be poor? We’re almost poor ourselves. There are fewer and fewer jobs among us, more of us being born, more kids growing up with nothing to look forward to. One way or another, we’ll all be poor some day. The adults say things will get better, but they never have. How will God - my father’s God - behave toward us when we’re poor?


Ultimately, this has been my most intractable problem with Evangelical doctrine. Because of political necessity - wholesale commitment to the policies of the Republican Party, including social darwinism - there is the inevitable conclusion that being poor IS somehow a sin. And related to that, it appears that their god really likes middle class white people better than anyone else. Is that even possible? It certainly is the opposite of the teachings and life of Christ. 


Ultimately, Lauren distills her thoughts into a poetic statement on the nature of God - the one she believes is right, true, and has held up over time. 


God is Power -





And yet, God is Pliable -





God exists to be shaped.

God is Change. 


This statement, in various forms, recurs throughout the book, particularly in the chapter headings, where various parts of Lauren’s “earthseed” notebook are quoted. Here are some other quotes:



Initiates and guides action -

Or it does nothing.


I am reminded of James 2:18: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Over the last few years, a lot of family and former friends have gotten really furious when I have pointed out that their deeds do not indicate Christian beliefs. As in, you cannot claim to follow Christ and advocate for building walls to keep refugees out. Put up or shut up. You want to be a white nationalist? Fine. Just don’t claim to be a Christian. If your belief does not guide you to act in accordance with Christ’s teachings, then it is worthless. 


This next one really hits home in our own times. It is as good of a description of how conservative white people - and especially Evangelicals - have handled a changing world. 


When apparent stability disintegrates,

As it must -

God is Change - 

People tend to give in

To fear and depression,

To need and greed.

When no influence is strong enough

To unify people

They divide.

They struggle,

One against one,

Group against group,

For survival, position, power.

They remember old hates and generate new ones,

They create chaos and nurture it.

They kill and kill and kill,

Until they are exhausted and destroyed,

Until they are conquered by outside forces,

Or until one of them becomes

A leader

Most will follow,

Or a tyrant

Most fear. 


That’s all you need to know about why Evangelicals love and worship Trump. They want a tyrant. Someone who can restore them to glory, and destroy their perceived enemies - those other groups against which they remember the old hates and generate new ones. 


And this one:


All struggles

Are essentially

power struggles.

Who will rule,

Who will lead,

Who will define,




Who will dominate.

All struggles

Are essentially

power struggles,

And most 

are no more intellectual

than two rams

knocking their heads together.


In some ways, the descent of the Republican party into a raw exercise of power by any means and at whatever cost has really laid this reality bare. And our current divided nation is mostly about a certain power struggle. For all of our existence, power has been exercised by white males. They have been able to rule, and even define the terms of perceived reality. More recently, however, women have gained significant power, as have minorities of all kinds. The hegemony is crumbling, and that terrifies and infuriates those used to unquestioned power. This goes double for Evangelicalism, which is rapidly shrinking and growing old, and will probably cease to be a significant political force within a generation or two. As noted above, rather than finding a way to lead, to inspire others, to gain converts, they have chosen to lash out against their perceived enemies, and commit suicide to spite them. Lauren gives an alternative as well, one that we would all do well to embrace. 


Embrace diversity.

Unite - 

Or be divided,




By those who see you as prey.

Embrace diversity

Or be destroyed.


That is the irony. It is only by embracing diversity that we can unite. Both the GOP and Evangelicalism have spent the last few decades screaming against diversity, and expelling and alienating anyone who doesn’t fit the preferred cultural (and often ethnic) mold. And both are paying the price. 


I find I have quoted quite a lot of the “earthseed” poems. There are also a few prose musings, such as the following:


Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.

Civilization, like intelligence, may serve well, serve adequately, or fail to serve its adaptive function. When civilization fails to serve, it must disintegrate unless it is acted upon by unifying internal or external forces.


Again, we are seeing this today. The primary reason that civilization is failing to serve us well right now is that a certain segment of our civilization believes that the others are not necessary or desirable to our civilization, and thus should be...well, not openly exterminated, but encouraged not to reproduce. And also, incarcerated at the highest rate of any country, brutalized by police, starved of adequate income, healthcare, and education, and so on. (See, particularly, the unfortunately influential theories of Charles Murray.) Rebuilding our civilization requires that we see that we are all responsible for each other. We are our brother’s keeper - arguably the central theme of Christ’s teaching. 


Lauren writes the “earthseed” notebook for a particular purpose, which she explains alongside her plans to create a survival pack she can grab in an emergency. (It ends up saving her life later.) 


I’m going to go through my old journals and gather the verses I’ve written into one volume...Then, someday when people are able to pay more attention to what I say than to how old I am, I’ll use these verses to pry them loose from the rotting past, and maybe push them into saving themselves and building a future that makes sense. 


There is a lot of good stuff in that paragraph. First, I very much resonate with the problem of people paying more attention to my age than what I say. Saint Paul advised Timothy to let no one look down on him because of his youth, but I doubt Timothy had much say in the matter. Even now, in my mid-40s, most (thankfully not all) Baby Boomers I know believe that they know better, and that when I “grow up” I’ll agree with them. The number of times my opinion has been completely disregarded on matters that directly affect me and my family is astounding. They always know better. That is one Lauren experiences too, of course. Her warnings that the neighborhood cannot last forever, and that the old ways will not return are discounted. The old folks believe with just a few more years, some better politicians, and the right beliefs, everything will be as it was. Except it won’t. Just like now, we cannot return to a mostly white America, or a mostly Evangelical America. It isn’t happening. We cannot simply continue to destroy our atmosphere and believe that it will “be cooling down again soon,” as Hair Furor says. It is time to listen to younger people, not brush them off. 


The second thing there is related. So many need to be pried loose from the rotting past, and start working toward a future that makes sense - a sustainable future, a more egalitarian future, one that is based in our current reality rather than nostalgia for a golden age that never was. 


I also made a note of a fascinating conversation that ties in with that idea. Travis is the man in a family that joins the group near Ventura after Lauren, Harry, and Zahra save them. 


“I still can’t see change or entropy as God,” Travis said, bringing the conversation back to Earthseed. 

“Then show me a more pervasive power than change,” I said. “It isn’t just entropy. God is more complex than that. Human behavior alone should teach you that much. And there’s still more complexity when you’re dealing with several things at once - as you always are. There are all kinds of changes in the universe.” 

He shook his head. “Maybe, but nobody’s going to worship them.”

“I hope not,” I said. “Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship is no good without action. With action, it’s only useful if it steadies you, focuses your effort, eases your mind.”

He gave me an unhappy smile. “Praying makes people feel better even when there’s no action they can take,” he said. “I used to think that was all God was good for - to help people like my mother stand what they had to stand.”

“That isn’t what God is for, but there are times when that’s what prayer is for. And there are times when that’s what these verses are for. God is Change, and in the end, God prevails.

“But there’s no power in having strength and brains, and yet waiting for God to fix things for you or take revenge for you.” 

Why personify change by calling it God? Since change is just an idea, why not call it that? Just say change is important.

“Because after a while, it won’t be important!” I told him. “People forget ideas. They’re more likely to remember God - especially when they’re scared or desperate.”

“Then they’re supposed to do what?” he demanded. “Read a poem?”

“Or remember a truth or a comfort or a reminder to action,” I said. “People do that all the time. They reach back to the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, or some other religious book that helps them deal with the frightening changes that happen in life.”

“Change does scare most people.”

“I know. God is frightening. Best learn to cope.”


I may not agree with all the theology there (and whether Butler spoke for herself is not clear), but there are some definite truths. For any religion to be functional and positive, rather than toxic and hateful, it has to deal with ongoing reality. It can’t just be about imposing a supernatural authority figure on those who do not believe, or it will die of its own inertia. Also true is the fact that we remember things from religion. Although my own beliefs are no longer remotely Evangelical these days, I remain a believer in Christ and one who wishes and tries to follow his teachings. In these unstable times, through several crises of faith, loss of family and community, I draw on those truths, comforts, and reminders to action. 


I have mostly looked at the philosophy, which is kind of the opposite of what our club did. There are a lot of interesting plot points to discuss, and the world Butler creates is a fertile ground for contemplation. The book is scary mostly because it isn’t some crazy apocalyptic horror. Rather, it seems entirely plausible. We hope it isn’t inevitable, but we can’t just sit back and hope - we have to take action to avoid it. 


One thing that we discussed that was of particular interest to me is how Lauren assembled her community. In order to gain “followers,” so to speak, she had to be cautious. After all, most of the people they meet would be happy to kill them and take their money, guns, and property. (Sadly, lawyers do not appear to be a valuable post-apocalyptic asset.) Lauren has to figure out who to trust, and who not to trust. Her empathy isn’t a help here, by the way. She can feel pain, but everyone has pain. Some with pain hurt others. Lauren uses a combination of instinct and careful observation. Some things are obvious, of course. Parents with small children or infants are likely not a threat, because children create huge dangers for travel. On the other hand, they may endanger the group. Groups of young men are, on the other hand, a serious threat. Lauren also has to manage racial distrust. Harry, a somewhat clueless white guy from her neighborhood, escapes with her and Zahra, a young woman sold to a neighbor as a plural wife. (Her street smarts serve the group well, although her suspicious nature causes conflicts occasionally.) Harry is a bit like the husband in Kindred, though. He is a good enough guy, but naive and unused to having to fight for survival, rather than coasting on privilege. One of the eventual traits of the group as a whole is its diversity. They have interracial couples, former slaves, former professionals, and both normals and “sharers.” The diversity becomes the strength. 


I want to mention too the prescient view of how policing - and privatized policing - work for minorities. Throughout the journey, the travelers have to shop at stores for necessities, using the saved money they have plus any money they find on the dead. The stores are, for obvious reasons, heavily guarded. 


The security guards were as well-armed as the cops - shotguns and automatic rifles, a couple of machine guns on tripods in cubicles above us. Bankole said he could remember a time when security guards had revolvers or nothing but clubs. My father used to talk like that.

Some of the guards either weren’t very well trained - or they were almost as power-drunk as the scavengers. They pointed their guns at us. It was crazy. Two or three of us walked into a store and two or three guns were trained on us. We didn’t know what was going on at first. We froze, waiting to see what was going to happen. 

The guys behind the guns laughed. One of them said, “Buy something or get the fuck out!” 

We got out. These were little stores. There were plenty of them to choose from. Some of them turned out to have sane guards. I couldn’t help wondering how many accidents the crazy guards have with those guns. I suppose after the fact, every accident was an armed robber with obvious homicidal inclinations. 


This isn’t that big of an exaggeration. Literally every African American friend or colleague I have talked to over the years has at least one - usually dozens - of stories of being followed around stores, and told to “buy something or get the fuck out.” And, as the last few years have captured on video, every time someone kills an unarmed black person, it seems to be covered up with “he was really a threat.” Even Brionna Taylor was nearly framed by a crooked prosecutor. And how about this one, describing the chaos in the Bay Area, with gangs and the police alike robbing, killing, or raping the refugees from the violence:


The National Guard has been activated to restore order, and I suppose it might. But I suspect that in the short term, it will only add to the chaos. What else could another group of well armed people do in such an insane situation? The thoughtful ones might take their guns and other equipment and vanish to help their families. Others might find themselves at war with their own people. They’ll be confused and scared and dangerous. Of course, some will discover that they enjoy their new power - the power to make others submit, the power to take what they want - property, sex, life…


That sounds probable. After all, the police already have a lot of those sorts, who get off on power. I have encountered a lot of them in my life, sadly. 


Near the end, when they have nearly reached their destination in Mendocino County, where Bankole has family property they can use to form their community, Lauren discusses again, this time with Bankole, the older former doctor who has joined them, the ideas behind earthseed. One of the elements is the goal of eventually leaving Earth to colonize other worlds - hence “earthseed.” Bankole notes that this fills the role of “heaven” in the theology. A chance to create something, “A heaven that will be theirs to shape,” as Lauren puts it. Bankole comes back with a perceptive reply. 


“Or a hell,” he said. His mouth twitched. “Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.”


Isn’t that the truth. 


Parable of the Sower was originally intended to be the first of a trilogy. The second book, set two generations later, Parable of the Talents, apparently has a president elected on his promises of a theocracy and his slogan “Make America Great Again!” Wait, what? Yes, that was over twenty years ago. To be fair, Trump didn’t invent MAGA, he stole it from Ronald Reagan, who used it in a much more benign context, saying that immigrants have always made America great, so making America great again meant embracing immigrants. (Yeah, the GOP sure has changed….) The third book, alas, never got written. Butler made notes and some fits and starts, but got distracted with what would be her final novel before her death. 


This was a sobering book. But it was also hopeful. We humans have the choice to embrace and shape change. We can choose a different world, based on ongoing reality and looking toward the future, not the past. But we have to choose it. 



Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 


Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore