Year of Short Fiction Part 1: Daisy Miller

Let’s dig in to our year-long series. I’ve started with Daisy Miller by Henry James. It might not be the best one to start with, because I wanted to examine how writers tighten up their prose and structure and so on for shorter works. James is known for extreme care in his prose, even in long works like Portrait of a Lady.

In general, I’m going to try to go in chronological order so we can look at how short fiction has evolved. Daisy Miller originally appeared in a magazine in 1878. It is a novella-length work.

The story is told over four scenes. Each scene is basically an event that occurs while Daisy, an American, is travelling in Europe. A lot of James’ themes we’ve seen before appear: reputation, independence, society, roles.

Daisy meets a man named Winterbourne while travelling in Switzerland. She flirts with him, and since they don’t have a history, he can’t tell if she is a free spirit who doesn’t care how society views her or if she is, for lack of a better word, slutty. In either case, he likes that she does what she wants.

They then meet up again the following year. She has taken up with an Italian but still flirts with Winterbourne. He decides she probably just flirts with everyone. She stays out too late with the Italian, and Winterbourne tries to warn her of the danger. She catches malaria and dies.

I knew nothing about this before reading it, so I was kind of surprised at this ending. Much of the second half of the novella revolves around Winterbourne figuring out a note Daisy sends him in which she declares that she cares what he thinks. This draws out the theme of following roles set out by society. In one sense, it indicates she doesn’t care what other people think. In another sense, it shows how much Daisy really cared for Winterbourne. She’d listen to him and no one else.

Winterbourne had the opportunity to save Daisy. He made the decision to not bring her in from the mosquitoes in a heated moment of passion. The novella is warning us about how fast tragedy can strike. Sometimes ridiculous split-second decisions can cost a life. It’s only after it’s too late that Winterbourne realizes how terrible a mistake he made.

But Winterbourne goes on with his life. The tone of the novella suggests the whole thing is gossip, and Winterbourne treats the tragedy as gossip. This seems a warning more relevant for today than for the time it was written. We hear about tragedies and gossip as if they are entertainment, then promptly forget them. There’s something disturbing in how we remove ourselves from the fact that gossip is about a human who has their own feelings and life.

Late in the novella, Winterbourne changes his opinion about Daisy. When she is most taken with the Italian, he sees her as irresponsible and in defiance of society. He later sees her as innocent, and she just didn’t realize how society saw her indiscretions. This was the most interesting to me, because: how many times have we seen the public side of a person only to realize they aren’t at all like that? We have to give people a chance despite whatever reputation they might be carrying when we meet them.

Structurally, James executes the novella brilliantly. For a work so short, many years of time get covered. He accomplishes this by using four focused scenes. The reader then must infer the events between the scenes from context. A lesser writer might fill the reader in with exposition, but this would be boring to read.

One thing I was surprised about was to see that dialogue had a lot of excess surrounding it. Modern sensibilities suggest that the dialogue should speak for itself. Adding too much to the tags is repetitive and distracting. I’m talking about things like:

“Of course I care to know!” Daisy exclaimed seriously. “But I don’t believe it…”

I think most serious editors these days would flag that and either remove “seriously” or change the tag entirely to “Daisy said,” because it’s clear from the words and exclamation point that Daisy is exclaiming and serious. I’m curious to see if this type of excess gets pared back as we move to modern novellas and short stories.

Why Would Wolfe Choose a Torturer in New Sun?

Sorry for the extremely weird question in the title. Gene Wolfe’s most famous work is The Book of the New Sun. It is four novels long and follows Severian, a torturer. I’ve been reading the first one in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer.

This post is mostly going to be uninformed musings. I have not read the series before, so I don’t know the later events. I have not delved very deeply into the first novel either (there are people who have devoted a huge amount of scholarship to these books). I wanted to read them with as few spoilers as possible.

But I do know that the most accepted interpretation of the series has Severian as a Christ figure. In fact, I’ve heard it’s supposed to be a straight up retelling of the life of Jesus. This post lists some early ideas I have for why Wolfe would choose a torturer to play this role.

The premise of the book is that Severian feels sympathy for a woman who has been sentenced to be tortured. He gives her a knife to commit suicide so that she is spared the torture. It is portrayed as an act of compassion, but the fact remains that this is very disturbing. The Christ figure enables a woman to kill herself.

It is well-known that Wolfe is a devout Christian. He also writes with meticulous attention to detail. So we can automatically rule out the laziest idea that this is some blasphemous retelling of the Gospels. Severian is not a torturer in order to put out some anti-Christian story. The profession of torturer was chosen for a reason.

The following ideas are being recorded for my own general purpose. I’m mostly curious how my views on this aspect of the book will change as I read more of the story.

Idea 1: The first, somewhat shocking, thing I noticed was that the Guild of Torturers had the official name: Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. This is quite suggestive. Not only did early Christians consider themselves seekers of truth, they sought to convert people by having them repent of their sins. Despite their actions being antithetical to Christianity, the name of the order is highly suggestive of early Christianity. The society at large hates the torturers (obviously), and this is also in line with how broader society viewed early Christian sects.

Idea 2: In Luke, Jesus appears to be aware of the torture he must undergo when going to his own crucifixion. One reason Wolfe might have chosen a torturer for the protagonist is that when Severian defies the order he is a part of, he does so fully knowing what his punishment will be. He goes through with his act of compassion despite this, which makes Severian’s act more humane.

Idea 3: I don’t want to put in spoilers, so I’ll just say that being part of the order of torturers gives Wolfe a plausible way for Severian to “perform miracles” similar to a certain miracle Jesus performs. Although, it does require a certain tool that I’m not sure I fully understand the symbolism of yet.

Idea 4: Wolfe might have wanted to create moral ambiguity and raise tough questions about the morality of torture and death. This strikes me as not the full story. I can see this being part of the reason, but I really believe he could have done this with any number of professions for Severian.

Is Twitter our Penal Colony?

I know that’s quite the inflammatory title, so I’ll explain it up front. I recently read Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. If you haven’t read it, go do it. I liked The Trial and The Metamorphosis, but neither compare to the true horror that is In the Penal Colony.

I’m going to spoil the whole story so that it can be discussed. The story takes place around an execution machine called the Harrow. The main character asks questions about it. In a brilliantly paced set of revelations, the reader becomes aware of how the torture happens:

The condemned person is gagged and strapped to the machine. A bunch of tiny needles stabs them for six hours, repeatedly tattooing their crime on their body. They bleed a lot, but the machine is carefully designed to not let them die. Then they’re buried alive.

But it’s much, much worse than that. There is a collection of laws that must followed in the colony (it was unclear whether anyone had access to them to know what they are). When charged with the crime, you are not told what it is. You have no chance to defend yourself. You are convicted without trial. The first time you learn of any misdoing is too late, because it is from the words appearing on your body from the Harrow.

Unfortunately, this should sound all too familiar from Twitter shaming. People post jokes without knowing what the rules are for offending the wrong group. Then they get accused and convicted without trial. The first time they learn of their un-PC crime is when the words start flowing across their Twitter feed. By then it is too late. They will probably lose their job and have the next several years of their life wrecked.

Does the story give us any hope or are we stuck in this twisted sense of justice forever? The end of the story is hard to make sense of. The executioner turns the machine on himself and gets the words “Be Just” tattooed on him. By administering this punishment on others, the executioner has clearly broken the rule of being just. This machine and system is so clearly unjust that we don’t need the story to understand that. By analogy, I think the Twitter punishment is not just, but the people doing it have not realized this yet. They call it social justice the same as the executioner in the story calls the Harrow justice. This doesn’t make it so.

One interpretation in light of this analogy would be that when members of the mob become targets themselves, they will be dealt a sort of poetic justice and see how wrong they were. Although this is satisfying to see when it happens (think of the “dongle joke shamer” who lost her own job as well), it is a “two wrongs don’t make a right situation” and is unsustainable. An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind.

Ultimately, I think the ending teaches us that we can only get out of this mess if the people instigating it take matters into their own hands to stop it. Outside forces won’t ever be enough. Unfortunately, these people will probably have the machine of their own making turn on them for this, and like the main character, they too will be a victim of this justice. But it has to be their own choice, otherwise the practice will continue unhindered.

Extrapolating Meaning from Ashbery’s “The System” Part 2

Let’s continue right where we left off. The poem had started down the dangerous path of extreme skepticism: can we ever know anything? It continues to darken as it then turns to the question of what purpose life has. Why do anything? This gets chillingly stated as a rhetorical question amidst many other thoughts and metaphors:

“…a life of suffering redeemed and annihilated at the end, and for what? For a casual moment of knowing that is here one minute and gone the next, almost before you were aware of it?”

Many poets talk about life as a journey along a “path” or “road.” This gives the impression that there is clear forward motion and progress. Ashbery uses the term “track” which draws up two different ideas. One is that we have no control. We can’t choose anything or wander into the nearby woods. The journey is fixed by the track ahead of time. Also, a runner’s track is an oval. There is no forward motion. You always loop back to the start.

The narrator laments that we are always lost. The track is not well lit. We have no idea where we’re going. Lots of people see the track and think they are no longer lost, but it is only an illusion. This whole section is the metaphor “life as career.” The next section is “life as ritual.” In life as ritual, we strive to forget the past and only look forward.

The narration then moves on to two notions of happiness. The first type is “frontal,” and occurs naturally. It is abstract (or not?) and is that sensation of opening up when confronted with the profound beauty that is life. Unfortunately, these moments are rare and few people ever experience them.

The other type of happiness is latent/dormant. This is a happiness withheld after waiting for it. Many people spend their lives hunting for it when they can sense it is just around the corner. When you read Ashbery’s description, I think everyone recognizes a bit of themselves. It is that thought, if I just had this one more thing, I’d be truly happy:

“And a kind of panic develops, which for many becomes a permanent state of being, with all the appearances of a calm, purposeful, reflective life.”

He then ties the forward motion motif to the happiness motif and the knowledge motif (pointing out the self-contradictory nature of radical skepticism as a philosophical stance) in an extended, breathtaking sentence:

“…when the common sense of even an idiot would be enough to make him realize that nothing has stopped, that we and everything around us are moving forward continually, and that we are being modified constantly by the speed at which we travel and the regions through which we pass, so that merely to think of ourselves as having arrived at some final resting place is a contradiction of fundamental logic, since even the dullest of us knows enough to realize that he is ignorant of everything, including the basic issue of whether we are in fact moving at all or whether the concept of motion is something that can even be spoken of in connection with such ignorant beings as we, for whom the term ignorant is indeed perhaps an overstatement, implying as it does that something is known somewhere, whereas in reality we are not even sure of this: we in fact cannot aver with any degree of certainty that we are ignorant.”

After some more discussion, the line of thought changes to offer us an out. He proposes a form of empiricism: “Yet this seems not quite right, a little too pat perhaps, and here again it is our senses that are of some use to us in distinguishing verity from falsehood.”

But this is difficult. Each day we’ll struggle to discern any truth at all. It will be “unsatisfactory.” We listen to the lessons life teaches us, and the truth makes its way in even if we don’t recognize it. Even if we can’t articulate it, we’ll come away changed by it.

We are then reminded that this is a discussion about the latent form of happiness. We can now see that it is a “fleshed-out, realized version of that ideal first kind, …, the faithful reflection which is truer than the original because more suited to us…”

If we achieve this happiness, we can forget about time and the changing seasons and all the chaotic and meaningless details and finally be at peace. We have “twin urges” to go out into the world and act, breaking our happiness, and to remain at peace. When you wreck the peace, you struggle to get back, but everything has changed so you can’t make sense of it anymore. This leads to a despair:

“The whole world seems dyed the same melancholy hue. Nothing in it can arouse your feelings. Even the sun seems dead. And all because you succumbed to what seemed an innocent and perfectly natural craving, to have your cake and eat it too, forgetting that, widespread as it is, it cannot be excused on any human grounds because it cannot be realized.”

Do not fear in this moment. What you had was real. Ashbery again gives us comfort. “The darkness that surrounds you now does not exist, because it never had any independent existence: you created it out of the spleen and torment you felt.”

I’ll end here for today. Hopefully the overall form of the poem is becoming apparent at this point. Ashbery starts down some line of thought and it wanders to an extreme and seemingly hopeless end. Then he reminds us where we started and offers consolation and a way around that terrible end.

We’ll finish this next time. I recommend reading the poem if you haven’t. My summary makes it look choppy, but it is kind of amazing how these disparate ideas flow together with all the metaphoric imagery to tie it together.