Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Washington Square

No, not the place; the book. I finished Henry James' masterpiece at midnight last night, and as proof of its beauty, have found myself mulling over it at sudden times throughout the day.

There is a severely unemotional quality to James' writing that is striking. James neither restrains nor ignores emotion; he simply does not discuss it. In some ways, he writes around it. He describes personality and location and mood in his distinct, precise manner, and after he has built up a scene of words, the emotion is suddenly there--an inevitable result of the specific situation he is describing. To my mind, he is the perfect--the only perfect? though not my favorite--writer.

The book posed two questions as I read it. Why is it called Washington Square? It is less about place than Rebecca or Brideshead Revisited or Wuthering Heights, yet it is named after a specific location in New York City. And what is the broader significance of a narrowly focused character study of a woman who discovers in herself the resources to quietly rebel against the personalities around her? My working answer, slapdash, responds to both questions.

Start with a small, old neighborhood in New York City. Fill one of its homes with a tiny household consisting of a widower, his daughter, and his silly sister. That's a triangle. Add a would-be husband for the daughter, and we have a square. (I know, I know--who gives me the right to transform plot setting into a geometric figure?)

So the story is about this little square of people existing and interacting in a square neighborhood (not all the action takes place in Washington Square, but even when traveling in Europe, Catherine's world really remains no larger than the neighborhood she came from). Now if Morris Townsend had not added a fourth angle to the shape of Catherine's world, she would never have lost her illusions about her father, who in turn forced her to lose her illusions about Morris. Townsend does not only change the world's shape; he changes its meaning.

It's a tragic story because it has a cruel ruler (Dr. Sloper), a false lover (Morris), and an evil villain (Aunt Penniman), who between them manage to suck Catherine's world dry of meaning and replace it with--nothing. They define the only "love" that exists for Catherine, and they all claim love as their motivation. When she discovers each person's love to be false, she has nothing to replace it with. Her "triumph" is merely that she manages to hold on to a shred of dignity to the very end.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Road Trip Impressions

If you ever visit Columbia, South Carolina, go to a coffee shop called Cool Beans. It's full of cigarette smoke, but they give you your drink in a real mug. My mug was a solid, squarish shape and it was mustard yellow. The best thing to do while you're there is sit around a table with four old friends and talk about what you've all done since you last saw each other. At least, that's what I did.

It rained almost the whole way back. Visibility was fine until the sun set, when all the truck drivers on Interstate 81 turned into demons straight out of hell. It's like they get on their CB radios and yell, "C'mon guys! There's heavy traffic, a downpour, slick roads, and patches of fog! Let's all drive twenty miles over the speed limit . . . and ain't nobody gonna slow us down!" Every time a truck passed me, it would kick sheets of raindrops onto my windshield, temporarily blinding me. I started playing a grim game called "Race the Trucks": whenever I saw a truck's headlights getting bigger in my rearview mirror, I would get into the left lane and speed up to pass the entire length of cars that was driving too slowly in the right lane. Then I'd move back over, hoping that the truck, upon passing the same line of cars, would get behind me. It actually works; however, it's also terrifying.

But I was saying. Between daylight and dark, there was a lovely stretch of road just after I exited Interstate 77 onto I-81 north and was heading through the mountains toward Roanoke. The mountains huddle right up by the interstate there, but I could only see the closest ones because the air was dim and foggy. The Appalachians are very quiet anyway, but when they are scarved with fog, the silence gets deeper. They seem mysterious and secretive--if you hid in them, they would protect you. And that same characteristic makes them frightening as well.

That was the best part of my drive.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Election Day 2005

Vote YES for . . .

1) My sister, who turns 21 today. I love you, K.!

2) Irish breakfast tea

3) Country music

4) Funny people

5) 6) 7) My housemates (all three of them)

8) The Village soundtrack

9) Waking up to Michael W. Smith's Freedom CD this morning

10) Not waking up to jackhammers outside my window. This is not something you want to know more about.