“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My own favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and Muddling through Life after Life.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Notional Bodies, Angels' Wings, and Poet's Truths: The Exquisite Discomfort of "Bring up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel


(5547 words. Link to printable version.)

            The choice of death over compromise is the surest proof against any charge of hypocrisy. Whatever your feelings about the underlying creed, anyone willing to die for a principle is going to make an indelible impression on you, especially if you happen to be the executioner. In addition to the role he played in England’s break with the Catholic church and King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Thomas Cromwell is known historically for two dubious accomplishments: securing the conviction of Thomas More for treason after he refused to swear an oath endorsing the king’s supremacy over the pope, and confiscating the lands and holdings of England’s monasteries to fill the country’s royal coffers. As imagined by Hilary Mantel in her ingeniously textured and darkly captivating novel Wolf Hall, Cromwell despises monastics, “that parasitic class of men” (41), as he refers to them in the sequel, along with ascetic theologians like More—whose habit of wearing a horse hair undershirt to irritate his flesh does as much to irritate Cromwell—for their unworldliness and cruelty, but most of all for their corruption and hypocrisy. It’s no wonder then that, in Mantel’s telling, it’s having to condemn More to martyrdom that ultimately undoes Cromwell, or rather further propels him along a path toward undoing himself.

            In Bring up the Bodies, the second of three projected novels about Cromwell, Mantel lets us listen in on the thoughts of this man who can’t escape what he’s done, who in a sense was made by the crimes he’s committed, lifted from the lowliest origins to serve as the king’s chief secretary, and thus unable to extricate himself from the position that will make it necessary for him to commit still more and still more horrific crimes. Tellingly, we find that what preoccupies him most in his rare moments of solitude is the nature of the relationship between words and the reality they’re meant to represent. Early on, we see him at his daily tasks.

He returns to his dispatches. Plague in town and city … the king is always fearful of infection … Letters from foreign rulers, wishing to know if it is true that Henry is planning to cut off the heads of all his bishops. Certainly not, he notes, we have excellent bishops now, all of them comfortable to the king’s wishes, all of them recognizing him as head of the church in England; besides, what an uncivil question! How dare they imply that the King of England should account for himself to any foreign power? How dare they impugn his sovereign judgment? Bishop Fisher, it is true, is dead, and Thomas More, but Henry’s treatment of them, before they drove him to an extremity, was mild to a fault; if they had not evinced a traitorous stubbornness, they would be alive now, alive like you and me.
He has written a lot of these letters, since July. He doesn’t sound wholly convincing, even to himself; he finds himself repeating the same points, rather than advancing the argument into new territory. He needs new phrases. (28)

Cromwell is not one to persecute himself for past deeds—“Once you have chosen a course, you should not apologize for it” (401), he later admonishes one of his protégés—but he’s also a decent enough man to be disturbed—“alive like you and me”—by his complicity in the horrors he’s being made to answer for so unconvincingly.

Thomas Cromwell in BBC's "Wolf Hall"
            The most basic way to approach reading a work of fiction is to concentrate on actions and events. This is reading simply to see what happens. You get a sense of what kind of characters you’re dealing with early on and henceforth take them for granted, like so many chess pieces the author moves about the board that is the plot. Accounting for diverging perspectives and processing the nuances of what each plot development means for individual characters is a more demanding exercise than simply reading for what happens, but such shifting among various points of view is often necessary if we’re to keep up with more complex works. To fully appreciate the Cromwell novels, however, we have to go still further in exerting our imaginative faculties, drawing on even greater stores of working memory. Nearly everyone who writes about these books points to how successfully Mantel makes the historical events seem unsettled and immediate. A lot goes into producing this effect, to be sure, but the sense of pulsing vitality arises primarily because we don’t just see what happens as Cromwell would see it; we get telling glimpses along the way of how what’s happening—what he witness and what he actually does—is affecting him.

Beleaguered by the demands of his position, anxious over the affairs of state, harried by the king’s hangers on, and, only months after More’s beheading, beginning to feel his age—“That’s the bleat of the man of fifty,” he chastises himself at one point, “I used to. I can’t now” (68)—Cromwell in the opening chapters of Bring up the Bodies struggles with a weary fatalism that would have been foreign to the man he was just a season prior: “It will always be like this, he thinks. It will go on being like this. Advent, Lent, Whitsuntide” (134). On an early fall morning at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymours, he reflects on how,

The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter; the summer has gone, Thomas More’s daughter has got his head back off London Bridge and is keeping it, God knows, in a dish or a bowl, and saying her prayers to it. He is not the same man he was last year, and he doesn’t acknowledge that man’s feelings; he is starting afresh, always new thoughts, new feelings. (29-30)

Those new thoughts often hinge on how he might remove certain men from the king’s privy chamber, the ones who frequently impede to his access and thwart his agendas. For reasons that remain obscure for some time, Cromwell also confides in Edward Seymour (the older brother of the future queen Jane) that he fears he’s losing favor with the present queen, Anne Boleyn. “I feel my head wobble on my shoulders when she stares at me hard,” he says (21). Before long, however, the king will be giving him a directive that affords him an opportunity to address both of these issues. But pursuing that opportunity will exact a heavy toll.

            With ever more to lose as his wealth accumulates and his status increases, Cromwell is keenly aware of his dependence on the king, not just for his continuing ascent, but for his survival. As he says to his nephew Richard, “How many men can say, as I must, ‘I am a man whose only friend is the King of England’? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing” (176). “You fear he will turn on you?” his friend Chapuy, the ambassador from Spain, puts to him some time later. Cromwell responds, “He will, I suppose. One day.”

Sometimes he wakes in the night and thinks of it. There are courtiers who have honourably retired. He can think of instances. Of course, it is the other kind that loom larger, if you are wakeful around midnight. (223)

The stakes thus set, we watch as this man who’s far from squeamish reveals himself capable of going through with deeds that make even him queasy—and we can’t help being sickened both with him and alongside him. Henry, we learn, has already grown tired of Anne, who seems as incapable as Catherine of producing a male heir, and it will fall to Cromwell to find some way to once more get an official sanction for a divorce.

As he continues to serve as accountant, lawyer, diplomat, enforcer, and sometimes friend to the king, while at the same time investigating rumors of the queen’s adultery in the hope of using it as grounds for pushing her aside, he keeps being reminded of a scene described in Wolf Hall, one that features what will become a haunting symbol, a touchstone marking the distance from his former self. Sometime after his daughter Grace followed her mother Lizzie and her older sister Anne in succumbing to the sweating sickness that was ravaging England at the time, Cromwell remembers a Christmas pageant she performed in.

The year that Grace was an angel, she had wings made of peacock feathers. He himself had contrived it. The other little girls were dowdy goose creatures, and their wings fell off if they caught them on the corners of the stable. But Grace stood glittering, her hair entwined with silver threads; her shoulders were trussed with a spreading, shivering glory, and the rustling air was perfumed as she breathed. Lizzie said, Thomas, there’s no end to you, is there? She has the best wings the city has ever seen. (161)

Those angel wings, which he keeps in a closet along with all the Christmas decorations, including a silver star one of his adopted boys once mistook for a torture device, appear again in Bring up the Bodies, only this time it’s a different little girl donning them. Having gathered all his loved ones to celebrate at his home,

he turns his eyes to the child dressed as an angel: it is Rafe’s step-daughter, the elder child of his wife Helen. She is wearing the peacock wings he made long ago for Grace.
Long ago? It is not ten years, not nearly ten. The feathers’ eyes gleam; the day is dark, but banks of candles pick out threads of gold, the scarlet splash of holly berries bound on the wall, the points of the silver star. (118)

Just as when his daughter was wearing the wings, we see that Cromwell can’t look at them without being dazzled by some play of light. Rafe, whom Cromwell took on as a ward at age seven and mentored into adulthood, is one of many beneficiaries of his big-heartedness. When he married Helen in secret, for love, dashing any hope of a more financially advantageous match, Cromwell was initially exasperated with him, but he eventually came around, showing that he cared for his surrogate son’s happiness above all else. Now, though he’s allowing Rafe’s own adopted child to play the role of granddaughter, the wings still speak to him of the family he’s lost.

He takes the child to a looking glass so she can see her wings. Her steps are tentative, she is in awe at herself. Mirrored, the peacock eyes speak to him. Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather’s breath from you. (119)

And you can hear the whisper of those wings beating throughout the novel, as again and again Cromwell lights on feathers and wings as the apt metaphor to convey his thoughts.

Peacock Feather Angel Wings in BBC's "Wolf Hall"
In Wolf Hall, we saw Cromwell first threatened with ruin alongside his own mentor Cardinal Wolsey, only to be thrust into a position of still greater power as a councilor to the king. To secure that position and further avoid ruin, he had no choice but to act against his own sense of what was just and decent by arranging Thomas More’s execution, a deed to which there was also an element of betrayal, since he and More for years had carried on a reciprocally exasperating intellectual back-and-forth that was its own breed of friendship. But before More is arrested and charged, we see that Cromwell has a signature way of dealing with questions of conscience. Bedridden and delirious with fever, he is encouraged to confess and offer up his sins.

But my sins are my strength, he thinks; the sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they’re mine. Besides, when I come to judgment I mean to come with a memorandum in my hand: I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here, possibly more. (568)

Once he’s found an opportunity to sin, Cromwell’s modus operandi is to seal his advantage by acting quickly. In the midst of the proceedings in Bring up the Bodies to end the king’s second marriage, he reminisces about an earlier time in his life: “In those days he did things suddenly: not without calculation, not without care, but once his mind was made up he was swift to move. And he is still the same man. As his opponents will find” (367). And so he forges ahead with what he’s determined is necessary based on his inveterately pragmatic and worldly principles. “You pick your prince,” as he once explained to his son Gregory. You pursue your interests. Whatever you can justify through argument or accounting you should be able to live with.

The king having declared his desire to be rid of Anne, Cromwell moves forward with his plans, going back to settle the books, as it were, only after each successive stage has been accomplished. Along the way, he’s shocked to find that those books are getting harder and harder to balance. “I did not know what I would find, when I began,” he says to his friend Thomas Cranmer. “That is the only reason I could do it, because I was surprised at every turn” (385). The opening to free the king from his marriage comes when Mark, a pompous young courtier, boasts too publicly of his special relationship with the queen. Cromwell interrogates him, setting in motion a scandal that results in the conviction for adultery and treason of not only Mark but four other men as well, including the two members of the privy chamber most troublesome to Cromwell, along with the queen’s own brother. All these men's lives, along with Anne’s reign as queen, end on the executioner’s block.

At no point during the interrogations that ensue after Mark’s do any of the men either confess their own guilt or name any other guilty parties. In the wake of the trials, Cromwell’s household is understandably shaken; there were already rumors among the populace about how Cromwell tampered with the jury that convicted More. When his son voices his doubts about whether justice was actually served, he thinks:

When Gregory says, “Are they guilty?” he means, “Did they do it?” But when he says, “Are they guilty?” he means, “Did the court find them so?” The lawyer’s world is entire unto itself, the human pared away. It was a triumph, in a small way, to unknot the entanglement of thighs and tongues, to take that mass of heaving flesh and smooth it on to white paper: as the body, after the climax, lies back on white linen. He has seen beautiful indictments, not a word wasted. This was not one: the phrases jostled and frotted, nudged and spilled, ugly in content and ugly in form. The design against Anne is unhallowed in its gestation, untimely in its delivery, a mass of tissue born shapeless; it waited to be licked into shape as a bear cub is licked by its mother. You nourished it, but you did not know what you fed: who would have thought of Mark confessing, or of Anne acting in every respect like an oppressed and guilty woman with a weight of sin upon her? (369)

So Cromwell is left with another argument in need of better phrases. There is an intense, complicated compulsion that overtakes you about midway through Bring up the Bodies, sweeping you vertiginously along with the action, until finally leaving you with the same sense it does Cromwell, that all the important developments are faits accompli long before you know quite what to make of them. It is a mark of Mantel’s mastery that the tide of interrogations, washed over truths, and blotted out lives, as abruptly as it forms, as devastatingly as it crashes, never outpaces the sense of felt reality, never strains the structure of the plot to the point of forming faults in the nightmarish edifice of her fictional world.

            If we weren’t privy to Cromwell’s private thoughts, if we weren’t gestured toward feelings he himself refuses to acknowledge, or even if his story simply picked up closer to the interrogations he permeates with threats of torture and a more drawn out execution, closer to the trial that turns on the quickness of men to imagine into reality their darkest fears about women—if we’d never, for instance, learned about the angel wings—our view of him would be much closer to the one handed down through history: Henry VIII’s mercenary pit bull. Standing in judgement of him would be a much simpler, much more comfortable matter. So what are we to make of this narrative that so closely tracks the compromising of a decent but morally complicated man, whose philosophy we approve, but only up to a point, a brilliant strategist and savvy fixer whose rise from obscurity we cheer, a conniving opportunist but also a generous and fiercely loyal patron—how are we to respond to witnessing him ruining men’s lives, bringing down the queen, consigning them all to death, all in the service of a capriciously cruel and demoniacally narcissistic king? Is it a mere cautionary tale about the subtle and stepwise descent into the darkness all men—all humans—feel drawn to as they struggle to balance morality against necessity, truth against self-preservation?

Hilary Mantel
            Mantel is peerlessly astute when it comes to the ratchet of backward reasoning, the justifications after the fact that travel back in time to erase from memory the scruples we talk ourselves into believing we never should have felt, an adjustment which ensures we feel those scruples with less force when next we face a similar dilemma in a process that pulls us a dubious deed at a time toward ever greater inhumanity. (The theme has resonances with the events at the prison in Abu Ghraib, though the novel’s interrogation scenes featuring promises of leniency in exchange for the naming of other guilty parties recalls more directly Arthur Miller’s vision of the witch panic in Salem.) When Cromwell does eventually have time to reflect on what he’s done, the object of his thoughts is telling.

He finds he cannot think of the dying men at all. Into his mind instead strays the picture of More on the scaffold, seen through the veil of rain: his body, already dead, folding back neatly from the impact of the axe. The cardinal when he fell had no persecutor more relentless than Thomas More. Yet, he thinks, I did not hate him. I exercised my skills to the utmost to persuade him to reconcile with the king. And I thought I would win him, I really thought I would, for he was tenacious of the world, tenacious of his person, and had a good deal to live for. In the end, he was his own murderer. He wrote and wrote and he talked and talked, then suddenly at a stroke he cancelled himself. If ever a man came close to beheading himself, Thomas More was that man. (371)

In other words, More may have deserved to die for what he did to Wolsey, but Cromwell tried to save him anyway, a feat he thought he might be able to accomplish because More was full of himself, but in the end he decided he wanted to die; the responsibility lies not with Cromwell but with More himself. He needs new phrases indeed.

            In the days leading up to More’s conviction, though, we saw that Cromwell, far from being content to lay responsibility at the feet of his favorite foil, agonized over what he ultimately decided had to be done. He even tried to tell Henry that prosecuting More might not be a good idea because the case would not be easy to win. “Do I retain you for what is easy?” the king responds in a fury (585). Henry retains Cromwell because he’s adept at formulating strategies, and just as adept at implementing them. Cromwell comes up with words and plans, and then he turns them into reality. There’s an amazing passage that comes before More’s trial in Wolf Hall, when Cromwell is laid up with fever, listening to the priests and doctors milling about his house, and it lays bare what his mind can’t help but busy itself doing:

They talk about his heart; he overhears them. He feels they should not: the book of my heart is a private book, it is not an order book left on the counter for any passing clerk to scrawl in. They give him a draft to swallow. Shortly afterward he returns to his ledgers. The lines keep slipping and the figures intermingling and as soon as he has totaled up one column the total unmakes itself and all sense is subtracted. But he keeps trying and trying and adding and adding, until the poison or the healing draft loosens its grip on him and he wakes. The pages of the ledgers are still before his eyes. Butts thinks he is resting as ordered, but in the privacy of his mind little stick figures with arms and legs of ink climb out of the ledgers and walk about. They are carrying firewood in for the kitchen range, but the venison that is trussed to butcher turns back into deer, who rub themselves in innocence on the bark of trees. The songbirds for the fricassee refeather themselves, hopping back onto the branches not yet cut for firewood, and the honey for basting has gone back to the bee, and the bee has gone back to the hive. (568-9)

In his delirium, he goes on balancing the books, breathing life into words, and guarding the book of his own heart. Near the end of Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell contemplates how rumors and innuendos about the queen’s myriad and incestuous infidelities brought her down, and concludes, “Anne, it appears, was a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe” (383).
Cromwell in BBC version of "Wolf Hall"

            The magic taking place in Cromwell’s fever dream undergoes an ominous reversal in one of the interrogation scenes in Bring up the Bodies. Francis Weston already knows he will be found guilty of adultery with the queen, and he laments to Cromwell that he’ll never have the chance to go through with his plan to change his ways and make amends for his sins when he is older. Then, just when he seems on the verge of saying something that would irrevocably seal his conviction, Cromwell abruptly stands up and leaves the room, suffering from what we assume is an attack of conscience.

He does not know what caused him to break off from Weston and walk out. Perhaps it was when the boy said “forty-five or fifty.” As if, past mid-life, there is a second childhood, a new phase of innocence. It touched him, perhaps, the simplicity of it. Or perhaps he just needed air. Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed, you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean. (341)

Cromwell is himself fifty when the action of the plot takes place, and far from entering a new phase of innocence he’s seeing how the magic of his words, which once brought dead things to life, is being used again and again to snuff living things bloodily out of existence.

            There is one character accused of carrying on an affair with the queen whom Cromwell manages to save. Thomas Wyatt’s father Henry, a man Cromwell held in high regard, gave him a special charge to watch over his son, to serve as a second father to him. But Cromwell has a profound admiration for Wyatt that goes well beyond any promise made to his father. In particular, Cromwell is in awe of Wyatt’s facility with what he calls “poet’s truth,” whereby what he writes is neither true, in the sense of corresponding to actual events, or false, because it gestures toward some greater principle. As Cromwell thinks to himself,

When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will. (348)

This passage, an intensely revealing if also enigmatic stream of thought, shows Cromwell momentarily incapable of understanding what poet’s truth could mean. He can’t avoid thinking of it as a species of deception, a trick like the ones used in political or romantic competition. But he begins with feathers and ends with the metaphor of an angel. The scene ends with him ruminating about supposedly true stories of angels visiting men; he never rounds back to finish the idea.

            It’s when he undertakes his perfunctory interrogation of Wyatt in the Tower that we get the least evasive accounting of what Cromwell currently thinks of himself—including a chapter in the book of his heart that will go unwritten (at least not until Mantel comes around). After Wyatt jokingly responds to his question about whether he’s comfortable by asking if he means in body or soul, Cromwell, not missing a beat, says “I only answer for bodies.”

“Nothing makes you falter,” Wyatt says. He says it with a reluctant admiration that is close to dread. But he, Cromwell, thinks, I did falter but no one knows it, reports have not gone abroad. Wyatt did not see me walk away from Weston’s interrogation. Wyatt did not see me when Anne asked me what I believed in my heart.
He rests his eyes on the prisoner, he takes his seat. He says softly, “I think I have been training all my years for this. I have served an apprenticeship to myself.” His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy. Eyes that once skewered him now kindle with simulated regard. Hands that would like to knock his hat off now reach out to shake his hand, sometimes in a crushing grip. He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold. (352)

This passage gives us an interesting twist on Cromwell’s habit of saying something and then thinking the opposite. Perhaps uncomfortable himself in the presence of a more sincere if equally clever man, he embraces the very sin he so loathes in the monastics he’s been such a great scourge to—but is it his sin or only his enemy’s?—before going on to steel himself so he can persevere in spite of his misgivings. It’s noteworthy too that, while many of Cromwell’s closest aides recognize the four men under investigation as the same ones who performed in a play mocking his mentor Cardinal Wolsey soon after his death, only two of them have really been causing him any problems. And Mark certainly isn’t a threat. You can’t help wondering whenever Cromwell dwells on these men’s past insults if he’s really being driven by vengeance or if he’s just trying to quiet his conscience.

            In the book’s final passages, we see that exacting his revenge hasn’t brought him any closer to his old master. Going through his papers, he recalls how when he first came across a piece of writing from the cardinal after his death “his heart had clenched small and he had to put down his pen till the spasm of grief passed.” After that initial shock, though, he seems to have gotten some solace from coming across these vestiges.

He has grown used to these encounters, but tonight, as he flicks over the leaf and sees the cardinal’s writing, it is strange to him, as if some trick, perhaps a trick of the light, has altered the letter forms. The hand could be that of a stranger, of a creditor or a debtor you have dealt with just this quarter and don’t know well; it could be that of some humble clerk, taking dictation from his master. (406)

Of course, it’s not the letters that have altered.

The most viciously ironic development in the plot is that Mark only begins to name names after being locked in the closet where all Cromwell’s Christmas decorations are stored. Terrified at first by the sight of the silver star, he later mistakes the brush of the peacock feathers as the touch of a ghost. He screams, and when he’s released he can’t get the names out quickly enough, fearing he may be locked in with the ghost again. “I shall have to burn the peacock wings,” Cromwell thinks after he’s heard what happened (289). But, in the wake of the trials and executions, his view of them is altered.

When the wings are shaken out of their linen bag he stretches the fabric, holds it up to the light and sees that the bag is slit. He understands how the feathers crept out and stroked the dead man’s face. He sees that the wings are shabby, as if nibbled, and the glowing eyes dulled. They are tawdry things after all, not worth setting store by.

Having forced himself to believe the worst of the accusations against Anne, and having acted on his belief, the way he views his own past undergoes a tragic transformation as well. Now he fears that Grace, given the plainness of his wife and his own rough features, was suspiciously pretty.

He says to Johane, his wife’s sister, “Do you think Lizzie ever had to do with another man? I mean, while we were married?”
Johane is shocked. “Whatever put that into your head? Put it right out again.”
He tries to do that. Be he cannot escape the feeling that Grace has slipped further from him. She was dead before she could be painted or drawn. She lived and left no trace. Her clothes and her cloth ball and her wooden baby in a smock are long ago passed to other children. (405)

His wife had said “there’s no end to you, is there?” But Cromwell has in fact written in his own hand the ending for the story of the man he was then.

            This theme of compromised morality woven together with the mystery of language’s transformative ties to the world may suggest to some that the power of Bring up the Bodies comes from some embedded lesson about our imperiled integrity or lost humanity. But it’s a mistake to treat a narrative solely, or even predominantly, as a matter of meaning. “A statute is written to entrap meaning,” as Cromwell reasons, “a poem to escape it.” And so it is with stories, or else why would we ever want to read them again after first arriving at the point. It’s not the lesson of a story that pulls us in, but the texture of lived experience, the compelling illusions of a life’s myriad moral dilemmas, and the expert evocations of a human presence that provokes us toward some feeling, be it sympathy and admiration, or disappointment and disgust—or some fiendish farrago of all four. At the points where Cromwell’s story is most disturbing, the hardest to bear reading, we continue on, not to mark out the mistakes we should ourselves avoid, but out of loyalty, a fierce partisanship, the sense that of all these competing persons he’s the one we want to see through to the end, if only because we know him best, if only because we remain ever hopeful that somehow he will be redeemed, taken back in hand by his better angels, delivered back into grace.  

Also read: What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?

And: Sabbath Says: Philip Roth and the Dilemmas of Ideological Castration

And: The Criminal Sublime: Walter White's Brutally Plausible Journey to the Heart of Darkness in Breaking Bad

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?

(4,897 words. Link to printable version.) 

The most natural way to interpret fictional narration is as a direct communication from the author. We understand full well that the characters and events being described are fabricated, more or less whole-cloth, for the purpose of entertaining us. Yet we trust the author to relate all the details of the story, as she’s conceived of it, in a straightforward and accurate manner. If the rhythm and diction of the prose achieve a pleasing balance of artful evocation and easy comprehension, we ascribe the gracefulness to the author herself, and often feel a sense of gratitude that predisposes us to look favorably upon the prospect of reading other works in her oeuvre. This inclination to hear the author’s voice in fictional narration serves us well enough when we’re reading commercial fiction. As we move closer to the literary end of the spectrum, though, we must assimilate a more sophisticated linguistic convention. Only by grasping this technique can we fully experience the fruits of the author’s imaginative efforts and fully appreciate the depth of her psychological insights into the dynamic workings of her characters’ minds.

Everything a work of literary fiction is supposed to do, Hilary Mantel does masterfully in her historical novel Wolf Hall, including the creation of scenes so vividly immersive and the construction of plots so arresting that you all but forget you’re reading a work of fiction at all. Critics unanimously celebrate the way Mantel makes settled history feel ominously immediate. But the effect goes well beyond the abundance of intricately imagined details in her scenes. What distinguishes most historical writing from most narrative writing—and most nonfiction from most fiction more generally—is the move from summary to simulation. As if to illustrate this distinction, Mantel at a critical juncture in the plot makes use of a style closer to factual history, writing, 
  
On November 1, 1530, a commission for the cardinal’s arrest is given to Harry Percy, the young Earl of Northumberland. The earl arrives at Cawood to arrest him, forty-eight hours before his planned arrival in York for his investiture. He is taken to Pontefract Castle under guard, from there to Doncaster, and from there to Sheffield Park, the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Here at Talbot’s house he falls ill. On November 26 the constable of the Tower arrives, with twenty-four men at arms, to escort him south. From there he travels to Leicester Abbey. Three days later he dies.
What was England, before Wolsey? A little offshore island, poor and cold. (240)

This passage refers to the death of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose official crime was to assert a foreign ruler’s dominion in England, even though we know his real offense was his failure to procure for King Henry VIII the pope’s blessing for the annulment of his first marriage. The facts provide a clear enough record. But the final sentiment may seem out of place in its context. Who is it, we may wonder, giving the cardinal all this credit for the glory of Albion?

            After a section break, Mantel returns to her scene-making mode to show us how Thomas Cromwell, the cardinal’s erstwhile protégé and “man of business,” takes the news from George Cavendish, the gentleman usher who has been attending Wolsey since his fall from the king’s favor. The shift between the sections, of course, isn’t intended to highlight the differences in writing styles, but it does offer an opportunity to explore the author’s general approach to the story. She writes,

George Cavendish comes to Austin Friars. He cries as he talks. Sometimes he dries his tears and moralizes. But mostly he cries. “We had not even finished our dinner,” he says. “My lord was taking his dessert when young Harry Percy walked in. He was spattered with mud from the road, and he had the keys in his hands, he had taken them from the porter already, and set sentries on the stairs. My lord rose to his feet, he said, Harry, if I’d known, I’d have waited dinner for you. I fear we’ve almost finished the fish. Shall I pray for a miracle?
“I whispered to him, my lord, do not blaspheme. Then Harry Percy came forward: my lord, I arrest you for high treason.”
Cavendish waits. He waits for him to erupt in fury? But he puts his fingers together, joined as if he were praying. He thinks, Anne arranged this, and it must have given her an intense and secret pleasure; vengeance deferred, for herself, for her old lover, once berated by the cardinal and sent packing from the court. (240)

The narration slows the pace of storytelling to encourage us to imagine the events and the dialogue occurring in close to real time—we get a taste of this effect even within Cavendish’s own report. In place of dates and locations, we see mud-spattered coats and hear the jangle of keys. This effect is the most basic element of narrative prose. But Mantel is doing something far more subtle here than merely relaying details to portray scenes. Who, for instance, is posing that question in the last paragraph about what Cavendish is waiting for? Shouldn’t Mantel already know the answer?
Hilary Mantel

             This passage shows in microcosm the narrational game underlying the entire novel. Mantel is not simply displaying her characters and their surroundings as if from an outside observer’s perspective, the way an attendee of a theatrical performance would describe them. Rather, she’s imagining her way into Cromwell’s own mind, making his perceptions and his thoughts the focal point of not only the individual scenes but the story as a whole. Wolf Hall isn’t a novel about Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent remarriage to Anne Boleyn; it’s a novel about Thomas Cromwell, the role he plays behind the scenes of these historical events, and, most compellingly, the materially exalting but psychologically devastating impact the playing of such a role has on him. This is the key to understanding those questions about what England was before the cardinal and what Cavendish is waiting for. We are not to attribute these thoughts to Mantel but to her protagonist, the man whose consciousness her narration is inviting us to share. And this sharing of the character’s experiences, the blending of our thoughts with his, is one of the pleasures unique to written stories, one that can make reading more exquisitely engrossing than any other way of experiencing a narrative. 

            Authors customarily use this narrational technique, known as free indirect style—as opposed to simple first person narration—because in addition to allowing them to occupy the mind of the main character it also affords them the freedom to draw back and describe that same character in a way he wouldn’t have cause to describe himself. So we can learn about things like facial expressions, vocal tonalities, or unconscious gestures. Or we may simply learn about habits or aspects of the character’s appearance he takes for granted and hence would be unlikely to contemplate. Early in Wolf Hall, we learn about the man at the heart of the story from a more straightforward third person perspective.

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt—ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and spends it. He will take a bet on anything. (29)

The line about how Cromwell can fix a jury, treated as an almost innocuous afterthought here but foreshadowing an important event later in the novel, is typical of Mantel’s coyness, a subtle tactic to unsettle the settled, as if she were saying, “Think you know the story?—well, here it hasn’t happened yet.” (The title, referring to the home of the queen who succeeds Anne, is another of these coy gestures toward yet to occur future history.) But the passage as a whole is actually anomalous, as Mantel hews quite closely to Cromwell’s thoughts throughout the novel, representing unedited and unburnished the mental meanderings of a mind disciplined in the art of diplomatic withholding. Her use of free indirect style is in fact exceptional in how reliably it issues from her character’s perspective, and, though many readers got tripped up by seemingly ambiguous pronouns, this intense engagement with Cromwell is one of the reasons Wolf Hall is so thoroughly absorbing, and so profoundly moving. 

Cromwell and Wolsey from the RSC production
            The effect of Mantel’s uncannily close indirect narration is to make us feel like we’re moving behind the scenes of a mind belonging to a man who himself is privy to all the goings on behind the scenes of some of the most powerful people in the world at an important turning point in history. Wolf Hall succeeds on many levels, but it is most of all a masterwork of characterization. It is Mantel’s vivid and thoroughly wrought characters, Cromwell foremost among them, who bring the scenes to life. It is their competing ambitions and commingling prejudices—as perceived by Cromwell’s witheringly attentive eye—that ratchet up the stakes of even seemingly trivial encounters, creating both the novel’s pervasive air of menace and the volatile tension fueling its dark humor. In the scene where Cavendish recounts the cardinal’s final days, we get a glimpse of how Mantel integrates characterization into the unfolding of the plot. By this point in the novel, we know Wolsey would make just such a joke about the fish, we know Cavendish would object to it in just the way he does, and we know he’s aware of Cromwell’s predilection for dialogue quoted verbatim—all of this works to make us feel the full brunt of the scene’s plausibility, to experience it, unquestioningly, as real.

            Cromwell silently scoffs at the idea that he may erupt into fury, and if we were in Cavendish’s shoes we my come away with a view of Cromwell in keeping with the image of him passed down in hagiographic accounts of the life of Thomas More: a cold, calculating, and opportunistic yes-man about court—though Cavendish himself has good reason to be suspicious of Cromwell’s cold exterior, having once come across him crying over his dead wife’s prayer book. By the time Cavendish arrives with the news about Wolsey’s death, we too have had plenty of chances to see what’s really going on beneath the surface. We get another chance later in the scene, as Cavendish continues his account of the cardinal’s arrest:

“When they took him from the house, the townspeople were assembled outside. They knelt in the road and wept. They asked God to send vengeance on Harry Percy.”
God need not trouble, he thinks: I shall take it in hand. (241)

Some critics see Wolf Hall as an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the historical Cromwell. What’s more likely is that Mantel simply recognized the opportunity he represented for her to develop a provocative character, a figure she could flesh out as a man whose reputation and disciplined comportment are at odds with an inner life far richer, and far more decent, than even most of his closest associates ever fully realize. But, before she could adequately convey this pulsing tension between Cromwell’s public image and his hidden soul, Mantel first had to invent the unique version of close narration we’re introduced to in the earliest pages.

            Wolf Hall garnered critical accolades galore for the liveliness of the characters and the verisimilitude of the scenes. But I’ve yet to come across any mention even of what seems to me the novel’s most soaring achievement. Though plenty of the reviews give a sense of Cromwell as a canny observer whose background and talents make him interesting in his own right, a man whose perspective lends new texture and a hint of color to the worn and faded events he hovers around the margins of, none of them ever touches on the moral and emotional stakes of the dilemmas he faces. But Cromwell is no passive observer, no static presence. That ingeniously represented tension at the core of Cromwell’s character never reaches any sort of stable equilibrium. From the opening pages when we see him as a young boy being ruthlessly beaten by his drunk and low-born father, to his first days in the service of the cardinal, right up until the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the execution of Thomas More for refusing to sanction it, we see a man driven by ambition, loyalty, revenge, and love, one who rises from lowly origins to the highest eminence, only to find himself forced to subvert his human decency to satisfy his murderously capricious king’s all-consuming passion. All these changes in his circumstances, and all these changes in the fates of those around him, many of which he has a hand in bringing about, work to change him in return, so it’s never sufficient to ask, who is Cromwell?—we’re always wondering too, what is he becoming? In other words, Cromwell’s is a soul in peril.

            His response early in the novel to hearing that his wife Liz has died makes for one of the most devastating lines in all of literature. “I suppose, he says, she will want to be buried with her first husband… Because I came more lately” (95). Thanks in large part to the nuanced revelations made possible through Mantel’s innovative narration, we already understand him well enough by this point to know that this is exactly how he would respond: pragmatic, self-effacing, doggedly restrained. And knowing all this about him transforms the line from an off-hand, seemingly heartless comment into something expressive of the bottomless heartbreak he’s standing on the brink of. And we’re standing right there with him. Mantel’s trick is to imply depths to her character’s feelings that he himself doesn’t acknowledge, and this at times throughout the novel only makes us experience them more intensely on his behalf—a sort of amplification through muting.

            With Mantel’s narration, we at times have to tolerate some slight disorientation, reading over pronouns whose antecedents won’t announce themselves until we’ve read the next few lines. Balancing this minor exertion, however, is the invariably short distance our eyes must travel to reach one or another form of punctuation signaling the end of a phrase. In another writer’s hands, this could make the pace feel clipped or stilted. But Mantel’s intimate involvement with her characters and her scenes allows her to make each clause emerge naturally from its predecessors, even while anticipating its successors, to create an effect that mimics simultaneity. Each line flows along like a flotilla of tiny treasure-laden ships, delivering images and meanings at the pace of precisely measured thought. This effect, too, is inseparably intertwined with the characterization. In the scene when Cromwell is sworn in as a member of the king’s council, Thomas More arrives in tears because his father has died the night before. Cromwell attempts to comfort him:  

“You know, after Elizabeth died, my wife…” And then, he wants to say, my daughters, my sister, my household decimated, my people never out of black, and now my cardinal lost… But he will not admit, for even a moment, that sorrow has sapped his will. You cannot get another father, but he would hardly want to; as for wives, they are two-a-penny with Thomas More. “You do not believe it now, but feeling will come back. For the world and all you must do in it.” (259)

We see here a hint of how complicated Cromwell’s feelings are about More, a man he grudgingly admires, one whose scholarship and literally self-flagellating devoutness, along with his casual misogyny and murderous conviction, inspires in him a mixture of wariness, disgust, and strenuously disavowed awe. We also see evidence of the layered meanings occupying the medium of Cromwell’s mind. He’s not only a man whose words are often at odds with his thoughts, but one whose thoughts are frequently at odds with his feelings (“I have got over Liz, he says to himself. Surely?” [463]), as though he’s trying—with a modicum of success—to manage his emotions by directing his thoughts. 

And this is the key to deciphering that initial passage about Cardinal Wolsey’s demise, because we know Cromwell would seek to reduce this overwhelmingly tragic news to its stark factuality. We know, too, that one of the most painful things about what’s happened is that he wasn’t there when his friend died—even though Wolsey had expressed his desire that he be there with him at the end. When Cavendish happened upon Cromwell in tears early in the novel, he doesn’t know it’s Liz’s prayer book in his hands. “I am going to lose everything,” is how Cromwell explains his tears, “everything I have worked for, all my life, because I will go down with the cardinal” (144). But, as he goes to court more frequently to plead Wolsey’s case, something unexpected happens: the king and his would-be queen recognize his talents and gradually end up recruiting him to their cause. In one of the scenes leading up to the cardinal’s death, Cromwell uncharacteristically lets his guard down and confides in a scholar and cleric named Thomas Cranmer—after discovering he too is a widower—about his concerns regarding Wolsey:

He has a wish to speak, to express the bottled rage and pain he feels. He says, “People have worked to make misunderstandings between us. To persuade the cardinal that I am no longer working for his interests, only for my own, that I have been bought out, that I see Anne every day—”
                   “Of course, you do see her…”
         “How else can I know how to move next? My lord cannot know, he cannot understand, what it’s like to be here now.”
         Cranmer says gently, “Should you not go to him? Your presence would dispel any doubt.”
                 “There is no time. The snare is set for him and I dare not move.” (232)

Indeed, Cromwell has overheard his own protégé Rafe Sadler saying to his nephew, “Look, there was no profit for him, ever, in deserting the old man—what would he get but the name of deserter? Perhaps something is to be got by sticking fast. For all of us” (198). The nephew, Richard, doesn’t believe his uncle’s loyalty to the cardinal is a mere ploy, but there’s no denying by this point that Cromwell’s fate is no longer tied to Wolsey’s.
Cromwell and Henry from the BBC series

            Mantel’s image of Cromwell as both intimidatingly savvy and startlingly versatile in his competences seems to have conspired with the traditional view of him as a coldblooded opportunist to make it difficult for some readers to see him as anything other than a Machiavellian mastermind. But, while he’s certainly no victim of circumstance, Mantel shows clearly throughout Wolf Hall that he’s as driven by necessity as he is by his own prescient and strategic calculations. As cool as he plays his myriad roles, Cromwell often has no idea what he’s getting himself into. From one of his earliest encounters with the cardinal—when he reflexively, and quite conspicuously, draws away from an imaginary blow (“I really would like the London gossip,” Wolsey says. “But I wasn’t planning to beat it out of you” [66])—to his first days at court, he’s frequently far from certain where he stands with the powerful men he’s surrounded by. After an attempt to convince Queen Katherine to relocate to Hertfordshire by suggesting that if she doesn’t go quietly she may be separated from her daughter, Princess Mary, Cromwell explains his position to his protégés. (First, he pretends he already knew Katherine and Mary were to be separated anyway when informed of it by one of his men.)

Rafe says, “It is harsh. To use the little girl against her mother.”
“Harsh, yes…but the question is, have you picked your prince? Because that is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him—yes, that is possible, yes, that can be done.”

Cromwell feels he’s chosen a prince—though in fact a prince has chosen him—far less ruthless than others he knows of. When his son Gregory, wondering just how far he would go with his yeses, asks, “You would not work her death, would you?” (270), Cromwell tries to reassure him:

“I said, you give way to the king’s requests. You open the way to his desires. That is what a courtier does. Now, understand this: it is impossible that Henry should require me or any other person to harm the queen. What is he, a monster?” (271)

Here again Mantel is playing her devious game with future history, since we know Anne will be only the second of Henry’s six wives—and the first of two who are beheaded. But, once Cromwell has chosen his prince, there’s no turning back for him.

Cromwell and Anne Boleyn from BBC series
            Unsurprisingly, Cromwell’s campaign to give the king what he wants meets with success, but that leads to a further complication. Thomas More, until recently a high church official, refuses to swear an oath in support of an act declaring Henry head of the church in England and free to marry Anne Boleyn. And so Thomas Cromwell has no choice but to say yes to his king’s command to either persuade More to reconsider or, failing that, find grounds to convict him of treason, so that he can be executed. More, as we knew he would, prefers martyrdom to the prospect of undermining his life’s work on behalf of the Catholic faith. The closing chapters of Wolf Hall have Cromwell struggling against both his conscience and More’s refusal to make any damning statements that would secure his conviction. The final scenes between the two men expose each of them down to the last raw nerve of their souls as they wade through the moral complexity of their predicament, weighed down by the undeniable futility of their efforts. “Will you think me sentimental, if I say I do not want to see you butchered?” (588) Cromwell asks at one point. Later he says, “I would have left you, you know. To live out your life. To repent your butcheries. If I were king” (590). As for the actual king, Cromwell has already tried to get him to allow More to live on in silence, since getting a jury—even the one he’s fixed—to convict him of treason won’t be easy. The king is incensed.

Henry stirs to life. “Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm.” He drops his voice. “Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.” (585)

In other words, find a way to execute Thomas More. Now there can no longer be any question in Cromwell’s mind of where he stands with the king, or of what kind of prince he has chosen.

            You can read Wolf Hall as an allegory about the transfer of power from the church to the state, taking Cromwell as a representative of a more modern, less spiritual, more skeptical way of thinking, with More, for all his courage, as a bloodthirsty hypocrite, even a type of terrorist. “When you interrogated men you called heretics,” Cromwell points out to More, “you did not allow evasion. You compelled them to speak and racked them if they would not” (582). But such a reading results in a gross failure to honor Mantel’s accomplishment in infusing real life-blood into her characters. Making them serve as mere symbols for anything is like scorching an entire forest of complexity to make way for some more orderly construction. Indeed, one of the recurring themes in the novel is the poor fit between required roles and the real humans made to play them—the constant need to “arrange your face” before entering a scene. This is best captured in another of the rare moments when Cromwell lets his guard down to speak openly and sincerely, this time to his nemesis and friend Thomas More as he sits in a cell: “I am glad I am not like you,” he says.

“Undoubtedly. Or you would be sitting here.”
“I mean, my mind fixed on the next world. I realize you see no prospect of improving this one.”
“And do you?”
…“I once had every hope,” he says. “The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under a glass. The spectacles of pain and disgrace I see around me, the ignorance, the unthinking vice, the poverty and the lack of hope, and oh, the rain—the rain that falls on England and rots the grain, puts out the light in a man’s eye and the light of learning too, for who can reason if Oxford is a giant puddle and Cambridge is washing downstream, and who will enforce the laws if judges are swimming for their lives? Last week the people were rioting in York. Why would they not, with wheat so scarce, and twice the price of last year? I must stir up the justices to make examples, I suppose, otherwise the whole of the north will be out with billhooks and pikes, and who will they slaughter but each other? I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free. If only that were true, Master More, you wouldn’t have to pray for me nearly as hard as you do.” (588-9)

And so we learn that our symbol for the emergence of modern statecraft and realpolitik fears for his own soul, just as we do. “I do, of course, pray for you,” More assures him. “When we meet in Heaven, as I hope we will, all our differences will be forgot.”

            The title Wolf Hall doesn’t merely refer to the home of Jane Seymour, the young girl Henry will turn to when Anne fails to give him a male heir. In a scene late in the novel, when Christophe, one of Cromwell’s servants, hears what sounds like howling, he asks “Is there loups? In this kingdom?” Cromwell answers, “I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners” (463). In a later scene, when his head cook Thurston explains that he wants to stay in the kitchen instead of delegating from afar because things may “take a downturn”—as they did for the cardinal—Cromwell recalls a threat the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, made to Wolsey: “Tell him to go north, or I will come where he is and tear him with my teeth.” At the time, Cromwell had joked dismissively, “May I substitute the word ‘bite’?” But years later, when the cardinal is long dead, the duke’s words still resonate: “The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man” (531).

Now, Cromwell must realize, part of his role is to answer to this same man who had a hand in his friend’s downfall, just as he must cater to Anne’s every whim despite her being the main force behind Wolsey’s ruin, just as he must invariably say yes to the king who stood by allowing it to happen. He does what he must in this world. Yet, for all his brilliance and competence and wit and cunning, despite his intimidating demeanor and his discipline in keeping his eye at all times fixed on his interests, Cromwell is a man with real heart. His soul, as revealed to us through Mantel’s singular virtuosity and ever so complicatedly human voice, is a flame that could never be captured under any glass, one that she alone could set alight on the page. And all the heart that she gives to her character is the reason why every page of Wolf Hall pulses with its heat. 



Sunday, February 1, 2015

Putting Down the Pen: How School Teaches Us the Worst Possible Way to Read Literature

(4,036 words. Link to printable version.)   
Storytelling comes naturally to humans. But there is a special category of narratives that we’re taught from an early age to approach in the most strained and unnatural of ways. The label we apply to this category is literature. While we demand of movies and television shows that they envelop us in the seamlessly imagined worlds of their creators’ visions, not only whisking us away from our own concerns, but rendering us oblivious as well, however fleetingly, to the artificiality of the dramas playing out before us, we split the spines of literary works expecting some real effort at heightened awareness to be demanded of us—which is why many of us seldom read this type of fiction at all.

Some of the difficulty is intrinsic to the literary endeavor, reflecting the authors’ intention to engage our intellect as well as our emotions. But many academics seem to believe that literature exists for the sole purpose of supporting a superstructure of scholarly discourse. Rather than treating it as an art form occupying a region where intuitive aesthetic experience overlaps with cerebral philosophical musing, these scholars take it as their duty to impress upon us the importance of approaching literature as a purely intellectual exercise. In other words, if you allow yourself to become absorbed in the story, especially to the point where you forget, however briefly, that it is just a story, then you’re breaking faith with the very institutions that support literary scholarship—and that to some degree support literature as an art form.    

The unremarked scandal of modern literary scholarship is that the tension between reading as an aesthetic experience and reading as a purely intellectual pursuit is never even acknowledged. Many students seeking a deeper and more indelible involvement with great works come away instead with instructions on how to take on a mindset and apply a set of methods designed specifically to preclude just the type of experience they’re hoping to achieve. For instance, when novelist and translator Tim Parks wrote an essay called “A Weapon for Readers” for The New York Review of Books, in which he opined on the critical importance of having a pen in hand while reading, he received several emails from disappointed readers who “even thus armed felt the text was passing them by.” In a response titled “How I Read,” Parks begins with an assurance that he will resist being “prescriptive” as he shares his own reading methods, and yet he goes on to profess, “I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption.” But, we might ask, could there also be such a state as active absorption? And isn’t that what most of us are hoping for when we read a story?
Tim Parks and Pen
Tim Parks

For Parks, and nearly every academic literary scholar writing or teaching today, stories are vehicles for the transmission of culture and hence reducible to the propositional information contained within them. The task of the scholar and the responsible reader alike therefore is to penetrate the surface effects of the story—the characters, the drama, the music of the prose—so we can scrutinize the underlying assumptions that hold them all together and make them come to life. As author David Shields explains in his widely celebrated manifesto Reality Hunger, “I always read the book as an allegory, as a disguised philosophical argument.” Parks demonstrates more precisely what this style of reading entails, writing, “As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel?” Instead of pausing to focus on character descriptions or to take any special note of the setting, he aims his pen at clues to the author’s unspoken preoccupations:

I start a novel by Hemingway and at once I find people taking risks, forcing themselves toward acts of courage, acts of independence, in a world described as dangerous and indifferent to human destiny. I wonder if being courageous is considered more important than being just or good, more important than coming out a winner, more important than comradeship. Is it the dominant value? I’m on the lookout for how each character positions himself in relation to courage.

We can forget for a moment that Parks’ claim is impossible—how could he start a novel with so much foreknowledge of what it contains? The important point revealed in this description is that from the opening pages Parks is searching for ways to leap from the particular to the abstract, from specific incidents of the plot to general propositions about the world and the people in it. He goes on,

After that the next step is to wonder what is the connection between these force fields—fear/courage, belonging/exclusion, domination/submission—and the style of the book, the way the plot unfolds. How is the writer trying to draw me into the mental world of his characters through his writing, through his conversation with me?
While this process of putting the characters in some relation to each other and the author in relation to the reader is going on, another crucial question is hammering away in my head. Is this a convincing vision of the world?

Like Shields, Parks is reducing stories to philosophical arguments. And he proceeds to weigh them according to how well they mesh with his own beliefs.

Parks addresses the objection that his brand of critical reading, which he refers to as “alert resistance,” will make us much less likely to experience “those wonderful moments when we might fall under a writer’s spell” by insisting that there will be time enough for that after we’ve thoroughly examined the text for dangerous hidden assumptions, and by further suggesting that many writers will have worked hard enough on their texts to survive our scrutiny. For Parks and other postmodern scholars, there’s simply too much at stake for us to allow ourselves to be taken in by a good story until it’s been properly scanned for contraband ideas. “Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed,” he writes. Because it’s a central tenet of postmodernism, the ascendant philosophy in English departments across the country, Parks fails to appreciate just how extraordinary a claim he’s making when he suggests that writers of literary texts are responsible, at least to some degree, for all the worst ills of society.

read stories as allegories
David Shields
The sickening irony is that postmodern scholars are guilty of the very crime they accuse literary authors of committing. Critics like Parks and Shields charge that writers dazzle us with stories so they can secretly inculcate us with their ideologies. Parks feels he needs to teach readers “to protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it.” And yet when his own readers come to him looking for advice on how to experience literature more deeply he offers them his own ideology disguised as the only proper way to approach a text (politely, of course, since he wouldn’t want to be prescriptive). Consider the young booklover attending her first college lit courses and being taught the importance of putting literary works and their authors on trial for their complicity in societal evils: she comes believing she’s going to read more broadly and learn to experience more fully what she reads, only to be tricked into thinking what she loves most about books are the very things that must be resisted.

Parks is probably right in his belief that reading with a pen and looking for hidden messages makes us more attentive to the texts and increases our engagement with them. But at what cost? The majority of people in our society avoid literary fiction altogether once they’re out of school precisely because it’s too difficult to get caught up in the stories the way we all do when we’re reading commercial fiction or watching movies. Instead of seeing their role as helping students experience this absorption with more complex works, scholars like Parks instruct us on ways to avoid becoming absorbed at all. While at first the suspicion of hidden messages that underpins this oddly counterproductive approach to stories may seem like paranoia, the alleged crimes of authors often serve to justify an attitude toward texts that’s aggressively narcissistic—even sadistic. Here’s how Parks describes the outcome of his instructions to his students:

There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

It’s as if the author’s first crime, the original sin, as it were, was to attempt to communicate in a medium that doesn’t allow anyone to interject or participate. By essentially shouting writers down by marking up their works, Parks would have us believe we’re not simply being like the pompous idiot who annoys everyone by trying to point out all the holes in movie plots so he can appear smarter than the screenwriters—no, we’re actually making the world a better place. He even begins his essay on reading with a pen with this invitation: “Imagine you are asked what single alteration in people’s behavior might best improve the lot of mankind.”
storytelling weapon and literature
Jonathan Gottschall

            The question postmodern literary scholars never get around to answering is, given that they believe books and stories are so far-reaching in their insidious effects, and given that they believe the main task in reading is to resist the author’s secret agenda, why should we bother reading in the first place? Of course, we should probably first ask if it’s even true that stories have such profound powers of persuasion. Jonathan Gottschall, a scholar who seeks to understand storytelling in the context of human evolution, may seem like one of the last people you’d expect to endorse the notion that every cultural artifact emerging out of so-called Western civilization must be contaminated with hidden reinforcements of oppressive ideas. But in an essay that seemingly echoes Parks’ most paranoid pronouncements about literature, one that even relies on similarly martial metaphors, Gottschall reports,

Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.
What is going on here? Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands? The psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock argue that entering fictional worlds “radically alters the way information is processed.” Green and Brock’s studies show that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories—inaccuracies, missteps—than less transported readers. Importantly, it is not just that highly absorbed readers detected the false notes and didn’t care about them (as when we watch a pleasurably idiotic action film). They were unable to detect the false notes in the first place.

Gottschall’s essay is titled “Why Storytelling Is the Ultimate Weapon,” and one of his main conclusions seems to corroborate postmodern claims about the dangers lurking in literature. “Master storytellers,” he writes, “want us drunk on emotion so we will lose track of rational considerations, relax our skepticism, and yield to their agenda.”
Melanie Green
Melanie Green 

            Should we just accept Shields’ point then that stories are no more than disguised attempts at persuasion? Should we take Parks’ advice and start scouring our books for potentially nefarious messages? It’s important to note that Gottschall isn’t writing about literature in his essay; rather, he’s discussing storytelling in the context of business and marketing. And this brings up another important point: as Gottschall writes, “story is a tool that can be used for good or ill.” Just because there’s a hidden message doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad one. Indeed, if literature really were some kind of engine driving the perpetuation of all the most oppressive aspects of our culture, then we would expect the most literate societies, and the most literate sectors within each society, to be the most oppressive. Instead, some scholars, from Lynn Hunt to Steven Pinker, have traced liberal ideas like universal human rights to the late eighteenth century, when novels were first being widely read. The nature of the relationship is nearly impossible to pin down with any precision, but it’s clear that our civilization’s thinking about human rights evolved right alongside its growing appreciation for literature.

            A growing body of research demonstrates that people who read literary fiction tend to be more empathetic—and less racist even. If literature has hidden messages, they seem to be nudging us in a direction not many would consider cause for alarm. It is empathy after all that allows us to enter into narratives in the first place, so it’s hardly a surprise that one of the effects of reading is a strengthening of this virtue. And that gets at the fundamental misconception at the heart of postmodern theories of narrative. For Shields and Parks, stories are just clever ways to package an argument, but their theories leave unanswered why we enjoy all those elements of narratives that so distract us from the author’s supposed agenda. What this means is that postmodern scholars are confused about what a story even is. They don’t understand that the whole reason narratives have such persuasive clout is that reading them brings us close to actual experiences, simulating what it would be like to go through the incidents of the plots alongside the characters. And, naturally, experiences tend to be more persuasive than arguments. When we’re absorbed in a story, we fail to notice incongruities or false notes because in a very real sense we see them work just fine right before our mind’s eye. Parks worries that readers will passively absorb arguments, so he fails to realize that the whole point of narratives is to help us become actively absorbed in their simulated experiences.

            So what is literature? Is it pure rhetoric, pure art, or something in between? Do novelists begin conceiving of their works when they have some philosophical point to make and realize they need a story to cloak it in? Or are any aspects of their stories that influence readers toward one position or another merely incidental to the true purpose of writing fiction? Consider these questions in the light of your own story consuming habits. Do you go to a movie to have your favorite beliefs reinforced? Or do you go to have a moving experience? Or we can think of it in relation to other art forms. Does the painter arrange colors on a canvas to convince us of some point? Are we likely to vote differently after attending a symphony? The best art really does impact the way we think and feel, but that’s because it creates a moving experience, and—perhaps the most important point here—that experience can seldom be reduced to a single articulable proposition. Think about your favorite novel and try to pare it down to a single philosophical statement, or even ten statements. Now compare that list of statements to the actual work.

            Another fatal irony for postmodernism is that literary fiction, precisely because it requires special effort to appreciate, is a terribly ineffective medium for propaganda. And exploring why this is the case will start getting us into the types of lessons professors might be offering their students if they were less committed to their bizarre ideology than they were to celebrating literature as an art form. If we compare literary fiction to commercial fiction, we see that the prior has at least two disadvantages when it comes to absorbing our attention. First, literary writers are usually committed to realism, so the events of the plot have to seem like they may possibly occur in the real world, and the characters have to seem like people you could actually meet. Second, literary prose often relies on a technique known as estrangement, whereby writers describe scenes and experiences in a way that makes readers think about them differently than they ever have before, usually in the same way the character guiding the narration thinks of them. The effect of these two distinguishing qualities of literature is that you have less remarkable plots recounted in remarkably unfamiliar language, whereas with commercial fiction you have outrageous plots rendered in the plainest of terms.

            Since it’s already a challenge to get into literary stories, the notion that readers need to be taught how to resist their lures is simply perverse. And the notion that an art form that demands so much thought and empathy to be appreciated should be treated as some kind of delivery package for oppressive ideas is just plain silly—or rather it would be if nearly the entirety of American academia weren’t sold on it. I wonder if Parks sits in movie theaters violently scribbling in notebooks lest he succumb to the dangerous messages hidden in Pixar movies (like that friends are really great!). Our lives are pervaded by stories—why focus our paranoia on the least likely source of unacceptable opinions? Why assume our minds are pristinely in the right before being influenced? Of course, one of the biggest influences on our attitudes and beliefs, surely far bigger than any single reading of a book, is our choice of friends. Does Parks vet candidates for entrance into his social circle according to some standard of political correctness? For that matter, does he resist savoring his meals by jotting down notes about suspect ingredients, all the while remaining vigilant lest one of his dining partners slip in some indefensible opinion while he’s distracted with chewing?

            Probably the worst part of Parks’ advice to readers on how to get more out of literature is that he could hardly find a better way to ensure that their experiences will be blunted than by encouraging them to move as quickly as possible from the particular to the abstract and from the emotional to the intellectual. Emotionally charged experiences are the easiest to remember, dry abstractions the most difficult. If you want to get more out of literature, if you want to become actively absorbed in it, then you’ll need to forget about looking past the words on the page in search of confirmation for some pet theory. There’s enough ambiguity in good fiction to support just about any theory you’re determined to apply. But do you really want to go to literature intent on finding what you already think you know? Or would you rather go in search of undiscovered perspectives and new experiences?
Moonwalking with Einstein and Literature

            I personally stopped reading fiction with a pen in my hand—and even stopped using bookmarks—after reading Moonwalking with Einstein, a book on memory and competitive mnemonics by science writer Joshua Foer. A classic of participatory journalism, the book recounts Foer's preparation for the U.S. Memory Championships, and along the way it explores the implications of our culture’s continued shift toward more external forms of memory, from notes and books, to recorders and smartphones. Since one of the major findings in the field of memory research is that you can increase your capacity with the right kind of training, Foer began looking for opportunities to memorize things. He writes,

I started trying to use my memory in everyday life, even when I wasn’t practicing for the handful of arcane events that would be featured in the championship. Strolls around the neighborhood became an excuse to memorize license plates. I began to pay a creepy amount of attention to name tags. I memorized my shopping lists. I kept a calendar on paper, and also in my mind. Whenever someone gave me a phone number, I installed it in a special memory palace. (163-4)

Foer even got rid of all the sticky notes around his computer monitor, except for one which read, “Don’t forget to remember.”

            The most basic technique in mnemonics is what cognitive scientists call “elaborative encoding,” which means you tag otherwise insignificant items like numbers or common names with more salient associations, usually some kind of emotionally provocative imagery. After reading Foer’s book, it occurred to me that while the mnemonics masters went about turning abstractions into solid objects and people, literary scholars are busy insisting that we treat fictional characters as abstractions. Authors, in applying the principle of estrangement to their descriptions, are already doing most of the work of elaborately encoding pertinent information for us. We just to have to accept their invitations to us and put the effort into imagining what they describe.
memories and pictures
Linda Henkel

             A study I came across sometime after reading Foer’s book illustrates the tradeoff between external and internal memories. Psychologist Linda Henkel compared the memories of museum visitors who were instructed to take pictures to those of people who simply viewed the various displays, and she found that taking pictures had a deleterious effect on recall. What seems to be occurring here is that museum visitors who don’t take pictures are either more motivated to get the full experience by mentally taking in all the details or simply less distracted by the mechanics of picture-taking. People with photos know they can rely on them as external memories, so they’re quicker to shift their attention to other things. In other words, because they’re storing parts of the present moment for the future, they have less incentive to occupy the present moment—to fully experience it—with the result that they don’t remember it as well.

            If I’m reading nonfiction, or if I’m reading a work of fiction I’ve already read before in preparation for an essay or book discussion, I’ll still pull out a pen once in a while. But the first time I read a work of literature I opt to follow Foer’s dictum, “Don’t forget to remember,” instead of relying on external markers. I make an effort to cast myself into the story, doing my best to think of the events as though they were actually happening before my eyes and think of the characters as though they were real people—if an author is skilled enough and generous enough to give a character a heartbeat, who are we to drain them of blood? Another important principle of cognitive psychology is that “Memory is the residue of thought.” So when I’m reading I take time—usually at section breaks—to think over what’s already happened and wonder at what may happen next.

I do eventually get around to thinking about abstractions like the author’s treatment of various themes and what the broader societal implications might be of the particular worldview represented in the story, insofar as there is a discernable one. But I usually save those topics for the times when I don’t actually have the book in my hands. It’s much more important to focus on the particulars, on the individual words and lines, so you can make the most of the writer’s magic and transform the marks on the page into images in your mind. I personally think it’s difficult to do that when you’re busy making your own marks on the pages. And I also believe we ought to have the courage and openheartedness to give ourselves over to great authors—at least for a while—confident in our ability to return from where they take us if we deem it necessary. Once in a while, the best thing to do is just shut up and listen.


Also read: How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

And: Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch Pilgrimage and the 3 Wrong Ways to Read a Novel

And: Sabbath Says: Philip Roth and the Dilemmas of Ideological Castration