Sunday, June 14, 2009

Environmental Factors, Order and Chaos in Late and Post-Victorian Literature

Here's something to "entertain" you. This is a paper I wrote for a literature class, a topic I am by no measure qualified to speak about.


One can say, with no measure of doubt, that a particular work cannot be both exclusively pertinent to a singular era while also transcending the passage of time to inform and engage modern readers. The writings of Ibsen, Mann, and Conrad persist in their relevance beyond their simple revelations as historical texts reflective of their Late and Post-Victorian origins by exploring topics which invite speculation outside the purview of the period allotted to them by the sweeping hands of history’s keepers. This is not to say that these works are not products of their time, but rather that the extremity of the overarching aegis of the Victorian Era was such that it provoked in these writers an urge to address the philosophical assumptions of their day, assumptions which were not by any means unique in a historical context, but were elevated to such a point of social import whereby they became virtually synonymous with the age. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, explore the relationship between the axis of order and chaos versus the axis of goodness and evil in relation with the human experience through the eyes of individual Victorian characters. Each author in his own way challenges the western preconceptions which tie goodness to order and chaos to evil by stripping away the veneer of good and orderly existence to reveal the absolutist correlation between these axes to be an artificial construction divorced from the actual human condition within the reality of Victorian culture and beyond.

The Role of Travel and Geography

In shaping each of these works the authors took care to juxtapose the austerity of Northern European cultural standards of order against more viscerally passionate locations to the south: Italy in the case of Ibsen’s and Mann’s work, and Africa in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. These locations serve not only as a cultural manifestation of Victorian strictures or the lack thereof, but also as a metaphorical bridge between geography and anatomy. The northern origins of the characters identify spatially with the brain, the supposed source of Victorian superiority and civilization: intellect, stoicism, Apollonian thought and western refinement. The north to south travel of the principal characters can be seen to correspond with an acknowledgement of, or awakening to, Dionysian impulses manifested at least partly in all cases with sexuality; thus this travel can be viewed as a shift in the anatomical center of thought downward from the head to the sexual organs. This change in locality also manifests itself as a change of atmosphere from cool to warmer climes. In A Doll’s House, Nora and Torvald’s trip to Italy, occurring prior to the story, is made evident through Nora’s fiery tarantella dance to provide a contrast against the frigid Norwegian winter. Heart of Darkness similarly opens beneath the oppressive darkness of London’s overcast sky and quickly thrusts the reader into Marlow’s sweltering account of Africa, home of Kurtz’s wild mistress and all the primal energy Conrad assigns to its thick jungles. At first glance, Mann’s Death in Venice, would seem to defy this pattern by placing the protagonist Gustav van Aschenbach in an unseasonably warm and humid Munich to begin with and then moving him to an unusually dreary and cool Venice; however, when viewed not as a comparison between the physical temperatures of the locations but rather as a contrasting indicator of the relative heat or passion of Aschenbach’s temperament as he moves between these environments, one can further assert the importance of the imagery of environmental temperature change in demonstrating the effect of location on the character. Assuming for the use temperature as a metaphorical representation of passion, Aschenbach, as he appears in Munich, is cooler than his surroundings; this is an allusion to his status as an exemplar of stoic ideals. It stands to note that amongst a society which reveres his mentality, he is set apart by his unusual lack of romanticism. His relative warmth in Italy signifies the stirring of a suppressed and excessive desire, one so great that it defies the capacity of a city as symbolically romantic as Venice.

The Role of Illness and Its Link to Food

Having asserted the role of temperature imagery in advancing the common thematic elements of these three texts, and having similarly identified the role of individual temperature in the case of Aschenbach, it is only natural to extend this to an analysis of the role of fever specifically and disease in general within the context of the Victorian sentiments which manifest themselves in the writers’ works. In each of these texts, disease (a manifestation of both passion and disorder) plays a two-sided role as a liberator of social constraints and as a potentially lethal killer.

In A Doll’s House, Torvald’s illness, which precipitates most of the events in the play, is cured through travel to Italy’s warmer climes which, as previously noted in relation to her dancing, results in an awakening of a sense of unusual passion within Nora. The circumstances by which the trip was made possible, Torvald’s illness and Nora’s subsequent forgery of her father’s signature on a loan document, further demonstrate the good that can arise from a state of disorder. Torvald’s position of financial executor is hampered by his disease, but Nora is able to overcome the problems facing her marriage through a criminal act of forgery which both cures her husband and quietly liberates her from Victorian social expectations. The collective cultural repertoire from which these three authors drew contained more than a few concepts which might be alien to the modern reader. Not the least amongst them, the widely held belief that disease was the result of unnatural sexual and culinary appetites advanced by the American temperance leader Sylvester Graham[1]. This causal link between food and disease is most directly formed in A Doll’s House, wherein Nora and Rank discuss the nature of his fatal illness.

“Rank. My poor innocent spine has to suffer for my father’s amusements.

Nora. I suppose that you mean he was too partial to asparagus and pate de foie gras, don’t you?

Rank. Yes, and to truffles.

Nora. Truffles, yes. And oysters too, I suppose?”

Rank. Oysters, of course, that goes without saying.

Nora. And heaps of port and champaign. It is sad that all these nice things should take their revenge upon our bones.” (Ibsen, 38)

While on the surface, this brief dialog might seem to the modern reader to subtly hint at sexuality, the actual connotation within the context of the time is much more significant given the outspokenness of the Grahamite movement during the Victorian era. Nora’s shift in topic from the unseemly frankness of the sexual act to euphemistic dietary habits opens a window of opportunity for the two to speak flirtatiously. Rank personalizes the discussion by alluding to Nora’s personal vice, macaroons, by mention of their confectionary cousin the truffle. In this light, the macaroons which Nora secretly hides from her husband, but flaunts in front of her friends, come to represent a hidden sexuality which Torvald is not party. Nora’s mention of oysters, a reputed aphrodisiac, advances the sexual dialog by linking a specific food to the act of sexual intercourse. Torvald’s overbearing enforcement of order and strictures within the house results in two evils: the suppression of his wife’s passions and her intellectual infidelity. The balance of relationships are directly upset by Torvald’s strict adherence to social mores; thus Ibsen is able to demonstrate that order does not always yield goodness and that goodness, Torvald’s good health and Nora’s self-actualization, can be born from disorder.

Mann similarly links food with disease in Death in Venice by having Aschenbach ignore warnings about eating fruit which might be contaminated with cholera. Fate takes a more sinister turn for Aschenbach who is compelled to expose himself to disease by the unbridled passion he feels for Tadzio. His decision to stay in the city and partake of luxury foods in spite of the growing epidemic is indicative of the irrationality of his passion which manifests to such an extent that he allows himself to be corrupted by agents of disorder to offset the imbalance of his life. Through Aschenbach’s classically inspired reasoning Mann is able to show the arbitrariness of social order in the context of differentiating between good and evil acts. At the same time, he recognizes through Aschenbach’s eventual death the inherent dangers of completely ignoring prudence. Aschenbach’s fever is indicative of his growing passions and also the onset of cholera. Again, temperature plays a role in expressing the character’s inner motivations and desires. As Aschenbach grows sicker, so too does his appetite for sex and disorder: his feverish dream of the bacchanalian celebration and its phallic idol and his musing on the adventures to be had with Tadzio once the rest of the city had succumbed to disease are both manifestations of the corruption in his mind and body. The fact that he succumbs to the disease of his desire for the boy is not necessarily an indictment of disease or desire, but rather a charge levied against the living of an imbalanced life. Aschenbach’s tale demonstrates the inevitable destructive spiritual backlash against the stoic Victorian ideal. The prediction set forth by Mann’s depiction of Aschenbach was perhaps vindicated by the excesses of the post-war 1920s and the subsequent economic failure of the 1930s, a rise and fall mirroring Aschenbach’s own journey from direness to disaster by way of elation.

The role of disease in Heart of Darkness is not as internal to Marlow’s experience as it is to Aschenbach’s in Death in Venice, nor as integral to his motivations as the characters in A Doll’s House. Rather, the lurking diseases of the jungle serve to mirror the psychological effects of Africa’s alien environment on its European colonizers. The specter of sickness shadows Marlow’s journey from the outset, a threat which provides a constant reminder that whites are unwelcome intruders. The depiction of natives as direct extensions of their wild environment serves to further illustrate who belongs in the Congo or perhaps more appropriately: who belongs to the Congo. “…but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at.”(Conrad, 21). This passage was similarly noted by Dr. Achebe in his essay An Image of Africa as an example of Conrad’s fixation with assigning value to cultural presence of location (Achebe, 122). This depiction of healthy Africans interacting seamlessly with their environment is both complimented and complicated by the image of Africans brought inland by Europeans to work, who upon leaving their homelands succumb to many of the same maladies as the whites they accompany. Still, even in their similarity to Europeans they are depicted as being separate, closer to the primeval wilderness.

“Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light…” (Conrad, 27)

“Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost to uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.”(Conrad, 28)

This is perhaps one of the few places in Heart of Darkness where Conrad offers a gray area, a position between the polar opposites of black and white, between African and European cultures. Africans acting outside of their environment are stricken with disease, just as Kurtz is later in the novel. If Conrad means for Africa to represent some primal otherworld to Europe’s civilization, then the disease afflicting both Kurtz and these dying Africans serves as a warning to the reader about the dangers of upsetting the natural order. At the same time, Conrad depicts the possibility of free-agency within this hierarchal division between order and chaos, in at least as far as Europeans are concerned. The Central Station Manager’s uncanny ability to survive in Africa is highlighted by the uneasiness he instills in others, the sense that he is unnatural belongs to a nothing. Kurtz, on the other hand, is able to elect to exist temporarily within the Congolese world, embracing it and ultimately seeming to abandon the existence of order he was born into for one of chaos. Marlow is ultimately confronted with this same decision, at least in his own mind. His awe in the face of the jungle and its people’s passionate culture is tempered by his understanding of social arrangement. While it seems clear that Conrad, vis-à-vis Marlow, views African culture as being inferior when compared to its European counterpart, he does not recognize it as evil, but rather as an alternative suitable to those born to it. Upon his return to Europe, Marlow views those who have not experienced the choice between order and chaos as being uninformed, passive recipients of culture, inferior in their understanding of the human condition, thus tying enlightenment to having glimpsed both alternatives and chosen according to one’s nature. In Conrad’s work, the disaffection of evil from chaos and goodness from the order of civilized life further dispels the unnatural linkage between these two axes of ethics.



[1] “If it be admitted that the dietetic doctrines herein taught are founded upon correct principles, those who make such admission, and neglect a reformation, have much to answer for. Is there any reasonable difference between the man who shortens his life by intemperate eating or drinking, provided he be not ignorant of their effects, and he who terminates a miserable existence by the sword or the pistol? Have we a right so to conduct as to become the victims of disease? Do we not owe a duty to ourselves, to the community at large, and to our families, that renders it criminal when we voluntarily disable ourselves from fulfilling such obligations? Is a man justified in calling his friends around a bed of sickness, robbing them of their natural repose to minister to his wants, and afflicting their minds with his situation, when he might have avoided it? And even if we have, with the most virtuous courage, corrected the abuses of our own lives, have we accomplished our duty? Is it virtuous, is it just to transmit, to posterity, the diseases with which we, ourselves, are afflicted? Does it not devolve upon us as an imperative duty, to our progeny, to educate them in such a manner, that they may be capacitated to enjoy all the happiness, of which, by a perfection of their nature, they are susceptible? Are we not accountable for the health, morals, and happiness of our offspring?”(Graham, 29).

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