Friday, May 8, 2009

Larks, Linnets and Goldfinches: Misrule, Fall, and Prolonged Infancy

Larks, linnets and goldfinches. The wind in the east. Fed, I say, "It's only you, the generous creatures, whom I envy. Being quite a child." (Toughy Chesser)

Where once the reader only had to make meaning of a text and its author, these days she must grapple too with her own meaning-making impulses, her now-abjected desires to connect the dots of essentialist biographical detritus, defunct mythos, and potentially tongue-in-cheek symbolism. These interpretive pitfalls are further complicated by not only the vast quantity of information that an author may draw on, but the multiplicity of discourses and cross-discourses that she may invoke. As such, it is tempting to read the Toughy Tales biographically, particularly given the format of their release—the Twat—which is typically biographical, and the Tales' heavily autobiographical themes of anachronism, dependency, and birds.

Such a reading may operate insidiously in the realm of symbols. The birds for instance, if we remember Nabokov's lectures—in this case his analysis of Dickens's Bleak House—may reference the three types Ms. Flite kept in captivity, while she awaited resolution of the court case, the catalyst and ultimate foil for the interpersonal drama of the novel. In apparent spite of the scattershot territory covered by Ms. Flite's actual names for the birds—
Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach—and the manifold historico-religious symbolic possibilities I will soon discuss, Nabokov decides that they "correspond to lark-youth, linnet-hope, and goldfinch-beauty." This is a fair reading, which, as we know, at least serves to highlight the absence of Beauty in the actual naming of the birds, Nabokov suggests, to foreshadow Esther's later loss of beauty due to her illness. So here the birds, with no small trace of irony, symbolize varieties of potential-in-confinement—willfully unrealized ideals, perpetually dying in captivity.

But what, in this symbolic effort, does it mean for Toughy to quote this passage, and how can we confine the reference to Bleak House? To address the latter question first: we cannot disregard the Christian, Pagan and socio-narrative symbolism of the three birds, for they are essential to our biographical reading of the passage.

The lark, typically the symbol of merriment and possibility, due to its energetic daybreak twitterings, was thought to have sung at the gates of heaven, welcoming new souls. The irony of the image should not pass us by—the tidings of the new day were not untainted by the spectre of mortality, just as the sun (Son), in it's arrival, portends its own departure. Similarly, the goldfinch, which is said to represent Jesus, as it feeds on and nests in thistles, too represents beauty; and we begin to see a pattern: arrested states of glory, the uncanny liminal of stunted potential—perpetual death, or, the Unlived, in the life overshadowed by its own undoing. The reference itself, cast nonchalantly at the head of the Twat, belies its own gravity, seeking to be understood at mere surface: a catalog of birds; certainly beautiful to a cat, though perhaps only in the heat of gastro-libidinal desire—an ending: to eat one's cake, and have it too.

The following line sets the tone for the first, in a neumonimic syntactic pun: "the wind is in the east", perhaps another reference to the Dick's tomb, wherein Mr. Jarndyce indicates that an easterly wind is an index of misrule. In fact, in many of the Dick's tombs, from David Copperfield to The Haunted Man, the east wind is treated ominously. Sometimes this idea, which perhaps has its roots in the maxim, "When the wind is in the east, 'tis neither good for man nor beast", is invoked playfully, to indicate a superstitious character, but often is a reliable indicator that something foul is afoot. In fact, I do not use the term "misrule" lightly; I do so to invoke both the playful character of the common yearly carnival atmosphere, in which aberrant behaviors, sexualities and social practices were tolerable for the one day, and the cruel, 364-day wake of intolerance that would follow—see Halloween, Carnivale, and any number of other strategies for the containment of subversive social identities. In this twat, the wind announces that the entire twat itself is representative of a kind of misrule—to be tolerated, perhaps, but maybe also prolongued beyond its acceptable boundaries—including the jokingly swapped order of the first two phrases.

So, what has been pre-judged as the upset of the social order? What crime against nature and sense is so contained in our twat? Our answer is contained in the blindly self-congratulatory final section, wherein Toughy—presumably?—turns not only his relationship to his carers, but his relationship to reality, on its ear.

It would be easy to chalk this section up to simple quotation, as it is easy to do in the wake of the earlier Dickens references, of Bleak House, where, if we remember correctly, Mr. Skimpole said much the same thing, playfully turning the burden of gratitude back on his patrons, for "enjoying the luxury of generosity".

Now, we have come to understand the tension between Toughy's understated wit and capacity for vastly drawn, deft and razor-sharp verbal turntablism, and his naive understanding of the very content of his speech—like a child spelling out the facts of sex or death without an understanding of the rammifications of these events, as if they are merely adjective to other words or concepts, and not living beings. In fact, Toughy is very much a child, in some senses, "fed", cared for, sheltered from a reality unbounded by cat-leashes and whisker-smudged windows. However, we must also acknowledge that he has in some ways imposed this world on himself, at least somewhat aware of the dangers and responsibilities carried on by his caretakers. This fact is at the heart of his world—this is the true upset.

Toughy is chiefly not a child because he understands the limitations of his world and the types of responsibilities he is sheltered from. That Toughy willfully keeps himself in this arrested adolescence, a perpetual death, an Unlived state, is itself the deeply uncanny, intolerable misrule. That he eats food from a small bowl, reads from a color-coded library, and waxes mature on his own lifestyle undercuts both his "natural" immaturity and the precocity of his now-and-then wit. He can be neither kitten nor cat—his birds, his objects of desire fly outside the sphere of his influence (and dare I say, outside of his actual desiring), the wind frankly lives in the east, and Toughy, always fed, always talking, considers "'being' [to be] quite a child", as that is what he has made "being" to be.

Of course, the trouble with this misleading symbolic reading is that we have assumed certain meaning for cats, children, birds, Toughy, books, being, and words.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I just stumbled upon this blog out of the blue. Having never heard of Toughy but being a big fan of Nabokov and Dickens, and especially M. Flite and her birds, I'm stunned! Your analysis of the quoted tweet (twat?) is masterful and gives Pale Fire a run for its money. Who are you, Ericlindley?