Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Enlightenment Run Amok: On Fiction and Truth

Arabella, the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, shares similarities, not surprisingly, with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. She views the world through romantic French novels and fully expects adventures around every corner. Why no villains have yet attempted to kidnap her, nor any heroes fought duels to win her heart is one of her life’s big mysteries. Ultimately, she’s set straight on this; heroes are mythical. Villains, of course, aren’t, but in an enlightened society, maybe, just maybe villains will go the way of their heroic counterparts.

After her disillusionment in romance occurs, she asks this question of her scientifically minded doctor:

“The Fables of Aesop, said Arabella, are among those of which the Absurdity discovers itself, and the Truth is comprised in the Application; but what can be said of those Tales which are told with the solemn Air of historical Truth, and if false convey no Instruction?”

The rational doctor admits that the fiction which has formed Arabella’s thoughts can’t be defended–this fiction being of the untrue rather than the true variety. He, therefore, attempts to reform her mind by gently asking her leading questions, such as this one: “How is any oral, or written Testimony, confuted or confirmed?”

Her response is about as reasonable as you’d expect from a girl intelligent enough to read French romances: “By comparing it . . . with the Testimony of others, or with the natural Effects and standing Evidence of the Facts related, and sometimes by comparing it with itself.”

From this answer, I understand that Arabella has a sound mind, along with enough intellect to make a proper study of the facts outside French romance, rather than inside, because those aren’t facts [which we’ve already established!]. By extension, I also know Arabella will eventually concede the truth. Her romance novels don’t parallel the England of her day and age. She was a fool to believe they did–a wise fool, but a fool nonetheless.

While the setting straight, or healing, of Arabella’s mind might be of some relief to other readers, as well as to Arabella’s honorable suitor, Mr. Glanville, I can’t help feeling let down, as though I, as well as the heroine, has lost something beautiful when she realizes that chivalry, adventure, and the divine art of love are fantasies. Although I’m always disappointed in the end of The Female Quixote, I refuse to conclude that Lennox merely meant to instruct society on the type of novels young women ought to read, favoring Richardson over Madeleine de Scudery.

No, the following exchange doesn’t support this interpretation:

The doctor claims that “[Arabella’s] Writers have instituted a World of their own, and that nothing is more different from a human being, than Heroes or Heroines.” Her writers–and yes, he gives Arabella ownership of them–have created their own worlds. They exist as false worlds within false words, and create false notions within minds–especially the minds of young girls.

Arabella gives a frank reply to the doctor: “I am afraid, Sir, that the Difference is not in Favour of the present World.”

I have to agree with Arabella. Two hundred and sixty years have passed since Lennox first published her novel, and our hyper-rational, post-enlightenment society has not yet eradicated villains, even if the heroes have fled from our collective unconscious.

Oh, heroes, where have you gone? I can hear your horses’ hooves pounding through history, only to come to a clattering halt outside the palace of my modern mind.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Counting Crows and Raindrops

image by A Leon Miler © 2012

I’ve never counted crows, at least not that I can remember, not even as a youth when everything counted. A while back, I wrote this memoir called Change, in which I admitted to obsessively counting things. I also claimed to have changed over the years, to have eradicated the counting habit from my mind. But the posting of that piece woke me to reality: I never stopped. All these years, I’ve unconsciously counted. And now that I’ve risen from my dream without numbers, I count things consciously again. Because of the background activity in the unconscious mind, I’m not certain if I’ve counted crows or not. However, the file in my mind marked crows is of the cryptic variety, and bears little importance to my life, unless, of course, I begin dreaming of crows. At that point, I might have to reckon with the numbers. Meanwhile, reaching back to my nineties world, Counting Crows simply refers to a melancholic Berkeley band.

Rain is gloomy. Perhaps rain is the cause of, or is at least correlated with, counting things. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows understands the gloomy nature of rain, and uses it to his advantage on the quintessential nineties album, August and Everything After. His songs literally drip with rain. I might assume, from my own experiences, that Duritz counts crows in the rain–hence the band name–but I don’t think this is true. According to a quick search on the ever useful Wikipedia, the members derived their name from a divination rhyme, in which the number of crows answers man’s uneasy questions about the future. I’m not sure I would want my future foretold by the number of crows roosting in winter trees–or wherever they happen to be–but that may be owing to my unacknowledged crow file.

On the other hand, I know what it’s like to count rain in days, nights, and hours. I know this because my childhood world dripped with rain. Even now in my desert world, I can’t separate myself from the form of it. Rain changes people at a core level, in the genetic landscape of their souls, and this information is then passed down from generation to generation. Growing up in Portland, I lived with a constant drizzle for nine months of the year. To be exact, the average yearly rain count in Portland is thirty-eight inches. How many barrels would thirty-eight inches fill? That depends on the size of the barrels. All barrels being equal, other cities in the U.S. would fill more. New York City, for example, has a higher average rainfall. Nonetheless, Portland’s rain overshadows the citizens because of the lingering crust of gray clouds, and its capacity to drip like a leaky faucet for months on end.

August and Everything After, Counting Crow’s rainiest album, released soon after my husband and I married in 1993, and just after we fled from Portland’s rain to Southern Oregon, where the rainfall average is cut in half (38 to 18–yes, I know, this isn’t exactly half, but even less!). Ironically, Adam Duritz hails from a place with a similar low level of precipitation (San Francisco); however, he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, which explains his wet head. His early life in a rainy place changed the genetic landscape of his poetry, such that rain and melancholy ooze from his lyrics in the way that damp oozes from the walls of old dwellings near the water.

Rain is like a drug to those who have soaked it up in their youth. It’s bad for us–we sense this deeply, but we can’t stop wanting it. When my world snapped from the dryness of the scrubby Southern Oregon hills, with the deep skies of summer and the white air of winter, I heard ghost rain in rattling pot lids and steam vents. I watched for the white air to pour forth, and my brain cracked from the melancholy that no longer had a cushion of rain to fall back on. From the Medford Coffee Company, where I served up life-giving trays of coffee, I stared out into a blank parking lot, swept by scattered leaves and traffic. At night, I studied the dry, black window glass that barricaded me against the traffic. Those in the espresso shop were on an island. In a mall parking lot, we provided a refuge amid the paved, dry seas.

But rain cut in half is still rain. The hollow where the city of Medford rests isn’t a desert. Eighteen inches of rain, on average, must fill its barrels for the sake of maintenance because averages are guiding strictures in a world where true understanding is unknowable. So when the rain began to fall, I counted it. I counted drop after drop until I lost count altogether and lost myself in the sound of it, in the resting place of my childhood pensiveness. Somehow, deep thoughts require at least a modicum of rain to work themselves out. This kind of brilliancy, requiring a lack of light along with barrels of rainwater, is one of the grand contradictions of a mysterious universe.

Since moving to New Mexico, my rain has halved itself yet again, leaving me with that much less of a cushion for my thoughts. The span of the desert breaks me. The span of time without rain doesn’t empty out my thought channels, but rather, it dries them as it dries the arroyos in my backyard that snake from West to East and fill with dead mesquite branches and decaying cholla arms. In the same way, my thoughts back up and cover themselves over with dust.

And the only way out is, oddly, the same out I had for the inevitable depression caused by growing up in a rain-soggy world: coffee and espresso made strong and black, short or tall. In addition, to make a pun of it, I count things. I count my coffee, my ounces, and the raindrops that fall during the monsoon season. I count how many days pass without rain. Back in Oregon, caffeine was a corrective drug to counteract the rain drug. Here, in the desert, it’s a replacement. And I never count crows because when crows flock together in the desert, they are too many to take into the hidden parts of my mind.

20,18,38,64,9 (a list of cryptic numbers indicating the rounded rainfall averages, in inches, of various places I’ve lived, except the 20, which represents San Francisco).

The image is actually of a blackbird, not specifically crow. See A Leon Miler’s website. A Leon Miler is my dad, and he also spent far too many years in a rainy climate.

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The Grimmest Error Reaps Death

As Alice set aside her work for the day, her sheets of written text, an uncomfortable feeling stole over her. She’d committed an egregious error of some kind. The pages sat in a heap on her desk. Could she sort through them at this late hour? She didn’t think so. Her employer was not a man to mess with. The sky glowed orange behind her–not with evening, but with morning.

Alice had worked herself to the bone over this document. She had worked herself to skin and bones. Her hair, long and thin, hung in a ponytail sheath down her back. It was her last vestige of youth with its golden sheen, but the roots were ash. This work had aged her, and she had worked with such diligence, too. Yet even diligence wasn’t enough to avoid fatal errors. And make no mistake: her employer would view the error as fatal. This fatality could affect her family if she allowed it to. But she wouldn’t allow it. She would offer her own life instead.

Armed with the ream of pages, she carried the document up the hill to her master’s residence. After his secretary admitted her, she placed the document at his feet, and then bowed to her knees.

“I made an error, and I don’t have time to fix it,” she whispered, her eyes downcast to the stone floor.

“Please show me your face,” he said.

She raised her face, but not her body. She didn’t dare stand in his presence, nor did she dare look directly at him. She raised her face and stared into the corners of her eyes.

“What do you propose to do about it?”

“I know I must give my life for it. If I give my life, will you protect my family?”

“I am now, and have always been a fair judge. I accept your offer. The Grim Reaper will come for you at midnight. Set your house in order. I won’t allow him to touch the other members of your family.”

“Thank you.”

Alice trembled from the release of tensed muscles. For so many years, she’d worked on that document, her body as cramped as her writing hand, bent over her enormous desk. Her desk now sat empty, and she wouldn’t return to it. She would spend her last hours with her husband and children.

She and her family lived in the upper portion of her father’s house. Due to her husband’s low income, and her lack of one, they remained a multi-generational family, despite Alice’s plans for future autonomy. Her windfall was to come after her work’s completion, but now that riches were no longer an option, they would have to learn to live with even less–no mother, no wife, no daughter. How could she break it to them? They had tirelessly supported her project for years.

Somehow, she managed. She broke the truth, and they accepted it in the way that inevitable truth must be swallowed. Her older children understood, but her younger ones didn’t. However, older and younger alike decided not to dwell on it, and most likely for the same reasons. The young ones didn’t understand, yet they understood sadness, and they attempted to avoid it at all cost.

The little ones played; the older children read. Alice cooked dinner and cleaned up the kitchen and put the little ones to bed upstairs. Back downstairs, her husband and two eldest daughters sat silently at the kitchen table, their arms spread across the surface as if in defeat. Alice’s father didn’t seem to know what to do. He wandered the house–he picked up his guitar and strummed it. He slid a Robin Mark album in the player. Maybe songs of God would drive the darkness away. Of course, they couldn’t. This kind of death–contractual–was firmly entrenched in the physical world and in its tangible words. It contained no spiritual message.

For the last few hours before midnight, Alice tried to forget her fate. She sat with her husband and her beautiful eldest daughters and drank tea with them. With every space left inside her soul, she soaked up her daughters’ images–their long hair and soft gray eyes, which they turned from her. One scrolled through the music selection on her Android, and the other traced pictures on the wood grain of the table, invisible worlds that kept to the boundaries of her finger. Alice offered coffee to her husband, and he accepted it, though he didn’t take a drink. He slipped into a half-catatonic state, which Alice couldn’t blame him for.

At a few minutes to midnight, her father pointed to the time, and desperation filled Alice’s soul. She ran upstairs and shook her little ones awake long enough to choke out I love you to each. Her eight-year-old sleepily opened her eyes, wrapped her arms around Alice’s neck, and mumbled something that sounded like I know. Her son’s eyes flickered. He said nothing.

She ran back downstairs just as the wind rattled the glass in the windows. Lightning split the darkness and thunder cracked, and Alice found it ironic that her actual ending would be the cliche sort she’d always avoided in her writing. Death would come on the wings of a stormy night, and how could it be any other way? The lights flashed off and back on; the Robin Mark album petered out with a crackle of static.

The door flung itself open by an unseen force. Whatever happened, she would remain calm. She had no other choice. When she glanced at her family at the table, they looked away, stared into the table surface, and Alice hoped they were imagining a different life there. On the other side of her, her right side, her father stood grinding his teeth, his jaw muscles twitching. Her father’s pallor faded and his eyes glazed.

Finally, she faced the open doorway. This was the only way out–the only way to pay for her mistake. The Grim Reaper rolled up, his legs attached to metallic rollers. He groaned from the rust of centuries. He towered as tall as the house, his metal jaws attached to a swing loader. At his side, two children in white gowns hovered, waiting. They floated peacefully, unafraid of death. Their faces bore no expression, and they didn’t move or flinch, even as the swing loader swung down toward Alice’s skin-and-bones figure. It would snatch her up, and she would weigh nothing to its iron form. It opened its jaws, ready.

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