17 February 2014

Thrill of the Chase

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

Since Valentine’s Day has just passed, I feel obliged to write about love; but in the charged and troubling atmosphere of romantic and sexual advances that we live and work in today, I thought perhaps I should write about pursuit instead.

The most stubborn lover in Shakespeare’s canon is Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play whose plot is driven almost purely by a series of pursuits. Helena pursues Demetrius, Demetrius pursues Hermia, Lysander and Hermia love each other; then, Lysander pursues Helena, Demetrius switches from a pursuit of Hermia to a pursuit of Helena, and Hermia pursues Lysander. The play concludes when there are no further pursuits – when Hermia and Lysander return to a state of mutual desire and when Helena’s pursuit of Demetrius is finally reciprocated, although induced artificially.

Helena’s urgent, insistent passion for Demetrius, though, is disquieting, her mood always reflecting in her choice of words and rhyme scheme. In the beginning, Helena is adoring and Demetrius is indifferent. When Helena is alone, she soliloquises beautifully of her love. But when she actually meets him, her language is altered: she ceases to rhyme effortlessly; her language is charged, passionate; she is not meditative or even wistful as she was earlier; she becomes forceful, reckless, more pathetic. Her reasoning, which only induced pity when she woefully expressed love and sorrow in her soliloquy, goes a step further when this quality of desperation is added to it.

The fact that she has ceased to rhyme works for her: when rhyme has left her, reason has joined her. Her argument is strong: she turns the tables on Demetrius and blames him for drawing her towards him rather than herself for blindly following – it is your fault for making me chase you, and not mine for chasing you. Her rhetoric, though, is clever: we no longer see Helena as the victim of unrequited love, but as the victim of cruelty. Swiftly, she places a bargaining chip: Hermia’s whereabouts in return for Demetrius’s affection.

But things take a darker turn as Helena’s love turns slavish – at one point, she offers to be nothing more than Demetrius’ dog. At her weakest moment, Helena is driven to her strongest and most persuasive argument: that she cannot help being in love with Demetrius, implying that this whole thing is entirely Demetrius’s fault. As a pursuer, Helena is convincing and articulate on the one hand and desperate and pitiable on the other. Her language, however, is always rich and full. When anyone else pursues – say, when Lysander pursues Helena – the language of pursuit is abrupt, almost crude. The poetry is not elegant like Helena’s, it is rife with rhetorical questions, charmless imagery and obvious metaphors, never as fluid as Helena’s, never as inventive. When Lysander pursues, he is childish; when Demetrius pursues, he is lewd; and when Hermia pursues, she is trite. Helena, above everyone else, riddles and woos with exquisite grace.

But this is the way of sexual predators. They bargain for sexual favours. They blame victims for drawing them. Their rhetoric is often both beautiful and persuasive, their urgent violence is a sign of the truth of their emotion. They deify the very feelings that drive them to violence: it is born of love, you see, and how can love be wrong? The objects of their affection may spurn them, but they are wrong to do so; more likely, they are simply saying no while signalling yes.

Demetrius minces no words in making his feelings clear to Helena. His language is clear-cut and direct: he uses no imagery or metaphors to put his point forth to Helena; more importantly, he uses statements without loopholes – no conditional clauses, no room for possibility. He is unkind, but he also gives her no false hope. Throughout, though, he seems weaker than Helena in that he needs to run from her to get her to leave him alone. ‘Run when you will,’ says Helena to Demetrius, almost as though she is warning him: no matter where he goes, she will continue to chase, thus setting the terms of her pursuit: her only term is that she will never stop.

Thankfully, our notions of romance have matured from pursuit to agreement; we don’t chase very much and we know that we shouldn’t. In Demetrius’s place, we grope for ways and laws to protect us from the ferocity of another’s passion. And in Helena’s place, we, at least those of us with broader views of love, seek help. Best of all, when we are told that he’s just not that into us, we understand, we walk away. At least we should.

Helena, so incapable of walking away, finds redress only when Demetrius is magicked into falling in love with her. On Shakespeare’s pages, her language steadies into clipped rhythms and she ceases to rhyme as beautifully. Her fervour has borne fruit, but at what cost?

02 February 2014


My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

Throughout The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton slips in frequent asides about New York and the changing face of the metropolis in the late nineteenth century. Hers was a New York characterized by a certain xenophobia and an old-world disinclination to change or alter tradition, clothed as it was in the faux-embrace of a newly emergent modern and multicultural sensibility. Wharton writes in cutting, incisive prose: “In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” 

Our cities are much like Wharton’s New York. In a world that overtly celebrates difference and curiosity, otherness continues to produce isolation with almost immediate effect. Our cultural core does not vary very much across generations; discourse is welcome, but actual change is troublesome. Back to Wharton: “[…] what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.”

If Wharton’s intent was to capture a certain place in a certain moment, she certainly accomplished this. But her portrait of the city has far-reaching import that she may never have dreamed of. It quickly and deftly    rounds up all the troubles that collar every city in every moment of time: the ignominy of expectation, the ungovernable hypocrisy of peerage, the simulation of respectability, pre-defined and established, in all manner of things. For Wharton, there existed in New York a very specific moral crisis that was wedded closely to the problem of appearances: “It was the old New York way of taking life ‘without effusion of blood’: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes,’ except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.” But this is also the very notion that drives the rhetoric of every spatially defined cultural milieu – the urban metropolis, friendly society, the workplace, family, even the internet.

Within each unique subculture, there is a dangerous predication that defines itself as good taste and good behavior and even sheer goodness. These notions are perilous because they have the potential to morph into homogeneity, which is hazardous to identity at its very worst and frightfully boring at its best. It gives itself to days minutely and beautifully choreographed, conversations eloquently scripted, costumes intricately designed, settings that are methodically laid out, all disappearing into a finely crafted and closely regulated bubble of uniformity and equilibrium.

The Age of Innocence, though, flirts provocatively with otherness. This is a novel of manners unlike any other, for it holds within its pages characters who are struggling to get out, who are rejected by the society that created them, but who do not particularly seem to object very much to the rejection. Our cities simmer with codes to be followed, with rules of engagement, statutes for negotiation. And if these codes are not followed or, in some cases, not even deciphered, these are cities fully capable of swallowing one up whole, masticating one’s errant ways and spitting them out into its periphery, which crawls, already, with the merry band of misfits who have found their chewed selves edged out into this very space. This redeems our world quickly enough, its largeness means that one is never wholly alone, never the only one lost.

The miserable thing, though, is how easy it is to fall into these patterns and nestle comfortably into the warm-hearted shoulder of acceptance. All that needs to be done is fall in line, and it isn’t that hard or even that problematic, really, so why not do it. At one point in Wharton’s marvelous book, Ellen Olenska softly says, “The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” 

Wharton’s Ellen – like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Fowles’ Sarah Woodruff or Kundera’s Sabine or Yates’ April Wheeler – rejects society even as society rejects her. Her early concerns of fitting in are rooted out swiftly. Cleverly, Wharton sidesteps these moments and shows us, instead, Newland Archer’s world, the easier world, neatly arranged, a polite family portrait, a tableau of contentment, almost as if to say, here you are, look how easy, but daring us, at the same time, to step across the line and see what could have been.