Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Capitalism

Confusion of Origins: Notes on Historical Approaches to Puritanism

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What makes a writer attach themselves to a subject, particularly a historical subject? Is it a way to frame contemporary experience, in light of the experience, words, and actions of others who are somehow perceived as part of a lineage? Or is it a way to seek redemption, inspire the future, isolate the past from the contemporary moment, or enrich our flattened understanding? Is it a desire to find a missing part of ourselves?

I have thought about this question a lot, since whenever people ask me about my literary thesis project – what made me drawn to the topic of my thesis on Susan Howe’s interest in Antinomianism (the radical use of evangelizing rhetoric by Anne Hutchinson of the Boston Massachusetts Colony to resist judgement by her community before being ousted by the elders of the Puritan community to the wilderness) – or what makes me currently drawn to Frances Fuller Victor – a historian of Oregon writing in the mid-nineteenth century who cast doubt on the “predestination” of westward expansion – I cannot come up with a clear, or personally viable answer. There is a bit of confusion about my decision to concentrate on certain material and the nature of my approach.

Today, I will shift my attention away from personal inquiry to question the motivations of several authors whose work attaches itself to Protestant religious belief systems as origins for any number of contemporary phenomena including capitalism, American mainstream identity, or racism.

For instance, Max Weber’s famous thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism suggests that a “spirit” of capitalism is inherent to protestant values, specifically of the English Calvinist tradition (the precursor to Puritanism) based on the notions of a “calling” and “predestination” which could suggest that material wealth was a sign of salvation. This topic is still questioned, as the American business class (see this article in Forbes) may find an ideological use for asserting Puritanism as its original ideological guide. Weber’s work was particularly influential for the thinkers of the Frankfurt School.

Without further investigation, this could make anyone skeptical at a glance, since it suggests that capitalism has an eternal “spirit” lacking breaks, fractures, or permutations. Likewise, it seats the origins of the capitalist mechanism in European territory, since Max Weber claims that Buddhism and other religious groups were less capable of fully adopting individual material gain as a virtue independent of social systems. It is easy to feel skeptical towards these ideas in our current era of vast globalization in which many belief systems are capable of molding their values to embrace capitalism, granting it the appearance of a performed, rather than essential practice. It is interesting to note that Max Weber’s work contradicted Marx, who described the motor of history as the material, economic base. Weber suggests that ideology, or belief systems likewise produce an effect.

R.H. Tawney responded to Max Weber in the essay, “Puritanism and Capitalism,” in 1926, unwilling to accept his clean-cut description of Calvinism:   

Weber, in a celebrated essay, expounded the thesis that Calvanism, in its English version, was the parent of capitalism, and Troeltsch, Shulze-Gaevernitz and Cunningham have lent to the same interpretation the weight of their considerable authority. But the heart of man holds mysteries of contradiction which live in vigorous incompatibility together. When the shriveled tissues lie in our hand, the spiritual bond still eludes us.

In every human soul there is a socialist and an individualist, an authoritarian and a fanatic for liberty, as in each there is a Catholic and a Protestant.

Thus, in Tawney, Puritanism itself becomes an example not of separation, but of an inherent complicity with the things its tenets both accept and reject.

Puritanism itself involved a constant questioning of acceptance as the quest for finding evidence of “grace” the proof of God’s salvation reveals; and rejection marked by violent determinations, as the Pequot War exemplifies. Overall, such close attention to the mystical aspects of Puritan “grace” theology and its many perplexing internal contradictions and effects always stand in relief to a relative inattention to native interpretations of Puritan violence.

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Later, Perry Miller, a Historian of Harvard University, wrote his famous book entitled, Errand into the Wilderness (1964), which questioned whether the reason the Puritans came to America was considered self-determined, or pre-determined, in which case, the higher power (a potentially capricious power) could change its mind and drop support for the social experiment. This project distinctly proposes justifications for considering the Puritan-American mind as something distinctly different from the European mind, due to Puritan isolation and uncertainty. Once more, this effort to detach Puritanism from its sources as part of an effort to establish an American essence gives the work an air of nationalism. However, Perry also took up a contemplation of irresolvable contradictions, namely to which extent do idealism (the errand) and material realities (the wilderness) shape history. Earlier, in his work entitled, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1961) Perry contemplates the role of the mind as a factor in shaping human history, through the study of rhetoric and Puritan language and texts. Yet, notably, Perry treats the realities of the social and mental spheres as independent as a means of defining their relationship.

Perhaps granting such a deep psychological aura to Puritanism itself is problematic, as it grants undue attention to the interior social constructs of one particular group of historical agents during the “origins” of America, without considering the numerous factions of other influential agents, and the division within the Puritan’s community itself. Ann Kibbey, a leftist-feminist scholar continued to question the rhetorical uniqueness of Puritan doubt and uncertainty, while she attempted to link this rhetoric to what she considers an inherent tendency for violence and prejudice towards natives and women alike within the Puritan colonies in her book The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: A Study of Rhetoric, Prejudice, and Violence first published in 1986. This work grants special attention to Anne Hutchinson, a woman who was scapegoated from the Puritan community before the rash of witch trials swept through the Puritan communities. However, I feel it is in our interest to consider the Puritan’s development of violence a performed act, rather than a necessity, since even though it invoked imagery, language and forms as the associated rhetoric of violence, this does not mean that these forms literally caused violence: people’s actions did. From my perspective, people may act or embrace ideology with cruel intentions, and they should be duly reckoned for these intentions, but ideology in a vacuum has no conscience, no power. Ideology itself becomes an excuse.

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Another sea of inquiry that highlights the unique role of women and natives as agents shaping the “uncertainty” of Puritan society were the wildly popular captivity narratives of women such as Mary Rowlandson who described their experiences as having been abducted and then returned safely from life with the natives. Poet Susan Howe writes about Mary Rowlandson in her essay “Captivity and Restoration” found within her book entitled The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. The narratives produced by Rowlandson (and her male congregational ministerial scribes) are deeply steeped in religious rhetoric and typology producing an effect that function follows predetermined form. Howe writes, “Early New England rhetoric claimed for every single Christian a particular evangelical and secular use and progress. Individual identity was prophetic and corporate. In the hermeneutics of the Bay Colony every member of the Elect was a figural type on the way of federal eschatology. The break with the Old World was a rupture into contraries.” She reveals that the dilemma of form involved the extremities produced by the pressure of isolation.

Combined, the quest for some innate Euro-American origins using religious explanations of the Puritan mind, rhetoric, profit motive, or any other simplistic framework is not complete without a consideration of natives, women, material realities as well as emotional, mystical, or rational frameworks. The study of Puritans has accommodated such diverse fields of discourse for different ideological frames of inquiry yet, a recurring theme within the study of Puritanism itself is contradiction and what do we do with it? How can we reconcile the simultaneous rupture and continuity of European traditions in the New World, symbolized by the Puritans? The crisis of identity at the core of their history is notable and it resembles narratives of immigration to America from diverse communities as well: coming to seek opportunity, but never feeling a sense of belonging. Deeply consuming life with a quest for transcendence, salvation, and belonging. Yet, understanding that nothing is guaranteed, so we must consume ourselves with work, industry, production as a means to defy uncertainty, etc…

Furthermore, the imperative for economic freedom through markets via rupture (discussed in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine) perhaps makes Puritan contradiction a convenient parallel for our own contemporary forms of brutality. However, Klein herself would attribute this not to one particular doctrine, but any that embraces fundamentalism at its core. She reminds us that any effort to cleanse a system of impurity and eliminate all co-existent ideologies is inherently dangerous and filled with risk, yet such extremism continues to shape and influence our political and economic spheres.

So what draws me to my own autodidactic historical research? The condition of my immigrant heritage to America and the complicit violence and prejudice it suggests? My uprootedness? Perhaps questioning itself, as my method, may be the only identifiable material of my existence.

What marks off the “self” is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.

— Simone Weil, ibid.

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Madame Bovary’s Afterlife: Lily Bart

“The House of Mirth” published in 1905 by Edith Wharton is a character driven novel that effectively results in a resuscitation of Flaubert’s dead heroine, Madame Bovary. This time, she comes in the form of the extravagant Lily Bart. Ms. Bovary is brought back to life by translation. Fluent in French, Edith Wharton’s francophilia delivers the pre-conceived warning to American young beauties about the French curse of debt induced suicide. Revitalizing the dead society culture of American high society of her time, Edith Wharton’s love of France and all things French (including Flaubert’s aristocratic critique of bourgeois fallacies) enables the esteemed realistic creature, Madame Bovary, to enter into a hyperrealistic duplication in the form of Lily Bart. Rarely is a copy more compelling than the original, but for many book lovers, this is the case when asked about their preference between Bovary and Bart. Why is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary trumped by her rebirth in the form of Lily Bart? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Lily’s translation is closer in time and space to the contemporary capital of the 20th century, New York City.

Provocatively, Walter Benjamin poses the question, “Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original?” Certainly, the linguistic elitism implied by that question, serves to suggest that we need to and should understand “the original.” Under this aegis, Edith Wharton likewise preserves her authorial claim to originality. Perhaps not having enough of a literate audience to compare the continental canon, she was able to shock and stun her own bourgeois readership of their own frightening entanglement in capitalism. Furthermore, Benjamin claims that translations cannot transmit what is essential about literary works. Therefore, translation is merely a testament to the translatability of the original. In medical terms, we might consider what is translatable to be the “viral,” contagious spread of disease. We are overcome with a work by virtue of our need to share it.

Thus, the afterlife of Madame Bovary spreads the disease of debt and its crippling effects once again in an updated American version. It proves that there may be nothing more stunning than to witness the fall of the most beautiful, effortless, weightless, and superficial members of elite society even though Lily Bart is proven to have more wit and more gumption than Madame Bovary could ever manage. Therefore, she is prepped for a more hungry audience. They liked what they saw, and the virus had taken hold. Each era has the potential to reframe the translatable figure of Madame Bovary as long as her archetype remains fixed, and as long as we continue to fear the threshold of death that looms at the edge of a fall in status. But is that kind of decadence exactly what Edith Wharton had in mind? And why do mostly high-society writers(Edith Wharton was a kin of the elite) latch onto this particular translatable text? Why is it somehow satisfying to kill off a member of their own in fiction?

Let’s recall the novel’s “non-essential” (non-literary) information:

Lily Bart is a beautiful high society lady living with her wealthy aunt in New York City. She earns a stipend from her aunt for her expenses that accrue as she mingles among wealthy social circles by adorning parties with her exceptional beauty and grace. Her lifestyle could only respectably end in marriage. Lily Bart, however, defies this “natural” trajectory by gambling her money away at bridge and eluding her suitors. When she becomes financially entangled with married suitor who seeks to adopt her as his mistress, she realizes she must repay him to quell rumors that will inevitably spread. When her aunt learns of her niece Lily Bart’s defamatory endeavors, unbeknownst to Lily Bart, she adjusts her will to restrict Lily Bart’s inheritance and award the bulk of her wealth to Lily’s previously less-admired cousin. As far as her aunt is concerned, Lily Bart has wasted her beauty and upbringing on frivolous, selfish pursuits. Ultimately, what Lily inherits is just enough to cover the cost of her debts. Lily Bart’s downfall results in her confiding to various suitors of her situation. One of them offers her a loan to cover her debt to the original suitor and restore her reputation in a plan that involves an eventual marriage and return to her customary status. However, by this time, she  is working to earn her living as a hat maker for which she has no skill and she is living in a boarding house. By the time she finally receives her inheritance, she realizes its full amount is almost entirely accounted for. Unable to revoke her lifestyle of excess and materialism, or to give up her independence, or to see the virtues of her less materialistic friends, she overdoses while thinking of her hopeless circumstances.

Lily Bart is a direct translation of the character Madame Bovary into a different nation and culture, which offers Edith Wharton the opportunity to provide a critique of American society. Let us recall that Madame Bovary was absorbed in a quest of freedom as a natural exponent of true love. Along the way, her savings succumbed to her dreams as she lavishly adorned the romantic setting where she met her lover to the point of suicide-inducing debt. Lily Bart, however, appears to despise the concept of marriage and dreams instead of remaining free to carouse the tightly-knit circles of society with equal dress and esteem as if she were attached to a partner, but without the trappings of closure and limitation that marriage might impose on her power to allure. Unable to find a suitable partner, she prefers to gamble and dream of the virtues of financial independence.

Edith Wharton’s francophile approach to writing results in an uncanny doppelgänger effect when one reads “Madame Bovary” and “The House of Mirth” in sequence. Edith Wharton’s admiration for French culture is vividly transparent in the near duplication of themes and motivations. Just as Flaubert wished to critique the romantic delusions of the French bourgeois class, Edith Wharton directs her critique at her own materialistic, inbred society of New York where all of the members of the elite merely wish to escape to the superior “culture” of Europe.

What is brilliant about Edith Wharton’s translation of Madame Bovary into a new work is that it reflects her simultaneous desire to adopt French culture as a corrective to her own. Edith Wharton was fluent in French and she died in France at the age of 75. With “The House of Mirth,” she infuses a French classic text into the American imagination because of her profound belief in the superiority of Europe and its aristocratic class to her own. Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” represents not only a heroine’s escape from her troubles, but a writer’s escape from her own environment, by embracing another culture.

The relationship between Madame Bovary and Lily Bart is not about female empowerment, but rather a dissolution into the borderless confines of identity captured by the figure of the flaneur. Lily lands at the cusp of such a wandering phenomena by traversing high and low culture, maneuvering in and out of Europe and America, while also floating in the in between space of decisive suicide and accidental death. This indeterminable half-life, can no longer can be reigned in by patriarchy. Lily Bart instead leads towards an atrophy of self in which the only vague sense of certainty befalls her upon her death. Unlike Bovary’s lust for a transcendence from her strict realism in the form of eternal love, Lily Bart chooses not to choose, and falters over her identity as a relinquishment of willpower. She settles with powerless ease into the systemic demise that awaits her. Lily Bart, trumped by capitalism, represents a more clearly etched indecision that Madame Bovary inspired and transmitted. Eloquently prim in their lack of resistance to the capitalism that rules supreme in these representations, Flaubert and Wharton alike simply give in to the notion that women, left to their own devices, are no match for the death-seeking downward spiral of debt that is induced by a capitalist society. Thus, Benjamin continues to hold the key, by claiming that Paris was the “capital” of the 19th century, proving the most hallucinatory generator of phantasmic images of ghosts, untimely deaths of beautiful women, and the machinery of the resulting continuation of such an epidemic. Cast aside and forgotten, in the story of Lily Bart, the dance of excess carries on long after her death. Lily Bart ushers in the new era of an American translation of such liberal freedoms.

Je Suis Madame Bovary

Waiver: This blog post has absolutely nothing to do with Charlie Hedbo (at least not explicitly).

Getting back to the original intent of this blog, I now return to literary commentary.

Today’s post is the first on a series about fictional suicidal heroines.

I’m afraid to admit it, but I only just recently read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert for the first time. While it has been touted by all sorts of Francophiles for its literary merits, I was more interested in reading it through a narcissistic lens.

Recap: “Madame Bovary” as you probably know, is story of a famous, lovely, young French woman who marries Charles Bovary. She soon feels bored by married life and turns to extra-marital romantic affairs. The first of these ends because her lover is distracted and ultimately refuses to commit and run away with her. The second leads to more heartbreak and dire fiscal consequences. Once she falls too deep into debt, she gets hold of some cyanide and ends her life when she courageously swallows away her debt, dreams, and doldrum. The death leaves a stain on her community, especially on the psyche of her forlorn husband.

With so many fallen dreams crumbling throughout the book, any empathy you start to feel for the characters is tainted by the overbearing notoriety of the author himself. After all, he wrote this book to satisfy his urge to critique the French bourgeois society of his era. We learn a compelling moral that unsatisfiable emotional needs, paired with the influence of several favorite bourgeois pastimes: reading and shopping and fantasizing, lead to one woman’s fatal downfall in the form of suicide. Her urge to “opt out” is compounded by the male constituents of the community who offer the option of support through sexual trade. At every corner, she faces the risk of losing her status, which is her most prized possession. This, in fact, proves to be worth more than her life to her. It is ultimately more “affordable” to expend her own life, than to risk losing her social status.

However, the novel’s particular focus on the fatal attraction of debt-inducing behavior was particularly poignant for me. Parallels between the risks associated with a female livelihood in this novel and my own life lead me to believe that beyond the book’s superficial warning against frivolity, there is another more compelling historical relationship between her (Madame Bovary) and me (Je Suis). Not only do Madame Bovary’s material demands lead to her downfall, there is a more sardonic depiction of female psychology at play. Her love of fiction, her fancy, her imagination and her wish to transcend “daily life” are actually what cause her demise and mobilize her debt. “Daily life,” after all, lacks passion. It lacks the extremes of emotion and it continues onward in a highly predictable manner. Flaubert is taunting us by drawing the line and reminding us that actually, the only people who are free from the risks that debauchery entails are privileged male artists like himself.

From a writerly perspective, the style of Madame Bovary has been cited for establishing what we now call “realism.” I was particularly entranced with the descriptions that gave such a compelling illusion of truth. The thick residue of time and space melted away so that I really sympathized with Madame Bovary, reading this book. This story led to profound self-evaluation on my part. This novel of female escapism and its hazards parallels the framework supporting my writing endeavors.

A brief summary is as follows: inspired by novels I read, I decided that I should become a creative writer. There was no financial goal in mind, just an urge to devour life for all of its myriad flavors. So, for a few years that comprised the latter half of my twenties, I earned two self-defining Master’s degrees in which I entertained dreams of both madness and greatness. Out of these endeavors, I produced very little actual readable work of any quality. I was “experimenting.” After a several-month-long trip to South America to learn Spanish, a class in Marxism at Berkeley, a year-long avant-garde poetry thesis, a several-month long-trip to Germany, and a visit to Turkey later; I landed in Istanbul as a SAT instructor and university application counselor for wealthy private Turkish students. Not to mention, all of my escapades have been extra-marital, but of a different kind than those of Madame Bovary. Mine are not dependent on any particular lover’s participation (for better or worse). Now that I am some 40K in debt (no, I am not a Columbia graduate, otherwise those figures would be into the triple-digits), I am still compelled to write. But more and more, I understand the difficult-to-face reality that my writing is actually a fatal, fruitless task. Little by little, I am crawling my way out of financial risk. The main difference between me and my mirror (Madame B.) is that I am still blind to how my romantic adventures have lead to any social downfall. Perhaps that’s why I’m still alive. My status as one among billions in this digital-era, leaves me thankfully anonymous. Therefore, I think my adventures have had very little effect upon my status, which started rather low to begin with. I have successfully escaped the Bovary effect: “Pardon me, but do you happen to have any… ahem… cyanide?”

Purportedly, Madame Bovary dispels the false, romantic illusions of the bourgeois class. In that regard, I have interpreted it as a stark, but brilliant portrayal of someone like me. At the same time, it allures us with the beauty of the senses, the decadence of extreme emotional range, and Ms. Bovary’s courage to singlehandedly take down an entire provincial, sexist community of men with a defiantly independent form of female nihilism. Perhaps, most of all, it is this that captures my imagination. I love Madame Bovary for her defiance and her reckless approach to what is ultimately the destruction of personhood by way of ruining her own body’s material value in a patriarchal society. She explodes out of its confines with her own death. This leaves the question, was Madame Bovary ruined by a toxic frivolity that led to her eventual demise, or did she succeed as the ultimate heroine of material escape?

Concluding thoughts:

Madame Bovary reminds us that we live in and come from a society that drives women towards debt through various factors including:

1. The urge to stay materially equal or superior to our peers in fashionable appearance, dress and lifestyle.

2. The combined disincentive to work that the traditional conceptions of marriage and motherhood imposes on women. This leads to our economic disadvantage. Of course, this is less prominent in this era, but many women must still contemplate this dilemma.

3. The romantic ideals of true love, emotional freedom and creativity that are often achieved in some part through material acquisition. This means that the life of an imaginative, artistic young woman is inherently conducive to financial traps designed specifically for our social economic “class.”

The Madame Bovary Antidote:

The greater the imagination, the greater our chance to escape this “horror.” 

“The Horror! The Horror!”

Yes, this is the colonization of women’s freedom of body and mind by the advertising, fashion, and the capitalist machinery that urges us to achieve ultimate material dependence under the guise of expressive independence. Ok, perhaps this has turned into a platitudinous post, so I shall…

end…

its…

life.

Up next on the suicidal heroine blog-post docket:

Commentary about Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton