Reading The Great Chain of Being

May 18, 2018

In the back of my copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), the study questions do more than draw interest to the text, they draw attention to the social landscape of the day. One question asks, “Does Jane Austen ridicule a particular set of people with her wit?” The question is alarming because it situates judgment on the authoress herself, painting her with a bit of conceit.

In our modern age, creative writers are urged to “show” their stories scene after scene, which is a means to allow readers to arrive at their own conclusions concerning subtext. In Austen’s day, marked rules and distinctions between showing and telling did not exist, where it was for our lady genius in her free form prose to stumble upon what literary theorists know as “free indirect discourse,” a form of literary expression that in essence allows readers to know what a character is thinking.

The result of this form bleeds into our initiating question, that people stand be ridiculed as Austen’s story unfolds. We know what people are thinking about others because Austen spells it out. But we can’t judge her for how she sounds in her writing, because the question is as much a historical inquiry as it is a textual study. Austen’s thoughts are a reflection of an English paradigm stretching centuries into the past, in which her psyche functions at the mercy of that very paradigm.

Just before the long eighteenth century, the vestiges of Feudalism lingered with great tenacity. Feudal social structures are likened unto the Great Chain of Being, that unbreakable hierarchy in which all creatures large and small fit in at some level. And I mean UNBREAKABLE! God himself sits at the very top of this hierarchy, and from this point comes the monarchy and nobility, followed by the peerage and on down into the peasant classes and so forth. Wherever a person was born within this Great Chain of Being, society at the time recognized the position as permanent. In 1563 The Statute of Apprentices embodied this concept, “for it assumed the moral obligation of all men to work, the existence of divinely ordered social distinctions, and the need for the state to define and control all occupations in terms of their utility to society” (Source). A peasant couldn’t dream of becoming a baron and a baron wouldn’t think of becoming king unless certain rare conditions were to arise. This understanding of the structure was embedded so deeply that to imagine life otherwise was incomprehensible.

The Great Chain of Being

The Great Chain of Being can be understood even better when we observe the moment in time when it suffered the rudiments of disruption. London trade exploded into the open during the early 1700s, and a new class of people came into being that had people scratching their heads. A person could develop a business based on the sale of goods and become successful. Social mobility had arrived. The middle-class had been created, destabilizing that Great Chain of Being.

Yet the social consciousness created by the Great Chain of Being did not dissipate so easily. Social mobilization was like a shock wave of which its effects took time to deal with. In Austen’s work the aftershocks of this disruption pop up throughout her text like Freudian slips, yet they are to the contemporary reader, a part of fleshing out this glacial force of change.

For example, Sir Walter has strong opinions about social mobility via time served at sea:

— “Yes; it [The English Navy] is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of” (Austen 19).

Obscure birth? His use of the word “undue” comes off as harsh even for the day, and the element of social mobility disrupting the Great Chain of Being is well-defined in the insistence that it could never be “dreamt of.” As modern readers we might ask: Why shouldn’t someone of obscure birth be allowed the chance to come into their own?

The Great Chain of Being is subject to dismantling by Captain Wentworth’s intention to succeed, so as to raise his station in life. This longing is pivotal to the plot in that he had lost his romantic chance with Anne because of his lower level in the social hierarchy:

— “But he was confident that he should soon be rich: full of life and ardour, he knew that he should soon have a ship, and soon be on a station that would lead to everything he wanted” (26).

Personalities and character defects are no match for status when we consider the power Miss Carteret has over her peers in light of her natural place in the Great Chain of Being:

— “Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth” (143).

Birthright has been cemented deeply in the social consciousness so that it is like pulling teeth trying to remove it from the authoress’s mind.

— “But Mary did not give into it very graciously, whether from not considering Captain Benwick entitled by birth and situation to be in love with an Elliot” (124-25).

Even when specific examples fall to the wayside and subtle everyday language is applied do we find the gradation functioning within Austen’s psyche, found in her application of the word “superiority” (emphasis mine).

— “…save as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments” (40).

Even inanimate objects are assigned a measure of station in the Great Chain of Being:

— “Their house was undoubtedly the best in Camden Place; their drawing-rooms had many decided advantages over all the others which they had either seen or heard of, and the superiority was not less in the style of the fitting-up, or the taste of the furniture” (131).

In the modern age we don’t go around commenting about the life-cards a person has been dealt, not in the ridiculing sense we hope. In movies sometimes we will find politicians insisting to their children who will marry who, as they revel in the glee of their lack of poverty. And so far as we know, those who’ve been divined to claim standing within that fabled “one percent” probably have thoughts and they make comments about who is who in this world, and where they stand in relation to them. As for the potential of Austen’s work to sound as though she is ridiculing others, at the very least, and from her perspective, her work serves to suggest to the reading public at the time, and in our modern era, that a person does not necessarily have to remain in the situation into which they were born. As Captain Wentworth’s ambitions suggest: How much are you willing to work for a better life?

Serfs locked into the Great Chain of Being by their overlord.

___________________________________________

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1817. Barnes & Noble, Inc, 2003.

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Diegetic vs. Mimetic Writing: Making Sense of the Show-Don’t-Tell Decree

March 30, 2018

Trying to understand the dynamics of creative writing is like wandering into a briar patch. For a writer who has fallen in love with the craft, if they have not studied these dynamics, they will at some point in time submit a manuscript inevitably to be returned, rejection notice attached, with a potential suggestion to learn how to “show” and not “tell” the story. Depending upon the writer, the level of burning sensation frying the scalp will reach variable levels.

The problem with this particular brand of advice is that it is not altogether wholesome; it is vague and it doesn’t guide a writer toward better writing. What exactly does it mean, to “show” and not “tell” a story?

In technical terms, diegetic writing is the same as “telling” your story. Diegesis is the formative writing style that brought us stories long before that nasty editorial request had ever been made, “showing” and not “telling” a story. The most famous example of diegetic writing can be found in the proverbial famous phrase, “Once upon a time…” Here we are presented with a time locale in which a series of events is about to be recited.

“Once upon a time there lived a King and Queen who had no children. They longed very much for a child; and when at last they had a little daughter they were both delighted, and great rejoicings took place.”
Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault

By contrast, mimetic writing is that in which you are “showing” your story, presenting the world as it is seen to the eye. Mimesis is the writing style that instructors want their students to learn because it immerses the reader into the story’s action; but it is the editors who push for this style because it makes books seem more like television. Consider an example by Robert W. Walker:

“She snatched at the bedside table, foolishly grabbing a handful of wires and turning over her clock and telephone, sending up a cacophony of metallic noise and crying out, ‘Dammit! I want out of this bloody Hell!'”
Pure Instinct (1996)

Whereas diegetic writing makes us feel distant, as though we are being lectured about events that have taken place, mimetic writing makes us feel as though we are eyewitnesses. Mimetic writing allows us to experience a story as opposed to merely hearing about a story, and in this capacity the chances stand that a story will be more memorable, more thrilling, because it tends to affect the senses. And because of the effects of mimetic writing, it tends to assign to the principles of diegetic writing a negative impression. Diegetic writing is boring; mimetic writing is exciting, etc. etc.

In the grand scheme of things, distinguishing between the two is important because it helps both writers and readers in the navigational method of a story. Constructively speaking, one should not be held in importance over the other. Diegetic and mimetic writing are tools for storytelling. Their worth as literary devices lies in how they are applied, the goal being to harmonize the two.

To the modern reader, encountering diegetic writing at the outset of a novel can indicate a boring read to ensue, and this is understandable. Opening a story by going straight into the action is a level-headed maneuver, but depending upon the circumstances, diegesis will need to be inserted at some point in time. This is where the craft of writing needs to be understood in terms of an art form unto itself. But it is here that the argument may be frustrated, because where the fledgling writer may be turned away for diegetic writing, prolifically published authors may be writing in the diegetic form with impunity. The opening lines of the sequel to Stephen King’s The Shining (1980) is a case in point:

“After Wilmington, the daily drinking stopped.
He’d go a week, sometimes two, without anything stronger than diet soda. He’d wake up without a hangover, which was good. He’d wake up thirsty and miserable — wanting — which wasn’t. Then there would come a night. Or a weekend. Sometimes it was a Budweiser ad on TV that set him off — fresh-faced young people with nary a beergut among them, having cold ones after a vigorous volleyball game. Sometimes it was seeing a couple of nice-looking women having after-work drinks outside of some pleasant little café, the kind of place with a French name and lots of hanging plants.” — Doctor Sleep (2013)

King is toying with the language to make the writing seem mimetic, but it is diegetic nonetheless. We are not experiencing a first hand event, a specific scene is not being described, and spans of time are being glossed over so that the reader is distanced from any particular point of action.

Interestingly enough, some of literature’s most famous writers are bound to diegetic writing in ways that render the advice to “show don’t tell” a story perfectly inane. P.D. James, for example, spends a large, very large amount of energy expounding on her diegesis in her Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), and I’m certain editors were more than pleased to publish the work, especially considering how it became an instant hit television series.

What this all means is that at its root, good writing is simply good writing, diegetic or mimetic. The key is to understand how to intertwine the two so that the story makes sense in every way that it needs to be, all the while being pleasurable to read. In essence, to avoid diegetic writing is to risk either rendering a story too long, by having to describe every last scene that leads to the next, or it is to risk confusing readers as to what is really going on.


Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

February 26, 2018

In 2016, The New York Times described her as “America’s greatest living science fiction writer.” (Source)


A Valentine for All

February 14, 2018


Our Beloved Authors

February 13, 2018

Call it author irony, or the writer’s paradox, but at its root the phenomenon of the existence of great literary works whose creators have endured hard times, or met with tragic ends, is something marveling, if not deeply unsettling to comprehend. One of the greatest known examples of this kind would have to be the writing of Wuthering Heights (1847), and the subsequent passing of its ever-too-young authoress, Emily Brontë. It seems she had been put on this earth for the sole purpose of writing this novel, and yet her story stands among many others whose lives of writing fell under similar kinds of circumstances.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Because of the infancy in the field of medicine, Mary Shelley was beset by the loss of her children in life, with only one to survive into adulthood. She was lucky that she herself did not die giving birth, like that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the famous feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who died within days of giving birth to her. With praise that is, at this point, beyond calculation, Mary Shelley is famous for her opus magnum Frankenstein (1818/1831). Yet her efforts as an author are overshadowed by this masterstroke of genius, since she rarely receives credit due for her immense contribution to the field of writing and publishing in general. Yet it is primarily because of her cautionary tale, written with such terror and love for the craft, that she is truly one of literature’s beloved authors, which is why the end of her life seems so tragic. As the Victorian Web tells us, by the time she reached the eldest of her years, she had “lost her will to live” (Source).

Herman Melville (1847–1891)

Herman Melville was a thoughtful, thoughtful man, evidenced in his highly elaborate narrative technique. It seems each and every sentence he ever wrote was endowed with the power of extreme perception, all the more genius in the uncanny notion that he was able to write what he did without the help of a word processor. The creator of America’s greatest novel is another one of those authors of whom, their many other works are dwarfed by the power of their masterpiece, and yet we find melancholy and even sadness in how the man was hardly praised during his day. He looked for jobs like the rest of us, working as a customs inspector for many years to support his family. In spite of his literary output, and whatever contemporary critical acclaim he did manage to attain, his passing evoked but a “single obituary notice” (Source).

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)

The powerhouse writer who produced Don Quixote (1605-1620) once served in the Spanish Navy Marines, but when he was captured by Ottoman pirates, it was his family who paid his ransom after five miserable years, not the Spanish government. It was later that this same government imprisoned him, though it was this very imprisonment which engendered the impetus to create what would go on to become — the novel of all novels. Sadly, “No graciousness descended on Cervantes’s domestic life” (Source). He faced hardship with his family, and though Don Quixote was a success as a publication, copyrights during the age did not work in his favor. The message that Cervantes sends to aspiring writers lay in the scale of his creative output, which began for him at the age of 57, serving to show that no matter the age, it’s never too late to get on the ball and get that novel written. What aspiring writers can also take from the life of Cervantes is that the life of a writer is not an easy one at all.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

My edition of the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe feels like a brick when I hold it. And the font size is tiny. The man passed from this world at the age of 40, which is all to suggest that it was within this brief span of time that Poe produced literature to voluminous effect. We know that he paid to have his first works published, inspiration for Indie Publishers everywhere, but we also know that he struggled financially throughout most of his life. Poe was a gentle man who suffered loss after terrible loss, of the women he loved, and he died under conditions of poverty in the most abysmal of ways. To be simple-minded and non-intellectual in my commentary, I can only remark that it just doesn’t seem fair!

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

To say that Sylvia Plath was brilliant would be an understatement. Natural poetry and prose poured forth from her mind like pure water bubbles from a spring in the mountains. Her case is tragic because she was caught in a time when the odds were stacked against her. Simply speaking, she wanted to write creatively, and she did anything she could to that end, including the rejection of a scholarly career. Her husband left her with two children to care for, and it was at this point that she seemed on the verge of throwing her hands up about it, though we are lucky she did not do so before the writing of The Bell Jar (1963). Plath suffered from depression and her situation, living in London alone with her children, struggling to pay bills, pushed her to the limit. She had a passion for producing literature, but it was the inhospitable life of a writer that drove her to the end. We all feel that her suicide was unnecessary, but we are stuck with the reality of a bitter world and by proxy, the incapability of changing what happens in that world.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

What more can be said about the great Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway? Every writer who has ever lived wishes they could possess even a fraction of his talent. More so, his life stands at the pinnacle of author intrigue and excitement. He worked tirelessly as a journalist, saw the front lines in both world wars, traveled vastly, wrote seemingly until his fingers bled, and was published to great critical acclaim. His literary output is so impressive that to encapsulate it all within a series of blog posts would be a massive undertaking in and of itself. Which is why the downturn of his life is so inexplicable. After seeing so much, learning so much, experiencing so much, and influencing so much, the tragedy of Hemingway’s end is something that will never meet with a proper sense of understanding, and as mentioned elsewhere, it just doesn’t seem right.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Breaking ground, startling the modern world with a new “stream of consciousness” writing, Virginia Woolf lived the quintessential life of a writer. She started newspapers and literary clubs, ran publishing ventures and completed novels, all the while voicing pro-women’s rights during an age when the understanding of what civil rights even meant was an abstraction. It was an emotionally trying life, bolstered by complications of a sexual identity element and its association to public affairs. By virtue of the nightmarish international world of turbulence around her, Woolf came to connect “masculine symbols of authority with militarism and misogyny, an argument buttressed by notes from her clippings about aggression, fascism, and war” (Source), and with the English way of life under a direct Nazi threat, the turmoil took its toll. We want to imagine how strong people can become, the super men and women of whom we look up to, yet we sometimes fail to see the perplexing conundrum that is the often fragile nature of the human condition.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

The wit of Oscar Wilde is only paralleled by the way it tends to mirror what it reveals in ourselves. Wilde’s seemingly cavalier way of drawing out the nature of self-truth, the abyss no one dares to look into, means that we owe him a debt for revealing it for us. In spite of it all, I like to think of Wilde as having utterly and completely refined the linguistic style of the Victorian Era. To read Wilde is like the partaking of a filet mignon with fine red wine at a five star restaurant. Wilde shows us that reading can be both pleasurable and didactic at the same time. “However, due to his sexuality, he suffered the indignity and shame of imprisonment. For a long time, his name was synonymous with scandal and intrigue” (Source). It is harrowing to imagine that he was exiled. He came to wander the streets of Paris alone where, after having written with such impressive prowess for so many years, he died a broken man.


Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)

December 27, 2017

Lady Audley’s Secret is brisk, vivacious reading. The book was a “sensation” in its heyday (hence the advent of the sensation novel), but without a doubt, it continues to have an impact in the modern day marketplace. Anything and everything, with regard to opinions and critical commentary, has been doled out in volumes, and it’s a fine pleasure to observe how the trend doesn’t seem to be letting up.

What pulled me in was the title. I mean, who doesn’t hope to discover the details of some juicy, deliciously-demonic secret? Yet as I let the novel soak into the pores of my literary mindset, I found myself drawn to the connection which forms between a despairing origin story, and the events which seem naturally to follow. Of course I was strung along by the narrative, whizzing through pages as I tore with my itchy fingers, but because I could relate to the origin story, I was intrigued by the unfolding behavior.

What we find when reading Lady Audley’s Secret are the effects of the psychology of poverty, when they evolve into the extremes. A girl is born into the throes of a money-less life and as can be imagined, the situation is to be deplored. Can anyone blame a person when the engines of sociopathy ignite under such circumstances? In a world where the privileged go flitting by, flaunting their lovely clothes and dazzling the eye with their lovely products and their polished jewels, is it a wonder that people are sometimes floored, wondering how it is that a person can be in dire need of even the most basic necessities, only to notice someone else who apparently has no worries, whatsoever?

Tent Camps of Northern California

The problems of poverty and class discrepancy don’t seem much different now, from that which is suggested in Braddon’s novel, as well as many other Victorian novels. Can it be imagined, the number of those to develop sociopathic tendencies in these areas?

Lady Audley’s Secret embodies the notion of social frustration, the phenomenon which underscores certain levels of sociopathic behavior. Some people will do whatever it takes to climb up out of the muck, creating that modus operandi in which morality is forced to take a back seat. Life is too difficult, too depressing, too painful, and so to form a wall against the horrid ugliness seems a survival tactic. We sense the pain in the novel, the emotions springing from abandonment and dejection, which form the traumatic origins often associated with the sociopath. And then we watch as the essence of danger comes to loom in the air. “‘I do not believe she [Lady Audley] is mad,’ states Dr. Mosgrave. ‘…She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence. I will tell you what she is…She is dangerous!'” (Braddon 321-323).

Though we know how the story goes, the end doesn’t leave us with a sense of justice. It becomes another phenomenon in and of itself, that tendency to look down upon the plight of those who’ve been born into less-than-desirable circumstances, and we say to ourselves, “Thank God that isn’t me.” Do we really know what we would do, how we would act, should the same happen to us?

As a masterpiece of the literary canon, Mrs. Braddon creates her narrative as a master painter approaches the canvas. The modern reader takes issue, the Victorian use of description as it is called, but the novel would not be what it is without it. Braddon leaves no stone unturned, and if her skills of describing the scenery are exquisite, her skill in coloring human emotion is none-the-less. The feelings of each character filters into our hearts as though we are a part of the story, and this is how we come to understand the Lady herself. She is perpetually superficial to the point of suspicion, so that when we experience her pulse-pounding anxiety, we understand the complexity of the human condition. Lady Audley is not superficial, she is protective, because she finally has what she has never had, and will go to any length to keep it.

Among all the commentaries and opinions, it is also because of the placement of the Lady’s behavior, as it is viewed under the microscope of elaborate language, combined with a view into how her behavior affects her emotionally, that we cannot wonder how Lady Audley’s Secret came to be the astonishing and long lasting success that it has come to be.

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret. 1862. Oxford University Press; Reissue edition, January 13, 2012.


Fourteen Tales (2017)

December 27, 2017

Fourteen Tales is a debut collection of short fiction that encompasses the realm of the paranormal and the psychological. Readers will find more than a gripping ghost story, but will encounter tales which draw forth the darker shades of human nature. A young man contends with an overbearing elderly woman, but encounters a dilemma much more ominous; a lone renter falls for a neighbor, but learns a story that seems impossible to believe, until the truth is revealed; a single mother caught in a power outage realizes the facts about her departed husband; a little boy spends an evening with the most unimaginable couple of kids; an old man discovers in the worst way, and with a little help, a pathway to immortality. This material is presented as a means to view introspectively the ways in which the supernatural collides with the tangible world, and the reactions and behaviors sure to ensue. Not without its moments of levity, the collection is a reader friendly text that applies skilled use of language to create simple worlds, but leads to the kind of reading certain to make one ponder before turning the lights out at night.

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