Thursday, August 7, 2014

Jane Bowles and "Two Serious Ladies" and Men and Women in Our Messed Up World

Jane Bowles' work epitomizes great humorous writing by American women in the earlier part of the 20th century. She and others, like Dorothy Parker, absolutely skewered convention with their portrayals of things like societal decorum and its especially forceful effect on women. I hate to think about the considerable voices that didn't have the opportunity to reach a much deserved audience of readers, especially when I think about how many great female writers are out there doing inspired work in the contemporary literary landscape. I'm glad, at least, we have Jane Bowles. You should be, too.

Quick digression that relates to Jane Bowles: I tend not to be fan of contemporary realism. There are probably plenty of good reasons for this (and maybe my feeling this way doesn't require any explanation; indeed, maybe it has no true explanation) but let me offer one of my own theories here, regardless. I find that realism, the idea of depicting in fiction whatever is closest to the way the world "actually is," works best in times of considerable stability. Then the question can be reasonably asked, "If all my needs are met, in terms of say 'Maslow's Hierarchy' (and even more so those situations in which they're met with abundance), then why am I still so profoundly unhappy?" As you might imagine, especially in the last one hundred years--and particularly in the time of America's mid-20th century economic boom--the portrayal of women's struggle to find meaning in the tedium of everyday life (see Revolutionary Road) has demonstrated this idea pretty wonderfully. Bowles' work in particular does well in capturing the struggle, portraying it in all its amusing horror. 

For instance, Bowles demonstrates in Two Serious Ladies (a great novel first published in 1943, which if you haven't read it, do so! Now!) how everyone in society helps to reinforce societal decorum. Those forceful conventions that tell us how we ought to be. We're all a bunch of happy cogs in the reinforcement machine. It doesn't matter if you're a "good guy" or a "bad guy" or those middling little places between. Men assume their hegemony over women and accordingly women must be compliant, even while recognizing the ludicrous nature of this relationship, and then women often in their own ways reinforce one another's compliance. 

But there is good news for us! And here it is: these societal tendencies are ripe for tearing apart. Skewering them is good, because it draws attention to their absurdity. I love Two Serious Ladies for the same reason I've loved so many other female authors of the last hundred years' work: it's another story that shrewdly sees past the bullshit. Even better, writers like Bowles are willing to get their hands dirty and present everything in all its ugly -- its too true humor. And it is ugly. It is too true. It's the things we hate to talk about, the things that can't be unseen.

All you have to do is open your eyes, though, be less of a narcissist. I'll admit, as one guilty narcissist myself, it's difficult to do. And like a lot of things, you aren't always able to, but even on your own narcissistic terms, you want to see past the bullshit, because it's a better world for you, narcissist, if it's a better world for everyone. It's true! And that's not just some singing/dancing-around-the-maypole hokum. When everyone's needs are met, everyone wins. If even just one person's needs aren't met, well, that's the starving alligator in the aquarium. If its stomach isn't filled with something then it will be, whether that's you, the fish who occupies the aquarium with it, or the ample portion of red meat it feasted upon an hour ago. Take your pick. My point is, as succinctly as I can say it, injustice doesn't exist in a vacuum, and everyone is obviously affected by it, even, say, those men (or minority of women) in power.

And while Two Serious Ladies is undoubtedly concerned with power relations, especially those between men and women and women and other women, I can't deny it's a little reductive to think of the novel purely in those terms. This is a sweeping work, a work that encompasses so many aspects of human nature, whether we believe them to be constructed or built upon thousands of years of evolutionary hierarchy. Rather than rehash plot, I'm going to go over--in more or less chronological order, to be sure--moments of the novel that especially captured my attention and got me to thinking. It is a novel of relationships, of how women and men relate, and in particular the kinds of relationships two specific women seek.

The two main characters are Mrs. Frieda Copperfield and Miss Christina Goering. They are both at various times the narrative's primary subjects. These two women seem to gravitate toward relationships with either men or women. Copperfield seems interested in forging more and more female friendships, while being largely uninterested in whatever her husband is up to at any given moment, happy to leave him to his own devices for long spans of time. (He, for his part, never seems too put out by this.) Goering, arguably the central protagonist, is constantly moving, purposefully or otherwise, in the company of men, often very unappealing men. In fact, she has her pick of men of every different variety of horrible throughout the story.

The complex idea that appears to be at play here is that women shouldn't be searching for fulfillment through vicarious relationships with others, men or women. It's in themselves that women can only reasonably look, despite what society and their own compulsions might suggest as viable or preferable alternatives. These people they're finding to help enrich their own lives, they'll only disappoint, in the end. It's the story of women not being allowed to live for themselves, completely autonomously -- at times, creating their own shackles, and more often having the shackles put upon them by outside forces. The point is, it's all messed up. We see moreover the uneven footing women and men were on in terms of relationships, which I like to believe has changed for the better, nowadays. What I can say with certainty is, at least in modern times we openly acknowledge there are issues of violence, both sexual and non, being perpetrated against women -- despite the obstinacy of certain contemporary factions, whose members most often are predominantly men. At least violence of all kinds against women is part of the cultural conversation. In one particularly telling scene, the culture of rape is forcefully--and against all odds, humorously--brought to light. It made an impression on me, one of the deepest of the entire novel. I'll get to that scene in greater detail in a moment.    

To begin, we as readers are greeted with a prepubescent Christina Goering and her devotion to the dogma of something like Christian religion, though I believe the narrative avoids getting terribly specific about that. In fact, the component of religion feels entirely ancillary. Miss Goering, as an adult, shows no real predilection for proselytizing. No, it's her devotion, the adherence to dogma, that is most significant about this introduction to her character. It's this early characteristic that will follow her into adult life, allow her to take on faith things about other people that her rational self opposes entirely and rightly so. There's a lot of hilarious stuff that happens here in the beginning, too. We're witness to a hapless playmate named Mary being constantly used in Christina's dogmatic games of worship. One particular moment of hilarity is when, after Mary innocently asks "Is it fun?"--referring to the "game" they're about to play, "I forgive you for all your sins"--Christina matter-of-factly replies, "It's not for fun that we play it, but because it's necessary to play it."

As the story turns to Christina's adulthood we soon learn that she's got a lot of money and not a whole lot to do. Early in this chapter, Miss Goering arrives at a party where she makes the acquaintance of a man named Arnold, the first of many male disappointments. Arnold does grow on her, after a time, in a decidedly unromantic way. She also comes into the first of two narrative meetings with Mrs. Copperfield, with whom we're made aware she's already acquainted. Mrs. Copperfield immediately resents Arnold and his presence, failing to acknowledge him over and over again, though he knows her and wishes to be introduced to Miss Goering.

Miss Goering, meanwhile, proceeds to regale both Mrs. Copperfield and Arnold with a story from earlier in the day, about a building across the street from her sister's home. The building was in the process of being torn down, so that most of the front of it had been removed. All of its rooms were therefore exposed, rooms that still had furnishings (which brought to my mind images of the bombed European apartments of World War II). It began to rain on all the exposed furnishings. Then a man entered. He grabbed a coverlet, and Christina said, "I could see him more clearly now, and I could easily tell that he was an artist. As he stood there, I was increasingly filled with horror, very much as though I were watching a scene in a nightmare." Mrs. Copperfield asked if the man jumped to his demise (or at least to a great deal of pain). He did not, Goering informed her, to which Mrs. Copperfield remarked, "Amazing ... I do think it's such an interesting story, really, but it has quite scared me out of my wits." On the one hand, you could take Mrs. Copperfield's hyperbolic comments as the cloying attempt of someone who desperately wants people, and in particular here, Christina, to like her. And while I do believe that's the case, there is a kind of horror to Christina's story. I can't avoid the fact that Arnold is introduced just moments prior to Christina telling it. It doesn't appear to be a coincidence. I refer to the everyday horror inflicted by this scene. An incongruous and malformed world in which everything that should be stable and fixed, is in reality falling apart or in the process of being destroyed. Arnold, at the vanguard of the many men we see Christina meet, seems to reveal this everyday horror in its much more subtle iteration: as a man who brings very little to the table, has little to offer, is content to eat and nap and in general mooch off the kindness of others, whether they be his parents or Christina or someone else. All that everyday horror, listlessness and boredom. All embodied in one banal man.

Then we meet Arnold's parents, whose father proves especially notable. Christina agrees to accompany Arnold home, always under a non-sexual pretext (this happens several more times over the course of the story, with several other men). And indeed, nothing sexual occurs. How could it? Beside the fact that Christina seems wholly uninterested--as does, for that matter, Arnold--Arnold's parents are right in the middle of everything almost from the very outset of their arrival. His father arrives and laments his son's life choices and obvious deficiencies, Arnold's wishing to be an artist (though Arnold vaguely claims to be in real-estate by profession). His mother is doting on Arnold and immediately views Christina in a threatening light. She arrives in the room with a plate of cakes that she selfishly keeps from Christina. We soon learn that Arnold's father is some kind of capitalist, one who doesn't much value the ideas of artists. He castigates them all by saying they only wish to have enough to eat, which attitude his son appears to hold as well. He explains this makes them, "Like wild animals ... Like wolves! What separates a man from a wolf if it is not that a man wants to make a profit." Christina is immediately smitten with him and his passionate qualities. This descends into several awkward scenes where she finds herself alone in the guest room with the father--again in a strangely non-sexual way--which goes over very poorly with Arnold's mother, regardless. She calls Christina a harlot and, in keeping with the archetype or maybe classic human behavior, she puts perhaps all of the blame for this situation on Miss Goering, and very little on her own husband.

I would say more of Christina's character and her exploits but, as always, I'd prefer you to read the novel without any more say so from me (and my giving away more key points of the story line). Therefore, let's get to a little bit with Mrs. Copperfield and call it a review, fair enough?

Well, that's what's happening.

In the next part of the novel we see Mr. and Mrs. Copperfield arriving in Panama. Earlier in the story--at that party--Frieda had revealed to Christina she was traveling there on holiday, and that she was a bit scared to do so, though that seems a fairly considerable aspect of her character in general. In Panama she meets a whole host of fascinating characters, eschewing the advice of a fellow female American (who is notable at least in part for her immense xenophobia) who tells her not to stay anywhere but the American quarter of Colon, "Cristobal." Instead, Mrs. Copperfield convinces her husband to stay in a rather shoddy and rundown hotel in a disreputable part of town.

Chief among the people she meets and befriends is Pacifica, a young Panamanian woman. She becomes the catalyst for much of Mrs. Copperfield's adventuring from that point forward, literally taking Mrs. Copperfield by the hand and leading her to a bar. Mr. Copperfield's presence always manages to feel superfluous, as though it's only a matter of time before the Copperfields are to become bored with one another and find any of myriad reasons to part company. Thus, Pacifica is a welcome distraction and naturally, in a very short time, Mrs. Copperfield becomes very fond of her. Pacifica introduces Mrs. Copperfield to Mrs. Quill, the woman who operates the hotel, Hotel de las Palmas, in which she lives. Mrs. Copperfield in turn begins staying there. But before anything else occurs, Pacifica gets a visit from a rather vile sailor named Meyer. And so we return to one particularly despicable event of the novel that gets glossed over by a story aware of society's indifference to assault against women (or so is my inference). Make of it what you will. In any event, awoken from sleep by a loud knock at the door, Pacifica and Mrs. Copperfield are terrified by this sudden intrusion. It's a man who will not be turned away, as though he's owed something. Eventually he gets inside, and despite Pacifica rebuffing his advances without any possibility of misunderstanding, he will not be denied. He sets to work physically assaulting her, to which violence she is no match. Mrs. Copperfield likewise realizes there's little she can do to help her friend, though she does make an attempt before fleeing for help. It's then that she runs to Mrs. Quill's room and tells her Pacifica is more than likely being murdered. The following exchange occurs on page 54 of my version of the book:

"Well, you see, Mrs. Copperfield, Pacifica can take care of herself better than we can take care of her. The fewer people that get involved in a thing, the better off everybody is. That's one law I have here in the hotel."  
"All right," said Mrs. Copperfield, "but meanwhile she might be murdered."  
"People don't murder as easy as that. They do a lot of hitting around but not so much murdering. I've had some murders here, but not many. I've discovered that most things turn out all right. Of course some of them turn out bad." 

It is a very insightful passage, this exhibition in human indifference. Better to not get in the way, even when it's possible the outcome could be a fatal one, even when it's a person you regard as a friend being battered. We can speculate about Quill's motives all we like. I can imagine her being jaded, for example. Perhaps she was, at one time, idealistic enough to believe that finding help would do real good. It is possible. But the truth is it doesn't really matter where her indifference sprang from, all that matters is that no one is doing anything and soon it's all forgotten.

Sexuality once again seems to bubble beneath the surface, though there is no denying the possibility that Mrs. Copperfield is a lesbian. She mentions at one point that she "once was in love with an older woman." She seems forced into her marriage. And she is absolutely enamored of Pacifica, who herself said things like "I like women very much. I like women sometimes better than men." Still I think reducing it to their sexuality is a little beside the point, and perhaps part of why--notwithstanding the time period in which the novel was published--Bowles doesn't make it a bigger point of emphasis. It's scandalous enough to suggest a woman might be able to make decisions for herself, and hey, one of those decisions might be preferring the company of women and that that doesn't necessarily say anything about her sexuality. She doesn't have to be gay, in other words. She might just think men are horrible (Meyer, for example, or much later Christina's experience with a man named Ben, who immediately takes her for a prostitute -- and that DOESN'T discourage her as much as you'd think), and to be fair, there would be plenty of reasons a character in Two Serious Ladies could feel that way about the less fair sex.

Oh, how I could go on and on. I might mention the last meeting between Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering. I could, but I won't! Give Two Serious Ladies a read for yourself, then come back and tell me how wrong I was, here. And all will be very well.

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