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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Theme and Variations

I have made a terrible mistake.  I wanted my students in the fiction class to get some sense of the genres of fiction that accompanied the rise of the novel in the late eighteenth century, so I have taught Pride and Prejudice as an example of a Bildungsroman:  after all, Elizabeth Bennet exclaims after she has evaluated and re-evaluated Darcy's letter "Until this moment, I never knew myself!"  If that doesn't demonstrate the beginnings of development and self-knowledge, I'm not sure what does.  The second novel they're reading is Hawthorne's Blithedale RomanceThere's my mistake. But I wanted to them to understand that an early source for the novel was the romance, and I hope to begin seducing them into liking the novel by telling them stories on Tuesday.  Nevertheless, they're going to struggle with Hawthorne's language and his wonderfully decorative style that makes everything from a rock to a veil, from a hand-netted purse to an exotic flower into a symbol of something in the idealized and yet fallen universe of Blithedale,a community based on the ideas of Charles Fourier which were tried out at Brook Farm, a community Hawthorne briefly joined.

Of course, if I'm going to teach them about the romance, my first task is to turn to Northrop Fry's Anatomy of Criticism, to take advantage to the patterns he saw in his encyclopedic reading.  (I once had lunch with Fry as a very pregnant graduate student and was treated to the breadth of his knowledge and his kind sense of humour.  I thought I needed to eat more!)  The romance for Fry is the mythos of  summer.  He tells us "The essential element of plot in romance is adventure" that involves the hero in a quest in which he will fight with the villain, perhaps winning, perhaps not, in order defend the values of his culture.  His reward is the bride; his accomplishment is a golden age or at the very least the renewed fertility of a wasteland.  If I'm lucky, when I give my students Fry's "recipe," they will recognize the elements of the genre fiction they read, and we'll be able to put Blithedale Romance  on a continuum between the Arthurian romances and "Wife of Bath's Tale," and Lord of the Rings or at least a Robin McKinley novel or Star Wars.  The themes and variations on the romance are legion and they remind us what fun it is to take a pattern and twist it slightly in one direction while pulling it a little out of shape in another.

I suspect there is something inherently pleasurable in the theme and variations.  Bach used this form for his "Goldberg Variations"; Brahms wrote brilliant variations on a theme of Hayden.  Many final movements of symphonies use the theme and variation form.  They ask "How far can I get from the original impulse and still be on the same road?"

But think of the potential for parody and critique in the theme and variation.  In last Saturday's s Globe and Mail, there was a piece on Reconciliation Week and an exhibition at the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC called "Witnesses:  Art and Canada's Indian Residential Schools."  The illustration is a painting by Lawrence Paul Yuxwelptun  that shows a young girl standing in front of a piece of Haida carving that reads both as her cultural background and as the halo from an icon or the painting of a Madonna.  Here, the variation (young Haida woman who is not serene) on a theme (Madonna) is a critical reference to the religious residential schools that mis-shaped the lives of too many innocent people.  Clueless is a brilliant send-up of Jane Austen's Emma--as indeed are all the films of Austen's novels in one way or another.  Blithedale Romance starts with the founding of the golden age, but its heroes are either too introverted or too pig-headed to defend the world they've made.  Taking one woman as bride leads another woman to suicide:  antebellum America, Hawthorne seems to suggest, is not fertile ground for the idealism of the romance.

Perhaps one of my favourite variations on a theme is the many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories were so popular that when he got sick of writing them and killed Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls, the British public demanded that Doyle find a way to bring him back.  The Holmes stories cover a period between 1880 and 1914, when Holmes is recruited to help uncover a plot during the First World War.  The Second World War saw Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson in the movies which first recreated in their Victorian setting.  But when Twentieth Century Fox stopped making the movies and Universal Studios picked up the rights, the two friends were turned into Nazi hunters.  Holmes is the ever-brilliant, unswerving reasoner who can work his way through the knots of any crime or plot, the man we want brought back to help us out of an historical, political, or social quagmire.  How many other versions can I think of off the top of my head?  There's the wonderful BBC twenty-first-century Holmes, where our technology fits right into to Holmes's way of thinking.  There's Robert Downey Jr.'s very ironic Holmes.  More recently I've been watching, rather too avidly, "Elementary," where Lucy Liu plays Watson, who has become an addictions counselor and Jonny Lee Miller plays a very twenty-first century Holmes who has enough respect for Watson to teach her some of his methods.  Moriarty, meanwhile, has been uncovered:  she is no less than Irene Adler, Holmes's lover, whom he thought was killed by Moriarty.  Miller plays Holmes as a rude, abrupt, slightly ODC slightly hyperactive addict with an impressive tattoo. Either I can't figure out what this says about the kind of genius we need now--or the kind of genius that is given to us--or I'm enjoying the kinds of puzzles Holmes is faced with so much that I'm able to ignore how the writers see the twenty-first century.  Maybe this is the delight of the theme and variations:  you can take pleasure in the playfulness and skill without always wondering about the principle that determines the new shape and emphasis.

The photograph, btw, is of our last visit to Rowan's Ravine for the year.  Only one other extended family was there, and the women collected down by the water to talk together.  I get tired of having my mug in the blog fingerprint on FB.

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