14 February 2014

"Divergent," "Insurgent," "Allegiant," and "Billy Budd."

Divergent, Veronica Roth
Insurgent, Veronica Roth
Allegiant, Veronica Roth
Billy Budd, Herman Melville

Divergent, Veronica Roth
Insurgent, Veronica Roth
Allegiant, Veronica Roth

I'm going to spoil these books, so don't read this if you're interested in them.  Seriously: I'm going to spoil them with unusual thoroughness.

There's a plan behind the Divergent series of books.  The protagonist of this young adult trilogy, Beatrice, defies the expectations of the harsh caste system of the dystopian future.  As she begins to find her own way, she discovers that the whole world is an illusion, and that this illusion is itself built on misconceptions.  Her world expands as she matures, and the entire bildungsroman is a metaphor for maturation itself: with each new book, the widening scope of Beatrice's world makes her past problems seem small.

There's a problem there for readers, unfortunately.

Imagine being very young, and being deeply concerned with the sandbox.  Specifically, imagine that there's one corner of the sandbox where the sand is nice and thick and more fun to play with, and that you want to get at that sand, but that there's always a race for it.  The system is unfair: you're not the fastest sprinter, but you still want to get the good sand at recess.  So one day you ask to go to the bathroom ahead of time, and then you're out there early and you have the good sand.  This was really important to you, because you're a child and the scope of your world was limited.

When you grow up, you recognize that the sandbox isn't that important to you now, but it was important to you then.  You weren't wrong or stupid to care about it, although it would be silly to care about it as an adult.  Your parents certainly didn't care about it per se, they only care about your happiness and well-being.  They would also be silly to actually really want you to get some specific sand, except as far as that made you fulfilled in your limited child's world.  They're grown-ups, and their world is much bigger than a sandbox.

The problem for readers of the Divergent series is that we're coaxed into investing ourselves in caring about things that turn out to be really trivial.  We feel a little sheepish and irritated at this fact, like a parent who lets himself be lulled into actually caring about specific sandbox sand.  It's not silly to care about Beatrice, and to cheer for her to get the best sand, because we invest ourselves in a protagonist just like we invest ourselves in a child.  But it's silly to care about the sand itself, and we resent being tricked into caring.

That's why there was widespread grumbling after the second book was released, and downright dislike after the series concluded: readers had watched the world of Divergent get smaller and more trivial, over and over.  The internal politics of the factions, and their wars for control, stop mattering on a larger level once it's revealed that the factions themselves are going to become irrelevant as the factionless overthrow society.  And the whole fight for the city itself seems to be much less important when Beatrice and her friends leave the city and discover that it's one of many similar experiments, set up by the outside world as an elaborate breeding program.

As readers, we'd been following along with her discoveries and her conflicts, and we'd grown to care about the systems and their results.  It was saddening to see the entire faction conflict abandoned, and even worse to see that the city itself wasn't really that important - it was just a sandbox.  We'd been tricked into actually caring about the best little corner.

The writing is fairly good, and the plot is fast-paced and interesting (even if it's not terribly original or well-designed), which is the only reason why we're disappointed at all... if it was badly written, then we would never have gotten ensnared in that little sandbox.  But there's just not enough here to merit your time.  Read The Hunger Games instead, which successfully enlarges the world without belittling the past, or find some other young adult fiction.  Don't waste your time on Divergent.

 Billy Budd, Herman Melville

Billy Budd is a hair's breadth away from being a play.  Actually, we might describe it as a play with all the spaces filled, as Melville's rich prose supplies the gaps between lines and stage directions.  With a structure that is almost formal in its traditional tragic progression, we are shown a bold and beautiful sailor, and then we witness his downfall at the hands of a scheming villain.  Right down to the last moments, the book indulges in languid contemplation of wrongdoing.  But even beyond the wonderful writing (and it is wonderful), it is interesting to look at what motivates the text: male aesthetics.

Masculine beauty is at the center of Billy Budd; it is continuously evoked and powers the plot.  The master-at-arms of the ship engineers the tragedy out of jealousy, destroying the sailor Billy Budd in order to remove from the world this figure of beauty.
In view of the marked contrast between the persons of the twain, it is more than probable that when the Master-at-arms in the scene last given applied to the sailor the proverb Handsome is as handsome does, he there let escape an ironic inkling, not caught by the young sailors who heard it, as to what it was that had first moved him against Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty.
In Ancient Greece, the ideals of male beauty were widely-discussed and complex.  A young man's beauty was physical, and followed a certain standard.  In Aristophanes' Clouds, he writes about the ideal of male attractiveness: "a gleaming chest, a glowing complexion, broad shoulders, a humble tongue, firm buttocks, and a neat little prick." (1011-1014)  There is an element of androgyny here - the less generous might say ephebophilia, but I'd argue that Aristophanes' description of the unattractive man should make us wary of such a claim ("a scrawny chest, a loud mouth, teeny buttocks, and a long proposition" [1017-1019]).

Set against this was also a sort of higher beauty that came from philosophy, for an older man was beautiful through his wisdom, his learnedness, and his social graces.  This was a standard of beauty that was strongly encouraged throughout the literature and culture, probably not least because it was older men who dictated that literature and culture.  These parallel beauties, both physical and moral, were important enough to be a central part of Plato's Symposium, where the famously ugly Socrates is much-praised for his philosophical attractiveness, and where the nature of love is discussed in context with the ideals of male beauty.

I believe that the parallel between these ancient ideals of masculine beauty and how male attractiveness is treated in Billy Budd is clear, especially when we look at how Melville treats a tension between a physical and a moral beauty:
That Claggart's figure was not amiss, and his face, save the chin, well moulded, has already been said. Of these favorable points he seemed not insensible, for he was not only neat but careful in his dress. But the form of Billy Budd was heroic; and if his face was without the intellectual look of the pallid Claggart's, not the less was it lit, like his, from within, though from a different source. The bonfire in his heart made luminous the rose-tan in his cheek.
In many respects, the way we appreciate male beauty has not greatly changed.  As I understand it, the level of body hair that is considered desirable undergoes periodic fads, but male models generally still aspire to an androgynous beauty.  This consistency helps open Melville's text to us - we can immediately understand what is being discussed, and the differences between Claggart's purely physical beauty and the sailor Billy Budd's dual moral and physical attractiveness.  Further, the parallels with the ancient Greek ideals emphasize the dramatic nature of the text, and the ways in which Billy Budd is so much like an ancient tragedy.

One thing that has changed, however, are modern relationships.  Romantic relationships, based in romantic love (eros) are now expected to be the highest form of love, stratified above filial love (storge), charitable love (agape), and platonic love (philia).  The later ancients considered a solid male friendship, forged with pederasty and matured into philosophical appreciation, to be the supreme love.  Romantic love, tangled up with sex, was considered to be short-term and crazed.  This is no longer the case.

Some people have lamented the change, and scorned how romantic relationships have ascended .  Even fifty years ago, cultural critics like Mervyn Cadwaller in The Atlantic had begun criticizing marriage (synecdoche for dominant romantic love).  Cadwaller, a thrice-married sociologist, spoke of how the "beautiful love affair" could become a "bitter contract" because it was called upon to endure the weight of too many emotional and physical needs.  He argues:
The basic reason for this sad state of affairs is that marriage was not designed to bear the burdens now being asked of it by the urban American middle class. It is an institution that evolved over centuries to meet some very specific functional needs of a nonindustrial society. Romantic love was viewed as tragic, or merely irrelevant. Today it is the titillating prelude to domestic tragedy, or, perhaps more frequently, to domestic grotesqueries that are only pathetic.

Marriage was not designed as a mechanism for providing friendship, erotic experience, romantic love, personal fulfillment, continuous lay psychotherapy, or recreation. The Western European family was not designed to carry a lifelong load of highly emotional romantic freight. Given its present structure, it simply has to fail when asked to do so.
The demise of the sturdy masculine friendship-love, and degradation of all loves beneath romantic love, had left romantic love to bear up under too much, in this reading.  The rising rate of divorce (and remember, this was in the sixties!) was an indicator that eros wasn't equal to the task.  Critics like Cadwaller lamented the lessening of the philias and agapes and storges, which had once supplemented the institutional role of eros but had eroded steadily over the previous centuries.

This belief is a little foolish - the other loves remain, and are an important part of marriage.  Today's sociologists and family counselors do agree that marriage is overburdened as an institution, but also appreciate that it cannot and should not be dominated by romantic love alone.  Marriage is a partnership as well as a romantic relationship; it's a friendship and a family bond, and the error in the past was in failing to nurture those bonds as well as the romantic bonds.

Nonetheless, it is true that there has been a definite change in the different types of love that our society recognizes.  While the phenomenon of the "bro" bond of masculine friendship has some glimmer of past association, for the most part the male partnership as the ancients understood it is a thing of the past. More to my point, even a basic understanding of such a love is no longer common.  The bond of Aeneas and Patroclus, or Nisus and Euryalus, are simply much harder for modern students to grasp, when compared with Romeo and Juliet or Pyramus and Thisbe.  Frequently, the problem is simplified with appeal to homosexual romantic love - aha, this is just another form of eros, the young reader says.

And so when we read Billy Budd, and read about the way male beauty is treated, and understand the deliberate parallels with the Greek tragedies, we might miss the mark and describe homosexual undertones to the text.  Implicit within such a view is eros - Claggart's jealousy of Billy Budd is a romantic jealousy, in this reading.  But I would suggest that this is a mistake.

Melville, when describing Claggart's nature, specifically references Plato, referring to the idea of "natural depravity": an evil "not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate."  And we are told that in Claggart's heart he appreciated both the physical and the moral aspects of beauty - and that he "fain would have shared it."
To him, the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him preeminently the Handsome Sailor. One person excepted, the Master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain -- disdain of innocence. To be nothing more than innocent! Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it.
Claggart's jealousy is a traditional one, and a tragically Greek one, and not a romantic jealousy.  It is homosexual in nature, yes, as many have pointed out, but it is the ancient deep masculine bond, now vanishingly rare in reality or art, for which he yearns.  This makes Billy Budd a text that is difficult to access, but I think that this is a temporary problem.  That bond is not deeply buried, as a quick read of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 Brideshead Revisited will show, nor is it forever lost.  As overt homosexuality becomes accepted and normalized in society (thank goodness!) the defense mechanisms that had deployed to protect privileged relationships will be taken down, and the masculine bond will assert itself once more, alongside the sustained ideals of male beauty.

Regardless, you should read this book, to see an ancient Greek tragedy transformed, with magnificent skill, into modern prose.  Go get it now.

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