Thursday, December 12, 2013
suppose -- that I hate and rebel
Bengala ventriloquises between two voices; it drops away from one style when the insane woman has died (we have lost the convicts and workers) and picks up another one when a Catholic priest named Dr. Mornay falls in love with Isabel, surprising all the readers, who never saw that coming. Soon he is writhing and flagellating himself. "Scourge -- fasting -- torture -- where are ye? What am I?" he exclaims and then his hat falls off.
If I had not been reading Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor and from her discovering that anti-Catholicism in Victorian novels was persistent and even a regular theme or sub-genre then I would wonder where he had found the resources to come on so strong so quickly: why is there not more development before the writhing, I would ask myself? Why does he suddenly writhe?
He is a sign that the book is dwelling and living in the world of its own contemporary literature where those actions have been befriended so extensively by other Catholic priests that he can adopt them from his peers. In this respect he is behaving like a fleshy being with a mind and eyes that can see what is expected of him, and understand it, and copy it.
The Austen characters do not recognise his category in spite of all the hints he gives them. "Curious! I wonder if he meant himself all the time!" muses Isabel after he has given her a speech about "a man" who decides to devote himself to an ideal and "awakes to find himself burning with thirst, craving just that one -- one drop of living water which has been put from him." If they had known who his peers were they could have spotted it immediately and given him a useful response. They are not his peers: he has just moved into their book and made use of them for a while. "Yet suppose -- I say suppose -- that I hate and rebel . . . O, Isabel!" he says.
He came from the outside of this book; he knocked on the door of it and entered; he entered almost without knocking. He does his thing and goes away, and Austen takes over again until the end. The lunch-eating Bengala has been violated and reshaped by the actual physical conditions that appeared around the setting of the book, the presence of convicts and the financial crash that brought Isabel closely into contact with Dr. Mornay. They have refused to let it stay static. They have infected its mode. (My imaginary Stifter has resisted everything that would come from the exterior of the book like that: he has built a book like a dam.)
By the end of Bengala it has been revealed that the Austen-characters can't cope with characters from other modes of book: everybody else dies: the body of Vidal's book is fundamentally hostile to everyone except Austens.