Friday, March 25, 2011

The tragedy of substituting convention for deep and independent thought (Books - Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy)

Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure is a tragedy, heavy with the inevitability of the great Greek plays. Jude Fawley is a poor man whose learns the trade of stone mason, but who is widely read, having passionately studied for years to fulfill his dream of studying at a university at Christminster (Hardy's fictionalized Oxford).
It was not till now, when he found himself actually on the spot of his enthusiasm, that Jude perceived how far away from the object of his enthusiasm he really was. Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shard a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Only a wall - but what a wall!
But the learned dons won't have a poor man. Jude also falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead, herself a brilliant, self-taught scholar. Both break away from loveless marriages to live with each other, but don't marry as they would rather love each other freely than out of obligation. However, Victorian society is not ready for such iconoclasm, preferring the contractual arrangement they recognize, however abusive or loveless, to a self-made household built on love and mutual respect. Jude and Sue are persecuted mercilessly for their choice.

Hardy's writing is richly descriptive and the ideas that pulse through this novel are strikingly modern. He is a master at scenes that externalize his character's conflicts, creating for the reader a visceral experience which doubles as a potent symbol. This one, a symbol of Jude's youthful ambition and impulsivity:
In the dusk of that evening Jude walked away from his old aunt's as if to go home. But as soon as he reached the open down he struck out upon it till he came to a large round pond. The frost continued, though it was not particularly sharp, and the larger stars overhead came out slow and flickering. Jude put one foot on the edge of the ice, and then the other: it cracked under his weight; but this did not deter him. He ploughed his way inward to the centre, the ice making sharp noises as he went. When just about the middle he looked around him and gave a jump. The cracking repeated itself; but he did not go down. He jumped again, but the cracking had ceased. Jude went back to the edge, and stepped upon the ground.

It was curious, he thought. What was he reserved for?
Later in the book, as Jude and Sue's dreams are repeatedly crushed by society's rules and their opportunities ever diminished (though neither of them are out of their 20s), Hardy's concentration moves from their dreams to their suffering:
At some time near two o'clock, when he was beginning to sleep more soundly, he was aroused by a shrill squeak that had been familiar enough to him when he lived regularly at Marygreen. It was the cry of a rabbit caught in a gin. As was the little creature's habit, it did not soon repeat its cry; and probably would not do so more than once or twice; but would remain bearing its torture till the morrow, when the trapper would come and knock it on the head.

He who in his childhood had saved the lives of the earthworms now began to picture the agonies of the rabbit from its lacerated leg. It it were a "bad catch" by the hind leg, the animal would tug during the ensuing six hours till the iron teeth of the trap had stripped the leg-bone of its flesh, when, should a weak springed instrument enable it to escape it would die in the fields from the mortification of the limb. If it were a "good catch," namely, by the fore-leg, the bone would be broken, and the limb nearly torn in two in attempts at an impossible escape.

Almost half-an-hour passed, and the rabbit repeated its cry. Jude could rest no longer till he had put it out of its pain...
The vividness of this scene made me literally cringe as I read it. It reminds me strongly of another great scene of an animal's suffering used as a symbol in a novel - the beating of the horse in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I usually think of these literary devices as dated yet, they make for bold experiential writing, not just intellectual exercise, and, as such, are tremendously effective.

Hardy's last and greatest novel (I think) tells us that people beg for conventions to resolve paradoxes inherent to human nature. They substitute them for deep and independent thinking because they find it so hard to live in the presence of more than one truth. Hardy is not just talking about the uneducated worker, but also of scholars and clergy - the learned men of his time. And when a few enlightened souls discover that they can have richer, happier lives by refusing to substitute convention for lives of courageous independence, those who crave the comforts of convention make sure that they're miserable for trying to do so. I was particularly struck by the modernity of this message re-reading the novel on the eve of my own marriage to the Ragazzo, whom many of you have read about here. It will be on our 10th anniversary.

Loving, adults who choose to create a family and share a celebration of their relationships are, of course, free to do so. And those who happen to be gay can also obtain a civil marriage license in five of the United States and D.C., and this is certainly progress of a sort. However, our federal government doles out more than 1,100 rights and privileges, some very substantial, based on the possession of that state-issued license if you are straight, but not if you are gay. This is the same document. We pay the same fee, and have the same ceremony and the same responsibilities, yet our federal government can treat us differently. This is legal inequity with personal, legal and financial consequences, not to mention emotional ones - here's one example. This is American law? I'm not talking about a religious rite. Those are determined by religious institutions, which are separate from the state under our constitution, and can opt to marry or not marry whom they choose.

The number of times we as a country have used the law to take away from one set of human beings what another has have been thankfully few, as they have always been mistaken. Our constitution declared black men and women to be 3/5 of a white person in order to justify the outrage of slavery. That was thankfully repealed, though the legacy of the institutionalization of such treatment continues. Women were denied the right to vote and run for public office in most states until under 100 years ago, and the legacy of their second class citizenship also persists. Our track record in abusing law to take away the privileges of a class of human beings is an ugly one. Repeating it would be foolish and yet many individuals not only possess such beliefs, but they run for public office on platforms which include legalization of them.

Some people use the argument of "tradition" against gay adults being allowed a civil marriage license. Which tradition are you talking about? The one where the contract gives the man ownership of the woman and her property? The one existing in many states until only forty years ago forbidding the marriage of two adults if they are of different races? Perhaps the one in multiple U.S. states that declares if two people live together for a significant period of time, declare and intend themselves to be married, referring to each other as such, that they are considered married in common-law (the exact requirements are different state to state). This status provides the legal benefits of a civil marriage and its dissolution actually entails a legal divorce. Yet the state of Kansas (for example) will honor that tradition and yet refuse to grant me a civil marriage license.

I love the fact that some people choose to criticize gay people's lack of stability and yet refuse us the very bricks and mortar that our society uses to build it. Hardy's Jude the Obscure has reminded me that conventions do not substitute for individual actions. It is our actions and feelings toward each other that have and will continue to be the meat of our relationship. Despite a soon to be filled-in license, we will face judgment from limited individuals and unequal treatment by our own government. The results of such narrow-mindedness and abuse are frequently tragic, as was true for Jude and Sue, but they shouldn't be. No person's happiness or freedom relies on the limits of another person's. As a supposedly free society we still have a lot of work to do.

I hope if you are happy for us, you will inform yourselves and others of the facts around legal marriage and consider its equitable application under United States law, whatever your religious proclivities:

Lambda Legal
Marriage Equality USA
Marriage Equality New York
Human Rights Campaign

In fact, I will be presenting my home State of New York with my bills for having to travel to Connecticut, where I can obtain a license, an expense not incurred by my straight fellow citizens. In addition, I will include a full report of the income the State of Connecticut and its businesses received from our time celebrating there. I am not expecting reimbursement.

These may sound like dour associations when most people are thinking of bells, fancy dress, dancing, and acquiring housewares, but I am jazzed by making the legal observation of our already established relationship an occasion for increased political awareness and hopeful progress. I hope you will join us in that celebration.


Anne Camille said...

Congratulations on your marriage! May we one day have equitable marriage rights for all couples.

Ted said...

Thanks for the good wishes, Cam! It was a lovely weekend.

Long time no post, I hope all is well.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ted - wow, what a post. I love how Hardy's book in the 19th century made you reflect on today's circumstances - powerful stuff, and just goes to show you how radical the dude really was. He sure wasn't a laugh-riot, though. Sheesh. I still get nightmares from Tess. Amazing how clear he could see - His revelation that he didn't believe in God was somewhat shattering to him, but it also set him free in many ways. It was what was happening Here On Earth that mattered. He didn't see the future as pretty ponies and rainbows ... He didn't care about the future. NOW was what mattered.

I am happy for you both ... but I understand totally your "dour associations" and the entire situation is outrageous. Future generations will look back on this time and shake their heads at it, of that I am certain. (There was a funny piece in The Onion recently about that - do you read the Onion? The parody news site? Here's the piece:

Future U.S. History Students: 'It's Pretty Embarrassing How Long You Guys Took To Legalize Gay Marriage',19099/

Anyway, I don't mean to be frivolous. You have my best wishes, the both of you.

Much love.

Ted said...

S - Thank you! I'm both celebrating our personal happiness and yet holding the context very much in mind. And I'm finding that motivating as opposed to depressing. Hardy was the best kind of serious writer. Everything I've read since Jude has had difficulty keeping pace.

Michelle said...

Such an excellent and eloquent post. Congratulations! Hope it was a wonderful celebration!

Ted said...

Michelle - thank you! It was a very lovely and intimate celebration.

Criticlasm said...

1. It's been ten years?!?

2. You're getting married?!?!

3. You made it through a Thomas Hardy novel?!?

That last was a joke - congratulations! I am so happy for both of you. And great post - I haven't been reading or writing for a while, so it's nice to get back.

Mazel Tov!

Ted said...

Thanks, C-clasm. Yes, 10 years - hard to believe! We tied the knot in Connecticut this past weekend (just the two of us).

Unknown said...


I know how aggravating it is to have what should be a happy occasion tinged with stuff that makes one dour.

It's difficult to keep how far we have come in mind when you see how far we still have to go.

But congratulations, none-the-less.

Ted said...

CB - Indeed, we have progressed and I know how familiar you are with the complex, sweet, irritating truth of our current situation. Thanks for the good wishes!