Clarissa: the first twenty-five letters.

Alright, I’m finally fulfilling the promise made in this post to bore entertain you with my commentary on the biggest novel of the 18th century.

A lot happens, sort of, in the first twenty-five letters, almost all of them written by Clarissa to Anna Howe, though she occasionally encloses letters she wrote to various family members, and their responses.

Clarissa is the youngest of three, with an elder sister (Arabella) and an even elder brother (James, junior); their father (obviously also James), is the middle of three brothers, John being the elder and Antony the younger. Clarissa’s uncles, though, never married, and have no children, and so form, with James, the family’s board of trustees, with James Jr. as the CEO who’s going to do big things.

That’s an anachronistic but fairly accurate description: the entire family is concerned with the accumulation and consolidation of land, and James Jr.’s elevation to the peerage. The family is upwardly aspirant, and mercenarily so — all of them, that is, with the (possible) exception of Clarissa, which is the source of the conflict.

Clarissa has, as one might expect, this being that sort of novel, two suitors: Lovelace and Solmes. Lovelace is wealthier, and charming and generous, but also a libertine, which is the family’s reason for disapproving of him (his brief courting and rejection of Arabella prior to pursuing Clarissa doesn’t help, either, nor does the fact that he wounded her brother when provoked by him into a duel). Clarissa doesn’t care for him, either, but her family’s dislike of him is so vocal, and so excessive, that she feels compelled to defend him, for the sake of justice — and both she and Anna remark that her family is in danger of driving her into his arms by the force of their hatred.

Solmes, the family’s choice is, at least in Clarissa’s eyes, absolutely distasteful, and she refuses to marry him; this defiance drives her father to intractability, Clarissa is confined to her room and forbidden to correspond with anyone (though, this being a novel composed entirely of letters, she finds a way around this immediately), and she and the family enter an epistolary Mexican standoff.

Part of Clarissa’s problem is that her grandfather left her a small estate — the “dairy house” — not particularly large, but large enough for her to live on, independently, as a feme sole. One of the enclosures we get is the part of the grandfather’s will where he explains this bequeathment: all of his sons have plenty of money, only one of them has children, his two eldest grandchildren will be well provided for (indeed, as the novel opens, James Jr. has inherited an estate from his godmother), and Clarissa is his favorite.

The family — and especially James Jr. — are hacked off not only because Clarissa has some measure of independence (which she gives up, naming her father steward or some such thing), but also because they are hell-bent on consolidating the family’s holdings, and hope that, in marrying Clarissa off to Solmes, they can recover the dairy house. There are other hoped-for benefits as well, but I’m not quite sure I understand them.

One final thing to mention: Clarissa is engaged in a correspondence with Lovelace. At first, before the opening of hostilities, the letters were to the family, care of Clarissa, and were about travel — these are unimportant. After the “rencounter” between James Jr. and Lovelace, Clarissa maintains the correspondence in order to pacify Lovelace, because she’s worried — rightly so, I think — that he might murder all her relations if he felt there were no chance of his acquiring her.

These letters are primarily interesting because of their absence. We know about them because Clarissa tells Anna about them, and even paraphrases a few, but we never get to read any of them. I’m not yet sure what to make of this, but it seems important. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

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Clarissa explains it all.

One of the books on my summer reading list is Samuel Richardson’s 1747 behemoth of a novel, Clarissa.

The abridged version clocks in at a mere 800 pages. The full version – I’m using the fairly-recent Penguin Classics text, edited by Angus Ross – is a more respectable 1,500. (There were three versions of the text printed in Richardson’s lifetime, all of them ‘authorized’: he revised, corrected, and added to the text, so that the third edition – which appeared a mere four years after the first – is a full 200 pages longer than the first. Ridiculous.)

It’s an epistolary novel: there are 530-odd letters, written “principally in a double yet separate correspondence,” as Richardson puts it in his astoundingly brief Preface. The primary correspondents are Clarissa Harlowe & Anne Howe and Robert Lovelace & John Belford, although the list of characters is longer than my arm. There actually is a list, though, which will save me from having to make one.

Why am I reading this? Because I’m working on a PhD in English literature, specializing in 18th-century British novels: there is no way I can not read it. So my office-mates and I – they are also both 18th-century folks – are reading it together over the summer. Like a book club, except I am either too cool or not cool enough to be in a book club. We are discussing the book over drinks, isn’t that a thing book clubs do?

Anyway. 1,500 pages divided by 60 days in June and July equals twenty-five pages a day. I’m starting early, because I know I won’t always get that read, and because I won’t start at all if I don’t start now. I’m also committing myself to twice-or-so-weekly posts on the novel, so you can all feel like you’ve read it without actually having to read it.

Or you can not read about my experience reading it, and continue to exist in a bubble where you don’t care about books. Sounds like a sad bubble to me, but somebody has to live in the sad bubbles.


Day 131: Defy hierarchy.

When Robinson Crusoe found himself alone on an uninhabited island, he quickly declared himself king, lord, emperor of all he surveyed. He had no subjects for two and a half decades, but he was still the king, dammit.

He eventually acquired a savage – plucked from the jaws of death cannibals – and, a few years later, a Spaniard. He sent the Spaniard off in search of other subjects, and then skipped town when an English ship happened by his island. He quickly took command of the vessel – though he let the former captain pretend to still be in charge – and left a few mutineers behind with a letter for the Spaniard. Then they all sailed back to England.

Even though he was absolutely alone, Crusoe couldn’t resist putting himself at the top of a hierarchy. It’s human nature: we want a pecking order, we want someone to be the alpha male, we have to know who the leader of the pack is, we want other animal metaphors.

In general, people defy hierarchies with the goal – reasonable or otherwise – of instituting a new hierarchy with themselves at the top. This is why we have coups and revolutions and hostile takeovers and homeowners associations and office politics and aggressive salespeople and dudes who talk too loud at the coffeeshop about whatever the fuck it is they’re talking about.

This sort of defiance is directed toward the current system, the current hierarchy – sometimes justifiably, certainly – but it doesn’t call in to question the coercive and power-hungry nature of hierarchical systems as such. This sort of defiance seeks to replace, not to dismantle. Even when the defiers talk about dismantling, it is always with the unspoken assumption that something new will be built from the wreckage of the old.

A true defiance of hierarchy requires a rejection of power, a rejection of position and advantage and benefit – it requires a rejection of action itself. It requires one to say, with Bartleby, “I would prefer not to” – and to then walk away, and not give a fuck about the consequences.

Because there are always consequences: one doesn’t just defy a particular hierarchy, or a particular representative of a particular hierarchy; rather, one defies all particular hierarchies, and Hierarchy itself, in defying one of them. What you do to the least of these…

Hierarchy does not like to be defied. It will break you, and put you back in line, if there’s enough of you left to stand in a line. The only way to keep from being broken is to be utterly passive: like water, like the Tao, like Bartleby. Yield and overcome.

Of course, you have to sleep in your office, eat nothing but peanuts and stale cookies, and wear the same shirt all the time in order to pull this off – so, maybe not worth it?


Day 130: Write a letter to your local newspaper…

“…to achieve a high profile in your community.”

I’m not sure how much good this is going to do, but this is the letter I sent to my local paper:

I am standing barefoot on a wide expanse of grass. I can feel the grass growing; I can feel worms churning the soil; I can feel the groundwater flowing, trickling through rocks; I can feel the roiling and tumult of the molten bowels of the earth.

I am rooted like an oak, like a willow, like a stalk of wheat.

Pour me another cup of coffee, and don’t spill any on the table this time, you clumsy oaf. Where did you get those ugly pants? You smell like vomit. Who vomited on you?

I am standing in a field. I am naked, I am covered in honey, I am covered in ants. Vultures circle overhead, and I shout obscenities at them. I have soiled myself; I am standing in a pile of my own feces.

I am standing in the supermarket. I take a jar of pickles from the shelf; I open the jar; I pour the contents on the floor. I am standing in a pile of pickles. A young child starts to cry. You ask me for a hamburger, but I don’t exist. There is a picture of a hamburger where I was standing, soggy with pickle juice.

You people are all sheep, fools, rubes, bastards, fornicators, worthless clods of meat and sex and violence, sweaty and smoking and filthy. I am your god. Sacrifice your excrement at the altar of asphalt: piss and shit in the street like animals.

I am standing in a field, surrounded by a ripe crop of wheat. The thresher is approaching; the farmer yells; I pay him no heed. I am mutilated by the machine, bloody and dismembered.

I am on a train. You are with me, all of you. I am the conductor, you are the passengers. My blood is full of cocaine; your blood is tar, mud, cheap lager. You are cockroaches, multitudinous and indistinguishable. I am the exterminator: I will crush you, blot out your lives, return you to the mud from whence you came, and make you whole again.

I am standing barefoot in a wide expanse of grass. I feel the earth move under my feet.

I am the mystical baker. I bake the bread that gives birth to the universe.

I’ll let you know if I hear back from them.


Day 13: Send a letter to a mass murderer.

The Book even provides a few suggestions:

…and so on. Maybe it’s just a matter of dialect – the Book was originally written for a European audience (it uses guillemets instead of inverted commas) – but it seems to me that these men (with the possible exception of Ted Kaczynski, who seems like an outlier) are serial killers, not mass murderers. Of course, the difference between them seems to be how close the murders are to one another, and it only takes four (four!) murders to qualify one as a “mass murderer,” which strikes me as an absurdly low number. (I mean, John McClane kills ten people in the first Die Hard, and upwards of sixty over the course of four films – but he’s a good guy, so those don’t count, right?)

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that murder is fine as long as a particular murderer keeps his body count in the single digits. I do think, however, that the term “mass murderer” has no real meaning – except “really bad person” – if it only takes four kills to become one; it is a term used by politicians and pundits to stir up public fear – and fear leads to a desire for safety, and ‘the people’ allow power to be further centralized in exchange for (the illusion of) safety. (Relevant.)

We have no real way of talking about murder on intermediate scales: there’s regular murder (a few victims), “mass” murder (4 or more victims), and genocide (a number of victims so large it becomes unreal: hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions). Often, it seems, the people who murder on the scale of hundreds or thousands are labelled “terrorists” – and they often are terrorists, but the word “terrorist” has to do with methods, motives, and politics, and not with the number of victims.

All of this is to say that I take issue with the Book’s list of murderers, and offer the following revision:

…and so on.

But what does one say to such men? Heart of Darkness, Night, The Great Terror, Cambodia: these are attempts, partial responses – necessary, but also necessarily incomplete. There can be no final word on these crimes until long after we are all dead and gone; after all, who still feels outrage at the deaths and devastation of the Thirty Years’ War?