On “The Way of all Flesh” by Samuel Butler

My criteria for reading a book is its “page-turning” quality. The second criteria is if it is fundamentally educational, such as The Bible, or histories or ideas, written long ago; in which case you can only turn so many pages before dozing off to think. Thankfully, The Way of All Flesh” this is a page-turning kind of book, and between all the entertainment from page turning quality, and the ideas harmonizing behind the cogency, one gets a pleasant sociological combination of entertainment and idea

This book is a period piece. I suppose all works  of art are by definition, period pieces, but this especially so; compared to other books I’ve looked at, such as by Gide, or Kafka, or Obama, there is a more three dimensional depiction; a depiction of the average man, and not the tendency in literature more recently, to write about the unusual man, or the outsider, or one in extraordinary situations.

It is Satire. British novels have always been; because the reality Satire satirizes, is called the spade it is. The reality of the world, to the spiritual, isn’t really the realest reality of the world, yet because the novel is limited in its conceptions, to this circumscribing of the way things are; because of this fuzziness, and purposeful vagueness, by making light of it; by making light of a classmate who is tricked into marriage, and yet responsible for guiding sick people unto death as should; that is an instinctive reaction to the moral ambiguity of our world.

For the hero, Theobald, is a bit of a dullard, taken advantage of, treated badly; Butler treats the particular dysfunctionalities, and immoralities of his particular age, with the humour necesary to summon the strength to describe immorality and dysfunctionality; the sterness to call society as seen, without sugar-coating it. And yet, if one defines “literary” as criticizing society without ending up on its bad side; Butler is quintessionally literary I mean it is funny to hear Butler describe in polite and severe tones, the ineffectiveness  and wrong of his hero’s mind.

Yet let me think clearly now; there is clearly sugar-coating to the whole genre right? An artist is subscribed to by his culture, precisely for sugar-coating those childhood horrors worse than thought; Or are things only so bad, as in acceptable if not great, absolute? Is being teased by packs of girls, and forced into The Church of England, that is what it is, no sugar-coating there?

Because the novel is the first person, ostentasibly written by someone who was a classmate of Theo’s, there is the description in the third person of a protagonist, yet it is written by someone in the novel himself. Thus the first person subjective mode to the novel, is desired and pushed on by Butler; who also evokes Sterne is his focus on the humourous, as well as how the humourous comes from the flaws of charactors. There is a stark questioning of british life, without identifying the answer that question requires.

Now in examining the old books on the shelves of my library for page-turningness, I had to go very fast through the first 50 pages before the plot becomes riveting enough to have to read every word and turn the page. But this reality is consistent with Butler, because his “period” form, the way the dedication to his period is manifested, is rather than start with the central protagonist Theobald, he starts with the fellows grandfather. And it is written in the first person. Fictionally, the author was a child when Theobald’s grandfather was alive; and the author was an aquaintance of Theobold growing up, they knew each other’s sisters as well; as no small part of the book touches on awkward male-female, traditions.

So there are images from 1802 and the grandfather, who is an interesting man, and his son George, who is lucky enough to become rich and flawed, and then George’s two sons, one of whom the story seems centered on, and by page 50, you feel enough sympathy for and worry about enough, to keep reading. The linking of the story of one man, put through college by a greedy father, reluctanting qualifying for the clergy, and then a professorial post; who is so socially awkward, that he is snapped up in the conspiracy of one parson’s family to marry off a daughter to him, as he assists in services in the small town outside of cambridge.

What is interesting in this part; well there are several interesting aspects here. One is the sensation, that one can die, and his work still go on, through other people, a very profound idea that gave me pause; as such would be so unsatisfying to my efforts at challenges now; and yet the possibility of such condign is true and makes sense, yet no one says it, and yet it is a plausible way the world works underscoring the gloom and subdued quality of the world and earth.

Another is the sociological symmettry, of a father, born relatively poor, new to the lower orders of the upper class, and how are his sons to support themselves; back then it was the church, or perhaps law, or perhaps a professor ship; and so it is today, except the investment banker has replaced the church, as a prestigious and tolerable form towards the more mature decades.

Another are the depictions of how routinely rude children are and can be, how awful the dynamics of a family can be upon the young; Butler seems sympathetic to a horror of individuals within family life, especially young; recounting the strictness that was common, and the constant kill-joy exhortations of a parsimonious awkward father, to Theobald in his early twenties; the sheer immorality and societal dysfunction requiring conspiracy and need to marry or foist off daughters, through cunning, upon those heir to a little money. The women, at least initially, are portrayed as conniving and scheming to get a man, and marry; making every relation I’ve ever had, color with the feeling it was a plot, and I was picked off like a turkey by a hunter; and yet it is true; there is a certain aggression Theo lacks, which is quite common, though its oposite reinforced by contemporary media, for which the impression of marriage is made upon him and he is soon locked in a marriage with a women 3 years older, where both of them really do not love each other, one a victim of a culture of cunning, the other a victim of stubbornness and inexperience. The calculation required and carried out by a family with some nine daughters to marry off, is very much a vehicle to the plot, that shows Butler’s focus on a dismal reality, and by extension, some resolve and analysis therein. To the extent every marriage contains two people who don’t truly love each other, but felt the pressure to Marry, Butler’s work is relevant, bold and honest. It speaks of Art as demarking something unpleasant and true–it provides the artist’s perspective, as coming from outside society, as it questions and exposes society, which later generations translate into a less three-dimensional but more artistic and less “normal” protagonist subjectivity.

Thus, with a comic’s low profile or subtle air, immoralities and dysfunctionalities are exposed and dealt with, by this novel.

By encompassing previous generations to lead up to his tale, Butler emphasizes the perspective of time. When the fiancee is called 24 and his? 27, my charactor at both ages leaps to mind in a way, at those ages, where the distance between ages, moves slowly enough to never have been aware, of the considerable change I went through in those ages. There are a few different rythms to life and its decades; 24 was the finishing of an innocence, and 27, the rough hugging of growing sophistication through a devotion to sociality my innocence rejected.

I want to say, though our yuppies, investment bankers, and theirs, clergy, or lawyers, the pressure, by elders, for their youngers, to make money and support themselves, existed then, as now. As do the indignities of being young with a family’s strains; as Butler’s descriptions and my recollections of my childhood have some overlap, of rude childhood people one has to deal with, of sisters being rude and imperfect, and other women, not even there. There is a quality of his time, and now in N.J., where the job of a women is to stand up to you, not out of righteousness, but to develope one’s ability to stand up, in a patriarchal and oppressive world.

Love to Butler then, is not some joy of physical intimacy, but a literary device, required and urged on by a society that would not reproduce without it; the view of love is very jaded, not romantic, fraught with problems, and far from idealized, shown for the unpleasant nitty gritty reality it occupies.

But most importantly, I must point out what Butler’s times are going through, for without learning, it is hard to see what is missing, or what causes something, or what this is not like. Because what the reader must know, to not be ignorant, is Butler is writing of a time,over ten centuries removed from classical times, classical times being primarily defined by me, as times when everyone in europe and north africa, belonged to a tribe. One was not only a roman citizen, one was a member of one of the 30 tribes. Rome didn’t attack, subdue, and gain obedience from other countries outside their sphere of influence, but tribes that owned land outside their sphere of influence. And the tribes, whether controlling government and culture as fully as possible, in such as Gaul, Germanic areas, and Spain and North Africa, or whether practicing tribal practices, but citizens of Rome, a Rome, which included the tribes in its federal system of checks and balances by requiring them to meetin in local piazzas, to ratify treaties, or give their opinion of matters before the senate.

It is this crude tribal democracy, that has been shoved out the door, for an individualism designed for oppressive impositions, such tribe Not trumping family, and there being No community discussion, and the federal government Does Not want to know what the people, per tribe, feel about relevant matters, Likewise, the justice department does not spring from the people, quite the oposite, and the economy is regulated by capitalism, rather than consensus, or even general planning and strategy; so the way you get the sad, stoic, oppressed, (and oppressed by the reduction of religions a hundred fold) Britain, we see through Butler, is the replacement of tribal culture, with the individualism, yet conformity-creating, society Britain back then knew, and America now, knows. For what is worse about America, as that traditionally, one migrated as a tribe with tribal attachments; whereas now, the states attempt no imposing nullifcation of federal laws, nor nationalities and heritage be relied on for culture and thought, as they were routinely in antiquity. Yet do not forget, antiquity had human sacrifice; though the system of justice was looser-ended back then, stemming from the people and effectiveness, rather then government-imposed life-long judges, criminals were required to be sacrificed, as getting other people to, is obviously not easy.

So when Butler and The Novel, take you within the individualistic, and dramatize what resonates near your own experience, so many grandfathers later; they are painting the painful scenes, individualism is designed for; they are writing about a sacrificial toll in subtle ways; and yet they are essentially not making sense; evoking a dream of faint glory; rather than a sensible story. And it is a simple principle that shows the illogicality of the plot of fiction, that even defines how “fiction” is “Fiction Terrible”: if so many people are oppressed in childhood, surely they would unite and smote that form of childhood. If so many people are lawyers, surely they would realize life-long judges are trumped by short-term judges, and so change the system. So fiction is about an individual, ultimately all alone, though who would be surrounded by other’s like him, yet that is only an appearance; whereas the plots of a tribe, while equally calculated, do not so easily involve oppression; for more recognition of what this principle reveals predicated pagan times; whereas what fiction involves in its effect, is the modus operandi to understanding the color of more modern era.

Tribal obligations, trump marriage obligations. Girls may squeam, but a tribe, probably was composed of by siblings, and then perhaps offsprings, in ultimate division, rather than families. So the focus squarely hits on the head, what turns out to seem to be Butler’s important theme: that marriage is sick.

Yuppies and marriage, so with perspective, they are seen as going together, and furthermore, with perspective, I see the yuppies all around me in my twenties, entered through those narrow yuppie gates, to jobs in Manhattan, with a sort of polite, and subdued depravity; now looks like such initiation results in the feeling a big bite of their mind has been taken, or worse, that they can never get out of crime and depravity, rather they are cemented to it by marriage. And while this acceptance does not make sense to me; hoping for the more realistic rendition of salvation and enlightenment and agrarianism and common group thinking; it is associated with the prestige of the world, what we work with. Living a lie, is very much a theme we work with, and very much what Butler drones in through his fine rendition of Theobald and Christina’s first day together married, when she is 33, and how awkward that first day is. And as may be the case with great art, there is a need for it. Look at all the sitcoms with married couples, yes they illuminate not getting along, but they also never swiftly end in divorce. This depiction of the awkward disapointment or illusion and its real crust was a relief for me to see, as our modern society, while ocassionally touching on the subject in a passionate way, really does not routinely take on the phenoma of marriage, and all its processed trapping.

Butler shows an imposed world, imposed from every end, from the pressure to marry, to the pressure to make money, to the effects of calculations therein, to the weakness of human charactor, most essentially causing pressure, as the people never do click together, since western civilization, while alluding to another way, greatly enforces itself as The Truth, because western civilization is about imposing human images, like the novel itself, upon human beings; creates a “reality” by taking the undeveloped and oppressed nature of the human being, and giving it a set of images culled of civilization. A wift of fading and faint glory, essentially singular, the definition of a dream, where the alabaster of company never sticks together in a more eternal or ultimate society. Like a dream, fiction and life, never have bonds great and true enough to change things, back to classical understandings, of tribes, community, the universe, the fear.

So marriage itself, is built up to with lies, at least in Theobald and Christina’s case, that then those lies fall down, upon marriage. Is the women that natural deceiver unto marriage? Do we have ways we would choose? Do you think we chose to live this way? And is this acceptance brainwashing? Is brainwashing, something the mind and fiction does to itself, and then calculated to contain a pressure upon that that would otherwise think straight? And isn’t such pressure metaphysical? And done by a nonmaterial or less material or by something of different energy, or suffering itself into a system? And that thus this comprises and defines totalitarianism? The oppression of society by nonmaterial force?


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