Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Marriage Plot: My Generation cont'd

Mitchell had been reciting the Jesus Prayer for the past two weeks. He did this not only because it was the prayer that Franny Glass repeated to herself in Franny and Zooey (though this was certainly a recommendation). Mitchell approved of Franny's religious desperation, her withdrawal from life, and her disdain for "section men". He found her book-length nervous breakdown, during which she never once moved from the couch, not only thrillingly dramatic but cathartic in a way that Dostoevsky was supposed to be but wasn't, for him.
Are you getting a picture of Mitchell Grammaticus after reading that passage?

I ask because I'm not getting any picture at all. Mitchell, whose family name means teacher of literature and languages and whose first name means "Who is like God", never seems to have any existence outside his literary references.

I don't mean that he is an unbelievable character. I wish he were. Unfortunately, there are quite a few guys like Mitchell. They never experience life directly but always through some literary or musical reference. But, real though he may be, I don't know what we are supposed to make of such a guy.

You know, there was a significant Evangelical Protestant presence on most university campuses in the 1980s. If you wanted to write about a character who'd had a religious conversion at university, there are more likely routes to take than a guy who was inspired by Salinger and William James. Again, it's not that such a thing couldn't or didn't happen but, rather, why anyone should care about such a guy.

(By the way, it's an odd tick of "serious" writers these days that all religious belief amounts to a need for spiritual experiences.  All "religion" is content free. Later Leonard will meet and admire a woman with a strong evangelical streak but Eugenides will be sure to drain any specific dogma from her beliefs. These guys just don't get religion.)

Now, it says above that Mitchell's admiration for Franny and Zooey was not the only reason he took up the Jesus Prayer. So, the obvious question is, any others?
Still, even though Mitchell was undergoing a similar crisis of meaning, it hadn't been until he'd come across the Jesus Prayer in a book called The Orthodox Church that he'd decided to give it a try. The Jesus Prayer, it turned out, belonged to the religious tradition into which Mitchell had been obscurely baptized twenty-two years earlier. For this reason he felt entitled to say it.
"My what deep reasons you have for doing things," said all the girls visibly excited to have met such a man. (Again, we later find out that Leonard has met Mitchell before he met Madeleine and he is supposed to be a little intimidated at Mitchell's profound insight into religious issues. That just not credible given that we know about Mitchell.)

And it gets worse. Here is Mitchell analyzing the prayer, it turns out the only thing he really likes about the prayer is the repetitive, chant like quality,
... whenever Mitchell stopped to think about the words of the Jesus Prayer, he didn't much like them. "Lord Jesus" was a difficult opener. It had a Bible Belt ring. Likewise, asking for "mercy" felt lowly and serf-like. Having made it through "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," however, Mitchell was confronted with the final stumbling block of "a sinner." And this was hard indeed.
Well yes it is. But it kinda matters that you actually have some sympathy with the words you are praying. Otherwise, you may as well say "When it rains it pours" or "Alfred Lord Tennyson" or even "I want a blowjob" over and over again.

It's interesting, by the way, to note that Mitchell, like many non-believers gets here not by being morally lax but by magnifying the requirements of belief to the point that they are so rigorous that no one, save possibly a determined suicide, could meet them:
The gospels, which Mitchell didn't take literally, said you had to die to be born again. The mystics, which he took as literally as their metaphorical language allowed, said the self had to be subsumed in the Godhead. Mitchell liked the idea of being subsumed in the Godhead. But it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.
Now, you may think, "that is just because Mitchell takes these things seriously and you, Jules, are a laxist. " But the problem is that, despite his insisting on a rigorist approach to some things, Mitchell does not, in fact, take anything very seriously. He is out looking for an experience largely for the sake of having experiences. He wants to go through this stuff without changing so he imagines that the only kind of change that will do is one so big it amounts to killing your "self" off so he won't have to do it.

(What is really happening here, of course, is that Eugenides is projecting Buddhism onto Christianity. Christianity as Christ taught it is based on self-interest—store up treasure in heaven—not self abnegation. When Christians talk about self-denial, we mean making yourself go with out things because you have a higher purpose and not the willful deletion of the self that drives Buddhism.)

We get confirmation of the shallowness of Mitchell by the way in an odd little segment in which Mitchell remembers an odd little nonconformist named "Moss" they met in school and how he and his friend Larry liked her.
Their silence registered solidarity with Moss against all the conventional people in their down vests and Adidas sneakers who were majoring in economics or engineering, spending the last period of total freedom in their lives doing nothing the least bit unordinary.
Think about that for a while. Here they are receiving a top drawer education at someone else's expense—and it's not just their parents, the taxpayers are also picking up a big part of the bill, along with alumni and various donors—so they can acquire an education and become adults capable of contributing to society, and Mitchell thinks about this period as "the last period of total freedom in their lives". (And the obvious question is, "Does Eugenides see this or is he as shallow as his creation?")

Yesterday, I suggested that Leonard and Madeleine were not very good representatives of my generation. Mitchell, on the other hand, is very much representative of a certain type you saw a lot of on campus back in the 1980s. (And, truth be told, of a type that I tended towards at times only snapping out of it when I graduated and was hit in the face with a stern dose of reality.)

But, the people in down vests and Adidas sneakers were also a representative type of my generation. In fact, there were many more of them. And you wouldn't learn much about them reading this book (or any other books favoured by literary elites). In fact, the whole of serious literature treats them with an odd contempt. (The only place you are going to see the story of the people who best represent my generation is in Chick Lit, which is one of the reasons I love reading it.)

By the way, I gave into temptation this morning and started Googling around to see what other people thought of the novel. Interestingly, I find that the three principals are a major stumbling block for a lot of people. Although many are willing to admit the book is well written, a lot of people can't like it because they just don't like Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell. I have to agree. All three are the sort of characters that, as my mother used to say, "You just want to slap them after a while".

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