Sunday, March 25, 2012


The forecast promised downpours and maybe thunderstorms but the rain crept in out of a gray mist and fell sparsely, hardly dampening the earth.

Scenes in the book I'm reading take place in such somber weather. The book is Elizabeth Taylor's second novel, Palladian and its theme is wisdom, as you can tell from the title, but its underlying subject is death.

The chief character is introduced to us in the first sentence: "Cassandra, with all her novel reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions..." The character's name might put the reader on guard, expecting onslaught of tempestuous love ending tragically, but the book's style is playful and we can tell that our heroine is (somewhat ambivalently) both Englishly proper and girlishly eager for romance. Her parents dying, she becomes governess to a girl named Sophy in a romantically dilapidated mansion whose inhabitants are ill-matched but kept together by ties of family, circumstance, and an unbreakable bond with Sophy's mother who died giving birth to her.

Though Taylor does not say so, you can tell that Cassandra feels the novelistic elements of the situation — some Charlotte Brontë, some of Jane Austin, some of George Eliot.

In their first meeting together in his study, her employer tells her there are no diversions where she now finds herself. There is only the forward stretch of time with little to fill it. "When there is so much time," he says, "there is never enough."

He speaks of a conversation that takes place in Turgenev's A Month in the Country; quoting him:
Will you walk about in the garden with a book in your hand, which you will never read? That is all there is to do here. There is all day long and the night, too; and yet, there is only time to dip into books and turn over a few pages. You'll find that. When there is so much time, there is never enough. Those long summers in the Russian novels — the endless bewitched country summers — and the idle men and women — making lace. Do you remember in A Month in the Country — that was how Natalia described their conversation — it was love conversation, too — that it was making lace ... they never moved an inch to the left or right ... only idle people are like that ... they talk to pass the time for they know that time is only a landscape we travel across. . . . They hope to make a busy journey of it ... (ellipses in original)
After she leaves him, Cassandra considers what he has said about the unending succession of one moment to another — an unmoving transition which negates change, in which only time exists and time is without meaning.

Cassandra understands this notion of time without meaning to convey a belief in life without meaning. She does not reject the thought but seeks to compartmentalize it. Taylor writes of her:
She had come a long way from the life of yesterday, of the day before that — the shabby home, the traffic, the bush full of tram tickets, the crowds on the pavements, clotting, thinning out, pressing forward; travelling across time, Marion had called it but they were really going to work, or going home from work, or shopping, or wooing one another. 'Quite separate,' she thought. 'Each quite separate. That is the only safe way of looking at it. And we can never be safe unless we believe we are great and that human life is abiding and the sun constant and that we matter. Once broken that fragile illusion would disclose the secret panic, the vacuity within us. Life then could not be tolerable.' Marion, with his talk of lace-making, had threatened to reveal the panic and confusion and so create an intolerable world for her.
In this gentle satire, it is not just Cassandra who tries to make life tolerable by repressing a secret panic. Taylor examines, charitably, but with painful clarity, all the book's main characters as they seek refuge from despair and their own regrets.

Marion's younger cousin, Tom, for example, "had been early overthrown, had failed to recover, and now cloaked himself in melodrama — the laconic drunkard or the sordid roué — to put himself beyond the reach of his mother or other women, or men." And they are, each differently, hounded by death. Tom, for example, in a brief exchange which embarrasses Marion, says "I am drinking myself to death." And this, says Taylor, was a melodramatic statement, but one, all the same, which "had the seeds of great tragedy in it." Marion responds: "In a different way, I am done for too. ... I am reading myself to death, that is all the difference is."

The book swims with allusions to classical Greece. The title refers not just to Cassandra's reverence for Pallas Athena, but also, prosaically, to the façade of the old house where the action takes place. The house is medieval at the core, but has been layered over in successive attempts to conceal its origins, the latest being a Palladian front, which is to say an 18th century imitation of classical Greek ideals. Athena's attribute is sophia, wisdom, personified in Cassandra's charge, Sophy.

The Cassandra of classical mythology is a tragic figure, a prophetess gifted with second sight whose knowledge is wasted on those around her. Taylor's Cassandra has no such heroic dimensions. When Taylor has Cassandra seek safety in her belief that "human life is abiding and the sun constant," she alludes to the relationship between the Cassandra of myth and Apollo, god of healing and of the sun and brother to Athena. It was Apollo who instilled in Cassandra the ability to see the past and future as if they were present. This insight is generally described as a gift which he later reversed by causing her to speak prophesies that no one believed but the "gift" can be seen another way: as sight so clear that there can be no "fragile illusion" (as Taylor has it) of "the vacuity within us." Unlike Taylor's Cassandra, the classical one has no choice but to see clearly what she wishes she could not.

Early in Palladian, Mrs. Turner, her school-mistress and mentor, gives Cassandra a book and the gift shows the unbridgeable gulf between the larger-than-life reality of Attic Greece and the depressed life of the English in the years following World War II. The book is called The Classical Tradition and it's meant to provide a guide for right living. Cassandra loves her disorganized, well-meaning friend but finds her writing to be unreadable. In Cassandra's hands this gift book "had a strange fungus smell and its pages were stippled with moles. The prose was formal and exact, remote from Mrs. Turner's personality and yielding up nothing between the lines..."

The time and place of Palladian is not that of classical Greece. Aeschylus's Cassandra can shriek in a mad fury about the murder she is about to suffer at Clytemnestra's hands and pray to the sun that her enemies pay a bloody penalty for slaughtering herself who has become a slave, an easy prey.[1] Taylor's Cassandra is proper and conventional. What little she knows of life she has learned from novels and immediately expects that Marion will be Rochester to her Jane.[2] The Cassandra of Aeschylus has seen much death and destruction and has no romantic illusions. Wild with grief she is eager for the fates to revenge her murder. For her, death does not steal quietly in, and a pleasant life of aristocratic ease can be wiped out in a moment: "the dash of a wet sponge blots out the drawing and that is far the most pitiable thing of all."

Taylor's setting is not classical Greece where a bright light can be brought to shine on the misdeeds of humankind, but shadowy England, "a mouldering and rank corner of earth," with its leaden skies and inescapable damp, where emotions are not primitive and raw, but rather where personalities are quirky and human lives intersect with one another obliquely. Words, rationally deployed, are used to wound and wounds are often self-inflicted. The tone of Palladian is not heroic but humorously ironic and in its pages human life is made tolerable not through hubris but by maintaining illusions.

Taylor's characters live out their lives in more-or-less desperate passivity. Although Elizabeth Taylor and Samuel Beckett seem to have had nothing in common save their roughly contempraneous lives, these characters and those of Beckett's first novel, Murphy, share this comedic absence of affect, agility in deflecting the concerns of ordinary life, and sense of death as constant companion.

Neither Taylor's Cassandra nor any others of her characters, as with Beckett's, have anything in common with the Cassandra of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (out of Aeschylus) who moans at the doorway to her death-chamber with wild eyes and "wide nostrils scenting fate."
For the rest, — a mystic moaning,
        Kept Cassandra at the gate,
With wild eyes the vision shone in, —
        And wide nostrils scenting fate.
-- from The Island Wine of Cyprus by Elizabeth Barrett Browning[3]

{Source: LibraryThing}

I began this post thinking it would be about Taylor's Cassandra and the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, how her statement concerning the fragile illusion concerning the meaning of life connects with his insight about the need for humans to free themselves from illusions concerning their personal significance and their collective permanence in an impersonal and impermanent universe. But I have written something else, haven't I?[4]

I've written three other posts on novels of Elizabeth Taylor:


[1] In Aeschylus's Agamemnon Cassandra has fallen from princess — daughter of Priam, sister of Hector — to slave. Agamemnon himself has taken her as concubine and she is to be murdered along with him by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. Her mad scene is powerful theater.
Once more the dreadful throes of true prophecy whirl and distract me with their ill-boding onset. Do you see them there — beating against the wall — shapes that gather in a dream? Children, they seem, slaughtered by their own kindred, their hands full of the meat of their own flesh; they are clear to my sight, holding their vitals and their inward parts. And their father drank their blood.

For this cause I tell you that a lion, wallowing in his bed, plots vengeance, a watchman waiting for my master's coming home — yes, my master, for the yoke of slavery is nailed about my neck. The commander of the fleet and the overthrower of Ilium knows not this she-wolf's tongue which licks and fawns, and laughs with ear up-sprung, to bite in the end like secret death. Such boldness has she, a woman to slay a man. What odious monster shall I fitly call her ... a raging, devil's mother, breathing relentless war against her husband? ... And yet, it is all one, whether or not I am believed. What does it matter? What is to come, will come. And soon you, yourself present here, shall with great pity pronounce me all too true a prophetess.
[2] Marion Vanbrugh is ambiguously sexed (or perhaps unsexed). As his first name suggests he is a male with feminine attributes. There is nothing Byronic about him; he is not a reincarnation of Jane Eyre's Edward Rochester. Nor has he anything in common with Fitzwilliam Darcy. And while he is bookish, he is no self-defeating scholar like Edward Casaubon. His surname suggests his character might be like that of John Vanbrugh, but it is not.

[3] Aeschylus has Cassandra say: "Since first I saw the city of Ilium fare what it has fared, while her captors, by the gods' sentence, are coming to such an end, I will go in and meet my fate. I will dare to die. This door I greet as the gates of Death. And I pray that, dealt a mortal stroke, without a struggle, my life-blood ebbing away in easy death, I may close these eyes."

[4] This is from Into the Silence by Wade Davis: "The essence of the dharma, which the Buddha had distilled in the Four Noble Truths. First, all life is suffering. By this the Buddha did not mean that all life is negation, but only that terrible things happen. Evil was not exceptional but part of the existing order of things, a consequence of human actions, or karma. Second, the cause of suffering is ignorance. By ignorance the Buddha did not mean stupidity, He meant the tendency of human beings to cling to the cruel illusion of their own permanence and centrality, their isolation and separation from the stream of universal existence. The third of the noble truths was the revelation that ignorance could be overcome and the fourth and most essential was the delineation of a contemplative practice that, if followed, promised an end to suffering and a true liberation and transformation of the human heart. The goal was not to escape the world but to escape being enslaved by it. The purpose of practice was not the elimination of self but the annihilation of ignorance and the unmasking of the true Buddha nature, which, like a buried jewel, shines bright within every human being, waiting to be revealed. Padma Sambhava's transmission, in short, offered nothing less than a road map to enlightenment."

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