2003/02/24

It’s a testament to her skill as a writer that Byatt always excites such a vehement response from me, no matter what she’s writing. Actually, I still remember scenes from this book quite vividly. Reading this book was not about enjoyment—it means nothing to say that I liked or disliked the book—but about the indelible impression it left on my mind.

My rage at Culvert seems judgmental to me now and perhaps also a little excessive, but I can tell (since these are my own words) that the anger also stems from my resentment towards my adolescent peers who thought that the source of all the problems in the world came from authority and that everything would be solved if we could simply do whatever we wanted.

[Tales of the Long Bow, by G.K. Chesterton]
[Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt]

Also from “The Unobtrusive Traffic of Captain Pierce”:

The over-powering charm which pigs exercise upon us at a certain time of life; when we hear their trotters in our dreams and their little curly tails twine about us like the tendrils of the vine—

Prepare yourselves for an incoherent rant. I’ve been reading Babel Tower and Babbletower, the latter of which is the book-within-a-book inside the former. Culvert, the “visionary” of a utopia where everyone is free and there are no servants or masters and people can pursue their own pleasures, is the most ridiculous and stupid excuse for a sensualist I’ve ever seen. Why not be honest and say directly, “I want to have sex”? Why does he have to say that he’s emancipating mankind from oppression? I mean, do poverty and wretchedness disappear just because this group of rich, spoiled brats have now decided they will do whatever they want without any regard for the rules? I know Byatt wrote it as a criticism, but oh, did she succeed all too well in making me hopping mad.

Culvert proposes (idiot that he is) that they should engage in dramatic performances that represent their “new social order” on a regular schedule. But what if everyone decides to follow their own desires and refuse to put on any play whatsoever? And why doesn’t he just say, “I want to go watch an orgy every week”? And that whole, “let’s preach universal tolerance, but we want to murder the colonel because he has ‘blood on his hands’” incident was even more infuriating. If they are supposed to follow their instincts and live in perfect harmony, what on earth are they supposed to do if they have a secret homicidal maniac in their midst? After all, the would-be murderer only fulfills his desire by cutting someone’s throat. I am not speaking of murder that comes from anger or malice, but the sheer love of violence that is the one instinct of which these inhabitants of La Tour Bruyarde refuse to speak. (I think they all sink into a pit of sadomasochism later in the book. Serves them right.)

I really despise Culvert. I don’t even hate him. He irritates me like a fly I want to squash but can’t because he’s in a book. I hope he ends up miserable and wretched as a beggar rolling in the blood left on the streets of Paris after the Terror. Let him preach his visions there! I could have cheered when Colonel Grim asked who was going to clean out the latrines in the new utopia. For you see, in all these declarations of freedom, the bathroom really is key. I don’t object to your principles, though I may think them ridiculous. What I really object to is your utter neglect of details, the small things that end up making your life a living hell if they go wrong.

For real comfort, you need order and discipline. And all it requires is an occasional temporary delay in self-gratification. Culvert is a blithering idiot, and I hope his Babbletower collapses on him soon.

(Yes, I do realize that my reaction is the entire point of the book, and possibly of the book-within-a-book as well. I’m not supposed to like Culvert. Still, this is supposed to be tempered by a begrudging half-admiration for the man who is constantly described as “intelligent” and “brilliant”. But there is no such ambiguity on my part. I am a fanatic. I despise Culvert and all other fools like him, and I most decidedly disagree with the assessment that he is “brilliant”. He is simply inventing a whole social theory to justify the fact that he’s obsessed with sex, something which is neither original nor impressive. Self-righteous moron.)