Filed under: Dust
Today while waiting to be called for jury duty I finished rereading George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was then that I recognized my recent craving for the familiar company of old friends– books I once knew. Animal Farm has turned out to be the third book in a row that I’ve reread. First it was The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and then Arcadia by Tom Stoppard (a play). The latter two I read in high school and AF and I met in middle school, maybe before.
So today I’ll take some time (encouraged by the ever-supportive Brandon Perkovich) to write about my experiences rereading these favorites. I doubt that I’m alone in having had in the past a slight anxiety towards rereading. “But there are so many books [classics] I haven’t read yet!” In recent years, however, I have become a believer in the second, third visit. One book I have read maybe five times, across a few different country’s is the great One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. It will never be enough times.
The Virgin Suicides: As a high schooler reading about five high school sisters committing suicide, I was left having finished this book with its vivid engravings upon my mind: The annual fish-fly invasion that left roads and houses coated in a thick layer of dead bug carcasses (“They only live twenty-four hours. They hatch, they reproduce, and then they croak. They don’t even get to eat.” 4), Lux’s first sip of alcohol, peach schnapps behind the bleachers at a school dance, dripping down her chin and quickly shared in a sticky kiss. I also highly recommend Eugenides’ Middlesex. In this reading I latched on to the narrator’s collective “we,” evidently a group of neighborhood boys [now men] whose shared obsession with the Lisbon sisters led them to retrospectively create a sort of police report meets shrine to the first women to capture their hearts. The way they constantly peer through windows in search of information reminds me very much of the collective and mischievous “we” of “A Rose for Emily“‘s narrator. I am finally older than the characters and now convinced that this is a book to return to every few years. It begins:
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide–it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese–the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.” (3)
Arcadia: Originally assigned by my senior year high school English teacher, (Hey Dr. Rips!) Arcadia is a play that I have never forgotten, and not only because we acted it out and my friend Mara got to dive full-speed head-first under my desk. The play’s acts switch between the 1990′s and around 1810 and showcase an old family of English aristocracy and its twentieth century descendants. Mostly I was struck this time (reread appropriately on a plane (outside of time)) by the doubling of time. Stoppard makes pointed parallels between the characters, who echo each other, sometimes literally. By the end there is no temporal distance and both sets of characters appear onstage. There are hasty academics eager to make the latest discovery. For one, the possibility of Lord Byron’s presence at Sidley Park is just too tempting and possibly leads to his ruin. This time I am struck by Arcadia’s hints at Darwin and the sort of dark side of colonial “exploration,” à la Jean Rhys. It is a loudl warning to/mockery of academics doing archival digging. Stoppard plays with much humor on the idea of the “living archive.”
Animal Farm: From doubling history to rewriting it. This book is powerful in a way that is hard to describe. If you haven’t read it yet, do it tonight! It’s quick. Orwell says many things, gives many warnings about power, corruption, slavery. One detail of this messaging was especially creepy and touching to me this time around. Every time that Squealer the pig went around to speak to the animals when they felt “vaguely troubled” by the pigs’ changes and increasing control, he convinced the other animals that their memories, their opinions, their convictions were wrong. They had forgotten or misremembered. And eventually the animals did forget.Their memories faded, and the only record, the Ten Commandments on the wall, were unconsultable for them in their illiteracy. But Orwell’s wording is perfectly subtle yet painful:
Afterwards Squealer made a round of the farm and set the animals’ minds at rest. He assured them that the resolution against engaging in trade and using money had never been passed, or even suggested. It was pure imagination, probably traceable in the beginning to lies circulated by Snowball. A few animals still felt faintly doubtful, but Squealer asked them shrewdly, “Are you certain that this is not something that you have dreamed, comrades? Have you any record of such a resolution? Is it written down anywhere?” And since it was certainly true that nothing of the kind existed in writing, the animals were satisfied that they had been mistaken. (77)
I worry about America’s collective amnesia. If a message is repeated enough times on television we come to regard it as accurate or true, or the only version of events that is relevant. The individual mandate a Republican idea less than two years ago? Monetary penalties for non-participation theirs too? It must be that whatever they are saying right now is the full story, all the necessary context.
“Two whole days were given over to celebrations. There were songs, speeches, and more firing of the gun, and a special gift of an apple was bestowed on every animal, with two ounces of corn for each bird and three biscuits for each dog. … In the general rejoicing the unfortunate affair of the banknotes was forgotten” (110-111).