le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Ear, The Eye & The Arm, and my brain

Tonight I tried teaching Nancy Farmer's The Ear, The Eye and The Arm for the first time. I'm fairly certain it was not a smash hit with my class; it was also one of those unfortunate classes where I felt myself talking seemingly ad infinitum (I do not like when this happens).

However, evidently my brain has been working hard at thinking about the book. One of the first questions that was raised was a great one: why is the book called The Ear, The Eye and The Arm? Ear, Eye and Arm are secondary characters at best. A number of people seemed baffled at their inclusion at all, and suggested the book might be better without them (or at least, that they are not necessary for the novel).

And I started babbling talking, and suddenly realized that the book is composed of a series of isolated communities: the group at Dead Man's Vlei, the Matsika family (including the Mellower) in their home, the English tribe in Borrowdale, the villagers of Resthaven, the residents of the Cow's Guts, the micro-world within the Mile-High MacIlwaine, the Masks & Gondwannans in their Embassy and hideout. Each of these groups is deficient in some way, damaged (or damaging) in some way. In a way, Farmer's novel seems a bit like a very oddball echo of Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller" essay - all these disparate groups forming their own communities, and then the outsiders: Tendai, Ear, Eye and Arm. Rita and Kuda function as outsiders to a degree, but not quite in the same way.

It seems to me, somehow, that Tendai and Arm especially, but Ear and Eye as well, are integrative characters: it is their task to make sense of the communities and link them together into one. Both Tendai and Arm are possessed by the mhondoro, the spirit of the land, and are able to bring together - at the very end of the novel - a gaggle of unrelated people to defeat the outsiders, the Gondwannans. It is the She Elephant who levels one of the death blows to the Masks, but Arm, Tendai, Mother, diners and waiters from the Starlight Room all play a role in defeating the Masks.

There's just something very, very interesting going on in this book, with all these fragmented and fractured communities. Intentional withdrawal, exile, being cast out, being simply insular in a snobbish or reactionary way - and then in the midst, Tendai and Arm, both being lost in dreams and quasi-memories of other times and places, and Arm, poor wonderful Arm, being swept up in the tide of other people's emotions, being buffeted and crushed and occasionally, very occasionally, heartened.

I don't quite know what to do with any of this, to be honest, but I also was quite surprised to discover my brain had been working this out without my knowing it - because frankly, as I spoke in class, I was finding those words coming out of my mouth without my having planned them (a fact that was probably extremely evident, but was still sort of wondrous; I haven't had that kind of stream-of-conscious critical analysis in ages).

I still think The Ear, The Eye and The Arm is a remarkable book for the ways it privileges imagination and empathy, and for the way it blurs the lines of "good" and "bad" (whatever those terms mean). In particular, the privileging of empathy is so uncommon that to find it in a book like this one is like coming across an especially lush, large oasis in a desert.

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