This blog is moving–and so is Ophelia’s murder investigation

portrait of the author
C. C. Mambretti

Hi, thanks for your interest in my bizarre commentaries on all things mysterious. I am being forced to transition this blog to WordPress from QuickBlogCast, which is an obscure way of saying that I’m entangled in my hosting service’s software problems. Within the week I will (I hope) be up and running either as

blog.thejurorinvestigates.com

or simply

thejurorinvestigates.com.

In the meantime, I invite you to visit Amazon Kindle to take a look at my latest novel, SNOW GHOST, the best, most-outrageous thing I’ve written so far.

I hope you will be patient and continue to follow my investigation into Ophelia’s murder. My next novel (in progress) is OPHELIA’S GHOST. In a few month’s I’ll visit Elsinore Castle in Denmark to research the scene of the crime!

C. C. Mambretti (ccm@ccmambretti.com)

The Coroner Rules on Hamlet’s Ophelia—Accident, Suicide, or Murder?

Before I degenerated into the world of pulp fiction, I studied to become a scholar of Renaissance and Enlightenment literature. My specialty was what today you might call a forensic document examiner, that is, an expert in the origin and authorship of written documents.

Except for the Bible and other sacred works, few documents have been as thoroughly examined as Shakespeare’s works; and few of Shakespeare’s works have been examined as thoroughly as Hamlet. So I shocked myself when recently I reread Hamlet and realized there’s a mystery in it that I had not noticed before.

Sidebar: To refresh your memory, one of the many deaths in the play is that of a girl who drowned named Ophelia. The cause of death is known, but not the manner. (Ophelia’s body was recovered from a river.) Ophelia was Prince Hamlet’s “intended,” whom he rejected and told to “get thee to a nunnery.” This crushing blow drove Ophelia mad; she began to rant in public about Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, even hinting that Gertrude was involved in the death of Hamlet’s father (the former king, Hamlet, Sr.). Gertrude claimed the girl’s death was accidental, so the “crowner” (that is, the coroner) who worked for “the crown” (that is, King Claudius, the usurper of the Danish throne) declared Ophelia’s death accidental. This permitted her body to be buried in the churchyard (a suicide’s body could not have been). However, the common folk widely believed Ophelia committed suicide. Ophelia’s brother (Laertes) apparently believed it was suicide as well, since he accused Hamlet of driving Ophelia mad.

Ophelia’s Manner of Death

I have literally read Hamlet backward and forward many times. Last week I read the scenes in reverse order as a way of analyzing the plot. Reading the play in reverse order put several plot elements into a new context, especially the play’s extensive dialog about the suicide v. accident issue concerning Ophelia.

Scholars have long been divided over whether Ophelia killed herself or not. The interpretation of the play rests largely on the issue, since the salvation of both Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s souls hangs in the balance. In other words, is Hamlet damned or redeemed by his actions?

But there’s another possibility, namely, Ophelia was murdered—pushed into the river. Back in the day, no scholar I had heard of made this suggestion, but a recent search of Goggle Scholar turned up newer scholarly arguments about the possibility of murder. For a brief survey of these ideas see HamletHaven.com. Read the summary of Harmonie Loberg’s 2004 article in Atenea.

By reading the play backwards (in part), I discovered several peculiarities I had previously overlooked:

  1. An unnamed gentleman “tattles” on Ophelia to King Claudius and his wife, Gertrude, and claims Ophelia is rousing the rabble (which would be treasonous if it were true, but there’s no hint in the play of such an accusation).
  2. As a result of the gentleman’s tales, in most editions of the play King Claudius and Gertrude send Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, to follow Ophelia around and stop her from spreading insane rumors. (The “document” is unclear about who they really sent to follow Ophelia [see below]).
  3. Gertrude is the one who describes Ophelia’s off-stage drowning, even though Gertrude was not present at the scene of her death.
  4. At the funeral, Gertrude claims she hoped to strew flowers on Ophelia’s marriage bed, not on her grave; but Gertrude is the archetypal doting mother, who probably was glad Ophelia was dead.

Testimony before the Coroner’s Jury

Now, think about this as if you were a juror on a coroner’s jury (which decides the cause and manner of a suspicious death). Listening to Gertrude’s testimony, along with the unnamed Gentleman, King Claudius, and Horatio, wouldn’t you have many, many questions about the involvement of these witnesses in Ophelia’s death?

[Coroner swears in unnamed gentleman X, then asks]: Did you have occasion [using legalese] to pay a call on the king and queen in the throne room?

[X]: Yes, I did. That was right before Ophelia’s body was discovered.

[Coroner]: And what did you tell them at that time?

[X]: I told their majesties that Ophelia was running around saying crazy things that the mob misinterpreted.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: What did she say that could be misinterpreted as dangerous speech?

[X]: I can’t remember exactly.

[Juror]: And what harm could a crazy girl do by ranting, anyway?

[X looks in the direction of King Claudius]: Well . . . . you know what kinds of rumors are going around.

[Juror]: So you’re saying Ophelia was encouraging the mob to rebellion? Shouldn’t she have been arrested for sedition?

[X]: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. [The Coroner dismisses X and swears in King Claudius.]

[Coroner]: Did you have occasion at some time to entertain the mad Ophelia in the throne room?

[King Claudius]: Yes, I did.

[Coroner]: How did she appear to you? Was she mad in your opinion?

[King Claudius]: Yes, I thought so.

[Coroner]: And as a result, what did you do?

[King Claudius]: I felt it was wise to have someone keep an eye on her. I sent a court gentleman to follow her.

[Coroner]: For what purpose?

[King Claudius]: Well, that’s obvious. I was worried about her safety. [Sounds a bit like George Anthony testifying against his daughter, doesn’t it?]

[Coroner]: Who did you send to follow her?

[King Claudius]: My memory of that is foggy. I may have sent X. I may have sent Horatio.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: What did you tell the gentleman to do if she starting ranting treasonously?

[King Claudius]: Nothing. [The Coroner dismisses King Claudius and swears in Gertrude.]

[Coroner]: Was Ophelia engaged to marry your son, Hamlet?

[Gertrude]: At one time she was, yes, at least in a manner of speaking.

[Coroner]: Please explain.

[Gertrude]: My son courted Ophelia when she was too young to marry, that is, before she was fourteen. He was twice her age. We all agreed—including her father Polonius—that when she was of age they would marry. That’s why I said at the funeral that I had never expected to put flowers on her grave. I expected to decorate her marriage bed with flowers.

[Coroner]: Were you present at the meeting in the throne room and, if so, how did Ophelia appear to you?

[Gertrude]: Yes, I was present. Ophelia was clearly out of her mind.

[Coroner]: Do you recall who the king sent to follow her?

[Gertrude]: I can’t remember.

[Coroner]: Thank you, you may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: Can you remember who told you about the way Ophelia died? I believe you were the one who spoke to the press about it.

[Gertrude]: Now that you mention it, I was, but things were very hectic after her body was found, and I can’t really remember who told me about it.

[Juror]: But you said it was an accident, and someone was supposedly following Ophelia. Is that who
found the body? [Juror looks at Coroner] Why didn’t Mr. X testify about finding the body, if it was him? [A different juror raises a hand.]

[Juror]: I never heard of a mother who looked forward to making up a bed for her son to sleep in with another woman. Are you sure you really wanted your son to get married? Why did he wait until he was thirty to come back to Elsinore Castle and get together with Ophelia?

[Coroner]: That’s enough. The queen is too distraught to continue. You may step down, my lady. [Gertrude steps down and Coroner swears in Horatio.]

[Coroner]: Now, Horatio, were you present at this meeting?

[Horatio]: I might have been, but I think I would remember if the king ordered me to follow her.

[Coroner]: You may step down. [Juror raises hand to ask a question.]

[Juror]: Are you saying that you did not follow Ophelia?

[Horatio]: That’s right. I did not follow Ophelia, and I am not the one who found the body. If I had followed Ophelia, she never would have had a chance to get near that river, let alone climb into a willow tree with branches hanging over the river. And if she had somehow managed to fall into the river—whether on purpose or accidentally—I would have considered it my duty to dive in after her and save her or die in the attempt. Ophelia was my best friend’s girlfriend. And, by the way, it was a willow tree, for gods sake. I never knew a girl who was a good tree-climber, and even if she was she must have had a fairy godmother to fly her into the top of such “willowy” tree.

Sidebar: In other words, because Horatio is the most reliable, honorable character in the play, if Horatio followed Ophelia and saw her die, then we are faced with the suicide/accidental death dilemma. It would mean that Hamlet bears responsibility for the harmless, innocent Ophelia’s death in either case. He would be damned whether or not he revenges his father’s death. Why would Shakespeare waste his time writing such glorious verse about such a worthless person?

Even the most devout Christian in Shakespeare’s audience in 1601 would feel that Ophelia’s manner of death ought not to be held against her in the Highest Court of Heaven. You would have to say that Shakespeare believed there is no real justice in the whole universe—not just a lack of justice in Denmark.

It all depends on whether or not Horatio is the one who followed Ophelia—and I don’t believe it. The circumstantial evidence points elsewhere.

Evidence from the Document

1) A textual critic would investigate the question of why Shakespeare put an unnamed gentleman in the throne-room scene as a staging problem.

Scholars (including my dissertation advisor) have written extensively about the minimum number of actors required for any given Shakespearean play. The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatrical company) had a fixed number of actors who could play male parts and those who could play female parts (usually because their voices hadn’t broken yet). As a result, plays were staged using “doubling” (meaning every actor could play more than one part, as long as enough actors could be assigned to gender roles). In every scene Shakespeare had to be careful to write speaking parts so that actors who were doubling up on parts were not required to appear in the same scene with themselves (! obviously a problem). There also had to be extras available for crowd scenes. Because the company had a fixed, limited number of actors, parts for characters that are required in crowd scenes could not be doubled with supernumerary parts.

So scenes such as Act IV, scene v, in which an unnamed Gentleman appears and delivers only one speech, are rare in Shakespeare.

Nonetheless, most editions of the play indicate that an unnamed Gentleman appears on stage with Gertrude and Horatio. He speaks 12 lines and then disappears from the play.

Sidebar: The edition I am currently reading relies on stage directions from the First Folio edition (1623, 7 years after Shakespeare’s death), because that edition was prepared by members of the King’s Men and has the most-extensive stage directions. Every literary critic knows that the stage directions in Shakespearean plays (including assigning lines to characters) are iffy.

The Gentleman is a supernumerary. Any actor who played this part would have been doubling, probably taking several roles, one of which would have been a named character, Polonius, for example, who is dead before the Gentleman comes on stage. It seems highly peculiar that Shakespeare—who was careful not to write parts for too many actors—would have wasted such a part on a scene in which Horatio appeared, since Horatio is required in several very crowded scenes, including the final scene which leaves actors bodies all over the stage and then brings in a whole army of Norwegians to take over Denmark.

Conclusion: Given the large cast of Hamlet, Shakespeare would have been careful not to use Horatio in too many scenes with supernumerary characters, such as the “follow her” scene. If he did put Horatio in the scene, then he did so in order to have Horatio be the one to follow Ophelia. In effect, Shakespeare would have thus damned his hero, Hamlet, and his heroine, Ophelia, in the eyes of God. From what I know of Shakespeare, he was not cynical; he would not have intended to do this. Also, Horatio would not have been permitted to survive the final carnage; he, too, would have been damned.

2) King Claudius and Gertrude send Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, to follow Ophelia around and stop her from spreading insane rumors.

What evidence is there that the First Folio (1F) stage directions are accurate?

Very little. It looks to me as if 1F may have been mistaken about the presence of Horatio in Act IV, scene v.

Other than Act I, i, and Act IV, vi, the scene is the only scene Horatio appears in without Hamlet being present. (The Horatio character is Hamlet’s foil and alter-ego. There are few scenes in which he is needed if Hamlet isn’t on stage.) The first scene in the play is the famous ghost scene. Horatio—though a religious skeptic—sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father and then later convinces Hamlet to come out onto the castle’s ramparts one night to see the ghost when it reappears.

Coincidentally, a Gentleman is the only other actor on stage with Horatio in Act IV, vi, which, of course, immediately follows the scene in question. This Gentleman is clearly not the same Gentleman as in the preceding scene. The fact that Horatio is still inside the castle in scene vi after having supposedly been directed to follow Ophelia outside the castle, suggests that Horatio ought not to appear in Act IV, scene v.

The First Folio opens Act IV, v with “Enter Horatio, Gertrude, and a Gentleman.” The sequence of names is significant, since named male characters always precede named female characters; unnamed characters come last, precisely because it doesn’t matter who is assigned their part.

Suspicious is the fact that Gertrude first speaks to the Gentleman, not to Horatio, who is clearly his “better.” She says, “I will not speak with her,” as if the Gentleman has previously asked her to speak to Ophelia. (Note that Gertrude isn’t all that loving of a would-be daughter-in-law after all.) If Horatio is present (presumably also a more-likely candidate for peacemaker b
etween Gertrude and Ophelia), why didn’t Shakespeare use Horatio to perform this function? Why clutter the scene with a supernumerary Gentleman?

A highly suggestive typographical error (or what’s presumed to be a typo) is present in the Second Quarto (2Q) version of the play at Act IV, scene v, line 16. The line, “Let her come in,” is assigned in 2Q to Horatio instead of Gertrude. Horatio says to Gertrude: “’Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures. Let her come in.” This would only make sense if Horatio and not the Gentleman was the one urging Gertrude to see Ophelia. But then no Gentleman would be needed in the scene.

Most editions insert a stage direction right after “Let her come in”: namely, [Exit Gentleman] with brackets to indicate that it is an editorial insertion, not Shakespeare’s stage direction. Presumably the Gentleman exits to call Ophelia on stage. After that, Ophelia enters while Gertrude is uttering an aside, but the Gentleman doesn’t accompany her. He’s gone from the play for good (supposedly).

The fact that F1 breaks off Horatio’s speech before “Let her come in” is interesting. There’s clearly something going on with the staging, which involves Horatio.

It also troubles me that Shakespeare would assign Horatio to serve as King Claudius’s minion who follows Ophelia apparently to her death. Horatio is Hamlet’s ally, and by this time in the plot he knows Claudius is a murderer as well as the usurper of Hamlet’s rightful throne.

Frankly, I  just don’t believe it. The circumstantial evidence points to the Gentleman as the spy. If he exited the stage and then returned with Ophelia, he would be available on stage for Shakespeare later to send him off stage to follow Ophelia. The Gentleman is toadying up to Gertrude from the beginning of the scene. He’s telling tales on Ophelia. He would be the logical choice to entice her on stage to make a fool of herself in front of Gertrude. He would be the logical candidate to follow Ophelia and make sure she keeps her mouth shut–permanently.

Conclusion: Editorial error places Horatio in Act IV, v. Horatio should not appear in the scene. The reason Shakespeare used a supernumerary Gentleman in this scene is because the character is only needed in this scene.

Literary critics who say the reason Ophelia dies off stage is because it would have been too difficult to stage a river drowning or because the spectacle of Ophelia’s death would be too horrific are wrong, wrong wrong. If Shakespeare could stage a tempest, he could stage a rivulet of water; if Shakespeare could stage a slaughter at the end of Hamlet without horrifying his audience unnecessarily, he could stage a drowning.

Sidebar: This is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, the essence of which was horror. The reason Shakespeare kills Ophelia off stage is so the audience has to wonder about the true manner of death. Ophelia’s death is a mystery.

3) The question of how Gertrude learned about “the accident” cannot be settled by reading the play, nor can it be settled by looking at Shakespeare’s sources (that is older documents, tales of the legend of Hamlet, earlier plays written on the story, etc.), mainly because Ophelia is Shakespeare’s invention. At least one early version of the story had an Ophelia-like character, but she did not die in it.

Given that the Gentleman is likely the one who offed Ophelia, my belief is that Shakespeare intended us to assume the Gentleman reported back to Gertrude, and Gertrude made up the “accident” story to try to convince the mob (who already are suspicious of her and Claudius) that at worst Ophelia killed herself. Gertrude’s pathetic description of the girl’s death is phrased to make Gertrude sound like a loving would-be mother-in-law; but she knows no one will buy it. Everyone will assume Ophelia killed herself. It’s another case “of “methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

4) At the funeral, Gertrude claims she hoped to strew flowers on Ophelia’s marriage bed, not on her grave.

See above. Gertrude is widely assumed to have incestuous thoughts about Hamlet, if not actually having committed incest with him. Besides, you can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of mother-in-laws who actually like their daughters-in-law.

Verdict of the Coroner’s Jury: Homicide

For Arthur Rimbaud’s take on Ophelia’s death, see my translation of his poem at: blog.thejurorinvestigates.com/2013/11/18/opheliarsquos-murder.aspx


Ophelia’s Murder

Ophelia

by

Arthur Rimbaud

Translated by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C.C. Mambretti)

I.

Like a grand lily

on calm, black water

beneath sleeping stars,

floats white Ophelia,

floats very slowly,

couched in her long veils. . . .

—In distant woods sounds the hallelujah of a hunter’s horn!

 

More than a thousand years, sad Ophelia

—white phantom—voyaged on the long, black flood.

More than a thousand years, her sweet madness

babbled her romance, on the night breezes.

 

Now wind smacks her breast, betrays her to view

in a garland of veils that languidly

rocks on the water. Shivering willows

weep on her shoulder. O’er her grand, dreaming

forehead water reeds reverently bow.

 

Water-lilies wilt, sighing around her.

From time to time she seems to arise

like a small, fluttering wing escaping from

the nest-like alder bush where she’s sleeping.

—From the golden stars falls a mysterious chant. . . .

II.

O, pale Ophelia, lovely as snow! Yes,

child, you perished, swept away on the flood.

—The winds that descend Norway’s grand mountains

carry a message: freedom is bitter.

 

Whirling your grand hair, their breath portended

to your dreams strange bruits. Your heart heard chants of

nature in the trees’ moans and the nights’ sighs.

 

The insane sea’s voice—a vast death-rattle—

broke your inner child, so humane, so sweet.

Then one April morn, a fine, pale rider—

poor, handsome madman—lay mute in your lap.

 

Heaven! Liberty! Love! O, poor mad girl!

You melted to him like the snow to fire.

Your words were strangled by your grand visions

—And the terror of Infinity turned

your blue eyes to stone. . . .

III.

—And the Poet says

that you sought only

the light of stars, night,

the flowers you plucked;

and that on the waters

he has seen white

Ophelia floating,

couched in her long veils

like a grand lily.

 

Notes:

The French original is written in pentameter with a four-line-stanza ABAB rhyme scheme. I have taken liberties with the form in order to preserve both meaning and connotation.

Stanza 1: The hunter’s horn—an image of death and possibly even intentional killing—foreshadows the appearance of a man on horseback in stanza 6.

Stanza 2: One thousand years before the writing of the poem would have been the ninth century C.E. (A. D.), roughly the era in which the story of Hamlet and Ophelia is set. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not the first such story. Shakespeare drew on sources that included the twelfth-century Saxo Grammaticus, a compilation of Scandinavian histories, and Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, both of which would also have been available to Rimbaud. In this poem Rimbaud clearly refers to Scandinavian sources as well as to Shakespeare, as shown by his reference in stanza 5 to Norway rather than to Shakespeare’s setting, Denmark.

Stanza 7: Rimbaud’s French refers to this figure as the “un beau cavalier pâle,” which I have translated as “a fine, pale rider.” The English word “cavalier” is derived from the French word, which means “horseman” or “horse rider.” Because the English word has connotations of a dashing, handsome aristocrat or courtier, I have chosen to translate it literally as “rider,” since the phrase “cavalier pâle” clearly alludes to the Biblical “Pale Rider” of the Apocalypse (Revelations 6:8): “Behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death. . . .”

Stanza 7: Rimbaud’s original French phrase is “s’assit muet à tes genoux,” for which the literal translation is “sat on your knee.” The idea of a horseman sitting on frail Ophelia’s knees (or lap) is ludicrous. So instead I relied upon the passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, scene ii, in which Hamlet banters obscenely with Ophelia and suggests he would like to “lie between” her legs and then moderates the suggestion: “I mean, my head upon your lap.”

Stanza 8: “[Y]ou melted to him like a snow to fire” emphasizes her purity succumbing to passion, that is, the triumph of the profane over the sacred in their relationship.

Stanza 8: Rimbaud’s French describes Ophelia’s eyes as “effara ton oeil bleu.” Among the English translations of effara is “astonished,” and the etymology of that word is the Early English word “astonied” from “turned to stone,” as in the effect Medusa had on those who looked upon her face.

For my discussion of the fate of Shakespeare’s Ophelia see: blog.thejurorinvestigates.com/2013/01/10/the-coroner-rules-on-hamletrsquos-opheliamdashaccident-suicide-or-murder.aspx

References:

When this blog was posted on 11/18/13 the French original was available at:

http://athena.unige.ch/athena/ophelia/rimb_oph.html

See also: Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rimbaud

Alone on Halloween? Read Guy de Maupassant’s “Terror”

 

But unlike the reader in the “poem,” if you’re tapped on the shoulder, run!

In 1876 Guy de Maupassant, best known for his short stories (and short life), wrote a poem for the “Republic of Letters,” under the pseudonym of Guy de Valmont. Like the poems of Poe, which inspired “Terror,” its lines are long, the language ornate. Try as I might, I was unable in verse to capture the mood of de Maupassant’s tribute to the poet of Halloween, so I have translated it as a prose poem.

Terror

trans. by C. C. Mambretti

Author of CHALK GHOST and SNOW GHOST (coming soon)

Into the night I read—on and on I read—read one poet, only one—until, at the instant the clock struck midnight, I was overcome with dread. Shaken, I gasped for breath, knowing only that some nameless horror hovered in the air.

Then I sensed a figure standing behind me, a brash figure; it snickered—a ghastly laugh. I sensed, yet I heard nothing. To feel it bend over to kiss my hair; to feel its hand poised to tap my shoulder, was torture. Worse, I feared that if it so much as brushed against me, I would die.

Still, it leaned over me, still oh so close.

And I? No move made I to save myself, not even to turn my head away. My thoughts whirled, like birds by tempests battered. The sweat of death frosted my limbs. In my chamber no noise was heard but my clicking teeth.

No noise until . . .

A thunderous crack! Wild. Horrific—and a howl more terror-filled than had ever issued from a living breast.

Stiff, I fell back, back, back . . . .

I wonder where he fell. Into the pit with the pendulum, do you suppose? Or into the dank tarn into which the House of Usher sank—the original house-eating sinkhole.

Here’s why your parents always told you never to stay up too late reading:

CHALK GHOST, a novella, is available on Amazon Kindle for a pittance: $0.99.

Colette’s Chéri, trans. by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C. C. Mambretti

Update and second installment: Blogging is an  awkward way to distribute a story, but I haven’t quite figured out how to post my in-progress work. If you read the first installment, scroll down to the boldface sentence, which marks the beginning of the second installment. (I made a few wording changes in the first installment, as well.)

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the pearly-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his pearly-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball. “And how! Me, I’m above all conventions. I find it idiotic that a man can accept from a woman one pearl on a tie clip, or two on buttons, and he is considered dishonored if she gives him fifty.”

“Forty-nine.”

“Forty-nine, I know the number. Tell me that it doesn’t become me. Tell me that I’m ugly.”

He bent over the recumbent woman with a provocative grin that displayed his tiny, white teeth and the lining of his lips.

Léa sat up on the bed. “No, I don’t say that. First, because you would never believe that. Even so, you ought not to grin and crinkle your nose like that. You’ll be very happy when you get three permanent wrinkles at the corners of your nose, n’est-ce pas?

Immediately he ceased grinning, smoothed the skin of his forehead, and bowed his head like an old coquette. They regarded each other with an air of hostility, she leaning back amid her lace lingerie, he sitting sidesaddle, Amazon-like, on the bed. He thought, She’s well to tell me about the wrinkles I’ll get. She thought, Why is it ugly when he smiles like that, he who is beauty in essence?

“It’s because you have the air of evil when you smile cheerfully. . . . You never smile wickedly or in mockery. But a cheerful smile makes you ugly. You are often ugly.”

“That’s not true!” cried Chéri, irritated. The anger knitted his eyebrows, filled his wide eyes with the light of insolence, weaponized his eyelashes, and he half-opened his disdainful, chaste mouth.

Léa smiled to see him, whom she loved, revolt, then submit, badly enchained, incapable of freeing himself. She put a hand on the young head, which impatiently shook off the yoke. She murmured as if calming an animal. “There, there. What is it? What is it now?”

He fell on the beautiful, large shoulder, burying his forehead, his nose, in the familiar spot, and closed his eyes and sought his protégé fee for the long afternoons, but Lea repulsed him.

“None of that, Chéri. You lunch today at the house of our national harpy, and it is twenty minutes till noon.”

“No? I’m lunching at the house of my patroness? You, too?”

Léa slid lazily back into bed. “Not me. I’m on vacation. I’ll go to take coffee at two-thirty—or tea at six o’clock—or a cigarette at seven forty-five. . . . Don’t let it disturb you; she’ll see enough of me. . . . And, besides, she didn’t invite me.”

Chéri, who stood sulking, lit up with malice. “I know—I know why. We have it good, don’t we, and we have the lovely Marie-Laure and her poison-child.”

Léa’s big, blue eyes wandered, then focused. “Ah! Yes, Charming, the little one. Less than his mother, but charming. . . .So, the necklace is at an end.”

“Sad,” sighed Chéri as he unclasped it. ”It would fit in well with my trash.”

Léa rose from her couch. “What trash?”

“Mine,” said Chéri with comic importance. “The baubles that will be the trinkets for my wedding.” He leapt, recovered his feet after a perfect entrechat-six, thrust open the door on a whim and disappeared shouting, “My bath, Rose! As deep as possible. I lunch at the house of my patroness!”

There it is, Léa mused. A soak in the bathroom, eight bath towels, and razor shavings in the bowl. If only I had two bathrooms. . . .”

But she reminded herself of the other times when it had become necessary to remodel the boudoir, remove a wardrobe, and concluded as in the other times, I must be patient. I’ll wait until Chéri’s wedding.

She lay back down and noticed that earlier Chéri had thrown his socks on the mantle, his smalls on the writing table, looped his tie over the bust of Léa. She smiled in spite of herself at the heated masculine disarray and half-closed her great, tranquil, bright-blue eyes, which still retained all their chestnut lashes. At forty-nine years, Leonie Vallon called Léa de Lonval, was ending a career as a well-to do courtesan, a good woman whose life had been blessed with nothing but flattering catastrophes and noble regrets. She concealed the date of her birth, but she gladly confessed, because of her voluptuous condescension toward Chéri, that she had attained an age at which she was entitled to a few indulgences. She loved order, clean linens, mature wines, intelligent cuisine.

As a young blonde she had not accepted adulation; as a mature, rich, demi-monde she had not accepted annoying flattery, and her friends would forever recall how, on the Day of Coach Races around 1895, she had responded to a Gil Blas copyeditor who had called her a “sweet artiste,” “Artiste? Oh, really, my friend, my lovers are too indiscreet!”

Her contemporary rivals were jealous of her imperturbable health; the younger ones, whose bosoms and behinds required enhancement from 1912 fashions, laughed at Léa’s ample bosom. But both sets of women equally envied her Chéri. “Oh, my God,” Léa said, “the affair is nothing.” They can have him. I’m not attached to him, and he goes his own way.

In truth, she was telling a boastful half-truth about their liaison: sometimes, having a penchant for sincerity, she had called it an adoption. “The trinkets,” Léa repeated, “it isn’t possible. It isn’t humane to give a young girl to Chéri. Why throw a bitch to the dog? People don’t know what Chéri is.”

She told the pearls of the necklace like a rosary, as it lay on the bed. Lately she had begun to take it off at night because Chéri, who so loved the lovely pearls that he always caressed them in the morning, would notice each time how Lea’s neck—thicke
r—was losing its whiteness and the skin and muscles their tautness. She hooked the clasp at the back of her neck without the latch and took it to the mirror over the console by the head of the bed.

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Colette’s Chéri, trans. by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C. C. Mambretti)

I’ve had too much of sex crimes, sadism, and injustice. Over the next few months, I’m translating Colette’s Chéri, a 1920 novella about the love of an older woman for a much younger man.

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the enamel-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his enamel-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball.

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the enamel-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his enamel-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball. “And how! Me, I’m above all conventions. I find it idiotic that a man can accept from a woman one pearl on a tie clip, or two on buttons, and he is considered dishonored if she gives him fifty.”

“Forty-nine.”

“Forty-nine, I know the number. Tell me that it doesn’t become me. Tell me that I’m ugly.”

He bent over the recumbent woman with a provocative grin that displayed his tiny, white teeth and the lining of his lips.

Léa sat up on the bed. “No, I don’t say that. First, because you would never believe that. Even so, you ought not to grin and crinkle your nose like that. You’ll be very happy when you get three permanent wrinkles at the corners of your nose, n’est-ce pas?

Immediately he ceased grinning, smoothed the skin of his forehead, and bowed his head like an old coquette. They regarded each other with an air of hostility, she leaning back amid her lace lingerie, he sitting sidesaddle, Amazon-like, on the bed. He thought, She’s well to tell me about the wrinkles I’ll get. She thought, Why is it ugly when he smiles like that, he who is beauty in essence?

“It’s because you have the air of evil when you smile cheerfully. . . . You never smile wickedly or in mockery. But a cheerful smile makes you ugly. You are often ugly.”

“That’s not true!” cried Chéri, irritated. The anger knitted his eyebrows, filled his wide eyes with the light of insolence, weaponized his eyelashes, and he half-opened his disdainful, chaste mouth.

Léa smiled to see him, whom she loved, revolt, then submit, badly enchained, incapable of freeing himself. She put a hand on the young head, which impatiently shook off the yoke. She murmured as if calming an animal. “There, there. What is it? What is it now?”

He fell on the beautiful, large shoulder, burying his forehead, his nose, in the familiar spot, and closed his eyes and sought his protégé fee for the long afternoons, but Lea repulsed him.

“None of that, Cheri. You lunch today at the house of our national harpy, and it is twenty minutes till noon.”

“No? I’m lunching at the house of my patroness? You, too?”

Léa slid lazily back into bed. “Not me. I’m on vacation. I’ll go to take coffee at two-thirty—or tea at six o’clock—or a cigarette at seven forty-five. . . . Don’t let it disturb you; she’ll see enough of me. . . . And, besides, she didn’t invite me.”

Syria: History Repeating Itself All Over Again

Why did most of my generation of Baby Boomers oppose the War In Vietnam? (You had to have been born before 1955 to know the answer). Because:

1. We were the ones who were sent to die in Vietnam

2. Soldiers were drafted against their will (did you know Mohammed Ali was a conscientious objector on the basis of his peace-loving religion, Islam, and went to prison rather than go to war?)

3. The immediate interests of American security were not involved (ultimately a case would be made that Communism would dominate Asia if we did not act, but at the time no one could foresee this.)

4. There was no declaration of war, as required by the Constitution

Why do I oppose intervention in Syria?

1. There will be no declaration of war nor even a presentation of proof that the intervention is in American interests.

2. While there is no now draft, our military is still bleeding (literally) from the unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the sequester has cut funds to the military; veterans are being denied promised benefits, and any intervention (including simply firing missiles into Syria) can easily expand into air strikes that place jet crews at risk of death). After that “mission-creep” will begin. There will be boots on the ground.

3. The Millennial generation are the ones who will suffer: they will pay the financial costs and the costs in casualties.

4.  IT IS TOO LATE. Punishment of Assad has no purpose. Even if we destroy their complete supply of weapons of mass destruction, they won’t stop. They have no reason to stop. In fact, they will be incented to continue with their atrocities and expand their war to Lebanon and even perhaps to Turkey.

5. Like Vietnam and unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world community opposes this action. Even NATO (which includes Turkey) does not sanction it.

6. I fear that both parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, will use the military’s ongoing involvement in Syria as an excuse to raise the debt ceiling and approve the continuing resolution (that’s what they use to justify not having an approved, balanced federal budget.)

Where is this generation’s Phil Ochs? “Cops of the World”

Like the War in Vietnam, I’m convinced this is all about money—not about punishing a tyrant for his despicable behavior. If you want to know why America is getting ready to do this, do what Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein to do: follow the money. The Pentagon is bloated with excess weapons that they’ve bought from their industrial cronies. They’re having to abandon billions of dollars worth or weapons, equipment, and buildings in Afghanistan.

While Americans are focused on Syria, millions of people will be signed up for Obamacare coops with federal subsidies. Even if the law is defunded or repealed in 2014 or later, there will be no way out of this entitlement. That’s a lot of money.

Politicians of both parties face the prospect of being removed from Congress in 2014 and need to wrap themselves in the flag and in the banner of humanitarianism.

Assad claims American intervention will lead to a region-wide war. The region is already at war. This intervention will do nothing but give the Russians and the Iranians an opportunity to expand their activities throughout the Middle East. The Suez Canal may be closed, greatly diminishing the flow of oil to Europe at a time when their economy is on the brink of recovery. With America diverted from North Africa and the Horn of Africa, Islamists will be free to renew their efforts to take control. The war is already spreading to central Africa.

 

Welcome to the Banana Republic

Have you seen Woody Allen’s Bananas? It’s about a banana republic where the new “dear leader” declares the banana to be the national fruit, that underwear shall be worn on the outside instead of under clothes, and that he must be saluted with a gesture that defies description. It’s a dictatorship.


But not even Woody Allen could have imagined that America would one day have a President who declares that “if I had a son he would look like” a young man who unfortunately became embroiled in a fist fight and was subsequently killed. And even in a banana republic, the Attorney General would never bother to criticize a jury verdict and consider turning a state criminal court matter into a federal civil rights case.


For an administration that is so concerned about the rights of “undocumented” Hispanics in this country, it strikes me as bizarre that it has now virtually labeled George Zimmerman as “Public Enemy No. 1.”


The federal government has no right to interfere in state courts, no matter what anyone thinks about a verdict.


The  jury system must be respected. It is the foundation of liberty in a civil society. Without a jury of your peers, you—not merely one man in Florida who happens to be of mixed ethnicity and possibly even mixed race—can be punished for exercising your rights under the Constitution of the United States and under the laws of the state in which you live.


(Jury verdicts are always right: even in the first O. J. Simpson trial. I will write another time about why the jury’s verdict in the Zimmerman case was not only right it was courageous, but for now I think we should all meditate on the meaning of what the federal government is proposing to do.)


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The President’s Attempt to Rewrite History

Yesterday President Obama apparently tried to rewrite the history of the 20th century so that he could declare an end to the War on Terror.

He excised from history all terrorism in the English-speaking world before the 1980s, of which the following is only a partial list:

  • the IRA’s bloody terrorism in Great Britain, which was funded in part by American sympathizers
  • separatists in Canada’s Quebec, who were supported in part by American leftists (a polite term for Socialists and Communists)
  • the Puerto Rican FALN, which bombed Americans
  • the Weather Underground bombers, which included Mr. Obama’s Chicago neighbors
  • the Palestinian Liberation Front and Fatah, which hijacked passenger airliners and massacred the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympics (when Mr. Obama was eleven years old and living in Hawaii, where he must not have watched the television coverage of this great horror) (NB: Interesting that Mr. Obama threw in a gratuitous reference to the Palestinians yesterday)

Then, the President reduced terrorism in the 1980s to: “our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Barracks in Lebanon [which is where Beirut is, in case he didn’t know, and both of which bombings were in 1983 by the Islamic Jihad Organization]; on a cruise ship at sea [1985 by the Palestinian Liberation Front]; at a disco in Berlin [1986 by Libyan Gaddafi]; and on a Pan Am flight — Flight 103  — over Lockerbie.”

The President could have named many more terrorist acts in the 1980s, including two conducted by Indian Moslems: the bombings in 1985 of an Air India flight from Canada and of an aircraft that landed at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

And most peculiarly, the President said that in the 1990s “we lost Americans to terrorism at . . . our Embassy in Kenya.” In fact, on August 7, 1998, two embassies were simultaneously blown up: Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks were the work of Osama bin Laden.

What about the 1997 massacre of 62 tourists at Luxor, Egypt?

What about the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole?

Then, the President interpreted his misstatement of history for us: “These attacks were all brutal; they were all deadly; and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow.  But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.”

Of course, “smartly” is not the correct word. I suppose he meant “intelligently.” 

Let me try to parse what he said: Acts of terrorism before 2001 were threats that we let grow and did not deal with intelligently or in proportion to their severity. Consequently we were punished with 9/11, after which we went to war in Moslem countries and with whole nations who were not to blame for Islamic terrorism.

This is nonsense. It’s a non sequitur at best.

The President was trying to build a case for what he considers to be the most intelligent and proportionate approach to Islamic terrorism (which term notably he did not use), namely, increased foreign aid and “no boots on the ground” in any Moslem country.

Why Is America At War In Moslem Countries?

Apparently Mr. Obama doesn’t know why we invaded Afghanistan. We went to war with the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, which harbored the Al Qaeda who had attacked us. Mr. Obama has omitted the gruesome reality of what the Taliban was and are. During the 1990s the Taliban herded young women into a crowded soccer stadium and had their fathers shoot them in the back of the head for such crimes as holding hands with a boy in public or being raped.

We went to war in Iraq to depose an equally brutal Moslem tyrant. I think most Americans in retrospect wish we hadn’t gone to war in Iraq. If we’d had drones in 2002, we would likely have been able to take care of the problem more “smartly.”

Sidebar: Please note that yesterday Mr. Obama argued for the legality of assassinating Americans in foreign countries. The Constitution requires American traitors to be tried, have two Americans witness their treachery, and then to be executed. I don’t care how big a tribunal of bureaucrats, lawyers, and politician he puts together to approve of his assassinations, it is the most evil idea I have ever heard come from the lips of an American.

Foreign Aid Not Boots On the Ground

Who wouldn’t prefer to give money to poor nations rather than give the lives of our best and bravest? As a Libertarian I am fundamentally opposed to foreign wars. But the fact is that Jihadists aren’t from the poorest areas of the world. They are from countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

We can pour money into Pakistan, if that’s what Mr. Obama has in mind, but that won’t convince them to give up their nuclear weapons and become friends with India. We can pour money into North Africa, but that won’t stop the slaughter of Coptic Christians or give Moslem women equal rights. Nor will money establish democracy in nations with no grounding in the idea of equality.

I’m all for staying out of armed conflicts in Moslem lands. But if we aren’t willing to put boots on the ground to defend our embassies in those lands, let’s withdraw our embassies from those lands and save the money. (Incidentally, by treaty the land on which American delegations establish their facilities are actually sovereign territory of the United States, so boots in embassies and consulates aren’t on the ground in Moslem countries.)

Why should the American people support Mr. Obama’s approach to dealing with terrorism if he doesn’t know these simple truths?

I claimed at the beginning of this article that Mr. Obama tried to rewrite history yesterday. Frankly, I would prefer to think that is what he did, because if not it means he doesn’t know history.

Now that I think about it, it would explain why he’s acting so Nixon-ian these days. He’s too young to remember Watergate. He never studied history.

I will look forward to the two IRS agents showing up on my doorstep.

Hamlet Scene by Scene

My post on the “coroner’s” verdict in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has attracted so many visitors that I’ve decided to create a Facebook group on the interpretation of the play. I invite you to join me at Hamlet, scene by scene.

I hope Shakespeare lovers, students struggling with Shakespeare, actors seeking to understand the play deeply, producers and directors, and others to join the group and join in the discussion.

I have a Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature, but it wasn’t until I gave up academe and turned to pulp fiction that I finally understood what Shakespeare was doing when he wrote the play.

Yes, I’ve read the scholarly criticism and pondered the arguments about the play’s “meaning.”

Even so I guess it takes a writer struggling with writing problems to see the very clear and simple meaning of Hamlet.

Hamlet’s meaning is found in the plot as surely as my mysteries’ meaning lies in the plot—and the characters, of course. But if you don’t understand the plot of Hamlet, you can’t understand the character, Hamlet, either.

The play is a murder mystery. I write murder mysteries. I invite you to hear what this mystery writer has to say about the greatest mystery writer of all time, William Shakespeare.

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A blog of mystery and injustice