We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Poetic Images: Suzy McKee Charnas & Judith Wright (1) · 13 October 05

My dear Fanny,

I’ve really fallen in love with the poetry of Judith Wright. Over the next couple of days I’d like to align a few poems by Wright with Suzy McKee Charnas’s Dorothea Dreams (which I much enjoyed and admire), and then return to talk of Seierstat’s The Bookseller of Kabul.

To begin with, I’ll describe the opening situation and 2 intertwined stories of Dorothea Dreams:

In Dorothea Dreams we have a couple (Dorothea, Ricky) who after a long life of finding no spiritual companionship with anyone, find it with one another. He is near death, wraithlike; she has retreated from a hard commercial world where she has found no one really appreciates or understands her art (or few, and those few hardly available to her). She makes art against a stone mountain by hammering into the mountain all the debris of the modern world, its junk, its wires, its bottle caps. I don’t know why Charnas did not let them stay together except she dislikes the heterosexual romantic ending—she said she disliked it when we read Vampire Tapestry on Litalk-l with her. At the close of the story Ricky goes back to a woman he hardly knows (a sister he’s not congenial with) because he’s biologically or genetically closer to her than Dorothea; he dies alone in a hospice anyway. She turns to children similarly biologically or genetically close (remember all of us are genetically related, biologically close) who don’t sympathize or understand; they are fine in the world the way it is (get things, get attention).

He has been a reporter and gone around the world from riot to revolution—rather like Patrick Cockburn. He’s seen the endless violence inflicted on the world by groups of people, which reality she has been reading about in the French revolution. The power-hungry and their pests (warrior male types)—as I’ve put it. He is now sick and dying and needs comfort from someone he once saw and recognized would provide him with sympathetic companionship.

Dorothea’s dreams of the title are not idylls but nightmares which are drawn from Dorothea’s reading about the French revolution. She looks out the window in these dreams and sees a mob below; she has just fed them her blood, and they want to destroy her. She is chilled by the face of a judge who comes out of the shadows to condemn her and finds herself having drawn it unbeknownst to herself:

"Then she turned up a pen-and-ink piece, a man’s head seen full face, a coarse and even brutal visage with wild hair and some sort of neck-cloth and odd stand-up collar, on a background of cross-hatching. This picture jolted her. She said hastily, ‘This doesn’t belong here.’ and skimmed it only a heap of cards1" (p. 80).

Dorothea’s dreams project Charnas dealing with how she sees her public and herself as an author. (In an essay on line Charnas suggests she was writing about her career in this book.) The public’s impulse is to punish those who tell hard truths. Dorothea at one point tells Ricky that the US is fascistic and militarist; there’s nothing people didn’t do to murder one another in the revolution and since, and often for the pettiest of reasons, far more died outside Paris than on any guillotine). She is fearful of being ripped apart—of critics who lurk in the shadows. She is anticipating what might be the public response to fictions like her radical science fiction, Walk and Motherlines.

So the book explores her life and career as she is feeling it while writing: a desire to retreat and a fear of what might result if she doesn’t. The artist, Dorothea, is a stand-in for the author.

In the subplot we find a group of young Spanish people who are in danger of being evicted from where they live and hold a rally in a street to protest. The secondary hero and heroine here are Roberto and Blanca. She is small and frail in size and her mother wants to send her away to a health camp which she dreads as authoritarian and alienating.

The social reality (which is reality in New Mexico today still) against which these two young people are drawn is that wealthy people want to buy up the land and houses of the poor and vulnerable, take their jobs, and build in the place of the ethnic indigenous culture an upper middle class place (whether for vacationing as in that story on the Net or for sheer upper class luxurious modern living we can’t tell), sweep away the natural world and replace it with the toy boutique and park world of the bourgeois today. The wealthy have people in the local government on their side: the lies the wealthy and those in charge of government institutions and mores can tell include enforcing false inspections which allow these people to send others (their agents) into poor people’s houses and intimidate them—you say things like you are not obeying the local ordinances and I can condemn this house) and offers of money to buy the house (bribes). We have a person who stands up during the street demonstration, very angry, dense, stubborn about how he’s sold his place, daring others to say anything to him. We never see these wealthy people nor their intimidators. Like Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons they work through their agents.

This is people removal and displacement. It’s just about to go on
in New Orleans.

We have in response a group of young men who are trying to hold onto their jobs and property. Mostly face-to-face you find them to be ignorant thugs, particularly those who rise to the top, and no one is quite sure how to explain anything except express it as anger and resentment. Roberto is friends with these people and is drawn in to drink, perhaps go "whoring" and demonstrate with them. The cops are sent in and ruthlessly beat everyone they can, kill them, if necessary and they do so. At one point Blanca comes close to one cop and she sees how young he is, how frightened, and that he shoots to kill to protect himself. At any rate one of these cops is seriously injured, and so we gather from Blanca and her brother’s talk with their half-inarticulate uncle whose age and experience lets him know that the cops are angry, will look to revenge themselves by murdering a scapegoat, and the newspapers collude by presenting Roberto and the poor as thugs roaring through the street who need to be put away. If Roberto is found, he will be beat up or murdered and certainly blamed and go to jail for a long time.

Roberto can hardly believe this. This reader (me) knows this is perfectly true. At the opening of Chapter 6 Roberto and Blanca participate in a conversation where the Uncle talks about running away to Canada which is envisioned as a decent place—cold, big, good trains. This is the level at which these people live or respond to reality.

Charnas is depicting how a real revolution works and feels to the people involved in the streets. It’s base, nasty and violent; only a very few involved at that level understand what’s going on: only Mina, the older sister of Blanca, a priest, Mr Escobar, perhaps the bullies who run the street talk (Maestros brothers in this case), and the heads of the cops, really understand or foresee what the motives of the people are who are the actors and what lies will be told in the papers and in the end false narrative constructed to explain what happened.

Roberto, and his sister, Blanca, contrast to Ricky and Dorothea as innocents. I compare them Paul and Virginia in that later 18th century idyllic tale by Bernardin St Pierre (which Sand used allusively in Indiana) or one of the earliest versions of this, Daphnis and Chloe by Longus. Our innocent brother and sister pair are not erotically tied, but socially.

Blance is a nervous wreck—and who wouldn’t be when you live in this world of working labor people with some sensitivity. She has as a result of asthma. It protects her from the worst of the cruel bullying; her arm was exploded by a cop (they don’t really care about her in the least), but she is not taken in and blamed as probably even the public might not believe this story.

The portrait of the Blanca’s religious and repressive mohter and the young people’s response to this mother is persuasive. She is rather stupid and base. Her way of getting through life is to go to church and make bargains with her imagination of God. She prays to get results. The priest uses this to control her, but in a sharp dialogue (satiric from the point of view of Charnas, but also compassionate), the mother tells the priest she obeyed him and still her husband was murdered in Korea (shades of Cindy Sheehan) and so what did she get for her obedience. At this the priest turns away – but he’ll be back another day.

Robert and Blanca’s mother and uncle both propose that Roberto go live with an aunt in LA; Roberto dreads this as she’s another one of these women who cope with life by going to church all the time. The mother’s dense adherence to conventional morality does provide a sort of order to the lives of both brother and sister who experience this as repression they want to escape from. It may protect them, but only if they docilely obey school and government authorities—which they haven’t.

Charnas is brilliant at capturing the real racism and caste arrogance of whites and school authorities to blacks and Spanish and other peoples. We see the two young people are supposed to go on a field trip (what a laugh this, and it shows just how unreal US education is—a matter in the main plot Dorothea thinks about in just the terms Charnas does in her blog). The teachers is Ellie Stern (a Jewish name). We are allowed into Ellie’s thoughts. She never saw Roberto "so subdued." We know why: he’s terrified, friends murdered and beaten, he in danger of going to jail for a long time or being beat to death. But this teacher is glad for now her field trip will go well. And how amazing that Blanca should have "such a bright voice" from "that odd slightly stunted body."

We see in this novel how the stories told in history books of revolutions come out of a dense chaos and how they relate for real to them. Blanca is her unaware mouthpiece or spokesperson. Told half inarticulately how the cops and newspapers will blame her brother as a thug, she realizes it will work as "people misunderstand things." We see the source of all this—an attempt also to keep salaries down as well as buy up property cheap and throw the native peoples out—is too far from the events in the streets for people to see it unless the connection is made. There is no visible sign of the intimidating inspections and buying up of properties nor the closing off of the streets to stop demonstrations. Just a TV picture of Roberto running mad.

Dorothea’s dreams are rooted in the realities of the 1790s French revolution as it was observed in the streets of Paris. But unlike Blanca and Roberto, she and Ricky are well read and can make connections.

Charnas through the main plot is meditates not only her possible experiences as a publishing writer, but also about how revolutions work out. She makes clear that there were many many murders and riots outside Paris—called the "counterrevolution—most of which emerged from insanely angry personal quarrels going back for years and years and rooted in class oppressions. The local powerful and rich had the means to destroy and take and punish the lower poor and prey on and exploit them. In each area these groups fought, burned, killed, the poorer and middling now getting a chance. Those who emerged as powerful didn’t want the people in Paris to take power; if the old class stayed in power locally (which they often ended up doing as they had the guns and education), they wanted the king and his courtiers back. The male aristocrats brought up to be ruthless and take, take, take, would never accept loss of property and status and would continually come back to make war. Indeed all one can do with such people is guillotine them—or keep them out by war. In Charnas’s subplot Pete Romero stands for such a person: a bully, intensely tenacious of power and "rights," Roberto says to himself he should have murdered him when he had the chance, but Roberto’s first impulses are actually humane and decent.

The few idealistic people who wanted to build a new society according to high principles (whom Dorothea remembers and names) got nowhere: she mentions those who dreamed of Voltaire and Rousseau’s principles. (One problem with the Dorothea Dreams is Charnas hasn’t read enough. She doesn’t cite Condorcet and the people of the 1790s who were really trying to put in place radical decent legislation; she misattributes a line of Sam Johnson’s to an anonymous person waiting to hang.) The few decent people like Roberto and Blanca were swept up in the furor and either died or ended up where chance took them.

Charnas uses a ghost story too to produce a narrative from the
period. When Dorothea awakes from one of her dreams she ghost-writes a letter from a man who was idealistic and tried to fight for the revolutionary cause but ended up having to flee for his life and having to be grateful to the conventional family he belonged to biologically who took him in. In the letter this man writes through Dorothea: he says he is now content to live humbly and smally and accept whatever order exists, for revolution only brings misery and violence and worse conditions. Dorothea when awake suggests that every revolution she’s studied ends in martial law.

I don’t think we are necessarily to accept the words of the man in this letter as our moral. They are what people end up feeling and saying at the end of a revolution often. I do like the letter as it projects the realities behind all the lies and hypocrisies we see all sorts of people (the knowing and the instinctively self-protective ignorant) practice: one line catches it up: "I am far from unique."

In my class (as I’ve said) just now we are reading A Man from All Seasons and in one line Bolt gives More Bolt sums up the meaning of the dream letter Dorothea ghost-writes: "our natural business lies in escaping."

However, if everyone just runs and escapes the pirate developpers of Charnas’s story, the vicious aristocrats and powerful bourgeois with all their niches and bribes and money and land, and in my neighborhood these new Bushite types take over. They keep the wealth and the rest are forced into horredous working hours for little pay—or escape to Canada. Obey teachers like Ellie Stern. Take their medicine like Blanca: it keeps her acquiescent and after all breathing—I like breathing and so do we all. If she’s sweet enough, after all she might be thrown some bone. A nice college. An okay job.

Charnas is working out a dialectic. On the one hand, Dorothea
in retreat with Ricky, and now they begin to make love. Death hangs over him. She sees how impossible it is for any single individual to do anything in the utterly corrupt society of the US today—militaristic, fascistic and she expresses herself through a wall no one wants. She can make money by selling her pictures to George, the commercial base publisher type. He of course is just ga-ga with her fluent Georgia O’Keeffe type (?) landscapes and talks an idealistic line. Probably half-believes it. He likes to think well of himself.

Her children don’t understand; they are the equivalent in middle
class terms of Blanca and Roberto.

No one sees beyond their little corner.

Tomorrow I’ll tell of how Roberto, his sidekick friend, and Blanca take Dorothea, Ricky, and the group Ellie Stern has brought to visit the "great artist" in her "lovely home" hostage and how the story ends.


1 All quotations come from Suzy McKee Charnas, Dorothea Dreams (Authors Guild Backinprint.com edition, 2000), ISBN 0595090354

Posted by: Ellen

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