Saturday, October 27, 2007

Empedocles at Etna

I mentioned in our discussion the legend of Empedocles throwing himself into the volcano at Etna. I hadn't checked this legend by the time of our discussion, as I had hoped to, but having done so now, I think it's an integral albeit ambiguous aspect of Forster's story. The philosopher Empedocles is supposed to have thrown himself into Etna for a variety of reasons but they all seem to have had something to do with belief (others, in him) and with his own (belief) in the transmigration of souls. It's not obvious to me how this relates to Harold except that he too has thrown himself into something similar and with somewhat similar expectations.

I appreciate other people's valuing the story more highly than I did and taking Harold's story more seriously. Having reread "Albergo Empedocle" (Empedocles' Inn), I'm more of their mind. Certainly "Tommy" the framing narrator, whose company Harold beseeches, who believes his presence might have saved Harold and who is still present with Harold in the sanitarium, takes Harold's other life, his greater and better life in Acragas, seriously. The story is a nice treatment of imagination and reality and the pretense toward either. The part I still like most is the mind of Mildred at work in reassessing herself and her fiancée once her pretensions toward a remembered life at Acragas have been blown.

Virginia Woolf wrote somewhere that the hardest part of fiction was getting one's characters into and out of the rooms one wants them in. I think Forster might agree with her considering his own difficulties in the climactic scene in the albergo's "dirty little sitting-room." Mildred is alone there with "a stiff-backed lady" when she reassesses her prior life in Acragas and her present life with Harold. After that, Harold enters to tell her her father has found the key for his Gladstone bag. He tries for a kiss, she leaves in a rage (calling him a "charlatan and a cad"). Suddenly Sir Edwin is in the room, quickly departing after his elder daughter, leaving his wife and younger daughter, suddenly there. Very awkward, and not just a slip—it catches the reader up and causes genuine confusion.

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