Thursday, February 09, 2012

The feelings of frozen hearts and the dreams of unfeeling heads

Some quotable bits from the first 205 pages of The Doll, by Bolesław Prus, with a few thoughts.

P 10:
At eight in the evening they closed: the clerks went off, and only Rzecki remained behind. He made out the day's accounts, checked the cash, planned his activities for the morrow and wondered whether everything had been done that should have been done that day. For he paid for any neglected duties with insomnia and dismal dreams of the shop in ruins, of the final decline and fall of the Bonaparte dynasty and with the thought that all the hopes he ever had in his life were only nonsense.

"Nothing will ever happen! We're doomed, and there's no hope," he groaned, tossing on his hard mattress.

— I find this is pretty funny, though perhaps in other times it was normal to feel such strong concern for the state of one's nation, or one's political heroes.

P 36:
Then they sat down to supper, at which mouths ate, stomachs digested and little shoes under the table talked about the feelings of frozen hearts and the dreams of unfeeling heads. Then they would separate, to regain their strength for the dream of life in real sleep.

— I love this. The mouths, stomachs, shoes are disembodied! There are a few passages (and a dream sequence among them) that border on surreal.

P 43:
At this point the conversation ceased; it had been in Polish, copiously ornamented with French, which made it resemble a face disfigured by a rash.

— How very insulting. I'm guessing French would be used among the aristocracy, as a sign or education, worldliness, fashion. But whose point of view is this in the conversation between Izabela and her countess aunt? Is it Izabela's view? Does she view the aristocracy of which she is a part with disdain? Or is this the stamp of our omniscient narrator?

P 49:
"And is there no war on today? It is the weapons that have changed, that's all. Instead of an axe of scythe or scimitar, they fight with roubles. [...]"

— A pretty progressive thought for 1878, no?

P 65:
What a stupid life!... We're all of us chasing a dream in our hearts and it is not until the dream escapes us that we realise it was an illusion.

P 72:
"Experts say first love is the worst," Wokulski murmured.

"Not so. After the first, a hundred others are waiting, but after the hundredth, there's nothing."

— Wokulski's got it bad. His every move — financial, social, charitable — is to attract her attention.

P 99:
"[...] They insist you want to kill the industry. Is the competition you are creating really so dangerous?"

"It is true," Wokulski replied, "that I have three or even four million roubles credit with the Moscow manufacturers, but I do not yet know whether their products will suit our market."

"A huge sum of money, to be sure," the Prince murmured. "Do you not see a genuine threat to our factories in it?"

"Not in the least. I see only an insignificant decrease in their own immense profits, which are no concern of mine. My duty is to concern myself with my own profits and give my customers good value; for our goods will be cheaper."

— There are a lot of similar discussions throughout. Wokulski clearly sees that the factory owners are exploiting their workers and their customers.

P 120:
Gradually the smoke died away. As far as the eye could see we saw what looked like scraps of white or navy-blue paper scattered in disorder on the trampled grass in various places. Several carts were moving around the field, and some people were placing these scraps in them. The rest remained. "So this is what they were born for," Katz sighed, leaning on his rifle, overcome by melancholy.

— This battle interlude — the Hungarian uprising of 1849, which many Poles joined — reminds me a little of War and Peace. It is particularly sobering for Rzecki, the old clerk in Wokulski's shop, his illusions of the glory of war, of purpose, being stripped away.

P 125:
During the entire journey I felt as though the quilt over my knees was more densely populated than Belgium.

P 138:
This young man proved to me, by quoting very clever people, that all capitalists are criminals, that the earth ought to belong to those who cultivate it, that factories, coalmines and machines ought to be the property of everyone, that there is no God or Soul which priests invented to trick people into paying tithes. He added that when they start the revolution (he and the three "prikashchiki"), then we shall all work only eight hours a day, and enjoy ourselves for the rest of the time, even though everyone will have a pension when old, and a free funeral. Finally he said that paradise will not come to this world until everything is held in common: the earth, building, machines and even wives.

— "Work only eight hours a day"! Damn Socialists.

P 158
"[...] They are all somewhat scatterbrained, as you will have noticed, but they're men of good will . . . They want to do something, they're intelligent and educated — but they lack energy. A sickness of the will, my dear sir, their whole class is affected by it . . . They have everything — money, titles, respect, even success with women, so they want nothing. But without that urge, Mr Wokulski, they cannot help becoming tools in the hands of new and ambitious men . . . We, my dear sir, we still want many things," he added in a still lower voice, "they are lucky to have found us . . . "

P 192:
"Well, and what have you to say to all this, doctor?"

"Only what I have already said," Szuman replied, "we're approaching the fifth act. Either this is the end of a gallant man, or the start of a whole series of follies..."

"And the worst sort, for they will be political," Mr Rzecki interposed.

— Wokulski has demanded satisfaction, so there is a duel! Barely a third through the novel, we can be fairly certain this is not his end, but rather as Szuman suggests merely the beginning of his end. I almost missed the insult and the challenge, they were so underplayed. Wokulski's head is so full of love that other, significant events happen in a blink.

I have not quoted here from the 5-page encounter with Izabela's cousin, Julian Ochocki, scientist, and his obsession with flying machines, which surely would prove to be a turning point for the world. But there was more to the conversation than that. Something about it was bitter to Wokulski, reminding him of pursuits he'd given up. I expect we'll meet Ochocki again.

Coincidentally I've been dipping into David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years this week, and it's complementing my reading of The Doll in terms of the role of usurers and the development of a class of tradesmen. It casts a light on Wokulski's sense of financial and moral obligation, and how closely they are tied.
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