By Charles Matthews

Thursday, October 20, 2011

2. Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow, pp. 21-51

From "DESPITE THE ASSURANCES of ..." through "... and the house would be like a tomb."

Langley's "clear tenor" voice has changed to "a kind of gargle," and Homer can feel the gauntness of his face and the scars on his back. When the Armistice comes, he refuses to march in the parade: "It is for idiots." And army officials begin visiting because "he had left his unit before being legally mustered out and given his discharge papers." These are a prelude, Homer comments, to their later legal difficulties.

In addition to his own disability, Langley now learns of his parents' deaths. When he goes to visit their graves, Homer hangs the rifle Langley had carried above the mantel, "and there it has stayed, almost the first piece in the collection of artifacts from our American life.

Homer's affair with Julia causes tension with Siobhan, the senior maid. And Mrs. Robileaux, the cook, serves whatever she wants, which sometimes causes Langley to push his plate away and leave the table. Homer is baffled by his inability to resolve these tensions. He resigns himself to "the inevitable creep of time, which was what we had now in this house, I decided, the turning over of the seconds and minutes of life to show its ever new guise."

As Langley begins to recover, he takes up with Perdita Spence, a childhood friend whom he invites to dinner. But during dinner, after serving the first two courses, Julia sits down with them at table. Julia says, "How novel, Langley, to put your guests to work. But where is my apron?" Langley replies that Julia isn't a guest, "When serving she is one of the staff. When seated she is Homer's inamorata." Homer says, "It's a kind of hybrid situation." Silence follows, and then Perdita upbraids Homer for taking advantage of an impoverished immigrant. Langley takes her home, leaving Julia and Homer to finish their dinners.

As he is eating, Homer takes hold of Julia's hand. He realizes that she is wearing his mother's diamond ring. "We had a trial, naturally, Langley and I the sitting judges, Siobhan the prosecuting attorney." Julia claims that Siobhan gave her the ring to look more presentable at the table, but Siobhan denies it. Langley takes the family jewels and puts them in a safe-deposit box at the bank, and Julia "was gone from the premises as unceremoniously as Miss Perdita Spence, as if they were prototypes of the gender with which, through the years, Langley and I would, on one basis or another, find ourselves incompatible."

Homer turns to his music for consolation, but the only pieces he knows are the ones he learned when he was sighted, and he finds himself unable to read Braille musical notation and then play what he has read. So Langley buys him a player piano, with rolls that re-create the performances of the great virtuosos. By placing his fingers on the keys as the rolls turn, Homer is able to learn new pieces and then perform them on his own Aeolian. But the player piano also becomes the first of at least a dozen pianos that Langley collects. He "came to see pianos as machines, music-making machines, to be taken apart and wondered at and put back together. Or not."

Langley's "passion for collecting things," Homer says, is part of his "morbidly thrifty" nature: "Saving money, saving things, finding value in things other people have thrown away or that may be of future use in one way or another." It is "a world view" that Homer doesn't share, but has gone along with. And here Homer addresses himself to "Jacqueline, my muse....: You have looked in on this house. You know there is just no other way for us to be. You know it is who we are."

The new repertoire gives Homer what he needs for an occupation: playing piano to accompany silent movies. He hires an assistant who watches the films for him and whispers to him what is happening on screen. Mary Elizabeth Riordan, sixteen at the time, is a music student, and Homer supplements her salary with free lessons. She is an orphan, and when Siobhan takes a liking to her, they invite her to come live with them.
How easily and with such grace she accommodated herself to her situation. After all, what an odd household we were, with these many rooms that must have seemed daunting to a child from the tenements, and a serving woman who had instantly adopted her and given her chores as a mother would do, and a cook whose characteristic glower did not change from morning till night. And a blind man whom she led to and from his job, and an iconoclast with a loud cough and a hoarse voice who rushed out ever day, morning and evening, to buy every newspaper published in the city.
Theorist Langley has a theory of music: Prehistoric man had invented it "to sound the vast emptiness of this strange world by saying 'I am here, I am here!'"

Both Homer and Langley fall in love with Mary Elizabeth, but they "were in loco parentis, and always would be." When the talkies come in, and Homer loses his job, they send her off to the Sisters of Mercy Junior College in Westchester County. But Homer says, "I cannot at this moment bear to speak of what became of Mary Elizabeth Riordan," remembering the household gathering to bid her farewell.

Homer and Langley throw themselves into the speakeasy life of the Prohibition era, to nightclubs that Langley calls "the true democratic melting pot." At one, Homer meets a gangster named Vincent and tells him that when he drinks he thinks he can see: "I generated visions from what I learned from my other senses and added, by way of detail, my judgments of character and my attention to this one or revulsion for that one." Vincent is fascinated with Homer's blindness, and Homer is excited to meet a gangster: "I found it to be true generally with the criminals we ran into that as a class they were extremely sensitive." But when Vincent drives them home one night, Langley says it was a mistake: "I don't like it that now those scum know where we live."

But Langley is intrigued by Homer's claim to be able to see when he's drunk. It is an epistemological problem, he tells Homer: "there is endless debate as to whether we see the real world or only the world as it appears in our minds, which is not necessarily the same thing. So if that's the case, if the real world is A, and what we see projected on our minds is B, and that's the best we can hope for, then it's not just your problem."

Langley has now turned his attention to his "major project, the collection of the daily papers with the ultimate aim of creating one day's edition of a newspaper that could be read forevermore as sufficient to any day thereof." Hence the collection of the daily papers, which continues "to the end of his life when his newspaper bales and boxes of clippings rose from floor to ceiling in every room of our house." He counts and files newspaper stories according to categories, working toward the discovery of "the kinds of events that were, by their frequency, seminal human behavior." In the end he plans "to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer's eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need." It is a kind of Platonic newspaper: "The stories will not have overly particular details as you find in ordinary daily rags, because the real news here is of the Universal Forms of which any particular detail would only be an example."

In response to Homer's objections, Langley says that sports coverage, for example, would be reduced to the fact that "Whatever the sport is ... someone wins and someone loses." As for art, "If it is art, it will offend before it is revered. There are calls for its destruction and then the bidding begins." As for unprecedented events and new scientific discoveries, these are subject to Langley's Theory of Replacement: "Albert Einstein replaces Newton, and Darwin replaces Genesis. Not that anything has been made clearer."
But I'll give you that both theories are unprecedented. What of it? What do we really know? If every question is answered so that we know everything there is to know about life and the universe, what then? What will be different? It will be like knowing how a combustion engine works. That's all. The darkness will still be there. 
But Homer knows, and thinks Langley did too, that the newspaper project would never be completed. The important thing was that it gave "him the mental boost he needed to keep going -- working on something that had no end other than to systematize his grim view of life." But even then he would sometimes fall into depression, and Homer would catch it from him: "Nothing would seem to be worth doing and the house would be like a tomb."

No comments:

Post a Comment