The Transit of Venus

Part One of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson (volume 1)

The beginning…

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spirituous, and flicked out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber. By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frock-coats of asbestos. Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand. How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.

What do you think of this introduction? Would it draw you into the book? Do you think it sets the tone for the rest of the book?

My first response was that this last sentence “How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.” is meant to be important, symbolic, philosophical, and deep-sounding. It does have a nice poetic resonating sound to it.

In the next chapter, the reader gets a small taste of what is coming: long sentences that are rich in detail, perhaps heavy with trivial details might be a more apt description though it might be weighed down in judgment. Not all details are trivial. Not all details are unnecessary. But though you may not quite be at this point yet, you may realize–or should that be I realized–that there are often long sentences or paragraphs that do nothing–absolutely nothing–to bring the plot or story forward. That isn’t the case really with this portion of text in particular. Just speaking generally.

This whole section–the whole “Transit of Venus” is all about establishing Octavian’s background.

“I did not find it strange that I was raised with no one father, nor did I ever marvel at the singularity of any other article in my upbringing. It is ever the lot of children to accept their circumstances as universal, and their particularities as general.” (4)

Octavian does have one of the strangest upbringings I’ve ever seen or read about. What say you? What did you think of these descriptions, these passages where his background is revealed? Some are outlandish or shocking or appalling or almost laughably absurd or completely unreal or unrealistic. Octavian is almost un-human he’s so peculiar or foreign to us.

What struck me was how detached and distant from humanity the child is. I also question–in some areas–how reliable he is as a narrator as a witness. Not all the time. He’s just recording his past–how he used to feel, how he used to behave, what he used to take for granted. His world as he remembers it.

“Above all, brought up among the experiments and assays of these artists and philosophers, I was taught the importance of observation. They showed me how to be precise in notation, acute in investigation, and rational in inference. After, I watched them pet a dog for some days, then drown it, and time its drowning; or after I watched them feed alley-cats to lure them so they could toss them off a scaffold and judge the height from which cats no longer catch themselves, but shatter; or, yea, after I saw the philosophers of this college acquire a docile child deprived of reason and speech, and, when she could not master the use of verbs, beat her to the point of gagging and swooning; after such experiments as these, I became most wondrous observant, and often stared unmoving at a wall for some hours together.” (9)

There is something so wrong about that paragraph. Let’s see, we’ve got cruelty to both cats, dogs, and humans. And we’ve got a young boy who is seemingly curious about such cruelty in the name of science and reason and logic.

Not meaning to be dense, but what do you think is meant by “wondrous observant” and “often stared unmoving at a wall”? Do you think this reveals anything about his psychological state? I just know that it’s not natural or quite normal for humans to act in this way.

Octavian is revealing in many different episodes (all detailed of course) how he “began to ponder the mystery” of who he was “and what that might mean.” (24)

We’ve got his teachers/owners. We’ve got his mother (and her suitors). We’ve got his fellow-slave, Bono.

Any ideas on what is up with Octavian wanting to crawl inside the monster’s bones (head) and why he felt at home there and in fact wanted to sleep within the bones of this “dragon.” That section creeped me out a bit. I know it must be “symbolic” because it screams of something a teacher would want their students to write essay questions on, etc. But I’m clueless at this point just what Anderson was trying to convey. Want to share your thoughts/ideas on the subject?

What did you think of Octavian’s golden platter? Was that not weird? This is just another example of how odd he’s being raised…and how odd he is that he thinks this is normal.

More examples of the writing:

A man in a topiary maze cannot judge of the twistings and turnings, and which avenue might lead him to the heart; while one who stands above, on some pleasant prospect, looking down upon the labyrinth, is reduced to watching the bewildered circumnavigations of the tiny victim through obvious coils–as the gods, perhaps, looked down on besieged and blood-sprayed Troy from the safety of their couches, and thought mortals weak and foolish while they themselves reclined in comfort, and had only to snap to call Ganymede to their side with nectar decanted. (37)

Aren’t YOU glad you don’t have to diagram that sentence? See this is dripping in detail…but almost all of it is irrelevant to moving the plot forward. That’s not quite true. It leads to this sentence with an actual point:

“So I, now, with the vantage of years, am sensible of my foolishness, my blindness, as a child. I cannot think of my blunders without a shriveling of the inward parts–not merely the dessication attendant on shame, but also the aggravation of remorse that I did not demand more explanation, that I did not sooner take my mother by the hand, and–I do not know what I regret. I sit with my pen, and cannot find an end to that sentence.” (37-38)

There is a poetic complexity to the literary style in this one that creates a barrier (though not insurmountable) between the reader and the book. How many books do you typically read that use the phrase “shriveling of the inward parts”?

One of the passages I loved most in this first section was the conversation between mother-and-son…he has asked her to sing him songs from her native country, from her childhood/past…so that he can then in turn teach them to the curious white men studying them. She is unwilling and she quotes the Psalm…”By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept…” I thought this was a very moving scene and one of the more reader-friendly symbolic passages. (65-66)

“Shed no tear for me; for I shed none for myself.” (67)

What do you think he means here? Why do you think this realization of his condition took so long for him to grasp? He seems extremely slow to process the fact that he is a slave. That he is owned by another human being. That he is property. That he is powerless to act on his own.

Do you think his mother’s observations are true: “He has never been a child…and I see no reason he should begin now.” (91)

What do you make of this relationship between mother and child? Do you think she loves him as much as a mother should? Do you think he loves her and appreciates her? Do you think this is a healthy relationship?

Here’s a passage that is seemingly deep but I’m clueless to interpret.

“And I thought of the Transit of Venus: that though the bodies be vast and distant, and their motions occult, their hesitations retrograde, one could, I thought, with exceeding care and preparation, observe, and, in their distance, know them, triangulate to arrive at the ambits of their motivation; and that in this calculation alone, one might banish uncertainty, and know at last what constituted other bodies, and how small the gulf that lies between us all.” (99)

What do you think “the transit of Venus” symbolizes? It must mean something because, after all, this is the name of the section. So obviously it’s significant in some way….

Perhaps its significance (and this is only a weak guess) is important because within a short period of time following this adventure, Lord Cheldthorpe proposes to BUY Octavian and his mother and take them to England (presumably London). She would be his mistress. He’d buy her a flat and “keep” her. She sees this not as flattery, not as a step up in the world. But as an insult. Should a slave woman be insulted that a rich man wants her as a mistress and not his wife? Is it degrading (for him) to assume that she’d leap-for-joy at this proposal? Because he doesn’t take this rejection well. Because he begins to act violently or aggressively towards her. Octavian bursts onto the scene and seeks to defend his mother. This ends VERY badly. Both Octavian and his mother are punished severely. Both beaten or whipped. Both suffer abuse and torment.

It is only when this violence is acted upon his person, however, that Octavian realizes he is not his own person. That he is a slave. That he is property. That he has no rights, no freedoms, no power. He sees his situation for what it is.


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