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Art and Ethics in Paul Levine's FALSE DAWN
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Nov 17 2014, 7:03 PM
                                              Art and Ethics in Paul Levine's FALSE DAWN

Abstract 1

The plot of this work of crime fiction concern a shipload of stolen art, each piece a treasure worth a fortune, and the three countries that have a stake in the sale or in its recovery: Russia, the United States, and Cuba.  Meanwhile, there are forces within each country that complicate matters, people driven by greed or idealogy.  Jake Lassiter has a client who has confessed to a murder he has not committed and the only way Lassiter can help him is to locate the real murderer.  Other murders follow and the mystery Lassiter confronts has to do with his untangling the interests of individuals and the countries they come from.

Many mysteries have had as their main plot the theft of art, the counterfeiting of well-known paintings, the conflict between gallery owners and artists, and both of these with those who buy or invest In art, and the murder of one or more of these characters.  These plots and characters can make for a good story.  Paul Levine's FALSE DAWN, however, adds another level of meaning to these narrative elements. Ethics is a subject that exists in all of the books in his Jake Lassiter series, and when a serious writer combines art and ethics as themes, the books go beyond the telling of a good story.  This discussion will juxtapose FALSE DAWN with a perhaps unlikely partner from the nineteenth-century, Robert Brownings famous poem MY LAST DUCHESS.


Abstract 2

It has been said that all discussions of the relation of art to society, art to ethics, are a footnote to Plato.  The Greek philosopher had banished art from his ideal Republic because art (in many forms) watered what should be allowed to dry up, the emotions. For Plato it was reason, not feeling that led to good citizens of the Republic for whom to understand the good was to do the good.  It remained for later writers to refute Plato, to argue for the value of art to society and the relation of art to ethical behavior.  By the nineteenth-century--perhaps even before--this optimism was breaking down.  Art and morality were undergoing a serious divorce. The poet Robert Browning depicted this chasm in his famous poem, MY LAST DUCHESS, and Paul Levine's mystery joins many other works of fiction, poetry, and drama in which the chasm widens.  At that point, these works join a conversation that has been ongoing for centuries.

                                                        Analysis of FALSE DAWN


 About the argument that two works of literary art are very similar or that one author is influenced by another, it is reasonable to ask, “So what?” Writers are also readers, and what they read will make a mark on their unconscious or conscious creative mind. And after all, the subjects of literature are not infinite even if their treatment varies widely. There are, however, a few reasons when comparisons about literary works are more than arbitrary matches. Sometimes allusions are very amusing: when late in his Spenser series, Robert Parker’s Hawk is seen reading a book by Harvard historian Simon Schama, any of Parker’s readers who know Schama’s work might find the scene more than a little funny. But it also might be that the allusion is Parker’s attempt to change the image of a character who is first seen in the series as nothing more than a gun for hire and remains in many ways an un knowable figure throughout the Spencer books. Readers and critics do not agree on whether or not Hawk is a sociopath. For one author invoking another may be the former’s way of shedding light on what might otherwise remain enigmatic or ambiguous. But there is still another reason to compare the literary works of authors, even if they are separated by centuries. There are certain themes written art that form—directly or indirectly—an ongoing conversation on serious subjects. To trace the themes 
is to create a kind of history that has its own, self-contained significance. One such theme emerges when the writers weaves into a poem, a play, a novel questions about the significance in the human world of art itself and the way perceptions of it change over 
time. These written works become part of the history of aesthetics.  

The following discussion is going to compare Robert Browning’s famous short poem “My Last Duchess” with Paul Levine’s False Dawn, the third in his Jake Lassiter series. No attempt will be made to say that Browning was a direct influence on Levine or even that Levine ever read the poem. But there is a good reason to think that he may have, for during the years that he was in school (before law school) the process of erasing dead white males from the educational literary canon was not completed and “My Last Duchess” was almost a staple in college literature courses, which were sometimes mandatory, and was even taught in high school. 
 
Browning’s poem set in the Renaissance, is a dramatic monologue in which there is a speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, and a listener to what the duke has to say but who does not himself speak. From the monologue the reader can infer the reaction of the listener, who is an emissary from the count of a neighboring Italian principality and is in Ferrara to negotiate the terms of a marriage between the count’s daughter and the duke. While the agreement is being worked out, the duke gives the visitor a tour of his palace and his extensive art collection. They stop in front of the portrait of a woman the duke identifies as his “last” duchess, it not being entirely clear whether she is the last of many wives or the most recent, one who is now dead. He then describes her and his dissatisfaction with her, for she was a woman who undervalued his name and aristocratic standing, bestowing the same friendly smile on a servant as on him. He then, he reports, gave commands and her smiles stopped “altogether.” It is clear that for the duke, there is no distinction between the person and his portrait of her; they were both possessions and when the live woman failed to please him, 
he arranged her death. At this point, it is also clear that the count’s emissary is shocked and perhaps horrified, for he presumably walks rapidly away from the duke, the latter tells him they will walk together.  And as they continue to descend the staircase, the duke points out another piece of art of which he is an owner, a piece of sculpture he had commissioned 
for his own collection. 
 
To fully understand the significance of Browning’s poem, it is useful to consider the profound changes in views of art that had begun long before the nineteenth century but reached a kind of end-point during the poet’s time. For centuries the value of art (painting, 
literature, even music if it had to do with religion or church services), resided in the assumption that it was a moral medium, the spoon full of sugar that made the moral medicine go down. Art was understood to be adhering to what has been called the Horatian 
Ideal and evoked pleasure in order to teach. In this at least theoretical sense there was no gap between ethics and aesthetics. Why this gap developed and gradually widened is beyond the scope of this discussion. But it happened and a good example of the process can be found at the beginning of Gulliver's Travels ?when Swift as part of his fiction describes how he was urged to publish his work and how he resisted the idea because he could not imagine any moral or social good coming from it. In the fourth book of 
Gulliver he likened human beings to yahoos, loathsome creatures whose resemblance to human beings is unsettling, and he is sure nothing he writes will change them. 
 
This analogy between beast and human is paralleled in False Dawn, when the character of Doc Charlie Riggs, a retired coroner and long-time friend of Jake Lassiter briefly traces the evolutionary process that took millions of years for primates to develop into human beings. “We’ve come so far as a species,” says Charlie. “We’ve built bridges and machines that fly out of the solar system. We compress a billion bits of information onto an infinitesimal wafer. We produce ageless works of beauty.” He had begun the conversation by contrasting “the ugliness of murder and the beauty of art,” and soon Lassiter sees where Charlie is going, “We still kill each other,” he adds. Charlie’s perception had begun to concern writers such as Browning by the middle and late nineteenth-century and they faced the same challenge that Lassiter as a trial lawyer would in Levine’s series. What is it that they thought they 
were doing? By the time Browning wrote “My Last Duchess,” ethics and aesthetics had parted as definitively as the Duchess of Ferrara had been replaced for her husband by her portrait.  It should be said at the outset that by introducing ethics as a theme in False Dawn, Levine has put morality back into the aesthetic equation.
 
 There are a few miscellaneous comments that will help establish how Levine’s False Dawn involves an extension of Browning’s themes even if no direct connection being argued for here. There is no reason to doubt the duke’s real appreciation of art although this is overshadowed by his ego and pride of possession. But he is also more vulgarly materialistic, perhaps because he needs money to enhance his collection, when he points out to the count’s ambassador that he expects an ample dowry to accompany his next duchess. There is also an implied political theme in the poem; it is placed at a time before Italian unification when marriages were also part of political alliances. To sum up the themes that are intertwined in this short poem, they include art; ownership of art by a collector obsessed by the need to possess works of art; the need for money perhaps to buy such works; and politics. In all of this the portrait of the last duchess stands in ironic contrast to the duke’s possessiveness, of her and of her portrait, art separated from what used to be its traditional function, to impact on the moral sensibilities of those exposed to 
it. 
 
Finally, there is the duke’s clever ability to manipulate others. “My Last Duchess” is written in blank verse, a form befitting the suggestion of someone actually speaking. Each line has ten syllables and the rhythm of the verse is close to normal English 
speech. It is the form used by Shakespeare in his plays and when his lines rhyme, it is an invitation to the audience or reader to pause over the significance of the form’s alteration. The rhymes are obvious. But Browning’s blank verse in “My Last Duchess,” if read aloud, will rarely involve a pause at the last word in a line. So why did Browning bother to rhyme at all? He wrote many thousands of lines of blank verse in his poems (including a book-length one using the form, The Ring and the Book) without rhyming, without making his verse less blank so to speak. A reason that makes sense (and was once suggested to me by a colleague) is that the tighter form reflects the duke’s customary need for control. He knows exactly what he is doing when he reveals to the count’s emissary that he has murdered his last duchess and expects more obedience and aristocratic demeanor from the next one.
 
There is no duchess in False Dawn. Yet the ghosts of Russian nobility hover over this novel, in which stolen art rather than illegal drugs or bank heists promise huge monetary profits. Most of the art works in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg were made for, owned by, or acquired for the aristocracy. Among the things that the empress Catherine the Great is known for is her acquisition of Western art and the Hermitage is her creation. As one of Levine’s characters, who is ruled by ideology more than greed but who is equally ruthless as he commands a shipload of stolen Russian art, says, the “money . . . is important, but the principle even more so.” He tells Jake Lassiter, who has had throughout the book difficulty untangling the various political intrigues surrounding the stolen art treasures, each of which could be sold for an almost unimaginable price, that these so-called pieces of art were created for the nobility by the “slavery of the masses,” who starved while the few indulged in “gluttony and excess.” 
 
Though there are no innocent duchesses in False Dawn, ?there is a young woman who dies because of her youth and accompanying naivete. She is Finnish and Finland had become a conduit for stolen art that is sent there and shipped elsewhere under the cover 
of goods manufactured in that country. When Eva-Lisa realizes that she is helping the bad guys (distinguishing them from the supposed good ones is one of Lassiter’s recurrent themes in his series), she thinks she can simply resign from her part in the transfer of the treasures. Her bosses, brutal “international outlaws” order her execution. Lassiter tries to save her, wrestling 
with an ax-murderer for control of the grisly weapon, but fails and she dies a horrible death. This failure evokes in Lassiter memories of another young woman he thinks he should have protected from dying but did not (To Speak for the Dead). To evoke again 
a comparison between False Dawn and “My Last Duchess,” one might wonder what would happen if the count’s emissary had returned to his country and told the count of the danger his daughter would face in marrying the Duke of Ferrara. Would the count 
act to protect his daughter from harm as does one of the major characters inFalse Dawn 
 
In both poem and Levine’s novel, the deadly combination of greed, obsession, and political intrigue would put a father to the test. Readers will know what happens in False Dawn. In Browning, any consideration would be outside the boundaries of the poem itself. But such extra-textual contemplation is a favorite game among literary critics and many readers. They might recognize a thematic pattern in the Victorian poet who in his Ring and the Book portrays a young woman who is virtually sacrificed to an abusive husband by her parents. Her parish priest tries to help her by accompanying her when she flees her husband, but like Jake assiter, he fails. He has also violated the vows he took when he entered the church. 
 
When sworn in as a lawyer, Lassiter too agreed to codes that will test him in the different books in Levine’s series. He may bend the rules at times, but there are actions he will not take, such as lying in court and knowingly allow a client to commit perjury. 
At the beginning of False Dawn, ?Lassiter is defending a client who seems too eager to confess to a murder he did not commit. The Lassiter books are narrated in the first-person by Jake. He tries to convince his client to save himself by agreeing with a police report that the client insists is not true. Jake adds as an aside to the reader, “Okay, okay, I know all about the cannons of ethics. A lawyer shall not suborn perjury. But there is a footnote. It’s okay to let the client know whether the truth will set him free 
or buy a one-way ticket” to jail. It is the way that Lassiter struggles with personal and professional ethics in Levine’s series that sets his lawyer/investigator apart from so many in other crime fiction series and adds thematic depth to good stories. As Lassiter tries to explain to a woman who calls him a “goddamn fool,” “it’s hard to explain. I just live by a code that isn’t written down anywhere, but tells me to do what I think is right. I make compromises like everybody else, and I sometimes break the rules, but usually only the little ones. I try to go through life doing the least damage possible . . . It may sound old-fashioned but I don’t cheat to win.”
 
As is true in the other Lassiter books, his actions as a lawyer are affected—as they theoretically should not be according to the rules of his profession—by personal relationships with his client. This one, a ne’er do well man he has defended in the past is the son of a woman who had been a surrogate mother to Jake when his own had abandoned him to run off with another man. Jake had 
promised her he would take care of her son, and again he fails. The son, moreover, had once saved Jake’s life and Jake believes that defending his client despite his apparently wish to go down for a murder he did not commit will even the score. But the only way Jake can protect his client is to find the real killer. 
 
False Dawn is an action book and Jake is consistently in danger, often badly hurt as, sometimes metaphorically blindfolded and other times blindsided, he finds himself caught in political intrigues he (and the reader) has difficulty understanding. This is a strength not a weakness in the mystery because unraveling the relation of antagonistic countries to the stolen art involves a complicated plot that sorts all of its pieces at the end. Perhaps this is one of the meanings of “false dawn”: things are never what they seem. Just as at times the colors in the sky appear to be day breaking, but in fact signal the beginning of night, so does Jake think he has worked things out but then realizes he is wrong. At one point he is told by someone who masquerades as a good guy but turns out to be a bad one that he has no idea of what he is involved in. And other characters concur with this self-estimation.
 
The action In False Dawn involves the theft of a very large store, truckloads full, of stolen Russian art. Three countries have reason to want the art works restored to or withheld from Russia.  The Russians have two motives. One is that if news of the theft gets out, the supposedly more benign government that succeeded the Soviets might topple. The other is that Russians are very attached to their culture, which now includes their treasured art collections. Understanding this, Jake is able correctly to lead American authorities to an escaped criminal: he will be at the performance that evening of a visiting Russian ballet company. (Levine’s escription of the ballet is very funny, even if the crimes that were committed, are anything but.) The Americans want the art returned because, in a nutshell, the present Russian government is an easier one to deal with, and also because American government agencies are on the trail of rings of art thieves. Jake Lassiter lives and practices law in Miami and so Cuban exiles and expatriates are a major part of life in that state. Little Havana, a section of Miami, is the place many of the book’s scenes take place. Those Cubans and Cuban-Americans in Florida who hope to overthrow Castro, could use the money garnered from the sale of the art to further their cause and perhaps even combat Cuba’s present communist regime. Those still attached to their homeland and still influenced by its socialist ideology can see how the huge amount of money made from selling the art could feed a country in which food and basic goods are very scarce. Lassiter meets people associated with all three countries, not only at cross-purposes but 
also untrustworthy. The immeasurable fortune the stolen art would bring leads to internal corruption as individuals cheat their own countries as well as each other because of personal greed.
 
 The place and monetary value of art has come a long way in False Dawn from the almost simplistic covetousness of the Duke of Ferrara. What has occurred seems to suggest another kind of evolutionary process; or perhaps a better way of describing 
the change is in terms of dangerous mutations. The resurgence of secular art in the Renaissance was a sign of progress, of enlightenment. But by Lassiter’s time, even museums, supposed to recognize and keep alive the aesthetic and cultural value of art, cooperated with thieves by purchasing art works the museum administrators know is stolen. International intrigue and hostility surrounded such thefts, the best instance (although not mentioned in Levine’s book) the strong insistence by the Greeks that what 
the British call the Elgin Marbles (the frieze of the ancient Parthenon in Athens) be returned to them and the delaying tactics of the British who over time found reasons for not doing so. Sometimes stolen art is returned, but ongoing thefts and sales could not 
flourish without the personal obsessions of wealthy persons whose acquisitive appetites appear without limit. Mysteries abound about where some art works have disappeared to and mention is made in False Dawn of the ease with which thieves cut priceless paintings out of their frames in Boston’s Gardner Museum. Given the enormity of such pilfering by thieves who have become more and more organized in their methods, then the Duke of Ferrara, who merely bought his art represents a very early stage in a rocess in which personal obsession grows into international warfare of a different kind from that in which people kill each other, but also leads to people once again murdering each other.. 
 
The character in False Dawn who is a counterpart to Browning’s Duke of Ferrara is Matsuo Yagamata, a very wealthy Japanese businessman whose import-export business allows him to arrange for the secreting of stolen art out of Russia. His appetite for these stolen treasures is boundless. When told by an American charged with tracking the ring of art thieves that he is raping Russia and cannot steal all the “art from the Baltic to the Pacific,” Yagamata’s face grows white with anger and he retorts “And why not?” For him the value of art transcends anything that can be bought and sold, more valuable than life itself. And the dead characters in False Dawn are testimony to this disregard for others who threaten his acquisitions. At one point, when the huge art theft is in danger of being taken from him, he protests that the “art belongs to the world,” while Lassiter contemplates the irony of such a statement: “Funny. Yagamata had acted as if it belonged to him.”
 
At one point, Yagamata thinks he is being witty when he claims that stealing art had become an art in itself. But in fact, his perhaps unintended irony, his pun, makes it possible to trace the way in which over centuries art had ceased to be a sign of culture, a medium for moral instruction, a sign of the advancement of civilization, the creation of a formal work of beauty, even a way in which individual artists used their creativity as a form of self-expression and self-exploration, and had instead becomes a commodity. The end of False Dawn ?lays bare this irony and raises questions about the antithetical falsity and reality of art as it proved to be another commodity to be traded, bought and sold. Browning had revealed a significant chasm between between ethics and aesthetics. Years later there would be discussions, almost wonderment, about how individuals could work in death camps during the day, but put on dress clothing in the evening for a concert of Beethoven’s music. What is sometimes called high culture had nothing to do with reality. And the monetary value of art works would turn human beings who were, as Doc Charlie Riggs points out, supposed by an evolutionary process to develop from primates to supposedly civilized human beings, but instead proved in the end to be no better than Jonathan Swift’s yahoos.

Note: I would like to thank Prof. David Richter for answering my question about why Browning used rhyme in "My Last Duchess." There is among Browning critics some disagreement about whether the Duke of Ferrara was insane, out of control as he converses with the count's emissary, or whether he knew exactly what he was doing.  I agree with Prof. Richter that the rhyme, which seems to serve no other purpose, resolves this dispute in favor not of madness but manipulation.

To respond to this discussion, send comments to my website e-mail address, bfleavy2@gmail.com.

Visit Paul Levine's website: www.paul-levine.com and address comments and questions about this discussion to him..
 

 

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