Thursday, June 21, 2018

`Easiness and Gaiety'

In no other writer are the qualities of genius and nasty little boy so inextricably joined as in Jonathan Swift. His mastery of prose remained unrivalled in English until the arrival of Evelyn Waugh, and his verse, still insufficiently appreciated, might almost have been written with modern sensibilities in mind. In his “Life of Swift,” Dr. Johnson devotes a mere two paragraphs to the poems and concludes, rather limply, that they are “often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety.” Let’s qualify that: Swift’s verse is formally perfect and usually funny, though in Swift’s hands humor can unexpectedly shade into savagery and disgust. Take the best-known couplets in his best-known poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” written in 1732:

“Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”

Swift’s masterpiece of scatology was instantly popular and soon printed as a pamphlet and reprinted in newspapers in England and Ireland. While reading in The Muse Strikes Back: A Poetic Response by Women to Men (eds. Katherine McAlpine and Gail White, Story Line Press, 1997), I discovered “The Gentleman’s Study, In Answer to The Lady’s Dressing-Room,” a poetic retort to Swift published soon after the original, written in tetrameter couplets. The editors note: “It is interesting that an 18th-century woman was able to match (perhaps even outdo) Swift in scatological bad taste. Though the author’s identity is still unknown, there has been no evidence to suggest that the poem was not written by a woman.” Swift and the anonymous author run neck and neck in the race to revulsion:    

“For there some stocks [necktie] lay on the ground,
One side was yellow, t’ other brown;
And velvet breeches (on her word),
The inside all bedaubed with t—d,
And just before, I'll not desist
To let you know they were be-pissed:
Four different stinks lay there together,
Which were sweat, turd, and piss, and leather.”

And that’s even before Strephon returns to his room, literally stinking drunk. The narrator conceals herself behind a screen, and the show begins:

“Then, in a moment, all the room
Did with the smell of ulcer fume,
And would have lasted very long,
Had not sour belches smelled as strong,
Which from her nose did soon depart,
When overcome with stink of fart,
And after, then came thick upon it
The odious, nauseous one of vomit,
That pourèd out from mouth and nose
Both on his bed, and floor, and clothes;
Nor was it lessened e’er a bit,
Nor overcome, by stink of s–t,
Which, in the pot and round about
The brim and sides, he squirted out;
But when poor Tom pulled off his shoes,
There was a greater stink of toes,
And sure, a nasty, loathsome smell
Must come from feet as black as hell.”

One hopes the author was female, not in the spirit of affirmative action or gender parity but because it’s instructive to be reminded that men have no monopoly on foul-mouthed wit. In “A Brief and Inadequate History of Female Comic Poets,” Mike Juster makes a suggestion that had already occurred to me:

“The seamless insertion of two Latin lines suggests that, if the poem was indeed the work of a woman, it had to have been one of the limited number of female poets highly trained in Latin who wrote light verse. One has to wonder whether this poem, suspiciously published first in the Dean’s hometown of Dublin, is another example of Swift both having fun and raising his literary profile by anonymously attacking himself.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

'His Spites Were Candied with Good Nature'

Reader’s lament: discovering a writer who sounds interesting but whose work has not been translated into a language he can read. In this case, Alfred Polgar (1873-1955), a Viennese feuilletonist who shows up in Clive James’ humanistic portrait gallery, Cultural Amnesia (2007). What little I can learn of Polgar appeals to my taste for tart wit, aphoristic concision and enlightened disregard for politics. This is where James hooked me:

“In his home ground, Polgar had made German the ideal instrument for a body of prose so charged with the precision of poetry that it gives a picture of his era no other writer could match for wealth of registered detail and subtlety of argument. His every essay forms a rhythmic unit from start to finish: ‘Many attempt without success to make up for their lack of talent with defects of character.’ He could afford to say so because his strength and depth of character were in everything he said. ‘A commonplace soul is often uncommonly spirited. But dreck is still dreck, even when phosphorescent.’ He could afford to say that, too, because he was never flashy.”

Not long ago I looked into a book of poems and aphorisms by a contemporary American poet. The aphorisms were not aphorisms but Tweet-like punch lines dripping with pop culture and crowd-tested sentiments. The little of Polgar I have read in English suggests he was a master of nuance, an Austrian Chamfort who turns particulars into universals in the smallest of spaces. An aphorist must sound as though his words are revealed truth unburdened with proofs. I found “A Great Dilettante,” an article Polgar published in 1950 in the Antioch Review devoted to Egon Friedell, another Austrian writer included by James in Cultural Amnesia. Here’s a sample:

“Egon Friedell was a big, corpulent man, slow and heavy, with a voice and gestures that filled any room he entered. The bright eyes below the heavily modeled brow shone with intriguing enjoyment of, and all-around love for, men and things. His spites were candied with good nature.”

That final sentence cinches it. To amuse with minimal means while stating a truth is worth more than most novels.

[Go here to read a piece by John Knowles about Polgar.]

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

'An Ugly Version of Scott Fitzgerald'

We like our villains ugly or at least grotesque. It makes life tidy and simple to understand. Outer and inner ugliness ought to correspond. Call it truth in advertising. Recent reading has turned up two reassuring examples. In his History of England, Macaulay describes Titus Oates, who fabricated the “Popish Plot” of 1678, the fictitious Catholic conspiracy to kill King Charles II. At least fifteen innocent men were executed as a result. Here is Macaulay’s portrait of Oates in the courtroom:

“A few years earlier his short neck, his legs uneven, the vulgar said, as those of a badger, his forehead low as that of a baboon, his purple cheeks, and his monstrous length of chin, had been familiar to all who frequented the courts of law. He had then been the idol of the nation. Wherever he had appeared, men had uncovered their heads to him. The lives and estates of the magnates of the realm had been at his mercy. Times had now changed; and many, who had formerly regarded him as the deliverer of his country, shuddered at the sight of those hideous features on which villainy seemed to be written by the hand of God.”

One of my favorite collections of journalism is Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason (1949; rev. 1965). In it she writes of William Joyce, derisively known in England as Lord Haw-Haw, the American-born Anglo-Irish traitor who fled to Germany days before the Nazis invaded Poland. He broadcast propaganda to Great Britain, urging its people to surrender. Joyce was captured weeks after Germany’s surrender, tried for treason and executed by hanging on Jan. 3, 1946. West covered the trial for The New Yorker. Here is part of her description of Lord Haw-Haw in the courtroom:

“The strong light was merciless to William Joyce, whose appearance was a shock to all of us who knew him only over the air. His voice had suggested a large and flashy handsomeness, but he was a tiny little creature and not handsome at all. His hair was mouse-coloured and sparse, particularly above his ears, and his pinched and misshapen nose was joined to his face at an odd angle. His eyes were hard and shiny, and above them his thick eyebrows were pale and irregular. His neck was long, his shoulders narrow and sloping, his arms very short and thick. His body looked flimsy and coarse. There was nothing individual about him except a deep scar running across his right cheek from his ear to the corner of his mouth. But this did not create the savage and marred distinction that it might suggest, for it gave a mincing immobility to his small mouth. He was dressed with a dandyish preciosity, which gave no impression of well-being, only a nervousness. He was like an ugly version of Scott Fitzgerald, but more nervous. He moved with a jerky formality, and when he bowed to the judge his bow seemed sincerely respectful but entirely inappropriate to the occasion, and it was difficult to think of any occasion to which it would have been appropriate.”

[Whittaker Chambers (an unattractive man who testified against a treasonous Adonis) reviewed The Meaning of Treason for Time. He concludes: “Thus, in a prosy age, her style strives continually toward a condition of poetry, and comes to rest in a rhetoric that, at its best, is one of the most personal and eloquent idioms of our time.”]

Monday, June 18, 2018

'WHO they ARE'

The late Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Antonin Scalia in “College Education,” his commencement address at Catholic University in 1999 (Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived, 2017):

“My point is that, as you have come to learn during your four years here, you are not just the child of your parents who are here today. Physically you are totally theirs, to be sure. But intellectually, attitudinally, culturally, you are a child of the West, and of that particular part of the West that is the United States—which is close to, but not quite the same as, the part that is England, and a little bit further from, but not very far from, the part that is France, and so forth. You are, to mention only a few of your forebears, a child of Homer and Alcibiades,  Cicero and Caesar, Dante and the Medici, Alfred and Chaucer, Joan of Arc and Louis XIV, Elizabeth and Shakespeare, Milton and Cromwell, Carlisle [sic] and Edmund Burke, Hamilton and Jefferson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. Many of your contemporaries, who have not had the benefit of a college education, are as much their children as you are—but they do not know it. They do not really know what they come from, WHO they ARE.”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

'Liberty & Learning'

On Aug. 4, 1822, James Madison writes in a letter to his friend William T. Barry, a Kentucky lawyer and statesman:

“The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free Government, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of Knowledge, that their political Institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter, and are respected as Models, by the new-born States in our own Hemisphere, are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of Man as they are conformable to his individual & social Rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?”

Saturday, June 16, 2018

'A Group of Companions'

My high-school English teacher, an optimistic but not simple-minded woman, dated the death of culture to circa 1970. Starting around that time, she could no longer make casual references in class and expect to be understood by students. Nothing esoteric. Her examples were Duke Ellington and Winston Churchill. Kids no longer knew who she was talking about and, worse, didn’t care. After half a century, teachers have grown at least as ignorant as their students. Jacques Barzun in “Of What Use the Classics Today?” (Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, 1991):

“The need for a body of common knowledge and common reference does not disappear when a society is pluralistic. On the contrary, it grows more necessary, so that people of different origins and occupation may quickly find familiar ground and as we say, speak a common language. It not only saves time and embarrassment, but it also ensures a kind of mutual confidence and goodwill. One is not addressing an alien, as blank as a stone wall, but a responsive creature whose mind is filled with the same images, memories, and vocabulary as oneself. Since the Biblical source of those common elements can no longer be relied on, the other classics, the secular scriptures, remain the one means of creating a community of minds, a culture—indeed, a society in the original sense of the word, which is: a group of companions.”

Friday, June 15, 2018

'Where Excellences May Be Heard'

One of the most valuable (and, not so incidentally, well-written) books I know of devoted to education is Michael Oakeshott’s essay collection The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989). Included is “A Place of Learning,” first published in 1975. Oakeshott writes wisely and against the spirit of the age:

“Each of us is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historical time, lapped round with locality. But school and university are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances and from the wants he may happen to have acquired, and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed. He finds himself invited to pursue satisfactions he has never yet imagined or wished for. They are, then, sheltered places where excellences may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble. They are places where a learner is initiated into what there is to be learned.”

Schools are meant to be conduits for tradition, where the young inherit the gifts of our culture. They have become, instead, daycare centers devoted to social engineering. Oakeshott writes in another essay, “Learning and Teaching” (1965):

“To initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available to him much that does not lie upon the surface of the present world. An inheritance will contain much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. And to know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance.”