Thursday, June 30, 2016

`A Collection of Reminders'

I think of commonplace books, my own and those assembled by others, as works of reference like dictionaries and encyclopedias. The contents may be less rigorously collected and organized, but what unifies them is the writer’s sensibility, what attracts and repels him, his enthusiasms and detestations. Though filled with the words of others, a commonplace book is pure oblique autobiography. Take My Commonplace Book by J.T. (James Thompson) Hackett, first published in 1919 in Great Britain. My library has the third edition from 1921, with the book plate of Edgar Odell Lovett, founding president of Rice University, pasted in the front. A small blue label at the back indicates Lovett bought the book from Brentano’s in New York City.

Hackett was an Australian about whom I know little. In his preface, he says most of the collecting for his book was done between 1874 and 1886, and the contents have a definite Victorian bent.  The authors most often represented are Browning, George Eliot and Tennyson, followed by Wordsworth and Swinburne. In his preface, Hackett insists his book “is not an anthology. A commonplace book is usually a collection of reminders made by a young man who cannot afford an extensive library. There is no system in such a collection.” And it’s true: the organization is entirely random. There are no chapters and the subject index is sometimes vague or maddeningly specific: “Good never Lost” and “Game of Chance Clergy Flavour.”

Commonplace books make for good idle reading: read a passage, weigh it, move on. They are undemanding, and the good ones can hook you. Here are the contents of Page 287, beginning with a passage from Chap. 21, “Going Abroad,” from Moby-Dick:    

“In his broken fashion Queequeg gave me to understand that, in his land, owing to the absence of settees and sofas of all sorts, the king, chiefs, and great people generally were in the custom of fattening some of the lower orders for ottomans; and to furnish a house comfortably in that respect, you had only to buy up eight or ten lazy fellows, and lay them round in the piers and alcoves.”

The Melville Revival was only just starting when Hackett published his book, suggesting he was a somewhat adventuresome reader. The choice of excerpt also suggests he had a sense of humor and was attuned to the comic strain in Ishmael’s voice. Next comes a verse from George MacDonald’s 1863 novel David Elginbrod:

“Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde:
Hae mercy o’ my soul, Lord God;
As I wad do, were I Lord God,
And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.”

Hackett identifies the next entry only as having been uttered by Heine, but the original French is usually described as the poet’s final words:

Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier.
(God will pardon me. That is His business.)”

Finally, Hackett includes an excerpt from “A Scottish Eclogue” by Robert Buchanan (1841-1901):

“O LORD, it broke my heart to see his pain!
I thought—I dared to think—if I were GOD,
Poor Caird should never gang so dark a road,
And thought—ay, dared to think, the LORD forgi’e!—
To think the LORD was crueller than me;
Forgetting GOD is just, and knoweth best
What folk should burn in fire, what folk be blest.”

Again, Hackett reveals a taste for the comic. As an addendum, let me contribute the most recent entry in my commonplace book. This is from Pages from the Goncourt Journal (trans. Robert Baldick, Oxford University Press, 1962). The date is April 14, 1874. Edmond de Goncourt’s report suggests the elevated nature of literary gatherings in nineteenth-century Paris:

“Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, and Alphonse Daudet. A dinner of men of talent who have a high opinion of each other’s work, and one which we hope to make a monthly occasion in the winters to come. 

“We began with a long discussion on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhoea; and we went on to talk about the mechanics of the French language.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

`Only Then Had He Set to Work'

For all his pathological fear of idleness, Dr. Johnson always ended up working like a blinkered draft horse. Here he parodies himself and others who must fritter and fuss before going to work:

“I sat yesterday morning employed in deliberating on which, among the various subjects that occurred to my imagination, I should bestow the paper of today. After a short effort of meditation by which nothing was determined, I grew every moment more irresolute, my ideas wandered from the first intention, and I rather wished to think, than thought upon any settled subject; till at last I was awakened from this dream of study by a summons from the press: the time was come for which I had been thus negligently purposing to provide, and, however dubious or sluggish, I was now necessitated to write.”

The damning phrase: “I rather wished to think, than thought upon any settled subject.”  We all know those who don’t so much write as wish they had written, who fall a thousand times for the same self-paralyzing ruse. We wish many of them, of course, had remained costive. In The Rambler #134, published on this date, June 29, in 1751, Johnson generalizes his observations on writer’s block to include all of his contemporaries:

“There is nothing more common among this torpid generation than murmurs and complaints; murmurs at uneasiness which only vacancy and suspicion expose them to feel, and complaints of distresses which it is in their own power to remove.”

Human nature remains the same across centuries. I have been rereading Pages from the Goncourt Journals (trans. Robert Baldick, Oxford University Press, 1962). In the entry for Jan. 25, 1885, Edmond de Goncourt writes of a visit from Alphonse Daudet and his wife:

“Daudet went on to say that during all those years he had done nothing at all, that all he had felt had been a need to live, to live actively, violently, noisily, a need to sing, to make music, to roam the woods, to drink a little too much and get involved in a brawl. He admitted that at that time he had had no literary ambition, but just an instinctive delight in noting everything down, in recording everything, even his dreams. It was the [Franco-Prussian] war, he declared , which had changed him, by awakening in him the idea that he might die without having achieved anything, without leaving anything durable behind him. . . . Only then had he set to work, and with work had come literary ambition.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

`It Is Common Things Which Touch Us'

For the third time in five months I have written the obituary for a senior member of the engineering faculty. All had been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, an honor comparable in its field to the Nobel Prize, if the Nobel Prize had anything to do with excellence. Academia is often a kindergarten of backstabbing resentment. When I ask a faculty member to assess the life and legacy of colleagues who have died, I sometimes get two answers, the one public and polite, the other private and savage. In the case of the three dead engineers, I heard none of the latter. All might be described as brilliant, hardworking men who managed somehow to be decent human beings – a combination that seems to grow ever rarer. I remembered Richard Wilbur’s “For Dudley” (Walking to Sleep, 1969), which begins:

“Even when death has taken
An exceptional man,
It is common things which touch us, gathered
In the house that proved a hostel.”

Wilbur wrote the poem after the death of his friend Dudley Fitts (1903-1968), the poet, teacher and translator from the Greek. To honor the “exceptional” dead is a sacred trust. Their fate will soon be ours, for death is the truest democracy:

"All that we do
Is touched with ocean, yet we remain
On the shore of what we know."

Monday, June 27, 2016

`The Most Beautiful English Word'

“Mencken thought that cellar-door was the most beautiful English word. I’ve got another, from Latin: venus volgivaga (`public prostitute,’ from Kant, of all people, Metaphysics of Morals, 49). And celadon.”

Mencken’s pick and the Latin tag do nothing for me but celadon is delicious, and I mean that almost literally. The mingling of music and meaning in certain words can make my mouth water. For celadon the OED gives “a pale shade of green resembling that of the willow.” I associate with a specific time and place – the streets of Troy, N.Y., in the spring of 1991. Spring is a long time coming in upstate New York, with snow on the ground sometimes well into May. The day was drizzly and overcast and people still wore coats and sweaters. I was covering a Roman Catholic procession in North Troy. I forget the occasion but probably it was associated with Easter. The trees along the streets were only just beginning to leaf, and the misty rain created a watercolor effect, a pale shade of green resembling willows. Odd to see in so urban a setting. Celadon evokes this coming together of trees, Spring, replenishment and a sacred occasion.

The passage at the top is from Eva Brann’s Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul (Paul Dry Books, 2004). Her first language was German, making such sensitivity to a French-rooted English word doubly impressive. I’ve overheard arguments about the most beautiful word in the language, and there’s really no point in arguing. The riches are too vast and our tastes are too various. Henry James savored “summer afternoon,” though more for the sense than the sound, I suspect. I’ve often thought molybdenum was my favorite for pure musicality, just as I think the opening lines of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a poem I don’t even particularly like, are the most euphonious. Favorite words? Scrim, adamantine, Precambrian, scofflaw, ball-peen, Guelph, rawky . . .

Sunday, June 26, 2016

`Creative of Essential Beauty'

Most outdoor advertising remains invisible until something reminds us of its existence. Leopold Bloom sold ad space for a living and took a professional interest in the billboards and signs he passed in Dublin, including a pitch for a Zionist colony. John Dos Passos and Alfred Döblin documented billboards in fiction, as did Walker Evans in photographs (often with ironic intent). Philip Larkin in “Essential Beauty,” a poem he completed on this date, June 26, in 1962, calls billboards “these sharply-pictured groves / Of how life should be.” Anyone who thinks about billboards comments on their dual nature – the physical objects along the highway and the idealized reality they depict. Billboards, Larkin writes, “Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares / They dominate outdoors.” Larkin insisted he was not writing as a social critic, and denied satirical intent. In his notes to the poem in The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett quotes a letter Larkin wrote about “Essential Beauty” to his friend Harry Chambers:

“. . . it is not meant to be a satire on advertisements: to me they appear as something like the platonic forms, infinitely vulgarised, but none the less `essential’ to our view of the world.”

Complaining about billboards and advertising in general is at least as clichéd and tiresome as the images and copy that make up the ads. One of the pleasures of watching old movies is reading the billboards and signs visible during location shooting. The once invisible comes into focus, especially when the movie is lousy. For my newspaper I covered the filming of William Kennedy's Ironweed in Albany, N.Y. One brief scene shot in nearby Cohoes, a former mill town at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, included in the background a billboard for the Marx Brothers’ Room Service, which came out in 1938, the year in which Ironweed is set. The sign was more vibrantly colorful than anything in wintertime Cohoes in 1987. Burnett goes on to quote something Larkin wrote about “Essential Beauty” in 1964, the year the poem appeared in The Whitsun Weddings:

“Most of us would agree that we don’t, nowadays, believe in poetic diction or poetic subject-matter. All the same I think there are certain received opinions still very much operative which the poet flouts at his peril. Take advertisements, for instance -- like most people, I have always lived in towns, and am constantly seeing enormous pictorial billboards. When I was young, I condemned them as ugly and corrupting – that is the `poetic’ attitude. Later I learned to ignore them. Recently I’ve grown quite fond of them: they seem to me beautiful and in an odd way sad, like infinitely debased Platonic essences. Now this is quite the wrong attitude: unfortunately, it was the only one that produced a poem.”

The progression of Larkin’s reactions to outdoor advertising sounds familiar. Youth gets in a lather about the “ugly and corrupting,” and most everything else. Mature adults accept them as part of the landscape. Adults a little more mature – among them, perhaps, a few poets – find something in billboards to admire and enjoy, if only their low-rent surrealism: “High above the gutter / A silver knife sinks into golden butter, / A glass of milk stands in a meadow.” According to Burnett, Larkin neither confirmed nor denied his poem’s title alluded to John Keats’ letter to Benjamin Bailey, written Nov. 22, 1817:

“What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not - for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty.”

Saturday, June 25, 2016

`One Cannot Abolish'

Iago muses on the mutability of Othello and, by extension, all men: “The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida.” In his 1826 essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” William Hazlitt weaves this beautiful sentence into his prose. Listen to the slowly building crescendo:

“Does the love of virtue denote any wish to discover or amend our own faults? No, but it atones for an obstinate adherence to our own vices by the most virulent intolerance to human frailties. This principle is of a most universal application. It extends to good as well as evil: if it makes us hate folly, it makes us no less dissatisfied with distinguished merit. If it inclines us to resent the wrongs of others, it impels us to be as impatient of their prosperity. We revenge injuries: we repay benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn. `That which was luscious as locusts, anon becomes bitter as coloquintida;’ and love and friendship melt in their own fires. We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.”

Hazlitt speaks as an insider, not theoretically, and had much practical experience with hating and inconstancy. Former enthusiasms turn overnight as “bitter as coloquintida.”  In a letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon written in 1818, John Keats describes Hazlitt as “your only good damner, and if ever I am damn’d—damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.” Few haters have written so well, but Hazlitt was never merely a hater, and his hating was never ideological or aimed at such groups as Jews, blacks or the Irish. With him it was a matter of temperament and often fueled, as is still the case today, by politics. Like most writers, Hazlitt was a political naïf who generated more heat than light. “On the Pleasure of Hating” might be read as a case of unwitting, unrecognized autobiography.

I thought of Hazlitt’s great essay when reading “The Problem with Hate Speech” by the Canadian poet and polemicist David Solway. I once asked the late David Myers what he thought of Solway’s work, and David described it as “fulsome,” without further elaboration. Solway gets a little overheated but his thinking is usually clear and his prose, when resisting stridency, is forceful and tart. Like Hazlitt, Solway accepts hate as a basic component of our human nature. Hate in the abstract is not essentially evil. Not to hate pedophilia and Nazism is to be morally stunted. Everyone hates on occasion. Solway writes: 

“The feeling of hatred is a human attribute as basic as love; it is an emotion that cannot be vaporized out of existence, and which the human mind can subtly manipulate to pass off as a form of love, in the way that an Inquisitor could burn a human being at the stake into order to cauterize his soul for his own eternal benefit. But neither hate nor love nor their various mutations are reified entities; they are ingrained constituents of the human psyche. One can introspect and adjust, but one cannot abolish.”

The most precious of all freedoms is the freedom to be left alone. The Inquisitors of “hate speech,” moralizing busybodies, live a contradiction they will never recognize. As Solway puts it: “Those who seek to criminalize `hate speech’ obviously hate those whom they wish to fine, imprison or destroy.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

`He Will Soon Find Himself Left Alone'

Is friendship possible between two people who share only scraps of each other’s language? Isn’t language at the heart of identity, and doesn’t friendship imply a lowering of the guard, a taking of chances, a mingling of one’s self with another? I ask myself: Could I befriend a person who was deaf, dumb and blind? To say no is not to denigrate such a person, but how much would I, someone who revels in the written and spoken word, be willing to sacrifice for the sake of friendship? I have no abstract answers, only an unlikely friendship.

The custodian in our building is thirteen years my junior, married and has three kids. I’ve exchanged greetings with him five days a week for almost five years. He is Manuel, I am Señor Patrick. He was born in Mexico and is a little fuzzy about how long he has lived in the U.S. He has a second job, working evenings for a catering service. He impresses me as tidy and hard-working. He does all the customary tasks – emptying waste baskets, dusting, buffing the floor of the main corridor – but periodically asks if he can vacuum the carpet in my office. I know this is not a mandatory part of his routine, but I eat lunch at my desk and the floor gets crunchy. I, too, you see, am tidy, and appreciate his attentions. When working, Manuel customarily wears earphones. Several years ago I asked what he listened to, and he handed them to me, I put them on and heard accordion-heavy conjunto. “Flaco Jimenez?” I asked, and got lucky. It’s not music I know well but it’s happy music and I enjoy it. I told him about La Pistola y El Corazón by Los Lobos and he ordered the digital version.

So what, besides music, do we talk about with his ragged English and my threadbare Spanish (which always amuses him)? There’s a smattering of gossip but mostly it’s kids and the weather – eternal topics, conversational lubricants, not to be derided, the stuff I would talk about with any native English speaker I might see regularly but briefly. In Houston, the weather is a remarkably fecund subject, with extremes of Biblical proportions. Manuel came from a very dry place, and stands in awe of rain. Our talk about the weather is more nuanced and amusing than many conversations I have with nominally more educated or sophisticated people. Dr. Johnson did not lightly dismiss the topic. In The Rambler #99 he writes:

“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”

Note the non-satirical tone. Talk of the weather is a form of dance, elegant and comforting, a subject we all know intimately. Its drama is ours. Johnson knew friendship and its mortal importance. Boswell reports him saying: “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.”