Thursday, July 19, 2018

'Thoughts and Emotions Akin to Your Own'

We inhabit a fallow literary backwater, one that will be of middling interest to future readers and scholars. Little of enduring worth is being created, but there’s no need to panic. This has happened before. Think of the late nineteenth century, with literature on the cusp of Modernism. But, of course, that era had James, Conrad, Kipling, Tolstoy and Beerbohm. Think of Russia before Pushkin and Gogol, or Poland before Mickiewicz, though none of these comparisons is quite accurate because each was a period of relative dormancy followed by a burst of efflorescence. No, our literary future, though notoriously difficult to forecast, based as it is on the serendipitous appearance of individual talent, looks unpromising. If gifted writers are sparse, so are gifted readers and critics, those equipped to sift merit from mediocrity. There are exceptions:

“Although the audience for poetry in America was never large, today even that audience has diminished, and the only people who seem to read contemporary poetry are those who write it or write about it. Are there substantial numbers of people awaiting the next novels of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, or Jonathan Safran Foer as they once eagerly anticipated the next novels of Bellow, Malamud, Katherine Anne Porter, and others? I don’t believe there are.”

The voice is Joseph Epstein’s in “The Cultured Life,” an essay published last year in The Weekly Standard. Retitled, it is now the title essay in Epstein’s latest collection, The Ideal of Culture (Axios Press, 2018). If I’m gauging Epstein’s reputation correctly, he is judged a literary stockman charged with thinning the writerly herd. True, his taste is commendable and he is unburdened with tolerance for shoddy goods, but I think of him as more of a celebrator, an enthusiast for good writing with little use for the merely fashionable. In the new book he extols longtime favorites – Cather, Larkin, Waugh, Yourcenar, Boswell, Proust – while introducing a few surprises, including Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch, Ronald Syme, Michael Oakeshott and Lord Charnwood’s Lincoln. At eighty-one, Epstein is still discovering and rediscovering worthy books. His literary appetite is more adventuresome than most readers half his age. Here he is on I.J. Singer’s novel The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), which I read as a teenager before I had read anything by his better-known and even more gifted brother Isaac Bashevis Singer:  

“Strikes, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the invasion of Lodz first by the Germans, then by the Russians -- all are described by Singer, with pitch perfect artistry and pace. Lenin makes a cameo appearance in the novel, as Napoleon does in War and Peace, and so do the hapless Czar Nicholas and his Czarina Alexandra.”

Epstein calls The Brothers Ashkenazi “the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish.” When his essay first appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, he moved me to read Singer’s novel a second time after more than forty years. Which brings up a mixed blessing inherent in The Ideal of Culture: most of its contents I had already read in their original newspaper or magazine appearances. What you lose in novelty you make up in happy reacquaintance.

Epstein is never guilty of the nunc pro tunc fallacy – now for then. He never imposes today’s trendy standards on yesterday’s art and artists. When it comes to history, we’re all provincials and have a lot to learn. In his title essay Epstein writes:

“Culture is continuity with the past: A cultureless person knows only about, and lives exclusively in, the present. Few things are as pleasing—thrilling, really—as reading a classical author and discovering that he has had thoughts and emotions akin to your own. So I have felt, at times, reading Horace, Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and others who departed the planet centuries before my entrance upon it.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

'Don't Let the Dead Exact Grave Cost'

Based on what they’ve already written, we come to have expectations of writers. There’s no harm in it, unless we’ve given up on the pleasures of surprise. How startling it would be if a newly discovered Nabokov novel were set in the Chicago stockyards. Given that it was Nabokov, it would likely be superior to Upton Sinclair and might prompt us to reassess his work. Every poem I have read by R.L. Barth has been about war, usually the wars in Indochina. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam. This week he sent me twenty epigrams he wrote in the early nineties and recovered from an old floppy disk. Only one of them makes a glancing mention of war. Here is “Nones: The Realization,” from a series based on the canonical hours. It’s addressed to his daughter:

“You’ll outlive us—hard thought for me,
Since, though I act wrong-headedly,
I’d spare you every kind of grief.
But longest years must prove too brief.
Don’t let the dead exact grave cost.
Learn from and love them. Know they’re lost.”

Hard wisdom every parent owes his kids. Obsolescence is built into our biology. We reproduce, educate the young, disappear. Loss is inevitable and love is preparing them for it. You get a taste of it when they go away to school, the service or a job.  You have never been truly vulnerable until you have children. A similar theme is expressed in “Mine and Yours”:

   “I try a book;
You play out front, alone.
   No use. I look:
My eyes are not my own.”

Bob is the finest epigrammatist since J.V. Cunningham. It’s an ancient form, one practiced by Martial, Jonson, Swift and Landor. Its virtues are concision, wit and, often, satirical bite. Here’s a piquantly justified jab at a one-man opioid crisis, “Reading Coleridge”:

“God bless the man from Porlock, poem pruner!
Only I wish that he’d arrived much sooner.”

We admire tight focus in writers, single-minded devotion to a handful of subjects. We also admire versatility, a willingness to take on unexpected themes. “Comprehension Test” straddles worlds:

“Here cardboard shanties for three nights express
Rich children comprehending homelessness.
Just so, assaulting Jap with B.A.R.,
At eight I knew I’d comprehended war.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

'Solemn, Augustan, Elegant, Periodic, Musical'

“Unless your experience is singularly unlike my own, there are a number of books you are ‘always meaning to read.’ Somebody, not the first bore you met, but somebody whose opinions you value, who understands your tastes, assured you that one of these was ‘your book.’ And you meant to read it and are still meaning to; but you haven’t taken the trouble to order it from your bookseller, or perhaps you did, but when it arrived it was a bigger book than you expected, and you put it aside, telling yourself that you would have a go at it some time.”

Ronald Knox refers specifically to “Spiritual Books,” the title of a 1956 essay collected in Ronald Knox: A Man for All Seasons (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2016), edited by Francesca Bugliani Knox. My “always-meaning-to-read-list” is fairly modest. First and most crusted with guilt is Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. It’s the shining peak of Mount Fuji that represents for this Western reader much of East Asian literature. As a sophomore I took a class in the Modern Japanese Novel because I liked the instructor. It was my first encounter with Tanizaki, Mishima, Kawabata and best of all, Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro, but I’ve read little else in those literatures and have no good excuse.

I’ve not read deeply in the Church Fathers. St. Augustine I know but not, for example, Tertullian. I’ve read little of Stendhal and would like to read the rest of Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart. I have no regrets for largely ignoring German literature. Life is short. I’ve never read Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and Yvor Winters speaks well of William Robertson, the eighteenth-century Scottish historian. There’s still time, of course, and it’s not all remorse. After years of stalling I read Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. When I met him in 1987, Hilberg signed my copy of the first volume. After many ridiculous delays, I read Henry Adams’ The History of the United States of America (1801 to 1817). The major obstacle to reading long-deferred books is that today I mostly read books I’ve already read. I return frequently to George Eliot because I’ve read her novels before and like her and want to know that pleasure at least one more time. Such observations, like all descriptions of reading habits, are idiosyncratic and apply to no one else. Knox writes later in “Spiritual Books”:

“You’ll see at once what the trouble is about an article like this. The writer of it can only explain what kind of book he finds useful; but we are all so differently built that there’s no guarantee it is going to be useful to anybody else.”

One of the most “useful" and rereadable books I know is Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. Last year, when Mathew Walther reviewed Ronald Knox: A Man for All Seasons for First Things, he wrote:

“But he was not one of those authors like Trevor-Roper—or Waugh himself during the writing of his memoirs—who gives one the impression of having composed with Gibbon or another exemplar open on his lap. Like Newman’s, his style is at once high—solemn, Augustan, elegant, periodic, musical—and low—breezy, chatty, colloquial—without the slightest hint of discord. It is identifiable and wholly singular.”

Monday, July 16, 2018

'Fortune Did Him the Kindness'

Quoting Montaigne often means simultaneously quoting at least one other writer. This suggests the extent of his erudition but also his fascination with everything human. He saw human continuity between himself and his contemporaries, and the ancients. Here is the opening paragraph of his essay “Not to Counterfeit Being Sick,” in the Charles Cotton translation:

“There is an epigram in Martial, and one of the very good ones—for he has of all sorts—where he pleasantly tells the story of Caelius, who, to avoid making his court to some great men of Rome, to wait their rising, and to attend them abroad, pretended to have the gout; and the better to color this anointed his legs, and had them lapped up in a great many swathings, and perfectly counterfeited both the gesture and countenance of a gouty person; till in the end, Fortune did him the kindness to make him one indeed.”

Go here to read the pertinent epigram by Martial, as translated by James Michie. Montaigne understood that humans, given sufficient time and motivation, are endlessly inventive in their behavior. Nothing should surprise us. Novelty is a myth. It’s all been done before. Martial’s story, by way of Montaigne, is a variation on what Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) calls the scaldrum dodge. When a friend in 1975 introduced me to Mayhew’s four-volume masterpiece, I regretted having devoted so much of my life to reading one of his imitators, Charles Dickens. With encyclopedic rigor, Mayhew chronicled the folkways of London when it was the most populous city in the world. He anatomized the scams of beggars. The scaldrum dodge he places in the “bodily afflicted” category. Mayhew tells us the Mendicity Society (which I first spelled “Mendacity”) determined that “the great majority of those who exhibit sores were unmitigated impostors.” The idea was to feign or exaggerate injury or disease in order to elicit sympathy and cash from the charitable or soft-hearted:

“A few had lacerated their flesh in reality; but the majority had resorted to the less painful operation known as the ‘Scaldrum Dodge.’ This consists in covering a portion of the leg or arm with soap to the thickness of a plaister, and then saturating the whole with vinegar. The vinegar causes the soap to blister and assume a festering appearance, and thus the passer-by is led to believe that the beggar is suffering from a real sore. So well does this simple device simulate a sore that the deception is not to be detected even by close inspection.”

A dodge, the OED tells us, is “a shifty trick, an artifice to elude or cheat.” No doubt its best-known practitioner is the Artful Dodger. The OED does not include scaldrum but other sources suggest it derives from scald, as in burn. A more severe (and, presumably, more convincing ) variation of the dodge was to burn the skin with acids or gunpowder to simulate scars and sores.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

'And Empty Both Within'

“Best of all, they spent a good deal of time in a small snuggery behind the bar of the Yacht Inn, smoking cigars and drinking stout while conversing with the landlord, who then took them up to a room to show them the little windowpane where Jonathan Swift had etched with a diamond a bitter comment on the local clergyman who had left him waiting to sup with them.”

Hershel Parker in the second volume of his Melville biography (2002) is describing a meeting of giants. It’s Nov. 15, 1856, and Melville is in Chester, England, with Hawthorne, who is not a giant. I mean Swift and Melville. The latter had published Moby-Dick five years earlier, and he likely knew Swift’s book about another sort of voyage. Parker tells us: “(Melville must have known a great deal more about Swift than we can prove; we have an offhand reference to the ‘Dean’ but no copy of anything by Swift that had been in Melville’s library.)”

In Pat Rogers’ edition of Swift’s Complete Poems (1983), the etched verse is grouped with three others written around 1726 and collectively titled “On Seeing Verses Written upon Windows in Inns”:

“The church and clergy here, no doubt,
Are very near a-kin;
Both weather-beaten are without,
And empty both within.”

Melville had recently finished writing The Confidence-Man. He too was empty “within,” and had lost his faith in the theological notion of immortality. Three days before reading Swift’s lines on the window, Melville and Hawthorne had walked along the shore of the Irish Sea, and Hawthorne famously wrote in his journal:

“. . . we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated;’ but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists -- and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before -- in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”

Saturday, July 14, 2018

'He Is in Love with Words'

“A troop of these ignorant Doradoes.”

And who are these Doradoes who are so ignorant? Sir Thomas Browne had neither El Dorado nor Doritos in mind. The word appears in a marvelous passage in Part II, Section 1 of Religio Medici (1642), in which he expresses a tolerance and humility uncharacteristic of his age and ours, a quality he calls the “Vertue of Charity”:

“I am of a constitution so generall, that it consorts, and sympathizeth with all things; I have no antipathy, or rather Idio-syncrasie, in dyet, humour, ayre, any thing; I wonder not at the French, for their dishes of frogges, snailes, and toadstooles, nor at the Jewes for Locusts and Grasse-hoppers, but being amongst them, make them my common viands; and I finde they agree with my stomach as well as theirs; I could digest a Sallad gathered in a Church-yard, as well as in a Garden.”

Like any sensible man, the one exception to Browne’s generosity of spirit is his fear and detestation of crowds, “that great enemy of reason, vertue and religion, the multitude, that numerous piece of monstrosity, which taken asunder seeme men, and the reasonable creatures of God; but confused together, make but one great beast, & a monstrosity more prodigious than Hydra.” Whether at a rock concert or a political rally, mobs are unpredictable, loud, smelly and incapable of thought. They react to stimuli like fire ants on a baby. A few lines later comes the passage cited above. Dorado, the OED tells us, is rooted in the Spanish, French, Italian and Latin for “gold.” It can refer to a fish or a southern constellation, “also called Xiphias or the Sword-fish.” Browne’s usage is cited, though labeled “figurative”: “a rich man. Obsolete.” A shame. The most recent citation dates from 1868.

Browne works words the way a sculptor works clay. The language was still young malleable. Among writers most often cited by the OED, Browne ranks seventieth. He is cited 788 times for the first appearance of words in English. On the same day I encountered Doradoes in Browne I was reading an essay Anthony Hecht published in the Fall 2001 issue of The Sewanee Review, in which he says of Richard Wilbur:

“. . . it is not enough to say that he is in love with the visible world. He is in love with words, which, given a moment’s thought, are also encoded. The lover of words seeks for their hidden worth, their forgotten meanings, their playfulness, trickiness, the way they can make us say more than we intended or than we knew we meant or than we knew we knew. ‘Words,’ says the music and literary critic Charles Rosen, ‘will not sit still. They change their meanings, shift from praise to blame, revise their associations.’ They are as evasive as the world they endeavor to describe, so that both the world of language and the visible world, to the thoughtful mind, are fugitive and unstable.”

Friday, July 13, 2018

'Thirsty, Betrayed, and Terrified'

“We fight for no
Slant domino,
Ragged-ass flag,
Or body-bag;
Say, rather, for
Buddies—but more,
Even, for grief
And lost belief.”

Let's thank Adam Gilbert, author of A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality, and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018), for including a handful of poems by R.L. Barth in his study. Barth’s work is too little known. He is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War from Kentucky, and the war is nearly his exclusive subject, as his titles suggest: Deeply Dug In, Forced-Marching to the Styx: Vietnam War Poems, Small Arms Fire, Looking for Peace. The poem quoted above, “Why We Fight,” is from Simonides in Vietnam: And Other Epigrams, which hints at Barth’s classicism. His lines are metrically regular and usually rhyme. As poetry, they recall not Rupert Brooke but Martial. Another collection, A Soldier’s Time, takes its title from a letter written by Dr. Johnson and quoted by Boswell in his Life: “A soldier’s time is passed in distress and danger, or in idleness and corruption.”

I wish Gilbert had devoted a discrete chapter to Barth’s work but his book is organized thematically, and Barth’s poems (and Gilbert’s comments on them) are sprinkled among those by other soldier-poets. Gilbert follows “Why We Fight” with “Epitaph,” in which Barth “situates this ‘lost belief’ among the above-mentioned burdens of physical hardships and fear”: “Tell them quite simply that we died / Thirsty, betrayed, and terrified.” Death is blunt, without romance or ennobling sentiment. Gilbert includes “One Way to Carry the Dead”:

“A huge shell thundered; he was vaporized
And, close friends breathing near, internalized.”

For years, Barth published chapbooks by some of our best poets, including Helen Pinkerton, Dick Davis, Charles Gullans and Turner Cassity. He edited editions of poems by Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis, and Winters’ letters. Barth’s most recent collection is No Turning Back (Scienter Press, 2016), a sequence of poems about the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It takes work to find Barth’s books. He is not a “protest poet," as conventionally understood, and his formalist rigor will frighten some readers. His most readily available book is probably Deeply Dug In (University of New Mexico Press, 2003). In his introductory poem, “Reading The Iliad,” Barth juxtaposes Vietnam and another war:

“Volume and desk, coffee and cigarette
Forgotten, the reader, held in Homer’s mind,
Looks on both Greeks and Trojans fighting yet
And heroes and foot-soldiers, thin and blind,

“Forced-marching for the Styx. But suddenly
Stunned by the clamor under smoky skies,
Boastings and tauntings, he looks up to see?
Not the god-harried plain where Hector tries

“His destiny, not the room--but a mountain
Covered with jungle; on one slope, a chateau
With garden, courtyard, a rococo fountain,
And, faces down, hands tied, six bodies in a row.”