Thursday, August 31, 2006

Henry and John

One-hundred sixty seven years ago today, two brothers set off from Concord, Mass., on the Sudbury River, in a 15-foot skiff they had built themselves. The older brother was John Thoreau Jr., 25, who taught in a grammar school in Concord founded the year before by his brother, Henry David Thoreau, 22. Henry had graduated from Harvard two years earlier, left another teaching job after refusing to administer corporal punishment, and worked periodically in his father’s pencil factory.

The literary spawn of the brothers’ river journey was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, written during Henry’s sojourn at Walden Pond and published in 1849. In 2004, Princeton University Press published a paperback edition of the text with a learned and very funny introduction by John McPhee, the nonfiction writer for The New Yorker. McPhee describes the canoe trip he took in 2003, following as closely as development permits the Thoreaus’ journey.

In McPhee’s assessment of the book, Thoreau turned its structural weakness (it has no structure) into its greatest strength. After citing Thoreau scholar Linck Johnson’s description of A Week as a “complex weave,” McPhee observes its form like this:

“The first image that came to my mind was a string of lights – or any linear structure with things hanging on it [a homely image worthy of HDT himself], like a heavily loaded clothesline. In the magisterial Emerson, Johnson finds the aptest image. Emerson described the narrative of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers as `a very slender thread for such big beads & ingots as are strung on it.’”

The book is anecdotal and discursive, without the rigorous patterning Thoreau would later achieve in Walden. Thoreau digressed on any subject, any hobbyhorse, that caught his fancy, and that, along with Thoreau’s sharp wit, is the book’s principle charm. Guy Davenport called both books "meditations on what to do with our lives." At the moment – and this could easily change tomorrow – I prefer A Week to Walden, though I love it less than I do Thoreau’s 14-volume journal, which I’m convinced is his greatest work. Here’s McPhee’s assessment of A Week:

“Thoreau’s structure would be almost pure free association were it not for the river reeling him back in. The book seems something like a carnival midway, or a hall full of convention booths, or an aisle in a flea market. Thoreau invites you to linger at one of his tables, booths, or sideshows, a characteristic for which he surely deserves to be forgiven. This writing is commentary, editorial, philosophical, homiletic – defying generic assignment. Now he is John Muir, now he is Joseph Campbell, now he lingers in the doorway between psychiatry and religion. Near Reeds Ferry, he remarks, en passant, `We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

In the context of Thoreau’s life, A Week is a heartbreaking book. On Jan. 1, 1842, more than two years after their river journey, John Thoreau nicked the tip of his left-hand ring finger while stropping his razor. It seemed like a minor wound, but eight days later it had become “mortified,” probably meaning the tissue had turned black and necrotic. On the morning of Jan. 9, his jaw stiffened and by that evening he experienced the convulsions associated with lockjaw. A Boston doctor examined John and concluded he could do nothing for him. No one could have until the vaccine for tetanus was discovered in 1890. John Thoreau, age 27, died on Jan. 11 in the arms of his helpless brother. McPhee writes,

“John was his brother’s best friend, perhaps his only close one … [A Week], Henry’s first book, rehearses their journey as a species of memorial, the fact notwithstanding that Thoreau never mentions his brother’s name.”

This last fact always reminds me of The Education of Henry Adams, in which Adams never mentions the suicide in 1885 of his wife, Clover – a presence made conspicuous by its eerie absence. In Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Robert D. Richardson Jr. writes:

“Thoreau took it very hard and, moreover, he held his emotions inside. His family remarked how his strange initial calm sank into complete passivity. Even his interest in nature was gone; he was `denaturalized,’ as he later admitted to a correspondent. Then to the incredulous horror of his family and friends, on January 22 he came down with all the symptoms of lockjaw himself. He had not cut himself; it was purely an emotional – a sympathetic – reaction that had produced the physical symptoms. By the morning of the twenty-fourth, however, he was better, as a relieved Emerson wrote his brother William.”

Oddly, the day Thoreau recovered, Emerson’s 5-yearold son, Waldo, developed scarlet fever. He died three days later. Unlike Thoreau, Emerson, in Richardson’s words, “gave immediate expression to his grief, reaching out to others, sharing and articulating his loss in ways Thoreau did not or could not.”

On Sunday, Jan. 9, 1842, the day his brother first showed symptoms of lockjaw, Thoreau wrote in his journal:

“One cannot too soon forget his errors and misdemeanors; for [to] dwell long upon them is to add to the offense, and repentance and sorrow can only be displaced by somewhat better, and which is as free and original as if they had not been. Not to grieve long for any action, but to go immediately and do freshly and otherwise, subtracts so much from the wrong. Else we may make the delay of repentance the punishment of the sin. But a great nature will not consider its sins as its own, but be more absorbed in the prospect of that valor and virtue for the future which is more properly it, than in those improper actions which, by beings sins, discover themselves to be not it.”

Am I only imagining that Thoreau’s syntax seems more tortured than usual here? In his journal he makes no direct mention of John’s tortured death. On Feb. 20, 1842, he notes:

“The death of friends should inspire us as much as their lives. If they are great and rich enough, they will leave consolation to the mourners before the expenses of their funerals. It will not be hard to part with any worth, because it is worthy. How can any good depart? It does not go and come, but we. Shall we wait for it? Is it slower than we?”

The following day, Thoreau makes a strange observation:

“I must confess there is nothing so strange to me as my own body. I love any other piece of nature, almost better.”

Then, three paragraphs later:

“I feel as if years had been crowded into the last month, and yet the regularity of what we call time has been so far preserved as that I….will be welcome in the present.”

The editor of the edition of Thoreau’s journal I am using adds a footnote to that final ellipsis:

“[Two lines missing from the manuscript here.]”

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Wild Thymes

I thought of Paul Metcalf yesterday while reading Eliot’s Four Quartets. That’s an unlikely connection so let me explain. I interviewed Metcalf in July 1988, when I worked for the newspaper in Albany, N.Y., and he lived across the state line, about an hour away, near Lee, Mass., in the Berkshires. My editor let me write about him – an obscure experimental writer -- because he was born with a journalistic “hook”: He was the great-grandson of Herman Melville, and lived a few miles from Arrowhead, the house in Pittsfield, Mass., where Melville wrote most of Moby-Dick.

I had first learned of Metcalf, as I have first learned so many things, while reading an essay by Guy Davenport -- “Narrative Tone and Form,” collected in The Geography of the Imagination. Guy mentioned Metcalf’s innovative, collage-like “novel,” Genoa, which had been published in 1965 by Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society. He termed Metcalf’s method “architectonic.” When I interviewed Guy for the Metcalf profile, he said Genoa received only two reviews – one written by him and the other by William H. Gass. I don’t think I verified that claim, but I choose to believe it’s true.

Metcalf and his wife, Nancy, lived in a sagging farmhouse, on an unpaved road lined with stone walls and old, thick-trunked maples. The Metcalfs were gracious and without pretension. We talked for hours. Nancy served lunch. Paul signed my copy of Genoa and gave me a signed copy of a later volume from Jargon, Both (a sonic meshing of Edgar Allan Poe and John Wilkes Booth). I was wearing work clothes – dress shirt and tie – and the day was becoming uncomfortably hot, even in the shade of the backyard maple, where Paul had strung up a hammock. He suggested we go for a swim in the pond across the road. There was certainly no traffic, and I trusted Paul, who was 70 years old and already dropping his jeans, so why not?

The pond, no more than 20 feet across, sat at the bottom of a bowl densely covered with wild thyme. It was so shallow the water was warm, like a bath. The scent of the thyme, combined with the tepid water, was soporific. We wallowed awhile, talking, I remember, about Charles Ives. We sat on the bank to dry off and that’s when I realized I smelled of wild thyme. Even after toweling off and getting dressed I smelled of thyme, and I smelled of it in my car and in my office and even at home that evening. To this day, when I smell thyme I think of Paul Metcalf, just as I think of my maternal grandmother when I smell cloves because she always carried Cloves chewing gum for us in her purse.

As to T.S. Eliot: I was rereading “The Dry Salvages,” the third of the Four Quartets, one of my favorite modern poems, which includes these beautiful lines:

“For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.”

There’s the “wild thyme unseen,” except in memory, and the “music heard so deeply,” which now makes me think of Charles Ives, and the fondness I’ve always felt for Paul, who died Jan. 12, 1999, at the age of 81.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

`Attentive Writing'

I wrote the other day about zoologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson and his book from 1917, On Growth and Form, without benefit of the text or of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, where I first learned of Thompson in 1972. Both books are now in front of me, borrowed from the library, and both are filled with pleasing convergences.

Thompson’s book – I have the 1942 edition from Cambridge University Press, all 1,116 pages of it -- carries five epigraphs, one of which comes from Samuel Johnson’s Rambler essay for May 5, 1750:

“The mathematicians are well acquainted with the difference between pure science, which has to do only with ideas, and the application of its laws to the use of life, in which they are constrained to submit to the imperfections of matter and the influence of accident.”

As a science writer for a university, this distinction is one I’m reminded of daily. Science is “pure” or “applied,” with the former always on the defensive in a time and place like ours when almost everything, including science, is market-driven. What excites me, however, is Johnson, not by any stretch a scientist but an enthusiastic amateur and man of voracious curiosity (rather like our own Benjamin Franklin), weighing in on such a seemingly arcane matter. Men and women of unbounded learning, with interests transcending the provinciality of specialization, are rare, endangered species. I seldom meet them in academia. Kenner was one – he limned the modernists, built his own computers, wrote a book on “geodesic math” and another on the animation of Chuck Jones. I interviewed him once by telephone, a few days before Christmas in 1994, when he was teaching at the University of Georgia. I was calling about Yeats but we also spoke of Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Laurel and Hardy, Richard Ellmann, and the rock band REM (based in Athens, Ga., as was Kenner at the time). There was more but that’s what I remember.

Kenner cites Thompson three times in The Pound Era, his master work, published one year before the death of Ezra Pound himself, on Nov. 1, 1972. The first mention, in a chapter titled “Transformations,” comes in the context of Kenner’s gloss on a passage from “Novices,” a 1923 poem by Marianne Moore (who died nine months before Pound, on Feb. 5, 1972). The passage is composed of four quotations, which Kenner dutifully identifies. He then parades an interesting selection of his own quotations, from Louis Agassiz (whom Thompson also cites, approvingly, on the subject of periwinkles), Thompson, Samuel Johnson (again!) and Gustave Flaubert. I love this Borgesian game of quotations-within-quotations. Here’s the Thompson line:

“The cells are stellate, and the tissue has the appearance in section of a network of six-rayed stars, linked together by the tips of the rays, and separated by symmetrical, air-filled intercellular spaces, which give its snow-like whiteness to the pith.”

Kenner observes of Moore, and by extension of Thompson:

“Minds so absorbed write with pith and concision. Such qualities, engendered by intercourse with a subject, persist in the writing even when we do not know what its subject was, and the phrases have a virtu Miss Moore can put to her own uses. Not all writing can be used in Miss Moore’s way: only attentive writing. Idiosyncrasy of language derives from attention…”

In Kenner’s second mention of Thompson, he refers to On Growth and Form as “a study of economies and transformations,” and notes it was published in the same year as Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius. He reproduces two drawings of fish, each superimposed on a graph, and observes, “They correspond point for point, as Pound’s phrases correspond to the Latin word by word, but directions and emphases alter.”

The final reference to Thompson comes in the chapter titled “Privacies,” in a section devoted to Wyndham Lewis:

“And the chemists, the physicists, the biologists, were everywhere discovering a pattern-making faculty inherent in nature. Salt was crystalline, bubbles were vectorial equalibria, Marconi’s pulses patterned the very ether, D’Arcy Thompson in 1917 explained how the bird’s skeleton and the cantilever bridge utilize identical principles.”

I’m pleased that I referred in passing to Marconi in my posting on Thompson the other day, without remembering Kenner having done so. Kenner’s use of Thompson was enough to inspire in me a long-deferred desire to read On Growth and Form, which I did 20 years later, in 1992, immediately after reading Lewis’ gargantuan novel The Apes of God, a book I am pleased to have read once, at Kenner’s urging, but have no intention of rereading.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Gentle Regrets

I have only just started reading Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life, the English philosopher Roger Scruton’s recently published memoir, but even from the second paragraph of the “Preface” he seduces the thoughtful reader with his gift for aphorism, which is another way of saying life distilled into an elegant minimum of words:

“Wisdom is truth that consoles. There is truth without wisdom, as we know from the many mad scientists who are running loose in our world. And there is consolation without truth, as we know from the history of religion. Whatever its defects, my life has enabled me to find comfort in uncomfortable truths.”

That’s the voice of a trusted companion. How many contemporary philosophers dare to speak of “truth” and “wisdom?” These are realities scorned as oppressive fictions by trendy sophisticates, yet understood intuitively by the rest of us. You need not share Scruton’s political, cultural or philosophical convictions to enjoy this splendid book. He devotes upcoming chapters to subjects which interest me not all all – opera, horses, Iris Murdoch – yet I look forward to reading them, which is perhaps the highest praise you can render a writer. Here’s Scruton on one of the most pernicious of modern thinkers, a genuinely immoral man, who remains in vogue especially among academics and credulous graduate students:

“Foucault’s Les mots st les choses, the bible of the soixante-huitards, the text that seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the `discourses’ of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue – by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies – that `truth’ requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the epistme, imposed by the class that profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit. Which searched the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula.”

Scruton has his own generously stocked web site, and here’s a link to A.N. Wilson’s sympathetic review of Gentle Regrets in the Times Literary Supplement.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Let's Review

Everyone, I suppose, complains about the quality of book reviewing and literary journalism in the United States. Much of it is badly written, snotty, theory-driven, pretentious, tin-eared, politically motivated, aesthetically unmotivated, pop culture-obsessed, or just plain dull. Friends boost the books of friends. Antagonists exact vendettas. These things, given human nature, have always been true and most likely will remain so.

When I read a review, I expect discernment and, at least by implication, context: How does this book fit into a bigger picture, literary or otherwise? I expect the reviewer to know something about books, but not merely books. I expect fairness, in the sense of honest assessment. I don’t want a review of the book the reviewer feels the author should have written. I expect at least one quotation from the work at hand, if not several, accompanied by at least glancing analysis. I expect some evidence of pleasure on the reviewer’s part, even if only the gusto with which he or she dismembers a lousy book. Especially if the review is negative, my preference is for a comic touch.

In 1985, at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va., Guy Davenport delivered the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Lectures, later published in Shenandoah and in Davenport’s second collection of essays and reviews, Every Force Evolves a Form. They are, as you would expect, learned, incisive and droll. With Cynthia Ozick, still happily alive and working, he was our best critic and reviewer.

In the second of the three essays, “The Scholar as Critic,” Davenport assembles a list of critical outrages, with emphasis on the ridiculous things said about Ulysses by the eminences of the day (Wells, Shaw, Woolf, Rebecca West). He writes:

“We are victimized weekly by bad criticism, and, by implication (as all criticism is informed by scholars), bad scholarship. It is my opinion that The New York Review of Books, that bastion of gratuitous meanness, has done more to discourage good writing in the United States than the Litkontrol branch of the Politburo has in the Soviet Union. And then there is the pernicious habit of the New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement of choosing reviewers with a vested interest in what they are reviewing. This makes for lively journalism, but for nothing else. For one thing, truly original writers must be omitted by this strategy, so that Ken Gangemi, Paul Metcalf, Jonathan Williams, August Kleinzahler, Nicholas Kilmer, Lorine Niedecker, Ronald Johnson, and the Lord he knoweth how many more, are not reviewed at all, and about them the scholars tend to be silent. We forget that William Carlos Williams got all the way to death’s door before he was recognized as the great poet he was, and that Louis Zukofsky, whose name may well be the best known of our time when the dust has settled around the year 2050, remains unknown and unread.”

I have read the New York Review of Books since I was a kid, and for the past seven years my sister-in-law has renewed my subscription as a birthday present each October. Though I look at it out of gratitude to my sister-in-law, I can no longer be said to read the Review. Its devotion to politics, the opium of the self-righteous, has supplanted any devotion it once had to literature. This is not a recent disintegration of taste. In 1974, the Review assigned Irvin Ehrenpreis to review Davenport’s brilliant first collection of fiction, Tatlin! In response to this memorably dull-witted review, Davenport, the least ego-driven of artists, replied in a letter published in the magazine’s Feb. 20, 1975 issue:

“I have endured twenty-six reviews of my book Tatlin! in stoic silence, and would keep quiet about Prof. Ehrenpreis's notice in your paper except that its stupidity is more an affront to the life of the mind in the Republic than to my book.”

Davenport was just getting warmed up:

“Any reviewer's first duty is to describe the book he is in effect recommending (or not) to the readers of your paper. Except that he says so, I would not otherwise have known from Prof. Ehrenpreis's review that he was airing his inept, feeble, and illiterate response to my stories.”

And, in conclusion:

“What's more, an editorial policy that can devote four pages to repressiveness in Russia and still send a book with the title Tatlin! to a nitwit who can't read and gets all flustered at a description of the human body is an editorial policy that can go flush its head.”

Saturday, August 26, 2006

On Growth and Form

A biologist I spoke with this week happened to mention D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), the Scottish zoologist and author of On Growth and Form, one of the most beautifully written science books I know. In my experience, few scientists and engineers are schooled in the histories of their professions, and fewer still have read deeply in their classical texts. Many biologists have never read Darwin, let alone Thompson, though they may have a conceptual grasp of their fundamental ideas. I remember years ago interviewing an engineer on some aspect of radio theory. We spoke, naturally, of Marconi, and I asked if he knew Rudyard Kipling’s great story, “Wireless.” He had never heard of Kipling and dismissed the idea that a mere writer of fiction might understand and adapt for his own purposes the arcane realm of science.

A few hours after my talk with the biologist, while reading Nature’s Numbers, by Ian Stewart, I came upon Thompson’s name again:

“…[Thompson], whose classic but maverick book On Growth and Form set out, in 1917, an enormous variety of more or less plausible evidence for the role of mathematics in the generation of biological form and behavior. In an age when most biologists seem to think that the only interesting thing about an animal is its DNA sequence, it is a message that needs to be repeated, loudly and often.”

Amen. I first learned of Thompson more than 30 years ago in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era. As I recall, Kenner likened Pound’s sense of metamorphosis, of matter changing form under the influence of forces physical and aesthetic, to Thompson’s. It makes sense that Pound would be attracted to Thompson, who translated Aristotle’s works on biology into English. Thompson thought his work challenged Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, but given what we know of genetics, Thompson’s work elegantly complements Darwin’s. Physics and mechanics help determine form – that is, successful adaptation – and successful form is replicated by genetics. Today, Thompson is deemed a forerunner of biomathematics. As Stewart writes:

“The idea that mathematics is deeply implicated in natural form goes back to D’Arcy Thompson…”

And as Thompson writes:

"For the harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number, and the heart and soul and all poetry of Natural Philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty."

Beauty and function, art and science, remain complementary, not antagonistic.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Little Chronicles

Like Emerson and unlike, say, Chekhov, Samuel Beckett was a writer of sentences. They were his unit of composition, as the oceanic paragraph was Proust's. A Beckett sentence is often constructed like a discrete, self-contained mosaic that can be fit into a larger pattern. Take this line from Malone Dies, in which the fictional title character contemplates the creation of yet another fictional character of his own:

"It is right that he too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old down all the unchanging days, and die one day like any other day, only shorter."

The sentence is as elegantly assembled as a joke or syllogism. It begins reasonably, even compassionately, if one can be said to feel compassion for a fictional character created by another fictional character. "The bad in the worst" hints that something else is going on, something more subversive, and only with that final phrase does the punchline, the booby trap, go off.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

`Great Sensitivity to Open Doors'

On each of the five evenings I spent back in Cleveland, visiting my brother and his family, we sat in the back yard around a fire and talked. With an axe, my brother and I splintered a heavy old wooden desk that had belonged to our father, and used that for fuel. My oldest son flew in from New York and joined the campfire ritual, which usually took the form of discursive storytelling, guided by the vagaries of memory. Only siblings, I suspect, attuned to private quirks of temperament and a shared past, could carry on as we did for hours each night. Surrounded by trees and blackness, seated in a pulsing circle of fire, nothing was sacred. Relaxed, unguarded, I could say anything I wished.

I was reading Walter Benjamin's On Hashish, an account of the critic's experiences with drugs in the 1920s and 1930s. In one recollection, dated Dec. 18, 1927, I found descriptions that corresponded to my sensations during those nightly campfire sessions. Honestly, we were fueled only by memory, and caffeine from much earlier in the day:

"Connection; distinction. In smiling, one feels oneself growing small wings. Smiling and fluttering are related. You feel distinguished because, among other things, it seems to you that fundamentally you enter into nothing too deeply; that, no matter how deeply you penetrate, you are always moving on the threshold. A sort of toe dance of reason."

And this:

"Aversion to information. Rudiments of a state of rapture. Great sensitivity to open doors, loud talk, music."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Trivial Matters

In the following passage, a well known critic describes the strategies of an even better known novelist. Without peeking, try to deduce the identities of both writers, and try to gauge the critic's assessment of the novelist:

"The policy of the book appears to be this, that the more trivial the matter the more space is devoted to its analysis. Nor is this sheer perversity; for the more trivial the matter the more completely do all its particular data lie within the writer's control, to be arranged, enumerated, commented on, exhausted, whereas a matter of some moment -- like the death of Aristotle's thirsty man -- entails so many factors, so many intersecting chains of causality, so many possibilities realized, not realized, or not even recognized, that art quails before it and is content with a perfunctory sentence."

That is the late Hugh Kenner writing about Samuel Beckett in Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians. The same passage, especially the first sentence, might have been written about any god-awful novelist, from Mikhail Sholokov to Joyce Carol Oates. Instead, Kenner is writing about a novelist who, as he says two pages later, "succeeds in not at all wasting our time."

Dalkey Archive Press has reissued Kenner's book, originally published in 1962, complete with 10 drawings by the late Guy Davenport. I'm especially fond of Davenport's rendering, on page 61, of "[Leopold] Bloom reflected in John Ireland's window, O'Connell Street."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Handy Men

Among the books and magazines from my childhood I have found in my brother's house -- the house in which we grew up -- is the April 1951 issue of Science and Mechanics, a magazine with a wonderful subtitle: The Magazine That Shows You How. In that proudly American phrase I hear echoes of Emerson, Thoreau, William James -- and my father, whose magazine it was. He read these pulpy, optimistic journals, and by the time I was old enough to read they were stacked in the hallway on the second floor.

I am the least handy of men. I'm not helpless but I take no pleasure in fixing or building things. Tedium overwhelms me when I have to paint a wall or hang a picture. My brother, a picture framer by trade and polymath by avocation, inherited the gift for fixing and building. The only things I know how to fix and build are words on a page.

But I loved these Popular Science-style magazines when I was a kid. They seemed to signal a variation on the aesthetic bent I already sensed in myself, as well as an impossibly competent adulthood. The articles were aimed at men who remained little boys. The titles of the articles tell the story: "Do Your Picture Framing at Home," "Tying the Trout Fly" (Part 2), "Plug-In Atom Bomb Radiation Alarm," "Tele-Tenna Beamer," "Make Your Darkroom Fit Your Needs," "Putting a Home Made Thermostat to Work," "Building Your Own Home" (Part 1), "Paneling That Brick Fireplace," "Servicing Your Air Cleaner," "Putting Your Drill Press to Work" Only one article features a woman: "Feather Tapestry is Her Hobby."

Read these words in the context of Emerson's "Self-Reliance": "The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky....His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have lost by refinement some energy, by a christianity entrenched in establishments and forms some vigor of wild virtue."

The ads are as good as the articles. Most seem aimed at the thrift, self-reliance and insecurity of readers: Print Your Own Postcards," "FREE BOOK -- On Rectal Troubles," "Don't Pull Hair From Nose (May Cause Fatal Infection)," "Become an Expert in Traffic," "How to Stumble Upon a Fortune in Gems," "Make Crime Your Business," "Rupture Torturing You?"

I still recognize one of the ads: a room of men in white jackets and caps sawing away at carcasses: "Learn Meat Cutting." The copy says, "The steady dependable trade of Meat Cutting taught easily in 8 short weeks." The National School of Meat Cutting, Inc., of Toledo, Ohio, assures all fledgling butchers: "Pay after graduation."

There's even an ad for The Thing, the schlocky Howard Hawks sci-fi movie. It shows a stern-faced man in a lab coat, standing beside a microscope and racks of test tubes, saying, "As a Scientist, I say we must destroy it or it will destroy us!" In other words, standard Atomic Age, McCarthy Era fear and paranoia.

I left my mark on the magazine, too, though it took my brother to decode it. The front cover features a painting of a suave, silver-haired man wearing black racing gloves, seated at the helm of a yellow, futuristically streamlined automobile. The accompanying headline reads "General Motors Builds 300 HP Super Sportster." On the vast yellow hood are penicled these words, all in upper case: "DRAFT HORSES." I didn't recognize my writing and assumed the words were a witless comment on the reputed horse power of the car's engine. Instead, my brother says it was a variation on the sentiment found on an antiwar poster, circa 1968: "Draft Beer, Not Students."

Monday, August 21, 2006


I can barely recognize parts of my past, experiences and entire eras that feel transplanted from someone else's life. On my brother's shelves I found The Japanese Cult of Tranquility, by Karlfried Graf von Druckman, first published in English in 1960. My paperback copy, the pages yellow and crisp with age, dates from 1974. On the inscription page I wrote my name and "8-2-75." I was then working in a bookstore here in Cleveland, and it was the start of one of the least tranquil periods in my life. I had an interest in Buddhism, especially Zen, and owned many volumes devoted to the subject, but now that seems impossibly alien.

The only underlining I made in the book is on page nine: "A man who has been tried by life is nearer tranquility than one who has not gone through the school of suffering."

Today, that sounds like romantic rubbish. In the act of highlighting that passage, I was expressing an exaggerated sense of self-importance. It is melodramatic and stinks of self-pity. Yet, 31 years later, a germ of that impulse -- to feel unacknowledged and misunderstood -- remains alive and healthy inside me, like a 2,000-year-old lotus seed waiting to germinate.

Behind me, on the shelves he built just last week, my brother has a book I enjoy very much -- A Stroll with William James, by Jacques Barzun. He, too, signed his name and the date -- "9/15/86" -- but his underlinings are more frequent, and more agreeable and prescient. This, noted before either of us had children, is on page 26:

"Except by chance, it seems, there is no way to bring up children right -- though some ways may be a little better than others."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

`A Spell Woven By Consonants and Vowels'

This poem was left untitled in manuscript by R.S. Thomas at the time of his death in 2000. It was published two years later in Residues:

"Don't ask me;
I have no recipe
for a poem. You
know the language,

"know where prose ends
and poetry begins.
There should be no
introit into a poem.

"The listener should come
to and realize
verse has been going on
for some time. Let

"there be no coughing,
no sighing. Poetry
is a spell woven
by consonants and vowels

"in the absence of logic.
Ask no rhyme
of a poem, only
that it keep faith

"with life's rhythm.
Language will trick
you if it can.
Syntax is words'

"way of shackling
the spirit. Poetry is that
which arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Home Again

I flew to Cleveland on Friday to visit my brother and his family, who live in our childhood home. I slept last night in the bedroom I occupied as a boy. Another child's books sit on my shelves. My sense of time displacement, of familiar objects vanished, altered, or staring back at me without recognition, is acute. The fields behind our house have turned into woods. The poplars have been replaced by a second, hardier, more shaded growth of maples and ashes. The fields are gone and old paths are obscured. Trees I knew are dead. The act of going home is an exercise in collage assembled in time, not in space.

One of the books I am reading is Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Of course, Freud (unfortunately) and Proust (most fortunately) invented childhood. Benjamin, who translated Proust into German and wrote usefully about him, adopts, customizes and elaborates on Proust's method:

"Everyone has encountered certain things which occasioned more lasting habits than other things. Through them, each person developed those capabilities which helped to determine the course of his life. And because -- so far as my own life is concerned -- it was reading and writing that were decisive, none of the things that surrounded me in my early years arouses greater longing than the reading box....The longing which the reading box arouses in me proves how thoroughly bound up it was with my childhood. Indeed, what I seek in it is just that: my entire childhood, as concentrated in the movement by which my hand slid the letters into the groove, where they would be arranged to form words. My hand can still dream of this movement, but it can no longer awaken so as actually to perform it. By the same token, I can dream of the way I once learned to walk. But that doesn't help. I now know how to walk; there is no more learning to walk."

Friday, August 18, 2006


If you live long enough, especially if you have children, you will inevitably utter sentences without precedent in human history. “No, don’t put Michelangelo in Hurricane’s butt,” I told my 3-year-old on Tuesday. “Michelangelo” is one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “Hurricane” is our cat.

On Thursday, I found a similarly unlikely formulation in a more elevated venue. As a break between reading books for review, I have been reading Frederick Brown’s beautifully written and researched Flaubert, a biography of the novelist. On page 148, after reporting that Flaubert’s friend, Alfred Le Poittevin, had urged him to read Spinoza, Brown writes of Le Poittevin:

“Sapped by a weak heart, and at one point burning with gonorrhea, he found alcohol more helpful than Spinoza in his attempt to escape from the slough of despond.”

The Bunyan reference cinched it for me. Imagine the Glen Baxter illustration that might accompany that sentence.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

`The Gentlemen Enjoyed Their Evil'

On July 20, 1963, in a letter to Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, who had recently published Eichmann in Jerusalem, wrote:

“You are completely right that I have changed my mind and now no longer speak of radical evil….The fact is that today I think that evil in every instance is only extreme, never radical: it has no depth, and therefore has nothing demonic about it. Evil can lay waste the entire world, like a fungus growing rampant on the surface. Only the good is always deep and radical.”

How I wish to believe what Arendt writes. Scholem could not, and history is on his side. He was a man of incalculable learning and wisdom, and disagreed forcefully with her conclusions regarding Eichmann and the Holocaust. In particular, he objected to her notion of “the banality of evil.” In letter to Arendt, dated Aug. 12, 1963, Scholem wrote:

“Though you think you have proven it, I have not seen the proof. Maybe this kind of evil exists; but if so, philosophically it would have to be considered differently. I don’t picture Eichmann, as he marched around in his SS uniform and relished how everyone shivered in fear before him, as the banal gentleman you now want to persuade us he was, ironically or not. I refuse to go along. I’ve read enough descriptions and interviews of Nazi functionaries and their conduct in front of Jews – while the going was good – to mistrust this innocuous ex post facto construction. The gentlemen enjoyed their evil, so long as there was something to enjoy. One behaves differently after the party’s over, of course.”

Scholem’s anger is raging but admirably focused. For him, Arendt was not a disembodied intellectual voice. She and Scholem had been friendly correspondents for more than 20 years. It was Arendt, a refugee in the south of France in 1940, who first told Scholem about the suicide of his old friend Walter Benjamin. Arendt’s bald dislike of Israel and her characterization of European Jews as sheep lead passively to slaughter by the Nazis was not just morally repugnant to Scholem but a betrayal made more sickening because she was a friend, a colleague. Did Scholem know Arendt, in the 1920s, had been the lover of Martin Heidegger, a Nazi party member from 1933 until the end of World War II?

Arendt died in 1975. Five years later, when he was 83 years old, in a letter to the American sociologist Daniel Bell, Scholem’s anger had not cooled:

“…for quite some time I wanted to write you at length about your piece on Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann trial, which brought back to me one of the most bitter controversies of my life and caused me to break all and every connection with Hannah, up to the day of her death. I found it impossible to express, even to a friend like you, the bitterness of my feelings and thoughts in this matter. It has finished for me not only the question about the character of Hannah, but opened up a devastating new view of her own books.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Two Reviewers

I trust and anticipate with pleasure the work of two book reviewers with steady newspaper gigs – Eric Ormsby at the New York Sun, and Joshua Cohen at the Jewish Daily Forward. Ormsby is a poet, critic, and scholar of Islam, and I have often praised him here. His reviews are models of wit and concision, his literary taste is impeccable, and his proclivity is to celebrate, not demean. In a recent piece about Thomas Gray, the 18th-century English poet who wrote the immortal “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," Ormsby said:

“Gray was an amateur in the original sense; he cultivated only what he loved. But in matters of mortality he was no amateur. Born in 1716, the fifth of 12 children, he was the only one to survive infancy; he too almost died from a fit but his mother grabbed a pair of scissors, slit open one of his veins, and saved him. When Richard West, his closest friend, died suddenly in 1742, Gray was bereaved and mourned him in verse for a decade. That grief nourished the great `Elegy.’”

What an admirable way to link a writer’s life and work, and what a powerful insight into a great poem many of us thought we knew. In a poem called “Garter Snake,” Ormsby describes the snake as “moving the way a chance felicity/silvers the whole attention of the mind.” For me, his poems and reviews are such “chance felicities.”

Cohen is a fiction writer, though I don’t know his work. In a recent review of Conversation With Spinoza: A Cobweb Novel, by Goce Smilevski, Cohen writes:

“I suspect that the current Spinoza obsession in America has much to do with our need to justify our secularism, in substantiating it as not just a modern dereliction but as an actual European creed, with history behind it, the bona fide of ages of thought on the nature of man’s relationship with God. Smilevski, being an Eastern European, seems to find in Spinoza a similar assurance brought to bear on a different concern: In a Godless Europe in which democracy was never native, it has become necessary to find a religious course that allows one to respect all creation without recourse to laws that necessarily issue from divinity as unified in one supreme intelligence.”

It’s news to me that the United States is in the grips of a “Spinoza obsession,” though that can only be good news. Cohen deftly links Spinoza, religion, politics and history, all in three well written sentences, and while I’m not certain I agree with him, he made me think and enjoy the process of evaluating his thoughts.

Much of the work of both writers is available online, though the Forward seems to have cleaned out its archives recently. Go here for Ormsby and here for Cohen.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Proverbs are the homely offspring of the aphorism and the unacknowledged bastards of the cliché. They distill wisdom and make it memorable. At least that’s how they start. If a proverb becomes successful and catches on – say, Franklin’s “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” – it risks becoming a cliché, which means we can no longer hear it or, when we repeat it, we do so ironically, as a joke.

I’ve been browsing through two collections of proverbs, largely because of the contrast in their sizes and ethnic origins, and the fact that I found them on the same library shelf. Based on a recommendation at the Complete Review, which calls it a “monumental achievement,” I went looking for Yoruba Proverbs, edited by Oyekan Owomoyela, a professor of African literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and published last year by the University of Nebraska Press.

It’s a hefty volume, gathering 5,235 owe – the Yoruba version of the English proverb – in 500 pages. The Yoruba are an ethnic group of about 40 million people in West Africa, mostly in Nigeria. For each owe, Owomoyela includes the original Yoruba, a literal translation and a gloss or re-interpretation. For instance, “What got into the bald person that made him or her swim underwater?” becomes “One should not unnecessarily endanger oneself.” As you can tell, the owes tends to be suggestive, even poetic, while Owomoyela’s glosses are a little flat-footed. The example I cited is brightened a little by the accompanying footnote, which I will not share with my father-in-law: “The proverb is based on the proposition that a bald person underwater could be mistaken for some aquatic animal.” I’m assuming that means the hippopotamus.

I don’t intend to read the entire book. I’m happy, like the hippo, to graze. Some of the owe are so deeply rooted in Yoruba culture, their broader significance is minimal. But what strikes me as interesting and hopeful for those of us who value humanity as such and who reject identity politics, is the universality of so many of the proverbs Owomoyela has collected. They distill fundamental human experience: “Death is the name one bears at the last. (Death is everybody’s ultimate fate.)”

Here are some favorites:

“A one-eyed person does not attempt standing somersaults. (One should limit one’s ambition to one’s capability.)”

“Whoever takes great care in killing an ant will see its innards. (One must handle delicate matters carefully.)”

“The penis at home never impresses the woman, unless she fucks one outside the home. (One hardly ever appreciates what one has until one has flirted with, and has been disappointed by, alternatives.)”

“The legs of vultures, which ruin the stew. (An abomination [is] like the legs of the vulture in a stew.)”

“Possession of charms is more efficacious than carrying a Koran. (A sure medicine is preferable to faith in religion.)”

The other book I found was an after-thought – Polish Proverbs, collected by Joanne Asala, and published in 1995 by Penfield Press. It’s brief (64 pages), folksy and illustrated with wycinanki – the silhouette-like art of cut paper. In contrast to Yoruba Proverbs, it’s devoid of scholarly apparatus. In her introduction, Asala writes, “Poles are gregarious, cheerful, hard-working, earnest people – these qualities are reflected in their proverbs,” and most of the proverbs she has collected are almost pious, certainly more earnest and less earthy, than the Yoruba. You won’t find penises here, at home or elsewhere. Here are some of the good ones:

“Love your neighbor, but do not remove the fence.”

“The children of a peasant are assets, the children of a gentleman are liabilities, the children of a nobleman are thieves.”

“Old truths, old laws, old friends, an old book and old wine are best.”

And while the Yoruba say

“People think the poor person lacks the wisdom the wealthy person has; they say if one had wisdom, one would be rich. (It is folly to equate wealth with wisdom.)”

the Poles say:

“The peasant’s a born philosopher, the aristocrat must learn to be one.”

Monday, August 14, 2006

Nonrequired Reading

In her brief introduction to Nonrequired Reading, Wislawa Szymborska, poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, lays out her credentials as a civilized human being:

“I’m old-fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised.”

Nonrequired Reading is unlike conventional collections of reviews in that the books she chooses, with few exceptions, are unabashedly unliterary. For decades Szymborska has written about books for newspapers in her native Poland, but she chooses her subjects from the sad stacks of rejects that accumulate in a book editor’s office – popular science and how-to books, celebrity biographies and volumes with titles such as The Encyclopedia of Assassinations, Wallpapering Your Home and The Private Lives of Three Tenors. Szymborska says she tried writing conventional reviews: “…that is, in each case I’d describe the nature of the book at hand, place it in some larger context, then give the reader to understand that it was better than some and worse than others.” Then, happy woman, she realized she had little interest in or gift for such writing.

Rather, she learned that “basically I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation. Sometimes the book itself is my subject; at other times it’s just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations. Anyone who calls there pieces sketches will be correct. Anyone insisting on `reviews’ will incur my displeasure.”

Szymborska writes a species of feuilleton, reminiscent of the Viennese master of the form, Peter Altenberg. Her tone is typically gentle yet tough-minded, unruffled but without swagger. On occasion, she hardly mentions the book. Ostensibly reviewing a translation of Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, she writes:

“Anderson took children seriously. He speaks to them not only about life’s joyous adventures, but about its woes, its miseries, its often undeserved defeats. His fairy tales, peopled with fantastic creatures, are more realistic than whole tons of today’s stories for children, which fret about verisimilitude and avoid wonders like the plague.”

Compare this to a passage from “Retrospective Introduction to My Book Marchen des Lebens,” by Altenberg, another admirer of Anderson:

“We relegated fairytales to the realm of childhood – that exceptional, wondrous, stirring, remarkable time of life! But why rig out childhood with it, when childhood is already sufficiently romantic and fairytale-like in and of itself? … Everything is remarkable if our perception of it is remarkable!”

Szymborska’s buoyancy has been tempered by a history Altenberg never knew (he died in 1919). Altenberg has a child-like streak; Szymborska, never. At least in translation, however, both refer to “wonder,” a key category for evaluating reality for both writers. The lines from Altenberg, by the way, come from one of my favorite books of the last several years – Telegrams of the Soul, translated by Peter Wortsman and published by Archipelago Books.

In her review of a book with the seemingly oxymoronic title of Introducing French Humor, Szymborska gives us a clue to her method, both as a poet and reviewer, which is also a clue to her characteristic stance before the universe:

“Humor is sobriety’s younger brother. There’s constant sibling rivalry between them. The earnest senior sibling patronizes little humor, and humor thus feels inferior, and longs in his heart of hearts to be as sedate as sobriety, but, luckily, he can’t pull it off.”

The same tug-of-war is at work in Szymborska. She even writes a “review” of a wall calendar for 1973 – a ridiculous premise that quietly turns into a meditation on mortality:

“The calendar is doomed to gradual liquidation as its pages are torn off. Millions of books will outlive us, and a considerable number will be ridiculous, dated, and badly written. The calendar is the only book that has no intention of outlasting us, that does not lay claim to a sinecure on the library shelves; it is programmatically short-lived. In its humility it does not even dream of being pored over page by page, but its pages brim with texts just in case.”

Speaking of humility – always rare but virtually non-existent among poets – Szymborska writes, in the middle of a review of a Serbian poet’s prose:

“Something irritates me about the ease with which poets write about poetry. They write as if poetry still held some secrets absolutely inaccessible to other genres. Poets have always been disposed to treat poetry as if it were the alpha and omega of literature, and of course there have been periods that confirmed this conviction. But it’s old hat today. Poetry lives on, and it’s certainly not a minor genre. It seems tactless to me, though, to grant it some kind of indisputable superiority in perception and feeling vis-à-vis literary prose or drama.”

Szymborska’s humility is touching. At 83, she is a poet of great delicacy, humor and the sort of veiled moral gravitas that never turns earnest or self-righteous. She is, by nature, and despite all that her nation has endured, a poet whose first instinct is to celebrate – even second-rate but perfectly readable books. In a poem titled “Reality Demands,” from The End and the Beginning (1993), she writes:

“There is so much Everything
that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.”

Sunday, August 13, 2006

`Make an Enigma of the Familiar'

Like all of his work, Guy Davenport’s Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature cunningly defies efforts to summarize it. His method is seemingly simple: He takes a recognizable category – in this case, still life painting – and from his vast learning and sensitivity to kinships – cultural, aesthetic, philosophical -- assembles a matrix of associations that enable us to see it new. His prose is at once focused and digressive. His mind is fresh and nimble, the opposite of bored.

The fourth essay in the volume, “Metaphysical Light in Turin,” starts with Nietzsche in the final months of his sanity, proceeds to De Chirico’s early work, moves on to Milton, Keats and Kipling, with stops along the way for Shelley, Claude Levi-Strauss, Charles Olson and Joyce, among others. Davenport is not name-dropping. He is orienting us to navigate the geography of the imagination. Casually, in the midst of all this energized linkage (energized with thought), Davenport takes time to define the very method he is utilizing:

“One way of recognizing verities is to look at them as if you had never seen them before, to make an enigma of the familiar.”

If I were pressed to summarize Davenport, to diminish his genius by reducing it, bumper-stick fashion, to a nugget of thought, that sentence would come close. The thought, of course, is not new. Others, some of whom Davenport acknowledged, said similar things. John Ruskin, for instance:

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what he saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think. But thousands can think for one who can see. To see is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.”

And the photographer Walker Evans:

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

And John Berger:

“Not to say that behind appearances is the truth, the Platonic way. It is very possible that visibility is the truth and that what lies outside visibility are only the `traces’ of what has been or will become visible.”

On July 29, 1857, Thoreau wrote in his journal:

“I am interested in an indistinct prospect, a distant view, a mere suggestion often, revealing an almost wholly new world to me. I rejoice to get, and am apt to present, a new view. But I find it impossible to present my view to most people. In effect, it would seem that they do not wish to take a new view in any case. Heat lightning flashes, which reveal a distant horizon to our twilight eyes. But my fellows simply assert that it is not broad day, which everybody knows, and fail to perceive the phenomenon at all. I am willing to pass for a fool in my own desperate, perhaps foolish, efforts to persuade them to lift the veil from off the possible and future, which they hold down with both their hands, before their eyes. The most valuable communication or news consists of hints and suggestions. When a truth comes to be known and accepted, it begins to be bad taste to repeat it. Every individual constitution is a probe employed in a new direction, and a wise man will attend to each one’s report.”

Davenport would have loved the Thoreau, and probably did.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

`The Knowledge Which Experience Must Confer'

The library at the university where I work recently acquired the new four-volume edition of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, edited by Roger Lonsdale and published by Oxford University Press. It’s a beautiful, formidable work of scholarship, and carries an equally formidable price tag: $595. Johnson was paid 200 guineas to write it, and without the library I would never have been able to read it.

Returning to my office with the hefty volumes, which strained the seams of the canvas sack I use to carry books, I remembered an essay, “Paralipomena to The Hidden Law,” by the late Anthony Hecht, included in his final prose collection, Melodies Unheard. “Paralipomena” is Greek for “things omitted.” We might call it an addendum or supplemental text, in this case to Hecht’s The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W.H. Auden” (1993). In the essay, Hecht addresses issues he felt he had neglected in the earlier volume, and it has the feel of an old man’s digressive, slightly neurotic and quite rewarding grab bag.

For instance, Hecht spends two pages examining the “remarkable resemblance” of Johnson and Auden – a resemblance that had never occurred to me, though Hecht marshals a great deal of evidence: Both suffered from poor eyesight, held cleanliness in “utter disregard” and were inclined to choose, in the words of Johnson biographer W. Jackson Bate, “the wrong side of a debate, because most ingenious, that is to say, most new things, could be said upon it.”

Both Auden and Johnson held (with Hecht again quoting Bate) a “lifelong conviction – against which another part of him was forever afterwards to protest – that indolence is an open invitation to mental distress and even disintegration, and that to pull ourselves together, through the force of attention and the discipline of work, is within our power.” They shared a belief that “effort in daily habits – such as rising early – was necessary to `reclaim imagination’ and keep it on an even keel.”

In short, Johnson and Auden accepted what is called, often dismissively, the Protestant work ethic. To many contemporary sensibilities, that must seem impossibly square, repressed, bourgeois – whatever the cant term is. But I know from hard experience that concentrated work, mental or physical, is a tonic and relaxant. Idleness is corrosive of well-being.

Both writers were indifferent to their surroundings. “In addition, Bate wrote, Johnson `was able to distinguish between “loving” and “being loved” and to value the first without demanding equal payment through the latter,’ while Auden wrote, `I equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.’”

Johnson and Auden maintained, in Bate’s words, that “the `main of life’ consists of `little things’; that happiness or misery is to be found in the accumulation of `petty’ and `domestic’ details, not in `large’ ambitions, which are inevitably self-defeating and turn to ashes in the mouth. `Sands make the mountain,’ [Johnson] would quote from Edward Young.”

The examples Hecht cites are among the reasons I love not only Johnson and Auden, but Bate and Hecht. They lend me courage – an old-fashioned way to read. Recently I discovered a blog, Spurious, whose author writes lengthy, eloquent posts, though I’m not always certain I understand what he is trying to express. We share enthusiasms – Bernhard, Handke, Sebald, Pessoa – but I suspect Johnson and Auden are not among his. He wrote in a post titled "A Metaphysic":

“But then I also asked – and ask today – whether those who seek from literature a clue as to how to live, how to act, how to experience the contingency of the world, can only ever be too close to what they are compelled to love.”

Well, yes. I suppose I am close to the writers I admire, those who have taught me how to live. I need such experience, strength and hope. Is that “too” close? I have never been able to think of a good novel, poem or essay as exclusively a “text,” cloistered away from life, unanchored to a particular life. Every literary work at its heart is autobiographical, though not in a literal, banal fashion, and not in ways we the readers, or he or she the author, could ever document. Spurious inspires critical self-examination. Is what Johnson wrote of Milton -- “He had read much and knew what books could teach; but had mingled little in the world, and was deficient in the knowledge which experience must confer” -- also true of me? I don’t think so. Books, too, are experience.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Still Life

Two essential writers, Zbigniew Herbert and Guy Davenport, both of whom prized civilization and were themselves highly civilized, and neither of whom was conventionally considered an art historian, addressed the subject of still life painting. Included in Herbert’s Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems is a prose poem, “Still Life”:

“Violently separated from life, these shapes were scattered on the table with deliberate carelessness: a fish, an apple, a handful of vegetables mixed with flowers. A dead leaf of light has been added, and a bird with a bleeding head. In its petrified claws the bird clenches a small planet made of emptiness, and air taken away.”

Herbert also published a collection of essays and what he called “apocryphas,” Still Life with a Bridle, a wayward meditation on the aesthetic legacy of 17th-century Holland. The title essay relates Herbert’s discovery, in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, of a painting by an artist previously unknown to him: Jan Simon van der Beeck (1589-1644), better known as Torrentius. The painting, the only work by Torrentius known to have survived, that captivated Herbert lent its title to his essay and collection, and is reproduced on the Ecco paperback edition I own. Herbert describes it as “a calm, static still life,” depicting a clay pitcher, a half-filled glass goblet, a pewter pitcher, two porcelain pipes, paper with musical notations, a book and, impossible to identify without Herbert’s help, a bridle. He writes:

“The background was the most fascinating of all: black, deep as a precipice and at the same time as flat as a mirror, palpable and disappearing in perspectives of infinity. A transparent cover over the abyss.”

In the reproduction on the cover of my copy, the painting is overwhelmingly black and mysterious. Near the end of his 28-page essay, Herbert writes:

“So many questions. I did not manage to break the code. The enigmatic painter, the incomprehensible man, begins to pass from the plane of investigation based on flimsy sources to an indistinct sphere of fantasy, the domain of tellers of tales.”

Herbert’s essay is written like a mystery, with Herbert himself in the role of self-confessed failure as a detective. Who was Torrentius? Political martyr (an appealing figure for a poet in Poland) or mad man? A civilized man can live with such ambiguities and uncertainties, and even relish them.

In Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature, Davenport devotes an entire playful, discursive, scholarly volume to the still life, starting with its origins in Egypt (food for the dead) and Israel (the Book of Amos). He writes:

“Still life is a minor art, and one with a residue of didacticism that will never bleach out; a homely art. From the artist’s point of view, it has always served as a contemplative form used for working out ideas, color schemes, opinions. It has the same relation to larger, more ambitious paintings as the sonnet to the long poem….We must not, however, imagine that still life is inconsequential or trivial.”

And later:

“Still life belongs in the slow sinews of a great swell that began with the cultivation of wheat and the fermentation of wine, bread and wine being two of its permanent images. It is an art that is symbiotic with civilization.”

With calm confidence, Davenport makes typically audacious generalizations:

“In still life, down through history, we find an ongoing meditation on where matter ends and spirit begins, and on the nature of their interdependence. Joyce, who left no art untouched or unchallenged, deployed still lifes throughout his work. The first sentence of Ulysses is one: `Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Davenport’s book itself, originally presented as the Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto in 1982, is a sort of still life, an artful arrangement of four essays. In “A Remark Beforehand” he writes:

“However unprofessional and even deplorable they will appear to some scholars, they may be of interest to the common reader and intelligent children. Each is it self a disarray of perceptions and conjunctions in which the unlikelihood of harmony vies with the promise of coherence in the titles.”

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Another Poor Sensitive Gentleman

I am reading The Collected Poems of C.P Cavafy, the new edition with translations by Aliki Barnstone. More than ever I am convinced Cavafy is one of the last century’s great world poets, in the company of Eliot, Stevens, Crane, Yeats, Rilke, Montale, Valery, Mandelstam and Pessoa. Conventional understanding says Cavafy wrote two sorts of poems, historical and erotic, a distinction I’ve always accepted, but what impresses me on this reading is how often Cavafy merges those realms and defies categories. Here’s a poem written in 1899 and published two years later, “Che Fece…Il Gran Rifiuto”:

“A day comes to some people when
they must pronounce the great Yes or the great No.
It is instantly clear who has the Yes within,
ready; and by uttering it, he crosses over to

“his honor and conviction. The one who
refuses has no remorse. If asked again,
he’d say no again. And yet that No –
the tight No – weighs him down to his life’s end.”

Here’s Barnstone’s gloss:

“The title is from Dante’s Inferno, Canto 3.60: `After I had recognized some of them,/I saw and knew the shame of him who/through cowardice, made the great refusal.’ The poem refers to Celestine who became pope in 1294 and abdicated five months later, saying the great `No.’ Dante see this as an act of cowardice, Cavafy as one of honor.”

Honor, perhaps, but also sadness and resignation. I’ve always read this poem in light of Cavafy’s homosexuality. Without the Dantean tag and the explication of Church history, it seems an exclusively personal statement, a refusal of convention, moral and otherwise. With it comes a sense of melancholy and regret.

“Of the Jews (50 C.E.)” was written in 1912, published in 1919:

“Painter and poet, runner and discus thrower,
beautiful as Endymion, Ianthis, son of Anthony,
was from a family friendly to the synagogue.

“My most honest days
are when I leave the aesthetic search,
when I leave behind beautiful and hard Hellenism,
with its paramount focus
on perfectly made and mortal white limbs.
And I become the person I wish
Always to remain – of the Jews, the holy Jews, the son.

“His eager declaration: `Always
To remain of the Jews, the holy Jews –’

But he did not remain that way at all.
The Hedonism and Art of Alexandria
Held him, a devoted son.”

Barnstone’s note tells us Ianthis is an imaginary character: “A Jew with a Greek name, whose father’s name is Roman, thereby reflecting the diverse elements in Alexandria. He lived during the reign of Claudius (41-54 C.E.), who restored many rights of the Jews, which is reflected in Ianthis’s quandary of loyalty to Judaism and Greco-Roman culture.”

Cavafy was not Jewish but seemed to have a highly developed sense of empathy for outsiders of all sorts – truly a “devoted son” of multicultural Alexandria, its art and its “hedonism.” Many of his poems take place in small rooms, sanctuaries of desire, and many are mirror images of the poems T.S. Eliot was writing around the same time. Cavafy was gay and, judging from his poems, prolifically sexual; Eliot, straight and repressed.

In “Portrait of a Lady,” a sort of Symbolist short story in free verse with a title borrowed from Henry James, a nameless young gentleman is the object of seduction by an older, worldly woman. Nervous and ashamed of his pallid fastidiousness, he tries unsuccessfully to muffle the distraction of her flirtations with “a dull tom-tom” in his brain:

“I keep my countenance,
I remain self-possessed
Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired
Reiterates some worn-out common song
With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
Recalling things that other people have desired.
Are these ideas right or wrong?”

Cavafy, of course, would never have asked that question, any more than he would have asked the one Eliot poses in his poem’s final line: “And should I have the right to smile?” For Cavafy, the obvious answer is a wistful “Yes.” Speaking of James, I hear echoes of his “poor sensitive gentlemen,” especially those in the later stories and in The Ambassadors, in Cavafy’s poems. As Dencombe, the dying novelist in “The Middle Years,” says, “A second chance—that’s the delusion. There never was to be but one.” Cavafy’s gentlemen have many chances, many assignations, and the poems are their bittersweet memorials. Only Cavafy, the poet not his gentleman, can finish Dencombe’s speech:

“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

`Loop-Holes of Retreat'

They might have been talking about blogging:

“What I mean by living to one’s-self is living in the world, as in it, not of it: it is as if no one knew there was such a person, and you wished no one to know it: it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it; to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it. It is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead, and such an interest as it might take in the affairs of men: calm, contemplative, passive, distant, touched with pity for their sorrows, smiling at their follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamed of by them. He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart looks at the busy world through the loop-holes of retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray.”

This comes from “On Living to One’s-Self,” an essay William Hazlitt published in 1821. Hazlitt was never a “silent spectator,” but earlier in the essay he commends “never thinking at all about one’s-self, any more than if there was no such person in existence.” I favor writers who instinctively are most impersonal when writing about personal matters. One of the attractions of blogging is the qualified anonymity it permits. Words matter, not the precious “personality.” Except for the bit about “pure spirit” – no one I know – Hazlitt describes a writer’s ideal of spectatorship. Someone should start a blog called Loop-Holes of Retreat.

And this, from the English poet Roy Fisher, who told an interviewer, “I don’t mind being invisible if it gives me independence.”

What I treasure most is my independence. I have no one to please but myself, and I’m most myself when I’m invisible.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Little Sanity

I have never been an admirer of David Mamet's work, but I very much admire what he has written for the Chicago Tribune.

`Dogged Beauty’

Even so fierce and morally stringent a poet as Geoffrey Hill cannot resist the tug of the natural world and its beauties. There’s a passage at the end of section 80 in Speech! Speech! (2000), in which Hill celebrates, if that’s the right word, the English countryside:

“Even today the light
is beautiful – you can hardly avoid
seeing that: shadows – reflections – on reeds
and grasses deepening visibility:
the mind’s invisible cold conflagration.”

This is hardly conventional nature poetry, the mystical sort practiced by too many American poets. There’s no woozy-minded pantheism, no identification with the reputed benignity of other species or kingdoms. A handful of grass may be “the flag of my disposition” for Walt Whitman, but not for Hill. His world is charged not with meaning and communion but peril and perdition. The next passage, at the start of Section 81, continues the change signaled by “conflagration”:

“Again: the saltmarsh in winter. By dawn
drain-mouths grow yellow beards. Old man’s duty,
vigilance so engraved, shabby observance,
dirty habit, wavelets chinning the shore-line.
Rich in decrepit analogues he sees:
archipelagos, collops of sewage,
wormed ribs jutting through rime.”

Hill’s vocabulary is vast and draws enthusiastically upon the sweep of the language’s history. In his lines, no word is archaic. “Collops” in this context is particularly repugnant. It refers to cut up pieces of meat or fat, and even appears in the King James Bible, Job 15:27: “maketh collops of fat on his flanks.” It nicely echoes “dollops.” The entire passage, redolent of Swift’s body-disgust, recalls the final lines of that poet’s “A Description of a City Shower”:

“Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”

The traditional distinction between urban and rural, man-made and natural, dissolves. Simultaneously, the “poetic” is redefined. “Collops,” indeed. Such moments, when the poet turns from beauty almost in disgust, occur in the work of R.S. Thomas, another of poetry’s prophet-moralizers, another embattled Christian. But Thomas is a more traditional nature poet, in love with birds and rocks, often at the expense of the human. Thomas’ vision is also less radically bitter, more nostalgic than Hill’s. Here’s a quintessential Hill moment, from section 2, verse 25, of Scenes from Comus (2005):

“There is a dogged beauty in the world,
unembarrassing goodness, honesty unfazed.
There’s also the corrupter, the abuser,
the abused corrupted in accepted ways,
the ways of death, the deadliness of life.”

Monday, August 07, 2006

`Joyous Leaves'

The campus of the university where I work in Houston is dense with live oaks, as is much of the city. The trees line many streets and sidewalks, and often the branches merge overhead and form densely shaded tunnels, an effect I have heard called “cathedrals.” Live oaks seem to grow horizontally. Often they are wider than they are tall. Their branches possess enormous structural strength, and they grow 40 feet or more from the trunk, parallel to the ground.

On my way to the campus library last week, I passed through a “cathedral” and noticed a spiky-looking sphere on the grass beneath one of the oaks. It was “ball moss,” a clumpy species of Spanish moss that resembles drab Christmas ornaments. Its leaves form a gray-green, spaghetti-like tangle. When rain is ample, ball moss absorbs 10 times its own dry weight in moisture. The one I found, larger than a grapefruit and covered with spiky shoots, still held the twig on which it had grown. Apparently it swelled with rain and the weight caused the twig to snap. I brought it home and put it in a dish of water and it seems to be thriving. Now it looks, from a distance, like a cheese ball gone to mold.

We don’t seem to have much of the long, Faulknerian Spanish moss my Northern eyes associate with the South. If that sort can be likened to Rapunzel’s hair, ours looks mangy and unkempt, more like dreadlocks, perhaps because of Houston’s filthy air. More information than you’ll find here about Spanish moss – an epiphyte related to the pineapple -- and live oaks is available online. I especially like the Spanish moss site created by Dennis Adams, a librarian in Beaufort County, S.C.

The classic text on the subject, of course, is Whitman’s “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” one of the first of his poems I knew:

“I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder'd how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there
without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it and
twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana
solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.”

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Get Happy

Feeling alienated? Ennui-stricken? Had enough of angst? Go here.

Sweet Memes

A “meme” has been drifting through the blogosphere, seeking readers to match the books in their lives to nine categories. Gimmicks normally irritate, and I tried to ignore this one but it proved as tenacious as a deer tick. Some titles were self-evident. Others stumped me, so some answers are tentative. I found pleasure in both. Ask me again tomorrow:

One book that changed your life: The Geography of the Imagination, by Guy Davenport. A teacher in everything he did, he taught me the Borgesian lesson that everything is connected, nothing is alien. Just enter the labyrinth and follow the thread. His voice is charming and authoritative, a scholar sharing his loves. How could I do less than follow his suggestions? He led me to Ruskin, Zukofsky, Agassiz and Paul Metcalf, and back to others I already knew: Pound, Whitman, Joyce, Mandelstam, Welty…

One book that you’ve read more than once: Ulysses, by James Joyce. The first time, in junior high school, I understood only the seductive music of Joyce’s language – enough to keep me going. After subsequent readings – four? five? – the novel remains funny, cosmically happy, and heartbreaking: "Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in an Eton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling that would be. From me."

One book you’d want on a desert island: Complete Works, by William Shakespeare. The toughest category. I was tempted, like Terry Teachout, to pack Montaigne’s Essays in my duffel. Language tipped the scale. Without French, I rely on translation. With Shakespeare, I pack the world, and in glorious English: “a rhapsody of words,” Hamlet says. Shakespeare spells the end of solitude.

One book that made you laugh: The Dick Gibson Show, by Stanley Elkin. The field is broad – Wodehouse, Waugh, Roth – but for consistent, helpless laughter, you can’t beat Elkin. This title is a sentimental favorite, my first Elkin, read in 1971. Dick Gibson is an itinerant, shape-shifting radio announcer, all voice, giving Elkin a perfect platform for his shtick: words, words, “a rhapsody of words.”

One book that made you cry:
Washington Square, by Henry James. The saddest book I know. Catherine Sloper’s goodness is abused by Morris Townsend, the charming fortune hunter, but even more painfully by her father, Dr. Sloper. Loyalties torn, innocence betrayed, a life unlived. The final sentence is devastating: “Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again – for life, as it were.” (My only rival for this category: Interstate, by Stephen Dixon.)

One book you wish had been written: The collection of stories Isaac Babel was working on when Stalin’s goons took him away, on May 15, 1939. Before they could destroy his manuscripts, Babel pleaded, “Let me finish my work.” The following year, on Jan. 27, he was executed by firing squad in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, proclaiming his innocence to the end.

One book you wish had never been written: Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Any of her titles would do, I suppose, but this one is credited with earning her the Nobel Prize for Literature, the award denied Tolstoy, James, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Nabokov and Borges. Morrison has parlayed a modest lyrical gift and a prodigious gift for whining and propaganda into a lucrative career.

One book you’re currently reading: David Hume, by J.Y.T Greig. I’m also reading a book for review, but Greig’s 1931 volume is the ginger between courses, a palate-cleanser, a life as robust and common-sensical as its subject: “David Hume died, in perfect composure of spirit, about four o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, August 25th, 1776.” Beautiful.

One book you’ve been meaning to read: My Past and Thoughts, by Alexander Herzen. Thirty years ago I read the one-volume abridgement edited by Dwight Macdonald, and I’ve always meant to read the complete work in four volumes. Herzen was born in 1812 in Moscow, shortly before the French captured the city. His reconstruction of those events, a melding of personal and world history, rivals Tolstoy’s. A socialist and muckraking journalist, Herzen wrote: "Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have."

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Retrospective for Guy and Ralph

Guy Davenport was a literary and scholarly neurotransmitter who linked readers, writers and other artists with precision and enthusiasm. The one time I met him, at his home in Lexington, Ky., in 1990, I gave Guy a copy of The Barnum Museum, the newly published collection of stories by Steven Millhauser. I knew he had written an admiring blurb for Millhauser’s previous collection, In the Penny Arcade. His response, after thanking me, was to place Millhauser, without pedantry or condescension, in a literary tradition that included Kafka and Borges and, closer to home and less predictably, Nathaniel Hawthorne. That was enough to send me back to Hawthorne, whom I had never read systematically. Guy was right: Except for the problematic case of the Russian-born Nabokov, Hawthorne is clearly Millhauser’s closest American precursor. Also, I learned I don’t much care for Hawthorne’s work, but now I know why.

In 1981, North Point Press published The Geography of the Imagination, Guy’s literary encyclopedia and style book disguised as a collection of essays and reviews. I remember certain passages from it as readily as familiar pieces of music. Included was “Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” a remembrance of his friendship with the self-taught photographer and American original. I had never heard of Meatyard, but I remedied that quickly after reading sentences like this:

“When he met Louis and Celia Zukofsky at my house, he went away and read Zukofsky. Not that he was an enthusiast. He simply had a curiosity that went all the way, and a deep sense of courtesy whereby if a man were a writer he would read what he had written, if a man were a painter he would look at his paintings.”

Of course, Guy is also describing himself in that passage, as he is in this one:

“He was rare among American artists in that he was not obsessed with his own image in the world. He could therefore live in perfect privacy in a rotting Kentucky town. He was forever sending off shows, he kept up with everything, he encouraged everybody. He was a quiet, diffident, charming person on the surface, a known ruse of the American genius (William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore). This modesty amounted to there being at least two distinct Gene Meatyards in the world: an invisible Lexington businessman and a genius who achieved one of the most beautiful styles in twentieth-century art.”

This week I have been enjoying Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a collection of Meatyard’s photographs that was edited, in part, by Guy. In 2001, he reviewed thousands of black-and-white pictures in the Meatyard estate (Meatyard died of cancer in 1972) and at the University of Kentucky (where Guy taught for 26 years). Guy whittled down the selection to about 400, after which the International Center of Photography made the final pick.

Guy died Jan. 4, 2005, and the book had been published a few months earlier, in time for the Meatyard exhibition at the International Center of Photography, in New York City, which ran from Dec. 10, 2004, to Feb. 27, 2005. This must have been among Guy’s final projects. It’s typical that he would have devoted himself, even while sick with cancer, to another artist, one who was also a friend.

Meatyard’s pictures are genuinely strange, floating somewhere between folk art and the strictures of high modernism, seldom descending into Diane Arbus’ pandering after the melodramatically grotesque. To use a bookish analogy, they are closer to Flannery O’Connor than Kathy Acker. Most of the time, their strangeness is earned because he depicts it in the context of the recognizably familiar. Meatyard often used his wife and children as props. (Much of his work can be viewed online, beginning here.)

The picture on page 94, untitled (like most of Meatyard’s photos) and dated from 1964, is typical – two boys, one side of a wooden house, a sprawling sumac bush. The younger boy, about 9, is on the left, seated on wooden stairs. His right hand cups his left knee; his left, fingers bent at the second joint, holds his chin and covers his mouth. On the right, a few feet from the first, the other boy, about 13 or 14, stands under a wing of the house. His hands are above his head, lost in the shadows, as though he were pushing against the frame of the picture. Both boys have short hair, wear white t-shirts and stare at the camera. They seem wary, trying unsuccessfully to look tough (especially the older boy). What gives the photo its interest is the sumac, which fills half the frame and covers most of the older boy. The house is all straight lines; the bush, a luxuriant explosion of curves. The boys are arranged like a defensive buffer between the human and the natural worlds, but that sounds pretentious. As the father of three sons, I’m intrigued by the demeanors of the boys, and I wonder how much Meatyard coached them (I assume they are his sons). At the same time, I admire the composition of the photo, the way the sumac divides the picture into two roughly equal triangles.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard reproduces three photographs of Guy, including one of him memorably posed with his friend, Thomas Merton. Among the other writers pictured are the Zukofskys, Denise Levertov and Wendell Berry. The essay from The Geography of the Imagination is printed at the front of the book, as well as an interview Guy did with the book’s editor, Cynthia Young. Here’s a sample that might help illuminate the picture described above. Asked about the derelict buildings and their relationship with the Meatyard children, Guy said:

“Well, you can read them all sorts of ways, New World, Old World, a Lexington that the children will never know because it is being torn down. There is an eloquent set of pictures inside a house, a building being destroyed, and there is a pickax stuck in the wall, and I always felt that was a very forceful symbol.”

And this:
“Gene wanted to do a parallel creation in photography to William Carlos Williams’s poem Paterson. And I asked him, `So, you are going up to Paterson?’ `Oh no,’ he said. `I will do all of the photography here in Lexington.’ And that is a great clue to what he was thinking about and how his mind worked. He had a copy of Paterson in the front seat of his car, and he would read it while he was driving. This rather scared me if I was in the car. But he said he could pay attention to driving and read the poem at the same time.”

And I can’t resist one more:

“…most of Sayre Avenue where I live are nonreaders, the kind of people who own one or two books which are decorations on a shelf in the living room, never to be read. One percent of the American population buys books, it is not known what lesser percent of that reads them. We are almost as illiterate and hopeless as Australia, and yet we publish more books than anybody else, or as Bill Buckley says, `We publish more “nonbooks,”’ meaning coffee table books, weight loss books, art books that have very short sales. O, actually, I think the United States now is extremely lively: we have more important writers than I can keep track of. I get a book a day and a literary magazine a day, just, you know, over the transom, never mind the manuscripts.”

I wish Guy were still around just to ask him which “important writers” he meant.

Friday, August 04, 2006

`The Elegance of Things Seen'

I stumbled on these thoughts from Basil Bunting:

“…[Hugh] MacDiarmid sees things washed clean of irrelavancies as Darwin did. Suckling poets should be fed on Darwin till they are filled with the elegance of things seen or heard or touched. Words cannot come near it, though they name things. Their elegance is part precision, more music….”

half an hour before finding, at the Poetry magazine site, a poem about Charles Darwin, “Consolation,” written by the Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. Her Darwin, as translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, finds solace in novels of the Dickensian sort, with their tidy resolutions:

“He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.”

In his review of John Bowlby’s Charles Darwin: A Life (1991), Guy Davenport describes Darwin, reclining on a sofa in the midst of his notebooks, scientific journals and microscope, reading an unidentified novel by George Eliot (though one suspects it is Middlemarch):

“He is the preeminent scientist of his century and ours. The great theory that he began to suspect as a young naturalist on the long voyage of The Beagle (1832-36) was one in which chance opened possibility after possibility over millions of years, so that the offspring of creatures now known only by fossils worked out a genetic fate. The bear, the wolf, and the dog are children of the same mother. Gratuitous modifications nudged each other toward divergent fates. George Eliot wrote about such things as they modified human lives in a few years; Darwin, as all of creation is modified over eons.”

Accompanying the Szymborska poem is a useful note from Cavanagh, one of the translators, on Szymborska’s reading and writing habits:

“Darwin, she suggests, used Dickens, Trollope, and their lesser-known contemporaries to compensate for the great evolutionary master plot that apparently did away with the notion of a single, all-encompassing story with a preordained happy ending that invariably placed human beings, Man as Such, in the starring role.”

This is well said. Too often, Darwin is portrayed as an iconoclast, a gleeful world-destroyer, who relished the offense his work inspired. Such an interpretation is a trivializing attempt to make Darwin conform to our era’s romanticizing of outsiders and rebels. He was nothing of the sort, as readers of Janet Browne’s masterful, two-volume biography know. He was a scientist and his loyalty was to facts, and this is a rare human proclivity. Consider Bunting seeing “things washed clean of irrelavancies.” Gifted scientists and artists come equipped with filters for dross removal. Darwin evaluated evidence, not sentiment, dogma or wishful thinking. At the end of day, even he needed the solace of virtue rewarded and justice affirmed, even if only “in fiction/with its diminutions.”

It’s Bunting’s Darwin I most admire, the disciplined observer “filled with the elegance of things seen or heard or touched.” This is the Darwin of Nabokov and Davenport – the poets of perception. Later in his review of the Darwin biography (collected in The Hunter Gracchus), Davenport writes:

“There is no event without a past. Once geology began to uncover the fossil record, a rational account of it was inevitable. Darwin was an orchestrator of evidence and created a moment in knowledge when all the right questions began to find a plausible answer. The turbulence around Darwin is intellectual theater, still going strong. Not only theater but a kind of myth – the Victorian debates between rhetorical giants, the almost instant abuse of the theory for ulterior motives, the invention of `social Darwinism’ by Herbert Spencer, the Molieresque comedy in Dayton, Tennessee, the fundamentalist creationists and flat-earthers whose real motive is to keep their hapless children from knowing about sex until the marriage night, the embarrassment of both Protestants and Catholics, the rifiuto of Islam.”

Thursday, August 03, 2006

`I Won't Write Anymore'

At the heart of Geoffrey Hill’s most recent collection, Without Title, is a series of 21 odes titled “Pindarics: After Cesare Pavese.” Each is prefaced with a citation from Pavese’s The Burning Brand: Diaries 1935-1950. The poems, each 23 lines long, address Hill’s customary concerns – poetry, history, sex, politics, anything under the sun. From the 11th ode:

“I think catastrophe; feel, touch, stasis
wholly without stillness. The pilot scans
into the nimbus of his utmost fix;
an ancient anabasis, lift of pride.”

And from the eighth:

“Typical as comedians – something lewd
slips from your homework-journal to my hand,
sticks like a noxious treat in silver paper.
Disasters have their triumphs: redeemed swots,
you with your Whitman, while I cribbed from much
maligned beau Allen Tate pindaric odes.
Narrative’s easy – up we go and down –
except I feel a bounder to myself.
Now, that is you, Ces, sullen and alert.”

Throughout, Hill addresses the Italian writer as “Ces.” I’ve read much of Pavese’s fiction and poetry, and his nonfiction on American literature (Pavese was a prolific translator of American writing, including Moby-Dick). Hill’s example set me to reading Pavese’s “homework-journal,” and it is anything but the usual confused, unfinished, self-involved muddle we expect from diaries. Fragmentary, yes, but pithy and aphoristic, charged with the experience of life under fascism and during wartime. His thought-shards carry more weight than entire essays by some writers. This Pavese wrote on March 10, 1947:

“The difficulty of art is to present things you know well in such a way that they are surprising. If you did not know them well, you would not be sufficiently interested in them to treat them in a way that makes them surprising.

“The delight of art: perceiving that one’s own way of life can determine a method of expression.”

And Dec. 3, 1938:

“When we read, we are not looking for new ideas, but to see our own thoughts given the seal of confirmation on the printed page. The words that strike us are those that awake an echo in a zone we have already made our own – the place where we live – and the vibration enables us to find fresh starting points within ourselves.”

And this, from June 23, 1940, in which he is ridiculously but fruitfully wrong:

“Defoe is the greatest English novelist because he is the least affected by Elizabethan influences. His voice is unmarred. The others, even Dickens, reflect the seventeenth century, either in their poetry or in their humor. They are imaginative and express themselves in images, but no longer have the lusty instincts and wit of the Elizabethans. They indulge in rhetorical phrases and keep nothing concealed from their characters, consequently they are not dramatic.”

And May 27, 1944:

“Who knows how many things have happened to me: what a very good question on which to base your `summa.’ It simply means: who knows in how many different lights I shall again see my past, and this implies that I shall discover in it many new developments.”

And this, as apropos today as when Pavese wrote it on June 5, 1940:

“The reality of war suggests this simple thought: it is not sad to die when so many of your friends are dying. War gives one a sense of being one of a group. Welcome! Come on in!”

In the final years, Pavese mentions suicide with ominous regularity – not as a subject but as a choice, as though he were testing his own nerve. The final passage in his diary is dated Aug. 18, 1950:

“The thing most feared in secret always happens.

“I write: oh Thou, have mercy. And then?

“All it takes is a little courage.

“The more the pain grows clear and definite, the more the instinct for life asserts itself and the thought of suicide recedes.

“It seemed easy when I thought of it. Weak women have done it. It takes humility, not pride.

“All this is sickening.

“Not words. An act. I won’t write anymore.”

Those final four words are among the saddest I know. Eight days later, at the age of 42, alone in a Turin hotel room, Pavese killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates.