Wednesday, July 25, 2007

`To Hide the Ruin of His Dreams'

In 1970, Triquarterly published a festschrift for Vladimir Nabokov and that’s how I first heard of Morris Bishop, the man responsible in 1948 for hiring the Russian novelist to teach at Cornell University, where Bishop was professor of Romance literature. In his 11 years at Cornell, Nabokov wrote, edited or translated Pnin, Lolita, Conclusive Evidence, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, Eugene Onegin, and various poems, stories and articles on lepidoptera. Bishop and Nabokov became fond friends, and here’s Bishop’s summary of the Russian’s years in Ithaca:

“On the whole, I think the Cornell years were useful for the artist. He gained security, time for abundant production, and knowledge of the American background, which he turned splendidly to account. He immersed himself in the mainstream of American bourgeois culture, and thus learned a whole subject-matter. The Cornell experience was a good thing for Nabokov; his presence was also a very good thing for Cornell.”

Later, I came to know Bishop as a writer of light verse, a craft unfairly relegated to the same artistic gulag as découpage. If you can, find a copy of The Best of Bishop, his collected poems published in 1980, seven years after his death. Here’s a link to “How to Treat Elves,” with this memorable dénouement:

“I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The God damn little fool.”

Some years ago, in Joseph Epstein’s Life Sentences, I read “La Rochefoucauld: Maximum Maximist,” an essay devoted to the 17th-century French writer of maxims. In it, Epstein referred glowingly to Bishop’s The Life and Adventures of La Rochefoucauld, which I am finally reading. Epstein described the book, published in 1951, as “belles-lettristic” in the best old-fashioned sense. One might think of it as an extended literary essay as opposed to an academic biography, and it might remind readers of V.S. Pritchett’s book-length essays on Turgenev, Balzac and Chekhov. There are no footnotes and only a brief “Bibliographical Note.” Best of all, here’s the note Bishop published at the front of the book:

“The author has interpolated in his text 242 of the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld, usually without quotation marks or other acknowledgement.”

This would probably drive academics nuts, but for Bishop the life and work are inseparable and he expects the common reader to accept this as an obvious truth. La Rochefoucauld published more than 700 maximes, none longer than half a page and most consisting of two or three sentences. They possess the compact resonance of poetry. Contrary to their reputation, the maxims are not gratuitously cynical. They are unsentimental and unsparingly honest but rooted in La Rochefoucauld’s desire for his readers to shed illusions about themselves. Theodore Dalrymple wrote a winning essay about La Rochefoucauld in which he writes:

“La Rochefoucauld’s major contribution to humanity’s knowledge of itself was his clearsighted recognition of the protean manifestations of self-interest and amour-propre. His little book—not a hundred pages of modern print—tells us more about human nature than thousands of pages of Freud, and incidentally undermines completely any claim of the Freudians that their hero discovered the workings of the unconscious.”

That’s the same Freud whom Nabokov rightly dismissed as “the Viennese quack,” and here’s an example of how Morris melds maxims seamlessly into his narrative:

“La Rochefoucauld, oppressed by the sense of his isolation, was forced to retire to the refuge of his own heart. What ordinarily hinders us from displaying the depths of our hearts to our friends is not so much our distrust of them as the distrust we feel of ourselves.”

La Rochefoucauld’s genius was to make the unpleasant truth about human nature, our devotion to self-protection and self-regard at any cost, sound so familiar: “Yes, that’s me,” we say as we read the maxims, even as we congratulate ourselves on our splendid insight. There’s no escaping La Rochefoucauld’s moral x-ray vision. Here’s one of his best known maxims, first in French, then in the recent Oxford translation by E.H. and A.M. Blackmore, and Francine Giguère:

Nous avons tous assez de force pour supporter les maux d’autrui.”

“We all have enough strength to bear the troubles of other people.”

La Rochefoucauld’s final years were eased by the devotion of Madame de La Fayette, the author of La Princesse de Cléves. She came to the aging author by way of his Maximes, which Bishop said “gave her three months of liver trouble.” Their unlikely relationship is one of the great literary love stories. In the final chapter Bishop writes:

“The old restless ardor burned in him unquenched. He was still in imagination the knight-errant out of Astrée, terrible in war, submissive and faithful in love. Yes, he was a disillusioned cynic, of course, but when the trumpet sounded he was also Roland, he was Amadis de Gaule. The fact is that in his secret heart he was not a disillusioned cynic at all. He was a romantic dreamer who had adopted cynicism to hide the ruin of his dreams.”

La Rochefoucauld died in 1680 at age 66. Bishop titles his final chapter “Few Know How to Be Old,” from La Rochefoucauld’s own “Peu de gens savant être vieux.”

1 comment:

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for this. I should read more LR; he was a hit with Nietzsche and Dali, which is good in my book.