Monday, February 29, 2016

`What I Write is Not to His Taste'

With typical raffishness, masking bravado with modesty, Joseph Roth calls his newspaper practice “saying true things on half a page,” making it sound easy. He wrote feuilletons – leaves, scraps of paper– an Old World species seldom successfully transplanted to the New World. "Soft news,” features, “human interest” – terms of contempt to the tough guys on the front page – minus the whimsy of the old “women’s page” and the earnest righteousness of most political writing. Roth’s gift is rare. Journalism has always attracted the clumsy and glib. It churns out work written and consumed by those with short attention spans. Roth is a wit.                                                 

The Hotel Years (New Directions, 2015) collects sixty-four pieces written by Roth, mostly for the Frankfurter Zeitung, between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. It is translated by Michael Hofmann, who in recent years has gifted English readers with most of Roth’s work, including two earlier nonfiction collections, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin (2003) and Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France (2004). I’ve only just started reading The Hotel Years, but its “Envoi” (Hofmann’s word), the first piece in the volume is titled “A Man Reads the Paper” (originally published Jan. 11, 1926). It reminds me of an old Steve Allen routine, in which the comedian played an angry newspaper reader, outraged by everything he read, sputtering and shaking the paper. Allen made such emotional self-indulgence appear ridiculous – and funny. Roth begins: 

“The expression on the face of the newspaper reader is serious, sometimes tending to grim, occasionally dissolving in smiling hilarity. While his slightly bulbous pupils in their sharp oval spectacles slalom down the page, dreamy fingers play on the café table and perform a silent trill that looks like a form of grief—as though the fingertips were feeling for invisible crumbs to pick up.” 

Not typical newspaper fare. If we were devotedly postmodern, we might even call it meta-nonfiction. Roth’s reader has a “long, well-trimmed shovel beard,” and it covers the feuilleton page. The reader is occupied with the political news, “the recent sensational reports from Budapest.” He, like Allen’s clownish news consumer, is “numbered among the great horde of the morally indignant, who feel vicarious anger at any news of criminality.” In 2016, he would surely be a follower of talk-radio or some of the more overheated precincts of the internet. 

The newspaper reader stands, “older, wiser, and possibly sadder.” Roth’s coda is a small masterpiece of self-respect and mild, not vicious, satire. Only a man confident of his gift, regardless of how little it was appreciated, could write this way: 

“The feuilleton remained covered. He leaves it to less manly natures than his own. 

“But if it should happen that one day, quietly, out of boredom, he should read it, then he would not like it one little bit. Because what I write is not to his taste . . .”

Sunday, February 28, 2016

`Neither a Pedant Nor a Bigot'

“He got rid of the go-cart of prejudice and affectation, with the learned lumber that follows at their heels, because he could do without them.”                                

The most endangered of writerly species is the non-aligned, non-beholden amateur (in the etymological sense), who claims no status as an expert on anything. Environmental factors don’t put him in jeopardy; rather, self-sabotage, a condition brought on by inordinate hunger for approval, threatens him with extinction. Only by stamping Nihil obstat on the orthodoxies of the age does he buy another day of life in print. 

“In taking up his pen, he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind in its naked simplicity and force, that he thought anyways worth communicating.  He did not, in the abstract character of an author, undertake to say all that could be said upon a subject, but what in his capacity as an enquirer after truth he happened to know about it.”                      

The essential phrase is “enquirer after truth.” To enquire is to question unconditionally, without a priori qualifications, accepting that the answer may be unpleasant, incomplete or nonexistent. We attempt, we try, we essay, as did the man who gave us the word and invented the form, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, born on this date, Feb. 28, in 1533. The passages about Montaigne quoted above are from “On the Periodical Essayists” (Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819), by one of his wayward students, William Hazlitt, who continues:

“He was neither a pedant nor a bigot. He neither supposed that he was bound to know all things, nor that all things were bound to conform to what he had fancied or would have them to be. In treating of men and manners, he spoke of them as he found them, not according to preconceived notions and abstract dogmas; and he began by teaching us what he himself was.” 

What is most bracing about his Montaigne is his casual audacity, the way he tries on ideas the way some of us try on neckties. His curiosity and indifference to appearing foolish usually trump his desire to please his readers or flatter himself. He is uncommonly common-sensical. He even had the prescience to illuminate the current race for the U.S. presidency, in “Of the power of the imagination” (trans. Donald Frame): 

“A woman, thinking she had swallowed a pin with her bread, was screaming in agony as though she had an unbearable pain in her throat, where she thought she felt it stuck; but because externally there was neither swelling nor alteration, a smart man, judging that it was only a fancy and notion derived from some bit of bread that had scratched her when it went down, made her vomit, and, on the sly, tossed a crooked pin into what she threw up. The woman, thinking she had thrown it up, felt herself suddenly relieved of her pain.”

Saturday, February 27, 2016

`A Great Deal of Title for Very Little Book'

My friend Melissa Kean has written a post about Stockton Axson (born 1867), who taught English here at Rice University from 1913, a year after the school opened for business, until his death in 1935. In the archives she discovered a poem, “Rice Institute at Twilight,” apparently written by Axson, and its author unquestionably gets the campus details right – mockingbirds, cloistered arches, weeping oaks, “the magic of a spell too deep to know.” By the way, “Rice Institute” was the school’s name from its founding until 1960, when it became Rice University. The first president was Edgar Odell Lovett, who had chaired the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy at Princeton University. Lovett’s move was endorsed by that school’s president, Woodrow Wilson, who was soon to become president of the United States. Melissa writes:

“[Axson] came to Rice from Princeton in 1913 at Lovett’s pleading and stayed, with several leaves of absence, until his death in 1935. He was Lovett’s close friend and had been the brother-in-law and advisor of Woodrow Wilson.”

Which explains why the Fondren Library has a copy of Axson’s Brother Woodrow: A Memoir of Woodrow Wilson, based on lectures and notes Axson accumulated between 1919 and 1934. Princeton University Press published the volume for the first time in 1993. Wilson ranks among the less compelling of our presidents, somewhere above Jimmy Carter and below Abraham Lincoln, so I won’t be reading Axson’s memoir. But as its editor, Arthur S. Link, says:

“Axson gained something like a nationwide fame as a lecturer on and interpreter of English literature. He never published a serious scholarly work, but he did publish a number of essays on English and American writers, English poets, arts, etc., in a series known as The Rice Institute Pamphlets and elsewhere.”

In front of me is Vol. 3 of the bound pamphlet series, borrowed from the Fondren, and it includes Axson’s “Approaches and Reactions in Six Nineteenth-Century Fictionists.” The final word in the title is a new one on me: “fictionist.” The most recent citation in the OED dates from 1875, and its use by Axson gives off a strong Victorian whiff (one of the OED citations is drawn from Edward Bulwer-Lytton). Axson’s chosen six are Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Poe and Stevenson. In the table of contents, however, “Hawthorne the Puritan Artist” is crossed out with a red pen and next to it is written: “Some asshole tore it out.” Sure enough, pages 60 through 78 have been removed as cleanly as a ruptured appendix. I, for one, don’t miss Hawthorne, and wish the surgeon had excised Poe while he was at it, though I’m not endorsing book vandalism. In his preface, Axson works hard to assure us he’s not working hard:

“When they clapped a huge mustard plaster on poor Tom Hood, emaciated from his last illness, that incorrigible punster remarked that it seemed like a good deal of mustard for very little meat. To many, including the writer, it must appear that this volume carries a great deal of title for very little book.”

This is old-fashioned, unnecessary and utterly charming. Basically, Axson is saying he loves these writers. His lectures are, he says, “general in their plan and undogmatic in their purpose.” No deconstructionist he. In his lecture, Axson often refers to characters exclusively by their first names, as though they were old friends, and seldom mentions the books they inhabit. For readers unfamiliar with the novel in question, this can be confusing, but it suggests Axson’s fondly casual approach to literature. My favorite among the six is George Eliot, and Axson is not an uncritical admirer. Her “deficiency,” he writes, “lay precisely where she thought it lay—in dramatic power.” Axson shows off his aphoristic knack: “George Eliot was not clever; she was only great.” His appreciation of Eliot is precisely the reverse of mine. He favors the early novels, and fawns over Adam Bede. I revere Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Axson takes an odd detour near the conclusion of his Eliot lecture. Citing Blake, Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, he says that “the power of the will and the recuperative power of Nature are greater than evil.” He goes on arguing with Eliot:

“George Eliot did not counsel skulking, but the implication of her novels is that evil is a finality. Evil is not a finality. Evil is tragic, loathsome, strong. But there are stronger things in the universe than evil. A valiant will is stronger, Nature is stronger, God is stronger. And in brave reliance on these efficiencies, the Will and Nature and God, the heroes of mankind have fought their way to glory.”

With World War I already underway (with the U.S. about to enter), and Lenin, Stalin and Hitler waiting in the wings, Axson’s pleading sounds positively Wilsonian.

Friday, February 26, 2016

`Willy-Nilly, a Classic'

“The bookcase of early childhood is a man’s companion for life.”

How I wish this were true. Who wouldn’t want to claim a prodigy’s gift, reading Dante in diapers? But I wasn’t born into that kind of house, or with that sort of gift, and in early childhood I read comic books and Mad magazine (the latter first published in the month I was born). Perhaps Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is being fanciful, optimistic or nostalgic in Chap. 4, “The Bookcase,” in The Noise of Time (trans. Clarence Brown, p. 77, The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1965):

“The arrangement of its shelves, the choice of books, the colors of the spines are for him the color, height, and arrangement of world literature itself. And as for books which were not included in that first bookcase— they were never to force their way into the universe of world literature. Every book in the first bookcase is, willy-nilly, a classic, and not one of them can ever be expelled.”

Again, flamboyantly hopeful, but Mandelstam seems to be reclaiming a past, his own and that of all Russians Jews, or all Jews everywhere. The lower shelf of the family bookcase, he says, was “chaotic”: “This was the Judaic chaos thrown into the dust. This was the level to which my Hebrew primer, which I never mastered, quickly fell.” Mandelstam is an archeologist. On the next higher shelf, “above these Jewish ruins,” are the German volumes – more orderly, of course. Next, his mother’s Russian books – Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and a lesser name, less familiar in the West: Semyon Yakovlevich Nadson (1862–1887). Mandelstam calls the Nadson volume “the key to the epoch, the book that had become positively white-hot from handling, the book that would not under any circumstances agree to die, that lay like someone alive in the narrow coffin of the 1890s.” Nadson was a Jew, and his poetry was popular to a degree unprecedented among Russian readers.

I remembered Mandelstam’s bookcase chapter – a free-standing essay, really – while reading a book by Vasily Grossman (1905-1964). The Road (trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Mukovnikova, New York Review Books, 2010) is a collection of stories, journalism, essays and letters by the author of Life and Fate. Recurrent themes are books as refuge and their centrality to a civilized life. In a 1943 story, “The Old Teacher,” the title character is Boris Isaakovich Rosenthal: On warm days, when the old man goes outdoors, “He did not take philosophy books with him: the noise of children, and the women’s laughter and cursing, were entertainment enough.” He sits reading Chekhov. Grossman writes:

“He loved books—and books were not a barrier between him and life. His God was Life. And he learned about this God—a living, earthy, sinful God—by reading historians and philosophers, by reading the works of both greater and lesser writers. All of them, as best they could, celebrated, justified, blamed, and cursed Man on this splendid earth.”

As a reporter for the Red Star, Grossman accompanied the Soviet troops liberating the camps at Treblinka and Majdanek. In his 1944 report “The Hell of Treblinka,” Grossman depicts the anti-Rosenthals, those with contempt for books and everything civilized, among the camp guards:

“The SS and the Wachmänner did not see the newly arrived transport as being made up of living human beings, and they could not help smiling at the sight of manifestations of embarrassment, love, fear, and concern for the safety of loved ones or possessions. It amused them to see mothers straightening their children’s jackets or scolding them for running a few yards away, to see men wiping their brows with a handkerchief and then lighting a cigarette, to see young girls tidying their hair, looking in pocket mirrors, and anxiously holding down their skirts if there was a gust of wind. They thought it funny that the old men should try to squat down on their little suitcases, that some should be carrying books under their arms, that the sick should moan and groan and have scarves tied around their necks.”

In 1938, Mandelstam died in a Siberian transit camp. Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, sixteen years before Life and Fate was published. His great novel was photographed by Andrei Sakharov and smuggled out of the Soviet Union, where it was not published until 1988.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

`A Cat Stepping Over the Books'

We spoke abstractly of senility and dementia, probing our fears the way we probe an aching tooth with our tongue, until my friend had had enough. When such “dark thoughts” invade his brain, he related, “[I] say aloud one of the delicious short poems of Apollinaire’s Bestiaire and I put it away at once.” Good advice – poetry as talisman, warding off the grim fate to which none of us is immune. The four- and five-line poems in The Bestiary (1909), Apollinaire’s first collection, are perfect for the purpose – brief, rhymed and metrically precise, at once whimsical and morally pointed, occasionally pious. For English-only readers I recommend the American poet X.J. Kennedy’s version, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2011, and including the woodcuts by Raoul Dufy that illustrated the first edition. Here is “The Cat” (and here, the Dufy):

“I hope I may have in my house,
A sensible right-minded spouse,
A cat stepping over the books,
Loyal friends always about
Whom I couldn’t live without.”

Here is Apollinaire’s original, “Le chat

Je souhaite dans ma maison:
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis de toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peut pas vivre.

The poem is less about cats than about a domestic refuge. Apollinaire (1880-1918) constructs his sanctuary and stocks it with supplies in five lines (cat and books in one). Kennedy calls it Apollinaire’s “prescription for a happy life.” No mention of age and its depredations or of looming war. And yet, as Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #203, published on this date, Feb. 25, in 1752: “It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity.” So too with Apollinaire. Here is his “La chenille” (a beautiful word, so different from the English; and here the Dufy):

Le travail mène à la richesse.
Pauvres poètes, travaillons!
La chenille en peinant sans cesse
Devient le riche papillon.”

And here is Kennedy’s “Caterpillar”:

“Toil leads to wealth. Poor poets,
Let’s toil on! By and by
The worm that keeps on striving turns
To a monarch butterfly.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

`He Has Earned His Season of Rest'

Sir John Rupert “Jock” Colville (1915-1987) is best-known for writing The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939–1955 (1985), the diaries he kept while serving as assistant private secretary to Winston Churchill. About twenty years ago I went through a Churchill phase, hoping to turn the clownish caricature I had grown up with, beloved by second-rate comics, into a statesman and first-rate writer (a rare Nobel Laureate for Literature who deserved the honor). Along with the diaries I read Colville’s memoir, Footprints in Time (1976), and together they helped bring Churchill into partial focus (Colville was also secretary to Chamberlain and Attlee). This week, Roger Kimball at The New Criterion touted Colville’s “stylish literary mastery,” and moved me to reread the memoir. For a sample of Colville’s prose that suggests the subtlety of his wit and the mysteries of historical continuity, here is the concluding paragraph of his first chapter, “World War I in the Nursery”:

“November the 11th, 1918, dawned, though the dawn was unfortunately obscured by a threatening Pea-Souper. My father was in bed with the Spanish Influenza, my mother was working as a clerk in the Ministry of Pension and my two brothers were away at school. I was alone with Nanny when at 11 a.m. the maroons sounded to announce the glad news that Armageddon was over. `Quick,’ said Nanny, `there’s an air-raid’. And we bustled downstairs to the basement.”

Colville’s anecdote suggests that the Armistice didn’t so much end the Great War as pause it for twenty-one years. Such writing may be indelibly English. This will sound disloyal, but memoirs, histories and autobiographies written by public figures in the United States, whether the actors or front-row spectators like Colville, are seldom more than self-aggrandizing sludge, without redeeming literary qualities or even good gossip. Here is Colville equitably praising the three prime ministers he served:

“`They that have power to hurt and will do none’ are, according to Shakespeare, the people `who rightly do inherit heaven’s graces’. These three men all had power to hurt. Churchill in particular, at the summit of his war-time power and popularity, could have acted as a dictator. It is to their abiding glory that they never used their power to hurt and that all three looked on themselves as the servants of the House of Commons.”

Elsewhere, Colville freely criticizes all three of the prime ministers, especially Chamberlain, but he writes not out of vindictiveness or revenge (common motives among memoirists), but with an appreciation for the difficulty of their job and their forbearance in executing it. Colville concludes Footprints in Time with a lovely anecdote:

“One evening, a few years before Churchill died, he recited this poem to me. I cannot trace it, but I wrote it down because I thought he was applying the words to himself:

“`All is over! fleet career,  
Dash of greyhound slipping thongs,       
Flight of falcon, bound of deer,   
Mad hoof-thunder in our rear,    
Cold air rushing up our lungs,
Din of many tongues.’”

Churchill (or Colville) misremembers some of the words from the opening stanza of “The Last Leap” by the Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870). Colville finishes with these lines:

“He paused a minute and then he went on:

“`We tarry on; We’re toiling still;
He’s gone and he fares the best,
He fought against odds and he struggled up hill;
He has earned his season of rest.’”

The final four lines do not appear in “The Last Leap” but show up here, in a rather unexpected place.

[Thanks to Dave Lull for tracking down the source for those concluding lines: Gordon's "Gone."]

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

`The Lessons of the Satirist'

“In short from what I have before heard of this man, and what I have now read of him, my opinion with respect to him, is a mixture of admiration and contempt.”

So writes John Quincy Adams, the future president and son of a future president, in his diary on July 15, 1786. The entry comes four days after his nineteenth birthday, and he writes not as a literary critic but as a patriot, for the object of his “admiration and contempt” is Dr. Johnson, who had died less than two years earlier. In 1769, Johnson had said of the rebellious American colonists, as reported by Boswell: “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American. They are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” The young Adams has been reading Hester Thrale Piozzi’s recently published Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., During the Last Twenty Years of His Life. His conclusions are a familiar caricature of Johnson as bully:

“He appears to have been a brute; a mere cynic, who thought himself the greatest Character of the age, and consequently, that he was entitled to do just as he pleased and to assume the lawgiver in Sentiments and opinions as well as in Literature, but neither his good opinion of himself, nor all his writings put together will ever place [him?] in the first rank of authors.”

Of course, the Founding Fathers consulted Johnson’s Dictionary when writing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers, and several U.S. Supreme Court justices, including the late Antonin Scalia, have quoted Johnson in their opinions. But just six days after Adams’ diary entry, his mother and the future First Lady, Abigail Adams,writes to her son from London (after quoting Pope):

“I have met with many persons here, who were personally acquainted with the dr. They have a great respect for his memory, but they all agree that he was an unpleasent [sic] companion who would never bear the least contradiction. Your sister Sent you Mrs Pioggi [sic] anecdotes of him. Boswells are too contemptable to be worth reading.”

We know John Adams’ library included the four-volume 1783 edition of The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81). In 1784, the second president wrote to his son, the sixth: “Purchase Johnsons Lives of the Poets which will amuse Us on the Road.” I pursued the Johnson/Adams connection when I learned that both men had translated satires by Juvenal. Johnson’s are well-known and much admired: “London” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Adams translated the seventh, thirteenth and fourteenth Satires, though never published the fourteenth. The thirteenth came out in 1801, and is probably the first version of Juvenal done by an American. The seventh he published in 1805, and you can find an excerpt in Juvenal in English (ed. Martin M. Winkler, Penguin Books, 2001). Of Satire VII, Adams wrote:

“Let us hope that the lessons of the Satirist, may produce an effect upon a young and rising nation, which they could not operate on a corrupted and declining [`imperial Rome and, by implication, the British monarchy,’ Winkler notes].”

Monday, February 22, 2016

`Vibrate and Live and Charm the Senses'

The customary tags – “Neither a borrower . . .,” “Alas, poor Yorick . . .,”But, soft! what light. . .” – I learned in the customary osmotic ways: from Looney Tunes, Little Rascals and cartoons in  The New Yorker. The first Shakespeare I remember setting out to memorize on my own, after reading it in some forgotten anthology, probably one edited by Oscar Williams, was, sensibly enough, a song:                                                          

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
. . . 

I knew the lines before reading The Tempest. The alliteration is irresistible. I defy you to read the first line aloud and not smile. The third line resonates nicely with scripture, and I learned the origin of “sea-change.” Ford Madox Ford cites the passage in The March of Literature (1938) and writes: 

 . . . Shakespeare is just ourselves at no excruciatingly esoteric mental level. The English or American adult male is said to remain all his life at the intellectual high water mark of the fourteen-year-old schoolboy and there is nothing in the thought of Shakespeare’s plays that an intelligent fourth-form schoolboy could not enthusiastically applaud and corroborate . . . The most the `teacher’—and, alas, quis docebit ipsos doctores? [“Who will teach the teachers?” – a play on Juvenal’s "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (“Who will guard the guards themselves?”)]—can do for a pupil is to perform the functions of an easier dictionary, telling the meaning of a tassel gentle, a hernshaw, a fardel, a bourne. But no one can explain why Shakespeare’s words, set one beside the other, vibrate and live and charm the senses?” 

The myth of Shakespearean impenetrability persists. I’m certain that when I first read the song from The Tempest quoted above, I knew only that “fathom” was a unit of length. How long (six feet), I wouldn’t have known, but it hardly mattered. This is the appropriate time to drag out Eliot’s old reliable “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” How presumptuous to assume we ought to immediately comprehend lines composed more than four centuries ago. One of the joys of reading Shakespeare or any writer of his age is the handy excuse it gives us to consult and linger in a good dictionary. “Tassel-gentle”: Romeo and Juliet, variation of “tercel-gentle,” a male falcon. “Hernshaw”: Hamlet, sometimes corrupted as “handsaw,” a heron. “Fardel”: The Winter’s Tale, a bundle or parcel. “Bourne,” Hamlet and six other plays, a boundary or limit. Ford goes on: 

. . .if you are anything like a proper fourth-form schoolboy, you feel all the emotions of first love, of spring freshets, of the call of the cuckoo, of moonlight on the Lido. There is nothing remarkable in the turn of thought; no unusual words are brought from a distance to add peacock’s feathers to a fowl’s tail. But the supreme verbal secret of Shakespeare appears in the sentence: `Those are pearls that were his eyes’—for that is the Shakespearian mind working.” 

In other words, Shakespeare, like Browne and Keats, thinks metaphorically. His thoughts are metaphors and his metaphors are thoughts. I recommend The March of Literature as an eminently browseable bedside book. Along with Shakespeare.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

`Who We Really Are'

David, the youngest of my three sons, turns thirteen today. I suspect this birthday and, with it, his overnight transformation into a “teenager,” is more linguistic and cultural than biological, and that the event is less significant now than when I turned that corner in 1965. I was scared and elated. David is blasé. He knows more about the world – the good and the ugly – than I knew when turning twenty-one. He is cleverer, more morally discerning, more skeptical, more musical and more fun than I was at that age. He also has the good fortune to share a birth date with W.H. Auden (I’m stuck with Hillary Clinton), born on Feb. 21 in 1907. At thirteen, David’s age, Auden enrolled in Gresham’s School in Norfolk, where he wrote his first poems.
In 1942, Auden wrote “Many Happy Returns,” dedicated to John Rettger, the son of the poet’s friends in Ann Arbor., Mich., who was celebrating his seventh birthday. Auden was a master of occasional poems, written to mark rites of passage in the lives of friends. If not his finest work, they are never less than thoughtful and witty – in their original context, superb gifts. Here is the third stanza, a suitable gift for the always-performing David:
“So I wish you first a
Sense of theatre; only
Those who love illusion
And know it will go far:
Otherwise we spend our
Lives in a confusion
Of what we say and do with
Who we really are.”
I can’t pretend to think my sons will inherit a finer world than the one given my generation. No, we botched what was already a thoroughgoing botch. A new Dark Ages looms. Auden encourages his seven-year-old to “combine / Intellectual talents / With a sensual gusto, / The Socratic Doubt with / The Socratic Sign.”

Saturday, February 20, 2016

`To Listen to the Human Voice'

At first I couldn’t trace the original, but for now let Joseph Epstein do the paraphrasing. This is from “The Pleasures of Reading” (Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 1999):

“Marguerite Yourcenar said that there were three sources of knowledge in the world:   that knowledge which comes from observing fellow human beings, that knowledge which comes from looking into one’s heart, and that knowledge which comes from books. Is there any point in ranking the three according to importance?  I suspect not. Not to observe others is to put oneself in danger in the world, not to observe oneself is to  lose the permanent use of that unnamed organ responsible for reflection, not to read is to risk barbarizing oneself – leave any one of the three out and you have a less than fully equipped human being.”

After a little digging I found what I wanted in her great novel Memoirs of Hadrian (trans. Grace Frick and Yourcenar; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; p. 21). Epstein is quoting the advice Hadrian gives his successor, the young Marcus Aurelius:

“Like everyone else I have at my disposal only three means of evaluating human existence: the study of self, which is the most difficult and most dangerous method, but also the most fruitful; the observation of our fellowmen, who usually arrange to hide secrets where none exist; and books, with the particular errors of perspective to which they inevitably give rise.”

The variance is interesting – Epstein’s “sources of knowledge” as opposed to Yourcenar’s “means of evaluating human existence.” Epstein inverts the first and second points but both conclude with books. Yourcenar warns that books contain “particular errors of perspective,” while Epstein cautions that the errors may lie not in the books but in ourselves: not to read is to “risk barbarizing oneself.” The two agree that knowledge is important, even essential, but requires labor. Knowledge is not information in the user-friendly sense of IT, and is not accumulated passively or indifferently. The easiest to gauge in others is the third – the illiterate or under-read quickly betray their nature. What seems obvious is that the three sources of knowledge are often intimately linked and only rarely found in isolation. A person attentive to human behavior is likely to be self-evaluative, even contemplative, just as a serious reader weighs his experience against the words he reads. Consider the passage in Memoirs of Hadrian that immediately follows the one quoted above:

“I have read nearly everything that our historians and poets have written . . . and to such reading I owe perhaps more instruction than I have gathered in the somewhat varied situations of my own life. The written word has taught me to listen to the human voice, much as the great unchanging statues have taught me to appreciate bodily motions. On the other hand, but more slowly, life has thrown light for me on the meaning of books.”

These thoughts were sparked by yet another book I happen to be rereading. In A Tourist in Africa (1960), Evelyn Waugh writes: “As happier men watch birds, I watch men. They are less attractive but more various.” This, in turn, reminded me of the Epstein passage. I have no illusions about Waugh. He could be enormously nasty and difficult (as well as generous and compassionate), and yet he wrote the finest prose of the twentieth century. To read him attentively is to stimulate all three of the knowledge sources identified by Epstein and Yourcenar, and give ourselves sublime pleasure. As Epstein writes in “The Pleasures of Reading”:

“My motives in reading are thoroughly mixed, but pure pleasure is always high among them. I read for aesthetic pleasure. If anything, with the passing of years, I have become sufficiently the aesthetic snob so that I can scarcely drag my eyes across the pages of a badly or even pedestrianly written book.”

Friday, February 19, 2016

`The Best Artificial Fertilizer for Poetry'

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) makes his first appearance in Leopold Tyrmand’s Diary 1954 (trans. Anita Shelton and A.J. Wrobel, Northwestern University Press, 2014) in a sort of walk-on part, a bit player, twenty-nine years old, under-employed and not yet a world-class poet:

“Zbyszek [Polish diminutive of Zbigniew] Herbert is not yet thirty; he’s slim and frail, with excessively broad hips. He has the cheerily upturned nose of a schoolboy and suspiciously mild eyes. In their soft blueness there is guile and stubbornness. He is polite, calm, and friendly, but in his cordiality there lurk a strong will and obstinacy and some kind of sensitive subversiveness that it’s better not to ignore. He is soft-spoken, has interesting things to say, and knows what he’s talking about. His erudition, large and disinterested, transmutes readily into wit and charm. He cultivates moral purity, an uncompromising attitude, and fidelity to himself – a little ostentatiously, but so honestly that one cannot find fault with him, nor pay him anything less than the deepest respect.”

Tyrmand’s journal is a day-by-day account of his life in Warsaw during the first three months of 1954, that interval between Stalin’s death in March 1953 and Krushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, signaling the start of the so-called “thaw.” Tyrmand (1920-1985) is thirty-three, a journalist and wit, a fixture of the city’s literary scene, inspiration to its bikiniarze (hipsters) and former president of the Warsaw Jazz Club. In 1941, while working in the Polish underground, Tyrmand was arrested by the NKVD and sentenced to “corrective labor” in the Gulag. During the Nazi bombing of Vilnius, he escaped his eastbound prison transport and headed west. A Jew, he survived the Holocaust by acquiring French papers and going to work in Germany. (Tyrmand was nothing if not brazen.) In 1944 he took a job peeling potatoes in the hold of a German transport ship. He jumped ship in Norway, was recaptured and held in a concentration camp near Oslo, where he survived the war. Tyrmand returned to Warsaw in 1946, published a collection of stories recounting his Norwegian adventure and went to work for a satirical weekly.

Tyrmand revels in all this grim absurdity. He’s a misfit and contrarian, never quite fitting in anywhere. His account of life in Stalinist Poland recalls not Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam but Gogol and his spiritual descendent, Andrei Sinyavsky (aka Abram Tertz). On the first page of his diary, dated Jan. 1, 1954, he says: “A diary is an auscultation of all the fine details that define a life. That’s how a subtle and sensitive writer would put it. I have no idea how I came up with this line.” Admirers of Zbigniew Herbert will appreciate the rare glimpses of the would-be poet, whose first collection, Chord of Light, was published in 1956. In the same diary entry quoted above, dated Jan. 7, Tyrmand writes:

“Of course, he suffers poverty. He earns a few hundred zlotys per month as timekeeper in a cooperative that produces paper bags, toys, and boxes. The serenity with which Herbert endures this drudgery after completing three degrees is straight out of early Christian hagiography. His serenity is a carefully crafted mask: it conceals the despair of a man who fears that he has gambled his life away in a frivolous poker game of history in which the stake was ideological loyalties and laurels. As a result of his ruinous gambling habit, he is in no position to help his aged, ailing parents, or to escape other worries. He’s like a man who leans over the well of life only to be hit by a dreadful stench, but who drinks from the edge anyway, gripping the rim tight so as not to recoil and not, at any price, to shift his dreamy gaze to the sugar coated landscape.”

Like the jazz soloists he admired, Tyrmand riffs metaphors. That last one is particularly prescient and pungent. In 1966, Tyrmand immigrated to the United States, where he founded the journal that became Chronicles. Despite frequent visits to the West, including the U.S., Herbert remained in Poland, “gripping the rim tight.” Each was stubborn and uncompromising. In the Feb. 2 entry, Tyrmand tells us Herbert has taken a job with the Central Peat Bog Administration, a name worthy of Kafka. Three days later he paints an utterly unexpected portrait of Herbert:

“Zbyszek has many problems in his life. He’s pretty, with a cute mug of a face and a skin that Helena Rubinstein would pay a fortune to use in advertisements, if only she could see it. That’s his main problem because everyone takes him for a faggot, which he’s not, but explaining this to everyone is a burden. It’s no doubt hardest to explain to the faggots, who must feel understandably bitter about his contrariness to nature.”

Tyrmand also tells us that Herbert, just after the war, was the only Polish journalist to interview Rita Hayworth, and that the poet considers this “his greatest achievement.” Tyrmand asks: “What can you do with that sort of ambition in Warsaw, anno 1954? The closest thing we have here to Rita Hayworth is the prime minister Józef Cyrankiewicz, the one person in the regime who’d like to be sexy.”
Herbert often visits Tyrmand after his day at the Central Peat Bog Administration. Now we get a picture of the young poet at work, adapting to the conditions imposed by the sterility of socialism:

“It seems that his job in the peat bogs has a fertilizing effect. He has nothing to do at work, and it won’t do to read newspapers in the office, so Zbyszek sits at his desk and writes poetry and fairy tales. Everyone thinks he’s exemplary and zealous, while he’s actually obsessing over his wasted life, which—as everyone knows—is the best artificial fertilizer for poetry. In his poetry he expresses distress and fear that he won’t leave a trace of himself behind. The quagmires of the human condition horrify him. I told him that’s a natural feeling on the bogs. He has to change his job to something in concrete or cement mixing.”

And this from Feb. 22: “In the evening Herbert came by. We talked about Rubens. Apparently not without reason. And also about suicide and heroism. We wondered if God is only engaged in rewarding and punishing individuals, or does he also intervene in social issues? We concluded that he does not.”

In a 1994 interview, Herbert said of the diarist: “Tyrmand and I were very good friends. He used to treat me with a bit of condescension, posing as an older colleague and mentor. He loved to provoke me. Once we walked together on Nowy Swiat and he told me: `I have finally decided who you are: you are a rag under the table on which beer has been spilt.’ I said nothing. He repeated louder: `A rag under the beer-stained table.’ He was very unhappy that I did not lose my temper. That's typical Tyrmand.”

Thursday, February 18, 2016

`Threadbare Perspectives, Seasonal Decrease'

A reader in England (“I write from the Anglo-Welsh border”) writes: “I share your liking for Larkin, but it always surprises me that non-Brits go for him – he seems to me such a quintessentially English kind of misery-guts. Alan Bennett said somewhere that the trouble with Larkin is, part of him wants to drag you down to join him in the slough of despond, and you have a duty to yourself to resist.”

His surprise surprises me. The only demographic I recognize and trust among writers is excellence. It never occurs to me to muse, “Oh, I feel like a Frenchman tonight,” and then reach for Colette. I have my loyalties, of course, and in poetry that means the English. From Chaucer to Larkin, no other nation has reliably produced so much memorable verse. Such thoughts are frowned on, of course. Right-thinking people know that art and other gifts are equitably distributed among all God’s children. Bryan Appleyard will have none of it:    

“It is unfashionable to speak of national characteristics. Queasy types think it is akin to racism. But the truth is that nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers than the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.”

Bryan and I would quibble over some things – even Larkin, whom he terms “superbly second rank” – but despite Horace, Montale and Zbigniew Herbert, poetry remains distinctly English to this Anglophone reader. And I don’t read Larkin quite the way my English reader does. I think of his poems as occupying the same shelf, though perhaps a little to the side, as Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Dr. Johnson. Larkin’s best work shares their directness and urgency about what it means to be human. It leaves little room for happy talk and other forms of delusion. Some of us find encouragement in such an approach. I never find Larkin a “downer.” He’s too droll, too honest, too gifted a craftsman to leave me feeling anything but refreshed. Melancholy? Of course, but often playfully so. Larkin enjoys misery more than some people enjoy happiness. More importantly, he makes others enjoy it. Among his friends was the poet Elizabeth Jennings, a serious Roman Catholic who defied categories, poetic and otherwise. In Let’s Have Some Poetry! (1960), her introduction to the subject for young people, Jennings writes fondly of Larkin:

“Apart from his fastidious care for the precise verb, noun and adjective, and his impressive use of the conventional stanza form, Larkin’s chief quality seems to be a deep compassion which, though sometimes tempered by humour or irony, denotes a real concern for other people’s live.”

The same might be said of Dr. Johnson. Jennings goes on to quote lines from an early Larkin poem, “Wedding Wind” (The Less Deceived, 1955), the only one in which the speaker is a woman:

“All is the wind
Hunting through clouds and forests, thrashing
My apron and the hanging cloths on the line.
Can it be borne, this bodying-forth by wind
Of joy my actions turn on, like a thread
Carrying beads? Shall I be let to sleep
Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?”

Jennings judges the poem “beautiful,” and quotes with approval another poem from the same collection, “Triple Time”:

“And on another day will be the past,
A valley cropped by fat neglected chances
That we insensately forbore to fleece.
On this we blame our last
Threadbare perspectives, seasonal decrease.”

Jennings finds this and other early Larkin poems “melancholy though never self-pitying.” I detect no wish on his part to drag us into any Bunyanesque slough of despond. The lines might occur to any thoughtful grownup who could write first-rate poetry.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

`Remark Each Anxious Toil, Each Eager Strife'

After several disappointing efforts to incapacitate French and Russian troops with early forms of tear gas, the Germans on April 22, 1915, at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium, fired more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas canisters at two French colonial divisions. This was the first large-scale use of poison gas in history. A second gas attack two days later devastated a Canadian division. The battle ended on May 25, with the Germans making insignificant gains. The British and French, and later the Americans, began development of gas masks and their own chemical weapons. The Germans introduced mustard gas in 1917. More than 100,000 tons of chemical weapons were used in World War I, an estimated 500,000 troops were injured and some 30,000 killed. Of the German command’s reaction to that first gas attack at Ypres, L.F. Haber writes in The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War (Clarendon Press, 1986):

“. . . it had been an experiment (they used the word Versuch), and it had been badly handled—insufficient gas had been released and the soldiers had lacked imagination. These were the natural reactions of disappointed innovators. In fairness to them it needs to be said that on the level of military technology, the 22 April had been an event of the first importance. The professionals looked at it rather differently. Some declared it had been a big muddle, others sought to exculpate themselves by laying the blame on rival shoulders.”  

In the June 19, 1915 edition of The Outlook, an English literary journal, Ford Madox Ford reviewed two books Yerba Mate by Mrs. Cloudesley Brereton and Cathay by Ezra Pound. In the review, “From China to Peru,” Ford has some fun with the unlikely pairing, praises Pound’s renderings of Chinese poems as “things of a supreme beauty,” and then unexpectedly digresses:   

“Man is to mankind a wolf – homo homini lupus – largely because the means of communication between man and man are very limited. I daresay that if words direct enough could have been found, the fiend who sanctioned the use of poisonous gases in the present war could have been so touched to the heart that he would never have signed that order, calamitous, since it marks a definite retrogression in civilization such as had not yet happened in the Christian era. Beauty is a very valuable thing; perhaps it is the most valuable thing in life; but the power to express emotion so that it shall communicate itself intact and exactly is almost more valuable.”
Ford is writing less than two months after the first gas attack at Ypres. A month after his review appeared, he enlisted in the Welch Regiment at age forty-two. In July 1916, he was sent to the Somme in time for the bloodiest battle in English military history, and was blown into the air by the explosion of a German shell. He suffered memory loss and for three weeks remained incapacitated. Near the end of 1916, Ford wrote to Joseph Conrad: “I began to take a literary view of the war.” He was hospitalized again with lung problems exacerbated by exposure to poison gas, and in March 1917 was sent home as an invalid. For the rest of the war he was stationed at Redcar on the North Yorkshire coast, where he helped train troops. He was promoted to lieutenant and then to captain, and in 1918 held the temporary rank of brevet major. On Armistice Day, Ford was still at Redcar. He was discharged from the army on Jan. 7, 1919, and out of his wartime experience Ford crafted the tetralogy of novels Parade’s End (1924-1928), one of the last century’s greatest works of fiction.

What I find most profound about Ford’s 1915 review is the final sentence in the passage quoted above: “Beauty is a very valuable thing; perhaps it is the most valuable thing in life; but the power to express emotion so that it shall communicate itself intact and exactly is almost more valuable.” There’s a balance in the work of the most gifted artists between beauty of expression and emotional conviction. Too much pointless  beauty, we’re left with an aesthete’s mindless thumb-twiddling; too much unmediated emotion, an inarticulate shriek. The title of Ford’s review, “From China to Peru,” is an unacknowledged allusion to the opening lines of Dr.  Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749):

“Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy Scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’er spread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

`Either a Collector or a Bookseller'

The dreams, irregularly recurrent for more than forty years, cover a remarkable amount of real estate and yet are confined to a single two-story building on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. Most are set on the second floor, where I worked, but some descend to the first floor and basement. As it was in 1975, the floor in Kay’s Books is covered with small black and white tiles, like an oversized mosaic, and remains permanently gritty and smudged. Most of the shelves are jerry-built from unfinished lumber and wooden produce cases painted olive drab. The cash register sits on the tall Dickensian desk across from the top of the concrete steps. Turn to the left -- sociology, anthropology, politics, black history. To the right, a revolving wire rack holding the Iceberg Slim novels, and a wall of science fiction. In my dream early Monday morning, I was desperately looking in sci-fi for a copy of Fawn M. Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson (1974). Even in the dream I knew I wouldn’t find it there, but that’s a recurrent theme – purposeful futility.         

In 1973, Graham Greene wrote an introduction, “Second-hand Bookshops,” to With All Faults, a memoir by his friend the London bookdealer David Low, in which he confesses that for more than thirty years his “happiest dreams have been of second-hand bookshops.” Greene recorded his dreams (talk about futility), and notes that in the first seven months of 1972 he had six set in such places. In his essay, collected in Reflections (ed. Judith Adamson, Reinhardt Books, 1990), Greene writes: “Second-hand booksellers are among the most friendly and the most eccentric of all the characters I have known. If I had not been a writer, theirs would have been the profession I would most happily have chosen.”

As I almost did. Naturally, I enjoyed the company of books, but the experience of working at Kay’s taught me that I also enjoyed the company of people who buy and sell books. Not all, of course. Not the guy who asked, “Do you have that blue book? You know, the one with the blue cover?” and got angry when I asked if he could give a little more information, you know, like author, title or subject. But even idiocy is amusing, retrospectively. I had been fantasizing about opening a used-book shop for years, and once even made a few tentative plans with another guy, a poet from New York City. We had a name already picked out: Omega Books, then shortened to O Books. Ah, the fleeting and stupid dreams of young men.   

The futility of looking for a life of Jefferson in the science-fiction section suggests what my future in book selling might have looked like. As Greene writes, “To enter properly this magic world of chance and adventure one has to be either a collector or a bookseller.” I am congenitally a collector or, more specifically, a reader. I have no business sense, no gift for bookkeeping, marketing or the hard sell. I would have reserved every prized title for personal consumption, like restaurateurs who eat the profits. Instead, after several detours, I went to work as a newspaper reporter.

I look at my decades of bookstore dreams as a consolation prize. Every month or so, I’m back in the basement of Kay’s, browsing the Signet paperbacks from the fifties, looking for George Gamow. Oddly, I’ve never dreamed about the pornography we sold. It came in three grades. The first consisted of old girly magazines from the fifties and sixties, black and white, often without covers, and pretty tame even by the standards of 1975. These were heaped without order on tables near the clerks’ desk. Next to them and even closer to the desk were the paperbacks, organized by taste – gay, straight, incest, S&M, B&D, enemas. That final category recalls one of the authors’ pseudonyms – Colin Lavage (honest, I’m not making this up). The final category was the primo stuff, full-color magazines available only to loyal, pre-screened customers and kept in a brown paper shopping bag under the desk. The customer retired to the store room to examine the goods in privacy and at leisure. That’s another thing I owe to my time at Kay’s – the incremental and ongoing loss of what used to be called innocence.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

`The Words Are Stretched Across the Air'

I was reading C.H. Sisson’s Collected Poems (1998) on Saturday when I learned of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death at age seventy-nine. Both men were strong-willed, immune to fashion, brilliant and much concerned with language, its power and limitations, nearly to the point of obsession. Both admired and quoted Dr. Johnson. In 2008, writing the court’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, Scalia cited the definition of “arms” in Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). In his dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), Scalia wrote, responding to the majority: 

“`The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.’ (Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.” 

No one expects such candor, wit and common sense from a public servant. A longtime English civil servant, Sisson returns repeatedly to questions of language, especially in his later poetry. This is “Hola” from What and Who (1994): 

“Words do not hold the thing they say:
Say as you will, the thing escapes
Loose upon air, or in the shapes
Which struggle still before the eyes.
Hola will run upon its way
And never catch up with its prize.”
And here, from the same volume, is “The Trade,”’ presumably a reference to the writing trade:
"The language fades.  The noise is more
Than ever it has been before,
But all the words grow pale and thin
For lack of sense has done them in.

"What wonder, when it is for pay
Millions are spoken every day?
It is the number, not the sense
That brings the speakers pounds and pence.

"The words are stretched across the air
Vast distances from here to there,
Or there to here:  it does not matter
So long as there is media chatter.

"Turn up the sound and let there be
No talking between you and me:
What passes now for human speech
Must come from somewhere out of reach."

Sunday, February 14, 2016

`It Would Almost Be Worth Being Dead'

A quality not often recognized in Orwell is nimbleness, a gift for gracefully changing directions, switching tone and subject matter without forcing the issue or causing the reader undue vertigo. I speak here of his essays and newspaper columns, not his ham-handed fiction. Orwell’s “As I Please” column published in the Tribune on this date, Feb. 12, in 1947, opens with a letter sent to him by a rather overheated Scottish Nationalist, hardly a promising subject for an American reader in 2016. But Orwell preserves its relevance to our time by generalizing the subject, noting that attention is best paid to separatist movements and other bothersome or potentially violent cliques: 

“At any rate, I think we should pay more attention to the small but violent separatist movements which exist within our own island. They may look very unimportant now, but, after all, the Communist Manifesto was once a very obscure document, and the Nazi Party only had six members when Hitler joined it.” 

A nice takedown, but safe and predictable fare for a columnist. Next, a break, followed by another Scot-related bit about whiskey-brewing and barley. Orwell’s tone politely dismissive and, typically, he quotes a remark overheard at the greengrocer’s (uttered, remember, during the U.K.’s postwar austerity): “Government! They couldn’t govern a sausage-shop, this lot couldn’t!” People love hearing from The Man in the Street, and Orwell was happy to oblige. 

Another break, and then Orwell comes to what’s really on his mind. He recalls lines from a macaronic elegy by John Skelton (c. 1463-1529), and doubts whether such sentiments could be written or carved on gravestones in 1947: “Today there is literally no one who could write of death in that light-hearted manner. Since the decay of the belief in personal immortality, death has never seemed funny, and it will be a long time before it does so again. Hence the disappearance of the facetious epitaph, once a common feature of country churchyards.” Some might find his point counterintuitive, but Orwell (no believer) understood that only those with faith understand the comic potential in death. Atheists are not a notably humorous bunch. In cemeteries I’ve seen stones carved with motorcycles, whiskey bottles and shotguns, expressing a vulgarity that out-sentimentalizes the Victorians. Orwell recalls the perfect poem for the occasion, Landor’s epigrammatic epitaph "Dirce." He comments: “It is not exactly comic, but it is essentially profane.” A nice distinction. Then he tops himself (it helps to remember he would be dead in three years): 

“It would almost be worth being dead to have that written about you.”

Saturday, February 13, 2016

`He Is a Great Man Riddled with Flaws'

“All this would be terribly sad if it weren’t so endearing.”

We might say this of a sick child or, in a more grandiose mood, the Human Condition. English has no one-word synonym for the emotion described, that familiar mingling of poignancy, sympathy, ache and fondness. The authors, Philip and Carol Zaleski (Prayer: A History, 2005), refer to a breakfast reported by Boswell on June 11, 1784. Dr. Johnson has just said he once contemplated assembling an anthology of prayer, accompanied by an essay on the subject, and his tablemates encourage him to take up the task:

“He seemed to be a little displeased at the manner of our importunity, and in great agitation called out, `Do not talk thus of what is so awful. I know not what time God will allow me in this world. There are many things which I wish to do.’ Some of us persisted, and Dr. ADAMS said, `I never was more serious about anything in my life.’ Johnson. `Let me alone, let me alone; I am overpowered.’ And then he put his hands before his face, and reclined for some time upon the table.”

Johnson is seventy-four and had suffered a stroke one year earlier. He has emphysema, edema, gout and arthritis. Never healthy, he has always known depression. In a July 1784 diary entry he describes his state of mind as tristitia gravissima, or “terrible sadness.” He died six months after the memorable breakfast. The Zaleskis, who devote six of their four-hundred pages to Johnson, suggest it was the notion of publically addressing the subject of prayer that so disturbed Johnson:

“Could it be that he sensed something amiss in a cri de coeur that lasts a lifetime? He may have glimpsed what, in the hindsight of centuries, has become obvious to many of his readers: that for Johnson, the longing for metanoia, with its self-recrimination, resolutions, and tearful pleading to God, mattered more than reform itself, that only during the de profundis petition did he feel fully alive; that he was a Don Juan of prayer, valuing the chase and the first heady moments of conquest; but when faced with the long, steady grind of marriage—the vigilance and sacrifice necessary to maintain his new life—he backslid, eager to enjoy the chase once more. Thus in the confusion of his great heart, attraction to sin and desire for change waltzed together down the decades, to the endless fugue of petitionary prayer.”

The Zaleskis’ gloss is intriguing and respectful of Johnson, but not convincing. They describe a self-dramatizing figure I hardly recognize. That Johnson was sick, guilt-ridden and depressed is inarguable. But he was equally hard-working (though sorely tempted by idleness), gifted and compassionate. Unlike many of us, he recognized his weaknesses and wrestled with them daily. His life was laborious, not easeful. The authors’ conclusion – “attraction to sin and desire for change waltzed together down the decades” – applies to most of us, after all, leaving out only the sociopathic. This accounts for Johnson’s enduring attractiveness to us as man and writer. With his wracked sense of humility, he never claimed to transcend the human lot. His weakness was ours. He was like us, but brilliantly, articulately so. The Zaleskis’ write:

“Johnson invites love, as much as anyone who has ever picked up a pen. We love his honesty, his boldness, his courage, his golden ear for language. We love his ugliness and ungainliness, his irascibility, his self-doubts, his twinned perceptiveness and blindness toward himself. He is a great man riddled with flaws, above us and yet one of us, and as such claims our admiration and compassion.”

In short, Johnson is like us, only more so.

[Carol Zaleski returns to the subject this week in “Doctor Johnson’s failures.”]