Friday, March 22, 2019

'It is Absurd for Art to be a Department of Politics'

“As to the word ‘artistic,’ it frightens me the way brimstone frightens merchants’ wives.”

We can all rattle off a lengthy list of vaporous words that others wield like hammers. Empty words pack formidable power in the wrong hands. Our writer, Anton Chekhov, continues:

“When people speak to me of what is artistic and anti-artistic, of what is dramatically effective, of tendentiousness and realism and the like, I am at an utter loss, I nod to everything uncertainly, and answer in banal half truths that aren’t worth a brass farthing. I divide all works into two categories: those I like and those I don’t.”

Spoken like an artist immune to the deformities of theory and ideology. Chekhov’s self-defense comes in a letter he wrote on this date, March 22, in 1890 to Ivan Leontyev (Schcheglov). He is reacting to the previous four years of critical baiting and endless accusations of “indifference,” “lack of involvement” and “absence of principles.” The translation is by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky (Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1973). Chekhov’s words remain as pertinent as they were 129 years ago.

Jorge Luis Borges is another master of short forms. In 1938 he reviewed For an Independent Revolutionary Art: Manifesto by Diego Rivera and André Breton for the Definitive Liberation of Art, a title that reads like a parody of engagé writing. Borges is defiant:

“I believe, and only believe, that Marxism (like Lutheranism, like the moon, like a horse, like a line from Shakespeare) may be a stimulus for art, but it is absurd to decree that it is the only one. It is absurd for art to be a department of politics.” Years later it was revealed that Trotsky was the author of the Breton/Rivera manifesto.

Borges would soon learn first-hand the vagaries of politics. In 1946, shortly after his election as president of Argentina, Juan Perón “promoted” Borges from his job as third assistant at the National Library in Buenos Aires to “Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits” in the Córdoba municipal market. Borges declined. After Perón was overthrown in 1955, Borges was named director of the National Library. That same year, because of the growing severity of his blindness, doctors forbade him to read or write.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

'One Might Be Eating Butterflies'

Between Sunday and Wednesday I saw four butterflies, each a different species, each flitting in a patch of sunlight without a flower in sight. I first moved to Texas almost fifteen years ago and my sensibility remains steadfastly Northern. Seeing butterflies in March not pinned in a specimen case is still dazzling. Spring didn’t even technically arrive until Wednesday, the same day as the Modern Library edition of V.S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door (1968) and Midnight Oil (1972), published in one volume in 1994, showed up in the mailbox. Happy serendipity delivered this passage, from the first memoir, to me:

“But we go to cold beef, for it is wicked to cook anything on Sundays—except Yorkshire pudding. This is sacred. Light as an omelette yet crisp in the outer foliations of what it would be indelicate to call crust, it has no resemblance to any of that heavy, soggy, pasty stuff known all over England and America by the name. Into it is poured a little gravy made of meat, and not from some packaged concoction. One might be eating butterflies, so lightly does it go down; it is my grandmother’s form of poetry.”

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

'I Might at Least Blunder Into Glory'

Every writer undergoes at least one apprenticeship, formal or otherwise. Some of us remain apprentices for life. One’s masters need not be Shakespeare or Proust. Humbler talents are probably advisable. After all, nothing is so discouraging as genius. I apprenticed under three masters, all of whom worked at least occasionally as journalists – Whitney Balliett, A.J. Liebling and V.S. Pritchett. All were brilliant, yet each made brilliance seem approachable. The styles of Balliett and Liebling were easiest to imitate, and I did. When young and writing about jazz I virtually plagiarized Balliett.

Most elusive, from a writer’s perspective, is Pritchett, master of essay and story (and one novel, Mr. Beluncle). His style is vigorous and subtly musical. He’s learned but not pedantic or vain, often very funny, and his approach is somehow masculine, without the self-parodying silliness of Hemingway or Mailer. He writes like late-period Dickens, if Dickens had been less instinctual and more disciplined a writer and knew when to take his foot off the gas. Few writers of fiction are more metaphorical and less “poetic” than Pritchett.

Pritchett published his first book, Marching Spain, in 1928. At age twenty-six, in the spring of 1927, he had walked three-hundred miles across Spain, from Badajoz to Vigo. Several years earlier, he had been sent to Spain to report on the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. That’s when he learned the language and first read contemporary Spanish literature – Azorin, Pio Baroja, Perez de Ayala, Unamuno. In an introduction he wrote for a new edition of Marching Spain in 1988, Pritchett tells us: “Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life became my Bible.” The comparison is not idle. Pritchett’s father, a feckless despot, was a dedicated follower of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. Pritchett tells his story in his first volume of memoirs, A Cab at the Door (1968), and fictionally in Mr. Beluncle. He was a secular man with a strong interest in, but no attachment to, organized religion.

During his long walk across Spain, Pritchett made a pilgrimage to Salamanca, where Unamuno worked as rector of the University of Salamanca from 1900 to 1924, and 1930 to 1936:

“I felt that in Salamanca I should in some unexplained way breathe of the spirit of Unamuno, who in these days was exiled from Spain by the unutterably stupid dictatorship. The crassest of all pilgrimages this, walking two hundred miles to find a man who had been forced out of his country because he happened to prefer liberty to generals. ‘God give thee not peace, but glory,’ he writes at the end of The Tragic Sense of Life. One is always one’s own hero; if I did not find peace I might at least blunder into glory.”

You will notice Pritchett’s prose is still apprentice work – a little overdramatized and emphatic, and too liable to turn lyrical. And directly autobiographical: “I do not want a religion in which I send my soul like a shirt to be washed at a reasonable charge and with the minimum of damage from all modernist improvements. I do not want a religion that will pad my jaws with optimism and complacency . . . And in the end I come back to Unamuno’s hombres de carne y hueso – man of flesh and bone – to the man who has the kingdom of heaven within him where mind, soul, and body are one.”

Pritchett died on this date, March 20, in 1997 at the age of ninety-six.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

'Call Him the Maverick's Maverick'


“Beware of rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, alligators, Mississippi dogfish, bad liquor, and characters out of Faulkner. Beware also of tellers of tall tales. Do not allow your speech to be corrupted, no matter what strange predicament you may encounter. And above all, keep a diary, so that you may read it to me next fall.”

The recipient of this wise counsel is Thom Gunn. His adviser, it will surprise those who hold stereotypes dear, is Yvor Winters, writing on July 21, 1956. Two years earlier, Gunn had graduated from Cambridge, published his first collection, Fighting Terms, and came to the United States from his native England to study with Winters at Stanford. I’m always touched by Winters’ thoughtfulness and hospitality. He met Gunn at train station, invited him home for dinner and made sure he had a place to stay. In the 1954 letter confirming all of the above, Winters writes:

“I don’t know whether to be pleased or not that you will see the Atlantic seaboard first, but I don’t know how to prevent it either. It is a dismal province, and you will like the west the better, I suppose, for having seen the worst the first.”

Which quality is more often misunderstood, or missed entirely, by readers and critics: Winters’ compassion and basic human decency or his sense of humor? For the rest of his life, Gunn remained grateful to Winters, publicly acknowledging the debt he owed the older poet. Among the earliest was “To Yvor Winters, 1955” (The Sense of Movement, 1957), in which he writes:

“[I]f we use
Words to maintain the actions that we choose,  
Our words, with slow defining influence,  
Stay to mark out our chosen lineaments.”

In an interview published after Gunn’s death in 2004, he suggests that his conception of poetry relies heavily on what he learned from his Winters: “My old teacher’s definition of poetry is an attempt to understand—not that one can succeed in understanding, but the attempt to understand. That’s Yvor Winters.” And the year before his death, Gunn edited Winters’ Selected Poems for the Library of America. In the introduction, Gunn writes: “I can attest to his being the most exciting teacher I ever had; even to disagree with him was exciting.” And this: “I heard someone calling Yvor Winters a maverick. I would go further than this and call him the maverick’s maverick.” He might, of course, have been writing of himself.

[See The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), edited by R.L. Barth and published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press.]

Monday, March 18, 2019

'Language Speaks Us'

Pain invites metaphor. The busy, well-intentioned doctor asks, “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your pain?” and I never know quite how to answer. I understand the desire to quantify. It has the appeal of mathematical precision. He tries again: “Is it sharp? Dull? Burning? Stabbing?” and my reaction is the same. I wanted to please him (after all, he’ll be operating on my spine), so I tried this: “Sometimes it feels like a neural explosion. Like epilepsy, but in the bones, not electrical.” Even I thought that was a little fanciful, and he looked puzzled. “It hurts a lot, doctor. I can no longer walk up stairs.” He was polite enough to settle for that.

On Sunday, I felt something pop in my left knee as I twisted to shelve a coffee cup in the cupboard. I say “pop” though I heard nothing except the sound that came from my mouth: Gink-ah! That’s a rough transcription. It corresponds to no word in English or in the scraps of other languages that I know. It comes closest to “ginkgo,” as in Ginkgo biloba, but that’s not much help. Could this be a modest secular sample of glossolalia, speaking in tongues? It felt involuntary, unrelated to anything that had been in my thoughts immediately before the onset of pain. Had something undisclosed even to me bubbled to the surface? It’s a threat to our vaunted self-control that we contain undisclosed linguistic realms. God knows what I’ll say under anesthesia. In “Poetry as Isotope” (Facsimiles of Time, 2001), Eric Ormsby writes:

“Language has an inexhaustible exuberance. At some moments, and not only at moments of inspiration but rather quite humble moments of simple human giddiness or even silliness, we do not seem to speak but to be spoken through. At such moments, it seems, language speaks us.”

Sunday, March 17, 2019

'Looking Into One's Heart and Plumbing It'

On Saturday I bought a copy of Unamuno’s Our Lord Don Quixote (trans. Anthony Kerrigan, 1967) because of the concluding sentence in Clive James’ essay on the Spaniard included in Cultural Amnesia (2007):

“The best writers contain within their souls all the characters they will ever create on the page; and those characters have always been there, throughout history; so the writer, no matter how modern he thinks he is, deals always and only in eternity.”

No doubt “soul” and “eternity” will trouble some readers, but I don’t think the crackpot notion of “collective unconscious” can be substituted for the first nor can “time immemorial” replace the second. I’ve read Don Quixote only once, and that was forty-seven years ago. I was bored but no longer trust all of my youthful reactions, positive or negative. After all, I even liked Steinbeck when very young. I keep a mental list of titles to read a second time because I can no longer depend on my first encounter. Cervantes tops it, and I bought the Unamuno volume hoping to rally my morale for reading a book Nabokov famously judged “cruel and crude.”

Unamuno criticizes the reputation of Don Quixote in Spain, where “erudition tends to mask the fetid sore of moral cowardice that has poisoned our collective soul [that word again].” He goes on:

“They pick out a book here and there, extracting sentences and doctrines which they put together and stew, or they spend a year or two or twenty rummaging around through files and stacks of papers in some archive or other so that they may announce this or that discovery. The object is to avoid looking into one’s heart and plumbing it, to avoid thinking and, even more, feeling.”

Saturday, March 16, 2019

'The Milk of Fun Should Attract Him'

On the first page of ‘King of Critics’: George Saintsbury, 1845-1933, Critic, Journalist, Historian, Professor (University of Michigan Press, 1992) I learned a word appropriate to its subject that also manages, in four syllables, to articulate a readerly ideal: omnilegent. His biographer, Dorothy Richardson Jones, imagines the adolescent Saintsbury lingering over bookstalls in London, reading Lucretius or Pendennis:

“Oblivious of the people he bumps or nudges or barely misses, his nearsighted eyes devour the pages as he makes his way slowly home to Notting Hill, reading, reading, reading, as he was to do for the three-score years and ten to come. The omnilegent George Saintsbury is foreshadowed in this, his own description of the schoolboy he was.”

The OED defines omnilegent as an adjective that means “reading everything, familiar with all or a great amount of literature” – an impossibility that remains forever an inspiration. To neatly close the circle, the Dictionary cites Saintsbury’s usage in his essay on De Quincey (Essays in English Literature, 1890): “He was not exactly as Southey was, ‘omnilegent’; but in his own departments, and they were numerous, he went farther below the surface and connected his readings together better than Southey did.” Imagine having lived in an age when one might have realistically strived for “omnilegence.” The Victorians were stout fellows.

In Jones’ telling, Saintsbury’s lifelong reading regimen should not be attributed solely to Victorian hyper-industriousness. He was likewise driven by a craving for reliable pleasure and consolation in a pre-electronic, pre-digital world:

“Sunday reading, restricted as it was in many Victorian homes, focused upon a few books read and reread so as to become lifelong companions; among them, Bunyan, Scott’s poems, Lalla Rookh, the Essays of Elia, and Southey’s The Doctor. As Saintsbury saw it in 1923: ‘If a boy does not rejoice, however imperfectly, in The Knights, The True History, The Canterbury Tales, Gargantua and Pantagruel, L’Avare, Gulliver or Pickwick the first time he reads them in the original, there is no help or hope for him. The milk of fun should attract him: the meat of life—criticism, and the wine of art can wait.’”