Friday, August 19, 2022

'The Ice Growing Thinner Below Our Feet'

A reader tells me his brother has died and in the same email notes the death of Hargus “Pig” Robbins last January. The latter was a Nashville session pianist known to rock fans for accompanying Dylan on Blonde on Blonde, not to mention George Jones, Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich. My reader is a serious Dylan fan. His point in linking the deaths of Robbins and his brother was that we have reached the age at which we start accumulating deaths, celebrated and obscure, and it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore them. Both of us turn seventy in October. 

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) died at the impossibly young age of forty-four, as did Spinoza, Chekhov, Thoreau, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Joseph Roth and F. Scott Fitzgerald. For years Stevenson had suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis or a related respiratory disease but managed to produce an enormous body of work, much of it excellent. In his essay Aes Triplex,” Stevenson writes:


“[A]fter a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we see our contemporaries going through. By the time a man gets well into the seventies, his continued existence is a mere miracle; and when he lays his old bones in bed for the night, there is an overwhelming probability that he will never see the day.”


For a nervous, non-sports-minded kid like me, walking across a frozen lake was probably as close as I came to an athletic event – half-walking, half-sliding so as not to fall; listening to the creak and crunch of brittle ice and gauging its solidity; waiting to drop into hypothermia and death.   


[Stevenson published “Aes Triplex” in Cornhill Magazine in 1878 and collected it in Virginibus Puerisque in 1881. The title of the essay is a Horatian tag drawn from Ode 1.3, “aes triplex circa pectus,” meaning “breast enclosed by triple brass.”]

Thursday, August 18, 2022

'The Train of His Speeches'

Étienne de La Boétie, Montaigne’s great friend, died on this date in 1563. La Boétie wrote poems in Latin and French, and translated Plutarch, Xenophon and Ariosto. His major work, Discours de la Servitude Volontaire, was published eleven years after his death. Like Montaigne, he served in the parlement. More recent scholars and thinkers, including Simone Weil, have attempted to revive his reputation as a political philosopher. But La Boétie has suffered a peculiar fate. He is a supporting player. We remember him only because he was Montaigne’s friend. 

Who fantasizes about being a sidekick, an aide-de-camp, the hero’s best friend? We long to be Aeneas, not fidus Achates. We think Johnson, not Boswell; Socrates, not Alcibiades. Unfair but true. In How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne (Other Press, 2010), Sarah Bakewell defends La Boétie against his posthumous enthusiasts, including some Huguenots, who appropriated his work. Some turned him into a proto-anarchist or libertarian. Others even claimed Montaigne was the true author of Voluntary Servitude.


La Boétie had likely contracted the plague in Agenais, where he had recently spent a week. Most of what we know about his sickness and death comes from a letter Montaigne wrote his father. He describes his friend’s suffering and his own grief but here is the sentence modern readers will recognize as quintessentially Montaignean:


“The whole room was full of wails and tears, which nevertheless did not interrupt the train of his speeches, which were a little long.”


[See the text of the letter to his father and the essay “Of Friendship” in The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters (trans. Donald Frame, Everyman’s Library, 2003).]  

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

"Be Innocent of the Knowledge, Dearest Chuck'

“Chuck” meant three things – as a noun, the diminutive of Charles and the wooden block you wedge behind a tire to keep the car from rolling; as a verb, the act of throwing or tossing. Not to mention up-chuck. Then I reread Love’s Labour’s Lost and read for the first time Thom Gunn’s Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022). In Act V, Scene 2, of the former, Don Adriano de Armado says: 

“The sweet war-man is dead and rotten; sweet chucks,

beat not the bones of the buried: when he breathed,

he was a man.”


Sweet is a favorite word of Don Adriano. It shows up sixty-two times in Love’s Labour’s Lost – more than in any of the other plays -- and is most often spoken by the Spaniard. The OED cites this passage and defines the word like this: “As a term of endearment or affectionate form of address. Also formerly: a loved one, esp. a child or spouse.”


In a 1997 letter to August Kleinzahler, Gunn reviews one of his friend’s poems, “Late Autumn Afternoons.” He suggests some “extra-literary concern about discretion” and hopes “la petite amie’s husband will read it and say jocularly over breakfast to her, ‘so that’s what all the trouble was about four years ago, dearest chuck.” Then adds:


“(‘Dearest chuck’ you will recognize as what Macbeth calls Lady M. Ha ha.)”


It comes at the conclusion of Act III, Scene 2:


“Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,

Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day;

And with thy bloody and invisible hand

Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond

Which keeps me pale! Light thickens; and the crow

Makes wing to the rooky wood:

Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;

While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

Thou marvell’st at my words: but hold thee still;

Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.

So, prithee, go with me.”


This brief speech between husband and wife is delicious. Seeling is borrowed from falconry and means to stitch shut the bird’s eyes with thread as part of the taming process.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

'It Is an Examination of the Soul'

In A Factotum in the Book Trade (Biblioasis, 2022), Marius Kociejowski shares memorable examples of his favorite theme: discovering a good book he never knew existed. On Page 7 he recounts a visit to a bookshop near his home in London where he peruses the literary criticism section, “which rarely affords me pleasure.” Readers of Factotum will soon note the frequent appearance of that word, pleasure. 

The volume he discovers is King Lear, the Space of Tragedy: The Diary of a Film Director (trans. Mary Mackintosh, University of California Press, 1977) by the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev (1905-1973). His film of Shakespeare’s play came out in 1971, the same year as Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Peter Brook’s King Lear.


“I leafed through it,” Marius writes of the diary, “and there was barely a page that didn’t contain at least one line that immediately detached itself from the surrounding text and astonished me.”


Marius echoes Keats yet again: “I look upon fine phrases like a lover.” His description of the book is free of hyperbole. He has seen Kozintsev’s Lear. I haven’t but I’ve started reading the book after browsing through it.


“The book . . . despite its somewhat drab title, is wholly one,” Marius writes. “I am now close to the end of it, reading it slowly because of the joy it affords me. It is a treasure not only of Shakespeare criticism, which it is, or of filmmaking, which it also is, but at its most profound level it is an examination of the soul. Already it has become one of my ‘secret’ texts with the alchemical properties such books contain.”


Like Marius, I’m reading Kozintsev’s book slowly, and I’ve decided to buy a copy based on what I’ve read. I’ve already made a lot of notes and know I will return to the book. Kozintsev is broadly cultured and has interesting things to say about Gogol and Dostoevsky, Welles and Kurosawa (whose Ran is loosely based on Lear). He used Boris Pasternak's translation of Lear as the basis of his script. We’re never finished reading King Lear. With Shakespeare’s other tragedies, it’s the autobiography of our species. In his account to the play’s final scene, Kozintsev writes:


“’Be your tears wet?’ he asks his daughter whom he threw out of his house and cursed – ‘Yes, faith.’


“I think these are the most powerful words in the whole tragedy.”


On the day I borrowed Kozintsev’s book from the library, Ted Gioia posted his essay “10 Observations on Tragedy in the Digital Age”:


“The essence of tragedy as a narrative device is that you’ve created your own mess (perhaps without realizing it), and now you face the consequences. The digital age, with its technocratic and plutocratic optimism, is incapable of grasping this view of human frailty.”

Monday, August 15, 2022

'I Look Upon Fine Phrases Like a Lover'

For some, it’s jewelry or porcelain or a field of purple loosestrife – an object or scene so self-sufficiently perfect, so unexpected yet inevitable, it moves one, briefly, to speechlessness. One rainy morning in late 1970, outside my freshman dormitory, while running late to class I stopped to wonder at a locust tree, its leaves turned buttery yellow and densely covering the wet sidewalk as though painted there. Fifty-two years later, if I knew how to paint I could reproduce the scene in detail. I was certain I had seen something important but have no understanding of why it was important or why the memory has stuck with me. 

In 1819, Keats visited Winchester, “an exceeding pleasant Town.” While there he took walks and visited the library. In a letter written August 14, Keats tells his friend Benjamin Bailey he has finished “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil” and "The Eve of St. Agnes" and a portion of "Lamia." He writes:

“One of my Ambitions is to make as great a revolution in modern dramatic writing as Kean has done in acting. Another to upset the drawling of the blue-stocking literary world—if in the Course of a few years I do these two things, I ought to die content, and my friends should drink a dozen of Claret on my Tomb.”


Those final phrases are chilling. In eighteen months, Keats would be dead at age twenty-five, but within a month he would compose his masterpiece, “To Autumn.” He writes to Bailey:


“I am convinced more and more every day that (excepting the human friend Philosopher), a fine writer is the most genuine being in the world. Shakspeare [sic] and the Paradise lost every day become greater wonders to me. I look upon fine phrases like a lover.”


“Fine phrases” are like that golden vision of the locust tree and any experience of inexplicable beauty, as in Keats’ “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . .”

Sunday, August 14, 2022

'He Was Obsessed with Literature'

“I have never met anyone who looked with such intensity. He remained utterly calm; the expression of his eyes changed incessantly because of the play of muscles around them. He rejected nothing when seeing, for he felt equally serious about everything; the most usual as well as the most unusual things were important to him.” 

Imagine a help-wanted ad in the newspaper. Someone seeks a writer, one with a nose for details, driven by curiosity. Hold the résumé. Couple the character sketch above with a love of language and you have the essential formula for a good writer of any sort, journalist or novelist.


Elias Canetti met Isaac Babel in Berlin in 1928, and knew him only briefly. In the third volume of his autobiography, The Torch in My Ear (trans. Joachim Neugroschel, 1982), Canetti, a mere twenty-three at the time, devotes eight pages to a writer he knew casually, as a dinner and tavern companion.


The passage above reminds me of an anecdote in Antonina Pirozhkova’s memoir of her husband, At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel (trans. Anne Frydman and Robert L. Busch, Steerforth Press, 1996). On their first meeting, he asked to examine the contents of her purse, including personal letters. He offered to pay her a ruble for each letter she let him read. She laughed and agreed.


Major and minor writers alike are snoops, undercover busybodies, spies in the lives of others, voyeurs not exhibitionists, devoted to the trivial and private. Systematically examining the contents of a woman’s purse – a woman you have just met – seems as intimate as sex. Even minor writers, not just major ones like Babel, know the little things in life are important. Babel, like Nabokov and other Russian writers, is a master of detail. Canetti goes on:


“He took literature so seriously that he must have hated anything vague and approximate. However, my timidity was no weaker than his; I couldn’t get myself to say anything to him about Red Cavalry or The Odessa Stories.”


Canetti died on this date, August 14, in 1994 at age eighty-nine. I was working as a newspaper copy editor at the time, and remember editing the wire-service story reporting his death. I read it for deeper accuracy, fixing some of the fudged details, wanting the readers to know Canetti, highlighting Auto-da-Fé and Crowds and Power. Canetti concludes his sketch of Babel:


“Knowing what literature was, he never felt superior to others. He was obsessed with literature, not with its honors or with what it brought in.”

Saturday, August 13, 2022

'Some Carry-Tale, Some Please-Man'

I enjoy gossip as much as the next guy – hearing it more than passing it along. There’s a reason they call it dirt. A longtime reader on Friday shared a nasty and most likely true story about a fellow blogger. Lip-smacking was audible in his email. I get it. I briefly felt that rush of satisfaction we experience when people we don’t like confirm our low estimation of them. I claim no virtue in not being a tattle-tale. That sort of thing has a way of biting you in the ass when you least expect it. 

I make a point of reading Shakespeare’s lesser plays, some of the dreary ones, unfunny comedies and so forth, simply to stay in practice and remind myself that even tepid or mediocre Shakespeare is studded with unexpected jewels. Here is Biron speaking to the king and princess in Act V, Scene 2 of Love’s Labour’s Lost:  


“Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany,

Some mumble-news, some trencher-knight, some Dick . . .”


Carry-tale: isn’t that gorgeous folk poetry, intuitively understood? That it rhymes with fairy tale is bonus. The OED cites Shakespeare and defines it as “a person who habitually spreads rumours or gossips; a telltale, a gossip.” The Dictionary cites the same passage in its entry for please-man: “a person who tries to please others; a sycophant, a flatterer.” And "Dick" is a man's name.