Monday, July 06, 2020

'With a Detached Unbiased Outlook'

Most of us feel the urge to respond to what happens around us, even when events are distant and with little or no immediate impact. We’re human. We feel for our kind. Carried to an extreme this can make us extraordinarily tiresome. Even before Twitter we all knew loud mouths in amplified op-ed mode, sharing precious insights. In contrat, some of us focus, understanding that the world will get along just fine (or not) without our assistance. Here is the American painter Charles Burchfield writing in his journal on this date July 6, in a year even more desperate than our own, 1940:     

“In Studio most of day – playing my collection of Jazz records, enjoying the reminiscences they evoked. I think the mental devastation caused by the war is about at an end — and now the inactivity and emotional joy I allowed myself to sink into seems unnecessary & rather futile. Perhaps it was unavoidable, but now, more than at any time, it is urgent that an artist do his work unrestrainedly, and with a detached unbiased outlook."

Two weeks earlier, France had fallen. Within days, the Battle of Britain would begin. Hitler controlled most of Europe. Soviet troops occupied the Baltics, eastern Poland, and Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia in Romania. Japan had moved on French Indochina. Pearl Harbor was still seventeen months in the future. It was a good year for jazz, perhaps Duke Ellington’s finest: “Concerto for Cootie,” “Cotton Tail,” “Ko-Ko,” “Sepia Panorama,” “Harlem Air-Shaft,” “In a Mellotone,” “Warm Valley.” This was the great Blanton-Webster band. I don’t know what records Burchfield was listening to but Ellington was “do[ing] his work unrestrainedly, and with a detached unbiased outlook.”

Sunday, July 05, 2020

'Courage, Curiosity and Affection for Human Beings'

Who among the Russian masters wrote this?:

“Masha! Hurry home, because your absence has caused our intensive domestic economy to fall into utter disarray. There is nothing to eat, the flies have taken over, there is an appalling miasma emanating from the WC, the mongoose has smashed a pot of preserves, and so on and so forth.”

There’s a Marxian (as in Groucho) feel to the scene that might suggest Gogol. Call it comedic chaos. Babel? Bulgakov? It’s easier to deduce who didn’t write it: Tolstoy, Turgenev, not even Dostoevsky in one of his more anarchic, Dickensian passages. Here’s another sample, another clue:

“Spider Man busies himself from morning to night with his spiders. He has already itemized five spider legs, now there are only three to go. When he has finished with the spiders, he will start work on the fleas, which he is going to catch on his aunt.”

You know by now it’s Chekhov. His taste for silliness – what the professors used to call The Absurd – resembles our own. He relishes our (and his) frequent ridiculousness. He’s writing on this date, July 5, in 1891, from the village of Bogimovo in Kaluga Governorate, where he spent that summer. An 1896 story, “An Artist's Story” (trans. Constance Garnett; also titled “The House with the Mezzanine”) is said to be set in Bogimovo, 115 miles south of Moscow. “Masha” is his younger sister, Maria Pavlovna Chekhova (1863-1957), who outlived him by fifty-three years.

The translators tell us “Spider Man” is the zoologist Vladimir Vagner. The mongoose had been adopted by Chekhov in Ceylon, during his return trip the previous year from Sakhalin Island. To Ivan Leontiev he had written about his Rikki-Tiki-Tavis on Dec. 10, 1890:

“[I]f you only knew what sweet animals I’ve brought back from India with me! Two mongooses, about the size of a young cat, most cheerful and lively beasts. Their qualities are: courage, curiosity and affection for human beings. They will take on a rattlesnake and always win, they are not afraid of anyone or anything; as for their curiosity, if there are any parcels or bundles in the room they will not leave a single one untied; whenever they meet a new person the first thing they do is wriggle into his pockets to have a look and see what’s there. If you leave them alone in a room they start to  cry.”

One hears self-identification in Chekhov’s description of his beloved mongooses.     

[You’ll find the quoted letters in A Life in Letters (trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Penguin, 2004).]

Saturday, July 04, 2020

'I Watch the Fireworks from Far Away'

The story headlined on the cover of the June 30, 1956 issue of The Nation is oxymoronically titled “Soviet Legal Reforms.” In the same issue, Kenneth Rexroth reviews a newly published collection of Edward Gibbon’s letters. There’s an article, “View from Tangier,” by the odious Paul Bowles, and Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform gets a review, as does Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature, Vol. I.
Dwight Eisenhower was president and in four months would be elected to a second term. Four months earlier, on Feb. 25, Nikita Krushchev had delivered his “Secret Speech” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality. In the April 30, 1956 issue of Life magazine, Whitaker Chambers, ever skeptical of anything coming from the mouth of a Communist, wrote: “With the smashing of the dark idol of Stalin, Communism can hope to compete again for the allegiance of men’s minds, especially among the youth where its influence had fallen almost to zero.”

In that same issue of The Nation, Howard Nemerov published “Fourth of July” (Mirrors and Windows, 1958):

“Because I am drunk, this Independence Night,
I watch the fireworks from far away,
from a high hill, across the moony green
Of lakes and other hills to the town harbor,
Where stately illuminations are flung aloft,
One light shattering in a hundred lights
Minute by minute. The reason I am crying,
Aside from only being country drunk,
That is, may be that I have just remembered
The sparklers, rockets, roman candles and
so on, we used to be allowed to buy
When I was a boy, and set off by ourselves
At some peril to life and property.
Our freedom to abuse our freedom thus
Has since, I understand, been remedied
By legislation. Now the authorities
Arrange a perfectly safe public display
To be watched at a distance; and now also
The contribution of all the taxpayers
Together makes a more spectacular
Result than any could achieve alone
(A few pale pinwheels, or a firecracker
Fused at the dog's tail). It is, indeed, splendid:
Showers of roses in the sky, fountains
Of emeralds, and those profusely scattered zircons
Falling and falling, flowering as they fall
And followed distantly by a noise of thunder.
My eyes are half-afloat in happy tears.
God bless our Nation on a night like this,
And bless the careful and secure officials
Who celebrate our independence now.”

No screed, no thesis. Nemerov’s speaker regrets one of modern life’s minor losses – the freedom to celebrate freedom as we please. Government has taken over one of our lost pleasures – the joy of benignly blowing up things -- for our own good.

[Find Chambers’ Life essay collected in Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers (ed. Terry Teachout, Regnery Gateway, 1989).]

Friday, July 03, 2020

'Callow, Shallow, Hackneyed and Unoriginal'

My middle son, Michael, turned twenty on July 1. Two weeks ago he returned to the U.S. Naval Academy after spending three and a half months back home in Houston because of the COVID-19 lockdown. He’s a third-year midshipman. Now out of quarantine, he’ll spend the rest of the summer wearing his Navy-issued mask and training the incoming plebes. In the July issue of New English Review, Theodore Dalrymple’s timing was uncanny. His essay “Earlier Thoughts” begins:

“There are few of us, I should imagine, who would care very much to have their thoughts at the age of twenty about life, literature and the world, exposed to public view and widely disseminated.”

I can’t speak for Michael but Dalrymple’s assessment is accurate in my case. At twenty I was a well-read fool and fancied myself quite the sophisticate. Most of the judgments I spouted off were superficial, unexamined and often intended to hurt someone. In short, I was insufferable. Dalrymple continues:

“Our thoughts at that age, though no doubt essential to our personal development, were hardly worth having, or at least not worth communicating to others. In short, our thoughts were callow, shallow, hackneyed and unoriginal in the extreme, often uttered with that youthful combination of arrogant certainty and underlying insecurity which manifests itself as a kind of inflamed prickliness whenever challenged.”

He nails me, circa 1972-73. I was a junior in college when I turned twenty. An English professor was kind enough to enroll me in his graduate seminar in Joyce. I’ll skip the specifics but I wasn’t shy about sharing my vast knowledge of the subject. I dropped out of college after that year without a degree and would not earn one for another thirty years. Michael, too, has a know-it-all strain but also the discipline to check its advance. Only occasionally is he a smart-ass, and usually on subjects about which he is knowledgeable – computer engineering and Russian, his major and minor, respectively. One of the qualities that distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries (and from me at age twenty) is a historical sense, without a trace of presentism. We’re no better, and in many ways much worse, than our forebears. Combine respect for tradition with a heathy dose of skepticism and you’re on your way to maturity. Hazlitt puts it like this in his essay “On Reading New Books” (1828):

“I have been often struck by the unreasonableness of the complaint we constantly hear of the ignorance and barbarism of former ages, and the folly of restricting all refinement and literary elegance to our own. We are, indeed, indebted to the ages that have gone before us, and could not do well without them. But in all ages there will be found still others that have gone before with nearly equal lustre and advantage, though, by distance and the intervention of multiplied excellence, this lustre may be dimmed or forgotten.”

Thursday, July 02, 2020

'All Americans Are Children of the Civil War'

“On the shoulders of common soldiers rested the future of the nation. These men cherished the Union as a model of self-government. It was the repository of timeless principles that, as Abraham Lincoln declared in 1857, established a ‘standard maxim for free society.’”

We are not the nation we were 163 or 157 years ago but Lincoln’s words, spoken in Springfield, Ill. three months after the Dred Scott Decision, remain stirring and true. In a preview of the following year’s Lincoln-Douglas debates, the future president was refuting a speech made in Springfield two weeks earlier by Stephen Douglas. Quoting Lincoln is Mitchell G. Klingenberg in “Gettysburg: Profiles in Courage.” Klingenberg’s point is that liberty, even in the freest of nations, is always in jeopardy. Sometimes it must be defended, and the people entrusted to do that are the “common soldiers.” Happy sentiments and purity of thought don’t preserve freedom in a world where the human default mode is despotism, violence and slavery.

When two armies met at Gettysburg in southeastern Pennsylvania on July 1-3, 1863, there were no guarantees the North would win the battle, the Union would be preserved and slavery would end. With the Union victory and the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg on July 4, the North rallied, though fighting continued for another twenty-one months.  

Among the books from the late Helen Pinkerton’s personal library given me by her daughter Erica Light is Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War: Civil War Poems (Prometheus Books, 2001), a paperback copy of  the 1866 volume heavily annotated by Helen. Her notes to “Gettysburg” are spare. She underlines “three waves” in the second stanza, referring to Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the battle, July 3:

“He charged, and in that charge condensed
  His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
            And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells-
Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
  Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
  And Right is a strong-hold yet.”

Those final two lines are the finest in the poem. In the assault, named for Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett, some 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advanced across a field for three-quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. The Confederate casualty rate exceeded fifty percent.

In the poem’s last stanza Helen notes that Melville’s phrase “that place of graves” refers to Cemetery Ridge, the principal defensive position for the Union forces during the battle. Her final notation, “July 4, 1865,” is written next to the poem’s last lines: “Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer / Have laid the stone, and every bone / Shall rest in honor there.”  The date refers to the laying of the cornerstone for the Soldiers National Monument at Gettysburg.
Helen’s volume of Melville’s poems includes four essays by critics. Next to Rosanna Warren’s “Dark Knowledge: Melville’s Poems of the Civil War,” Helen leaves a one-word annotation: “Excellent!” In the essay she marks this sentence:

“All Americans are children of the Civil War whether we know it or not.”

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

'The Other Side Perhaps of Some Rare Gladness'

Almost daily I visit the journal of Charles Burchfield. For fifty-six years, until his death in 1967, the Ohio-born painter kept a journal of some 10,000 pages bound in seventy-two volumes. In 1993, the State University of New York published a selection edited by J. Benjamin Townsend, Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place -- “with which,” Guy Davenport writes in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994), “he takes his place among American writers.”

The Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y., each day posts excerpts from the journal, calling the site “Charles E. Burchfield in his own words.” On this date, July 1, in 1948, Burchfield drove from his home in West Seneca, a suburb of Buffalo, to Java, a village about thirty-five miles to the southeast. As was his custom, he was looking for scenes to sketch and, potentially, to paint:

“For a time, I thought it was going to be one of those futile days, when no spot seems exactly right, and I drove endlessly on until complete frustration sets in and I must give up and go home. But then I took a road east from a ‘corners’ (unnamed) (But which was east of Sardinia according to the signs) which soon turned from macadam to a hard graveled road, I had not gone far until I came to some wide-spreading hay meadows, enclosed by deep mysterious woods on all fronts . . .”

“Mysterious woods” is characteristic of Burchfield. Seldom is he reluctant to anthropomorphize nature. He is not a scientist; rather, what used to be called a “nature lover,” with a powerful religious sense. For him, landscapes, especially those with trees and flowers, are dynamic and dramatic. He is a sort of intuitive pantheist who thinks like a painter. Donald Justice was a great admirer. Here is “On a Picture by Burchfield” (Collected Poems, 2004):

“Writhe no more, little flowers. Art keeps long hours.
Already your agony has outlasted ours.”

And in the fourth stanza of “Sadness” Justice writes:

“Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine
Just as an evil August night comes down,
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine.
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness —
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness.”

The painting described is “White Violets and Coal Mine” (1918), which I’ve seen in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Boris Dralyuk tells me he has been reading Justice. Like me, he is saddened by what David Sanders had said in my post on Sunday -- that Justice is among the poets who might “get lost soon to the ages.” How can a writer so good be lost to memory? It’s indecent, ungrateful of us. Boris cites a late Justice poem, “Ralph: A Love Story,” about which he writes: “[It] seems to me a distillation both of his own art (his flawlessly casual musicality; his Chekhovian gift for sketching in a narrative by means of a few choice details and prudent preterition) and of the era closing about him, the era out of which his art emerged.” Justice is our great poet of disciplined nostalgia, an emotion that customarily invites mawkishness. He is the laureate of nuanced understanding, subtle shadings of feeling. Boris says these things better than I. How could a poet so Chekhovian, so quietly empathetic, find a home in our time of noise and garish colors?

Four years before his death in 2004, Justice conducted a lengthy interview with the English writer and publisher Philip Hoy, and in 2001 the edited interview was published as a book by Between the Lines. Justice makes a curious observation, based on his 1982 return to Florida, the state where he was born. It reads like the germ of a Justice poem:

“I have a distinct memory of walking out onto the golf course behind our house late one night, walking our dog, and standing there looking up at the moon as it flooded the fairway with light. Very nice. I felt touched by an emotion I must have been inventing.”

As though to dispel the impression he is a poet only of twilit nostalgia, Justice assaults the literary theorists who helped destroy English departments, literacy and the love of literature:

“I disliked practically everything about them: their jargon and their grammar, their vast intellectual pretensions, their easy disdain for things they knew little or nothing about and had no interest in, their lousy taste in literature and the other arts, their nasty politicking, their hatred of the past and the tradition in favour of the fashionable and the perfectly silly . . . But please don’t get me wound up. It’s been years and I still tremble with passion.”

A quiet poet of passionate emotion. No wonder he may be forgotten. On that day in July in 1948, Burchfield writes:

“For a time I merely wandered about reveling in the beauty of the day, as a child might, reaching out to get handfuls of the cold wind, and examining each field flower – self-heal, black-eyed susan, pink and alsike clovers, buttercups, white daisies, yellow + white covert clovers – as if they were the rarest flowers on earth, as indeed they are! – the Timothy was just coming into hand, a soft silvery green, which the wind, and a strong burst of sunshine turned in to glistening white ripples that raced across the meadows with joyous abandon. Sometimes great cumulous clouds filled up into huge towering masses, overhead, blotting out the sun, and casting a deep shadow over the trees and fields that almost seemed as if it could be felt with the hands – To the north white round clouds, on a background of deep blue-black cumuli were startling + dramatic – a fine North feeling, especially above a low-lying woods.”

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

'How Beauteous Mankind Is!'

Outside the window above my desk grows a firebush, a sprawling shrub covered with tubular flowers the color of traffic cones. As I write, a mud dauber flits among the blossoms. One afternoon last week, after hours at the keyboard, feeling stiff, sore and irritable, I looked out the window and saw, four feet from my nose, a miracle suspended among the flowers: a ruby-throated hummingbird, its wings a blur, its body iridescent. Then it was gone.

That same evening I watched Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, France’s supreme contribution, along with À la recherche du temps perdu, to civilized living. In the car the next day I listened repeatedly to Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” performed by Philippe Entremont. At night I reread Pnin. I’ve concluded that I needed to address the charm, delight and wonder deficit. The human world in all its gratuitous ugliness was too much with me. Perhaps you have felt the same way of late. Beware: the ugliness is contagious.

There’s a quality I think of as aggrieved earnestness. People so afflicted are tuned to a narrow wavelength. Humor, beauty, irony and the frothier forms of pleasure elude them. They will never get Beerbohm. Their world is an unhappy place in need of correction at whatever the cost. They nag and bore us. They are yentas, regardless of sex. Their idea of conversation is a shrill sermon. They would never look twice at Matisse.

Of course, there’s much to be serious about. A playful sense of irony will never cure cancer. Most grownups know that. In Act V, Scene 1 of The Tempest, Ferdinand and Miranda are playing chess. She says:

“O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in it!”

Prospero, her father, with infinite gentleness replies to Miranda's naiveté: “’Tis new to thee.” Those four monosyllables never fail to move me.

Next up,Laurel and Hardy. And P.G. Wodehouse.