Friday, June 18, 2021

'To See, to Delight, in the Truth of Things'

“None of these teachers have I ever met. The mystery is how one person whom I never met, through the recountings down the ages of how many others whom I also have never met, could shed light on each other, eventually to enlighten me.’’ 

One such teacher, in the more literal sense, I did meet, half a century ago, and to her I owe my sustained interest in eighteenth-century English literature: Donna Fricke. She’s now retired and living in Maine. I remember her when I read Swift, Johnson and Sterne. In a sense, reading them is an act of gratitude for Donna sharing her enthusiasm for these wonderful writers. There’s little mystery in that.


But in his essay “On the Mystery of Teachers I Never Met,” the late James V. Schall, S.J. (quoted above) examines something genuinely mysterious: teachers, usually writers or thinkers, some of whom lived millennia ago, who enlighten us today. For many of us, this sense of connection with long-dead figures is vivid. It’s not just academic, to earn good grades. Not to sound too much like Tevye, it’s tradition, once defined by Edward Shils as “that which is handed down.” For Schall they include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas à Kempis, Chesterton, Eric Voegelin, Hilaire Belloc and Josef Pieper. My list is more heterogenous, I suppose: Dr. Johnson, George Santayana, Yvor Winters, the Mandelstams, Zbigniew Herbert, Joseph Epstein, others. What they teach is not, to use a word one hears with disturbing frequency, data. Nor is it lessons. It’s more a sense of openness to all that can be learned, with the understanding that there’s much we’ll never know. It’s about respecting mystery.


Another among my teachers deserves mention here: Guy Davenport. I met him once, on this date, June 18, in 1990, at his home in Lexington, Ky., so he straddles the two categories of teachers – call them page-bound and in-person. I had been reading him for more than a decade by the time we visited for a few hours. If I had to distill what he taught me, without being too reductive, I would say the importance of attentiveness, to books and the world at large. Pay attention. Schall turns, inevitably, from teaching to truth:  


“We are beholden to those who guided us so that we can easily see and, if we choose, arrive at the first principles on which all truth stands. Teachers and students are in the same condition with regard to truth – they stand before something neither the one nor the other made. The modern idea that the only truth is the ‘truth’ we ourselves make is a narrow view that quickly cuts us off from what is. A teacher is content to see that light in the eyes of the student who himself, after some guidance perhaps from parents the teacher does not know, some prodding, some examples, some reflection, begins to see, to delight, in the truth of things. The teacher must, at his core, be unselfish, must rejoice in what is not his. This is the liberty of truth that links the generations, that links friends, one to another.”

Thursday, June 17, 2021

'When You Grow Old and Need to Expand Your World'

From an email the late Helen Pinkerton sent to me on May 28, 2015: 

“I have been devoting the last few months to reading what they call ‘Gulag Literature.’ I realized recently that while I was growing up in Butte [Montana], and experiencing what one thought of as ‘Depression’ hardship, I really had no idea that events going on in the other part of the world were beyond belief.”


At the time she is writing, Helen was eighty-eight. I had by then been corresponding with her for five years and read her published work in poetry and prose. Like all of us, she had strengths among her reading interests – the American Civil War, Melville, Yvor Winters and the Stanford School, Etienne Gilson – and I knew she seemed to have read almost everything worth reading, but still I was impressed by her ambitiousness and humility. How many of us recognize our pockets of ignorance and resolve to correct them? When it comes to reading history, how many acknowledge our privileged status as Americans and strive to understand what others have endured? Helen continues:


“So I went to work on Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman and Varlam Shalamov. But I think I've had enough of prison camps, torture, starvation, hard labor, criminal morals, human inhumanity, totalitarian politics--all taking place during my comparatively bucolic youth in the 20th century. I need now to turn to something else. So, I am reading Trollope’s Barchester series. I couldn't ask for a more different world to dwell in imaginatively than Barchester in the mid-19th century, after spending so many months in Soviet Siberia, in Moscow prisons, in prison camps in Stalingrad, Germany, and Kazakhstan, and labor camps far north in Siberia at Kolyma.”


Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences as a reader. I’ve known the need to escape the black claustrophobia of human nature at its most depraved. In the mid-eighties, before interviewing Raul Hilberg, I read the recently revised edition of his Destruction of the European Jews, a meticulous accounting of the Holocaust. Afterwards, I read P.G. Wodehouse at his frothiest. Helen goes on:  


“The authors I've been reading, you will recognize are the three great Russians: Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales. Grossman’s marvelous novel is one of the finest I've ever read. The Russians really do know how to compose true novels. Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales is a series of extraordinary short stories, each reading with the sharpness and brevity of a poem, focused on a single character or revelatory event. Solzhenitsyn’s more famous record of his experience in Soviet camps is a complete filling out of the details of day by day life  in an inhuman environment. I know you don’t read many novels these days, but if and when you grow old and need to expand your world, you might give those I mention a try.”


I had read them. At the time, Helen would have read John Glad’s early-eighties  translations of Shalamov’s short fiction. Since then we have Donald Rayfield’s versions of Kolyma Stories (2018) and Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories (2020), which I reviewed here and here. What I find most exhilarating about Helen’s six-year-old email is that single phrase: “when you grow old and need to expand your world.”

Helen died on December 28, 2017, at age ninety.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

'The Last Steps of an Inoffensive Life'

In January 1759, Lucy Porter wrote to Samuel Johnson that his mother, age ninety, was gravely ill. Lucy was the daughter of Tetty, Johnson’s wife, who had died in 1752. She lived with Johnson’s mother, Sarah, in Lichfield. Johnson learned on January 23 his mother was dead. In one of the four letters Johnson wrote to Sarah after learning of her illness, he says: 

“You have been the best mother, and I believe the best woman, in the world. I thank you for your indulgence to me, and beg forgiveness of all that I have done ill, and all that I have omitted to do well.”


Johnson leaves much unsaid. There is grief and guilt but little love. Johnson had removed himself from Sarah’s life for her final twenty-one years. As John Wain writes in his biography: “I do not think that love, in any sense in which I understand the term, was effectively present among the bundle of emotions which Johnson felt for his mother.” He had faithfully supported her financially and after learning of her final illness he raised twelve guineas and sent them to her. He also wrote The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia in a single week, sold it to a publisher for one-hundred pounds, and used the money to defray the cost of his mother’s funeral. Wain writes of Rasselas: “Pithy, economical, fast-moving, written at a very high level of energy, it leaves one feeling challenged, stimulated and generally keyed up for life.” This novel-like composition – W. Jackson Bate describes it as “a philosophical story in the popular form of the ‘Eastern tale’” -- is probably the work by Johnson I have reread most often.


Johnson wrote another, less well-known work around the time of his mother’s illness and death -- The Idler #41, published January 27, 1759. There is no overt mention of Sarah, except for  a general reference to “his parent or his friend,” though the essay is titled “Serious reflections on the death of a friend.” Johnson might, at several removes, be writing of Sarah here:


“The loss of a friend upon whom the heart was fixed, to whom every wish and endeavour tended, is a state of dreary desolation, in which the mind looks abroad impatient of itself, and finds nothing but emptiness and horrour. The blameless life, the artless tenderness, the pious simplicity, the modest resignation, the patient sickness, and the quiet death, are remembered only to add value to the loss, to aggravate regret for what cannot be amended, to deepen sorrow for what cannot be recalled.”


In 1987, R.L. Barth published a chapbook of translations by various writers from Dr. Johnson’s Latin poems. I’ve never seen this chapbook, though I have the revised edition Bob published in 1995. Included in the earlier version but not in the later is “On the Death of His Mother,” translated by my late friend D.G. Myers. Bob sent me the poem on Monday. David’s translation is preceded by a reference to the Idler essay cited above:


“If you have tears, whoever you may be,

Enough to drop for mourners filing by,

Then let this train be your last cause for grief;

The last steps of an inoffensive life.”

[Dave Lull to the rescue again: “13 epigrams.”]

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

'Long Days, Short Nights, this Southern Summer'

 “I have been collecting butterflies in deserts and on mountains and have had—and am still having—the time of my life.” 

Our strategy in planning this year’s front garden was to plant flowers to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Evenings when there’s nothing on Netflix we can sit by the front window with the cats and watch the show. The feeder stocked with seeds has already brought thirteen bird species since January, plus the inevitable squirrels. Thus far we’ve seen no hummers at the nectar feeder or on the flowers, but they tend to visit later in the summer.


On Sunday, four species of butterfly showed up in our front garden – monarch, Gulf fritillary, giant swallowtail and black swallowtail. Texas is home to more species than any other state. To my knowledge, Nabokov never “lepped” here. The passage quoted at the top is from a letter he wrote to Edward Weeks, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, eighty years ago today from Palo Alto, where he and his wife visited the home of Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis.


Among the flowers we planted in the front garden are Asclepias tuberosa and Lobelia cardinalis – butterfly weed and cardinal flower, respectively. Both appear in “Variations on an Elizabethan Theme,” a poem by Edgar Bowers, a Georgia-born one-time student of Winters’. It was included in his first collection, The Form of Loss (1956), and begins:


“Long days, short nights, this Southern summer

Fixes the mind within its timeless place.

Athwart pale limbs the brazen hummer

Hangs and is gone, warm sound its quickened space.


“Butterfly weed and cardinal flower,

Orange and red, with indigo the band,

Perfect themselves unto the hour.

And blood suffused within the sunlit hand . . .”


[The excerpted Nabokov sentence can be found in Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (eds. Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, Beacon Press, 2000).]

[ADDENDUM: Dave Lull, as usual, straightens me out. Nabokov did, in fact, go lepping in Texas. Specimen records from the American Museum of Natural History confirm that he caught at least one butterfly in Dallas on June 3, 1941. And Brian Boyd in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991) confirms he was collecting in San Antonio and elsewhere in Texas in 1959, though there’s no record of him visiting Houston. On May 12, 1959, he wrote to Nicholas Nabokov: “. . . here, in the Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas, a magnificent semitropical place, the newest (and wildest) of our national parks. Collecting is difficult but rewarding.”]

Monday, June 14, 2021

'To Have Known Him As He Was Then'

Lyon Hartwell is an American sculptor living in Paris. Willa Cather’s 1907 story “The Namesake” is narrated by one of his students. Hartwell is working on a new sculpture of a young soldier running, “clutching the folds of a flag,” the staff of which has been shot away. The artist explains that his father had a half-brother who enlisted in the Union Army at age fifteen. Hartwell, who was named after his uncle, says, “He was killed in one of the big battles of Sixty-four, when I was a child. I never saw him—never knew him until he had been dead for twenty years. And then, one night, I came to know him as we sometimes do living persons—intimately, in a single moment.” 

Hartwell was fourteen when the uncle was killed. He was living in Italy with his artist father and never met his namesake. Twenty years later, Hartwell visits the family homestead in Pennsylvania for the first time. On Decoration Day, his elderly aunt asks him to bring from the attic an American flag and run it up the pole. He finds a locked trunk in the attic. Stored in it are the dead boy’s clothing, his wartime letters and a copy of the Æneid, which is signed on the flyleaf “Lyon Hartwell, January, 1862.” Cather’s subsequent passage is worth quoting at length:


“My uncle, I gathered, was none too apt at his Latin, for the pages were dog-eared and rubbed and interlined, the margins mottled with pencil sketches— bugles, stacked bayonets, and artillery carriages. In the act of putting the book down, I happened to run over the pages to the end, and on the fly-leaf at the back I saw his name again, and a drawing—with his initials and a date—of the Federal flag; above it, written in a kind of arch and in the same unformed hand:


“‘Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?’


“It was a stiff, wooden sketch, not unlike a detail from some Egyptian inscription, but, the moment I saw it, wind and color seemed to touch it. I caught up the book, blew out the lamp, and rushed down into the garden.


“I seemed, somehow, at last to have known him; to have been with him in that careless, unconscious moment and to have known him as he was then.”


In the United States, today is Flag Day. On this date, June 14 in 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted this resolution: “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” More than 2.8 million service men and women have been killed or wounded defending the flag since the American Revolution.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

'As Duns Scotus Observed Long Since'

“No doubt you are going to take a holiday, long or short, this summer, and no doubt you will want to pack a few books in your gripsack to read on rainy afternoons or dull evenings.” 

Well, yes – and no. I hope to fly to Cleveland for my fifty-first high-school reunion in September, postponed from last year by the lockdown. I no longer travel often but I always pack books, though I’ve never sought “Summer Novels,” as H.L. Mencken titles his column in the June 10, 1910, issue of the Baltimore Evening Sun. I don’t find them much different from Winter Novels. Mencken is writing decades before the artificial genre of reading matter, Beach Books, was first marketed. My reading, to crib a term from physics, is a “steady state,” following no preordained path, subject only to whim and availability. Mencken advises the choice of novels over histories, and new over old – precisely the opposite of what I would suggest:


“The old ones you know all about: it is the new ones that puzzle. The advertisements are not to be believed, the fair young merchants at the book counters are not to be trusted. And you can never judge by the covers for the gaudiest and most seductive bindings are often upon the most stupid and melancholy books, as Duns Scotus observed long since and many a learned doctor after him.”


Mencken moves on to the haecceity of good and bad books, especially the bad ones: “If they are utterly and absolutely bad that badness appears upon the very first page and sometimes even on the cover. I have a superstition indeed that it is possible to detect a thoroughly bad novel at 20 paces.”


Most seasoned readers are similarly gifted. The same goes for any title, and not just fiction, printed with the announcement of an award, Pulitzer or otherwise, on the cover. Mencken helpfully supplies a list of books published in the preceding year. I recognize the names of four writers and have read the two Kipling titles: “[E]ven at 25,” Mencken writes, “Kipling had ingenuity and originality, a certain craftsmanship and a workable philosophy of life.” It’s a surprise to see Mencken having good things to say about Chesterton.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

'Condemn’d to Hope’s Delusive Mine'

This morale-booster is spoken by Aureng-zebe, the Mughal emperor of India and the title character of John Dryden’s 1675 drama: 

“When I consider Life, ’tis all a cheat;

Yet, fool’d with hope, men favour the deceit;

Trust on, and think to morrow will repay:

To morrow’s falser than the former day;

Lies worse; and while it says we shall be blest

With some new joys, cuts off what we possest.

Strange couzenage! none would live past years again,

Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain;

And, from the dregs of Life, think to receive

What the first sprightly running could not give.”


Boswell quotes Dryden’s sobering speech while recounting Dr. Johnson’s visit to the home of the Rev. William Adams on June 12, 1784. Johnson shocks another guest by saying he is “much oppressed by the fear of death.” (Johnson, already desperately ill,  died six months later at age seventy-five.) Adams replies that God is infinitely good, and Boswell reports the subsequent exchange:


JOHNSON: “That he is infinitely good, as far as the perfection of his nature will allow, I certainly believe; but it is necessary for good upon the whole, that individuals should be punished. As to an individual therefore, he is not infinitely good; and as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.”


“(looking dismally)” DR. ADAMS: “"What do you mean by damned?"


"(passionately and loudly)" JOHNSON: “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.”


The exchange continues and grows heated. Clearly, Johnson speaks not of theological abstractions but of his imminent mortality. Boswell makes a less-than-graceful segue: “From the subject of death we passed to discourse of life, whether it was upon the whole more happy or miserable. Johnson was decidedly for the balance of misery . . .”


Recounting that conversation, Boswell observes that “there is a deceitful hope that the next part of life will be free from the pains, and anxieties, and sorrows which we have already felt. We are for wise purposes ‘Condemn’d to Hope’s delusive mine,’ as Johnson finely says.” Boswell is quoting the opening line of Johnson’s “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet,” followed by the Dryden lines quoted above.


It’s remarkable what passed for tea-time conversation in London in the eighteenth century.