Thursday, October 17, 2019

'Even Things in a Book-Case Change'

In Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life (2002) N. John Hall reports his subject writing a letter to Virginia Woolf in 1927, praising her criticism but confessing he finds her fiction “tough going.” That’s self-deprecatingly polite of Beerbohm. Some of us find it unreadable. Beerbohm apologizes for his “stodgy” literary tastes, and admits he favors a more traditional narrative strategy: “Homer’s, and Thackeray’s method, and Tolstoi’s and Tom’s, Dick’s, Chaucer’s, Maupassant’s, and Harry’s.”

Woolf writes a return letter to Beerbohm, saying his had arrived as she was preparing to attend Thomas Hardy’s funeral. Her reply is rather unctuous. One detects a sycophantic note in her words: “I look upon you as one, perhaps the only one, who is withdrawn far, far above us, in a serene and cloudless air, imperishable, aloof. And then suddenly you let down a ray from your sky and it rests – behold! – upon me.” Hall asks, “It’s all a bit too much, is it not?” But perhaps Woolf’s appreciation of Beerbohm is legitimate. In her essay on “The Essay” (1922; collected in The Common Reader, 1925) Virginia Woolf writes:

“What Mr. Beerbohm gave was, of course, himself. This presence, which has haunted the essay fitfully from the time of Montaigne, had been in exile since the death of Charles Lamb. Matthew Arnold was never to his readers Matt, nor Walter Pater affectionately abbreviated in a thousand homes to Wat. They gave us much, but that they did not give.”

True, of course. One of the essay lineages I favor begins with Montaigne and after several bifurcations leads to Lamb (and Hazlitt, whom Woolf also praised) and on to Beerbohm (and later, Joseph Epstein). Their charm seems bound up with humor, whether rarified wit or locker-room raunch. This is a quality Woolf pitifully lacks. To her credit, she comprehends Beerbohm’s fundamental stance as an essayist:

“He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man.”

The same thing is often said of Montaigne. Woolf singles out Beerbohm’s “A Cloud of Pinafores” and writes: “[It] has in it that indescribable inequality, stir, and final expressiveness which belong to life and to life alone. You have not finished with it because you have read it, any more than friendship is ended because it is time to part. Life wells up and alters and adds. Even things in a book-case change if they are alive; we find ourselves wanting to meet them again; we find them altered.”

This is Woolf at her finest -- celebratory, without a trace of her customary snobbery.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

'What New Knowledge, New Immanence'

In his loveliest poem, one I have almost memorized because I’ve read it so often, Fred Chappell reunites us with our stargazing forebears:

“First point of light and then another and another: the stars
come out, bright fishnet, lifting from the vastness those Hydras
and Lyres and Wagons and the broken many heroes: furniture
of the wild Hellenic novel we began to read the mind with.”
When Odysseus leaves Ogygia, the home of Calypso, he navigates by the stars as the nymph has instructed him. He watches the Pleiades and Boötes, and keeps the Great Bear to his left. Most of us know nothing of celestial navigation (though my middle son has studied it at the U.S. Naval Academy), but some of us still find wonder, if not direction, in the night sky. The poem is “Latencies” from Chappell’s Source: Poems (1985). Some form of the title word appears five times in the poem. The root is latēre, Latin for “to hide, to be hidden.”

Chappell nods knowingly to Ludwig Boltzmann, who identified the latent linkage between entropy and the statistical analysis of molecular motion. Which is the “true eternity”? The world is flux, not chaos. Another word for it is metamorphosis. As Guy Davenport translates Fragment 2 of Heraclitus (Herakleitos and Diogenes, 1979; included in 7 Greeks, 1995): “Everything flows; nothing remains. [Everything moves; nothing is still. Everything passes away; nothing lasts.]” Change is inevitable, whether destruction or growth.

“The woman stands by the window, strikes a posture
that suddenly recalls to me a decade of obliterate dreams.
The window is a latent religion. Thrust it open, and!
what new knowledge, new immanence, pours in upon us  . . .”

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

'Turn Out Your Pockets on the Tablecloth'

“We are born each morning, shelled upon
A sheet of light that paves
The palaces of sight, and brings again
The river shining through the field of graves.”

Auden, you say?  No, Larkin, though Auden haunts the poem. Larkin had mostly shrugged off Yeats but Auden’s influence persisted. “Many Famous Feet Have Trod” was completed on this date, Oct. 15, in 1946, and (wisely) not published during Larkin’s lifetime. Read out of context, the passage above from the second of the poem’s thirteen eight-line stanzas sounds almost ecstatic – psychedelic? visionary? -- by Larkin’s customary standards. In Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (2014), James Booth likens the poem to the rhetoric in Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

And that’s the problem with much of Larkin’s early work (he was twenty-four) and the work of many young poets, even great ones. They assemble rhetoric. They write not poems but poetic gestures. Individual lines and phrases may be memorable but the whole does not cohere. Larkin’s poem is uncharacteristically long, suggesting that he had difficulty keeping it in focus. The best of his mature work is tight, without flab or filler. Nothing can be added or removed without hobbling the whole. The fourth stanza begins memorably: “Turn out your pockets on the tablecloth; / Consider what we know.” The rest turns overly schematic, as though Larkin didn’t trust his own material. In his notes to the Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett quotes a letter Larkin wrote to his friend James Ballard Sutton one day after completing the poem:

“The attitude is that sorrow is personal & temporal, joy impersonal & eternal; but I have mainly wasted my time in arguing in verse that the whole of knowledge can be divided so . . . . What I feel is that death can ballock life. It does. But life can ballock death by means of sex (creating new life) or (less certainly) art. BUT it has no consolation (I imagine when the Reaper is knocking on your door).”

Stated so baldly, Larkin makes his poem and commentary sound adolescent. In “Many Famous Feet Have Trod,” he hasn’t yet learned how to suggest rather than intone emphatically. Within a few years he would give us “Church Going,” “I Remember, I Remember” and “Mr Bleaney.”

Monday, October 14, 2019

'A Way of Contracting the Names of His Friends'

I’m fortunate in never having had a nickname that stuck. My step-grandfather and no one else called me Perfesser because I was always reading. I earned another one-person nickname in college. A friend called me Wyatt, as in Wyatt Kurp. Our dormitory swarmed with nicknames, most of which were too unseemly to reproduce here. One guy did massive quantities of acid for weeks on end, and the only thing he could eat was Goober Jelly, peanut butter and grape jelly swirled together in a jar. He ate it with a spoon. We called him “Goob.”

Nicknames are not new. They have always been at once affectionate and cruel. In A Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides (1785), Boswell recounts the events of this date, Oct. 14, in 1773:

“When Dr. Johnson awaked this morning, he called ‘Lanky! having, I suppose, been thinking of [Bennet] Langton; but corrected himself instantly, and cried, ‘Bozzy!’ He has a way of contracting the names of his friends. [Oliver] Goldsmith feels himself so important now, as to be displeased at it. I remember one day, when Tom Davies was telling that Dr. Johnson said, ‘We are all in labour for a name to Goldy’s play,’ Goldsmith cried ‘I have often desired him not to call me Goldy.’”

Of course, when the nicknamed complains, his friends are likely to up the frequency of use. Best to keep quiet about it.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

'Not Plethorically Abounding in Cash'

“If I am correct in my claims that we live in a time where there is a paucity of charm, what is one to do? Those of us who get high on, groove on, one might say are even addicted to charm find ourselves falling back on the charm of the past . . .”

Charm impresses me as an increasingly attractive and even necessary quality. Not so when I was young. I sought “intensity,” which in retrospect translates into quasi-sociopathic tendencies. I liked provocation, contrariness, a gratuitous streak of vulgarity and an absence of conscience when it came to insulting those I found displeasing. I even favored some aggressively charmless writers including the anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Growing up and thinking straight has been a long, labored process.

The passage at the top is from Joseph Epstein’s Charm: The Elusive Enchantment (2018). For the rest of the paragraph (p. 175), he catalogs some of the charmers of the past. It’s an impressive list drawn from all the arts and heavily overlapping with my own. The writers come last:

“The essays of Charles Lamb and Max Beerbohm, the novels of P.G. Woodhouse and Evelyn Waugh, the poems of Philip Larkin and Ogden Nash all provide charm in its literary division. If all this seems rather light fare, that is because it ought to be, for light, in the most approbative sense, is what charm indubitably is.”

An example: Lamb is writing to Wordsworth on this date, Oct. 13, in 1804:

“I have not found your commissions. But the truth is, and why should I not confess it? I am not plethorically abounding in Cash at this present. Merit, God knows, is very little rewarded; but it does not become me to speak of myself. My motto is ‘Contented with little, yet wishing for more.’”

Imagine promising a acquaintance you would purchase something (in this case, books) for him, than having to admit you’re a little hard up this month. Some of us would lie. Others would abjectly bow and scrape and behave like sycophants. Not Lamb. Without qualification, he admits he’s flat and says so charmingly: “not plethorically abounding in Cash.” Then he proposes an alternative solution.

True charm is never smarmy. Neither can it be fully dishonest. Charm is not a mask for something else. This is how Lamb closes his letter to Wordsworth:

“Let me know your will and pleasure soon: For I have observed, next to the pleasure of buying a bargain for one’s self is the pleasure of persuading a friend to buy it. It tickles one with the image of an imprudency without the penalty usually annex’d.”

That’s charming.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

'Thousands of Heavy, Golden, Fan-Shaped Leaves'

More than thirty years ago the upstate New York newspaper where I worked as a reporter hired a new editor in the features department. When she was being escorted around the newsroom and introduced to the staff, I noticed she was wearing a necklace from which hung a Ginkgo biloba leaf made of gold. The appearance of ginkgo leaves is distinctive – fan-shaped and ridged with veins. In the fall they turn buttery yellow. I complimented her on the beauty of the necklace and we talked about trees. Her degree was in biology, not journalism, which was soon confirmed as a good omen.

The ginkgo has always been my favorite tree because of its intense beauty and age. Fossils of ginkgo leaves dating from 270 million years ago have been found in China. That’s the Permian Age, late in the Paleozoic, when the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history occurred. The ginkgo, to use a term overused into meaninglessness, is a survivor. In Schenectady, I lived a few blocks away from Union College where a ninety-foot ginkgo more than 150 years old grows in Jackson’s Garden.

I’m reading the late Oliver Sacks’ posthumously published collection of essays, Everything in Its Place (2019), which includes “Night of the Ginkgo,” first published in The New Yorker in 2014. His title refers to what Sacks calls the tree’s “synchronicity”: its leaves often fall in a single night:

“While the leaves of the more modern angiosperms—maples, oaks, beeches, what have you—are shed over a period of weeks after turning dry and brown, the ginkgo, a gymnosperm, drops its leaves all at once.”

The phenomenon adds to the tree’s allure. It doesn’t look or behave like anything else. Sacks writes: “Whenever it is, each tree will have its own Night of the Ginkgo. Few people will see this—most of us will be asleep—but in the morning the ground beneath the ginkgo will be carpeted with thousands of heavy, golden, fan-shaped leaves.”

Friday, October 11, 2019

'The Autumn is Most Melancholy'

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton performs data analysis on those who, as of four-hundred years ago, are most predisposed to the condition:

“Such as have the moon, Saturn, Mercury misaffected in their genitures, such as live in over cold or over hot climes: such as are born of melancholy parents; as offend in those six non-natural things, are black, or of a high sanguine complexion, that have little heads, that have a hot heart, moist brain, hot liver and cold stomach, have been long sick . . .”

Put aside the astrological business but don’t get too uppity about it. Newspapers still print horoscopes. Burton got the weather (seasonal affective disorder) and hereditary components right, as we know from modern science. The “six non-natural things” refers to Galen’s account of the six non-congenital influences on human health: ambient air, food and drink, exercise and rest, sleep, retention and evacuation of waste, emotions. Little to argue with here. The complexion reference derives from the theory of humors, which is nearly as discredited as Freud’s gimcrackery. “Little heads” is Aristotle’s idea in Physiognomica that “those who have little heads are mostly doltish.” Not the Greek’s finest moment. Burton continues with his depression demographics:

“[S]uch as are solitary by nature, great students, given to much contemplation, lead a life out of action, are most subject to melancholy. Of sexes both, but men more often; yet women misaffected are far more violent, and grievously troubled. Of seasons of the year, the autumn is most melancholy.”

That final line – direct, not at all convoluted and thus quite un-Burtonian – is issued like an inviolate truth, not to be argued with. More so in the North, the fall is the bittersweet season. In Texas, with little color change in the foliage and a middling drop in temperature and humidity, autumn is a lesser summer. But nostalgia for old autumns lends the new ones a sweet melancholy. Burton concludes:   

“Of peculiar times: old age, from which natural melancholy is almost an inseparable accident; but this artificial malady is more frequent in such as are of a middle age.”

Not yet old, no longer middle-aged, I haven’t yet found it so.