Thursday, May 23, 2019

'Nobody to Blame for His Mistake'

“[W]e must be as clear as our natural reticence allows us to be.”

Never has reticence been in such short supply. It’s as though everyone in the country had suddenly adopted as gospel the old Beat mantra of Spontaneous Bop Prosody, known down at the tap room as running your mouth off. Few of us are any good spontaneously. If you want to put people on the spot, tell them to improvise. Most of us sputter, hem and haw. The best writing (and conversation) may give the impression of spontaneity but in fact is carefully crafted, every sentence weighed for rhythm and impact. The author cited above, who might be Henry James, is Marianne Moore. She goes on: “[Y]ou don’t devise a rhythm, the rhythm is the person, and the sentence but a radiograph of personality.” Consider this passage, a typical digression by A.J. Liebling in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). The context is autobiographical, the sort of material in which reticence can be a tricky matter. Liebling reflects on his student days in Paris in 1926:

“Had I had a companion in my wanderings, his reactions would have differed from mine and perhaps spoiled them. The matter of how much discomfort a man is prepared to undergo for an experience depends on how much it is worth to him. The best of friends can seldom agree on the price. (This is true even of a price in money.)  Excursions are likely to become compromises, gratifying the full taste of neither. The man who pokes around alone may take a wrong turning at the junction of two streets and return from his ramble disappointed, but never recriminative. He has nobody to blame for his mistake.”

There is reticence in Liebling’s confession. This was written by a man in his sixties about himself in his twenties. Liebling was a social fellow who cherished solitude. Nowhere does he say he dislikes other people. In fact, Liebling’s digression is charming. He was no misanthrope. Contrast this with Thoreau in the fifth chapter of Walden, “Solitude”:

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

With that kind of attitude, regardless of how stylized for literary purposes, is it any surprise Thoreau was alone much of the time? Though he has been adopted as a hero of peace and love by many – in particular those who has never read his journals – Thoreau could be a nasty, condescending little shit, a man who valorized John Brown, a murderous sociopath. Moore might be thinking of Thoreau when she writes, “the author is resisted as being enigmatic or cryptic or disobliging or arrogant.”    

[The Moore essay is collected in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia Willis, 1986.]

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

'That Will Always Stick with You'

Terry Teachout has revived a decade-old meme that I indulged in but had forgotten. Here are the rules: “Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.” I decided to postpone reading my list from 2009 and to start from scratch in 2019:

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris: A.J. Liebling
Life of Johnson: James Boswell
The Geography of the Imagination: Guy Davenport
Lives of the English Poets: Samuel Johnson
The American Scene: Henry James
American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz: Whitney Balliett
And Even Now: Max Beerbohm
Gulliver’s Travels: Jonathan Swift
Plays and Poems: William Shakespeare
The Ideal of Culture: Joseph Epstein
Pale Fire: Vladimir Nabokov
Stories: Anton Chekhov
The Collected Poems: 1956-1998: Zbigniew Herbert
Daniel Deronda: George Eliot
Essays: Montaigne

Nine of the fifteen authors from ten years ago remain on the list. In the case of Liebling, I switched allegiance to another title (I can’t go wrong with Liebling.). Only one living author (Epstein) is there, and it was tough choosing only one of his titles. Immediately I see the absences. Where are Italo Svevo, Spinoza, Santayana, J.V. Cunningham, Proust, Whittaker Chambers, Geoffrey Hill and Gibbon? Where are the King James Bible, The Divine Comedy and Tristram Shandy? How fortunate I am to have an overflowing list.

The old list was booby-trapped with sadness. I had forgotten that the late David Myers and I assembled lists without a single shared title. Five of the books on his list I still haven’t read and probably never will. Friendship need not be rooted in agreement.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

'Be Safe, Israel, as You Guard the Wall'

My middle son was curious about his ancestry, which is largely a mystery as it is for many Americans. On my side, in the most general terms, Polish and Irish; on his mother’s, English and French. A typical opaque hodgepodge, until the arrival of inexpensive genetic testing. Michael sent away for a reading of his genetic makeup, and the results were predictable except for one small contribution to his genome: Ashkenazi Jew. He called it a “trace element.” A surprise but not a surprise. My wife and I haven’t been tested but I suspect the soupçon of Jewish blood is from my side, from my Polish half, though Leopold Bloom may be smiling in the background.

My reaction: that makes sense. Since I was a kid I have ended up with Jewish friends. My ex-wife and oldest son are Jewish. I’ve always loved modern Jewish literature and Yiddish writing in translation (I’m reading Shadows on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer.) In junior high school I read Martin Buber and Max I. Dimont’s Jews, God, and History (1962), looked into Spinoza for the first time and rooted for Israel during the Six-Day War. To this day, defending the U.S. and Israel are self-evident necessities. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, Jorge Luis Borges wrote “To Israel” (trans. Stephen Kessler, The Sonnets, 2010), and contemplated his own possible Jewish ancestry:

“Who’ll tell me whether you are in the lost
labyrinth of secular rivers in
my blood, Israel? Who can tell me where
my blood and your blood have flowed together?
It doesn’t matter. I know you are in a sacred
book that contains time and that rescues
red Adam’s story and the memory
and the agony of the Crucified.
You are in that book, which is the mirror
of every face that looks into its pages,
and of God’s face, who in his intricate
harsh crystal can be terribly divined.
Be safe, Israel, as you guard the wall
Of God in all the passion of your fight.”

Borges also devoted two poems to Spinoza and announced his intention to write a book titled Key to Spinoza. In a 1974 interview he said, “I am preparing a book on Spinoza's philosophy, because I have never understood him. He has always attracted me, less than Berkeley, less than Schopenhauer, but I cannot understand Spinoza.” Even so, when asked in 1979 to name his favorite historical character, Borges answered, “Spinoza, who committed his life to abstract thought.”

[Go here to read “Borges in Jerusalem” and here to read “Borges, the Jew.”]

Monday, May 20, 2019

'Well! It Is Always Good to Be Undeceived'

For more than two weeks after spinal surgery I stopped shaving, something I never do. Shave or grow a real beard. None of that hipster stubble, please. Because I normally shave daily I was surprised to see my beard had come in almost entirely white. It was a mild shock seeing Gabby Hayes in the mirror, and my first morning back at home I shaved it off. Vanity can be clandestine. While reading Julius Caesar again on Monday I was pleased to find this in Scene II, Act 1. The conspirators are meeting, and Metellus Cimber says of Cicero:

“His silver hairs
Will purchase us a good opinion
And buy men’s voices to commend our deeds:
It shall be said his judgment rul’d our hands;
Our youths and wildness shall no whit appear,
But all be buried in his gravity.”

Nice to borrow some ersatz gravitas with a few white hairs, but as William Hazlitt reminds us in his commentary on Julius Caesar: “The honest manliness of Brutus is, however, sufficient to find out the unfitness of Cicero to be included in their enterprise, from his affected egotism and literary vanity.” Hazlitt then quotes Brutus on Cicero:

“O, name him not: let us not break with him;
For he will never follow any thing,
That other men begin.”

That stung a little too. William Cowper, though often certifiably mad, could sometimes be counted on for commonsensical wisdom. On this date, May 21, in 1793, he writes to his friend William Hayley:

“How insensibly old age steals on, and how often it is actually arrived before we suspect it! Accident alone [a two-week hospital stay],--some occurrence that suggests a comparison of our former with our present selves, affords the discovery. Well! it is always good to be undeceived, especially on an article of such importance.”

Sunday, May 19, 2019

'It’s Quite Harmless and Amuses Me in a Childish Way'

As I was saying, Tolstoy can be infuriatingly inconsistent, grandiose and petty. In other words, human. In this he reminds us of Dr. Johnson. Both indulged in fits of self-rebuke, though one senses Johnson enjoyed it less than Tolstoy, whose flagellations sometimes have a theatrical flavor. Both are like us, irreducibly human, with the added quality of genius. Their weaknesses fuel their strengths, which perhaps reveals something about the nature of genius. It’s not a discrete capacity, something granted from the outside, but rooted in the rest of an individual’s makeup. Here is Tolstoy in his diary in 1901:

“Another difference between people is that some are aware of others first and then themselves, while others are aware of themselves first – I was going to say, and then others – but for the most part such people are limited to an awareness of themselves alone. This is a terrible difference.”

Tolstoy seems unaware that this may stand as an acute observation about himself. But it’s only a half-truth to say Tolstoy was self-centered. He was able to inhabit the lives of others and animate Prince Andrei, Levin and Ivan Ilyich, who can sometimes possess more reality than our neighbors. How many men have fallen in love with Natasha Rostov? Here is the practical-minded Tolstoy writing in 1895 on idleness, Dr. Johnson’s bête noire:
“Doing nothing is more important than people think – than I used to think myself. In moments of depression don’t force yourself to do something. It only makes it worse: you will spoil what you did before, and interfere with what you might do afterwards.”

Compare this with Johnson in The Idler #3: “There are said to be pleasures in madness known only to madmen. There are certainly miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive. These miseries I have often felt and often bewailed.”

In 1909, the year before his death, Tolstoy’s grandiosity is muted and his appreciation of humility heightened: “First of all it must be understood that there can be no heroic feats, no heroism, nothing ‘great.’ There is only doing one’s duty and not doing it. It’s just as if a stable-man cleaning out the stables or a ploughman or a reaper were to talk about a heroic feat he had performed, what heroism he had shown, what a great deed he had done yesterday in cleaning out the stables or ploughing up a field or mowing a meadow.”

I’m reminded of men who brag about how much “quality time” they spend with their children, and the sacrifices they make for the kids. Big deal. It’s your job. Congratulations are not in order. Existing alongside these Tolstoys is the occasional cynic, the refreshingly jaundiced observer, as in this passage from 1900: “I am seriously convinced that the world – countries and estates and houses – is governed by people who are quite mad. Those who are not mad refrain from taking part, or cannot do so.”

And there is yet another, fun-loving Tolstoy. Just as Johnson enjoyed rolling down hills, Tolstoy reveled in speaking on the telephone, playing tennis and riding a bicycle. This is from 1895:

“During this time I began learning to ride a bicycle in the riding-school. It’s very strange why I should be drawn to doing this. Yevgeny Ivanovich [Popov] tried to dissuade me, and was distressed at my riding, but I’m not ashamed. On the contrary, I feel that it’s a natural folly, that it’s all the same to me what people think, and that it’s quite harmless and amuses me in a childish way.”

[The quoted passages are from the second volume of Tolstoy’s Diaries (Athlone Press, 1985), translated by R.F. Christian.]

Saturday, May 18, 2019

'How Much Better Are the Lives of Other People'

“Haven’t written my diary for more than two weeks. Health still as bad: continual heartburn and pains in my stomach and liver. But I’m not living too badly.”

Even genius turns tedious when keeping a diary, the most therapeutic of literary forms, one that is always of more importance to the writer than to prospective readers. A diary invites gush and suspends critical acumen. Where else can we write whiningly, self-piteously, and not be reprimanded? Twice in my life I have kept a diary. First, as a teenager, I tried to keep it literary, turning the notebook into an adolescent hybrid of diary and commonplace book. Wisely, before leaving for the university, I burned it in the trash can behind our house. Again, about thirty years ago, during a difficult spell when I wallowed in self-pity and guilt, I spewed onto the pages all my wretched, oddly satisfying self-contempt. That too I burned, and maybe that’s the point of a diary. It’s an evanescent form, designed for self-combustion. The rare exceptions are Saint Simon and Pepys, who document their time and place while ostensibly writing about themselves.

The passage at the top was written by Tolstoy on May 19, 1905, at Yasnaya Polyana. I remember concluding at age sixteen, while reading Henri Troyat’s great biography of the novelist, that Tolstoy, while undeniably a genius, could also be a remarkably self-centered bully and twit. Yet he could surprise you. Here is his next sentence: “The thought of the need for the awareness of light in the sight of God has ceased to have a strong effect as something new, but it has laid down a path, I hope, and part of it (the thought) has entered into my conscious activity.” In an attached note he writes: “consciousness brings time, i.e. illusion, to a stop.”

Weigh the accuracy and sincerity of the following passage, dated Oct. 9, 1900. Is this a dispassionate moral inventory, a delicious wallow in personal awfulness, or some human and very Tostoyan combination of the two:

“During these days the important thing has been that – I don’t recall on what occasion, after inwardly reproaching my sons I think – I began to recall all the nasty things I’ve done. I vividly recalled all, or at least most of them, and was horrified. How much better are the lives of other people and of my sons than my own life. I shouldn’t be proud of the past, or even of the present, but should be humble, be ashamed, hide myself – ask forgiveness of people. I wrote ‘of God,’ and then crossed it out. I’m less to blame before God, than before people.”

This, from the author of War and Peace.

[The quoted passages are from the second volume of Tolstoy’s Diaries (Athlone Press, 1985), translated by R.F. Christian.]

Friday, May 17, 2019

'We Are the Mere Passing Guests of Time'

The final essay in The Hall of Uselessness, the collection Simon Leys published a few years before his death in 2014, is titled “Memento Mori.” Two of my friends died that year, one of whom I met in 1970. He was a lawyer. We spoke infrequently but every time one of us called the other, I would laugh until I wept and my ribs hurt. The other friend I had known for only six years. We too laughed a lot but mostly we talked about books. He was a teacher and critic. Both were my age, and both died of cancer. None of this is remarkable. If you live long enough – I’m sixty-six – the deaths of friends and relatives accumulate until your name is added to the list and you are remembered or forgotten.

When I encounter the phrase “memento mori,” I think first of Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel. Then of Philippe de Champaigne’s painting Vanitas (c. 1671), with its three objects signifying life, death and time. And then a passage in Part 1, Sec. XLV of Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici:

“Whosoever enjoys not this life, I count him but an apparition, though he wear about him the sensible affections of flesh. In these moral acceptions, the way to be immortal is to die daily; nor can I think I have the true theory of death, when I contemplate a skull or behold a skeleton with those vulgar imaginations it casts upon us. I have therefore enlarged that common memento mori into a more Christian memorandum, memento quatuor novissima [“remember the four last things”],--those four inevitable points of us all, death, judgment, heaven, and hell.”

Even a nonbeliever is chastened by such things. To claim otherwise is bluster. Leys’ associations with memento mori are different. He cites none of these things but begins with Swift’s Struldbruggs, moves on to Albert Speer and Ivan Turgenev, the French surgeon and biologist Alexis Carrel, Evelyn Waugh, Tolstoy and William Blake. As is customary with Leys, one doesn’t confuse his citations with obnoxious namedropping. He is confident enough to associate casually with the great men who have moved among us (not that Speer was great). Leys reminds us that memory is an obligation:

“We never cease to be astonished at the passing of time: ‘Look at him! Only yesterday, it seems, he was still a tiny kid, and now he is bald, with a big moustache; a married man and a father!’ This shows clearly that time is not our natural element: would a fish ever be surprised by the wetness of water? For our true motherland is eternity; we are the mere passing guests of time. Nevertheless, it is within the bonds of time that man builds the cathedral of Chartres, paints the Sistine Chapel and plays the seven-string zither – which inspired William Blake’s luminous intuition: ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’”