Saturday, April 01, 2023

'The People in a Fiction'

At the author’s request, Dix, Edwards, & Co. of New York City published Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade on April 1, 1857—April Fools’ Day. It would be the last novel he published during his lifetime, though Melville would live another thirty-four years. He would go on to write stories and poetry, and the short novel Billy Budd which wouldn’t be published until 1924. 

The Confidence-Man, which opens on April Fools’ Day, is more interesting in theory than as a story a reader outside a graduate seminar might enjoy. It’s clever and bitter but comically earnest. Idea trumps narrative momentum. The joke was on Melville, and his writing career has since become an allegory of bitterness, philistine neglect and penury for subsequent American writers.


In American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931), Constance Rourke never mentions The Confidence-Man but writes of Moby-Dick that it is a “comic travesty” in which “humor becomes sardonic.” Is there any other kind? Moby-Dick remains Melville’s greatest work because, Rourke writes, “that terror and sense of evil and impending death which had often been  part of the comic legends of the country are relentlessly uncovered.” All true but Moby-Dick also has a compelling story, one that keeps the reader’s attention despite the digressions on cetology. Our host, Ishmael, is himself a sort of muted confidence man, often a stand-up comic.


The Confidence-Man has its enthusiasts, mostly among academics. Chapter 33, “Which May Pass for Whatever It May Prove to Be Worth,” comes off like premature postmodernism and its self-consciousness is almost too clever for its own good:  


“And as, in real life, the proprieties will not allow people to act out themselves with that unreserve permitted to the stage; so, in books of fiction, they look not only for more entertainment, but, at bottom, even for more reality, than real life itself can show. Thus, though they want novelty, they want nature, too; but nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed. In this way of thinking, the people in a fiction, like the people in a play, must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.”

Friday, March 31, 2023

'Books That Are As Altars Where We Kneel'

“Perhaps you would like to know what I have been reading since I last wrote you.” 

That’s not an overture you can safely make to just anyone. It can prove to be an effective  conversation-killer. I’m happy to hear what some friends and my middle son are reading because I know their taste in books is good (that is, similar to mine). They’re sturdy, exploratory readers who don’t stick to a single narrow genre or subject. I trust their judgments and often read what they have recommended.


Edwin Arlington Robinson is writing to his friend George W. Latham on March 31, 1894. The future poet is twenty-four and had been forced the previous year to drop out of Harvard after the death of his father. It’s the letter of a young man from the provinces – Gardiner, Maine. He’s smart and still unformed, and dreams of becoming a writer. His reading is fairly ambitious:    


“I fear I have been using my eyes a little too much, but somehow I cannot keep away from the book-shelves in my room. You may judge for yourself whether this list is too long for a man with my infirmity: Daudet: Jack, Tartarin de Tarascon; De Musset: Pierre et Camille, Croisilles, On ne sauraita penser de tout, and some of his poems; Prévost: Manon Lescaut; Milton: Samson Agonistes; Swinburne: Atalanta in Calydon; Cowper: The Task, Book I.”


A sophomore’s list, though not sophomoric. Cowper’s presence is no surprise. He’s the one writer named by Robinson in whom I see the affinity. Cowper writes in The Task (1785): “Books are not seldom talismans and spells.” He's contrasting meditation and books, and favors the former. Here’s the larger context:


“Knowledge dwells

In heads replete with thoughts of other men;

Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.

Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,

The mere materials with which wisdom builds,

Till smooth’d and squared and fitted to its place,

Does but encumber whom it seems t’enrich.

Knowledge is proud that he has learn’d so much;

Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.

Books are not seldom talismans and spells

By which the magic art of shrewder wits

Holds an unthinking multitude enthrall’d.”


Robinson would go on to write several poems about writers he admired, including Verlaine, Zola and Thomas Hood. The best is the sonnet “George Crabbe,” devoted to Jane Austen’s favorite poet:


“Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows,

Hide him in lonely garrets, if you will,

But his hard, human pulse is throbbing still

With the sure strength that fearless truth endows.

In spite of all fine science disavows,

Of his plain excellence and stubborn skill

There yet remains what fashion cannot kill,

Though years have thinned the laurel from his brows.


“Whether or not we read him, we can feel

From time to time the vigor of his name

Against us like a finger for the shame

And emptiness of what our souls reveal

In books that are as altars where we kneel

To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.”

Thursday, March 30, 2023

'Down With the Serious and Sincere Reader'

“What is the importance of sincerity in literature,” asks Theodore Dalrymple in These Spindrift Pages (Mirabeau Press, 2023), “(assuming that it can be gauged with anything like accuracy)?”


Sincerity is no virtue. Art, after all, is a lie that tells the truth. Even sociopaths can be sincere. No talent required. In literature it’s usually camouflage for mediocrity. When all else fails – imagination, precise observation, learning, memorable language – be sincere. Was the librarian-poet Philip Larkin being sincere when he wrote that “Books are a load of crap”? Was Max Beerbohm when he said “to die of laughter—that, too, seems to me a great euthanasia”? And what of Jonathan Swift’s sincerity when he noted that Irish babies are “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout”? Dalrymple is just getting warmed up:

“[S]incerity in the service of something abominable is frightening, and makes the abominable all the more abominable. I think in particular of the writer and soi-disant philosopher, Ayn Rand, who oozed monomaniac sincerity like a secretion and who, mysteriously to me (given her deeply unattractive character) became the leader of a powerful cult. Her fiction is wooden, humourless, simplistic and interminable. She must have been one of the very few modern authors to have written an apology for rape; and her philosophy, with its worship of size, power and ruthlessness, is repellent. But she was sincere all right.”


One remembers Whittaker Chambers’ famous evisceration of Rand and her stillborn novel Atlas Shrugged in “Big Sister Is Watching You”: “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”


Back to sincerity in literature: In his note to line 172 in the poem “Pale Fire” in his novel of the same name, Nabokov has the mad Charles Kinbote quote the poet John Shade, who is criticizing the less imaginative among his students: “I am also in the habit of lowering a student’s mark catastrophically if he uses ‘simple’ and ‘sincere’ in a commendatory sense. . . . When I hear a critic speaking of an author’s sincerity I know that either the critic or the author is a fool.”


In a 1962 interview with Jacob Bronowski, Nabokov echoed his fictional poet: “Another special aversion of mine is the epithet ‘sincere.’ How can a conjuror be serious or sincere—and a good artist is always a conjuror. . . . Down with the serious and sincere reader. After all, not all readers are children who ask if the story is true.”


Let’s leave sincerity to the authors of greeting cards and ransom notes.


[The Bronowski interview can be found in Nabokov’s Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor (Knopf, 2019).] 

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

'Archers, and Slingers, Cataphracts and Spears'

It’s a seldom-encountered word, rooted in Greek, that sounds wrong on the tongue: cataphract. It echoes cataract. The OED defines it as “a soldier in full armour.” Other sources specify cavalrymen, and even the horses sometimes wore armor. I can’t remember when I learned the word but it came back recently while I was watching Chimes at Midnight (1965) again. Orson Welles is director and screenwriter, and plays Sir John Falstaff. 

Welles stitches together scenes from both parts of Henry IV with others from Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V, and excerpts from Shakespeare’s source for the history plays, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. The centerpiece of the film is Welles’ 10-minute staging of the Battle of Shrewsbury. It was fought July 21, 1403, in what is now Shropshire, with Henry IV and his men facing a rebel army led by Henry “Hotspur” Percy, from Northumberland. In Shakespeare it’s the climax of Henry IV, Part 1. The battle scenes are chaotic and noisy – the crash of armor and swords, men and horses screaming. One thinks of Kurosawa's Kagemusha.


Welles in armor is almost spherical. His Falstaff hides in the shrubs through most of the fighting. If the armored men and horses look imposing – half-man, half-machine – Falstaff looks ridiculous, like a corpulent bathysphere. The men in armor appear hobbled under all the weight. I may have first encountered cataphract in Milton’s Samson Agonistes (lines 1615-1619): 


Was Samson as a public servant brought,

In thir state Livery clad; before him Pipes

And Timbrels, on each side went armed guards,

Both horse and foot before him and behind

Archers, and Slingers, Cataphracts and Spears.”


But Welles’ Battle of Shrewsbury brought to mind another recounting of medieval warfare, this one from Briggflatts, published by Basil Bunting in 1966, the year after Chimes at Midnight premiered. It describes the death of Eric Bloodaxe at Stainmore in 954:


“Loaded with mail of linked lies,

what weapon can the kind lift to fight

when chance-met enemies employ sly

sword and shoulder-piercing pike,

pressed into the mire,

trampled and hewn till a knife

-- in whose hand? – severs tight

neck cords? Axe rusts. Spine

picked bare by raven, agile

maggots devour the slack side

and inert brain, never wise . . .”


The other poet Welles’s battle scene brought to mind was Christopher Logue in War Music, his version of Homer’s Iliad:


“Impacted battle. Dust above a herd.

Trachea, source of tears, sliced clean.

Deckle-edged wounds: ‘Poor Jataphect, to know,’ knocked clean

Out of his armour like a half-set jelly

‘Your eyes to be still open yet not see,’ or see

By an abandoned chariot a dog

With something like your forearm in its mouth;

A face split off,

Sent skimming lidlike through the crunch

Still smiling, but its pupils dots on dice:

Bodies so intermixed

The tremor of their impact keeps the dead

Upright with the mass.”

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

'I Found My Subject Matter Early On'

“Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing. It is much easier to steal one hundred pounds than to get it by labour or any other way.” 

That’s Boswell quoting Dr. Johnson in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). The friends had visited the highlands and western islands of Scotland in 1773. Johnson published his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland two years later. The passage above comes from the September 17 entry in Boswell’s Journal. That day’s conversation begins with the subject of cunning.


“Cunning,” says Johnson, “has effect from the credulity of others, rather than from the abilities of those who are cunning. It requires no extraordinary talents to lie and deceive.”


Not always true, I’m afraid. Cunning that works is an art. Consider the confidence man, the politician. Of course they depend on the credulousness of their victims, but their patter has to be convincing and delivered with a straight face. The conversation turns to the notion that “great abilities” are required to be ambitiously wicked. Johnson says:


“It requires great abilities to have the POWER of being very wicked; but not to BE very wicked. A man who has the power, which great abilities procure him, may use it well or ill; and it requires more abilities to use it well, than to use it ill. Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing.”


Johnson clarifies his point by adding: “Consider only what act of wickedness requires great abilities to commit it, when once the person who is to do it has the power; for THERE is the distinction. It requires great abilities to conquer an army, but none to massacre it after it is conquered.”


Johnson’s point, that power is a necessary precondition for wicked actions, informs everything from the Holocaust to street crime. Anyone can think about robbing someone. Willingness to brandish a switchblade makes it real. I remembered Johnson’s thoughts while reading an interview with Turner Cassity published in the Spring 1996 issue of The Chattahoochee Review. At the end he says:


“I found my subject matter early on: the wickedness of the world. Inexhaustible, I might add.”


In “Do Not Judge by Appearance. Or Do” (Hurricane Lamp, 1986), Turner writes:


“Will it always be their perception that,

Bold, safety wears the garb of violence?

Or will they learn in these too guarded streets

That pretty is as pretty does, but evil

May in fact be just as evil looks?”

Monday, March 27, 2023

'And Starts to Be Happy'

Yet another reader scolds me for my devotion to Philip Larkin and what he calls his “doctrine of misery.” Larkin’s only doctrine was that after the loneliness and despair of a life imperfectly lived, beauty remains. That’s the writer’s job – finding beauty in the materials given him by life. Unhappiness is no excuse for ugliness. I’m not alone in often finding Larkin a tough-minded morale-booster. Realism about human nature is always bracing. He never leaves gloom in the mind of this reader. With Auden, Richard Wilbur and a few others, Larkin seems to me among the last unignoreable voices in English-language poetry. In 1973, Clive James wrote in his review of Donald Davie's Thomas Hardy and British Poetry: 

“[Davie] cannot or will not see that Larkin’s grimness of spirit is not by itself the issue. The issue concerns the gratitude we feel for such grimness of spirit producing such a beauty of utterance.”


Which would you rather read?: Someone gushing “It’s a joy to be alive!” or Larkin’s “Coming” (The Less Deceived, 1955):


“On longer evenings,

Light, chill and yellow,

Bathes the serene

Foreheads of houses.

A thrush sings,


In the deep bare garden,

Its fresh-peeled voice

Astonishing the brickwork.

It will be spring soon,

It will be spring soon —

And I, whose childhood

Is a forgotten boredom,

Feel like a child

Who comes on a scene

Of adult reconciling,

And can understand nothing

But the unusual laughter,

And starts to be happy.”


By Larkin’s standards, “Coming” is a giddy cry of exaltation. James Booth in his biography of Larkin calls it “one of his most serenely beautiful poems.” The poet's phrasing and word choice is unexpected and precise (in most poets, a rare combination): “Its fresh-peeled voice / Astonishing the brickwork.” So too, “forgotten boredom,” seemingly an oxymoron. Thanks to Larkin we can learn to value flickering spots of happiness. Someone said there are no happy lifetimes, only happy moments.


[The Clive James review can be found in his final book, Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin (Picador, 2019).]

Sunday, March 26, 2023

'You Smile Upon Your Friend To-day'

One of his friends described Dr. Percy Withers (1867-1945), an English physician and failed poet, as having a “relish for human nature,” an observation confirmed by the varied assortment of writers he befriended, including Max Beerbohm, Charles Doughty, Robert Bridges, Walter de la Mare, William Butler Yeats, Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon and E.M. Forster. Most remarkably, he made friends with the famously reserved A.E. Housman, who even permitted Withers to photograph him. That portrait appears in A Buried Life: Personal Recollections of A.E. Housman, the memoir Withers published in 1940. In 1936, shortly after Housman’s death, Withers published a brief remembrance of the poet in New Statesman and Nation, and reprinted in the July 1 issue of The Living Age. In it he writes: 

“The depths and complexities of Housman’s character were almost impenetrably obscured by his reticence, and still more perhaps by his determined habit of self-suppression.”


No mention is made of Housman’s homosexuality. Withers was likely unaware of it. The poet, he observes, “could never be garrulous,” the “easy and traditional exchanges of personalities seemed impossible to him.” Withers describes Housman the critic:


“What was and what was not poetry he decided simply, and I should say with the nearest possible approach to infallibility, by the physical response, or none, in the throat, the spinal cord, or the pit of the stomach, and the last the supreme oracle. Once when he had used the term in conversation, he was asked, ‘What is the solar plexus?’ A doctor present was hastening the Faculty’s definition, when Housman whipped in with the rejoinder: ‘It is what my poetry comes from.’”


This recalls Housman’s well-known declaration in the 1933 Leslie Stephen Lecture at Cambridge, “The Name and Nature of Poetry”: “Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual,” followed by this description of his test for poetry:


“Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.’”


Withers recalls a conversation with Housman:


“We were discussing friendship, when, after a jibe at my fecundity in this kind, he told me he had numbered but three friends in his whole life, and added with a note of exultation how more comfortably he could die now that he had seen the last of them put to rest.” 


LVII in A Shropshire Lad (1896):


“You smile upon your friend to-day,

To-day his ills are over;

You hearken to the lover’s say,

And happy is the lover.


“’Tis late to hearken, late to smile,

But better late than never:

I shall have lived a little while

Before I die for ever.”


Housman was born on this date, March 26, in 1859 and died on April 30, 1936 at age seventy-seven.