Sunday, September 15, 2019

'We Don't See That Very Often'

The optometrist shares a strip mall with a veterinarian and a Thai restaurant. From the outside it looks like an upscale hair salon, all glass and polished steel, and the interior reinforces that impression. The receptionist handed me three forms on a clipboard to fill out. Then I sat in a corner of the waiting room reading the Cornelius Ryan collection recently published by the Library of America – The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. I saw the movies long ago but have never read the books.

Since I was a boy I’ve played a private parlor game: Which of the five senses can I least afford to lose? Working backwards, the olfactory is the easiest scratch, followed by touch. I would regret the loss of taste but my mother’s cooking long ago inured me to blandness. Now comes the only tough choice: hearing or sight? The loss of music and conversation would diminish my life but I could handle it. I would have to preserve vision. I can’t imagine not seeing the faces of my wife and kids, and I would never have the fortitude to learn Braille. Given my nature, not being able to read would be the cruelest of fates.

“Reading a book? We don’t see that very often,” said the receptionist as she led me to the examination room. There had been seven others in the waiting room, all of them looking at their phones. By now the scene is banal and I can observe it without getting overheated. I was content to read my book, especially when I found Ryan describing a scene set just before the Normandy landing that begins with this sentence: “Some men tried to read.” One man in the 1st Infantry Division is trying to read Kings Row, a 1940 bestselling novel by Henry Bellamann, but he’s too worried about the waterproofing on his Jeep. A Canadian soldier on a landing craft loaded with tanks is reading “a pocket book intriguingly titled A Maid and a Million Men.” And best of all:

“Chaplain Lawrence E. Deery of the 1st Division on the transport H.M.S. Empire Anvil was amazed to see a British officer reading Horace’s odes in Latin. But Deery himself, who would land on Omaha Beach in the first wave with the 16th Infantry Regiment, spent the evening reading [John Addington] Symonds’ Life of Michelangelo.”

My astigmatism has grown 0.4 percent more severe since my last exam. For the first time since I was ten years old and had my first eye examination, I was told I don’t need new glasses.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

'Happily Also They Are Silly'

“Men, that is, are selfish. Happily also they are silly . . .”

In 1903, Leslie Stephen delivered the Ford Lectures and the following year published them in a slender volume as English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century. It was his final book and his final year. Stephen is most interesting when writing about literature and avoiding society. With books he’s likelier to stick to the topic at hand and write aphoristically. The passage at the top amused me. It reflects a mature person’s understanding that our species is reliably flawed and ridiculous. We are worthy of neither undiluted praise nor abject condemnation. Stephen is writing about the Earl of Chesterfield, whose favorite author is La Rochefoucauld. Chesterfield expects his son to read the Frenchman’s Maximes daily. The reference to silliness follows.

Stephen is fond of silly. By my count he uses the word four times in his little book. Its frequent use may be distinctly English, dismissive but not vicious. Americans use it less often. Stephen describes antiquarianism as “a silly crochet.” When dealing with Pope he writes: “The serious aim of the poet is to give a philosophy of human nature; and the mere description of natural objects strikes him as silly unless tacked to a moral.” He writes of Swift:

“His blows, as it seemed to the archbishops, struck theology in general; he put that right by pouring out scorn upon Deists and all who were silly enough to believe that the vulgar could reason . . .”

Best of all, Stephen endorses with qualifications Charles Lamb’s criticism of Congreve and the comedy of manners, and writes:

“Life is not made up of dodges worthy of card-sharpers—and the whole mechanism becomes silly and disgusting. If comedy is to represent a full and fair portrait of life, the dramatist ought surely, in spite of Lamb, to find some space for generous and refined feeling. There, indeed, is a difficulty. The easiest way to be witty is to be cynical. It is difficult, though desirable, to combine good feeling with the comic spirit.”

Difficult, indeed. Another English writer, Max Beerbohm, memorably uses silly in an essay which begins and ends with the author of “The Vanity of Human Wishes”:

“Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of past favors, and would even live the remainder of his life in obscurity if by so doing he could insure that future generations would preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very silly.”

Friday, September 13, 2019

'Writing on What Pleased Me Best'

The internet has taught me an ugly, useful transitive verb, to monetize: “To exploit (a product, service, audience, etc.) so that it generates revenue,” the OED explains. This usage is new, though ancient in digital terms, with the earliest citation dating from 1998. Online, people are forever monetizing something or other, turning a hobby, skill or character flaw into cash, and I have nothing against that (though I haven’t monetized this blog, the very idea of which sounds like a joke). My entire career, in fact, is based on monetizing my sole marketable gift – fluency with language. Give me a topic and no more than sixty minutes and I’ll give you twelve column-inches of reasonably competent prose.

I recently (and privately) observed the fortieth anniversary of my occupation as a writer. Earlier I had cooked, sold books, tended bar and pumped gas but for the rest of my life I’ve been a pen for hire. I started as the editor of a weekly newspaper in a small town in Northwestern Ohio. I’ve always had models in mind when writing, which is not the same as influence or plagiarism. Guy Davenport speculated that every book is a response to another book, whether or not the writer is conscious of his motive. In those early days I kept in mind A.J. Liebling and William Hazlitt. The latter’s essay “My First Acquaintance with Poets” was especially inspirational, as when he describes his younger self as “dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the way-side, crushed, bleeding lifeless . . .”

It seems significant that the first thing I wrote that was monetized – that is, for which I was paid – was the obituary of a man named Miller. I’ve spent a lot of time since then writing about dead people, who sometimes seem more substantial and interesting than many of the living. Another sentence from Hazlitt’s essay now reads prophetically:

“So I have loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

'Set to More or Less Lascivious Music'

“Poetry is two quite distinct things, and may be either or both. One is a series of words that are intrinsically musical, in clang-tint and rhythm, as the single words cellar-door and sarcoma are musical. The other is a series of ideas, false in themselves, that offer a means of emotional and imaginative escape from the harsh realities of everyday.”

Clang-tint stopped me. It’s a word that appears to mingle two of the five senses, hearing and sight. The OED supplies one citation, “The quality of a sound, also called its clang-tint or timbre,” from Charles Henry Burnett’s The Ear: Its Anatomy, Physiology, and Diseases (1877). The Dictionary then refers us back to the third definition of clang and this note, taken from the Irish physicist John Tyndall’s 1867 volume Sound:

“An assemblage of tones, such as we obtain when the fundamental tone and the harmonics of a string sound together, is called by the Germans a Klang. May we not employ the English word clang to denote the same thing . . . and may we not . . . add the word colour or tint, to denote the character of the clang, using the term clang-tint as the equivalent of Klangfarbe?”

The author of the passage at the top is H.L. Mencken. It’s the opening of “The Poet and His Art,” first published in Smart Set in 1920 and collected two years later in Prejudices: Third Series. Mencken was an amateur musician (piano), occasional critic of music and an admirer of German culture, and would know a word like Klangfarbe. I like his definition of poetry with its emphasis on musicality. As to the musical quality of certain words in isolation, many of us carry around an anthology of favorites. Mencken is right about sarcoma, though its meaning clashes with its music. Recently I’ve grown fond of sorbet (sore-BAY) and I like the way a Florida-born, longtime Texan coworker pronounces theater: thee-AY-ter. Were I to pronounce it that way, it would be phony and patronizing. For him, it’s natural. Mencken concludes his essay’s opening paragraph:

“In brief, poetry is a comforting piece of fiction set to more or less lascivious music—a slap on the back in waltz time—a grand release of longings and repressions to the tune of flutes, harps, sackbuts, psalteries and the usual strings.”

Just as an aside, sackbut has a certain amusingly musical quality about it. In “The Poet and His Art,” Mencken – who elsewhere lauds Walt Whitman, the poet who did the most to blur the distinction between poetry and prose, and not in a good way – cites Shakespeare as his chief example of a great poet. Again, he emphasizes the acoustical element – the sound – over the sense. Mencken is a contrarian not a vulgarian:

“The content of the Shakespearean plays, in fact, is often puerile, and sometimes quite incomprehensible. No scornful essays by George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris were needed to demonstrate the fact; it lies plain in the text. One snickers sourly  over the spectacle of generations of pedants debating the question of Hamlet’s mental processes; the simple fact is that Shakespeare gave him no more mental processes than a Fifth Avenue rector has, but merely employed him as a convenient spout for some of the finest music ever got into words.”

Mencken was born on this date, Sept. 12, in 1880 and died on Jan. 29, 1956.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

'A Spotty Primary Education'

At my suggestion a well-read friend is reading Daniel Deronda for the first time and enjoying the novel enormously:

“Eliot is one hell of a writer. Good God, she’s superb. I’m an old man but it’s still a thrill to pick up a book and find oneself, even in old age, taken by that thrall one felt years ago when one was captured by a book, seized ahold of and shaken into wonder, mystery and delight.”

I received his note the same day I began reading My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions (1905) by Eliot’s contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the British naturalist who, in a wonderful act of synchronicity, came up with the theory of evolution through natural selection at the same time as Charles Darwin. Years ago I read Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago (1869), and was moved to read the autobiography by Guy Davenport’s review of a Wallace biography, “A Folklorish Giant.” Davenport writes:

“Except for the young Wallace’s reading every book he could lay hand on, he had only a spotty primary education. His older brother John taught him surveying, an activity that was an education in itself. Moreover it made him curious about geology and botany. At age fourteen he was probably more knowledgeable than a Harvard or Yale senior of the moment. It was books of travel (von Humboldt, Bonpland) that made an explorer of him.”

I always enjoy hearing the stories of autodidacts. Wallace was born in the Welsh village of Llanbadoc, near Usk in Monmouthshire, the eighth of nine children. His father, Thomas Vere Wallace, was feckless. When the boy was five his family moved to Hertford where he attended Hertford Grammar School (his only formal education) until financial difficulties forced him to withdraw in 1836 when he was fourteen. Among other jobs, his father became a librarian in “a fairly good proprietary town library, to which he went for three or four hours every afternoon. After my brother John left home and I lost my chief playmate and instructor, this library was a great resource for me, as it contained a large collection of all the standard novels of the day.”

At least three times a week, Wallace visited the library, where he squatted in a corner to read and not be in the way. His education was rooted largely in fiction. He read all of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Don Quixote, Smollett and Fielding. He read Paradise Lost, Pope’s translation of The Iliad, The Faerie Queene, Walton’s Compleat Angler and “a good deal of Byron and Scott.” He read monthly installments of Pickwick Papers as it was published. At home Wallace’s father kept a small library the boy also consumed: Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, The Vicar of Wakefield and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Wallace read the books generations of readers of all classes and levels of education read as a matter of course. Like my friend with Daniel Deronda, Wallace as a boy was “shaken into wonder, mystery and delight” by books.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

'A More Than Minor Beauty'

An amusingly baffling passage in the final two lines from this stanza in “Letter to Lord Byron” (Letters from Iceland, 1937):

“I dread this like the dentist, rather more so:
    To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
    All C├ęzanne’s apples I would give away
    For one small Goya or a Daumier.
I’ll never grant a more than minor beauty
To pudge or pilewort, petty-chap or pooty.”

I get Auden’s point. Not everything is beautiful. The twentieth century may be remembered as the era when beauty was defiled and defined downward. If anything can be beautiful, nothing is beautiful. But what about that alliterative parade of p’s?    

Pudge has several meanings but the OED attaches Auden’s usage to this definition: “a puddle, pool, or ditch,” not the ugliest of things, really, but they may have associations with the trenches of the Great War, concluded less than twenty years earlier. The Dictionary identifies the word as “English regional (midlands). Now rare.” We know Auden mined the OED for rare words.

Pilewort offers a clue to its meaning: “The lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, formerly regarded as a remedy for haemorrhoids (now chiefly historical).” Piles is an old-fashioned but still current synonym for hemorrhoids, and a wort is any plant used for food or medicine.

Petty-chap is spelled pettichaps in the OED, and is another regional English word, referring to two species of warblers. Judging from a photo, the little bird is quite lovely.

Pooty sounds like infantile bathroom talk. Auden’s usage is cited in the OED after two citations from John Clare. The word is identified as “English regional (Northamptonshire)” and means “the banded or grove snail, Cepaea nemoralis; (also pooty shell) the shell of this.” Snail shells are beautiful in both form and color, as Clare seemed to understand. The Dictionary quotes a letter written by him: “I have been seriously and busily employed this last 3 weeks hunting Pooty shells.”

Sorry to quibble, but Auden’s four objects of “minor beauty” are all, in fact, modestly beautiful. None is ugly or repellent. Such judgments are arguable, of course, but Auden had to consider the music of his line and even managed to rhyme beauty and pooty.

Monday, September 09, 2019

'Never Afraid of a Good Platitude'

Chief among our teachers is Shakespeare. He taught us the glory of our language, its vast potential, of course, but also educated us about the ways of our fellows and ourselves. Thanks to him we can better recognize the Iagos, Angelos and Lady Macbeths among us. I nearly added Hamlet to Shakespeare’s templates of human nature but in my reading, Hamlet has been radically misinterpreted. He is a type, but not as commonly understood. From my first encounter with the play as a boy, I disliked and distrusted him. His self-centeredness makes him insufferable. We see Hamlets everywhere, especially among adult males who act like spoiled Mommy’s boys and refuse to grow up. Hamlet is a punk. When he says to Rosencrantz, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” we hear echoes of a thousand rationalizing relativists. He treats Ophelia as though she were a whore.

Because Hamlet has been misinterpreted, so has Ophelia’s father, Polonius, commonly understood as a pompous, self-satisfied blowhard. Not so, Rebecca West suggests: “It is a mistake to regard [him] as a simple platitudinarian.” She writes in The Court and the Castle (Yale University Press, 1957):

“Shakespeare, like all major writers, was never afraid of a good platitude, and he would certainly never have given time to deriding a character because his only attribute was a habit of stating the obvious. Polonius is interesting because he was a cunning old intriguer who, like an iceberg, only showed one-eighth of himself above the surface. The innocuous sort of worldly wisdom that rolled off his tongue in butter balls was a very small part of what he knew.”

“A habit of stating the obvious” is an essential truth-teller’s gift. As Orwell phrased it, “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.” We confuse novelty with truth by condemning Polonius. He didn’t deserve to be collateral damage. West ranks Hamlet very high, as do I. She says the play is “as pessimistic as any great work of literature ever written,” and adds:

“Literature cannot always do its business of rendering an account of life. An age of genius not of the literary sort [c. 2019] must go inadequately described unless there should happen to exist at the same time a literary genius of the same degree, who works in circumstances enabling him to accumulate the necessary information about his non-literary contemporaries.”