Thursday, March 30, 2017

`His Piquant Blend of Lyricism and Discontent'

I first identified the species Sensitivo hominis in high school when a histrionically soulful classmate chose to recite E.E. Cummings’  “in Just- / spring” and all the girls swooned. This guy was an operator. He brought his guitar on a field trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art and sang and strummed “I’ve Just Seen a Face” while we ate lunch on the lawn. At the time I was a dedicated Yeats-and-Eliot man, and had already decided that Cummings’ poems were reliable emetics, but the recitation sealed it and soured my appreciation of spring (or rather, the sappy celebration of the season) for decades. Spring seemed custom-made of sentimental boilerplate. Philip Larkin helped me recover with “Spring” (The Less Deceived, 1955):

“Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.

“Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth’s most multiple, excited daughter;

“And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.”

Larkin, “an indigestible sterility,” was twenty-seven when he wrote this poem in May 1950. One admires his singular, anti-Romantic notion of spring – not rejection, exactly. After all, he tells us, spring is “of all seasons most gratuitous.” Jean Hartley, who with her husband published The Less Deceived, wrote a readable memoir, Philip Larkin, the Marvell Press and Me (Carcanet, 1989). In a talk she gave in 2000, “Philip Larkin and Me, or You: The Democratic Appeal of His Poetry,” Hartley says “Spring” was one of the first Larkin poems she read, along with “Dry-Point” and "Toads." She writes of “Spring”:

“I'd read lots of odes to Spring in my time but none that contained his piquant blend of lyricism and discontent. How often had I not felt that nature was doing its beautiful best but that my mood or circumstances simply didn’t match it? All of us must, at some time have felt out of harmony with nature. The line `And those she has least use for see her best’ acknowledges the paradox that if one's life were on a par with all that Spring represents, Spring would not be noticeable except as an accompaniment to one's own blossoming.”

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

`It Will Be Hard to Live With Us'

Knowing my affinity for the eighteenth century, especially in England, a reader has reminded me of something Randall Jarrell wrote, though I’m unable to pinpoint the original source. The excerpt is quoted in No Other Book: Selected Essays (ed. Brad Leithauser, 1999):

“Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.”

For “hard” I would substitute “impossible,” and the phrase I won’t use is “The Enlightenment.” Swift, Pope, Gibbon and Johnson were no more enlightened than Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas; merely geniuses of a different sort. There is no moral or artistic progress, as there is in science and medicine. From the twentieth century we learned the hard way that the quest for utopia leads inevitably to mass murder. That’s the nature of our species. Gibbon understood: “History is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

Rousseau is a particularly unsavory character, and his name is now happily linked in my mind to a passage in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). I think of the events described by O’Brien as an act of applied literary criticism.  The novel’s narrator and some of his friends are leaving a Dublin pub when:

“. . . a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French nation. He was animated, his pale features striking in the starlight and his voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum.

“I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of close attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-coloured puke. Many other things happened on that night now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lane, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the name of Rousseau will always recall to me.”

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

`Vivid Expressions of an Intuitive Judgment'

Some critical judgments by reputable critics defy comprehension. Leslie Stephen finds The Rambler essays “unreadable.” In “Dr. Johnson’s Writings,” a chapter in his four-volume Hours in the Library (1874-79), he writes: “How could a man of real power write such unendurable stuff?” He calls Johnson’s prose style “Johnsonese,” and it’s not intended as a compliment. After noting that Johnson’s favorite book was The Anatomy of Melancholy, Stephen adds:

“The pedantry of the older school did not repel him; the weighty thought rightly attracted him; and the more complex structure of sentence was perhaps a pleasant contrast to an ear saturated with the Gallicised neatness of Addison and Pope. Unluckily, the secret of the old majestic cadence was hopelessly lost. Johnson, though spiritually akin to the giants, was the firmest ally and subject of the dwarfish dynasty which supplanted them.”

Nonsense, of course, but one still reads Stephen and respects him. His own style, on occasion, can sound remarkably modern and un-Victorian (he was the father, after all, of the genuinely unreadable Virginia Woolf). He calls Lives of the Poets “the most readable of Johnson's performances,” and says of Johnson’s conversation:

“The merit of his best sayings is not that they compress an argument into a phrase, but that they are vivid expressions of an intuitive judgment. In other words, they are always humorous rather than witty. He holds his own belief with so vigorous a grasp that all argumentative devices for loosening it seem to be thrown away.”

Stephen prefers Johnson’s conversation to his written work. Boswell’s Johnson has always been known to more readers than the great man’s books. That’s a shame but understandable. The narrative that Boswell frames is irresistible – in Hollywood terms, good man overcomes odds to triumph. We love Johnson because he is like us, only more so. He’s a hero we can imagine being. But his books – the periodical essays, the best of his poems, Rasselas, Lives of the Poets – can change your life. His life and works are interleaved to an unusual and moving degree.      

On this date, March 28, in 1762, Johnson wrote a prayer in his notebook. His wife, Elizabeth Johnson, known as Tetty, had died ten years earlier and he still mourned her. By this time, Johnson had already published his Dictionary; “The Vanity of Human Wishes”; the Rambler, Adventurer and Idler essays; and Rasselas. He begins his prayer conventionally enough: “God grant that I may from this day,” followed by such requests as “Return to my studies” and “Live temperately.” Then Johnson adds:    

“O God, Giver and Preserver of all life, by whose power I was created, and by whose providence I am sustained, look down upon me [with] tenderness and mercy, grant that I may not have been created to be finally destroyed, that I may not be preserved to add wickedness to wickedness; but may so repent me of my sins, and so order my life to come, that when I shall be called hence like the wife whom Thou hast taken from me, I may dye in peace and in thy favour, and be received into thine everlasting kingdom through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thine only Son our Lord and Saviour. Amen.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

`I Am Certain of Further Happiness'

For some, it’s money in the bank or a case of Glenfiddich, but I’m with Jules Renard: “When I think of all the books still left for me to read, I am certain of further happiness.” No matter how grim life grows, I’m assured of a little solace with a shelf of good books. I’m not certain if Renard refers exclusively to those he has not yet read. Topping that list for me is Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, a book I’ve been meaning to read for more than forty years. And Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which I’ve read only in excerpts. But the real treasure lies in the books I’ve already read.  What a sense of contentment comes with the knowledge I can read Gibbon again, late-period James, Christina Stead’s novels and St. Augustine. Renard sets the precedent: “I no longer, or hardly ever, read new books. I only enjoy rereading.”

For now I’m reading books from both categories. Among the new, Montaigne: A Life by Philippe Desan (trans. Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal, Princeton University Press, 2017). And among the old, Leslie Stephen’s Hours in the Library (1874-79).

Renard (1864-1910) is one of literature’s nonpareils, a genuine human novelty. The lines quoted above are from The Journal of Jules Renard (ed. and trans. By Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, 1964). He survived a difficult childhood but has a way of reducing life to essentials and making it sound amusing if not terribly exciting. Elsewhere in his Journal he writes:

“I live like an old man. I read the papers a little, a few pieces out of books. I set down a few notes, I keep warm and, often, I nap.”

Renard was forty-six when he died of arteriosclerosis.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

`The Most Enlightening Guide'

In America Comes of Middle Age: Columns 1950-1962 (Little, Brown and Co., 1963), Murray Kempton includes a piece titled “Castro’s Cuba Today,” dated Feb. 21, 1960. Thirteen months earlier, the Communists had taken over the country. In Havana, Kempton meets a young Communist poet who asks him to help with some lines in English he wishes to insert into a new poem. A sample: “Do you hearing me, Mr. North American . . .” And: “I am a new man.” Kempton comments: “What could be sadder than to think of yourself as a new man when the first words you write are a Spanish translation of Jack Kerouac, whom you have never read and yet to whom you are bound by a sort of telepathy of the demi-talented?”

Kempton, unlike many American observers in the early days of Castro’s reign, admits his ignorance of Cuba, past and present. Then he says something interesting that I would like to believe is true:

“I have no hope of understanding Cuba. The only way to understand a country is to read its novels; I should not suppose there is such a thing as a Cuban novel.”

The final phrase is not fair, though it may have been when Kempton was writing. The Cuban novelists I read long ago are José Lezama Lima, Alejo Carpentier, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy. All did much of their work after the Communist takeover and none is memorable. To varying degrees they have been lumped together as part of the multi-national Boom in Latin-American writing and the blight of so-called magical realism.

What interests me is Kempton’s other observation: “The only way to understand a country is to read its novels.” Is this just another empty phrase tossed out by a journalist or would-be intellectual? With adjustments for time and place, it carries some respectable weight. Most of what little I know of nineteenth-century Portugal I owe to the novels of José Maria de Eça de Queiroz; and of nineteenth-century Spain, Benito Pérez Galdós. And so on from Balzac and Melville through Musil, Joseph Roth and V.S. Naipaul. Almost thirty years after the Cuban column, in “As the World Turns,” published in New York Newsday on Dec. 10, 1989 (annus mirabilis) and collected in Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events (1994), Kempton writes:

“The most enlightening guide I have found to Central America is not the product of a social scientist’s research but Nostromo, the novel Joseph Conrad published in 1904 when his direct experience with the neighborhood was nearly thirty years past and had never extended beyond a tarrying or so in ports when he had sailed as a schooner deck officer in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Kempton continues, narrowing his vision:

“Yet, here as nowhere in the reports of embassies and the monographs of researchers, is the El Salvador of last week where, in Conrad’s words,`the cruelty of things stood unveiled in the levity and sufferings of that incorrigible people.’”

And concludes:

“We must look to the novelist if we hope to understand. His is the matter of fact. Social science and intelligence reports are the mere poor stuff of an unadorned imagination.”

Saturday, March 25, 2017

`A Half-Finished or Half-Ruined Fragment'

“There are few great books or great men that do not sadden us by a sense of incompleteness. The writer, we feel, is better than his work. His full power only reveals itself by flashes. There are blemishes in his design, due to mere oversight or indolence; his energy has flagged, or he has alloyed his pure gold to please the mob; or some burst of wayward passion has disturbed the fair proportions of his work, and the man himself is a half-finished or half-ruined fragment.”

The sentiment is utterly unfair, of course, and probably inevitable. Writers are pathologically inconsistent, as are readers. Even Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus. But when a writer we love writes badly, we question our love. Have I been hoodwinked? Played for a fool? Some of us will withdraw our devotion like jilted lovers. We wall off the writer in question as though he were a Superfund site, but his existence nags like a guilty conscience. Obviously, this applies only to dedicated readers, true partners, not the beneficiaries of one-night stands. They walk away guilt-free.

Or we can be mature about it and accept that writers are fallible in a peculiarly public way. We can value the first-rate and resign ourselves to the rest. It’s not personal. I would suggest that any writer who has given us a moment’s pleasure, who opens an unsuspected window, makes us laugh or turns a memorable phrase deserves some measure of gratitude. I remember the first time I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in 1969. Then I read a critic who dismissed Ellison as a one-book has-been. I was outraged on behalf of the novelist, and remain convinced his novel is among the half-dozen best written by an American.

The author cited above is Leslie Stephen in his three-volume Hours in a Library (1874-79). His subject is William Hazlitt, a man and writer virtually custom-built for enthralling and disappointing readers. As a man, Hazlitt was a sputtering wreck. He was an idiot about women. He never had a friend he didn’t sooner or later alienate and offend. His politics were adolescent, he idolized Rousseau and squandered his final years writing a three-volume biography of Napoleon. Stephen notes the essayist’s capacity for “caustic scorn.” But he wrote essays with gusto and his prose is the most vivid in English since Browne’s. Stephen writes:  

“Hazlitt harps a good deal upon one string; but that string vibrates forcibly. His best passages are generally an accumulation of short, pithy sentences, shaped in strong feeling, and coloured by picturesque association; but repeating, rather than corroborating, each other. The last blow goes home, but each falls on the same place. He varies the phrase more than the thought; and sometimes he becomes obscure, because he is so absorbed in his own feelings that he forgets the very existence of strangers who require explanation. Read through Hazlitt, and this monotony becomes a little tiresome; but dip into him at intervals, and you will often be astonished that so vigorous a writer has not left some more enduring monument of his remarkable powers.”

Which, of course he has. Read “The Fight” again, an essay much esteemed by Stephen, though he is offended by boxing:

“. . . we agreed to adjourn to my lodgings to discuss measures with that cordiality which makes old friends like new, and new friends like old, on great occasions. We are cold to others only when we are dull in ourselves, and have neither thoughts nor feelings to impart to them. Give a man a topic in his head, a throb of pleasure in his heart, and he will be glad to share it with the first person he meets.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

`Culture Is Continuity with the Past'

The cover story in the March 20 issue of The Weekly Standard is “The Cultured Life,” in which Joseph Epstein writes:

“Does all this talk of high culture have a ring of snobbery? If so, I have badly misrepresented it. There is nothing snobbish about seeking out the best that has been thought and said. What it is, as noted earlier, is elitist, a word in our egalitarian age in even worse odor, perhaps, than snobbery.”

With predictable regularity I receive comments and emails in which readers deploy one or both of the damning adjectives cited by Epstein – snobbish and elitist. As Epstein makes clear, the words are not synonyms. All of us are snobs, pro or con, about something, whether spaghetti carbonara or Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. Pure democrats of taste are unicorns. Elitist cultural values today are rare and best kept prudently unexpressed. Culture makes demands of time and cognitive effort, and fewer than ever are up to the task. But it never occurs to some of us to bemoan the odious labor of reading, gazing and listening. The works of high culture call us to attention, and their strictures can be difficult, flattering and sweet. Recently, an anonymous reader wanted to know how I could “endure” the prose and verse of Yvor Winters. With great pleasure, I said. What others choose to read is none of my business. A big part of my job is sharing my pleasures.   

Those who haven’t read Tennyson or Proust but are intimidated by the prospect of doing so (public schools get most of the credit for this dereliction) are another story. I empathize with some of them. In my job as science writer for the engineering school of a university, I speak daily with engineers, scientists and mathematicians. I’m always out of my league. I have a B.A. in English (earned when I was fifty), a degree that has become the ready-made punchline of a joke, but I don’t accuse the STEM-types of snobbery or elitism. I read what I can about their research and ask a lot of humbling questions. It’s called continuing education. Epstein continues:  

“Cultural elitists, as do connoisseurs generally, like only the best and seek it out. But how do they determine what is best? From tradition, from the tastes of their culturally elitist forebears, from their own refined aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. Along with Longinus, they identify as high culture those works of art and intellect that elevate the soul, stay in the memory, and appeal across different cultures. Elitist the cultural ideal certainly is, but with the difference, as noted by Matthew Arnold, that it is open to anyone who wishes to make the effort to attain that ideal.”

No one willing to do the mandatory work is excluded. In this sense, nothing is so democratic as high culture. (I watch a lot of crap movies but never fool myself about their worth. Innocent escape is perfectly acceptable but not as an exclusive diet.) As usual, Epstein makes numerous, seemingly self-evident observations that would never have occurred to me. Please read all of “The Cultured Life,” but here is an Epstein Sampler:

“Culture is continuity with the past: A cultureless person knows only about, and lives exclusively in, the present. Few things are as pleasing—thrilling, really—as reading a classical author and discovering that he has had thoughts and emotions akin to your own. So I have felt, at times, reading Horace, Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and others who departed the planet centuries before my entrance upon it.”

“My candidate for the most cultured American novelist of the past century is Willa Cather.”

“Poetry, once central to high culture, has become degraded to an intramural sport. Although the audience for poetry in America was never large, today even that audience has diminished, and the only people who seem to read contemporary poetry are those who write it or write about it.”

“High culture, even though it often traveled under the banner of the avant-garde, was always about tradition. A cultured person has a standard, a recollection, through literature and history and philosophy—if not necessarily through personal experience—of greatness. Without such a recollection, rising above mediocrity is difficult, if not impossible.”