Tuesday, September 30, 2014

`He was a Lion'

Beginning today, Good Letters, the blog at Image journal, is hosting “In a Domain of Sheep, He was a Lion: Tributes to D.G. Myers from Friends & Colleagues.”

`The Great Divorcer For Ever'

“I have many more Letters to write and I bless my stars that I have begun, for time seems to press, -- this may be my best opportunity.” 

Carefully, hopefully weighed words from John Keats, who was writing to his friend Charles Brown on this date, Sept. 30, in 1820. Five months later he was dead. Keats was writing aboard the Maria Crowther, a brig bound for Italy, off the Isle of Wight, at Yarmouth. This was the start of the poet’s final voyage. His traveling companion was the ever-faithful Joseph Severn. Boarding at Gravesend was a Miss Cottrell, a woman of about eighteen who, like Keats, was dying of consumption. In his John Keats (1963), Walter Jackson Bate reports: “Miss Cottrell…had unfortunately reached that state where the invalid is humanly tempted to compare notes, and she did this throughout the trip, with a great deal of curiosity about Keats.” She outlived Keats but died several years later in Naples. The specter of Fanny Brawne shadows the letter: “The very thing which I want to live most for will be a great occasion of my death.” A few sentences later, Keats sets off a psychic explosion when he asks Brown to “be a friend to Miss Brawne when I am dead.” Bate describes the phrase as “the first really open admission” that Keats knows what others have suspected and hoped to deny: Soon he would die. Bate writes: 

“Certainly Keats—from now until almost the end (indeed from the spring of 1819 until the end: in a sense perhaps from the beginning)—was exemplifying that extraordinary capacity which we so often find among the English at their best, and perhaps more frequently than among most other peoples, to grow calmer as emergency increases and demand deepens.” 

As Bate goes on to sample Severn’s letters from the journey, Keats seems even more admirable a human being, not the ethereal wraith of legend: “he cracked jokes at tea”; “my wit would have dropped in a moment but for Keats plying me”; Keats loses his breakfast, but only in “the most gentlemanly manner.” Severn almost faints on deck but is revived and cheered by Keats who praises his gift for “sailorship.” In his letter, Keats formulates an Irish bull-like paradox worthy of Beckett, a great Keats admirer: 

“I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline are great seperators [sic], but death is the great divorcer for ever.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

`Obscurely Wise and Coarsely Kind'

We are preparing a Festschrift for D.G. Myers, who died on Friday. Thanks to the generosity of its publisher and editor-in-chief, Greg Wolfe, the journal Image will host our remembrance of David and his contributions as writer, scholar, blogger, teacher, father, husband and friend. We expect it to be up and running within several days. Editing the contributions of so many writers has been a humbling task, one that provides welcome distraction from the knowledge that David’s words are at an end. Dr. Johnson’s lines from “On the Death of Dr. Levet” offer consolation:

“Yet still he fills Affection’s eye,
Obscurely wise and coarsely kind;
Nor, lettered Arrogance, deny,
Thy praise to merit unrefined.”

Dave Lull found this photograph posted by David Myers five years ago. I’ve never been in better company, all around.

Again, thanks go to Dave Lull for alerting me to David Myers’ web pages from the Texas A&M University server preserved in the Internet Archives, and to a remembrance of David and links to some of his work at Commentary.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

From the Family of D.G. Myers

Cynthia Fierstein, D.G. Myers’ sister-in-law, reports of David’s death on Friday: “He was home and surrounded by his family, friends, and his books.” She passes along this message:

Here is the information regarding funeral and shiva visiting hours for Naomi's husband, David.  The funeral will be Monday at 4:30 p.m. at Epstein Memorial Chapel, 3232 E. Main St.

Shiva visiting will be at Naomi's house, 2645 Bryden, starting Tuesday morning, through Friday morning. Shiva is a time to visit the family (and really all are welcome) and then there will be services at the house in the morning and the evening. Services will held from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 6:45 to 7:30 p.m. Visiting hours will be from 8:30 a.m. to noon and 3 to 8 p.m.

Here is a simple guide to Jewish mourning practice:

1.  It is traditional for the immediate family to be seated in low chairs, eating some traditional foods.  The mourners will not come to greet you but you can come to them.  There will likely be lots of people, many of them orthodox.  Do not be offended if someone of the opposite sex does not shake your hand, some of them don't for religious reasons.  No need to dress up but it would be most respectful to dress modestly.  There is a traditional phrase to say to mourners to alleviate you from struggling to know what to say.  It will be posted in the house (English and Hebrew).  Feel free to talk to the mourner but take your cues from them.

2. DON'T BRING FOOD, the Jewish community will be providing meals for the family.  Everything has to be strictly kosher.

3. Flowers are not a part of the Jewish funeral tradition., If you wish to make a charitable donation in David’s memory, Naomi asks that your direct your contributions to the options below:

A.  Dov, Saul, Isaac and Mimi

Funds for the children will be established. These will be custodial accounts for the benefit and welfare of Dov, Saul, Isaac and Mimi.  Donations can be made by sending checks made out to Naomi Myers, Dov, Saul, Isaac or Mimi Myers. 2645 Bryden Rd., Bexley, Ohio, or if you wish to donate directly to the funds, that information will be available in the next week or so.

B. Zusman Hospice, care of Wexner Heritage Village, 1151 College Ave., Columbus, Ohio 43209.

C. The research fund of Dr. Steven Clinton.

Checks made out to: James Cancer Hospital.  Please write on memo line: Fund#302024  OR  Prostate Cancer Prevention Fund

Mail to:  The James Development Office. 660 Ackerman Road P.O. Box 183112 Columbus, Ohio 43218-3112.

D. Congregation Torat Emet, 2375 E. Main St., Bexley, Ohio 43209.

 Thank you for all your love and support.  Please feel free to forward this to anyone you think might want it.


This also comes from Cynthia:

“Naomi would like to compile a collection of stories about experiences you may have shared with David so that she can create a book for Dov, Saul, Isaac and Mimi to better remember their father. Naomi's sister, Cynthia, has generously taken on the responsibility of collecting the stories from anyone who would like to contribute.  Nothing is too short or too long, feel free to include David's crazy side and/or off-color jokes. Please send your stories, memories, and thoughts of David to both Naomi (naomijmyers@gmail.com) and Cynthia (cynthia.fierstein@me.com).  As David was an avid internet, facebook and twitter user, please feel free to share this request with anyone who knew him either in person or electronically.  Please do not post these stories on facebook or twitter but send to the above emails.”

`Of What Might Still Happen'

The association was immediate and puzzling: When I learned Friday at the conclusion of Rosh Hashana and the start of Shabbes of David Myers’ death, Henry James appeared to me, though not spectrally. James, of course, was not above a good ghost story. I mean in the way the illustrious and humble dead, those dear to us, enter our thoughts unprompted, like good Samaritans. David and I valued James highly. In his assessment of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, he noted Roth’s allusions to “The Middle Years” and its often-quoted writer’s manta: “Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Provocatively, David ranked The Portrait of a Lady as the second-greatest novel written in English (after Lolita) “since the era of Dickens and Eliot.”

But the James who came to me was mine, not David’s. Henry James is a continent, one we settle incrementally across time, reading and rereading him, weighing our lives against his books. Soon I recognized the late James of “The Altar of the Dead.” He writes of George Stransom, an aging man who, like all of us, accumulates his dead. I’ve known the story for more than forty years and it carries with it the image of a church sanctuary, dark and rustic, illuminated only by votive candles arranged on wooden tiers. I won’t recount the story, but James reminded me of poor dying Stransom, at last contemplating forgiveness for Acton Hague, honoring the dearest of his dead, Mary Antrim, and reconciled to the his nameless fellow supplicant. The story concludes:
“`Yes, one more,’ he repeated, simply; `just one!’ And with this his head dropped on her shoulder; she felt that in his weakness he had fainted. But alone with him in the dusky church a great dread was on her of what might still happen, for his face had the whiteness of death.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

D.G. Myers, R.I.P.

Our friend D.G. Myers, proprietor of A Commonplace Blog, died Friday evening at the age of sixty-two. This week we have been preparing a Festschrift for David. Some thirty-five friends have been invited to share memories of this teacher, writer, scholar, father, husband and friend. We hope to have it posted early next week. For now, our thoughts are with Naomi and their children. David titled his final post “Choosing life in the face of death.”

`The Very Essence of Manliness and Condensation'

We grow sensitized to significant names, turning our minds into indiscriminate search engines. I happen regularly upon “Chekhov” and “Jonathan Swift” because those writers are often more important to me than the context in which I might find them. Another name frequently unearthed by Kurp-Google is Samuel Johnson. Without searching, I happened this week upon three notable references to him. The first was in The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (2002) by Terry Teachout: 

“Like Johnson, Mencken was resolutely unsentimental, ebulliently grim, full of the sanity that comes from an unswerving commitment to common sense. But for Johnson `the mind can only repose on the stability of truth,’ while Mencken found nothing to be `wholly good, wholly desirable, wholly true.’ This unequivocal rejection of the possibility of ultimate truth, a position irreconcilable with his scientific rationalism, left him with nothing but a concept of `honor’ as shallow as the Victorian idea of progress in which he believed so firmly (and so paradoxically). Though he was for the most part a genuinely honorable man, honor for Mencken would seem to have been little more than a higher species of etiquette. In 1917 he wrote of himself: `His moral code…has but one item: keep your engagements.’ No more revealing thing has ever been said about H.L. Mencken.” 

In “The Artist,” an article published in 1924 and collected in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949), Mencken referred to Johnson as “the Roosevelt of the Eighteenth century. Johnson was the first Rotarian: living today, he would be a United States Senator, or a university president.” This is amusing, a classic Mencken takedown, but utterly mistaken. Elsewhere, Mencken said: “The first Rotarian was the first man to call John the Baptist, Jack.” And he called Calvin Coolidge a Rotarian. It was an all-purpose slander.    

Second, I found C.S. Lewis writing on June 22, 1930 (The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963, 1986):

“I am delighted to hear that you have taken to Johnson. Yes, isn't it a magnificent style — the very essence of manliness and condensation. I find Johnson very bracing when I am in my slack, self-pitying mood. The amazing thing is his power of stating platitudes — or what in anyone else wd. be platitudes — so that we really believe them at last and realise their importance. Doesn't it remind you a bit of Handel? As to his critical judgment I think he is always sensible and nearly always wrong. He has no ear for metre and little imagination. I personally get more pleasure from the Rambler than from anything else of his & at one time I used to read a Rambler every evening as a nightcap. They are so quieting in their brave, sensible dignity.” 

Lewis gets Johnson almost right, certainly righter than Mencken. About platitudes: Read naively, Shakespeare, Milton and Johnson seem filled with them because for centuries readers have sifted their words for wit and wisdom. It’s a common reaction among students: “I didn’t know [fill in the blank] said that.” “Always sensible and nearly always wrong?” Not quite. Think of what he writes about Swift. Easy to quibble, but even when wrong he’s usually compelling. 

Third, I found this in a brief essay, “What Is Prayer?” in Village Hours (Canterbury Press, 2012) by Ronald Blythe: 

“On Sunday, I preached on Dr Johnson, who wrote his prayers down. Although he was masterly in his summing up of other men, he was ill-suited to sum up himself. Mercifully, he had James Boswell to tell him who he was. Thus we have two accounts of him which never quite come together. But then this would happen to most of us. Autobiography and biography may be about the same person, but they are sure to be miles apart.” 

Who among us could accurately sum himself up? Montaigne, perhaps, though he would have denied it. We’re blind to ourselves and generally to others.

Friday, September 26, 2014

D.G. Myers, R.I.P.

Our friend D.G. Myers, proprietor of A Commonplace Blog, died this evening. This week we have been preparing a Festschrift for David. Some thirty-five friends have been invited to share memories of this teacher, writer, scholar, father, husband and friend. We hope to have it posted early next week. For now, our thoughts are with Naomi and their children. David titled his final post “Choosing life in the face of death.”

`Presences As Well As Meanings'

Indulge me as I play the game of dividing the world’s writers into two categories: those indifferent or hostile to language and those for whom it’s candy, a toy or at least an absorbing pastime. At work I spend many hours reading the words of engineers and mathematicians who find language an impertinence. They think in numbers, vectors and joules. Written words are inefficient and slow them down, and organizing sentences becomes a laborious act of translation. Such impatience with language is hardly limited to scientists. Think of the novelists, poets and other literary types who treat words like cold oatmeal, stirring it in the bowl with little enthusiasm. Why work if you don’t like your tools? 

In the nineteen-eighties, the late John McGahern wrote a previously unpublished scrap of essay, “Playing with Words,” collected in Love of the World: Essays (Faber and Faber, 2009). McGahern is the finest Irish fiction writer after Beckett, a writer not without humor but a serious man. His prose is starkly elegant and not at all artsy-fartsy. His thoughts here are a surprise: 

“As with most serious things, it began in play, playing with the sounds of words, their shape, their weight, their colour, their broken syllables; the fascination that the smallest change in any sentence altered all the words around it, and that they too had to be changed in turn. As in reading, when we become conscious that we are no longer reading romances or fables or adventure but versions of our own life, so it suddenly came to me that while I seemed  to be playing with words in reality I was playing with my own life. And words, for me, have always been presences as well as meanings. Through words I could experience my own life with more reality than ordinary living.” 

That’s it: writers live twice, and often more intensely as a result, in their bodies and again in their words. Some experiences remain incomplete until articulated in language artfully arranged. McGahern says he has no interest in arguing about either religion (he refers to Hume) or art. He writes: 

“Most good writing, and all great writing, has a spiritual quality that we can recognize but never quite define. In his wonderful little piece on Chateaubriand, Proust recognized this quality both by its presence—the blue flower on the earth—and its absence from the more worldly glittering prose of diplomat and traveler. Call it moral fragrance or style or that older healing word—magic.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

`The Root of All Other Vices'

You quickly regret asking people what they believe. It’s a high-minded question inviting a pompous response. Even people who believe in little beyond themselves feel compelled to hand out platitudes to the crowd. The question and resultant answer are, in truth, a form of self-advertisement, in Norman Mailer’s sense. As a package they translate into: “Aren’t I a fine fellow? Don’t you wish you shared my ideals?” Whenever NPR aired the segment called “What I Believe,” that was my signal to turn to the country station. A more interesting question is: “What do you know?” 

In 1938, the year of the Moscow show trials, the Anschluss, Munich and Kristallnacht, Clifton Fadiman asked twenty-one “intellectuals” – his word – to articulate their beliefs. The result was I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Time (Simon and Schuster, 1939). The book is an elaboration of an earlier volume, Living Philosophies (1931). Among the worthies responding in I Believe are W.H. Auden (who was soon to write of the waning “low dishonest decade”), George Santayana (who eschews the question of belief entirely and substitutes a twenty-page autobiography; he was then working on Persons and Places), and Jacques Maritain. Also on hand are Pearl Buck and James Thurber. Here is a sample of the former’s wisdom: “For myself, I choose life anyhow, anywhere. Whatever my mood or circumstance, I know I choose life.” Brave words, worthy of a Nobel laureate. 

The straightest talk in the book is Rebecca West’s. In 1936-1938, West had made three visits to Yugoslavia and now was working on her masterwork, the 1,100-page Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). The volume is part travel book, part personal revelation, part meditation on history at the brink of World War II, and remains compulsively rereadable. Of how many travel writers can we say the same? Patrick Leigh Fermor, of course, and Evelyn Waugh, but few others. In her contribution to I Believe, West says some foolish things, and carries on long-windedly about geophysical and sexual politics, but most of her thinking is mordantly cant-free: 

“If we do not regard as sacred our own joys and the joys of others, we open the door and let into life the ugliest attribute of the human race, which is cruelty. I believe this vice to be as much of a shame and a doom to humanity as the original sin of the theologians; and I believe it to be the root of all other vices…Hatred necessarily precedes love in human experience.” 

One wonders how Pearl Buck took her book-mate’s words. In her report on the Nuremburg trials collected in A Train of Powder (1955), West writes: “'The Nazis were maniacs who plastered history with the cruelty which is a waste product of man’s moral nature, as maniacs on a smaller scale plaster their bodies and their clothes with their excreta.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

`A Kind of Eccentric Attraction'

Three cheers for the “minor” writer. Major status has more to do with marketing than enduring literary worth. The first readers of Tolstoy and Henry James may have suspected their men were major, but as contemporaries they were in no position to say so categorically. Time is the judge. I’ll cite one of David Myers’ diktats: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz).” 

Matt Hunte told me he learned of Henry Green’s novels from something I had written. I referred him to Isaac Rosenfeld’s withering 1950 review of Nothing in which he insists that Green “…is not a major novelist, that he does not have a major sensibility, and that his work, granting its excellence, is nevertheless quite small.” My instinctive reaction is to accuse Rosenfeld of snobbery, perhaps reverse-snobbery because Green wielded a snobbish English club of his own. 

I would suggest that to call a writer “minor” is not necessarily to damn him. Green and Rosenfeld both are minor if that means neither of them is Proust. But literary judgments are not mutually exclusive. I’ll go on happily rereading Rosenfeld and Green – especially Green – without jeopardizing my love of Proust or any of the other bona fide major-leaguers. Matt replied, interestingly: “Yes, Rosenfeld described Green as a minor writer, which I suppose is fair if we're using the definition Guy Davenport did here.” Asked by the interviewer how he would situate himself “in American (and other) literature,” Davenport replies: “As a minor prose stylist.” He goes on: 

“A major work takes its art to a high perfection and is usually innovative (Dante and Shakespeare would be the great examples here). More importantly, the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying. `Of inexhaustible interest,’ said Pound. 

“Minor writers may have charm, a polished finish, and a kind of eccentric attraction. Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, Michael Gilbert -- fine fellows and impeccable stylists, but when compared to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, or Proust, minor. I would place Poe and Borges among the minors, splendid as they are. They are narrow. A Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them. 

“I am a minor writer because I deal in mere frissons and adventitious insights, and with things peripheral.” 

This shouldn’t be mistaken for false modesty or the ersatz humility of an artificially bloated ego. Davenport rightly weighs his worth. Only the broadly read can make such judgments and stand by them convincingly. I love Colette but feel no impulse to burden her with superlatives. She doesn’t need my help, and hype only hurts. Here is Joseph Epstein on a favorite from the minor leagues: “Max Beerbohm was the world's greatest minor writer, with the full oxymoronic quality behind that epithet entirely intended.”