Wednesday, November 26, 2014

`The Forming of the Mind'

In the nineteen-fifties, Louis MacNeice wrote “To Posterity” (Visitations, 1957), a poem strangely prescient of our diminished world: 

“When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?” 

MacNeice would die just six years later at age fifty-five. He might be writing an elegy for himself, for poetry and for the larger literary culture. “Books in graveyards” recalls Gray’s “Elegy” and its “storied urn.” Traditionally, a book carved into a gravestone signified the Book of Life, awaiting review by the Heavenly Critic. Engines and epileptics “seize up,” frozen into inoperability. And ours is the age of “other, less difficult, media.” At least since the decade of MacNeice’s death, we’ve called our time post-literate – a happy new reality for some (those who prefer their media “less difficult”), grievous for others (all who live by the word). 

MacNeice then pays poetry and the written word a splendid compliment. When the world is no longer “framed in words,” when the best eyes and ears of the past are no longer consulted, when we presume to confront the world in all our arrogant solitude, what remains?  A weirdly mutated world of “wingless birds.” Without words, grass is no longer “green” but something less. In his 1935 essay “Poetry To-day” (Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice (ed. Alan Heuser, Clarendon Press, 1987), MacNeice had already addressed posterity, saying it “affects to put dead poets and movements in their place; to tell us their real significance and cancel out their irrelevances.” Such presumption is, he says, “tidy and saves thinking.” MacNeice rises to eloquent common sense: 

“If we do our duty by the present moment, posterity can look after itself. To try to anticipate the future is to make the present past; whereas it should already be on our conscience that we have made the past past. We fail to appreciate a great poet like Horace because we don’t let him puzzle us.” 

One writer unseduced by “other, less difficult, media” is Bill Vallicella at The Maverick Philosopher. He impresses me as having a disciplined, attentive mind. He sees things, makes connections and records them in plain prose. More than five years ago, in a post titled “A Method of Study,” Bill proposed an antidote to MacNeice’s grim vision of posterity: 

“If you read books of lasting value, you ought to study what you read, and if you study, you ought to take notes. And if you take notes, you owe it to yourself to assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. What is the point of studious reading if not to evaluate critically what you read, assimilating the good while rejecting the bad? The forming of the mind is the name of the game.  This won't occur from passive reading, but only by an active engagement with the material.  The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it.  Here is where blogging can be useful.  Since blog posts are made public, your self-respect will give you an incentive to work at saying something intelligent.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

`Something That Feels As If It Had Just Flown Together'

“She strove industriously to make it look as if she didn’t quite know what she was doing. She knew exactly.” 

A confoundingly difficult strategy, rarely accomplished with grace, and most often seen in comic artists. Think of Sterne, Laurel and Hardy, and Beckett – delicate choreography teetering on the thrashing of a seizure. It’s remarkable how often readers and critics never “get” Stevie Smith. Clive James does in his review of a Smith biography collected in The Dreaming Swimmer: Non-Fiction 1987-1992 (Jonathan Cape, 1992). He rightly judges the first of Smith’s three novels, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), a “masterpiece,” says her poems “made almost everybody else’s sound overwrought,” and says of her perpetually uncertain status in the literary tradition: “She fitted in by not fitting in at all.” Here is Smith’s “Voice from the Tomb (2)”: 

“I trod a foreign path, dears,
The silence was extreme
And so it came about, dears,
That I fell into a dream, 

That I fell into a dream, my dear,
And feelings beyond cause,
And tears without a reason
And so was lost.” 

One hears hymns, Blake and Dickinson. Smith appends a note to the poem: “To the tune `From Greenland’s icy mountains’ Hymns Ancient and Modern.’” [The hymn was written by Reginald Heber (1783-1826), who much admired the hymnist/poets John Newton and William Cowper – the latter much admired by Smith.] James dispenses with the notion that Smith was a sort of idiot savant. Nor does he buy into her “little-girl act.” He says: “What she really knew about was books.” Barbara Pym admitted she tried imitating Novel on Yellow Paper while at Oxford, and called it “a fantasy, written with all the humour and pathos of her poems.” Smith’s work is a lifelong wrestling match with death, suggesting both love and mortal antagonism. “Her poems, if they were pills to purge melancholy, did not work for her. The best of them, however, work like charms for everyone else.” I find her best poems mood-elevators, like Mozart or Paul Desmond. Her less accomplished poems, which read like self-parody, are best left alone – as was the poet herself, on occasion. James recognizes this: 

“Her selfishness was a trial. She would heist the salmon out of the sandwiches and leave the bread to be eaten by others. Even in her work, she can be so fey that the skin crawls. But when she is in form she can deconstruct literature in the only way that counts—by constructing something that feels as if it had just flown together, except you can’t take it apart.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

`A Crafty So-and-So'

I like hearing that the reading of a book has changed someone’s life. The change need not be as momentous as moral reform or religious conversion, and may be as foolish and mundane as resolving to give writing a try. Levi Stahl surprised me with this: 

“But the true initial spur to whatever writing about books I've done in the past decade was [Penelope] Fitzgerald's posthumous collection of nonfiction, The Afterlife. Looking back, I have no idea why I picked it up: I knew her name, but I'd read nary a word of her novels. Yet I bought the book and was instantly won over by her perceptiveness and sensibility. Within weeks I had read all her novels and written my first book review…” 

Levi generously shares a pivotal moment. Not all of us have such ready access to our motives, prods and turning points. I can’t remember not wanting to write, and the rest is a hopeless muddle of memories and blanks. Levi offers inadvertent encouragement to us late-bloomers, slow-learners and second-chancers. Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), like Laurence Sterne (who was born on this date, Nov. 24, in 1713), started late. She published her first book, a biography of Edward Burne-Jones, in 1975 at the age of fifty-eight, and her first novel, The Golden Child, in 1977 (the same year she published a splendid group-biography of her father and his brothers, The Knox Brothers). In her “golden years,” when some contemplate endless golf in Florida, she turned herself into the finest writer of her generation. 

I’m pleased Levi was smitten by The Afterlife (2003), though it’s an eccentric way to first encounter Fitzgerald (mine was comparably odd: The Knox Brothers). As a reviewer and literary essayist, Fitzgerald is at once formal and friendly, serious and drily comic, and always utterly non- and even anti-academic. What follows is a brief sampler from her collected nonfiction, with an emphasis on her gift for aphoristically characterizing writers and their work. 

On Stevie Smith: “She was interested in death, and particularly in its willingness to oblige.” 

On Philip Larkin: “He valued jazz, cricket, drink, women (some women), books (some books), poetry, and friendship.” 

On Barbara Pym: “But toward her characters she shows a creator’s charity. She understands them so well that the least she can do is to forgive them.” 

On John McGahern: “McGahern is a realist who counts every clean shirt and every pint of Guinness but who writes at times, without hesitation, as a poet.” 

And from a brief 1989 essay, “Why I Write”: “In the eyes of the public [the writer] must be either a magician or a fraud. But this unfounded reputation does not upset the writer unduly. In a world full of dangers it is comforting to be considered, even wrongly, a crafty so-and-so.”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

`Turning Them Out of My Doors'

A sure sign of intellectual independence is a skeptical refusal of the pigeonhole urge. It’s usefully human to categorize pieces of the world and stow them in labeled bins. The alternative is, as Hume put it, “perpetual flux and movement.” The trouble begins when the bins are labeled with indelible ink, locked in a vault and jealously guarded. That’s when a faith of iron replaces reason and questioning, and understanding comes to an end. So too do curiosity, a capacity for wonder and the gift of learning from our mistakes. When you think you understand the world, it’s no longer alive and you’ve embalmed it. Guy Davenport’s most lasting legacy to me, thanks to his books, letters and our single meeting, is a bent toward non-alignment, a commitment to Bartleby-esque abstention. Not that he was “broad-minded” in J.V. Cunningham’s satirical sense. He was as principled as anyone I’ve known. He simply refused to join any herd, literary or political, even the most fashionable and no matter how temptingly lucrative it might have proven. 

Some readers remain offended that Davenport for eleven years reviewed books for the National Review. He violates the Law of the Pigeonhole: “How can he be a [fill in the approved adjective: avant-garde, postmodern, etc.] writer and work for Bill Buckley, that horrible man?” Or, later, for The New Criterion? In A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968 (Green Shade, 2004), his correspondence with Jonathan Williams, Davenport is writing for Buckley while Williams is serving as poet-in-residence at the trendy Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. In 1967, after Williams mails him a brochure outlining the programs at the Institute, Davenport lets go with an amusing rant: 

“Aha, so you have been put upon by the Liberals? I began years ago turning them out of my doors. Had to, to have some peace…Sensitivity is simply the enfranchisement to mooch…Bishop Pike! Norman Cousins! The two silliest one-worlders ever to kiss the hammer-and-sickle. Pike gets about a million dollars per annum of American tax money to pray nightly to Chairman Mao…You are, my friend, enrolled in a Communist Sunday School—ironically of the Liberal Variety, which will be the first to be put in the gas chambers when the Revolution comes. 

“Fortunately, there is no known record of a real artist being taken in by the tears and panty-waist Socialism of the Left.” 

If Pike and Cousins are unfamiliar names, substitute Jesse Jackson and Bill Moyers. Davenport’s point is that, even more than Hollywood stars, writers are comically, dangerously ignorant when it comes to politics. Politics was not central to Davenport’s life or writing. Joseph Epstein has made a useful distinction between being right-wing, whatever that means, and being anti-Left. The nuance is lost on many. In the best of his essays, “Finding” (Davenport favored the present participle – he would never title an essay “Found”), collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), he formulates his moral and aesthetic credo: “Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” 

Davenport was born on this date, Nov. 23, in 1927 in Anderson, S.C., and died on Jan. 4, 2005, in Lexington, Ky.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

`Read Some Pleasant Author Till He Be Asleep'

Andrew Rickard has introduced me to a bookish stranger, Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927), the author of The Gentle Reader, who makes for pleasant company despite his shortcomings (and mine). We’ve come a long way since 1903, and we’re all sophisticated readers, but I like Crothers’ notion of reading as “a kind of conversation.” There’s easy and relaxed conversation, as with old friends, but a chat with newcomers, people whose assumptions might differ wildly from one’s own, even Unitarians, can be surprisingly gratifying if sometimes rancorous. 

The copy of The Gentle Reader I borrowed from my university library last circulated in 1958 and is inscribed (I think – the signature is faint and stylized almost into illegibility) “N.J. Sutter 1910.” The copyright page reads “Published October, 1903. Fourteenth Impression.” At the front is a list of other Crothers titles also published by Houghton Mifflin, including Miss Muffet’s Christmas Party (“Postpaid $1.08”) and The Pardoner’s Wallet. We’re in the company of an old-fashioned bibliophile, a genteel Victorian who, like Emerson, was a Unitarian minister living near the epicenter of Unitarianism. In 1921, Crothers would publish Ralph Waldo Emerson: How to Know Him. One page after the passage excerpted by Andrew we find this: 

“Wise old Burton, in the Anatomy of Melancholy, advises the restless person to `read some pleasant author till he be asleep.' Many persons find the Anatomy of Melancholy to answer this purpose; though Dr. Johnson declares that it was the only book that took him out of bed two hours before he wished to rise. It is hard to draw the line between stimulants and narcotics.” 

Crothers is not without humor. He’s like the minister who, in his sermon on Proverbs 10:9, jokes about his golf game. In The Gentle Reader he even includes an essay titled “The Mission of Humor” in which he composes this baffling sentence: “If the Universe had a place for everything and everything was in its place, there would be little demand for humor.” On the contrary, in such a Universe humor might save your life. His literary touchstones for humor are the usual suspects – Falstaff, Fielding, Dr. Johnson, Lamb, Thackeray, but no Swift or Sterne.

This gentle reader wishes Crothers would get pissed off about something or tell a dirty joke. If he has a fault, it’s niceness, an overweening urge to see everyone and everything as fundamentally benign and probably, especially the unpleasant stuff, misunderstood. In his discussion of humor he lauds “an overflowing friendliness, which brings a laughter that is without scorn.” But scorn is the very pith of humor. Niceness isn’t funny. You don’t gently josh your enemy. You mock him unmercifully and kick him when he’s down.

Friday, November 21, 2014

`Among the Anfractuosities of the Human Mind'

“It is probably a mistake to think of Johnson as specially fond of long words; certainly a mistake to think you can parody Johnson by using a lot of long words. He wrote at a period when long words were used; what is probably the best sentence in his Journey to the Western Islands [of Scotland] is written, I think, entirely in monosyllables.” 

In “Dr. Johnson” (Literary Distractions, 1958), Monsignor Ronald Knox defends the lexicographer against the customary slurs, including gratuitous sesquipedalianism, an offense I’ve never associated with him. Some writers and speakers use long or exotic-sounding words to appear intelligent or to obscure the emptiness of what they are pretending to say, but that was never Johnson’s way. He remained ever on guard for cant and pomposity, linguistic and otherwise. Perhaps the accusation comes from increasingly unlettered readers and critics who prefer their prose with Dick-and-Jane plainness. Teasingly, Knox does not specify the sentence of monosyllables deployed by Johnson in Journey (1775), an account of his visit to Scotland with Boswell in 1773, but his casual aside moved me to look for likely candidates. 

One quickly finds passages dense with one-syllable words and longer words that are nevertheless familiar. This is from the chapter titled “Coriatachan in Sky”: “The weather was next day too violent for the continuation of our journey; but we had no reason to complain of the interruption.  We saw in every place, what we chiefly desired to know, the manners of the people.  We had company, and, if we had chosen retirement, we might have had books.” 

Some of Johnson’s sentences meet Knox’s criterion but hardly seem among his best: “The sea was smooth.” “The oats that are not parched must be dried in a kiln.” Here is a sentence (from “Mull”) with three common polysyllables, the rest all words of one syllable: “He that pines with hunger, is in little care how others shall be fed.” This sentence also possesses the virtue of being identifiably Johnsonian, even out of context. His compassionate realism shines through. This next sentence is all monosyllables but for two words: “The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rain had softened to a puddle.” 

I have been unable to find the sentence Knox describes. Perhaps he was merely being provocative, hoping some fool would reread Journey with his observation in mind. But the search was not fruitless. I established that word length alone is indeterminate of prose quality, even in the hands of a master. A terse, nugget-like sentence is not necessarily good prose, nor is a behemoth of polysyllables necessarily bombast. Most of Johnson’s sentences are pre-Hemingway in length and complexity (even more so in his periodical essays and Live of the Poets than in his travel book). They defy today’s style manuals, making it even less likely that he would able to write them exclusively with multisyllabic words. Eighteenth-century clarity shares little with the twenty-first-century version. 

On the page after the passage quoted at the top, Knox quotes this Johnsonian prodigy: “Among the anfractuosities of the human mind, I know not if it may be one, that there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a picture.” Unsurprisingly, the OED cites Johnson’s usage, taken from Boswell’s Life, in its entry for anfractuosity.  It means “involution, intricacy, obliquity” – an apt description of both the mind and the brain – from the Latin for “winding, roundabout.” In other words, we ought to laud Johnson for precision, not fault him for polysyllabic exhibitionism. The world is anfractuous, and so are we.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

`He Who Suggests More Than He Expresses'

“The true reader clings to the text he reads like a shipwrecked man to a floating plank.” 

From this, we remember this: “The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck.” Ishmael, of course, but the author of the first aphorism is Nicolás Gómez Dávila – Don Colacho – and he too is a survivor, doubly so. He endured the wreckage of Western Culture and wrote amidst the rubble, and now, slowly, thanks to readers and writers working like medieval monks in splendid isolation, his work is rediscovered, translated and newly appreciated. The latest to celebrate the great Colombian miniaturist is Matthew Walther in First Things: 

“If Gómez-Dávila is ever declared a saint, admittedly a very remote possibility, he should be taken up as the patron of nihilists—which is to say, of most of us on our worst days. His work is a complement to, if not a substitute for, gin, tobacco, and constant prayer.”

This is intentionally provocative, laced with something to offend all sides, though I like his novel definition of nihilist. Even the best of us carry around a nihilist chromosome, just waiting to mutate into barbarism. Note Walther’s observation on Gómez-Dávila: “It is one of the only books I have read that has made me laugh on almost every page.” Helen Pinkerton wrote to me after my recent post devoted to Don Colacho: 

“Ever since you furnished a link to his work… I have been reading him. Not every day, but from time to time, when my mind needs refreshment, stimulation, reassurance.  He is, I believe, one of the great thinkers… of our time. When I read him steadily for a good portion of time, I begin to realize again that I am not wrong in being a fundamental conservative. Each aphorism, time after time, hits home with my own thinking, always, of course, phrased in the conceptual language of which he is master. He states the fundamental assumptions, principles, and purposes of conservative, Christian thought, so succinctly, exactly, and clearly that, as one reads, one just cannot dispute what he says. At least, few, if any thinkers I have read could refute his observations. And he constantly considers, defines and exposes the errors--practical and philosophical--of the thinkers who have dominated our intellectual life and culture throughout the 20th century.” 

Don Colacho reminds us of Pascal, and not merely in his aphoristic form of expression. In Pascal: The Life of Genius (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936), Morris Bishop says of the austere philosopher/mathematician: “Truth was to him a physical force, demanding to do its work. He assumed without question that his discovery of truth required him to publish it.” One senses a similar moral urgency in Don Colacho. Bishop writes of the author of Les Pensées: 

“He jotted down his thoughts as they came to him, on odd bits of paper, backs of bills, now in illegible invalid’s scribble, now in a clear, confident hand. When too weak to write, he would dictate the scheme of an idea, or a few happy phrases, to his nephew Étienne or a servant. Still able to walk, he would return from a little round of nearby churches with the suggestion of a pensée scratched on his fingernails with a pin.” 

With Helen Pinkerton I frequently reread Don Colacho’s aphorisms for “refreshment, stimulation, reassurance,” and find endorsement of the practice among them: 

“Only he who suggests more than what he expresses can be reread.”