Sunday, February 14, 2016

`It Would Almost Be Worth Being Dead'

A quality not often recognized in Orwell is nimbleness, a gift for gracefully changing directions, switching tone and subject matter without forcing the issue or causing the reader undue vertigo. I speak here of his essays and newspaper columns, not his ham-handed fiction. Orwell’s “As I Please” column published in the Tribune on this date, Feb. 12, in 1947, opens with a letter sent to him by a rather overheated Scottish Nationalist, hardly a promising subject for an American reader in 2016. But Orwell preserves its relevance to our time by generalizing the subject, noting that attention is best paid to separatist movements and other bothersome or potentially violent cliques: 

“At any rate, I think we should pay more attention to the small but violent separatist movements which exist within our own island. They may look very unimportant now, but, after all, the Communist Manifesto was once a very obscure document, and the Nazi Party only had six members when Hitler joined it.” 

A nice takedown, but safe and predictable fare for a columnist. Next, a break, followed by another Scot-related bit about whiskey-brewing and barley. Orwell’s tone politely dismissive and, typically, he quotes a remark overheard at the greengrocer’s (uttered, remember, during the U.K.’s postwar austerity): “Government! They couldn’t govern a sausage-shop, this lot couldn’t!” People love hearing from The Man in the Street, and Orwell was happy to oblige. 

Another break, and then Orwell comes to what’s really on his mind. He recalls lines from a macaronic elegy by John Skelton (c. 1463-1529), and doubts whether such sentiments could be written or carved on gravestones in 1947: “Today there is literally no one who could write of death in that light-hearted manner. Since the decay of the belief in personal immortality, death has never seemed funny, and it will be a long time before it does so again. Hence the disappearance of the facetious epitaph, once a common feature of country churchyards.” Some might find his point counterintuitive, but Orwell (no believer) understood that only those with faith understand the comic potential in death. Atheists are not a notably humorous bunch. In cemeteries I’ve seen stones carved with motorcycles, whiskey bottles and shotguns, expressing a vulgarity that out-sentimentalizes the Victorians. Orwell recalls the perfect poem for the occasion, Landor’s epigrammatic epitaph "Dirce." He comments: “It is not exactly comic, but it is essentially profane.” A nice distinction. Then he tops himself (it helps to remember he would be dead in three years): 

“It would almost be worth being dead to have that written about you.”

Saturday, February 13, 2016

`He Is a Great Man Riddled with Flaws'

“All this would be terribly sad if it weren’t so endearing.”

We might say this of a sick child or, in a more grandiose mood, the Human Condition. English has no one-word synonym for the emotion described, that familiar mingling of poignancy, sympathy, ache and fondness. The authors, Philip and Carol Zaleski (Prayer: A History, 2005), refer to a breakfast reported by Boswell on June 11, 1784. Dr. Johnson has just said he once contemplated assembling an anthology of prayer, accompanied by an essay on the subject, and his tablemates encourage him to take up the task:

“He seemed to be a little displeased at the manner of our importunity, and in great agitation called out, `Do not talk thus of what is so awful. I know not what time God will allow me in this world. There are many things which I wish to do.’ Some of us persisted, and Dr. ADAMS said, `I never was more serious about anything in my life.’ Johnson. `Let me alone, let me alone; I am overpowered.’ And then he put his hands before his face, and reclined for some time upon the table.”

Johnson is seventy-four and had suffered a stroke one year earlier. He has emphysema, edema, gout and arthritis. Never healthy, he has always known depression. In a July 1784 diary entry he describes his state of mind as tristitia gravissima, or “terrible sadness.” He died six months after the memorable breakfast. The Zaleskis, who devote six of their four-hundred pages to Johnson, suggest it was the notion of publically addressing the subject of prayer that so disturbed Johnson:

“Could it be that he sensed something amiss in a cri de coeur that lasts a lifetime? He may have glimpsed what, in the hindsight of centuries, has become obvious to many of his readers: that for Johnson, the longing for metanoia, with its self-recrimination, resolutions, and tearful pleading to God, mattered more than reform itself, that only during the de profundis petition did he feel fully alive; that he was a Don Juan of prayer, valuing the chase and the first heady moments of conquest; but when faced with the long, steady grind of marriage—the vigilance and sacrifice necessary to maintain his new life—he backslid, eager to enjoy the chase once more. Thus in the confusion of his great heart, attraction to sin and desire for change waltzed together down the decades, to the endless fugue of petitionary prayer.”

The Zaleskis’ gloss is intriguing and respectful of Johnson, but not convincing. They describe a self-dramatizing figure I hardly recognize. That Johnson was sick, guilt-ridden and depressed is inarguable. But he was equally hard-working (though sorely tempted by idleness), gifted and compassionate. Unlike many of us, he recognized his weaknesses and wrestled with them daily. His life was laborious, not easeful. The authors’ conclusion – “attraction to sin and desire for change waltzed together down the decades” – applies to most of us, after all, leaving out only the sociopathic. This accounts for Johnson’s enduring attractiveness to us as man and writer. With his wracked sense of humility, he never claimed to transcend the human lot. His weakness was ours. He was like us, but brilliantly, articulately so. The Zaleskis’ write:

“Johnson invites love, as much as anyone who has ever picked up a pen. We love his honesty, his boldness, his courage, his golden ear for language. We love his ugliness and ungainliness, his irascibility, his self-doubts, his twinned perceptiveness and blindness toward himself. He is a great man riddled with flaws, above us and yet one of us, and as such claims our admiration and compassion.”

In short, Johnson is like us, only more so.

[Carol Zaleski returns to the subject this week in “Doctor Johnson’s failures.”]

Friday, February 12, 2016

`Enthusiasm Is Not an Artist's State of Mind'

Labels permit journalists and others who are lazy to mistake pigeonholing for understanding. “The Movement” was the name given to a mixed bag of English poets in the nineteen-fifties who had little in common apart from not being Dylan Thomas. Members of this non-group included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn and Robert Conquest. Though aligned only, on occasion, by friendship, never ideology or style, they represent the last great eruption of poetic talent in the English language. Gunn had the distinction of overlapping with the previous such upsurge, Yvor Winters and the Stanford School. The rest of the best are what Melville called “Isolatoes.” In his essay “New Lines, Movements, and Modernism” (ed. Zachary Leader, The Movement Reconsidered, 2009), Conquest affirms the group’s disarray and composes lines he says “are to be taken in a very latitudinarian way on how, on the whole, poetry should be”:

“Neither too wet nor too dry,
Neither too low nor to high,
Neither too loose nor too tight,
Neither too dark nor too bright,
Neither too mad nor too mild,
Neither too tame nor too wild,
Neither too thick nor too thin,
Neither too Out nor too In.”

This points up The Movement’s only other unifying quality: contrariness and independence of thought. Critics and readers looking for consistency among such a wildly diverse set of writers must resort to fabrication. Conquest goes on: “Nor did we (or I) think one could describe, even to this degree, how all poetry should be written. There were always fine poets of wild eccentricity like Stevie Smith or Emily Dickinson. We should have agreed with no less a product of classicism than Gibbon himself, who spoke of the alternative aims of poetry being to `satisfy, or silence, our reason.’” The Gibbon reference is from Vol. 1, Chap. XXXI., of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “. . . the name of Hadrian is almost sunk in oblivion, while Claudian is read with pleasure in every country which has retained, or acquired, the knowledge of the Latin language. If we fairly balance his merits and his defects, we shall acknowledge that Claudian does not either satisfy, or silence, our reason.”

In his essay, Conquest defines Modernism as “a slice of enlightenment plus a tureen of pretension.” If members of The Movement had a common enemy it was the pretentious strain that runs through much of the writing done by the previous (and subsequent) generations. Their dissent was non-programmatic. In individual poems, for instance, Larkin both dismissed Romanticism and selectively embraced it. His poems were not written according to some manifesto but by the strictures of craft and his own complicated sensibility. Born-again Modernists, postmodernists and their camp followers, of course, are still objecting. Conquest says in his essay, “A common taunt was that we were philistine, and insular too” – a ridiculously snobbish accusation. He writes:

“If the vague, peripheral, and hypothetical knowledge we have is given the status of law we are worse off than before. This goes with an authoritarian attitude; and its products, because of the formality of their definitions, are hard and less able to evolve. Such are the approaches we rejected. The extremists on both sides are missionary types: the one of a highly organized and ritualized set of sacramental forms, the other of a theology of revivalist self-abandon. In either case, a sectarianism. As Paul Valéry wrote, `Enthusiasm is not an artist’s state of mind’ [trans. Robert Conquest, “Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci,” 1894].   

Conquest died last August at age ninety-eight, the last surviving member of The Movement’s rollcall. As a poet he is less well-known than as a scholar of communism’s crimes. Among his volumes devoted to Soviet history are The Great Terror: Stalin's Purges of the 1930s (1968), Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986). All are essential for an understanding of how the twentieth-century worked. When a publisher asked Conquest to revise The Great Terror for a new edition, the poet said he wished to change the title to I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. In history as in poetry, schools, classes, cliques and movements mean nothing. Only individual poets writing individual poems matter.

[Go here for a recent tribute to Conquest by the Hoover Institution and here for a selection of his more recent commentary on the Soviet Union.]

Thursday, February 11, 2016

`The Past Tense Is Out of Use'

Leopold Tyrmand leaves Poland and arrives for good in the United States in 1966. On his first day in his adopted country, in New York City, he notes: “An ad of Eddie Condon playing in the neighborhood restaurant. All seems larger and better here than in Europe with the exception of frankfurters, which are not as good as in Frankfurt.” In brief, that’s Tyrmand—impish, jazz-loving, happy by nature, relieved to have breached the Iron Curtain and left its dreariness and brutality behind. The book is Notebooks of a Dilettante (MacMillan, 1970), much of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. In the section titled “American Diary,” he recounts a visit to New Orleans (about which he wrote a book in Poland but has never visited): “Jazz—in Europe a symbol of passion or of joy, of spiritual freedom or of cultural independence—is here like oxygen.” Next, Tyrmand is on to Houston, where he has lunch in the Hotel Rice with the Houston Rotary Club:

“. . . the Star-Spangled Banner streams proudly—encouraged with unsophisticated efficiency by a silent fan—the audience sings the anthem. At once I have the impression of facing an enormous, organized strength. An almost military power emanates from these middle-class, suburban, downtown-minded executives, associates, managers, and assistant directors—a conscious, disciplined, social might, constructed differently from that in totalitarian regimes but probably the only kind that could successfully and forcefully resist any encroachment from right or left.”

Tyrmand visits the University of Houston, the Manned Spacecraft Center in Seabrook (now the Johnson Space Center) and the Alley Theatre (he sees Pirandello’s Right You Are if You Think You Are). He notes that the aerospace scientists wanted to talk to him about “film, theatre, the latest books of Bellow and Capote, and were better oriented vis-à-vis Cardinal Wyszyński’s affair than an average newspaperman in France.” Tyrmand writes:

“In Houston the past tense is out of use. The present tense is avoided, and everyone speaks only in the future tense. For example: `This steak is delicious,’ I try to flatter my host. `You’ll have to come next year,’ he assures me. `You’ll see what steaks we have in Texas. . .’

"In the Astrodome, the biggest covered living room in the world, the guide repeats: `In our space age. . .’ One must admit that it applies here, much more than in Warsaw, Paris, or Boston.”

How refreshingly different are Tyrmand’s impressions from Simone de Beauvoir’s in America Day by Day (1954), an account of the four months she spent touring the U.S. in 1947. Imagine her at a Rotary Club meeting, a wet blanket ranting about capitalism and the bourgeoisie. On the day she arrives in Houston, de Beauvoir deploys the pre-packaged, Faulknerized perceptions she had long before setting foot in Texas: “This is the land of wealth and misery, a luxuriant and cruel human land. Here and there, amid fecund solitude [?], stands a hut or a group of dilapidated huts; on the threshold, sometimes black faces, sometimes white ones—the poor whites of the south whose wretched lives are described by Steinbeck and Caldwell.” I don’t recall Steinbeck setting any of his fiction in the South, and Caldwell’s novels are comic books. Her taste in literature is almost as dubious as her taste in boyfriends. The parade of platitudes continues:

“In the absence of cockfights, a professor takes me to a wrestling match after my lecture; this may not be especially Texan, but at least it’s typically American. We arrive toward the end of the match in a huge sports arena filled with a delirious crowd. The women shout `Kill him! Kill him!’ in raucous voices. In the ring the wrestlers confront each other with looks of bestial hatred, studiously imitating the stance and snarl of King Kong.”

Before she leaves the city, de Beauvoir really gets insulting: “For the tourist, Houston at night is as gloomy as Buffalo.” De Beauvoir can’t help her snobbery even when talking about things she knows nothing about. Tyrmand understands snobbery: “Europeans prefer Hitchcock to Godard, a good western to boring cinéma d’œil, and Tennessee Williams to Duerrenmatt. Only American snobs maintain that Robbe-Grillet is more interesting than Philip Roth, that Moravia knows life better than Saul Bellow, and that John Ford is childish but Alain Resnais mature.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

`But Three Steps from Feathers to Iron'

In his invaluable essay “The Prose Sublime,” Donald Justice observes that certain powerful and moving passages (usually taking us by surprise, ambushing us with delight, in my experience) often defy paraphrase and instant comprehension: “Their power is hidden in mystery. There is, at most, an illusion of seeing momentarily into the heart of things -- and the moment vanishes. It is this, perhaps, which produces the aesthetic blush.” A nice echo of Nabokov’s “aesthetic bliss,” defined in his afterword to Lolita as “a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” Neither writer is a strict aesthete. What they describe is more than pretty words or words that conform to our predigested opinions. Justice’s “heart of things” and Nabokov’s “other states of being” sound remarkably alike. This is what I read in Keats’ letter to Benjamin Bailey written on March 13, 1818, as he explains to his friend why he did not keep a promised visit:

“I have used it these three last days to keep out the abominable Devonshire Weather - by the by you may say what you will of Devonshire: the truth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county. The hills are very beautiful, when you get a sight of ’em; the primroses are out, --but then you are in; the cliffs are of a fine deep colour, but then the clouds are continually vieing with them.”

This passage and much of the rest of the letter left me tingling. I’ve read it before, many times, but was surprised again that the real Keats could be funny and playful, unlike the seraphic sprite of legend. No doubt my knowing he was already sick with the consumption that would kill him in less than three years, that his brother Tom would be dead from the same disease in another nine months, and that a year later he would write his great odes – all of that heightens my susceptibility to his words. Their poignancy triggers admiration and gratitude in this reader. How could so young a man (he was twenty-two) muster the wit (and courage) to write like this to a friend? The former medical student even makes a joke about a powerful emetic. As readers, we’d like to think we too could eschew self-pity and carry on rakishly while philosophizing and parodying same. Shakespeare, as usual, is with him:

“As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardor of the pursuer  -- being in itself a nothing -- Ethereal things may at least be thus real, divided under three heads -- Things real -- things semireal -- and no things. Things real -- such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakspeare. Things semi-real such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist -- and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit -- which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to `consecrate whate’er they look upon.’”

Keats goes on to give Bailey a sonnet the way you and I might give him a coupon clipped from the newspaper. Surely, he's writing of himself with this line: “He has his Winter too of pale misfeature.” The way he slides seamlessly from jokiness to sublimity is an off-handed miracle:

“Aye this may be carried - but what am I talking of - it is an old maxim of mine and of course must be well known that every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world - the two uppermost thoughts in a Man's mind are the two poles of his World he revolves on them and every thing is southward or northward to him through their means. We take but three steps from feathers to iron.”

Donald Justice writes of a passage in Sherwood Anderson’s novel Poor White, though he might be describing Keats’ letter: “Such a passage seems hardly to bother with understanding at all; it is a passage of unspoken connections, unnameable affinities, a tissue of association without specified relations.”

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

`So Lively, So Enchanting, So Direct and Familiar'

“Yesterday I opened Montaigne by chance (I needed to trace some Latin verse), and I couldn’t put it down. What delights! Not for a very long time—perhaps never—has he seemed so lively, so enchanting, so direct and familiar. Yesterday I read `De l'utile et de l'honnête,’ and today I began `De l'expérience.’ Everything, almost every line, seemed subversive and liable to censorship in today’s world.”

The man who wrote this on July 19, 1942, was a Jewish novelist and playwright living in Bucharest, Romania, a nation described by Hannah Arendt as “the most anti-Semitic country in prewar Europe.” The Iron Guard, Romania’s fascist party, required no coaching from Hitler. By the late nineteen-thirties, most of Mihail Sebastian’s literary circle had been seduced by the lure of fascism and anti-Semitism, including names well-known to readers today -- Mircea Eliade and E. M. Cioran. No one is more credulous, self-serving and fashion-conscious than an intellectual, and little has changed in seventy-five years.

Sebastian’s journal was smuggled out of Romania to Israel by his brother in 1961. The writer had survived the war but was hit and killed by a truck in Bucharest just weeks after Germany’s surrender. Sebastian was thirty-eight. The journal was first published in Romanian in 1996, then in French in 1998. The English translation by Patrick Camiller, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, came out in 2000. Early portions of the text read like uninspired gossip. Sebastian recounts the inbred doings of Bucharest’s litterateurs and his own struggles with writing and publishing. Slowly the tone changes as his isolation becomes more apparent. What impresses me most about Sebastian is his enduring devotion to literary culture despite the spineless treachery of former friends. Sebastian instinctively turns to books for solace. One day after the passage quoted above he writes: “I have learned with surprise, and with pleasure (from a commentary by Duval), that Shakespeare read Montaigne and was passionately fond of his Essays. I seem to like him all the more now, because I am reading both of them at once.” Ten days later, he is reading an unlikely American novel, though Shakespeare and Montaigne are still on his mind:

“I have read a Dreiser novel with great interest: The Financier [1912]. It is powerful, solid, and large. But he lacks a little poetry, the mysterious magnetism of a Balzac, to be a really first-rate writer. Anyway, it is enough to put me off any novel I have written or may ever want to write. Meanwhile I am getting on with my Shakespeare and Montaigne. Finished Richard II, begun The Comedy of Errors. Also read the last two acts of Hamlet, which I had left unfinished.”

Elsewhere, Sebastian is reading Conrad’s letters, Jane Austen’s Emma (“Graceful, simple, full of humor, but rather slow and too detailed—like a Dutch painting”), De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Jules Renard, Proust, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, La Fontaine and his beloved Balzac. Between August and October 1941 he is reading Sterne: “I finished Tristram Shandy this evening, after a long time spent slowly (too slowly) reading it. Anyway, it is all too long, too uniform, too loose. After the first hundred pages there was nothing more to be learned. And there are still four hundred to go. Pleasant nevertheless. Peaceful reading for a long untroubled winter.”

One of the saddest, most ominous passages in the Journal is not explicitly literary, though it reminds me of Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939. This is dated Sept. 25, 1942:

“Yesterday I was in a group with Leni at the Jewish theatre, to see Stroe’s revue. Everything there—stage, actors, theatre, audience—seemed completely crazy. Death is breathing down our necks and we have a Jewish theatre, with girls in low-cut dresses, jazz, verse songs, gags, and knock-about sketches. Where is reality? The specter of the trains heading for Transistria haunts me all the time.”

Monday, February 08, 2016

`All Strange Wonders that Befell Thee'

Having been away from it for so long, I was reminded in Ontario that snow is also a verb. It makes a discernible knock as it hits the windows, pushed by the wind. It crunches with each step. The reflected glare blinds walkers and drivers. It powders the pines and, redundantly, the birches. An inch or so was all that ever accumulated, but its presence, its verbness, was never passive. In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson offers among his definitions:

“To Snow. v.a. [verb active] To scatter like snow.”

We might say grated cheese snowed on the pasta. Or talcum powder snowed on the baby’s bottom. Or we might, more vividly and soberly, say with Donne, as cited by Johnson:

“If thou be’st born to see strange sights,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
`Till age snow white hairs on thee.”

Donne addresses a woman. In another context he might be speaking to any of us, especially the writers. Here are his subsequent lines:

“Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee.”