Thursday, January 29, 2015

`You'll Find Very Interesting Things'

Lists of recommended books can be gifts or rubbish, depending on the author of the list. Bad taste, limited reading and enthrallment to fashion are fatal flaws. But a reader can rely on a good, inspired list-maker to introduce him to new titles and reanimate old ones. I’ve just read The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House (Brookings Institution Press, 2015) by Stephen Hess, who served on the White House staffs of Eisenhower and Nixon, and later advised Ford and Carter. Hess begins his story winningly: “I am the only person—perhaps in the world—who was a friend of both Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before they knew each other.”  Early in his first term, Nixon named Moynihan – a liberal Harvard professor with close ties to the Kennedys – his urban affairs adviser. Hess calls them “the oddest. . . of all the odd couples in American political life.” 

In a chapter titled “Tutorial,” Hess reports the president asked Moynihan for a list of his favorite political biographies, and quotes Nixon as writing in a memo to Moynihan: “As you know, I do quite a bit of evening reading, and I want to be sure that I’m reading the best!” One is touch by Nixon’s earnestness and his eagerness to please his staff intellectual. Limiting himself to ten titles, Moynihan leaves out Erik Erikson on Gandhi, Arthur Link on Woodrow Wilson and Catherine Drinker Bowen on Oliver Wendell Holmes. Here is the list Moynihan gives Nixon: 

Autobiography, John Adams (1802)
Abraham Lincoln, Lord Charnwood (1917)
The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams (1918)
Talleyrand, Duff Cooper (1932)
Melbourne, David Cecil (1939)
Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock (1952)
The Republican Roosevelt, John Morton Blum (1961)
Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution, Clinton Rossiter (1964)
Disraeli, Robert Blake (1966)
Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, John Womack Jr. (1969) 

I’m humbled, having read only seven of these books, and only one of them (Henry Adams) more than once, though I’ve already borrowed Cecil’s Melbourne from the library. Moynihan annotates each suggestion. About Charnwood’s Lincoln he writes, “For my money still the best volume on Lincoln,” and on the Henry Adams volume: “I suppose this may be the great American book. Surely it is an astoundingly perceptive account of our times, written decades before they commenced.” Just the other day I returned to a beautiful passage in the first chapter of Adams’ Education that begins: 

“Winter and summer, then, were two hostile lives, and bred two separate natures. Winter was always the effort to live; summer was tropical license. Whether the children rolled in the grass, or waded in the brook, or swam in the salt ocean, or sailed in the bay, or fished for smelts in the creeks, or netted minnows in the salt-marshes, or took to the pine-woods and the granite quarries, or chased muskrats and hunted snapping-turtles in the swamps, or mushrooms or nuts on the autumn hills, summer and country were always sensual living, while winter was always compulsory learning. Summer was the multiplicity of nature; winter was school.” 

Hess reproduces Nixon’s reaction to Moynihan’s list, taken from notes kept by William Safire: 

“Pat Moynihan is somewhat my mentor in telling me what I should read. He doesn’t think I am too well educated, so as a result, a while back he sent me a group of books to read. What surprised him was that I read them. . . .You wake up late at night—1:00-2:00—and then for two or three hours you read. . . .I would urge you some time to, when you wake up in the middle of the night as I do, to pick up Cecil’s Melbourne or maybe Blake’s Disraeli and read it. You’ll find very interesting things. You think we have problems. You should read about the problems in nineteenth-century England!” 

As a human being, as a man amply filled with contradictions, Nixon is, with Lincoln, our most endlessly interesting president, in part because his flawed sensibility is often so like our own. In regard to Moynihan, I defer to Joseph Epstein: 

“With the exception only of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom I knew slightly, there has not been a single member of either body of the United States Congress during the past half century whose company I should want even for the duration of a cup of coffee.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

`Hard Accents I Will Carry to My Own'

We’re nothing without the dead. Spontaneous generation is a myth, like originality. With every word we echo someone, and it’s only proper that we acknowledge them and give thanks. Geoffrey Hill puts it like this in CXIX of The Triumph of Love (1998): 

“By understanding I understand diligence
and attention, appropriately understood
as actuated self-knowledge, a daily acknowledgement
of what is owed the dead.” 

Seasoned readers carry in their mental libraries a generous anthology of poems honoring departed forebears, starting, in my case, with Auden’s “At the Grave of Henry James.” My newest entry is Henry Taylor’s “At the Grave of E.A. Robinson” (Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996, 1996): 

“Decades of vague intention drifted by
before I brought small thanks for your large voice–
a bunch of hothouse blooms and Queen Anne’s lace
and four lines from `The Man Against the Sky.’
My poems, whatever they do, will not repay
the debt they owe to yours, so I let pass
a swift half hour, watching the wind distress
the fringes of my fragile, doomed bouquet. 

“I beg your pardon, sir.  You understood
what use there is in standing here like this,
speaking to one who hears as well as stone;
yet though no answer comes, it does me good
to sound aloud, above your resting place,
hard accents I will carry to my own.” 

Robinson is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Gardiner, Maine, his childhood home and the model for his fictional Tilbury Town. The poem Taylor mentions, “The Man Against the Sky,” was published by Robinson in 1916 in a collection of the same name. The speaker sees the title character and speculates on his identity, and contemplates both suicide and the possibility of faith: “All comes to Nought,— / If there be nothing after Now, / And we be nothing anyhow, / And we know that,—why live?” The poem’s faintest offering of hope comes some eighty lines earlier: 

“Where was he going, this man against the sky?
You know not, nor do I.
But this we know, if we know anything:
That we may laugh and fight and sing
And of our transience here make offering
To an orient Word that will not be erased,
Or, save in incommunicable gleams
Too permanent for dreams,
Be found or known.” 

This is why Taylor acknowledges that visiting Robinson’s grave and addressing “one who hears as well as stone,” despite its common-sense futility, “does me good.” Taylor is making a contract with the dead, upholding his end of the bargain. He is also closing another circle and silently returning to his own apprenticeship as a poet. In Taylor’s first collection, The Horse Show at Midnight (Louisiana State University Press, 1966), he includes “Things Not Solved Though Tomorrow Came,” which carries an epigraph from Robinson, “four lines from `The Man Against the Sky’”: 

“For whether lighted over ways that save,
Or lured from all repose,
If he go on too far to find a grave,
Mostly alone he goes.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

`I Know a Baby from a Blunderbuss'

I like catalogues and lists and the sense they give of the world’s bounty. Here is a poem by R.H.W. Dillard, “Loading a Shoebox” (Just Here, Just Now, 1994): 

“With scraps, stuffing it
Tight, bits of paper
With instructions to look
In the glove compartment,
Three lines of a poem
Given to you in a dream,
A message you found
On your answering machine
That makes your flesh crawl,
Skin creep, three tissues,
Three separate kisses,
Your annoyance at a day
Filled with betrayal
And true understanding,
A handstand in a cold corner,
A handshake, a handsaw,
A hawk (you can tell
The difference), this day,
Another day like every day
Like no other.” 

My first thought was to remember Mike Stinson’s “Box I Take to Work,” with the lines “I can fix bruises and blisters, cuts and scrapes, / To go with the pain I got George Jones tapes.” The mention of the fragmentary poem given “in a dream” brings to mind Robert Herrick’s epigram, “Dreams”: 

“Here we are all, by day; by night we’re hurl’d
 By dreams, each one into a several world.” 

“Several” here is an adjective meaning discrete, distinguishable from others of its kind – a precise description of a dream’s hermetic allure. Best of all is the Shakespeare allusion in “A handshake, a handsaw, / A hawk (you can tell / The difference).” See Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, in which the prince says: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” He’s speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, suggesting that his recent eccentric behavior may be a ruse to conceal his plans. In the vernacular, Hamlet is saying, with comparable alliteration, he knows shit from Shinola, or chalk from cheese. 

The passage has spurred much scholarly speculation. Hitchcock may or may not have taken the title of his 1959 film North by Northwest from Hamlet. “Handsaw” may be a corruption of heronshaw – a small or young heron – which develops the avian metaphor with hawk. But then, hawk may refer to the plasterer’s tool. Others give a simpler, more literal explanation – nobody would confuse a handsaw with a hawk, a tool with a bird (or even two different birds). This is G.K. Chesterton’s understanding in “Shakespeare and the Germans”: 

“…even a boy who had any flavour of literature, or any guess at the kind of man that Hamlet was supposed to be, could see at once that it was a joke. Hamlet said it as a piece of wild alliteration ; as he might have said: `I know a baby from a blunderbuss ,” or, `I know a catfish from a croquet-hoop.’” 

Also, in a play Shakespeare wrote six years before Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff says, “My buckler cut through and through, my sworde hackt like a handsaw ecce signum [literally, “behold the sign,” as in “the proof’s in the pudding”].” Dillard assures us: “(you can tell / The difference).” In a poem about differences and similarities, even among the odds and ends in a shoebox, Dillard concludes with mundane reality: “this day, / Another day like every day / Like no other.”

Monday, January 26, 2015

`Darkness Evenly Underlying the Brightness'

“A slight motion caught my eye, and I glanced up at the darkened corner of the window, to be fixed with horror. There, standing on the air outside the window, translucent, a few lines merely, and scarcely visible, was a face, my face, the eyes fixed upon my own.” 

Poe? Lovecraft? Some other neo-gothic hack? No, a very different sort of writer, one who respected the seductive power of madness and the irrational without succumbing to their Romantic charms. On these two sentences pivots Yvor Winters’ only published work of fiction, “The Brink of Darkness,” published in 1932 (collected in Selected Poems, ed. Thom Gunn, Library of America, 2003), soon after his repudiation of  free verse and embrace of poetic form. One suspects Winters’ story is deeply autobiographical, though not in the banal sense. His friend Hart Crane, whom he called “a saint of the wrong religion,” took his life that year, and Winters dedicated the rest of his life to a critical and poetic project he summed up in In Defense of Reason (1947): “The poem is a statement in words about a human experience.” 

An essential quality of sanity is recognition of its proximity to madness. Like Dr. Johnson, Winters was never complacent when it came to soundness of mind, especially his own. As Winters puts it in “The Brink of Darkness”: “It was as if there were darkness evenly underlying the brightness of the air.” In his introduction, Gunn says of his teacher’s story, “the emotional impact of the events described exceeds any rational explanation.” One wishes Winters had written more fiction. The theme of sanity and its absence is central to our post-Romantic era. A statement he made in In Defense of Reason seems more apt than ever: “A psychological theory which justifies the freeing of emotions and which holds rational understanding in contempt appears to be sufficient to break the minds of a good many men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously.” 

Winters, born on Oct. 17, 1900, in Chicago, died on Jan. 25, 1968. Gunn concludes his introduction with a moving tribute to his friend, a poet unlike himself: “For all his respect for the rules of poetry, it is not the Augustan decorum he came to admire but the Elizabethan, the energy of Nashe, Greville, Gascoigne, and Donne, plain speakers of little politeness.” Winters remains one of the few essential poets and critics of the twentieth century.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

`No Ink in the World, or No Blood in His Flesh'

“`...your self is always evolving,’ says Desan. `He doesn’t believe in the frozen self. ... As Montaigne tells you, what I say today is different from what I say tomorrow. But that does not mean that what I say tomorrow is better than what I say today.’” 

Such a rarity, a French-born academic who gets Montaigne. Speaking is Philippe Desan, a professor in Romance languages and literature at the University of Chicago and general editor of Montaigne Studies. His audience is a class of students at the Center in Paris, the University of Chicago’s base in Europe. The writer, Carrie Golus, notes: 

Of the 108 essays Montaigne wrote during his life—`As Montaigne tells you,’ says Desan, `he will only stop when there will be no ink in the world, or no blood in his flesh’—the students were assigned four for today’s class, `To the Reader,’ `Of Books,’ `Of Giving the Lie,’ and his final work, `Of Experience.’” 

In darker moments, I weaken and come to suspect that the essay as a form has been all downhill since Montaigne invented it in the sixteenth century. I can’t think of another literary form that started at so high a level of accomplishment (I know, I know, Plutarch, Seneca and Yoshida Kenkō are wonderful, but something else entirely). But for three or four conspicuous exceptions, the essay today when not brain-dead is prostituted. Sad that a form so elastic, so accommodating of varied gifts, so perfectly expressive of the human species, is permitted to rot from within. Of course, progress of any sort is always a flattering fallacy. Montaigne writes in “Of Books” (trans. Donald Frame): 

“If this book wearies me, I take up another; and I apply myself to it only at moments when the boredom of doing nothing begins to grip me. I do not take much to modern books, because the ancient ones seem to me fuller and stronger.” 

As Desan says of Montaigne, “He doesn’t believe in the frozen self.” He writes as our contemporary and as the contemporary of Plutarch and Seneca. Never chaotic, never arbitrary in the flow of his thought, Montaigne’s prose mirrors his sensibility. The membrane between books and life, his and ours, is highly permeable. Writing in 1918 in his journal, The Gray Notebook (New York Review Books, 2013), the Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981) observes: 

“I never tire of reading Montaigne’s Essays. I spend hours and hours with them at night in bed. They have a calming, sedative effect and usher in a delightful rest. Montaigne’s wit almost never runs dry; he is endlessly full of surprises. One source of surprise derives from Montaigne’s precise estimation of the insignificant position man occupies on earth.”

Saturday, January 24, 2015

`One Place in the World'

“Libraries are not made; they grow. Your first two thousand volumes present no difficulty, and cost astonishingly little money. Given £400 and five years, and an ordinary man can in the ordinary course, without undue haste or putting any pressure upon his taste, surround himself with this number of books, all in his own language, and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.” 

In “Book Buying” (Obiter Dicta, Second Series, 1896), Augustine Birrell speaks not of the institutional but the personal library, the books on the shelves in our home. To call them a library today sounds pretentious, a nouveau riche striving after culture, though etymologically correct. The snob appeal of books can never be underestimated. I once interviewed a bookstore owner who sold bulk orders of volumes to two sorts of customers – movie production people seeking books as props, a sort of classy-looking wallpaper, and home owners who wanted that Bookish Retro Modern look. Silly but perfectly understandable. Most pleasing in the Birrell passage is his equation of books and happiness, a library as a sanctuary. It sounds romantic or sentimental but I share the sentiment. Birrell goes on: 

“It is no doubt a pleasant thing to have a library left you. The present writer will disclaim no such legacy, but hereby undertakes to accept it, however dusty. But good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one. Each volume then, however lightly a stranger's eye may roam from shelf to shelf, has its own individuality, a history of its own. You remember where you got it, and how much you gave for it; and your word may safely be taken for the first of these facts, but not for the second.” 

Most of my books I acquired one or two at a time across more than half a century. Just this week a reader here in Texas mailed me a copy of The Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov, a book I haven’t read since soon after it was published in 1980. When I read it again, it will be as though the volume carried an addendum, a supplemental chapter, because along with Shalamov’s chronicle of life in a Soviet labor camp I’ll think of my friend in Dallas. Each book on my shelf, in addition to its printed contents, is a story in itself, some of which I no longer clearly remember. Birrell suggests further that our books, in turn, assume a collective identity, just as the inhabitants of an ant colony function as a sort of mega-organism. To use Birrell’s example, Shakespeare chats with Milton – until our library is dispersed, probably with our deaths, and is pulped, sold piecemeal or gratefully (or otherwise) inherited. He writes: 

“They will form new combinations, lighten other men's toil, and soothe another's sorrow. Fool that I was to call anything mine!”

Friday, January 23, 2015

`It Makes Me Feel Light and Free'

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” 

I remembered Dr. Johnson’s happy thought, as reported by Boswell, while reading The Gray Notebook by the Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981). I had never heard of Pla before this week nor have I read any other work translated from Catalan. New York Review Books in 2013 performed a service to English-language readers and published Peter Bush’s translation of the journal Pla began keeping on his twenty-first birthday, on March 8, 1918, and maintained for twenty months until he became the Paris correspondent for a Barcelona newspaper. In his first entry he writes: “I’ll write whatever happens — simply to pass the time — come what may.” Pla revised his journal throughout his life, adding layers of thought and recollection, and polishing the prose, and didn’t publish it until 1966, as part of the forty-five volumes of his complete works. Most of his work consists of journalism, travel writing and other nonfiction. In the passage that reminded me of Johnson’s observation, Pla writes of his home town, Palafrugell, on Spain’s northeastern coast: “Gervasi’s on plaça Nova is one of the most pleasant taverns in town to drop by. The wine is usually good and the company is agreeable.” 

Pla goes on to describe the central role taverns play in Catalonian life, and while doing so reveals his pride in being a provincial. He betrays no sense of cultural inferiority, though neither is he a nationalist, Catalan or otherwise. Even as a young man, Pla seems without pretensions: 

“To write the history of Gervasi’s tavern would be to write the history of my beloved birthplace. It would be a peculiar history because, apart from being very short, all that would stand out would be the absence of glorious deeds or famous people. Many people, I suspect, would find this lack of brilliance depressing. Personally, I am delighted to have been born in a town that has produced no redeemer, no connoisseur of exotic sensations, no stentorian preacher. It makes me feel light and free.” 

Pla would make ideal company in a tavern. His mind is practical, not given to theory. He is amused by life, not outraged. He pays studious attention to his surroundings and the way people speak. In all of this he reminds me of Sir John Hawkins’ report in his Life of Johnson (1787): 

“In contradiction to those, who, having a wife and children, prefer domestic enjoyments to those which a tavern affords, I have heard [Dr. Johnson] assert, that a tavern-chair was the throne of human felicity.—`As soon,’ said he, `as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience an oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude: when I am seated, I find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to my call; anxious to know and ready to supply my wants: wine there exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love: I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight.’”