Literature, Close Bosom Friend
B-Spirit Cafe, Where the Elite Meet
TRACK THIS GUY . . . A Victorian Wanderer: The Life of Thomas Arnold the Younger tells how he went agnostic at Oxford even with (later Cardinal) Newman there, turned Catholic in New Zealand, where he had flopped as a farmer and had the devil's own time feeding his eight kids; re-turned Anglican at Oxford, where he had caught a good teaching job on return from New Z.; re-turned Catholic (losing the good job), which tore it for his wife, who left him; died Catholic in Dublin married to a second wife whom he had married when the first one died.
WINNING AT WRITING . . . “Prizes usually prejudice discerning readers against the works which win them: they confer the stamp of conformity to committee-taste,” said Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Times Literary Supplement 12/5/03.
MOTHER, MAY I? . . . Chicago fiction writer Stuart Dybek and other writers at a symposium of sorts say Studs Lonigan’s creator James T. Farrell gave them "permission" to write about working-class Chicago neighborhoods.
Yes, you hear that sort of thing at authors’ panels. But who gave them permission to talk that way? It’s him I have a bone to pick with. Down with authors' panels, which are full of mutual admiration and heads nodding agreement with each other. You can take so much mutual admiration without throwing up.
LITERATURE . . . In Lectures on the English Poets, William Hazlitt speaks of the Romantic, revolutionary school of "poetry and philanthropy," using the latter word much as J. Barzun uses it in The House of Intellect: How intellect, the prime force in Western civilization, is being destroyed by our culture in the name of art, science and philanthropy (Harper & Brothers, 1959). In this excellent book, Barzun presents philanthropy as militating against intellect, much as we contrast intellect and emotions, though we do not want to reduce his concept to truism. In this respect, Barzun's philanthropy is touch and feel over mind -- matter over mind, we might say.
HISTORY . . . Christopher Columbus possessed "ardent temper and inventive genius . . . thorough knowledge of mankind, an insinuating [pleasing, persuasive] address [manner of speaking]," and other marks of a great man, without which the project would not have been completed, says William Robertson in his 1771 History of America, excerpted in W. Peacock, ed., English Prose, (Oxford, 1921).
He regularly "reckoned short" the distance they had gone, for instance, lest the crew panic at realizing how far they were from home. When the crew threatened mutiny, he persuaded them to wait three days, knowing from his own calculations that they were less than three days from sighting land.
TLS SLIPPING? . . . I am worried about the new TLS (Times Literary Supplement), whose covers now feature writers not subjects, as in "Barry Humphries, [writing about] A Conder Fan," and spot-quote overly allusive lines from a review or essay, as in "[Pauline Kael] actually had a heart attack while watching a movie -- think how the director must have felt," in an essay by "John Boorman on the critics." (2/21/03 issue)
This is Sunday-supplement puffery, actually (!) appalling in a publication that has remained above the easily and cheaply smooth. We are supposed to dig immediately for the rest of what John Boorman said? Why?
Trite inside headlines do not help either, as "Back to da Vinci's drawing board." This is meant to make this review more accessible, as they say? Make us more comfortable?
Or the head for a review of a life of St. Augustine, whose birthplace Tagaste in North Africa is now Souk Ahras, in Algeria, this head: "Sage of Souk Ahras." Augustine's see city or town, Hippo, as in Augustine of Hippo, where he won his spurs as a wise man, is now Annaba, also in Algeria. But "sage of Annaba"? Not as catchy.
I will be keeping an eye out for reviewing to match those headlines. One by the editor a few issues back made me wonder: a bit slick for my TLS taste. If I find more of that, the children can pool their gift money next Xmas and buy me a new overcoat instead.
TLS SPOTS DOGGEREL, SINKS SAME . . . Meanwhile, all is not lost by any means. J.C., author of the N.B. column (yes), continues to discover creative versifying and comes up with Michael Farrell's upper-case-challenged new volume ode ode [sic sic] and its poem "extension 34" [also sic], with these lines (and let Wordsworth weep):
[reduced font size, sic] living at the z extension 34 [reduced]
tho_ning to race [reduced] or to worry [reduced]
cone i saw in loviewth d_blin [reduced] man [reduced]
tun my [reduced] nut [reduced] au grow [reduced] me [reduced] idea
J.C. tells us Farrell won the 1999 Harri Jones Memorial Prize (to an Australian poet 35 and younger), "from which we deduce that a readership exists for whom his is the acme of clarity." J.C. adds his (plaintive) plea for "one of their number [to] step forward to share their understanding with us." As they say in Parliament, hear, hear.
TLS TIP: GRIM FUN . . . "Freelance" column by the poet and essayist Hugo Williams deals neatly with takers of potshots at the poet (the late) Philip Larkin. The poet Seamus Heaney has picked on him for being negative, exhibiting his own "kind of saintly humourlessness [that] will always be at odds with Larkin's brand of cool." Some find Larkin's "gloom wit more sustaining" than Heaney's "relentlessly positive and affirming attitude," said Williams, quoting a Peter McDonald in the latter half of that sentence.
He got going on Larkin having seen actor Tom Courtenay's rendition of Larkin in a West End (London) theatre. Courtenay, who among many film roles played opposite Albert Finney at least twice, more recently in "An English Kind of Marriage" and is in a league with the marvelous Finney, portrayed Larkin "as a lovable old fart for New Age taste. But for Williams, the beauty of Larkin's work is "in the bleakness." He combines "humour and melancholy" so well as to make them "almost the same thing."
With Larkin "the effect is all his own," said Williams, which makes me want to read him. Which I will do. Which will give me great pleasure.
MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY . . . . One of my literary groups had a poetry reading last night. One of the poets, a philosophy teacher at Lewis U., Joliet, delivered quite a diatribe against child rape. Not that anyone was defending it. He was rather plumbing the depths of a victim's feelings.
In his poem the victim was an 11-year-old girl whom someone, maybe her father (it wasn't clear), tied with "bungee cords" to facilitate the foul deed. Our poet kept repeating her age and the part about the bungee cords, using a small voice that raised the bathos level to near-excruciating heights (even as he plumbed depths -- see above).
I looked behind me at some of the 15 or so Joliet West High School honor students who comprised 3/4 of the audience (our regular members, sunshine poetry lovers, mostly stayed away) and saw girls sitting as if in shock, which they might have been in.
This philosophy teacher, recipient a few years back of a statewide award for his teaching, was laying it on very thick and very histrionically, raising and lowering his voice for effect. It was a true classroom performance indeed.
Before this rape poem, he read, or performed, his prayer for pain, in which he professed his desire to feel the world's pain. "Your pain . . . his pain," everybody's pain, without specifying anything.
He delivered these two poems before I got up, deposited my (empty) wine glass on the sideboard, and slunk away. One was about pain, the other about rape. It was therefore an inductive performance, moving from general to particular, which is just like a philosopher.
My question is, did the pain he want to feel include the Joliet West students' and mine, experienced during his performance? Forget it. Unfair question. Art, my dear, has bigger fish to fry. (2003-02-12)
TRYING HARDER . . . From Times Literary Supplement, 8/9/02, these wise words about 19th-century English life: "[T]he fact that a dynamic industrial and commercial society simultaneously took an interest in propagating civic values that emphasized religion, public service and a respect for learning is testimony more to its ambition than its hypocrisy.
"Victorian political language was moralistic, and concepts of gentlemanliness and of idealized, deferential womanhood -the Angel in the House -were widespread, because they were intended to be exemplary.
"It was important both for respectable individuals and for political leaders to uphold these ideals, because the reality of much Victorian life fell short of them. Like all improving projects, the Victorian mission failed in some of its objectives and is open to satire. Yet it left behind it institutions of government and public finance, and a civil, military and police service, that engendered as much social trust as any in the world. "
That's U. of Cambridge historian Jonathan Parry reviewing The Victorians: An age in retrospect (Hambledon & London), by John Gardiner.
Anyhow, as La Rochefoucauld said in 1678 (thanks to Bartleby.com), "Hypocrisy is an homage that vice renders to virtue." [1/17/03]
CRITICS . . . Does impoliteness not go with the role of critic? Where would Mencken be as a giant of politesse? And so what if Byron apologized much for cheap shots in his "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," do we not still read it and the apologizing footnotes that go with it? Will there be no more Dunciads once politeness rules?
Probably, which means it won't happen. Still, we can't all be Byrons or Drydens, and most of us are probably well advised to slow down and make our points as reasonably as possible. "Be kind, be kind, be kind," admonished my long-ago religion teacher when I sat with him a few years before he died a year or so ago. Great advice, which he lived up to, but it's asking a lot sometimes. Like when discussing that s.o.b. I met yesterday at the Wal-Mart. Let me tell you about that guy . . .
CURIOSITIES . . . (1) POETIC: The world apparently needs yet another defence of poesie a la Phil Sidney and P.B. Shelley et al., if one is to judge by the letter from a Northbrook couple protesting the recent big, big money gift to Poetry magazine.
"What about research money for illnesses threatening humankind?" asked Beth and Howard Preis (Chi Trib, 11/29/02). "What about money to help save the environment for future generations? What about money for the FBI and CIA to help rid the world of terrorism? What about funding for floundering schools?"
To this plea for suffering humanity, my friend Jake (not his real name) responds with as much sensitivity as he can dredge up for the occasion: "The Preis family can sell their Northbook house or condo if they own one, take out enough to pay rent for a modest place in Highwood or Forest Park, and endow a soup kitchen with the rest. That way they can light a candle instead of cursing the darkness."
Having said that, Jake found himself inordinately pleased with himself and resolved to put a lid on it for a while.
HERE'S SOMETHING IN YOUR EYE . . . . Scottish novelist and playwright Alan Spence offers this shot of Glasgow Zen in his recently published collection of haiku and other short poems, reports columnist J.C. in the 8/23/02 Times Literary Supplement:
"Why did the chicken cross the road?/ To glorify God and enjoy Him forever./ What is man's chief end?/ To get to the other side."
There's more, but Spence and J.C. lost me with it. I'm just an intellectually deprived Irish kid from the West Side, so I don't always get everything.
TEMPTING ANYHOW . . . "Tis pleasant, sure, to see one's name in print;/ A Book's a Book, altho there's nothing in't."
-- Byron, "English Bards & Scotch Reviewers"
CULTURE VULTURES . . . -- 11/25/02 -- Three "dogmas" not questioned by anthropologists during Roger Sandall's career have been (1) that "each culture is a semi-sacred creation, (2) all cultures are equally valuable and must never be compared, and (3) the assimilation of cultures (especially . . . of primitive culture by a secular civilisation coldly indifferent to spiritual things) is supremely wicked," says Ramond Tallis in 8/16/02 Times Literary Supplement. He was reviewing Sandall's The Culture Cult (Westview), in which S. pecks away at "designer tribalism" and other appurtenances of this fashion.
"The palm for lunacy" in the pursuit of tribal wisdom goes to "the highly respected economic historian," Karl Polanyi, who was so impressed by 18th century Dahomey's "control and command economy" that he recommended it for the 20th century. This even though the king of Dahomey had 2,000 wives and had assigned "large numbers" of other women to service men in general. This Dahomey boy also had "an elaborate system of state spies" and took no prisoners he did not systematically slaughter.
Don't say it's disgusting and utterly reprehensible, however; in the Dahomey culture it was how things were done, and we dasn't criticize.
SLAVES . . . On the contrary, say imperialism did it. At its (our) doorstep lie African "mass enslavement and genocide." This was true of the Belgians in Congo, but then only with "extensive native collaboration" based on tribalism and family ties as operating against "any sense of abstract justice or universal rights." Indeed, most slaves were captured and sold because of Africans' greed and rapacity. Few opposed Europeans in this execrable commerce.
On the other hand, sometimes the Euros stepped in to stop slavery, as in India, where the English identified 10 million (!) slaves in an 1841 census and in 1862 outlawed slave-owning. "Romantic primitivists" tend to forget this, says Tallis. Not to mention reparations-seekers in the U.S., we might add.
COMMUNE-ISM . . . "Tribal collectivism" as tried in the U.S. -- in the utopian experiments, New Harmony, Oneida, and Cold Mountain Farm, with common ownership of property, women and children -- led to "recrimination and destitution."
In the excellent Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome (Cornell, 1997), by Emory U's Patrick Allitt, we read that artist Eric Gill and friends kept their communes going in Wales in the 1930s on the strength of their own considerable earning power based on corporate commissions of paintings and sculpture. Gill et al. were distributists in the G.K. Chesterton vein. Gill was quite a Commonweal Magazine contributor in its early days.
Far worse than failed utopias was the approval by British leftist Raymond Williams of Pol Pot's extermination of fellow Cambodians for the sake of his revolution, as told by Tallis. Anything but capitalism, was Williams's position; hence the need to impose "the harshest discipline." Or, recalled by me, as the NY Times man in Moscow said in the 30s, without breaking eggs you get no omelet.
REMOVED . . . Sculptor Gill's monkey (Thomas More's pet), by the way, was excised from his Westminster Cathedral statue of More after his death in 1940. Quietly, without a word to heirs and afficionados.
LIFE AS LIVING . . . Also by the way, Chesterton inveighed against what he saw as the "mechanized" German view of life and saw WW1 as important in putting a stop to the Germanizing of Europe.
WHERE HAVE THEY GONE? . . . "There are no Spartans any more," poet Andrew McNeillie's Greek barber told him. The man had said he's from "Spar-ta." This in the poem "In Defence of Poetry" (Times Literary Supplement 8/16/02).
It needs no defending, he writes, "not even in our empty times. Neglected, it will/ go underground, or into interstellar space.
"Until out of the blue someone calls it up,/ like the Greek who cut my hair last week."
This poet keeps his ears open. His latest book, Now Then, was due out last month but can't be found on Amazon.com.
WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE WANT . . . "I was twenty years old. I sought out writers who would tell me that repression was bad for you, sex was redemptive, a revolution in consciousness was possible. We were looking for daring iconoclastic role models, outlaw intellectuals," critic Morris Dickstein told the minnesota review [sic].
So he and his fellow Columbia U. students doted on "the more apocalyptic figures who came on the scene in the mid-50s." He much liked Norman Mailer's essay, "The White Negro," and his Advertisements for Myself. Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death was "practically a sacred text" when it was published in 1960.
All this went on while they were "getting a mainstream education in the Western tradition" from Columbia's Great Books curriculum (taught, I trust, by Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, which gave them a feel for "the history of social thought, philosophy, economics, politics," with a "very strong historical dimension."
YUCK . . . Death is "an ugly customer, who will not be invited to supper, or to sit for his picture," reports Wm. Hazlitt (1778-1830). So Chaucer suggests death, rather than trying to depict him in detail. "He is with us and about us, but we do not see him," continues Hazlitt. "He stalks on before us, and we do not mind him: he follows us close behind, and we do not turn to look back at him. We do not see him making faces at us in our lifetime, nor perceive him afterwards sitting in mock majesty, a twin-skeleton, beside us, tickling our bare ribs, and staring into our hollow eye balls!"
He goes on to show how Chaucer, knowing this, depicts death. Chaucer dispatches three roisterers to find and kill Death. They meet an old guy who sends them off on an errand on which they all die. The old guy turns out to be Death. It's in the essay "On Chaucer and Spenser," in Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets.
If Chaucer dealt in concretes and showed rather than tell the nature of Death and other subjects, Spenser had a different approach, adding "voluptuousness of sentiment," says Hazlitt, while sending us among "ideal beings" of his rich imagination.
AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL . . . "You're acting just like a Negro. Raging and waiting and crying won't help you. Negroes do that when they are persecuted because of the accident of colour. The accident of sex [gender] is just as bad. And crying is senseless."
That was Richard Wright talking to an American woman with "wavy locks . . . white skin [and] brown eyes" who was getting hysterical at being bullied by her Spanish landlord. He shocked her by talking that way.
It's in his Pagan Spain, published in 1957, well after his Native Son in 1940 and Black Boy in 1945 and just reissued by the University Press of Mississippi. The book is "didactic, like much of his work," says reviewer James Campbell in Times Literary Supplement, 9/6/02. But Wright's Spain is unique, says the reviewer, as is his account of growing up in Mississippi.
Wright had gone travelling in Spain on advice from Gertrude Stein on her death bed. "You'll see the past there," she told him. "You'll see what the Western world is made of."
NOW AND THEN A PUTDOWN (10/1/02) . . . deserves to be put up, on a bulletin board or a web site, wherever there's space. This, from Times Literary Supplement NB column of 9/13/02, is one of those:
Jackdaw, a "newsletter for the visual arts" published in London, takes a jaundiced view of pretentious and fallacious art-gallery nonsense. Of a display of dinner gongs at a new Baltic "arts factory" in Gateshead [sic], Jackdaw quotes the promotional copy:
"The gongs, which can be played by the visitor, evoke the fundamental oppositions and conjunctions of the physical world, with their poetic titles such as Night-Day, Peace-War, Air-Earth and Silence-Heart."
Jackdaw comments: "No they don't, they're gongs dangling from the fucking ceiling."
Spenser . . . In Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queene" (1596), the "Sarazin" (Saracen, Muslim) slain by the Red Cross Knight was Sans Foi (Faithless). He had two bothers, Sans Joi (joyless) and Sans Loi (lawless). Their mother must have been proud.
Finding a man turned into a tree by a sorcerer, the Red Cross Knight urges him to tell how he got that way, arguing in these words:
"He oft finds med'cine who his grief imparts;
But double griefs afflict concealing harts [hearts]."
He had it right: it helps to talk about it.
Waugh . . . Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, had to live "two lives" while his famous, imperious father was alive. It was a strain, which he says was "greatly relieved" by the father's sudden death. Yet even now Auberon misses him when he has a funny story to tell. "Perhaps nobody is completely grown up," he said, "until both his parents are dead."
I GET FROSTED . . . I spoke up last night for privacy. The speaker and her instant adherents in a middle-aged educated audience of 35 or so men and women were lauding Frost's "Mending Wall" -- "Something there is that doesn't love a," etc. -- with insufficient thought (thought I), buying Frost's show of contempt for his benighted neighbor, the believer in walls.
What about privacy? I asked, becoming adversarial. Nothing hostile, mind; the whole was very urbane. There was neither point nor profit in getting mad. But the desire for privacy, dissed by Frost, was the perhaps not entirely welcome opposite opinion of the moment.
I further contemned the poem as trite and "gooey," which got an immediate turnaround from the man in front of me, grinning with delight. Ah-hah, I was not the only one.
The well-versed and very pleasant young woman leading the discussion was there to lead us to the waters of poetic utterance. She couldn't make all of us drink, you have guessed by now. But she got a half dozen others to write and read what they wrote. She produced a veritable parade of instant versifiers, and my hat was off to them. It was quite a show of literacy -- with no diminution of privacy, I should add.
But the young woman, who knew enough to correct herself when she something had happened "literally" (no, metaphorically, she said), nonetheless had espoused what in some circles is known as letting it all hang out. She does in depressed-area elementary schools what she did for us last night, in an exalted area atop a mid-sized Michigan Avenue building -- that is, get the presumably blocked among us to unblock and let the waters flow, telling our inner (not outer) thoughts and giving expression to our (not yet revealed) emotions.
Privacy begone, of course. Her inner-city students have lots to tell, she said. And they feel better if they tell it. She's probably right. And maybe poetry-writing as therapy is a good idea sometimes. But what else happens when teacher says there are no wrong answers, as she tells them and told us, encouraging us to unblock ourselves. That's Rohrshach-testing without a license, I say.
Or for that matter, what of dismissing privacy considerations or making light of the need to mark off boundaries? Joe Blow's right to swing his arm stops at my jaw, unless I came at him and he had to stop me. It gets complicated, and we yearn for simplicity, which is what makes the trite and gooey Robert Frost so attractive. Primitivism, anyone?
FUSSY . . . Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of "Kublai Khan" and "Ancient Mariner" fame, was so little satisfied with his work that when he gave a book of his to a friend, it was with his own changes penciled or inked in. This from Nigel Leask's long, interesting review in TLS 7/5/02 of Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, JCC Mays ed., Princeton U Press.
BITCH GODDESS . . . When best-selling novelist Dean Koontz made his first big sale, writers he knew called to rejoice with him now that he could stop writing. This threw him. His friends in the trades, "as creative as most writers . . . work hard [and] know what life is about," namely, loving what you do, Koontz told Chronicles Mag (April, 2000). They are happier than the writers who called, because it's creating they thrive on, rather than its "aftermath . . . celebrity."
NOVEL IDEA . . . . Edna O'Brien's new novel In the Forest is based on the 1994 murder of a mother and child and priest. She takes the horrible event as symptomatic of Ireland and blames the community for spawning the killer, a much abused young man who had a hard life. It fits with an ongoing theme for O'Brien dating from her first novel, in 1960.
Her point is plausible on its face. The murderer did not come from Mars, he got dealt a bad hand, all things seemed in his case to work together unto bad. But in a novel?
Are works of art to be so explicit in the points they want to make? Are they to be such arguments? Why not simply state and argue your thesis and leave novel-writing to people for whom human events transcend their situation? How about a little more straightforwardness and a little less head-tripping?
YOU CAN'T BE SURE (10/28/02) . . . When a eugenicist suggested George Bernard Shaw and dancer Isidora Duncan have a baby, Shaw reportedly said wait a minute, "it might have my body and her brains." (Jacques Barzun in Dawn to Decadence)