Thursday, June 29, 2017

`We Are Ignorant About the Future'

“It is a sad moment in life when man feels that he no longer inspires anything. The great desire of man, the great motivation for his deeds, his words, his judgments, his behavior until old age, is to inspire, to communicate something of himself to his audience or listeners.”

The supreme irony of a life extravagantly compounded of ironies is Leopardi’s industriousness. In his thirty-eight years, two things remained constant: pain and work. A hunchback, he suffered from scoliosis, rickets and asthma, and he seldom stopped writing and “communicat[ing] something of himself.” At 2,592 pages, the recent English translation of his prose miscellany, Zibaldone, is the heaviest book in my library not a dictionary. The passage above dates from July 1, 1827. In the previous entry from the same date, Leopardi proposes a rather sinister thought experiment:

“That everyone believes our life consists of more pain than pleasure, more ill than good, is demonstrated by this experiment. I asked many people whether they would be happy to relive their life over again, on condition that they relived it exactly as they had done before. I have often asked myself the same question. As for starting over again, I and everyone else would be very happy, but no one would do so on that condition; rather than agree to that, everyone answered (as I did to myself) that they would do without that return to their early years which, in and of itself, would be so welcome to everyone. In order to return to childhood, they would want to place themselves blindly in the hands of fortune in the way that their life was to be lived again, and not know how it would be, in the same way as we are unaware what will happen to us for the rest of our life. What does this mean? It means that in the life that we have lived, and which we know, all of us have certainly experienced more ill than good; and that if we are happy, and we still desire to live, this is only because we are ignorant about the future, and have an illusion of hope, without which illusion and ignorance we would no longer wish to live, as we would not wish to relive our life in the same way as we have already lived it.”

This sounds like the mad, obsessive logic of a Beckett narrator. In Proust (1931), Beckett approves of Leopardi’s “wisdom that consists not in the satisfaction but in the ablation of desire.” Beckett quotes two lines from “A se stesso” (“To himself”): “In noi di cari inganni, / Non che la speme, il desiderio e` spento.” (“Not only our hope / but our desire for dear illusions is gone.” Canti, trans. Jonathan Galassi, 2010). But Leopardi’s reasoning and deportment recall another physically and spiritually tormented writer, Dr. Johnson. The Rambler #134 begins with the familiar trope of a writer unable to write and incrementally broadens his vision:

“Those moments which he cannot resolve to make useful, by devoting them to the great business of his being, will still be usurped by powers that will not leave them to his disposal; remorse and vexation will seize upon them, and forbid him to enjoy what he is so desirous to appropriate.”  

Giacomo Leopardi was born on this date, June 29, in 1798. The Rambler #134 was published on this date in 1751.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

`The Peccant Part'

Not for the first time a rare and useful word shows up twice, in two books, on the same day. On this date, June 28, in 1728, Pope writes in a letter to Swift, referring to Lord Bolingbroke:

“Upon his return from the Bath, all peccant humours, he finds, are purged out of him; and his great temperance and economy are so signal, that the first, is fit for my constitution, and the latter, would enable you to lay up so much money, as to buy a bishoprick in England.” (Alexander Pope: Selected Letters, ed. Howard Erskine-Hill, 2000)

Pope is staying in Bolingbroke’s villa at Dawley, near Uxbridge. With Swift he relaxes his customary formality, and he goes on to express pleasure in his soon-to-be-published Dunciad. The word is peccant. It echoes in my head with piquant, but that’s a cul-de-sac. The etymology in the OED is uncertain and feeds on both Latin and French, but the meaning is clear: “unhealthy, corrupt, diseased; causing disease. Formerly esp. of a bodily humour.” Which explains the reference to Bath, where since the days of the Romans one took the therapeutic waters. In Pickwick Papers, when John Smauker asks Sam Weller about the taste of the waters at Bath, Weller replies: “I thought they’d a wery strong flavour o’ warm flat irons.” The dictionary cites a figurative usage of the word in the “Baltimore” chapter in The American Scene by Henry James: “One feels that no community can really be as purged of peccant humours as the typical American has for the most part found itself foredoomed to look.”

The second reference I found in English Wits (1940), edited by Leonard Russell. The premise is simple – contemporary wits (Dilys Powell, Ernest Newman) write about their favorite wits of the past (Pope, Sydney Smith). Monsignor Ronald Knox, author of Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (1950), chooses to write wittily about Dr. Johnson: “To call Johnson a wit is a curiously inadequate definition of him. If anyone should study his life with the idea of cultivating the art of repartee, the effect would be disastrous.” What follows is a quick rundown of Johnson’s greatest conversational hits, including this:

“When somebody defends Dominicetti’s vapour baths, `Well, Sir, go to Dominicetti, and get thyself fumigated, but be sure that the steam be directed to thy head, for that is the peccant part.’”

The reference is to the entry for Oct. 26, 1769, in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. On that night, Boswell tells us, “Dr. Johnson was in very good humour, lively, and ready to talk upon all subjects,” and peccant brings us back to baths. Boswell writes:   

“Dominicetti, being mentioned, he would not allow him any merit. `There is nothing in all this boasted system. No, Sir; medicated baths can be no better than warm water: their only effect can be that of tepid moisture.’ One of the company took the other side, maintaining that medicines of various sorts, and some too of most powerful effect, are introduced into the human frame by the medium of the pores; and, therefore, when warm water is impregnated with salutiferous substances, it may produce great effects as a bath. This appeared to me very satisfactory. Johnson did not answer it; but talking for victory, and determined to be master of the field, he had recourse to the device which Goldsmith imputed to him in the witty words of one of Cibber's comedies: `There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.’”

That’s when Johnson turns on the unnamed gentleman who had the temerity to defend Dominicetti’s quackery, and suggests he steam his head, “the peccant part.” Boswell concludes: “This produced a triumphant roar of laughter from the motley assembly of philosophers, printers, and dependents, male and female.”

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

`The Clarity Varies'

“I suppose what really guides me when I’m writing about anything is rhythm. Words come up and whether they’re right or not probably depends largely on whether I think they are when I write them down.”

Prose writers don’t talk much about the rhythm of their words. That’s probably a good thing. Prose is the draft horse of style, getting the heavy job done. Too much filigree and the language turns precious. The reader rightly suspects the writer is compensating for sparsity of content. Words are never in isolation, and are more like notation in a musical score than stones in a mosaic. One word follows another according to the logic of sound and sense. We spend a lot of time matching words to the rhythm that already exists in our heads, a rhythm we can’t begin to perceive until we start organizing the words. Sometimes for emphasis we purposely break the rhythm, always with resolution or absence of resolution in mind.    

The passage at the top is taken from an interview C.H. Sisson gave to Nicolas Tredell, collected in Conversations with Critics (Carcanet, 1994). Sisson was a poet and accomplished critic and essayist who often cited Charles Maurras: “Reason may convince, but it is rhythm that persuades.” In the interview, speaking of poetry, Sisson says, “The kind of free verse I’ve written is all against a background of ordinary scansion. . . . I have no use for the sort of free verse that is so free you can’t tell it’s verse at all.” Think how this observation might apply to prose. Later, when the interviewer asks Sisson about the purported obscurity of his poetry, Sisson says:

“The trouble is I don’t think about what I’m writing. I write what I write at the time and looking back, the clarity varies.”

Seasoned writers know that writing often seems to come from some obscure place beyond his understanding. If a writer surrenders to it, he produces rubbish (automatic writing, “spontaneous bop prosody”). If he ignores it, paralysis and sterility set in. Each tempers the other. Sisson was an industrious translator, beginning with Heine, followed by The Poems of Catullus (1966). About it he says to the interviewer:

“I’d written quite a bit by then, but I  was still hankering after some kind of directness and plainness, and I thought it would help to go to something so blindingly clear as Catullus.”     

In 1965, Sisson published an essay on the Dorset poet William Barnes (1801-1886), who often wrote in dialect. Sisson says Barnes was “not a local poet except by accident,” one who “exploited the natural speech of his boyhood.” He writes: “His use of dialect probably enabled him to maintain his liberty of feeling amidst the uncomprehending pressures he must have faced from his social superiors. Barnes is not there to encourage a factitious oddity, but on the contrary to demonstrate that the poet has to develop in a straight line from his origins, and that the avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants to tell the truth.”

When Sisson published his collected essays in 1978, including the piece on Barnes, he titled the volume The Avoidance of Literature.

Monday, June 26, 2017

`It Is a Great Pity'

“If one remembers, after eighteen years, the time, the weather and the exact place of one’s first encounter with the work of a particular writer, it is safe to say that writer produced an initial effect. If, after that time, one is still reading him with pleasure as well as admiration, it may be that the total effect has been one of those real adjustments of mind which even the most omnivorous reader can expect from only a few writers.”

C.H. Sisson’s observation, in his 1949 review of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (collected in The Avoidance of Literature, 1978), stands as a general truth despite my aversion to Pound and his work. Across a lifetime of industrious reading we encounter the words of thousands of writers. How is it that we adopt a handful as family members, discovering kinship and nurturing it for decades? We may recognize they are not the “greatest” writers, but like family we remain loyal and protective despite their failings. They answer our most private needs as readers and people – qualities we may be unable to recognize or articulate. On this brief, eccentric list, which I have no interest in defending, are Sisson, Dr. Johnson, Chekhov, Yvor Winters, Guy Davenport, A.J. Liebling, Philip Larkin and a writer much admired by Sisson, Ford Madox Ford.

I read Ford for the first time in 1971 – The Good Soldier, of course, the only Ford novel most people ever read -- in a survey class on the Modern English Novel. The instructor was an angry, fashion-conscious narcissist who went on to write too many unreadably “postmodern” novels. But I owe him Ford. It says something that the only other novel on the reading list I can recall is Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. The following summer I read Arthur Mizener’s just-published biography of Ford, The Saddest Story. Soon I added the Parade’s End tetralogy, The Fifth Queen trilogy (despite a distaste for historical fiction), Provence, The March of Literature, his remembrances of Conrad and other writers, various memoirs and travelogues. Last year I read for the first time a good novel from 1933, The Rash Act. Ford published more than eighty books. In forty-six years I’ve read about half of them.

Ford died on this date, June 26, in 1939. In The March of Literature, the last book he published during his life, Ford writes a moving tribute to Dr. Johnson, a man with whom he must have felt substantial literary and personal kinship (“an old man mad about writing”):

“But ten years’ rest and the getting into his head of a conversational rhythm and a vocabulary comprehensible to most of the cultivated men of his day had on Johnson the effect of evolving a style that was at once sufficiently learned to save his face and sufficiently actual to let us read his Lives of the Poets with pleasure even in these anti-Latinistic days. It is a work that, had there been no Boswell, must have been a resounding monument to this great man. As it is, it stands almost forgotten like an Aztec temple lost in South American [sic] undergrowths. It is a great pity.”

Sunday, June 25, 2017

`A Paean to Spontaneity'

“Dave Brubeck—listening to Jazz at Oberlin. It’s the CD version of the old vinyl album by the same name, which was recorded, as the notes scrupulously inform us, in 1953. Listening to Brubeck’s and Paul Desmond’s insane improvisations, I relive a great shiver of joy and liberation from years past—this was one of my finest jazz albums, a gem in my little collection back in my high school days—that is to say, I felt this shiver some ten years after the concert was recorded at Oberlin College in Ohio.”

The jazz lover is Adam Zagajewski in Slight Exaggeration (trans. Clare Cavanagh, 2017). Born in Lwów in 1945, the future poet in 1963 would have been living in Gliwice in Upper Silesia, Poland, after his family was expelled from Ukraine. With pleasing synchronicity, Jazz at Oberlin was recorded in March 1953, the month Stalin died. Jazz in Poland, as in the rest of the Soviet Bloc, was officially condemned as Western and decadent, and banned from the radio. Musicians and fans could hear the music thanks to Willis Conover’s Voice of America Jazz Hour and records smuggled in from the West. In 1958, Brubeck and his classic quartet (Desmond on alto, Eugene Wright on bass, Joe Morello on drums) performed in Poland as part of a U.S. Department of State tour of Europe and Asia. Zagajewski continues:

“Those improvisations, those wild blocks of sound, blocks Brubeck created, so it seems, by scaling piano chords up the highest mountain, haven’t aged a bit. The audience, the students’ emotional reaction. Today those students must be comfortably retired, bored, living in Florida.”

Describing the recording of “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” on the album, Doug Ramsey writes in Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond (Parkside Publications, 2005): “Desmond sets the bar high for himself and the group. His flow of ideas through faultlessly executed double-time passages is fueled by rhythm that jets from somewhere inside him to contrast with the stately accompaniment of the rhythm section. His energy sets up Brubeck to glide into a solo of extraordinary melodic and rhythmic invention.”

How that must have sounded to a kid in post-Stalinist Poland, hungry for lyricism, energy and freedom, the very antithesis of drab, dull, dead life under communism.  
In an earlier prose collection, Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination (trans. Lillian Vallee, 1995), Zagajewski recounts saving money to buy two records, by Brubeck and Charlie Parker:

“To me, jazz was a paean to spontaneity, even to freedom. Meanwhile, the city in which I happened to live was full of conventions, endured by dint of convention. I rebelled against it and looked for support to jazz saxophone players, usually no longer living American Negroes.” 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

`Close to Being a Devil, at Times to Sainthood'

From Jörg Baberowski’s Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror (Yale University Press, 2016):

“Stalin was a violent criminal. His murderous excesses had to continuously increase in intensity because every misdeed performed compelled subsequent action. Once someone had been arrested and tortured, the chances of ever being released were slim. A survivor would have been a visible representation of Stalin’s cruelty, a reminder to the dictator that there were people who would never forget what had been done to them. Stalin never forgot.”

Baberowski then recounts the fate of Genrikh Yagoda, an enthusiastic murderer and director of the NKVD from 1934 to 1937. In March 1937, he was arrested and charged with such make-believe crimes as diamond smuggling and working as a German agent since 1917, and was even accused of poisoning Maxim Gorky and his son. In March 1938, in another of Stalin’s show trials, Yagoda was found guilty of treason and conspiracy, and summarily shot, as was his wife. Baberowski writes:

“In June 1937, after the fall of Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin ordered Yagoda’s entire retinue as well as all his people in the NKVD shot in the Dmitrovsk labor camp. Their corpses were to be deposited near the former NKVD leader’s dacha, as a reminder that clients rose and fell with their patrons. Genghis Khan was said to have claimed that the victor could not live in peace until he had killed the vanquished. Whether this is true or not it apparently struck a chord with Stalin, as he underlined it in a history of Eurasian conquest he had read.”

Please read Baberowski’s book. Stalin is more than a safely dead museum piece, embalmed in forgetfulness, from whom we’ve learned a lasting lesson. Nothing stops a man like him from thriving in our world. No one is immune. Happy thoughts count for nothing. Smaller-scale Stalins, dreaming their grandiose dreams, will always walk the streets. Baberowski’s portrait recalls a well-known passage in The Gulag Archipelago – Part I, Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps”:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

“During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

“Socrates taught us: `Know thyself.’

“Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.

“From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.

“And correspondingly, from evil to good.”

Friday, June 23, 2017

`Reread, Reread'

Taste in books must be fickle before it can be enduring. Few of us fall lastingly in love with anything (sheer numbers are against it), and infatuation is overrated. The reading life more closely resembles a string of one-night-stands than long-term commitment, especially for those who read a book once and throw it away. It takes some of us forever to spurn Hemingway and set up house with Henry James. Here is James Michie’s “Good Books, Bad Times” (Collected Poems, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994):

“Good books in bad times (for all loyalty ends)
Can turn their backs on you, like close friends
Who don’t know half the truth, and from the shelf
Cut dead the miserable anorexic self
That’s lost its appetite for words, that finds
Print inflicts snow-dazzle, and the mind’s
Capsized by logic, and one paragraph
Of the funniest man on earth can’t raise a laugh.
To stop loving, or being loved, is to stop
Reading, is to stop. Woodland becomes backdrop
And weather mere performance. Then books stare
Like stuffed predators with a blameless air
Of enmity.
        Men, women, you dog-eared lovers
With wine-stained pages and much drabber covers
Than when you were brightly bought, before you secede
From the old union, reread, reread.”

I knew James Michie (1927-2007) as the translator of Martial and Horace but he was a poet in his own right, a friend and colleague of Kingsley Amis. I’ve remained immune to the malady he describes. I’m often fed up with individual writers and books but never with reading (sheer numbers are against it). No, not all loyalty ends. Some has hardly started. I read William James’ The Principles of Psychology many years ago (at the suggestion of Steven Millhauser), but have hardly scratched at the twelve volumes of his letters. And I still haven’t gotten around to Browning’s poetry and The Tale of Genji. As Michie reminds us: “reread, reread.” Fourteen years have passed since I last read The Golden Bowl.