Friday, August 7, 2020

Witcraft in 1901 and 1951 - a distinguished crankologist is prepared to give lessons in this important subject

In 1901, William James gives a series of lectures in Edinburgh that will become The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).  In 1951, Ludwig Wittgenstein dies.  James and Wittgenstein guide us through Witcraft’s English philosophy for almost two hundred and fifty pages (the chapters are getting pretty long).

1901 features more Mill, now a radical and feminist, and more Carlyle, now a hero of the new Labour Party.  Darwin, Spencer and Huxley are dragging philosophy in a new direction, as are Marx and Engels.  The first great philosophical craze, though, as we have discussed before at Wuthering Expectations, is for Arthur Schopenhauer, taken up by every decadent and aesthete, to be followed by the Nietzsche craze.  Also Hegel: “Before long Hegel-worship was taking hold in England too” (393).  In the 1951 chapter, it’s Kierkegaard; in a theoretical 2001 chapter, it would be Sartre and Derrida and various other French writers.  I would not mind reading a literary or book history of received philosophy.  It explains a lot (of what is in novels).

For example:

For some of Nietzsche’s followers, however, profundity was not enough.  Their leader was a self-styled ‘man of affairs’ who was a political agitator in Australia before surfacing in Chicago under the name of Ragnar Redbeard…  ‘Death to the weakling, wealth to the strong,’ he added… The full doctrine was set out in a pamphlet called Might is Right  Redbeard’s propaganda struck a chord with a young student in California called Jack London, helping turn him into a writer who aimed, as he put it, to proclaim ‘the paean of the strong with all my heart’, while ‘raging  through life without end like one of Nietzsche’s blond beasts’. (390)

Ragnar Redbeard!  This chapter is filled with interesting figures who were not themselves significant writers, but who were great propagators, most notable the Scot Thomas Davidson who “by vocation” was “a rebellious vagabond” of high intellectual powers, who drifted around Britain and the United States thinking and teaching, often in philosophical clubs.  “Davidson got on well with the ‘St Louis Hegelians’, as he called them – yes, a St. Louis specific Hegel-craze, headquartered in the St. Louis Mercantile Library, which I urged you to visit in this post.

Here we see a page of advertisements in the special Christmas edition of Mind! magazine (1901, p. 457).  I have adopted “a distinguished crankologist” as my new self-description, even though I am not particularly distinguished.  Am I ever prepared to give lessons.  I’ve been delivering them on this very website for years.

The long 1951 chapter is essentially a “life and times” of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who I take as a hero of Jonathan Rée’s, an exemplar of the practice of philosophy.  He barely publishes.  He is always thinking and talking, working on the most difficult problems.  His intelligence is astounding; who knows what he could have done if he had remained an engineer.  He has a perpetually complicated, comical, relationship with universities.

Bertrand Russell becomes, in the narrative, something of a villain, a corruption of philosophy.  I don’t know that Rée thinks of Russell as a villain, but narratives have their own logic.

The chapter’s title is “A Collection of Nonsense”:

The main topic of his classes [this is 1929] was still nonsense (or ‘nonsense in the philosophical sense’, as one of his students put it), and he spoke with great animation, sometimes rapidly, with dashes of ‘schoolboyish English slang’, sometimes slowing down and sinking into silence, ‘with perspiration streaming down his face’.  Students were often bewildered, but the effect was ‘hypnotic’. (475)

I suppose I see part of my attraction to Witcraft here.  I take nonsense, and not necessarily in the philosophical sense, as the basis of literature, with meaning and mimesis and all of that built on top of and out of language.  Ideas are made of language.  It is great fun to play with language, but it is also full of traps.  “Philosophy as [Wittgenstein] saw it was ‘not a theory’, but the practice of clarifying thoughts that are otherwise ‘opaque and blurred’” (613).  I do not see literature so differently. So Witcraft is a congenial book.

But it is a big book, too.  There are many other things a reader could do with it.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Witcraft in 1801 and 1851, starring William Hazlitt and Marian Evans - she came to suspect him of ‘excès de raison’, and began to lose interest

The 1801 and 1851 chapters of Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English are both built around writers I do not normally think of as philosophers, William Hazlitt in 1801 and Marian Evans in 1851.  Hazlitt, in 1801, is trying to become a painter, but his first book, The Principles of Human Action, will appear in 1805, read by almost no one except, eventually, John Keats.  Evans in 1851 was the author of one philosophical work, a translation of David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1846 for the translation), with a translation of Feuerbach in the near future.  So, at this point, philosophers, and more importantly they were reading every important book and meeting a high proportion of the important people.  And their own stories are interesting.

Who else is in the 1801 chapter?  English philosophy has up to this point, and well past it, been hard to separate from religion, and many of the 1801 stars are dissident Protestant clergymen working on religious problems, usually some kind of idealized “rational” Christianity, with philosophical tools.  Hazlitt’s father, the Reverend William Hazlitt, is one of them, along with the genially oblivious Joseph Priestly, one of the great pedagogical hacks:

Liberal Education [which argued that education should be useful and for ordinary people] was published by Johnson in 1765, and Priestly became the mainstay of his business, supplying him with almost 100 works over the next thirty years, ranging from textbooks for use in schools, and elaborate chronological wall charts (a hugely successful innovation), to original works of natural science, politics and theology.  But whatever the topic, Priestly kept returning to [David] Hartley’s themes of necessity, association of ideas and progress toward perfection.  (219)

Yes, this is the same Priestly who discovered oxygen, invented carbonated water, and so on.  These are amazing people.  William Burke, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Coleridge introduces the era’s hot foreign craze, “’the most unintelligible Emanuel Kant’” (264, Coleridge’s words).  A number of translations of selections from Kant, along with attempts to explicate them, began to appear beginning in 1793.

Hazlitt would soon enough become one of the greatest English essayists and literary critics, but Witcraft skips all that.

The use of Marian Evans in the 1851 chapter is similar, except Rée cannot resist a joke.  The chapters are getting long – 88 pages for 1851 – and the name “George Eliot” does not appear until the last page.  I guess Rée assumes you know?  I mean, I knew.  Anyway, you do not need to know.  The novels, like Hazlitt’s essays, are all later.

In 1851, Evans for the first time published an essay, on history, progress, and religion, in the prestigious Westminster Review, and much of the chapter is about the functioning of the magazine, first as it was run by John Stuart Mill and then by others, including, for a couple of years, by George Eliot – sorry, Marian Evans, who was the “secret editor.”

Mill leads to Thomas Carlyle – “Mill was baffled too: ‘Carlylism’ was a ‘vice of style’, he said, and he ‘made little of it’” (290) – and Sartor Resartus leads to the continuing and expanding reception of Immanuel Kant, from the goldsmith Thomas Wirgman’s summary of Kant in a “map” (292, see left) to Thomas De Quincey’s frequent mockery of Kant and Kantians.  “De Quincey would never forgive the ‘disenchanter’ who infected him with cynicism when he was not yet twenty years old” (294).

Who else is here?  Tocqueville, Emerson – it is nice to read about writers who I have read myself – oh no, Herbert Spencer.  Evans, to use an anachronism, dated Spencer for a while, and it is a testament to her character that she became sick of him.  “After several more excursions, however… she came to suspect him of ‘excès de raison’, and began to lose interest” (357).

Tomorrow, William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein wrap up Witcraft.

In a much earlier (1987), much shorter book, Philosophical Tales: An Essay on Philosophy and Literature, Rée writes “It would perhaps be possible to present the history of thought as a succession of integral histories, of the stories which intellectuals have told about their place in history,” an “integral history” being what I call “Whig history,” the story of how everything leads up to right now this minute, with every side path dismissed as unimportant.  Rée’s method in Witcraft, the use of figures like Hazlitt and Evans and the arbitrary fifty-year frame, is that each chapter becomes to the extent possible its own “now,” the story, told again and again, of how the past’s philosophers were fools and lunatics but now we’re finally getting it right.  He’s been carrying this idea around for thirty years.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Witcraft in 1701 and 1751 - leaving the modern philosopher with no excuse for saying ‘things which he doth not understand’

Onward into Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English.  I have reached “1701: Politics, religion and the two new philosophies,” which means I have reached John Locke.  I called Hobbes a “major” philosopher, and Locke is beyond that, a significant figure in any history of Western philosophy.  He gets forty percent of the pages in the chapter, and they are more like a standard treatment than is usual for Rée.

Locke’s is one of the “two new philosophies”; the other is the corpuscularianism, badly named by Robert Boyle, the great chemist.  Corpuscularianism is Descartes adapted for the Royal Society, the new organization of what we would now call scientists, a system where

… the natural world is like an enormous collection of machines, operating on the same principles as artificial devices such as levers, locks, watches and air-pumps.  Everything that happens in nature can be reduced to a few ‘Mechanicall Affections of Matter’, as Boyle put it in 1666, without any need for the Qualities, Elements, Species, Essences, Forms and Substantial Forms postulated by the Aristotelians.  (108)

Boyle and the other corpuscularians hauled away a lot of old lumber, if nothing else.  Locke’s ideas have a strong Cartesian basis, too.  Everyone’s did.  There was a English Descartes craze:

By the 1690s readers of English were starting to take the physico-mathematical Descartes to their hearts, while booksellers promoted Descartes-themed publications on topics ranging from card games to hoists and pulleys.  There was also a lavishly illustrated folio volume called An Entire Body of Philosophy, aimed at the ‘Fair Sex’ and written by a French friar called Antoine le Grand…  The ‘Corpuscular Philosophy’, he said, had exposed the ‘Occult Qualities’ and ‘Hidden Powers’ of traditional science as ‘Gibberish’, leaving the modern philosopher with no excuse for saying ‘things which he doth not understand’.  (119)

In the context of philosophy, such a claim is always hilarious.  Here we see another reason I admire Rée – he understand not just literary history but book history.  Ideas do not just float around, but are written in some kind of language and published in some way, both of which affect the ideas themselves.  The Descartes craze is the first of several that appear in Witcraft.

“1751: New Philosophy, New History.”  In the last chapter, Rée used the lively, well-read non-entity John Toland as his hook character, but now he switches to a major figure.  “In October 1751 a young Scot called Adam Smith started work as a professor in the Arts faculty at the University of Glasgow” (149).  Rée can always move forward by checking in on whatever Smith was reading.  Francis Hutcheson, The Fable of the Bees, David Hume, a little bit of Voltaire and Rousseau, George Berkeley.

The introduction to the latter, for example: Smith writes to his mother about a cure, imported from America, that he has found for “’a violent fit of laziness’”: “You take some resin from fir trees or pines, stir it into a bucket of water, let the mixture settle and then drink half a pint twice a day” (164).  It’s the tar water craze, “sparked by a book called Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the virtues of Tar Water (1744), written by Bishop Berkeley, who, having solved, or more accurately demolished, one of the great philosophical problems, retired to a life of family and religious  duties and “extolling the virtues of tar water.”

This is a terrific chapter.  It does not hurt that Berkeley, Hume, and Smith are genial figures, happy philosophers, who write clear prose.  I should note that Rée’s chapters can easily be detached and read on their own, if a reader loves Hume but finds the 17th century just too tedious.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

every simple shewsay is either a yeasay or a naysay - Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft, 1601 & 1651 - The jokes are not always funny

The first chapter of Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English is titled “1601: Philosophy Learns English.”  It is much about translation as philosophy.  For there to be philosophy in English there first must be words for it, and the 16th century is when a large number of them are translated, stolen, or invented.

Rée is going to end the book with Ludwig Wittgenstein, so he is setting up a theme that will lead straight to the end of the book, that in his view philosophy is less about ideas than about words.  Or that there is little distinction.

The easy, clumsy path was simply to absorb the Latin and half-baked Greek.  To opponents, these were “inkhorn terms,” existing only in the inkwell, not in real English.  We in English missed a sure thing by not adopting the 1573 suggestions of clergyman Ralph Lever, who wanted to expel the Latin completely:

Conclusiones became ‘endsays’, and propositiones conditionales were ‘ifsayes’.  Instead of the hideous half-Latin maxim ‘every proposition is either an affirmation or a negation’, we could now say that every simple shewsay… is either a yeasay or a naysay. (20)

And that logique “should be known by the self-explanatory term Witcraft, which also served as the title of his book” (21).  Rée, by pinching the title, suggests that it would work just as well in place of philosophy.*

The attention to language is one of a number of ways that Rée’s approach is what I think of as literary.  Another is that the personality around whom he builds this first chapter is Hamlet, who is fictional, but who was a philosophy student at university in Wittenberg, allowing Rée to look at the trivium and the quadrivium and generally use Hamlet’s fancy college-boy talk for examples.

“A sizable section of Shakespeare’s audiences would have recognized his allusions to humanist philosophy, even if they had no Latin” (28).  This is because they were reading the new English translations of all sorts of books – Cicero, Thomas More, a mangled Diogenes Laertius that was “essentially a history of philosophy – the first in the English language” (30).  Plus the Italians – Giordano Bruno pops up – and the French – Michel de Montaigne – until finally Francis Bacon writes Of the Advancement of Learning (1605), “[m]ore or less absent-mindedly” the first original work of philosophy in English.

“1651: Puritans, philosophers, comedians.”  Thomas Hobbes is the star of the chapter, with the publication of Leviathan in 1651.  Other topics: the Puritan overhaul of university philosophy, the reception of Descartes, the beginnings of philosophy in America, including John Eliot’s 1672 publication of “a thousand copies of a miniature logic primer with a text in Algonquin and glosses in English,” the rise of chronology not just of the Bible but of philosophy (part of Thomas Stanley’s 1655 The History of Philosophy is below), magic and hermeticism, Sir Thomas Browne, Don Quixote, Thomas Urquhart’s Rabelais, Margaret Cavendish.  There is room for some of everything, whatever is interesting.

Hobbes is the first major English philosopher so far, so Rée spends more time working through the ideas in Leviathan, a little more like the usual history of philosophy.  This is a book about people who have ideas rather than ideas that have people (as labels, mostly).  Again, a more literary approach.  Hobbes disagrees:

Genuine philosophy, for Hobbes, ‘dependeth not on authors’, but on robust good sense, abetted by a lively sense of the ridiculous.  The jokes were not always funny, but philosophers were learning how to laugh.  (93)

* Full title: The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft, teaching a perfect way to argue and dispute.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English, some applause - in fact they save us from reading them at all

I would like to – no, I will – spend some time with Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English (2019), a history of modern philosophy, a book with some claims to art.  I mean that even the reader who does not care particularly about the history of English philosophy will find something of value in the stories Rée tells, his characters, his language, his literary art.

Rée hooks his history onto specific years, fifty years apart, 1601, 1651, and on to 1951, eight chapters that get longer as they progress, with most chapters hooked to one person, Adam Smith in 1751, for example, although they are not all significant philosophers but people who lived through the major philosophical events of the time (“lived” meaning: read books).  To understand what happened in 1751, it is obviously necessary to go back, and probably forward, and to understand one person’s ideas I also need to see those of many other people.  Rée has hammered out a big, rough frame that has room for anything he wants to do.  It solves a lot of problems.  It never seems like a gimmick.

In the Introduction, Rée describes his own discovery of philosophy in Jean-Paul Sartre (Existentialism Is a Humanism, 1946), which showed him that “[p]hilosophy was about questioning received ideas, and I wanted more” (1).  He tried Descartes, but that was “unbelievably dull,” so one of the many available histories of philosophy was the next step.  Where literary history is left to specialists, weirdos like me, ignored, and is it ever, even by most readers of the so-called classics, histories of philosophy are “part of philosophy’s core business, and without them no philosophical education would be complete” (3).  It is not like I am actually going to read Kant myself.  I read about Kant.

If the histories are depressing for aspiring philosophers, they come as a relief for the rest of us.  They tell us enough about philosophy to assure us that it is a waste of time.  They save us the trouble of studying the great books with close attention, in fact they save us from reading them at all.  No wonder we like them.  (4)

One of the big problems solved by Rée’s arbitrary dates and personalities is that all of this becomes historicized, meaning that the old books that seem like foolishness in 1951, missteps in the history of ideas, were the hot new thing, full of truths, in, say, 1751, when Adam Smith was reading them.  Rée is always working from someone’s point of view, so whatever they find interesting is interesting.  And we still do not have to read the actual books.

My plan is to review Witcraft, and I mean review it, chapter by chapter, like I did with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis last year.  “This is a great book, and it deserves infinitely more clamorous applause than it has yet received” says Robert Minto in a blog post (“October 2019: What I Read”) he has since deleted for some reason, which means he also deleted the comment where he told me that Witcraft occasionally reminded him of Wuthering Expectations (!), I think mostly because Rée likes to use comical out-of-context quotations as titles.

As art, Witcraft often reminded me of Christopher Benfey's brilliant, wide-ranging literary histories, like The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003) which moves from Melville to The Book of Tea to Heidegger in a way that seems natural.  I wish I knew more books like these.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

John O'Hara domesticates Hemingway - It had been a very fine experience

By using such details, O’Hara almost single-handedly invented what came to be known as the New Yorker story.  (Frank MacShane, “Introduction,” Collected Stories of John O’Hara, vii)

I associate John O’Hara with the New Yorker of the 1960s, when he published something like two hundred stories in the last decade of his life, but here we are back in the 1930s, when it took O’Hara all of sixteen years to write his first two hundred short stories, and they were really short, a thousand words or two (the twenty page “Doctor’s Son” is a major exception).  Collected Stories gives a hundred pages to the first period, 1934 to 1947 (I just read this section), and three hundred to the second, 1960 to 1970, but the number of stories are the same in each.  In the middle period, O’Hara was mad at the New Yorker so abandoned short stories.  Literary history is fundamentally comic.

O’Hara is right in that Gertrude Stein – Sherwood Anderson – Ernest Hemingway line.  I will digress on Hemingway.

I’m in “Big Two-Hearted River,” from In Our Times (1925), where Nick Adams is setting up camp after a long hike to his trout stream.

Nick was hungry.  He did not believe he had ever been hungrier.  He opened and emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan.

He adds some tomato “catchup,” too.  This is a story famous for its lack of story.  Nick walks, camps, fishes, and thinks, but only about fishing.  Since he is a recurring Hemingway character, and because the story must have some purpose, it must mean something, and much effort has gone into drawing meaning out of the story’s negative space.  It’s about the war, that kind of thing.  Nick was in the war.  Now he’s going to catch some trout.  Meanwhile, his spaghetti is hot.

He was very hungry.  Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising.  He looked at the tent once more.  All right.  He took a full spoonful from the plate.

“Chrise,” Nick said, “Geezus Chrise,” he said happily.

I love that moment.  A lot of feeling is contained in that full-mouthed transliteration of speech.  Nick, alone, only speaks three times in the story, and this is one of them.  “It had been a very fine experience,” he thinks when his meal is over.

O’Hara’s little stories kept reminding me of this moment.  It is as if he built an aesthetic off this moment.  How to take that moment and that man, eating his beans, surprised at how good they are, maybe also how hot, and make that trivial, ordinary incident meaningful.  Turn it into a story.  Not necessarily much of a story, but more of a story than Hemingway does.  O’Hara is no avant-gardist.  He is domesticating Hemingway.  New Yorkerizing him.  The Hemingway of the 1920s, I mean.  The Hemingway of the 1930s is also domesticating the Hemingway of the 1920s.

I should give some examples, of O’Hara’s little details and dialogues, but in these particular stories, at least, they are not as good as that bit of “Big Two-Fisted River.”  How about some last lines?  O’Hara is not Maupassant – I now think that Maupassant (the real one) is not Maupassant (Mr. Trick Ending) – but he is kin.  Remember that these are all two to five page stories.  Not much room to move.

For a while he would just sit there and plan his own terror.  (“Over the River and Through the Wood,” 1934)

Mary looked at him and burst into tears.  (“The Gentleman in the Tan Suit,” 1935)

Over and over, first violently, then weakly, he said it, “The bastard, the dirty bastard.”  (“Do You Like It Here?”, 1939)

He hoped she would say no, but he knew she would say yes.  (“Common Sense Should Tell You,” 1946)

This is what John O’Hara looks like to me, right now.  I should try one of his novels.

Friday, July 31, 2020

John O'Hara's pandemic story "The Doctor's Son" - If you wanted an ice cream soda you had to have it put in a cardboard container

The first story in Collected Stories of John O’Hara (1984) is “The Doctor’s Son” (1935), about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.  Several months ago, bookish Twitterists were compiling lists of pandemic fiction, although not, as far as I can tell, reading much of it, and who can blame anyone.  But I thought there were some interesting things in this story.

O’Hara is from Pennsylvania coal country:

The mines closed down almost with the first whiff of influenza.  Men who for years had been drilling rock and had chronic miner’s asthma never had a chance against the mysterious new disease; and even younger men were keeling over, so the coal companies had to shut down the mines, leaving only maintenance men, such as pump men, in charge.  Then the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania closed down the schools and churches, and forbade all congregating.  If you wanted an ice cream soda you had to have it put in a cardboard container; you couldn’t have it at the fountain in a glass. (4)

The switch from the tragic to the trivial fits the narrator, James, who is the doctor’s son of the title but who is only fifteen years old.  His father has more or less collapsed from stress and exhaustion, so a young replacement doctor has been dispatched from medical school on a temporary basis.  James, with  no school, becomes the chauffeur, driving the Model T and filling the new doctor in on mining country culture.

The use of bars as immigrant medical clinics, for example, that was interesting.  The doctor goes to the bars “where the practice of medicine was wholesale” (9), to Kelly’s to treat crowds of Irish immigrants and Wisniewski’s to handle the Poles.  The owner of the latter has the flu, but that does not mean an end to hospitality, so he is passing the bottle around:

Doctor Myers was horrified.  “You oughtn’t to do that.  You’ll give the others the flu.”

“Too late now , Doc,” he said.  “T’ree bottle now already.”

“You’ll lose all your customers, Steve,” I said.

“How ya figure dat out?” said Steve.  “Dis flu make me die, dis bottle make dem die.  Fwit!  Me and my customers all togeder in hell, so I open a place in hell.  Fwit!”  (22)

How O’Hara loves the varieties of human speech.

I should include the mask passage, in case we think we have never done this before:

Doctor Myers at first wore a mask over his nose and mouth when making calls, and so did I, but the gauze stuck to my lips and I stopped wearing it and so did the doctor.  It was too much of a nuisance to put them on and take them off every time we would go  to a place like Kelly’s, and also it was rather insulting to walk in on a group of people with a mask on your face when nobody in the group was wearing one.  (16)

A long, grim passage, when a house call to treat a family with flu uncovers something even worse, diphtheria, was the dramatic highlight for me, but the actual story is about the new doctor starting an affair with the mother of James’s girlfriend (and James is complicit, since he is the driver), which seemed a little thin, but life goes on, I know, except when it does not, even in the face of this:

This graph of the American mortality rate from infectious diseases is taken from a 1999 Center for Disease Control article, “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Control of Infectious Diseases.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Huxley changes into Huxley - who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius

Aldous Huxley wrote good literary criticism, travel writing, art criticism, short stories, as well as four novels during the 1920s, all loose contemporary satires.  London artists and writers and their problems.  Fifteen books during the 1920s, not counting his poetry.  What a monster.  The arts criticism and so on, as represented in Huxley’s Collected Essays (1958), is quite good, as are the two novels I have read.

And then it was goodbye to all that, all of it tossed out for mysticism, pacifism, and psychedelic drugs.  I have had great trouble seeing how the Huxley of Antic Hay turned into the proto-hippie psychedelic prophet of the 1950s.  A long, strange trip.  Brave New World (1932) is the hinge.

England, and apparently the world, is populated with clones, assigned to their social level and occupation in a strict, chemically-engineered hierarchy.  Industrial productivity has increased to the point that everyone has plenty of leisure and recreational drugs; social norms have changed so that everyone has plenty of sex, although Huxley hints at some complications in that area.  It is a utilitarian parody.  How many people would take this deal, so to speak?  For a plot, introduce a character who rejects the deal.

Huxley’s earlier novels are written in what I think of as the Platonic ideal of the British “house style” of the 1920s, clever, witty, and conversational, just a bit arch, capable of darker colors, but generally light on its feet.  (I would like to read an essay about how English Golden Age detective novels have survived so well in part because the British house style was so appealing, compared to, say, its heavier pre-war predecessor or the contemporary American pulp style.  Maybe that is not true, but I would like to see the case made.)  Huxley’s style in Brave New World is weighed down, compared to his novels with a contemporary setting, by the mass of information he has to impart, like all of the nonsense about how cloning and hypnotic conditioning works in the first chapter.

It is a relief, in chapter two, to find some satire.  An administrator is recounting the origin of hypnotic conditioning, when a boy falls asleep with the radio on and “woke up repeating word for word a long lecture by that curious old writer (‘one of the very few whose works have been permitted to come down to us’), George Bernard Shaw, who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius.”  That is a joke about 1932, not 2532.  The parenthetical is possibly more insulting that the punchline.

Just a few lines later, more satire:

“The case of [the boy] occurred only twenty-three years after Our Ford’s first T-Model was put on the market.”  (Here the Director made a sign of the T on his stomach and all the students reverently followed suit.)

This terrific gag, the pseudo-worship of Henry Ford in place of Jesus Christ, in a society where even the people are produced on an assembly line, recurs throughout the novel.  Two things blow my mind, and I wish I had looked them up back in college, but looking things up was work back then: first, Gramsci’s concept of Fordism is from 1934, two years later – all credit to Huxley; second, Henry Ford was not some distant, or even deceased, historical figure.  He was sixty-nine in 1932, running Ford Motor Company, and would live for another fifteen years.  By chance, 1932 was an especially important year for Ford, since it saw the introduction of the flathead V-8 engine, a major innovation.  I wonder if Ford ever read Brave New World.

The two chapters before the last, where the rebel and the ruler debate ethics, quoting Shakespeare and Cardinal Newman back and forth, are where Huxley gives up the game.  Why not write Platonic dialogues or some such thing after this, why bother creating novelistic characters?  And I guess that is what Huxley does.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Huxley and the "pessimism of outlook" of the 1920s, with help from George Orwell and William Pritchard - twelve buttocks slabbily resounding

Brave New World (1932) was the first book assigned at the University of Kansas, long, oh so long ago, in a course naively titled “Western Civilization,” in theory the first book a student new to college would read.  I had not read it since then, thirty years ago, when it was used as a source of ethical questions, not really as a work of art, which suits it well, except, for example:

Round they went, a circular procession of dancers, each with hands on the hips of the dancer preceding, round and round, shouting in unison, stamping to  the rhythm of the music with their feet, beating it, beating it out with hands on the buttocks in front; twelve pairs of hands beating as one; as one, twelve buttocks slabbily resounding.  (5.2)

I feel bad I did not file away “twelve buttocks slabbily resounding,” did not even notice it, apparently.  The magic word is “slabbily,” right?

I’ve read two other Aldous Huxley novels, Antic Hay (1923) and Point Counter Point (1928), and boy were they eye-openers, exemplars of “the British novel in the 1920s.”  I was discovering what every read had discovered before me, the phenomenon George Orwell describes in “Inside the Whale” (1940), where what is nominally a review of a Henry Miller novel turns into a quick history of British literature, 1910 to the present, the books of Orwell’s lifetime.  After the war, he argues, major writers had “a certain temperamental similarity…  What it amounts to is pessimism of outlook” (italics Orwell’s).  Caused by, for example, anti-Victorian puritanism, the scientific attack on religion, fashionable philosophers, the war, or all of the above.  Mostly, really, the war.

His other helpful phrase, borrowed from Joyce, is that these writers “see through” all of the old received junk – King, church, country, family, art – or hope they do, or pretend they do.  The title to Robert Graves’s 1929 memoir is a perfect distillation – Goodbye to All That – no, really, all of it.  William Pritchard borrows the term for his 1977 book Seeing Through Everything: English Writers 1918-1940, which spends more time with Lawrence, Eliot, and Woolf, but leads off, more or less, with Huxley, because he is the one who really sees through everything and behind everything sees nothing.  He is, for the British 1920s, a nihilist.  Antic Hay is the sort of book which might… provide a generation with the illusion that they were disillusioned” (Pritchard, 39).

Point Counter Point was particularly instructive, perhaps because it is longer and covers more topics – “first-rate material for cultural historians interested in how the English intelligentsia talk” (Pritchard, 32).  D. H. Lawrence is a character in the novel, functioning as the reasonable voice of unreason, the person who does not merely “see through” but sees something, who has beliefs and ideas and a purpose.  Often, with Antic Hay and Point Counter Point, I felt like I was reading books that were no longer quite alive, which has not been my experience with Lawrence, however exasperating he might be.

This has been the crushed-down version of an essay I have meant to write for two years, but have not, I suppose because it is just a rehash of Orwell’s masterpiece and parts of Pritchard’s fine book.  But I had wondered, how did the Huxley of the contemporary nihilistic London satire of Point Counter Point turn, in just four years, into the Huxley of dystopian nihilistic London satire or Brave New World?  Expressed like that, it does not seem like such a big change.  Just the one word.  I will turn to the less slabbily resounding parts of Brave New World tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Tender Is the Night has some good writing - Fitzgerald's Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel about the decline and fall of a talented psychiatrist, is full of fine writing, beginning with the bit of “Ode to a Nightingale” that supplies the title.  Maybe Keats should not count.  “O for a beaker full of the warm South…,” Keats demands, a wine “[t]asting of Flora and the country green, / Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!”  Fitzgerald gives me plenty of that.  This is, I hope it is obvious, not the bit of “Ode” that supplies the title, but a different, relevant bit.

On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel.  Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach.

I take “deferential” and “flushed” as the nice touches here, adjectives I would not expect.  The beach is new, not fashionable, so some old villas “rotted like water lilies.”

“The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one.”  That is nice, right, a postcard view but who would see that rug?  The narrator lingers.  A man appears, “floundered a minute in the sea,” and disappears.  “When he had gone, beach and bay were quiet for an hour.”  Iambs in front of the comma, trochaic pentameter after.  The effect of watching the empty beach for two hours, while “bus boys shouted in the hotel court; the dew dried upon the pines,” while actually spending a couple of minutes reading the paragraph, is sharp.  This is 1923 or so, and the rich Americans have only barely started to descend on France.

Here are two, a young actress, fresh with her first taste of celebrity , and her duenna mother, “[the actress’s] cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening…  she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.”  I have made it to the second page of my copy of the novel.

The two uses of “dew,” are they too close together?  In writing like this, made up of hundreds of arresting little effects, and by “arresting” I mean that I stop and enjoy them, I often ask if Fitzgerald went too far.  What is overwritten?  What is beautiful and what is kitsch?  It is a dance.  His first novel and bestseller, This Side of Paradise (1920), I remember as a mishmash of undergraduate jokiness and overwritten kitsch.  The first-person narrator of The Great Gatsby puts a brake on the purple prose.  Now, the more mature Fitzgerald can show off:

… the hot light clipped close her shadow… a faded Buick cooked on the hotel drive… Three British nannies sat knitting the slow pattern of Victorian England, the pattern of the forties, the sixties, and the eighties, into sweaters and socks, to the tune of gossip as formalized as incantation. (still on the second page)

Maybe something in one of every three sentences where I think “Oh, that’s good.”  When the story gets moving, maybe more like one in ten.  I think this is the third time I have read Tender Is the Night, so I am in no hurry to see what happens.

This is a remnant of the old fraternity style – the actress has been on an all-night spree in Paris:

Later Rosemary and the Norths and a manufacturer of dolls’ voices from Newark and ubiquitous Collis and a big splendidly dressed oil Indian named George T. Horseprotection were riding along on top of thousands of carrots in a market wagon.  The earth in the carrot beards was fragrant and sweet in the darkness…  (I.xviii)

I like those carrots but that first sentence is packed with what I mean by overwriting.  Maybe it is directly drawn from life, manufactured dolls’ voices and Mr. Horseprotection and all, but it is, as the expression goes, too cute by half.  Case by case, adjective by adjective: too cute by 30%? 10%?  Just cute enough?

The ride on the carrot wagon is stolen directly from the opening of Zola’s The Belly of Paris (1873); a slightly earlier paragraph about the ludicrous “car of the Shah of Persia, “a new facet of the fabulous,” is likely pinched from Radiguet’s The Ball of the Count of Orgel (1924), although maybe it is an authentic contemporary detail used by coincidence by both writers.  I had not known any of this whenever I last read the novel.  What will I see next time?

Maybe I will have made it to the French Riviera by then.  The Riviera is the part of France that I am least interested in visiting, but in fairness it is now a lot more crowded than it was in Tender Is the Night.  It is a lot more crowded by the end of the novel than it is on the still, quiet first page.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Georges Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest - a long monologue that I listened to without understanding it

Finally, I have finished Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1936), a 285-page novel that has taken me four weeks to read.  Reading in French, it is pour les oiseaux.  The birds who already read French.

A bit more of the Wuthering Expectations Short History of French Literature I was writing last year:

The French twentieth century began with a crushing defeat of the Catholic Church, and the triumph of laicization, a struggle that had continued since the French Revolution.  For more detail, see “The Law of the 9th of December 1905 Concerning the Separation of Church and State.”  Meanwhile, French artists and writers were turning into godless Communists and lunatics.  So there is a Catholic counter-reaction, eventually.  Bernanos is the Catholic writer who has survived the best in French literature, I think, aside from Charles Péguy, who was killed in the war in 1914.  Bernanos is probably a better novelist than his peers in the movement, but I have not read them – I would have to look up their names – so what do I know.

This novel is well-described by its title.  A young priest in his first parish has a crisis of faith, and decides to write it down.  He does not doubt his own faith, but rather that of everyone else, the superstitious no-longer-peasants who would make up his congregation if they ever came to Mass, and the neurotic wealthy family in the mansion on the hill.  The latter provides most of the plot.  This is very much not a novel about a priest dealing with ordinary people.

The book is a mix of the priest’s reflections, some of which are personal, some theological, some both – doubts about the intensity of his prayer, for example – which is what I would expect from a priest’s diary, and long Thomas Bernhardish monologues by other people, like an older priest who is something of a mentor, an atheist doctor who kills himself, and an old friend from the seminary who gives up the vocation, which are completely preposterous as diary entries, unless I am supposed to think  the priest is inventing them.  But I think I am not supposed to think about it.  Just a convention.  Occasionally, Bernanos and the priest do acknowledge the problem:

He must have pursued this for a long time, since I have the memory of a long monologue that I listened to without understanding it. (299 of this Librairie Plon edition, tr. mine)

The priest does not have a forceful personality, so he mostly just lets people talk.  His own writing is clear, but the numerous long monologues are full of regional words, slang, and irony – oh so hard, so slow.  The monologues are a clue to the tradition Bernanos is working.  He is one of the French writers of the time who read Dostoevsky carefully, and he is bringing Dostoevsky’s many voices into French.  It is as if Alyosha, from The Brothers Karamazov, became a priest and kept a diary.  The narrator’s voice is orthodox, but many other voices have their say.

André Malraux, who writes the introduction to the edition I read, dated when I have no idea,  is another of the French Dostoevskians of the time, but he is interested in the political Dostoevsky, of The Possessed, for example, while Bernanos works the religious side.  It is all something new in French, and it is all about to turn into existentialism.  The parallels between Country Priest and Sartre’s Nausea, published a year later, are curious, although Bernanos never achieves the hallucinatory lunacy of Sartre.

Maybe just once.  The priest, poor fellow, has serious stomach problems, which may be psychological (a parallel with Sartre’s narrator’s nausea), but maybe not.  In the last, and I thought best, section, the priest finally visits a doctor.  After a professional examination, the young doctor begins to wander, perhaps just because his patient is a young priest.  I am paraphrasing: “You are like my double.  Do you think about suicide? Boy, I sure do!  By the way, I have a terminal illness.  Also by the way, so do you.”  That is one bad doctor, and one weird monologue.

The essential existentialism of the novel is likely another reason it has survived so well, is what I am saying.  As with Dostoevsky, it does not matter much if the reader agrees with the author, whatever that might mean.  There are other things to do with the book.

Regardless, now I will refer to my list of French books appropriate for junior high students and find a French book that is much shorter and much easier.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Thomas Mann's The Stories of Jacob - we know the stories in which it all comes to pass

Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers (1933-43) is on the one hand a 1,500 page monster that decompresses roughly the second half of Genesis, and on the other hand it is four novels, the first two of which are not even especially long, published over a decade.  Four books, not one; I just finished the first one, The Stories of Jacob (1933).

Why did Mann want to tell these stories in modern novelistic form?  What does he want with sentence like this:

He [Joseph] ventured to step down to the old man [Jacob] and carefully placed an arm around his shoulders, convinced he had enchanted and placated him with his chatter; and Jacob, who had been standing there pondering his God and playing with the little stone cignet cylinder dangling at his chest, sighed and, yielding to the pressure, set one foot on the circular step and then sat down on the rim of the well, resting his staff against his arm, ordering his robes, and turning his face now to the moon, with its clear light brightening his gentle aging majesty, its gleam mirrored in his wisely worried chestnut-brown eyes.  (“At the Well,” p. 77, tr. John Woods)

The bit about the moon is thematic, part of the novel’s ideas.  But the rest – as if what was missing from Genesis was minutiae about where Jacob put his feet.  The final clause is especially klutzy.

Form aside, Mann is deeply interested in the stories themselves, their origin and repetition, their power.  Joseph and Jacob are discussing a story, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.  Jacob has retold the story, and Joseph is responding:

“But that is the advantage of these later days, that we know the great rounds in which the world rolls ever on, and the stories in which it all comes to pass and that the fathers established.  You could have trusted the voice and the ram.”  (“At the Well,” 81)

Someone – Mann, Joseph – has been reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which uses the Abraham and Isaac story as its exemplar.  Mann explores the way the stories are repeated as stories, and are then repeated by the characters themselves, with Jacob sometimes acting to repeat a story, say of something his grandfather Abraham did, or to avoid repeating a story, to prevent a repetition of the Cain and Abel story, especially if he would play the role of Abel.  Meanwhile Jacob generates new stories, some of them superb.  I was not surprised that Mann does interesting things whenever he brushes against the story of Jacob wrestling the angel, among the most sublime stories in the Hebrew Bible.  In the novel, it is a dream, perhaps, but what a dream.

The first forty pages of the book are a separate essay, “Descent into Hell,” a Key to All Mythologies that explains while dodging explanation.  Mann explicitly describes Joseph and His Brothers as what we now call a fantasy novel; he does this by denying that it is a fantasy novel:

The people there [at the bottom of the well, in the past] do not have horned armor or an eye in the middle of their foreheads, do not do battle with flying lizards, but are human beings just like us – allowing for a few easily pardoned dreamy imprecisions in their thoughts.  (40)

Mann is fascinated by the monotheists making their way in a polytheistic world, where their one God is at the same time one of many gods (the moon theme I mentioned above is used here – one God, or moon god, and what’s the difference, really).  He wants to understand the psychology of the monotheists.  Psychology, that is a novelistic project.

Side note, on a recurring Wuthering Expectations topic: Some fine cat mummies, “to which, weeping loudly, he would offer sacrifices of mice and milk,” on p. 122.  Once Mann gets Joseph to Egypt, there should be more, right?

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Yourcenar's taxidermy squirrels and Cocteau's Round Table - recent reading in French

See here – voici – the books I read in French in June that are not Diary of a Country Priest (1937) by Georges Bernanos, which is still in progress, if “progress” is the right word.

Marguerite Yourcenar liked distance in her fiction.  Long ago or far away or both.  A couple of years ago, I read her Nouvelles Orientales (Oriental Tales, 1938), a collection of stories of Balkan bandits, Classical Chinese painters, “The Last Love of Prince Genji.”  Lots of variety, in subject and form, all far from 1930s Belgium.  Some of these are commonly taught at the collège level, which is why I read them.  “How Wong-Fo Was Saved,” a parable about the price of the artistic life, has an ending of unusual beauty.

In June, I read Yourcenar’s short novel Le Coup de grâce (Coup de Grace, 1939), a tense story of a love affair thwarted by war, ideology, and cussedness. The war is the Russian Civil War, in what is now Latvia; the narrator is a White Russian and the woman he ought to be in love with is a Red.  The blow in the title is the end of the novel.  Everything, psychologically, is leading up to that blow. For much of the novel, little happens; anything that does happen is grim and horrible.

Mostly  the language is plain and clear, convincingly that of the French-speaking Prussian turned international revolutionary.  Once in a while it is like this:

Conrad worked with his back to the window, elbows on an enormous sculpted oak table in the middle of an office where a maniacal grandfather had heaped up a grotesque collection of hunting souvenirs.  A comical and sinister series of stuffed animals were lined up on the shelves, and I always remembered a certain squirrel wearing, on its worm-eaten pelt, a vest and Tyrolian hat.  I spent some of the most critical moments of my life in this room that smelt of camphor and mothballs.  (p. 214 of the Gallimard paperback that bundles the book with Alexis, tr. mine)

The table, the camphor, the squirrel – that is not what Yourcenar’s novel is like, mostly.  I would not have minded a little more of that, but it is really a psychological novel.  It reminded me sometimes of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816), a novel with no descriptive detail at all.


Jean Cocteau’s Les chevaliers de la table ronde (The Knights of the Round Table, 1937).  Cocteau’s Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, 1921), with its dancing gramophones and ostriches and bicycles, its mix of Modern music, ballet, visual art, and kooky text, I take as an epitome of French literature of the 1920s, an essential work.  And Orphée (Orpheus, 1926) is one of the best examples of the favorite French theatrical practice of rewriting myths.  Cocteau’s Orpheus is a radical re-imagining, yet the core of the myth is intact.

Cocteau’s King Arthur story has more trouble getting away from the usual story.  Once he does there are some revelations, an apotheosis, the usual Grail stuff.  I don’t know.  Still, I would not hesitate to see it, if I got the chance.  Coco Chanel created the costumes (source of the image).


I read a book of Jean-Pierre Jouve poems, too, but perhaps I should save him for a poetry roundup.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Graham Greene walks through Liberia in Journey Without Maps - I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living.

Graham Greene spent four weeks in 1935 on vacation in Liberia, with a taste of Sierra Leone and Guinea, walking through the upland forests.  His account of the trip, Journey Without Maps (1936), is a peculiar book, misguided and innovative.  The journey, or the book, or both, were a turning point for Greene, or so I have read.  Greene had been steadily publishing books since 1925, but I have not read any of those (I haven’t read any Greene post-1950, either), so I don’t know what turned.  Still, keep reading; it may be visible.

Greene is looking for the aspect of Africa that “acts so strongly on the unconscious mind” (I.1.20), the part of Africa that creates whatever associations he has with the word “Africa,” and since he has to pick a specific spot, not an entire continent, he deduces or invents that these associations are to be found not in Egypt or Kenya but in West Africa, so having never left Europe before Greene picks Liberia.  I would have suggested Senegal, but I believe Greene wants to be near an English colony.

Also, Senegal would not have worked for the conceit of the title, which is that the Liberian forests were unmapped, allowing Greene to feel more like he was Richard Burton or Joseph Conrad or whoever.  Greene is , however, never near anything resembling wilderness, but rather in a long-settled agricultural region, with towns at most a day’s walk apart.  No heart of darkness here.  The region is, though, painfully, desperately poor.  The lack of a decent map was a bureaucratic failure of the Liberian government.  Greene is not an explorer, but a tourist; an adventure tourist, as we would call him now.

He hires guides and porters and walks from village to village for a month.  When I was an adventure tourist in West Africa, I hired guides and drivers, and was driven around, and was under no illusion that I was not a tourist.

As much as I enjoyed Journey, the journey itself often seemed pointless, or merely personally meaningful, which is enough for a good book, but still.  Dubious.  Several dubious ideas here, but Greene learns a lot, about Liberia, “Africa,” and himself.  He is a good traveler.

I suspect Greene wanted to write an innovative book, so although most of it is the usual chronological logistical account of the trip, Journey is studded with separate autobiographical chunks, like an earlier trip to Riga that somehow turns back to Greene’s childhood:

In Nottingham I was instructed in Catholicism, travelling here and there by tram into new country with the fat priest who had once been an actor.  (It was one of his greatest sacrifices to be unable to see a play.) (II.1.101)

Or the wild “dream” digression:

It is the earliest dream that I can remember, earlier than the witch at the corner of the nursery passage, this dream of something outside that has got to come in…

It was only many years later that Evil came into my dreams: the man with gold teeth and rubber surgical gloves; the old woman with ringworm; the man with his throat cut dragging himself across the carpet to the bed.  (III.1.180-1)

The Portable Graham Greene excerpts these and other similar passages so cleanly that I had no idea, when I read them decades ago, that they were from a travel book about Liberia.

Here is the turning point, by the way:

The fever would not let me sleep at all, but by the early morning it was sweated out of me.  My temperature was a long way below normal, but the worst boredom of the trek [see below] for the time being was over.  I had made a discovery during the night which interested me.  I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living.  I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable.

It seemed that night an important discovery.  It was like a conversion, and I had never experienced a conversion before.  (III.4.213)

Some thoughtful skepticism follows, but now Greene sounds like a character in the kind of Graham Green novel I’ve read.  The next book is A Gun for Sale (1936), which I have not read:

It was another five hours’ march to Greh, by a track of appalling monotony.  I tried to think of my next novel, but I was afraid to think of it for long, for then there might be nothing to think about next day.  (III.2.195)

Journey without Maps is obviously a carefully shaped book, art, whatever else it might be.

Page numbers refer to the Penguin paperback.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Filling out the thumpety-thump with Nabokov, Waugh, West, and Wang Wei, the last of the "read in May" pile - “It’s a heartbreaking game.”

Well into June, the last four books I read in May, quickly dispatched.

Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark (1932), one of Nabokov’s Berlin crime novels, a nasty shocker.  It would be something of a parody of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) if the dates were reversed, so I suppose it is a parody of something else.  It has nothing Russian but plenty of interesting Berlin detail, including some German film industry scenes.  Some of the parallels to Lolita are interesting, too.

Still, this may be Nabokov’s most trivial novel, his simplest novel.  The prose and patterning seem simpler than usual.  Possibly I should blame the inexperienced translator, who may have simplified things.  It was his first translation.

In the evenings, there was dancing at the casino.  The sea looked paler than the flushed sky, and the lights of a passing steamer glowed festively.  A clumsy moth flapped round a rose-shaded lamp; and Albinus danced with Margot.  Her smoothly brushed head barely reached his shoulder. (Ch. 14, 116)

That moth, or its pal, visits the characters ninety pages later.


Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), a great American nightmare.  A newspaperman is having an existential crisis, a religious crisis.  The letters he gets for his advice column, full of real problems, are finally getting to him.  Maybe that’s it.  Here is some representative prose:

The  old man began to scream.  Somebody hit Miss Lonelyhearts from behind with a chair.  (end of “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man”)

Here is more:

His caresses kept pace with the sermon.  When he had reached the end, he buried his triangular face like the blade of a hatchet in her neck.  (end of “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Dead Pan”)

I should have read this ages ago, and what’s worse is that I knew it, and what’s even worse is that the book is only seventy pages long.  Maybe I’ll have more to say when I’ve read The Day of the Locust.


Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (1934), where the Bright Young People, a bit less young than in Vile Bodies (1930), meet Fate.  The passage, about halfway through, that interrupts the story and begins “Then this happened:” and ends “Everyone agreed that it was nobody’s fault,” is close to an attack on the usual functioning of the novel as a form.  Re-reading, the tragic accident turns out to be heavily foreshadowed, and I now see that one character, Mrs. Rattery, is a personification of Fate.  She literally falls from the sky and spends the aftermath of the tragedy playing cards, as in this curiously parenthesized paragraph:

(Mrs. Rattery sat intent over her game, moving little groups of cards adroitly backward and forwards about the table like shuttles across a loom; under her fingers order grew out of chaos; she established sequence and precedence; the symbols before her became coherent, interrelated.)

She and Fate and the author overlap.  As she says a page later, folding up the cards, “It’s a heartbreaking game.”

A Handful of Dust is as grim as Jude the Obscure, but played for laughs.  If anyone wonders why or how I often find Hardy so funny, I point you toward Waugh.

All of those quotes are from the “Hard Cheese for Tony” chapter, parts 5 and 6.


Eliot Weinberger & Octavio Paz, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987), the classic of comparative translation.  “Poetry is that which is worth translating” (p. 1).  A twenty character Tang Dynasty poem is presented as text, transliteration, and in nineteen versions in three languages, with Weinberger’s commentary and Paz’s commentary on the commentary, and on his own (two) translations.  Along the way, Weinberger writes a little history of 20th century translation practices.

As a critic, he is careful yet casual:  “Where Wang is specific, Bynner’s Wang seems to be watching the world through a haze of opium reflected in a hundred thimbles of wine” (11).  “Rexroth’s great skill is apparent in three tiny gestures” (23).  “The last line adds dark to fill out the thumpety-thump” (35).

Don’t miss the postscript, where Weinberger is credibly accused of “crimes against Chinese poetry” for his “curious neglect” of “Boodberg’s cedule.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Woolf's Waves and Faulkner's stories - more books I read in May - I love tremendous and sonorous words

More books I read in May.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931).  A difficult book.  It pushes Woolf’s ideas about the representation of consciousness to a new, extreme position.  I wonder if it is a dead end.  It is a live novel.

Six friends describe or think about or experience their lives.  Childhood, school, and so on at roughly decade intervals, interspersed with a prose poem about light effects on the ocean.  The text, aside from the prose poem, is all in quotation marks, as if it is speech, except for “said Neville,” “said Rhoda,” like that, which I have to put in quotation marks here, which is confusing.  But the text is obviously not speech, but thought, and not direct thought, as in Mrs Dalloway (1925), definitely not stream-of-consciousness, but more like a summary of thought, or a retrospective description of thought.  All of it somehow “said.”

The first section, the childhood piece, is the most confusing, because I have no information besides names and gender (three boys, three girls), and, realistically, it is not clear how the childhood personality transfers to the teenager or adult.  Characters sometimes seem to blur into each other, too.  Later, I could tag Louis as the poetic sensibility, Susan as the motherly one, Bernard as the novelistic sensibility, and so on.  The six characters take turns for a while, which is a little mechanical (I think, okay, who is left, who has not “spoken” yet?), until the last section, which is a fifth of the book:

“Now to sum up,” said Bernard.  “Now to explain to you the meaning of my life…  This, for the moment, seems to be my life.  If it were possible, I would hand it to you entire.  I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes.  I would say, ‘Take it.  This is my life.’  (238)

Bernard the “novelist,” has taken over.  He has never written a novel (has he?), but it is possible that this text, or some refraction of this text, is his novel, the story of this group of friends.  Perhaps the whole thing is meant to be his.  “’I love tremendous and sonorous words’” he says, or thinks, or writes, much earlier in the book (32).  He sure does.

I assume, when I re-read The Waves someday, I will abandon everything I just wrote.


William Faulkner, These 13 (1931).  His first book of short stories; his worst title?  Faulkner occasionally rearranged his work, so this book has vanished, dissolved into Collected Stories (1951), but I wanted to think about the stories in their earlier context.

Four stories are about World War I, mostly pilots.  They are now  housed in “The Wasteland” in Collected Stories, almost by themselves.  Three stories are about Americans in Europe after the war, and are in “Beyond.”  The Italian stories in particular sounded more like Hemingway than I would have guessed possible for Faulkner, but perhaps I am being addled by the shared subject matter.

None of these are Faulkner at his best, but he did keep them.  They are not essential Faulkner, unless the question if “how did Faulkner become Faulkner”.

The other six are essential, good or bad.  They express the essence of Faulkner’s art circa 1930.  “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner’s first published story (!), the perfect distillation of “Southern Gothic”; “Dry September,” a clear-eyed lynching story; “Hair,” Southern Goofic, but the shared protagonist with “Dry September” shows how Faulkner’s Balzac-in-Mississippi concept works; and “That Evening Sun,” about racial incomprehension, and ditto on the Balzac thing except the characters are from The Sound and the Fury.

That’s only four.  “Red Leaves” and “A Justice” are about Chickasaw slave-owners and the history of Yoknapatawpha County before it was Yoknapatawpha.  Faulkner is mythologizing.  I only have a vague sense of what he is doing in these two stories.  A problem for later.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The enchanted novels of Sigrid Undset and Marly Youmans

About a year ago I read The Wreath (1920), the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s 14th century Norwegian domestic epic Kristin Lavransdatter.  Last month, I read The Wife (1921).  Maybe in a year I will read The Cross (1922) and finish up.

Our headstrong heroine Kristin married the man she loved at the end of the first novel.  For much of this novel, she manages her household, raises her children, and fights with her husband.  Maybe ten years pass.

I finally saw, in the first third of the novel, why Kristin Lavransdatter became, soon after its first English translation, a cult novel in the United States, a book that women passed from hand to hand.  Who in English in the 1920s, or for that matter much later, was writing so directly about difficult childbirths, or sexual conflicts between spouses, or simply the anxieties of moving to – taking over, managing – a new household for the first time?  These are ordinary problems, experienced by millions of young women who were not medieval Norwegians, and Undset writes about them clearly and without melodrama.

Maybe I also saw why the novel has receded, even with Tiina Nunnally fine recent translation.  Now there are lots of novels and films that tell these stories.

Undset’s best artistic move is to accumulate elements of more or less ordinary life into an extraordinary scene.  In The Wreath, the great scene was the long, complex wedding at the end of the novel.  This time, in The Wife, there were two, the death and funeral of Kristin’s father at the end of Part II, and Kristin’s pilgrimage, expiating her sins from the first novel, that ends Part I.  I was not surprised to learn that Undset readers still travel to St. Olav’s shrine in Trondheim to re-create Kristin’s pilgrimage – not the real pilgrimage, but the fictional one, which is kind of funny.  But it’s a beautiful, powerful sequence.  Undset’s prose is often quite plain, with occasional hints of bestsellerism, but the big, climatic scenes are artful.

Part III of The Wife turns into more of a Walter Scott novel, about Kristin’s husband’s political schemes, and did not seem that special.

Undset’s fictional, historical world is enchanted, in the sense that it is not disenchanted.  Religion, God, and darker things exist in this world, in the mentality and behavior of the characters.  By chance, I read a contemporary exercise in enchantment almost alongside Undset, Marly Youmans’s new novel Charis in the World of Wonders (2020), where the enchantment is visible in the title.

“For this is the world of wonders, an enchanted place of dreams, portents, and prodigies” – that’s the end of the first paragraph, when poor Charis, a young Puritan woman in New England, is awakened to spend the first long chapter fleeing catastrophe.  She spends the rest of the novel rebuilding a life, until she has to – chooses to – flee again.

The world’s “wonders” are its mysteries, whether beautiful or terrifying or in some other category, since the phrase is specifically evoked when Charis sees a moose, and I have trouble calling a moose beautiful; no trouble calling them wonders:

He lowered his head, crowned with new nubs of antlers, and began to lip at the foliage under the trees.  His breath ruttled as he blew outward and sent the plants to trembling. (216)

The voice, the action, and the ethos of the novel are all from the perspective of not just Charis’s faith, but her view of the world, a difficult thing to capture.  It is tricky. since no one at the time would write a first person account with so much dialogue, detail, or action.  The idea is to get close to the mentality of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the symbolic world, but not the form or the language.  Well, to some degree, the language.  Youmans borrows period language, wonderful archaic words, many of which we should return to use.  Nabbity, nattle, naughty-pack, nazzle, niffle-naffle, nightwalking, nittle.  The novel ends with a twelve-page glossary that I found readable and pleasurable on its own.  And I do not remember one time when I needed to turn to the glossary, since the vocabulary was always clear enough in context (e.g., ruttled up above).  The glossary is a bonus.

I should note that Youmans is a Friend of the Blog.  Marly, what a time to publish a novel!

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

the rest of my French reading in May - André Breton's war and Jean Giraudoux's peace

Two authors, aside from Kessel, filled out my May reading in French, André Breton and Jean Giraudoux.

Nadja (1928), Breton’s novel-like textual art object, some mix of the early history of Surrealism, art criticism, and a fictionalized encounter with a mentally ill woman who is perhaps what we now call an “outsider artist.”  Breton’s use of photographs – of his friends, his art collection, his favorite cafés, documents, scraps – is the most notable feature of the book, full of ideas.  I suppose I found all that more interesting than the central story about the woman in the title.

I read the revised 1964 version of Nadja, which seems to be the one in print in France.  The only English translation is of the original 1928 version.  So strictly speaking, whatever I read is not available in English.  My understanding is that there are some substantial differences in the texts, but I do not know what they are.  All of this was a surprise to me.

Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930).  The original Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) felt like a work of Surrealist art, while this one read more like an important historical document.  Breton fights with his enemies and also his friends, some of whom will be enemies soon enough.  Freud is diminished a little, Marx, or maybe more accurately Stalin, elevated.  Passages on the great Surrealist predecessors – Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Poe – were interesting, but this is not really a work of criticism.  A couple of later essays included in the same volume, written when Breton had some distance and was not getting in fistfights, have more insight into the artistic purpose of Surrealism.

Both Nadja and Second Manifesto were difficult texts, sometimes discursive and obscure.  An important aspect of learning a language by reading is to puzzle out words and phrases from context, but Surrealist writing often deliberately jerks the language away from the context.  That is much of its fun.  But perhaps the French language-learner should not spend so much time with Surrealism.  Yes, perhaps.


I read two Jean Giraudoux plays, Intermezzo (1933, in English as The Enchanted) and La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (1935, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place – I would add an exclamation point).

Intermezzo is about a young woman who has fallen in love with a ghost, and the small-town bourgeois officials (the mayor and so on) who try to save her.  Aside from the good comedy about the pompous, self-centered officials, I did not understand this play, “the point,” I mean.  I think I was all right with the language.  I have read two earlier Giraudoux plays, Siegfried (1928) and Amphitryon 38 (1929), both of which were about divided identities, or divided loyalty.  Intermezzo belongs with them, at least I can see that.

The Trojan War Won’t Happen! has a point that is clear enough.  Giraudoux day job was in the diplomatic service, and this play is an outraged warning.  Paris has just brought Helen to Troy, and the Greeks are in pursuit.  Hector, the great warrior, and a few other characters do everything they can to stave off war, but we know that Cassandra is right, the Trojan War will happen, and poetry will pass from Troy to Greece, as she says in the last line.  The old men, hotheads, incompetents, and theorists will make sure of that.  The Trojans are the French, the Greeks the Germans.

The most audacious scene, I thought, features an expert in international law, who first argues that the law requires peace, then, just as easily and logically, that it requires war.  I think this is where I double-checked the date of the play.  No, this is 1935, not 1938, long before “peace in our time” and all that.  Giraudoux obviously saw what was happening, for all the good it did him.