Sunday, April 30, 2017

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars - Daniel Beer fills the gaps

Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars (2017) filled a major gap in my understanding of Russian history.  An idea that had been almost entirely abstract, or worse, overwhelmed by accounts of the Soviet Gulag, now seems somewhat less abstract.  Beer’s book is filled with specific stories, specific people, specific punishments – so, then, much less abstract.

Could I not read, instead, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead (1862) and achieve the same level of concreteness?  No, not exactly.  Chapter 7, “The Penal Fort,” is built around Dostoevsky’s experiences, and book, but is more generally about life in a Siberian prison, different than other kinds of exile, of which Dostoevsky’s was among the more brutal.  You wanted to stay out of a prison, out of the mines, and out of Sakhalin Island, the subject of Anton Chekhov’s 1893 book of investigative journalism.  But there were many kinds of exile, and many kinds of exiles.

The story of The House of the Dead is how the system changes over time, how the kinds of exiles change, and how the different types adapt to their punishment.  The 1825 Decemberists adapt to Siberia, working to move it closer to their own ideals.  The bomb-throwers and Communists of the 1890s and 1900s continue their fight by the same means that got them to Siberia.  Lenin used his three years of exile to write The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).  “[W]hen he finally left Siberia at the beginning of 1900, he took with him 225 kilogrammes of book” (Ch. 14).  Now that is the way to measure books.

Lenin’s story suggests how incompetent the successive tsars were at punishing their enemies.  The response was generally too much, creating martyrs and public backlash among the more Europeanized Western Russians.  Any improvement in infrastructure or technology – the railroad, for example – only meant that the state could pack more criminals, vagabonds, suspicious characters, revolutionaries, and complete innocents into the Siberian camps, prisons, settlements, and frontiers.

The wildest section is Chapter 9, “General Cuckoo’s Army,” about the “hunchbacks,” the escaped convicts, who, in the vastness of Siberia, numbered in the tens of thousands at any given point.  They were a mix of people desperate to get back to European Russia (where they were forbidden to live), beggars, petty criminals, and murderous psychos.  The peasants who were there as voluntary settlers responded in kind.  At times I felt that I was reading a parody of the settlement of the American West.  I would love to read a book contrasting the settlement of the American West and Siberia.

Maybe that book exists.  I wouldn’t know.  My library only had Beer’s book as an electronic book, so I read it in part as an experiment.  The difficulties of moving around in the book killed any interest in checking sources in the footnotes.  At least some of the book is original archival research by Beer.  Which parts? I don’t know.  It was too tedious to find out.

Beer writes in an efficient but plain style, which sets up a pleasing contrast to his extensive use of more rhetorically interesting quotations from Dostoevsky, Chekhov, George Kennan, and a wide variety of other exiles, Russian and Polish, from across the 19th and early 20th century.  Beer is good with numbers, but there were many places where he would have benefitted by inserting a dang table – number of new exiles per decade, that kind of thing – but I suppose that is forbidden for commercial reasons.  The book would have looked too much like social history, which (don’t tell anybody) it is, a good one.

Friday, April 28, 2017

And here I am, ridiculously alive - Juan Ramón Jiménez poems

I usually write up these ragbag poetry posts when a poet is giving me trouble – which is most of the time.  Pick out some good scraps – so, first, tear the poor poet to scraps – patch them together and take a look at the resulting quilt.  It looks like something, mostly.

Juan Ramón Jiménez looks like the kind of poet with whom I have the most trouble.  He was prolific beyond belief, with multiple styles or periods, apparently the cause of great disagreement among later Spanish poets – which are the best periods? even: which are the good periods? – although speaking generally, Jiménez is beloved.  He wrote that book about the donkey.

Jiménez often works with big symbolic words detached from any context but the poem.  It is a kind of abstraction.  Hard times for me, and likely for any translator. Jiménez becomes plain in translation:

from The Poet to His Soul

    Day after day you keep the branch protected
in case the rose may come; you go alert
day after day, your ear warm at the gate
of your body, for the arrow unexpected.
    Your rose shall be the pattern of all roses;
your ear, of harmony; of every light
your thought; of every waking star, your state.  (1914)

I am on p. 47 of Fifty Spanish Poems (1951), translated by J. B. Trend.  I know, “arrow unexpected,” a Hispanicism (“la fleche inesperada”) kept for the sake of the rhyme (the poem is a sonnet, a pretty one).  But the Spanish mostly seems a lot like the English.  Maybe Trend is too literal.  I often see the word “simple” attached to Jiménez’s style, for what that’s worth.  Rose, soul, light.

To compound my troubles I read, alongside the fifty-poem, career-wide overview, a Jiménez book that Trend would not even have known about, Invisible Reality (1983, written 1917-23, translated by Antonio T. de Nicolás), a set of poems that sometimes seem like fragments or gestures but with a coherent voice and poetics.  So it is a book, whatever Jiménez meant to do with it.

Compared to the published poems, Invisible Reality looks like an experiment in compressed personal mysticism.  A vision, for example, of a twilight in which “joyful gold” becomes “a cloud of ashes” in “the dirty light of gasoline” leads to a cry of ecstasy, or anguish:

I was not ready to give up.
I cried for it; I forced it.  I saw the ridiculous
irrationality of this candid fraternity
of man and life,
death and man.

And here I am, ridiculously alive, waiting
ridiculously dead, for death!  

The next poem revisits the twilight – the same one?  It’s just four lines, or five if the parenthetical counts:

That mauve cloud
pierced by the gold of twilight,
is it not, perhaps, my sad heart
pierced by the light of a love that is leaving?

In the next poem, Jiménez imagines he has a tree inside him.  Should I think of these poems as a sequence.  I picked these out not just because they were striking, but because a long stretch of poems seemed to tell an amorphous story.  Maybe they all do.

Ideal Epitaph

Book just read,
my own fallen flesh,
underground plough of my life!

A poet’s spiritual autobiography, perhaps, or a spiritual poet’s autobiography.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Most of what we call insane is just stupid - some selected poems of Max Jacob

Max Jacob was a painter, friend of the famous (once the friends became more famous than him), and master, or at least writer, of the strange and irritating form, the prose poem.  Several months ago I read a chunk of his first book, The Dice Cup (1916), an inspired mix of puns, shaggy dogs, nonsense, and proto-surrealism. Now I have added The Selected Poems of Max Jacob (1999) as translated by William Kulik, a book that is less wacky and less fun, but more instructive.

This book has just 102 pages of Jacob’s pieces.  A third are from The Dice Cup, a third from the posthumous Last Poems (1946), and a third scattered through the 1920s and 1930s.  The date of Last Poems tells the sad end of the story of Max Jacob, who was both Jewish (though a Catholic convert) and openly gay:

Loving Thy Neighbor

Who’s watched a toad cross the street?  He looks like a very small man: no bigger than a doll.  He crawls along on his knees: do we say he looks ashamed?... no!  That he’s got rheumatism.  A leg draws behind, he pulls it forward. Where’s he headed like this?  He came up out of the sewer, poor clown.  No one noticed him on the street.  Long time ago no one noticed me.  Now the children mock my yellow star.  Lucky toad, you don’t have a yellow star.  (1946, ellipses in original)

This piece’s swerve to a more openly personal statement is hard to find in the poet of 1916, but common in the Jacob of the Occupation.  The “poor clown” – even before he said so, I knew that that was Max, or also Max.  That had been his role for decades.  A contemporary piece is title “’Max is a Lunatic’ (Everyone)” – and he is, he had been, but this poem ends with:

I think it’s time to go lie down.  Most of what we call insane is just stupid.

The middle of the book surprised me in two ways, first that Jacob wrote verse as well as prose poems – one is title “To Mr. Modigliani to Prove I’m a Poet” – and second that Jacob’s conversion to Catholicism was serious enough that he becomes something that I saw no hint of in The Dice Cup, a French Catholic writer.  He is a screwy version of the type, as he perhaps says directly in “Glass of Blood” (1921):

Our ideas at Brocken our hearts at Calvary
The ones the color of time
The others of blood
I drank half a glass of your blood
Threw the rest into the sea

Jacob declares himself a witch, dancing at the Brocken Walpurgisnacht, but only abstractly, in the realm of ideas.  He is a poet full of doubt and disillusion, but only about earthly things.  He does not doubt that the Christian God exists, but that the world exists.

But Jacob was a painter, too.  It is all representation.  Different kinds of representation.

A View in Perspective

Mountain view of the turreted white house
It’s dark, with one lighted window
And two turrets, two turtledove turrets.
Behind the window in the house
Is the fiery light of love!
Plenty of it, winged, eloquent
On the third story
In another room
Unlit, lies a dead man
And all the sorrow of death,
Sorrow’s plenty,
Sorrow’s wings,
Sorrow’s eloquence
View in perspective of a turreted white house.  (1921)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

I am perched solidly / on nothing’s branch - the poems of Attila Jószef

Today the short book of translated poetry at hand is Perched on Nothing’s Branch: Selected Poems (1986) by Attila Jószef (1905-37).  Ah, those horrible dates.  Jószef’s early childhood was miserable, his later childhood in wartime Budapest if anything worse, and his later years cursed by mental health issues.  His life finally ending under a train, a suicide.

In between he was for a time a great Hungarian poet.  The 1999 White Pine Press edition has an introduction by Maxine Kumin where she calls the poems “brief, sharp, but invariably built on a scaffolding of arresting images” (13).  It is the images that come through in Peter Hargitai’s translation:

A raspberry bush squats,
cradles the greasy paper
slumbering in her arms.  (from “Dew,” 84)

Outside the window an old man
pitches manure to clucking chickens.
Muddy potatoes cower in hay needles.
The thatch roof bristles, holy soup ascends
toward the ceiling.
Jesus, in a playpen of yellow down,
is mirthful among the paper sheep.  (from “Bethlehem,” 29)

Yes, a grim sort of Christmas poem, that last one.  But I quoted it for the animation of not just the toy Jesus but the thatch and the potatoes, which are likely not as cowardly as Jószef imagines.  His signature, in the book’s selections, is this sense that the world is active, even as entropy works against it, and us, as in this gleefully gray autumn poem:

Autumn fog is scraping
bald interlacing branches,
frost squints on the railing.
Autumn was already lurking
about the yard, drooling
between the bricks. (32)

Jószef is often described as a surrealist, and this is why.  It’s not the branches that scrape, but the fog; frost squints; autumn lurks and drools.  Everything is doing something it should not do.  This stuff can seem a facile reversal game that anyone could do, or it can seem like the world has been refreshed.  Hargitai chooses his collection’s title from a line that is like a statement of purpose:

I am perched solidly
on nothing’s branch.
The small body shivers
to receive heaven.  (from “Perched on Nothing’s Branch,” 82)

It is the surreal word, the paradox, “solidly,” that clenches the poem for me.  This poem ends “There’s no one out here / to hear – ,” a good example of Jószef sounding like Samuel Beckett.

Jószef’s formalism, to the extent that it is visible, is amusing.  Modernism means that a poet can write a sonnet called, and about a, “Drunk on the Tracks”:

There’s no room for the sun, the sky is ashes.
Only a drunk is lying on the tracks,
and from far away, the slow boom of the earth.  (78)

Those are the last lines, which presumably, in Hungarian, contain some rhyme words.  As for the subject, Jószef’s death makes it almost too painful to read, although less so than this book’s final poem, “Nothing,” which begins like Shakespeare:

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
Let it be, so it won’t be…

And ends, with “no luggage,” at the train station, “where there’s nothing at all.”  What despair.

Monday, April 24, 2017

ready to collect the blood from the wounds - Angelos Sikelianos and the old gods

From the Greek section of Willis Barnstone’s Modern European Poetry anthology (1966), I have picked up the idea, likely wrong, that the great and glorious tradition of Classical Greek literature and mythology was something of a curse for modern Greek poets.  Were they allowed to write about anything else?  But maybe I should come at the problem from the other direction – to be a great modern Greek poet, you really had to earn it.

Angelos Sikelianos (1884-51) earned it through a genuine poetic mysticism.  He was devoted to ancient Greek literature as to ancient Greek religion, and he searched for its surviving remnants.  Thus, poems about the Eleusinian Mysteries or like the long “Hymn to Artemis Orthia,” a cryptic, strange invocation of a mystery cult that I did not think I had even heard of (but I had, since it is in the background of the Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia at Taurus of Euripides):

O Orthia,
like the workman
who collects resin
from cedar or pine
incised for the purpose,
You hold Your cupped hand ready
to collect the blood from the wounds.  (81)

Sikelianos embraces the raw, bloody Greece, more Spartan than Athenian, with erotic deities rising form the sea:

O but the sudden breaths of earth, filling my breasts, rousing me
                  from head to foot.
O Zeus, the sea is heavy, and my loosened hair drags me
                  down like a stone.  (“Aphrodite Rising,” 21)

… on the very edge where spray dissolves,
                 and leaning motionless,

upper lip pulled back so that his teeth shone,
                 he stood
huge, erect, smelling the white-crested sea
                until sunset.   (“Pan,” who else, 29)

The poet’s job, as mystic or seer, is to pull the reader of his poem a step or two closer to the lost or hidden state in which these gods and rituals function.  Or perhaps he is just an anthropologist, as in another long one, “The Village Wedding,” an occasion where, if anywhere, the old ways still have some force.

Before the bride enters,
the bridegroom’s mother
 anoints the threshold with honey,
breaks the pomegranate on the lintel.  (59)

Sikelianos wrote plays, too, and organized festivals.  He has some interesting resemblances to Yeats, the public Yeats, showing the people their gods.

I read the Selected Poems (1979) as translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.  The translators do not supply any dates.  The first poems of Sikelianos are from 1909, the last from the 1940s.  The last poem is an imagined parable of Christ’s, and it is easy to guess that it is from 1941, the Nazi conquest of Greece.  Jesus has come across a garbage pit, and is examining the corpse of a dog.  “’Look how that dog’s teeth glitter in the sun: / like hailstones, like a lily, beyond decay.’”  The poet ponders Christ’s words, thinking that

…  the world from end to end is all ruins, garbage,
all unburied corpses choking the sacred
springs of breath, inside and outside the city…  (139)

He prays for something “above the putrefaction / beyond the world’s decay,” for “Justice.”  The poet is no longer the mystic, but another of the supplicants.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Swinburne's last twenty years in letters

Have you glanced at what few, I should think, would read through – the mighty mass of Coleridge’s collected letters?  It is of course a profoundly depressing book…  (p. 82, Swinburne to William Rossetti, June 16, 1895)

Overcoming some logistical difficulties (the library hid the book from me for a while) I have finished the sixth volume, and therefore all six volumes, about 1,800 pages, of Algernon Swinburne’s letters (ed. Cecil Lang, Yale UP, 1962), this time taking Swinburne from 1890 to his death in 1909.

Swinburne came close to drinking himself to death in 1879, but his friends and family dried him out and kept him dry.  Kept him away from bottles.  This is Edmund Gosse writing about Swinburne:

… he would gradually fix his stare upon the bottle as if he wished to fascinate it, and then, in a moment, flash or pounce upon it, like a mongoose on a snake, drawing it towards him as though it resisted and had to be struggled with.  Then, if no one had the presence of mind to interfere, a tumbler was filled in a moment, and Swinburne had drained it to the last drop, sucking in the liquid with a sort of fiery gluttony, tilting the glass into his shaking lips, and violently opening and shutting his eyelids.  It was an extraordinary sight, and one which never failed to fill me with alarm, for after that the Bacchic transition might come at any moment.  (p. 241)

But that, although described so vividly in an appendix to this final volume, is in the distant past.  Every year after Swinburne’s illness was treated was, as we say, gravy.

I probably at some point described Swinburne’s letters as “like a novel,” meaning that, as Gosse’s memoir suggests, they had vivid characters and a strong narrative interest.  The last two volumes of letters are not much like a novel.  They are the happy ending, in fiction compressed into a two-page denouement, but here filling five hundred pages.  Swinburne is, for the twenty years of these letters, a professional writer.  He mostly writes articles, literary essays, for magazines and encyclopedias.  He engages in controversies in the letters pages of newspapers.  People ask him if they can put a poem in an anthology.  He ages; his friends and family die; his deafness keeps him at home.  He for some reason almost wins the Nobel.  He lives through writing, and lives, and lives some more.

Just as Swinburne’s letters to Dante Gabriel Rossetti were the highlights of earlier volumes, many of the best this time are to William Rossetti.  They are often about Gabriel, or about his wife Lizzie Siddal.  He describes reading her a John Fletcher play (“of course with occasional skips” – these Victorians) – “I can hear the music of her laugher to this day” (93, Dec. 4, 1895).

Thomas Hardy begins sending his books to Swinburne, who is appreciative.  “… for Balzac is dead, and there has been no such tragedy in fiction – on anything like the same lines – since he died” (91, Nov. 5, 1895).  Always interesting.

I strongly recommend that you read Swinburne’s letters – let’s see – in a 500-page edition of selections that also includes illustrations, a smattering of poems, relevant essays about Swinburne, and biographical sections covering the gaps.  This book exists only in my imagination, but it is quite good, and it might exist in reality someday.

Friday, April 21, 2017

the kind of ugliness appropriate to each rank in life - Gertrude Stein's Three Lives

Should I try to write about Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909)?  Do I have anything to say about it?  I don’t know – answer to both questions.

Two longish short stories about German-American women who work as servants surround a novella about an African-American woman who has some money of her own.  None of these characters are the normal stuff of American fiction at this point.  The Baltimore setting, to the extent that the setting matters, is also unusual.

Anna knew so well the kind of ugliness appropriate to each rank in life.

If taken ironically, that could be a statement of purpose.  One purpose.

The book begins with a quote from Jules Laforgue, in French, which post-T. S. Eliot is a good way to establish High Modernist credentials, but this is pre-Eliot.  How many American readers in 1909 knew who the heck Laforgue was?  I have no idea. “Donc je suis malheureux et ce n'est ni ma faute ni celle de la vie” – “So I am unfortunate and it’s neither my fault nor that of life.”  The people in Stein’s stories are ordinary, a lot of things just happen to them, and the things they choose – well, they are the way they are.  The worldview is fatalistic.

Yet the German women are “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena,” and Melanctha is good and gentle, too.  Lena, in the final story, is close to a saint, if a perfectly normal person can be a saint.  Her arranged marriage causes her suffering, something like a suppression of her personality, and eventually her death, but it seems that her husband and children are in some way saved through her.

Anna love animals and children and helpless people, and devotes her life to helping them.  “She knew too, that Anna had a feeling heart.”  The word “feeling” is used constantly in these stories.  From “Melanctha”:

Jeff was at last beginning to know what it was to have deep feeling…  He was very tired and all the world was very dreary to him, and he knew very well now at last, he was really feeling…  He was very sick all these days, and his heart was very heavy in him, and he knew very well that now at last he had learned what it was to have deep feeling.

All of this from a single paragraph, about Dr. Jeff Campbell learning how to feel through his treatment by the deep but restless and willful Melanctha.  Maybe she is also a kind of saint, like Lena.  Maybe all of the characters are saints.

“The Good Anna” has some resemblance to Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (1877).  The simple, kind-hearted servant in that story achieves an apotheosis by means of her beloved pet parrot.  And here is Anna, a servant, who loves animals, and oh lordy – I am re-enacting my reading of the story – Stein has just given Anna a parrot.  In a parodistic move, though, the parrot does not really work out:

… and soon they were all content.  All except the parrot, for Miss Mathilda did not like its scream.  Baby [a dog] was all right but not the parrot.  But then Anna never really loved the parrot…

All right, so if “The Good Anna” is parallel to “A Simple Heart” – what “if,” it is – then are the other two stories in Three Lives related to the other two stories in Flaubert’s Three Tales?  “Gentle Lena” is like Saint Julian, and “Melanctha” is somehow connected to “Hérodias”?  If so, I don’t get it.  But now I wonder what I missed.

The prose style is plain and repetitive, but across rather than within sentences.  The “feeling” passage above gives a sense of how this sounds.  It is rhythmic, but not the rhythm of poetry.  Entire sentences recur.    The prose at times pulses.  I don’t think anyone had written anything quite like it.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

I’m a bit of a pig, a lot, even - Alphonse Allais's I Am Sarcey

Every time I write about Doug Skinner’s translations of Alphonse Allais – the new one is I Am Sarcey (2017, contents 1886-97) – I say that the Allais’s humor columns and so on ought to be period pieces, historical ephemera, but are better than that, are good.  Still funny; still fun.  This is my only idea about Allais, apparently.  If anything this is even more the case with I Am Sarcey – more ephemeral yet not, but even more so.

Francisque Sarcey was for decades the most powerful theater critic in France, like Frank Rich in the distant old days in New York City.  A rebel in his youth, he became more plump and bourgeois as he aged.  To the young cabaret Bohemians and artists of Montmartre, he was made for mockery.

Alphonse Allais mocked him by writing a newspaper column under Sarcey’s name.  I don’t know much about the “real” Sarcey, but Allais’s Sarcey is a great comic creation.  Conventional, banal, inadvertently self-revealing, lecherous, pompous yet deeply ignorant.

Zola doesn’t commit obscenities in his life, but fills his books with them.

Me, in my articles, never a dirty word, but how I make up for it in private!

For – and this is no secret to anyone – I’m a bit of a pig, a lot, even.

Well then!  I’d rather be the way I am, than be like Zola.  (30, 1887)

Allais has no qualms about being vulgarly insulting, but the banality is the primary insult.  There follows a digression about where to buy chickens:

…  go see my cousin in Dourdan.  He’ll take care of you, and it won’t be expensive.

He also sells little baby chicks, and eggs to be hatched.

But I’m chattering, chattering, and I forgot what I was talking about.  (31)

Sarcey is as digressive as Tristram Shandy.  He has the habit of digressing into explanations of the most ordinary things – common card games, or how steam power works (“Few people, outside those in the profession, know what steam is,” 111).  He spends an entire column describing how he was out without an umbrella, and got “as soaked as soup.”

So what do I do now, after that adventure?

I’ll tell you.

Whether it’s a fine day or a bad one, I don’t go out without an umbrella.  (155, 1893)

That is the main source of humor, I suppose – that this powerful man is a friendly, talkative idiot.  What is funniest is the conversational, self-satisfied voice applied to trivia.

A terrific running joke involves Sarcey 1) bragging about how he no longer writes any of the other columns that bear his name, meaning those written by the “real” Sarcey, having handed them off to ghostwriters like a butcher from his neighborhood, and 2) complaining about people writing fraudulent columns, filled with the grossest stupidities, as if they are by him.  Sometimes Allais seems so stunned by the “real” Sarcey’s genuine idiocies that he has trouble inventing fake idiocies.

I suppose these pieces benefit from more notes than usual, more identification of newspaper and Bohemians and so on.  Skinner’s notes are themselves amusing and surprising, so this is hardly a problem.  But Allais’s Sarcey becomes plump and lifelike without much extra help.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I thought again of Dickens - Hope Jahren's science memoir Lab Girl

Through a mix of Twitter flattery and reverse psychology, influential biologist Hope Jahren tricked me into reading her memoir Lab Girl (2016).  It is an unusually good book.  (Other authors, please do not try this again – each spell works only once).

Jahren and her longtime lab manager Bill collect large samples of material – soil, moss, fossils – and run them through a mass spectrometer or some such machine.  Thus, the lab, her own lab, a series of labs that she and Bill have built from scratch and scraps.  The series of labs are one of the frames on which Jahren builds the book.

Another frame is a series of short chapters about tree biology.  All of the tree science is in these little chapters, but the trees are also clear-cut for metaphor.  Pulped for metaphor.  Jahren is as a rule good with metaphor – “The students spilled out of the van like an undone bag of marbles” (114) – but the tree chapters do something well beyond the single image.  Some of the extended metaphors are more obvious than others, but I am looking at the fascinating 2.3, about the symbiotic relationship between trees and certain fungi – “the best – and really only – friends that trees ever had” (104) – where her friend Bill is (also) the fungus.  “Why are they together, the tree and the fungus?”  It’s a dang allegory.

This is like that.  But I have written before about how scientists need metaphor as much as anyone in literature.

In Chapter 1.4, Jahren writes about her first science-like job, preparing intravenous medicine in a hospital pharmacy, a job that is not exactly David Copperfield’s child labor in the bottle-washing factory but with the empty bottles, labels and seals is like it, enough like it that Jahren interlards the chapter with direct quotations from the Dickens novel.

Lydia was magnificent at her workstation, possibly because she’d been doing this sixty hours a week for almost twenty years.  Watching her sort, clean, and inject was like watching a ballerina defy gravity.  I watched her hands fly and thought… in an easy amateur way, and without any book (he seemed to me to know everything by heart), from chapter seven.  (44)

Lydia is a great character, one of those Dickensian creations that are called caricatures by readers who have limited acquaintance with the variety of humanity.   Here is another David Copperfield quotation, upon visiting the hospital psych ward:

What originally struck me as cryptic in chapter fifty-nine was now mundane: they are turned inward, to feed upon their own hearts, and their own hearts are very bad feeling.  (49)

Not only is the chapter full of David Copperfield quotations, but they all contain the word “heart.”  Jahren says she was working on a paper for her English class, making this a truly heroic feat of undergraduate recycling.  I suppose this could look like a gimmick; to me, it looked like a triumph.  The chapter could stand on its own as a short story.

The book is much funnier than I have suggested.  See the chapter with the trip to Monkey Jungle, a Florida tourist “attraction”:

Three Java Macaques that had been straining their brains over some problem that they could neither solve nor abandon propelled themselves toward us, supposing that we somehow represented an answer.  A white-handed gibbon was draped limply across our walkway, either asleep or dead or someplace in between…  A single howler monkey sat high on a branch in the back, wailing out the entire Book of Job in his native tongue while periodically raising his arms in an age-old supplication for an explanation as to why the righteous must suffer.  (116-7, the ellipses conceal a Beckett reference)

But the Dickens chapter was the only part of this fine book that I really wanted to write about, surprise surprise.

I stole the title of the post from a later chapter, p. 61.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It is time to rediscover Conrad Aiken

The piece of Aiken appreciation that appeared earlier today on the Los Angeles Times website for some reason puts that in the form of a question, perhaps because its author, Tyler Malone, does not want the rediscovery to occur until the publication, now imminent, of the new issue of his magazine, The Scofield, which for some unlikely reason is entirely devoted to Aiken.

I plan to study the magazine with close attention, but I say let’s rediscover Aiken right now!  In this very blog post!  Which will be about Aiken’s The House of Dust: A Symphony (1920), Aiken’s sixth book of poems in seven years.  All of the poetry T. S. Eliot published during the 1910s and 1920s would fit inside any single Aiken book from the same period.  Aiken published roughly ten times as much poetry as Eliot at this time.

I mention Eliot because Aiken can be so derivative of Eliot, although by this point he has his own voice – Eliot is possibly influenced by Aiken now – which he developed incrementally, book by book, each one a variation on the previous.  Sweeney-like men agonizing about women, books labeled “symphonies” with poems organized in four movements, and recurring motifs that may well be music-like.  Is the third “movement” of The House of Dust meant to be a scherzo, with its climatic witches' Sabbath?  I find these conceptual musical claims hard to see.

One recurring motif is dust, the stuff of which of which me are made and to which we will return, but also – see title – the stuff of which our buildings are made:

What did we build it for?  Was it all a dream…
Ghostly above us in lamplight the towers gleam…
And after a while they will fall to dust and rain;
Or else we will tear them down with impatient hands;
And hew rocks out of the earth, and build them again.  (last lines, ellipses in original)

I would love to interpret this as Aiken writing about his previous books of poems.

The characters are the best part of the book.  House of Dust is like a Spoon River Anthology of a single New York City block.  A construction worker, building a high rise, experiences vertigo (“The Fulfilled Dream”).  An actress, pregnant and unmarried, imagines suicide.  A poet’s dream girl steps out of a Hiroshige print, rewarding his devotion.  A couple steps into a movie – or perhaps it is just the poet, the Sweeney figure finding another dream girl on screen.  Only Aiken and Vachel Lindsay seemed to really get movies this early:

The music ends.  The screen grows dark.  We hurry
To go our devious secret ways, forgetting
Those many lives…  We loved, we laughed, we killed,
We danced in fire, we drowned in a whirl of sea-waves.
The flutes are stilled, and a thousand dreams are stilled.  (“Cinema,”

Those “flutes” are from the movie theater’s organ.  This is not exactly as much fun as Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924) but it’s pretty good.

Let’s see, next up is Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History (1921) and then Priapus and the Pool (1922).  Maybe the reason to read Aiken in a collected or selected volume is to get some distance from his terrible titles.

A holiday approaches, so I will recede for a few days.  Next post on Tuesday.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Thus he stabs ‘em; there, they lie. - Robert Graves in 1921

The Pier-Glass (1921) is the third book of poems by Robert Graves, or sixth if I count three chapbooks.  That’s a book of some kind every year since 1916.  The Pier-Glass is only fifty-three pages, counting just the poems, heading towards chapbook territory.  Graves, judging by his bibliography, hustles at this pace as a poet for another ten years, and then only somewhat more slowly for another forty.

The memoir and novels and all of the Greek stuff is in the future.  Graves is still a charming poet.  The great devotee of the White Goddess has begun to show himself, though, just barely, as in the poem “Raising the Stone,” in which druids are raising a menhir by moonlight.  It topples, crushing one of them,

              but we who live raise a shrill chant
Of joy for sacrifice cleansing us all.
    Once more we heave.  Erect in earth we plant,
The interpreter of our dumb furious call,
    Outraging Heaven, pointing
            “I want, I want.”

Less charming than terrifying, and an inversion of William Blake’s engraving.

The next poem, “The Treasure Box,” is Graves at his most charming.  “Ann in chill moonlight” – just like the ancient druids – “unlocks \ Her polished brassbound treasure-box.”  Most of the poem is just a list of the treasures: ribbons tied in a knot, little gloves that “fold in a walnut shell,” dried flowers, a scrap of lace,

A Chelsea gift-bird; a toy whistle;
A halfpenny stamped with the Scots thistle…

Are these the treasures of a child?

Her mother’s thin-worn wedding ring;
A straw box full of hard smooth sweets;
A book, the Poems of John Keats

No, not a child.  An older woman.  There is also a packet of letters, the greatest treasure, the record of an old love affair so sad that, when the woman tries to read them by moonlight, “the old moon blinks \ And softly from the window shrinks.”

In “The Troll’s Nosegay,” a troll picks a bouquet; in “The Pier-Glass” an old ghost is saved from despair by bees; in “The Gnat” a tormented shepherd, thinking he is dying, murders his beloved horse.  Graves the poet has a strong narrative imagination, an odd one.  I always enjoyed the surprises of his little stories even when I was not sure what they meant.

The last poem, “The Coronation Murder,” is perhaps oddest of all.  It is in four parts, from four points of view: the woman who murders the lecherous, “rat-soul’d” Becker; the victim himself – “His bones are tufted with mildew”; his son, who confronts his father’s ghost; and a parrot, who hears the woman confess in her sleep and thus reveals her crime, maybe:

Soon, when sunlight warms his cage,
    He plots to cheer the passers-by
With burlesque of murderous rage,
    Acting how his victims die:
Thus he stabs ‘em; there, they lie.

It’s a revenge tragedy in five pages.  The war is over, and Graves is no longer a trench poet, but some kind of war continues.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The city corrodes out of sight - D. H. Lawrence wonders what it is like to be a seed

Prolific poets circa 1920 will I believe be my subject for the next few days.  Today: D. H. Lawrence’s New Poems (1918), his fourth book of poems.  The last two, in 1916 and 1917, covered, respectively, his engagement and his honeymoon, often written, the latter book especially, in an especially free free verse that was not afraid to sound absurd as part of sounding like Lawrence.

In New Poems, Lawrence is back in England, or perhaps he is back in the past a bit and has not yet left, and the poems are all in formal clothes – rhymes and so on.  Thus, in a magnificently Lawrentian gesture, the American edition of the book (1920) begins with an almost unreadable preface defending free verse.

This is the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present, poetry whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit.  (v)

But in free verse we look for the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment.  (viii)

And so on, ending with the admission that “[a]ll this should have come as a preface to ‘Look We have Come Through!,’” the previous book.  Hilarious.  When I turn to the poems, they look like this:

from Flat Suburbs, S.W., in the Morning

The new red houses spring like plants
        In level rows
Of reddish herbage that bristles and slants
       Its square shadows.

Bare stems of street-lamps stiffly stand
        At random, desolate twigs,
To testify to a blight on the land
       That has stripped their sprigs.

Rhyme, rhythm, and an imagistic conceit that both has insight into how things actually look and is developed into a worldview, as if Lawrence is a Metaphysical Poet.

Lawrence tours the suburbs, London, and elsewhere.  Some of the poems form a rough sequence.  The mood is alienated:

from Parliament Hill in the Evening

The hopeless, wintry twilight fades,
    The city corrodes out of sight
As the body corrodes when death invades
    That citadel of delight.

The spread of the city lights is described as “verdigris smoulderings,” in case I had forgotten who I was reading.

Browsing the book, it is grimmer than I remember:

from Palimpsest of Twilight

The night-stock oozes scent,
    And a moon-blue moth goes flittering by:
All that the worldly day has meant
    Wastes like a lie.

Geez, David, the sun goes down every day, you know.

The red houses in the suburbs make an oblique return in “School on the Outskirts”:

How different, in the middle of snows the great school rises red!
    A red rock silent and shadowless, clung round with clusters of shouting lads…

This red building is a refuge in a wasteland, “this weary land the winter burns and makes blind,” to the few real students, “obstinate dark monads,” who cling to it, as Lawrence once did.

The season of the poems shifts, near the end of the book, from winter to – no, not spring, too cheery – to autumn, which is just as sad.  “Débâcle” is about, no kidding, the biological struggle of seeds – “all the myriad houseless seeds… \ Moan softly with autumnal parturition.”  They fall “bitterly,” and “Bitterly into corrosion bitterly travel.”  The word “corrosion” is repeated several times, as the angry seeds rot away, their little spark of life wasted, “committed to hold and wait… \ only forbidden to expire.”

Then, of course, some of them sprout, but that is outside of this poem.  For me, this kind of thing is Lawrence at his best, when he works through a conceit that seems crazy but in fact is based on a serious and complex understanding of the world around him.  The poem is full of Lawrence, but it is also really about seeds.  The secret, imagined life of seeds.

I am pretty sure that “Piano” is the best-known poem in New Poems (“I weep like a child for the past”), but I am always happier when Lawrence gets outside of himself a little.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Misery was being prepared for someone - Trollope, The Duke's Children, and the last bit of the horse

The Duke’s Children (1880) ends Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, with the story shifting from Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and in the previous novel an unhappy Prime Minister of England, to his children, particularly his eldest son.  Trollope’s series of novels do not work the way such creatures work today – Palliser is only a minor character in several of the novels in the series that bears his name – but he legitimately aged, developed, regressed – changed, is what I am trying to say since his introduction in a synergistic subplot of The Small House at Allington back in 1864.

This, to me, is close to the whole point of writing novels as a series, as an extended serial.  It allows the fictional passage of time to line up with the actual passage of time, resulting in some powerful effects, which I have tossed aside by reading the books at a rate of two per year.

Bluntly, the last two books, The Prime Minister and this one, are on the weaker side, but good enough that I don’t care.  The problems the Duke and his children face recapitulate a number of the most important themes of the series, the fox hunting scenes do not go on all that long, the new plotline about horse racing – well here’s what Trollope says about that:

How that race was run… the present writer having no aptitude in that way, cannot describe.  (Ch. 17)

Some of Trollope’s fox hunts have a sportscaster quality – heaven help me, he is going to call the entire match – so even though several of the greatest scenes in the 19th century novel are horse racing scenes, I did not quite trust Trollope on this matter.  But everything’s fine.  It’s just a way to get rich characters to do a lot of idiotic gambling, and it keeps the “con man” theme of the series going, in the fine minor character Major Tifto.

The minor characters are at their usual level, like the equally fine Miss Cassewary:

‘That's d---- nonsense,’ said the Earl.  Miss Cassewary gave a start, – not, we may presume, because she was shocked, for she could not be much shocked, having heard the same word from the same lips very often; but she thought it right always to enter a protest.  (Ch. 9)

This chapter is entitled “’In media res,’” and it includes the only extended metafictional joke in the book, another old theme brought back for a last run, as Trollope tells his reader that he is going to start in the middle of a plot (“but only for a branch of my story”), putting the cart before the horse, the horse being all of the exposition, but warns that however much he tries to hide it the horse will still be there.  Then throughout the chapter he points out whenever the characters discuss their backgrounds or whatnot by saying things like “This is another bit of the horse.”

Two lines that summarize much of the emotional content of the novel:

Mary, who watched it all, was sure that misery was being prepared for someone.  (Ch. 59)

‘Young ladies generally have a bad time of it.’  (Ch. 53)

As in George Meredith’s The Egoist from just a year before – I wonder if Trollope knew it – five characters need to be arranged into couples; thus the misery, thus the bad time.  No, not for everyone.

Trollope would die two years later, and this novel would have provided a natural and satisfying close to his career, but he published at least four more novels in the last two years of his life, so forget that idea.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Behold the Madman! - more of Unamuno's Quixote - All of which is literary criticism, and of small concern to us.

The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho is in some sense a work of literary criticism, a comment on the Cervantes novel.  It moves through the novel chapter by chapter and includes substantial quotations.  From each chapter, each adventure, Miguel de Unamuno extracts the principles of Quixotism, and to a lesser degree Sanchopanzism (“a good Quixotist has to be a Sanchopanzist as well,” 462) and by default the system that is his enemy, with which modern Spain is infected, Cervantism.  “We are as short of Quixotism as we are long on Cervantism.”

Unamuno freely skips anything that does not, let’s say, fire up his imagination.  I was so looking forward to Chapter 6, when the curate and the barber go through Alonso Quijano’s books.  Here it is, all of it:

Chapter Six

Cervantes here inserts that Chapter Six in which he describes the grand and clever scrutiny which the curate and the barber made of the library of our ingenious hidalgo. All of which is literary criticism, and of small concern to us.  It is a matter of books and not of life.  Let us pass over it in silence.  (52)

A lesson for me – my interest in the topic is a sad example of my corrupt Cervantism.  I am like the “curious documentalists devoted to factology” (354) who search for errors in Unamuno’s Quixotist writing, never finding them.  In the prologue to the third edition of his book, Unamuno addresses a mistake in which he moves a speech from Sancho Panza to another character.  But that is the attribution, argues Unamuno, in the original Arabic text.  “[I]t was Cervantes who misread the text, so that my interpretation, and not his, is the faithful one” (7).

It is all too possible that Jorge Luis Borges has permanently damaged Our Lord Don Quixote, making it unreadable as anything but a Pierre Menard-like act of imagination.  I would only counter that Borges, Unamuno, and more or less every permutation of fiction is already inherent in Don Quixote.

I was delighted – this is an aside – to see Unamuno recognize Henry Fielding, in “Gloss to a Passage by Fielding, the Cervantine,” as “the greatest, if not the first, of English Cervantines,” and Joseph Andrews (1742) as the great descendent of Don Quixote – the novel that retroactively turned Don Quixote into the “first novel.”  But Unamuno thinks “it [DQ] gains in translation” and “has been better understood outside of Spain.”

Like a novel, but not exactly like the specific novel Don Quixote, Unamuno’s books climaxes in the long episode with the Duke and Duchess.

Your Passion has begun, and the bitterest type of passion at that: passion by mockery…  You are dequixotized to a certain extent, but in exchange all those that mock you are quixotized…  “Behold the man!” they cried in mockery of Our Lord Christ.  “Behold the madman!” they will say to you, my Lord Don Quixote, and you will be the madman, unique, The Madman.  (122)

I need to read someone with more specialized knowledge to know exactly how heretical this heresy was at the time.  Unamuno does a heck of a job ushering in modern (Modern) literature, adapting Quixote for a new century.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

What atrocious ideas! - Miguel de Unamuno's Our Lord Don Quixote - Grant me the gift of your madness, our eternal Don Quixote

Our Lord Don Quixote by Miguel de Unamuno, a book with a title so packed with meaning that it has influenced my thinking about Don Quixote ever since I learned the book existed twenty years ago.  Even better, Unamuno never wrote a book with this title.  He wrote The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho (1905), and someone, perhaps the translator, Andrew Kerrigan, chose the more pungent title for the English version, which is also filled out by a number of related essays.

Still, the phrase is Unamuno’s.

Not even madness is understood here [Spain] any longer.  They go so far as to say and think that a madman must have a hidden reason or an economic motivation for being mad.  The “reason of unreason” has become a fact for these wretches.  If Our Lord Don Quixote were to rise from the dead and return to this Spain, they would seek out the ulterior motives behind his noble extravagance.  (9)

Yes, Our Lord Don Quixote is an example of everyone’s favorite genre, the Lucianic satire, a genuine sequel to The Praise of Folly (1511).  The truest sequel I can think of, since even more than Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833) it is a book-length praise of folly, a defense of Quixotism and Sanchopanzism.  As with Carlyle’s novel, it can be hard to tell when the author is serious and when he is joking or rhetorizing.  My sense with both books is that the more outrageous the idea, the more serious the author.  That is more or less the point of writing this kind of book.

I do not want to be reasonable in accordance with that wretched reasoning which feeds the opportunists.  Madden me, my Don Quixote!

Long live Don Quixote!  Long live Don Quixote in his battered defeat!  Long live Don Quixote in death!  Grant me the gift of your madness, our eternal Don Quixote, and let me rest in your bosom.  If you know how I suffer, my Don Quixote, among these countrymen of yours, whose entire reserves of heroic madness you seem to have used up, leaving them only the presumptuous madness which undid you!  (281)

Setting aside the specifically Spanish aspect of the book, which I did find a little cryptic – for example, the call to a mad heroism as a response to Spain’s recent defeat in the Spanish-American War, if I am getting that right, which I doubt – the core argument is that faith in unreason is a better way to live than a corrosive, inevitably faithless reason.  It is a proto-existentialism, where futile activity beats sensible inaction.

Don Quixote has just freed the galley slaves, and Unamuno has defended the action at length:

At this point I can see you, timid readers, raising your hands to your head and exclaiming: What atrocious ideas!  And then you will talk of social order and security and other such gibberish. (106)

These satires always abuse their readers.

Reader, listen: though I do not know you, I love you so much that if I could hold you in my hands, I would open up your breast and in your heart’s core I would make a wound and into it I would rub vinegar and salt, so that you might never again know peace but would live in continual anguish and endless longing.  If I have not succeeded in disquieting you with this Quixote of mine it is because of my heavy-handedness, believe me, and because the dead paper on which I write neither shrieks, nor cries out, nor sighs, nor laments, and because language was not made for you and me to understand each other.  (305)

How rarely a book so perfectly lives up to its title.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

He faced it completely now - some late James "tales"

I took a break from The Ambassadors by reading some easier stuff, including some Henry James.  For a long time, twenty-five years or more, the only “late James” I had ever read had been “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903), so I revisited that, and also tried the dark, strange, anti-comedy “Fordham Castle” (1904) and the surprising novella “The Papers” (1903), surprising in both subject and tone.

Everyone interested in fiction should at least see late James, even if he cannot stand to read it.  How is this for a first sentence:

What determined the speech that startled him in the course of their encounter scarcely matters, being probably but some words spoken by himself quite without intention – spoken as they lingered and slowly moved together after their renewal of acquaintance.

There’s starting in the middle of the action, and starting in the middle of a fog bank.  But in this case, the vagueness suits the theme – the plot – since the story is about a man who knows, just somehow knows, that something is going to happen to him – that the beast is going to pounce.  But what any of that might mean is anyone’s guess.  The story is an appendix to The Ambassadors.  Where Strether implores that we “Live all we can,” this fellow says “Yes, exactly, just as soon as – ,” and just as Strether turns out to be living all he can pretty much by definition, this poor sap more or less discovers that the beast is life, and is perpetually pouncing.  Or else the anticipation causes him to miss the pounce.  Or he does not miss it, but misses that he does not miss it.  And so on.  I can see why Borges loved James’s stories (“I think that the whole world of Kafka is to be found in a far more complex way in the stories of Henry James”).

“The Papers” is about two young journalists who write up gossip and party-going for newspapers.  They are in some sense a couple, and if their comic banter is not up there with His Girl Friday, it is getting there.  The characters are surprisingly cynical for James.  No, that is not right.  The surprise is that they are forthrightly cynical, a necessary stance for survival in their shallow, parasitic profession.  The woman is not sure she is capable of maintaining the proper level of cynicism, which could make for a plot, but James picked something more melodramatic – a celebrity disappears, perhaps committing suicide?  Did the journalist drive him to his death?

A jolly little shocker, all too relevant.  The profession of celebrity journalism seems to be fundamentally unchanged to the present day.

“Fordham Castle” is another comedy, although not of the funny kind, with another faked death.  Abel Taker is at a Swiss hotel, calling himself C. P. Addard so that his wife can pretend he is dead and, presumably, marry someone better and richer.  He meets a woman in exactly the same situation, he thinks, except that it is her daughter who wants her “dead” and out of the way.  Some coincidences ensue.  The last lines:

He faced it completely now, and to himself at least could express it without fear of protest.  ‘Why certainly I’m dead.’

It’s about as dark a James story as I can remember.  And not especially “late” or difficult – nor is “The Papers” – although as I become accustomed to the period I have a lost my sense of what any of that means.  Relative, I guess.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

He gurgled his joy - the immense hedonist in The Ambassadors

Martha Nussbaum argues that the perceptive, particularizing Lambert Strether represents the Aristotelean ethical position and the absent but omnipresent Mrs. Newsome the Kantian position.  In the long, complex, over my head introductory material, Nussbaum also argues against Utilitarian ethics. 

Her specific argument is, setting aside the merits of a given philosopher, that the novel - not just this novel, but the novel as such, as a form – is especially good at working through the kinds of ethical problems that Aristotle’s system is also good at.  Some high proportion of our daily decisions are probably well covered by a pretty basic Utilitarianism, but they hardly make for good fiction.  Chocolate-covered cake donut or plain?  Or maybe I need Kant to help me resist the temptation.  I face this problem often, daily, but as drama it is a little thin.

Although Nussbaum does not really mention it, the Utilitarian position has a representative in The Ambassadors in the great minor character Jim Pocock.  Around the middle, just as Strether was pretty close to resigning his ambassadorship, I began to wonder how James planned to fill so many more pages with this handful of characters.  At just that point, the arrival of new characters was announced, just what the novel needed, including the daughter of Mrs. Newsome, her representative in the flesh, but even more cold and inflexible, completely incapable of adjusting her sense of correctness to her perception.  “The effect she produced of representing her mother had been produced – and that was just the immense, the uncanny part of it – without her having so much as mentioned that lady” (10.3).

But her husband, Jim, that’s who I want here.  Early in the novel, Strether has picked up, along with “wonderful,” the word “immense” – see just above – which is used less flexibly and appears to be some kind of slang.  But it sticks to Jim:

“You see Jim’s really immense…  Jim’s intensely cynical…  He’s awful.”  (9.1)

That’s Strether, thinking aloud.  Jim is only cynical from Strether’s Aristotelian perspective.  In fact, he is a hedonist, a simple-minded Utilitarian, maximizing his pleasure:

He gurgled his joy as they rolled through the happy streets; he declared that his trip was a regular windfall, and that he wasn't there, he was eager to remark, to hang back from anything: he didn't know quite what Sally had come for, but he had come for a good time. (8.2)

And he assumes that Strether and other Americans in Paris are as decadent and ready to party as he is.  He enacts a parody of Strether’s response to Paris, as he

drank in the sparkling Paris noon and carried his eyes from one side of their vista to the other.  “Why I want to come right out and live here myself.  And I want to live while I am here too.”

I could almost detect Strether’s anxiety – is Jim suggesting Strether take him to a brothel? – but Jim’s first “disencumbered and irresponsible” suggestion is that he and Strether, in a cab together, “take a further turn round before going to the hotel.”  Oh, yes, that kind of good time.

In a further irony, there is a hint, at the end of his novel, that his wife, the rigid Kantian Sarah, has taken up with another American.

I meant to use this post as a note dump, a scrapbook of favorite bits of The Ambassadors I Had not yet mentioned, but it turned out to be more of a good time to write about immense Jim.

Let’s see, in a few weeks, optimistically, if The Wings of the Dove is half as much fun.

Monday, April 3, 2017

She had taken all his categories by surprise - Kant vs Aristotle in The Ambassadors

Technically, the greatest trick of The Ambassadors is the hovering, deity-like presence of the Woollett matriarch and corncob pipe baroness Mrs. Newsome.  She is the first person that Lambert Strether calls “wonderful.”  He had better; he is engaged – in some mercenary way – to marry her, once he has completed his engagement to drag her no account son back to Massachusetts to take over the chamber pot factory.  (It’s a running joke in the book that no one ever specifies in what embarrassing way the Newsome’s made their fortune).

Mrs. Newsome never appears – the ambassadors in the title are her ambassadors.  Yet she saturates the novel.  She is constantly invoked.  Decisions are made based on the presumed approval, or otherwise, of Mrs. Newsome.  “Mrs. Newsome was essentially all moral pressure” (10.3).

At this point in the book, Strether has shaken himself free from Mrs. Newsome, which allows him to think such a thing, or later say that “’she’s all, as I’ve called it, fine cold thought’” (11.2), a bold thing for a novelist to openly declare, since it is might cast some doubt about characters more generally.  But it is also Mrs. Newsome who is, to pull back a quotation from two days back, “deep devoted delicate sensitive noble.”

Martha Nussbaum, in her chapter on The Ambassadors in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), argues that she is “no mere caricature, but a brilliantly comic rendering of some of the deepest and most appealing features of Kantian morality” (179).  Strether, by contrast, switches sides from Kant to Aristotle.

Nussbaum’s book is a defense of the ambiguities and complexities of Aristotelian ethics against its strongest competitors, Kant and Utilitarianism.  Both Mrs. Newsome and Strether have strong senses of duty and integrity.  Strether, faced with the complexities he discovers in Europe, finds his American, Kantian rules inadequate.  “[S]he had taken all his categories by surprise,” “she” being the French countess, and thus Paris.  I don’t believe James was really thinking of Kant when he wrote that line, but reading along with Nussbaum it is pretty funny.

“Woollett isn’t sure it ought to enjoy.  If it were, it would.”  (1.1)

Strether, at this point, is only a few pages into the novel, and only barely in Europe, and the old friend he meets in England actively hates “the ordeal of Europe” (1.2), but he is already experiencing subconscious doubts.  All of this is before I learn that he is actually returning to Europe after a long, tragic absence, and before I have witnessed his perceptive powers, which are what really complicate things.

This is about as clear a statement of Nussbaum’s distinction between the improvised, perceptual Aristotelian ethics and the preset, reasoned Kantian system as I could find:

In the new norm of perception, unlike the norm of Woollett, there is a bewildering problem about authority.  For if the ethical norm consists not in obeying certain antecedently established general rules, but in improvising resourcefully in response to the new perceived thing, then it is always going to remain unclear, in the case of any particular choice or vision, whether it is or is not correctly done.  (Nussbaum, 182)

James is on the side of ambiguity and love stories.  They confuse the categories.  Strether is almost a superior being because of his James-like perceptive powers, but the plot is driven by his failures of perception, about himself and those around him.  It is possible that many of those failures are deliberate; it is almost certain, by the end of the novel, that they, the failures, are right.  Strether learns to fail ethically.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

He found himself supposing innumerable and wonderful things - Henry Jame's use of the word "wonderful" in The Ambassadors

She was silent a little.  “How wonderfully you take it! But you're always wonderful.”

He had a pause that matched her own; then he had, with an adequate spirit, a complete admission.  “It's quite true.  I'm extremely wonderful just now.  I dare say in fact I'm quite fantastic, and I shouldn't be at all surprised if I were mad.”  (7.3)

When Mary Kyle Michael of Tipp City, Ohio, wrote her useful article “Henry James’s Use of the Word Wonderful in The Ambassadors” (Modern Language Notes, Feb. 1960, pp. 114-17), she was doing her research the hard way, so I forgive her some errors:

This device is his use of the word wonderful more than sixty times in The Ambassadors.  It remains inconspicuous because James often uses it humorously as well as in its straightforward sense.  (114)

With the help of the Gutenberg electronic text, I effortlessly see that, including a few cases of “wonderfully,” the word appears over a hundred times!  That is one error; the other is the idea that the word is inconspicuous.  Oh no.  It became, for me, at first an irritation – “what are these people gibbering about”?  But Michael is right.  She calls it – the word “wonderful” – “the aesthetic device by which [James] ties together resolution and art.”

“Wonderful” begins as an evasion, a word to describe the powerful matriarch of Woollett without really describing her.  A minor character at a party, the “historic” Miss Barrace (10.1, no idea what “historic” means), says “wonderful” to describe everybody and everything:

Her answer was prompt.  “She’s charming.  She’s perfect.”

“Then why did you a minute ago say ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ at her name?”

She easily remembered.  Why just because --!  She’s wonderful.”

“Ah she too?” – Strether had almost a groan.  (5.1)

Hey, that’s just what I almost had!  Or did have.  As a result of this ludicrous conversation, Strether, our hero, becomes infected with the word, and begins to use it constantly, first as a joke, a deliberate parody of the memorable Miss Barrace, but soon begins to explore the word.

In the quotation at the top of the post, I can see Strether shifting from the joke stage – he is bantering a bit with his friend Miss Gostrey – to something more serious.  And now I see that Strether had been using the word himself, mentally, to describe, what else – “wonderful Paris” – back in, where else, the great Chapter 2.2.  I had not noticed that.  Calling Paris “wonderful” is not so unusual.  It is when the word shifts to the people he knows and admires – the stern woman back home he planned to marry, the French countess who in some sense seduces him, or the wayward son who he envies – that the meaning of the inherently ambiguous word becomes

“You’ve been ‘wonderful, wonderful’ as we say – we poor people who watch the play from the pit…”  (11.1)

Strether is talking to that son here, the one he was supposed to press gang back to Massachusetts.  He has begun to use the word ironically even before the crisis of the novel occurs two chapters later, when it becomes almost poisoned.  Strether’s begins with an innocent wonder at the marvels he finds in Europe.  Here is, almost literally, the moment when he loses his innocence:

He recognised at last that he had really been trying all along to suppose nothing.  Verily, verily, his labour had been lost.  He found himself supposing innumerable and wonderful things.  (end of 11.4, which has five “wonderfuls”)

The word now includes deceit, sex, and other similar, new marvels.

Flaubert had taught me to be alert for and to follow themes across a complex work – the horse theme in Madame Bovary, the ribbon theme in Sentimental Education – and to work out the patterns they create.  James is using “wonderful” to do something similar, linking scenes and ideas together from throughout the novel, but with an important difference.  The characters are aware of the motif.  They make their own use of it, change it.  They make their own patterns, their own meanings.

Many thanks to Mary Kyle Michael of Tipp City.