Friday, August 28, 2020

L'Axe du loup - Sylvain Tesson in the steps of escapees from the Gulag - The solution could be to carry in your gear an inexhaustible book

In May, I wrote about French travel writer Sylvain Tesson’s In the Forests of Siberia (2011), the book on his long, lonely stay in a cabin on the west shore of Lake Baikal.  Now I have read an earlier Tesson book that is a germ for Forest, a crazy mostly-solo walking / bicycling / horseback trip from Yakutsk to Calcutta, Wolf Axis: From Siberia to India in the steps of the escapees from the Gulag (L'Axe du loup: De la Sibérie à l'Inde, sur les pas des évadés du Goulag, 2004, all translations mine).

The steps are: south across the Siberian taiga, down the east shore of Lake Baikal, onto the Mongolian steppe, across the Gobi desert, up into Tibet, across the Himalayas.  Plus some detours.  Six thousand kilometers, eight months.  And he only takes one book with him!

The “wolf axis” of the title is the north-south axis, contrasted to the east-west flow of people, history and war between Europe and Asia.

Tesson is nominally following the route of Slawowir Rawicz, a Polish officer who claimed to have escaped from a Siberian prison and walked to India, the subject of his 1956 book The Long Walk.  That Rawicz’s book is some mix of fiction and accounts from other escapees is of interest to Tesson, but not of great relevance.  He is skeptical of Rawicz when he starts, and more skeptical when he finishes.  “A lesson here: when publishing a story floating on the edge of credibility, never say that you saw a yeti” (250).  But Rawicz describes a journey Tesson, whose specialty as a travel writer is Russia and central Asia, wanted to do for himself.  He thinks of his own book as a tribute to all of the escapees from the Gulag, and for that matter other refugees along the way, Mongolian, Chinese, or Tibetan.  Many of the most interesting parts of the book are Tesson’s encounters with people who had been in the Gulag themselves, or who were descended from the criminals, Old Believers, Decemberists, and other people sent into the Siberian forests by various Russian governments.

The French love these “in the steps of” travel books.  Who doesn’t.  Tesson bicycles from Lhassa to Darjeeling in the company of his friend Priscilla Telmon, who makes travel documentaries.  She crosses Tesson’s path because she is walking in the steps, from Vietnam into the Himalayas, solo, of the great traveler Alexandra David-Néel.  The French really love this kind of traveling.

Tesson ends the book with a list of everything he brings with him.  There is one book, “An Anthology of French Poetry (Jean-François Revel, Bouquins),” a seven hundred-page brick.  He says it took him ten years of hard traveling to come to this solution to the bookish backpacker’s great problem:

The solution could be to carry in your gear an inexhaustible book.  When I went around the world on a bicycle, I left with religious texts (Bible, Koran, etc).  These are inexhaustible texts, but they exhausted me.  During my long hike in the Himalayas I had novels which eat themselves (Melville, Wells, Hemingway): I devoured them in three days in the light of yak butter candles, and my soul remained hungry during the seven remaining months.  At the base of the Asian steppes, in the company of Priscilla Telmon, I had bound in our horse’s panniers old accounts of voyages (Rubrouck, Marco Polo, Fleming), but I found it too cruel to compare the description of the past to the sad reality of today, and too depressing to enter Samarkand through a post-Soviet industrial suburb while reading, in the pen of Ella Maillart, the evocation of “a blue village, soaring towards the sky.”  (119)

That passage, besides all of the fun book stuff, gives a good example of Tesson’s sensibility and humor.  I intentionally kept one enjoyable Frenchism in the translation, the books that “eat themselves (se mangent)”; we know those books.

A true French writer, Tesson has a habit of reaching for aphorisms that I take as an aspect of his literary culture.  A French thing.

In Darjeeling, I take the time to do two or three important things.

I visit the zoo to see the red pandas, one of the beasts of Creation to which I attach the most value.  The two Darjeeling specimens chew on their carceral despair in a concrete enclosure.  The difference between animal and man is that when they are imprisoned, the first remains beautiful while the second becomes a beast.  (256)

I don’t think British or American travel writers aphorize so strongly.  Few of them would really go for that last sentence.

I don’t think L’Axe du loup is in English.  Maybe someday.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Come and see the blood in the streets - notes on Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, and the poetry of the Spanish Civil War

Months ago, I was reading quite a bit of the literature of the Spanish Civil War, especially the poetry but also George Orwell’s clear-eyed Homage to Catalonia (1938, a good sequel to Joseph Kessel’s 1934 reporting from an abortive start to the war).  Also a single Hemingway story, come to think of it, “Old Man at the Bridge” (1936), a sad little sketch of a refugee.  I guess I should read For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), a famous book.

Mostly poets, though: Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas, Vicente Aleixandre, Federico García Lorca (I read his best-known plays, too), and the astounding Miguel Hernández.  Alongside them, Pablo Neruda’s surrealist book, Residence on Earth, which incorporates Spain in Our Hearts (1937).

Neruda was working in the Chilean consulate in Spain during the Civil War, helping poets escape the country, that sort of thing.  In his poetry, he had been working in asurrealist mode during the 1930s, but not surprisingly Spain in Our Hearts is political and direct.  Some titles: “Spain Poor through the Fault of the Rich,” “General Franco in Hell” (some other politicians are also assigned to their infernal spots), “The Victory of the Arms of the People.”  Poems as propaganda, some more than others.

from I Explain a Few Things

You will ask: why does your poetry
not speak to us of sleep, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of your native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!  (tr. Donald Walsh)

I wish I had something to say about Lorca.

Miguel Hernández, he just overwhelmed me.  Years ago, I wrote about Don Share’s translations of his poems, and this time I supplemented that book with the peculiar Selected Poems: Miguel Hernández and Blas de Otero (1972, ed. Timothy Baland and Hardie St. Martin, tr. many hands), peculiar because Hernández and Blas de Otero have nothing to do with each other, so this book is just two separate shorter books under one cover.  I knew nothing about post-Civil War Spanish poets, religious and reactionary compared to the great generation that preceded it, so I was glad to read some of Bras de Otero’s poetry.

But, Hernández.  The book’s section titles are painful enough.  “Poems Written During the Civil War,” “Poems Written in Prison,” “Last Poems before Death” (age 31).  Forget that, how about something from the “Early Poems” section, when Hernández was the “shepherd poet,” self-educated, sponging up five hundred years of Spanish poetry:

Your heart? – it is a frozen orange,
inside it has juniper oil but no light
and a porous look like gold: an outside
promising risks to the man who looks.

My heart is a fiery pomegranate,
its scarlet clustered, and its wax opened,
which could offer you its tender beads
with the stubbornness of a man in love.

Yes, what an experience of sorrow it is
to go to your heart and find a frost
made of primitive and terrifying snow!

A thirsty handkerchief flies through the air
along the shores of my weeping,
hoping that he can drink in my tears.  (tr. Robert Bly)

The Spanish sonnet, of course, is composed of more than imagery but also rhymes and flows and so on.  If only Hernández had been allowed to write more of this kind of sad poem, and fewer about the death of his son from wartime malnutrition.

I meant to write this up for for Stu and Richard’s Spanish Literature Month(s), and now I have.

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.