May  26,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I have seen you read with passion the writings of the philosophers, and clothe yourself in harsh wool, sleeping on the bare floor and forcing your somewhat frail body to all the mortifications of the Stoics. There is some excess in all that, but excess is a virtue at the age of seventeen. I sometimes wonder on what reef that wisdom will founder, for one always founders: will it be a wife, or a son too greatly beloved, one of those legitimate snares (to sum it up in a word) where overscrupulous, pure hearts are caught? Or will it be more simply age, illness, fatigue, or the disillusion which says to us that if all is vain, then virtue is too? I can imagine in place of your candid, boyish countenance your weary visage as an older man.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Listening is Reading, Too

The New York Times has an article about whether listening to a book counts as reading it. I’m currently reading the first volume of the correspondence between Rupert Hart-Davis and George Lyttleton.  In one of the letters, Lyttleton asks if Hart-Davis has a “foolometer,” that is, a person to whom one may ask advice and do the exact opposite of what is recommended.  My favorite literary foolometer is Harold Bloom who comes through once again in the article by pontificating, “[d]eep reading demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear.” [N.B.: My prediction—this old windbag and his rodomontades will disappear without a trace ten years after his death].  As with everything else in life, it depends.

I don’t read books on tape, but I also don’t think it’s somehow not “reading” to listen to them.  It’s certainly not true that reading the printed word somehow guarantees greater absorption.  Some people learn better from the spoken work—I am not one of them.  Even when I do read, particularly late at night, there’s many a page that barely leaves an imprint on my consciousness.  Have I “absorbed” more through my inner ear?  Doubtful.  Different strokes for different folks.

Also, different types of books require different “reading” strategies.  Who would begrudge listening to poetry on tape?  Or plays?  It seems fatuous to me to demand that such written work is somehow better “read” on the cold, hard page. Shakespeare’s work is meant to be heard.  Also, my guess is Jane Austen and Charles Dickens do just fine, thank you very much, on tape.  Someone like Henry James or William Faulkner, probably not.  Why?  Because (and here’s some blasphemy for you) HJ and WF are not as good of writers as WS, JA or CD who can be appreciated with “half an ear,” so to speak.  As for HJ and WF, they demand one’s full attention.  At least for me, it is much easier to become distracted listening to a book on tape than reading one. HJ will not tolerate distractions—except in some of his early work such as Roderick Hudson or The Europeans (admittedly lesser works without the same “thickness” of his later social core-samples).

So, I’m not that fussy about whether one listens to books or reads them.  To each his own.  But I’ll be durned (as Clarence Snopes might say) if I’ll have some gasbag claim that its better to read A Christmas Carol than to listen to it.  Pooh.  And Bah-Humbug!

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May  25,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I watched him live: my opinion of him was constantly changing, a thing which rarely happens except for those persons to whom we are closely attached; we are satisfied to judge others more in general, and once for all.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar


The Novel is Headed out to the Sea, the Sea

Over at Moby lives, there’s an interesting discussion by David Barringer about the future of the novel. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Imagine this: a novel about a single decision. A character mulls over a single decision for an entire novel. I don’t mean we watch the guy prowl the urban streets in cinematic reverie. I mean we’re inside his head, the whole time, his consciousness being the setting, his thoughts the characters, the time in which he makes this decision (five minutes? five seconds?) stretched out over 500 pages. What am I talking about? I’m talking about the future of the novel.

Okay, so it’s a bit clunky. Still, though, I believe Mr. Barringer raises an intriguing idea, too bad he’s about a hundred years too late.  All you Henry James fanatics may put your hands down now.  We’re well aware of What Maisy Knew and HJ’s desire to tell a story from the occluded perspective of a precocious child (although the narrator—limited in scope by HJ’s self-imposed restriction—is still clearly not a simulacrum of Maisy’s consciousness).  Then there’s William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury which is told from several characters’ viewpoints, including Benjy who is retarded.  This accomplishment strikes me as much more “daring” than what Mr. Barringer is proposing.  There is, though, a novel, coincidentally coming in at 500 pages (actually 502) that is told from a single character’s viewpoint and it concerns, basically, if you let me fudge a bit, a single decision:  Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea.

The Sea, The Sea has an essentially Dickensian framework, specifically, Domby & Son.  The book concerns one Charles Arrowby, a monster of egotism that has never married but longs for a son.  Charles by the end of the book, has mended his ways (somewhat) and has reconciled himself to the life of a “celibate uncle” after having thrown away the opportunity to “adopt” a son who drowns tragically. Hmmm, these rough outlines do bear a passing resemblance to Domby & Son.  This story is hung on a tripartite structure labeled “prehistory,” “history,” and “postscript.”  The distinction is that the prehistory and postscript are presented as a day-by-day diary that is composed as things occur.  The history section, which makes up the vast bulk of the book, is composed at leisure some time after the events described have occurred—hence, the term “history.”  All of these sections are supposedly written by Charles Arrowby.

The book encompasses a relatively short period—a couple of months or so—in Charles’s life immediately after he retires from the theater and takes up residence in Shruff End, a damp house on the lip of the sea in England.  During this short period, Charles wrestles with his notion to pursue his childhood sweetheart, Hartley, who, coincidentally (more Dickens!) and initially unbeknownst to him, lives in the small village near Shruff End.  Actually, there’s very little wrestling going on.  Charles has made up his mind to take Hartley from her husband, willingly or not.  In this sense, The Sea, The Sea does not fit neatly Mr. Barringer’s notion of a character trying to make a decision throughout an entire book.  But it is close in that this decision is having to be constantly revisited as circumstances change, until, finally, Charles sees it for the delusion that it is—the attempt to recapture idealized youth.  The book is a chronicle of this campaign.  It is much more, besides, but let’s save that for a future post.

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May  22,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I had regained my strength, and was even discovering surprising resources in this body which at first had been prostrated by the violence of the initial attack. But we have understood nothing about illness so long as we have not recognized its odd resemblance to war and to love, its compromises, its feints, its exactions, that strange and unique amalgam produced by the mixture of a temperament and a malady. I was better, but in order to contrive with my body, to impose my wishes upon it or to cede prudently to its will, I devoted as much art as I had formerly employed in regulating and enlarging my world, in building the being who I am, and in embellishing my life.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

The Iowa Mob and Literature as Therapy

More and more keeps rolling in following the death of the King of Literature, Frank Conroy, the long-serving titular head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  The May 18 edition of the Wall Street Journal features a paean by one of Conroy’s students, Michael Judge, titled, “Frank Conroy Spoke Frankly, and He Spoke the Truth.”  Of course, one must include the glowing, obligatory anecdote about Jorie Graham. Here is Saint Jorie dispensing wisdom about mental illness:

That night, Jorie, as always, was full of grace and understanding. She explained to the group that the instructors at the Writers’ Workshop understood that depression and mania were illnesses, not the romantic calling card of the truly gifted. She said she had learned to look for signs of exhaustion or depression in her students, and when she saw them, encouraged her students to get plenty of rest, eat proper meals, and stay off the nicotine and booze. “Sometimes I’ll even make them a home-cooked meal,” she said, her voice heavy with tenderness.

Cue the cherubim and seraphim lifting Saint Joan to the empyrean, wreaths of roses and favorable reviews wafting in her wake.  Strangely enough, the entire article (oh, except the part about how King Conroy was a mean pool shark) is about this therapeutic side of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the need not to treat mental illness as a sign of literary talent.  Point taken.  What the article is not about is how the Iowa Writers’ Workshop concerns itself with the art of writing. Of course, as pointed out elsewhere, that’s not the goal of the workshop where writing can’t be taught anyhow.

Maybe writing can’t be taught, but an approach to writing certainly can.  And the Iowa Writer’s Workshop seems keen on indoctrinating its students in the therapeutic ethos, as inadvertently revealed in this article.  This view of writing as therapy might explain the dire condition of modern American letters.  The literary giants—folks like Roth and Oates—are precisely those authors whose books repudiate this notion.  There is nothing therapeutic about Sabbath’s Theatre or Zombie.  But the likes of a Roth or Oates won’t be matriculating from the Workshop—they’ll just condescend to teach there, what with the therapeutic benefits of the “nicotine and booze.”  By the bye, alcohol impedes the creative drive, too.  Maybe that explains the lack of significant talent to emerge from the Workshop.

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May  18,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Ideas jarred upon each other; words ground on without meaning; voices rasped like locusts in the desert, or flies on a dung pile; our ships with sails swelled out like doves’ breasts were carriers for intrigue and lies; on the human countenance stupidity reigned. Death, in its aspect of weakness or decay, came to the surface everywhere: the bad spot on a fruit, some imperceptible rent at the edge of a hanging, a carrion body on the shore, the pustules of a face, the mark of scourges on a bargeman’s back. My hands seemed always somewhat soiled. At the hour of the bath, as I extended my legs for the slaves to shave, I looked with disgust upon this solid body, this almost indestructible machine which absorbed food, walked, and managed to sleep, and would, I knew, reaccustom itself one day or another to the routines of love.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

The Banality of Willie Chandran
Willie Chandran, the protagonist of V. S. Naipaul’s Half A Life and Magic Seeds, at first appears to be a meer “perry”—a term coined by Nabokov to describe the ephemeral protagonists in Dickens’s novels who serve the function as walking “periscopes” and provide an opportunity for the narrator to comment on the people and places that they encounter.  In part, this is Willie’s function.  He has things happen to him, which he experiences passively.  He willingly enough follows the bidding of others—his father who is a sort of “holy man” and has formed his own ashram; his sister who is has become a Marxist revolutionary; his wife, a colonist in Portuguese Africa (where he lives for 18 years or so—half his life at that point for the first book, Half A Life).  Willie, as a passive object of others’ whims, serves, obviously, as a metaphor for the treatment of the third world by Western colonists. So far, so banal.  But Naipaul sticks the shank in by also having Willie exemplify the banality of evil.

Willie Chandran is a deeply evil, and yet sympathetic, character.  In all of the reviews I’ve read concerning these two books—admittedly, either deeply hostile or coolly neutral—no one has commented on this aspect of the protagonist [N.B.: I should not be surprised by this oversight, no one seems to have noticed that these two books appear to be the first two books of a projected trilogy—Magic Seeds ends with Willie in his early fifties and it also ends in media res, raising the distinct possibility that Naipaul is not yet done with his Willie.].  Everyone notices that Willie seems to be a bit of a cipher, an everyman who tends to be noncommittal and wishes to please those around him.  These traits make him likable.  But Naipal seems to be saying that these same traits—a desire to please, an absence of allegiance to anyone or any set of values—also makes him susceptible to evil. Naipaul also makes it clear that these traits are the natural result of post-colonialism. This is a damning indictment of the West.

The indictment is damning because Willie is damned.  He commits a number of heinous acts throughout the two books.  It is a brilliant twist by Naipaul to have Willie, the victim of Western colonists, to marry a colonist and become one himself in Africa just before it sinks into post-colonial chaos.  While in Africa, Willie develops a taste for sex with children [N.B.: again, strangely enough, I never saw this mentioned in any reviews—almost as if such a predilection would be expected to develop in such “primitive” surroundings (which might explain why the widespread incidents of U. N. peacekeepers bargaining with African children for food in exchange for sex has not been seen as a major scandal—the old “boys will be boys” excuse)].  Naipaul makes it very clear through Willie’s rationalizations that this activity is abhorrent and also a betrayal of Willie’s wife, Ana.  Here’s a longish excerpt of Willie’s thought process after the first time he has had sex with a child (he had gone to a brothel with his acquaintance, Alvaro):

Ana was asleep in her grandfather’s big carved bed. Two hours or so before I had thought of her in an unfair and belittling way. I needed a shower before I could lie down beside her. the antiquated fittings in the bathroom—the Portuguese-made geyser, the tricky shower-head, the minutely cracked wash-basin with decorated metal supports—still made me feel a stranger. They made me think of everyone who had slept in that big carved bed before me: Ana’s grandfather, turning away from the African woman who had borne his children; Ana’s mother, betrayed by her husband and then by her lover; and Ana’s father, who had betrayed everybody. I didn’t feel that evening that I had betrayed Ana in any important or final way. I could say with truth that what had happened had been empty, that I had felt no longing and no true satisfaction. But locked away in my mind was that split-second when the girl had looked at me with command and I had felt the tension and strength in her small body. I could think of no reason why I had done what I had done. But I began to think, almost in another part of my mind, that there must have been some reason.
And just as, after a long or strenuous or dangerous drive, the road continues to speed by in the mind of the driver as he settles down to sleep, so that split-second with the girl flashed again and again before me as I lay beside Ana. And it drew me back, within a week, to the converted warehouse on the edge of the town, to the blue bulbs and the dance floor and the little cubicles. This time I made no excuses to Ana.
I began to live with a new idea of sex, a new idea of my capacity. It was like being given a new idea of myself. We are all born with sexual impulses, but we are not all born with sexual skill, and there are no schools where we can be trained. People like me have to fumble and stumble on as best they can, and wait for accidents to take them to something like knowledge. I was thirty-three. All I had known so far—leaving out London, which really didn’t count—was what I had had with Ana. Just after we had come to Africa we had been passionate. Or I had been passionate. There would have been some genuine excitement there, some moments of sexual discovery. But a fair part of that passion of ten years before would have come not out of sensuality or true desire but out of my own nervousness and fear, like a child’s fear, at being in Africa, at having thrown myself into a void. There had been nothing like that passion between us since then. Ana, even at that time of passion, had been half timorous; and when I had been admitted into more of her family history I understood her timorousness. So in a way we were matched. We each found comfort in the other; and we had become very close, not looking beyond the other for satisfaction, not knowing, in fact, that another kind of satisfaction was possible. And if Alvaro hadn’t come along I would have continued in that way, in matters or sex and sensuality not much above my poor deprived father.

These three paragraphs are a masterpiece of concision in communicating a very foreign idea—how a seemingly normal married man can succumb to the lure of pedophilia.  These paragraphs, at least for me, are also particularly chilling.  Willie does not see himself as betraying his wife (he rationalizes that her ancestors were much worse).  Indeed, he sees his new found sexual interest as a key to unlocking the heretofore locked door of sensuality.  But now he has “advanced” to a level much more superior to that of his “poor deprived father.”  He is an adept, a master of sensuality.  Naipaul also makes it clear that he is an addict of this form of sexual practice.  The degenerate rationalizes his behavior as the attainment of superiority.

But Willie’s degeneration has just begun. It is not until the second volume, Magic Seeds, that Willie becomes a professional revolutionary, a rebel, a traitor (both to his homeland, India, and to his friend, a British lawyer, Roger), a criminal, a prisoner and, ultimately, a murderer.  Naipaul has performed a very rare trick: he has created an anti-hero that is very likable, who does not even seem to be a villain, while having him perform one heinous act after another, rationalizing all along the way, and still having us feel much sympathy for him by the end of his story (so far).  It’s as if Naipaul is standing in judgment over us (which may be the reason critics are so irritated by him) and saying, “here, I give you this despicable clot of mud and still you love him, still you want more, well, I’ll give you more until you choke.”  Of course, there’s an even darker explanation—Naipaul believes that the West views the actions of the third world through a different moral lens and is willing to forgive the atrocities committed there because one would not expect anything better from it (e.g., sure, we’ll stop the genocide in Sarajevo because Westerners shouldn’t behave like that, but Rwanda?—well, what do you expect?).  Naipaul’s judgment is terrible—his books burn with the fire of indignation, a purgatorial fire meant to incinerate the dross of hypocrisy in an attempt to reveal the hidden truth buried deep within the true heart of darkness, the West.

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May  17,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

If I have said nothing yet of a beauty so apparent it is not merely because of the reticence of a man too completely conquered. But the faces which we try so desperately to recall escape us: it is only for a moment . . . . I see a head bending under its dark mass of hair, eyes which seemed slanting, so long were the lids, a young face broadly formed, as if for repose.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

The Magic of Magic Seeds
I am weary, oh so weary, of once again having to heft the burden on my narrow shoulders of explaining why a recent book is actually a great work of art, and not, pace the lead literary cocktail critic of the New York Times and her cronies, a disappointing failure.  I come then, unlike Marc Antony, not to bury V. S. Naipal’s Magic Seeds (there’s been plenty enough dirt chunked in its grave) but to praise it. First, though, let me excoriate the wretched review that appeared in the April 28, 2005 issue of the New York Review of Books concerning this book.

The reviewer, who gratefully and deservedly, shall remain nameless, starts off on a high note, explaining that, “what at one point seemed a lonely body of work can now be seen as explaining an entire field of study that is known as Postcolonialism, which examines the writing, politics, history, and modes of thought of the developing world.”  As I explained in an earlier post, Naipaul, like Kipling before him, has created a whole new category of historical study, and, for that reason alone (putting aside his other literary attributes significant of greatness) makes him the most important living writer in English—and arguably the most important living writer period (I’m willing to hear a dissent for Gabriel Garcia Marquez).  Even if he was an execrable writer, as many view Sir Walter Scott today, he would still be read and studied hundreds of years from now because of this path breaking importance [N.B.: Sir Walter Scott is generally credited with inventing the historical romance; and one cannot understand the cult of chivalry in the Confederate States which, in large part, precipitated and then prolonged the Civil War, without appreciating the grip that Sir Walter Scott’s works held on the imagination of the South (I acquired a set of his works from the descendants of a Georgia family whose library also included such titles as The Ashes of our Southern Home published in 1866—not too bitter)].  So, this certainly does not mean that the works of V. S. Naipaul cannot be profitably criticized and even denigrated, but such criticisms must be well thought out and not consist of the usual bag of tricks continually, predictably and tiresomely resorted to in bashing about the latest literary effigy.

To give our critic credit—sort of, at least in terms of novelty—he does produce a new stick with which to bash V. S. Naipaul.  The critic (lets call him, the “cricket,” shall we, since he chirps along with a brace of his fellows), theorizes that the reason Magic Seeds contains in the latter part of the book a corrosive picture of modern London society is because Naipaul was just behaving himself and waiting for the Nobel prize and, once he secured it, felt free to let ‘er rip:

Some of Naipaul’s admirers, and some of his detractors too, have thought that there was a muted quality to his more recent books, not unconnected to his perceived keenness to win the Nobel Prize. The allegation has been that Naipaul was keen not to give offense to the mages of Stockholm. A work often mentioned in this context is the strangely eirenic India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), which offers a vision of the subcontinent that bears little relation to the one given in Naipaul’s blazing earlier works of reportage.

This charge is ridiculous on a number of levels.  First, though, because I am weak and delight to point to the mote in another’s eye, please note the cricket’s sloppy use of “keen” and “keenness” in two consecutive sentences.  As to the idiotic accusation, I can’t recall anyone making this “allegation.”  But, then again, I have not been privy to Upper, Upper, Tippy-Top, East Side Cocktail Parties where the reigning Queen of Crickets sprinkles her fiery motes of literary illumination upon the upturned and joyful faces of her rapturous and sodden sycophants.  Also, a book with a title such as India: A Million Mutinies Now may inspire the launching of a thousand adjectives but I don’t think “eirenic” would be one of them [N.B.: Don’t you just love the toff indulgence of the NYRB to not only use the more obscure spelling of the work “irenic” but to do so in a context where its synonyms, such as “conciliatory,” would be just as apt and, horror of horrors, more lucid, too—but, then again, lucidity would also tend to expose the fatuousness of the charge, as well.]  And what nonfictional work did Naipaul follow up with after his journey into eirenicism? Well, none other than Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among Converted Peoples, which, surprisingly, earned him fatwas only in the West and not the East (although these have been grudgingly removed following 9/11).  Indeed, this work was viewed as extremely strident and intolerant when it came out.  I guess Naipaul forgot his “keenness” and just couldn’t help himself.

Bah, enough of this keen tosh [N.B.: yes, that was on purpose].  As one might guess, our cricket flails about with a few more insults concerning how the experiences of Naipaul’s protagonist, Willie Chandran, are not believable (such as his journey into India’s “heart of darkness” to become a guerilla insurgent—note to cricket: please see the works of Charles Dickens, particularly Martin Chuzzlewit and his journey to America’s “heart of darkness”) except when they are too believable (such as the wedding that ends the book where Naipaul is taken to task for being the only writer who, purposefully, could make it “seem so phony”—note to cricket: please see the works of Evelyn Waugh).  Perhaps our cricket should consider a career in politics for talking out of both sides of one’s mouth—I believe that Tony Blair, who was just elected Prime Minister, may prove of some assistance.

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May  16,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Some visiting sophists and small groups of students and poetry-lovers met together in the gardens beside a spring consecrated to Pan. From time to time a servant filled a great jar of porous clay in the cooling waters; the most limpid verses seemed halting compared to that pure stream.
One late afternoon we were reading an abstruse work of Lycophron, whom I enjoy for his daring juxtaposition of sounds, figures and allusions, a complex system of echoes and reflections. A little apart from the others a young boy was listening, half attentive, half in dream, to those difficult strophes; I thought at once of some shepherd, deep in the woods, vaguely aware of a strange bird’s cry.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Books Do Furnish A Room, Part II

In my last post, I listed from my field guide certain types of book owners and how they display (or, if one is feeling arty, “exhibit”) their books.  One of my categories, cleverly labeled “none,” noted that certain devotees of modernism eschew the tatty display of books altogether.  Coincidentally enough, this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is all about Modernism and whether it’s time to start thinking about the preservation of Modernist architecture (the short answer: No, No, No—it was a shabby theory for destroying earlier, better architecture and has nothing more to recommend it than that it may in turn be destroyed—which should warm the cockles of many a developer’s heart—without too many tears to be shed; at bottom, modernist architecture is simply “unlovable”).  The magazine features a short profile of Terence Riley, the chief architecture and design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who is asked about books and modernism (how’s that for a coinkydinky?).  Here’s his response:

I have a wall of books at home and an archipelago of books piled on the floor. There’s a notion of modernism where houses look like the interiors of refrigerators. But for all my playing into a caricature of a modern person, I don’t live by the dogma of modern design. I think if people are too uptight to handle the unruliness of books, they probably wouldn’t create a very pleasant place to live.

Speak the truth to power, brother Riley!  What’s interesting about this response is it’s defensiveness.  Sure, Riley wants to be thought of as a hip, trendy, with-it curator—an urban modernist.  But not if it means giving up his beloved books.  Any trend that denies a human scale and human values, even the relatively dinky ones summed up in the grotty object of a book, is a trend that deserves to die an unlamented death.  Modernism, j’accuse!

Enough accusations and denunciations, let’s move on to further entries in my field guide:

Be Afraid, Be Very, Very Afraid

Have you ever walked into a house and been greeted by row upon row of lovingly cared-for books, all of them beaming like a legion of lost friends?  You smile and are inwardly relieved as you drift over to the bookshelves, a glass of wine in your hand, and begin to scan the titles.  You are quite impressed by the erudition of your host given the assembled multitudes—why, here’s T. S. Eliot, and George Elliot, oh, and Emerson, and Erasmus.  And then it dawns on you.  All of the books are in alphabetical order, and cross-indexed in some fiendish manner based on subject matter.  You nervously glance over your shoulder and suddenly are horrified to see you host, a maniacal glint in his eye, rush at you with a sharpened bookmark.  All fades to black.

Be Even More Afraid

It’s the same scenario: wine in hand, drift to shelves, etc.  This time the books are a hodge-podge in no particular order.  But you’re not particularly familiar with the titles.  Then you notice that they all seem to concern just one subject—forensic pathology, rifles, the Civil War, poodle grooming.  Run, run for your lives!!!

Hide the Children

Once again, you drift to the beckoning shelves and are aghast to find that right there, jammed up with the George Elliot, Henry James and what not, is a pristine collection of pornography (typically, next to the jabber-boxy).  My, my aren’t we liberated.  I particularly admire the touch of including along with the hard-core titles the “classics” such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.  Ahh, yes, D. H. Lawrence always did benefit from a close proximity to Frankenfurter, Part XXIII.  And Caligula was a classic art-house film, just a little bit ahead of it’s time.  By the bye, it seems that only aging baby-boomers seem to fall into this category.  They’re still fighting the oppression of . . . good taste, apparently.

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May  14,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I have encouraged experimentation with the thought and methods of the past, a learned archaism which might recapture lost intentions and lost techniques. I tried those variations which consist of transcribing in red marble a flayed Marsyas, portrayed heretofore only in white, going back thus into the world of painted figures; or of transposing to the pallor of Parian marble the black grain of Egypt’s statues, changing the idol to a ghost. Our art is perfect, that is to say, completed, but its perfection can be modulated as finely as can a pure voice: we have still the chance to play that skillful game of perpetual approach to, or withdrawal from that solution found once for all; we may to the limit of control, or excess, and enclose within that beauteous sphere innumerable new constructions.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Books Do Furnish A Room

Jane Austen, in Sense and Sensibility, I believe, had Fanny, the lady of the fine manor house, show the Dashwood sisters about and comment, when reaching the library, with a dismissive, Podsnapian flourish of her right arm, that all those books over there were mostly French.  Rarely does a host expose his own ignorance so forthrightly.  And yet, given the modern fetish of decorating with books--a tic, no doubt, picked up by all those Hollywood movies which confirm over and over again that hypocrisy is the honor that vice pays to virtue--so as to appear, for some reason, bookish, I find myself, when entering a new house, immediately perusing the spines lined up invitingly on the shelves.  Indeed, books do add a certain coziness to a room, a sense of lived-in warmth.  But books can also be the most dangerous of interior decorations.

Books displayed ostentatiously for the casual visitor's perusal may become an uncurtained window into the host's own sense and sensibility.  Or, they may throw a false scent on the track.  My own books (one might gather I have quite a collection) are marshaled forth on row upon row of shelves that are scattered about the house.  But, to peruse their titles would merely indicate my interests--not to mention my addictive habit of scouring hither and yon for cheap additions (a subject, no doubt, I will discuss at length at some other time)--and not at all what I have read.  I tend to put in storage books I have already devoured, leaving on the shelves those titles which may pique my curiosity when trawling about for a new book to eat.  Therefore, one can learn what I am curious about (or, more likely, what I was curious about five years ago) but not necessarily what I am reading or have read.  In my mind, such furtive intelligence gathered by a visitor is relatively harmless.  But some expose themselves to much greater dangers.  Here's my own field guide to various book collections (or lack thereof):


To enter a house without books is as if to meet a person without a soul.  Unfortunately, the current fascination with sleekness, stylishness, modernity, labor camp chic, what have you, has resulted in a number of very expensive houses having the spirit of a janitor's closet.  Utilitarian, yes.  Zen-like, yes.  Cultured, no.  For those who object and say that such is the point of minimalism; I have yet to enter such a house which does not feature a gigantic, gibbering screen, usually turned to the sports channel--or ghastlier yet, some infomercial featuring a nattering, brobdingnagian gladhander effusing about how you, too, can be a successful business titan if only you were a nattering, brobdingnagian gladhander. 

Robinson Crusoe's Row

Here we find the lone, marooned, shivering row of tattered paperbacks, usually perched on the shelf of some cabinet and surrounded by various semi-precious tchotchkes.  These books usually provide helpful tips on parenting, lawn maintenance, cat skinning and holistic medicine.  If you actually peer closely at these books with a look of scrutiny, the host will flutter by a bit flustered and apologize, noting that the rest of his books from college (which was twenty years ago or so) are in storage--no doubt in a landfill somewhere.  

Books by the Yard

Did you know certain disreputable used-book establishments will actually sell interior decorators books by the yard?  What a horrible fraud--not on the person visiting the abode but on the host.  These unknowing marks think one book is as good as another and will populate their empty shelves with row upon row of Readers' Digests, outdated Kansas Codified Laws, the Phrenologist's Encyclopedia (1964 edition), and Dr. Brushbrick's Selected Sediments.  Of course, when the guest comes over and sees this collection of simpering simpletons stacked on the shelves, he is hard put to suppress a smirk--or even an outright guffaw.  There ought to be a law!

Well, that's enough for now--let's save further entries in the field guide for later.

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May  13,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I doubt if all the philosophy in the world can succeed in suppressing slavery; it will, at most, change the name. I can well imagine forms of servitude worse than our own, because more insidious, whether they transform men into stupid, complacent machines, who believe themselves free just when they are most subjugated, or whether to the exclusion of leisure and pleasures essential to man they develop a passion for work as violent as the passion for war among barbarous races. To such bondage for the human mind and imagination I prefer our avowed slavery.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

How Can I Criticize a Poem . . . Let Me Count the Ways

Every blue moon or so, the New York Times Book Review develops a warm, fuzzy feeling for that rank row of weeds in the garden of literature, poetry.  And so, the NYTBR sends out a few critics to get down on their hands and knees and prune a bit here, squirt some DDT over there, and generally let us know how the weeds are getting along.  The current issue features an unbelievable three, read ‘em and weep, three reviews of poetry collections.  In reviewing these books, our three gardeners each use one of the common critical tools in raking over the etiolated vegetation.

Bosh and Flapdoodle

Appropriately enough, and without a hint of irony, our first critic, Edward Hirsch, offers a glowing review of A. R. Ammons last book of poems titled, Bosh and Flapdoodle.  Hirsch instinctively understands that such a tongue-in-cheek collection should be reviewed in the dominant critical poetic mode, bosh and flapdoodle. Here’s the first paragraph:

In A. R. Ammons’s poems there is an off-beat, sideways, unpredictable radiance. They have a homespun glory. Ammons was an essentially American poet of what Emerson called “fluxions and mobility,” who needed always to keep moving, bobbing and weaving, changing speeds (and tones), thinking on the fly, improvising—an adept of process, a proponent of motion, which he named “the closest cousin to spirit.” He was motivated by a kind of scientific pragmatism, a philosophy of transit and change, a determination to “study the motions” and then “take action,” to “keep the mind / allied with the figurations of ongoing,” as he put it in his book-length poem “Garbage.” He endorsed “action and / action’s pleasure,” and saved his highest praise for the material and spiritual transformation of energy. His lyrics are filled with geometric shapes—arcs, curves and spheres—and it is thus poignant to find him closing the circle and coming home to rest in his final full-length collection of poems.”

Truly, my friends, satire is dead.  How can one satirize these narcotic fumes?  We have, “unpredictable radiance,” we have “homespun glory,” heck, we even have “spiritual transformation of energy.”  What does this mean?  The quote from the greatest woolly-headed poet of all time explains it all for us:  it’s just “fluxions and mobility.”  Or bosh and flapdoodle.

Emote Your Emotion

Our next gardener-critic, Emily Nussbaum, uses another popular tool, the description of the emotions provoked by a particular grouping of weeds . . . errr . . . poems, in her review of Dana Goodyear’s Honey and Junk (“Junk,” “Garbage,” I told you we were in the weeds).  Here’s Ms. Nussbaum’s first paragraph:

Wit and anger are the dominant modes of Dana Goodyear’s poetry, two emotional defenses employed as a solution—and a solvent—for grief. In the best poems of this powerful debut collection, she presents a persona that is at once haughty and devastated and capable of some brutal punch lines. “Mother was never in the same room with any of us,” her narrator notes in “Country Line Road.” “I think she was a hostess, in which case I should say, / Thank you for having me.”

At least this critical strategy has the benefit of actually imparting some kind of information about the poetry under review, even if it’s in the key of Sylvia Plath B-sharp.  What I like about this tool is that it is irrefutable—how do these poems make you, the critic, feel?  Well, who can contradict the answer to that question? This is also the saving grace of bosh and flapdoodle, which, by definition, is bosh and flapdoodle, so who can contradict it?  That’s the secret to modern poetic criticism.  Since poetry can now be anything, strategies of criticism must be adopted that are beyond contradiction.  Let’s move on to our next tool which is a little bit more dangerous to use.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

If one does not have the stature of a Mr. Hirsch or a Ms. Nussbaum and is uncertain about using the sharp-edged tools of bosh and flapdoodle or emoting your emotions, then it’s best to stick with just the facts, ma’am, which is what Melanie Rehak wisely does in her review of Ashes for Breakfast by Durs Grunbein.  Here’s her opener:

“From time to time / I have these days when / I fell like embarking / on a poem again /of a kind that still isn’t / all that popular,” the young Dresden-born poet Durs Grunbein wrote in his first book, “Grauzone Morgens” (“Mornings in the Grayzone”), published shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “I mean / one without any meta- / physical refinements or / that thing that lately has stood in / for such . . . that type of . . . standing gasping akimbo / in the tough East-West marathon.”

Note that the critical voice has been completely subsumed within a recitation of the poet’s background and a few lines of his poetry.  The review goes on to explain how the current batch of poems concerns the relationship between East and West Germany and Germany’s split identity.  A bunch more lines are cited to this effect. And then the review is over.  Of course, this is more dangerous than the first two tools because if the book of poetry is actually about “garbage” or “junk” then you’re in big trouble saying it’s about East and West Germany.  Best to stick to your emotions—or, in a pinch, bosh and flapdoodle.

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May  11,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The oldest codes are a part of that very savagery which they were striving to correct; even the most venerable among them are the product of force. Most of our punitive laws fail, perhaps happily, to reach the greater part of the culprits; our civil laws will never be supple enough to fit the immense and changing diversity of facts. Laws change more slowly than custom, and though dangerous when they fall behind the times are more dangerous still when they presume to anticipate custom.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Jonathan Franzen: Poster Boy for Literature Lite III

Sometimes, when I google about for a pertinent link to whatever meanderings I’m engaged in, I come across a succinct post that encapsulates, better than I ever could, the point I’ve been trying to make.  Such has occurred today with respect to Franzen and Oprah.  So pop on over to Eccentric Flower and read this.  Okay, are you back?  Do you feel more enlightened?  No?  Well, read it again—he’s particularly insightful about how Oprah is a Force for Good and is a lot smarter, not to mention, classier, than Mr. Franzen.  Franzen is overrated literature lite, just like all those books in the first and second lists from a couple of posts ago (with the exceptions, as noted by Eccentric Flower, of Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and Isabel Allende).  Why are these books considered literature?  Now that’s the $60,000 question.

But I’m not going to get $60,000, just a smack across the chops, because my guess is that most folks who consider themselves “serious” readers of fiction love all those authors on the first two lists (indeed, the lists might give such readers some good ideas about other books to purchase—that was one of the reasons I listed them; I’m not completely cruel and callous).  I would argue, though, for the reasons set out by Hardy in his A Mathematician’s Apology, that such books are not “serious” literature.  Eccentric Flower explains why with respect to Franzen's lit-lite:

I looked at the synopsis on Amazon and said, Oh, dear, another dysfunctional family story where everyone in the family is a little crazy . . . and that was that. I don’t read those types of stories – or see those types of movies, whether played wackily or grimly. . . . This is not the centerpiece of a story; it is merely a fine canvas upon which to paint something else.

I know, I know, you’ll say that The Corrections does concern something else, about how economic depression (or, in Orwell-speak, a correction) can be mirrored by psychic depression and it’s best if we all have a little pity party for ourselves.  Oh, please.  Here, in the immortal words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message.  Look at this wacky family.  Ain’t that a kick?  They sure are wacky.  Wacky family, yessireebob.  Don’t get much wackier.  Here, let me throw in a little side trip to exotic Lithuania.  They’re wacky over there, too.  And the medium is the message for those books contained in the first two lists.  Mostly, they’re about exotic people in exotic locales or concern very peculiar people in un-exotic locates.  They’re the fictional equivalent of a voyeur’s zoo.  You take your four-year-old to the zoo.  She gawps in amazement at the lions, tigers and bears, oh my!  But does she learn anything about them?  Nope, they’re just there for gawping at. But you feel like this has been an important educational experience.  Who’s kidding who (or should that be “whom”)?

One can write “serious” literature (that is, thick and complex literature) about exotic locales and exotic persons—but there’s no kidding around.  Three authors leap to mind: Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and V. S. Naipaul. Their exoticism is merely “a fine canvas upon which to paint something else”—typically the corruption of all concerned with respect to imperialism, empire, and post-imperialism, post-empire.  These are big, meaty subjects that demand, as an element of their exploration, the dissection of exoticism. Indeed, imperialism and empire would not be possible without a baleful and destructive view of the otherness entailed in the exotic.  Franzen, on the other hand, has come up with the truism that in bad times people feel bad.  I’m feeling bad too.  And a little nauseous.  In other words, for Franzen, instead of deep calling to deep, its puddle piddling to puddle.  Puddles dry up in the hot sun of history—not oceans.  Whitman encompasses multitudes; his reservoir won’t run dry.  Can the same be said of Franzen, or Busch, or Wolff, or, or  . . . .?

Look, Ma, I’m King of the World . . . of Literature!

I wrote last month about how Frank Conroy, the head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for almost 20 years, was the true king of “literature” (scare quotes intended) and his passing a moment for much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Well, the gnashing has just started, baby—James Salter has an appreciation  in this week’s New York Times Book Review.  He starts off with a wonderful example of “fine writing” which would be the envy of the drudges at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and also inadvertently points out what is so horribly wrong with American writing today:

Iowa City, along its river, is a beautiful town. There are brick-lined streets in a neighborhood called Goosetown, once Czech, where geese were kept in the deep backyards. Ample old houses remain and huge trees. Downtown there are wide streets, restaurants, shops and a wonderful bookstore, Prairie Lights, but the chief business is really the University of Iowa, within which, small but renowned, lies its jewel, the Writers’ Workshop. Originally established in 1936, the workshop is the pre-eminent writing school in the country, although it is almost universally believed that writing cannot be taught, and in fact it is not really taught there; it is practiced.

Note how this slipshod writing struggles to give one a sense of place, Goosetown and all that (I never would have guessed that a downtown might have “restaurants” and “shops”) but instead highlights the lack of any there, there.  It does, however, illuminate that the point of Iowa Writers’ Workshop is not to teach writing but to be seen as engaged in writing.  Maybe writing can’t be taught, but schmoozing certainly can.  And, boy howdy, have we got a schmoozefest going on here.

Salter proudly lists the highlights of the schmoozer-teachers: John Cheever, Philip Roth, John Irving, Raymond Carver, etc.  And what were they doing there? Drinking mostly.  “You may not have been learning to write, but you were certainly learning something.”  So, who was this “you”?  What great writers has this premier writer-grinder program in the midwest created?  None.  As I posted last month, the list of writers is a who’s who of who ain’t.  Salter does not bother to list one writer from the program, for good reason.  He does, however, offer this description as a sleight-of-hand substitute for an actual name or two:

Admission to the two-year program at the Writers’ Workshop is made on the basis of an example of submitted writing. As director, to guarantee the quality of students, which translated ultimately into the reputation of the school, Conroy read every submission and made final decisions himself. It was the way the great cities of Europe were built, not by committee but by royal decree.

In other words, King Frank made sure his students would measure up to at least himself (again, go back to the archives from last month to see how low a bar this was set at).  And how great a writer was King Frank?  Salter explains:

In a dark wooden booth at the Foxhead one night, the air blue with cigarette smoke and the clatter of pool balls, Frank confided to me that he had just gotten an advance for the novel he was then writing, $250,000. Suddenly I could see that he was no ordinary academic.

There you go—King Frank is great enough to get a $250,000 advance. Any bets on whether his publisher lost its shirt on this?  Finally, what kind of wisdom would King Frank dispense?  Why, at his little dinner party get-togethers he would hold forth on very lofty, very weighty literary matters such as when my fab favorite, Jorie Graham, would ask, “Who is the Dostoyevsky in American writing today?”  The King snapped back: “Norman Mailer.”

Norman Mailer?  Norman Mailer.  How can any decent fiction writer resist the temptation to do a satirical comedy on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?  The material writes itself.  Plus there’s no libel issues for appropriating the main character.  Oh yeah, I forgot, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumni would come down on you like a ton of bricks . . . or geese.  It may not be golden eggs that the geese are extruding, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to let them keep on keeping on.

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May  9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I have come to the realization that few men fulfill themselves before death, and I have judged their interrupted work with the more pity. This obsession with the possibility of a life frustrated immobilized my thought at one point, drawing everything to it like an abscess. My hunger for power was like the craving for love, which keeps the lover from eating or sleeping, from thinking, or even from loving so long as certain rites remain unperformed. The most urgent tasks seemed vain when I was not the free master over decisions affecting the future; I needed to be assured of reigning in order to recapture the desire to serve.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Jonathan Franzen: Poster Boy for Literature Lite II

Let’s see, where were we, oh yes, we had just reviewed the first, and most important, of the three lists of books that I gave you to mull over.  And where do the other two lists come from?  You’ve probably already guessed: the second one is the Oprah book club list right up to (and a little bit beyond) the flap with Jonathan Franzen; and the third one is the new-and-improved version of the Oprah book club list.  The flap concerned Mr. Franzen’s objection to having his book included in the beta version of the Oprah book club.  As I will explain, he was right to object for the reason he gave, but ultimately wrong in the sense that he thought his book did not belong in Oprah’s book club (it most assuredly does).  Now what does that mystifying sentence mean?

Let me try to clear up some of the mystery.  As is well known (indeed, googling Franzen and Oprah gets you over 17,000 results), Franzen made numerous remarks to the effect that he did not wish to have his book chosen by Oprah because “she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books] that I cringe.”  In other words, he didn’t want to get lumped into such a crowd.  His book was serious.  It was a novel with big ideas.  Indeed, it said so on the cover: The Corrections: A Novel [N.B.: I find it highly amusing that a number of the titles in Ms. Wesselmann’s list follow this same format of using “[fill in the blank—preferably with the title of a famous song or artwork]: A Novel.”  That, by the bye gentle readers, is a sure sign of literature lite. Look at me, I’m a self-important book, a novel, full of big characters and big ideas, look at me, yippee, yowza (or, in Tom-Wolfe-speak: yowza! yowza! yowza! yowza! yowza!)].   Oprah, rightfully, yanked his book from the line-up and then yanked the line-up.  She did come back, though, apparently having taken his criticism somewhat to heart.  Now, her new-and-improved book club doesn’t read live authors (they might carp like Mr. Franzen) but instead she sticks with the silence of the tomb, good dead authors who know when to keep their mouths shut, assuming they still have a connected jaw bone (I know, I know, she made an exception for Marquez, but he’s close to dead, complains—ooops, I mean, writes—in Spanish, and, anyway, he truly is a great author).  No one will deny that the likes of Tolstoy are not in the first rank of true literature.  I certainly wouldn’t [N.B.: By the bye, I’ve always wondered if Mr. Franzen has become a literary pariah in the writer’s guild by killing the golden goose, as it were.].  So Mr. Franzen did a real service for all of Oprah’s viewers by making her change the criteria for her book group to exclude second-rate writers like Mr. Franzen.

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May  8,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The technique which I was obliged to develop in those unimportant early posts has served me in later years for my imperial audiences: to give oneself totally to each person throughout the brief duration of a hearing; to reduce the world for a moment to this banker, that veteran, or that widow; to accord to these individuals, each so different though each confined naturally within the narrow limits of a type, all the polite attention which at the best moments one gives to oneself, and to swell themselves out like the frog in the fable; and finally to devote seriously a few moments to thinking about their business or their problem.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Jonathan Franzen: Poster Boy for Literature Lite

Last post I left you with a teaser about the relationship between three lists of books and the author, Jonathan Franzen.  The first list, and, in my view, the most important for understanding trends in what is called “literature” is by Debbie Lee Wesselmann. Her list includes Jonathan Franzen so that is the obvious link for her.  You probably never heard of Ms. Wesselmann, but she wishes you would.  She has a website, Debbie Lee Wesselmann’s page for fiction writers and readers which is “designed for the aspiring writer and serious reader of fiction.” [N.B.: There’s Hardy’s term again, “serious,” but, as we’ll see, it means something different in this context—which is the point of my ramblings for these next few days.]  Also advertised on the site, Ms. Wesselmann “now offers private study and manuscript editorial services for writers of short stories, novels, memoirs, personal essays, and other forms of narrative prose. If you are interested in working with a professional author, please go to http://trutor.net/study.html for additional information.”  Why is Ms. Wesselmann so important?  Because she is on the cutting edge of a trend.  But first, I must digress a bit and discuss dancing and the gentlemanly art of Deportment.

The gentlemanly art of Deportment, have you finally gone around the bend?  Well, yes, in a manner speaking, I have gone round to introduce all of you to Mr. Turveydrop and his son, Prince, from Dickens’s Bleak House.  At this point, I have been hyp-mo-tized by the irascible shade of Dickens and am forced to relate his immortal description of Mr. Turveydrop—“A very gentlemanly man, celebrated almost everywhere for his deportment.”—which has very little to do with the point of this post, but his shade is most insistent and threatens to stain the carpet with a pool of dried blood (at least he claims it to be blood, but it has the suspicious smell of gin) taken from the arm of Sairey Gamp if I don’t comply:

He was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star, or a broad blue ribbon, to be complete. He was pinched in, swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear. He had such a neckcloth on (puffing his very eyes out of their natural shape), and his chin and even his ears so sunk into it, that it seemed as though he must inevitably double up, if it were cast loose. He had under his arm a hat of great size and weight, shelving downward from the crown to the brim; and in his had a pair of white gloves, with which he flapped it, as he stood poised on one leg, in a high-shouldered, round-elbowed state of elegance not to be surpassed. He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature. He was not like youth, he was not like age: he was like nothing in the world but a model of deportment.

He had married a meek little dancing-mistress, with a tolerable connection (having never in his life before done anything but deport himself), and had worked her to death, or had, at the best, suffered her to work herself to death, to maintain him in those expenses which were indispensable to his position. At once to exhibit his Deportment to the best models, and to keep the best models constantly before himself, he had found it necessary to frequent all public places of fashionable and lounging resort, to lead an idle life in the very best clothes. To enable him to do this, the affectionate little dancing-mistress had toiled and labored, and would have toiled and labored to that hour, if her strength had lasted so long. For, . . . in spite of the man’s absorbing selfishness, his wife (overpowered by his Deportment) had, to the last, believed in him, on her death-bed, in the most moving terms, confided him to their son as one who had an inextinguishable claim upon him, and whom he could never regard with too much pride and deference. The son, inheriting his mother’s belief, and having the Deportment always before him, had lived and grown in the same faith, and now, at thirty years of age, worked for his father twelve hours a day, and looked up to him with veneration on the old imaginary pinnacle.

Well, the point of this diversion is not that we’re lucky to have botox and plastic surgeons, but that, in Dickens’s day, those of a certain intellectual level who would be otherwise unemployed (indeed, unemployable, mere models of Deportment) would teach others certain civilizing skills associated with the upper classes—such as dancing.  Or locution.  Or manners (“charm school,” as it were, charmed I’m sure).  Or how to play the piano.  No doubt, such things are still taught today, but the problem is we, except in certain locales such as lower Manhattan, do not have the necessary population density of nineteenth century London to make such informal schools worthwhile (not to mention all that nasty guvment regulation from the Circumlocution Office).  Further, even in places like lower Manhattan, for economic reasons having to do with the price of real estate, such schools are quite scarce.  But the internet is like Dickens’s London with everybody, once again, jammed together cheek to jowl, with www.litblog.com next to www.literary.com (concerning, oddly enough, Kelly blue books for car prices); next to www.literature.com (don’t look, it’s a cheesy venus-flytrap advertising site for folks who might mistakenly go there in search of, horrors, literature).  So, in this crowded electronic tenement, folks can once again hang out their signs for teaching certain sought-after skills associated with the elite, the intellectual, the bibliocrats—not the piano mind you, hard to do that over the internet, but certainly writing skills can be taught in this manner.  And that is what Ms. Wesselmann is doing, the Prince Turveydrop of our era.  She is teaching people how to write a certain type of literature, or, with the appropriate scare quotes, “literature.”

[N.B.: By the bye, I think quite a lot could be done with a fictional treatment of a character having a vocation similar to Ms. Wesselmann’s—the possible plotlines with such a protagonist seem to spin themselves out quite readily; plus, one would satisfy Hardy’s requirement, at least as to form, in using literature to describe a new type of character and profession that has not been treated in literature before—of course, the content might still wind up being thin, a matter we will discuss in tomorrow's post.].


The Rumors of the Death of Character Are Greatly Exaggerated

Unless one works at the New York Times Book Review.  In today's NYTBR, we are treated to some scribblings about how Sigmund Freud was responsible for the death of character in modern serious fiction (so my suggestion of doing a character who interacts with budding writers over the internet is nothing more than naive twaddle and bosh).  Here's the relevant passage:

In one important sense, Freud's ideas have had an undeniable impact.  They've spelled the death of psychology in art.  Freud's abstract, impersonal concepts have worn away the specificity of fictional character.  By the 1950's, here and in Western Europe, it was making less and less sense to fashion the idiosyncratic, original inner and outer lives of a character in a novel.  His or her behavior was already accounted for by the universal realities of id, ego, superego, not to mention the forces of repression, displacement and neurosis.

Thus the postwar rise of the nouveau roman, with its absence of character, and of the postmodern and experimental novels, with their many strategies--self-annulling irony, deliberate caroonishness [N.B.:  By the bye, at this late date, cartoonishness is a sign of a lack of craftsmanship, not mastery.  I wish I could yell this out Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to certain juvenile authors who would benefit form this advice], montage-like "cutting"--for releasing fiction from its dependence on character.  For all the rich work published after the war, there's barely a fictional figure that has the memorableness of a Gatsby, a Nick Adams, a Baron Charlus, a Leopold Bloom, a Settembrini [N.B.: note the mediocre critic's trick of including in his list of famous characters two subsidiary, but not particularly well-known characters from famous works-both clearly memorable but not universally recognizable; it is perverse to cite Baron Charlus and not Marcel or Settembrini and not Hans Castorp--even when trying to make a point about the universal recognition of certain characters, the critic can't help but act like a landed literary squire, a bibliocrat.]

In any event, Freud, the old elixir salesman, has a lot to answer for but the death of character isn't on the list.  If anyone is to blame, it's Karl Marx with his rantings about historical determinism and defining all people by the mere economic classes they happen to inhabit (thus, by removing their individualism, making it all that much easier to liquidate them).  Freud's theory of psychoanalysis required individual, personalized treatment for each patient--a far cry from the death of unique consciousness.  So don't blame Freud for the paucity of memorable post-war fictional characters.  Which is another too-smart half-truth.  What about Roth's Portnoy?  Or Muriel Spark's Miss Jean Brodie?  Or Powell's Kenneth Widmerpool?  Any of these is more memorable than Hemmingway's Nick Adams. 

[N.B.:  Although not a famous character like the ones listed, I am currently reading Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea which is composed as a fictionalized series of autobiographical musings/essays/diary fragments by the narrator, a truly memorable character, Charles Arrowby.  This book is a rightly admired masterpiece, at least so far as I have read.  Which reminds me, why am I wasting valuable reading time on this drivel?  Toodles.]

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May  7,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I knew nothing of law but was fortunate in having Naratius Priscus for colleague in the tribunal. He consented to instruct me, and remained throughout his life my legal counselor and friend. His was that rare type of mind which, though master of a subject, and seeing it, as it were, from within (from a point of view inaccessible to the uninitiated), nevertheless retains a sense of its merely relative value in the general order of things, and measures it in human terms.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Apologizing for a Close Reading of Literary Literature

Christina Schwarz, in her short pieces for The Atlantic which analyze the mechanics of writing from an excerpt of a certain kind of midlist fiction, offers an inadvertent service by providing a cogent explanation for how to construct these books, commonly lumped into the category of “literature.”  Here, though, in the terminology itself, is a certain amount of confusion (as I will explain), which even the moniker for this blog muddies.  This little blog is about “literature.”  But, nowadays, “literature” means at least two different genres of books.  As I have argued this week, the term “literature” should be more broadly defined to encompass certain works of so-called “nonfiction”—although, given the necessary authorial drudge work with respect to any book to pick, choose and shape one’s raw material, no book can encompass the “truth” and thereby aspire to the title “nonfiction.”  Instead, we just all wink and nod and collude in understanding that some books claim to be “nonfiction” while others don’t.  Well, we also wink and nod as to what we are willing to claim as “literature.”

No one would dispute that Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is literature.  But, as well, no one (other than myself and Oprah; don’t be so impatient, I’ll explain in a bit) would be so miserly as to deny a place at the table of literature for Christina Schwarz’s own work such as Drowning Ruth.  Let me give you three lists of books.  First list:  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer; Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee; My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini; The Persistence of Memory: A Novel by Tony Eprile; Empire Falls by Richard Russo; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje; Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee; The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen; A Stone of the Heart: A Novel by Tom Grimes; Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd; Living to Tell: A Novel by Antonya Nelson; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; The Aerialist by Richard Schmitt; Old School by Tobias Wolff; The Passion by Jeanette Winterson; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; Don’t Tell Anyone by Frederick Busch; A Hole in the Earth by Robert Bausch; An Unfinished Season: A Novel by Ward Just; Plainsong by Kent Haruf; Panther in the Basement by Amos Oz; Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morall; and Links by Nuruddin Farah.

 Here’s the second list: The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Michard; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton; She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb; Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi; The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds; The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou; Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris; A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines; Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons; A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons; Paradise by Toni Morrison; Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman; Black and Blue by Anna Qunidlen; Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat; I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb; What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage; Midwives by Chris Bohjalian; Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts; Jewel by Brett Lott; The Reader by Bernhard Schlink; The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve; White Oleadner by Janet Fitch; Mother of Pearl by Melinda Haynes; Tara Road by Maeve Binchy; A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton; Gap Creek by Robert Morgan; Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende; Back Roads by Tawni O’Dell; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; While I Was Gone by Sue Miller; The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; Open House by Elizabeth Berg; Drowing Ruth by Christina Schwarz; House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III; We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates; Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio; Cane River by Lalita Tademy; The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen; A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry; Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald; and Sula by Toni Morrison.

And, finally, the third list (it’s much shorter, I promise): Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton; East of Eden by John Steinbeck; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers; The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.  What do all these lists have in common?  I’ll give you a clue: Jonathan Franzen.

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May  6,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Like everyone else I have at my disposal only three means of evaluating human existence: the study of self, which is the most difficult and most dangerous method, but also the most fruitful; the observation of our fellowmen, who usually arrange to hide their secrets; and books, with the particular errors of perspective to which they inevitably give rise.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

A Close to A Close Read
Sadly, this will probably be the last of Christina Schwarz’s columns, A Close Read, that I’ll mull over since I’m letting my subscription to The Atlantic lapse.  Following the death in Iraq of its brilliant editor, Michael Kelly, The Atlantic has fallen back to its pre-Kelly days of increasing irrelevancy peppered with strident commentary (the current lead article concerns our coming war with China—oh please, wasn’t it supposed to be with Japan last week?  Or maybe that was North Korea?  Hold on a second, let me adjust the reception on my television).  Further, The Atlantic has abandoned its century-and-more bastion in Boston in order to become one of the slavering pack in Washington, D. C.  Sigh.  On the upside, I just received a letter giving me a fantastic rate on the Times Literary Supplement, so stay tuned for TLS musings.

But now, for the log-rolling muse, our fair Christina, who this month heaps praise upon the pixiesh head of Joan Silber (who looks remarkably like Guido’s wife in Fellini’s 8 1/2).  Unlike last month’s entry, I can’t find any google connection between Christina and Joan, but I’m sure they’re kindred spirits.  I’ll quote in full the extract of Joan’s writings because it perfectly encapsulates the road to mediocrity:

I liked acting, at that age. You got to dwell on feelings, which were all I dwelt on then anyway, and turn them over, play them out. We had long discussions: would a child afraid of her father show the fear in public? would a man who was in love with a woman talk more loudly when she entered the room? Those who’d had real training (I was not one of them) spoke with scorn about actors who ‘indicated,’ who tried to display a response without actually feeling it. An audience could always tell. What was new to me here was the idea that insincerity was visible. I understood from this that in real life I was not getting away with as much as I thought.

Of course, Christina finds this brilliant, but let’s ignore her criticism with the charitable gesture that she’s praising it in the hope that he who gives generously will be rewarded a hundred fold (which puts me on shaky ground indeed).  I have no complaints with the writing.  It is not clunky.  It does not induce wincing.  But it does not induce raptures, either.  It is serviceable, nothing more.  The writing does, however, neatly exemplify the fallacy of being half smart.

Borrowing the terminology from Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, I would point out that the idea expressed here lacks seriousness in that it lacks depth.  True, an actor with a bit of training will “indicate” to the displeasure of the audience. Conversely, an actor trained in method acting will actually try to imagine the emotions of the actor and act accordingly.  However, this affectation has been ridiculed by a number of master artists who realize the greatest of actors do not go through the juvenile antics of imagining their characters’ interior lives.  Sir John Gielgud mocked such methods repeatedly in his letters .  Oh, and let’s not forget the flighty actress in Federico Fellini’s 81/2 who is constantly pestering the director, Guido, sublimely played by Marcello Mastroianni, to tell her about her character in his new movie because she cannot act without “inhabiting” her characters.  Perhaps the most cutting ridicule of this view comes from A Chorus Line:

And everybody's goin' "Whooooosh, whooooosh ...
I feel the snow... I feel the cold... I feel the air."
And Mr. Karp turns to me and he says, "Okay, Morales. What did you feel?"

And I said..."Nothing,
I'm feeling nothing,"
And he says "Nothing
Could get a girl transferred."

They all felt something,
But I felt nothing
Except the feeling
That this bull**** was absurd!

Right on, Morales—I really have nothing more to say.  So, I bid you adieu.

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May  5,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Sometimes my life seems to me so commonplace as to be unworthy even of careful contemplation, let alone writing about it, and is not at all more important, even in my own eyes, than the life of any other person. Sometimes it seems to me unique, and for that very reason of no value, and useless, because it cannot be reduced to the common experience of men. No one thing explains me: neither my vices nor my virtues serve for answer; my good fortune tells more, but only at intervals, without continuity, and above all, without logical reason. But the mind of man is reluctant to consider itself as the product of chance, or the passing result of destinies over which no god presides, least of all himself.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Literature’s Apology IV
Well, we’re still thrashing about in the deep waters of G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology.  We have learned that a lasting aesthetic object must be beautiful, which means, in part, that it must be serious.  Seriousness refers not just to the creation of a new form, but that the content as well must be serious and significant, too.  What does this mean?  Well, let’s let Hardy tell us:

A significant mathematical idea, a serious mathematical theorem, should be ‘general’ in some such sense as this. The idea should be one which is a constituent in many mathematical constructs, which is used in the proof of theorems of many different kinds. The theorem should be one which, even if stated originally (like Pythagoras’s theorem) in a quite special form, is capable of considerable extension and is typical of a whole class of theorems of its kind. The relations revealed by the proof should be such as connect many different mathematical ideas. All this is very vague, and subject to many reservations. But it is easy enough to see that a theorem is unlikely to be serious when it lacks these qualities conspicuously; we have only to take examples from the isolated curiosities in which arithmetic abounds.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
Some measure of generality must be present in any high-class theorem, but too much tends inevitably to insipidity. ‘Everything is what it is, and not another thing’, and the differences between things are quite as interesting as their resemblances. We do not choose our friends because they embody all the pleasant qualities of humanity, but because they are the people that they are. And so in mathematics; a property common to too many objects can hardly be very exciting, and mathematical ideas also become dim unless they have plenty of individuality. Here at any rate I can quote Whitehead on my side: ‘it is the large generalization, limited by a happy particularity, which is the fruitful conception.’
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
It seems that mathematical ideas are arranged somehow in strata, the ideas in each stratum being linked by a complex of relations both among themselves and with those above and below. The lower the stratum, the deeper (and in general the more difficult) the idea. Thus the idea of an ‘irrational’ is deeper than that of an integer; and Pythagoras’s theorem is, for that reason, deeper than Euclid’s.
Let us concentrate our attention on the relations between the integers, or some other group of objects lying in some particular stratum. Then it may happen that one of these relations can be comprehended completely, that we can recognize and prove, for example, some property of the integers, without any knowledge of the contents of lower strata. Thus we proved Euclid’s theorem by consideration of integers only. But there are also many theorems about integers which we cannot appreciate properly, and still less prove, without digging deeper and considering what happens below.

Hoo boy, there’s a lot of dense thought here—so let’s get to unpacking.  First, these observations are very helpful in illuminating what we mean by flesh-and-blood literary characters as opposed to cardboard cutouts.  Mere character types tend to be so general that they become insipid and of no literary interest (in other words, creating an “everyman,” even for artistic effect, is typically a literary dead end—unless you happen to be Robert Musil writing The Man Without Qualities, a “baggy monster” of a book which he could not finish).  Conversely, a character might be so unique as to have little lasting literary interest—such as Robert Harris’s cannibal psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter.  In my opinion, it’s much easier to fall into the former fallacy than the latter.  Truly unique characters are fairly hard to create; cardboard ones are not.  So, what might be an example of the “golden mean” of literary characters?  I think Dostoevsky supplies a ready cast.  Consider his Brothers Karamazov.  Each of the three brothers is a recognizable type but each is also fully fleshed out.  Alyosha is not just a mere mystic saint, nor is Ivan a mere materialist atheist.  Even in The Idiot, an extreme character such as Prince Myshkin, a latter-day Christ-like figure, has many salient characteristics in common with run-of-the-mill humanity.

Hardy’s wisdom also helps to illuminate an even more difficult conundrum involving literary character.  This concerns complexity.  Hardy points out that an idea at a deeper level is more important than one on the surface.  This same observation applies to literary characters.  Henry James’s Gilbert Osmond, in The Portrait of a Lady, would be of infinitely less interest as a simple cardboard villain as opposed to the ferociously intelligent and complex personage that HJ presents us with.  Osmond is not without his charm—else why would Ms. Isabel Archer fall in love with him? He is artistic, cultured, cultivated and civil.  It is this complexity, a hallmark of HJ, which makes his work last.  Conversely, the less complex a character, particularly if such a character is the protagonist, the less likely such a literary work will stand the test of time.  This list is too numerous to elucidate (plus, any examples would be meaningless in that the works have already been forgotten).  Let me suggest, though, that Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, the callow young man from Catcher in the Rye is just such a character.  Again, I predict that with the death of the baby-boomers, he dies too.  This is not true for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby because The Great Gatsby does not revolve around him.  The book, instead, revolves around others’ ideas of him, a very different—and much more complex—matter.  Further, Gatsby is more complex than Caulfield, which, unfortunately, is probably responsible for his demise.  A simpler brute might have been able to extricate himself from Gatsby’s predicament.  But such a brute would have had no symbolic longing embodied in the single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock—in my mind, one of the most beautiful and mysterious images in all of literature.  Enough yammering, let’s leave the last word on literary beauty to Hardy:

In both theorems (and in the theorems, of course, I include the proofs) there is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy. The arguments take so odd and surprising a form; the weapons used seem so childishly simple when compared with the far-reaching results; but there is no escape from the conclusions. There are no complications of detail—one line of attack is enough in each case; and this is true too of the proofs of many much more difficult theorems, the full appreciation of which demands quite a high degree of technical proficiency. We do not want many ‘variations’ in the proof of a mathematical theorem: ‘enumeration of cases’, indeed, is one of the duller forms of mathematical argument. A mathematical proof should resemble a simple and clear-cut constellation, not a scattered cluster in the Milky Way.

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May  4,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The short and obscene sentence of Poseidonius about the rubbing together of two small pieces of flesh, which I have seen you copy in your exercise books with the application of a good schoolboy, does no more to define the phenomenon of love than the cord touched by the finger accounts for the infinite miracle of sounds. Such a dictum is less an insult to pleasure than to the flesh itself, that amazing instrument of muscles, blood, and skin, that red-tinged cloud whose lightning is the soul.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Literature’s Apology III
All right, let’s get down to the business of creating a literary masterpiece using as our text G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology.  Hardy, remember, is speaking about mathematics, but just substitute “literature” where appropriate:

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or poet’s, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics. . . . It may be very hard to define mathematical beauty, but that is just as true of beauty of any kind—we may not know quite what we mean by a beautiful poem, but that does not prevent us from recognizing one when we read it.

Well, that kind of hog twaddle one could wallow in until the . . . errr . . . hogs come home.  But Hardy goes beyond this general observation and further elucidates what constitutes the beautiful—specifically, the extent of the object’s seriousness and significance:

The ‘seriousness’ of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is ‘significant’ if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas. Thus a serious mathematical theorem, a theorem which connects significant ideas, is likely to lead to important advances in mathematics itself and even in other sciences. No chess problem has ever affected the general development of scientific thought; Pythagoras, Newton, Einstein have in their times changed its whole direction.
The seriousness of a theorem, of course, does not lie in its consequences, which are merely the evidence for its seriousness. Shakespeare had an enormous influence on the development of the English language, Otway next to none, but that is not why Shakespeare was the better poet. He was the better poet because he wrote much better poetry. The inferiority of the chess problem, like that of Otway’s poetry, lies not in its consequences but in its content.
. . . The beauty of a mathematical theorem depends a great deal on its seriousness, as even in poetry the beauty of a line may depend to some extent on the significance of the ideas which it contains. I quoted two lines of Shakespeare as an example of the sheer beauty of a verbal pattern [N.B.: Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm from an anointed King]; but
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well
seems still more beautiful. The pattern is just as fine, and in this case the ideas have significance and the thesis is sound, so that our emotions are stirred much more deeply. The ideas do matter to the pattern, even in poetry, and much more, naturally, in mathematics.

A couple of points to note here.  First, much that is written must be classified as a variety of the chess problem: romances, mysteries, detective stories, suspense thrillers, etc., etc., ad nauseum.  These works are not literature, nor are they intended as such, although they may be thoroughly entertaining; indeed, they may even wind up in their own volume in the rudderless ship, the Library of America (“Aye, Aye, Cap’n H. P. Lovecraft, ask not who the Cthulhu calls for, it calls for thee”).  Second, a work that creates a new pattern is not necessarily worthy of a significant place in literature unless, not just its form, but also its substance, it is serious--it has depth.  For example, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy created a new form for the novel which third-rate rotters are still whacking away at.  But one reads it today not just for the form but for the seriousness of its contents.  A counter-example: Sir Walter Scott created the modern, serious historical romance, but who reads him today?  It is a significant form which has resulted in serious works which are still enjoyed by many (such as I, Claudius by Robert Graves and The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar).  So, creation alone is not sufficient for lasting glory.  My guess is that Jack Kerouac, who was one of the first to engage in a prolonged exercise of automatic writing with On the Road, won’t outlast his star-struck baby-boomer boosters. Why?  There's no there, there--no seriousness.  Enough blather, let’s continue tomorrow.

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May  3,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

In every act save that of love, abstinence and excess alike involve but one person; any step in the direction of sensuality, however, places us in the presence of the Other, and involves us in the demands and servitudes to which our choice binds us (except in the case of Diogenes, where both the limitations and the merits of reasonable expedient are self-evident). I know no decision which a man makes for simpler or more inevitable reasons, where the object chosen is weighed more exactly for its balance of sheer pleasure, or where the seeker after truth has a better chance to judge the naked human being. Each time, from a stripping down as absolute as that of death, and from a humility which surpasses that of defeat and of prayer, I marvel to see again reforming the complex web of experiences shared and refused, of mutual responsibilities, awkward avowals, transparent lies, and passionate compromises between my pleasures and those of the Other, so many bonds impossible to break but nevertheless so quickly loosened.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Literature’s Apology II
Enough clearing of the underbrush; what are Hardy’s views on literature—errr, mathematics (after all, our text is Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology)?  Again, going back to the traits of the artist, Hardy identifies three salient characteristics that must be present to create lasting work:

The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth.  Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent.  Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which it brings. It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work, that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings of others, but that will not be why you did it.

Even with all these attributes, there is still no guarantee that great work will result from their application:

Yet how painful it is to feel that, with all these advantages one may fail. I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100. A library assistant was going around the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves of dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia Mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated. . . .

Of course, Russell’s dream is a variation on Max Beerbohm’s famous comic story from Seven Men and Two Others, concerning the fin-de-siecle poet, Enoch Soames, who is granted his wish by the devil to come back in a hundred years to the Round Reading Room of the British Museum and discover the extent (or lack thereof) of his literary reputation.  So, how does one avoid the fate of Enoch Soames?  I promise I’ll spill the beans tomorrow.

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May  2,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

My poor Lucius used to amuse himself by concocting delicacies for me; his pheasant pasties with their skillful blending of ham and spice bore witness to an art which is as exacting as that of a musician or painter, but I could not help regretting the unadulterated flesh of the fine bird. Greece knew better about such things: her resin-steeped wine, her bread sprinkled with sesame seed, fish grilled at the very edge of the sea and unevenly blackened by the fire, or seasoned here and there by the grit of the sand, all satisfied the appetite alone without surrounding by too many complications this simplest of our joys.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Literature’s Apology
G. H. Hardy authored A Mathematician’s Apology in 1940 when he was over sixty and well aware that mathematics, even more than professional sports, was a young man’s game.  He had links to Bloomsbury, was a confirmed atheist, and, in the twilight of his career, had very little to live for (he tried to kill himself with an overdose of barbiturates a few years after writing AMA).  His book is a kind of justification for his life, and, more generally, the life devoted to the pursuit of pure—or, as he calls it, “real”—mathematics.  But it is an ineffably sad book, too (C. P. Snow, once a noted author, offers up an insightful foreword to the reissue of the book and notes that AMA “if read with the textual attention it deserves, [is] a book of haunting sadness.”  This justification in the face of despair is a poignant bookend to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a book also about the depths of despair.

AMA, though, is also about the creative process. Graham Greene, an early and enthusiastic reviewer, remarked, “I know no writing—except perhaps Henry James’s introductory essays—which conveys so clearly and with such an absence of fuss the excitement of the creative artist.”  Indeed, if one substitutes the term “literature” for “mathematics,” this book serves as a wise guide concerning how to create (or, at least, what the hallmarks might be of) lasting literature.  First, before giving a few examples, let me start with a pithy description of the value of the critic (I am fully content to admit that mine is at best a fourth-rate mind):

Statesman despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings; there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

So, enough of second-rate minds. L et’s consider the first-rate artist and his business to create objects of lasting aesthetic value.  First, the artist must have certain salient traits, chief amongst them, haughty egotism:

Some egotism of this sort is inevitable, and I do not feel that it really needs justification. Good work is not done by ‘humble’ men. It is one of the first duties of a professor, for example, in any subject, to exaggerate a little both the importance of his subject and his own importance in it. A man who is always asking ‘Is what I do worth while?’ and ‘Am I the right person to do it?’ will always be ineffective himself and a discouragement to others. He must shut his eyes a little and think a little more of his subject and himself than they deserve. This is not too difficult: it is harder not to make his subject and himself ridiculous by shutting his eyes too tightly.

Norman Mailer must be as blind as a bat by this time—although my local newspaper has been writing lead stories about his storied appearance last week to my fair burg to shed his authorial ephemera.  My favorite Mailer quote while in Austin last week: “Any of you who really want to be novelists, do your best not to talk about your books, even if your ego is starving.”  Ooops, he must have forgotten about that doorstop of a book, Advertisements for Myself, which is only about his other work--although the title is particularly humbling, though not in the way Mailer would have intended it.  He must have also forgotten about all his other pronouncements on his work and place in American letters.  Oh well.  My second favorite quote is his criticism of the Bible, “It may be the greatest story, but it’s abominably written.”  Pot, meet kettle.

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May 1,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

To say that my days are numbered signifies nothing; they always were, and are so for us all. But uncertainty as to the place, the time, and the manner, which keeps us from distinguishing the goal toward which we continually advance, diminishes for me with the progress of my fatal malady. A man may die at any hour, but a sick man knows that he will no longer be alive in ten years’ time.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Can Nonfiction Be Literatue?, Part II

Begging your indulgence from yesterday, I'll assume that nonfiction can be literature.  So, how can we judge which nonfiction is literature and which isn't?  I think two books I have read recently may assist in shedding light on this conundrum.  I have before me the new work on various applied problems in economics, Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner and the classic explication of the life of a pure mathematician, A Mathematician's Apology by G. H. Hardy.  The first book is not literature but the second one is.

As I tried to explain yesterday, literature, to me, is the written equivalent of oil painting where words constitute the pigments to be applied to the canvas.  The vast majority of books are mere "daubs."  Others are workmanlike "pastiches" executed by competent draftsman who combine, without any added creative flair, the styles of their master predecessors (these, generally, constitute the burnished product turned out from the lathes of the creative writing programs).  Then there are those few artists who produce great works of aesthetic art that have a pleasing form--not to the eye, here, but to the mind--inhabited by complex objects which interact with one another in the work to form a satisfying whole.  That is literature.

Freakonomics, while a diverting book that I would highly recommend for its striking originality in subject matter--why is the Ku Klux Klan like real estate agents or does a baby's name affect his educational success--the book, as a whole, is incoherent in form.  The authors admit as much in their introduction and confess that the purpose of the book is to shed light on areas of economic activity where the more pressing difficulty is not how to gather data but, like the Sybil, how to make it speak in a meaningful way by asking of it the proper question, such as, "do Sumo wrestlers cheat?".  A diverting book, much like a general survey of history, consisting of just "one damn thing after another," or a canvas with one thick, brightly colored line painted one after the other (pace Morris Louis).  But such a construction is unappealing as an aesthetic object and therefore lacks the heft of literature.  Of course, Messrs. Levitt and Dubner would rightfully protest that they were not trying to create literature.  Just so, literature is certainly not the be all and end all.  There is still room in the world for Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell.

There is also room in the world of literature for such gems as Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology.  I learned of this slight work from an interview with David Foster Wallace who quite admired it.  I can see why.  It claims to be a short essay in defense of Hardy's chosen life as a mathematician.  But it's also a defense of the creative life, why such a life is worth striving for and what it means to lead such a life.  More on this later.

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