Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Bullshit Part 2: Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be John Mayer's Lover

Addendum to previous post on Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit:

John Mayer's song "Daughters" is a perfect example of bullshit, as Frankfurt defines it.  Here is the chorus, which I sometimes hear in the vicinity of the frozen food section:

Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers, be good to your daughters too

I could go on and on about the hard-wearing odor of bullshit on these lines, and I will.  First, allow me to translate the sentences into their component vectors of sideways bullshit.  So: John Mayer--a notorious bachelor with no children--wishes sanctimoniously to remind actual parents of some things they may not have considered: namely that kids need love and that what parents do matters.  Thank you, John Mayer.  I have two children, but I thought all they needed was Amy's frozen Mac and Cheese.  Then, as I was opening the grocery store freezer, I heard your song and I realized: mac and cheese is not all.  Children also need love.  It's not either / or.  And John Mayer was good and wise enough to make sure everyone strafed in the merciless enfilade of his marketing apparatus knows that.

When I first listened carefully to the song, it seemed weird to me that this guy was singing about daughters becoming "lovers"--and that that was somehow the utilitarian principle on which he based his exhortation, love your daughters.  I knew nothing at that time about John Mayer, but the "lovers" reference seemed to imply that Mayer did not have children of his own, because most parents don't really like to think of their kids' future love lives at all, let alone orient their parenting around their kids' future preparedness to be good "lovers."  So I googled John Mayer (he does not have kids that he knows of) and I also found the lyrics to the first verse of the song, "Daughters":

I know a girl
She puts the color inside of my world
But she's just like a maze
Where all of the walls are continually changed
And I've done all I can
To stand on her steps with my heart in my hands
Now I'm starting to see
Maybe it's got nothing to do with me

Fathers, be good to your daughters...

Now I get it.  He's singing, in so many words, I care, I am not a womanizer but a gallant knight: chivalrous (I sing 'On behalf of every man / Looking out for every girl'), pure ('it's got nothing to do with me'), idealistic and yet resigned to the fallenness of the natural world ('I've done all I can').  So fathers be good to your daughters, because if you're not good to them, they will probably grow up to be John Mayer's lover and annoy the shit out of him because of all the baggage you saddled them with, and he will gallantly do all he can but he just can't undo the damage done by your crap parenting.  But he doesn't stop there.  Whereas fathers can ruin their daughters as future companions for John Mayer, mothers can ruin their daughters as future mothers of future possible companions for John Mayer.  This guy John Mayer is a visionary.  You see, if these badly mothered girls go on to mother their own children and these children turn out to be female, and if John Mayer is still alive and able to swallow Viagra by the time they reach maturity, these girls will only be another generation of lovers who provide less than optimal results for John Mayer.  So mothers be good to your daughters, too.  Parents: stop thinking of yourself all the time and start thinking of John Mayer and the inconveniences your daughters' baggage may represent for his love life.

This is a rare species of bullshit.  Standard bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt teaches, is when someone says things not because they're true but because the statements achieve a certain goal.  The standard bullshit element in this song is John Mayer's attempt to persuade even more women to have sex with John Mayer without John Mayer having to feel guilt.  However, when it comes to bullshit, John Mayer goes the extra mile--just as John Mayer does in his efforts to prepare multiple generations of women to love him properly.  It's just not everyday that a bullshitter provides such obvious evidence of his ulterior motives and his lack of authority to say what he's saying.

I wonder whether John Mayer ever heard "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys."  It's a better song and forecasts perhaps some well-deserved alone-time for John the Paladin:

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Don't let 'em pick guitars or drive them old trucks
Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such
Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys
'Cause they'll never stay home and they're always alone
Even with someone they love

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On Trial for a Kiss

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka

On September 22, 1912, Franz Kafka stayed up all night writing a highly autobiographical, somewhat fantastical, short story called “The Judgment.”  Twelve years later he was dead.  He had published little, but what he’d written in that decade—including “In the Penal Colony,” “The Metamorphosis,” and The Trial—was a thunderbolt staked in the heart of literature unlike any since Boccaccio’s Decameron.

From Boccaccio (and Dante and Petrarch) emanates that realist, psychological humanism which passed through Chaucer into its apogee in the plays of Shakespeare, and resounded across the next centuries in the work of the great modernists, like James Joyce.  Kafka belongs to this tradition, clearly, but he also inaugurates a new way forward.

John Updike wrote that Kafka “felt abashed before the fact of his own existence….  So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament.”  William Hubben said that Kafka “expressed the terror of life in such unforgettable images that comparisons with classical writers suggest themselves.”  And George Steiner notes that kafkaesque is now a coinage in a hundred languages.  “The letter K is his,” Steiner said, “as S is not Shakespeare’s or D Dante’s (it is in analogy with Dante and Shakespeare that W.H. Auden placed Franz Kafka as the shaping mirror of our new dark ages).”

Updike, Hubben, and Steiner are right about Kafka’s importance, but unenlightening about the reason for it.  Furthermore, they seem to think of modernity as a time of darkness, and wish to anoint Kafka as its bard—a common, and a mistaken, view.  John Gardner is perhaps more helpful.  In Kafka’s work, Gardner writes, “particular details of psychological reality are directly translated into physical reality….  [T]he reality imitated is, not in one or two details but in many, that of our dreams….  The presentation tends to be that of conventional realistic fiction; only the subject matter has changed.”

This sounds like “magical realism,” and in fact Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is perhaps more closely associated with that movement than anybody else, was directly inspired by Kafka.  In a 1981 interview for The Paris Review, Peter H. Stone asked Marquez, “How did you start writing?”  Marquez answered, “...One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka: I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read ‘The Metamorphosis.’  The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect....’ When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.”

Expressionism existed before; artists have always depicted the contents of their imaginations, often in a realist style.  Look at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or at the ancient Greek plays.  But what separates Kafka and much of the magical realism he inspired from previous examples of expressionism is that he wrote with psychological insight and intent.  “Despite his power of fantasy,” Harold Bloom says, “Kafka is as empirical as Freud or Beckett.”  And Kafka was influenced by Freud.  In a diary entry from September 23, 1912, Kafka noted that throughout the writing of his famous story, “The Judgment,” in which he first worked out his general psychological-expressionist method, he had “thoughts of Freud, of course.”

The Kafkaesque expressionist is a psychologically-educated spelunker in the caves of his own mind; by contrast, Aeschylus’s expressionism, while loaded with psychological meaning to an almost shocking degree, feels less psychologically self-aware, less attuned to the mechanisms of psychic change, more intuitive.  “The dilemma of Orestes,” A.D. Nuttall writes, “is essentially public: one god says ‘Do this,’ another god says, ‘Do that.’  There is no question of attributing hesitation or procrastination to Orestes as a feature of his character (indeed, he can hardly be said to have character).”  That could be called naïve expressionism, whereas Kafka represents a psychologically sophisticated expressionism—the sort, for example, that some critics have observed in the work of filmmaker David Lynch.  Chris Rodley commented on Lynch’s film Blue Velvet: “The movie does seem to display or illustrate, almost perfectly, certain Freudian concerns and theories—and in an extreme, undiluted way.”  He then asked Lynch, “Was that intentional?”  Lynch said, “[F]ilm has a great way of giving shape to the subconscious.  It’s just a great language for that.”  Not so great, however, as fiction—at least since Kafka got to it.

Kafka adds to the biblical-Shakespearean tradition of inquiry into character a research into the dream-life, into the imagination as a psychodynamic force, into the manner in which emotions distort perceptions of reality.  Existentialists like to point out that despite the pervasive sense of guilt and accusation in The Trial, K. never knows what he’s accused of.  Updike was right in this much: it’s K.’s whole life that’s on trial—in the courtroom of his own over-zealous conscience.  And we could say that were there one specific cause, repression obscures such painful memories and ideas.  But all that being said, there are certainly hints as to what he’s accused of (or has accused himself of).  At the end of chapter six, K. kisses Leni, his lawyer’s mistress.  “Joseph!” his uncle cries, “how could you do it! … the poor sick lawyer … In all probability you have helped to bring about his complete collapse and so hastened the death of the man on whose good offices you are dependent.  And you leave me, your uncle, to wait here in the rain for hours and worry myself sick, just feel, I’m wet through and through!”

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The One Book to Have with You on a Desert Isle

The Riverside ShakespeareThe Riverside Shakespeare by William Shakespeare

If stranded on a desert isle, is there really any question which one book you should have with you?  All I can say is that if it were me, I would want that book to be Survival Guide for the Mariner.  However, Shakespeare's complete works, collected all into one volume is about as magnificent as any single art object could be.

Harry Levin writes of the age in which Shakespeare lived: "[T]he most salient characteristic of Jacobean culture was its devotion to the pursuit of knowledge, which involved the most searching introspection and the most fanciful speculation, along with the ambitious program for science that Bacon outlined...."  And E.M.W. Tillyard, similarly, writes: "The Elizabethans were interested in the nature of man with a fierceness rarely paralleled in other ages; and that fierceness delighted in exposing all the contrarieties in man’s composition."  If you believe these scholars then, Shakespeare was by no means unique in his study of the machinations of the human heart.  Tillyard again: "[N]ot to know yourself was to resemble the beasts, if not in coarseness at least in deficiency of education.  To know yourself was not egoism but the gateway to all virtue…."  Everybody in those days wanted to understand their own passions, the better to harness them to reason.  What is impossible to ignore is that Shakespeare observed them and creatively depicted them better than anyone in his own time, and better, possibly, than anyone before or since.

Harry Levin's General Introduction to the 1974 Riverside Shakespeare is a lucid, unpretentious skeleton key to the meanings and methods of the uncanny William Shakespeare--an essential piece of reading and a good place to start.  I don't like the double columns on the vast pages of the Riverside.  It takes forever to get through just one page, which I find demoralizing.  But this is the cost of having it all in one volume I guess.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Polished Bones and Hobnailed Boots

The EmigrantsThe Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

The style of narration in The Emigrants is akin to a pathologist murmuring into his dictaphone at the end of a long day of autopsies. It confronts ugliness, despair, and destruction with a mask of neutral reserve and tireless scientific dedication to detail. It's unique and beautiful, breathes real life, and artfully expresses a melancholy feeling of obligation to history:

"And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," Sebald writes of the discovery of the body of mountain-climber Johannes Naegli 72 years after his disappearance. "At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots." (p. 23)

For much of the first half or three-quarters of the book, I considered it marred by an orthodox devotion to elusiveness, ambiguity, misery, uncertainty and a Baudrillardian insistence on the link between commerce and destruction: "Deauville ... the once legendary resort, like everywhere else that one visits now, regardless of the country or continent, was hopelessly run down and ruined by traffic, shops and boutiques, and the insatiable urge for destruction." (p. 116)

I advise you to pause midway through and marvel at Sebald's necromantic power to conjure melancholy. Then read five poems by Walt Whitman and the following quote from astronaut Alan Bean and call me in the morning.

Bean, who went to the moon with Apollo 12, said this about his homecoming from the desolation of the moon:

"I've not complained about traffic. I'm glad there are people around. One of the things that I did when I got home, I went down to shopping centers and I'd just go around there, get an ice cream cone or something and just watch the people go by and think, 'Boy, we're lucky to be here.' Why do people complain about the earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden."

And then, having shored yourself up, you must push on through to the end of this book, where Sebald proves himself so much more human and courageous a writer than those who satisfy themselves with a specious finality of melancholy and bleakness alone, those who regard ignorance and obscurity as an inevitability of epistemology rather than a byproduct of psychology--repression--as Sophocles and Freud would have it. The narrator confesses a feeling of guilt about omitting to ask his friend Max Ferber about his parents, who were killed by Nazis when he was a boy, and on p. 183 Ferber says, echoing Wittgenstein's famous last sentence of the Tractatus, "of those things we could not speak of we simply said nothing." The narrator and Ferber are united in repression and silence, the German in repression of crime, the Jew in repression of suffering: "When I asked if he remembered saying goodbye to his parents at the airport, Ferber replied, ... he could not see his parents. He no longer knew what the last thing his mother or father had said to him was, or he to them, or whether he and his parents had embraced or not." (p. 187)

At last we are squarely back in the realm of Freud and Sophocles: "Naturally, I took steps," Ferber says, "consciously or unconsciously, to keep at bay thoughts of my parents' sufferings and of my own misfortune, and no doubt I succeeded sometimes in maintaining a certain equability by my self-imposed seclusion; but the fact is that that tragedy in my youth struck such deep roots within me that it later shot up again, put forth evil flowers, and spread the poisonous canopy over me which has kept me so much in the shade and dark in recent years." (p. 191)

This dehiscence of memory and guilt late in the novel serves to explain and also redeem the forsakenness that preceded.  And the motivic butterfly which has haunted the narrative throughout like a recurrent dream or uncatchable memory turns out to be a messenger of liberation after all, albeit a messenger with a somewhat unstable, fluttery flight path.

A difficult but magnificent book.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

On Bullshit

On BullshitOn Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

“Why is there so much bullshit?” asks Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt.  He doesn't ask plaintively, but rather in the formal manner of a rigorous philosophical inquiry.  He defines bullshit, more or less, not as lying, but as talking about something without knowing about it and without caring whether you know.  You could be right, you could be wrong, but you don't know it.  All you know is your agenda.  That's propaganda in a nutshell.  A reckless disregard for truth, and subordination of truth to an agenda that is more important than the truth.  Commentary on cable news channels is complete bullshit.  The commentators don't care about facts, they care about ratings, or perhaps about some political goal, like taxes or terrorism or defeating their ideological enemies at the polls, and they're content to say anything to get the desired end-result.  It's a serpentine Machiavellianism in regard to fact.

On the other hand, as Frankfurt is well aware, the academy is full of bullshit (according to him Yale, where he used to teach, is the bullshit capital of the world--probably because of Paul de Man), precisely because over the last half-century the academy has succumbed to an entrenched skepticism of truth and reality as "constructions."

"Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about," Frankfurt says.  Because so many academics have profound doubts about the existence of truth and fact (yes, it makes no sense...), they are obligated to bullshit or to shut up, and unfortunately they have chosen the former.

The word bullshit, when applied to a fitting object, is pleasurable to say and to read.  It is a highly specific word--it names a species of dishonesty that differs from lying, as Frankfurt clearly shows--and therefore it's highly descriptive, honest, truthful, useful.  In short it's the opposite of what it names with fitting scorn.  It is honorable.  It is the shibboleth of all those who care about what is true and what is ...

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Goodnight Nobody

Goodnight MoonGoodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

There is still no children's book to my mind that conveys so great a sense of peace, security, and well-being as does Goodnight Moon.  Clement Hurd's illustrations are just as compelling as the words.  The translation of the people into bunnies, while hardly the first personification in the history of books, does a great deal to foster that very safe feeling that emanates from the "great green room"--the complexities of people and human relationship are for the time being ignored.  As others have noted, the parental figure and the child do not interact in this story; the parent is more like a part of the furniture, like a part of the heavenly firmament, like a moon.  What's important about her is that she is there, and in some sense will always be there, following right beside you in your mind as a moon follows along with you as you go for a walk at night or even if you drive a country road in a speeding car; it is with you; it sets, but it always returns.  The narrative strategy of Goodnight Moon is akin to the first lines of Genesis--a naming of things.  But it isn't a story of creation upon the void, but an insistence that all that was there will remain there, even at night, that darkness or unconsciousness or anything that may reside in a child's imagination, does not abolish the elements of his or her world.  They are sturdy.  Quietness and gentleness are sturdy.  Love is sturdy.  It will not disappear from the earth.  The only thing that doesn't exist is nothingness and nobody itself: even "Nobody" has sufficient being to warrant an individually addressed goodnight.  The mouse that's on every page also seems to reiterate without saying it, in a way that is more vital than words, that is antecedent to words, that is real and independent of the child: I am here, I am here, I am here...

There is a less reassuring, but interesting, story behind the disposition of the royalties for Goodnight Moon--not what you think, not a squabble over money, but something at once more strange and sad.  For the story, go here.  That is reality, that is life; but it's not the part of life to which Goodnight Moon addresses itself, a part that is real, that is there, that is there, that is there....

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In the Black Corner, Death; In the Red Corner, Tolstoy

Great Short Works of Leo TolstoyGreat Short Works of Leo Tolstoy by Leo Tolstoy

The great short works of Tolstoy are in fact great, but they are not, unsurprisingly, short.  My edition of almost 700 pages approximates a cube (it will stand up by itself on any of its six faces), and it's colored a dyspeptic puce as if to warn you in advance of the excess of it, the literary heartburn.  The size of the book accurately suggests the titanic, unparalleled power of Tolstoy.  In the cover photograph of the great writer working at his desk, his beard is like a cloud of factory smoke swirling around his industrious brain.  He is a conqueror.  He will prevail as the Russians prevailed over Hitler and Napoleon before him--by sheer size--an oceanic volume of thought, feeling, reality that can overwhelm anything, even Time, Death, or the deficits of translation from Russian to English.

Tolstoy is the great portraitist of all that's horribly obligatory in life--death and desire are the uncontrollable thunder and lightning that buffet the little human ego in the works of Tolstoy, much as they can in real life.  I don't think there is anything in literature going back to the The Iliad that compares with Tolstoy's depictions of death and loss.  Homer comes in second and it's not close.  Here is the beginning of the first 'short' story in the group, "Family Happiness" (which weighs in at a slender 83 pages):

We were in mourning for my mother, who had died in the autumn, and I spent all that winter alone in the country with Kátya and Sónya.  Kátya was an old friend of the family, our governess who had brought us all up, and I had known and loved her since my earliest recollections.  Sónya was my younger sister.  It was a dark and sad winter which we spent in our old house of Pokróvskoe.  The weather was cold and so windy that the snowdrifts came higher than the windows; the panes were almost always dimmed by frost, and we seldom walked or drove anywhere throughout the winter....  The feeling of death clung to the house; the air was still filled with the grief and horror of death.  My mother's room was kept locked; and whenever I passed it on my way to bed, I felt a strange uncomfortable impulse to look into that cold empty room.

As in the work of Robert Frost, the incontrovertible and indifferent will of the universe is plainly reified in a blanketing snow and wind at once inimical to human life and also, in a way, the opposite: an occasion for retreat to the comforting hearth of loved ones.  But Tolstoy's characters are not passive or static in their grief; the main character in the next paragraph of "Family Happiness" frets over wasting another winter "in the solitude of the country."  Desire always comes in the midst of grief to whipsaw the aggrieved from within and without.  Tolstoy understands this perfectly and one feels that he--or his books, anyway--are a friend at your hearth who understands and consoles.

Harold Bloom has observed that Hadji Murád, the Chechen warrior in the penultimate story in this collection, in some ways represents a critique of the Shakespearean tragic hero.  Shakespeare's tragic heroes usually bring disaster on their own heads, but Hadji Murád does everything right and he still loses.  That is quintessential Tolstoy: it isn't up to Hadji Murád.  It's up to forces much bigger than him.

Tolstoy hated Shakespeare for reasons that remain obscure to me, but he was so adept at the depiction of desire that he imparts a psyche of Shakespearean complexity and vitality to even the most peripheral characters.  Everybody lives on Tolstoy's pages, even characters present for a line or two, because in that space any character that appears does so with evident desire.  He creates so much life with his art, with such efficiency and skill, that you can almost hear the Grim Reaper crying out his surrender under the weight of all those many pages and pages of real human life.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010


LeviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes reminds me, in a good way, of the ape who learned to act like a human being in Kafka's hilarious short story, "A Report to an Academy."  The Kafka story begins:

Honored members of the Academy!  You have done me the honor of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape.  I regret that I cannot comply with your request to the extent you desire.  It is now nearly five years since I was an ape, a short space of time, perhaps, according to your calendar, but an infinitely long time to gallop through at full speed, as I have done, more or less accompanied by excellent mentors, good advice, applause, orchestral music, and yet essentially alone....

Hobbes trains his attention on our primate nature, a nature prone to quarreling from three principal causes, as he sees it (p. 185, Penguin Classics ed.): Competition, Diffidence (i.e., fear), and Glory.  And we are motivated in our quarrels accordingly, says Hobbes, by the objectives of Gain, Safety, and Reputation.  I hear ya, brother, give me some of all that.  He sure is preaching to the ape.

Many people think of Hobbes as a cynic with a low opinion of human beings.  But that's wrong.  On the contrary, Hobbes is very sympathetic with us hungry beings in need of food, safety, and respect.  He is far more sympathetic to innate Desire than St. Augustine, for example:

"But neither of us [Hobbes himself and the average man who locks his doors at night] accuse mans nature in it.  The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin.  No more are the Actions, that proceed from those passions, till they know a law that forbids them...." (p. 187)

Another reviewer expresses hatred for Hobbes because of his supposed endorsement of the reign of Christendom.  There is a late section in Leviathan on "Christian Common-Wealth," and I confess I haven't read very much of that part, but what I did read was nothing other than an attempt to compel people with Christian morals to see that the Bible does not invalidate or supercede his rationalist political and moral philosophy.  In Part II, "Of Common-Wealth," which I have read thoroughly, he makes it pretty clear what he thinks of religious claims to political authority (p. 230):

"And whereas some men have pretended for their disobedience to their Soveraign, a new Covenant, made, not with men, but with God; this also is unjust: for there is no Covenant with God....  But this pretence of Covenant with God, is so evident a lye, even in the pretenders own consciences, that it is not onely an act of an unjust, but also of a vile, and unmanly disposition."

All righty then.  His revolution was the systematic application of reason to the planning of society; he derived his conclusions from first principles of human passions that he didn't intuit but observed, in others and also in himself--he exhorts us (p. 82), Nosce teipsum: Read thy self.  Supposedly he knew Descartes and Galileo and was influenced by them; like them, he is one of those Leviathans of rationalist, humanist Renaissance thought who laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment.  He was less imaginative than John Locke, it's true, when it came to the possible forms of political representation, but it was he, before Locke, who described government as a social contract between men by which those men defend themselves from each other and from their own passions; it was Hobbes who described government as a representative of its citizens and not of God.

It's impossible not to love the engraving on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition, which comes from the frontispiece of the original from 1651.  Across the top it reads, "Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei," meaning "There is no power on earth which can be compared to him."  That's a quote from Job about a "big, ugly monster" as my three-year-old would say.  But Hobbes means something different: he means the monarch who embodies the interests and security not of God but of human beings.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

James Joyce's Martello Tower

In September 1904, James Joyce lived in an old demilitarized tower on the coast south of Dublin.  After his roommate nearly shot him in the middle of the night, he left the tower and Ireland forever.  Joyce later set the memorable first chapter of Ulysses in the tower.  It remains my favorite chapter of Ulysses (the rest is also not bad), and I visited the Martello Tower on my honeymoon, which was not quite before the advent of the internet, but definitely before the advent of Goodreads.  More on the tower and the relation between fiction and reality in Ulysses plus a picture of me looking fairly bloated from a steady diet of tea scones on top of the tower in my blog, which guest stars this week at

This link will take you there.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Walter Pater and the Modernists

The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Oxford World's Classics)The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry by Walter Pater

Good, empathic, sensitive, wise and true Walter Pater, secular prophet to a generation of modernists.

Pater’s aesthetics favor the neo-classicism and “Greek sensuousness” of the Renaissance, which he says “does not fever the conscience” in the way that medieval “Christian asceticism” does.  He abjured the latter philosophy as one which discredits “the slightest touch of sense.”  (However, he sees the roots of the Renaissance in the middle age, as far back as Abelard.)  Major modernists like Joyce, Woolf, and Yeats drew inspiration from Pater and created an art continuous with the Renaissance in its focus on individual, worldly experience.  This is what makes Adam Phillips's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition so execrable: he tries to appropriate Pater into a postmodern tradition of “terrible skepticism” that has very little to do with him and much more to do with the world-denying medieval philosophies Pater rejected--what Oscar Wilde, Pater's student at Oxford, referred to as "the maladies of medievalism".

With a line from the Bible, Pater encapsulates his idea of Christian asceticism as the antithesis of “artistic life, with its inevitable sensuousness”: I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and lo!  I must die.

The speaker of this line, from 1 Samuel, is Jonathan, whose father Saul is one of the great nutcases of the Bible.  Saul has declared a religious fast, enforceable by death, to thank God for delivering the Philistines into the hands of the Israelites.  But Jonathan didn’t hear the decree, was hungry, and ate some honey (is that a euphemism?—eating honey off the end of his “rod,” which was “in his hand”? Hmm.).  At any rate, when Saul hears Jonathan’s words, he responds with characteristic paternal feeling, “God do so and more also: for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan.”  Saul, like Abraham before him who brought his son Isaac up a hill to kill him for his God, is prisoner to a conscience of irrational extremes.  It’s up to people who think more sensibly about conscience to rescue Jonathan, and they do, declaring to Saul: “God forbid: as the LORD liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground.”

That’s the kind of lawyer I’ll need in Purgatory, me and the great and decent Walter Pater.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

James Joyce's "Grace": Temperance of Conscience

The psychoanalyst Eugene Mahon in 2006 published a wonderful paper in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child entitled “The Invention of Purgatory: A Note on the Historical Pedigree of the Superego.”  He writes of Purgatory as a kind of “third way” in the history of imaginings of the afterlife:

“If Heaven and Hell sound absolute in their depiction of total damnation or total eternal salvation, Purgatory seems to represent a yearning for continued communication with the afterlife in an attempt to modify the imagined sufferings of departed ‘souls.’ ”

Mahon then poses the fascinating question: “Is the psychology that led to the concept of Purgatory a possible forerunner of the later Freudian concept of the superego, which, at its most mature, rejects splitting and magical absolutism in favor of a more reasoned assessment of guilt and pleasure?”

The question caused me to turn back to “Grace,” the penultimate short story in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners, in which Tom Kernan drunkenly falls down some pub stairs on the way to the bathroom and bites off the end of his tongue.  The memory or idea of this incident seems to have had some importance for Joyce, as it reappears in Ulysses in the interior monologue of Molly Bloom: “Tom Kernan that drunken little barrelly man that bit his tongue off falling down the mens W C drunk in some place or other…”  Joyce’s brother Stanislaus informs us that “Grace” treats the Kernan fall as an allegory: “Mr Kernan’s fall down the steps of the lavatory,” Stanislaus writes in My Brother’s Keeper, “is his descent into hell, the sickroom is purgatory, and the Church in which he and his friends listen to the sermon is paradise at last.”

Most of “Grace” takes place in that Purgatorial “sickroom,” where Kernan’s friends sit and talk with him while he recuperates; eventually, they make plans to atone, as inhabitants of Purgatory are meant to do.  The word “grace” is in fact one intimately connected with Purgatory in the Christian faith.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that Christian Purgatory is “the state in which those who have died in grace expiate their sins….”

Whether Joyce would agree with Mahon’s interpretation of Purgatory I don’t know, but Joyce clearly had Purgatory on his mind in the writing of “Grace,” a story I never much liked because it seemed to ridicule its own graceless characters in a simplistic and unsympathetic way.  But rereading the story with Mahon’s insights in mind, I think Joyce may have been using the idea of Purgatory in a more sympathetic way than I first understood.  While the characters certainly look foolish in their slapstick discussion of theology (Mr. Cunningham tells a ludicrous story about an Irish priest they all know who supposedly argued with the Pope over papal infallibility only to be overruled on the question by infallible papal verdict)—but while they’re foolish, they’re also wiser than I first guessed—especially the hero, Tom Kernan, with the bitten-off tongue.

Of the fourteen stories in Dubliners based on a Christian vice or virtue (that is, all the stories except “The Dead”), “Grace” occupies the anchoring fourteenth position.  The virtue Joyce assigned to this story is clearly temperance, as Kernan and friends seek to temper their drinking.  But more importantly, they exhibit a healthy temperance when it comes to the conscience that damns sinners to eternal Hell.  As such, “Grace” is not only deep, but a sort of antidote to the damning syndrome of psychological paralysis introduced in the collection’s first story, “The Sisters.”

Kernan’s friends’ discussion of sin and atonement is warm-hearted, jovial, and hilariously funny, nothing like the grave treatment of sin in that opening story.  There are no bottled-up, paralyzed, tortured figures here.  Kernan amiably goes along with the plan to confess in church, but he knows the limits of his conscience.  When Mr. Cunningham tells him he has to stand up with a lighted candle and renew his baptismal vows, he balks.  Joyce writes:

“No, damn it all,” said Mr. Kernan sensibly, “I draw the line there. I’ll do the job right enough. I’ll do the retreat business and confession, and... all that business. But... no candles! No, damn it all, I bar the candles!”

Shortly thereafter Kernan rephrases his objection to the candle ceremony in a wonderful and telling way: “I bar the magic-lantern business!” he cries.  It’s as though Mr. Kernan, in waving off “the magic-lantern business,” is renouncing precisely that “magical absolutism” of conscience that Mahon describes as the animating force in the Manichean system of Heaven and Hell.  Kernan’s conscience “sensibly” makes a Purgatorial compromise wherein he’ll renounce Satan but not himself, who he stands up for with his sense of humor intact: “I’ll just tell him my little tale of woe.  I’m not such a bad fellow—” he tells his wife.

This jolly, kindly, self-tolerant, all-together-now group of friends may drink too much, but it appears they’ve achieved a higher form of grace in Joyce’s eyes: temperance of conscience.  This hilarious story of self-forgiveness has now become a favorite of mine.  Another indication of its importance to Joyce is its prefiguration of Leopold Bloom, the amiable, self-tolerant protagonist of Ulysses; one of Kernan’s friends, Mr. M’Coy, is an advertising canvasser married to a soprano (like Bloom—and when Molly thinks of Tom Kernan in Ulysses she also has some unflattering words for Mrs. M’Coy’s singing).  “Grace” also contains very funny mention of a banker named Mr. Harford, an Irish Jew like Bloom.  Joyce writes that “his fellow-Catholics, whenever they had smarted in person or by proxy under his exactions, spoke of him bitterly as an Irish Jew and an illiterate, and saw divine disapproval of usury made manifest through the person of his idiot son.  At other times they remembered his good points.”

Mr. Harford the Jew is not only saved, comically, from damnation but, in Joyce’s created conscience, granted an apotheosis—into the stardom of Leopold Bloom.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Naturalist of Good and Evil

Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Essay on Bentham: Together With Selected Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John AustinUtilitarianism, On Liberty, and Essay on Bentham: Together With Selected Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin by John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill is the rock star of moral philosophy.  And I don't say that because he trashed his hotel rooms.  He didn't trash them, or even stay in them, to my knowledge.

But he's got the sort of brilliance that sings, that fears no tradition and no opprobrium.  Jeremy Bentham's idea of utilitarianism (a good action is one that has happiness of self and others as its consequence) was genius to begin with and Mill applies his own genius to it to give it another level of subtlety and versatility.  Mill's utilitarianism is for me the most honest and helpful of moral philosophies.

Some people complain that utilitarian ethics neglect 'Kantian' notions of good: fairness and justice.  Mill was aware of this complaint and he addresses those questions about the connection between justice and utility in Chapter V of Utilitarianism, titled "On the Connection Between Justice and Utility."  See how to-the-point he is?  And he addresses the question to my satisfaction, thoroughly.  Mill is a naturalist who observes and describes moral sentiments more than he attempts to interpret the will of a moral God; he observes morals in action like David Attenborough hiding in the bushes and training his binoculars on a troop of baboons.  I suspect he offends people who believe religiously that we are not animals and that morality is an emanation of the divine.  Mill says, "[O]bjectively the dictates of Justice coincide with a part of the field of General Expediency."  That is, you can explain the moral value of justice in the secular terms of utility.  His analysis of moral instincts points ahead to Nietzsche's brilliant On the Genealogy of Morals and on to Freud.

Warning: Mill does often write in those endlessly lapping nineteenth century waves of dependent clauses upon dependent clauses.  They seem to sway to and fro across the page and actually make my chin swing back and forth.

Spoiler: Mill dies.  The chronological table says (p. 346) that he became godfather to a baby named Bertrand Russell in 1872 and died in 1873.  I knew there was something foreboding about the fact that he was born in 1806, but still I was rooting for him.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pious Aeneas

The AeneidThe Aeneid by Virgil

How is this for a blurb: I liked this book so much, I named my first-born child after its author.

Virgil is a legend.  Just as the Romans 'Hellenized' the world and spread Greek culture to all of us barbarians in the hinterlands, Virgil helped to canonize Homer with his Homeric epic in Latin, The Aeneid.  Virgil's poem follows Aeneas after the fall of Troy (just as The Odyssey follows Odysseus after the fall) and Virgil explicitly borrows from and transforms the work of his predecessor as writers have been doing ever since.  For maximum enjoyment, read The Iliad and The Odyssey before The Aeneid and then go on to Dante's Inferno, where Virgil becomes Dante's tour-guide through Hell.

But enjoyment is not exactly the point.  The Aeneid may be one of those great works that rewards close reading but isn't as entertaining on the dramatic level.  It is, however, a work of great beauty.  I had to translate it from Latin in high school and I still remember Virgil's sensitivity to nuance and detail on one hand, and on the other, his sense of epic proportion when dealing with fate, time, or the sea.  It's the work from which I learned the literary tropes and the basics of grammar and I have a particular fondness for it as a literary mother of sorts.

If you do want to compare Virgil and Homer, it may be of interest to note the way that The Aeneid rebuts certain elements of the worldview of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The Aeneid seems to me to look ahead towards a more guilty pre-Christian morality.  Aeneas's epithet is "pious" versus Odysseus's defining trait of wiliness--and this may explain why The Aeneid is a bit stiffer as a story, because Aeneas is a more duty-bound and inhibited creature than Odysseus.  The Aeneid begins with a reversal of perspective that's similar to what the Christian gospels were doing at the time they were written.  The gospels retell the story of a crucifixion from the perspective of the victim and glorify martyrs; in the same vein, Virgil revisits the destruction of Troy from the perspective of the victim and glorifies the victims, not the conquerors.  (The victims in fact literally "inherit the earth" since Aeneas's Trojan line supposedly gives rise to the Roman people.)  So it's no wonder that medieval Christians favored Virgil among pagan writers (when they paid attention to antiquity at all)--they even supposed that by some divine influence his work foretold of Christ.  The Aeneid was, of course, written for Augustus Caesar to glorify the Roman people, but it is politically subversive, precisely because of its ironic attitude to conquerors.

A.D. Nuttall describes Aeneas as "great and at the same time rather weird." Where Odysseus repeatedly breaks free, Aeneas suffers.  Odysseus is consummately independent, while Aeneas dutifully carries his father on his back.  The warlike Athena sponsors Odysseus and the goddess of love (Aeneas's mother) pulls for him.  Finally, Odysseus has sex with every female that walks on two legs while Aeneas endures a grim and painful love affair with Dido.  These contrasts, especially the last, reflect not only Virgil's somewhat different attitude to guilt, but also a more modern, realist approach to character and relationship than you find in Homer's highly expressionistic Odyssey.

I've read the Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum translations but not the Fagles.  I'm fond of Fitzgerald, who was a professor but also a practicing poet and a friend to Flannery O'Connor, who lived with him and his wife in Connecticut for a couple of years.  But any recommendations of other translations are welcome.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Hamlet: War of the Generations

Hamlet (The Oxford School Shakespeare)Hamlet by William Shakespeare

"Hamlet is the finest of all the plays in the English revenge tradition," says Roma Gill, editor of the Oxford School Shakespeare edition of Hamlet.  Some would call that an understatement, since Hamlet is frequently invoked as the greatest play in any tradition.  (Flaubert said, "The three finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart's Don Giovanni.")  Hamlet is, however, a revenge play, a fact which often seems to go unappreciated by directors and actors and existentialist critics.  Laurence Olivier was a fantastic actor, I grant--hey, I saw Marathon Man--but there was little of the revenge motif in his very stylized and emotionally beige Hamlet, who seemed to suffer from "indecision" as if indecision were akin to shingles, or something you'd find in the DSM IV, as opposed to a manifestation of inner conflict.

Who wants to watch Hamlet bitching about his terminal shingles?

Hamlet is about a war of the generations, between young and old, fathers and mothers versus sons and daughters.  Claudius makes war on (and kills) his older brother, King Hamlet; Hamlet makes war on his uncle and his mother and their royal advisor Polonius; Laertes and Ophelia laugh at their father Polonius for being out of touch and giving stale old advice.  Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius make war on Hamlet; Polonius doesn't trust his son Laertes and sends Reynaldo to check up on him; and of course King Hamlet's ghost wants his younger brother dead and torments his son Hamlet with charges of filial debt and obligation, a sense of belittlement, and with his taunting, withdrawing, loveless apparitions and his absence.

At the same time, Hamlet honors and wishes to avenge his dead father, and Laertes feels the same way after the murder of his father Polonius, who he formerly laughed at.  The ambivalent, “two-way” relations between the generations reflect inner conflict, a war of rage and guilt, and these opposing emotional vectors create a doubleness in the major characters.  Hamlet resembles Laertes in mourning his father (and notes as much in Act V scene ii when he says, “For by the image of my cause, I see / The portraiture of his”); at the same time, in killing Laertes’s father, Hamlet has followed after Claudius, another father-killer.  Claudius has boldly stolen his brother’s crown and his wife, but he suffers self-doubt, berates his own actions as “rank,” much as Hamlet frequently berates himself.  Hamlet devastates his opponents with self-confident repartee and at the same time he remains meek and loyal servant to his father.  The name Shakespeare gave to the son of Polonius, “Laertes,” seems to signify this instability of identity where sons identify with both their fathers and themselves; in Greek mythology, Laertes was not a son, but a father, the father of Odysseus, no less.  Shakespeare has seemingly assigned the name to the wrong party, but it's fitting, since rage and guilt are dynamic poles that split the characters’ personalities in Hamlet, warping identity, perception, and fate.

There is nothing native to Hamlet of the chemically inert, romantic substance fed into him by some of his interpreters on stage.  As written, he’s a yin-yang of hate and self-hate, more hate and more self-hate.  The role calls for an actor who can access guilt and rage during a performance, and it got just that in Zeffirelli’s movie version, because he had Mel Gibson, who portrays it flagrantly, on screen and off.

Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon, p. 365, “[T]he masterpiece of ambivalence is the Hamlet/Oedipus complex.”  (The “Macbeth complex” is, according to Bloom, “the masterpiece of anxiety.”)  Hamlet touches the same iconic themes as Oedipus Rex but has been realized with an unparalleled level of psychological realism.  That’s why it’s not only the finest revenge play, but so much more.

I like the Oxford School editions of Shakespeare; they’re meant for high school and college students and are straightforward, not self-serious, and their notes on the text are aligned vertically at the edge of the extra-wide page, so that you don’t have to hunt at the bottom for an explanation.  Its cover photo, however, is of a Kenneth Branaugh whose expression is noteworthy for not seething with either hate or self-hate or, better yet, both.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unsinkable John Milton

Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism (Norton Critical Editions)Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism by John Milton

Harold Bloom on Paradise Lost:

"What makes Paradise Lost unique is its startling blend of Shakespearean tragedy, Virgilian epic, and Biblical prophecy.  The terrible pathos of Macbeth joins itself to the Aeneid's sense of nightmare and to the Hebrew Bible's assertion of authority.  That combination should have sunk any literary work nine fathoms deep, but John Milton, blind and battered by political defeat, was unsinkable.  There may be no larger triumph of the visionary will in Western literature." (The Western Canon, p. 160)

I love Milton's ambition.  I love his opening note in which he declares his intention to be the first in English to restore the "ancient liberty" of the heroic poem, delivering it "from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming."  Then in ll. 12-16 of the poem itself he writes: "I thence / Invoke thy aid to my advent'rous song, / That with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme."  And while you may not be able to tell from those somewhat abstract lines, Milton to my mind achieved all the greatness he sought after.  Paradise Lost has stuck in my mind more firmly over the last twenty years than anything I've read other than Hamlet and Ulysses.

Paradise Lost is peopled with specifically rendered, touching human characters as in Shakespeare, but it's more epic than anything in Shakespeare (even more than the Henry tetralogy, which is quite an epic in itself).  Paradise Lost is more epic in fact than anything since the ancients.  It's a poem and a story, but it's also a comprehensive worldview.  Accordingly, it has a more formal, Virgilic, stately syntax, than Shakespeare's plays do, but it looks as deeply into the human heart and, like Shakespeare's work, it overflows with fine metaphor and subtilitas naturae.

Milton appeared to be conscious of writing in the shadow of Shakespeare, to whom the younger poet dedicated his first published poem (called "On Shakespeare").  Milton's father, according to The Milton Reading Room (hosted by Prof. Thomas Luxon at Dartmouth), was a trustee of the Blackfriars Theater, where Shakespeare's King's Men performed in the last decade of Shak's life.  John Milton Sr.'s commendation was printed in the opening pages of the First Folio, and Milton Jr.'s "On Shakespeare" appears in the first pages of the Second Folio.  (That must be the most awesome blurb in history.)  Milton was 7 years old when Shakespeare died.  Prof. Luxon speculates that if Milton had ever met Shakespeare, he would probably have let us know about it himself, but given his father's ties to the King's Men, I like to imagine Milton in Shakespeare's presence and literally looking up at him.

Link to Prof. Luxon's Milton Reading Room:
I liked the Scott Elledge annotations in the Norton Critical edition.    

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Friday, September 24, 2010

The Relevance of Psychoanalysis

Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Freud Library)Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud

Neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000 for his research on the neurochemistry of the Aplysia sea slug, wrote in 1999 that “psychoanalysis still represents the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind.”

That may come as a surprise to people who think of Freud as a relic or a quack, and there are many who feel that way, and with a passion; I've learned that Sigmund Freud, like politics and religion, is a dangerous topic of conversation.  But Eric Kandel’s 1999 paper, “Biology and the Future of Psychoanalysis: A New Intellectual Framework for Psychiatry Revisited,” ought to give some pause at least to anyone who despises Freud without having carefully read and considered his ideas.  Kandel’s paper opens like this:

“During the first half of the twentieth century, psychoanalysis revolutionized our understanding of mental life.  It provided a remarkable set of new insights about unconscious mental processes, psychic determinism, infantile sexuality, and, perhaps most important of all, about the irrationality of human motivation.”  Kandel, American Journal of Psychiatry 1999; 156:505.  Or, to put it more simply, it provided insights into the relation between what you feel now and what happened in your childhood, even if you can't remember it clearly, and insights into dynamic relationships in the mind between desire, love, anger, loss, guilt, fear, and the lies we tell to ourselves to make it all feel better.  Finally it made the point that talking about it (aka psychotherapy), and in so doing coming to look at yourself truthfully, is a real help.  These ideas are so deeply subsumed into our culture that they're almost clichés at this point.

Yet canards, misconceptions, and prejudices against Freud abound, and many could be cured if Freud-haters actually read the brilliant and brilliantly written Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis from beginning to end, carefully, and with an open mind.

The British empiricist Karl Popper (who Ludwig Wittgenstein famously threatened with a fire poker) believed that psychoanalytic ideas were not only unproven but unprovable; he thought there was no way to evaluate the truth or falsity of a psychoanalytic proposition because psychoanalysts interpreted data in such a way that any and every possible finding would be consistent with their theories.  (Some physicists have said as much about "string theory," by the way.)  Popper's view is a common one, partly because Freud and the psychoanalysts who followed have sometimes treated doubters as patients and doubt of Freudian theory as a symptom (called "resistance").  While emotional "denial" and "resistance" are real phenomena, worthy of study and recognition, it seems like a bad strategy to forestall healthy intellectual skepticism in this way.  Kandel argues that despite the tricky nature of the emotional and cognitive phenomena that psychoanalysts study, they have to do a better job demonstrating the validity of their findings in the methodological terms with which most scientists are familiar.  He's right.  If not, psychoanalysis insulates itself, prevents others from reaping its benefits, and prevents itself from reaping the benefits of advances in other fields of study, like psychopharmacology.

Psychoanalysts do, of course, base their theories on close observation, and their interpretations are no different in syllogistic form from other scientific interpretations.  For example, we know the core of the earth is made of iron and nickel even though no one has ever seen the core of the earth directly; scientists have interpreted seismic wave patterns as signs of the presence of iron and nickel, just as psychoanalysts identify conscious and unconscious ideations by signs--mainly, words.  You might say to a psychoanalyst, "I feel worried but I don't know why."  You are conscious of part of the contents of your own psyche, but perhaps not all of them.  You talk more and in the raw material generated by your talking you discover clues--signs--of the full nature of your worries.  You find yourself talking about your health a lot.  You are worried about your health, you've been having chest pains...  It occurs to you that you are turning 52 years old this month...  50 was the bigger milestone, but you had no worries at the time of your birthday two years ago...  You read an obituary about a famous lawyer.  Your father was a lawyer who died, it occurs to you, of a heart attack at age 52...

Maybe you could care less about your own inner life.  If you can get away without examining yourself, then you're lucky.  For the rest of us, there's Sigmund Freud.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

Where the Wild Things AreWhere the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Until recently, I didn't understand the appeal of this book.  The wildness of the boy and of the monsters, who have horns and sharp teeth, seemed inappropriate to a children's book.  Then my younger son discovered a copy of it on the shelf and became attached to it; shortly after that I saw the movie version.  The Spike Jonze adaptation is one of those rare instances where a movie enhances and enlarges a book by helping unpack its themes and artistic resources--and those are ample in this microcosmic little book.  I realized after seeing the film (and after having my own children) that the problem of wildness and sharp teeth is not a problem of the Sendak book but a problem of life, perhaps the principal problem with which children grapple: what to do with their own wildness, which jeopardizes relations with loved ones and caretakers, which haunts kids in bad dreams with inversions of their own wildness, which, nevertheless, is closely related to creativity and joy, and which, in any case, will not go away.  The wildness will be heard.  The wildness will have its say.  The wildness is an ineluctable endowment of our animal selves and of our raving grief.  Not only does Sendak represent all these facets of wildness on the tiny object of a children's book, as on a gemstone, but he also captures the mood of despair of the animal caught between these obverse duties to self and to others, to chaos and order, to fantasy and reality, and he even suggests a kind of settlement: the parent wins out over the child's wildness, but wildness too prevails in the realm of imagination.  The ambiguity of the unseen parent, who imprisons the child and threatens to withhold supper, but lovingly provides it anyway--in the uncivil confines of the bedroom and not at the dinner table--crystallizes this rapprochement between obversities.  It will all be okay.  Parents' ability to revise their decrees helps; children's ability to redirect their wildness into imagination, does too.  A fellow Goodreads reader points out that the illustrations begin small with lots of white space around them and then page by page get larger until they fill the page and then creep from one page to the other, which they then fill up too, until the "wild rumpus" when the illustration displaces everything, even words, for six straight pages.  Then the illustrations retract in sympathy with the boy's return to reality, order, and ... supper.  It's a work of genius, I think, and proof that art can be both subtle and beloved, as long as it's true.  Let the wild rumpus start!

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Monday, April 26, 2010

I Wonder What Henry James Would Say to Toni Morrison

My blog this month (this quarter?) appears on the website of the literary magazine A Public Space.  It's a defense of historical fiction.

Please follow this link to read it.

I Wonder What Henry James Would Say to Toni Morrison

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Bible as Literature

The Book of GenesisThe Book of Genesis by R. Crumb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harold Bloom says that Freud learned all his psychology from Shakespeare. Would it be radical to suggest that Shakespeare learned half of his psychology from the Romans and the other half from the Hebrew Bible?

Robert Alter says of the Bible’s authors, "[T]he Hebrew writers manifestly took delight in the artful limning of ... lifelike characters and actions, and so they created an unexhausted source of delight for a hundred generations of readers." The Bible is generally more realist in style and more concerned with the minute details and subtle intricacies of mental life than say, Homeric epic, or the plays of Aeschylus, where emotions certainly occupy a central position but are seen at a longer psychic distance and are represented in more abstract ways.

When Cain is snubbed by God, who heeds Abel’s offering but not the older brother's, I can put myself in Cain’s shoes (sandals) more readily than I can in those of say, Menelaus, after Paris absconds with his wife. I understand Menelaus on a more intellectual level. When Cain is snubbed, the Bible says “his face fell” and that God asked him, “Why is your face fallen?” The narration and the figures in the stories themselves are remarkably attendant to the inner life, to discrepancies between the outward manifestations of thought and feeling and the inner facts, to discrepancies between intention and action, even between inner ideas and deeper levels of consciousness (i.e., the Bible depicts lies told to oneself; i.e., denial ain’t just the river where Moses turned up in an ark of bulrushes). Noah’s ostracism of his son and grandson and Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar are entirely modern-feeling accounts of guilt and jealousy and the way such emotions are handled in the psyche.

R. Crumb’s recently published illustrations of the Book of Genesis amplify this psychological pathos in a wonderful way without diminishing the Bible's subtlety. Crumb shows Cain sweating under the weight of his offering to God juxtaposed with the tiny lightweight lamb that Abel brings. You see how unfair and hurtful it was for Cain and understand what came next.

Some of the Crumb illustrations are funny and implicitly ask subversive questions about God, particularly in the earlier chapters, where God enters the story as a kind of lunatic artisan who likes to make things for reasons unknown to anyone, including, apparently, himself and who gets furiously dissatisfied with his creations and takes out all his frustrations on his children like the put-upon alcoholic Farrington in James Joyce’s story “Counterparts.” The things God yells about seem not to make any sense as in a real human temper tantrum. The opening passages of Genesis may lose some of their gravitas in this version, but the familial dysfunction at the heart of so many of the Bible stories is thrown into bold relief. Furthermore, the satire in these early parts lends a certain existential irony to the stories, which I appreciate, and which it might be argued is not even foreign to the biblical writers. Alter sees the Bible’s main agenda as the depiction of human character in all its variety and consistency, and that character's interrelation with forces beyond human control—fate, destiny, chance (or God, if you prefer)—to create what we call history. Sometimes the biblical heroes themselves don’t understand God’s designs, and sometimes laughter is the result, as when Sarah laughs at God’s annunciation of her pregnancy in old age and this laughter is commemorated in Isaac’s name, which means “he who laughs.” Sometimes the heroes object to God's designs, as when Abraham bargains for Lot’s life. Sometimes God seems like a personification of the sort of natural disaster that just befell Haiti as when God wantonly destroys Babel. It might be argued that the biblical writers purposely made God at times cruel and outrageous because fate is cruel and outrageous. And inasmuch as the Bible writers rationalized natural disasters as punishments for bad behavior (as Pat Robertson does even today) or otherwise rationalized them as in any way useful or necessary or morally ordained—well, then this benighted and primitive element of their worldview deserves satire.

On the whole, however, what’s so remarkable about the ancient writers of the Bible is not what's primitive about them, but what is modern. They have honored the complexity and majesty of the real world with the most meticulous artistry and have not only bequeathed their wise and beautiful stories to later readers but their techniques to later writers and artists.

I reread Genesis in Crumb’s illustrated edition (which uses Robert Alter’s translation, a major upgrade from any I’ve read, sensitive as it is the artistic aims of the original Hebrew) and afterward I read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, a masterpiece of literary criticism and a highly accessible one at that. If you want a pair of excellent guides to one of the great artistic creations in the history of humankind, I commend to you the Roberts Alter and Crumb.

Addendum: On Bloom’s notion that Freud got everything from Shakespeare; this is surely “the anxiety of influence” in action—a wonderful concept Bloom invented with a little help from Freud. (As that immortal rock band The Bettelheims said, “I get by with a little help from my Freud....”)

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