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 www.writershouses.com.

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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