Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Writers' Writer

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857 by Gustave Flaubert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah, the writer's life!  The insecurity!  The unappreciated, unremunerated toil!  The risk of failure!  The torment!  The passion!  The syphilis!

And the devotion to ideals of Truth and Beauty.  Flaubert says he'd rather beat himself to death with a table leg than write a socially conscious novel like Uncle Tom's Cabin.  He says, "The three finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart's Don Giovanni."  He discusses his boils.  He says in France you see the sun as often as you see "a diamond in a pig's ass-hole."  He lays bare his relationship with Louise Colet with incomplete insight but complete honesty and detail.  He discusses the writing of fiction as a craftsman, not a bullshit genius or self-conscious visionary.  He is totally down-to-earth and human, that's the surprise.

This belongs on any writer's bookshelf.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Breakfast of Death

Breakfast of ChampionsBreakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of Vonnegut's three most famous works, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Breakfast of Champions, the last didn't make the author as proud as did the first two, but Breakfast of Champions is one of his funniest.  Vonnegut, who taught writing at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop (and supposedly had hell-raising parties in Iowa City), was more than a satirist.  He was also a skilled realist, and his knowledge of craft is evident in the advice he dispensed--except on the subject of semi-colons, which he berated as hermaphrodites (according to a guy I met, who interviewed him).  What's wrong with semi-colons?  What's wrong with hermaphrodites, for that matter?  Vonnegut gave wiser advice when he said all characters must want something, "even if it's only a glass of water," a quote that's now been replicated all over the internet.  And Vonnegut applies this principle at every level of his works; character wants provide structure to the overall course of his novels and to every individual scene.  This is just what Aristotle was trying to say when he said that realism demands drama and action, because human life consists of action, only Aristotle said it in a far more incomprehensible way than most people could devise if they tried.

My only hesitation about Vonnegut is his capitulation to despair.  For example, in one of his last TV appearances, he told Jon Stewart that global warming was earth's way of trying to rid itself of the human race as a lice from its back.  Not quite.  Vonnegut knew he was about to be kicked off, and now he has been, but the rest of us are at present still alive and kicking.  It's evident that Vonnegut's despair helped generate his wily humor and creativity, but perhaps he was also a little too much in love with it.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

World's Fair

World's Fair: a NovelWorld's Fair: a Novel by E.L. Doctorow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was asked by Moment Magazine to write about a book by a Jewish writer who had influenced me, and I chose Doctorow's charming and cunningly straightforward World's Fair, which won the National Book Award in 1986.  Click here to read the article.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Grand Cathedral

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the AgesThe Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harold Bloom has a valid gripe with the "School of Resentment" as he calls it--i.e. the group of academics who are actively destroying the notion of a canon of great works, of classics.  The real virtue of this book, however, is in Bloom's wise and warm-hearted discussions of the art of the great works themselves.  He'll send you back to your favorite classics reinvigorated to discover them again or inspire you to tackle great works you've heard of but never read.  Either way, Bloom will arm you with much helpful wisdom about the books, their narrative strategies, their themes, and their relation to one another.  His approach is in my view the common sense one--to think about the writers not as vessels of impersonal cultural-historical forces, but as individual human beings, as artists acutely aware of, indebted to, and competitive with their predecessors.  It's a history of literary artists since the Renaissance as if they've all been working on the same piece, like architects inheriting the job of building a grand cathedral and passing the job on to the next generation.

The only disappointments for me were chapters 10 (on Jane Austen and Wordsworth) and 20 (on Kafka)--Bloom lapses into excessive abstraction in these.  But this book is an essential for any library.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Golem and the Blood Libel

The GolemThe Golem by Isaac Bashevis Singer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By a long shot, this is the funniest book I ever read about the blood libel.

Caveat: despite illustrations by Uri Shulevitz that look suited to children, this is not a children's book.  It's about some gentiles who libel an innocent Jew for the murder of a child in 17th-century Prague.  German folklore, of course, really did depict Jews as demonic figures who used Christian children's blood in their matzah.  The legend is gruesome enough, but its demonization of Jews is even more troubling given the catastrophic consequences of such racism in the real lives of European Jewish families as recently as sixty years ago.  Golem folklore, meanwhile, emerged from the Jewish ghettoes of Europe and, at least in Singer's telling, serves as antidote to the racist folklore known to Jews as the blood libel.  Golems are pretend, as are demonic cannibal Jews, as is the arch distinction between heroes and villains in this and other fairy tales.  (Singer surely painted the righteousness of the Jewish victims and the venality and mendacity of their gentile accusers in stark terms so that the charges of cannibalism in the story would be understood as unambiguously false.)  But it's important to note that Isaac Bashevis Singer didn't make up the notion of the blood libel.  The blood libel appears in Chaucer's poetry and in the original edition of Grimm's fairy tales.  In The Golem the judge uses the frequency of the accusation of cannibalism as evidence of its validity.  That is surely one of the ways that rumors propagate--people believe hoax emails today for the same reason--and the Jews of Europe, an ostracized minority, were powerless to resist the damage the legend wrought.  They dealt with it as the Jews had previously dealt with hardships: they told stories about it.

Part of what makes Singer's story so funny and unusual is that it shifts from tragedy to comedy half-way through, when the Golem, having solved a major problem for the Jews of Prague, starts acting crazy in a very childlike way, doing unexpected and yet harmless things like climbing the bell tower and running around the bell and kissing a girl (who finds "his lips were as scratchy as a horseradish grinder").  The Golem, an earthen clay giant shaped by a rabbi with the name of God engraved on his forehead, seems to function like a work of art in the life of the Jews--like an Isaac Bashevis Singer story--alleviating tragedy through might and also through comedy.  The Golem is the creative life-force of the Jews, called up from the sacred depths of the spirit at their darkest hours with pious intensity, and then blundering past tragedies with actions bent implacably upon the earthly and profane.  The Golem doesn't listen to the rabbi and becomes preoccupied with childish games and the sort of quotidian needs that can look so trivial and absurd in the context of tragedy.  And by suggesting absurdities, the Golem performs a magic act like the one that called him into being: he summons laughter out of us like a genie out of a lamp, and our laughter in turn calls us back to the necessity, the joy, and significance of daily life.

One indicator that the Golem does not belong to the Gothic story tradition of self-destruction is his attitude to wine.  Boris Karloff as Dracula: "I don't drink ... wine."  Frankenstein's effete monster too specifically disapproved of wine.  The Golem: "Golem like wine!"  Even Manischewitz, apparently.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has a master's intuition and lightness of touch.  Uri Shulevitz's illustrations are perfect: funny, sincere, a little sad, big, and strange.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Non Serviam

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On June 15, 1917, a U.S. marshal and 12 New York City policemen entered the Lower East Side offices of the radical magazine Mother Earth and placed its editor under arrest.  The U.S. was mobilizing to enter World War I, and the famous anarchist Emma Goldman had been charged with conspiracy to obstruct the draft in violation of the Selective Service Act passed earlier that year.  She brought with her to the jailhouse, according to Vivian Gornick, only two things: "a small toilet case" and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

Joyce's novel was a rare object at that time (though, admittedly, not so rare as Emma Goldman's toilet case).  At the time Goldman was arrested, Portrait had been in print for little more than six months in an edition of less than a thousand.  Yet it’s fitting, even if surprising, that she had a copy and attached such importance to it, since Joyce wrote the quintessential book against "the spirit of unquestioning obedience" that Goldman deplored.

While Goldman rebelled publicly against governments, armies, corporations, and churches in order to even the scales of justice, Joyce ignored a political bagatelle such as World War I.  He wrote not of the struggle to liberate a people but of the individual’s struggle to liberate himself—if need be, from his people.  In his book on the adolescence of Stephen Dedalus—the best book ever written on male adolescence, I think—Stephen liberates himself above all from his own twisted conscience.  And that is hard enough.  To overthrow a government of the people is not so hard, perhaps, as to overthrow the government of the heart.

Plato confused conscience with reason, but Freud, the ultimate analyst of corrupt conscience (a.k.a. neurosis), did not.  He knew that for some it could be a catalogue of hysteric, childish dangers with sometimes pitiless, bullying, and sophistical methods for enforcing its prohibitions.

Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus rebels against such irrational conscience, conscience that rules not by reason but by incantations and scare tactics, a sovereign conscience that “force hath made supreme / Above his equals” as Satan says of God in Paradise Lost Book I, ll 248-249.  At times Stephen shares the apostate angel’s “unconquerable will” and “courage never to submit or yield,” as Milton puts it.  When the priest names the cardinal Satanic sin—“non serviam: I will not serve” (Portrait p 117)—and says you burn in Hell for it, Stephen cowers and chastens himself.  But reason, courage, and self-sympathy prevails; in the novel’s last pages Stephen twice echoes Satan’s famous line, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” (PL I, l 263); he tells his friend Cranly “I will not serve” on p 239 and “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church” on p 247.  Dedalus soars over Hell with self-made wings, over the Irish Sea to Europe, hoping “to fly by those nets” of church and homeland (p 203) which are the aliases by which demonic conscience makes itself known.

This inner conflict, which shapes Portrait, in turn takes its shape from the family conflict in which its template was cast.  Just like in Paradise Lost, where the many crises of conscience turn on relations between God the Father and his curious, jealous children, Portrait is all about fathers and sons.  Patrick Parrinder, author of a great essay on the novel called “A Portrait of the Artist,” says of Stephen Dedalus: “his father’s voice plays a crucial part in the novel.  Portrait begins (as we have seen) with his father’s words and ends with a cry addressed to an imaginary father.”  It’s battle and rapprochement between father and son, rebellion and submission, resentment and idolization, and a vacillation between these two positions, conducted wholly in the realm of language.  While writing my college thesis on Portrait I counted instances of the word ‘father’ and came up with 193 (including ‘governor’ three times and ‘Papa’ once) in 253 pages.  (Since this was before the internet and e-books, I counted by circling ‘father’ whenever I came across it and then I went back and tallied them up on notebook paper with hash marks in sets of five!)

There’s a beautiful triangle form inside of Portrait, with sin at one end of its base and piety at the other, and a conciliation between the two at its glorious flying vertex.  Only Joyce could inscribe this abstract form onto a novel of such incomparable specificity and naturalism.  He does it with three motivic lines on Stephen’s approach to reality.


"It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin." p 103


"In vague sacrificial or sacramental acts alone his will seemed drawn to go forth to encounter reality." p 159

And then:

"I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." p 253

There at the windy vertex Stephen throws off the yoke of oppressive conscience by replacing it with a conscience he made himself en route to maturity.  That is self-governance, no?  That is autonomy, and it enables "detachment from parental authority, a process that alone makes possible the opposition, which is so important for the progress of civilization, between the new generation and the old," as Freud says in “The Transformations of Puberty,” the third of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

I’ll soon be forty years old.  I’ve been done with puberty for months.  Now, if I could just move past this nasty, moody adolescence.  Well, here I go with my wax wings on, to set sail over the abyss, muttering to myself, “ ‘Indigestibly byronic’?  I find that incontestably mo-ronic, Mr. Kenner….”  Shit, it’s a long way down there.

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Old Deuteronomy

Old Possum's Book of Practical CatsOld Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It somehow does not surprise me that T.S. Eliot was able to see the world so well through the eyes of a cat.  His created cat personas are charming, especially their names:

The Old Gumbie Cat (a.k.a. Jennyanydots)
The Rum Tum Tugger
Old Deuteronomy
The Great Rumpuscat
Macavity the Mystery Cat
Gus the Theater Cat
Bustopher Jones
...and more

I love that cat "Gilbert" inconspicuously stuck in there.

It makes me squirm a bit, however, when T.S. refers to a group of Siamese cats as "Chinks."  And then Eliot writes of Growltiger:
But most to Cats of foreign race his hatred had been vowed;
To Cats of foreign name and race no quarter was allowed....
Far be it from me to spoil the enjoyment of poetry with politics, but the date of first publication--1939--for me tends to compound rather than explain Eliot's moral tone deafness when he writes so casually of his cat protagonist's racism.  I feel in T.S. Eliot some shortage of charity toward human beings, which his lavish empathy for cats only emphasizes.  It reminds me in some way of Donald Pleasance as super-villain Blofeld in the James Bond movies sitting there with that hideous scar on his face and plotting world domination while stroking his white Persian.  Or of the witches in Macbeth with their cat--"I come, Graymalkin!"

Surely it's I who's being bigoted--toward cats--when I endorse the ages-old propaganda that felines are the suited companions of witches and demons like Donald Pleasance.  And yet I've seen some corroboration of their notorious stand-offishness; as well as of T.S. Eliot's.  His poetic personas are morbid--deliciously so, I would say.

But if you skip the fifth stanza of "Growltiger's Last Stand" and just say "cats" instead of "Chinks" in that same poem, I think it's inspired poetry for children.  I have two editions.  The one illustrated by Axel Scheffler is more kid-friendly and helps to disguise the faint odor of moral defect.  The other is illustrated by Edward Gorey, who is himself charming but also macabre, so the Gorey is probably somewhat better attuned to the macabre temperature of T.S. Eliot.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Berlin Winters

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris and  Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris and  Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Berlin Stories, upon which the musical Cabaret was based, pairs two novels by Christopher Isherwood.  Both were inspired by his experiences as an English expatriate in Berlin in the early 1930s.  The second 'novel' (if it really is a novel), Goodbye to Berlin, is in my view far superior to the first, The Last of Mr. Norris (I would skip it), but both contain extraordinarily vivid prose, and Goodbye to Berlin is a paragon of modern realism and one of my very favorite books.

Particularly in the description of human behaviors, Isherwood exhibits a genius for metaphor, with which he makes the unknown world of the narrator materialize before your eyes by comparison to something known.  E.g.: "She wore a bandage round her throat, tight under the high collar of her old-fashioned black dress.  She seemed a nice old lady, but somehow slightly obscene, like an old dog with sores."   Or this description of a Berlin winter (this is actually from Mr. Norris): “Like a long train which stops at every dingy little station, the winter dragged slowly past.”  He fashions many unforgettable images of 1930s Berlin in winter, in fact, and they've become emblazoned in my mind as omens of world war:

Tonight, for the first time this winter, it is very cold. The dead cold grips the town in utter silence, like the silence of intense midday summer heat. In the cold the town seems actually to contract, to dwindle to a small black dot, scarcely larger than hundreds of other dots, isolated and hard to find, on the enormous European map. Outside, in the night, beyond the last new-built blocks of concrete flats, where the streets end in frozen allotment gardens, are the Prussian plains. You can feel them all round you, tonight, creeping in upon the city, like an immense waste of unhomely ocean—sprinkled with leafless copses and ice-lakes and tiny villages which are remembered only as the outlandish names of battlefields in half-forgotten wars. Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the ironwork of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb. Goodbye to Berlin (The Berlin Stories), p. 186

Isherwood also shows what use can be made of adjectives, which are often abstract and dead on the page.  Isherwood's, by contrast, are often unexpected and helpful to the imagination because of their specificity.  He sets a hoity-toity dinner table not with silver and port, but with "historic" silver and "legendary" port.  And check out the modifier on snow in this sentence: "They drew back--harmless, after all, as mere ghosts--into the darkness, while our bus, with a great churning of its wheels, lurched forward towards the city, through the deep unseen snow."  Ironically the word "unseen" makes the moment seeable for any reader who's had a nighttime bus ride or been outdoors in the countryside on a winter night.

His character sketches have an uncommonly persuasive depth psychology to them, and the figures in the book are hence both real and very moving.  And while some might find Goodbye to Berlin too meandering, I think Isherwood has loaded the vignettes with story, albeit realistic story, life-problems.  Some of the characters also recur so that the novel itself does feel like it has a story arc.  Finally, Isherwood scales individual lives against the backdrop of history--all in all a very impressive work, a real piece of art, and in that old childish sense, I didn't want it to end.  I had that rare feeling of having experienced real people for a couple of hundred pages.  To me that is the gold standard of literary art--whether the author has successfully created beings of sufficient complexity, nuance, detail, and verisimilitude to seem real.  Sometimes it seems to me that works that do this particularly well are under-appreciated, precisely because of their ability to create a persuasive fictional dream without calling attention to the writer's artifice.  It's as though the characters really exist and the author had nothing to do with it, or is only to be called on the carpet for mistreating these real people he calls his characters or choosing the wrong people to be in his book.  Please do not make this mistake with prose master Christopher Isherwood.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Dog's Dog

Ribsy (Henry, #6)Ribsy by Beverly Cleary

No one but Jack London, perhaps, has ever written so convincingly from a dog’s point of view as has Beverly Cleary in Ribsy. Like most dogs, Ribsy seems charmingly brain damaged. His loyalties are permanent but also have a happy-go-lucky fluidity that embraces many; he forgets to be ashamed for very long; and forgets discouragement. He’s in a word dogged.

When he’s ashamed, he rarely knows what he did wrong, and moves on with admirable alacrity. He solves problems with the tools he has at hand, for example, waiting. This is how he deals with young Ramona Quimby, who constantly irritates him. There’s waiting and there’s also trying, again and again. There’s subterfuge. At one point he feigns sleep, waits for a ticket-taker to walk away, and then sneaks into a stadium—I think in pursuit of hot dogs. Wittgenstein said that a dog is incapable of hypocrisy, but he never met Ribsy. I assume he had met a hot dog somewhere along the line since Wittgenstein was from Vienna, hometown of the original wiener.

Wittgenstein, Cleary, and Jack London aren’t alone in imagining what it is to be man’s best friend. Franz Kafka’s short story, “Investigations of a Dog,” predictably imagines a dog in rebellion against his own nature, a dog apart from other dogs, a dog who’s uncomfortable being a dog. Ribsy is by contrast one of those unquestioning dogs that Kafka’s tormented narrator would have envied. Kafka was famously not at home in his body and with his instincts. He is the greatest of artists devoted to that problem Freud named Civilization and Its Discontents, and it makes sense that Kafka chose the dog as a representative creature who (except for his unusual narrator) is content, in direct proportion to his incivility. My grandfather called all dogs “he,” and I always felt this had something to do with their incivility. There’s something unfussy about drinking out of a toilet.

Jack London’s White Fang, however, who’s three parts wolf and one part domestic dog, shares in the Kafkaesque dog’s alienation from his own species and in his struggles with the yoke of civilization. A harsh Indian master called Grey Beaver gives White Fang his first taste of civilization, and White Fang learns to revere human beings as gods. But he doesn’t feel at home with the civilization forced upon him in the company of men until he discovers the hidden instinctual pleasures that civilization alone makes possible: love and even violence on behalf of those he loves.

In a non-fiction book that tries to imagine the psychological experience of a dog, Jeffrey Masson quotes the 19th century pediatrician Louis Robinson on the presumed centrality of human beings in the canine weltanschauung. I wonder if Robinson got this from London or the other way around:
It has been said that a man stands to his dog in the position of god; but when we consider that our conceptions of deity lead us to the general idea of an enormously powerful and omniscient man, who loves, hates, desires, rewards, and punishes in human-like fashion, it involves no strain of imagination to conceive that from the dog’s point of view his master is an elongated and abnormally cunning dog—of different shape and manners certain from the common run of dogs, yet canine in his essential nature.
Dogs have much that’s human in them, and we have much that’s canine. If dogs have something to teach us, perhaps it’s not to be too discouraged by civilization and its discontents. Like Ribsy, or like a child, we can still love and can still find outlets for a natural aggression that is, after all, part of the life-force. We, too, can run after hot dogs and forget what to be ashamed of.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Out of Eden

The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern PaganismThe Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For more than a month now, I've been steeped in Peter Gay's sane and sage history of the sanest and sagest intellects from Roman antiquity to the 18th-century.  Gay's command of his subject is broad and deep.  He owns a subtle, temperate, and vivacious mind.   This book is a treasure chest of historical data, but it's also a philosophical meditation on the central question that nature has put to the human race: can you face the facts of life and of yourself, or will you bury your head in the sand like an ostrich?  (Do even ostriches actually do this?)  Will you bury your thinking mind in all manner of denial and magic and, one might add, will you in so doing destroy your planet, your kind, yourselves?  This question, which has been so well articulated by Carl Sagan, that great latter-day Justus Lipsius, intermittently haunted me while reading--but then anxiety haunts me even if I'm sitting on the beach, Corona in hand.  And more than anxiety, I felt a great comfort in my daily immersion in the humanism of antiquity, of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Gay focuses on the writings and ideas themselves more than on the personal lives of the writers and thinkers.  It isn't light reading in that sense, but it's leavened by Gay's perspicuous and unpedantic writing style and his sense of the drama in the flux of ideas across empires and ages.  I learned all the great Roman writers I should have read by now, and discovered the Carl Sagans of their time, the popularizers, the encyclopedists and curators of the arts and letters of the modern and humane.  People with fantastic names like Aldus Manutius and Poggio Bracciolini (I think I ate something like that braised with garlic).  Poggio, "the most assiduous and successful discoverer of classical texts in the Renaissance" (p. 261), was a church figure who shrugged off clerical duties to rescue manuscripts from monasteries.  "From 1414 to 1418," Gay tells us, "Poggio Bracciolini found himself Apostolic Secretary at the Council of Constance, a council which, fortunately for scholarship, rarely met." (p. 262)  Gay's dry humor keeps the history entertaining throughout and, despite the precedence of ideas before personalities, Gay does in the end resurrect certain personalities through his amusing and affecting anecdotes.  I learned that Boccaccio, the great progenitor of Chaucer and Shakespeare and author of The Decameron, was also a Raider of the Lost Ark.  Gay writes:

When Boccaccio visited the great Benedictine library of Monte Cassino, he found it a room without a door, with grass growing on the window sills, and the manuscripts covered with dust, torn and mutilated.  Profoundly dejected, and in tears, he asked one of the monks how such desecrations could have been permitted, and was told that the monks would tear off strips of parchment, to be made into psalters for boys or amulets for women, just to make a little money. p. 262

No one figure looms over the book, and over the Enlightenment itself, as does Voltaire--the archangel of the Enlightenment, an effete Machiavellian marauder on behalf of all the right things: science, tolerance, the classics.  Gay describes Voltaire's exile from the court of Frederick the Great thus: "Depressed, irritable, aimless, he wandered from elegant refuge to elegant refuge" (p. 363) until he landed at the abbey of Senones in 1754.  While Calmet generously hosted Voltaire at the abbey, Voltaire privately scoffed at him, "Felix errore suo," (p. 363-364) and used the abbey library to research polemics meant to destroy all that Calmet held most dear--the Christian faith.  

David Hume is the other hero of the book and the age.  Gay paints a portrait of James Boswell's visit to Hume in the weeks before the latter's death: "Hume's good nature and graceful acceptance of his imminent dissolution withstood even the tasteless intrusion of James Boswell," Gay writes (p. 356).  Boswell, like his mentor Samuel Johnson, was terrified of the philosophes' demotion of the Christian Heaven to the status of a fairy tale, and they particularly feared Hume, one of the most original and formidable minds of all time.  Boswell tried to extract from Hume some shred of Christian belief (as if Hume's endorsement would make it all true!) but even on his deathbed, Hume calmly refused to abandon the conclusions to which careful reasoning had led him.  "The Christian was on the defensive," Gay writes, "and grave doubts assailed him.  Perhaps to dispel them--he does not tell us--Boswell then sought refuge in an argument that Hume would certainly have been too charitable to use."  Boswell said in effect, Don't you want to see your friends in Heaven?  To which Hume replied, yes, but his friends didn't believe in an absurd notion like Heaven either.  "Not long after," says Gay, "as [Edward] Gibbon notes with majestic approval, Hume died at Edinburgh, 'the death of a philosopher.' " (p. 357)

"Hume makes plain that since God is silent, man is his own master: he must live in a disenchanted world, submit everything to criticism, and make his own way," Gay writes in conclusion (p. 419), and I suspect he deliberately echoes the last lines of Paradise Lost on the departure of Adam and Eve from Eden:

"They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way."

Let us all be so courageously modern as Peter Gay, David Hume, Milton, Adam, and Eve.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Life Also Sucked in Roman Times

Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica (Loeb Classical Library No. 194)Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica by Horace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's almost shocking how modern and relevant Horace's social commentary reads today.  Every character type he attacks I recognize from my own experience.  Every flaw he describes in himself I recognize in myself.  He's caustic, crude, witty, self-deprecating, down-to-earth, and wise in his guidance on how to live and how to write.  His voice is so strong you can feel his personal presence from two millennia away.

Clifton Fadiman and John Major's New Lifetime Reading Plan, a sage and practical guide to great books, leaves out Horace.  This is perhaps because Major added a long list of "non-Western" titles to the list.  I don't disagree with that in any way.  I don't, and I don't think even Harold Bloom would.  But you can't bump Horace from a lifetime reading plan for anybody.  Bump Aldous Huxley instead.  There--now you, me, Major, and Fadiman have room for Horace.  Do not hold it against Horace that he is "Western," if such a category even exists.  He was the son of a slave, for crying out loud!  (Virgil wasn't even Roman--he was a Gaul.)  And Horace was a satirist, not an apologist for the culture in which he lived!  How much more marginalized do you want his CV to be?  What's important is not that he wrote in Latin but that he was wise, and an inspiration to many centuries of other profound thinkers.  He'll make you feel better about the headaches of modern times (jackhammers are even now shivering my skull) with all his complaints about the noise and irritating superficiality of life in ancient Rome.

I like the Loeb Classical edition, which contains a 1926 English translation by H.R. Fairclough side by side with the original Latin.  I can't remember much Latin at this point, but this translation seems to me to take fewer liberties than more recent ones do.  The Penguin Classics translation by Niall Rudd attempts to recapture the original's irreverent tone by modernizing the diction, but to me this comes off anachronistic and unfaithful.  Fairclough also provides helpful footnotes.

Mirabile visu.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another Day in June

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mrs. Dalloway may take a back seat to To the Lighthouse (to which I'm partial, for one), but it probably doesn't take a back seat to anything else in English prose fiction.  Like Ulysses, it takes place on a single day in June and it enters the thoughts of various Londoners (as opposed to Dubliners) on that day, often compelling different characters to reflect on one event, one object, one person from their many different vantages.  It's striking how often those different viewpoints agree, as opposed to disagree.  With an omniscience that hovers over all of London and thrusts itself confidently into any heart it wishes, Woolf creates a very firm sense of a fixed reality outside her diverse characters' minds, one that commands their attention and thought whether they like it or not.  This is both a departure from the relativism of the postmoderns (Woolf's characters have in no sense 'created' their own reality) and a feat of writerly verisimilitude.  I hate to compare this book to Ulysses, since I've been under Joyce's spell since I was 19 and still worship him, but there is something leaner, more elegant, more coldly beautiful--like a Bernini sculpture--something more profound even, in Woolf's affirmation of life.  For one thing, the alternative to that affirmation is made plainer in Woolf than in Joyce; in Woolf that alternative in self-destruction and despair is as real to her suicidally-depressed characters as it was to the author herself.  The dialectic between the despairing Septimus Warren Smith and the life-embracing Clarissa Dalloway makes Woolf's June book somehow more necessary than Joyce's.  The stakes are higher.  The narration is more stout-hearted as it insists on visualizing the grimmest coordinates on the map of human emotion.  Joyce pays the price in his art, perhaps, for having it a little bit easier in his life.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Gallows Songs

Gallows SongsGallows Songs by Christian Morgenstern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I discovered Christian Morgenstern and his collection of poems called Gallows Songs (or Galgenlieder in the original German) while researching my novel The Jump Artist; Morgenstern was one of the many writers Philippe Halsman read while in Innsbruck Prison in 1928 and 1929.

The University of Michigan Press jacket copy says that this mysterious poet died in 1914 at the age of 43 and describes the world he created in Gallows Songs as one of "delight, dread, and unexpectable realities."   I don't speak German, so it's impossible for me to know how faithful W.D. Snodgrass and Lore Segal's translations are to the original style and content.  I'm suspicious of verse translations that rhyme as these do in the translated English, but they're really breathtaking.  Morgenstern--or at any rate the collaboration between Morgenstern and his interpreters--created a work that's tuned to some beautiful and strange frequency of the mind and heart.  The poems are mysterious, encoded and free associative like dreams, and yet they're coherent in the way dreams are nonsensical and still coherent.  The poems seem to trace sequences of real events. They speak like dreams to an intelligent but magical and emotional part of the mind and there elaborate a mood before the reader knows it.  Reading Morgenstern is akin to listening to music--to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Schoenberg's atonal sounds.  It's askew and somehow right and as it should be, and all about life and death in a minuscule space, just like a dream.  "Here one may find the Gallows Brothers swaying in the wind or meet those two eccentric spirits Palmstrom and Korf, their incredible theories, their insane and brilliant inventions, their Competition in Nocturnes," the unusually soulful and helpful book jacket says.

The Morgenstern together with illustrations by Paul Klee makes for a distinctively, passionately, exquisitely, magnificently modernist art object.

Palmstrom observing his candles:

There do this dreamer's eyes behold
On the fabled white escarpments
Undaunted myriads of the sun's pilgrims.

And in the next poem, thinking of the Alps in his bed:

190,000 feet he lies
Over Tschirn, seeing the stars, fistsize

And in the next one, baptizing a poodle:

The still unbaptized poodle of Fritz Kunkel
Was purchased by Von Korf's step-foster-uncle.

You heard him right, ladies and gentlemen: The still unbaptized poodle of Fritz Kunkel / Was purchased by Von Korf's step-foster-uncle.  Just FYI.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Reality Is a Dream -- You Wish

Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious GenrePartial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre by Robert Alter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Ever since Gutenberg," Robert Alter writes, "the conditions of mechanical reproduction made it necessary for the individual artist to swim against a vast floodtide of trash out of all proportion to anything that had existed before in cultural history...."  And when the furnace of time has digested the trash-heap of twentieth-century literary criticism, one hopes that Robert Alter's brilliant oeuvre will endure and stand forth for its clarity of vision and purity of heart.  Finishing a book by Robert Alter is like bench-pressing 500 pounds, the same way I feel when I finish wrestling with a classic.  At the end of the book, I feel I'm standing atop a mountain.  I feel the climb in my legs but I see the heavens and the earth from my new vantage point.  Alter seems to have read every book and to speak every language, and yet he's immune to pretense and to fads.  His often beautiful prose elevates criticism to art and his evidence-based analysis of texts is as scientific in its method as writing on literature can be.

This study of self-consciousness in the novel from Don Quixote to Claude Mauriac's 1961 The Marquise Went Out at Five contains indispensable help in understanding the Cervantes masterpiece, as well as Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Nabokov's Pale Fire.  As in any Alter text, he shines plenty of light on many other books in passing.  He situates modernism between 19th-century realism and the more self-conscious works that followed in a helpful way, and draws a very useful distinction between self-conscious novels which concern themselves with reality and those novels of "flaunted artifice" that are card tricks for the sake of the trick.  (Alter refers to some of John Barth's work as an example of such fictions that don't heed the complexities of reality.)  Self-conscious novels that pursue realism do so, according to Alter, by charting the dynamics by which imagination acts on the raw material of reality.  Self-conscious novels that lose themselves in artifice demonstrate a sort of avoidant pathology--and it's precisely that pathology which is the focus of good self-conscious works about the imagination.  There is only one reply to a novel that takes seriously the notion that 'reality is a dream.'  And that is: you wish.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Tuna Holocaust

Swimmy (Knopf Children's Paperbacks)Swimmy by Leo Lionni

The good news is: great illustrations, some memorably poetic lines, nice short text.  A lobster is a "water-moving machine," an eel is so long that its tail is hard to remember, other strange fish move as if pulled along on a thread.  Those ideas are beautiful and, combined with the painted tableaux, suggest the silent and strange world of coral reef and dream.

The bad news is: it starts with a giant tuna that "one bad day" eats everyone Swimmy knows (in other words, his entire school), abandoning him to roam the undersea wastes like the young Roman Polanski wandering the fields of Poland after his escape from the Krakow ghetto.  This led to a half-hour discussion this evening with my four-year-old about sharks, whether they eat people, whether it's safe to go in the water, whether human bones are strong enough not to get bitten in half by a shark, and other sick and demented shit like that that sends me scrambling for my whiskey bottle.

The other good news: Swimmy finds a new school and proposes new strategies for prevention of tuna-Holocaust: never again.

The other bad news: his strategy recapitulates terrifying aspects of group psychology.  He compels all the other little fish to identify with the aggressor and sacrifice their individual identity to the state in the form of a giant tuna-shaped bait ball.  The lesson seems to be that if you're prey, you need only conform thoroughly to a large group whose en masse identity is that of predator--the paranoid, propagandistic, archly ideological, violent modus operandi preferred by your average fascist.

Am I over-thinking this?

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gee Willikers

Henry Huggins / Henry HugginsHenry Huggins / Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Henry Huggins" is a name irreversibly associated with my own childhood, like that of an old elementary school friend (or enemy) one thinks about now and then.  I read all Beverly Cleary's books and received about 30 years ago a signed copy of Henry Huggins at the Ohio Young Authors' Conference.  I held on to it, and I actually grew up to be a writer!  I remember Beverly Cleary telling the audience about how sometimes boys and girls say they're going to write about Henry Huggins and Ribsy and Beezus and Ramona just like she did, and Ms. Cleary told all of us what she told them: oh no you're not.  And that was my first lesson on the perils of copyright infringement.

Rereading Henry Huggins with my almost seven year old, I was surprised to discover that I'd apparently grown up in the 1950s.  This staple of my childhood reading life is filled with exclamations like "Gee willikers!" and "Swell!" and a not-so-nice kid named Scooter and a neighbor that pays you in pennies for catching night crawlers for his fishing trips and every chapter seems to involve either a pickle jar or a mayonnaise jar.  I remembered the book as belonging to my own world, which was thirty years downstream of the book's 1950 publication, but reading it again, it really is certifiably written in 1950.  And it doesn't take place in Cleveland, either!  It takes place in Portland, Oregon.  They even refer to Mount Hood.

But none of that mattered when I was 10.  What mattered was that Beezus Quimby is a masterpiece of a character, that Beverly Clearly can tell a story with a combined profluence, realism, and humor like no other children's author.  It is episodic and yet of a piece.  The last chapter is the inevitable and yet surprising sequel of the first.  I also found that last chapter, where one boy keeps the dog Ribsy and another loses him forever, so gut wrenching and actually melancholy, I had to just read it in a cheerful voice to my son and pretend there was nothing upsetting in it, like when we see anti-smoking commercials on TV that show open-heart surgery: nothing unusual there, just a man with his chest cracked open like the hood of a car, implying the terrifying fact of mortality and total annihilation ... nothing to see here ... business as usual.

I'm getting depressed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Fly in the Bottle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The cessation of hostilities in World War I seems to have had a salutary effect on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who began his philosophy career literally under fire as a soldier in the Great War.  And that goes to show that in addition to blowing people’s limbs off, artillery fire also interferes with their ability to formulate coherent philosophies.  I wouldn’t call Philosophical Investigations crystal clear (the Nazi bombardment of England interrupted Wittgenstein’s work yet again in late career, one notes), but it’s much clearer than the preceding Tractatus.  For one thing, it’s written in plain English, having been apparently inoculated against Bertrand Russell and his infectiously supererogatory and unreadable style of writing about logic.  (Even commenting on Russell’s logic writings appears to render me too incomprehensible.)

What’s more, Wittgenstein’s second book has great charm.  Ludwig Wittgenstein is a very underrated comedian.  Many of his thought experiments are exquisitely, comically absurd, almost like Monty Python sketches.  (He considers, for example, whether a dog could be a hypocrite.  The answer is no, but it’s hilarious to think about.)  And something of Wittgenstein’s long-suffering and, in a way, good-natured character shines through the book’s disorder.  Fragments and aphorisms constitute the whole of Investigations; Wittgenstein seems to shun sustained argument as if that would only lead him back into the wilderness of paradox from which he was so desperate in the first place to escape.  He’s unflagging in his battle with philosophical confusion, which he regards as a pathology of thought almost akin to those of speech, like stuttering.  And yet the battlefields of thought and of two World Wars have had their triumphs too in wearing down the noble philosopher.  He couldn’t shepherd this important work into publication at all, and had to rely on friends to do it after his death.  The book wears signs of neglect, both that of the brutal world with which the philosopher mentally wrestled, and Wittgenstein’s despairing neglect of himself: in addition to being disordered and unfinished, there’s hardly any scholarly apparatus in it apart from a completely neurotic preface by the author.  It descends to us from the Upper Saddle River (where Prentice Hall ekes out a living publishing works that nobody outside academia cares to read) on Kinko’s-white, Kinko’s weight pages.  The cover of my third edition says exactly nothing besides the title, edition number, author, publisher, and translator (G.E.M. Anscombe), and its paint chips easily, leaving dings and scratches of white on a field of color that is either black or dark blue—a perceptual confusion which invokes the fallacious epistemic problems that Wittgenstein sought to cure.  Inside, little mice seem to have eaten away at its vowels and consonants, with many nicks on the letters where the ink never stuck.  The translation, it must be said, reads fluidly.  (Anscombe, for one, cared a great deal about this book, even if she didn’t know how to spell the word ‘show’.)  But some corrosive force seems to oppose Wittgenstein’s insistence on the unity of letter and sound, the unambiguous influence of letters on our mind, even when describing ambiguous conditions of black or blue.
[309.] What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. p. 103

In this endeavor, W helps us solve many philosophical dilemmas (by showing them to be faux-dilemmas produced by bad grammar), but it’s also a rather affecting image.  It encodes the desperate confusion and frustration of the human being, and W’s wish to free himself and others from this prison of tormented consciousness.  One feels Epicurus’s benevolent gaze here.

Of many philosophical questions that are self-evidently uninteresting and nonsensical to the layman, W assures us: they are also uninteresting and nonsensical to the philosopher (or, he says, they ought to be).  Sometimes the result is that W seems like a man struggling nobly to escape the quicksand of previous wrong thinking, only to get back to solid ground on which the reader already stands.  W himself articulates this position: “678…. Yes,—now you have only repeated with emphasis something which no one has contradicted anyway.” (p. 170)  Reading Philosophical Investigations sometimes is like reading about that protégé of Oral Roberts who came belatedly to disavow the notion of eternal damnation for the unbaptized—it’s a disproof of something that for me was never true to begin with.  W disavows all manner of dualist, skeptical philosophies, which are just religion by another name.

W is most helpful with more subtle and insidious forms of nonsense.  “464. My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.” (p. 133)  Solipsism is nonsense to Wittgenstein, a result of misapplying words like “consciousness,” which were learned from other people in the first place and never intended to refer to a unique experience.  By definition, a word refers to shared experience.  Anything named in a communally shared language can refer only to objects of communal relevance.  The problem of induction is for W nonsense too.  And his arguments against these forms of skepticism are as powerful as they come, though developed in his curiously aphoristic, reticent way.  In debunking certain confusions in the use of language, he also points out that thought begins with pictures, not words.  Spoken language arises “as if we were translating from a more primitive mode of thought” ([597.] p. 156), a pictorial mode perhaps.  “[O]ne can point to a thing by looking or listening,” W writes on p. 169, again citing levels of thinking deeper than mere words.  Today, cognitive neuroscientists search for the physiological correlates of such states by devising experiments that direct the subject’s attention and intentions.

Before Wittgenstein’s honesty, nonsense retreats, shorn of romance.  We call it nonsense.  We look at the stars, real and far away.  We love reality instead of nonsense.  The fly is out of the bottle.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Simon Van Booy

 His debut novel, which came out today, is wonderful.  I don't even hold it against him that he's younger than me.  I reviewed it for The East Hampton Star.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lost in the Labyrinth

LabyrinthsLabyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Borges is the most elegant, clever, and original of truly nihilist writers.  He is so ambitious and yet so constipated with anxiety about writing in the wake of Kafka and Joyce, to say nothing of Cervantes and Shakespeare, that he can hardly bring himself to say a single intelligible word.  While he partakes of the life-is-a-dream philosophy that's so modish now, this philosophy is to me ultimately sterile and a cowardly retreat from reality.  His stories while sometimes funny and in places beautiful are mostly unpleasant if not impossible to read.  I think he's destined to be a museum piece, like a Restoration comedy by William Wycherly, something you'll encounter in a literature class ages hence as the finest example of crooked times long ago or an unusually fine example of a certain perversely intellectual form of self-destruction.

But he is a brilliant and influential writer, no doubt about it, and it's worth at least sampling some of his offerings.  The collection Labyrinths includes essays as well as maddening short stories, and some of the essays are quite lucid.  His essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" is for me the final word on how a writer ought to relate to his or her own national and ethnic heritage.  It's exactly right.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Sokal Hoax

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of ScienceFashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal

In 1996 NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted a fake essay to a postmodern literary journal.  The essay (which was published) was a Trojan Horse that badly embarrassed the journal's editors.  It purported to argue, in an intentionally incoherent way, that science has suffered "paradigm shifts" (in Thomas Kuhn's term) that throw doubt on the entire enterprise of rational, objective thought and on the notion of a reality that's in any way independent of cultural perspective.

As Sokal and Bricmont put it in Fashionable Nonsense, the book they wrote on what is now known as "The Sokal Hoax," "One encounters frequently, in postmodernist writings, the claim that more-or-less recent scientific developments have not only modified our view of the world but have also brought about profound philosophical and epistemological shifts—in short, that the very nature of science has changed.  The examples cited most frequently in support of this thesis are quantum mechanics, Gödel’s theorem, and chaos theory…."  However, these Kuhnian conclusions drawn from quantum mechanics, Gödel’s theorem, chaos theory, and the theory of relativity “are based mostly on confusions.”

Kuhn is a surprise villain here, though Sokal and Bricmont concede that his work, while misleading, is far more serious, credible, and intellectually sincere than that of Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva.  On the other hand, radical left-winger Noam Chomsky is a surprise ally in the fight against radical "epistemic relativism."  Sokal and Bricmont quote from one of Chomsky's 1969 lectures: "George Orwell once remarked that political thought, especially on the left, is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of fact hardly matters. That’s true, unfortunately, and it’s part of the reason that our society lacks a genuine, responsible, serious left-wing movement."

Alan Sokal is himself a self-described leftist and I think he's very good on this point.  He wrote in Lingua Franca in 1996: "Theorizing about the ‘social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming.  Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject notions of truth and falsity."  Which is why, as Sokal and Bricmont argue, "The traditional left, in both its Marxist and non-Marxist variants, generally saw itself as the rightful inheritor of the Enlightenment and as the embodiment of science and rationality.”

The pithiest thing Sokal ever said isn't in Fashionable Nonsense, but in his 1996 essay which revealed the hoax: “[A]nyone who believes the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment.  (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

Contrary to one of its blurbs, this is not by any stretch "a hilarious romp."  It's not entertainment, but it's a very important book that, as philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote in The New Republic, "should have an impact at least on the next generation of students.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Coffee and Beer Required

Tractatus Logico PhilosophicusTractatus Logico Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

1.      The world is all that is the case. 
1.1    All that is the case is slightly better with coffee. 
1.2   All that is the case is slightly less so with beer. 
2.     What we cannot speak of without the aid of coffee or beer, we must pass over in silence. 

Wittgenstein composed some of the Tractatus while in the Austrian army and a World War I Italian prison camp--and it reads like the written equivalent of a man banging his head against his prison bars. 

Some people credit this work with the notion that ideas are pictures of the world. My initial thought was that perhaps someone with a greater knowledge of philosophy could explain why this is noteworthy millennia after Plato, centuries after John Locke, and all the very many others who have written on mental processes and mimesis. You have to read Wittgenstein's next book, the much more straightforward Philosophical Investigations, for a comprehensible exposition of his inferences about pictorial thinking, and pre-verbal depths of thought. 

The more frustrating Tractatus is written in the style of a geometric proof, with numbered postulates and corollaries, but it's evident that this structure has been imposed after the fact on a bunch of disorderly notes--of the sort that might be composed, I guess, while being shelled by the French. 

While it's famous for its earth-shattering pronouncements on knowledge, thought, and language, in fact I found it almost entirely consumed with refuting obscure arguments in the work of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege. (I have no doubt that that work is not obscure to students of the work of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, but Wittgenstein certainly does not provide a compelling reason to become one of those.) 

This book had me wondering whether Wittgenstein's mentor, Bertrand Russell, was under the spell of Wittgenstein's domineering self-regard (perhaps, but W's brilliance is also evident in later work), and whether Russell's philosophy itself was also basically incomprehensible (haven't read enough to say). I've been away from math for a long time, but I studied it up through multivariable calculus; why can't I understand Wittgenstein's math-ish sentences? Why doesn't he define any of his symbols? Isn't that a basic element of math technique--to define your terms? Do some people adore Wittgenstein precisely because they can't understand the cryptic runes contained here and mistake them for religion? And is it religion? 

These questions and many more will not be answered within the pages of the enigmatic Tractatus, whose philosophy Wittgenstein later retracted anyway. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Long Day's Journey into Night

Long Day's Journey into NightLong Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill is my favorite American playwright.  He is the master portraitist of denial and its correspondence with the indelible pain of past experience.  Occasionally he lapses into didacticism in plays that are otherwise beautiful, poetic specimens of naturalism, but even these lapses have an affectingly brutal honesty and directness about them.  They feel inevitable, like the messy casualties of war.  In his lifetime bout with the truth, to determine whether it will conquer him or he it, by setting it down in words, O'Neill stands up in the end bloody but, more than unbowed, victorious.

Long Day's Journey into Night flies in book form and is brilliant on stage with the right actors.  I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman as older son Jamie, which was a wonder.  Brian Dennehy played the father and Robert Sean Leonard the younger son, Edmund.  Leonard seems to have a roughly average head circumference, but both Dennehy and Hoffman have heads like football helmets.  Edmund is supposed to look like his mother and Jamie like his father, but the head circumference was so different, it introduced a certain phantom storyline into the text: what the hell was up with the head circumferences of the Tyrone family and did it have something to do with their drug and alcohol addiction?

Long Day's Journey into Night may have my vote for best American play, certainly it has the best title I've ever heard.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Day of the Rabblement

The Critical Writings of James JoyceThe Critical Writings of James Joyce by Ellsworth Mason

Joyce begins his essay "The Day of the Rabblement," written when he was 19: “No man, said the Nolan [Giordano Bruno of Nola], can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude….  [I]t is strange to see the artist making terms with the rabblement.”

Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for asserting that the sun was a star like any other.  Just the sort of man Joyce was likely to admire, as he never met anybody's terms but his own--whether at 19 when Father Henry Browne rejected his essay from a literary magazine at University College Dublin (he self-published it with his buddy Francis Skeffington), or in his mid-50s, at the height of his fame, when he was paid little for the manuscript of Finnegans Wake, which took him 20 years to write.  He cared less about pay and more about commas, omissions of which were among many errata Joyce discovered in Viking's edition of the Wake.  He caused them to publish a pamphlet listing every last correction down to the comma and kerning of the letters.

This collection of expository prose, mostly written when Joyce was himself the young man he portrayed in his first novel, is not for the casual reader of Joyce.  But there's much here of interest for those with a serious interest in Joyce's art, his aesthetics, and his biography.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

The House of Paper

The House of PaperThe House of Paper by Carlos María Domínguez

This elegant little novella devotes itself obsessively to one topic: the sensuous pleasures of reading.  For a good book is a world of sensation, and furthermore the record of life within a book--for Domínguez's characters, at least--invests the corporeal being of that book, the cover, the pages, the typeface, with sensuous life.  The physical experience of reading the book commingles with the sensations depicted within.  One of Domínguez's characters for this reason prefers to read nineteenth-century novels by candlelight and pairs his reading with particular pieces of music as a sommelier pairs wine with food.  (I read most of this book underground, jammed ribcage to ribcage inside various cars of the Lexington Avenue number 4 and 5 trains as they lurched and halted, lurched and halted, with an ambience of other people's body smells and loud, annoying iPods.  While this didn't prevent me from enjoying the book, it didn't much enhance the experience either.)  The narratives within books acquire some timbre from the minutes of real life in which they are read, and from the larger moment in a life in which they are read.  A vivid book can become irrevocably associated with a certain trip, a certain relationship, a certain phase of development.  Life phases influence the reading experience and a book in turn imbues a phase of life with its particular character.

A copy of Joseph Conrad's novel The Shadow Line, covered in lime and crumbled cement, plays a central role in the story here, but its physical being is far more important than its narrative for Domínguez's purposes.  That said, he does quote this fascinating passage from Conrad's author note to The Shadow Line: "The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is--marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state."  This was Conrad's way of disavowing any interest in the "supernatural" in his work.  One senses that for Domínguez, literary art at once honors and embodies those marvels and mysteries of the natural world.  A book, a real book, not a spell book in a fairy tale, is a magical thing.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The American Dream

Ellis Island: And Other StoriesEllis Island: And Other Stories by Mark Helprin

Is “Ellis Island,” the titular novella in this story collection, the best thing written on the American dream since the Declaration of Independence?

In 1981, when this book came out, The New York Times’s Anatole Broyard said of Helprin, “Nothing is familiar in his stories: he is interested only in the fabulous, the borderline between perception and hallucination, knowing and wishing. His characters exist in a state of sweet anxiety.”

This romantic tension between dream and reality selects his subject matter, but also distinguishes his style.  The cover of my edition is a painting of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, and Mark Helprin seems to paint his images in the mind with Sargent’s sumptuous colors and a similar blend of romance and realism.

And yet he differs from other practitioners of “magical realism,” such as that style’s founding father, Franz Kafka, or Kafka’s famous disciple Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  For one thing, Helprin’s much funnier than Marquez.  He can make me laugh out loud in 11 words; his rootless, rudderless narrator, fresh off the boat from Ellis Island, says, “No place would take me in, not even the Harvard Club.”  There’s a lunacy to his humor that resembles Kafka’s, but Helprin is willing to dare something that Kafka wouldn’t: happiness.

Especially in “Ellis Island,” there’s a sense of joyous, wild abandon akin to that of a Jewish wedding, where for a moment everybody forgets every painful thing that has ever happened--to himself, to herself, to the Jews, and to all people--and drinks, and dances a sweaty dance of near perilous disorder, and hoists the bride and groom and even the parents of the bride and groom--people old enough to break a hip--onto teetering chairs, life-mates linked only by a betrothal white kerchief or table napkin as tenuous as hope, and supported on an unstable, moving buttress of generally unathletic, but surprisingly strong Jewish men in an improvised scrum.

Celebratory Jewish dance is in fact an image in “Ellis Island”:

The dancing was an engine, drawing light through the eyes of each soul into a cylinder of tightly bound rays that went up past the dome.  I had heard of this in the East.  They used to say that the great synagogues of Asia were like this.  But I had never seen it. p. 184

And Helprin makes engines, trains, industry into emblems of joy, hope, humanistic power—who else dares to celebrate America in that way?  How different from Edith Wharton’s America or Kurt Vonnegut’s.  Mark Helprin sees America as a steam engine—or perhaps better to call it a dream engine—an engine casting off confusing clouds of vaporous dream, but also feeding on dreams to fuel the real work that makes dreams come true.  And they do.  “Everyone was in love with freedom,” Helprin writes, “and it is one abstract quality which, somehow or other, always manages to love you back.”

The tension of dreaming derives from the uncooperative, inhuman aspects of reality.  Like skulls peering out between the happy letters A-M-E-R-I-C-A in “Ellis Island” are the ghost letters A-U-S-C-H-W-I-T-Z.  The story seems to take place before 1940, but the cultural memory of Auschwitz has imprinted itself here.  Helprin says that the immigrants at Ellis Island had to go upstairs to examination rooms.

They prayed as they went up.  Even had we not had the sense of floating in Heaven, the idea of judgment was implicit in every angle of the place.  Some had great difficulty struggling up the stairs, and at the top were led away to be sent back—since the doctors could easily see that their hearts were not strong enough for America. pp. 137-138

The narrator appears to interpolate or imagine this fatal sorting of weak and strong by doctors, but does the image not call to mind Josef Mengele and Nazi eugenics?  On p. 141 the narrator states: “They made us take a shower.”  No Jew can picture his ancestors in an en masse compulsory shower without thinking of Auschwitz and Zyklon B, and that will likely be true for the next ten thousand years.  Finally, on p. 168, Helprin refers to “the morning industry of the city’s six million hands.”  “Six million” too is an unmistakable symbol—the number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

By a trick of metaphor, Helprin’s America resurrects those six million dead, turns death showers into innocent ones, the nakedness of death into that of love and sex (an art teacher says, “America to you now is a big nude woman, and that’s just fine”), tombstones into towers of glittering glass.  It isn’t perfect, it can’t bring the dead back, and in the end, the narrator must lay aside certain evasive dreams in favor of realities that include death, but the reality is that America has made many a dream come true for real, that it plays host to gigantic love, health, freedom, and industry, to all that grain out there in Nebraska, to many of the profoundest aspirations of men and women, conceived in the dream engine of the world and transformed with great labor into more complex, but still satisfying, realities.

The narrator of “Ellis Island,” a former rabbinic student with a literary bent, hides behind a variety of pseudonyms and ends up writing for the Jewish Daily Forward.  He shares all these attributes, one notes, with the real writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, a master of that age-old dialectic between dream and reality.  And so Helprin realizes his own dream, I think, of joining the ranks of his literary forefathers.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Poet of Nature

A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of RealityA New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality by A.D. Nuttall

A.D. Nuttall is a god damn genius.  As of May 6, 2011, I am his only Goodreads "fan" (as well as the only "fan" of supreme literary critic Robert Alter) and that's a testament both to the meaninglessness of literary fandom and to the intellectually backwards times we live in.  But at least this Nuttall classic is still in print.

This short piece of Shakespeare criticism, first published in 1982, begins with some useful philosophical deprogramming of contemporary French literary theory, and proceeds to the best close readings I've ever read of Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus, and other plays.  (In truth, how many close readings of Shakespeare's plays can I say I've read?--but you can't hold this against Nuttall, or even against me, having been miseducated by New Critics and Deconstructionists.)  Nuttall illuminates the meanings and artistic methods of these plays so brightly, I wanted to reread all of them then and there (but he quotes liberally from the plays so you don't have to).

Nuttall addresses his philosophical argument specifically to the absolute skepticism and devout uncertainty that has infiltrated so much literature and literary criticism of the past 50 years (when he wrote it, it was only 20 years).  Next he goes on to reaffirm a notion that's been tossed out of English departments all over America for its supposed naivete and quaintness: viz., that Shakespeare is indeed "the poet of nature," as Samuel Johnson said in 1765.  Nuttall quotes from many other 18th c. literary critics such as John Armstrong, who in 1770 praised Shakespeare’s "deep knowledge of human nature" and his "characters drawn with the strongest, truest, and most exquisite strokes…."

Johnson and Armstrong's view is the common sense view of Shakespeare; but what's so great about Nuttall's argument is not just that it's correct, but that it's sophisticated and ought to be deemed so even by the ultraviolet lights of postmodern literary theory.  Nuttall doesn't contest the postmodern view that literature is filled with aesthetic and social conventions.  He merely asserts that literature does not proceed through convention alone, but through convention and mimesis--the imitation of nature.  And in fact, how could it be otherwise?  How could we rate a convention dubious or inadequate without the capacity for reflection on the truth of nature?  How could we possibly know what's false without also having some idea of what's by contrast true?  (There are many philosophy papers, both older and current, that explain this point in more detail--see a theory of knowledge anthology such as the one edited by Louis Pojman.)  What 18th c. critics found revolutionary about Shakespeare was that he so often cast aside "fake" conventions in order to be more truthful to the more complex reality of human nature.  Through the close readings, Nuttall shows the many different ways that Shakespeare invokes conventions, cliches, stereotypes, audience expectations and then overturns them in favor of a more complex and realistic character or situation.  In this sense, Shakespeare himself was a skeptic of phony conventions long before the postmodernists were.

It's also refreshing that Nuttall actually has a sense of humor.  This is his prefatory commentary on the style of A New Mimesis: "an alternation of donnish knowingness with aggressively simple assertion which is slightly repellent even to me, the author."

But it isn't repellent.  If I were a literature professor, I'd assign this book to everyone.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On My Grudging Disrespect for Nabokov and His Cheval Mirror

Pale FirePale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

I recently returned to Pale Fire after leaving it unfinished over ten years ago.  I returned not least because the sage Robert Alter commended it and quoted from it this brilliant passage on mirrors:

He awoke to find her standing with a comb in her hand before his--or rather, his grandfather's--cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay.  She turned about before it: a secret device of reflection fathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs, some of whom, she murmured, must resemble her ancestors when they were young--little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing.  pp. 111-112.

The 999-line poem in heroic couplets that begins Pale Fire is a technical achievement with many stirring images (like the first one, which has long been stuck in my head: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane”).  But I had not understood the conceit that makes up the rest of the book: the fictional academic Charles Kinbote annotates the poem, which is by his neighbor John Shade, and Kinbote’s endnotes have little to do with the poem and more to do with Kinbote’s bizarre remembrances of his homeland, a Baltic kingdom called Zembla.  But according to Alter, the two parts of the book are in fact connected.  Alter suggests that the commentaries should be read as a distorted reflection of the poem, Kinbote as a distorted reflection of Shade, both figures as distorted reflections of their creator, Nabokov.  Alter points out that while Nabokov has drawn Kinbote as a farcical figure, he’s also just like Nabokov in an important way: he’s a fugitive from his homeland, living out his post-exilic life in the United States, haunted by nostalgia for his home.  (Nabokov’s family fled Russia in 1919, when he was 20, in order to escape the Bolshevik Revolution.)  On pp. 191-192 of Partial Magic, Alter’s study of the self-conscious novel, he comments on Nabokov’s passage on the cheval mirror (which is a full-length tilting mirror on a stand, or 'horse,' thus 'cheval'):

[C]onsciousness, as the example of Joyce’s technique must remind us, is essentially built up out of the infinite laminations of what the individual has seen, felt, read, fantasized in the past, however attuned he may be to the present moment.  The mirror itself here is a legacy of the past, not properly King Charles’s but his grandfather’s….  [A]s she [Fleur] observes herself transfigured in multiple reflection, we are moved further back in time into a legendary past where pastoral ancestors preen themselves by still waters.

It began to seem to me that Pale Fire was an examination of the structure of consciousness as a sort of cheval mirror: consciousness reflects reality but also tips it in its own direction, according to its own machinery.  If the commentaries were meant to mirror the poem and Kinbote to mirror Shade, I thought, then perhaps Pale Fire was really as brilliant as its adherents said.  Maybe the poem part of the book was meant to be the naturalistic and conscious way of seeing and reflecting reality, while Kinbote’s farcical commentaries were meant to be an expressionistic way of seeing and reflecting the same thing.  And in that case, maybe all that crazy rambling in the commentaries had a real meaning.  Maybe all the mirrors everywhere in the book were not postmodern symbols of infinite regression to nothing, but rather modernist symbols of the multiplicative meaning-making powers of the mind and of art.  (I alliterate in mirroring deference to Nabokov's style--and because it just came out that way.)  So, armed with 40 pages of Alter’s interpretations, I went back to Pale Fire with renewed enthusiasm and note-taking pen in hand.

Mirrors were in fact everywhere, starting with the title, Pale Fire.  Alter points out that Nabokov borrowed the phrase from a passage in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, Act IV sc iii, ll. 440-441: “…the moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun….”  He points out that the name of the glassmaker referred to in the passage above, Sudarg of Bokay, is a near mirror image of the name of the assassin who pursues Kinbote throughout his semi-fantastical memories: Jakob Gradus.  It occurred to me, furthermore, that the name of Kinbote’s fantastical kingdom, Zembla, must be derived from the word ‘resemble.’

I was excited about all those mirrors as I read and hunted for meanings in their reflections.  I confess, however, that what had seemed elegant, artful, beautiful, and meaningful in Alter’s account, was upon actual reading elegant, yes, artful and beautiful, yes, but mostly not very meaningful and on top of that extremely tedious and irritating.  While both Kinbote and Shade have lost their parents prematurely, Nabokov does very little with this subject, or any other of psychological importance to his characters, and instead scatters his attention in a million different directions, introducing new characters every other page.

I wanted to like Nabokov.  He has Joyce’s gift for allusion and Woolf’s poetic sense.  But in my view—a view that could be wrong, but derives at least from serious consideration—Nabokov lacks the courage and character of both of his modernist forebears.  He can’t sustain his gaze on the complexities of reality for the duration of an entire novel, but would rather spin the mirror around and around.  I suspect that if he let it come to rest, he’d see something he didn’t want to see.