Tuesday, May 03, 2016

`The Sublime of the Commonplace'

On this date, May 3, in 1777, in a letter to his childhood friend John Taylor, Dr. Johnson outlined a typically candid self-diagnosis: “My nights continue to be very flatulent and restless, and my days therefore are sluggish and drowsy. After physick I have sometimes less uneasiness, as I had last night, but the effect is by no means constant; nor have I found any advantage from going to bed either with a full or any empty stomach.”

Johnson always remained fond of Taylor and judged him “a very sensible, acute man” who worked as both a parson and a dairy farmer, but whose deportment was “by no means sufficiently clerical.” Taylor spoke often of his bullocks, an obsession Johnson, a devoted urbanite, found endlessly amusing. And yet, when Johnson’s wife Hetty died in 1752, Taylor was the person to whom he wrote of his loss. One admires a man equally comfortable sharing news of a death and gastrointestinal distress with a friend. In a letter to Taylor dated Sept. 9, 1779, Johnson asks, “Are you well? If you are let me know it.  If you are afflicted with any disease, take care that you do not make it worse by discontent.” Later in the same letter, Johnson returns to the theme of GI discomfort: “I suspect that I have eaten too much fruit this summer, but that temptation is near an end.”

About Jonson there is always an acceptance of the merely human. In A Paul Elmer More Miscellany (The Anthoensen Press, 1950), the editor, Arthur Hazard Dakin, includes a brief note on Johnson by More, who begins with a mild rebuke:

“The Rambler and, to a lesser extent, Johnson’s other works are filled with solemn reflections on the oldest and tritest of themes—on death and time and the vanity of life and the deceitfulness of the human heart and the consolations of religion. There is no attempt to renovate these ancientest of topics by paradox or unexpected applications, and the language is often slow and sometimes overweighted.”

More isn’t finished. Rather, he’s setting us up. Johnson’s gravitas, in fact, is among the reasons we so often return to his work:

“Why, then, do these commonplace reflections on man and the world have to the true Johnsonian a meaning and a power that make the cleverness of England’s modern school of essayists seem like the crackling of thorns under an empty pot? . . . It is because, however they may sound to the inexperienced reader, they were not commonplace to Johnson himself, but the fruit of vivid personal experience. His philosophy might be described as the sublime of the commonplace.”

Monday, May 02, 2016

`The Moral Equivalent of Knighthood"

“A postage stamp with us is the moral equivalent of knighthood.”

And thirty-three years later, William James remains unknighted. The image of his brother Henry, we’re told, will soon appear on a U.S. postage stamp, a century after his death. The gesture is grudging and ambivalent at best. “It discharges a debt at small expense; the honor is posthumous, anonymous, and capricious,” writes Jacques Barzun in A Stroll with William James (1983). If a postage stamp is our measure of all-American worth, we must suffer from that all-purpose diagnosis, poor self-esteem. Among the Americans honored by the U.S. Postal Service are Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck and Andy Warhol. Barzun gives a list of figures who had been honored with stamps as of 1983, along with the face value of each. He comments:

“Kudos is not measured by the denomination as such, but by its being the first-class rate at the time of issue, so that one dollar for Eugene O’Neill amounts to a thinly veiled insult—up to now. But seriously, where are Prescott and Ives, Willard Gibbs and Louis Sullivan and Mary Cassatt—all outstanding in their domains? And where are the Jameses?”

Josiah Willard Gibbs was knighted in 2005, and Charles Ives in 1997. But what about Henry Adams? Vladimir Nabokov? Art Tatum? Whittaker Chambers? Fairfield Porter? A.J. Liebling? Lester Young? Yvor Winters? Guy Davenport? Eudora Welty? But as Barzun reminds us: “Not that William and Henry need to be stamped as great. The `honor’ is not an indication about the recipient but about the culture.”

Sunday, May 01, 2016

`To Serve As So Many Small Epilogues'

Attached like a library annex to the conclusion of A Stroll with William James (1983) is a commonplace book of quotations Jacques Barzun collected across a lifetime spent reading James. All were written by thinkers who preceded James, but in them Barzun hears prescient echoes of the philosopher/psychologist. (Borges expresses a similar thought in “Kafka and His Precursors.”) He observes that “temperaments recur, predicaments also, and the resultant sayings show matching parts.” Seasoned readers with retentive memories will recognize the frequent occurrence of such resonant affinities among writers. Barzun explains:

. . . the worth of parallels lies chiefly in their showing that to similarly `tuned receivers’ experience comes in similar `drops’ and inspires similar reflections [i.e., there is no such thing as originality]. That in itself is pleasant to contemplate. I have accordingly made a small selection of `takings’ similar to James’s and grouped them loosely, to serve as so many small epilogues to topics dealt with along the way. The choice is arbitrary; apart from the pleasure I have just mentioned, it may also suggest something that needs no proof: that I have seldom forgotten James while reading his predecessors in the Great Conversation.”

That marvelous word and pastime, “conversation,” has lately been vulgarized and drained of meaning, largely in political contexts. Barzun uses it properly, in a manner that recalls Michael Oakeshott’s “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”:

In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing.

Among Barzun’s sources for proto-Jamesian thought are Aristotle, St. Matthew, Swift, Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt. Here is a useful citation from Walter Bagehot’s Physics and Politics (1872), a book I have not read:

“Unproved abstract principles without number have been eagerly caught up by sanguine men and then carefully spun out into books and theories which were to explain the whole world. But the world goes clear against these abstractions, and it must do so, as they require it to go in antagonistic directions. The mass of a system attracts the young and the unwary; but cultivated people are very dubious about it.”

Saturday, April 30, 2016

`The Sheer Beauty of It'

One occasionally meets a person without an aesthetic sense, someone who would never think to describe a landscape, a woman, an equation or a sonnet as beautiful. One pities them, but only so long they do not mistake their indifference to beauty for a philosophy. At that point they become theorists or garden-variety boors, and beyond the limits of tolerance. Cousins to the beauty-bereft are the socially aesthetic, those for whom beauty is to life as the extended pinky is to teatime. Speaking of the changes in culture that occurred late in the nineteenth century, Jacques Barzun writes in A Stroll with William James (1983):

“The triumph of art as a cult meant another change that we also take for granted: it is no longer the work, the craft, that defines the species `artist,’ but the love of art. So the critic, too, is called an artist, and the connoisseur, and the bourgeois who has seen the light and who `collects’ or `subscribes’ or `follows.’ Every educated person must take or pretend an interest in art; he or she owes it to the social self, just as formerly everyone must go to church and say family prayers.”

One need not be an aesthete in the Beardsley mode to unselfconsciously revel in beauty. Some of us go through life careening from one perception of beauty to another. We’re not blind to ugliness and horror but on most days see the world as a vast opportunity for enjoyment. On the radio Friday morning, on the way to work, I heard the Everly Brothers singing “Let It Be Me” and the third movement of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto. Marissa Skudlarek, a woman whose name I had never heard before Friday, tweeted what I’m trying to say:

“Wandering streets of Oxford composing a sonnet on Shakespeare's death. Tears in my eyes at Blackwell's Books from the sheer beauty of it.”

Friday, April 29, 2016

`His Courage Cannot Be Overstated'

The closest I’m likely to get to London is Dr. Johnson’s poem. Besides, my London is a semi-mythical place spanning more than half a millennium of writers. As Michael McNay reports in his introduction to Hidden Treasures of London (Random House, 2015), the city’s population is estimated to have been 543,520 in 1777, the year Johnson famously remarked that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Today, the city’s population exceeds 8.6 million. I’ll hold on to my bookish myth.

For a man born more than three centuries ago (and in Lichfield, not London), Johnson shows up with pleasing frequency in McNay’s book. His longest appearance is the entry devoted to his house at 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street, where he lived from 1748 to 1759. In the garret at that address, Johnson assembled A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). “Here he could install desks and bookcases for himself and the six copyists he hired to help him in compiling the first great English dictionary,” McNay writes. Few books rival it for sheer browsability. Long before the internet, the dictionary (which doubles as a generous book of quotations – almost 114,000 of them) offered an inexpensive way to while away the day. Johnson’s labor was heroic and probably would have broken a lesser man. In Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008), Peter Martin writes of the lexicographer:

“He was beset with doubts, plagued with persistent melancholia, and not entirely certain how to proceed. He was working in a vacuum, without a useful model. Nobody had done before what he wanted to do, not at any rate the way he wanted to do it. . . . His courage cannot be overstated.”

McNay makes Johnson’s house today sound rather disappointing: “. . . there is no real sense of his presence. Of his abundant eccentricities, voluble speech, affliction by violent spasms, his scorn and generosity, nothing remains.” How could there be? That’s why we have Boswell and Johnson to renew our acquaintance. As Howard Baker writes in “To Dr. Johnson” (Ode to the Sea and Other Poems, 1966): “We are all Boswells harkening the worms.”

Thursday, April 28, 2016

`Equal Wasters of Human Life'

“We grow tired of seeing our experience choked by the vegetation in our sentences. We opt for the pithy, the personal, and the unapologetic. For years we have had a crowd of random thoughts waiting on our doorstep, orphans or foundlings of the mind that we have not adopted: the moment of the aphorism, the epigram, the clinching quotation has come.”

No, it’s not lifted from the manifesto of a blogger (few bloggers write so well), though its author was certainly a master of short forms, in fiction and essays. This is V.S. Pritchett writing in 1979 about his old friend Gerald Brenan on the publication of the latter’s commonplace book Thoughts in a Dry Season. Pritchett relates a taste for brevity to age, not because of short-windedness but from impatience with verbosity. Time is short. No need to blather. Pritchett turned seventy-nine the year his review was published; Brenan, eighty-five. The commonplace notion is that old people are the genuine gas bags, ever saying nothing at great length. That has only occasionally been my experience. Rather, youth inclines toward motor-mouthed wordiness, which may explain the vogue for Kerouac and Bukowski among certain young readers. They mistake bulk for worth. In The Idler #85, Dr. Johnson writes:

“But such is the present state of our literature, that the ancient sage, who thought a great book a great evil, would now think the multitude of books a multitude of evils. He would consider a bulky writer who engrossed a year, and a swarm of pamphleteers who stole each an hour, as equal wasters of human life, and would make no other difference between them, than between a beast of prey and a flight of locusts.”

The “ancient sage” is Callimachus, composer of epigrams.     

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

`As If They Could Have Been Here All Along'

“When we hear a poet's voice speaking from the page, we hear it internally: The tempo, the emphasis, the feelings are synthesized in us—which is why I prefer to read a poem rather than hear it read aloud.”

When not simply dull, poetry readings are embarrassing because the poet is usually a ham unaware of the feebleness of his lines. Few read well and fewer still write well. Poets tend to get in the way of poems, so it’s best to eliminate the middleman. All in all, I’ll stick to the page, as Arthur Krystal suggests above in “Listen to the Sound It Makes” (This Thing We Call Literature, 2016). I remembered Krystal’s observation during my first reading of Compass and Clock (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2016) by David Sanders. Sanders is not a kid – the collection gathers thirty years of work -- and the voice in his poems is the opposite of callow. The tempo, to follow Krystal’s outline, is largo – thoughtful and meditative, not nervous or jumpy. The emphasis is on details, often of the natural world (not to be confused with that unholy creature “nature poetry”) and layered with memory. The “feelings?” Well, that will depend on the reader. In “Pianos,” Sanders writes:

“So much that wasn’t played,
The silence resonating like the dusk
That ushers out the fall . . .”

From this brief sample alone you might detect a familiar echo, that mingling of nostalgia and wistful regret without sentimentality that Donald Justice made his own. Think of his suite of poems in The Sunset Maker (1987) devoted to studying piano in Miami when he was a boy in the nineteen-thirties. This is from "The Pupil": “Back then time was still harmony, not money, / And I could spend a whole week practicing for / The moment on the threshold.” One of the best poems in Compass and Clock, “Some Color,” carries an epigraph from a Justice poem, “Absences”: “It's snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.” In “Some Color,” Sanders moves from a nicely sketched “caravan that never broke camp” in Southern Ohio (“Bondoed pickup trucks abandoned”) to an internet search for “names / that I last wrote on classroom valentines,” to a flower farm near the Ohio River. The flowers will be harvested and shipped and finally planted “for their one quick season”:

“Once they’re out on the cul-de-sacs, on lawns,
Or massed under saplings that buttress municipal buildings,
And set in the dirt, treat them lovingly,
As if they could have been here all along
And belong here, as they do now, being
What and where they are so well: some color
Introduced into the indigenous green.”

As the title Compass and Clock suggests, Sanders is looking for a place and time where we might feel at home, even if only for our “one quick season.” On first reading, I recognized an unexpected affinity with “Some Color,” almost a personal memory, as though Sanders were speaking to me from among all his readers. Krystal would understand this rare and privileged experience: “A poem speaking to me from the page is private and makes itself felt as no stranger’s voice possibly could.”