Tuesday, February 20, 2018

`The Flatulence of Pride'

“Nothing better than covert insults which serve to give vent to the flatulence of pride.”

The speaker is Melissa, a stand-in for Dr. Johnson in The Rambler #75. Once she had all the advantages: “I was born to a large fortune, and bred to the knowledge of those arts which are supposed to accomplish the mind, and adorn the person of a woman.” She knew “universal veneration.” Until misfortune strikes: “the failure of a fund, in which my money was placed, reduced me to a frugal competency, which allowed little beyond neatness and independence.” We return, as always, to Johnson’s perennial theme, vanity and its comeuppance. Melissa learns the hard way what Bessie Smith was singing about. Friends insult and abandon her:  

“. . . nor did any of my female acquaintances fail to introduce the mention of my misfortunes, to compare my present and former condition, to tell me how much it must trouble me to want the splendour which I became so well, to look at pleasures which I had formerly enjoyed, and to sink to a level with those by whom I had been considered as moving in a higher sphere, and who had hitherto approached me with reverence and submission, which I was now no longer to expect.”

That’s what Melissa means by “covert insults” giving vent to “the flatulence of pride.” What a perfect way of phrasing everyday human nastiness. We all know what flatulence is and implies, but savor the OED’s poker-face definition: “The state or condition of having the stomach or other portion of the alimentary canal charged with gas.” The word is rooted in the Latin flātus, “blowing.” In other words, hot air.  And in still other words, blowhard. Figuratively, in Johnson’s usage: “Inflated or puffed-up condition, windiness, vanity; pomposity, pretentiousness.” How perfectly contemporary a word. But Johnson, by way of Melissa, doesn’t let her off the hook. Here is the rest of the sentence, and another, that follow “the flatulence of pride”:

“. . . but they are now and then imprudently uttered by honesty and benevolence, and inflict pain where kindness is intended; I will, therefore, so far maintain my antiquated claim to politeness, as to venture the establishment of this rule, that no one ought to remind another of misfortunes of which the sufferer does not complain, and which there are no means proposed of alleviating. You have no right to excite thoughts which necessarily give pain whenever they return, and which perhaps might not have revived but by absurd and unseasonable compassion.”

It’s the commonest and most pleasing of sins: gratuitous malevolence.

Monday, February 19, 2018

`The Illusory Nature of All Labels'

“. . . politically the most subversive aspect of Chekhov’s thinking is his systematic demonstration of the illusory nature of all labels, categories and divisions of human beings into social groups and social classes, which are the starting point of all political theories of his time and ours.”

My sense is that we no longer recognize individual human beings. They – we -- have become invisible, in Ralph Ellison’s sense: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” We see not hapless, bumbling, fallible souls like ourselves but members of arbitrarily defined tribes, which makes it easier to demonize, segregate and disregard them. As individuals, we’re too sticky and contradictory. “Categories and divisions” are much easier to deal with. Life must be enviably simple for a social justice warrior. Thinking can be confidently kept to a minimum. No need to peer below surfaces. The observation at the top is from Simon Karlinsky and Michael Henry Heim’s Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (1973). Karlinsky goes on:

“Chekhov’s repeated insistence `labels and trademarks’ such as `liberal,’ `conservative,’ `Populist’ or `neurotic,’ when used as a total description of any one person, are nothing but superstitions which keep people from perceiving the deeper moral and human realities implies a reasoned rejection of the political thinking that has been one of the mainstays of Russian literature and literary criticism from the 1840s on.”

In his 1896 story “The House with the Mezzanine” (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Stories, 2000), Chekhov gives us Lida Volchaninova, an early incarnation of the social justice warrior, a distant, more strident cousin of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House (whom I think of as a female, English Rousseau). Lida and her creator share one quality – social work, self-sacrifice, a devotion to helping others. Chekhov built hospitals and libraries, as a physician treated thousands without charge and exposed the horrors of Sakhalin. But Lida is a humorless fanatic who brutalizes her mother and younger sister. Public do-gooder, private authoritarian and bully. We know the type. Public displays of virtue make it easier to be a self-righteous thug at home. The story’s narrator is a painter, and Lida disapproves:

“She did not find me sympathetic. She disliked me because I was a landscape painter and did not portray the needs of the people in my pictures, and because I was, as it seemed to her, indifferent to what she so strongly believed in.” Comrade Volchaninova is Chekhov’s prescient portrait of an apparatchik, a loyal Party servant who sees members of social classes, not people, and is eager to set things right.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

`Helped the Heart of Man to Know Itself'

A friend has read all of Dickens and all of George Eliot – the former several times over – and asks whose novels she ought to read next. Commendably, her favorite among Eliot’s books is Daniel Deronda. She is a stalwart reader with varied tastes. Someone else had suggested Elizabeth Gaskell, whom I have never read. I suggested Anthony Trollope. Of his forty-seven novels I have read perhaps eight, most memorably The Way We Live Now, which I recommended. If she finds Trollope to her taste, I told her, she could spend the next several years luxuriating in his fictional bounty.

The only time I met my late friend David Myers was here in Houston in March 2012. He gave me a copy of Henry James’ criticism of American and English writers in the Library of America edition, which includes the five reviews and essays James devoted to Trollope. In 1883, some months after Trollope’s death, James wrote a carefully admiring tribute to the novelist. Read it for the account of crossing the Atlantic in Trollope’s company. Also, read it to appreciate the amount of irony and insight James could pack into a sentence or passage, as in this: “His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual.” More straightforward is the sweeping final paragraph, which begins:

“Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself. The heart of man does not always desire this knowledge; it prefers sometimes to look at history in another way—to look at the manifestations without troubling about the motives. There are two kinds of taste in the appreciation of imaginative literature: the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition. It is the latter that Trollope gratifies, and he gratifies it the more that the medium of his own mind, through which we see what he shows us, gives a confident direction to our sympathy.”

Saturday, February 17, 2018

`An Eye Ever Open for Detached Good Things'

Some writers we go on reading even when their time has passed and they are no longer in vogue, or when their faults and failings are undeniable. To acknowledge Max Beerbohm or Ivy Compton-Burnett as “minor” is no reason to stop reading them. Not everyone is cut out to be Marcel Proust. Such readerly attachments are mistaken for sentimentality or a flawed critical sense, when they are acknowledgements of affinity. They answer some temperamental/aesthetic need in us as readers and perhaps as writers. Here is Edwin Arlington Robinson writing to his friend Harry de Forest Smith on April 22, 1894:

“Excepting The Task I have read little during the past week. I wonder why it is that I like Cowper as I do? Something tells me that he is not, and never will be, one of the really great poets, although in occasional passages he is well nigh unsurpassable. There is much of the sandy desert in his work, but still it is comfortable traveling. The green and glorious places that come every little while are all the brighter for the comparative barrenness around them.”

Makes sense, but I hadn’t made the connection. Cowper and Robinson are solitaries. Both are melancholics, with Cowper shading into suicidal madness. Both have a droll sense of humor, Robinson more obviously. Cowper had a strong religious sense, often tortured. Robinson had none. The letter continues:

“[Cowper’s] religion is akin to mawkish to a man of my doubts, but I readily overlook that in the consideration of his temperament and his surroundings. He is popularly and justly, I suppose, called feminine; but human nature has a word to say regarding such matters, and a little sympathy is not likely to be wasted upon this poet. His timidity was a disease, and the making of verse and rabbit hutches, together with gardening, was his occupation. He was a strange man; and this strangeness, with its almost pathetic sincerity, go to make up the reason for my fondness for his poetry.”

Robinson is twenty-four and a sophomore at Harvard. After the death of his father, he will be forced to drop out at the end of the academic year for financial reasons. He never earned a degree. A little more than a week later, on May 1, Robinson writes to Smith again and promises to send him a copy of The Task. His advice to his friend is excellent:   

“Never read it when you are in a hurry, depend upon finding much that is commonplace, and do not let Book I count for too much in your opinions. You must read with an eye ever open for detached good things rather than for a continuous presence of splendid poetry.”

Cowper and Robinson are the poets of sadness and loss (not to be confused with self-pity, on most occasions), themes as important as happiness and celebration. Robert Frost, in his introduction to Robinson’s posthumously published King Jasper (1935) called him “a prince of heartachers.”

[Quotations are from Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith 1890-1905 (Harvard University Press, 1947).]

Friday, February 16, 2018

`My Yale College and My Harvard'

My son Michael, 17, had a call first thing this morning from Sen. Ted Cruz’s office. He has been accepted into the United States Naval Academy. I couldn’t be prouder. When I told Joseph Epstein, he replied: “I have long thought that I should rather have U.S. Marines on my resume than Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or any other school you might name.” This, in turn, reminded me of Ishmael’s boast: “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

`Splendid Imbecilities'

Forty years ago today, in the privacy of a letter not made public for another thirty-four years, Anthony Hecht articulated what many of us had already known for years:

“. . . when a [Robert] Bly review turns up I normally read it since I can count upon a number of splendid imbecilities that keep me humming contentedly to myself for days on end.”

Many of us keep handy an annotated list of literary confidence men like Bly who perform a useful service by being reliably wrong. Think of them as the Bizarro World's Consumer Reports. If they like a book, there’s got to be something wrong with it. If they pan something, it must be gold. In his Feb. 16, 1978 letter to Harry Ford, Hecht congratulates Ford on writing a letter of protest to the New York Times regarding Bly’s review of W.S. Merwin’s Houses and Travellers. To be fair, Merwin isn’t much of a writer, and Hecht may be more motivated by loyalty to a friend than critical acuity. Still, when Bly intones, “What I like about Merwin’s work is the persistent energy, the willingness to set down the imperfect,” you know you’re in the presence of an accomplished bullshit artist. Hecht writes: “In his own odd way [Bly] was very nearly a reliable critic; which is to say, I could almost be certain of liking any book with which he found vigorous fault.” As an example, Hecht cites a gratuitous disparagement by Bly of C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy (a book I have not read by a writer who does not interest me), and writes:

“This is a book I had always been meaning to read, and Bly’s attack, converging upon my discovering the book, in paperback, remaindered at a sale, encouraged me to buy it, and I’m now reading it with all the pleasure of which I was virtually guaranteed by Captain Bly’s maledictions.”   

For the record, I knew several guys in upstate New York who fell, briefly, for the Men’s Movement spawned by Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men (1990). Each was a lost but harmless soul. Soon they grew embarrassed by the drumming, chanting and running around half-naked in the woods. Each has grown up and become a contributing member of society.

[For the full letter see The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (ed. Jonathan F.S. Post, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).]

Thursday, February 15, 2018

`You Are with Me for Life, Pip!'

Dedicated readers will understand what it means to be transported by a book, moved in time and space from immediate surroundings to an alternate, not always happier but certainly more interesting and safer world. The gift is precious, rare and effective. Think of a trans-oceanic flight without a book.

In Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster (Northern Illinois University, 2017), Polina Barskova devotes a chapter to the reading habits of Soviet citizens during the 872-day siege of Leningrad. From September 1941 to January 1944, the German army blockaded the city, leaving its three-million residents without food, heat or light. An estimated 1.5 million people died, many from starvation.

Barskova’s prose is too dry, academic and jargon-clotted to be read for pleasure. She drags in fashionable and irrelevant theory and theorists (Bachelard, Barthes, Foucault) but, fortunately, also cites accounts by survivors of the siege, many not otherwise available in English. Leonid Panteleev (1908-1987) was a popular Soviet writer for children. Barskova (all translations are hers) quotes his anecdote of a girl reading during an air raid:

“When the air raid siren sounded today I happened to be on a streetcar, near a girl who was reading. She reads greedily, `experiencing’ the book with the sort of passion and ardor you see only in children and certain adults who have held on to their childlike immediacy.”

Panteleev watches her continue reading without interruption on the platform after leaving the streetcar. He writes: “And just one square over, our antiaircraft guns are firing.” Barskova over-psychologizes the girl’s ability to concentrate, calling it a “trance mechanism.” What I admire is the girl’s choice of distraction by way of concentration. Other might drink, fight, grow catatonic or slowly fall apart.  

Not everyone was pleased with the idea of disappearing into books during the siege. Barskova quotes the diary of the critic Lydia Chukovskaia (1907-1996): “In the bomb shelter, Tusia reads Dickens. This angered Shura, who saw no point in distracting oneself or others with idle words—this is hypocrisy and weakness: one must concentrate and await death, one’s own or that of others.” Such distrust of devotion to reading sounds familiar. Would Shura have objected as strongly if Tusia had been reading, say, Pushkin or Lenin, rather than Dickens? Shura sounds like an apparatchik, a humorless true believer. Barskova looks at how blokadniki (Leningrad residents during the siege) read five writers – Tolstoy, Poe, Dickens, Proust and the Russian poet Alexander Blok. She quotes the critic Lydia Ginzburg (1902-1990):

“. . . during the war, people voraciously read War and Peace as a way of checking themselves (and not Tolstoy, whose validity no one doubted). And the reader said to him or herself: so, it means what I’m feeling is correct; that’s how it is. Whoever had the strength to read, voraciously read War and Peace.”

Of course, many of us read War and Peace that way. It encourages full immersion. I know several men still in love with Natasha Rostov and who suspect they have too much in common with Pierre Bezukhov. Barskova quotes Panteleev again:

“In the most horrific days of that winter I read Dickens’s Great Expectations. The book had just come out in a new translation; I bought it at a stall in the street. I read it by night, by the light of a smoky night-lamp. And I know that for me that night-lamp, its soot, and my breath-vapor have become forever linked with everything I was reading about, with the spirit and gloom and light and smells of Dickens’s novel. Whether you like it or not, whether I like it or not, you are with me for life, Pip! You’re a blokadnik.”

Panteleev and the artist and book illustrator Vladimir Konashevich (1888-1963) both read the first volume of Proust’s novel during the first winter of the siege, and both acknowledged their use of “involuntary memory” in writing their memoirs. Barskova quotes a passage from Konashevich’s memoir, On Myself and My Work (1968):

“People are pulling white, unpainted caskets on sleds. Everything is white. There’s a mass of snow. . . . This white winter reminded me of long-ago Moscow winters, when snow covered the streets in the same way. . . . It became very quiet. . . . How vividly it all comes back to me.”

I’m reminded of My Century, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat’s “spoken diary” based on his recorded conversations with Czesław Miłosz. In his account of the time he served in Lubyanka, Wat recounts reading Machiavelli’s letters and the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu: “. . . the books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

`If His Image Be Not in the Heart'

In the guise of Tom Toy, Dr. Johnson in The Idler #39 dispenses advice on marriage, love, gift-giving, jewelry and, as always, vanity. He speaks of what we call a charm bracelet:

“I know not whether it is the interest of the husband to solicit very earnestly a place on the bracelet. If his image be not in the heart, it is of small avail to hang it on the hand. A husband encircled with diamonds and rubies may gain some esteem, but will never excite love.”

This may sound like the prevarications of a cheapskate, but Johnson knew what he was talking about. His wife, Elizabeth Porter Johnson (1689-1752), known to him as “Tetty,” had been dead for seven years by the time he was writing the essay. When they married in 1735, he was twenty-five and she was forty-six. Tetty is said to have told her daughter after first meeting Johnson, “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” Sniggering began almost immediately after the wedding. In his biography of Johnson, W. Jackson Bate notes that when older women married younger men in eighteenth-century England, the male partner was judged “an unaggressive type of man—rather mousy, dependent, perhaps slightly infantile. Certainly the idea of such a marriage did not fit one’s notion of Johnson, with his huge, unwieldy frame, his immense physical strength, his courage and rhinocerine laughter, his uncanny incisiveness of mind.” Johnson told his friend Topham Beauclerk: “It was a love marriage upon both sides.”

Born forty-eight years after Tetty’s death, Macaulay confidently described her as “a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibiting provincial airs and graces.” His judgment remains influential, especially among those offended by Johnson’s eminence. Defaming a man in matters of love and romance is a favorite tactic of inadequate minds. Tetty’s epitaph, composed by Johnson, reads: “Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae [beautiful, elegant, talented, dutiful].”

John Hawkins says in his 1787 biography of Johnson: “The melancholy, which seized Johnson, on the death of his wife, was not, in degree, such as usually follows the deprivation of near relations and friends; it was of the blackest and deepest kind.” In 1764, twelve years after his wife’s death, Johnson wrote in a diary: “Having before I went to bed composed the foregoing meditation and the following prayer, I tried to compose myself but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, dear poor Tetty, with my eyes full.” And yet, Johnson was to write in his Idler essay:

“He that thinks himself most secure of his wife, should be fearful of persecuting her continually with his presence. The joy of life is variety; the tenderest love requires to be rekindled by intervals of absence; and Fidelity herself will be wearied with transferring her eye only from the same man to the same picture.”

Ever the traditionalist, I have given my wife flowers and chocolate for St. Valentine’s Day. She has plenty of bracelets.