Wednesday, July 29, 2015

`Speak Again'

Words are tools but also toys. If their job is communication, their avocation is amusement. Not every writer and reader would agree. I admire George Orwell’s best essays (not the fiction) but his sense of humor is vestigial. When he says that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” he’s only fractionally correct. People choose to enfeeble language out of laziness and an eagerness to sound like everyone else. Linguistic distinction (that is, precision, concision, color and music, not necessarily profanity or gibberish) is discouraged. Thus: awesome, cool and the poetry of Mary Oliver. The late D.J. Enright thought otherwise. He advises in the first stanza of “First Words, Last Chances” (Old Men and Comets, 1993): “Words you’ve never used / And have always wanted to – / Get them in quickly.” What follows is a tour-de-force of rare words teetering on the cusp of nonsense, A Clockwork Orange or Finnegans Wake. For instance:

“It fell on your head
Her old boyfriend’s framed photo –
Fearsome xoanon!”

I didn’t know that Scrabble-friendly xoanon. From the Greek for “to scrape, carve,” it means “a primitive rudely carved image or statue (originally wooden), esp. of a deity.” Apparently the ex-boyfriend is still idolized. This stanza is particularly good:

“Vox angelica
(Voicing vale or ave?)
Or vox humana?”

I learned what a vox humana was in 1967 from “The Intro and the Outro.” This stanza can be decrypted with a dictionary handy:

“Jalousies muffle
Criminal conversation –
Discalced and unfrocked
Ithyphallic, perforate –
A case of jactitation.”

That last word I learned from Tristram Shandy: “After much dispassionate enquiry and jactitation of the arguments on all sides,—it has been adjudged for the negative.” Such games, indulged unrelentingly, grow tiresome. Some occasions call for plain speaking and sobriety of manner. But limiting our words to one narrow frequency, as advised by the more humorless among the language police, spells tedium. Monotonal words stripped to utilitarian starkness come to signify nothing. Remember Lear’s contemptuous command to Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

`Prose Is the Language of the Intellect'

Chapter 18 of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, “Baroque Prose,” opens audaciously. Highet christens the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “the age of prose” (he’s not the first to do so), and says the era’s prose is “superior in quality” to the poetry produced in the same period. Limiting our sample exclusively to poets writing in English, this is the era that gave us Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Swift, Pope and Johnson, and that represents a mere skimming of genius. But Highet makes a compelling case:

“The reason for the superiority of baroque prose is plain, and may sound like an over-simplification; but no better has been suggested. It is that intellect predominated over emotion and imagination in the life of the time, and controlled them: prose is the language of the intellect.”

Highet identifies two general schools of prose. One he traces to the influence of Cicero; the other, to Seneca and Tacitus. The Ciceronian strain he describes as a “full, ornate, magnificent utterance in which emotion constantly swells up and is constantly ordered and disciplined by superb intellectual control.” Its critics felt that “the `big bow-wow’ style of speaking and writing was bogus.” They argued for a plainer, more “natural” handling of language. Of this second style, Highet lists seven masters in English and French: Bacon, Browne, Burton, La Bruyère, Milton, Montaigne and Pascal. Representing the first, neo-Ciceronian style he gives Addison, Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Bossuet, Louis Bourdaloue, Burke, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Gibbon, Swift and Johnson. It’s pleasing to know such lists are not mutually exclusive. Readers and writers need not be partisans of either. Johnson, in fact, wrote a largely admiring life of Browne, and told Boswell that The Anatomy of Melancholy was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” The names of at least half of my favorite writers, the ones whose books I return to most frequently, can be found on the two lists. Here’s Highet on Browne:

“Yet prose is not only a tool. It can also be an instrument of music. The most skillful, least monotonous, and subtlest of the baroque musicians in words was Browne, who produced his finest effects by blending simple Anglo-Saxonisms with organ-toned words from Rome.”

And here is Highet on Gibbon, whose great history he criticizes harshly, especially for its well-known antagonism to Christianity and its sometimes “monotonous” prose, but deeply admires as literature:

“Gibbon’s great range would be useless without his analytical power. He had a highly developed sense of intellectual and aesthetic structure. Through this he controlled the enormous and shapeless mass, a thousand processes and a million facts, so that they arranged themselves in large but manageable groups, seventy-one of which made up the entire work, and, uncluttered by appendixes and excursuses and annexes, formed an architectural whole of truly baroque grandeur.”

One of the signal events of my life was reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire some fifteen years ago. Finishing it left me elated and mildly depressed, the way we feel after leaving a household where one has been generously welcomed as a member of the family. Even non-readers of his history know that Gibbon said “history is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind,” but the Decline and Fall at the same time documents a noble achievement in human history, despite all the political savagery (which has remained steadily present in subsequent centuries). I have never found Gibbon’s sonorities “monotonous.”

As readers born into English, we have reason to be proud. Our inheritance is enormous and we come by it naturally, without effort. Is it possible to be a patriot for one’s language? Patriots secure in their gratitude don’t feel the need to loudly demean citizens of other countries or speakers of other languages. They merely celebrate (and defend) their gifts. Highet, for instance, is respectful of Dr. Johnson but not an enthusiast. He praises the non-Ciceronian stylists for the “great deal of quiet solitary thinking and reading [they did] in large libraries,” adding parenthetically, (”poor Johnson in his father’s bookshop).” Consider this from The Rambler #38, published on this date, July 28, in 1750:

“There is one reason, seldom remarked, which makes riches less desirable. Too much wealth is very frequently the occasion of poverty. He whom the wantonness of abundance has once softened, easily sinks into neglect of his affairs; and he that thinks he can afford to be negligent, is not far from being poor. He will soon be involved in perplexities, which his inexperience will render unsurmountable; he will fly for help to those whose interest it is that he should be more distressed, and will be at last torn to pieces by the vultures that always hover over fortunes in decay.”

Monday, July 27, 2015

`A Well-Stocked Head'

The most entertaining book I have read this year is The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature by Gilbert Highet (1906-1978), first published by Clarendon Press in 1949 and reissued this year in a paperback edition by Oxford University Press (with an eminently ignorable new foreword by Harold Bloom). Highet’s learning is massive and lightly worn. His book is greatly entertaining because Highet is entertained by the greatest books and writers. His manner is not pedantic or school-marmish, and he doesn’t proselytize. One could fill a commonplace book with passages from The Classical Tradition. Highet respects readers enough to assume they too wish to read the best books. Take his treatment of Petrarch: 

“Dante had a bookshelf, a large one. But Petrarch had the first living and growing library, in the modern sense. The ideal which grew up in the Renaissance and has not yet died away, that of the many-sided humane thinker with a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library, the ideal personified in Montaigne, Ronsard, Johnson, Gray, Goethe, Goethe, Voltaire, Milton, Tennyson, and many more—that ideal was in modern times, first and most stimulatingly embodied in Petrarch.” 

What a marvelous phrase, representative of Highet’s epigrammatic style: “a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library.” About my mention of respect: I’ve read hardly anything by Ronsard, and now I’ve made a note to remedy that. Art is not democratic (most of us, for instance, can’t write or play the violin well), but access to art has never been more democratic, with ready digital availability of almost any work. Highet continues: 

“The books which Dante knew, he knew deeply; but they were not many. Petrarch knew neither the Bible nor Aristotle so well, but he knew classical literature better than Dante, and he knew more of it. For he discovered much of it, and stimulated others to discover more. He did not discover it in the sense in which Columbus discovered America, or Schliemann Troy. The books were there, in libraries, and still readable. But they were in the same position as out-of-print works nowadays, of which only one or two copies exist, in basements or forgotten dumps. Hardly anyone knew they were there; no one read them; and they were not part of the stream of culture.” 

A book without a reader is half a book or less. Readers complete the job only started by writers. One thinks of the great Melville revival, circa 1920. A decade earlier he was remembered, if at all, as a writer of South Sea romances, loosely clumped with those other salty dogs, Stevenson and Conrad. Within a few years he was acknowledged as author of that mythical beast, the Great American Novel. Highet describes Petrarch’s central role in the rediscovery and reevaluation of Cicero. The poet befriended literature, as all true writers do. Near the conclusion of his pages devoted to Petrarch, Highet writes movingly: 

“Much to his grief, Petrarch never managed to read a book in Greek; but he did search for Greek manuscripts (he acquired a Homer and some sixteen dialogues of Plato) and finally, through Boccaccio, got hold of a Latin rendering of both the Homeric epics. Like a true book-lover, he was found dead in his library, stooping over a book; and the last large-scale work he began was to annotate the Latin version of the Odyssey.”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

`I Loved My Aunt'

Stevie Smith recognized that much of life is consumed with giving and receiving casual, low-grade hurts. They color our days. Some are almost benign, reminding us to preserve our self-respect. Some are cold-blooded, spawning, with time, murder and suicide. Lock two humans in a room and someone’s ego will start agitating. A friend reminds me of Smith’s “Pad, pad” (Harold’s Leap, 1950): 

“I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

“What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.”

The first stanza is almost a limerick. For three and a half lines, until “tigerish crouch,” we expect greeting-card sentiments. Then comes the “Dear John.” The speaker, evidently a man, hath no fury. He is a little man, defeated, resigned, some might say a wimp. The drawing that accompanies the poem makes this explicit. The woman, seated on a couch, is dressed like a flapper. She’s smiling and looks ready for the next dance. The man, drawn in profile and only from the chest up, looks stricken. His mustache sags. His appearance almost justifies her ruthlessness. She’s having a grand time at his expense. Smith was no sentimentalist when it came to love, romance, friendship and other human relations. In the preceding poem, “Le Singe Qui Swing (To the tune of Green-sleeves)” and the accompanying drawing, the title creature stands on a swing hanging from a branch. He is male. His tormentor, again, is female and smiling, hanging out a window. The second stanza belies the drawing: 

“Oh ho the swinging ape,
The happy peaceful animal,
Oh ho the swinging ape,
I love to see him gambol.” 

In the poem after “Pad, pad,” “The Broken Friendship,” both characters are female. Here we have a nursery rhyme devoted to human hurt and desolation – Smith’s defining dissonance: 

“Jolie Bear is gone away
Easter Ross’s heart is broke,
Everything went out of her
When Jolie never spoke.” 

Smith’s persona was girlish, whimsical and faux-naïve. In her own way she was “tigerish” – not predatory but cunning. Near the end of her life, Smith told Neville Braybrooke: “People think because I never married, I know nothing about the emotions. When I am dead you must put them right. I loved my aunt.”

Saturday, July 25, 2015

`Exempt from Future Service All His Days'

“But few that court Retirement, are aware
Of half the toils they must encounter there.
Lucrative offices are seldom lost
For want of pow’rs proportion’d to the post.”

Perhaps it’s merely an urban legend fueled by the bitter among us who still must work for a living, but folklore claims retirement after long service amounts to a death sentence. The newly emancipated with their fat pensions find leisure appalling. How much golf can one man play? Idleness breeds boredom, irritability and self-loathing. Bad habits follow – drinking, gambling, daytime television. Death comes as respite.

We are confident, however, that another fate awaits Dave Lull, the Omnipresent Wisconsin Librarian (OWL), who on Friday served his final day as Technical Services Manager at the Duluth Public Library.  Dave, I trust, has no plans to retire from his other job as the tutelary spirit of Anecdotal Evidence. Modestly, Dave calls himself “nitpicker.” I call him copy editor, fact-checker, hunter-gatherer and friend. My foolishness would appear even more blatant without his unheralded assistance. The ominous lines quoted above are drawn from William Cowper’s “Retirement” (1782). Here are the subsequent lines:

“Give ev’n a dunce th’ employment he desires,
And he soon finds the talents it requires;
A business with an income at its heels,
Furnishes always oil for its own wheels.
But in his arduous enterprize to close
His active years with indolent repose,
He finds the labours of that state exceed
His utmost faculties, severe indeed.
’Tis easy to resign a toilsome place,
But not to manage leisure with a grace,
Absence of occupation is not rest,
A mind quite vacant is a mind distress’d.
The vet’ran steed excused his task at length,
In kind compassion of his failing strength,
And turn’d into the park or mead to graze,
Exempt from future service all his days.”

Have an industrious retirement, Dave. As always, I’m grateful there’s a Lull in my life.

Friday, July 24, 2015

`Only Then Can He Do and Know Something'

A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon, Max Hayward, 1976) is based on the two letters per month Andrei Sinyavsky was permitted to write his wife from a Soviet forced-labor camp between March 1966 and June 1971. Starting in the late nineteen-fifties, and writing under the nom de plume he took from a legendary Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz, the non-Jewish Sinyavsky published Gogolesque stories that flaunted the dreary strictures of socialist realism. He and another writer, Yuri Daniel, were charged with publishing anti-Soviet work abroad, and both were found guilty. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp; Daniel, five. He left the Soviet Union in 1973, settled in Paris and died in 1997. A Voice from the Chorus is a joy-filled grab bag of a book and something of a how-to manual for anyone who presumes to write:

“I work very hard at my job of polishing chairs, and my chairs shine better than anyone else’s, but I cannot cope with the output quota—it is hard for a slow person like me to move my hands with the necessary speed from one thing to another, reaching for a piece of leather, a scraper, or putty to fill in cracks and scratches. A good style (whether in writing or in chair-making) can only be achieved through lack of self-assurance, as I have observed. A stylist is usually a very diffident person who tries to compensate for his sense of inadequacy by careful attention to every word. A diffident man cannot allow himself to work badly, in slipshod fashion – as a genius can.”

In Sinyavsky’s fumbling slowness I recognize my own. That’s how I work. Instinct says: let it flow. Experience says: rewrite every damn comma. Think of Tolstoy, that great snorting rhinoceros crashing through the sitting room of literature. He could afford to be “slipshod” – that is, trust his immense gift. Mere mortals putter, fret and move commas. Writing for newspapers taught me to scorn “inspiration” and trust momentum, which in turn taught me that momentum reliably inspires, as does a deadline. Sinyavsky writes later in A Voice from the Chorus:

“I never cease wondering at the fact that a writer knows nothing, remembers nothing, can do nothing, does not know how to do anything, and that this impotence of his – his utter inability to say anything of note – makes him turn to the world and only then can he do and know something.”

Thursday, July 23, 2015

`The Daily Texture of Our Lives'

“Samuel Johnson is a person not much appreciated in the United States. And the people who do like him are either like Yvor Winters, or nasty types of Anglophiles who think they have to be rude and are usually Republicans. But Johnson was a great melancholic romantic and he wrote some exceedingly acute things.”

Auden is not at his best in The Table Talk of W.H. Auden (Ontario Review Press, 1990), transcriptions of the poet’s conversations kept between 1946 and 1948 by a young admirer, Alan Ansen, and edited by Nicholas Jenkins. In his foreword, Jenkins notes that “Auden was never aware of any obligation to moderate or refine his comments.” Few of us would wish to be judged by our casual conversation, especially where alcohol was involved, as it usually was with Auden. Jenkins is merely being honest when he says the book “does not pretend to be a polished literary work.” Too many sentences begin with the phrase “I don’t like . . .” – always a reliable sign of bloviation. Still, Auden was an accomplished talker and literary raconteur. One can imagine him issuing pronouncements like the one quoted above, laced with provocation, and being assured of a happy reception from the star-struck Ansen.

Auden says “Yvor Winters” as though the name were the punch line to a joke.  It’s notable that almost seventy years ago, he was spouting some of the same silly prejudices we hear from literary types today. Consider his mistaken linkage of tastes in literature and politics, and the association of rudeness and membership in a political party. This is lazy and vulgar, and unworthy of a great poet. The final sentence, however – “But Johnson was a great melancholic romantic . . .” – sounds suspiciously autobiographical, an admission of grudging affinity.

In “Paralipomena to The Hidden Law” (Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, 2003), the late Anthony Hecht notes Auden’s “remarkable resemblance” to Dr. Johnson. Both writers had poor eyesight and held cleanliness in “utter disregard.” Both favored, in the words of Johnson biographer W. Jackson Bate, “the wrong side of a debate, because most ingenious, that is to say, most new things, could be said upon it.”

Quoting Bate again, Hecht says Auden and Johnson shared a “lifelong conviction – against which another part of him was forever afterwards to protest – that indolence is an open invitation to mental distress and even disintegration, and that to pull ourselves together, through the force of attention and the discipline of work, is within our power.” The poets shared a belief that “effort in daily habits – such as rising early – was necessary to `reclaim imagination’ and keep it on an even keel.” In the vernacular, both were workaholics, least unhappy when most engaged in work – a lesson to us all. One knows from experience that concentrated work, mental or physical, is a tonic and relaxant, and idleness is corrosive of well-being.

Hecht notes that both Johnson and Auden were largely indifferent to their surroundings. “In addition, Bate wrote, Johnson `was able to distinguish between “loving” and “being loved” and to value the first without demanding equal payment through the latter,’ while Auden wrote, `If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.’” Continuing with Bate’s observations, Hecht writes: “Both men were determined, if at all possible, `to be pleased’ with their circumstances and with their fellow human beings, as a reproval of their own `impatience and quickness to irritability or despair. Johnson and Auden maintained, in Bate’s words, that “the `main of life’ consists of `little things’; that happiness or misery is to be found in the accumulation of `petty’ and `domestic’ details, not in `large’ ambitions, which are inevitably self-defeating and turn to ashes in the mouth. `Sands make the mountain,’ [Johnson] would quote from Edward Young.”

Both were courteous and respectful of others – rare qualities among artists of all types. Again quoting Bate, Hecht writes: “Both firmly believed that fortitude `is not to be found primarily in meeting rare and great occasions. And this was true not only of fortitude but of all the other virtues, including “good nature.” The real test is what we do in our daily life, and happiness – such happiness as exists – lies primarily in what we can do with the daily texture of our lives.’” Both men, in short, were thoroughgoing gentlemen of the middle class, religiously observant, who believed in regular habits even as they failed to live up to them. Getting back to Auden’s characterization of Johnson as a “great melancholic romantic,” Hecht concludes his comparison of the two like this:

“These resemblances might be carried one extraordinary step further: since both men were by nature disposed to admire neoclassical decorum and to exhibit it in their work, Johnson’s ability to praise the pre-Romantic extravagance of Richard Savage is a precedent for Auden’s `Romantic Iconography of the Sea,’ which is the subtitle of his Page-Barbour Lectures, The Enchafèd Flood.”

Later in Table Talk, Auden asks: “Don’t you think that’s right, though, about Johnson being the prince of middlebrows? But not so much in his poetry. And those Johnsonians!”