Saturday, May 26, 2018

`Until I Set Out My Thoughts on the Page'

In his introduction to Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1989), Joseph Epstein, while formulating his own writerly M.O., articulates what I’m up to on this blog and elsewhere. Epstein notes his “unwillingness to see [himself] as a literary critic”:

“And yet I continue to think of myself as someone who is essentially a reader—a man who takes a deep pleasure in good books, who views reading as a fine mode of acquiring experience, and who still brings the highest expectations to what he reads. By the highest expectations I mean that I am perhaps a naïve person who has never ceased to believe that books can change his life, and decisively so.”
Many claimants to the title “critic” seem seldom to take deep pleasure in anything, including good books. They certainly take no pleasure in writing well, based on how seldom they do. Why would anyone take seriously a self-ordained critic who can’t write? His every word subverts his credibility.    

Last week, when writing about Hilton Kramer, I noted in passing that I’m not a critic. A reader asked me to elaborate. There’s no one-word moniker for what I do. Whatever it is, I distinguish it – reading, and writing about what I’ve read – from conventional understandings of criticism. I don’t possess sufficient analytical skills to be a bona fide “critic.” Besides, unless your name is Samuel Johnson or Yvor Winters, there’s something a little presumptuous about it. Don’t tell me your opinions, please. They are the least important and interesting thing about you. Tell me what you know and what a book has contributed to your accumulated knowledge – of what? Life and literature, of course. Epstein goes on to explain the payoff for doing what we do. Like me, he begins with “inchoate thoughts”:

“Nothing so concentrates the mind as having to write. In my own case, I frequently do not know what I really think about a writer, a general subject, an event, a person, until I set out my thoughts on the page.”

Friday, May 25, 2018

'No Message for Children or for Lovers'

“Contemporary criticism of Johnson is for the most part anonymous, scurrilous, and nugatory.”

The sentence above was written by the Oxford University scholar R.W. Chapman (1881-1960) in his essay “Samuel Johnson,” first published in 1926 and collected in Johnsonian and Other Essays and Reviews (Clarendon Press, 1953). Context tell us that by “contemporary” he means of Johnson’s time, not his. Johnson was the sort of writer who would inevitably antagonize certain readers, especially other writers, and would turn others into sycophants. Truth-telling always intimidates someone, and Johnson’s sensibility made him a force of nature, feared by critics and admirers alike.

I single out Chapman’s sentence for his use of nugatory. The OED defines it as “trifling, negligible; of no intrinsic value or importance; worthless.” It’s a word one might wait a lifetime to use fittingly. English is rich in words that sound nothing like what they mean. Despite its echo of nougat, nugatory delivers little sweetness. In his Life, Boswell uses the word to describe Johnson’s dismissal of a writer in 1770: “Lord Lyttelton’s Dialogues [of the Dead], he deemed a nugatory performance. ‘That man, (said he,) sat down to write a book, to tell the world what the world had all his life been telling him.’”

Lyttelton’s Dialogues reads like the anemic cousin of Walter Savage Landor’s five-volume Imaginary Conversations (1821-29). Johnson dismisses it with the withering casualness it deserves. Chapman understands and approves of Johnson and his strategies:      

“His religion is not a religion of joy. He has no message for children or for lovers. . . .He will not let us soften the facts in our favour—he will always insist that we `clear our minds of cant’. We feel that he knows the worst; but we are confident that his understanding and his charity will not fail.”

Thursday, May 24, 2018

'The Essential Distinction of Humanity'

I had never heard of Mike Potemra while he was still alive but reading the eulogies makes it clear the loss was mine. Rich Lowry describes a sort of person I almost never meet: “He read more books per week than anyone I have ever known and had a deep knowledge of culture and politics.” As does Jay Nordlinger: “Years ago, he gave me a list of books — ones that he especially admired. At the top of the list was Proust.” I wasn’t aware such people still existed. Potemra was literary editor at the National Review. I looked online for what he had written and was quickly rewarded. This is from a piece on Dr. Johnson, his cat Hodge and Nabokov. It suggests Potemra was a writer who acted on impulse and was gifted and charming enough to pull it off:

“This compassion is the essential distinction of humanity. The way I like to put it is, Man is the only creature who can say ‘No.’ The rest of the universe does what it does simply because that is what it has always done and that is what it always will do. To the extent that human beings are part of nature, they behave that way too: Why not crush and kill and grab, when we are stronger? But to the extent that man is different, and sees himself as — in the traditional phrase —- ‘made in the image’ of something that is different, man can declare that he has values, and knows truths, that are higher than these ‘natural laws.’”

What could have been a stuffy gloss on Pale Fire is, instead, a meditation on humans as free agents, wielders of moral choice, all accomplished in eight-hundred words. I detect in Potemra a realist not given to wish-fulfilling fantasy who nevertheless instinctively sympathizes and celebrates. Two years ago he attended a Beach Boys concert at the Hollywood Bowl. In “Brian Wilson and Lincoln’s ‘Better Angels,’” he writes:    

“In addition to the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, I was celebrating a very personal anniversary. It was one year ago Saturday that I arrived in Los Angeles to become a resident of California, after spending basically all my first 51 years on the East Coast. I am a temperamentally conservative person, one not given to drastic changes, and I had no reason to expect that this new life would work out as well as it has. So I am immensely grateful for everything, and all the help I have received in making this change happen.”

Expressions of heartfelt gratitude and reminders that life is essentially good are rare and sorely needed. Belatedly, I’ll keep reading Potemra.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

`A Wretched, Dirty Doghole and Prison'

No writer is so clarifying to read as Swift. He intends his words to sting like a splash of rubbing alcohol, but that’s only to wake us up. Even at his most shit-minded, Swift is never offensive. He wants us to see and to smell. For him, there’s a moral urgency about perceiving the truth, and being euphemistic or decorous doesn’t help. Here is a passage from a letter he wrote on July 8, 1726 to his friend Thomas Sheridan. The subject is his vexing loyalty to and contempt for Ireland (and England):

“This is the first time I was ever weary of England, and longed to be in Ireland; but it is because go I must; for I do not love Ireland better, nor England, as England, worse; in short, you all live in a wretched, dirty doghole and prison, but it is a place good enough to die in.”

This sounds like Beckett, another Irishman. “Doghole” seems self-explanatory but I looked it up in the OED to be sure: “A hole fit only for a dog; a place unfit for human habitation; a wretched or mean place or dwelling.” Shakespeare uses the word to describe yet another country in All’s Well That Ends Well. In Act II, Scene 3, Parolles says: “France is a dog-hole, and it no more merits / The tread of a man’s foot: to the wars!” Swift seems not to have thought much of dogs, and associated them with dirt and refuse. Here is the conclusion to one of his finest poems, “A Description of a City Shower” (1710):

“Sweeping from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood;
Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

'I Think This Is a Bigger Man'

Melville’s cautionary tale is well known to scholars and common readers alike. At the time of his death in 1891, his best work, including Moby-Dick, was largely forgotten. In his final decades, Melville published only poetry. He worked as a customs inspector in New York City. Only after World War I was his reputation rekindled. His grand-daughter discovered the manuscript of Billy Budd in a bread box in the attic of her house in Cambridge, Ma. The Melville Revival was underway. Raymond Weaver published Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, the first biography, in 1921.

I’ve never been certain how far outside a small circle of Eastern academics interest in Melville spread in those early years. When did bookstores and libraries routinely begin stocking Moby-Dick? When, among non-academic readers, was it judged an “American classic” and recognized as chief among our contributions to world literature? One early reader was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. In the Holmes-Laski Letters (ed. Mark DeWolfe Howe, Harvard University Press, 1953), he writes to Harold Laski on April 14, 1921:

“Did I mention my revelation . . . ? Herman Melville and Moby Dick—an account of sperm whaling with a story superadded. Anyhow I have finished it now and can say more certainly than ever that, with longueurs, it is, yet, I think, a mighty book.”

Is Holmes purposely echoing Ishmael’s boast in Chapter 104, “The Fossil Whale”: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme”? He seems intuitively to understand Melville's principal influence and the grandeur of his ambition:

“Not Shakespeare had more feeling of the mystery of the world and of life. There are mountain peaks and chasms and – the whole is as thick with life at first hand now as the day it was written – as Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter seemed to me thin, 20 years ago. (W. James replied to me when I said so, Because it is an original book.)”

Let’s applaud Holmes’ recognition that Hawthorne is “thin.” The Scarlett Letter may be the most overrated book in the American canon. Tedious stuff. Holmes continues:

“Incidentally, it pleases me that he takes his fellow-sailors, a cannibal, an Indian, a negro and old Nantucket mates and captain with the same unconscious seriousness that common men would reserve for Presidents and Prime Ministers. And my, but he nobly exalts the Nantucket Whalemen, the Macys, the Coffins and the rest. I don’t want to say too much but if you like George Borrow as I do I think this is a bigger man.”

I’m not convinced by the Borrow comparison but Holmes, to his credit, recognizes Melville’s very American, very democratic impulses.

Monday, May 21, 2018

`It's Dignified But Not Pretentious'

My middle son is reading The Structures of Everyday Life (trans. Siân Reynolds, 1981), the first volume in Fernand Braudel’s three-volume Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries. I asked what he thought, and he replied, “I like the style. It’s dignified but not pretentious,” a description that rules out most academic writing, journalism and blogs. To achieve stylistic gravitas, a writer must know something, know he knows it and know how to articulate it. He must be confident but not cocky. Glibness, know-it-all jargon-slinging, self-righteousness, cheap shots, snobbery and childish partisanship are incompatible with dignity.

Who are exemplars of the balanced style my son finds in Braudel? Johnson, of course. Much of Henry James. Abraham Lincoln, whose dignity verges on nobility. Carlyle and Henry Adams, in their cooler moments. Henry Adams. Proust. Santayana. Yvor Winters. Certainly Gibbon. Here is a continuation of the chapter from George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) quoted in Sunday’s post. After dismissing Coleridge’s observation that “Gibbon’s manner is the worst of all,” Saintsbury quotes a memorable, lengthy paragraph from Memoirs of My Life and Writings (1796). Here are Gibbon’s concluding sentences, among his most evocative, dignified and personal:

“The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last: but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years. I shall soon enter into the period which, as the most agreeable of his long life, was selected by the judgement and experience of the sage [Bernard Le Bovier de] Fontenelle. His choice is approved by the eloquent historian of nature, who fixes our moral happiness to the mature season in which our passions are supposed to be calmed, our duties fulfilled, our ambition satisfied, our fame and fortune established on a solid basis. In private conversation, that great and amiable man added the weight of his own experience; and this autumnal felicity might be exemplified in the lives of Voltaire, Hume, and many other men of letters. I am far more inclined to embrace than to dispute this comfortable doctrine. I will not suppose any premature decay of the mind or body; but I must reluctantly observe that two causes, the abbreviation of time, and the failure of hope, will always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life.”

Sunday, May 20, 2018

`A Bountiful Harvest'

My review of A Bountiful Harvest: The Correspondence of Anthony Hecht and William L. MacDonald, edited by Philip Hoy, appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

'A Constant Master of Prose Rhythm'

A reader tells me he finds Edward Gibbon’s prose unreadable. He elaborates: “I know you like him but his sentences are too long. He just goes on and on. I don’t know what he’s talking about.” From experience I understand there’s no arguing with such a reaction. The contemporary mind, raised on sound bites, factoids and tweets, has little patience with symphonic prose composition.  “It has always been my practice,” Gibbon writes in the posthumously published Memoirs of My Life and Writings (1796), “to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory; but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.” Some of us have tried Gibbon’s prose by ear and found it late Mozart.

The most compelling defense I know of Gibbon’s style is found in George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912), a perfect bedside book. In his chapter on Augustan prose, Saintsbury writes:

“As a constant master of prose rhythm he seems to me the superior both of Johnson and of Burke; and he is certainly less open to the charge of visible skeleton-clock mechanism than the one, or to the reproach of calculated purple patches than the other. The only valid objection that I know against his harmony is that it is monotonous; and I am by no means sure that this is not very much a matter of taste. Once more, one would not like all literature to be Gibbon; but one may be very well satisfied with that part of literature which is.”