Tuesday, June 30, 2015

`More Than Grilled Chicken and Wine'

Václav Havel writes to his wife Olga Havlová on April 3, 1982:

“I have another task for you till the end of my sentence: to build up a philosophical library so that when I return, I shall learn at last how it all is (you have no idea how hungry I am for such reading matter; I miss it a hundred times more than grilled chicken and wine). Buy everything that comes out; comb the secondhand bookstores; buy, or put on long-term deposit in our place, the libraries of emigrating friends…”

Much of Letters to Olga (trans. Paul Wilson) is filled with the mundane, non-literary concerns of a literary man working hard to maintain dignity in a setting engineered to eradicate that virtue. Along with books he asks his wife for a toothbrush, razor blades, cigarettes, chocolate and tea, preferably Earl Gray (“My happiest moment is when I prepare a glass of hot, strong tea, and then sit down with it to read, think or write a letter”). He complains of hemorrhoids and lumbago (“I can't shake the feeling that my organism is only functioning on its word of honor, as it were”). In the early letters, Havel comes across as a nag, and at the same time as a modern-day Boethius, a philosophical quester behind bars. He revels in phenomenology.

In October 1979, the playwright and future president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for “subversion of the republic.” Havel was a leader of Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. Communism spawned a remarkable library of prison literature, from Koestler, Solzhenitsyn and Aleksander Wat to Armando Valladares’ Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag (1985). Such books, not Modernism or “postmodernism,” constitute the signature genre or movement of twentieth-century literature. Much of it, including Havel’s letters, started as samizdat. The Czech critic Jan Lopatka usefully reads Havel’s letters not as documentation of Marxist inhumanity but as a novel of “character and destiny” like those of Balzac and George Eliot. While in prison, Havel’s reading matter is subject to bureaucratic vagaries. He scavenges Stendhal, Pickwick Papers, Max Brod’s biography of Kafka, a Czech volume on the Watergate scandal, To Kill a Mockingbird and Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. While reading an unnamed volume by Musil, he writes: “It’s just what I need: it allows me to be in contact, for a while each day, with cultivated language and a clever text.”

I first read Letters to Olga when the English translation was published in 1988, a year before the Velvet Revolution. I remember a fleeting sense of guilt that I, as a young American, had been in the early years of my journalism career, moving where I wished, reading and writing what I wished, while Havel was held in Ruzyné Prison. Rereading the book now, three and a half years after Havel’s death, I dismiss that earlier guilt as cheap self-indulgence. Havel’s example is more worthy of study and respect than ever before: ''The more slavishly and dogmatically a person falls for a ready-made ideological system or `worldview,’ the more certainly he will bury all chances of thinking, of freedom, of being clear about what he knows.” 

Havel also reminds us that prisons take many forms besides the usual brick-and mortar variety. On March 8, 1980, he writes:
“I’ve discovered that in lengthy prison terms, sensitive people are in danger of becoming embittered, developing grudges against the world, growing dull, indifferent and selfish. One of my main aims is not to yield an inch to such threats, regardless of how long I’m here. I want to remain open to the world, not to shut myself up against it; I want to retain my interest in other people and my love for them.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

`His Cackleophilous Concubines'

My youngest son has a video of me carrying on an extended conversation with a rooster. The bird was strutting behind a fence on the grounds of a nearby grade school, the one he (my son, that is) had attended years before. I cock-a-doodle-doo’ed, the bird, after hustling his hens into the coop, answered in kind, and we carried on a call-and-response for ten minutes or so, until the rest of the (human) family was fed up with the Dr. Doolittle routine. I do the same with squirrels, cats, dogs and several species of birds. Dogs are particularly responsive. The neighbors have a Dachshund that barks with a precisely enunciated “Ruff, ruff,” like a cartoon dog. My accent when barking with him is good, better than my French. I enjoy the illusory sense of intimacy with another species and the total ridiculousness of the whole thing, similar to many conversations with my fellow humans, though I don’t fall for any of that “horse whisperer” crap. In his review of a book titled The Animal Dialogues, Eric Ormsby writes: 

“Conversations with wild animals are always one-sided. If we speak to them, we hear how empty our words sound in the silence between us. If we manage to make eye contact with some startled deer in a forest clearing or with a caged lion in the local zoo, we search their faces for visual clues, but we can't quite decipher the look they give us back. We depend almost exclusively on our eyes, but animals apprehend us with all their senses. They know us by our smells and sounds as well as by sight; the lion may even anticipate the way we taste. For all our wordiness, we are mute in this wordless realm.” 

Note that Ormsby specifies “wild” animals, leaving open the possibility that two-way conversations with domesticated creatures are possible. My cat is not shy about expressing his preferences and aversions. He is laconic, never verbose (expect when purring), and has little use for small talk. Language for him is largely utilitarian, but never less than elegant and eloquent, accompanied as it is by rubbing, paw-kneading and head butting, a uniquely feline mingling of speech and dance. Ormsby’s poems, like Marianne Moore’s, are densely populated with animals, and roosters seem to be among his favorites. In “Watchdog and Rooster,” he contrasts the communication styles of the titular beasts: 

“The rooster, however,
accustomed to the chuckling palaver
of his cackleophilous concubines,
disliked the stolid silence of the dog
who hunched there like a stinkpot on a log
and only uttered small, obsequious whines
about his master's boots at supper-time.”
 

And in “Rooster” he writes: 

“I like the way his stubby little beak
Produces that dark, corroded croak
Like a grudging nail tugged out of stubborn wood:
No `cock-a-doodle-doo’  but awk-a-awk!
He yawps whenever he's in the mood
And the thirst and clutch of life are in his squawk.”
 

With that “yawps” Ormsby sneaks in a nice Whitmanesque echo.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

`To Compare Experience with Expectation'

Boswell tells us that Bennet Langton, a devoted reader of The Rambler (1750-52), journeyed from Lincolnshire to London “chiefly with the view of endeavouring to be introduced to its authour.” Born in 1736, Langton was still a teenager when we went to meet his hero, who at once took a liking to him. In 1757, Langton matriculated from Trinity College, Oxford, where he befriended Topham Beauclerk. Together, early in their acquaintance, they took Johnson for his famous “frisk” to Billingsgate. That Johnson maintained friendships with his juniors speaks well of his avidity and love of life. Johnson was forty-eight and the author of his Dictionary and “The Vanity of Human Wishes” when he wrote to Langton (whom he called “Lanky,” as he called Beauclerk “Beau”) on this date, June 28, in 1758: 

“I know not any thing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality. It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed.” 

Already middle-aged and accomplished, Johnson had a right to coast complacently on his reputation, but was too restless, self-doubting, ambitious and penurious to do so. What he suggests to Langton was his customary practice – life lived attentively and conducted as a sort of experiment in which the outcome in advance is unknown. Johnson resumes his letter: 

“You, who are very capable of anticipating futurity, and raising phantoms before your own eyes, must often have imagined to yourself an academical life, and have conceived what would be the manners, the views, and the conversation, of men devoted to letters; how they would choose their companions, how they would direct their studies, and how they would regulate their lives. Let me know what you expected, and what you have found.” 

What interests Johnson, beyond his solicitousness for his young friend, is the process of living and maturing. What do we expect, what actually happens, and what do we make of the differences? Those who live with an indelibly fixed image of their future risk disappointment and despair. How well Bennet heeded his friend’s example is not known. He published little. In his will, Johnson left him a book and £750, out of which he was to pay an annuity to Francis Barber, Johnson’s servant. The first identification of Langton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is not as writer or captain in the militia but “friend of Samuel Johnson.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

`The Obscene Graffiti of Life'

“When it comes to other people’s vices, most of us are thick-skinned; but the satirist is a man without a skin. He senses faults before anyone else, and wears a perpetual frown. Most of us encounter grossness, cowardice, and obsequiousness two or three times a day and never give it a second thought. These are the obscene graffiti of life, seen so often that we have become accustomed to them. The satirist’s gift is the ability to point out that which we already know, and to provoke a moral or aesthetic response. He does not discover new vices, but uncovers old ones to which we have become inured. He provides no new information, but only reminds us that we already know enough to be shocked, but we have resigned ourselves to a contented indifference.”

This comes in a section of F.H. Buckley’s The Morality of Laughter (University of Michigan Press, 2003) titled “The Paradox of Satire,” in which he contrasts the playful and the bitter. Gulliver’s third voyage, to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, is playful. In Laputa, where scientists labor to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, he pokes fun at the Royal Society, but Swift was never more savage than in Gulliver’s fourth voyage, to the land of the Houyhnhnms. Buckley describes the chapter as “one of the most caustic attacks on human pretensions ever written, which shocks the reader without amusing him.” Perhaps I’m among the thick-skinned, because I judge the Yahoos very amusing, but I appreciate Buckley’s larger point: “The more intense the satire, the fewer laughs it raises. The Paradox of Satire is that it asks the reader to share its rancor; and if it succeeds the satire fails.”

Satire is tricky. The most vicious of art forms calls for a delicate hand. Heavy-handed satire is almost a contradiction in terms. It requires well-calibrated wit, not a slugfest, and certainly not a preening sense of self-righteousness. Too much subtlety or too much simple-minded explicitness, and satire is a dud. I’ve been reading Juvenal again (Juvenal in English, ed. Martin M. Winkler, Penguin, 2001) and, as Buckley says, “Bitter satire is Juvenalian.” He quotes a brief, apparently self-translated passage from Satire 2.8-10: Rome, says Juvenal, is a city where “every street is just full of stern-faced sodomites. How can you lash corruption when you are the most notorious furrows among our Socratic fairies?” Here is Peter Green’s translation of the same lines (The Sixteen Satires, Penguin, 1974):

“Every back street swarms with solemn-faced humbuggers.
You there—have you the nerve to thunder at vice, who are
The most notorious dyke among all our Socratic fairies?”
       
In his footnote, Green explains: “This is a variant on the classical gibe of antiquity (derived largely from Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ Clouds) which assumes that all `philosophers’ are homosexuals. Juvenal inverts the cliché: in his day many homosexuals pretended to be philosophers.”

Buckley doesn’t address self-satirizing, a phenomenon that proliferates in our culture and age, and requires a degree of self-obliviousness to be effective. Some things can’t be done by others because the job has already been accomplished.  A friend in South Carolina alerts me to “When we’re told we’ll never understand,” a piece of writing produced by Ed Madden, the poet laureate of Charleston, S.C., the city where a nasty little punk last week murdered nine people. Aesthetically and morally, the piece is a satire of conventional groupthink reactions to the slaughter, a parody of pre-approved sentiments. Let my friend, a native of South Carolina, have his say:

“What a piece of shit this work is. When an obviously mentally ill white boy goes into a church and kills nine black people, we understand it’s a terrible thing, but the writer of the poem wants to ascribe the fault to the culture. The writer says when we say the boy was mentally ill we know he killed those people because of hate, because of racism, because he had a Confederate flag. The writer is saying that if the boy’s mind had not been poisoned by racism (endemic in S.C., implies the author) he’d not have murdered those people. Any sane and fair mind would understand that the monstrous act is, in fact, not explicable to a sound mind, even if that mind is racist. I grew up with racists, was probably to some degree one myself, but the most virulent racist I know, or ever knew, would never do what this mentally ill boy did. This absurd and worthless poem reminds me of Kenneth Rexroth’s rant on the death of Dylan Thomas. Rexroth says it was the son of a bitch in a Brooks Brothers suit that killed Thomas. Dylan Thomas died of drink.”

Madden’s words embody yet again what Orwell called “the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

[Thanks to the reader who noted my error in writing "Columbia" for "Charleston."]

Friday, June 26, 2015

`Its Recoveries of Freshness'

How peculiar that one’s reading habits should irritate another reader. We all belong to the same club, right? Dedicated to perpetuating literacy in a dimming age? Sharing the pleasures of reading at all scales, from comma to canon? Perhaps I’m naïve. In some, the temptation to police and regulate is powerful, a sort of hunger or lust, whereas the impulse to read and revel in books is by nature antiauthoritarian. Readers are freebooters, each a non-aligned sovereignty. One reader of Anecdotal Evidence brands me “an old foggy [sic]” and a reactionary for “reading all those old books.” I don’t read enough new books, he tells me, I “waste too much time reading books you read before,” and so forth. Similar notes arrive periodically and they leave me, at first, puzzled, and then amused. I suppose I should be grateful that someone cares enough about books to get angry about them.

In two books I’ve been lately rereading I find similar defenses of reading a poem, and by extension any work of literature, twice, or three times, or more. The first is written by Gerald Brenan (1894-1987), author of The Spanish Labyrinth and longtime friend to V.S. Pritchett. Brenan writes in Thoughts in a Dry Season: A Miscellany (1978):

“There is a simple rule for distinguishing between what is great poetry and what is not great poetry. Does one read it again and again? Does it affect us more the better we know it? Judged by this test, great poetry is something that occurs from time to time when good poets write verse. That is to say, it is hardly ever found continuously in long passages, and if it were it would stun and exhaust the reader.”

Common-sense, field-ready, foolproof criticism. Does anyone read Charles Olson twice? Of course not. Not even Olson. Norman Mailer? Joyce Carol Oates? Case closed. The other defense of rereading – a celebration, really – comes from “A Suspect Captivity of the Fisher King,” a lecture delivered in 1988 by Les Murray and collected in The Paperbark Tree: Selected Prose (Carcanet, 1992):

“Any true work of art is inexhaustible in its suggestions, its implications and its recoveries of freshness; the potentials for commentary on it and interpretation of it are therefore infinite. This is a form of infinite regress, but probably only becomes questionable if taxpayers are being asked to fund it.”

One reliable test of any work is memorability. Do we remember it, even memorize it? Not often, but always happily. The present is a very small place, a place of diminished accomplishment and minimal expectations. Our wealth is in the past. No book is good or worth reading simply because it is old (or new), but because it is good and someone thought enough of it to pass it along.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

`The Fidelity of Things'

Not a title in which one would expect to find appropriately deployed allusions to Eugenio Montale and Zbigniew Herbert, among others: Healing Richard Nixon: A Doctor’s Memoir by Dr. John C. Lungren (University of Kentucky Press, 2003). Like many readers, I navigate tributaries of bookish interest flowing into and out of the Mississippi of Literature. Among them is Nixon, the president elected one week after my sixteenth birthday. Few public figures have so often recalled Shakespeare’s heroes and the crippling severity of their flaws. He is our Coriolanus, our Othello, and, like them, never less than baffling and intriguing.

Lungren, who wrote the book with the aid of his son, John C. Lungren Jr., was the Nixon family physician from 1952. Among the epigraphs the doctor gives his memoir is a line borrowed from Nixon’s first book, Six Crises (1962): “But I have found that leaders are subject to all the human frailties . . .” In his preface, Dr. Lungren reproduces a letter from Nixon commenting on an early draft of the book’s foreword: “I would suggest only one small change. The reference to Lear would be understood only by a few Shakespeare scholars. Job—might be a better name. More people read the Bible than read Shakespeare (I hope!)” And the doctor in the same preface quotes Hamlet’s words to Horatio -- “report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied” – before adding: “To the unsatisfied I will report the unadorned Nixon as I knew him: impassioned, guarded, intellectual, introverted, disciplined, emotional, brilliant, deeply religious, and tragic.”

In his preface, the younger Lungren reports he and his father agreed on observations regarding biography made by Richard Holmes in Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage (1996): “. . . it began to pose the largest, imaginative questions: how well can we know our fellow human beings, how far can we learn from someone else’s struggles about the condition of our own, what do the intimate circumstance of one particular life tell us about human nature in general?” Any honest person can see in Nixon a reflection of his own ambition, peevishness, cunning and hunger for revenge. After Nixon’s death in 1994, Lungren composes a sort of eulogy for his friend:

“Unsettled, I thought of the lemon trees that Nixon’s father had planted in Yorba Linda [Nixon’s birthplace in California, in 1913], a grove of trees next to the home Frank Nixon built from a catalogue kit for his family from which Hannah Nixon picked the bitter-sweet fruit for her beloved son Richard and his brothers. In Yorba Linda, the lemon trees no longer exist, but their memory remains as `trumpets of gold,’ portending salvation.”

The quoted passage is from Montale’s “The Lemon Trees” (trans. William Arrowsmith, Cuttlefish Bones, 1992):

“But the illusion dies, time returns us
to noisy cities where the sky is only
patches of blue, high up, between the cornices.
Rain wearies the ground; over the buildings
winter's tedium thickens.
Light grows niggardly, the soul bitter.
And, one day, through a gate ajar,
among the trees in a courtyard,
we see the yellows of the lemon trees;
and the heart’s ice thaws,
and songs pelt
into the breast
and trumpets of gold pour forth
epiphanies of Light!”

In the book’s final paragraph, recounting Nixon’s near-fatal bout of phlebitis just months after his resignation in 1974, Lungren writes: “While caring for Nixon’s crisis of body I witnessed his crisis of soul, the deep moral ordeal and upheaval that returned him to `the fidelity of things.’” The quoted phrase is from the final stanza of Zbigniew Herbert’s “Stool” (trans. Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott, Selected Poems, 1968):

“how to express to you my gratitude wonder
you come always to the call of the eye
with great immobility explaining by dumb-signs
to a sorry intellect: we are genuine—
At last the fidelity of things opens our eyes.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

`I Had to Learn Fast'

Every conversation with a Pole turns into a history lesson. My teacher this time was an engineer, born in Warsaw in 1969, who designs optical instruments for bio-imaging. I went to his office to talk about low-cost, portable microscopy for use in the under-developed world. We got that out of the way quickly and moved on to more important things, like the history of his nation since the sixteenth century. Now a naturalized American, Tomasz loves his native country. It’s a pleasure to listen to an unapologetic patriot. He urged me to read God's Playground: A History of Poland (1979) by Norman Davies. He digressed at length on the Winged Hussars and their origins in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 1570’s. From the Siege of Vienna he leaped forward to Gen. Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, which Tomasz recalled as a time when the schools were closed for two months and food was scarce. All history to a Pole is contemporary.

Tomasz came to the U.S. for the first time in 1998. He gleaned his image of America, he told me, from two principal sources – the Western novels of Karl May and Asfaltowy Saloon (1980) by Waldemar Łysiak, an account of his road trip around the U.S. in 1977. On a more modest scale, Tomasz recreated Łysiak’s journey, visiting such exotic locales as Nashville and Mobile. He reminded me of “Strange Days: Zbigniew Herbert in Los Angeles,” the late Larry Levis’ account of serving as Herbert’s chauffeur during the Pole’s sojourn at UCLA in 1971. It’s good to know Herbert, who never learned to drive, and his wife Katrina bought a 1960 Ford Fairlane in Los Angeles, and chilling when the Polish poet recalls for the American the only time he had ever driven an automobile:

“`It was after a meeting of the Underground. The boy who drove for me was waiting in the car. But dead. The Nazis shot him. Just one shot, a style they had. I came out later . . . I saw him. I had to learn fast. I pushed the boy over to other side of car seat. I drove. Just one time. With the dead boy beside me. I drove.’”