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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR APRIL 2007

April  30,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past.  That first death we witness will always be a murmur of voices down a corridor and a clock falling silent in the darkened room, the end of love is forever two spent cigarettes in a saucer and a white door closing.

--Birchwood by John Banville

April  28,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Considering how sociably we had been sleeping together the night previous, and especially considering the affectionate arm I had found thrown over me upon waking in the morning, I thought this indifference of his very strange.  But savages are strange beings; at times you do not know exactly how to take them.  At first they are overawing; their calm self-collectedness of simplicity seems as Socratic wisdom.  I had noticed also that Queequeg never consorted at all, or but very little, with the other seamen in the inn.  H e made no advances whatever; appeared to have no desire to enlarge the circle of his acquaintances.  All this struck me as mighty singular; yet, upon second thoughts, there was something almost sublime in it.  Here was a man some twenty thousand miles from home, by the way of Cape Horn, that is--which was the only way he could get there--thrown among people as strange to him as though he were in the planet Jupiter; and yet he seemed entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity; content with his own companionship; always equal to himself.  Surely this was a touch of fine philosophy; though no doubt he had never heard there was such a thing as that.  But, perhaps, to be true philosophers, we mortals should not be conscious of so living or so striving.  So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have "broken his digester."

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

[N.B.:  There's a lot to admire in this partial-paragraph excerpt.  I wish to draw attention just to one point of punctuation.  Frequently, one encounters the objection from MFA mendicants that one should rarely use a semi-colon because it clots up one's prose.  In just this one (partial) paragraph, Melville uses the semi-colon seven times--four of those times in that one majestic sentence plunked down in the middle which also contains two "m" dashes and two commas for good measure.  Oh, how the mighty punctuation hierophants have fallen!]

April  25,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

One result of his truly remarkable generosity and kindness was that although I saw objectively that I had behaved badly, I felt practically no guilt.  This was because Perry never reproached me.  Just as, on the other hand, I have always felt guilty about my chauffeur Freddie Arkwright because he once flew at me, and not because I had occasioned his resentment by keeping him waiting hungry for hours while was guzzling at the Connaught Hotel.  Guilt feelings so often arise from accusations rather than from crimes.

--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

April  24,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The object of all art is to make suggestions.  The romantic artist attains that end by using a multitude of different stimuli, by calling up image after image, recollection after recollection, until the reader's mind is filled and held by a vivid and palpable evocation; the classic works by the contrary method of a fine economy, and, ignoring everything but what is essential, trusts, by means of the exact propriety of his presentation, to produce the required effect.

--Madame du Deffand from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

April  23,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Indeed, the skepticism of that generation was the most uncompromising that the world has known; for it did not even trouble to deny: it simply ignored.  It presented a blank wall of perfect indifference alike to the mysteries of the universe and the solutions of them.  Madame de Deffand gave early proof that she shared to the full this propensity of her age.  While still a young girl in a convent school, she had shrugged her shoulders when the nuns began to instruct her in the articles of their faith.  The matter was considered serious, and the great Massillon, then at the height of his fame as a preacher and a healer of souls, was sent for to deal with the youthful heretic.  She was not impressed by his arguments.  In his person the generous fervor and the massive piety of an age that could still believe felt the icy and disintegrating touch of a new and strange indifference.  "Mais que'elle est jolie!" he murmured as he came away.  The abbess ran forward to ask what holy books he recommended.  "Give her a threepenny Catechism," was Masillon's reply.  He had seen that the case was hopeless.

--Madame du Deffand from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

 

Reading?  Why'd I Want To Do That Fer?

Nothing like reading our so-called literary culture flagship, The New York Times, to realize just how far the mighty have fallen.  No one comes right out and says, "yep, I'm ignert and proud of it," but there's a certain disdain for the lowly art of reading--and, yes, its concomitant vice, thinking--which seeps through from time to time.  In this Sunday's New York Times Book Review there's a review of an inconsequential memoir but yet another MFA product full of precious and universal (that is to say, banal) insights.  Here's how the book review starts:

I love my neighbor as I love myself--which is to say, minimally, if at all, an in between fits of out-and-out loathing.  But this in not quite the same thing as Christian charity, and one doesn't skip into heaven through a loophole.  If the spirit should finally move me, and I answer the call to care for my fellow man unconditionally, the biggest challenge will be extending my newfound caritas to the religious zealots, for it is the zealots--more than the child molesters, petro-dictators or certain on-air personalities of the Fox News persuasion--whom I despise above all.

That's the end of the quote because that was the end of my interest in anything this willful acolyte of modern Know-Nothingness could impart to me.  It's not so much the mendacity in the service of curdled comedy which I find so offensive.  No, it is the visceral delight in pointing out the narrow-mindedness of others while reveling in one's own world-view veal-pen.  The solution: pick up a book, dammit, and READ.

There is one flaw in my advice, as pointed out by none other than Terry Eagleton in the personality profile section of the The New York Times Magazine.  Eagleton is the professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester in England.  In the course of a sympathetic interview, he's served up the biggest softball question of all time:  "Have you read any good books lately?"  It's almost impossible to answer this question incorrectly.  But Eagleton manages to do so:

I don't actually read other peoples' books.  If I want to read a book, I write one myself.  I have written more than 40 books.

That is probably the most offensive thing (as in crawly, mucus-spewing, greasy, flesh-palpitating) I've read in a loooooooooooooooong time.  The only saving grace, Eagleton has guaranteed I'll never read another word he's bothered to slap down after pontificating on his latest cultural theory from watching non-stop, back-to-back episodes of The Bachelor.  Oh, and here's another stumper, Professor Eagleton:  How many of those 40 books will be read 50 years from now?  Do you hear that deafening silence?  It's almost as great as your ignorance. 

April  20,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is interesting--or at least amusing--to consider what are the most appropriate places in which different authors should be read.  Pope is doubtless at his best in the midst of a formal garden, Herrick in an orchard, and Shelley in a boat at sea.  Sir Thomas Browne demands, perhaps, a more exotic atmosphere.  One could read him floating down the Euphrates, or past the shores of Arabia; and it would be pleasant to open the Vulgar Errors in Constantinople, or to get by heart a chapter of the Christian Morals between the paws of the Sphinx.  In England, the most fitting background for his strange ornament must surely be some habitation consecrated to learning, some University which still smells of antiquity and has learnt the habit of repose.   The present writer, at any rate, can bear witness to the splendid echo of Browne's syllables amid learned and ancient walls; for he has known, he believes, few happier moments than those in which he has rolled the periods of the Hydriotaphia out to the darkness and the nightingales through the studious cloisters of Trinity.

--Sir Thomas Browne from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

 

"Warning: Spoiler Alert" De-Bunked


Over at the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín has a review praising Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach.  What?   You haven't heard of  McEwan's new novel?   Oh, that's right, it hasn't been published in the United States yet.   But don't you worry honeyscwunch, I'm sure you Yanks get first dibs on the latest Danielle Steel blockbuster.   Anyway, in the course of his review, Tóibín feels compelled to make this disclaimer (I give him credit for having done so after revealing the plot):

It is difficult to judge whether to give away the plot of this book, as I have just done, is to lessen its impact on the reader. McEwan writes prose judiciously; his books seem to depend on plain writing and story and careful plotting, with much detail added to make the reader believe that these words on the page must be followed and believed as the reader would follow and believe a well-written piece of journalism. On Chesil Beach, however, is full of odd echoes and has elements of folk tale, which make the pleasures of reading it rather greater than the joys of knowing what happened in the end.

Quite.  I have argued repeatedly that if a book is ruined by giving away the plot then it isn't worth reading in the first place.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens is, at a very superficial level, a murder mystery.  But the knowledge that Hortense, the vengeful French maid, and not Lady Dedlock, is the murderer (ooops, so sorry) does not lessen one jot the book's impact or enjoyment on further perusal.  So put that in your gun and shoot it.

April  18,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The selfishness of the eighteenth century was a communal selfishness.  Each individual was expected to practice, and did in fact practice to a consummate degree, those difficult arts which make the wheels of human intercourse run smoothly--the arts of tact and temper, of frankness and sympathy, of delicate compliment and exquisite self-abnegation--with the result that a condition of living was produced which, in all its superficial and obvious qualities, was one of unparalleled amenity.  Indeed, those persons who were privileged to enjoy it showed their appreciation of it in an unequivocal way--by the tenacity with which they clung to the scene of such delights and graces.  They refused to grow old; they almost refused to die.  Time himself seems to have joined their circle, to have been infected with their politeness, and to have absolved them, to the furthest possible point, from the operation of his laws.  Voltaire, d'Argental, Moncrif, Hénault, Madame d'Egmont, Madame du Deffand herself--all were born within a few years of each other, and all lived to be well over eighty, with the full zest of their activities unimpaired.  Pont-de-Veyle, it is true died young--at the age of seventy-seven.  Another contemporary, Richelieu, who was famous for his adventures while Louis XIV was still on the throne, lived till within a year of the opening of the States-General.  More typical still of this singular and fortunate generation was Fontenelle, who, one morning in his hundredth year, quietly observed that he felt a difficulty in existing and forthwith, even more quietly, ceased to do so.

--Madame du Deffand from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

April  17,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The sentence is like a cavern whose mouth a careless traveler might pass by, but which opens out, to the true explorer, into vista after vista of strange recesses rich with inexhaustible gold.  But, sometimes, the phrase, compact as dynamite, explodes upon one with an immediate and terrific force--

C'est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée!

A few "formal elegances" of this kind are surely worth having.

But what is it that makes the English reader fail to recognize the beauty and the power of such passages as these?  Besides Racine's lack of extravagance and bravura, besides his dislike of exaggerated emphasis and far-fetched or fantastic imagery, there is another characteristic of his style to which we are perhaps even more antipathetic--its suppression of detail.  The great majority of poets--especially English poets--produce their most potent effects by the accumulation of details--details which in themselves fascinate us either by their beauty or their curiosity or their supreme appropriateness.  But with details Racine will have nothing to do; he builds up his poetry out of words which are not only absolutely simple but extremely general, so that our minds, failing to find in it the peculiar delights to which we have been accustomed, fall into the error of rejecting it altogether as devoid of significance.  And the error is a grave one, for in truth nothing is more marvelous than the magic with which Racine can conjure up out of a few expressions of the vaguest import a sense of complete and intimate reality.  When Shakespeare wishes to describe a silent night he does so with a single stroke of detail--"not a mouse stirring"!  And Virgil adds touch upon touch of exquisite minutiae:

Cum tacet omnis ager, pecudes, pictaeque volucres,

Quaeque lacus late liquidos, quaque aspera dumis

Rura tenent, etc.

Racine's way is different, but is it less masterly?

--Racine from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

 

The Perils of Polly Polyglot

In the land of the monoglot, the one-language speaker is king.  All the depth, nuance, strange color and stranger ways of thinking that the polyglot takes for granted are lost upon the monoglot who believes, for he knows no other system of thinking in a different language, that his language defines the universe.  Actually, it defines the limits of his ignorance.  One need look no further than last Sunday's New York Times Book Review which, admirably, devoted its entire edition to reviews of works in translation. 

The NYTBR reviewers earnestly tried to elucidate the strange wonders of fiction from foreign (that is, non-English speaking) lands. Unfortunately, if one is a polyglot, one learned precious little about the quality of the translation from these exotic locales--for example, one book reviewed, Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino, as translated by Rebecca Copeland, was originally written  in Japanese, but the reviewer dared not attempt to describe the difficulties of translating from this language.  The reviewer, though, has the uneasy feeling that something is not quite right:

Rebecca Copeland's translation of this bitter tale is respectable, without ever quite dispelling the odd sensation that translated fiction can sometimes produce: that of reading a book with your gloves on.  There are some tonal difficulties, especially in the slang, which gets a little hokey in places, although it's hard to say if the fault lies with Copeland or Kirino, who is a few decades past her school days.  I don't know if Tokyo prostitutes typically address their clients as "Mister," but it's odd to hear beggars saying folksy things like "She was a nice lady too.  Real kind."  The women's language is also uneven, their habitual cool factuality sometimes veering startingly into B-movie melodrama: "So why the hell had I been standing on the corner night after night?"  Kazue reflects at one point (a question we wouldn't mind seeing better answered, too).  Occasionally, words and phrases jump out, suggesting some difficult concept in the original that isn't being captured.  When the narrator contemplates a pair of lovers and observes that "passion hovered in the air between them like a lump," we can only imagine what this could possibly have meant in Japanese.  Although perhaps it meant just that.

Or perhaps not--if the reviewer knew Japanese, she could discern for herself by reading the original whether the "tonal difficulties" lay with the translator (almost certainly the case) or with the author.  But, of course, she can't.  And so, dear reader, we are left with the question, easily answered:  If we picked up a book written in English that made us feel we were "reading a book with [our] gloves on" would we continue to read it?  No, no, a thousand times no.

Not surprisingly, some languages are easier to translate into English than others:  Spanish and Italian being on the near end of this scale for ease of translation, French somewhere closer to the middle, and then a welter of languages, including Chinese and Japanese as well as ancient Greek, on the far end.  One gets no sense of this from the NYTBR's reviews.  Indeed, some of the reviews are absolutely blind to this essential element--probably because the reviewer is ignorant of the original language.  In no case does it appear that the the reviewer actually read the book in both the original language and in the English translation.  Perhaps I'm being overly finicky, but it seems to me that a translation from a foreign language into that of the native speaker's requires not just one but two miracles:  the original work and the translation must each be a literary masterpiece.   Perhaps the paradigmatic example is Baudelaire's French translations of Edgar Allen Poe which did much the influence the future development of French literature.  Perhaps I expect too much.  And now I return you to your all-seeing, un-seeing monoglot life.

April  16,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

At 11:30 Matheson and I drove to Brompton Cemetery to pay our last respects to Major Benton Fletcher's remains.  Deep snow lying, and intense cold.  I wore a thick pair of snow boots over my shoes, but this made my feet so unnaturally gigantic that I kept tripping over my toes, once dangerously near the grave's edge.  At the chapel no one but ourselves, a nephew by marriage, and Roger Quilter, the composer, his only friend, who appeared grief-stricken.  We watched the old man, who had had so many acquaintances lowered lonely into his grave.  We promptly turned and left him to his own devices.  On, the cruelty of it all.  The nephew told me that before 1914 Benton Fletcher's name was to be seen at the end of every list of those attending dinner parties and balls in The Times.  He quarreled with nearly everyone but me, and died unloved, neglected, and mourned by Mr. Quilter.


--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Friday, 5th January 1945

April  13,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Last Saturday Major Benton Fletcher died suddenly at no. 3 Cheyne Walk.  He was fully clothed on his bed on Sunday morning.  I was called.  He was evidently in the process of cooking something on an electric ring.  The saucepan had burnt into an unrecognizable tangle of metal, but did not set the room on fire.  Benton Fletcher was lying hunched up, as if frozen stiff.  Indeed I believe he may have died of the cold, for he would not spend a penny on heating  The neighbor said to me it would only be decent for us to lay him flat.  We tried.  It was impossible to bend the limbs to straighten him.  All the while there were those glazed and staring eyes.  I felt sick, and said to myself, "Give me V-2s every minute rather than a repetition of this experience."

 

As there was absolutely nobody to take matters in hand I had to arrange the post mortem, the funeral, and caretaking of the house.  I went through all his papers.  He had hardly any personal belongings and only very few clothes.  He lived entirely alone, with no one even to clean for him, in great dirt and squalor.  This sort of death is a bourgeois business.  I only hope to die in splendor.  I want my body to be burned immediately on a pyre, not at Golden Green, preferably at Wickhamford, close to the church, and my ashes scattered there.  Then an enormous marble monument, two, three stories in height, to be erected in the nave above our pew, with a lengthy epitaph in complicated Latin, so that the stranger reading it will not make head or tail of whom it commemorates, or what it means.  It must be beautiful.


--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Friday, 5th January 1945

April  11,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The most cursory glance at Johnson's book is enough to show that he judged authors as if they were criminals in the dock, answerable for every infraction of the rules and regulations laid down by the laws of art, which it was his business to administer without fear or favor.  Johnson never inquired what poets were trying to do; he merely aimed at discovering whether what they had done complied with the canons of poetry.  Such a system of criticism was clearly unexceptionable, upon one condition--that the critic was quite certain what the canons of poetry were; but the moment that it became obvious that the only way of arriving at a conclusion upon the subject was by consulting the poets themselves, the whole situation completely changed.  The judge had to bow to the prisoner's ruling.  In other words, the critic discovered that his first duty was, not to criticize, but to understand the object of his criticism.  That is the essential distinction between the school of Johnson and the school of Sainte-Beuve.  No one can doubt the greater width and profundity of the modern method; but it is not without its drawbacks.  An excessive sympathy with one's author brings its own set of errors:  the critic is so happy to explain everything, to show how this was the product of the age, how that was the product of environment, and how the other was the inevitable result of inborn qualities and tastes--that he sometimes forgets to mention whether the work in question has any value.  It is then that one cannot help regretting the Johnsonian black cap.

--The Lives of the Poets from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

 

Frankenstinker


A couple of years ago, the book club I'm in read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.   Most folks liked it, but I found it abominable, not because of the theme or the monster or what not, but because of the writing.   It read like something written by a teenager-oh wait, it was.  Anyway, some pinhead has come up with the foolish thesis that Mary Shelley's husband was actually the writer of this excrescence.  
Percy Bysshe Shelley might have been a lot of things-brute, cad, inept sailor-but a bad writer?  No.  So thank you Germaine Greer for writing a short, sharp piece in The Guardian tearing to shreds this idiotic thesis by pointing out the obvious:  Frankenstein is a poorly written mess that the poet and master wordsmith Shelley could not have written.  Indeed, it belongs to that shadow world of great works that are famous for something other than their literary qualities-Harriet Beecher Stowe's
Uncle Tom's Cabin is another wretched example (I know, I know, these are both by women but there are plenty of male dishonorable mentions in this category, for starters, Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (which gave us the immortal line, "I felt the earth move"), Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (ditto for "fug") and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (which should win some kind of award for the absolute worst ending in all of literary history-if you can read your way through it, then start perusing the phone book for its dramatic qualities)).
 

April  10,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Thus strangely remote is the world of Shakespeare's latest period; and it is peopled, this universe of his invention, with beings equally unreal, with creatures either more or less than human, with fortunate princes and wicked step-mothers, with goblins and spirits, with lost princesses and insufferable kings.  And of course, in this sort of fairy land, it is an essential condition that everything shall end well; the prince and princess are bound to marry and live happily ever afterwards, or the whole story is unnecessary and absurd; and the villains and the goblins must naturally repent and be forgiven.  But it is clear that such happy endings, such conventional closes to fantastic tales, cannot be taken as evidences of serene tranquility on the part of their maker; they merely show that he knew, as well as anyone else, how such stories ought to end.

--Shakespeare's Final Period from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

April  6,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.  On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay.  And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.  The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.  But being paid,--what will compare with it?  The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on on account can a monied man enter heaven.  Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

April  5,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Browne produced his greatest work late in life; for there is nothing in the Religio Medici which reaches the same level of excellence as the last paragraphs of The Garden of Cyrus and the last chapter of Urn Burial.  A long and calm experience of life seems, indeed, to be the background from which his most amazing sentences start out into being.  His strangest phantasies are rich with the spoils of the real world.  His art matured with himself; and who but the most expert of artists could have produced this perfect sentence in The Garden of Cyrus, so well known, and yet so impossible not to quote?

Nor will the sweetest delight of gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours; and though in the bed of Cleopatra, can hardly with any delight raise up the ghost of a rose.

--Sir Thomas Browne from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

 

Orwell, Strachey and Glass, Part II

Although it’s not clear to me exactly in what kind of esteem, if any, George Orwell held Lytton Strachey, or if the two were simply as disparate as chalk and cheese, at least with respect to one crucial aspect of the serious writer’s craft they both held a startlingly similar opinion—so similar that they each used the same metaphor to describe this quality, a metaphor that has become one of the most famous catch-phrases for Orwell even though it was first originated by Strachey.  In Orwell’s justly-famous essay, Why I Write, published in 1946, he remarks:  “[a]nd yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”  This last sentence has become part of the doxology in every creative-writing class about the importance of not allowing one’s prose to interfere with the transmission of one’s ideas.  Strangely enough, though, Strachey made this same point, using almost the same metaphorical figure, in an essay he published almost thirty years earler.

In a book of Strachey’s critical essays, Books & Characters (a work out of print, but luckily, also out of copyright, so available for perusal here), there’s an essay on Henri Beyle, better known as “Stendhal,” the author of such great masterworks as The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma.   In the essay, Strachey tries to explain why Stendhal is not universally beloved in his native France.   Strachey believes it is because Stendhal rejected the nineteenth-century romantic tradition, in which many of his fellow French authors labored, and found its tendency toward bombastic and overblown prose styles an anathema:

To him the whole apparatus of “fine writing”—the emphatic phrase, the picturesque epithet, the rounded rhythm—was anathema.  The charm that such ornaments might bring was in reality only a cloak for loose thinking and feeble observation.  Even the style of the eighteenth century was not quite his ideal; it was too elegant; there was an artificial neatness about the form which imposed itself upon the substance, and degraded it.  No, there was only one example of the perfect style, and that was the Code Napoleon; for there alone everything was subordinated to the exact and complete expression of what was to be said.  A statement of law can have no place for irrelevant beauties, or the vagueness of personal feeling; by its very nature, it must resemble a sheet of plate glass through which every object may be seen with absolute distinctness, in its true shape.  Beyle declared that he was in the habit of reading several paragraphs of the Code every morning after breakfast “pour prendre le ton.”  This again was for long supposed to be one of his litle jokes; but quite lately the searchers among the MSS. at Grenoble have discovered page after page copied out from the Code in Beyle’s handwriting.  No doubt, for that wayward lover of paradoxes, the real joke lay in everybody taking for a joke what he took quite seriously.

If anything, I think Stracheys longer explication regarding the “sheet of plate glass” helps to add a further gloss to Orwell’s telescoped notion.   I don’t think that Orwell was consciously poaching from Strachey—indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if Orwell was completely unaware of this essay.  Rather, this apparent startling coincidence is not so surprising when one considers that great prose stylists—and both Strachey and Orwell, whatever else they might be, are certainly that—would have similar concerns and might encapsulate their notions about those concerns using similar figurative language.   In sum, this is another example of T. S. Eliot’s conversation among traditional writers throughout the ages as described in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent.   We mere mortals should count ourselves lucky if we are able to eavesdrop from time to time as these immortals murmur among themselves.

April  4,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

[Dr. Johnson] swallows the spirit of Browne's writing, but strains at the form.  Browne, he says, was "seduced by a certain obscure romance in the terminology of late Latin writers," he used "adjectives of classical extraction, which are neither necessary nor natural," he forgot that it is better for a writer "to consult women and people who have not studied, than those who are too learnedly oppressed by a knowledge of Latin and Greek."  He should not have said "oneiro-criticism," when he meant the interpretation of dreams, nor "omneity" instead of "oneness"; and he had "no excuse for writing about the 'pensile' gardens of Babylon, when all that is required is expressed by 'hanging.'"  Attacks of this kind--attacks upon the elaboration and classicism of Browne's style--are difficult to reply to, because they must seem, to anyone who holds a contrary opinion, to betray such a total lack of sympathy with the subject as to make argument all but impossible.  To the true Browne enthusiast, indeed, there is something almost shocking about the state of mind which would exchange "pensile" for "hanging," and "asperous" for "rough," and would do away with "digladiation" and "quodlibetically" altogether.  The truth is, that there is a great gulf fixed between those who naturally dislike the ornate, and those who naturally love it.  There is no remedy; and to attempt to ignore this fact only emphasizes it all the more.

--Sir Thomas Browne from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

 

Orwell, Strachey and Glass

The title of this post consists of an incongruent congeries of apparently disparate items.  But please bear with me for there may be a unifying element linking them at the end.  George Orwell was not a particular admirer of the critic, gad-fly historian and Bloomsburian bohemian, Lytton Strachey.   In the first chapter of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his down-at-the-heels protagonist wanders into a book shop and does a bit of browsing:

Those in front of him were prose, a miscellaneous lot. Upwards and downwards they were graded, from clean and expensive at eye-level to cheap and dingy at top and bottom. In all book-shops there goes on a savage Darwinian struggle in which the works of living men gravitate to eye-level and the works of dead men go up or down—down to Gehenna or up to the throne, but always away from any position where they will be noticed. Down in the bottom shelves the ‘classics’, the extinct monsters of the Victorian age, were quietly rotting. Scott, Carlyle, Meredith, Ruskin, Pater, Stevenson—you could hardly read the names upon their broad dowdy backs. In the top shelves, almost out of sight, slept the pudgy biographies of dukes. Below those, saleable still and therefore placed within reach, was ‘religious’ literature—all sects and all creeds, lumped indiscriminately together. The World Beyond, by the author of Spirit Hands Have Touched me. Dean Farrar’s Life of Christ. Jesus the First Rotarian. Father Hilaire Chestnut’s latest book of R. C. propaganda. Religion always sells provided it is soppy enough. Below, exactly at eye-level, was the contemporary stuff. Priestley’s latest. Dinky little books of reprinted ‘middles’. Cheer-up ‘humour’ from Herbert and Knox and Milne. Some highbrow stuff as well. A novel or two by Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Smart pseudo-Strachey predigested biographies. Snooty, refined books on safe painters and safe poets by those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews.

This excerpt contains a number of naughty digs at various then well-known authors.  For example, Father Hilaire Chestnut is a reference to two early-twentieth-century Roman Catholic apologists, Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton.  I think this amalgam is funnier than George Bernard Shaw’s more notorious neologism (although, in this illiterate age, is anything that occurred prior to last week notorious?), the “Chesterbelloc.”  Orwell manages to combine the two names, while at the same time suggesting they are both nuts and sententious ones at that.  Orwell also makes a side-swipe at the “pseudo-Strachey predigested biographies,” an allusion to the progeny begotten by Strachey’s then-popular Eminent Edwardians.   In that book, Strachey pioneered the post-Victorian version of gonzo journalism.  He wrote short, potted biographies of such Victorian saints as Florence Nightingale but in a snarky manner seeking to pull them down a peg or two (or twenty).   Probably the best recent example is Christopher Hitchens’ jeremiad against Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (since this post is meant to conclude by showing the hidden connections between seemingly disparate objects, let me take this opportunity to point out that Hitchens has written a loving paean to George Orwell, Why Orwell Matters).   Ooops, I just noticed this post is starting to get a bit long.  I think I’ll continue these gaseous musings in another entry.