About

Main

Contact

SEARCH

Archives

ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR AUGUST 2005

August  30,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Like Selina, this area is going up in the world. There used to be a third-generation Italian restaurant across the road: it had linen tablecloths and rumpy, strict, black-clad waitresses. It’s now a Burger Den. There is already a Burger Hutch on the street. There is a Burger Shack, too, and a Burger Bower. Fast food equals fast money. I know: I helped. Perhaps there is money-room for several more. Every other window reveals a striplit boutique. How many striplit boutiques does a street need—thirty, forty? There used to be a bookshop here, with the merchandise ranked in alphabetical order and subject sections. No longer. The place didn’t have what it took: market forces. It is now a striplit boutique, and three tough tanned chicks run it with their needly smiles. There used to be a music shop (flutes, guitars, scores). This has become a souvenir hypermarket. There used to be an auction room: now a video club. A kosher delicatessen—a massage parlour. You get the idea? My was is coming up in the world. I’m pleased. No, I am. A shame about the restaurant—I was a regular patron, and Salina liked it there—but the other stuff was never much use to me and I’m glad it’s all gone.
--Money by Martin Amis
 

Ahoy Mates—There’s Books Afoot!

I meant to point this out a few days ago, but better late than never—the NYT ran an entertaining article by William Grimes about recent pirate books and the public’s fascination with all things piratical.  His rollicking romp touches upon all the familiar pilgrimage sites: Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Sabatini’s Captain Blood.  That last one might not be too familiar to today’s readers.  But, a few short decades ago, Sabatini was one of the great stars in the swashbuckling firmament.  As you can see from this photograph, he was a handsome devil, too, with a bit of the terror-of-the-seven-seas glint in his eyes.  Although his books were plot driven, they were not mere compilations of bloody battles and scenes of daring do following the appropriately muttered, “arrrr, me maties.”  Rather, Sabatini was a conscientious craftsman whose work—at least Captain Blood—was character driven without being either too overly romantic or blood ‘n’ guts.  Certainly, his tales are solidly mired in the genre of “adventure fiction,” but what an entertaining mire! Indeed, Sabatini takes on all boarders who find such work too full of plot turns and twists and coincidences, as he points out in an aside in Captain Blood:

An intelligent observation of the facts of human existence will reveal to shallow-minded folk who sneer at the use of coincidence in the arts of fiction and drama that life itself is little more than a series of coincidences. Open the history of the past at whatsoever page you will, and there you shall find coincidence at work bringing about events that the merest chance might have averted. Indeed, coincidence may be defined as the very tool used by Fate to shape the destinies of men and nations.


This declaration is then illustrated by certain events involving our eponymous hero, Captain Blood.  Although this waving of the bloody shirt might be a bit overblown, Sabatini is making an artistic point that is overlooked by the hawkers and panderers of psychological realism:  Life truly is just one durned thing after another.  It is the artist who must necessarily choose, regardless of the novelistic form he’s working in, how to arrange those random bits.  And that choice is necessarily coincidental.  To acknowledge and embrace coincidence adds further artistry to the finished aesthetic object.  Dickens knew that his works were full of coincidence but didn’t care because such coincidence was in service to adding balance and symmetry to the work as a whole (and, dare I say it, a certain richness that is sadly missing from the police-procedural works of psychological realism).  Sabatini knows this and rightly chastises those who not only shrink from the device but disparage it.  Yes, the instrument, like any tool, can be misused.  But, in a master’s hands, it creates works of the highest aesthetic achievement.  We could use more Sabatinis today.  If you’re looking for a bit of light summer reading, you could do much worse than to hoist your colors with Sabatini and Captain Blood.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  29,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

In addition to rape, Selina is frightened of mice, spiders, dogs, toadstools, cancer, mastectomy, chipped mugs, ghost stories, visions, portents, fortune tellers, astrology columns, deep water, fires, floods, thrush, poverty, lightning, ectopic pregnancy, rust, hospitals, driving, swimming, flying and ageing. Like her fat pale lover, she never reads a book. She has no job any more: she has no money. She is either twenty-nine or thirty-one or just possibly thirty-three. She is leaving it all very later, and she knows it. She will have to make her move, and she will have to make it soon.
--Money by Martin Amis
 

August  26,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Yesterday afternoon. I was doing then what I’m doing now. It’s one of my favourite activities—you might even call it a hobby. I was lying on the bed and drinking cocktails and watching television, all at the same time . . . Television is cretinizing me—I can feel it. Soon I’ll be like the TV artists. You know the people I mean. Girls who subliminally model themselves on kid-show presenters, full of faulty melody and joy, Melody and Joy. Men whose manners show newscaster interference, soap stains, film smears. Or the cretinized, those who talk on buses and streets as if TV were real, who call up networks with strange questions, stranger demands . . . If you lose your rug, you can get a false one. It you lose your laugh, you can get a false one. I you lose your mind, you can get a false one.
--Money by Martin Amis
 

Sterne’s Literary Forefathers

I have remarked before on how the greatest literary writers seem to know one another—as if each belongs to a very exclusive club and can recognize the other members by little pieces of ribbon or emblematic badges.  And now for a completely different metaphor.  I’ve called this phenomena "the deep calling to the deep," as if, within the vast depths of literature, there are indeed strange, leviathans, great literary monsters which vibrate and ripple through the medium, gobbling up schools of stringy kelp-writers and literakins.  When two of these behemoths meet, they call out to one another, sending forth weird pulsations, signals of recognition.

Lawrence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, pays homage to three literary monsters: Shakespeare, Cervantes and Rabelais.  Shakespeare, being the greatest beast of them all, receives the greatest homage:  One of Sterne’s characters, the Reverend Yorick, is named after a minor character from Hamlet (alas, poor Yorick, one glimpses only the top of him in that play).  Rabelais is mentioned several times in Tristram Shandy.  Cervantes, though, and his monumental comic creations, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, appear throughout Tristram Shandy.

Fittingly, the first reference to Cervantes concerns neither of the dynamic duo, but rather Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante.  Yorick rides upon a similar nag because, as he has learned from past experience, when he owned a decent steed, everyone in the parish sought to borrow it on an emergency (usually a childbirth), and, soon enough, wore it down to tatters fit for glue.  This cycle accelerated when a midwife moved into the parish, hence the nag:

Be it known then, that, for about five years before the date of the midwife’s licence, of which you had so circumstantial an account,--the parson we have to do with had mad himself a country-talk by a breach of all decorum, which he had committed against himself, his station, and his office;--and that was in never appearing better, or otherwise mounted, than upon a lean, sorry, jack-ass of a horse, value about one pound fifteen shillings; who, to shorten all description of him, was full brother to Rosinante, as far as similitude congenial could make him; for he answered his description to a hair-breadth in every thing,--except that I do not remember ‘tis any where said, that Rosinante was broken-winded; and that, moreover, Rosinante, as is the happiness of most Spanish horses, fat or lean,--was undoubtedly a horse at all points.

I know very well that the Hero’s horse was a horse of chaste deportment which may have given grounds for the contrary opinion; But it is as certain at the same time, that Rosinante’s continency (as may be demonstrated from the adventure of the Yanguesian http://www.viacorp.com/rocinante-in-need.html carriers) proceeded from no bodily defect or cause whatsoever, but from the temperance and orderly current of his blood.—And let me tell you, Madam, there is a great deal of very good chastity in the world, in behalf of which you could not say more for your life.

Let that be as it may, as my purpose is to do exact justice to every creature brought upon the stage of this dramatic work,--I could not stifle this distinction in favour of Don Quixote’s horse;--in all other points, the parson’s horse, I say, was just such another,--for he was as lean, and as lank, and as sorry a jade, as Humility herself could have bestrided.

Let us pause now for a moment of silence and contemplate the continency and chastity of Rocinante.  Of course, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy forgets that, although Rocinante did show a bold heart with respect to the Yanguesian carriers, they were chasing after him for attempting to disport with their lady ponies—not exactly an example of Rocinante’s continency and “very good chastity.”  Shandy, though, admires Yorick for choosing to ride on a spiritless, broken-winded nag, rather than having to give offense to his parishioners by refusing to loan them his horse:

I have the highest idea of the spiritual and refined sentiments of this reverend gentleman, from this single stroke in his character, which I think comes up to any of the honest refinements of the peerless knight of La Mancha, whom, by the bye, with all his follies, I love more, and would actually have gone farther to have paid a visit to, than the greatest hero of antiquity.

Well said, fair Shandy, and, I suspect, fair Sterne.  For those of you looking to reacquaint yourselves with the Man of La Mancha, there is a very recent translation  of Don Quixote by Edith Grossman which I highly recommend (just ignore Harold Bloom’s wrong-headed introduction where he laughably maintains that this is the saddest of books—something only a person in desperate need of Prozac could opine).  I pay Grossman the highest compliment:  Her translation reads as if Cervantes wrote in elegant English (an idiosyncratic English, to be sure, but no more idiosyncratic than fair Sterne’s).

 I’m thinking about re-reading Don Quixote in Tobias Smollett’s translation, which is supposed to be the funniest.  Smollett, like Sterne, is one of those great comic artists from the eighteenth century.  What, you have not hear of Smollett?  Hmmm, probably another candidate for my tomb of unforgivably unknown authors (yes, yes, I realize I have not done anything with it yet, but it’s a very large tomb and requires lots of . . . contemplation . . . and scotch).  Anyway, read Smollett’s first comic novel, Roderick Ransom, and then report back to me about the War of Jenkin’s Ear.  And don't come back on Rocinante’s randy shanks, neither.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  25,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Me, I spent an improving four hours on Forty-Second Street, dividing my time between a space-game arcade and the basement gogo bar next door. In the arcade the proletarian ghosts of the New York night, these darkness-worshippers, their terrified faces reflected in the screens, stand hunched over their controls. They look like human forms of mutant moles and bats, hooked on the radar, rumble and wow of these stocky new robots who play with you if you give them money. They’ll talk too, for a price. Launch Mission, Circuit Completed, Firestorm, Flashpoint, Timewarp, Crackup, Blackout! The kids, tramps and loners in here, they are the mineshaft spirits of the new age. Their grandparents must have worked underground. I know mine did. In the gogo bar men and women are eternally ranged against each other, kept apart by a wall of drink, a moat or poison, alone which mad matrons and bad bouncers troll.
--Money by Martin Amis
 

August  23,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘You want another scotch?’ said the matron behind the bar—the old dame with her waxed hair and scrapey voice. The body-stocking or tutu she wore was an unfriendly dull brown or caramel colour. It spoke of spinal supports, hernias.
‘Yeah,’ I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.
--Money by Martin Amis

 

Vincent Price's Buttonholes

Laurence Sterne in his The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman let’s you know from the get go that his book is not concerned with the mundane, limited, cramped view of man as reflected in dominant genre of “serious” fiction, which I tend to refer to as “psychological realism.”  Admittedly, this fetish seems to unite a goodly portion of the litbloggers out there, as reflected in their holier-than-thou musings about how it is so, so much more superior than the cardboard cut-outs that masquerade as little more than ciphers for their masters’ voices.  No disagreeing with that distinction—but it’s all relative: literary puppeteer cardboard cut-outs are better than most genre fiction which is better than most young adult fiction which is better than the bottom-dwelling kiddie books, and so on down to the first organism to crawl out of the protozoa soup—Norman Mailer (just kidding, sort of).

This is the sort of middle-brow thinking that I won’t castigate with a thorough thrashing, maybe just with ten lashes upon the back and shoulders, since the demise of the middle-brow culture has had the disastrous effect of merging the high-brow and low-brow (although, as I will argue, apparently paradoxically,--but, then again, I do contain multitudes . . . of scotch, that it--that this merger is the surest path to immortality as it better reflects man “in the round” than the grey, vapid vaporings of psychological realism).  When I refer to a “merger,” I mean that the low-brow co-opts the high-brow which submerges into it and disappears with nary a trace.  So, I come not to bury the middle-brow but to praise it, as Terry Teachout does in an entertaining opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal which answers the burning question: What does Vincent Prices, Sears Roebuck and Picasso have in common?

Anyway, neither Vincent Price, Sears Roebuck nor Picasso have much in common with Tristram Shandy, other than I stitched them into this post which is supposed to be about Sterne’s view of humanity—how Shandean of me!  It does seem to me that the litblog is the humble descendant of this rollicking collection of eighteenth century posts.  Sure, there’s supposed to be some kind of thread holding every thing together but my eyesight ain’t what it used to be and darned if I can find it (thread, darn—oh, that’s a killer).  Anyway, let’s end with Sterne’s view of man, or at least of Tristram Shandy at his very beginning before being Tristramized (I promise, my post on buttonholes will be delivered forthwith, it’s just that no one has posted on the literary merits of buttonholes before and it’s take time to craft it):

The Homunculus, Sir, in however low and ludicrous a light he may appear, in this age of levity [N.B.: I mis-typed “anxiety” here, boy, talk about showing my “age”], to the eye of folly or prejudice;--to the eye of reason in scientific research, he stands confessed—a Being guarded and circumscribed with rights.---The minutest philosophers, who, by the bye, have the most enlarged understandings, (their souls being inversely as their enquiries) shew us incontestably, that the Homunculus is created by the same hand,--engendered in the same course of nature,--endowed with the same locomotive powers and faculties with us:--That he consists as we do, of skin, hair, fat, flesh, veins, arteries, ligaments, nerves, cartilages, ones, marrow, brains, glands, genitals, humours, and articulations;--is a Being of as much activity,--and, in all senses of the word, as much and as truly our fellow-creature as my Lord Chancellor of England.—He may be benefited,--he may be injured,--he may obtain redress;--in a word, he has all the claims and rights of humanity, which Tully, Puffendorf, or the best ethic writers allow to arise out of that state and relation.

Now, where is this going?  To buttonholes, of course.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  22,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I have now had lunch (lentil soup, followed by chipolata sausages served with boiled onions and apples stewed in tea, then dried apricots and shortcake biscuits: a light Beaujolais) and I feel better. (Fresh apricots are best of course, but the dried kind, soaked for twenty-four hours and then well drained, make a heavenly accompaniment for any sort of mildly sweet biscuit or cake. They are especially good with anything made of almonds, and thus consort happily with red wine. I am not a great friend of your peach, but I suspect the apricot is the king of fruit.)
--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

 

Stop the Presses: Cow Complains of Eating Grass

In this week’s back-page essay of the New York Times Book Review, in an apparent attempt to turn this space into the equivalent of Grumpy Old Bookmen, Charles Taylor, in a piece not cleverly titled, Hell Is Other Customers (No, dear Charles, Hell Is Other People Who Make Arch References to Sartre—there’s no exit from that nausea), complains about going to the two über-chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, and finding, horrors!, a bunch of ill-mannered customers lounging about the place.  He’s there, of course, just to browse, but can’t do so for all the other folks spread out on the floor blocking his view of the shelves.

Oh the humanity!  Do not the clouds weep as our good Charles of fair hair and pure mind dallies about the shelves, mooning for his lost love of browsing, surrounded, as he is, by the beetle-browed legions of inconsiderate shop-slackers.  It’s a scene out of the trenches from the Great War with bodies scattered everywhere and one cannot walk without fear of desecrating their all too-, too-human flesh.  No, wait, it’s the arctic with the seals having congregated pell-mell upon the lip of a mighty iceberg; they are so tightly packed that one cannot see an inch of space between their mighty, heaving, sacks of blubber.  Hmmm, actually, they are cows, yes, bovine bookaholics, sunning themselves in the noon-day sun, contentedly sipping their Starbucks triple lattes, errr, munching their cuds.  I’ve got it—they’re a bunch of mixed metaphors, falling fast and furious upon the page in a line of tired clichés like weary travelers seeking an inn but being turned away, doomed forever to wander the halls of some mega-bookstore, desperately seeking a seat.

Here’s a thought, Charles my lad, perhaps Barnes & Noble and Borders want a bunch of folks to linger in their stores and do not wish to discourage people from stretching out horizontally as they peruse and—hopefully, perhaps, forlornly—pay $28.95 to acquire Crystal Therapy for the Fat Cat.  If you’re a serious book buyer, what are you doing in those two places?  I don’t think I’ve purchased a book in either establishment—other than at a steep discount off the bargain shelves—in years.  If I want to buy a new book, I go on-line and get it for at least 30% off.  Why would I buy a new book at a real book store?  Oh, that’s right, to chew my cud, errr, drink my Starbucks triple latte and snuggle up to that interesting horizontal potential customer in the fitness books aisle.  Browse, indeed; you’re not fooling me young Charles.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  20,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

For lunch, I may say, I age and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London.) Green peppers would have been a happy addition only the village shop (about two miles pleasant walk) could not provide them. (No one delivers to far-off Shruff End, so I fetch everything, including milk, from the village.) Then bananas and cream with white sugar. (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin.) Then hard water-biscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheeses are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest ‘cellar’. I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly) and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading. Indeed, eating is so pleasant one should even try to suppress thought. Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.
--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  19,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I knew his account of his own experience was not rigorously objective, what account is? Any version of as dense a weave of events and feelings and intentions and effects as a life will inevitably be flawed, its stresses and emphases reflecting not the truth—as if there were such a thing—but shapes of bias and denial, rather, crafted by memory in the service of the ego.
--Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath
 

Confessions of a Recovering Comicaholic

MSNBC, of all places, has an interesting article about the literary respectability of comic books, which is a bit like running an article about how heroin is a popular food substitute.  And now for my dark and scary confession—yes, readers, for many years I was a comicaholic.  How bad was my addiction?  How ‘bout I had a bulk discount from the local comic-book store with a regular subscription to numerous titles.  On the weekends, I’d have my dad drive me to the local comic-book conventions so I could flip through endless boxes of comics, trying to complete some run of Captain America and the Falcon or Kamandi (I was a big Jack Kirby fan—don’t ask).  Indeed, I still have boxes, and boxes, and more boxes of comic books, each lovingly encapsulated in its own mylar envelope, stashed away in the dark bowels of some storage facility.  So, why was I so fascinated by comic books?  Go back and look at that Jack Kirby link again—and, if that’s not enough, go here.

Jack “King” Kirby was one of those amazing self-taught outsider artists who, having no concept of a received tradition, creates his own.  Born Jacob Kurtzberg in New York City in 1917, he evinced a talent for drawing early on and was going to attend a prestigious drawing school, but, like most everyone else’s dreams, those, too, were blighted by the Great Depression.  He persevered, though, and wound up free-lancing for comic books. This led to his eventual reworking of that medium (he would both draw the panels and write the story—an incredible surfeit of talent).  He created or co-created (with Stan Lee) over 400 characters including the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Spider Man.  At one point, Jack Kirby was doing eight to 10 comics a month (both drawings and story).  That prodigious output is simply mind-boggling.  You can check out his full story here.

So, there you go, Jack Kirby—the King of Comics—was also, basically, the crack cocaine of comics.  His was a mighty difficult habit to break.  I admit, I’ll still pick up a title from to time by Chris Ware (author of the Acme Novelty Library) or Dan Clowes (author of Ghost World).  And I always have to guard against relapse.  But no one else would give you the jitters like Jack.  He died back in the early ‘90s—along with my addiction.  Why?  Come closer.  No, a little bit closer.  Closer, still . . . .

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  18,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

A more serious danger in this vagueness is that it may come very near to nonsense, as it sometimes does with Poe. In his case we can almost see what happens. His discontent with the actual world was so great that in his desire for escape he half visualized an order of things which is beyond understanding. In it the laws of existence are annihilated, and even the bondage of words is broken by making them serve a new purpose of hints and echoes. What Poe did shyly and solemnly, Edward Lear did with inspired confidence. Like Poe, he was a prey to melancholy and a haunting sense of failure, and, like Poe, he transmuted his misery into melodies in which the music of words is much more important than their sense. He is a master of glowing rhythms. His nonsense poems bewitch the ear, and compared with him even Lewis Carroll has no more than a logical or mathematical elegance. Nor are Lear’s subjects entirely alien to a Romantic taste. He too has a predilection for remote places and unusual happenings, even something like Wordsworth’s interest in a primitive simplicity of life. Are not most elements of Romantic poetry to be found in the strange situation of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò?


On the coast of Coromandel
          Where the early pumpkins blow,
                    In the middle of the woods
          Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Two old chairs and half a candle,--
One old jug without a handle,__
          These were all the worldly goods,
          In the middle of the woods,
          These were all the worldly goods
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,
Of the Yonghy-Bongy-Bò.
--The Romantic Imagination by C. M. Bowra


 The Mandarin Nods . . . And Awakens, Part IV

We are now entering the heart of darkness:  How does an artist that is already a part of the literary tradition—someone like Wilkie Collins or Nathaniel Hawthorne—advance further into the holy of holies to join the inner circle of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton?  C. M. Bowra, in The Romantic Imagination, has been analyzing the case of Swinburne and his play, Atalanta and Meleager.  He points out why this is a great artistic work of the first order.  But it’s not a world-shattering masterpiece.  Why?  C. M. Bowra explains all:

The play is constructed with hard thought, but it touches us at two levels, the one almost purely musical, the other largely intellectual.  The music and the meaning are not merged into a single impression.  When we have responded to the sound and to the evocative quality of the words, we look for the meaning, but the two activities seldom coincide.  Take, for instance, the lines spoken by the dying Meleager to his mother:


But thou, O mother,
          The dreamer of dreams,
Wilt thou bring forth another
          To feel the suns’ beams
When I move among shadows a shadow, and wail by impassable
          streams?


The words are straight to the point:  is indeed of dreamer of dreams. And the sentiment is undeniably Greek in its sense of the shadowy life which belongs to the dead.  The lines are no less undeniably poetry of a high order.  They haunt the memory, and long familiarity with them does not dim their splendour. but are they tragic or even human?  Does the emotion in them have any close connection with the emotions of a dying man?  I doubt it.  I feel rather that they are poetry of a special kind, in which the actual experience is left behind and replaced by something distilled from it, by the special sweetness which lurks in all truly tragic poetry and is here separated from the fuller emotions which create it.  It is too sweet to be distressing, and yet it is none the less poetry.
*           *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
This attitude does not create the highest kind of poetry.  In Sophocles or Dante or Shakespeare the meaning of words and their emotional power are perfectly blended with their evocative magic, and the result is a single impression in which each element gains from the others.  But what Swinburne gives is undeniably poetry and nothing else, and it was the right kind of poetry for him to write.  He trained himself less on life than on books, and he lacked that kind of creative temperament which lives on its own resources and has a peculiarly individual vision of existence.  His human range was limited, and though it inspired his best work, he could not but supplement it with what he gained from poetry not his own.  In his love of poetry he knew that what pleased him most, what seemed essential and indispensable, lay in certain musical effects of sound which give those mysterious, magical hints that are poetry’s central function.  Swinburne was not a Symbolist, but he resembled the Symbolists in his concentration on this special aspect of his art.  The events which he depicts in his drama make a special kind of appeal, not intellectual nor even emotional, but purely poetical.  They belong to a world of the imagination in which experience is refined and distilled and passes into a “condition of music.”

Poetry as a “condition of music”?—child, wash that mouth out with soap!  It’s hard to believe that this passage was written as late as 1949.  It serves as a handy water-line for the flood that has since completely demolished any notion that poetry should, somehow, be, well, poetical.  You mean reciting the lines should have some kind of poetry?  That they should be pleasing to the ear?  Here’s a poem, by Jill Osier, from the June issue of Poetry:


Dear
I did not walk down to the lake today.
Maybe I should have, though if you leave
a pail of rainwater sitting in the yard,
it gives an answer to most things. Emptied,
it’s metal asking questions. Your face appears
undisturbed if you approach it carefully.
No one at the lake would have known me.
I don’t think you can approach a lake carefully,
or I don’t think we ever approach what we mean
to a lake.


Now, I’m not picking on Jill Osier, whoever that is.  She is just one of the faceless thousands of modern poets who have abjured any musical effects in their poetry. Nor am I particularly interested in the theoretical scaffolding behind this move—I just find it unmoving.  And given that “all flesh is grass,” I’d rather graze on the sunny slopes of musicality.  So what do I mean by this elusive quality?  Here’s a poem from Paul Groves in the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, to close out this mordant post on a high note:


Kington Encounter
Having paid a mystic a month before
to assess my personality
using tarot cards, and a bowl of water
by which to scry futurity,
I was taken aback at The Burton Hotel
when a Scotsman guarding his pint
was able, without any clue, to tell
me about myself to the point

of uncanniness. Such eldritch power
raised the hairs on my nape, and sent
a shudder from head to toe. Asked where
he obtained this skill, he bent
forward and tapped the side of his nose
in a close, conspiratorial pose.

Now read both poems aloud over and over again; and if you still can’t tell the difference in musical effects, curse the high priests of modern poesy who have given you a tin ear and get thee to a Shakespearean nunnery!

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  17,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Vera once told me her philosophy of life, this was in the old days. When in doubt, she said, the only thing worth asking for is more. More?  Just more. Whatever’s on offer. The Philosophy of More, she called it.
--Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath


The Mandarin Nods . . . And Awakens, Part III

We have been meditating on the literary use and abuse of novelty using C. M. Bowra’s chapter on Swinburne’s Atalanta and Meleager from his The Romantic Imagination as our jumping off point.  As we all know, living in these end times, the abuse of novelty is all around us.  I hesitate to focus on one of my favorite authors, seeing as how he gets critically beaten up on a regular basis anyway, but it’s such a good example—Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow.  The book is written in reverse chronological order, get it?  That might be interesting if it somehow proved enlightening as to peeling back the thought processes of the protagonist to show how the personality in old age, with its mental furniture of ideas and prejudices, came to be formed.  Nope. I nstead, it relies on good ol’ sensationalism.  The protagonist, it turns out, was a Nazi death camp doctor.  Wow, no one has thought of writing a plot based on that idea—well, no one’s thought of writing it in reverse, anyway.  Yawn.  So, how can Swinburne, having deliberately picked the classical tragedy, an ancient art form that one would think has longed been mined to the last tailing, come up with something new?  Again, I turn the blog over to the estimable C. M. Bowra:

Swinburne needed a striking manner to give life to his antique theme. Just as Milton evolved his most advanced effects of language and metre for Samson Agonistes, so Swinburne felt the need of a great effort to give life to Atalanta.  Not only was he dealing with a remote world: he was restricted to a narrow scope in which every word must tell.  And more than this: to give a full poetry to the stiff conventions of Greek drama, he had to keep his language unusually lively and exhilarating.  Otherwise the form would stifle the words, as it tends to do in Arnold’s Merope.  So the first effect at which Swinburne aims, consciously or unconsciously, is surprise.  His language provokes unexpected shocks.  He brings together things which are not usually associated and yet are rightly associated by him.  So when his Huntsman addresses the dawn,


O fair-faced sun, killing the stars and dews
And dreams and desolation of the night,


stars, dews, dreams, and desolation do not belong to a single order of things, and their combination is startling; but Swinburne means to startle, to make us look with fresh eyes at the sunrise and see what it means to him and his Huntsman.  Again, in the second choral song, he writes:


Before the beginning of years
          There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
          Grief, with a glass that ran.


The critics have complained that he would have been wiser to write:


Grief, with a gift of tears,
          Time, with a glass that ran.


But Swinburne did not do this.  It is too obvious.  He wishes to surprise, to say something unexpected, and he is justified because it is perfectly true that time brings tears and that grief devours our days.  He rises beyond the commonplace to something else, and his way of doing it is to use words and ideas in unexpected combinations, so that we keep awake and move from shock to delighted shock.
*           *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
A style so formed has a peculiar quality. In some ways it reads like a translation from a foreign tongue, though it is no tongue known to man. And this strangeness is essential to it.  It gives that distance between the poet and his subject which Swinburne needs.  He had to avoid the domestic elegance which was becoming the current speech of Victorian verse and had recently made a popular appearance in Enoch Arden.  The origin’s of Swinburne’s language may be traced in his reading of foreign tongues, but his use of it was something special.  It helps him to keep his readers continually startled and delighted by each new combination of words.  It succeeds because Swinburne’s genius for words enabled to him to keep them fresh and lively.  This was his way of creating a grand style, and though his language is very different from Milton’s, it has at least this in common: it is a highly artificial creation, with its own rules and manners, its own character and resonance.  The words are real words, drawn from the rich accumulations of English poetry, but they are so used that they have an air of remoteness, even of unreality.  Swinburne’s style is both strange and extremely personal.

This insight is one that has been made, mutatis mutandis, with respect to those two great titans, Conrad and Nabokov, who were native Polish and Russian speakers, respectively.  Each had to learn English as an adult, which resulted in a strange prose that, as pointed out by Bowra, “reads like a translation from a foreign tongue.”  But not an unpleasing translation.  On the contrary, each reads like the greatest translation ever made (I know that’s grammatically incoherent—but there are more ideas in heaven and earth, than are dreamed of in Mrs. Grundy’s grammar book).  This innate strangeness, the masterful use of the English language with the shadow of a very different and alien grammatical structure behind it, adds “shock to delighted shock.”  But, this new language alone does not make the authors Conrad and Nabokov two of a handful of great, lasting writers.  More than style is needed to achieve that goal.  How does one journey from the admittedly high peak of lasting survival to the even greater peak of being, as T. S. Eliot would put it, an individual talent in a lasting tradition?  In other words, how does one go from being a Swinburne, a Dreiser, a Hemmingway to becoming a Chaucer, a Shakespeare, a Milton?  Let’s wait to the next—and, I promise, last—entry to answer that important question.
 

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  16,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe
 

It is one of the grimmer aspects of growing old, how profoundly one experiences loss. One no longer has the confidence that whatever is lost will be replaced, nor much faith in one’s ability to attract a replacement. Loss begins to seem absolute, and creates a dismay that smacks of death.
--Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath
 

The Mandarin Nods . . . And Awakens, Part II
Ezra Pound uttered one of the great curses/blessings of the twentieth century, his motto: “Make it new.”  So far, it’s been more of a curse—as any cursory visit to an art museum or review of the mumbled mutterings of the hermetical humanities will attest.  But, as C. M. Bowra shows in The Romantic Imagination, Swinburne, pre-Pound, did just that, in a way that was not adolescent in the sense of novelty for novelty’s sake or the thrill of SENSATION!  Rather, and this is the tricky part, Swinburne took something very old and infused it with the modern, so that the old and new melded together into a wondrous whole.  It would be the equivalent of someone today taking the genre of the medieval miracle play and producing a faithful replica of the form but one that still spoke to today’s audience while respecting the values of the medieval society from which it sprung (it’s upon this last part that modern playwrights would stumble—they’d make George W. Bush the Lucifer and Tony Blair, I guess, would be his minor henchman, Beelzebub, yawn).  But imagine a play that dramatized liturgical concerns in a modern way—such a production would be very strange, very creepy and very provocative, just like Atalanta and Meleager.  Let’s let Bowra explain this point in a much more profound manner:

The skill with which Swinburne reproduces Greek ideas would not in itself be enough to create a poem. Indeed, the more faithful a modern poet is to an ancient outlook when he copies its form, the greater is the danger that his work will be no more than a pastiche. But Atalanta is no pastiche. It is poetry which catches even those who know no Greek and are not much interested in Greek ideas. And much of this success comes from the fact that Swinburne was able to put into it some things which he enjoyed in his own experience and not through his admiration of other poets.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *
The great qualities of Atalanta are characteristic of Swinburne at his best, in his love of brave actions and his tender attachment to the sanctities of home. These inspire his best poetry and provide the cores of his drama. In choosing his myth he showed a sure insight; for it was well suited to his personal tastes. In Althaea he had a theme which appealed to his understanding of deep affections and primitive loyalties. In the Calydonian boarhunt, in the heroic Meleager, in


Arcadian Atalanta snowy-souled,


he had subjects very near his heart. They gave him an opportunity to show his love of physical prowess and adventurous spirits. His hero and heroine, Meleager and Atalanta, the warrior lover and the virgin huntress, stand apart in their unlikeness to other men and women. In their truth to themselves they belong to that class of simple, direct people whom Swinburne liked both in literature and in life. The poetry of Atalanta is as good as it is because the story appealed to something deeper in Swinburne than his admiration for the Greek tragedians. That is why Atalanta is not an imitation but stands in its own right as a true work of art.

So, how does Swinburne, using material that has such a strong attraction for him, turn the dusty bones of this archaic form into vibrant, new life?  For, as our adolescent artists of today will learn in good time as their works are forgotten, simply creating novelty for its own sake does not guarantee survival.  Survival, rather, is better built upon the sturdy foundation of that structure which is old and has already weathered the test of time, but which today's artist may inhabit and make his own—to make it new.  In terms of longevity, it is much easier to renovate a castle of granite that has survived the centuries than to build a cottage, no matter how novel, of straw and mud.  Let’s wait until the next post to learn how Swinburne achieves this effect.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  15,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The detective laughed out loud when Theo asked him whether he and his father had committed any crime in throwing Baxter down the stairs.
He touched Baxter with the tip of his shoe. “I doubt if he’ll be making a complaint. And we certainly won’t be.”
--Saturday by Ian McEwan


[N.B.: Being from Texas, I found this passage the biggest culture shock in the book. Baxter has just burglarized Henry Perowne’s residence with him and his family in it, threatened to kill Perowne’s wife and rape his daughter; and there’s still some concern that Henry Perowne and his son, Theo, might wind up in jail for acting in self-defense in their own home?  No wonder England has the highest property-crime statistics in the known universe.]
 

Slouching Toward Bret

Just last post, I made the crack that we have less than zero middle-aged literary luminaries compared to the Brits across the puddle. As proof, I cited how everyone here is absolutely ga-ga over that wastrel, Bret Easton Ellis.  Sure enough, to good folks at the New York Times Book Review, obliged me by featuring him on the cover of the latest issue.  Ellis receives the compliment of having his latest slop, Lunar Park, reviewed by a supposedly heavy-weight critic, A. O. Scott (let’s hope Scott was dragooned into this assignment, kicking and screaming for mercy).

Scott’s long, meandering review is not particularly complimentary—as it makes fun of Ellis’s conceit of using as a main character in Lunar Park a writer named “Bret Easton Ellis.”  Of course, Bret Easton Ellis coyly refrains from telling us how much of “Bret Easton Ellis” is actually based on Bret Easton Ellis.  Yawn.  This conceit has already been done with much more elan by Martin Amis in his wonderful book, Money, which is an obvious influence on Bret Easton Ellis (Amis had the good sense, though, to downplay the character “Martin Amis” and thereby keeping him on the periphery of the book).  Though so far, from what I’ve read, no critic has yet pointed out this connection.

Why hasn’t anyone noticed that “Bret Easton Ellis” is just a third-rate “Martin Amis” (who ain’t what he used to be)?  Well, it’s just another sign that criticism in this country has completely wandered off the Edmund Wilson reservation where it used to be thought that the act of criticism necessarily meant to compare and contrast one work with another.  That actually entailed—horrors—having to read a bunch of books and remembering their salient details so that a new work could be analyzed in a meaningful way in relation to the ones that had come before it.  That does sound like a lot of tedious work, though, don’t it?  It means one must really enjoy books qua books, and not see them as merely a means to an end—a fat paycheck and invitations to cocktail parties for the various “hot” authors who would dutifully slather you with royal jelly before devouring you.  Isn’t it just a lot easier to write a long plot summary with a few witty asides thrown in and leave it at that?  Apparently, A. O. Scott and his ilk think so.

A. O. Scott does make one telling point: “Having grown up (or refused to grow up) in the public eye, Ellis, like Norman Mailer before him, has developed an acute sensitivity to the public’s volatile, ambivalent relationship to celebrity, and he uses it to solicit both our disgust and envy.”  In other words, if you can’t write, act . . . up. Long-time readers of this blog know that I have a special place in my heart for Norman Mailer and have been mystified by the accolades he is showered with as a matter of due course.  Scott’s observation, though, helps to cut through a lot of this obfuscation.  Mailer is praised not as Mailer qua Writer but as Mailer qua Mailer. And once Mailer goes, so, too, goes the qua.  Enjoy your celebrity now boys, for celebrity may be sweet, but it necessarily depends on having a celeb, and once that’s gone, so is the celebrity.  Nothing much left afterwards but a few rotting review notices and the fading memories of one’s friends (“Wasn’t Norman such a cut-up at that party?”).  Oh, and as for Ellis, he doesn’t even rank as high as Mailer—he just writes about lurid violence, but doesn’t have the gumption to actually get his fingers bloody.  What a sorry state our literature is in when we rate our writers by how much blood, not ink, they’re able to spill.  Calgon, take me away!
 

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  12,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain’s fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of a instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious? He can’t begin to imagine a satisfactory account, but he know it will come, the secret will be revealed—over decades, as long as the scientists and the institutions remain in place, the explanations will refine themselves into an irrefutable truth about consciousness. It’s already happening, the work is being done in laboratories not far from this theatre, and the journey will be completed, Henry’s certain of it. That’s the only kind of faith he has. There’s grandeur in this view of life.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

The Man Booker Longlist Announced: Rule Britannia!
BBC News reports that the longlist has just been released for the Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary prize for the Brits. Here’s the longlist:


• Tash Aw - The Harmony Silk Factory
• John Banville - The Sea
• Julian Barnes - Arthur & George
• Sebastian Barry - A Long Long Way
• JM Coetzee - Slow Man
• Rachel Cusk - In the Fold
• Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go
• Dan Jacobson - All For Love
• Marina Lewycka - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
• Hilary Mantel - Beyond Black
• Ian McEwan - Saturday
• James Meek - The People's Act of Love
• Salman Rushdie - Shalimar the Clown
• Ali Smith - The Accidental
• Zadie Smith - On Beauty
• Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness
• William Wall - This Is The Country

What’s remarkable about this selection is not only that it includes so many very fine authors and their works, but also that it omits a few other great authors and their books in the bargain (well, you can’t dragnet everyone) such as V. S. Naipaul’s Magic Seeds and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Yet, even with those luminaries excluded, the list still includes the likes of John Banville (whose latest work, The Sea, won’t be published in this provincial backwater until 2006—I’m very tempted to order it now from the U.K.), Julian Barnes, J. M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith (let’s hear it for the Smiths!).

Now, how do I say this next remark in a polite manner for our American readers? Oh well, let’s just blurt it out:  Your dog’s dead—oh, so, sorry—I meant to say that your literary scene is dead.  Literally.  Saul Bellow just died.  Tom Wolfe, Phillip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates are way past 70 (not to mention the litterateur manqués John Updike and Norman Mailer).  Basically, all you’ve got whose in the same age range as the British authors I just listed is David Foster Wallace, God bless him.  Oh, and his recent book, Oblivion, sure got a lot of press.  It just flew off the shelves—right into the remainder bin (I can hear it being pulped right now, by gum).  Instead, our press is fixated on the poor Mad-magazine reader’s version of Martin Amis, Brett Easton Ellis What, me worry?

Yeah, me worry, a lot.  Where is the comparable crop of younger—and, heck, by younger, I just mean 60 and under—crop of American authors?  It looks to me, like the crop has been infested by dry-rot (creative writing seminars), boll weevils (genre slumming) and drought (nuttin’ to say but happy to say it).  I’ll blog later on a few of these plagues—genre slumming, in particular, is a serious problem—even the likes of JCO is guilty of it (plus, the New Yorker is starting to praise one of the biggest boll weevils of them all, Stephen King, as a great writer—you’ve definitely lost your bearings when you can’t tell the parasite from the corn; go here for an interesting take on exactly why Stephen King needs to be crop dusted).  Basically, though, our authors have the same problem as Cool Hand Luke: “Well, what we got here is a failure to communicate.”

But there’s a surfeit of British authors who have no such failure.  One that I didn’t mention above who I’m happy to see on the list is Sebastian Barry with his book, A Long, Long Way.  You might have noticed that for the last few weeks or so it has been quietly listed at the top of my recommended reads list.  I haven’t blogged on it yet, because I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.  This is a book that bears repeated readings.  Barry, too, is a very gifted writer whose style reminds me of Banville’s—no surprise, they’re both from Ireland.  Barry is a great, great up-and-coming writer.  If you’re looking for an obscure, unknown author who is both enjoyable to read and a worthy “secret obsession” for the years to come—get off my blog, zip over to Amazon and pick up Barry’s book, dagnabbit.  He’s published three or four other books that you can get from Abebooks for practically nothing—yep, I’ve already beaten you to the punch on that one.  Enjoy.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  11,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. It’s a little like sex, in that he feels himself in another medium, but it’s less obviously pleasurable, and clearly not sensual. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this. Working with others is one part of it, but it’s not all. This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan
 

The Mandarin Nods . . . And Awakens
The English don, C. M. Bowra, was one of the great twentieth century classicists, a master of Greek poetry and culture.  He wrote many books, almost all of them out of print, unfortunately, including one I read earlier this year, The Romantic Imagination, published in 1949 (I stumbled upon it in a used bookstore and was intrigued by the title).  Although he was the Professor of Poetry at Oxford for several years, his imagination does not seem to have been ruffled all that much by the poets’ romantic imaginations, at least as evidenced by this book, a collection of lectures he gave at Harvard.  The chapters plod by one after the other, dutifully noting the different uses of imagination by the romantic greats such as Blake, Shelley and Keats.  Several times I had to put the book down as yet another hulking, dim-witted fellow of good cheer appeared over the horizon and beckoned to tell me all about the imagination of Byron (or lack thereof).  But then, near the end of the tomb-tome, a little imp scampered up and lit up the rest of the book—Swinburne, of all people, and his great modern homage to the ancient Greek playwrights, Atalanta in Calydon.


Bowra’s heart was always with his beloved Greek classics.  So, there’s little surprise that this one chapter would be the only part of The Romantic Imagination which still retains vibrancy and life today.  Here’s the beginning:

It is undeniably strange that at least three eminent English poets should have tried to reproduce in their own language the form of Greek tragedy. At first sight no literary form is more remote than this stiff, archaic art with its interchanges of long speeches or single complete lines, its choral songs breaking across the dramatic action, its stylized narratives spoken by anonymous messengers, its abundance of homely maxims, its attachment to the unities of time and place. But such is the power of Greek poetry that men so different as Milton, Arnold, and Swinburne each wished to pay to it the affectionate tribute of noble rivalry.

Swinburne’s homage (an exuberant one that is half again as long as the longest Greek play) consists of the drama, Atalanta in Calydon, which, we know from ancient sources, was the basis of several famous plays from antiquity, none of which have survived.  The tale, as is true for much other play-fodder, comes from Ovid.  It concerns the virgin huntress, Atalanta, and of Meleager’s love for her which has tragic consequences when he kills a boar and gives it as a love token to Atalanta and then kills his uncles for affronting her for receiving the gift.  Meleager’s mother, Althaea, must then choose whether to honor her brothers and kill her son, Meleager, or dishonor them by forgiving him.  She opts for the former choice. This seems nonsensical today, a good example of Eliot’s objective criterion going unfulfilled.  Not so, argues Bowra, in this masterful exposition (please excuse the long quote, I just can’t help myself):

In making Althaea come to her decision, Swinburne shows how well he understood the deeper currents of the Greek soul. She is torn between intolerable alternatives, and she decides that loyalty to her brothers is more important than lover for her son. In presenting her anguish and her decision, Swinburne makes use of a famous and disputed passage in Sophocles’ Antigone, where Antigone says that she would not have broken the law for anyone but a brother, not for a son or a husband. Behind this apparently inhuman and sophistical argument lies a deep Greek conviction that identity of blood through common parents is a closer and more binding tie than marriage or motherhood. Althaea carries Antigone’s argument to its fatal conclusion. She feels that she is less near to her son than to her brothers, that he is half of another’s flesh, while they are wholly blood of her blood and have the first claim on her. There are places in the world where this is still believed, and Swinburne, with his imaginative insight into the ways of Greek thought and his own profound sense of family ties, was entirely justified in using it. Althaea’s decision may be primitive and irrational, but it is real and it is Greek. She is driven to it by her instinctive sense of loyalty and acts in frenzied haste. She rises to the height of a truly tragic heroine when she feels fierce forces working in her and sees the Fates in the gateway of the palace spinning her own doom and her son’s:

Fire in the roofs, and on the lintels fire.
Lo ye, who stand and weave, between the doors,
There; and blood drips from hand and thread, and stains
Threshold and raiment and me passing in
Flecked with the sudden sanguine drops of death.


Once Althaea begins to kindle the fatal brand and so to bring death to her son, she sees the full horror of her action. But she does not relent. She is the victim of doom. The Fates have worked their will on her, and she never speaks again.


Althaea’s tragic decision rises from a situation in which harmony and order have been broken by what the Greeks would regard as dangerous and improper assertions of the human spirit. Meleager dies because he has insulted his mother’s brothers by giving the body of the slain boar to Atalanta, and he does this because he lover her. Into this Swinburne has woven two Greek conceptions. The first is that love is an extremely dangerous power. The Greek poets often dwelt on this, and Swinburne agrees with them. In his play the incalculable, reckless, pitiless power of love is at work. Althaea is quick to speak of it to the Chorus and warns Meleager of its consequences, contrasting its wild spirit with the modesty which befits men. The Chorus sings of the ambiguous character of love:


Thou art swift and subtle and blind as a flame of fire;
Before thee the laughter, behind thee the tears of desire;
And twain go forth beside thee, a man with a maid;
Her eyes are the eyes of a bride whom delight makes afraid;
As the breath in the buds that stir is her bridal breath:
And Fate is the name of her; and his name is Death.


It is because he is infatuated by love that Meleager gives the boar’s body to Atalanta. Just as in the Women of Trachis Heracles’ love for Iole leads to hideous disaster, so in Atalanta Meleager’s love for Atalanta breaks the harmony of life and leads to his doom. Love creates the tragic situation and produces the crisis when Althaea, following her primeval instincts, decides that her son must die.
With this Greek notion Swinburne combines another. His Atalanta is by Greek standards an unwomanly woman. Her cult of virginity, her lack of common ties and affections, her avoidance of wedlock and motherhood, and her participation in activities properly reserved to men, put her outside the ordinary ranks of women and suggest that she is consumed by a reckless pride. It is not for women to break the rules of their sex in this way. Just at the virginal Hippolytus refuses honours to Aphrodite and creates a situation which leads to Phaedra’s death and his own, so Atalanta, by not accepting her proper lot, brings disorder and disaster. Althaea speaks as an ordinary Greek woman when she tells Meleager:


A woman armed makes war upon herself,
Unwomanlike, and treads down use and wont
And the sweet common honour that she hath.


She already distrusts and condemns Atalanta, and her feelings are the more bitter because she is jealous of her son’s affection for this foreign woman. So, when Althaea is faced with the choice of dishonouring her brothers or killing her son, the thought of Atalanta is vivid in her mind and hardens her heart. She cannot endure to think that, when Meleager killed her brothers, Atalanta rejoiced:

She the strange woman, she the flower, the sword,
Red from spilt blood, a mortal flower to men,
Adorable, detestable—even she
Saw with strange eyes and with strange lips rejoiced,
Seeing these mine own slain men of mine own, and me
Made miserable above all miseries made.


In Swinburne’s tragic scheme, Atalanta is the instrument of doom because she pursues her own will against the rules of men.

Whew, there, we’ve gotten through that very long quote.  I wanted to quote Bowra because he’s almost a completely forgotten figure today—although a giant in his own time, at least if one takes as one’s guide, the description of him in Noel Annan’s introduction to his wonderfully literary description of English intellectuals between the world wars, Our Age, which is titled after a Bowra bon mot:

If you had asked Maurice Bowra, the most famous Oxford don and wit of his day, how old someone was, as like as not he would have replied: ‘Our Age.’ He meant by this anyone who came of age and went to the university in the thirty years between 1919, the end of the Great War, and 1949—or, say, 1951, the last year in which those who had served in the armed forces during the Second World War returned to study. To him they were all one generation.
‘Our Age.’ But who are ‘we’? Bowra meant those who make their times significant and form opinion. He would have thought of poets, writers, artists and dons. He would have added some politicians, civil servants, diplomats and, grudgingly, priests. He would have included animators—those who liberate their contemporaries by their vitality, exuberance and spontaneity even though they themselves may leave nothing but memories behind. . . . But to be a genuine member of Our Age it was not enough to be well-born, or well-known, or pleasure-loving. Nor was it enough to be a scholar. He liked people to be quick, intelligent, and to delight in general ideas.

That last sentence serves well as a maxim, a commandment, an admonition, and, finally, a reproach for the writing of criticism.  First, it should be quick—not prolix. Look at the long excerpt again and marvel at the sinewy, taut sentences, some no longer than a few words.  Bowra today would be run out of the academy for that heresy alone.  And, although informed by a profound understanding of Greek culture, Bowra wears that garment lightly, drawing attention to it only when needed to make a point about the correspondence between the romantic work before him and its stern, alien forebears. It is intelligent. And it froths over with delight.  Let me apostrophize, now: Oh, Bowra, who has returned to the Father of waters, can you not hear the lamentation of your children?  Please, bring forth a sign that our 40 years of wandering in the wilderness have not been in vain!  Amen.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  10,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

[M]oments of precise reckoning are rare in real life; questions of misinterpretation are not often resolved. Nor do they remain pressingly unresolved. They simply fade. People don’t remember clearly, or they die, or the questions die and new ones take their place.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

The Library of America Answers a Burning Question
Whose the most important writer in American letters after Henry James, at least in terms of the number of volumes of the writer’s work to be published by the Library of America?  Mark Twain?  Nope.  Edith Wharton?  Nope.  William Faulkner? Nope.  Ernest Hemmingway.  Ooops, that was a trick question, the Library of America does not have any volumes by that blustering hack (but step right on in if you’re looking for works from those masters of American letters, H. P. Lovecraft or George S. Kaufman).  Jack London?  Nope.  Sinclair Lewis?  Nope.  Do you give up?  Go to the Los Angeles Times article here for the answer.


I know, I know—eight volumes of a living writer’s work, what incredible foolishness.  One could easily fill out eight volumes from the prolific Sinclair Lewis, America’s first Nobel prize winner in literature.  Wisely, the editors of the Library of America declined to undertake such a pointless task for the very good reason that a lot of Lewis’s later work is, well, not very good. Which brings me to the work of our prolific honoree, Phillip Roth.  Hello, earth calling the Library of America editors, Phillip Roth’s writings are extremely uneven, too.  This is one reason why you don’t enshrine all of a living writer’s oeuvre because, in hindsight, certain works, such as Roth’s Our Gang, a painfully dated satire of the Nixon administration (by the bye, Mary McCarthy, who, to the eternal shame of the Library of America editors, is not one of their published authors (well, even more humiliating, neither is her former husband, Edmund Wilson, the last great American man of letters (an insightful article on him by Louis Menand is in the current issue of The New Yorker )), wrote a much better satire of the same subject matter, Mask of State: Watergate Portraits) merely highlight the writer’s feet of clay.  That’s why Sinclair Lewis—or, an even better example, Harriet Beecher Stowe—is fortunate not to have his entire works published by the Library of America.


Another reason not to publish all the works of a living writer such as Roth is that he built his early reputation on being the enfant terrible of literature.  As explained in the Los Angeles Times article:

Roth's debut, the novella "Goodbye, Columbus," published with five short stories, won the 1960 National Book Award, which [Library of America editor] Rudin described as "an accomplished literary debut. Those stories do not seem like the work of a 20-something-year-old at all, it’s remarkable.”
It's also hard, given the cultural shifts that followed, to look at that initial story — a tale of a summer of lust, the awkwardness of discussing birth control in the pre-pill era and the chaste expectations of parents — and understand how it was considered daring literature.
"It was not only controversial, but outrageous," Rudin said. "It's interesting now to read that work in the cultural context of the '60s. It will be read now as one of the great literary expressions of that time…. It just shows you how fast history moved in the '60s. Things that were controversial in the late-'50s, 10 years later were not even eyebrow-raising."

Although praising Roth’s early work, these remarks also, inadvertently, point out its limitations.  Sure, transgressions from the late-‘50s such as discussing birth control might have seemed revolutionary then, but they merely elicit a bored yawn today (that’s the problem with trying to be transgressive, the standard is always increasing, and one just can’t keep up with the Joneses, or the Larry Flynts, as it were).  And to praise a work as being much better than what one would expect from “a 20-something-year-old” strikes me as a back-handed compliment worthy of Joyce Carol Oates.  It’s not worthy, though, of being included in the Library of America—unless one is aiming at admitting the ultimate bad boy (and bad writer) of American letters, Norman Mailer.  The horror, the horror.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

It doesn’t sound plausible. But in general, the human disposition is to believe. And when proved wrong, shift ground. Or have faith, and go on believing. Over time, down through the generations, this may have been the most efficient: just in case, believe.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan
 

Joyce Carol Oates: The Lady Doth Protest Too Much, Part II
When last we left JCO, she was trying to explain why she refused to reprint her negative reviews—under the saccharine sweet rationale that if one can’t say something nice, one shouldn’t say anything at all.  Oh, except for her review of Patricia Highsmith.  And that one about Richard Yates.  Well, and that other one on Anita Brookner.  At least those are the ones she’ll own up to.  But when one looks into the matter, there’s plenty of reviews where an acidic aside will be splattered on some well-known author (such as her drive-by footnote which strains, for no good reason, to point out that Katherine Anne Porter was anti-Semitic; of course, folks like JCO never point out the virulent anti-Semiticism of the likes of Virginia Woolf). Here’s just a taste:


• On Willa Cather:  “Willa Cather’s most characteristic prose is comfortingly realistic, old-fashioned in its rhythms and assurances, and surely her ongoing value lies in the clarity and richness of this unambiguous, un-fractured vision.”  [N.B.: That one should be nominated to the back-handed compliment hall of fame.]


• On Balzac and Henry James (a two-fer): “There are prolific writers—Balzac, for example—whose numerous, oversized characters are less individuals than sociological types, lacking psychological subtlety; there are prolific writers—Henry James, for example—whose characters are so immersed in the shifting webs of interior consciousness, so under the spell of the flood of psychological impressions sweeping upon them, that we can’t step back to ‘see’ them, and we scarcely ‘know’ them at all.” [N.B.: And then there are the characters of the prolific JCO, . . . . —pot kettle].


• On Muriel Spark: “And Spark’s idiosyncratic talent, scintillant rather than illuminating, fueled by a seemingly inexhaustible zest for satirizing very vulnerable targets, is perhaps over all a minor one.”


Boy, I’m glad those were the nice reviews.  So, what’s going on here?  It’s called Death, the Big Kahuna, the Red Baron, Puff the Magic Dragon (okay, maybe not that).  Anyway, JCO is well over her biblical allotment of three score and ten. So she’s worried—with good reason—of her place in the literary firmament.  What better way to help herself out than to take some whacks at authors she might see as possibly comparable to her.  Don’t worry, JCO, you are a first-rate writer, but you need not worry of being compared to the likes of Cather, James, Balzac or, yes, Spark.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  7,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

He wraps each species of fish in several pages of a newspaper. This is the kind of question Henry liked to put himself when he was a schoolboy: what are the chances of this particular fish, from that shoal, off that continental shelf ending up in the pages, no, on this page of this copy of the Daily Mirror? Something just short of infinity to one. Similarly, the grains of sand on a beach, arranged just so. The random ordering of the world, the unimaginable odds against any particular condition, still please him. Even as a child, and especially after Aberfan, he never believed in fate or providence, or the future being made by someone in the sky. Instead, at every instant, a trillion trillion possible futures; the pickiness of pure chance and physical laws seemed like freedom from the scheming of a gloomy god.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan


Fiction v. Nonfiction

Today's New York Times Book Review has two interesting articles about the tension between fiction and nonfiction, both by Rachel Donadio (someone worth keeping on eye on).  The first is an interview by her of V. S. Naipaul, chock full of interesting observations concerning the tension in his own work between fiction and nonfiction.  He has continually lamented the limitations of fiction as a form:  "What I felt was, if you spend your life just writing fiction, you are going to falsify your material."  What he meant was that "the fictional from was going to force you to do things with the material, to dramatize it in a certain way.  I thought nonfiction gave one a chance to explore the world, the other world, the world that one didn't fully know."  Luckily, at least unconsciously, Naipaul has ignored his own thoughts on this matter and has continued to publish fiction--the last work being his magisterial Magic Seeds (which begs for a sequel (or, maybe, a tri-qual)--although Naipaul, once again, is threatening that this will be his last work).

Dramatizing work in a certain way, though, is not just the province of fiction but nonfiction as well.  As I have argued before, in my view, there is no difference between well-wrought fiction and nonfiction.  They both are false in the sense that they pick and choose what facts to present to the reader.  As Naipaul points out, his view of history is nothing more than "everything is in a state of flux."  That might be true for reality.  But it's definitely not true for good works of fiction or nonfiction.  Neither can be written in a form that is merely formless flux.  They must be organized in some manner.  This is true for experimental works, even radically experimental works such as Sterne's Tristram Shandy, where its non-form is a knowing pose grounded in the reader's knowledge of the form it rebels against.  The great works still must be based on some kind of organizing principle, on some form of dramatization.  One cannot escape this requirement by retreating to nonfiction.

Rachel Donadio's second article makes this explicit in her essay entitled, "Truth is Stronger than Fiction."   She describes the lamentable--and, again, in my view, wrongheaded--trend of magazines to drop fiction from their coverage.  The new editor of the Paris Review, who, based on his remarks here, should be instantly fired, offers up as a justification for including more works of nonfiction that "[w]e're living in a newsy time."  So, of course, there's less demand for fiction now.  This statement is fatuous on several levels.  Believe it or not, most of the twentieth century was certainly "newsy" but, for some strange reason, this didn't stop magazines from publishing fiction. 

The editor of The Atlantic, which is dropping fiction from the monthly issues, offers up, inadvertently, a confirmation of my theory that there is no difference between fiction and nonfiction:  "In recent years we have found that a certain kind of reporting--long-form narrative reporting--has proved to be of enormous value . . . in making sense of a complicated and fractious world."  This means, "[c]ertain kinds of nonfiction writing have claimed some of the territory once claimed by fiction."  No kidding.  The editor then quickly backs away from peering into this horrendous abyss of naughty fiction by offering this fairy tale:  "Nonfiction writing has [not] become 'fictional,' in the sense of taking liberties, but because certain traits that used to be standard in fiction, like a strong sense of plot and memorable characters in the service of important and morally charged subject matter, are today as reliably found in narrative nonfiction as they are in literary fiction.  Some might even say 'more reliably' found."  Hey, whatever fantasy you need to sleep at night.  But, other than hack journalists, does anyone still believe there is a bright line of death between fiction and nonfiction? 

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  4,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Bowie indicated that golf green behind them with a twist of his head. “That’s something else I never figured out why anybody could get interested in. Batting that little old ball around and puttin’ it in holes.”
“Some people don’t have anything else to do,” Keechie said. “It wouldn’t bother me if they stood on their heads if they were having a good time.”
--Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson

Ian McEwan’s Saturday: The End Is Here
Okay, okay, I promised no more blogging on Ian McEwan’s Saturday.  But, dagnabbit, yesterday’s New York Times, which I didn’t read until after posting yesterday, has an interesting article about how certain writers—McEwan prominent among them—have dealt with the post-9/11 and, now, post-7/7 events.  Eerily, the article quotes some of the same passages I referred to yesterday.  Anyway, the article is definitely worth checking out.


Joyce Carol Oates: The Lady Doth Protest Too Much
I’ve been reading JCO’s Uncensored: Views & (Re)Views which is her latest collection of ephemera published in periodicals such as the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books.  What I’m finding delicious is her stated principle in her preface for reviewing books:

My governing principle as a critic is to call attention solely to books and writers that merit such attention, and to avoid whenever possible reviewing books “negatively” except in those instances in which the “negative” is countered by an admiring consideration of earlier books by the same author. (In assembling this collection, I immediately rejected all “negative” reviews on moral grounds, as unworthy of reprint, as, perhaps, they were unworthy of being written. How small-minded we seem to ourselves in retrospect, chiding others! Much better to have passed over such disappointments in silence. Then, as the pile of rejected pieces grew, I began to feel that I was too-primly censoring myself, and eliminating much that might be of interest despite its critical tone. Of the numerous “censored” reviews I retrieved only three, of short story collections by Patricia Highsmith and Richard Yates and a novella by Anita Brookner, all of which have been sufficiently praised elsewhere, in any case.) As our relations with others are essentially ethical encounters, so our relations with books, and with those individuals who have written them, whom perhaps we will never meet, are ethical encounters. Obviously, a critic who “likes everything” is a very bland personality hardly to be trusted, but there might be a respectable category of critic who, disliking something, refrains from making public comment on it. In America, do we need to caution anyone against buying a book?

Let me answer that fatuous question for you, JCO: YES!!!!  It must be nice to be given all of your books—as, no doubt, is merely the due for any super-star reviewer for the TLS and NYRB—but, for the rest of us poor mortals, we must actually purchase these stitched-together forest-killers with our hard-earned ducats.  And, last I checked, the average price for one of these portable ipulps is about $25.00 (Uncensored is a mere $24.95—what a bargain!).


Also, as JCO rightly intuits, more critics do seem to “like everything” only I wish it was because they have a “very bland personality.”  This is an odd thought coming from one of our darkest writers who seems to have a direct, main-cable connection to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The critics write favorable reviews, not because they have “bland personalities” but because, pace Sally Fields, they just want people “to like me.”  Now, come closer JCO, to the true heart of darkness—if people like me, really, really like me, then, maybe, they’ll pay me more and more ducats.  All I have to do is become a pulp pusher, hawking memmies, rippers and ‘tecs (translation: memoirs, bodice-ripper romances and detective stories--this drug . . . errr . . . book lingo is hard to keep straight) to desperate junkies.  And JCO makes this profession seem glamorous.  What next, a paean to the modern-day panderer—the book publisher?  Pandarus, himself, would cringe at making such an oath.


JCO, here’s a screed for you:  There’s plenty of reasons to write negative book reviews—besides moral obtuseness.  Ahh, yes, each encounter with a human being is an ethical encounter.  That’s true, in a negative sense, I suppose—if I’m receiving my fifty-cents change from the bored teenager at McDonald’s for a Big Gob and Surly Fries, I could just chunk the offending offal in his face instead of grumbling, “thank you,” as I waddle off with my main-line lard injectors.  But, if I were a food reviewer, should I be silent about the twaddle on offer at McDonald’s so that I don’t offend the corporate interests that be?  Now that’s fatuity, and more fatuity, fatuity to the skies, an overarching mound of soy and protein fatuity patties with a biggie fatuity shake on the side.  Fortunately, though, JCO doesn’t really believe this puerility.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  3,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“[Saddam’s] loathsome,” she says. “It’s a given.”
“No it’s not. It’s a forgotten. Why else are you all singing and dancing in the park? The genocide and torture, the mass graves, the security apparatus, the criminal totalitarian state—the iPod generation doesn’t want to know. Let nothing come between them and their ecstasy clubbing and cheap flights and reality TV. But it will, if we do nothing. You think you’re all lovely and gentle and blameless, but the religious nazis loathe you. What do you think the Bali bombing was about? The clubbers clubbed. Radical Islam hates your freedom.”
She mimes being taken aback. “Dad, I’m sorry you’re so sensitive about your age. But Bali was Al-Qaeda, not Saddam. Nothing you’ve just said justifies invading Iraq.”
--Saturday by Ian McEwan
 

Ian McEwan’s Saturday: The End Is Near
In more ways than one, brother (if you like the way I worked the title into the first sentence of the text, then you’d love Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” which, poetically speaking, started it all).  I think I’ll be winding down all these posts about McEwan and end on a sufficiently dour note.  There is a kind of grandeur to Saturday.  There is a richness to the book which lends itself to crossings and re-crossings, musings and mutterings.  This complexity mirrors the complexity of the society it describes:  A wondrous place of technological marvels stitched together with services where, at 3 a.m., we can go get sushi or pop next door for a piping hot pizza.  Our civilization’s complexity, built up since at least the Renaissance, is so full of wires and nodes that it is impossible to tease out one main cable, let alone the entire electric diagram.  And yet, and yet one grubbing hand can reach into the breaker box and in a flash rip out all of the wires and leave them dangling and sparking in an instant of wanton destruction.  That destruction is coming.  Sure, some of the wires will be preserved and saved from the calamity.  But that rich inter-connectivity will be irretrievably lost.  And we will all be the poorer—the thinner—the simpler—the stupider—for it.

This coming end time, this destruction of complexity, hangs over Saturday like a gathering storm that is building behind the mountains (Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge also has this same sense of foreboding).  In this respect, McEwan resembles the poet novelist, Thomas Hardy, who in 1913—just one short year before the great calamity which crippled Western Civilization—wrote his great poem:


In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"

ONLY a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk,
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame 5
From the heaps of couch grass:
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by; 10
War's annals will fade into night
Ere their story die.

Yes, there will still be sunshine and roses and maidens with beauses—but there ain’t gonna be no more nylon hoses.  And McEwan, along with his doppelganger hero, Henry Perowne, the die-hard secularist, mourns and mourns for that coming loss.  He’s constantly looking over his shoulder, watching the stalker as he quickens his pace:

London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time. It might resemble the Paddington crash—twisted rails, buckled, upraised commuter coaches, stretchers handed out through broken windows, the hospital’s Emergency Plan in action. Berlin, Paris, Lisbon. The authorities agree, an attack’s inevitable.


McEwan/Perowne, though, is reconciled, somewhat, to this reality.  He knows the blow will come and prepares for it.  But, just the same, he wishes that this cup, please, could pass from him:

It’s a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety. The habit’s grown stronger these past two years; a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous and spectacular scenes. The possibility of their recurrence is one thread that binds the days. The government’s counsel—that an attack in a European or American city is an inevitability—isn’t only a disclaimer of responsibility, it’s a heady promise. Everyone fears it, but there’s also a darker longing in the collective mind, a sickening for self-punishment and a blasphemous curiosity. Just as the hospitals have their crisis plans, so the television networks stand ready to deliver, and their audiences wait. Bigger, grosser next time. Please don’t let it happen.

But McEwan/Perowne, the realist, knows that prayer is worse than ineffectual, it’s delusional.  Just whispering, “please don’t let it happen,” won’t keep the bombs from exploding.  And, as we all know now, they surely shall explode—bringing with them the desire to run, to hide:

That restlessness, that hunger he’s had lately for another kind of life, will fade. . . . [A]nd a time will come when they find they no longer have the strength for the square, the junkies and the traffic din and dust. Perhaps a bomb in the cause of jihad will drive them out with all the other faint-hearts into the suburbs, or deeper into the country, or to the chateau—their Saturday will become a Sunday.

McEwan/Perowne, here, almost certainly uses Sunday as a synecdoche for a life of rest.  But there’s another synecdoche for Sunday, too—a more overtly religious one concerning a life of rigor and practicing faith, of a turning to the East, to the minaret, to the Iman.  To run and hide will almost certainly lead to this second kind of life. And there’s a kind of grandeur here, too—but not one McEwan/Perowne would want to share in.  Rather, McEwan/Perowne should turn to Shakespeare’s King Lear, who in the end, had lost the battle, his beloved Cordelia, and, ultimately, his sanity.  Still, though, even reduced to such a state, King Lear knew that life, even if sickled over with an adamantine cast of pain and misery, must be endured:


Thou must be patient; we came crying hither:
Thou know’st the first time that we smell the air,
We wawl and cry.


And why do we endure such misery?  Well, you’ll need to read the last of Lear’s speech to glean the answer to that puzzle.  McEwan/Perowne, though, wouldn’t have the stomach for it.  He thinks he can flee to his chateau.  The unblinking eye of God, though, from the highest minaret, sees all—even in sunny Provence.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

August  1, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

He should look out what William James wrote on forgetting a word or name; a tantalising, empty shape remains, almost but not quite defining the idea it once contained. Even as you struggle against the numbness of poor recall, you know precisely what the forgotten thing is not.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan
 

The Richness of Ian McEwan’s Saturday:  He Shall Have No Other Gods Before Him
As you might have glommed onto by the number of litblog posts, I find Ian McEwan’s Saturday a rich book thick with insight.  Although there is that superficial suspense plot which seems to exist for fairy-tale and future movie-royalties purposes—what are movies but dumbed-down fairy tales anyway—the structure of the book is, on a deeper level, built on a series of moral vignettes structured around one day, Saturday.  These vignettes, which sound banal in themselves when described—an operation, a squash game, a visit to an old folks’ home, a shopping trip to an outdoor market, dinner with the family—each, from a different angle, illuminate McEwan’s central concern that a secular life, explicitly, a life without an eternal being hovering in the background, may have “a kind of grandeur.”  Also, however, hovering in the background, is the knowledge that this kind of life is exceedingly fragile and may be easily destroyed by those who do believe in such an eternal being.  Hence, the particular Saturday described is the date of the largest London peace protest against the Iraq war.  Further, the book is full of ominous foreshadowings that this war, which the government claims is a response to Muslim terrorism, shall result in the breaking of this fragile “grandeur.” The events of the last few weeks tend to confirm McEwan’s prescience/pessimism.


This central theme that “things fall apart,” is made explicit early on in the book with our saintly hero, Henry Perowne, musing on his daughter Daisy’s education:

The teachers who educated Daisy at university thought the idea of progress old-fashioned and ridiculous. In indignation, Perowne grips the wheel tighter in his right hand. He remembers some lines by Medawar, a man he admires: “To deride the hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.” Yes, he’s a fool to be taken in by that hundred-year claim. In Daisy’s final term he went to an open day at her college. The young lecturers there like to dramatise modern life as a sequence of calamities. It’s their style, their way of being clever. It wouldn’t be cool or professional to count the eradication of smallpox as part of the modern condition. Or the recent spread of democracies. In the evening one of them gave a lecture on the prospects for our consumerist and technological civilisation: not good. But if the present dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods, certainly in this city, lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended life spans, wondrous machines.


Ahh, yes, we don’t need God, because we are all “lucky gods” now.  Or, perhaps, viewed by outsiders, we are seen as something else—supernatural, yes—but also dark and destructive.  Here’s Perowne’s first confrontation with the novel’s antagonist, Baxter, who is suffering from Huntingdon’s disease:

Henry has heard that early onset tends to indict the paternal gene. But that may not be right. There’s nothing to lose by making a guess. He speaks into the blaze of Baxter’s regard.
“Your father had it. Now you’ve got it too.”
He has the impression of himself as a witch doctor delivering a curse. Baxter’s expression is hard to judge. He makes a vague, febrile movement with his left hand to restrain his companions. . . . .
They are together, he and Perowne, in a world not of the medical, but of the magical. When you’re diseased it is unwise to abuse the shaman.


Indeed, this foreshadowing of a curse comes true at the end of the book when Perowne contrives to have Baxter thrown down the stairs resulting in a life threatening concussion.  Don’t mess with the witchdoctor!


So, are we lucky gods or witchdoctors—or something else entirely.  Even being a hard core secular materialist can appear brutal and repressive, at least if one is in China:

[He] passes a Falun Gong couple keeping vigil across the road from the Chinese embassy. Belief in a miniaturised universe ceaselessly rotating nine times forwards, nine times backwards in the practitioner’s lower abdomen is threatening the totalitarian order. Certainly, it’s a non-material view. The state’s response is beatings, torture, disappearances and murder, but the followers now outnumber the Chinese Communist Party. China is simply too populous, Perowne often thinks whenever he comes this way and sees the protest, to maintain itself in paranoia for much longer. Its economy’s growing too fast, the modern world’s too connected for the Party to keep control. Now you see mainland Chinese in Harrods, soaking up the luxury goods. Soon it will be ideas, and something will have to give. And here’s the Chinese, state meanwhile, giving philosophical materialism a bad name.

Oh, and don’t forget Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot, etc., etc.—they didn’t do much to add a luster to philosophical materialism, either.  The solution, though, appears to involve a rigorous course of re-education at Harrods.  If only Marx had hung out there instead of the British Museum’s Reading Room.  Just think, the slogan of the Twentieth Century could have been, “Shoppers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but these incredible low prices for one day only!”  Hmmm, not quite the same ring to it (unless one is listening to the tinkle of the cash register). Well, I must be off—I’ve got a doctor’s appointment to check out this miniaturised universe that’s stuck in my abdomen and just won’t stop rotating.
 

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry