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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR FEBRUARY 2006

February  28,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

For us it is the present that is constant; we refuse to let it go. Newscasters take for granted a public infected with forgetfulness, unable to recall what occurred moments earlier; a public in need of the constant ghost of "the event." Is this our attempt to eliminate mortality? Brief flashes, repetition, a sense of immediacy; we are offered something like a never-ending moment that allows no distance in time or space.

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

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February  27,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Mavis sent a card with something she had forgotten to tell me—how someone described the people throwing themselves out of the World Trade Center: "They looked like commas in the sky."

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

[N.B.:  This is the most disturbing grammatical simile I've come across.  Who thought that something as mundane as a punctuation mark could be seen as something so sinister?  An instance that once again proves the rule that great writing--like any great art--requires that reality be filtered through the sensibility of the singular imagination.]

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February  25,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

There are books we skim over happily, forgetting one page as we turn to the next; others that we read reverently, without daring to agree or disagree; others that offer mere information and preclude commentary; others still that, because we have loved them so long and so dearly, we can repeat word by word, since we know them, in the truest sense, by heart.

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

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February  24,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Years ago, Michael Ondaatje asked if I remembered the name of a certain British sergeant in Kim, because he wanted to use it in the novel he was writing.

"Read him slowly," says the English Patient to Hana, "you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot."

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

[N.B.: This excerpt reminds me of the time that Kathryn and I went to a reading by Michael Ondaatje at the University of Texas. Kathryn asked him a question about how she had noted certain similarities between Kim and The English Patient and wondered if Ondaatje had Kim in mind when he was writing his novel. Ondaatje, with a twinkle in his eye, furrowed his brow and said something to the effect that maybe, unconsciously, Kim did influence his book. Manguel’s anecdote suggests that Kathryn might have been onto something that Ondaatje was not willing to divulge. A student thesis, anyone, on the influence of Kipling and Kim on Ondaatje and The English Patient?]

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February  22,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Perhaps the most baleful legacy of British and other colonials in Africa was the idea of the philosopher-king, to whose role colonial officials aspired, and which they often actually played, bequeathing it to their African successors. Many colonial officials made great sacrifices for the sake of their territories, to whose welfare they were devoted, and they attempted to govern them wisely, dispensing justice evenhandedly. But they left for the nationalists the instruments needed to erect the tyrannies and kleptocracies that marked post-independence Africa. They bequeathed a legacy of treating ordinary uneducated Africans as children, incapable of making decisions for themselves. No attitude is more grateful to the aspiring despot.

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

[N.B.:  And thus, in a nut shell, is explained a number of the works of V. S. Naipaul.]

Sybille Bedford, R.I.P.

One of the last luminaries of the mid-twentieth-century flowering of English letters has crossed over the river and into the trees: Sybille Bedford.  She’s probably best known on these provincial shores for the definitive biography of her friend, Aldous Huxley.  This biography is one of a handful of the true works of art in this genre.  I warmly recommend it—even if Huxley himself is a bit of a cold fish.  Bedford, too, was known to cast a cold eye over her literary creations in her semi-autobiographical novels (a genre that apparently escaped the notice of the literary auteur? flaneur? forger? James Frey) such as A Favourite of the Gods, A Compass Error and Jigsaw.  I cannot claim that Bedford is in the same empyrean region of the literary firmament as George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell or Graham Greene.  But, being just a little bit lower than the rest her light may shine more brightly upon us mere readers below.  Oh, and for all of you who were mesmerized by the memoir-cum-fiction of James Frey, do yourself a favor and pick up her recent memoir, Quicksands.

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February  21,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

[Stefan] Zweig implies that only the reticent and self-controlled can feel genuine passion and emotion. Mrs. C’s passion is so great precisely because she is normally a self-contained Englishwoman who had "that peculiarly English ability to end a conversation firmly but without brusque discourtesy." The nearer emotional life approaches to hysteria, to continual outward show, the less genuine it becomes. Feeling becomes equated with vehemence of expression, so that insincerity becomes permanent. Zweig would have dismissed our modern emotional incontinence as a sign not of honesty but of an increasing inability or unwillingness to truly feel.

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

[N.B.: It was this essay on the neglected literary genius, Stefan Zweig, which made me go out and purchase a collected edition of his works (lavishly produced in the 1950s and now—literary establishment j’accuse!—criminally out of print). Zweig’s story is one of the saddest of any fiction writer’s. Although beloved and with an immense international reputation during the 1930s and 1940s, Zweig had the misfortune of being both German and jewish during Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy. He and his wife had to flee their country and wind up as refugees in Brazil—where, consumed by despair for the West and its culture, they both committed suicide in 1942 (probably the blackest year of the war from the allies’ viewpoint). The sad story can be found here.]

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February  20,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Perhaps we ought not to be too harsh on Mill’s principle: it’s not clear that anyone has ever thought of a better one. But that is precisely the point. Human affairs cannot be decided by an appeal to an infallible rule, expressible in a few words, whose simple application can decide all cases, including whether drugs should be freely available to the entire adult population. Philosophical fundamentalism is not preferable to the religious variety; and because the desiderata of human life are many, and often in conflict with one another, mere philosophical inconsistency in policy—such as permitting the consumption of alcohol while outlawing cocaine—is not a sufficient argument against that policy. We all value freedom, and we all value order; sometimes we sacrifice freedom for order, and sometimes order for freedom. But once a prohibition has been removed, it is hard to restore, even when the newfound freedom proves to have been ill-conceived and socially disastrous.

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

 

Summer Afternoon

One of the most famous quotes of Henry James’s may be found in his friend’s, Edith Wharton’s, reminiscences, A Backward Glance: "Summer afternoon— summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."   It is upon this bit of frivolity that I deign to hang my post for the day.  My text, if you have not guessed it yet, is The Portrait of a Lady, starting with the first sentences of the first paragraph:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. the implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure.

Hmmm, that "splendid summer afternoon."  Has a novel ever started on a more pleasant, a more fulsome note?  Not even Austen’s famous first-line observations about marriageable men and women—more a saying than a setting--can compete with this exquisite tone painting.

But "summer afternoon" is not a mere marker of aesthetic beauty.  It may also sound the note of seduction.  When Isabel Archer is, for the first time, within the artistic confines of Gilbert Osmond’s lair, he points out the qualities of various bibelots and then:

He took down the picture, carried it toward the window, related some curious facts about it. She looked at the other works of art, and he gave her such further information as might appear to be most acceptable to a young lady making a call on a summer afternoon. His pictures, his carvings and tapestries were interesting; but after a while Isabel became conscious that the owner was more interesting still. He resemble no one she had ever seen . . . .

Later in the book, when the full horror of Gilbert Osmond is suddenly revealed to Isabel, she realizes that "she had once thought him beautiful."  That "once" was the first time in his tinsel nook with the light streaming in from the seductive "summer afternoon."

Leave it to Gilbert, though, to understand that it is this illusion encapsulated in a summer afternoon, of soft light that will soon fade to inky black, that can be most deceptive in clothing transience in the tints of permanence.  The term is used by him to woo and win Isabel to him, in spite of his lack of money and his shabby gentility:

Now I am really satisfied, because I can’t think of anything better. It is just as when one has been trying to spell out a book in the twilight, and suddenly the lamp comes in. I had been putting out my eyes over the book of life, and finding nothing to reward me for my pains; but now that I can read it properly I see that it’s a delightful story. My dear girl, I can’t tell you how life seems to stretch there before us—what a long summer afternoon awaits us. It’s the latter half of an Italian day—with a golden haze, and the shadows just lengthening, and that divine delicacy in the light, the air, the landscape, which I have loved all my life, and which you love today.

Although Gilbert Osmond might be sincere with respect to his aesthetic feelings regarding a summer afternoon in Italy, he certainly is not sincere with respect to how those feelings correspond to his feelings for Isabel Archer. But, for our purposes, that’s irrelevant.  The important point is that this little eternity—the time between five o’clock an eight o’clock—is how Henry James feels, too.  Gilbert’s exposition affords an opportunity for Henry James to tell us why "summer afternoon" is James’s madeleine, his reminder of the aesthetic experience that is the most acute for him in terms of giving him pleasure.  Indeed, it is this strange reliance on the pleasure offered by a summer afternoon, which, I think, goes a long way towards explaining his asexuality.  To James's senses, such coarse mechanics as sex are unnecessary compared to these ineffable delights of a summer afternoon, pace Colm Toibin and his prurient slush, The Master.

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February  18,  2006

Patrick:

The Master of Coincidence

We all know who the master of coincidence is:  Henry James.  Yes, yes, I know I droned on and on about Charles Dickens a few days ago, but he was merely the path breaker.  Henry James is the burly bronco buster who clumps down the trail and widens it out with his big, manly shoulders.  What, you thought the Master was some kind of effete drawing room snob, a neoliterary nattering nabob?  No, not at all.  Let’s get out his Old Testament—The Portrait of a Lady—and turn to Chapter XXVII, no verse, but it’s the bit where Isabel Archer (the Lady in question) is sitting among the relics of the Roman forum:

From the Roman past to Isabel Archer’s future was a long stride, but her imagination had taken it in a single flight, and now hovered in slow circles over the nearer and richer field. She was so absorbed in her thoughts, as she bent her eyes upon a row of cracked but not dislocated slabs covering the ground at her feet, that she had not heard the sound of approaching footsteps before a shadow was thrown across the line of her vision. She looked up and saw a gentlemen—a gentleman who was not Ralph come back to say that the excavations were a bore. This personage was startled as she was startled; he stood there, smiling a little, blushing a good deal, and raising his hat.

"Lord Warburton!" Isabel exclaimed, getting up.

"I had no idea it was you," he said. "I turned that corner and came upon you."

Isabel looked about her.

"I am alone, but my companions have just left me. My cousin is gone to look at the digging over there."

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *          

"Oh dear, I am quite alone, I have nothing on earth to do. I had no idea you were in Rome. I have just come from the East. I am only passing through."

"You have been making a long journey," said Isabel, who had learned from Ralph that Lord Warburton was absent from England.

How many coincidences?  Shall I count the ways?  Lord Warburton is one of Isabel Archer’s rejected suitors, who, as a result, has journeyed long in the East and has not been heard from for over a year or so.  But, by gum, he decides to terminate his journey just about the same time that Isabel Archer and her guardians, the Touchettes, decide to take a trip to Rome.  And, wouldn’t you know it, Isabel’s companions have just wandered off to take a gander at some cracked Leander, when who should cross Isabel’s solitary path but the lonely Lord Warburton.  Both are "startled"—as we should be if we were touristing in Rome and hanging out at the forum when who should pop up but one of our faded flames.  This must rank right up there with the coincidence that all of Dickens’s major London characters in A Tale of Two Cities wind up together in revolutionary Paris—"dahling, let’s go see the burning aristocrats, I hear the flames are quite luvvy as they shine on the faces of the canaille"—but we don’t seem to mind that James pulls this fast one. Why?

Henry James, our burly bronco buster, has learned from the path breaker that coincidence not only assists in shaping a dramatic narrative in an aesthetically pleasing fashion—this is to say, in a parsimonious one which reduces the amount of drivel . . . errr . . . exposition needed to move along the plot—but also allows James to concentrate on what is important to him: the development of character. Why do we need this chain of coincidences in The Portrait of a Lady?  So that Lord Warburton and Isabel Archer may engage in a bit of conversational thrust and parry, which winds up exposing otherwise unknown facets of their personalities. Dickens, sometimes, uses coincidence in this fashion.  But, usually, it’s for the first reason to tidy up the plot so that he can get on with the interplay of his vast cast of characters (I admit, this is a very similar purpose to what Henry James is accomplishing in the Roman forum vignette, but I think James’s use of coincidence is a bit more sophisticated).

Now, you might be saying to yourself, well one little bit of coincidence in the Roman forum does not a Dickens make.  Quite true.  So let’s move on to the second serve. Isabel Archer’s (oh, excuse me, I meant to say, Isabel Osmond’s, she had married the villain Gilbert now, you know) friend, Henrietta Stackpole [N.B. a possible reference to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Skimpole?] is wandering about the Uffizi in Florence, admiring the Correggios don’t you know, they are so gojus with the women walking to and fro talking of Michelangelo, when who does Henrietta see but one of Isabel’s old rejected suitors, that upright American built from good wood, Caspar Goodwood, whose sudden appearance causes Henrietta to give "a little exclamation." "’I was just going away,’ Goodwood said; ‘but of course I will stop.’  He was civil but not enthusiastic."  Henrietta then tells him that she is going to see Rome to visit her friend Isabel. She first suggests he should go too.  But he seems hesitant.  Then he decides to go to see Isabel for himself; and they both wind up on the same train to Rome.  Do I need to count out the coincidences in this little set piece.  I thought not.  Your serve Mr. Dickens.

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February  14,  2006

Patrick:

In Defense of Multiculturalism

The fact seems to be, that the Greeks admired only themselves and that the Romans admired only themselves and the Greeks. Literary men turned away with disgust from modes of thought and expression so widely different from all that they had been accustomed to admire. The effect was narrowness and sameness of thought. Their minds, if we may so express ourselves, bred in and in, and were accordingly cursed with barrenness and degeneracy. No extraneous beauty or vigour was engrafted on the decaying stock. By an exclusive attention to one class of phenomena, by an exclusive taste for one species of excellence, the human intellect was stunted. Occasional coincidences were turned into general rules. Prejudices were confounded with instincts. On man, as he was found in a particular state of society—on government, as it had existed in a particular corner of the world, many just observations were made; but of man as man, or government as government, little was known. Philosophy remained stationary. Slight changes, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better, were made in the superstructure. But nobody thought of examining the foundations.

--History from Macaulay’s Essays, Volume I.

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February  13,  2006

Patrick:

Why James Frey Has Committed an Unpardonable Sin

Thucydides borrowed from Herodotus the practice of putting speeches of his own into the mouths of his characters. In Herodotus this usage is scarcely censurable. It is of a piece with his whole manner. but it is altogether incongruous in the work of his successor, and violates, not only the accuracy of history but the decencies of fiction. When once we enter into the spirit of Herodotus, we find no inconsistency. The conventional probability of his drama is preserved from the beginning to the end. The deliberate orations, and the familiar dialogues are in strict keeping with each other. But the speeches of Thucydides are neither preceded nor followed by anything with which they harmonize. They give to the whole book something of the grotesque character of those Chinese pleasure-grounds in which perpendicular rocks of granite start up in the midst of a soft green plain. Invention is shocking where truth is in such close juxtaposition with it.

Thucydides honestly tells us that some of these discourses are purely fictitious. He may have reported the substance of others correctly. But it is clear from the internal evidence that he has preserved no more than the substance.

--History from Macaulay’s Essays, Volume I.

 

A Short Story Revolution

This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review featured a cover story titled "Enigma Machines," concerning one Deborah Eisenberg whose fifth short story collection, the reviewer, Ben Marcus, assures us in the first sentence of his review, "offers commanding proof that in the right hands, the short story can be a legitimate art form."  Whew, I bet Charles Dickens, Henry James, Edith Wharton, etc., etc., etc., are relieved to hear that Ms. Eisenberg has redeemed that medium.  But Mr. Marcus isn’t content just with pronouncing Ms. Eisenberg as the savior of the short story.  He also tells us why:

What distinguishes Eisenberg from peers like Grace Paley, Joy Williams and William Trevor [N.B.: note the ridiculous concatenation of so-called "peers"] is an approach to storytelling that can be dizzyingly prismatic, as if refracted through cracked glass. Eisenberg has little faith in the typical expository armatures that prop up dramatic scenes: who is talking and to whom and about what, even though close reading will answer these questions in time. By stripping the informational fat that might provide obvious explanations, by thrusting readers into the middle of a conversation with characters we have yet to meet properly or playing hot potato with point of view, Eisenberg tests just how much can be left out before a story drowns in enigma.

Hence the title, "enigma machines."  I think this is a fair title for a review, which, while mentioning such past masters of the short story as John Cheever, fails to mention another mid-century short story writer.  I realize this person is not very well known—an enigma—one might call him.  He does not have his own volume in the so-called Library of America (although, as I predicted several months ago, Arthur Miller has just been awarded his).  Indeed, it’s an enigma why this writer would not be mentioned.  Perhaps it’s because he’s a bit out of favor right now, even though he, too, was known for "stripping the informational fat that provide obvious explanations." Now, I know his name is right on the tip of my tongue.  In his old age, he looked a lot like Santa Claus—if Santa drank a fifth of Jack Daniels before noon and was prone to shouting curses with a loaded shotgun.  I believe it was a bit of an enigma when this writer turned that shotgun on himself.  I know his name will come to me soon—he liked bull fighting, deep-sea fishing and jungle safaris.  A real man’s man, except for that impotency thing.  Now what was his name.  I think it started with an "H."  Can anyone help me and Mr. Marcus out?

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February  12,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Two great European writers of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx, illustrate this diversity with vivid clarity. Both were born in 1818 and died in 1883, and their lives paralleled each other almost preternaturally in many other respects as well. They nevertheless came to view human life and suffering in very different, indeed irreconcilable, ways—through different ends of the telescope, as it were. Turgenev saw human beings as individuals always endowed with consciousness, character, feelings, and moral strengths and weaknesses; Marx saw them always as snowflakes in an avalanche, as instances of general forces, as not yet fully human because utterly conditioned by their circumstances. Where Turgenev saw men, Marx saw classes of men; where Turgenev saw people, Marx saw the People. These two ways of looking at the world persist into our own time and profoundly affect, for better or for worse, the solutions we propose to our social problems.

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

[N.B.: Dual literary biography, anyone? The above paragraph—at least the first half—strikes me as an admirable idea for a book along the same lines as Bullock’s study of Hitler and Stalin. Indeed, I can’t think of a biographical work that deals with two contemporary literary figures who reflect two different, competing, cultural tendencies (literary dialectics). Other pairings which suggest themselves are Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), the first with an optimistic view of the Empire and the second with a decidedly more negative one; and George Eliot (1819-1880) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the first with a rationalistic view of the universe and society and the second embodying the older notion of "broad church" Christianity informing all things great and small.]

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February  11,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

If every person who tries to defend virtue is revealed to have feet of clay (and which of us does not?) or to have indulged at some time in his life in the vice that is the opposite of the virtue he calls for, then virtue itself is exposed as nothing but hypocrisy: and we may therefore all behave exactly as we choose. The loss of the religious understanding of the human condition—that man is a fallen creature for whom virtue is necessary but never fully attainable—is a loss, not a gain, in true sophistication. The secular substitute—the belief in the perfection of life on earth by the endless extension of a choice of pleasures—is not merely callow by comparison but much less realistic in its understanding of human nature.

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

[N.B.: One is cautioned—for good reason—not to use the double "m" dash in two consecutive sentences because it jars upon the stylistic sensibilities of the reader (aesthetically, it’s a bit too "jumpy" and "jangly").  But look at what Dr. Dalrymple has pulled off in this paragraph where he uses the consecutive "m" dash to set off parallel ideas with striking, dramatic effect.  Once again, proof that all grammatical rules are made to be broken—sparingly, though, very sparingly.]

 

Warning: Journalism is Hazardous to Your Literary Health

Of course, some of our greatest writers, both past and present, have dabbled in journalism—Charles Dickens and David Foster Wallace (not to mention, Tom Wolfe) leap to mind.  But, unfortunately, most of the Grub Street grubbers wind up like poor Cyril Connolly who documented the degradations of defecating newsprint in his wonderful little forgotten screed, Enemies of Promise.  And now, we have yet another object lesson in the dangers of excreting insight for the daily broadsheets—a column by one Carol Sarler in the Times proudly declaring that she doesn’t read books and sees nothing wrong with that.  Neither did the Marquis de Sade see anything wrong with coprophagia—a kissing cousin to journalism, if I may use such an expression—but that doesn’t justify his actions (unless one teaches transgressive literature).  So budding writers, beware, journalism may seem tempting but, more often than not, it is the siren’s call to insipidity.

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February  10,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Shakespeare thus places himself between utopian totalitarians and libertarian fundamentalists. He provides us with no easy answers to the questions that confront us now and that will always confront us. His is a call neither to draconian severity and repression, nor to utter leniency and permissiveness, the two temptations of those who like to argue from first principles. He calls us to proportion, that is to say, to humanity. We must both recognize the limitations imposed upon us by our natures and at the same time not give up striving to control ourselves. If we fail to do either, we shall succumb to ideological or instinctual beastliness—or (the curious achievement of our own age) to both.

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

 

Coincidence?

One of the chief complaints lodged against Charles Dickens by the current age’s literary no-nothings is that he makes unbelievable use of coincidence.  His characters wind up all being tied to one another in the most fantastic of contortions, which certainly is not what happens in the real world.  The real world.  That’s the problem with these no-nothings, they suffer from what I will dub the Horatio Complex.  As Hamlet so aptly told his bud as he gripped the soiled skull of his favorite yokester, Yorick (or, perhaps, it was when chasing after his papa’s poltergeist):  "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  As Gabriel Garcia Marquez demonstrated in his One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are more forms of realism than the cold-coffee-and-bread-crumbs kind and some of them can be quite "magical."  Dickens is concerned with art, not realism.  As Ruskin noted, any fool can paint from real life without imagination, but genius is the one who paints real life into his imagination. That’s J. M. W. Turner.  And Dickens.

In my view, Dickens’s imaginative use of coincidence is precisely why he’s a better writer than your run-of-the-bloody-mill realist like Emile Zola.  Coincidence helps Dickens create his own world which, in some ways, resembles our own, but in other ways, does not.  Alberto Manguel, in his nifty little commonplace book cum reader’s diary, titled, aptly enough, A Reading Diary, makes several observations on coincidence.  First, he notes that all great literary works share, at some high level of abstraction, an affinity with coincidence: "Perhaps, in order for a book to attract us, it must establish between our experience and that of the fiction—between the two imaginations, ours and that on the page—a link of coincidences."  Further, at another level, most great works of art can be linked back to venerable forefathers, such as The Iliad or The Odyssey, those two parents from whence much of our literature has sprung.  As noted by Manguel, "Says Chesterton: ‘We have to consider not only what is improbable, but what is probable; and especially the coincidences that are overwhelmingly probable."

Finally, we must wrestle with what I’ll refer to as the Dickensian Coincidence, that is, the type of coincidence used in a story in order to tie up various loose ends of plot.  Even here, Manguel offers a vigorous defense:

Coincidences (even those created artificially), a chance encounter with a friend I have not seen for a long time, the taste of apricots, the discovery of a book I have been searching for, the light at dusk at this time of year, the sound of the wind in the chimney, utter quiet and darkness before falling asleep: all these are for me unexpected moments of happiness.

They are unexpected moments of happiness for me too—and for Dickens. You may keep your brace of penny-realfuls, I’ll lie back and luxuriate in the glow of coincidence.

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February  9,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The tool that Lady Macbeth uses to galvanize her husband into action is humiliation. She humiliates him into doing what he knows to be wrong, just as many of my patients who take heroin started to take it because they were afraid to seem weak in the eyes of their associates. Macbeth loves and respects his wife ("my dearest partner in greatness," he calls her), but Lady Macbeth perverts his love—and his essential, ineradicable, and often laudable human desire to be respected and loved by the person one respects and loves—to the purposes of evil. The lesson is that any powerful emotion or desire, however virtuous in many circumstances, can be turned to evil purposes if it escapes ethical control.

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

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February  8,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

By depriving Macbeth of any particular predilection for evil that is not common to all men, and by denying him every possible circumstance that might justify or occasion his actions, Shakespeare excavates down to the line between good and evil that runs through every human heart, to use a phrase from The Gulag Archipelago that contradicts Solzhenitsyn’s faintly dismissive estimate of Shakespeare’s evil characters. He writes, "Gradually it was disclosed to me [in the Gulag] that the line separating good from evil passed not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts." And it is Shakespeare who shows us this line.

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

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February  7,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

I learned early in my life that if people are offered the opportunity of tranquility, they often reject it and choose torment instead. My own parents chose to live in the most abject conflictual misery and created for themselves a kind of hell on a small domestic scale, as if acting in an unscripted play by Strindberg. There was no reason external to themselves why they should not have been happy; reasonably prosperous, they lived under as benign a government as they could have wished for. Though they lived together, they addressed not a single word to one another in my presence during the eighteen years I spent in their house, though we ate at least one meal a day together; once, as a child, I was awakened in the night by the raised voice of my mother exclaiming to my father, "You’re a wicked, wicked man." Those are the only words I ever heard pass between them. It was like a bolt of lightning on a dark night; dazzling but unilluminating. Fort he rest, their silences were highly nuanced, expressing resentment, aggression, injured innocence, exasperation, moral superiority, and all the other dishonest little emotions of which the human mind is capable. They continued their absurd, self-dramatizing civil war to the end of my father’s life: on his deathbed, my father, by then long separated from my mother, said to me, "Tell her she can come if she wants to," to which my mother’s reply was, "Tell him I’ll come if he asks me." They stuck to their principles and never did meet: for what is mere death by comparison to a lifelong quarrel?

--Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

[N.B.: What, you’ve never heard of Theodore Dalrymple? No reason you should have—he’s a recently retired physician, who, by choice, worked in prisons and the most destitute of English slums. In other words, he’s a modern-day Dickensian character who has adopted a Dickensian pseudonym. He has some notoriety in Great Britain—from which he just recently emigrated to France in order to avoid the rampant incivility and just in time for the Parisian yoof riots (irony, irony, where is thy sting?).  Anyhoo, I start with a quote from one of the first essays in his book, which, in a single paragraph, serves as the outline of a first-rate short story and also highlights his felicitous writing style.]

 

Up, DFW

In one of his longer essays in his new collection of such, Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace, as a reporter for Rolling Stone, describes what it’s like hanging out on the campaign trail—actually, hanging out on cramped rented buses and in cookie-cutter chain hotels—with John McCain and his Straight Talk Express during the 2000 election cycle. In his essay, titled, "Up, Simba," DFW provides a glossary to the lingo used by the media denizens on the campaign trail, such as "cabbage," "scrum" and "weasel." He also uses this glossary throughout his essay in describing what actually happens schlepping behind a major candidate for President, such as John McCain. As you might guess, a reporter for Rolling Stone does just that—schleps behind without ever getting an exclusive with the candidate, which would be pointless anyway, since McCain’s great strength is to take extemporaneous queries during myriad town hall meetings and effortlessly lobbying the most difficult questions—such as whether he would do anything about the conspiracy sending radio messages to microchips embedded in a person’s scalp—up into the thin air where they dissipate without any glimmer of illumination or embarrassment to McCain or the questioner, even if the interlocutor’s head is bandaged in tinfoil. "Up, Simba," by the bye, refers to the phrase used by a diminutive tech—well, diminutive by tech standards where the average height seems to coincide with the population of Lithuania—who, when hoisting the camera to his shoulder, mutters this immortal phrase. And what is all this exposition supposed to show? Why, nothing more than that DFW has an omnivorous intelligence and corresponding powers of observation. He seems to see all, to hear all and to understand all. Sounds like the perfect package for a great novelist, right?

Not so fast buddy. There’s another famous reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Indeed, one of his first pieces was submitted to the magazine, after pounding it out for several days and nights on a manual typewriter in a desperate attempt to meet a repeatedly broken deadline, with an apologetic note to the editor to please cut it down to article length and run it. Instead, the editor, realizing the brilliance of the piece—which, of course, I forget what it was, maybe something from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby—merely slapped on a title and ran it in full (of course, I could be hallucinating this whole episode and have somehow mixed up the biography of Hunter S. Thompson—whaddayawant a fact checker?). Later, Rolling Stone would publish, in serial form á la Charles Dickens, this writer’s first (and many feel, his best) novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. The writer, of course, is Tom Wolfe (unless, again, I’m hallucinating Hunter S. Thompson—a fair tribute to him, I suppose). DFW also turns in a very long piece on McCain, but it gets chopped into little pieces. Why the juxtaposition of these two anecdotes? First, to show how far Rolling Stone has degenerated, although it still has the decent instincts to hire someone like DFW. And, second, to show how far our great writers might have degenerated, too.

DFW has a serious problem. His last novel, Infinite Jest, was written about a decade ago. Now, Tom Wolfe also takes about a decade to write a novel. But that’s because he does insane amounts of research along the lines of DFW’s article, "Up, Simba," where Wolfe dissects huge slices of American culture such as New York’s financial institutions sector (Bonfire of the Vanities), Atlanta’s banking and real estate industries (A Man in Full) or the East Coast’s elite private universities (I Am Charlotte Simmons). DFW, perhaps not consciously, understands that this is certainly one way out of the modern American writer’s self-imposed accidie that there just ain’t anything worth writin’ except from an arch, ironic viewpoint. DFW, though, doesn’t appear to be embarked on this path.

Instead, DFW has accepted custody into the most gilded of prisons—the university, a place Wolfe has always scorned (unless it’s to be used as an object of derision such as in I Am Charlotte Simmons). So, instead of, say, continuing to learn more about how modern campaigns and politics are actually conducted—a Jack Abramoff doppelganger would make a wonderful character in a book—DFW instead shares his precious insights on literature and grammar to his starry-eyed students and lovingly edits their fan mail . . . errr . . . class papers. Yes, everyone loves to be loved and adored, but it is infuriating to see someone with the talent of DFW squandering it in this fashion. Another essay in his book, a supposed book review, titled, "Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky"—which pays unintentional tribute to Tom Wolfe in a footnote—shows that DFW is keenly aware of this dilemma. And still he chooses to bask in the sun, eating his lotus flowers. DFW, in another essay about 9/11, titled, "The View from Mrs. Thompson’s," harps on his church-going habits. Well, I suggest he peruse the Good Book, specifically, Luke chapter 12 verse 48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."

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February  6,  2006

Patrick: Recommended Reading

I just finished David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster and must agree with Kathryn that this collection of essays features some of the best journalistic reporting to have been produced in the last decade.  Now, if DFW would just get out of his cushy University office more often and produce that next great novel that he certainly has the potential to pull off--or, at least, he has a better shot at it than anyone else this side of Tom Wolfe.  I'll expand on these sentiments tomorrow.

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February  5,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"I ask you because I want your opinion as well as hers," said Isabel.

"A fig for my opinion! If you fall in love in love with Mr. Osmond, what will you care for that?"

"Not much, probably. But meanwhile it has a certain importance. The more information one has about a person the better."

"I don’t agree to that. We know too much about people in these days; we hear too much. Our ears, our minds, our mouths, are stuffed with personalities. Don’t mind anything that any one tells you about any one else. Judge every one and everything for yourself."

--The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

[N.B.: One has the distinct impression that quite a few of the sickly Ralph Touchette’s observations are also cherished by the author, such as this one. If only Henry James had lived to see the advent of People magazine—of course, it probably would have triggered the Distinguished Thing.]

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February  4,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Madame Merle was too humorous, too observant, not to do justice to Henrietta, and on becoming acquainted with her would probably give the measure of a tact which Miss Stackpole could not hope to emulate. She appeared to have, in her experience, a touchstone for everything, and somewhere in the capacious pocket of her genial memory she would find the key to Henrietta’s virtues. "That is the great thing," Isabel reflected; "that is the supreme good fortune: to be in a better position for appreciating people than they are for appreciating you." And she added that this, when one considered it, was simply the essence of the aristocratic situation. In this light, if in none other, one should aim at the aristocratic situation.

--The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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February  3,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"When people forget I am a sick man I am often annoyed," he said. "But it’s worse when they remember it!"

--The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

[N.B.: The older I get and the more  I read, the more I find that there is very little—either in style or substance—that Oscar Wilde did not filch from his literary betters.]

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February  1,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"There seems to have been room here for you," said Isabel, whose eyes had been wandering over the large pleasure-spaces of the park.

Mr. Touchett gave a shrewd, conscious smile.

"There is room everywhere, my dear, if you will pay for it. I sometimes think I have paid too much for this. Perhaps you also might have to pay too much."

"Perhaps I might," the girl replied.

--The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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