Wednesday, April 23, 2014

`Philistinism in All Its Phases'

The literary critic with the earliest and most sustained influence on me as a reader and writer was not a literary critic but a novelist of the first rank – Vladimir Nabokov. His tastes, prejudices and enthusiasms I absorbed as my own – at first, by osmosis and faith; later, by testing them against the writers and books in question. His judgments could be wrong-headed, but interestingly so, and some I have subsequently modified or rejected. You could learn from his lapses. A reader has alerted me to a list of Nabokov’s literary assessments culled from Strong Opinions (1973).  I pass it along not as a guide to anything, or as a proposed Bloomian or Adleresque mini-canon, but simply as insight into one reader/writer’s literary education. Nabokov contributed much to my aesthetic conscience. 

The most immediate reversal in bookish values spurred by Nabokov was my abrupt sense of revulsion at Dostoevsky, which has never left me. The timing was critical. I’d read the novels starting in seventh grade. The melodrama appealed to me, all that Slavic angst, phony mysticism and sub-Dickensian comedy. A few years later, when I read Nabokov’s wonderful monograph Nikolai Gogol, he gave a name to what attracted some of us to Dostoevsky: poshlost.  “Dusty,” as Nabokov dismissed him, is forever linked with my callow, awkward, backward, soft-headed, pre-critical adolescence. In his Paris Review interview with Herbert Gold in 1964 (collected in Strong Opinions), Nabokov glosses poshlost further: 

“Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.” 

In other words, things have degenerated even further in half a century. I never fell for Freud’s frauds but Nabokov helped me see through such “puffed-up” (a favorite term of dismissal) reputations as Thomas Mann, Maxim Gorky, D.H. Lawrence, Balzac, Thomas Wolfe, Camus, Sartre, Brecht, Kazantzakis, Galsworthy, García Lorca and Rabindranath Tagore (“a formidable mediocrity”). Today, it’s difficult to understand how anyone took them seriously, but all were certified as “important” when I was a young reader. We need guides, not gospel, so as not to get lost and tangled in the underbrush of literature. Nabokov was my first and most influential. He could be wrong – about Robbe-Grillet and Salinger, for instance; but he could be admirably right, as he was about Sterne, Melville and Beckett. The author of Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory was born on this date, April 23 – Shakespeare’s birthday – in 1899, and died on July 2, 1977.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

`By This Clear Knowledge I Unread My Books'

“I have always known that the non-bookish existence underlies and precedes the bookish one, which should ornament and implement the latter: and that the eye is far more important than the pince-nez, the telescope, or the microscope. Although they are not to be despised, such machines are subsidiary aids.” 

The book-minded are often caricatured as feckless wraiths, useless in a demandingly pragmatic world. It’s true, some of us, if we’re not careful, recede into fugue-like states that jeopardize the welfare of ourselves and those around us. I’ve been known to walk into trees while reading outdoors. Our author, a notably physical and tough-minded poet, South African-born Roy Campbell (1901-1957), cautions against retreating into a hothouse lined with books. The passage above is drawn from a chapter in Light on a Dark Horse: An Autobiography (1952) recounting Campbell’s brief spell at Oxford, which he left without taking a degree. Among his roommates was Aldous Huxley, whom he describes as “the great Mahatma of all misanthropy” and a “pedant who leeringly gloated over his knowledge of how crayfish copulated (through their third pair of legs) but could never have caught or cooked one.” We know the type. 

Some of us look upon books as tools for enhancing, not evading, our experience of the world. They’re simply another aspect of life, like earning a living and raising children, one that enables us, as Dr. Johnson suggests, “better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Campbell, I think, is cautioning us against replacing our attentive engagement with the world with someone else’s, seeing with second-hand vision. He follows the passage above with a stanza from his poem “The Sling” (Mithraic Emblems, 1936): 

“By this clear knowledge I unread my books
And learned, in spite of theories and charts,
Things have a nearer meaning to their looks
Than to their dead analysis in parts;
And that, for all the outfit be antique,
Our light is in our heads and we can seek
The clearest information in our hearts.” 

About the last line I’m skeptical.  To be human is to be deluded, at least on occasion. The “clearest information” isn’t always the truest. An Emersonian faith in self can prove murderous. Speaking of which, the copy of Light on a Dark Horse I borrowed from the Fondren Library has a bookplate at the front from a group called the Christianform, with an image of the cross smashing a hammer and sickle and proclaiming In hoc signo vinces – “In this sign you will conquer.” The group, which donated the book to the library, describes itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to the defeat of atheistic Communism and the liberation of all peoples enslaved by its tyranny.” In his book, Campbell describes Communist treachery during the Spanish Civil War. Writing of the fate of the anarchists, he says: “But they were warm-blooded—unlike their ice-cold compères, the `commies,’ who were less than human. It was not long before most of the anarchists wished they had gone Right for they were unmercifully massacred by their Red Comrades.” 

Campbell’s book was published in a very dark year, 1952. China had fallen, the Korean War raged, Stalin had another year to live, the Soviets had the atomic bomb and soon would have the hydrogen bomb. Not coincidentally, Whittaker Chambers published Witness in 1952.

Monday, April 21, 2014

`The Arch-Simplicity of the Song'

A reader in Scotland reports on the progress of spring:

“Probably the time of year, but many people in the UK have a deep emotional/poetic attachment to nature. I heard the cuckoo for the first time this year a few days ago and the first swallows have arrived. Maybe the response is the same everywhere."
 
It is. On Sunday, Dave Lull alerted me to a story about a snowy owl injured by a bus in Washington, D.C., now recovering in Wisconsin. Some of the finest prose devoted to the natural world (Thoreau minus the crankiness and gassy philosophizing) was written by the poet John Clare, a deeply learned amateur (in the etymological sense). The cuckoo is an Old World bird, so we in the United States rely on witnesses like Clare (and my reader -- note that he says "the cuckoo") for descriptions from life. This is from April 27, 1825 (The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, 1983), in which Clare echoes my reader's announcement: "Heard the Cuckoo for the first time this Season--it was said to be heard a week back by a shepherd." And this, from 1826 or 1827: "Heard the first Nightingale & Cuckoo both on this evening April 21st." And here, echoing a modern-sounding theme, from a letter written in 1823 or 1824:
 
" ...I love to look on nature with a poetic feeling which magnifys [sic] the pleasure I love to see the nightingale in its hazel retreat & the cuckoo hiding in its solitudes of oaken foliage & not to examine their carcasses in glass cases yet naturalists & botanists seem to have no taste for this poetical feeling they merely make collections of dryd [sic] specimens."
 
My reader goes on to praise Gilbert White and two others among his countrymen whose work in nature studies I know and admire -- Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker, who write in Birds Britannica (Chatto & Windus, 2005) of the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) and his cultural significance in Great Britain:
 
"With a song that is as far-carrying as it is unmistakable, the cuckoo has made a deeper cultural impression on us than all but two other summer migrants. The nightingale, with its richer literary tradition, is almost exclusively a bird of the south and only the swallow (now perhaps replaced by the swift) rivals the cuckoo as the nationwide badge of summer. However the swallow has always been far commoner, and our close neighbour. The cuckoo, by contrast, is thinly spread and highly secretive, which suggests that the arch-simplicity of the song is the key to its emblematic dominance."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

`Blessings Emblazoned That Day'

Declaring one’s ignorance publically has its advantages. Among them is the opportunity to meet people better informed than one’s self and sufficiently generous to share what they know. In last Monday’s post I quoted a passage from a letter Philip Larkin wrote to Monica Jones in 1951:

“Your remark about footworn stones made me want to dig out and quote that not very original but heartwarming sentence of Hardy’s about a worn stone step meaning more to him than scenery. What a miracle of feeling Hardy was—in a sense much rarer than a genius of expression, a particular set of responses that can never be repeated.”

I asked for help in identifying the poem by Hardy, whose work I’ve never known well. On Friday I received an email from a reader in Scotland who writes: “I was in a second hand bookshop in Lochgilphead in Argyllshire and I spotted a lovely little book. It’s an anthology of poetry edited by C. Day Lewis, A Lasting Joy [1973].” In it he found a poem by Hardy, “The Self-Unseeing,” that he suspected was the one remembered by Larkin:

“Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

“She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

“Childlike I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with gleam;
Yet we were looking away.”

My reader includes Lewis’ comment: “Thomas Hardy imagines himself as a child in the cottage at Upper Bockhampton in Dorset where he was born, sitting with his parents. His father is playing the fiddle, his mother is sitting by the fire. And the children............ the children didn’t realise the idyllic nature of the scene in which they were taking part, and they didn’t realise it because, as Hardy tells us they were looking away.” One understands Larkin describing the poem, apparently without irony, as “heartwarming.” Only a thoughtful adult can regret the occasional obliviousness of his younger self, the way we ignore what our older selves will recall as precious. It’s a variation on Nabokov’s 1925 story “A Guide to Berlin,” with its concluding sentence: “How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?” In Hardy’s case, the “him” and the “somebody” are the same person.

In his note to “The Self-Unseeing” in Vol. I of The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy (1982), the editor, Samuel Hynes, includes an excerpt from Florence Emily Hardy’s The Early Life of Thomas Hardy (1928):

“He was of ecstatic temperament, extraordinarily sensitive to music, and among the endless jigs, hornpipes, reels, waltzes, and country-dances that his father played of an evening in his early married years, and to which the boy danced a pas seul [solo dance] in the middle of the room, there were three or four that always moved the child to tears, though he strenuously tried to hide them.”

Saturday, April 19, 2014

`Strike It Out'

The experience of writing for newspapers for twenty years taught me than copy is not sacred, anything you’ve written can be chopped or changed, for reasons good or bad, and that whatever you’ve written can be improved by yourself or by someone else. Your heart must be in the writing but at some point you let it go, like a wayward child. Prima donnas and deadlines can’t coexist. This can be tough for young and not so young writers to accept. It takes a degree of stubbornness and pride to write publically. (What you do in a notebook on the kitchen table is nobody’s business.) But it takes a comparable humility to submit one’s work to cold, impersonal editing, whether by others or by yourself, and to acknowledge that we are not always the best judges of what we’ve written. 

Recall Boswell’s account of the April 30, 1773, dinner at the home of Johnson’s friend Topham Beauclerk. With Lord Charlemont, Sir Joshua Reynolds and others, Johnson has great fun at Oliver Goldsmith’s expense (“he always gets the better when he argues alone”). Johnson’s next victim is William Robertson, author of the two-volume History of Scotland 1542-1603 (1753). He’s a Scot, of course, and fellow-Scot Boswell defends him against Johnson’s dismissal of Robertson’s “verbiage.” Among his charges against the historian: 

“It is not history. It is imagination.” 

 “Robertson is like a man who has packed gold in wool: the wool takes up more room than the gold.” 

“No man will read Robertson’s cumbrous detail.” 

Then Johnson, ever vigilant for evidence of vanity, moves on from the specific to the general:  

“I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: `Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’” 

Kill the little darlings, as a city editor in Indiana once told me. Whatever elicits that little tingle of ego-satisfaction – beware. Writing involves gratification and its denial. In June 1784, just six months before Johnson’s death, Boswell recounts this exchange, a variation on the advice he rendered above: 

Miss Adams: `Do you think, Sir, you could make your Ramblers better?’ Johnson: `Certainly I could.’ Boswell: `I'll lay a bet, Sir, you cannot.’ Johnson: `But I will, Sir, if I choose. I shall make the best of them you shall pick out, better.’ Boswell: `But you may add to them. I will not allow of that.’ Johnson: `Nay, Sir, there are three ways of making them better; --putting out, --adding, --or correcting.’”

Friday, April 18, 2014

`The Right Kind of Mind'

More than eight years ago, one of the first writers I wrote about at Anecdotal Evidence was the American philosopher Brand Blanshard (1892-1987). That post, devoted to On Philosophical Style (1954), led to my friendship with Dave Lull, who knows more about Blanshard (and Hume, among others) than I ever will. In a used book store I recently found a water-warped copy of On Philosophical Style – at sixty-nine small pages, hardly more than a pamphlet – priced at fifty cents. It takes half an hour to read but is packed with useful ideas about prose, philosophical and otherwise. He asks us to name the writers who have “managed to make their ideas most uniformly interesting.” All of Blanshard’s nominations date from the nineteenth century – Macaulay, Froude, Carlyle, Hazlitt, Lamb and Ruskin. Of them he writes: 

“These men wrote in different ways and on different subjects—not always easy subjects by any means. But there is one trait they all have in common: they are unfailingly interesting. That makes one suspect that they have at least one other trait in common, and with a little reflection one finds it: what they wrote is saturated with feeling.” 

I thought immediately of a book blogger I know, a partisan of the avant-garde, whose prose is unfailingly leaden. His writing embodies the flat-affect school of composition. He has honed an earnest, inexpressive drone. I think, however, we have to be careful about calling for writing that is “saturated with feeling.” Too easily that’s interpreted to mean hysteria, adolescent self-indulgence and "sincerity." Blanshard writes (and keep in mind that he is a philosopher): 

“Readers want their writers to make them feel alive, and when they can sit with their authors and jeer and laugh and scold and rejoice and admire with them, they feel intensely alive.” 

I’ve devoted a lot of time lately to Philip Larkin, who will never be mistaken for a cheerleader but whose best poems and much of his prose make this reader feel “intensely alive.” Readers and writers alike mistake stridency for animation. A few pages later, Blanshard admits that he likes “in my philosophers, some responsiveness of mood to matter.” Cookie cutters are useful in baking but not in crafting sentences. Each sentence, each word, is brand new, a freshly minted thought and sound. The right sort of mind finds that invigorating. Blanshard writes near the end of his little book: 

“The more perfectly one’s style fits the inner man and reveals its strength and effect, the clearer it becomes that the problem of style is not a problem of word and sentences merely, but of being the right kind of mind.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

`Such a Valetudinarian Attitude Toward Life'

A useful word without a precise synonym that I learned long ago and have never used in print or conversation: velleity. From the Latin velle, to will or wish, but more anemic; call it will-less will, faux-will, the flaccid opposite of decisiveness. In literature the cognates are Oblomov, the “poor, sensitive gentlemen” of Henry James and Italo Svevo, and Beckett at the end of Waiting for Godot:  

“VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.” 

Velleity is a self-conceived, delusive trick of the mind – wishing something were so but doing nothing to realize it. We all do it, and some make a career of it. Here’s what brought the word to mind: 

“He writes of failure, or insufficiency rather, or rather of velleities and second thoughts, of dubious buses not too bitterly missed, of doubts about doubts, and there is a gentleness, even a dry sweetness, to his tone of voice.” 

The author is the late poet and critic D.J. Enright in “Down Cemetery Road,” a review of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings collected in Conspirators and Poets (Chatto & Windus, 1966). The Larkin volume was published in February 1964 and contains some of his best and best-known poems – “Dockery and Son,” “Days,” “Mr Bleaney,” “MCMXIV,” “An Arundel Tomb” and the title poem. Enright understands Larkin’s “homespun melancholy,” makes no excuses for it and knows it’s more than that, more than a bad attitude or chemical imbalance. “Dockery and Son” (“Why did he think adding meant increase?”) looks back at “I Remember, I Remember” (The Less Deceived, 1954) and forward to “This Be the Verse” (High Windows, 1974). Of all this wry grimness, Enright rightly concludes that “perhaps it is not ridiculously out of order to feel a degree of impatience at the sight of so marvellous a skill in conveying the feel of living joined with such a valetudinarian attitude toward life.”