Category Archives: The Western Canon

October 2, 2015

Pincher Martin

William Golding (1911–1993)
Pincher Martin (1956)

035_Golding-library 035_Golding

Roll 37: 1551. William Golding: Pincher Martin.

This is the only work Bloom lists for William Golding, which is a little like only listing one novel by Bram Stoker and having it be Miss Betty. It’s yet another indefensible pretension on Professor Bloom’s part, in assembling a list that’s ostensibly his best guess as to which 20th-century works will persist as canonical. His words: “What I have omitted seem to me fated to become period pieces.” (Peering down my nose smugly harrumph harrumph. To the power of twenty.)

However, Pincher Martin is better than Miss Betty.

I made a tentative start in the library copy at left, then happened across the copy at right in a bookstore and started again.

This is as brutal as they come. The word I have been using is “grueling.” This is a book that sets out to hurt, to sting, to be hard.

When I wrote about Lord of the Flies I said that people like it because it’s just Halloween. This is not. There’s no reading this to savor the ghoulishness; or at least there wasn’t for me. It is existential horror, meant very seriously and only to be taken seriously.

In fact it is intended so seriously that where my core beliefs differed with the book I found the book difficult to comprehend. Where once I would have contorted my mind to his theology just for the sake of the sentences, now I had the sense to preserve myself and accept a degree of vagueness. My quantities for “man” and “nature” and “consciousness” and “greed” are not the same as his, and I’ve decided I like mine. Everything I said about Golding in the Lord of the Flies entry applies here several times over. Ontology is psychology; this is the ontology of a kind of pain to which I am no longer committed.

(Artistic spoiler coming, but it won’t mean anything to you if you’re not in the process of reading the book.) In the climactic sentence, Golding identifies the consuming nothingness of death, the irresistible force of Nature, as “a compassion that was timeless and without mercy.” This is astute and moving, given the order of the world he is exploring, but to me it’s also an admission of the psychology within which the author works.

A “compassion without mercy” is pure oxymoron to a well-adjusted personality, whereas it makes deep and poignant sense to a self-repressive one. The grand struggle depicted in the book, which Golding seems genuinely to believe to be that of man against his own nature, of consciousness against its existential status, is actually just the struggle of one mental tendency against another. It’s a struggle whose resolution or lack thereof is not existential. Nature is not only death, and one’s feeling even about death is not necessarily horror. I’m not sure Golding believed that.

I recognize that the protagonist is not entirely an everyman, he is a particular furious, amoral, stubborn, demonically defiant individual, a Captain Ahab type. But Moby-Dick is clearly not of and by Ahab; it’s delivered in the voice of another mindset entirely. Pincher Martin allows room for anti-Martin interpretation but it certainly doesn’t spell it out. The impression given by the work as a whole is that this man’s struggle may be grotesque but that it is archetypal on a grand scale. Christopher Martin is not just a personality type; he’s the human condition. Or at least he’s a human condition.

That distinction is important. Which is it? How universal a statement is this meant to be? Golding’s intentions on this point are very hard to read. There are characters in Martin’s flashbacks who put forward positions of relative moral grace, but of course they aren’t existential centers. They aren’t the self, within this artistic universe.

All I can say is that the supreme brutality of the prose gives no indication that this artistic vision is being moderated or qualified. It is full force.

The ambition is about as high as one can aim and the artistic achievement is real. It is highly admirable stuff and I have no regrets about the time or emotions spent in reading it.

But I do differ with it.

Here’s an excerpt from early in the book.

Where we are: our protagonist’s ship has been torpedoed in the mid-Atlantic. He has been blown into the water, and has chanced to wash up on an isolated rock. He has hoisted himself to the top and now, utterly battered and exhausted, has found a crevice to lie in for shelter. All of this has been accomplished in what seems perhaps to be a state of compromised consciousness. This is the start of chapter 4:

The man was inside two crevices. There was first the rock, close and not warm but at least not cold with the coldness of sea or air. The rock was negative. It confined his body so that here and there the shudders were beaten; not soothed but forced inward. He felt pain throughout most of his body but distant pain that was sometimes to be mistaken for fire. There was dull fire in his feet and a sharper sort in either knee. He could see this fire in his mind’s eye because his body was a second and interior crevice which he inhabited. Under each knee, then, there was a little fire built with crossed sticks and busily flaring like the fire that is lighted under a dying camel. But the man was intelligent. He endured these fires although they gave not heat but pain. They had to be endured because to stand up or even move would mean nothing but an increase of pain — more sticks and more flame, extending under all the body. He himself was at the far end of this inner crevice of flesh. At this far end, away from the fires, there was a mass of him lying on a lifebelt that rolled backwards and forwards at every breath. Beyond the mass was the round, bone globe of the world and himself hanging inside. One half of this world burned and froze but with a steadier and bearable pain. Only towards the top half of his world there would sometimes come a jab that was like a vast needle prying after him. Then he would make seismic convulsions of whole continents on that side and the jabs would become frequent but less deep and the nature of that part of the globe would change. There would appear shapes of dark and grey in space and a patch of galactic whiteness that he knew vaguely was a hand connected to him. The other side of the globe was all dark and gave no offence. He floated in the middle of this globe like a waterlogged body. He knew as an axiom of existence that he must be content with the smallest of all small mercies as he floated there. All the extensions with which he was connected, their distant fires, their slow burnings, their racks and pincers were at least far enough away. If he could hit some particular mode of inactive being, some subtlety of interior balance, he might be allowed by the nature of the second crevice to float, still and painless in the centre of the globe.

Sometimes he came near this. He became small, and the globe larger until the burning extensions were interplanetary. But this universe was subject to convulsions that began in deep space and came like a wave. Then he was larger again, filling every corner of the tunnels, sweeping with shrieking nerves over the fires, expanding in the globe until he filled it and the needle jabbed through the corner of his right eye straight into the darkness of his head. Dimly he would see one white hand while the pain stabbed. Then slowly he would sink back into the center of the globe, shrink and float in the middle of a dark world. This became a rhythm that had obtained from all ages and would endure so.

This is not a special effect; most of the book is like this. The objective and the subjective, external and internal, are always intermingled.

I find it both thrilling and harrowing, to see substrata of conscious experience articulated on the page. Perhaps some of the electricity I feel in reading this stuff is specific to me personally, as someone who has struggled with horror in these same dissociative internal zones.

That kind of electricity is valuable; it means that the art is offering contact to rarely contacted parts of myself, live wires. For all that I came away with reservations about its particular vision, above all the book reminded me how unfortunate it is that most other artists just inherit their most basic existential premises, and never question them. It doesn’t need to be so.

Pincher Martin is about consciousness as an ordeal, but it’s still rewarding because it’s about consciousness at all. There are lots of other claims that could be made in the same conceptual space, and I’d probably prefer one of them. But I was deeply grateful simply to have been invited into that space. It is too rare a thing.

April 26, 2015

Leskov: Tales

Nikolai Leskov (1831–1895)
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories (1865–1887)
(selected and) translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2013)


Roll 36:
990: Nikolai Leskov. Under which there is only a single entry:
991: Tales

The recent Vintage Classics edition happens to be the longest and most inclusive Leskov collection ever assembled. Upon learning that this was my next assignment, I strolled to a local bookstore and bought it.

Here’s my review:

The very slightly rough finish of the cover’s paper stock is a great tactile pleasure. It somehow perfectly complements the particular thickness and heft of the book, which is slightly denser than the average paperback. Furthermore, the edges of the spine have an excellent sturdy sharpness. The book is thoroughly satisfying to the touch. For the year that I spent inching my way through this volume’s 576 pages, I never stopped enjoying the sensation of holding it in my hand.

Naturally, it feels best when it’s closed.

It was hard to leverage the tactile pleasure into enthusiasm for the reading. Flopping the book open to reveal its rather thin, cheap pages and struggling to attend to its text always felt like a betrayal of my happy relationship with its sculptural qualities. Must I ruin everything for myself? Why couldn’t I just enjoy this rectangle for its excellent tactility? Why couldn’t I simply let it be the object it was born to be?

Well, because it was in fact born to be a book, and to be read. It isn’t my fault that the outside isn’t spiritually of a piece with the inside. That’s squarely on the heads of the publisher and star cover designer Peter Mendelsund. The attractive cover is a lie, and a deliberate one. Albeit perhaps only subconsciously.

What can I possibly mean by a “subconsciously deliberate” lie? I mean the lie of design as a whole, so I guess the time has come to release some of my long-deferred ranting about design.

What makes a designer tick is the thrill of converting what is into what is splendid. This purports to be cultural altruism, as though designers were the civic beautification committee, serving the populace, making the world a more hospitable place. But usually the only thing they’re really serving is an addiction to splendidness, and their only compass is whether they’ve gotten their fix.

Designers pride themselves on their ability to parse everything into a fashionable form. To them, this feels innocent: “it’s only interpretation,” they think, “not interference.” The thing-itself after all remains pure; they’re simply housing it, and with their finest craftsmanship: what could be more respectful? A conscientious cover designer goes in search of a thing that he thinks is more honorable than mere marketing: a real perspective, a legitimate standpoint from which the material can be flattened into something modish and sleek.

But rather than being more honorable, this is actually far more insidious than mere marketing, because interpretation is interference. Parsing is in fact the most intrusive possible act, since it impinges not on the work (which, yes, is durable), but on the reader. The designer who selects a “point of view” and asserts it with graphic force is stealing the reader’s freedom. That this point of view is usually chosen solely for its potential to accommodate the designer’s compulsion for splendidness, to rationalize that same old obsessive modishness and sleekness, only adds insult to the injury.

And it is a real injury, because a cover cannot be denied. It is psychologically impossible to simply disregard a cover. A book is like any other inanimate object: it is its appearance.

I have no reservations about saying that covers have always had a tremendous impact on my experiences of reading, comparable to the impact that the music on the radio has on my experiences of car trips. For a time in my life I was driven by embarrassment to delude myself that covers were “just covers,” but in truth, the outward appearance of a book has always been at the emotional root of every reading experience. Reading is a devotional process, and the book is the icon.

Peter Mendelsund has certainly done many eye-catching covers, but taken as a whole his work seems to me thoroughly overconceptualized, clever-clever, and not to be trusted, especially not with established works. I utterly hate his Joyce covers. Every time I see the new Ulysses on a bookstore shelf, it pains me to think that this is now the standard American edition, and that anyone who buys and reads it for the first time will be buying and reading The Peter Mendelsund Show, with its very specific and banal ideas flamboyantly interposed. I would be embarrassed to think of the ghost of James Joyce finding out about these designs, which seems to me a pretty good criterion for determining whether a cover is in good taste.

That Mendelsund has written a heavily-designed book about the act of reading just seems to me like a symptom of the reflexive self-attention that subsumes real feeling. This guy doesn’t just like reading, says the book, he knows reading, and wants to explain it to you. That mindset seems to me a liability for a visual artist.

His Leskov cover is a close relative to the Joyce covers. The “point of view” seems to be: Leskov’s stories are eccentric, human, meandering. They run insouciant rings around their own 19th-century mantle of dignity. The arrow of narrative (a fletched arrow with folktale connotations, subtly bringing out the romance of “enchanted” and “wanderer”) defies all expectation and asserts its own hand-drawn personality with deadpan magnetism. Formal inventiveness, wit and whimsy, in tensile balance with an underlying classical elegance. Surely herein is something intellectually stimulating, wry, clever, hearty, a bit mysterious, and above all timely and chic. Naturally. I mean just look at it; look at the colors, look at the post-modern winking! And it’s by star designer Peter Mendelsund!

From the publisher’s copy on the back: “…seventeen tales, some rooted in oral tradition, others cast as sophisticated anecdotes… Innovative in form and rich in wordplay, the narratives unfurl in startlingly modern ways.”

Now, these statements are all technically true (though only a few of the stories have wordplay, and “startlingly modern” is highly debatable)… but note that they are essentially analytical, academic types of claims, not claims about experiential value. “These are things that are true of the book.” But what is the book like? The marketing copy doesn’t venture to say.

The deliberate lie of the cover is that it relates exclusively to these conceptual claims about the work and not to the work itself. Mendelsund renders these analytic observations into a slick aesthetic presentation, with a generic “cultured bibliophile” flavor, deriving nothing from the flavor of reading the actual stories. The cover, like so many covers, is actually selling the cocktail conversation about Leskov, not Leskov himself.

Having cracked the lovely shell, opened the book and read it, I now know there was a reason for this! Leskov’s work is very much from long ago and far away. But being literate enough to know and talk about Leskov is timeless. Naturally they’re going to pitch the latter over the former. Here’s the one critical blurb on the front cover of the paperback, from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Outstanding… A worthy monument to add to your bookshelf of prized Russian literature.”

Exactly! Just think of it, on your bookshelf! Just think how it will look, being there, possessed and mastered by you. Just think how you will prize it! A worthy monument indeed.

I however alternated prizing it, as described above, with reading it, as described below.

This is the first Pevear and Volokhonsky joint I’ve visited, and I’m sorely disappointed. For the past 15 years, Barnes & Noble & Friends have been telling me in no uncertain terms that P+V are a superstar dream team who have valiantly reclaimed Russian literature from fusty old Constance “Public Domain” Garnett and given it back its vigor, its precision, its spice, its bite. “Not your grandma’s Dosteyevsky!” It never occurred to me to be cynical until now.

The translators’ note begins: “Leskov is notoriously difficult to translate.” It then lays out P&V’s approach to the problem with allusion to a quote by Jacques Maritain:

“The first duty of a translator … is always to respect the word itself that the author has used … and to seek its exact equivalent.” [Maritain] was not advocating a slavish literalism; he was defending the full meaning, meaning also the way of meaning, of the original.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the philosophy of translation, but the above seems like a terrible, gaping fallacy. Aspiring to convey “the full meaning, meaning also the way of meaning” is a vague and lovely ideal that bears no necessary relationship to the much more dubious ideal of seeking “exact equivalents” to individual words. By implying that these two attitudes are intuitively linked, P&V reveal the very bias they are trying to reassure us against.

But you don’t have to take my word for it! Let’s read some Leskov. This excerpt comes from early on in the very long title story, The Enchanted Wanderer (or Очарованный странник, if you insist). The story is a picaresque narrated by, and very much in the voice of, its supremely earthy protagonist. He is among other things a master of horses; here he is setting the stage for recounting a carriage accident:

У него дышловики были сильные и опористые: могли так спускать, что просто хвостом на землю садились, но один из них, подлец, с астрономией был — как только его сильно потянешь, он сейчас голову кверху дерет и прах его знает куда на небо созерцает. Эти астрономы в корню — нет их хуже, а особенно в дышле они самые опасные, за конем с такою повадкою форейтор завсегда смотри, потому что астроном сам не зрит, как тычет ногами, и невесть куда попадает.

David Magarshack (1961, available from Modern Library):

My father’s shaft horses were strong and very reliable when it came to getting a firm foothold on the road: they had a way of taking the carriage down by just sitting on their tails in the roadway. One of them, however, was a real villain of a horse with a predilection for astronomy: it was enough for his reins to be pulled in with some force for him to throw up his head at once, and confound his eyes if he wouldn’t start scanning the skies! These astronomers are truly the worst kind of horses you can get, and especially between the shafts they are a real danger! An outrider must be constantly on his guard against a horse with such a habit, for an astronomer, of course, does not look where he’s putting his feet down and he usually gets himself and everybody else in a terrible mess.

Ian Dreiblatt (2012, Melville House):

[My father’s] shaft horses were strong and reliable; they had a way of easing the cart down an incline by sitting on their tails in the middle of the road. But one of them was a real blackguard, disposed to astronomy: just rein him in for a minute and he’d throw his head back, and, well bless his soul, cast his gaze to the heavens like he was scanning the stars! These astronomers! Basically, there’s nothing worse, and especially between the drawbars, that’s where they’re most dangerous. An outrider’s got to keep a close eye on an astronomer horse: on their own they can barely put one foot in front of the other, and they’re always causing all kinds of problems.

And finally, Pevear and Volokhonsky (2013):

[My father’s] shaft horses were strong and reliable: they could make the descent simply by sitting on their tails, but one of them, the scoundrel, was into astronomy — you only have to rein him in hard, and straightaway he throws his head up and starts contemplating deuce knows what in the sky. There’s no worse harness horses than these astronomers — and they’re most dangerous especially between the shafts, a postillion always has to watch out for horses with that habit, because an astronomer doesn’t see where he puts his feet, and who knows where they’ll land.

This excerpt should make apparent why Leskov is so difficult to translate. The voice and spirit of the tale-teller are absolutely of the essence — they are, in fact, the whole reason for the story — but those things are inextricably caught up in nuances of idiom and dialect that can have no exact equivalents in other languages.

The soul of this particular excerpt is not so much in the joke itself (of calling a horse who looks upward an “astronomer”) as in the author’s observation of such a joke in its natural habitat, the affectionate ethnography implicit in having rendered this particular flavor of raconteurism into print. This, it seems to me, is Leskov’s thing: a journalistic sensitivity to modes, tones, cadences, attitudes of speech. The stories are all about character types, and the principal artistic offering is their personal presence.

You may well feel that the P&V translation is the best of the three above… but what’s important to acknowledge is that it is still no good. There is no heart beating in this English, only in the Russian that it points back to.

Which curse does he use? “Confound his eyes?” “Bless his soul?” “Deuce knows what?” The particular flavor of the particular curse is everything to this story; such stuff makes up the essence of Leskov’s work! And yet there is no right answer, because he uses none of these, he uses some Russian colloquialism, which carries some kind of real living juice that we can only guess at. The “juice” in each of these translations is just borrowed junk that can’t be invested in; it doesn’t come from the character or the author. So the whole thing falls down dead, the breath of life sucked out of it.

The best a translator could do would be to take on Leskov’s entire creative task again, reimagining the character and his mode of expression from the ground up. That of course couldn’t be a very strict translation, but it might at least be readable. Dreiblatt, above, dared to venture a very little of this (“These astronomers! Basically, there’s nothing worse”), but that kind of half-measure ends up frustrating more than satisfying. In any case, Pevear and Volokhonsky, with their pride in fidelity above all, are absolutely not the people for this job, and I have to wonder what job they are the people for.

Upon googling I was pleased to find that outside the walls of Barnes & Noble, there are indeed other P&V skeptics. This page provided what seems to me a nicely illustrative case, taken from their translation of Doctor Zhivago. A critic (Donald Rayfield) complained that their word-for-word attitude had created some clumsy and lifeless English, and gave as example the line of dialogue “‘Ah, spit on the rugs and china, let it all perish.’” Pevear wrote back:

The Russian could be paraphrased as ‘don’t bother about the carpets’, as Rayfield suggests, but why give up such an expressive phrase as ‘spit on’, which also happens to be what Pasternak wrote? The norms of English surely don’t call for such levelling.

Surely I don’t need to explain what’s so stubborn and absurd about this attitude, which is in evidence everywhere in the text. P&V write not in real English but in a make-believe Englishized-Russian, for make-believe Englishized-Russian readers, and apparently are genuinely unaware of the difference. The difference is everything! Especially in this work.

Reading it was like squinting. I was always trying to make out what it had once been and what that might have been worth. That’s not what pleasurable reading is like.

But I think that’s only half to do with the language divide. The other half is the historical and cultural divide. After having read about half the stories, I came across some reference to Leskov that said he was like a Russian Mark Twain. This seemed extremely apt and helped me a great deal, both in imagining what kind of flavor might be hiding behind the text, and in forgiving myself for what I couldn’t decipher. Can you imagine trying to convey the juice of Mark Twain, the particular savor and pungency of that world, to someone from deep China with only the very roughest impression of America? That’s who I was to Leskov. He was regaling me in some way that was surely full of the smells of smoke and hay and wood, but only if you already have the context to plug in to. To me it was the sound of foreignness celebrating itself with a grin and a knowing look, in all its incommunicable subtleties.

The reading inspired morbid thoughts about the transience of all cultural context. The nuances that make life feel like life are the very first thing to go. In another century, the charms of Mark Twain may well become completely inaccessible. We forget the realities of our own pasts, of the feelings we’ve already experienced; so how can we ever hope to feel the ones we haven’t? The “historical record” isn’t even good enough for us to fully piece together what it must have really felt like to be alive only a few decades ago in our own country. At any further remove, the question of what it was like to live in a given culture seems to me shrouded in permanent and near-complete darkness. (This is why, as I’ve been telling people, I would really love to see a fully-inhabited HBO-style show about ancient Uruk and the bread economy, just for the thrill of seeing the question answered at all. It wouldn’t have to be even remotely accurate to give that rush of exploring completely new empathetic possibilities.)

Leskov knew and loved what it was like to be alive in mid-19th-century Russia. He wrote exactly of and within those nuances of “what things are like” that probably felt most vital and alive in the moment, the ones that long ago withered and died and can’t be recovered. The stories act as though they’re about human universals, but they’re really only about human universals as manifested in this very particular milieu, a milieu in which Leskov spent his whole life and nobody alive today has spent even a minute. (But at least people who speak Russian have a tradition of looking back on it, as we Americans do of imagining that we “get” what it was like to whitewash a fence.)

So my experience of Leskov was mostly of disconnect. At the very start I was enjoying the rich sense of foreign cuisine and just the simple pleasure of reading any new thing. But after 100-some pages the novelty mostly wore off. After that, I occasionally got a touch of enjoyment from some facet of what I laboriously construed the stories to probably be, but never from the text itself, never from the stories as they unfolded under their own steam.

Then in the last week of reading I suddenly had a sense of touching back down, becoming attuned to some of Leskov’s mayflies after all. In part I think this was my own personal progress; the year spent with Leskov on my nightstand happened to be a year of changing outlook, for me, and it’s possible that only at the end of that year had I opened my windows wide enough to smell 150-year-old cut grass. In part I think it was Leskov’s progress; the stories were in chronological order, and I think the later ones really were more bold in their casualness, and more emotionally open. And maybe it was just chance. Anyway, I ended on a pretty good note.

I was going to run down the stories and point out the interesting ones but I think we’re good here.

Basically, if you are intrigued by Russia and Russianness, already have a way of going there in your imagination, any of these stories might well be deeply appealing to you. But if you are like me and are just reading to encounter things and hear what they have to say about themselves, you will be left on the outside. This is why Leskov remains, and surely will always remain, lesser-known outside of Russia. These things usually happen for a reason.

Leskov backward is Voksel. I have had this thought pretty much every time I saw this book for the past year, but this is the first time I am acknowledging it to myself.

March 22, 2014

Aesop’s Fables

“Aesop” (c.620—564 BCE?)
Fables (dates of origin various and unknown)
Translated and edited by Lloyd W. Daly as Aesop Without Morals (1961)


Roll 35: 93, which is the row for “Aesop,” who of course only has the one work listed: Fables.

If you’ll remember how we left off, our hero had just worked through a selection of La Fontaine’s fables and, finding them to have been a somewhat unsatisfying reading experience, decided not to press onward to greater heights of obsessive completism but declare that assignment done and roll again…

… so, yes. Fate cracked its whip. Or at least cracked its knuckles. “You think you can escape me? You think you can just pick up and leave whenever you want? If it’s fables you fear, then it is FABLES YOU SHALL HAVE!”

It’s like Jonah and the Whale. Or Job. Or something. For sure it’s like something, something with a big fat moral. If you see what I’m saying.

Actually, the moral, I think, is “spare the rod and spoil the child.” The child here being Fate. It got petulant and acted out when I took a stand, because I’ve been letting it walk all over me for all these years. But if I back down in the face of this tantrum I would just encourage it. Now that I’ve started to turn the tables, I need to carry through and be firm. So. I got this book out of the library. I kept it by my bed for two months and read a little bit most nights. It has 579 fables in it. I read 105 of them. I now declare I am done.


Incidentally, above, when I wrote out the scornful speech of Fate, I recognized that correctly it should end with an evil genie laugh of “mwah ha ha ha!” … but I simply could not bring myself to type that, because I despise on principle the institutionalization of “mwah” as the official first syllable of transcribed evil laughter, that being a noxious pseudo-playful development of the late 90s and a leading indicator of the LOLCATaclysm to come.

And yet I did feel the contextual temptation to type it, which pains and disturbs me to admit. Good god: might I have already typed “mwah ha ha ha” on this site at some point in the past 8 years? Sometimes I forget who I am and do terrible things. As Dr. Jekyll might say. Right before letting out Mr. Hyde’s terrifying cackle: “gfurahr harrh harrh harrh!”

(“Bwah ha ha ha” for explosive earthy laughter is just as grotesque a token of emotional counterfeit. Maybe moreso, since at least “mwah ha ha ha” is explicitly roleplay.)


If you have to read Aesop’s fables in a non-kiddie context, I endorse this edition, sadly out of print. The title is Aesop Without Morals because the morals, which date from long after the stories themselves and are generally asinine or inapt, have been relegated by the editor to an appendix, leaving the fables alone, to be read in their clearest, barest prose forms, which seems the correct way to encounter this fundamentally skeletal material. Rather than putting clothes and a hat on the skeleton in a vain attempt to make it more than it is. Daly knows what these things are and what they’re not and presents them appropriately.

What they are not is narratives. They are scenarios. In Daly’s introductory words:

If these fables were not intended to serve a moral and instructional purpose, were they brought together to serve any other purpose? The answer to this question is not, perhaps, too difficult to divine, for we know something of the place the fables occupy in our own consciousness. Pointed stories capable of a wide variety of applications have always been in demand. We have only to recall fishing in muddy waters, out of the frying pan into the fire, the goose that laid the golden eggs, the dog in the manger, the boy who cried wolf, the ant and the grasshopper, the hare and the tortoise, and the wolf in sheep’s clothing to realize the proverbial and paradigmatic function the stories serve with us. We depend on the very mention of a fable to say, “Oh, yes, everyone recognizes that kind of behavior; it’s just like that of the animal in the fable.”

Having had it put to me this way I couldn’t imagine seeing it any other way. Despite Fate’s efforts to provide a sequel to La Fontaine, whose insinuating snark made me uneasy, I found nothing like that here. This is definitely not a book of chiding moral lessons; it’s not even really a book of stories. It’s a book of ethical archetypes. It’s like a list of all possible situations. Someone will definitely want to use some of this stuff for stories. But these aren’t stories.

I felt like I was reading a dictionary of idioms.

And I liked that! My one real thought that I wanted to bring with me to this entry was that it is actually quite heartening to spend time appreciating creations of language art that are not yet literature. It made me feel good about humanity for exactly the same reason that they put a picture of bountiful raw oats tumbling out of a burlap sack on the back of your cereal box. This isn’t the thing you eat; it’s the building block of the thing you eat, and all the more stirring for it. These are beautifully artful building blocks, and I’m glad that they’re classics.

A dictionary of idioms could be genuinely inspiring and heartwarming in the same way. Isn’t the expression “it’s a piece of cake” a thing of beauty? Absolutely it is, in its category, and if Harold Bloom figured out a way to get “it’s a piece of cake” its own place on his canon, I’d endorse that. It makes me happy that we come up with these thoughts, images, groupings of words for each other and then trade in them and build our days out of them. And it’s wonderful to think that the ancient Greeks and Romans were coming up with such sturdy archetypes that we still like to think of them now. There will always be something richly marvelous about the image of those unreachable grapes and the disappointed fox slinking away. Glowing, like a stained-glass window. It all starts with thick and hearty 100% whole grain oats.

But only a horse could eat this book raw. Have you ever eaten dry raw oatmeal as a snack? I know I have. It’s good! But it doesn’t work. That’s how this was. Eventually you stop because, seriously, what are you doing?

Your excerpt:

85 The Pig and the Sheep
A pig got into a flock of sheep and fed with them. But once the shephered got hold of him, and he began to squeal and struggle. When the sheep found fault with him for making so much noise and said, “Doesn’t he catch us all the time? And we don’t cry,” he replied, “Yes, but it isn’t the same thing when he catches me. He’s after you for your wool or your milk, but it’s my meat he wants.”

86 The Thrush in the Myrtle Thicket
A thrush fed in a myrtle thicket and wouldn’t leave it because the berries were so sweet. But a fowler who observed her fondness for the spot spread his lime and caught her. As she was about to be killed, she said, “Alas! Because the food was so sweet I am to lose my life.”

87 The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs
Hermes was worshiped with unusual devotion by a man, and as a reward he gave the man a goose that laid golden eggs. The man couldn’t wait to reap the benefits gradually but, without any delay, he killed the goose on the supposition that it would be solid gold inside. He found out that it was all flesh inside, and so the result was that he was not only disappointed in his expectation but he also lost the eggs.

And so on and so on up to number 579. Perhaps there is a fable in here about some animal that foolishly prides itself on its singlemindedness, but I wouldn’t know because I stopped.

Here, if you want there to be a rule, I can make a rule: if my selection is not a single work but a body of work, I’m free to move on, if I like, after I’ve given it a month.

The book also includes a fictional “Life of Aesop” written in late antiquity, which undoubtedly has nothing to do with any historical Aesop, if there was one, and certainly sheds no light on the actual origin of these fables. I didn’t read it.

As a book of raw materials for creative play this probably can’t be topped. Any single one of these could provide the kernel for a work of any form, flavor or scope. And if you need to thicken your stew, just throw in another one.

The quick and desultory character of this entry is just another form of revenge on old man Fate. I can do what I like!

Gfurahr harrh harrh harrh!

January 15, 2014

Fables (1668–94)

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–95)
Fables (1668–94)
(selected and) translated by James Michie (1979)


This was what I’m calling “roll 34” in my Western Canon sweepstakes: 482, which is the line for Jean de La Fontaine. Only one item under his name: Fables.

La Fontaine’s verse is prized for its elegance and piquancy in the original language; his fables have been classroom French examples for centuries. Well that sounds splendid but I don’t speak French. After doing a bit of comparison shopping for translations I settled on the Penguin selection seen above.

Many of the fables are just retellings from Aesop; others come from Indian sources. Later in his output La Fontaine ventured more of his own invented fables, which tend to be wordier and more involved. (That is, if I was correct in my sense of which were which.)

For the old chestnuts, the charm of the style would seem to be the main attraction here; his audience already knew the fables themselves as well as we do. La Fontaine retells these little animal stories in a style that is both precious and sardonic, chatting cheerfully and smirking cynically in equal measure. The ideal, it seems, is to be simultaneously free and controlled, breezy refinement. How very seventeenth-century-French, non? The verse follows a similar muse: the schemes of rhyme and meter are generally irregular, whimsical, improvisational, but the element of rhythm is always kept in play. It has sort of a jazzy formal spirit.

That sounds like it might be pretty good, and sure, in many ways it was pretty good, but I’ll be frank with you: my desire to write anything about this runs very shallow. I think that’s because the moral content, which is after all the point, felt neither enriching nor amusing. After each one I had a sense of having been a bit scolded, rapped with a ruler, and felt myself forced to contend with the lesson. E.g. “It’s best for people only to associate with their equals.” Gee, I don’t know, is that really good advice? Was it good advice then? How mean-spirited is this? Do I agree with it even a little? Am I worried about it? How much politico-historical thinking do I need to do to neutralize the discomfort I feel? Why does this 300-year-old smirk feel so personal?

That sort of agonizing is inevitable for me when faced with self-assured criticism and advice. Criticism and advice always unnerves me because it is the knife-edge across which kindness ceases to be kindness. And this book is chock full of it.

Eventually, after finally reaching the end of my wrangle with whatever “oh snap!” La Fontaine had just laid down, I would feel drained. I had to go through that just to read this damn cute animal story? I had a pretty strong hunch that La Fontaine didn’t actually care about these morals as much as he was letting on, nor did his readers; that they all lived in a time when worldly cynicism and metaphors to match were in and that all this finger-wagging was just a posture. Well, I really dislike that posture. Moralizing gives me the willies and moralizing just as a way to be marvelous is even worse.

Like, I don’t even feel very comfortable with that grasshopper (cicada, here) and that ant. When the ant refuses to take pity on the grasshopper because it’s your own damn fault, don’t let the door hit you on the way out to FREEZE TO DEATH, the lesson, it would seem, is not just that one should pull one’s own weight, nor even that one can reap only what one has had the foresight to sow (like in the much more palatable “who will help me bake the bread” story), but, more disturbingly, that your neighbor (as well as every consenting teller and hearer of this fable) is self-righteous to the point of bloodthirst. Forget what Jesus said, everybody really knows that charity is only for the blameless, ha ha ha. And blame after all is very easy to mete out. That stuff’s hard enough for me to take hearing it in public debate these days; somehow it feels even more insidious coming out of a witty old Frenchman talking about some très charmant bugs.

I went through a lot of “who says??” while reading this, which ate up much of the charm. You might tell me, “The point should have been the charming poetry, not the morals! Don’t worry so much about them.” But that’s like telling me to enjoy hard-right-wing political cartoons because “Forget the politics, they’re such delightful cartoons!” I don’t know that they are that. I don’t know that the two are separable.

Admittedly, a great many of the fables had a softer touch and were directed at the softer targets of vanity and pretension. That I found easier to take. I was, in fact, occasionally amused. I did appreciate the breeze of the style. This has all been just to say that I was never fully delighted, because my hackles were always a bit up.

The translations seemed to me good; better than the others I’d sampled. I guess you’ll want to try one. Here’s the one I mentioned earlier. Book V, Fable II: THE CLAY POT AND THE IRON POT.

Said the iron to the clay pot:
‘Let’s see the world together.’
‘If you don’t mind, I’d rather not,’
Said the other. ‘I’m not sure whether
I would be wise to forsake
My corner of the ingle —
After all, it would only take
The slightest shock, one single
Accident to shatter
My body irrevocably.
But for you who are made of matter
Tougher than mine, I can see
No reason to stay inside.’
‘But I’ll be your bodyguard,’
The iron pot replied.
‘If we happen to meet some hard
Impediment on our way
I’ll stand between you and harm
As a buffer.’ The pot of clay
Was persuaded. Arm in arm,
Brother escorting brother,
As best they could they set off
Six-leggedly, knocking each other
At the least stumble or cough.
The clay pot was bound to suffer.
Within a hundred yards
His bodyguard and buffer
Had smashed him into shards.
He had only himself to blame.

In life we observe the same.
One should only associate
With equals. He who does not
Is sure to suffer the fate
Of the vulnerable pot.

Who says who says who says??

I had also checked out of the library a bilingual edition of the complete fables, with slightly less attractive but perfectly passable translations, and intended to supplement the short Penguin volume with a trip through this giant hardcover volume. But as I neared the end of my first round, a rare sense of agency came over me and, in a bid to reduce the amount of masochism in my life, I granted myself leave to declare this assignment finished once I got to the end of the Penguin selections. I had, after all, read an entire book of La Fontaine’s fables. The gods, I thought, would not be angry.

Well, I guess they were, because when I went to find out my next selection the randomizer gave me an unambiguous reprimand. With a nasty twinkle in its eye, La Fontaine style. A little too ironic.

In that same spirit of non-masochism I am going to end this entry here. There is, after all, more to come.

December 5, 2013

La cantatrice chauve (1950)

Eugène Ionesco (1909–1994) [born Eugen Ionescu]
La cantatrice chauve (anti-pièce) (1948-50)
translated by Donald M. Allen as The Bald Soprano, Anti-play (1956/8)


I rolled 1351. This is on line 1350, the first Ionesco.

I think I could direct this one pretty well. Clarification: In my experiences observing theatrical directors I’ve learned that directing is 10% imagining how things should go, 70% dealing with people to try to get things to go that way, and 20% coming to terms with what ends up happening instead. When I say I could direct this one pretty well, I just mean the first 10%, the fun part. I guess I really mean that I could imagine this one pretty well. And I did. I imagined real performances, and blocking and lighting and sound and everything. I put on a good show in my head.

I was able to do this while “sight-reading,” as it were, because this show is pure nonsense. I didn’t need to know where it was going because the construction is musical and self-generating. It has no rational arc or goal-oriented forces. It is simply in formal motion. It spools out. That’s not to say that it was written that way; it functions improvisationally but it surely required careful editing and shaping to maintain that impression.

To refer to the brain hemispheres again (I know, I need a better terminology for this), this one was for R. Some might even say that the play is R thumbing its nose at L – that’s more or less the index card version of Ionesco – but to my mind, R just doesn’t have any reason to thumb its nose. Nonsense is its own impregnable kingdom. It has no enemies.

L says: I could easily dig into this, just like I could easily dig into anything, but goddammit I need a break – seems like everyone’s L does – and this is clearly it. Take it away R, while I crawl into this hammock with an umbrella drink. Knock yourself out.

R says: this is like a full one-act’s worth of Exploding Penguin Sketch. Or any other Monty Python bit with the shrill housewives (“pepperpots”) whining absurdities. It might be interesting to work out a chain of historical influence that encompasses both Ionesco and Monty Python — or not. Or the ahistoricity of absurdity. Or something. Might be interesting… for L! For my part I just think it’s great to see people sitting in a room saying things to each other BUT SILLY.

The premise here is the stilted, inane world of the “Thank you, my name is Mr. Smith” sample sentences in language courses. That’s plenty premise for me!

If you tell a four-year-old that there’s a kangaroo in the refrigerator, the four-year-old will say “NO THERE ISN’T!” with great glee. Four-year-old me at least. I’m not sure why, but somehow it’s delighting to have occasion to check in with one’s knowledge that there isn’t a kangaroo in the refrigerator. Perhaps because it’s such comfortable knowledge; unlike many worrisome things in the world, this one isn’t even slightly uncertain. And because the kangaroo and the refrigerator are both friendly currency. It’s not like there’s a demon in the refrigerator. The Bald Soprano is all about unthreatening everyday this-and-that, except it’s all SILLY! NO THERE ISN’T! YOU’RE BEING SILLY!

The more important reason that kids are delighted when adults are silly is because adults aren’t generally silly. To stage a play that says, deadpan, “It’s pretty silly to put on a play, isn’t it? BANANA!” offers the audience a similar gift: the acknowledgment of shared innocence, which is to say shared absurdity. Isn’t that why nerds love Monty Python, ultimately? Because the cruel intricacies of social interaction are being openly acknowledged — by people with British (i.e. grown-up) accents, no less — to be a senseless charade, a kangaroo in the refrigerator.

(Nerds, of course, no longer need Monty Python these days — and I get the impression Monty’s remarkably long prominence is finally in real decline — because internet interaction offers an RPG-style escape into the discrete, away from all that bewildering nudge-nudge R-style business of face-to-faceism. Nobody wants reassuring satire about something they are already committed to eliminating from their lives. You got 19 likes! Level up! With friends like these, how could the dead parrot sketch possibly ease anyone’s pain? Face-to-faceism’s sins are so quaint and human compared to the Brazil of Facebook; I feel like talking to that mild and personable pet shop owner would be a rare and relaxing pleasure. Who isn’t pinin’ for the fjords?)

Okay, now go back to before the parenthetical and get ready to pick back up from where we were.

So: It seemed clear to me that Ionesco was up to the same sort of thing. Toward the beginning there is a prolonged sequence of Mr. and Mrs. Martin realizing the exceedingly obvious with surprise, an inch at a time. When the scene finally reaches a sort of endpoint (they conclude that they know each other and are married to each other), the maid emerges to address the audience and reveal, also at pointless length, that the impossibly obvious conclusion they have reached is secretly not so after all (because one of their outrageously obvious realizations was actually mistaken, for an absurd reason). When the maid is finally finished with this announcement she does a false exit only to return and conspiratorially add the tag: “My real name is Sherlock Holmes.” The profound inanity of this punchline, carefully placed at the end of a long descent through what already seemed entirely inane, is, I think, at the core of what the play does. To me it says: the infantile is the real, and to get the benefit of it we are going to have to strip down through your embarrassment, by stages. A “groaner” like “My real name is Sherlock Holmes” must be earned and then endured so that it can be surpassed on the road to purity. Sign me up!

And the play does end, as it must, in a pure state of inanity, a chaos of everyone on stage shouting language gobbledygook that has been calculated not just to be senseless and stupid but to be embarrassingly so, which is to say bracing and cleansing for those who need a cleanse, and delightful for those who are just waiting for the adults to finally let down the facade, if only for a moment. Here the facade is down:

Mrs. Martin: Silly gobblegobblers, silly gobblegobblers.
Mr. Martin: Marietta, spot the pot!
Mrs. Smith: Krishnamurti, Krishnamurti, Krishnamurti!
Mr. Smith: The pope elopes! The pope’s got no horoscope. The horoscope’s bespoke.
Mrs. Martin: Bazaar, Balzac, bazooka!

So that all seemed clear to me, and I know exactly how to direct it/perform it in my imagination. It is not, however, how Ionesco seems to be played or understood generally, and this pains me. So I’ll let L handle the rest:

Harumph harumph. Broomlet Book Club undersecretary “Maddie” was moved to go searching for insight into the peculiarly niggling footnotes about discrepancies in the first production that pepper the text (e.g. after the direction for Mr. Smith to sniff for a smell of burn: “*In Nicolas Bataille’s production Mr. and Mrs. Martin sniffed too.”) and came across this article about its director Monsieur Bataille, which she forwarded to me. It gets at the heart of the interpretative matter:

“When we first read the play, we played it as a comedy,” the director recalls. “But our great discovery was that it lost all of its vitality when played for laughs. So we went against the comedy, playing it as tragically as possible.”

Bataille’s company virtually stumbled upon the Absurdist style…

…”Ionesco,” Verdier says as Bataille pauses, “is very sensitive, you see, about Nicolas being his discoverer, even though he really is. Nicolas found the key to the subtext under the absurd surface of the text, and this had a profound influence on Beckett, (Harold) Pinter and (Edward) Albee.”

The 80-year-old playwright and the 66-year-old director have carried on a friendly, but sparring relationship, as if wary of being too linked to each other…

That is to say: the director and his cast found they weren’t up to selling the comedy as written, so instead they sold the gimmick of willful mal-performance. And then lo and behold willful mal-performance turns out to be so strange and disorienting a thing that the audience’s anxieties of incomprehension kick in and soon enough there is a smell of eager pretension on the air.* The audience is unable to maintain the impression that they are seeing what they are actually seeing — that being: a wholly perverse non-delivery of a play — and so they begin to suspect mysterious depths, that there may be something rare and fine and difficult at hand, something with subtext, something high. Not the genuine absurd — how childish that would be! — but rather Absurdism, a thing one can smoke and be French to with ease. Absurdism goes on to be installed as a whole emperor’s new aesthetic in theater departments everywhere. And Ionesco, seeing his cavalcade of bracing silliness converted into a beret-wearing cipher that does just the opposite of what it was meant to do — i.e. coddles pretentious avant-gardism rather than detonating it in googly-eyed embarrassment — registers his horror in what seems to me an admirably resigned way: by inserting disdainful footnotes in the play’s own mode of pointlessness. (*In Nicolas Bataille’s production, the audience sniffed too.)

Of course Ionesco was an undiscovered young nobody when he wrote this, and its success made him Ionesco, even if that success was on terms he never intended. So did he later sell out and cater to the berets? Or perhaps make peace with them? That I don’t know. I haven’t read his other works. (Well, I read Rhinoceros in high school but that was a long time ago.)

Yes, the above is just speculation. But at its heart is an observation I will stand by:

The magic of theater is mostly ritual and situational and applies to anything done under theatrical circumstances. It is not particularly dependent on intention or even execution. This is why terrible performances tend to be either excruciating or campily wonderful, but rarely indifferent: because the magic works, and its power, for good or for evil, cannot be denied. This affords tremendous leeway to theater artists, as even their most indulgent and senseless experimentation will seem vaguely potent under the lights. “I don’t know what this is but it’s interesting!” is the motivating principle behind a great deal of theater art. Part of that interest, part of what attracts an artist to a choice, is the impression of secret meaning. But since the audience isn’t privy to the process, they will have the sense that the artist actually has that secret meaning in hand and is teasing them with it. In fact what the artist has actually done and understood is frequently shallow beyond the audience’s will to imagine. (Especially at these prices!)

It is very difficult to sustain an awareness that something seemingly rich, deep, and challenging is actually just a smoke bomb chucked in the magic machine by someone else’s anxieties, or someone else’s impish whim. (Much easier to struggle struggle struggle to understand and then smile a Mona Lisa smile, chuckle knowingly, and light another cigarette.) But one should cultivate a capacity for this awareness, because it relieves one’s own anxieties. And cigarettes are bad for your health.

I guess this applies to all art.

R: Silly gobblegobblers, Trix are for kids! R out! (throws down mic)

September 27, 2013

Le Misanthrope (1666)

Molière (1622-1673) [born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]
Le Misanthrope (1666)
translated by Richard Wilbur as The Misanthrope (1952–54)


490. That’s in the middle of Molière’s list, so I read the first work listed. Not sure why that’s the rule, but it is. The Misanthrope, and Bloom specifies the Richard Wilbur translation.

I bought this one. I thought this was something I would feel good about owning, and, in the moment, I liked the way it looked. Beth thinks the cover is tacky, what with the gradient and the fake signature and all, but those very things remind me of comfortable times (i.e. 1993).

I’ll begin by noting once again that plays are short. I can’t stress this enough. We’re not talking about a novel, here. We’re talking about an hour or two.

Richard Wilbur points out in his introduction that Molière’s plays are particularly self-sufficient as texts, such that “a mere reading-aloud of the lines, without any effort at performance, can provide a complete, if austere, experience of the work.” This was borne out. I read the play aloud with a partner (we even made a gentle “effort at performance”) and it charmed — right before our eyes, not just in some imagined theater.

Wilbur’s introduction also notes that maintaining rhymed verse in the translation seemed to him mandatory, essential to Molière’s wit and tone. I don’t know the original but I daresay he did an excellent job. The text is clear and graceful and all sorts of wit lands very nimbly.

We read it aloud with complete rhythmic fidelity to the meter — not robotically, but faithfully in a fluid way — which I found extremely congenial to the tongue and to the ear. And Wilbur’s point about its contribution to the wit is exactly right. The buoyancy made it all delectable.

Not for the first time, I couldn’t help but think: why aren’t Shakespeare’s plays performed this way?

Why are we so afraid of rhythmic speech? It’s something like the aversion to “Mickey-Mousing” in incidental music; there’s this idea out there that strong rhythm makes things tasteless or absurd. As though if the iambs bounce too much, it’s undignified – certainly undignified for, say, Shakespearean Tragedy. But isn’t that just a form of the classic embarrassment of the sensual? Shame at dancing, shame at music, shame at the flesh, shame at art itself? Dance is only absurd in a context of repressing the dance.

What’s so undignified about doggerel, really?

I think that somehow over time we’ve come to think of metered rhyme as something only fit for jest because we wrongly feel it best to try to set “real thought” apart and keep it separate from our art. As though to guard against a threat: that if mere pleasure were to get inside a thought, the senseless vigor would contaminate its rigor.

But obviously that isn’t true; it’s just what art’s supposed to do! The more you integrate the mind — the more the rational’s combined with stuff that stimulates the senses — the more acute experience is. The rational part only gains from someone having taken pains to render it in dancelike verse; it doesn’t make the logic worse, but rather gives it heft and bite, and at some level makes it right.

The dance conveys that thought is good, the joy of being understood, and this can only elevate the author’s sense, and give it weight. And that’s why we should hear the rhyme and feel the iambs keeping time, instead of merely glancing down and with a Harold Bloom-y frown commending Shakespeare’s “splendid song — but to perform it would be wrong.” The notion that in Shakespeare’s plays the rhyme and rhythm are just ways of flaunting discipline and skill — essentially a test of Will — and aren’t to be heard, per se, but only sensed in some vague way, while being willfully obscured by actors who feel reassured by pulling out that standard trick of alternating slow with quick, and taking stabs at “naturalism” by running roughshod through the rhythm — this notion makes no sense to me as anything but anxiety. And yet I know it’s very hard to find productions of The Bard performed in full iambic lilt, where Hamlet singsongs without guilt.

But someday I might see, I hope, a staging of The Misanthrope that honors all the rhymes, as we did, in which I think we succeeded. It wouldn’t be the same in prose, as Richard Wilbur clearly knows.

Or knew, rather.

That tired me out so I think I’m about done here.

The Misanthrope is about the impossibility of absolute sincerity and the grotesqueness of rampant insincerity. It brings up these issues swiftly and elegantly, gets a few laughs with them, sets up some light dramatic conflict with them, and then ends, setting the matter back down without undue moralizing. For this restraint I greatly admire it. The question of sincerity is for each of us to struggle with individually; there’s plenty bite enough in the fact that the philosophical questions are real and timeless (despite the “urbane” subject matter, this stuff is entirely as accessible today as it was in 1666). I found the work far more thought-provoking than I would have found some kind of lesson play on the same subject.

Well, for the duration anyway. Of course afterward I just went on to the next thing and stopped thinking about The Misanthrope. I guess if it had some kind of horrible catharsis and an overbearing moral, I would have been more inclined to wrestle with it in my mind for days afterward.

But that would have been my anxiety at work, clinging to the discomfort as it tried desperately to set right what can’t be set right. You can get people to think about your art by shoving something dismaying in their faces, but that’s the low road. So again, I admire this for going the high road. It comes from an unanxious milieu, a bewigged world of ephemeral grace and wit, and I feel not just soothed but heartened by that soft touch. “For the duration” is a perfectly natural and reasonable amount of time to think about something.

Like I said, plays are short.

I haven’t done excerpts for plays up until now, but why not. I think people like the excerpts. It makes this site a little less blatantly like me talking to myself about something nobody else actually knows about. (Except for Maddie, who so far continues to follow along. Oh, and in this case also except for my reading partner. Never mind, there are plenty of you who’ve read this. But here comes an excerpt anyway.)

This is the first passage that made me chuckle aloud. Alceste, our misanthrope, crusader against hypocrisy, has said that he will not hold back from frankly stating his beloved Celimene’s faults.

I see her charms and graces, which are many;
But as for faults, I’ve never noticed any.

I see them, Sir; and rather than ignore them,
I strenuously criticize her for them.
The more one loves, the more one should object
To every blemish, every least defect.
Were I this lady, I would soon get rid
Of lovers who approved of all I did,
And by their slack indulgence and applause
Endorsed my follies and excused my flaws.

If all hearts beat according to your measure,
The dawn of love would be the end of pleasure;
And love would find its perfect consummation
In ecstasies of rage and reprobation.

Love, as a rule, affects men otherwise,
And lovers rarely love to criticize.
They see their lady as a charming blur,
And find all things commendable in her.
If she has any blemish, fault, or shame,
They will redeem it by a pleasing name.
The pale-faced lady’s lily-white, perforce;
The swarthy one’s a sweet brunette, of course;
The spindly lady has a slender grace;
The fat one has a most majestic pace;
The plain one, with her dress in disarray,
They classify as beauté négligée;
The hulking one’s a goddess in their eyes,
The dwarf, a concentrate of Paradise;
The haughty lady has a noble mind;
The mean one’s witty, and the dull one’s kind;
The chatterbox has liveliness and verve,
The mute one has a virtuous reserve.
So lovers manage, in their passion’s cause,
To love their ladies even for their flaws.

As with the rest of the play, this is, like a good modern standup routine, not only funny but also resonant. Where should tact end? Who is really being mocked here? I laugh in part because I don’t know. Everyone equally, I’d like to think.

Anyway, good going, That’s-a more like it.

See below for the Maddie report, I hope.

September 18, 2013

The Playmaker (1987)

Thomas Keneally (b. 1935)
The Playmaker (1987)


2084: The Playmaker, the first-listed (though second-written) of two selections by the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, the other being his calling-card work, Schindler’s List (original Australian title Schindler’s Ark, 1982). Library copy of the American first edition, from the closed stacks.

This reading assignment happened to fall during a time when I’ve been actively trying to get my right and left brain to renegotiate some of their basic arrangements — a strange process and one still ongoing — and in trying to write it up I have found myself struggling to do justice to the essential bihemisphericity of my response. (This is my third attempt at writing this entry.) So this time we’re trying a new gimmick. Take it away, boys.

R: The Playmaker sounded dull and unpromising when I first read what it was (a fact-based novel about the staging of the first play ever performed in Australia, by penal colony prisoners in 1789) because I distrust historical fiction — it’s usually boring and misguided — and I especially distrust regional fiction. If you’re in a bookstore on Cape Cod and they’ve got a bunch of a locally-published mystery novels about Cape Cod (likely featuring cats and/or ghosts), you definitely don’t buy and read them. So ditto Australia, am I right?

But all the same, in my excitable innocent way, I harbored the hope that this would turn out to be some kind of hidden gem that I could recommend to people. The magic random wheel had spun me a modern but forgotten novel by a writer widely heard of but not widely read. Wouldn’t that be great, if it was great?

When the library called it up from the closed stacks (always a dramatic moment!), I felt like the jacket (as well as the dimensions, the heft of the book) was encouraging. It looked and felt appealingly like a book that was great in 1987 and then unfairly forgotten by cruel fashion. I had good times with library books of similar charisma in 1987; maybe this would offer suchlike good times! Look at that type design! Look at that weird, oh-so-book-cover-y bargain-basement-Magritte painting!

Even the interior offered coy charms: the title page is made to look like it’s printed on a curling theatrical poster, and then you turn the page and see the same poster again but now advertising the play to be performed by the prisoners. Then more novelty frontmatter: a “dramatis personae” and a list of “The Players” enumerating all of their crimes and sentences. Dull to read, admittedly. But I, R, can’t help but get excited about gimmickry. God help me I’d probably be reading Marisha Pessl or some shit if it wasn’t for the old ball-and-chain L. I love me some toys.

But there the toys ended, more or less. (Unless you count the weird two-page prologue(?) that follows, about which more later.) The novel proper started and suddenly it was exactly the book I feared, a boring and misguided historical novel about things I don’t care about, and one that failed to show me how or why to care about them.

Still, I reminded myself: I, R, am kind of timid and ignorant by nature and tend to have a sour-grapes response to everything foreign at first, until suddenly it seduces me. Lots of people love historical fiction. Maybe I just need to stick around and I’ll get drawn in by some kind of unforeseeable magic. Stories about staging plays are usually fun, after all.

But it wasn’t, and wasn’t, and wasn’t, and I truly had no interest in it other than holding it physically, and I had to force myself to go through with reading it. And then as I neared the end, I realized that I kind of had finally developed a faint but real interest in it.

It wasn’t that I found it appealing, exactly. It was sort of the thing I warned myself when reviewing a bad video game years ago on this site. I quote my younger self: “And yet, and yet, every game has its ‘thing going on.'”

This was a book, I’d been reading it, and at some point, the space within me where this book took place had been revisited often enough to have its own discernible flavor. I started to have spontaneous impressionistic thoughts about the subject matter. Huh, I thought, there is something sort of fascinating about the tenor of life in a young but established colony, after the immediate challenges of the elements and the natives are no longer overwhelmingly pressing, and people have to face the subtler challenge of fleshing out their sense of prosaic existence, of normalcy. The challenge not of living in some alien environment, per se, but of feeling that one lives there. I can relate to the troubling quiet of that problem.

“Hey,” I thought, “that’s basically the point of the book, I think! And here I was sort of musing on it – not dutifully, but organically and with a feeling of wonder! (Albeit mild!) So I guess at some level this book was working on me after all!” But only faintly. Still, to be honest, when it ended, my initial dismay had yielded to that old standby, benign indifference. I felt game: sure, why not.

All reading is sort of pleasurable, even reading something I don’t really care about at all. So sue me, I just like holding books and looking at the words and finding out what they say. Yes, of course, sometimes it’s a lot better than just that, but when it’s just that, who am I to complain? I’m R and life is just a bowl of cherries!

L: Well, that’s sweet and all but let’s be clear. This book is a godawful dud, awkward and tone-deaf and mismanaged every which-way. It is glaringly unworthy of inclusion in Harold Bloom’s list and is, I would say, the most thoroughly unrewarding of the 30-odd selections that “The Western Canon” has dished up for me. (Ezra Pound was a big drag too, but at least at the end I could say I read Ezra Pound, right? I read The Playmaker and all I got was this stupid T-shirt!)

The writing is such a dreadful performance of telling rather than showing that I often felt I was reading not a novel itself but someone’s rambling recounting of the events in a novel: “and then, and then.” Synopsis at 1:1 scale, the way an IMDB review might be written by an enthusiastic shut-in.

The author simply has no knack for prose. My sense was that he is probably a nice, enthusiastic, earnest person with a weak sense of humor and a weak sense of himself. At times I felt the uneasy embarrassment one feels in the presence of people entirely unqualified for their jobs. Even if one accepts “graceless delivery of information” as his style, the scheme of that delivery is itself often ill-calculated. The salient data for each lifeless character are re-stated over and over and over, as though assuming an amnesiac reader. The occasional clumsy gesture toward writerly panache, the shift from pure gray to bruisy gray-purple, only throws the vast flatness into relief. Bas-relief. I would characterize the style as “hopeless dullardry.”

Keneally’s skills and apparent interests all seem to lie at the earliest and most private phase of a writer’s work: the research, the synthesis of multiple historical sources, the devising of a framework for grafting personal observation and quasi-narrative onto pure documentary. (He’s written a long string of these histories-as-novels; I think it’s all he does. The latest one just came out while I was reading this.) And I’m comfortable granting him that there is something basically respectable in the bones of the work that undergirds the book.

But the failure of style is so utter and insurmountable that it’s not at all clear how to account for Harold Bloom’s having included this book on his list, even rashly, seeing as his entire raison d’etre is aesthetic snobbery. Possibilities are: 1) he never read it but liked the sound of what it was about; 2) he read or saw the play that another writer adapted from it, which has the reputation of being a sturdy and viable work, and assumed the novel was the same; and/or 3) he is friends with Keneally somehow. Or 4) he just screwed up completely and confused it with some other book. I mean, I guess I have to consider the possibility that 5) Bloom would dispute what I’ve said here about the style. But in the face of the evidence I find that very hard to sustain.

One of the major things the book wants to get across is that being in Australia, in 1789, was like being on the moon — unthinkably far away from the known world. He gets this across, characteristically, by stating it outright, in passing, hundreds of times. I will now gather his epithets for Australia starting at the beginning of the book (p. 25) until we all get sick of it.

p. 25: “this new penal planet”
p. 27: “this vast reach of the universe”
p. 30: “this new earth”
p. 34: “this outermost penal station in the universe”
p. 35: “this far-off commonwealth and prison”
p. 41: “this new penal commonwealth”
p. 52: “this strange reach of the universe”
p. 52: “a miraculous reach of earth”
p. 52: “the new planet”
p. 53: “this particular new world”

That’s enough. He keeps up this pace and this degree of variation until the outermost reach of this 352-page book.

Now for a real excerpt, and your chance to judge for yourself. Let’s see if I can find a paragraph or two that seems to encapsulate things, without digging unfairly hard for something bad.

Okay here’s what I picked, the start of Chapter 8. This is utterly characteristic, and, I feel, more than fair to Keneally because this is a scene with a basic and immediately comprehensible appeal: We’re witnessing the very first read-through of the play by the all-convict amateur cast. Sounds potentially good, right? You might well have expectations for the comic way this scene could go, Bad News Bears style. Or then again you might have expectations about more serious and dramatic things a scene like this could reveal. Nope. Neither. It’s not that kind of story (i.e. one that works). It’s “history”! In the sense of “high school history textbook”: a list of things that happened, grayscale with occasional spot color sidebars courtesy of Corbis Images.

Let’s just jump in here in the middle – I’m not going to explain who everyone is because if you had read the book up to this point you might still have trouble remembering anyway. Which is no doubt why he feels it necessary to name and explain who everyone is every time they are mentioned.

Ralph was soon depressed, though. He had gone to such lengths to cosset everyone’s sensitivity in the matter of having Nancy Turner the Perjurer as Melinda. But reading her lines she showed a shyness she had not exhibited as a lying witness in Davy Collins’s courthouse. “Welcome to town, cousin Silvia,” she mumbled. The happy and arrogantly artistic state the men’s performance had put him in now vanished. H.E. and Davy Collins would forgive him for using Nancy Turner the Perjurer if she were a dazzling Melinda. Those frightful Scots, Major Robbie Ross, H.E.’s deputy in government and commander of the Marine garrison, and his crony Jemmy Campbell, might even be appeased. But they would blame Ralph if Turner were poor, and their blame would be of the furious variety.

But his sweet, composed thief, Mary Brenham, saved the balance of his hopes by expanding before his eyes into Silvia, the way Arscott had expanded into Kite. It was the mystery again. It was the word made flesh. She took fire at the lines: “I need no salt for my stomach, no hartshorn for my head, nor wash for my complexion; I can gallop all the morning after the hunting horn and all the evening after a fiddle. In short, I can do everything with my father, but drink and shoot flying; and I am sure I can do everything my mother could, were I put to the trial.”

At “put to the trial,” she thrust her right thigh forward mannishly. It was sublime. Gardening could not match this, unless the turnips spoke back to you in the tongues of angels!

Huh? What the hell is this? Are you kidding me?

No. Nobody is kidding you. Not unless the turnips are speaking back to you in the tongues of comedians. Ho ho ho.

R: Shrug.

So, like I said, I was going to tell you about that two-page prologue.

Floating between the frontmatter and chapter one there’s this enigmatic, non-chronological, in media res prologue. It has no heading or anything to explain in what spirit it’s to be read. The main character of the book is Ralph, and the prologue starts with “First Ralph heard again how…” and then we have a sort of anecdote recounted, involving several other characters, but not Ralph. “First” before what? we wonder. Why is this scene special? we wonder. When will we understand? we wonder.

We understand on page 276, because the entire passage is repeated, but now completely in context, where it makes sense. Something is about to be told to Ralph by his ailing friend, but first Ralph hears again… this anecdote. A-ha! we think. Now what was enigmatic is meaningful. I have been drawn into the circle; I have met these characters and I understand the dynamics. I have earned this understanding and this familiarity, and now I comprehend the pall of pathos that hangs over this story. It all fits together. Things had all happened as they must. Fate. Something.

This came at around the point in the book where I was realizing that I was getting something out of it after all, and it fit nicely with that. I think I’d encountered this device of a premonitory repeated passage before, but usually in more fantastical writing. Here it took me by surprise and charmed me. It was pretty much one of my favorite things about reading this otherwise bland book.

Then later, when L was trying to find old reviews of the book online, we came across this. Pretty good punchline!

There’s probably some kind of lesson about art in there. super-fan “Maddie from Minnesota” contacted to our offices some time ago, asking humbly if she might be allowed to join the Western Canon Book Club of The Damned as a Junior Canonette. When this selection came up, I extended that opportunity to her, and, tragically, she took it. Upon completing The Playmaker she sent me some rather L-ish comments and invited me to include them in the entry proper, but I think it would better to let her express herself below. Especially now that she’s read all this text I just wrote.

Over to you, Maddie!

August 13, 2013

Stevie Smith: Collected Poems

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) [born Florence Margaret Smith]
Collected Poems (1975)


[The new backend doesn’t offer me the ability to freely resize the thumbnails, which is why these are a little bigger than earlier ones.]

1578 is Stevie Smith, who is represented by one entry on the list: Collected Poems.

The attractive New Directions edition, on the left, came from the library, but once it became apparent that this was to be a long haul, entailing many renewals, I went in search of a purchasable copy, and lo and behold found the UK Penguin edition above, used, which under the cover turns out to be exactly the same book in every way.

That being a book of 591 pages and nearly as many poems, most of them extremely brief, with very casual cartoon drawings sprinkled in the empty spaces on nearly every page. Some of them relate fancifully to the content of the poems; many simply do not.

Here is an arbitrary page to give you a sense. Imagine more or less this x 600.


What sort of a thing is this?

The Thurber-ish doodles contribute to an impression: that certain wit of not straining to be witty, perhaps not even being witty enough, because one is too splendidly content. Like what The New Yorker once was, an extreme dryness of pleasure that attests (by omission) to a wonderfully wet world. (Not actual dryness of course, but mock-dryness, ostentatious restraint to accentuate inalienable wealth of spirit.)

And some of it certainly partakes of that. But it is also something simpler: just some doodles. And just some poems.

I enjoyed reading Ammons because it was a psychological record. So too Thomas, though a grimmer one. And so too this. Complete collections of poetry feel more like something that was done rather than something that was made; a byproduct rather than a product. These words on the page are here because of certain moments in time, moments in which an individual was making a case for his/her spiritual legitimacy and personhood. The poetry is a residue of the function of the psyche that testifies “I am full and real.”

It is celebrated that Stevie Smith’s fullness and realness was eccentric, distinctive. To quote from the back cover: “… wholly individual… idiosyncratic … weird … new … bizarre …” But the more I shaded toward what seemed to me the spirit of the work itself, the more I felt that she was interested in her thoughts not because she considered her mind (or her self) thrillingly quirky, but simply and honestly because they were her thoughts. To me this was utterly sympathetic, and not particularly eccentric. Isn’t it rather worthless, as a critique, to note that something is eccentric – essentially, that it is different from the things that it is not? Once the horizons of other possible writers faded from view (there were no other possible writers within the limits of this book) the notion of eccentricity became useless.

(Though I did find myself falling back on it when asked to describe what I was reading. I would like to hold myself to a finer standard of saying what I really feel, but I’m not always up to that challenge.)

I mean, compared with what we expect of poetry, yes, her style and spirit make her deeply eccentric… as a poet. But as a person how eccentric is this, really? And what is a poet if not a person?

She certainly has recurring preoccupations (death, loneliness, the English, pets, fables and fairy tales) and in many of the poems has definite things to say. But for me the strongest impression was left not by the things thought or said but by the ease in thinking them and commitment to saying them, whatever they might be. It is hard for me to imagine that she did much revision. Nothing gives the sense that it has been “worked” in the least. The impression is simply of a genuine personality flexing naturally, in the implicit faith that writing is no more and no less than this.

And is it? Well, self-fulfillingly enough, I am grateful to have been in the company of exactly this, a deep self-trust, at least so far as this function of poem-making goes. It is contagious. Yes, we come to feel, of course it is good that she should write these things. It is good for her that she should write them, and it is good for me to be in the company of someone doing things that are good for her. This may have been a morbid life but it was also, it seems clear, a smooth one. The quality and character of that smoothness seemed like highly valuable instruction.

The first notes I jotted down last year about my reaction were that her style was characterized by “laziness, but a sort of salutary laziness.” In retrospect that sounds like a symptom of philosophical confusion. Stevie has helped clear up some of it. There is nothing “lazy” about writing many hundreds of poems.

[I thought and wrote similarly ambivalent things after reading Beckett. There has always been something simultaneously inspiring and intimidating to me about the profound composure, the lack of anxiety or “propriety,” in the way such writers take overt and unapologetic pleasure in being themselves, thinking their thoughts, and writing what they will. With Beckett I felt – and I still feel even in this moment – an urge to describe it as an “elitist” or “pseudo-aristocratic” mien, but where is that notion coming from? Not a part of me that is helping me. I must reject it. What such people exhibit is simply well-being and self-respect. To resentfully call it decadence is to consign oneself to the ghetto of the soul.]

[For a Stevie Smith example, listen and consider the following bagatelle of condescension: The Celts. Rather than taking some sort of imaginary offense, I would prefer to recognize that this is simply one woman being sincere and taking obvious pleasure in her sincerity. Listen to the joy in her voice as she says such things! How enviable!]

In the end I come away mainly with a sense of emotional texture and space, just as one comes away from visiting another household with a sense of its particular spiritual premises. Stevie Smith’s poetry and R.S. Thomas’s poetry and A.R. Ammons’ poetry really have nothing at all in common, but living with them has had in common that all were social experiences, a visit of the soul to someone else’s home. One samples the special valences of all their unspoken things: the weight of the rugs, the depth of the brown of the bookcase, the edges where two wallpaper patterns meet, the puddles of darkness left by the arrangement of lamps, the particular curlicues on the ends of their silverware. Smells deep in the furniture, that these people live inside and will never quite smell.

The cover of the Penguin edition up there gets right to the point. Look at where we’re visiting! A sitting room both strange and lovely and sad and spooky and ordinary and perhaps a bit tiresome too. But very real and lived, which is the charm that goes beyond charm. I have benefited from her room being so real, even while I didn’t know what to make of a lot of her decor. But after all it’s not for us, it’s for her; we’re just guests.

I will say this about reading complete corpora: it takes a long time. I thought at first that since the poems were all so short and whimsical I could just breeze through this book, but that was naive. Really getting to know someone takes a while; there is no quick way about it. In this project, 2008 was the year of Edgar Allan Poe. 2011-12 was the year of R.S. Thomas. 2012-13 has now been the year of Stevie Smith.

The next time I roll something like “Complete Poetry,” I may decide to make a special new dispensation to roll again for a second selection to read concurrently. Poetry needs to be read in parallel with other things; it insists on gaps.

Anyway, we’ll have to wait see about that, because that isn’t what happened this time around.

Examples for you.

First of all, you can hear several more readings on soundcloud, including this one, of her most famous poem, with a fine general self-introduction that basically jibes with my impressions above; and this goofy one.

A good majority of the poems could be considered self-portrait, in some degree. I’ve chosen this one to represent her because the morbid strain is much more subdued than elsewhere and thus easier to wrap one’s heart around. Not to say that that’s our responsibility.

In My Dreams

In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.

In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.

And to wrap things up, here’s one for Harold Bloom, from whose shadow this project takes its silhouette if not exactly its spirit, and who chose this book for his list despite its having this poem in it. Though who knows if he’s ever read it.

Souvenir de Monsieur Poop

I am the self-appointed guardian of English literature,
I believe tremendously in the significance of age;
I believe that a writer is wise at 50,
Ten years wiser at 60, at 70 a sage.
I believe that juniors are lively, to be encouraged with discretion and snubbed,
I believe also that they are bouncing, communistic, ill mannered and, of course, young.
But I never define what I mean by youth
Because the word undefined is more useful for general purposes of abuse.
I believe that literature is a school where only those who apply themselves diligently to their tasks acquire merit.
And only they after the passage of a good many years (see above).
But then I am an old fogey.
I always write more in sorrow than in anger.
I am, after all, devoted to Shakespeare, Milton,
And, coming to our own times,
Of course
I have never been known to say a word against the established classics,
I am in fact devoted to the established classics.
In the service of literature I believe absolutely in the principle of division;
I divide into age groups and also into schools.
This is in keeping with my scholastic mind, and enables me to trounce
Not only youth
(Which might be thought intellectually frivolous by pedants) but also periodical tendencies,
To ventilate, in a word, my own political and moral philosophy.
(When I say that I am an old fogey, I am, of course, joking.)
English Literature, as I see it, requires to be defended
By a person of integrity and essential good humour
Against the forces of fanaticism, idiosyncrasy and anarchy.
I perfectly apprehend the perilous nature of my convictions
And I am prepared to go to the stake
For Shakespeare, Milton,
And, coming to our own times,
Of course
I cannot say more than that, can I?
And I do not deem it advisable, in the interests of the editor to whom I am spatially contracted,
To say less.

You know, I thought I was going to end it there but I just came across this Believer article on Stevie Smith by David Orr, and now I have a couple last musings about Monsieur Poop.

The Believer article is basically in agreement with me about what we might get from Stevie Smith. But there is something frustrating to me about the fact that Orr sees no alternative but to write it in a way that does not get that very thing. His language of appreciation has to work and work and work its way to being able to articulate that Stevie Smith’s lack of workedness is valuable. If he had really found his way to it, wouldn’t he have taken it to heart?

Plainspoken sincerity is made of win! Best. Way. Of Communicating. Ever.

(I see what you did there.)

Yeah, I know, my little joke is pretty far off to one side – “plainspoken sincerity” does not describe Stevie Smith, and Orr’s hypocrisy is obviously a different one. But the principle is the same. (Anyway, letting my joke veer way off to one side is just me letting myself be. WWSSD?)

Here’s what I’m saying, and I think what Stevie was saying about Monsieur Poop. Most critical writing is inherently defensive, such that it doesn’t actually touch what it embraces. Harold Bloom ostensibly embraces Stevie Smith because here she is on his list of worthy works. But he clearly, in word and deed, does not embrace what she stands for and believes in. So what sort of embrace is it? And who really needs that kind of embrace when you can have the real kind?

And if you are writing criticism exactly because you can’t have the real kind of embrace, because you’ve gotten too uptight, why would you chose to write criticism at all? To try to keep alive something authentic you remember from your youth? How dreadfully sad.

Is it possible to be truly touched by something that you don’t dare to resemble? I don’t think it is.

August 4, 2013


2008. Vice magazine interviews Harold Bloom.

Vice: I was hoping to talk first about The Western Canon.

Harold Bloom: Do you mean the whole category, or what I wrote about it?

I mean your book.

But can we make an agreement? Let’s forget that damned list.

Ha. Do you mean the appendix in the back of the book that lists all the canonical works?

The list was not my idea. It was the idea of the publisher, the editor, and my agents. I fought it. I finally gave up. I hated it. I did it off the top of my head. I left out a lot of things that should be there and I probably put in a couple of things that I now would like to kick out. I kept it out of the Italian and the Swedish translations, but it’s in all the other translations—about 15 or 18 of them. I’m sick of the whole thing. All over the world, including here, people reviewed and attacked the list and didn’t read the book. So let’s agree right now, my dear. We will not mention the list.

It’s a deal.

I wish I had nothing to do with it. I literally did it off the top of my head, since I have a pretty considerable memory, in about three hours one afternoon.

It does seem like the sort of thing that a publisher would ask for to make the book more palatable to a casual reader.

It doesn’t exist. Let’s go on.

I am posting this exactly 1 minute after first discovering it.

My first reaction is: this doesn’t affect my project in the least. It has always been absurd and I’ve always cheerfully acknowledged its absurdity. Any endeavor must be yoked to some absurdity or other; I picked this one in full awareness of its arbitrariness. The point has never been that the illustrious Lord Harold Bloom hath delivered this Most Correct List unto us and I am therefor devoting myself to it. My attitude is, rather, that I found this very very long and varied list of all sorts of literary works. A list long enough to provide me foundation for a habit. Lists like this come from all sorts of places. I picked the longest one I could find online. Done.

But no question, his asserting that his list doesn’t exist sure felt like a slap in the face when I read it just now. That hurts my feelings. Yes it does exist Harold! Harold!

I don’t doubt that he’s embarrassed about it and wants to disown it. But go back and read the interview again, and between the lines. He is not saying that the whole idea of such a list is wrong. He is saying that he wrote it in a arrogant, lazy way and doesn’t want to have to answer for that — so let’s just not speak of it. This is an egotist’s evasion, which throws out the baby with the bathwater.

“I left out a lot of things that should be there and I probably put in a couple of things that I now would like to kick out.” Dude, I can assure you, I already knew that. Everyone already knows that. You’re not saying it was a flawed project, you’re just saying your work has flaws. So instead of disowning it, you could go make revisions, improve it. But you don’t want to.

This brings me to my second reaction: the reason he doesn’t want to is because list-making is a losing game. He doesn’t want his list to be “reviewed and attacked,” as it always certainly will be, because he doesn’t feel that he can win those battles and (relatedly) doesn’t think they’re important. I sympathize. But that’s exactly why I think the notion of a “Western Canon” itself is so absurd. That which one feels cannot be successfully defended in its particulars, one ought not to be pompous about in the abstract. There is a hypocrisy here.

In the rest of the interview, as usual, he comes off as an absolutely unbearable prig. In addition to insisting that his own list doesn’t exist, he also asserts us that James Wood doesn’t exist. “He just does not exist at all… There’s nothing to the man.” He wrist-flaps through a whole exchange on his utter, utter non-awareness of James Wood. It makes sense to me that Mr. Bloom would feel very threatened by anyone else entering his playpen and picking up his toys. He seems comfortable only when posturing to look down from a very, ah-very, ah-very great height – to the point of clownishness, my dear – which suggests that he is terrified of having actual peers. I personally have never felt that the notion of an “anxiety of influence” is particularly compelling or important, but I’m not surprised that it would be to Harold, who seems to operate according to a parallel anxiety.

So anyway, this has no bearing whatever on what I’m doing. The proof is in the reading, and so far the success rate has been very high. Though I do have my doubts about this one that I just started. (The one that I just finished will be written up soon.)

November 12, 2012

R.S. Thomas: Poems

R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
Song at the Year’s Turning (1955)
Poetry for Supper (1958)
The Bread of Truth (1963)
H’m (1972)
Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)

Roll 28 was 1575: R.S. Thomas: Poems. This being R.S. Thomas’s sole entry on the list.

The latter four of the five collections above were to be had at the local library and were pulled for me from deep, neglected storage. (They seemed to me a sufficient selection, seeing as the collected poems didn’t seem to be available anywhere in my vicinity.) I read most of them. Then I chanced across the earliest collection at a bookstore, bought it, read it, realized it clarified the others, decided I needed to start again. But didn’t. Then about a year passed (during which I renewed the four collections thirteen times – apparently the library has an unlimited renewal policy, at least for Welsh poetry). Then I read all of them over the course of about a week. Now a few more months have passed. Here we go.

Here’s a photograph of R.S. Thomas from the National Portrait Gallery:


This is a great portrait because it captures the tone and substance of the work exactly. The only essential thing missing is what he’s looking at with such apprehension. Though I suppose it’s implied. Yes, of course he’s looking at the cold Welsh landscape, the raw world and God’s silence, but first and most immediately, what he’s looking at are his weird rural parishioners.

The earliest work is basically the musings of a country priest who can’t help but notice that the flock he’s tending is made up of impenetrable, incurious, stunted people, people so ominously unlike him that his soul is troubled. The sequence of poems about the farmer “Iago Prytherch” essentially addresses the same question as American Gothic, but at its full weight: what are such opaque people thinking? Is it not terrifying to consider that they might be thinking nothing at all? Are they closer to the truth than we, or further from it?

(I feel like I should try to make a Western Canon callback to this work on a related theme but sadly, I hardly remember it. I guess there’s also a callback to be made to this one but I don’t want to.)

Thomas is haunted by the thought that his restless and philosophical mind (“the mind’s acid” is a phrase that recurs) might bar him from the real source, the solidity of the man who day after day does the same silent thing, out in a field. But such a man surely is missing out on something. Isn’t he? Isn’t he?

This seems to me as good a linchpin as any for a spiritual poetry about the meaning of life, which is more or less what I found here.


He was in the fields, when I set out.
He was in the fields, when I came back.
In between, what long hours,
What centuries might have elapsed.
Did he look up? His arm half
Lifted was more to ward off
My foolishness. You will return,
He intimated; the heart’s roots
Are here under this black soil
I labour at. A change of wind
Can bring the smooth town to a stop;
The grass whispers beneath the flags;
Every right word on your tongue
Has a green taste. It is the mind
Calling you, eager to paint
Its distances; but the truth’s here,
Closer than the world will confess,
In this bare bone of life that I pick.

If you read up on R.S. Thomas, you will quickly learn that there is a Welsh nationalist reading to be had, and that for most scholars – as well as, quite possibly, for the poet himself – the political reading is the primary one. But as you can imagine, that was of little interest to me. Thomas’s personal metaphysics are interwoven with the reality of Wales in a way that mine will never be; his politics are (like all politics) an arena for the expression of something else. So I tried to read for that something else. I feel pretty sure he was trying to write for it.

There were, admittedly, a whole series of poems that either tried to use Welsh myth overtly or else were explicitly political in their nationalism. I say “admittedly” because what I’m admitting is that I didn’t care about those and didn’t make much of an attempt. I felt like Thomas’s career-long drift toward greater abstraction and universality vindicated me.

The spiritual bewilderment of confronting a silent farmer, a person who stubbornly insists on remaining an object, an “it” in your field of awareness, is really just a crisis of loneliness. And it is in fact Thomas’s “mind’s acid” that creates this loneliness, not the opacity of the farmer. And he understands this, in time. In the later collections he cuts out the middleman; the poems become very directly about Man and Nature, God and his Creation, the terrible Machine of modernity, and above all: he himself, the poet. All informed by an expansive loneliness. But a loneliness without vanity.

Vanity I think is the thing I detest most in literature, art, or people, and certainly in poetry. It’s a kind of lie, and what are we here for if not honesty? Beauty, I know, but there’s no comfort for me in beauty contrived in defiance of truth.

I realize only now that I have never liked the two famous William Carlos Williams miniatures. “So much depends upon” is either all the wrong words, or a phony sentiment. In a poem of sixteen words, they should be the right ones. There is vanity here: why must so much depend on this? Why would we pretend to believe that so much depends on it?

Thomas writes a similar poem but in his, crucially, the phrase is “It is a matter of.” British, and without vanity. We can’t say what “it” is, only that we feel it to be a matter. It is a something. What is Williams expressing but the same thing in vain, aggrandizing, false terms?

Likewise the plums. “This is just to say” is not in good faith. A real icebox note doesn’t need to call itself “this,” to name its own humility “this is just.” “This” is to do more than just to say – it is to be something, a bit of unacknowledged self-regard. Vanity again.

Thomas is full of arrogance and self-regard, but it is all acknowledged. It is his subject and his burden. He does not derive real satisfaction from it, or believe in getting credit for it. Arrogance without vanity is entirely sympathetic to me; in fact it seems to me the correct and healthy state of mind.

“Arrogance without vanity.” Maybe that should go on my tombstone. Or as motto for this site, my living tombstone on the world wide web.

As someone in the process of trying to nurture the spirit by having less mind-acid and less commerce with The Machine, I found the essential problem here quite familiar, and the work entirely admirable and frequently affecting. But I think back to how I felt about The Seventh Seal (and Rilke) and feel something similar once again: this is the art of one who did not know a way out of what he describes. It is the art of problem, not of solution. Even in its acknowledgement of grace, of the unearned that transcends earning, all is still cast in terms of strain, risk, fragility, fatalism.

The first poem I encountered (because someone pasted it into an Amazon review) and perhaps the one that felt most valuable:


I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Yes, real wisdom is there. Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. And this past year I have found this poem inspiring, thought its tone correct. But now, having gone a bit deeper into my own process of relief, and also being on the point of returning R.S. to the stacks, I find myself questioning even this poem. The revelation here is presented in a context of desperation and regret: don’t get it wrong and pass it by like I keep doing! “I must give all that I have to possess it” is Christian but it is not enlightened even according to the poem itself. Or perhaps it is, but his religious faith and his work ethic are among the things he must give, and he isn’t prepared to mean that at all.

Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. The real enlightenment would be for the poet to look up now, to turn aside like Moses not at some future moment of salvation, but now. But no, the poet R.S. must soldier on, ever straining for the answer, seeking the one true field. In his world, hope and fear are two sides of the same honorable coin. Neither joy nor despair have a proper place here; the only thing to do is keep the tightest possible grip on that coin.

Look what happened to this man:


The work is the record of the habits of thought that do this to you.

The gothic tragedy of the work is that it is quite obviously this business of poetizing that is killing him. Like in some Edgar Allan Poe story, it is the narration itself that is haunting the narrator. For God’s sake put down the pen!


That resigned look! Here I am,
it says; fifty-nine,
balding, shirking the challenge
of the young girls. Time running out
now, and the soul
unfinished. And the heart knows
this is not the portrait
it posed for. Keep the lips
firm; too many disappointments
have turned the mouth down
at the corners. There is no surgery
can mend those lines; cruelly
the light fingers them and the mind
winces. All that skill,
life, on the carving
of the curved nostril and to no end
but disgust. The hurrying eyes
pause, waiting for an outdistanced
gladness to overtake them.

For good and bad, it is all set-jaw poetry. It is run through and through with an ethos of strain that I am trying to transcend.

I am quoting a lot of it here because, yes, I liked it. I just want to be smart about how I like it. If these years of Western Canon reading have taught me anything, it’s that reading can be dangerous.


I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

He often drops the line breaks exactly where the thought most resists breaking, which I suppose can give a sense of momentum, emphasizing the magnetic pull that spans the gap. But again, even in rhythm, he aestheticizes resistance; even flow is an upstream battle.

To Thomas, even passivity is a form of strain. This one about sums it all up:


And I standing in the shade
Have seen it a thousand times
Happen: first theft, then murder;
Rape; the rueful acts
Of the blind hand. I have said
New prayers, or said the old
In a new way. Seeking the poem
In the pain, I have learned
Silence is best, paying for it
With my conscience. I am eyes
Merely, witnessing virtue’s
Defeat; seeing the young born
Fair, knowing the cancer
Awaits them. One thing I have asked
Of the disposer of the issues
Of life: that truth should defer
To beauty. It was not granted.

Look at this! The BBC did a 90 minute radio drama with Jonathan Pryce as Thomas in 2009. I’d listen to that if I could find it.

Okay, I don’t need to renew these any more.