Marv Levy, when he coached the Buffalo Bills, was asked whether an upcoming game was a "must win." Levy paused, then said, "World War II was a 'must win'." -- DL
Marv Levy, when he coached the Buffalo Bills, was asked whether an upcoming game was a "must win." Levy paused, then said, "World War II was a 'must win'." -- DL
Last evening, when listening to Paul Violi's friends and colleagues and students and admirers read his poems, I thought of the last two lines of Yeats's "The Municipal Gallery Revisited." Here are the culminating lines of this multi-part poem. DL
You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
I remember hearing about an incident that befell the scholar and critic Frank Kermode, several years ago. He was moving, and had put boxes filled with all his most precious books (his fiction, his poetry, his signed first editions, and the like) on the street. The garbage collectors came by, and mistakenly took the boxes, leaving Kermode with a great deal of contemporary literary theory. The story once seemed horrifying to me; now it seems almost wonderful. To be abruptly lightened like that, so that one's descendants might not be burdened!
I too remember the Kermode incident and the way it made me shake my head and smile. although I suspected myself of Schadenfreude masked as poetic justice. If only Kermode had taken a stronger stand against literary theory!
Wood's thoughtful and thought-provoking piece ("Shelf Life") makes you take another look at the shelves above your desk -- as captured in my case by the photograper Brian Adams. -- DL
It must be love
When you feel
Affection at the sight
Of her underpants
In a small heap
On the floor
-- Herb Engelhardt
He also said that stories should have neither a beginning nor an end -- that advertising is the very essence of democracy -- that any jerk can face a crisis, it's day to day living that wears you out -- that the difference between lawyers and doctors is that while they both rob you, doctors kill you also -- and that people who are afraid of loneliness should not marry.
A powerful and perhaps surprising moment in Emerson's great "Self-Reliance":
Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; -- though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
looking at New York again, in the high white February sunlight, the childishly euphoric climate; looking down Second Avenue, where herds of vehicles go charging one way all day long disappearing into the sky at the end like on a prairie; looking up a side of skyscraper, a flat and flat and a long and long, and the air drops down on your head like a solid. Like a solid too the air that slices down between two neighbor skyscrapers. Up in the winder sunlight the edge of such a building far up is miraculously intense, a feeling like looking at Egyptian sculpture. Down in the streets the color, the painted colors are like medieval color, like the green dress of the Van Eyck double portrait in the National Gallery, intently local and intently lurid. And New York clothes -- not a trace of charm, dressing is ritualistic like in Africa (or the Middle Ages); the boys are the most costumed; dressed men and women look portentously maneuverable; one set looks more dry-cleaned than the other, and those count as rich. New York is all slum, a calm, an uncomfortable, a grand one. And the faces on the street by day: large, unhandsome, lumped with the residue of every possible human experience, and how neutral, left exposed, left out unprotected, uncommitted. I have never seen anything so marvelous."
from "A Letter on New York City's Ballet" by Edwin Denby (Dance Writings and Poetry, Yale University Press, 1998)
In the January 2011 issue of Harper’s, Philip Lopate writes eloquently, as ever, about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, recently published in two volumes by the Library of America. I’m always happy when anyone mentions Emerson, especially at length. While Mr. Lopate more or less gets it right (or as right as one can in a 6-page magazine article), I take issue with one statement: “Still, I sense a resistance to Emerson on the part of the young, a falling out of fashion.”
“It’s splendid that you’ve rung me up,” she said. “I was just going out to give a Talk on How I Write My Books. Now I can get my secretary to ring up and say I am unavoidably detained.”
“But, Madame, you must not let me prevent—“
“It’s not a case of preventing.” said Mrs. Oliver joyfully. “I’d have made the most awful fool of myself. I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk ab out writing. I should have though it was an author’s business to write, not talk.”
“And yet it is about how you write that I want to ask you.”
“You can ask,” said Mrs. Oliver, “but I probably shan’t know the answer. I mean one just sits down and writes. . .”
-- from Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie
When I am in distress for real or unfathomable causes, when the chaos outside threatens to overwhelm the precarious order within, when anxities surround me on all sides like an invading army closing in on the remnants of a defeated foe, when I grieve for my parents, my boyhood, and the friends I have lost, the irreplaceable ones, whether they go all at once or slip away into infirmity or madness, I console myself with the wisdom of Emerson in the last paragraph of "Compensation." -- DL
<<< And yet the compensatrions of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character. It permits or constrains the formation of new acquaintances and the reception of new influences that prove of the first importance to the next years; and the man or woman who would have remained a sunny garden-flower, with no room for its roots and too much sunshine for its head, by the falling of the walls and the neglect of the gardener is made the banian of the forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighborhoods of men.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Compensation"
Word of Harold Bloom's forthcoming book -- on the King James Version, 500 years old in 2011 and still the best of Bibles -- excites this reader as a volume from no other contemporary critic can do. Bloom's passion for literature, his love of it, is infectious and informs every page he writes. One feels, reading Bloom on great books, that if he couldn't write, he wouldn't live; that writing for Bloom is an extension of reading, and reading comes as close to living itself as any purely intellectual activity can do. Edmund Wilson wrote that Lenin identified himself with history but also identified history with himself, a very different thing. Substitute Bloom for Lenin and Literature for History in that formulation and it works as well. Bloom resembes the characters he likes the most: he has a Falstaffian appetite, a gargantuan grasp of literature, a prodigious memory worthy of "Funes the Memorious" in the story by Jorge Lus Borges; and he enjoys tilting quixotically at windmills, which he does with the requisite zeal and the gift for a memorable phrase.
I'll have more to say on The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, which Yale Universty Press will bring out in September. For the moment just a few thoughts about the title, both halves. The principal title is unusual because it echoes T. S. Eliot as much as Eliot's scriptual sources, an association one doesn't expect Bloom to pursue. But it's the subtitle that I especially like, for "appreciations" in the sense intended by Bloom as by Walter Pater before him is precisely what we need and do not get from the literary critics of our time. More power to him: the very word is anathema in academic circles.
I thought I'd take one of Harold's books off the shelf in the sun this afternoon, and it's How to Read and Why (1999), which contains commentary on stories, poems, novels, and plays -- enough to fuel the reading list for at least two seminars, though the book is meant to reflect, Bloom says, "reading as a solitary praxis, rather than as an educational ernterprise." The aim is the "restoration of reading," taking it back from the academics. The book begins with a credo in five principles, three derived from Emerson, one from Samuel Johnson, and one representing Bloom's own contribution. They are:
-- Clear your mind of cant (Samuel Johnson)
-- Do not attemt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read. (Emerson)
-- A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light. (Emerson and Wallace Stevens)
-- One must be an inventor to read well (Emerson)
-- The "recovery of the ironic" -- and here Bloom is at his most expansive. One senses that he hasn't said this before. Consider this short but rhetorically powerful clarifying passage and its unusually personal coloration:
<< Think of the endless irony of Hamlet, who when he says one thing almost invariably means another, frequently indeed the opposite of what he says. But with this principle I am close to despair, since you can no more teach someone to be ironic than you can instruct them to become solitary. And yet the loss of irony is the death of reading, and of what has been civilized in our natures. >>
The introduction of Hamlet as the supreme exemplar of a man of irony gives us a working definition of irony and implicitly conveys the professor's abilty to understand Hamlet as a version of himself. There follows the unabashed note of the personal: "despair" -- and the surprise of a simile that obliges us to consider the "ironic" and the "solitary" as related states of mind and being. And then comes the twist ("and yet") that precedes the final blunt universal assertion, which manages to sound plausible and slightly outrageous at the same time. "The loss of irony is the death of reading." The syntax is that of Wallace Stevens, an old Bloom favorite, and the thought is an adaptation of a Stevens aphorism. But Bloom makes it his own. Here he is, two pages later, summing up:
<< Irony demands a certain attention span, and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise. Find now what comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering,and it very likely will be irony, even if many of your teachers will not know what it is, or where it is to be found. Irony will clear your mind of the cant of the ideologues, and help you blaze forth as the scholar of one candle. >>
Bravo. -- DL
Jacques Barzun, the legendary Columbia professor, teamed with Lionel Trilling to teach the college's famous "colloqiuim on important books" that met on Wednesday evenings. It was an honors seminar, limited to a dozen seniors, and the competition to get into the course was fierce. They taught the course together for twenty years.
What everyone recalls about Jacques Barzun is his fabulous erudition and his wit. Able to generalize usefully about the classic, the romantic, and the modern, to move gracefully from, say, Berlioz to Wagner to Rousseau to Nietzsche befoire doubling back to an argument on Turgenev, he is an inveterate punster, famously quick with a quip. If you use the word facsimile, he may retort that there are indeed many "fake similes" in the world.
Barzun's encyclopedic knowledge of detective and spy fiction surprises some. He was among the first to give serious critical attention to genres that were considered guilty pleasures to the precise extent that they enjoyed an authentic popularity.
Here, from "Meditations on the Literature of Spying," is Barzun's take on the generic spy of the 1960s, the era of tuxedo-clad Sean Connery as James Bond and the counter-trend of Richard Burton seedy in a raincoat in John Le Carre's Berlin on the other. I think these sentences may give you a sense of the intellectual excitement that a session with the maestro would generate.
<<< The spy is imperturbable not by temperament or by philosophy, but from expertise. He is the competent man. Whether the need of the moment is to play bridge like Culbertson, speak a Finnish dialect like a native, ski to safety over precipices or disable a funicular, he comforts us with his powers no less than with the pedantry of the subject. He makes mistakes, of course, to keep us in countenance, but they are errors of inattention, suich as killing the wrong man. We respond to this agreeable image of our scientific world, where knowledge commands power, where facts are uniformly interesting, and where fatalities appear more and more as oversights, professional faux pas. These results constitute the romance of the age; why should they not be translated into stories -- spy stories especially, since what we know as science comes from ferreting and spying, and since we care so much for truth that we are willing to drug and torture for it? >>>
From Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schyster, 2005), p. 131. This sentence appears after the author has presented several rival versions of an incident during the 1968 presidential election campaign:
"Where does the truth in fact lie?"
What Paul de Man could do with this sentence! A perfect example of two antithetical meanings: "What is the truth [of the matter]?" versus "Where [in what circumstances] does the truth become a lie thanks, perhaps, to the agency of fact, that seemingly hard but notably elastic thing [or word]?" Or are there inviisible hyphens linking the words tuth-in-fact? And what then?
And I think the author deserves the credit whatever his intentions. -- DL
I think the detective story is by far the best upholder of the democratic doctrine in literature. I mean, there couldn't have been detective stories until there were democracies, because the very foundation of the detective story is the thesis that if you're guilty you'll get it in the neck and if you're innocent you can't possibly be harmed. No matter who you are. There was no such conception of justice until after 1830. There was no such thing as a policeman or a detective in the world before 1830, because the modern conception of the policeman and detective, namely, a man whose only function is to find out who did it and then get the evidence that will punish him, did not exist. ... In Paris before the year 1800 — read the Dumas stories — there were gangs of people whose business was to go out and punish wrongdoers. But why? Because they had hurt De Marillac or Richlieu or the Duke or some Huguenot noble, not just because they had harmed society. It is only the modern policeman that is out to protect society.
from "Invitation to Learning," CBS radio, January 1942 (Rex Stout appeared with Jaques Barzun and Elmer Davis on Mark Van Doren's popular show.
Upon giving the matter a little attention, we percerive that criticism, far from being a simple and orderly field of beneficent activity, from which impostors can be readily ejected, is no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators, who have not even arrived at the articulation of their differences.
Though Jacques Barzun in "Meditations on the Literature of Spying" (1965) reveals that he is no fan of recent developments in the espionage genre, he makes a number of observations that I, as an espionage addict, find suggestive, impressive, and useful. For example, he connects the success of the genre at the time of his writing -- the time of James Bond movies and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold -- to "the multiform attack on privacy" that causes vast amounts of anxiety in the populace. Barzun goes further:
Psychoanalysis has taught even the common man that he is in some ways an impostor; he has spied on himself and discovered reasons for distrust and disgust: in all honesty he cannot turn in a good report. Nor do his surroundings help to restore his confidence. The world is more and more an artifact, everywhere facsimiles supplant the real thing -- the raucous radio voice, the weird TV screen. Just to find his bearing he must fashion a computer simulation of his case. So mimicry, pretending, hiding, which are part of the child's first nature and used to be sloughed off as true individuality developed, now stay with us as second nature, and indeed as the only escape from the bad self and the bad world.
This is brilliantly put and one has to rub one's eyes a little recalling that the essay, so predictive of intellectual conversation to come, appeared back in the Spring 1965 issue of The American Scholar. While Barzun broadcasts his irritation with the espionage genre, at least he pays it the compliment of calling it, in his title, "the literature of spying," which is no mean thing in his book. -- DL
Though I love Somerset Maugham's fiction and think him lamentably underrated for reasons it would, on another occasion, be interesting to explore, I can't resist this little riff from Jacques Barzun's "Meditations on the Literature of Spying," which appeared in The American Scholar in Spring 1965 -- long before other scholars of academic note were taking this literary genre with anything like seriousness. Barzun is registering his weariness with Maugham's "disillusioned stance" in The Narrow Corner (1944), which has become, Barzun says, the standard attitude of the hero as modern spy in works by lesser novelists.
To know that everything and everybody is a fraud gives the derivative types what they call a wry satisfaction. Their borrowed system creates the ironies that twist their smiles into wryness. They look wry and drink rye and make a virtue of taking the blows of fate wryly. It is monotonous: I am fed up with the life of wryly.
It's a terrific, very quotable essay, with a superb passage on how spy stories reflect "the romance of the age." I will type it into a post some other time. Barzun was on the cover of Time on my birthday in 1956. -- DL
In relation to their systems most systematizers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack close by.
Elsewhere he says that people correspond to parts of speech."How many people are merely adjectives, interjections, adverbs; and how few are substantives, verbs, etc. . . .There are people whose position in life is that of the interjection, without influence in the sentence." Think about it.
(from the Best American Poetry 1994, ed A. R. Ammons):
Roald Hoffmann was born in Zloczow, Poland in 1937. After escaping form a Nazi labor camp in January 1943, he and his mother hid in the false attic of a Ukrainian schoolhouse, never stepping foot outside until the Soviets arrived in June 1944. The only sunlight came through a hole where a single brick had been removed. He and his mother and stepfather made their way to the United States in 1949. He was educated at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Columbia, and Harvard, and has taught chemistry at Cornell University since 1965. He was awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his idea that the ease of chemical transfories and amations could be predicted from the symmetries and asymmetries of electron "orbitals" in complex molecules. The work he did in the mid-1960s with his late mentor, Robert Burns Woodward, proved essential to the synthesis of Vitamin B-12. He lives in Ithaca, NY.
Hoffmann was introduced to poetry by Mark Van Doren at Columbia. His own poems began to appear in the 1980s. Two collections have been published: The Metamict State (1987) and Gaps and Verges (1990), both from the University of Central Press. "I take some heat from my chemist friends because I write poetry, which they consider just something to do when you're sulking," Hoffmann told Malcom W. Brown of The New York Times (July 6, 1993). "But they should take a look at the respective literatures of chemistry and poetry. The acceptance rate for scientific articles submitted to the best chemical journal in the world is about sixty percent. The acceptance rate for poems sent to even a mediocre poetry journal is about five percent. Furthermore, the poetry editors don't even give you a peer review and critique. They just turn you down flat."
The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."
Epigraph for The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
And yet it is useless not to seek, not to want, for when you cease to seek you start to find, and when you cease to want, then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke, and then the puke down your gullet until you puke the puke and then puked puke until you begin to like it. The glutton castaway, the drunkard in the desert, the lecher in prison, they are the happy ones. To hunger, thirst, lust, every day afresh and every day in vain, after the old prog, the old booze, the old whores, that's the nearest we'll ever get to felicity, the new porch and the very latest garden. I pass on the tip for what it is worth.
"Have you never thought of divorcing Gray?"
"I've got no reason for divorcing him."
"That doesn't prevent your countrywomen from divorcing their husbands when they have a mind to."
'Why d'you suppose they do it?"
"Don't you know? Because American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers."
--Wandrers Nachtlied (1780)
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.