Monday, November 21, 2011

The Somerville Poetry Project

I live in Somerville, Massachusetts, a little town next to Cambridge. My wife and I moved here mainly because the rents were low, but over the last several years we've developed a love for the place, from our plot in the community garden to the Chinese takeout place down the street. About a year ago, a friend told me that Somerville gave grants to writers. I don't normally try for such things, but I sent in a few pieces and several months later they told me I had gotten one. The Council's only requirement was that I complete a community benefit project. A meeting with some other grant recipients to work on a project together predictably didn't amount to anything, so I came up with an idea on my own. In case the concept is useful to anyone else, here it is.

For most of my life, I was indifferent to poetry. I liked words in pretty much every other form, but something terrible seemed to happen when you spaced them out. In ninth grade, I remember our English teacher gave us a poem -- I think it was by Robert Frost -- about (I thought) snakes slithering down a hill. The teacher asked what the poem was about; before I could chime in with my snake answer, someone said it was about the sun coming out and melting the snow.

This was apparently the correct answer. I read the poem again; it still seemed to be about snakes. I decided then that I was going to keep my mouth shut about poetry, because it was sneaky stuff with no purpose other than making the uninitiated demonstrate their stupidity.

I held to this opinion through most of school. One exception: I remember being shaken by "Dulce et Decorum Est," because we hadn't ever read it in class; the poem just appeared on a test. I read it twice, and remember sitting stunned and feeling the words work inside me, until eventually I roused myself and went about labeling the rhyme scheme and stresses. Completing the test defused my interest; I didn't seek out any other Wilfred Owen. The only pleasure I got from poetry in those years was the sense that I had extracted the meaning that the author had, for mysterious reasons, decided to hide.

Eventually, though, I discovered that the actual problem was that I had only been reading poems in school. Poems don't offer themselves to people approaching with weapons in hand; they leave a husk of dry meaning behind and then disappear down some burrow. It took several years out of school for me to approach poetry unarmed, with no papers to be written, when I made the attempt for new reasons: I wanted to feel cultured and to impress women. The muses considered these reasonably worthy motives and consented to brush against my hand.

A few years ago, when I was reading a lot of Milosz, I discovered his poetry anthology, A Book of Luminous Things. Certain poems in that book began to affect me in a profound way, and I finally understood why verse, until recently, had been acknowledged by almost all writers as the supreme literary art. Poets I had read in school with almost total incomprehension, like Hopkins, began to make a great deal of sense. And it seemed a shame that so many people who love to read never even consider sitting down with a book of poetry.

Some of this is simply taste, but some of it, I am convinced, is that the art form remains freighted with anxiety from school, where students are given extremely difficult work much too soon and then forced to decipher and analyze it.

So: I thought, why not present some great poems in a tension-free environment? My idea was to make booklets of some of my favorite poems in the public domain and leave them around Somerville. I typeset the poems, printed the pages, bound the booklets with waxed thread, and left them where people would find them: coffee shops, bus stops, libraries, and assorted park benches.

Inside each book are several blank pages, with a note encouraging the reader to write a few words in the space and leave the book elsewhere: a poem, or song lyrics, or any words that seem worth writing down to them. Frankly, I expect a few pages will be filled with obscenities, but that's fine. Hopefully, the books will make the rounds for a few months before wear and tear, weather, and carelessness remove most of them from circulation.

I'm not sure yet if it's been a success. All I know is that the booklets aren't where I left them anymore. A few local outlets were nice enough to write about the project. It was, in any case, a pleasure to spend some time re-reading favorite poets, and discovering a few new ones, and to think about what kinds of poems could communicate with a large group of people.

The arts have always felt threatened in America, and this is especially true in hard times. Poems don't feed anyone or help pay the rent. They do, however, tell us something about how hunger and poverty have been borne in the past, and borne with dignity. The dignity does not lie in the poet prescribing certain actions or responses -- equally great poems can call forth anger and calm, stoicism and despair. The dignity is in the language, the sense that the sorrow has been shaped and transformed.

There is comfort, too, in joining our individual fate with countless others. To quote Robinson Jeffers, "prose can discuss matters of the moment; poetry must deal with things that a reader two thousand years away could understand and be moved by." In poems, I feel how little humanity has changed, and how much I can share with a Tamil woman in the twelfth century or a Chinese bureaucrat in the eighth. This sense of fellowship is both a steadying and enlarging influence, and an antidote to the sense of meaninglessness produced by too much throwaway culture.

I remember a passage in Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, where the narrator describes the teaching of literature as trying to sell a real diamond on the street for a quarter. Almost everyone will pass it by, because who among the uninitiated could believe that the diamond was genuine, and that a mind and spirit could be enlivened for a lifetime because of a few old pages and some quiet attention?

Well, my thought is that you stop trying so hard to sell the diamond. Just leave it somewhere, and hope that a few people might pick it up and turn it around in their hands. If anyone would like a copy of the PDF, feel free to send an e-mail to I tried to have a mix of the famous and fairly obscure, so hopefully there's something for everyone.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Kidland and Other Poems, by Paul Kingsnorth

A few months ago, I discovered the work of the Dark Mountain Project. It is a collective of artists/scientists/environmentalists with some shared premises: that our society is not actually serious about solving its environmental problems; that we are driving towards a wall of firm ecological limits; that, even with the parts falling off our industrial machine, we will fairly soon hit this wall with a greater or lesser degree of violence; and that any environmental vision that imagines our Western lifestyles continuing unchanged with a few solar panels and hybrid cars is an unworkable fantasy.

The sooner we abandon this fantasy, they argue, and acknowledge the coming cataclysms, the sooner we can start talking about—not solutions, but other visions of society and culture that might work in a world of severe and chaotic weather, depleted soil and oceans, and very little remaining oil.

There are statistics to defend these claims, but if you haven't felt, emotionally, the bankruptcy and destructiveness of the modern industrial project, I doubt they will convince you. For whatever reason, I am already at that place. When I read the Dark Mountain manifesto—and I am not usually the sort of person to read manifestos—I felt page after page the ring of absolute truth.

I still have to get copies of the Project's two anthologies, but I read some of Paul Kingsnorth's contributions—he is one of the Project's founders—and felt a deep affinity. His favorite poets are also mine—Edward Thomas, John Clare, Robinson Jeffers—and he has a belief, which I hope is not delusional, that the arts have something to contribute in changing the consciousness of people who are losing faith, with good reason, in industrial society and its promises.

Kingsnorth has mainly written journalism up to this point, but from his website he seems to see himself fundamentally as a poet. Kidland is his first book of verse. It may seem strange to see a cyclone on the horizon and emerge from your shelter to present the storm with some poems—but, well, the world needs poems along with guides on organic farming; they make life worthwhile whether disaster is a year or centuries away. And in any case disaster is always approaching.

The question remains, though: what kind of art does one make for a society that has no long-term future? If you believe this is a silly question, and aren't convinced about any of the premises I mentioned in the first paragraph, don't bother with Kingsnorth, because his work won't make sense to you. If any of them struck a chord, though, I think his poems will be worth your time.

I read Kidland with pleasure and with disappointment. It is an extremely uneven book: too eager to make points, heavy-handed, and now and then very beautiful. It reminded me of a Robert Musil quote that you can't feel profoundly out of step with your society without doing some damage to yourself. Rage and a sense of disconnectedness from one's potential audience—and from humanity as a whole—injure as much as they inspire. Declining civilizations often cripple their own genuine talents in this way; this is part of how the disease wards off the possibility of healing.

Let me give an example. Here is an excerpt from “Kidland,” the long narrative poem at the center of the book. It is about a man who has set up camp in a forest in Northern England—a “utopia of one,” in his words—because of disgust with the ecological destructiveness of his species. There is also a young city woman, Sarah, who stumbles upon his camp, and a farmer who is abandoning his land in the area. The quote below is from the man in the woods, who is speaking to Sarah:
Where is the urgency? he was saying. Can you not see
how things are? The great forests are burning, the great
of the world. The breath of your lungs is taken from you
and what do you do? There are a million jewelled creatures
that you will never see, that the world
will never see again. There is poison in the water
and in the air and in every cell that you are made of.
Poison: our gift to the world. Do you ever wonder
What the place would be like without us? Free
I would say, to breathe again.
Every one of these thoughts can find a home in my mind, but when I read these lines they are just words. The music is missing—that something that carries the words into the deeper consciousness and makes them larger than the ideas they contain. “Talk / is cheap,” Sarah responds, a fitting response. This long, ambitious poem then goes on to feature a heavily allegorical rape and a sudden death. As with some of Jeffers' narrative poems with their extremes of emotion and violence, for anyone expecting realism the story can feel a bit ludicrous.

I think it is telling that Kingsnorth's most ambitious poems are, to my mind, the least successful, while the small lyrics are often wonderful. Here, for example, is the poem that follows “Kidland.”

and the trees

and the trees on the hill stand waiting to reclaim the field
and the field lies yellow and cut beneath the sky
and the sky hangs grey above the grassline
and the grasses quieten at the approach of night
and night comes and I rise and move towards the trees
I hope they will have their way soon
and I tell them so

Let that sit for a second. Try to read it slowly if you can; I know the monitor makes it difficult. The thought is the same—the sense of sympathy with the non-human world, the question of what it would be like if we were gone, or at least left things alone. Here, though, the lines sing. They are coming from a deeper place, as they do in another poem about trees, “A chaos of you,” which ends with this description: “They dream, rooted, of the hills beyond their kerbside / and in the autumn, unexpected but meant for the moment, / their dreams are carried away to be born.”

Robinson Jeffers wrote something interesting once in a letter to Mark Van Doren about Van Doren's now-forgotten poetry: “I have a criticism,” he wrote, “and no doubt from me it will surprise you. I think you are too (vulgar word) pessimistic...Civilization is bitter to the singer, it is bitter in that essential way to everyone, but I think we can remember that there was a time before it and will be a time after it, and can keep an important part of us timeless enough to be uncivilized.”

Jeffers knew that he was handling material that was difficult to make poetry out of—but he was rooted in the natural world and also in a historical sense of the ebb and flow of civilizations. He often seems to be flying at an enormous height where he calmly sees the wreck of our modern civilization just a few miles down from the ruins of Rome and Kahokia and Palenque, along with the mountains and rivers that have survived them all. The fact that his society was in decline did not strike him as an unprecedented calamity but part of a longstanding historical pattern.

Kingsnorth's best poems have some of this timelessness, but a great deal of his work is instead filled with an entirely understandable disgust, not just with the world modern man has created, but with humanity itself. There is almost a longing for apocalypse. In several poems, a character stands in for Man and Kingsnorth writes about fundamental flaws in his character: too much greed, too little foresight. Again, one can sympathize, but the attitude makes the poetry captive to a few ideas: “I give you what you ask for, / you ask for more. I leave you / alone in the place, you wreck it all,” says the creator figure in “Changeling.”

Disgust, I think, is hard to make poetry out of—you say temporary things when you are disgusted, and in such moods it is best not to try to make points about humanity. In one of my favorite poems, “Parable of the tares,” though, the disgust deepens into a kind of acceptance, and Kingsnorth captures the fury and distraction of the masses living within a disintegrating system—it is a worthy successor to “Rearmament,” the Jeffers poem that gave the Dark Mountain project its name.
Nothing is permanent, everything pulling apart, cascading
away from the highest peaks. Vibrate the strings of this
   once green world
one final time, make merry, go with laughter
and with fury, almost-masters.
“Almost-masters”—there, I think, is the hand of a real poet. If there are only a few such moments in this book, that's more than most of us ever manage.

I wrote earlier that declining civilizations find ways to resist their own renewal, not only by how they treat artists but also by stunting and distracting the public that might encounter the ideas these thinkers produce. The machinery of distraction, though, requires resources, and eventually it comes apart along with everything else. As the official narrative frays, once marginal ideas begin to get a hearing. Many of these ideas will be crazy; the Dark Mountain Project and Kingsnorth are not. They strike me as some of the few people looking at our likely future with open eyes. As a poet, Kingsnorth is still finding his voice, but he is walking down a genuine path and has my gratitude.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Man and the Natural World, by Keith Thomas

Most people in today's society are profoundly helpless. Try to imagine what you would do if the water stopped coming out of the faucets and filling up your toilet tank. As America and perhaps the global industrial system begin to come apart at the seams, one stops taking such services for granted. One also realizes that potable water comes out of faucets every so often in human history, but then also disappears, usually for centuries at a time.

I would give you some of the specifics, but unfortunately I have been realizing lately that I am a historical illiterate. Virtually everything I know about the human past has been picked up from historical novels, movies, or asides in books about other things. I haven't read a work of pure history in a long time, and it's only recently -- as I realized that modern industrial civilization is just as susceptible to collapse as the ones that have come before it -- that I began to feel the weight of my ignorance.

Which brings us to Man and the Natural World. I found it for a dollar at an outdoor book market and was attracted to the title. Thomas describes changing attitudes to the natural world in early modern Britain, a time period that he sets at approximately 1500-1800. A great many things happened in the relationship between Britons and their natural environment during this period: enclosures of common land, increasing urbanization, the birth of scientific taxonomy, early attempts at conservation, and many others. I read a few pages, saw that Thomas was an engaging writer, and decided to take a first step towards dispelling my massive ignorance of the human past.

Man and the Natural World, as a study of attitudes, contains references to an extraordinary variety of sources, everything from poetry to pamphlets to popular sermons to the log books of merchants and aristocrats. Thomas realizes that to convince people that a certain belief was actually widely held, he must accumulate a fair amount of evidence, and the book often consists of fascinating lists of information. Here is an example from the chapter on botanical nomenclature:
Anyone who wants evidence of the way in which polite sensibilities have changed with the centuries need only consider the briskly anatomical nature of this now suppressed terminology, for in the seventeenth-century countryside there grew black maidenhair, naked ladies, pissabed (or shitabed), mares fart and priest's ballocks. In the herb garden could be found horse pistle and prick madam; while in the orchard the open arse (or medlar) was a popular fruit. Even the black beetle was twitch-ballock and the long-tailed titmouse bum-towel. Many of today's more fanciful flower names—lords and ladies, for example—are deliberate inventions of the nineteenth century, designed to obliterate some unacceptable indecency of the past...
If this passage bores you, don't bother with Man and the Natural World. If you are delighted and a little sad that the pissabed is now called a dandelion, this book will give you endless pleasure. My favorite country-name for a plant was "welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk," now commonly known, apparently, as the houseleek, and still associated with virility in some quarters.

Man and the Natural World is more than a wonderful assemblage; Thomas's arguments slowly emerge out of these progressions of lists, and his points are complicated and sometimes disturbing. For example, one might simply long for earlier times when local people knew plants and their functions. As Thomas demonstrates, though, these names only existed for plants with some obvious human utility, and placed man's needs at the center of their world (pissabed describes the diuretic quality of the plant's roots, whereas the more modern word dandelion apparently comes from the "lion's tooth" shape of the leaves themselves.) Early naturalists who came to rural people to help identify plants soon reached the limits of their knowledge; rural curiosity did not extend to even common plants that had no known human function, so the naturalists had to go around naming and classifying these plants themselves.

"By eroding the old vocabulary, with its rich symbolic overtones," Thomas writes, "the naturalists had completed their onslaught on the long established notion that nature was responsive to human affairs." This may seem like a simple impoverishment, but it also led to the modern attitude, which I am certainly in sympathy with, that parts of the natural world deserve to be left alone whether people can get anything out of them or not.

Another fascinating chapter is on the human attitude towards animals. Thomas shows how urbanization and the keeping of pets led to a sentimental attitude towards animals (he has a list of animal names over time, showing how they got progressively closer to human ones) which then led, often, to the revulsion of city-dwellers towards country people who made a living off these animals. And the country people were, indeed, enormously cruel. Some of the old means of producing tastier meat, including nailing live ducks to a floor by their webs, are as brutal as anything one can find in a modern industrial plant, albeit on a smaller scale.

So which attitude is "correct" -- that of the practical countryman, or the city sentimentalist who refuses to give up the meat and services which these animals provide, but instead, like Gilbert White, simply plants a screen of trees to protect himself from the sight of the slaughterhouse? And to what extent is vegetarianism -- which is my personal choice -- even possible without the global supply lines that provide people in cold climates with a continuous supply of varied food?

These questions arise constantly while reading this book, because Thomas convincingly shows how most modern environmental attitudes actually arose out an increasing estrangement from nature, which then produced a longing for the world that was being destroyed, often without a concomitant willingness to give up the fruits of that destruction. the end of the eighteenth century, a growing number of people had come to find man's ascendancy over nature increasingly abhorrent to their moral and aesthetic sensibilities. This was the human dilemma: how to reconcile the physical requirements of civilization with the new feelings and values which that same civilization had generated...The growth of towns had led to a new longing for the countryside. The progress of cultivation had fostered a taste for weeds, mountains and unsubdued nature. The new-found security from wild animals had generated in increasing concern to protect birds and preserve wild creatures in their natural state. Economic independence of animal power and urban isolation from animal farming had nourished emotional attitudes which were hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with the exploitation of animals by which most people lived.
Obviously, none of these contradictions have gone away. It is generally comfortable city-dwellers that call for environmental protection, are quite convinced about climate change, and then take flights across the country to enjoy the scenery of their favorite national park, all while depending on massive quantities of resources to maintain every aspect of their lifestyle.

And yet some of the attitudes that such people have developed, even tinged with hypocrisy and a lack of practical knowledge, seem to have enduring value: a respect for nature outside its utility to man, compassion for the lives and suffering of animals, and an aesthetic feeling for wild as well as managed nature. As D. H. Lawrence once wrote, the road that modern man has been struggling along has been filled with waste and mistakes, and we may end up going back to where we came from, but it has also been a real journey; there has been some development along with the destruction. When we begin to return to a pre-industrial pattern of life -- I am starting to suspect this will happen forcibly with the end of cheap oil, and probably entail a great deal of suffering -- hopefully there are some lessons that can be saved from the path that we have been on. We also have lots of things to re-learn from past societies, and books like Thomas's (his other classic work about the same early modern period is called Religion and the Decline of Magic) can help illuminate the road that led to the modern world, which we may soon be walking back down.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Brooke Allen and Paul Dry Books

A review I wrote of a good book on Syria (before the revolution) called The Other Side of the Mirror was just published at Ploughshares, and is available online. My reviews are also sometimes published on the Ploughshares blog.

I picked up the book because I've read some of Brooke Allen's essays before at The New Criterion and have always enjoyed her work; here, as an example, is her fine piece on Henry Green.

I can also recommend the publisher: Paul Dry Books. A friend gave me one of their books many years ago, and I've enjoyed exploring their list: a combination of good new books, like Allen's, and worthy re-issues like Walter de la Mare and Sister Miriam Joseph and some fine young adult novels. I recommend poking around; there aren't many small publishers left with an eye for books like these, and they deserve your support.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Notes on Democracy, by H. L. Mencken

I've never been more depressed about America or its prospects than I am right now. During the Bush years, I thought, perhaps stupidly, that everything would return to a tolerable state after he left. Obama's speeches on the campaign trail even made me hope for something better than a return to normalcy. Now it looks like the most aberrant and brutal policies of the Bush era are simply going to continue as part of a bipartisan consensus. And looking at the current field, there is no obvious hope of things getting better, only the very real possibility of them getting much worse.

So: what can a person do, assuming that you have the luxury to care about something beyond paying your bills and getting through the day?

1) You can get involved in fixing a broken system: lobbying for changes in the political process, supporting or creating a viable third party, maybe even running for something yourself.

2) Like Thoreau (before his John Brown days), you can try to reformulate your sense of idealism to function entirely outside the existing systems of power. Your program will then involve only yourself and maybe a few other people. Also, it'll probably require some surplus income or a wealthy friend. Individual civil disobedience falls somewhere between the first and second categories.

3) You can take a historical perspective, realize that things have never been all that much better or worse in America, and then have a good laugh at the endless procession of smooth-talking frauds and pious idiots that this country manages to produce.

Most people move up and down this list, but each has a natural resting place. If the third option has any appeal for you, and to a lesser extent the second, H. L. Mencken's Notes on Democracy might prove sympathetic. If the first, prepare to be quite brilliantly mocked:
...there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics—that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to virgins.
You have to be in a very particular mood to enjoy Mencken. The publisher kindly sent me this book several years ago, and it took increasing quantities of dismay to finally, a few weeks ago, arrive at it. Mencken is an entertaining writer but not, for me, an endearing one. Americans are naturally idealistic, which is part of the reason we are so easily fooled, and have such a hard time recognizing when we're working on ruining our own lives while actively destroying those of others.

When there is so little to be patriotic about, though, and you are both completely fed up and have no idea how to improve the situation, Mencken can provide a kind of desperate consolation. As he writes in the concluding section of the Notes, "I am not engaged in therapeutics, but in pathology."

This book was published in 1926, when increasing concentration of wealth, virtually unregulated markets, and runaway war spending were preparing the way for a massive collapse. Manning the helm at the period were, among others, an inarticulate idiot, whose English was "so bad a kind of grandeur creeps into it," and a pseudo-idealist who reduced "all the difficulties of the hour to a few sonorous and unintelligible phrases, often with theological overtones," and whose avowed principles were quickly compromised in the face of any resistance.

Notes on Democracy is not particularly cohesive; it is basically a series of witty political pamphlets with titles like "The Eternal Mob" and "The Occasional Exception." For some reason, it fell out of print for decades, and this useful re-issue features an excellent introduction by Marion Elizabeth Rogers, as well as extensive footnoting of Mencken's references to scandals of the day and America's political past. Most of these footnotes are useful; some are a little insulting—I wonder what Mencken would make of the fact that Bach and Freud as well as batches of fairly common foreign phrases, from Reich to vox populi, now apparently need to be identified.

Here are some of Mencken's arguments: most people are stupid and this is simply a genetic necessity. Forget education or any other system of improvement; these people are dumb because they have simply absorbed as much as they are constitutionally able to absorb. He expresses admiration for eugenicists like Francis Galton, and incredulity that anyone could think that folk music or folktales actually rose out of the common mass. He supports the theory that some great, now forgotten individual artists created this work, with the folk acting only as "referees, choosing which should survive," although he fails to explain why the idiotic folk would have such unerringly good taste.

(Note: I find this side of Mencken repellent, but there is enough that is worthwhile that I suggest simply getting past it. Most of this stuff is at the beginning of the book.)

Now, intelligent and honorable politicians, Mencken argues, when faced with this mob, either don't last long or quickly become frauds, consciously or unconsciously. Then the exploitation of the office begins. "The business of victimizing [this public]," Mencken writes, "is a lucrative profession, an exact science, and a delicate and lofty art. It has its masters and it has its quacks ... The adept practitioner is not only rewarded; he is also thanked. The victims delight in his ministrations, as an hypochondriacal woman delights in the flayings of the surgeon. But all the while they have the means in their hands to halt the obscenity whenever it becomes intolerable, and now and then, raised transiently to a sort of intelligence, they do put a stop to it."

As you can see, there is both wit and insight here, both about why the bums do eventually get thrown out, and then inevitably thrown back in, with renewed hope. Again, Mencken suggests no solutions, but it is at least something to hear the truth spoken. Mencken once wrote, incidentally, that his only objective was only to make "life measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America."

So what, you might ask, is Mencken's standard for "civilized"? He is not, it turns out, devoid of idealism; he simply believes—like Carlin, incidentally—that honor does not exist in groups, which inevitably work to destroy it, but only in isolated free individuals. In Europe, he says the aristocrats might once have filled this role; in America, their absence is filled, in the public mind at least, by the plutocracy. "[This plutocracy] is, of course, something quite different," he writes. "It lacks all the essential characters of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, honour, courage—above all, courage. It stands under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty; it is transient and lacks a goal. Its most puissant dignitaries of to-day came out of the mob only yesterday—and from the mob they bring all its peculiar ignobilities."

He fails to identify the historical aristocracy that actually possessed these noble qualities, but he at least makes it clear what he admires. So, what should the few men and women in America that fit this description do for their country? Mencken's answer: leave it alone, and fight to make sure it does the same to you.
Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without. The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him. All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend. He can hope for little help from other men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight. He has made of himself a sort of god in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness.
It is partially Mencken's fault that this passage is all too easy to applaud. How else could someone who endlessly castigated America become such a celebrated figure in his time? Most people like to think of themselves as surrounded by inferiors, and this kind of writing lends itself to self-congratulation of the stupidest kind. But Mencken is constantly slipping out of such traps if you read him carefully; he has a complicated mind, and this is why his writing is still worth reading for more than turns of phrase. The capacity for doing without—there is a line that, say, Ayn Rand, would never have written. She would also never have mentioned public duty or any kind of obligation, to the state or otherwise. But Mencken's brilliant and racy style makes it very easy to read fast and miss the harder lessons, so the laughter his insults produce often settles into arrogant complacency.

This is finally, though, the reader's fault and not the writer's. And it is good to know that Mencken, in his own life, was capable of appreciating real artists and true statesmen, and seems to have been a man of both courage and (occasional) open-mindedness. I still find him, as I always have, a difficult writer to like. I admire people whose instinct, in the absence of definite evidence, is to believe before they disbelieve, who are willing to be fooled and disappointed repeatedly before they reject anything that might be worthwhile. Mencken's constant shoveling out of bullshit means he often loses his eye for gold. Notes from Democracy is filled, for example, with mockery of chiropractors and osteopaths, both of whom have long since proved—in the face of immense opposition—that they are not in fact quacks.

Something else bothers me too. Adjusting for comic exaggeration, many of the things Mencken says have the absolute ring of truth, but I feel like they should be said with sadness or rage instead of relish, because no one suffers more from the current arrangements in America than the masses on whom Mencken heaps so much contempt. It is also hard, today, to be satisfied with Mencken's vision of lonely and honorable individualism. Our most pressing problems, particularly the ecological ones, have demonstrated that we are an interconnected community whose private actions affect each other. Simply removing yourself from the contagion doesn't seem like a real solution.

But, well, maybe there is no solution, and that's that. This could be something, at long last, to consider, and Notes on Democracy makes the point too incisively to be ignored. If you have arrived at the mood I mentioned earlier, and need some desperate consolation, I recommend seeking it out.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Last Words, by George Carlin

I was beginning to realize something: I had a powerful new tool for my tool kit, though I've only made sparing use of it since. Getting laughs all the time wasn't my only responsibility. My responsibility was to engage the audience's mind for ninety minutes. Get laughs, of course, dazzle them from time to time with form, craft, verbal fireworks, but above all engage their minds.
                                        —George Carlin
, Last Words

As I've written before, I think stand-up comedy is one of the few remaining vibrant art forms in this country. There are, as always, only two or three great talents, but there's a whole constellation of worthwhile secondary talents, a real sense of excitement about the medium, and a sizable and engaged audience.

Part of the energy comes from diversity: stand-up comedians are racially, economically, and philosophically much more varied than the usual creators of today's "fine" arts. Also, since good comedians work in many different registers—jumping, like Shakespeare, from farts and boners to reflections on death—they also attract a very mixed audience. Louis CK will riff at great length about masturbation, and then include a bit—maybe based on Peter Singer's ideas, maybe just his own thoughts—about how we make needless purchases when we know, on some level, that the same amount of money could probably save someone's life in another country. George Carlin could win over a crowd with an accomplished but fairly safe routine on airline jargon, and then hit them with a subtle and disturbing monologue on the fraudulence of most modern environmentalism (“The Planet Is Fine”).

While I was watching Carlin's routine on the American Dream, I remember thinking—Jesus, people are paying to hear this! These are some of the most honest and destructive reflections that anyone is going to hear on the state of this country, things a few wise writers have been saying for years (although maybe not so sharply) to a tiny and shrinking audience—and here this comedian has an auditorium of thousands, and millions on HBO and now on YouTube, willing to listen to him say them. And they're enjoying it! It's possible they ignored the disturbing parts and went home chuckling about something else, but the words still reached them. The seeds are in their head now.

I noticed, though, that some of Carlin's most profound routines, like the two I've mentioned, work better as transcripts. The ideas are coming too fast to digest in the monologue—they need the time and space that the page grants them. Nothing fundamental is lost when you read the words instead of hearing him deliver them. As Carlin notes in the quote above, which is from his "sortabiography" Last Words, it's not just about getting laughs anymore, it's about fully engaging the mind, and the page is usually a better way to do this than performance.

So I thought I would read one of his books. Last Words is the posthumous autobiography that Tony Hendra compiled from a hundred pages that Carlin wrote about his early life and many hours of interviews. I wish Carlin had lived to complete the writing, because the first third of the book about his childhood is by far the best part. A sample of his writing:
The highlights of my life were my trips to midtown with Bessie, listening to the radio, and thumb-sucking. I was a world-class thumb-sucker. My specialty at bedtime was to loosen part of the bottom sheet, wrap it around my thumb, and cram the whole thing into my mouth for extended, overnight sucking.
Imagine reading this out loud, delivering it like a comedian—I don't think it makes it better. This is written humor. And there's many more passages in the first third of the book that are just as charming. It's a wonderful picture of growing up in 50s New York, with all of the education and energy that a largely unsupervised street childhood can provide.

The book then goes into Carlin's time in the Air Force and the beginnings of his comedy career. And then Hendra must have had to step in, because the book features more transcripts of Carlin's routines, and the prose is less sharp, although it is animated with the same lively intelligence. Carlin's life becomes less interesting when he gets famous: the work takes over, along with predictable cycles of drugs and rehab, creative exhaustion and reinvention.

There are still thoughtful passages on the art of comedy, though, and the book is worth reading all the way through. In one section, Carlin discusses a line about abortion that he wanted to include in a routine, but that never seemed to work. “Audiences wouldn't follow me there,” he writes. “It was one step too far. They didn't enjoy the risk. I'm a realist. After a while, I dropped the line. And maybe they were right: maybe it was too complex an idea or the phrasing was too harsh. But it shows how the audience shapes the material. They are part of the process. I write, they edit.”

Now, a writer might say that this is selling out, the kind of compromise that makes stand-up comedy something less than a genuine art form. I'm not so sure. A few decades ago, Philip Larkin wrote about the two tensions from which art springs: “the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience.” In the previous century, he wrote, for most serious artists “the second of these has slackened or even perished.” And he saw this as a disaster for both the arts and the audience, as artists restrict themselves to ever smaller circles (and begin to say increasingly inconsequential things) and the mass audience falls back on purely commercial entertainment, never encountering anything that might wake them up a little.

Undeniably, most stand-up comedy falls into the category of commercial entertainment. It is slavish in its desire to please, exhausting in its endless facetiousness and refusal to say anything serious. (Go to a comedy club on a bad night and it is about as depressing an evening as you can pay for.) But when a comedian realizes, as Carlin did, that getting laughs is not his only responsibility—that something honest and challenging can take place in the space between the artist's personal vision and the audience's expectations—the night can become special.

Louis CK, who wrote a fine piece about Carlin when he died, is probably the best stand-up around right now, has been freeing himself more and more from the obligation to be continuously funny, especially on Louis, his TV show, and some of the episodes of that show are simply works of art (“The Bully” is my favorite of the ones I've seen). So are parts of Carlin's specials; and this book may have reached the same heights if Carlin had had time to complete it. It is interesting that he names more writers as inspirations than comedians: Noam Chomsky, Hunter Thompson, Gore Vidal. It's a shame he died before finishing—I think he had another career ahead of him.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the shelves at Goodwill when a wave of sadness came off a familiar yellow spine. It was Tuck Everlasting, which I had read as a child, fairly soon after I came to America. It was the same edition, with the same misty watercolor on its cover. A student (the front cover identifies her as Tatjana) had been through the little novel already, circling vocabulary words and identifying similes and metaphors. Her resolution petered out around page fifty; I like to think that she started enjoying the book at this point.

The little I could remember from childhood: there was a family that drank from a spring in the woods and became immortal. I couldn't bring back anything else or place the source of that sadness. A glance at a few pages indicated, though, that the prose was worthy of adult respect. Here is a character sketch of the mysterious stranger that comes to town: "His tall body moved continuously; a foot tapped, a shoulder twitched. And it moved in angles, rather jerkily. But at the same time he had a kind of grace, like a well-handled marionette."

(SMILE, wrote Tatjana next to this passage, successfully identifying one of the few actual reasons to read, none of which -- teachers take note -- involve spotting similes.)

I wonder why we so rarely return to early favorites. Maybe the fear of unraveling the memory of enchantment. There is a beautiful passage in John Crowley's novel The Translator, about a woman coming across a box of childhood art that she had made with her brother Ben:
She was surprised years later to find that her mother had kept a lot of the writings they had done, the drawings and the models, the chronologies and the maps. Most of the work was Ben's, which was maybe why she had kept it. When Kit took it all from the cardboard box, she felt a strange vertigo: she recognized and remembered these things and at the same time saw them shrivel and shrink; what had once been big and vivid to her became small, and not only in size. He had done it all on little pieces of shoddy paper, in colored pencils; he had been just a child. It was like picking up the body of a bird, and being surprised to find it nearly weightless.
What a pleasure, then, to feel none of this vertigo in the first few chapters of Tuck Everlasting, but instead writing of enduring charm and beauty.

One of the wonderful things about childhood -- I remember very faintly -- is a sense that everything is alive and can be communicated with: animals and plants, houses and roads. And one can see this sense of the world in Tuck Everlasting, as well as most books that speak to children. In the first few pages of the novel, the grass is described as cut "painfully to the quick" (how many adults would consider the suffering of cut grass?); the house where our heroine Winnie lives "was so proud of itself that you wanted to make a lot of noise as you passed, and maybe even throw a rock or two"; and the wood where the spring is hidden "had a sleeping, otherworldly appearance that made you want to speak in whispers."

Winnie is a lonely ten-year-old. Most of the time, she only has a toad for company (the toad, as one would expect in such a book, seems to be able to understand much of what Winnie says). One day, Winnie decides to explore the wood, which her family owns, and she comes across a beautiful boy, Jesse Tuck, drinking from a spring by an oak tree. She wants a drink too, but he won't let her, and she becomes understandably curious about why.

When the rest of the Tucks come to meet their son, they realize that the little girl might be a problem for them, and they grab her and take her to their house. There, they try to explain their situation -- how they drank accidentally from the spring once almost a century ago and have been alive ever since, unable to age or even get hurt, moving from place to place to avoid scrutiny. Angus, the wise and gentle father, tries to convince Winnie that no one else should ever know about the spring. There is a lovely conversation about the continuous flow of water in the pond, and how the Tucks have somehow been removed from this cycle.

Soon after this point, though, an adult reader begins to feel that this is indeed a book for children. A stagy plot gets underway involving a man who wants to sell the spring water. The plot moves rapidly in three- to four-page chapters, with virtually no summary narration; it's one tiny scene after another, a kind of eternal present that felt thin and rushed. The whole action of the book, including an unexpected act of violence and a late-night jailbreak, takes place in about two days.

Here is "a kid's review" from Amazon: "I read 'Tuck Everlasting' in sixth grade, and while reading it, noticed that it lacked the basic elements of a good book. The first thing I noticed that the book seemed to be -if I may- condensed."

Indeed you may, junior reviewer and sophisticate-in-training! Thankfully I had no such complaints when I was young; my imagination filled in whatever might be missing and turned a pencil sketch into a painting. As an adult, though, I was beginning to feel the shrinking that Crowley describes. I couldn't believe anymore that so much would hinge on Winnie, or that people would consider her quite so important. I was still glad I read the book, but felt like it belonged to my past.

Then I came to the Epilogue. It takes place many years after the main action of the book, and involves a choice that was presented to Winnie as a child. The Epilogue is only six pages long, but it transforms everything that has come before. It's an absolutely beautiful piece of writing, not just for children but for anyone. Here, as I read, I understood the wave of sadness that came off the book when I first picked it off the shelf. The end was still thought-provoking, still powerful.

So, perhaps the bird is light in one's hand at times, but it does wake up and fly again. It was nice to discover that my reaction as a child was authentic and lasting, and more to be trusted than my taste as an adolescent (most of my high school favorites, like Catch-22, I've never been able to finish again). I think most adults, even ones who didn't love this book as a child, would find the novel worth reading by the end. It is a lovely fable, and its resonance only grows, I think, once one has become more closely acquainted with death.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Paul et Virginie, by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre

I became interested in this largely forgotten novel because of a passage in Edward Goldsmith's The Way, which I wrote about a few months ago. In response to arguments about the essential randomness of nature, Goldsmith quotes a passage from Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Etudes de la Nature:
If snails, nay bugs, caterpillars and locusts ravage our plains, it is because we destroy the birds of our groves which live upon them; or because on transporting the trees of foreign countries into our own, such as the great chestnut of India, the ebony and others, we have transported with them the eggs of those insects which they nourish, without importing likewise the birds of the same climate which destroy them. Every country has those peculiar to itself, for the preservation of its plants.
This seemed like an unusually wise man, both for our own time and the late 18th century. My French is bad, so I decided not to take on the multi-volume Etudes, which were once famous. At the end of these volumes, though, Bernardin placed the small novel Paul et Virginie, which he considered a distillation of his ideas about the natural order.

The book must still be read in France, because I found several new editions in a foreign language bookstore, although the introduction indicates that it is regarded by French critics as an embarrassment, something like Uncle Tom's Cabin in American literature. Paul et Virginie was an enormous popular sensation in its day, and admired by everyone from Napoleon (it was apparently his favorite book) to Alexander von Humboldt, who had it virtually memorized.

A copy also made its way into the room of little Emma Rouault, who would grow up to become Madame Bovary. This paragraph is probably the only place where English-speakers regularly encounter the book. Saint-Pierre's novel is mentioned at the beginning of the famous fourth chapter -- which, incidentally, I have always found very unconvincing as psychology -- where we hear about the reading that gave rise to Emma's dreams of romance:
She had read Paul and Virginia, and had dreamed of the bamboo cabin, of the Negro Domingo and the dog Fidele; and especially she dreamed that she, too, had a sweet little brother for a devoted friend, and that he climbed trees as tall as church steeples to pluck her their crimson fruit, and came running barefoot over the sand to bring her a bird's nest.

The story is simple. Two women end up alone with young children on the Île de France, a colonial name for modern-day Mauritius: one's husband has died, and the other has been abandoned by her lover. The two decide to live near each other and raise their children together, along with their faithful slaves Marie and Domingue, who grow to love each other. The novel's attitude to slavery seems to be that it's fine as long as the masters are nice to them.

Their son and daughter are Paul and Virginie. They are beautiful little children, in touch with the natural world, free from the corrupting influence of civilization, healthy and vigorous. The earth provides everything they need, and they care for their little piece of land and make it blooming and beautiful. As they get older, possibly from lack of other options, they begin to fall in love with each other. Their mothers want them to marry one day, but Virginie's mother -- in one of those refreshing bits of openness often found in French novels -- is worried the girl will get pregnant too young. She is also concerned that the two will have no money when they grow up. So, when a rich aunt in Paris offers to make Virginie her heir if her mother will send her back to France, the girl is put on a boat. As you can imagine, things begin to go wrong when she leaves the island.

It is, in many ways, a silly novel. In addition to its offensive depiction of slavery, long conversations are devoted to dated social criticism, people burst into tears on virtually every page, and its depiction of natural morality is often ludicrous. Virginie, for example, is unwilling to be saved from a foundering ship because it would require that she strip off some of her clothes in front of a male sailor. And this modesty, which she apparently learned from wandering around the forests of a tropical island, is presented as quite noble and right; only a corrupt, civilized woman would expose herself so shamelessly to save her life.

And yet, as easy as it is to mock, the book, somehow, is not dead. Many parts, to my surprise, are still extraordinarily beautiful. For one, the descriptions. The forests are painted with wonderful felicity, heightened for me by the lovely feel of certain French words: "La rivière qui coule en bouillonnant sur un lit de roche..." ("The river which runs foaming over a bed of rock..." but how inadequate "foaming" or "bubbling" feels in the face of a word like "bouillonnant"!) I loved the image of the palms rising above the other trees, and looking from above like a second forest planted on the ground of the lower canopy.

So -- if you wipe away the lugubrious melodrama and all the criticism of civilization -- which none of Saint-Pierre's city readers, from Napoleon down, seem to have taken very seriously -- something genuine still remains, and that something is a sense of reverence for the tropical landscape. Virginie, for example, will never eat a fruit without making sure that she places its seeds in good soil. Her intuition, her natural sense of gratitude, tells her that this is somehow part of the arrangement. When she writes a letter to her family from France, she makes sure she includes some European seeds, which, despite Paul's attentions, don't flourish on the climate of the island.

As you can tell, Bernardin's sense of realism is much better with plants than people -- none of the characters in this little novel are particularly real, but the sense of integration between their lives and the world around them, the respect for the terms on which the gift of abundance is given -- all of these still feel genuine, and continue to give the myth of Paul et Virginie a certain power.

D. H. Lawrence mentioned Saint-Pierre in the chapter on Hector St. John de Crevecoeur from Studies in Classic American Literature. He names him in a list of all of the other back-to-nature writers. "I used to admire my head off," he writes, "before I tiptoed into the Wilds and saw the shacks of the Homesteaders ... Poor haggard drudge, like a ghost wailing in the wilderness, nine times out of ten.

"Hector St. John, you have lied to me. You lied even more scurrilously to yourself ... Jean Jacques, Bernardin de St Pierre, Chateaubriand, exquisite Francois Le Vaillant, you lying little lot, with your Nature-Sweet-and-Pure!"

Lawrence, I must admit, is right. There is lying in this book, which is why every type of person from dictators to dreamy little provincial girls have found what they were looking for in its pages. But, as Lawrence continues, "Crevecoeur was an artist as well as a liar, otherwise we would not have bothered with him," and the same can be said of Bernardin. What remains true in this book is worth more, for me, than all of the dry ironies of Madame Bovary.

Randall Jarrell once wrote that "Soon we shall know everything the eighteenth century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us." Well, it is worth blunting your sense of the ridiculous (temporarily), finding your inner Emma Rouault, and trying to rediscover some of what Paul et Virginie has to teach.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Enjoyment of Literature, by John Cowper Powys

In one of Boston's last good used bookstores, there is a copy of Enjoyment of Literature in a glass cabinet. Powys has inscribed it to his brother and sister, dedicating the essay on Shakespeare to one and Proust to the other, and sketched Janus -- one of the many mythological figures he associated himself with -- on the title page. Somehow, the book passed through the hands of the Powys family to the poet Geoffrey Hill, whose name is also inside, before finally settling beneath the glass case.

I have only read one Powys novel, Wolf Solent, but felt a mysterious attraction to this volume, along with a completely unmysterious lack of $350, which is what it costs.

I might have been remembering Robertson Davies's introduction to Wolf Solent, where he describes Powys's twenty-five year career as an extension lecturer in America. I have always wondered, from Davies's description, what it would have been like to be in one of Powys's audiences.
As a lecturer he was what it is now fashionable to call charismatic; the tall, gaunt, eagle-like man, clad in his Cambridge gown, never spoke from notes; he thought in front of his audience, shouting, wooing, accusing and wowing 'em in a rhapsodic flow that might go on for an hour and a half, reaching to the highest shelves of his extraordinary literary range for allusions and examples from Homer, Dante, Rabelais, Dickens, Balzac and all the great of Western culture that would illumine his theme ... Powys was never the darling of the great American universities; they found him "un-scholarly" and did not care that Powys did what scholars rarely do; he brought a sense of the greatness and splendor of literature as an enrichment of life to people who wanted precisely that.
Powys, almost always broke, used his knowledge to dash off a few pamphlets like "One Hundred Greatest Books" for money, but Enjoyment of Literature (or The Pleasures of Literature, as it is called in England) is the mature fruit of all of those years of lecturing, composed only after he settled down to write seriously.

It is tough to write ordinary criticism -- to drape oneself over the edge of a sofa and declare "Oh how very fine" and then occasionally sigh, "Alas, that was not quite so fine" -- without feeling a little frivolous. Powys doesn't approach his task in this way. He treats books as ways to "support, deepen, and thicken out our profoundest life illusion," scattering exclamation points on every page and asserting that he cannot rest until he has connected "the most intimate peculiarities of a writer's style with the very centre of his soul's circumference and the widest parabola of its circling flight."

Is some of this too much? Undoubtedly, and there is plenty of hot air in this book, but no one can turn its pages and feel the same sense of dreary inconsequentiality that today's book review sections produce. Powys simply gets too much out of his reading -- he needs these books, he writes, in the "actual struggle of day-to-day life" -- and what he says about them is in a different world from the tedious grumbling of, say, Harold Bloom, whose enthusiasm for literature is far exceeded by his desire to scold and classify.

Powys writes about many of the authors you would expect -- Homer, Cervantes, Wordsworth, Dickens -- and a few that you would not -- like Rabelais and Matthew Arnold -- but he never pretends that his choice is somehow eternally objective. "Among books," he writes, "as among people and events, our character is our fate. We can extend the boundaries of ourselves, we can enrich our native roots; but it is a waste of time to struggle to enjoy what we are not destined to enjoy!"

He continues: "Thus the choice of books becomes, like the choice of a mate, or of a life-friend, a series of cross-roads of appalling significance." Isn't that last phrase wonderful? Floating on the occasional currents of fustian, there are touches like this that make even the weaker essays worthwhile.

Powys is not much of a critic if you haven't read the books already. He doesn't give plot summary or do much close analysis of passages. He is a critic of essences and -- I know this is unfashionable -- self-help. He acknowledges that these authors have been discussed to death, but what has often been ignored, he says, is what "in unsophisticated circles is called a writer's 'message.'" He knows that such a statement is calculated to give "a scholarly student no slight shock," and it certainly made me suspicious, but the message that Powys teases out is never reductive. In his best essays, he points out what most readers have dimly felt, and attempts to lift our intimations a little further into consciousness before they sink back beneath the waves. Here is a long passage, for example, from his essay on Homer (Powys only works in long sections):

"In all the greatest poems of the world as they tell us this tale of fate, this struggle and this acceptance, there come moments, often near the end of it all, that convey an indescribable sense of peace. At such moments there rises from the very simplicity of the words a magic and a healing that totally evades definition. Under the touch of this magic a great quiet descends upon our spirit and we grow ashamed of our turbulence, our hurry, our ignoble self-pity, our insatiable discontent. It is not -- as with the Christians -- that we turn from defeat in this world to triumph in another. It is rather as though we heard the voice of our personal wrongs and private miseries caught or sinking down into the orchestral utterance of all the generations, into the tune of the ancient sorrow of the earth herself."

Powys then gives a short quote from a prose translation of the Odyssey:
So he spoke ... and they poured libations to the blessed gods, who hold broad heaven, from where they sat. But goodly Odysseus arose and placed in the hand of Arete the two-handled cup, and spoke and addressed her with winged words:

"Fare thee well, O queen, throughout all the years, till old age and death come which are the lot of mortals. As for me, I go my way, but do thou in this house have joy of thy children and thy people and Alcinous the king."

So the goodly Odysseus spake and passed over the threshold.
"Now I am not unaware," Powys writes, "that to many among my readers these simple lines will convey no particular significance; but, as Plato might say in his tentative manner, 'does it not seem' as if a certain magical end-of-the-day evocation, full of tender assuagement and an almost religious solemnity, gathers upon us as we read, not so much like the rich, harsh, mystic note from some Gothic bell-tower, as like the very sound of the river of life itself, deep and full-brimming, infinitely sad and yet infinitely healing?"

Along with the "thoughtless cruelties" in these epics, Powys writes, there is also "a grand primeval natural democracy ... wherein to be a man under the sun, or a woman under the sun, is a thing in itself of magical awe and reverence."

This is not an original remark, many people have felt it, but it takes an enchanter to carry both the thought and the feeling along in the prose. It also takes a certain courage to be obvious (this is precisely the courage, by the way, that is missing in most second-rate writers.) Here is what Powys writes in his essay on Proust -- I think he is making a related point:
The pleasures of reading are not confined to the immediate excitement of reading. There are also after-thoughts; and when an exciting book leaves no after-thoughts we know well what has been wrong. The author has been afraid of being dull.
As anyone who has picked up one of Powys's doorstop novels knows, he is absolutely fearless in this respect. I read Wolf Solent many years ago -- it is, in fact, only occasionally dull, but it is quite frequently unfathomable: I often had no idea what Powys was driving at. But I am going to return to his novels now: Owen Glendower or A Glastonbury Romance next, and then maybe Porius. Certain books give you the confidence to tackle a difficult writer, and Enjoyment of Literature is one of them. I can't seem to finish The Rainbow, for example, but I'll keep trying, because Lawrence's essays make it clear that he has something important to say to me. William Gaddis's essays, meanwhile, along with Charles Olson's interviews, both come off as so incoherent that I wonder whether it's worth making the effort to navigate their labyrinths.

Enjoyment of Literature was published in 1938 and has never been reissued. Luckily, it is not too hard to find used on the Internet. Some courageous publisher -- maybe the Overlook Press, which publishes Powys's mature novels -- might want to bring it back in print. Since his novels are so immense, the essays are probably the best introduction to his work, and also the closest we will get to hearing his lecturing, which one friend describes as "an art on its own such as, one feels, the world will never see again."

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Two fine blogs: First Known When Lost and The Lectern

I was out looking for information about John Cowper Powys and came across two websites that I thought were worth sharing.

One of them, First Known When Lost, is a wonderful hybrid put together by Stephen Pentz, apparently a retired attorney. Each post contains a poem, either famous or obscure, along with a painting or a photograph, and finally a few of Pentz's thoughts.

The site has a casual, friendly feel, but there is an enormous amount of knowledge, lightly-worn, in each post, particularly about Larkin and the other English poets of the first half of the 20th century.

I can't imagine this sort of work existing without the Internet, so it's nice to see the medium starting to produce its own worthwhile forms. For the curious, this is the Powys post that I first came across. I didn't even know he wrote poetry before.

The next site is The Lectern, which contains an essay about The Brazen Head, one of Powys's little read (and apparently even weirder than usual) late novels. Whoever writes The Lectern is a Dostoevsky obsessive, so many of the posts relate to him, but the author also produces fine essays and appreciations of other writers along the way, while gathering together some fascinating quotes. Much worth reading.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Sun: An Interview with Paul K Chappell

I have been a subscriber to The Sun for a few years now. It's a good magazine, although there can be a certain sameness to the issues. The interviews are usually with mystics, practitioners of alternative medicine, unconventional political crusaders, and back-to-nature types. Even when I'm on board with them, as I usually am, their worldview can get a little predictable, as can the "life is tough but ain't it beautiful" note struck by many of the stories and poems.

There can also be an annoying air of middle-class complacency about the magazine's radicalism, as if a few more meditation retreats and book clubs would be a real first step towards solving the world's problems.

Nonetheless, I am always glad when a new issue arrives. I feel like the editors are always trying to reach people, and don't pawn off anything that they weren't genuinely affected by on their readers. As anyone who reads literary magazines can attest, this is actually quite rare. Many of the photographs are beautiful, the Readers Write section is always worth reading, and there are often discoveries to be made in the Interviews.

This month's interview is with Paul K Chappell, an Iraq veteran who is now a peace activist. He gives some very thoughtful responses to many of the difficult questions that face pacifists, and also provides an interesting window into the training of officers in the army. I was surprised, for example, to discover the extent to which West Point encourages its students to face opposing viewpoints: apparently they invited Noam Chomsky to give a speech on the legality of the Iraq War, and many of Chappell's friends were already reading Chomsky, along with people like Howard Zinn, to decide what they thought of the war they would soon be joining.

One particularly interesting section was Chappell's distinction between violence and play (Leslee Goodman is the interviewer).
Goodman: As a parent of sons, I heard that if I didn't let my boys play with toy guns, they would just make guns out of sticks. Is this not an indication that violence is in our genes?

Chappell: We need to look at the difference between violence and play. In play as soon as someone gets hurt, the game stops. When two puppies are biting each other, and one puppy yelps in pain, the play stops. If two boys are playing swords with sticks and one boy gets hurt, the play stops. The intention of violence is to inflict pain: you want to hurt people. The intention of play is to have fun, practice hand-eye coordination, test your strength against your peers, bond socially, and so on. Play is crucial, not just for humans but for all mammals. Nearly all young mammals like to wrestle. It builds muscular strength and the connections in your brain that govern motor control and balance. But it has nothing to do with violence.
I remember reading an article in the Boston Globe recently about the illegal traffic in finches to be used in cage fighting matches. Male saffron finches are "naturally aggressive" -- they fight over mates -- but the interesting detail for me is that these confrontations are rarely fatal in the wild, because the finches have room to retreat. The fight stops as soon as one bird feels himself overmatched. It leads to death or serious injury only when the birds are primed to fight and then forcibly confined. I think there are definite analogies to be drawn.

Monday, March 21, 2011

An Interview with Ron Sexsmith: Long Player, Late Bloomer

I wrote about Ron Sexsmith a few years ago and how consistently great his albums have been for the past fifteen years. It turns out that his last one, Exit Strategy of the Soul, which I thought was fantastic, didn't sell very well, and neither did the one before. Ron apparently got pretty depressed about what felt like his disappearing career and even considered giving up music for a while.

Some of this mood is cataloged in Love Shines, a new documentary about the making of Sexsmith's most recent album, Long Player, Late Bloomer. Ron's management was nice enough to send me the DVD, which isn't available yet, because I was interviewing him over the phone for Time Out Boston.

The interview has just been posted, and you can read it here. He is one of my heroes, so it was an honor to speak to him.

About the album, Long Player, Late Bloomer is another wonderful collection of songs, and a fine place to start if you're not already a fan. During the first few listens, I'll admit I was put off by the production. Sexsmith apparently wanted a more commercial sound on this album and brought on a bigtime producer, Bob Rock, to gloss things up a bit. A lot of the songs, as a result, feel less intimate, vaguely smoothed over. One track, "No Help At all," has a slinky synthesized riff played on a keyboard that sounds like it has been set to "Disco Flute."

Pretty soon, though, the lyrics and the melodies start to shine through the saran wrap. I even began to appreciate some of Rock's touches, especially on songs like "Believe It When I See It" and "Love Shines," where his production gives the songs an anthemic energy that is something new in Sexsmith's music.

Long Player, Late Bloomer also feels cohesive in a way that most of Ron's albums do not, because there is an emotional arc that connects the songs to each other, involving, I think, the descent into depression and the slow climb back out. The album begins with a song about purely personal gripes ("Get In Line") and then moves from confusion about the purpose behind things ("The Reason Why") to a kind of a cosmic despair ("Believe It When I See It"), which is probably the most pessimistic song Sexsmith has ever written.

After a glimmer of light on "Miracles," we get "No Help At All" (the disco flute track) which begins to view the depression from outside, with some tongue-in-cheek humor, a signal that the darkness is clearing. And the album then moves from guarded hopefulness to, finally, a kind of radiant acceptance.

Not every song fits with this concept -- even Willie Nelson can't hold an entire concept album together -- but the odd-man-out tracks from the second half of the album (which is a bit weaker) still capture a branching out, a growing interest in the world, that fits with the idea of moving from inward gloom to something larger than the self.

For a while, I've been giving people Sexsmith mix CDs, and when they don't quite get my enthusiasm -- and many of them don't -- I end up stammering something about melodic complexity or sincerity or about how well the lyrics are put together. I have a hard time explaining why this music is so important to me, why it keeps on giving me sustenance when so many other works of art that I like, from movies to books, seem to exhaust themselves after a few encounters.

All I can say -- and this is just another kind of stammering -- is that I can hear the same divine spark in Sexsmith that Beethoven heard in Schubert, and that anyone who listens to Winterreise or the last piano sonata or dozens of Ron's songs can feel as well. That this spark can be communicated, and is offered to us for the price of a little attention, is something of a miracle -- one of the miracles that, as Ron sings, keep appearing in broad daylight. Pick up this album or any of his others: I hope the spark comes across.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Orley Farm, by Anthony Trollope

I was once having an imaginary conversation with a real friend, a political scientist, and trying to defend the value of novels, poetry, and plays. A sentence came into my mind -- I was pleased with it for a second. "Literature," I said, comparing it in my mind to various other disciplines, "doesn't pretend to have answers that it does not actually have."

I checked myself, though, thinking of all the great works that would contradict this statement. It might not have been the most airtight aphorism, but while I was reading Orley Farm, it struck me as a good description of the appeal of Anthony Trollope's novels.

"He confounds me with his mastery," Tolstoy once wrote of Trollope. It is a hard word to associate with Trollope's baggy, seemingly improvised books, with their repetitions and occasionally paint-by-numbers romances, but mastery it is to have to written so much and lied so little. In scene after scene of his novels, you think, "yes, that's the way it would go." And Trollope's people -- unlike, say, Dickens's -- always feel like they could have existed in the real world, rather than being brilliantly designed to produce an effect.

It is a commonplace to say that, to make a piece of writing seem effortless and natural, you have to work quite hard at it. Trollope, somehow, sat down every morning at five and, keeping an eye on the clock, produced at least 250 words every fifteen minutes and spooled off dozens of immense novels that are probably the most lifelike books I have ever read. Nathaniel Hawthorne gave one of the best descriptions of the atmosphere of these books:
[Trollope's novels] precisely suit my taste, -- solid and substantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.
In Orley Farm, one feels that one is getting close to the actual lives of city lawyers in their chambers and commercial travelers selling their cheap iron furniture from door to door. Trollope, as he hews his lump out of Victorian society, can move between classes with no sense of strain, and also little sense of animus. When he does feel anger, as in the satirical chapters of The Way We Live Now, it tends to throw the book off track.

He is a hard writer to point to when defending the dignity of literature. He has no social agenda and doesn't seem to care much for art as a form of spiritual transcendence. But he has another quality which is unusual in a novelist and seems to me to be rather noble: he respects the privacy of his characters. He refuses to wander through the private rooms of their minds, tracking down every last thought. Even writing from an omniscient standpoint, one of Trollope's characteristic moves is to stop at a certain threshhold and declare that beyond this point he isn't sure what the character is thinking.

"What the lady's intentions were I will not pretend to say..." he writes, in some form or another, every few chapters. It is a bizarre thing to say about a person that you have made up, whose thoughts, on other occasions, you have been quite willing to detail. Even when he writes "she thought," he is often prone to add a qualifier like "we must presume," as if there is a limit beyond which his knowledge does not go. Another of his strategies is to detail several possible states of mind, and then declare that the truth is some unknown admixture of all of them. Basically (and this is rare for writers) he has manners, and won't extract more knowledge from his characters than they want to give. Another way to say this is that he respects the central mystery of each person, and in this sense -- and probably only in this sense -- he strikes me as a spiritual writer.

In Orley Farm, for example, which centers around the question of whether a will was forged by the widow of a dead landowner, he withholds a certain corner of a character's mind in a way that would be aggravating if he didn't also grant a similar margin to other characters: the attorneys on either side of the case, one in love with a judge's daughter, another infatuated with one of his clients; servants at various houses; a couple of witnesses -- one easily cowed by the crafty barristers, another not -- and a handful of gentry and commercial people who take sides with the various parties in the case.

It is an enormous canvas; several characters are quite needlessly introduced, and then sketched in detail only to disappear. It is not, like Dickens, a beautiful pattern, but somehow I never complained while reading. Encountering the people is itself a pleasure, and you never know when Trollope will have them become part of the story again -- it often seems that he doesn't know himself, and simply calls them back on stage when he starts to miss them.

One of the marks of his respect for characters is that he treats them like they are all living a life apart from the book they happen to be in. Even though he tends to write from a fairly fixed moral position, and is willing to declare that someone has acted badly, he never presumes (one of his favorite words) to make a final judgment on anyone. In short, he doesn't pretend to have answers that he doesn't actually have.

This is one of the reasons that, unlike the other novels of his era, Trollope's retain their interest to the last page. Normally, when the main action has been settled, it is a bit of a slog to get through the chapters of family happiness and the sorting-out of fates. Trollope refuses to sort people out in this way; it would be akin to passing judgment on the rest of a character's life. People go on; even if their characters may incline them in certain directions, who knows what might happen to them next.

Here, for example, is one of my favorite passages in the book, involving Lady Mason, the widow at the center of the trial, after her affairs have been decided:
Of her future life I will not venture to say anything. But no lesson is truer than that which teaches us to believe that God does temper the wind to the shorn lamb. To how many has it not seemed, at some one period of their lives, that all was over for them, and that to them in their afflictions there was nothing left but to die ... For Lady Mason let us hope that the day will come in which she also may once again trick her beams in some modest, unassuming way, and that for her the morning may even yet be sweet with a glad warmth. For us, here in these pages, it must be sufficient to say this last kindly farewell.
Let us hope. This is the broad-minded note that Trollope's novels tend to strike, even with their villains. They are wonderful, generous books. Orley Farm was apparently one of Trollope's personal favorites, and along with The Way We Live Now is probably the best of his free-standing novels. I still have several of the Barchester and Pallister novels ahead of me, and am perfectly content that Trollope woke up religiously every morning and kept his pen moving.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Another blog

Occasionally my office calls on me to contribute to our website blog. It's a publishing company, so most of our posts are book related; the best of my contributions is probably The Value of a Good Bookstore. Every Friday I also usually contribute a paragraph to a "What We're Reading" post.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Way: An Ecological World-View, by Edward Goldsmith

Edward Goldsmith, who passed away a few years ago, was quite famous in England, where he founded The Ecologist in 1970 and was instrumental in the creation of the Green Party. The Way: An Ecological World-View is his grand summation; it took him twenty years to write, and with appendix and bibliography is 500 pages long.

It is not well-known in America, where the University of Georgia Press publishes it. I first saw the book mentioned in The Revenge of Gaia, by James Lovelock. Lovelock was listing plans to combat catastrophic climate change, including spraying particulate matter in the atmosphere and building a sunshade in space. After several increasingly terrifying proposals, Lovelock took a step back and said that, since we couldn't possibly predict the consequences of such massive bioengineering projects, it might be better if we returned to the kind of modest, responsible lives our ancestors once lived, as his friend Edward Goldsmith recommended in The Way. I decided immediately to go out and read it, since this seemed like a saner strategy than blocking out the sun.

The Way is a book for determined readers. First of all, to get past the first few chapters, you pretty much need to already be convinced of several things: that we are on the brink of an ecological collapse; that the past two hundreds years of industrial development have been a doubtful blessing for humans and the environment; and that we need to learn a great deal from certain pre-industrial societies and their relationship with the planet if we want any chance at decent survival.

Even if you are convinced of these things, and I am, Goldsmith does not make your work easy. You have to push through a mass of neologisms – heterotelic, chreods, homeorhetic – which only gradually sink in and then begin to seem useful. The early chapters are filled with cross-references – one page in chapter two, for example, refers a reader to five other chapters as well as the appendix for further development of ideas. It can seem like a maddening tangle.

This tangle, even if it might not be the best way to attract an audience, does end up serving a function. I think The Way is trying to be non-linear, associative, and extensively inter-linked as a mirror of the ecological worldview it is trying to describe. Each chapter is named after a certain principle – for example, “Natural systems are homeostatic” – that is less a link in an argument than a point in a constellation (most chapters are only a few pages long). Goldsmith wants to show how everything is connected – from the move away from early Earth-based religions to the breakdown of modern urban communities – and he jumps continually from one subject to another. The connections between these areas are not usually defended with statistics; they simply exist together in space, and the lines form between them (if they do) through a kind of intuition.

I eventually accepted that Goldsmith's goal was not to convince skeptics or suggest a definite course of action. As with Thoreau, the goal is not intellectual coherence but the communication of a certain spirit - a way of approaching the natural world - that can embrace a variety of responses. It is closer to religious conversion than argumentation. To his credit, Goldsmith realizes this:
Science (he writes) has not banished faith. It has substituted faith in modern science for faith in conventional religion. Ecology, with which we must replace it, is also a faith. It is a faith in the wisdom of those forces that created the natural world and the cosmos of which it is part; it is a faith in the latter's ability to provide us with extraordinary benefits — those required to satisfy our fundamental needs. It is a faith in our capacity to develop cultural patterns that can enable us to maintain its integrity and stability.
Unfortunately, Goldsmith forgets that certain citadels do not fall easily to the weapons of faith. He opens the book by trying to take down what he sees as the reductionistic assumptions of modern science. It is an attempt filled with logical holes that even a sympathetic reader can't fail to notice. Goldsmith begins by bringing up various mathematical models used in ecology, and points out that they cannot capture all aspects of reality (no one expects models to do this). In criticizing the Markovian mathematical formula used to predict ecological succession towards climax, he doesn't bother to indicate just what crucial aspect of reality is being left out. He attacks the neo-Darwinian explanation of evolution brought about through random mutations, but can't explain by what other mechanism it might take place.

Look at the word that I used, though, quite unconsciously: “mechanism.” These are the only kinds of explanations that most people accept as sound: cause-and-effect, the domino hitting the next in the line. But most natural processes do not work in this way. Goldsmith provides fascinating examples, like the relationship between salmon and mosquito larvae, and lays out the staggering array of complicated feedbacks and influences on what would seem to be a simple correlation.

His explanation is not intellectually satisfying; it is, in fact, not an explanation at all, but a gesture towards a mystery. A part of my mind – and most modern minds, I suspect – reflexively struggles against such mysteries and wants to do with away with them. When I encounter Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, or Goldsmith's argument that an ecosystem carefully coordinates its own development, or a description of Cairnsian mutations, where bacteria seem to produce certain beneficial genetic changes in a non-random manner, I am constantly sputtering, “But how can these things happen? Who's in control of it?”

Goldsmith cannot supply the kind of evidence that would satisfy this part of my brain. A similar sense of intellectual dissatisfaction occurs when theologians argue with atheistic philosophers, or intelligent design advocates with Darwinists. The former simply look stupid: they do not have an explanation to duel with the other one, only a sense that something crucial is being left out of the other's world-view - and while I might still crave such explanations, I'm not so sure that they're wrong.

So an ecologist won't be able to say exactly what a new chemical will do to our bodies and to the natural world over the next hundred years. Instead, she might counsel a spirit of caution before we introduce substances with no precedent into our ecosystem. And she will inevitably seem muddleheaded in comparison to a scientist who has run laboratory tests that find no evidence of harm, until twenty years later people find that all of the earthworms are dying – or the bees – or the swallows – and that this is having unexpected and cascading consequences for the biosphere. It is only when the network begins to collapse that we can see how we have disturbed it. And then, maybe, we begin to learn a little humility.

As Tim Parks said in our old interview, people aren't convinced by reasons; they become convinced when the bad news starts to pile up. As the modern belief in endless progress and constant development through technology yields increasingly useless marvels to go along with mounting environmental catastrophes, people, little by little, are beginning to consider other visions of being. Goldsmith's instinct is to look back to what he calls “vernacular societies” – from the ancient Greeks to Vedic Indians to African tribesmen – and draw inspiration from their ways of life. He doesn't spend time considering the possibility of limitless green energy through various as-yet-uninvented technologies. He writes, quite reasonably, that it is presumptuous "to postulate an ideal society for which there is no precedent in the human experience on this planet and whose biological, social and ecological viability has never been demonstrated."

Instead, the book provides examples of how philosophy and ritual helped keep these small human communities, both hunter-gatherer and agrarian, in balance with their environment for thousands of years. These models are not likely to suggest any practical steps to the modern reader – the divergence between the societies he describes and ours is simply too huge – but I'm glad that Goldsmith insisted on following his ideas to their natural conclusions. It gives the book a certain purity of spirit. Few people could hope to live up to this spirit (and certainly not a man typing away at night on a laptop) but it remains a true ideal, one that we can keep striving to make manifest in our various impure ways.

When I finished this book, and what began as confusion had turned to admiration, I remembered a passage from Chuang Tzu, when he describes Hui Tzu's objections to his ideas:
“I have a big tree called a shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them.”
Remember, though, that animals love the hollows of a tree – a gnarled trunk will always be more full of life than a smooth one. The Way is stuffed with a lifetime's reading, crankiness, and ideas both deeply felt and poorly defended. I finished it a month ago, and have found myself continually flipping back to odd spots and finding more and more to explore. If the world created by the carpenters and their measuring lines doesn't strike you as a satisfactory place anymore, it is worth your time.