Thursday, December 27, 2007
The primary being just 12 days away I figure if I want to write anything else about it I had better do it now.
I should have noted in the earlier posts that my wife, a lifelong observer of this process who understands the mind of the people far better than most of the paid Democratic operatives appear to, predicted very early on that Mitt Romney would win the general election in 2008 and be inaugurated as President (!) When pressed as to the reason for such a bold prediction she simply stated that "People are stupid. They'll vote for him because they think he looks like a President." She also opined that if Hillary Clinton were to be his opponent people would not vote for her because she is a woman. Gaming the motives and likely behaviors of the public not being strong suits of mine, I do not venture any predictions of my own, nor have I hardly ever any strong sense that the predictions and pronouncements of others are blatantly wrong. Thus I will stick to recording observations.
I do not know who I am going to vote for myself (I am registered as a Democrat, mainly for reasons of temperament and social aspiration; I cannot plausibly see myself hanging out with a crowd of cool Republicans under any confluence of events, however miraculous). Compared to the previous two cycles, I feel much more out of the loop this time. I remember Kucinich from '04, and I don't dislike him, though I'm not sure I would want his program actually put into effect, and as there is virtually no support for any even broad aspect of his world view among either the political or general population anyway there isn't really any point in voting for him. Dodd and Biden I honestly do not have any sense of what they, or any potential supporters they might have, would want in their hearts. Bill Richardson's campaign sent me some very bland literature that was not well calculated for the New Hampshire electorate, which likes to think of itself as having less need of government patronage to get through life, particularly with regard to education, than perhaps is felt in other regions of the country. John Edwards I can't warm up to. I will admit that most Southern candidates come across as phonies in New Hampshire because the method they have of relating to people, smiling when no obvious occasion for doing so has arisen, the revival method of oratory, etc, are bizarre to Northerners, who don't believe anyone acting in such a manner can possibly be serious. My prejudices admitted, I just can't bring myself to like the man. His lawyerly attitude towards the electorate, which is, briefly, that it is essentially weak, stupid, and defenseless, and in need of a champion such as himself to battle the formidable powers on its helpless behalf, is offensive. Granted, Barack Obama and Hillary have more than a little of this as well, but I will deal with them presently.
First I want to take a detour and compare the supposed populism of Edwards with the populism of Bill Bradley, whom I voted for when he ran in 2000. Bradley's view of what the political life of the nation is, or ought to be, like, though unfortunately rooted for the most part in somewhat outdated circumstances, is more similar to my own than I have seen from other candidates. I believe that he identifies more strongly as a citizen, as one of the Volk--he grew up in small-town Missouri--as compared to some kind of Brahmin or sophisticated globalist than any other recent Democratic candidate certainly, though he was an Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes Scholar and Olympian and was discussed as a possible future Presidential candidate while still a college student, which as much as anything demonstrates the changes in the attitudes of the country's elites (I apologize for using this word) in this country since the mid-60s. Many representatives of the candidates call my place of employment during the Primary season looking to speak with various people of substance there. If the person the caller is looking for is not available he generally hangs up. The Bradley operative alone actually stayed on the line and invited lowly me, without even inquiring who I was or what my position, even my party, was, to a reception where I would meet him and so forth, which I thought was a very quaint, democratic gesture to be pulling in 2000. For whatever reason--I forget why--I did not go to the reception, which I am a little regretful of now, for no invitations have come my way since. (Hillary Clinton nominally sends them but you have to call a number to find out where the party is and give them the secret code on the invitation and I suspect you are briefed on the rules regarding how you are to behave, which is not the kind of party I have in mind.)
I did receive a call last week from "Rachael", a real live person, no older than 22 or so by the sound of it, in the employ of Hillary Clinton, who wanted to consult my wisdom regarding the election. Of course I jest. Rachael's tone indicated that she felt herself to be suited for more substantial tasks in the campaign than canvassing (probably) gross and simple-minded 37 year old men for votes. When I let it slip that I was as yet undecided--I didn't want to lie--she began to browbeat me as if it were my obligation to come up with a good reason to her for not voting for Mrs Clinton. I offered her my opinion that things like being interrogated by a candidate's representatives when they ought to be persuading me regarding her merits were not endearing me in the candidate's favor. Rachael either did not understand this, or considered it the concern of a trivial mind, which perhaps it is; she said, 'So what you're saying is, it has nothing to do with where Senator Clinton stands on the issues?' I said I honestly did not have a good sense of where the Senator stood on the issues, or what issues were particularly important to her. Rachael I think gave up on me as hopeless at this point, rattled off the usual spiel about health care and ending the war, and what a great candidate Mrs Clinton was, and let me go. I was not reasssured by this exchange.
By the way you see these well-scrubbed, pretty expensively dressed young volunteers all over town now gabbing away on their cell phones about the tricks the Republicans have up their sleeves, or buying seeds and vitamin water or whatever it is ambitious young people eat these days, which is certainly not what I eat. Obviously I feel drawn to them in some way, though I have never been one of them, and never has my remoteness from the rank of society from which these people are drawn been greater than it is now. There are a lot of the kinds of girls I like among this crowd I think is what it really is. Probably even Rachael.
I guess I am waiting for some convincing reason to vote for Barack Obama, (or any of them, but in the absence of this I will probably vote for him). The political naivete he displays in the campaign literature he sends out, while refreshing, does give one pause. In one place was printed a quote from one of his professors at Harvard Law School saying he was the most brilliant student the professor had had in 35 years of teaching. This is great, but talk about a white rapper with no street knowledge! The majority--probably the vast majority--of the American electorate is more suspicious of than impressed by academic prowess, particularly if they get the impression you are boasting about it as some kind of significant accomplishment in itself (the connections between doing well in school and financial or professional success, while generally acknowledged, are still only tenuously grasped in the matter of their substance by a shockingly large number of people). He is apparently the most popular guy among the college-town and white-collar Dems in New Hampshire though, who I identify with more or less by default, while Hillary is supposedly the "working-class candidate." I really don't know.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
In this posting I am going to attempt to grapple somewhat with ideas and actual poetry, as I am under the influence of a mood which tells me that as I will likely never return to this subject again once I have come to the end of this series, there is no point in rushing through it, especially given that I am scarcely paying it any attention as it is.
The picture below is taken from a 1913 children's book called Stories From Spenser. I wonder how many children read this book, or what influence it might have had on them, but I have not found any record of it. The scene depicts action from the 11th Canto of the 1st Booke generally, though to put some caption to it, I think I. xi. 5 is most fitting:
"Then bad the knight his lady yede aloofe,
And to an hill her selfe with draw aside,
From whence she might behold that batailles proofe
And eke be safe from daunger far descryde:
She him obayd, and turnd a little wyde."
IV. ii. 46 (3-5) Verse 45 describes the rape of a fairy nymph by a knight who came upon her combing her golden locks, presumably while in a state of undress, by a crystal flood, which got "three lovely babes, that proved three champions bold" on her. The young lads were raised in seclusion in the forest (their father having ridden off immediately after the gratification of his lust), but their genes would manifest themselves:
"Then shewing forth signes of their fathers blood,
They loved armes, and knighthood did ensew,
Seeking adventures, where they anie knew."
This getting of children by rape in this manner is, in most classical literature and art both ancient and modern (pre-1700), always set either in fairyland or some remote age, though the act is otherwise presented as the natural and obvious consequence of a lusty young man without the benefit of up to date education and civilizing coming across a luscious and lonely lass in the woods.
IV. iii. 27 (6-9) This is a striking and well-executed image:
"But when the floud is spent, then backe againe
His borrowed waters forst to redisbourse,
He sends the sea his owne with double gaine,
And tribute eke withall, as to his Soveraine."
IV. iv. 28 (6-9) This is a typical scenario in fight scenes involving knights on horseback; some variation of this is repeated about thirty or forty times in this poem alone. Indeed, for a significant portion of the lifespan of Western literary history--around 500 years-- the dominant narrative was of guys in armor swordfighting. This was one of the great lessons impressed upon me in 2007:
"A mightie spear eftsoones at him he bent;
Who seeing him come on so furiously,
Met him mid-way with equall hardiment,
That forcibly to ground they both together went."
IV. v. 35 (4-5) Regarding a blacksmith. Humorous:
"And fingers filthie, with long nayles unpared,
Right fit to rend the food, on which he fared."
IV. viii. 27 (5-8) On the hardiness of men of former ages:
"And eke that age despysed nicenesse vaine,
Enur'd to hardnesse and to homely fare,
Which them to warlike discipline did trayne,
And manly limbs endur'd with litle care..."
This picture has the words "Faerie Queene" in its title, though this refers it seems to a particular and curious self-image held by the artist and evoked by the terms rather than to anything connected with the poem.
"But now in feare of shame she more did stond/Seeing herselfe all soly succourlesse/Left in the victors powre, like vassall bond/Whose will her weaknesse could no way represse/In case his burning lust should breake into excesse."
"But cause of feare sure had she none at all/Of him, who goodly learned had of yore/The course of loose affection to forstall/And lawlesse lust to rule with reasons lore."
IV. x. 14 (8-9) "And time to steal, the threasure of man's day/Whose smallest minute lost, no riches render may." The book I used in this reading this poem was a 1935 Oxford University Press volume of 'Spenser's Poetical Works', which I found in Brattleboro, of all places. It had a glossary but not much in the way of explanatory notes. The previous owner, or one of them, of the book was a fellow whose name, though it is hard to decipher his handwriting, appears to have been Jim Swan; he lived at 40 Monroe Street in New York City. As this is in lower Manhattan near the Manhattan bridge, my suspicion is that the building Jim Swan, and my book, once inhabited have been razed and replaced with some more modern construction, though I am probably wrong. Swan appears to have read the Faerie Queene all the way through--at least he has marked it, frequently in pink pencil, all the way through. Perhaps he was one of the 12 men Bliss Perry designated as the book's living readership, though I doubt it. He left posterity a brief note beside the two lines above stating simply "Poor Richard!". Only a mid-20th century American, especially a Manhattannite, could have written this with such unaffected enthusiasm.
IV. x. 24 Beautiful nature images. Evokes the old world:
"Fresh shadowes, fit to shroud from sunny ray;
Faire lawnds, to take the sunne in season dew;
Sweet springs, in which a thousand Nymphes did play;
Soft rombling brookes, that gentle slomber drew;
High reared mounts, the lands about to vew;
Low looking dales, disloigned from common gaze;
Delightful bowres, to solace lovers trew;
False Labyrinthes, fond runners eyes to daze;
All which by nature made did nature selfe amaze."
I can offer little comment where the poetry speaks so clearly for itself.
IV. x. 53 (3-7) Much of this canto continues the emphasis on courage always carrying the day with the ladies:
"For sacrilege me seem'd the Church to rob, (the robbery would be of a recluse virgin from the temple of Venus)
And folly seem'd to leave the thing undonne,
Which with so strong attempt I had begonne.
Tho shaking off all doubt and shamefast feare,
Which Ladies love I heard had never wonne..."
IV. xi. 16 (1-4) I just like the rhyme. (Humorous):
"For Albion the sonne of Neptune was,
Who for the proofe of his great puissance,
Out of his Albion did on dry-foot pas
Into old Gall, that now is cleeped France..."
Monday, December 17, 2007
I did not know many women when I was young, but among those in whose presences I chanced on occasion to find myself, quite a few claimed that their favorite movie was "Harold and Maude". When I finally saw the movie, which is watchable more for the fascination of the enormous 1971-era cars and dreary landscape (leaves, and vegetation in general, as well as bright sunlight, seem to have been in short supply around the years 1969-71, judging from the films of the period) and the Cat Stevens soundtrack, which sounds great in the actual movie, than the excruciating plot, which centers around a geek who has a love affair with a octogenarian, my reaction was "How the hell can this be anybody's favorite movie, especially a young girl's?" Meanwhile other men were regularly meeting attractive and volatile women who told them their favorite movies were "Betty Blue" or "Henry and June", and behaved accordingly (these films, as far as I could tell, were about women who required, and got, constant stimulation and high-intensity sex). Always slow to catch on to the most blatant codes (perhaps this is what is meant by being unable to recognize an allegory even when it is swallowing you alive), it just occurred to me a few days ago that the alleged favorite films were nothing but a means of informing you in what regard you were held, certainly as far as your sexual prospects went, by reference to the fate of the leading male characters in the films named. Subconsciously one always knew this; when my future wife claimed to be partial to uplifting and wholesome American films from the 1940s (to me; who knows what she would have said had a pulsating superman been present at the conversation, which thankfully, one was not), I knew that I had some hope, though being me I did not make out what form that hope must inevitably take, and therefore made no preparations for it. The point in all of this relating to the Faerie Queene is that it is possible I may be struck by more penetrating insights about what it really means in 10 or 15 years, and I will be able to add those too late epiphanies to the compendium of worldy wisdom I hope to accumulate for my sons to give them a little more advantage when they embark upon the great contest of life than I blundered into battle with.
The advantage to someone like me, who is a rather plodding scholar, of a longer work over a shorter one is that the longer one becomes a very distinct part of your life for the period in which you are reading it. Impressions have a greater chance of penetrating even the dull mind. One senses a degree of companionship with the author has been attained by the mere virtue of having been confined in the same carriage or boarding house with him for so many weeks. A lot of readers apparently don't care for this, and consider it presumptuous, especially in a multimedia age, for any person to demand twenty, or more, hours of another person's life to read his book, but I have always found that illusion of intimacy--the author cannot really escape my company either without my willing it--to be the primary reward of the habit.
III. viii. 42 (1-5) The theme of the third booke by the way is chastitie:
"Eternall thraldome was to her more liefe,
Then losse of chastitie, or chaunge of love:
Die had she rather in tormenting griefe,
Then any should of falsenesse her reprove,
Or loosenesse, that she lightly did remove."
III. ix. 30 This is a difficult part to make out exactly (I believe Cupid may just be working his perfidious effects on a pair of lovers with the aid of alcohol), but the poetry, as far as both language and the artfulness of the images, is remarkable:
"Thenceforth to her he sought to intimate
His inward griefe, by means to him well knowne,
Now Bacchus fruit out of the silver plate
He on the table dasht, as overthrowne,
Or of the fruitfull liquor overflowne,
And by the dancing bubbles did divine,
Or therein write to let his love be showne;
Which well she red out of the learned line,
A sacrament prophane in mistery of wine."
III. x. 48 A cuckold watches his wife in action:
"At night, when they all went to sleepe, he vewd,
Whereas his lovely wife emongst them lay,
Embraced of a Satyre rough and rude,
Who all the night did minde his joyous play:
Nine times he heard him come aloft ere day,
That all his hart with gealosie did swell;
But yet that nights ensample did bewray,
That not for nought his wife them loved so well,
When one so oft a night did ring his matins bell."
There are a large number of female warriors (as well as monsters) in the poem, which brings to mind that allegory in itself is entirely, as Blake pointed out, a pagan form, and is in fact antithetical to Christianity, which is revealed truth.
This painting is David's Death of Sappho, with Phaon. It too has nothing to do with the Faerie Queene (there is a Phaon character in the poem, but there is no allusion to this story). However, it came up when I was searching for a picture and I decided I wanted it in my collection. I have expressed my fondness for David, albeit largely unexamined, on this site before. This painting looks to be in the collection of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, which I still have a hope of getting to someday, though for what serious purpose at this point I could not pretend to say. It looks increasingly unlikely that that will happen anyway however.
III. xii. 18 (1-5) Displeasure is like me. Pleasance, of course, must be Mrs Bourgeois Surrender:
"After them went Displeasure and Pleasance.
He looking lompish and full sullein sad,
And hanging downe his heavy countenance;
She chearefull fresh and full of joyance glad,
As if no sorrow she ne felt ne drad..."
III. xii. 24 (3-5), 25 Catalogue of unsettled spirits:
"Repentance feeble, sorrowfull, and lame:
Reproch despightfull, carelesse, and unkind;
Shame most ill-favourd, bestiall, and blind...
"And after them a rude confused rout
Of persons flockt, whose names is hard to read:
Emongst them was sterne Strife, and Anger stout,
Unquiet care,and fond Unthriftihead,
Lewd Losse of Time, and Sorrow seeming dead,
Inconstant Chaunge, and false Disloyaltie,
Consuming Riotise, and guilty Dread,
Of heavenly vengeance, faint Infirmitie,
Vile Povertie, and lastly Death with infamie."
IV. i. 21-22 On discord. This could be sung over legs of mutton and ale, like a real epic poem. The theme of the 4th Booke is Friendship, by the way.
"And all within the riven walls were hung
With ragged monuments of time forepast,
All which the sad effects of discord sung:
There were rent robes, and broken scepters plast,
Alters defyl'd, and holy things defast,
Disshivered speares, and shields ytorne in twaine,
Great cities ransackt, and strong castles rast,
Nations captived, and huge armies slaine:
Of all which ruines there some relicks did remaine.
"There was the sign of antique Babylon,
Of fatall Thebes, of Rome that raigned long,
Of sacred Salem, and sad Ilion,
For memorie of which on high there hong
The golden Apple, cause of all their wrong,
For which the three faire Goddesses did strive:
There also was the name of Nimrod strong,
Of Alexander, and his Princes five,
Which shar'd to them the spoiles that he had got alive."
IV. i. 51 (5) Good line:
"All things not rooted well, will soon be rotten."
IV. ii. 27 (1-4) Western civilization in a nutshell:
"And of them all she that is fayrest found,
Shall have that golden girdle for reward,
And of those Knights who is most stout on ground,
Shall to that fairest Ladie be prefard..."
Thursday, December 13, 2007
I was going to give everybody a break from Spenser by linking to a video called "Lucky Guys Get Amazing Lapdances at Wild Party" at Youtube, but the clip appears to have been taken down. It showed a couple of future exurban mom types doing some heavy grinding on a couple of very smug studs at a frat party. I don't know that I have ever been at a truly "wild party", by which I mean one where reasonably attractive women were drunk and totally out of control, unable to keep their hands and other body parts off of men, etc, though God knows the quest of my entire youth was to find one. Actually I suppose I have been at a couple that fit this description but I was so far from the action myself that I don't really count them.
After my pitiful attempts at poetical analysis in Part 3 I decided to retrench and try to work my way through the dilemmas caused by this poem a little harder. I determined that one of the reasons it is hard to take up much from the lines I am quoting and run a little with them is that unlike contemporary artists the poet is not really confronting us with provocative opinions about the literature, society, religion, or anything else. He is not, nor does he expect his reader to be, in serious doubt over such matters as the nature of virtue and vice, whether one ought to believe everything one reads in the Bible, if feudalism is really the optimal model for attaining human happiness, etc. The problems are almost purely artistic, matters of finding the best form to understand and demonstrate what is already accepted as true. This is the Medieval aspect of Spenser, and it is what people like Ruskin and Henry Adams are getting at when they claim that Western Civilization attained its highest point in the Middle Ages--around 1300. The idea is that men had, compared to ages before and after, a truly lofty sense of their purpose with the least confusion about what that purpose might be.
This ability of the artist to have his content already settled and to find the most suitable form for it, while not regarded in our time as the highest achievement possible, has its advantages. This occurred to me as I was driving around in my new minivan listening to the satellite radio which seems, at first anyway, to have come with it. My children like to listen to the kiddie radio station, most of which is truly execrable, grasping efforts of the "I Like Pretzels" variety by people who are clearly desperate to do anything to be able to call themselves artists, though I do like the Wiggles a little("Big Red Car" and "Ooh It's Captain Feathersword!" are catchier tunes than anything Elton John has ever put out). Whenever they break out something like a selection from the Mary Poppins soundtrack--"A Spoonful of Sugar", say--it's practically time to rock out. The point is, if you are totally on your own playing with your guitar straining to invent a song, you are going, especially if you have no genuine talent or imagination, to end up writing something solipsistic like "I Like Pretzels". You likely won't even be able to reach the heights of "A Spoonful of Sugar" because the concept, and more importantly, its place in the flow of a bigger narrative, likely will not present themselves to you.
I am pretty sure that the painting below actually depicts a scene from Paradise Lost, but I liked it so much I just couldn't leave it out.
II. x. 27-32 recount the story of King Lear (the whole booke is "a chronicle of Briton kings/from Brute to Uther's Rayne.") Here is how he presents the fate of Cordelia:
"Till that her sisters children, woxen strong
Through proud ambition, against her rebeld,
And overcommen kept in prison long,
Till wearie of that wretched life, her selfe she hong."
II. xi. 30 A common theme of old literature:
"So greatest and most glorious thing on ground
May often need the helpe of weaker hand;
So feeble is mans state, and life unsound,
That in assurance it may never stand,
Till it dissolved be by earthly band.
Proofe be thou Prince, the prowest man alive,
And noblest borne of all in Britayne land;
Yet thee fierce Fortune did so nearly drive,
That had not grace thee blest, thou shouldest not survive."
II. xii. 73 (1-8) Though this is about the privation of the soul through lust, it is pretty sexy stuff. This is what I imagine college as like for cool people:
"And all that while, right over him she hong,
With her false eyes fast fixed in his sight,
As seeking medicine, whence she was stong,
Or greedily depasturing (feeding on) delight:
And oft inclining downe with kisses light,
For feare of waking him, his lips bedewed,
And through his humid eyes did suck his spright,
Quite molten into lust and pleasure lewd..."
III. i. 13 Here is some Spenserian nostalgia for days of yore reminiscent of my own writing:
"O goodly usage of those antique times,
In which the sword was servant unto right;
When not for malice and contentious crimes,
But all for praise, and proofe of manly might,
The martiall brood accustomed to fight:
Then honour was the meed of victorie,
And yet the vanquished had no despight:
Let later age that noble use envie,
Vile rancour to avoid, and cruell surquedrie (arrogance).
III. ii. 32 (6-9) Volcanic love:
"Like an huge Aetn' of deep engulfed griefe,
Sorrow is heaped in thy hollow chest,
Whence forth it breakes in sighs and anguish rife,
As smoke and sulphure mingled with confused strife."
For all the wonder of this book, it is hard to maintain a consistent concentration day in, day out, all the way through. The 1962 Catholic History of Western Civilization that I frequently refer to says it is "a technically perfect poem, but lacks power." I would like to attribute my at times flagging attention to this lack of power but I really did not experience or perceive it in this way.
III. v. 23 (7-9), 25 (4-7) Reminders of Man's Fate/Intimacy With Forces of Darkness (I am at home now, so my return key skips a space):
"Downe on the ground his carkas groveling fell;/His sinfull soule with desperate disdain,/Out of her fleshly ferme (habitation) fled to the place of paine."
"And strooke at him with force so violent,/That headlesse him into the foord he sent:/The carkas with the streame was carried downe,/But th'head fell backward on the Continent."
III. v. 42 This is some elegant versification here:
"O foolish Physicke, and unfruitfull paine,/That heales up one and makes another wound:/She his hurt thigh to him recur'd againe,/But hurt his hart, the which before was sound,/Through an unwary dart, which did rebound/From her faire eyes and gracious countenance./What bootes it him from death to be unbound,/To be capitved in endlesse duraunce/Of sorrow and despair without aleggaunce?"
Most commentators on the Fairie Queene make note of how many figures and concepts of paganism populate this work. Especially as many of the Christian messages/scripture references are artfully, and usually beautifully dressed in symbolic garb, (i.e. an upgrade of armor) that nonetheless are probably lost on a great many modern readers, including me, without referring to the notes, the impression made by the ubiquity of various classical and nature gods is a strong one.
III. vii. 12 I noted beside this stanza "like me", which was obviously the immediate impression I had upon reading it, unflattering though it be. I cannot make out on a quick second perusal who or what he and his mother specifically sympolize:
"This wicked woman had a wicked sonne,/The comfort of her age and weary dayes,/A laesie loord, for nothing good to donne,/But stretched forth in idlenesse alwayes,/Ne ever cast his mind to covet prayse,/Or ply him selfe to any honest trade,/But all the day before the sunny rayes/He us'd to sing, or slepe in slothful shade:/Such laesiness both lewd and poore attonce him made."
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
The second & third stanzas of the Introduction of the second Booke (of Temperaunce), reference the newly discovered lands of the New World. As an inhabitant of those lands, they caught my interest enough to want to quote them, besides that there is the typical smooth versification of our poet:
"But let that man with better sence advize,
That of the world least part to us is red:
And dayly how through hardy enterprize,
Many great regions are discovered,
Which to late age were never mentioned.
Who ever heard of th'Indian Peru?
Or who in venturous vessell measured
The Amazons huge river now found trew?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever vew?
"Yet all these were, when no man did them know;
Yet have from wisest ages hidden beene:"
I don't want to club anyone over the head with quotations, as I know most readers' inclination will be to skip over them to see if I have written anything ridiculous relating to sex or failure or perhaps the collapse of civilization. However I took to writing these book reports primarily to try to help myself remember something of what I read, as I found I was starting to forget almost all of it. Also Spenser is not one of those authors like Orwell or Johnson or Wilde with whose quotations one is constantly bombarded even from the most tangentially well-read sources, so I thought it would not be the worst thing for him to have a little presence on my site. To be honest I am a bit burned out and disillusioned at the moment with reading, and to a certain extent with writing, but I don't really know what else to do with myself. Most of my interests would lead me back to reading and confronting mountains of learning and well-staked out territory in some manner. What I probably really need to do is to go on a long quest or pilgrimage of some kind, preferably one that has some tangential importance to human progress--I have discovered that it is fashionable now to trash even the Lewis and Clark expedition as meaningless because it 'accomplished nothing of value that would not have happened anyway'. This attitude poses a problem to modern western Man, because the idea of the quest, whether individual or the group, is one of the main engines which drives any culture, yet increasingly we feel that there is no more ground for us to stake out or seek that a million more able people have not covered and pronounced upon already. One looks inward and finds nothing there that has not already been made manifest, and to a far greater extent, by a thousand others one knows of.
II. 1. 11 (5-8)
"Her looser golden lockes he rudely rent,
And drew her on the ground, and his sharpe sword
Against her snowy brest he fiercely bent,
And threatned death with many a bloudie word;"
This action is taken by one of the villians on the side of intemperance, who doubtless has a more precise identification that eludes me. Violence, or the threat of it, sexual and otherwise, is a constant throughout the work, and is frequently written about in a way that, while solidly moral and judgmental, is also rather arousing.
II. 2. 2 This is a good poem.
"Ah lucklesse babe, borne under cruell starre,
And in dead parents balefull ashes bred,
Full weenest little thou, what sorrowes are
Left thee for portion of thy livelihed,
Poore Orphane in the wide world scattered,
As budding braunch rent from the native tree,
And throwen forth, till it be withered:
Such is the state of men: thus enter wee
Into this life with woe, and end with miseree."
II. 2. 15. Even if you are skipping the poems, this description of a desirable *modest* woman--a subject dear to Spenser's sensibility--might appeal to a romantic spirit:
"She led him up into a goodly bowre,
And comely courted with meet modestie,
Ne in her speach, ne in her haviour,
Was lightnesse seene, or looser vanitie,
But gratious womanhood, and gravitie,
Above the reason of her youthly yeares:
Her golden lockes she roundly did uptye
In beaded tramels, that no looser heares
Did out of order stray about her daintie eares."
II. 2. 29 (8-9)
"Vaine is the vaunt, and victory unjust,
That more to mighty hands, then rightfull cause doth trust."
II. 3. 36. I like this metaphor.
"As fearefull fowle, that long in secret cave
For dread of soaring hauke her selfe hath hid,
Not caring how, her silly life to save,
She her gay painted plumes disorderid,
Seeing at laste her selfe from daunger rid,
Peepes foorth, and soon renewes her native pride;
She gins her feathers foule disfigured
Proudly to prune, and set on every side,
So shakes off shame, ne thinks how erst she did her hide."
II. 3. 41 (1-4) This is about the sort of woman who prefers, and only prefers, men of action:
"In woods, in waves, in warres she wonts to dwell,
And will be found with perill and with paine;
Ne can the man, that moulds in idle cell,
Unto her happie mansion attaine."
Samples from II. v. 32-33 (loose nymphs)
"Amidst a flock of Damzels fresh and gay,
That round about him dissolute did play...
Every of which did loosely disaray
Her upper parts of meet habiliments,
And shewed them naked, deckt with many ornaments.
"And every one of them strove, with most delights,
Him to aggrate, and greatest pleasures shew...
One boasts her beautie, and does yield to vew
Her daintie limbes above her tender hips;
Another her out boastes, and all for tryall strips."
II. vii. 52 (6-9) verses on Socrates
"With which th'unjust Athenians made to dy
Wise Socrates, who thereof quaffing glad
Pourd out his life, and last Philosophy
To the faire Critias his dearest Belamy."
II. vii. 60 (1-5) A harsh reply to Tantalus, upon that wretch's asking for food:
"Nay, nay, thou greedie Tantalus (quoth he)
Abide the fortune of thy present fate,
And unto all that live in high degree,
Ensample be of mind intemperate,
To teach them how to use their present state."
II. viii. 16 (8-9) A villian disputes Sir Guyon's right to a funeral (he is not actually dead but in a swoon):
What herce or steed (said he) should he have dight (adorned),
But be entombed in the raven or the kight?"
II. viii. 50 (2-5) Condition of an inferior being:
"For as a Bittur (bittern--a type of heron) in the Eagles claw,
That may not hope by flight to scape alive,
Still waites for death with dread and trembling aw;
So he now subject to the victours law..."
There is something about this poem that is causing me to be melancholy. I think that is because it either is truly great or is very near to being truly great, and because I feel something of an impossibility to understand it in anything close to what it really is. One feels terribly lonely and unarmed wandering around in it, and companionship in terms of attitude towards the poem is hard to come by. Yet at the same time it does not feel alien. It feels as if something one has lost, something rather powerful, is buried within it, that is probably irretrievable except in fragments and shards of language.
I am going to try to do shorter posts and more of them, as well as to cut down on the quotes. However, they all seem important or good or humorous enough at the time.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
I have previously written on this blog about Spenser's Epithalamium, in which I think I made it clear that I am an admirer of this poet, if from a considerable distance of intellect. His oeuvre achieves a satisfying sense of totality both in the parts and in the whole that very few English poets, and I would have to say no modern ones, have attained. By this I do not mean that the best of the moderns are bad, or even technically or intellectually inferior, but I never have the same feeling of encountering a complete man, or woman, and certainly not the distilled spirit of an entire society, in either a single poem or collected works of a modern poet. It is this positive quality of fullness that causes readers to find certain old books soothing and consoling as much as the avoidance of serious contemporary dilemmas. The best poetry of the 20th century was to my mind more remarkable for its sophistication than for any projection of fullness, though I do consider some of the great modern novelists to have achieved the latter, and certainly someone like Picasso, as well as other giants of modern art, would appear to have attained something of this quality as well, whether we like what we see in the result or not.
Booke I, Canto IV, Verse 20 "Idlenesse":
"From worldly cares himselfe he did esloyne (withdraw)
And greatly shunned manly exercise,
From every worke he chalenged (claimed) essoyne (exemption),
For contemplation sake: yet otherwise,
His life he led in lawlesse riotise;
By which he grew to grievous malady;
For in his lustlesse limbs through evill guise
A shaking fever raigned continually:
Such one was Idlenesse, first of this company."
This is a good sample of a Spenserian stanza. Recalling that there are over 3800 more of the kind, and that the poem was begun around 1580 and the second completed part published in 1596, one realizes that, that means that he wrote an average of 0.65 of these every day for 16 years; and of course numerous other productions also appeared in the meantime, most notably the Amoretti and Epithalamium. While this is meticulous, it is not languid poetry. It builds up a character fairly quickly and economically with statements of fact rather than impressions or speculations, and is ready to set him into purposeful action, though he is Idlenesse himself.
At some point during the fourth Canto of the 1st Booke I made a note that "the life depicted by the poets far different from that we know" and also that I had a dream of the book falling into pieces. I have no recollection of what either of these refers to now.
I.v.1 (1-4) "Great Enterprise"
"The noble heart, that harbours vertuous thought,
And is with child of glorious great intent,
Can never rest, until it forth have brought
Th'eternall brood of glorie excellent:"
I.v.7 (8-9), 9 (3-8) "Effects of Sword-Fighting"
"That from their shields forth flyeth firie light,
And helms hewen deepe, shew marks of eithers might...
The cruel steel so greedily doth bight
In tender flesh, that streames of blood down flow,
With which the armes, that earst so bright did show,
Into a pure vermillion now are dyde:
Great ruth in all the gazers harts did grow,
Seeing the gored woundes to gape so wyde,..."
I thought this was well-wrought. The Christian knight representing holiness is fighting a Sarazin here, so the fight is hardly to be avoided, and thus physical courage and strength are not merely subjects for admiration or philosophical inquiry but are actually necessary. One gets something of the sense of what that fully entails.
This book is certainly a lot of poetry for your money. Surely, I thought, no one can ever have memorized all of it, but it is clear that people, primarily in previous ages, have memorized very large swathes of it. Many of these have also distinguished subtleties of characterizations, symbols and allusions, which are more than usually exquisite and beautiful when revealed, most of which I was sadly not within a thousand neuron waves of being able to pick up on.
I.vi.24 "How to Raise a Man"
"For all he taught the tender ymp, was but
To banish cowardize and bastard feare;
His trembling hand he would him force to put
Upon the Lyon and the rugged Beare,
And from the she Beares teats her whelps to teare;
And eke wyld roring Buls he would him make
To tame, and ryde their backs not made to beare;
And the Robuckes in flight to overtake,
That every beast for feare of him did fly and quake."
I constantly ask myself both in reading these kinds of books and poems and in attempting to keep this blog, What is the nature of my enjoyment of this? and What is the nature of other people's apparently far different sort of enjoyment in the same? Poetry seems not to be much served by my being one of its audience, and certainly not by my being one of its critics. The benefits to me, as far as pleasure goes, while not completely illusory, have much about them of voyeurism and the vicarious. To read Spenser as myself, Bourgeois Surrender, would have no obvious purpose, would not, could not, be translated in any way to anything actually interesting that might ever transpire in real life. For such reading I have to invent another, livelier and more brilliant person who inhabits a particular, and likewise invented world, neither of which are likely to ever break through to real life, to give the reading meaning, to take a place, as it were, at one of the tables where the grand feasts of humanity are regularly served. I do not receive the poems directly and integrate them into the manner in which I eat my breakfast or interact with people at cocktail parties, at least not so that anyone, including myself, can perceive them. They must diffuse themselves into little microscopic bits that lodge themselves in odd and disconnected spots in the sediment of my mind.
"Such as she was, their eyes might her behold,
That her misshaped parts did them appall,
A loathly, wrinckled hag, ill favoured, old.
Whose secret filth good manners biddeth not be told"
It is probably pointless to read this if one is not going to read it at least twice.
I.x. 66 (7-9) "On Natural Superiority/Courage Asserting Itself In Spite of Lowly Origins"
"Till prickt with courage, and thy forces pryde,
To Faery court thou cam'st to seeke for fame,
And prove thy puissant armes, as seemes thee best became."
At this climactic point of the first Booke St George, or the Redcrosse Knight, overcomes the dragon. By necessity, it seemed, many had to die at the dragon's hands in order to make this hero, and to illustrate his virtues. This is still the formula of many popular stories today, at least those that are popular among the crowd that is not particularly attuned to being sophisticated; among those who are, there is more of a sense that modern life and the modern mind have mitigated the idea of any such necessity even for the sake of virtue where anonymous and random death on any scale is to be the price.
I.xii. 39 (Some Very Catholic Sensibilities)
"During the which there was an heavenly noise
Heard sound through all the Pallace pleasantly,
Like as it had bene many an Angels voice,
Singing before th'eternall majesty,
In their trinall (threefold) triplicities on hye;
Yet wist no creature, whence that heavenly sweet
Proceeded, yet each one felt secretly
Himselfe thereby reft of his sences meet,
And ravished with rare impression in his sprite."
Sunday, December 02, 2007
According to the 1966 Illustrated World Encyclopedia's supplemental section "Library of the Literary Treasures", which has had such a singular influence in my life, Bliss Perry, professor of English at Yale (there's a blast from the past for you) estimated at one time that "there were no more than a dozen men living who had read the Faerie Queene through, though it is acknowledged to be one of the greatest works in English poetry". This seemed preposterous to me even at a young age, and I continued to be dumbfounded as I grew older and repeatedly encountered estimates by scholars of the living readership of classic books that numbered no higher than the mid double digits. It was only very recently that I finally caught on that when such people say that only twelve people alive have read a book they do not mean to include in that group all the people such as myself who might at some point have managed to fix their eyes upon and mouth over every word from page 1 to the last of the surviving fragments, but only such as have the education, intelligence, experience and understanding of the human condition to be able to read the book properly, with a mind that bears some measurable proportion to what is at work in it. I have little doubt that the Faerie Queene is much less read than other famous books such as Proust, or Ulysses, or Don Quixote, which according to scholars and pop authors and journalists of the ironic school no one is supposed to have read either, though I suspect the number is higher than twelve, and is probably closer to a thousand, even with the more stringent criteria. I also suspect that many, if not most of these thousand are spread out at great removes from each other, from the camaraderie and even love which the mutual possession of any exalted and refined understanding promises to offer. The idea at least appeals to me.
Though only half-completed according to the original plan, the Faerie Queene is a massive and complicated edifice of poetry that one could easily write about for months without getting anywhere near the actual point of it. It contains over 3,800 stanzas and 34,000 lines of very tight, mostly technically faultless verse, all in the famous Spenserian stanza, nine lines with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc, with the ninth line having an extra foot (i.e. two syllables, making twelve altogether). As reading this book is in some ways as much a test of endurance as of skill such that it resembles a heavyweight fight, I think it is not bad form to ease my way into an attempted description of it by the use of statistics. The poem is routinely described as an allegory, though I admit I have found any great allegory hard to keep in clear view, and experienced it more as comprised of various allegorical episodes. The well-known Internet writer Spengler at the Asia Times website, who appears to be learned after the German manner (languages, philosophy, no hint of anything "light" being allowed to have influence; this guy considers Shakespeare overrated and frivolous compared against Goethe and Lope de Vega), but like many of his countrymen has more than a bit of the inflexible fanatic about him where his pet subjects are concerned, once opined that Americans could not recognize an allegory if one were eating them alive. This idea interested me--I was not sure what being eaten alive by an allegory would even mean, and why one should have an especial appetite for Americans, or any other sorts of people, as victims to be devoured. Each book (Booke) is divided into 12 cantos, each of which is comprised of around 50 stanzas, and (each Booke again) is represented by a quality, which a different knight, usually one of long renown relevant to the topic such as Arthur or St George, undertakes a quest in the course of the Booke to attain. The theme of Booke I is holinesse, of Booke II is temperaunce, etc. The construction and execution of the poem itself into a kind of unassailable castle of awesome correctness unfolds very much as a parallel to these quests, and succeeds to a large extent in embodying many of the qualities it champions. The Faerie Queene herself is of course supposed to be Elizabeth I.
My impression is that there is currently very little real taste for this poem afoot in the general culture. Some Renaissance Faire types indicate a mild interest from time to time in what it might be about, but I don't know how far they get in their investigations. While undeniably impressive, the book is more than a bit of a slog to get through, and I don't know that I have ever read of or heard anyone lamenting that the poet died before he could complete the remaining 35,000 lines he had projected. I can find no evidence that the literature scholars and grad students currently bedding the most desirable women (or who are currently the most desirable women) pay it any attention at all. Spenser was held in enthusiatic regard in the 19th century by the Romantics, especially Keats, who recognized in him a poetic sensibility and talent both natural and masterful. Ruskin too considered him a giant of true imaginative literature from a much grander and more serious age than that of human degeneration which he considered to mark the Victorian era. The Faerie Queene seems to have been a standard part of university English curriculums throughout the Anglosphere up until the 50s and 60s, around which time, and I fear not coincidentally, the boozing, womanizing, irreverent postwar generation of British poets and novelists were invited for teaching assignments in American colleges. These were given to ridiculing their earnest American colleagues and students for various innocences and pretensions, among the foremost of which was claiming to like, or believing anyone else liked, or ought to like, books like the Faerie Queene. The enviable (to the Americans) professional, social and sexual successes, these latter frequently with the wives and denoted girlfriends of the duller natives, that these swaggerers were able to effortlessly achieve no doubt contributed to making the diligent study of such an enormous and not easily accessible work seem even more pointless and unsexy than it probably already had. The nearly universal neglect of it among people who have other literary options continues unabated to this day.
It should be acknowledged that in the same postwar period another faction of Britons, represented by C.S. Lewis and his ilk, continued to trump up the greatness of medieval allegorical poetry, which tradition Spenser certainly pays much homage to, though he is more than half, if often resistant to it, a man of the Renaissance. Lewis seems to be mainly popular nowadays among practitioners of a kind of gentle Christianity and nerdy fantasists, sometimes found in confusion in the same person. I actually think most of these people understand at some level that his idea of Christianity is actually something rather intense that it is difficult for modern intellectuals, including I am quite certain himself, to tap into. Understanding something of a poet like Spenser especially, but probably any very good poet, requires getting into a similar mindset. This was a man who spoke and wrote in a young language that did not yet have a vast literature or, apparently, well-worn ruts and grooves in its spoken form that it was difficult to find one's way out of. His experience of the English language was as something that in all its forms, including the simplest, was rapidly and continually evolving all around him throughout his life. The Elizabethans experienced their language almost the way we do certain areas of technological advancement. They did not have to strain to 'make it new', because one did not have to go terribly far to come to a point where it was necessary to do so. Happily in literature they 'seized the moment', which can only arise at certain junctures in the history of any language, though English is perhaps at such a juncture now where it is coming into widespread use in places and among peoples who can experience it as something brand new.
I am not satisfied with this last thought but as I will have several posts on this poem maybe I will take it up again another time.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
I was in greater Philadelphia, where most of my relatives, including all of my parents and siblings, still live, for Thanksgiving. I still go there about three times a year, so I usually don't think it worthwhile to record the visit on the site, but I think this time I will.
First I have to get this out of the way: There was a real northeast Philly girl working the counter at the Wawa on Oxford Avenue who had the kind of hair I like--dark, piled and pinned carelessly and luxuriously like a big swirling soft serve ice cream on top of her head, etc. It sent a wave of sensations over me that I identified as partaking of 'home' and a certain lost life with which I never connected, and which was seemingly never meant to be mine. Nonetheless I immediately felt a sentimental kinship, doubtless unshared, towards this attractive person whom I imagined as having sprung from the same patch of earth and cultural milieu as I had, who was one of the tribe, so to speak, of which I was by birth a member, though I became pretty quickly lost to it. She said "Have a good one" to me when I left in the ironic, coolly reserved manner intended to convey toughness with which many native females of that city are wont to address strangers, but I was actually comfortable with it on this occasion. It had become reassuring to me.
The more polite readers may now be thinking to themselves "all this over a cashier?" But I have always had a thing for shopgirls, though we can't even really call women of this class shopgirls anymore. Indeed, one of the various absurd trips and adventures I used to plan in my young days was going to be a driving tour of the back roads of the northeast, staying in cheap motels and luring such girls as I encountered working at convenience stores and supermarkets and K-Marts in these towns that time had passed by back to my room to drink cases of Schaefer and Genessee (these kind of girls can really put it away) in cans with the lights dimmed and the curtains pulled, occasionally picking up someone a little more upscale at the local library or bookstore to try to keep it real. Yes, while the genuinely intelligent and serious members of my generation were mastering multiple foreign languages, or the medical arts, or computers, or devising means of fostering economic growth or providing clean tap water in Africa, I was dreaming of someday being great enough to casually seduce the skinny blonde with a chronic sinus infection working the express lane at the Stop N Shop in Elmira. Surely, any mature readers must say, these are the ravings of a idiot (I prefer madman, but no one believes in madness anymore). But in all innocence, at the time I thought this was the way all the most interesting people really lived. The heroes of books and movies and songs, at least recent ones, are never depicted doing any hard work, or if they are, they are usually looking to quit and hit the road at the first opportunity.
The problem of work, incidentally, once I got to be nominally an adult, was probably the major stumbling block to my being able to remain in Philadelphia. Every job I ever had there was so miserable, and the prospects for ever getting anything bearable seemed so grim, that I began to interpret the situation as the City's gods being determined, for some inscrutable reason, to drive me away. The connections of my large extended family were, alas, of little use. One of my aunts got me a job essentially as a janitor for some small-time entrepreneur she knew, who then wouldn't pay me, and whose office I had to stalk for several weeks in order to get somebody to cut me a check, which sorts of confrontations not being the kinds of thing I get a big charge out of anyway. Another place I worked, one of those small, stuffy city offices where lifelong neighborhood men who are walking heart attacks waiting to go off like to scream and hurl invectives at each other for no apparent reason other than to relieve boredom, was under investigation by the FBI or the IRS shortly after I left. Work culture in Philadelphia generally is, like much else there, marked by a certain dogged negativity and exaggerated sturm und drang that being at the bottom of the pyramid I just couldn't endure for 40-50 hours a week. In short I wasn't strong enough to cut it there and I had to bail out--a second time, the first being when I went to college--to a softer, less demanding environment.
On Saturday we went to a model train show in one of the now disused stations (Ogontz for anyone familiar with the area) in my old neighborhood. The state of Pennsylvania in general is mad for anything connected with trains, real or toys. Apparently I am too, for while we were invited to this exhibition by my brother-in-law, Mrs S pointed out that this was the third model train-themed attraction we had gone to in PA in the last two years. The first was the almost incomparable Roadside America which is out beyond Reading, and which I cannot recommend enough to anyone passing through that area on I-78, as it takes an hour at most to see the whole display. This is the kind of place that has framed and autographed photos of Pat Boone and Fox News personalities (that guy with the glasses and the stiff wall of blond hair especially stands out in my mind) hanging in the lobby. The many hundreds of buildings and other constructions which constitute the miniature world were built individually by hand by one man from the 1920s to the 1960s. The result is an idealized version of what Pennsylvania, especially the mountainous and industrial towns of it, looked like around 1943, which seems to be generally agreed upon in PA model train circles as having been the state's golden age, for all of the competing exhibitions are set in this same period. Usually at least once in your tour around the great room where the set-up is, they will dim the overhead lights and make it nighttime in Roadside America, there being however many hundreds of little street lamps, bridge lamps, lit-up stations, etc that you do not have to fear being groped or pickpocketed. At this juncture too there is a little light show projected onto the far wall of the building, featuring Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America" accompanied by shimmering juxtaposed images of Jesus and the American flag.
The third place we went by the way was the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum in Strasburg, which is out in Amishland (the Amish have a longstanding and I suspect twisted relationship with trains and railroad culture). This place is actually mostly real trains.
Since I do drive back and forth between New England and the Mid-Atlantic so much I get very tired of taking the same roads all the time, and am always trying to find different ones so long as they don't add too many hours to the trip. Lately I have been going on state roads all the way across Vermont and picking up I-87, the New York State Thruway, in Albany. I don't quite know why, but I like this road. Going west I have been on the Thruway as far as Utica, to which I took my ever suffering family on a weekend trip a few years ago because I had never been out that way, and I wanted to see what it was like, and I liked that too. The Thruway makes my old home highway, the PA Turnpike, to which it is similar as far as conception, very limited access, the exits 20 miles apart and all that, really look like a dump. Besides being surprisingly (to me )well-maintained--the roads in Pennsylvania have to be the worst-maintained in the country, and I would have assumed that New York would have even more problems in that regard--the lanes appear to be wider, or the merging traffic on-ramps better designed, or something. One never feels, even in pretty heavy traffic, that the other cars, or barriers, are anywhere near you, which is a source of constant stress on other highways. One of these days I will probably do a series of comprehensive articles on my favorite roads, bridges, train and bus stations, bus lines, airports, rest areas, etc, but I will spare my public those ruminations for the present.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
I was thinking the other day about how when I was a young boy, say from 1975-1982 or so, and my understanding of the world was highly influenced by my circa 1962 atlas and other reference books that I am constantly referring to in these pages, how remote the entire continent of Asia seemed to be to me. China, Siberia, Japan and Korea struck me especially forcefully as being a long, long way from home, moreso even than the wilder, more tropical nations, which were so unlike what I was familiar with that they did not register to me at that age with any vividness as real places. With Russia and China one could deal with statistics and images that made a real impression. The temperature had once been -71 degrees in Verkhoyansk, a town I could imagine myself having been born in more readily than I could a jungle. Train rides between cities which appeared to be neighbors on the map were 22 hours (I don't think I took a trip longer than 4 hours until I was 16). When I was a little older I had pen pals in the Soviet Union and the letters would often take a month to be delivered each way. This was in the 1980s. The seasons and the landscape in Japan and China that the pictures showed resembled ours enough to be identifiable as a reasonable place for human habitation but, like Turkey and other lands of great human antiquity, the colors and texture of the earth and the rocks and the sky seemed older and careworn. One knew in looking at them that the places they depicted did not belong to one, a sensation that is peculiarly absent from pictures taken more recently. Also it was always the next day in Asia, all the countries on the other side of the world were always ahead of us in time, which used to bother me a great deal when I was about eight, though I didn't complain about it to anyone, for I had once made the mistake of commenting to one of my teachers who had lived for a time in Washington state (which was pretty remote itself in my mind at the time) that I would not want to live there because there was no history in the place (compared to Pennsylvania/Mid-Atlantic Region), and I was duly assigned to read a book about Chief Seattle, whom I have always confused with Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, though I believe both of those chiefs were reputed to love peace, and one I think loved learning. Though the history lesson was perhaps lost on me at the time, the deserved chastisement for making a foolish and ignorant statement has remained with me to this day.
In those days of course few people from the West ever went even to India and Japan compared to today, and about as many went into outer space every year as went to China and Siberia. One also of course almost never met people from these countries here before about 20 years ago. At least I didn't. I don't presume to speak for the cool smart people, who are always attuned to great changes and intellectual developments and make the appropriatement mental adjustments years before I realize what is happening. I am pretty sure I never met a person from India in the flesh before about 1990. The same with Russia. Consequently these parts of the world will always retain some sense for me of being faraway and exotic that would obviously be impossible for anybody growing up now to have in the same magnitude.
I'm not sure what point I am trying to make here. I was watching an excruciatingly slow-paced, quiet, somber, at times almost elegiac movie about Japanese teenagers called Linda, Linda, Linda which I could not stay awake long enough to finish and there was a scene in which some girls are sitting on a balcony of one of the upper floors of their high school which had a view of some distant green hills in a late afternoon sunlight that was evocative of a wet sky in which a rainbow would be seen, and I thought, "ah, that is my image of what Asia looks like from the photographs in my 1962 Time-Life atlas", an image that I had not had evoked in some time. Japan of course, as well as Russia, South Korea and several other countries in the region, are experiencing extremely low birth rates and consequent steep declines in the population of young people, which does seem to lead to real doubts about the direction and purpose of the society even among people who nominally favor such declines. The sense that something very serious is missing, or has been lost, of what I will call spiritual as opposed to economic or political value is an undercurrent in many of the productions coming out of nations that can feel themselves to be in rapid decline--though many Americans, including me, talk a great deal of decline, it has not permeated the arts and polite discourse yet to the degree that it seems to have in Japan or Italy, where it is increasingly the subject even when it is not the subject because it is unavoidable. How does this relate to my photographs and the images they evoke? It has to do with a sort of life that seems more or less organic and natural but at least recognizably human in some way conrasted with a life that comes to seem ever increasingly artificial, even down to its fun, its travelling and consumption and dancing, etc. But you all knew that years ago.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Documentarians have long known that ragtime and big band music are perfect accompaniments to footage of baseball games contemporaneous with the eras when those genres flourished. These same genres also frequently turned to the game as a subject matter and source of inspiration for many famous songs and even entire musical productions, the sport at that time being celebrated as one of the delights of the national culture without being weighed down with the ponderousness of middlebrow consciousness, which the move of the Dodgers and Giants to California in and the subsequent nostalgia which suburbanization, television, the mass extinction of minor league teams and the demise of the old inner cities and the classic stadiums where the teams had been playing forever began to unleash in the late 50s and 60s, and from which the game, and perhaps the spirit of the people, have never quite recovered. Back to a happier note, my personal favorite song ever recorded about an athlete has to be "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio" by the Les Brown Orchestra (Here is a mini version, with an all too brief glimpse of the peppy singer Peggy Mann, who looks to be the kind of gal I like). The song is especially poignant because it belongs to the world in which Joe DiMaggio was really Joe DiMaggio, before the war, before television, before Marilyn Monroe, before Simon & Garfunkel, before Mr Coffee and paid appearances at autograph shows, before the old man who was trotted out at so many anniversaries and old-timers' days who had nothing to say to anybody in the present generation because he was increasingly a relic from an utterly foreign world that was supposed to be important but that nobody, including him it seemed, could really remember anymore.
DiMaggio retired from baseball in 1951 at the relatively early age of 37 and continued to live on as a very slowly and gracefully fading celebrity and iconic figure until his death in 1999, but most of his best years as a player, the years for which a generation of Americans actually fell in love with him, were when he was very young, from 1936-1941. This period belongs to baseball's mesozoic era, pre-integration, with the pro game, apart from a few superteams, the Yankees in particular, struggling to stay afloat during the Depression (the 1935 St Louis Browns drew 81,000 fans--the whole season). My impression is that these years have not been mined so thoroughly for analysis and grand themes by baseball's tenured historians and poets as those of others, and therefore the details of the personalities, seasons, games, etc. retain a certain freshness, a still interesting because largely unmagnified quality, that has been drained out of other eras. The legend of DiMaggio originated in the character of the late Depression. He was never a colorful figure by current standards, but right from the start he always projected supreme competence as well as a stately working class son of an immigrant dignity that perfectly suited the needs of the time. He seems to have always been regarded as "one of us" who happened to be a great ballplayer and was able to display various admirable qualities on the ballfield that however did exist among, indeed sprung from the mass of the population, rather than as a genetic freak who had little in common with ordinary human beings and whose exploits bore little relation to anything that went on in their lives, as is increasingly the case with modern superstars.
DiMaggio did play almost all of his career in an entirely segregated league however, and his own team the Yankees did not have a black or any other non-white player until seven years after he retired. The proposition has increasingly been raised in recent years that the Negro League superstar Oscar Charleston, who was also a center fielder and played around the same time, a man who never appeared on a magazine cover, and would never have been heard of by the majority of white baseball fans in 1939, was a better all-around player than DiMaggio. Given what DiMaggio represented in the culture of the time and for many years afterwards, this would certainly be ironic if it were the case, and of course it is far from implausible, though it is hard for me to believe it all the way through. DiMaggio was not regarded by his fellow white players and white fans of the time merely as a great player but almost as the ideal player, the guy who attained the finest possibilities of the game as it was understood/conceived of by the age's cognoscenti. Perhaps they were wrong, but I can't believe they were entirely wrong. It is commonly stated that Americans always go for the attractive lie or fantasy over the inevitably less pleasing truth whenever they are given a choice, but this implies that A) the truth, where Americans at least are concerned, must always be unpleasant, or it has not been properly experienced or understood and B) that myths, which have been employed by every substantial polity in human history, are of no benefit to individual humans as well as societies, which, while perhaps counterintuitive from a purely logical standpoint, seems to be quite demonstrably false.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
James Joyce-"The Dead"
Jean-Paul Sartre-No Exit (this is the one in which the famous line "Hell is other people [l'enfer, c'est les autres] appears)
In the comparative fire of my youth I inwardly took great offense at the Garrison Keillor comparison and fantasized momentarily about spraying the person who made it with machine gun fire but I have cooled off since that time. The resentments, jealousies, indignations, etc, with which authors are commonly supposed to be consumed towards their superior or more successful fellows don't make a lot of sense from the point of view of production once one is well past adolescence. I understand that if one is protecting a professional livelihood or a precarious spot on the rolls of fame it would be easy enough to be emotionally affected by the recognition of one's inferiority, but I think it is made too much of, and treated by the more secure authors as an amusing occupational hazard when dwelling on it really does no one any good. Also Keillor's attempts at reviving poetry by reading Eugene Field and Edward Arlington Robinson and so forth on his radio program make me think we are probably on the same team in the great existential struggle for America's soul. I doesn't look like it's going to be a winning team, but if one is on it one has to accept the mission to a certain degree.
Joyce's stories, along with Dickens's earlier and effusive efforts, were the first conscious models I took for my own writing, so it is not surprising that one could find hints in them in what I do.
Superficially I don't write anything like Thomas Pynchon--he's so zany and brilliant and all of that--but actually it seems like most American male authors under 45 or so ending up writing a little bit like Thomas Pynchon whether they want to or not--the over the top contrivances, the mishmash of cultural references pulled from anywhere, the sense that modern life as experienced by any human sensibility is actually insane. These attitudes, relationships towards language and knowledge and society, etc, seem to permeate the atmosphere.
Like a lot of modern French writers, Sartre seems to me to have a much more instinctive talent for writing novels and imaginative works than philosophy but seems to have considered himself more of a philosopher, especially as he got older. In Nausea, for example, which is a novel whose pages are mostly taken up with philosophical ruminations, I am confident in asserting that the more novelistic, imagistic, etc, parts, are by far the better parts of the book. Kierkegaard, for the sake of offering a counterpoint, does some similar experiments where the philosophy is more clearly the stronger component. I actually have more of a formal academic background in philosophy than literature, and people in the field who have primarily BAs in English and MFAs complain that this influence tends to, in their opinion, negatively intrude upon my fiction writing.
Monday, November 05, 2007
In addition to the old literature I am fond of typing about in this space, I also go on periodic binges of taking out books from the library which I skim through when I eat my toast or am sitting with my children as they fight and demand food and so forth. Most of these books, whether they are art surveys or travelogues or current events tomes, I must confess, are pretty light, though some of them certainly aspire to be serious. I get them out because they promise either to amuse me, make me think I am keeping some kind of contact with the outside world where things happen, indulge my dearer prejudices (though I must have very peculiar prejudices, because it is rare I find anything that satisfies me in this area), or, more commonly, my perverse ones. Those in the latter category tend to be such works as forecast the imminent doom of the United States, Western Civilization, or even the entire human race, by all of which entities I have a sad and, as I say, perverse inclination much of the time to feel unloved and unvalued, such that at a very base level of my mind the idea of their collapsing altogether--as if this were somehow going to render me a more valuable and significant and loved person--is fascinating to me. Thus I read a lot of books about peak oil, the various impending economic crises, cultural decline, demographic implosion, the perfect girl/woman phenomenon, the listless underachieving boy/man phenomenon (these are very titillating/borderline pornographic for us old men as they describe scenes like college campuses where the male/female ratio hovers around 1 to 2 and the women, gorgeous, toned, brilliant and impeccably dressed, are reduced to competing for the attentions of a bunch of slovenly, inarticulate, fast-food inhaling cretins--most of whom by the way have half the sperm counts their grandfathers did at the same age--who would rather play video games and look at porn on the internet than interact, sexually or otherwise, with real and very willing women. We certainly would never have presented such pitiful excuses for a manly spirit!!!), and anything generally concerned with how stupid almost everybody is compared to the author and other similarly ideal people, usually from the past. The more negative the books are the more I am usually left with the suspicion that their authors' motivations for writing them are the same as mine are for reading them; which in both cases are urges that would almost certainly have been better off being resisted.
For the most part I don't read a lot of books about global warning and its close cousin, the trashing of the environment, mainly because I find the kind of people who write those sorts of books to be completely devoid of humor or any other specific indication of human feeling, though also because, with the exception of things like Venice possibly being wiped out before I get to go there again, I can't seem to bring myself to get very fired up about it. Emotionally I don't feel I have much at stake in the movement, I think because, though it purports to be otherwise, the overarching strain of anti-humanism implicit in it is still too strong. The fun people, or the wise people, or the true artists, or even the genuinely kindly people, from my vantage point, have not, for lack of a better word, internalized the ethos of this movement enough yet to wrest some of its spirit away from the fanatics and the earnest bores, and infuse it with real life. Therefore to get me to read a book about it requires a more or less outrageous premise. Predicting the death of hundreds of millions of people or the extinction of the human race through greed and stupidity, and even implying that this might not be wholly undesirable and to some degree even ought to be promoted, is at this point pretty standard; what grabbed my attention regarding the book below was the totality of the author's attitude that human life was not only essentially purposeless, but had been a catastrophe for the planet earth, which its presence had thrown into complete disorder for no good reason. These are hard ideas for me to get my admittedly unathletic mind around.
The World Without Us is typical of the current school of "popular" (i.e. general audience) non-fiction books about science, history, etc, written by journalists or scholars who like to write for mainstream magazines and appear on television as pundits or experts of one kind or another. It is filled with facts and figures as well as episodic travels to out of the way places (Belarussian forests, Mexican archaelogical sites, the Korean DMZ), and recollections of forgotten figures from history (guys who collected and labelled dirt samples for 50 years in Victorian England, the Polish counts who over 400 years inadvertently preserved the only ancient growth forest remaining in Europe) that promise both to reveal insights for our current interpretations of the pertinent questions as well as dazzle the reader with the thorough reasearch and polymathic learning of the author. I am fairly ignorant of natural history, so there was much that was news to me in this book. I was not aware, for example, that North America was once teeming with great wild beasts including numerous varieties of elephants, camels, enormous sloths, a species of buffalo much larger than the bison which survive today, gigantic birds larger than ostriches, until they were slaughtered by human beings (which depletion of the food supply also forced the people living on these continents 11,000 or so years ago to learn to grow and live more off of corn, potatoes and other plant life. Think a lesson lies embedded there for us?) I was also unaware of the massive extent of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which as recently as the mid-1800s blackened the skies of the eastern U.S. as far as the eye could see in their annual migrations, as well as that an estimated 2 billion birds a year continue to lose their lives as a result of human interference, power lines, glass windows, cats (if humans are the main villains of this book, cats are regarded as sort of our secret police wing, killing small animals pitilessly and indiscrimately and living well above their natural consumption level [Fancy Feast beef and salmon platter, etc] as the fruits of the unholy alliance). In one of the more entertaining sections of the book, the author ruefully speculates that if humans were to die out, cats would be most able to survive in the new wild conditions of all our domesticated animals. Dogs would be in trouble, as they would be forced into competition with wolves and other more ferocious species; cows would be wiped out by hungry predators in an ecological eyeblink. I don't anticipate pigs and sheep would fare much better. The section on New England's forests, now that I hike and spend a considerable amount of time in them, was especially of interest. Most of the woods in New England, with the exception of northern Maine, are regrowths upon abandoned famland, which anyone who goes into them will find evidence of in the long stone walls that are still standing all over the place though in the middle of an apparently wild forest. Because the farms were for the most part abandoned before 1900 however, before widespread use of pesticides and introduction of foreign plants, the regrowth has been almost exclusively of the originally native trees--birches, beeches, maples, oaks, etc. This is apparently a rare phenomenon in the modern world.
Towards the end of the book--the section in works of this type where possible solutions to the seemingly intractable problems facing the thinking segment of society are posited--the author (Alan Weisman) pushes for a drastic reduction in human population, currently projected to reach a peak of 9 or 10 billion by the year 2050 before levelling off, by limiting all women on the planet, or at least attempting to, to a maximum of one child. He does concede that this is unfair to the women of countries like Ethiopia, where it takes 310 children to wreak the environmental damage over a lifetime that can be expected of one American tot. Next we are introduced to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group of people who, whether they are serious or not, sound like a exhilirating bunch to run with. They evidently have no capability, and less desire, to be persuaded that there is any intelligent justification for propagating the human species, as human beings collectively, in their view, given their advanced consciousness and intellectual capacity, have failed to justify their existence or adequately define its purpose. Underneath this proactive and outwardly confident stance toward extinction however is a sense that the bloated population, though momentarily still growing, is on the edge of a catastrophe that will cull its numbers involuntarily, to the point where recovery to the present state of civilization will be impossible, and without the ability to manage it comfortably and without suffering.
While I don't want to be too obvious in my self-interested attempt to defend the continued propogation and existence of the species, such sentiments as those above are not exactly what used to be spoken of, and occasionally understood, and occasionally admired, as the human spirit. The advocates of extinction are saying in effect that humanity has gone as far as it can hope to go, that its life is a dead end, that no more meaningful knowledge or other advancements offering illuminations on its purpose are to be expected, and that it is time to give up. This is a view that can only be reached by a mind that is so oversophisticated as to be capable of regarding itself a little too complacently. Surely there is more, not less, to life and the capacities of the human mind--and soul--than what it has for the most part attained awareness of so far? I do not feel that I have done much more than begun to be vaguely aware of the more exalted possibilities of existence, even such ones as are commonplace experiences among the brightest and most beautiful of my contemporaries, or are at least closer to being accessible to them, and consequently I still would like, and still have hope, that other people, my descendants, to be blunt, will have the opportunity, pointed in the right direction perhaps by me as much as possible, to go further along this path of understanding, enlightenment, humanness, whatever one wants to call it.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Between Halloween--a major undertaking requiring many hours of preparation with three little children--staying up late watching the baseball playoffs, and consequently having to catch up on my sleep at any opportunity, as I was falling asleep at work and while driving, it has been a lost week as far as writing goes.
I was writing an interminable essay here but on the eighth day of composition, with the end nowhere in sight I decided to bag it.
What happened was that after I put up my little bit on Uta of Naumberg I remembered that I had been struck some years ago that one rarely encountered German girls who were cute in the perky American sense. Very beautiful women who were almost devastatingly (to the likes of me) sophisticated and polished, or more steely, unapologetic, but still formidably handsome pragmatists, yes. Others whose inclinations to plainness or homeliness were carried out in a rigid linear fashion to almost extremes by a serious cast of mind unsoftened by any humor or willful frivolity, certainly. Vivacious, playful sorts however who have the capacity even to torture or detest or be indifferent to you in a pleasing manner without bludgeoning you with a direct and precise assessment of your worth are not so easily found.
I determined that in German society the barriers to perkiness were a combination of cosmopolitanism, a more thorough and exacting educational program, especially for pupils of good intelligence, and the greater awareness and emphasis on humans' essential darkness that remains pervasive in the worldview of people in that part of the world. Now doubtless any German-bred person reading this they would say this is wrong. I find I am always wrong when taking up any matter with Germans, particularly anything that directly relates to themselves, as though the nature of all the world, or at least everything in it requiring some degree of intelligent perceptiveness, were completely inscrutable to me. Nonetheless I determined to plug away and decided that cuteness as I was thinking of it was an utterly bourgeois phenomenon, albeit one requiring a fairly high level of intelligence and material comfort to develop its full glory, as well however as a general innocence of evil and most of the hardest truths about existence which logic and science have come to, and, perhaps most importantly, a surplus of mild (though not unredeemably woeful) men for whom this kind of beauty and personality are ideal. Women of this type after all do not flourish in all times and places. The men of the Taliban, for example, seem to have little use for them. Indeed, the most impressive thing I have read about this group is that they seem to be utterly unaffected by the prospect of being in the presence of, or even getting personal attention from, the sort of highly desirable babes that cause most American men to wilt on sight. One article I read claimed that the University of Miami cheerleading squad could be sent in their skimpiest costumes into the Taliban camp and the men would express no more arousal than to throw burqas over them and order them into the kitchen. I am cutting out the disclaimer I had originally written distancing myself from this attitude. I don't think it is really necessary.
I then argued that the main strongholds of cuteness in the contemporary world were still the United States and Canada, the middle and upper middle classes of Latin America, increasing the further south one went, and East Asia, particularly Japan and Korea. I posited that like the red squirrels of Britain losing ground to the gray, the classic cutie-pie type in the U.S. was under increasing assault on the lower end from its related but more feral and less intelligent nemesis, the more attractive type of skank, and on the upper end from the increasing reliance the serious professions and academic fields have on clever young women to fill their ranks, which tends to dampen cuteness because, unlike staggering beauty, cuteness is dependent on there being a fairly substantial pool of men who can reasonably expect to compete for the cutie, which is difficult to have when one is also competing with her for worldy honors and positions, and frequently losing. I also argued that, like so much of the modern world, the origins of cuteness could be traced to England.
I then wanted to point out that human life continually grew more comfortable and soft, and that in time, as trade and the professions developed it became possible for men to live in some style and attract pretty women without having first to put large numbers of potential rivals to the sword. I said that while many of the choicest women continued to demand demonstrations of the aristocratic and martial virtues, even in artificial form, another group, generally satisfied to live in a prosperous manner if a heroic one was to be out of reach, developed the type of attractions that would be irresistable to the pragmatic bourgeois man; unthreatening prettiness, general enthusiasm for the sorts of comforts and mode of life such a man could provide, enough spirit to enjoy and have no mean success in social competition. I had thought that in England this personality evolved as an imitation of the upper class French coquettes of the ages of the King Louises, which however took a much milder form across the channel, the reputation of the French ladies of this period having come down to us as being by comparison thoroughly chilling, heartless and amoral, eager not merely to tease their victims but to humiliate and skin them alive. I suppose this is a form of cuteness, but it is not one that really applies to democratic society.
I then attempted to relate something of the literary history of cuteness, starting with the coquettes of the Spectator papers and Pope, and the appearance of the type in Jane Austen's novels (not approved however), especially the wild and frivolous Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, (the 15-year old sister who ran off with a soldier). As he did with Christmas, Charles Dickens may have largely invented our modern conceptions of cuteness, as his novels are choc-a-bloc with cute girls, whether pampered bourgeois (Dora Spenlow, David Copperfield's child-wife and cutie-pie par excellence), debtor's prison inmate (Little Dorrit), would-be femme fatale (Estella from Great Expectations--she is unattainable the way the cheerleaders in eighth grade suburban schools are to nerds--not so much if you can pull yourself together a little and succeed in something) or even royalty (Queen Victoria). I noted that Tolstoy had several prominent characters who could only be described as bourgeois-style cute (Natasha from W & P, Levin's wife in Anna Karenina) which I thought unusual among the Russians. The closest thing to a cute girl in Dostoevsky is Sonya in Crime & Punishment, who is a prostitute who becomes the girlfriend of a murderer. Then I went on to talk about Coca-Cola advertising, and the Oz books, magazines, co-ed schools and colleges, movies, etc, in America. There wasn't time to find and tie together the grand point.