Friday, January 26, 2007

Travels of a Born Tourist, Chapter II: General Theory of Tourism

Somewhere in Ruskin's works--of course I cannot find it at the moment--he writes about the absurdity of imagining one took in anything while traveling through a countryside or a city at a speed of five miles per hour in a carriage. The sensible world, he asserted, could only be meaningfully experienced by the mind when the body was engaging it within the limits nature had imposed upon it. To be said to have traveled through a country implies that one passed it at no swifter speed than that of an ordinary walk, which would require one to encounter the landscape, the inhabitants of the country, one's bodily needs, etc, in a proportion appropriate to one's humanness, undistorted by the aids of machinery. I do not remember how or if he accounted for traveling over water, but I would presume that doing so in any type of enormous, loud, motorized craft providing vulgar pleasures--or flying in an airplane--were not experiences he would have recognized as having actually been somewhere in any sort of educational or spiritual sense.

Modernity in general, and especially the global travel boom of the post-1990 era which has accelerated and spread in a staggering manner trends that had been slowly evolving at least since Herodotus went to check out the antiquities of Egypt, have aroused in many--as with all phenomena nowadays, perhaps too many to be accomodated without annoyance--thoughtful people the sense, articulated with various degrees of insight and skill, that something is amiss. That the experiences represented by the airport, the tourist hotel, the guided tour, the sunglass and umbrella vendors at ancient or holy sites, the strange and jarring ubiquity of the English language and its television and popular music in places where one would not consider it as belonging all converge to diminish the status, force of intellect and personality of the would-be traveler (and are therefore felt to be in some way not "real"), has become a cliche. Anyone who attempts to visit a major international city or world renowned sight in our age for a short time without an established reputation in his field, a brilliant personality or extraordinary beauty, especially if he or she is over thirty, will be largely dependent on the strength of his imagination to perceive himself as having any contact with the vital life, intellectual, historical, cultural, sensual, of these almost suprahuman places. One shops, one eats, one is transported in machines, sometimes one gets drunk or talks to other tourists about commonplace matters which do not lead to either enlightenment or sensual titillation of any kind, and one goes home, more often than not longing to go back; for one has still, in all the layers of contrived experience in which his journey has enmeshed him, been infected with the hope of capturing the elusive, ideal experience that one has glimpsed or felt, perhaps very intensely, the possibility of. This hope is the great enticement behind most conceptions of and longings for tourism by people unsophisticated by the standards of the travel elite. In their lifeless hometowns and offices they have, not being interesting themselves, given up all hope that anything that would be really interesting or fun to an adult with a strongly developed mind will ever transpire. But it is impossible to imagine that if one spent enough time hanging about in Rome or Paris, however dull one may be, that nothing exciting would ever happen to him again.

The significant trends of recent decades in the area of tourism of course reflect different types of tourists' scheming and trying to improve their perceived chances of attaining these elusive meaningful experiences. It is hardly surprising that disappointment is the prevalent tone of most travel books written by quasi-intellectuals or people who haven't any instinct for rustling up money. Jealousy is strongest among this group because its competition is in a certain sense the most desperate one. I would guess that only around 5% at the most of this comparatively impecunious and educated group actually ever approach realizing the experiences, the thoughts, the wit, the shoes and the sex partners that they long for. These 5%, largely unknown themselves except as a type, become their idols, their authors, their dream girls who slay many a heart when they write their postcards in the corner cafe window with their purse straps secure around their necks or when the Stella Artois is flowing and "Dancing Queen" finally comes on the sound system. But I am getting ahead of myself.

One of the obvious solutions to this dilemma of the elegance-destroying hordes who have overrun the traditional tourist spots for the true sophisticate has been to go to more remote and exotic places, preferably ones that are several decades behind the West in pace of life and infrastructure development, where no sophisticated tourist industry has yet risen up to come between a traveler and his experience, where one reasonably has little expectation of meeting Westerners who remind him too painfully of himself (no one has any problem with meeting Westerners who remind them flatteringly of themselves; such encounters appear however to be rare), as well as, for most people, one where the threat of serious bodily injury or death is still low. Others have in Ruskinesque fashion gone to the extreme of seeking nature pure and spectacular almost wholly untainted by human culture. These are the people who hike across Baffin Island or kayak the rivers of Siberia and report back to the SUV-bound masses about their adventures, making themselves envied figures. Both of these groups are however inferior to the truly awesome figures of the scientist or philologist or archaeologist or even historian who arrives in Kamchatka or the foot of Mt Ararat with actual work of great importance to human learning to pursue and a detailed knowledge of the sorts of things he encounters that the average non-sportsman bourgeois tourist can only dream of having, especially if the accomplished scholars also drink quality spirits and have intense sexual affairs in the evenings while engaged in their research (at one time, at least, serious people did such things). At this level of course we are talking about people with whom the likes of me share no recognizable intellectual or erotic human characteristics. This makes it a good point at which to try to explain the general theory of tourism.

Ruskin's idea, however much truth is contained in it ultimately, of the pace necessary for a minimum of deep contemplation of strange places, has become, if not impossible, problematic to adhere to in a great part of the world today. In my youth I made several attempts to set out on an extensive tour of the United States without a car of my own, which even allowing for hitchhiking and the occasional bus or local train, guarantees that one will have to do a great deal of walking. To be a foot traveler in any populated area of the U.S. apart from such pre-1945 urban parks, college campuses, business districts and residential areas as remain is to be significantly out of proportion to the surrounding physical environment with regard to scale, speed and noise, as well as completely isolated from such human society and activity as persists in such settings. One probably does think more clearly and with more penetration while walking across a giant parking lot or along the side of a busy highway with tractor trailers blowing him several steps off his course every couple of minutes than he does when he is the driver, but the thoughts incline at least as often to despair and the emptiness of one's spirit than to any sense of the sublime. Such people as one does meet as well are more like the tramps in Down and Out In Paris and London or the disturbed loner types on the fringe of society who live in motels and trailer parks, especially in the hinterlands, who are familiar characters in many American movies and books. Any women one meets are usually so unsettling or unpredictably violent-tempered that even I quickly come to wish I hadn't met them. Many times I would spend my days on these journeys just sitting in libraries or wandering around such college campuses as I came upon (I was 18/19 and not in school myself at the time) just to have a glimpse at normal girls my own age, and the to me near godlike men of my generation who could walk and thrive among them. Clearly, I had to admit, whatever I had meant to accomplish by this mode of travelling was a total failure, and I decided I had best try to get back into any academically quasi-respectable college I could, primarily for social reasons.

Having gotten a smattering of a liberal arts education, compared at least to the near-absolute intellectual darkness in which I had previously existed, as well as having for the only real time in my life a status (recent graduate) that would present me as socially acceptable to the mainstream of other travellers and competent, educated natives of popular destinations, having an opportunity to go for a long time on the relative cheap and having nothing else of importance to do besides, I finally made it to Europe (I had been once to Paris but in such a state of ignorance and social ineptitude that I have to consider that trip as an utter failure), where I had at last a slight enough maturity and awareness to implement some methods of touring that were relatively satisfying to me.

While I love airports and flying as much as the next person, I prefer this method of transport generally only as a replacement for ocean liners, to pass over seas or between very distant points of continents, unless of course there is no other way of going. Flying within the United States, or especially Europe, even where great distances are concerned, I do not like. There is a mythology involved with say, going from England to France that insists upon departing from the White Cliffs of Dover or the shipyards of Portsmouth and emerging a couple of hours later on the beaches of Normandy, or from Germany to Italy that requires one to weather the Alps that to skip over in a plane is to in some way miss the point of. Similarly I have always felt that flying into Moscow or Saint Petersburg from Western Europe, or California from the East coast and call it travelling was to cheat oneself. If Napoleon rode a horse from Paris to Moscow, and Mark Twain a covered wagon from St Louis to Carson City to give themselves a proper idea of the space essential to these places, I can certainly at least take a train or drive myself (though the isolation of private driving I think is not really ideal either, though in America it is certainly the only practical way for a modern person to move about on the ground--long distances between even convenience stores and flophouses in the West if one is travelling on foot). For myself when going to Europe I prefer in theory to fly only to Shannon airport in Ireland or to London and to approach the rest of the continent from there along the ground and over water, and for an extended journey I would certainly adhere to this. However for shorter stays I have become more amenable to landing elsewhere, at least if I have been to the place before.

As to time I do not like the idea of going anywhere more than 300 miles distant for less than a week, and even that seems a little flimsy. It is fashionable now to fly to Paris or wherever for the weekend--heck, people are flying into Dubai and I suppose Iraq for 2-3 day visits now. I am not someone who generally lies awake at night thinking about sums of money spent or gas being used extravagantly, but something about this bothers me. I suppose if one is a highly functioning member of the global society, flying from London to Istanbul on Friday afternoon in time for happy hour at the Grand Hotel Byzantium is no different from my grandfather's hustling back on the 5:15 to meet the guys at the Dutch Inn on Rising Sun Avenue, but surely there is an element of depth, or perspective missing in this that Ruskin would be attuned to.

I do not like excessive vanity, luxury, expense or pointedly unintellectual hedonism, all of which trends appear to be gaining rather than losing momentum in our time. I believe strongly that one ought to have some nobler end to pursue if one has the privilege to journey far from home. It need not be strictly educational or altruistic, but the emphasis on sensual pleasures and gratifications of vanity as primarily goods to be bought, sold and displayed without modesty or reflection is somewhat disgusting to me. A place like Israel as currently constituted seems, if nothing else, to force people to take what they are about more seriously than has become customary elsewhere. I believe this sort of atmosphere would appeal to me, though I have certainly overestimated my attraction and devotion to a more substantial life before. True vitality, sensuality, atmospheres bursting with artistic sensibility, natural beauty both of nature and men ferocious, untamed and overwhelming, such qualities being most foreign to myself and my general type, I assume to be rare, though they are the standard language of tourist advertising. I am certain, however, that one cannot buy them, and should not seek to. I am losing my thread of thought however; so I will save my general ravings against bourgeois luxury and continue with the theory in the next chapter.

Monday, January 22, 2007

More reading.

Spenser--Epithalamium (Wedding Song)

Edmund Spenser is surely one of the four or five most beautiful poets ever to write in the English language, and probably the most committed to a pure beauty of line above any other consideration, for this purpose is never interrupted or sacrificed in his work. He is not overflowing with particularly fresh ideas or images even in the context of his own age. However the formation and flow of his words when read aloud seems so natural, so obvious as to be quite remarkable when one considers that approximately 450 million people speak English now as a first tongue, and virtually none employ it in this manner either in writing or speech.

"Early before the worlds light giving lampe,
His golden beame upon the hills doth spred,
Having disperst the nights unchearefull dampe,
Doe ye awake, and with fresh lustyhed
Go to the bowre of my beloved love,
My truest turtle dove,
Bid her awake; for Hymen is awake,
And long since ready forth his maske to move,
With his bright Tead that flames with many a flake,
And many a bachelor to waite on him,
In theyr fresh garments trim."

There are no earth-shattering intellectual gymnastics here. All the rituals of the poem are utterly conventional, the actions and personalities of the participants artificial and contrived, most of the descriptions and classical allusions border on being hackneyed, and the pagan gods invoked have the air of long refrigeration about them, at best. The exuberance is all in the writing, and that is genuine, that is the new, alive wondrous object of love, and certainly the poem takes on a much added dimension if we think of the English language in its youthful bloom as the maiden about to be cultivated, ravished and loved by an enthusiastic and virile practitioner.

"Never had man more joyfull day than this,
Whom heaven would heape with blis.
Make feast therefore now all this live long day,
This day for ever to me holy is,
Poure out the wine without restraint or stay,
Poure not by cups, but by the belly full,
Poure out to all that wull,
And sprinkle all the posts and wals with wine,
That they may sweat, and drunken be withall.
Crown ye God Bacchus with a coronall..."

The consummation of the marriage, which lasts much of the night and culminates most happily in the bliss of the groom and the impregnation of the bride, takes about 100 lines to recount, most of them imploring the night to be extra dark and quiet during the poet's business, but there are some good ones which I will try to cull:

"Now day is doen, and night is nighing fast:
Now bring the Bryde into the brydall boures.
Now night is come, now soone her disaray,
And in her bed her lay;"

Addressing the moon:

"and sith of wemens labours thou hast charge,
And generation goodly doth enlarge,
Encline thy will t'effect our wishfull vow,
And the chast wombe informe with timely seed..."

His description of his lady gives us a heavy dose of ivory forehead, apple cheeks, cherry lips, etc, though it is not every day one hears this satisfying image spoken anymore:

"Her brest like to a bowl of creame uncrudded,
Her paps lyke lillies budded..."

Among Spenser's poems that I have read I would rate this behind the Amoretti (exquisite love sonnets) and The Shephearde's Calendar, which is what it sounds like, a tour of the pastoral year. These other things are a little more interesting to read and have slightly more pungency to them. Still, the essential quality of this author is that he unites one of the highest poetic sensibilities of all time to a vision of existence that is, or at least aspires to be, almost willfully happy and, what is most rare among artists of high talent, innocent. That this quality is not easy to attain is shown in the work of the major author below, born 218 years after Spenser and committed as well to the pastoral, the lyrical, the beautiful, the traditional, the authentic, in a world and a literary culture in which it had already become more difficult to believe wholly in the reality of these things than it had been in Spenser's day.

Wordsworth--"She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways"/Hartley Coleridge--"He lived amidst th'untrodden ways"

I have been slow in gaining an appreciation of the poems of Wordsworth, of which I have not read more than a handful, and even those at long intervals from each other. To begin with, his authorial personality has something about it that reminds me of those earnest, bearded old men of the generation of the 50s and early 60s who one still always sees hanging around used book stores and who have always annoyed me, probably because if I had happened to grow up at that time I would doubtless be exactly like them; they are neither particularly cool nor talented nor interesting, though they have been aspiring for half a century to be these things above all else, a whole mass of failed Beatnik Robert Bly types still trying to define what it is to be a man, an artist, an American, an American man artist, not very absorbingly and completely innocent of humor (the real Beatniks at least were often very funny). I have to turn tail at the sight of them. To the modern raw reader of poetry, Wordsworth comes off initially as partaking of some of these traits. There is nothing in his lines or thoughts that particularly grabs one by the throat and stamps an indelible image on the mind the way that say, Byron's or Edgar Allen Poe's poems can still do. All of the poems seem at first to be similar meditations upon the same handful of subjects. The titles themselves are very plain and somewhat hard to keep straight in one's mind, apart from "Tintern Abbey". Judging by the notes I have made in my Norton Anthology I appear to have at least read over at various times "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", "It is a Beauteous Evening" and "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud", yet I could not have named these from memory if asked. It is not that I did not like them; however they obviously lacked for me a certain force that I had come to associate as necessary for being memorable.

Nonetheless I have come over time to a certain respect for Wordsworth's work because of the intelligent and humane manner in which so many notable, energetic and thoughtful men of the 19th century responded to these on the surface rather plain and intellectually uninvestigative musings on natural beauty. Mill in particular, who had been educated to shun poetry, Shakespeare included, as insubstantial, credited them with helping to restore his interest in life after he had suffered a nervous breakdown at age twenty, traditionally attributed to an overpreponderance of pure logical thought. Any man whose work is capable of this I consider to merit my attention more than the general run of poets. Mill attributed their power to the expression of "states of feeling, and of thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty." This strikes me as reasonable, as well as being pleasingly without being overly subtle writing on the part of the poet. Still, one has to experience something of the effect oneself to really understand what the hubbub is about.

"She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways" read aloud or looked at on the page, consists of 67 words that can be disposed of in a crisp 20 seconds or so either way. As far as initial time commitment goes for the student of literature, it is not Remembrance of Things Past. It is about a maid named Lucy (many Wordsworth poems feature a girl named Lucy) who lived in a remote area, was deserving of a greater degree of praise and love than it was possible for her to get in those pre-MySpace days, and died, her death strongly affecting the poet though apparently no one else. There are 3 little stanzas, of which the first establishes her worldly condition in life and the 3rd the same in death. The 2nd contains the metaphors and, I assume, the poem's meaning:

"A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
--Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky."

It is a slight and delicate set of images, though in this instance it suits the subject matter very nicely and subtly, which I think the 19th century appreciated more than we do, who think slightness and delicacy, even where that is the state of life or the form of idea being taken up by the poet, the exclusive province of wimps. One can extrapolate in a number of directions from the images given, which is a benefit of writing about nature and "general" subjects. The maid's beauty is, while she lives, continually in some state of fragility. First there is the matter of its being generally unseen, then there is the suggestion that it is beautiful because there is nothing else--no competing star--with which to compare it. The poet seems to have known her only at a distance--not well at all. Perhaps this is all a small but well-wrought metaphor for life. There is in a small space much suggested, all of which, however is manageable--the poet only requires the reader to recognize the suggestions, not learn a foreign manner of thinking. Perhaps I am starting to get at something of the appeal of Wordsworth.

I am not quite sure exactly what to make of Hartley Coleridge's parody. The same three-stanza setup is used, the first referring to a poet who lived in unread and unloved obscurity, and the third to the poet's book gathering dust in the shop. However if Wordsworth is the author invoked, this is all obviously opposite to his actual situation; his house and neighborhood in the Lake District were already attracting tourists while he was still living in them. Coleridge's second stanza has possibly a little edge to it:

"Behind a cloud his mystic sense,
Deep-hidden, who can spy?
Bright as the night, when not a star
Is shining in the sky."

Coleridge was the son of Samuel T Coleridge, and a minor poet himself. Basic biographical information on him is a bit of a chore to hustle up, but he appears to have been intimate and on reasonably good terms with Wordsworth all his life. It may not mean anything, but he and Wordsworth are buried right next to each other in Grasmere churchyard. I assume the parody was intended to be good-natured.

Friday, January 19, 2007

In Case You Were Wondering Where I've Been



www.youtube.com/watch?v=43FudoSf2W8

I'm working on two long posts simultaneously at the moment which will appear behind this one if I ever get them done. I am desperately trying to figure out how to put pictures on here and I haven't done it yet. I have figured out how to scan them, but how to transfer them so they show up on my page is eluding me.

I wanted to write "Entertain yourselves" and have that link above down here at the bottom clicked on by just a word. I really need some kind of basic Internet course. I am getting frustrated.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Another Reading Update

Brecht--Die Dreigroeschenoper (I cannot resist a good untranslated title in a semi-recognizable foreign language. Sorry.)

Plays make up a significant portion of the readings on my list, quite possibly 20% or 25%. I am not much of a theatergoer, especially when it comes to anything serious, and at this point almost probably will never become one. I have in the first place some slight jealousy and irritation issues when confronted at close range with actors and theater people generally, mainly because they don't recognize me as one of their kind, i.e. a fellow artist and intellectual--not that anyone else does either, but in the privacy of home or a large library one is not confronted with the contrast between himself and real people so starkly. In small theaters with fairly high status actors and an audience that one can presume to be rich, educated, expensively and carefully dressed, and to have some claim of current possession of the literary canon, such as the Folger in Washington, the almost pornographic physical and intimacy and intellectual competition of the whole environment is too much for me. The one time I was there some years ago, ostensibly to see Romeo and Juliet I was possessed throughout the performance with a strong desire to run up on the stage and yell "Look at me! Look at me! I am serious! I have read Shakespeare! I have read a lot of books! I have a high IQ too!" Of course I restrained myself, but I am always much less agitated when the show is finally over and I am safely ensconed at the bar with a mug of beer and a plate of fries and don't have to pay attention to other people any longer.

My issues with actual theater attendance aside however, I generally enjoy reading plays--most of the older ones were originally intended to be entertainments after all--though having been raised, so to speak, on the triple decker novel, the comparatively skeletal frame and scope, the brevity and swiftness of most plays when read is something I have never quite adjusted to, and as a result I often have especial trouble remembering the details and plots of them. They do not, for whatever reason, impress themselves much upon my mind, except perhaps after one has read a lot of a certain author or of a certain epoch, and then mainly as a composite of the types.

Bertolt Brecht promised strongly to be an author that I was not going to get the point of, as I am exactly the sort of man that he pointedly set out not to write for. He was moreover born in Germany in 1898, the same year as Jacob Klein and 1 before Leo Strauss, the exact contemporary to numerous other formidable, formidable minds, among whom he stood out as one of the very most important. The circa-1955 blurbs on the dust jacket of my copy of his book are also strong signals that I should probably not be attempting to read this material: "...every other living playwright seems more or less trivial." Whenever they say this you know you are not going to win. Goodness, once the totality of creative talent in the theater world of 1950 with the exception of one figure is established as more or less trivial, that more or less indicts everyone else with any connection to it not involved in a Brecht production as similarly frivolous, including the audiences, for supporting and subsiziding such a cultural desert; and having done this, what in God's name hope is there for the likes of me or one of my non-German speaking, American public school and liberal arts college-bred contemporaries to penetrate through to whatever it is that is so essential in the plays of Bertolt Brecht? The prospects are not very promising. Another blurb assures that "at last, we have Brecht...translated into a language that resembles the Queen's English rather than German-American." Oh my. This also reminds me of another author out of one of my favorite categories of modern literature, the super-serious-white-African-Communist-woman who really detests the United States for being politically unconscionable, shamelessly materialistic and intellectually frivolous, Doris Lessing, who took a moment in The Golden Notebook to ridicule the stupid Americans for turning "Mack the Knife" (which is originally a song from this serious and intellectually demanding play I am gradually getting around to talking about, for anybody who might be confused) into a swinging pop song for teenagers to dance to at the malt shop. Personally, I think this was a rare stroke of brilliance on the part of the Americans--would we could do more such stylistic pilfering and watering down of European, or any high culture, Indian, Chinese, whatever, if that is something we have a talent for--but I am both a biased and culturally blinded observer, in this instance.

Now the Threepenny Opera is modeled upon Gay's Beggar's Opera, which I have read once, and which I took, as far as I was able to take it, to be a comedy based on the hilarious idea that the moral codes, behaviors, institutions, etc of the lower orders of society bear in certain broad details resemblances--fleeting ones anyway--to those of more substantial people. While in Gay and 18th-century England the mirror showing us how repulsive we really are is played for laughs, carries little more sting than a light rebuke and seems to assume we could even improve our characters if we weren't so lazy and actually wanted to, in Brecht and Weimar Germany the laughs, while still sought, are certainly not meant to be light, the rebukes are meant to reverberate harshly through the mind of a sentient being at least, and the attitude regarding people's abilities to substantially improve their vile characters is pessimistic at best. Given the time and the place it is easy to say that such an assessment of the human condition was prescient and necessary. The whole Zeitgeist of that generation of Germans is exceedingly difficult to get one's mind past when dealing with the products of its intellectuals, even those many who emigrated and denounced Nazism and earned for themselves a place of some honor in history. I think the problem is that the general darkness that pervaded that generation's outlook upon everything, however rightly, was of an intensity that is not really common in human cultural history, yet because these people were so influential both in Europe and in the United States where so many took positions in universities and wrote for publications and directed research and set the intellectual tone in many of these for 30 years, many smart people have become convinced that this is the attitude towards humanity and its prospects that a serious person has to take, at least in the modern world, as long as certain conditions and problems persist. I don't think this is quite right; but I have a lot of diffidence when it comes to try to argue the point.

Much of this is because the German emigres were so technically and incontestably smart. When they arrived in the United States, whether they went to Hollywood or New York or Los Alamos or the University of Chicago, the natives did not have much to offer them apart from money and security, towards which many of the emigres appear to have had mixed and/or guilty feelings towards to boot, and they (the natives) seemed to have been able to offer little resistance to the newcomers' intellectual force overwhelming their own whenever representatives of the two groups collided. While this had indisputably many positive effects upon the quality of learning and culture available in America, I have always had a very ambivalent relationship to such of the emigres as survived to my own day that I encountered, and especially with those of their chosen proteges. I do not quite want to say that I have a different 'spirit', or that I have a 'more' Anglo-Saxon/Irish sort of intellect, but I do distrust the German method of categorizing and systematizing their ideas of truth, which seem to have a stronger inclination to obliterate such as are even slightly incompatible with them.

In doing some research on Brecht I discovered that he was a big proponent of the idea of "Epic Theatre" in which the ideas of the play would be more important than the story being acted out and the individual characters portrayed. Either there is more to it than this that I missed or he was extremely successful in his goal, because I have certain had it drummed into my skull for 30 years that anything serious is always about ideas first and the story and characters are handy conventions in which to dress them. It had not occurred to me that people may not have consciously subordinated plot and characterization to greater themes on a broad until the 1920s, but I suppose it is plausible.

My genuinely excellent edition of Brecht's plays has 11 pages of notes on the Threepenny Opera written as far as I can tell by the author himself under such headings as "The Reading of Dramas", "Tips for Actors", and so forth. He is an exceedingly mistrustful author. The bourgeois of course deservedly take the biggest beating, but this extends to the theater itself, as a bourgeois institution serving bourgeois audiences and bourgeois economic interests. He sees the theater as resisting his attempts to transform it, which I suppose it would do; impatience with the stubbornness and disgraceful behholdenness to the bourgeois of the institutions one is attempting to transform however is a common complaint in all the arts during that period. The great sin of the bourgeois and the art that is made for him, as far as I can make out, is that he prefers to be flattered with lies than to be confronted with truth, and the fascinating thing of course is that we are to suppose this is unique to the bourgeois, and that truth and constant moral self-criticism are subjects of intense concern to all people who have not been infected with this state. The crux of the argument I suppose is that the bourgeois is so compromised that he is neither morally good nor morally free, but unlike the slave or the wretched pickpocket, he frequently imagines himself to be both, which is disgusting to a real artist or philosopher, or any other uncompromised human being. This is probably true, but I don't think Brecht is the right artist to convince me of it thoroughly.

I have more to review, butI will put them on another posting.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Travels of a Born Tourist: EXCURSION Lichfield, Staffordshire, England

I arrived in Lichfield in the late afternoon of July 5, 2001. As I was returning to London the next evening to fly out on the 7th, the day in Lichfield was to be my last in the country, and as of today, still the last day I was anywhere abroad, not counting Canada. I came by train from Nottingham via Birmingham on one of those old clanking lines that reminds one somewhat of Thomas the Tank Engine. I know it is fashionable to eviscerate the British rail system, but except for excessive overcrowding on some of the trains in and out of London and the inconvenience that one can no longer store one's bags in lockers at the stations I do not have any great complaints with it. I am a train romanticist and am not much concerned with how up to date or efficient facilities and services are. Indeed the less up to date such things are generally the better as far as I am concerned.

Lichfield City train station I do not remember well, but it did not impress me as having a bustling air, and when one leaves it to go towards town the streets and the area around it are sleepy compared with other towns similar to it in size and historical import in the southern part of the country. I have not been in the north, which I imagine as being even sleepier. Lichfield of course is a cathedral city, though its current population is only around 25,000, which means that the spires of the cathedral are more or less visible the whole of the approach to town, which relieves the need to carry or refer to a map every two blocks. During the whole of the previous two weeks it had been extremely hot--85-90 degrees with 90% humidity, no serious air conditioning or even fans anywhere with the exception of one chain pub in Hucknall (the town where Byron is buried)--and finally that afternoon the heat broke, the sky grew overcast, and I could walk around in long pants with a moderate degree of comfort.

On the approach to town there was a mural on a long wall/fence of the kind that people frequently walk past in Britpop music videos in various degrees of angst that depicted Johnson and Boswell and was adorned with a couple of the great man's famous Lichfield quotes, the one about the residents of the city being the genteelest and speaking the purest English, and the other about how in his day all the best people in town got drunk every night. I took this as a good omen.

I had no accomodation reserved ahead of time. I like to think of myself as a disciple of the Dickens/Balzac method of travel, where one can arrive at 7 or even 11pm in London or Paris with a shilling in his pocket and find an inn both with a vacant bed and that is just about to serve dinner, or at least soup, at a table set for 14 fellow wretches. However the tourism boom of the 90s killed off even approximations of this technique, at least in the most popular destinations, and of late even I have taken to reserving spots well in advance and from across the ocean for my one and two star accomodations, which any real traveller or sophisticate would have to confess is pushing well into the regions of absurdity. As for Lichfield, however, I was confident that its fairly low profile in the game of tourism would make the competition for beds less grueling than it has become elsewhere. It being our last real night in the country as well, and I and especially the lovely Mrs Bourgeois Surrender having endured no air circulation and bad water pressure through most of the trip, I was prepared to be a little freer in my expense than is my habit. Having gotten therefore to the center of town, just around the corner from Johnson's house actually, the aforementioned lady suggested we look into what seemed the best, and turned out to be in any case the most historic edifice in town, the venerable George Hotel, which I later learned was the very same in which the opening scenes of The Beaux' Stratagem were set:

(Now I have to stop and tell my great Farquhar story, and really, how many people do you find nowadays who have a great Farquhar story? Many years ago now, when I had recently graduated from college and still lived close enough to Washington, D.C. to find my way into a house party in that town once in a great while, some friends I had took me to the house of this girl, who was one of those girls I have written about elsewhere that when guys like me are in high school they think they are going to be hanging out with all the time once they are in college and travelling and living the twenty-something hipster urban lifestyle, and then actually meet an example of three or four times in their entire life. She was a kind of groovy Jewish [I think] girl, medium height, normal, proportionate figure [this was by no means a common occurence among my youthful feminine acquaintance] long brown hair that curled at the tips, smart of course, a face moppetlike enough both to be interesting to me and to ensure that she would not be completely monopolized by aggressive Republican types. She had on a black dress, and I can tell you that this was not the same black as they wear either in New York or Spain, but a very particular D.C. style, which is long-sleeved with a knee length skirt and of a kind of tempera paint/Michael's Craft Store shade of black that brings one to mind of a Halloween witch's costume. I like the look however. This girl also had matching black little witch shoes on which she had sprinkled some glitter, which at the time just blew me away.

I should note here that I am telling a story, and in no way should the reader interpret my compliments to mean that this lady was more desirable than Mrs Bourgeois Surrender, nor that I imagine her husband, if she has one, which she probably does, is today a happier man than I am as a result of his selection. I am merely saying that long ago she once brightened what was shaping up as a dreary evening [I do think it may even have been raining] and had probably been a dreary couple of months, considerably, and that I was most appreciative of that at the time. Now to return to the account:

As I was looking over her bookshelf, I could not help but notice that she had the Oxford edition of the plays of Farquhar, which had no connection with any other book that was on it. I knew very little about this author, but I knew that he was most unusual reading for social butterfly, witch-dress wearing Washingtoniennes in the mid-90s. I had to know who the Farquhar fan was. Best of all, I had something to say to this woman that was a matter of genuine interest to me but was not obvious and did not center upon the desperate desire I was feeling to grope her, which was very exciting to me. She had never read Farquhar, she told me. Had I? No. No. Just heard of him. Old English writer. Born in Ireland, Northern Ireland actually. Died at 30. Her mother was the editor of this edition, she informs me. Really? (I am always astounded to come into contact, even at second hand, with people who have published books, especially scholarly ones). Yes, would you like to look at it? Oh, of course, I said, and dutifully turned over the pages and checked out Mama's notes, though daughter did not linger long with me. However there was one happy note, that the next day some members of this same party reconvened at a restaurant for breakfast and the Farquhar girl sat at the same end of the table as I, there was I think but one person between us and this was around a corner too. I never saw again, however.)

Though the outside of the George is apparently authentic dating to its days as a carriage inn, it is now part of the Best Western chain and the inside looks like any of their other hotels. The rate quoted me on my first entering was 125 pounds, at hearing which I mumbled thank you and turned to leave again, at which the desk clerk, having an idea now what sort of man I was, called me back and said that as the hotel was nearly empty they could give me a room for 85. As this was not impossible, and it seemed to me it would be bad form to sniff at an immediate 32% reduction (what was I expecting, to be invited to stay for free?) I took him up on it. Now I am going to attempt to show you a picture of me in the room, which is considerably more upscale than my typical accomodation. I am still at the stage of development where if my room has a minibar, I indulge feverishly in its contents:

This post was left unfinished.............................I am posting it October 15, 2007

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Reading Update

I have been occupied for the past few weeks with a number of poems, which I will briefly comment on.

Tennyson-- "The Princess"

I generally look forward to Tennyson's coming up on my list. In his longer poems, he can be a little over-indulgent in his metaphors and romantic details, but his technique and sense of how the language works are so good that there is still much that is satisfying in them. "The Princess", a poem which our author clearly invested a significant amount of time and effort on in the prime years of his life, is not much remembered today except for the songs, especially "Tears, Idle Tears", which are inserted as breaks of comparative lightness from the main action. The plot, for those unfamiliar with this poem, centers around a castle where the women of a romanticized country have retreated to set up a university in order to pursue science and other learning and free themselves from the slavery of marriage, their leader being the gorgeous and fiery princess of the title, who was betrothed as an infant to the prince of a neighboring kingdom, who refuses to relinquish his prerogatives, foremost those of a prince but also those of a man, though he is partially sympathetic to the idea of the ladies being exposed to learning; unlike his more old-school father, who does not even try to fathom what is going on but simply lays siege to the castle with his army to put an end to the nonsense and ensure that the contract he made be fulfilled. In the end the men, their dominance and superiority challenged, hold firm, and demonstrate even to the princess that her proper place is ultimately in submission to a man worthy of ruling over her. One can only imagine how some feminist Phd students must have had a field day with this poem. In imagining the university of women in convocation our poet can only conceive of an ornate hall full of glittering pre-Raphaelite beauties in academic gowns trying to get their gorgeous glowing heads around philosophy and mathematics. No obesity, no frumpiness, no myopia, no slouching posture are to be found in this college. As for possible lesbians there are a few stout farmgirls who seem to serve primarily as the princess's security detail, and one bitter middle-aged woman who expresses feelings of betrayal by the same. There are some humorous details about the various statuary that is found all over the grounds, all of which commemorates the deeds of the most valiant and warlike women and goddesses recorded by antiquity, which parts are well done if a little precious and perhaps a little too amused by the idea of women founding and maintaining a glorious institution of learning.

In the song "Tears, Idle Tears" where he does not have to maintain a narrative but can declaim for twenty lines or so on a general, rather evanescent theme that he is equal to ("the days that are no more") his strengths are better displayed, as, probably are most poets'. To the sensibilities of our time the most striking thing about a work like "The Princess" is that the author either conceived or thought it necessary to render in quite richly and elaborately wrought verse. I don't think it would occur to anyone today, certainly not anyone with the slightest credentials as a poet, to write about such a subject. A novelist of some esteem might take it on but would probably fail due to an inability to understand free from irony. A middling professional-type writer could probably turn a sellable gothic/teen type book out of it, and then a good filmmaker given a $90 million budget and the most gorgeous 17 year old in Ontario to play the lead could make an iconic film that would live...well, it would live for a while, anyway. That is where the creative sensibility of the time seems to be. Not with poetry.

Coleridge--"Christabel"

Since I secretly like romances and old European forests and castles and princesses and dark winters and all of that I enjoyed reading this as an escape from my tedious yet incessantly tasking day to day life. That said, I couldn't really get into the poetry, which compared to Tennyson is rather stripped down, even blah. For example:

"But now unrobe yourself: for I
Must pray, ere yet in bed I lie."

or:

"And Christabel saw the lady's eye,
And nothing else saw she thereby,
Save the boss of the shield of Sir Leoline tall,
Which hung in a murky old niche in the wall."

This is not the sort of stuff that is going to impress your modern hard science/mathematical/ economist type of intellectuals who are unitiated in and skeptical of the wonders of poetry. Who cares, you say? Well, I think life would be more interesting if the rich heritage of our spoken and written languages were more widely shared and appreciated, especially among people whose superior intelligence is supposed to be their dominant quality (and it would likewise be good for myriad reasons if the wonders of science and mathematics were more widely understood as well). One of the most ridiculous spectacles of modern life is to be somewhere where everybody has a master's degree and no one has anything to talk about with anybody else (and believe me, I am the worst of the worst in this). In fact, in one such circle as this, of the three people who do the bulk of the talking, two of them actually never attended any college, and the 3rd, a very learned man who worked on the early Enniac computers and moved on to building pipe-organs, is 86 years old (people from that generation don't seem to suffer from this affliction).

Auden-"Musee des Beaux Arts"

Ahh, now we're talking. Really, is there anybody who does not love this poem? It matters little how much or how little of it we really understand. It is extremely satisfying. It is delivered just as if the poet were sitting with his intellectual companions, maybe even a woman, in the Grande Place after spending the afternoon with the Flemish Masters, perhaps some Trappist ale and a dish of frites moules set before him, expressing what we all wish to say in such company at such a moment. "About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters..." Of course, to be able to continue on for 21 lines at a leisurely, thoughtful pace uninterrupted in any company or public place is probably a dream, but that makes it no less a successful poem. The poet convinces me that a mature human being could have spoken these thoughts in this way to another mature human being, that the tidy flow of the lines constitutes an action, a scene of life.

Auden is anyway from that same generation as Powell, Greene, Orwell, Betjeman, Waugh, etc whose writing I always like so much. Their style of English is remarkably natural and unaffected; they know their language, they are comfortable in their possession of it, and they have confidence in it in turn to adequately convey anything important or worthwhile that they have to say in its most regular form. Now, is it poetry like the old poetry, like something the Elizabethans would write? No, it is a different beast in its spirit as well as its language, it has not the same capacity for immersing itself fully in the events, emotions, etc it describes. it is too intellectual, its critical eye is a little two well educated. This is a fault of most poetry that comes very late in the history of a language. The idea of the poem is a worthwhile one. At first I wondered if the 1930s interpretation of the painting (Bruegel's Fall of Icarus) was more pessimistic than the painter intended, but I later came to the conclusion that it was not.

William Carlos Williams--"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"

Another poem on the same Bruegel painting. I am sure all my readers are familiar with it but maybe just for practice I ought to try to get it up here:

Oh dear, it's up at the top. And it's rather small. I will continue to practice with this.

I don't get this guy at all. It says in his biography in the Norton Anthology that his poetry looks easy until one tries to write like him (don't they say the same thing about Danielle Steele?) His voice, shall we say, has yet to come through to me. While I can hear and see Auden at the museum or at the table giving us his poem, or I can hear and see the poet and the scene even in a minimalist American poem like "We Real Cool", what Dr. Williams is conveying that I would not otherwise have had any sense of is not immediately apparent. His Icarus poem was written, it looks like, 24 years after Auden's, and seems to play with the same idea of human nonchalance towards the catastrophes and failures that beset their fellow men. The Auden poem was written by a 31-year old man in Europe in 1938, when the spectre of civilizational horror seemed to have loomed as an inevitability to every cognizant person, Williams's by a 79-year old man in New Jersey in 1962, which was certainly a much less existentially threatening environment, whatever dark secrets and hatreds its population may have been harboring. The production of the Williams poem does not speak with the authority of having great necessity or particular insight that I can see. Getting back to the point made by the anthologizers about the admiration by other poets of Williams's techniques, as someone who has tried to write novels, I have obviously come across many instances where the difficulty of what an author has succeeded in pulling off has perhaps impressed me more than other people reading the same books. Henry James, Joyce, Garcia Marquez, some of the things John Fowles did in The Magus come immediately to mind (note by the way how many experimental and self-consciously "innovative" writers, which in America has been held up as pretty much the supreme achievement to be attained in all the arts for a hundred years, are from countries that were colonies or otherwise far removed in space and ancestral memory from the home territory of their languages). People who attempt to paint or act or play music seriously obviously will be more likely to notice strokes of virtuosity and brilliance of conception in fellow practitioners of their arts than unpractised neophytes. However the appreciation of technique in itself is generally a secondary consideration which one examines as a result of the satisfaction one has received from the initial reading/performance, not in search of it (see the next poem). I am going to amuse myself by rearranging the lines of a couple of William Carlos Williams poems and see what happens, because his breaks of line and stanza do not make any obvious sense to me.

Forgive me there was
the icebox According to Brueghel
I have eaten the whole pageantry
and so cold concerned
the plums unsignificantly
saving when Icarus fell
you were probably near
that were in off the coast
and which his field
so sweet the wings' wax
for breakfast awake tingling
they were delicious it was spring
Icarus drowning
a farmer was ploughing
sweating in the sun
with itself
of the year was
the edge of the sea
this was
that melted
a splash quite unnoticed

Shakespeare--Sonnet 130 ("My mistress's are nothing like the sun", etc)

Obviously this is one of the master models by which, whether one likes it or not, English language poetry and the English poetic mind will always be defined and against which newer poets in this tradition--which we are as yet far from escaping and conquering, however dead the culture may be said to be--will ultimately be measured. When I say measured, I do not mean by the professional critics and university professors either, but by the poet's own intellect, which if he has any sensibility regarding his art, will always recognize the excellences and necessities of mind/spirit/mental composition, whatever, in its highest examples.

Since my understanding of poetry is generally poor, and since I always have some piece of it to read, you can expect to see me tackle it again sometime in the future; Shakespeare too, for the simple reason that most contemporary writing on Shakespeare is horrible, either presuming an unearned and too low intimacy with the man or setting him pointlessly far beyond any bounds of actual life, even in a college classroom or at the theater, where one should expect some accessibility to him. I apologize for the length and sloppiness of composition of this post.