Monday, July 30, 2007

Augie March--Part 6

p.483--" is adultery...and expresses change...don't think you don't have to obey the laws of life."

p.485--"This took place on the fifty-eight story of a building in midtown Manhattan, behind sliding glass doors. No use being so blase as not to mention it."

p.490--"...He was a mighty attractive and ideal man. There was a lanky American elegance about him, in the ease of his long legs and his cropped-on-the-sides head which from chin to top showed the male molding on the strong side of haggardness; his gray eyes on the cool side of frankness...He knew so much too. Suppose that you said something about D'Alembert or Isidore of Seville, Frazer would have been ready to discuss them. You couldn't find a subject that stumped him. He was going to become an important person. You could see how he was flying at the highest, from one peak of life to the next..."

p.491--"Some people can't bear a train departure at any time, and how crushing these departures were in the stations during the war, as the cars moved away and left throngs behind, and the oil-spotted empty tracks and the mounting, multiplying ties."--Like boarding schools, nightclubs with brass bands, gin fizzes and people in evening dress, and Fawlty Towers-style seaside hotels of the sort that haven't been in operation for 30 years, the setting of the train departure is still irresistible to writers and filmmakers as well as their audiences though fewer and fewer people have any personal experience of these things with any passing year. Combine the general appeal such scenes have with war and sex and artistic associations, followed by their increasing recession from normal life and in no time at all you have a mythology. Airports, as much as some people do love and get a rush out of being in them, occupy a more detached space in the emotions. Formerly, at least, when you arrived in most places by train, (particularly in America there are some cities where this is not so much the case anymore), the moment you stepped onto the platform, you were there, thrust at once into the atmosphere and life of your destination, and, conversely, you remained in it until you boarded the train out of town again. In flying this sense is decidedly muted; if one lands in a country very different from that from which he departed some effect might be registered in the airport, but for the most part airports do a good job of keeping any sensation of real life at bay. When driving the sad moment comes when you pull out of the driveway (parking lots interestingly arouse no emotion on leaving them), and sometimes you may cry for a couple of miles until you get onto the interstate, or cross some large bridge that psychologically cuts you off from the place you were--this last phenomenon works quite strongly with me--however the people you have left after seeing you around the corner usually go right back in the house and move on to something else in a couple of minutes. These are very small and private dramas compared to the spectacle of a crowded city train station, or the emotion of a small-town one, especially in wartime.

p.493--"If he floated down the river with a hard-on he expected them to raise the bridges for him, that's how he was an egotist."--I couldn't leave this out. Sorry. A great many men really do talk this way in their day-to-day conversation, though I am actually not one of them, and I don't exactly wish I were, but I have observed that the men who do rarely express any nagging desire to give up the habit.

p.498--"Busy men often die on their holiday, as if they had no time for it during the business week. Relaxation kills them."

p.499--"I see by the way you speak of love that you don't know a thing about psychology or biology. She needed me and therefore loved me. If another guy had been around she would have loved him."

pp.504-5--"So my first project was to study the physiology of boredom...How come the simple cells wish for immortality whereas the complex organisms get bored? The cells have the will to persist in their essence..."

The gradual buildup of the outrageous monomaniacal character Bateshaw was another well-executed piece of writing. In most modern stories I feel like it would have certainly followed that he would have killed Augie, as I feel like most modern authors are either intimidated by and have no idea how to deal with monomaniacal figures, or fancy themselves to be such figures and therefore sympathize with them. I suspect the later Bellow would have been more inclined to finish a mere everyman off as well, but it is rare a younger, or at least not quite fully attained man can convincingly adopt such a dark view of the human condition.

p.515--"Pretty soon I understood that I would mostly do as she wanted because it was I who loved her most."

It doubtless frequently happens in marriages that city-people and country-people miss each other and end up with someone of the opposite persuasion, if indeed it does not happen most of the time. What is interesting is that in such cases the supposed city-lover is often more temperamentally suited for a quiet, nontaxing life far away from the action of urban existence and vice-versa, which makes the object of their love, however subconsciously realized, a sensible sense. At least this is my very unworked-out theory.

p.521--`....he...gave me a sort of talk...about Paris and how nothing like it existed, tha capital of the hope that Man could be free without the help of Gods, clear of mind, civilized, wise, pleasant, and all of that...I felt rather insulted that he should laugh when he asked me what I was doing here...if it was for Man why shouldn`t it be for me too?`

p.523--French vocabulary alert--`He`s what the Parisians call a noceur, meaning that it`s always the wedding night for him or that he plays musical beds.

p.524--`To tell the truth, I`m good and tired of all these big personalities, destiny-molders, and heavy-water brains, Machiavellis and wizard-evildoers, big-wheels and imposers-upon, absolutists.` He probably did feel this until he became one.

Because Saul Bellow is so recently deceased, and his children, wives and hordes of intimate acquaintance still walking around and occupying prominent positions all over the culture (his youngest daughter, whom he had at age 84, could theoretically go to college with my oldest son), it is a strange matter to think of him as a historical figure and to plan a tour associated with his life similar to those we have made for other authors who have been dead for hundreds of years and whose tombs and houses and so forth receive very view visitors (Boswell`s house in Auchinleck, Scotland, on this note, which has a collection of memorabilia, has closed indefinitely due to a lack of visitors, and other museums of this type, which I obviously tend to enjoy, appear doomed to follow). I would not care to be gawking or even reflecting thoughtfully at the man`s grave knowing that some relatively or profoundly intelligent literary friend could pop in at any moment, something one does not have to worry about at Oliver Goldsmith`s or Franklin Pierce`s or Longfellow`s graves, who would probably be delighted to know you were there. Nonetheless due to particular circumstances I will list some sites here.

According to the biography of him in my local library, Bellow was born at 130 Eighth Avenue in Lachine, Quebec, now incorporated into Montreal, and I have always supposed that the flashback scenes set in circa-1920 Montreal in Herzog must obviously be based on this house. The house does not appear to be there anymore. I know this because I actually drove out there one afternoon on one of my trips to Montreal to check it out. These are the kinds of things I do looking for an excuse to poke around somewhere where there is no reason to do so and see if I find anything. This one turn up better stuff than most hunts. The street is still working-class residential, though the tenements that were apparently there before have been replaced with 1950s two-story brick houses. I took a picture of the block but I still haven`t learned how to put my own pictures on the Internet. The area is, along with most of the western suburbs on the island of Montreal, almost completely Anglophone, which I had not known. Indeed the towns in this part of the island resemble those in New England, particularly some of the dense old towns near Boston, more than is usual in the province of Quebec. Bellow`s old street is near the St Lawrence River, which is massive all along this route, and there is a pleasant park along the bank, really more like the shore there. This was a pleasant excursion.

According to top-level research undertaken on the Internet, Bellow, who died in 2005, was buried at the Shir He Harim graveyard in Brattleboro, Vermont. I have not been to see it though devotees of this blog, if there were any, would know that Brattleboro is one of my main hangouts. Evidently the great man had a place quite near us, out towards Marlboro (note to any St. John`s people who might be lurking around: if you thought Annapolis was a stifling city to be stuck in after school hours, Marlboro College has only 200 students and is three miles of wooded road to the center of Marlboro town, which consists of four buildings; a church, a post office, a library that could fit into the SJC security hut and I believe some kind of quaint country store. Not to mention that it is freezing cold with heavy snowfall the majority of the school year. But I digress too much). If he were buried in the main cemetery in town, where my wife`s grandparents and many other relatives are, I could justify wandering over and taking a peek--my own grandparents are buried in the same cemetery as Connie Mack, and I`ve checked out his grave while I was there before--but this other place I think I will have to hold off on for a few years, certainly until I can find out where it is, which seems to be something of a secret to the gentile population of Brattleboro, or least the old part of it that predate the arrival of all the progressive people, which is of course the group that all of my acquaintance there falls under. Maybe it`s private anyway. Cervantes`s tomb in Madrid is inside a monastery, inaccessible to the masses. Plenty of other people have had their ashes thrown under a bush or in somebody`s garden but with these you can usually still walk on them anyway. It is a bizarre habit to have gotten into, but it does take you to a lot of places worth seeing to which you would not otherwise have gone, and it does make me feel connected in some way with the serious part of the world which is silly but nonetheless important to me.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Thursday was the one year anniversary of the blog. While when I started I envisioned having fans and a generally more global reach, I have since retrenched almost entirely with regard to all ideas of this sort. On June 5 I signed up for the Sitemeter service to see if my page was indeed getting any traffic at all. According to this service it is not; it has recorded zero visits. Before this I did get a comment (in Portuguese) on my Tom Thumb post, which I too thought was one of my better efforts, but it turned out to be directing me to a site where I could buy T-shirts.

This will be my 76th published post, which comes to an average of one article every 4.84 days. The apostrophe/quotation marks button on my home keyboard does not work, which is why there are often strange symbols in places where one would expect to find an apostrophe. I am unfortunately subject at times to strange mood swings, poor concentration and despair, much of which, like a lot of people nowadays, I hack my way through by writing something and putting it on the Internet, to the content of which these afflictions adhere like wet sand. I would only estimate that 30-40% of the material here is of this dreary and hysterical nature however.

Although a fair number of the entries on the site are ostensibly about books and literary matters, I really only use them as jumping off points to write about other things or to pontificate on general subjects. I sometimes peek into works of professional literary/art/film/travel criticism to see if I have gotten anything terribly wrong that anonymous people in cyberspace will be able, with absolute justice, to attack and eviscerate me for if they should happen to stumble on my site, and pretty much everything I come up with falls into this category.

In other words, if you are a very brilliant or serious or learned or mature person, you will probably find nothing here that is capable of pleasing you.

If you are 50-85% of one of these types of persons however, and I am sure you know who you are, I am eager to commiserate with you.

Augie March--Part 5

p.374--"Head thrown back, Trotsky regarded and estimated the vast church, and with a jump in which hardly anything elderly appeared he went up the stairs and hastened in." The unanticipated appearance of Trotsky in the narrative was presented in a way that reminded me of the introduction of Napoleon as a character in War and Peace, which I have noted always makes a great impression on people when they read that book. ("Hey! It's Napoleon!"). Augie glosses on this feeling in the next paragraph: "I too wanted to go in; I was excited by this famous figure, and I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gave...of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation from this high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow's stirring to have a glimpse of deep-water greatness. And, even more than an established, an exiled greatness, because the exile was a sign to me of persistence at the highest things."

The subplot involving the wretched Oliver, an all-around second-rate man on the lam from U.S. authorities mainly for his subordinate associations with more substantial criminals, is very well done. The gradual buildup revealing the pertinent facts of the case as it comes to relate to Augie, the pathetic details--there are few more pathetic or awful stories than a cowardly guilty man without friends, resources, guile, daring, etc, running hopelessly from the police who can barely conceal their ecstasy at the prospect of such an easy triumph--is handled admirably by keeping the sordid part of it in the main peripheral while the emphasis in the main body of the plot of course is on what a stroke of fortune this turns out to be for Augie (Oliver's hot blonde girlfriend comes to him for assistance in escaping from the other).

pp.401-2--"But then with everyone going around so capable and purposeful in his strong handsome case, can you let yourself limp in feeble and poor, some silly creature, laughing and harmless? No, you have to plot in your heart to come out differently. External life being so produce a someone who can exist before it."

While I just praised the handling of the Oliver subplot, most of the plot contrivances and transitions in the later parts of the book had a much more awkward, forced air about them. There are many strange, incongruous positions and acquaintances, symbolic and extreme situations succeeding each other fairly rapidly which left me overall with a sense of vague dissatisfaction. This may seem like nitpicking but this is a book that has been held up by many people as a work of very great importance in world literature and I don't see that. It approaches living at that level at times in its episodes, but taken on the whole the world represented in it just does not resonate enough in the mind as being that real.

p.424--"Well, people don't trust you if they don't know what you do, and you can't blame them."

p.425--"I drew a drape aside and saw we were on the twentieth story at least. I hadn't had a look at Chicago yet since my return. Well, here it was again, westward from this window, the gray snarled city with the hard black straps of rails, enormous industry cooking and its vapor shuddering to the air, the climb and fall of its stages in construction or demolition like mesas, and on these the different powers and sub-powers crouched and watched like sphinxes. Terrible dumbness covered it, like a judgement that would never find its word." I don't like this much, though a) it succeeds in imposing an idea that probably contains a decent amount of truth in it, and b) this is a perfect specimen of the type of writing that Americans seemed to embrace as embodying the national spirit in the 20th century. I think the problem is that it leaves the writer, and indeed anything recognizably human, or intellectual, or whimsical, too much outside the description. Description of place to work I think must offer a mirror, and an enlightening one, back onto the mind, or soul, of the describer, and these hard black straps of rails and shuddering vapors do not do that sufficiently in themselves.

pp.425-6--Having said what I just have, this description is much more successful: "He dressed me in a double-breasted-flannel, very elegant soft gray. It certainly was my fortune to be poor in style. From the skin out he reclothed me in swell linen and silk socks, new shoes and called the maid to have my old suit cleaned and sent to me--it was sort of shiny on the elbows. The other stuff he ordered her to throw down the incinerator." The incinerator is a very evocative touch. p.428--"One thing that disturbed her was that without having a cent I seemed perfectly at home with many of the satisfactions that the rich enjoy."

There are many times when I think this author, education-wise, is not so different from me, that we know pretty roughly the same things, the same facts. Obviously you have a difference of personality that is large, and probably of will. Also the circumstance that time has marched on and a man of my generation is expected to know different things than a man in 1942 would have known, and I don't know them.

p.434--(Clem to Augie) "You are a man of feeling."

p.439--"For a long time he was mad on Great Books and he used to buy space in the want ads and put in quotations from Plato or Locke. Like, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.'" Of course the Great Books guy is a hopeless freak who can't accomplish anything and has thousands of roaches overrunning his mansion (he is a millionaire at least).

p.455--"Why, just as a question of time spent in getting prepared for life, look! a man could spend forty, fifty, sixty years like that within the walls of his being. And all great experience would only take place within the walls of his being. And all high conversation would take place within those walls. And all achievement would stay within those walls. And all glamour too. And even hate, montrousness, enviousness, murder, would be inside them. This would only be a terrible, hideous dream about existing." Yes, well. it is true that it is not quite the same thing as what the greatest people think of as life, but mainstream existence certainly seems to be heading ever more in this general direction.

The women Bellow's heroes get involved with are always depicted as being knockout/bombshell type beautiful, not just to him but as something that would be obvious to anyone who saw them. I am skeptical as to their really being that beautiful in the particular way that they are presented as being anyway--however good-looking a woman is, it is unusual that one forms no other, more complex impression of them after a very short time--but it also has the effect of curtailing any real idea of what these women can be supposed to look like, other than as dolls representing various sexual types.

p.480--"When is your birthday?" "In January." "I'd have sworn to it. So is mine. I believe the highest types are born in January. It's barometric--you can look it up in Ellsworth Huntington. The parents make love in spring when the organism is healthiest and then the best specimens are conceived."

I of course was born in January. As was my wife.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Augie March--Part 4

A lot of men in the 1930s were, by our standards, serious losers. I say this because my impression is that there is a certain amount of hand-wringing afoot in the present about how the quality of the general run of American men has declined so precipitously in recent years, that they aren`t as smart or as tough or know how to do as many useful or interesting things, don`t have as much economic or marital value and so on, but if the literature of our forbears in the 30s and 40s is to be believed half the male population in that era could barely get out of bed without grasping for the gin bottle, was perpetually dressed in rags and lived in dank apartments working at truly dead-end jobs (paper routes?) until they dropped dead. Our tolerance for even the slightest suggestion of or association with failure seems to have lessened considerably however.

The threat of entrapment by women and babies is a major theme hovering over and slowly picking off all the characters in the book--not that they are to be avoided forever either, but of course the great trick is for the man to manage the timing and the terms according to what is most satisfying to him, which the book implies few are skillful enough to do.

p.295--``You don`t lay her?`` he said secretly. ``No.`` I disappointed him; there was also a very fine salt of condescension or mockery, only a glitter on the surface of his look, but I saw it.

Einhorn`s layabout son, Arthur, who went to the University of Illinois and styles himself a philosopher/poet who is above getting up and going to work every day, would remind me of myself except that seems to do a lot better with the chicks.

p.322--she began to tell me how poets must be allowed to run funerals.

The romance of Augie with the very wealthy, well-traveled, rather exotic Thea--certainly her feelings for him--is rather hard to believe. I guess Augie is supposed to be very good-looking, and street smart, as well as pliable to a point as far as being taken up by people goes, but it never rang convincingly for me.

People I have known from the affluent Chicago suburbs, in school and in the rest of life, have always struck me as being the most excessively sexually competitive people I have met. People from the New York area, especially Long Island and Northern New Jersey, are just as obsessed with sex, but there is a little more of a desperate Howard Stern quality to it--if they see an opening that is at all acceptable to them they jump on it like crazed animals. These New York people, as long as they are getting anything at all, are more or less content to let others enjoy their lives. The Chicago people on the other hand seemed much more likely to always be approaching such things as a game in which conquering opponents, both of one`s own and the opposite sex, was as much the point as procuring pleasure or enjoying a communion of spirits. I always thought these suburbs must be very awful places to live even if one was the champion sex god of them, and I can very rarely be brought to say such a thing as that.
Is it me, or do the critics tend to gloss over the often rather major flaws in Bellow`s novels far more than they do other writers? This is an absorbing and interesting book, and it has a lot of energy propelling it along, but it is not what I would consider masterfully structured. Also the Augie character, as I stated before, never becomes Big to me, never becomes a Symbol of anything that strikes me as really important. I know the big idea is that he`s the immigrant asserting himself as a voice and player on the American scene, but in the character himself there is no pull of any real foreign culture that makes one feel he is an immigrant, or the descendants of them. I never feel that. He`s more at home in America than I am, for Christ`s sake.

p.345--In a Paris or a London where the distinction of the sun isnt so great, in the grays and veilings, it isn`t credited with its full power, and many southern people have envied those places the virtues it`s possible to think of having in the cool or cold. Mussolini was not kidding about blasting pieces out of his Alps and Appenines to let the cold foggy currents of Germany over the peninsula and make the Perugini and the Romans into fighters.

p.351--What he was fishing for was my calling. I suppose he knew that I didn`t have one I could announce even to these worldly people--for I imagined they were of the great world, and they just about were.

p.358--I had yet to find out how little people want you to succeed in an extraordinary project, and what comfort some have that the negligible is upheld and all other greater effort falls on its face.

p.366--``He`s going to show everyone, and knock people down with his success. Whoever thought he was nothing but an international bum, and that`s everybody in the world who ever laid eyes on him, now`s going to be shown. Boy! People are right where he left them, and he`s going to come back and wow them. He has been around the world too, but he didn`t know it because he was drunk.`` As he said this, Oliver appeared to my thought in a shack of Outer Mongolia, where soldiers in quilted coats saw him lying in his vomit in a stupor. Moulton liked to show that ill, miserable things supplied the unity of the world. Only amusement supposedly made this tolerable, and so he specialized in amusement. All these people, the whole colony, did that.---This is my favorite paragraph in the book, I think.

p.368--Boredom is strength, Bolingbrooke. The bored man gets his way sooner than the next guy. When you`re bored you`re respected.

My impression of the whole excursion to Mexico is of course that expat life looks like great fun. It has that collegial atmosphere, where since no one really has to work and they don`t have to spend all day driving around doing errands and they need an excuse to get out of the house they end up by default hanging out in the cantina with each other most of the day, planning parties and hunting trips and scheming on everybody else`s wife/girlfriend. These kinds of scenes always turn dark and end badly in novels, it is true--what choice do they really have?--but the people in them always then move on to another interesting or exotic place filled with a new cast of bored beautiful people, so maybe that isn`t so bad as we bourgeois have been frightened by our attorneys into believing.

I am thinking I shouldn`t put in so many quotes, but then in theory if someone were checking into my site for 5 minutes a day seeking amusement or knowledge of some kind nine or ten short quotes that are either humorous or interesting in some way, especially if culled from a famous work of literature, would not be too forbidding.

I have probably 2 or 3 more posts I want to do on this book.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Augie March--Part 3

p.194--"Anyhow, I had found something out about an unknown privation, and I realized how a general love or craving, before it is explicit or before it sees its object, manifests itself as boredom or some other kind of suffering."

p. 203--"Clem had a vast idea of what things there were to be had, which was quite natural when you consider how it wounded and stung him to believe that they were out of his reach. He meant, I know, money, admiration, women made absolutely helpless before you by love. The goods of fortune. He was disturbed by these thousand things, and, sometimes, so was I. He insisted that I should be going somewhere, at least that I should be practicing how to go, that I should concentrate on how to be necessary, and not be backward but energetic, absolute, and so forth."

p.209--"I was too indulgent about them, about the beds that would be first stale and then poisonous because their manageresses' thoughts were on the conquering power of chenille and dimity and the suffocation of light by curtains, and the bourgeois ambering of adventuring man in parlor upholstery". All references to the bourgeois ambering of adventuring man must be recorded on a site such as this.

p.212--Mimi Villars, who comes across as a sort of proto-Ayn Rand girl, philosophically dedicated to free love with men of strength, opposed to bourgeois entanglements and compromises, etc, on her sister's getting a divorce: "I hope now she'll get under the sheets with a young strong stevedore." This reminded me of the scene in Mansfield Park when the narrator, speaking for Fanny, declares with chilling finality of the boring fiance who has terrible conversational skills that "he was an inferior young man." I guess this is because in both instances harsh, forceful, and probably accurate, judgements are being passed on the superiority or inferiority of individual men by women possessing intelligence and, especially in the case of Mimi Villars, desirability enough to give them real sting.

pp.237-8--"But luxury as the power itself is different--luxury without anything this modern power of luxury, with its battalions of service workers and engineers, it's the things themselves, the products that are distinguished, and the individual man isn't nearly equal to their great sum. Finally they are what becomes great--the multitude of baths with never-failing hot water, the enormous air-conditioning units and the elaborate machinery. No opposing greatness is allowed, and the disturbing person is the one who won't serve by using or denies by not wishing to enjoy."

p.244--"...Mimi Villars would have said, no compliment intended, that she was a wife, the whole wifely racket. In other words, minor sensuality and no trouble."

p.267-8--Jimmy Klein on marriage & fatherhood:"It's all that you want from life comes to you as one single thing--fucking; so you and some nice kid get together, and after a while you have more misery than before, only now it's more permanent...You're set up like the July fourth rocket...Just charge enough to explode you. Up. Then the stick falls down after the flash. You live to bring up the kid and oblige your wife."

I was in Chicago only one time, four years ago. Especially approaching from the west, as it happened I did on this occasion, it truly does emerge out of the plains as an oasis of humanity when compared with going anywhere in the northeast U.S. Alone among the midwestern cities I have seen (St Louis, Dayton, Indianapolis) it retains some semblance of identity and ties to the past, though it too is certainly well past its prime. It reminded me of Philadelphia and Boston, (although the latter area has been changing rapidly the last ten years or so) in that it still has, albeit mainly in the outlying areas of the city and older suburbs, a large population rooted in the area for many generations that is culturally working class and works to maintain at least some of the modest traditions of these cities. These are the people who eat the signature unhealthy foods, drink the very bad but beloved local beers, keep a few parades and firehouses and Catholic schools running, maintain an emotional relationship with the local sports franchises that is 40 or 50 years out of date, and so on. Chicago also had a real second-tier golden age from about 1890-1930/40, even though no one realized it at the time, the lingering aura of which at least as a visitor I felt at once whenever I entered a well-preserved building or bar or came upon a vista from that era. Wrigley Field exudes this atmosphere of old Chicago as the most rawly American of cities in the days when American cities were much livelier and rougher and far more potentially beautiful places than most of them are today, which is why many people will always stop and watch a game being played there on television for a few minutes independent of any actual interest in the teams playing.

As a literary city I am at times inclined to rate Chicago equal to New York, at least during the 1900-1940 period. New York writing is like the gunning point guard in basketball who takes 40 shots in a game, most of unnecessary difficulty, and makes 12, making his overall scoring average still quite high, while Chicago writers of this era were more like the power forward who has difficulty getting the ball passed to him even when he`s open but manages to make economical use of his shots and get to the foul line enough to end up with a solid game. Except for Bellow, none of the more famous Chicago writers--Sinclair, Dreiser, Sandburg, Dos Passos, Farrell, Richard Wright--has a really high reputation among literary people today, though I don`t know why Dos Passos doesn`t (Hemingway, though he was from Oak Park, never to my knowledge wrote about the city at all). The doggedly unintellectual man of the people Studs Terkel is of a classic strain of American writer that may become extinct with his demise (the audience for such authors appears to have spontaneously combusted or something already). Still, if you do read a lot, and not just about literature, but sports history and music history and about business and socialists and on and on, the place, and what it must have been like, does occupy a lot of room in the imagination. One senses that a lot was going on and at a very subconscious level in great part too. But I have to get on with the rest of the article.

p.275--This is what I thought college talk would be more like:``You`ve never been between this doll`s legs? You`ve been living next door to her without touching her? Listen, we`re no more ten years old, kid. I`ve seen that tramp. She wouldn`t let you alone even if you wanted to be let alone. And you didn`t. Don`t try to tell me you`re not horny...``

Though I joke about this dialogue, I should note that in the book it relates to an abortion that the author devoted a large section of the book to, that was very roughly and shoddily done and resulted in terrible complications, fever, bleeding, etc, which the official medical establishments of the time wanted no part in treating. My tendency is to assume that extended accounts of abortions, especially where there are lots of instinctive reactions by other people in response to the event, are supposed to convey some idea of vital importance to the story, but I can never figure out what exactly it is. Is the instinct the problem in such cases? Is it the manner, the tone, of the action or response? Most great and would-be great authors seek to appeal to the better part of our humanity when confronted with crises as well as to define what that appropriately is. Clearly something of the sort is at work here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Augie March Part 2

The first note I made was on the frequency of retarded characters in American literature, as Augie's little brother Georgie (also my youngest son's name by the way) is an "idiot". Benjy in The Sound and the Fury immediately comes to mind, and there is also an important retarded character in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I had thought of another major one but I can't remember it now. This is not even counting movies like Forrest Gump (the mentally handicapped character appears to be especially prominent in works originating in the South) or Bill (remember that one? It starred Mickey Rooney as a retarded old man). This is a unique characteristic of our literature, and perhaps of our humanity. The French, for example, I think do not do retarded people in their art. They have no use for them, requiring all their agents to be articulate and conscious and sensual. The Greeks would seem to have little interest in such characters also, for similar reasons, plus the necessity of the figures of their dramas to take actions.

Early on I remarked that the book seemed overwritten at times, thought this impression did subside considerably once the story got rolling. As I noted in the last post I also find a lot of his learned references come across as awkward, especially in this book where Augie, who is the narrator, never really comes across as having become the sort of person who would instinctively compare a scene encountered while hustling on the streets of Chicago with an incident from the Roman senate. He is always portrayed as too much of that street culture to do that.

The name "Augie", which was generally I believe a diminutive of August, seems as if it should be due for a comeback. I rather like it. There were a number of ballplayers in the 30s and 40s with the name, most notably Augie Galan, who was a slap-hitting outfielder with the Cubs and Dodgers, leading the league in runs scored in 1935 (133!), walks in 1943 and 44, (103 & 101), and stolen bases in 1935 & 37 (22 & 23; it was not a running era).

p.57--"Mama showed at last the trembling anger of weak people that it takes much to bring on."

I was greatly endeared to Einhorn by his love of Coca-Cola, which I indulge in almost to excess as well. Other literary Coke lovers were Ganesh and his wife in The Mystic Masseur, or at least they broke out the Coke whenever guests came to the house. However I interpreted that these two were supposed to be understood as foolish characters, while Einhorn is insisted upon numerous times as having been "a great man".

p.65--"I understand that British aristocrats are still legally entitled to piss, if they should care to, on the hind wheels of carriages."

p.67--Einhorn "had dynastic ideas...the organizer coming after the conqueror, the poet and philosopher succeeding the organizer, and the whole development typically American, the work of intelligence and strength in an open field, a world of possibilities."

p.76 "...the true vision of things is a gift, particularly in times of special disfigurement and world-wide Babylonishness"

p.86--"I was reading where Tex Rickard wrote the other day in the Post, that before the Willard fight, when it was a hundred in the shade out there in Ohio, Dempsey was trained so fine that when he took a nap before the event, in his underwear, they were crisp and there wasn't a drop of sweat on him."

There was a J.P. Morgan reference at one point. One of these years I should do an article on J.P. Morgan as someone who held a dominating position in the American psyche through several of its most important decades. It is virtually impossible to read a novel, set in the industrial states at least, written between 1900 and 1950 that does not at some point invoke the spectre of this awesome captain of industry, and really, as much a father of our modern nation, in numerous ways, as anyone.

For much of the book the main problem I had with it was that the Augie character was never very vivid for me. It became a little clearer towards the end, mainly as a result of his own explanations, but still, major aspects of his character, such as his attractiveness to several extremely desirable-sounding women, and his autodidactic learning of the classics, are not really convincing. In fact, where the women are concerned, this is a fairly constant difficulty in all of Bellow's books, figuring out why the particular ones he writes about would be at all interested in the characters he gives them to.

p.135--"You know nothing about girls; girls want to marry. And it's not in the modest old times when they sat on it till somebody would have mercy."

p. 142--"With you? I should say not. I certainly won't." This is what the impossibly gorgeous Esther Frenchel says when Augie asks her to go dancing at the house of David. He recovers of course. The author is trying to show us that to be a real hero you have to bring your game to the hottest girls and learn to be unaffected by their disdain. And he's right.

On the other hand our author's penchant for introducing vocabulary and learned allusions into situations and the thoughts of a narrator where they could not be expected to arise spontaneously mainly serve to reveal his middle-class origins. The worst writer for this sort of thing (besides me) is John Fowles, who was actually very talented and certainly had a high I.Q., but who unfortunately has the habit of forever straining to demonstrate that this is the case. Bellow was less constrained in this way, as the cultural intelligentsia in the U.S. is not a terribly forbidding lot, and one can always do an end run around them by garnering European approval, but he still writes at times as if he considers himself to be accountable to some exalted body of people outside of his familiar connections.

p.155--This is a specimen of Bellovian writing that I don't care for: "His spirit was piercing, but there has to be mentioned his poor color, age-impoverished and gray; plus the new flat's ugliness; dullness of certain hours, dryness of days, dreariness and shabbiness--mentioned that the street was bare, dim and low in life, bad; and that there were business thoughts and malformed growths of purpose, terrible, menacing, salt-patched with noises and news, and pimpled and dotted around with lies, both practical and gratuitous.`` Halfway through this sentence I felt like I was the one lost in a bad neighborhood.

p.162--``As for the immigrants, my thought about them was, Hell, why shouldn`t they be here with the rest of us if they want to be? There`s enough to go around of everything including hard luck.``

p.166--Erie, Pennsylvania gets dissed: ``To get off in Erie gave me no feeling that I had arrived somewhere, in a place that was a place in and for itself, but rather that it was one which waited on other places to give it life by occurring between them; the breath of it was thin, just materialized, waiting.``

p.166--``...people in great numbers were on the highways.`` The wanderers on the roads and the hoboes riding the trains in the 30s are noted by just about every writer of the period. Clearly this was a significant and deeply impressionable phenomenon. The figure of the hobo remained a staple of songs, comedy routines, films and TV shows and books well into the 1960s, and while always treated as an outsider, was a familiar one. I make this observation because there seems to be a fashion current in conservative ideological circles and among economists to argue that the sufferings of Americans during the Depression have been greatly exaggerated, that the New Deal actually exacerbated such disaster as there was, that Roosevelt was overrated and ineffective as a leader, etc. Such people always fail to take into account the day-to-day psychological impact on a society of huge numbers of grown men reduced to beggary, homelessness, tramping and the suspicion at least of criminality, especially when most people`s financial situations are precarious enough that they are not too far from being in the same position, and affect to be confused when they demand dramatic short-term actions to solve problems rather than adopt rational long-term strategies to improve their lots. Roosevelt became popular despite the questionable direct economic successes of his programs because a lot of people perceived him as acknowledging their existences, and even seemed to entertain the possibility that they might be important to the national life, which is why he was able to win election four times and galvanize the incredible national unity of the 1940s that people so much lament the collapse of today.

Along a similar theme, this book gives a good flavor of the old industrial midwest that we have lost now. Even in the depression with all the hoboes around the impression made is still of a comparatively bustling, crowded place compared with what is left of it now. Diners are full at 11pm, train stations (and trains) are crowded, factories churn, the farm fields are full of activity. Perhaps this life was no more communal or vigorous or interesting than the mall and drive-through culture that we have today but it certainly seems like it was.

p.183--Description of what a man should not be: ``...a man-chick, plucked and pinched, with scraggle behind and anxious face full of sorrow-wrinkles, human fowl chased by brooms.``

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Saul Bellow--The Adventures of Augie March (1953)--Part 1

When I was a high school senior back in 1988 I went to some kind of college-night-for-prospective-English-majors event that was held at one of the other schools in my town. I don't remember what object I had in mind in going to this meeting, other than the sense that something might grab me--my college strategy was woefully undeveloped even for that era--or, if nothing else, that there would be some specimens of the kinds of girls I liked there to get me in the college mood, on which I was by that point banking all of my romantic hopes. One of the speakers, who was a graduate student somewhere pretty big, the University of Michigan, I believe, gave a little talk about university-level English programs. He was probably about 24, which at the time was to me almost the same as if he had been 38. That is, I considered him a full-fledged grown-up. Whatever he was, somebody had set him in a fury against the hegemony of European-descended peoples over every area of his field. This being in Maine, there was of course not a single nonwhite person in the room, including him, and he affected to be repulsed, even offended, by our complacent homogeneity, and advised us with much heat not to bother studying English if we weren't prepared to have our sheltered, safe little conceptions about its nature, and our illusions about ourselves and the society we lived in, shattered. Being always taken in by forceful anger as I am, I began earnestly to wonder if this were actually true, though my heart sank a little at the thought that my presence might be so offensive to the professors and the literary girls, both of which groups I had been so looking forward to being on good, if not intimate terms with. The speaker then went on to trash a number of famous white boy authors, as he called them--from which I gathered that in his mind almost any instance of a white person's picking up a pen was either a farce or resulted in some sort of serious cultural crime --and extol a fairly extensive list exclusively made up of people of color and a few white feminists as creating all the American language and art and literature that mattered. After he had exhausted most of his list of writers he considered admirable, he turned his glare upon the section of chairs where I was sitting and, as I imagined, looking right at me, said through his teeth with uncontainable contempt, "And I bet you thought Saul Bellow was the best writer in America."

Dear reader, I assure you I thought no such thing.

I did know, however, that when I was a boy, and first coming into general awareness of the existence of literature, that Saul Bellow was considered by a lot of important and serious people to be the best writer in the country, which, as a bookish child myself, I took due notice of, though of course I knew nothing about him, other than assuming that he was Jewish because his name was Saul. At some point in the early to mid 80s it seemed to become unfashionable to say he was quite the best writer in the country; my general take on the shift was that it was felt we needed somebody better, or at least smarter (Thomas Pynchon?), less white and male (Toni Morrison?), more pessimistic (Philip Roth?) or maybe just younger and more edgy, that being the kind of people we are. Not that Bellow was not plenty ornery, apparently, but having become the establishment, his work being met with most approval by the kind of comfortable older men in positions of authority that vital authors and artistic people are supposed to detest, and as well the entirety of the body of work that was taking shape not appearing to measure up to the real giants of world literature, it was probably inevitable that we would wish to try the mantle on someone else, as someone always has to wear it. After avoiding him for the first 35 years of my life, I have had quite a lot of Bellow lately. I took up Henderson the Rain King in December of 2005, followed by Herzog in February, 2006, before getting to Augie March. I was also at a Christmas party a couple of years ago where I was not able to talk to anybody so I skimmed a considerable bit of Ravelstein which the host happened to have. I have found this author to be sort of an anti-Dickens, in that the images and remembrances that make the greatest impression on my memory are usually such as I consider to be negative, and the parts that I thought were good I tend to forget. One and a half years on I remembered not much liking Henderson, so I was surprised to discover this note I wrote December 22, 2005:

"An interesting, and largely successful, attempt to reconnect modern men with elemental forces, particularly animals, water, sun, heat, insects, his sense of the mythological. The implication of some destructive force as necessary personified in the Henderson character is the most important idea put forward. For he has badly upset the stasis of the African societies he encounters in discovering his own place. Does this collison give them renewed meaning, or is their meaning dead and requiring a rebirth of their own? There are a lot of good touches here, namely the physical transformations of men into more animal-like beings, the absorption of the myths by the psyche (the only possibility for them?) and the regarding of people as earth-sprung. Man must find a mix between nature and civilization, yes?"

Herzog was another book that was engaging enough to read, though it seemed a little lumbering at times, and certainly did not strike me as a masterpiece or Nobel Prize worthy material. Bellow of course was an old U of Chicago man, famous friend of Allan Bloom's, very evidently schooled in some version of a Great Books type program, and any old St Johnny, as I am, will recognize where a great many of his allusions and namedroppings come from, and even why he chooses to employ them where he does, as if almost instinctively. Herzog's famous dialogues with himself and letters to Heidegger and so forth read just like one would imagine a St John's tutor would have under the circumstances--albeit one of the lesser ones. Also with Herzog the connoisseurship and critiquing he adopts towards women, which was apparent in Henderson also, really begins to get on my nerves. In part there is doubtless envy towards the easy confidence and sense of privilege men of that generation felt, even into middle and old age, when it came to talking about and pursuing women. I am 37 and I am certain that if I were to offer a 19 year old an assessment of her sexual type and possibilities or even remark on it to a male friend as we watched her jogging past the campus coffee shop that this would be considered an abomination, yet in Bellow's books and apparently his life the male characters carry on in such a manner into their 80s. It all makes me wonder at how I missed the boat on all these things--literature, women, success--so badly. Ravelstein, or at least the parts of it I read, are even more depressing in this regard, though the book is well-done for what it is. It is for me, at my present age and in my present circumstances however, mostly a demonstration of how far my idea of myself in youth was from any reality.

The Adventures of Augie March is a much earlier book though, set in a time and a country that I like, and that I suspect Saul Bellow liked, a lot better than the one the came later on. In England at least it seems to be considered his best book, and I certainly it is the best of the ones that I have read, though I would still refrain from calling it the Great American Novel, as a few people have suggested, or even the best American novel since WWII, even though it may be that, I don't know. It is a good book, an absorbing book almost all the way through, keeps up a pretty good pace, and I strongly recommend it, but ultimately it is not a monumental book, it does not achieve I don't think a variety of perfection that will enable it to stand as one of the main pillars in a really distinguished national library. It is in that library, maybe even on the first floor reading room, if not that certainly in the second floor lounge where the sofas are where the girls take their naps, which is not a bad room to be in either.

I have a lot of notes on this book that I will write up in other posts. This is probably a four or five post book.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


On occasion, when I try to imagine what more palpable greatness, however modest, I might have made of my life, I wonder if I could, or ought to have, been a doctor. My wife thinks probably not, on the grounds that I am not by nature caring or reassuring to people whom I don't find personally interesting. This is true, but it does not seem to be a decisive factor in whether people become physicians or not. It is also true that I do not have a great passion for the field of medicine as a subject of study, and of course even less for the business/ administrative aspects of it which require a lot of attention. I would not have had any interest in being a nurse or a technician or a certified assistant if I didn't have what it took to be an M.D, as I might have been persuaded to aim for an inferior but professional position within the university system, or some calcified but staunchly respectable branch of the arts if I had ever felt wholly at home in those environments. Due to, in varying degrees, social, economic, educational and, for lack of a better word, philosophical distance, I have not been able to strike up any connection with, nor consequently been able to like, almost all of the doctors I have known. This was true even when I was a child. That said, physicians as a group appear to me to have overall a better general education and more genuine and serious humanistic interests outside of their careers than members of most other well-regarded professions, such as law, politics, and business, and of course compared to their adjutants in the field of medicine stand out so starkly in these regards as to make really for a rather depressing contrast; or perhaps it is just that the achievement and status of being a practicing doctor automatically lends legitimacy and seriousness to those other interests that people with nothing obviously important to do cannot project.

The other great point about doctors, male ones anyway, is that many bourgeois women, particularly those married to less substantial men, love them, really love them. This carries more weight with me in my current than I would have thought, I think because, especially now that I have children, it has become an unavoidable part of the environment in which I have to move. I do not know to what extent these women I am talking about are overcome with actual lust at the sight of a stethoscope, or the Lexus SUV that often accompanies it, though they certainly give that impression, at least in comparison to the way they respond to lowlier mortals. Their tones take on a decided note of deference, even mild awe, when they are talking to or even about an M.D., and often this attitude of respect is extended to his wife and children as well. Before I am accused of being consumed by rank jealousy I would remind you that we are talking mainly about soccer moms, teachers, sincere churchgoers, most of whom are well into their thirties, have several children, and socially are probably a hundred times more concerned with keeping up appearances than I am. Nonetheless they are about my age, of my generation, they were young when I was young, I wanted them to like me then and they didn`t, and I still would like it if they could bring themselves to like me a little bit now, though the pain is certainly must less than it used to be. Also these people are in many cases in positions to influence and make judgements about my own children, and I see already some disturbing trends in this area. For one, there is the difference, very slight but palpable, regarding the confidence entrusted in my children`s intelligence/probability of success versus the offspring of the doctors or the guy who went to Harvard (I know it is a cliche, but it is a quite accurate one, that if somebody went to Harvard you will discover this within five minutes of meeting them; in the instance I am referring to it was absolutely the case). I suppose this is only natural, especially given the nature of our society as presently constituted, but it still caught me off guard how deeply people`s certainty is about rather fine distinctions between children based on their parentage. But then indeed I feel something of the same thing in reverse. We have intelligence, a rather strange and unformed variety of it in our lineage, yes, but somehow at bottom we don`t understand how the game works, any of the many games worth getting in on, and how is that cycle to be broken?

At such times I look to the example of the ex-boxer and Rhode Island cult hero Vinny Pazienza for inspiration. Pazienza was a good fighter who had a number of shots at the big time stars of his time (late 80s-mid 90s) but always lost in lopsided decisions. He cultivated an image as a tough, game fighter who could absorb lots of punishment, take innumerable punches to the head, etc, which is better than being known as a coward, but not quite as desirable as actually winning big fights. Pazienza was noted for his trash talking. One of my favorites quotes from him was when, in response to a rival who had taunted him for being ugly on top of numerous other deficiences, he said `Yeah? Well if I`m so ugly, then you tell me how it is I`m dating a Penthouse centerfold.` To me his greatest claim to fame was that he was the star of perhaps the greatest television commercial of all time. This is probably on Youtube somewhere but I will try to describe it. Pazienza was nearly killed in a car accident sometime around 1987 and couldnt fight for a while. But like all true boxers, he eventually made a comeback. This was the ad for that comeback:

(Grainy image of Pazienza being carried on a stretcher wrapped head to toe in a full body cast with a neckbrace and one of those wire things around his head)
Voice: November 15, 1987(?)--Providence, Rhode Island--Vinny Pazienza was involved in a near fatal automobile accident--He was in a coma for six weeks--He suffered a broken vertebrae--two collapsed lungs--his jaw needed to be completely rewired--He was blind for six months--It was nearly a year before he was able to walk--Doctors said he would never fight again.

(Sarcastically): What do doctors know about the heart of a man like Vinny Pazienza?

You tell em Vinny.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Odds and Ends

One of the more underremarked upon occurences in recent history, it seems to me, is the mass forced expulsions and resettlements of the entire populations of regions and cities in Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. This involved many millions of people, was achieved in a very brief time and in a chillingly thorough manner with apparently very little--certainly no effective--resistance or protest. I understand that the expulsions were ruthlessly conducted, that the least hint of dissent would have been dealt with by a bullet to the head on the spot; of course the ranks of young men, the most likely cohort of resistance, had been almost completely culled during the war just ended, leaving a mainly ragtag and beaten down population of old people, children, and women, whose political strength is not, as a general rule, combating the sort of brutality that was unleashed in that era. While this exodus is noted in many artworks and general interest histories, as anything of magnitude must be in our era, with the exception of the mass raping that the Soviet army engaged in in the region it has not seemed to make a very strong impression on the consciousness of modern intellectual man. When it is alluded to, it is almost as a footnote to the events of the years before it, an additional unpleasantness in an environment where personal insult can scarcely be felt any longer. Perhaps that is how it was experienced. I realize that oppression made explicit works about, or even explicit references to this subject impossible as long as it lasted, and that its effects therefore tended to become enfolded in abstractions and intellectualisms of the sort that is catnip to the official thinking classes of the West; but it is really a bigger story than that. There is unfortunately not much humor in it, which is problematic for addressing modern Western audiences in the modern art forms. Whatever real sense of tragedy, if any, the age has, it is not of an elevated nature historically speaking, and in the prosperous countries it seems impossible for it to be very serious either. There is also the circumstance that the Germans (along with the Poles) were the major sufferers in this relocation of peoples, and no one wants to appear to be, or actually be, sympathetic to them, though by insisting on this condition

Still, we are left today with the fact that Konigsberg, a major German city for centuries, home of Kant and a famous university, has been emptied of its entire German population and repopulated with Russians. The city of Memel, a part of the German nation prior to 1918, is know Klaipeda in Lithuania. The Germans have gone from here too. The Polish nation and population was shifted en masse 100 miles west from its traditional area. Lviv, which had a predominantly Polish population and was part of Poland from 1918-39 (and had been within the borders of the Hapsburg empire before that) was emptied and repopulated with Ukranians. I have read that the Poles kicked out of Lviv were largely settled in Wroclaw, formerly Breslau, which had been vacated for them by the expulsion of the formerly German population. Joseph Conrad the author was born in a city called Berdichev, now several hundred miles deep within Ukraine, and still rather difficult to find much information about though it has a population of several hundred thousand. Evidently it had at least a sizable Polish population in the mid-nineteenth century, if it was not the dominant group. All of these cities of course would have had significant Jewish populations as well in the 1500-1940 period that seems at this time to me to be the broad parameters delineating "modern" or "iconic" Europe. The magnitude of the break with long history which the destruction of these cities, the death, murder and expulsion of their peoples by 1945, the gradual dying out down to our own time of people with memory of the pre-1940 European culture--this subject, only ever partially, even minutely, seen by me at any given time, is nonetheless one of my principal obsessions, as it is. Anything I come across in my own largely inexplicable existence that can be connected to this question in some way is of great moment to me.

So far this has all been a buildup to the main point of this essay, which is a reminiscence of when I was in Wroclaw, a couple of weeks before Christmas in 1996. All the cities in that part of the world are generally gloomy in ways that are very congenial to my sensibility and temperament, but Wroclaw is the gloomiest place I have ever been to, taking gloomy in the sense that an air of melancholy and doom permeates the whole atmosphere. I would have been happy to have stayed a couple of months there, taken a term at the university. If any city demonstrates the value of maintaining physical universities as places for bright young people to congregate and hang about cafes and bars and bookshops for four or five years rather than just taking courses on computers while holding down stupid jobs, this is the one. The fact that the city would be truly frightening without the presence of the students aside, the student body at Wroclaw U seemed to me at the time to be better than average-looking; being Polish they were a, to me, refreshingly unspoiled, unentitled, impecunious group, such that in mood they were afflicted with genuine melancholy as opposed to being neurotic, which is an affliction of privilege and is generally a perversion of melancholia. The train station was truly a place fit to drop dead in, and I mean that as a compliment. It was much larger than its current needs seem to require. The few people who get off the trains there do not linger, and the only people waiting around in the concourse are of that fraternity that drains all idea of romance from travel. The station is similar to Baltimore's in all these regards. Baltimore does not have a snack bar serving pizza topped with ketchup instead of tomato sauce and playing 60s communist pop oldies on the radio however. Another curious aspect of this town is that normal men, not obviously vagrants or mentally ill, some probably with children, families, even jobs, can be seen so drunk, mainly on vodka as to be staggering and wavering about the sidewalks or actually lying passed out in the gutter. This is the sort of thing one reads about happening in America 70 or 100 years ago, but one never sees this level of public drunkenness here anymore. It is really quite shocking. The small shops selling food and cigarettes were unpretentiously poetic, even when they were ugly, had cinderblock walls painted bone or whatever. I remember buying some cigarettes and a roll in one of them and being certain these items were more substantial, more real, because in a sense more unreal, than they were in the stores I was accustomed to (this was a sensation I often had about food and other goods in that part of the world). I had borscht one afternoon for the only time in my life. I did not like it.

The place was really quite odd, but I also felt oddly comfortable in it, as if among other souls not so much lost as somehow permanently and hopelessly dislocated. The absence of extremely wealthy or edgy or consciously cool people in a city of that size, yet with a substantial number of educated people and authentic depressive types among the young, appealed strongly to my imagination. I thought I might be able at least to have what is called brain sex with them, which I take to be a strong intellectual connection with people who are also physically or socially attractive, but probably would not be responsive to you on those terms alone. Perhaps I was just in a receptive or romantically vulnerable mood at the time, as I often am that time of year when the days grow short and the sun is rarely seen anyway. It was a second-rate city, after all, with a dead past and grim prospects for any very exciting future, about which no one actually living there was terribly enthusiastic. Such are most of our real experiences.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ideas That Have Vanished Entirely Within My Own Lifetime #1: The Amateur Ideal In Sports

I have referred previously to the set of 1966 juvenile encyclopedias I have had since I was young, and which even at that time--1981 or so--seemed to me to represent a world, or a vision of it anyway, that had been lost. Doubtless a great part of this effect was that I had no immediate personal experience of the world of 1966--certainly the world has changed at least as much from 1981 to the present as it did in the 15 years previous to it, yet since I have been alive through the whole period and had some personal connection to anything that was lost during that time, the changes do not seem so significant. Such things as are lost before one had a chance to have any part in them, when they are perceived to have contained anything better than what replaced them, always have a tendency to nag a little.

The other night, having taken Volume 18 (SEV-TAP) with me into the reading room with the idea of indulging in some Tourist Board photographs from Franco's Spain (I fear that one of my reactions to hyperglobalization is a growing fascination with stagnant, insular, deliberately anachronistic societies. However awful it would be to live in one, anything inevitably becomes interesting when it is in such opposition to the dominant and seemingly unstoppable trends of the present), I came across, in flipping through the later pages, a whole half-page devoted to listing all the winners of the Sullivan Trophy, awarded each year to the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States, up to 1965 (the winner that year: Bill Bradley, basketball). I am old enough to remember the newspaper sports pages reporting the winner of the Sullivan Trophy around Christmastime in the years when I was just starting to read them, around 1978-82 or so, and it was still considered important enough at that time that a writer would occasionally devote some space to commend or gripe about the selection. However, as I could not remember reading or hearing anything--anything--about this award since the mid-80s, and especially since there were scarcely any serious athletes left who could plausibly be called amateurs, my immediate reaction was to wonder if the trophy had actually been retired. It has not, and is still awarded every year. While last year's winner was a teenage paralympic swimmer, most recent awardees however would be well known to the average sports fan, mostly college basketball players and Olympians. The amateurism of most of these latter especially is highly suspect. I find it difficult to believe that the great runner and1996 winner Michael Johnson, to pick one example, who was 28 or so at the time and not to my knowledge otherwise employed, did not receive any renumeration as a result of his athletic achievements, nor did not view his track career in professional terms. This is not intended as a knock on Johnson. True amateurs such as the 1920s or 1950s ideal would dictate have, of course, little hope of competing at a world class level in any sport in 2007, and I suspect that if anybody of prominence seriously tried to promote that ideal in the present they would be stared at as if they had commended command economies or psychoanalysis. Still, the question for me is not so much why the ideal collapsed, but why it collapsed so utterly, given that there is a reasonable amount of good sense and merit in it, as well as genteel attractiveness, which is supposed to be irresistible to a sizable and highly gullible segment of the population.

The American notion of athletic amateurism, such as it was, as well as that of much of the sporting world, was a product of British public school culture, which fact in itself is in the current ideological climate probably reason enough to set many people adamantly against it whatever its merits may have been. According to this model, winning and excellence naturally were important, and sometimes demanded, but being a gentleman, or at least honoring its forms, was even more important than winning. Indeed it was a prerequisite for winning, since competitors who shunned to pay homage to its code were considered illegitimate and banned from participating in any games run by the establishments that adhered to it, which were in many sports the most glamorous and prestigious competitions held. This attitude was not democratic, and those who did not wish to conform to it or thought it ridiculous railed against the exclusivity, classism, racism, Euro or Anglocentricism (the Anglo- might even be worse than the Euro-), and exploitation of athletes that they considered to be embedded in it. As with so many traditions, these cruel things were, or at least became embedded in it to a certain extent, which in recent years has tended to overshadow the admirable purposes for which it was originally conceived. This was the idea that competitive athletics ought to be joyful and inspiring occasions, which would occur most properly when the competitors were in the height of their youthful beauty and enthusiasm--25 being about the upper age limit--and were preparing and developing at the same time, optimally through education, the characters and skills to assume serious roles in the adult life of their nations worthy of an athletic champion. Roger Bannister, the Briton who was the first man to officially break the 4-minute mile in 1954, was one of the greatest embodiments of this ideal. A medical student, Bannister rose early the day he set his record in order to do hospital rounds before going to the track. Already 25, and having gone to the Olympics two years earlier (he failed to place), the summer of `54 was going to be his last opportunity to pursue the quest to break four minutes, and even that was bordering on the quixotic given the mores of the society in which he moved. There was no question, at such an advanced age, of hanging around two more years for the next Olympics. It was time for getting on with one's real (adult) life. Indeed, after running in a couple of races that summer against his two top international rivals, Bannister quit competitive running forever. Though he would always be famous as an athlete, no one expected a man to live, in intellect and spirit as much as financially, off of athletic achievements for the remaining fifty years of his life. It is this last attitude, the sense among young athletes that there is a much wider world, or any world at all, outside the game that has become quite disturbingly lost in recent years. Obviously there are exceptions, but athletes--and not merely athletes but I am picking on athletes today--lack personalities, almost lack discernible selves, when their athletic pursuits are all-encompassing, and allowed to become divorced from any semblance of a humanistic education, which young people generally, and young people who are likely to attain prominence especially, ought to have.

In the Olympic sports anyway, the greatest assaults on the amateur ideal did not initially come from the inexorable demands of democracy and the free market, but the ruthless success of the Soviet Union in producing champions. After sitting out the 1948 and 1952 games--probably the 'purest' in Olympic history, the competitors being almost uniformly young (the decathlon winner in both, Bob Mathias, was 17 the first time, to name one example) and, having grown up during World War II, the Europeans especially, having hardly devoted their childhoods exclusively to succeeding in a sport--the USSR was coaxed into participating in Melbourne in '56 as a gesture of goodwill, where their athletes, especially the women, not merely defeated but crushed the flower of the West's offerings across the board. Right from the start critics indignantly suspected that the Reds were not engaging in fair play as defined by the codes of the finest British public schools, and I do not refer to drugs, which were not seen as the major problem until later. In the old days the outrage was that the Russkies were removing young children from ordinary society and even their homes and training them in special sports schools for years and years with the express goal of winning Olympic medals. Indeed, in the USSR and East Germany athletes who were not expected to be competitive for medals were left at home even if they were qualified to participate under I.O.C. rules. This was not in the spirit of the games either, which were supposed to be a kind of jamboree of gilded young people, future leaders of their respective nations by virtue of their superior persons, which transcended mere politics and ideology. By the 70s the U.S. public had largely grown accustomed to watching technically flawless, unflappable and seemingly joyless Communists make mincemeat of its nice young men and women in the Olympics (which the U.S. had dominated in the real glory years of the festival), increasingly consoling itself by the reflection that the borscht-swillers were sending professionals who knew nothing of life but practice for sports and would be tossed to the side of the road at the first sign of weakness, to compete against college kids. I was a kid myself at the time and among the accusations against the Soviet system was that it encouraged children to become consumed with sports (or ballet, or science), which, whatever people in this country want to claim about their own upbringing and secrets of success now, was generally thought to be unhealthy in those days even if one had legitimate talent. Ironically it was not until the Soviet Union collapsed that we really began to adopt their methods and attitudes towards sports and other endeavors with the fervency we see now.

College sports in the U.S., though I have been a fan of them and still follow football scores and who goes to the final four, have nonetheless always been something of a minor national disgrace and a blight on just about every university that has them. At the big-time level the pretension that football and basketball players even ought, in some ideal universe, to be real students seems to have been abandoned now, except at a few places like Notre Dame, where they occasionally make a great show of rejecting a top recruit whose criminal record suggests he might be just too frightening to let loose among their regular students. There was a recent book published by a former football player at the University of Houston, I believe, who had actually been expecting to take real classes, and tried to register for them, only to find that the athletic department arranged all the courses for football players beforehand, reminding the player rather heavyhandedly that he was on scholarship to play football, not be a student. Indeed, the more vehement proponents of the movement to pay athletes on college teams seem to consider the scholarships worthless and exploitative, even insulting; positions which are not rebuffed very convincingly by the actions taken and arguments made by the universities, which seem to have no serious governing principles about the relation of their athletic programs in themselves (apart from the money and notoriety they raise) to the education, the elevation of the life of mind, of young people. Personally I do not believe that it is proper for people whose minds are still in a formative stage, especially in a university environment(!) to devote 30-40 or more hours a week to athletics, especially if one of the consequences is to be a neglect of education. This bothers me more the older I get, and seems a colossally foolish error on the part of the whole society.

Reading over this I see that this was a pointless, failed attempt at exposition by a mind that cannot be simply struck by an obvious thought and leave it as it is but must get itself tangled up in minutiae that are only tangentially related to and give no gloss to its idea. But I will publish it because it this is after all more a diary than anything else, and diaries are the place to rave about ones failures and disappointments.

The latter section of this piece brought to my mind the 1920s Buster Keaton movie College, which among other qualities demonstrates that the mindset I lament above has been perceived as tainting the educational system even in what seem to us now almost idyllic and innocent times. In the film the hero, an earnest student, goes off to college only to find that everyone on campus spends all their time practising sports and that the brainy girl he loves has fallen for the biggest and most obnoxious jock in the whole place. A lot of slapstick routines follow in which Keaton, attempting to join a team in order to win back his girl, makes a mockery of various sports, drawing the ire of the other players upon him (one humorous part of this film is that although the campus otherwise appears to be a small liberal arts type place, they have a 50,000 seat football stadium). In the final scene however we for once see some practical uses for things like pole vaulting and other athletic techniques. It is all rather absurd of course however.

William Ellery Leonard`s 1913 sonnet sequence about his wife`s mental illness and suicide Two Lives (which I am a admirer of by the way) includes a sonnet about a University of Wisconsin football game. Leonard was a professor there, I believe of English. I think it ought to be included here:

Part III Sonnet XV

I sat in sweater with the college boys,

In crisp October on the sun-bright stand,

Around my arm Wissota`s crimson band,--

My arm, with thousands, lifting in the noise

The lettered pennant: down the numbered field,

Down the green field, crossed by the strips of white,

The lines re-formed--Menasha, will she yield?--

Score six to six--two minutes still to play--

Third down--third down--their goal ten yards away!


We`ll win--this--game``;--and round their right

Our left-end dashes, and the thing is done.--

Young victors, I was with you on that day

From whistle unto whistle, every one!