Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Primary, Part 2

The actual germ of this essay about the primary was an instance about a month ago when I happened to be walking on Main Street in the small city where I live and crossed the path of a couple of Mitt Romney's girl storm troopers who were out canvassing for support. Curiously, they did not go out of their way to solicit me, but that is another story. I was immediately struck by the fact that they had, among other superlative physical attributes, the most prominent, roundest, and firmest breasts of any candidates' young female acolytes that I have come across yet. This was almost certainly not a coincidence. Though some organs of political propaganda attempt to keep up a pretense that they and their audience are engaged in a contest of rational thought with their (usually much less rational) enemies, for the most part energy in popular politics is better expended in building up prospective supporters' egos, generally by convincing them that all of the other sides' supporters of the same sex, and the unattractive members of the opposite one, are either social losers, intellectual inferiors, or these resorts failing, evil (those of the opposite sex who are undeniably cute or successful are depicted as being driven to their misguided political beliefs out of frustration, usually sexual, the fascination with which would disintegrate swiftly after an evening in the superior company of the partisans of the other side). Romney, being the most utterly shameless politician in the race, and the most eager to promise anyone at any time whatever he thinks they want, no doubt was operating under the influence of this insight at some level of consciousness when he assembled his staff. These girls were a perfect expression of his whole program, in that they were so pleasing, and superficially reassuring, to look at, and had so little of an air of any reality about them, as if their purpose was to induce somnolence in the onlooker, for ends that remain inscrutable to me, and as far as I can tell, to most of the experts as well.

The other candidates are no less revelatory in this regard. Giuliani's girls are predictably terrifying, very purposeful-looking, without any hint of pity for the weak. These are not people you are going to want reviewing your secret files and having a say in what is to be done with you when that time comes. The three female supporters of Dennis Kucinich that I have seen look as if they might have come straight from my old college (and even from the cute end of the pool there); that nothing can get his poll numbers even a little above 0.5%--that this fairly intimate identification can't even induce me to vote for the man myself--tells all you need to know about the status of the kind of people I know best in influencing the course of the nation. Kucinich at least is doing much better with the ladies than the hapless Alan Keyes, whom I have seen in years past walking up and down Main Street by himself trying to corner people to deliver his harangue to. The Howard Dean girls of course were my, and apparently everybody else's, favorites. As much as I hate to admit it, I believe his campaign's downfall really began when the word began to get out that his female supporters were "easy"; that is, they were susceptible and open to commonplace possibilities with commonplace men while in the midst of what was supposed to be a deadly serious process. This did not play well in Middle America, which wants assurance that whoever is running the country can exert some control at least over the sexuality of the women of his own party (Clinton solved this dilemma I suppose by channeling it all to himself). I admit I was a little heartbroken to read all the accounts on the Internet of macho conservatives who boasted of infiltrating the Dean rallies posing as vegetarians and gay rights fanatics and bonking the living daylights out of the choicest of the granola girls. How I am supposed to worry about keeping the hordes of Asia off of our women if we can't even keep the Republicans off of them? Some people think the Obama campaign may have some of this hooking-up potential, but from what I have seen so far, I say no way. Obama himself seems like an all right guy, but I don't like the makeup of his supporters, nor the vibe they give off. He does not seem to be drawing from any kind of natural base that forms any real community at a deeper level. Where the Dean campaign had an earnest, grasping, semi-desperate energy about it that appealed to me, the Obama people come off as already being pretty satisfied with themselves for coming out openly for a black man, as well, quite surprisingly to me, as lacking any stomach or passion for a fight. They're going to get clobbered.

There is a lot to write about on this subject. I will probably do another post or two on it. We have a few months to go.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Parodies, Part 2--"Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams"--Kenneth Koch (1962?)

In case there is anyone who reads this blog--I cannot tell, the Sitemeter report keeps reading 0 visitors every week since June, but I am quite sure some people have been here--my posting rate is henceforth probably going to be no more than once every 7-10 days. I cannot quite give it up yet; I still enjoy the idea of having an ongoing archive of work accessible to be stumbled upon by anyone in the entire world who might find something I say appealing. I just cannot, however, write quickly, or briefly, and I definitely cannot do these things while maintaining a tone at once edgy and upbeat, all of which the true blog, as a form in the current age, seems particularly to require.

So I am going to try a different, more completely diarylike, less formal tack with the blog starting today. The repeated failures in the writing and the consequent pointless overexertion I expended on a few recent posts contributed to drive me into an especially dark spell of mood earlier this week. Wild thoughts hurtled around the frontal regions of my brain such as to bring on actual headaches. In rapid succession I determined to get rid of all my books and give up reading and writing for ever, take up some kind of mechanical or outdoor occupation, join the army, mail my undeserved college diploma back to my alma mater and request that they strike me utterly from their records (I actually think about doing this a lot; I was a stupid and lazy student, and am so maladroit and dull-witted in adult life that possessing the thing increasingly makes me feel like a man who has committed a series of ethical crimes that he could easily make reparations for. Living up to my supposed education has, in other words, become such a burden upon me that it seems to be it would be a great relief to be able to tell people I never had one.), acquire an entirely new and cognitively appropriate set of interests, submit to unconditional belief in God, and banish the word and all but happy forebodings of death from my mind altogether I think this was in part due to the circumstance that it was 90 degrees for several days after three weeks of very beautiful cooler weather, the leaves having begun to turn, and so on. Having grown up in the kind of suburban house where one has no sense of what the weather ever is like outside, now that I live in one where one can never avoid its effects I find I am quite sensitive to it.

But to the poem. I will reproduce it, with comments in parentheses and emphases in italics as they come up. The poem most directly being satirized here is of course "This is Just to Say". It is quite famous, the one about the plums in the refrigerator and all that. My wife, who has a knack for beautiful minimalism in her own speech and writing, thinks it is a worthy piece.


I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer. (absurd)
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.


We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye. (minor chuckle)
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing. (genuinely amused snicker)


I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold. (deep sigh. eyes rolling)


Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor! (WCW of course was an M.D.)

Williams is a good object for parody because his writing, whether it is ultimately ridiculous or not, and certainly the consensus is that it is not, is never more than a few shades of meaning away from being ridiculous. I have never really gotten him. I read something recently where some teacher of writing was championing his spareness and the precision with which he chose his words and images as an example for the aspiring author to study. This was a book however directed at people who buy books at Barnes & Noble purporting to tell them how to become writers. Is Williams an especially precise and powerfully economical poet compared any of the major poets who have worked in this general vein, or even precursors such as Blake and Tennyson? I haven't gotten that.

Except for the second stanza, the parody is not really that funny. A parody that fails to be consistently funny, or written such as to leave no doubt as to what is absurd or deficient in the original, is to me a failed parody.

In contrast to Brode, our other parodist, Kenneth Koch seems to have more cachet as a real poet. He was on the faculty at Columbia University for decades, where he was apparently very popular. He was identified with the "New York School" of poets and other artists in the 50s, with which the Abstract Expressionist painters and the Beats are also considered to be loosely affiliated. The best of it looks to be in the tradition of solid, snappy, matter-of-fact, not overly cerebral or suffocatingly introspective American stuff that I tend to admire when I see it because a) I can't do it, and b) it is how the real cool kids who matter culturally in America have always talked and thought, and you know I want to be like them. Koch was born in Cincinnati in 1925, and died in 2002.

With regard to Williams, I seem to have lost my record of his birthplace and gravesite, though I actually visited both of them in 1998. He was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, a well-preserved and still quite bustling pre-World War II, leafy Mid-Atlantic town with a walkable main street, attractive public buildings, etc. It is only about ten miles from New York City, and is probably quite wealthy, but since the houses are old and close together and close to the street it does not give off an aura of exclusivity. There was an old house at the address where Williams was born that I think is probably old enough to be his (he was born in 1885 or 1886) but I am not 100% certain. By the way, if you happen to go, there are no alcohol sales in Rutherford (as of 1998), but if you bring your own wine to a restaurant and have a professional open it for you you are allowed to drink it.

Williams was buried in the neighboring town of Lyndhurst. The cemetery is in a fine spot, up on a hill with an almost unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline (except for a gigantic Medieval Times restaurant complex just beyond the cemetery wall at the foot of the hill). I have some good pictures of it that I ought to try to put up. For one thing, of course, the twin towers are still standing at that time, but also the visit took place just before Christmas and it was one of those years, of which we have been having many recently, where the temperature was around 70 degrees, so there is that weak December light but the grass in green, people are dressed for early fall, and so on.

Although I cannot claim to be a great fan of Williams's, this pilgrimage to his turf I nonetheless consider to have been a success and a vindication of my methods of touring. For I would never have gone to these places otherwise, and there is a great deal of interesting and atractive Americana to be found and observed in walking around and eating in them for a few hours.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Primary: Part 1

Some philosophers--Aristotle and Mill come to mind--seemed to view politics, in its proper form, as a fitting and ennobling activity for a civilized man. Others--Sartre and Machiavelli being examples--regarded it, with some positivity, as a blood sport in which the ideologically or strategically superior combatants would be exalted and the inferior degraded. Still others, such as Hobbes, generally shared this view, only with the difference that all of the combatants, indeed the whole of the civic population, emerged degraded from the process. I increasingly find myself in sympathy with this last view; certainly whatever the mass of the American citizenry feels about the courses its government has taken in the last few years under its nominal authority, however stridently individual members of it may have reveled in the machinations of the authorities, or doggedly protested or resisted the same, I think that deep down the sentient part of it cannot but feel some sense of personal humiliation and collective shame at the extent to which it has lost control, especially intellectually, over so many aspects of its fate. Perceptive people now regard the American electorate in the same light as formerly they were wont to regard that of politically hopeless countries such as Belarus or Libya; as so fundamentally ignorant, childlike, and overmastered that they can no longer really be held entirely accountable for their rulers. It is not infrequent to hear people around the world claim that while they hate the American government, they do not hate the people; the people should not interpret this as a compliment however.

Having said this, it happens that I live in the state where the first presidential primary is held, and I thought I ought to write something about it.

Often when I go somewhere out of New England and encounter residents of other states who inquire where I live, these will upon finding out launch into a mini tirade about the Primary. All the objections they raise about it are from any standpoint of pure reason probably indefensible, and I do not attempt to defend them. I am not a native of the state nor a local journalist or party activist who has acquired a status disproportionate to my actual position due to my proximity to the action, and as such do not have any emotional attachment to the Primary. It is unfair, as well as nonsensical, that if we are to have this kind of system, that New Hampshire should always go first; that it supposedly does a better job of scrutinizing the candidates than another state would do, or be able to do, is not a legitimate argument. To go on, any geographical entity that has a population that is 98% white in this day and age is offensive almost by virtue of existing, and exponentially so when it is entrusted with deciding matters of the utmost importance to nonwhite people who are excluded from the process (though I suspect a major reason most efforts by the major parties to diminish the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire in the nominating process are so tepid is that the Controlling Powers Behind the Scenes really don't want blacks and Hispanics with multitudes of complaints being able to influence national elections to the extent one can in a small state primary). In a sense the absurd continuation of this anachronism has become the great beauty of it. One lady from the Mid-Atlantic region who had once covered the primary as a journalist told me, in a tone that insinuated that in her eyes I carried some of the stench of the whole process myself, that the way we elected presidents in this country was disgusting. What could I do but agree? What can I now? Unfortunately she didn't elaborate on what was so disgusting to her, or what she would have preferred. I would have liked to have known, as she was a very feisty lady. She also asked if the town where I live was still "the city in a coma." I had to reply that it was, and indeed it is. As I didn't grow up there or have any real friends other than Mrs Surrender this line of questioning did not hurt my feelings so much, though I think it is rather rude to ask someone where they live and then launch into an attack on it; after all, the town's being hopelessly dull still reflects on my inability to bring any life to it, as I could presume she contiunally did for whatever town it was she lived in.

Acknowledging all this, I will not be celebrating when the day comes--and surely it must be coming--when the Primary is no more. It is the closest thing to real excitement that ever makes its way up here. Most of our towns are either sober, prosperous burgs full of professionals and retirees who never loiter during the day or leave their houses after dark, or depressed former mill towns full of people who like to operate loud machines. There are few young people, no music, no arts 'scene'--though a lot of established artists and writers live here, they came because they wanted to be left alone, not to hold court at the local coffehouse--only a couple of college towns. The lakes and beaches are increasingly dividing into refuges for the extrmely wealthy or gathering spots for a fairly crass and uncharming proletarian contigent. The offices and refrigerators of many modestly succesful people--teachers, bank managers, family restaurant owners--are plastered with photos of themselves locked in embraces with the likes of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George Bush I and II, Pat Buchanan and other political luminaries, and certainly there would be a collective minor depression during the first couple of missed primary cycles which, especially as it would come in the winter, would be scarcely endurable. And of course it is amusing to see the International Herald-Tribune or CNN reporting on General Wesley Clark's slicing meat at Sully's market or Al Gore's trying to determine whether he would come across more as a man of the people by having lunch at the Puritan Backroom or at Veano's Italian Kitchen. It is also a relief in a sense to have all of these deathly important and influential people, including the media, where one can see them at close range, and be reminded that they are actually just human beings, often (though not always) extremely disciplined ones, but in most cases not really that palpably superior to various excellent people of one's own past or present acquaintance. When I used to live near Washington D.C. and was around that environment of high-I.Q./think tank/lawyer/government/top secret-knowing people they seemed to me at least much less imposing than they are when one merely reads about them from afar and can only imagine them as inhabiting an intellectual and social plane that no longer has any common ground with one's own.

I hate to break this up into 2 posts but I am going to. I still have at least as much to write as I have already, and that is without the inevitable unforeseen digressions I always go off on.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Parodies, Part I: Anthony Brode--"Breakfast With Gerard Manley Hopkins"

The GRE test guide from which I have adopted my reading list has a fondness for parodies, which I do not generally share, even when they are somewhat successful. Besides being appropriately irreverent, they have to be funny, as well as smarter in some relevant point than the object of their mirth to be worth the trouble. It very rarely happens that all three conditions are happily achieved, and just one or two of them won't do. So it is a difficult trick to pull off, especially on really good authors; with these there are to begin with fewer grounds on which to base a legitimate irreverence, and few writers clever enough to avoid looking foolish themselves by the attempt. Literary academics for the most part seem to be especially ill-suited to working successfully in the form. The kind of mischievous, unaffected irreverence necessary to a really good parody is usually inaccessible to them. To my mind the successful parodist has to be at enough of a remove from the actual literary establishment to be convincingly disinterested. Otherwise it comes off as an in-joke between people who are at least as annoying as whomever it is they are having a jest at.

The whole thing is short enough that I might as well copy it here:

"Delicious heart-of-the-corn, fresh-from-the-oven flakes are sparkled and spangled with sugar for a can't-be-resisted flavour."--Legend on a packet of breakfast cereal.

Serious over my cereals I broke one breakfast my fast
With something-to-read-searching retinas retrained by print on a packet;
Sprung rhythm sprang, and I found (the mind fact-mining at last)
An influence Father-Hopkins-fathered on the copy-writing racket.

Parenthesis-proud, bracket-bold, happiest with hyphens,
The writers stagger intoxicated by terms, adjective-unsteadied--
Describing in graceless phrases fizzling like soda siphons
All things, crisp, crunchy, malted, tangy, sugared and shredded.

Far too, yes, too early we are urged to be purged, to savour
Salt, malt, and phosphates in English twisted and torn,
As, sparkled and spangled with sugar for a can't-be-resisted flavour,
Come fresh-from-the-oven flakes direct from the heart of the corn.

This piece is fizzling with so much negative energy that it is impossible to take any amusement in it--in decided contrast, by the way, to the effect produced by Hopkins's poetry, which never loses its sense of loftier subjects and ideals, however much their seeming remoteness may induce an air of melancholy or anguish into any particular work. It is also not obvious to me what its aim is in evoking the name of Hopkins. I does not, to my sense, 'get' anything of the Hopkins essence. The suggestion that Hopkins might in some way be responsible for modern linguistic decline is an interesting approach, but the comparison of his poems with cornflakes and cornflake advertising is not convincing enough. The parodist's unfortunate fixation on his disgust at sugary, mass-produced food tends to create a sense of him as more an effete snob than an incisive commentator on the souls of men. I have always been drowning up to my eyeballs in friolator grease on the wrong side of the food divide in my own life so that the idea of looking down on people because they eat a lot of processed junk is one whose innate logic has been very slow to take hold with me, though it begins to seem natural enough right away once one gets the hang of being alert to it; and this though one may be eating the very same thing as the person he is despising in the next lane.

I was going to write something about people who are overly obsessed with sophisticated food and wine, and especially denouncing the inferior varieties of the same and the kinds of people who eat them, how these kinds of attitudes were the wrong way to go about it, that they could only produce an artificial rather than a real culture because eating and drinking well comes to be seen as a rare and esoteric activity rather than a normal state of life, that much of the gourmet food scene in America was marked by tremendous vibes of negative energy and was actually about money more than having a well-tempered soul, that wine-drinking culture was completely humorless, with a contrast to the wits of the 18th century, Johnson's crowd, etc, who filled their bumpers with the intention of getting drunk, without sniffing and posturing about terroir and oaken aftertastes, the horrible greasy food people are always eating in Dickens's books, Fred Vincy's love of grilled bone, and on and on, but I just couldn't organize my ideas. In general I wish we could more regularly expect to have the good food and wine, without all the posturing and critical analyses of lettuce and peppercorn. People want to be more like the French and Italians in this I suppose, but the food talk is one area, especially in France, that I could do with less of. People who talk too much about food, even in novels, give the impression of not being actually alive; it negates vitality. In Balzac, in Pere Goriot there was the character, Vauterin I think was his name, the sardonic, forceful rebellious guy, he assessed all the food and drink quickly and concisely in periodic bursts of disgust interspersed among his other subjects (offered some German wine at one point he scoffs at the host for mistaking vinegar for wine and leaves it at that to continue with some more substantive discourse). The existentialist novels were also largely devoid of allusions to or discussions of food philosophy, which really has a strange capacity to remove the reader's thoughts from the realm of man that other subjects do not have.

I have virtually no information on Anthony Brode, other than that he was born in 1923. He may still be alive. His choices of word and phrase and spelling, as well as his deeply realized aversion to cornflakes that I don't think an American could quite be brought to feel, indicate to me that he is probably an Englishman.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, according to an old biography or biographical entry I once found on him, was born into a High Anglican family at Chestnut House, 87 The Grove, in the Stratford neighborhood of London which is east-northeast of the center (there is a Stratford Underground stop on the red (St Paul's?) line). Like most authors' birthplaces in London I have to assume this place no longer stands, particularly since it is never mentioned in anything published after about 1930.

Having converted to the Roman church and been ordained as a priest, Hopkins spent the last 5 years of his short life (he died at 45) as a professor of classics at University College in that most literary city of Dublin. His room at Newman House, 85-86 St Stephen's Green, has been restored and is open for a peek-in. This attraction is new on the scene at least since I was there, which was in 1996; it was still very much the old Ireland then, which it is much less of now apparently, but that is a subject for another post. Hopkins was buried in the Jesuit Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.

I apologize for the sloppiness and general incoherence of this posting. I simply go through periods where I cannot think straight for a week or two, which drives me to minor despair. This will clear up in a couple of days, I hope.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Gustloff

I read about the sinking of the Gustloff the other day, which was the first time I had ever heard of it. It appears by general consensus to be the worst maritime disaster of all time, with as many as 9,000 or more dead. The circumstances of the voyage were wretched enough as it was to begin with. Built by the Nazi government in 1937 as a cruise ship, it set off in January of 1945 from the city of Gotenhafen (now Gydnia in Poland, near Gdansk) packed with 10,000 Germans, mostly civilians, fleeing from the advancing Soviet Army. It was torpedoed by the Russians in the Baltic Sea, which is never warm, and is reported has having been icy on the occasion of the disaster. Around 1200 survivors were rescued. The event, of which the significance was downplayed or muted for many years even in Germany, remains a subject of controversial, obsessive and wounded interest among many people there today. It is not difficult to understand why. Many vivid impressions of terror, misery, dislocation, ignominy, and nihilism press upon one just in reading a dry account of the matter. Much of this is of course due to the fact of the victims being Germans at the end of World War II, not a sympathetic group, and the sense that goes with any account of that period of history that the members of that group in general deserved suffering far worse than anything that was able to be inflicted on them. This includes the children, perhaps not personally, but as symbols, as a necessary debt owed by the elders of their people before the cataclysm could finally exhaust itself and any hope or sense of light enter the civilizational consciousness once again.

The last convulsions and accompanying absolute devastation of the German nation in early 1945, the last months of the war--fittingly named "year zero" in the classic movie about the time--is increasingly striking me as the most interesting and crucial aspect to understand about that whole period. Unlike in 1918, the society subjected as well as dedicated itself to so much death and destruction in the last months of the war--on both counts seemingly pointless and unnecessary--the pitch of both being raised and raised, almost hysterically so, until the very, very last possible instant, until the day the head of the body harboring the demonic agent was finally cornered and forced to cut its own head off. To the artistic imagination, the Gustloff incident is a nearly perfect encapsulation of the chaos and catastrophic state that the whole society, the whole culture, had come to, and from which it seemingly cannot ever spiritually recover. It crystallizes a real end point, a real break between past and future from which certain major traits/qualities do not move on, but simply cease to move altogether.

While it is to a certain extent surprising to me that I have not been familiar with this particular event before, with World War II one is always either stumbling across enormous violences, movements of peoples, political crises, etc, that one had either never previously been aware of or had not properly begun to grasp the magnitude of either with regard to the loss of life, destruction of culture and history, or general collective insanity therein revealed. This, too, though the conflict is probably the most documented, filmed, written about, referenced, etc, historical event of all time. The number of 500,000+ populated cities in Russia alone that were just razed to the ground and that even today most people outside that nation are barely aware of the existence of staggers the mind when one begins to try to consider it. I mentioned in a prior post the eviction of entire populations from other cities such as Breslau and Konigsberg, and the repopulation of them with entirely different people that took place under the Soviet occupation. This does not even take into consideration all the minor disgraces, the small-time fascists and opportunists in small towns and small countries like Romania and Hungary and Slovakia, eagerly delivering up their neighbors and countrymen, already in desparate enough positions as it was, for petty, and seemingly meaningless preferments.

The darkness out of which all this emerged was obviously very deep-seated, and the atmosphere of most of Europe was thick with it for the better part of 30 years, England perhaps slightly less so, or at least with less insistent negative force until 1930 or so. In the art of the period it can be said the sun itself did not partake of any gloriousness, nor did the beautiful young girls, unless, as in Joyce and Proust, they clearly belonged to the pre-1914 world. That does not mean that the art of the modernist period does not have serious attractions for me. I am as much if not moreso in spirit a descendant of that period that of eras with more positive energy. And art, as an engagement with actual life and actual human mental activity, seemed still to be a comparatively more natural and instinctive process among such as retained their sensibilities, an old habit not quite shaken entirely out of the cultural personality, than it has become in our inceasingly anomic age.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Cuchulain--Part 3

On the topic of forgetting the meaning of notes I have made after falling a few weeks behind in transcribing them to the blog, I had marked a very pedestrian section in the book where Cuchulain is on his sick-bed receiving visitors which when I wrote the second part of this report I could not imagine what the devil had been the point of it. Then the next afternoon, when I was on a dispatch to the basement to look for sheet rock screws, it came to me that it had been meant as a reference to a Pogues' song ("The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain").

I cannot let it pass without observation that all kinds of women openly beckon Cuchulain to give his carnal love to them throughout the book, with no expectation of any further commitment. From the relish with which she tackles these sections, one suspects Lady Gregory would have been at the head of the line if she had only been around.

pp.254-5: "With that he threw his spear at him, and it went through his head, and through the heads of the nine men that were behind him..." I know it is not intended to be understood literally. However, any person with an underdeveloped mythological imagination will not be able to conceive the scene except as it written, which makes it somewhat humorous.

The catalogue of heads which Cuchulain's friend Conall, after the hero has finally met his end in battle, collected on a rampage of revenge and spread on the lawn of a castle where he has gone to repose after the fight, gives an account of when asked about the identities of their former owners, is a charming note on which to wind down the book. After this he digs a grave for Cuchulain and his wife--who, though apparently enjoying excellent health when the warriors set out, manages to die in the interval during the digging--and lays them in it.

Lady Gregory tourist sites are conveniently concentrated in county Galway, which also has several sites associated with her pal Yeats. She was born in the manor house of the parish(?) of Roxborough, which is also conveniently the house's name. My impression is that the house is still standing, though I am not certain. The Kiltartan Museum and Millenium Park claims to be largely dedicated to the life and works of Lady Gregory and posts some approving testimonials from distinguished visitors such as ex-Irish president Mary Robinson on its website. Lady Gregory's former home, Coole Park, was for some reason torn down in the 1940s, though the grounds remain intact and are now a park. Yeats used the site as a setting for the poem "The Swans at Coole" which is often anthologized. She was buried at the new cemetery in Bohermore, which is also in Galway.

Cuchulain's home was Dun Dealgan, which appears to be no longer identifiable as a place by so much as a stake in the earth, though it was near present-day Dundalk in the county of Louth. There was, and I presume still is, a famous statue of the hero in the General Post Office in Dublin, a building famous for, among other things, being the main scene of action in the Easter Uprising of 1916. The statue has been referenced in several modern literary works, Beckett's Murphy being one that comes immediately to mind.

Having written this report, I could not avoid the nagging feeling that, even if the book was bad-- and I think it probably was--I had still not read and understood it well enough; that is to say, I had not been able to pick up whatever was fundamentally valuable or of interest in the legend. I do not have any books at home that deal specifically with Celtic mythology, which has never been one of my main areas of interest, and being by nature as well as training distrustful of most recent scholarship until I can be confident enough time has passed that the author's personal agendas, vanities, antagonisms, prejudices etc, which never seem to be in sympathy with my own, are really not more substantial than his ideas, I hesitate to put much stock in anything that might be currently circulating on the internet or the shelves at Borders. I happen to own a copy of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which devotes 8 of its 391 pages to the Cuchulain story. Campbell's interpretations are florid with the sort of language that nowadays arouses such unexpected outbursts of hostility towards him from thinkers of a certain kind of hyper-masculine spatial-linear bent of brain: "vivid cosmic energies", "the occasion of his full self-manifestation", "broke out of the depths of his being", "the unique, invisible path which was opened to the hero", "Cuchulain's hero-journey exhibits with extraordinary simplicity and clarity all the essential elements of the classic accomplishment of the impossible task". I do not know how right Campbell is in his evaluations of these stories, but I do think that he has genuinely done something which is very difficult for a modern intellectual to do, that is tap into a way of reading and inhabiting the myths so as to be capable of believing them real. This is why many middle Americans who may once have thought they desired to lead a more serious life find reading Campbell's books, or watching him on television, so enjoyable. He allows one to feel he is being let in on, rather than shut out of, a conversation with an intelligent and learned man on important matters. In becoming a cultish figure however, even in a relatively small way, he inevitably invites scrutiny from people who have little use for cosmic energies and secret harmonies in intellectual discourse, even if something of the sort seems plausibly necessary to understand the stories in the spirit out of which they originated; and anyone stupid enough to be taken in by anything Campbell wrote or said becomes fair game for ridicule.

If one pokes around a little in what might be called magazines and websites of ideas, it is not hard to find these detractors. Just last week there was a review of a novel in the New York Times where the reviewer rather emoted out of the blue that the author "apparently confused Joseph Conrad, who was a genius, with Joseph Campbell, who wasn't." Personally I not sure why Joseph Conrad would be considered a genius either; while he is enigmatic and more than usually attuned to the manifestation of human strength/will as a monstrous rather than benign occurrence, he does not so much give one a wholly singular and stimulating way of looking at life so much as sharpen one's already prevalent tendencies if they lean in that direction. This is hardly an insult. One could speak similarly about Tolstoy, and that does not disqualify him from being perhaps the greatest novelist of all time. But to get back to my main point. Why throw in a gratuitous dig at Joseph Campbell in a review of a novel about the Vietnam War where the necessity of bringing him up is not made clear? As I say, this is not the first writer I have come across that felt the need to clear the air, when it did not appear to be particularly smoky, about his position regarding Campbell. Why?

It has to be the TV show, right? A longtime professor of mythology who published among many other things the first reader's guide to Finnegan's Wake, Campbell was the subject of a popular series of interviews on PBS with Bill Moyers, a journalist reviled by the political right as a gullible, mush-headed middlebrow who enjoys getting cuddly with communists and other charlatans plugging dubious ideas that he lacks the intellect to understand properly. I admit I would almost certainly not have the interest in him, and his detractors, that I do if I had not seen the shows, which were very engaging. The signature moment of the series is probably the part where Campbell exhorts the audience, and the general run of mankind, to "follow your bliss", a statement containing a not-foolish and indeed rather sensible idea that he had probably considered and come to over a period of many years, which unfortunately was simplistically interpreted both by his supporters and denouncers as a variety of new age tripe. Campbell also was strongly influenced in his myth interpreting by the work of Freud and other advocates of psychoanalysis, belief in the validity of which has weakened in recent years, and has been especially vociferously dismissed by the science/technology/economic progress contingent of society. However, once again I think he (as well as Freud) was onto something, however much he may have carried things too far at times: psychoanalysis, dream interpretation, the idea of the subconscious, if they cannot be proven to explain anything in individual contemporary cases, nonetheless create an approach and a language for investigating ancient myths, which have come down to us as hard facts that are at the same time fantastical and seem to be rooted in a significant manner in a different sort of society and mental cosmos than that which we take for granted. It is one of the unfortunate facts of life that so many highly intelligent people feel the need to spend so much of their lives insisting that other obviously intelligent people, even if they are proven to be wrong in certain of their judgements, are in fact morons. I do not know a lot about Joseph Campbell but certainly the impression one gets is that he was not like this, that he would have made an effort to understand the point of view of a rival or someone in opposition to him, which he could do because his own thoughts were on a solid enough foundation that they were unlikely to be leveled by any strong first assault. Our society is in as much need--probably more dire need--of people like this than of more brilliant but cold, arrogant, disengaged professionals. I being more and more convinced of this all the time.

The last chapter of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, titled "The Hero Today", expresses some ideas of the sort that I think educated people ought to be aware of the existence of, and often appear not to be, whether they find anything of value in them or not. There is always a strong sense in active day-to-day life that there is not any realistic alternative to the way we live and understand the world, that things must be as they are, or as we, or at least everyone else around us, perceives them to be. Campbell writes: "...there is no such society any more as the gods once supported. The social unit is not a carrier of religious content, but an economic-political organization. Its ideals are not those of the hieratic pantomine, making visible on earth the forms of heaven...Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group--none in the world: all is in the individual...One does not know toward what one moves. One does not know by what one is propelled. The lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two...the problem is...making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life." These are not statements of genius, and perhaps they not profound either, but they are statements of awareness--of a certain wisdom, if you will, about one's actual place in the realm of existence. On numerous occasions I have come to this book after reading some methodical demolition of the Joseph Campbell cult determined not to be taken in by it, to see starkly for myself its essential banality, but it is very odd, that whenever I take it up I always soon find myself being soothed, talked down from the ledge as it were, and brought back to some region of the mind where I might even be able to conceive of myself having a productive cultural role as a human being in a human society.

So I must confess for now that I still find Campbell many times over a more useful and valuable contributor to the national vault of ideas than nearly all of those who sneer at him.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Cuchulain Part 2

In Chapter VIII ("The Dream of Angus Og") the dreaming title character, when his nightly vision of a beautiful woman playing a harp ceases to appear to him, remains bedridden and stops eating for two years. I think this short legend may be supposed to illustrate the native poetic and musical spirit of the Irish people, but it comes off rather silly and juvenile in an age of economics.

The elaborate descriptions of the grandeur of the clothing, jewels, swords, etc, seemed to me pointless and absurd. If it had had more substantial grounds in truth it might have been important, but it is not even an important lie--the myths survive and function completely independent of it.

I don't know if this is a Gregorian touch or not, but women fight and have their heads lopped off in this book as well as men, unlike in Ossian. It was not really very sensitively or poignantly done.

p.134--"Then Brod, Conchubar's chariot driver, threw one of the spears he had in his hand into the house, and it went through Gerg's body, and through the body of Airisdech his servant that was behind him, so that the two of them fell together."

Chapter X, "The Wedding of Maine Morgor"--i.e. a massacre, was a horrible story of which I don't get the point. By this stage of the book it hardly seems possible that the population of prehistoric Ireland could have absorbed the slaughter of its young men--and women too--on the scale on which they are being cut down here.

p.152--"...there are eighteen divisions have passed the border, but the eighteenth is broken up and distributed among the others, so that no sure reckoning can be made of it.' This, now, was one of the three best estimates ever made in Ireland..." What?

Apparently Cuchulain's long range eyesight is not too good because his driver, or whoever is standing next to him, always has to describe who or whatever is coming.

p.179--"Where is the use of all this talk?" said Ferdiad; "Your great name will be lost, your head will be on a stake before the crowing of the cock." More archetypical dialogue.

p.161--The evisceration of the earnest pup Etarcomal by Cuchulain, with whom the former is foolishly determined to fight, is a disturbing sequence: "And with that he gave a blow of his sword that cut the sod clean away from under the soles of Etarcomal's feet, so that he fell on his back. 'Go back now,' he said, for you have had a warning.' 'I will not go back until I have fought with you.' Then Cuchulain gave another stroke with the edge of his sword that cut the hair close off his head, but drew no blood. 'You may go back now, at least,' he said. 'I will not go,' said Etarcomal, 'until I have made an end of you, or you have made an end of me.' 'Well,' said Cuchulain, 'if you are set upon that, it is I must make an end of you.' With that he made a cross blow at him that cut him through and through, so that he fell dead."

Though I ordinarily do not like to pass judgements, as some do, on how much contempt authors who are now highly regarded must have held their once celebrated but now downgraded contemporaries in, I couldn't help thinking that Joyce must have wanted to throw up when he read this. I checked the annotated Ulysses for any references to this book, and sure enough, there is a pretty juicy one in the Sylla and Charybdis chapter (9). The incident is lifted directly from Joyce's life:
"(Mulligan)--Longworth is awfully sick, he said, after what you wrote about that old hake Gregory. O you inquisitional drunken jewjesuit! She gets you a job on the paper and then you go and slate her drivel to Jaysus. Couldn't you do the Yeats touch?
He went on and down, mopping, chanting with waving graceful arms:
--The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer."
The notes state that in a review of Lady Gregory's Poets and Dreamers, "Joyce took Lady Gregory to task for her explorations 'in a land almost fabulous in its sorrow and senility' with the obvious twist that the senile dreams of the past were hardly sufficient to a vital national literature." "Mopping", by the way, is obsolete or rare for a made-up face. "The most beautiful book, etc, though not the bit about Homer, which is improvisation on Mulligan's part, is from Yeats's introduction to the Cuchulain book I am writing about now.

p.189--On a warrior: "...he himself got many wounds back again, so that he had to hold up the board of the chariot to his body to keep his bowels from falling out..." I have seen this condition alluded to in other works about ancient warfare. Not to make light of it but that cannot be something you can survive with very long.

p.189--"Then Cuchulain said to Laeg: "Rise up now, and go into the camp, and bring some of Ailell's physicians to cure Cethern; for I give my word, if they do not come before this time to-morrow, I will bring death and destruction on them.'...Then Cethern showed the first one of them his wounds, and it is what he said, that he could not be cured. Then Cethern gave him a blow that sent him out of the house." The doctors are clearly not calling the shots in this society.

p.201--"When the men of Ulster heard that message from Cuchulain, they rose up, and rushed out without stopping to put on their clothing, but only taking their weapons in their hands, and such of them as had the door of their tents facing eastwards did not wait to go through it, but broke out to the west." I think we have an indication of why the Irish did not have a great record of success in winning wars.

p.236--There is a character named "Iriel of the Great Knees."

I had a note written regarding military feats being the only way for men to distinguish themselves, the glorification of war, World War I being 12 years away, and so on, but I scribbled it so I cannot make out now whatever my big insight was and I cannot remember it. I'm sure it had to do with how appalling this book must have been to most of the people who experienced that war.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Lady Augusta Gregory--Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902)-Part 1

This book was not exactly on my list, but there was a question regarding Cuchulain as a literary character, so I thought I ought to read up on him. As this book appeared on cursory examination to be the most well-known version of the legend by the general literati, and had the enthusiastic endorsements of Yeats, Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt, among others, I chose it. I expected it to be similar to the Ossian poems which I wrote about recently in these pages, but actually it was much worse. Whereas the Ossian at least evokes an atmosphere that is often darkly appealing and offers some pleasing images that must bear some relation to human truth, Gregory's Cuchulain seemed a rather silly and sad book, the literary equivalent of one of those emotional, hopelessly amateurish Irish uprisings where the protaganists were apprehended and hanged before they were able to set any offensive action in motion. The whole idea behind the Irish and other national literary revivals that were fermenting in Europe at that time, as well as the various movements in our own day that fall under the general category of multiculturalism, which I have always seen as analagous to these earlier movements, namely that downtrodden or culturally marginalized people can be uplifted by the development of a highly self-conscious, institutionalized artistic culture whose origins are largely in frustration, resentment, and feelings of inferiority (which formula I continually succumb to myself however), while it seems naive and self-defeating, and usually is in the short term as far as any grand effects go, is also probably a periodically necessary step for such people as feel themselves or their kind 'left behind' by history or high culture and find that they crave a spot therein. It is not to be expected that most of the work produced in the spirit of such strident, groping, identity-asserting movements will achieve a very high standard, however.

p.15--from Yeats's introduction: "Poets have taken their themes more often from stories that are all, or half, mythological, than from history or stories that give one the sensation of history, understanding, as I think, that the imagination which remembers the proportions of life is but a long wooing, and that it has to forget them before it becomes the torch and the marriage-bed."

p.16--More Yeats: "We Irish should keep these personages much in our hearts, for they lived in the places where we ride and go marketing, and sometimes they have met one another on the hills that cast their shadows upon our doors at evening. If we will but tell these stories to our children the Land will begin again to be a Holy Land, as it was before men gave their hearts to Greece and Rome and Judea."

p.27--An example of the zeal and readiness at all times of the ancient Irish to perform feats of heroism: "On that all the men rushed out, not waiting to go through the door, but over walls and barriers as they could."

Apart from a few hyper-rational posthistorical societies in Northern Europe, the ideal of the individual warrior/hero who is so immense that he has the capacity within him to alter the fate of entire peoples is still very much alive in most of the world today. All serious American presidential candidates certainly have to insist that they possess this quality, though this is because the office has evolved to the point that it effectively bestows it on anyone who possesses it anyway; the dream is always to find the man who can regain the mastery over the monster that the state and the society are perceived as having become.

p.38--"While they were talking like this, Cuchulain saw the breasts of the maiden over the bosom of her dress, and he said: 'Fair is this plain, the plain of the noble yoke.' And Emer said, 'No one comes to this plain who does not overcome as many as a hundred on each ford, from the ford at Alibine to Banchuig Arcait.'"

p.51--On Cuchulain's special sword: "It would cut a hair on the water, or it would cut a hair off the head without touching the skin, or it would cut a man in two, and the one half of him would not miss the other for some time afterward."

In Chapter IV ("Bricriu's Feast"), one of the major incidents is a fight between various of the warriors over who will receive the "Champion's portion" of food. I have no doubt that this was a more dramatic and forcefully symbolic event in the original version of the story, but I did wonder if this was really the sort of thing that the modern people of Ireland needed.

p.59--Emer, wife of Cuchulain, on her rivals: "Your fine women of Ulster, they are shaped like cows and led like cows, when they are put beside the wife of Cuchulain." I left out the preceding paragraph, where she compared their husbands to menstrual discharge compared to Cuchulain's clear red blood.

Cuchulain is not big on rationality. He is unreasonably moved to fury by the slightest failures.

This book is a good demonstration of how desperate the cultural situation in Ireland was, or was perceived to be, at the turn of the last century. The whole tone of it indicates that the populace--supposedly its intended audience--was seen as childlike.

p.95--The hunter, upon espying Deirdre, the greatest beauty in Ireland who had been kept hidden in the mountains out of the sight of men, immediately thinks to gain brownie points by telling the king about her--no thought or even momentary fantasy of procuring her for himself at all. I also thought noteworthy the motif of a very beautiful woman having to be kept hidden to prevent men from killing each other for her. When the king did see her, he carried her away at once. I interpret the symbolism as explaining the dynamics and necessary submissions and sacrifices to produce a thriving, vital race of men

p.102--Some heavy-handed patriotic exhortation:"One's own country is better than any other thing...for no man can have any pleasure, however great his good luck and his way of living, if he does not see his own country every day."

The parts where people's only sons have their heads casually lopped off without even causing their vanquisher to break a sweat are really too much for me to take anymore. Certain quarters throughout the Western world have in recent years taken to lamenting and chastising the soft bourgeois parents who are unwilling to prepare themselves and their little, often their only, sons, for the possibility that they may need to be butchered or maimed in some grand civilizational conflict, but given the increasingly impersonal manner in which our civilization, especially for the bourgeois classes, has evolved, it is not reasonable to expect them to embrace the prospect of giving up their children for rhetorical reasons if they feel no intimate or emotional connection with the cause, and this is clearly something that modern Westerners do not feel. I do not approve of this disconnected mode of living any more than most conservatives do, but it is the condition in our society, and it has been rotting it, slowly at first but with steadily increasing acceleration in the most recent years, for some time now. But I have much more to say about this later on.