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.

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