Monday, 30 November 2015

Tagore's writings in various shades of difference

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's work in diverse genres has always attracted and fascinated authors and readers alike. This collection of some of his greatest works talks about Tagore's attempt to approach the central impulse of contradiction in various aspects of life. 

The collection includes short stories, plays, poems, articles, travel writing, correspondence and conversations. It depicts his complex, dynamic approach to commonly perceived dualities, like life versus death, nature versus culture, male versus female, tradition versus modernity, East versus West, local versus universal and urban versus rural, to highlight his humanistic vision and its significance for the modern world. 

The editor of the book, Radha Chakravarty, is a writer, critic and translator. She has also co-edited The Essential Tagore, which was nominated the New Statesman Book of the Year 2011. She is the author of Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers and Novelist Tagore: Gender and Modernity in Selected Texts. 

The book also comes with a DVD, which has paintings, doodles, music of Rabindranath Tagore among many other things. 

The book has English translation of short stories of Tagore like 'A Fantastic Tale', 'The Living and the Dead' and 'Trespass'. It also has his plays like 'Chitra' and 'Chandalika'. Translation from his famous poem 'Gitanjali' is also there. 

In Gitanjali, the poet abjures the elitism of Brahminical temple-rituals, and affirms his faith in a God who lives among the downtrodden toilers of this earth. 

Chakravarty, in her book, said Tagore's intuitions and judgements were never value-neutral. His recognition of heterogeneity and insistence on inclusivity do not imply an absence of ethical, moral, social, political and aesthetic discrimination. 

"Nor is Tagore's thinking simplistic. While constantly alive to the heterogeneity of the world around him, he refuses to reduce things to rigid binaries. In place of black and white categorisations, we discover in his works fine-tuned shades of difference, a whole spectrum of possibilities," she said. 

Tagore was brought up in a household that followed eclectic cultural practices, drawing elements from indigenous as well as European traditions. He was thus acutely aware of differences between cultures but was also receptive to a range of influences from traditions that did not always dovetail neatly, Chakravarty observed. 

The book mentions about Tagore's early life and how it was frequently touched by the shadow of death and how later it had left an impression on his writings. 

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Sunday, 29 November 2015

T S Eliot and the sexual wasteland

For most of his lifetime T S Eliot appeared an austere and reticent figure. During the long breakdown of his first marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, he took a vow of celibacy in 1928, controlled his relations with other women, and in 1953 planned to retire to an abbey. So some may be surprised by the sexual content of two sets of poems published in full for the first time in a complete edition of his Poems.

The editors politely call the earlier set “Improper Rhymes”; in truth, it’s a smutty romp. The later set contains poems of marital love, written for his second wife, Valerie Fletcher. Neither set remotely approaches the greatness of the 1963 Collected Poems, Eliot’s last volume before he died in 1965, and we may wonder how to place erotic exploits in our sense of his life and character.

As a student at Harvard, he began circulating his Columbo and Bolo jingles between about 1908 and 1914. For men only, and degrading women, Jews and blacks, they offer the spectacle of a penis so mighty it can rip a “whore” “from cunt to navel”. This revel in violence is varied by the antics of the sex-mad King Bolo and his Big Black Kween, whose bum is as big as a soup tureen.

After Eliot settled in London in 1915 he was prepared to publish the verses, but Wyndham Lewis, to whom they were offered for his avant-garde magazine Blast, declined to print words “ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger”.

At first, when I came upon the Bolovian Court and Columbo and his crew, I assumed that they were a juvenile aberration. The third volume of Letters (covering the period of Eliot’s conversion to the Anglican faith in June 1927) presents a challenge to this. For the obscene verse that Eliot continued to write and disseminate as late as the age of 44 is not, in his own post-conversion view, an aberration. In an exchange with his fellow publisher Geoffrey Faber in August 1927 he commends obscenity, in the manner of Swift, as an eye for evil.

Here is an elevated justification, and I have tried to accept it. All the same, hesitation has lingered. For one thing, an eye for evil is dangerously godlike, a danger acknowledged by Eliot’s Puritan forebear Andrew Eliott, who condemned innocents to death at the Salem witch trials. In 1692 Eliott confessed that he and his co-jurors had been unable to withstand the delusions of the powers of darkness. Can Tom Eliot be something of a throwback to the punitive temper of those old New England Puritans, and foreign, after all, to the mild-mannered Anglicans whose faith he adopted? Conceivably he was testing and judging the morality of the recipients of his smut, among them his Harvard buddy Conrad Aiken, Ezra Pound and a Criterion board member called Bonamy Dobrée.

Hesitation lingers also because the pervasive history of violence against women makes it impossible to be amused by the incitement to sexual violence that accompanies Eliot’s obscenity. This is not imaginative. It’s as banal as Eliot’s stabs at anti-Semitism – as banal as evil.

Eliot concealed his extremes with a normative mask: the City uniform of his bowler hat, rolled umbrella and what his first editor, Virginia Woolf, called his “four-piece suit”. Eliot himself caricatures propriety in the figure of J Alfred Prufrock at a Boston tea party, too prudish, too buttoned-up for love, recoiling from a woman whose arm, moving to wrap a shawl, is “downed with light brown hair”.

This shudder precedes Eliot’s doomed first marriage and intensifies over the years as a counter to what he termed “the wind beyond the world” – an evanescent vision that came but rarely. There is disgust with the flesh in “Sweeney Erect”, where sex is associated with the jolts of an epileptic attack. In the drafts of The Waste Land, the clerk and the typist couple “like crawling bugs”.

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Saturday, 28 November 2015

Forbidden Love - The passions behind Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt.”

In December of 1948, Patricia Highsmith was a twenty-seven-year-old aspiring writer with a murderous imagination and an outsized talent for seducing women. Her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” was complete, but it would be more than a year before it was published. A Texas native with thick black hair and feral good looks, Highsmith made a habit of standing at attention when a woman walked into the room. That Christmas season, she was working behind the toy counter at Bloomingdale’s, in Manhattan, in order to help pay for psychoanalysis. She wanted to explore the sharp ambivalence she felt about marrying her fiancé, a novelist named Marc Brandel. Highsmith was a Barnard graduate, and, like many sophisticates at the time, she viewed homosexuality as a psychological defect that could be fixed; yet she had enough self-respect and sexual appetite to reject any attempt to fix her own. When her analyst suggested that she join a therapy group of “married women who are latent homosexuals,” Highsmith wrote in her diary, “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.” She never married Brandel—or anyone else.

One day, a woman in a mink coat drifted into the toy department. Highsmith later recalled, “Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light.” Like Alfred Hitchcock, Highsmith was captivated by frosty blondes, all the more so if they were married and rich. The shopper, who slapped her gloves into one hand as she scanned the merchandise, made Highsmith feel “odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting yet at the same time uplifted.” With an abstracted air, the woman, Mrs. E. R. Senn, bought a doll from Highsmith.

That night, Highsmith wrote an eight-page outline for a novel: a love story about Therese Belivet, a diffident nineteen-year-old who lives on her own in New York City, and Carol Aird, a wealthy suburban wife and mother in her thirties. Highsmith conjured what Therese would feel upon catching her first glimpse of Carol: “I see her the same instant she sees me, and instantly, I love her. Instantly, I am terrified, because I know she knows I am terrified and that I love her. Though there are seven girls between us, I know, she knows, she will come to me and have me wait on her.”

Highsmith published the novel, “The Price of Salt,” in 1952, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. She was understandably wary of derailing her career, but she also may have been uncomfortable with the book’s exaltation of love. Highsmith never wrote another book like it; indeed, her work became known for its ostentatious misanthropy. And for the next four decades she publicly dodged any connection to a book of which she had every right to be proud.

Highsmith was a pared-down, precise writer whose stories rarely strayed from the solipsistic minds of her protagonists—most of them killers (like the suave psychopath Tom Ripley) or would-be killers (like the unhappy husbands in several of her books). “The Price of Salt” is the only Highsmith novel in which no violent crime occurs.

Therese is not an eloquent or self-revealing character, and her dialogue with Carol is sometimes banal. Yet the novel is viscerally romantic. When Therese visits Carol’s home for the first time, Carol offers her a glass of warm milk that tastes of “bone and blood, of warm flesh, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo.” The two women embark on a road trip, and the descriptions of it read like a noirish dream—stiff drinks, wood-panelled motel rooms, a gun in a suitcase. A detective hired by Carol’s husband pursues the couple, and you can feel Highsmith’s thriller muscles twitching to life.

The love story is at once hijacked and heightened by the chase story. Therese’s feelings, massing at the edge of her perception like the storm clouds out the car window, are a mystery to her. The weight of what goes unsaid as she and Carol talk about the towns they pass or where they might stop for breakfast builds in an almost ominous way. Like a girl in a fairy tale who has been put under a spell, Therese falls silent on the open road: “She did not want to talk. Yet she felt there were thousands of words choking her throat, and perhaps only distance, thousands of miles, could straighten them out.”

When the women at last make love, Highsmith describes it with a sacramental intensity appropriate to the young Therese: “Her arms were tight around Carol, and she was conscious of Carol and nothing else, of Carol’s hand that slid along her ribs, Carol’s hair that brushed her bare breasts, and then her body too seemed to vanish in widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow.” It makes for a stark contrast with the way Highsmith once described an attempt to have sex with a man, which felt to her like “steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place.”

This month, “Carol,” a film adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” directed by Todd Haynes, opens in theatres. Haynes is known for his meditations on lush mid-century genres: women’s pictures, Technicolor melodrama. Instead of treating such material as kitsch, he teases out emotions that were latent in the originals, showing what once could not be shown. Both “Carol” and “Far from Heaven”—his 2002 homage to the movies of Douglas Sirk—feel like fifties films that somehow eluded the Hays Code. Haynes’s direction largely hews to the conventions of old Hollywood: in “Carol,” there’s a sex scene between the two women, played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, but it’s more swoony than libidinous. The characters don’t use the word “lesbian”; the dialogue is mannered. Haynes’s approach suits the novel, which is neither prim nor explicit about the women’s affair.

Our image of the fifties still tends to be shaped by “Father Knows Best” clichés of contentedly conforming nuclear families. But the era offered some surprising freedoms. “The Price of Salt” depicts a world where a suburban matron could take a salesgirl she’s just met out for Old-Fashioneds in the middle of the day—and where two women in love might live together, hiding in plain sight as roommates, more easily than two gay men or an unmarried heterosexual couple might. In a recent interview with Film Comment, Haynes said that the “indecipherability” of lesbianism at the time—the “unimagined notions of what love between women might even look like”—is the engine of Highsmith’s plot.

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Was He Quite Ordinary? - Marcus Aurelius

In 1815, Cardinal Angelo Mai made an extraordinary discovery in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. He spotted that a book containing the records of the First Church Council of Chalcedon in ad 451 had been made out of reused parchment. The earlier writing on each sheet had been erased (washing with milk and oat-bran was the common method), and the minutes of the Church Council copied on top. As often in reused documents of this kind, the original text had begun to show through the later writing, and was in part legible.
It turned out that the recycled sheets had come from a very mixed bag of books. There was a single page of Juvenal’s Satires, part of Pliny’s speech in praise of Trajan (thePanegyric) and some commentary on the Gospel of St John. But the prize finds, making up the largest part of the book, were faintly legible copies of the correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, one of the leading scholars and orators of the second century ad, and tutor to the future emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180. The majority of the letters in the palimpsest were between Fronto and Marcus Aurelius himself, both before and after he had ascended to the throne. Unlike the passages from Juvenal and Pliny, these were entirely new discoveries.
By an almost suspicious coincidence, when Mai moved to the Vatican Library a few years later, he found another volume of the same proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon – with more of Fronto’s correspondence detectable under the later text. Altogether, these palimpsests had preserved more than 200 letters – some 80 of them written by Marcus Aurelius. Not only did this count as the third great collection of private letters to have survived from classical antiquity, after those of Cicero and Pliny, it also promised insights into the private world of one of the most renowned Roman rulers: the philosopher-emperor and author of the philosophical Meditations; persecutor of Christians; conqueror of the Germans (in campaigns immortalised on his column in Rome); and father of the monstrous emperor Commodus. For many thinkers of the 19th century – from Darwin to Nietzsche – Marcus was an intellectual hero. Even Bill Clinton claimed (according to Frank McLynn in his new biography) ‘to have read and reread’ the Meditations during his presidency. For most people now, Marcus Aurelius is remembered as the elderly emperor smothered by young Commodus on campaign on the German frontier at the start of the movie Gladiator.
The rest of the story of the discovery of these letters is less heroic. The text proved almost impossible to read in many places – a problem made worse by Mai’s interventions. Sharp-eyed maybe, but no scientist, Mai applied chemicals to the Ambrosian parchment in order to make the underlying text easier to decipher. In fact, the effect was almost completely to obliterate it. But even what was legible hardly matched up to expectations. For a start, whoever had collected the letters (surely not Fronto himself) had paid little attention to chronology, so that the exact, or even relative, dates of many were hard to fathom. But, more to the point, most 19th-century scholars had expected more elevated subject matter in these letters between the prince (later emperor) and his distinguished tutor in rhetoric. When Fronto wasn’t indulging in scholastic disputes about rhetorical theory, or the meaning and usage of obscure Latin words (what was the most appropriate term for ‘removing a stain’, maculam eluereabluere or elavere?), he was complaining about his physical ailments: ‘I have been seized with a dreadful pain in my neck, but my foot is better’, ‘I’m fine except that I can hardly walk because of a pain in the toes of my left foot’, ‘I’ve been seized with a terrible pain in the groin – all the pain from my back and pelvis has concentrated there’, and so on, and on.
But even more disconcerting were the open expressions of love, longing and desire found throughout the letters. ‘I love the gods who care for you, I love life because of you, I love letters with you . . . I gorge myself on love for you,’ as Fronto signed off one letter to his pupil. Or, as Marcus put it, at the end of what is probably one of the earliest letters in the collection, written when he was about 18, ‘Farewell, breath of my life. Should I not burn with love for you when you have written to me as you have. What am I to do? I can’t stop. Last year, at the very same time and the very same place, I found that I was burning with longing for my mother. This year the longing is set alight by you.’ It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that Amy Richlin recently argued – in Marcus Aurelius in Love (2006) – that, whether or not they were physical lovers, there was a marked erotic dimension in the relationship between tutor and imperial pupil. Not something that Mai had been expecting, or hoping, to find when he came upon the precious correspondence.
McLynn will have none of this. In fact, in his account of Marcus’ life, Fronto is a tedious hypochondriac, whose malign influence his pupil was eager to escape – and indeed already had escaped by the mid-140s, when he was in his early twenties, more than 15 years before he became emperor. Perhaps, he writes, ‘Marcus had learned all he needed from Fronto; perhaps he had begun to tire of the older man’s pedantic ways; and, probably most of all, he was by now bored with rhetoric and wanted to switch full time to philosophy.’ On this view, many of the later letters in the collection are nothing more than attempts by Fronto to wheedle his way back into Marcus’ affections. Sometimes this is by fawning: in one letter, for example, he claims that his relationship with Marcus was more important to him than holding the consulship, and proceeds to compare their friendship to that of Achilles and Patroclus. Sometimes it is by playing for sympathy – hence all the complaints about ill-health. This did not cut much ice, McLynn believes, with Marcus himself, but it has worked with modern scholars, who have been convinced by this correspondence that there was a particularly close relationship between Fronto and his pupil.
What, then, of the erotic language of the letters? McLynn sees no need to suppose anything directly sexual here at all. This is merely the idiom of the second century, reflecting a world unlike our own (he claims), in which it was possible for two men to ‘express love without sexuality’. Or – though this seems a significantly different point – ‘Marcus and Fronto used the word “love” in a ludic way . . . it was a kind of elaborate charade or game, in its way part of the very rhetorical hyperbole that Fronto was supposed to be teaching his pupil.’
It is, of course, impossible now – as it no doubt always was – to know what, if anything, went on between Fronto and Marcus when the lights were out. McLynn is right to say that we cannot move directly from a loving linguistic idiom to sexual practice (the same is true when we try to decode the sentimentality of 19th-century women’s letters). And the fact, as we have seen, that Marcus compares his longing for Fronto to his longing for his mother does not instantly suggest sexual desire. That said, McLynn consistently plays down the aggressively eroticised tone of the correspondence, as well as the implications of Fronto’s comparing of his own relationship with his pupil to that of Achilles with Patroclus. Long before the second century, this Homeric pair had become a well recognised symbol for male homoeroticism.
The problem with McLynn’s Marcus Aurelius is not just how he chooses to tell the story of Fronto and Marcus, which is only one element in his vast study of the reign. Apart from the many digressions that help him fill these pages (a whole chapter on the reign of Commodus, an eight-page summary of Rome’s relations with Parthia from the first century BC, and another 15 on the Germans) he has some big claims to make about Marcus Aurelius’ place in the wider history of the Roman Empire. Like many others, Gibbon among them, McLynn has considerable admiration for the moral stature and personal integrity of the emperor himself. Yet, for all those virtues, he sees the reign as the beginning of the end of the glory days of Roman imperial power – thanks to a combination of the poisoned legacy of the paranoid emperor Hadrian, the ambivalent political and military successes of Marcus himself, and a devastating plague, which may on McLynn’s generous estimates have wiped out up to 18 million people across the Roman world, including the emperor himself (despite the Gladiator version of his death). He was in other words a decent, thoughtful man ‘caught up in the whirlwind of history’ – the Jan Christian Smuts of his generation, as one, rather forced, comparison in McLynn’s final chapter presents him.
There may be something in this (though there are rather too many ‘whirlwinds of history’ rushing through this book for my taste). But the real problem is that, as in his discussion of Fronto and Marcus, McLynn is throughout reluctant to share with his readers the curious fragility of the evidence on which his own version of Marcus Aurelius’ life and achievements is based. So, unlike Richlin, he chooses not to explain the strange history of the Fronto letters or to remark on the gaps in the correspondence and the reasons that may lie behind them. When he uses the letters to reconstruct the major events of the reign, or even just the shifting fortunes of Marcus and Fronto themselves, he does not stop to point out that the dates of many of them are either unknown or disputed – that you cannot, for very obvious reasons, simply string them together into a narrative.
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The darker side of George Eliot

The most intriguing aspect of George Eliot's life has to be her honeymoon in Venice, in the summer of 1880. Her decision, at the age of 60, to marry John Cross, a young friend some 20 years her junior, had excited disapproval among friends and acquaintances, not least because GH Lewes, with whom she had enjoyed a long and loving relationship, had been dead for less than two years.

Like Dorothea in Middlemarch, who begins to love Will Ladislaw while she is still married to Casaubon, Eliot had been delighted by Cross's youth and devotion long before Lewes's death. But their honeymoon punctured the fantasy for both when Cross leaped from the balcony of their hotel suite, sailing over three or four gondolas before landing in the middle of the Grand Canal. He was rescued and carried back to his room unharmed.

Tongues started wagging. Had Cross been in flight from the sexual demands of his older wife? "One could say he had a lucky escape!" wrote an Italian journalist with unconscious irony. Was it true Cross had begged the gondoliers not to drag him out of the canal? Brenda Maddox, in her jaunty sketch of Eliot's life, believes Cross was suffering from a recurrence of severe depressive illness. She also thinks that the marriage was unconsummated. It was, in any case, short-lived. Eliot was dead and buried in Highgate cemetery in just six months. Cross - "George Eliot's widow", as he was unkindly known - became the keeper of the flame, producing a biography of his late wife that enshrined her as a sibyl and earnest talking head, leaving one critic to bemoan the absence of the "salt and spice" of Eliot's life.

Brenda Maddox is very keen on the salt and spice, as the ominous description "lover" indicates in the book's subtitle. Sex and money, not provincial piety and natural history, or even novel writing, dominate here, making GH Lewes's nickname for Eliot - "Madonna" - appear curiously apposite. Maddox tells what is essentially a familiar tale: of the Midlands ugly duckling, Marian Evans, born in 1819, who became a literary swan and scandalised polite society (and especially her brother Isaac) through her common-law relationship with Lewes, said to be the only person more unattractive than she was. The "great horse-faced bluestocking", as Henry James called Eliot, spent her formative years impressing men with the perfection of her mind while suffering from the belief that her heavy, irregular features would never bring her husband.

Nevertheless, if we are to believe Maddox, Eliot lost her virginity early on to one of two older men, Charles Bray or Robert Brabant. She was then alerted to the "dangerous attractiveness" of the radical journalist John Chapman, complicating the domestic menage he already shared with his wife and mistress, before throwing herself desperately at Herbert Spencer, who later unchivalrously contributed an essay on "Personal Beauty" to a magazine edited by Lewes, attributing ugliness to mental and racial inferiority.

Only with Lewes did she find a safe berth and a launching pad for her novels of genius. "Lewes was an experienced lover and Marian was ripe for awakening," Maddox assures us, slipping in the scarcely surprising detail that the couple must have used condoms.

Having exhausted the sexual potential of her subject, Maddox turns in her book's second half to Eliot's earning power. She wasn't, it seems, quite on a par with Dickens, but certainly in his league, having her house in Regent's Park decorated by a fashionable interior designer. For Romola, her novel of 15th-century Florence, and her least popular work of fiction, Eliot received £7,000 - almost £500,000 in today's money - then the highest sum paid for an English novel.

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Friday, 27 November 2015

Iris Murdoch and an enduring love affair

In The Black Prince, her great novel about the perils of love, Iris Murdoch has her main character say: "What dangerous machines letters are: perhaps it is as well that they are going out of fashion. A letter can be endlessly reread and reinterpreted, it stirs imagination and fantasy, it persists, it is red-hot evidence." She was herself a recklessly prolific correspondent who destroyed quantities of letters she received but left many of her own behind; and over the last 10 days the truth of those lines has been well demonstrated, with the news that some 250 of her letters to her lifelong friend, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot, have been made public by Kingston University. With depressing predictability, and ignoring a careful press release, newspaper headlines announced "Iris Murdoch's 60-year lesbian relationship with her best friend and lover revealed".

As it happens, I have been studying that friendship between two brilliant and remarkable women and have had access to the whole correspondence. I never met Foot, but knew of her work as a leading moral philosopher; Murdoch I knew slightly, but her novels have absorbed, entertained and educated me since I first read them in the 1960s. To me she remains a great writer, whose reputation has been overshadowed by details of her private life and decline into Alzheimer's.

I have been planning to write a book about friendship, and after Peter Conradi's biography of Murdoch came out in 1991 I knew that her relationship with Philippa Foot would form part of it. Friendship, to my mind, is an undervalued and under-explored subject, often treated as a less important, tepid version of romantic or erotic love. Iris and Philippa did not have a 60-year affair, although there was a brief period around 1968 when their friendship became physical. Soon, as Philippa explained to Conradi, they realised that their feeling for each other was "not best expressed" in that way. The affair quietly ended; they remained close and loving friends for another 30 years. "Essential you" was how Iris described her friend. Philippa called Iris, after her death, "the light of my life".

They met in Oxford in the autumn of 1939, as the war was starting. Iris was 20 and had been at Somerville for a year; Philippa Bosanquet was a year younger. They were both studying philosophy, and one of their tutors was the eccentric moral and religious philosopher Donald Mackinnon, a fervent Catholic who believed that philosophy was meaningless if it did not concern itself with how to live a good life. This became an increasingly unfashionable view in Oxford, where the focus was firmly on language and facts, not values, and where metaphysics, Iris's natural habitat, had no place in serious thinking.

They had eager, brilliant minds but were otherwise very different. Philippa was cooler, taller, more elegant and upper class; she grew up in a grand house in Yorkshire with governesses, ponies and plenty of money. Iris's parents were Irish; born in Dublin, she was smaller, rounder, fairer, more intense and better educated. By late 1943, both with first-class degrees, they were happily sharing a cavernous, cold, mouse-ridden flat in Seaforth Place in London and working as civil servants. Iris was writing long letters to (among others) her platonic love, Frank Thompson, while experimenting with several admirers, including Michael Foot (the future historian, not the Labour politician). Philippa was precariously involved with a former tutor, the clever, predatory economist Tommy Balogh. Within a few months, in an emotional dance her readers might now call Murdochian, Iris had dismissed Foot, who was distraught, and taken up with Balogh, thus badly wounding her friend. But, as in many of her novels, Eros had struck and they were all his victims. Before long the unreliable Balogh was gone, Philippa and Michael Foot had fallen in love and Iris found herself excluded, unloved and unwanted.

The pain and guilt Iris had brought on herself marked her writing and her thinking for the rest of her life. One of Mackinnon's precepts had been "do no harm", and she knew she had harmed all three of them. She would never stop exploring two great questions: how to love without ego, and how to be unsmugly good.

By the time the war ended, Philippa and Michael – who had survived being wounded and captured on an SOE mission to France – were married, Frank Thompson was dead, murdered by fascists in Bulgaria, and Iris had failed to find a lasting love. In the bleak winter of 1946 she wrote a handful of letters that show how deep the damage had been. The Foots were living happily in Oxford, teaching and studying; she was with her parents in Chiswick, trying and failing to find an academic post. "It seems perhaps a foolish useless gesture after so long," she wrote, "to say – I'm so sorry I caused you both to suffer - but I do say it, most humbly, and believe me I do feel it." As well as a plea for forgiveness, her letter read like a declaration. "Pippa, you know without my telling you that my love for you remains as deep and tender as ever – and always will remain, it is so deep in me and so much part of me. I cannot imagine that anyone will ever take your place. I think of you very often. My dear heart, I love you."

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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Our Contemporary, Montaigne: He Pioneered the Personal Essay and Made Candor Literary

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave one of the most important speeches in American history, an address at Harvard University in which he urged students to fulfill the country’s political independence by being intellectually and culturally independent, too.
Through his “American Scholar” speech, Emerson suggested that his fellow citizens should test the ideas of the Old World against experience, and not simply embrace them through habit. “It is a mischievous notion that we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago,” said Emerson. “As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it.”
Emerson found the courage to question accepted wisdom in many places, but an important model for his critical thinking came, oddly enough, from Michel de Montaigne, an icon of the European literary tradition Emerson regarded so skeptically. In the early days of his career, as Emerson was seeking the best way to think and write, he looked to Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist, as an inspiration. Later, Emerson wrote an essay about his hero, “Montaigne; or the Skeptic.”
Montaigne and Emerson are an unlikely literary pair. Emerson, an often earnest New Englander with a Brahmin’s sense of propriety, once took Walt Whitman on a walk and advised the poet to tone down the “sex element” in Leaves of Grass. Montaigne, by contrast, could be unabashedly frank, mentioning his track record with various enemas (“farted endlessly”) and treating sex with matter-of-fact candor.
That sensibility sometimes left Emerson breathless. “Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers. His French freedom runs into grossness,” Emerson observes, with quite possibly a sigh, “but he has anticipated all censure by the bounty of his own confessions.” Montaigne’s occasional explicitness, although not to Emerson’s taste, seemed to express his willingness to see things clearly.
Emerson first encountered the French writer as a young man. He had inherited a volume of Montaigne’s essays from his late father’s library, but he had neglected it for years, only opening the book one day not long after he graduated from college. Reading Montaigne was a revelation.
“It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience,” Emerson declared. “I know not anywhere a book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance gives momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets.”
Emerson’s feeling of finding himself in Montaigne’s essays has been a common one for Montaigne fans. Shakespeare appears to have read Montaigne’s essays and worked their insights into his plays, so that to watch the Bard is to see Montaigne just beyond the stage lamps, winking with approval. Virginia Woolf compared reading Montaigne to looking at a portrait and seeing your own image. “For thirty years,” Gore Vidal told readers a few years before his death, “I have kept Donald M. Frame’s translation of The Complete Works of Montaigne at, if not bedside, hand. There are numerous interlocking Olympic circles on the maroon binding where glasses were set after I had written some no longer decipherable commentary in the margin or, simply, ‘How true!’”
The late Lewis Thomas, one of America’s celebrated modern essayists, was another admirer. “For the weekend times when there is nothing new in the house to read,” said Lewis, “and nothing much to think about or write about, and the afternoon stretches ahead all bleak and empty, there is nothing like Montaigne to make things better.”
This is all tall praise, indeed, for a writer who seemed to do exactly the opposite of what was required to achieve literary fame. Born in 1533, Montaigne came from a wealthy family and held important government positions, including work as an adviser to three French kings. He studied law and served as a magistrate and mayor of Bordeaux. Even after ostensibly retiring, he continued to keep a hand in public life, mediating France’s religious strife and serving once again as Bordeaux’s mayor.
When Montaigne retreated to his country estate at age thirty-eight, instead of writing about his life at the center of power, he wrote mostly about what he saw from his tower library. The fruits of that period of relative seclusion secured his place in posterity. As the New Yorker’s Jane Kramer has pointed out, every French schoolchild learns the date of Montaigne’s “retirement”—February 28, 1571—because of its significance to the literature of France and, indeed, the world. “He had his books for company,” writes Kramer, “his Muses for inspiration, his past for seasoning, and, to support it all, the income from a large estate, not to mention a fortune built on the salt-herring and wine trades, which, in the last century, had turned his family into a landed gentry.”
At first glance, the musings from a man of leisure didn’t seem the most promising material for a best-seller. Instead of penning an epic poem, a historical narrative, or an imposing treatise on government, a project for which he was eminently qualified, Montaigne decided to simply follow his thoughts wherever they led. The complete edition of his Essays is about thirteen hundred pages, but there’s no obvious plot or design. Topics include everything from sadness to sleep, lying to Cicero, and drunkenness to the pleasure of books. Montaigne even includes a lengthy essay on thumbs, of all things. Like many educated men of the Renaissance, Montaigne looked to Greek and Latin classics for inspiration. “His first tutor spoke only Latin to him, and Montaigne himself spoke no French until he was five years old,” notes scholar Kia Penso. In his writings, Montaigne quotes the Greek commentator Plutarch so often that the ancient historian and moralist presides over the essays like a favored uncle at the dinner table. But while Montaigne, ever the lawyer, leans on precedent when useful in making his case, he also embraces the Renaissance enthusiasm for close personal observation as an avenue to truth. He’s one of the world’s great noticers, his essays suffused with the texture of everyday sensation.
A quick look through the essays turns up one gem after another. “I have never had any trouble except in the management of my own affairs. Epicurus says that to be rich is not the end, but only a change, of worries,” he laments at one point. “Nature seems to have inclined mankind to social intercourse above all else. And its supreme point of perfection, I find, is friendship,” he observes in another passage. Another turn of the page reveals this thought: “I can dine without a tablecloth, but hardly without clean napkins, as the Germans do; for I soil them more than they or the Italians, since I make little use of a spoon or fork. I regret that the royal custom of changing napkins, together with the plates, after every course, is not more widespread.” And then one dips in and finds Montaigne bridging the ageless subjects of sex and death with cutting concision: “Everyone, certainly, flees from seeing a man born, and everyone rushes to see him die. To destroy a man we use a large field in open daylight. But to make a man we sneak into as dark and secluded a corner as we can.”
The quotidian quality of Montaigne’s essays, in fact, is their biggest appeal. They seem so drawn from life that they look effortless. Penso recalls that philosopher Eric Hoffman once tried to share Montaigne’s essays with some acquaintances, to no avail: “One man flipped through the book for a while and handed it back, observing that it was nothing special—anybody could have written it. Montaigne would have liked that.”
When Montaigne changed his mind about a subject, instead of revising his views seamlessly, he’d often just tack an addendum on his previous statement, leaving the original one intact. One can easily imagine a contemporary literary agent surveying this merry mess, then pitching it into the trash can.
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