Wednesday, 26 October 2016

What to Make of T. S. Eliot?

In 1914, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was introduced to a student at Harvard University who greatly impressed him, and who would later become quite famous himself. Russell left behind his first impressions of T. S. Eliot in a letter that possibly inaugurated the now-standard fiction of the poet as representing a final, repressed branch of the old Boston Brahmans:
My pupil Eliot was there—the only one who is civilized, and he is ultra-civilized, knows his classics very well, is familiar with all French literature from Villon to Vildrach, and is altogether impeccable in his taste but has no vigour or life—or enthusiasm.
Eliot struck many of his contemporaries as a person not unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, “politic, cautious, and meticulous.” Virginia Woolf mentioned him in a letter to her brother-in-law: “Come to lunch. Eliot will be there in a four-piece suit.” With his fine manners and noble bearing, Eliot was all too restrained by his own sense of decorum and propriety. The novelist Aldous Huxley even called him “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks” after visiting Eliot at his office at Lloyd’s in London, reporting that he “was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.” Many years later, the poet was still fostering this bloodless caricature of himself, preferring to pretend that he was just “a mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.” Not everyone believed the story as presented. As early as 1962, the critic Randall Jarrell saw in it a fundamental misunderstanding, which he singled out for an extraordinary comment in his summary of “Fifty Years of American Poetry”:
During the last thirty or forty years Eliot has been so much the most famous and influential of American poets that it seems almost absurd to write about him, especially when everybody else already has: when all of you can read me your own articles about Eliot, would it have really been worth while to write you mine? Yet actually the attitude of an age toward its Lord Byron—in this case, a sort of combination of Lord Byron and Dr. Johnson—is always surprisingly different from the attitude of the future. Won’t the future say to us in helpless astonishment: “But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions? From a psychoanalytic point of view he was far and away the most interesting poet of your century. But for you, of course, after the first few years, his poetry existed undersea, thousands of feet below the deluge of exegesis, explication, source-listing, scholarship, and criticism that overwhelmed it. And yet how bravely and personally it survived, its eyes neither coral nor mother-of-pearl but plainly human, full of human anguish!”
Today the task before any reader of Eliot’s poetry is to examine the human anguish still buried under the exegesis. That is no easy assignment. For the poet himself very much wanted that anguish, and the sources of it, to remain forever hidden. This concealment was monumentally important to him, and he labored ferociously at it throughout his life.

By 1938, Eliot had already directed his then literary executor John Hayward to “suppress everything suppressible,” and that attitude only hardened as time passed, sinking into absurdity when, in 1984, Eliot’s second wife dubiously claimed the copyright even to the papers of Eliot’s first wife. The poet had left behind a will demanding that no biography be written, ever. His estate did its best to comply and prevented anyone from quoting any copyrighted or unpublished material without exception, while it routinely requested exorbitant sums for his work to be reprinted in anthologies. It is hard to think of another writer in the last hundred years (other than J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon) who went to such extraordinary lengths to frustrate not only biographers and scholars but even ordinary readers.

Thus it has taken fifty years for any evidence to surface that would justify Jarrell’s premonition that Eliot was more like the scandal-plagued Lord Byron than we could possibly imagine. Still, there were signs along the way, odd visual clues, for those who cared to notice. Virginia Woolf, vexed by the poet’s appearance in 1922, noted in her diary: “I am not sure that he does not paint his lips.” Meanwhile, Osbert Sitwell was “amazed to notice on his cheeks a dusting of green powder—pale but distinctly green, the colour of a forced lily-of-the-valley. I was all the more amazed at this discovery, because any deliberate dramatization of his appearance was so plainly out of keeping with his character, and with his desire never to call attention to himself.”

Let us halt for a moment and consider this image: Eliot, the austere banker with a bowler hat, was actually walking around London in the 1920s with his cheeks powdered green and his lips rouged. No wonder that his friends were astonished. Neither Sitwell nor Woolf “could find any way of explaining this extraordinary and fantastical pretence; except on the one basis that the great poet wished to stress his look of strain.” Others came to a different conclusion. Hart Crane was so certain that Eliot was a homosexual like himself that he referred to him, according to Allen Tate, as the “prime ram of our flock.”

None of these stories dented Eliot’s cadaverous image for thirty years. The first blow was struck in 1952, when an article in Essays in Criticism written by the scholar John Peter caused a famous scandal with its reading of “The Waste Land” as a homosexual lament for the poet’s dead friend, Jean Verdenal. Rather than ignore the essay, Eliot had his attorneys inform the journal’s editors that a libel suit was assured if the article appeared again. So seriously was this threat taken that most of the issues were swiftly destroyed; libraries were even told to cut out the article if they had a copy already. Naturally, other scholars were wary of pursuing similar theories until 1977 when James E. Miller Jr. (with the help of an NEH grant) published T. S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land, and reignited a discussion that had been silenced 25 years before.

Miller’s book suffered a hostile reception, with numerous critics aghast at the author’s impertinence at forwarding such theories. By this time, of course, Eliot was dead, but in his later years he had become a cherished layman of the Church of England and a man of high moral stature. Simply put, Miller’s book was treated as blasphemy, when it wasn’t just ignored or mischaracterized. Expecting such reductive crudity, Miller denounced this tendency to distort his ideas in the early part of his book (“The language ‘homosexual interpretation’ seems deliberately designed to jar the sensibility and provoke negative vibrations”) and at the back of his book (“Such characterizations are not only reductive but destructive, not to say simple-minded”).

In spite of his protestations, Miller’s name became synonymous with this interpretation. As recently as 2006, the poet Mark Ford complained in a review that Miller was like “a McCarthy-inspired gumshoe” who just wanted to “persuade his readers that Eliot was gay.” Yet Miller was not interested in “outing” the poet; he was interested in understanding the verse of “the most subjective and daemonic poet” of the last century. Ultimately, the hostility of his fellow scholars conspired to do a disservice to Miller, and to his 1977 book—which is a neglected classic of criticism, and one of the very few essential works on Eliot’s poetry.

What Miller would have made of all the recently released Eliotica is a bittersweet thought, since he passed away in 2010. Valerie Eliot’s excruciatingly slow “editing” (which was actually deliberate delaying) of her husband’s letters came to an end with her death in 2012, after which three volumes appeared in three consecutive years. A sixth volume, appearing in 2016, gives us the poet’s correspondence through 1933, with a mere 32 years left to cover. That should give the reader a sense of how much Eliot we haven’t read, and how much we still don’t know.

Just consider his critical prose: Ronald Schuchard and his international team of scholars are halfway through publishing almost 7,000 pages of it in an online-only edition, sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press (among many others). Or take the recent publication of the two-volume Poems of T. S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, and weighing in at a combined 2,032 pages. Though Eliot himself issued his first Collected Poems in 1936, and the definitive-sounding Complete Poems and Plays appeared in 1952 (and let’s not forget the “Centenary Edition” published in 1963), it must be said that Ricks and McCue are the first editors who have been allowed to publish all the verse that Eliot left behind. That is to say that, at the fourth attempt, we have all of Eliot’s poetry together at last.

That burden, along with the desire of Ricks and McCue to edit every line a capite ad calcem, has resulted in a table-buster. Volume I of The Poems alone is a massive 1,311 pages—with 877 pages of commentary for 314 pages of poetry. All the verse that Eliot cared to collect in his lifetime, and that generations of poetry lovers have memorized, is finished by page 219. There remain almost 100 pages of uncollected verse for most readers to discover (much of it brought together previously by Ricks in his superb collection of Eliot’s early unpublished work, Inventions of the March Hare).

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Monday, 24 October 2016

Flaubert — the writer’s writer par excellence — is a real challenge to write about

One of the charms and shortcomings of biography is that it makes perfectly normal situations sound extraordinary. According to Michel Winock, Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), the author of Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, contracted ‘an early and profound aversion to mankind’. To Gustave the schoolboy, man was nothing but a coagulation of ‘mud and shit… equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig or the crab-louse’.

This might have been the influence of his freethinking father, an eminent Rouen surgeon, but perhaps it was just the spirit of the age. The Napoleonic adventure was over; the sun of Romanticism had set. As Winock reminds us, quoting Alfred de Musset’s Confession of a Child of the Century, ‘the young saw the foaming waves ebbing away from them… and those oiled gladiators felt unbearably wretched’.

The depressing lycée which Gustave attended in Rouen can’t have helped: ‘Life at boarding school was harsh. The premises were poorly heated and rudimentary, hygiene left much to be desired; discipline was rigorous’ and ‘student insurrections were not uncommon’. Schools in biographies nearly always have an air of Dotheboys Hall about them. I taught at that school in 1979–80 and found it exactly as Winock describes.

Wallowing in lost illusions was normal for the time, as was the argot of scientific jargon and obscenities which Flaubert used throughout his life: ‘I feel waves of hatred against the stupidity of my era suffocating me. Shit is rising into my mouth, as with a strangulated hernia.’ Politics left him cold or, rather, seething with indifference:

The idea of la patrie, the fatherland — that is, the obligation to live on a bit of earth coloured red or blue on a map, and to detest the other bits coloured green or black — has always seemed to me narrow, restricted and ferociously stupid.

Like countless bourgeois teenagers of the 1830s, Flaubert decided to make the best of a bad job by becoming a writer: ‘Let us intoxicate ourselves with ink, since we lack the nectar of the gods.’ ‘What is surprising here,’ says Winock, ‘is not the attitude but its staying power.’ Flaubert’s last work, unfinished and probably unfinishable, was a Dictionnaire des idées reçues. To judge by what survives, it would have taken the form of a conversation manual for fools: ‘ENGLISHMEN: All rich.’ ‘ERECTION: Said only in reference to monuments.’ ‘FRANCE: Needs an iron hand in order to be ruled.’ Flaubert’s hope was that readers of his ‘encyclopedia of human stupidity’ would never dare say anything again in case they ‘inadvertently uttered one of the sentences in the book’. It might have been subtitled, ‘World, Shut Your Mouth’.

‘Why write yet another biography of Flaubert?’ asks Winock in his opening sentence. For that matter, why write a biography of Flaubert at all? He spent almost his entire life sitting in a summerhouse above the Seine, fuming at the stupidity of the human race, and writing — which is to say, filling up the wastepaper basket and salvaging an occasional sentence — for 14 hours a day. When he looked up, he saw the masts of invisible ships passing on the river and, on one occasion, the Obelisk of Luxor on its way to Paris. That was Flaubert for nine-tenths of his waking existence — ‘a big, stout, superb Gaul with an enormous moustache, a powerful nose, and thick eyebrows sheltering a seabird’s blue eyes’, dipping his pen in an inkwell shaped like a frog.

Luckily for his biographers, he travelled quite a lot, notably to Egypt, where, like many an ‘artistic’ young man of the time, he tried out sodomy. He told a friend after a visit to the baths in Cairo, ‘It was a laugh, that’s all. But I’ll do it again. For an experience to be done well, it must be repeated.’ (‘Expérience’, that faux ami, should obviously be ‘experiment’.) He also contracted syphilis, as did ‘practically everyone’, according to the Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Nonetheless, as the narrator of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot puts it, he had ‘an active and colourful erotic career’. There are some detailed examples in his letters to the poet, Louise Colet; but we know almost nothing about his long affair or friendship with the English governess, Juliet Herbert, who translated Madame Bovary before it was published. (The translation, which Flaubert called ‘a masterpiece’, has disappeared.)

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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Model White Writer - Carson McCullers

In the past few weeks, there has been an escalating public debate about the social role of the white writer, stimulated by the novelist Lionel Shriver’s speech at a writers’ festival in early September. It is a cultural moment that has made white writers look in the mirror and wonder if we have been confusing it with a window. White writers are not used to being objectified in this way. One of our conceits has been to imagine ourselves as neutral, objective, and value-free. Yet this sense of “objectivity” is itself constructed, organized, and enforced. And, within the context of racist police violence and obstructions to voting, it is particularly striking that the current incarnation of this old question has reëmerged in the language of “rights.” As Shriver told her audience:
Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.
Shriver conveys an image of white writers besieged by fierce and powerful forces that are leveraging punitive controls. Yet, despite her stance, many writers of color have generously responded to Shriver’s talk instead of dismissing it with silence. The African-American novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote in the Times:
It’s the wish not so much to be able to write a character of another race, but to do so without criticism. And at the heart of that rather ludicrous request is a question of power.
The writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, in the Los Angeles Times, contextualized the debate in terms of material realities:
It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.
But what of the white writer who wishes to be artistically engaged but who simultaneously does not want to re-create cultural dominance in her work? Are there complex, nuanced representations by other white people which we might turn toward? I suggest that one answer may lie in the unlikely legacy of a pale, sickly writer from the mid-twentieth century, who smoked and drank herself to death by the age of fifty, and whose own personal turmoil and self-destruction may be at the root of the enormous insights about difference found throughout her work. 

In 1940, a white twenty-three-year-old woman, slight and awkwardly charming, from segregated Georgia, published an extraordinary novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Richard Wright, in his review in The New Republic, wrote:
To me the most impressive aspect of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
The writer in question was Lula Carson Smith, known to history as Carson McCullers. In her subsequent novels “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Member of the Wedding,” and “Clock Without Hand” (typed with one finger when she was paralyzed from multiple strokes), in the novella and story collection “Ballad of the Sad Café,” in the memoir “Illumination and Night Glare” (dictated from her bed), and in two plays, “Member of the Wedding” and “The Square Root of Wonderful,” McCullers inhabits a startlingly broad range of characters: a Jewish, gay deaf man; a dwarf; a black Marxist doctor and his adult children; and a number of role-defying white girls with great dreams. McCullers had an almost singular ability to humanize any kind of person, many of whom had never appeared in American literature before she created them.

For example, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” defies most black characters created by white authors, in any era. Middle-class and educated, Copeland is a physician, whose family life is emotionally complex; intellectually, he is a Marxist:
All that we own is our bodies. And we sell our bodies every day we live. We sell them when we go out in the morning to our jobs and when we labor all the day. We are forced to sell at any price, at any time, for any purpose. We are forced to sell our bodies so that we can eat and live. And the price which is given us for this is only enough so that we will have the strength to labor longer for the profits of others.
The only contemporary writer who approaches McCullers’s breadth of characterization is Caryl Phillips, the novelist from St. Kitts, who can inhabit a male slave owner so in love with a black slave that he frees him, and then reverses the crossing to chase him to Liberia; or a white woman in the eighteen-twenties, discovering the Caribbean for the first time; or other masterful illuminations of perspectives not his own. But McCullers remains the standard-bearer for white authors, and for almost twenty years now I have been on a journey to try to understand how she did it. Who does a white writer have to be in order to overcome the institutionalized ignorance in which we are shrouded?

I have tried—with varying degrees of success and failure—to capture in my novels, plays, and screenplays the world that I inhabit, one of difference. My first book, “Sophie Horowitz Story,” published in 1984, included what I believe to be the first Asian lesbian character in an American novel, not that the characterization succeeded beyond mere existence. In four novels about the aids crisis, I represented gay men with aids, sometimes in the first person. But black characters remained secondary. It was only in my novel “Shimmer,” from 1998, that I first started working with black co-protagonists. A historical novel set at the dawning of McCarthyism, “Shimmer” re-created the so-called American Dream fiction, with a young gay white woman and a young black straight man as the emblematic Americans striving to “make it”—but, in this case, discovering that the American Dream is simply not available to them.

I was proud of my research, my listening, my delving into plays and novels by black writers to attempt the re-creation that McCullers found with “ease”—the room of black people where no white person is present. This, of course, is the hardest work of a white writer, because that is a room we can never enter. Personally, “Shimmer” is a favorite of my novels, but the illusion of success came crashing down one day, some months after publication, when the novelist Jacqueline Woodson took me aside. She mentioned a section, halfway into the story, set in network-TV conference rooms where scripts for “Amos ‘n’ Andy” are being written. Jackie pointed to a scene where one of the black protagonists, a young woman researching her family’s history, comes to believe that her beloved grandfather, a proponent of “uplift,” was once married to a white woman. Jackie explained that this concern about hidden racial mixing was a white anxiety. She told me that black people know the history of slavery and rape, and don’t carry the same concepts of racial purity as white people. That, in fact, I had committed the error I most feared: putting white consciousness into the mind and mouth of a black character.

It was around this time that I first discovered Carson McCullers. I have since written a play about McCullers; I am currently writing a movie about her, and am about a third of the way through a novel in which her death plays a central role. For almost twenty years, I have tried to understand how McCullers embodied what Richard Wright called “an attitude towards life” that “cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically”—one that enabled her to imagine and create consciousness that was not her own, and also one that was not widely available in other novels or movies.

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Friday, 21 October 2016

Watching the sun set - The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire

In July 1944, Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, proposed a meeting of the Big Three, the Anglo-American-Soviet triumvirate that was presently to be victorious in the war against Nazi Germany. His idea was that he, Roosevelt and Stalin should each sail in his own battleship to an anchorage off Invergordon in Scotland, where each would be provided with his own mansion on shore, and the King of England could entertain them all at Balmoral.

Just a year later, we see Churchill, by then no longer presiding over His Majesty's government, saying goodbye to Field Marshal Lord Wavell, the viceroy of India, who has been in London trying to arrange the handover of power to his Indian subjects. "Keep a bit of India", are Churchill's wistful last words to him - all he can say, as the British prepare to dissolve the empire he himself had famously surmised might last a thousand years.

The two passages superficially summarise the message of Peter Clarke's work. In the first the British empire is apparently still in the full flush of pomp and confidence, led by a charismatic genius, thinking in battleships; in the second it is reduced to bathos, its now impotent champion figuratively closing the door as the pro-consul returns, panoplied but forlorn, to his duties. In between, as this long book majestically demonstrates, the empire tortuously, deceptively and often misleadingly progresses towards extinction. "Buggering on" is how Churchill himself once described it.

And it is above all his story, as the truest personification of the empire - inspiring, fallible, maddening, foolish, visionary, lovable and often misleading. It is a tale less tragic than pathetic. At its start Churchill is genuinely heroic, properly representing a nation in arms, and recognising already that it was likely to be Britain's finest hour. Halfway through we see him struggling to maintain its status as the two gigantic allies inexorably assume control of the war - they never did bring their battleships to Scotland, but instead met at Yalta, where Churchill made do with a 22-year-old passenger liner. And by the end he has been dismissed from office by his own electorate, battered by the long struggle and apparently more interested in the past and future than in the present.

The pathos, however, lies not in himself - he never seems personally pathetic - but in his times, and the Shakespearian fascination of Clarke's narrative concerns the nature of history. The British empire's principal enemy was its principal friend. Even at their most generous, Americans of all parties were essentially hostile not to Britain itself, but to its imperial pretensions. Even Lend-Lease, which Churchill characterised as the most selfless act in history, turned out to be a sort of Pyrrhic gift, and an inescapable theme of the book is American suspicion of British imperialist motives, expressed in the squabbling of generals, the malice of Zionists and the constant nagging of isolationist newspapers.

Little by little in these 560 pages, as the war ends and the uneasy peace begins, we watch the British presence pale, and British influence weaken. Professor Clarke's thousand days are approximate - his first chapter is set in September 1944, his last chapter takes us to August 1947, and in fact the empire struggled on into the 1960s. It is true, though, that in the couple of years between VE Day and the day of Indian independence, the imperial sun palpably set. Palestine and Mau-Mau, Suez and the groundnut scheme, even the death of Churchill himself - these were like the repetitive closing chords of a Beethoven symphony that tantalisingly recur when we have long known how it is going to end.

If that one incomparable character dominates the story, an extraordinary gallery of less striking players strut their hours in it: Roosevelt and Gandhi and Bevin and Montgomery and Uncle Joe Stalin; the austere Stafford Cripps, the hatchet-faced Molotov, Truman of Kansas City; rock-like General Marshall, the irrepressible General Patton. And all around them too, their responses swept here and there by propaganda, atavism and the fortunes of war, the cannon-fodder millions of the belligerent states.

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Friday, 14 October 2016

The Man Who Invented The Drug Memoir - Thomas De Quincey

Long before he tried opium, Thomas De Quincey, the English essayist, was addicted to books. The cycles of “remorse and deadly anxiety” that he suffered in his adult life began when he was seven, after a kindly bookseller lent him three guineas. This, according to Frances Wilson’s new biography, “Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was De Quincey’s “earliest trespass”: a “mysterious (and indeed guilty) current of debt” that he feared would carry him away. Among the books De Quincey acquired, there was a history of Britain, expected to grow in time to “sixty or eighty parts.” But he craved something vaster and more dangerous, so he purchased “a general history of navigation, supported by a vast body of voyages”: a work that was, like its subject, “indefinite as to its ultimate extent” and, as he was told by a jesting clerk, might involve as many as fifteen thousand volumes. It would “never end,” De Quincey reasoned, since by the time “all the one-legged commodores and yellow admirals” of one generation had finished, “another generation would have grown another crop of the same gallant spinners.” You can hear the elation mixed in with the dread: according to a logical short circuit that was characteristic of his thought, an infinite subject meant infinite books. Debt was only the punctuation between ecstasies. De Quincey was happiest when he was chipping away at the sublime, volume by volume or vision by vision, and his happiness was always dangerously leveraged.

Wilson’s book is a revelatory study of its subject. De Quincey was thirty-six when “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” his sensational memoir of addiction, was published, anonymously, in 1821. At the time, Wilson writes, England was “marinated in opium, which was taken for everything from upset stomachs to sore heads.” It was swallowed in the form of pills or dissolved in alcohol to make laudanum, the tincture preferred by De Quincey. The Turks, it was said, all suffered from opium dependence. But English doctors prescribed it with abandon. The drug was given to women for menstrual discomfort and to children for the hiccups. All the while, its glamour was growing: it was ancient, shamanic, a supernatural tether to otherworldly visions. You could find reference to it in Homer and Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare. In his essay “Coleridge and Opium-Eating,” De Quincey wrote that he had found it referenced, too, in John Milton’s great Biblical epic:
You know the Paradise Lost? and you remember from the eleventh book, in its earlier part, that laudanum already existed in Eden—nay, that it was used medicinally by an archangel; for, after Michael had “purged with euphrasy and rue” the eyes of Adam, lest he should be unequal to the mere sight of the great visions about to unfold their draperies before him, next he fortifies his fleshly spirits against the affliction of these visions, of which visions the first was death. And how? “He from the well of life three drops instill’d.”
The image of Adam getting high in the Garden of Eden may seem outlandish, but opium had made a kind of Adam out of De Quincey: in “the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain,” he wandered through ancient cities “beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatómpylos,” crammed with “temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles.” Opium deepened his “natural inclination for a solitary life” by giving a cosmic cast to idleness. “More than once,” he wrote, “it has happened to me, on a summer-night, when I have been at an open window . . . from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, without wishing to move.”

Motionlessness is not peace of mind, but De Quincey, who struggled his entire life to find a comfortable way to inhabit time, had good reason to prize it. Writing late in his life to his daughter, he identified “procrastination,” which he linked with unpardonable guilt, as “that most odious of vices”: the procrastinator is doomed, since “in midst of too-soonness he shall suffer the killing anxieties of too-lateness.” “Our fate is always to find ourselves at the wrong station,” he wrote. Once he’d bought one book, it was too late; he had, in effect, bought them all, which excused him to buy a second book and then a third. This was the destructive logic behind his opium use: to have started something was to be already too late to stop it, as though a delegate, sent to the future, were messing things up for the innocent De Quincey, back here in the past. It was an insight about time, and also about identity. De Quincey seemed to fear the idea that there were others of him, distributed throughout time and space, acting as his agents without his explicit command. He understood himself, for good or for ill, to exist in duplicate or triplicate. Probably every great autobiographer, characterizing the choices and dilemmas faced by an almost unrecognizable younger person whose name he bears, feels a version of this; for De Quincey, it was a lifelong fixation, heightened by his addiction and marring his happiness even as it informed his greatest work.

His confusion set in early. He was born Thomas Quincey, in Manchester in 1785; the prefix was added when he was around eleven, in one of his mother’s many attempts to suggest an aristocratic lineage. A series of blows levelled the family before De Quincey’s tenth birthday. His sister Jane died when he was four. Two years later, his beloved sister Elizabeth, his “leader and companion,” died at the age of nine, likely of meningitis. In “Suspiria de Profundis,” De Quincey writes that on the day after her death he sneaked up the back staircase to view her body, laid out in her bedroom:
Entering, I closed the door so softly, that, although it opened upon a hall which ascended through all the stories, no echo ran along the silent walls. Then turning round, I sought my sister’s face. But the bed had been moved; and the back was now turned. Nothing met my eyes but one large window wide open, through which the sun of midsummer at noonday was showering down torrents of splendour.
The corpse is dispatched with stock adjectives: “frozen” eyelids, “marble” lips, “stiffening” hands. De Quincey is fixated, instead, on the “solemn wind” that “swept the fields of mortality for a hundred centuries . . . the one sole audible symbol of eternity.” He adds, “And three times in my life I have happened to hear the same sound in the same circumstances, namely, when standing between an open window and a dead body on a summer day.”

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Thursday, 13 October 2016

T. S. Eliot: Whispers of Immortality

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

                         .  .  .  .  .

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonnette;

The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.

                                                               1918, 1919

Fanny Burney wrote one of the most courageous pieces of work I’ve ever encountered

As presenter of Woman’s Hour I’m no stranger to the history of women who, over the centuries, have risen above the prejudice imposed on their gender, and whose lives began to be uncovered in the latter part of the 20th century as women’s studies became an acceptable subject for academic research. But nowhere could I find a book which gathered together a group of those who had most excited my interest and admiration.

Then came reports in November 2015 that it was proposed to cut feminism from the politics A-level syllabus. The suffragette movement was to be squeezed into a section on “pressure groups” and only one political thinker, Mary Wollstonecraft, was to be mentioned by name. My son had come home some years earlier with his text book for 20th-century British history and recognised (thank goodness) that something was missing. “Mum,” he said, “I don’t think this is right. I can’t find any women in this book except half a page on the suffragettes.” That’s my boy!

Then I came across Thomas Carlyle’s “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, written in 1840, and, in Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys (1997), “It’s important to remember that men built the planes, fought the wars, laid the railroad tracks, invented the cars, built the hospitals, invented the medicines and sailed the ships that made it all happen.”

It became vital to bring together a group of female warriors, poets, playwrights, painters, composers, campaigners, scientists, engineers, doctors and politicians for the benefit of all those young people who need to know that the history of Britain is the biography of great men and women.

Fanny Burney is one such woman. Though certainly not the most accomplished novelist in the canon of English literature, she was successful in her day, often writing in her fiction about the difficulties faced by women in getting an education, taking control of their own lives and surviving the social whirl of the nouveau riche. Virginia Woolf called her “the mother of English fiction”.

Her diaries are phenomenal, giving us the most gossipy and often scandalous details of life in literary and intellectual London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She was at the centre of a circle that included Dr Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell. Her diaries give a far more intimate portrait of Dr Johnson than do those of the man she referred to rather scathingly as Bozzy.

She also wrote one of the most courageous pieces of work I’ve ever encountered. I read it around the time I, like so many 21 century women, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Burney’s is the first example I’ve come across of a woman writing about so intimate an event as a diagnosis of breast cancer and a mastectomy. Even today, when I wrote about my experience, it was regarded as a brave thing to do, though we no longer have any squeamish concerns about speaking the words “breast” and “cancer” out loud. It was generally deemed to be helpful, making it clear that there’s no shame attached to the diagnosis and it can be endured and survived.

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