Friday, 28 December 2012

The Letters of George Gissing

It is not so very hard to write with fair satisfaction about an author known to one only by his work. Criticism may be difficult but at least the issues are not confused by the ten thousand mingled and often contradictory memories of intimate friendship. Writers who are keenly conscious of the value of consistency may preserve it in what they do, for their art is not merely selection from life as they view it, but from their many possible interpretations of it. To talk alone with George Meredith, for instance, was not to talk with the author of "The Egoist," but with some one who could use plain English. When others were present he could seek visibly for phrases. When he wrote he acted and ceased to be himself. So too, Henry James could be as simple in conversation as he was complex in his books. And the better we know any author the better do we know that for all his striving to express himself fully he never does it and never can. It was so with George Gissing, and for that reason I find it almost, if not entirely, impossible to write of him without contradiction. Any who look for a clear exposition of his character must seek it from those who are sure of it. Of these there are many. They, know what they know and end in thinking what they know is all, or all that has any importance. This is the usual way of casual criticism and even of too many biographies. They give us a map and say it is the country. Yes, and so is a guide book London or New York I Is any man less complex in his way than a city? We may get more out of a bundle of sketches in pencil, or ink, or colour, than out of a library. This, or any other screed I have written about George Gissing, is but a casual sketch. With care and labour I could eliminate the contradictions or smoothe them over, but I prefer to leave them as they came. The repetitions in them are many. Is that not because I can see him and hear him talking? Is it not better to show him in that way than to take a dead photograph? I leave the answer not merely to the critics but also to those who like to see the writer in whom they are interested show signs of life, happy or unhappy as may be.

It is true that on the whole Gissing's life was not a happy one, but when looking lately through a great mass of notices of his work it almost seemed that I must be wrong in thinking he ever smiled, even faintly, and that any memory I have of real merriment in him is the figment of my own imagination. These critics, able or unable, sympathetic or hostile, were wholly without personal knowledge of the man and, being subdued to the prevalent tone of his work, may naturally have thought that really joyous laughter and even Rabelaisian humour were as alien from him as Rabelais was from Saint Thomas Aquinas, John Knox, or Savonarola. For them Gissing was a kind of literary Hogarth whose whole comedy of life was a sordid tragedy. Did he not depict life as on the whole utterly hateful, utterly miserable, utterly hopeless? If so, how could he himself be anything but continually unhappy? But what writer, however skilled, has ever revealed the whole of his nature ? No one shall ever persuade me that Dante himself did not sometimes smile, even on the stairs of Can Grande. The severe Cromwell relieved his revolutionary soul with practical jokes; the mathematical and prophetic Newton played with a dog; the melancholy Burton laughed at the cursing bargees. Cromwell did not exist merely, to cut off the head of a King, Newton to be wise about astronomy and foolish about the Biblical Prophets, Burton to analyze the madness of which he finally perished. So Gissing's whole nature was given in "Born in Exile," or in "New Grub Street." These very books showed how greatly his whole hedonistic nature revolted against the conditions of which he wrote. But was it just the dark and bitter author of such social indictments who wrote to me one Christmas Eve from Naples: "Sunlight and warmth and uproar—Napoli! Thank Heaven I am here again. Naples is in a wonderful state of Christmas activity. The Toledo is lined with stalls and the uproar more terrific than ever." This was the real man coming out: the man who loved life and who, when life was abundantly and joyously expressed, could not merely endure but sympathize with the cheerful vulgarity of a happy crowd. He wanted little if that little was real living. The simplest enjoyments were as much relished by him as others might relish a choice banquet. He could even do what I always failed to do, for he could chuckle joyfully over some worthless wine which, in some of the little Italian restaurants of Soho, brought back to his vivid imagination the vineyards of his Italy, that Italy which was for him the happy sunlit child of the severe classic Rome he adored. In these things he was as simple as a child and as easily made happy.

I have said elsewhere that my collection of Gissing's letters is far from complete. Those written to me from 1881 to 1894 disappeared in some inscrutable manner. While I was in Canada and the United States and for a long time afterwards, when my camping grounds in London varied from Chelsea to Dane's Inn, they were entrusted to my mother, who had a remarkable capacity for putting things away in such security that she could never find them again. To me this was a great loss and I believe it a great loss to the English literary, world. They covered the period in which he was for a time so far under the influence of Frederic Harrison as to call himself a Positivist and to date his letters according to the Positivist hagiology in the Comtist Calendar. I have no copy of this remarkable document but I remember one of his letters was dated Bichat, who, perhaps to the surprise of his ghost, became a kind of saint in it. This queer lapse of Gissing's into such an apology for religion as Positivism was not enduring. Even the vaguest affirmative "belief" was not suited to his disposition, and his strained departure from indifference was morbid in origin. The vanished letters which prove this odd lapse on the part of Gissing may perhaps be recovered.

More here.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Virginia Woolf: The Decay of Essay Writing

The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum--how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger--come at all hours of the day and fall in the night, so that the morning breakfast table is fairly snowed up with them. 

This age has painted itself more faithfully than any other in a myriad of clever and conscientious though not supremely great works of fiction; it has tried seriously to liven the faded colours of bygone ages; it has delved industriously with spade and axe in the rubbish-heaps and ruins; and, so far, we can only applaud our use of pen and ink. But if you have a monster like the British public to feed, you will try to tickle its stale palate in new ways; fresh and amusing shapes must be given to the old commodities--for we really have nothing so new to say that it will not fit into one of the familiar forms. So we confine ourselves to no one literary medium; we try to be new by being old; we revive mystery-plays and affect an archaic accent; we deck ourselves in the fine raiment of an embroidered style; we cast off all clothing and disport ourselves nakedly. In short, there is no end to our devices, and at this very moment probably some ingenious youth is concocting a fresh one which, be it ever so new, will grow stale in its turn. If there are thus an infinite variety of fashions in the external shapes of our wares, there are a certain number--naturally not so many--of wares that are new in substance and in form which we have either invented or very much developed. Perhaps the most significant of these literary inventions is the invention of the personal essay. It is true that it is at least as old as Montaigne, but we may count him the first of the moderns. It has been used with considerable frequency since his day, but its popularity with us is so immense and so peculiar that we are justified in looking upon it as something of our own--typical, characteristic, a sign of the times which will strike the eye of our great-great-grandchildren. Its significance, indeed, lies not so much in the fact that we have attained any brilliant success in essay-writing--no one has approached the essays of Elia--but in the undoubted facility with which we write essays as though this were beyond all others our natural way of speaking. The peculiar form of an essay implies a peculiar substance; you can say in this shape what you cannot with equal fitness say in any other. A very wide definition obviously must be that which will include all the varieties of thought which are suitably enshrined in essays; but perhaps if you say that an essay is essentially egoistical you will not exclude many essays and you will certainly include a portentous number. Almost all essays begin with a capital I--"I think," "I feel"--and when you have said that, it is clear that you are not writing history or philosophy or biography or anything but an essay, which may be brilliant or profound, which may deal with the immortality of the soul, or the rheumatism in your left shoulder, but is primarily an expression of personal opinion. 

We are not--there is, alas! no need to prove it--more subject to ideas than our ancestors; we are not, I hope, in the main more egoistical; but there is one thing in which we are more highly skilled than they are; and that is in manual dexterity with a pen. There can be no doubt that it is to the art of penmanship that we owe our present literature of essays. The very great of old--Homer and Aeschylus--could dispense with a pen; they were not inspired by sheets of paper and gallons of ink; no fear that their harmonies, passed from lip to lip, should lose their cadence and die. But our essayists write because the gift of writing has been bestowed on them. Had they lacked writing-masters we should have lacked essayists. There are, of course, certain distinguished people who use this medium from genuine inspiration because it best embodies the soul of their thought. But, on the other hand, there is a very large number who make the fatal pause, and the mechanical act of writing is allowed to set the brain in motion which should only be accessible to a higher inspiration. ...

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

William Hazlitt: On the difference between writing and speaking

Some minds are proportioned to that which may be dispatched at once, or within a short return of time: others to that which begins afar off, and is to be won with length of pursuit.—-Bacon.
It is a common observation, that few persons can be found who speak and write equally well. Not only is it obvious that the two faculties do not always go together in the same proportions: but they are not unusually in direct opposition to each other. We find that the greatest authors often make the worst company in the world; and again, some of the liveliest fellows imaginable in conversation, or extempore speaking, seem to lose all their vivacity and spirit the moment they set pen to paper. For this a greater degree of quickness or slowness of parts, education, habit, temper, turn of mind, and a variety of collateral and predisposing causes are necessary to account. The subject is at least curious, and worthy of an attempt to explain it. I shall endeavor to illustrate the difference by familiar examples rather than by analytical reasonings. The philosopher of old was not unwise who defined motion by getting up and walking.

The great leading distinction between writing and speaking is, that more time is allowed for the one than the other; and hence different faculties are required for, and different objects attained by, each. He is properly the best speaker who can collect together the greatest number of apposite ideas at a moment’s warning: he is properly the best writer who can give utterance to the greatest quantity of valuable knowledge in the course of his whole life. The chief requisite for the one, then, appears to be quickness and facility of perception—for the other, patience of soul, and a power increasing with the difficulties it has to master. He cannot be denied to be an expert speaker, a lively companion, who is never at a loss for something to say on every occasion or subject that offers: he, by the same rule, will make a respectable writer, who, by dint of study, can find out anything good to say upon any one point that has not been touched upon before, or who, by asking for time, can give the most complete and comprehensive view of any question. The one must be done off-hand, at a single blow: the other can only be done by a repetition of blows, by having time to think and do better. In speaking, less is required of you, if you only do it at once, with grace and spirit: in writing, you stipulate for all that you are capable of, but you have the choice of your own time and subject. You do not expect from the manufacturer the same despatch in executing an order that you do from a shopman or warehouseman. The difference of quicker and slower, however, is not all: that is merely a difference of comparison in doing the same thing. But the writer and speaker have to do things essentially different. Besides habit, and greater or less facility, there is also a certain reach of capacity, a certain depth or shallowness, grossness or refinement of intellect, which marks out the distinction between those whose chief ambition is to shine by producing an immediate effect, or who are thrown back, by a natural bias, on the severer researches of thought and study. We see persons of that standard or texture of mind that they can do nothing, but on the spur of the occasion: if they have time to deliberate, they are lost. There are others who have no resource, who cannot advance a step by any efforts or assistance, beyond a successful arrangement of commonplaces: but these they have always at command, at everybody’s service. There is [Fletcher?]-meet him where you will in the street, he has his topic ready to discharge in the same breath with the customary forms of salutations; he is hand and glove with it; on it goes and off, and he manages it like Wart his caliver.

Hear him but reason in divinity,
And, all-admiring, with an inward wish
You would desire that he were made a prelate.
Let him but talk of any state-affair,
You’d say it had been all in all his study.
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter. When he speaks,
The air, a charter’d libertine, stands still

but, ere you have time to answer him, he is off like a shot, to repeat the same rounded, fluent observations to others:—a perfect master of the sentences, a walking polemic wound up for the day, a smartly bound political pocketbook! Set the same person to write a common paragraph, and he cannot get through it for very weariness: ask him a question, ever so little out of the common road, and he stares you in the face. What does all this bustle, animation, plausibility, and command of words amount to? A lively flow of animal spirits, a good deal of confidence, a communicative turn, and a tolerably tenacious memory with respect to floating opinions and current phrases. Beyond the routine of the daily newspapers and coffeehouse criticism, such persons do not venture to think at all: or if they did, it would be so much the worse for them, for they would only be perplexed in the attempt, and would perform their part in the mechanism of society with so much the less alacrity and easy volubility.

More here.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Sir John Everett Millais: A Jersey Lilly (Lillie Langtry) 1878

Lillie Langtry (her real name was Emile Charlotte) was born on the English Channel island of Jersey, in 1853. The only daughter in a family of six sons, she was raised in the vicarage, for her father was the Dean. She gained an early reputation for beauty, and received her first marriage proposal when she was in her early teens. At 20, she married the plump and pompous Edward Langtry, who turned out to be not quite as wealthy as he pretended.

At Lillie's insistence, the Langtrys moved to London, where she was swept into society and became a Professional Beauty (the term used at the time to describe women whose face and figure brought them fame). Painted by the most famous artists of the day, praised by poet Oscar Wilde as "The Jersey Lily," she inevitably attracted the attention of that notorious connoisseur of women, the Prince of Wales. She was his mistress for three or so years, and although she was also involved with Prince Louis of Battenberg (the likely father of her only child, Jeanne Marie), she and the Prince remained occasional lovers until the turn of the century. ...

Lillie married Irish landowner Edward Langtry in 1874. Some say that the attraction to Edward was because of his yacht and that he insisted he take her away from Jersey and set up home in London. Lillie did not begin her stage career until several years later after her husband had become bankrupt. She also had a daughter who was born in 1881, Jeanne Marie Langtry (who married Sir Ian Malcolm of Poltalloch in 1902, had four children, and died in 1964), and whose father was definitely not Lillie's husband. The child's actual father was reportedly Lillie Langtry's lover Prince Louis of Battenberg (later 1st Marquess of Milford Haven, 1854-1921), who married Queen Victoria's granddaughter Princess Victoria of Hesse and the Rhine in 1884 and became father of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy of India, and grandfather of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. A recent biography of Langtry suggests that another of her lovers, Arthur Jones, may have been Jeanne Marie's father, though Prince Louis's son, Lord Mountbatten, always maintained that his father was the one.

Lillie's heyday as a society beauty culminated in her becoming a semi-official mistress to the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria's son Albert Edward ("Bertie"), the future king Edward VII. Other lovers included wealthy Britons Robert Peel and George Baird. Among her friends were the Irish writer Oscar Wilde and the American artist James McNeill Whistler. She was for a time the manager of the Imperial Theatre and also manufactured claret at her 4,200 acre (17 km²) winery in Lake County (northern) California, which she purchased in 1888 and sold in 1906.

In 1887 Lillie became an American citizen, and divorced her husband the same year in California. In 1899, she married the much younger Hugo Gerald de Bathe, who would inherit a baronetcy, and became a leading owner in the horse-racing world, before retiring to Monte Carlo. She died there in 1929, and was buried in the graveyard of St. Saviour's Church in Jersey - the church of which her father had been rector.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Dorothea Casaubon and George Eliot

CHANCE brought into my hands three years ago Mr. Richard Hutton’s fine volume on the “Leaders of Religious Thought in England”; and I turned with natural interest to the essay on George Eliot, who was so intimately known to me through a long series of years, and to the criticism on “Middlemarch” and its heroine, Dorothea Casaubon. And I reflected that, so far as I knew, nearly all the elaborate criticisms on George Eliot’s work had been written by men. Women seem to have held aloof with a sort of fear from any attempt to measure the achievements of that extraordinary mind; and yet neither her ponderous weight of learning, nor the full flow of her thought, nor the extraordinary wealth of illustration with which she wrought out her meaning should have hindered women from discussing the utterances of one who was in her own person essentially womanly, and who bore down upon the younger members of her own sex with what seemed for a time to be an almost irresistible impact.

There are reasons which make “Middlemarch” especially interesting to me; for it was there that I first saw the writer! It is a much truer book than “Adam Bede”—truer, I mean, to the real conviction of the creating mind. “Adam Bede” is a wonderful tour de force—a painting from knowledge and observation of a group of people known, for the most part, to George Eliot in her youth, and the finest of whom were profoundly moved by convictions on which had ceased to have the slightest hold. During the years when I saw her most intimately, I had with her private conversations, and heard her speak with others in a weighty, thoughtful manner which left not the slightest loophole for the idea that at this period of her life, from 1850 onwards, she retained any faith in Christianity. I think that her unbelief was historical, I had almost said mechanical, but it was of the most sincere and absolute kind.

Yet these intellectual conclusions were in singular opposition to the general cast of her character. Born myself in the very bosom of Puritan England, and fed daily upon the strict letter of the Scripture from aged lips which I regarded with profound reverence, I am in a position to declare that, from first to last, George Eliot was the living incarnation of English Dissent. She had “Chapel” written in every line of the thoughtful, somewhat severe, face; not the flourishing Dissent of Spurgeon or Parker, or the florid kindliness of Ward Beecher, or the culture of Stopford Brooke, but the Dissent of Jonathan Edwards, of Philip Henry, of John Wesley as he was ultimately forced to be. Her horror of a lie, her unflinching industry, and sedulous use of all her talents, her extraordinary courage—even her dress, which, spend as she might and ultimately did, could never be lifted into fashion and retained a certain quaint solemnity of cut and gesture like an eighteenth‐century diction applied to clothes—everything about her, to me, suggested Bunyan in his Bedford prison, or Mary Bosanquet watched by Fletcher of Madeley as she bore the pelting of the stones in the streets of Northampton. No one has ever before said this, so far as I know; no one has ever attempted to describe her as I saw her in her younger years, but I think I saw the truth. She has been compared personally to Dante and Savonarola. I think that her real affinity may be traced nearer home; that there was in her nothing Italian, nothing in any sense foreign; in the Wars of the Roses her ancestors would have adhered to any leader who promised best for the people; in those of the Commonwealth the brewer of Huntingdon would have commanded them to a man. And precisely in such an atmosphere, except for certain differences of speculative opinion, did I first see George Eliot. Driving from Warwick through the arching elms of that embowered nook of the Shires, with a very dear and gifted companion (a descendant of Oliver Cromwell), we reached Coventry, and Rose Bank, the house of Mr. Charles Bray. It lay on the outskirts of that provincial town which has been rendered doubly famous by George Eliot’s life and letters, and is at least the suggestion of the Middlemarch of her dream. There, being at the time myself just one and twenty, I was taken to make the acquaintance of the very learned scholar, Miss Evans. Not Abelard in all his glory, not the veritable Isaac Casaubon of French Huguenot fame, not Spinosa in Holland or Porson in England, seemed to my young imagination more astonishing than this woman, herself not far removed from youth, who knew a bewildering number of learned and modern languages, and wrote articles in a first‐class quarterly.

I remember the scene vividly, though, unfortunately, after so long an interval of time, I can remember none of the conversation. George Eliot had a bad headache, and received us kindly and politely, but with an air of resigned fatigue, Mr. Bray himself was a great talker; always full of ideas, somewhat vigorously expressed. I do not remember that Miss Evans said any noteworthy thing, but I looked at her reverently, and noticed her extraordinary quantity of beautiful brown hair (always to the last a great charm), and that we all went out and stood on a sort of little terrace at the end of the garden, to see the sunset, and that the light fell full on her head and was reflected from her kind blue eyes. And as night fell, my companion and I were driven back to Warwick, and I did not see the learned scholar again till the next year in London, the year 1851. ...

Friday, 21 December 2012

Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell, who has died aged 94, is inevitably regarded as the English Proust, on the strength of the massive novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time - 12 volumes and a million words - that became his central life's work. The Proust impact was more dominant and more obvious than that of other great European novelists and assorted influences from Petronius to modern Americans. Yet he will stand as essentially a comic writer in the English tradition - comic in the least uproarious way imaginable, reflective and often melancholic, the strong social spine to his work being the one distinctively uncommon feature in a branch of writing remarkable more for eccentricity than togetherness.

In fact, Powell has a measure of both. He goes in for no deep psychological dredging, yet his novels rest on a firmer base of instinct and belief than is usual among the English comedians. He is fascinated by the play of time and chance on character, and it is by no means time and chance that always win. His narrating hero and anchorman, Nicholas Jenkins, is constantly being mildly surprised by the way things and people turn out.

The unpredictability of life, as Powell himself described, is built into his structure as an essential part of it. Coincidences, so irritating to some readers, often happen in life, so why should they be forbidden to fiction? They are not excluded from Powell's novels, nor are all manner of trivia other writers might scorn or mishandle. It was his belief that with the right cook in charge anything could go into the cauldron. A novelist never lacks material - only the capacity and energy to handle it.

Silver spoons, in the Powell kitchen, were never in short supply. The world he deals with, upper middle-class life from the 1920s onward, is his own world. The son and grandson of distinguished soldiers, he spent part of his childhood with his mother in rented accommodation in the home counties following his father, a lieutenant-colonel in the Welch regiment. He was at Eton, where he was a contemporary of Orwell and a founding member of the Eton Society of Arts, and then at Balliol College. After Oxford, he got a job with Duckworth, a small London publishing house, but left after nine years to write scripts for Warner Brothers, even paying a six-month visit to Hollywood.

His first novel, Afternoon Men, appeared in 1931 and there were several others by way of prelude, followed by a long silence through the war - he joined his father's regiment before being transferred to the Intelligence Corps - and for some years after it. Then, in 1951, came the start of The Music of Time sequence, the title deriving from Nicolas Poussin's allegorical painting. The books emerged at roughly two-yearly intervals.

The sequence, stretching across a quarter of a century from A Question of Upbringing (1951) to Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975), is more than a successful fictional marathon. It achieves a coherence, a central vitality which runs sluggishly at times but is never extinguished. His vast army of characters, clubmen all, pursue their power games through peace and war, marriage or divorce, in sickness and in health. War - as memorably described in the ninth volume, The Military Philosophers - is for Powell-people an extension of ordinary life; the flow is diverted but not stemmed, and rank is merely a crude token of what always existed in this elegantly competitive world. Some characters may only be glimpsed before disappearing from view, perhaps springing up like blades of grass in another volume years later. But nothing is lost or without its effect on the total pattern, while the allegorical master of the dance - as in the Poussin picture - smiles a shade malignly.

Other characters are as perennial as the unreliable Dicky Umfraville, often in hot - or at least very warm - water, first noted leaving school under a cloud (not actually expelled, it was insisted) and last seen masquerading as an octogenar ian drug-addict. Or the ever-indulgent Lady Molly, whose house in South Kensington, more than the Ritz, is really open to all.

With Powell's known writing method and this roving cast of hundreds there was naturally much speculation about who were the originals, in whole or more usually in part, of the characters appearing in the Dance. Sometimes the guess-who game was easy, as with the well-known Fitzrovian writer and reviewer Julian Maclaren-Ross who became the character X Trapnel. He appears as a novelist who holds forth at length about the art of the novel to the narrator Jenkins, also a novelist. He insists, and Jenkins doesn't contradict, that naturalism is only natural in the right hands and that reading novels takes almost as much talent as writing them. It can hardly be carrying presumption too far to assume that some of these ideas, as from novelist to novelist, are shared by the club's founding member, Powell himself.

More here.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Zadie Smith: Joy

It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It was the same even in childhood when most people are miserable. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way. I seem to get more than the ordinary satisfaction out of food, for example—any old food. An egg sandwich from one of these grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around. Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review.

You’d think that people would like to cook for, or eat with, me—in fact I’m told it’s boring. Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort. “Don’t say that was delicious,” my husband warns, “you say everything’s delicious.” “But it was delicious.” It drives him crazy. All day long I can look forward to a popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavor is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.

My other source of daily pleasure is—but I wish I had a better way of putting it—”other people’s faces.” A red-headed girl, with a marvelous large nose she probably hates, and green eyes and that sun-shy complexion composed more of freckles than skin. Or a heavyset grown man, smoking a cigarette in the rain, with a soggy mustache, above which, a surprise—the keen eyes, snub nose, and cherub mouth of his own eight-year-old self. Upon leaving the library at the end of the day I will walk a little more quickly to the apartment to tell my husband about an angular, cat-eyed teenager, in skinny jeans and stacked-heel boots, a perfectly ordinary gray sweatshirt, last night’s makeup, and a silky Pocahontas wig slightly askew over his own Afro. He was sashaying down the street, plaits flying, using the whole of Broadway as his personal catwalk. “Miss Thang, but off duty.” I add this for clarity, but my husband nods a little impatiently; there was no need for the addition. My husband is also a professional gawker.

The advice one finds in ladies’ magazines is usually to be feared, but there is something in that old chestnut: “shared interests.” It does help. I like to hear about the Chinese girl he saw in the hall, carrying a large medical textbook, so beautiful she looked like an illustration. Or the tall Kenyan in the elevator whose elongated physical elegance reduced every other nearby body to the shrunken, gnarly status of a troll. Usually I will not have seen these people—my husband works on the eighth floor of the library, I work on the fifth—but simply hearing them described can be almost as much a pleasure as encountering them myself. More pleasurable still is when we recreate the walks or gestures or voices of these strangers, or whole conversations—between two people in the queue for the ATM, or two students on a bench near the fountain.

And then there are all the many things that the dog does and says, entirely anthropomorphized and usually offensive, which express the universe of things we ourselves cannot do or say, to each other or to other people. “You’re being the dog,” our child said recently, surprising us. She is almost three and all our private languages are losing their privacy and becoming known to her. Of course, we knew she would eventually become fully conscious, and that before this happened we would have to give up arguing, smoking, eating meat, using the Internet, talking about other people’s faces, and voicing the dog, but now the time has come, she is fully aware, and we find ourselves unable to change. “Stop being the dog,” she said, “it’s very silly,” and for the first time in eight years we looked at the dog and were ashamed.

Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem. Until quite recently I had known joy only five times in my life, perhaps six, and each time tried to forget it soon after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else.

Let’s call it six. Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs—of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed. It is hard to arrive at generalities in the face of such a small and varied collection of data. The uncertain item is the nightclub, and because it was essentially a communal experience I feel I can open the question out to the floor. I am addressing this to my fellow Britons in particular. Fellow Britons! Those of you, that is, who were fortunate enough to take the first generation of the amphetamine ecstasy and yet experience none of the adverse, occasionally lethal reactions we now know others suffered—yes, for you people I have a question. Was that joy?

I am especially interested to hear from anyone who happened to be in the Fabric club, near the old Spitalfields meat market, on a night sometime in the year 1999 (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific) when the DJ mixed “Can I Kick It?” and then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into the deep house track he had been seeming to play exclusively for the previous four hours. I myself was wandering out of the cavernous unisex (!) toilets wishing I could find my friend Sarah, or if not her, my friend Warren, or if not him, anyone who would take pity on a girl who had taken and was about to come up on ecstasy who had lost everyone and everything, including her handbag. I stumbled back into the fray.

Most of the men were topless, and most of the women, like me, wore strange aprons, fashionable at the time, that covered just the front of one’s torso, and only remained decent by means of a few weak-looking strings tied in dainty bows behind. I pushed through this crowd of sweaty bare backs, despairing, wondering where in a super club one might bed down for the night (the stairs? the fire exit?). But everything I tried to look at quickly shattered and arranged itself in a series of patterned fragments, as if I were living in a kaleidoscope. Where was I trying to get to anyway? There was no longer any “bar” or “chill-out zone”—there was only dance floor. All was dance floor. Everybody danced. I stood still, oppressed on all sides by dancing, quite sure I was about to go out of my mind.

Then suddenly I could hear Q-Tip—blessed Q-Tip!—not a synthesizer, not a vocoder, but Q-Tip, with his human voice, rapping over a human beat. And the top of my skull opened to let human Q-Tip in, and a rail-thin man with enormous eyes reached across a sea of bodies for my hand. He kept asking me the same thing over and over: You feeling it? I was. My ridiculous heels were killing me, I was terrified I might die, yet I felt simultaneously overwhelmed with delight that “Can I Kick It?” should happen to be playing at this precise moment in the history of the world, and was now morphing into “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I took the man’s hand. The top of my head flew away. We danced and danced. We gave ourselves up to joy.

More here.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Angels to Radios: On Rainer Maria Rilke

It is said that the tradition of English poetry began with Caedmon--an illiterate seventh-century lay brother who, ashamed of his inability to versify when the harp was passed around at a feast, fell asleep in his stable among the animals and dreamed of an angel. This angel, too, bade him sing, and again Caedmon protested that he did not know any songs; but then, inexplicably, he found himself obeying the angel's dictum: "Sing the beginning of the creatures!" Immediately on waking he wrote down the eulogy to the world and its maker that had been transmitted to him in his dream; today the nine-line Anglo-Saxon "Caedmon's Hymn" is the earliest known English poem--a product of what poets now often call "dictation." The gods (or God), the muses (or the Muse); afflatus, ecstasy, poetic madness: the lore of poetry worldwide attests to the claim that poetry at its best emerges from somewhere "other"--a source beyond the poet's ego and conscious mind. Sometimes the poem appears in dreams, as with Caedmon; sometimes during autohypnosis, as with William Butler Yeats. James Merrill's medium of choice was his Ouija board; Jack Spicer's, his orphic radio. A key interchange in the transition from angels to radios is the visionary poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

As an ambitious young poet, Rilke was chastised by his elder, Stefan George: "You've started to publish too early." Damning words! Rilke had authored seven volumes of poetry before The Book of Hours, his 1905 breakthrough, and repudiated them later in life, by which time he had grown tired of the publishing marketplace altogether and taken to circulating his poems mainly among friends (Constantine Cavafy, another poet whose mature work spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was doing the same in Alexandria). Rilke turned from writing fashionable Jugendstil lyrics about maidens to producing inimitable meditations on the philosophical subjects of perceiving, knowing and being. For this he was rewarded with episodes of so-called dictation, culminating in February 1922, when he "received" a complement of Duino Elegies, which he had begun a decade before, and a new cycle, Sonnets to Orpheus.

By that point Rilke had traveled far from his origins. Born in Prague in 1875, he considered himself the product of a middling family, a middling education and a middling city. At a time when poets still honored, faithfully or fitfully, the Romantic ideal of depicting the sagas of the public world in epic terms, Rilke's distaste for his family and his city propelled him onto a different aesthetic path, one of lifelong cosmopolitan itinerancy. He escaped first to Berlin, then to Russia, then to Paris; there were sojourns in Spain, Egypt, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland; he was rerouted by World War I, and by the penury that drove him from villa to castle as the houseguest of patronesses all over Europe. (Some say he was a freeloader--his sense of entitlement is legendary.) In his introduction to Edward Snow's commanding and essential new volume of translations of Rilke's major poetic works, the culmination of decades of labor, Adam Zagajewski says that Rilke's "weak beginnings" placed him on the periphery of German culture in an era when Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin and Heine still awaited their successors. Rilke's benefactors were on the periphery as well. Most of them were aristocrats, but unlike Goethe (who was an adviser to a duke) or Yeats (who was in the Irish Senate), Rilke didn't meet them at court, and the ones he knew in private life were, as Zagajewski notes, "the shadows of once-powerful magnates."

But most important, it was out of his experience of homelessness that Rilke fashioned a persona who speaks with an elegiac voice not for himself but for the world of consciousness, which migrated here into animals (often cats), there into objects (roses, sculptures). This consciousness, which belongs to no one and everyone, earns Rilke's unending praise: it is the principle not only of biological life but ontological essence--whatever it is that causes something to arise from nothing, as in the lines carved on his tombstone:

Rose, O pure contradiction, delight
in being no one's sleep under so many

Though Rilke was marginal in his own time, his lyrical waywardness is prized in our post-Romantic one; praised by only a small group of connoisseurs when he was writing, his poetry is now beloved. Sonnets to Orpheus, Duino Elegies, his one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and perhaps most of all Letters to a Young Poet are touchstone works. Individual poems are famous: "Archaic Torso of Apollo," with its last line, "You must change your life"; "The Panther," pulsating with the energies of the caged cat. Rilke has even become something of a talisman in popular culture. He was the inspiration for the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire, and recently the pop chart-topping disco queen Lady Gaga tattooed a quintessential Rilke passage on her upper arm: "In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?" Zagajewski claims that Rilke is probably more widely read in the United States than in Germany, which implies something about Americans' fascination with existential homelessness and self-invention and drift. I first cottoned to Rilke in Snow's translations of New Poems and New Poems: The Other Part as a teenager in the mid-1980s: Snow's version of "The Panther" staked itself in my young imagination, so I can't pretend to be objective.

More here.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ruskin, Wilde, Satire, and the Birth of Aestheticism

"In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential." -Oscar Wilde, in The Chameleon 

Looking past the often hyperbolic and flippant tone of Oscar Wilde's aesthetic theories in "The Decay of Lying" (text), one finds that many of them copy or closely resemble those of John Ruskin. This similarity presents a peculiar challenge: how could Ruskin, so closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and concerned with society's relation to art, influence an aesthetic movement that attempted to divorce art from anything but itself? Looking purely at the content of Wilde's aesthetic theories, one cannot find any practical departure from Ruskin. But if one measures Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" by its form and technique, Wilde indeed presents a "new aestheticism": the virtue of his wit and style trump concerns over the originality of his ideas. Examining Ruskin, Wilde and aestheticism in terms of the sincerity of their dialogue poses important implications for discussions of the artists associated with each thinker. The Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood associated with Ruskin reflects his sincerity in their beliefs and works. Similarly, Wilde helped to foster the self-aware pursuit of shock and escape from bourgeois standards that characterized so many Aesthetes and Decadents.

Thus although the themes and techniques used by each group shared many similarities, the great chasm of sincerity lay between them, informing their goals and the products of their art. Aestheticism was not an artistic conviction in the same sense that the Pre-Raphaelitism was, but rather functioned as a mode of viewing art which might be picked up and later dropped on whim. Wilde himself held strong socialist beliefs, as evidenced in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" published two years after "Decay." In "The Soul of Man" and other essays, Wilde puts forth theories that seem to directly contradict those of his "new aestheticism," which leads many to criticize him for not having a consistent body of aesthetic criticism. But in fact those seemingly contradictory statements merely clarify the ideas beneath the surface of "The Decay" and often bring him ever closer to Ruskin. It is precisely this tension between the exaggerated ideas of Wilde's Aestheticism and the sober ones he puts forth elsewhere that defines Aestheticism.

In his 1889 mock-dialogue "The Decay of Lying," Wilde speaks of four major points in his "new aesthetics," a sort of manifesto for the aesthetic movement. Wilde not only states the principles of the "new aestheticism" in the "The Decay of Lying," but uses the form of the work itself as a demonstration of the principles of such an aestheticism. The importance of form stems from Theophile Gautier, who proposed "Une belle forme est une belle idée." For Gautier, art produced by spontaneity would not stand up over time. He compared poetry to the work of a sculptor, where the ideal poem should be a concrete, chiseled product. Wilde's essay lives up to this standard quite well with its carefully measured words. The originality of Wilde's form makes the piece an important one, not the originality of his ideas, which are in fact mostly borrowed.

The piece takes the form of a dialogue between two characters, Vivian and Cyril, named after Wilde's children. The conversational form riffs on the Platonic dialogue. Wilde presents Vivian as the much more at ease, witty and eloquent of the two; we may assume that Vivian serves as a mouthpiece for Wilde's Aesthetic theories. Cyril acts as a foil, responding with appropriate Victorian shock to all of Vivian's statements, and in one place actually interrupts Vivian mid-sentence. Wilde's choice to have the character of Vivian speak for him adds yet another layer, in addition to the hyperbole and humor of the piece, to the difficulty in parsing out his actual opinions. The use of Vivian guarantees that Wilde could deflect any criticisms towards the character rather than himself. Wilde could have chosen to present his ideas in standard essay form, or to insert himself in Vivian's place. Wilde's use of his children's names suggests, though, that he in a sense "gave birth" to the characters and the ideas that they toss about.

Wilde uses hyperbole and a humorous tone to dilute the appearance of validity in his aesthetic theories and increase their radical appearance. Indeed, at first glance, the four points he offers seem little more than decadent solipsism:

Art never expresses anything but itself
All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals
Life imitates Art more than Art imitates Life; the same for Nature
Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art

Perhaps the most confusing statement of the four is the idea that "art never expresses anything but itself," a paraphrase of the idea of Gautier's "l'art pour l'art.". What Vivian probably means by this statement comes from Gautier: "Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless, everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the lavatory." Wilde's Vivian echoes Gautier quite closely: "As lying as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art." More succinctly, in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he states that "all Art is quite useless." Instead of art, one must look to the architecture or music of an age to understand it; this idea seems to come from Ruskin's work in The Stones of Venice where he attempts to measure the health of civilizations by their architecture.

Wilde himself cannot possibly believe that art should not affect us in any way, as that would negate any desire to create or view art. Wilde allows Cyril a rare rebuttal against Vivian, in which he points out that no one would re-read any unmoving book. Vivian's statement exaggerates Wilde's belief that the public influences artists and thus dilutes their creations. He states in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" that "the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest. Poetry is an instance of what I mean. We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it. The public like to insult poets because they are individual, but once they have insulted them they leave them alone." Wilde compares art to the practice of science and philosophy, where it would be ridiculous to suggest that the public should hold any sway over the methods of experts.

Furthermore, Wilde would say in his essay on "Art and the Handicraftsman":
People often talk as if there was an opposition between what is beautiful and what is useful. There is no opposition to beauty except ugliness: all things are either beautiful or ugly, and utility will be always on the side of the beautiful thing, because beautiful decoration is always an expression of the use you put a thing to and the value placed on it.
Clearly, Wilde does not indeed believe that use and beauty are mutually exclusive. Rather, he argues against measuring art by its external usefulness, and in this, follows Ruskin's thought. Ruskin vehemently criticized the equation of art and usefulness upheld for much of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Adam Smith, David Hume and Henry Fuseli all advanced theories supporting the idea of usefulness as an aesthetic quality. Hume offers the example of the horse, believing horses beautiful to man because of their usefulness. Ruskin stands by the argument already established by Edmund Burke to the contrary. Burke offers the counterexample of the pig's snout: though each fold, hair, and nostril of the snout somehow contributes to its function, no one considers the pig beautiful.

By "Art never expresses anything but itself," Wilde in truth wishes to emphasize the importance of beauty as a goal. As George P. Landow points out in "Aesthetes, Decadents, and the Idea of Art for Art's Sake," "Ruskin, whom most commentators take to be the bête noir of the movement, turns out to have advanced a complex theological argument for Art for Art's Sake before mid-century!" Before Ruskin experienced a loss of faith, he had developed a theory that art justifies its own existence through beauty; beauty is an end in itself and the ultimate goal of great art. Ruskin states: ""Ideas of beauty are among the noblest which can be presented to the human mind, invariably exalting and purifying it according to their degree; and it would appear that we are intended by the Deity to be constantly under their influence..." Because God infuses all things in nature with himself, which are disproportionately more beautiful than deformed, any experience of beauty relates to God.

The obvious difference between Wilde and the early Ruskin lies in Ruskin's reliance on God as a justification for beauty. But even considering the difference in underlying justification, the practical goal remains the same: beauty is its own end.

The second point on life and Nature will be left until after discussing the others, as it is there that a rift between Wilde and Ruskin might exist. ...

Monday, 17 December 2012

Alexander Pope: Ode on Solitude


How happy he, who free from care
The rage of courts, and noise of towns;
Contented breaths his native air,
In his own grounds.


Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.


Blest! who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide swift away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,


Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix'd; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.


Thus let me live, unheard, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.


Josef Lada's paintings an enduring symbol of Czech Christmas

For many readers around the world, Josef Lada's illustrations of the Good Soldier Svejk are inextricably linked to the famous character created by Jaroslav Hasek. But Josef Lada did far more than illustrate Hasek's novel, and his idealized paintings of carol singers and family gatherings are for many in this country an enduring symbol of Czech Christmas.

Josef Lada was born just outside Prague in 1887, in the tiny village of Hrusice. His father was a cobbler and the family were poor, and little Josef lost an eye when he fell out of his cradle and landed on one of his father's knives. But Lada seems to have had a happy childhood, and loved Christmas. Years later he recalled with relish the traditional foods his family prepared, and said he loved their small and modestly decorated Christmas trees more than wealthier boys whose trees reached the ceiling. Josef Lada was sent to Prague to be an apprentice, but art was his passion, and he was paid the princely sum of 20 crowns when, at just 17, his first illustrations were published by a magazine called Maj.

Two years later he had his fateful first meeting with Jaroslav Hasek. Decades later, Hasek's "The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the World War" would be most people's first introduction to Lada's distinctive art, at least outside the Czech Republic.

In this country, however, many people associate Josef Lada with his wonderful Christmas paintings, many of which have been appearing on Czech Christmas cards for generations. Typical images include large families in simple but cosy rooms; the men smoke pipes, while rosy-faced children marvel at Nativity scenes.

More here

Georg Lukacs: The Theory of the Novel - Integrated Civilisations

HAPPY ARE those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths — ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning — in sense — and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a centre of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’

That is why philosophy, as a form of life or as that which determines the form and supplies the content of literary creation, is always a symptom of the rift between ‘inside’ and ‘ outside’, a sign of the essential difference between the self and the world, the incongruence of soul and deed. That is why the happy ages have no philosophy, or why (it comes to the same thing) all men in such ages are philosophers, sharing the utopian aim of every philosophy. For what is the task of true philosophy if not to draw that archetypal map? What is the problem of the transcendental locus if not to determine how every impulse which springs from the innermost depths is co-ordinated with a form that it is ignorant of, but that has been assigned to it from eternity and that must envelop it in liberating symbols? When this is so, passion is the way, predetermined by reason, towards complete self-being and from madness come enigmatic yet decipherable messages of a transcendental power, otherwise condemned to silence. There is not yet any interiority, for there is not yet any exterior, any ‘otherness’ for the soul. The soul goes out to seek adventure; it lives through adventures, but it does not know the real torment of seeking and the real danger of finding; such a soul never stakes itself; it does not yet know that it can lose itself, it never thinks of having to look for itself. Such an age is the age of the epic.

It is not absence of suffering, not security of being, which in such an age encloses men and deeds in contours that are both joyful and severe (for what is meaningless and tragic in the world has not grown larger since the beginning of time; it is only that the songs of comfort ring out more loudly or are more muffled): it is the adequacy of the deeds to the soul’s inner demand for greatness, for unfolding, for wholeness. When the soul does not yet know any abyss within itself which may tempt it to fall or encourage it to discover pathless heights, when the divinity that rules the world and distributes the unknown and unjust gifts of destiny is not yet understood by man, but is familiar and close to him as a father is to his small child, then every action is only a well-fitting garment for the world. Being and destiny, adventure and accomplishment, life and essence are then identical concepts. For the question which engenders the formal answers of the epic is: how can life become essence? And if no one has ever equalled Homer, nor even approached him — for, strictly speaking, his works alone are epics — it is because he found the answer before the progress of the human mind through history had allowed the question to be asked.

This line of thought can, if we wish, take us some way towards understanding the secret of the Greek world: its perfection, which is unthinkable, for us, and the unbridgeable gulf that separates us from it. The Greek knew only answers but no questions, only solutions (even if enigmatic ones) but no riddles, only forms but no chaos. He drew the creative circle of forms this side of paradox, and everything which, in our time of paradox, is bound to lead to triviality, led him to perfection. ...

Preface to The Theory of the Novel by Georg Lukacs

Sunday, 16 December 2012

George Santayana: I would I might Forget that I am I

I would I might forget that I am I,
And break the heavy chain that binds me fast,
Whose links about myself my deeds have cast.
What in the body’s tomb doth buried lie
Is boundless; ’tis the spirit of the sky,
Lord of the future, guardian of the past,
And soon must forth, to know his own at last.
In his large life to live, I fain would die.
Happy the dumb beast, hungering for food,
But calling not his suffering his own;
Blessèd the angel, gazing on all good,
But knowing not he sits upon a throne;
Wretched the mortal, pondering his mood,
And doomed to know his aching heart alone.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Rereading: George Eliot's Mill on the Floss

Rachel Reckitt’s wood-engravings for The Mill on the Floss

On 5 March 1860, the scientist and journalist GH Lewes reported to the publisher John Blackwood that "Mrs Lewes is getting her eyes redder and swollener every morning as she lives through her tragic story. But there is such a strain of poetry to relieve the tragedy that the more she cries, and the readers cry, the better say I."
"Mrs Lewes" was, of course, George Eliot, and "the tragic story" on which she was working so damply was The Mill on the Floss, published by Blackwood 150 years ago next week. What was making Eliot cry was having to write the last few pages of her novel in which the heroine Maggie Tulliver and her estranged brother Tom drown in the swollen River Floss, locked together "in an embrace never to be parted".
More than mere melodrama, the watery hug represented a wishful reworking of Eliot's fractured relationship with her own adored brother, with whom she had grown up on the Warwickshire family farm in the 1820s. Ever since she had written to Isaac Evans three years before to explain that she was now cohabiting in London with the married Lewes – "Mrs Lewes" was a term of social convenience, her legal name remained Mary Ann Evans – the rigidly respectable Isaac had refused to have anything to do with her. Even more hurtfully, he had instructed their sister to break off contact too. This silence was to stretch bleakly over the coming quarter of a century. The brother and sister who, like Tom and Maggie, had once "roamed the daisied fields together" in loving childhood, would never meet again.
Unusually for such an intensely autobiographical novel, The Mill on the Floss was not Eliot's first work of fiction, but her third. Shortly before it came out she explained to a friend that my "mind works with most freedom and the keenest sense of poetry in my remotest past", and her first two novels had indeed truffled her own prehistory. Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) was drawn from stories circulating around her childhood community about a series of mild scandals that had taken place several decades earlier. Adam Bede (1859) was based on the young adulthood of her father, her uncle and her uncle's wife. It was as if Eliot had been working through what she called the "many strata" of collective memory before she was ready, finally, to confront her own past.
Literary theorists tend not to approve of reading novels as if they were fictionalised autobiography. Still, it is a stern critic who would deny readers the pleasure of spotting which parts of her own childhood George Eliot transferred to Tom and Maggie. The dynamics and personalities of the Tulliver family are remarkably similar to what we know of the Evanses. Mr Tulliver, the hot-headed miller, is described as finding "the relation between spoken and written language, briefly known as spelling, one of the most puzzling things in this puzzling world", and you only have to glance at the diaries of Eliot's father, Robert Evans, to realise that he too was an uncertain penman.
Evans, like Tulliver, was a fond father, who doted on "his little wench", born when he was already middle aged. And while he was far too astute to follow Tulliver's example of mounting ruinous law suits, Evans often found himself called into court to give expert witness on matters of land management.
Then there is Tom Tulliver, whose rigid respectability and lack of capacity for original thought makes him a ringer for Isaac. Some of the best scenes in the book show Tom struggling over schoolboy Latin while the younger Maggie races ahead, exhibiting a cleverness that upsets the gender expectations of her highly conventional family. Isaac, like Tom, grew up to be a practical man of business. Mary Ann, by contrast, followed Maggie into a self-punishing adolescence marked by an intense longing for the kind of intellectual and artistic life not generally available to girls in the muddy backwaters of late-Hanoverian England.
But it is the Dodson aunts who are the real stars of The Mill on the Floss. This bustling trio of self-regarding matrons is one of the great comic creations of 19th-century fiction, as good as anything Dickens ever did. The Dodsons are Mrs Tulliver's married sisters, and regularly descend on the mill in a disapproving chorus, ready to dispense home truths beginning with, "It's for your own good I say this." Devoid of culture or curiosity about lives other than their own, the Dodsons nonetheless know themselves to be experts in everything that really matters, including "obedience to parents, faithfulness to kindred, industry, rigid honesty, thrift, the thorough scouring of wooden and copper utensils".
Behind Eliot's comedy there is, as ever, a more serious intent. As a careful reader of all the new scientific theories, including Darwin's, Eliot wants to show us the Dodsons in their larger historical context. Thirty years ago, she explains, this is how rich Protestant peasants lived in middle England. Fussing over butter-making and swollen ankles, household linen and fashionable bonnets may strike her readers as tiresome and vulgar, but it is important to realise that this way of being represents a particular moment in human development. Now that moment has passed, and, for all their ant-like vitality, the Dodsons and their ilk are as dead as dodos. ...

Friday, 14 December 2012

Leszek Kołakowski: Is God Happy?

The first biography of Siddhartha, the future Buddha, reveals that for a long time he was entirely unaware of the wretchedness of the human condition. A royal son, he spent his youth in pleasure and luxury, surrounded by music and worldly delights. He was already married by the time the gods decided to enlighten him. One day he saw a decrepit old man; then the suffering of a very sick man; then a corpse. It was only then that the existence of old age, suffering, and death—all the painful aspects of life to which he had been oblivious—was brought home to him. Upon seeing them he decided to withdraw from the world to become a monk and seek the path to Nirvana.

We may suppose, then, that he was happy as long as the grim realities of life were unknown to him; and that at the end of his life, after a long and arduous journey, he attained the genuine happiness that lies beyond the earthly condition.

Can Nirvana be described as a state of happiness? Those who, like the present author, cannot read the early Buddhist scriptures in the original, cannot be certain; the word “happiness” does not occur in the translations. It is also hard to be sure whether the meaning of words like “consciousness” or “self” corresponds to their meaning in modern languages. We are told that Nirvana entails the abandonment of the self. This might be taken to suggest that there can be, as the Polish philosopher Henryk Elzenberg claims, happiness without a subject—just happiness, unrelated to anyone’s being happy. Which seems absurd. But our language is never adequate to describe absolute realities.

Some theologians have argued that we can speak of God only by negation: by saying what He is not. Similarly, perhaps we cannot know what Nirvana is and can only say what it is not. Yet it is hard to be satisfied with mere negation; we would like to say something more. And assuming that we are allowed to say something about what it is to be in the state of Nirvana, the hardest question is this: Is a person in this state aware of the world around him? If not—if he is completely detached from life on earth—what kind of reality is he a part of? And if he is aware of the world of our experience, he must also be aware of evil, and of suffering. But is it possible to be aware of evil and suffering and still be perfectly happy?

The same question arises with regard to the happy residents of the Christian heaven. Do they live in total isolation from our world? If not—if they are aware of the wretchedness of earthly existence, of the dreadful things that happen in the world, its diabolical sides, its evil and pain and suffering—how can they be happy in any recognizable sense of the word?

(I should make it clear that I am not using the word “happy” here in the sense in which it might mean no more than “content” or “satisfied,” as in “Are you happy with this seat in the airplane?” or “I am quite happy with this sandwich.” The word for happiness has a broad range of meaning in English; in other European languages its meaning is more restricted, hence the German saying “I am happy, aber glücklich bin ich nicht.”)

More here.

Roger Fry: Landscape at Asheham

Roger Eliot Fry was born in 1866 in Highgate, London, into a wealthy Quaker family. While studying for a Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge, Fry's interest in art was encouraged by the Slade Professor J.H. Middleton and, much to his family's regret, he decided after university to pursue an artistic career rather than continue his scientific studies.

Although Fy's chosen career as an artist and critic was a success, his personal life was troubled. His wife, the artist Helen Coombe, whom he married in 1896, suffered from mental illness and had to be committed to an institution in 1910, leaving Fry to look after their children Pamela and Julian.

His affair with Vanessa Bell, which began in 1911 when Fry accompanied the Bells on a holiday to Turkey, ended when she transferred her affections to Duncan Grant in 1913. Fry was heartbroken. In a letter written four years later, his feelings for Vanessa are still very evident:
Don't forget my dear that I am getting a rather bad hunger to spend a few quick days with would be an enormous pleasure so I trust you to plan it as far ahead as possible. I'll always arrange for you at Guildford in the mid week if you can come. 
Letter from Roger Fry to Vanessa Bell, June 11 1917
It was not until 1924 after several short lived relationships (including affairs with Nina Hamnett, one of the Omega artists; and Josette Coatmellec, which ended tragically with her suicide), that he found happiness with Helen Anrep. ...

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Heinrich Heine: This Mad Carnival of Loving

THIS mad carnival of loving,
This wild orgy of the flesh,
Ends at last and we two, sobered,
Look at one another, yawning.

Emptied the inflaming cup
That was filled with sensuous potions,
Foaming, almost running over--
Emptied is the flaming cup.

All the violins are silent
That impelled our feet to dancing,
To the giddy dance of passion--
Silent are the violins.

All the lanterns now are darkened
That once poured their streaming brilliance
On the masquerades and murmurs--
Darkened now are all the lanterns.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Letters reveal Flaubert's English 'amitié amoureuse'

Gustave Flaubert

A trove of letters from Gustave Flaubert discovered in the attic of a Home Counties farmhouse reveals a softer side to the famously cynical author of Madame Bovary.

The letters, written to English society hostess Gertrude Tennant, were discovered by author and biographer David Waller after he was invited to look at two chests of family papers in a house off the A3. "They hadn't been opened for the last 50 years," he said. "It was quite an amazing experience. I delved in and found a package labelled 'letters from distinguished persons: do not throw away'."

The package contained correspondence from Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Gladstone and Victor Hugo, as well as a bundle of 24 letters from Flaubert, including around a dozen which had never before been seen.

Tennant, then Gertrude Collier, met Flaubert as a 22-year-old on holiday with her family in 1842 in Trouville. "He had the charm of the utter unconsciousness of his physical and mental beauty," wrote Tennant of their first encounter. They stayed in touch when her family returned to their home as ex-pats in Paris; Flaubert was unhappily studying law, and would come to their flat to talk and read poetry and romantic novels. "I would love to prolong indefinitely … the declamation, exaltation, inspiration [of the hours spent with you]," he wrote in 1844 in a letter never previously known to have existed.

Tennant, in a lightly fictionalised story, reveals the two also shared a passionate kiss at the Paris opera during the period, although their friendship was, said Waller, more of an "amitié amoureuse", or passionate friendship. "It doesn't appear that they had an affair but it was deeper than a usual friendship," said Waller. "Flaubert was sex mad – he was writing a book about a prostitute when they met. Gertrude was a very respectable English girl who went on to become a real grande dame – she would never have had an affair."

They fell out of touch when she went to London to marry Charles Tennant, with their correspondence picking up again in 1857 when Flaubert sent her a copy of Madame Bovary. He wrote in the book that he was sending it to her "in homage to an unchanging affection … in memory of the beach at Trouville and our long readings at the Rond-Point of the Champs-Elysées". Tennant, however, was unimpressed.

"I will tell you straight that I am astonished," she wrote in reply. "[How could] you, with your imagination and admiration for everything that is beautiful … take pleasure in writing something so hideous as this book!" Thinking to influence him positively, she posted him a copy of George Eliot's Adam Bede suggesting he model his style on Eliot's, but Flaubert was uninterested in Victorian morality, and instead penned Salammbô, chock-full of orgies and blood.

More here.