Monday, 29 April 2013

The Republic of Dreams

Schulz says clearly: the unreal is whatever people cannot share with one another. Whatever falls out of that sharing falls beyond the circle of human affairs, beyond the boundaries of the human theater, beyond literature.

The trouble with Bruno Schulz is the following: everybody knows he’s a genius, everybody talks about his tremendous influence, but when push comes to shove it’s all restricted to banalities, as if the measure of a writer’s greatness were to be this community of popular judgments. On the other hand, this comes as no surprise.

Schulz assaults the reader from the very first page and never allows him to rest, never allows him to gather his thoughts. His perfidy lies in the fact that he resists all translation, but encourages us to imitate, to paraphrase and to counterfeit. It’s easier to speak in Schulz’s language than to speak about Schulz. After reading a single paragraph we know at once that it’s Schulz, though we don’t at once know what to say about the paragraph.

The greatness of Schulz is the greatness of his resistance to appropriation, while the result of this resistance is the very small number of memorable books written about him. Certainly, there are a great many discussions, monographs, presentations, dictionaries and exegeses, but few books which would discard the academic paraphernalia and show in black and white that to read Schulz is to wrestle with an angel who means to wrench out your hip.

But then how should we read Schulz? Should we catalogue motifs and themes? This is important, but superficial. Should we illuminate metaphors and track turns of phrase? This reeks of the laboratory from a mile off. Should we compare? But how to compare the incomparable? Even worse, Schulz cannot be utilized for anything: he can’t be hailed as a patron of the left or right and nobody will write a politically engaged essay about him.

Schulz is clearly useless: he refuses to serve any cause, he refuses to rouse and uplift, and even his essays about Józef Piłsudski are a disappointment to old legionnaires. Neither does Schulz have – as would befit a genius of the nation – a decent biography. Ultimately Jerzy Ficowski didn’t write one, preferring to ferret about in the The Vicinity of ’Cinnamon Shops’, rather than to take a look inside them. This is in fact a broader tendency. Indeed, the proliferation of books in the Schulzean bibliography with titles dominated by various margins, postscripts and footnotes clearly demonstrates that the criticism has been overcome by a reverent fear of confrontation. This ferreting about in the margins is by no means a purely native affliction.

More here.

Writers in love with other art forms

In the last summer of his life Norman Mailer felt he had the face he deserved and the solitude he craved. He was living alone in a house in Provincetown not far from the one he’d rented when he came out of the army in 1946, the little cabin where he began writing The Naked and the Dead (1948). In 2007 I went to Cape Cod and spent two days interviewing him for the Writers at Work series in The Paris Review. When I came to the kitchen table on the second morning, he was drawing faces on oyster shells, the faces of Greek gods. I’ve got one beside me now as I write: the face of Zeus traced out on a bumpy shell.

I asked him which of the other art forms he thought being a novelist was closest to. “Acting,” he said.

Why? “Because it’s the same work. A novelist and an actor have to know how to inhabit characters.”

So, which actor do you admire most? “Warren Beatty,” he said. “And not for the obvious reasons.”

The exchange stuck in my head because of what it says about Mailer’s humour and a novelist’s task overall. I would venture that every novelist has another art form that he thinks explains his own technique or dignifies his own style. We all have our shadow art, the one that isn’t ours, the one we might covet, feeling it knows something about us. Sometimes the novelist becomes a critic of that art and a very good one – as Graham Greene did of film, or Julian Barnes of television – but, most often, he or she will just imbibe it secretly, knowing that the novels could be enriched by the rules of the other art form.

Long before I was a writer, when I was just a haphazard reader and a dreamer of stories, I learnt about an influential book by Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence, published in 1973 when I was five years old, is taken up with the terrifying influence of poets on each other. The book’s title became a kind of sob that writers and critics would deploy when discussing the agony of writing. Poor novelists: they could only sit at their screens wailing inwardly at the realisation they would never be Henry James or, more upsettingly, that they were already Henry James but not as good.

I never believed it. I don’t believe in the meteoric culture of anxiety generally. Obviously, some people have it, some people are crippled by it, but most of the novelists I’ve ever known are in love with influence. They thrive on it. Mailer’s feeling about acting was that the good actor’s typical experience and process gave courage to his own: if you could walk on a stage and be someone else for three hours, plumbing the depths of a soul and a history not your own, then any good novelist would want to examine how that is done. Half the job of a working writer is to seek and maintain his own affinities. You’ve got to know where to lay your empathy and why. And you’ve got to know how to recognise the kind of material that releases your imagination. You don’t always find those things in other novelists: often, indeed, it will be the artist in the next field, the craftsman, the expert, the sportsman, the hero in another line, who will pump fresh air into the recesses of your talent.

More here.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

C Day-Lewis and the Fickle Business of Literary Reputation

The car is coming slowly and cautiously down the steep hill from the Iron Age fort into Musbury on a sunny winter’s morning. The narrow lane is lined with high green hedges which direct the eyes forward to the Axe Valley, spread out before us, and beyond it the blue of the sea. Sean Day-Lewis, retired newspaperman, is at the wheel, pointing out the landmarks of his father’s – and his own - life.

We stop on a bend. Just ahead of us is the house his parents called Brimclose when they bought it in 1938. Soon after his father died, Sean’s mother, Mary, sold up, finally knowing that there was no longer even the remotest chance of her ex-husband coming home to her. The new owners renamed it Woodhayes and have since extended it and painted it sky blue and white, remodelling over the years the garden Mary spent 35 years tending.

The details have changed but the landscape that so inspired Day-Lewis has not. To our right, Sean points out a wooden bench, concreted in position and with a plaque recording Mary Day-Lewis’s life and death, from cancer, in 1975. To our left is the wood that lay between Brimclose and Bullmoor Farm, where his father and Billie Currall would meet in those heady pre-war days.

Of his departure from this spot in 1950, Day-Lewis later wrote: ‘Self-exiled, I left what seems in retrospect a little Paradise. But, as Proust so wonderfully showed, for certain temperaments the only Paradise is Paradise Lost’. He had lived, Day-Lewis wrote in 1965 in ‘St Anthony’s Shirt’ in nine houses. As a poet Day-Lewis had a great capacity to respond to new places and new landscapes – Ireland, Dorset, Tuscany all inspired him. And to human beauty. Some of the women he fell in love with were famed for their good looks. But he never truly settled, physically or emotionally, however much part of him yearned for it. Each paradise was always, as he admitted, lost, often through his own actions. One side of him remained forever the traveller of his poems.

There is not, then, a single landscape where you have the sense of walking in his footsteps. In Musbury that day, with his eldest son at my side, he felt as close as he ever would as Sean mapped out the minutiae of their sparse domestic life in the early 1940s in a cottage that is now comfortably refurbished. I could almost hear the cricket ball being whacked around the weedy tennis court as Day-Lewis and Rex Warner fought it out. But later, when I returned without Sean to the cottage to recapture once again that connection with my subject, Day-Lewis was gone.

The obvious place to look for him is in his poetry. And there, warts and all, he most certainly is. Day-Lewis was the most autobiographical of poets. As I have included stanzas in the preceding chapters to reflect his state of mind at the various crossroads in his life, I have been acutely aware that making such a direct link would be dangerous and even impossible with most writers. With Day-Lewis, it feels the natural and right thing to do. There is, of course, a degree of licence – there were, for example, more than nine houses - but there too, more often, is an almost painful honesty about the important things. Yet even as he opens his heart in poetry, seeks to understand not to be understood as he put it himself, confides as he did nowhere else, he is also simultaneously holding himself apart, observing, suspecting, judging himself and his readers.

More here.

How Muriel Spark rescued Mary Shelley

In 1950 the thirty-two-year-old tyro poet Muriel Spark drew up a proposal for a “Critical Biography” of Mary Shelley. The project was never going to be easy to sell to publishers. Spark was virtually unknown outside the London poetry scene and, in any case, there was little interest in female novelists of the nineteenth century. Mary Shelley was remembered mostly for having run away with Percy Bysshe Shelley while he was still married to his first wife. Although Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s first novel, had subsequently become familiar through its many theatre and film adaptations, as a piece of literature it was considered a freakish fairy tale written by an eighteen-year-old who scarcely knew what she was doing. As for the novels Mary Shelley went on to write following Percy’s death in 1822, it was probably best to draw a veil.

Nonetheless, Muriel Spark’s determination to rescue Mary Shelley from cultural amnesia and condescension was sufficiently persuasive to win her a commission from a small publisher. The original publication of Child of Light: A reassessment of Mary Shelley was timed to coincide with the centenary of Shelly’s death in 1951, but Spark tinkered with her text over the following decades to take account of emerging scholarship, eventually republishing the biography in 1987 with a new preface. It is this updated edition, together with Spark’s original proposal and her abridgement of Shelley’s little-known dystopian novel The Last Man, which Carcanet has now reissued.

In her proposal of 1951, Spark crisply set out why she believed the time was right for a “reassessment” of Mary Shelley. The author of Frankenstein, she suggested, was the true founder of science fiction and had paved the way for contemporary masters of the genre including Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and, above all, H. G. Wells. Moreover, continued Spark, it was quite unfair to say, as so many did, that Mary Shelley had spent her long widowhood as a literary hack writing for money rather than as a creative artist. The Last Man, Perkin Warbeck, Falkner and Lodore may not be entirely successful as novels, but they are clearly the work of a committed novelist testing out the limits of the genre. Finally, Spark promised to make explicit the links between Shelley’s path-finding life as an independent professional woman and the feminist legacy of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.

As Michael Schmidt emphasizes in his excellent introduction, there were other, more numinous, reasons why Muriel Spark felt drawn to Mary Shelley. The women shared initials and both were known professionally by their husbands’ surnames. Both had struggled financially while bringing up sons as single mothers. Mary Shelley died on February 1, which was also the day on which Spark was born. Although not yet received into the Roman Catholic Church, Spark saw in these coincidences a hint that there was a higher power directing her towards Mary Shelley.

More here.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Rainer Maria Rilke: Silent Hour

Whoever weeps somewhere out in the world
Weeps without cause in the world
Weeps over me.

Whoever laughs somewhere out in the night
Laughs without cause in the night
Laughs at me.

Whoever wanders somewhere in the world
Wanders in vain in the world
Wanders to me.

Whoever dies somewhere in the world
Dies without cause in the world
Looks at me.

D.H. Lawrence as an Enemy of Joyce

You know that I need to go away, away, away: yes, yes, I can’t go on here anymore. You know there are always the angels and the archangels, thrones, powers, cherubims, seraphims--the whole choir there. But here these baptised beasts always make themselves heard, these and nothing else. I’m going away from here. Walking one arrives: if not to the grave, at least a little bit outside this human, too human world. (Letters IV, 185)
D.H. Lawrence wrote these words on the second of February 1922, when he was preparing to pack up his home in Sicily, turn his back on Europe, and sail around the world. I think they are a good entry into the question of why Lawrence and Joyce must be counted among the great pairs of literary enemies; for what divides them, finally, is their differing attitudes to “this human, too human world” below, and to “the angels and the archangels” above.

A few notes, first, on how much these adversaries knew about each other’s work. Joyce was certainly prejudiced against Lawrence, both as a writer and as an Englishman, but probably knew more of him by hearsay than by close reading. In June 1918 he asked his agent, J.B. Pinker, to get him a copy of the American edition of The Rainbow (Letters I 115). The publisher, Huebsch, was being very careful about distributing copies, and Joyce may never have received the copy he ordered (Delany 166-167). The only other Lawrence book we know Joyce looked at was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and he probably did not look at it for very long (Selected Letters 359). Lawrence does not seem to have taken any interest in Joyce before 1922, and there is no sign that he ever read Dubliners or Portrait. Then, the publicity surrounding the publication of Ulysses caught his attention and in July 1922, while living in Australia, he wrote to S.S. Koteliansky that "I shall be able to read this famous Ulysses when I get to America. I doubt (i.e. I suspect) he's a trickster." Lawrence was writing Kangaroo at the time, and said of it: “but such a novel! Even the Ulysseans will spit at it” (Letters IV, 275). He finally got hold of a borrowed copy of Ulysses in New Mexico in November 1922, and sent it back eight days later with the comment:
"I am sorry, but I am one of the people who can't read Ulysses. Only bits. But I am glad I have seen the book, since in Europe they usually mention us together--James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence--and I feel I ought to know in what company I creep to immortality. I guess Joyce would look as much askance on me as I on him. We make a choice of Paola and Francesca floating down the winds of hell."
The needle of personal rivalry is already evident, reflecting Lawrence’s uneasiness that he and Joyce had become strange bedfellows as the two most notorious banned authors in English. Lawrence’s literary judgement of the novel was guarded: "Ulysses wearied me: so like a schoolmaster with dirt and stuff in his head: sometimes good, though: but too mental" (Letters IV, 345). Lawrence would return regularly to this criticism of Joyce as someone who achieved his effects in too conscious a way. Two months after reading Ulysses he wrote “Surgery for the Novel‹or a Bomb,” and spoke of the “death-rattle” of the “serious” novel:
“Did I feel a twinge in my little toe, or didn’t I?” asks every character of Mr. Joyce or of Miss Richardson or M. Proust. . . . Through thousands and thousands of pages Mr. Joyce and Miss Richardson tear themselves to pieces, strip their smallest emotions to the finest threads, till you feel you are sewed inside a wool mattress that is being slowly shaken up, and you are turning to wool along with the rest of the woolliness.
It’s awful. And it’s childish. It really is childish, after a certain age, to be absorbedly self-conscious.
(Lawrence, Criticism 114-115)
When Lawrence came to read part of “Work in Progress,” in the summer of 1928, he felt that Joyce was going much further down the wrong path: "Somebody sent me Transition - American number - that Paris modernissimo periodical, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, etc. What a stupid olla podrida of the Bible and so forth James Joyce is: just stewed-up fragments of quotation in the sauce of a would-be-dirty mind.” Early in 1929 Harry Crosby tried to arrange a meeting between the two men, but Joyce refused. In whatever circle they inhabit on the opposite shore, presumably they are still passing each other without the tribute of recognition.

It would need a book to do justice to the rivalry between these two near-contemporaries whose literary careers and personal histories have so much in common, yet who remain so deeply opposed. In this brief essay I attempt only to identify two major points of contention: realism as a method and sexuality as a subject.

Much in Lawrence’s judgement of Joyce derives from the assumption that Joyce was the inheritor of 19th century realism. Lawrence’s most eloquent statement on this tradition comes in his discussion of Flaubert:
Realism is just one of the arbitrary views man takes of man. It sees us all as little ant-like creatures toiling against the odds of circumstance. . . . I think the inherent flaw in Madame Bovary is that individuals like Emma and Charles Bovary are too insignificant to carry the full weight of Gustave Flaubert’s profound sense of tragedy . . . Emma and Charles Bovary are two ordinary persons, chosen because they are ordinary. But Flaubert is by no means an ordinary person. Yet he insists on pouring his own deep and bitter tragic consciousness into the little skins of the country doctor and his dissatisfied wife. . . .
the human soul has supreme joy in true, vivid consciousness. And Flaubert’s soul has this joy. But Emma Bovary’s soul does not, poor thing, because she was deliberately chosen because her soul was ordinary. . . .
[Yet] Even Emma Bovary has a certain extraordinary female energy of restlessness and unsatisfied desire. So that both Flaubert and Verga allow their heroes something of the hero, after all. The one thing they deny them is the consciousness of heroic effort.
(Phoenix II 281-282)
Now if you substitute Molly and Leopold for Emma and Charles I think you have essentially the same point, though Lawrence would not be so generous to Joyce as to Flaubert. And how might one respond in Joyce’s defense? First, that Joyce’s “profound sense” is comic rather than tragic, and that Ulysses is not a nihilistic work, as Madame Bovary perhaps is. Second, that ordinary life is quite heroic enough for Joyce, provided one pays sufficiently close and respectful attention to it. Bloom may not be much bigger intrinsically than Charles Bovary, or Bouvard and Pécuchet; but he is imagined with affection rather than scorn, and that makes all the difference. Third, that the special effect of Ulysses depends on Molly and Bloom having “something of the hero” without being conscious of it, as Lawrence would want. Their greatness lies, in other words, precisely in their lack of consciousness--we see the classical parallel, but they mustn’t.

When we turn to the sexual opposition between Joyce and Lawrence, we need to fill in the background of the former’s sly deflations and the latter’s dismissive outbursts. Lawrence was two years dead when Joyce called the ending of Lady Chatterley’s Lover “propaganda in favour of something which, outside of D.H.L.’s country at any rate, makes all the propaganda for itself” (Selected Letters 359). What Joyce did not know was that Connie Chatterley seems to have been conceived deliberately as the antidote to Molly Bloom!
“The last part of [Ulysses],” Lawrence burst out, “is the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written. Yes it is, Frieda. It is filthy. . . . This Ulysses muck is more disgusting than Casanova. I must show that it can be done without muck.”
(Mackenzie 167)
One can make a joke of this, saying that Lawrence liked the idea of Ulysses‹“lusty woman has impotent husband, takes lover”‹but not the way it was written up. But there is a serious point at issue, concerning the treatment of sexuality in nineteenth century realism. Lawrence found that treatment a deliberate narrowing of human potential; whereas Joyce accepts realism’s fundamental project of documenting, without moral preconceptions, people’s everyday behavior.

Joyce regards with equanimity every possible sexual act that is freely chosen; but he does not stop there. His interest in the body is also a moral stance, taken up against the orthodox Christian hostility to “mere” flesh. More heretic than scientist, Joyce becomes a Manichean in reverse, preferring the flesh that affirms to the spirit that denies. Courting Marthe Fleischmann, he reminds her that “Jésus Christ a pris son corps humain: dans le ventre d’une femme juive” (Selected Letters 233). It is by woman’s flesh, and especially her secret inner parts, that a world fallen into negation can be redeemed. At the same time, Joyce is fascinated by woman’s double nature, combining the carnal with the transcendent. His sexual epiphanies are moments when the woman displays both qualities intensely and simultaneously. The whore in Portrait, for example, is a priestess of the body. A real priest would raise the host up to heaven then bring it down into the mouth of the communicant, who kneels below him. But the whore puts something even more potent into Stephen’s mouth: her own tongue, in a direct communion of flesh with flesh.

In the vision of the bird-girl, and in the erotic letters to Nora, Joyce excites himself with a sacred love-object who displays for him her profane functions of excretion; the most intense sexual experience is one that mingles, sacrilegiously, the most exalted with the most vulgar. Yet Joyce’s sexuality remains Catholic, in the sense of universal: it includes every possible means of communion between men and women, whether high or low. His letter to Nora of 2 December 1909 is a classic expression of his need to reconcile sacred and profane love: “side by side and inside this spiritual love I have for you there is also a wild beast-like craving for every inch of your body, for every secret and shameful part of it, for every odour and act of it.”
For Joyce, then, the spiritual idea adds spice to the raw hungers of sensuality; and this is precisely what offends the Lawrentian sexual ethic. The episodes I have discussed would be for Lawrence prime examples of “sex in the head,” the subordination of the physical act to a sophisticated consciousness of it. In Women in Love, Birkin tells Hermione: “You don’t want to be an animal, you want to observe your own animal functions, to get a mental thrill out of them” (41). The Lawrentian ideal of immediacy is the opposite of Joyce’s “working up” of sexuality within a cultural and religious symbolic system. Hence Lawrence’s complaint that Ulysses was “too mental” (Letters IV 345). In Finnegans Wake he found a progression of the disease, “too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life” (CL VI 548).
“Real life,” for Lawrence, means striking through the mask of culture to get as close as possible to “the thing itself.” Joyce, on the other hand, accepts that reality is inescapably textual. Stephen’s maxim that absence is the highest form of presence argues that representations are more potent than whatever they are taken to represent. In sexual relations, Joyce dwells obsessively on indirect or incomplete modes of consummation; he is fascinated by everything that may intervene between desire and performance. A partial list of these intermediate conditions would include idealization (of the woman), fantasies of the inaccessible other, voyeurism, fetishism (of garments, symbols, the written word), fear of exposure, surrogate or vicarious satisfaction, complaisance, jealousy, the incest taboo, impotence. Most of these conditions can be found also in Joyce’s personal sexual history.

Lawrence did not read Joyce closely enough to appreciate the full extent of his rejection of sexual immediacy. But he read enough to support a psychic indictment, that in Joyce the worm of consciousness preys on the living flesh of desire. To this Lawrence adds a moral judgement, directed against the demotic quality of sex in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. When Lawrence was twenty-two, he told a congregational minister that he had “believed for many years that the Holy Ghost descended and took conscious possession of the Œelect’‹the converted one” (CL I 39). Lawrence ceased being a chapel-going orthodox Christian in his late teens; but there persisted in his emotional makeup much of the Calvinist division of mankind into the elect and the preterite (those who are without grace and rejected by God). Not unlike Joyce, Lawrence dares to be a heretic, by making sexual union the center of his heterodox religion. But Joyce makes all sex sacramental in some degree‹even, and especially, such stigmatized practices as prostitution or masturbation; Lawrence makes distinctions and excludes. In Lawrence’s neo-Calvinist morality, sex becomes the predominant means and sign of grace; but, by the same token, the wrong kind of sex is the mark of preterition. From this comes Lawrence’s preoccupation with the signs of sexual grace, such as the proper correspondence between the man’s and the woman’s desire. And just as in the orthodox Calvinist tradition, determining the exact degree of grace in the soul becomes an esoteric art. There is also a Calvinist anxiety about salvation, though now associated with sexual instead of explicitly religious consciousness. ...

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

G. K. Chesterton: Thomas Carlyle

There are two main moral necessities for the work of a great man: the first is that he should believe in the truth of his message; the second is that he should believe in the acceptability of his message. It was the whole tragedy of Carlyle that he had the first and not the second.
The ordinary capital, however, which is made out of Carlyle's alleged gloom is a very paltry matter. Carlyle had his faults, both as a man and as a writer, but the attempt to explain his gospel in terms of his "liver" is merely pitiful. If indigestion invariably resulted in a "Sartor Resartus," it would be a vastly more tolerable thing than it is. Diseases do not turn into poems; even the decadent really writes with the healthy part of his organism. If Carlyle's private faults and literary virtues ran somewhat in the same line, he is only in the situation of every man; for every one of us it is surely very difficult to say precisely where our honest opinions end and our personal predilections begin. But to attempt to denounce Carlyle as a mere savage egotist cannot arise from anything but a pure inability to grasp Carlyle's gospel. "Ruskin," says a critic, "did, all the same, verily believe in God; Carlyle believed only in himself." This is certainly a distinction between the author he has understood and the author he has not understood. Carlyle believed in himself, but he could not have believed in himself more than Ruskin did; they both believed in God, because they felt that if everything else fell into wrack and ruin, themselves were permanent witnesses to God. Where they both failed was not in belief in God or in belief in themselves; they failed in belief in other people. It is not enough for a prophet to believe in his message; he must believe in its acceptability. Christ, St. Francis, Bunyan, Wesley, Mr. Gladstone, Walt Whitman, men of indescribable variety, were all alike in a certain faculty of treating the average man as their equal, of trusting to his reason and good feeling without fear and without condescension. It was this simplicity of confidence, not only in God, but in the image of God, that was lacking in Carlyle.
But the attempts to discredit Carlyle's religious sentiment must absolutely fall to the ground. The profound security of Carlyle's sense of the unity of the Cosmos is like that of a Hebrew prophet; and it has the same expression that it had in the Hebrew prophets—humour. A man must be very full of faith to jest about his divinity. No Neo-Pagan delicately suggesting a revival of Dionysus, no vague, half-converted Theosophist groping towards a recognition of Buddha, would ever think of cracking jokes on the matter. But to the Hebrew prophets their religion was so solid a thing, like a mountain or a mammoth, that the irony of its contact with trivial and fleeting matters struck them like a blow. So it was with Carlyle. His supreme contribution, both to philosophy and literature, was his sense of the sarcasm of eternity. Other writers had seen the hope or the terror of the heavens, he alone saw the humour of them. Other writers had seen that there could be something elemental and eternal in a song or statute, he alone saw that there could be something elemental and eternal in a joke. No one who ever read it will forget the passage, full of dark and agnostic gratification, in which he narrates that some Court chronicler described Louis XV. as "falling asleep in the Lord." "Enough for us that he did fall asleep; that, curtained in thick night, under what keeping we ask not, he at least will never, through unending ages, insult the face of the sun any more ... and we go on, if not to better forms of beastliness, at least to fresher ones."
The supreme value of Carlyle to English literature was that he was the founder of modern irrationalism; a movement fully as important as modern rationalism. A great deal is said in these days about the value or valuelessness of logic. In the main, indeed, logic is not a productive tool so much as a weapon of defence. A man building up an intellectual system has to build like Nehemiah, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The imagination, the constructive quality, is the trowel, and argument is the sword. A wide experience of actual intellectual affairs will lead most people to the conclusion that logic is mainly valuable as a weapon wherewith to exterminate logicians.
But though this may be true enough in practice, it scarcely clears up the position of logic in human affairs. Logic is a machine of the mind, and if it is used honestly it ought to bring out an honest conclusion. When people say that you can prove anything by logic, they are not using words in a fair sense. What they mean is that you can prove anything by bad logic. Deep in the mystic ingratitude of the soul of man there is an extraordinary tendency to use the name for an organ, when what is meant is the abuse or decay of that organ. Thus we speak of a man suffering from "nerves," which is about as sensible as talking about a man suffering from ten fingers. We speak of "liver" and "digestion" when we mean the failure of liver and the absence of digestion. And in the same manner we speak of the dangers of logic, when what we really mean is the danger of fallacy.
But the real point about the limitation of logic and the partial overthrow of logic by writers like Carlyle is deeper and somewhat different. The fault of the great mass of logicians is not that they bring out a false result, or, in other words, are not logicians at all. Their fault is that by an inevitable psychological habit they tend to forget that there are two parts of a logical process, the first the choosing of an assumption, and the second the arguing upon it, and humanity, if it devotes itself too persistently to the study of sound reasoning, has a certain tendency to lose the faculty of sound assumption. It is astonishing how constantly one may hear from rational and even rationalistic persons such a phrase as "He did not prove the very thing with which he started," or, "The whole of his case rested upon a pure assumption," two peculiarities which may be found by the curious in the works of Euclid. It is astonishing, again, how constantly one hears rationalists arguing upon some deep topic, apparently without troubling about the deep assumptions involved, having lost their sense, as it were, of the real colour and character of a man's assumption. For instance, two men will argue about whether patriotism is a good thing and never discover until the end, if at all, that the cosmopolitan is basing his whole case upon the idea that man should, if he can, become as God, with equal sympathies and no prejudices, while the nationalist denies any such duty at the very start, and regards man as an animal who has preferences, as a bird has feathers.

Thus it was with Carlyle: he startled men by attacking not arguments, but assumptions. He simply brushed aside all the matters which the men of the nineteenth century held to be incontrovertible, and appealed directly to the very different class of matters which they knew to be true. He induced men to study less the truth of their reasoning, and more the truth of the assumptions upon which they reasoned. Even where his view was not the highest truth, it was always a refreshing and beneficent heresy. He denied every one of the postulates upon which the age of reason based itself. He denied the theory of progress which assumed that we must be better off than the people of the twelfth century. Whether we were better than the people of the twelfth century, according to him, depended entirely upon whether we chose or deserved to be.
He denied every type and species of prop or association or support which threw the responsibility upon civilisation or society, or anything but the individual conscience. He has often been called a prophet. The real ground of the truth of this phrase is often neglected. Since the last era of purely religious literature, the era of English Puritanism, there has been no writer in whose eyes the soul stood so much alone.
Carlyle was, as we have suggested, a mystic, and mysticism was with him, as with all its genuine professors, only a transcendent form of common sense. Mysticism and common sense alike consist in a sense of the dominance of certain truths and tendencies which cannot be formally demonstrated or even formally named. Mysticism and common sense are alike appeals to realities that we all know to be real, but which have no place in argument except as postulates. Carlyle's work did consist in breaking through formulæ, old and new, to these old and silent and ironical sanities. Philosophers might abolish kings a hundred times over, he maintained, they could not alter the fact that every man and woman does choose a king and repudiate all the pride of citizenship for the exultation of humility. If inequality of this kind was a weakness, it was a weakness bound up with the very strength of the universe. About hero worship, indeed, few critics have done the smallest justice to Carlyle. Misled by those hasty and choleric passages in which he sometimes expressed a preference for mere violence, passages which were a great deal more connected with his temperament than with his philosophy, they have finally imbibed the notion that Carlyle's theory of hero worship was a theory of terrified submission to stern and arrogant men. As a matter of fact, Carlyle is really inhumane about some questions, but he is never inhumane about hero worship. His view is not that human nature is so vulgar and silly a thing that it must be guided and driven; it is, on the contrary, that human nature is so chivalrous and fundamentally magnanimous a thing that even the meanest have it in them to love a leader more than themselves, and to prefer loyalty to rebellion. When he speaks of this trait in human nature Carlyle's tone invariably softens. We feel that for the moment he is kindled with admiration of mankind, and almost reaches the verge of Christianity. Whatever else was acid and captious about Carlyle's utterances, his hero worship was not only humane, it was almost optimistic. He admired great men primarily, and perhaps correctly, because he thought that they were more human than other men. The evil side of the influence of Carlyle and his religion of hero worship did not consist in the emotional worship of valour and success; that was a part of him, as, indeed, it is a part of all healthy children. Where Carlyle really did harm was in the fact that he, more than any modern man, is responsible for the increase of that modern habit of what is vulgarly called "Going the whole hog." Often in matters of passion and conquest it is a singularly hoggish hog. This remarkable modern craze for making one's philosophy, religion, politics, and temper all of a piece, of seeking in all incidents for opportunities to assert and reassert some favourite mental attitude, is a thing which existed comparatively little in other centuries. Solomon and Horace, Petrarch and Shakespeare were pessimists when they were melancholy, and optimists when they were happy. But the optimist of to-day seems obliged to prove that gout and unrequited love make him dance with joy, and the pessimist of to-day to prove that sunshine and a good supper convulse him with inconsolable anguish. Carlyle was strongly possessed with this mania for spiritual consistency. He wished to take the same view of the wars of the angels and of the paltriest riot at Donnybrook Fair. It was this species of insane logic which led him into his chief errors, never his natural enthusiasms. Let us take an example. Carlyle's defence of slavery is a thoroughly ridiculous thing, weak alike in argument and in moral instinct. The truth is, that he only took it up from the passion for applying everywhere his paradoxical defence of aristocracy. He blundered, of course, because he did not see that slavery has nothing in the world to do with aristocracy, that it is, indeed, almost its opposite. The defence which Carlyle and all its thoughtful defenders have made for aristocracy was that a few persons could more rapidly and firmly decide public affairs in the interests of the people. But slavery is not even supposed to be a government for the good of the governed. It is a possession of the governed avowedly for the good of the governors. Aristocracy uses the strong for the service of the weak; slavery uses the weak for the service of the strong. It is no derogation to man as a spiritual being, as Carlyle firmly believed he was, that he should be ruled and guided for his own good like a child—for a child who is always ruled and guided we regard as the very type of spiritual existence. But it is a derogation and an absolute contradiction to that human spirituality in which Carlyle believed that a man should be owned like a tool for someone else's good, as if he had no personal destiny in the Cosmos. We draw attention to this particular error of Carlyle's because we think that it is a curious example of the waste and unclean places into which that remarkable animal, "the whole hog," more than once led him. ...

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Wisława Szymborska: Moment

I walk on the slope of a hill gone green.
Grass, little flowers in the grass,
as in a children’s illustration.
The misty sky’s already turning blue.
A view of other hills unfolds in silence.

As if there’d never been any Cambrians, Silurians,
rocks snarling at crags,
upturned abysses,
no nights in flames
and days in clouds of darkness.

As if plains hadn’t pushed their way here
in malignant fevers,
icy shivers.

As if seas had seethed only elsewhere,
shredding the shores of the horizons.

It’s nine-thirty local time.
Everything’s in its place and in polite agreement.
In the valley a little brook cast as a little brook.
A path in the role of a path from always to ever.
Woods disguised as woods alive without end,
and above them birds in flight play birds in flight.

This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach.
One of those earthly moments
invited to linger.

—translated from the Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Scenes of Charlotte Bronte's Life in Brussels

We had "done" Brussels after the approved fashion,—had faithfully visited the churches, palaces, museums, theatres, galleries, monuments, and boulevards, had duly admired the beautiful windows and the exquisite wood-carvings of the grand old cathedral of St. Gudule, the tower and tapestry and frescos and façade of the magnificent Hôtel-de-Ville, the stately halls and the gilded dome of the immense new Courts of Justice, and the consummate beauty of the Bourse, had diligently sought out the naïve boy-fountain, and had made the usual excursion to Waterloo.

This delightful task being conscientiously discharged, we proposed to devote our last day in the beautiful Belgian capital to the accomplishment of one of the cherished projects of our lives,—the searching out of the localities associated with Charlotte Bronté's unhappy school-life here, which she has so graphically portrayed. For our purpose no guide was available, or needful, for the topography and local coloring of "Villette" and "The Professor" are as vivid and unmistakable as in the best work of Dickens himself. Proceeding from St. Gudule, by the little street at the back of the cathedral, to the Rue Royale, and a short distance along that grand thoroughfare, we reached the park and a locality familiar to Miss Bronté's readers. Seated in this lovely pleasure-ground, the gift of the empress Maria Theresa, with its cool shade all about us, we noted the long avenues and the paths winding amid stalwart trees and verdant shrubbery, the dark foliage ineffectually veiling the gleaming statuary and the sheen of bright fountains, "the stone basin with its clear depth, the thick-planted trees which framed this tremulous and rippled mirror," the groups of happy people filling the seats in secluded nooks or loitering in the cool mazes and listening to the music,—we noted all this, and felt that Miss Bronté had revealed it to us long ago. It was across this park that Lucy Snowe was piloted from the bureau of the diligence by the chivalrous stranger, Dr. John, on the night when she, despoiled, helpless, and solitary, arrived in Brussels. She found the park deserted and dark, the paths miry, the water "dripping from its trees." "In the double gloom of tree and fog she could not see her guide, and could only follow his tread" in the darkness. We recalled another scene under these same tail trees, on a night when the iron gateway was "spanned by a naming arch of massed stars." The park was a "forest with sparks of purple and ruby and golden fire gemming the foliage," and Lucy, driven from her couch by mental torture, wandered unrecognized amid the gay throng at the midnight concert of the Festival of the Martyrs and looked upon her lover, her friends the Brettons, and the secret junta of her enemies, Madame Beck, Madame Walravens, and Père Silas.

The sense of familiarity with the vicinage grew as we observed our surroundings. Facing us, at the extremity of the park, was the unpretentious palace of the king, in the small square across the Rue Royale at our right was the statue of General Béliard, and we knew that just behind it we should find the Rue Fossette and Charlotte Bronté's pensionnat, for Crimsworth, "The Professor," standing by the statue, had "looked down a great staircase" to the door-way of the school, and poor Lucy, on that forlorn first night in "Villette," to avoid the insolence of a pair of ruffians, had hastened down a flight of steps from the Rue Royale, and had come, not to the inn she sought, but to the pensionnat of Madame Beck.

From the statue we descended, by a quadruple series of wide stone stairs, into a narrow street, old-fashioned and clean, quiet and secluded in the very heart of the great city,—the Rue d'Isabelle,—and just opposite the foot of the steps we came to the wide door of a spacious, quadrangular, stuccoed old mansion, with a bit of foliage showing over a high wall at one side. A bright plate embellishes the door and bears the inscription,


A Latin inscription in the wall of the house shows it to have been given to the Guild of Royal Archers by the Infanta Isabelle early in the seventeenth century. Long before that the garden had been the orchard and herbary of a convent and the Hospital for the Poor.

We were detained at the door long enough to remember Lucy standing there, trembling and anxious, awaiting admission, and then we too were "let in by a bonne in a smart cap,"—apparently a fit successor to the Rosine of forty years ago,—and entered the corridor. This is paved with blocks of black and white marble and has painted walls. It extends through the entire depth of the house, and at its farther extremity an open door afforded us a glimpse of the garden.

We were ushered into the little salon at the left of the passage,—the one often mentioned in "Villette,"—and here we made known our wish to see the garden and class-rooms, and met with a prompt refusal from the neat portresse. We tried diplomacy (also lucre) with her, without avail: it was the grandes vacances, the ladies were out, M. Héger was engaged, we could not be gratified,—unless, indeed, we were patrons of the school. At this juncture a portly, ruddy-faced lady of middle age and most courteous of speech and manner appeared, and, addressing us in faultless English, introduced herself as Mademoiselle Héger, co-directress of the pensionnat, and "wholly at our service." In response to our apologies for the intrusion and explanations of the desire which had prompted it, we received complaisant assurances of welcome; yet the manner of our kind entertainer indicated that she did not appreciate, much less share in, our admiration and enthusiasm for Charlotte Bronté and her books. In the subsequent conversation it appeared that Mademoiselle and her family hold decided opinions upon the subject,—something more than mere lack of admiration. She was familiar with the novels, and thought that, while they exhibit a talent certainly not above mediocrity, they reflect the injustice, the untruthfulness, and the ingratitude of their creator. We were obliged to confess to ourselves that the family have apparent reason for this view, when we reflected that in the books Miss Bronté has assailed their religion and disparaged the school and the character of the teachers and pupils, has depicted Madame Héger in the odious duad of Madame Beck and Mademoiselle Reuter, has represented M. Héger as the scheming and deceitful M. Pelet and the preposterous M. Paul, Lucy Snowe's lover, that this lover was the husband of Madame Héger, and father of the family of children to whom Lucy was at first bonne d'enfants, and that possibly the daughter she has described as the thieving, vicious Désirée—"that tadpole, Désirée Beck"—was this very lady now so politely entertaining us. To all this add the significant fact that "Villette" is an autobiographical novel, which "records the most vivid passages in Miss Bronté's own sad heart's history," not a few of the incidents being "literal transcripts" from the darkest chapter of her own life, and the light which the consideration of this fact throws upon her relations with members of the family will help us to apprehend the stand-point from which the Hégers judge Miss Bronté and her work, and to excuse, if not to justify, a natural resentment against one who has presented them in a decidedly bad light.

How bad we began to realize when, during the ensuing chat, we called to mind just what she had written of them. As Madame Beck, Madame Héger had been represented as lying, deceitful, and shameless, as heartless and unscrupulous, as "watching and spying everywhere, peeping through every keyhole, listening behind every door," as duplicating Lucy's keys and secretly searching her bureau, as meanly abstracting her letters and reading them to others, as immodestly laying herself out to entrap the man to whom she had given her love unsought. In letters to her friend Ellen, Miss Bronté complains that "Madame Héger never came near her" in her loneliness and illness.

It was, obviously, some accession to the existing animosity between herself and Madame Héger which precipitated Miss Bronté's final departure from the pensionnat. Mrs. Gaskell ascribes their mutual dislike to Charlotte's free expression of her aversion to the Catholic Church, of which Madame Héger was a devotee, and hence "wounded in her most cherished opinions;" but a later writer, in the "Westminster Review," plainly intimates that Miss Bronté hated the woman who sat for Madame Beck because marriage had given to her the man whom Miss Bronté loved, and that "Madame Beck had need to be a detective in her own house." The recent death of Madame Héger has rendered the family, who hold her now only as a sacred memory, more keenly sensitive than ever to anything which would seem by implication to disparage her.

For himself it would appear that M. Héger has less cause for resentment, for, although in "Villette" he (or his double) is pictured as "a waspish little despot," as fiery and unreasonable, as "detestably ugly" in his anger, closely resembling "a black and sallow tiger," as having an "overmastering love of authority and public display," as basely playing the spy and reading purloined letters, and in the Bronté epistles Charlotte declares he is choleric and irritable, compels her to make her French translations without a dictionary or grammar, and then has "his eyes almost plucked out of his head" by the occasional English word she is obliged to introduce, etc., yet all this is partially atoned for by the warm praise she subsequently accords him for his goodness to her and his "disinterested friendship," by the poignant regret she expresses at parting with him,—perhaps wholly expiated by the high compliment she pays him of making her heroine, Lucy, fall in love with him, or the higher compliment it is suspected she paid him of falling in love with him herself. One who reads the strange history of passion in "Villette," in conjunction with her letters, "will know more of the truth of her stay in Brussels than if a dozen biographers had undertaken to tell the whole tale." ...

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Lord Byron: Euthanasia

When Time, or soon or late, shall bring
The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
Wave gently o'er my dying bed!

No band of friends or heirs be there,
To weep, or wish, the coming blow:
No maiden, with dishevelled hair,
To feel, or feign, decorous woe.

But silent let me sink to earth,
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a tear.

Yet Love, if Love in such an hour
Could nobly check its useless sighs,
Might then exert its latest power
In her who lives, and him who dies.

'Twere sweet, my Psyche! to the last
Thy features still serene to see:
Forgetful of its struggles past,
E'en Pain itself should smile on thee.

But vain the wish?for Beauty still
Will shrink, as shrinks the ebbing breath;
And women's tears, produced at will,
Deceive in life, unman in death.

Then lonely be my latest hour,
Without regret, without a groan;
For thousands Death hath ceas'd to lower,
And pain been transient or unknown.

`Ay, but to die, and go,' alas!
Where all have gone, and all must go!
To be the nothing that I was
Ere born to life and living woe!

Count o'er the joys thine hours have seen,
Count o'er thy days from anguish free,
And know, whatever thou hast been,
'Tis something better not to be.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Poet of Loss

Oh, for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy.

So wrote the author of “Sleep and Poetry,” composed in late 1816. Alas, John Keats was allowed only half that time, dying at the age of 25 in 1821.

Is there any more affecting story than his in the annals of English literature? Orphaned at a young age, barely five feet tall (and sensitive about it), and raggedly educated, Keats was nonetheless naturally gregarious and fond of “women, wine, and snuff.” A Londoner through and through, he loved the theater, enjoyed watching boxing matches, and once spent an evening cutting cards for half guineas. This sometimes overidealized poet—so sensitive! so ethereal!—even seems to have been treated for a venereal disease, possibly syphilis. He fell in love at least twice before he met Fanny Brawne, to whom he became engaged. When they were apart or quarrelling, he suffered horribly from jealousy.

For a couple of years, the young Keats was also absorbed with medical studies and nearly became what we might call a physician’s assistant. Admirably dedicated to his siblings, he wrote regularly to his sister Fanny and his brother George (who emigrated to the United States and was cheated out of his savings by John James Audubon, no less). When his other brother, Tom, fell mortally ill of consumption, i.e., tuberculosis, the poet devotedly nursed him—to the detriment of his own health. When, shortly after Tom’s death, Keats himself spat up a bit of deep red, he recognized it as arterial blood, and knew that he, too, was doomed. He traveled to Italy, hoping for a reprieve, but ultimately died, after great suffering, in Rome. On his tombstone, he requested that these words be inscribed: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

The dying Keats was, however, quite wrong about being forgotten. Percy Bysshe Shelley almost immediately composed one of his greatest works, “Adonaïs,” as a memorial to him. Charles Armitage Brown brought out a brief biography, in which he accused the literary critics who had scathingly attacked Keats and “the Cockney School of Poetry” of having hastened his beloved friend’s death. Substantial lives and studies gradually appeared, including a two-volume biography by Amy Lowell early in the 20th century and, in the 1960s, substantial volumes by Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Kelly, and Robert Gittings. Nearly all of these books are first-rate in their differing ways, for Keats seems to bring out the best in his admirers. In 2008, for instance, Stanley Plumly’s “personal biography,” Posthumous Keats, garnered tremendous reviews and well-deserved praise. To scholar and fellow poet David Baker, it was nothing less than “the greatest book ever written about the greatest lyric poet of our language.”

Even with such competition, John Keats: A New Life has much to recommend it. Nicholas Roe, professor of English at the University of St Andrews, comes to his mighty task with superb credentials: two previous scholarly studies of the poet, a biography of the fiery controversialist Leigh Hunt (whom the young Keats revered), and the chairmanship of the Keats Foundation. Roe writes, moreover, with reportorial crispness (though he does overuse phrases like “as we shall see”) and, at times, tracks his subject’s brief life almost by the hour.

“Like Wordsworth in ‘Tintern Abbey’ and The Prelude,” underscores Roe, “as a poet Keats depended on memories laid down in very early childhood.” Roe stresses, in particular, the emotional turmoil resulting from the death, while riding, of Keats’s 31-year-old father, Thomas, when John was just 8 years old. This was followed by the sudden remarriage of Keats’s mother, Frances, two months later to a man “aged twenty, with no income of his own.” Roe even raises the possibility that Frances, known to be lively and “passionately fond of amusement,” may have been carrying on a clandestine affair before her first husband’s death. When she died at just 35 from tuberculosis, her children—John, George, Tom, and Fanny—found themselves thrust upon various relatives, or sent away to school. Financial wrangling within the extended family dragged on for years.

Roe sees aspects of these family tragedies, and possible suspicions about his mother, reemerging throughout Keats’s poetry—as well as being a possible cause of his self-confessed “morbidity” and Hamlet-like melancholy. Death haunted the poet’s early life, and part of his childhood was spent literally next door to Bethlem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam, the asylum for the insane.

Something of a scrapper and hardly a model student, young Keats nonetheless fell in love with that key to all mythology, Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary. Using it as a source book, the teenage boy began work on a (now lost) prose translation of the Aeneid, possibly as a distraction from grief at his mother’s death. About the same time, he discovered Spenser’s Faerie Queene and went through it, in his own words, “as a young horse would through a spring meadow—ramping!” A similar passion for Shakespeare and Milton soon followed.

More here.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Resistance, Rebellion, and Writing

“People expect too much of writers,” Albert Camus lamented in the late 1950s. At the time Camus was writing, the Algerian rebellion had grown into a full-scale guerrilla war for independence, and while his initial sympathy for the uprising led the French Right and the French Algerian settlers to denounce him as a traitor, he also came in for frequent polemical attacks from the French Left for not energetically and unequivocally supporting the insurgents. Criticism also came from the Algerian militants themselves. Frantz Fanon, the best-known Algerian writer, derided him as a “sweet sister.” Sartre, formerly his close friend, mocked Camus’s “beautiful soul.”

Camus’s complaint does him credit. He agonized over his political pronouncements in a way that the more brilliant, mercurial, doctrinaire Sartre never had to. In 1957, as the war ground on and positions hardened on both sides, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despairing of the Algerian situation but determined to answer his critics and, with the prestige of the Nobel behind him, make one final effort for peace and reconciliation, Camus assembled a short collection of his writings about Algeria, which was published in 1958. It appears now in English for the first time, ably translated by Arthur Goldhammer.

Algerian Chronicles spans two decades. In 1939, when Camus was a young journalist in Algeria—where he was born in 1913, to impoverished and barely literate working-class parents—a severe drought struck the region of Kabylia. Camus traveled there to report on it, and was horrified. He wrote a series of vivid and powerful dispatches, with which Algerian Chronicles begins.

Kabylia was a populous province that, like many other underdeveloped areas, derived a large proportion of its income from the remittances of émigré workers. During the Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment soared in France, many Algerian immigrants were sent home and new emigration was discouraged. Kabylia was already economically depressed when the drought hit, and the results were devastating. Hunger and unemployment were general, wages were below subsistence level, and there were few schools for poor children to attend. Some public subsidies and private charity arrived from France but made hardly a dent.

More here.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Three Presences

On April 2nd, 1916, one of Yeats’s plays for dancers, At the Hawk’s Well, received its first performance in Lady Emerald Cunard’s drawing room in Cavendish Square, London before an invited audience. Michio Ito danced the guardian of the well. The guests included Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. For all I know, this may have been the only afternoon on which Yeats, Eliot, and Pound were together in the same room. Many years later, Samuel Beckett wrote a play, like At the Hawk’s Well, about waiting; waiting for someone who is supposed to arrive but doesn’t, a variant of waiting for a transforming flow of water which is never received because the guardian of the well distracts those who are longing for it. In Happy Days, Winnie utters the first line of At the Hawk’s Well, “I call to the eye of the mind”, one of many literary allusions that she recalls – or rather, that Beckett recalls on her behalf. I draw a loose connection between these occasions to suggest a literary context for the relations I propose to describe: Yeats and Eliot, Yeats and Pound.

We know when Eliot converted to the Anglican Communion – he made his formal profession on June 9th, 1927 – but we don’t know precisely when he converted to Yeats: that took much longer. The first time he wrote about Yeats was in the Athenaeum, the issue for July 4th, 1919, a memorably severe review of The Cutting of an Agate. Eliot apparently found Yeats’s entire sensibility weird. As much in his prose as in his verse, he said, Yeats “is not ‘of this world’ – this world, of course, being our visible planet with whatever our theology or myth may conceive as below or above it”. Eliot assumes that he is central, and by comparison Yeats is exotically peripheral. The difference between Yeats’s world and ours, Eliot continues in consternation, “is so complete as to seem almost a physiological variety, different nerves and senses”. It was not – or not merely – a matter of Yeats’s interest in ghosts, mediums, leprechauns, and sprites. “When an Englishman explores the mysteries of the Cabala,” Eliot writes, “one knows one’s opinion of him, but Mr. Yeats on any subject is a cause of bewilderment and distress”:
The sprites are not unacceptable; but Mr. Yeats’s daily world, the world which admits these monsters without astonishment, which views them more familiarly than Commercial Road views a Lascar – this is the unknown and unknowable. Mr. Yeats’s mind is a mind in some way independent of experience; and anything that occurs in that mind is of equal importance. It is a mind in which perception of fact, and feeling and thinking are all a little different from ours.
Eliot does not define whom he has in mind by “ours”, or justify bringing forth their values as a decisive criterion. He does not explain how “experience” can be appealed to as a system supposedly held in common. He claims that Yeats’s sensibility cannot be assessed by any available standard:
In Mr. Yeats’s verse, in particular, the qualities can by no means be defined as mere attenuations and faintnesses. When it is compared with the work of any English bard of apparently equivalent thinness, the result is that the English work in question is thin; you can point to something that it ought to be and is not; but of Yeats you cannot say finally that he lacks feeling. He does not pretend to more feeling than he has, perhaps he has a great deal; it is not feeling that standards can measure as passionate or insipid.
Eliot’s problem with Yeats is that he cannot see either his thought or his feeling as having issued from any common source:
He seems, in his disembodied way, to happen on thoughts, thoughts of ‘wisdom,’ and if we are not convinced, it is because we do not see by what right he comes by them.
Perhaps, Eliot allows, Yeats got these wise thoughts from his dreaming; but, even if this is so, “Mr. Yeats’s dream is identical with Mr. Yeats’s reality”, a qualification or continuation of himself.

More here.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Denis Diderot: On Genius

In men of genius: poets, philosophers, painters, orators, musicians, there is some particular, secret, indefinable quality of the soul without which they can execute nothing great or beautiful. Is it imagination? No. I’ve seen good and strong imaginations that promised much but that came to nothing, or very little. Is it judgment? No. There is nothing more common than men of great judgment whose productions are flabby, soft, and cold. Is it wit? No. Wit says pretty things but only does small ones. Is it warmth, vivacity, impetuosity? No. Warm people do much and produce nothing of worth. Is it sensibility? No. I’ve seen some whose souls were quickly and profoundly touched, who can’t hear an elevated tale without being lifted out of themselves, transported, drunk, mad: it’s a pathetic trait and, without shedding tears, they stammer like children when they speak or when they write. Is it taste? No. Taste effaces defects more than it produces beauty: it’s a gift that we more or less acquire, and is not in the domain of nature. Is it a certain conformation of the head and the viscera, a certain constitution of the humors? I’ll agree to this, but on condition that we confess that neither I nor anyone else has a precise notion of this, and that we add to it the power of observation. When I speak of the power of observation I don’t mean the petty daily espionage of words, acts, and expressions, this tact so familiar to women, who possess it to a greater degree than the most intelligent men, the greatest souls, the most vigorous geniuses. This subtlety, which I would compare to the art of passing grains of millet through the eye of a needle, is a miserable daily study whose usefulness is domestic and trifling, with the aid of which a valet deceives his master, and his master deceives those for whom he is the valet by escaping them. The power of observation of which I speak is exercised without effort, without contention. It doesn’t look, it sees. It learns; it expands without studying. It has no present phenomena, but it affects everything, and what is left is meaning that the others don’t have. It’s a rare machine that says: That will succeed ... and it succeeds. That will not succeed ... and it doesn’t succeed. That is true or false ... and that is the case. It is noted in great things and small. This kind of prophetic spirit is not the same in all conditions of life: every state has its own. It doesn’t always guarantee against a fall, but the falls that it causes never cause contempt, and they are always preceded by uncertainty. The man of genius knows that he is trusting to chance, and he knows this without having calculated the probabilities for or against. This calculation is entirely done in his head. 

Source: Oeuvres Complètes. Paris, Garnier Fréres, 1875; 
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor; 
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Michel de Montaigne: Of Age

I cannot allow of the way in which we settle for ourselves the duration of our life. I see that the sages contract it very much in comparison of the common opinion: "What," said the younger Cato to those who would stay his hand from killing himself, "am I now of an age to be reproached that I go out of the world too soon?" And yet he was but eight-and-forty years old. He thought that to be a mature and advanced age, considering how few arrive unto it. And such as, soothing their thoughts with I know not what course of nature, promise to themselves some years beyond it, could they be privileged from the infinite number of accidents to which we are by a natural subjection exposed, they might have some reason so to do. What an idle conceit is it to expect to die of a decay of strength, which is the effect of extremest age, and to propose to ourselves no shorter lease of life than that, considering it is a kind of death of all others the most rare and very seldom seen? We call that only a natural death; as if it were contrary to nature to see a man break his neck with a fall, be drowned in shipwreck, be snatched away with a pleurisy or the plague, and as if our ordinary condition did not expose us to these inconveniences. Let us no longer flatter ourselves with these fine words; we ought rather, peradventure, to call that natural, which is general, common, and universal.

To die of old age is a death rare, extraordinary, and singular, and therefore, so much less natural than the others 'tis the last and extremest sort of dying: and the more remote, the less to be hoped for. It is indeed, the bourn beyond which we are not to pass, and which the law of nature has set as a limit, not to be exceeded: but it is, withal, a privilege she is rarely seen to give us to last till then. 'Tis a lease she only signs by particular favor, and it may, be to one only in the space of two or three ages, and then with a pass to boot, to carry him through all the traverses and difficulties she has strewed in the way of this long career. And therefore my opinion is, that when once forty years we should consider it as an age to which very few arrive. For seeing that men do not usually proceed so far, it is a sign that we are pretty well advanced; and since we have exceeded the ordinary bounds, which is the just measure of life, we ought not to expect to go much further; having escaped so many precipices of death whereinto we have seen so many other men fall, we should acknowledge that so extraordinary a fortune as that which has hitherto rescued us from those eminent perils, and kept us alive beyond the ordinary term of living, is not likely to continue long.

'Tis a fault in our very laws to maintain this error: these say that a man is not capable of managing his own estate till he be five-and-twenty years old, whereas he will have much ado to manage his life so long. Augustus cut off five years from the ancient Roman standard, and declared, that thirty years old was sufficient for a judge. Servius Tullius superseded the knights of above seven-and-forty years of age from the fatigues of war; Augustus dismissed them at forty-five; though methinks it seems a little unreasonable that men should be sent to the fireside till five-and-fifty or sixty years of age. I should be of opinion that our vocation and employment should be as far as possible extended for the public good: I find the fault on the other side, that they do not employ us early enough. This emperor was arbiter of the whole world at nineteen, and yet would have a man to be thirty before he could be fit to determine a dispute about a gutter.

For my part, I believe our souls are adult at twenty as much as they are ever like to be, and as capable then as ever. A soul that has not by that time given evident earnest of its force and virtue will never after come to proof. The natural qualities and virtues produce what they have of vigorous and fine, within that term or never.

"Si l'espine nou picque quand nai A pene que picque jamai,"

as they say in Dauphine.

Of all the great human actions I ever heard or read of, of what sort soever, I have observed, both in former ages and our own, more were performed before the age of thirty than after; and this ofttimes in the very lives of the same men. May I not confidently instance in those of Hannibal and his great concurrent Scipio? The better half of their lives they lived upon the glory they had acquired in their youth; great men after, 'tis true, in comparison of others; but by no means in comparison of themselves. As to my own particular, I do certainly believe that since that age, both my understanding and my constitution have rather decayed than improved, and retired rather than advanced. 'Tis possible, that with those who make the best use of their time, knowledge and experience may increase with their years; but vivacity, promptitude, steadiness, and other pieces of us, of much greater importance, and much more essentially our own, languish and decay.

"Ubi jam validis quassatum est viribus aevi Corpus, et obtusis ceciderunt viribus artus, Claudicat ingenium, delirat linquaque, mensque." Sometimes the body first submits to age, sometimes the mind; and I have seen enough who have got a weakness in their brains before either in their legs or stomach; and by how much the more it is a disease of no great pain to the sufferer, and of obscure symptoms, so much greater is the danger. For this reason it is that I complain of our laws, not that they keep us too long to our work, but that they set us to work too late. For the frailty of life considered, and to how many ordinary and natural rocks it is exposed, one ought not to give up so large a portion of it to childhood, idleness and apprenticeship.

Aldous Huxley: Culture and the Individual

BETWEEN CULTURE and the individual the relationship is, and always has been, strangely ambivalent. We are at once the beneficiaries of our culture and its victims. Without culture, and without that precondition of all culture, language, man would be no more than another species of baboon. It is to language and culture that we owe our humanity. And "What a piece of work is a man!" says Hamlet: "How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! ... in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god!" But, alas, in the intervals of being noble, rational and potentially infinite,
                            man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he is most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.
    Genius and angry ape, player of fantastic tricks and godlike reasoner—in all these roles individuals are the products of a language and a culture. Working on the twelve or thirteen billion neurons of a human brain, language and culture have given us law, science, ethics, philosophy; have made possible all the achievements of talent and of sanctity. They have also given us fanaticism, superstition and dogmatic bumptiousness; nationalistic idolatry and mass murder in the name of God; rabble-rousing propaganda and organized Iying. And, along with the salt of the earth, they have given us, generation after generation, countless millions of hypnotized conformists, the predestined victims of power-hungry rulers who are themselves the victims of all that is most senseless and inhuman in their cultural tradition.

    Thanks to language and culture, human behavior can be incomparably more intelligent, more original, creative and flexible than the behavior of animals, whose brains are too small to accommodate the number of neurons necessary for the invention of language and the transmission of accumulated knowledge. But, thanks again to language and culture, human beings often behave with a stupidity, a lack of realism, a total inappropriateness, of which animals are incapable.

    Trobriand Islander or Bostonian, Sicilian Catholic or Japanese Buddhist, each of us is born into some culture and passes his life within its confines. Between every human consciousness and the rest of the world stands an invisible fence, a network of traditional thinking-and-feeling patterns, of secondhand notions that have turned into axioms, of ancient slogans revered as divine revelations. What we see through the meshes of this net is never, of course, the unknowable "thing in itself." It is not even, in most cases, the thing as it impinges upon our senses and as our organism spontaneously reacts to it. What we ordinarily take in and respond to is a curious mixture of immediate experience with culturally conditioned symbol, of sense impressions with preconceived ideas about the nature of things. And by most people the symbolic elements in this cocktail of awareness are felt to be more important than the elements contributed by immediate experience. Inevitably so, for, to those who accept their culture totally and uncritically, words in the familiar language do not stand (however inadequately) for things. On the contrary, things stand for familiar words. Each unique event of their ongoing life is instantly and automatically classified as yet another concrete illustration of one of the verbalized, culture-hallowed abstractions drummed into their heads by childhood conditioning.

    It goes without saying that many of the ideas handed down to us by the transmitters of culture are eminently sensible and realistic. (If they were not, the human species would now be extinct.) But, along with these useful concepts, every culture hands down a stock of unrealistic notions, some of which never made any sense, while others may once have possessed survival value, but have now, in the changed and changing circumstances of ongoing history, become completely irrelevant. Since human beings respond to symbols as promptly and unequivocally as they respond to the stimuli of unmediated experience, and since most of them naively believe that culture-hallowed words about things are as real as, or even realer than their perceptions of the things themselves, these outdated or intrinsically nonsensical notions do enormous harm. Thanks to the realistic ideas handed down by culture, mankind has survived and, in certain fields, progresses. But thanks to the pernicious nonsense drummed into every individual in the course of his acculturation, mankind, though surviving and progressing, has always been in trouble. History is the record, among other things, of the fantastic and generally fiendish tricks played upon itself by culture-maddened humanity. And the hideous game goes on.

    What can, and what should, the individual do to improve his ironically equivocal relationship with the culture in which he finds himself embedded? How can he continue to enjoy the benefits of culture without, at the same time, being stupefied or frenziedly intoxicated by its poisons? How can he become discriminatingly acculturated, rejecting what is silly or downright evil in his conditioning, and holding fast to that which makes for humane and intelligent behavior?
    A culture cannot be discriminatingly accepted, much less be modified, except by persons who have seen through it—by persons who have cut holes in the confining stockade of verbalized symbols and so are able to look at the world and, by reflection, at themselves in a new and relatively unprejudiced way. Such persons are not merely born; they must also be made. But how?

    In the field of formal education, what the would-be hole cutter needs is knowledge. Knowledge of the past and present history of cultures in all their fantastic variety, and knowledge about the nature and limitations, the uses and abuses, of language. A man who knows that there have been many cultures, and that each culture claims to be the best and truest of all, will find it hard to take too seriously the boastings and dogmatizings of his own tradition. Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument. As a preparation for hole cutting, this kind of intellectual education is certainly valuable, but no less certainly insufficient. Training on the verbal level needs to be supplemented by training in wordless experiencing. We must learn how to be mentally silent, must cultivate the art of pure receptivity.

    To be silently receptive—how childishly simple that seems! But in fact, as we very soon discover, how difficult! The universe in which men pass their lives is the creation of what Indian philosophy calls Nama-Rupa, Name and Form. Reality is a continuum, a fathomlessly mysterious and infinite Something, whose outward aspect is what we call Matter and whose inwardness is what we call Mind. Language is a device for taking the mystery out of Reality and making it amenable to human comprehension and manipulation. Acculturated man breaks up the continuum, attaches labels to a few of the fragments, projects the labels into the outside world and thus creates for himself an all-too-human universe of separate objects, each of which is merely the embodiment of a name, a particular illustration of some traditional abstraction. What we perceive takes on the pattern of the conceptual lattice through which it has been filtered. Pure receptivity is difficult because man's normal waking consciousness is always culturally conditioned. But normal waking consciousness, as William James pointed out many years ago, "is but one type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these forms of consciousness disregarded."

    Like the culture by which it is conditioned, normal waking consciousness is at once our best friend and a most dangerous enemy. It helps us to survive and make progress; but at the same time it prevents us from actualizing some of our most valuable potentialities and, on occasion, gets us into all kinds of trouble. To become fully human, man, proud man, the player of fantastic tricks, must learn to get out of his own way: only then will his infinite faculties and angelic apprehension get a chance of coming to the surface. In Blake's words, we must "cleanse the doors of perception"; for when the doors of perception are cleansed, "everything appears to man as it is—infinite." To normal waking consciousness things are the strictly finite and insulated embodiments of verbal labels. How can we break the habit of automatically imposing our prejudices and the memory of culture-hallowed words upon immediate experience? Answer: by the practice of pure receptivity and mental silence. These will cleanse the doors of perception and, in the process, make possible the emergence of other than normal forms of consciousness—aesthetic consciousness, visionary consciousness, mystical consciousness. Thanks to culture we are the heirs to vast accumulations of knowledge, to a priceless treasure of logical and scientific method, to thousands upon thousands of useful pieces of technological and organizational know-how. But the human mind-body possesses other sources of information, makes use of other types of reasoning, is gifted with an intrinsic wisdom that is independent of cultural conditioning.

    Wordsworth writes that "our meddling intellect [that part of the mind which uses language to take the mystery out of Reality] mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: we murder to dissect." Needless to say, we cannot get along without our meddling intellect. Verbalized conceptual thinking is indispensable. But even when they are used well, verbalized concepts mis-shape "the beauteous forms of things." And when (as happens so often) they are used badly, they mis-shape our lives by rationalizing ancient stupidities, by instigating mass murder, persecution and the playing of all the other fantastically ugly tricks that make the angels weep. Wise nonverbal passiveness is an antidote to unwise verbal activity and a necessary corrective to wise verbal activity. Verbalized concepts about experience need to be supplemented by direct, unmediated acquaintance with events as they present themselves to us. ...