Sunday, 31 January 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer’

My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation. Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.

In a sense, I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.

In my case, there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to read it or even write it. As a result, I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language, too.

As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met (on a trip to Florence with my sister in 1994), Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.

How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.

I buy a book. It’s called Teach Yourself Italian. An exhortatory title, full of hope and possibility. As if it were possible to learn on your own.

Having studied Latin for many years, I find the first chapters of this textbook fairly easy. I manage to memorise some conjugations, do some exercises. But I don’t like the silence, the isolation of the self-teaching process. It seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without ever playing it.

I attend elementary courses. The first teacher is a Milanese woman who lives in Boston. I do the homework, I pass the tests. But when, after two years of studying, I try to read Alberto Moravia’s novel La ciociara (Two Women), I barely understand it. I underline almost every word on every page. I am constantly looking in the dictionary.

In the spring of 2000, six years after my trip to Florence, I go to Venice. In addition to the dictionary, I take a notebook and on the last page I write down phrases that might be useful: Saprebbe dirmi? Dove si trova? Come si fa per andare? – Could you tell me? Where is? How does one get to? I recall the difference between buono and bello. I feel prepared. In reality, in Venice I’m barely able to ask for directions on the street, a wake-up call at the hotel. I manage to order in a restaurant and exchange a few words with a saleswoman. Nothing else. Even though I’ve returned to Italy, I still feel exiled from the language.

A few months later, I receive an invitation to the Mantua literary festival. There, I meet my first Italian publishers. One of them is also my translator. Their names are Marco and Claudia.

Marco and Claudia give me the key. When I mention that I’ve studied some Italian, and that I would like to improve it, they stop speaking to me in English. They switch to their language, although I’m able to respond only in a very simple way.

They tolerate my mistakes. They correct me, they encourage me, they provide the words I lack. They speak clearly, patiently. Just like parents with their children. Thanks to them, I finally find myself inside the language.

Returning to America, I want to go on speaking Italian. But with whom? I know some people in New York who speak it perfectly. I’m embarrassed to talk to them. I need someone with whom I can struggle and fail.

One day, I go to the Casa Italiana at New York University to interview a famous Roman writer, a woman, who has won the Strega prize. I am in an overcrowded room, where everyone but me speaks an impeccable Italian. The director of the institute greets me. I tell him I would have liked to do the interview in Italian. That I studied the language years ago but I can’t speak well.

“Need practising,” I say. “You need practice,” he answers kindly.

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Friday, 29 January 2016

Alfred Brendel on a life in music: ‘Impatience was not a vice’

Where, and how, does a musician’s calling reveal itself? It can be stimulated by artistic activity and aesthetic leanings in the family, by the early opportunity to listen to concerts and opera, by being exposed to recordings and YouTube. In my case, there was nothing of that sort. Nor was there an intellectual background. Without an academic piano teacher after my 16th year, I became used to finding out things for myself. It helped me to keep my mind as independent as possible.

My first recital at the age of 17 provided a clear signal: courteously received, it made my pessimistic mother give in. Of course it wouldn’t be the solid future of a bourgeois academic – the risk was incalculable. Yet I was allowed to take it. For a couple of years, I had already dabbled in as many artistic endeavours as I could find – writing sonnets that sounded profound and meant nothing, studying composition, as well as drawing or painting myself, my friends, or whatever came to mind.

Impatience was not one of my vices. I felt I had musical talent but was cautious in imagining how far it would lead. And I saw it as a long-term proposition, hoping, at 20, that I might be an artist of stature at 50. Lofty musicians such as Edwin Fischer, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, whom I was able to hear at that time, gave me an idea of what to aim for. Some of their most inspired performances have stayed in my mind.

I was 14 when the war ended, and lucky enough never to have to join an army. The fact that I spent some of my school years in countries that were governed by Ustashi or Nazis has significantly influenced my later outlook on life. The experience of war, bombs, people proud to be political “believers”, the preposterous voices of Hitler and Goebbels on the radio, the sight of Jews wearing yellow stars and the experience of a war closing in on where I stayed with my mother left a store of information in my memory, information that told me in hindsight what the world should avoid being. It made me a sceptic forever.

After years of turmoil without a proper home and an available piano, I realised that there was a large area of compensation. The realm of aesthetics – art, music, literature, theatre and film – seemed to be, as Nietzsche had said, the sole justification of life and the world. I decided that the world was absurd, and that to perceive the comical side of absurdity was the proper strategy for survival.

Next to the wonderful sense of order I derived from music, I learned to value nonsense – not just the poetic territory discovered by Edward Lear but the nonsensical part of reality. The pronouncement that “Dada was nothing, ie everything” opened up the world beyond the strictures of intellect.

As a child, I had played a lead in a children’s theatre and watched movies by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The fascination of the cinema has remained, culminating in a film series that I curated a few years ago under the heading “Between Dread and Laughter”. Great acting in the theatre as well as on the screen has continued to inspire my urge to play roles as a musical performer, and to treat musical pieces as characters.

From the age of 20 onwards I had the opportunity to make recordings. I had already used a Swiss tape recorder, a gift from friends, and a microphone for my private benefit. It can take considerable time for a young player to learn how to listen properly to himself. One of the paradoxes for a pianist is that he or she has both to anticipate the sound and at the same time take in what happens in the moment. It was my privilege that in a recording career that spanned 50 years I had the chance to keep abreast of my own playing, react to it, decide what to improve, and which inspired moments, if possible, to retain.

In the 1950s, Vienna became a hunting ground for various American record companies. There were fine halls to record in and young talent queueing up. During these postwar years, facilities in a city divided into British, American, French and Russian zones were relatively cheap and the wording of contracts suitably vague. The LP had just reached the market, and big chunks of music had never been recorded before. Beginning in 1956 I had a busy recording schedule. In the following decades, technology developed from mono to stereo to digital, from LPs and cassettes to CDs. Here is one of the reasons why I was able to repeatedly re-record parts of my repertoire. But there were other reasons as well: the trust my companies had placed in me and, obviously, a reasonable degree of commercial success.

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Making Peace With Violence: Camus in Algeria

Sixty years ago today, Albert Camus gave the speech of his life. It was a speech, in fact, that nearly cost him his life, as well as one that failed in its goal of saving the lives of countless civilians, Arabs and French alike, caught in the vise of terrorism employed by both sides in Algeria’s war of independence. The reasoning behind the speech, as well as the reasons Camus gave it, cast important light on the “war on terror” now being fought in the West.

By early 1956, the war between Algeria’s nationalist movement, the National Liberation Front (the F.L.N.), and the French military had spiraled into mutual butcheries and bloodbaths — from the slaughter of the French colonist population (the “pied-noir”) of Philippeville, where more than 100 men, women and children were hacked to pieces by their Arab neighbors, to the policy of “collective responsibility,” the indiscriminate killing of Arab men, women and children by French soldiers and civilian militias. It was not just Algerians, but Algeria itself, that, in Camus’s words, was dying.

For this reason, on a Sunday afternoon, Jan. 22, shortly after 4 o’clock, a taut and nervous Camus stepped to the podium at the Cercle du Progrès, a Muslim-owned building in the center of Algiers. Born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Algiers, Camus straddled two dramatically different worlds. There was, on the one hand, his visceral attachment to the people and places of French Algeria; on the other hand, he had an equally fierce commitment to the French republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. First as a muckraking journalist, then as a novelist and essayist whose career would soon be crowned with the Nobel Prize in Literature, Camus fought for the extension of these ideals to the eight million Arabs and Berbers living under French rule. Unlike many fellow pieds-noirs, Camus was horrified by the brutal history of de jure and de facto discrimination against the Arabs and Berbers. Clinging to the hope that “French Algeria” could remain French while becoming fully democratic, Camus insisted that the pieds-noirs and Arabs were “condemned to live together.”

By 1956, however, Camus had come to fear they were instead condemned to kill one another. The prospect of unending bloodshed, fueled by acts of terrorism against the civilian populations, was a nearly unbearable burden. Algeria, he told a friend, was “wedged in my throat.” With equal doses of daring and desperation, in late 1955 Camus wrote a series of editorials in the magazine L’Express arguing for a civilian truce. A treaty between Paris and the F.L.N., Camus allowed, seemed impossible: The violent were carrying it away. But could not both sides at least agree to spare civilians? If not, he wrote: “Algeria will be populated solely by murderers and victims. Only the dead will be innocent.” Aware that it was all too easy to prod and push from distant Paris, Camus decided to speak publicly, at great personal risk, on this initiative in his native Algiers.

Algiers, in turn, was waiting: An audience of 1,500 men and women — French and Muslim, intellectuals and shopkeepers — had filled the hall and spilled into the staircases and adjoining rooms. The atmosphere was tense and febrile, especially as a menacing crowd of French colonists opposed to the meeting was massed outside the building. Camus told the audience that it was his duty, both as a French Algerian and a writer, “to make a simple appeal to your humanity.” Returning to an initiative he had first revealed in L’Express magazine, Camus proposed that the F.L.N. and French authorities agree to a “civilian truce.” Looking around the hall, Camus declared that he had not come to ask that his listeners “relinquish any of their conviction.” Regardless of the ideological, political and historical causes at stake, he continued, “no cause justifies the deaths of innocent people.” Camus insisted he had no illusions: resolving the “present situation” was beyond his means. Instead, he urged his listeners “to renounce what makes this situation unforgivable, namely, the slaughter of the innocent.”

Yet the slaughter of the innocent continued for another six years. Even as Camus spoke, the crowd outside, furious at his “betrayal” of French Algeria, screamed for his lynching. Refusing to leave the hall until he finished, Camus was then hustled to safety by his friends.

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A Different T.S. Eliot

For much of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s pronouncements on literature and culture had the force of a royal command. “In the seventeenth century,” he wrote, “a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.” Probably no such separation of thought from feeling ever occurred, but sober historians analyzed it as if were as real as the Industrial Revolution. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion,” Eliot wrote, “but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Two generations of critics worked to do his bidding by banishing from the canon poets like Shelley whom Eliot had judged insufficiently impersonal.
Eliot’s prose borrowed its sober and severe authority from the intensity and power of his poetry. His long poems The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943), like many of his shorter ones, evoked a synthesizing vision of public and private disorder: the emotional and erotic failures of individual persons and the chaotic anomie of contemporary Europe, individuals and societies both thirsty for life-giving waters, both waiting for the transforming commandments that, in The Waste Land, “the thunder said.” No other modern writer had his power to portray, simultaneously and in sharp focus, the disasters of both the inner world and the outer one.
When Eliot died in 1965 much of his authority died with him. Academic and journalistic opinion agreed that he had hoped public disorder could be resolved by imposing the kind of order favored by authoritarians; that, as a WASP from an old New England family, he felt superior to Jews and other outsiders to the high culture he embodied; that he held repugnant attitudes about women and sex. His detractors wrote entire books setting out the evidence against him, while his defenders replied with books that denied the evidence or explained it away.
Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot, the first volume of a two-part biography, and The Poems of T.S. Eliot, edited and massively annotated by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, make it possible to see more deeply than before into Eliot’s inner life, to perceive its order and complexity in new ways, and to recognize that his detractors and his defenders were responding to attitudes that Eliot condemned in himself and to beliefs that his poems simultaneously expressed and rebuked.
The first sixteen years of Eliot’s life, from his birth in St. Louis in 1888 until the year he attended Milton Academy near Boston before entering Harvard, are almost entirely undocumented. All that survive are two letters and a few numbers of a handwritten family magazine he began when he was eleven. More convincingly than earlier biographies, Young Eliot fills in the blanks by identifying books and events from Eliot’s childhood that he later transformed into poetry. The disastrous St. Louis cyclone of 1896, for example, gave him the apocalyptic imagery heralding The Waste Land’s “damp gust/Bringing rain.”
Other phrases in the poem had roots in Eliot’s prep school reading: James Russell Lowell’s “the river’s shroud” became Eliot’s “the river’s tent.” Eliot got his adult reputation for vast learning from the dazzling variety of quotations in The Waste Land. Crawford notes that many of these were remembered from one of his required school texts, Francis Palgrave’s anthology The Golden Treasury.
A voice in The Waste Land greets someone on a London street as “Stetson,” as if identifying him with his hat. Crawford reports that Eliot’s mother belonged to a ladies’ club addressed by a Mrs. Stetson. Eliot printed a poem under the pseudonym Gus Krutzsch, a name that also appears in an early draft of The Waste Land; one of Eliot’s St. Louis schoolmates was named August R. Krutzsch.
Crawford explores Eliot’s ambivalence toward his distinguished Anglo-American family, which had also produced President Charles William Eliot of Harvard, who later kept urging him to take an academic post there. Eliot took pride in his manners and class, but felt alienated from his parents’ earnest nineteenth-century piety. He was nostalgic about his English origins; the “dissociation of sensibility,” some readers observed, coincided with the Eliots’ ancestors’ voluntary uprooting from England to America. But he also felt a lifelong nostalgie de la boue, starting with stories he wrote about hobos in his family magazine, later in his half-appalled fascination with the violent world of Boston Irish boxers and barkeeps in his “Sweeney” poems and the tough-guy milieu of his unfinished play Sweeney Agonistes.
Crawford reports that Eliot was a graceful dancer and expert sailor but was self-conscious about his protuberant ears and a congenital hernia that required him to wear a truss. He asked himself in Ash-Wednesday (1930), “Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?” (He was around forty at the time.) The children of a friend had “nicknamed him ‘The Eagle’ because of the size of his nose.” His poetry tended to portray the human body as separate parts, not as a whole. From “Preludes”: “all the hands”; “yellow soles of feet”; “short square fingers”; “eyes/Assured of certain certainties.” From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase”; “Arms that are braceleted and white and bare.” From The Waste Land: “Exploring hands encounter no defence”; “My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart/Under my feet.” Even his image of primitive unconsciousness in “Prufrock”—“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”—was an evocation of body parts, not something whole like W.B. Yeats’s chestnut tree that will not divide into “the leaf, the blossom or the bole.” And in The Waste Land his image of wished-for erotic satisfaction was another collage of body parts: “your heart would have responded/Gaily, when invited, beating obedient/To controlling hands.”
The young Eliot concealed his physical anxieties with the obscene heartiness of his comic (or would-be comic) verses about King Bolo and his queen, which he sent first to laddish college friends, later to connoisseurs of scatological bawdry like Ezra Pound. Crawford writes reverently of Eliot’s poetry and critical prose; but he adds critical distancing comments whenever he detects “a hint of misogyny or homophobia,” as if to reassure censorious readers that he shares their sense of the moral urgency of scolding dead people.
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Thursday, 28 January 2016

William Butler Yeats: The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Design for Living - What’s great about Goethe?

In the English-speaking world, we are used to thinking of our greatest writer as an enigma, or a blank. Though there’s enough historical evidence to tell us when Shakespeare was born and when he died, and more than enough to prove that he wrote the plays ascribed to him, the record is thin. Indeed, the persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates is a symptom of how little we actually understand about his life. His religious beliefs, his love affairs, his relationships with other writers, his daily routine—these are permanent mysteries, and biographies of Shakespeare are always mostly speculation.

To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.

Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name. As it is, in the words of Nicholas Boyle, his leading English-­language biographer, “More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about almost any other human being.”

Germans began debating the significance of the Goethe phenomenon while he was still in his twenties, and they have never stopped. His lifetime, spanning some of the most monumental disruptions in modern history, is referred to as a single whole, the Goethezeit, or Age of Goethe. Worshipped as the greatest genius in German history and as an exemplary poet and human being, he has also been criticized for his political conservatism and quietism, which in the twentieth century came to seem sinister legacies. Indeed, Goethe was hostile to both the French Revolution and the German nationalist movement that sprang up in reaction to it. More radical and Romantic spirits especially disdained the way this titan seemed content to be a servant to princes—and Grand Duke Karl August of Weimar, despite his title, was a fairly minor prince—in an age of revolution.

One famous anecdote concerns Goethe and Beethoven, who were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way—which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. Historians dispute whether the incident actually took place, but if it didn’t the story is arguably even more revealing; the event became famous because it symbolized the way people thought about Goethe and his values.

Goethe’s fame notwithstanding, he is strangely neglected in the English-speaking world. English readers are notoriously indifferent to the poets of other cultures, and Goethe’s poems, unfortunately, seldom come across vividly in translation. This is partly because Goethe so often cloaks his sophistication in deceptively simple language. “Heidenröslein,” one of his earliest great poems, is written in the style of a folk song and almost entirely in words of one or two syllables: “Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn” (“A boy saw a little rose standing”). “The Essential Goethe” (Princeton), a rich new anthology, a thousand pages long, edited by Matthew Bell, which valiantly seeks to display every facet of Goethe’s genius, gives the poem in a translation by John Frederick Nims:
Urchin blurts: “I’ll pick you, though, Rosebud in the heather!” Rosebud: “Then I’ll stick you so That there’s no forgetting, no! I’ll not stand it, ever!”
Nims reproduces the rhythm of the original precisely. But to do so he adds words that aren’t in the original (“though”) and resorts to distractingly winsome diction (“urchin,” “I’ll not”). The result is clumsy and charmless. The very simplicity of Goethe’s language makes his poetry practically untranslatable.

English speakers are more hospitable to fiction in translation, and yet when was the last time you heard someone mention “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” or “Elective Affinities,” Goethe’s long fictions? These books have a good claim to have founded two of the major genres of the modern novel—respectively, the Bildungsroman and the novel of adultery. Goethe’s first novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is better known, mainly because it represented such an enormous milestone in literary history; the first German international best-seller, it is said to have started a craze for suicide among young people emulating its hero. But in English it remains a book more famous than read.

This wasn’t always the case. Victorian intellectuals revered Goethe as the venerable Sage of Weimar. Thomas Carlyle implored the reading public to “close thy Byron, open thy Goethe”—which was as much as to say, “Grow up!” Matthew Arnold saw Goethe as a kind of healer and liberator, calling him the “physician of the Iron Age,” who “read each wound, each weakness” of the “suffering human race.” For these writers, Goethe seemed to possess something the modern world lacked: wisdom, the ability to understand life and how it should be lived. It was this very quality that led to his fall from favor in the post-Victorian age. For the modernists, being spiritually sick was a condition of intellectual respectability, and T. S. Eliot wrote that “there is something artificial and even priggish about Goethe’s healthiness.” Reading Goethe today, even through the veil of translation, is most valuable as an encounter with a way of thinking and feeling that has grown foreign to us.

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Monday, 25 January 2016

Was Robert Burns really a radical?

“Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,” wrote Robert Burns in 1793, a line that will be sung or recited countless times between this weekend and next at Burns Night suppers around the world where haggis, neeps, and tatties will be served and the “immortal memory” will be toasted.

But what will they celebrate? A sentimental nationalism is usually attached to “Scots Wha Hae”, and a masonic-style of brotherly love to that other favourite, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That”. Burns suppers have had the reputation of being little more than backward looking all-male piss-ups and in the 1930s the poet Hugh MacDiarmid condemned Burns clubs for their “canting humbug” that “preserved his furniture and repelled his message”.

The accepted view, still embalmed in the 1988 Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, is that after 1792, “Burns wrote little of importance except his ‘Tam o’Shanter’ ”; but more recent scholarship has shown this to be unreliable and that from 1792 until his death in 1796 many of Burns’s most important political songs and poems were written.

The final four years of Burns’s life coincided with the dramatic rise and fall of a movement for parliamentary reform that directly involved the common people of Scotland in politics for the first time. Many of Burns’s political poems of the period were published anonymously, or under a pseudonym, by the radical press of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and London.

The furious repression of democratic reform between 1792 and 1796 by prime minister William Pitt and his close friend and home secretary Henry Dundas, made it impossible for Burns to declare his support openly for the Scottish popular reform organisation, the Friends of the People, led by a young lawyer from Glasgow called Thomas Muir.

Muir, with four others, was convicted of sedition and handed the sentence – controversial even then – of transportation to Sydney Cove for 14 years. Burns was sympathetic but, being an employee of the crown in his post as an exciseman, found it difficult to shout his politics.

“Scots Wha Hae” appeared, anonymously, in the leading London opposition newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, on 8 May 1794. Burns had composed it in the summer or autumn of the previous year, around the time of Muir’s trial. In a letter to a friend he explained how his “accidental recollection of that glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient, roused my rhyming Mania”. The song reappeared in the Chronicle under Burns’s name only after his death.

It was the publication of a speculative book by Patrick Scott Hogg in 1997, The Lost Poems, that revived an interest in Burns’s politics. Hogg had carefully read through the radical press of the late 1790s and extracted a number of political poems, some of which he thought might be attributable to Burns. This led to a burst of academic disagreement, but 10 of those newly uncovered works were included in the 2001 collection The Canongate Burns, edited by Hogg and Andrew Noble.

It was generally welcomed at the time. Tom Devine, a Scottish historian, wrote in a Scotsman review: “For the first time in 200 years we have in this single volume all Burns’s surviving poems glossed and edited.” Novelist and Burns enthusiast Andrew O’Hagan called for the book to be handed out on the NHS.

But there were detractors, notably Gerard Carruthers, now professor of Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow, who still calls it “inept”: “The problem is people take this bad scholarship – the worst that has been done on Burns – at face value because it is in a book.” He accused Hogg and Noble of reading their own leftist values back into history. Carruthers is now leading the new joint Glasgow/Oxford University Press project, which will present us with a series of books of analysis and collections of Burns prose and poetry until 2020 and beyond.

Liam McIlvanney, author of another acclaimed analysis of the poet’s politics, Burns the Radical, explains his motivations: “I wanted to show that there was a long tradition of radical political philosophy, often associated with Presbyterianism and Calvinist resistance theory, on which Burns was drawing in many of his poems.” He insists he didn’t attempt to pigeonhole Burns. “Rather, I wanted to explore the political ideas that inform some of Burns’s most significant works,” and he feels now that, “the view of Burns as an intellectually adventurous writer, a product of the ‘popular Enlightenment’, has gained traction.”

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Encompassing Genius - William Blake

The Compasses, a dingy pothouse in High Wycombe, was not the most likely place to encounter John Milton, Isaac Newton or Benjamin Franklin. Yet it was here, in March 1794, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have met a man of ‘the greatest information and most original genius’. His ‘philosophical theories of heaven and hell’ and ideas of ‘daring impiety’ kept the poet awake until three the next morning. As Coleridge said to his brother, ‘Wisdom may be gathered from the maddest flights of imagination, as medicines were stumbled upon in the wild processes of alchemy.’ Reverend George Coleridge, a patient parish priest, would soon be hearing about ‘Pantisocracy’. 
Is it possible that Coleridge’s genius was William Blake, author and printer of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell? We shall never know: certainly, Blake was a lifelong Londoner who rarely stepped beyond the bounds of the city. Rackety prophets and philosophers thronged the revolutionary 1790s – almost every tavern had a Bible-sodden seer with visions of the millennium. It was a decade when even mild-mannered Richard Price, a 67-year-old Unitarian, could be caricatured as an ‘Atheistical-Revolutionist’ insanely conspiring to overthrow Church and State.
Like Price, William Blake was a ‘counterculture prophet’. Whereas Coleridge’s vision of a ‘blest future’ was drawn from the Book of Revelation, Blake evolved a complex personal mythology combining Christianity with Swedenborg’s prophecies, Paradise Lost, animal magnetism, druidism and, as E P Thompson showed, a dash of English antinomianism. For Blake, too, the moment of apocalyptic breakthrough was less certainly imminent. To his eyes, humanity appeared as the giant figure Albion, trammelled and frustrated by discords, divisions and the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that constrain imagination. In Blake’s visionary universe, Leo Damrosch explains, ‘everything that happens is the shifting imagery of [Albion’s] ongoing nightmare’. Against a lurid backdrop of division and estrangement stands the daemonic figure of Los, Blake’s embodiment of furious creativity, who labours to build the city of imagination, Golgonooza.
Blake’s real subject was the arduous struggle towards Albion’s awakening, traced in his poetry and visual images through multiple refractions, repetitions and metamorphoses (most accessibly so in the early prophecies America and Europe, and also in the paired insights of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience). As Blake’s visionary universe developed, patriarchal Urizen and his fiery antagonist Orc were joined by a host of other characters, assembled to dramatise human psychic experience. These constituents of Albion he called Zoas, and each of them, in turn, was accompanied by a feminine ‘emanation’ and, from time to time, a ‘spectre’ or ‘shadowy double’. Blake and his counterpart, Los, toil to recover from these discordant components of Albion a fresh unity, and thus break on through to a universe hitherto hidden to human senses.
‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s’, Blake declared. The ‘system’ he devised is bafflingly esoteric, as Damrosch concedes, yet it also addresses the most fundamental dilemmas of the human condition: our place in the universe, mortality, our longing for some ultimate source of meaning. A model of clarity and lucid exposition, Eternity’s Sunrise offers the most balanced and comprehensive account of Blake’s imaginative world currently available, showing how the poet sought to combine words and images that would enable readers to bring about a bodily and spiritual transformation. Anyone seeking an approachable, illustrated introduction to Blake’s achievement should take this book into the city that Blake reconfigured as the mythic Jerusalem of his poetry: London.
Eternity’s Sunrise is not a biography of Blake, although it is organised in chronological sequence. Blake’s early life, apprenticeship and various London residences are mapped, as is the country interlude at Felpham that led to his trial for ‘seditious utterance’. Damrosch also offers a caution, to the effect that Blake was ‘a troubled spirit, subject to deep psychic stresses, with what we would now call paranoid and schizoid tendencies’ – in today’s London, not someone to jostle accidentally on the Tube. Blake’s creative energies sprang from a ‘wounding sense of alienation and dividedness’ stemming, in part, from dislocations in his early childhood and estrangement from his brother John, whom he named ‘the evil one’. Throughout his poetry, family demons were blocking agents to be driven off by ‘arrows of thought’.
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Saturday, 23 January 2016

On the Thames towpath with Samuel Pepys

A handful of writers speak to us from the past with their lips pressed against our living ears – we feel their warm breath, smell it even. Often enough, I’ll be inexpertly toggling together my clothes when in the arch accents I attribute to Lord Byron a voice will lazily aspirate, “Ah! All this buttoning and unbuttoning … ” Or perhaps I’ll be all alone in an isolated house in winter, bereft of companionship, and I’ll pick up a volume of Montaigne’s Essays – all at once I am alone no longer, but with a wise and wryly sceptical soulmate. But for sheer vigorous immediacy – the past rubbing up against the present so strongly they threaten to become a single plosive present – there’s no beating Pepys.

No, there’s no beating Pepys – Pepys the irrepressible; Pepys the fusser, the philanderer, the political fixer, the amasser of pelf; Pepys the playgoer, the singer, the talker, the courtier – and most important – the walker. Pepys, the ambitious young man who, plagued by a gallstone, risked his life under the surgeon’s knife and survived (as he also survived the plague itself) to become a ripe old antiquarian; and of course, Pepys the diarist, whose workaday jottings between 1660 and 1669 give us perhaps the most veridical-possible portrait of … what? London in the Restoration period? A representative early-modern psyche? The very physiognomy of our own past? The narrative arc of a man succeeding? I think not – rather, what the diaries give us is, quite simply: Pepys, coalescing out of a flux of fugitive thoughts and impressions – a human being like us in many emotional respects, prey to the same lusts, insecurities and morbidities; yet with his head full of nothing at all we would recognise – a sensorium utterly alien to early 21st century, and preoccupations of an ineffable otherness.

In Seething Lane, where Pepys lived for the greater part of his time as a diarist, it must have … seethed. The City of London, now a Fabergé eggshell from which the human meat is blown anew each evening, was in the 1660s a teeming heap of humans baking, burning, making and rendering. The smells would have been barnyard as well as tanning yard – the timbre would have been emphatically organic. But now there is only the rumbling sough of traffic in the near-distance and a gaggle of middle-aged Scandinavian tourists, all Gore-Tex and Velcro, standing smoking outside the Double Tree by Hilton hotel and rasping the cold air with their fricatives. I have decided to walk in Pepys’s footsteps – although with no hope of catching up with him – as he rises early on any number of days in the 1660s, and sets out for Deptford, Greenwich, Woolwich and points still further downriver, in order to conduct his business for the naval office.

The Thames was London’s principal artery in Pepys’s day – and he might have hopped on and off any number of sculls and lighters plying for hire at the jetties that projected out into its noisome waters. Alternatively, to reach the Surrey side he would have had to backtrack to London Bridge, but I have the Victorian mock-Tudor bombast of the Tower’s outer precincts to scamper by, and the still more bombastic Tower Bridge to cross over. Pepys’s jottings seem just that: almost an aide memoire, set down in haste and thereby capturing his own hastiness – it has been left to others to arrange these psychic fulgurations into a satisfying dramatic arc, one in which effects can be attributed to causes, rather than stuff simply … happening.

It is happening in the little quarter of converted tea warehouses I call Conran Land – mid-afternoon francophiles are caffeinating under UV heaters outside the Pont de la Tour. Pepys was a francophile by accident, rather than design – being married to a Frenchwoman – but with his taste for a good chine of beef, I daresay he’d have dallied here if then was now. And if now was then? Why, there would be nothing here but a row of buildings stretching along the riverbank – behind them open land, pasturage and market gardens stretching as far as the village of Bermondsey to the south. Indeed, as I progress along the south bank, passing the site of Redriff Steps, where Pepys often made landfall before proceeding on foot, I am struck most forcibly by how little of what I’m seeing he would have seen.

The Mayflower Inn at Rotherhithe advertises itself as the site from which the Pilgrim Fathers set off for the New World, but since the 1620s it has been renamed and so extensively restored I doubt any of its fabric is original – the adjacent St Mary’s Church, while suitably ancient in origin, was completely rebuilt over a half-century after Pepys’s regular peregrinations. I could divert towards Bermondsey, where, just off the high street, I have a friend who lives in one of a small row of houses dating back to the 1650s – but as I press on along the riverbank I am more gripped by what Pepys would have made of all the strange shapes we have created with London stock brick, a building material which would have been, more or less, familiar to him.

Some of the old interwar walk-up council blocks have been “renovated” with postmodern accretions – outsize brickwork lunettes, keystones and quoins, that, while strongly reminiscent of Hawksmoor’s sublime fantasias, would probably perplex our man, since Pepys had been dead for 20 years when the first of the famous churches was built. So, there were few structures for him to gaze upon, and besides the occasional church spire, none with which to orient himself. For me, it is the parallax effect of the Shard shuffling about beyond the bricky horizon that lets me know which bend of the river I am coiling round. But Pepys would have been adrift in a landscape of marshland and mudflat, his ears full of waterfowl chattering, his nostrils open to the sweet breezes. He often left Seething Lane before dawn, but there would have been plenty of others up with the rising sun and about in the fields and meadows. In the mid-17th century, London had a population of a third of a million, and with the exception of le bon ton, they all walked.

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Friday, 22 January 2016

'I am in your keeping' - Elizabeth Bowen

When he first sees her naked, he thinks she has "the most beautiful body I have ever seen". Her long, distinguished face is not so beautiful, and the contrast astonishes him. She is 41 and has been married for 18 years. He is seven years younger, and unmarried.

Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat of great charm and intelligence from a privileged Nova Scotia background, met in 1941, and their love affair was conducted in the emotionally heightened atmosphere of London at war. Ritchie - tall, thin, beaky and bespectacled - loved women. At first, for him, this was just a particularly intriguing and flattering affair, and one that he might put an end to. For Bowen, it was a matter of life and death, from the beginning. Their love fuelled her creative energy and what he called her "life-illusion". But gradually she became equally essential to him, "the centre of my life". Their world of love, and her idea of him and of his qualities, were the very opposite of his conventional social and diplomatic life - a life he nevertheless wanted and needed.

His private diaries have survived, and her letters to him, but not his to her. She wrote no diaries, though the letters constitute a sort of running journal. Reading the letters and diaries together, it is sometimes painfully clear that what he is feeling and what she is feeling (or tells him she is feeling) do not always tally.

Ritchie's diary documents the beginning of their love story, which lasted until her death 32 years later. The first letter from Bowen that he kept is the one she wrote when he was leaving London for Ottawa in 1945. It was their first separation. He took with him, she wrote, "my real life, my only life, everything that is meant by my heart. I am in your keeping. And you are in mine." In all the years that followed, they were never parted emotionally, even though they were usually hundreds of miles apart and never under the same roof for more than a week at a time. She saw Bowen's Court, her family house in County Cork, as their joint home, and the intensity of the few days he could spend there once or twice a year is replayed in her letters and chronicled in his diaries.

Elizabeth Bowen grew up in the Troubles that followed the Easter rebellion of 1916. When in 1922 the Irish Free State was proclaimed, with the six counties of what became Northern Ireland remaining under British rule, there was civil war in the south. The constitution of 1937 established Eire as a sovereign state. The Anglo-Irish who stayed on, like the Bowens, always in some sense "settlers" after hundreds of years, maintained their beautiful, often uncomfortable houses, Bowen wrote, "under the strong rule of the family myth".

Bowen's father had a breakdown when she was a child, and she and her mother moved to England, to Hythe on the Kent coast. When Bowen was 13, her mother died and she was brought up by "a committee of aunts", between whose homes in England and Ireland she shuttled. Her troubled childhood left her with a stammer, and a policy of "not noticing". A characteristic Bowen phrase is: "life with the lid on". In spite of her sociable nature, she thought of herself as solitary and "unrelatable", always adjusting to other people's expectations - except with Ritchie, she tells him, with whom she was her true self. Her husband, Alan Cameron, was six years older than she. At first, he was the dominant partner. Bowen was not university-educated and, when young, was a little gauche, with big hands and feet, a strong physique and features that were more striking than pretty. Cameron taught her how to dress, in smart tailored clothes that suited her type. Her looks came into their own in her maturity, around the time she met Ritchie.

In 1925 Cameron got a new job as secretary for education for Oxford. There, Bowen blossomed. Her second book of stories came out the year after they arrived, her first novel, The Hotel, the year after that, then two years later The Last September . . . and so on, in a fertile stream. Praised by the critics, popular with a general readership, she was a magnet to the clever, sociable young academics she met in Oxford such as David Cecil and Isaiah Berlin, who became lifelong friends.

When in 1935 Cameron's work took them to London, the Oxford friends were supplemented by London friends. Bowen became the centre of a coterie, and the Camerons' house in Clarence Terrace, Regent's Park, a rendezvous for the gifted and talented.

In her letters and his diaries we hear the lovers' voices. Circumstances and geography were against them, but both were sociable, and attractive to both sexes; and yet both, because of their hinterlands in colonial Canada and Ireland, came at society from an angle, which made them particularly observant. Both had a strong sense of family, aesthetic sensibility, a determination to live and work at the most intense level, a belief in "another world than this" - and a heavy and totally unworried dependence on cigarettes and alcohol. Ritchie writes that all his affairs had been "floated on alcohol".

He was soon unfaithful to Bowen, as he would later be chronically unfaithful to his wife. His diary-fantasy, not infrequently realised, was to be in bed with a woman, "and to fuck and smoke a cigarette and talk a little and stretch out my arm for a bottle of champagne beside us and drink a little and fuck a little and have a hot bath afterwards in a luxurious hotel bathroom". For this purpose he preferred dreamy, "girlie" women, completely unlike Bowen. Although he ceased desiring her physically quite early on, just being with her awakened desire (for other women), because of her "terrifying capacity for bringing one to life". 

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George Santayana

On the philosopher, occasioned by the publication of The Letters of George Santayana.
Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse. 
—Spinoza, The Ethics
“Aplomb in the midst of irrational things”—that’s my motto! 
—Santayana to William Morton Fullerton, 1887
It is poverty’s speech that seeks us out the most. It is older than the oldest speech of Rome. This is the tragic accent of the scene
And you—it is you that speak it, without speech, The loftiest syllables among loftiest things, The one invulnerable man among Crude captains, …

—Wallace Stevens, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome”

When John McCormick published George Santayana: A Biography in 1987, he began the introduction by registering his “bewilderment that so moving and powerful a figure, justifiably famous in his own day, should have been so unjustifiably neglected in ours.” McCormick noted with disgust that even The Last Puritan (1935)—Santayana’s one novel and probably his most famous work—had been “unavailable … for years.”
McCormick’s lament was understandable. There was a time when Santayana’s work was part of the normal furniture of educated discourse. Not only his semi-autobiographical novel, but also his poetry, essays, and wide-ranging philosophical writings were eagerly read and digested, flowering in turn in the sentiments and opinions of several generations of readers. At Harvard, Santayana’s official and unofficial students included Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Witter Bynner, Walter Lippmann, Wallace Stevens, Scofield Thayer, Max Eastman, Van Wyck Brooks, Felix Frankfurter, and James B. Conant, many of whom (conspicuously excepting Eliot) registered their profound debt to his teaching. Until yesterday, it seems, Santayana’s influence was woven into the living tapestry of intellectual life. In our amnesiac day, Santayana’s influence seems to have been reduced to the literary equivalent of a geometric point: a single epigram, to wit, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Santayana is deliciously quotable, but his only other saying that has survived in wide currency is the admonition that “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”)
The years following publication of McCormick’s book have partly redressed his bewilderment about Santayana’s neglect—but not without irony. In 1986, after George Santayana was completed but before it was published, the MIT Press brought out Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography, the fat first volume of its Critical Edition of The Works of George Santayana. Persons and Places was undeniably a good place to begin. Originally published in three volumes from 1944 to 1953 (the year after Santayana’s death at eighty-eight), the book, like The Last Puritan, is among Santayana’s most popular works. As its subtitle suggests, Persons and Places contains a good deal about Santayana’s own life. It recounts his birth in Madrid in 1863 and early years in Avila with his father, his emigration, at eight, to Boston to live with his Scottish-born Catalan mother and her children by a previous marriage (to “a tall blond Puritan of aquiline features and perfect innocence of mind, George Sturgis of Boston”). Santayana takes the reader though his education at the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard, and in Germany, his relations with his family and peers, and his career as a philosophy professor at Harvard. Though in many ways a retiring personality, Santayana seemed to know almost everyone worth knowing, and so Persons and Places also contains any number of vivid character sketches: of Bertrand Russell and his brother John Francis, of Lady Ottoline Morrell and Siegfried Sassoon, of Logan Pearsall Smith, Bernard Berenson, and Robert Bridges. Santayana’s splendid accuracy as a judge of character may be gleaned from his description of Lytton Strachey, whom he met in 1915: “a limp cadaverous creature,” “like a caricature of Christ”: “Obscene was the character written all over him.”
Again like The Last PuritanPersons and Places was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, a fact that added greatly to its sales. And Persons and Placeswas a notable critical as well as popular success. Edmund Wilson, for example, searching for appropriate literary parallels, enthusiastically compared it to The Education of Henry Adams, Yeats’s memoirs, and finally to Proust’s great novel. Moreover, Persons and Places, coming late in Santayana’s career, had not made it into the previous collection of his works, the handsome Triton Edition published in fifteen volumes by Scribners from 1936 to 1940. All of which is to say that everyone interested in Santayana had reason to welcome the republication of Persons and Places.
The irony mentioned above enters when one considers the MIT edition in the light of McCormick’s complaint about the neglect of Santayana’s work. During his life and after, Santayana was sometimes criticized for overwriting. He commanded immense fluency and could be tempted into gorgeous elaborateness. (“To some people,” he complained, “my whole philosophy seems to be but rhetoric or prose poetry.”) Although trained as a philosopher, Santayana was an intensely literary man; occasionally, he descended into literariness. This was especially, although not exclusively, true in his poetry, most of which he wrote before 1900: often it listeth toward Georgian preciousness. Even in his philosophical works—the bulk of his output—Santayana tended to prefer nimble metaphor to patient exposition or argument. This preference is not, I hasten to add, necessarily a liability, even philosophically. As the philosopher David Stove observed, “some of the best philosophers never argue at all… . Santayana, for example. He simply tells you how he thinks the world is, and delicately makes fun of some other philosophers … who think there is more to the world, or less, than he does.”
Besides, at his best—and he was often at or near his best—Santayana wrote with beguiling grace. Although he was a professor of philosophy for more than twenty years, he was never pedantic or willfully obscure. Even at his most technical (which was not all that technical)—in the five-volume Life of Reason (1905–1906), say, or Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923)—he is accessible to the educated general reader. His charm is irresistible. He begins Scepticism and Animal Faith, for example, with the admission that he comes bearing “one more system of philosophy.”
If the reader is tempted to smile, I can assure him that I smile with him, and that my system … differs widely in spirit and pretensions from what usually goes by that name. In the first place, my system is not mine, nor new. I am merely attempting to express for the reader the principles to which he appeals when he smiles.
Santayana is every bit as clever as any German metaphysician, only he is light-years less ponderous. It is important to stress that Santayana is accessible not merely stylistically—in the singing clarity of his prose—but also in terms of content. His philosophy dealt not with difficult abstractions but with matters of patent human exigency. “It was happiness or deliverance,” he wrote in “A General Confession,” an intellectual self-précis written in the 1930s, “that alone really concerned me. This alone was genuine philosophy: this alone was the life of reason.”
Above all, Santayana wrote to be read. For many readers, he is most agreeable as an occasional essayist—in Soliloquies in England (1922), for example, which was written during and just after World War I when Santayana had installed himself in Great Britain. Ostensibly bagatelles on miscellaneous topics from “Atmosphere,” “Cloud Castles,” and “Dons” to “Death-Bed Manners” and “Skylarks,” these fugitive pieces are full of pungent observation and sound judgment. Writing about “The British Character,” at a moment when England was still mistress of an empire, he notes that “What governs the Englishman is his inner atmosphere, the weather in his soul.”
Instinctively the Englishman is no missionary, no conqueror. He prefers the country to the town, and home to foreign parts. He is rather glad and relieved if only natives will remain natives and strangers strangers, and at a comfortable distance from himself. Yet outwardly he is most hospitable and accepts almost anybody for the time being; he travels and conquers without a settled design, because he has the instinct of exploration. His adventures are all external; they change him so little that he is not afraid of them. He carries his English weather in his heart wherever he goes, and it becomes a cool spot in the desert, and a steady and sane oracle amongst all the deliriums of mankind. Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master. It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.
That is eloquently said, and the intervening eighty-odd years have underscored its accuracy.
Pleasure of a certain refined stamp was Santayana’s lodestar in life, and such pleasure was what he sought to communicate through his writing. The beautifully produced Triton Edition (limited to some 950 sets) was the perfect correlative of Santayana’s style. It has no editorial notes. But it makes up in readability what it lacks in critical apparatus. It is an edition to be read.
The MIT edition is meant to be … Well, let’s see. The Letters of George Santayana: Book One, [1868]–1909[1] is the first of a projected eight volumes of letters. Altogether, those eight books will count as Volume V in the Critical Edition of Santayana’s works.[2] Daniel Cory, who met Santayana in 1927 when he was twenty-two and who became the aging philosopher’s confidante, secretary, and literary executor, brought out a selection of letters in 1955. That volume includes some 300 letters; he added dozens more in a 1963 portrait of Santayana’s later years. Santayana’s letters—some of them, anyway—are certainly worth reading. Consider this 1937 missive to Cory about Ezra Pound:
For Heaven’s sake, dear Cory, do stop Ezra Pound from sending me his book. Tell him I have no sense for true poetry, admire (and wretchedly imitate) only the putrid Petrarch and the miserable Milton; that I don’t care for books, have hardly any, and would immediately send off his precious volume to the Harvard Library or to some other cesspool of infamy. That is, if he made me a present of it. If he sent it only for me to look at and return, I would return it unopened; because I abhor all connection with important and distinguished people, and refuse to see absolutely anyone except some occasional stray student or genteel old lady from Boston.
Good stuff, no? But the Critical Edition will run to some 3000 letters. Are they all indispensable? The present volume, which takes Santayana through schooldays to the threshold of fame at age forty-six, contains about 350 letters. Some, like those to William James, his teacher and then senior colleague at Harvard, shed light on his thought. Some, like those to the sexually ambidextrous William Morton Fullerton (the lover of Edith Wharton, among many others), are amusing and provide glimpses into Santayana’s developing character. Not a few are like this one from 1906 to his beloved half-sister (and godmother) Susana: “April 3.—It is delightful here in Montpellier. I think constantly of Avila & Greece. It is Spring at last.” How many such reports do we really need?
This volume also features—in addition to the standard preface, acknowledgments, introduction, bibliography, index, and copious footnotes—some twenty pages of textual commentary, a long chronology of Santayana’s life as well as a register of the dozens of addresses he occupied in the course of his many European and American travels. There are sixty pages of textual notes, which detail Santayana’s every misspelling, crossing out, and insertion. There is a list of manuscript locations, letter recipients, and thus-far unlocated letters. There is even a Report of Line-End Hyphenation, which to my eye has an undeniable poetry: “good-looking” is followed by “anti-Hegelianism,” which is followed by “ghost-and-faery-blind,” etc.: a euphonious and edifying procession.
I wonder whether this is the sort of rescue from neglect that John McCormick had in mind? Such attention implies a certain flattery, of course. But then so does the process of embalming. It is not as if there are any grave difficulties about the texts that Santayana bequeathed to posterity. We are not dealing with a heap of damaged, barely legible papyrus or collations of scribal errors, after all. We are dealing with an eminently accessible twentieth-century writer whose texts are about as transparent and unproblematic as texts can be. It is interesting to speculate about what Santayana would have made of the Critical Edition of his work. His sense of humor, I suspect, and possibly his vanity, would have been gratified: Santayana always had a lively appreciation of the absurd. His sense of proportion would have been appalled. 
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Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Rudyard Kipling's Kim: a zam-zammer wonder-house of wordplay

Many of the pleasures of Kim are straightforward, direct and easily absorbed – much like Rudyard Kipling’s prose. Indeed, his writing is probably chief among those joys. It’s a book where moving through the sentences is its own reward. Few novels have such beguiling rhythm, imagery and vocabulary.

The very words are fun to read, fun to say out loud: “Wonder-House”, “Zam-Zammah”, “Kimball O’Hara”, “Sind, Punjab and Delhi railway” – and those are just from the first page. But it’s what Kipling does with them that really counts, in prose so perfect you barely notice how clever it is when you first read through. It’s only when you stop to analyse that you notice how well everything is constructed:
As he drummed his heels against Zam-Zammah he turned now and again from his king-of-the-castle game with little Chota Lal and Abdullah the sweetmeat seller’s on to make a rude remark to a native policeman on guard over rows of shoes at the museum door.”
That’s a sentence chosen almost at random, also from near the start of the book. One of Kipling’s achievements in Kim is to make everything subordinate to the story – nothing gets in the way of the view of the world he is creating. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship is there. There’s more to see the more you look at it: notice how Zam-Zammah is placed to make a drum sound, how the sentence slows and broadens out as Kim’s head turns, how the “rude remark” arrives in a flurry of plosives – how that gives way to gentle assonance as we gaze over the rows of shoes.

Here’s another initially unobtrusive moment from much later on in the book:
Kneaded to irresponsible pulp, half hypnotized by the perpetual flick and readjustment of the uneasy chudders that veiled their eyes, Kim slid ten thousand miles into slumber – thirty six hours of it – sleep that soaked like rain after drought.”
That’s a sentence chosen almost at random, also from near the start of the book. One of Kipling’s achievements in Kim is to make everything subordinate to the story – nothing gets in the way of the view of the world he is creating. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship is there. There’s more to see the more you look at it: notice how Zam-Zammah is placed to make a drum sound, how the sentence slows and broadens out as Kim’s head turns, how the “rude remark” arrives in a flurry of plosives – how that gives way to gentle assonance as we gaze over the rows of shoes.

Here, it is the sibilance that helps us hear the gentle hissing breaths of that slide into sleep – and feel how things have smoothed out for Kim after that flickering and juddering rhythm.

It’s all very clever – even though the smartest thing of all is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t really notice such tricks. Indeed, it’s probably all the better if you simply focus on the marvels of Kim’s journey, the beauties of India, the bold personalities Kim meets on the road and the fantastic, thrilling peril of the Great Game. Kim is a travelogue and adventure story beyond compare, which is more than enough to make the book worth reading, but far from all that it has to offer.

It’s possible to think of Kim as one of the first YA novels. It’s a book that has always been marketed at teenagers and older children as much as at adults. But as with the best modern YA, that doesn’t mean that it is in any way superficial – Kim is far more than just a fine coming-of-age story. It asks some of the most fundamental questions of all: about personal identity, about spiritual enlightenment, about the conflicting desires to go out into the world and look in on yourself, about how you grow up …

To go on listing Kipling’s successes in this regard would make this article longer than the Grand Trunk Road (although please feel free to add them in the comments below), so I’ll restrict myself to one small aspect of his philosophical and emotional excavations: the importance of parental figures in the novel.

This strand seems simple at first. As several Reading group contributors have suggested, father and mother figures crop up throughout Kim, fulfilling the profound – although largely unstated – desire the young orphan has to replace the mother he lost to cholera and father who went soon after, sozzled on booze and drifting away on clouds of opium.

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Reading Augustine’s Mind

His [Augustine’s] monastic base was still combined with travel, always on horseback (without stirrups).
—Robin Lane Fox
Robin Lane Fox, a British classical scholar, was the historical adviser for Oliver Stone’s godawful movie Alexander. He asked to be, and was, repaid by riding bareback in the movie, in the front line of Alexander’s cavalry. He is an adventurous fellow. Now he tells us he can reveal the hitherto-unknown deep meanings of Augustine’sConfessions, the book in which Augustine described his own life from his birth in 354, to his early belief in Manichaeism, to his baptism in Milan and the death of his mother, Monnica, in 387. He takes over five hundred pages to get us to the time Confessionswas written (397), Augustine’s forty-third year (with thirty-three years more to live).
Lane Fox’s book largely traces the progress of Augustine with reference to dreams, conversions, ascents, and visions. He sets a low bar for these mystical events. In the famous garden “conversion scene” in 386 AD, for instance, Lane Fox claims that the appearance of Lady Continence talking to Augustine was an actual vision—though he admits that the previous image (of seductive women pulling Augustine back from his decision) is a literary convention.
To assure us that prophetic dreams, mystical ascents, and visions were common and believed in, he traces their influence on the thought and actions of two men who were Augustine’s contemporaries, though Augustine did not know, know of, or read them. He locates Augustine (354–430) by a kind of triangulation, tracing similarities with, and differences from, the Christian bishop Synesius of Cyrene (circa 373–414) and the pagan orator Libanius of Antioch (circa 314–393). Since these men are less known than Augustine, this is explaining ignotum per ignotius. He thinks of it, rather, as “like a triptych on a medieval Christian altar,” with Libanius on the left “casting a look of profound disapproval up at Augustine,” and the Christian Synesius on the right “looking up with tempered adoration.” Lane Fox wants us to know that the other two believed, like Augustine, in dreams, ascents, visions, and devils—though the more interesting question would be who, at the time, did not.
He brings in the other two not only to learn about attitudes toward the supernatural. Every sameness or difference of the three is recorded, as on a checklist. Augustine studied hard at school—so did they. Augustine had a concubine, and so did Libanius. He was a bishop, and so was Synesius. But Synesius loved to hunt, and Augustine did not. Did Augustine have throat problems? Libanius had migraines and gout. This is what Lane Fox calls significantly “similar health problem[s],” but who of us doesn’t have some illness sometime?
The conviction grows that if Augustine had at any time described himself as sneezing, Synesius or Libanius would be found doing or not doing that. He not only compares what the three men did, but imagines what they would have thought of each other if they had been acquainted.
Mind reading is another part of Lane Fox’s method. When in 386 Augustine leaves the profession of rhetoric, which he taught first in Carthage and then in Rome and Milan, Libanius, who lived for rhetoric, “would have snorted in disgust,” but Synesius could have helped Augustine hone his arguments in “a ‘conference call’ with Augustine and [Augustine’s friend] Nebridius,” had cell phones existed in the fourth century and had they known whom to call. It becomes wearying to watch Lane Fox leap from one of his three yoked horses to the other as they gallop forward, though he seems to find it as exhilarating as riding with Alexander’s cavalry.
In all this comparing of the three men, Lane Fox fails to examine the one enormous difference Augustine had from the other two. They lived in the great world; he did not. The great world of the fourth and fifth centuries was Rome’s Eastern empire. That is where the theological and ecclesiastical action was. The ecumenical councils occurred there—Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451)—with little or no participation from the West, which was a lesser world intellectually. The early theological giants were from places like Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Constantinople. Among them were Origen, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and others. They debated and defined Christian teaching, in technical Greek terms, homoousionhypostasisprosopon, and the like. The Western church had fewer and lesser men before Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and Augustine, and of these only one—Augustine—was not in communication with the East, since he did not know Greek.
That is an astonishing fact, one that Lane Fox brushes away, saying without offering any evidence that “Augustine’s writings in later life reveal that his Greek improved until it was far from rudimentary.” Even if that were true, it would depend on what “later life” means—leaving most of his years Greekless, unable to read the Koine text of the New Testament. In fact, as James O’Donnell, the best editor of Confessions, has rightly concluded, Augustine’s Greek was “pathetic”—in fact, Augustine was the only major thinker of late antiquity who was monolingual. O’Donnell measures the deep significance of that fact:
To come at the end of the fertile years that were marked by the literary careers of Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Evagrius Ponticus, to name only a few, and to be heir to a Christian tradition that numbered Origen among its most learned and original figures, and to be unable to read any of them except in very limited and partial ways reflected through translation was bad [enough]. But to be cut off from direct reading of the gospels and Paul as well was ultimately very damaging to what he could say and do. Yet he never seems to have been truly distressed by his lack, though there had to be people around him who sniffed at him for it.1
There were indeed people who scoffed at Augustine’s provincialism. The well-educated Julian of Eclanum dismissed Augustine as “what passes for a philosopher in Africa” (philosophaster Africanus) and a “donkey keeper” (patronus asinorum) of his little flock in Hippo.2
Lane Fox cannot recognize the gap between the greater and lesser intellectual worlds of the time, since he wants to have his three men share one culture, to be at all times and in all ways comparable. He needs the intellectual equivalent of Thomas Friedman’s economic “flat world,” so he can dart back and forth from one to another of his chosen three men. Other scholars, with different concerns, have tried to deny that Augustine was ignorant of Greek and of the Eastern church. They tease out hopes that his discussions of Greek words and Bible verses are not like those of a person deciphering phrases in the Loeb Greek series with the help of the facing page of translation. But Augustine was forthright in admitting his lack of Greek, especially when he treated the Trinity, a doctrine that had been thoroughly vented (some say invented) in the East:
Things for me to read on this subject [the Trinity] have not been widely circulated in Latin—perhaps because they do not exist, or they cannot be found, or I at least have trouble finding them. As for writings in Greek, I am not familiar enough with that language to read easily or understand thoroughly [Greek] works on this topic—though I am sure, from what little has been translated, that they may contain the answers to any questions we could reasonably ask of them.3
Why, when he recognized this deficiency, did Augustine not remedy it? He admits he resisted others’ efforts to teach him Greek in school, but he had many opportunities to learn it afterward. When he was at the Greek-speaking court of the emperor in Milan, officials and soldiers around him used Greek. So did the Christians who most influenced him at this key moment in his life and introduced him to Neoplatonic views—Ambrose, Simplician, Mallius Theodore. The bishop who ordained him in Hippo was a Greek speaker from birth.
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