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“This world is nothing except it tend to another”: Herbert’s “Vertue” (and a parting glance at Nietzsche)

November 30, 2013
Portrait of George Herbert, by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK).

Portrait of George Herbert, by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK).

“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” Romans 12: 19-20

With that sweet, charitable, Pauline sentiment, let us begin. And though I shall do my best in what follows to read George Herbert’s “Vertue” as well as I can, candour constrains me to say, at the outset, that I mean a good deal of it to be irreverent, if only for purposes of trial (in fact, I love reading Herbert). Like Al Pacino, I will play the Devil’s advocate, which in this case means the world’s advocate. And I will hold that a certain strain of ressentiment, such as sorts well with the book of Romans, runs through all of Herbert’s ascetic enterprises.

I’ve taught “Vertue” often enough to find about it, now, in the old anthologies I use in classrooms, a palimpsest of notes in pencil and in varying colours of ink. The poem takes its place, of course, in George Herbert’s The Temple, published the year he died, in 1633. Last week I happened to read the poem again, after a lapse of some years, and it struck me anew, or for the first time really, just how world-hating a thing it is—I mean, if we take it unalloyed.

By way of preface to the poem, we do well to recall Herbert’s celebrated letter to his mother, Magdalene Herbert, written while he was a student at Cambridge, and wherein he chastens his avocation as poet, as he would later his vocation as a priest. Herbert was seventeen at the time. Here is Izaak Walton‘s account of the letter, which enclosed a poem for his mother’s delectation:

And in Cambridge we may find our George Herbert’s behaviour to be such, that we may conclude, he consecrated the first-fruits of his early age to virtue, and a serious study of learning. And that he did so, this following letter and sonnet, which were in the first year of his going to Cambridge sent his dear mother for a new-year’s gift, may appear to be some testimony. ‘But I fear the heat of my late ague hath dried up those springs, by which scholars say, the muses use to take up their habitations. However I need not their help, to reprove the vanity of those many love-poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus; nor to bewail that so few are writ, that look towards God and heaven. For my own part, my meaning (dear mother) is in these sonnets, to declare my resolution to be, that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory; and I beg you to receive this as one testimony.’

As given in "The Remains of that Sweet Singer of the Temple, George Herbert" (1841 Pickering edition, with new material, of a volume originally issued in 1652).

As given in “The Remains of that Sweet Singer of the Temple, George Herbert” (1841 Pickering edition, with new material, of a volume originally issued in 1652). Click on the image to enlarge it.

The accompanying poem goes as follows:

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole shoals of martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth poetry
Wear Venus livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not sonnets made of thee? and lays
Upon thine altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy ways are deep, and still the same,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name?
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fewel choose
Than that, which one day worms may chance refuse?

The poetry Herbert would write, while parish priest at Bemerton and before getting there, would certainly be “consecrated to virtue,” as Walton indicates. And he would, in “Vertue,” transfigure the metaphors in the poem just quoted—having to do with martyrdom by fire, consumption by fire, burnt offerings, and so on—to speak (quite happily, I think) of a day when “the whole world turn to coal” (that is, to cinders). Two “fewels” are on offer to poet, and to men and women, wherewith they might set themselves aflame: one issues from Venus, the heat of sexual desire, the other issues from God, the purifying fire of devotion, even to the point of martyrdom, whereby poet and penitent alike may joyfully offer themselves as “burnt offerings” on the altar of the Lord. And as the scripture tells us, He loves burnt offerings. Exodus 10: 25: “And Moses said, Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God.” What William Empson once called “the miraculous corpse worm” of the Elizabethan imagination, is also brought out here, of course (memento mori, as so often with Herbert). Wear the livery of Venus (a sign of enlistment in service to that pagan Goddess of Love), and you shall burn with a fire such that even a worm may not deign to consume what’s left of you.

On the other, and right, hand sits the Dove (associated with the Holy Spirit, the third person of God). “Imp” your wing on those of the Dove, not of Cupid, and you shall be redeemed, just as Herbert says in “Easter Wings” (where “imp” means graft, but has more particularly to do with falconry, as per the OED: “To engraft feathers in the wing of a bird, so as to make good losses or deficiencies, and thus restore or improve the powers of flight; hence, allusively, with reference to ‘taking higher flights’, enlarging one’s powers, and the like”). Herbert, of course, took the latter way, and was named rector of Bemerton (near Salisbury, Wiltshire) in 1630, the year after his marriage to his cousin Jane Danvers, “a loving and vertuous lady” (Walton), or “a handsome bona roba and ingeniose” (Barnabas Oley), or perhaps all three (voluptuous in physique—a bona roba—virtuous, and ingenious). The couple never bore a child. Walton gives the following account of Herbert’s induction at Bemerton:

When at his induction he was shut into Bemerton Church, being left there alone to toll the bell (as the law requires him), he staid so much longer than an ordinary time before he returned to those friends that staid expecting him at the church door, that his friend Mr. Woodnot looked in at the church-window, and saw him lie prostrate on the ground before the altar: at which time and place (as he after told Mr. Woodnot) he set some rules to himself, for the future manage of his life; and then and there made a vow to labour to keep them.

An conspicuously uncommon prostration, the sincerity of which is not in doubt. Herbert was soon fully ordained into the priesthood.

So much by way of introduction to “Vertue,” which has figuratively to do with “bridalls” (weddings, done under the livery, let’s fancifully say, of Venus); the sensual, seductive things of this world as against that other, super-sensual world; and the consummation of all in fire (“coal” means, in this poem, again as per the OED, not fuel for fires yet to begin but “the result or residue of combustion; cinders; ashes; charred remains”). Here is the poem, in its old spelling (for the most part):

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
——————–For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
——————–And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
——————–And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
——————–Then chiefly lives.

“Sweet” chiefly works here by bringing to mind its negation. OED sense 3.a for “sweet”: “not corrupt, putrid, sour, or stale.” The idea in “Vertue” is that nothing “sweet” possesses any real integrity or property of enduring value; “sweetness” is apparent, not real. All things sweet (to the senses) are best understood as imperfect stays against corruption, or else as corruption incipient: touch them not. We mustn’t—no, not by any means—savour the sweetness of the day, or of the rose, or of the spring—as will soon become clear, rash gazers upon this weblog.

“Bridall” means “wedding” (the event proper, that is): the marriage of “the earth and skie,” on this very day (“so cool, so calm, so bright”). What follows the night after a wedding we know (at least in 17th century literary contexts unaffiliated with Rochester): not merely the consummation of the marriage, but the loss of chastity. “Vertue” puts us in such a frame of mind as to regret this should happen, in fact in such a frame of mind as to “weep” for it, as does the day itself when it (inevitably) “falls” to “dew” (a thing organically, naturally, generated by the “marriage” of earth and sky, as any close observer of the weather knows: Herbert avails himself of a natural fact to make a spiritual one, about which more below). Here, night-fall is given a slightly lapsarian air; what followed on Eden follows here (mortality and sin, and, moreover, sin communicated via sexual consummation, whether under “bridall” auspices or other ones). The poem exists to chasten us out of worldly consummations. It’s attitude toward “bridalls” of all kinds (I venture to say) is deeply ambivalent.

I certainly won’t rule out the possibility, in fact the likelihood, that “die,” in that first mortifying injunction (“For thou must die”), means, in addition to “come to an irrevocable end,” what it often meant in the late 16th and early 17th centuries: sexual climax (another sort of dying fall). A fine example occurs in Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak of Benedick (3.ii):

Don Pedro. Indeed that tells a heavy tale for him: conclude, he is in love.
Claudio. Nay, but I know who loves him.
Don Pedro. That would I know too, I warrant one that knows him not.
Claudio. Yes, and his ill conditions, and in despite of all, dies for him.
Don Pedro. She shall be buried with her face upwards.

The double meaning, if it works in line four of “Vertue,” would enforce a point: to wit, that sexuality, death and sin are affiliated, as of course they are, both theologically and scripturally (and elsewhere in The Temple).

Read more…

Dexter and Our Predator Drones

November 21, 2013
Dexter and Harrison.

Dexter and Harrison, each born in a “blood-bath,” the second quite literally, as if in a witty twist on an old cliche.

N.B.: What follows assumes a good deal of familiarity with the television series it discusses; it is also quite likely impertinent. Anyhow, if you’ve not seen Dexter, bear in mind that, when three years old, he witnessed his mother’s murder—in a shipping container. The weapon? A chainsaw. The boy (and his older brother) sat in a pool of their mother’s blood for three days, until the police turned up. The first cop on the scene, Harry Morgan, adopted Dexter. As the boy grew up, it became clear that the bloodbath in the shipping container had so traumatized him that he’d been left psychopathic. Harry—in concert, as we now know, with a neurobiologist and student of psychopathy—taught the young Dexter a rigorous “code,” whereby his need to kill would be directed at murderers who had, for one reason or another, escaped “justice.” Dexter would kill only those who had themselves murdered people who did not deserve to die. He followed his father into law enforcement, not as a cop, but as a forensic blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. On the job, and on the sly, he avails himself of the resources of the forensics lab, the evidence room, and criminal databases, to insure that the men and women on his “kill list” are, in fact, guilty as sin—and at large. And then he gets to work, at times misleading the homicide detectives the better to beat the law to the punch. Our Wikipedians offer a detailed overview of Dexter here.

I’ve now seen the first three episodes of the last season of Showtime’s Dexter, wherein, again, we watch, and listen intimately to the beguiling interior monologue of, America’s favorite, family-friendly serial killer, Dexter Morgan, as wonderfully (and athletically) played by Michael C. Hall.

I see what I see in season eight so far, and it is familiar from all the foregoing seasons: a hint of what we get (say) in the movie Just Cause, to the effect that, our “official” American affection for “due process” notwithstanding, we often prefer, and find more deeply satisfying, forms of “justice” delivered outside the juridical system to ones operating entirely within it (especially, it would seem, in Florida).†

America will simply never happily agree to Mirandize itself. The extraordinary popularity of the Dirty Harry films; or of scores of Hollywood movies involving intrepid protagonists (policemen, doctors, “special ops” soldiers, politicians) who bend or break the rules to achieve their ends (imagine a fist-pumping Yes!); or of films involving institutions (whether juridical, medical or political) that must somehow forever be gotten round;—all of these things attest to the fact just stated. The brave new world that America is may flirt with Miranda, may go steady her, may even embark on a prolonged engagement, but it will never marry her. Having watched, as I say, only the first three hours of the last season of Dexter, I must wait to see whether the writers rebuke themselves for having introduced and affirmed this idea, and for having entertained us with it all these years, and then affirm, at the close—as our civil religion requires that we do—the Unimpeachable Virtue of Due Process. (I write on 21 November 2013, titrating my Dexter via iTunes.)

Actually, Americans hate due process, and yet must always tell themselves that they don’t hate it. Consider our Predator drones: the summa of America’s vexed relation to “justice” and “due process” (“justice”: what a Janus-faced word, as deployed in American speech). Part of America—and “America” is agent in us as an idea—says it hates Predator drones, just as it speaks of the Unimpeachable Virtue of Due Process; and part of America is in undying love with its badass Predator drones. Just so are we in love with our predator nonpareil, Dexter Morgan, an unmanned—by which I mean inhuman, because sociopathic/psychopathic—but totally awesome drone who kills “surgically” but not without collateral damage of the kind Americans (truth be told) are pretty generally willing to take for granted—except when it comes to the American family. The American family (with its values) is that sacrosanct arena which must be protected at any cost, to hell with due process, but which, in Dexter, has been made at once the means whereby it preserves, and also destroys, itself. See, for example, the scene at the close of episode three, season eight, in which Dexter’s sister Deb first attempts to kill both her brother and herself, and then, when a bystander saves her, she just as quickly saves Dexter—whom she has both loved, familially and otherwise, and also hated. Deb, a very good American, especially in the genius of her beautifully crass idiom, just doesn’t know how she feels about her predator drone; twice she’s had the chance to kill her adopted blood brother, and twice she’s stepped back. At the haunted heart of their “family,” be it remembered, is Harry Morgan, deceased, Dexter’s adoptive father, a ghost of a good murder cop who stepped outside the law for (and with) his son, trying to make good for his family and thinking he failed (killed himself, as it happens). Let no good deed go unpunished, and let Dexter avenge all the bad deeds. Evil will bless, and ice will burn. America is on Dexter’s table, looking at pictures of itself, but also unpacking its knives. Time to watch. A guess: if Dexter is rebuked by his writers and fans (who are the same), it will chiefly be for having collaterally damaged his sister, his family.

The Dexter key chain features the perfect copy of a blood sample that a splatter analyst like Dexter can appreciate. Keep your keys together and show you’re a fan!" (ad-copy from Showtime's on-line store).

“The Dexter key chain features the perfect copy of a blood sample that a splatter analyst like Dexter can appreciate. Keep your keys together and show you’re a fan!” (ad-copy from Showtime’s on-line store).

President Obama, we now say on air, maintains a “kill list,” and though that’s no term of art the White House would ever deploy through the talking head of Jay Carney, journalists and their readers and watchers immediately absorb the undue process of the Predator drone program into a highly legible, pop-cultural vocabulary: the (badass) “kill list,” a thing Dexter might maintain and speak of (indeed, he does). This is his language; his is their language; we are that language.

The White House, in fact, refers to its Predator drone program, which is also a video program (we’ve all seen the shots now on YouTube), as Disposition Matrix, a name that might well grace the marquee at your local multiplex, given how readily political/military discourses now mingle with pop-cultural ones in America after twelve years of continuous war. The same might be said for the terms of art White House officials do use in speaking of their showtime program behind closed doors: it involves a “next-generation capture/kill list.” Next-generation: what immortalizing phrase is more familiar, now, than that?

Here’s the blunt style of talk Americans love but often affect to detest:

“We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,” a senior administration official said. “It’s a necessary part of what we do.. . . We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’”

A necessary part of what we do: That’s the straight, realpolitik dope, and America is down with it. As is Dr. Vogel, a character introduced, diabolus ex medica, in season eight of Dexter: she had a hand in making him, in imbuing him with his extrajudicial “code” (the first, echt American tenet of which is: never get caught). And she is here now to tell Dexter that he is both a necessary part of what we do and “perfect” in his ways and means. Yes, sociopathy may be sublimated. Consider Goldman Sachs. And Paul Ryan Ayn Randianism.

Or recall the frisson Dick Cheney seemed not simply to experience, but pleasurably to induce in his TV audience, when, in an appearance on Meet the Press five days after 9/11, he told Tim Russert that, in the Global War of Terror, “we also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” No doubt Cheney could count on, had counted on and anticipated, sly, complicit nods of approval (eyes narrowed) in living rooms all across the nation, where his fellow Americans had gathered that Sunday morning to worship Lockheed Martin, General Electric, and Archer Daniels Midland. Use any means at our disposal; the dark side (if you will); we’ve got to spend time in the shadows; a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion: we might be listening to Dexter Morgan discuss, with the ghost of his father Harry, his “dark passenger,” the name he bestows on his urge to kill—at once his curse and his redemption. Dexter’s ambivalence about it is somehow characteristically American.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Google Ngram for “media event.” Click on the image to enlarge it.

So there’s our political “subtext” for season eight of Dexter. Or, no, better to say: Dexter (seasons one through eight) is a “media event,” a medium, wherein we Americans may readily find the vocabularies we prefer for everything like our extra-judicial, stealthy Predator drone “kills.” It’s all super-clean, like Dexter, sitting in his kitchen on a Smith & Wesson stool, cooled by an air-conditioner stocked with blood. (Google “dexter smith & wesson stool” and you’ll find a site, maintained by the gun manufacturer, inviting you to join the NRA.)

The Predator drone “program,” which we are all watching, because, as I’ve hinted, it generates the kind of video America is surpassingly good at producing, is only the latest and baddest-ass incarnation of off-the-books American might, off-the-books American shock and awe.

If I have any insight to offer out of the hundreds of hours of video and film I’ve watched these past thirty years or so, here it is: America will never really “close Guantanamo,” even if it departs wholesale from Cuba. Because “Guantanamo” is where Dexter Morgan lives and does his “deceptively innocuous” work, “nefarious or otherwise,” and “with the utmost precision,” whether in a South Beach pastel shirt and linen trousers, or in a “kill shirt” (price: $34.95)—beloved. Streaming on Netflix, 24/7. “Guantanamo” is part of our package, always has been.

And yes, Dex, you bet I’m an American fan. What this may mean, I don’t know any better than Deb.

"The kill uniform is deceptively innocuous just like Dexter. Sport this soft olive green Henley just like the Dexter kill shirt on the show, and complete any job nefarious or otherwise with the utmost precision and understated style" (official ad-copy from Showtime's on-line store).

“The kill uniform is deceptively innocuous just like Dexter. Sport this soft olive green Henley just like the Dexter kill shirt on the show, and complete any job nefarious or otherwise with the utmost precision and understated style” (official ad-copy from Showtime’s on-line store).

Read more…

Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Frost, and Robert Lowell

October 29, 2013

oates-tweetJoyce Carol Oates has just published, in Harpers, a short-story in which Robert Frost figures, monstrously. I will soon write here a detailed account of how the story works, and of how Oates tendentiously distorts the biographical record. She tacks on a coy note at the close of the story to the effect that, although “Lovely, Dark, and Deep” is fiction, it is “based on (limited, selected) historical research. See Robert Frost: A Biography by Jeffery Meyers (1996).” This book is widely acknowledged among scholars of Frost (and of American poetry) as one of the worst biographies ever done on the poet. In her review of it, Helen Vendler condemned the book, suggesting that the sooner it was pulped, the better. Dabbling in it in a “limited, selected” way hardly amounts to “research.” I should hope Oates has some other scholarship in mind besides what’s on offer in Meyers. She ambiguously gives her reader to understand that she does; reading a third-rate biography is not historical inquiry.

Today I will discuss one passage in Oates’ tale. The story is quasi-gothic in genre, tricked out with sly narrative manoeuvres that appear to insulate—in bad faith, I think—its author from the appalling portrait rendered of the poet, which led, in the blogosphere, to such headlines as this: “Joyce Carol Oates skewers Robert Frost as a sexist, racist old bore.” Worth noting in connection with this is a remark Oates made on Twitter in February 2013:

What we know of Robert Frost’s life suggests that a demon had somehow come to inhabit a brilliant poet; or, the reverse.

Anyway, the passage I have in mind illustrates very well Oates’ procedures (which aren’t clever enough to be called demonic); the reader may judge of its integrity.

In the tale, a 30-year old would-be poet (with a strange interest in Frost’s body and also in her own) goes up to Bread Loaf to interview Frost. She is, as we learn a few pages into the story, chimerical, unreal, insubstantial; eventually she evaporates into a third-person narrator who leaves the reader with the curious impression (unstably so) that Frost, in bad conscience, has suffered something like a nightmare while trying to get some “rest” (Oates’ third-person narrator’s term). But during the course of the “interview” that never actually happens, the young woman, now no longer the narrator but the subject, with Frost, of the narration, lodges this charge against Frost, referring to his daughter Irma who, as did Frost’s sister Jeanie, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia:

Why was poor Irma so obsessed with being kidnapped and raped? Forced into prostitution? You were scornful of Irma’s terrors. You’d told her bluntly when she was just a girl that she was so unattractive she needn’t fear being raped, no man would be interested in her sexually, she wasn’t worth “twenty cents a throw.” Later, to Robert Lowell, you said laughingly that Irma Frost couldn’t “make a whorehouse.”

The fictive Frost replies:

That is not true. That is—a lie, slander . . . Lowell was a sick, distressed person. I spoke to him in a way to lift his spirits, to entertain him. He’d thought that he was bad, but old Frost was badder. But none of it was meant to be taken literally.

What is a reader to make of this, a reader, say, unschooled in the long history of scholarship that attends biographical accounts of Frost? The first thing to point out is that the answer to the first two questions here put to Frost is self-evident: paranoid schizophrenia. The second thing is that Oates’ fictive Frost’s rejoinder is, in a certain sense, correct. This is a lie, a slander. But what unwitting readers will not know is that the remark about Irma not being worth twenty cents a throw traces back to Meyers and is very dubiously sourced. Nor will most readers know, unless they are schooled not only in Frost but in Lowell, that Oates has here introduced a surpassingly weird and invidious anachronism.

Had Frost ever laughingly said that Irma “couldn’t make a whorehouse”? Bear the following in mind. Oates’ tale is set in 1951. The only record of Frost’s ever having said such a thing, if it constitutes a record, is a poem Robert Lowell wrote in the late 1960s, the details of which derive (it would appear) from a conversation he recalled having had with Frost in November 1962, the last year Frost saw full to its end in a hospital bed at Peter Bent Brigham in Boston. This is but one of the  anachronisms laid into the tale, and it is typical of Oates’ narrative tricks. Here is Lowell’s poem:

“Robert Frost”

Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone
to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs,
his voice musical, raw and raw—he writes in the flyleaf:
“Robert Lowell from Robert Frost, his friend in the art.”
“Sometimes I feel too full of myself,” I say.
And he, misunderstanding, “When I am low,
I stray away. My son wasn’t your kind. The night
we told him Merrill Moore would come to treat him,
he said, ‘I’ll kill him first.’ One of my daughters thought things,
knew every male she met was out to make her;
the way she dresses, she couldn’t make a whorehouse.”
And I, “Sometimes I’m so happy I can’t stand myself.”
And he, “When I am too full of joy, I think
how little good my health did anyone near me.”

Merrill Moore was the psychiatrist Frost consulted, again and again, over two decades (in connection with his son Carol and his daughter Irma). He served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, and was a poet himself. Frost wrote a tribute to him when he died. Lowell was also close to Moore and a friend of Frost (who, generally speaking, regarded the younger poet warmly).

Did Frost say what Lowell has him saying? We don’t really know; the poem is a work of art, and far better than anything Oates’ could ever give us on Frost and whatever haunted him. But in the poem the damning phrase is no “laughing” matter. The note Lowell registers, in closing, is one of rueful regret. If there’s humor in it, well, it smacks of the gallows. I’ve seen depression enough to hear that note. God knows Lowell had. “My son wasn’t your kind”: interesting (and artful) that he gets that in of himself from Frost.

Most of Oates’ readers won’t see how she abuses Lowell’s poem, which is, I think, a fine thing. She can’t pawn this one off on the chimerical “interviewer” who interrogates Frost, for reasons that should be obvious. The poet might have been haunted by many a thing in 1951, but among them couldn’t be the phrasing of a poem written after he died, or remarks he may have made in confidence to Robert Lowell in the dying fall of November 1962. Oates works dubiously with what any party to the affair could have been conscious or “unconscious” of at the time (that last term pops up at the end of the tall tale). She has her “limited, selected” way with the intersecting “histories” of two dead poets.

Whistle in a literary graveyard, sure, but never cackle.

~ ~ ~

Postscript: Alice Robb, at the New Republic, has now written an article about the controversies associated with Oates’ short story.

How Literary Criticism Arises

November 17, 2012

From an interview Noam Chomsky lately gave to The Atlantic (the interviewer is Yarden Katz):

If you ask neuroscientists why understanding the brain is so difficult, they give you very intellectually unsatisfying answers, like that the brain has billions of cells, and we can’t record from all of them, and so on.

Chomsky: There’s something to that. If you take a look at the progress of science, the sciences are kind of a continuum, but they’re broken up into fields. The greatest progress is in the sciences that study the simplest systems. So take, say physics — greatest progress there. But one of the reasons is that the physicists have an advantage that no other branch of sciences has. If something gets too complicated, they hand it to someone else.

Like the chemists?

Chomsky: If a molecule is too big, you give it to the chemists. The chemists, for them, if the molecule is too big or the system gets too big, you give it to the biologists. And if it gets too big for them, they give it to the psychologists, and finally it ends up in the hands of the literary critic, and so on.

As my friend Mark Scott puts it: “The bigger the system, the more literary.”

I wonder what lies beyond literary criticism in Chomsky’s charming “and so on.” Surely we’ve already passed through the social sciences before we ever set our iambic feet—dimeter: accent on the metatarsal ball—in the English Department (whose corridors lead to an un-alarmed door marked “Exit”).

But whom do literary critics hand their systems off to? Follow that line out far enough and you may wind up in politics. In a 1938 letter to R.P.T. Coffin, Robert Frost says: “A real artist delights in roughness for what he can do to it. He’s the brute who can knock the corners off the marble block and drag the unbedded beauty out of bed. The statesman (politician) is no different except that he works in a protean mass of material that hardly holds the shape he gives it long enough for him to get credit for it. His material is the rolling mob.”

So. There we have it. From the physicist’s Higgs Boson up to (or is it down to?) the statesman’s rolling mob. Good to know, now, where The Era of Casual Fridays stands along that continuum.

Noam Chomsky (photograph by Graham Gordon Ramsay).

“Autoportrait.” By Edouard Levé. Translated by Lorin Stein. A review in kind.

October 14, 2012

Cover of the Dalkey Archive edition.

Autoportrait. By Edouard Levé. Translated by Lorin Stein. Dalkey Archive Press: Champaign, London, Dublin, 2012. A review by imitation. 

For a conventional review at BookForum, click here. For an extract from the book, published in The Paris Review, click here, where you will also find some of Levé’s photographs.

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I used to think Wild Cherry hailed from Scotland. Why? Wild Cherry hailed from Steubenville, Ohio. Peanut butter and crackers delight me. Fourteen years ago I underwent a surgical procedure called retro-peritoneal lymph-node dissection. I’ve been costive ever since. It concerns me daily. I spend hours worrying about it. I once rented a PT Cruiser; I hated it; you might as well drive around in a hat-box. Usually I need to have things pointed out to me. Occasionally I think of myself as everyone’s kid brother; that’s the role I play. My job requires that I consult WorldCat Identities daily; I looked myself up on it once. On the title page of The World as Will and Representation (Dover edition, volume two), I copied out the following sentences: “How man deals with man is seen, for example, in Negro slavery, the ultimate object of which is sugar and coffee,” and “Death is for the species what sleep is for the individual.” I like to think the species, such as it is, will wake up refreshed after I die; my chronic insomnia will then have meant something. Convivial drunkards sadden me. Sometimes I withhold information from persons who ought to know it. One night, driving from Columbia, SC, to Augusta, GA, I got my 1975 Honda Civic up to 105 mph, west of the Aiken County line. It was 3 AM. I enjoyed that. I’m not easily hurt; on the other hand, I want people to like me more than I probably should. Lately I noticed that my eyebrows are unruly; that doesn’t augur well. I never read books people lend me unsolicited; likewise, I never heed advice. Vladimir Putin makes me feel safe. Like Robert Trivers, I lie to myself; nevertheless, things usually work out; that fact seems salient. Bob Dylan didn’t throw it all away. He gave it all away. To Jimi Hendrix and Richard Manuel, for example. Only once have I dated a woman whose taste in music I fully shared. I find it distasteful that ordinary Americans now call gunmen “shooters” and criminals “perps.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term “autoportrait” to 1825: “In addition to this general collection, there is an equally numerous one of the auto-portraits of painters” (Edinburgh Magazine). I have gardened at night (under compulsion). I have failed to report a crime. When I was in high-school, I placed first in a state-wide competition in percussion. Money means nothing to me, but I love to have it; eventually this will get me in trouble. I moved into a duplex in 1984. In the crawl space under the house I discovered a dog, chained to a stanchion. I called the Humane Society; they took the dog away and put it down; it was too sick to live. I have a theory about parties: no one should ever bring a guitar to one. I have never been embittered. I always lose umbrellas. I find it heartening that philosophers concern themselves with “the paradox of future individuals.” Poems of the Past and Present (1902) is cautiously optimistic; in Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), Thomas Hardy set the matter right. On or about November 14, 1865, Charles Woodbury met Ralph Waldo Emerson. Woodbury took notes. So did Emerson, but not about Woodbury: I checked. I don’t cultivate the talents I have. I let them stand just as they are. I love my friends without condition; I deserve no credit for this; it comes too easy. I wonder: did advertisers invent “plaque”? I know they invented “body odor”; I saw the ads (while collating serial and trade editions of Edith Wharton’s Old New York). I have tried to find in myself evidence that I fear death, but none is forthcoming; this strikes me as unduly cavalier. Read more…

“There were no mirrors anywhere”: Notes on James Welch’s “Winter in the Blood”

October 14, 2012

Cover of the 1986 Penguin paperback edition. Click on the image to be taken to the site for the forthcoming screen-adaptation.

After “taking a leak” in a borrow pit by the Earthboy place—the ditch in which his father First Raise froze to death some ten years earlier—the never-named narrator of Winter in the Blood (1974), by James Welch, tells us a thing or two about himself. “Coming home,” he says, “was not easy anymore. It was never a cinch, but it had become a torture.”  Never a cinch, not easy anymore, and now a torture: right there he characterizes himself, as much by how he speaks as by what he says. From understatement (“not easy anymore”) to colloquial talk of the sort we deploy in speaking of this or that task (“never a cinch”) to an experience not like “torture,” you see, but like “a torture”—one torture among many, would it be? Something about that indefinite article turns the trick: never “a cinch,” but now “a torture,” as if some parallelizing imperative motivated Welch to generate this mild bit of syntactical heterodoxy. (“Torture” isn’t typically a countable noun; I, anyway, expect the sentence to read, “It was never a cinch, but it had become torture.” A brief search at Google Books shows me that “torture” takes the indefinite article “a” most often when used as an adjective: “a torture-specific syndrome,” “the aftermath of a torture regime,” “an extended case-study of a torture culture,” and so on.) And our narrator is a fine horseman. He knows what “cinches” are, both in and out of figure. A cinch: “a sure, safe, or easy thing”; and also “the saddle-girth used in Mexico, and the adjacent parts of the United States, usually made of separate twisted strands of horse-hair,” says the Oxford English Dictionary. Cinches bind things; they fix and affix them. Our narrator can’t “cinch” a homecoming (bound to it thought he may be).

“Coming home to a mother,” the narrator continues,

and an old lady who was my grandmother. And the girl who was thought to be my wife. But she didn’t really count. For that matter none of them counted; not one meant anything to me. And for no reason. I felt no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience, nothing but a distance that had grown through the years.

The indefinite article again: to “a mother,” as against to my mother; and to “an old lady who was my grandmother” rather than to “my grandmother.” A mother and an old lady and a girl who was thought to be my wife: that’s what one chiefly hears, I think, or registers. The phrasing—at least initially—attenuates all the relational aspects, as is only fitting, given the narrator’s claim to feel nothing. And as to that, isn’t there something just slightly queer in the series, here? “I felt no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience. . .” You can “feel” or not feel either hatred or love, but you either “have” or “don’t have” a conscience, at least in common usage (though we certainly “feel” the pangs of conscience). But this is uncommon usage. Let’s allow our narrator to “feel no conscience,” as if he sought it out, with due tact, and found it missing: where has it gone? Maybe somewhere out into that “distance” he also “feels.”

Chapter 2, a page later, provides this confession, as to the rifle with which the woman who was thought to be the narrator’s wife has absconded: “I hadn’t used it since the day I killed Buster Cutfinger’s dog for no reason except that I was drunk and it was moving.”A startling bit of candor. And there we have it again: for no reason. Inconsequence is certainly a theme (and disorganizing principle) in the novel. Events often happen in the book for no good reason. For example, an odd character known to us only as “the airplane man” enters the action in chapter 15, takes a seat in a bar next to the narrator, and reports that he’s from New York (a claim the narrator distrusts). He hints that he’d abandoned his wife and daughters, though he also says his wife is dead. He tells the narrator that but for “dumb unadulterated damn luck” he’d now be in “the Middle East” (he’d torn up the airline ticket that was to have got him there: hence his title, “the airplane man”). He hints that his dead-or-alive wife had “put the federal men” on him. He involves the narrator in a wacky scheme to ferry him illegally into Canada on a night “when the moon is full.” And, at last, he’s arrested in Havre by the highway patrol for reasons never disclosed. Nothing ever comes of any of that queer business. But for no fewer than fourteen chapters in a forty-two chapter novel we’ve had reason to expect something would. A reader might take this narrative technique as “representative” not simply of the narrator’s broken life but of the history of the Blackfeet nation to which he belongs, with its ruptures, breakages, catastrophes—all visited on them by strange white men, and by the federal government of the United States, and for no good reason except that the Blackfeet were there, and the white men, intoxicated by what was thought to be manifest destiny, had their guns.

In any case, the re-consolidation in the narrator of a “conscience”—or say, his, and our, discovery that he never really lost it—is one of the things that “happens” in the novel. Right there, on page two of the book, we have reason to distrust the account he gives of himself as perfectly affectless and disengaged. Whatever else this narrator may be, affectless he is not, and engaging he is. He’s vividly present to the reader, alive to a world he creates by speaking of it, and then inhabits—a world unlike any other I know of in American fiction (for what it’s worth). His own touching attention to that world betrays him.

James Welch outside his house in Missoula, wearing the medal of a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

The verbs, for example. Tumbleweeds, “stark as bone,” “rock” in the hot wind. Fences “hum” “in the sun.” Barbed wire “holds”—as if to show barbed wire has its tender, curatorial side—the graves of the Earthboys who once owned the place where winter took his father’s blood in the borrow pit into which the narrator pisses. The Little Rockies look “black and furry in the heat haze”: “furry” mountains, and a breathy, alliterative “h” to complement that fence “humming” in the sun (not in the wind, mind you: in the sun). And then there are verbs made nominal, as when a “gray slide of clouds” moves along above the narrator (my italics).

We hear, because the narrator hears, every sort of bird in its peculiar way: magpies “squawk,” meadowlarks “sing,” and pheasants “gabble.” In flight, pin-tail ducks “beat frantically,” whereas mallards “whir.” Well of course they do.

And the narrator sees even what he doesn’t see. Take that pheasant. He gabbles “from a field to the south. A lone cock, he would be stepping from the wild rose along an irrigation ditch to the sweet alfalfa field” (my italics again). Well, yes he would be, wouldn’t he? And later: “The morning remained cool, the sun shining from an angle above the horse shed. Behind the sliding door of the shed, bats would be hanging from the cracks.”

All of which reminds me: when, late in the novel, the narrator visits Yellow Calf, the old blind man who turns out to be his grandfather, we read this: “His white eyes were kneading the clouds.” In what sense “kneading,” and how by a sightless man? The metaphor has its fitness, insofar as clouds have a doughy pallor, or a pallid doughy-ness. And the old man wasn’t always sightless; he’s been blind for thirty-odd years of his more than ninety, such that he may “see” without seeing—as the narrator himself does in the passages just quoted. As for the skies, consider the modifier in the following sentence, which falls some few pages prior to the “kneading”: “[Yellow Calf’s] eyes were wandering beyond the irrigation ditch to the hills and the muscled clouds above them.” “Muscled clouds”: among the 10-odd million searchable texts at Google Books (as of this writing) the phrase turns up outside of Winter in the Blood a mere five times. And I can’t say that some of these other instances weren’t occasioned by Welch (the dates allow for it). In any case, the idea of “kneading” those “muscled” clouds works strangely. It’s almost as if the musculature inherent in the clouds somehow motivates the verb “knead” by transference of a property of the object seen (by sightless eyes) to the organ that sees them. An alert reader is bound to make the association—bound to place the two phrases in the same “discursive bin,” so to speak. Welch’s prose induces and hones precisely this sort of attentiveness. And this attentiveness, as I’ve said, characterizes the narrator. It gives his tenderness away. Read more…

Robert Frost & the Squirrels of Ann Arbor

July 14, 2012

Robert Frost, at about the age of 40, some seven or eight years before he first moved to Ann Arbor.

In the summer of 1921, Robert Frost accepted a post at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. President Marion LeRoy Burton had tendered the offer, partly at the suggestion of the poet and dramatist Percy MacKaye, who held a similar post at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Frost was to be, for a year, a fellow in the creative arts on a stipend of $5,000, a sum underwritten by the industrialist and former Governor of Michigan Chase S. Osborne. The fellowship carried little to no formal teaching responsibilities. (Incidentally, the inflation calculator at the U.S. Department of  Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics tells me that a $5,000 stipend in 1921 had the same “buying power” as $64,194.13 would today.)

On October 1, Frost boarded a train with his family, and left Vermont—where he’d bought a pre-Revolutionary stone cottage—for Michigan and a house at 1523 Washtenaw Avenue in central Ann Arbor. A public reception held on November 15 formally welcomed the poet to the university. But he’d already been at work, as the item reprinted below from the Washtenaw Post, dated 27 October 1921, makes clear. I reprint it here partly as an example of how not to read or listen to Frost. But I find in it also the note of resentment conservatives (chiefly religious) often register now, and have registered for two decades or more, whenever funding for the National Endowment of the Arts comes up for review. In short, I see, in this short article from 1921, some of the elements of what would later be called “the culture wars.” We have, here, a poet enjoying a posh (for the time) fellowship at a major university, saying things in public fora that irritate religious conservatives—conservatives who pretty clearly harbor suspicions about the moral probity of intellectuals.

Bear in mind, in reading the item below, that if Frost said anything at all about God or Divine Providence, the article stating that he did provides no evidence of it whatsoever. Indeed, Frost almost certainly said nothing about “divine providence” in October 1921, unless in an ironic aside the mischief of which was lost on the Washtenaw Post. The article gives us instead a Malthusian sort of Frost. What sort of Frost lies behind this report is not, to my knowledge, recoverable (no good record of the talk he gave survives, so far as I know).

Anyway, in letters dating from the period of the Great War and after, Frost never advances a Malthusian theory of its cause, and most certainly not a “providential” one. He may have gotten the politics wrong, from time to time, especially when he predicted the outcome of the Russian Revolution (about which, in the very early going, he was badly mistaken: in 1917 he thought Kerensky’s government would almost certainly prevail). But he generally saw the Great War largely for what it was: a nationalist political affair, associated with rivalry for colonies and economic power.

The Washtenaw Post fetches God in, on the assumption, it would appear, that no one can speak (as Frost appeared to here) of large, self-regulating systems (however appalling their operations) without speaking also of the Christian Deity. “Nature’s way,” says Frost, and the Washtenaw Post hears, “God’s way.”

Finally, a note of some interest on the paper in question. A history of Washtenaw County published in 1881 credits one L.J. Leisemer with founding the Washtenaw Post in October 1879 as the first German-language paper in Washtenaw county. Earlier that year, Leisemer had married Emma H. Helber. ArborWiki, a site devoted to the history of Ann Arbor and its environs, dates the origins of the Post instead to 1894 and to Eugene J. Helber, whom I assume was related to Leisemer’s wife. Likely what occurred was a simple transfer of editorship within the extended family; that the Post had been in operation at least since 1880 is certain. Anyway, Helber was charged with sedition during the Great War, owing to pro-German editorials his paper had published. Answering a subpoena from Washington, he was interrogated, and, ultimately, denied use of the mails. Whereupon he handed the reins over to his son, James Helber, whom the Federal Government allowed to continue publishing the paper, but in English only, not German.†

I mention this because it may explain the bitter reaction against what the Post mistook for an intimation (by Frost) that Germany’s defeat in the war—and subsequent humiliation through the Treaty of Versailles?—was a thing ordained, if not by God, then by Nature. The editorialist doesn’t spell that out, of course. But the inference is there to be drawn, given the paper’s pro-German character (at the time). How dare this pampered “New England” poet speak in such a way about war, at a moment when Germany had suffered so unjust a defeat and so unjust a peace.  Maybe some of that’s behind it, and couldn’t be spoken of more directly owing to censures the paper had endured for its writing about the war. Then again, maybe not. Who knows? Such records as I’ve seen also suggest that The Washtenaw Post treated the University of Michigan with wariness. In October 1917, the university fired a member of its German Department (Carl Eggert) for entertaining pro-German sentiments. The German-American community in Ann Arbor was still smarting. That some elements within the university had supported Prohibition, which the local German-American community opposed, probably didn’t help matters.††

Did all these affairs, or merely some of them, lead the Post snidely to suggest that Frost’s august (and well-financed) presence on campus might inspire, if it inspired anything at all, one or two of the university’s 11,000 students to write lyrics of the kind sung by barbershop quartets (e.g., Silver Threads Among the Gold)? Perhaps. Were it not for the religious high-dudgeon and the very dubious characterization of Frost’s views as to the cause of WW I—”the great world war was nothing to be regretted, but simply God’s way of thinning us out!”—I might suppose this to be garden-variety grumbling about the uselessness of scribblers (a possibility a friend mentioned to me).

In short, we have, here, a highly refracted report of what would appear to have been a mischievous, Malthusian-Darwinian bit of Frostian foolery about the squirrels of Ann Arbor, and about what their little struggles implied. And it is a report from a newspaper with (it would appear) a vexed relation to the Great War and a history of contentious relations to the University of Michigan—a university that had just hired Frost at $5,000 to do less than “twirl his thumbs.”

In Ann Arbor, it was harder, in 1921, to engage in whimsical thought-experiments about war than Frost may have supposed.

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The Washtenaw Post
27 October 1921



Robert Frost, called “the best loved of New England’s poets,” is in Ann Arbor for a year, by invitation of the University of Michigan. He is not asked to do anything, not even twirl his thumbs, if he does not so desire. And for his presence he is presented with a [sic] honorarium of $5,000.

Mr. Frost may be worth it. Far be it from the Washtenaw Post to question the wisdom of President Burton and the U. of M. board of regents. His presence may be such an inspiration that some of the 11,000 students here may blossom out into writers of verse that will stir the world as did that marvelous poem entitled: “Down Went McGinty to the Bottom of the Sea,” or “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” or “Tommy Trott’s Toothsome Tomato.”

The attention of Mr. Frost was drawn to the fact that some of the squirrels in Ann Arbor were dying; that a mysterious disease was carrying them to “timely” graves; “timely,” because they were getting too numerous. So speaking of the lessening number of squirrels he remarked:

“That’s nature’s way. Animals breeding rapidly after a time become a menace for one reason or another. Then comes a scourge and they die off. It is true of humans. When the world becomes so over-populated that its organizations can no longer protect its peoples there will come a pestilence, a famine, a scourge of disease—possibly a war—and men die by the thousands or are killed by the hundred [sic] of thousands; and then once more organization is able to care for the people of a great world.”

How simple. The great world war was nothing to be regretted, but simple [sic] God’s way of thinning us out! Poor, ignorant man may think he blundered, but Mr. Frost doesn’t think so. The black plague, tuberculosis, gripp [sic], smallpox, scarlet fever—these must be looked upon as God’s blessings in disguise to prevent over population.

God first creates too many stomachs and backs to get along comfortably, and then He sends His servants in the shape of wars and pestilence to thin us out!

One might well argue that man has no right to try to interfere with God by endeavoring to cure diseases, or to prevent wars. Doesn’t God know best?

The University of Michigan is welcome to Mr. Frost and his theory of God’s ways; but there will still be those who believe that it is the ignorance of man rather than the goodness of God that brings these scourges upon us.

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† N.B.: There are details about the paper’s history of which I am doubtless unaware. I offer only what I’ve been able to gather from such archival resources as a few hours poking around the web turned up. I’d be grateful for anything anyone reading this entry at The Era of Casual Fridays has to add to the tale.

††  From A HISTORY OF THE GERMAN SETTLERS IN WASHTENAW COUNTY 1830 to 1930, by Dale R. Herter and Terry Stollsteimer:

After a pro-war bond rally in Ann Arbor on the evening of April 15, 1918, several German-owned businesses and offices were smeared with yellow paint, supposedly to identify the disloyal Americans. Even churches came under suspicion of disloyalty during and just after World War I. In 1919, West Side United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor was forced to close for a few months. Upon reopening, the congregation gave up German language services and changed its name to West Side Methodist Episcopal Church for a while. Loyalty toward America was high, however, and many German descendants in Washtenaw County went off to the war in Europe, serving their country along-side their fellow Americans.

With the end of the war, pressures on German-American citizens in the Washtenaw County lessened, but the community was changed forever. English became the language of everyday use, so that children of German-American families no longer learned German, even at church schools. Children born during and after WWI could not fully understand their historic tongue, even though their parents often used it at home or among other descendants. The community was becoming part of mainstream America now, and most neither knew nor remembered relatives in Germany, and had never seen, nor now felt great passion for the land of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. These feelings were only heightened during WWII, when Germany was only thought of as the enemy.

From the same:

The Prohibition Movement drew speakers and rallies to Ann Arbor from the late 1880’s through 1920 when national prohibition of alcohol was eventually enacted. Factions of students from the University of Michigan sometimes echoed the chant and joined in the marches. In 1888 when students entered the 2nd Ward to protest the many saloons, ‘a few heads were broken’ by the local Germans who didn’t like being told they shouldn’t have their beer!