[By James Wright]
[By James Wright]
“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, over concern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports oneJewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost‘s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple—she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.
The hallmark of mindless, ceaseless consumerism is not buying to have but buying to replace. A TV is not the goal, but a bigger one is. A more expensive one is. One that lights up and accesses the internet. In Fight Club, the protagonist seems like a mindless consumer. He isn’t. First, note well that he consumes but when he does he does it to have–he does not buy to replace. He laments the loss of his property. He had bought a couch. He thought that no matter what happened he would always have that couch. He would not buy another, more expensive and more ‘stylish’ couch. He had his couch. His property. In an odd way he was already far removed from the culture he later sought out to destroy.
Hold a magnifying glass up to your eye. Right side up and then, in a flash, up side down. What else is like this? What happens in the middle? Zeno’s Paradox: In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach halfway to the pursued, so the slower must always hold a lead. I can get closer and closer to overtaking upside down with right side up, but never overtake it until, all at once, it’s happened.
In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works.
Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, visibly indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book”—Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch—he told his guard.
“I note incidentally that professors of literature still assign these two poets [i.e., Blok and Mandelstam] in different schools. There is only one school: that of talent,” Nabokov told Herbert Gold in an interview in 1966
Summer days, and the flat water meadows and the blue hills in the distance, and the willows up the backwater and the pools underneath like a kind of deep green glass. Summer evenings, the fish breaking the water, the nightjars hawking round your head, the smell of nightstocks and latakia. Don’t mistake what I’m talking about. It’s not that I’m trying to put across any of that poetry of childhood stuff. I know that’s all baloney. Old Porteous (a friend of mine, a retired schoolmaster, I’ll tell you about him later) is great on the poetry of childhood. Sometimes he reads me stuff about it out of books. Wordsworth. Lucy Gray. There was a time when meadow, grove, and all that. Needless to say he’s got no kids of his own. The truth is that kids aren’t in any way poetic, they’re merely savage little animals, except that no animal is a quarter as selfish.
A boy isn’t interested in meadows, groves, and so forth. He never looks at a landscape, doesn’tgive a damn for flowers, and unless they affect him in some way, such as being good to eat, he doesn’t know one plant from another. Killing things – that’s about as near to poetry as a boy gets. And yet all the while there’s that peculiar intensity, the power of longing for things as you can’t long when you’re grown up, and the feeling that time stretches out and out in front of you and that whatever you’re doing you could go on for ever.
The quote is taken from George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air. There’s a few authors who have been strangled by their best. I’d put Sherwood Anderson and Winesburg, Ohio in the category. Aldous Huxley and A Brave New World as well. Perhaps Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness. Others, however, have been strangled so only one work remains. In that category I put George Orwell, who is now synonymous with 1984 even though it is a simple parable that captures as much about him as Green Eggs and Ham captures the spirit of Dr. Seuss. That is to say, there is something captured but only a thing–a some. Not all or even most. Though there are other contenders for that crown, such as C. S. Lewis. His devotional, theological, science fictional and political writings have been reduced to a simple duality: Narnia and, for a select for, the Screwtape Letters. Or William Golding and Lord of the Flies. Truly, I blame high school curriculum. A little education is a dangerous thing. It makes me worry that we’ll one day remember, say, Truman Capote only for In Cold Blood or Toni Morrison for Beloved.
Anyhow, if your booklist is looking a little short I’d recommend going back to some of your high school’s standards. Or some of those authors who have written a ‘classic.’
If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.
Borges and his unique, accurate and interesting approach to Kafka. For the full essay, and a few others, click here.
Excuse the sudden spurt of posts from me. There is simply too much compelling material on the internet today.
The whole of life but labours in the dark.
For just as children tremble and fear all
In the viewless dark, so even we at times
Dread in the light so many things that be
No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
This terror then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only nature’s aspect and her law.
Hello dear reader, this letter to you is, I’m afraid, going to contain a few letters neither to you nor from me. I think they are all the better for it.
The first example is a letter composed by Kurt Vonnegut in response to a classroom of inspired and well-meaning adolescents. I’d urge you to commit to the metaphor of Vonnegut: an iguana. I don’t know if I could poke fun at my own age at any age, much less where I’m old enough for it to be a problem. It is also one of his last letters, seeing as it was written the year died.
If you are anything like myself, the letter has done nothing to your appetite. Perhaps, given this next letter, your appetite will at least be dented. For me every sentence is like another dollop of snow, slowly erasing the divide between full and empty.
The second example comes to us from a PoW camp.
The third example comes to us from the furnaces of Drake.
The fourth examples come shortly after Vonnegut published his first stories.
The last is only a crumb but interesting.
I urge you, dear reader, to take a look at Letters of Note. They’re missing some truly excellent letters, but nevertheless grab quit a few for their readers.
I should not be writing this post. I should be writing something else. I should, I should and I should. There are a half dozen other things I should be doing but everyone needs some private time to relax, reconsider and collect themselves. The search for a summer internship can be placed on hold. Understanding the arbitrariness of our country’s highest court can wait. After all, the list of things I should do today is big enough to take care of itself. It does not need fretting. There’s a joke.
I like to think that literature does not provide us with completely new information, but that the best writing is a tool. Literature belongs in the same family as telescopes, or perhaps microscopes, and it provides us with a way to see something about ourselves that we could not see before. But we knew where to look. In short, literature is a game of optics.
With that point of departure, dear reader, I would like to share the story of Beersheba from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one. The image propagated by tradition is that of a city of pure gold, with silver locks and diamond gates, a jewel-city, all inset and inlaid, as a maximum of laborious study might produce when applied to materials of the maximum worth. True to this belief, Beersheba’s inhabitants honor everything that suggests for them the celestial city: they accumulate noble metals and rare stones, they renounce all ephemeral excesses, they develop forms of composite composure.
They also believe, these inhabitants, that another Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them, and it is their constant care to erase from the visible Beersheba every tie or resemblance to the lower twin. In the place of roofs they imagine that the underground city has overturned rubbish bins, with cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater, uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them. Or even that its substance is dark and malleable and thick, like the pitch that pours down from the sewers, prolonging the route of the human bowels, from black hole to black hole, until it splatters against the lowest subterranean floor, and from the lazy, encircled buybbles below, layer upon layer, a fecal city rises, with twisted spires.
In Beersheba’s beliefs there is an element of truth and one of error. It is true that the city is accompanied by two projections of itself, one celestial one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about their consistency. The inferno that broods in the deepest subsoil of Beersheba is a city designed by the most authoritative architects, built with the most expensive materials on the market, with every device and mechanism and gear system functioning, decked with tassels and fringes and frills hanging from all the pipes and levers.
Intent on piling uo its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet a flutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven long-tailed comets fly-past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.
The words vibrate with an energy all their own, I admit that, but the notes reverberate within me. I chose to make a decision long before I read this passage that heaven is not where glistening spires (and evidently their close companions, tired metaphors, reside) and tightly wound displays of security shine. Nabokov was right, I think, in writing that the study of literature sits atop one crucial assumption and that assumption is simply a feeling that what we’re reading is something important. Special. I like to think that seed of meaning is a portion of ourselves that we recognize in the text, but everyone has their own thoughts. But that is why I write and why I read. I collect portions of myself.
I’m probably insane.
I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete — that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.