Thinking About Writing

Hello, dear reader, it has been a while. Here I am again and here I am writing. It is almost sad in some alienated, modern sense. Would it be so odd to compare unpopular bloggers to an avant-garde artist? Except the avant-garde artist is attempting to reach pure art, with all of art’s barnacles washed away, whereas I’m merely adding onto the barnacles of this blog. To strain this metaphor to the breaking point, this blog is a boat and every post is a barnacle.  I do not have any pretensions to the contrary. 

But where can I find the words to write? The best words have an echo in them, but finding the right words–word–is not easy. And as I’m staring off into space I remember a cheery anecdote. Or maybe the anecdote remembers me, which would explain why it has so eagerly bubbled to the service and surface. Franc Lewis “Bullet” McCluer, who became president of Fulton College in 1933, frequently wrote letters the same way I write my blogs, which is perfect in some way. This is a letter to you dear reader. And McCluer would pace his office pulling books off his shelves looking for the right poetry, prose or image to inspire his own words. Fulton is somewhat famous because it was the site where Churchill gave to the public forum the ominous phrase ‘the Iron Curtain.’ He titled the speech Sinews of Peace, a much frothier title than one would expect for a speech to house the phrase that described tensions in Eastern Europe. 

Churchill had the benefit of being deeply but not dully conservative. If you are wondering dear reader the answer is yes. Deeply but not dully is a phrase plucked from the posthumous embrace of Gore Vidal. He keeps on giving and for that I thank him. 

This way of writing naturally complicates my afternoon in thoughts about why am I so fragmented? George Orwell described terrible writing as “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Am I not, in some odd way, doing the very same as I create these islands of lush phrasing and bumble my way from one point to another? It is more than a little disappointing. But isn’t there, on the wings, T. S. Eliot, that great enabler of plagiarizers, waiting for this moment to spring down with his works–and choice quote–that mature poets steal? He added, perhaps out the worry that he had given away his game, that good poets make something better or at least different. I suppose I have that small consolation. Writing is always about making something different and if the ingredients are simply waiting on my bookshelf, just as the ginger is waiting in my pantry, how could I be criticized for not resisting the temptation? At least that is what I tell myself. 

Well, dear reader, if you are still with me after all this I’m afraid that there is no ultimate point to this. It is only my thoughts this afternoon, and as I create a circle of books around myself I thank my conception of God for my good situation. I hope your weekend gets off to a good start. 

I suddenly bega…

I suddenly began rather to admire Frederic Prokosch twenty years ago when he visited me on the Hudson River where I lived. I took him to a party attended by a number of hicks and hacks and hoods from a nearby outpost of Academe. Naturally, they regarded Prokosch with contempt. They knew that he had once been famous in Amnesia but they had forgotten why. Anyway, Auden had won. And Auden had said that there can only be on poet per epoch.

A great deal was said about poetry; and some of it was said by poets. Teacher-poets, true, but poets nevertheless; winners of prizes (“They got more prizes now than they got poets” Philip Rahv, circa 1960, Amnesia). Prokosch was entirely ignored. But he listened politely as the uses of poetry in general and of the classics in particular were brought into question. Extreme position were taken. Finally, one poet-teacher pulled the chain, as it were, on all of Western civilization: The classics, as such, were totally irrelevant. For a moment, there was a blessed silence. Then Prokosch began to recite in Latin a passage from Virgil; and the room grew very cold and still. “It’s Dante,” a full professor whispered to a full wife.

When Prokosch had finished, he said mildly, “Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”

“Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”

From “Frederick Prokosch,” by Gore Vidal. Appeared in New York Review of Books on May 12, 1983.

The Best Type of Censorship

Newly literate and still awed by the printed word, the Russian governors are terrified of ideas. If only they knew what out governors know: that in a huge egalitarian society no idea which runs counter to the prevailing superstitions can successfully penetrate the national carapace. We give our solemn critics every freedom, including the one to fail to be heard. And fail they do: silence and indifference neutralize the irritant more effectively than brainwashing.

“Satire in the 1950s,” Gore Vidal

Literary Bloodletting, Gore Vidal, Other Observations

This literary season has been filled with the best sort of reviews: cutting ones. The type that breed blood. Franz Kafka, the Great Gatsby, Alice Munro–each has been bloodied by, respectively, Joseph Epstein of the Atlantic Monthly, Christian Lorentzen in the London Review of Books and Kathryn Schulz in New York magazine. It is interesting to note that like all true, great literary takedowns the targets are long dead. Sure, they have defenders but these defenders are nothing like the greats themselves. And if we, as that colorful and star-studded aphorism implies, stand on the backs of giants surely they do not need help defending themselves?

Perhaps they do. I find the best excitement when the writer, or writers, ‘bump’ back. In person and as loud as can be. It is always better when the writer that has written the book in question takes his or her would be critics to task. Personally, I cannot help but recall all the biting remarks of Gore Vidal. He is an excellent example. He is the example. If you have not read his historical novels then you have missed out on a fascinating portion of the American literary landscape. If you have not read his essays, then you have also missed out on a great wit. When I peruse his defenses one has to wonder how the current targets would fair. Kafka, I’m sure, would only sink deeper into self-pity and despair. Otherwise, however, it is something of a mystery.

What is not is in Lincoln, An Exchange, where Vidal is at the top of his game. “It’s savory scholar-squirrel stew time again! Or, to be precise, one scholar-squirrel and one plump publicist pigeon for the pot. So, as the pot boils and I chop this pile of footnotes fine, let me explain to both pigeon and the no doubt bemused readers of these pages…” How often does the first page of a reply sing so eloquently? His barbs are almost as quick as his pacing, which never falters in a steady, upwards beat to a crescendo that declares ‘I am Vidal, I am right.’ It is a textbook example of intellectual hilarity and enjoying to read. It beats not only to the sound of a inner tune but drives his targets into the ground.

“So either Current is as wrong about this as he is about me, or he is right… and anyone who draws attention to the discrepancy between their own past crudities and their current falsities is a very bad person indeed, and not a scholar, and probably a communist as well.”

Alternatively, “As Current is as unknown to me as Lincoln was to him in his book The Lincoln Nobody Knows, I could hardly have been personal.”

And, perhaps best of all, “But although he no longer holds to his views on Lincoln and the blacks as presented in The Lincoln Nobody Knows (a book, he’ll be relieved to know, I never took seriously, largely because of the megalomaniacal title in which has inserted himself).”

When one reads Vidal doesn’t their heart, just a little, sing? If Jonathan Swift was right, and we moderns are the bees who produce honey and wax–the overused “sweetness and light”–then Vidal is certainly the sting. It is a loss for the country that Vidal’s “disturbing presence” on the American scene has stopped. Wherever he is I’m sure he’s making enemies and stirring the pot.

Our Sad Academy

Gore Vidal, as always, has the words for every cutting opening (see “Hacks of Academe”). The world of ‘the enlightened’ is devoted to books that are written to be taught; they are not written to be read. The captive subjects, undergraduates, only mildly different in caste from particularly well-to-do peons, have no other recourse than to read books whose actual value is nil. The professors, perhaps delusional, fret that their free ride managing their classes of aspiring middle-managers and labyrinths of footnotes will end. This is their insurance policy: insulate the conversation up, and beyond, the point of sense. Write books and allow their cohorts to force payment.

“Why does the academy play such a minor role in guiding popular taste in theater, dance, and music?” bemoaned one recent graduate. Why is it that we can go into our libraries and pull off the shelf works that have not only gone untouched but uncared for? Pnin’s a tragic character, but is that because so many in the humanities see a reflection of themselves?

My answer: probably.

Today I held in my hand two books. One was visionary. Exciting. It was, there is no doubt in my mind, why ‘we’ write history. Max Berger defined art as anything that raises our consciousness to a new level, and if that is the case then this book is simply art. So little of American history is interesting to me. This, however, was a dream. A beautiful dream made moreso by its reality. The other book, however, was a perfect muddle. Repetitious. Incorrect. Tedious. Awful construction. My literary taste is not well-defined. My palette does not need much salve but there is no doubt in my mind that this book has done significant harm to my soul.

It was brought home, loudly and clearly, how far the academe has gotten from its purpose of existence. It is a self-perpetuating (Abyss? Morass? State of mind? I leave the word choice up to you, dear reader), or to quote Cornell West “the Academy feeds on critiques of its own paradigms.” It is, in short, “feeble” and it has never felt more feeble as I numbly flip through paragraphs of history—human life—drained of all meaning.

One was rejected by several ‘academic’ presses. It was deemed too, perhaps this is an unsympathetic interpretation, exciting. It would wake too many students in the classroom and hacks enshrined behind their self-importance. It would teach us that essential rule of history: it is the laboratory, the only laboratory that we are given to test ideas. The book was forced, finally, to ask for a printing by Random House. No academic would touch something that did not have a literature review! Heaven’s no. A book that did not consult the intricate, exclusive system of minutiae that they strain under? Heresy, plain and simple. The other, however, went smoothly through an academic press. It’s been reviewed, well, by all his friends.

One will be thrown into the trashcan by innumerable men and women in my classes. One will be cherished. Does anyone want to guess what one goes where?


As societies gr…

As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.

Gore Vidal