Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

ihavewastedmylife

[By James Wright]

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Poshlust

“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.

Interview link.

And if they all…

And if they all, kneeling with poised palms, millions
billions of them, ended together with their illusion?
I shall never agree. I will give them the crown.
The human mind is splendid; lips powerful, and the
summons so great it must open Paradise

Czeslaw Milosz.

Word Chat and the Other References

The French have a vocabulary of eroticism littered with gems. Jouissance and jouir scrupulously put the facts but they hint at currents that flow beneath. English cannot channel them. Leon Roudiez’s, in his introduction to Desire in Language, is that there are several meanings of jouissance. The meanings “are simultaneous” and at once “sexual, spiritual, physical conceptual.” The definitions are neither sterile and medical nor guttural and grotesque. Yet because of our tradition or some natural limit of expression English comes awkwardly to the bedroom. Sentences can buck with double meanings. But if the word is not diagnosing a condition it is being scrawled on bathroom doors. If we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take–the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its jagged edge with consciousness–we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French circles.

The Bible has “knowing,” but it is imperfect. Deep in the prehistory of Greek there was a word root constructed of a k or g, an n, and a vowel. The words springing from this root all have to do with reproduction, both sexual and intellectual: generate, gonad, know, ignorant, and forty others. In the King James Bible a husband knows his wife and begets children. In the Bible’s original Greek procreation is a type of construction, say ‘the Structure of the Orgasm and Making Children.’ There is no bliss and if there is pleasure it is tangential. Continue reading

Quotes on a Theme

As you know, dear reader, I am a squirrel. I am forever saving a few choice quotes for that special day. The day will not arrive. But here are some of my favorite morsels.

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alon the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. 

Then we have a bit of Italo Calvino.

He said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension; seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Primo Levi.

… The canto of Ulysses, Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. But we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour. If Jean is intelligent he will understand. He will understand – today I feel capable of so much.

… Who is Dante? What is Comedy? That curious sensation of novelty which one feels if one tries to explain briefly what is the Divine Comedy. How the Inferno is divided up, what are its punishments. How the Inferno is divided up, what are its punishments. Virgil is Reason, Beatric is Theology. Jean pays great attention, and I begin slowly and accurately: …

Dante Alighieri and, incidentally, T. S. Eliot.

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Just Eliot, this time.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Summer days, an…

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.’ 

“Some day soon,…

“Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead – when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies,too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?”

– Irvin Yalom

One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

Dark matter and dark energy are more directly motivated by observations of the real world. Dark matter is apparently needed to account for the gravitational effects that seem to come from parts of space where no ordinary matter is visible, or not enough to explain the tug. For example, rotating galaxies seem to have some additional source of gravitational attraction, beyond the visible stars and gas, that stops them from flying apart. The “lensing” effect where distant astrophysical objects get distorted by the gravitational warping of spacetime also seems to demand this invisible form of matter. But dark matter does not exist in the usual sense, in that it has not been seen and there are no theories that can convincingly explain or demand its existence. Dark energy too is a kind of “stuff” required to explain the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, discovered by astronomers observing far-away objects in the mid-1990s. But it is just a name for a puzzle, without any direct detection.

It seems quite possible that dark energy, and perhaps dark matter too, will turn out to be like Crookes’ “dark space” and “radiant energy”: not exactly stuff, but symptoms of some hitherto unknown physical principle. These connections were exquisitely intuited by Philip Pullman in theHis Dark Materials trilogy, where (the title alone gives a clue) a mysterious substance called Dust is an amalgam of dark matter and Barrett’s quasi-sentient psychomeres, given a spiritual interpretation by the scientist-priests of Pullman’s alternative steampunk Oxford University who sense its presence using instruments evidently based on Crookes’ light mill.

Scientists, of course, are not just making things up, while leaning on the convenience of supposed invisibility. They are using dark matter and dark energy, and (if one is charitable) quantum many-worlds and branes, and other imperceptible and hypothetical realms, to perform an essential task: to plug gaps in their knowledge with notions they can grasp.

From Nautilus, a great publication for all the obvious reasons. This article was perfect. I’d definitely recommend it. If only I could write half as well. 

They Have One Book

Some days I think it would be terribly romantic if I became someone of one book. Assuming I don’t succumb to my romantic dreams about being an alcoholic I’d be a grouch, but a well-loved one. I would always carry that one well-loved book with it’s tired pages. In this daydream I imagine myself like some sort of latter day Jonathan Edwards. But instead of the Bible it is Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance and you all are unbalanced chakrahs in the hands of an angry God world. Perhaps it could be some Third Wave Feminist pink handbook or Mao’s red one. The book is not as important as the habits and the accomplishments. I’d be the Robert Graves of Aztec literature. Or the Robert Graves of Robert Graves–his works can sustain and even flourish with multiple readings.

Aquinas created the aphorism ‘a man of one book,’ or so I believe. Wikipedia confirms which is almost a reassurance. What I would like, and perhaps I should store this seed away for future efforts, is a book like Robert Merton’s. But instead of tracing the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ I trace ‘a man of one book’ used in the appropriate context. That would be scholarship of the most frivolous and fun kind.

Isaiah Berlin, in his frothy essay about Russian literature, had this to say about the phrase: “[Aquinas’s] words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to one book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The metaphor glitters. I love it. I would be the best hedgehog the world had ever known! Or so I reassure myself.

A few people have attempted to become a man of one book (how interesting is it that I have not found a woman or two to soften this list? Not very, as my ‘research’ skills are not without their blindspots but worth mentioning). Michael Dirda owned, at last count, nearly twenty books by or about E. F. Benson as well as a few by the brother Robert Benson. E. B. White carried Walden around everywhere he went. The grandmother in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had the letters of Madame de Sevigne. Even Alexander the Great never left Asia without Homer’s tome, bejeweled with the conquests of nations.  Samuel Johnson admonished novice writers to devote themselves to Addison’s essays. There’s that well-worn anecdote that Francis Bacon always chatted about Aeschylus, almost obsessively, and his writings make him a first ballot ‘man of one book’ shoe-in. John Wesley also claimed to be a man of one book.

An interesting note: the scholarship that surrounds Wesley is, in brief, a rough mimic of the popular and academic esteem one gathered (or missed) by being a ‘man of one book.’ He was loved when he was a man of one book, the Bible, during the early scholarship but as that idea became more archaic to those who care about his reputation (or, to be honest, those who know about him at all) scholarship has changed accordingly. It’s a prime instance where there was one set of agreed on facts that were “papered over and a new set of agreed-upon facts were hurried into place.”  If I ever write a book about the phrase, I think he would be a nice pinnacle.

Perhaps I’m already someone of one book, or at least one author. I manage to throw Vidal’s name out therefrequently. But it would be another animal entirely if I peppered my posts, not to mention daily chats, with Augustine’s Confessions, or Georg Misch’s impossibly well researched History of Autobiography in Antiquity and–wait for the gasp–its two volumes. If I’m honest, and I had to commit myself to one book, I would attempt it with Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

“That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truth and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truth in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truth that made the people grotesques.”

The most enjoyable aspect would be the great irony of becoming a character in Anderson’s book. My one truth would be the bookwarning me away from letting a single group of truths monopolize my attention.

Even still I wouldn’t mind reading one book to death. I just never have. As it is I don’t know if I’m much better than those that have. Christopher Howe, over at the Guardian, has a long list of reasons for why it’s never a problem to have too many books. Who is he trying to convince himself except for himself? When I scan my books there are not any convincing, or even defensible, reasons for why I should not read every one of the forlorn friends. This book is for a more patient me, I assure myself, than the one that woke up today. I pick up and read the back cover of another. This one I quickly put down. Poetry! I am too patient for poetry. I want the meaning to bite me in the ass. Another book is about the English—bah! Too frumpy. Another is about peasants. I have no time for the working class.

Perhaps this worrying forgets why I read in the first place. To Professor Borges his message was always that the study of literature is about appreciation, not context or theory much less romantic ideas about how my universe would revolve around some mulch and ink. “Reading should be a form of happiness.”

Let’s Get Lost in the Woods

I have noticed, dear reader, a recent tendency for the whimsical. Perhaps it is because I am still finding my blog legs. Perhaps it is because I notice the popularity my posts have so quickly attained. Am I too a slave to clicks and views? Bite your tongue.

One of my favorite passage from John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown: ‘you can uncover powerful, hidden things if you let yourself get lost in the woods.’ Steinbeck was not limiting himself to shrubs and glens. Unsympathetic critics might point to Steinbeck’s appetite for description that teased (crossed?) the line between elegant and florid. For now, I only ask that you revel in the perversity of getting lost in books! Treat yourself to those books you have read and forgotten or, even better, never read in the first place.

“Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption,” groused the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought.” That is, I feel, also the main thrust of Steinbeck’s greatest paragraphs. It was not his plot lines, which were affably straightforward. The beauty was in the naturalistic descriptions. He disappeared into a few details. He disappeared into the descriptions of the land and the people on it. He got lost. There was no noise and that is the only way I think anyone could describe his writing for good or bad. I wish I had someone more intelligent and interesting to quote to corroborate this feeling. I do not and for that, dear reader, forgive me. But when I read Steinbeck with a vista as my firmament there is a certain unity of intention and execution that becomes readily apparent. It’s such a tragedy that he’s taught in classrooms.  

The greatest part of getting lost is spontaneity. Everyone has their favorite stories, but some of mine were by Ernst Hemingway who wrote one May afternoon in a Madrid pension, when a snowstorm forced the cancellation of a bullfight at the feast of San Isidro. Those stories, he told George Plimpton, were ”The Killers,” ”Ten Indians” and ”Today Is Friday,” and all three are him. Authentically Hemingway because he writes exactly as he is. Sometimes unforgivably so but in those stories he could create the worst excesses–I would still love him all the more for it.

Getting lost also has its challenges. It gives writers, and people, too much freedom. Freedom from responsibility. Perhaps this is why some do their best work ignored. Not because of the lifestyle or misery or something similarly tragicomic. But because the freedom from responsibility is a catalysts for creativity. In this category I would put the French thinker, writer and hero (thank you for allowing me that last word, dear reader) Albert Camus. I remember the most tragic line he ever spoke. “I speak for no one: I have enough difficulty speaking for myself. I am no one’s guide. I don’t know, or I know only dimly, where I am headed.”

What he was reflecting on was his refusal to carry his moral authority, established by his editorials in the post-war publication Combat and his efforts in the Resistance, into the uniquely fragmented (for France as much as the rest of the world) 50s and 60s. He had been lost for so long in the woods that when he stumbled out of them, saw the world’s begging eyes, he simply shut down. Perhaps this has as much to do with the sad reality that he could neither imagine a French Algeria without himself (and those like him) nor an effective policy to create a viable European-Arab Algeria. But in any case I do not think that the reasons were ever clearly demarcated, much less by Camus himself.

Luckily for me, I do not have such responsibilities. No one looks to me. So I can write and hopefully charm. Perhaps just grouse at the world and throw some bitter notes out there. In either event, thank you for reading.