gall and gumption

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


So this afternoon I spot A. walking toward me on the sidewalk. A. did me a nice favor a week ago and has been very charming and kind over the so far very brief duration of our acquaintance. I wave to him and he stops and I remark on the fact that he got caught in the downpour that ended moments before; there are raindrops on the shoulders of his jacket. A. says something about getting some fresh air, I say something stupid in reply, then he absentmindedly turns around 180 degrees and starts walking in the direction in which I, not he, was headed. He walks a few steps alongside of me and then sort of shakes himself and says something about being busy and tired, and turns back and goes on his way. For some reason this encounter leaves me feeling an odd mixture of foolish, happy, and bewildered. I realize that it's because while I meet a lot of people and make nice with all of them, there are few of them that I want to like me, that I feel it would make a difference if they did like me. I like them just fine, but there aren't many of them that I want to go trailing after to find out what they're thinking about oh heck anything. But he, inexplicably, is one of the few. "The soul selects her own society," Emily Dickinson wrote.

Monday, June 13, 2011

He's Just Not That Into You

Shakespeare's sonnets are the most beautiful representation of the most pathetic love, I mean the kind that is just guaranteed to make your life a living hell as the price of whatever short-lived pleasure you got out of it.

The whole thing is rigged against the narrator (we'll call him Shakespeare) from jump, and he knows it but he can only go forward. Don't you get the sense from the sonnets that the guy, the beloved, is just never really there? That Shakespeare is doing all the work of feeling and finding and assigning meaning? I mean, here's Shakespeare writing, you know, Shakespeare's sonnets, for crying out loud, out of the fullness of his heart--

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart;
So I for fear of trust, forget to say,
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharged with burthen of mine own love's might:
O let my looks be then the eloquence,
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
O learn to read what silent love hath writ,
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.

--but of course the other fellow never will learn to read "what silent love hath writ." Because he doesn't need to. He's not "o'ercharged with burthen of [his] own love's might; he's just going along minding his own business.

I picture Mr. Thing reading the insomnia sonnet in bed and falling asleep before getting to the end.

I read Sonnet 29 "When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes..." and I want to give him some advice a friend gave to me a long time ago: don't get accustomed to all the nice part because It Will Be Taken Away.

But they're friends! And what a comfort that is.

But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Swell. But all the same I'd urge you not to hit the "Send" button because--

Full many a glorious morning have I seen,
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green;
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy:
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride,
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow,
But out alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
Yet him for this, my love no whit disdaineth,
Suns of the world may stain, when heaven's sun staineth.

There. What did I tell you?

He's the best advocate for this bounder against his own self--

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done,
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
My self corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:

--even when the guy steals one of his girlfriends from him.

This sort of thing just can't end well. According to the self-help literature--which I was reading FOR A FRIEND--Shakespeare is doing everything wrong. Instead of excusing and forgiving and indulging and accommodating, he should be noticing certain warning signs and strengthening his fortifications, protecting himself from these feelings instead of just letting them take him to the Bad Place where they're certainly headed.

I have to say that in my own experience this has never worked. But then I never really tried. Or by the time I needed to try it was already too late--I was already, emotionally speaking, a mass of bruises. But at least when things got to that point I only had to figure out how to get myself better--I had at least got the message that I didn't need to be figuring out what the other party really meant or if he meant anything at all. So that was something.

The self-help book had lots of examples of unhappy couples or unhappy people whose couple status went screaming off a cliff and they're crawling stunned and bewildered out of the smoking wreckage--but it didn't show any examples of happy couples. I suspect that I would not have liked their happy couples anyway. Isn't that interesting? I think I'm automatically suspicious of the attempt of any professional person to explain the happiness of other people. Just as I am suspicious of the "we" of the professional social scientist, the one they use when they are talking to the public: as in "We lie to make ourselves look good." I mean, then I just think, "Well, maybe you do. But not me. And maybe you need to hang out with a better class of people." Yet I am easily convinced by their portrayals of unhappiness. The happiest couple I can think of in literature is Admiral and Mrs. Croft in Persuasion. It's not that I don't believe in happy couples: I even know some! I just think that happiness itself speaks with greater authority about itself, in its own words, than anyone who takes it upon himself to define it.

But anyway Shakespeare. He doesn't take any of the good advice from the self-help books. The sonnets are about gradual but complete surrender to this feeling--at least until the very last ones when the feeling seems to have burnt itself out. But you read all the way through and there's no resistance, nor, until the later sonnets when he's talking about women again, any of the cynicism about such feelings that John Donne will frequently express. (I might mind Donne's cynicism more if he hadn't written The Good-Morrow, but really he's just a very different kind of artist.)

At a certain point Shakespeare had to have seen that he couldn't talk himself out of his feelings and they weren't going to invoke any corresponding return of feeling in the other party. No win, and no cure. Failure? I don't think so. It's something, after all, to add it to the record of human experience, to say it happened, it happens, it matters that it happens.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Captain

From the Notebooks:

Pan’s Labyrinth (in Spanish, El Laberinto del Fauno) is a fairy tale for adults, and its really scary horrors take place not in the Labyrinth where the fairies and monsters live but outside it, in the real world. The story is set in Spain, just after the Civil War, where the victorious Fascists are conducting “mopping-up” operations. A Captain presides over one of these operations in a remote mountain forest; he and the unit he commands are staying in an old mill house that has an old labyrinth in its grounds. He sends for his new, pregnant wife (widow of a tailor) and her daughter, Ofelia, a girl of about 10 who likes to read fairy tales. The mother, rescued from poverty and loneliness by her marriage to the Captain, wants the daughter to love him and call him father but Ofelia dislikes him. You know that in the adult world people try to reason away these dislikes: the child isn’t trying hard enough to like him; give it time; you haven’t noticed how good he has been to us. The mother in her simplicity actually believes all this, and besides, her pregnancy, very advanced, makes her sick all the time. She’s helpless, submissive, and trusting, grateful for the security that the Captain has provided for her.

He’s handsome, a fearfully competent disciplinarian and enforcer of order, constantly and minutely vigilant for threats and prompt to act on them. He’s a killing machine whose pride is in his complete self-dedication to his duty. He’s also (and this amounts to the same thing) mad.

On the level of his character you see that he is weak, mean, controlling and irresponsible; that he carries major Daddy issues (he has to be the soldier that his father was) and that for all his cunning he’s rather stupid. And he is prodigiously vain of the horrible character that he has created for himself. That is what he brings to the mix, but he’s not only a self-created monster. His peculiar brand of monsterishness is useful; it fills a need, and where there is a need such men will appear for duty. The individual who steps up so willingly and unquestioningly to do the work of extermination is mad, but it is a larger madness that summons him.

A group of bourgeoisie from the nearest town comes out to the mill for a dinner party, an incongruously formal affair, very stiff and constrained. They are all agreed as to the necessity of his “work,” and admire his zeal and dedication in carrying it out. They don’t know what he actually does – they could know but they don’t want to know – but whatever it is, it is necessary for their security. And this is of course flattering to them. That he takes pleasure in killing and torture (a moral pleasure) is beyond the scope of what they have to know. This is how they become complicit: they feed his insane convictions of his own morality. The even tolerate his small, mean corruption as long as they are the beneficiaries of it, and as long as the poor, whom they despise, pay the cost of it.

As the Captain works out his destiny (“character is destiny”) Ofelia, the little girl, works on her own story. She’s a lost princess who has to complete three increasingly difficult tasks before she can return home. The tasks are assigned by the Faun of the Labyrinth, and as frightening as they are, they are not as terrible as the goings-on in the real world ruled by the Captain and all he stands for. One of the beauties of the film is that it plays so delicately with ambiguity. Are the creatures of the Labyrinth real or just figments of Ofelia’s imagination? You can have it either way or both; what matters is what Ofelia believes, and she believes in goodness. That is, she believes that she must be good, and the fairy tales have taught her that goodness will be tested, must be tested. She passes the tests, of course: the heroes and heroines of fairy tales always do. But the third test, the hardest one, she passes without knowing she has passed it; without knowing that her whole time at the mill, the time in the real world, was the test.

We know how the real-world story ends: the Fascists ruled Spain for 40 years. Many, many innocents suffered and died, security was maintained, the mad and the guilty had their way for a good long run. But sanity lived among the fairy tales. What is that sanity but the belief that goodness is beautiful and necessary?

Ofelia’s innocence is a sort of mystery; innocence is a mystery, in the sense that it is hard to define or explain in terms cause or origin. It is if anything a negative good: in Ofelia it is the persistence of the belief that it is possible and necessary to be good, and that being good is worth more than anything you can trade it away for. It is at last the tenacity with which she possesses her own soul, which is bigger than herself in ways she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know she possesses innocence, she doesn’t know how her innocence possesses her.
In the fairy-tale world of the Labyrinth, she makes the choice not to be like the Captain and not to be like those who rely on his services. With this choice the storyline of the Labyrinth completes itself; the small piece of magic is accomplished. But here’s the thing that remains, here is where the two stories converge: goodness is like magic. It has to be imagined into being, it is against the grain.

Ofelia passes her last test by doing what is right in this world. With everything in both worlds at stake she refuses to agree to the infliction of even a tiny bit of suffering. When you take your security at the expense of suffering and death, you summon the Captain.
The Captain is mad but his is the madness of righteous conviction: if he had ever had a chance to be other than he is, he missed it long before we meet him at the mill in the forest. He has lost the capacity to question himself, and the world has closed around him, divided simply into enemies and potential enemies. Those who do not submit to his control are enemies; the others are all potential enemies. It becomes increasingly difficult for him to distinguish between his personal will and his duty as he conceives it. This is why 1) he succumbs so easily to corruption; the rationale for it is actually fed by his fanaticism; and 2) he creates around him an ongoing state of emergency in which he regards the least expression of dissent as an existential threat to his mission; his mission has given value to his personal feelings. He’s not a vain man; he’s a model soldier. He’s not an unloved son; he’s carrying on a family tradition of manly courage. He’s not a torturer; he’s a skilled interrogator who knows he can do whatever is necessary. He’s not a murderer; he is efficient and prompt in resolving crises. There can be no half-measures with such people. To grant them the right to one drop of blood, one minute of distress, is to give them everything. Eventually--and eventually is sooner, not later – they will demand everything. Because they do not know what innocence is: they do not believe in it. There is no compromising with such people because you cannot compromise with them without the sacrifice of innocence. You cannot divide the truth between the speaker of truth and the liar, between the murderer and his victim. When you do that, the liar gets half of what he wants (and will soon present you with a bill for the remainder) and the truth teller gets worse than nothing. There’s no such thing as a half liar or half a truth teller. If you make that sort of compromise you haven’t reduced the total sum of guilt; you have only displaced its cost onto the innocent. And when you force the innocent to bear this cost you become an accomplice in a crime for the sake of your self-deceit and whatever comfort or advantage it gives you. For people like the Captain to acknowledge innocence is to take the risk of making a mistake, of accidentally releasing an enemy.

The Captain is the absolute despot of the group of soldiers and workers of his domain. But despotism also rules him; we know that there are powers above that expect him to be thorough, to not let anything slip through; no food, no medicine, no suspect person can be allowed to escape. Competence becomes, by a cruel logic, attention to the most picayune details, and each potential conflict raises a threat that must be met by the assertion of force.

When this logic of despotism establishes itself it spreads downward; the whole system is maintained by lesser functionaries who, to prove their competence, must be sharp, resolute and prompt in dispatching threats to order, in neutralizing anything that may undermine their place. While they thus wage a quiet war against external enemies (the journalist who demands information, the writer of protest songs, the dissenting activist, the widow of the partisan denied a pension, the victim of land theft) they are waging another secret war against themselves, against the enemy within. People who are willing to make a sacrifice of their inner selves will naturally turn to making a sacrifice of others. They sacrifice themselves this way for any number of possible reasons. What they gain by it is moral certainty, a self that they can like better than the one they rejected; camaraderie, status, a sense of purpose, and an ongoing state of passionate arousal that satisfies itself in the detection and destruction of enemies. And all who are unwilling to make this sacrifice are enemies. Hence arises the necessity to pursue thought crimes and imaginary and hypothetical enemies: no one dares to say, “We have done enough,” no one wants to be the first to say that severity can be slackened. Because despotism has become a way of life, and people’s minds mold to it, taking the shape of it even while everyone is sure that they are decent, just and rational. They do it – and this is the horrible truth – for small things: for status, power, a little money, spite, vindictiveness. But the belief that they are serving a great cause transforms the appearance of these human motivations. The people who give up their selves to despotism don’t want these selves back on any terms; it’s a return to insignificance, defensiveness, doubt, and – when all the bodies are finally counted – guilt. They are therefore deeply invested in the fantasy selves that they have constructed; they are more invested in those selves than they are in the ideology that justifies despotism. About the ideology they are quite content to be as muddleheaded as they are about everything else. They are simple folk, with simple moral values! The like kittens and babies! You can’t expect them to figure out all that intellectual stuff. They are just ordinary people defending a way of life, and you don’t need to be an intellectual to do that, for crying out loud.

To the Captain and to the numberless others who rule like him every personal affront or grievance undergoes a transmutation, it’s framed as something that happens not to them personally, as individuals, but to the cause. This is of course convenient if you have any power at all – the power to rat someone out to the police, the power to go rummaging in their secrets and a public platform for exposing them, the power to withhold a job or a ration card or a promotion or a signature. The exercise of malice and envy and contempt becomes a necessity of virtue. This transformation of the personal into the political is convenient in another way: it keeps up the supply of enemies (and the system depends on the steady supply of enemies) by creating new pretexts for identifying them, and it offers opportunities for the display of righteous zeal.

To destroy your own guilt is nearly impossible; it requires a return of the rejected self that people demonstrate again and again that they cannot do. It is easier to destroy innocence, to destroy the idea of innocence first, which enables the destruction of actual innocents. For this result, contempt is necessary, and there is always a lot of that floating around in search of a worthy object. Once you have overcome your guilt at the suffering of others from poverty, deprivation, and injustice, contempt for them comes naturally: they have imposed on your good nature, and they will do it again at the least opportunity. So it becomes necessary to distinguish between the deserving poor and the undeserving, and for the latter more deprivation, more hardship, is the best remedy. When it comes to that, even the deserving poor had best be kept strictly in line and taught not to expect too much. This is why, in Jane Eyre, Mr. Brockehurst and his well-fed, well-dressed daughters could visit Lowood School and looking upon its ranks of half-starved, beaten-down, dispirited orphans and daughters of impoverished clergymen, see nothing but their own goodness.

They are also, of course, destroying witnesses and evidence against the day when it all collapses. On that day, forced at the point of a gun to admit that crimes were committed, the guilty retreat into a sort of twilight of willful amnesia about their part in the crime: they didn’t know what was going on, that they had no choice, and they always acted with the best of intentions and never had any other kind. Their exact relation to the machinery of crime will be hard to define, although it will always somehow be clear to them that they were victims, too, and that they are now doubly victims because they find that the world does not think as well of them as they wish to think of themselves.

The first of the Captain’s crimes that we witness is his killing of two peasants, a father and son, captured in the woods. They have guns, which of course immediately renders them suspect. They explain that they have been out hunting rabbits, but he doesn’t believe them. When they insist, he kills the son, brutally, for not shutting up. Having now created an enemy and a witness in the father, he must kill him too – which he promptly does. The father has only just dropped to the ground when one of the soldiers pulls a dead rabbit out of the bag the men were carrying. “Search them better next time,” the Captain says and walks away.

The Captain, authority, cannot be seen to have made mistakes. The peasants incriminate themselves by asserting a fact contrary to what he believes: he kills them because they are a threat to order and control – to his order and his control, which in his madness he has conflated with order in the world. For the same reason, he blames the soldiers for the killing. Thus the first time we see the Captain at his “work” we see that he is a failure: he’s stupid and incompetent. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that his incompetence is unique to himself. Like his madness it is systemic; the very conception of the job he has been assigned is incompetent; failure is built into it. The Captain’s especial qualification for his job – what makes him such a model soldier to the bourgeois of the town, is that he is a failure as a human being. His moral imagination is broken, and the proof of it is that he willingly takes the job and goes about it with such righteous zeal. And those who hire the Captain have failed in their moral and political imagination. To make the kind of quid pro quo calculation of benefit to themselves versus cost to other people in suffering injustice, cruelty, and death – to take what you want at the cost of even a few small drops of the blood of one who can neither consent nor refuse – is to be a monster like the Captain. You cannot touch pitch without being defiled. You cannot sell your soul to the devil for just a little while. There is no trading away a little piece of the sacred.

For the society he serves the Captain is the expression of the will to control other people, and the will to control other people masks incompetence at the most basic personal level. It’s like being a poet I met once who, finding no audience for his poetry, had determined that this was the fault of the way society was organized. He had a job at the Ministry of Culture in a small Caribbean country, and the first thing he wanted to do was remove a fountain from one of the squares in the capital. The fountain, a piece of harmless Victorian kitsch, was for him a symbol of the colonial oppression that had corrupted the culture. But most people did not share his feeling about the statue: for them it was not associated with ideas about history – except for their personal history: memories of childhood, of events, the continuity of their individual lives through time, lives lived uniquely in that place. About all this – the very subject matter of poetry and literature – the poet was breezily dismissive. The people who cherished this irrational affection for the fountain would need to be brought round to the right sort of historical consciousness, and those who resisted it would be dealt with. He wasn’t kidding; he thought of himself as an enlightened, creative person denied fulfillment by an unjust society. He showed me a slim volume of his poems. They were bad – predictably, pitifully, irredeemably bad – and he would not have believed anyone who ventured to tell him so.

So he wanted power instead, and his conception of power was as poor as his poetry: of course it was – these things are all of a piece. He was a mediocrity turned part-time fanatic, and it was of some comfort to think of the peculiar resistance to fanaticism that has evolved in Caribbean culture; its irreverence, its hardheaded commonsensical materialism, would pretty much keep him from ever being taken seriously. He was not talented enough to be more than a placeholder. There were better propagandists and they were not encumbered with poetry.

That separation of good and evil must take place within us: it’s the separation of the good and evil that are within us. The will to control others is a double failure: the failure to understand oneself and, inevitably, eventually, the failure to control others.
Bad as the Captain is when we first understand what he is, over the course of the story he degenerates. It’s not the guerillas in the woods that break him down – his martial bravado endures all the way to the end when he is ready to meet the hero’s death for which, in a sense, he has been rehearsing in front of a mirror. Of its own power, his will to control keeps spiraling inward, until having created mayhem and chaos in his own camp, he is reduced to hunting down and killing Ofelia. There is no need to kill her: she has already given him back what he wants, but he does it anyway. This killing is, at last, the purest expression of his power and the real purpose of that power. A murderer: this is what he is when the mask of duty is stripped away. If he ever seemed to be more than that it is because society, in employing him to do its dirty work, gave him a stage on which to enact his mad bloody fantasies on the bodies of real people. His fantasies are the fantasies of his employers: his lost self and the corpses he piles up for his masters are sacrificial offerings, the highest price that can be paid for the ennobling of raw human meanness.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Artist's Daughter

Philip Guston's daughter pays a surprise visit to her father one winter, to introduce him to his new grandson. The baby has had health problems, and her marriage is breaking up. On the second night at the family place in Woodstock, where Guston has his studio, this scene occurs:
"How long were you planning on staying?" Philip asked gruffly the next evening. He was facing away from me, chopping vegetables to make a Chinese dinner for us. Suddenly struggling with tears, I couldn't answer his question. Was he really asking me to leave, so soon? I held the baby in my arms, more tightly, for comfort.

My father turned and looked at me, with that anguished, hooded look of his I dreaded. "Oh God," he said. "I thought you understood by now how I feel about my work." He strode out of the kitchen, onto the back porch, and across to his studio.

When David was asleep again, I slipped out the back door. ....

[Philip] was sitting in his chair, staring at his last painting, a cigarette drooping from his mouth. We argued. I wept. More open about my feelings than I had ever been, I told my father why I'd come, what I wanted from hm. All the time I was talking, a part of me hovered nearby, listening, somewhat aghast at the words that were coming out of my mouth. The rawness and immediacy of my own child's needs, the urgency of his cries to be fed and held, the hospital vigils--all those frantic hours of worry had altered my perspective somehow, made me brave where I hadn't been brave before. I knew what was important now, and it wasn't Art. 

But it didn't matter, really. I could see Philip felt terribly guilty, but that didn't change anything. "I was working when you came, for the first time in weeks," he said. "It's been so hard for me, recently, to do anything, to feel that I--" He stopped and looked at me. He rubbed his lip with his thumb.

I stared back at him. Ordinarily, I'd have been solicitous, eager to hear his troubles.
He sighed. "Look, Ingie. I'm sorry. Really, I am. You don't seem to realize what an interruption this visit is." Then after a pause, relenting. "But I did enjoy last night."

"So did I," I said.

"Yes. Well. Maybe we should go back and finish dinner."

I left the next morning. As the bus pulled away, I felt an enormous sense of relief. And then loss--the terrible loss that accompanies saying at last what you have to say, and not having it matter.

From Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Other Gods

When I was about 8 years old my grandmother gave me a simply enormous Webster's dictionary. It was a doorstop, about five inches thick. At the back, after all the definitions of words, were several more specialized dictionaries. My favorite was the dictionary of Greek mythology. I used to read through this--each entry was the name of a character or deity and a little summary of their story. And of course if I read about, say, Theseus, then I'd go read about the Minotaur at his entry, and then Medusa, and so on, and of course putting the stories all together. I read this part of the dictionary a lot.

The one thing I had a hard time understanding was what I now could describe (but couldn't then) as the amorality of the gods. Up through this time in my life I had gone to little Anglican schools where we sang hymns in the morning like "All Things Bright and Beautiful," and "Praise Him, Praise Him," and "Little Drops of Water" and "Immortal, Invisible." I did not believe a word of it, but I have a lingering affection for those hymns, and for years I could not shake the idea that if there were a God He would be nice to children and puppies and liked beautiful scenery.

So it was unsettling to read the Greek myths and find that there was, for example, a God of the Underworld who kidnapped Persephone, and I thought she was very foolish to eat the pomegranate seeds and cause so much inconvenience (I had never experienced winter, but from where I sat reading it seemed like a pretty harsh punishment, all things considered). Or Hera; what were you supposed to think of this jealous and vindictive personage? My favorite was Athene, but after all with Greek gods you can't just settle on one; you have to take the whole lot or none. It's polite. You can't just pull things to pieces. So these gods took up residence in my imagination--which was fine because they were fun, they were interesting, and they were only troublesome when I tried to make them fit some other model of good and evil. And this I didn't feel any compelling need to do. The general rule seemed to be "Don't get on their bad side," but then there were so many ways to get on their bad side. By not letting them catch you when they wanted to seduce you, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or giving them backchat, or showing off. Or by being born, like Oedipus.

As deities they seemed flawed, but powerful, and they certainly knew how to live it up. Compared to them the god of my churchgoing playmates (distant cousins, neighbors, and a few schoolmates) just seemed crazy mean. I don't mean the one I learned about in school, but the one they learned about from their parents. These children seemed to live in the apprehension of beatings and hellfire. With respect to the former, I regarded their fathers with awe, and was struck dumb with shyness in their presence, afraid that some minor unconscious infraction might cause one of them to start laying about him with a slipper or a belt. These playmates would occasionally try to impress upon me the threat of damnation and hell, but it just wouldn't stick. It was boring, and, I sort of instinctively felt, too mean to take seriously.

None of this affected me personally, except that when these various strict fathers came home from work in the evening it was usually less fun over at the friend's house.

When I read Milton's Nativity Ode, I always feel sorry for the pagan gods...


The Oracles are dumm,
No voice or hideous humm
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shreik the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspire's the pale-ey'd Priest from the prophetic cell. [ 180 ]


The lonely mountains o're,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale
Edg'd with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent,
With flowre-inwov'n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.


In consecrated Earth,
And on the holy Hearth,
The Lars, and Lemures moan with midnight plaint,
In Urns, and Altars round,
A drear, and dying sound
Affrights the Flamins at their service quaint;
And the chill Marble seems to sweat, [ 195 ]
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.


Peor, and Baalim,
Forsake their Temples dim,
With that twise-batter'd god of Palestine,
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav'ns Queen and Mother both,
Now sits not girt with Tapers holy shine,
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn,
In vain the Tyrian Maids their wounded Thamuz mourn.

...though I admit I wouldn't miss Moloch. Why couldn't they have been left alone to take care of things like Keeping the Stovewood Dry and Not Letting the Cottage Cheese Go Bad Just When I Felt Like Having Some?

I have a few things I read regularly to tune up my morals and generally refocus the big picture: Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, Persuasion, and Sophocles's Theban plays. Yes, this is a strange selection. No accounting for tastes, I guess, though I keep trying.

Reading and rereading Greek tragedy, in which those stories I read as a child were fleshed out, the characters given human voices, I reached the point where I understood, at least in literary terms, something about the not-so-good-but-still-great Greek gods. Or maybe it would be more right to say, I at least understood something of what these playwrights understood about the gods. I could see, for example, how Medea rationalizes her crime, talks herself into it, and how reason is put to the service of the mad jealousy that's really driving her. It's the same thing with Clytemnestra, in Agammemnon. It's the plausibility of their craziness that's so scary.

Or, by contrast, Oedipus coming to the absolute worst of self-knowledge and finding at last a sublime dignity and blessedness there, and you watch it sort of flame up in him over the course of the play as he gets stronger and more lucid each minute. Again, the presence of something invisible and powerful. You might say that his self-knowledge is the polar opposite of the madness of Medea; by it he becomes a divinity, by her lack of it she becomes a monster.

And still, there is so little of intention or will either way; one is always in doubt of one's power because, as the plays so powerfully illustrate, the gods are always just out of sight, their intentions are not revealed clearly, you don't know what is you and what is them, and that is, in a sense, what it is to be human. This is a much more interesting idea to me than the idea that so-and-so had a catastrophe because he got too big for his britches. So while Clytemnestra is making her perfectly reasonable arguments for murdering her husband while he's taking a bath, you realize that the arguments themselves indicate and invoke the presence of whatever divine power drives that crazy idea.

I got that. But it still wasn't personal.

Personal is when I realized I'm up against it too, I mean, up against forces in my own self, that distract me, that make me afraid or insecure or angry; OK I don't go murdering people in baths, but I murder time like nobody's business. A worry takes possession of me and I have to fight to get out from under it. A feeling tugs and tugs at my mind and won't let me settle down and concentrate on work I want to do. Or even stranger things. I remember years ago, not long after I had settled down into domestic life with The One, sitting down to read one afternoon, "Well, here we are, this is it and isn't it nice?" and after half an hour or so, instead of feeling contentment, I had panic, confusion, shortness of breath, and a desire to run like hell out of the house and never come back, a feeling of doom. I didn't run, but I was never quite at ease after that. And who hasn't had to talk themselves out of being in love at one time or another?

After all the excitement there you are with the slog back into your right mind, one foot in front of the other, day after day, in the hope of some small showing of grace from anywhere. The first virtue is endurance. This time last year I was in Sardinia.