gall and gumption

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

If you want it done right...

I'm embarrassed to say how long I've been fiddling about with some commentary on >this review by Wolcott in The New Republic, of Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. Possibly the fact that I've never heard of Gail Pool is symptomatic of the plight of book reviewing. But I'm glad to know of her book now.

Wolcott also points from his blog to this essay by Christina Nehring, at Truthdig, on the decline of the American essay.

They’ve both got my sympathy, sincerely. But I don’t know that you can get great essays or great book reviews, or any other kind of literature, by deploring the state of the art and putting out the call for more and better. I don’t know that art has ever responded to that kind of summons. The book review and the essay are basically literary forms; they’re just something more to read. Literary forms occur not in response to summonses but in response to conditions, the most critical condition being the presence of the writer who is the only person who can summon up a particular piece of writing. I’m not sure you can summon up writing in general from the culture in general. One writer can summon up a piece, but the only place he can summon it up from is himself. The writer otherwise needs time, a little bit of money and space, and a publisher who will take a chance on his work. I think that there are lots of writers who are producing good essays. What we need is a better class of audience.

I’m kidding when I say that, but only a little. The audience for books needs to be educated, which traditionally has been the job of the critic. And book reviews are in an awful state because critics aren’t doing that. By educate I don’t mean “supply a lot of information” though in the absence of any ideas you might as well do that. I mean you have to educate your reader’s judgment, and show that pleasure attends on this process. Which it should.

The two greatest book reviewers ever, Marvin Mudrick and Cyril Connolly, wrote book reviews that became literature, and these book reviews don’t look anything like any other book reviews. Connolly wrote newspaper book reviews but always seemed to feel he ought to have been doing something else. This was reasonable as Connolly’s literary sensitivity soared above the sort of material he was given to review. One of my favorite pieces by Connolly is a long list of things that he wants to ban from the novel. Such as the nape of the neck, as in “he loved the way her hair curled at the nape of her neck.” Another was stuff, as in one arty character asking another arty character “What’s his stuff like?” about a third arty character. And the sort of upper-middle-class novel with the clever young heroine and the weird combination school slang and baby talk that she talks with her parents – this particular phenomenon came in for Connolly’s special ire. It’s like it raised up something in him, like Bill Hicks’s “Goat Boy,” or the Ancient Mariner, and that Inner Cyril was possessed with a mission, which was to try to kill this species of novel altogether. (In one parody he kills off a whole family of characters.) Oddly, Julia Burchill at the Guardian goes after the same literature in its current manifestation. But Connolly is definitely after the literature. The real target of Burchill’s “contrarianism” (spite, really) is the people who do the writing. Next week when it isn’t the books they write it will be their taste in espresso drinks or sweaters.

Connolly’s exasperation was the effect of having to find something intelligent to say about the unending flow of inoffensively competent, diverting, apparently unobjectionable but totally uninspired and uninspiring fiction, i.e., most of what gets published. No matter how innocent each individual work seems, no matter how just its claim to an encouraging word and a favorable notice, you can’t help giving way sometimes to the suspicion that they are all, collectively, part of a conspiracy to make everybody stupid. And you feel that if you don’t rise up in defense of the idea of better, you will become stupid too. I mean, independent of your own appetite for entertainment. Because at a certain point it is not only that you are bored, it is the appalling realization that boredom is the standard.

I don’t read to escape. I read to get the feeling that life is more present and more interesting. I read to wake up. And some writing makes me feel more alive and other writing makes me feel stupid. Not only because the writing is boring, but because there is a boring or canned or dishonest experience of life under it.

I have long-term relationships with books, and I read old books. How many books will get published this year? I can assure you, one Pushkin short story, “The Queen of Spades,” for example, will still be better and a more profitable read than every single one of them. But it isn’t news, in the news sense.

Book reviewing is news. A book review may also be entertainment, and if it is very good entertainment it can be literature.

Books are marketed and reviewed in a news time frame, but books also exist in a literature time frame. Which is mostly the one I live in, too. The news timeframe constrains the things you can talk about in book reviews, it imposes its own subject matter (it is presumed that no one needs your observations on Pamela for a book review unless you happen to be reviewing a new edition or a piece of secondary literature or, God forbid, one of those “sequels” that later authors write), it usually imposes limits on the length of the piece as well. These are challenging constraints, but you can write within them and do fine.

What you don’t want to do is fall completely into the news timeframe to the extent that you forget the literature timeframe. Because when the news timeframe starts to affect your literary judgment rather than being something your literary judgment just manipulates, you are at risk of catching “nowadaysism,” the belief that new work is more “relevant” than old work, just by virtue of being new.

Mudrick got around this by treating the book review as a sort of pretext for a wider exploration: he might start from, say, a biography of Voltaire that was just published, but he’d go on and talk about Voltaire in a tightly researched piece that was packed with information and quick, revealing judgments that turned on a dime, and ultimately you got Voltaire, you got a whole lot of ideas, you got a pretty strong sense of the difference between shit and shinola, and you found your curiosity about the main character in the piece – about Boswell or Johnson, or about Voltaire, or about Pushkin, or Chaucer or Austen or Lawrence – enormously boosted. When he set to write such a review (he did write about Voltaire and it is one of his best, not collected), he would read the book under review and he would read every single available word written by the author who was the subject of the book. He was interested in judging rightly, which means he was interested in ideas, in discriminating between good ideas and bad ideas, between ideas that were alive and ideas that were fake, ideas that carried you by their light into a better vision of experience and ideas that were inert. Why? Because, really, he had discovered one of the things that made Voltaire say Montaigne was the best philosoper of all: what Montaigne called “the voluptuousness of virtue.” Marvin loved what was good, and thought the difference between good and not-good was important.

He reviewed academic books and he turned each review into an opportunity to write about what mattered. If he read a book on Chaucer he would dispatch it efficiently and then have lots of room to write about Chaucer in a way that considerably increased your pleasure and understanding of Chaucer. He did it by being what we are told in the news business you must never be: self-indulgent. The extended inquiry into ideas that you find in one of Mudrick’s pieces, the pursuit of the author’s presence, the use of jokes as little revelations, all of this sort of thing is self-indulgence because not 1) solemn in conformity with the rubes’ idea of what a professor should sound like, and 2) it is garrulous, not at all in conformity with that great American virtue of being sparing of words and “sincere” with the few simple ones you use, and in which thinking and inquiring into the ideas that people live by is a frightful piece of presumption. License to do otherwise is granted to those professors who have mastered the art of pompous, empty, uplifting blither, and who have various other social credentials. Marvin wrote like a wisecracking urban Jew from Philadelphia. He didn’t strike heroic poses out of his slum childhood as some people do, it’s just that his own way of dealing with his origins (poor Jews, immigrant slum Jews, Jews who didn’t speak English with Bostonian accents – hell, Jews who didn’t speak English at all; Jews who had things like bedbugs) was so completely original. He had, not an accent, more a lilt or an intonation when he was thinking out loud. At such times his diction was marked by care over every single syllable, something that must have begun as a conscious effort and had now become habit. Some form of this intonation spread to a greater or lesser degree, among his literature students; it was the Creative Studies accent. Long, long years passed before I understood that we had been listening to (and imitating) the faintest trace of a Yiddish accent. (In my defense I remind you that when I met Marvin I had been living in the U.S. for less than a year. There were lots of accents that I had never heard before.) Marvin’s accent was more that than anything else. He was the youngest son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, people who had lived through pogroms. His mother was the breadwinner; his father was a Hebrew scholar, extremely devout, and his role in just this capacity was so valued that he basically didn’t do anything else. Marvin had two older sisters who bossed him around and his mother was sort of the superboss, of the house, of everybody, of the universe, a great and formidable matriarch. Bookish, sensitive, romantic, he wanted escape. So he didn’t bother to learn Yiddish or Russian or German or Hebrew, all of which he could have learned to speak at home. He concentrated on being American. But here’s where he departed from the experience of a lot of immigrants. He primarily thought of becoming American as a form of escape. I think his family life was so intense around him that he never thought of transforming himself into some other person; he wasn’t going to have Saul Bellow’s Ivy tones, he’d never “pass”. And I think that after the war, when he went off to grad school in California, he made the great discovery that is another one of this enduring gifts to his students: Simply put, you didn’t have to assimilate, you didn’t have to “pass.” You could just escape into being yourself and create a new world that you would fit into. And his great optimistic faith in American life was in the bountifulness with which it had permitted him to do that. Until he became sick with the lung cancer that killed him, he was a happy, happy man in his life and work. He taught us that we could expect to be happy, if we knew what it was really about: “Just remember, nobody gives a shit about you.”

Because he was radically, bluntly truthful, in his criticism and his teaching, and in the way he worked as an administrator. If academic tenure didn’t give you that, then what the hell was it for? Marvin once referred to another colleague’s work – in a faculty meeting and in the presence of that colleague – as “donkey work.” Which was really, if you know that man’s scholarship, kind. But you are never supposed to say these things. The great virtue is collegiality, the maintenance of this specious chumminess among people who secretly and violently loathe each other. What brings them together is saying shit about the stupidity of students and grad students and (I suppose) of those untenured phantoms who roam from campus to campus, living on Top Ramen, doing the actual teaching. And Marvin refused to play from the day he arrived at UCSB as an assistant professor. He simply chose not to. That was some of this here freedom he’d heard about in Philadelphia and by God he was going to enjoy it because he had things to do – he had things he was excited about, and life was very short, and wasting time was a sin. “Oh well,” he’d say in class, leering, “In a hundred years we’ll all be dead!”

So with a view to the shortness of life, while you feel that every writer should have an encouraging word, you have to also feel sometimes that you are starving if you don’t get something that really transports you. With me that feeling of starvation comes in the form of the state of near despair: “Why does the Universe want me to be bored?” But I’m all right if I complain. To find yourself in apparent agreement with the general view that the merely mediocre is great, with the attendant implication that you agree to that devaluation of what great is, that’s the terrible thing; that’s what will wear into you. I want to be one of those aristocrats of the imagination who can afford to hold out. Cyril Connolly was one of those, but he had to pay the bills, and writing newspaper book reviews of what I believe is now called “literary fiction” was a necessity. He did it brilliantly, but he didn’t like it. Nothing could make him like it, and that’s what makes him great. If he had written the sort of competent reviews that took this stuff at its face value – if his reviews had merely been a matter of execution the way those novels were (and still are) his reviews would be just as forgettable. Who cares, really, for these ritual exercises except a few interested parties?

I confess I go for book stuff to the British newspapers more than the U.S. ones. The Guardian’s book review section seems to be thriving. It seems just as much designed to promote the book publishing industry as the NY Times book review, but they are a little smarter about it; they go for that part of the job with a certain gusto and good ole mercantile sharpness, following and creating buzz around contests (and they seem to have more contests over there), having all sorts of little gizmos like quizzes and competitions and inventive forms of interaction. Entertainment. Having secured the attention of a pretty wide public with all this fun and games, they really do deliver book reviews. No worse than anywhere else, and, moreover, their reviewers will take the gloves off.

And so what if they have J.K. Rowling on the front page every other week? That’s where the money is and if the money buys space for a piece that might make a reader curious about John Donne, Rowling is paying her way.

U.S. newspaper book reviews don’t seem to know how to make themselves attractive to a basically non-reading public. There’s a feeling that book reviews ought not to be sexy but aspirational in some now totally unfashionable way, ought not to make the same appeal that draws an audience to everything else. I suspect that this is a vestigial form of that compulsion to morally uplift that attends any discussion of ideas and culture among Americans (Cf. Robert Hughes in Culture of Complaint).

Which, by the way, is why the American essay sucks in exactly the way that Nehring says. Because if you can’t deliver the uplift, then in order to say anything critical about anything and keep your mass audience you have to play the self-deprecating curmudgeon. “Oh, don’t you mind Uncle Frank. The Katzenjammer Kids set fire to his underpants again.”

It isn’t that people aren’t writing better things. Lots of people are. But this is the standard of what is good. The essays that she is criticizing here are the best of their kind and no fault can be found with them in terms of their execution; it’s that what is being executed is pointless and dull. That whole beleaguered-genial-loafer-family-guy schtick began with Robert Benchley, and with him it was as good as it ever got – which, really, I’ll be the first to tell you, was very very good. Perelman introduced a considerable amount of vinegar into the formula and that worked pretty well except in his later pieces when there wasn’t much besides vinegar. Then you have people like the sainted and interminable E.B. White, inoffensiveness raised to a principle, this sort of genteel, idea-less hum, like a fly at a window, to doze over while you’re sitting on the screen porch after a heavy Sunday dinner.

You know, I mean, you have to know, that people have been doing better than this all along. But the space that is reserved for “the Best American Essays” has definite rules of decorum, most of them, I suspect, derived from White. The good stuff, original stuff, will seem like a failure to execute according to eternal standards of taste about which people actually have the vaguest and most incoherent ideas.

When dependable execution becomes the main value of the audience of an art form and of its most prominent practitioners, that art form is in a decadent phase. People like Lileks and Dreher are sort of the death rattle. I mean, Dreher can write 900 words of it without ever saying anything – sorry, I mean 850. Then the Inner Lizard gets hold of the keyboard and for the last 50 horks up a bit of what Dreher really thinks about something. The rest of a piece like this (Thanks, Roy) is utterly empty – and Dreher does not know this. Neither, I suspect, do most of his readers. That is decadence. I think you can find historical periods where similar things happened. I suspect that the early nineteenth-century reading public coasted along contentedly on a lot of really bad Augustan-style poetry before they realized that Wordsworth was writing literature.

And for those of us who hope to see better and to write better? There are some things that if you want them done right, you have to do them yourself.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Staying Out of the Pool

When I was newly arrived in California, a freshman in college at the University of California, Santa Barbara, my trips to Los Angeles passed inevitably through the city of Oxnard.

Oxnard in the late 1970s was still basically a farm town, with a downtown that seemed to consist entirely of Mexican restaurants, the odd liquor store, and used car dealerships. Because with some of the world's deepest topsoils, Oxnard was in the business of farming vegetables. It was not as bleak as King City, 250 miles or so to the Northon Highway 101, but it could probably remember being that bleak. The highway went right through downtown, and as you crossed that one main intersection and got amongst the fields an earthy smell of onions would assail you. Right off the highway not far from where the onion odor began, there was a movie theater. One day I noticed that the movie theater was advertising three movies: "Don't Look Out the Window!" "Don't Go in the Basement!" "Don't Go in the House!"

I can't tell you whether those were the exact titles, but they were close to that. Basically around that theme.

L.'s account of a phone call with a potential date reminded me of those movie titles.

You may wonder why I stay out of the pool. Wonder no more. I'm brave in some ways but I never know how to get out of these types of conversations, and at the time they are depressing, because you think somehow you must deserve this sort of crazy, that this is life's assessment of what you've got coming. I have a friend, T., who for a brief while was given to using the expression, "If the Universe wants it." Well, my whole trouble is that if I "got into the pool" so to speak, I'd probably start thinking that the Universe wants me to date guys like this. And then the Universe and I would quarrel. Our relations are fraught enough with tension as it is.

I suspect there's something wrong in my thinking there, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Andy Palacio 1960-2008

Found and lost. I just happened across an album of his music a couple of months ago. How could I resist music by the descendants of Caribs and escaped slaves? It is haunting and lovely, World Music in the best sense, and I've liked it better each time I listen to it. The liner notes the story of the Garifuna. They were the last of the indigenous population of the Caribbean islands, other than the Caribs in Dominica. (The Garifuna were in St. Vincent, and exile to Central America, as awful as it must have been, was lucky; the British who expelled them massacred every single Carib on the island of St. Kitts at a place called Bloody Point. All that is left of them are some rock paintings.) It is incredible that they have survived that dispersal and all the other ones.

A few years ago Nevis lost its most gifted fifer. The masquerade dancing that is practiced in St. Kitts and Nevis is accompanied by a fife and drum, yes, a fife and drum just like in the old English folk songs and in the American Revolutionary War. (When I was in school we were taught an English song that went "Oh soldier, solder, will you marry me, with your musket, fife, and drum?") The fife and drum are associated in most people's minds with the American Revolution. But in pockets of the South the fife was used by black people for other than martial purposes, for playing the blues, for instance. And in a few islands of the West Indies there are people who still play the fife in the traditional way that it has been played there since the 18th century. When you get to folk traditions like this the practitioners are so few, you can lose the whole thing with a couple of deaths.

One of the maddening things about our part of the world (sorry-- I mean my part of the world) is that we don't know or own our history, even though it is all around us, talking to us on the streets, looking down at us out of the windows of buildings, turning up in the soil, everything there tells us that the story of Caribbean culture is something unique and strange. And somehow we don't quite seem to get that. We know the stories of this person and that person, of this party or that property, and I've met people of really marvelous local knowledge of things that aren't written down anywhere except perhaps in courthouse records. But what we haven't been too good at is putting it in relation to the history of the rest of the world, and if the rest of the world had not thought our islands terribly important, Andy Palacio's people would still be in St. Vincent. We've mostly given up on trying to be English, but now we've got a whole bunch of us who think we're Africans. And we aren't Africans. The things that happened there in the islands, the things that are happening now and in the future, they are history too, they are more our history than these simplistic romances of it. Every artist who has brought that fact home to us, who shows Caribbean people where it is that they truly live, has helped us to be richer and wiser. Andy Palacio's music gave us back something that we could so easily have lost altogether.

Beware the Cummerbund!

A Jamaican childhood, when I was growing up, was still in many senses a British childhood. The books we read were more likely to be English, not American literature. My late uncle kept stacks of World War II comic books around; small, square, with black-and-white ink drawings that were crude and gave the impression of having been done in a great hurry. New ones appeared in the drugstore downstairs from his office every week and he bought them as soon as they arrived, though he gave no sign of ever having read them. I think they might have been comics he wanted as a little boy but couldn't afford, and now that he was a doctor and could buy whatever he liked, he bought the comic books. Usually on the cover there was an explosion or a plane crashing. They were unbelievably tedious but when we had read all the cartoons in the latest batch of Playboy magazines that he left in a heap among his old medical textbooks (the latter were reference material for nightmares) in the study, then we would turn to these old British war comics and slog through them.

American books and comic books came later – Nancy Drew, Tom Swift; and comic books; we started with Casper the Friendly Ghost and worked our way through The Swamp Thing and Mad Magazine. By the time Mad Magazine was becoming indispensable the Americanization of our literature was all but complete -- or would have been had my mother not moved to England when I was thirteen. (It is odd, when I think of it, that my parents never minded us reading Playboy. It was kind of like the Sunday funnies: they'd flip through it and then pass it on to us. Remember, it had Gahan Wilson cartoons!) But while we devoured these Americam productions we would have agreed with our parents that literature -- books that you read to become civilized and intelligent, even if you happened to enjoy them and even if they were a bit silly – was English.

It was such a curious hodge-podge. My geography book in elementary school had a series of profiles of children living all over the world; the little Dutch girl with her cheese-making family, etc., and I remember my mother reading it out loud to us and laughing her head off at the story of the little African boy who lived in the forests with his mother and father and his goats and his yams, and ran around nearly naked and lived in some sort of dome-shaped hut. The little boy’s name was “Bombo” which also happens to be a Jamaican street obscenity, but it wasn’t so much that that amused her. It was that in 1968 we were still being taught this silly image of African life, not all that different from what she had learned. Anyway it sort of killed my interest in geography. In high school in Jamaica my biology textbooks were from Britain (we were still being educated to take the “O” and “A” levels out of Oxford and Cambridge), but they were designed for schools in the tropics and had to do duty in the Caribbean as well as Africa. So I remember one year we learned all about flatworms and various rather exotic intestinal parasites. I know that in biology class I expressed some miffage at the thought that we Jamaicans were being taken for the sort of people who had to worry about tapeworms.

Then, years later, I found out that in Jamaica people did get tapeworms. I found this out from my other grandmother, the one who is still alive at 96 years of age. She needed to have her stomach looked at: the doctors told her she would have to take this sort of barium cocktail and then they would put her under an anaesthetic and put this probe into her stomach. She took the barium cocktail and absolutely refused the anaesthetic. She had never been under an anaesthetic in her life and she wasn’t about to start now. “Nobody is going to interfere with this memory,” she said to me, tapping her head. “I remember everything.” And then she told me that her earliest memory was of being about a year old and being treated by her mother for a tapeworm. This is how she said her mother did it: by holding a bowl of fragrant chicken soup near my grandmother’s bottom and then grabbing the tapeworm with a piece of gauze as it stuck its head out to smell the soup. That is the story she told me of her first memory. And yes, she had the tube down her stomach without anaesthetic, too.

I don't know what you read, but I read the Edith Nesbit books, Kipling's Just So Stories, Edward Lear's poems, Robert Louis Stevenson's poems and Treasure Island, which I confess I found boring. My grandmother read me The Rime of the Ancient Mariner when I was seven and it was a reliable source of nightmares for years afterwards. She also read to me from Browning's poems, "Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came" of which I couldn't make head or tail but I was terribly impressed nonetheless by its darkness, and by its title, which I never forgot. The title was the whole poem for me, for years, till I read it again in college and found out that it had a whole lot of other stuff in it that I didn’t care about. Poetry by John Masefield, Walter de la Mare, and other late Victorians—scandalous, I know, but we did. Then there were numberless lesser works that we picked up -- books about girls at boarding schools who went on outings and somehow caught smugglers and got them arrested. The Narnia books of course, though this was before they were Christian-trendy. The Wind in the Willows, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, and a lot of Dickens: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations (the opening of Great Expectations I found so disturbing that I didn't get past it until I was an adult, despite several attempts); if we were too young for actual Shakespeare, we certainly read Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.

You must remember that whatever was changing culturally in England, it took years for the change to reach Jamaica. And when it did reach, it was only the most independent-minded people who would embrace it first, that is, that small number of souls who were so free from the need to conform, usually because their point of cultural reference was elsewhere. The rest of us were scrupulously maintaining our difference from the Less Fortunate. Cultural change in the Caribbean has only started to speed up since about the 1970s. My grandmother was an escapee from a Victorian upbringing. Well, one of her parents was preoccupied as only a colonial can be with strict propriety and conformity, while the other was a free spirit. The two great features of her early life were her battles with her mother and, just as she was entering adulthood, the loss of her father. In adulthood, circumstances and her own temperament made her “a pioneer of divorce.” She left her husband because he cheated on her, and that put a certain amount of extra strain in her relations with respectable Jamaican society. What she carried through all these shocks was literature, a love of the written word. And for my grandmother the ground of literature, the center of it, was what I guess you could call the Victorian canon. Wherever you went with literature, you took that with you. And she had it in her head; she had taken possession of these writers, of her Shakespeare, and, of course, of the King James Bible. I once saw her in argument with some members of this kooky Christian sect in California, and it was a Battle of Quotations. For every citation they had justifying some one or other of their curious tenets, my grandmother was ready with the text, chapter and verse that had the opposing view, without the assistance of a copy of the Bible anywhere in the room. She had it in her head. And she was not a religious person at all. She had ditched that years before, though she was still talking back to it so to speak. As I have said before, our culture was steeped in the King James Bible. Half of Jamaica speaks in proverbs and people really do self-dramatize in the idiom of the Bible. So that the idiom of the earliest reading experiences that really stuck with me was distinctly Victorian; and the stories that my grandmother told me about her childhood and life after her divorce were strangely Victorian too. She was still battling a Victorian-colonial world in these stories. Strange lessons of life!

I'd like to think that early feeding on Victorian literature is what left me with such an affection for the little traces of Anglo-India that I find in books: Thackeray's Jos Sedley with his taste for inedible curries and his magnificent title "The Collector of Bogley Wallah," of course, is a great example; and Lear’s poem “The Cummerbund” is my favorite specimen.

She sate upon her Dobie,
To watch the Evening Star,
And all the Punkahs as they passed,
Cried, 'My! how fair you are!'
Around her bower, with quivering leaves,
The tall Kamsamahs grew,
And Kitmutgars in wild festoons
Hung down from Tchokis blue.


Below her home the river rolled
With soft meloobious sound,
Where golden-finned Chuprassies swam,
In myriads circling round.
Above, on talles trees remote
Green Ayahs perched alone,
And all night long the Mussak moan'd
Its melancholy tone.


And where the purple Nullahs threw
Their branches far and wide,--
And silvery Goreewallahs flew
In silence, side by side,--
The little Bheesties' twittering cry
Rose on the fragrant air,
And oft the angry Jampan howled
Deep in his hateful lair.


She sate upon her Dobie,--
She heard the Nimmak hum,--
When all at once a cry arose,--
'The Cummerbund is come!'
In vain she fled: -- with open jaws
The angry monster followed,
And so, (before assistance came,)
That Lady Fair was swallowed.


They sought in vain for even a bone
Respectfully to bury,--
They said, -- 'Hers was a dreadful fate!'
(And Echo answered 'Very.')
They nailed her Dobie to the wall,
Where last her form was seen,
And underneath they wrote these words,
In yellow, blue, and green:--

Beware, ye Fair! Ye Fair, beware!
Nor sit out late at night,--
Lest horrid Cummerbunds should come,
And swallow you outright.

…which I note from this link was first published in the Times of India in 1874.

That’s about 12 years before the publication of Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, by Henry Yule and Arthur C. Burnell. When I learned of this wonderful thing only a couple weeks ago I had to find out more. It is available as a book, and the University of Chicago has a nice one online that you can search here. And you can flip through it here. It is one of those dictionaries, as my mother said after taking a look, where you go to look for one word and half an hour later you’re still browsing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Other Worlds

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…” These are some that I've been meaning, for way too long, to call to your attention.

I’m still getting a Nigerian scam letter about once a week. This would be nothing to remark except I read this article about Lagos by George Packer in the New Yorker and if you didn’t catch it when it first came out you should take a look. Have you ever asked yourself these two questions, marveling at their strange poetry?

The first question is “How does anyone fall for this?” Except I knew someone who did fall for it, for about 24 hours. Not a stupid person by any means, though at the time, a person less schooled in the ways of the world would have been hard to find. And no, it wasn’t me, though the same observation might have been made. So I feel like I have something of an answer to that question.

The second question is “What sort of person sends these things out?” And there relying only on my imagination has been less than helpful. Because I just imagine a person of bestial greed and stupidity to match, and in making this judgment I was really situating this person as I supposed they would be if they were here. But you know it is one of my constant themes that the world is more complicated and interesting than we imagine it to be at any moment – even when that imagining underlies our deepest and most cherished opinions about its component parts. We almost always come up short.

The Packer article reminded me of that, and also introduced me to a world I could never have imagined on my own. Not because my imagination is so weak but because There Are More Wonders, Horatio, etc.

I’ve just been listening to some discussion of Aristotle’s Ethics, particularly the idea that the good is what is done for its own sake. Here is where the world is very strange for me. When I finished reading that Lagos article I had the insight that there were probably people writing 419 scam letters who were doing even that, as far as they possibly could, as a good to be done for its own sake.

The next item from another world is this NYRB piece on The Deep.

These two letters at Dave Neiwert’s blog Orcinus may be the funniest thing you will ever read about the people who make up the anti-immigration groups known as the Minutemen. I had trouble picking a favorite among all these characters myself. They all seem to have tumbled out of the pages of a Nathanael West novel and, finding themselves in the early 21st century, become possessed with a rabid desire for fame. Also do note the writing style. It is so perfectly suited to the subject. I don’t think this writer/disgruntled Minuteman realized that he was writing literature.

Read this out loud to yourself: it sings!

Although Marvin Stewart likes to represent himself as a Minister, Politician and an official in the Veterans Administration, he is in fact a fraud on all three counts. His Church, “Our Lords Salvation Ministries” has no members, offers no services and ministers to no one. It does, however net Mr. Stewart a few “tax free dollars” and a means to solicit support from the gullible. Marvin Stewart is not a member of the California Republican Party, nor even a member of the Los Angeles County Republican Party Executive Committee; he is a local volunteer central committee member in a powerless district. Marvin makes his living filing frivolous lawsuits and as an accounts receivable clerk (bill collector) at the VA hospital in Long Beach.

Did you ever read Edward Lear’s poem “The New Vestments”?

Just so is poor Marvin’s finery stripped away.

This last one is nearly as murky as the abyss.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Is It Like Being in Love?

I got a comment from kmcleod in response to that post on Montaigne, and then I had another bout of insomnia. No cause and effect implied: but once awake I had the choice of thinking about some stuff I really don't like to think about, or keeping this topic going a little longer by responding to this interesting comment.

I believe that one does the right thing because it’s the right thing. No reward or pleasure is guaranteed, so satisfaction shouldn’t be a motivation. Of course I’m saying this because this week I’ve repeatedly done the right thing and as a result have experienced one of my lousier weeks. Opportunities to do so can’t be predicted, any more than the effects. I can’t even come into work this morn without two cars crashing together in front of me. Anyway, since the human race has its own fate in its hands, little acts of constructive behavior contribute to our survival, as if one was adding a rivet, a brick or a seed. Maybe I don’t believe in a personal karma but in a moral ecology instead. That’s what I don’t understand about Huckabee, Romney and their followers. Doing the right thing shouldn’t just be a side effect of faith. If it’s simply an act of obedience, where’s the morality?

I don't think you're in disagreement with Montaigne. He's not suggesting that the pleasure of goodness is a reward that comes along with the unpleasant act of doing the right thing, but that it is inherent in the act. Your doing the right thing didn't prevent unpleasant things from happening but if you hadn't done the right thing you would probably have felt worse. So let's set that as the baseline minimum of pleasure you get out of doing the right thing: "At least I won't wake up in the middle of the night feeling like an asshole. This time." Because I certainly miss my fair number of shots at the right thing. Montaigne's idea is that the desire for good, the appetite for it, feels like being in love: it's inspiring, it's energizing, it's empowering, it's all sorts of prospects of pleasure that change the face of the world. Montaigne is saying that you can have a vision, an idea of good, that can have that effect on you, and working your way towards acting and living it (you'll never completely get there) is itself pleasure, because the thing itself -- virtue for its own sake -- is so beautiful. I mean, when you’re in love with someone, even a little thing like when they give you their phone number on a piece of paper, or leave their voice on a voicemail, these things are precious.

Montaigne is drawing this idea from the Epicureans basically, even though he's Catholic. The idea of "rewards" for spiritual acts seems very Christian to me, by contrast, and, of course, it's ingrained in our culture, as is the idea that we ought to do right for more magnanimous reasons than the hope of a reward (here or in the afterlife). OK, and look at that comparison: between "it's the right thing" and "for a reward." You have a definite preference for "it's the right thing" and so do I. I think that preference is related to a sense of rightness: that magnanimity is uh, well, more beautiful. You know that your unpleasant experiences won't put you off doing the right thing next time, and then, not only that, you offer up this neat image of what it means to you:

ittle acts of constructive behavior contribute to our survival, as if one was adding a rivet, a brick or a seed.

Yeah. Well, Montaigne would only add to this the power of the heroic example. You know, the reason why all those smart, talented young officers stuck with George Washington as he lost battle after battle after battle. They adored him. Or why people were galvanized into action behind Martin Luther King, Jr. Love was a big part of it.

But I’ll tell you: we need another Nathaniel Hawthorne to describe to the world how the devil walks around dressed as a fundy preacher in our time, preaching degraded Calvinism that translates into “unpleasant experience is virtue for the Less Fortunate,” and offering an almost bottomless narcissism, narcissism bordering on crazy, for the Chosen. Hume wrote about it in his History of England; it really didn’t take long before the Puritans who took over the government showed a remarkable disposition for greed, corruption, vindictiveness, abuse of power, and other depravities big and small. The same attitudes, of exceptionalism based on what you believe and not on how you treat others, the sense of unrestrained entitlement that goes with it, they brought here with them and it is like Dracula, it just will not die. It’s just beaming out of Huckabee’s face, isn’t it? And he’s got all the loot to show for it, not to mention that houseful of hearty eaters. And Romney sincerely telling a different lie every week, trying to hit on the secret magical formula of words that will release all those fundy votes: it’s like watching a man trying to sell the devil his soul and the devil isn’t interested, and finally the devil looks up from cutting his toenails and says, “I’ll take it, for nothing,” and Mitt replies promptly with a handshake and a big grin, “You got a deal, Mister!” It’s a freak show, it’s a farce, and no, there is no morality there.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Voluptuousness of Virtue

Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear; and if it signify some supreme pleasure and excessive contentment, it is more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever. This pleasure, for being more gay, more sinewy, more robust, and more manly, is only the more seriously voluptuous, and we ought to give it the name of pleasure, as that which is more favorable, gentle, and natural, and not that of vigor, from which we have denominated it. The other, and meaner pleasure, if it could deserve this fair name, it ought to be by way of competition, and not of privilege. I find it less exempt from traverses and inconveniences than virtue itself; and, besides that the enjoyment is more momentary, fluid, and frail, it has its watchings, fasts, and labors, its sweat and its blood; and, moreover, has particular to itself so many several sorts of sharp and wounding passions, and so dull a satiety attending it, as equal it to the severest penance. And we mistake if we think that these incommodities serve it for a spur and a seasoning to its sweetness (as in nature one contrary is quickened by another), or say, when we come to virtue, that like consequences and difficulties overwhelm and render it austere and inaccessible; whereas, much more aptly than in voluptuousness, they ennoble, sharpen, and heighten the perfect and divine pleasure they procure us. He renders himself unworthy of it who will counterpoise its cost with its fruit, and neither understands the blessing nor how to use it. Those who preach to us that the quest of it is craggy, difficult, and painful, but its fruition pleasant, what do they mean by that but to tell us that is always unpleasing? For what human means will ever attain its enjoyment? The most perfect have been fain to content themselves to aspire unto it, and to approach it only, without ever possessing it. But they are deceived, seeing that of all the pleasures we know, the very pursuit is pleasant. The attempt ever relishes of the quality of the thing to which it is directed, for it is a good part of, and consubstantial with, the effect. The felicity and beatitude that glitters in Virtue, shines throughout all her appurtenances and avenues, even to the first entry and utmost limits.

I grant that sometimes Montaigne gives the impression that he doesn't like sex -- that it's a necessary exercise to be performed as rarely as is consistent with health, kind of like having a bath. (I think he must have been very nearly incapable of that kind of self-romanticizing that helps us believe that we might be attractive to others.) But that really isn't the point of this. The point is that the mere seeking of the good is pleasure. In my experience it's true: I feel pleasure if I feel I got a little smarter today, I feel pleasure if I do something kind; bravery can fill me with a kind of euphoria (I'm sure there's a chemical explanation for that); speaking the truth has its costs, but whenever I feel I'm in a place where I've chickened out on doing that I feel depressed and alienated from myself, and whenever I do speak up I feel better; finally, the more sure a person feels that it is possible to be better, the more sure their hold on wisdom and contentment is likely to be.

I mean really good, of course: not good as in obedient.

Sometimes you can only judge the good on a curve: "At least this year I didn't make those mistakes." And there is pleasure in finding that I won't make certain mistakes again, though it gives little comfort when I reflect on the persistence of the habit of making others.

But still, what I want for this year is to feel in pursuit of the good, and not falling over my own feet trying to either get away from the awful or take small doses of philosophy to make the awful bearable. Doin't we all, though...

The title of the essay of Montaigne's that I've quoted here, by the way, is "That to Philosophize is to Learn How to Die." It's one of the earlier essays, from the period where he is just beginning to get his stride. By the time you get to the last essays, you can see he figured out that to philosophize is to learn how to live.