EPHEMERIS

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August 28: A friend met up with me at the Oxford Café, and he decided to have his breakfast at three in the afternoon. He then set-to with views about Kafka and Joyce; that they were unhealthy men who wrote unhealthy fictions. He had read as much in the criticism of one Lukacs, and I can only assume he meant Georg Lukacs, the Marxist aesthetician, Hungarian too, snippets of whom I have read in years past. The man had something to say, among other things, about the Homeric epic, which was of interest to me, and why such epics are impossible to write now – something about the living of a ‘total life’. Living a ‘total life’, I took it then, and I take it now, was conducive to the making of the ‘totally’ Homeric, DC comics, in this instance, not cutting it, insufficiently up to the mark.

In any case, this friend of mine is soon off to a university and a southwest Ontario state of mind, there to live a monk-like, leave-me-alone life in pursuit of various studies and perhaps a thesis on the relation of history to literature and vice versa, now that he has wearied, so he says, of the malaises that afflict his peer group and all their wondrous manifestations on social media. The thing is, another friend of mine, Lunar, recently wrote me to the effect that a handful of people he knows, people whose aesthetic judgments he trusts, independently of one another, have told him that Proust was a ‘creep’. True or false? And is America on the cusp of a civil war that is not an actual civil war?

Well, I happen to be rereading Proust at this time. I have yet to find any ‘gadzooks, the-man’s-a-creep’ evidentiality in the writing thus far. But a man who confined himself to a bed in a cork-lined room for ten years so that he might pursue his opus in complete silence, with a minimum of human interaction, said circumstance might not pass him off as a creep but he certainly is a candidate for the epithet of ‘maniac’. Otherwise, I know little about the man’s life. I have made the executive decision not to want to know, as I would like to reread the various volumes of his À la recherche du temps perdu without have it strained through the wire mesh of critical theory, and that I do not need to know his sexual predilections to appreciate the writing (or not to appreciate the writing, for that matter), and that it seems he had been a poor conversationalist at the dinner table. Civil war? Sure, there is every reason to think that there will be a civil war in a certain nation state to the south of here, and it will not be actual.

This friend whom I mentioned at the start of this post – I have known him now for a few years, a young man who has wanted to write, who reads a great deal, who is certainly bright… I see him as being caught in-between worlds. (Depending on one’s outlook, I suppose it could be said of anyone that they are caught between worlds, but I will stand for the fact that, in my friend’s case, it is a serious likelihood.) The world that is about to take my friend over and sweep him away into its own set of causes and effects will most likely say of Kafka and Joyce: “Say what?” This world will court its spiritual suicide even as it will happily call all worlds previous to it, will say that the constituents of those worlds were chumps for having given way to what was so obviously fatal to them. I have nothing for or against Kafka and Joyce. I visited Kafka’s grave in Prague. Could be that that counts for something. I have always had a bone to pick with Joyce, but I do not adjudge him as any less a writer for that. I can see him and Lukacs having a rip-snorting time over foamy beers and the Homeric….

The other day then, as I read the final pages of the first part of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s ‘epic’, it seemed to me I was reading something special, a codebreaker, as it were, to what modern literature was and had yet to become. Among those pages was a riff on how a boy saw himself and his future prospects. To say that the sentences in question are about a ‘writer-in-the-making’ is to grossly cheapen what is being said, or that, with a little pluck, hey, can a Pulitzer be that far-off? … …. I would have waited calmly for the inevitable hour of my return to the correct reality, the hour of my rescue or recovery; perhaps, my lack of talent, the black hole that opened in my mind when I looked for the subject of my future writings, was also merely an illusion without substance, and this illusion would cease through the intervention of my father, who must have agreed with the government and Providence that I would be the foremost writer of the day…. … (From the Lydia Davis translation, by the way…) No, I cannot say I have known any writer contemporaneous with me, and I have known a few, who was self-aware enough at such a young pre-writerly age as to see the act of writing, and literature in general, as a crapshoot.

He, Proust, had been on about water lilies for what seemed like pages, on about the ‘Guermantes way’ which was, as a route to choose for a stroll, a sensibility and nexus of sensations all unto itself; and then we are at the outset of PART II, called Swann in Love, and we have been dumped upon the mercies of a salon, and our flesh might, at any moment, begin to crawl, given the petty aggressions and hypocrisies and sillinesses for which we are now in store; and perhaps Swann is noble or he is a cad, we do not know that yet, though we may have suspicions; he may be tragic, he may be unremarkable but for the fact that Proust is going to revisit everything and relive it all come hell or highwater (as per my previous post on this subject). So that it is almost as if it does not matter whether Proust would have us contend with Achilles or with the night watchman – the totality of a life is an awesome thing in any human being, no matter how hugely or smally the life is lived.

My friend’s omelet arrived on a humongous plate. It sat there like a dead fish, couched between piles of fruit bits, but it seemed he had thought it was on him to keep the conversation going. I said, “For Christ’s sake, man, eat your egg. It surely must be getting cold.” It was almost as if I had chastised him. He bent his gaze to his food and began to pick at it. He was observing thoughts in his mind like one might read the chryons of a news broadcast. I did not think it then, but I think it now: this fellow has got a lot going on in his head by way of ideas and insights as to what’s what; it is just that he has yet to find words for them. It may well be that he is reluctant to hit upon those words: the ideas and the insights are very likely not happy ones, as, from a thousand sources, we are told we are headed for our doom in a bewildering variety of ways. “It’s certainly possible,” said the monkey in the mango tree as he scratched his arse.

And just the other day, as well, Kafka and Joyce were gods, if gods only on literary horizons. Now they are suspects, outright perps. There are people who never tire of telling us what Byron was into: hey, his half-sister then. It might have been better for Picasso’s rep to suggest that he was a chronic willie wacker than to point out, ahem, that he was a womanizer. Speaking of women, say a woman develops a drinking problem. It has been developing for some time. So-called friends and family members lobby her to get help, that the drinking will destroy her and the love between them. Love? Did someone say love? All the woman in question sees is the hypocrisies and filthy little vices of the ones whom she apparently loves, as selected for her by nature. Still, she gets help. Because there is someone she is able to like. Hard to make love with that someone you like if you are always passed out. Listen, it was a movie I saw….

On popular writing, Cornelius W Drake has this to say: Thinking aloud got me in more trouble with women than any other of my foibles. So I would become guarded in my remarks, which then earned me the criticism that I was uncommunicative. I disagree that popular writing equals doggerel. The greatest American historians, chief among them, Richard Hofstadter, wrote for the general public. And his writing was brilliant. Any jargon-loaded professional journal article can be rephrased in simple English, and really that's all "popular" writing means.

I do hope the man survives his pilgrimage to southwest Missouri and its ‘neo-fascist’ airwaves.


Postscript I: Considering the recent televised Republican debate (as was Trumpless and feckless), Talking Avocado sent me this:

…Most Men are Cowards, all men shou’d be Knaves:/The diff’rence lyes (as far as I can see)/Not in the thing it self, but the degree;/And all the subject matter of debate,/Is only who’s a Knave, of the first Rate?

From Johnny Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (d. 1680), subject of the best movie ever made about a poet, which it was The Libertine with Johnny Depp.

August 17: I got it into my head to say something about madness. I have been waiting for the urge to pass. So far it has not passed me by. So then, to get it out of my system…

And I was going to engage Lunar in my effort, in this discussion about madness, but he was off in Wales disporting himself amongst blackberries. Why ruin a perfectly wonderful time? Also, it may well be asked: what do I know about madness in any clinical sense? It may well be answered: nothing. I was once in relations with a woman who had serious knowledge of these things, but none of it rubbed off on me save for some names. Freud, Jung, Ellis, Skinner, Reich, Laing, and others whose monikers have, at the moment, slipped my mind. I only once consulted a ‘shrink’ at the behest of someone who thought it might do me some good. I walked away. Nice fellow. But I knew in an instant that when he had laid eyes on me, and despite his insipid, friendly smile, he was laying eyes on a complex with a scientific tag affixed to it. So much for family dynamics.

But why the urge to of a sudden go on about madness? Here it is then: I follow closely the news of what portends in a certain nation state to the south of here. And by the by, the other day, I happened to watch a police procedural (German, with drollery) and it hit me – that is, it seemed to me that, by way of a plot, I was served a tidy little metaphor for what obtains in a certain nation state to the south of here.

In short, the action involved a mental ward. And on this ward, there were nutters, one of whom had set up something like a sex ring, of which not a few of the nurses availed themselves, pleased to do so. Then a crime occurred. The police were called. They investigated, as that is what police sometimes do. So then, the coppers questioned the inmates. They questioned the doctors, the nurses. The janitors. Whoever stocked the vending machine. And they were beginning to have some trouble differentiating between the nutters and the so-called sane ones, i.e., the ward staff. It became apparent: one or two of the doctors had loose screws. Insanely loose screws. The police, in effect, began to doubt their own sanity (still without a suspect, still without a motive), as if overlong exposure to the atmosphere on the ward affected well-being of mind. “Ah,” said I to myself, “following the shenanigans to the south of here, and I feel like those police in the TV show. Matters of whodunit. Matters of motive. And one or a thousand reasons why.” I shopped this metaphor around.

I shopped this metaphor around. No one I shopped it to took it seriously, and they claimed to be friends of mine. Perhaps they were in the right of it. Perhaps, as metaphors go, it was either too leaky (did not hold water) or too tight (could not breathe). Said Lunar, back from his romping around in Welsh blackberry patches: “J (Joaquin) Phoenix as the Big Nap? (As in the new Ridley Scott flick Napoleon…) The song from the movie is some ghastly pop. I'm sure it will be a spectacle but ...” In other words, he is such an old hand with madness and metaphors, Lunar is, he thinks my notion of madness unremarkable, and sallies back at me with a movie review.

Cornelius W Drake had it thus: “As a crazy American (of Champaign-Urbana) I couldn't comment on American craziness because crazy people can't know they're crazy. Hence if those cops are doubting their sanity, then they're sane. I would say I prefer being nuts. One can invent one's own world when one is mentally out (to) lunch. But of course I can't admit my preference, because then I wouldn't be out to lunch. The Catch-22s in mental wards are far more complex than Yosarian's. Otherwise, I’m an agnostic. Definitely not a closet Platonist.” &c.

And from P M Carpenter’s The Carpentariat: ‘Perhaps even more baffling is that Trumpeteers still believe they believe in law and order.’

Or, continuing from the same Carpentariat source: ‘We're all familiar with the psychiatric concepts of cognitive dissonance and dissociative disorders — "mental disorders that involve experiencing a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and identity ... [as ways to] escape reality. (Mayo Clinic.)’

Or: ‘For Trump followers, of emphatic, supreme significance is the disconnection between thought and action: their thought that they — law-and-order advocates all — are supporting a man whose actions are blatantly, provably criminal.

And: ‘The burden of carrying such a self-denying mental load would create just as significant depression. But as shrinks know, it's inner anger that leads to depression; hence yet another disconnect is that Trumpeteers' believe their anger is of librul origin — even though they know, way down in the grey recesses, that the real cause is the anti-law-and-order anthropoid standing right before them, whom they support.’

To be sure: ‘Oh my what a tangled mess.’

And then, last but not least: ‘Anyway, the answer to this mass psychosis is "treatment [that] may include talk therapy (psychotherapy) and medication" — again, from Mayo. I however am a student of the tough love school of psychiatry. Thus my recommendation is cold showers, electric shock, and several really hard slaps in the face.’

Pleasant guy, that Carpenter.

I had had it in mind to get all Googly with the subject of madness, and have all sorts of information then at the ready, only it seemed a dispiriting exercise. Information is one thing, understanding another, and the illusion of understanding a thing or two is yet quite another, perhaps a madness in and of itself. I had my mobile in my hand. I intended to look something up. A ‘window’ appeared on the screen. It asked me to talk to it. “Talk to me, putz.” A voice in my head answers (and it is out of breath, as if it has come a long ways to intercede for its notion of ‘sanity’ which is one of those words that can as easily comfort as disturb; that can be as rigid as it may be flexible; in any case, says the voice: “No way. Not a chance.”  No way was I (it) going to talk to a damn machine, madness being, among other things, an echo chamber that does not quit.

You may be relieved to know I intend to give it up. No more natter about madness. Perhaps it was that half hour’s worth of Man of La Mancha that I took in while I ate my dinner (1972 film based on a musical) that done it for me, and the quixotic was made Broadway (some lyrics by Auden were jettisoned at the beginning for being too, what, anti-bourgeoise?). And I was not going to stand for dream the impossible dream. Still, in the play within a play, there was a defense of madness of a kind, the honourably imaginative kind, I suppose, whereby poetry is the law of the land, tilting at windmills obligatory. And then there is Proust.

And I was reading some in Swann’s Way. It hit with a good measure of force that, a writer like, say, R K Narayan (who I also happen to be reading), will let a reader eavesdrop on a world he is attempting to create, whereas Proust… Well, I do not believe Proust gave a damn about the reader beyond a few polite civilities. What interested Proust most was to relive experiences. Page after page about a perambulation along the Vivonne and some damn water lily and a few violets…. But ‘description’ is not the point. The point is the river, the lily, the violet – of being in their company again. He might have talked about a rusted out Buick up on blocks, had he ever seen such a contraption. Of being alive again, if as a child. Hell, there could even have been thrashing about in some blackberry patch, had he had a mind to… In such passages, his words do not invite; they do not exclude. They are just there. And if you happen to be in the area… Or I can get myself off the hook here by saying, with respect to Proust’s motive for writing, “These are just some thoughts I had.” Thoughts in passing, as it happens.


The ’I Can’t Resist Department’: Among my constant companions was a poet who was writing the life of God Krishna in monosyllabic verse. His ambition was to compose a grand epic, and he came almost every day to recite to me his latest lines. My admiration for him was unbounded. I was thrilled to hear such clear lines as ‘Girls with girls did dance in trance’, and I felt equally excited when I had to infer the meaning of certain lines; that happened when he totally failed to find a monosyllable and achieved his end by ruthlessly carving up a polysyllable. On such occasions, even the most familiar term took on the mysterious quality of a private code. From R K Narayan’s The Man-Eater of Malgudi, 1961. Was this man’s tongue in his cheek or what?

Postscript I: Talking Avocado: “Look, Sibum, you want to go on about madness? Well, I’m done with Two and a Half Men. Madness? I went back to Season 1 so as to reassure myself that I wasn’t a few bricks short when I thought it promising, that it was humour that had more going for it than just smut effects, but that, sadly, it lost that quality when it killed off its unregenerate male lead and paradoxically lost its moral centre, and then that twit of a billionaire took over (season 9?), and … have you heard enough? Have you really? I wouldn’t blame you if you just got shot of me and didn’t bother anymore. Which gets me to: I’ve a medical issue. Here’s a direct quote – from yours truly: ‘Contrary to the Confucian dictum that pain makes man think and thinking makes him wise, I find pain basically cancels thought, certainly useful thought. Not that I’m in utter debilitating agony, more ongoing aggravating irritation.’ Otherwise Boswell and his London Journal. ‘Irritating’. ‘Fascinating’. ‘Utterly self regarding, all too frequently employing the term “genius” about himself, then just as often self deprecating, and glum.’ ‘His Scottishisms’. ‘Relentless socializing, breakfasting here, brunching there, lunching somewhere else, popping in for tea with so-and-so, then off to a beef house with Lord Mucky-muck, after which a rendezvous with a certain Lady, then dropping by for a (chat) with Captain or Colonel this or that before finally finding his way back to his rooms where he sits up late and records it all. That he’s often skint and has to scrabble about for cash adds drama. Inasmuch as I am by nature a bit of a hermit who finds social interaction exhausting, Boswell’s ceaseless meeting and greeting makes me shake my head in wonder and admiration.’ Well, enough already with the quoting myself. There’s an entity what wants to me to hang about Vancouver more, be social, literary. Shall I comply?”

Postscript II: Or this, from Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1728 – first publication), and the lines do not flatter the age:

With that, a WIZARD OLD his Cup extends;/Which who so tastes, forgets his former friends,/Sire, Ancestors, Himself. One casts his eyes/Up to a star, and like Endymion dies:/A Feather shooting from another’s head,/Extracts his brain, and Principle is fled,/Lost is his God, his Country, ev’ry thing;/And nothing left but Homage to a King!/The vulgar herd turn off to roll with Hogs,/To run with Horses, or to hunt with Dogs;/But, sad example! Never to escape/Their infamy, still keep the human shape.

Perhaps you had to have been there, but the lines reflect a little of what is remarked upon in the paragraphs above.

August 9: Lunar insists that I finish viewing Baghdad Café. I will be brought to a joyous ending thereby, perhaps the most joyous ending in cinema history. (See previous post for more on this matter.) Trouble is, I am not sure I do ‘joyous’ well; I would feel too much like a poltroon in a pharmaceutical ad. Then again, I have nothing against delight, or otherwise feeling pleased. Happy endings, so long as they do not come with Doris Day, are accepted here.

Otherwise, it has been on my mind to say (and I am sure I repeat myself here) that boredom, an urge to behave badly (so much so it aches), a penchant to embrace fantasy worlds and vindicate half-baked theories, vindicate, mind you; that self-loathing, self-infatuation, and settling for false notes – gross sentimentality of the plastic kind, in addition to hyper-active, willful ignorance, all of it forms a decoction that has been intent on driving the American psyche into the ground, if spontaneous combustion does not occur first. Moreover, who would have figured Marcel Proust for a political analyst as one might encounter on CNN, but here he is in Swann’s Way (which, published in 1912, is a book-length segment of a 7 volume work of fiction entitled in some quarters as In Search of Time Lost though I prefer the original English title – Remembrance of Things Past as translated from À la recherche du temps perdu) ….

… …. Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs, they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them, and an avalanche of afflictions or ailments succeeding one another without interruption in a family will not make it doubt the goodness of its God or the talent of its doctor.

For God read Trump; for doctor read, oh, shall we say Rudy Giuliani in sackcloth and ashes, hair dye streaking, among many other possible applicants for John the Baptist's job?

And while we are singing the praises of Proust, and we here are not going to maliciously suggest (by way of any sort of insinuation) that he does not deserve them, it strikes me that in the man’s fiction world (I cannot speak to his life as it was lived in real time) all moments of life are flush with the intensity of life; that there is no such thing as a casual conversation. Here perhaps LeGrandin might serve as an example of life’s intensity passing through him as an electrical charge, a chance meeting then ‘on the banks of the Vivonne’ (again from Swann’s Way):

… …. In a last desperate effort, Legrandin’s smiling gaze reached its highest degree of tenderness, vagueness, sincerity, and distraction, but, no doubt thinking there was nothing else he could do but answer, he said to us:
“I have friends wherever there are companies of trees, wounded but not vanquished, which huddle together with touching obstinacy to implore an inclement and pitiless sky.”


Not something one is going to hear at the rear of the 105 bus making its way west on Sherbrooke, the Wilson stop just ahead, the price of fresh blackberries at the super mart there out of this world – i.e., much too pricey and yet, even in the casualness to be had on the bus or in some aisle of the store, there is ‘fall back, regroup, attack’ in all private gazes, and so on and so forth, in the man stocking shelves, in the cashier, her hand badly arthritic, sliding grocery items across the barcode scanner ….

Proust. I thought I had come to terms with him before I was of legal age, but perhaps I have not. In any case, he is the only author who immediately comes to mind when I seek a Homer (the epic poet) and a head of a political action committee in the same body, Proust’s grasp of detail on a scale worthy of an epic and a database. (Alright, my tongue is cheeked.) Seemed to know just how far he could push without drowning the reader in an endless trotting out of detail, semi-clauses unfurling like – like acres of ferns. Alright then, unfurling: Mlle Vinteuil… Lesbian? Sadist? Spoiled brat? Underrated charmer? Just plain off-putting? Possessed? Do-not-let-her-sneak-up-behind-you-sort-of-female-fantasist? Not that I have any appetite to tackle those questions…


Postscript I: But a writer on the west coast tells me that, based on appearances, I am classic SWOG material. Straight, white, old guy. That my time has come. Finito, man. He was either speaking affectionately or with an old-school schoolmaster tone, ruler in his hand whereby I might come in for correction. I was then tut-tutted by Cornelius W Drake of Champaign-Urbana which it is in Illinois and, summertime, and it always seems to be in the path of some tornado or other, but: … …. ‘There's every good reason for affirmative action in jobs and education; it helps to advance the socioeconomic standing of the historically oppressed and disadvantaged. But to impose such on the arts devalues both. Brilliance or talent in literature, painting, music cannot be measured by ethnicity.’ &c. To which I replied: “Is talent even measurable? Just that you know it when you see it, hear it, taste it. &c. Otherwise, I do not believe ‘sensitivity readers’ help much when it comes to supporting talent.”

Postscript II: Talking Avocado: “As you know, Sibum, I was thinking Satyricon with respect to Two and a Half Men. But no. Then The Golden Ass. Upon consideration, another no. Gargantua and Pantagruel? Charlie Harper dead, the new lead a twit, if a billionaire airhead, and the much put upon Alan Harper (Charlie’s hapless brother), less funny now, strangely enough acquires some depth, though it’s a problematic depth, unattractive, as if the character were meant to be a wrecking ball slamming into any vestigial remains of– what can we properly call it – masculine pride?, a necessary exercise to be sure, if what we have on our hands, with no end in sight, is me Tarzan you Jane troglodytes packing semi-automatic weapons, but what if the wreckage piling up on the ground makes the ground so toxic nothing can grow there again? Just asking. And then a run of episodes in which nothing but the moronic transpires… What say you? Are you casting too much of a cold eye on it all, passing on?”

Postscript III: And with respect to Baghdad Café (1987), Lunar has it right: a flick with rough edges all over it, gets itself sublime, and outback desolation is now a true well-spring of spirit, and something of the kind of love we thought we always had been talking about, finds traction, and it flourishes. Joyous, indeed. But why did the Comptroller of the Universe leave the room before the credits started to roll? Which perhaps brings us to, see below:

Postscript IV: So spake the archangel Michael; then paused/As at the earth’s great period; and our sire/Replete with joy and wonder, thus replied:/’O goodness infinite, goodness immense!/That all this good of evil shall produce/And evil turn to good; more wonderful/Than that which by creation first brought forth/Light out of darkness! … …. From Paradise Lost by John Milton, 1674.

August 5: Yesterday at the stationer’s, I was asked by the two Armenians who run the place what I thought in regard to Trump’s arraignment. I answered that it was a big deal; that while coups and attempted coups and the fallout, legal or otherwise, from each might be ho-hum in the rest of the world, in America this was a first, and that the country was in, as it is often said, uncharted waters. They did not seem convinced, my two friends, who do regard me as somewhat of a naïf, as every time I bring them a manuscript to print up, they say, “Behold, another triumph.” They do know how to make a fellow wince.

Still, they follow politics, those two cherubs up to their necks in photocopy ink. They follow politics like some pursue macrame. When I suggested that Canada has its problems, they threw up their arms as if to say, “Problems? As opposed to what?” I do not know if such a response is Canada’s saving grace or its Achilles heel. Otherwise, situated in a little talk Graham Greene gave to the Anglo-American Society somewhere on this earth, 1984, a series of remarks entitled In Memory of Borges, there is a little quote from Borges himself: ‘I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as “The Masses”. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.’ Hoo boy. So much for the would-be poohbah name of Trump and climate change.

There is in R K Narayan’s novel The Guide a paragraph or two devoted to a mother-son relationship in which the mother reads a story to the son and the son feels cozy in a big, wide and menacing world. There are in Proust’s Swann’s Way pages of this stuff, pages and pages testifying to a certain like coziness. I am not suggesting that Narayan is the better genius for being able to distil pages and pages of ‘mother-son’ into a paragraph or two. I am not suggesting that Proust is the superior writer for being able to find the time and scope to render a paragraph or two into pages and pages of a warm little nest…. But that apart from the matter of length, that the two ‘treatments’ of mother-son are interchangeable – well, it gave me a start. In any case, such coziness does not guarantee virtue. Narayan’s boy goes on to become something of a scoundrel. Proust’s boy is headed for disenchantment with the world. I can only tip my hat to both authors. I was never swept up by the Borges mania, but now that the dust has long since settled, who knows? Sometimes it is a question of timing: when one comes to a book may well determine how one gets on with said book.

For years I read only histories, biographies, philosophical treatises, all manner of non-fiction material scientific or religious or political in tenor, the best ‘travel writing’, in the hopes of – what? I might learn something. The past couple of years, and it has been all novels (along with the poetry I have always read). Have I learned enough? Somebody somewhere – I forget who – said that, of learning, there is never enough, so that, yes, no doubt I remain ignorant. But perhaps I am curious as to what other writers have made of their investigations into histories, lives, creeds and evolutionary theory, hence the novels. Perhaps I have simply gotten lazy. Perhaps I have entirely succumbed to the pleasure principle with respect to what pleasure any novel might afford. It is rare when ‘knowledge’, scholarship &c and a flair for writing good prose combine in a single person, so that, when it comes to the nonfiction books mentioned above, there were what I would call a great many dry runs, laborious reading. Truth to tell, I do not even know why I mention any of this….

Just that, recently, I watched Baghdad Café halfway through. It is a movie from the 80s. For the past few days, I have flipped a coin as to whether I will watch what remains of the viewing. So far, no dice (not to confuse currency with an item of chance). Although, just now, all of America seems to be crammed into that wreck of a motel, sheer desolation. Mental depression is the only sign of life and sentience within miles, though the young black man having at Bach, while not improbable, suggests that ebullient pessimism can get traction anywhere. ….

I have never liked Wordsworth, and I still cannot say why, exactly, though God knows I have had sufficient time with which to suss it out - my dislike.

What has been lost in our effort to make of life something 'super' convenient to those living it? Over the years I have had plenty of occasions when I ‘volunteered’ – boorish of me – my dismay with ‘pop culture’. That it was no longer a culture of the ‘people’ but inanity attached to strings which were pulled by money grubbers. Dumbing down the people: good for business. To be clear: I am not a snob. As much as I like, say, Beethoven, Verdi or Coltrane, the canon et al, I like Charlie Patton, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson (blues); I like Creedence Clearwater or the Stones and such. Why not Buddy Holly? Woodie Guthrie? The Gypsy Kings? But trash culture? Bring on social media and ever more aggressive hyping, and things have only gotten trashier. Coincidence? That Westerners are too hip for 'culture', whatever that is now?

But what then, has been lost? “Sensibility,” says the old geezer sporting a baseball cap, seated in the plastic chair at the ‘dep’ at the corner, defiantly smoking a cigarette. (When you have it, you do not have to parade it about.) You would have to write a book to nail that single word 'sensibility', and no doubt such books have been written, and no doubt, I have read one or two of them, but to no avail. That is to say, trash is supreme. There are some pages in Swann’s Way in which Proust goes on about a certain church steeple, how it seems to talk to the village day and night (and not that it is imbued with God so much as it is imbued with art). It was the steeple of Saint-Hilaire that gave all the occupations, all the hours, all the viewpoints of the town their shape, their crown, their consecration. Sensibility being that which bothered to notice… Sometimes the old geezer at the dep, cigarette on the go, a feral cat snoozing at his feet, gets a funny look in his eyes….


In Any Case, Received: The Wordsworth Book of 18th Century Verse, The Wordsworth Poetry Library, the late 90s of the 20th century.

Postscript I: Talking Avocado has tried to compare Two and a Half Men, the sit-com, to sections of the Satyricon, and he admits he has not gotten very far. But that somehow, the potty jokes, the fart jokes, the sex jokes, the jokes for and by those ‘dumbed-down’ (and the women are in on it all as much as the men) represent middle-class life in its rawest moments, and all that is missing is a poet like Eumolpis to blame money for all the shoddy art, and to make sense of the banter…. Some of the punch was lost when the writers killed off Charlie Harper who would never sell-out to the pieties, who, as a writer of ad jingles, might bear a very loose comparison to Baudelaire.... But then Talking Avocado cites Swift, quoting thusly:

Now, ponder well, ye parents dear;/Forbid your daughters guzzling beer;/And make them every afternoon/Forebear their tea, or drink it soon;/That, e’er to bed they venture up,/They may discharge it every sup;/If not, they must in evil plight/Be often forced to rise at night;/Keep them to wholesome food confined,/Nor let them taste what causes wind;/(‘Tis this the sage of Samos means,/Forbidding his disciples beans)/O, think what evils must ensue;/Miss Moll the jade will burn it blue:/And when she once has got the art,/She cannot help it for her heart;/But, out if flies, even when she meets/Her bridegroom in the wedding sheets …. …. And so forth and so on …

And the man (Talking Avocado) reverts to Proust whom he has been re-reading also – Swann’s Way – saying that the prose is like one of those flowers that are slow to open, but that when they do … And that the work of the ‘imagination’ is to provide in an instant what it otherwise takes a lifetime of suffering to acquire: some understanding of this thing called life. Whether he is quoting, extrapolating or otherwise stealing from Proust, he does not say. As for me, when Proust goes on about Giotto and his frescoes in Padua, he gets at what my experience of the same was when I was there: a lot of ‘symbolism’, to be sure, but symbolism coming out of real lives. The street, no less. In other words, the art was not just the literary equivalent of a literary exercise…. But enough. I am getting shrill.

Postscript II: Well, the mariner hath his will….

Postscript III: The Armenians get back to me, saying that the Americans will never throw a president former or otherwise in jail; it is just something that they do not do, whereas, in other countries, it happens often enough. I suppose we have a wager going....

 

August 1: Graham Greene on Shakespeare by way of anti-Nazi resistance: Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to be hanged like our English poet Southwell. He is a greater hero for the writer than Shakespeare. Perhaps the deepest tragedy Shakespeare lived was his own: the blind eye exchanged for the coat of arms, the prudent tongue for the friendships at court, and the great house at Stratford. Address given upon the award of the Shakespeare Prize by the University of Hamburg, 1969 – to Greene himself, presumably.

Elsewhere Greene said something to this effect: ‘Isn’t it the storyteller’s task to act as a devil’s advocate?’… Or this: …

‘The writer is driven by his own vocation to be a Protestant in a Catholic country, a Catholic in a Protestant one, to see the virtues of the Capitalist in a Communist state, of the communist in a Capitalist state.’ And then, quoting Thomas Paine: ‘We must guard even our enemies against injustice.’ How do all those cookies crumble in light of cancel culture and the culture wars of which I am heartily sick, just that I suppose it must all play out on some level, short of a civil war? Yes, if I am to be naïve as opposed to cynical at this late date, I would much prefer my naivete to come off as per Mr Greene, or, as a kind of corollary by way of my own words, to wit: to be poetic among the plot-driven prosers; to be plain spoken amidst the arty-farty and the ‘languidge types’; to be ineffable whenever someone rattles off platitudes, especially those that reek of insufferable worldly-wisdom.

Now Lunar says he remembers a better England. And he suspects he remembers a better Canada, too. Ditto, perhaps, for Poland where once the church was a ‘genuine force for good in the face of the Communist regime’, but that now the church has let itself be sucked up by right-wing bogs. ‘Not long ago, a woman lost her job as a teacher when a dinner guest reported her for her attitudes on trans issues. I've never been in a situation (in England) when any subject I've raised has shocked people whereas in Canada I only have to open my mouth.’ Apparently, Greene had trysts with women behind church altars. To which Lunar responded: ‘My kind of Catholicism’. … You may imagine that Lunar and I were having a back and forth with respect to Graham Greene, that his use of the word Indo-China had awakened dormant brain cells in my noggin, and though I have never been anywhere near that part of the world, what I saw in my mind immediately upon mention of the word was as follows: images of rice paddies, Mustang cars, chunks of incense, glass bead curtains, Null Set coffeehouse evenings in which Jaleski’s thumb hammered on the 12-string guitar – Leadbelly's ‘Bourgeoise Blues’, JFK and Charles de Gaulle, a girl on some road being consumed by napalm, and on and on… I cannot remember the last time ‘Indo-China’ came up as a compound word in conversation, if ever it did in high school debate or on the street….

‘Ah yes, a English fellow living in Deutschland has come to visit. Complains bitterly about England and sometimes, just sometimes, I feel defensive. Whatever idiocies the government can be accused of and they are legion, people here (have) not changed that much, which is to say one (may) have decent, truthful, conversations with them without being reported although, damn it all, it happens. Things happen.’

Or: ‘I spoke to a homeless man yesterday. We got chatting and he told me he had been in advertising for various publishers including Cambridge University Press and that he had been made redundant, lost his home, his marriage ... at which time he broke down. He was well-spoken and I believed every word of what he told me. There but for the grace of God go I. Anyway one of the quotes in the Kiefer exhibition was "in the land of souls". I wonder how that might serve as a book-title (lower case). (James) Joyce probably got it from Byron's Don Juan. And here is the surprising tidbit: Byron was Joyce's favourite poet.’

Or: ‘Canada leads the world in eugenics. What does that make it?’ The answer is a brutal one, and I will leave it unspoken, as I wish to preserve a friendship.

But here we have a movie review with which to tickle the sensibilities of any late-blooming censors and banners of books. Innocent enough. So then, on the Oppenheimer flick just released:

‘For once, I am just not wholly sure what to make of it. No doubt it is an extraordinary bit of filmmaking, which will scoop up every award going, but at the same time it felt like a hammer in the head, the sheer volume for one thing, the incessant music, the constant switching of scenes. At its best it brings back memories of Apocalypse Now, the endless playing on the nerves. It was well-acted certainly (where did they find the man who acted him?) and the denouement, his interrogation by the FBI, was almost as violent as the Los Alamos test. So what was its problem? It didn't need to be quite so long, which is rare coming from someone who likes long movies. There are plenty of remarkable moments in it, but I think it could have ended with the brief conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein. There is no getting away from it, it is one of those films you'll have to see.’

Alright then. Lunar has spoken…. Last night, the Comptroller of the Universe and I sat out on the terrasse of a nearby Persian restaurant. It is reputed to have the best Persian coffee in the city. An old friend and his two daughters were our company. Thunderstorms raged all around us. Irish Doctor (long since retired) paid them no heed. He was busy polishing off his dish of lamb and rice, and he had his eyes on every other dish beneath which the table had disappeared. He is what I would call a ‘good man’. Unassuming. Has been all over the world, even to ‘Indo-China’. A great reader. Has kept a rum-pot going for who knows how many decades on the strength of Okanagan apricots, Peachland, B.C. being where he has lived for many years. You see him slowing down a little, and a wave of something nearly knocks you off your feet. A simple thing such as a ‘great life force’… One takes it for granted and… and then it is precious. Enough. Irish doctor, were he to read these words, would scowl: “What stuff.”

One of the daughters manages a Thai restaurant in Whistler, B.C., up on the mountain there with, I suppose, its fair share of celebrity skiers. The other daughter is a kind of bounty hunter. And what, on any other evening, might have been but matter-of-fact statements, were, last evening, revelations packing mystery, as in, what is the cosmic significance of all this? ThaiHunter… as if Artemis had taken up chasing down credit card fraud…


Apropos of Nothing and Everything Dept: On the orders of the President, Lieutenant Albert Jerome, cut Philogènes’ head off and placed it in a pail of ice. Duvalier despatched a special air force fighter to fetch the head. Why did Duvalier want the head delivered to him at the palace? Weird stories circulated around Port-au-Prince which told of Duvalier sitting alone with the head for hours, trying to communicate with it. From Papa Doc, The Truth About Haiti Today by Bernard Diederich and Al Burt, foreword by Graham Greene, 1969. Like so (as Greene had it) was Haiti nearer to the Europe of Nero and Tiberius than to the Africa of Nkumrah.

Postscript I: Talking Avocado, apparently feeling chatty again, got back to me. He said: ‘Have you noticed? There’s less chitchat as you get older. You waste less time with irrelevant conversation, even if that conservation is of a trivial nature, because you are more aware of passing time and so, you are more focussed, even in one's asinity. True or false? Still, you take things as they come because you have to, especially if you resort to a recycling depot for your books. My last acquisitions: biographies of Kant and Mae West, one each. Could there be anything like contiguity between those two lives? I aim to find out.’