EPHEMERIS

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June 28, 2023: … … and the solar system works respectfully at its appointed distances. … Or: … that half a dozen of its greatest mansions seem to have been slowly stared into stone, rather than originally built in that material

Shall we coin a new sort of word? Dickensianisms?

Well, to read Bleak House (Charles Dickens, circa 1852) as I have been reading it and then remarking idly on the material is perhaps rather Daily Beast (‘high-end’ online news tabloid serving up world news and celebrities), as if I, too, am engaged in pop culture ritual practices. Still, Chapter 47, and Jo, as a poor boy, as an innocent, succumbs to his ailment and his homelessness. He dies. Damn, the wrong person dies. If anyone should not die, it would be Jo the street urchin who don’t know nothink, but he never hurt no one nohow though it seems he gave our heroine the pox inadvertently, and for which he feels godawful. At least in Chapter 48 the villain of the piece gets shot, and we will see if, in Chapter 49, there is subsequently any dancing in the streets….

And then to return, after a hiatus of 50 years, to Proust (Swann’s Way, the Lydia Davis translation) is something else again, not so much Daily Beast as Memory Lane. How will it hold up in my estimation? That there I was in my early 20s reading the Montcrieff translation of Remembrance of Things Past (of which Swann’s Way is the first installment), and I was writing poetry in some sort of American-slasher manner, and in rapid succession, the sentences of Montcrieff and those of Gibbon in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire washed up against my ears and made siren-like come-hithers, and though I did not entirely cave to the seductions, the architecture of those sentences, the cadences have stayed with me ever since. Now, I am 40 or so pages into the Proust, and I have gotten rather restive with the boy-protagonist and his schemes to snag a kiss from his mother, but then the famous madeleine scene kicks in (as does whatever I have left of my own ‘involuntary memory’), and I am back in the fold of Proust’s literariness. One of these days I will have to spell out what I mean by ‘literariness’.

Literariness? How about ‘lickerous’? There I was reading along in Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (circa 1593), and I came across the word in a passage of poetry near the end of Book One, in which the near proximity of the word ‘tongue’ to ‘lickerous’ led me to believe that subject and predicate consisted of a woman and a man, and she is ‘licking’ him all over. But then my eyes strayed to the bottom of the page, and, there it was – clarification session, a footnote, one which stipulated that what was meant by ‘lickerous’ was a greedy bugger but also could be a silly wench, and ‘silly’, irrespective of gender, was how I was meant to take the word. Who says there is no more adventure to be had in reading a classic?

And I am reading along in a biography of Julius Caesar, and then it is a Saturday morning, and it seems that some entity name of Prighozin is heading up an apparent coup attempt, Putin the object of this tough love, 2000 mercenaries of the Wagner Group headed lickety-split for Moscow and causing consternation, Rostov-on-Don already in Prighozin’s pocket. You may recall that Julius Caesar once marched on Rome. You may recall that, earlier, so did Sulla. Things happened. Things actually do happen now and then. Tuesday now, and it is all quiet on the western front, for the time being. Although at the stationer’s, the owners being Armenian, it is attested that the inexplicable event or events are a big deal, and where she stops, nobody knows. The weathervane pointed elsewhere, and we were on to Trump, and everyone who was in the shop pledged to bring out the popcorn when and if, and ever the man is hauled off to the hoosegow.


Postscript I: Talking Avocado: ‘Look, you, you want some spiel on literariness? Why Proust gets away with it and most other writers don’t? Well, mon, the man’s sincere, or at least he was. He really wants you to see Combray, and in order to do that, he has to see it. And he does see it, and he does not over-emphasize, he just records. Me? It’s the life I live on a coastal island. Chainsaw. Ax. Vegetable garden. Corduroy shirts. The old Buick up on blocks. Buster the goat. Two feral cats and the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. Whatever is dreamy and lyrical in the life, however much I might wince in my gut as to the transitoriness of things, it’s going to have to make do with a whole other order of words. Has nothing to do with French as opposed to the English language. Nor even, necessarily, with sensibility, though ultimately I suppose it does – it does have to do with sensibility, just that I suspect Proust wasn’t as effete as all that. And perhaps, it is true, all too true: style is revelation. Comprende, amigo? You want to go a round? Shall we march on the Paris Review and take over Moscow from there?

Postscript II: Too Tall Poet at the Oxford Café voiced his opinion on American politics. He has been following such a beast, he said to me, and it is as if he is all alone in this regard, he as diligent as a lighthouse keeper of olden days. His view has it that the Ship of State is looking to crack up on the rocks fairly soon. Would I like a refill on my coffee? And then our eternal quarrel: what actually is the shortest distance between two points in a poem? But Cornelius W Drake of Champaign-Urbana has opinions too. See immediately below.

Postscript III: Says Cornelius W Drake: ‘I'd say your friend is a bit behind the times. So far behind, he's seeing the squalidness of it all just as it's beginning to improve. I think Trumpism is going to sustain a helluva whacking in '24. He's had his Prigozhin moments, now he must deal with multi-indictments and fading support. Not that his alternatives are much better. But whichever one loses next November, the GOP will have to rethink and regroup. Or it's dead. Are poets expected to be high-tech adept?’

If I Have to Listen to a Crank, I Would Rather Hear Out This Crank Dept.: … …’unquestionably the ugliest city of any pretentions that a human civilization has yet raised up to scar and blemish the countenance of the planet. Here is a city without a plan that has reference to modern life, a city filled with every classical incubus of architecture, with a hundred brown boxes of buildings that grow like fungus in the midst of its proudest and most highly marbleized environs, a city without proportion or color or quality, a city from which lurch dingy thoroughfares strewn with staggering edifices that present every sullen, rococo, snarling, sick, noxious, and absurd form of vainglorious house and apartment architecture designed in the long decades of Victorian false front and the subsequent age of atrabilious brick to assuage the cheap passions of the middle class and the Middle West.’ From Generation of Vipers, Philip Wylie, 1942. Does he mean to mock Ohio?

Postscript IV: The Master said, ‘What the gentleman seeks, he seeks within himself; what the small man seeks, he seeks in others.’ From The Analects, by Confucius.

The Ghastly Odds and Ends Dept.: As the consul’s forces closed in, Gracchus wanted to take his own life, while inveighing, it is said, against the ungrateful people of Rome. Most of his remaining supporters, on being promised impunity, had defected to the other side. Friends persuaded him to flee. When his opponents caught up with him he had himself killed by a loyal slave. According to another account, he was killed by his pursuers. Someone cut off his head, intending to take it to the consul, but a friend of the consul wrenched it from him. When he delivered it, scales were sent for, as it had been announced that Gracchus’ head was to be weighed in gold. It is said to have weighed seventeen and a half pounds after the brain had been removed and the brain-pan filled with lead. The bodies of Gracchus and his supporters, said to have numbered three thousand, were cast into the Tiber. From Caesar, A Biography, Christian Meier, Basic Books, 1982.

June 22, 2023: My eyes have been clapped to The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy, 1997) seeing as there has been, at a distance, a cricket bat aimed at my kneecaps. Which is to say, I have been expected to read the book and to report on it, or else. I can say, in all honesty, that this book is one of those books whereby one might state that the author sees Deep into Life, is wise to most of its Absurdities and Political Fixes and Cruelties; knows its every Sound and Smell and Texture and that Life and that Death are inextricable One from the Other, and that this is True even on Good Days. I would wish however for a little less pointillism in the style, a little less that this is a movie attempting to write a novel; fewer Very Brief Sentences that are scattered across the pages like fallen bowling pins.

Still, with respect to Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music, when Arundhati Roy writes: ‘… When Julie Andrews starts off as a speck on the hill and gets bigger till she bursts onto the screen with her voice like cold water and her breath like peppermint … ‘, I thought to myself that here, in this writer, is a kindred spirit, as there was a time decades and decades ago, and I first set eyes on that movie and cringed right from the get-go, and will always cringe, no matter whether Julie Andrews is a lovely person to know or not. And then the moth…

Well, in the course of the narrative to do with a lot of ‘small things’, there is a moth that seems to settle on a woman’s (Margaret’s) heart as a kind of metaphor for anxiety or dread or all of the above, in addition to, who knows, all manner of unnamed and unnamable states of mind, and when I first encountered it, I thought to myself: nice touch, that. And then: On warm days the smell of shit lifted off the river and hovered over Ayemenem like a hat. And I knew that I could attest to that, seeing as, in my adolescence, we were billeted (that’s right, I was an army brat) next door to a pig farm in the post-war Germany that we were occupying, and then there was the chimney sweep, and he wore a top hat, one all banged up…

And then: It is after all so easy to shatter a story. To break a chain of thought. To ruin a fragment of dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain. … Great prose? Dunno. But when I read it, I wanted to make note of it. Madness slunk in through a chink of History. It took only a moment. … I certainly made note of those words, according them extra registration in the reading parts of my brain, having a 1001 reasons to do so.

Moreover, a woman (Ammu) inspects herself in a mirror and… … With that cold feeling on a hot afternoon that Life had been Lived. That her cup was full of dust. That the air, the sky, the trees, the sun, the rain, the light and darkness were all slowly turning to sand. … And if there were such a category as Best Passage in A Book Citation, I have just cited my candidate, and have a 1001 reasons to do so. (Unless it be certain paragraphs in the book of a descriptive nature wherein Old-School sentences and Very Brief Sentences commingle under the same parasol, as it were, and in rhythm, too….) There is a paragraph on page 217 that is very much the case….

But increasingly, the deeper I got into the book, the more the things that I wish there were less of began to cast longer shadows over the book: verbal effects that I suppose were meant to be percussive, or that which on the book’s blurbs were referenced as ‘dazzling’. So that when I came to: … It was something to do with the way she lay. The angle of her limbs. Something to do with Death’s authority. Its terrible stillness … as sparsely attenuated as it all is – this image of finality, by the time I arrived at it, and however admirable I found the no-drama-Obama handling of it, well, I was tin-drummed out.

And in the sense of Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers (and because Paradise Pickles and Preserves plays a prominent role in this book), I found myself saying, “You mean to say that this book was booked for a Booker Prize?” Which is to say, unfairly or not, I have had a Bias and I have had Suspicions of the Booker Book prizes inasmuch as they seem to make for Flicks and the Allurement of Great Literature for a Certain Class, and to please a certain strata of the Body-Politic, yuppies, in a word, who indeed may have been, back in the 90s, all that was left of a reading public.

Speaking of which, Lunar has been to Cambridge only to discover that there are no longer any decent secondhand bookshops there, much less a good rare-editions shop, and this in a scholarly town; and that it costs 12 pounds 50 to see what used to be viewable for free, and that Julius Caesar would not have crossed the Rubicon, whatever that means, but Bob Dylan has a line about this in one of his latest songs.
What would Julius Caesar have done? ????

Otherwise, Cornelius W Drake of Champaign-Urbana predicts there will not be a new civil war in the U.S. as Americans are just not inclined to such strenuous actions as would be required. Not that there will not be nastiness; there will be blood, and if not to Poughkeepsie, then the world will have gone to hell yet again. Mr Drake informs me that there is a biography of Hitler out there whereby, substitute Trump for every mention of Hitler, and what one has on one’s hands is a lot of ‘eeriness’. (The Hitler Myth by a man name of Kershaw.) Funny that. Because I have begun reading a biography of Julius Caesar, and I have been doing just that … substituting a certain diabolism with one of history’s most sphinx-like characters (was JC a Thug of thugs, warlord to beat all warlords, or was he also, yikes, a really good Home Secretary?). The man had been allowed to build his own world and to exist in it without accountability. Which scared the senate to death and some aristocrats. What has to happen before a man can unleash a civil war for his own sake? &c.

Well, what about this? On the whole, everything was overlaid with endless self-seeking and unrestrained exploitation of position. The general picture is one of corruption and incompetence, of swimming with the tide. The historian Sallust, a man of high moral standards, blamed society for his own inability to behave as he would have wished: ‘Instead of decency, self-discipline and competence, there was insolence, corruption and rapacity. Although I despised these things, being quite untainted by baseness, my insecure youth was nevertheless corrupted, in the presence of such great vices, by the desire for honours and gain and became their prisoner.’ A bit whiny, perhaps, but shades of Adam Schiff? (The quote hails from Caesar, A Biography, Christian Meier, BasicBooks 1982, translated by David McLintock.)

Furthermore: If outsiders were able to build up so much power within it, against its leading institutions, it can no longer have been properly integrated, but in a state of crisis. &c. I will just let that quote stew a while. (But perhaps I will rather needlessly point out that, by ‘outsiders’, what is not meant is an immigrant horde.)

The author of the book seems to believe that the Roman republic had a certain genius; that it was supple, flexible, bendable, but that it would not break until, of course, it did break and was lost forever. If this is an accurate reflection of a Roman reality, I believe it can be applied to an American republic; that it is or was possessed of a certain genius that seems to be less and less true, the ‘republic’ more and more brittle, and more likely to be broken.

And last but not least, not by a long shot, Bleak House, Chapter 46 (Charles Dickens circa 1852), and I was asking myself just how familiar Dickens was with the seedier districts of London in his time, as when he would serve us up Tom-All-Alone’s – a slum, and would he have thought Canary Wharf surreal? I asked myself as I was reading the books remarked upon above and in previous posts. And the answer appears to be that, yes, he was ‘familiar’ with said turf, and what is more, in contradistinction to all the writers in question in these posts, barring perhaps Dostoyevsky, his capacity for ‘imagination’ was more deeply in play.

Postscript I: Talking Avocado has no opinion on the matters above. But that, when a kid, he had figured The Sound of Music for a horror show.

Postscript II: There is, for instance, the same colossal barricade between science and instinct that is to be found in the other learned activities of contemporary man.
From Generation of Vipers, Philip Wylie, 1942.

Postscript III: The Master said, ‘There are presumably men who innovate without possessing knowledge, but that is not a fault I have. I use my ears widely and follow what is good in what I have heard; I use my eyes widely and retain what I have seen in my mind. This constitutes a lower level of knowledge.’ From The Analects by Confucius.

Postscript IV: The Comptroller of the Universe expects to crack open a bottle of wine with me on Sunday, and I am to wish her a venerable Happy B’Day personally in person.

June 19, 2023: I return to Bleak House by way of Chapter 45, and it is as if I have re-encountered an old friend, his or her features recognizable, to be sure, but that a lot has transpired in the meantime, and one might be meeting up with a stranger. In the course of 150 years or thereabouts, so many worlds have superseded the world in which the novel was written and published, that one might wonder if one is reading a fairy tale and not a voluminous work of fiction. There is no arguing the timeless qualities of an Iliad or an Odyssey, and Bleak House may or may not have such qualities, I am unable to say, but I do wonder if the ’steady as she goes’ nature of the writing does not, in the end, beat out all the splash and dash and flash that publishers figure will make them a chunk of change.

And now, as a passing thought come up as if out of nowhere: Cavafy’s poems. Which I have not read in years (though they made quite an impression on me). And I would argue that, though they are not as ambitious in design as Homer’s works, do not pack as much tonnage word-wise, they are also timeless on account of the sensibility that conceived them. Though Cavafy wrote his verses in modern times, he might well have written them in an ancient era, all the while lamenting the passage of time and how it changes things, and things are lost, and the soul is starved.

Something of that sensibility I heard in an interview with Javier Marias, the Spanish author recently deceased. One puts one’s all into the writing of a novel; one concludes the operation, and time and the world in the meantime have moved on, and one is a stranger to oneself and to the book one just wrote. Damn near an humiliation.

And, apropos of something or other: … But allow me a banal question: what actually is happiness? No doubt you’ll hit me in the face with the whole messy pie of the usual philosophical observations on the subject—ethically fortified and morally well-kneaded, metaphysically brought to heat and raised with some cheap baking powder provided by cynical false humility, further frosted with epicurean desire, free of subsequent disenchantment and, last but not least, drenched in the stoic vanilla sauce of the ‘vita beata’. For the heartburn of hubris, a pinch of bicarbonate of soda, brand Schopenhauer, happiness as maximal freedom from aversion. … From Oedipus at Stalingrad, Gregor von Rezzori, and not from Joy of Cooking, I can tell you…

Oedipus at Stalingrad as a book is like that: a cascading Niagara of quotable passages interspersed with flat-lining prose, and then the ending, and the ending is forced, perhaps because the author felt he had to abide by the particulars of the Oedipus myth. It cuts the effort off at the legs. Truncation. And yet there is this: After all: if you’re already living on a volcano, you might as well dance. … And I wonder if Lunar slipped back in time to the early 1950’s and handed the author this line by way of a post-it note such as gestures hypnotically and leads an author on to a minefield of aphorisms. And here with italics, we will mirror an italicized passage in the book, though who knows what the import is: … (a) the rule of proportional increase of dignity in relation to the decrease in spiritual content; and (b) the law of reciprocity between shit and nimbus… … Ah, this bears some relation to… … the preservation of evil by means of guilty love… No? That we have Lunar, Astaire-like, high-stepping on the ceiling because flights of absurdity are the only thing keeping us sane?

I see I have written in my notes, with respect to the aforementioned book, that it (the writing) is the ritual coupling of wit and The Book of Revelations with perhaps something of Boswell and his treating with Samuel Johnson, and then: how to properly prepare a martini. … a well-painted turnip is better than a poorly painted Madonna… … And if truth is relative, damn it all, but we are ‘condemned to establish the truth’… … O cursed spite and such… And to accurately report on a thing entails the end of storytelling, read ‘em and, like, weep.

So then: Oedipus at Stalingrad. Wherein I read why a person or persons amounting to a whole society may find themselves in pursuit of a purity by which they hope to rid themselves of demons that have been tormenting them relentlessly. But that, purity unavailable, must come the inevitable caving to one’s worst proclivities by way of such standard avenues as drink and sex and drugs, which bring on self-loathing and hatred of others; and then: perhaps a false dawn, the illusion of a more balanced, more practical embrace of something like a purity: one becomes a soldier or a culture warrior or a Nazi or all of it; one is no longer on the outside looking in; one has seized the day and is all carpe diem; one is MAGA Nation. Scary, ain’t it? Echoes of 7th grade book reports such as I once was made to write…?


The I Got It Wrong Dept: In the previous post I cited Marius Kociejowski’s The Pebble’s Chance, and it ought to be: The Pebble Chance. (Biblioasis.) Sheesh. Five gets you ten that the mis-citing is the stronger citation, but who am I to say &c. It is, nonetheless, a very good book.

From the Hero Has a Backside or Apocalyptic Thinking Made Easy Dept: The ability of plain, ordinary, self-respecting, controlled, godly, decent, patriotic, home-loving men and women to turn, suddenly, into fiends of hell—killing one another without remorse, dragging live people through the streets behind automobiles, cutting off their testes and making the victims eat them and then burning them to death—this quantum, which may be commonly observed in many a town or city in the U.S.A. in this year of grace, should make economists think a thousand times, and sociologists a hundred thousand times, before they spend any precious energy laying out collectivist plans for the future happiness, or abundance, or what not, of humanity… …From Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, 1942.

Postscript I: I have started in on The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy, and goodness, but there are a lot of very short sentences. But I will keep reading. You see, someone at a distance is making sure that I keep my eyes clapped to the book, a cricket bat aimed at my knees. I keep telling myself that I will call it quits with fiction and get back to my usual fare of history tomes, Tacitus and the like, but I am continually shanghaied, it seems. And I continue with Pushkin, and though I have forgotten how I came by it (it was probably a book of history), I will always have in mind an image of a sleeping Akhmatova on her couch, frozen corpses littering the street outside her window during the Leningrad siege, and she is having words with Pushkin by way of a dream. He was, it seems, her genial muse.

Postscript II: I confess that I have been charmed by 16th century English prose, only that, deeper into Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and I have come across paragraphs so obtuse I must needs read them several times over and still, I am stymied. Somehow subject and predicate seem to shape-shift and the verbs provide no clues… Talking Avocado tells me that he would like to write like that, and language dispense with words and what we would have instead is trout and their various flashing colours in a stream rendering up sense. Sounds a bit petulant.

From The What It’s Worth Division of Underpaid Analysts: Cornelius W Drake: I think there's something in what you say about people wanting to be bad. It's one reason for the popularity of villains in film. We often root for them, especially given how Hollywood romanticizes them, which, of course, is bunk. Chaos, violence and nihilism can be a pleasant change of pace from the humdrum of daily life. On the other hand, Berlin writes a great deal about Romanticism having hatched in Germany; its genealogy, so to speak. … This being one of those idle asides that may have everything to do with everything or nothing to do with anything, absolutely zip and nada, see you at the track.

Postscript III: The topics the Master did not speak of were prodigies, force, disorder, and the gods. From Confucius: The Analects.

 

June 11, 2023: Might one be forgiven for asking just one nonsensical question? Imagine that I am either Oliver or Stan (as per Laurel and Hardy of comedic fame) about to put my foot in it. So then: what happened in the roughly 100 years between the publication of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852) and that of Oedipus at Stalingrad (1954)? That the one book, in deep retrospect, should seem so calm in its accounting of human perfidy, and the other so, as it were, skittish and swacked on stale champagne? (Here, one twiddles with one’s tie.)

Well, in the rush to answer the question either Oliver or Stan has ill-advisedly unleashed, I can see posts springing up like mushrooms in the various cracks of the online psyche. They would tell one exactly what, in fact, did happen, a parade of nouns in the works, each with an ism attached and a litany of street creds. Let us submit that, in his day, Dickens’ capacity for diagnosing societal ills was roughly the same as von Rezzori’s in his (who by the way authored the 1954 publication cited above), just that one might assume that Dickens would have, even so, certain expectations of life and human decency that Gregor von Rezzori might well have found risible, not to mention one’s expectations of one’s capacity to diagnose anything beyond an impacted tooth.

You see, I am roughly 80 pages into Gregor von Rezzori’s mocking cheek, and thus far the Nazis have been barely mentioned though it is quite clear they are the biggest, stompiest elephant in the room, never mind the social-climbing proclivities of the novel’s protagonist circa 1938. Moreover, I have just written Cornelius W Drake apropos of this our Trumpian epoch that I used to believe there was a bottom to the phenomena of a society coming unglued; of a society ‘bottoming-out’, at least on a collective scale, but I appear to be mistaken and appear to have always been mistaken; there is no bottom from which a body-politic rebounds and reacquires sanity, the ship of state righted. What divides divides forever, wrote a poet I know whose sanity can, at times, be argued, but who always manages to come off lucid.

I used to know a guy named Pink Pedal-Pushers. He could well have served as a present day stand-in for Traugott Jassilkowski, the protagonist of the novel entitled Oedipus at Stalingrad. Pink Pedal-Pushers, no Prussian it should be noted, was a painter well-versed in art history. For all that, his own paintings were fairly dubious works save for one, which was a satirical portrait of some bar regulars, all of whom were intellectually-inclined and worse, were know-it-alls, including me, and he nailed it – our pretentions. It was now clear that he, somewhere deep in himself, loathed us. Later on, after 9/11 he flipped, went snaky. But not before his group portrait was unveiled in a certain bar, and we drank to it though we were somewhat unsettled as we drank to it in a certain bar, and for all I know, it still hangs there in a certain bar, unsettling patrons and the next generation of intellectualized wankers. The thing is, Pink Pedal-Pushers, when he was not engaged in his new-found sport of trashing liberals, believed that the only thing worth chasing after in life was social distinction, the more distinct the better; that is to say, one could be as pompous as one wanted so long as there was cachet in it, and some money would not hurt either. He was a wit and a leading light of cocktail hours at both ends of this nation-state of ours. Howsomever: Thinking is an act of desperation. He might easily have said as much, but here I have quoted from Oedipus at Stalingrad (rather than quote a wag in a certain bistro on Greene Avenue, Montreal. Which site also made it into a writing by Marius Kociejowski in his collection of feuilletons called The Pebble’s Chance (Biblioasis, 2014). I suppose the pandemic killed the place off, but a lovely Ojibway woman, with infinite grace and wit, used to serve drinks there from behind the bar. The lawyers, whom Pink Pedal-Pushers regaled with his barbs, did not deserve her. And when she went the place, as it were, died anyway.)

I had wanted to start this post off with the notion that poetry is, sometimes, more true than science, not more accurate, certainly, but more true, whatever that means, but I was bushwhacked by other thoughts. Don’t come back at me now with nihilism and other such bugaboos. What’s nihilism, after all? The gentleman’s disease of the century. The clap, experienced internally. And as for its mother, literary aesthetics, that old bitch, dear sir, you can’t get rid of her so easily with a few injections of Christian penicillin. (Again, from Oedipus at Stalingrad.) Lunar writes that the Brit politico, ex-PM, and Oxford debater Boris Johnson would throw his own mother under a bus so that, yes, there is a killer in the man. ….

And I was going to leave off commenting on Chapter 43 of Bleak House. Analyzing a work of fiction achieves not much more than a ruination of the text; just that the chapter mostly serves to move the plot along, and that Skimpole is a maddening creature. I have known Skimpoles in my life. Good God, yes. They are personages, human assemblages, aesthetes who truly believe they have no need to pay for anything; other persons exist to settle their messes. Their only task, speaking of the Skimpoles, is to charm, and to extol beauty. I doubt that Skimpole and Traugott Jassilkowski could stand in one for the other, seeing as Skimpole is not actually mercenary, but there are similarities, and with them, Pink Pedal-Pushers might well have opened up a front in a salon or the next whisky bar.

Chapter 44 however (Bleak House) and we get this: It was weak in me, I know, and I could have no reason for crying; but I dropped a tear upon her dear face, and another, and another. Weaker than that, I took the withered flowers out, and put them for a moment to her lips. I thought about her love for Richard; though, indeed, the flowers had nothing to do with that. Then I took them into my own room, and burned them at the candle, and they were dust in an instant. Where are you going to find a sentiment like that, present day, that is not insipid in a Harlequin romance or fodder for a Saturday Night Live scenario? Most sentiment ought to be torpedoed because most sentiment provides cover for what is shabby and ugly. Just that, now and then, there is sentiment that ought to give us pause, and we refrain from hitting the button that would X-off all human feeling. ….

And I was going to say that there is no point in defending the Arcadia (the work by Sir Phillip Sidney talked about in posts previous to this one). Just that I defend it by reading it; I read the high-flown rhetoric of love which even the ancients in their love-language, centuries before Sidney came along, might have found over the top. And yet: The fair Pamela, whose noble heart I find doth greatly disdain that the trust of her virtue is reposed in such a lout’s hands as Dametas, had yet, to show an obedience, taken on shepherdish apparel, which was but of russet-cloth cut after their fashion, with a straight body open-breasted, the nether part of pleats, with long and wide sleeves: but believe me she did apparel her apparel, and with the preciousness of her body made it most sumptuous. One can quote these words perhaps, but I gather that one can no longer write them and expect to get away with it. Though I suppose one could riff on all the instances of 16th century cross-dressing in this Arcady and suggest that it is the sole point of the book and so, gain favour as a bookish pundit for public radio.


Received: The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy, Vintage Canada 2017. It arrived in its postal wrapping curiously annotated with post-it notes cryptically scrawled upon and so, a text within a text, another post-post-post-modern marvel. I will figure it out somehow.

Received: Generation of Vipers, Philip Wylie, Rinehart and Co., 1942. The book possesses a wonderful title page. In any case, the author of these scribblings will attempt to establish whether Mr Wylie was a crackpot or part-ways prescient.

Received: Tales of Belkin and Other Prose Writings, Alexander Pushkin, first published in Russian, 1831. And because it, well, looked so damn forlorn there in a sidewalk book bin and it was beginning to rain….

Postscript I: I have been having a back and forth with Cornelius W Drake of Champaign-Urbana as to where the ‘bottom’ is with respect to the U.S. His reply: 'I think the bottom was indeed hit when Trump decided that a Twitter report (which he mischaracterized) justified ripping up the Constitution: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution." And then scarcely any Republican denounced the statement. That was the bottom, they can't go any lower, but it all passed as just another everyday Trumpism. Hence the GOP is operating at the most despicable level imaginable. What else could Trump possibly say, or Republicans ignore, that's worse than dismantling our entire constitutional system….'

Postscript II: Lunar sent me a link to an interview with Javier Marias the noted Spanish writer who recently died (2022). Lunar knew him personally in his capacity as a bookseller and friend, and while I quite liked the interview and would have wanted to comment on its sanity, just now I find that any commentary of mine would only detract from said sanity, and that sometimes there are truths that can only be known by earning them through the course of living a life; that receiving them in some intellectual exchange is pretty poor stuff. Still, it is always good to know and know again that, even when the sky is falling and craziness is at a fever pitch and showing no signs of levelling off, much less abating, that ‘sanity’ and something like a ‘perspective’ is possible. Javier Marias, You Tube, Louisiana Channel, and the video is there….

Postscript III: Lunar: ‘Yes, the failure to recognize contradictions…’ “Yes, where does that lead on a collective scale?” asked the joker of the low life.

Postscript IV: The Master said: ‘Who can go out without using the door? Why, then does no one follow this Way?’

June 7, 2023: 16th century English prose grows on one after a while. In William Adlington’s translation of The Golden Ass, he often couples ‘away’ with ‘escape’ so as to get at the notion of getting away or avoiding. ‘Escape away’. To modern ears this may seem a little much, a little redundant and yet, to my ears, poetry comes into the picture in the sense of a sweet release. In this way prose could possibly acquire some poetic properties without sinking into preciousness. Whether the prose intent was that of a release or a getting out of Dodge on a wing and a prayer, I cannot say. No doubt certain verbal constructions of our time that are workaday to us will strike future ears as damn near melodious.

‘In the mean season’ often begins a fair number of sentences in this same treatment of The Golden Ass (in what was a Golden Age of translation). The sense would have less to do with ‘season’ as such, but with time elapsed, as in ‘meanwhile’ or ‘in the meantime’ &c. “In the mean season, So-and-So went to market.” Did So-and-So walk through a plague of locusts? Were Herod’s thugs on the loose? But in ‘escape away’ I hear John Fahey’s version of ‘Sail Away Ladies’…. I hear…

And then there is Lunar telling me that when Sir Phillip Sidney (b. 1554) went to Poland, he was offered the Polish crown. One might say: the Poles really liked him. Would history have been significantly altered had he accepted? Would he have written a sequence of 108 sonnets in a somewhat Petrarchan fashion, influencing John Donne? Would he have sat for a portrait by Veronese? As it was, as an ardent Protestant, he out-romanced his Catholic counterparts, seeing as he was a man of honour and courtly virtue in a rather vicious world of continental and Elizabethan politics. He truly was all that, and we can hardly believe it, as history is made by rotters. Sidney argued that poetry is superior to both history and philosophy, but we can hardly believe it as poetry is written by… but never mind. Sidney was unpublished in his lifetime. Gangrene did him in.

Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, or just The Arcadia was, for a couple of centuries after publication, the most popular bit of English writing going. Nowadays, we find it stultifying and artificial – those prissy knights wandering about, pining after Lady Whomever in tortured language. We fail to entertain a notion that, at some point in the next two hundred years, our expletive laden prose will also come off as stultifying and artificial and tortured to an audience looking for ‘cause’ in human behaviour and not just ‘effect’. Well, as I said at the outset of this post, 16th century English prose grows on one.

… From The Arcady: ‘… or else you feed sometimes your solitariness with the conceits of the poets, whose liberal pens can as easily travel over mountains as molehills and so, like well-disposed men, set up everything to the highest note; especially, when they put such words in the mouths of one of these fantastical, mind-infected people that children and musicians call “Lovers”’. Mind-infected… make of that what you will…

I recall a conversation I had years ago with a friend. He was smitten with post-modern gobbledygook, and with ‘interiority’ in fiction. What I am seeing in the first hundred pages or so of The Arcadia is interiority sufficient unto itself, without all the wretched striving after it. Contemplative and ‘macho’ or ‘manly’ or ‘action man’ are not necessarily mutually exclusive items, or so it would seem (and, to be sure, Schwarzenegger the action hero and ex-politico, in his latest public musings, is not Thomas Mann)…. Please do not regale me with action heroes who are somewhat neurotic at the edges and therefore, allegedly self-aware. Batman or Spiderman, compared to one of Sidney’s adventuring knights, are fey and twerpy…. Otherwise, we are stuck with Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson as per the movie of the same name, as has an overture and an intermission. Mountain man as knight-errant…

Moving on with Dickens, I have not much to say for chapter 42 of Bleak House other than that the plot, as it were, thickens (excuse the rhyme), and the lawyer Tulkinghorn is to be seen as one of the Masters of the Universe of his day as are financiers in ours. And of them there are those who advertise their mastery and there are those who keep it under wraps, all the better to pull strings for presidential campaigns and set Ms Little Red Riding Hood’s mind at ease. They have probably gotten past their start-up phase. They may sport tatouage but not graffiti. They will carry a cell phone. They will inhabit movies where one cannot get through a single scene in which a cell phone does not pop off with some insolent demand or heart-felt plea.

Received (and read): Balkan Ghosts, Robert D Kaplan, Vintage Books, 1994. Were I, through some fluke of happenstance, to bump into this author I might bandy a few words about, though I hear he came to regret his beating the drums for the Iraq War. Even so, I can, in good conscience, recommend this book as it attempts to make some sense of Balkan history, a history that Cornelius W Drake himself has characterized as vertiginous or vertigo-inducing; a history of mutual atrocities. It is sheer coincidence that I read this book just as Talking Avocado was beginning his foray into Rebecca West’s Black Lamb Grey Falcon. To which Kaplan frequently refers in his Balkan travels.

Received: Oedipus at Stalingrad, Gregor von Rezzori, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1994 (though the novel was written 40 years prior).

Received: Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust as translated by Lydia Davis. For a long time, I have felt I should return to this work that I read in my late teens, and I may as well give this translation, as opposed to the Montcrieff treatment, a go. At some point, I will let you know.

Postscript I: Cornelius W Drake doubts that we are cosmically alone. I doubt that we will ever know, travel at the speed of light somewhat prohibitive. But we both agree that humankind is predisposed to religious notions, and that it is no surprise to hear that hominid forebears of ours, hundreds of centuries before we were mucking about in caves and scratching things on cave walls, were doing so, and with some aplomb. Drake also watches cheesy sci-fi.

Postscript II: Talking Avocado: ‘One hundred pages into Black Lamb Grey Falcon and I continue to be impressed by the heft and flow of West’s sentences, as well as the utter confidence of her opinions. This is not to say that I agree with all her opinions. She has this conception of “the Slav” as some noble, impassioned, “Eastern” being. In fact, she uses the designation “Eastern” in the way that, until fairly recently, English and American travelers and academics spoke of India or China, and have since been chastised for shameless oversimplification. To West, the East begins at Yugoslavia, and all the people there, Serb or Croat, are Slav, and Slavs are as one, whether RC or Orthodox, even as they are hacking each other to death. She’s also a bit of a racist. She admires “coloureds” with their music and dance, but for all that admiration it is implicit that she sees them as in a, how to put it, earlier cultural phase. As with the Slav, however, it is clear that she wants coloureds to stay in that phase so as to maintain the flavor and variety of the cultural buffet she so delights in picking through, British cuisine being so bland. And then there is her opinion of the Germans. Yikes. She does her best to be fair, but she can’t help describing what she sees, for she is a dramatist with a keen eye for a pungent character. Well, 1044 pages to go.’

Postscript III: Tzu-lu, after remarking on whether to enter public life or to avoid it in the attempt to keep one’s character unsullied, said: As for putting the Way into practice, he (the gentleman) knows all along that it is hopeless. – From The Analects, Confucius.


June 1, 2023: The Romanticals, so far as I can recall, found the ‘Age of Reason’ types stuffy, if not something worse. Death on spirit? On the boundless energies of humankind? On letting the ‘creative mind’ out of its cage? I was not around in those days; I cannot say. I was not around to congratulate Goethe on his Nobel. I was not around to josh with Lord Byron. But there is ‘Enlightenment’ stuffy and there is ‘Romantical’ bombast. P M Carpenter (see The Carpentariat on-line, May 31st post) contends that some numbers of Trumpians represent, in their nihilism, the last waning rays of the Romantical influence on our current moment in their desire to ‘blow things up’, seeing that nothing is inherently stable and there are no eternal truths. Yes, I can see Roger Stone playing at the fringes of whatever was juvenile in Nietzsche like a hog going for truffles; I can see Steve Bannon doing a very poor imitation of Schopenhauer, but no, Trump as Heraclitus? How shall we say it? Unlikely.

And yes, well, there have not always been buses in the streets, but stand in front of a moving one, and it will likely get you killed. There is a frisson of eternal truth in that. Moreover, it is hard for me to see anything remotely Age of Reason, let alone Romantical, in the Trumpian so-called mindset. What I find myself muttering perhaps too often is this: a great many people on all the escalators and on all the golf courses of life want to give themselves permission to be bad. Trump has been their Pied Piper. Pork away. Act out. Screw the pooch. Cheat. I am sure Lord Byron said as much, but hedonist that he was, he understood there were limits. What was that William Blake tag? The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom… For we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough? Is the current moment a mirror image of the 60s? Perhaps it is, the political poles having flipped.

In any case, 0530, and I am reading The Golden Ass by Apuleius. Poor Lucius. In wanting to fly like a bird, he gets transmogrified; that his girlfriend got her magic wrong. Just that, at one point in his lowly career as a donkey, and partly because his innards are unused to digesting grass, and partly because he is being tormented by a human, he unleashes a torrent of liquid excrement on said human… Which, by way of serendipity (as I happened to come across such creatures recently), brings to mind the bonnacons, medieval beasts whose horns were ‘useless’, whose chief means of defense was ‘caustic feces’ and the expelling of it by force. I do not, just at this moment, know how to tie in The Golden Ass with the Trumpian epoch, but I am sure I can think of something….

And then, Chapter 41, Bleak House, as written by Charles Dickens – as every high schooler should know, and the odds are very high that they do not, and Tulkinghorn the lawyer is having a chinwag with Lady Dedlock, as to some past indiscretion of hers; and all his words amount to a noose tightening around the woman’s neck. It is a ‘chilling’ read precisely because the conversation with its layer-cake civility and deference is chilly, and is not played to operatic values. Downright frigid, like I said. One imagines Dickens having it out with himself: how to play the scene? Understate? Go gangbusters on the dramatic talking points? Flip a coin? Come to think of it, the chapter is rather cinematic; plot and voice have so combined as to make for a new element...

The other day, I happened to mention to Cornelius W Drake that I would like to have had a beer with Sir Phillip Sidney (b. 1554). He came back with something very like a retort: ‘Why? You would’ve died from a thousand different diseases before you even licked your way through that head on your tankard of ale.’ Some people take the fun out of everything. But what I would have liked to know is whether Shakespeare, for instance, was a one-offer or was he part and parcel of a ‘milieu’, that is, of a general conversation to which he, of course, made significant contributions, and from which he stole ideas. &c. Nothing new in this thought. Old hat. But with so much seemingly going down for the count, perhaps what one once took for granted is no longer available on such easy, pleasant, and agreeable terms. Mr Drake said to me, “I, too, would’ve died a thousand times over before I got to ask Mr Sidney whether he listened to Mozart while writing.” If you have never seen Chico Marx play the piano with an orange, relax. You have just witnessed Mr Drake do the literary equivalent, and on some old klunker, too.


Postscript I: Cornelius W Drake: ‘On Trumpism, the sociopsychology of it is so complex, no one or two explanations could ever suffice. But major ones can do for now. Historians will puzzle over it for centuries, as they have done for almost a century since Nazi Germany.’

Postscript II: Talking Avocado: ‘Ah, plot. Four letter word if ever there was one. I am currently struggling with the very issue, for it seems to me that it’s a dangerous and reductionist thing: too much and a reader simply bleeps over everything in-between, hopping from plot point to plot point like someone jumping from stone to stone across a river while ignoring all the wonders in the water. You might as well publish an outline. But this is where my buddy Cormac comes in. Voice. He has it in spades, something which has to be admitted, even if you don’t like his voice. Might have to do with confidence, the belief that your voice is compelling enough to carry the ball the length of the field and into the endzone, something I suspect I lack, or perhaps fear I lack, or maybe more accurately, fear that my particular voice is too marginal, too arid, too dark, therefore needs the aid of plot. And speaking of another voice, I’ve just begun Black Lamb Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Eleven hundred and some pages. But, I bend the knee, I bow down low, the woman has a voice. I had a beer with RH and JS last Friday. H, of course, you know, at least his name. He’s now 99. I asked him if he ever met Malcolm Lowry and he said, Oh yeah, over in North Van. I then asked for details and, as I feared, he raised his head—he being rather hunched now—and gazed rather forlornly at me and admitted he couldn’t recall a single thing.’

Postscript III: The Master said, ‘To impose the death penalty without first attempting to reform is to be cruel; to expect results without first giving warning is to be tyrannical; to insist on a time limit when tardy in issuing orders is to cause injury. When something has to be given to others anyway, to be miserly in the actual giving is to be officious.’