November 28, 2022: A sentence from Mary Renault’s The Praise Singer reads as follows: When the fruit is sweetest, it falls. The words seem to vine their way throughout the book from the point when they occur. A few pages into the novel, one not her worst but not her best (as per a review I came across), I began to hear a certain sound in my old ear, that of the clunk of a sun-warmed car door shutting, ’47 Chev. It was a sound that bespoke a world altogether gone now, that was, perhaps, meant to suggest both stability and the poetry inherent in things. But the book was published in 1978, to the sound of one door clapping, I hazard to say (the sound was not swing music, to be sure), and Stylemaster, sedan coupe issue, had nothing to do with the worship of Apollo. My father’s Chevrolet was the first car I ever drove. A little worse for wear in the year 1964, he tossed me the keys outside a roadside tavern. “Yes, you’re driving,” he said. Unlicensed, I had yet to put a car in motion. I did have a hazy idea of where the clutch was…. How this relates to Renault’s tale of Simonides, 6th century B.C. poet, I cannot say, but it does.
had a soft spot for eccentrics and misfits. I have been similarly
cursed, except when such characters feature in feel-good flicks, and
sentimentality chokes off the oxygen. The last woman in his life,
fellow resident of the old hotel in which they lodged, with its sagging
floors but otherwise spacious rooms, went about in gowns. Her hands
and wrists were sheathed in gloves that stopped at her elbows. She
gesticulated with a cigarette holder made of silver. She was something
made of a fleeting glimpse in the corner of my eye. Indeed, she was
ludicrous; I figured her for a gentle soul. If all tragedy needs a
victim, this age of Trump has made a hash of the equation. Self-elected
victims are legion, tragedy extinct. There are victims, of course,
and they remain faceless, even when paraded before TV cameras. There
is nothing noble anywhere in the vicinity, and even if there were,
it would not come within a hundred miles of Trump’s circuses,
lest a noble spirit die of a laughing fit. Whatever might explain
what goes on south of here, tragedy need not apply; it is off the
hook, the word absurd and ringing hollow, in any case. So then, what
overarching word is required for a dossier doing analytics on the
Geist? If I were young and quick on my feet, I would have the word
at the snap of my fingers. The young do have it – at their fingertips,
and it zips around the world, social media as intrepid as Speedy Gonzales,
that X, Y, and Z and all else ‘suck’. What I do have is
the numbness that sets in long after the horrors no longer signify.
Even so, one can say that they are not done with us yet.
Postscript I: Only a shadow of myself whines at my heels/and there are no children underneath the trees. James Sutherland-Smith, from a poem entitled ‘A Walk in Winter’; from a book entitled Small-Scale Observations, Shearsman Press, 2022.
Postscript II: When McDonald’s can’t do fries, you know you have a serious downfall-of-the-empire situation. Slick Williams on his Benedetto archtop.
III: He had hoped to narrow the field by swinging his
cajones early…. Cornelius W Drake memorializing Trump’s
entering the fray once again, by way of The Carpentariat,
here docketed as Grotesquerie 1 (among many to come).
Cornelius W Drake of Champaign-Urbana, the midlands, has had it right:
commentaries, op-eds, essays, Twitterings, cartoons, and Hubris, too,
as well as Nemesis, in for a pound if not a penny – the lot
of it all has never had it so good, and when Trump goes, some of the
fun will have gone out of life. Not that I, for one, will lament the
passing. A believer in the pleasure principle, I am wary of cheap
thrills: they lack a little something, do they not? Otherwise, last
night, I dreamed I was in a decent enough frame of mind, of good cheer,
but that I was flat-out broke and in need of passage back to Vancouver
from a nearby mountain meadow where poets were rumoured to cavort,
and then on to Montreal where my centre of gravity was duly tethered.
Have at it, you soothsayers of dreams. Mr Drake says he will be off
to the Ozarks for his Christmas debauch, the Ozarks his Quebec….
Lovely Little Book Chanced Upon: The Civilization of Spain, J.B. Trent, Oxford University Press, first edition 1944. (It remarks on the book immediately above. I intend a separate post for all this. Soon.)
Here, I shall let GB, another west coaster I happen to know, have the last word. It is partly a whim of mine. It is mostly because Buster Keaton has come up in various conversations the past few days, as if there is a new mass hysteria afoot, and people have started to gibber Buster Keaton, Buster Keaton, the sky is doing something…. GB has been working up a piece to do with the fact that most of his friends are nonagenarians, not spring chickens. There was only one thing to do: get together with the two ninety-somethings. I honest to Dog don’t know how they manage to be so cheerful. I’m pretty sure it’s not meds. Maybe they simply fake it, reducing, or elevating, life to a form of theatre. Maybe that’s wisdom. Heartfelt drama is all very well, but give me a comedy, they’re dark enough, what with the ever-enduring Buster Keaton hanging from the hour hand of a clocktower or alcoholic Lou Costello gazing like a cornered raccoon from behind a punchline, his eyes like an alley from which there is no escape.
tack, and quite apart from the notion
as to whether the act of sailing a boat is a spiritual act, Red Ryder
in the Oxford Café yesterday,
went on about 1920s Germany and the hollow lives of the middle classes.
I made mention of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, a translation
of which was published in those 20s, and which I read at age fifteen.
I was deeply affected by it then, and now it is yet another book
I must re-read, if only to see what the fuss had been about. And
the mention I made was the only contribution I had on offer for Red’s
discourse on decline and fall, he with his three egg breakfast, toast,
Swiss cheese, and sausages. Well, he is still a young’un and
has energy requirements. Then, from a distance, from Champaign-Urbana,
Cornelius W Drake kicked in. “My mind leans to the magic of
jackhammering propaganda,” he was heard to say. Then he said: “Literally
nothing extant is separable from history.” Perhaps, it was
settled: whether the ‘base’ has
anything to say, really, about who minds
the store. For the men and the women
at the top
always have plenty of strings to pull,
and we jerk about, and our pockets
In any case, reporting from Champaign-Urbana, here is Cornelius W Drake. He says that to destroy America Republicans need the presidency. Trump and DeSantis going at each other now, in a contest for party head, for the bragging rights of Silverback-in-Chief, will rip asunder the Republican onslaught. Good news for democrats small ‘d’ and bigger ‘D’ in 2024. Otherwise, he had nothing to say for hickory bacon and Boston baked beans. He had even less to say about ‘Girl from the North Country’, Broadway musical interlaced with Bob Dylan songs, as he has not seen it yet, and is not likely to. As if he could just book a ticket and hop on a plane… like a rolling stone… So then, on to that matter of ‘squill-head’…Which was a sobriquet, among others, for Pericles (495 – 429 B.C.). He kind of ran the show that was Athens in its glory days. (440s to the 430s B.C.) But yes: Squill-Head. The condition indicated an elongated skull disfiguring what was otherwise a perfect body. No artist was fool enough to portray Pericles with his helmet off, though he was, on a regular basis, the butt of jokes served up by comic poets not named Jimmy Kimmel. Even so, it was Pericles, politician and general, who rebuilt Athens after the wars with Persia, hoovering up money from the Delian League – the NATO of its day – to do so. Public works endeared him to the people. Can you imagine? You are paid to attend poetry readings, if only to get your carcass off the street? Pericles paid people to go and see the plays of Aeschylus & Co. The arts thrived under his influence, he disbursing cash in every direction. At the end of it all, it was said that he was no richer than when he first involved himself in chicanery, that is to say, politics. For Plutarch who wrote up his life, this signalled virtue. Pericles had endured the follies of others, the insults of his detractors. Indeed, he almost had the last laugh, and then the Peloponnesian War broke out. See Thucydides.
Poetry. Well, silly me, I got it into my head to send out a few poems for possible publication in poetry magazines. I do not do this often, and it has been a long while since the last time the fever hit me, and man, have things changed. But when the business of poetry, when the industry of it becomes a bigger deal than the poetry itself, is there not something amiss? Did Rimbaud have to research ‘guidelines’ forever and a day just to approach a magazine here or a magazine there or ubiquitously somewhere? Too Tall Poet, peering down at me from his Olympian vantage point, bemused by the proximity of a Lilliputian like myself, but so as to let it be known, told me a thing. The other day in the Oxford Café, he said, “Well, you know, Rimbaud, before he was out of his teens and got into arms dealing in his more mature years, he had already worked his way past the notion that the writing of verse accords one magical powers.” I nodded: but of course. That is to say, I agreed. And yet, it is written in stone: thou shalt have password compatibility with our functions before submitting your detritus to our magazine’s inner sanctum. It shalt not be double-spaced but may be so when the moon is at its fullest, spring equinox or some such pending, and you must endeavour to get past the fire-eating dragon at our portal, or we will know the reason why. Demographics acceptable to us vis-à-vis your person may vary from season to season. Check your almanac.” Clearly, verse does, in fact, accord someone magical powers. That tin star editor in that one-horse town? Eleleu! Eleleu! Alright, I pile on, but one had best be a specialist in the submissions game to get one’s offerings through minefield after minefield of protocol.
November 7, 2022: Yellowstone. A TV series. Four season’s worth, so far, a fifth imminent, and I am at a loss to explain why it has won me over. (I worry for this upcoming season. Will it begin striking false notes, the show’s popularity derailing what has been compelling thus far? Is there gluten in the pumpernickel?) In any case, I cannot claim for it any overarching excellence as a work of art such as one might claim for The Iliad or War and Peace or something a little closer to home timewise; Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle of novels, for instance, that I have yet to read though Harman tells me they are first rate. There have been other TV series which are arguably better conceived, better written, better acted – you name it, so that, it must be that, with Yellowstone, we are talking how the parts, the whole sum of them aggregating to something greater than the whole, do a runner on Aristotelian notions of dramatic unity, and a sweat lodge really does speak for humankind’s urge to sit right with God.
The violence, and there is slaughter, lots of it, is implausible. Women will complain of the testosterone, and not a few men; me, I have trouble with it. Kelly Reilly, British actress, plays her character way, way over the top, she portraying the business-savvy daughter of a rancher who owns a spread the size of Rhode Island. (Recently I noted, as I watched the last episode of Versailles go down, that between running that ranch as a Dutton in leather and running France as Louis IV in silk – well, there did not seem to be a great deal of difference.)
Again, the violence… as if in and of itself, it were the beating heart of a country looking for its ever-elusive soul, one that perhaps had never been found and so, was never lost. So then, who has the most right to the land in a spiritual sense? The tribe with its casino? The rancher with his cows? The wheeler-dealers from out of state keeping the governor afloat with their fancy-dancy money schemes? The lowly stable boy? The geek with metaverse at his fingertips? The heartachingly beautiful and noble horses? The wolf from spirit-time or, as it were, the timbered hills? <Plutarch: ‘Assume that exile is a calamity….’>
Again, Kelly Reilly on a quest, looks here, looks there for the holy grail of a ‘truthful moment’ amidst so many moments debased in time or getting there, if not for calm and a smoke break in the storm. Her father who loves her but is capable of great wrath, is an Arthurian figure, unmistakably patriarchal, having taken on, as it were, all that is infernal in politics and finance worldwide but mostly Montana. There is the Indian nation too, the members of which the rancher will eventually align himself to… they have a common enemy to face, or that which parlays the land into spreadsheets and algorithms and the ka-chink of cash-flow. And this is only to scratch the surface, not to mention what the effects of the love stories – a triad of them at least – bring to bear on the politics as usual and the sense that it is all falling apart – human society and the hills. I had best stop here lest I embarrass myself.
Because indeed: the hard ass cowboys. And even the fact of them might beggar belief, just that, in my travels, I have known them – not cowboys as such, but men one might not love but one respects all the same. No special pleading for them. Life. Hell, life ain’t fair. Get on your horse. Do a job. Ride. One is condemned to do one’s best cowboying to no audience and to no applause, the rodeo thing just ‘showing off’. (One suspects the writers of the series to have been familiar with the poetry of WS Graham. Written in that poetry, scratched in stone like a would-be escapee in a dungeon’s squalor: one does not write poetry for the applause, though one could be wrong.) And the women who despise men who are cowardly, who are little men strutting about like big men, as if anything has truly changed since high school when the same dramas and farces were afoot; the women who do not tolerate fools… Say that in viewing Yellowstone, I have been inhabiting a romantical realm of honourable cowboys and noble animals, not to mention the ultra-empiricists – the tribes, and you would be right, and I have no defense. As Cornelius Drake, from his demesne in Champaign-Urbana, wrote me a few days ago: “There are no good people in this thing – they’re all sh-ts and louses and thoroughly reprehensible. Partly because they swear too much. As in an over-reliance on profanity to carry a point. Heck, even the horses are into expletives. End of message.” On the other hand, suppose blind Oedipus had had a ranch to run and Antigone had had a weakness for martinis, and Apollo made you do it….
I was all of fourteen. Utah. Army base. I’d steal a pack of my father’s cigarettes, sneak out of the house, head into the desert, park myself on a bit of mesquite, light up under the stars. Half-wild mustang, expecting a treat perhaps, would gather around. Some would rest their muzzles on my shoulder. Breathe. Smoke. Sit silent. The stars wheel. Mystical moments, to be sure, but if the word ‘mystical’ were within ten miles of my head, and thank the gods it wasn’t, there would have been no such thing, no such moments with a bunch of horses, the residues of which moments settled in my soul somewhere and occasionally glow, incandescent, mischievous. Radioactive? The base commander had the horses rounded up and dispatched to the glue factory. My first taste of rage and injustice… bonehead authority… I have gone on about this before at other times, in other venues, but now and then, the recollection comes barreling back, and besides, I am only attempting to determine why I have been such a sucker for a TV series….
This morning, I had occasion to read up again on Theseus, ancient Greek hero alleged to have founded Athens. To pass from the world of Yellowstone to this – it is near seamless, requires no blink of an eye. How Theseus dispatched the bad monsters on his happy trails; how he signed up for the trip to Crete and the Labyrinth which was the Minotaur’s hangout; how he and Ariadne became lovers. There are many variants to the Theseus-Ariadne tale, so Plutarch reports, all of which are likely true one way or the other; how Theseus abandoned Ariadne; or how there was mischance and so, misunderstanding; or how she set off on her own &c. How he returned to Athens and ruled like a wise man, only he was not always so wise, and then his son Hippolytus and all that crazy business with Phaedra…
then, an aside: Since the North Wind, which bent
the pines, was held to fertilize women, animals, and plants, ‘Pityocamptes’ is
described as the father of Perigune, a cornfield goddess. Her
to wild asparagus and rushes suggests that the sacred baskets
carried in the Thesmophoria Festival were woven from these, and
tabooed for ordinary use. The Crommyonian Sow, alias Phaea, is
the white Sow-Demeter whose cult was early suppressed in the
Peloponnese. That Theseus went out of his way to kill a mere
sow troubled the
mythographers: Hyginus and Ovid, indeed, make her a boar, and
Plutarch describes her as a woman bandit whose disgusting behaviour
her the nickname of ‘sow’. But she appears in early Welsh myth
as the Old White Sow, Hen Wen, tended by the swineherd magician
Coll ap Collfrewr, who introduced wheat and bees into Britain;
and Demeter’s swineherd magician Eubuleus was remembered in the
Thesmophoria Festival at Eleusis, when live pigs were flung down
a chasm in his honour. Their rotting remains later served to
fertilize the seed-corn (Scholiast on Lucian’s Dialogues between
I. The Greek Myths, Robert Graves.
November 5, 2022: Someone whom I have never met - poet and translator - sent me a link. He would call my attention to an essay recently published in the The Point. Which I read and had a bit of trouble with, as I am not sure I got the author’s drift entirely and yet, there were patches in her writing that struck me as worthy of taking on board. It was as if someone were saying what I had been thinking for years but never was able to put into words. For instance, this teaser: When I later became part of the ‘poetry world’ however, I realized that no one cared about my ideas. Rather, audiences wanted my traumas punctuated by millennial irony and a kind of wink-wink cleverness. Goodness, she has audiences? But cleverness, indeed, is the operative word… More importantly, we can see the aspirational framework that says if the teenagers possessed the trappings of fame, then they would be happy. They would possess happiness the way you put a quarter into an old machine so it can spit out a gumball – with texture and taste, limited and constantly diminishing in return. Seems clear enough. False gods: always the fly in the mix.
At any rate, there are enough quotables in the woman’s screed to decorate all of Babel’s condominiums, but it would seem the essayist, a Danielle Rose, is suggesting that the poets of the day have struck up a false relation with poetry and believe poetry to be infused with talismanic powers it simply does not have as will obviate the emptiness, the puniness, the lack of power in their lives to bring about a world more suitable to their inclinations. Something along those lines. It appears she sees herself as a disciple of Ezra Pound and laments the hollowing-out of high modernism, but do not let me put words in her mouth. Again, I cannot be sure I get the full import of this woman’s drift, just that I believe I am in sympathy with it. Here we can see how poetry promises a kind of ‘good life’ to its adherents. And that, Holy Philosopher’s Stone, poems are deemed to have superpowers. I must have mislaid that cape somewhere….
I ought to give the essay another
read-through, one more attentive this time around – it deserves the effort, but
between you, me, and the lamppost, and God knows what sort of wretches
are hanging from it now, I am not likely to. Laziness. I should
just admit to my age and drink rum pot. Should give some other
a shot at the old tin can. I could set the essay aside and suggest
it treats, with updated language, with nothing more than the excesses
and consequences of celebrity culture and the social media wind
tunnel of which this ‘post’ is a minute part, albeit at the
remotest fringes of the whole superstructure, a rogue bit of
from a shadow of the sun. I could say there has been, there
is, and always
will be a relationship between the state of language and political
dysfunction, as when language gets so overweighted with theory
it breaks down and no longer makes sense and is incapable of
response to fascist hijinks, and the cat will play.
4, 2022: Harman
and I had to move. New landlord with ideas drove
us out. Renovate. Renovate. Gut the old watch-repair
ground floor that was our old landlady’s command
central and replace with a slick art gallery stuffed
Left behind: the back balcony, tenuous adjunct
to the agéd edifice,
from which, over the years, in all the seasons, I
watched thousands of twilight hours blooming, then
moons staring back with something of a leer, glass
of wine and cigarette on the go. We moved only a
few blocks down
the main drag, same neighbourhood,
true, but it may as well be a different world to
which we took our worldly goods.
I was on an Evelyn Waugh kick back in September. Had resolved to read all the Waugh novels I had yet to read. And I would settle it once and for all in my mind: was, or is he, despite what were his ultraconservative views on things in his day, worthy? I read and could not say. Brideshead Revisited, and the Sebastian Flyte portrait was as moving as when first encountered in the TV and film treatments. Something near unbearably sad in the war trilogy, though they were not anti-war novels as such with message, just accounts of people muddling along to their respective dooms. And the satire that could stem from any age, let alone that of tweedy Brits having at foxes and fizzes and desultory flings… Instances of bigotry that have put off readers I know, put them well off the books; the cattiness, the snobbery… they are there, starkers, on the page, to be sure…. No paragon of humanity, perhaps, and yet the man was a good writer even so. Tainted then, as it were, do his books deserve to survive? Yes? No? Anyone for piquet? Distasteful, even, to broach the question. Pulp the Austen oeuvre for girlish peccadilloes? If we must ask of all books that they, at all times, conform to our views… But you know where this is going… Some gassy auto da fé. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s rampant mouth. A civilization so frightened of its own inadequacies it cannot tolerate a lampoon or the odd raspberry. Back to Mr Drake. Who wonders why those who would pursue an ethical path through life would require God in the rumble seat. Innocent question, surely. But which god? That One that Ahab forsook when he smashed his quadrant against the deck and sailed by dead reckoning, which is where we are in our history? (As per Lunar, raising his hand for permission to speak in a cold and philistine universe.) Drake: The extraordinary development of the human eye, for instance, prompts especially the religious sort to see teleology at work rather than millions of years of hit and miss, ‘blind’ (mind the pun) mutations that ultimately resulted in the eye. Or, crane your neck, gawk at the universe, that one up there. Let Freddy Flintstone have his inning: “Crikey. Awesome!” However, there’s always this: some astronomer lying in wait: “The universe is out to kill you.” So much for cave art. Is the Troy op in The Iliad a false flag? Me, I had said: “Put your Random foot in, take your Designer foot out, do the hokey-pokey, shake it all about—” Drake: As for a personal god, who knows? It’s all unknowable.” Sibum: evil exists. Waugh: Goat butts head of police...
The abovementioned Iliad reminds me: recently, I brought a copy of The Odyssey home, purchased at my local bookstore. My third read-through this year of the epic, do not ask why. The translation in question is by Stanley Lombardo. The photograph on the cover – courtesy of the Apollo 11 mission – of an earthrise would suggest, I assume, that our perspective has shifted somewhat. Cosmically cosmopolitanized? At first blush, I thought the translation would go one up on the Fagles effort, my current favourite, but no, even if there are things about Lombardo’s treatment that I like, the way he, for instance, will frame the odd metaphor, set it apart somewhat and then pick up the narrative again…. Which brings me to this: every year I resolve to teach myself Greek so that I will not find myself at the mercy of translations, especially those that have no sense of line break or scansion. Each year, I fail. Impaled on the letter Psi. Drawn and quartered by a diphthong. Inflected. Done in by Xenophon by the Euxine…
November 2, 2022: During the course of my chemo treatment, one of the books that got me through was a John Dryden (1631-1700) omnibus. The astringent iambic pentameter of his satires, the rhyming pedal to the metal couplets, began to haunt whatever was still viable in my mind. I was hearing, as I read, a mile-long freight train snaking down from the hills onto the arid flats near Spences Bridge, BritishColumbia, on a baking hot summer’s day from my vantage point in an Indian (Salishan?) cemetery. Clank-clank-clank-clankety-clankety-clank-clank-clank…
Which is not to suggest a rhythmless Dullsville but relentlessness of beat and rhyme, and Dryden was taking no prisoners. Just that the couplets were giving me whiplash. Over the next few months, I would remark on this to Lunar who, with infinite patience, would remark back. Said he, and I paraphrase: “When it comes to rhyme, well, let’s just say that the American ear and the English ear hear rhyme differently, as if by way of different frequencies. The thing is, if you’re an American ear pinging to a rhyme closing in, best you ignore it. Pretend it ain’t there. The Brit ear hears but does not dwell on the claptrap, the sin-gin-bin-tin-never again knock-ons of it all and so, rhyme is no impediment to appreciation. Never gets in the way. It’s just a way of keeping score, rhyme is, just as money is a way of keeping score, and we get on with our lives.” Lunar sure has his ways, does he not? But as for reading Dryden…
other day, I chanced upon a blurb that characterized
a book as ‘immersive’.
What, baptismal? Was one to be dunked? Waterboarded?
Damn if I just now barely managed to avoid even thinking
allowing it to soak Mr Dryden’s oeuvre in brine. Even so, his mind, steeped in
Homer and Virgil and Horace et al, what we might dismissively
disregard as the canon, was all the while according full
attention to the immediate issues of the day. I do
not know if Dryden even makes it on my ‘favourite poets’ list, but with some trepidation I saw a
kindred spirit, so to speak, in his words, and perhaps it was
playing peekaboo with me, and I had new worries. In any case,
ago, I dropped the curtain on Ephemeris, first run, and for all
I knew, it truly was to be never again. There were reasons for
this, chief of which was I had wearied of the effort. Wearied,
too, of the author’s voice. It is the last thing that could possibly
enchant the author – that Self-Siren producing auditory effects
that only it can detect, and he best chain himself to the nearest
available mast whenever he might stoop to vowel and syllable
and greasy thought. All the usual sound and fury, the futile
Bush-Cheney hangover was winding down; Obama was stretched
awfully thin, getting scarecrow-ish, Trump
in the wings, languidge-speak uber alles at the wheel of poetry’s demolition car, and, resistance,
push-back, re-think, where was thy sting?
Just to say I have still to make my peace with rhyme. I wonder how many boxcars there are in a mile’s worth of train. I am as disheartened as before, as I am even now unsure of my motives: why chatter away again – perhaps if only in an empty room? How about a seemingly abandoned cemetery, crosses askew, and in my twenties, and I am having a moment out of Celine, the sun a cigarette burn in the sky? But I shall endeavour at the very least to provide some company for a few like-minded souls, should any care to hang about the fence. To stay sane may well be the only thing one human owes another. All else follows.
Hence, recommended: two recent poetry publications:
Mouth, James Sutherland-Smith
The River and the Black Cat, James Sutherland-Smith, Shearsman Books
Resuming where I left off, as it were, ten years ago…
1, 2022: It
is not as if Plutarch had little useful to say. It is not
as if his ‘middle-style’ prose
lacked for charm. But I was looking for an escape hatch out of
the Trump-Putin nexus-complexus.
I doubted that some escape pod would do the trick, as in ‘podcast’,
no matter the subject on offer. How best string pearls? I had read
plenty of the man’s lives of notable Greeks and Romans over
the years – mostly military heroes and politicos and the
like, but I had yet to read any of the essays he wrote that, for
came to sit so well with Montaigne. I struck the ‘send’ button,
and, presto! books arrived. Three of the suckers. Loeb Classics,
vols I, VI and VII of the Moralia, all that was available. My local
bookstore, the one that could, had nothing of Plutarch’s
moralizing in stock, the ‘green for Greek’ pocket-sized
editions, ZephText for font. I thought I had a reasonable chance
my get-away walk-about in Plutarch’s pagan mind, in his well-organized
pagan mind, one that had command of what was best in the, you guessed
it, Pagan Mind; in what that mind had thought and written from
Homer and Hesiod on, and that had a passing acquaintance with the
too – up until Plutarch’s hour, circa the first
century A.D and into the second, Hadrian consolidating the
I sampled the three volumes at random – to get a feel for what I had on my hands by way of chapter headings. ‘On Inoffensive Self-Praise’. ‘On the Sign of Socrates’. But wait, am I getting this right? his sneeze? A sneeze as divine guidance? “Well then,” I said to myself, “either Plutarch has a sneaky sense of humour, or Plato, as I have always suspected, was pulling some leg or other, cocking a snoot at the yuppies of his day who held art in sacred regard, just that they held nothing in sacred regard save for patio décor. Perhaps some other witness to Socrates a-swoon in one of his trances had had his sport, and philosophy had its laugh, one long overdue. But let’s have a quick skim of the other two volumes…”
I welcome the suggestion that we get to it, pin that tail somewhere; that we control our passions (as Plutarch would have his peers control theirs), especially in a time like ours of political turbulence. Man, but it gets more caustic and vicious by the hour; more loud and more asinine, and I was saying as much a decade ago. Even so, there is enough of the Romantic in me still to flip the script, toss a dig at the Golden Mean: “Let it rip – those passions! Alright then, case in point: Plutarch has notions, has a say as to how he wishes children to be educated, if only the spawn of the well-off. By all means. Just don’t let them have any fun or entertain funny ideas. He would console his wife over the death of their daughter. His consolation runs for pages. It is a sermon, even if some incubus in me hears honeymooner Jackie Gleason haranguing honeymooner Alice: Here, honey, here’s how we not over-indulge the grieving process, and all the world shall hear it for generations to come. What’s she going to do? Depilate in the street? Mug her breasts for the camera’s bleary eye? Now, Countering Argument No. 1, as follows: educators I speak with retired from the fray… It’s all gratitude on their part, or that it’s out of their hands: they need no longer treat with children offended by Shakespeare but who have no problem with smut, and not a few of them think bullies and hazers are hunky-dory regardless of the race, class, gender, and preferred sneaker brand of the perpetrators. Countering Argument No. 2: CNN disaster site.” …
guess everything was grist for the mill and Plutarch’s mill
was prodigious, he a stand-out as one of the most prolific writers
ever in our civilization. I do not knock him for it, just that,
first blush, and there was that hint of the scold in him, the pedagogical
control-freak, the quote-machine, prat prating on, and it verged
on, if not boring, sucking on a lemon. (As if he should have turned
up as a village character, one of the diehard rearguards in Midsomer
Murders, and perhaps he had motive, say what?) Just that it nonetheless
fascinates, the world that forms in Plutarch’s Moralia such
as I have read so far, its atmosphere a little close, but seemingly
light-years removed from any hint of apocalypse on the horizon
eating up all the oxygen. It is as if its smugness reflects on
approves how we outfoxed so many of the ills that once afflicted
all the Solons and their peers rich or poor, however near or distant
that problematic cousin, never mind what lurks in that petri dish,
those rising seas, the methane leaks, invasive technology. Its
culture wars go a little easier on a bifurcated brain with dodgy
than do ours with their virulence. And I continue to read, beginning
to get a sense of the man’s measure, cutting him
slack, and I am almost shot of the Trump-Putin gong show
for a while,
so, and I can now spiritually afford to switch horses in
mid-stream. For it is to be remarked upon: London Lunar,
has got his notoriety. He is arriviste, and on the strength
two books. A Factotum in the Book Trade. Brought out by
Biblioasis, Windsor, Ontario. Gone into several printings.
Coiled in Naples. Served up by Haus Publishing, Armchair
It has made it onto at least one Best Books of the Year
lists, courtesy of the New Yorker. And it deserves the
I say so myself,
for all that literature, the practice of, is almost wholly
corrupt. Whatever was wrong with just having talent now
is a kapellmeister, I mean, genius? Happen to know several
disgruntled lot they are.
The Affirmations, Luke Hathaway, Biblioasis, Windsor, Ontario. (Whatever trans-mystical means as per the blurbs, this book has within it some fine poetry.)
Orphans of Empire, Grant Buday, Touchwood Editions. (For anyone who has never breathed the various airs of British Columbia, this work, a novel, will put the mackinaw on your back.)
Divan, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gingko,
translated and annotated by Eric Ormsby (A
lovely book I fear will go heedlessly,
neglected as it has got not Academe going for
it but scholarship).
Two Novels I Fell in Love With, and, as such, They Surprised Me No End Department (for all that I came to them late):
Augustus, by John Williams
The Ides of March as proffered by Thornton Wilder, a very popular author in his day