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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.

My father 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.

In the person of Simonides, Mary Renault preaches. It is not fire and brimstone preaching. It is not even sermonizing, but it is an argument she builds, one based on some words of the poet, or that, to paraphrase, all of us are capable of evil, but, with any luck, we may wreak more good than bad on the world. The thing to do is … well… do not volunteer evil. Now, what possessed Pound to believe that Mussolini would bring off another Renaissance? I do not know what Pound was smoking. Some Sextus Propertius Red, perhaps? (Or Yeats flirting with fascism… one too many seances, was it?) It was, I suppose, one reaction, among others, to mass culture, and they – Yeats and Pound – not only lost the battle, they lost the war. Even so, 1978, and there was Mary Renault, so I suggest, still fighting those battles, still losing the war. For they ought to go through life with some integrity at least – the tyrant, the poet, the courtesan, the potter, goat herder, ship captain, or else the gods, duckie, the gods will not be best pleased. Luck is a factor in human evolution; it is not all genetics. At the top of the food chain where some pathogen or other can, willy-nilly, do us in, still betting on the roulette wheel that is natural selection, we, no doubt, find Simonides unevolved as well as pompous. But in his day, as a poet, he had respect; he was viewed as a conduit between what is human and what is divine. If we have advanced beyond the need for such conduits, necessarily so as famous style manuals would have us evolved, lest our state-of-the-art intellects lose their street creds, what then seems to have gone missing? One must not renege upon the Muses. Yes, it is as if page 181 of the Pantheon Books edition of The Praise Singer has the answer. That I bring back Ephemeris after a ten-year hiatus for no other reason than to hear the sound of my voice is me with a party horn. There is such a din out there.

Simonides was scandalized: he caught his young nephew Bacchylides writing out his verses on wax tablets. It was as if he caught him smoking. Poetry was meant to be the art of memory itself, and Simonides is credited with having invented a mnemonics system to that end. But would we have had Homer without those wax tablets? Would we have our cults of self-expression? At any rate, the alphabet not yet fully formed, what happened was momentous, arguably with mixed results. What is a poem for? The pencilled inscription (the inscriber unknown) in my copy of The Praise Singer cannot be it: little drops of water/little grains of sand/make the mighty ocean/and the pleasant land. Sets my teeth on edge. Like so was the west conquered: with small acts of kindness, scores upon scores of dead buffalo and tribes the summation, the mathematics courtesy of Pindar and the Ghost Dance and the Ace of Spades…. That a dead aristocrat might expect his favourite horses to be entombed with him is one thing, but when Renault depicts the sacrifice of four chariot horses after a victory, it is betrayal she is on about. The first two horses do not see it coming. The third senses something. The fourth smells death. Terror-whitened eyes. Can one hang silly little verses, a flibbertigibbet’s, from a gibbet?

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.

Postscript 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).

 

November 26, 2022: 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….

Obviously, I had bought the book at a local book fair, in Knowlton, say, arty town of the Eastern Townships, and brought it back to the cabin – Chez Harman – and forgot its existence. (Alluding here to a book referenced in the post previous: J.B. Trend’s The Civilization of Spain, first printed in 1944 by the Oxford University Press.) The thing is, the other day, I chanced on the book stuck behind a couple of dusty tomes, ballast for a cabin shelf. Straightaway, I commenced to read. Spain, which was to play so great a part in the discovery and colonization of the New World, was once discovered and colonized itself. It is a simple sentence, this inaugural one to the text, and yet it seems so perfectly weighted for its job, which is to play the herald for what is to come. I sensed I had a treasure in the offing.

Well, the caves of Altamira – Spain had buffalos. The Phoenicians – Spain had copper and fish. The Carthaginians for whom the Ionians were meddlers – Spain had gold and oranges. The Romans – Spain gifted Rome with Seneca, Martial, Lucan, Trajan, Hadrian et al…. Then later, the Moriscos (Moslems) and the Jews. The loss of those two cultures was catastrophic to Spain, incalculably so… I cannot boil things down any more than this…. That the Romans gave Spain town councils which themselves were partly shaped by what preceded the Romans, the thing being that Spaniards knew representative government before the English ever did. There was much in Spain that was robustly liberal and in advance of Europe, until the onset of the Inquisition which destroyed thought, which paved the way to absolutist governance, which hamstrung the country right up to the Spanish Civil War and beyond. (Speaking of Phillip II, one of the precious bigots who had had their way with the country: he died, his body covered with relics and lice.) Spain: a civilization of near misses and what-might-have-beens. All that tonnage of gold and silver shipped out of the New World into Spanish coffers – it only served to undermine the country’s evolution into something halfway tolerable for plain folk: the evils of inflation, the ubiquities of unfixable economies, and Montezuma had his revenge. Cervantes, primordial novelist, El hombre – he was decidedly not sentimental over the good, old days, but jobbery was a word good to go for a depiction of what was his day, and slipshod administrations, one after the other, were to tumble across a couple of centuries without much in the way of interludes or small mercies. Even enlightened leaders can do nothing if the ‘people’ no longer care, having been messed with for too long, the institutions all around sucked dry of utility. Left unresolved to this day and in too many places outside Spain: secularism versus religious fanaticism. Moreover, those who champion ‘practical’ forms of education over that of academic learning (and here we mean ‘academic’ in the best sense of the word, not mental noodling between noodlists only), might do well to study Spanish history and see how the decline of academic learning slows down the vital processes of a people, stunts their economic growth, makes them hungry, sick, and backward. I am not sure how these words apply to us, written as they were some eighty years ago, but I suspect in some way, shape, and form, they do – as a proverbial, as a cautionary tale. Lastly, in addition to the charm of the writing and the clear-eyed history (there was much to be clear-eyed about, the Inquisition, for example, and how Spain conducted itself in the New World at the expense of the people colonized), what I got from Mr Trend was a liberal mind not yet self-consciously liberal, obligatory, self-satisfied, and here, he must have been writing in an atmosphere of political craziness no less hot house than ours: fascism, the ensuing war. The 30s and 40s that built my parents. All begin the beguine. You betchum, Red Ryder. He would have had plenty of excuses to rant and rave for his favourite ideological side, at the cost of measure and reason, whatever good freight those words still manage to carry in our loony tunes charade.


Postscript I: Lunar instructed me to try on Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano) for a fitting. All I was able to see, courtesy of YouTube or a capricious internet, was a trailer or two in English and the full-length feature – but in Italiano. I do have a smattering of Italian lodged in my bean still, one garnered from a single course in the language some years back, and a handful of visits to Italy, but it is insufficient for allowing me to get more than a hazy idea of what boots it in a production of neorealismo plus fantasia. It did look like a movie I would want to see. It is not that YouTube or a capricious internet fail to provide a service, but the protocols that differ from region to region, and the ads that perforate the service… I mean, are we any better off? One is in the middle of a guitar recital, say, and voilà! a message from a vid campaign obtrudes. Guess what? Your buttocks are a concept; they deserve a concept in kind: bring on X-Chair. Ta da. Civilization has hinged on less. But – where were we? Right. At bar 23 of Albeniz’s ‘Asturias-Leyenda’. Indeed, can hardly wait for the cunning that will display itself on reinstituted Twitter accounts under the tutelage of E Musk.

Postscript II: The Moesian has returned. Fresh off a tour of the Balkans. He now feels himself charged to extend Rebecca West’s famous history of the Balkans: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. He means to begin with where she left off and bring it to the present day. Big shoes to fill. We wish him well.

 


November 24, 2022:
Too Tall Poet eats dinner at lunch. I sat with him at Nikas, he with fork pitching into his fillet of sole, his rice and shiny spuds, the wagon wheels of lemon slices. “The long poem,” he said, “is unreadable. It’s unreadable particularly when two conditions occur.”
He scrutinized a section of his fish. He resumed. “Condition One: lack of story. Condition Two: lack of characters.” He did seem adamant on these points. “Well,” I said, “I suppose I am peculiar. I’ll read long poems for no reason at all, for no reason other than the quality of the mind behind them. Do I necessarily require a story to keep my interest up? No, not always. I don’t need characters whose doings and utterances engage, divert, entertain and otherwise, occupy my attention. Non-sequitur: an awful lot of rhyme ruined me for Spenser, but not altogether Dryden. But I can tell you what truly renders a long poem, or any poem, for that matter, unreadable, unwanted, un-anything. Riddle me this, sir: the absence of charm in the telling.” There was the briefest instance of a dark look on Too Tall Poet’s face. No doubt, I was letting down the side. I might have put more of my good standing at risk: I might have carried on with mention of Lucretius or some of the better didactic poets of centuries gone by, but I left it at mention of Pound and Eliot, Pound because not at all of the Cantos is beyond the pale, and Eliot… Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Or some such. The two fixed poles of human existence: fear and pride. Whatever that has to do with the price of tea in Glasgow or the length of poem in Vladivostok…

I might have tossed into the breach a few Latin bits. Nemo contra Deum nisi Deus ipse. For the hell of it. And then looked to see if another dark look would hold sway with Too Tall Poet’s mien, now that the reek of sole had disappeared down his gullet. No one against God except God himself. Goethe figures in this somehow, but exactly how has escaped my memory. And sometimes, as if all I have left of manly pride, I will balk at hitting the Google button. Too much like ringing for the butler or the maid. Even if the fate of western civilization hinges upon that damn summons. Goethe is not going anywhere….

Otherwise, one does not read Mary Renault for her prose style, not that it is execrable – that style. What does one read Mary Renault for? Now and then her philosophers and poets and actors and artists and heroes of ancient times come alive and scratch some perverse itch in me: the urge to go back into those years and read the face of, say, an Aristotle or an Anacreon, if only to see if they were having me on, if only to determine the extent of their various passions in the light of day, no electric grid anywhere within centuries. Sometimes I get a whiff, in Renault’s writing, of a woman rather stuffily defending high culture over and against low-brow fulminations. Always near the surface: her sense of what is proper with respect to anything that one can hold in the mind for longer than a nano-second, or how to stay square with Apollo while taking tea and petit fours with Pisistratus. Preciously or not, she tells me, by way of what is written between the lines she wrote, for instance in her book The Praise Singer, that our poets have over-sacralized themselves even as they have trashed whatever was sacred in the business of making poetry. I have charged modernism, perhaps unfairly, for causing the toenail of any artist to be regarded as a spiritual estuary, unassailable, but God knows, what has succeeded modernism is anything but a redress, a re-balancing, an outright cure. [Mary Renault… an example of her non-fiction: “The blanket generalization that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is a historical absurdity (compare, for instance, Nero with Marcus Aurelius); and tyrants came in all shades of personality from benign father-figures to sadistic monsters. What they had in common was that they were all heads of state, in whom resided the poet’s only hope of public performance and recognition, even though he might be a man of property. Thus, his situation was quite different from that of writers in other ages of patronage, such as Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson, who could pick up a living in time of need through the theatre or the printing press….”] Well, who needs public performance? Recognition? Who has property? We have got the internet. What ho the right to bear arms? Feelings… wo-o-o feelings…

Whereas the prose to be had in Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner, translation by H.T. Lowe-Porter, 1876-1963, great grandmother of Boris Johnson? As if a jingle, the words come to me: how much low-brow in the high-brow? What is this mongrel brew, this here mélange? German, Scots, French patois. Lots of ‘leal’ and ‘mickle’. A word like swound. ‘Thumper’ came up; the word stood in place of ‘male member’, and Harman investigated, googling away, but then she called it a night when put in view of page after page of epithets for sexual congress. She was, however, bemused. None too subtle prose, at any rate. Sly prose. Whatever the prose, the Mann book is, in any case, a tale so far of brother-sister incest and what will become of the issue, the child brought about by the union. But what to make of a book entitled: The Contentment of the Soul in the Contemplation of the Ancient Remains of Spain? Any ideas? See below.

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.)

 


November 19, 2022: Solon, lawgiver, poet, too, came up with some absurd prohibitions regarding women and yet, his legislation was what we would call ‘progressive’. 590s B.C. or so, and a collective of Athenians were getting to be better off on account of the laws, and there was debt relief for the poor. He had a law passed that was pure stricture: it forbade speaking ill of the dearly departed. This must have deprived the Athenians of a pleasure. Although it did not become law (it was but a proviso on Solon’s part), Solon suggested one ought not remark on a man’s fortune, on his well-being, as it might turn in an instant – that being well-off, and once peachy-keen, now he is wretched. Yes, refrain from such surmisals until said wretch is in his grave, and you will not have fanned a flame that burned down his house or cost him his tenure. I have heard from J Foulard. He still kicks at the can in London somewhere, within shouting distance, I suppose, of Lunar. The latter man has been espied in view of a web cam or some such, speaking words to the act of ‘travel’ and his suspicions with respect to ‘inner journeys’, and the first galaxies, the forming of. Ants, you know, may have been the world’s first agriculturalists.

I had been looking for Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, a book that suffused my teen-aged youth with intimations of decline and fall, but I came away from my local book shop with a copy, instead, of Mann’s The Holy Sinner, along with Mary Renault’s The Praise Singer. If I do not get medieval for a spell, seeing as it was not that long ago that I had occasion to read Marguerite Yourcenar’s The Abyss (which is more renaissance than it is medieval times, but whatever), I may find myself in a Pisistradid frame of mind, all tyrant and glittering artist.

Watched the final episode of The English (BBC-American co-production of a western); it left me confused. I told myself I am not a critic, let alone a reviewer as such in any professional capacity, so that I am not obliged to fake comprehension, to pretend to ‘getting it’ when I am without a clue, and the odds are good that it is my own fault, this being clueless. But more quickly than you can say ‘Jimmy crack corn’, and of a sudden, well, the card was flashed: it is syphilis that threatens to explain and perhaps excuse the Heart of Darkness madness that took over some men’s minds out there in Wyoming before the turn of the last century, and they went about massacring the tribes and each other over, say, livestock. And psychos inflicted pain for the hell of it. Then again, most likely, I missed something in the episodes previous and so, I should have seen what was coming. What I thought I was in for, the hope that was raised at the outset, was that I might come to a better understanding of the land and the history, and my sense that, just under the surface of human things in America, there always seemed to be a nightmare gone quiescent but far from extinct. The crushing of the Indian, the rape of the land – it starts with that: life in the New World. And in some passages throughout the installments, it seemed I could say my old unease was expressly addressed in a near Wagnerian fashion. So then, I am sorry to say I was left whistling dixie, as it were, wondering what in the name of all that is sacrosanct I subjected myself to, six episodes worth. This is not condemnation – far from it; it is puzzlement. I was, in fact, moved by scene after scene however long, however brief, but sometimes the writing would disappear or simply lose its pitch. Things flattened out (though the camera work is flat-out superb), and that the last we see of Eli the scout on his horse, giving utterance to his defiance of what is hideous in life, and to his regard for, perhaps love of Lady Cornelia – you would think pitch-perfect was mandatory so as to properly honour what was destroyed, and destroyed forever, and what could never have been consummated in the first instance: the lady syphilitic, the scout with else on his mind. And, just before the final credits, as a shot or two of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, London, appeared on the screen, I was put in mind of the fact that I knew Buffalo Bill’s great-granddaughter in Vancouver, she very much English, student of history, too. Explains nothing. But a weird connection even so. Just one of those things.

Received: Small-Scale Observations, James Sutherland-Smith, Shearsman Books, poetry collection. (As for the last poem in the book, or Z, read at first blush, I did not know that such a poem was permitted in these humourless, joyless, soul-on-the-rack times, but there it is. In this country where Zlatica/walks and shakes her golden head.

The Bead of Blood, James Sutherland-Smith, FACE (Edition Vertigo Premium Books) chapbook.

 


November 17, 2022: It is as if Plutarch, in his life of Lysander, began his piece with an aside. He brought up for immediate discussion a statue of the man, how it portrayed him wearing his hair and beard long ‘in the ancient fashion’, the figure just inside the door at the treasury of Delphi made of Parian marble. He then quotes Lycurgus as having said that a fine head of hair makes handsome men look more handsome and ugly men more terrifying. Be that as it may, it is sometimes the sort of incidental detail that I find compelling when I read ‘classical’ history, or history that pertains to the old Romans and Greeks. I am cruising along in some narrative or other, and then, as if by a trick of light falling on the page, I am transported back through time on the strength of a digression, and I am there if only for a few seconds, though I might feel that my mind has been scored by eternity. For example: In this way he (Lysander) filled the Ephesian harbours once again with traffic, revived the activity of the market, and brought profits to every house and workshop, so that from that moment, thanks to his efforts, the city began to entertain hopes of attaining that degree of stateliness and grandeur which it now enjoys. We could be talking urban revitalization. Baltimore?


“Who was Lysander?” you might ask. Military leader, a player in politics, he was a Spartan. He had much to do with Sparta gaining ascendancy over Athens and, by the way, putting an end to the Peloponnesian War, a grisly conflict. Otherwise, you have no more need of knowing who this man was than you need know of what Martian dust is compounded. (Unless, of course, you are a curious sort, or you have plans to tour the red planet.) When I was in my late teens the Proust opus was congenial to me on account of the digressionary nature of the writing. Slow off the mark, but by my thirties going on forty, I reckoned that the secret of good writing was not in full-throated 24/7 sublimity but in simply being there as much as one was able to be anywhere, be one Chance the gardener or not in the movie Being There. On a good day as opposed to one hopeless, and one is in the vicinity, and one sends a runner with dispatches back to the reader at HQ….


And well, who was right? Nietzsche or Orwell? The one man wrote that civilization is built on cruelty; the other said that no civilization built on cruelty can endure: it will collapse from a lack of vitality, inherently suicidal. I would not care to inhabit a room with either man, playing devil's advocate to their assertions. The temple granary full, goats wandering the streets of Uruk circa 3200 B.C., and does it all willy-nilly conduce to sadism? To an idyll? What about American country club culture all snobbery and sexual terrorism? Uruk with martinis? Do I hyperbolize? Does one worry as to what might come off the Persian highlands to trouble one’s repose? Last night, episode 4 of The English, western, limited series, and it came up for review: art and horror (as in horrific acts, humankind slaughtering humankind). That the two activities exist side by side in some uneasy synergy. Does a beautiful room mean jack-all in a hostile universe, a room that is an ocean and two-thirds of a continent removed from pure space, or say, Wyoming, space that made some white men, and a few women, too, go Heart of Darkness mad? Lunar complains of the designer violence on exhibit in this series, but the episode I watched was about as Greek as reformulations of Greek tragedy can get, seeing that the violence by way of Gatling gun was not depicted; one only heard the rapid-fire effusions vomit death; one inferred that a massacre, brought on by madness, was in progress. Greek tragedians left to their audiences some of the work of imagining. Do Americans have any imagination left? But then, as if on cue, episode 5, and we are back to carnage as a postcard tableau.

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.

 


November 15, 2022: There have been armistice ceremonies in the past few days. But November 11th, 1986, and I was hanging about Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, and a man with bagpipes marched in and wailed away. I do not recall what tune he played (‘Flowers of the Forest’?), just that it was dirge-like enough, and my knees went to jelly, the rest of me haunted stone. I do not recall whether the performance was impromptu, whether it was planned; there were not a lot of people about, no entourage of notables in the man’s wake.


Armistice Day, Vancouver, B.C. was always a slow day to drive cab: not much business except for drunken vets with tipsy girlfriends, and some of these women, in their 60s, were still going strong in the Amoureuse Department. Other less lucky drunks, loners for some reason or other, could not seem to recall what the point was, but they, too, expected to be ferried between hotels, say, the Patricia Hotel to the Drake or to any other hotel with a cavernous pub, huge space wrapped around derelicts in isolation or in company. Much staring into space. Lunar, who has never been exposed to such rites, nonetheless tells me that to be born Romanian guarantees one a musical gift, especially a knack for piano playing. Me, I am having at ‘Rumores de la Caleta’ on the guitar, and I am nowhere near Romanian. True, I am mangling the piece composed by Albeniz. But yes, I am smug with a sense of achievement.

What else? Lunar tells me he has bones to pick. It is that western called The English, a Brit-American co-production released this year. He finds the female character in it unbelievable. He cannot bring himself to find her at all plausible, presumably because she can ride and shoot and handle a bow and arrow, skills which I wager she could have acquired in England. Of course, she could have, even if she was no relation to Buffalo Bill, that transatlantic traveller. He objects, too, to the portrayal of the male lead – the Indian scout, or he objects to the dialogue the man is given to speak. Jonathan Livingston Seagull-ish. I suspect this is a serious dissing. But I have never had anything to do with Jonathan Livingston Seagull in any way, shape, or form and so, I am unable to comment in any way, shape, or form on my old friend’s excuse for contrarian rigor. A rogue pun, like an untrustworthy asteroid, came my way next: Lunar would continue watching, but with reservation(s).

A different 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 are picked.

At a nearby table two senior citizens either man and wife or some other kind of item, had satellite dishes for ears. The man especially was bemused, he professorial in his look. It was either Red’s commentary that was according him such bemusement, or it was the sight of someone as scruffy looking as me coming it high with remarks on neo-liberalism, or that the ‘emptiness’ is very far yet from running its course, only that I was not going to trot out my Trotsky and spill wind for his benefit. A lull in the conversation, and I filled the void with Pericles. Plague, fractious politics, war, death of family members. Does it not sound rather familiar? I was also waiting to hear from Talking Avocado (avocado: Nahuatl for testicle). He would have much to say about the carcass that gave us Bauhausian aesthetics and glottalized literature. A clacking of insect jaws shinnying their way up some Trump tower? Apologies for the impressionism. But no Talking Avocado. Radio silence. Perhaps, he was on the beach collecting driftwood from Pacific surf.

 


November 9, 2022: “Eleleu! Eleleu!” It is the cry I meant to steal from the old Greeks and was expecting to raise on the morning following the mid-term vote in the US. It has a complicated provenance, this cry, to do with Theseus the Athenian returning home from Crete. He had vanquished the Minotaur in the Labyrinth there – with help from Ariadne. He had delivered Athens from the rigours of paying tribute to King Minos. The thing is, Theseus was supposed to signal with a white sail his hero’s return, only he forgot. It was a black sail his father Aegeus saw on the ship’s approach. In his grief, he assuming the sail bespoke bad news – that his son was dead, he threw himself from a cliff to his death. Hence the lamentation on the part of Theseus and his companions, which was to become ceremonial over time, the first cry registering ‘eager haste’, the second ‘trouble and confusion’. The muddled electoral picture? As of this moment, it is unresolved, though the anticipated ‘red wave’ does not look like it will materialize. Even so, things can still go the Republican’s way with respect to the House, and MAGA types will impeach everything that moves as well as the bloom on your peach, the apple in your eye. Black sail, white sail… According to another version of the story, the sail was dyed scarlet from the juicy blossom of the luxuriant holm-oak….

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…

So 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 descendants’ attachment to wild asparagus and rushes suggests that the sacred baskets carried in the Thesmophoria Festival were woven from these, and therefore 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 earned 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 Whores ii. 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 masochist 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 grit darting at you 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 a coherent response to fascist hijinks, and the cat will play.


Throughout these most recent posts, I have gone on about Plutarch, Dryden, Waugh; I neglected to say: “Ovid”. The Mandelstam of his time perhaps. The Roman experienced, directly, the relationship between the ‘state of language’ and the imperial whim, and the emperor’s manipulation of time. Could be the subject of another post if I get time off for good behaviour. Some writers you ‘get’ directly and without fanfare. For this cowboy – though Ovid wrote nothing expressly difficult or obtuse – Ovid is slippery. A charmer, then a snake. Cajoler in chief. What you see is what you get, though it could well be he is only ever pulling your leg – to some subversive effect. The implications, especially of Tristia and The Black Sea Letters, Fasti, not to mention the man’s Ars Amatoria flipping the bird at Augustus C’s moral legislation… what am I saying? I am saying it has been taking while, the import of all things Ovidian sifting down through my threadbare psyche. But back to this essay...grab your knees...see below...

The Horse's Mouth: https://the pointmag.com/criticism/bling-rings/

 

November 4, 2022:  Harman and I had to move. New landlord with ideas drove us out. Renovate. Renovate. Gut the old watch-repair shop on the ground floor that was our old landlady’s command central and replace with a slick art gallery stuffed with sleaze. 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 nightfall, full 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.



Now, enter one Cornelius W Drake, the moniker as if from a novel of manners, John P Marquand vintage, New England savour. However, he is my man in Champaign-Urbana, and he reports, mid-terms soon, that Republicans may have the momentum, but Biden will have the veto. It would seem any halfways sentient man or woman could tender the same report, but there are days, and then there are days. I think the man would prep himself to believe that all will not be lost, should the Republicans sweep and impeach everything in sight. Just that, 2024, and the noose may well have tightened, the republic, such as it is, swinging in the breeze. (If Schopenhauer had had a press pass, along with a soft spot in his bean for Proust, and Mencken too, he might have been our Mr Drake.)

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…

The 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 the word, much less 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, ten years 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 significations… The 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?


I have always had mixed feelings about the art for art’s sake high-maintenance poet Rilke, but I have sympathy for him now, certainly do, what with the dilemma with which it seems he contended: whether to stay silent about the craziness in the air of the time and not pile on, Nazis in their larval stage, or, for God’s sake, say something. (He came to regret his silence, if I remember correctly, but that his death in 1926 spared him the ignominy of his instincts being vindicated, or that nothing good was in the offing. Bertolt Brecht, Rilke’s rival as Germany’s premier lyric poet, on the other hand, as per Stalin, Mao, and the gang’s all here – Brecht let himself carry on as poster boy and scalper for the post-war bloc spin and, great poet or not, he was what some ladies on their lunch break from the bank might call a total prick.) Where am I going?

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…

 

November 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 instance, 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 of finding 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 howlers, too – up until Plutarch’s hour, circa the first century A.D and into the second, Hadrian consolidating the empire.

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.” …

I 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 ours and 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 circuitry 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 much so, and I can now spiritually afford to switch horses in mid-stream. For it is to be remarked upon: London Lunar, remember him? has got his notoriety. He is arriviste, and on the strength of not one but two books. A Factotum in the Book Trade. Brought out by Biblioasis, Windsor, Ontario. Gone into several printings. The Serpent Coiled in Naples. Served up by Haus Publishing, Armchair Traveller Division. It has made it onto at least one Best Books of the Year lists, courtesy of the New Yorker. And it deserves the rating, if I say so myself, for all that literature, the practice of, is almost wholly corrupt. Whatever was wrong with just having talent now that everyone is a kapellmeister, I mean, genius? Happen to know several geniuses. A disgruntled lot they are.



Received:
Temerity and Gall, John Metcalf, Biblioasis, Windsor, Ontario. (A reminiscence of Montreal glory day literariness – among other themes.)

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.)

Western-Eastern Divan, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gingko, translated and annotated by Eric Ormsby (A lovely book I fear will go heedlessly, needlessly 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