Ephemeris is updated every few days, then archived at the end of each month 





January 27, 2024: I was reading along, innocently enough, in William L Shirer’s The Nightmare Years 1930-1940 when was I stopped in my tracks by a pair of sentences running concurrently: “We do not want an offensive war,” he said. “But we do not fear a defensive war.” A certain German, a General von Blomberg had uttered them in the course of a Memorial Day address in Berlin, the words apparently scripted by his master, a certain Hitler. Empty words because the German troops had already marched into the Rhineland, and the Brits and the French were going to bend over and present ritual submission.

But the thing is, the Brits and the French and the Germans notwithstanding, what stopped me in my tracks was not the hypocrisy inherent in the words, but the emptiness of the bloviation which, at that instant, had, along with all its successors in all the years since with any number of mediums – radio, TV, newspapers, the internet, some self-serving 'meemwar' – joined up and became a single shriek in my unsuspecting ear, and it was as if the very hollowness of the words, conjoined as one sustained spew, was the most incendiary thing on the planet, any part of that spew capable of stoking genocide at a single stroke. I had had Trump on my mind and Gaza. In other words: ‘the customary palaver’. Or this: “…that the British government attached the greatest importance to all measures being taken to insure that the plebiscite in Austria was carried out without interference or intimidation from Germany.” – this in reference to the phony diplomacy being waged just prior to the ‘Anschluss’. You can look that up if perfidy interests you. And that, I heard in those words of nearly a century ago now, the current impotence of one WynkenBlinkenandNod with respect to Israel and Gaza. The extent to which Hitler would wipe Czechoslovakia from the face of the earth and the extent to which Netanyahu would have Gaza effaced, man, the passage of time surely brings about weirdnesses, as when two opposites, Nazi and Jew, can seem to become birds of a feather; and the next thing you know we will hear that dinosaurs were, in fact, going the way of the birds, as the fossil records seem to indicate.

And what would we have were we to compare the plot to knock off Hitler and the plot to do in Julius Caesar? (But hey, what about Castro?) We would have one blown plot and one plot made of coffin nails. (As well as one of silly putty.) That the Roman republic was now righteously kaput, finished, dead as the proverbial, and the path was clear (if still problematic) for Augustus Caesar to go and rule for some 40 years by way of pulling strings, ‘ace marionette controller’, and he would wear seal skin, seeing as he believed seal skin would protect a citizen from lightning, of which he was terrified. Enough. Though Trump just now stuck with an 83 million dollar bar tab might be cause for some wiseacre remark here as would accord him a well-deserved Bronx cheer. But yes, enough. I have got nothing literary to go on about. Taking a breather from Proust. My correspondents are all on spring break, regardless of the fact that these are the dog days of winter, and the sidewalks are ice, and one grits one’s teeth. One says, “Patience”.

January 21, 2024: Somewhere along the way I have either read, or I have heard someone do a ‘do tell’: that when Proust wrote of women, in particular, girls, he was really writing of some other gender. I will not argue it one way or the other. (As with writing sex scenes, one is likely to accomplish little more than to reveal one’s ignorance of what sex is and how little one really understands of either the men or the women disporting themselves on the beach, in the dining salons, in the bushes of a park.)

Still, when Proust, by way of his narrator Marcel, rhapsodizes about the charms of a group of girls he spends time with in Balbec (fictional seaside resort in Within a Budding Grove, Part Two), I would say, “Why yes, he is talking girls.” Or, as the case may be, he is expatiating at length on young women. He makes notice of the physical charms that they will lose as age sets in. Quite apart from the genes involved, how they will fare in life will change the features of their faces. It is all a bit on the grim side even as he leans on the fact that they, the girls, the young women, are, in fact, ‘young’ and lovely and so, gather ye rosebuds while you may, because, you know… And then, without warning, he is on about the play of light upon the sea. And then it hits you: that while it seems he has been going overboard, seeing these girls, these young women, as aesthetic objects, subjects for his scrutiny – this one’s shape of nose, this one’s athletic grace, this one’s direct manner, that one’s mangling of her mother tongue – that while it certainly seems all that, now you know he has been speaking all the while about both the transience and the pervasiveness of beauty such as we hold in our eyes from time to time. There is joy in it. There is heartbreak in it, given what time will take from us. It is as if (and it very well might be) that the summation of a human life, male or female, is within that play of light on the sea.

... .... The human face is, indeed, like the face of the God of some Oriental theogony, a whole cluster of faces, crowded together but on different surfaces so that one does not see them all at once....

Recently, I tried again to watch a flick from the late 60s called The Swimmer (Burt Lancaster). One might argue that it, too, speaks to a seeming innocence and then, well, reality, or, as it were, rank failure darkens a pretty picture of poolside suburban to-die-for life. But at the point when Lancaster begins to strike one as pathetic (that poolside encounter with an embittered lover with whom he had had a fling unmasks his athletic hijinks, his array of pecs, as but camouflage for a life of self-told lies), I switched it off. It was not that the movie was untrue to experience, but it sat on the senses as something dated; it wore its 60s-ness too much and yet, this ridiculous figure – Lancaster (and were some of the women right to dismiss him as an idiot?), this 'hunk' is presented as an object lesson: this is what happens to everyone sooner or later as one breaststrokes or ‘Australian crawls’ one's way to one's demise. One asks of the character Lancaster portrays, “Does he derive any pleasure, any at all, from his being alive, from his affluence, from his apparently healthy body able to go about in leaps and bounds? When he races the horse for the sheer fun of it, is that joy on his face or a grisly refusal to face the fact that he is effing well going to die? Moreover, he has probably funked his relations with wife and family, and there is now no fixing any of it. On his death bed, when he is lastly conscious of the play of light on any surface, let alone the sea, is he going to behold that light as something that has been grand or sinister all this while? The other day, I was up quite early; it was still dark out and frigidly cold, and as I went to make a cup of coffee, I heard a pickup truck warming up just beyond the window, and the sound of its idling set off a chain of memories in me testifying to years of early risings and getting to work, as if this is all there has been, the Proust prose nothing, Lancaster's gymnastics nothing in the face of that sort of imperative.

… …. The truth was, though as yet it was hardly apparent, that she was highly intelligent, and that in the things that she said the stupidity was not her own but that of her environment and age….

So Proust's narrator, Marcel, speaks of the young Albertine who is going to figure a fair amount in his life. When I read the sentence the other day, it set off two thoughts in me: one, that there is a certain kind of human being who will speak of another in this way, as if a spy or a scout ‘assessing a situation’; and two, that there is a certain kind of human being who will simply accord Albertine the benefit of the doubt. Be she intelligent or not, she is a human being and equal to anybody in the eyes of, what, God, the law, a general consensus as to whether real intelligence matters or not in the conduct of life. Third thought, or a question rather: how would Mme Sévigné, some two hundred years before Proust, have depicted Albertine in one of her letters about the life of the court in the time of the Sun King? With asperity? Would she have approved? Would she have refrained from any kind of judgment except to say, perhaps, that the girl is no good at playing cards, let her eat asparagus? I hear it frequently enough: we are living in a ‘dark age’.

And if not a dark age, then certainly a 'reductive' one. There is a passage toward the end of the Proust novel in question in which Marcel and the 'girls' are playing a game by the sea, a game out of childhood, one charged with all the atavistic eroticism of a Greek myth, to do with dryads and such, as the group was seated on a stretch of grass amongst some trees. Fairy Wood. All that Marcel wants is to be able to sit next to Albertine and hold her hand, and she seems to want the same thing, and then again she does not, the game meanwhile in progress with so many undercurrents of human energies in play, how the girls feel about each other, let alone how they feel about Marcel; a scene that with us would most likely be reduced to a sit-com moment in that the one wants to 'fuck' the other, and that is all she wrote, end of story, except who is going to do the laundry, who is going to pick up the tab?

Below, a ‘mancy’ poem by James Sutherland-Smith, one among a number of poems the man is currently writing about divination and various forms of it.

Divination by summoning the dead
                        “Out gush’d the sable flood
and round about one fled out the flood
the souls of the deceas’d.”

            from George Chapman’s The Odyssey
We’re here to prophesy simply for the blood,
not as you imagine from the throats
of rams in their prime or sacrificed virgins,
but the blood that seeps from the living
in the course of their daily lives; a nose bleed,
a cut finger, haemorrhoids, menstruation.
You living even sweat blood. Leaky vessels,
you’re unable to keep your own secrets,
let alone your own bodily secretions
for longer than it takes to put the cat out,
run away from a shadow or make love
for the first time on your wedding night.
War, disease, accident or natural
catastrophe don’t summon us. In fact,
they multiply our numbers. Gaza, Ukraine,
COVID, the current round of earthquakes
have only added to the ghostly wailing of
“I was only a child. There was so much left
for me to do. I never had a chance.”
Death, like life, is full of special pleading
and the afterlife, though kindly, often says
alas, but never resurrects the dead.
Here in the fields of Asphodel it’s like
dwelling with too many bats in a cave.
There’s nothing worse than the permanent shadow
of a touch on the recollection of one’s face.
The backlog of our number reduces
too slowly as one by one we’re forgotten
dwindling into the nothingness you call bliss.
Tartaros, or the fields of punishment,
aren’t other people, but the life you lived
with its downs, Elysium, the life you lived
with its ups. So summon us if you wish
and we’ll tell you something ambiguous
yet coming true by the time you work it out.
Summon us as night falls in the spring
on an avenue lined with copper cherries
where the street lights give out to shadows
and the dark around houses with their blinds drawn.
We’ll touch you and you’ll think it’s blossom falling.
We’ll whisper and you’ll think it’s wings rustling.
We’ll put something bittersweet into your thought
and you’ll think you’ve understood reality.

Postscript I: Talking Avocado: “So you’re talking beauty, eh, or you’d let Proust do the talking for you, and even the walking, as he gallivants along the beaches, looking for his soul in the eyes of a girl, never mind what the girl might think about it. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat on my island beach, swigging at a beer, watching the birds, watching the sea, the sun setting, and I’ve thought: ‘What do I need the Old World for? Life is as rich and beautiful here, no need of aesthetic considerations to prop up the so-called richness, unless one talks up the lines of a ’55 Chrysler two-door hardtop. I mean, aren’t cars the only beautiful things that moderns have made? Who needs, for Christ’s sake, this: though I should not go so far as to say that it is as profound as the difference between a statue from Rheims Cathedral and one from St Augustin. Just get on that rodeo bull machine, man, and hee-haw. More on this later, maybe.”

Postscript II: The Carpentariat

Postscript III: Cornelius W Drake: Impersonality will grow as a problem with computers. Otherwise, penny ante poker it is, and I’ll see your two-bits and raise you a fin.

Postscript IV: Lunar: ‘A Farewell to Arms… Did you know that movie exists in two versions, one where the heroine dies, the other where she doesn't? Desdemona lives. Hamlet lives. There's nothing Hollywood can't change. Gary Cooper is, admittedly, rather wooden in the role but, well, it is no bad thing to be reminded there was once something called a human race and…’ (Past this point, Lunar gets relentless, and I will spare your sensibilities.)

Postscript VI: Miguel de Unamuno, from the Tragic Sense of Life, 1912: … …. that religion consists in the simple feeling of a relationship of dependence upon something above us and a desire to establish relations with this mysterious power… …. that the religious longing of man is a desire for truth concerning his human existence. Here, Unamuno is not proselytizing; he is not trying to convert anybody. We toss the word ‘religion’ around a lot, be you from Harvard or from reform school or ‘Chic Hair and Spa’, but what is it, really, this religion thing? &c.

January 17, 2024: While Lunar was larking at the Athenaeum Club, London, giving some ambassador the gears, I was reading in Cicero’s letters of his search for a ‘good and proper invective’, though Cicero, of course, had never heard of Trump. What he had on his hands were Antony and Lepidus. They were committed to trashing the ‘republican’ cause whereby one frowns on kings running the show. (Americans like to think they feel the same way about kings, but they sure are hell-bent on establishing one now on the golden privy.)

Lepidus had sided with Antony late. It was like he was in the game not to be king so much as the king’s vice president. In the end Octavian, who was gradually running the table in the power sweepstakes, beached him, benched him, otherwise stripped him of all the political clout he had ever had, and allowed him to go and live in obscurity. Perhaps that was more humiliating to Lepidus than just being handed a sword with which to end the charade. Speaking of which – humiliation, that is, M Brutus, one of the 60 conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar, in a letter to one Atticus, writes of Cicero (before Antony had Cicero’s severed hands nailed to the senate door): we dread death and banishment and poverty too much. For Cicero I think they are the ultimate evils. So long as he has people from whom he can get what he wants and who give him attention and flattery he does not object to servitude if only it be dignified – if there is any dignity in the sorriest depth of humiliation. There are certain people in life whose physical presence in any space is basically a kill zone. I have someone like Caligula in mind, and Trump, whose chief sport in life is to strip everyone of their ‘dignity’. He hates the stuff.

A spiritual crisis is in the works – on a collective scale (all of western civilization?) and on a personal scale, inasmuch as someone I know is in the throes of such a crisis. Is looking for God, not Godot. He has had it up to here with what he calls ‘liberalism’. I cannot say that I understand what he means by ‘liberalism’ (‘globalized protection racket’ as per neo-liberalism?), but I can, as the comic might say, relate to his anger with people for whom lifestyle trumps ‘life’, whose moral ascendancy masks shabbiness of spirit and, small ‘t’, trumps truth, trumps it every time. I do not have a religious bone in my body. I do not necessarily have a political one. A great many people might say that, when it comes to literary bones, I am certainly deficient there. So I am unable then to say if a visit to the shrink might relieve the man of his malaise. Do not shrinks fan the flames? They help keep the pyramid in good working order, all those little enthusiasms and personal dreams as fuel all those little Ponzi schemes we call, hey, hey, what’s up, babe? Look, they’re saying that AI is going to turf one third of humanity out of survival wages. We’d best get our stock portfolios in order, and then, hit the beach. What’s a little chaos to us, huh? Last one in is Elon Musk clickbait.



                                                                                                                                                   Image by Mary Harman

'Yardsticks, for all love. Every generation claims to invent them. And for a time, it is true, until some debacle or other throws one up against certain fundamentals of existence, and one sees that the so-called yardsticks have been the same yardsticks all along, across the generations.' So speaks Cornelius W Drake of Champaign-Urbana in a somewhat Dantesque mode, who would avoid ‘shotgun sermonizing’, but even so, as if to fine-tune a notion, has, nonetheless, orated, as it were: Every generation of our age thinks the next one is radically different, but then makes the same mistakes and winds up like us. Human progress can be measured only by the centuries, sometimes by the millennia. Haven't seen Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. And at 3 hours, I probably never will — not, anyway, until I'm permanently on my back. [Also] I won’t be looking for God-Trump anytime soon. If I were I’d indict myself for extortion. Otherwise, was Lunar right in saying that Elektra as composed by Strauss got awfully close to the ancient Greeks by way of Hölderlin?

I find myself getting lax with respect to Don DeLillo’s Underworld. 159 pages into it, a long ways to go until Finis, and I cannot bring myself to read on, damn the torpedoes. (Whereas I deliberately read the Proust in driblets and drabs.) I may lack for religion, politics, and them there literary bones, but I do have a modicum of discipline with which to work, and I expect I will crack open the DeLillo soon with a view toward toughing it out until I have a notion one way or the other as to whether the book is a good one or not. Once Guitar Teach, in the middle of a Fernando Sor piece that I was supposed to have learned for the current lesson, interrupted my shaky performance of the piece to say that Ukraine was a neo-Nazi state. I was alarmed. So much for the lesson. Guitar mastery? Forget it, Guitar Teach bored. But here, perhaps, was an example of a false and destructive narrative. ‘That is not to say that Ukraine doesn’t have a far-right problem. It does. But I would consider the KKK in the US and skinheads and neo-Nazi groups in Russia a much bigger problem and threat than the Ukrainian far right.’ A partial quote from one Eugene Finkel, professor at John Hopkins University, as quoted by Cornelius W Drake, as might have spoken for me had I the wit to come by it at the time.

And now, for pride of place, worst song ever. In my mind it has always been John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. Mr Drake begs to differ. Runner up is Paul Anka’s ‘You’re Having My Baby’. But the stunner apparently is: ‘Honey’, by Bobby Goldsboro. (Never heard of him.) Neil Sedaka & Orchestra were within hailing distance of the prize, especially when the orchestra would roll its eyes, the audience informed as to what it was about to be subjected to, sentence ending awkwardly on a preposition. This is the middle of January. Winter dog days. I have not got anything better.

Postscript I: And concerning that abject and ignoble saying, “If there were not a God it would be necessary to invent Him” we shall say nothing. It is the expression of the unclean scepticism of those conservatives who look upon religion merely as a means of government and whose interest it is that in the other life there shall be a hell for those who oppose their worldly interests in this life. This repugnant and Sadducean phrase is worthy of the time-serving sceptic to whom it is attributed.

No, with all this the deep vital sense has nothing to do. It has nothing to with a transcendental police regimen, or with securing order—and what an order!—upon earth by means of promises and threats of eternal rewards and punishments after death. All this belongs to a lower plane—that is to say, it is merely politics, or if you like, ethics. The vital sense has to do with living. From Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life,1912. Unamuno was a man (Spaniard) who believed there could be no way to prove the existence of God through reason. If you were going to go there, you would have to live as Quixote lived – faith and passion, and, sure, poetry.

Postscript II: Talking Avocado: “You would bring up Unamuno, you indecent bugger you. I’ll have to hie myself to the local island watering hole and lick some froth from off the top of my beer and prevail in a game of darts, keeping my despair to a manageable size, as would any civilized human being, even one who abides somewhat rustically. You know I’m half Czech, don’t you? That counts for something. My DNA is contrarian, albeit I’m not one to be an ass for the sake of being one. What do you make of Welsh bards? Bertolucci had his moments.”

January 11, 2024: At first blush, it seemed that as I hit my stride, and was rounding first and chugging for second (DeLillo’s Underworld does have baseball in it, after all), DeLillo’s book was negating all of Proust’s grand opus. I was not sure that I even understood what DeLillo was up to, once again being too late for the (literary) party. I had liked the first 50 pages or so of Underworld published some 25 years ago, even admired them (if with the odd reservation), but moving on, turning the pages, and I began to dislike what I was reading, and was it me, was it the author, the price of tea in China?

I confessed to friends that I was at sixes and nines with respect to the book. They reamed me out for being doltish. Doesn’t like contemporary fiction? He may as well say he doesn’t like strawberry smoothies…. Lunar, for instance, indicated that he has read lots and lots of excellent contemporary novels, so, why don’t I get a life? Cornelius W Drake said, “Hang in there. You will be rewarded. All will be revealed.” (I do not care to relate what Talking Avocado had to say, but it scathed, if anything can be said to ‘scathe’.) And I saw myself as perhaps ludicrous in trying to defend an Old World literary figure though I figure him to be simultaneously the most and the least literary of authors New or Old World. It is a pleasure to read Proust-Moncrieff (the Montcrieff who was Proust’s first English translator in another day far previous to this one); it is a pleasure even though my patience is tried now and then by it taking forever for Proust to slap together a rostrum on which a metaphor might perch and hold forth, and then it hit me, some thought with a long comet’s tail:

Yes, it hit me thus: Proust puts you in a world, if not the world. And for him to put you in any world he has to, at first, construct it, and in a way that you, the reader, are unaware of rivets, scaffolding, bags of cement, smoke breaks and hot thermoses. (Fair enough. It is what most novelists do, some better than others.) But then, so it will be argued: DeLillo also puts one in a world. And in order to do that, he is also obliged to construct, though he rather likes the looks, the poetry of an industrial landscape, the sight of monster tower cranes stick-figuring the skylines of the world. Just that, and here is where the rubber meets the road: it is not a world DeLillo puts you in; it is an anti-world he drops you in; its materiality is anti-matter; it’s ‘virtual’ life without Keanu Reeves and the reloads. This ‘life’ – perhaps – has a tenuous relationship with the life in Seahaven (as per The Truman Show, 1998, a movie wherein a man has no idea that his existence is predicated on audience ratings, that he is being ‘scripted’.) And DeLillo’s prose, however savvy it is, is almost beside the point, given how ‘waste’ and the disposal of it is the point of it all, figures large in the pages I have so far read, waste, radioactive or otherwise, the lodestar to which we anchor our ‘realities’ &c. Seeing as we reside in disposable worlds with disposable walls and disposable news updates and bestseller lists… Stratofortresses? Or so it seems thus far, and it seems that the only thing (thus far) that redeems the monstrous waste and disposability is the mystery of a homerun ball, 1951, the Polo Grounds (cited in the previous post). Who, in the stands, succeeded in scarfing the ball up? (Clue: it was a ghetto kid who had sneaked – snuck – into the stadium.) Who has this ball now, that one that was golfed out of the park, and so forth and so on…? And now I suppose I will have to stick my neck out and say that the novel’s sole metaphor (thus far) that packs a truly mystic punch is that baseball with its 108 double stitches and the dreams that carried its flight….

A world that might turn to quicksand at any moment… A world in which the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (from the movie The Night of the Iguana, as played by Richard Burton, as directed by John Huston, might feel at home as he discourses on the nature of the real and the fantastical. Which of those two states best suits the mind and its operations? In Underworld, the narrator goes on about how his mother is comforted by the presence of Jackie Gleason on the TV, Gleason in his Ralph Kramden mode. I, a late-to-the-party reader, am also almost reassured, as I have memories of The Honeymooners, Kramden its braying lynchpin. One, even as a child, understood Kramden’s unanswerable pain, even as it was all comically expressed, or perhaps because it was comically expressed. So what am I saying? Am I saying that generations succeeding mine do not understand this pain, the pain that comes, willy-nilly, of being alive, almost as if it is the dues one pays to know the beauty of a flower, of a well-turned double play on the baseball field; of the beauty of a woman who, in an unguarded moment, is most herself; the beauty, then, of a great many things? Get this sap off the screen – he’s waxing sappy, he’s, you know, sapping it up. But before I ease myself out of Dodge, I will digress. It is to be noted: the deeper I get into DeLillo’s book, the more each paragraph seems a non-sequitur to the paragraph that came before it, and the whole thing comes off awfully amorphous, assembling, dissolving, reassembling but at different points of contiguity. As if a thread that has been running along, dives, disappears, resurfaces, but at a point that has nothing in common with what immediately precedes and succeeds it. There. Got it out of my system. The physics of anti-matter, and that everything, in its familiarity, is forever strange, as sung by an aged Bob Dylan to the tune of ‘Forever Young’. Strange and difficult to nail down. And sure, there are plenty of times when I want to say to Proust-Marcel-by-way-of-Montcrieff, and as if there were solid ground under my feet for the saying it: “Dear God, Proust-Marcel, get over yourself.”

Which may or may not explain why I find myself susceptible to Mme Sévigné’s epistolary charms in her Selected Letters, and why I find myself following her account of a certain trial that took place in the 1660s, Paris, with as much avidity as I follow the political trials of the moment, those of Trump, for instance, and what ought to be those of other scumbaggers, Putin and Netanyahu coming immediately to mind, but that there are plenty more out there, no question….

The other day, the Comptroller of the Universe and I tried to watch an episode of Wallander, a British TV production that features a Swedish detective solving Swedish crimes, where else, in Sweden. “TFS”, said the Comptroller of the Universe after a while. “Too effing sensitive. Can’t we watch something else, something American in which no one thinks, they just beat the crap out of each other and wind things up?” (What she did not know is that, and now she is not going to know, as she has soured on the show, is that, in episodes to come, the central character, Wallander, is to do battle with the onset of dementia, as it runs in the family, and he will still never ever shave. TFS, indeed. And consequently, TEF. Too Emotionally Fraught.) We tried Reacher, as if the hulk that Reacher is could salve our irritation with a detective always doing Hamlet. Here is testosterone in overdrive, that of a retired military cop, one who walks into a small town hornet’s nest of corruption and murder &c, and he neutralizes bad guys and makes Moral Dilemma easy-peasy. “TFD,” said the Comptroller of the Universe, “too effing dim.” Man, but she was hard to please, that evening.

The next evening then, we had a go at The Night of the Iguana. It is a movie directed, as I said above, by John Huston based on a Tennessee William’s play. It ought to be required viewing, says I who have seen the thing 7 or 8 times. “Honour,” said the Comptroller of the Universe at the ending of the flick, as she went on about the shambolic Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, existentially spooked and soused. “Honour,” she repeated. That he may have been tempted but he did not succumb to Sue Lyon’s blandishments; that he spared the bitch travel group leader with dykish leanings there in Puerto Vallarta from learning the truth about herself as, nervous breakdown in the pipeline, and the truth would have unhinged her. “Honour,” the Comptroller of the Universe repeated yet again, “it’s what the Greeks I knew in Greece said. It’s how they lived their lives. It was their standard.” “Honour,” DeLillo put into the mouth of his protagonist, “it’s a disease of Mediterranean men.” You mean if you hail from a WASP town, you are immune?... (To be sure, I am paraphrasing.) “Honour,” says Mary Renault throughout the entirety of her novels set in the Greece of Theseus and Plato and Apollo. Something of a coincidence, all these threads, of late, joining to the word ‘honour’, as if one can only whisper the word lest it vanish. The thing is, the Comptroller of the Universe had wished to watch the old Zorba flick, as it was snowing outside, and she would be warm and she would dance, but that it (Zorba the Greek) was unavailable at our latitudes, should us northerners get crazy ideas.

Postscript I: Talking Avocado: “There you are, Sibum, still nattering on about Proust. Well, did you come across this in your travels? … …. Besides, I was embarrassed by certain things in her look, in her smile. They might equally well signify a laxity of morals and the rather silly merriment of a girl who though full of spirits was at heart thoroughly respectable. A singe expression, on a face as in speech, is susceptible of divers interpretations, and I stood hesitating like a schoolboy faced by the difficulties of a piece of Greek prose. Egads, Proust makes a budding bounder verging on snobbery seem heroic. But your mention of Mme Sévigné got me to remembering I had a volume of her letters in a box under my bed, don’t ask. What’s that about synchronicity? Do we have matching sets of I Ching sticks? Can you say ‘yarrow’? Enough. Got a kettle boiling on the airtight.”

Postscript II: But as for Dylan, Lunar has this to say: … …. ‘I read an interesting piece by a novelist called Marlon James on Bob Dylan. Dylan as poet is a mistake, he says. The songs are not poetry but songs can be literature. And so yes, Dylan is a vital part of our literature. Just don't go saying (I'm not addressing you) he is a poet as such, but, this said, he is more of a poet than most poets. The album Shadow Kingdom is a beautiful thing, an old man singing a young man's songs with a broken voice but compensated with the added patina of wisdom. Dylan's new rendition of "Forever Young" brings me close to tears.’ … …. Best then that we leave the man to his tears and not gawk.

Postscript III: Braggggg, sweet tenor bulllll… The beginning of Briggflatts, poem by Basil Bunting. Just saying. General principles.

Postscript IV: The Carpentariat and some fine posts.

As If Trump Could Ever Say This to Anyone By Way of an Apology, Even to Melania T Dept: from Cicero’s Letters: Cicero to his brother (Cumae, 55? B.C.): What, you afraid of interrupting me?

January 6, 2024: Lame of me to say so in this way, but here is the saying of it, come hell, come floodwater, come the next Supreme Court ruling, the next slate of Top Ten Cute Doggie Videos: the opening section of Don DeLillo’s Underworld is pretty impressive.

Well, I am always late to these things, late to the movie that comes along with buzz, to the latest literary sensation &c. Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, one can have a clearer eye about things when one is not caught up in all the hype over this, that, and the other agenda item. And for a moment there (I have yet to finish with the section in question), and I am thinking that Mr DeLillo is providing me a glimpse of an America that, for a brief period, really is the ‘exceptional’ country it has always claimed to be, that it is done with Europe, that it speaks Americanese, that it expectorates with aplomb. It is a ballgame the man is writing about, a rather famous game at that, and as the Giants come from behind in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Dodgers in 1951 and win the pennant, the garbage that is showered down on the field from the stands is ‘happy garbage’; why, it is even ecstatic garbage, garbage untainted, one supposes, with colonialism, imperialism, fascism, communism, all the tired isms, that is, until capitalism comes to be tired too, a sick puppy, but I am not in this to rant.

And while the players on the field are playing the game, playing it for money and for pride and for love of the game, Mr DeLillo, and could be he is right in this, is saying that the soul of the game rests with the fans, and not even with the fans in the ball park, but with the fans whose ears are plugged to their radio sets at home, at work, in the tavern, their lives on the line with each pitch, each swing of the bat, and so forth and so on, their hearts in their mouths. And baseball and shambolic anarchy are truly wellsprings then, metaphors for a nation's esprit de corps.

But as for Jackie Gleason of The Honeymooners (he in his role as Ralph Kramden the bus driver); as for portly Gleason who is in the stands and having himself a puke, spewing the contents of his ‘gastric sac’ over Mr Sinatra’s spiffy footwear, I cannot say, one way or the other, whether Mr DeLillo's depiction completes a picture, qualifies a picture or is a picture all on its own, a fiction independent of an ennobling metaphor. It is just that, whether the author intended it or not, Gleason comes across somewhat Roman, Everyman with imperial undertones, and the author is a touch Juvenalian, just a touch, or, why not, he is even Petronius-like, 50 shades of Satyricon, and in his hands, gluttonous Gleason is someone who comes off a little cartoonish, as is the usual fate of historical figures in a fictive universe.

And then (and one was certainly not expecting it while reading along at a decent clip), as if a bit of tossed away detritus, as if some candy wrapper that alights on one’s lap, such debris does wind up on J Edgar Hoover’s lap there in the ballpark. It is a magazine, the cover of which features the reproduction of a painting, Pieter Breughel’s The Triumph of Death (skeletons with wispy dicks or some such, and Hoover is entranced) … And then mention of the atom bomb, and so much for the notion of a nation done with dark European things…. Said nation, as if playing out a child's game, as if renacting some Christian homily, takes the lamb of madness and puts it on its own shoulders….

In any case, I write the above in conjunction with the fact that I have finished with Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea, the ending of which would strike a tragic note, what with the deaths of Hippolytus and Phaedra and an earthquake on the rumble, and, and, what in the name of some effing rose am I on about? That there is nothing anciently Greek in the American psyche unless we were to talk up ‘Indians’ for whom everything outside of themselves, animate or otherwise, had a voice, which the old, pietistical republican Romans may have once believed, and to a much lesser extent, the imperial Romans. But that Theseus had thought Hippolytus, son of his true love Hippolyta, suspect; that the boy had had sexual relations with Theseus’ other wife – Phaedra, but no, the boy had not had sex with his high-maintenance stepmother; the boy had, in fact, resisted Phaedra’s entreaties to have sex, and, voilà! That things do come to a bad pass, even as a soap opera or as tragedy or as a comedy of manners in a pinch. And sometimes prose cannot get past its own episodic nature, whereas a poetic metre will carry the weight of everything along, although, often enough, some thumpa-thumpa hexameters à la the Victorians will squeeze the life out of even the most obdurate epical stone.

Alright then, the tragic. (The ‘twagic’, if you prefer, if you are looking out that tavern window cited above, regaling yourself with a world of dupes and monsters and dogs that die badly in the fictions of Kafka and Zola.) I do not know how ‘real’ Mary Renault’s view of the ancient Greek world can be said to be, and in any case, we will now never know what the reality was – for the peon and the lord and the lady; though we can infer, and there is data by which we might catch a glimpse of what were the realities here and there, and there are ancient writings which we moderns love to slot into tidy little categories, into tiny caskets fit for dead canaries, as if the ancient mind was not wise to its own prejudices and limitations, and only we have legitimate relations with objective truth. And yet, when Renault’s characters live for their ‘honour’ and for ‘truth’ and for ‘knowing themselves’ (as in ‘know thyself or forever hold thy piece, peace’?), they are not just wheezing through a party favour; they are not just trumped up military types and politicos living a lie such as we have so often seen satirized: Groucho, Chaplin et al. But moving on,

There is nobility, too, once in a blue moon, in some human act or other. There is the pursuit of honour in the game of baseball (or any athletic endeavour I suppose), and perhaps it (the stadium) is the only venue we have for such things nowadays, to see that it is real, not a chimera, not some bombastic blockbuster as would turn honour into titillation. You were looking for it on the campaign trail, in parliament, you say?

Sometimes I hear it in the guitar compositions and arrangements of John Fahey, and especially when he himself is performing those compositions and arrangements based on blues and folk with an occasional ‘classical’ thread woven in (Fahey liked Bartók’s music, for example), and when he is leaning a little on Mississippi John Hurt. It is something ghostly, this downhome honour, something belying the bloody history of the continent whereby honour is not gained by martial prowess but is the living of a life untainted by cop outs and sell outs and cheap rationalizations for shabby behaviour. &c. Honour is just ‘what is’, has nothing to do with glory-seeking, though Renault’s heroes do not eschew the getting of glory. ‘Honour’, as such, can be its own worst enemy. In addition to which it might be said: ‘The end is where it ends’. ‘Fate, will, chance have skin in the game.’ These are words I jotted down with respect to what Mary Renault had to say near the end of her novel, but for the life of me, I cannot now remember what I was trying to get at. Must keep better notes… Then again, on a countervailing note: Nowadays you have to be a hero, just to behave like a human being… From the movie based on a spy novel by LeCarré: The Russia House, and if I got the quote right.

Meanwhile, I have been continuing with my re-reading of Proust, or what I am now calling Proust-Montcrieff (the latter entity having been Proust’s English translator, or the first of them at any rate), and I am dipping into the Selected Letters of Madame de Sévigné. I will maintain with DeLillo for a while at least. It is a hodgepodge of authorship that I am setting for myself to read, to get through – with pleasure, sometimes with teeth gritted, and the one book might seem to cancel the other out, the snot and cig butt prose of DeLillo as opposed to the apples of Proust such as Cézanne might have painted and probably did. Proustian then: that mole on Albertine’s chin or cheek or just above her lip – wherever it was situated, as it kept shifting in Marcel’s reveries of the girl, kept dancing around, and then it becomes a ‘thing’ in him to get its location right, and for this he has, of course, to speak with the girl, and this requires an introduction by way of a third party, and pages of commentary…. So no, it is not a scene out of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a flick that Proust could not have seen coming, even if he had been given advance warning, a head's up. Nor is it a puerile rom-com. There are entire worlds in all this – apple, mole, a girl’s abuse of her mother-tongue: He is a perfectly common man, a perfect bore, the abuse being in the substitution of ‘perfect’ for ‘quite’, or the French equivalent, that is, of said abuse, the taking of liberties with a word. And somewhere in the Proust prose, Marcel takes it upon himself to say: We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves … …. And it is not a line from Apollo 13 or The Return of the Jedi. And it is a sentiment with which Madame de Sévigné, deeply devout Christian that she was, might have concurred….

Postscript I: A knight-errant with whom I correspond, one Cornelius W Drake of Champaign-Urbana asks how long I intend to hang in there with Proust, and I have no idea. It is as if I am being asked how long I intend to go without a bath. He says he loved DeLillo’s Underworld, but not so much the other novels. Dread, Mr Drake goes on to say, is an indulgence. It is more productive to fight ‘the bastards with good cheer’. He is a better knight-errant than I, seeing as I am merely quixotic, and my windmills are made of Lego pieces, but that the dread that grabs me head to toe on occasion has the materiality of a caffeine jag. It is true that America is not a centrist country which, in Mr Drake’s estimation, is the mistake the lefties have been making for decades. …. Says he: It's the principle reason they also insist on insanely running progressive candidates in centrist or red districts. Moreover, I too have been crestfallen at Canada's slippage in junior hockey. War in Gaza, war in Ukraine, and [that] could be the final straw. … ….

Postscript II: Lunar and authors? There are certain authors I do not want to revisit simply because they were so precious to me once upon a time. I read all her [Renault’s] books when I was twelve, maybe older, and was so completely taken into the world she made that she has my everlasting gratitude. Suppose I were to re-enter it now and find it wanting? Now that really would be a blow. Of course I never got the homosexual innuendoes which, I suppose, were some kind of extension of her own lesbianism when it was not a subject a Greek-loving lesbian could raise. Did you know she began her career writing nurse stories? And then there are those authors whom I am hesitant to revisit simply because there is nothing more to be had from a rereading of them. I began to read Treasure Island and it was exactly as I remembered it, Blind Pew tap-tap-tapping his way along the dark path to the house, the writing so perfect time will never erase the initial effect it had on me. If there is a heaven where one might meet one's heroes, I'd head straightaway for Mr Stevenson's Edinburgh brogue. … …. The Epstein files: will Clinton "who liked his girls young" finally join Ghislaine Maxwell in jail? And will Prince Andrew join them for a threesome? Some names have been redacted however in order to protect the witnesses and I still wonder about that report which I saw but once, about Trump slapping about a very frightened underage girl. Surely that would cook his goose.

Postscript III: Quick note from Talking Avocado: ‘Much of DeLillo is unreadable due to hyper-stylism. (I just coined that.) Go for the two I mentioned, Libra or Underworld.’

Postscript IV: More from the man immediately above: ‘I've long been at war with my tendency toward cartoonizing characters. I suppose it is open to the charge of being perpetually adolescent, the style of one who is not mature enough to avoid quips and pratfalls, bad puns and exaggeration. I've often wondered if I'd've been better off sticking with cartooning, which was my first love, and which I attended the Vancouver School of Art, later Emily Carr, to study. … …. Admittedly there were other forces at work, including my struggling relationship with wife number one. But she does not deserve the blame. It was me. Yes, me. Not mature, focused, self- aware or bold enough to know what I really wanted. So I did what I always did in those days, I fucked off to India. Well, enough about me. Just home from the recycling depot, where I have interacted with a variety of folk, ranging from the young and hip--gay, dyed, woke--to the aged and crotchety--arthritic, palsied, confused. Curious thing is how the cooler the people the grottier their recycling. At any rate. Now, having washed down an Advil with an IPA, it occurs to me that you did not respond to the issue of irony as a means, or approach. Was that intentional? Are you sparing me a lecture?’ 

Postscript V: The Carpentariat

Postscript VI: Following upon that brief mention of dread above, and by dread, and in relation to what the word applies, this: from a letter dated Monday, 24th November, 1664, Mme. De Sévigné to M. de Pomponne: If I know my own heart, it is I who am really obliged to you for so graciously accepting the information I pass on to you. Do you think I find no consolation in writing to you? I assure you that I do – greatly – and that I take no less pleasure in corresponding with you than you do in reading my letters. All your feelings about what I tell you are very natural; hope is common to us all, without our being able to say why; but, after all, it keeps our courage up. Not cited here as an example of intellect, wisdom, superior writing style, or, as they say, whatever, but as an example of simple courtesy and sentiment that does not necessarily cloy or bring on nausea.

Postscript VI: ‘We might make citations of a 101 things that were or are about to ‘end civilization as we know it’, as with cellphones, but here we are, we’re still here more or less. The thing is, civilization, should it be a thing you value, really has been thinning out.’ From Sibum, Reflections Idler than Yours.

Received: Arrived, or rather surfaced, like submarines on a clandestine mission, one Canadian Notes and Queries 114, and a copy of The Bibliophile.