Saturday, February 28, 2009

Readings: A Footnote to All-Too-Humanity

The final editorial footnote to William Empson’s unfinished novel The Royal Beasts: A Fable, has something interesting to say about the human condition. I quote it here in full:

“14. Cf. Empson’s unpublished essay, on Buddhism and Death (1933): ‘the special Buddhist version of a deathwish…is that no sort of temporal life whatever can satisfy the human spirit, and therefore we must work for an existence outside time on whatever terms.’ This concept is not a psychological perversion, Empson goes on to insist, but ‘at the back, I believe, of all the grand examples in the aesthetic of the deathwishes. Shakespeare makes Lear hint at an odd and interesting reflection on this topic when faced with the despair of Glouscester: “Thou must be patient. We came crying hither. Thou knowest, the first time that we smell the air, we waul and cry.” Alone among the young of the mammals the human infant is subject to blind fits of fury at finding itself thrust into the world; it is nasty, he feels, to the point of mysticism, and I suppose Freud could hardly disagree…the desires for absence of stimulus and return to the womb are the obviously Buddhist deathwishes, and are clearly a large element anyway in all but the most primitive religions’ (Empson Papers.)”

In terms of human exceptionalism, this goes along, I guess, with the need to blush…

Friday, February 27, 2009

R.I.P. - Pearl Lang


I was saddened to read this morning of the death of dancer and choreographer, Pearl Lang.

This may be the first time that a New York Times obituary has featured a person whom I personally knew and with whom I had a bit of a working relationship. It was going on 35 years ago that I worked for some months as a sort of assistant to Pearl Lang’s company manager. I did everything from typing up grant proposals, to moving props around, to running out to the deli to buy Pearl some rare roast beef and Jarlsberg cheese, to treat her hypoglycemia. My wife at the time, a beautiful and talented dancer in her own right, was then a member of Pearl’s company. It was with Pearl’s company that I made the trip to Italy which I mentioned here.

In those days, Pearl was in her early fifties, and still dancing beautifully. One season, she returned as a guest artist to the Martha Graham Company to reprise her role as the Bride in Martha’s great piece, Appalachian Spring. My wife was by this time a member of the Graham Company, and I remember accompanying Pearl’s husband, the actor Joseph Wiseman, from backstage to watch Pearl perform that role. Not having tickets for that performance, we watched from behind the rail in standing room. There were tears streaming down Joe’s cheeks as Pearl moved with perfect grace across the stage; and then there were tears streaming down mine. Joseph Wiseman is one of the nicest men I have met in this world. He has been so fortunate to have so long and rewarding a life with his Tiny Dancer. I proved to be not so deserving.

While I was working for Pearl, I was tapped on one occasion to present her with the bouquet of roses on stage at the end of a concert—at the 92nd Street Y, as I remember—an honor that I have never forgotten.

I humbly present her a second one now.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Readings / QdJ: I Can Relate to That

Today’s posting shall be a combined “Readings” and “Quote du Jour”:

In response to my email inquiry as to whether he had ever written anything on poet and critic, William Empson—my recent interest in whom I had previously posted on below—fellow poetry enthusiast and soi-disant fascist hyena, John Derbyshire, kindly sent me a link to this article which deals with what I consider to be Empson’s best (or at least most accessible) poem, “Villanelle”. Follow the link and read the poem. Even listen to Derb read it, if you will.

Derb has now followed up by sending me a second link, turning me onto an article about the British writer, William Hazlitt. It includes a rather longish introductory discussion of a phenomenon known as “Philocaption.” As a word, that was a new one on me, although I was, of course, quite familiar with the phenomenon:

"Philocaption, an inordinate love of one person for another”...

What follows, then, is the promised Quote du Jour, with special emphasis on that portion that I’ve bolded:

“In a startling digression in the middle of that 1823 essay, Hazlitt, in Jon Cook's words, ‘looks back upon an existence that had somehow failed to happen’:

“So have I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy; but wanting that, have wanted everything!"

As noted above, I can relate to that.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rants: ECON 101

How do we know that America is a Land of Wonder? We know that America is a wonderland because only in America could one man--a rather eccentric man like Rep. Barney Frank--single-handedly destroy an entire multi-trillion dollar economy!

All by himself, Rep. Frank was able to entice the legendary Adam Smith to drop trou, grab his ankles, and moan through bitten lips, while Rep. Frank formed the Invisible Hand into a fist and shoved it up Adam's ass, all the way to the elbow. And all to get the Willie Robinson family out of that nasty, vertical, inner-city ghetto and into a modest bungalow in the horizontal ghetto on the wrong side of town.

If only Willie could've paid the vig!

As I said--Only in America!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reflections: Travel Tips

Yesterday I received in the mail some very nice photographs, taken by my good friend, Jim, on a trip he recently took to sub-Saharan Africa. The beauty of two of them especially—a scene of women washing clothes in a stream; and a scene of women carrying sheaves of newly-cut hay through the fields—almost made me envious of his trip. Almost. Not quite.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I had several opportunities to do some serious traveling. I went to Italy first, and saw Florence, Ravenna, Rome. On my next two major excursions abroad, I visited many of the other capitals and major cities of Europe—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Athens, Cologne, Brussels, and more. The Middle East was a component of one of these trips—Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman.

I have also been across Canada by car, as far east as Montreal, and as far West as Vancouver, British Columbia. I have seen the Great Plains of both Calgary and Kansas. I have traveled through the Canadian Rockies in the breathtakingly beautiful Banff national park, and the American Rockies in the area of Boulder and Denver. I have seen Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, and I have visited William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon, overlooking the Pacific.

I wouldn’t give any of that up. The memories are golden. Yet, when I read the following words of William Empson in the introduction to the book The Royal Beasts, I understood precisely what he was getting at. In a letter, written to a friend back in England, as Empson was traveling in the Far East, he wrote:

“Always rather embarrassing to wonder what one gets out of travel to make up for its privations; except that it requires so much imagination to stay at home.”

These sentiments hit me from two different angles; high and low, so to speak. In my traveling days, I found that I had a very low tolerance for those “privations” of travel. While standing in front of the Mona Lisa, or the magnificent cathedral in Cologne, or the pyramid of Cheops; or while riding on horseback through the narrow defile leading into the "lost city" of Petra, I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. Getting there, however, was another story. The struggle with luggage; the chaos of airports and train terminals; the money-changing; the passport presenting, and the stamping of visas; the waiting; the hurrying; the deadlines and the timetables; the decisions about food and lodging; the general hassle of it all always made me very glad to be back home; made me even to dread the outset of the next wonderful journey.

But the more subtle, and more interesting, aspect of Empson’s quote is the part about the amount of imagination required to stay at home. This, I believe, refers to the constant human struggle against boredom and ennui. If we aren’t doing, we don’t feel that we are really being. If we cannot distract ourselves from ourselves by means of travel, or work, or by consuming mass quantities of entertainment—if, in short, we are left alone, with nothing but our own minds for company—that is, with only our imaginations to lend a sense of ontological worth to our time, as it passes—we suffer.

Today, I am content to say, although I am pretty much a stay-at-home, boredom is seldom an issue for me. I am able to traverse that universe inside my skull—without luggage, chaotic airports, or the inevitable bouts with traveler’s diarrhea.

The time may grow long, but that is time for prayer and contemplation. Or time to blog.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rants: Too Good to Fail

Last night it struck me--struck me right below the belt--as I sat hunched before the tube, unenthusiastically watching the political talk shows while eating my evening meal, how many of the commercial spots were for banks and investment firms. Even now. Even now.

The fat cats having already gobbled up the lion's share of whatever we had, the hyenas, the carrion dogs, and the vultures are now circling in to feast on the tatters and the bones, ravenous for marrow.

This, my friends, is your revered self-regulated Capitalism at play on the vast savannahs of the Free Market. The jagged snout you now feel pulling your intestines out of your newly-enlarged asshole is that of the frisky puppy you begged Santa for as an unquestioning and idealistic child, resting safe and secure on star-spangled lap of an Uncle (can you believe it?) too fucking GOOD to fail.

Too good to fail, because under the protection of Divine Providence. O, y-a-a-s, brother! Protected by an approving--and grateful--Deity from the common fate of the French and all those other foreigners--like Biafrans and, uh, Chechans and shit.

But I've seen enough. And you've now heard enough. Back to books then. I am currently reading:

2666 by Roberto Bolano (the last of the five books)

Pleasing Myself - from Beowulf to Philllip Roth by Frank Kermode

Nietzsche: Volume I - The Will to Power by Martin Heidegger

Collected Poems of William Empson

The Royal Beast and other works by William Empson, edited with an Introduction by John Haffenden

The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas

This last book is particularly appropriate reading at this time, because it offers a dualistic explanation of human existence which seems to jibe particularly well with those events we read about in the New York Post and watch remote shots of on the Fox News Network. To state it in the simplest terms, the gnostics point out that Man is holding the shit end of the cosmic stick.

That said, I point out that, if you are not already reading these books, too--or other books of their general ilk--then the chances are excellent that you are spending your idle time listening to Rush Limbaugh, or Chris Matthews, or Sean Hannity, or Keith Olbermann, or other intellectuals of their general ilk.

But, hey--it's okay: Jesus loves you.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Readings: Second-hand Prose

Sometimes it is good to read an author not in quest any major theme or system of thought, but only because he writes well and says interesting things. Thus it was that, having been directed by Paula Fredriksen’s footnote to Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, of which I which I posted below, I went back to the stacks for more Kermode.

I came away with a book of articles, the majority of which had been previously published in The London Review of Books, entitled, Pleasing Myself – from Beowulf to Phillip Roth. The two excerpts below are from “Empson the Poet”:

The radical contradiction is between the hope human happiness, for which, at least at certain moments, we feel our selves so wonderfully suited, and the power of the world as it inescapably is to frustrate or even ridicule that feeling. Hence Empson’s endorsement of the Buddhist position that ‘no sort of temporal life whatever can satisfy the human spirit’. Yet Buddhism also takes account of the fact that ‘birth has a human being is an opportunity of inestimable value. He who is so born has at least a chance of hearing the truth and acquiring merit.’


A much quoted remark occurs in Empson’s notes to the poem ‘Bacchus’: ‘life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis’.

Although I’ve never read much, if any, of William Empson’s poetry, he has provided me with food for thought via the medium of Kermode’s journalism.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reflections: No Joking Matter

In response to the on-going discussion of the Wednesday, February 11, 2009 post at Disputations—“A bad sign”—which has much to do with a Rod Dreher column in which Dreher likens the enjoyment of a good meal to a sacrament—I posted 1 John 2:15-16. If any of that piques your interest, go to Disputations and read it all.

Subsequently, I began reading Catholic novelist Ron Hansen’s latest work, Exiles, a fictional account of the inspiration for, and writing of, the well-known poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Roman Catholic priest (and great poet), Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ.

The novel, which I recommend, also has much to do with vocation.

Beginning on page 99, Hansen relates a joke “about a Jesuit and a Dominican who smoked cigarettes as they read their breviaries outside together. The Dominican felt scruples about the propriety of that and thought they ought to consult their Superiors. When they next got together, he was surprised that the Jesuit was still smoking. The Jesuit asked how he’d framed the question to his Superior, and the Dominican said, ‘Am I permitted to smoke while I’m praying?’ The Jesuit took another drag and said nothing. ‘Well, what did you say?’ the Dominican asked. And the Jesuit answered, ‘Am I permitted to pray while I’m smoking?’”

Ha-ha. That’s a good one.

But on second thought, isn’t the reversal of priorities upon which the punch-line of that joke depends precisely what is warned against in the lines from 1 John to which I referred above?:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. 1 John 2:15-16

Praying while smoking…hmm.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Quote du Jour: $ $ $

Rich people cling together because the less well off embarrass them and there are not so many available who are rich for one rich man who drops out to be easily replaced.

~ Party Going by Henry Green

R.I.P. - Blossom Dearie

I knew more than one person during my sojourn in New York City who followed the cult of Blossom Dearie; and at least one sweet-throated young woman who aspired and trained to follow in her wake. The little upper-East Side bar and restaurant—Nimrod—where I spent most of my evenings—and wee small hours—during my final decade in the City, often featured cabaret nights, and was ambitiously conceived of by its proprietors as the kind of joint where Blossom Dearie might perform.

Read her New York Times obituary, and try to internalize what the life of Blossom Dearie must have been like. It wasn’t like yours…

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Reflections: Just the Facts, M'am...?

The world has been too much with me these past few days, but one thing I have managed to accomplish in the midst of the chaos is finishing my reading of critic Frank Kermode’s fine little book, The Genesis of Secrecy. Kermode’s topic is the interpretation of texts. His method is to compare biblical exegesis to the critical consideration of fictional and historical texts. His thesis (if I am interpreting him correctly!) is that we can never (and should never) come away from any text (biblical or otherwise) with naught but alleged facts in hand. What we can hope to gain from our careful examination of the structure of a text, or from our painstaking deconstruction of it, is—meaning.

This is an important idea to mull over for types who like to parachute into a blogger’s comment box equipped with what they claim to be x-ray goggles that render the post wholly transparent to their particular interpretation. These ideas are also important to persons troubled by the contradictions between historical accounts—such as the genealogies of Jesus—in the Gospels. The tortured efforts of the orthodox to reconcile that which cannot be reconciled merely detract from the credibility of orthodoxy in general. It is truth as MEANING, not truth as FACT that will set us free.

I have recently been engaged in two discussions (not to say arguments) centered on interpretation. The first I have previously posted on here. Since that thread seems to have snapped, I won’t go into it further. The second, which has been happening in the thread following this post at Journeys in Alterity involves interpreting the core message of conservative thinker, Russell Kirk.

In the excerpt that follows, where Kermode is quoting, he’s quoting Roland Barthes on the opacity of historical “fact.”:

[N]o narrative can be transparent on historical fact. …Historical discourse is…guaranteed by metatextual announcements, references to sources and authorities, assurances of the credibility of witnesses… In general, history-writing, even more than fiction, relies on third-person narration. Novels quite often have first-person narrators, but their presence in an historical account gives it a different generic feel—it becomes a memoir. The advantage of third-person narration is that it is the mode which best produces the illusion of pure reference. But it is an illusion, the effect of a rhetorical device. We cannot escape the conclusion that “the fact can exist only linguistically, as a term in a discourse,” although “we behave as if it were a simple reproduction of something or other on another plane of existence altogether, some extra-structural ‘reality’.”

This concept—of fact as the result of a rhetorical device—it would seem to me, applies equally to any form of narrative, be it a novel, a work of history, an op-ed piece, journalistic reportage, a Gospel parable, or a blog post.

On the next page, Kermode goes on to say,

Gallie observes that following a story is a “teleologically guided form of attention.” And as many others have argued, to make arrangements for such guidance is to have some ulterior motive, whether it is aesthetic, epistemological, or ethical (which includes “ideological”). These are Morton White’s categories of metahistorical control or motive; others have more complex schemes. According to William James, “the preferences of sentient creatures are what create the importance of topics”; and Nietzsche, in “The Use and Abuse of History,” declared that “for a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning.” All this we know, even if we behave as if we did not. The historical narrative comes to us heavily censored (as the account of a dream is censored) but also heavily interpreted (as that same account is affected by the dogmatic presuppositions of the analyst, which are, as Habermas says, “translated into the narrative interpretation.” The historian cannot write, nor can we read, without prejudice. I hope we have seen that this is true of the gospel narratives. [emphasis added]

Facts, regardless of the authority behind their provenance, are merely loose beads, rolling around at random in a box labeled “context.” Meaning is the string that allows us to thread them into the coherency that is a necklace.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Rants: Strike Two?

I'll have to look into this further, but it's not sounding good. It could well be a second strike. Low and away, so to speak.

HT: Zippy
UPDATE: Or maybe not.