Restoring the middle class

America taught Hitler that need blurred into desire, and that desire arose from comparison. . . . Families observed other families: around the corner, but also, thanks to modern media, around the world. . . . “Through modern technology and the communication it enables,” wrote Hitler, “international relations between peoples have become so effortless and intimate that Europeans — often without realizing it — take the circumstances of American life as the benchmarks for their own lives.” Globalization led Hitler to the American dream. Behind every imaginary German racial warrior stood an imaginary German woman who wanted ever more. . . . Before the First World War, when Hitler was a young man, German colonial rhetoric had played on the double meaning of the word Wirtschaft: both a household and an economy. German women had been instructed to equate comfort and empire. And since comfort was always relative, the political justification for colonies was inexhaustible. (12 – 13)

– Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015)

The trouble with Faulkner, says [Norman] Podhoretz, is that the Enlightenment has passed him by. “As far as Yoknapatawpha is concerned, the Enlightenment might just as well have never been.” This is one of the most comical remarks in all Faulkner criticism. Not only is it a prize understatement, but it serenely ignores the fact that it is precisely in the midst of the “enlightened” middle class world that we have not only Yoknapatawpha but Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, Watts, South Africa, and a whole litany of some of the choicest atrocities in human history. . . . [An] artificially lucid, one-dimensional view of life, in which there is no place for madness or tragedy, will obviously fail to comprehend a Faulkner. . . . As Michael Foucault has pointed out, the refusal of madness, the clear delimitation of reason and madness, creates a demand for madness. Far from getting on as if the Enlightenment had never been, Yoknapatawpha was made necessary by the Enlightenment — and was necessary to it. Faulkner saw that the reason, justice, and humanity of the Enlightenment and the lunacy, injustice, and inhumanity of the South were in reality two aspects of the same thing. How many rapes, murders, lynchings occur in the little city called, so ironically, “Jefferson”?

– Thomas Merton, “Faulkner and His Critics” (1967) (Anthologized in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, pages 120 – 121. Emphasis original.)

“Agricultural Suburbs” by morisius cosmonaut. Used by permission.

The unvanquished

Last night we bought a bed. Before we did, we had a date. The salmon was as good as I’ve ever had. It lay on a wonderful reduction. She had trout crusted with parmesan and ate it all.

Our waiter was an older man, and he was busy. But he had us say our names. He repeated them deliberately, first looking at her and saying her name, then doing the same with me. Then he never called us by our names. Maybe he’s using them now in prayer. The service, anyway, was good.

Before our meals came, I looked at her, and I found myself looking at her. Our eyes met every so often, and she averted hers, unless she was speaking. I’ve always liked this.

On one level, she’s aware I’m looking at her, and she likes it, too. Closer to the surface, she’s thinking. She averts her eyes to continue thinking. I’m watching her think.

My eyes can rest with very few people. My mother’s another. She’s 92, convalescing slowly from a fall, and when I visited her in Richmond last weekend, I told her that she meant a lot to me because she was one of the few people with whom I can sit in silence and simply see.

Brynmawr in the 1920s.

Eye contact has a lot to do with silence, I think. There’s a story somewhere in Conversations with William Faulkner about Faulkner reducing an angry stranger to silence over several minutes by only looking at her. There’s a story, too, in Douglas Steere’s Prayer and Worship, published the same year as The Unvanquished, about Peter Scott, who tried to give a homily to a bunch of unemployed Welsh miners:

They said nothing back to him as he talked and talked. But their silence searched him, choked him, and at last reduced him to silence. He went away inwardly humiliated, but he returned soon to throw in his lot with theirs, to help them pool their capacity, to work and to rebuild their community on a basis of co-operative and self-help enterprises.

The “Brynmawr Experiment” began.

This week I read that fear and hatred stick immediately to the nerves, while gratitude and appreciation don’t stick unless we wait on them for at least fifteen seconds — much longer than it takes for me to read a Tweet. (This fifteen-second rule is from Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness as summarized in Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance.)

A “national conversation” is an oxymoron. We can’t change a thing if our eyes haven’t met.

To have more talk

Every year I hear these words, new to each succeeding class of ninth graders, at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some will be pardoned, and some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Hannah Arendt

When I thought at all about the prince’s command to talk — and I didn’t most years I read it — I thought the prince was Shakespeare trying to generate buzz: “go hence, to have more talk” means “go talk about my play.” But Hannah Arendt put the prince’s command in a new light for me this morning, as Victoria and I talked about what I had just read in Arendt’s On Revolution.

Arendt is not the first writer to observe that the American Revolution was a success and the French Revolution was a failure. But why, then, she wonders, do all the subsequent revolutions model themselves after the French one? She concludes that the difference is in the talking. The French never stopped discussing their revolution, while the Americans stopped talking political theory almost as quickly as they began revering their new Constitution.

° ° °

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

° ° °

After introducing her idea about Americans’ failure to talk, Arendt steps back into a brief discussion about learning and memory, something that immediately felt familiar to me as a teacher:

For if it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself. (212)

To translate Arendt’s observations here into always-helpful educational jargon, “all thought begins with remembrance” means that learners “build on prior knowledge.” Aware of this, teachers create “anticipatory sets” largely to put students in mind of what they already know about an upcoming lesson. Arendt’s distillation “into a framework of conceptual notions” means that teachers have students do something with the new learning: students apply it to a project, they discuss it in small groups and write down summaries of what they discuss – in other words, students begin the process of making the learning their own. To employ the title of a famous book by the psychologist and educational theorist Jean Piaget, “to understand is to invent.” The converse is also true: no invention, no understanding.

Part of the invention is talking. Many of my blog posts come out of Victoria and my “devotionals,” our term for our deliberate morning talks and prayer we’ve committed to only after a quarter-century of marriage. We discuss what we’ve been reading, thinking, and feeling, and because we’re two different people – in our case, two completely different people – we’ve taken some time to learn how to relate the other’s perspective to our own perspective in order to enrich the latter.

This is deliberate talking. It doesn’t replace, nor can it really be compared with, the talking we do in the course of living together. But I think the deliberate talking helps the rest of the talk.

Arendt goes on talking about talking:

Experiences and even the stories which grow out of what men do and endure, of happenings and events, sink back into the futility inherent in the living word and the living deed unless they are talked about over and over again. (212)

What does Arendt mean by the “futility inherent in the living word and the living deed,” particularly as it applies to the American Revolution? In his address to Springfield’s Young Men’s Lyceum 180 years ago this month, Lincoln seems to amplify Arendt’s concern about the “futility inherent”:

I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. . . they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest.

Lincoln goes on to propose that reason’s materials “be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws” so that, upon George Washington’s rising at the last trump, he will find “that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last.” Lincoln’s seeming reliance on reason alone is belied by the patriotic image of the sleeping Washington. A fidelity to the dead, and a reinvention of the dead consistent with the stone-cold facts, keeps them warm in our memory through our talk.

° ° °

“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

……..I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.

° ° °

T.S. Eliot

How much, for instance, we’ve talked of Alexander Hamilton over the past two years! Sometimes I think theater has saved us, just as comedy saved us in 2008. But I think we need a firmer, more local foundation based more on our own talk because our national civic resources are running out. One hopeful sign appears in this morning’s Washington Post, which contains the paper’s annual list of what’s out and what’s in. “Running (for office)” is in, and running can help if there are local public spaces and actions left for those candidacies to generate our talk. Jefferson also had a great idea: he “devoted many of his later years to the promotion of a system of local ‘wards’ or ‘hundreds,’ which were intended to be ‘little republics’ and schools of democracy.” 1 How could we create this kind of public space for public talk?

The next installment from Arendt:

What saves the affairs of mortal men from their inherent futility is nothing but this incessant talk about them, which in its turn remains futile unless certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference, arise out of it. (212)

A Swiss stamp honoring Jean Piaget

My blog posts are never as good as the talking. There is no comparison, of course: they are different genres. But I often want the writing to contain some of the turns of phrase, turns of conversation (including 180-degree non sequiturs) and other charms of the talking. The challenge, never met, at least helps the writing come. (More educational theory: talking leads to writing.) And the writing, in turn, is important, Arendt would say, because it helps “to generate incessant talk about” the principles and practices that led to the American Revolution. Her book proves it: as Philip Gorski points out, Arendt’s On Revolution “quickly became required reading for young advocates of ‘participatory democracy’ during the 1960s and 1970s.”2

But blogging is a way for me not to generate talking but to invent by making my talking and my reading my own. Facebook, by contrast, can’t help me talk or write. I think it’s because most of Facebook is the kind of talk that makes talk impossible. Already our physical architecture, our social strata, our racism, our suburban planning, and our technology keep us from talking. Now even our talking keeps us from talking.

° ° °

O O O O that Shakespearian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So Intelligent
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”

° ° °

Social media generates buzz, but it doesn’t generate talk. Quite the opposite, overall — it displaces talk. Shakespeare, I now think, wasn’t trying to generate buzz through the prince’s final command to talk, any more than God was through Moses when, after giving the law, he issued this command:

And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deut. 6:7, KJV)

To understand this command to talk as pertaining to hermeneutics or theology is to see ourselves becoming only founts (or spouts, anyway) of scripture. But if we go with the action verbs, which I think are indicative rather than exclusive, we’d find a context for deliberate talk in the things we do every day: sit, walk, lie down, get up. (Note: we don’t buzz.) When we add deliberate talk to our daily talk – that is, to the kind of talk we do anyway when we do other things we do, then the words work themselves into and enrich our days. The words move from theory, if you will, to practice. We reinvent the words we speak and apply, and they become our own.

How do we do this? Not through social media or any other form of that enervating oxymoron, a “national conversation,” favored by pundits and some national politicians, who don’t really, when all is said and done, talk. All talk is local and is usually in the context of daily action. We need to talk in the coffee shops, in the spas,3 at work, and in our marriages. To the extent we don’t talk in these places, then we need to understand them better by reinventing them.

The talk isn’t necessarily deep or theoretical or practical or personal — at least not all at once. We may need help in “reclaiming conversation,” to put to use another book title, this one by Sherry Turkle. But the talk will lead to new thinking that we can reduce to a kind of shorthand as we get to know one another again. In this regard, I recall E.D. Hirsch’s account of his father’s business associates becoming familiar with his allusions to Julius Caesar. I’m not advocating cultural literacy at this point, of course — just talk. But my final installment from Arendt suggests how such relationally developed shorthand can serve memory and future talk:

How such guideposts for future reference and remembrance arise out of this incessant talk, not, to be sure, in the form of concepts but as single brief sentences and condensed aphorisms, may best be seen in the novels of William Faulkner. Faulkner’s literary procedure, rather than the content of his work, is highly ‘political’, and, in spite of many imitations, he has remained, as far as I can see, the only author to use it. (307)

William Faulkner

That’s all she says about Faulkner, but I think I know what she means. Faulkner’s characters, even the usually silent ones, are obsessed by talk. Some action, some speech – some spark – causes a character to respond with largely aphoristic remarks that incorporate the past and present. These remarks often make evident an obsession with and reinvention of the past that makes the present possible, if (particularly for Faulkner’s characters) often unbearable. Maybe they help to make a desired future possible, too, if we accept more agency than a lot of Faulkner’s characters seem capable of. When Faulkner’s character, the lawyer Gavin Stevens, says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he speaks with an understanding of talk and reinvention that I think Abraham Lincoln4 would have admired.

° ° °

The above inserts, of course, are from T.S. Eliot’s “A Game of Chess,” the second section of The Waste Land. At a New Year’s Eve party last night, Victoria complained to friends that she still often doesn’t know what I think until she reads it somewhere. Check. Perhaps reinvention has its limits.

[The feature photo is of our development in Leesburg early last month, just before dawn.]

  1. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 65.
  2. Gorski, supra, at 146.
  3. Gorski points out that Reagan understood freedom in mostly economic terms — free to make money without government interference. For Reagan, “the true domain of human freedom was the marketplace, not the public square.” Gorski, supra, at 188. If I asked you to color-code a map of your town or city for these two kinds places — red, say, for areas that serve as marketplaces and green for those that serve as public squares — I suppose the marketplace color would predominate.
  4. Gorski’s understanding of Lincoln’s understanding of the political past is, I think, the correct one: “Like the literalists but unlike the progressives, the civil religionists emphasized the periodic return to sources. They envisioned the future by not only revisiting but also reinterpreting the past: there lay the break with the literalists. Gorski, supra, at 108.

The beauty of sex

I stayed up very late over the last two nights finishing James Salter’s 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. It may be the most beautiful novel I’ve ever read.

It’s about sex. It’s about how sex intersects with human nature inside and outside the sexual relationship. I think its beauty stems from how the sex is depicted, how the relationships are depicted, and how description and atmospherics are used to convey emotional information. (I’ve read that the novel broke ground on how directly a literary novel could address sex. I bet the novel was a pioneer also in its understated and poetic use of description to get across the characters’ emotional states. I recently finished Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 novel The Cat’s Table, and it may owe something to Salter’s sensitive and spare use of description for emotional content.)

Here’s what A Sport and a Pastime answers for me:

  1. How do you write an honest and compelling narrative about sex without seeming clinical, crude, or salacious? What words do you use for specific organs and acts? How specific does a writer need to be to convey a character’s experience and still leave work for the reader’s imagination?
  2. How do you write about what someone begins to mean to you because you will not, yourself, do what he does or that part of what he does that represents, however imperfectly, what the currently most essential part of you wants or needs to do?
  3. How can a narrator report the actions of an actor (that is, a non-writer) and examine, without distracting from the act, what the actor’s acts are doing inside the narrator?

As far as question #3 goes, A Sport and a Pastime beats out one of my favorite novels that also answers the same question, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (And the novels include similar scenes in their denouements (spoiler alert): after the actor dies, the narrator somewhat awkwardly commiserates with the actor’s woman. A feeling of depletion pervades most of the scene.)

A Sport and a Pastime contains not one false note. It’s like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in that respect, and maybe in another: each novel was its respective author’s favorite, probably because it represented to him the fulfillment of writing’s promise and the promise of more.

A car beam

When I grow up, I want to write like this:

A car beam — like something sprayed out of a hose — lights up the room he is in, and he pauses once again in mid-step, seeing that same woman’s eyes on him, a man moving on top of her, his fingers in her blonde hair. And she has seen, he knows, even though now he is naked, the same man she photographed earlier in the crowded party, for by accident he stands the same way now, half turned in surprise at the light that reveals his body in the darkness. The car lights sweep up into a corner of the room and disappear.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, pg. 36. What is revealed, not by the headlights but by the prose, stands starkly against the tone.  The still shot; the ironic, beguiling syntax; Faulkner without the fireworks.

Tom Jones, moderate

Calvin and HobbesA number of my friends remember various critical childhood summers or winters during which they discovered a private library belonging to family or a friend.  In my version of this common tale, the setting was my ninth grade winter, and the protagonist was Tom Jones.  Fielding’s experimental novel stood out as one of the few works of fiction among the dark-mustard, hardbound Great Books my mother subscribed to.

I loved the book’s language. The plot was easy enough to follow (I’ve read that it’s considered predictable), and the characters were amusing, but the style and structure carried me on.  I loved the tone of the clever essays that amounted to the first chapter in each of the novel’s books.  I don’t think I understood a lot of what the narrator was saying in them, though.  I was a child yet, still listening to and lulled by merely the patter and pattern of adult conversation my parents brought into our home.

So Fielding’s omniscient narrator was my favorite character – a friend, a comfort, a father figure and a worldview: hopeful and forgiving, not too serious and not too frivolous, either.  Moderate, essentially.  I stowed the narrator’s viewpoint away somewhere for safe keeping during my subsequent years of religious and political idealism.

This time through Tom Jones, I was almost immediately struck by Fielding’s religious and political moderation.  I just discovered that the philosophical content I missed during my teenage reading – the content of that adult conversation – matches the moderate tone I perceived back then.

Calvin and Hobbes

For the first third of the novel, Tom Jones, an active fellow, can’t do much of anything good or bad without his actions being debated and dismissed by Thwackum and Square, rhetorical combatants who freeload on Allworthy’s estate.  At first appearance, Thwackum and Square have little in common: the former is a Christian enthusiast and member of the Church of England while the latter is a Deist philosopher.  They are each correct about the failings of the other’s belief system, however.

The failings had little to do with high-church Christianity or Deism per se, however, and more to do with the narrow viewpoints Thwackum and Square draw from those traditions.  Fielding himself was a Christian and an Augustinian, and his stated purpose in writing Tom Jones was to encourage readers in the pursuit of virtue (7).  Thwackum’s and Square’s actions don’t live up to their words, and upon closer scrutiny, their words are partly to blame.  Thwackum is essentially a Calvinist, and Square is essentially a Hobbesian philosopher.   Fielding had the same objection to Calvin and to Hobbes: neither philosopher attributed enough goodness in human nature to consider a person responsible enough to govern himself.

While the narrator in Book VI’s introductory essay addresses what he perceives as the shortcomings of Hobbesian philosophy, the latter half of his statement is one he applies to Calvinism as well:

Whether these Philosophers be the same with that surprizing Sect, who are honourably mentioned by the late Dr. Swift; as having, by the mere Force of Genius alone, without the least Assistance of any Kind of Learning, or even Reading, discovered that profound and invaluable Secret, That there is no G–: or since, very much alarmed the World, by shewing that there were no such things as Virtue or Goodness really existing in Human Nature, and who deducted our best Actions from Pride, I will not here presume to determine. (268 – 269)

Last summer, I thought I was the first to link Calvin and Hobbes (though the longstanding comic strip by that name should have given me pause).  I put together the gist of three books, one on John Locke’s liberalism and his struggle to assert human nature’s frail but essential goodness as a basis for his claim to self-government, the second on Richard Hooker’s struggle to reestablish a theological and philosophical foundation for a limited monarchy against Calvinist claims to a theocracy, and the third Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. I concluded:

The sixteenth century argument for a Calvinist theocracy and the seventeenth century argument for an absolute monarchy were opposite extremes that rejected at least three medieval notions: the existence of a natural law by which a community may judge positive law and the rulers who propagate or enforce them, the existence of a civil society that predates a political one, and the proposition that all men are created equal.

But Fielding, and possibly the entire eighteenth-century portion of the Augustan Age, was ahead of me in linking Calvin and Hobbes.  Martin C. Battestin’s introduction to Tom Jones’s Modern Library edition points out Fielding’s Latitudinarianism: “Stressing the importance of works over faith, the Latitudinarians in effect revived the old quarrel between Pelagius and Augustine: man, they maintained against Hobbes and Calvin, was by nature capable of much goodness, and was free to choose between virtue and vice” (xx).

Tom Jones’s plot is chiefly concerned with examining this struggle on an individual basis, but Fielding, heavily involved in Whig politics, was also concerned with it on a national basis.  He interrupted writing Tom Jones to write political tracts against the Jacobite uprising that threatened to undo the gains England had made in self-government.  He wanted to see England continue to move toward an understanding of itself – a self-identity – consistent with self-government.

The philosophical arguments explicitly advanced by Tom Jones’s narrator and characters have societal as well as individual applications within the novel.  This is evident not so much from the plot but from the characters’ and narrator’s explicit application of the issues and arguments to society in general.  (One of the reasons I like the novel is that it sometimes reads like a series of polemics held together by a thin string of a plot.)

Identity and self-government

Tom Jones himself was a perfect test case for the arguments surrounding this debate since he “is possessed of every private and social virtue but one: he is honest, brave, and generous, but he is imprudent, and therefore imperfect as a moral agent” (xxviii).  The frequent exhibitions of Jones’s imprudence are enough for the agents of Calvin and Hobbes to express their beliefs in human nature’s lack of virtue, but Jones’s latent goodness belies their categorical statements in the reader’s eyes.

Jones, however, lacks the one virtue that prevents him from governing himself: prudence.  In Tom Jones, a struggle for prudence is also a struggle for one’s true identity.  Tom Jones is an ontological work – emphatically so, since its title indicates its main character’s lack of self-identity: The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.  Only at the end, only after reaching rock bottom does Jones acquire prudence and discover his true identity.

Such is the struggle for self-government, both at an individual level and at a community or national level: it’s a God-given right, but it’s the most difficult struggle a person or a generation can undertake.  And along the way, those who, from a religious or philosophical viewpoint, doubt a person’s or a nation’s eventual ability to self-govern will, Square- and Thwackum-like, be finding lots of evidence to support those viewpoints.

Comedy and hope

Despite his weaknesses, Jones has charity, which, as Fielding and the Bible would agree, covers a multitude of sins.  Allworthy thought charity “an indispensable Duty, enjoined both by the Christina Law, and by the Law of Nature itself; so was it withal so pleasant, that if any Duty could be said to be its own Reward, or to pay us while we are discharging it, it was this” (95).

Allworthy and Jones’s charity permits the novel’s comic tone, a smile in the heavens reflecting back the goodness of the protagonists’ hearts.  Battestin points out that the narrator is “a kind of surrogate Providence” who looks over Jones’s character development:

The happy accidents and surprising reversals in Fielding’s noel remind us of the manipulating intelligence of the author who conducts the story, as those in real life are signs of the Deity’s providential care. (xxiv)

The novel’s form complements the providential narrator:

The form of Tom Jones – its omniscient narrator and symmetrical design, its progression through probabilities and improbabilities to a fortunate conclusion – is the embodiment of its author’s Christian vision: the vision of a world ordered and benign, and therefore “comic” in the profoundest sense. (xxv)

Tom Jones’s political moderation, then, rejects the religious and putatively atheistic extremism of Calvin and Hobbes.  Its moderation is founded on man’s fragile but innate goodness essential to his capacity for self-government, and on an ultimately comic (i.e., purposeful and forgiving), even ironic and absurd, universe.  Despite the rejection of Calvinist and Hobbesian viewpoints, this moderation welcomes both the religious man and the agnostic, the Christian God and Nature’s God.  This brand of moderation would reach beyond eighteenth century Great Britain to sects outside the Christian community and to atheism as well.  It was essential to our nation’s founding and would be essential to any genuine project of reclaiming something of the Founders’ values.

I’ve heard people question how William Faulkner, whose characters and communities seem so depraved and judgmental, respectively, could state in his Nobel acceptance speech, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”  Faulkner wrote in a tragicomic tradition similar to Fielding’s comic enterprise: it examines a person’s spirit in the crucible of life.  Faulkner’s characters often don’t make it.  But they’re tragic enough to demonstrate that they can make it, and Faulkner is just enough of a comedian to help them along sometimes.

The language

Most of the books I’ve read in the past three years I last read long ago.  Four Quartets is an exception: I started rereading it a decade ago.  But it’s typical – even a fugleman – of these books in another respect: I didn’t understand it when I read it in college, but I loved it anyway.

I wrote some pretty insightful notes in its margins back then, but I think that came from a professor’s lecture.  Anyway, none of that stayed with me.  What I remember is the language.  I loved it.  It’s what my younger self and I can share when we read it now.

Four Quartet’s thought helped save me from a dark time around age forty.  I never would have picked it back up then, though, if I hadn’t remembered it then like young love.

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Kahn too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch our hands out and gather them in?

(The first stanza of Charles Wright’s “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” the poem I rememorized this year for class when I couldn’t master Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”)

Eliot burned my ears.

Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to ornate language.  I mean, look at whom I’ve been rereading: Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Fielding.  Wallace is almost baroque.  Stevens. And Lawrence Sterne, too.  All stuff from high school or college. It’s the sound of it that made me swallow their seeds and kept them inside me for decades, long enough to germinate, long enough for me to have made some sense of it, or – better – for it to have made some sense out of me.  Sound before insight: the thunder before the lightning, in my case.

All of this stress on short sentences (or at least simple ones) and plain language.  I like plain language; I even believe in it, particularly deceptively plain language.  How could I not, given the present age?  But plain words don’t impact me like the winding-road sentences of, say, Tristram Shandy.  I dream recurring dreams of paths leading to bright lands of purple trees and orange sky.  I fall asleep listening to Peter Barker’s reading of Sterne as if to the swoosh-swoosh and universe of my mother’s womb.

The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s delightful, 2009 romp through the last century of American fiction, points out two major approaches to literature, one epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other by Thomas Wolfe in an exchange of letters McGurl summarizes:

Taken up by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and subsequently by a great many of the writers who would be associated with writing programs after the Second World War, the poetics of “show don’t tell” would gradually evolve into a more general understanding of good fiction as founded on discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique.  Thus we find Fitzgerald, in an avuncular letter to his fellow Max Perkins protégé, encouraging Wolfe to cultivate “a more conscious artist” in himself, and to consider the aesthetic benefits of subtraction, as in the example of Flaubert, whose greatness is measured as much by what he left out as by what he put in.  Wolfe’s response to Fitzgerald was both churlish and impressively learned; he invoked a parallel tradition in the novel, including works like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, produced not by “taker-outers” like Flaubert but by “putter-inners” like himself.  All he could take from Fitzgerald’s advice, he wrote, circling back as always to the primacy of authorial selfhood, was that “you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer than I am.” (99)

(The passage’s main point, for you kids using this post to prep for SAT’s, is how another Max Perkins is as unlikely to show up as another Shakespeare.)

Wolfe is always out of favor; he almost was from the start.  But as I’m looking homeward, myself, I might reread him, too.  (My grandmother gave me Look Homeward, Angel to help me cope with my adolescence, and maybe I’m coping with it still.)  I like Fitzgerald, but I’m a howling Wolfe man.

But don’t get George Steiner started!  Unlike McGurl, he takes sides.  He sees Hemingway as “a brilliant response to the diminution of linguistic possibility”:

Sparse, laconic, highly artificial in its conventions of brevity and understatement, that style sought to reduce the ideal of Flaubert – le mot juste – to a scale of basic language.  One may admire it or not.  But, undeniably, it is based on a most narrow conception of the resources of literacy. . . . By retrenching language to a kind of powerful, lyric shorthand, Hemingway narrows the compass of observed and rendered life.  He is often charged with his monotonous adherence to hunters, fisherman, bullfighters, or alcoholic soldiers.  But this constancy is a necessary result of the available medium.  How could Hemingway’s language convey the inward life of more manifold or articulate characters?  Imagine trying to translate the consciousness of Raskolnikov into the vocabulary of “The Killers.”  Which is not to deny the perfection of this grim snapshot.  But Crime and Punishment gathers into itself a sum of life entirely beyond Hemingway’s thin medium.

(From “The Retreat from the Word,” a 1961 essay republished in Steiner’s Language & Silence, pages 30 and 31.)

Steiner is more concerned in this essay with the extent of our functioning vocabulary than he is with sentence length or structure, strictly speaking.  But it’s all of a piece these days.  I heart Steiner’s précis of my man Faulkner, who loved big, fun-sounding words and vine-like syntax more than he loved merely long sentences:

Within a syntax whose convolutions are themselves expressive of Faulkner’s landscape, ornate, regional language makes a constant assault upon our feelings.  Often the words seem to grown cancerous, engendering other words in ungoverned foison.  At times, the sense is diluted as in a swamp-mist.  But nearly always, this idiosyncratic, Victorian night-parlance is a style.  Faulkner is not afraid of words even where they submerge him.  And where he is in control of them, Faulkner’s language has a thrust and vital sensuousness that carry all before them.  Much in Faulkner is overwritten or even badly written.  But the novel is always written through and through.  The act of eloquence, which is the very definition of a writer, is not let go by default. (32)

Steiner, who wrote this around age thirty, is an old soul, and, while I find that he often rushes too quickly to judgment for my taste, he is not afraid to say things that sound strange to me but I suspect were held true by most serious writers before McGurl’s “program era.”  So the act of eloquence is “the very definition of a writer.”  Who says that anymore?

Studdy to be quyet

Because some men study to have learning rather than to live well, they err many times, and bring forth little good fruit or none. — The Imitation of Christ

I like the feel of the purposeful study that Thomas à Kempis recommends to his fellow monks, at least as it comes across here in Harold Gardner’s version of Richard Whitford’s 1530 translation.

Study to live well. Does that mean study (apply myself to knowledge) in order to live well? Or does it mean, as the OED has it, “To endeavour, make it one’s aim, set oneself deliberately to do something” — in this case to live well?

I’m tempted to answer as the kids do today: “Yes.” But “study” here almost certainly means something like the OED definition I quote. Still, I like the ambiguity the word “study” affords. I want the word to mean both things at once. If I can’t have a denotation that is stronger than the sum of two of the word’s definitions, then I want at least one of these definitions to permit a strong connotation of the other.

That’s why I like older English Bibles. You’ve already got the problem of a translation, and now you have to consider the text in a language that it almost, but not quite, your own. You might even find something that was never there and live in it. There are more straws to grasp, and straw makes nice nests.

I know no Greek. I’ve looked up philotimeomai in two Bible dictionaries. The word more closely fits the above “endeavour” definition from the OED. The King James translates the word as “labour,” “strive,” and “study,” depending on the word’s context. The modern English Bibles I have looked at do not translate the word as “study,” probably because the “endeavour” definition is, of course, archaic.

I like “Study to be quiet” from First Thessalonians. It’s part of a string of verses tied among several epistles in which Paul tells his readers or his readers’ charges, in so many words, to follow his example and get a job. But none of the modern versions say anything like “Study to be quiet.” The Revised English Bible, for instance, says, “Let it be your ambition to live quietly. . .”

I lived in a similar verse for years, the more famous “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

[photo of William Faulkner]At the four-times-a-week Bible studies I attended in my youth, we assumed that study meant study. (We understood that Paul wrote in Elizabethan English, and we understood Elizabethan English as well as he.) This verse from Timothy was one of the ones we used to justify our group study. But here’s the New American Standard’s take: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” “Be diligent” is not “study” as we normally use the word today.

But part of diligence in such a context might be what we call study today, no? I’m all the richer for my linguistic ineptitude.

Perhaps you see why I like Tindale, Geneva, King James, and Webster?

I’ll never discover new planets. (I’m quite nearsighted, and my discoveries usually come from tripping over large objects most people see from a distance. This tendency alone takes me out of the running.) But finding evidence of another definition of “study” in college while reading The Sound and the Furymade me feel as if I had discovered another planet adorning my bright “study” star.

In the idiot’s presence, one of Luster’s companions denies Luster’s suggestion that perhaps he had secretly discovered Luster’s missing quarter. “I aint studying no quarter. I got my own business to tend to,” the companion says. (“And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business. . .”: more of that verse in First Thessalonians.) A page later, the same companion denies any interest in the show Luster apparently wants to gain admission to with the quarter: “I aint studying that show.” Later in the book, Luster himself uses the word to deny Dilsey’s charge that he broke a window: “I aint stud’in dat winder.”

These black characters — Faulkner’s angels sent to live among the disintegrating Compson family — helped me in my darkness, too. These dialogs introduced me to “study” as something like “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon. Obs.” (from the OED again). Never mind that this definition doesn’t generate a quotation in the OED from later than 1603.

Luster’s and his acquaintance’s use of “study” may have something more to do with “To think intently; to meditate (about, of, on, upon, in); to reflect, try to recollect something or to come to a decision. Now dial. and U.S. colloq.” (OED). Faulkner is even quoted in the OED using “study” in this sense, though the word’s context in that quote sure points to this last definition more than the context in which Luster and his companion use it.

So, not knowing a thing about linguistics or etymology, I go with the “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon.” I throw in some “endeavour” and some normal study, too. But of course I use the word in this amalgamated sense usually only when I talk to myself. I think I limit it to that.

I attach meaning to words from their contexts. Shoot first; open the dictionary later. This is a wonderful tool for learning vocabulary, I am told. Few of us learn new words by looking them up straightaway in a dictionary, anyway. And even when I do look up words that are new to me, I often forget their meanings. But maybe I’ll become influential, and my misuses will germinate into new definitions in a future edition of the OED. Why discover planets when you can grow them?

So I use words incorrectly, or at least imprecisely. When I peck through all of this straw, I usually get something wrong — the original or the translation or both. At the same time, something is gained in the translation. I slowly build a nest I can live in.

Posted October 2006.

Book group literary theory

I love Faulkner and I love Merton. I learned recently that Merton loved Faulkner and said this about him:

His novels and stories are far more prophetic in the Biblical sense than the writings of any theologian writing today (at least, any that I know!).

Merton was contemplating writing a book on Faulkner’s work, but he died instead.  Merton loved to write about literature, and thirteen years after his death New Directions put a lot of this writing into a five-hundred-plus-page book entitled The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. In an appendix, this book also contains transcripts of informal talks Merton gave to his brothers at the Abbey of Gethsemani concerning The Sound and the Fury, Go Down, Moses, and The Wild Palms.

[Louise Rosenblatt]Go Down, Moses is my favorite Faulkner novel, and The Sound and the Fury ranks up there, too.  I wanted to read The Wild Palms this summer because Merton had read it and loved it and wrote about it, and I wanted to read what Merton wrote about it but not before I had read the novel myself.

I read The Wild Palms this week like I used to read books during those years when my Great Books book group was hot.  I couldn’t wait to share with Merton my impressions and read about his.  If I ever become Orthodox, I thought, I can talk to Merton because he’s not dead because God is not the God of the dead but of the living, thank you.  If I don’t become Orthodox, I could just scrawl margin notes in the appendix as usual, and that’s pretty satisfying.  Because I know Merton and I know Faulkner, and I’m so happy that they were friends, or at least that Faulkner was Merton’s friend the way Faulkner and Merton are my friends.

{book]Merton says that The Wild Palms is a meditation.  “Yes, a meditation!”  (Merton is animated.  The Literary Essays editor does little editing so as not to detract from the talk’s informality.)  Merton thinks The Wild Palms is a meditation because of the depths of the truths it gets across through a kind of counterpoint (I’ll explain at the end); I think it’s a meditation, too, but I say it’s because of Faulkner’s high-wire prose that unites thought and action through epic similes and movie-director detail and repetition, through non-sequential time and fraying syntax, a union that seems to thin out under a reader’s feet at a vertiginous height above a truth where she fears that she or the character one will fall and die in contact with that truth.  The prose is like a meditation, a spell, a dull spell (no matter how much you like Faulkner); it affects you like a dream, not a vivid dream but like your last, evaporating dream as you wake up: precisely the imprecise mood and the seemingly random images or words that stick with you not because they are the dream’s best moods or images or words but because they are the slowest moods or images or words to head out, the last bats, the ones that fly home in the orange sunrise; truth’s dull, pervasive, dawning impression.

Like this, Tom, this interaction between Wilbourne (lover) and McCord (husband) as McCord sees the couple off:

Wilbourne and McCord shook hands.  “Maybe I’ll write you,” Wilbourne said.  “Charlotte probably will, anyway.  She’s a better gentlemen than I am, too.”  He stepped into the vestibule and turned, the porter behind him, his hand on the door knob, waiting; he and McCord looked at one another, the two speeches unspoken between them, each knowing they would not be spoken: I won’t see you and No.  You won’t see us again.  “Because crows and sparrows get shot out of trees or drowned by floods or killed by hurricanes and fires, but not hawks.  And maybe I can be the consort of a falcon, even if I am a sparrow.”  The train gathered itself, the first, the beginning of motion, departure came back car by car and passed under his feet.  “And something I told myself up there at the lake,” he said.  “That there is something in me she is not mistress to but mother.  Well, I have gone a step further.”  The train moved, he leaned out, McCord moving too to keep pace with him.  “That there is something in me you and she parented between you, that you are father of.  Give me your blessing.”

“Take my curse,” McCord said.

On we go, our little book club, tonight, and when Tom left I thought again about The Wild Palms and about Bill, Tom, and me.

What would Louise Rosenblatt say about us tonight?  Her transactional theory of reading accounts for only two of us.  She puts everyone and everything but me on her stage in the preface to The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work: the writer (that’s Bill), the text, and the reader (Tom).  I’m a reader, too, but I’m also the reader’s reader, the reader of Merton’s secondary writing.  Where would I fit in?

[book]Rosenblatt’s transactional theory, which I like very much, emphasizes the reader’s role in the transaction among writer, text, and reader.  She says that classicism and neoclassicism seek to mirror accepted reality, that Romanticism emphasizes the author, that New Criticism emphasizes the text, and that her transactional theory strikes the best balance by emphasizing the reader and the text (1-3).  I’m never on stage, never part of the big theory, but I do get a shout-out later in the book as the reader of criticism.

So what am I doing reading Tom reading Bill?  As a reader of criticism, am I being shortchanged or enriched?  Is this metacognition or metaestrus?

Valid literary criticism must come from a reader as a reader, Rosenblatt would say, and it must be about “the web of feelings, sensations, images, ideas, that [the reviewer or critic as reader] weaves between himself and the text.”  The text is important, too, but only as “the external pole in the process” (137).  “Objective” literary criticism (i.e., criticism focused only on this external pole) – no matter how good (and she likes the New Criticism’s brand of objective theory) – cuts readers off “from their own aesthetic roots” and so (ironically) drives them from the subject of the criticism: the text (140).

Merton does a good job avoiding that. “Yes, a meditation!” means that he has processed the novel, and his meditation exclamation gives way in his talk to some experiences he had as a reader along with some insightful takes on the text.

But even more than Merton’s personal approach, my perceived friendship with Merton, dead or alive, makes his criticism fruitful.  I know where he’s coming from, and, more importantly, I don’t know where he’s going.  This is also why I like to read book posts on blogs I’m familiar with – well, that and the comment fields, which sometimes amount to interactive marginalia.

I can even enjoy what Rosenblatt calls “objective” criticism if I have some dirt on the critic.  I started to enjoy Cleanth Brooks’s essays more once he got roughed up a bit, once Rosenblatt and Harold Bloom pointed out New Criticism’s shortcomings to me.  A biography on Brooks helped me, too.

For me, the best literary criticism is like a good book discussion group or like a marriage of true minds, impediments and all, in which the author is the celebrant and his text is the covenant we choose to honor or contravene.

[book](Here’s a little about The Wild Palms, which Faulkner originally named If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem before his publisher had its way.  Faulkner wrote it mid-career in 1938.  In it, he examines love, sexual and otherwise, by interweaving two stories, each about a man and a woman.  I never knew that Faulkner had it in him to examine sexual love so well, and Charlotte may be his most interesting and most human female character.  The stories, one about a modern couple who live only for their mutual love and the other about a convict stuck on a skiff with a pregnant woman he rescues during a flood, balance each other out thematically and emotionally (the “counterpoint”). The modern couple story is a psychodrama, probably kind of shrill as a stand-alone, and the flood story is action and comedy, so the stories in The Wild Palms mix a bit like the stories comprising Go Down, Moses.  Noel Polk, the editor of the current Vintage edition of The Wild Palms, says that the original manuscripts demonstrate that Faulkner wrote the novel in the order it appears – in “alternating stints” and not one story at a time.  I knew that if Merton liked the novel then I would like it, too, and I did.)

Posted August 10, 2008.