Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft
Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it. Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting? (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter: the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can). Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth? (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?) Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).
All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.). GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well: starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too: what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?
Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking. In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original: much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:
Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.
But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect. (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel). That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.
“She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”
Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41
Kusa makura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).
The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disarming lack of training in rigorous thinking rather typical of all exclusively humanist training; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it: when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?
Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere at the bottom of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.
It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel. Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them.
Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.
Bettines letzte Liebschaften shows the now 50-ish Bettina von Arnim — once made famous by her youthful correspondence with Goethe and now an established cultural figure — traveling several hundred miles through a snow-storm to meet her youthful poet-correspondent, in hope of consummating the heretofore epistolographical affair. Once tete-a-tete in his quarters, the poet begins to duck, evade and change the subject, and when he is finally openly pinned down to declare himself, denies volubly that he finds her too old (not an ageist, he) but claims that his erstwhile passion died in response to reports of Bettina’s similar attempts made recently on two other youthful poets. She admits she has made such attempts, but says they are over and claims now to live only for him – to no avail. Take aways (as they say in college):
1. Youthful poets are happy to “do a Bettina” – i.e. establish their fame by way of amorous correspondence with senior high profile poets/poetesses – but their eagerness for literary achievement may not necessarily extend to acts of physical self-sacrifice. And:
2. Fiftyish established poetesses (and poets) – when he wrote it, Dieter Kuehn – no, not the East German footballer who is the only German of that name with an English wikipedia entry – was fiftyish himself – become desperate enough to follow every lead, several at once. Time is running out, there isn’t enough of it left to do them sequentially.
To please Andrew —————-
Her last letter to me ended with the usual exhortation for me to please write. You do it so well, she said, it is all so interesting, you tell us all those things we ignoramuses don’t know. [Tricky words from a university professor, published novelist, and someone rather famous in her own country — especially when such words are addressed to someone entirely unknown, anonymous, and without credentials].
Ah, yes, well, thank you. I guess all those years of traveling and reading, of living an odd lifestyle in all sorts of odd places where other people who share my interests do not usually go, let alone live, have not been entirely in vain… why, given the gift of the lifestyle, of the first-hand experience, it would have been proof of utter imbecility of me if I did not make at least some independent observations… so perhaps I did figure out a thing or two which may not have occurred to others, not because those others are dim, but because these things simply could not have occurred to them — because there haven’t been there, they haven’t seen what I have seen. So perhaps I do have something to say, however insignificant it may be.
But I don’t seem able to explain it — no one seems to understand what I think I am trying to explain… or even notice that it just might be any way important. Or care. The fault must be entirely mine, of course — if a speaker isn’t getting through to a crowd, it isn’t the crowd’s fault — but the truth is that I am no longer worried about it… it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore if anyone does understand. Or care.
I do write, of course — like you, I have been writing all my life. I have been writing as an aid in thinking — I don’t seem to understand what I think until I see what I write — but I have never cared to be published, for some odd reason I have never been ambitious that way. It just doesn’t seem such a big deal to me to be on a book shelf or to be mentioned in a newspaper or in a book review. (I was once a fashion model; my mother kept all the magazines and calendars in which I featured, but I trashed them all the moment I received them. If anything, I was embarrassed by them).
It is true that at one point I did publish a successful blog and that when I did it, at the time, I did go out of my way to promote it. But I didn’t do it for fame or to shine or to exist (some people seem to exist only to the extent that they exist in other people’s minds, but I have always felt secure in the knowledge that I exist, even on five-day solitary hikes in the mountains): I did it because I imagined that the internet, then young, offered a way for like minds to meet, to find each other, to talk. In the end I am not sure that I succeeded in proving that: I am not sure I really found any “like” minds… I know I found plenty enough “unlike” minds. I have met others, too, who have been gentle and generous — like you — but, I repeat, even in those cases I don’t think I have met any “like” minds.
If anything, talking to people on that blog about art and literature I have discovered what I have been discovering all my life, that I don’t really understand other people. A scientist-philosopher once published a huge hit of a paper in which he argued that we (“we, cognitive scientists”, that is) could never understand what it was like to be a bat on account of the animal’s unique sensory system (echolocation). Be that as it may, I find that I cannot imagine what it is like to be other people!
I have spent the last two years reading memoirs and letters of many prominent thinkers and I have discovered that their likes and dislikes, their desires and ambitions and fears were all very odd to me — as was the way they reasoned about them. I am sure the feeling is mutual and this disparity, this gulf, is one reason perhaps why I seem unable to explain myself; and the conviction of the vastness of this gulf, now stronger then ever, is the main reason why I no longer try to explain. I mean… if by some miracle I managed to convince someone that the theory of art he has learned in art 101 and which everyone seems to accept and which fuels all the furious production and all the auction house bidding and all the museum building and going… if I convinced someone that there was something fundamentally wrong with that theory… that it was only a plausibly sounding falsehood… and, if response to all my argument, a light lit up in their heads saying “aha!”, would they really understand that which I am trying to say? Or would they understand something completely different and would I have any clue as to what they got out of the conversation?
And — why should I worry about that at all?
Dragoneia is the name of a village near Naples where Herling had his summertime villa.
Dragoneia, July 14, 1977
Perhaps only in the country, where contact with nature is continuing, and where it is still the essence of life, has the Evil preserved a bit of its former character of something identifiable and autonomous; and with symbolism deriving from local traditions. The area surrounding Dragoneia is The Domain of The Snake. Last year, in the deep valley behind the village I saw a group of peasants renovating the tiny abandoned church which had been built there two centuries ago above an entrance to a dark cave to commemorate the long years of struggle which took place there between The Snake and the village’s saintly eremite.
Many years ago my neighbor did meet The Snake at the entrance to the cave beneath the castle in Cava: The Snake had a feathered head and fiery eyes. My neighbor became faint, his legs gave out uder him, he was barely able to summon the strength to fire at it from his shotgun. It was at high noon, the hour of the wild fire of the sun, so he could not be sure what chased off The Snake: the gunshot, or the pealing of bells at nearby churches. He barely managed to drag himself home, half-dead, he collapsed on his bed and during the next few days was unable to speak. His speech had turned into some sort of a devilish rattle. And now – I have witnessed this ever since I have begun to live here – he keeps disappearing for a few days at a time every now and then. People say he wanders without purpose; others — that he lies in wait at the entrance to the cave beneath the castle. He is, on a small scale, the local Ahab stalking the Dragoneian White Whale.
To the faithful sons of the soil and the sea, Melville, if only they knew him, would be easy to understand and believe. There is in them, beneath the thin veneer of Christianity — in any case mainly ritualistic — a kind of pagan-cum-Old-Testament cross of the vision of Evil: not the notion of a struggle between Good and Evil taking place in the soul of each of the faithful, but of the Beast, lurking in the deep of the ocean or the soil: lying in wait for man.
Melville was a myth-maker writer, he did not care about psychology, he was attracted to Biblical parables. Moby Dick was his masterpiece, as powerful as the roar of the sea, and Billy Budd was his a short, deeply affecting swan song. Billy Budd – the incarnation of Good; Claggart – obsessed by Evil; De Vere who sacrifices an innocent boy at the Altar of the Law, like Abraham – Isaac. In this beautiful Misterium For Three Voices, the Beautiful Sailor speaks with the voice of a barbarian.
Not that Billy Budd was unable, like children, to understand death; he simply did not feel any irrational fear of death, because this fear is far more common in civilized societies than in the so-called barbarian ones, which remain far closer to Nature; and, as we have said, Billy Budd was an authentic barbarian.
Melville loved the Good Barbarian for the unadorned simplicity of his soul. The Christian soul is confused and helpless, since in her fear of death she lacks the acceptance of death. The natural soul is defined by one single inborn response: of horror before the mystery of Evil.
What tale does the kerosene lamp tell? — 2nd excerpt from Herling-Grudzinski’s Diary Written At Night-time
Alba lunare (“moon-dawn”) is a phenomenon of nature visible in several places on the planet where the air is especially clear and dry allowing the stars to be seen in the sky for several minutes after the rise of the sun.
Panarea, 24 June – 2 July 1977
The Aeolian Islands, near the shores of Sicily, or, in the language of mass tourism, the Seven Pearls: Stromboli, Panarea, Salina, Lipari, Vulcano, Filicudi, Alicudi. Twice a week a ship sails from Naples, early in the evening. Soon after you pass Capri, night falls. A short while yet the red tail of sunset drags itself along the furrow of the sea, and then it is swallowed up by blackness, pure and absolute.
The first pearl one fishes out from the sea,just before dawn, is Stromboli. As the ship drops anchor the end of night looks like the unwrapping of bandages. Layer after layer, scale after scale, the thick darkness reluctantly thins, out of the crater, briefly, a tongue of fire slips out and quickly slips back in, the transport barges grow large, the lighthouse on shelf near the island is extinguished. Now you can see Stromboli clearly. From the black sand of the beach, though the white of the houses, and the green of vegetation of unusual variety of color shades — in places nearly purple, elsewhere near yellow — up to the black cone of the volcano. The first pearl makes one think rather of a rock dug up from the bottom of the sea, a record of drilling, grinding, chipping, pulling, and finishing with colors.
The second pearl is Panarea, my goal. Much smaller – only three kilometers long and two wide, two hundred fifty residents, classical Sicilian landscape: reddish brown scree, greyish-green plates of rock, and piante grasse: the fat cactus vegetation, here and there embroidered with a flush of flower. The only proof of its antiquity is a prehistorical village on Calaiunco, the anchor-shaped peninsula. Circular “huts” made from a few rocks piled one upon the other at the edge of a high cliff, below the sapphire sea, glittering like a sheet of tinfoil, behind naked pink rock, and thistle with blood-red flowers. Guidebooks recommend another oddity, also prehistorically flavored. The moon-break, alba lunare, is known in other places, too; but perhaps only here the pale day emerges from the dull globe in such a magical way.
Outside the tourist season, life is focused on thee points: port-church-graveyard. In the graveyard I found a stone with an inscription which encompasses the whole cycle. A Panarean fisherman, “he always held the oar and the net in his hands, he worshiped God, loved life and the sea, died one hundred and ten years of age”. In the harbor people wait for ships; in front of the church – for it to open. On the day of the patron saint of the island, Saint Peter, the village procession is a procession of a handful of castaways.
There is no electricity on the island and in the evening one lights a kerosene lamp. What tale does the kerosene lamp tell? To me, it tells the tale of childhood and early youth. Things seen, discovered, perhaps only suspected, “at the threshold”, belong to our most secret mythology. Poetry’s whole point, I suppose, that in one’s adult age one tries to restore to things and feelings that uniqueness, which they otherwise are only granted at first touch. What we call evocation — going back in time — is an attempt to see anew, for the second time, the world in its unordered form. In my house on the pond there was no electricity and there the world was assembled: The World Built of Elementary Parts. A word was more than a symbol. Pond, Meadow, Forest, Mill, Hate, Fear – pure categories, in and of themselves – the noumena – gates to regions untouched by foreign foot. Later Reality opens up, and, as she does, visions, naïve symbols, and magical enchantments are all pushed aside. Then, one’s whole adult life one misses that unity, that purity, that mystery of gaze, which functions without words – until it disappears irretrievably. Irretrievably? Restoration of the gaze does happen to great writers, the creators of myths.
For many years now, the infertile soil has not been farmed, not counting a rare vegetable garden. Old vineyards and fields have gone wild, become overgrown with weeds, there is no one to take care of them. The more enterprising residents have fled for the continent, and on the island one only bakes the bread. But even those who have remained leave at the close of the season for Sicily, for temporary work. In the fall and winter the island empties out. In the area where I am staying, between the graveyard and the prehistorical village, only two families are patiently awaiting the spring. La vita se firma, tira solo vento. The life dies down and only the wind is blowing.
The Aeolian Wind.
Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski (1919-2000) was a Polish novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, soldier, prisoner of the Soviet Gulag. Arrested in 1940 after the Soviet invasion of Poland, he left with the Polish army formed within the Soviet Union in 1942, fought against Nazis in North Africa and Italy (Tobruk, Monte Cassino). After the war, he settled in Naples where he married one of the daughters of Croce. He was of the principal contributors to the leading Polish emigre monthly Kultura (publishing books otherwise banned in Poland under Soviet rule) where his Diary Written In Night-time was published in monthly installments over a thirty year period. A kind of journal intime of a thinking man, it is composed of essays, short stories, book reviews, letters, imaginary dialogues, political commentary, and a few, very sparing, carefully disguised — and yet for all that very affecting — autobiographical entries — and nothing in the way of the usual “had breakfast, walked the dog” trivia which fill the diaries of the great.
Here are several of the more personal, more poetic pieces that struck me while reading Volume I. Perhaps, had the journal consisted of nothing but pieces like this, it would soon become tiresome; but scattered as they are among other, more argumentative and purposeful prose, these pieces stand out like diamonds set in a cast iron ring. The first excerpt, dated 1972, records an incident in 1945 when the soldiers of the Polish army in Italy have learned that they have been betrayed by their allies: that the US and UK had ceded their country to the Soviet Union and that there would be no free fatherland to return to after all. (Elsewhere in the diary, remembering the 1945-6 period in Rome, Herling writes: “one drank a lot in those days, drank to unconsciousness, drank to forget”).
July 16, 1972
The well known English critic Alvarez tried to take his own life. He was saved and the consequence was his book, The savage god, a study of suicide. Besides his own experiences Alvarez used as the immediate impulse for writing the story of the suicide of his friend and (excellent) poetess Sylvia Plath. The book is a huge hit in the UK and in America.
The subtitle is misleading: this supposed “study of suicide” was compiled by a literatus interested chiefly in the topic of “suicide and literature”. I see nothing wrong with this sort of narrowing of the subject, but in this case I am repulsed by the insistent, and irritating, insinuation that only “artists” are capable of “true suicide”; ordinary eaters of bread take their own life for trivial reasons; but for artists, a suicide is the conclusion of an uncontrollable “creative act”. Above the book ponderously hangs a reflection from Kierkegaard:
The whole world may be divided into those who write, and those who do not write. Those who write represent despair, those who do not disapprove of it and believe in their own wisdom, but if they were capable of writing, they would write exactly the same things. At bottom, they are as desperate, but, when one does not have the chance to become someone important thanks to his own despair, then there is not much point celebrating it or showing it. Could this be the way to overcome despair?
I had no idea that Kierkegaard could be so stupid. He is perhaps explained – though not justified – by this: to him “despair” became the equivalent of “grace” in the Puritan faith, the special grace of the elect. He surrounded this “mortal disease”, this “hemophilia of the soul”, with the defensive air of blue blood.
Many years ago I happened to spend ferragosto, the culminating day of summer (August 15) celebrated by Italians, in a down-at-heel tiny hotel in Rome. The city was deserted, the heat was unbelievable. I lay naked on my wet bed, dragging myself every now and then to the sink, to stick my head under the faucet, and to look down the dark well of the courtyard. The only sound was the ugly noise of the elevator when some soldier brought up a girl from Termini for a short time. Even love-making next door took place quietly, sleepily, without moaning or squeaking of the bed. I can’t remember the lazy, unglued course of my thoughts, though I remember that they slithered here and there through the landscape of years past and that there was in them a gradually crystallizing fury (according to Kierkegaard: the chief face of despair). Around six o’clock in the evening I felt something difficult to describe, a kind of hole in time, a sucking pump of void. I stood at the window. What brought me to was the pain in my hands tightly grasping the lock of the shutters. Soon thereafter the streets rippled with voices, the city came to life, in the house next door someone sang, at full throat, a popular song. In the midnight news bulletin it was reported that alle sei della sera circa four persons took their own lives in various parts of Rome.
In the vain effort to understand the Savage God a day like that weighs more than any literary “study of suicide”.
Next: an expedition to Panrea (Lipari Islands) and the tale told by the kerosene lamp.
Perhaps I ought to get serious about reading Hofmannsthal (otherwise famous for being the librettist of Frau Ohne Schatten). Here is a line from his first publication ever, an imagined Letter of Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon ca. 1603:
I shall never write another book again, neither in English, nor in Latin, because the language in which I have been fated to write and think is neither Latin, nor English, nor Italian, nor Spanish; it is a tongue entirely unfamiliar to me, of which I understand not a word, a language in which mute objects speak to me, and in which, in my tomb, I will perhaps one day have to answer an unknown judge.
That it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all
I remember Antoni Słonimski. During my formative days he was an icon in my country. No longer to be read anywhere in the official media – having displeased the communists he had been banned from publishing – he was widely and eagerly read in samizdat. Read and admired.
As I read his works now I realize my admiration for him is entirely Voltairean: the man deserved to be loved for his infallible political and moral compass – an unshakeable belief in human rights and absolute need for liberal principles in government (liberal in the European sense, meaning that the state must be lenient); and his courageous public stand on these issues, damn the cost to his professional career and personal danger. But I admire him as a writer as I admire Voltaire: not at all.
The similarity between both writers goes deeper than political stand. They were both brilliant polemicists, aggressive, biting, and witty. They excelled – and thrived – in the heat of the moment, of the tit-for-tat, in public displays of the flashy quickness of their minds. They excelled in it, and they lived for it. The most revealing moment in Słonimski’s life, to my mind, is his trip to Brazil, during which he was bored, was not at all interested to learn anything about the country, and missed badly Warsaw cafe life – exactly as Voltaire missed Parisian salons when banned to the countryside. They lived to shine in society.
If you think about it in this light, the political principles of the two appear not a little self-serving: confident that they will shine in public and prevail in debate, of course they preferred free speech in the same way in which a heavy-weight boxer might prefer a no-holds-barred free-for-all.
But as brilliant as their style is – fluid, flashy, entertaining – it is also a bit like the Great Sahel Barbecue: all smoke and fire and very little flesh – only a few charred bits of desert locust. If, like me, you read in search of deep reflection, of new insight into the nature of the universe and the individual’s place in it, of profound introspection, you will find neither. It is almost as if the men lacked internal life. Significantly, neither has ever kept a journal intime: it is as if left alone by themselves, they ceased to exist. They were like those people with walk-on parts in your life, who, at the end of their scene, say “bye-bye” and go out the door and just outside freeze in temporary suspension until called on stage again. As he departed Paris, Voltaire felt himself dying: the further he was, the more dead he was. Cirey was a surprising discovery for Voltaire: that life outside of Paris salons was possible; that one could spend a day all by himself, without showing off or impressing a single person, and be contented. I am not sure that Słonimski ever made that discovery.
In my previous incarnation as a blogger I came upon countless Słonimski-Voltaires: people who ran their blogs for the traffic; and who engaged in comments only on busy blogs, in order to shine. If, attracted by an interesting comment, I ever tried to follow up in personal correspondence, I got next to nothing: the target, it turned out, was not interested in the topic, or in discussing the topic (which is not quite the same thing), but – in public shining. Private correspondence, being private, did not interest them.
And thus my reading of Słonimski, and reflection on him, has led me to formulate a thesis: that it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all. For such people it comes naturally to believe that all mind or all consciousness are a function of language; and that all reality is somehow linguistic. (Die Grenze meiner Schprache sind die Grenze meiner Welt).
Why did Sciascia repeat himself?
Motivated by his wonderful Stendhal and Sicily, I was going to read all his books in any order — meaning, the order in which they arrived. But the second book to arrive — The Knight and Death turned out to be… the first book (Equal Danger) retold. This repetition puzzles me. If it were different, or better, one could understand it. It is neither — and yet, Sciascia persevered in writing it through agony of terminal disease.
The story is familiar enough — and by now hackneyed by numerous Hollywood remakes — the evil capitalist power-elite fabricate the existence of a radical terrorist left-wing group in order to a) cover up its own crimes (for which the invented leftist group is being blamed) and b) defame the left, its politicians and its causes. Brilliant, evil, scary, probably sometimes true, even if, as a plot of a novel, a little old hat.
That Sciascia told the story once is mildly interesting — perhaps in his time, this plot idea was novel? At this point a reader setting out to familiarize himself with Sciascia’s work is forgiven to think that his next political novel might plumb another aspect of the nefarious deep of the anni del piombo. But that Sciascia chose to re-tell the same plot, the same situation, pretty much unchanged, begins to looks like… a pattern.
A pattern, perhaps an obsession: Sciascia’s point, it now appears, is not so much the general claim that the system is evil, but the specific claim that a terrorist leftist group might be its invention. The insistence on the scheme suggests he meant a specific situation. Perhaps a specific terrorist leftist group? Could he mean… The Red Brigades?
We now know that the Red Brigades were trained and supplied by the KGB. Why is not difficult to see: Italian state was weak, her politics unstable, her communist party was strong, her unions radical; a little terrorism just might have sparked a security crisis — and that just might create the opportunity for a takeover followed by Italy’s secession from NATO etc. etc. … a major breakthrough for the USSR.
We also know that Soviets thought (correctly, as it happens) that as a propaganda weapon the Red Brigades were possibly an embarrassment. Publicly, they denied involvement. In Eastern Europe, where radical politics was not encouraged, the press was told to refer to the red brigades as “fascists”. Sciascia’s novels… appear to play from the same script.
Why would he do that?
1) knew (or guessed) that the Red Brigades were fed by the same hand which fed the Italian communist party and generously supported radical Italian intellectuals (he had to: did he not read in the classics that “a revolution is a violent act by which one class overthrows another”?); in which case he is guilty of intentional obfuscation of truth for the benefit of — what? In the name of international loyalty of the left? To protect/ satisfy personal relationships? To assure for himself publication in the East? Whichever was the case, it must strike one as confused;
2) he genuinely didn’t know and only tried to protect the Left’s good name by suggesting that the dark blot on the image of the communist movement in the west — the Red Brigades — might only be a figment of imagination and therefore let us not jump to conclusions. But why would he do that? Why muddy the waters? Didn’t he want to know the truth? Perhaps he preferred for some facts not to come to light? Perhaps he didn’t want to be faced with an uncomfortable truth?
The mystery of what went on in Sciascia’s mind will remain forever unsolved. Whichever is the case, Sciascia’s motives appear compromised and the status assigned him by some — that of a moral lighthouse in a murky age — dubious.
What remains are his works and judging by the two I read this week, they are mostly unremarkable. His portraits of the evil agents of capitalism (the capitalists themselves, the security aparatchiks) are pale, flat, one-dimensional, strangely unconvincing. And not surprisingly — as a career leftist intellectual without any significant access to power he was probably describing a world of which he knew nothing (i.e. he was violating the principal dictum of every writer’s course: “write what you know”). Those who actually had met the powers that be in real life — writers like Le Carre, say — are much better at drawing them in all their terrifying ugliness
Barbara Tuchman, reflecting on the fate of her literary output at the end of her very long career, observed that her political writings died quickly and disappeared forever; and that what lasted were her essays on topics irrelevant to the moment, easily read as treating of universal problems of human nature: her tale of Black Death; her tale of the stupidity and hubris which led to the outbreak of World War One. In this category, Sciascia’s essay on Standhal in Sicily can hope to live for a few more centuries — certainly as long as people continue to read Stendhal.
The future of his fiction, however, looks uncertain.
Should I read Stendhal?
Scascia’s delightful essay on Stendhal and Sicily — a testament to both its author’s love for Stendhal and that special nature of passion which he inspires — one which makes the Stendhalist simply revel in the discovery that Stendhal may have read X, or may have got the idea of the plot of Y from Mme Z, etc. — that essay, I say, nearly did the trick. A trick which all the synopses of his novels and all the essays on Stendhal by Stendhalist have heretofore failed to achieve. But such synopses and essays can’t possibly be reliable: nothing ever written about Thomas Mann or Proust could possibly have sparked my interest in those two, either: I was lucky to do the thing first, before reading the how-to’s. It almost seems as if some writers’ work were great with a greatness too great to be captured in an ordinary mortal’s reflection. (Certainly all efforts to tell us just what makes The Magic Mountain great have miserably failed). And if the proof of pudding is in the eating…
(A note to any Stendhalists out there: if I should decide to take the plunge, where should I begin — assuming it is not to be that much acclaimed “best book about Rome” — never apparently Englished? — Promenades dans Rome?)
But first, I reached for more Sciascia — the first thing to hand happened to be Equal Danger — only to discover the truth of Jerzy Stempowski’s observation ca. 1955 that “fascism was good for Italian literature”. What he meant was that the combination of heavy censorship (which discouraged many attempts at publication) and the outright banning of some authors forced Italian writers to write slowly, against uncertain future publication, and this made them write better. Free market, like free elections, creates a kind of mad dash to “publish early, publish often”, and Equal Danger is good illustration of the disappointing results that yields: an interesting idea but unfinished and too poorly written. No wonder he kept it in his drawer for two years before publishing it. It should have stayed there.
(Perhaps more than any novel of Sciascia’s I would like to read more essays like Stendhal and Sicily. Such things are of course never Englished at all. His Nero Su Nero — available in Italian, French, German and Spanish — seems interesting — an intellectual journal, says someone who read them — political and cultural commentary and reflection minus private life. One gets so tired of reading of other people’s internal life).
“Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Polish society has not had an aristocracy, or any other leading group with a particular moral authority. The kind of discussion in which each generation sorts out its moral and aesthetic values, personal and social manners, could not take place at court (as it did in Spain of Cervantes or in France of Louis XIV), nor in the salons of the title or ultra-rich elites. These discussions have moved in our case into the territory of literature. Hence comes the great significance and luminosity of Mickiewicz and Żeromski. This special quality our literature shares with several others: Russian, Ukrainian, etc. Thanks to it, our literatures possess that kind of duality typical of folk art, whereby the utilitarian is not separated from the artistic. This kind of utilitarian-artistic ambivalence is a profound quality of entire modern Polish literature.”
Stempowski’s words (from a 1937 letter to Dąbrowska) are a good clue to the special unction with which Polish intellectual elites treat the matters of literature: literature appears to them as a debate on things all-important, on ultimate values. Literature and its interpretation are serious business.
There are other aspects to the special place of literature in the Polish mind: during the entire period of partitions (1795-1918) literature was the only way to hang on to the national language (as national language was gradually being pushed out of schools by the occupying powers) — and this gave literature the air of a life-preserving activity, without which the nation would cease to exist. Literature became, literally, a matter of life and death.
In shaping the present-day role of literature in the Polish mind, communist occupation 1945-1989 has played perhaps the most important role. The party launched a vast program of literary patronage in order to buy support among the elites (expecting at least lukewarm public support in return for publication and promotion). The party explained this patronage as an essential part of the socialist project of creating the new man. On this theory, literature was supposed to help transform people’s aspirations and channel them towards the new life. Unsurprisingly, Polish literary figures were only too eager to embrace an ideology which ascribed them special consciousness-forming powers.
The ideology proved to have an unexpected consequence for the communists when the very people they had imagined they had bought began to publish in samizdat form books which the communists had banned (or merely refused to publish). The samizdat publishers published and circulated this literature because they had accepted the communist theory that literature was all important as a mind-shaping vehicle: being so important, it was too important to be subjected to political interference and had to be rescued. Political opposition in Poland was to a very large extent — literary.
Out of this engagement an odd ideology began to arise.
Just as the occupying power’s interference with polish language education during the partitions (1795-1918) was seen as an existential threat, so was the communist interference with literature during 1945-1989. While the former was an existential threat to the language, and therefore the nation as the speakers of it; communist control of literature was seen as a threat to something else, something ill-defined, sometimes described as “free-thinking” (which would have been correct), but more often as “spirit” or “culture”. Communist control began to be identified with Ortega y Gasset’s “verical barbarian invasions”: an attempt to stamp out the past (which to some extent it was) — and therefore national traditions (believed to be a foundational and fundamental to the nation). On this ideology, literature — good literature, correct literature — preserved national traditions and therefore the nation. Thus literature became, once again, a matter of national survival.
Readers of this and my other blogs will be struck by how closely this situation resembles what had happened in China where Chinese literature became identified with Chinese culture and Chinese culture with humanity — uncultured/unlettered humans being barbarians — not fully human. Preserving and cultivating literature became in China coterminous with preserving humanity and therefore, in a certain sense, life — “human life”.
This perception fit nicely with the American postwar ideology beamed into Poland via Radio Free Europe and western-printed samizdats and which promoted “Western values”. By these, Americans meant democracy, personal liberty, and capitalism — all good values of course, but none of them especially Western, certainly none of them very ancient in the West — but which Polish literati readily accepted adding to it — as could be expected of literary thinkers — Polish, Graeco-Roman, and French classics. Today, the American postulates — personal liberty, democracy, capitalism — have largely been attained in Poland but Polish literary figures continue to fight for culture and the classics and are puzzled why the release of political and economic liberty has not led to an explosion of interest in Martial, Horace, Rabelais, Voltaire and such like. Surrounded by aggressive pop-culture they once again feel in the midst of a vertical barbarian invasion and called upon to save the nation.
by Jerzy Stempowski
Writing is not new to me, but I have never had much conviction for it as a way of spending one’s time. I have always had the feeling – and today I have it more than ever before – that this kind of occupation requires of me some kind of purpose, justification even. I suspect that I am not alone in these feelings, and that it is this lack of justification – more than any opportunistic consideration – which has motivated writers to evaluate their work in terms of social utility.
I have spent much of my childhood and youth among people who wrote, edited and generally devoted themselves to other literary occupations. These rarely led to any notable results. In our times, such activities are probably an unintended consequence of the existence of the printing press and paper factories, which, like all machines in general, must never be allowed to idle.
From my early acquaintance with the mechanism of writing and printing, I have come to the conclusion that there is no need at all to increase the already vast production of printed word. Even the most assiduous reader can never exhaust the reading program he has set for himself. I thus considered my refraining from the blackening of paper very meritorious.
I began writing late, in the thirty-sixth year of my life, for unexpected reasons, in a period of my life especially poor in other diversions. Looking at the matter today, I am not at all sure that I would have begun writing, had I only had the opportunity to occupy myself in a more systematic manner with music or to undertake a distant journey. Such diversions would probably have come to bore me, but perhaps could have lasted long enough to occupy the time I had in their absence used to try my pen instead.
Though it is perhaps somewhat tactless to say this in a book which may well be read by the literati, writing has always been the occupation of the minorum gentium. Although those ruling Dei Gratia have from time to time taken up the occupation in moments of remorse at the disappointing results of their ruling; as have ministers fallen out of favor; ambassadors compelled to live on meager pensions; and deputies denied further mandate by their people, upstaged by a better demagogue, and awaiting the beginning of a new electoral campaign; yet, the main body of the writing profession have always been people seeking in the written word a kind of compensation for everything which had been denied to them by life, or which could never have been allowed by life to anyone.
The ability to put marks on paper has always carried within it the latent possibility of something bordering on black magic: the ability to produce fiction with which to bedazzle the experimenter. In my youth I saw dadaists gluing onto the wall with great unction words cut out form newspaper and mixed up randomly in a hat. Out of these words there emerged something like poetry, full of unexpected associations. Surrealists took these possibilities seriously, experimenting with so-called écriture automatique .
Since even totally randomly placed marks can cause striking surprises, how much more so can words polished by the virtuosi of writing! Words assembled by them detach themselves from their relationship with the author and begin their own, autonomous life, like precious stones, talismans or fetishes, promising imaginary fortunes and jealously tucked into memory.
L’étoile a pleuré rose au cœur de tes oreilles,
L’infini roulé blanc de ta nuque à tes reins
La mer a perlé rousse à tes mammes vermeilles
Et l’Homme saigné noir à ton flanc souverain.
(The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears,
The infinite rolled white from your nape to the small of your back,
The sea has broken russet at your vermilion nipples,
And Man bled black at your royal side.
As translated by Oliver Bernard: Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems (1962) ]
The power to create such verbal formulas which even decades, even centuries later occupy our attention and leave indelible traces on all hours that follow, is perhaps equal to the power to command. And this is how it has been honored, because those who had acquired this power have in all times received honors equal to leaders and rulers. And therefore Martial is probably mistaken, when he makes an aside in a story about a shoe-maker suddenly made rich, blaming his parents for having given him literary education alone: at me litterulis stulti docuere parentes (“but the foolish parents taught me letters”). At any rate, Martial, and Horace, and all those who came in their wake down to our own Tuwim, were all bursting with pride at their magical command of words, so modestly sometimes called the poetic craft.
However, all this holds only for poetry. Prose does not draw its strength from this magical power, but from the clarity of thought ordering the chaos of phenomena. The magic of words is here a secondary matter. Even rhetoricians all agree that the most eloquent is he who has the most important thing to say, were he to speak with the most barbarian of dialects. The need to order and master surrounding phenomena with our thoughts appears to be autonomous: it does not compel any direct impulse to write. The need to propagate one’s thoughts and to impose them on others is something altogether different, the best proof of which is the fact that it appears to foster neither clarity nor honesty of expression. The central contradiction of all prose-writing lies in, on the one hand, the desire to show off one’s clarity of thought and, on the other, every other possible motivation for writing.
Emerging out of silence, the silence which seems to be the correct attitude of thought, constitutes, in a sense, a denial of thought’s central ambition. It also requires the use of words, which are an uncertain medium, at times too resistant, at other times too fluid, subject to rules different from the laws of thought and often producing during manipulation unexpected jarring noises and hot sparks.
To work with words, especially the written word, which can neither truly convey hallucination nor express rational reasoning, requires one to give up many ambitions, but mainly to simplify oneself to the level of a cook who, knowing nothing of either chemistry or physiology, in the noble simplicity of heart, mixes in his pot ingredients brought in from the market.
Part 1 of 2
Here’s an essay which appeared in Poland 2001. I am not sure how much of its fun I am able to preserve in English — but one reason why I am translating it here is to illustrate the technique: pre-1989, literary criticism in Poland had to be fun because it was taken on faith that literature, and all things related to it, had to be fun or — not be at all. (After all, why else read literature?) The other reason why I am translating it here is to offer the author’s (Gondowicz) view of the history of literary criticism in Poland 1945-present — an interesting view, a symptomatic view, and one which I wish to discuss in my next essay.
On the pages of Rzeczpospolita [a major Polish daily] a grand debate on the subject of literary criticism has recently come to a close. Instead of commenting on it, I will say what I think of literary criticism myself, and this on account of the fact that on the 18 of April 1971 — exactly thirty years ago — I happened to publish on the pages of Kultura […] an essay on Parnicki. Which makes today an anniversary — and to celebrate it, instead of toasting myself, I am writing this note.
To begin with, I will invoke a certain model situation: an allegory. Artur Sandauer once wrote that the literati of the last prewar brood [i.e. those who had worked become literati during the period of independence 1918-1939] had taken on service under the People’s Republic [i.e. the communist regime, 1945-1989] on, more or less, the same terms on which late Roman rhetoricians once took it on at the court of the barbarian conqueror of Rome, Alaric: because the ruler had expressed desire for panegirycs in elegant (if somewhat mumbled) Latin, they crowed their mumbled odes, while winking at each other that even such preservation of the great Mediterranean tradition is better than none.
My allegory is different:
In 1934, the academic Karol Irzykowski, writing about some book or other, suddenly reached back into memory: “In the first years of Independent Poland [1918+] the terrace restaurant Rydz (or was it Under Rydz?), as well as the extensive buffets of the Houses of Parliament, as well as several other well-noted Warsaw eateries, suddenly dazzled with a new, stellar sort of staff. There, guests, both the notable and the ordinary, were now served by Polish noblewomen from the East, who’d been forced by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to flee their palaces and seek remunerative employment in the Polish capital. Since, for the most part, these ladies had only received so-called “home education”, they were only qualified to work as serving maids. They did this with the air of great dignity and self-sacrifice, in every gesture expressing their fallen greatness. The guests whispered: “Look, that’s Princess X!”, “That’s Countess Y!” The prettier ones married — often their guests. Others, with their foreheads raised proudly high, delivered to all hungry sorts plates and bowls for many years to come…”
And this is my allegory. As you will have guessed, the noble waitresses stand in my mind for the first generation of post-war [communist era] literary critics. They were the sort who had learned at home how to hold the knife and the fork, under what circumstances to use le subjonctif présent, and to change their collars daily. In normal circumstances [i.e. capitalist democracy of the old kind], these people would have found their place in diplomacy – or the PEN Club. Customers treated them with empathy because — had the dice rolled differently it may well have been them serving the tables. The goodwill went hand in hand with irritation that under such an exalted/downfallen gaze one could not pick his teeth, or his nose, and one absolutely had to tip: the waiters of that generation forcefully pulled up their clientele to their own level — and regardless of what was served on the plate. After all, they have seen the great days when cooked dishes had been flown in from Paris.
The strangest thing was that some of their customers became fascinated with the mission of the middleman mediating between the back-kitchen and the starched table cloth. They were impressed by all that ballet with the tray and the proudly upraised chins. Thus the second generation of literary critics was born — whose nature consisted in imitating the first.
During this shift, French was no longer heard in the kitchen, and spitting into the soups of disliked customers became the rule. Truth be told, many deserved it — which is why some suddenly got smacked in the kisser, too. Staff distanced itself from the served meals, and any customer who stupidly tried to eat deserved what he got. Under normal circumstances [i.e. in a capitalist democracy], this waiting shift would have fulfilled itself in politics, political pamphleteering, or in running the great dailies. But — that was not to be [i.e. the party decided what got published and the critic’s role was to praise it]: they were expected to be happy with the chance to wear their little uniform. This generation of waiters found itself doubly frustrated: feeling the lie of their mastery over the table d’hôte on the one hand [things would get published or not without reference to their opinion], and on the other — belonging spiritually to the plebs eating the horrible swill they served. [i.e. they themselves had been raised consuming the communist lit].
It was not for the next generation to reach the exalted name of “waiter”: it was to remain a generation of eternal busboys. Haughtily ignored by the waiter aristocracy, pulled by the ears by the younger waiters, splattered with soup (in which their thumbs were ever dipped), enviously watching tips, they grovelled under their customers’ scornful gazes. Under normal circumstances [i.e. in a capitalist democracy] these men and women could not have become anything else — because they knew nothing else [i.e. having grown up under communism, they had no notion of how free literature might work]. What kept them in the business was their childish belief in the significance of gastronomy as such, and daily intercourse with the miracle that a joint of this sort had any customers at all. Their satisfaction lay in being allowed into the room, ability to comment what each guest was eating, and savoring the mysterious scents emanating from the back, where the cultural menu was being stewed. As you have guessed, I belong to this generation.
The fourth generation, which has come to prominence under new gastronomic circumstances [independence + capitalism, 1989], preserved out of the entire notion of waitering no more than the bow-tie [i.e. are critics in name only]. It has not circled the floor in ages because it holds the strategic post at the cash register. This is in part because their restaurant has become a fast-food joint, where all customers are served the same swill, devour it in violent sprays of ketchup, and, muffling a hiccup, render their table to the next lot. And the dishes — the cheaper the better: any explanation as to ingredients is no longer in fashion because it only discourages the clientele. All details have been replaced with the advertising line that the whole world eats like this. Through its own efforts, this generation has achieved the bourgeois awareness that in gastronomy the most important item is lard [Polish: “smalec”, whence the American term “schmaltzy“]; the customer must be served in a flash, or he will go to competition; and no one talks at the table.
This is how it looks form the perspective of my thirty years in the business. The first generation of waiters, having swept the ground with the tails of their coats, is gradually moving to the Eternal PEN-Club above. The second, having stuffed its unclean gloves into back-pockets, is trying to woo the owners of the few still frequented restaurants. The third is left with spattered face, sucking its burnt thumb. The fourth has developed a nation-wide network of fast-food joints, overseen out of the windows of their Mercs.
How might a member of the third generation summarize the present situation? Perhaps by saying that, though he has none of the prewar manners, and none of the success drive of the Warsaw slyboots, and though the very sight of a hamburger makes him retch, yet in moments of doubt he can cheer himself up by reading old cookbooks?
Ha, ha, ha! I have spilled the soup again!
On September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland, on the other side of the globe, in far away Tokyo, Nagai Kafu, a scion of a Japanese feudal family and a great man of letters, wrote in his diary: “Glory to the land of Chopin and Sienkiewicz!” On the day Paris fell, he was so depressed, he said, he could not eat nor sit at home. He went out for a walk, wondering aimlessly through the city. He returned home to listen to Debussy’s Oratorio of San Sebastian from an old vinyl record. In the city, public support for the military was visible — “somehow, inexplicably, people like this garbage”, Kafu wrote in his journal. “What nonsense, though! In the name of serving the Japanese spirit, women must not perm their hair; and men are to have just one, government-prescribed style of haircut. Haircuts bother them, but not the piles of garbage in the streets, not the stink of the polluted river! What kind of brains do these people have? It is OK for our streets to be littered with garbage because we beat the Chinese again today?” Like the US government several years earlier, the Japanese government banned private ownership of gold. All gold in public possession was to be reported and would eventually be bought up by the government at officially set rates. Nagai took whatever gold he had — among the items his favorite maki-e pipe holder with a gold mouthpiece; and several tobacco pouches woven from gold-thread — “I used to really get into this silly stuff when I was a kid and had quite a few of them made” — wrapped them in paper and pitched them in the river. “No gold of mine for these bastards”, he wrote. “They tell us there is this thing called The Japanese Spirit which is so incredibly different from everything else that it is totally different and we must not mix it with anything else. So why on earth are we mixing ourselves with the Germans and the Italians?” That night he read in bed Salammbo.
(Today at last I began reading The Pillow Book in the original — above).
The story explaining how The Pillow Book begun is this: the chancellor has gifted two bound sets of exquisite paper to the imperial couple: one to the emperor and one to the empress. Predictably, the emperor has promptly announced that he will use his to write a shiki — a historical chronicle in Chinese, which is precisely what could be expected of such a person at such a time. “What should we use ours for?”, asked the empress of her favorite lady in waiting, whose learning and pen-skills made her the go-to person in matters of literature.
“Why, let us make a pillow of it,” replied Sei Shonagon, probably laughing, and scholars have disagreed ever since about what she may have meant. A play on words, goes a typical theory, shiki being both a) a chronicle and b) a part of the saddle, makura being both a) a pillow and b) a horses head-dress; and the whole utterance thus meaning “let us do one better”; and illustrates the surprising point that scholars — Sei Shonagists, no less! — are no better at understanding Mrs Sei than the rest of the human race.
Why do scholars not understand Sei Shonagon? The claim that times change, and we change with them, and therefore no one can understand history and/ or the men of the past — seems an excuse with which to cover up some kind of severe cognitive shortcoming, a mental handicap, a congenital lack of a Sei Shonagon Decoder: surely, if I can understand Sei Shonagon, anyone should?
Let me parse this one for the scholars: the emperor is a kind, beautiful man, whom Mrs Sei loves dearly (as we know from other passages), but, although his decision to write shiki is certainly commendable, no one will, or ever should, read what he will write, certainly not all of it. Therefore, in order to match him, the court ladies might as well use their notebook for a pillow.
(Or a door stopper).
In short, dear scholars, Mrs Sei is poking fun at his majesty. (As Beatrice is of Benedick when she promises to eat everything he kills).
What makes this utterance — and all of Sei Shonagon’s utterances — so delicious, is what makes it unimpeachable: its double — even triple — entendre, none of it, in this case, sexual: the remark is funny also because as women, and therefore, in the minds of men (i.e. on the emperor’s side of the palace) stupid — and lazy — the empress’s ladies in waiting would be expected to do precisely something like use the notebook for a pillow. At any rate, given what they might produce if they attempted to write something, in Sei Shonagon’s opinion, they really ought to use it for a pillow.
This utterance — shall we make it into a pillow? — is typical of Sei Shonagon diction. It is surprising how few of her readers understand it, and puzzling why this should be the case, but explains why her bitter competitor, Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the easy to understand Tale of Genji (with plenty of romance and psychology) has ever outsold Sei Shonagon about 1200:1.
And also why, on occasion, as David Stoner reports (in a drawing, below), Mrs Sei is driven to drink.
In which he explains why our cities look the way they do and why most people are OK visiting shopping malls
Although the internet contains massive amounts of information on all sorts of things, on some topics it is entirely useless. Kaga yuzen, for instance, sports half a dozen postage-stamp sized, out-of-focus photos in dead colors. The topic of English translation of Salammbo — nothing.
Good reads is instructive: on the 45 pages of comments on Salammbo, mostly from English-speaking readers, one sees repeatedly the story of persons who had begun reading the book many years ago, could not make it past page 10, then recently picked it up again and crunched it breathlessly in a few days in a delirium of pleasure.
I notice this regularity because it was my case also.
Yet, not one of those reporting this story on Good Reads suspects that the experience may be a function of translation — the first one bad, the second one good — even though, all you need to do to see the point, is to see the first 10 pages of the ugly translation posted on Gutenberg. If you can get through that far.
(I can’t remember which translation of Salammbo had given me my delirium of pleasure, but seem to remember it was a Penguin, which would, presumably, make the translator A. Krailsheimer. Can anyone confirm?)
OK, so the readers don’t notice why they like or dislike a book. How about the translators or the publishers? Should not Penguin tell us why they have chosen to publish a new — by my count possibly seventh — translation of the book? Yet, they do not. Why not? The story does not deserve to be told? Does not promote the product? Internet users are too dumb to geddit?
Although the translation may be the real reason why many pan the book, it is nevertheless interesting to observe how many of them say they pan it because it is unlike Madame Bovary. Yes, people do like Madame Bovary (and — believe it or not — Pride and Prejudice), and on Good Reads they tell us why — the reasons are what Madame has and Salammbo, they say, does not: a) psychology, b) romance. As there actually is romance in Salammbo (just not the sort Madame’s lovers love), we can safely discard reason b and conclude that readers who like Madame Bovary but dislike Salammbo must specifically like the psychological insight of Madame.
Which is fine if you’re into the inner workings of provincial housewives. If you are not, there is always Salammbo, with her verbal orgy of description: of textures, colors, smells, scents, jewels, fabrics, weapons, hairstyles, beasts, palaces. It is an aesthete’s paradise: if you like heavy brocades and don’t care that they don’t have readily analyzable internal life (i.e. your own is quite enough for you) you will like Salammbo. But do get the right translation.
(Or read the original?)
If Good Reads is any guide, the distinction between Madame Bovary and Salammbo might well be the distinction between the ethical (“meaning”) and the aesthetic (“sensual pleasure”) views (if I understand Either/Or correctly). If so, a search through the very good abebooks.co.uk — by appointment, Sir G’s preferred purveyor of out-of-print matter — provides a useful handle on the relative statistics: for every sixty-seven copies of Madame Bovary available for sale, there are three Salammbos. (Only one of those is the Krailsheimer).
Which explains in a way, if nothing else does, why our cities look the way they do and why most people are OK visiting shopping malls.
Ahmed Ali, Twilight in Delhi
The critical praise Twilight in Delhi has continued to receive is surely due to the description of Muslim life in Old Delhi before the Partition; the patterns of speech (with flowery formulas, pious quotations and love poems), hobbies (kite flying, dove-keeping, poetry meetings), magical medical practices, fable-telling, clothing, housing, the marriage customs and wedding ceremonies, the funeral practices – they are all attractive aspects of a way of life now, as the expression has it, “mostly lost”. I say “mostly” because they are not entirely gone — similar practices still survive in some parts of North India – even some parts of Delhi; they are much rarer now than they used to be; coming upon them is a matter of exotic delight; but they were clearly already threatened when the book was written – in 1939. Reading the novel one cannot help feeling that the author foresaw and rued their passing – the way a Japanese poet might preciously rue — on a balmy August afternoon — the imminent (to him) passing of the summer. And this is pretty: regret for things past is a touching sentiment, especially when it is, as it is in this novel, unstated, only implied, and when it comes from the pen of a a 29-year-old (as Ahmed Ali was at the time of writing).
Hostility towards the English and constant bewailing of the fall of the Mughal Empire – it sounds so familiar to Polish ears – are in a way part of this way of life. Remembering valiant deeds of 1857 and offering occasional charity to beggar descendants of royal blood seem customary – meaning, perfunctory — like the embroidered cap or the praising the prophet – it is all part of the formula, it need not be taken seriously: after all, despite the horrors of 1857 — mass expropriations, exiles, and executions – the old way of life still continued fifty years later (the novel is set in 1910-18) pretty much the way it had been before the conquest. The real change – and the real loss of 1857 – took place only at the top of the social hierarchy to which none of the book’s heroes has ever belonged anyhow. The ruing of the Empire’s loss is aesthetic.
But human beings mistake formulas for content and Ahmed Ali’s introduction to the book (written in 1993) makes it plain he does: there is a lot more there about colonialism – complete with the inevitable quotation from Edward Said. This subtracts from the novel: it interprets it in a tired nationalistic light, and in a suddenly florid prose — the sort Indians fall into whenever they speak of The Nation — and with the familiar old moralism of the defeated. Of course, the defeated invariably find moral fault with the victor – yet, what right had the Mughals had to conquer and rule India that the British did not?
The moralizing of the defeated is a powerful emotional cocktail and Ahmed Ali fell for it himself: in time, he came to believe his novel was about colonialism, when in fact, it is about the disappearance of a certain way of life. Yet, that way of life has not disappeared because of the British but because of – demography. By the end of the nineteenth century the poor stopped dying in the usually atrocious numbers meaning that their numerical advantage over the middle-class suddenly increased many-fold; by the beginning of the twentieth, they began to get access to information, meaning that they began to realize their strength; finally, in the course of the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, governments put guns in their hands. In one half of the world, the poor used those guns to kill the rich; in the other, to tax them. Everywhere, the old way of life came to an end.
A way of life is a form of art. Like any art, it can be more or less artful. What we call the “old ways” often seem more artful than the new ways because they were the ways of a kind of social class which has ceased to exist today: a smaller (and therefore more interconnected), richer, and far less busy middle class. Given time and resources, humans engage in art – in the broad sense of the word, meaning any beautiful skill, including mastering the smoking of the hookah. And so the heroes of Twilight in Delhi do: they pursue artful hobbies, which include poetry, alchemy, embroidery, singing and dancing, elaborate family rituals. Today, the socialist great leveler has eradicated that class — we moderns either have time or money; and while in the West there has been an offsetting gain — the life of the very poor improved as a result of transfer taxation – it is hard not to look at the life of those of our grandparents and great-grandparents who had been of the better sort with a kind of nostalgia. It was so obviously prettier than any life we live today. (This realization has driven a lot of the best art of the modern age from The Leopard, to The Buddenbrooks, to Fanny and Alexander).
Reflecting along those lines, it sometimes becomes hard not to doubt the utilitarian principle: does the greatest good of the greatest number justify destruction of goods (in this case the good is a way of life) just because they cannot be universally held? Perhaps there is something to be said for the Borges formula – that of Babylonian Lottery – let there be injustice in the world, some very rich and some very poor, but assign who gets what totally randomly — and to assure cooperation, reassign it frequently.
The characters of Twlight in Delhi provide a strong argument for the Lottery concept. Although Ahmed Ali presents them with charity; and they earn our sympathy by the sadness of their fates – all life is fundamentally tragic because it ends in disease and death; there does not seem to exist any apparent reason why this particular lot, and not their water-carrier, say — should enjoy rents on a few houses and some agricultural land. They are neither especially kind, nor gentle, nor wise; they manage their private lives with the same mixture of thoughtlessness and fumbling the rest of humanity do; and for all the artful beauty of their lives they manage to make themselves and each other seriously unhappy.
This also presents in a stark light the main problem with all novel writing: human lives — which are by necessity any novel’s main subject — are not particularly worth knowing about, and therefore reading about, and therefore, it would seem, writing about. Perhaps, like a certain other descendant of Polish nobility (see footnote 1), I am too smart, too well-read, and too philosophically inclined to find anything of interest in a novel about people.
Are there any novels about penguins, I wonder?
(1) One Nitecki, of course: cf. the famous chapters of Ecce Homo with titles like “Why I am so wise”, etc. As the Italians say, beh!
I don’t know whether Norman Sherry’s Conrad’s Eastern World confirms to the requirements set down by Harold Bloom in his How To Write About Conrad – a small, trembling fear in me suspects, sight unseen, that Bloom just may be recommending writing about what everybody else writes about – i.e. the “topical matter” – that being 1) racism (Heart of Darkness) – a topic not likely to leave us in peace ever (or do you really believe we can manage one day to spit, roast, and eat the world’s last racist?); and (what else – yahhhhwn – how does one yawn with distraction?) 2) terrorism.
It is hard being a literature professor, is it not: how do you make yourself relevant? Pursuit of relevance – the mirage of that ultimate consulting contract from the Homeland Security, no doubt – makes people do silly things – write about books – and topics – which Conrad clearly did not think terribly significant in his life experience or work. Neither Africa nor Anarchism earned more than one slim volume from him.
What was significant to him – a place he kept coming back to all his life from his first book – Almayer’s Folly – to his last – The Rescue – was a place about which he says that it swarmed with people who haunted him, demanding be brought to life. It was – what? — ready? – Berau: a stinking mud hole on sticks 40 miles up a crocodile infested swamp on the remotest east coast of Borneo; a place he visited four times in his lifetime, during one of his shortest berths ever, a mere seven-month stint as first mate of a barque – a barque! God damn it, barely a cut above a floating chamber pot – the S. S. Vidar.
And Sherry tells us about Berau: the place, the people, the ships, the trade. He tells us what Conrad saw there, the people he met there (Jim, Lingard, Almayer, Willems, Abdullah were all men he personally knew), the stories he heard about the place and books he read about it. He tells us how close to reality Conrad cut his work: almost nothing is invented, it turns out (the little that is has been exposed by SEA hands at the time of publication) – in Conrad´s words, “one owes a truth to the visible world” – even the broken bamboo stick Jim uses to propel himself over the stockade has an identifiable source.
Conrad spent a very short time in South East Asia – not quite 18 months all told; perhaps no more than a total of 12 days at Berau; yet he spent the rest of his life writing about them. How do fascinations like this happen? How does one go to a place like Berau, spend less than two weeks there, and then go back to Europe and spend the rest of his life dreaming, reading and writing about the place? Its weirdness, I suppose, its odd, wild nature, its cacophonic mixture of radically different peoples, its pure rawness which strips men down to their primitive warrior self, all contribute; indeed, some are able to become fascinated today — a hundred and forty years later –despite the Toyota SUVs and the karaoke bars — I bet the place has its Willems and Almayers today, some find it fascinating, then — but not all. Too dry, says a friend to whom I recommended it. I rub my ears: dry? To my mind Eastern World seems an incredible insight into the author’s mind and method; to her – it seems dry.
What does she find interesting in Conrad, I wonder – surely, not the totally predictable, boring, endless lovers’ quarrel in the Outcast during which I skip and skip and skip and finally whisper to myself with exasperation – pull the God-damn trigger, woman, will you?
Young Goethe in Rome checking to see how far his Walser had flown.
Walser’s Death of a critic has caused a furor in Germany on account of its nasty treatment of German literary world, and especially its one particular figure, widely believed to be Reich-Ranitzky. Which only shows you how dysfunctional German literary world has become (and how right is Walser scathing condemnation of it): by all rights, the furor should have been on account of the book’s sheer, nasty, rude awfulness.
It all starts out well enough – a literary critic/ celebrity performs a book assassination during his weekly TV talk show; the author of the assassinated book confronts him publicly and threatens revenge (apparently quoting Adolf H.!); whereupon the critic goes missing, leaving behind a bloodied sweater as the only clue and the author of the assassinated book is arrested on suspicion. The fuddy-daddy scholar/narrator attempts to exonerate the suspect and in the process interviews a whole line of German hot-air-filled literary celebrities. There are clever observations on the awfulness of German personal life (heroes develop a personal tie because each likes how the other insists on paying his share of a taxi ride), lives of German literati (wives of writers all grimace with their mouths in a particular way), and German literary conversations (A goes on about the relationship between the critic and the writer, how the critic in assuming a right to criticize arbitrarily sets himself up in position of the superior, and how Goethe – to which B: “Et caetera, dear friend”).
In short, a Thank you for smoking — with Germanic mood music.
And that would have been fine – an OK book, nothing to write home about – if it ended around page 105 when the arrested suspect confesses only to be upstaged a few days later by the critic surfacing alive – i.e. both were milking the situation as a publicity stunt. (Geddit?)
Unfortunately, Walser did not stop there. There follow fifty-some pages of logorrhea, pseudo-introspections on guilt and alienation, and weirdly stilted (“cool”) conversations between pseudo-lovers, all of which are — as Barzun might say — a corruption of language: it is both empty and ugly. It is hard to tell whether the purpose of this section was to reveal Walser’s own self-perceived depth or to show the intellectual bankruptcy of the literary classes, but the net effect on a reader who likes to read in the inner sanctum of his bed, or his beloved winged armchair, is that of a door-to-door canvasser gaining access to that inner sanctum under false pretenses only to deposit a shipment of canned feces there. Putting the book down, I felt covered in spit.
Walser is guilty here of an serious offense: an act of aggressive vandalism, an aesthetic assault on his readers: by publishing his book he is in effect saying: “Here is my undigested drivel, there, eat it – read it.” Leaving me not only furious but also philosophically troubled. What is a consumer assaulted by an artist to do?
We have too long suffered artistic boorishness gladly; as the Giuliani experiment in New York policing shows, the policy of lenience invites more social misbehavior; let Walser get away and ten more will rise. The correct policy is zero tolerance. Throw the book at them: social behavior must be stamped out. Spitting and urinating in public are not just subject to fines but also social opprobrium. It is time bad books were also.
Therefore, the only correct response for the reader in cases like Death of a critic seems to be to match violence with violence:
1) thrown the damn thing out the window as hard and as far as it will go;
2) brand the perpetrator in public as warning for others; and, of course,
3) immediately cancel one’s advance order for Der Liebender Mann.
After all, the great Goethe might feel old fashioned sometimes (Walther); is boring frequently (Affinities); and what he does have to say is rarely ground-breaking (if ever); but he was never ever rude – as a surviving letter from family attests:
here we are on the sad remnants of Karlsbad, that is with those who are still staying: Maurice Bruehl and Goethe, author of Werther, who is very attentive and deferrential to us. (…) The company of such a man cannot fail but please, all of us who are here find it most congenial.” (S.K.P., dated Karlsbad, July 10, 1785).
Death of a critic makes it amply clear Walser does not have the social manner required to do such a man justice and therefore his effort is best — avoided.
An actual walk in the park
Though it has been some years since, I still vividly recall the terror Ecco’s In search of a perfect language had struck in me: similar in some ways to Guns of August in documenting human mental malfunction, unlike Guns of August, it was not funny: not a record of bumbling fools but a cool, clinical description of madmen.
For days afterwards I felt not just depressed, but terrified: this was the world I lived in, these were the people who surrounded me; the notion that on numerous occasions my life would depend on the decisions and value judgments of such men and that there was no way I could insulate myself perfectly against that danger scared the living daylights out of me. Groping for safety, I changed my mobile number again, suspended another blog, broke off a few more iffy acquaintances.
Last night, Six walks in the fictional wood, picked up in a moment of desperation after several other books of literary criticism have disappointed (do they ever not), suddenly put Search in a new, alarming light: the madmen of Search were actually Ecco’s heroes; the Search failed to make fun of them not, as I had imagined, so as to profile their madness more starkly — as a dispassionate, clinical text might — but because Ecco was taking the book’s heroes at face value.
Yes, he was, I realized abruptly as I read Six walks‘ first chapter and my heart skipped a beat: the chapter features elaborate diagrams showing the relationship between E. A. Poe and the various roles which Ecco ascribes to his Pym — “fictional character as narrator”, “narrator as real person”, etc. Ecco does not cut them out, pin, and rotate them as Raymond Lull may have done — at least not as far as we can tell — but it is easy to imagine his readers — a few of those people who sat through these lectures, or some of those who rank the book 5 stars on Amazon, doing just that.
And to think that to most mortal men a stroll in the wood seems a perfectly harmless thing!
Things aren’t all that bad. There are good novels around, though generally not English and generally old. I have been reading with pleasure:
Sandor Marai, Casanova in Bolzano — which delighted me with many brilliant passages — such as the one describing how all of Italy laughed at the news of the man’s escape from I Piombi — washerwomen, we are told, tilted their heads and smiled to themselves, and the Pope (who had once given the fugitive an order — though only second class) giggled on his throne; or the one in which the fugitive suddenly breaks out into paean in praise of his city — the city from which he had just fled — while strangling someone who had hoped to curry favor with him by criticizing it.
Mika Waltari, The Dark Angel, a moody, atmospheric novel about the last 6 months of Constantinople, infused with a heavy sense of doom and strangeness; the hero — a Greek, until recently adviser to Sultan Mehmet, expecting the city to fall, returns to it to die with it; falls in a hopeless and odd love with a girl about to be carried off to safety; around him swirl in the winter fog spies and strange and perhaps supernatural apparitions. Very Pamuk-like — from his Snow days, before things went pear-shaped.
Herman Hesse, The Steppenwolf, a seriously — and delightfully — dysfunctional novel in which a sick, depressed, alienated man unexpectedly launches on a career of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll and ends up in an extended sequence of — fantasy? dream? hallucination? The surprise of the switcharoo — the French naturalists were right, it is all about structure, just not their kind of structure — alone is worth the price of the book. Hesse’s got it wrong, incidentally, the wolf is not a loner. It is a social animal and therefore mediocre and bourgeois. He meant the tiger (like the one above, from Kota).
Have I mentioned that English lit is dull? How nice to party with the continentals from time to time. They may be all wrong in their heads, but at least they are not all uniformly dull. Or rather — weren’t until about, oh, 1952?
Disclaimer: I am reading these books in excellent Polish translation. English translations exist, but what chance that they are… dull?
Dullness is such an English virtue!
Why I do not read contemporary literature was actually explained a few years before my birth by a Polish literatus in exile, Jerzy Stempowski:
One hot summer when I was still a very young boy I read, one after the other, all of Shakespeare’s plays. This incident had a decisive influence on all my subsequent reading, indeed, perhaps on many other later choices and decisions: “Take this rod and measure the Temple and all those who pray within it”, says the Apocalypse and the rod was now in my hands. From now I rejected without mercy all books which seemed to me worse than Troilus and Cressida. I was thus adopting, perhaps somewhat too naively, one of the oldest criteria used by those who care for their reading: something quite similar can be found in a letter of Horace to Pisones: “What does not reach for the summit, falls into the abyss”.
This is not difficult. With a bit of practice one can learn to tell almost immediately, and mostly unerringly, whether a given book can possibly contain even one page of Shakespeare’s class. For my personal needs this was entirely sufficient. I have read many books which almost no one knows, but I have to admit that — having stubbornly resisted almost all writers of my time — I remain an ignoramus in the matters of literature. (…) It is clear that my method cannot play any role in today’s literary life.
What Stempowski means is that today’s literary life — meaning authors, critics, publishers and readers — do not apply the Troilus Test and are happy to contend themselves with less. The really important standard is activity: what sells, what is read, what is discussed. Literary life is a kind of group activity wherein the activity itself is valued because it takes place, not because it is in any way good or useful or interesting or wise, but because it involves the group. It happens to concern books, but, one gets the impression that it might equally concern bum-rapping or spitting and catching or whatever else it is that everyone agreed to do at the same time: people will go over and join in simply because others already have.
This is well captured by a rejection letter from editor received some time ago by Michael Hoffman:
“[Yours] is a well-written, good novel, but unfortunately it falls into that now defunct category, mid-list.” She concluded with this advice: “Please, please write for the market, and that means you must read, read, read current successful novels.”
No wonder Michael has decided to self-publish: if my job required me to read the work of contemporary successful novels, I would have to quit because, well, there is no way in hell anyone can compel me to read more than three pages of Iris Murdoch.
What is not the absolutely best, is without value. Nagai says something similar in his diaries somewhere: by the 1930’s he’d stopped reading his contemporaries entirely, devoting himself to the rereading of the classics instead, judging justly that there isn’t much point reading a new thing by Iris Murdoch when one can re-read Troilus and Cressida.
This parallel between a Polish political exile in Switzerland and a Japanese internal exile in Tokyo should not surprise: both men belonged to a class best called dilettante erudite, who spent their lives traveling, learning, reading, thinking and debating — but debating always in ways careful to avoid academic punctiliousness. This class has not survived WW2; but already between the wars it was in serious decline. Now that they are gone for good, so are the kind of books they might write or deign to read.
I have been reading Nagai Kafu’s diaries with the disconcerting sensation that I am reading myself: every thought and reaction he describes I understand instantly and fully, and to most I subscribe with both hands.
Incredibly, most writings on Nagai Kafu suggest that no one else understands him — certainly no one who writes about him does. How else to explain a dull, dull book like Snyder’s? He certainly did not read the diaries, for if he did, he would have known that Nagai read much French literature in the original and therefore did not need to “learn” French modernism from Ogai as he suggests. But it’s hard to blame Snyder: the diaries, unlike the novels, are written in bungo, an old sinicized form of Japanese — this can be hard to read; and they are long: mine — an abridged version — comes to two thousand pages. Scholars in a hurry to publish — “publish or perish” — don’t have that kind of time, do they? So Snyder has not read the diaries — and therefore is unaware of the central fact about Nagai Kafu.
Let me try to explain what I think is the central fact about Nagai Kafu.
The central fact about Nagai Kafu is that he was a typical scion of an upper-class feudal household living in a rapidly modernizing world in which the old way of living was at first haltingly and then ever more decisively pushed aside. He had grown up in a well-to do house, in a family with sufficient means to dedicate themselves to the task of living a beautiful life. In modern times people rarely have the money (our middle classes are much poorer relative to the society than the middle classes of the nineteenth century were) and almost never have the time to dedicate themselves to beautiful living: to house decoration (say, changing the house decor to correspond to changing seasons), to clothing (such as changing several times a day), to ceremonies (meaning both large and small ceremonies, including things like paying calls or receiving guests or sending new year’s post cards), to manners, to cultivating friends, to correspondence, to eating properly, to literature or music-making or art-appreciation; with their 50+ hour work-weeks plus three-hour daily commutes they find such a life not only impossible but mainly — unimaginable.
Yet this is the kind of life Nagai was bred into. That life is best described, in my opinion, as aesthetic; its goal is to produce a beautiful work of art which is the person living the life. Nagai’s most important artwork — indeed, as he grew older, his only important work of art — was his character and his life.
Economic and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have meant that upper class men (and women) of the old feudal system, bred to beautiful living and attempting to continue to live it, discovered that the world around them was changing in ways which they found not merely incomprehensible but downright abrasive. Nagai discovers with shock that he no longer wishes to participate in Japan’s literary life as it becomes dominated by writers who do not know the classics (never mind actually like them!) and whose principal motivation for writing is self-promotion; he describes how his neighbors’ estates are subdivided and developed to make room for uncouth, pushy new men from the provinces and their rude children; how the old refined Floating World — staffed by classically trained geisha — gradually gives ground to grubby prostitution. When the Great Kanto Earthquake levels the city around him, he actually rejoices that it has driven his neighbors away and sadly reflects: “probably not for long”. When the war with America breaks out he comments that he understand why Americans hate modern Japan because he does, too, and expresses the hope that Americans might bomb Japan’s new ugliness and vulgarity into oblivion.
I am sensitive to Nagai’s experience for two reasons: first because it was the experience of my own grandparents to whom I was very close as I grew up. My maternal grandmother, a daughter of a very rich landowning family in the Ukraine, was driven out by the Russian Revolution, rendered penniless and forced into a social milieu in which suddenly she met as her equals people she’d never even known existed before: the mechanical classes; yet, despite her reduced financial circumstances she strove to live the old way, to maintain the old standards of politeness and gracious living, refusing to adopt the lowlife lifestyle which she was suddenly forced to notice all around her. I grew up watching her efforts and found them touchingly noble.
I am also sensitive to Nagai’s experience because my own experience of the reality outside my door is quite similar to his: I have taken early retirement from my professional career because I found the people I met in its course too disagreeable to bear; I have suspended my former (“successful”) blog because I discovered that I was largely put off by the sorts of reflections great art inspired in the majority of my readers.
This sensitivity has allowed me to see people of Nagai’s sort everywhere in the world — worldwide de-feudalization means that there are Nagais everywhere if you know what to look for. Perhaps their lot was described to me best by an elderly grand dame in New Delhi about ten years ago: “We’re not Indians, Gauvain”, she said referring to herself and her husband, “we’re pakka sahibs” (“proper masters”). Her new country, the one in which she had grown up and lived all her life and whose passport she was carrying no longer seemed to her like her own. She would not admit to having any part in it.
As feudalism recedes into the past, there are ever fewer Nagais to be seen; and the younger men who grow up with the new reality do not see it — in the same manner in which fish do not see the water they swim in. They read Nagai and miss the most important fact about him and write some excrementum bovis on sex industry as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation or sexual love as metaphor for writing.