24 March 2011


Why is "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" such an anthology standard?  For those of us who will never be able to forget "The Cold Heaven," "Sailing to Byzantium," "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," "Lapis Lazuli," and at least half a hundred other jewels, it's hard to forgive Yeats for wasting his lyric gifts on such blather.  Even though he was only twenty-five when the poem was published, in 1890, the contemporaneous "Cuchulain's Fight With the Sea" and especially "Who Goes With Fergus?" are incomparably greater.  To my ear, "Innisfree" displays the precious worst of what James Joyce later called "the cultic twalette," although I suppose it's just possible Yeats was parodying something I don't recognize.  No, I can't actually talk myself into buying that.  

Anyway, I am always thrilled to find a decent parody: as I see it, Willie Yeats was really asking for it.  Here's the original, if you can stand it...

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings:
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Had enough?  Here's "The Cockney of the North," by Harry Graham, from J. C. Squire's 1929 parody anthology Apes and Parrots (the book's name alone is worth a prize):

I will arise and go now, and go to Inverness,
And a small villa rent there, of lath and plaster built;
Nine bedrooms will I have there, and I'll don my native dress,
And walk about in a d---- loud kilt.          N. B.: "d----" rhymes with "bee."

And I will have some sport there, when grouse come driven slow, 
Driven from purple hill-tops to where the loaders quail;
While midges bite their ankles, and shots are flying low,
And the air is full of the grey-hen's tail.

I will arise and go now, for ever, day and night,
I hear the taxis bleating and the motor-'buses roar, 
And over tarred macadam and pavements parched and white
I've walked till my feet are sore!   etc., etc.

And here's a lovely bit of catnip from Poetry for Cats, issued by Henry Beard, late of the Harvard Lampoon.  This is "The Dismal Isle of Innisfree," by William Butler Yeats's Cat (possibly a pseudonym):

I must arise and hide now, or go to Innisfree,
To the dank hut he built there, of mud and rubbish made;
The only thing you'll find there is about a billion bees,
And mushed-up beans in a soggy glade.

And you get bit by ticks there, for ticks come dropping down,
Dropping from the leaves of the nettles, to lodge within your fur;
There breezes smell of cow-flops, the lake is dirty brown,
And right next door lives a nasty cur.

I will arise and hide now, for any time I see
The box in which I'm carried positioned by the door,
I know it's time to vanish, and to the cellar flee:
My Innisfree beneath the floor.

All right, the unpurged images of Innisfree have receded: I feel better now.  Thanks for listening.

22 March 2011


I was quite sure I'd already read Charles Portis's True Grit when I picked it up last weekend, but it was delightfully unfamiliar.  The John Wayne my eleven-year-old self remembers is not the best character in the book; that distinction goes to Portis's Mattie Ross, a true original, a fourteen-year-old girl who has always felt more effective and competent than anyone around her.  

She comes unaccompanied to Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the western edge of the civilized world, determined to avenge her too-trusting father's murder.  Although she lugs around her father's old dragoon pistol, her real arms are just her grit and her tongue.  In a pinch she wields the magical name of "lawyer J. Noble Daggett of Dardanelle, Arkansas," of whom the dandy Texas Ranger LeBoeuf says "she draws him like a gun" (in a great line from the original movie not found in this book full of great lines).  To her falcon's eye, all men are likely failures, and she despises their ineffectuality and their vices.  Like the barmaid in James Stephens's bracing flyte "A Glass of Beer," Mattie has "the toughest jaw you will see/ On virtue's path, and a voice that would rasp the dead."  Withal, she's a wonderfully engaging character, loaded with mettle and verve, a Force of Nature multiplied by that merciless Judgment which teenagers muster so well (luckily for the rest of us, they drop it when they master Proportion).  

Over the course of the book, she discovers that virtue is sometimes concealed by foible and a pretty mustache, and that a man's weaknesses don't always have to mean he's weak, but first Portis gives her fierce Presbyterian self-righteousness full comic play.  In an early scene, she's hiring the dissipated Marshal Rooster Cogburn to guide her into the Oklahoma Territory after her father's killer.  They dicker over his fee.  She says,
     "You are trying to take advantage of me."
     "I am giving you my children's rate," he said.  "It will not be an easy job of work, smoking Ned out.  He will be holed up down there in the hills in the Choctaw Nation.  There will be expenses."
     "I hope you don't think I am going to keep you in whiskey."
     "I don't have to buy that, I confiscate it.  You might try a little touch of it for your cold."
     "No, thank you."
     "This is the real article.  It is double-rectified bust-head from Madison County, aged in the keg.  A little spoonful would do you a power of good."
     "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains."

Blinkered and all, it's not a bad line for a fourteen-year-old.  Or for Charles Portis either.

19 March 2011


I said in an earlier post, about Conrad's Heart of Darkness, that an essential aspect of civilization is the devoted performance of daily actions which accrete into durable phenomena lasting longer than a lifetime.  The successful transmission of that sense of duty from one generation to the next is vital.  Here is the beautifully specific example which led me to that rather clumsy and abstract formulation.

David Kidd went to China as a student just before Mao took over.  Quite soon thereafter, he met and married Aimee, a young woman from a wealthy family, and came to be immersed in Chinese culture just as it underwent a sea-change (out of something rich and strange).  His book Peking Story: the Last Days of Old China, includes the following poignant episode.  Kidd's father-in-law, a famous antique collector, had recently died, and his brother-in-law decided to catalogue the rarities in the house. 

Eventually, we came to the bronze incense burners.  They were the most important objects in the Eastern Study... The old man had been famous among connoisseurs in China for being their owner... These bronzes were clean and smooth and comparatively new, having been cast only five hundred years ago.  However... their like had never been made before or since.  Made of a serendipitously assembled mixture of gold, copper, and ground rubies, these incense burners... had been kept constantly hot... Some [others] had gone out... but these fourteen had never cooled in five hundred years.

They were magical objects, glowing and shimmering like jewels, no two alike.  Some were red; others were speckled with iridescent green or with twinkling bits of ruby or gold.  One had a smooth gold surface, incredibly bright and shining.  When Aimee had explained their origin to me, she went to a cabinet and brought out an incense burner of exquisite shape but of a dull, brassy color.  "This is what would happen if the fire went out," she said.

"Couldn't you build another fire in it?" I asked.

"Of course," Aimee said, "but nothing would happen.  Once the burner is allowed to grow entirely cold, the color fades and no later heat can bring it back."

The cold, empty-bellied little incense pot seemed tragic to me.  Because I knew what it must have been like when it was alive, I could see that it was dead.

You can guess the rest.  The caretaker's twelve-year-old daughter, taught in school not to obey the class enemy, pours water into the last fourteen 'living' incense burners, leaving them the color of a brass doorknob.  Five hundred years of tending this magical convergence of alchemy and metallurgy, over in an instant.

Of course that purposeful destruction of culture which culminated in the Cultural Revolution was also born out of a sense of the durability of civilized institutions.  Would-be revolutionaries have always had to reckon with the maddening truth that the centuries-old interrelation of privilege and servitude is only one aspect of the gnarled, unconscious, impenetrable tangle of civilization, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the old China.  The Maoist Year Zero is also a dream of civilization. 

And so are these lines from Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli:"

                 All things fall and are built again,
                 And those that build them again are gay.

17 March 2011


Films about historical characters seem to have a certain narrative arc: a particular individual, not obviously different from other individuals, has some historical challenge thrust upon him.  In meeting that challenge, he has to evolve from person to personage, someone who actually changes the world the rest of us merely inhabit. 

Some of these films focus on the world's slow recognition of the hero's quality, and their substance is mostly comprised of external events, often extravagantly spectacular--The Ten Commandments, Gandhi, Braveheart.  Others show the inner drama that leads to a paradigm shift in the hero's self-definition, his own slow recognition that he has to allow himself to become 'mover and shaker,' and the epic or tragic consequences of that change.  The best films in this genre--like Lawrence of Arabia-- depict both aspects of the hero's transformation.

The King's Speech--for those of you who spent the year in Tierra del Fuego--won several Oscars, including Best Picture.  It's an affecting and well-acted movie, a real crowd-pleaser.  It tells the story of Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York, younger son of George V, who begins as the stammerer who can't deliver the bread-and-butter speeches to which the royal family is heir and ends, unexpectedly, by becoming King George VI.  This is accomplished with the help of his speech therapist Lionel Logue, who also serves him as a psychotherapist of sorts.  Their relationship is dramatized quite movingly, and as Logue's daughter-in-law points out in his son Mark Logue's book, Logue became "a super good daddy where George V had been a ghastly one."

The movie builds up to the eponymous 'speech' which the recently-crowned king has to deliver on the BBC.  Logue coaches him through the broadcast phrase by phrase, one treacherous consonant after another.  Afterwards, the king is applauded by his own staff and that of the BBC, all congratulating him on his successful delivery.  Fade to black.  An epilogue (epi-Logue?) informs us that Logue coached him through many further speeches, and that they remained friends for life.

Here's my trouble with that ending.  The Duke of York's real challenge has nothing to do with learning to simulate kingship successfully by not stammering under pressure.  His real challenge, like Hamlet's, is to become a King.  As a constitutional monarch, he has little real governing power, but his influence as a rallying point for his subjects is immense.  That climactic broadcast, on Christmas Day 1939, is a radio address to all the peoples of imperial Britain, all across the globe, and is meant to steel them to fight the new war with Germany, less than twenty years after the Great War to end all wars.  

Any real solution to the self-consciousness which propagated his stammer should have featured his recognizing that what counted in the moment wasn't his speech itself, but the war it was supposed to be about.  He needed to come to experience himself in the act of speaking not as a private individual struggling with the letter 'K' but rather as a King inspiring his country to withstand and prevail against the necessary horrors to come.  He needed to learn to speak in a voice not personal but 'trans-personal,' or perhaps 'supra-personal.'  Continual coaching from his substitute father is not a real solution, merely an accommodation. 

That's all very well, I hear you saying, but maybe that's just how it happened.  Well, okay, the terms of the relationship between George VI and Lionel Logue may be fixed by history, and only Hollywood changes history that cavalierly.  Nevertheless, the way the supporting cast is depicted is subject to the director not to Clio.  Those people congratulating the king after his speech seem to express nothing more complicated than approval and relief. There are no shadows on those faces, no sense of foreboding, no evident anxiety about the gathering war.  It strengthens the impression that the dramatic heart of the moment really is the speech, not the war.  To me, that's an artistic failure.  Or is it just that we're all so post-modern that we can no longer imagine any mode of being in the world beyond the purely personal?  That's what's wrong with this picture.

15 March 2011


What’s the difference between a civilized person and a barbarian?  Is it in how he dresses?  Is it the breadth, morality, and beauty of his ideas?  Or is it something else?  Joseph Conrad offers an answer that at first seems surprising.

Heart of Darkness is a ‘searing indictment’ (since those words seem always to go together) of the 1890‘s pillage of Congo by Leopold II of Belgium.  Of course, if it were merely that, it would just be another forgotten anti-colonial tract, like King Leopold’s Soliloquy, by that obscure satirist Mark Twain.  Heart of Darkness is actually about what happens when the young idealist Kurtz, who has stuffed his soul with the pieties of European mercantile liberalism, leaves home and discovers that he’s a barbarian.  Conrad asks, what do we mean by civilization?  Or from a different angle, “What do you mean ‘we,‘ white man?”

Of course you remember the story:  Danang, 1969.  Operative Martin Sheen goes up the Mekong into Indian country to look for Colonel Kurtz, top military mind of his generation gone rogue.  Behind a skull-topped palisade, he finds Marlon Brando--nasty, brutish, and tall--reciting from The Waste Land as if at one of Evelyn Waugh's house parties.  This is the end, my only friend, the end.  Apocalypse now.  Great movie.

Not quite.  Marlow's tale is messier, more nuances, fewer Cobras.  Like Conrad, Marlow had piloted a small steamship up the Congo, into the heart of King Leopold’s private elephant graveyard--the so-called Congo Free State--and was confronted with the horror of Kurtz’s rotting ideals.  One evening a few years later, he and some friends are relaxing on the deck of a yacht, anchored where the Thames broadens towards the sea, quietly awaiting the ebb-tide for a trip down the river.  “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germ of empires.”  They are just eastward of “a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth,” in the heart of that empire on which, in 1903, the sun never sets.  But night is coming on...

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth... I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago.”  He imagines “a decent young citizen in a toga... coming out here... [to] land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed around him,--all that mysterious life of the wildness that stirs in the forest... There’s no initiation... into such mysteries... The fascination of the abomination--you know.  Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”  A sensitive young man far from his household truths: that is the prehistory of Kurtz, a “decent young citizen” with a talent for power, full of fine words like “the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths...etc.” 

Before he goes on to his morality play though, Marlow says something extraordinary.  “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this.  What saves us is efficiency-- the devotion to efficiency.” 

What does he mean?  By “us” he means the British Empire, of course, as distinct from the Congo Free State ("merely a squeeze").  But Marlow is no mere mouthpiece for the virtues of Empire, and his is not simply the Empire of Whitehall or the British East India Company: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.  What redeems it is the idea only.  An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea...”  But ideas of Empire are suspect, little more than elaborate justifications for national greed, and he trails off, unable to finish that sentence.  He can’t really defend a distinction between his ‘idea’ and the rapacity of a Kurtz.  It’s worth noting that the names Kurtz and Cortez are cognates (an observation for which I am indebted to the psychoanalyst José Barchilon).

But efficiency?  One might think that an odd charm to invoke against one’s inner barbarian.  But it seems to me that Marlow, in trying to distinguish himself and his friends from Mistah Kurtz, is groping towards something important about having a long view--a sense of having to maintain a durable ethical structure of governance and administration beyond a single lifetime--coupled with a quotidian attention to details. Without such particularity, ‘ideas’ turn all too easily into “sentimental pretense,” ornaments for savages, pretexts for rapine, slaughter, and enslavement.  A crucial aspect of ‘civilization’ is a devotion to humble gestures made meaningful partly by their repetition.

Upriver, sickened by the perverse fruits of philosophy, Marlow comes upon a talisman.  He happens upon the deserted house of another European, who has left behind an ancient book, minutely annotated in what looks like cipher (actually Russian) and “thumbed into a state of extremely dirty softness... lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread... Its title was ‘An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship,’ by a man Tower or Towson--some such name--Master in his Majesty’s Navy... Within, Towson or Towser was inquiring earnestly into the breaking strain of ships’ chains and tackle, and other such matters.  Not a very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous with another than a professional light.”  To Marlow, this text, written out of the intimate experience of a modest but deeply complex and ramified craft, aiming earnestly at the practical instruction of young mariners, studied and annotated and repaired with such devotion, is more to be honored than any Bible or “Manifesto of the Perfected Civilization.”  Rightly so.  This is a truly civilized artifact.

As for Marlow’s ambivalent faith in the virtues of the British Empire, I defer to Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in it.  Gandhi visited London in the 1930's to address Parliament on the question of Indian independence, and outraged that patriotic bigot Winston Churchill by doing so in his loincloth.  As a visiting celebrity, he was interviewed by the papers:

Interviewer: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization? 
Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.

05 March 2011


Hans Keilson fled to the Netherlands from Nazi Germany, and once out of hiding, became a child psychoanalyst.  He also wrote novels, and achieved new fame last year, at the age of 100, when the first English translation of his novel Comedy in a Minor Key was acclaimed as a classic.  His earlier novel Death of an Adversary was also reissued, fifty years after its first appearance, and presents a powerful portrait of what we might call a 'pathology of solipsism:' one man's insistence on treating the menace of 1930's Germany as if it were imaginary and could be rendered harmless inside his own mind.  Jewish and ordinary, he can't bring himself to see that Hitler and his influence are genuinely inconceivable in any language he understands, and that he needs to act, not to explain away.  In that, of course, he is not so different from many other Germans of his time or, I suppose, from the rest of us.

The program to redefine "German" as the opposite of "Jewish" ('I know now who I am not') might have taken its epigraph from Cavafy's 'Waiting for the Barbarians:' "And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?/ Those people were a kind of solution."  Because the words Nazi, Hitler, Germany, Jew, do not appear in this book, we readers are reminded of them everywhere.  The dearth of capitalized nouns heightens the starkness of the narrative, purging it of over-familiar postwar associations.  It also demonstrates the narrator's defensive abstractness: his rendition of this historical nightmare has been purposely leached of its particularity, "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," like Hamlet's Elsinore.

The book begins as the (also unnamed) narrator puzzles over why his parents are worried about the rise of the politician B.--a capital letter!--whom he later comes to call 'the Adversary:'

I remember one particular picture.  I was disappointed... it was the first disappointment he caused me.  The colorless, ordinary photo of a middle-aged man... I had expected something more, I had a vague feeling that an enemy must be a special, different species of human being... But a man like any other... was he able to make such tremendous things happen that even Father had to be afraid?  Who gave him the power?

Mysteriously, B. inspires strangers to hate the narrator even before they have met him:

I became more intimately acquainted with him through the insults and injuries of those who called themselves his friends, behind whom he stood, invisible, unknown... I found no consolation for the painful knowledge that I had been chosen to be the enemy.  However strongly I felt... [their] hatred... how could I have entertained the thought that I, too, had a right to hate and detest them?... This discovery broke in upon me forcibly... there was something I had to atone for.  But what?
     [B.'s] lifeless picture... did not yield up its secret... Unblinkingly I stared into this mirror, until I believed that I could recognize there my own image.

As B.'s hatred spreads, the narrator's anxiety to understand what B. is, and what that makes him, takes on greater urgency.  In the holodeck of his imagination, he and B. are personally connected, each reflecting the other in a distorting mirror.  B. is interpreted in turn as Adversary, divine scourge, double, counter-image, part of himself.  Although reminded over and over of B.'s Otherness, and of B.'s insistence that he too is wickedly Other, he blinds himself to the omens that violence is coming, not just in imagination but in body.  Explaining that B. needs to define him as an enemy to make the country strong, an 'Aryan' friend tells him a parable.  The Tsar has given the Kaiser a herd of elk who, in spite of the best food and surroundings, begin to die off.  A Russian expert is consulted:

     "The [elk] lack one thing," the forester went on, "and that is why they are dying."
     "Well?" said the Kaiser...
     "Yes," said the old man, "wolves, they miss the wolves."  And then he went back home, to his elks and his wolves.

Homo homini lupus: "Man is a wolf to Man."  Later, the narrator explains his position to his colleague Wolf:

     "I don't know whether [B.] means it all as seriously as we think.  He pursues certain aims and needs an enemy, as a kind of peg on which to hang his propaganda.  At bottom he means himself."
     "A terrible truth," said Wolf... "So terrible that I take leave to doubt whether you realize all its implications."

"Real-ize?"  He doesn't: he can't: he won't.  As reality draws closer--the desertion of friends, a political rally, the desecration of a graveyard--he is forced into more and more elaborately twisted formulations of how he and B. are necessary to each other.  He even begins to think of B. as a 'friend.'  Finally, in an extraordinary climax, the Real scatters his phantasmagoria like smoke, and he awakens into history:

He finds himself in a crowd waiting for B. to drive by:  Why did I not leave?  Suddenly, I knew the reason.  I was standing here in order to convince myself that he really existed.  The motorcade passes, and B. turns out to look like--a man.  I felt the desire that his eyes might... look firmly into mine.  Perhaps that would enable me to penetrate behind the appearance, which was escaping me at the very moment that I saw it. 

Suddenly, even though I had seen them all the time, I noticed the heavily armed soldiers at the back of his car... My illusions vanished.  I understood that I was deceiving myself and that I was helping him to deceive both himself and me.  If I regarded him as my friend, there was no need for me to see the soldiers... But they were always there.  They were part of him.  And if I regarded him as my friend and induced him not to see them, then I too did not need to see what he was carrying about with him.  It was a twofold deception.

I have paid for it... for my childish stupidity.  I confronted him like a child, full of dread, of fear that someone might guess my thoughts... I murdered him, in my thoughts I shot him down.  No one knew it... I shot him.  It was a split-second affair.  But he collapsed.  I saw it clearly, he collapsed.  He fell back into the arms of the soldiers and I could not believe it, and when I looked more closely he was standing upright with shining eyes, gazing at something that was floating between heaven and earth... Only one thought dominated me while I was standing there in the full light of day and tried to grasp the fact that it was he who was passing by--the thought: what an opportunity for a man of action.  What an opportunity! 

"What an opportunity for a man of action."  What an epitaph.  The narrator is not a man of action: even his violence, when it finally comes, is entirely fantastic.  The unimaginable truth about Hitler is just this: he is not a man like any other, but precisely a man of action; given the opportunity, as history has since shown us, he will translate his demonic abstractions into action.  What raises this story into near-tragedy is that the narrator, like the other hapless millions who suffer history rather than making it, can't recognize until too late that the Hitlers, the Lenins, the Robespierres, the Pol Pots, are men of action.  Can we?