Commentary Magazine


Topic: poet

‘Loved and Were Loved, and Now We Lie’

Yesterday I quoted a line from a journalist who, in thoroughly politicizing the tragedy of this weekend’s shooting in Tucson, wrote that the “massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point.”

The families and friends of the murdered victims might take exception with what “the important point” of the Tucson massacre is. For them, it’s not about manipulating the death of their loved ones to advance a political agenda; for them, it is about honoring the lives of the dead and the overwhelming grief that is now engulfing them.

If you want to see an absolutely heartbreaking interview that reminds us of the human cost of murderous rampages, watch this interview with John Green, the inconsolable father of the 9-year-old victim, Christina, who was gunned down in Tucson. It is an extraordinary and deeply affecting moment; Mr. Green showed tremendous grace in honoring the memory of his beloved daughter. He cried through parts of the interview, and so will you.

On Saturday night, while watching news stories about the shooting, I kept thinking about the victim’s families and the suddenness of the tragedy; of how they began their Saturday like any other Saturday until, because of the actions of a madman, their world came crashing down around them. The poet John McCrae wrote (in a very different context) words that stayed with me that night and since: “Short days ago; We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie.”

Christina Green, like the other victims, loved and was loved; and she is still loved. We may enter part of the Green’s world for a time and grieve with them — but soon, for us, life will go on. For them it will, too; but life will never, ever be the same. Their world has fractured and will never be fully repaired. For those who believe in prayer, this is one family (and not the only one) that deserves it.

(h/t: HotAir’s Ed Morrissey)

Yesterday I quoted a line from a journalist who, in thoroughly politicizing the tragedy of this weekend’s shooting in Tucson, wrote that the “massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point.”

The families and friends of the murdered victims might take exception with what “the important point” of the Tucson massacre is. For them, it’s not about manipulating the death of their loved ones to advance a political agenda; for them, it is about honoring the lives of the dead and the overwhelming grief that is now engulfing them.

If you want to see an absolutely heartbreaking interview that reminds us of the human cost of murderous rampages, watch this interview with John Green, the inconsolable father of the 9-year-old victim, Christina, who was gunned down in Tucson. It is an extraordinary and deeply affecting moment; Mr. Green showed tremendous grace in honoring the memory of his beloved daughter. He cried through parts of the interview, and so will you.

On Saturday night, while watching news stories about the shooting, I kept thinking about the victim’s families and the suddenness of the tragedy; of how they began their Saturday like any other Saturday until, because of the actions of a madman, their world came crashing down around them. The poet John McCrae wrote (in a very different context) words that stayed with me that night and since: “Short days ago; We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie.”

Christina Green, like the other victims, loved and was loved; and she is still loved. We may enter part of the Green’s world for a time and grieve with them — but soon, for us, life will go on. For them it will, too; but life will never, ever be the same. Their world has fractured and will never be fully repaired. For those who believe in prayer, this is one family (and not the only one) that deserves it.

(h/t: HotAir’s Ed Morrissey)

Read Less

More on Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa

I wrote about the new Nobel Literature laureate here yesterday, and add more today in the New York Post. And with thanks for the archival help provided by the library at the Washington Times, here’s a chunk of a profile I wrote of Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990:

The losing candidate in Peru’s last presidential election – the one who advocated free markets and an end to socialism – found himself on Rockville Pike in Borders Book Shop on a Wednesday evening in October. But he wasn’t out there among the Burger Kings and the K marts and the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurts to discuss his political career in Latin America. No, Mario Vargas Llosa had come to read aloud from the brand-new English translation of his shocking and highly experimental novel about the sexual liaison between a 40-year-old woman and her pre-adolescent stepson.

One of the world’s most distinguished writers and thinkers, peddling an erotic novel called “In Praise of the Stepmother” in a Rockville bookstore? The same day he appeared on the “Today” show in New York with Bryant Gumbel? It’s all too strange for words: Mario Vargas< Llosa, sandwiched between Willard Scott’s weather and the results of Deborah Norville’s latest sonogram.
“Well, you know, those interviews are so short that you can’t really express yourself,” he says with a touch of impatience when asked about the “Today” show in his suite at the Sheraton-Carlton. But, as if fearful to give offense, he adds, “I suppose it’s important for a book to be mentioned on a much-watched program, no?”

Here’s another irony: Mr. Vargas Llosa probably only got booked on the “Today” show because his publishers have linked “In Praise of the Stepmother” and its disturbing subject matter to Sexy Topic No. 1 in the arts this year: Censorship. “I’ve been asked about this since I arrived,” the startlingly good-looking and surprisingly slight 53- year-old writer says in his lilting, hesitant English. “It has been a surprise for me because, on the one hand, the United States seems so free. . . . On the other hand, I can’t understand that in a country so open and so free, these old and obsolete issues of censorship can still become a national issue. But I suppose it is inevitable.”

It was certainly inevitable that “In Praise of the Stepmother” would discomfit people, because it is a genuinely discomfiting book. This is no funny and playful erotic romp, like the novel that made him famous in the United States, “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.” No, the sex in “Stepmother” is powerful, primal and frightening. It is, well, dirty. “I wouldn’t say ‘dirty,’ ” Mr. Vargas Llosa corrects. “I disagree. I don’t think sex is dirty. It may be dirty, but I don’t think it’s dirty in the story I tell. Threatening, yes.” The novel has four characters – an angel-faced boy named Fonchito, his passionate and beautiful stepmother, his blissfully happy father and the inevitable chambermaid. The stepmother is slowly and unwillingly seduced by her seemingly innocent stepson…

Writing the book may have had catastrophic consequences for its author. It was published in the midst of his two-year campaign for the presidency of Peru, which ended in June when Alberto Fujimori defeated Mr. Vargas Llosa in a surprise upset. “It was used against me by my adversary in the campaign,” he recalls. “I don’t know if that had any effect, but, oh, yes, it was read on the national television, as if to say, “Look at the kind of man that is this candidate!’ ” He laughs….

Mr. Vargas Llosa is thrilled that Mexican poet Octavio Paz recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature because, he says, “they are giving the prize to someone who has been fighting for democracy.”

“Things have changed so much in the world that even the Swedish Academy is accepting that there can be a very good Latin American writer who is not a communist, not a socialist.”

He pleases himself with this crack and explodes in machine-gun laughter…

I had forgotten that Vargas Llosa had discussed Octavio Paz and his Nobel; interesting, given that Vargas Llosa is the first Latin American since Paz to win the prize.

I wrote about the new Nobel Literature laureate here yesterday, and add more today in the New York Post. And with thanks for the archival help provided by the library at the Washington Times, here’s a chunk of a profile I wrote of Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990:

The losing candidate in Peru’s last presidential election – the one who advocated free markets and an end to socialism – found himself on Rockville Pike in Borders Book Shop on a Wednesday evening in October. But he wasn’t out there among the Burger Kings and the K marts and the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurts to discuss his political career in Latin America. No, Mario Vargas Llosa had come to read aloud from the brand-new English translation of his shocking and highly experimental novel about the sexual liaison between a 40-year-old woman and her pre-adolescent stepson.

One of the world’s most distinguished writers and thinkers, peddling an erotic novel called “In Praise of the Stepmother” in a Rockville bookstore? The same day he appeared on the “Today” show in New York with Bryant Gumbel? It’s all too strange for words: Mario Vargas< Llosa, sandwiched between Willard Scott’s weather and the results of Deborah Norville’s latest sonogram.
“Well, you know, those interviews are so short that you can’t really express yourself,” he says with a touch of impatience when asked about the “Today” show in his suite at the Sheraton-Carlton. But, as if fearful to give offense, he adds, “I suppose it’s important for a book to be mentioned on a much-watched program, no?”

Here’s another irony: Mr. Vargas Llosa probably only got booked on the “Today” show because his publishers have linked “In Praise of the Stepmother” and its disturbing subject matter to Sexy Topic No. 1 in the arts this year: Censorship. “I’ve been asked about this since I arrived,” the startlingly good-looking and surprisingly slight 53- year-old writer says in his lilting, hesitant English. “It has been a surprise for me because, on the one hand, the United States seems so free. . . . On the other hand, I can’t understand that in a country so open and so free, these old and obsolete issues of censorship can still become a national issue. But I suppose it is inevitable.”

It was certainly inevitable that “In Praise of the Stepmother” would discomfit people, because it is a genuinely discomfiting book. This is no funny and playful erotic romp, like the novel that made him famous in the United States, “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.” No, the sex in “Stepmother” is powerful, primal and frightening. It is, well, dirty. “I wouldn’t say ‘dirty,’ ” Mr. Vargas Llosa corrects. “I disagree. I don’t think sex is dirty. It may be dirty, but I don’t think it’s dirty in the story I tell. Threatening, yes.” The novel has four characters – an angel-faced boy named Fonchito, his passionate and beautiful stepmother, his blissfully happy father and the inevitable chambermaid. The stepmother is slowly and unwillingly seduced by her seemingly innocent stepson…

Writing the book may have had catastrophic consequences for its author. It was published in the midst of his two-year campaign for the presidency of Peru, which ended in June when Alberto Fujimori defeated Mr. Vargas Llosa in a surprise upset. “It was used against me by my adversary in the campaign,” he recalls. “I don’t know if that had any effect, but, oh, yes, it was read on the national television, as if to say, “Look at the kind of man that is this candidate!’ ” He laughs….

Mr. Vargas Llosa is thrilled that Mexican poet Octavio Paz recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature because, he says, “they are giving the prize to someone who has been fighting for democracy.”

“Things have changed so much in the world that even the Swedish Academy is accepting that there can be a very good Latin American writer who is not a communist, not a socialist.”

He pleases himself with this crack and explodes in machine-gun laughter…

I had forgotten that Vargas Llosa had discussed Octavio Paz and his Nobel; interesting, given that Vargas Llosa is the first Latin American since Paz to win the prize.

Read Less

He’s Against the Special Interests

John Conway, Kentucky attorney general and the Democratic candidate for the Senate, running against Ron Paul, was asked on Fox News Sunday this morning why he wanted to be elected. He answered (paraphrasing, as the transcript is not yet available) that he wanted to go to Washington to fight against the special interests and for the state of Kentucky.

One question: isn’t the state of Kentucky a special interest? My dictionary defines the term to mean a “person or group seeking to influence legislation or government policy to further often narrowly defined interests.” As Kentucky is not coterminous with the entire country, it is, by this definition, a special interest. There’s nothing wrong with being one. A country, after all, is made up of practically nothing but. What good politicians mostly do is assemble temporary coalitions of special interests in order to further the national interest. What bad ones do is pander to particular special interests in order to ensure their own re-election.

So the constant political refrain about “fighting the special interests” is nonsense. President Obama never tires of railing against the special interests but has no problem doing big favors for labor unions, especially public-service ones. Republicans rail against the special interests but give all the help they can to advancing the agenda of the National Rifle Association.

It reminds me of one of this country’s more eccentric writers, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), a critic, journalist, poet, and short story writer, known as “bitter Bierce” for his sometimes savage dismembering of other people’s prose. He is largely forgotten today, except for two things. One is his death. He went to Mexico in 1913 at the age of 71 to report on the Mexican Revolution and disappeared while “embedded” (to use a very modern term) with rebel troops. He was never seen again and no trace of him was ever found. The other thing for which he is remembered is  The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911.

A sometimes hilarious and often deeply cynical book, it is, second only to Mark Twain, a bottomless well from which to draw snappy quotations about politics. He defines politics as astrife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” A conservative, to Bierce, is a “statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” A scribbler is a “professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one’s own.”

Ambrose Bierce did not define the term special interest, which was coined only a year before his dictionary was published. But one can imagine what he would have made of it. My suggestion would be: special interest, n. Any organization or identifiable group of individuals likely to fund or vote for one’s political opponents.

John Conway, Kentucky attorney general and the Democratic candidate for the Senate, running against Ron Paul, was asked on Fox News Sunday this morning why he wanted to be elected. He answered (paraphrasing, as the transcript is not yet available) that he wanted to go to Washington to fight against the special interests and for the state of Kentucky.

One question: isn’t the state of Kentucky a special interest? My dictionary defines the term to mean a “person or group seeking to influence legislation or government policy to further often narrowly defined interests.” As Kentucky is not coterminous with the entire country, it is, by this definition, a special interest. There’s nothing wrong with being one. A country, after all, is made up of practically nothing but. What good politicians mostly do is assemble temporary coalitions of special interests in order to further the national interest. What bad ones do is pander to particular special interests in order to ensure their own re-election.

So the constant political refrain about “fighting the special interests” is nonsense. President Obama never tires of railing against the special interests but has no problem doing big favors for labor unions, especially public-service ones. Republicans rail against the special interests but give all the help they can to advancing the agenda of the National Rifle Association.

It reminds me of one of this country’s more eccentric writers, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), a critic, journalist, poet, and short story writer, known as “bitter Bierce” for his sometimes savage dismembering of other people’s prose. He is largely forgotten today, except for two things. One is his death. He went to Mexico in 1913 at the age of 71 to report on the Mexican Revolution and disappeared while “embedded” (to use a very modern term) with rebel troops. He was never seen again and no trace of him was ever found. The other thing for which he is remembered is  The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911.

A sometimes hilarious and often deeply cynical book, it is, second only to Mark Twain, a bottomless well from which to draw snappy quotations about politics. He defines politics as astrife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” A conservative, to Bierce, is a “statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” A scribbler is a “professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one’s own.”

Ambrose Bierce did not define the term special interest, which was coined only a year before his dictionary was published. But one can imagine what he would have made of it. My suggestion would be: special interest, n. Any organization or identifiable group of individuals likely to fund or vote for one’s political opponents.

Read Less

No Shortage of ‘Barbarians’ to Oppose Peace

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman closes his column today by quoting Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar, who believes Israel’s right-wingers hold on to the “no’s” of their Arab antagonists for dear life. To bolster this argument, Eldar quotes Greek-Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” in which a Byzantine narrator asks, “What’s going to happen to us without barbarians?”

While Friedman devotes his space on the op-ed page to a 700-word mash note to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the Eldar column he quotes is devoted to resurrecting one of Friedman’s own publicity stunts — the so-called Saudi peace proposal of 2002 — and representing it as an example of how Israel has turned down a chance to end the conflict. That bit of nonsense, which was first broached in a Friedman column, supposedly offered Israel the recognition of the entire Arab world as long as it surrendered every inch of land it won in the 1967 Six-Day War. That this so-called peace proposal also included the demand that Israel allow millions of the descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees to “return” — which would mean an end to the Jewish state — is a mere detail that can be ignored as far as Eldar is concerned. In other words, rather than a peace proposal, it was merely a demand for a unilateral Israeli surrender.

Even Friedman doesn’t talk much about the Saudi initiative anymore, but that doesn’t stop Eldar from pretending that it was a genuine opportunity for peace.

As for Friedman, his enthusiasm for Fayyad and his new Palestinian bureaucracy and security force is unbridled. But contrary to the implication of his column, Israel is not only willing to talk to Fayyad; it is his greatest booster, as the “hard-line” Netanyahu government has closed checkpoints and done all in its power to keep the PA government going.

But the problem for Fayyad as well as for Israel is those barbarians who Eldar pretends don’t exist anymore. The Islamist terrorists of Hamas hold Gaza in a totalitarian grip that has been strengthened by international support for lifting the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the region. And Fayyad and his boss, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, remain on their perches in the West Bank largely due to the protection and patronage of Israel’s security forces, which keep Abbas’s own Fatah terrorists and the threat of Hamas at bay.

If the terrorists of Hamas and Fatah were tiny and relatively harmless factions without a following in Palestinian society, Eldar and Friedman might well be right to deride Israel for fearing a barbarian threat from extremists. But as both of them well know, it is Fayyad and the fraction of the Palestinian public that supports “Fayyadism” — as Friedman likes to call it — that is the minority phenomenon and the supporters of violence and rejection of Israel’s legitimacy that are the overwhelming majority. That’s why Abbas and Fayyad (who has lately tried to burnish his image in the Palestinian street by staging public burnings of Israeli goods he wants his people to boycott) won’t negotiate directly with Israel and actually turned down the offer of a state that included the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem as well as Gaza and the West Bank from Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert only two years ago. They know that if they ever accepted an Israeli peace offer, their future in Palestinian politics, not to mention their lives, would be in great danger.

Far from fearing a barbarian threat that no longer exists, the real barbarians are still very much at Israel’s gate and have their hands around the throats of Palestinian moderates. Until that changes, far from being the truth-telling realists they claim to be, Friedman and Eldar remain mere fantasists with an ideological axe to grind against Netanyahu.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman closes his column today by quoting Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar, who believes Israel’s right-wingers hold on to the “no’s” of their Arab antagonists for dear life. To bolster this argument, Eldar quotes Greek-Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” in which a Byzantine narrator asks, “What’s going to happen to us without barbarians?”

While Friedman devotes his space on the op-ed page to a 700-word mash note to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the Eldar column he quotes is devoted to resurrecting one of Friedman’s own publicity stunts — the so-called Saudi peace proposal of 2002 — and representing it as an example of how Israel has turned down a chance to end the conflict. That bit of nonsense, which was first broached in a Friedman column, supposedly offered Israel the recognition of the entire Arab world as long as it surrendered every inch of land it won in the 1967 Six-Day War. That this so-called peace proposal also included the demand that Israel allow millions of the descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees to “return” — which would mean an end to the Jewish state — is a mere detail that can be ignored as far as Eldar is concerned. In other words, rather than a peace proposal, it was merely a demand for a unilateral Israeli surrender.

Even Friedman doesn’t talk much about the Saudi initiative anymore, but that doesn’t stop Eldar from pretending that it was a genuine opportunity for peace.

As for Friedman, his enthusiasm for Fayyad and his new Palestinian bureaucracy and security force is unbridled. But contrary to the implication of his column, Israel is not only willing to talk to Fayyad; it is his greatest booster, as the “hard-line” Netanyahu government has closed checkpoints and done all in its power to keep the PA government going.

But the problem for Fayyad as well as for Israel is those barbarians who Eldar pretends don’t exist anymore. The Islamist terrorists of Hamas hold Gaza in a totalitarian grip that has been strengthened by international support for lifting the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the region. And Fayyad and his boss, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, remain on their perches in the West Bank largely due to the protection and patronage of Israel’s security forces, which keep Abbas’s own Fatah terrorists and the threat of Hamas at bay.

If the terrorists of Hamas and Fatah were tiny and relatively harmless factions without a following in Palestinian society, Eldar and Friedman might well be right to deride Israel for fearing a barbarian threat from extremists. But as both of them well know, it is Fayyad and the fraction of the Palestinian public that supports “Fayyadism” — as Friedman likes to call it — that is the minority phenomenon and the supporters of violence and rejection of Israel’s legitimacy that are the overwhelming majority. That’s why Abbas and Fayyad (who has lately tried to burnish his image in the Palestinian street by staging public burnings of Israeli goods he wants his people to boycott) won’t negotiate directly with Israel and actually turned down the offer of a state that included the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem as well as Gaza and the West Bank from Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert only two years ago. They know that if they ever accepted an Israeli peace offer, their future in Palestinian politics, not to mention their lives, would be in great danger.

Far from fearing a barbarian threat that no longer exists, the real barbarians are still very much at Israel’s gate and have their hands around the throats of Palestinian moderates. Until that changes, far from being the truth-telling realists they claim to be, Friedman and Eldar remain mere fantasists with an ideological axe to grind against Netanyahu.

Read Less

What an Economist Thinks Poetry Is

There’s an eye-opening profile of Paul Krugman, the economist and lickspittle New York Times columnist, in the New Yorker this week. (Among its revelations: He became an economist owing to a character in an Isaac Asimov novel; his future wife was so angry when Ronald Reagan was elected president that she left the country for England; and he thought his life was in danger because people wrote him angry e-mails about some columns after 9/11.)

The most interesting detail in the piece has to do with Krugman’s academic work, which won him a Nobel Prize. Evidently, it is actually entirely commonsensical and not all that surprising in its exploration of the reasons why some businesses develop in certain places — but it was outside the norm for academic economists and so it blew them away. His particular gift, according to the piece, was his ability to translate lucid ideas into mathematical formulae; you would think the reverse would be the case for a genuinely significant contribution to the world of ideas, but never mind. Here is the Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff describing Krugman’s accomplishment:

“It’s poetry,” Kenneth Rogoff, an economist at Harvard, says. “I mean, you go back to his first book and there was this beautiful chart about what the Volcker contraction did to output that swept aside so much—he just drew this little graph which really cleared the air. I’ve heard economists use the word ‘poet’ in describing him for decades.”

Yes. A beautiful chart about the Volcker contraction. That’s just what I think of when I see the word poetry.

There’s an eye-opening profile of Paul Krugman, the economist and lickspittle New York Times columnist, in the New Yorker this week. (Among its revelations: He became an economist owing to a character in an Isaac Asimov novel; his future wife was so angry when Ronald Reagan was elected president that she left the country for England; and he thought his life was in danger because people wrote him angry e-mails about some columns after 9/11.)

The most interesting detail in the piece has to do with Krugman’s academic work, which won him a Nobel Prize. Evidently, it is actually entirely commonsensical and not all that surprising in its exploration of the reasons why some businesses develop in certain places — but it was outside the norm for academic economists and so it blew them away. His particular gift, according to the piece, was his ability to translate lucid ideas into mathematical formulae; you would think the reverse would be the case for a genuinely significant contribution to the world of ideas, but never mind. Here is the Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff describing Krugman’s accomplishment:

“It’s poetry,” Kenneth Rogoff, an economist at Harvard, says. “I mean, you go back to his first book and there was this beautiful chart about what the Volcker contraction did to output that swept aside so much—he just drew this little graph which really cleared the air. I’ve heard economists use the word ‘poet’ in describing him for decades.”

Yes. A beautiful chart about the Volcker contraction. That’s just what I think of when I see the word poetry.

Read Less

Bearding the Prophet

I’d like to confess a few literary sins. In high school, I read, along with usual suspects like The Dharma Bums, Naked Lunch, and A Coney Island of the Mind, certifiable nonsense like Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan and Ram Dass’s The Only Dance There Is. (I don’t mean that this is all I read, though to have read any of it is sufficiently embarrassing.) All the really zonked-out Mr. Natural stuff belonged to my parents (sorry, guys), the cringe-making detritus of college in the 1970s. I’m sure now they’d say they were only holding it for a friend.

Yes, I have read these terrible things—but I’ve never read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I’ve browsed in copies of it, copies usually found sandwiched between Steppenwolf and the Kama Sutra on dorm-issue bookshelves; it strikes me as a kind of ecumenical “Footprints,” only longer and thus not so easily translated into needlepoint. According to Joan Acocella’s piece in The New Yorker, occasioned by the rerelease of Gibran’s works, such as they are, by the Everyman’s Library, he is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. Gibran was also a draftsman of sorts:

[The drawings] were products of their time, or a slightly earlier time, that of the European Symbolist painters: Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Moreau. Often, in the foreground, one saw a sort of pileup of faceless humanity, while in the background there hovered a Greater Power—an angel, perhaps, or just a sort of milky miasma, suggestive of mystery and the soul.

“Milky miasma” describes more than just his art, alas. If the reader thinks I’m being unkind, he should direct his attention to Theodore Dalrymple’s hilarious essay on Gibran from the December 2007 New Criterion. It focuses on The Prophet in particular, so those who want a peek at the biographical details of a fabricator, bloviator, and kept man par excellence should stick with Acocella, hilarious in her own right. She even writes, inviting the ire of millions of public-transit users: “Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.”

What about Elizabeth Gilbert’s ubiquitous Eat, Pray, Love? Amazon.com tells me that its Statistically Improbable Phrases are “four spirit brothers, kundalini shakti, magic drawing, meditation cave, old medicine man.” Am I back with my former spirit guide, Carlos Castaneda? I’ll have to check it out, for old time’s sake. At any rate, Acocella writes:

[Gibran] had intuited the theory of relativity before Einstein; he just hadn’t written it down. Thousands of times, he said, he had been sucked up into the air as dew, and “risen into clouds, then fallen as rain. . . . I’ve been a rock too, but I’m more of an air person.”

Air of an extremely high temperature, no doubt.

I’d like to confess a few literary sins. In high school, I read, along with usual suspects like The Dharma Bums, Naked Lunch, and A Coney Island of the Mind, certifiable nonsense like Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan and Ram Dass’s The Only Dance There Is. (I don’t mean that this is all I read, though to have read any of it is sufficiently embarrassing.) All the really zonked-out Mr. Natural stuff belonged to my parents (sorry, guys), the cringe-making detritus of college in the 1970s. I’m sure now they’d say they were only holding it for a friend.

Yes, I have read these terrible things—but I’ve never read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I’ve browsed in copies of it, copies usually found sandwiched between Steppenwolf and the Kama Sutra on dorm-issue bookshelves; it strikes me as a kind of ecumenical “Footprints,” only longer and thus not so easily translated into needlepoint. According to Joan Acocella’s piece in The New Yorker, occasioned by the rerelease of Gibran’s works, such as they are, by the Everyman’s Library, he is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. Gibran was also a draftsman of sorts:

[The drawings] were products of their time, or a slightly earlier time, that of the European Symbolist painters: Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Moreau. Often, in the foreground, one saw a sort of pileup of faceless humanity, while in the background there hovered a Greater Power—an angel, perhaps, or just a sort of milky miasma, suggestive of mystery and the soul.

“Milky miasma” describes more than just his art, alas. If the reader thinks I’m being unkind, he should direct his attention to Theodore Dalrymple’s hilarious essay on Gibran from the December 2007 New Criterion. It focuses on The Prophet in particular, so those who want a peek at the biographical details of a fabricator, bloviator, and kept man par excellence should stick with Acocella, hilarious in her own right. She even writes, inviting the ire of millions of public-transit users: “Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.”

What about Elizabeth Gilbert’s ubiquitous Eat, Pray, Love? Amazon.com tells me that its Statistically Improbable Phrases are “four spirit brothers, kundalini shakti, magic drawing, meditation cave, old medicine man.” Am I back with my former spirit guide, Carlos Castaneda? I’ll have to check it out, for old time’s sake. At any rate, Acocella writes:

[Gibran] had intuited the theory of relativity before Einstein; he just hadn’t written it down. Thousands of times, he said, he had been sucked up into the air as dew, and “risen into clouds, then fallen as rain. . . . I’ve been a rock too, but I’m more of an air person.”

Air of an extremely high temperature, no doubt.

Read Less

Top Five Christmas Books

If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:

1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.

2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.

3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”

4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.

5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.

If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:

1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.

2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.

3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”

4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.

5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.

Read Less

A Different Christmas Story

This holiday season, while other stocking stuffers hash out the comparative merits of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman, why not cut these confections from your diet and go straight for the meat and potatoes (or bangers and mash) of Middle English poetry? I don’t mean the new Beowulf in 3-D—though that poem is in Old English, of course, which is why it looks like somebody dumped a sack of Scrabble tiles on the floor. If O.E. is your poison, Alex Nazaryan has posted some thoughts on the new Beowulf at Armavirumque. It would seem that this poem is unfilmable: Here on the horizon, Peter Suderman wrote that “[c]omparing it to its source material is of little use. It’s been streamlined and modernized, and now bears more resemblance to a computer game than an ancient epic.”

Whether or not you check out Beowulf, have a look at Simon Armitage’s new verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem whose hairy green villain gets less attention than Grendel for the simple reason that he rarely appears on high school curricula. Paul Johnson wrote, “No one ever reads Beowulf unless forced to do so (in schools or universities) or paid to do so (as on the BBC). Gawayn and the Green Knight is little more attractive.” I disagree vehemently on both counts. A few days ago, the poet Edward Hirsch explained in the New York Times what makes Gawain so great:

In 1967, Ted Hughes’s third book, “Wodwo”—raw, spooky, elemental—sent me scurrying to find out the meaning of this strange Middle English word. The figure of “wodwo,” which Hughes elsewhere characterized as a sort of “half-man, half-animal spirit of the forests,” seemed to have loomed up out of the unconscious of English poetry. The book’s epigraph came from a ferocious passage in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and soon I was parsing the somewhat resistant Middle English text and bounding through J. R. R. Tolkien’s faithful translation. I was transfixed. I had stumbled upon the underground alliterative tradition of English poetry. . . .

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the founding narratives of English literature. The storyteller nods to the Aeneid, thus invoking his epic lineage, and then settles down to tell his tale, which begins in the court of King Arthur, “most regal of rulers in the royal line.” It is Christmastime at Camelot, and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table are carrying on and carousing when suddenly an enormous stranger appears, a hulking interloper, “a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.” The astonishing stranger is green from head to foot, a kind of emanation from nature. Even his horse is “a steed of pure green stock.”

You can read the poem “Wodwo” here, but I suspect you’ll get more out of Gawain. It’s stranger than just about any Christmas story you’re likely to encounter—after all, it does substitute “You’ll lose your head” for “You’ll shoot your eye out“—and of course it shows us what English literature looked and sounded like it its infancy. As Hirsch writes, the poem “still wields an uncanny power after 600 years. We’re fortunate that ‘our coffers have been crammed/ with stories such as these.'”

This holiday season, while other stocking stuffers hash out the comparative merits of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman, why not cut these confections from your diet and go straight for the meat and potatoes (or bangers and mash) of Middle English poetry? I don’t mean the new Beowulf in 3-D—though that poem is in Old English, of course, which is why it looks like somebody dumped a sack of Scrabble tiles on the floor. If O.E. is your poison, Alex Nazaryan has posted some thoughts on the new Beowulf at Armavirumque. It would seem that this poem is unfilmable: Here on the horizon, Peter Suderman wrote that “[c]omparing it to its source material is of little use. It’s been streamlined and modernized, and now bears more resemblance to a computer game than an ancient epic.”

Whether or not you check out Beowulf, have a look at Simon Armitage’s new verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem whose hairy green villain gets less attention than Grendel for the simple reason that he rarely appears on high school curricula. Paul Johnson wrote, “No one ever reads Beowulf unless forced to do so (in schools or universities) or paid to do so (as on the BBC). Gawayn and the Green Knight is little more attractive.” I disagree vehemently on both counts. A few days ago, the poet Edward Hirsch explained in the New York Times what makes Gawain so great:

In 1967, Ted Hughes’s third book, “Wodwo”—raw, spooky, elemental—sent me scurrying to find out the meaning of this strange Middle English word. The figure of “wodwo,” which Hughes elsewhere characterized as a sort of “half-man, half-animal spirit of the forests,” seemed to have loomed up out of the unconscious of English poetry. The book’s epigraph came from a ferocious passage in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and soon I was parsing the somewhat resistant Middle English text and bounding through J. R. R. Tolkien’s faithful translation. I was transfixed. I had stumbled upon the underground alliterative tradition of English poetry. . . .

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the founding narratives of English literature. The storyteller nods to the Aeneid, thus invoking his epic lineage, and then settles down to tell his tale, which begins in the court of King Arthur, “most regal of rulers in the royal line.” It is Christmastime at Camelot, and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table are carrying on and carousing when suddenly an enormous stranger appears, a hulking interloper, “a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.” The astonishing stranger is green from head to foot, a kind of emanation from nature. Even his horse is “a steed of pure green stock.”

You can read the poem “Wodwo” here, but I suspect you’ll get more out of Gawain. It’s stranger than just about any Christmas story you’re likely to encounter—after all, it does substitute “You’ll lose your head” for “You’ll shoot your eye out“—and of course it shows us what English literature looked and sounded like it its infancy. As Hirsch writes, the poem “still wields an uncanny power after 600 years. We’re fortunate that ‘our coffers have been crammed/ with stories such as these.'”

Read Less

Supporting Democracy in Pakistan

General Pervez Musharraf justifies his imposition of martial law—he prefers to call it a “state of emergency,” which makes him sound like one of the sinister characters from a Costa-Gavras movie—by citing the increase in terrorist attacks across his country. There has indeed been growing militancy by extremist Islamic groups, which serves as a severe indictment of Musharraf’s eight years in power.

And yet he is using his “emergency” powers not to crack down on Islamic terrorists, but on peaceful civil society activists. As this Washington Post dispatch from Lahore notes:

Over the weekend . . . an estimated 70 community leaders were arrested here during a cookies-and-tea meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Those detained included a college dean, a well-known poet, an economics professor, and a board member of the International Crisis Group.

Through such actions, Musharraf is undermining the anti-terrorist coalition that should include the vast majority of Pakistan’s people and its leading political parties. He is also casting the United States into ever deeper obloquy because the Bush administration has provided such unstinting and uncritical support of his misrule. The administration should now make clear, by holding back further aid to Pakistan if necessary, that its support for democracy is more than rhetorical.

A return to democracy is certainly no cure-all for Pakistan’s ills. The country will continue to face a determined Islamic insurgency no matter what happens. But Musharraf’s legitimacy clearly is reaching a nadir, and his efforts to suppress the extremists have largely failed. There is at least a possibility that a more popular and more legitimate government may have more success than the isolated dictator who is fast turning his own people against him.

General Pervez Musharraf justifies his imposition of martial law—he prefers to call it a “state of emergency,” which makes him sound like one of the sinister characters from a Costa-Gavras movie—by citing the increase in terrorist attacks across his country. There has indeed been growing militancy by extremist Islamic groups, which serves as a severe indictment of Musharraf’s eight years in power.

And yet he is using his “emergency” powers not to crack down on Islamic terrorists, but on peaceful civil society activists. As this Washington Post dispatch from Lahore notes:

Over the weekend . . . an estimated 70 community leaders were arrested here during a cookies-and-tea meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Those detained included a college dean, a well-known poet, an economics professor, and a board member of the International Crisis Group.

Through such actions, Musharraf is undermining the anti-terrorist coalition that should include the vast majority of Pakistan’s people and its leading political parties. He is also casting the United States into ever deeper obloquy because the Bush administration has provided such unstinting and uncritical support of his misrule. The administration should now make clear, by holding back further aid to Pakistan if necessary, that its support for democracy is more than rhetorical.

A return to democracy is certainly no cure-all for Pakistan’s ills. The country will continue to face a determined Islamic insurgency no matter what happens. But Musharraf’s legitimacy clearly is reaching a nadir, and his efforts to suppress the extremists have largely failed. There is at least a possibility that a more popular and more legitimate government may have more success than the isolated dictator who is fast turning his own people against him.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

Read More

• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

As those last two observations make clear, autobiography is never very far away in Epstein’s work. No small part of the kick of his criticism comes from the fact that, like his familiar essays, it is so unabashedly personal—and that he so well exemplifies his own preferred virtues:

I have a weakness for minor artists. But they must be genuinely minor, by which I mean that they mustn’t lapse into minority through overreaching, want of energy, crudity, or any other kind of ineptitude. They must not be failed major artists merely. The true minor artist eschews the noble and the solemn. He fears tedium for his audience, but even more for himself. He sets out to be, and is perfectly content to remain, less than great. The minor artist knows his limits and lives comfortably within them. To delight, to charm, to entertain, such are the goals the minor artist sets himself, and, when brought off with style and verve and elegant lucidity, they are—more than sufficient—wholly admirable.

This is the first paragraph of an appreciation of Lord Berners, a writer (and sometime composer) whom Epstein places alongside Max Beerbohm in his personal pantheon of admirable artists. It has the smack of a credo, one to which Epstein himself lives up with the utmost completeness, though I find it no less interesting that he can write about the truly great without the slightest touch of deprecating envy. W.H. Auden, Marcel Proust, I.B. Singer: all these heavy hitters are summed up in the pages of In a Cardboard Belt! with the same appreciation extended to the lesser likes of Berners and Beerbohm.

If I had to choose a favorite piece in this collection, it would be “Books Won’t Furnish a Room,” in which the author tells what it felt like to get rid of the greater part of his personal library in the hope of simplifying his life: “Behind my selling all these books was a longing to streamline my life a bit, make it feel less cluttered, encumbered, book-bound. In doing so, I feel as if I had gathered my desert-island books about me without actually having to sail off for the island.” For me this essay passes the ultimate test of literary effectiveness: not long after I read it, I did as Epstein had done, and have never once regretted my decision. Talk about practical criticism!

Oh, yes, the title: it comes from The Producers. For further information, buy the book.

Read Less

Fascism Old and New

As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.

Read More

As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.

Such echoes of the so-called German Idealism movement are all the more timely as the current talk of the town is about Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, who on September 14th made a speech at the opening of a new art museum in which he stated: “Wherever culture is separated from the worship of God, cult atrophies into ritualism and art becomes degenerate.” The word “degenerate” inevitably hearkens back to Nazi-era jargon, as local newspapers were quick to point out; the Nazi’s notorious 1937 Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibit was intended to ridicule modernist paintings. Meisner’s statement was followed by a backlash of articles defending the Cardinal from “Meisner-Bashing” by the so-called “word-police” This vehement support was to be expected, since Meisner controls a vast empire of real estate and church-owned media, stoked by the highest annual donation rate in Germany, estimated at around 680 million euros per annum. In 2005, Meisner asserted that women who have an abortion are comparable to mass killers like Hitler and Stalin. Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, noted that Meisner repeatedly “misuses language as a taboo-breaker. If that sets an example, we should not be surprised if Nazi beliefs become respectable again.”

Meanwhile, in between sessions of idealistic song, equal concern is devoted to the Swiss national elections scheduled for October 21, where the front-runner is a billionaire named Christoph Blocher, Switzerland’s current Justice Minister. Blocher’s campaign, featuring a poster of a black sheep kicked off the Swiss flag by three white sheep under the caption: “For More Security,” has been called fascist, racist, and perhaps worst of all, “un-Swiss.” Blocher’s wealth has also bought him a TV program during which servile interviewers, likened to East German broadcasters in the old Communist days, ask him adoring questions. While Europe ponders these reminders of oppression old and new, it is particularly useful to focus on the optimistic message of an international gathering like the Wolf Akademie’s lieder contest, where the sheep are dismissed only if they hit wrong notes, not if the color of their wool offends.

Read Less

The Poet and the Nazi

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

Read Less

For the Love of God

The poet of putrefaction strikes again. Or should one say festers again? Since Damien Hirst first achieved notoriety in 1990 by placing a rotting cow’s head in a glass vitrine, he has gone on to immerse a shark in formaldehyde, saw a cow and calf into precise cross-sections, and even to congratulate the hijackers of 9/11 for creating a “visually stunning” work of art. Now the 1995 Turner Prize winner has achieved another milestone. His work entitled For the Love of God, which consists of an actual human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, has just been sold to a consortium of anonymous investors for £50 million. It is (by far) highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.

Virtually every aspect of the work has been the subject of controversy—Hirst was accused of plagiarizing the idea of the skull; of making use of smuggled diamonds; and even of staging the entire sale as a hoax—every aspect, that is, except the use of a human skull as an artistic material. Hirst was quick to insist that he used only “ethically sourced diamonds” but has little to say about the ethics of body parts; presumably the Islington taxidermist who he says sold him the skull, qualifies as an ethical source. (Radiocarbon analysis showed the skull to be about 200 years old.)

Given that Hirst’s career has been based on the exploitation of revulsion, it was probably inevitable that he proceed from the use of animal cadavers to the parts of actual human corpses. Still, it is unclear whether or not he would have crossed this line if it had not been for the international success of Günther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition, whose playfully posed “plastinated” cadavers have done much to erode the powerful social taboo against irreverent treatment of the human body.

A year ago, writing in COMMENTARY about Body Worlds, I suggested that works of art that are deliberately repellent, as offensive as they may be, “at least presuppose the capacity to be disgusted—which places them in a moral universe.” But now Hirst has lost the last vestiges of that capacity; rather than finding his grinning skull disturbing, he reports that it is “quite bling.” For the love of God, indeed.

The poet of putrefaction strikes again. Or should one say festers again? Since Damien Hirst first achieved notoriety in 1990 by placing a rotting cow’s head in a glass vitrine, he has gone on to immerse a shark in formaldehyde, saw a cow and calf into precise cross-sections, and even to congratulate the hijackers of 9/11 for creating a “visually stunning” work of art. Now the 1995 Turner Prize winner has achieved another milestone. His work entitled For the Love of God, which consists of an actual human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, has just been sold to a consortium of anonymous investors for £50 million. It is (by far) highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.

Virtually every aspect of the work has been the subject of controversy—Hirst was accused of plagiarizing the idea of the skull; of making use of smuggled diamonds; and even of staging the entire sale as a hoax—every aspect, that is, except the use of a human skull as an artistic material. Hirst was quick to insist that he used only “ethically sourced diamonds” but has little to say about the ethics of body parts; presumably the Islington taxidermist who he says sold him the skull, qualifies as an ethical source. (Radiocarbon analysis showed the skull to be about 200 years old.)

Given that Hirst’s career has been based on the exploitation of revulsion, it was probably inevitable that he proceed from the use of animal cadavers to the parts of actual human corpses. Still, it is unclear whether or not he would have crossed this line if it had not been for the international success of Günther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition, whose playfully posed “plastinated” cadavers have done much to erode the powerful social taboo against irreverent treatment of the human body.

A year ago, writing in COMMENTARY about Body Worlds, I suggested that works of art that are deliberately repellent, as offensive as they may be, “at least presuppose the capacity to be disgusted—which places them in a moral universe.” But now Hirst has lost the last vestiges of that capacity; rather than finding his grinning skull disturbing, he reports that it is “quite bling.” For the love of God, indeed.

Read Less

A French Poet at 100

Last month, France commemorated the centenary of the poet René Char (1907-1988). Despite an exhibit at Paris’s Bibliothèque nationale de France, which runs until July 29, and various dutiful school commemorations, some observers have noted that Char is receiving as much disrespect as adulation in his native land. The French poet Jacques Dupin told the newspaper L’Humanité that Char, once widely admired, “is now unfairly disparaged.” In true French style, much of the current resentment against Char stems not only from his poetic accomplishments—including the rare honor of inclusion in the prestigious Gallimard Pléiade series of literary classics while still alive—but also from his very real wartime heroics.

During the German occupation of France in World War II, Char joined the Resistance under the pseudonym le capitaine Alexandre, organizing paratrooper insertions and arms drops in the south of France. In his compelling wartime collection of poetic, aphoristic prose fragments, Feuillets d’Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos; 1946), Char explained what he called the “humanism of resistance” by declaring, “I shall write no poem of acquiescence.” (He added to this a piece of memorable advice for his fellow vanquished Frenchmen: “Bow down only in order to make love.”)

Read More

Last month, France commemorated the centenary of the poet René Char (1907-1988). Despite an exhibit at Paris’s Bibliothèque nationale de France, which runs until July 29, and various dutiful school commemorations, some observers have noted that Char is receiving as much disrespect as adulation in his native land. The French poet Jacques Dupin told the newspaper L’Humanité that Char, once widely admired, “is now unfairly disparaged.” In true French style, much of the current resentment against Char stems not only from his poetic accomplishments—including the rare honor of inclusion in the prestigious Gallimard Pléiade series of literary classics while still alive—but also from his very real wartime heroics.

During the German occupation of France in World War II, Char joined the Resistance under the pseudonym le capitaine Alexandre, organizing paratrooper insertions and arms drops in the south of France. In his compelling wartime collection of poetic, aphoristic prose fragments, Feuillets d’Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos; 1946), Char explained what he called the “humanism of resistance” by declaring, “I shall write no poem of acquiescence.” (He added to this a piece of memorable advice for his fellow vanquished Frenchmen: “Bow down only in order to make love.”)

A physically massive rugby player, Char was the antithesis of the neurasthenic Parisian poet of the late 19th century. Born in the south of France (where he would spend most of his life), Char was prescient about politics, writing to his friend, the poet Paul Éluard, in January 1933 to express concern about the rise of Adolf Hitler. Éluard, a leftist, dismissed Char’s fear, believing wrongly that Reichstag Communists would squelch Hitler. After the French defeat in 1940, Char became a target of the German army because, among other things, his wife, Georgette Goldstein, was Jewish.

After the war, according to one French poetry website, Char’s “pose as a living God of poetry, his entry into the Pléiade series . . . wound up irritating people. As a resistant against every kind of military or intellectual invasion, he was a monolithic block of granite in his brusque, willful points of view.” Char was also accused of writing obscurely, to which he replied that he always read his poems aloud to a shepherd in his village, who fully understood them.

Still, Char’s writing can seem hermetic—it’s certainly very hard to translate. Char’s best collection in English remains the 1992 Selected Poems edited by Mary Ann Caws and Tina Jolas from New Directions, with translators including Samuel Beckett, James Wright, and William Carlos Williams. Overdue for translation are the French critic Laurent Greilsamer’s insightful 2004 biography L’éclair au front, la vie de René Char (Lightning from his Brow: a Life of René Char), published by Fayard, and an affectionate 2003 memoir by Char’s friend and fellow Resistance combatant Georges-Louis Roux, La nuit d’Alexandre (Alexander’s Night), from Grasset.

Much by Char remains unpublished in France, including his extensive correspondence with Éluard, which would be fascinating to read in toto. Unfortunately, it seems that behaving heroically during a war is a sure way to invite sarcasm and neglect from France’s literary world.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• When I was an undergraduate music student, there were two pieces of New York-related classical-music trivia guaranteed to reduce the most unruly class to stunned (if short-lived) silence. One was that Leonard Bernstein was listed in the Manhattan phone book, and the other was that Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in Queens. Bernstein has since acquired a new number, but Da Ponte’s bones can still be found in a common grave within the city limits of New York. From time to time this fact comes to the attention of a local newspaper editor, who thereupon commissions a feature story about the complicated life of the man who wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.

I humbly confess that until last week, everything I knew about Lorenzo Da Ponte could easily have been crammed into the compass of a shortish feature story. Now, however, I know enough to fill a book. The book in question is Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, a fully sourced biography that is nonetheless intended for the edification of a non-scholarly audience. Bolt is a director-turned-travel writer who has a lively style, a good eye for detail, and a fabulous story to tell, all of which add up to an exceedingly readable book.

Read More

• When I was an undergraduate music student, there were two pieces of New York-related classical-music trivia guaranteed to reduce the most unruly class to stunned (if short-lived) silence. One was that Leonard Bernstein was listed in the Manhattan phone book, and the other was that Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in Queens. Bernstein has since acquired a new number, but Da Ponte’s bones can still be found in a common grave within the city limits of New York. From time to time this fact comes to the attention of a local newspaper editor, who thereupon commissions a feature story about the complicated life of the man who wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.

I humbly confess that until last week, everything I knew about Lorenzo Da Ponte could easily have been crammed into the compass of a shortish feature story. Now, however, I know enough to fill a book. The book in question is Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, a fully sourced biography that is nonetheless intended for the edification of a non-scholarly audience. Bolt is a director-turned-travel writer who has a lively style, a good eye for detail, and a fabulous story to tell, all of which add up to an exceedingly readable book.

It would, I suppose, be all but impossible to write an unreadable book about Da Ponte. He was born a Jew, became a Roman Catholic priest, and married at 43, having hitherto conducted his private life along lines not unlike those of his old friend Giacomo Casanova, in evidence of which I offer these two deliciously characteristic sentences from his Memoirs:

A beautiful girl of sixteen (I should have preferred to love her only as a daughter, but . . . ) was living in the house with her mother, who took care of the family, and would come to my room at the sound of the bell. To tell the truth, I rang the bell quite often, especially at moments when I felt my inspiration flagging.

A famously charming fellow far more interested in writing poetry than performing his priestly duties, the Abbé Da Ponte was duly expelled from Venice and made his way to Vienna, where he somehow contrived to become the Emperor Joseph II’s house librettist. There he began his collaboration with Mozart, for whom he wrote what are now generally regarded as the first great opera libretti. He also continued his friendship with Casanova, who was, believe it or not, present at the first performance of Don Giovanni, a coincidence that is almost too good to be true.

Bolt writes very well about the Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration, especially the creation of Così, a worldly, startlingly modern comedy of disillusionment and acceptance whose emotional complexities are no more easily unraveled in 2007 than they were in 1790:

Mozart and Da Ponte created a work that would have critics arguing for centuries, berating it then rescuing it, damning it for its cynicism and triviality, lauding it for its complexity . . . Mozart’s music enriched Da Ponte’s libretto with shades and further ambiguities, softening crueler edges, adding lacquer-layers of meaning and affection, pointing moments of satire. As before, composer and poet delicately stitched the comic and the serious together, and made their mix even more complex by an interplay of real and faked emotions, histrionic bombast and moments of transporting beauty . . . Così fan tutte was Les Liaisons dangereuses with heart.

From Vienna Da Ponte made his way to London, then New York, where he became Columbia University’s first professor of Italian after having run a grocery store and a bookshop whose customers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Presumably he was the only person to have known Longfellow, Mozart, and Casanova.) All these adventures and many others like them are skillfully recounted in The Librettist of Venice, and if Rodney Bolt occasionally fails to make them especially plausible-sounding . . . well, sometimes real life is like that.

Read Less

“Hurt Into Poetry”

Last week I attended a reading of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s poems at the New School in downtown Manhattan. At the podium were the poets Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski, Herbert’s translator Alissa Valles, the journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. This event marked a long-awaited occasion: the publication of Herbert’s collected works in English. Collected Poems, 1956-1998, in Valles’s sensitive translation, makes an important addition to our understanding of post-war literary modernism, and of post-war poetry in general.

On the occasion of Herbert’s death in 1998, his compatriot, translator, and friend Czesław Miłosz wrote a short, understated poem about their shared art form and how the deceased unfailingly attended it:

He, who served [poetry],
is changed into a thing,
delivered to decomposition
into salts and phosphates,
sinks
into the home of chaos.

Changed into a thing: a line Herbert himself would have seen as no small compliment. A battered son of Eastern Europe who saw his country repeatedly swapped by Hitler and Stalin, Herbert was understandably preoccupied with the permanent and stable. His poetry is a lasting monument to the safety of objects, to what he once called “a predatory love of the concrete.” Flowers, diamonds, armchairs, stools–these rarely let one down in the flux of life, and through them mankind can fashion a saner metaphysics than through appeals to History and the inevitable forces of “progress.”

Read More

Last week I attended a reading of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s poems at the New School in downtown Manhattan. At the podium were the poets Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski, Herbert’s translator Alissa Valles, the journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. This event marked a long-awaited occasion: the publication of Herbert’s collected works in English. Collected Poems, 1956-1998, in Valles’s sensitive translation, makes an important addition to our understanding of post-war literary modernism, and of post-war poetry in general.

On the occasion of Herbert’s death in 1998, his compatriot, translator, and friend Czesław Miłosz wrote a short, understated poem about their shared art form and how the deceased unfailingly attended it:

He, who served [poetry],
is changed into a thing,
delivered to decomposition
into salts and phosphates,
sinks
into the home of chaos.

Changed into a thing: a line Herbert himself would have seen as no small compliment. A battered son of Eastern Europe who saw his country repeatedly swapped by Hitler and Stalin, Herbert was understandably preoccupied with the permanent and stable. His poetry is a lasting monument to the safety of objects, to what he once called “a predatory love of the concrete.” Flowers, diamonds, armchairs, stools–these rarely let one down in the flux of life, and through them mankind can fashion a saner metaphysics than through appeals to History and the inevitable forces of “progress.”

That is not to say, however, that Herbert was unconcerned with politics and ideas. Born in 1924 in Lwow, he seemed destined for a quiet life of the mind until the noise of invasion and occupation roused him from that idyllic might-have-been. He joined the resistance, continued his studies while underground, and performed odd jobs throughout Poland until his gifts as a poet were recognized with the publication of his book Chord of Light in 1956

Herbert’s career as a poet only became possible after the Communist “thaw” of that year, the slight liberalization following Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech.” It is sobering to consider how great the loss would have been had this modest liberalization tempted him to compromise his talents for the sake of political expedience. (He once wrote a wry and haunting poem, A Life, that imagined what doing exactly that would be like: it ends with the poet-stooge and his friends asking rhetorically if “the dictatorship of the proletariat / may exclude art in the true sense,” before erupting into grim laughter.)

Yet a figure far more expressive of Herbert’s actual biography was his alter ego Mr. Cogito, a supremely ironic and polymorphous being, inhabiting every mode of thought and experience, through which the poet voiced his deepest insecurities, longings and fears: becoming a has-been, returning to his native town, confronting the abyss of “fathomless days,” his own eventual decay.

It’s well worth recalling that after the Berlin Wall came down, Herbert returned to his homeland with harsh words for the agreements struck between Solidarity and the Communist government. A staunch cold warrior, he went so far as blame the softer politics of Milosz and Michnik for the national malaise then gripping Poland. But not even this slight minimized Herbert’s artistic achievement and his indomitable humanity in the eyes of his anti-totalitarian compatriots. Michnik is all forgiveness today. When, during the question and answer period after the reading, Edward Hirsch drew a comparison between Herbert and the Latin American poets, specifically Pablo Neruda, the great Polish dissident shot back: “Neruda wrote about Stalin, Herbert wrote about Marcus Aurelius. I’d like to have the value of the difference between them in dollars.” (So would I.)

Auden wrote of Yeats that “mad Ireland hurt [him] into poetry.” Without World War II, there’s a good chance Zbigniew Herbert would now be remembered, if at all, as a professor of philosophy or art history: he, too, was hurt into poetry. He loved antiquity and used myths and other classical imagery to evoke the grim conditions of the ravaged world outside his window, but could also be arrestingly direct about those conditions: “Metaphors mock you as you flee/into a spray of righteous bullets.” Hard to surpass, as a comment on the fragile and tragicomic position of the artist in history. But we should be grateful, in Herbert’s case: if not for the bullets, then for the metaphors.

 

Read Less

Another Look at Auden

Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.

Read More

Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.

Auden reached his artistic pinnacle at Europe’s darkest moment, a fact that might itself be described as Audenesque. The year 1939 yielded other burnished gems besides his “September 1, 1939″: the threnodies to Yeats and Freud, “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Law Like Love.” Critics of Auden’s “Spain,” who see it solely as a testament to all that was sinister and myopic in an epicene Communist’s worldview, should take the poem’s full measure. For instance, the apostrophe to nations, which calls upon “the life / That shapes the individual belly and orders / The private nocturnal terror,” has that life replying: “O no, I am not the mover; / Not to-day; not to you. To you I’m the / Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped . . . ” We know now from the publication of long-secret Soviet archives that the yes-man, the bar-companion, and the easily-duped comprise precisely the grim troika that enabled and excused Stalin’s reign of terror for so long. The poem is, thus, also a withering indictment of the Western intellectual class to which Auden belonged with such passion and brilliance. So his conscience managed to get it right, in the end—even if his short-lived political allegiances got it so remarkably wrong.

Though his abandonment of those allegiances is praiseworthy, it did nothing for him as an artist. Auden’s poetry steadily declined in quality as his commitment to religion broadened and his sense of purpose—both as a poet and as a “citizen”—grew humbler. He also traveled less, abandoning the exploratory wanderings of his earlier years, confining himself mainly to his adopted city of New York and his shire-girded summer home in Austria. As Philip Larkin observed in a withering 1960 essay, “What’s Become of Wystan?,” someone who had read nothing of Auden’s work after 1940 would have little to talk about with someone who had read nothing before 1940. A shame, too, in Larkin’s opinion: a born-again Yank might well have gone on to become a “New Yorker Walt Whitman viewing the American scene through lenses coated with a European irony” instead of the book-obsessed purveyor of agape Auden became. So much, one supposes, for Pascal and the wisdom of sitting still.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)

The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)

Read More

• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)

The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)

He tried to earn money as a Hollywood screenwriter (he co-wrote Double Indemnity, the classic Billy Wilder film noir), but he was too idiosyncratic to fit within the studio system. He wanted to concentrate on his novels, but writing was such a tortuous process for him—he went through draft after draft before he was satisfied—that he finished only seven. He was left utterly bereft by his wife’s death in 1954, following a long illness, and was almost alone in the world (they had no children and he was too prickly to make many friends). He drank himself to death five years later. But his great creation—Philip Marlowe, private eye—lives forever.

• Caryl Phillips (ed.), The Right Set (1999): This is an anthology of writing about tennis spanning the period from the invention of “lawn tennis” in the late 19th century to the modern era of glitzy superstars. The most interesting material is the unfamiliar story of the early days of the game, such as the first Wimbledon tournament held in 1877, just four years after Major Walter Clopton Wingfield had patented a “New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Games of Tennis.” Only 22 “gentlemen” entered this first tournament, and the level of play was as low as the level of public interest. By the 1920’s, however, interest had soared.

It is fascinating to read about how much attention was given to an exhibition match played by Helen Wills of America and Suzanne Lenglen of France in 1926 on the French Riviera. Crowds overflowed the tiny grandstand, and reporters rushed off dispatches to vast readerships updating them on the score. Both competitors wore flowing white dresses.

That wasn’t the only anachronism. A couple of years later Helen Wills (she later became Helen Wills Moody), wrote a guide to tennis etiquette that included this concern: “If your opponent slips on his feet, are you to hit the ball easily, so that he will have a chance to return it? This is a difficult question to answer. . . . Of course, if the slips turns out to be a real accident, then the player would not care much what happened to his ball, because he would fear that his opponent was injured.” Of course.

Read Less

Low and Dishonest

W.H. Auden was born February 21, 1907, and his centenary year is therefore upon us. “We have one poet of genius today,” wrote Cyril Connolly in 1938 in his inquisitorial memoir Enemies of Promise. This praise has become more or less received opinion, as Auden’s reputation continues to rise, and the debt of contemporary poets to his style of intellect and clever comment remains as evident as ever.

One snag is that Auden in the 1930’s was a Communist fellow-traveler of the silliest kind. Writing his memoir, Connolly certainly knew and approved of the poem “Spain,” which Auden had published the previous year to register his Communist sympathies. “Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,” is a line that still lingers in the public memory. A more sinister totalitarian recommendation in that poem is “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” This caught the eye of George Orwell, who famously savaged Auden as someone who would be elsewhere when it came to pulling the trigger.

Read More

W.H. Auden was born February 21, 1907, and his centenary year is therefore upon us. “We have one poet of genius today,” wrote Cyril Connolly in 1938 in his inquisitorial memoir Enemies of Promise. This praise has become more or less received opinion, as Auden’s reputation continues to rise, and the debt of contemporary poets to his style of intellect and clever comment remains as evident as ever.

One snag is that Auden in the 1930’s was a Communist fellow-traveler of the silliest kind. Writing his memoir, Connolly certainly knew and approved of the poem “Spain,” which Auden had published the previous year to register his Communist sympathies. “Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,” is a line that still lingers in the public memory. A more sinister totalitarian recommendation in that poem is “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” This caught the eye of George Orwell, who famously savaged Auden as someone who would be elsewhere when it came to pulling the trigger.

Given his fellow-traveling, Auden might have been expected to welcome joining the war against Nazi Germany. Instead, 1939 found him in New York, where he sat out the whole period of the Nazi-Soviet pact and wrote another line that stays in the public memory, condemning the “low dishonest decade” then on the point of expiring. Auden’s evasion in New York was too much even for Connolly, who was no good at literary or political enmities. Auden then dropped the infantile Leftism, turned Christian, started re-writing his poems to take out the pro-Soviet nonsense, and so reached apotheosis as a Grand Old Man.

But the Auden centenary now brings up another snag. In May 1951, the Soviet agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were tipped off by their handler, Kim Philby, that they were about to be arrested, and they were ordered to seek refuge in Moscow at once. The day before Burgess fled, he contacted Stephen Spender, whose career as a poet was carried out in Auden’s shadow, to ask him how to contact Auden. It is not quite clear whether Auden was staying with Spender at the time, or was already away in his summer home on Ischia, the island off Naples.

This week, the opening of British intelligence files reveals that when Burgess went missing, Spender informed them of that last-minute telephone call, and also that he had passed the message on to Auden. When intelligence officers questioned Auden, he inexplicably lied to them, denying that Spender had told him anything, and added, “He must have been drunk.” Auden had become an American citizen by then, and the FBI wanted to interrogate him. In due course, in mid-June, the Italian police questioned Auden, and the documents show that he “reluctantly admitted that Spender was probably right.”

Why the lying and prevarication? Most essentially, what could Burgess have had in mind when trying to get hold of Auden as virtually the last thing he did before going into exile, never to return? Was he about to appeal to Auden for protection? There may be an innocent explanation, in that the two had known one another for many years; both were homosexual, and had friends in common. The very least that can be said is that Auden appears to have been anxious to hide something, and in the circumstances this was active fellow-traveling. So in spite of his undoubted great gifts, he was contributing his bit towards making yet another decade low and dishonest.

Read Less

Weekend Reading

February 21, 2007 marked the centennial of the birth of W.H. Auden, one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Most widely known perhaps as the author of “September 1st, 1939″ and “Funeral Blues,” Auden remains unmatched as a formal virtuoso and as what might best be called a poet of civilization. Though many have tried, no one else has spoken in his distinctive double voice, endued at once with the full cultural authority of the English lyric tradition and with the highest erotic irony. To commemorate this occasion, we offer you Auden’s poem “Pleasure Island,” which first appeared in the pages of COMMENTARY in May 1949, and the Australian critic Clive James’s penetrating essay “Auden’s Achievement.” Enjoy.

February 21, 2007 marked the centennial of the birth of W.H. Auden, one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Most widely known perhaps as the author of “September 1st, 1939″ and “Funeral Blues,” Auden remains unmatched as a formal virtuoso and as what might best be called a poet of civilization. Though many have tried, no one else has spoken in his distinctive double voice, endued at once with the full cultural authority of the English lyric tradition and with the highest erotic irony. To commemorate this occasion, we offer you Auden’s poem “Pleasure Island,” which first appeared in the pages of COMMENTARY in May 1949, and the Australian critic Clive James’s penetrating essay “Auden’s Achievement.” Enjoy.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.