Monthly Archives: March 2008


The other day I was reading to my son about Roland and the Battle of Roncesvalles from our old copy of The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends.  I grew up with this book.  It gave me my first taste of the Greek myths, the tales the Niebelungs, of Beowulf, and the Arthurian sub-plot of Tristram and Iseult.  The angular, stylized illustrations of dueling heroes and rabid monsters made fuel for fantasy and nightmare alike.  My son refuses to look at the picture of the Minotaur.

Of all the heroes and kings mentioned in the Golden Treasury, Charlemagne is, of course, the most solidly historical.  My son took a special interest in him, specifically in his name.  It has a magnificent ring to it, which is perhaps why we’ve never permanently anglicized it.  He is ‘Charlemagne’ to us just as he is to the French.  ‘Charles the Great’ isn’t saying enough.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Between the Woods and the Water gives perhaps the best short description of the mytho-poetical-historical space that Charlemagne still holds in the western imagination:

Fireside mutterings, legends, centuries of bards and the lays of minnesingers have set him afloat somewhere between Alexander and King Arthur, where he looms, mural-crowned, enormous, voluminously-bearded, overgrown with ivy and mistletoe, announced by eagles and ravens, dogged by wolfhounds, accompanied by angels and oriflammes and escorted by a host of prelates and monks and paladins; confused with Odin and, like Adonis, akin to the seasons, he is ushered on his way by earthquakes and eclipses of the sun and the moon and celebrated by falling stars and lightning; horns and harps waft him across the plains; they carry him through canyons and forests and up to steep mountain-tops until his halo is caught up in the seven stars of his Wain.

Fermor also tells briefly of Charlemagne’s elephant, Abulahaz (“Son of the Mighty”), a gift from Harun al-Rashid, who was sent from Persia to Aix in 801 or 802 and spent most of his days tramping through the emperor’s wooded hunting grounds.  He was probably the only member of his species on the continent and must have been a lonely creature.  Or perhaps he was as fascinated by his fate as I am.  Abulahaz died ten years later in one of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Danes.  You can be sure the anonymous Viking who gave him his death-blow had a story to tell.

Leave a comment

Filed under History


Jean Giono in Joy of Man’s Desiring calls spring “that time of year when the trees are in love with each other.” I had forgotten it, but happily the phrase came back to me today as I passed down a shaded avenue in a rain of falling blossoms. Proof of the trees’ amours is spread on the balmy, fondling air in the form of little scalloped petals, pink and white, semi-transparent, fragile as the fingernails of infants.  In the oblivion of their passion the trees pay no attention to those who admire them but pass the whole day exchanging ardent, melting glances with one another.

Leave a comment

Filed under Misc.

A Refuge in Words

Is there a causal connection between 9/11 (plus London and Madrid), the war in Iraq, the crisis in the economy, and the circus of Britneymania on the one hand, and, on the other, the ad absurdum proliferation of online publishing?  According to Montaigne, yes:

I am not jesting: scribbling seems to be a symptom of an age of excess.  When did we ever write so much as since our public disturbances?  And when did the Romans write so much as at the time of their downfall?  …The corruption of the age is made up by the special contribution of each one of us; some furnish treachery, others injustice, irreligion, tyranny, avarice, cruelty, according to the degree of their power; the weaker bring to it dullness, trifling, idleness – of which I am one.  It would seem it were the season for trifling things when harmful ones press upon us.  At a time when to do evil is so common, to do only what is useless is, as it were, praiseworthy.

The quote is from Essays, III, 9, ‘On Vanity.’  Of course, Montaigne was writing in the 16th century, but this only serves to illustrate the charming constancy of human folly. 

I wonder, however, if there isn’t something more to our scribbling than nervous loquacity and a thirst for distraction.  From infancy, words are our strong angels, magical things with the power to console, to command, to banish phantoms, to transport us to better places and to impart knowledge.  In the face of violence, fear and mindlessness, there’s a certain ‘useless’ comfort in the sound of a human voice, even when it’s our own.

Leave a comment

Filed under Misc.

Chekhov and the Weight of Beauty

After a personal meeting with Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, Constance Garnett resolved that translating the great works of Russian literature into English would be her life’s labor. The year was 1893. Today, the fruit of that labor is found on bookshelves throughout the English-speaking world. But while Garnett’s translations of Dostoyevsky and others are sometimes maligned as paraphrastic Victorian ‘retellings,’ her detractors often concede that Garnett’s translations of Chekhov, at least, are pitch-perfect. Not that I’m in a position to tell, being ignorant of Russian. But much as I prefer the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, I can imagine no greater pleasure reading Chekhov than when Garnett delivers him to me.

Some time ago I bought an old Chatto & Windus hardcover edition of Garnett’s ‘Tchehov’ (as the publishers rendered his name) and found inside a story titled ‘The Beauties.’  The narrator of the story describes a summer journey he made through the countryside as an adolescent with his grandfather. The two stop for a rest from the midday heat at the home of an Armenian. The Armenian and the grandfather talk while the young narrator sits and waits, impatient to continue the journey. But the dull, stifled atmosphere of the room is suddenly electrified by the entrance of the Armenian’s beautiful young daughter.  The older men fall silent as she serves them tea. The young man is transfixed; the perfection of the girl’s face is all that he sees. He tries to explain:

I am ready to swear that Masha –or, as her father called her, Mashya- was a real beauty, but I don’t know how to prove it. It sometimes happens that clouds are huddled together in disorder on the horizon, and the sun hiding behind them colours them and the sky with tints of every possible shade – crimson, orange, lilac, muddy pink; one cloud is like a monk, another like a fish, a third like a Turk in a turban. The glow of sunset enveloping a third of the sky gleams on the cross on the church, flashes on the windows of the manor house, is reflected in the river and the puddles, quivers on the trees; far, far away against the background of the sunset, a flock of wild ducks is flying homewards… And the boy herding the cows, and the surveyor driving in his chaise over the dam, and the gentleman out for a walk, all gaze at the sunset, and every one of them thinks it terribly beautiful, but no one knows or can say in what its beauty lies.

In typical fashion, Chekhov refuses us what we might sentimentally prefer.  There is no timid exchange of glances, no breathless meeting behind the stable, no words passed between the young narrator and the Armenian girl at all.  In fact, Chekhov gives us no narrative resolution of any kind whatsoever. In place of the shy or impassioned encounter of a young man and a young woman, we are presented instead with the encounter of Man and Beauty, and a subtle meditation on their relation to one another.

Note how in the quote above Chekhov shifts us immediately from the loveliness of Masha to the sublime illumined grandeur of the skies at sunset and the infinitely diversified world below that glows and blooms in the caress of that celestial light. There is a kinship, Chekhov suggests, between the beauty of the girl and the beauty of the skies. They are one and the same.  The light that shines through the clouds is the light that shines through Masha’s face. The beauty that manifests itself in Masha is the same beauty that arises everywhere, unexpectedly, gratuitously, now here and now there, through all of nature. The heavenly and the terrestrial, incomprehensible to each other, are invisibly knit together in a single symphonic moment – a moment neither transcendent nor alien to us but near us, involving us, and which, when it finds us, requires something in return:

You gaze, and little by little the desire comes over you to say to Masha something extraordinary, pleasant, sincere, beautiful, as beautiful as she herself was.

And yet, what beauty evokes in us in elusive; whatever it requires we seem incapable of giving. Like the cowherd, the surveyor and the gentleman, the young narrator stands in the presence of beauty and is dumb: he says nothing to Masha. And if properly responding to beauty is difficult, simply to beholding it is a struggle and a strange sort of burden:

[L]ittle by little I forgot myself and gave myself up entirely to the consciousness of beauty… I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstasy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again.

Here is Chekhov’s cosmic tragedy, the imprint, if you will, of an irrevocable primordial loss: this “painful though pleasant sadness” in the presence of the Beautiful. Though she is its own manifestation in that moment, Masha too suffers under the weight of beauty.  No one escapes the nameless universal longing. Precisely what is this “something important and essential to life” which we have lost? As a physician (which he was) Chekhov may owe us a diagnosis, but he is too good a writer to give us one.

1 Comment

Filed under Literature

Marginalia, no.2

In these days in which we live, when existence has become a thing of infinite complexity and fate, if it slips us a bit of goose with one hand, is pretty sure to give us the sleeve across the windpipe with the other, it is rarely that we find a human being who is unmixedly happy… A severe indictment of our modern civilization, but it can’t say it didn’t ask for it.

~ P.G. Wodehouse, Uncle Dynamite

His most blistering critique of the age. I wonder, is Wodehouse one of those writers whose books are so of a piece that a fellow who has read one or two can arguably claim to “know” him? The alternative is daunting: you’d have to read forty-six of them just to cross half-way mark.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia

Aiming the Canon

In a recent piece for The Guardian, Sean O’Brien tells how a young acquaintance pertly announced her dislike of T.S. Eliot at a dinner party to the groans of her elders.  The anecdote is supposed to illustrate the sort of ignorance that comes from abandoning the idea of canon in the study of English literature – though one notes that if the student in question disliked Eliot so much she can’t be entirely ignorant of him, which is an oblique homage to the notion of canon (at least Eliot makes the required reading list).  But not all educated persons go into raptures over The Waste Land.  And it’s not this young woman’s mere dislike of Eliot that so rankles O’Brien as her apparent inability to appreciate the referential context within which Eliot wrote, and which he presumed of his readers:

What saddens me is that, when my friends’ daughter reads Eliot, material that had remained until recently common property among educated people – for example, biblical allusion – is a closed book to her, a difficulty that seems to offer her attention no reward.

Biblical allusion is only a single element, of course (O’Brien might as easily have picked Shakespearean allusion), but if there’s a price to pay for the loss of canon, it begins to make itself felt in examples like this.  The fracturing of critical theory into blinkered, politicized ideologies which began in the 1970s (and gave us term papers with titles like ‘Femino-Marxist Critiques of Manga in Translation’ and graduate students ignorant of Chaucer and Milton) is ripe for fresh consideration.  Whether one thinks it laudable or lamentable, it can hardly be denied that all the frenzied sparring and self-loathing that began with the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism has resulted in a devaluing of the Western cultural inheritance, and nowhere more so than among its natural heirs.

Which is not to say that the idea of canon has unequivocally died the death.  The canon in English literature (as a flexibly-delineated, semi-authoritative set of culturally and aesthetically definitive texts) continues to eke out a sort of half-life, either as an object of derision and forensic inquiry among the post-modernly enlightened, or of hushed devotion in the academic backwaters of provincial liberal arts colleges.  The canon haunts us like the religion of our childhood: we either embrace or reject it, but cannot ignore it altogether.

Or can we?  Successive generations raised outside the Church will eventually lose the context of religious reference that defined the lives of their forebears.  Perhaps succeeding generations of undergraduates schooled without the idea of canon –who then go on to become professors and teach as they were taught– really can raise a bulwark of forgetfulness high enough to delete all memory of the grand context.  Can we expect the proposition that “all books are not created equal” to sound compelling to those taught to judge and value literature through the subjective application of identity politics? How can the idea of canon seem anything but trivial and arbitrary to those who were never taught that it made claims upon them?  As O’Brien puts it:

The word “relevance” looms – that contemporary fetish, so often brandished to mitigate ignorance and justify a failure of curiosity.

Of course, the question of relevance is bound to plague any student of literature in a world governed by science and commerce.  Some dozen years ago I emerged from one of those liberal arts backwaters respectably schooled in the canon, but with enough critical theory to feel vaguely guilty about it.  The question of the relevance, or applicability, of my studies was raised in particularly acute fashion one semester when I was enrolled in a course on Arthurian Literature.  We read Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, Le Morte d’Arthur (of course), some Tennyson, and, as a sort of foil and for comic-relief, Don Quixote.  (Really, the professor should have assigned T.H. White’s Once and Future King, but that’s another story.)  One day in the middle of his lecture, our professor suffered an apparent breakdown and almost with tears in his eyes put it bluntly to us: “Why in hell are we reading these things?  Are these books really proper objects of study?  What’s the point?  And if we can’t justify studying something like Arthurian Literature, how do we justify the study of literature at all?”  We spent the rest of the period in frank soul-searching, but our answers were unpersuasive; none matched the force of the questions themselves.

Eventually, after college, I came round to an answer that satisfied me, and which, I think, gets to the same idea behind O’Brien’s call for a return to the canon: We study literature and and honor the canon because it makes us participants in a grand inheritance, possessors of a tradition that is singular and precious.  Our great authors of the past (as our artists, composers, philosophers, etc.) worked within a sort of theater constructed by a thousand hands, built up of the words and thoughts of those who had gone before them, and indeed of the entire historical, philosophical, artistic and cultural patrimony of the West.  The function of canon, and the proper function of the study of literature, is to place us within that theater, to give us a proper view of the action and make us capable of appreciating the acoustic resonances of the space.

Critical theory masquerading as enlightened political science would remove us from that theater in order to give us a vision of freedom that is theoretically unlimited but inhuman and sterile.  There is no real freedom in a vacuum.  All human truth is necessarily messy.  The great authors of our language are honored in the canon because they tell us who we are, in our strength and weakness, beauty and blemish, accomplishment and contradiction.  The canon provides a tradition of identity and so gives us a place of human freedom, a home, a natural space within which to live and breathe and flourish.  As the Scottish poet Edwin Muir once wrote: “it is tradition that nurtures enchantment.”

1 Comment

Filed under Literature

Dubious Cartography

As a kid, I spent an unhealthy number of hours in the company of the National Geographic World Atlas. And when maps of the real world, for whatever reason, failed to inspire, I charted out imaginary worlds in pencil on sheet after sheet of paper, taping them together like tiles in a mosaic that often grew to cover my entire bedroom floor. Each of my dreamed-up worlds came with a private narrative. Sometimes these found their way into written form. More often I was satisfied with the story as I’d drawn it.

A map is an abstract model of the world, a representation of reality. Even the most precise and appealing map is therefore essentially false: it can never actually be what it represents. At most it achieves an approximate truth, inasmuch as it accurately describes the relationships it depicts according to its own particular rules. But every map, regardless of accuracy, is an attempt to say something about reality; which is another way of saying that every map is a story – told in a particular way.

We might just as well say that every story is a map – drawn, if you will, in a particular way. Stories -like maps- are concerned with real objects (physical or intellectual), their characteristics, behaviors, the distances or obstacles that separate them from other objects, and what happens when two or more of these objects collide. The stories we tell, to ourselves and others, and whether couched in terms of personal experience, philosophy or tradition, are all maps of one sort or another, all designed to say something about reality, to render it intelligible through abstraction.

The need for maps is sometimes felt as a weakness.  If it’s true that only hesitant, uncertain creatures need maps, then human beings are a sorry bunch. Unable to feel quite well until we have the What, Whence and Wherefore of All Things, we are in agonies to learn how X results in Y; why four and four is never nine; why love should be so difficult, why happiness so rare; what it is, or Who, that holds all things in being – and what it is, and why, to die. So, we draw our maps and tell our stories until we feel better. We flatten life into abstraction in order to resolve its three-dimensional complications.

But though we are practiced cartographers, we’re purblind. Habit is no substitute for skill, and the fact is that our maps are not often very good. They tend to be sloppy, inaccurate, in constant need of revision. Which, frankly, is precisely why we took up the trade in the first place: we make maps because we don’t see things well, but want to see them better. We tend to forget this. We forget our dim-sightedness and flatter ourselves with the notion that, despite the flaws apparent in others’ maps, ours make for perfectly reliable descriptions of the world. When someone else’s map differs from our own, we take it as an opportunity for judgment. We’re so used to the cataracts that obscure our own field of vision, we imagine they’re simply part of the landscape.

On the other hand, accuracy in maps is overrated. Perfect fidelity imposes its own problems.  Even the most perceptive and skilled cartographer will run up against that variation of Bonini’s Paradox according to which the more perfectly a map represents the complex systems it is intended to explain, the less intelligible it becomes. (Paul Valery had the same basic idea when he wrote that “Everything simple is false. Everything complex is unusable.”) Absolute accuracy in a map is undesirable; or, if desired, its achievement would be self-defeating. To borrow an image from Borges, one could paper over the entire world in a 1/1-scale atlas, but what would be the point? It’s the same whether we’re talking about maps in terms of visual charts or in terms of stories: If we saw well enough to make truly accurate, truly representative maps of reality, we wouldn’t need maps in the first place.

But we do need maps, sometimes desperately. And we are going to keep making them, consciously or unconsciously. The difficulty is finding courage enough to admit when our maps fail. Only the most intrepid cartographer sets aside the parchment and abandons himself to terra incognita; only the most diligent finds solace in the idea that disillusionment is no mortal danger but merely a difficult sort of grace.

Leave a comment

Filed under Misc.