Monthly Archives: May 2008

Marginalia, no.10

It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance.  To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look!  I am alive.

~ John Williams, Stoner

Can love of persons and love of art really be construed as expressions of the same basic force?  Is philanthropy (in the literal Greek sense) a subset of aesthetics – or vice versa?  Elsewhere Williams writes that love is “not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”  In Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, George Steiner writes that “literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love.”  Can we speak of a basic ecstatic impulse, to know and be known, encompassing all these things?

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Ink and Bones: Thoreau

There is an old Everyman Library edition of Thoreau that has long held a lease on my bookshelf. I bought the book when I was seventeen. I’ve hardly cracked it open in the intervening years, but thumbing through Walden recently I was surprised to see how many different passages I’d underlined.

Frankly, I’m unsure whether all this underlining is proof of adolescent precocity or pretension. At seventeen I probably imagined that marking up books was evidence of my own cleverness, or that it would help me retain and absorb into my own perspective any bits of wisdom a book had to offer. But it turns out that one’s skill with a highlighter and one’s intellectual penetration are entirely unrelated, and we hardly ever get to choose for ourselves what guides and influences our philosophic vision of life. (If I could write that down on a slip of paper and send it back in time for my seventeen-year-old self to discover tucked between the pages of Walden, I might have saved myself an awful lot of trouble.)

Still, it’s a curious exercise to skim through old books like this and see what one considered potent or arresting so many years ago. Clearly, what is memorable for a seventeen-year-old boy isn’t always memorable for a man in his thirties. As I glanced through the pages, I was mildly surprised to realize I had no memory whatsoever of any of the passages I’d once marked in that thick blue ink. I felt like I was reading the book again for the first time: all the sharp judgments Thoreau metes out on his fellow citizens, all that heady introspection, all those dreamy flourishes. One especially dreamy passage still stands out:

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but breathed from all human lips; -not to be represented on canvas or marble only, but to be carved out of the breath of life itself.

“Choicest of relics” – The religious resonance of the term calls to mind lines of worshipers huddled outside stone cathedrals waiting to kiss the bones of saints and beg their aid. For the believer, relics communicate power, an irreducible personhood, and a special relationship to the divine. But whereas a saint’s famous book might be considered a relic in autograph, that status does not extend to the printed and disseminated word. Reprints and translations don’t count.

They count for Thoreau. No doubt it’s a function of his crypto-Protestantism, his iconoclasm, his essential American-ness. Thoreau finds in the written word a relic democratic and universal, capable, like a splinter of the True Cross, of infinite multiplication – and yet conformable to every heart, the simultaneous and legitimate possession of a million persons uniquely.

Thoreau’s own book, then, becomes a little reliquary; the words inside are his bones, persisting long after the rest of him has rotted away. Is it worth the little acts of veneration my ink marks represent? As a good Transcendentalist, Thoreau probably wouldn’t claim any special status for his own relics; by his own rules every word must have an equal relationship to the divine.

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Marginalia, no.9

A great principle of charity in morals is not to blame the fishes for their bad taste in liking to live underwater. 

~ George Santayana, Soliloquies in England

And yet, in all seriousness, one can’t help but ask: Scales, fins, or gills – what makes a fish?  And what of the newt, or the pelican devoutly convinced he’s a trout?

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Marginalia, no.8

Believing one has no choice is not the same thing as believing one is doing the right thing.

~ David Rieff

Rieff recently wrote a memoir on the death of his mother, Susan Sontag.  At some emotional cost to himself, he felt he had to humor her belief that she wasn’t actually dying.  But the quote also struck me as a nice epigrammatic summary of a lesson forced on me as a boy just learning to playing chess.

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A Terrible Genius

William Topaz McGonagall was a famously bad poet.  So famously bad, in fact, that he still has devoted admirers more than a hundred years after his death. 

According to the BBC, a private collector just shelled out £6,600 for a set of McGonagall’s signed poems – more than was recently raised for signed first-edition copies of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter heptalogy.  Coincidentally, Rowling, another Scot, named the character of Professor McGonagall to honor the poet.  The 1970s American television series, The Muppet Show, also included a character reminiscent of the “Tayside Tragedian.”  Performances of Angus McGonagle, the “Argyle Gargoyle” who “gargled Gershwin,” were about as well received as William McGonagall’s public recitals, which often closed in a hail of rotting vegetables.

Born in 1825, William was a handloom weaver from Dundee who only took up poetry at about age fifty.  He self-published a volume of his work humbly titled Poetic Gems. His most famous poem is ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ which recounts a deadly bridge collapse and opens with these memorable lines:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Equally disastrous, in my opinion, is McGonagall’s poem commemorating the premature demise of Queen Victoria’s fourth son, ‘The Death of Prince Leopold,’ which includes the following stanzas:

ALAS! noble Prince Leopold, he is dead!
Who often has his lustre shed:
Especially by singing for the benefit of Esher School,
Which proves he was a wise prince, and no conceited fool.

Methinks I see him on the platform singing the Sands o’ Dee,
The generous-hearted Leopold, the good and the free,
Who was manly in his actions, and beloved by his mother;
And in all the family she hasn’t got such another.

Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience’s hearts with glee,
With your charming songs, and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think.

Now this Prince Leopold, curiously enough, was once rumored to be infatuated with Alice “in Wonderland” Liddell, and was godfather to her first child.  His own daughter he named Alice.  And though Leopold spent his spare time “lecturing against strong drink,” he died of a mortal combination of claret and morphine in a yacht off the Mediterranean coast of France.

In 1892, after hearing of Lord Tennyson’s death, William McGonagall made a trek across Scotland on foot from Dundee to Balmoral to apply in person for the position of Poet Laureate.  Unfortunately, Queen Victoria was not in residence that day.  Ten years later, the man who Stephen Pile, in The Book of Heroic Failures, described as “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius” died and was buried at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh.

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Marginalia, no.7

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers

I like to think that I have a deep but sadly unexploited faculty for idleness (which, by the way, is something quite different than a tendency toward boredom). In fact, I could do with a lot more idleness in my life, but sometimes we choose busyness and sometimes busyness chooses us.

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Steinbeck and the Snobs

Recently I’ve caught a number of critics wondering aloud why John Steinbeck’s books continue to be so popular with the general reading public.  He hardly deserves it, they say.  Surely his cachet with the hoi polloi only confirms the prevailing philistinism of taste?

Jonathan Yardley thinks maybe we’re too hard on Steinbeck.  But Yardley isn’t easy on him either.  In the May 8 installment of his Second Reading series, Yardley writes that reading Steinbeck’s prose is “like scraping one’s fingers on a blackboard,” his stories are chock full of “sentimentalism…if not outright tripe,” and his 1962 Nobel Prize is little more than a “reminder that literary distinction matters less to the Swedish Academy than political orthodoxy.”

Rather than his prose, it’s Steinbeck’s frank portraits of farm and blue-collar workers and his blend of classic American values with liberal social conscience that earn him an enduring place on high school required-reading lists.  Steinbeck’s essential appeal lies in his moral authenticity, his “transparent sincerity,” as Yardley puts it.  And perhaps he’s right. 

But then he goes on to float a curious hypothesis:

It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter.

After reading that paragraph a couple times it begins to sound patronizing.  You gotta hand it to those “popular marketplace” readers.  Up with aesthetic democracy!  -But what happens when apparent sincerity is revealed as artifice?  Oprah’s disciples have some painful memories on that count.  And how does Yardley’s theory stand up in other categories like the fine arts (Thomas Kinkade, anyone?), or movies (Titanic?), or even in politics?  Where does “genuine feeling” end and pandering begin? 

This is where Yardley’s pet theory bites him in the heel.  Like plenty of us, Yardley grew out of Steinbeck somewhere around age twenty.  But these days Yardley apparently prefers authors motivated by something other than genuine feeling who hobble around on crutches of art and artifice.

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