Monthly Archives: December 2008

Marginalia, no.39

Any writer who finds the height of human absurdity outside himself must find the well-spring of human dignity inside, and so lose the world.

~ Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

James’s phrasing calls to mind the Christian injunction to gladly lose the world in order to gain one’s soul, but turns it inside out:  Make room for the world and you may find that you live there too.

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‘I have been dreaming’

Flying, by Gwen Raverat

When I reflect that I have made my appearance by accident upon a globe itself whirled through space as the sport of the catastrophes of the heavens, when I see myself surrounded by beings as ephemeral and incomprehensible as I am myself, and all excitedly pursuing pure chimeras, I experience a strange feeling of being in a dream.  It seems to me that I have loved and suffered and that erelong I shall die in a dream.  My last words will be, “I have been dreaming.”

~ Louise Ackerman, Pensées d’un Solitaire

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Marginalia, no.38

There is in Nothing something so majestic and so high that it is a fascination and spell to regard it.  Is it not that which Mankind, after the great effort of life, at last attains, and that which alone can satisfy Man’s desire?

~ Hillaire Belloc, On Nothing and Kindred Subjects

I recently heard an astrophysicist from the University of Chicago quoted on the subject of dark energy, gravity’s evil twin, which is supposed to fill the observed gaps between galaxies and drive the accelerating expansion of the cosmos.   “Fifty years ago Nothing was considered very boring,” he said.  “Today Nothing is the focus of much forefront research in physics and astrophysics.”  I could only think of Belloc’s essay and smile at the idea of human insatiability and ambition blowing up the universe like a balloon, to the grand befuddlement of science.

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Showing a Little Plumage

James Wood is still raising hackles.  Back in 2000, before he ascended the throne at The New Yorker, Wood published The Broken Estate, a tour by essay of various nineteenth and twentieth century literary greats.  In a piece on Virginia Woolf, Wood speaks fondly of her critical work, which he calls  “a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor.”  A “writer-critic” like Woolf, he says,

has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses.  That competition is registered verbally.  The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.

Reading this, one has the strong sense that Wood is talking as much about himself as about Woolf.  Wood published a novel in 2004, and whether or not one agrees with his methods or judgments, Wood’s prose is full of glittering precision and dreamy metaphorical effects that often top the novelists he’s examining.  Wood is forever showing plumage.  A few examples: 

Of Melville: “No other nineteenth-century novelist writing in English lived in the city of words that that Melville lived in; they were suburbanites by comparison.”

Of Chekhov: “He found the world to be as deeply evasive as he himself was – life as a tree of separate hanging stories, of dangling privacies.”

Of George Steiner: “[His] prose is a remarkable substance; it is the sweat of a monument.”

His metaphors do sometimes fail.  Take this, for example, from Wood’s summary of Anthony Julius’s screed against Eliot: “The idea seems to be that the three demons are separate but pull together, like hardworking chefs, to prepare the feast of prejudice.”

No one hits the bull’s eye every time.

It’s a tired old saying that ‘those who can’t, teach,’ and something similar is said of critics: that they make their way by praising or deploring the works of others because they themselves are unable to create anything original.  Like Flaubert’s Pellerin who “held the old masters in such veneration that it almost raised him to their status,” the critic schemes to win status by counterfeit means: If he can’t join the club by the front door, he climbs the trellis to break a window.  The assumption here is that it’s easier to be a critic.  Everyone is, so they say.  But being critical is not at all the same thing as being a critic.  I congratulate myself that Montaigne agrees:

Here is a wonder: we have many more poets than judges and interpreters of poetry.  It is easier to create it than to understand it.  On a certain low level it can be judged by precepts and by art.  But the good, supreme, divine poetry is above rules and reason… It does not persuade our judgment, it ravishes and overwhelms it. (Essays I, 37)

I wonder if we aren’t after all better served by “writer-critics” like Wood who possess some sort of artistic capacity, who because they share in the writer’s perspective are perhaps less confounded by the ravishment of words.  Or does that make them more susceptible?  But Wood at least is a pleasure to read, which is more than can be said for certain of his fellows.  (Sam Anderson considers reading Wood “practically a form of intellectual erotica.”)  I’ve personally benefited by Wood’s discussion -in the middling How Fiction Works– of the novel’s free indirect style, by which “we inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”  I’ve also gleaned a few satori moments meditating on Wood’s philosophy of metaphor (“the whole of the imaginative fictional process in one move”) and its function within narrative:

Narrative sequence, at bottom, is nothing other than the materiality of words, which forces us to place one word after the next, rather than on top of each other…  Metaphor is the way to explode sequence.

Despite the occasional “feast of prejudice” flop, this kind of stuff is, I think, reason enough to hope that Wood keeps peacocking around for some time to come.

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Marginalia, no.37

While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish heap of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age… A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community.  He lives in the days that are past.  His ideas, thoughts, feelings associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs and exploded superstitions.  The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.  The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole, to throw up the barren hillocks of his Cimmerian labours.

~ Thomas Love Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry (1820)

By 1820 Peacock himself had published no fewer than nine volumes of poetry.  The good-humored butchering of one’s own sacred cows can be a source of rich and unexpected nourishment. I wonder if this capacity for self-satire belongs to nature or to the critical influences of civilization.  It’s surely one of the signs of a civilized people.  You don’t imagine the Vandals and Huns went in for this kind of thing.

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George and Michel

Thanks to a biting lack of free time, I’ve been unable to dig in for another novel at present.  Instead, I’ve been reading (and re-reading) essays – specifically of Orwell and Montaigne.  They make an odd pair, I suppose.  Orwell: the socialist, futurist, atheist, critic, journalist, idealist.  Montaigne: the humanist, classicist, skeptic, Catholic, epicurean, and realist.  Some thoughts:

Orwell in his essay My Country Right or Left says that “patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism.”  Certain incidents and catch-phrases from the recent American election leap immediately to mind.  Of course, both conservative and liberal philosophies operate in each party, and I’m not out to make a political statement.  But in my experience conservative appeals to patriotism do tend toward the dogged insistence that something which never really was still is and can only be ours tomorrow if we do our duty with regard to x and y.  A truer sort of patriotism, per Orwell, is the “devotion to something which is changing but is felt to be mystically the same.”  There’s a difference. 

It’s curious how Orwell’s sentiments skirt the borders of religious expression -and I mean more than his choice of words.  It’s precisely this loyalty to something changing and yet “mystically” identical through time that allows the long-suffering Roman Catholic to cling to an institution which often enough intends him harm, or at least manages to inflict it.  Montaigne, for one, expresses a fidelity to traditional forms of religion which sometimes seems at odds with his thoroughgoing skepticism.  In at least this respect he is a deeply conservative soul.  Of course he lived during the wars of religion that followed hard on the Reformation, and the carnage and brutality of it was all around him.  Rather than zeal or personal devotion, one suspects it was a longing for peace and stability that motivated him to keep with the old faith, along with a firm conviction that human folly was no respecter of persons or parties, which is always a safe bet.


In a radio broadcast for The Listener from June of 1941, Orwell reads and discusses Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Felix Randall.  He wraps it up with the following observation:

I have tried to analyse this poem as well as I can in a short period, but nothing I have said can explain, or explain away, the pleasure I take in it.  That is finally inexplicable, and it is just because it is inexplicable that detailed criticism is worthwhile.  Men of science can study the life-process of a flower, or they can split it up into its component elements, but any scientist will tell you that a flower does not become less wonderful, it becomes more wonderful, if you know all about it.

I once read a Nabokov interview in which the novelist claimed that objects become “more real” to us the more we know about them.  The lily, he said, is less real to an ordinary person than to a naturalist, and less real to a naturalist than to a botanist.  I thought this was bunk, and swapped Nabokov’s lily for a butterfly (Nabokov sidelined as a lepidopterist) and offered up the counter-example of my daughter.  Don’t tell me, I said, that her infant joy doesn’t grasp in the butterfly something too elusive for scientific observation – the simple, raw miraculous fact of the thing.

What I find remarkable in Orwell’s quote above is how he manages to offer the same basic observation as Nabokov while rendering it inoffensive and, to me at least, intuitively true.  (Perhaps it’s the substitution of gradations in wonder for gradations in real-ness?)  It is precisely the pleasure we take in life and in the objects of existence that motivate all living and all knowledge.  In Essais I, 20 (That to Philosophize is to Learn the Die), Montaigne says that

Whatever role man undertakes to play, he always plays his own at the same time.  Whatever they say, in virtue itself the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness.

That is, we always desire pleasure and happiness, and it is perfectly natural that we should.  Even the ascetic in a desert cell is after some form of pleasure, however subtle or transcendent, though he may prefer to call it by a different name.  But all science, all philosophy -all our thirsting after knowledge- is an epicurean pursuit.  We work our minds into the deeper how and why of things only in order to derive a deeper pleasure from them, and hence from living.


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