Summer of ‘82: Pietro, Sandro, Lynne,
Sink, Esser, Brenda, me. The phone in the bathtub, Brenda smashing
her hand through glass; the punk band at the garage, and we
drinking vodka out of her purse. At night, after dinner, we
put on Lou Reed and my father sang along with us. My mother
didn’t like Brenda. We sang, “Just want to play
football for the coach.” And then The Motels, “And
I would sell my soul . . .,” Astral Weeks.
During the day, I landscaped, Brenda waited tables. Oh, how
we fit together! The following December, she turned her back
to me in bed, and that was that. We’ve been friends ever
Robert Browning’s syntax is elliptical,
parenthetical, additive, interruptive—four adjectives
for the same complex effect—like a stream coiling back
on itself. The voice that runs the syntax is full, passionate,
balanced, complete, anxious. It’s also God-like, impersonal—as
if earth could talk, or heaven tell. It orders, is imperative;
it sings, is lyrical. The voice is martial, in short, like a
general’s before battle. The poetry Browning writes is
companion of the camps, the barracks. He argues, is logical,
philosophical, rhetorical (that is, playful). But let an American
soldier in Iraq pick up Browning and read him today: only one
in ten could, and ten in ten probably wouldn’t. Is there
any Browning in Iraq? Any Frost in all that heat? What help
for the soldier who picks up a book of poems? A poem always
has an implied audience, a pretend audience—the reader
holding the book. So there’s a conversation between the
voice of the poem and the ear of the reader. There’s also
a conversation between the poet, the voice of the poem, and
the reader: three voices, three listeners, not one. And the
truth of the poem, if one will pardon the expression, grows
up inside of those three voices, three ears: yours, the poet’s,
and the poet’s character. And comes out of them.
“You play with fire, you gonna get burned.”
All of reggae is in that line.
Diana Dodge, Linda Preshaw, Joni Mitchell, Faye
Dunaway: two from home, two from, what, the ether? Longing spreads
itself out equally among them nevertheless.
Some scholars in the Elizabethan period (roughly
1564 to 1604) believed that reading bettered experience by a
ratio of 1 to 20. That is, one year of reading was worth twenty
years of experience. Popular belief today would say the reverse.
For C.S. Lewis, Edward Bolton’s line,
“The dalliance of the undiscerned winde” was “the
most beautiful of Golden [Elizabethan] phrases.”
Oh, to be poor and bare and beggarly! But not
where life is expensive, and not where life is cheap. Nowhere,
then, to be poor and bare and beggarly, which most of the people
in the world are.
Humanism’s form is teaching (Pico, Bacon),
its method rhetorical (William James), and its philosophy
skeptical (Ecclesiastes, Cicero, Gellius). No wonder it’s
having such a hard time. Critics like Frank Kermode and others
can speak of “imaginative coherence,” “limbs”
of a plot, a play’s having a “center,” and
Shakespeare’s “imaginative unity,” but these
are fictions; they have no a-temporal or everlasting thing-ness.
About 5,000 people in any given decade since 1600 know without
elaboration what these terms mean or refer to, and yet they’re
the only ones arguing about the terms. The rest may indeed
feel the things meant, if they see or read a Shakespeare
play, but they won’t discuss them or make cases about
their existence. As Theseus says in A Midsummer
“The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst
are no worse, if imagination mend them.” That can be
said for the best and the worst in any kind of anything.
There’s a great future behind us, and
it isn’t what it used to be.
“He thought he kept the universe alone”:
this line of Frost’s isn’t only a man’s mood.
Associationism may be old hat in psychology
and philosophy, but it’s the way of most people in the
world: that similar ideas and ideas that occur simultaneously
or in rapid succession tend to evoke one another. Hollywood
depends on this; basic daily conversation does too, as when
you know what your friend is going to say, or what the commercial’s
going to say, or how the story will end, before it does. Further,
those things we used to associate with on-ness or about-ness
are now part of the in-ness or are-ness of things. So, for example:
Sophocles wrote plays; Aristotle wrote about those plays—plot,
design, character, discovery, etc. The things are now the essence
of dramatic stories rather than of dramatic criticism. People
plot, have designs on things and people, make up stuff about
themselves and others, discover things and use them, etc.
Lawrence Sterne to David Garrick: “I laugh
till I cry, and in the same tender moment cry till I laugh .
. . Everything in this world, said my father, is big with jest—and
has wit in it, and instruction too—if we can but find
I’ve heard that someone has died and wanted
to be the first to tell someone else the news. I’ve wanted
to witness catastrophe. I’ve wanted to save someone’s
life in an extraordinary moment. Why wish to witness tragedy?
Some have said, it’s nice to be above the trouble, looking
down on it; we want to be moved, to have life; we want to be
released from self-love to altruism, from self-consciousness
to pity. Some have said we enjoy seeing tragedy because we enjoy
feeling intensity. I like how Edward Young put it: “We
love to be at once, miserable, and unhurt.” Hobbes said
that in tragedy we have the “novelty and remembrance of
our own security present”; by which I think he means,
the tragedy we see makes our own safety from the tragedy and
its consequences more alive to us, more present and available
to us. Tragedy offers “nothing of the kind when it presses
too close upon our senses,” as Addison wrote. Or Mel Brooks:
“Tragedy is when I have a hangnail. Comedy is when you
fall in a manhole and die.” There’s no pleasure
in tragedy unless we’re conscious of its being a fiction—which
is why it’s annoying to hear people say they won’t
see a movie or read a book because “it’s depressing.”
Our little sleep is rounded with a life.
A Frenchman of the late 19th century said that
criticism is the “erecting into laws of one’s personal
impressions.” T.S. Eliot was very successful in doing
this, as was William James, as was Robert Frost. Why fear criticism?
Why berate reviewers of movies and books for getting it wrong
(or getting it right)? Most of us are successful at legislating
our personal impressions, but not often, and without much effect.
We’re all unfortunate travelers in realms
Simone Weil said, “We know by means of
our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend
is more real that what it does comprehend.” Not so fast!
What is meant here by “comprehend,” by “intelligence”?
Weil is here being a mystic, erecting into laws her personal
impressions—and reiterating what mystics and part-time
mystics before her said and wrote, Pascal chief among them,
with his “the heart has its reasons.” There’s
a difference between not being able to comprehend and not being
able to give an account. Radio waves exist, apparently, though
most people can’t comprehend them or give an account of
them. But can the same be said of God? Is God more comprehensible
than radio waves and more accounted for? Like philosophy, theology
is “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on
William James observed that the records of mystics
are “absolutely sensational” in their epistemological
quality. They’re face-to-face representations of what
seems to the senses to exist immediately. Hence the paradox
that mystics in their accounts of their experience frequently
speak of hands, of touch—and carefully emphasize the non-corporal
nature of their experience, of God’s existence.
Clare Booth Luce was, to all appearances, a
success. “I don’t really understand the word ‘success,’”
she said in an interview for the book, When Smart
People Fail. “I know people who use it
about me, but I don’t understand it.” Had she
written an autobiography, she said she would have called
Autobiography of a Failure. She considered herself
a failure because she turned away from writing, where her
vocation lay, and thus misused or left unused the “talents
and opportunities” she was given. She died in 1987.
George Chapman, in his “Defense of Homer:
To the Understander”: “For the darknes there is
nothing good or bad, hard or softe, darke or perspicuous but
in respect, and in respect of mens light, sleight, or envious
perusalles.” The idea here is that nothing is obscure,
dark, un-understandable; or, rather, that everything is clear,
if you read it hard, deep, and lovingly. Short of that ideal,
Chapman acknowledges that the meaning of any text is informed
or shaped by the reader of it.
In Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet,
the low characters utter the low thoughts; the servants only
say that “thought is free,” that it doesn’t
matter what you do, in a world where power, influence, and money
rule. Emilia in Othello, for example:
“Who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him
a monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t.” Or,
again: “Why, the wrong is but a wrong in the world; and
having the world for your labor, ‘tis a wrong in your
own world, and you might quickly make it right” (4.3.74–76,
79–81). That sounds just like us today—like high-school
kids on cheating, CFOs and COOs and CEOs on cooking the books.
Iago doesn’t argue that nothing makes a difference: he
knows that everything makes a difference. But Emilia bravely
opens up the game, as do Caliban, Stefano, Barnardine, and other
servants and low-lifes in Shakespeare.
Matthew Arnold wrote to Arthur Hugh Clough in
1852 of “ . . . the modern situation in its true blankness
and barrenness, and unpoetrylessness.” That last word
is interesting: what’s the difference between “unpoetrylessness”