Monday, May 27, 2013

Secret chords, cracked faces, and beauty

I've been a little obsessed lately with HistoryRobert Lowell's 1973 180-page sequence of blank-verse sonnets, which vaults across the length of the history of Western civilization (in a pretty traditional, almost stodgy, sense of the term). Among other themes, Lowell writes a number of ecphrastic poems about famous artists and works of art, including this poem, "Rembrandt":
His faces crack . . . if mine could crack and breathe!
His Jewish Bridegroom, hand spread on the Jewish Bride's
bashful, tapestried, level bosom, is faithful;
the fair girl, poor background, gives soul to his flayed steer.
Her breasts, the snowdrops, have lasted out the storm.
Often the Dutch were sacks, their women sacks,
the obstinate, undefeated hull of an old scow;
but Bathsheba's ample stomach, her heavy, practical feet,
are reverently dried by the faithful servant,
his eyes dwell lovingly on each fulfilled sag;
her unfortunate body is the privilege of service,
is radiant with an homage void of possession. . . .
We see, if we see at all, through a copper mist
the strange new idol for the marketplace. 
Lowell refers to three, possibly four paintings in the poem. The first is The Jewish Bride:

Rembrandt: The Jewish Bride, ca.1667. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 121.5 cm × 166.5 cm. Hi-res here at Wikipedia.

What strikes me about this is Lowell's subtle insertion of motive around the edges of description. There's no reason internal to the canvas to think that the bridegroom is especially faithful, or that the bride is bashful. We could just as easily call them duplicitous and unembarrassed. But once you've read the poem, Lowell's projections are hard to shake. Why is the bride looking away? What do the gestures—that knot of hands crossed in the middle of the painting—connote? I think Lowell is reading bashfulness into the bride's hand loosely draped over the groom's as if in modesty. He's concerned only with her (faithful); she's worried someone might be watching.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

New word list: catkin

           My arms
fit you like a sleeve, they hold
catkins of your willows, the wild bee farms
of your nerves, each muscle and fold
of your first days.
—Anne Sexton, "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward" (1960)
Salix cinerea female catkin. (From Wikipedia.)
catkin, n.

Etymology: Taken by Lyte from Dutch katteken ‘kitten’ and ‘catkin’ of hazel, willow, etc. (in Dodoens), diminutive of katte cat. The 16th cent. Latin catulus, French chaton ( < chat ), and German kätzchen, have the same two senses; the catkin being named from its soft downy appearance: compare CATLING n. 4.

A unisexual inflorescence, consisting of rows of apetalous flowers ranged in circles along a slender stalk; the whole forming a cylindrical, downy-looking, and generally pendant part, which falls off in a single piece after flowering or ripening; as in the willow, birch, poplar, pine, hazel, etc.; a deciduous spike; an amentum. (Called by Turner 1568 tagge, and by various 16–17th c. writers aglet.)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Commonplace book: On knowledge

Gustave Doré: The expulsion from Eden

I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
just as light is better than darkness.
The wise man has eyes in his head,
while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize
that the same fate overtakes them both.
—Ecclesiastes 2:13-14

Enough is left besides to search and know.
But knowledge is as food and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with surfeit and soon turns
Wisdom to folly as nourishment to wind.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost 7:126-30  (Uriel to Adam)

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in Poetry and Rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry. That was very far away.
—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

Folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not going to change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn, there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.
—Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird 

There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless. A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter—if not a paragraph or proper noun—in the history of philosophy. In literature, that "falling by the wayside," that loss of "relevance," is even better known. The Quixote, Menard remarked, was first and foremost a pleasant book; it is now an occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form—perhaps the worst form—of incomprehension.
—Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bloomsbury sexualities

A wonderful drawing, for which I can't take credit, from
The historian Niall Ferguson recently made some remarks about the sexuality of the early 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes at a Q&A session—remarks that caused a good deal of outrage, indignation, and defensiveness among the chattering classes. Tom Kostigen of Financial Advisor (who, as far as I can tell, first reported Ferguson's comments) wrote on May 3rd:
Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes' famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of "poetry" rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive. 
Ferguson apologized later on his website and in the Harvard Crimson. Without saying a word for or against him, or about whether his apology was actually "enough" of an apology—all of which is pretty much chasing after the topical wind—I think it's worth pointing out something about Keynes's sexuality and that of the Bloomsbury group at large.

Monday, May 13, 2013

It was forty-eight years ago today...

In 1965 at exactly this week, the Herman's Hermits novelty song "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" entered its third straight week in the Billboard #1 spot. This was May 1965, at the very height of the British Invasion, and the song plays up the Beatlesque Liverpool accent to near-ridiculous extremes. Peter Noone, the group's singer, later expressed some embarrassment about the whole thing.

Urban Dictionary offers this delightful overview of Mr. Noone's career:
At the age of fifteen, Peter Noone achieved international fame as "Herman", lead singer of the legendary Sixties pop band Herman's Hermits. His classic hits included: "I'm Into Something Good" "Mrs. Brown, you've Got A Lovely Daughter", "I'm Henry VIII, I Am", "Silhouettes", "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat", "Just A Little Bit Better", "Wonderful World", "There's A Kind of Hush", "A Must To Avoid", "Listen People", "The End of the World" and "Dandy". Ultimately, Herman's Hermits sold over sixty million recordings. In all, fourteen singles and seven albums went gold. The Hermits were twice named Cashbox's "Entertainer of the Year". 
A cursory inspection reveals that Peter is a friend to all. However, Peter's friendliness seems to have backfired, and thus during flame wars, [people] can often be found yelling at each other that "Noone likes you!" or "Noone asked for your opinion". From "Noone wants to listen to your &#$@" to "Noone believes you for a minute", Peter somehow manages to become involved in every argument. The fact that Peter likes emo kids is the cause for a great deal of Internet angst; in fact, two out of every three cutter icons contain text to the effect of "Noone likes me". Why Peter's friendship, trust, or willingness to listen is viewed as a negative is not known.

"Scotland has so few trees"

The Trossachs, Scotland
The title story of Lydia Davis's 2002 short story collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant is, in full:

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:
that Scotland has so few trees.

What I love about this story—pruned back in the way that a certain kind of experimental short fiction writer prunes—is not that it plays with style or our sense of what a short story is or its brevity (already such tricks don't really shock anymore). I like the way it plays with genre.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Delays :(

Sorry to be so absent this week—lots of essay-writing and generally busy-ness. We'll be back very soon!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The American Constitution and the death of the Roman Republic

The influence of ancient democracy on the framers of the American Constitution is an old topic that receives much lip service. We all learn about it in school, even if we're fuzzy on the details. In the past, I've usually imagined this as a vague absorption of classical political theory: a sense of what Athenian democracy looked like, how the Roman Senate worked, what Plato and Cicero thought about republics—all of which was pieced together with that newfangled liberal theory stuff into a blueprint for a democracy.

It's entirely possible that I'm just an idiot and missed an obvious point during my education. But while reading about the end of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of the Empire this term, it's become clear to me that my notion of how the authors of the Constitution were influenced by classical democracy was completely off-kilter. I was focusing on all the subtle, geistlich, hand-wavy stuff. That misses the point.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

White & Son

Joel White's "Nutshell Pram" (from
Many of us read E. B. White's 1941 essay "Once More to the Lake" at one point in our lives, probably in an expository or creative writing course of some kind. It's one of the most widely anthologized essays, and much ink has been spilled by writing students straining to identify structural or rhetorical devices in White's prose: Googling the essay, as I just did, brings up hundreds of basic "compare and contrast" essays, or sample papers (which one suspects are more than just "samples"), or summaries. It's only around 2,500 words long, and written in the kind of prose that you can imagine in wartime Harper's: nostalgic, warm, somehow markedly American.