Life in the wilderness, Part 3: Getting past words
A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers:
“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”
This is about two very unpleasant men and a third about whom I know little except his work and talent. I learned from all three.
The first is Ezra Pound, a vile anti-semite and spouter of crackpot economic and political — to say nothing of conspiracy — theories. He also wrote some profoundly beautiful verse. When I was in college, I pored over his Personae, the collection of his shorter poems. But that is not why he makes this list. I read a lot of wonderful poetry by lots of excellent poets.
The one thing you have to say about Pound is that he knows a lot of stuff. And as he got older, more and more of that stuff became the upholstery of his writing — cushion stuffing, basically. Pound couldn’t help writing about what he knew — or rather what he had read about. It is very literary knowledge and you wonder if he ever looked around him to see the street traffic or the overcoats his fellow pedestrians were wearing against the winter. Instead, his head is stuck in the world of Procne and Philomela, that of Greek classical culture, Renaissance finance, the historical concepts of founding fathers and Provencal verse forms.
I mention Procne and Philomela for a reason. In his early poetry, any reference to nature comes in the form of a literary reference. Hence nightingales and doves. In the myth, Procne was turned into a swallow and her sister into a nightingale. In Pound, owls are Athena and eagles are imperial. One gets used to this as one gets used to the scenic flats in a stage set.
But then, after the war, when Pound, who had been making rather silly anti-American radio broadcasts for il Duce, was arrested and imprisoned as a traitor in a POW camp in Pisa, his poetry begins to crack, much like he cracked mentally. The Pisan Cantos, for which he won the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1948, has its share of remembered, misremembered and half-remembered arcana, but throughout the many sections of the book, moments pop through where you are suddenly out of the dusty library of his brain and in a cage in Pisa, noticing actual weather and actual birds.
“4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one”
And you see them, black notes on a musical staff. The world begins to break through the battlements of book learning. Air ventilates the stony cell of his brain.
“The Pisan clouds are undoubtedly various
and splendid as any I have seen since
at Scudder’s Falls on the Schuylkill
by which stream I seem to recall a feller
settin’ in a rudimentary shack doin’ nawthin’
not fishin’, just watchin’ the water,
a man of about forty-five
nothing counts save the quality of the affection”
At several points he notices small but very real details:
“That butterfly has gone out thru my smoke hole.”
And you weep to know that buried under all that pointless erudition — an erudition that is a deflection of experience — there is a genuine human soul who might have been truly great.
The final fragments of Cantos speak of his dawning understanding of what he has failed to grasp.
“Let the gods forgive what I
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made”
These are the final words of his Cantos, and your heart breaks. And you remember the quote from Henry Miller: “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.”
Literature is nice, but living one’s life in the actual weather wearing actual galoshes is more to the point.
The relationship between brain and book is explored in the next book — which has the most unfortunate title since the now out-of-print Design of Active-Site Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors: It is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The title is a faddish one, that practically screams, “I was written in 1974!” The book has nothing meaningful to say about either Zen Buddhism or motorcycles. But it has a lot to say about the central distinction between nouns and verbs as they play out both in our minds and in the world before us.
Pirsig makes no attempt to be likable. He is spiny, querulous, bossy, pedantic, and exhibits some of the anempathetic qualities of Asberger syndrome. Yet, he is unquestionably brilliant.
He uses Plato’s dialog, Phaedrus, to examine what he calls “Quality,” which he defines in an entirely idiosyncratic way, essentially remaking the word entirely.
“Quality is not a thing. It is an event.”
That is, a verb, not a noun. It is one’s engagement with the world in the instantaneous present, before anything is named or understood.
The book slowly builds to this understanding as Pirsig takes a motorcycle trip with his son. The tour is interrupted by long stretches of philosophical discussion taking us into the issues of perception.
“Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past, and therefore unreal.” When you have experienced something and given it a name, it is already over. That unintellectualized instant of engagement is an active boiling; anything after it is already a snapshot looked at in leisure.
And we tend to fit what we experience into the patterns of the snapshots we already have in our photo album. As I have said many times, “What you know prevents learning.”
The climax of the book, for me, comes when Pirsig makes the leap from this to the words of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, and suddenly, the odd, incomprehensible language of that Chinese classic pops into palpable reality: “The name that can be named is not the absolute name.” Pirsig substitutes his odd definition of “quality:” “Fathomless! Like the fountainhead of all things … Yet crystal clear like water it seems to remain.”
I have since substituted the word “beauty” for “quality.” If art seeks beauty, it is in the form of engagement with “the fountainhead of all things,” the precious, unslotted, uncataloged now and its very active nowness. Beauty is the engagement, not the thing: A verb, not a noun.
But language itself can be bypassed. Too many seem to believe that thought comes in words. It may do so, but a good deal of thought comes non-verbally. There is visual thinking, aural thinking, spatial thinking, temporal thinking. You cannot verbally engage your brain with a pitcher’s slider and hope to connect with the bat. The thinking involved is completely non-verbal.
Music is the great cultural means of making an argument over time without words, and you cannot get a better example of this than Beethoven’s piano sonatas.
Of all the things I learned at college, the one I am most grateful for is the ability to read musical scores. I collect scores — Eulenberg and Kalmus miniatures — the same as language books, and read them with much pleasure. If you are on an airplane and try to listen to music through headphones, all you get is static drowned in jet noise. But if you bring along the score, say, to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, you can read it and hear it in your head and the jet noise disappears.
And no score has meant more to me than Artur Schnabel’s edition of Beethoven’s sonatas. The notes sit on the pages like Pound’s blackbirds on their wires and sing their song.
Schnabel is a micromanager as an editor, and many pages have more footnotes than musical notes. But he was one of the greatest performers of this music ever — his recordings of the complete set, made in the 1930s, is still in print and has never been superseded, even as technology has progressed. And his insight into the music, expressed in those footnotes, is always enlightening. I have gone through those two volumes of sonatas many, many times, always with profound enjoyment and growing depth.
I cannot imagine my library without them.
NEXT: What has fallen by the wayside