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 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.”

rosmal

When we are young, reading opens up a whole new world, infinitely grander than the banal existence we desperately want to escape. puig swing 2We measure our tiny lives up against what seem to us the great works of poetry and literature like some Little Leaguer pretending to swing the bat like Yasiel Puig.

Some of us, wanting to be writers ourselves, spend too many early efforts attempting to imitate the style of the writers we adore. That is why any of us who do eventually become writers hold ritual bonfires of our old manuscripts.

This equation changes as we mature. Where once we compared our lives with the works we read, we now — as our own lives become cluttered with failed loves, office politics, medical emergencies, death of parents or worse, death of children, divorces, betrayals, remarriages, trips, arthritic knees and the recognition that a girl who knew all Dante once should live to bear children to a dunce — turn the whole transaction around: As we age, we in turn test the books we read against the truth of our own lives. Instead of questioning whether we measure up to the glory of our favorite books, we question whether the books measure up to the lives we lead.

It is at this point we can comfortably shed any naive idea of the importance of books and instead realize their genuine value. We give up the shadow for the substance.

For me, this includes the books that most vividly capture the whatness and nowness of the experience of being alive, and those books that most precisely and melodically use language to express fresh thought.

As I read, I rub the words between my fingers like a farmer squeezing the spring mud to see if the soil is dry enough to plow and sow. I value less that prose that deals in ideas qua idea, and more deeply appreciate that which can provide me the richness of touch, smell, sight and sound, give me the living thought of human life in all its variety and with the raw tender flesh of a recent wound.ulysses book cover

I find this in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Exhibit A. There are complaints that the book is “difficult,” although I cannot see any obstructing difficulty. I find the opening chapters some of the best-written and clearest prose in the English tongue. The so-called “experimental” stuff in ensuing chapters are only difficult if you refuse to surf through them a few times and upon re-re-reading, they become nothing more than a practiced set of chord changes you have mastered on a guitar. Hard at first, but eventually natural.joyce

And the world Joyce gives us is as true as any I’ve found between any covers anywhere.

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” This is not merely so descriptive that one can nearly taste the sauteed comestibles, but can do so most because of the sound of the words over the tongue, which is both the organ of language and of gustation. You practically chew the sentence as you speak it, before swallowing and digesting. Feel your cheeks, tongue and lips as you masticate those words.

“He liked the thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

The world as it is, not as you would have it.

I have also read and re-read many times his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is also full of crystal phrases and accurate observation.

Not so much for Finnegan’s Wake, which I cannot, for the life of trying, even enter, much less transcompass its periplus.

milton cameoThe only other writer I know whose words have such aural weight is John Milton, whose Paradise Lost creates worlds and psychologies that I can recognize in those craggy consonants and melodious vowels. Weigh them out in the index of your Bartletts and you find that none but Shakespeare and the King James Bible can best him for having gifted our mother language with so many memorable phrases so completely digested into the language that for most speakers, they have lost their roots. Milton is one of the inventors of our speech.

But it is the thrust of that language and its vivid imagery that keeps me coming back. I cannot help but weep uncontrollably every time I face those final pentameters:

“The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.

They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way.”

This is not theology: It is the reality we all face on becoming adults.auden

There are several poets whose words ring true rather than merely “poetic.” Wystan Auden is the most grown-up poet of the 20th century. There are no castles in his sky.

“I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn, 

Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”

Check the daily paper for reinforcement of this.

And William Yeats, laid to rest, is evermore my honored guest. Not merely for the girl who knew all Dante once, but for so many deeply wise poems scripted in such unforgettable language.yeats eyes closed

“But love has pitched his mansion

In the place of excrement.”

Or, in words that are closer to the bone than most any I have read:

“Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young, 

We loved each other and were ignorant.”

Oh, I want so much to go on. There are so many other books I want to list. When you have been reading for six decades, there are so many that you hold dear to your chest.

But I have tried your patience too long with this series of posts. Through them all I wanted, not merely to share which books have built a person out of me, but how they have done so, in hopes of helping you recognize the same in your own reading life. It is the larger issues that count, not the particular books, which will be different for each of us.ovid medieval

How could I have left off Tristram Shandy, the funniest book I have ever read, or Edward Gibbon, whose irony-drenched sentences pull long loads of dependent clauses and parenthetical complexities — such beautiful writing I cannot hope to approach — or Ovid, dear Ovid, whose Metamorphoses is one of the consoling books of my senescence, and that connects me once again to the long, continuous line of culture of which I am one minuscule link, and I see each writer through history as a flower that turns to fruit and then to seed that turns to seedling, to plant, to flower and to fruit all over again. Each flower like a mouth and each fruit like a word.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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.”

flaxman

As I get older, so do the books I find most congenial.

I admit I’ve always been something of an old pedant and have always spent more time with what other people have called “serious” books rather than best-sellers or recent worthies. But age has only exaggerated this tendency.
wright moon 2

Perhaps it is because as I’ve gotten older, the distance between the old tomes and the present seems shorter and shorter, almost to the point of disappearing.

For many readers, such books as the Iliad or Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem incredibly distant, in a past that is so vastly divorced from the concerns of today that they question the relevance. But for me, the space between then and now has become compressed and it is in those old authors that I find an urgency and relevance unmatched.

I am now 66 years old — two thirds of a century. It is a time that has passed as swiftly as an eyeblink. I was a boy last Tuesday. My grandmother used to say, with some amazement and some pride that she was born before the Wright Brothers’ flight and lived to see the moon landing. This is a personal, internal sense of history. It is increasingly the way I see the past. yardstick

If I measure the time between now and my birth, and take it as a yardstick, I can get a sense of the it. jesse james

Sixty-six years from my birth is now; 66 years before my birth was the year Jesse James was shot dead — 1882. If I flip my yardstick over one length down the timeline from that, I arrive at 1816, the year Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. One more flip of the yardstick and I’m at 1750, the year Johann Sebastian Bach died. That is, I’m only three lifetimes — three very short, skipping lifetimes from Bach and those last unfinished measures of The Art of the Fugue.

I could keep flipping the yardstick to measure the years before: 1684, 1618, 1552, 1486, 1420, 1354, etc. And I discover it takes only 30 copies of my life before I’m face to face with Caesar Augustus. Only 42 lifetimes and I’m sitting there with Homer. Forty-two of my own short lifetimes — not enough to fill a bus. So, you see, the past increasingly does not feel long ago, does not feel alien, does not feel irrelevant. It feels contiguous. I can measure it all out in lifespans I can imagine and visualize it in a way impossible with the more Saganesque “billions and billions” of the cosmos.

Heck, I can take that yardstick back far enough to see them painting the caves at Lascaux and I haven’t even filled up a jumbo-jet.

World War II ended three years before I was born; it is fresh in my culture’s memory and a constant in television documentaries. Troy fell three millennia ago and it hardly seems any different to me. It is all connected and I feel the fibers of my blood and sinew in the pulse of history.

So, the paroxysms of current events, which feel so dire to those younger than me, feel like familiar blips when taken in the long view. I do not know if we will survive them, but chances are we will. And even the genocides of Rwanda and Darfur or the beheadings by Islamists seem merely familiar excrescenses of an eternal human tendency, and in fact pale compared not merely with the Shoah, but with the extermination of Native Americans, the pyramids of skulls left by Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, or the smiting of the Canaanites and Jebusites ordered by Jehovah (Deuteronomy 20: 16-17). According to scientist and author Jared Diamond, it is possible that Neanderthals disappeared under just such a fatwah. skull pyramid

So, when I open Homer’s Iliad and find in its opening lines grief and the corpses of “so many fighters leaving their naked flesh to be devoured by dogs and vultures,” it is no more removed than Afghanistan or Gaza.

“Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

I am constantly amazed that the first book in the Western canon should never have been bested. The Iliad has a breadth of vision unmatched by anything else I am familiar with. It is always the first on my list.

homer bustHomer describes everything from the food to the landscape as if he were a gobbling camera, eating up the full existence of life. And not, like some novelist, in different chapters, but in a single sentence he can telescope from the entire battlefield down to the iris of a bee’s eye, and then back out again in the space of five or 10 words. It leaves one not just with the grand view and not with the microcosm, but with a clear sense that they co-exist in a single space, a single comprehension.

There is little so vivid as Homer’s description of battle. Yes, our modern understanding of war — at least those of us who have not been in it — has more to do with battalions and artillery, but even in modern warfare, the experience of it from the inside is personal: one human soldier and the chaos that threatens to erase him (or her) and the light that comes in through his eyes.

“Thrasymedes stabbed Antilochus right in the shoulder and cracked through the bony socket, shearing away the tendons. Then he wrenched the whole arm out and down thundered Antilochus and darkness blanked his eyes. …

“Peneleos hacked Lycon’s neck below the ear and the sword sank clean through, leaving Lycon’s head hanging on his body by only a flap of skin. The head swung wide and Lycon slumped to the ground. …

Tarantino is playing catch up.iliad mitchell

It isn’t merely the violence that is shown us, but the desires, the pity, the sorrows and the triumphs. I try and re-read the Iliad once a year, and each time in a different translation. Last year, it was Alexander Pope’s. This year, it is the recent one by Stephen Mitchell. I’ve read in past years, translations by Robert Fagles, Richmond Lattimore, Walter Benjamin Smith with Walter Miller (illustrated by the great Neoclassical designs of John Flaxman), and George Chapman.

(Of these, I recommend Fagles for first-timers. Chapman is rough sledding, despite the reputation Keats gave it in his sonnet.)

If I ever have to shrink my library down to something I can carry in a duffel, it would include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible and a Shakespeare.

Ah, but I would have to make room for a Milton, too.

NEXT: A grand finale

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.”

Church Iceberg flotante, 1859

There are so many books I have overlooked. There is no way to tally up the consequence of reading most of them: Such cumulation is like measuring the rain that fills the sea bed.

But I want to pick out several of the idiosyncratic ones, outside the usual suspects (Camus, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.), which can be assumed. My taste has always gravitated to the forgotten, abused and out-of-fashion. There is something in my sensibility that just flat-out enjoys complex, baroque sentences and the kind of observational intensity that you find most developed in those authors hovering on the edge of custom or sanity.

Part of this preference comes from a desire for transcendence, and transcendence never comes in conventional form.

Longinus explains why my tastes may run to the extravagant.

“The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive,” he writes.

His On the Sublime is a sometimes numbing description of rhetorical tropes, but several times in their midst, he breaks free and discusses the big issues. In the climactic 35th chapter, he breaks out:

etna erupting“What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean.  … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.

“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

It is that great writing that attracts me to Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville. Both have a foundation in a kind of biblical tone, a King James timbre, full of striking metaphor and cosmic awareness.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

Or: Herman Melville 1885

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

That ain’t Hemingway.

But it isn’t only Walden and Moby Dick; I have spent many hours in happy lucubration over the pages of Thoreau’s Journals, collected in two giant volumes by my favorite publishing house, Dover Books. And I can hardly pass up re-reading most of Melville’s short stories, I and My Chimney, The Apple-Tree Table and Piazza. I read them over the way one listens to a favorite tune, waiting for your favorite chorus to set your toe tapping.let us now praise cover

But for intense unreadability married to heartbreaking self-flagellation and obsessive observational skill, you cannot beat James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a volume of such personal journalism that it makes Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson look like disinterested sub-sub-librarians.

The book is an investigation of tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression and Agee spends a portion of his life living with one of the families he reports on. And he spends an entire chapter describing the shanty room he is sitting in late in the night under a kerosene lamp as the family sleeps in the other room. He describes, it seems, every knot in the wood of the walls he stares at, every hook holding up every potholder or towel. It approaches the insane, but in the same way the fevered eyes of Vincent Van Gogh looked at the wheatfield and crows. Every bush is the burning bush.

The intensity, the engagement is the thing. 2006.13.1.8 002

“Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another,” he writes. “The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor … Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding…”

Perhaps Agee attempts more than is possible in sewn signatures and binding, and maybe he is a fool for even trying, but I am his target and he hits me in the quick.

Official acceptance means becoming part of an unexamined and cataloged orthodoxy: Things settled so you don’t have to parse them out all over again. The problem with that is:

“The way that can be named is not the constant way.”tao te ching

The Tao Te Ching can be read as an ambiguous and mystical series of woo-woo New-Age aphorisms, or it can be taken as precise and direct in meaning. Most of its readers, and many of its more recent translators opt for the former, turning it into a kind of text to daze its readers and perhaps sell them a regimen of dietary supplements.

I take the latter view, that it means what it says and means it directly.

If there is one thing at the core of my intellectual being, as a dense molten iron core of the planet, it is a recognition — I cannot call it a belief, because it is too obvious — a recognition of the primacy of diversity and fecundity in the cosmos. A sense that existence is too complex ever to be summed up in a political philosophy, theology or epistemology. Every esthetic and intellectual movement comes a cropper against the largeness and variety of the universe. As the Tao puts it, any time you name something, you have lied.

The way that can be named is not the constant way: Our cultural world view and our personal understanding of the structure and meaning of the world — our umwelt — changes over time, and changes in ways that are largely predictable, at least in wider outline, even if details surprise us.

These are the waves hitting the shores that we see over and over — a pendulum swinging back and forth — over the centuries, and embodied in cultures we name as pairs: Hellenic and Hellenistic, Romanesque and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic. It is the same pendulum slowly rocking.

Most people take sides, like T.S. Eliot’s angry brief against John Milton, but some of us step back and observe them as two sides of the same coin. Taking sides is self-limiting: “mind-forged manacles.”

“It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism.”

For me, the most interesting times are those on the cusp of one or the other named moments: the change itself, rather than the brief second when the pendulum stills on one end of the arc or the other.

maistre book 2And it leads me to such peculiar books as Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, a travel book — or a parody of a travel book — about the room de Maistre is trapped in during a house arrest in 1790, at just the point that the classicism of the 18th century was melting into the weirdness of the coming age. But it also takes seriously — if that is the word — the possibility that one might invest a description of one’s daily surroundings with the same majesty one might use to describe, say, Goethe’s journey over the Alps. Every bush, again.

Oh, I wish I could go on. I have left out Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; I have left out the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita; I have snubbed Yeats’ A Vision. Villon’s Testament; the Daybooks of Edward Weston — I have inherited for the meat of my bones the DNA from my parents, for better or worse, but I have inherited my intellectual genes from all the books I have had the happiness to encounter.

NEXT: The books age with their reader

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.”

birds

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.

Old EzThe 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. pound mugshot

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. Cantos

The final fragments of Cantos speak of his dawning understanding of what he has failed to grasp.

“Let the gods forgive what I

have made

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: ZenbookIt 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. Pirsig

“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.artur schnabel

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 edition score

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

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.”

Henry Miller horizontal copy

I was now 30 years old and I knew I was going to be a writer. The only problem was that I had not written anything, outside of a few letters to my parents asking for money.

I nevertheless had a firm belief in the isotonic theory of artistic production, which is that the osmotic pressure would eventually reverse: For the time being, I was taking in all the influences — the life reversals, the sufferings, the travel … and the books I read, paintings I looked at and music I heard — and eventually, I would be so full, that it would reverse the flow and it would all come out in an esthetic eructation forced by a kind of intellectual back-pressure. henry miller books

In this, I had a model: As I was reading, as I say, not books but authors, I absorbed through my skin everything written by Henry Miller. He had not had anything meaningful published until he was 40, so I figured I had at least 10 years to make it work out.

Miller helped me another way, too.

Everything I had written had a problem, capsulized by an episode from high school. I had written a play for a drama course I had taken. It was about suicide and it was told — “borrowing” an idea from John Updike’s The Centaur — as a kind of Greek myth. The play was supposed to be performed by the drama class, along with two other plays written by two other pupils, but the school principal banned my play because of its subject matter. I felt crazy proud of being banned. It was a badge of honor. But this pride was quashed considerably by my English teacher, a kindly and intellectual man who managed to see something in me when I was just a lazy C-student. I showed him my play and he said, “Don’t you think perhaps it might be a little too … literary?”

It had never occurred to me that “literary” might be a pejorative.

His kind criticism had little effect on me at the time. I believed that great writing should be literary. In fact, what I was attempting to write was the verbal equivalent of having a stick up my ass. henry miller brassai

But Miller told me “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.”

And, in the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer, he wrote: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.”

In effect, I gave up wanting to be a writer, and instead needed to write. There is a huge difference. Many young people want to be artists. There is something romantic about the very idea; the issue of having to actually create something seems less germane than the idea of sleeping on a mattress on the floor amid a scruff of unlaundered sheets stained with sex and coffee or perhaps sucking the smoke out of a Gitane. It is all pose.

And all my talk of being a writer was the same kind of pose. joe gould's secret

It came to a head with a letter from one of my college professors who told me to read Joe Gould’s Secret, by Joseph Mitchell. Gould was a Greenwich Village eccentric in the first half of the 20th century who claimed to be writing the compendious oral history of modern life — millions of words that he refused to show anyone, but shared his notes for. Of course, such manuscript never actually existed, but Gould talked a good game.

My professor was warning me that I was in danger of following Gould’s footsteps. I was unemployed and living off the generosity of friends. I needed to put up or shut up. If I was going to write, I needed to write. And it was Miller who showed me the way.

I gave up any thought of being a writer and instead began writing.

But sitting down at — at the time — a small, aqua plastic portable typewriter and pounding out something, anything, was in and of itself a joy. It was liberating. Mostly, it was letters. With no thought of publication, I spewed endless accounts of my days to friends, like William Blake’s Los forming a never-ending chain. It was my apprenticeship. In one month, in March, 1978, I wrote a total of 500 typed pages of letters. henry miller 2 nudes

It wasn’t the sex-saturated Miller that I loved. It was his ability to tell a story, one step after another, and his talent for character and caricature. The sex hardly seemed like sex; it was more like a Futurist description of steam pistons chugging and spurting. It was the other Miller that kept me turning pages. I loved Plexus, the large middle volume of his Rosy Crucifixion, with its endless tales of making do in Depression-era Brooklyn and all the dramatis personae that kept him eternally amused, frustrated and filled, like a well drawn from but never emptied.

Mostly it was the torrent of words, piling up. Yes, there were doldrums and I could hardly bear his occasional descent into surrealism — it was like reading an account of someone telling you his dreams, and we all know what a trial that can be.

I read his two trilogies, and all his New Directions anthologies of essays. The only pieces that escaped me were some of the late books put out by small arthouse publishers. It was just too hard to keep track of them.

There is still an entire shelf in my library filled with Miller’s work, although I have moved past them and no longer read them. They are more of an altar to a turning point in my life. They served their purpose for me and for that I am ever grateful.

NEXT: The wilderness years, Part 3 — Diving in

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.”

bear after me

It was after college that my real education began.

There was one official marriage of three years and one unofficial marriage of seven. There were also several crash-and-burn episodes of affection and desire before, during and after. There were many jobs, too: sales clerk, grounds crew, substitute teacher, delivery driver, teacher of crime-scene photography, editor of a black weekly newspaper, and year spent working at the Seattle zoo, but also a year and a half spent almost homeless and broke. At one point, I was literally down to two nickels and three pennies.

There was nevertheless much travel, north and south along the East Coast and east-west taking a train cross country. I knew what it like to sit in the smelly back of a Trailways bus watching 2 a.m. passing in Virginia. And there was a summer hiking part of the Appalachian Trail and feasting on Velveeta, Slim Jims, and Tang mixed with Blue Ridge spring water.Doug as pervert 1978

In Seattle, I lived in a house with two lesbian medical students and the world’s most obscene man. When I was broke and moved back to North Carolina, I was taken in by my college best friend, who, with his wife, nurtured me back to something like sanity.

One learns a lot this way, although they are often things you wish you didn’t have to learn.

But there was a parallel education, and that came from endless reading.

The thing about hard knocks and waxing maturity is that the books and the knocks come to be mirror reflections of each other. You learn the answer to the surly, snotty question you probably asked in high school: “Why do I have to read Jane Austen? It has nothing to do with my life.” Or Gatsby, or Dickens. At that callow age, it all seems so irrelevant (outside, say, Catcher in the Rye, which you insert directly into your vein with a needle).

It is as if they are trying to make you learn things you don’t want to learn. (Hint: They are; and hint: You’re an idiot at that age). Richard back porch 1975

But with a few divorces under your belt, and a couple of employers whipping you from pillar to post, and a few miles under your tires, the world opens up and you begin to understand things you blessedly had no clue of.

It is that parallel education, then, I mean to write about. Those books that cascaded through the years in the wilderness. I tore through a lot of books. Frequently unemployed, I had a lot of time on my hands.

And I didn’t just read books; I read authors. I read all of Hawthorne, all of Melville, all of Thoreau. And when I say all, I mean Israel Potter and A Yankee in Canada. Reams of Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck. I couldn’t get enough Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda or William Carlos Williams.

A few spoke to me most directly.alexandria quartet

One was Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. You have to be a certain age and in a certain state to take in those four books. I was. Thirty is its age, just as 14 is Salinger’s.

The “trick”of the four books is a kind of Rashomon retelling of the story several times. First through the eyes of a man in love, second from the point of view of a disinterested outsider, and third from an omniscient narrator and each version contradicts the previous and fills in missing information and corrects their misunderstandings and misperceptions. It is a byzantine tale set in a duplicitous ex-pat Egypt before and during World War II. The prose is dense and florid; the plot is even more so, and the characters even more than that. It is a huge pile of musk, perfume and offal.

I read it with a dictionary at hand. Durrell rather likes arcane and esoteric words and the list I drew up while reading became a daily vocabulary lesson. Etiolated, pegamoid, ululation, exiguous, exigent, vulpine, objurgations, tenebrous, integument, hebetude, fatidic, pullulation, crepitating, emollient, cachinnation, splenetic, comminatory, plethoric, usufruct, mansuetude, titubating.

The author’s habit leads to such sentences as:  “He has manumitted the colloquial…”

But there is a concomitant grace and directness of balancing sentences, such as: “She took kisses like so many coats of paint.”

It is a baroque style that is meat to only a few. I was hungry for it and the reasons were personal.

I only late found out that the woman I had been living with had had a very active secret life of which I knew nothing. I was as naive as Darley in Justine. I had friends who could have written me a Balthazar, but they didn’t and I fled cross country in exile and in metaphysical pain.

This was a devastating case of literature as a mirror and the face I saw there shamed me. But it also instilled in me a sense of caution, a humility concerning what I think I know and a skepticism for what others think they know.

Balthazar at one point says, “Truth naked and unashamed. That’s a splendid phrase. But we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation.” rules of the game

Or, as Octave says in Jean Renoir’s film, Rules of the Game, “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.”

We almost never know enough to make informed judgments: The truth is always hidden from us and people act from motives we cannot be privy to.

Durrell taught me to be perpetually in a state of tolerant unknowing.

Or at least he reinforced through art the lesson I had been given but perhaps did not fully comprehend. Some lessons come in the form of a ball-peen hammer to the head.

NEXT: Part 2 Wilderness years: A bigger library

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.”

guilford 2

College is where the majority of attendees do the most reading of their lives. Indeed, surveys consistently record that at least a third of college grads never read another book after graduation. One must assume that these are the people who become politicians.

For the rest of us, college is where we encounter the first books that we recognize as opening the doors of our minds and either forming the adults we become, or providing reinforcing arguments for the personalities we have already developed: Really, both.

Coursework reading is where we first discover that other people have had the same thoughts we have had, and what is more, have been entirely more articulate about those thoughts. And those writers have considered issues that had never, as yet, occurred to us.

It is a four-year span in which we are, for the second time in our lives, slapped awake.

As for me, I couldn’t wait. College was an escape from the oppressive banality of suburbia. I was told by my parents that upon entering second grade I asked if that meant I could “go to college next year.”

I really wanted to get away and enter what I imagined to be the real “adult” world of intellectual pursuit.

However, when I got there, I proceeded to waste most of my time and my parents’ money. I was a terrible student. Oh, I worked hard and made excellent grades in those courses that interested me, but in courses that didn’t interest me, or in which I felt contempt for the professor (being the know-it-all that we all are as adolescents), I hardly attended class and instead slept late, drank beer, or spent time in the company of the serial list of women who let me into the mysteries for which I was such an eager sleuth.

There were, nevertheless, a few things from early-morning classrooms that have stuck with me. I want to mention four of them.shelley

The first, and probably most indelible, is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.

There are many for whom art, whether poetry or TV sitcom is essentially a branch of entertainment. These people includes highbrows as well as low. But there are some — and I am unfortunately one — who see a more serious purpose for art. It is probably just a genetic relic of the Norwegian Lutheranism I was born into, but boy, did I ever suffer from it.

This is a position that it is difficult to maintain in part because of the solemn piety of its adherents: easy to make fun of. And the grand claims made by Victorian do-gooders and Modernist manifestos are often preposterous, even laughable, and further undermine any effort to find a moral purpose to scribbling on paper, whether with pen or brush.

Too often, moral purpose in the arts has led to boring, didactic works, espousing this partisan view or that, whether Christian or Marxist — or in the case of that great fashioner of doorstops, Ayn Rand, unreadable tracts.

But Shelley makes clear in his argument that it is not the modeling of behavior that makes art moral, but the very act of imagination: The ability to conceive of thoughts, emotions, pains and motives not our own. Imagination fuels empathy.

“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.”

At the heart of great art is compassion. Not as a subject matter — that is left to the preacher’s sermons — but through opening each of us up to the multifariousness of experience and the variety of responses to experience. A great work of art must make us understand even that which we abhor. Humbert Humbert, for instance.

As Yeats wrote, “From our arguments with others, we make rhetoric; poetry from our arguments with ourselves.”

The class where I read the Defence was one in English Romantic Poetry, and it left me with a trove of things I return to over and over, from Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode (which I re-read at least once a month), to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to the psychedelic fourth act of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which is my substitute for bong and hash: “With a mighty whirl the multitudinous orb/ Grinds the bright brook into an azure mist /Of elemental subtlety, like light.” Flashing, man.greek myths 2

The second lingering from class is Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. I took several courses in classical literature, including a blunted attempt to learn the language of the ancient Greeks. En arche hen ho logos. I foundered on the aorist voice, among other things, including my growing dislike of the word-games and fascistic tendencies of Plato, whose Euthyphro I was tasked to translate.

But, I came to love the classics. They have enriched my life from then to now (more about them in a later blog entry). But Graves gave me a deeper and richer appreciation of mythology, and upset any naive notion I had that it was all a coherent, organized system of gods and goddesses (as it was made to appear in Edith Hamilton or Hawthorne’s Wonder Book), but rather a welter of conflicting local stories, changing over time and mixed into a stew that no one ever held onto in a single grip. Again: multifarious and complex. robt graves

One of the underlying messages of any important reading: Everything you know is wrong. Or at least, no single idea or ideology can adequately describe the world. It is always more complex than that, and we should beware of anyone who tells us they have the answer.

It is true that Graves had his hobby horse and you can’t take everything he avers as solid truth. But the underlying mash of malt and hops captures the brew pretty well.

Third, there was E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, which I read for a Shakespeare course. Tillyard covers several aspects of that world view, but most essentially, the idea of hierarchy, the sense that God created a world in which everything exists on a rung of a ladder of which there is always something above and something below. Thus, lions are the “king of beasts,” the way gold is the most noble of metals and the oak is the top tree. Further, that trees as a whole top minerals, and animals top trees, and man is atop all this, yet under angels, which in turn, are under God, who is the end of the line, very like Canarsie. descent of man

It can get quite silly and convoluted: arguing whether a siamang or white-handed gibbon is higher on the chain, or whether a peach is more noble than an apricot, since clearly, one must rank higher. Medieval literature is chock full of such debates: Who ranks higher, king or pope? But we still have these arguments, all over the place.

Becoming aware of this persistent trope in our culture turned the lights on: We are still suffering from this idea, and it is all around us, unexamined. Tillyard made me see and examine it: Every time someone talks about something being “higher on the evolutionary ladder,” one must counter that such an idea is a misunderstanding of Darwin. But that misunderstanding drives so much policy and inflames so much political rhetoric.

Tillyard made me re-examine many of the axioms and assumptions of our culture in a way more direct and concrete — and easier to understand — than all the horse-hair stuffing of the French Post-structuralist philosophers and deconstructionists. prolog canterbury tales

Finally, from class, and by no means least, I came to love Geoffrey Chaucer. I have become a fair reciter of Middle English, with a credible accent. And I found that reading Chaucer out loud enhances his comprehensibility. It become very like getting used to a thick Scottish burr or the sing-song of English spoken in the Indian subcontinent. When you get used to it, it disappears. Outside of some arcane vocabulary, Chaucer’s language isn’t all that difficult.

What is more, the poetry itself is overwhelming, whether it is the Wife of Bath’s prologue or the short poem, Trouthe, the language is as delicious as can be found in our mother tongue.

“The wrastling for the world axeth a fall.”

“Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse.”

“Much wele stant in littel businesse.”

My wife periodically asks me to recite the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I have fairly well committed to memory, and I can’t think of a greater or more pleasurable chunk of poetry in the English language.

NEXT: The years in the wilderness