Archive

Tag Archives: herman melville

Some people have a bucket list — of extraordinary experiences they would like to have before the final extraordinary experience. My bucket, however is already full, in fact, it runneth over. 

It is probably much the same for most people. By the time you reach the age of 70, you can look back on a lifetime of extraordinary and satisfying adventures. Perhaps you have not swum the Hellespont like Leander or Lord Byron, nor circled the globe in 72 days, like Nelly Bly, but there are no doubt things you have done that brought your own life to its full. 

I’ve seen the Rhine at night in Dusseldorf; driven the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; spent a snowy Christmas eating hot homemade cookies at the home of a Hopi friend in Walpi on First Mesa in Arizona; twice circumambulated Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.; and been charged by a bear in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

I was an idiot — I took the picture

I see birthday number 71 coming up next week and realize that translates to 852 months, 3702 weeks or nearly  26,000 days. They have gone by very quickly, picking up speed as they progress, like a train leaving the station. They are now barreling along at the speed of an express. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

From the rear of that train, I can look back and say I have seen the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa; the menhirs of Brittany; seen Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle live twice; made love surreptitiously in the North Carolina legislature building. 

Menhirs at Carnac, Brittany

I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific, but also the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Cortez and Hudson Bay — my personal seven seas. I have crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner. They don’t really have those anymore.

Mediterranean Sea

I have done other things that now seem quaint and ancient. I have twice crossed the continent on trains, once from North Carolina to New York on the Southern Crescent, from New York to Chicago on the Twentieth Century Limited, and then from Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder. Amtrak never had the cache of those earlier routes. 

Years later, under the shrunken Amtrak banner, I took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Miami. 

Each of these things is stamped and notarized in my cerebral cortex.

Given the sum of those years, it is hardly surprising that so many things were seen, done, felt, tasted, smelled, heard. You turn the pages of the book one by one, and sooner than you realize, you are on page 852 and something has happened on every page. 

Chartres cathedral

Been to Chartres four times; and to Notre Dame de Paris half a dozen times; to Mont St. Michel; and to Reims, where French kings were crowned; and climbed the bell tower (illegally) at the National Cathedral in Washington; and descended the kivas at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. 

Kiva, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Been to 14 countries, including Norway and Namibia. Been to all 48 contiguous United States and all Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island, and to the Yukon Territory. Alaska made 49 states (still haven’t been to Hawaii).

Omaha Beach, Normandy

Been to Lascaux and to Font de Gaume to see prehistoric cave paintings; been to the Normandy beaches of D-Day; to the shell craters still visible at Verdun; to all the major Civil War battle sites, and across the Old North Bridge. Stood on the piazza that Herman Melville built at Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, Mass. with its view of Mount Greylock (“Charlemagne among his peers”). 

Mt. Greylock, from Melville’s piazza

Three times I have walked Monet’s gardens at Giverny and seen the great waterlily murals at the Orangerie in Paris.

Giverny, France

I have ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and paddled a canoe down the white water of the Mayo River in North Carolina (admittedly, not a scary rapids). 

Once, I stood at the top of the raging Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge and stupidly jumped across the cataract, rock to rock, to get to the other side of the river. I’ve also climbed to the top of Pilot Mountain in the Sauratown Mountains of Surry County, N.C. (a climb that is now illegal). 

Linville Falls, N.C.

Hiked a fair portion of the Appalachian Trail; camped in the Canadian Rockies; and 65 miles from the nearest paved road on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Been to the telescopes at Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and the Kitt Peak observatories southwest of Tucson. 

 When I hear Hank Snow singing “I been everywhere, man,” I count the place names as they tick off and check them on my own list. “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota…” Yes, yes, yes, check, check, check.

And Bobby Troup singing “Don’t forget Winona,” well, yes, been there many times. 

Glacier Bay, Alaska

But it isn’t just geography. There are cultural touchstones I count, experiences that have breathed oxygen into my soul. Not only Wagner, but also I heard Lenny Bernstein conduct La Mer with the NY Phil; heard Emil Gilels live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; heard Maurizio Pollini play all the Chopin Preludes, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata. I heard Jeremy Denk play Ives’ Concord Sonata and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier in the same recital: That is like climbing Everest and Mont Blanc on the same day. Itzhak Perlman play the Strauss violin sonata — and made it seem like one of the most important sonatas ever. That was magic. Heard the Matthew Passion live twice and Haydn’s Creation. And, of course, twice heard Yo-Yo Ma perform all six Bach suites in a single program. 

I’ve seen a dozen Balanchine ballets with live orchestra, including my favorite, Apollo, five times, once by the NY City Ballet at the Palais Garnier in Paris. 

I’ve seen the full Angels in America four times through, including its original Broadway production. 

Remnants of shell craters, Verdun, France

These are all gifts, and made my life ever richer, and informed my growth, emotional and intellectual. I can say, they made me a better human being. 

I can’t count the art shows and museums I’ve visited that gave me rare treasures. The first I can remember was in high school when I went to the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 to see “Turner: Imagination and Reality.” It yanked the rudder of my craft and steered my life in a new direction. 

“Blue Poles,” Jackson Pollock

I also grew up with Picasso’s Guernica. I visited it over and over and never expected it would leave me for a new home in Spain. But in return, I never thought I’d get to see Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which had been sold to Australia; it came to New York in 1998 for the big Pollock retrospective at MoMA. 

I cannot mention everything. The list is already grown tedious and begins to sound like bragging. I don’t mean that: I believe a similar list can be put together for almost everyone, although it will likely be very different from mine. Not everyone has eaten grilled mopane worms or drunk spit-fermented Zulu beer. Or needs to. 

But we can all say, after a long life, full of boons and banes, joys and privations, evils we have done, and those we have suffered, the loves we have failed at and those that stuck and nourished our lives, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

gibbon decline and fall horizAs a now former and once long-time member of the Society of Professional Journalists, I was taught — indeed, had it drummed into me — that the best prose style was invisible, that it disappeared like window glass, letting the matter and substance of what was being written be transmitted from one mind to the other effortlessly, almost telepathically, as if it had no need of linguistic intercessor. One should never notice that there were words — black tadpoles — darting across the white expanse of page.

Yet, that was never how I felt in my deep heart’s core. I came to writing through love of reading, and that which I loved to read were words that gave me pleasure in the reading. Certainly, the stories being told carried their own power, and the ideas expressed fertilized and pruned my own ever-growing and expanding sensibility. But for utter pleasure, it was the words. I enjoyed writers who used those words and fashioned elegant sentences with a joyful abandon. I loved those sentences that could fill out a printed page with dependent clauses, semicolons and parenthetical interpolations. Hemingway made a distinction between those writers who were “taker-outers” and those who were “puter-inners.” My heart always went lost to the puter-inners, the piler-on-ers, the expanders and expatiators. I frequently crack a book not for what it has to tell me but for its way of telling it, for its personality, its sparkle.

Until recently, for instance, the New Yorker magazine had two primary and alternating film critics. One — David Denby, who recently retired from the ring — was a sober and thoughtful critic, whose judgment I valued, and whose taste was undeniably similar to my own. I could trust his opinion when I meant to put down my peso for a ticket. But the other — Anthony Lane — gave me joy in the reading. Each week, when the magazine materialized in my mailbox, I opened to the final pages to see who was writing. If Denby, my heart sank a little, not because he was a bad writer, he wasn’t — he was actually a very clear and intelligent crafter of words — but because Lane’s reviews, even when espousing views antithetical to my own, sparkled with wit and inventive phrases; the page bubbled. I looked to Denby for discernment and taste; what I got from Lane was a kind of naughty tickle to my brain, as if he were sharing some ripe piece of villainous gossip. I learned a lot from my schoolmasters, too, but I loved going to the amusement park.

Or, consider author Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to writers, where he warns them away from what Steinbeck called “hooptedoodle:”

“Rule No. 10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the characters head, and the reader either knows what the guys thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

This is all well and good for Elmore Leonard, who wants to make the reader turn the page, as if the last one were worthless, but maybe there was gold in the next. And that is fine for a certain kind of book. It reminds me of the advice given by film director Sam Fuller, when asked what makes a good movie.

“A story,” he said, with a cigar in his teeth.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story.”

But it isn’t the story that gives me the pleasure I seek, it is the hooptedoodle.

Here are a dozen of the books that satisfy my addiction to hooptedoodle, the books I return to over and over just for the sybaritic enjoyment of chewing over their words, gurgling their wine on my palate as I suck in a bit of air to pick up the notes of wood and chocolate, words I can inhale and breathe out like the curl of smoke from a good cigar. I recommend them to you.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


gibbonThis monumental tome, in six volumes, follows its subject with intense scholarship. Gibbon had read all the sources, so that we don’t have to. After all, how much Procopius or Irenaeus have you actually imbibed? But it isn’t the history itself that propels the work, it is Gibbon’s propulsive prose, a piling on of detail and irony that keeps me buried in the pages. I can pick up a volume and dip into it at any point and come away with a full belly. Such wonderful, rich, cream-filled sentences:

“If a man were called to fix the period in history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”gibbon decline and fall

It is Gibbon’s theme that the empire fell because it embraced Christianity. He reaches for his highest caliber irony when discussing what he calls its “superstition.” And although he lives in an age of an established church in England, when everyone was nominally pious, he uses his irony to express what he felt he could not say outright. About the claim of miracles, and of resurrection:

“But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate or even preternatural kind can no longer occasion any surprise, when we recollect that in the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event: that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterward, amongst them many years. At such a period, when faith could boast of so many wonderful victories over death, it seems difficult to account for the scepticism of those philosophers who still rejected and derided the doctrine of the resurrection. A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy and promised Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, that, if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge.”

As the Duke of Gloucester said when the author presented him with a copy, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

nabokovA wicked and malicious book, all verbal skyrockets and Roman candles, there is no more sustained example of literary pyrotechnics in English in the 20th century (the requirement for English disqualifies Finnegans Wake). It tells the story of the nympholept and child molester Humbert Humbert in his own words, which drip with irony from start to finish, yet with a second layer of irony underneath, provided by Nabokov. Humbert freely admits his crime, with charm and erudition, but Nabokov lets us know that however forthcoming Humbert seems to be, there is an imposture in self-revelation. All in virtuoso prose: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” he says.

There is misogyny and misanthropy in Humbert, which you can read in his description of a dalliance he has with another amour, Rita:nabokov lolita

“She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, an angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a most appealing ensellure to her supple back — I think she had some Spanish or Babylonian blood.”

“She was so kind, was Rita, such a good sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer chumminess and compassion.” 

“When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third husband — and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant — and others, the mutables, were too numerous and mobile to tabulate. Her brother was — and no doubt still is — a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and booster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never enter great little Grainball City.”

A little later:

“Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic; I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her shrieks of laughter.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

joyceJoyce has a reputation for being difficult, but when he wants to be clear, there is no better stylist in the English language. His prose is clear and direct and redolent of the things of this world. If I were to choose a single sentence (or two) that sums up everything I love most in a book, it would be:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

joyce ulyssesBut he can make dire fun of his other protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, and the way the scholar can drown in Aquinian scholasticism. Going down for the third time, Daedalus says:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: At least that if no more, though through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not, a door. Shut your eyes and see.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

melvilleThere is no more perfect example of the “putter-inner” than Melville. He expands; he exfoliates; he swells with words on words. I love his best work like little else in American literature. I can reread I and my Chimney or Bartleby or The Piazza or Benito Cereno over and over again, sucking up the juices. But it is Moby Dick that is the champ. I had trouble reading it at first, not because I found it hard going — quite the opposite — but because I loved its opening chapter so much that each time I picked it up, I found myself not reading where I had left off, but starting anew each time with “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read the first chapter a hundred times before I managed to break through and get to the end.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. melville moby dickThis is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

The pith of the book can be found in Ahab’s description of his hatred of the white whale:

“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.”

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq.

sterneThis must be the funniest book in the English language. Sterne manages to make fun of the human condition without ever seeming mean about it. There is a gentleness to it, even when he is close to obscene, as when he opens the book with the very moment of conception for its hero, and the discomfiting dialog between his mother and father at the moment of ejaculation:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; — that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; — and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost; — Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, — I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me. sterne tristram shandy— Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?”

 James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

ageeWhile ostensibly, this is a book about white tenant farmers in Alabama in the 1930s, it is almost more about Agee’s guilt over the fact that he is using their misery to make a book, and his empathy for their condition, and his righteous insistence on not falling back on stereotypes and formulae, but to get it absolutely right, to be absolutely accurate, which leads him to vast circumlocutions as he tries to find just the right words.

It is a very hard book to describe, so unlike anything else in the literature, and must be taken in long draughts to get the real flavor of it. Short quotes will not do.

A long section describes him late at night in the Gudger cabin, fretting over his relationship with them. He describes the lamplight and the bare wooden walls, all in minute detail, so we don’t too easily generalize, which, he feels would be a lie. All the while, on the other side of that wall the family sleeps, husband, wife, sister-in-law and four children. agee let us now praise

“.. and there lie sleeping, on two iron beds and on pallets on the floor, a man and his wife and her sister and four children, a girl and three harmed boys. Their lamp is out, their light is done this long while, and not in a long while has any one of them made a sound. Not even straining, can I hear their breathing: rather I have a not quite sensuous knowledge of a sort of suspiration, less breathing than that indiscernible drawing-in of heaven by which plants live, and thus I know they rest and the profundity of their tiredness, as if I were in each one of these seven bodies whose sleeping I can almost touch through this wall, and which in the darkness I so clearly see, with the whole touch and weight of my body: George’s red body, already a little squat with the burden of thirty years, knotted like oakwood, in its clean white cotton summer union suit that it sleeps in; and his wife’s beside him, Annie Mae’s, slender, and sharpened through with bone, that ten years past must have had such a beauty, and now is veined at the breast, and the skin of the breast translucent, delicately shriveled, and blue, and she and her sister Emma are in plain cotton shirts; and the body of Emma, her sister, strong, thick and wide, tall, the breasts set wide and high, shallow and round, not yet those of a full woman, the legs long thick and strong; …”

It goes on. Nothing is easily said in this book; it is all tortured and parsed: allie mae for agee

“The Gudgers’ house, being young, only eight years old, smells a little dryer and cleaner, and more distinctly of its wood, than an average white tenant house, and it has also a certain odor I have never found in other such houses: aside from these sharp yet slight subtleties, it has the odor or odors which are classical in every thoroughly poor white southern country house, and by which such a house could be identified blindfold in any part of the world, among no matter what other odors. It is compacted of many odors and made into one, which is very thin and light on the air, and more subtle that it can seem in analysis, yet very sharply and constantly noticeable. These are its ingredients. The odor of pine lumber, wide thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air. The odor of woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak and cedar. The odors of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odors of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second the odor of cooked corn. The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung, or stored away, not washed. I should further describe the odor of corn: in sweat or on the teeth, and breath, when it is eaten as much as they eat it, it is of a particular sweet stuffy fetor, to which the nearest parallel is the odor of the yellow excrement of a baby. All these odors as I have said are so combined into one that they are all and always present in balance, not at all heavy, yet so searching that all fabrics of bedding and clothes are saturated with them and so clinging that they stand softly out of the fibers of newly laundered clothes. Some of their components are extremely ‘pleasant,’ some are ‘unpleasant’; their sum total has great nostalgic power.”

Mickey Spillane, The Big Kill

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Mickey Spillane said he didn’t have readers, he had customers. “The first page sells the book,” he said, “the last page sells the next book.”spillane the big kill

But there is a vigor in his prose, tinged with kitsch, for sure, but still vivid in the extreme. You could find examples in almost any of the books, but this is from The Big Kill:

“It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world.
The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.

Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot. One of the drunks wanted to dance and she gave him a shove. So he danced with the other drunk.

She saw me sitting there with my stool tipped back against the cigarette machine and change of a fin on the bar, decided I could afford a wet evening for two and walked over with her hips waving hello.”

Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

If there were ever an author who required you to have a dictionary beside your reading table, it was Durrell. He would choose “pegamoid” and “objurgation,” as a dare. In his books, language is the readers’ usufruct, somewhere in the banlieus of usage. durrell justine

The Alexandria Quartet are four novels that tell the same story, each from the point of view of a different actor. We find out that no one really understands what is happening, but it is happening in Alexandria, Egypt, and is populated by espionage, love-sickness, sex and camels. Durrell’s prose is as perfumed as it comes, and the books, as a unit, are perhaps best read when the reader is still young; older, you have less patience for the exoticism and the verbal barnacles crusting the pages. I love it.

I’ll give only a short tasting, from the last volume, Clea:

“The whole quarter lay drowsing in the umbrageous violet of approaching nightfall. A sky of palpitating velours which was cut into the stark flare of a thousand electric light bulbs. It lay over Tatwig Street, that night, like a velvet rind. Only the lighted tips of the minarets rose above it in their slender invisible stalks — appeared hanging suspended in the sky; trembling slightly with the haze as if about to expand their hoods like cobras.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

thoreauThoreau mixed ancient Greek writers with agronomy; no philosopher had so much to say about beans since Pythagoras. What elevates his style is a mixture of close observation with nature and the ability to fly, like Icarus, up to the heavens in vast sweeps of inspired hooha. Metaphors grow like weeds in his paragraphs, and we are all the richer for it. There is something Shakespearean about his means of expression: A rich overflowing of imagery, mixed, we might say, like a salad, and unpruned like a feral apple tree. He simply can’t stop making new metaphors:

“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. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“That’s not writing, that’s typing,” said Truman Capote. But there is power in it. Kerouac set out across the country in the late 1940s, with peanut butter sandwiches and a part-of-the-way bus ticket. He ended up a sorry, alcoholic travesty, ruined by the popular image of the beatnik. kerouacBut his book is better than that. Even if he sometimes forgets Elmore Leonard’s Fifth Rule of Good Writing: “Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“George Shearing, the great jazz pianist, Dean said, was exactly like Rollo Greb. Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o’clock Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socket it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play is chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat. These were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial.”

H.L. Mencken, Prejudices, Series I-VI

menckenMy personal hero, Mencken was a sour old pessimist, a journalist through and through, who never let sentiment cloud his prejudice. Almost anything he wrote is worth reading, not so much for the ideas therein, which are sometimes lamentable, but for the vigor and spark of their saying. I can read his work endlessly, like eating popcorn or Fritos, and never get tired of it.

“Of all forms of the uplift, perhaps the most futile is that which addresses itself to educating the proletariat in music. The theory behind it is that a taste for music is an elevating passion, and that if the great masses of the plain people could be inoculated with it they would cease to herd into the moving-picture theaters, or to listen to Socialists, or to beat their wives and children. The defect in this theory lies in the fact that such a taste, granting it to be elevating, simply cannot be implanted. Either it is born in a man or it is not born in him. If it is, then he will get gratification for it at whatever cost — he will hear music if hell freezes over. But if it isn’t, then no amount of education will ever change him — he will remain stone deaf until the last sad scene on the gallows.”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

burton 2Finally, there is Robert Burton (1577-1640), the great magpie of English literature, who put everything he could stuff into his one big book. It purports to be about melancholy — depression, as we know it — but really, it has no boundaries. Burton cannot say something once, but must, like Walt Whitman in his cataloguing mania, say it three, four, five times over, in slightly varying phraseology, just to make his point, to emphasize it, to make it clear, to ram it home, to buttonhole you and make sure you have got it.

This is a particularly juicy section, in which he discusses sex and the contemptus mundi of the sallow-skinned blue-stockings that in our own day, as much as in his, make our lives less gaudy and fleshy.

“Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a Bachelor myself, and lead a Monastick life in a College. I am truly a very unfit person to talk about these subjects, I confess ‘tis an indecorum and as Pallas, a Virgin, blushed, when Jupiter by chance spake of Love matters in her presence and turned away her face, I will check myself; though my subject necessarily require it, I will say no more.

burton anatomyAnd yet I must and will say something more, add a word or two on behalf of Maids and Widows, in favour of all such distressed parties, in commiseration of their present estate. And as I cannot choose but condole their mishap that labour of this infirmity, and are destitute of help in this case, so must I needs inveigh against them that are in fault, more than manifest causes, and as bitterly tax those tyrannizing pseudo-politicians’ superstitious orders, rash vows, hard-hearted parents, guardians, unnatural friends, allies, (call them how you will), those careless and stupid overseers, that, out of worldly respects, covetousness, supine negligence, their own private ends, (because, meanwhile, it is well for him), can so severely reject stubbornly neglect and impiously contemn, without all remorse and pity the tears, sighs, groans, and grievous miseries, of such poor souls committed to their charge. How odious and abominable are those superstitious and rash vows of Popish Monasteries, so to bind and enforce men and women to vow virginity, to lead a single life against the laws of nature, opposite to religion, policy and humanity, so to starve, to offer violence to, to suppress the vigour of youth! by rigourous statutes, severe laws, vain persuasions, to debar them of that to which by their innate temperature they are so furiously inclined, urgently carried, and sometimes precipitated, even irresistibly led, to the prejudice of their souls’ health, and good estate of body and mind! and all for base and private respects, to maintain their gross superstition, to enrich themselves and their territories, as they falsely suppose, by hindering some marriages, that the world be not full of beggars, and their parishes pestered with orphans! Stupid politicians!

Stupid politicians, indeed!

 

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

Father and Son

This is not news to America’s wives, but: Men hate change.

I don’t mean only a pocketful of pennies and dimes — fishing weights in the trousers — I mean that a man feels uncomfortable if his favorite easy chair has been moved for vacuuming and put back no more than an inch from its original spot. He will feel compelled to nudge it that last inch.

I mean that when a favorite shirt finally blows through at the elbows, he won’t throw it out, but will wear it on Saturdays, to the dismay of his wife and daughter; and when it is finally no more than strings of tattered fabric hanging from a collar, he will use it to polish the car.

And what is more, when he needs to replace a work shirt, he will find a carbon copy, preferably bought from the same store, even the same rack, as the first.

I mean that when an old TV goes on the fritz, a man will stand there holding the aerial in his hand, watching the Cubs through the snow, rather than go out and buy a new tube.

Guys who buy Fords trade them in on new Fords, guys who buy Chevys later buy more Chevys.

How many men do you know who try different hairstyles?

Most men I know settled on a hairdo in high school and have kept it until there was no hair left to do.

I’ve seen 50-year-old bald men who have gathered what fringe remains and greased it into a ducktail.

Sometimes this aversion to change is misread by wives as being laziness. And sometimes it may be, but by and large, a man doesn’t fix that creaky door because for him the creak has become a familiar part of the home, and he simply doesn’t want to change it.

The great example of this principle in literature is the story by Herman Melville, “I and my Chimney.” It is comic and depressing at the same time.

Its narrator stands guard against the constant plans for improvement his wife devises.

“Old myself, I take to oldness in things; for that cause mainly loving old Montague, and old cheese, and old wine; and eschewing young people, hot rolls, new books, and early potatoes and very fond of my old claw-footed chair … But she, out of the infatuate juvenility of hers, takes to nothing but newness; for that cause mainly, loving new cider in autumn, and in spring, as if she were own daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, fairly raving after all sorts of salads and spinages, and more particularly green cucumbers (though all the time nature rebukes such unsuitable young hankerings in so elderly a person, by never permitting such things to agree with her).”

The narrator’s fallback position, always, like the hero of Melville’s other story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” remains, “I would prefer not to.”

The basic instinct men have for what can be seen as monotony is a part of the way life is compartmentalized for them. For women, I often feel, life is all of a piece. Each part flows into the next, and women seem quite happy to think about or do several things at once.

Men are not that talented, and part of what has become an aversion to change is really just a man’s way of putting certain things on automatic pilot so he doesn’t have to think and act on them, so he can focus his attention on whatever he believes is important.

If one attacks life freshly and alertly each day, there are millions of decisions that will have to be made. A man feels overwhelmed by them. busy mom

So whatever can be decided by rote — the shirt, the socks, the route to work — is preset and unaltered, so that he can expend his energy creatively at the office.

So it is a matter of priorities. For mothers, what must be attended to is whatever minor emergencies present themselves, in whatever order they occur. The baby needs changing, the third-grader has skinned his knee, the teen-ager needs the car keys.

She cannot do as the man does and make a list of things in their order of importance, and address them in that order. Some men spend their whole lives on that list, rearranging it as new problems present themselves and never getting to the actual problems themselves.

Like many people, I used to think that gender differences are merely learned behaviors, but the older I get, the more I realize that the different wiring of men and women is more fundamental. If women are unhappy about the way men act, they shouldn’t immediately ask that men be different; you might as well ask that they have three arms instead of two.

It is more to the point to ask why they are as they are, whether tens of thousands of years ago on the veldt such behavior made a kind of genetic sense that in a 20th-century city is now obsolete.

Perhaps women as nurturers must keep their attention as widely spread as possible, so as not to miss the one kid headed for the pool while attending to the other’s bruised arm.

Men as protectors needed to focus their attention very narrowly, ignoring lesser commotions for the larger one of a preying lion or wolf.

At which point matching socks are kind of silly.

Books

I love travel, and next to that, reading about it. But most of what I read leaves me flat; most travel writers upholster their pages with supposedly useful bits of information meant to lead me to a favorite hotel or a great nude beach where I can buy the killer margarita.

Most travel writing is in essence consumer news, and consumerism is both shallow and boring. That is not what I seek when I open up a book. I want to be transported to the place the author writes about; if I cannot afford the airfare, I want the words on the page to vanish, leaving me underneath the palm trees or on the mountain crest. I want to feel the moist tropical breeze on my cheek.

The best writing is not about four-star restaurants, but about the experience of the place, whether hotel or Irish bog. I have found that happens most often not in the works of so-called travel writers, but in the works of those who are writers first, travelers only by happenstance.

Lawrence

Lawrence

That is because, ultimately, the travel experience happens not on the ground, but in the head. It is the digestive sensibility of a great writer that can suck the marrow out of an experience and present it to us for our own understanding and enjoyment.

”One says Mexico: One means, after all, one little town away south in the Republic,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in Corasmin and the Parrots. ”And in this little town, one rather crumbly adobe house built round two sides of a garden patio; and of this house, one spot on the deep shady veranda facing inwards to the trees, where there are an onyx table and three rocking-chairs and one little wooden chair, a pot with carnations, and a person with a pen.”

Now that puts you in a place. And a very particular place, seen through very particular eyes.

Miller

Miller

Henry Miller opens up his wonderful travel book, The Colossus of Maroussi, saying, ”I would never have gone to Greece had it not been for a girl named Betty Ryan who lived in the same house with me in Paris. One evening, over a glass of white wine, she began to talk of her experiences in roaming about the world. I always listened to her with great attention, not only because her experiences were strange, but because when she talked about her wanderings, she seemed to paint them: Everything she described remained in my head like finished canvases by a master. It was a peculiar conversation that evening: We began by talking about China and the Chinese language, which she had begun to study. Soon we were in North Africa, in the desert among people I had never heard of before. And then suddenly she was all alone, walking beside a river, and the light was intense and I was following her as best I could in the blinding sun, but she got lost and I found myself wandering about in a strange land listening to a language I had never heard before. She is not exactly a story teller, this girl, but she is an artist of some sort, because nobody has ever given me the ambience of a place so thoroughly as she did that of Greece.”

Miller then turns that favor over to us in his book. It is not just about a place, but about how a particular and intelligent sensibility interacts with a place.

Sometimes that happens in a novel, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Herman Melville’s Typee. These give us such a strong sense of being there that the plot sometimes seems little more than an excuse to travel to a new place to feel unfamiliar weather and sunlight.

But it is on their books specifically about travel that I mean to write. I’m sure you have your favorites, just as I have mine. Try some of these out next time you can’t afford two weeks in Tahiti:

1. Sea and Sardinia, by D.H. Lawrence. ”Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction.” His other travel books are just as direct, just as full of the feeling of life and energy, populated with odd and compelling personalities. Mornings in Mexico, Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places — if I were to name the single best travel writer, it would be Lawrence. colossus cover

2. The Colossus of Maroussi, by Henry Miller. Forget the four-letter Miller of the Paris gutter. His vision of Greece, uncorrupted by pious Classicism, is all about location, location, location. His American travel books, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare and Remember to Remember, are more episodic, but still among his best work.

3. The Encantadas, by Herman Melville. ”Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles.” Melville takes us to the Galapagos Islands and gives us all we know of them outside of Darwin.

4. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho. The greatest writer of Japanese Haiku takes us on a walking tour of the northern portions of Edo-period Japan. ”Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives traveling.”

5. The Desert, by John C. Van Dyke. One of the most peculiar books ever written, it is the love letter of an obsessed stalker to his beloved Southwest deserts. Written in 1901, it is full of the most effulgent language ever put to paper. And it would be pure breathless kitsch if every word weren’t the most truthful and accurate observation of the land.

”The reds are always salmon-colored, terra-cotta or Indian red; the greens are olive-hued, plum-colored, sage-green; the yellows are as pallid as the leaves of yellow roses. Fresh breaks in the wall of rock may show brighter colors that have not yet been weather-worn, or they may reveal the oxidation of various minerals. Often long strata and beds, and even whole mountain tops show blue and green with copper, or orange with iron, or purple with slates, or white with quartz. But the tones soon become subdued. A mountain wall may be dark red within, but it is weather-stained and lichen-covered without; long-reaching shafts of granite that loom upward from a peak may be yellow at heart but they are silver-gray on the surface. The colors have undergone years of ‘toning down’ until they blend and run together like the faded tints of an Eastern rug.”

Bartram

Bartram

6. Travels, by William Bartram. The full title gives us the wonderful 18th-century flavor of the book: Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or the Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together With Observations on the Manners of the Indians, Published in Philadelphia, 1791.

It is my favorite of any number of similar books that follow the author through what was at the time unknown and miraculous new territories. Jonathan Carver’s Travels through North America, from 1778, or William Dampier’s A New Voyage Around the World, from 1697, are full of ”travelers’ tales.”

Later, the journals of Lewis and Clark and of John James Audubon are full of the same sense of being there.

7. Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain. Such a classic, it hardly needs touting, but there is no more completely compelling vision of a river and the life that survives because of it.

8. California and the West, by Charis Wilson Weston. The reason most people pick up this book is for the historic photographs by Edward Weston. But the stories his wife, Charis, tells about their travels while making the photographs are a complete delight and present a picture of America between the wars with dusty roads, bad food and cheesy tourist traps.

9. Italian Journey, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The great German writer and natural philosopher managed to get into the spirit of Europe’s sunny south by meeting a bunch of Germans in Rome and rhapsodizing about Classical civilization. It is a funny, moving and infectious memoir, and I can’t put it down.

Thoreau

Thoreau

 

10. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, by Henry David Thoreau. This is only one of several quirky and idiosyncratic travel books by the Transcendentalist author. You could as well choose The Maine Woods, Cape Cod or A Yankee in Canada. How idiosyncratic? ”I fear I have not got much to say about Canada, not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold,” he writes. He also lies. He has got much to write about Canada.