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Inexhaustability: drink it up

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In "Snow," Louis MacNeice wrote of "the drunkenness of things being various," but I also enjoy a drunkenness of things being synonymous.  Take, for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard's experience of a painting of clouds by John Constable, recounted in his memoir, My Struggle:

[S]uddenly he is in tears, arrested by "an oil sketch of a cloud formation from September 6, 1822," and unable to explain his reaction.  What is he feeling?  "The feeling of inexhaustibility.  The feeling of beauty.  The feeling of presence."  He has always been unsettled by paintings, but he has never found it easy to describe his experience of them -- "because of what they possessed, the core of their being, was inexhaustibility and what that wrought in me was a kind of desire.  I can't explain it any better than that.  A desire to be inside the inexhaustibility."

This passage from James Woods' The New Yorker review of My Struggle stayed with me because I did not understand Knausgaard's use of "inexhaustibility."  An avid devotee of visual art myself, I did not identify with the quality that Knausgaard found so salient. 

Poussin_Rinaldo_Armida_small.jpgAnd then, as chance provided, I read Louis MacNeice's poem, "Poussin," and I understood.  In "Poussin," MacNeice describes the experience of gazing upon "that Poussin" in which "the clouds are like golden tea" and "cupids' blue feathers beat musically."  The motion in the painting he characterizes as "still as when one walks and the moon / Walks parallel but relations remain the same":

And thus we never reach the dregs of the cup,
Though we drink it up and drink it up and drink it up
Yes, exactly: the experience is inexhaustible.  Return always and be nourished again.  Our only counterbalance to mortality: drink it up while we can.

Image of John Constable's "Cloud Study: evening," from the National Gallery of Australia; image of Nicolas Poussin's "Rinaldo and Armida" from WikiPaintings.

Birds of a feather

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Among the pleasures of reading a good book is reliving the pleasures of other wonderful texts it evokes.  Among the pleasures of reading The Age of Innocence was the breadth of references it summoned.  More than a hundred years -- and a gulf of sensibilities, aesthetics and styles of humor -- separate the two that resonate most deeply for me: Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, and Stephen Dobyns' "Spiritual Chickens." 

Wharton's novel owes so much (including its protagonist's last name) to James' Portrait that mentioning the debt borders on pedantry.  Wharton would likely be so appalled by Dobyns that the connection risks absurdity.  And yet the two references serve to reinforce the same idea: that our choices about how to engage with the multi-layered nature of reality (to perceive, to deny) define us.

In Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer takes the measure of unyielding reality in a scene when she sits thinking long into the night.  She has deluded herself into marrying the wrong man.  She sees through her illusions to the unpleasant substance of her husband Osmond's personality.  She realizes also an intimacy between Osmond and a family friend, Madame Merle, who introduced them.  The sleep-deprived and hermetic intensity of her thought succeeds in disturbing the surface of her reality and rearranges the relations between herself, Osmond and Merle.  Although Isabel is not ready to articulate her newfound understanding to herself, she comprehends that Merle and Osmond are collaborators in some manipulation against her.

The scene finds its parallel in The Age of Innocence when Newland Archer hosts the first formal dinner of his marriage to mark the occasion of the departure of the love his life, Madame Ellen Olenska.  Newland has been blindsided by Ellen's announcement of her return to Europe, and he is barely functional:

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated where between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.  As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless looking [dinner guests] . . . as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right [Ellen] as the centre of their conspiracy.  And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers . . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything . . . .
Like Isabel Archer, Newland Archer arrives at this moment of revelation after a process of delusion.  Unable to possess Ellen Olenska physically and share his intellectual and emotional intimacies with her in the course of quotidian living,

he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings.  Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions.  Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absentminded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.  Absent -- that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.
This habit of absenteeism reaches its apotheosis at book's end, when Newland Archer opts not to meet Ellen Olenska again, after 27 years.  "'It's more real to me here [on a bench outside her flat] than if I went up [to meet her]', he suddenly heard himself say."

In this behaviour, Newland Archer anticipates the unnamed protagonist of Stephen Dobyns' brilliant poem, "Spiritual Chickens."  Confronted by a chicken he has eaten seven years ago, a chicken returned to the earthly plain because of overcrowding on the spiritual one, a man "runs out of his house / flapping his arms and making peculiar hops."

Faced with the choice between something odd
in the world or something broken in his head,
he opts for the broken head.  Certainly,
this is safer than putting his opinions
in jeopardy.
. . . .
As it is he is constantly being squeezed
between the world and his idea of the world.
Better to have a broken head -- why surrender
his corner on truth? -- better to just go crazy.
Sadly for Newland Archer, he's not as interesting as Dobyns' protagonist.  He has opted to go AWOL instead of crazy, abandoned his life instead of cracking it.  But the fault runs along the same line: cowardice.

A little more than a hundred and thirty years ago, Henry James set out to tell the story of a woman colliding with her destiny; today we might describe her less grandiosely, as a woman "constantly being squeezed / between the world and [her] idea of the world."  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: however worded, the situation remains the crucible of our character, and the measure of our worth.  Embrace of the depths of reality yields the only guaranteed rewards of this existence ("the flower of life" in Wharton's words); avoidance reaps failure.      

And The Age of Innocence?  By providing the opportunity to draw a line between Isabel Archer's gloomy insomnia and Stephen Dobyns' delightful ghost chicken, the harvest has been sheer pleasure. 

Image of Edith Wharton from The New York Times website; image of Henry James from New York University website.

Decency above courage

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Moralizing around Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is difficult to resist.  The book's unsatisfying resolution defies attempts to file it away under "well-constructed story about the age-old conflict between individual self-realization and familial constraint."  Wharton makes so concrete Newland Archer's sacrifice of the love of his life, Ellen Olenska, that the mind demands some purpose to redeem the carnage that has deprived Newland Archer of "the flower of life."  The affront of the novel's conclusion begs the question: what is the meaning of this? 

Closing the book and musing on what I had learned, I was most immediately struck by how The Age of Innocence illustrates that courage is not so much a quality as a discipline.  Without practice, a person cannot exercise it.

In giving up Olenska, Archer capitulates to "the old New York way" of placing "decency above courage."  Decency arises from the discharge of duties, and duties in turn convey dignity: as Wharton explains, Archer's two-and-a-half decade marriage "had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty." 

Dignity, of course, is necessary for human happiness and the realization of individual potential.  But the dignity deriving from duty, though critical for social stability and integral to moral engagement with one's family and community, is not without its drawbacks: "The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else." 

Specifically, it "unfits" one for acts of courage: by the novel's last page, Archer cannot face meeting Olenska again; cannot face his emotions so long under wraps ("He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime"); cannot face modernity ("Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough"); cannot face reality ("It's more real to me here than if I went up [to meet her]"). 

The dignity of duty is necessary, but not sufficient, for a fully lived life.

Of course, in the choice between courage and decency, dignity is a common element: it flows as much from acts of bravery as from the discharge of duty.  The difference arises elsewhere.  Courage is a more destabilizing value to cultivate: courageous people are much more difficult to control than decent ones.  But courage is also more nourishing than decency: courageous people have a much better chance both of attaining "the flower of life" and of simultaneously being good people. 

Ellen Olenska herself demonstrates this possibility.  She is courageous: defying social convention, and at personal and financial loss, she leaves her husband.  She tries to establish a satisfying life in New York, and (again, flouting conventions) she negotiates various degrees of independence (physically and geographically, though not financially) from her family, who find her difficult to control.  She is, at the same time, a woman bound by duties: she undertakes the care of her aunt, Medora (who had raised her), and she refuses any betrayal of her cousin, May Welland, despite her love of May's husband, Newland Archer.  When May manipulatively reveals that she is pregnant, Ellen abandons her efforts at living in the United States and retreats to Europe so as to snuff any possibility that she and Newland can consummate their love.

Although Ellen Olenska's flight snaps the bud of Newland Archer's life before it can bloom, she herself is not so disabled.  He has lost the love of his life and spends the next twenty-six years in a tomb ("a deathly sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in on [Newland Archer] like the doors of the family vault"). 

The indicators suggest that her fate is otherwise.  She has suffered a grievous loss, certainly; but her balance of courage, dignity and duty have enabled her to enjoy a full life before Newland Archer (one enriched perhaps more by pain than joy, but she has known ecstasy as well), and she will continue to do so after Newland Archer.  

Courage has fitted her for life.

Image of Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's film version of The Age of Innocence from Gonemovie.com.

Gordon's hammer

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Gambling is a turn-off for me on a variety of grounds.  First, boredom.  If I make an effort, I am capable of enjoying a game of chance, but fundamentally outcomes determined by chance, rather than effort, frustrate me.  And frustration is boring.  Second, aesthetics.  Las Vegas is vulgar.  Race tracks are ugly.  OTB is seedy.  Lotteries are cheap.  

Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule overcame my prejudices -- captivated me before prejudice came into it -- by pointedly undermining both these objections.  I loved spending time in this novel -- "in" being warranted by its transporting prose that invoked a fresh imaginative space, as well as a seemingly altered physical state.  I didn't take my pulse while reading, but I bet it slowed, so relaxed was the pleasure I took in the plot's unhurried unfurling.  So: not boring.  And: not aesthetically offensive.  To the contrary, though the novel canvasses an impressively broad array of ugliness, the writing imbues life with that rare and treasured quality: beauty.

What most impressed me, though, was the novel's gentle inversion of my hierarchies.  Roughly speaking, I don't respect the way addicts deal with the world.  I recognize that not all gamblers are addicts, but I respect non-addict gamblers even less than the addicts: the non-addicts, at least, have some control over their behaviour. 

And yet what I felt for the gamblers in Lord of Misrule was not contempt, but empathy.  Luck is the nasty wild card in the pack from which we all draw.  However meritorious our hand, the unworthy get lucky, and the deserving go unrewarded.  This situation is reality.  It's also very difficult to accept.  Nor do we like to discuss it or remember it.  The role of luck in the lives of every successful person is not unlike the diagnosis of a venereal disease: unspeakable, forgotten or ignored if possible.  For this condition, Chekhov prescribed his hammer ("At the door of every happy person there should be a man with a hammer whose knock would serve as a constant reminder of the existence of unfortunate people").

Gordon discusses it unforgettably.  Her gamblers are the unrewarded.  Worthy and unworthy alike, they are undone by chance.  Gambling is part of their ritual for trying to keep it together, part of their fight to thrive.  Their stakes are no different from those of the Greek and Roman protagonists wrestling fate: life and (sometimes) death; but, even if not death, unbidden metamorphosis, radical change, upheaval. 

Yet despite the epic stakes, these gamblers have none of the distancing glamour of mythic forerunners.  Losers, all of them, they are above everything accessible.  They invite embrace and seem to reciprocate, even without being lovable, or even particularly likable.  In their company, the enormous role of luck comes to seem, if not acceptable, at least bearable.  Even, at times, beautiful.

Image of
young Jaimy Gordon from a 1983 interview in Gargoyle Magazine.

Happy endings, horror-style

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The Haunting of Hill House casts a pleasant pall, inducing in the reader a physical state of mild anxiety that seasons, as much as it quickens, the page-turning.  And the book contains one truly dreadful scene that left me revolted: in the middle of the night, Nell and Theodora sit up in their beds, holding hands in the dark and cold -- holding so tightly they can feel the bones in each others' hands -- listening to ghostly babbling from the next room.  Then the sound of a child being hurt and crying interrupts the babbling, and Nell summons the courage to shout, "Stop it!"  At which point, the dark dissipates, the light is on, and Theodora wakes, asking Nell why she is shouting.  Nell (and I!) are overcome by the question:  "whose hand was I holding?"  (p. 120.)

But for all the marvelous frightfulness of The Haunting of Hill House, the scary aspect of the story is not the supernatural manifestations of evil.  To the contrary, the terror arises from the profound -- ordinary, realistic -- isolation that Nell suffers.  Although Nell tells herself that she is a "human, . . . a walking reasoning humorous human being," (p. 120), humans are social animals, and Nell consistently endures deprivation of normal social contact.  Instead of being mothered, Nell must nurse her mother through illness.  Friendless and jobless, Nell lives on the despised periphery of her sister's family.  Nell is so without succor that when she needs support, she thinks back to an encounter with a stranger, an old lady who promised in passing to pray for Nell.

Nell's exile from the terrain of familial, communal and social human interaction -- from the web of human connections against which our identities emerge -- from the context humans need to be human -- evokes another heroine of another iconic ghost story: the governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  The governess also appears without recourse to necessary human support: her boss has instructed her never to contact him, and she seems to lack intimates (parents, siblings, friends) who can provide her with guidance.  That neither woman has a paramour or husband goes without saying; indeed, the implicit assumption is that both women are virgins -- unloved, unwanted, adult innocents.

The significance of these protagonists' ambiguous social standing is not, as Edmund Wilson would have it, that socially neglected women are likely to be sexual hysterics prone to hallucinations, but that the liminal space both women inhabit is the horror in these stories.  Nell and the governess belong nowhere -- no lover, people or home claims them (with the caveat that evil Hill House does exert claim over Nell, which explains part of her attraction to it) -- but they have done nothing to warrant such exile: they lack even the definition of the banished.  The mechanics of their bodies function, and their physical existence confirms "life," but human life has only theoretical existence outside the context of human society.  As social animals denied the "social," Nell and the governess live in earthly purgatory; like the category-transgressing "dead restored" (p. 64) -- Quint and Miss Jessel -- in The Turn of the Screw, Nell and the governess are, in a sense, themselves ghosts.         

In both stories, our horror derives from the plausibility of such a fate.  The supernatural manifestations and the deaths they precipitate in both books are a relief -- a venting of the tension arising from the unavoidable risk we all bear of occupying in our life times a purgatory, of finding ourselves in the borderlands between the living and the dead.  By this measure, death, with its unambiguous finality, is a kind of happy ending.

That thought brought me lingering sadness as I closed The Haunting of Hill House: what a miserable person Nell was, and what a pathetic life she led.  The total absence of redemption -- neither cruel nor sentimental, but simply fact -- is the scariest aspect of this book, and the way Jackson guides the reader to this culminating truth and supports our absorption of it is a triumph.

Image of Shirley Jackson from www.shirleyjackson.org.

Beautiful and useful

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David Orr: a likeable critic in my book.  I've read him in The New York Times Book Review for years now, and I find him reliably worthwhile.  He supports his critiques clearly and logically.  His writing is impartial, light and entertaining.  When he says something's good, I understand why; and when calls a bad poem a bad poem, his judgment seems fair, not mean-spirited or ungenerous.

These wonderful qualities are present in abundance in Orr's book, Beautiful and Pointless.  It's a quick and lovely read, a kind of beach book for poetry lovers, and I mean that as a highest compliment.  The pleasures it affords have more in common with, say, badinage enjoyed at a lively, rejuvenating high tea, than with the rewards of solitary repose in the presence of depths of emotion and intellect.  Which is not to say those depths aren't there: just that their weight doesn't intrude on the fun.

DM_Thomas.jpgAll the same, I do have a complaint.  In Beautiful and Pointless, Orr does not say about poetry what I think is important about poetry.  And I want to have my own opinions reinforced by this delightful and knowledgeable public expert.  I really wish he would have accommodated me.   

What do I think is important about poetry?  I'm glad someone asked.  I read poetry for two reasons.  First, poetry enables access to irrational terrain.  Humans are hard-wired for rhythm, perhaps because of the heart, our fundamental drum.  Rhythm is our sixth sense: it enables us to absorb and process information from our surroundings in a manner similar to the other five senses.  And just as the taste of a madeleine sent Proust into the reverie of À la recherche du temps perdu, perception of a rhythm can guide us into the often-unnavigable regions of our irrational selves.  Music and poetry are our arts of rhythm, and they open us in ways that remain closed when our approach is strictly rational, verbal and logical. 

Second, the relationship between poetry and prose is one of mutual enrichment.  I recall Kay Ryan saying (where, I wish I could remember) that, after waking, she would return to bed with tea and toast and prose, and read until something sparked an impulse to write a poem.  Her description of her method struck me because, at the time, I was reading poems each day before sitting down to work on my second novel, The Swing of Beijing

Stephen_Dobyns2.jpgNor has it escaped my notice that my favorite contemporary writers are poet-novelists: DM Thomas and Stephyn Dobyns being two of the most prominent.  In The White Hotel, Thomas delivers in the long form narrative the visceral experience typically reserved for poetry.  In so doing, he affords modern readers the closest opportunity they're likely to have to know how ancient listeners of epic poems felt.  In Winter's Journey, Dobyns writes deceptive rambling monologues that seem like stream-of-consciousness portions of a novel, but in the aftermath resonate as if one's insides have been washed through a stream and sun dried in mountain air.  I don't know if reading poetry will make me a better novelist, but I'm willing to overdose on poetry in a quest to find out.

While I'm not surprised that Orr fails to list "will make Maya a better novelist" as a reason for reading poetry, poetry's capacities to support a richer and fuller experience of our own lives (through access to the irrational) and to augment our experience of literature (through its dialectic with prose) both strike me as core competencies deserving of mention. 

But Orr's focus is elsewhere.  A person who writes a book called Beautiful and Pointless is, logically enough, not so engaged with the functionality of his subject.  Also, notwithstanding the book's subtitle, "A Guide to Modern Poetry," the book might more accurately be termed, "A Guide to Modern Poets' Motivations."  Throughout his chapters on "The Personal," "The Political," "Ambition," and "The Fishbowl," Orr explains the conditions under which modern poets work and their mindsets and goals (to the extent they can be gleaned).  Orr's empathy for, and identification with, the poets is obvious and engaging. 

All the same, people have been writing, reading, reciting, and enjoying poetry for all of human history.  A medium capable of commanding that kind of attention is unlikely to be pointless.  David Orr is a great person to make that argument.  I wish he had.

Images of David Orr and Stephyn Dobyns from The Poetry Foundation.  Image of DM Thomas taken by Maya Alexandri.

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