29 May 2013


A meteorologist on public radio yesterday declared that the temperature for that day was about normal for this time of year. It was May 28 and the temperature hovered between 55 and 60 degrees. He said that on the same date last year the temperature reached 94 degrees.
            In fact, though April showers are supposed to bring May flowers, this year May showers may lead to June flowers, but little sun shine is forecast over into the first week of June, and there has been little Springtime weather in these here parts sufficient to raise the grass enough to require mowing. As this May concludes, I can remember a very few number of days when short sleeve shirts did not need to be layered under a sweater and on which I might don my summer shorts and sit outside and savor War and Peace. (Kutozov is in dire straits right now and Napoleon and his army march toward the Russians with the intent to destroy it. And the weather isn’t too favorable for them either!) I haven’t seen the sun in days!!
            Maybe the weather man is correct. Perhaps the present temperatures are, indeed, normal for this time of year. Perhaps the damp and the cold are not the result of global warming but are the result of the particular longitude and latitude in which I live. But I declare something is not right! Here it is the end of May and I have not experienced the mass exodus of the earthworms from their winter hibernation in the ground. In all the years that I recall (and that is not a few here in the mid-west), the warmer rains in April defrost and loosen the soil enough to permit the earthworms to crawl up onto the surface and wriggle about doing whatever earthworms do when they are not becoming food for birds. In a regular year these earthworms exit the ground and line the pathways in such vast numbers that it is almost impossible not to crush them as I wend my way somewheres else. Our car tires smash them into the concrete and our Wellington boots disfigure their front and rear ends.   But this year I have seen only one earthworm and it looked very lonely, even lost, out there on the path before the cabin. No, the lack of earthworms suggests that something is quite amiss. 

18 May 2013

On Covetousness

I am intrigued by a passage in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. The novel’s narrative consists of the words of John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa recounting for his seven-year-old son his own life and that of his father and his grandfather, both also ministers in Gilead. We learn that in the days leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Ames’ grandfather became a radical abolitionist and rode with John Brown during the raids into Kansas. The grandfather also served as chaplain for the Union armies and preached from his pulpit in Gilead the imperative of fighting this holy war. Ames’ father became a pacifist as a result of his father’s participation with John Brown and the slaughter and bloodshed that characterized the Civil War. John Ames’ first wife died along with the child in childbirth, and it is only at the age of sixty-seven that he marries again and fathers a childa sonto whom the writing is addressed. Finally, I believe that this novel is about the beauty of the diurnal: Ames writes to his son “Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing.” Ames reflects on the everyday matters and concerns of his life and of those about him and raises them to the level of the hallowed.
Anyway, the passage I refer to specifically concerns the time when Ames had been asked to baptize the son of his dearest friend, Boughton, who happens also to be the Presbyterian minister. Ames readily agrees, of course, and as part of the ceremony Ames asks Boughton “By what name do you wish this child to be called?” and Boughton responds, “John Ames.” And as he gave to his child the name of his dearest friend, Boughton wept with joy, an expression of the sincere love he felt for both the child and the man whose name he had just given to his child.
But John Ames expresses shock both by the act of the naming and by his friend’s open display of emotion. “It simply was not at all like Boughton to put me in a position like that. It was so un-Presbyterian, in the first place . . . It took me a while to forgive him for that.” Perhaps people are caught short by such open affection, and in this regard I appreciate the complexity of Ames’ response. But there was more to Ames’ reaction than a simple awkwardness at the public display of emotion. Because I think also that Ames holds that to have given to one’s son the name of one’s best friend seems an act of absolute love: if the name is synecdoche, then Boughton wishes his son to become in substance like his friend Ames. The exquisiteness of the act appalls Ames.
Ames says that what he felt was covetousness: “I thought, this is not my child,” and in that thought rejects the not only the gift but the child itself. In traditional Christian practice (I think), it is traditional to name a child after the father, and this naming identifies the child’s parent as Ames. What an enormous responsibility John Ames must have felt at such an honor. And I think his first response is to refuse such honor and such responsibility because it is so boundless.  He covets. And he says, “I do not know exactly what covetise is but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.”
What a remarkable reinscription of the 10th commandment. I am not even sure if ‘covetise’ is a wordI couldn’t find it in either the dictionary I own at home nor in the one that I use onlinebut that another’s actions might be so beautiful that I might be offended by the beauty startles me to attention. It is not that when I covet I want that which another has, nor that when I covet am I jealous of another’s possessions. Rather, to me Ames suggests that when I covet I feel in some way diminished by a beauty that appears in the world that I have not myself made. That is, when I covetise I reject the existence of a God so as to assume the very nature of God. When I covet I say that I am the sole source of the appearance of beauty and I accept beauty nowhere but in my own creation. I am offended by the actions of another that appropriates what is mine alone! To covet is not to want but to deny!

13 May 2013

I Concur . . .

In a 1974 interview, Joyce Carol Oates asks Philip Roth if he feels he has received unfair or inaccurate critical treatment. Roth’s answer intrigues me. He refers Oates to a “sharp and elegantly angry little essay called “Reviewing” by Virginia Woolf. She suggests in the essay that book journalism, by which she means the cursory book reviews that appear regularly in newspapers and magazines and even academic journals, “ought to be abolished (because 95 percent of it was worthless) and that the serious critics who do reviewing should put themselves out to hire to the novelists, who have a strong interest in knowing what an honest and intelligent reader thinks about their work.” Not having read the essay myself, I am not sure how a serious critic might establish her/his credentials to achieve the position, but that might for the moment be neither here nor there. That critic would hire herself out for a fee per hour and might consult “privately and profoundly” with the author about his/her work. Woolf writes, says Roth: “ . . . they would consult upon the book in question. . . . The consultant would speak honestly and openly, because the fear of affecting sales and of hurting feelings would be removed. Privacy would lessen the shop-window temptation to cut a figure, to pay off scores. . . .  He could thus concentrate upon the book itself, and upon telling the author why he likes or dislikes it. The author would profit equally. He could state his case. He could point to his difficulties. He would no longer feel, as so often at present, that the critic is talking about something that he has not written. . . .”
            What a wonderful and fascinating proposal. I think what Woolf is suggestingand that Roth advocates in his citation of herthat good criticism engages in conversation and not pronouncement, and that the good critic has much to learn from the author before the former can begin to appreciate the work itself. At which point I suspect any writing about the work would change significantly.
            How much would I pay to sit down with Philip Roth to discuss my Symphony. The preceding is a statement and not a question. 

07 May 2013

Reading Still and Active

I am always a bit troubled by an author’s use in autobiography or memoir of the second and third person self-referential pronouns, as does Jeanette Winterson when she states in her memoir Why Be Normal When You Can Be Happy? how reading facts is of little value to “your” life.  I think that this custom of employing the second person is a normalizing ploy that pins me to the author’s consciousness and defines me as identical to the author; or else the use of the third person is a narrative self-alienating device that presumes a measure of objectivity (as in Paul Auster’s Winter Journal), or becomes a mask to assumes an invisibility, as in Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Nevertheless, I do tend to agree with Winterson (which is why I have written her words in my journal) that facts offer me little insight into my life.  My life is not the concatenation of facts, but becomes, instead, the responses to the events I refer to as facts. Reading awakens my responses and when all goes well calls up emotions and feelings I forgot that I remembered. Winterson writes, “We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury. Our bodies remember. Our neurotic states remember. But we don’t” (162). Now, I prefer not to separate my body from my self, and I discount the presence of some homunculus that assumes the task of concealing that which we prefer not to view. I like to think that we are always our neurotic states.  Czeslaw Milosz writes in his memoir, Native Realm, “Certain periods of our lives are difficult to remember. They are like the jumbled dreams out of whose obscure depths only one ore two details emerge clearly. This means we have not mastered our material and insofar as the past is at all decipherablehave not deciphered its hidden contents.” Milosz and Winterson suggest to me that it is only hubris that leads me to trust the facts as my sole resource for understanding my self and my world. In “the Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin, in his essay exploring Tolstoy’s theory of history, a theory with which I think Berlin has great sympathy, says that Tolstoy acknowledges that we are all

immersed and submerged in a medium that, precisely to the degree to which we inevitably take it for granted as part of ourselves, we do not and cannot observe as if from the outside; cannot identify, measure and seek to manipulate, cannot even be wholly aware of, too closely interwoven with all that we are and do to be lifted out of the flow . . . and observed with scientific detachment, as an object. Itthe medium in which we aredetermines our more permanent categories, our standards of truth and falsehood, and the peripheral, of the subjective and the objective of the beautiful and the ugly, of movement and rest, of past, present and future, of one and many; hence, neither these, nor any other explicitly conceived categories or concepts, can be applied to it . . .
The facts offer limited knowledge. Tolstoy was aware of the “sheer de facto difference which divide and forces which disrupt the human world [and was] utterly incapable of being deceived by the many subtle devices, the unifying systems and faiths and sciences, by which the superficial and desperate sought to conceal the chaos from themselves and from one another.
Literature offers to me an alternative perspective. Milosz says, “It is enough that we realize to what extent thought and word are incommensurable with reality. Then it is possible to set one’s limits consciously.” To know for sure is to surely not know. In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Nathan Zuckerman furtively observes Faunia and Coleman at a concert and intuits that Coleman had told Faunia, his lover, the great secret he has trusted to no one else. Zuckerman writes: “How do I know she knew? I don’t. I couldn’t know that either. I can’t know. Now that they’re dead, nobody can know. For better or worse, I can only do what everyone does who think they now. I imagine. I am forced to imagine. It happens to be what I do for a living. It is my job.” So is it with me: I am driven to the book by not knowing, for though I know I cannot know, I can imagine. To imagine is why I read.

01 May 2013

In 1964

I’m re-viewing the situation:
In 1964, I purchased my first rock n’ roll album: Meet the Beatles. I would then have been a junior in high school, and the date would put me at seventeen years old. I thought I knew a few things, but I probably I didn’t know all that much. I can remember entering Floyd’s Department Store (a very, very early incarnation of what Wal-Mart et al. would become) with the purchase price of less than $3.00 for the album in my pocket. I am fairly certain of that price because years later when I actually earned an adult income as a teacher of $7,300.00 (!) a year, every two weeks I would invest $10.00 of my take-home teacher salary at Sam Goody’s Music Store to establish my essential collection of rock n’ roll albums. In 1969, one learned a great deal about a person then by perusing through the record albums stacked about on wooden shelves that were held up on concrete blocks. Then, I was building my image and my collection, or vice versa.
But of 1964: I don’t now remember whence the money derived: it is doubtful that my parents would have given me the money to buy an album of what they referred to as these flop-headed British lads whose very appearance threatened my parent’s neat little fictitious world. I do not remember ever being assigned an allowance, nor did I have some other source of income. Even if I had been assigned an allowance allotment, my father’s preoccupations with economic and psychic survival forever led him to forget to give it to me. Sometimes, I think, he didn’t even have sufficient funds in his pocket to afford an allowance. It was certain that I did not have a regular paying job, though sometimes I somehow managed to acquire some funds. The Beatles album was released in January and so the money might have come from having shoveled snow out of neighborhood driveways, though I do not recall that this endeavor ever resulted in much employment or income. Certainly that the money was not earned in our driveway was clear: this onerous job was just something for which as a family member I was responsible as was my father for going to work and my mother for maintaining the household, though my father often failed in business and my mother maintained a full time housecleaner. Indeed, shoveling snow was actually the only household chore to which I might have been regularly assigned, though I do seem to recall a brief turn at a paper route delivering either Newsday or The Long Island Press, the latter one of many now defunct newspapers. Of that enterprise I remember only a single household where two shiny pennies served for my weekly tip! Two pieces of Bazooka bubble gum could be purchased with the two cents, but my dentist with whom I was all-too-familiar frowned upon such purchase.
Anyway, somehow I carried wadded in my pocket into Floyd’s Department Store a quantity of money mysteriously obtained sufficient to purchase the album: I had determined to meet the Beatles. At this remove my motives are vague: I cannot recall if it was their ubiquity or their music that appealed to me most, or if it just seemed to be the moment that I had chosen to enter the youth album culture. I had previously owned only 45rpm discs, and though I know how they were played, I do not remembering every playing them except perhaps at make-out parties on Friday and Saturday nights. I preferred the radio, and the Beatles’ music had been flooding the radio airwaves that year--WMCA’s Murray the K and WABC’s Cousin Brucie were the most obvious and popular disseminators of the music—and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sounded everywhere. I wanted someone’s hand to hold, or for lack of that, to at least have someone express my longing. I really don’t remember what exactly inspired me to purchase Meet the Beatles, but I am attaching not a small piece of rebellion to the acquisition: this album represented a sustained experience—it was a whole thirty-minute album—at which many parents looked askance or with alarm or with condescending bemusement. I purchased Meet the Beatles, but I do not have clear memories of listening to it all that much: I think it was the purchase and not the product that was important. The album remains stacked neatly downstairs in the basement, but I no longer own a turntable on which it might be played, and it was not one of the albums I replaced with its compact disc. Now, I want much more than merely to hold someone’s hand.
That I recall this purchase suggests that I have attached some significance to it, an importance that the event has developed even if the memory is not now accompanied by any strong feeling. But perhaps it can be that somehow importance becomes separated from strength of feeling by defense mechanisms. I am seeking some connection between the feeling and the event. Or perhaps I mean to create one. Patricia Hampl says that the real job of the memoirist—and this essay is part of the memoirist project—is to stalk the relationship “seeking the congruence between stored image and hidden emotion.” Of course, I recognize that one can be physically and legally restrained from being a stalker, and my psychic defenses are sensitive to the approach of dangerous knowledge and would shift immediately into protective positions. Proust and his madeleine notwithstanding, I think that when an emotion is hidden it means to stay concealed, and it becomes revealed often serendipitously in action (for example, eating the innocent cookies) or in some random word or scene, and the memory’s emotion begins first in the body and becomes only then named in reflection. Hence, the composition of Remembrance of Things Past. The emotion I realize will be not discovered but re-experienced and I will then name it.
            I am reviewing the situation.