In the 1960s and 1970s, when I used to dread the approach of another lonely weekend, I wished I could meet a girl like Eve Babitz, intelligent, articuIn the 1960s and 1970s, when I used to dread the approach of another lonely weekend, I wished I could meet a girl like Eve Babitz, intelligent, articulate, and drop-dead beautiful. And there she was, living just a few miles from me in Hollywood while I was in Santa Monica. Describing a friend of hers, "she lacked that element, raw and beckoning, that trailed like a vapor" behind her.
Like her first book, Eve's Hollywood, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. is a series of seemingly biographical essays with an admixture of fiction. Where the first book talked about Eve's teeny-bopper years in the 1960s, in her second she becomes the lovely, knowing score girl that everyone wants to meet ... and bed. She hung out with the likes of Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, artist Ed Ruscha, and gallery owner Walter Hopps.
What she writes about in Slow Days, Fast Company is about her friendships and relationships with people who are usually not identified with their last names; and even their first names could have been modified. In the end, it doesn't matter a bit. Eve knows success, and how it twists people so they becoming boring "celebrities" who rely on drugs and booze to get through the day. She writes;
But everyone knows that it would have been much better to have been popular in high school when your blood was clean, and pure lust and kisses lasted forever, Chocolate Cokes in high school are better than caviar on a yacht when you're forty-five. It's common knowledge.
Eve Babitz knew herself far better than most people, and she had a wicked sense of humor, as in this exchange:
The very next night I was having dinner with this fashionable young rich man who looked at me as I smoothed some paté over some toast and said, "You better watch out with that stuff. It'll make you fat."
"Well, gee," I said to him, "there are so many perfect women, it's just horrible you have to spend time sitting here with me."
Horrible indeed! No use being morose about it, however. Even if I never found an Eve Babitz, I can appreciate her discriminating mind even at this distant remove. This is a girl who did not believe in the viability of most relationships: "The real truth is that I've never known any man-woman thing to pan out (it may pan out to them, of course, but couples in middle age who don't speak to each other are not my idea of a good movie.)"
Eve Babitz in her time and place -- Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s -- was as good as they come. She is in many ways the best that Los Angeles has to offer. If you read her books, I think you will understand why. ...more
I used to think that Labyrinths or Ficciones was the best place to start reading the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Now I think the place to start is A PI used to think that Labyrinths or Ficciones was the best place to start reading the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Now I think the place to start is A Personal Anthology, which is an excellent mix of stories, short literary essays, and poems translated mostly by Alastair Reid and Anthony Kerrigan.
Here you will find "Death and the Compass," "The South," "Funes the Memorious," "The Zahir," "The Aleph" and several other of best best fictions along with such essays as "A New Refutation of Time" and "The Modesty of History." Poems are interspersed between the fictions and the essays.
It would take pages to describe the influence that Borges has had on my reading and even my writing, and this over a period of some forty-five years -- ever since I first heard about him by reading a critical survey in The New Yorker, I think by George Steiner. Since then, I have accumulated everything I could find by him in English, and not a few in the original Spanish. Over the years, I have read many of the books multiple times, only to find them to be new every time I approach them. ...more
Albert Camus is one of the great consciences of the 20th century, along with Adam Michnik of Poland, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, and Aleksander SoAlbert Camus is one of the great consciences of the 20th century, along with Adam Michnik of Poland, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn of Russia. The essays in Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays come from the 1940s and 1950s. The subjects dealt with include Nazism, Hungary (1956), capital punishment, Algeria, and the moral responsibility of the writer.
The more I read of Camus, the more I admire him -- as a writer, as a philosopher, and as a political thinker. When he died in that 1960 car crash, we lost someone we badly needed in this era of moral ambiguity....more
How can I reasonably be expected to review a book which, over a space of some forty-five years, has become central to my existence? Ever since I was fHow can I reasonably be expected to review a book which, over a space of some forty-five years, has become central to my existence? Ever since I was first introduced to Jorge Luis Borges in a New Yorker review around 1969-70, when Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings and Ficciones were first published in the United States.
Since then, I have been following Borges's leads, which have led to to visit Iceland and Argentina (twice each), to read G.K. Chesterton's essays and fictions, to look at American literature with new eyes, to re-evaluate Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling.
Labyrinths is the fruit of Borges's apogee in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s, he was more or less a spent force who, like his father, was going blind. Most of the book is taken up with his short fictions, including the best known ones, such as "Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius," "Death and the Compass," "Funes the Memorious," and "The Library of Babel." Following are some essays, which are hard to understand for most readers -- especially "A New Refutation of Time," ending with some short (and brilliant) parables and an excellent poem.
If I were still a young man starting out in life, I would have done the same thing upon reading this book. Still, at least once a day, some epiphany based on the author's observations, elbows its way into my consciousness, leaving me breathless. ...more
Little did I think when the read the first few pages of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes that, before long, I would be immersed in an essay about the gLittle did I think when the read the first few pages of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes that, before long, I would be immersed in an essay about the grief of losing one's wife. I can quote the paragraph where the book, quite suddenly, more than halfway through, changes gears:
Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven't. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven't. Later still -- at least if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) -- it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven't. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.
The book began as a kind of essay on lighter-than-air ballooning, with an interesting sidelight on photography. Then, in he second section, we meet Captain Fred Burnaby, an avid balloonist, who falls in love with Sarah Bernhardt. But it is not to be, she rejects him by simply switching partners, and he goes on to marry a young woman who becomes ill and must spend the rest of her life in a sanatorium in the Alps for consumptives. He fights with Gordon in Khartoum, and dies of a spear thrust at the Battle of Abu Klea.
Early in the third and last section, Barnes tells us what the book is really about -- namely, what happens to his life when his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, dies of cancer, leaving her husband to realize that there is no simple and sure-fire way of dealing with protracted grief:
Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that -- if it is not moral in its effect -- then love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure. Whereas grief, love's opposite, does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living.
I have often wondered what would happen to me if I would lose Martine. I see myself on a long journey, taking interminable bus rides in Patagonia perhaps, where the desolation would mirror my own insides. Or else, I would not. It is possible I would live the rest of my life as an unfinished conversation with my departed little French girl that continues despite strange looks from my friends. Who knows?
In the meantime, I will try to live while I can. It's a mistake not to. ...more
I have not read such an eye-opening book by a scientist since I used to read Loren Eiseley's work years ago. This short book of essays by MIT scientisI have not read such an eye-opening book by a scientist since I used to read Loren Eiseley's work years ago. This short book of essays by MIT scientist Alan Lightman looks at the universe from several points of view, first from the point of view of its origin, its evanescence, the spiritual dimension, symmetry, size, the laws of nature, and ending up with our strange disembodied universe in which we use electronic tools that somehow mirror the discombobulation associated with quantum mechanics. At one point, he writes:
Evidently, our impression that solid matter can be localized, that it occupies only one position at a time, is erroneous. The reason that we have not noticed the "wavy" behavior of matter is because such behavior is pronounced only at the small size of atoms. At the relatively large sizes of our bodies and other objects that we can see and touch, the wavy behavior of particles is only a tiny effect. But if we were subatomic in size, we would realize that we and all other objects do not exist at one place at a time but instead are spread out in a haze of simultanous existences at many places at once.
This reminds me of Einstein's own problems with quantum entanglement, which he called "spooky action at a distance."
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is full of insights like these. What is more, it puts them together is a neat package that does not require mathematical formulas and complicated graphs and charts. Lightman deals with his subject matter using easily understood concepts and plain, simple language.
Back in January, I printed a quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or. A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in NorfoBack in January, I printed a quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or. A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk (1658). A reader named Kevin Faulkner took me to task for essentially taking the easy way out and not quite coming to terms with the work of the 17th century scientist, divine, and mystic. He recommended that I read the companion piece Browne published in the same year, entitled The Garden of Cyrus, or, the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered with Sundry Observations.
This week, I finally got around to reading The Garden of Cyrus. When confronting such a powerful mind as Browne’s, with his phenomenal erudition, recall, and powers of observation, I must confess to feeling unworthy. Never before has prose risen to such poetic heights, with a level of difficulty that approaches Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The following comes early in the first chapter:
Wherein the decussis is made within a longilaterall square, with opposite angles, acute and obtuse at the intersection; and so upon progression making a Rhombus or lozenge configuration, which seemeth very agreeable unto the originall figure; Answerable whereunto we observe the decussated characters in many consulary Coynes, even even those of Constantine and his Sons, which pretend their character in the Sky; the crucigerous Ensigne carried this figure, not transversely or rectangularly intersected, but in a decussation, after the form of an Andrean or Burgundian cross, which answereth this description.
Now this is in no wise to be considered as light reading. Yet there is a Greco-Roman sense of majesty in which Browne takes the simple shape illustrated above, inspired by the tree planting pattern of Cyrus in ancient Persia, as one of the basic patterns in nature and art. And ultimately in the mind of God.
Browne goes far beyond the lattice-work in nature and botany to a mystical consideration of the shape and of the number five, which it suggests in the Quincunx pattern, with a tree in the center and one at each of the four points in a lozenge-shape surrounding the central tree. As Browne says in his conclusion in Chapter Five (the last chapter, appropriately): “All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven.”
Sir Thomas Browne is not a writer one can read once over lightly. Each of his powerful essays, including his Religio Medici, begs to be accepted as a vade mecum to which the reader will return again and again.
And what does the reader gain? Actually, the erudition and complex latinate vocabulary by itself is not the reason for a further acquaintance: Rather, it is the way in which the towering speculations of the author are in the humble service of his God. For Browne, there is no conflict between science and Christianity. They complement each other at every turn.
Somehow, I feel as if my dreams tonight will be of rhombuses and quincunxes extending into the heavens, from the smallest parts of creation even unto the stars.
If you are even moderately interested in a difficult and rewarding author, I suggest you read his essays, and also look of Kevin Faulkner’s excellent website entitled The Aquarium of Vulcan, which deals rather more substantially with Browne than I am able to at this time....more
It is difficult for a practicing Christian to write a book about losing a beloved wife without sounding a bit too pat to someone whose beliefs are difIt is difficult for a practicing Christian to write a book about losing a beloved wife without sounding a bit too pat to someone whose beliefs are different. And yet, I do think Lewis was honest with himself: When his wife Joy died of cancer, his recovery involved a kind of hide and seek with God.
Throughout this short book, Lewis maintains his high standards of writing and comes up with such painfully honest observations as the following:
Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears. For in grief nothing "stays put." One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
It is fortunate that I have never lost the woman I love. My losses are my forebears: My father, mother, and great-grandmother. To cope with their loss, which was most harsh for me, I wound up internalizing them, seeing them as part of the person I have become, and turning inside toward myself to ask for their advice.
What I Saw in America is less about what G.K. Chesterton saw in America than what the idea of America meant to him as an Englishman. Not a word is saiWhat I Saw in America is less about what G.K. Chesterton saw in America than what the idea of America meant to him as an Englishman. Not a word is said about whether GKC took the train or any Mississippi River steamboats, what he ate, whether he visited anyone at home, whether he saw any of the country's vaunted beauty spots, or anything of the sort that would appear in a Lonely Planet guidebook.
What we have in this book are a series of essays on the subject of America. Chesterton was here on a lecture tour, so he really did not act the part of a tourist.
One thing I found interesting is that the author thinks (from his vantage point during the Harding Administration) that lip service was paid to democracy, but that many Americans are being ground into wage slavery if not actual slavery:
So far as democracy becomes or remains Catholic and Christian, that democracy will remain democratic. In so far as it does not, it will become wildly and wickedly undemocratic. Its rich will riot with a brutal indifference far beyond the feeble feudalism which retains some shadow of responsibility or at least of patronage. Its wage-slaves will either sink into heathen slavery, or seek relief in theories that are destructive not merely in method but in aim; since they are but the negation of the human appetites of property and personality.
Given the 2016 Presidential Race now in progress, these seem prophetic words.
One thing on which we can always rely on Chesterton for is his very genuine sense of democracy. It is possible to read on for page after page, only to be stopped dead in one's tracks with some truism expressed with style and verve. ...more
Van Wyck Brooks is not much of a popular writer these days. What he did instead of analyzing the early years of American literature was to celebrate iVan Wyck Brooks is not much of a popular writer these days. What he did instead of analyzing the early years of American literature was to celebrate it. His The World of Washington Irving was a pageant in which the literary figures of the United States between 1800 and 1840 pass in review.
The emphasis is on Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe; but he looks forward to the New England greats he was to explore in The Flowering of New England. At the same time, he reminds us of minor writers such as William Bartram, Audubon, N. P. Willis and John Lloyd Stephens, as well as painters such as Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.
I can think of few books I have read that have so many footnotes that I loved to read. If Brooks is a slow read, it is because he wants to share with us more information than he can fit in the main body of the text.
Brooks was a popular writer of my parents' generation, so fortunately one can frequently find good copies of his work in used book stores. I feel that if this were not such a conflicted time in our own history as a nation, that Brooks would be rediscovered and reprinted. ...more
This essay by Henry David Thoreau is about the author's joy in living in nature and in the present. Walking is a short read and nicely encapsulates maThis essay by Henry David Thoreau is about the author's joy in living in nature and in the present. Walking is a short read and nicely encapsulates many of Thoreau's themes from Walden Pond and his other works.
Nowadays almost all man's improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise. I looked again, and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy Stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.
I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveler thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road—follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth's surface where a man does not stand from one year's end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.
I live in an urban world in which I would have to drive at top sped for an hour and a half to get to the wildness of the desert, which Thoreau never knew. Most of my life is spent hemmed in by people, buildings, roads--and very little nature. Reading Thoreau, for me, is like nature porn. It excites me and makes me want to re-think my life....more
What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (197What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (1972), perhaps the most memorable of their science fiction novels. Then came Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker (1979), ostensibly based on it and, in fact, employing the Strugatsky brothers as screenwriters. Now there is Geoff Dyer's long essay entitled Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. This last is in a genre by itself, an extended commentary retelling the story of the film with lengthy footnoted riffs about how the film has impacted Dyer's life and imagination.
All three works are masterpieces in their own right. I have now read both books as well as seen the film, and I yearn to reacquaint myself with all three of them.
Is there something perhaps a little perverse about writing a ruminative essay about something that comes from something else. Have we somehow put ourselves too many removes from the original work by the Strugatsky brothers? Or does it matter, inasmuch as both Stalker and Zona are totally absorbing, as was Roadside Picnic.
Perhaps I should draw back a little and give you some idea of the world of the composite work of art I think of as “The Roadside Stalker Zone.” We are some time in the future, in a grimy post-industrial wasteland in a small country near an area once visited by extraterrestrials who just happened, for whatever reason, to leave strange inexplicable things behind -- including a room which, if you enter it, grants all your innermost desires. (Never mind that the only known person to have visited it, named Porcupine, hanged himself shortly thereafter.)
These zones formerly visited by the extraterrestrials (who have all moved on without getting their visas stamped) have been sealed off by the authorities. But there is an active "black market" of individuals called stalkers who take people to visit the zones and perhaps bring some things back -- things which are inexplicable. The children of these stalkers are themselves strange, like Monkey, the film's Stalker's daughter, who has the power of telekinesis, which we do not learn until the very end of the film.
Stalker takes two individuals, referred to only as the professor and the Writer, into the zone. Their journey is a journey of self-discovery. Do they enter the room? I do not wish to spoil the story for you, so I urge you to consume the entire triptych, in order of publication or release, to come to the same realization that I have arrived at: That Geoff Dyer is a phenomenal writer whose work I am going to enjoy reading in the months and years to come.
Years ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- ConfessioYears ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater -- is infinitely worth reading through to the end, and even returning to its glories at a later date.
De Quincey's opium habit led to his heterodox approach to life, which alternated between manic passages of glory to massive funereal threnodies, of which the following sentence from "The English Mail Coach" is but a sample: "I sate, and wept in secret the tears that men have ever given to the memory of those that died before the dawn, and by the treachery of earth, our mother."
Of the three essays in this volume, by far the best is the first, the eponymic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The second, Suspiria de Profundis, is also tinged by its author's drug habit, particularly in its most depressive phase. The shorter "The English Mail Coach," begins with youthful exultation and ends with a long meditation on an night collision with a gig when the one-eyed coachman drove while asleep. In that collision, De Quincey speculates that a young woman was killed, though we never know for sure.
There is a scholarly elegance to De Quincey's writing:
Oh, burthen of solitude, thou cleavest to man through every stage of his being -- in his birth, which has been -- in his life, which is -- in his death, which shall be -- mighty and essential solitude! that wast, and art, and art to be; -- thou broodest, like the spirit of God moving upon the surface of the deeps, over every heart that sleeps in the nurseries of Christendom.
De Quincey had an awesome background in the Greek and Latin classics, and his prose is mightily influenced by those two dead languages, but only in the best sense of the word.
There are some things that draw me to Chatwin, and others that repel me. On the one hand, he had this mania for travel that has been part of my life after since I broke free of my parents; and, as a former art auction expert for Sotheby's, he has a distrust for people who keep score in life by accumulating "things."
On the other hand, Chatwin's restlessness also pertained his relationships with people. He was bisexual and somewhat treacherous (in effect) with those people who were drawn to him. Even in his best books, The Songlines and In Patagonia, he partook of the same mythomania that he criticizes in others. The story took precedence over the data provided by informants. Many of those who acted in that capacity felt seduced and betrayed by him. Read Nicholas Shakespeare's Bruce Chatwin: A Biography for particular instances of his "treacherous" side.
And yet, the stories he tells are frequently -- but not always -- wonderful. I feel I have the same yearnings toward travel, the same horreur du domicile and distrust of "accumulators" of stuff. I wish I could write like the man, but I will just have to content myself by reading him. Particularly good are the opening essay, "I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia" and the two closing essays, "Among the Ruins" and "The Morality o Things."
The only disappointing part of this collection is Chatwin's failed attempt to provide a philosophical basis for his rootlessness, his so called "Nomadic Alternative." It is always a danger to take one's own psychological traits and write them large as a theory of life.
Chatwin tried to live his "Nomadic Alternative," but sadly died all too young of AIDS in 1989....more
Whenever I feel that the shadows are gathering around me, and all my efforts are coming to naught, I pick up a volume of G.K. Chesterton and find thatWhenever I feel that the shadows are gathering around me, and all my efforts are coming to naught, I pick up a volume of G.K. Chesterton and find that I've just been looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope.
Twelve Types: A Collection of Mini-Biographies is ostensibly a collection of essays on literary subjects. I don't know why the subtitle refers to "Mini-Biographies," because GKC is not interested in biographies. Instead he concentrates on how we see the world around us, as suggested by the lives and work of figures such as Sir Walter Scott, Tolstoy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Carlyle, Charles II, and Lord Byron, to name just a few. Some he excoriates, like Carlyle and Tolstoy, for urging us into dead ends; others, like Scott, he praises for seeing things in a different light, even when it has seemed to become unfashionable:
Closely connected with this is one of the charges most commonly brought against Scott, particularly in his own day—the charge of a fanciful and monotonous insistence upon the details of armour and costume. The critic in the 'Edinburgh Review' said indignantly that he could tolerate a somewhat detailed description of the apparel of Marmion, but when it came to an equally detailed account of the apparel of his pages and yeomen the mind could bear it no longer. The only thing to be said about that critic is that he had never been a little boy. He foolishly imagined that Scott valued the plume and dagger of Marmion for Marmion's sake. Not being himself romantic, he could not understand that Scott valued the plume because it was a plume, and the dagger because it was a dagger. Like a child, he loved weapons with a manual materialistic love, as one loves the softness of fur or the coolness of marble. One of the profound philosophical truths which are almost confined to infants is this love of things, not for their use or origin, but for their own inherent characteristics, the child's love of the toughness of wood, the wetness of water, the magnificent soapiness of soap. So it was with Scott, who had so much of the child in him. Human beings were perhaps the principal characters in his stories, but they were certainly not the only characters. A battle-axe was a person of importance, a castle had a character and ways of its own. A church bell had a word to say in the matter. Like a true child, he almost ignored the distinction between the animate and inanimate. A two-handed sword might be carried only by a menial in a procession, but it was something important and immeasurably fascinating—it was a two-handed sword.
There is something about being able to rotate the axis of one's life by a few degrees so that the sun shines more brightly and the megrims are dispelled. Sometimes I think he was the greatest psychologist who ever lived. ...more
I began reading this book with a certain sense of foreboding. Is the author going to spend several hundred pages detailing the many steps taken in theI began reading this book with a certain sense of foreboding. Is the author going to spend several hundred pages detailing the many steps taken in the process of becoming a Catholic? That could be deadly (but not always, as for instance, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain).
In any case, I was way off the mark. That is not the way of G.K. Chesterton. His The Thing: Why I am a Catholic is actually a set of thirty-five brilliant, but disconnected essays on things that people (mostly modernists) have said about Catholicism that Chesterton gleefully refutes. Perhaps the book should have been titled The Thing: Some Wrongheaded Things People Have Written About Catholicism.
These wrongheaded things include such things as: The "cult" of Service as a replacement for religion, humanism as a replacement for religion, the attack on the home, unthinking reformism, and so on. Some of the essays are more sprightly than others, though Chesterton is always capable of letting loose with a "zinger" that puts a whole new light on whatever subject he discusses. For instance, at one point, he writes, apropos of "The Slavery of the mind":
For instance, as history is taught, nearly everybody assumes that in all important past conflicts, it was the right side that won. Everybody assumes it; and nobody knows that he assumes it. The man has simply never entertained the other notion.
He goes on to wonder whether England would have been better off if the Scots won the Battle of Culloden in 1746 .
In the end, I know less on why Chesterton is a Catholic, and a whole lot more on why I wouldn't mess with Chesterton if I were unthinking in what I say or write about religion. ...more
Reading the early essays of G.K. Chesterton (before he got too involved with politics or religion) is one of the best experiences of my reading life.Reading the early essays of G.K. Chesterton (before he got too involved with politics or religion) is one of the best experiences of my reading life. A Miscellany of Men was published in 1912 and contains some thirty or forty short essays that range in quality from good to magnificent -- particularly in "The Mystagogue," in which he says everything there is to say about criticism.
At the same time I read this book, I have been reading the music criticism of Aldous Huxley, which he wrote for The Weekly Westminster Gazette during the 1920s. Instead of just indicating that the great classical music he reviews is ineffable, he tries to analyze how it achieves its effects. This is exactly what GKC looks for in a good critic (I wonder if they ever met):
The man who really thinks he has an idea will always try to explain that idea. The charlatan who has no idea will always confine himself to explaining that it is much too subtle to be explained. The first idea may really be very outrée or specialist; it may really be very difficult to express to ordinary people. But because the man is trying to express it, it is most probable that there is something in it, after all. The honest man is he who is always trying to utter the unutterable, to describe the indescribable; but the quack lives not by plunging into mystery, but by refusing to come out of it.
A Miscellany of men may not be a great book, but it is a great read. It is always fascinating to see where the man's mind leads.
If this book were more about Marcel Proust, whom I revere, and less about Jacques Riviere, about whom I know next to nothing, I would have given it fiIf this book were more about Marcel Proust, whom I revere, and less about Jacques Riviere, about whom I know next to nothing, I would have given it five stars. François Mauriac was one of the greatest French writers of the 20th Century. Therefore, it is fascinating to see what he thought of Marcel Proust.
As a devout Catholic, Mauriac criticized Proust when he describes the bad influence he had on Jacques Riviere as "literarywork in its most dangerous form, Marcel Proust's, which has no other object than itself, and whose analysis pulverizes and destroys the human personality."
And yet Mauriac is profoundly fascinated and moved by Proust's great novel:
The integral history of a young life, of its loves, its friendships, its weaknesses, its intellectual or religious crises, offers the vast proportions of the history of the ideas and customs at a certain epoch as they are reflected in a single spirit. And a long old age would not be enough to complete the account or to exhaust its drama.
Proust's Way is well worth reading until it switches to Riviere. Unless you know the man, you might well be excused for putting the book down at this point....more
Sometimes nothing is better than a great book of essays. One could go for the classics and pick up Montaigne or De Quincey or Hazlitt ... but there arSometimes nothing is better than a great book of essays. One could go for the classics and pick up Montaigne or De Quincey or Hazlitt ... but there are also many excellent works written in the last hundred years or so by authors such as Chesterton or Belloc or Virginia Woolf, whose The Death of the Moth and Other Essays I have just finished reading.
The essays in the first 60-75% of the book are mostly sheer genius. Even some of the back matter, especially the final essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” written not long before the author's suicide, are well worth reading.
Woolf has a way of bringing the literature of the past alive. Her writings about Edward Gibbon, Coleridge, the Rev. William Cole, and Mme de Sevigné are so memorable that, no sooner will I return the book to the library than I will find a way of adding a copy to my library.
I highly recommend Woolf's essays, particularly to those who think than women writers are not "good enough" to contribute to the fund of world literature....more
For the last 45 years or so, G. K. Chesterton has been one of my favorite writers. He is so deceptively simple that it is difficult to write about himFor the last 45 years or so, G. K. Chesterton has been one of my favorite writers. He is so deceptively simple that it is difficult to write about him without erecting a series of barriers to muddy what would otherwise be a limpid stream. (An exception: Garry Wills's Chesterton.)
Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes is an earnest attempt by a Jesuit author (James V. Schall, S.J.) who has read much of GKC's work -- but unfortunately through a Thomistic and Aristotelian scrim. There are a lot of abstract nouns like Virtue, Duty, Humanism, etc. Where Chesterton approaches his subjects with a light touch, Schall can at times read like drying glue.
Still, he does have some good points:
In a sense, what Chesterton has to teach us is precisely with those whose ideas or actions are wrong in some objective sense. We do not, if we think about it, want to end up by approving what is wrong or evil in errant actions. Neither do we want to deny wither the intrinsic dignity of the person in error or the fact that free people can do evil things that ought not to be done. It was characteristic of Chesterton, who loved controversy and debate, clearly to grasp the logic of ideas or passions that would, if uncorrected, lead a person or a society of persons into error or sin.
That is certainly true, probably nowhere more so than in the Father Brown mystery stories, in which the detective/priest is probably more interested in setting things right than in seeing that the guilty party is apprehended.
The person interested in Chesterton would probably do better to read GKC directly. Fortunately, there is far more of his work currently in print than when I started collecting his books in the 1970s....more
I am still stunned after having read this magnificent essay. It begins slowly as a scholarly discussion of funeral customs of the ancients and, in itsI am still stunned after having read this magnificent essay. It begins slowly as a scholarly discussion of funeral customs of the ancients and, in its culminating chapter, is as profound as Ecclesiastes in denouncing the vanity of wanting to leave behind towering monuments to our former selves. Never in all my days of reading have I seen such deep scholarship wedded to such humility and an overwhelming sense of goodness:
Pious spirits who passed their days in raptures of futurity, made little more of this world, than the world that was before it, while they lay obscure in the chaos of pre-ordination, and night of their fore-beings. And if any have been so happy as truly to understand Christian annihilation, ecstasies, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes unto them.
I cannot help but think that I will return to this work again, perhaps several times. It is as profound a devotional book as any written by the saints and acknowledged holy men of previous times: "Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who deal so with men in this world, that they are not afraid to meet them in the next; who, when they die, make no commotion among the dead, and are not touched with that poetical taunt of Isaiah."
And what is that poetical taunt? "They that seek thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms; That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners?"...more
This is essentially an article that Norman Mailer wrote for Esquire Magazine around 1963. It is one of the two best sports pieces I've ever read -- thThis is essentially an article that Norman Mailer wrote for Esquire Magazine around 1963. It is one of the two best sports pieces I've ever read -- the other being William Hazlitt's description of a boxing match in England in the early 19th century.
Ten Thousand Words a Minute is ostensibly about the September 1962 bout between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. The fight turned out to be so short that there are few photographic records of the event and not too much clarity about how many punches were thrown or connected. Because of the first round KO of Patterson, Mailer wrote an interesting essay on boxing in the US in the early 1960s.
Probably the highlight was his description of the fatal Emile Griffith-Benny Paret fight in March 1962:
In the twelfth, Griffith caught him. Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him eighteen right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin….
And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,” and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him. He began to pass away. As he passed, so his limbs descended beneath him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.
This is probably one of the best things I have read by Mailer....more
I just had the nasty experience of writing a review of this book which Goodreads lost somewhere between the moons of Uranus and the neighborhood of AlI just had the nasty experience of writing a review of this book which Goodreads lost somewhere between the moons of Uranus and the neighborhood of Alpha Centauri. Phoooey!
To summarize briefly, Italo Calvino chooses six (actually five) traits he would like to see carried forward into a millennium which, alas, he did not live to see.It almost doesn't matter what these traits are: It only matters that Calvino took all of literature and examined it through his jeweler's loupe, showing us new relations, new pathways, that were wrapped in a skein in his prodigious gray matter.
Having just finished this book, I want to go through it slowly, looking for new authors, new works to read. Like his hero Borges (who is also my hero), Calvino functions as a magnificent signpost. I plan on bringing a knapsack, a canteen filled with water, a hiking staff, and a library to follow the many trails marked out by him....more
As a Hungarian-American, I have always thought the the American/Western European notion of literature, art, and history to be culturally biased. InsteAs a Hungarian-American, I have always thought the the American/Western European notion of literature, art, and history to be culturally biased. Instead, I seek out essays by people like Csezlaw Milosz, Vaclav Havel, Slavenka Drakulic, and Milan Kundera for a reasonable alternative. Encounter: Essays is a brief collection by Kundera, mostly about music and literature. As usually happens when I read a book like this, I shall be looking for new music to hear (Leos Janacek), poems to read (Aime Cesaire), and novels (Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt).
Collections such as this one have their weak essays, and Encounter is no exception, but there is enough here to send me off in new directions for the next few years. ...more
I have been so impressed by Geoff Dyer's The Search and Zona that I -- somewhat prematurely -- came to the conclusion that here was a writer whose worI have been so impressed by Geoff Dyer's The Search and Zona that I -- somewhat prematurely -- came to the conclusion that here was a writer whose work was golden. Well, with Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It I saw that I mistook for gold was perhaps brass. Each of the eleven essays in this book is about a man suffering a mid-life crisis trying to find some solution by travel. In fact, there is no essay about Mr. Dyer at home, because Mr. Dyer does not appear to ever be home.
There are two unfortunate traits he seems to display:
First, he is so uncomfortable in his own skin that he frequently needs chemical stimulation to ease the pain of being Geoff Dyer.
Second, he is lonely a good part of the time. In some of these essays, he is with a girlfriend in a highly temporary relationship in which he does not appear to have any real sense of emotional commitment invested. Neither does the girlfriend. So naturally, Poof! They're gone!
Still, I enjoyed reading the essays; I did, however, congratulate myself that I am not so complicated as their author.
This is an odd, half-hearted sort of book which purports to be one thing and shades into another. At first, we are presented with Guy de Maupassant asThis is an odd, half-hearted sort of book which purports to be one thing and shades into another. At first, we are presented with Guy de Maupassant as amateur captain of a sailboat named the Bel-Ami, after his most popular novel. He complains about being forced to be a sociable human being, yet for all his pretensions, he is sailing only a few nautical miles between St Tropez and Antibes with frequent overnight stops at inns along the way.
Afloat has one little authorial tic that is almost unique: Virtually every series ends in an anticlimax. It is as if Maupassant was eager to embark on a line of thought but, somewhere along the way, loses steam.
Still, there are some nice essayistic passages, such as his condemnation of war and of "table-chat" (to which he is nonetheless addicted). There are spurious paragraphs such as this one:
Oh, how I sometimes wish not to be able to think or feel, to live like an animal in some light, sunny country, a yellow country where there's no coarse, grass greenery, in one of those Oriental countries where you drop off peacefully to sleep and wake up cheerfully, go about your business without worry, where you can love without feeling distress, where you're barely aware of existing.
Is there such a place? I think not. If it speaks of anything, it speaks of Maupassant's overweening restlessness.
Still, Afloat is not a bad read, and it tells us a lot more about its author than of the places along the Riviera he visits....more
I started reading J. M. Coetzee's Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 thinking, "Well, I'll just give it a try." I found myself being enthralled by theI started reading J. M. Coetzee's Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 thinking, "Well, I'll just give it a try." I found myself being enthralled by the author's South African perspective of both the West and his own native land. Then, too, most of the essays were about writers with whom I wasn't familiar, largely from the Netherlands, Germany, Israel and the Middle East, and finally South Africa.
Years ago, I had read two or three of Coetzee's novels and found them interesting, particularly Waiting for the Barbarians. I am delighted to find a contemporary essayist whose work I can use to send me off in some new directions. I have already purchased Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and am looking for a good edition of Breyten Breytenbach's Dog Heart.
It is too easy for a reader such as myself to get into a rut: I think Coetzee's Stranger Shores may be an antidote.
In one sense, Hunter S. Thompson was a poseur. In another, he was a canny participant over a period of a half century that saw Viet Nam, the Kennedy AIn one sense, Hunter S. Thompson was a poseur. In another, he was a canny participant over a period of a half century that saw Viet Nam, the Kennedy Assassination, Rock and Roll, Nixon and Reagan, the Hell's Angels, Ed Muskie, the Mariel Boat Lift, and a failed attempt to convict him on trumped-up charges.
It's rather odd to be at the same time a participant in all this madness, and also a critical intelligence seeing all the craziness for what it was. There is a certain exhilaration to reading these letters and occasional papers:
You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.... And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave....
Never have I seen such a succinct description of what the Sixties were all about.
Even though many of the pieces in Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream appear to have been cobbled together, it is fascinating to follow the development of Thompson's style of gonzo journalism, with its subtext of fear and loathing. About our times, he says, "The stomping of the rich is not a noise to be ignored in troubled times. It usually means they are feeling anxious or confused about something, and when the rich feel anxious or confused, they act like wild animals."
It's a pity that Thompson committed suicide when he did at the age of 67. I think he still had some piss and vinegar in him. ...more
I have begun reading the Complete Essays of Aldous Huxley, an endeavor which I expect will take a number of years. I have always admired Huxley and amI have begun reading the Complete Essays of Aldous Huxley, an endeavor which I expect will take a number of years. I have always admired Huxley and am now interested in both re-reading his fiction and exploring his essays and non-fiction.
Complete Essays 1, 1920-1925 covers the postwar years, during which Huxley wrote two books of essays -- Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist and On the Margin: Notes and Essays. To these have been added his music criticism from The Weekly Westminster Gazette as well as various pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair and other publications.
So early in his career, Huxley wrote with the measured taste and maturity of a much older man. Even in his music criticism, he makes me want to re-evaluate many composers with whom I am insufficiently familiar. (Granted that he did not appreciate the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, but then no one's perfect.)
There are pieces in this collection that are astounding. In an essay on Holland, I found the following:
Personally, I balance my affections. For I love the inner world as much as the outer. When the outer vexes me, I retire to the rational simplicities of the inner—to the polders of the spirit. And when, in their turn, the polders seem unduly flat, the roads too straight, and the laws of perspective too tyrannous, I emerge again into the pleasing confusion of untempered reality.
I feel the same way, but damn if I could have expressed it one tenth as well.
I would like to have been Aldous Huxley, though I would not relish living out the rest of my life without the sense of sight, as he did. ...more
This collection of essays on literary, biographical, and historical subjects runs the gamut between the brilliant (his takedown of John Updike) and thThis collection of essays on literary, biographical, and historical subjects runs the gamut between the brilliant (his takedown of John Updike) and the pedestrian (some of his political pieces). In general, the period covered is the Clinton Presidency, though there are echoes going all the way back to Herbert Hoover and FDR.
Gore Vidal is a unique figure in our recent history: Because of his family connections, he has met with (and even befriended) many of the major figures of the Twentieth Century. He has no great love for FDR, whom he accuses of orchestrating the whole Pearl Harbor attack, and John F. Kennedy, who -- well we all pretty much know what he did. He has even fewer good things to say about Truman, Nixon, the two Bushes, Carter, and William Jefferson Clinton.
Reading The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 made me feel that I needed to read more of Mr. Vidal, even though his Mephistophelean knowingness is in itself suspicious. But then, I can't really believe what anyone who ever been part of the political scene says. At least, not without a nearby grain of salt....more