Carter hasn't made Sade a pressing priority, hasn't propelled his books any higher up my to-read list, but her readings, especially of Justine; or, ThCarter hasn't made Sade a pressing priority, hasn't propelled his books any higher up my to-read list, but her readings, especially of Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), are full of striking passages. These are perfect summaries of a very familiar type:
...in the character of Justine Sade contrived to isolate the dilemma of an emergent type of woman. Justine, daughter of a banker, becomes the prototype of two centuries of women who find the world was not, as they had been promised, made for them and who do not have, because they have not been given, the existential tools to remake the world for themselves. These self-consciously blameless ones suffer and suffer until it becomes second nature; Justine marks the start of a kind of self-regarding female masochism, a woman with no place in the world, no status, the core of whose resistance has been eaten away by self-pity.
Justine’s virtue is not the continuous exercise of a moral faculty. It is a sentimental response to the world in which she always hopes her good behavior will procure her some reward, some respite from the bleak and intransigent reality which surrounds her and to which she cannot accommodate herself. The virtuous, the interesting Justine, with her incompetence, her gullibility, her whining, her frigidity, her reluctance to take control of her own life, is a perfect woman. She always does what she is told. She is at the mercy of any master, because that is the nature of her own definition of goodness.
For Justine is extraordinarily single-minded. This single-mindedness makes her rebel against that Fate that mistreats her; she is in revolt, even, against human nature itself, or, rather, against a view of human nature as irredeemably corrupt. Justine would say, as all good revolutionaries have said: ‘Even if it is so, then it should not be so,’ and, though she is far too pusillanimous to do anything about it, she never deviates from her frail and lonely stand, from the idea that men and women need not necessarily be wicked.
A core of three intense near-manifestoes – “The Artist as Critic,” “The Scholar as Critic,” “The Critic as Artist” – surrounded by occasional essay-reA core of three intense near-manifestoes – “The Artist as Critic,” “The Scholar as Critic,” “The Critic as Artist” – surrounded by occasional essay-reviews which show us Montaigne’s Italian journey (a “medicine-and-book-laden coach set out for Rome…”), the props and repertoire of third-century Alexandrian mimes, Nabokov teaching Don Quixote at Harvard (“Nabokov was lecturing in the hotbed of Spanish romanticizing. Lowell and Longfellow had invented a Spain which has stuck in the American imagination”); Balthus, late Beckett, the automotive deformation of the small American city; and so much more. In his Paris Review interview Davenport called himself “an obscure and experimental writer” – or I would say one of those mandarins Updike neatly sketched as “beyond commercial hopes, beyond the general earthbound sensibility,” with no rousing tale to tell or public thesis to prove, but a “rare sensibility and a curious found of information.” I love Davenport like I love Marguerite Yourcenar and Guido Ceronetti. He’s such a surprising and unpredictable writer that he can repeat all the most ig’nant shit ever said about Ulysses Grant in an essay that is nonetheless one of the best things I’ve read on the American Civil War. This is good:
What Olmstead shows us is a culture in the raw, capable of a high civilization in Charleston drawing rooms and in a few private homes, but for the most part not working, clumsy, perhaps purposeless to those who took stock of what they thought they were doing. In their most idealistic picture of themselves, Southerners looked back to Greece and Rome (a decade or so after the century of the Enlightenment!) for a model, but many of them must have seen that they were awkwardly out of phase, that they were maintaining a feudal society in the dawn of the Age of Steam. Slavery gave them the opportunity to be idle, demoralized, and vain. The beautiful irony is that it was a man bored with being idle [Grant], for whom war was something to do, who fought them to the death over an ideal which perhaps both North and South, each in their own way, had betrayed.
When I read J.F.C. Fuller’s Grant and Lee a few years ago I was shocked by the evidence of Lee’s carelessness and fatalism, his ineptitude as an administrator and indifference to high strategy, his seeming failure to grasp the nature of the war he was fighting, and by the aristocratic arrogance that let him believe that to chasten a Federal army was to destroy it. Perhaps Lee was simply an inferior general who didn’t “know his business,” but sometimes I wonder if he knew he was wrong and his heart just wasn’t in it. He did say before the war that slavery harmed Southern society, and he had spent his life in the US Army, and his father had been one of George Washington’s trusted lieutenants. The North’s superiority is always described as one of men or material, less frequently of morale; the North retained a far larger portion of the country’s mystic nationalism, the evangelical certainty that God created the United States to redeem humanity from dark centuries of class tyranny and sectarian oppression. Lincoln and Sherman wrote like melancholic ironists but acted like fanatical warlords; muted Grant, in whom Davenport weirdly finds no ideals, writes of Providence guiding his armies. Beside such certainty Confederate nationalism seems like bravado and duelist pique. At the outbreak of war Grant and many others thought the slaveholders were committing suicide.
The structure of Calasso’s book resembles that of the “brothel-museum” of which Baudelaire dreamt in the early hours of March 13, 1856, a Thursday – aThe structure of Calasso’s book resembles that of the “brothel-museum” of which Baudelaire dreamt in the early hours of March 13, 1856, a Thursday – a dream interrupted at 5am when his mistress, Jeanne Duval, moved a piece of furniture in another room. Baudelaire encounters a fellow poor man of letters with whom he splits a horse cab; they pursue an oneiric, nocturnal version of their daily routine, calling at editors’ offices to submit or solicit reviews, and to present their published books to possible patrons. Baudelaire stops the cab at a brothel and gets out to present his book (Les Fleurs du Mal was then in final preparation) to the madam. The brothel-museum is composed of “immense galleries, adjourning, poorly lit” – “like an erotic Piranesi,” Calasso adds – in which scattered girls and clients chat. Baudelaire is bashful of his bare feet and his penis hanging from his fly, and so studies the pictures on the walls: sketches of Egyptian ruins, birds with moving, “lively” eyes, and clinical photographs of deformed children born to prostitutes. At last he comes upon “a monster born in the house,” “pink and green,” who squats painfully upon a pedestal, with an elastic, snakelike appendage, starting from his nape, wound around his body. They chat – “he informs about his troubles and pains,” the greatest of which is the humiliation of dining at the same table with the prostitutes, the ropelike coil of his neck-tail at his side. "I awake," Baudelaire reported to his friend Asselineau, "tired, enfeebled, with aching bones, my back, legs and sides painful. I presume I had been sleeping in the monster's contorted position."
So, I got carried away there – but c’mon, that’s an awesome dream. La Folie Baudelaire is a series of galleries, some immense, others just closets – a grand bazaar or dilapidated palace of paragraph- to page-sized essays in which certain paintings, artifacts and texts are presented for explication – or rather for explication so insinuatingly subtle you think it the fruit of your own silent contemplation. But Calasso’s extensive arcades do have a center, and I think it’s this:
”Genius is none other than childhood formulated with precision.” It is possible to come across some of Baudelaire’s stunning definitions (and the art of definition was the one in which he excelled above all) obliquely or hidden in a corner, sometimes amalgamated almost inseparably with the writings of another (who is De Quincey here) or camouflaged in an occasional piece, composed reluctantly. Generally, they are not isolated phrases, with aphoristic pretensions, but fragments of phrases from which they must be detached so that their luminosity may expand. It is his way of protecting secrets: not concealing them behind esoteric barriers, but on the contrary, throwing them into a promiscuous ambience, where they can easily get lost, like a face in a crowd in a big city, thus going back to breathe their unnoticed and radiating life. Thus the cell that emits vibrations is not the verse and not even the phrase, but the suspended definition, which we can find anywhere, set in a chronicle or in a sonnet, in a digression or in a note…In all these fragments of phrases we recognize a perceptual constellation that had never crystallized before. They are juxtapositions of sensations, syntagmas, phantasms, single words, sentiments, ideas, that moved away from current schemas, but without damaging form too much.
Baudelaire’s case of a “clandestine metaphysics” glimpsed here and there in ephemeral feuilletons, of a “marginal and erotic” modernity infiltrating familiar forms without rupturing them (“the greatest exemplar of modern poetry in any language,” according to Eliot, also wrote sonnets so morphologically antique that when Aleksander Wat placed one before Czeslaw Milosz, alongside a seventeenth century sonnet, Milosz hesitated a moment before pronouncing which was Baudelaire's), provides the theme, a theme whose variations Calasso tracks in the circumambient painters and poets. Ingres extolled drawing and denigrated a concern for color, while being one of those most inventively bizarre and idiosyncratic colorists of all time; pompously lit candles at the academic shrines of “Raphael” and “Nature” while his pencil, said Paul Valéry, pursued ideal grace “to the point of monstrosity”:
…the spine never long and supple enough, the neck flexible enough, the thighs smooth enough, or all the curves of the body sufficiently beguiling to the eye, which envelopes and caresses more than it sees them. The Odalisque, with a hint of the plesiosaurus about her, makes one wonder what might have resulted from a carefully controlled selection, through the centuries, of a breed of woman specially designed for pleasure – as the English horse is bred for racing.
“Manet loved success, parties, the old masters, women,” writes Calasso, “but as soon as we look at his paintings everything becomes far more obscure and disturbing.” Degas, in Medieval War Scene and Interior, comes right up to traditional, legible genre painting, but withholds some crucial touches, so that the works permit no narrative, or permit any and all narrative – in Interior (obtusely re-titled The Rape by the painter’s close friends) Calasso says “meanings are opaque, sentiments obscure, the whole thing could fall only into that all-enveloping, brooding, formless genre that is life itself.” Degas obeyed tradition in his obsession with the female figure, but stubbornly – fetishistically – pursued the marginal, “the intermediate poses among the canonical ones,” the poses that have “no meaning and are only functional…and often not perceived even by those who make them” – the washerwoman yawning, the dancer stretching, the bather drying her toes. Degas’ Portrait of Edmund Duranty is one of my favorite paintings and I realized that I’ve loved it in Calasso’s terms – a known form imbued with strange perception; the coexistence of closely-drawn portraiture and pure coloristic abstraction; Degas translated Duranty’s books into that “new existence in a beyond of color” of which Rilke spoke, where they exist “without any previous memories.”
This is a vast and rich book, and I feel like a tool for emphasizing the schema. (Calasso has long been a writer I felt should read, now he's one I know I must; the jacket bio says La Folie Baudelaire is the "sixth panel" of a rambling work that I assume begins with The Ruin of Kasch...) Compensatory anecdotes:
—On the return leg of their louche tour of the fleshpots of Egypt, Flaubert and Du Camp sojourned in Istanbul. There they dined with the French ambassador, General Aupick, and his wife. Aupick felt obliged to talk shop with the two writers, and awkwardly, gruffly asked, “Has literature made any good recruits since you left Paris?” Flaubert stared blankly, probably trying to keep a straight face after “recruits.” Du Camp mumbled something about meeting this guy Baudelaire, “who will make a name for himself.” Embarrassed silence. Du Camp did not know that Baudelaire was the General’s disowned and disgraced stepson. Later, while the General and Flaubert were talking about something else, Madame Aupick timidly approached Du Camp, whispering, “He has talent, doesn’t he?”
—In Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio Baudelaire is famously marginal and book-absorbed in the hubbub of models, critics, pets, and assorted hangers-on. Photographic analysis has revealed that Courbet painted Jeanne Duval – “a black woman looking very coquettishly at herself in a mirror,” said Courbet – beside Baudelaire, but erased the image at Baudelaire’s insistence. A talismanic framed print – a detail of The Artist’s Studioof Baudelaire reading, a plate from a ruined 1930s book on Courbet I found for 50 cents – has hung on my wall for six years. I took it down – and immediately saw Jeanne’s ghostly face floating over Baudelaire’s. How have I missed it? Calasso says that 19th century French audiences – modernism’s first audience – didn’t see what they weren’t looking for.
Richard Howard said that Yourcenar’s first novel, Alexis, or The Treatise of Futile Combat, has an “aphoristic glamour” which makes up for its “meagerRichard Howard said that Yourcenar’s first novel, Alexis, or The Treatise of Futile Combat, has an “aphoristic glamour” which makes up for its “meagerness of incident.” An “aphoristic glamour” – isn't that what we all want? – certainly enabled me to enjoy Mishima, a book which, because it consists mostly of plot summaries and explication of novels I haven’t read, might easily have been boring.
Its beauty comes, in part, from its combining before our eyes living creatures and ghosts, who are practically the same thing in a world where impermanence is the rule…
…[patriotic] verses which prove to what extent a group of one hundred men is already a mob and expects, as such, its fodder of clichés.
…the Void which Honda had contemplated, and which suddenly seems nothing but a concept or a symbol too human in spite of everything.
…Satoko, whom he at first loved only a little and then madly.
I love Yourcenar’s essay on seppuku in That Mighty Sculptor, Time, and am lately curious about Mishima, so finding this book made my day. ...more
An inexhaustible little collection, in which three heavyweights, all war refugees – Simone Weil, Rachel Bespaloff, and Hermann Broch – seek the meaninAn inexhaustible little collection, in which three heavyweights, all war refugees – Simone Weil, Rachel Bespaloff, and Hermann Broch – seek the meaning of their own “dark times” in the verses of Homer.
For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as a historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors.*
The three essays are coincident or directly responsive: Bespaloff knew of Weil’s, and Broch’s begins as an appreciation of Bespaloff’s. (The introduction also notes that Weil and Bespaloff rested in the same Swiss clinic, at different times, and that both were powerfully affected by an exhibition of Goya’s “Horrors of War” in Geneva in 1939.) If you have a taste for such mingling of intensities – and why would you not? – NYRB Classics also reprinted a collection of the letters Rilke, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak exchanged in the summer of 1926.
Weil’s “essay” is barely prose; it’s an infinitely resonant philosophic poem – smithed and honed – to be read in a single rapt sitting, or not at all – on the spiritual deformations of war and slavery.
It is not the planning man, the man of strategy, the man acting on the resolution taken, who wins or loses battle; battles are fought and decided by men deprived of these faculties, men who have undergone a transformation, who have dropped either to the level of inert matter, which is pure passivity, or to the level of blind force, which is pure momentum.
After the pointed perfection of Weil’s “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” Bespaloff’s “On the Iliad” at first felt meandering, merely literary criticism; but then she meanders through the ethical systems of the West, considering Homer alongside the Old Testament prophets, Plato, and War and Peace:
Homer and Tolstoy have in common a virile love of war and a virile horror of it…
When Homer and Tolstoy want to illuminate the fatality inherent in force – the inevitable glide of the creative will into the automatism of violence, of conquest into terror, of courage into cruelty – they do not fall into invective and moral indignation. An image suffices them, a contrast that remains forever present in our memories.
At last there is Hermann Broch’s “The Style of the Mythical Age.” Broch intimidates me, certainly more than the other Central European philosophical fabulists – Kafka, Gombrowicz – I intend to tackle in the coming year, and who seem clever clowns next to Broch’s agon, what Hannah Arendt in Men in Dark Times called his “wearisome and unwearied search for an absolute,” a search whose synthetic seriousness made him scorn the “merely literary,” rue “the fate of being a poet in spite of oneself,” and demand that contemporary literature “pass through all the hells of l’art pour l’art” before it could aspire to the truly “ethical.” I don’t think I’m terminally belletristic, incorrigibly arrested in the hells of l’art pour l’art, or trivially enamored of bien ecrit, but Bespaloff’s and Broch’s philosophical vocabulary and effortless abstraction daunt me.
* The vast testimonial eloquence of the American Civil War is summed up in the Homeric remark of Union veteran and Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. : "But I do think that at present man is a predatory animal. I think that the sacredness of human life is a purely municipal ideal of no validity outside the jurisdiction. I believe that force…is the ultima ratio, and between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy except force. I may add what I no doubt have said often enough, that it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men."...more
Not really a Critical Study, as originally subtitled, Chesterton’s Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men is instead a breezy, piquant, thoroughlyNot really a Critical Study, as originally subtitled, Chesterton’s Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men is instead a breezy, piquant, thoroughly personal account of the delights of Dickens. It’s the alluring kind of introduction one always needs, for that author towards whom one is well disposed, but not in a panting rush to read. (I could use a book like this for Balzac.) The book’s possible fault is that it leaves you as stimulated to search out more Chesterton as more Dickens. The style is a merry joy. His sentences dance, Buck said. Happening upon this book, feeling little interest in the writer and not much urgency about the subject, a random paragraph seized me:
The optimist is a better reformer than the pessimist; and the man who believes life to be excellent is the man who alters it most. It seems a paradox, yet the reason of it is very plain. The pessimist can be enraged at evil. But only the optimist can be surprised at it. From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He must have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment. It is not enough that he should think injustice distressing; he must think injustice absurd, an anomaly in existence, a matter less for tears than for a shattering laughter. On the other hand, the pessimists at the end of the century could hardly curse even the blackest thing; for they could hardly see it against its black and eternal background. Nothing was bad, because everything was bad. Life in prison was infamous—like life anywhere else. The fires of persecution were vile—like the stars. We perpetually find this paradox of a contented discontent. Dr. Johnson takes too sad a view of humanity, but he is also too satisfied a Conservative. Rousseau takes too rosy a view of humanity, but he causes a revolution. Swift is angry, but a Tory. Shelley is happy, and a rebel.
Before, I knew only the basics of Dickens’ biography, and nothing at all about the man. He sounds awesome:
The dress of the comfortable classes during the later years of Dickens was, compared with ours, somewhat slipshod and somewhat gaudy. It was the time of loose pegtop trousers of an almost Turkish oddity, of large ties, of loose short jackets and of loose long whiskers. Yet even this expansive period, it must be confessed, considered Dickens a little too flashy or, as some put it, too Frenchified in his dress. Such a man would wear velvet coats and wild waistcoats that were like incredible sunsets; he would wear those old white hats of an unnecessary and startling whiteness. He did not mind being seen in sensational dressing-gowns; it is said he had his portrait painted in one of them.
So far as he could prevent it, he never permitted a day of his life to be ordinary. There was always some prank, some impetuous proposal, some practical joke, some sudden hospitality, some sudden disappearance. It is related of him (I give one anecdote out of a hundred) that in his last visit to America, when he was already reeling as it were under the blow that was to be mortal, he remarked quite casually to his companions that a row of painted cottages looked exactly like the painted shops in a pantomime. No sooner had the suggestion passed his lips than he leapt at the nearest doorway and in exact imitation of the clown in the harlequinade, beat conscientiously with his fist, not on the door (for that would have burst the canvas scenery of course), but on the side of the doorpost. Having done this he lay down ceremoniously across the doorstep for the owner to fall over him if he should come rushing out. He then got up gravely and went on his way. His whole life was full of such unexpected energies, precisely like those of the pantomime clown.
Before, I wanted to re-read Great Expectations, which I remembered as an oasis of ebullience in the otherwise dour syllabus (Jane Eyre, The Mill on the Floss) of a long-ago college class. But Chesterton says the late works show greater plausibility and more nimble artistic control than the early, but at the expense of a riotous carnival brio. So I will go to meet Mr. Pickwick.
I really did think Borges unique in a genius that allowed him, in his nonfictions, to select a tidbit from a superannuated encyclopedia, extract an inI really did think Borges unique in a genius that allowed him, in his nonfictions, to select a tidbit from a superannuated encyclopedia, extract an incident from the most obscure chronicle—or, conversely, from the collective media memory of widely disseminated, easily recognizable historical caricatures—and, with a certain pace of retelling, a special pattern of emphasis, fashion a spare fable full of spectral images and unsettling suggestions. I was wrong. “Everything has been said: we shall add no new facet to the history of their château, and of their own lives. Yet let us venture to reinvestigate the known facts—they are often less so than is supposed.”
She sounds so much like Trilling! Trilling’s moral gravity—with a haughty “Gallic” abstraction I find utterly irresistible. Sontag’s heyday as an inteShe sounds so much like Trilling! Trilling’s moral gravity—with a haughty “Gallic” abstraction I find utterly irresistible. Sontag’s heyday as an intellectual pinup occurred before I was even born—but I get it. Her critical voice seems the perfectly oracular emanation of the book-lined apartments of the self-consciously "edgy" tastemaking intelligentsia--the dandified apartments perched above the garbage and graffiti of 1970s Manhattan, so ambivalently described by Edmund White, a ragamuffin freelancer awkward in those fair courts. (White preferred to flop in roachy squalor by day and suck off truck drivers down at the docks by night, and avoided romantic involvement with Sontag coeval Richard Howard because he didn’t want a joint subscription to the opera, "didn’t want to grow a little paunch and discuss Roland Barthes with the same man who was fucking me.”) She's got her Gauloise, the latest New York Review of Books, a stack of Gallimard new releases...
I didn’t read the essays on Godard and Bergman, because I haven’t seen any of the films mentioned therein—though I “read and like” Goodreads reviews of books I haven’t read, might never read, so perhaps the explanation is that I’m lazy and just don’t care about Godard and Bergman. “The Aesthetics of Silence” and “The Pornographic Imagination” are meaty and re-readable; she deeply discusses the secularization of spirituality and the nearly religious "total" ambitions of modernism. Her high-handed chastisement of American critics for not reading more Sade and Bataille is a Greatest Hit. “Thinking Against Oneself: Reflections on Cioran” won’t blow any minds, but it’s good she promoted him so brilliantly to American audiences, back in the day. “What’s Happening in America (1966)” is shrill and jejune—its famous line: “the white race is the cancer of history”—but “Trip to Hanoi” is not. This seventy-page monster essay, which I feared might be the literary cousin of Jane Fonda’s truthfist mugshot, makes up for a barrenness of characterization and descriptive color with plenty of fearless moral-intellectual self-scrutiny. And as I peruse “What’s Happening in America (1966)” I do find some admirable things, like her remark that modern American life “brutalizes the senses, making gray neurotics of most of us, and perverse spiritual athletes and strident self-transcenders of the best of us.” Perverse spiritual athletes and strident self-transcenders perfectly evokes a kind of intellectual ambition rare among today’s bookish. In The Farewell Symphony Edmund White talks about coming home drunk from cruising bars and sitting up with one eye closed to focus on some Adorno or a Bartok score. In City Boy he says that his generation of “strident self-transcenders” and defensively arty provincial pilgrims to NYC was always studying for a test that never came:
In my twenties if even a tenth reading of Mallarmé failed to yield up its treasures, the fault was mine, not his. If my eyes swooned shut while I read The Sweet Cheat Gone, Proust’s pacing was never called into question, just my intelligence and dedication and sensitivity. And I still entertain these sacralizing preconceptions about high art. I still admire what is difficult, though I now recognize it as a “period” taste and that my generation was the last to give a damn. Though we were atheists, we were, strangely enough, preparing ourselves for God’s great Quiz Show; we had to know everything because we were convinced we would be tested on it—in our next life.
Kirstein had an awesome range of interests. This selection of his writings shows him intimate with so many areas. He co-founded the NYC Ballet, so ofKirstein had an awesome range of interests. This selection of his writings shows him intimate with so many areas. He co-founded the NYC Ballet, so of course there are essays on dance (a dry but trenchant history of the development of dance technique, then a wonderfully idiosyncratic essay explaining how Russian Orthodox demonology informs Balanchine's choreography), and essays on the photography of Walker Evans, on the paintings of Cadmus and Siqueros, the poetry of Auden, Japanese music and theater, a memoir of the JFK inaugural, an appreciation of James Cagney and gangster films, historical studies of Henry Adams's marriage and black soldiers in the Civil War. He published Pound and Eliot in a literary magazine that he started while an undergrad at Harvard. During WWII he was part of the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, a unit that was responsible for rescuing and repatriating art looted by the Nazis. He's tirelessly insightful, it seems, about everything. I only started reading him in May, and he's already one of my favorite writers....more
Marc Fumaroli, possessor of such fragrant and antique titles as director of the Académie française, member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Marc Fumaroli, possessor of such fragrant and antique titles as director of the Académie française, member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and president of the Société des Amis du Louvre, presents the eighteenth century apex of French cultural dominance of Europe in much the same style and with much the same erudite density as Edmund Wilson presented the nineteenth century socialists–in To the Finland Station–and the diarists and memoirists of the American Civil War–in Patriotic Gore. We get brilliant and subtly overlapping group portraits; judicious but immersive selections from the primary writings (my favorite is a letter the Prince de Ligne posted from his jaunt across the Crimea in the company of Catherine the Great and Austria’s Joseph II, who was traveling incognito; Ligne admires the color coordination of the robes of Circassian tribesmen, regrets–nay, bewails–the sequestration of the local women, and transcribes the two sovereigns comparing assassination attempts, bitching about the Turks, and laughing at Georgie’s loss of his colonies); wide-ranging and idiosyncratic critical judgements (Fumaroli arch and droll, Wilson cantankerous and glowering); and there’s even a kinship of book design, Oxford UP for Wilson and NYRB Classics for Fumaroli opting for the narrow, densely-printed page, and many of them, for brick-sized compressions of portraiture and anecdote, loaves of historical nutriment.
From the court of Louis XIV sprang a polite, refined literature, brilliant, aristocratic–a trifle mannered, but accessible on that account to all the nobility of Europe, for the highest society, as one of our recent writers has fairly said, forms a single family in all Europe. (Pushkin)
And what a family! Banished Britons, including two generations of Stuart pretenders pitifully pensioned by Versailles, impotently intriguing in their little courts of exile. Rivalrous salons, fiercely possessive of the best talkers and thinkers–after Madame du Deffand’s niece carried off D’Alembert to found her own cenacle, the two women never again spoke. Walpole and Beckford, the gay dandies of England, alighting in the continent to gather art and curios for their pleasure domes back home, and in the process casually catching and neglecting the hearts of besotted grandes dames. Philosophes corresponding with the rulers of Berlin, Stockholm and St. Petersburg–with the cold courts of the grimly forested Nord. (In return for the financial and moral support she offered Voltaire and Diderot in their scrapes with French censors, Catherine received reams of pro-Russian propaganda, in which the aggressions of an expansionist foreign policy were commended as the marches of Reason and Tolerance.) I did wonder about the absence of Gibbon–Gibbon who wrote his first book in French, and who retired to Lausanne to complete the Decline and Fall–just as I wondered about the scarcity of Hume (Fumaroli merely mentions that the imprisoned Louis XVI had frequent resort to the account of the execution of Charles I in Hume's History of England), Hume whose extended sojourn in Paris created a vogue for portly, plainly dressed Protestant savants, a vogue from which Ambassador Franklin and the American cause would later benefit. But to wonder is not to complain. This is a beautiful, beautiful book, rich and stylish. Fumaroli allows us to believe we imagine the experience behind Hume’s remark that, after his triumph in the salons, he needed the ale houses and billiard rooms of Edinburgh as a respite from the “lusciousness” of Paris.
Ripellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroiRipellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroic as any of Ulysses, I hear tell), and a servant of Czech letters whose devotion extended, in one instance, to the patient chaperoning of Věra Linhartová during her cognac-confused dipsomaniacal descent on Rome. Ripellino lived in Prague for some years after WWII, became a student of its various hauntings and urban demonology, its “lugubrious aura of decay…smirk of eternal disillusionment,” and married a Czech woman. Denied visas after the Soviet crackdown in 1968, he joined the émigrés in a sympathetic semi-exile, and under an exilic gloom compounded of ill-health and nostalgia, “despair and second thoughts,” composed Magic Prague—wistful anatomy, elegiac bricolage, “itinerary of the wondrous”:
How then can I write an exhaustive, well-ordered treatise like a detached and haughty scholar, suppressing my uneasiness, my restlessness with a rigor mortis of methodology and the fruitless discussions of disheartened formalists? No, I will weave a capricious book, an agglomeration of wonders, anecdotes, eccentric acts, brief intermezzos and mad encores, and I will be gratified if, in contrast to so much of the printed flotsam and jetsam surrounding us, it is not dominated by boredom…I will fill these pages with scraps of pictures and daguerreotypes, old etchings, prints purloined from the bottoms of chests, réclames, illustrations out of old periodicals, horoscopes, passages from books on alchemy and travel books printed in Gothic script, undated ghost stories, album leaves and keys to dreams: curios of a vanished culture.
That Magic Prague is consistently passionate, that Ripellino never succumbs to boredom, is remarkable when one considers that most of the book is devoted not to Kafka or Hašek or Apollinaire—subjects of inherent interest—but to a vast corpus of forgotten crap, an unread library of “mawkish novelettes” harboring “all the lachrymose resources of the nineteenth century,” all “the hackneyed devices and trite horrors of late Romanticism.” (Some titles: Spawn of Satan, The Crucified Woman, The Cremator.) Ripellino boldly gambled that his summaries of “Prague horror-tale kitsch” would be fun to read, and profound. He’s obsessed with the mutation of motifs, the process by which Prague’s traumatic and macabre history, like St. Petersburg’s, gave rise to a demonic mythos—the golem legends, rabbinic esoterica, alchemist cabals, fabled dungeon languishers and eerily ecstatic religious statuary; the brooding, self-sequestered princes, the closed caste of intermarried executioners; the “monsters and infernalia,” storied massacres and famous ghosts that thrilled and nourished the Gothic romancers of middle Europe, as well as their assorted twentieth century progeny: Decadents excited by infamy and decay, Surrealist students of obscenity, a duo of Dadaist clowns. The Romantic agony is just one thematic cluster, one path through Magic Prague, but the morbidity of the nineteenth century occasions, I think, Ripellino’s most compelling insights into the way memory emerges from history, culture from circumstance, writing from life. In a representative passage, Ripellino examines the literary figuration of the Baroque churches and statuary propagandistically imposed on Prague by the forces of Catholic reaction after the Thirty Years’ War:
Lvovic ze Karásek transformed every church into a melancholy Panoptikum, dwelling on the decay of the altar flowers, the languor of the statues outlined by garments of glossy creased silk, the infirm penumbra of the sanctuaries and the White Mountain dirges. When the Decadents used churches to exalt the corruption of the flesh, the ecstasy of martyrdom and the rapture of sainthood, they were simply indulging in a predilection for the Baroque, a Prague constant…Karásek painted the mystery of Prague’s sanctuaries in even bleaker colors in the novel Gothická duše (A Gothic Soul). The hero, the last scion of a noble line with a long history of insanity, is a Rudolf-like hypochondriac. Fearing he too will go mad (he does in the end—and dies in a mental hospital), he retreats into solitude, his greatest delights the smell of incense and wilted flowers, the sight of “glass coffins containing embalmed cadavers atop the altars.” He also feels drawn to the Barnabites or Discalced Carmelites, who live like moles in the darkness of mystical reclusion. Their lugubrious cloister near the Castle was shrouded in wildly imaginative legends. People said that before taking vows each novice had to remove the ring from the shriveled hand of the terrifying mummy of the Blessed Electa at midnight. During mass the faithful heard the chanting voices of those buried alive coming from the bowels of the church and saw the flickering of troubled eyes behind its rusty gratings. “The altars rose like shapeless catafalques.” “Only the main altar, covered with candles beneath the image of St. Theresa, fervent in her devotion to Christ, shone like a great pyramid of liquefied gold, glowed like an immense castrum doloris.” The church deranges the Gothic Soul; it drives him mad. The by-then jejune motif of the haunted basilica acquires new vigor in the myth of a lifeless, funereal Prague.
I've lost count of the times I read his essay on Whitman.
Within a few miles of each other in the 1880s, Whitman was putting the last touches to his gr
I've lost count of the times I read his essay on Whitman.
Within a few miles of each other in the 1880s, Whitman was putting the last touches to his great book, Eadweard Muybridge was photographing movements milliseconds apart of animals, naked athletes, and women, and Thomas Eakins was painting surgeons, boxers, musicians, wrestlers, and Philadelphians. In a sense Muybridge and Eakins were catching up with Whitman’s pioneering. Their common subject, motion, the robust real, skilled and purposeful action, was distinctly American, an invention. Eakins and Muybridge worked together; Eakins came over to Camden and painted and photographed Whitman. Their arts ran parallel, shared a spirit and a theme. Muybridge’s photographs, the monumental Zoopraxia, kept Degas and Messonier up all night looking at it. There has been no finer movement in American art, nor a more fertile one (from Muybridge, through Edison, the whole art of film), and yet their impact was generally felt to be offensive. Eakins and Muybridge were forgotten for years; Whitman persisted.
A pleasure of reading Davenport is his compression of any given matrix of affinities—the whole lit-crit trainspotting of influences on and influences of—into striking little scenes like that of Degas staying up all night with the Zoopraxia. (When you see Degas’ dancers or his racehorses, see also his colleague in nineteenth century motion study, Muybridge, the London-born San Francisco bookseller who took up photography after a serious brain injury—he was thrown from a stagecoach whose operator had taken to using teams of half-wild mustangs in a bid to increase speed.) It seems that a way with the suggestive fragment, the connective anecdote—“let the song lie in the thing!”—marks these Disciples of Pound. Davenport and Hugh Kenner (to whom The Geography of the Imagination is dedicated) would say that that is how Pound taught them to write—“ideogrammatically”; but Pound’s poetics are also useful for partisans. His poetry spun off its own polemical-explicatory prose. To defend their then-and still-maligned master Davenport and Kenner had to vividly and concretely communicate his entire intellectual lineage, his often obscure sources and inspirations, his unsuspected sponsorship of Things We Know; to explicate Pound they required a prose that with its combinatory compression, genius for collage, and imagistic piquancy prepared readers for the summa of civilization we are assured is to be found in The Cantos. To be sure, the critical prose instigated by Pound has its drawbacks—essentially peremptory, its salutary solicitousness of the unknown masterpiece, the obscured context, the neglected relation can become at times a hectoring of us ignorant barbarians—but on the whole I love it.
The placing of events in time is a romantic act; the tremendum is in the distance. There are no dates in the myths; from when did Heracles stride the earth? In a century obsessed with time, with archeological dating, with the psychological recovery of time (Proust, Freud), Pound has written as if time were unreal, has in fact, treated it as if it were space. William Blake preceded him here, on the irreality of clock time, sensing the dislocations caused by time (a God remote in time easily became remote in space, an absentee landlord), and proceeding, in his enthusiastic way, to dine with Isaiah—one way of a suggesting that Isaiah’s mind is not a phenomenon fixed between 742 and 687 B.C. Pound’s mind has to be seen for the extraordinary shape it has given to itself. To say that The Cantos is a “voyage in time” is to be blind to the poem altogether. We miss immediately the achievement upon which the success of the poem depends, its rendering time transparent and negligible, its dismissing the supposed corridors and perspectives down which the historian invites us to look. Pound cancelled in his own mind the disassociations that had been isolating fact from fact for centuries. To have closed the gap between mythology and botany is but one movement of the process; one way to read The Cantos is to go through noting the restorations of relationships now thought to be discrete—the ideogrammatic method was invented for just this purpose. In Pound’s spatial sense of time the past is here, now; its invisibility is our blindness, not its absence. The nineteenth century had put everything against the scale of time and discovered that all behavior within time’s monolinear progress was evolutionary. The past was a graveyard, a museum. It was Pound’s determination to obliterate such a configuration of time and history, to treat what had become a world of ghosts as a world eternally present.
Kenner’s The Pound Era is the best defense/explication any modern writer has had, a spicy masterpiece that can claim an admirer in Vladimir Nabokov—who despised Pound. Davenport hailed it as “not so much a book as a library, or better, a new kind of book in which biography, history and analysis of literature are so harmoniously articulated that every page has a narrative sense”—and the same can be said of The Geography of the Imagination. To use his own phrase, Davenport is an ideal "historian of visionaries."
But Davenport’s an astounding fictionist, as well. My only prior exposure was “Some Verses of Virgil,” the novella that closes his collection Eclogues. “Some Verses of Virgil” is a beautiful, unclassifiable freak that displays a virtuosic style, evokes multiple genres, and flamboyantly straddles poetry and prose (if Pale Fire is a “centaur-work,” “half poem, half prose,” according to Mary McCarthy, then Davenport’s novella is a “satyr-work”: less obviously dichotomous, a humanoid biped with goat shanks; it also happens to feature plenty of sylvan trysting). I’ve never read anything like it. So it was strange to read Davenport calmly, humbly, almost professorially explicating the ideogrammatic densities and “architectonic” collages of Pound and Olson, Marianne Moore and Paul Metcalf, without dropping even a hint that he is a part of their lineage, playing in the same league. It wasn’t until I reached the very last essay that I stopped wondering why he seemed to be holding back. He admits, “I was forty-three when I wrote my first story since undergraduate says.” Most of these essays were not written by an artist appreciating his fellow practitioners. Not that it matters. The Geography of the Imagination is a real reader’s testament. It’s packed with those vivid, meaning-making connections apparent to and privately gathered by common readers, but often excluded from the dossiers handed down to us in school and in most journalistic book review columns. It’s up on my shelf—wedged between Evan S. Connell and James Salter, two other American Prose Wizards once published by the lamented North Point Press—but I think it’ll be back down soon. Davenport’s essay on Eudora Welty, I mean his fantasia on a theme of Eudora Welty, deserves a second look—or a third, or a fourth.