Archive for 2010

But wait! It gets better! More on Huck Finn and the n-word.

Friday, December 31st, 2010


Yesterday, I wrote about the latest flap over Mark Twain‘s use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn. NYC Councilman Charles Barron apparently thinks the book should be banned:  “I find it interesting that Huckleberry Finn is a classic when it says [the n-word] 200 times,” he said.

Barron is not alone in his reservations.  Poet and professor Sam Gwynn made this comment on yesterday’s post:

Gwynn...a p.o.v. to be reckoned with

“Frankly, I just can’t teach it any longer. I know it’s great, and I can lecture for a day or so about how Twain is being faithful to the dialects and to the way that people spoke back then. But trying to lecture about its literary merits takes a back seat when I see how African American students (I’m talking about teenage sophomores, taking the class for core credit) are reacting to the iterations of THAT WORD. The problem is that Twain doesn’t distinguish between those who are using the word in a “kindly” manner (we could probably assume that this is the only word for black people that Huck has ever heard) and those who are using it an an epithet. Used indiscriminately in these ways, it just makes everyone in a classroom uncomfortable. Maybe if I were a better (or younger) teacher I could use this book to challenge all kinds of assumptions about language and art. I just don’t find myself up to the fight anymore, at least at the sophomore level. I think this is a pretty good 2/3 of a novel, but I really wonder why it has become canonized as the GAN.”  [That’s the Great American Novel for the uninitiated.]

Gribben's got the answer?

Now, here’s the news flash:  A constant reader tipped me off that Barron’s problem is about to be solved by NewSouth books!  Dr. Alan Gribben is publishing a new edition that, among other innovations, dispenses with the n-word altogether.

Gribben explains that Twain’s novels “can be enjoyed deeply and authentically without those continual encounters with hundreds of now-indefensible racial slurs.” It is the first volume to wash out Twain’s mouth with soap.  Gribben believes that the presence of the n-word has gradually diminished the readership of Twain’s masterpiece.

Gribben said that another radical departure from standard editions is that these will be published as the continuous narrative that he says the author originally envisioned. “People during that time did not think of him as a fiction writer,” the Twain scholar told The Montgomery Advertiser. “Twain had difficulty at times developing plot lines for his novels and much preferred his travel books.”

But dumping the n-word is clearly the controversy that will boost sales.

Original as rough draft for translator

I think he’s on to something.  As a woman, I have always had issues about the ending of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. You know, the bit where Kate kneels down and blathers on about being her husband’s slave.  Surely one of our modern-day blank verse wizards could crank out something a little less offensive?  For that matter, I would like to see the b-word, the c-word, and the w-word eliminated from our public discourse about females running for office.

And there’s way, way too much violence in the Bible.  Lots of foreskins gathered, a number of rapes (including one gang rape), massacres on a regular basis. Think of all those psalms that begin with rivers or vineyards and end with a wish that someone’s brains be dashed out against a wall.  These nasty bits could do with a serious editing and revision … whoops!  Stephen Mitchell already has.

Seriously, though.  Sam Gwynn’s objections to the book are not to be taken lightly — Sam is a smart guy.  But the Bowdlerization of Twain concerns me.

The new Twain will be out in February.  Can we wait?

Postscript on 1/4:  NewSouth books replies in the comments section below:

Cynthia and Sam, thank you both for your thought-provoking comments about this. The best thing NewSouth’s edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn could do is generate more discussion about race, language, and literature, and we were pleased to read your post.

Again, we’ll note that the inspiration for this volume of Twain’s books came from Dr. Gribben’s actual conversations with teachers, uncomfortable with or in some cases restricted from teaching especially Huckleberry Finn because of the language within. We see our edition as a teaching tool with numerous applications, from the teacher who wants to teach Twain’s works without getting into the language controversy, to a teacher who wants to teach the NewSouth edition side-by-side with another edition to specifically discuss controversial language and responses to the two works. Before this edition, that wouldn’t have been possible.

The publisher promises to post the introduction to the book on its website soon.

Postscript on 1/5:  Hey, we started a fire with this one!  First the Book Haven, then the world: check it out here.

Dick Gregory, Charles Barron, Huck Finn, and the n-word

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Wants to ban Twain?

Mark Twain was “so far ahead of his time he shouldn’t even be talked about on the same day as other people,” according to comedian and author Dick Gregory.

His friend, Charles Barron, apparently doesn’t agree.  The New York City Councilman and former Black Panther took offense at a Brooklyn principal’s attempt to stop a volume of sexually explicit poems written by Barron’s goddaughter, Tylibah Washington, from being distributed at school.  “I find it interesting that Huckleberry Finn is a classic when it says [the n-word] 200 times. Tylibah’s book is the opposite. It’s very inspiring. I’d like to see Huckleberry Finn banned.”

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, writing in today’s New York Daily News, defended Huck, and she packs a heavy punch [an updated version of the editorial accommodates the latest n-word flap: it’s here — ED.]

“Barron claims to have entered politics to fight bigotry and to protest the sidelining of black voices in the cultural conversation. It’s ironic, therefore, that the principle he’s invoking to ban Mark Twain’s anti-racist classic — that books filled with the n-word shouldn’t be taught – would also ban from the nation’s classrooms many of the greatest and most inspiring works by black writers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Naughty poet?

The n-word is key to critiques of racism found in nonfiction from Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative,” to W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, to Richard Wright’s Black Boy, to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

It is just as central to critiques of racism in Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s classic story, ‘The Ingrate,’ and Countee Cullen‘s poem ‘Incident,’ not to mention novels including Richard Wright‘s Native Son, Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man, David Bradley‘s Chaneysville Incident, Ernest Gaines‘s A Lesson Before Dying – and, yes, Twain’s Huck Finn.

For to expose a racist society for what it is, you have to show racists as they are, speaking as they would speak.

The gifted black satirist and sportswriter, the late Ralph Wiley, who claimed Twain as his most important teacher, wrote that ‘there is not one use of [the n-word] in Huck Finn that I consider inauthentic, and I am hard to please that way.'”

She also notes the writers inspired by Twain, including Kenzaburo Oe, Japan’s Nobel Laureate.  David Bradley, who won the Pen/Faulkner prize for The Chaneysville Incident, credits Twain with having inspired him to become a writer in the first place, says Fishkin.

And of course she mentions Dick Gregory, who we wrote about here commenting on his best-selling autobiography Nigger (excerpt from Gregory’s essay in Fishkin’s new book, The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works):

“People were afraid to ask for my book, and bookstore owners were afraid to put it in their stores.  Some Black folks would go into a bookstore and say, ‘I want one of Dick Gregory’s what-you-call-it.’  They just couldn’t say the word. And White folks would say, ‘You named that book a title I just can’t say.’ Or they would complain, saying, ‘I just can’t stand the name of your new book.’ I didn’t hear White folks complaining about the word nigger when I was growing up.  I only heard them using it.  If they had complained about the word nigger in the past, there would not have been a need to name my book Nigger. Titling my book Nigger meant I was taking it back from White folks.  Mark Twain threw it up in the air and I grabbed it.”

Quite a wrap-up for the Year of Twain.

Postscript: Just got a note from Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence:

I just read your Twain post. Well done. I visited Hannibal, Mo., Twain’s home from the age of four, in the summer of 1990. The street ends at the Mississippi River. At the foot of the street, which was a boat landing stood one of those cast-iron historical markers on a post with all the expected stuff about Twain and Huck, etc. Mentioned on the marker was “[ ] Jim.” The brackets represent, obviously, “Nigger,” but a piece of steel plate had been welded over the word. Every literate person who looked that sign saw the offending word, in effect, underlined, italicized and written in boldface. Its censoring screamed it out louder than six letters ever could.

By the way, I spent a day with Dick Gregory, around 1984. I was a reporter in Richmond, Ind., the home of Earlham College where he was speaking. I had a ball with him. He was strident about vegetarianism and so forth but I remember him, during a lecture, sticking his hand in a bag of barbecue potato chips, getting it all greasy and red, and saying, “Look at this shit. What is this shit?” A naturally funny guy.

Some of us over at the Book Haven are rather strident about vegetarianism ourselves…

What? No Kepler’s?

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

10,000 square feet of books

On Christmas Eve, Flavorwire named the top ten U.S. bookstores here. The article begins in this user-friendly way:  “Bookstores are dying. They’re dying because of jerks who are too cheap to buy a hardcover, or even a paperback, and too lazy to get a library card.”  Odd, for an article that is running online.

Two bookstores in Seattle made the cut, and Powell’s of Portland.  San Francisco’s City Lights is named — no surprise there, either:

Justly famous: City Lights

“Started by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco, CA offers the best in classic and newly-released literature. Their claim to fame is publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems then suffering through the resulting obscenity trial. After all that, the store was designated a San Francisco landmark. Supplementing their in-store performances and promotion is their delightful podcast with news on releases and upcoming events.”

Kepler's in 1955

The comments are filled with protest.  Several nominate San Francisco’s Green Apple Books and one reader voted for Diane Goodman’s Ocean Avenue Books.  But, surprise:  no Cody’s and Moe’s from Berkeley.  And … what?  No Kepler’s?

After all, the fame of Kepler’s is international.  Salman Rushdie, the Shah of Blah himself, lamented during a recent visit that he had “never made it to Kepler’s before” and added “I am delighted to finally find my way to Menlo Park.”

Roy Kepler

Kepler’s was founded in May 1955 by peace activist Roy Kepler. The Grateful Dead gave live shows there early in their career, and they, along with folk singer Joan Baez, often made appearances at the bookstore.  (Management assumed by Clark Kepler, Roy’s son, in 1980.)  Customer loyalty is fierce.

In 1990 Publishers Weekly named Kepler’s “Bookseller of the Year.” However, by 1996, large discount warehouses and were revolutionizing the bookselling business. Kepler’s closed its doors on August 31, 2005.  That’s where the fierce customer loyalty kicked in:  The local community responded with demonstrations. Thousands gathered on the expanse of what is now known as “Kepler’s Plaza” to express support and protest the loss.

The bookstore re-opened in October 2005.

Kepler’s story is told in the documentary, Paperback Dreams, which aired on PBS, tells the tale of two landmark independent booksellers and their struggle to survive. Cody’s and Kepler’s Books helped launch a counter-culture, and for 50 years have protected free speech and celebrated intellectual inquiry. At one time or another, the owners of these stores were harassed, vandalized, threatened, and even suffered acts of terrorism for simply selling books. But their future is uncertain in our fast digital world.  You can order the DVD here.

Procrastination: Jonathan Franzen’s superglue solution, and Victor Hugo buck nekkid

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Better with clothes on, I expect

I am supposed to be writing a wise and insightful essay on a poet over the next few days.  Supposed to be.

James Surowiecki’s recent article in the New Yorker points out the basic irrationality of procrastination.  We know we need to cut the grass, pay the traffic fine, study for the exam, meet the deadline, finish the essay …

Of course, writing is 90 percent procrastination, and I find I have to lock myself into solitary squalor as the dishes pile up, putzying about the house in bathrobed anxiety, letting phone calls roll to the answering machine, looking up random words in the dictionary, seeking for odd small tasks to distract (giving the pills to the dog, taking coffee cups to the kitchen).  But there are only so many snacks one can prepare for oneself; and too much caffeine to jack oneself up to a simulacrum of creativity might eventually require medical intervention.  Above all, I must be careful that I don’t do anything that appears to be work.  That will successfully justify non-writing.  And of course, one must limit checking email to only 25 times every half hour.  Katherine Ellison, who (ironically enough) has just published Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, knows what I am talking about:

I finally had to acknowledge that I was helpless in the face of my addiction, which has had me, especially in recent weeks, tapping my e-mail “refresh” button like a lab rat trying to get cocaine …  Why labor over a metaphor when I can check my moment-to-moment ranking on Amazon? Why struggle with a transition when Google Alerts may be telling me at this very moment that my book was featured on yet another tiny blog?

What makes it all worse is that my publisher has encouraged me to leap into the mind-sucking Internet vortex: to put up a Facebook page and post on it regularly, to join LinkedIn, send e-mail “blasts” and tweet away. And this raises a particular problem, in that my book chronicles my yearlong effort to curb extraneous distractions so as to focus on what’s truly important.

She points out that bestselling novelist Jonathan Franzen has confessed to using superglue to block the Ethernet connection on his computer. Ellison has resorted to an internet-blocking program called Freedom, which, for a one-time fee of $10, will shut off your portal to the outside world for up to eight hours.  Wizard Fred Stutzman has sold his program to more than 75,000 people.  His new program, Anti-Social,  shuts off your access to top time-wasting sites including Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, StumbleUpon, EHarmony, DateHookup and OkCupid.

Surowiecki tackles the problem at its roots:  Why do we procrastinate?  He calls it “a complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict”:

… the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control. Ian McEwan evokes this state in his recent novel Solar: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.” Similarly, Otto von Bismarck said, “Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.”

My metaphor, the internal parliament, has been stolen.  I’m sure of it.  I’ve been saying that for years.  It will never be mine again. Maybe I should think of filing a lawsuit today.  That’s what I should be doing today…

All is forgiven, however, when Surowiecki drops this gem:   Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.”

Back to work…

Postscript 12/29: The trick, I think, is to learn to procrastinate faster

“Life itself is the gift…” — Forrest Church on gratitude, with a few words from Joseph Brodsky, too

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Calculating the odds

The theme over at Anecdotal Evidence today is gratitude.  It brought to mind an article I read in Stanford Magazine a few years back by Forrest Church, author of Love and Death, who at that time was struggling with a particularly virulent form of esophageal cancer.

Under such circumstances, many ask, “Why me?”  “What did I do to deserve this?”  But Church reckoned differently.  We forget, he said, “that we did nothing to deserve being placed in the way of trouble and joy in the first place. The odds against each one of us being here this morning are so mind-staggering that they cannot be computed.”

“Beating the odds, I slowly began to realize, had nothing to do with the stakes of the mortality table,” he wrote.  “The truth of the matter struck me with tremendous force. I’d beaten the odds already, won the house on a zillions-to-1 wager 58 years before, the moment I was born.”  By his own admission, the odds “cannot be computed,” yet he tried:

“Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to 1 against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that’s just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back 10 generations, this miracle must repeat itself 1,000 times—1¼ million times going back only 20 generations. That’s right. From the turn of the 12th century until today, we each have, mathematically speaking, approximately 2½ million direct ancestors. This remarkable pyramid turns in upon itself, of course, with individual ancestors participating in multiple lines of generation, until we trace ourselves back to when our ur-ancestors, the founding couple, whom each one of us carries in our bones, began the inexorable process that finally gave birth to us all, kith and kin, blood brothers and sisters of the same mighty mystery.

“And that’s only the egg and sperm part of the miracle. Remember, each of these ancestors had to live to puberty. For those whose bloodline twines through Europe—and there were like tragedies around the globe—not one of your millions of direct forebears died as children during the great plague, for instance, which mowed down half of Europe with its mighty scythe.”

Church considers his favorite etymology: “human, humane, humanitarian, humility, humble, humus. Dust to dust. And in between, erupting into consciousness—into pain and hope and trust and fear and grief and love—the miracle of life.” He concludes that “without even trying, you’ve already won the only race that really matters. Unconsciously, yet omnipresent, you ran the gauntlet of stars and genomes to assume your full, nothing less than miraculous, place in the creation. Being alive to love and hurt, to fail and recover, to prove your grit and show compassion, that is life’s true secret.”

For me, Joseph Brodsky‘s statement on gratitude is unmatched.  His early poem “1 January 1965” (translated by George Kline):

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same —
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts this melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death —
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gift at all.
It’s clear that you are now to old
to trust in good saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realize:
your life is a sheer gift.

Oprah Winfrey, cheese, Mother Teresa, and the homeless of Haight Street

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

Too easy a target

I was shocked, shocked during the holiday season when a friend told me he had never read Charles Dickens.  So, motivated by, of all things, Oprah Winfrey, I made sure  A Tale of Two Cities was among his Christmas presents.  No, no, not Oprah’s cheesy edition, but the annotated Penguin one.

Cheesy edition… that’s just it, isn’t it?  Many of Oprah’s endeavors justly inspire ridicule.  She is too easy a target.  So The New Republic’s lambasting her for choosing Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities as her December Book Club selection was, well, a bit cheesy in itself.  Hillary Kelly explodes:

“On December 2, as Oprah Winfrey stood on the stage of her TV show, tightly clutching her newest Book Club selection to her chest so that no one could see its title, she proclaimed in her singular, scale-climbing voice, ‘Dickeeeens for the hooolidaaaays!’ Oprah declared that she has ‘always wanted to read Dickens over the holidays,’ and ‘now [she] can.’ Never mind that she could have read Dickens whenever she wanted, seeing as his books have been popular for more than a century. Never mind that Oprah hadn’t chosen A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, or any of Dickens’s other Christmas tales. Never mind that neither Great Expectations nor A Tale of Two Cities, the books she did choose, have anything to do with the holidays. Our shepherd has spoken, and we must blindly follow.

Kelly is concerned that Oprah Winfrey’s “sentimentalized pitch” will result in “a frightening number of purchases.”  Winfrey, you see, admits she has never actually read Dickens.  Kelly continues:

“She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth century—prose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to ‘live your best life’ is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence—she is quite clearly a woman of savvy—but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.”

She’s not done:

“Even more confusingly, Oprah’s comments about Dickens making for cozy reading in front of a winter fire misinterprets the large-scale social realism of his work. It stands to reason that her sentimentalized view of Dickens might stem from A Christmas Carol—probably his most family-friendly read and one of his most frequently recounted tales. But her quaint view of Victoriana, as she’s expressed it, belies an ignorance of Dickens’s authorial intentions. Indeed, both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are dark and disturbing, with elaborate ventures into the seedy underbelly of London and the bloody streets of Paris. How can we trust a literary guide who, ignorant of the terrain ahead, promises us it will be light and easy?”

I am glad I did not have Kelly around in my own adolescence.  As a girl of about 10 or 11, I picked up (you guessed it) Tale of Two Cities. Undaunted by its “complicated syntax,” I read it straight through to the scaffold. And I expect from the little I know of Winfrey’s background, she might have a better grasp of a work that is “dark and disturbing” than Kelly herself.

I was gratified to see the readership of the New Republic nailed the implicit elitism of Kelly’s remarks:

“Wow. ‘Cadres of women from around the globe’ will discover that Dickens can be tough sledding. I imagine that more than a few, however, will muddle through on their own and actually get something more out of it than a cup of hot cocoa. And it’s really this, I suspect, that you find so ‘appalling.'”

Dickens at the podium

Another writes:

“This article strikes me as deeply wrongheaded. So what if Oprah has a silly, narcissistic view of literature? If she gets her fans in their thousands and millions to go out and buy books, some of them authentically great literature, I say more power to her in this age of illiteracy! And by what right does Ms. Kelly sneeringly dismiss all those book-buying fans as dunderheads who could not possibly understand a “great book” unless it is spoon-fed to them by a Certified Literature Professor? Surely some of them are capable of reading and thinking for themselves, and possibly even having insights that have never occurred to Hillary Kelly! If the Western canon is to have any claim to universality, it must be that it is potentially accessible to everyone–that is the great lesson I took away from my immersion in the University of Chicago’s Robert Hutchins-inspired “core curriculum” in the humanities. Or are we to lock the gates of the Temple of Literature to all who do not have a Ph.D. in literary theory? That, surely, would be a far worse catastrophe for the human spirit than Oprah telling people to have a cup of hot chocolate while reading Charles Dickens!”

And I’m not sure today’s world is so very far from the one Dickens describes.  A couple years back, Rush Rehm and I were discussing people’s general reluctance to engage in volunteer work.  I had recently tried to help out at the Stanford Hospital, and been given forms to fill out and asked to sign on to a training schedule — impossible then, and even less possible now.  Rush extolled the organization of Mother Teresa and her nuns.  He told me that if you show up on the doorstep, her nuns will stick a broom or mop in your hands, no questions asked, no names taken.  It’s not grandiose stuff.  Washing a few dishes at the AIDS hospice in Pacifica may not be making the world safe for democracy, but I think Dickens would approve.  They use you while you are there, and welcome you back whenever you return.  That might be one of the most remarkable features of the whole outfit.

So, on a very rainy Christmas morning, I made my occasional trek to the Golden Gate Park, where they feed the homeless, with several bundles of new socks for the dispossessed.  They go through them so quickly living in the San Francisco chill.  I never found the nuns yesterday, but I did notice that the homeless seem to be everywhere this Christmas — not only in the park, but up and down Haight Street, and Oak Avenue, and everywhere hunkered under makeshift cardboard, broken umbrellas, and stolen shopping carts.

A quick stop in Pacifica delivered the socks, and the nuns greeted their wet and slightly manic visitor with their usual unruffled and unhurried calm and friendliness.

I also delivered my Christmas greetings to the gray and magnificent Pacific, my touchstone — and returned to my modest Palo Alto life that is, by any world standard, and particularly the by the standard on Haight Street, unquestionably luxurious.

Rebecca West called for “a new and abusive school of criticism.” It’s still needed.

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Saving souls through litcrit

A few months after World War I began, writer Rebecca West wrote:  “Disgust at the daily deathbed which is Europe has made us hunger and thirst for the kindly ways of righteousness, and we want to save our souls.”

The New Republic, almost a year ago, reprinted her 1914 remarks, calling us to “a serious duty … the duty of listening to our geniuses in a disrespectful manner.”

So much for “kindly ways.”  West wrote, “Criticism matters as it never did in the past, because of the present pride of great writers.”

West’s prose is a little febrile, and she hopelessly confuses the mind and the soul, but in an era of anomie, her passionate outcry is refreshing:  “Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practise and rejoice in art,” she wrote.  “For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.”

She continues:

“A little grave reflection shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism. There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger. We reviewers combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism; we reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods. So great is our amiability that it might proceed from the weakness of malnutrition, were it not that it is almost impossible not to make a living as a journalist.

Well, that much has changed at least.  Journalists are feeding out of dumpsters nowadays.

Nor is it due to compulsion from above, for it is not worth an editor’s while to veil the bright rage of an entertaining writer for the sake of publishers’ advertisements. No economic force compels this vice of amiability. It springs from a faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.

But they do matter. The mind can think of a hundred twisted traditions and ignorances that lie across the path of letters like a barbed wire entanglement and bar the mind from an important advance.”

Sleeping with the enemy

Is West’s call to arms dépassé?  We think not.  Dana Gioia wrote nearly two decades ago in “Can Poetry Matter?” that in literary journals

the essays and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. If it publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them. … The unspoken editorial rule seems to be, Never surprise or annoy the readers; they are, after all, mainly our friends and colleagues.

By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art. Since there are too many new poetry collections appearing each year for anyone to evaluate, the reader must rely on the candor and discernment of reviewers to recommend the best books. But the general press has largely abandoned this task, and the specialized press has grown so overprotective of poetry that it is reluctant to make harsh judgments.

Robert Bly wrote in a similar vein about the same time:

We have an odd situation: although more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in American history, most of the reviews are positive. Critics say, “I never attack what is bad, all that will take care of itself,” . . . but the country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions.”

West concludes:  “Now, when every day the souls of men go up from Finance like smoke, we feel that humanity is the flimsiest thing, easily divided into nothingness and rotting flesh. We must lash down humanity to the world with thongs of wisdom. We must give her an unsurprisable mind. And that will never be done while affairs of art and learning are decided without passion, and individual dulnesses allowed to dim the brightness of the collective mind. We must weepingly leave the library if we are stupid, just as in the middle ages we left the home if we were lepers. If we can offer the mind of the world nothing else we can offer it our silence.”

West hammers into George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.  She says nothing about the ethics and politics of sleeping with the authors she reviews.  She was Wells’s lover for a decade and bore his son.

David Lang’s postmodern passion: “It is not a pretty story”

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Just in time for Christmas (Photo: Peter Serling)

I’m not always au courant with the latest musical offerings —  so I missed David Lang‘s Little Match Girl Passion when it won the Pulitzer in 2008.  Only when I interviewed and wrote about Lang did I familiarize myself with this stunning composition.  A friend of mine, Tim Page of the Washington Post‘s said of it, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a new … composition” and that it was “unlike any music I know.” It’s in keeping with the darker side of the season, a postmodern take on the Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired it.

“It is not a pretty story,” says Lang, who wrote the text.  True. It’s always surprised me that the tale — all of two-and-a-half pages in my 1906 edition published by J.M. Dent & Co. in London — is viewed as something to be read to children.  Lang rightly observes that “it has that shocking combination of danger and morality that many famous children’s stories do.”  And in Lang’s sensitive hands, the story comes shockingly alive once again: a poor young girl tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on New Year’s Eve, fears returning to the impoverished home where she is beaten by her father, and freezes to death while having visions of her grandmother, “the only person who had ever been kind to her,” as Andersen explains in the story.

Knew poverty from the inside out

“Through it all she somehow retains her Christian purity of spirit,” Lang writes.  You can hear the whole Passion on Lang’s website, here.

Andersen knew what he was talking about: “When Hans Christian Andersen was a child, he was almost as poor as the ‘little match-seller’ in one of his own tales,” Ernest Rhys writes in an editor’s note to my edition.  He “almost starved” as a teenager in Copenhagen, and his early poem “The Dying Child” earned him lasting fame.

Lang writes in the notes that accompany the CD, “What drew me to ‘The Little Match Girl’ is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope.”

In other words, Andersen’s work demands a return to radical innocence.  That dark insistence is at the heart of this short, incomprehensible work.   Other Industrial Revolution writers – William Blake in his poems,  Charles Dickens in his stories – would have understood.  Without it, the story is mere pathos and sentimentality. Radical innocence is a to-the-death imperative,  as Andersen knew, as Blake knew.  (That tenacious survivor, Czesław Miłosz, tries to recover it in “The World” cycle of poems. Clearly, it was the Eden he longed to return to.)

“A Passion,” of course, is about suffering — typically, the passion not only tells the story, but also comments upon it, giving the tale a “powerful inevitability,” said Lang.   It also includes texts from other sources to tell its story (Lang borrows from Genesis, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes). It embraces different p.o.v.s — the reactions of the crowd, penitential thoughts, statements of general sorrow, shock, or remorse, as well as other texts altogether.  These tools place us in the middle of the action, rather than allowing us the emotional as well as temporal distance of bystanders.

Lang modeled his own Passion on Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion — “what has always interested me, however, is that Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its Christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as Christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus.”

Merry Christmas to all.

(Listen, at least, to the opening “Come, Daughter” piece here.)

Remembering Bella Akhmadulina: “purity, conscience, and independence”

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

I ran across Robin Varghese‘s recent post on 3 Quarks Daily noting that, he, too, had somehow missed the obituaries for the 73-year-old Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, who died on November 29 of a heart attack.  I spent a little time this afternoon catching up: William Grimes‘s New York Times obituary for the “bold voice in Russian poetry” is here.

Akhmadulina came to fame in the post-Stalin years, the years of the Thaw.  She never emigrated, and never was exiled.  The Telegraph reported:

“Yet in her own quiet way Bella Akhmadulina was as much of a dissident as better known Soviet writers. Her work as a translator – she translated into Russian poetry from France, Italy, Chechnya, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia and many other countries – led to her expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union in the Brezhnev era, and she openly supported persecuted writers like Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and political dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov.”

In 1979, she fell out of favour by contributing a surreal short story, ‘Many dogs and one dog,’ to the Samizdat publication Metropol, and was subsequently condemned for the “eroticism” of her verse and banned from publication.”

Said the poet:  “How did I manage?  Well, I think a person has some sort of guiding light.  Without doubt, something or someone looks after us from on high.” sThat quotation is from Valentina Polukhina‘s exhaustive and enlightening series of interviews, Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, volume 1.

I didn’t know her poetry — or at least I didn’t know it much.  I remember her instead as the the bright, original, and unambiguous voice in Polukhina’s 1987 interview:  “The presence of any great poet in the world creates a marked effect on human existence.”

An excerpt:

“But in exceptional cases, as with Bunin, with Nabokov, we are talking about people who have taken with them something that became … as if they created the Russian language inside themselves.  He doesn’t need to hear Russian spoken around him; he himself becomes a force that is ripe.  He himself is both garden and gardener. …

I said this at some time to Nabokov.  He asked me, ‘Do you like my language?’ and I answered, ‘Your Russian, it’s the best,’ and he said, ‘But it seems to me that it is like frozen strawberries.’  And whatever fate does … Well, with such people what is fate?”

In a literary world notorious for backbiting and artistic rivalries, she said this of Joseph Brodsky:

“My particular relationship to Brodsky can be described quite simply: uncritical, one of adoration.  I myself have stated somewhere in connection with Akhmatova:  ‘Of all calamities, adoration is the worse.’  An admirer can never expect his adoration to be returned.  And I am sure, that Joseph … I never think about myself when I think about him.  And even when they said to me, ‘you know, what Brodsky thinks of you!’ (Thumb downward.)  As he pleases.  But it is my business to talk about him with thumbs up.”

Polukhina, however, contradicted her:  “He said that Bella is one of the few Russian poets living in Russia who by some miracle has succeeded in preserving her purity, conscience and independence.”

Akhmadulina’s finest online send-off may be the memoir from Gregory Freidin on Arcadehere.  He gives us the context for Akhmadulina’s rise to prominence:

“Because of the richness of inflection and infinite melodic variability of the language, Russian poetry is blessed with extraordinary expressive force and a mighty mnemonic potential. This comes in handy if you happen to live under a repressive ideocracy like the Soviet Union, since verses can be easily memorized and leave little material evidence. Indeed, there was no better time to realize Russian poetry’s mnemonic and ethereal  potential than in the post-Stalin Soviet Union where the absence of independent publishing coexisted with burgeoning youth culture and a minimal – and for that reason infinitely titillating – lifting of the skirt of Soviet censorship. For us, who belonged the post-WWII generation, shaped by the de-Stalinization campaign and cold war, known euphemistically as ‘peaceful coexistence,’ this toying with the ideological hemline excited our imagination and set our minds on fire! Grim and sclerotic as the Soviet empire was in its decline, it became a Garden of Eden for poetry – and a purgatory, not to say a minor inferno, for the poets themselves. Some, like Brodsky, were exiled or jailed, others went through torments of hell in trying to combine the imperative of remaining true to their calling with the relentless and crushing pressure to conform. That was the cup that Akhmadulina, twenty and otherworldly beautiful in 1956, drank to the dregs.”

I won’t spoil Freidin’s post for you; it deserves a full reading here.  And for a taste of Akhmadulina’s distinctive voice, girlish and throaty, click below:

Orwell Watch #3: Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Please.  No “gifting” this Christmas.

I’m not particular sensitive to nouns used as verbs, but this one gets to me.  I have consulted my Oxford English Dictionary, and apparently it thinks the fault is mine — it lists a variety of instances in which “gift” was used as a verb from the 17th to 19th century.  The OED bids me keep my petty grievances to myself.

But I can’t.  The sudden reemergence of the term coincides with a number of other words that have been recycled into verbs — I am tired, also of people being “tasked” with unimportant activities.  Wordnik has a list of irritations here, and admittedly, in the debauched wordsmithery of journalism, I am guilty of many sins on this score.  “Impact,” for example.

So why do “gifting” and “tasking” irk me so?  Perhaps because of what I suspect is the underlying motive in their use.  “Gifting” someone sounds so much more self-important than “giving a gift.”  Being “tasked” with some trivial occupation gives it the aura of high mission.

But while I’m at it, a recent article I wrote, interviewing literary scholars, turned up these clinkers:  One spoke of “foregrounding” different opinions. I had left the passage in my final article, but it made my editor throw up a little in his mouth, so it was deleted.  Another scholar spoke of “theatricalizing” such differences.

Perhaps we could “gift” people with a few useful synonyms as gifts this Christmas?

Postscript:  Clearly, I am in a minority.  A poll showed that most think “whatever” to be the most grating word, followed by “like.” As Jim Erwin commented on my Facebook page:  “Fail on currenting. Teh mos def gr8ting spelling now is, like, ‘Whatevs'”

Postscript on 12/22: An interesting, lawyerly p.o.v. from Max Taylor on my Facebook page: “Hoary legitimacy only makes the experience of words we wish would go away worse. Like the Latin ‘nuculum’ in which the embarrassing “nucular” might find refuge.”