Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

A “damn fine aphorist” shares a few thoughts among hundreds

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014
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A pensive Patrick. Stanford Bookstore’s Doug Erickson helps a customer in the background (Photo par Humble Moi)

A small, but enthusiastic, audience gathered at the Stanford Bookstore last week to hear archaeologist-poet and art historian  Patrick Hunt’s presentation of his most recent book, A Few Hundred Thoughts (Corinthian Press). According to the leading authority, James Geary, on his blog, All Aphorisms, All the Time, Patrick’s got an additional title we didn’t know about: he’s also “a damn fine aphorist.” His new book some honed-down thoughts culled over decades (with a few fabulae at the end of the volume).

A few of my favorites:

Only leaves know the true color of sunlight.”

Humans have stomachs twice the size of their brains and three times the size of their hearts.”

A constellation is a village where stars live.”

Anguish is proof of the soul.”

Stars obey the same laws as snails.”

Unlike comets and more like candles, souls don’t burn up but down.”

hunt1Clearly, he roamed territory that was witty, observant, thoughtful, and profound … but what’s the difference between an aphorism and a saying, anyway? Here’s what he writes in his preface:

Greek property in ancient society was often marked out by a boundary pillar, a horos stone that set up a determined space. One word for the act of marking boundaries was ‘aphorízein (“to mark off by boundaries, to set bounds, to define”). Derived in part from this Greek verb, an aphorism is a pithy saying, conveying defined truth in a tightly determined construction of a few words whose boundaries were set by verbal economy and precision.

In his talk, Patrick attempted to distinguish between the apothegm, the maxim, the epigram, the proverb, and the aphorism. The epigram, he said, “is meant to have stingers,” a sharp bite at the end. Maxims illustrate principles or rules. The aphorism, he said, is “intellectual judo – much like poetry, every word counts.” He hailed Voltaire, Montesquieu, Wilde, Twain, as “aphoristic masters.”

From his book: “These aphorisms are often sourced from the end lines of my poems intended as summations. They also derive from my theses of various belles lettres, essays and book chapters,” he wrote, adding, “It is hoped there are no platitudes, tendentious saws, bromides or non sequiturs and fallacies here, but that cannot be guaranteed.”

I don’t claim to be wise,” he demurred humbly to the assembled fans. Far be it for us to quarrel with an aphoristic master, but if he’s right, he made a very credible facsimile. I expect I’ll be returning to his book again and again.

Postscript on 1/23: The inimitable Dave Lull, patron of bloggers, alerted my attention to the newest post from aphorist emperor James Geary, about Patrick and this post – it’s here. We referred to him, and now he refers to us, and we are referring back to him again. It’s one of those infinite regression thingummes. Or maybe tennis.

Need to lift your spirits? Try this summer’s Importance of Being Earnest

Friday, July 19th, 2013
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A love-hate relationship. Here, the hate phase. (Ruth Marks, Don DeMico, Jessica Waldman)

It’s been a dispiriting week of news, with tragedies, disasters, outrages, crime.  In that sense, I suppose, it’s not so different from any other week.  Can anything lift our spirits nowadays?

Try showing up at the Piggott Theater sometime between now and August 11 for the Stanford Summer Theaters production of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest.  Under the clever and skilful direction of Lynne Soffer, the production sparkles and snaps.  I think it may be the all-round best show I’ve seen by the summer repertory yet – for ensemble performance, for set design, for costumes, and more.

Oscar_Wilde_portrait

He’s watching.

I have to admit I approached the theater with trepidation.  I’ve seen the 1952 classic performance with Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, and Joan Greenwood, Michael Redgrave, Dorothy Tutin, Michael Denison, and Margaret Rutherford, so my standards are unreasonably high.  The timing for Wilde’s wonder piece must be perfect – otherwise it’s like a soufflé left in the oven for a minute too long.

Of course, not all the performances were perfectly spot-on, but the esprit of the cast who clearly enjoyed working with one another made up for any minor flaws, and the euphoria carried into the opening-night reception afterwards.

Here’s what the Stanford Summer Theater’s founder and artistic director, Rush Rehm, wrote in the evening’s program:

As Wilde famously wrote, “The comic spirit is a necessity in life, a purge to all human vanity.” We need that spirit more than ever, as we face the daunting challenges that lie ahead. If I listed them all here, you’d just have to laugh … or give up the ghost.  …

I have been passionately in love with this play since I first ran into it as an undergrad quite a while ago. I found its wit and brilliance of language a perfect fit with the hollowness of the world it attempts to expose, and that truth resounds to this day.

Wilde, himself, believed in “living as an art” and has filled this play with characters who share that love to the nth degree.  While they are all richly “extended characters,” we trust that bringing them alive truthfully and radiantly is all that Mr. Wilde would wish of us. As my old acting teacher, Bill Hickey, used to say, “There is no size to truth.”

Get tickets quickly here. It’s likely to sell out fast.

As a warm-up, watch Dame Edith Evans grill Michael Redgrave in the clip below:

Teachers of sorrow: Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and breaking-up letters

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013
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The meaning of sorrow…

Oscar Wilde went to prison for his erotic letters Lord Alfred Douglas – yet he wrote to Douglas sadly in 1896, “I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain.”

Then he wrote this:  “I had always thought that my giving up to you in small things meant nothing: that when a great moment arrived I could reassert my will-power in its natural superiority. It was not so. At the great moment my will-power completely failed me. In life there is really no small or great thing. All things are of equal value and of equal size. …”

“All things are of equal value and of equal size.” Because of that passage, I have been thinking about that letter for two days.  It may be true, after all – and if so, perhaps the most important thing he ever said.  The letter concludes: “You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.”

From the title of The Atlantic series,  ‘This Was Like Dating a Priest’: Famous Authors’ Breakup Letters,” you might expect these letters to be pure snark. Don’t believe it.  The Atlantic‘s  title is taken from a 1945 letter from Anaïs Nin to C. L. Baldwin, in which she sounds rather impressed with herself.  But some of the others are truly poignant, intelligent, and painfully self-aware.

“I’m going mad again.”

For instance this one, Virginia Woolf‘s final letter to her husband Leonard Woolf during the bombing of Britain in 1941.  Afterwards, she put stones in her pocket and drowned herself in the River Ouse:

“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”

Worth a read here.

Is this the voice of Oscar Wilde?

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012
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Open Culture and Flavorwire have both posted a clip today of the 1900 recording of Oscar Wilde reading “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but it’s not new.  It’s been kicking around youtube for awhile now.  “Although the recording isn’t great, his voice is definitely audible enough to make out the Irish-born writer’s cultivated accent and his sly, whimsical inflection,” according to Judy Berman at Flavorwire.  I’ve found a cleaner version of the recording – you don’t have to scroll forward 45 seconds through music and photos to hear the scratchy, muffled recording.  The voice is … not quite what I was expecting for this somber work, in which Wilde recalls the horror of  the execution of a Charles Thomas Wooldridge,
who had murdered his wife.  It was written two or three years before Wilde’s own death, in exile and poverty.

Pentonville in 1842

It’s a moving poem, but I wonder what the wife’s version of the events would have been, before and after her throat was slit.  The pity usually goes to the perps; the victims are forever silent.  The horrors of a man facing execution, barbaric as the modern death penalty is, probably had at least a veneer of civilization missing from her killing.

I was introduced to the poem when I was living on Offord Road in Islington, around the corner from Pentonville prison, one of the places where Wilde had been imprisoned.  An English pianist of my acquaintance recited it (as I recall) from memory.  It’s been in my head ever since.

The whole recording is less than a minute, but the quality of the cylinders is such that you might benefit from this crib sheet (the entire poem is, of course, much longer – you can read it here):

In Reading Gaol by Reading Town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Postscript:  Whoops. It appears there is some controversy about the authenticity – the full detective story is here.  We’ll probably never know for sure… is it, or is it not?

They started more than literary firestorms: Twain, Thoreau meet Smokey the Bear

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012
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Fire and the 4th go hand in hand

Traditional 4th of July celebrations involve fireworks, campfires, sparklers, gunfire and cannons, and all sorts of other incendiary tomfoolery.  What better way to celebrate than with the tale of two inadvertent literary firebugs?

Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin apparently agrees, according to her new post on the Library of America’s “Reader’s Almanac” blog.

Here’s the story:  Through their own naïveté and carelessness, Mark Twain burned 200 acres of forest around Lake Tahoe. He failed to break Henry David Thoreau‘s earlier record of setting 300 acres of his beloved Concord woods aflame.

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde.  He might have had Twain in mind, for Twain loved Tahoe with a passion that all later lakes failed to arouse.  Italy’s famous Lake Como was as nothing.  The renowned Sea of Galilee was a downright disappointment.  (I understood this completely when I saw the mud puddle called the Jordan River.  Where was the mighty, rolling river of the spirituals?  It occurred to me as I gazed at the sluggish, fetid waters that the slaves had the Mississippi in mind.)

“Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe,” wrote the dazzled Twain in Roughing It, “would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones.”

America's answer to Como, Galilee

Yet he built a campfire on the shore one autumn day in 1861 and left it unattended while he returned to his boat.  A gust of wind did the rest.

Seventeen years earlier, a stray spark from Thoreau’s campfire started a conflagration.  According to Shelley:

Both writers were struck by the “glorious spectacle” (Thoreau’s words) of the fires they had started; Twain found the “mighty roaring of the conflagration” to be “very impressive.” Neither Thoreau nor Twain showed much remorse for the destruction he had caused. “I have set fire to the forest,” Thoreau wrote in his journal six years later, “but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it.”

Twain, at least, has not been forgiven.

Said Shelley:  “Last week I asked a firefighter at Fallen Leaf Lake, in the Tahoe Basin just south of Lake Tahoe, whether Mark Twain was still persona non grata in the area. He nodded grimly.”

Having fled my own home with suitcases and pets during two wildfires in that part of the world and stayed at home for a third close call, I can understand the firefighter’s umbrage.

Read the whole cautionary tale here.

Dana Gioia in WLT: “It’s better to be noticed than ignored”

Sunday, August 21st, 2011
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"Fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The new September issue of World Literature Today is out, including an interview with poet, and former NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia. The Q&A was conducted by WLT‘s managing editor Michelle Johnson (who was also my editor for the July/August article on eminent Polish poet Julia Hartwig).

Not online, alas – but here are a few excerpts:

On fame:

I try to accept the good and the bad with equanimity.  As Oscar Wilde observed, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I have been lucky to have enjoyed a degree of celebrity across my career, and the experience has taught me a lot about the nature of contemporary fame. Notoriety requires you to be simplified, usually into a neat and tidy headline. First, I was widely discussed as the “businessman-poet.” Then I became notorious as the ringleader of the New Formalists.  Soon thereafter I became famous as the literary maverick who wrote “Can Poetry Matter?” Then I became a public figure as the champion of arts and literacy who ran the National Endowment for the Arts. Each of these reputations contained an element of truth and a simplification. But it’s better to be noticed than ignored, and properly used, fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests as a writer.

On his legacy as one of the proponents of “New Formalism”:

It’s easy to forget how odd things were back in the 1970s. Form and narrative were almost universally denounced as dead literary modes. They were considered retrograde, repressive, elitist, antidemocratic, phallocentric, and even (I’m not making this up) un-American. It was impossible to publish a formal or narrative poem in most magazines. One journal even stated its editorial policy as, “No rhyme or pornography.” Poems wee supposed to be free-verse lyric utterances in a confessional or imagistic style. I’m happy to say that journals and presses are now open to formal or narrative poetry. This is a direct result of the so-called “Poetry Wars,” the long and loud debates over these issues that lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s. …

I had no interest in making rhyme and meter the dominant aesthetic. What I fought for – and one really did have to fight back then – was for the poet’s freedom to use whatever style he or she felt was right for the poem. I can’t imagine a poet who wouldn’t want to have all the possibilities of the language available, especially the powerful enchantments of meter, rhyme, and narrative. I never saw the movement as a rejection of modernism. Why throw away the greatest period of American poetry?

What’s next?

America's mystical composer gets National Medal of Arts

I am most eager to work with artists I admire unreservedly. Collaboration depends upon talent – the pairing of two talents that inspire each other. Morten Lauridsen, who seems to me one of the greatest living composers, wants to create a work together. That is very exciting. Helen Sung and I are going to write a jazz song cycle. The composer William Bolcolm has suggested doing a musical setting of my narrative poem “Haunted” for a pianist and an actor. Lori Laitman is writing a song cycle using my translations of Montale’s love poems. Paul Salerni and I have sketched out a dance opera. I also have a third opera subject in mind, but it is still in the early stages. But, of course, the important thing is to keep writing poems.

The article also included a poem from his forthcoming collection Pity the Beautiful (2011, Graywolf), titled “Finding a Box of Family Letters.” I thought it sounded familiar.  Indeed, it was. He read it to me a year ago, over wine at his house in Santa Rosa, at the same time he read “Haunted,” which I very much look forward to hearing with Bolcom’s musical setting.  The poem made a very strong impression on me then, and also when it was published in the Hudson Review some time later.

Some time ago, Dana sent me a DVD of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna – please, please go find it, if you haven’t heard it.  He’s largely unheralded in the MSM, but is perhaps the most popular choral composer in the U.S.  Moreover, Lauridsen has been called “”the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic.”

By the by, the magazine also has an essay by Jane Hirshfield, on American poetry.  Haven’t read it yet.

No love lost: “authors are some mean mofos”

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011
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Hank James, zat you?

A few weeks ago, we wrote a few words on famous feuds between authors.

What better way to follow up than with nasty letters authors wrote on each others’ work?  I read flavorwire’s post on the topic some time ago, which excerpted a longer column from The Examiner here, with a Part 2 here.  It seems like as a good a way as any to begin the holiday weekend.

Take this one:

Wyndham Lewis on Gertrude Stein: “Gertrude Stein’s prose-song is a cold black suet-pudding. We can represent it as a cold suet-roll of fabulously reptilian length. Cut it at any point, it is the same thing: the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through and all along.”

As one commenter, Dave, concluded:  “Authors are some mean mofos.”

Instead of resnipping the earlier lists, however, I decided to raid the suggestions from readers.

No eraser

Ben Jonson on Shakespeare:  “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.”

Baudelaire on Voltaire: “I grow bored in France – and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Voltaire … the king of nincompoops, the prince of the superficial, the anti-artist, the spokesman of janitresses, the Father Gigone of the editors of Siècle.”

H.G. Wells on Henry James: “A hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.”

Ahem...

Louis-Ferdinand Céline on D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “600 hundred pages for a gamekeeper’s dick, it’s way too long.”

As far as potty-mouth goes, try this one:  Stephen Fry on Dan Brown‘s The DaVinci Code: “Complete loose stool water. Arse gravy of the very worst kind.”

William Hazlitt about his good friend Coleridge: “Everlasting inconsequentiality marks all he does.”

Then there’s a Jane Austen pile-on:

Mark Twain:  “Just the omission of Jane Austen’s books alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

Charlotte Bronte‘s criticism is less snarky, more an excellent Romantic era critique of the preceding era’s Classicism:

"A Chinese fidelity..."

“. . . anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works; all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer . . . She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death–this Miss Austen ignores, she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman . . .”

Ceallaig‘s perceptive comment from an intelligent heart:  “My question is: if Mark Twain hated Jane Austen why does he say ‘every time I read it?’ Wouldn’t once have been enough? Ditto Noel Coward‘s slam on Oscar Wilde: ‘Am reading more of …’? as if the first dose wasn’t sufficient? I’m sure most of these slams were meant to be witty, and I agree with a number of them, but … wit used for the sake of nasty doesn’t work for me.”

Ellis: "a mean shallow stupid novel"

Then I found this interesting post, from bibliokept. David Foster Wallace on Bret Easton Ellis.  I leafed through Ellis’ Less Than Zero in the Stanford Bookstore a couple decades ago, and found it ugly and depraved.  I haven’t read Wallace at all, and have been put-off by his super-celebrity status, which, morbidly, seemed to accelerate with his 2008 suicide – until I read this excerpt from an interview:

“I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other.

Wallace: "In dark times..."

‘If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?

“In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”

I’d say it’s considerably less.

Bibliokept‘s thoughtful consideration of Ellis versus Wallace definitely worth a thoughtful read.