Feb 17 2017

Why do Artists Travel?

What foreign walls will open to a wanderer?

––Statius[1]

This is my home and my homeland. It tallies with secrets my father
Left me, that talked about fate.

––Virgil[2]

Rosalind: “A traveler? By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s. Then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands.”

Jacques: “Yes, I have gained my experience.”

Rosalind: “And your experience makes you sad. I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad— and to travel for it, too.”

––Shakespeare [3]

The traveller that distrusts every person he meets, and turns back upon the appearance of every man that looks like a robber, seldom arrives in time at his journey’s end.

––Oliver Goldsmith[4]

It must be confessed in the main that travelers who withdraw from the limitation of their homes think they step into not only a strange but a perfectly free nature, and this delusion we could at that time cherish the more as we were not yet reminded every moment by police examinations of passports, by tolls, and other such like hindrances, that abroad things are still more limited and worse than at home.

––Goethe[5]

All the arts commonly aspire toward the principle of music….. The aim of our culture should be to attain not only as intense but as complete a life as possible…. The demand of the intellect is to feel itself alive.

––Walter Pater[6]

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.

––Oscar Wilde[7]

See more: Why Do Artists Travel? (Part 02)

NOTES

[1] Statius, Thebaid. Translated by Ross. XI, 730

[2] Virgil, Aeneid. VII, 123.

[3] Shakespeare, As You Like It. IV, i.

[4] Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, “26. A reformation in the gaol. To make laws complete, they should reward as well as punish.”

[5] Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit, XIX, 661.

[6] Pater, The Renaissance 135, 188, 220.

[7] Wilde, “The Decay of Lying.”


Nov 4 2016

Bookbread: International Voting Edition

bookbread typewriter

 

With only four days left before this election ends, I’ve noticed some readers of this blog come all the way from places such as Yerevan, Armenia and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as Bad Kissingen, Bavaria and even Bengaluru, Karnataka.

I wonder, what would those readers and their friends and families ask of a voter in the United States? Would they be curious for whom I voted? Do they understand the typical American’s deep ambivalence toward both candidates?

  • I will say I’ve already voted.
  • I will say never have I joined a political party nor voted a “straight ticket” for a single faction.
  • I will say I come from a modest family involved in agriculture, healthcare, and education. I grew up on a farm outside of a town with a population of less than 7,000 but now live about 60 miles away from that farm in Austin, Texas with a metro populous of over a million.
  • I will say the city traffic proposition that I voted on will affect my day-to-day life much more than any President of the United States ever can on any issue.

I cannot deny being tempted to pen, as Ovid did to his enemies in the Ibis, an elaborate curse upon these hucksters who herd us like cattle. Or should I follow Paul’s advice and shake my sandals at these clownish candidates and their supporters and declare “your blood be on your own hands,”? [1]

On the other hand, perhaps all this anxiety and confusion will revive the aesthetic significance of literature. After all, in both good times and bad, one nearly always wants better books. Yet I would be willing to face a famine that made worthwhile works scarce should that famine render an abundance of readers seriously interested in self-education. This was Andrew Lang’s audience,[2] and it is the audience this Bookbread blog continues to seek, no matter which ape be the acting President.

NOTES

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[1] Matthew 10:14; Acts 18:6.

[2] As Elanor De Selms Langstaff put it: “Lang did not write for the newly literate, but, good Scotsman that he was, speak he did to the most serious of the self-educated,” (Andrew Lang. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co. 1978. p. 14.)


Oct 12 2016

Why We Retell Stories

bookbread Canterbury

The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil…. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.

–Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1]

I. The Place

Often while traveling down a road–one familiar though not taken weekly, or even monthly––I and members of my family have retold stories to ourselves. Indeed, as if unconsciously hypnotized by a mantra, we “sit indulgent” and “partake rural repast” by these retellings.[2] We partake in tales involving particular places along the way to wherever we’re going. Often they can’t even be categorized as stories, at least not in the sense of possessing a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they are but blots of memory and splotches of myth.

One of the stories that comes up while traveling in northern Williamson County, Texas along Highway 183 where it meets County Road 121 tells how in the early 1900s, my grandad’s grandad’s uncle Cyrus planted a tree. It was a tree that could be seen about a hundred yards away from the east side of the highway, and it was a tree that was seen for about hundred years until it fell over around 2010. It’s absurd that we know neither why he planted it nor what species eventually grew alone in a field on the edge of Shin Oak Ridge and Briggs Prairie, but because Cyrus’s older brother Livy operated nurseries and orchards throughout his life, I suppose it was some kind of fruit tree. The tree was always short, and the only explanation to which we could satisfy ourselves was that Uncle Cyrus perhaps planted it in soil rocky enough to stunt the tree’s growth.

But why did we repeat this vignette whenever we passed by the tree, or repeat it nowadays while driving past where it once stood? It’s because we seek stability while traveling and retell a tale to remind us so. Something in the subconscious says: “See that! Something happened there. Today I call attention to the place, and by telling you about it, that spot further becomes a part of me, and also now a part of you the listener.”[3] Just as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913), the mother of the main character, a New York transplant from the Midwest, resorts to retelling:

Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life.[4]

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II. The Placeless

On the other hand, I wonder which stories get told only once. I bet it’s those that are quite forgettable. I further wonder: do the stories that get told only once evoke in their readers and listeners a sense of placelessness?—perhaps even a sense of instability? Are some stories too unstable to be retold? Perhaps that speculation works for stories, perhaps not, but on the other hand a poem can certainly evoke placelessness and at the same time be good enough to qualify as unforgettable. Consider the twenty-eighth sonnet of Shakespeare, where readers encounter a wanderer who asks:

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

The speaker wishes without hope––an individual stuck between twinkling night and radiant morn.

Or is the speaker free rather than trapped? Has the poet captured the psychology of one coursing through a place of non-existence just as the clouds course through the air? While the speaker tells the day and flatters the night, unlike Mrs. Spragg, this particular poet doesn’t retell a tale in an attempt to craft a place of permanence. Is this because Shakespeare wasn’t an American?

We should seek to discover how, given the American people as they are, and American economic and social life as it now exists—and not as those things can be imagined to be—we can find means of resisting the steady homogenization of the world. This means cultivating a strong sense of place wherever we find it—and thereby cultivating the human goods that depend upon an enduring sense of place and are impossible without it.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. “The Custom-House.”

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 3–4.

[3] Compare Job 38:4–7: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….”

[4] Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909. I, vi, p. 79.

[5] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 7.


May 27 2016

Cards and Cars in Paris and New Orleans

bookbread pencil shavings

I recently finished Wendell Pierce’s moving memoir of Katrina and New Orleans, The Wind in the Reeds (2015) and intend to soon blog about it in more detail. But already passages from Pierce as well as from Houellebecq’s Submission (2015) concerning the differences in mobility and mentality for Americans and Europeans has set my mind a pondering…. trying to stitch together meaning of previous thoughts on trials and travel….

JAQUES: It is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry’s contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me m a most humorous sadness.

ROSALIND: A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad: I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s; then, to have seen much and to have nothing, is to have rich eyes and poor hands.

JAQUES: Yes, I have gained my experience.

ROSALIND: And your experience makes you sad: I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad; and to travel for it too!

–Shakespeare[1]

 The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.

–Yi-Fu Tuan[2]

My father’s mantra kept going through my head, strengthening my resolve: “You can’t get lost in America.”

–Wendell Pierce[3]

No one could have appreciated that generosity more than I did, as I received my rations of celery remoulade and cod purce, each in its little compartment of the metal hospital tray issued by the Bullier student cafeteria (whose unfortunate patrons clearly had nowhere else to go, and had obviously been kicked out of all the acceptable student cafeterias, but who still had their student IDs––you couldn’t take away their student IDs), and I thought of Huysman’s epithets—the woebegone cheese, the grievous sole—and imagined what he might make of those metal cells, which he’d never known, and I felt a little bit less unhappy, a little bit less alone, in the Bullier student cafeteria.

–Michel Houellebecq[4]

NOTES

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[1] Shakespeare, As You Like It, IV, i.”

[2] Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human.” Why Place MattersGeography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 115.

[3] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. pp. 126, 239.

[4] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 6.

 


May 12 2016

The Prose of Paris: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” versus Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”

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“Hug me till you drug me, honey.”

––Huxley, Brave New World (1934)[1]

Is Michel Houellebecq’s Sounmission (Submission) (2015) merely a re-writing of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934)? Do these mannish novels, separated by nearly ninety years, bear any family resemblances? One can say, at the very least, that while Miller turned to surrealism in order to cope with the pains of his reality, Houellebecq opted for satire to understand the surrealism plaguing his reality.

One of the theses of Houellebecq’s narrator is the fact that modern citizens of Western civilization don’t fear death—they fear suffering:

People don’t really care all that much about their own death. What they really worry about, their one real fixation, is how to avoid physical suffering as much as possible. [2]

To condition the mind to cope with death, Westerners have resorted to, among other things, music, drugs, sex, and religion. And, most of the time, as Miller’s narrator observes, none of these actions or options remains satisfactory:

Impossible to dream even when the music itself is nothing but a dream…. There is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama.[3]

The “illusion of truth” inhibits one from encountering the truth.[4] The illusion of truth inhibits all experience. This idea is further explored in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a.k.a. Blade Runner (1968):

Out in what had been before the war the suburbs, one could find buildings entirely empty … or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.[5]

Is it too absolute, too definite, to suggest that doubt is the midpoint between dream and experience?

Much of Dick’s Electric Sheep is a rewriting of Huxley’s Brave New World (1931). In fact, Dick’s fiction has been conditioned by Huxley’s. From the latter:

It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge…. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” [6]

Oh untimely death![7] Oh inescapable conditioning! With Houellebecq the narrator’s conversion to Islam serves as the medium of his conditioning. In Dick’s book the profession of the character of Rick is that of a bounty hunter, and this––as well as the possibility that Rick may be an android implanted with false memories of being a bounty hunter––has conditioned him to prefer avoiding direct experience. In Huxley the soma pills inhibit the experiences had by the novel’s characters, which is why they sing things like: “hug me till you drug me, honey.” And in Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry (1927), the conditioning comes via the American brand of evangelical Christianity. It is a brand that strives to bring happiness to the sick rather than healing, but this happiness is just another “illusion of truth” that inhibits experience:

“Can you think of anything finer for a big husky like you than to spend his life bringing poor, weak, sick, scared folks to happiness? Can’t you see how the poor little skinny guys and all the kiddies would follow you and praise you and admire you, you old son of a gun?”

And in a later passage from Lewis:

It was not her eloquence but her healing of the sick which raised Sharon to such eminence that she promised to become the most renowned evangelist in America. People were tired of eloquence; and the whole evangelist business was limited, since even the most ardent were not likely to be saved more than three or four times. But they could be healed constantly, and of the same disease.[8]

Huxley, Houellebecq, and Lewis all use satire to tell their tales, while Dick and Miller, whose texts are not without their moments of comic relief, are for the most part, utterly serious with their styles of storytelling.

NOTES

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[1] Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006. XIII, p. 193.

[2] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 230.

[3] Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. pp.70, 87–88.

[4] I suspect Miller’s “illusion of truth” is akin to Nietzsche’s “seduction of language,” (Genealogy I, 13).

[5] Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. NY: Delrey Books. 2007. I, 3.

[6] Huxley, Brave New World XII, 177; I, 16.

[7] Shakespeare, King Lear, IV, vi, 239.

[8] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter III,” 39–40; “Chapter XV,” 212.

 


Mar 25 2011

A Welcoming to Welsh Ways (A Dialogue)

For all impractical purposes let us examine the divisions of poetic persona by interrupting a scene from Shakespeares As You Like It. In our take on the play, Audrey, an American country dame, continually questions Touchstone, a European clown of the court. The two banter back and forth in the forest of Arden.

Touchstone: When a mans verses cannot be understood, nor a mans good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical. (As You Like It III, iii)

Audrey: I do not know whatpoeticalis. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?

Touchstone: Are you implying, then, that you cannot understand my verses, Audrey? Come on. I know you have more than a mere child’s understanding of the world, even if it doesn’t include comprehending “poetical” things quite as well as I.

Audrey: If you say so.

Touchstone: Come, Audrey, don’t be confused. There’s nothing wrong with a child’s understanding when it comes to things poetical. Some have said that it’s a good thing—and not just Martha Stuart. Take a contemporary of our creator Shakespeare: Sir Philip Sidney, and how he observes in his Apology to Poetry (1595):

If then a man can arrive, at that child’s age, to know that the poet’s persons and doings are but pictures of what should be, and not stories of what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written.[i]

So all I mean, Audrey, is that you must learn to arrive at a childs age, that is, if you are to someday know the nature of things “poetical” and not give in to the lies of literalists who have no understanding for what is allegorically and figuratively written.

Audrey: You may know what you know, but because you talk so much, I hear everything that you know as well as otherwise. And though I am but a country hick compared to you, tall, terrible Touchstone, understand, my man, that I still hear all things from all beings.

Touchstone: Well, stop with all the hearing and start listening to me, for I will speak of things poetic. I think it best to begin with the pre-origins of the English language poets, those found in the persona of the ancient Welsh bard.

Audrey: But why Welsh?

Touchstone: Because I am specifically interested in how the historical personage of the Welsh bard compares to the English poet—a cultural archetype sometimes called “the good writer.” I am interested in whatever functions, obligations, and responsibilities are required of the modern “good writer” and how they compare to those of the ancient bard. And if that is not enough to inspire indulgence in the subject of bardism, then for no other reason, Audrey, let us be led in the same scholastic spirit as J. R. R. Tolkien:

For myself I would say that more than the interest and uses of the study of Welsh as an adminicle of English philology, more than the practical linguist’s desire to acquire a knowledge of Welsh for the enlargement of his experience, more even than the interest and worth of the literature, older and newer, that is preserved in it, these two things seem important: Welsh is of the soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; and Welsh is beautiful.[ii]

Touchstone: Welsh as an adminicle of English philology contains some compression of thought, Audrey: “adminicle” is fairly rare according to my searches through both the Oxford English Dictionary and Google. It principally means supportive, so we might take Tolkien to mean that the study of the Welsh language is supportive of the original study of English philology. But adminicle has another meaning—that of the decorative graphics that surround the main figure on a coin.

Audrey: So then, we can interpret Tolkien for our purposes to say that Welsh is a kind of decorative graphic, an ornamental interlacing that surrounds the main (and more important) figure of English? And yet both are embossed on the coin of philology (or what today we call linguistics)?

Touchstone: In so many words, Audrey, yes. And from this same essay, “Welsh and English” (1955), Tolkien adds:

If I may once more refer to my work, The Lord of the Rings [1954], in evidence: the names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modeled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical) [particularly “Arthurian romance”]. This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.[iii]

Audrey: So Tolkien is a modern bard, The Lord of the Rings is his song, a song supported by the decorative graphics found in Welsh tales of Arthur, the most notable I suppose, being found in the Mabinogion. Therefore: the Mabinogion functions as an adminicle to Lord of the Rings, or so Bard Tolkien tells us, and this adminicle is what gives readers the most pleasure.


[i] Sidney, Philip. An Apologie for Poetrie. (1595). Ed. John Churton Collins. (1907). Clarendon, Oxford. p. 39. GB. The original Elizabethan spelling reads:

If then a man can ariue, at that childs age, to know that the Poets persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what haue beene, they will neuer giue the lye to things not affirmatiuely but allegorically and figuratiuelie written.”

[ii] Tolkien, J. R. R. English and Welsh. (1955). O’Donnell Lecture Series. October 21, 1955. In The Monsters and the Critics – the Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. (1983) (2006) Harper Collins. p. 189.

 [iii] Ibid. p. 197, n. 33.


Aug 13 2010

Manga + Shakespeare = What More Could You Need? (Hindustan Times)

Baffled by wordy Shakespearen volumes? – Hindustan Times.


Mar 3 2010

Book dealer Raymond Scott denies stealing Shakespeare First Folio (Times Online)

I hate it when this happens:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article7043164.ece

(By the way):  Bookbread is still NYR on the First Folio.