Category Archives: Reading

Covid-19 and The Iliad

I’ll be honest: for a moment I thought about entitling this post “Reflections on Re-reading the Iliad,” but aside from sounding very dull, I will admit that I’m not sure I ever did read that pillar of Western Literature in college. Of course, like most other people, I’d heard of it. I’m old enough to have gotten my first and greatest dose of mythology–Greek, Roman, and a small bit of Norse myths–from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology almost fifty years ago, back when I was in high school.

To be honest, I’ve always wondered why American schools even bother to teach mythology. For a long time, I thought it was just to provide an introduction to the basis of Western culture, but then I realized, with a shock, that mythology in high-school English curricula actually had no point; rather, it was an oversight, a leftover from previous educational imperatives. Our insistence on teaching mythology to bored high school students, in other words, is something like having an appendix in our guts: there is no real purpose for it. While it once did have a function, it now simply dangles there with any reason for existing.

Here’s my version of why we have mythology in high school. It certainly isn’t for them to become acquainted with stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. After all, these stories are brimming with violence and sex, and are totally unsuitable for young learners. How do you explain the rape of Leda by Zeus–in the shape of a swan, no less–to high school students? Yet this is where the Trojan War, and the Iliad, really begins, as William Butler Yeats reminds us in his masterful poem “Leda and the Swan.” No, the reason we teach such things is because they were once vehicles for learning Latin and Greek. All language learners know that it’s no fun simply to do exercise after exercise when you’re trying to acquire a second language; you want to get to stories and dialogues, no matter how puerile or simplistic. (Incidentally, the language-learning computer platform Duolingo has figured this out and now provides an entire block of lessons with short stories to keep its learners interested. It’s worked for me.) Since a truly educated person, from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, needed to know at least some Latin and less Greek (as the poet Ben Jonson rated Shakespeare’s knowledge), schools were obsessed with drumming classical languages into recalcitrant students’ heads. What better way to get them to learn than to present them with violent, prurient tales of heroes and heroines? For generations, apparently, the scheme worked. But gradually the need and desire to showcase one’s Latin and Greek knowledge wore off, and these languages ceased to be taught in schools.

But the mythology remained. And thank goodness it did.

A few years ago, a friend of mine and I decided to read the then newly published translation of the The Iliad by Caroline Alexander. We never got past the first few books then, but Covidtimes provided us a new opportunity, and we started over. I began by being less than impressed with the story, but I have to admit that now I am pretty much hooked. The world that it presents is violent and nasty, but there are some moments of real beauty, too.

Yet what has really caught my attention is that the world of the Iliad is totally random. Things happen for no reason, or for reasons well beyond the control of the humans involved. You may think you’re winning a battle, but then a god shows up, sometimes disguised as a human, sometimes in a fog, and things go to hell in a handbasket quickly, and suddenly you’re terrified and hiding by your ships wondering if you should push off for home. Events kaleidoscope by and you can’t do anything about them, because even if you do take action, often it has the opposite effect you intend.

In other words, life as represented in The Iliad is something like life in a pandemic. Covid seems to hit randomly, and to hurt randomly. We don’t know why some people are barely affected by the virus while others are struck down, killed or incapacitated by it. We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. We don’t know what steps the government will take to protect us from it. We are like the characters in the Iliad, taking action in good faith but knowing in our bones that anything can happen.

Nowhere is this brought out more poignantly than in a relatively insignificant scene in Book 8, which takes place in the middle of a raging battle. The Trojan Paris shoots an arrow at the Greek Nestor, which hits the seasoned warrior’s horse in the head, “where a horse’s forelock / grows on the skull, and where is most fatal” (lines 84-85). Then something truly odd happens; the narrative perspective changes and instead of watching sweeping actions–men swinging swords and throwing spears, horses stamping over bodies, chariots careening and crashing about–suddenly we are watching a single arrow as it plunges into a horse’s head. We watch, transfixed, as the arrow skewers the poor horse, who in his death agony “flung the horses with him into panic as he writhed around the arrow point” (line 87). We go from big action (battle), to smaller actions (arrow shooting), to an even smaller action (the arrow penetrating the horse’s brain). The center of focus has contracted to the tiny tip of an arrow, and we, like the horse itself, are flung around this arrow, orbiting it just as the earth orbits the sun. We have changed our perspective, from large heroic actions taken by men, to a single arrow around which a horse rotates. It’s as if we’re inhabiting a kaleidoscope, living on the inside of it, subject to its twists and turns at any moment. The effect on the reader is disorienting, just as it is meant to be, because it reinforces the sense that events in the story are random, uncontrollable, and largely unpredictable, while at the same time suggesting that mere perspective determines our allegiance and our ideology.

This is why I find reading The Iliad right now so very meaningful. This is a poem that was written ages before the Enlightenment values of logic, continuity, causality–in short, Reason–had been adopted in Western culture. These values are being tested right now in our daily lives, and reading this ancient epic reinforces the sense that values come and go, that worldviews shift and change, and that our sense of primacy is, and should be, rather fragile. If there is anything that Covid-19 has taught us, it is that, at least in the short run, we are all at the mercy of the gods, whoever and whatever those gods may be, and we must, like Odysseus, Agamemnon, Hector, and Achilles, simply get along as best we can in the face of a world we cannot control, even if we desperately want to believe we can.

As it happens, recent research suggests that the appendix does, in fact, have a function: to protect and nurture healthy bacteria until they are needed in the gut. Perhaps teaching mythology serves a similar purpose; perhaps, appendix-like, it preserves and protects various ideas, attitudes, and perspectives that, while outmoded and seemingly unnecessary in modern life, can provide us some kind of insight in difficult times. At any rate, reading The Iliad has certainly given me food for thought these past few weeks.

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Something Different

I am very close to finishing up Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a novel which too few people today have ever read or even care about, and I will have something to say about that soon. But for now, I thought I’d post a short story I’ve written, whose title is…

The Decay of Memory

I

 The first and only time Terri Goodkind went to Vienna, she fell ill with a harrowing fever that kept her a prisoner in her boutique hotel room, shivering and sweating on a bed that was much too big for her aching body, and getting to know each crack in the salmon-colored walls far too well.

“If I’d known I was going to get this sick,” she would tell her children when she got home, wearied and depressed, “I’d have picked a nicer hotel.”

The trip had been a crazy idea, the kind of thing a middle-aged woman does when she realizes she’s getting older and may be running out of time to do the things she’s always dreamt of doing. The things that are commonly relegated to one’s “bucket list,” although Terri had always hated that term, saying, “Why put everything together into a bucket just to reach in and pull something out at random? If it’s important to you, you should do it intentionally, purposefully, as if it really means something.”

With Rob gone after years of illness and her 30-year marriage a piece of personal history, Terri found herself ready to travel but unwilling to visit either of her two children—both of whom would welcome her, certainly, but would do so out of a sense of obligation, perhaps even pity. Instead, she bought a ticket to Vienna one Saturday evening in January after watching a travel program about the city’s delights.

Vienna was one of the cities she’d missed when she had traveled through Europe after college with her cousin and Rob, back in the early 1980s. They had done the American equivalent of the Grand Tour but had somehow managed to leave out Vienna. When she asked her cousin why they’d skipped it, he couldn’t quite remember, but told her it was probably because they just didn’t want to leave Italy. They’d been having so much fun there, he said.

“We had a good time in Italy?” she had asked him over the phone, surprised. She remembered very little about their time there.

“Sure,” Alex replied. “Don’t you remember the beaches, the parties—the grappa?”

“Oh, right,” said Terri, and laughed. But after she’d hung up the phone, she wondered whether she had enjoyed her Italian experience as much as Alex had, or rather, as much as Alex thought he had. Had they really danced their way through Bacchanalian parties in Vomero with other college students? She wished she could ask Rob, but even if he were still alive, it had been a very long time since he’d had any grasp of any memories from their early years together.

During the flight across the Atlantic, Terri had congratulated herself on her resilience, her new-found independence, and her ability to get on with the business of living. She sustained her energetic optimism through two connecting flights—the last one delayed—a struggle with an awkward carry-on bag, and the silent and tense Uber ride to her tiny hotel, which was nestled in a non-descript part of Vienna. She could have believed she was anywhere, she thought, as she entered the lobby. While it didn’t look quite like New York City or even San Francisco, it bore no resemblance to the Vienna of her imagination.

She was tired by the time she reached her room, which was one of a half-dozen units that opened onto a central courtyard. Across the courtyard, she could see the hotel’s kitchen, as well as a few workers struggling to carry large pans from which steam floated in lazy, curling wisps. She would eat dinner there, Terri decided, rolling her suitcase into the alcove by the bathroom and sitting on the corner of the bed.

She looked at her surroundings. Four walls painted a shade of reddish-yellow, meant to be trendy but achieving only a sickly ambience. A rickety side table with a large, wine-red chair next to it. Wall sconce lighting above the bed. A spare but clean bathroom, with the shower, toilet, and sink tightly compressed into an efficient use of space never found in the United States. Threadbare but freshly vacuumed rugs, with foot traffic patterns clearly visible across the lavender and lime pile.

Terri resisted the urge to curl up on the bed. She was tired, but she knew the rule: to avoid jet lag, don’t succumb to the desire to sleep upon arrival. Push yourself to get out, walk, tour a museum or two, just keep moving as long as possible. Go to bed at 6 pm if necessary, but do all you can to reset your internal clock. And so, instead of lying down, she splashed cold water over her face and brushed her hair, even though she yearned for a long, hot shower.  She forced herself to put on her coat and walked back through the courtyard, where the tantalizing scent of fried onions, garlic, and something else—was it coriander?—floated through the wintry air. It wasn’t lunchtime yet, but the restaurant must have been preparing dishes ahead of time.

Terri made her way to the lobby, where she hesitated only a few seconds in warmth before pulling open the entry door and stepping outside onto the sidewalk. Her hotel looked like a normal apartment entrance; there was no real indication, except for the three stars on a plaque by the doorway, that it was indeed a hotel. It was colder than she thought it would be, and she fumbled with her zipper, pulling it all the way up to her neck.

Walking through streets she shared with businessmen and businesswomen, Terri admitted to herself that catching up on sleep was not the only reason she longed, despite her best judgment, to return to her room. Now that she was in Vienna, she realized what a crazy idea it had been for her to come here like this. Why hadn’t anyone stopped her?

It was more than crazy, she decided, the chill of the air seeping through her jacket and making her irritable. It was nothing short of cockamamie. She smiled, despite her growing sense of dismay. “Cockamamie”—that was a term her Brooklyn grandmother had used in the early 1960s, before Brooklyn had become a haven for millennials in search of success. During Terri’s childhood, Brooklyn had been an ethnic neighborhood, inhabited by Jewish and Italian families, by young men and women who would say, when asked where they were from, “New York,” ashamed of being a product of a lower-class neighborhood composed of people whose one unifying characteristic was the desire to escape to Manhattan as soon as possible. That Brooklyn, Terri knew and understood. It was the Brooklyn of six generations of Goodkinds like herself—although the name had originally been Gutkennt, Americanized, like so many other surnames, into a pair of syllables that denoted two unarguably benevolent adjectives—“good” and “kind.” Though she never told anyone this, fearful as she was of being ridiculed for sentimentality, Terri had tried throughout her life be both good and kind, but it had become increasingly difficult these last few years as she jostled her way through her fifties, burdened with Rob’s illness. The earlier decades, she thought, stepping around an older couple who were holding each other’s gloved hands as they shuffled down the sidewalk, had been easy enough, but now she was running out of her reserve of both goodness and kindness, and, most of all, out of patience. Perhaps she had been born with a certain supply of patience, just as all women were allotted, even before birth, a certain number of eggs, and when that stock was used up, she would be neither good nor kind any longer; she would enter a kind of ethical menopause, bereft not only of fertility, but of her rationed amount of shits to give as well.

Terri shook her head, trying to dispel these disconcerting thoughts. Snow flurries flitted through the air. She had not anticipated this kind of weather when she had planned the trip two months ago at her kitchen table in Virginia. Shoving her bare hands deep into her coat pockets, willing herself not to shiver, she walked through the streets, looking for a likely place to have lunch. It was only ten in the morning, however, and she knew it would be at least an hour before any restaurant would be open. A park opened on her left, across the street, and she made her way to it, entering through a set of magnificent gates that looked like they belonged in a palace.

“Cockamamie.” She thought about the strange word, wondered about its origins, and then remembered another word from her youth: “Nincompoop.” As her thoughts flitted from one ridiculous term to the other, Terri thought about how strangely satisfying words could be. In coming to Vienna, she had done something worthy of a nincompoop. Her Vienna trip, meant to heal the wounds left by lingering grief and emotional exhaustion, was nincompoopish. That wasn’t right, though. Nincompoopy? What was the adjectival form of “nincompoop”? Her teacher’s brain whirred but found no answer. Besides, all that  mattered was that she was a nincompoop for following through on this cockamamie idea of taking a vacation after Rob’s death.

But, she thought, as she sat down on a frigid park bench, was that really all that mattered? Like a nagging pain, her thoughts went on, stupidly, because she was too tired to corral them. She remembered that “nincompoop,” that outrageous-sounding word beloved by outspoken Yiddische bubbies and by small children alike, was actually a portmanteau—a word formed from a foreign expression. It derived from the Latin legal term non compos mentis, which translated as “not in control of one’s mind.” In other words, “insane.” Funny how a language takes its shape, Terri mused, then felt her stomach seize up a moment later, when she considered whether she herself was indeed non compos mentis.

After all, this half-planned trip to Vienna did appear to be the brain-child of someone who was slightly unhinged. That was another odd word, making it sound as if the lid of her brain was liable to fly off, unattached, loosing upon the world strange fancies and impressions that had escaped the stern censors of everyday life. Certainly there had been that incident at the doctor’s office last September, just after Rob’s death, when she wouldn’t allow the nurse to take her blood pressure, saying only, “I just don’t feel like it today” with a stiff smile as an explanation. On that day, Terri had learned that when a nurse spends more than five minutes typing notes into her tablet, it could result in the doctor’s earnest offer of a referral to a mental health professional.  She had declined back then, heartily sick of doctors and treatment plans, but now, sitting by herself on a bench in a park on the outskirts of Vienna, Terri wondered whether she should have taken him up on it.

Somewhere a church bell tolled twelve, and she realized it was noon. Where had the time gone? Restaurants should be open for lunch now, Terri realized, and she stood up, dusting a shallow layer of snow from her lap. She left the park, crossing the street again, and found a restaurant on the corner of the wide boulevard she had followed to the park. Once inside, she had to put her hand on the maître d’s podium to steady herself. The dark interior, combined with her growing sense of fatigue, was making her feel more than a little dizzy and disoriented.

She ordered a light meal and indulged in a glass of a local white wine. But after just a few mouthfuls, she set her fork and knife down on the table, no longer hungry. The wine, too, had lost its appeal, but Terri downed the last bit of it with a sense of determination. It was when she was handing her credit card to the obliging but somber-faced waiter that Terri first recognized the symptoms of what would turn out to be a debilitating illness.

II

Later that afternoon, when she woke up with her head pounding and her body damp from sweat, Terri admitted to herself that her malaise was not merely the result of exhaustion nor, indeed, even a normal cold. Her limbs ached terribly, as if she’d just played the most intense game of tug-of-war in her life, and she could not remember showering or putting on her nightgown and getting into bed. Yet her hair was damp, and she could see a bath towel draped over her open suitcase. She settled back beneath the comforter and fell back asleep, unable to make the effort to dig through her toiletry kit for aspirin or any other tablets to soothe her head.

For the next three days, Terri suffered.  

She lay, sometimes asleep, sometimes in a torpid state of semi-consciousness, shivering and sweating in turns, burying herself under the covers and huddling against inadequate pillows, only to fling them away from her, unable to bear even one more second of claustrophobic warmth. And all the while her head throbbed with an insistent and painful reminder that she was, indeed, still alive. Sometime in the early afternoon of her second day in Vienna, Terri got up and filled a large glass of water from the bathroom faucet and downed it quickly, before her stomach could rebel. She could feel the cool liquid make its way down her esophagus and into the very top of her stomach.

By now she was certain she had a fever, and probably a high one. But she never traveled with a thermometer, and indeed, hardly ever used one at home. Why bother? A person knew when she was sick, muttered Terri to herself. What kind of nincompoop doesn’t know when they’ve got a fever? She shuffled back to her bed, hoping that the sheets weren’t too damp with her sweat.

The pain in her head troubled her a great deal. It pounded, a furious and rhythmic sensation that felt like a hammer walloping at her from inside her skull. She had seen definite marks of illness when she’d looked at the bathroom mirror: unruly hair, flushed forehead, bright, watery eyes with no depth to them, like a still pond in winter that was just on the verge of freezing. But what did it matter? She was sick, she knew that well enough. What did anything matter in such a state?

Perhaps nihilism is an inevitable result of illness, especially when one falls ill far from home. Terri gave in completely to a lethargic, almost pleasant emptiness that second day of her trip. Death, a slow winding-down of life, a sweaty dissolution into nothingness, seemed the certain end to this experience, and, rather than fearing it, Terri accepted it. But what she could not feel for herself she did feel for others. She thought of other travelers who had died while abroad. She knew no one personally who had died in this way, but there was, of course, John Keats.

And once he came into her mind, he refused to leave it. She remembered, not bits of Endymion or Hyperion, nor loose-flowing lines of poetry about Grecian urns and unsated desire, words that might have soothed her and lulled her into a healing sleep, but instead her trip to Rome ten years earlier, when she had made Rob go with her to the Spanish Steps to see where the young poet had died. Rob had protested when she had leaned well over Keats’s narrow bed to catch a glimpse of the last thing he had ever seen: a patch of blue sky from the open window.

But now, teasing it over in her wearied mind, Terri doubted whether that had indeed been the last thing Keats had seen. Her own eyes open, staring first at the ceiling and then across the bed to the salmon-colored wall, she noted a network of small cracks in the plaster. “Why salmon?” she thought, listlessly at first, and then with some degree of hostility. It was such a silly color for a hotel room, which called, not for a bold or eccentric fashion statement but rather a bland neutrality that would welcome travelers with non-descript and comfortable banality.

Those cracks, too, bothered her, running as they did in hairline trails that, taken together, suggested objects such as a rabbit or a chair, only to slip off their identities, as a woman might shrug off her coat after changing her mind about going outdoors and deciding that she would, after all, stay inside a bit longer. Terri found the situation annoying and frustrating, not least because she suspected the entire thing was the result of a sick and fevered imagination.

By evening on that second day, Terri had gotten out of her bed only to go to the toilet and to fill her glass with water several times. She had at last found some tablets to take, and, too tired and sick to think about dinner, she had eaten a couple of stale crackers she’d saved from the airline meal the day before. Convinced that she would not sleep that night, Terri lay down again, resigned to tossing and turning throughout the long spring night, but she fell into a deep sleep composed of night sweats, nihilism, and poignant sorrow for Keats.

In the morning, Terri was feeling just well enough to shower. She dressed slowly, still unsteady on her feet, and avoided looking in the mirror. She waited for the hotel restaurant to open, intent on having a cup of sweet, hot tea to fortify her. She had not eaten since her Viennese lunch two days earlier, and though she felt weak enough to collapse into a spectacular and dramatic heap on her bed, she forced herself across the courtyard to the small hotel restaurant.

She was the first person to arrive for breakfast, and she had her choice of the best Kaiser rolls, sliced meats, boiled eggs, and creamy cheeses. Yet Terri could take no more than two bites of her buttered roll before she pushed it away, disgusted. The tea was good, though, and realizing she needed sustenance, she took another cup and loaded it with sugar. Today, she told herself as she left the table and made her way back to her room, she would feel better and get out to see some of Vienna. Walking might be impossible, but she could catch a tour bus that stopped nearby and see the city from the comfort of a double-decker.

She decided to rest a bit before exerting herself, however, and the next thing she knew, it was late afternoon. Terri realized that she would not be seeing Vienna that day, either. Three days into her seven-day trip to the center of the Hapsburg Empire, she had seen nothing but snow-dusted city streets, a dingy café, and her hotel room. At this rate, she thought, her most vivid memory of the trip would be of those cracks on the wall, which almost but not quite coalesced into the figure of a stout woman carrying a basket, only to rebel at the last instant and become an outsized cartoon elephant balanced on an improbably small ball.

And so she resigned herself to another day of rest and recuperation—except that there was no real recuperation. She wasn’t feeling any better. And although she wasn’t really feeling any worse, she didn’t like the fact that she was getting used to feeling badly. That thought scared her a bit. Was this how Rob felt when his memory started failing—thankful for what he had left, and asking for nothing more than a slow, ponderous slide into decay? Wasn’t it a good sign that she was frightened by this evidence that her nihilistic despair was receding far enough for her to begin to care about what happened to her?

That evening, she went back across the courtyard to get a bowl of soup for dinner, and, on her way back to her room, she picked up a trade paperback from the rack in the lobby. Still feeling exhausted but utterly tired of sleeping, Terri propped herself up with her pillows and read the book, a biography of an English actress she had admired. She read deep into the night. Sometimes she would drift off, waking when the book toppled from her hands onto her chin or her chest; at other times, she would stare, perplexed, as the words on the page separated into individual letters and scrambled across the page like a colony of angry and confused ants. Once, startled by this strange diacritical activity, Terri tossed the book aside, as if she had discovered real insects on the page, a linguistic hive skittering through the book.

III

At the Schonbrunn Palace the next afternoon, still feverish but heavily dosed with aspirin and just well enough to force herself into doing some sight-seeing, Terri surveyed the sad remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The rooms were smaller and less opulent than those of Versailles, but they were built and fashioned from identical material: the bodies and souls of men and women who had lived, labored, and suffered under Imperial rule.

Terri shivered against the cool draft blowing through the Grand Ballroom, and wished that the brightly-colored enameled woodstoves had been stoked and lit. They were ingenious contraptions, designed to be loaded from the back side, so that servants could tend to the fires without ever being seen by the people whom they served.

How convenient for Franz Joseph, Empress Sissy, and the rest of the Hapsburgs, thought Terri, as her fever-dried lips broke into a sardonic smile. Never to set eyes on the miserable creatures who wasted their lives in abject service. It was a brilliant idea, a fine concept—an image that should have been included in Yeats’s portrayal of Byzantium, where gilded mechanical birds, so much easier to care for than real ones, sang for the pleasure of withered Emperors. And in many ways, Terri thought, as her steps echoed through the room (for the Schonbrunn Palace was not a popular tourist destination in the middle of March), there was a Byzantine feel to Vienna that she had not expected. She tried to dredge up an interest in the lives and histories of the people and dynasties that had lived here, but she could not draw anything from her fevered brain save an overpowering sensation of revulsion. She was disgusted by late-Empire decadence, by what she was coming to see as the Viennese insistence on excess and its monstrous, insatiable appetite for power, beauty, and ornate, crushing adornment.

It was hypocritical, of course, for an American to feel this way. She realized this as she was drinking her tea in the Palace tearoom. She had no right to call any other culture out on its decadence or corruption—she who hailed from a nation consumed by excess, whose rapacity was pushing it to a level never yet seen in history. She had no right to condemn the Hapsburgs, she told herself.

A man sat down at the end of her table, and Terri peeked at him over the rim of her teacup. He was well dressed, his dark-gray suit perfectly pressed, his shirt a starched and blinding white. The only concession he’d made to creative fashion was his tie, a loosely knotted slash of green silk, complemented by the shock of blond hair that fell across his forehead and bobbed slightly as he worked his fork over and through the slice of apfelstrudel he had ordered. Teri couldn’t see his eyes, didn’t dare to look at him that long, but she guessed they’d be bright blue, or perhaps green.  She continued her internal conversation as she placed her empty cup on the counter and left the store, wondering whether this man might have a Hapsburg ancestor or two in his family tree.

It felt good to leave the Palace and walk outside in the brisk March air. The sun had come out, and, still feverish, Terri welcomed the cool breeze on her aching head. She knew she was being unfair to the man at her table—he might not have been a descendant of Emperor Franz Josef, might not even have been Austrian, for that matter. But she was still very sick and far from the comforts of home, and she was in no mood to be charitable. The smell of decay, the odor from waning civilizations and empires, was strong in her nostrils, as if she had inhaled some unseen smoke from those enormous porcelain stoves that drifted through the Palace rooms for years after they had last been lit and had somehow gotten lodged in her sinuses, the way cigarette smoke remains in your hair long after you’ve left a bar or dance club. Nothing could remove that stale odor, Terri knew, except water and shampoo. What would it take to get rid of the pervasive scent of cultural decadence, that aroma of mingled delight and decay, that encompassed both the best and the worst of human culture?

What a stupid, overdramatic question, Terri decided, once she was back in her hotel room, laying, utterly exhausted, on her bed. She greeted the cracked plaster of the walls and ceiling as if it were an old friend, smiling at it as she allowed her head to sink into the pillow. This feeling of inertia, which comes after intense exertion, was delicious. Was it this sensation that marathon runners felt after the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line had subsided? This glorious sense of virtue rewarded, this muscular exhaustion that came from exerting one’s will over all obstacles–the biggest being the human inclination towards laziness–in order to achieve one’s goal? Terri considered the question for a moment, resolved to ask her triathlete son about it, then shut her weary, aching eyes and fell fast asleep.

Feverish dreams assailed her almost at once, flitting through her embattled consciousness like dragonflies hovering over a pond on a summer’s day. Mostly images of the day: the bus ride to the Palace, the long, wearying walk up the path to get into the museum, the empty halls, the sharp click of her shoes on the marble tiles of the Grand Ballroom, which, dreamlike, turned into the tapping of a conductor’s baton and was still audible even through an orchestra’s rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz.

How she longed to see the beautiful dresses and starched military uniforms of the dancers! Was this dream a cultural memory, a buried recollection of a time when such opulence could exist without guilt? Did beauty—for waltzes and music, yes, and even palaces and intricate woodstoves were indeed beautiful—did beauty always have to come with remorse and shame? In her dream, as the couples whirled by, blissfully unconscious of the difficult question they posed, Terri contemplated it and could not find her way to an answer.

Waking in the darkness of her room, Terri heard waiters talking and the clink of dishes being cleared from across the courtyard. She realized at once that she had missed dinner. No matter—she wasn’t hungry, anyway. She could not really believe that she would ever be hungry again. Some hot tea would have been nice, however, and might have settled the gnawing, uncomfortable feeling in her stomach.

She lay in the dark, trying to remember what it was she had planned to do this evening. Was there a concert? An opera, perhaps? A night-time ride on the Ferris wheel made famous by Orson Welles in The Third Man? It didn’t matter, Terri told herself, shutting her eyes against the dark: she was going nowhere tonight.

But why couldn’t she remember what it was she had originally planned? Was it just the fever, or could it be that she was no longer able to rely on her own memory? Had she used it up, perhaps, serving as Rob’s memory, too, for these past five years? The thought terrified her at first, but after a few minutes, she shrugged. Everyone suffered some memory decline, she realized. In fact, memories themselves decayed, growing less sharp, less precise, over time. What was she wearing when she first met Rob, anyway? What was their first argument about? And, for that matter, what color were Rob’s eyes?

Terri stopped, panicked. She held her breath for one, two, three seconds. What color were Rob’s eyes? She tried to pull up a happy memory of him, a moment from ten years before, when they had been drinking coffee in their backyard. They had laughed at some joke and then looked at each other. But Terri couldn’t get Rob to look at her in her memory of that moment. He was like the man in the Schonbrunn Palace tea shop, looking down at his coffee mug—or was it a slice of cake?—completely absorbed by it, unable or unwilling to lift his head and meet her gaze. Terri felt another wave of panic grip her stomach. She sat up and turned on the light.

Time, and history itself, moved in cycles. She was surely at a low point in her own time cycle, Terri realized. It wasn’t so much that she was sad or depressed; it was just that she had nothing to look forward to, no landmarks to head towards. She was languishing, like a drifting sailboat, in an endless bay of despair.

She had left Virginia for a vacation from that bay, for a chance to re-set her life, to restock it with new memories, but it turned out that decay had not only followed her; it had lain in wait here in Vienna, hidden like a lion ready to pounce on an unwary gazelle. Her illness, which had stripped her of both stamina and will, had left her no blindfolds, no distractions. What started as a tourist outing had turned into a harsh look at European dissipation, at the decadence of a Viennese court that prefigured the opulence, at the self-indulgence of her own country. But even more damaging, it had also anticipated the decay of her memory, of herself, of her very person.

Panicking, Terri grabbed her phone and dialed the airline. She would leave the next day. Her trip to Vienna was over. She would be drinking no Viennese coffee, ordering no sacher torte that she could not stomach, scheduling no visits to ornate buildings that housed priceless books or dancing white horses. She had finished with Vienna, just as she had finished with Rob and the life they had made together. Going home, she decided, was the only honest thing left for her to do.

IV

Was it a delicious sense of irony, or simply the relief of ending this trip, fraught as it was with suffering, that made Terri laugh out loud when, buckled into her seat and awaiting take-off the next afternoon, she heard “The Blue Danube” piped through the jet’s sound system? Terri didn’t allow herself to think about it. She watched, satisfied, as Vienna—the Staatsoper, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Kirche am Steinhof—grew smaller beneath the plane’s wings, fading like old memories as she ascended through the thick white clouds, making her way back home.

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A Very Short List of Good Books in Which Nothing Really Happens

Most of us who have taken (or, as the case may be, taught) literature classes understand that stories are made up of three components: plot (what happens); setting (when and where it happens); and characters (whom it happens to). And what makes the study of literature so fascinating to us is that these things aren’t present in equal amounts. Picture a series of knobs, like those on a complex sound system. Say you slide the plot knob way high, turn down the setting knob , and leave character knob in the middle region. This configuration might describe a detective novel, in which what happens (plot) is of paramount importance. But if it’s Sherlock Holmes stories that you like, then the setting will be different, because it isn’t their compelling plots that draw you in, but rather the unique character of Holmes himself, or the foggy, turn-of-the-century setting of London, because it’s the hansom cabs, gas lighting, and general ambiance that appeals to you. A book’s literary mix, in other words, can reflect a variety of combinations of plot + setting + character.

Certain writers tend excel at one or the other of these three elements. (Of course, there are more elements of story out there beyond plot, character and setting; for example, I haven’t discussed “voice,” the teller of the story, and there may be some elements I haven’t thought of or read about. But for the purposes of this blog post, we can just focus on the standard three components of story.) To illustrate my point, I’ll just say that Thomas Hardy, who created an entire English county (Wessex) for his novels, is great with setting, that Agatha Christie is ingenious as far as plot goes, and that Jane Austen produced amazing characters. Some writers are wonderful at two of these, but fail with the third. For example, Charlotte Bronte is great with setting and characters but her plots are pretty much bat-shit crazy. (I still love her works, by the way.) A few highly talented writers, like Charles Dickens, manage to work all three elements in equal portions. But for today, I’d like to talk about stories in which nothing much happens, those novels which are virtually plot-less, and why they can be a source of comfort and entertainment to readers today.

I am now going to alienate half of my readers (sorry to both of you!) by saying that I place Jane Austen squarely into this category. But just think about it: not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the only really exciting part of the novel I can remember (and I’ve read it many times) is when Lydia elopes with Wickham. And that scandalous event doesn’t even happen to the main character. That’s not all: to be honest, I cannot even remember the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which suggests that it scarcely has one. But that’s okay–Jane Austen isn’t about plot. If you want excitement and adventure, don’t read Austen. Read Sir Walter Scott instead. But be advised: Walter Scott himself, author of Ivanhoe and Waverley, those early, action-packed adventure novels so beloved by the Victorians, openly admired the newfangled work of Jane Austen, his opposite in so many ways, as he clearly indicated in an unsigned review of her book Emma. As far as nineteenth-century English writers go, Austen is not the only plot-eschewing literary giant, either; if you’ve ever read an Anthony Trollope novel, you’ll know that few dramatic scenes ever occur in his novels. In fact, when something dramatic does happen, it often occurs offstage, leaving the characters to deal with the effects of momentous and emotional events without ever allowing the reader to witness them herself.

Now this type of novel might be dull and frustrating for most readers, but I will admit that I take great pleasure in books in which very little happens, especially nowadays, when I must brace myself anytime I dare to look at news headlines, with crisis after crisis occurring at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in the world of literature, there is a whole category of works in which books with minimal plots highlight either setting or characters, or both components, in order to produce a delightful and soothing reading experience. I will share some of these works below, with the ulterior motive and express intention of hoping to spur my readers to make their own suggestions in the comments section, and thereby help me find more of these little treasures that I can place on my personal reading list.

First, there are the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. I am a late-comer to these books, having just finished the first in the series, Queen Lucia, in which nothing really happens other than village residents in early twentieth-century England try to one-up each other and claim dominance within their social circle. The very pettiness of these maneuvers is highly entertaining, however, and the characters are drawn well. The writing is as precise as a well-built chronometer, with an Austenian feel to it. Earlier this year, I attempted to listen to Mapp and Lucia, which was a mistake, I think; I stopped listening because it was too acerbic. I think that with Queen Lucia under my belt, I will be much more appreciative of the sharp wit with which Benson portrays a character that not even he likes that much. (Sidenote: Agatha Christie wrote a book called Absent in the Spring, under the name Mary Westmacott, in which she also created a very unlikable character. It’s worth reading, but very different from her usual detective novels.)

Another novel quite similar to Benson’s work is D.E. Stevenson’s Vittoria Cottage. Stevenson was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of swashbuckling novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but she specialized in what was termed “light” fiction. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Louis, but I believe it takes real talent to write about the trivial; as Hamlet says, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii). D.E. Stevenson possesses this talent, and it is a delight to delve into the world she has created, in which nothing happens, and little seems to change.

The Kindle version of Vittoria Cottage has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, which is highly appropriate, since Smith’s works offer an excellent contemporary example of the minimally plotted novel and fit precisely into the category I’ve identified here. Sure, the Sunday Philosophy Club books are detective stories, but they are the subtlest mysteries imaginable. One could say the same thing about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series; we don’t read them for plot, but rather for the delightful characters they introduce, such as Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, as well as for the simply drawn but well-evoked setting of Botswana. Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books have more plot, but only because they depend on coincidence and absurdity to move their stories forward. I could sum it up by saying it this way: in Smith’s novels, there is scarcely any climax, but instead a gentle descent to the concluding pages. And far from condemning or critiquing such a structure, I will praise it here, in an attempt to celebrate these minimally plotted novels that allow us to focus on, and take delight in, both setting and character instead of plot.

Now, readers, it’s up to you: do you have any suggestions for books of this type? I look forward to more discoveries.

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Elegy for Eavan Boland, 1944-2020

The only modern poet I have ever understood is Eavan Boland.

If you recognize that sentence as an echo of Boland’s wonderful poem “The Pomegranate,” you might share my feelings for her work. Boland’s death will probably not get much attention outside of Ireland, but I feel it’s right for me to acknowledge it here, where I talk about the things that are important to me.

In a time of so many losses, perhaps it’s silly to focus on one death, yet I do it out of selfishness, for myself and for what this poet’s work has meant to me. First, a confession: I am not a poet, nor am I really a great reader of poems. As a professor of literature, I have studied poetry, but I feel much more comfortable with the works of Wordsworth, Arnold, Shakespeare, even (dare I say it?) Milton than with contemporary poetry. To be honest, despite my elaborate education, I really don’t understand contemporary poetry–so I must not really “get” it. I’m willing to accept that judgment; after all, there are a lot of things I do get, so it’s a kind of trade-off. I realize I’m not a Michael Jordan of literary studies, which is why I rarely comment on poetry that was written after, say, 1850. But I feel it’s only right to mention here my attraction to, and reverence for, Boland’s poems, one of which (“This Moment“) I used for years to teach poetic language to my freshman and sophomore college students.

I first noticed Boland’s poems in the mid-90s, when I was teaching full time as an adjunct professor, still hoping to make my mark–whatever that was supposed to be–on the world. I had subscribed to the New Yorker, back in the days when it was read for literary, not political, reasons. This was during a period when poets and writers who submitted their work and not gotten it accepted for publication actually protested outside the offices of the magazine, stating that their work was just as bad as what was being published within the pages of the New Yorker and demanding equal time. (I thought about looking this story up on the internet, because, in an age of so much fake news, everything is easily verifiable, but forgive me–I decided not to. If the story about these outraged mediocre writers is not true, I don’t want to know about it. I love it and cling to it, and it does no one any harm, after all.)

I was very much aware of the opacity of much that was published in the New Yorker, and one evening after the children were in bed, having recently heard that story about the protesters, I shared it with my husband. To demonstrate how unreadable the stuff that was being published was, I grabbed a copy off our end table, thumbed through it until I found a poem, and started to read it out loud. After two or three lines, however, I stopped in mid-sentence. My husband said, “What? Why did you stop?” I looked up slowly, reluctant to pull my eyes away from the poem, and said, “It started to make sense to me. Actually, this is really good.”

I am not sure which poem of hers I was reading that evening. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know, because it drives me to read so many of her poems, always searching for the Ur-poem, that first poem of hers that drove me to appreciate so much more of what she’s written. Boland’s poetry seems to me to explore the intersection of place and person, of history and modernity, in simple, sometimes stark, language. I love it for its depth, not for its breadth (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). I love the way it sinks its roots deep into the past, all the way back to myths and legends sometimes, yet still manages to retain a hold on the very real present.

Eavan Boland died yesterday, April 27, at the age of 75. You can read about her influence here, in an article by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Her poems can be found online at poets.org and on poetryfoundation.org.

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On Nostalgia

Today, on my 11th day of quarantine, I’m wondering whether it’s a bad thing to use nostalgia as escapism.

C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel (yes–he wrote a science fiction trilogy, back in 1938) Out of the Silent Planet has a fascinating take on the uses of nostalgia. The book is clunky and not terribly good, but it has some really interesting elements in it. In fact, I wish Lewis had stuck to this kind of writing rather than move to the kind of popularized theology which later made him so famous; he might have gotten much better at it, and even as it is, he introduced some fascinating concepts. As an example, when the protagonist Ransom (whom Lewis supposedly modeled after his friend J.R.R. Tolkien) arrives on the planet Malacandra, he finds himself among a group of beings called Hrossa and learns from them about a way of life that is in many ways opposed to life on the Silent Planet–earth.

One of these differences involves how a hross views life experiences and the memories they create. As the hross called Hyoi explains to Ransom, “A pleasure is full-grown only when it is remembered. [It is ] not as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing…. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem…. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?” This point is almost immediately muddied by the conversation that comes after it (Lewis clearly did not develop clarity of exposition until sometime later in his career), so let’s do the unthinkable and simply take it out of context in order to discuss the nature of nostalgia itself.

Nostalgia poses a bit of a difficulty for me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself embarrassed about a growing tendency towards nostalgia. For example, I’d be saying things to my students, or to other young people around me, and suddenly I’d stop and say, in a rueful tone, “Man, I sound just like my grandmother talking about the old days.” That was enough to shut me up. But today, I’m wondering whether that was the wrong response.

The term “nostalgia” is interesting. The “nost” in it is Greek and comes from the word “nostos” — to return home, while the “algos” is apparently Latin and refers to pain (as in “neuralgia” — “pain due to damaged nerves”). So the word, a fine example of macaronic language (meaning a mixture of languages in one word or expression), actually means “pain in returning home,” but we use it in a difference sense, to refer to a sentimental affection for things past. Perhaps pain in the return home isn’t too far from its meaning, in that nostalgia is often bittersweet: we remember with fondness things from long ago, and lament that they are indeed in the past and no longer part of our present or our future lives.

For me, there’s a bit of a shock involved in nostalgia. As my children grew up and left the house, I found myself with more time to pause and reflect on things, and I realized that I had lived well over half my life without being conscious of the passage of time. Then all at once, it hits you like a ton of bricks. I had my “aha” moment concerning this realization on a business trip (remember business trips? there’s some nostalgia for you!) to San Francisco a while ago. My colleagues and I were discussing the city as we ate some delicious sushi.

“I was here a long time ago, but it sure has changed,” I volunteered.

“When were you here?” asked a colleague.

“Hmmm, it was—” I stopped when I realized that it had been well over 25 years since I’d been to San Francisco. The idea that I could have been walking and talking, indeed sentient, 25 years earlier, hit me hard.

And that conversation happened ten years ago now.

I’ve gotten more used to nostalgia recently, and I wonder whether the current pandemic has helped that along. But I wonder how healthy it is to indulge myself in old I Love Lucy episodes, or to watch all of Downton Abbey, or even, if I apply this to my taste in literature, to read centuries-old books. Is my nostalgia–my attraction to the past–an honest attempt to make sense of my life and to enjoy it fully, as Hyoi the Hross describes it in Lewis’s book, or is it merely retreating into a past that has nothing to do with an alarming present and an even more frightening future? Is nostalgia living one’s life to the fullest, or is it avoiding life itself?

It’s a fascinating question, one worthy of many a late-night discussion among friends and colleagues, complete with a few bottles of wine. What a shame that the pandemic that makes the question pertinent also makes getting together to discuss it an impossibility.

However, that’s what “Reply” and “Comment” buttons are for, and I look forward to reading some of yours below.

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Writing and Authenticity, Part I

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Legacy’s Lady Camilla, fresh from her Crufts win in March, 2019.

You may notice, if you are a regular reader of this blog, that I have posted much less frequently in the last few months. The reason is this: I have taken some time to stop writing and really think about what writing does, what it can do, and what it should do. In other words, I have given myself a self-imposed sabbatical from writing while I contemplate the job of writing, and, more personally, how–and even if–I want to continue writing at all.

I have sorted some ideas out in my head, and I’m beginning to get to a point where things are making a bit more sense than they did a few months ago. One thing that galvanized me was an experience I had with a good friend, an experienced writer who kindly volunteered to help me with a short story I was working on. He gave me some excellent advice on how to make the story better: more polished, more focused, and ultimately more ready for publication. I could tell that his advice was spot on. I knew that he was right about the changes he suggested. And yet, almost as soon as I heard his suggestions, I also knew I would not take his advice. Despite knowing that he was right about these suggested improvements, I could not bring myself to make them.

Now, every writer knows that you are supposed to “kill your darlings”: writers should never get so attached to their work that they are not willing to chop it all up in order to mix it back together, or even trash it and begin anew if necessary. I knew that my story wasn’t perfect, so my reason for not making those changes wasn’t that I thought it was good enough as it was. At the time, I didn’t know why I resisted my friend’s excellent advice. In fact, as it turned out, I had to think a good, long time before I could discover why I had had such a profound and visceral reluctance to tinker with it. And now, some three months later, I think I have found the answer.

But in order to explain it, I have to refer to a world that is far removed from writing. My husband shows dogs (you can find his website here), and over the years we have noted something interesting about the way kennel clubs and dog shows operate. The winning dogs all correspond closely to a perceived (but not fully agreed upon) standard. No surprise here: this is, of course, to be expected. The dog who looks closest to the standard, in the judge’s opinion, is the dog that takes home the trophy. Of course, the key words are “in the judge’s opinion“: there can be a wide variety of opinions, which is why different dogs might win in different shows with different judges. Yet it is the corollary to this rule which is most interesting, and most troubling for the future of all pedigree show dogs. If dogs are penalized for deviating from the norm, then that inherently means all the show winners must look more alike–must be more alike–than different. And because it is largely the show dogs that are responsible for propagating the breed, then it naturally follows that the genetic diversity is always shrinking, because of this desire to create a puppy that follows the breed standard to a tee. In other words, the very act of judging the dog makes it so that all people participating in showing will want their dog to look just like the “ideal” dog–the breed standard–and they will take great pains to make sure that the puppies they produce, and sell, and buy, will be more similar to this perceived ideal than different from it. (This has dire consequences for the sustainability, and even the survivability, of pedigree dogs, but that is a matter for other blogs.)

It’s human nature to want to win, whether in dog shows (where surely the dogs don’t care if they are Best of Show) or in the world of writing, which we know as publishing. Publishers–and by extension, readers–are like the dog show judges: they are looking for the best combination of words and anecdotes to hit a home run in the marketplace. They have an ideal standard, which is why all the fiction published in literary journals and The New Yorker ends up feeling the same over time. In other words, what is published will always come to look a great deal more like everything else that is published than it will look like something individual and unique.

And so, being “good,” in the sense of getting published, means that a writer may have to close off options that will divert his or her work into an unfamiliar, perhaps even an uncomfortable, form. It could mean that a writer has to compromise on whatever artistic integrity he or she has developed, getting rid of archaic words, semicolons, and–yes–even adverbs in favor of a more widely accepted style of writing. In short, it means that a writer might have to second-guess his or her own writerly instincts in order to fit into a “breed standard” that is instantly recognizable and appreciated by publishers, readers, and critics alike.

I am not saying that writers should write what they want and not worry about revision. Nor am I saying that all writing is good writing. I am just saying that with the market set up as it is today, it could be very easy to miss unique and talented writing in favor of writing that resembles what we’ve already seen. The danger in this situation is that we may, tragically, fail to recognize authentic writing, and worse still, fail to cultivate writers who strive for authenticity.

It’s time for another clarification. I remember the first time I ever heard the expression, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I recall the momentary surprise I felt when I thought about it and then realized it actually made sense. One could be as good as possible, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luck, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, is often an integral component of success. I want to offer a variation of this saying for writers–or rather, for those writers who are serious about exploring the world of the imagination, about the craft of writing (whatever that may be), about creating something that is meaningful rather than successful. Here goes:

It is better to be authentic than to be good.

I’ve come to this maxim by thinking about the novels I love, those books that I have re-read throughout a half-century of reading: Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, The Sun Also Rises, Never Let Me Go, Till We Have Faces, Mrs. Dalloway–and the list goes on. These books are not perfect. In some places, they are not even good. It is not difficult to find passages in any of them (with the possible exception of Never Let Me Go) that make readers cringe with frustration and/or embarrassment for the author. But each one of these novels is, to a certain degree, memorable and authentic, which is why I am compelled to read them again and again throughout the years. 

Certainly the term “authentic” is fraught, and I will need to define what I mean by it. I will try to do this in a timely manner; readers may look forward to a subsequent post in which I take a stab at my definition of authenticity in writing. But for now, I simply pave the way for that post by explaining why I am resisting the idea of writing good stories for the time being, even if that means rejecting the advice of a talented and well-meaning friend. And I invite my readers to weigh in on this topic, half-formed though it is at the present time, as I try to figure out just what it means for writing to be authentic.

 

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On Finally Reading Paradise Lost

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Illustration from Wikimedia

Although I’ve never been to a literary cocktail party, I have a certain game I imagine playing at one. (The truth is, I’ve never been to any kind of cocktail party, which is somewhat disappointing. As a youngster, I’d imagined that cocktail parties, like falling into a pit of quicksand, would be a regular part of adult life, and that I would be expected to know how to behave in both situations. Obviously, I was misinformed.)

At any rate, the game goes like this. A bunch of well-read people get together and confess what books they should have read but never have. It would, for those of us who teach literature for a living, be a daring game, one in which public humiliation might lie in wait for us. Who would want to admit, for example, that they had never actually read The Grapes of Wrath? Might the heavens open up, allowing peals of scandalized laughter to descend, if one were to admit, in public, that one’s copy of The Sound and the Fury had never actually been opened? It seemed to me an amusing game to play in my mind, something like Truth or Dare for grown-ups. In an alternate version of the game, I imagine myself going through life with a large deck of cards, each of which has a title printed in large, Gothic letters on its back declaring my inadequacy: Catch-22. Slaughterhouse Five. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ulysses. The list goes on and on.

The other day, I began to work at removing one of the cards from my deck of failure. This did not occur, however, as a determined plan at self-improvement. I am far beyond that stage in my life, having settled into a lazy, perhaps defeatist, sense of who I am and what I can do. Rather, it all began with an invitation to visit a friend’s high school classroom to discuss a play I’d written about C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. The class had been reading The Screwtape Letters, and, to prepare for my visit, I reread the book.

Lewis was a gifted satirist, there’s no doubt about it. His characterization of Screwtape, the devil who gives advice to his nephew Wormwood, instructing him on how to secure the soul of his “patient,” is brilliant, and I found myself wondering how he had been able to create such an enjoyable character out of a devil. The answer came quickly enough: Lewis had, after all written a short book called A Preface to Paradise Lost He must have known the poem intimately. And, although I’d never read Milton’s epic poem in its entirety, I’d read bits of it–enough to teach it to college sophomores in the British Literature survey classes I regularly taught. (Another guilty confession: I’ve taught the poem, yet never read all of it.) I guessed, and I think I’m right, that Lewis’s depiction of Screwtape owes a good deal to Milton’s depiction of Satan.

But the question remains: why had I never read Paradise Lost? After all, I’d been teaching it for decades. The omission is nothing short of scandalous. Actually, back in graduate school, I had tried to sign up for an entire class on Milton, but the class was oversubscribed, and we students were required to apply to take it by submitting a letter stating why we thought we should be allowed into it. My letter simply said I knew next to nothing about Milton, that I expected that I would have to teach his work, and that I thought that was a good enough reason to be admitted to the class.

It wasn’t.

And so I never read the whole poem. It turns out that I had gleaned enough information from my own undergraduate days to fumble through a few class days on Paradise Lost when I began to teach English literature, and so I just relied on that. Over the years, a colleague introduced me to a few of Milton’s poems (notably “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”), and then, much later, gave me his Milton texts when he retired and cleaned out his office, but they stayed on my shelf, treasured more because they reminded me of my colleague than for any interest I had in reading them.

And then one of my former students took a class on Milton, and suggested we read Paradise Lost together. Neither of us had the time, however, and the plan fell by the wayside. But apparently the idea stayed with me, because last week, as soon as I finished The Screwtape Letters, I dove into Paradise Lost, forcing myself to progress through it. I was helped by the fact that I was teaching Shakespeare, so the language wasn’t nearly as foreign as it could have been. When I found my attention wandering, bored by elaborate rhetorical constructions and erudite footnotes, I read Milton’s words out loud, and this kept me on track. I kept plodding through the poem, line by line, book by book, not worrying whether I was understanding all of it. I studiously ignored the footnotes, for the most part, but read my colleague’s hand-written marginal notes with affection.

And now I can say that I have read Paradise Lost, and that it wasn’t all that bad. I enjoyed parts of it. I hated the parts that were clearly anti-feminist, wishing someone else–maybe Ursula LeGuin or Virginia Woolf?–had dared to write Eve’s side of the story, since Milton had covered Adam’s point of view so thoroughly and unfairly. But as for filling in this gap in my education, I don’t feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The heavens did not open as I finished reading the last lines of the poem. The Angel Raphael did not come down and pat me on the back. Nor did the archangel Michael arrive with a flaming sword to celebrate my victory over the text. I simply read about Adam and Eve departing Eden, sighed, and closed the book.

Did I learn anything? Just this: those things we put off because they seem too difficult are often not that difficult after all. Perhaps other people want to make us feel that they are difficult so as to make themselves feel smarter, or more worthy, than we are. In all likelihood, they aren’t. But I realize now that reading is a skill that we must train for–much like long-distance running– and I believe that as a society our reading endurance is steadily declining. We are clearly losing the taste for, and consequently the ability to, read long and rambling texts, settling instead for shorter and easier ones, and this will have serious consequences for our intellectual and public life in the coming years. Nevertheless, I believe that if we tackle our reading with confidence and optimism–if we keep to our task, pushing forward one line, even one word, at a time–we can make it through even the densest of texts.

The best part of the whole experience is that I’m now ready to discuss Paradise Lost with my former student. And for this, rather than for finally reading the whole poem, I think C.S. Lewis would be proud of me.

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An Unexpected Masterpiece: Felix Holt

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Turducken–Image from Wikipedia

 

One of the joys of being a retired English professor is that you never really leave your work behind: you just leave all the parts of it that aren’t that much fun. This means that while I don’t have to grade papers or go to pointless committee meetings, I still get to do what inspired me to go to graduate school in the first place: read.

And I do read–a lot. I read all sorts of things, but of course my favorite thing to read is (guess what) Victorian novels. I have taken a lot of pleasure in re-reading the Victorian novels that I studied in depth, like David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, but there is a special sort of pleasure in discovering a new favorite novel. It’s like finding a new star hidden in a constellation you’ve looked at for years, or in a more mundane manner of speaking, like finding that lost sock that went missing in the last load of wash you did.

My lost sock is, to mix metaphors, a turducken of a Victorian novel. We all know that George Eliot is probably the most brilliant of the Victorian novelists; if we didn’t, we have Virginia Woolf declaring, in her autocratic way, that Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” (The Common Reader, “George Eliot”). We also have New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead’s take on the novel in her book My Life in Middlemarch, which apparently qualified her to write a nice essay on the book in the magazine.

But then there are the Eliot works that are too seldom read these days: Romola, Scenes of Clerical Life, Daniel Deronda. And who among us has actually read Felix Holt, the Radical? I confess that I have had a copy of it on my bookshelf since 1999, yet I never opened it until last week. I am thankful that I did, because I now think it’s one of the best Victorian novels I’ve read, despite the fact that, according to Wikipedia, it is one of the least popular of Eliot’s novels–so unpopular, in fact, that although it would make a fantastic mini-series (PBS or BBC, are you listening?), the last time it was adapted for film was in 1915. Yes, 1915.

What makes the novel so wonderful are not just some fantastic statements that are eminently quotable, although the book does contain a couple of real gems. Here is one, from the Introduction:

“Posterity may be shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle: that is a fine result to have among our hopes; but the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory. The tube-journey can never lend much to picture and narrative; it is as barren as the exclamatory O!”

Eliot goes on to explain that it is a slow, surface journey that allows the traveler to see and experience the varieties of life, not a quick, subterranean (we might add “aerial” here) journey. How prescient Eliot must have been to have seen what would happen to travel in the next generations, to have understood the way in which “getting there” is no longer fun or important. She makes us understand that the saying “it’s the journey that counts, not the destination” refers only to some kind of moral or experiential journey, and sadly, no longer a real, actual one.

Here is another famous quote, from Chapter 3, in which Eliot displays a remarkable sensitivity to social life:

“…there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life, from the time when the primeval milkmaid had to wander with the wanderings of her clan, because the cow she milked was one of a herd that had made the pastures bare.”

The insight revealed in this novel is remarkable, but these selected quotations are not the chief strengths of Felix Holt. What is absolutely amazing to me is that in this one book Eliot combines a variety of different Victorian novels and still manages to create an incredibly good story, one which pulls you back to it day after day because you cannot wait to find out how the characters will respond to the events they become caught up in.

Here’s a simple way of putting it: In George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (ironically, we are halfway through the book before we realize that Felix Holt is no Radical), we find a turducken of a novel, one which combines and recombines aspects of several different subgenres of the 19th-century novel, fitting many novels, miraculously, into one organic whole. For example, we see the re-education of Esther Lyon, in a Mansfield Park (Jane Austen) narrative; we have the political machinations that are redolent of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels; we have the emphasis on hidden secrets and parentage, on madness and eccentricity that Dickens loved to play with; we are treated to a look at a kind of Orientalism, which is worthy of Wilkie Collins; and we have a legal plot about long-hidden heirs and family trusts that blends both Trollope and Dickens with Thomas Hardy. And at the center of it all, we find a difficult love story, starring Esther Lyon and Felix Holt, who are clearly borrowed from some of Sir Walter Scott’s best romances.

With all these things going on, you’d think this would be a mess of a novel, but Eliot is a master craftsman, and she manages to create a wonderful story from these disparate threads, replete with excellent character depictions and some memorable scenes. In short, this is a fine novel, probably just as good as Middlemarch, and quite a bit shorter. It deserves to be read. I certainly wish I hadn’t waited almost 20 years to read it, but I’m very glad I finally have.

So go out and get a copy and read it. Or, if you want, you can always wait for the BBC Miniseries to air. Julian Fellowes or Emma Thompson, it’s time for you to get to work on the script!

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Six Rules for Reading (and Enjoying) Julius Caesar

I have always assumed that the best example of my argument that most people get Shakespeare plays all wrong would be Romeo and Juliet. But I have to admit I was mistaken. In fact, I think it is safe to posit that no other Shakespeare play is so maligned and misunderstood as Julius Caesar.

I think this is largely due to the way we teach the play in the United States. Of course, because we do teach the play in high school, Julius Caesar has always gotten tremendous exposure: almost everyone I’ve met has been forced to read the play during their high school career. In fact, I think it’s still on high school reading lists today. But that’s probably also exactly why it’s so misunderstood.

I’m not blaming high school teachers, because by and large they’re told to teach these plays without any adequate preparation. I suppose if anyone deserves blame, it’s the colleges that train teachers. But all blame aside, before I talk about what a great play it really is, and what a shame it is that most people summarily dismiss  Julius Caesar without ever really considering it, let’s look at why this has happened.

julius_caesarFirst of all, it goes without saying that making someone read a play is not a great way to get him or her to like it. Especially when that play is over 400 years old and written in (what seems to be) archaic language. But a still greater problem is that there is a tendency to use the play to teach Roman history, which is a serious mistake. (American high schools are not alone in this; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, criticized the play for not being realistic in its portrayal of Roman politics back in the early 1800s.) In short, far too many people associate this play with a bunch of men showing a great deal of thigh or swathed in endless yards of material, flipping their togas around like an adolescent girl tosses her hair over her shoulder. It’s all too distracting, to say the least.

So, in order to set us back on the right track and get more people to read this fine play,  I’ve made a little list of rules to follow that will help my readers get the most enjoyment, emotional and intellectual, from the play.

Rule Number One: Forget about Roman history when you read this play. Forget about looking for anachronisms and mistakes on the part of Shakespeare’s use of history. Forget everything you know about tribunes, plebeians, Cicero, and the Festival of Lupercalia. The fact is, the history of the play hardly matters at all. Rather, the only thing that matters is that you know in the beginning moments that Caesar will die and that, whatever his motives and his character, Marcus Brutus will pay for his part in Caesar’s assassination with his own life and reputation.

Rule Number Two: Recognize that this is one of Shakespeare’s most suspenseful plays. Our foreknowledge of events in the play, far from making it predictable and boring, provides an element of suspense that should excite the audience. Here we can point to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, in which he explains that it’s the fact that the audience knows there’s a bomb hidden under a table that makes the scene so fascinating to watch, that makes every sentence, every facial expression count with the audience. It’s the fact that we know Julius Caesar is going to die on the Ides of March that makes his refusal to follow the advice of the soothsayer, his wife Calpurnia, and Artemidorus so interesting. We become invested in all of his words and actions, just as our knowledge that Brutus is going to lose everything makes us become invested in him as a character as well. A good production of this play, then, would highlight the suspenseful nature within it, allowing the audience to react with an emotional response rather than mere intellectual curiosity.

Rule Number Three: Understand that this play is, like Coriolanus, highly critical of the Roman mob. Individuals from the mob may be quite witty, as in the opening scene, when a mere cobbler gets the better of one of the Roman Tribunes, but taken as a whole, the mob is easily swayed by rhetoric, highly materialistic, and downright vicious. (In one often-excluded scene–III.iii–a poet is on his way to Caesar’s funeral when he is accosted by the crowd, mistaken for one of the conspirators, and carried off to be torn to pieces.) It’s almost as if this representation of mob mentality–the Elizabethan equivalent of populism, if you will–is something that Shakespeare introduces in 1599 in Julius Caesar, only to return to it nine years later to explore in greater detail in Coriolanus.

Rule Number Four: Recognize that this play, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is misnamed. It is not about Julius Caesar. It’s really all about Marcus Brutus, who is the tragic hero of the play. He is doomed from the outset, because (1) it is his patriotism and his love of the Roman Republic, not a desire for gain, that drives him to commit murder; (2) he becomes enamored of his own reputation and convinces himself that it is his duty to commit murder and to break the law; (3) he falls victim to this egotism and loses everything because of it. Audience members really shouldn’t give a hoot about Julius Caesar; he’s a jerk who gets pretty much what he deserves. But Brutus is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, a character whose every step, much like Oedipus, takes him further and further into his own doom. The soliloquies Brutus speaks are similar to those in Macbeth, revealing a character that is not inherently bad but rather deficient in logic, self-awareness, and respect for others. In fact, in many ways, it’s interesting to look at Julius Caesar as a rough draft not only of Coriolanus but of Macbeth as well.

Rule Number Five: Appreciate the dark comedy in the play. Shakespeare plays with his audience from the outset, in the comic first scene between the workmen and the Roman Tribunes, but another great comedic scene is Act IV, scene iii, when Brutus and Cassius meet up before the big battle and end up in an argument that resembles nothing more than a couple of young boys squabbling, even descending into a “did not, did so” level. This scene would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high, and if we didn’t know that disaster was imminent.

Rule Number Six: Experience the play without preconceptions, without the baggage that undoubtedly is left over from your tenth-grade English class. Once you do this, you’ll realize that the play is timely. It explores some really pertinent questions, ones which societies have dealt with time and time again, and which we are dealing with at this very moment. For example, when is it permissible to commit a wrong in order for the greater good to benefit? (surely Immanuel Kant would have something to say about this, along with Jeremy Bentham). How secure is a republic when its citizens are poor thinkers who can be swayed by mere rhetoric and emotionalism instead of reason? What course of action should be taken when a megalomaniac takes over an entire nation, and no one has the guts to stop him through any legal or offical means?

In the end, Brutus’s tragedy is that he immolates his personal, individual self in his public and civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is the inability to understand this sacrifice and the conflict it creates, not the play’s historical setting in a distant and hazy past, that has made it inaccessible for generations of American high school students. Too many decades have gone by since civic responsibility has been considered an important element in our education, with the sad but inevitable result that several generations of students can no longer understand the real tragedy in this play, which is certainly not the assassination of Julius Caesar.

But perhaps this is about to change. In the last few months, we’ve been witnessing a new generation teaching themselves about civic involvement, since no one will teach it to them. And as I consider the brave civic movement begun by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I am hopeful that from now on it’s just possible that reading Julius Caesar could become not a wasted module in an English class, but the single most important reading experience in a high-school student’s career.

 

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Anthony Trollope wants to know: Are you a Liberal or a Conservative?

Drawing_of_Anthony_Trollope

Anthony Trollope. Image from Wikipedia

There’s a lot of ink being spilled right now about the failure of liberal democracies, and I am guilty of pouring some of it myself. But it might be helpful to go back to redefine the two terms which invest so much of our discussions and arguments these days.

What, exactly, is the difference between liberal and conservative thought?

I’m not satisfied with responses that point to contemporary political positions: they are too fraught with bias, and thus don’t yield a reliable answer. In order to provide such a good answer, then, we will need to go back and define the terms themselves, to think about what it really means to be a liberal or a conservative.

And this proves quite tricky–so tricky, in fact, that although I first asked myself this question back in the 1980s, I have never been able to come up with a good answer. But thankfully, I don’t have to, because it turns out that Anthony Trollope provided an excellent answer back in 1876.

In his novel The Prime Minister, the Duke of Omnium, who is serving as the ineffective prime minister of Great Britain in a coalition government (and who fully realizes that nothing of consequence will be accomplished during his term of office) pauses to consider why people align with either the Liberal or the Conservative Party. In Chapter 68 (it is a very long novel), entitled “The Prime Minister’s Political Creed,” the duke questions his colleague Phineas Finn about why he is a liberal. (The duke, while obviously an aristocrat, is somewhat paradoxically a member of the Liberal Party.) In doing so, he reveals why he himself is a liberal:

I began life with the misfortune of a ready-made political creed. There was a seat in the House for me when I was twenty-on. Nobody took the trouble to ask my opinions. It was a matter of course that I should be a Liberal…. It was a tradition of the family, and was as inseparable from it as any of the titles which [we] had inherited…”

But now, at the apex of his political career, when he realizes that he will soon have to resign as prime minister, the duke thinks about what makes him a liberal. He begins by explaining what he considers conservative thought: the idea that God has fashioned the world in a certain way, and it is up to man to maintain that structure. The liberal thinker, says the duke, works to improve the world in order to reach a millenium (which I take to mean a Utopian period of human existence) in which the social and political order is perfected. However, this millenium, he says, “is so distant that we need not even think of it as possible.” He goes on to tell Phineas, “You are a Liberal because you know that it is not all as it ought to be.”

I think there’s quite a lot to learn from this chapter, even after though more than a century has passed since its publication. First of all, many of us begin our adult lives as liberals or conservatives simply because we have been handed those labels and told that they belong to us. Perhaps our parents were conservatives, so we identify as one–or perhaps we go the other way, rebelling against our parents and their beliefs. But I think it would be better for us, like the Duke of Omnium, to stop and think about why we behave as we do, and why we believe the things we believe.

When you simplify the issue as much as possible (I realize the danger of simplistic analysis, but it is sometimes worth the risk), the difference between the Liberal thinker and the Conservative one, as Trollope’s novel portrays it, is this: the conservative view holds that things were better in the past and should be maintained that way, while the liberal view holds that, however things were in the past, they are highly imperfect in the present and should be improved–and although a state of human perfection, while theoretically possible, is light years away, this is no reason to shirk the work involved in getting there.

In other words, the conservative view looks to the past, wanting to keep things as they are: stable, predictable, and functioning. After all, the past got us to the present, so it must work. The liberal view, in contrast, looks to the future, with a supreme confidence that improvement is possible in the human condition.

I endorse neither views at this point. I just want to posit a new way of looking at these terms to help open up a badly-needed space for discussion.

… But I also want to say that Anthony Trollope totally rocks the Victorian novel.

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