“Pathos” — Alice Meynell

Literature

“Pathos”

by

Alice Meynell

A fugitive writer wrote not long ago on the fugitive page of a magazine: “For our part, the drunken tinker [Christopher Sly] is the most real personage of the piece, and not without some hints of the pathos that is worked out more fully, though by different ways, in Bottom and Malvolio.”  Has it indeed come to this?  Have the Zeitgeist and the Weltschmerz or their yet later equivalents, compared with which “le spleen” of the French Byronic age was gay, done so much for us?  Is there to be no laughter left in literature free from the preoccupation of a sham real-life?  So it would seem.  Even what the great master has not shown us in his work, that your critic convinced of pathos is resolved to see in it.  By the penetration of his intrusive sympathy he will come at it.  It is of little use now to explain Snug the joiner to the audience: why, it is precisely Snug who stirs their emotions so painfully.  Not the lion; they can make shift to see through that: but the Snug within, the human Snug.  And Master Shallow has the Weltschmerz in that latent form which is the more appealing; and discouraging questions arise as to the end of old Double; and Harpagon is the tragic figure of Monomania; and as to Argan, ah, what havoc in “les entrailles de Monsieur” must have been wrought by those prescriptions!  Et patatietpatata.

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It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness (Iris Murdoch)

Literature

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that “one constantly takes prototypes from literature who may actually influence one’s conduct.” Could you give specific examples?

MURDOCH

Did I say that? Good heavens, I can’t remember the context. Of course, one feels affection for, or identifies with, certain fictional characters. My two favorites are Achilles and Mr. Knightley. This shows the difficulty of thinking of characters who might influence one. I could reflect upon characters in Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy; these writers particularly come to mind—wise moralistic writers who portray the complexity of morality and the difficulty of being good.

Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem. It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness. Perhaps we don’t know much about goodness. Attractive bad characters in fiction may corrupt people, who think, So that’s OK. Inspiration from good characters may be rarer and harder, yet Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and the grandmother in Proust’s novel exist. I think one is influenced by the whole moral atmosphere of literary works, just as we are influenced by Shakespeare, a great exemplar for the novelist. In the most effortless manner he portrays moral dilemmas, good and evil, and the differences and the struggle between them. I think he is a deeply religious writer. He doesn’t portray religion directly in the plays, but it is certainly there, a sense of the spiritual, of goodness, of self-sacrifice, of reconciliation, and of forgiveness. I think that is the absolutely prime example of how we ought to tell a story—invent characters and convey something dramatic, which at the same time has deep spiritual significance.

From Irish Murdoch’s Paris Review interview.

“Absinthe” — William T. Vollmann

Literature

Russia’s tales clang from the tongues of bells; and her cannons point outward. Ghosts guard the tall red notches of the Kremlin Wall. In Petersburg, the ice-clad trees of the Summer Garden aim at the stars; if necessary, every branch can be converted into an antiaircraft gun.

The largest cannon in the world frightens off Germans with its lion-face. A red star upon a tapering greenish pedestal shines ready to detonate invaders.

Below the fourteen escalators of the Congress of Nationalities, snow howls through vast, shining squares, but stills when golden domes like helmets of soldiers begin to nod and clang. (In Russia they add gold and silver to their bronze for finer sound.)

Onion-domes bristle with crosses, and within each gilded church, haloed saints stand ready to leap off the golden walls and fight. Napoleon once burned the Yellow Arsenal, but saints rushed forth from their metal-topped tombs; and afterward the arsenal’s white arched windows grew back. Then the girls decorated everything with green and yellow tiles; and electric-colored light striped the Moskva River, which is lined with regular snow-walls and tapering towers.

Read the rest of William T. Vollmann’s “Absinthe” at VICE.

July 13, 1838 (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Literature

July 13th.–A show of wax-figures, consisting almost wholly of murderers and their victims,–Gibbs and Hansley, the pirates, and the Dutch girl whom Gibbs murdered. Gibbs and Hansley were admirably done, as natural as life; and many people who had known Gibbs would not, according to the showman, be convinced that this wax-figure was not his skin stuffed. The two pirates were represented with halters round their necks, just ready to be turned off; and the sheriff stood behind them, with his watch, waiting for the moment. The clothes, halter, and Gibbs’s hair were authentic. E. K. Avery and Cornell,–the former a figure in black, leaning on the back of a chair, in the attitude of a clergyman about to pray; an ugly devil, said to be a good likeness. Ellen Jewett and R. P. Robinson, she dressed richly, in extreme fashion, and very pretty; he awkward and stiff, it being difficult to stuff a figure to look like a gentleman. The showman seemed very proud of Ellen Jewett, and spoke of her somewhat as if this wax-figure were a real creation. Strong and Mrs. Whipple, who together murdered the husband of the latter. Lastly the Siamese twins. The showman is careful to call his exhibition the “Statuary.” He walks to and fro before the figures, talking of the history of the persons, the moral lessons to be drawn therefrom, and especially of the excellence of the wax-work. He has for sale printed histories of the personages. He is a friendly, easy-mannered sort of a half-genteel character, whose talk has been moulded by the persons who most frequent such a show; an air of superiority of information, a moral instructor, with a great deal of real knowledge of the world. He invites his departing guests to call again and bring their friends, desiring to know whether they are pleased; telling that he had a thousand people on the 4th of July, and that they were all perfectly satisfied. He talks with the female visitors, remarking on Ellen Jewett’s person and dress to them, he having “spared no expense in dressing her; and all the ladies say that a dress never set better, and he thinks he never knew a handsomer female.” He goes to and fro, snuffing the candles, and now and then holding one to the face of a favorite figure. Ever and anon, hearing steps upon the staircase, he goes to admit a new visitor. The visitors,–a half-bumpkin, half country-squire-like man, who has something of a knowing air, and yet looks and listens with a good deal of simplicity and faith, smiling between whiles; a mechanic of the town; several decent-looking girls and women, who eye Ellen herself with more interest than the other figures,–women having much curiosity about such ladies; a gentlemanly sort of person, who looks somewhat ashamed of himself for being there, and glances at me knowingly, as if to intimate that he was conscious of being out of place; a boy or two, and myself, who examine wax faces and faces of flesh with equal interest. A political or other satire might be made by describing a show of wax-figures of the prominent public men; and by the remarks of the showman and the spectators, their characters and public standing might be expressed. And the incident of Judge Tyler as related by E—- might be introduced

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.

“Rain” — Alice Meynell

Literature

“Rain”

by

Alice Meynell

Not excepting the falling stars—for they are far less sudden—there is nothing in nature that so outstrips our unready eyes as the familiar rain.  The rods that thinly stripe our landscape, long shafts from the clouds, if we had but agility to make the arrowy downward journey with them by the glancing of our eyes, would be infinitely separate, units, an innumerable flight of single things, and the simple movement of intricate points.

The long stroke of the raindrop, which is the drop and its path at once, being our impression of a shower, shows us how certainly our impression is the effect of the lagging, and not of the haste, of our senses.  What we are apt to call our quick impression is rather our sensibly tardy, unprepared, surprised, outrun, lightly bewildered sense of things that flash and fall, wink, and are overpast and renewed, while the gentle eyes of man hesitate and mingle the beginning with the close.  These inexpert eyes, delicately baffled, detain for an instant the image that puzzles them, and so dally with the bright progress of a meteor, and part slowly from the slender course of the already fallen raindrop, whose moments are not theirs.  There seems to be such a difference of instants as invests all swift movement with mystery in man’s eyes, and causes the past, a moment old, to be written, vanishing, upon the skies.

The visible world is etched and engraved with the signs and records of our halting apprehension; and the pause between the distant woodman’s stroke with the axe and its sound upon our ears is repeated in the impressions of our clinging sight.  The round wheel dazzles it, and the stroke of the bird’s wing shakes it off like a captivity evaded.  Everywhere the natural haste is impatient of these timid senses; and their perception, outrun by the shower, shaken by the light, denied by the shadow, eluded by the distance, makes the lingering picture that is all our art.  One of the most constant causes of all the mystery and beauty of that art is surely not that we see by flashes, but that nature flashes on our meditative eyes.  There is no need for the impressionist to make haste, nor would haste avail him, for mobile nature doubles upon him, and plays with his delays the exquisite game of visibility.

Momently visible in a shower, invisible within the earth, the ministration of water is so manifest in the coming rain-cloud that the husbandman is allowed to see the rain of his own land, yet unclaimed in the arms of the rainy wind.  It is an eager lien that he binds the shower withal, and the grasp of his anxiety is on the coming cloud.  His sense of property takes aim and reckons distance and speed, and even as he shoots a little ahead of the equally uncertain ground-game, he knows approximately how to hit the cloud of his possession.  So much is the rain bound to the earth that, unable to compel it, man has yet found a way, by lying in wait, to put his price upon it.  The exhaustible cloud “outweeps its rain,” and only the inexhaustible sun seems to repeat and to enforce his cumulative fires upon every span of ground, innumerable.  The rain is wasted upon the sea, but only by a fantasy can the sun’s waste be made a reproach to the ocean, the desert, or the sealed-up street.  Rossetti’s “vain virtues” are the virtues of the rain, falling unfruitfully.

Baby of the cloud, rain is carried long enough within that troubled breast to make all the multitude of days unlike each other.  Rain, as the end of the cloud, divides light and withholds it; in its flight warning away the sun, and in its final fall dismissing shadow.  It is a threat and a reconciliation; it removes mountains compared with which the Alps are hillocks, and makes a childlike peace between opposed heights and battlements of heaven.

The BFG, Roald Dahl’s Love Letter to His Lost Daughter

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

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Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”

If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.

Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page. 

I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.

(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever).

Complaint to God (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark)

Books, Literature

The more he worked the more the furious figure of God kept popping in and having to be removed: God driving out Adam and Eve for learning to tell right from wrong, God preferring meat to vegetables and making the first planter hate the first herdsman, God wiping the slate of the world clean with water and leaving only enough numbers to start multiplying again, God fouling up language to prevent the united nations reaching him at Babel, God telling a people to invade, exterminate and enslave for him, then letting other people do the same back. Disaster followed disaster to the horizon until Thaw wanted to block it with the hill and gibbet where God, sick to death of his own violent nature, tried to let divine mercy into the world by getting hung as the criminal he was. It was comical to think he achieved that by telling folk to love and not hurt each other. Thaw groaned aloud and said, “I don’t enjoy hounding you like this, but I refuse to gloss the facts. I admire most of your work. I don’t even resent the ice ages, even if they did make my ancestors carnivorous. I’m astonished by your way of leading fertility into disaster, then repairing the disaster with more fertility. If you were a busy dung beetle pushing the sun above the skyline, if you had the head of a hawk or the horns and legs of a goat I would understand and sympathize. If you headed a squabbling committee of Greek departmental chiefs I would sympathize. But your book claims you are a man, the one perfect man of whom we are imperfect copies. And then you have the bad taste to put yourself in it. Only the miracle of my genius stops me feeling depressed about this, and even so my brushes are clogged by theology, that bastard of the sciences. Let me remember that a painting, before it is anything else, is a surface on which colours are arranged in a certain order.

From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

Our best paintings look like screams of pain (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark)

Books, Literature

“There was once a building boom,” said Thaw, growing excited, “In north Italy. The local governments and bankers of three or four towns, towns the size of Paisley, put so much wealth and thought into decorating public buildings that half Europe’s greatest painters were bred there in a single century. These bosses weren’t unselfish men, no, no. They knew they could only win votes and stay popular by giving spare wealth to their neighbours in the form of fine streets, halls, towers and cathedrals. So the towns became beautiful and famous and have been a joy to visit ever since. But today our bosses don’t live among the folk they employ. They invest surplus profits in scientific research. Public buildings have became straight engineering jobs, our cities get uglier and uglier and our best paintings look like screams of pain. No wonder! The few who buy them, buy them like diamonds or rare postage stamps, as a form of non-taxable banking.”

From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

Ten Story Ideas from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks

Literature

Unusual death—man pierced by his own belt buckle.

Boobs Bones Mistaken for John The Baptist

Story: A man who wanted an elephant, or some such one of the wisest of beasts who could not talk. Then began to try to teach him to talk.

The Dancer Who Found She Could Fly

Words

A famous writer fakes his own death but things make him come back.
Or else he can’t.

G. men as Samurai class.

Piggy Back Voyage

Girl whose ear is so sensitive she can hear radio. Man gets her out of insane asylum to use her.

Book: It might have been me. My old idea of half truth half lie, including all notes and everything. Shoot the works.

From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks.

They have built the asylum for people who are different, and they will not even let us live in the holes with the badgers (Willa Cather)

Literature

“Did you want to speak to me, Ivar?” Alexandra asked as she rose from the table. “Come into the sitting-room.”

The old man followed Alexandra, but when she motioned him to a chair he shook his head. She took up her workbasket and waited for him to speak. He stood looking at the carpet, his bushy head bowed, his hands clasped in front of him. Ivar’s bandy legs seemed to have grown shorter with years, and they were completely misfitted to his broad, thick body and heavy shoulders.
“Well, Ivar, what is it?” Alexandra asked after she had waited longer than usual.

Ivar had never learned to speak English and his Norwegian was quaint and grave, like the speech of the more old-fashioned people. He always addressed Alexandra in terms of the deepest respect, hoping to set a good example to the kitchen girls, whom he thought too familiar in their manners.
“Mistress,” he began faintly, without raising his eyes, “the folk have been looking coldly at me of late. You know there has been talk.”

“Talk about what, Ivar?”

“About sending me away; to the asylum.”

Alexandra put down her sewing-basket. “Nobody has come to me with such talk,” she said decidedly. “Why need you listen? You know I would never consent to such a thing.”

Ivar lifted his shaggy head and looked at her out of his little eyes. “They say that you cannot prevent it if the folk complain of me, if your brothers complain to the authorities. They say that your brothers are afraid—God forbid!—that I may do you some injury when my spells are on me. Mistress, how can any one think that?—that I could bite the hand that fed me!” The tears trickled down on the old man’s beard.

Alexandra frowned. “Ivar, I wonder at you, that you should come bothering me with such nonsense. I am still running my own house, and other people have nothing to do with either you or me. So long as I am suited with you, there is nothing to be said.”

Ivar pulled a red handkerchief out of the breast of his blouse and wiped his eyes and beard. “But I should not wish you to keep me if, as they say, it is against your interests, and if it is hard for you to get hands because I am here.”

Alexandra made an impatient gesture, but the old man put out his hand and went on earnestly:—

“Listen, mistress, it is right that you should take these things into account. You know that my spells come from God, and that I would not harm any living creature. You believe that every one should worship God in the way revealed to him. But that is not the way of this country. The way here is for all to do alike. I am despised because I do not wear shoes, because I do not cut my hair, and because I have visions. At home, in the old country, there were many like me, who had been touched by God, or who had seen things in the graveyard at night and were different afterward. We thought nothing of it, and let them alone. But here, if a man is different in his feet or in his head, they put him in the asylum. Look at Peter Kralik; when he was a boy, drinking out of a creek, he swallowed a snake, and always after that he could eat only such food as the creature liked, for when he ate anything else, it became enraged and gnawed him. When he felt it whipping about in him, he drank alcohol to stupefy it and get some ease for himself. He could work as good as any man, and his head was clear, but they locked him up for being different in his stomach. That is the way; they have built the asylum for people who are different, and they will not even let us live in the holes with the badgers. Only your great prosperity has protected me so far. If you had had ill-fortune, they would have taken me to Hastings long ago.”

As Ivar talked, his gloom lifted. Alexandra had found that she could often break his fasts and long penances by talking to him and letting him pour out the thoughts that troubled him. Sympathy always cleared his mind, and ridicule was poison to him.

From Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! 

I read the novel back in college, enjoyed it, and read Cather’s later novel Death Comes for the Archbishop years after on my own. I picked up an audiobook version of O Pioneers! and started it this week, and it’s fabulous stuff—so controlled and precise, but also fluid, moving through time, memory, space, into consciousness, into the natural world—Cather’s evocation of nature on the Nebraska plains is particularly remarkable.

The novel is far more modernist than I recall as well. The narration slides slyly from a concrete third-person past-tense voice (what I often think of as the Plain Old Voice, if that makes sense), to a second-person clip that evokes a director telling his camera what to observe, to the workmanlike immediacy of a present-tense voice.

The passage above stands on its own, I think—but it also showcases several of the novel’s early themes, including the divide between the New World and the Old, alienation, and the ways in which conformity and routine are antithetical to the pioneer spirit that Americans like to trick themselves into believing they are heir to. The passage seems to rewrite Emily Dickinson’s “Much madness is divinest sense”; it also calls back to an early line from the book which I very much like: “A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.”

 

The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa (Book Acquired, 6.27.2014)

Books, Literature

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I had never heard of Emilio Villa until the kind people at Contra Mundum forwarded me some digital excerpts from their new collection, The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa. Those excerpts were fascinating, but they don’t—can’t—capture how big and strange and beautiful the finished book is.

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Dominic Siracusa translates; he also provides a lengthy introduction, an essay that primes the reader to better understand Villa, a “a biblicist who composed experimental verse in over ten different languages.”

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The variety of languages Villa composed in is complicated by his experimental techniques including fragmentation, the blending and splitting of morphemes, his use of graphemes, and other corruptions and disruptions.

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Villa’s poetry seems simultaneously to be a rich linguistic ooze, generative and messy, blending through myth and time, but also a refinement, a collection of criticism even. The book is really damn puzzling in a really fun way.

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More to come, for now, the lengthy jacket copy:

While Emilio Villa (1914–2003) was referred to as Zeus because of his greatness and Rabelais because of his mental voracity, for decades his work remained in oblivion, only recently surfacing to reveal him to be one of the most formidable figures of the Italian Novecento, if not of world culture. His marginalization was in part self-inflicted, due to his sibylline nature if not to his great erudition, which gave rise to a poetics so unconventional that few knew what to make of it: a biblicist who composed experimental verse in over ten different languages, including tongues from Milanese dialect and Italian to French, Portuguese, ancient Greek, and even Sumerian and Akkadian. As Andrea Zanzotto declared, “From the very beginning, Villa was so advanced that, even today, his initial writings or graphemes appear ahead of the times and even the future, suspended between a polymorphous sixth sense and pure non-sense.”

In merging his background as a scholar, translator, and philologist of ancient languages with his conception of poetics, Villa creates the sensation that, when reading his work, we are coming into contact with language at its origins, spoken as if for the first time, with endless possibilities. Whether penning verse, translating Homer’s Odyssey, or writing on contemporary or primordial art, Villa engages in a paleoization of the present and a modernization of the past, wherein history is abolished and interpretation suspended, leaving room only for the purely generative linguistic act, one as potent today as it was eons ago.

This volume of Villa’s multilingual poetry ranges across his entire writing life and also includes selections from his translation of the Bible, his writings on ancient and modern art, and his visual poetry. Presented in English for the very first time, The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa also contains material that is rare even to Italian readers. In adhering to the original notion of poetry as making, Villa acts as the poet-faber in tandem with his readers, creating une niche dans un niche for them to enter and create within, as if language itself were an eternal and infinite void in which creation remains an ever possible and continuously new event.

“The Toll-Gatherer’s Day” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

Literature

“The Toll-Gatherer’s Day”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Methinks, for a person whose instinct bids him rather to pore over the current of life than to plunge into its tumultuous waves, no undesirable retreat were a toll-house beside some thronged thoroughfare of the land. In youth, perhaps, it is good for the observer to run about the earth, to leave the track of his footsteps far and wide, to mingle himself with the action of numberless vicissitudes, and, finally, in some calm solitude to feed a musing spirit on all that he has seen and felt. But there are natures too indolent or too sensitive to endure the dust, the sunshine or the rain, the turmoil of moral and physical elements, to which all the wayfarers of the world expose themselves. For such a man how pleasant a miracle could life be made to roll its variegated length by the threshold of his own hermitage, and the great globe, as it were, perform its revolutions and shift its thousand scenes before his eyes without whirling him onward in its course! If any mortal be favored with a lot analogous to this, it is the toll-gatherer. So, at least, have I often fancied while lounging on a bench at the door of a small square edifice which stands between shore and shore in the midst of a long bridge. Beneath the timbers ebbs and flows an arm of the sea, while above, like the life-blood through a great artery, the travel of the north and east is continually throbbing. Sitting on the aforesaid bench, I amuse myself with a conception, illustrated by numerous pencil-sketches in the air, of the toll-gatherer’s day.