April 11th.–I meditated accordingly, but without any very wonderful result. Then at eight o’clock bothered myself till after nine with this eternal tale of Tieck. The forenoon was spent in scribbling; but at eleven o’clock my thoughts ceased to flow,–indeed, their current has been woefully interrupted all along,–so I threw down my pen, and set out on the daily journey to the village. Horrible walking! I wasted the customary hour at the Athenæum, and returned home, if home it may now be called. Till dinner-time I labored on Tieck’s tale, and resumed that agreeable employment after the banquet.
Just when I was on the point of choking with a huge German word, Molly announced Mr. Thoreau. He wished to take a row in the boat, for the last time, perhaps, before he leaves Concord. So we emptied the water out of her, and set forth on our voyage. She leaks, but not more than she did in the autumn. We rowed to the foot of the hill which borders the North Branch, and there landed, and climbed the moist and snowy hill-side for the sake of the prospect. Looking down the river, it might well have been mistaken for an arm of the sea, so broad is now its swollen tide; and I could have fancied that, beyond one other headland, the mighty ocean would outspread itself before the eye. On our return we boarded a large cake of ice, which was floating down the river, and were borne by it directly to our own landing-place, with the boat towing behind.
Parting with Mr. Thoreau, I spent half an hour in chopping wood, when Molly informed me that Mr. Emerson wished to see me. He had brought a letter of Ellery Channing, written in a style of very pleasant humor. This being read and discussed, together with a few other matters, he took his leave, since which I have been attending to my journalizing duty; and thus this record is brought down to the present moment.
The following are lines from Henry David Thoreau’s (then) unpublished manuscripts, compiled by Ralph Waldo Emerson and subjoined to the end of Emerson’s “Biographical Sketch” that introduces Thoreau’s Excursions.
Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.
The chub is a soft fish, and tastes like boiled brown paper salted.
The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to built a wood-shed with them.
The locust z-ing.
Devil’s-needles zigzagging along the Nut-Meadow brook.
Sugar is not so sweet to the palate as sound to the healthy ear.
I put on some hemlock-boughs, and the rich salt crackling of their leaves was like mustard to the ear, the crackling of uncountable regiments. Dead trees love the fire.
The bluebird carries the sky on his back.
The tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.
If I wish for a horse-hair for my compass-sight, I must go to the stable; but the hair-bird, with her sharp eyes, goes to the road.
Immortal water, alive even to the superficies.
Fire is the most tolerable third party.
Nature made ferns for pure leaves, to show what she could do in that line.
No tree has so fair a bole and so handsome an instep as the beech.
How did these beautiful rainbow-tints get into the shell of the fresh-water clam, buried in the mud at the bottom of our dark river?
Hard are the times when the infant’s shoes are second-foot.
We are strictly confined to our men to whom we give liberty.
Nothing is so much to be feared as fear. Atheism may comparatively be popular with God himself.
Of what significance the things you can forget? A little thought is sexton to all the world.
How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not had a seed-time of character?
Only he can be trusted with gifts who can present a face of bronze to expectations.
I ask to be melted. You can only ask of the metals that they be tender to the fire that melts them. To nought else can they be tender.
Saturday, April 8th.–After journalizing yesterday afternoon, I went out and sawed and split wood till teatime, then studied German (translating “Lenore”), with an occasional glance at a beautifulsunset, which I could not enjoy sufficiently by myself to induce me to lay aside the book. After lamplight, finished “Lenore,” and drowsed over Voltaire’s “Candide,” occasionally refreshing myself with a tune from Mr. Thoreau’s musical-box, which he had left in my keeping. The evening was but a dull one.
I retired soon after nine, and felt some apprehension that the old Doctor’s ghost would take this opportunity to visit me; but I rather think his former visitations have not been intended for me, and that I am not sufficiently spiritual for ghostly communication. At all events, I met with no disturbance of the kind, and slept soundly enough till six o’clock or thereabouts. The forenoon was spent with the pen in my hand, and sometimes I had the glimmering of an idea, and endeavored to materialize it in words; but on the whole my mind was idly vagrant, and refused to work to any systematic purpose. Between eleven amid twelve I went to the post-office, but found no letter; then spent above an hour reading at the Athenæum. On my way home, I encountered Mr. Flint, for the first time these many weeks, although he is our next neighbor in one direction. I inquired if he could sell us some potatoes, and he promised to send half a bushel for trial. Also, he encouraged me to hope that he might buy a barrel of our apples. After my encounter with Mr. Flint, I returned to our lonely old abbey, opened the door without the usual heart-spring, ascended to my study, and began to read a tale of Tieck. Slow work, and dull work too! Anon, Molly, the cook, rang the bell for dinner,–a sumptuous banquet of stewed veal and macaroni, to which I sat down in solitary state. My appetite served me sufficiently to eat with, but not for enjoyment. Nothing has a zestin my present widowed state. [Thus far I had written, when Mr. Emerson called.] After dinner, I lay down on the couch, with the “Dial” in my hand as a soporific, and had a short nap; then began to journalize.
Mr. Emerson came, with a sunbeam in his face; and we had as good a talk as I ever remember to have had with him. He spoke of Margaret Fuller, who, he says, has risen perceptibly into a higher state since their last meeting. [There rings the tea-bell.] Then we discoursed of Ellery Channing, a volume of whose poems is to be immediately published, with revisions by Mr. Emerson himself and Mr. Sam G. Ward. . . . He calls them “poetry for poets.” Next Mr. Thoreau was discussed, and his approaching departure; in respect to which we agreed pretty well, . . . We talked of Brook Farm, and the singular moral aspects which it presents, and the great desirability that its progress and developments should be observed and its history written; also of C. N—-, who, it appears, is passing through a new moral phasis. He is silent, inexpressive, talks little or none, and listens without response, except a sardonic laugh and some of his friends think that he is passing into permanent eclipse. Various other matters were considered or glanced at, and finally, between five and six o’clock, Mr. Emerson took his leave. I then went out to chop wood, my allotted space for which had been very much abridged by his visit; but I was not sorry. I went on with the journal for a few minutes before tea, and have finished the present record in the setting sunshine and gathering dusk. . . .
Thursday, September 1st.–Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. . . . He is a keen and delicate observer of nature,–a genuine observer,–which, I suspect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness. He is familiar with beast, fish, fowl, and reptile, and has strange stories to tell of adventures and friendly passages with these lower brethren of mortality. Herb and flower, likewise, wherever they grow, whether in garden or wildwood, are his familiar friends. He is also on intimate terms with the clouds, and can tell the portents of storms. It is a characteristic trait, that he has a great regard for the memory of the Indian tribes, whose wild life would have suited him so well; and, strange to say, he seldom walks over a ploughed field without picking up an arrow-point, spear-head, or other relic of the red man, as if their spirits willed him to be the inheritor of their simple wealth.
With all this he has more than a tincture of literature,–a deep and true taste for poetry, especially for the elder poets, and he is a good writer,–at least he has written a good article, a rambling disquisition on Natural History, in the last “Dial,” which, he says, was chiefly made up from journals of his own observations. Methinks this article gives a very fair image of his mind and character,–so true, innate, and literal in observation, yet giving the spirit as well as letter of what he sees, even as a lake reflects its wooded banks, showing every leaf, yet giving the wild beauty of the whole scene. Then there are in the article passages of cloudy and dreamy metaphysics, and also passages where his thoughts seem to measure and attune themselves into spontaneous verse, as they rightfully may, since there is real poetry in them. There is a basis of good sense and of moral truth, too, throughout the article, which also is a reflection of his character; for he is not unwise to think and feel, and I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know.
After dinner (at which we cut the first watermelon and muskmelon that our garden has grown), Mr. Thoreau and I walked up the bank of the river, and at a certain point he shouted for his boat. Forthwith a young man paddled it across, and Mr. Thoreau and I voyaged farther up the stream, which soon became more beautiful than any picture, with its dark and quiet sheet of water, half shaded, half sunny, between high and wooded banks. The late rains have swollen the stream so much that many trees are standing up to their knees, as it were, in the water, and boughs, which lately swung high in air, now dip and drink deep of the passing wave. As to the poor cardinals which glowed upon the bank a few days since, I could see only a few of their scarlet hats, peeping above the tide. Mr. Thoreau managed the boat so perfectly, either with two paddles or with one, that it seemed instinct with his own will, and to require no physical effort to guide it. He said that, when some Indians visited Concord a few years ago, he found that he had acquired, without a teacher, their precise method of propelling and steering a canoe. Nevertheless he was desirous of selling the boat of which he was so fit a pilot, and which was built by his own hands; so I agreed to take it, and accordingly became possessor of the Musketaquid. I wish I could acquire the aquatic skill of the original owner.
Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear “the Symphony.” The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude. In this consciousness he sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity—a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of Nature which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism which teaches slavery. In music, in poetry, in all art, the truth as one sees it must be given in terms which bear some proportion to the inspiration. In their greatest moments the inspiration of both Beethoven and Thoreau express profound truths and deep sentiment, but the intimate passion of it, the storm and stress of it, affected Beethoven in such a way that he could not but be ever showing it and Thoreau that he could not easily expose it. They were equally imbued with it, but with different results. A difference in temperament had something to do with this, together with a difference in the quality of expression between the two arts. “Who that has heard a strain of music feared lest he would speak extravagantly forever,” says Thoreau. Perhaps music is the art of speaking extravagantly. Herbert Spencer says that some men, as for instance Mozart, are so peculiarly sensitive to emotion … that music is to them but a continuation not only of the expression but of the actual emotion, though the theory of some more modern thinkers in the philosophy of art doesn’t always bear this out. However, there is no doubt that in its nature music is predominantly subjective and tends to subjective expression, and poetry more objective tending to objective expression. Hence the poet when his muse calls for a deeper feeling must invert this order, and he may be reluctant to do so as these depths often call for an intimate expression which the physical looks of the words may repel. They tend to reveal the nakedness of his soul rather than its warmth. It is not a matter of the relative value of the aspiration, or a difference between subconsciousness and consciousness but a difference in the arts themselves; for example, a composer may not shrink from having the public hear his “love letter in tones,” while a poet may feel sensitive about having everyone read his “letter in words.” When the object of the love is mankind the sensitiveness is changed only in degree.
But the message of Thoreau, though his fervency may be inconstant and his human appeal not always direct, is, both in thought and spirit, as universal as that of any man who ever wrote or sang—as universal as it is nontemporaneous—as universal as it is free from the measure of history, as “solitude is free from the measure of the miles of space that intervene between man and his fellows.” In spite of the fact that Henry James (who knows almost everything) says that “Thoreau is more than provincial—that he is parochial,” let us repeat that Henry Thoreau, in respect to thought, sentiment, imagination, and soul, in respect to every element except that of place of physical being—a thing that means so much to some—is as universal as any personality in literature. That he said upon being shown a specimen grass from Iceland that the same species could be found in Concord is evidence of his universality, not of his parochialism. He was so universal that he did not need to travel around the world to PROVE it. “I have more of God, they more of the road.” “It is not worth while to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” With Marcus Aurelius, if he had seen the present he had seen all, from eternity and all time forever. Continue reading ““Thoreau” — Charles Ives”→
1. I managed to avoid reading anything about Shane Carruth’s new film Upstream Color before I saw it.
I just knew that this was the guy who did Primer, this was his new film, and I wanted to see it because Primer was so strange and engaging.
2. Two immediate responses after viewing Upstream Color:
i). The desire to see Upstream Color again and
ii). The desire to read what other people thought about Upstream Color.
3. (My wife and I, reading the credits, pausing the credits, reassessing the film against the backdrop of the credits, arguing about the film, discussing the film, etc.).
4. I think it’s better that if you have any interest at all in Upstream Color that you just see it cold [update/warning: the comments section of this post is full of spoilers]. But I know that 100 minutes is an investment of time, so maybe you’d like some kind of précis or at least description. So, a loose attempt, which surely will devolve into fragments and references:
Upstream Color is a sci-film, sort of.
Or maybe its a mystery film about ethics and biology.
Maybe a nature film, sort of.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
Shades of Philip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, Terence Malick, but also something utterly original.
Creation: knitting, paper chains, music, seeds, life, children, etc.
A film that can and should be described as poetic.
It’s a love story, too.
5. It occurs to me that there’s a trailer for the film. I haven’t seen it yet. Should we watch it?
6. Does that do it for you? I don’t know how to do this anymore. Recommend things. I don’t know, the trailer makes the film perhaps look more pretentious than it is. It isn’t pretentious. It isn’t even confusing—just perplexing, haunting, troubling.
7. (Wanted: Quinoa Valley Record Co., complete discography).
8. My take on Upstream Color, spoiler-free, supporting-detail-free:
The film is about agency, about drive, about how the characters (and, implicitly, us, we, the audience, who identify with the characters on the screen) may be driven by something beyond us, something controlling us like a parasite (internal) or from afar like a ventriloquist (external). That even when we do assert agency the effect, the fallout, the shape lays beyond us, upstream.
9. (This morning, my wife telling me about her dream, a nightmare that our young daughter had ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms, clearly a response to the film).
10. I haven’t done a good job of really saying anything about the film. So, lazily:
I think Caleb Crain provides a perceptive and persuasive reading of the film in his essay “The Thoreau Poison.” He reads the film through the American transcendentalists, particularly Thoreau, of course, but also Emerson and Hawthorne.
11. (I will avoid Carruth’s explanation of the film until I’ve seen it a second time. Maybe I’ll avoid his explanation forever).
12. A take on Upstream Color that I don’t quite buy into (the take is my own): The film perhaps invites us to find metaphysical entities in two of its secondary characters, both of whom exert influence (creative and destructive) over the primary characters. Something something godlike, something something devillike.
I like that the film offers this simple duality and then crushes it, shows something far more complicated, suggests a cycle far more strange.
13. (White orchid. Blue orchid. Yellow orchid).
14. Upstream Color features minimal dialogue and nothing approaching traditional exposition, but we still learn about its characters, come to feel for them, feel their desires and traumas. The film is cerebral and philosophical, but it’s also emotional, offering an aesthetic that sublimely overwhelms the viewer.
15. Carruth wrote, produced, directed, scored, photographed, cast and starred in Upstream Color. (I’m sure he did a lot of other stuff too). He also distributed the film himself. The entire filmmaking process was untouched by the Hollywood system. There’s so much hope for film as an art form in this knowledge.
16. Parting thoughts: See Upstream Color. Resist imposing whatever film grammar you usually bring with you to the movies. Resist the temptation to see the film as a puzzle to figure out. See Upstream Color.
“Samples of My Common-place Book” — Walt Whitman (from Specimen Days)
I ought not to offer a record of these days, interests, recuperations, without including a certain old, well-thumb’d common-place book, filled with favorite excerpts, I carried in my pocket for three summers, and absorb’d over and over again, when the mood invited. I find so much in having a poem or fine suggestion sink into me (a little then goes a great ways) prepar’d by these vacant-sane and natural influences.
Samples of my common-place book down at the creek:
I have—says old Pindar—many swift arrows in my quiver which speak to the wise, though they need an interpreter to the thoughtless. Such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand. H. D. Thoreau.
If you hate a man, don’t kill him, but let him live.—Buddhistic.
Famous swords are made of refuse scraps, thought worthless.
Poetry is the only verity—the expression of a sound mind speaking after the ideal—and not after the apparent.—Emerson.
The form of oath among the Shoshone Indians is, “The earth hears me.
The sun hears me. Shall I lie?”
The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops—no, but the kind of a man the country turns out.—Emerson.
The whole wide ether is the eagle’s sway:
The whole earth is a brave man’s fatherland.—Euripides.
Spices crush’d, their pungence yield,
Trodden scents their sweets respire;
Would you have its strength reveal’d?
Cast the incense in the fire.
Matthew Arnold speaks of “the huge Mississippi of falsehood called
The wind blows north, the wind blows south,
The wind blows east and west;
No matter how the free wind blows,
Some ship will find it best.
Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent.—Epictetus.
Victor Hugo makes a donkey meditate and apostrophize thus:
My brother, man, if you would know the truth,
We both are by the same dull walls shut in;
The gate is massive and the dungeon strong.
But you look through the key-hole out beyond,
And call this knowledge; yet have not at hand
The key wherein to turn the fatal lock.
“William Cullen Bryant surprised me once,” relates a writer in a New York paper, “by saying that prose was the natural language of composition, and he wonder’d how anybody came to write poetry.”
Farewell! I did not know thy worth;
But thou art gone, and now ’tis prized:
So angels walk’d unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognized.—Hood.
John Burroughs, writing of Thoreau, says: “He improves with age—in fact requires age to take off a little of his asperity, and fully ripen him. The world likes a good hater and refuser almost as well as it likes a good lover and accepter—only it likes him farther off.”
Louise Michel at the burial of Blanqui, (1881.)
Blanqui drill’d his body to subjection to his grand conscience and his noble passions, and commencing as a young man, broke with all that is sybaritish in modern civilization. Without the power to sacrifice self, great ideas will never bear fruit.
Out of the leaping furnace flame
A mass of molten silver came;
Then, beaten into pieces three,
Went forth to meet its destiny.
The first a crucifix was made,
Within a soldier’s knapsack laid;
The second was a locket fair,
Where a mother kept her dead child’s hair;
The third—a bangle, bright and warm,
Around a faithless woman’s arm.
A mighty pain to love it is,
And’tis a pain that pain to miss;
But of all pain the greatest pain,
It is to love, but love in vain.
Maurice F. Egan on De Guerin.
A pagan heart, a Christian soul had he,
He followed Christ, yet for dead Pan he sigh’d,
Till earth and heaven met within his breast:
As if Theocritus in Sicily
Had come upon the Figure crucified,
And lost his gods in deep, Christ-given rest.
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me,
Is, leave the mind that now I bear,
And give me Liberty.—Emily Bronte.
I travel on not knowing,
I would not if I might;
I would rather walk with God in the dark,
Than go alone in the light;
I would rather walk with Him by faith
Than pick my way by sight
Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole. This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim either at use or beauty. Thus in our fine arts, not imitation but creation is the aim. In landscapes the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose of nature he should omit and give us only the spirit and splendor. He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye because it expresses a thought which is to him good; and this because the same power which sees through his eyes is seen in that spectacle; and he will come to value the expression of nature and not nature itself, and so exalt in his copy the features that please him. He will give the gloom of gloom and the sunshine of sunshine. In a portrait he must inscribe the character and not the features, and must esteem the man who sits to him as himself only an imperfect picture or likeness of the aspiring original within.
What is that abridgment and selection we observe in all spiritual activity, but itself the creative impulse? for it is the inlet of that higher illumination which teaches to convey a larger sense by simpler symbols. What is a man but nature’s finer success in self-explication? What is a man but a finer and compacter landscape than the horizon figures,—nature’s eclecticism? and what is his speech, his love of painting, love of nature, but a still finer success,—all the weary miles and tons of space and bulk left out, and the spirit or moral of it contracted into a musical word, or the most cunning stroke of the pencil?
But the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men. Thus the new in art is always formed out of the old. The Genius of the Hour sets his ineffaceable seal on the work and gives it an inexpressible charm for the imagination. As far as the spiritual character of the period overpowers the artist and finds expression in his work, so far it will retain a certain grandeur, and will represent to future beholders the Unknown, the Inevitable, the Divine. No man can quite exclude this element of Necessity from his labor. No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. The very avoidance betrays the usage he avoids. Above his will and out of his sight he is necessitated by the air he breathes and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times, without knowing what that manner is. Now that which is inevitable in the work has a higher charm than individual talent can ever give, inasmuch as the artist’s pen or chisel seems to have been held and guided by a gigantic hand to inscribe a line in the history of the human race. This circumstance gives a value to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, to the Indian, Chinese and Mexican idols, however gross and shapeless. They denote the height of the human soul in that hour, and were not fantastic, but sprung from a necessity as deep as the world. Shall I now add that the whole extant product of the plastic arts has herein its highest value, as history; as a stroke drawn in the portrait of that fate, perfect and beautiful, according to whose ordinations all beings advance to their beatitude? Continue reading ““Art” — Ralph Waldo Emerson”→
In his early writings, Thoreau called the alphabet the saddest song. Later in life he would renounce this position and say it produced only dissonant music.
Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.
But are they? asked Blake, years later. I shall write of the world without them.
I would grow mold on the language, said Pasteur. Except nothing can grow on that cold, dead surface.
Of words Teresa of Avila said, I did not live to erase them all.
They make me sick, said Luther. Yours and yours and yours. Even sometimes my own.
If it can be said, then I am not interested, wrote Schopenhauer.
When told to explain himself, a criminal in Arthur’s court simply pointed at the large embroidered alphabet that hung above the king.
Poets need a new instrument, said Shelley.
If I could take something from the world, said Nietzsche, and take with it even the memory of that thing, so that the world might carry on ever forward with not even the possibility that thing could exist again, it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.
I am a writer, said Picasso. I make my own letters.
Shall I destroy this now, or shall I wait for you to leave the room, said his patron to Kadmos, the reputed inventor of the alphabet.
Kadmos is a fraud, said Wheaton. Said Nestor. Said William James.
Do not read this, warned Plutarch.
Do not read this, warned Cicero.
Do not read this, begged Ovid.
If you value your life. Bleed a man, and with that vile release spell out his name in the sand, prescribed Hippocrates.
No alphabet but in things, said Williams.
Correction. No alphabet at all.
The entirety of Chapter 35 of Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. It’s a departure of style from the novel that seems to owe more than a passing nod to David Markson’s notecard novels.
The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night. The meadow-mouse has slept in his snug gallery in the sod, the owl has sat in a hollow tree in the depth of the swamp, the rabbit, the squirrel, and the fox have all been housed. The watch-dog has lain quiet on the hearth, and the cattle have stood silent in their stalls. The earth itself has slept, as it were its first, not its last sleep, save when some street-sign or wood-house door has faintly creaked upon its hinge, cheering forlorn nature at her midnight work,—the only sound awake twixt Venus and Mars,—advertising us of a remote inward warmth, a divine cheer and fellowship, where gods are met together, but where it is very bleak for men to stand. But while the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields.
We sleep, and at length awake to the still reality of a winter morning. The snow lies warm as cotton or down upon the window-sill; the broadened sash and frosted panes admit a dim and private light, which enhances the snug cheer within. The stillness of the morning is impressive. The floor creaks under our feet as we move toward the window to look abroad through some clear space over the fields. We see the roofs stand under their snow burden. From the eaves and fences hang stalactites of snow, and in the yard stand stalagmites covering some concealed core. The trees and shrubs rear white arms to the sky on every side; and where were walls and fences, we see fantastic forms stretching in frolic gambols across the dusky landscape, as if nature had strewn her fresh designs over the fields by night as models for man’s art.
Silently we unlatch the door, letting the drift fall in, and step abroad to face the cutting air. Already the stars have lost some of their sparkle, and a dull, leaden mist skirts the horizon. A lurid brazen light in the east proclaims the approach of day, while the western landscape is dim and spectral still, and clothed in a sombre Tartarian light, like the shadowy realms. They are Infernal sounds only that you hear,—the crowing of cocks, the barking of dogs, the chopping of wood, the lowing of kine, all seem to come from Pluto’s barn-yard and beyond the Styx;—not for any melancholy they suggest, but their twilight bustle is too solemn and mysterious for earth. The recent tracks of the fox or otter, in the yard, remind us that each hour of the night is crowded with events, and the primeval nature is still working and making tracks in the snow. Opening the gate, we tread briskly along the lone country road, crunching the dry and crisped snow under our feet, or aroused by the sharp clear creak of the wood-sled, just starting for the distant market, from the early farmer’s door, where it has lain the summer long, dreaming amid the chips and stubble; while far through the drifts and powdered windows we see the farmer’s early candle, like a paled star, emitting a lonely beam, as if some severe virtue were at its matins there. And one by one the smokes begin to ascend from the chimneys amidst the trees and snows. Continue reading ““A Winter Walk” — Henry David Thoreau”→
Fifty Shades of Louisa May by L.M. Anonymous, is , to all appearances, the kind of cheeky send-up that E.L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey hardly deserves. Satire has the strange, paradoxical power to somehow dignify its target after all, or at least point out how the thing being satirized is, you know, worth actually talking about. However, Louisa May has no proximity to Fifty Shades of Grey, other than the window dressing of its cover and its title, both of which exist somewhere on the thin line between clever and crass. Sure, Louisa May has its share of sex scenes (most are more ridiculous than erotic), but this slim little book is, at its core, really a loving biography of novelist Louisa May Alcott.
The conceit is that Alcott, dipping into her secret vice of a midnight bottle of Madeira, decides to a pen a memoir (that she intends to burn) of her “carnal episodes, some amusing, others touching, but all rife with the sighs and heavings of Love’s labours.” (How the “X-rated woodcuts” that accompany each chapter made their way into the book remains unclear; I suspect that they follow the tradition established in the mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Organized roughly around Alcott’s difficult life with her transcendentalist parents and their transcendentalist friends, each chapter of Louisa May culminates in an erotic episode, albeit one that our heroine usually witnesses as voyeur and not participant. These episodes tend to involve other transcendentalist figures. In one inspired vignette, Louisa May sneaks out of her house to follow Herman Melville to the Old Manse, where she watches him watch Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne get it on:
I heard a small groan from Mr. Melville’s beech tree and saw that his own garments now circled his ankles and he was busily engaged in the art of Onan, his slitted eyes on his mentor, beard shivering with concentration. I looked away quickly—even in my youth I knew that such solitary activity must remain unwitnessed.
The Hawthornes let out a quivering scream, Nathaniel’s voice as high pitched as his wife’s as he rose from his chair to finish the work that his wife had begun. Thus spent, Sophia lay back in his arms. The ever-fastidious Mr. Hawthorne reached out with one hand to set to reordering his manuscript pages.
Mr. Melville let out a low hoot and sent a frothy fusillade across the yard to strike the windowglass with a furious splash.
“Look, my Dove, it appears to be raining,” Sophia said.
The episode is obviously more comical than erotic, its style—indeed the style of the entire book—a strange mashup of Alcott’s own rhythms and the diction of Victorian smut. There’s something joyously silly in the way L.M. Anonymous throws together various transcendentalists into would-be erotic interludes; when our heroine describes Fruitlands founder Charles Lane jacking off by moonlight, the whole thing feels like a big dirty in-joke for those of us who love this period of American history and literature. And sure, the jokes can be very crude—here’s Henry David Thoreau, nature lover:
L.M. Anonymous (“a well-known writer who prefers the cloak of anonymity to the vulgar embrace of rude fame,” according to the back of the book) seems to know his/her history (and attending rhetorical styles) fairly well. I’d have to guess that the author is, if not an Alcott scholar, then at least a passionate enthusiast—because what stands out most about Fifty Shades of Louisa May isn’t the smut but the internal conflicts of our narrator Louisa May.
In Anonymous’s imagination, Alcott is an embittered soul who has never forgiven her father for his foolishness, nor gotten over the fact that she’s the sole source of income for the Alcotts. She badmouths her books as unserious trash, bemoaning that she could do more:
Too often I have found myself diminished by the company of Famous Men to praise them. Had I been but relieved of the burden of supporting the entire legions of Alcotts with my earnings, I could have written novels and poems to equal their best—of that I am most confident. Instead of greatness, I lingered at the Trough of Rubbish too long, achieving only a shining of tin, not the glimmering of gold. But it is too late for me to be concerned with such matters. Time sorts out all writers, revealing each for what they truly were. I only hope that I shall be remembered as much for what I did not achieve as for what I did.
There’s so much tenderness here: Anonymous’s love and respect for his/her subject is plain. The author also seems to write through the book, through the narrator in this passage, as if acknowledging, in some metatextual move, the book’s own novelty status, pointing out that the book, a shaky Grey cash-in, is in some way a part of the Trough of Rubbish, but also that there’s more here too.
I read Fifty Shades of Louisa May in one short sitting, and found it at times amusing, if not especially erotic. I was prepared to to write it off as a silly novelty book—which perhaps it is—but there’s also a real love—and understanding—for Louisa May Alcott that comes through here. Who is it for? I’m not really sure. I’m going to guess that Fifty Shades of Grey fans will be disappointed, and fans of Little Women and its sequels will find their beloved tome trashed by Alcott herself (or at least her character). The book might work best as a primer to the American Renaissance, although I’m not sure which professor would be brash enough to stick this on her syllabus. My hope would be that Grey fans might find in Louisa May an inroad into better writers; at minimum though, they’ll at least be exposed to prose far superior to E.L. James’s trough of rubbish.
Fifty Shades of Louisa May is new in trade paperback from OR Books.
Book shelves series #16, sixteenth Sunday of 2012.
It’s hard to photograph books, and using an iPhone 3gs probably doesn’t help. Lots of glare. Anyway: This shelf houses mostly Melville, with some Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman, as well as some critical works on the American Renaissance movement. (Henry James and F.O. Matthiessen). I have other versions of a lot of these books, including a fraternal twin in my office, a bit bulkier (Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau, etc.), although these days I’m apt to go to the Kindle for American Renaissance stuff. Here’s a better angle, perhaps:
The version of Typee is bizarre: no colophon, no publisher info, just text. I love these midcentury Rinehart Editions of Hathorne and Melville stuff:
September 1, 1842. Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday…. He is a keen and delicate observer of nature–a genuine observer–which, I suspect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness. He is familiar with beast, fish, fowl, and reptile, and has strange stories to tell of adventures, and friendly passages with these lower brethren of mortality. Herb and flower, likewise, wherever they grow, whether in garden or wildwood, are his familiar friends. He is also on intimate terms with the clouds, and can tell the portents of storms. It is a characteristic trait that he has a great regard for the memory of the Indian tribes, whose wild life would have suited him so well; and strange to say, he seldom walks over a ploughed field without picking up an arrow-point, a spearhead, or other relic of the red men–as if their spirits willed him to be the inheritor of their simple wealth.
With all this he has more than a tincture of literature,–a deep and true taste for poetry, especially for the elder poets, and he is a good writer,–at least he has written a good article, a rambling disquisition on Natural History, in the last Dial, which, he says, was chiefly made up from journals of his own observations. Methinks this article gives a very fair image of his mind and character,–so true, innate, and literal in observation, yet giving the spirit as well as letter of what he sees, even as a lake reflects its wooded banks, showing every leaf, yet giving the wild beauty of the whole scene. Then there are in the article passages of cloudy and dreamy metaphysics, and also passages where his thoughts seem to measure and attune themselves into spontaneus verse, as they rightfully may, since there is real poetry in them. There is a basis of good sense and of moral truth, too, throughout the article, which also is a reflection of his character; for he is not unwise to think and feel, and I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know.
After dinner (at which we cut the first watermelon and muskmelon that our garden has ripened) Mr. Thoreau and I walked up the bank of the river; and, at a certain point, he shouted for his boat. Forthwith, a young man paddled it across the river, and Mr. Thoreau and I voyaged farther up the stream, which soon became more beautiful than any picture, with its dark and quiet sheet of water, half shaded, half sunny, between high and wooded banks. The late rains have swollen the stream so much that many trees are standing up to their knees, as it were, in the water, and boughs, which lately swung high in air, now dip and drink deep of the passing wave. As to the poor cardinals which glowed upon the bank a few days since, I could see only a few of their scarlet hats, peeping above the tide. Mr. Thoreau managed the boat so perfectly, either with two paddles or with one, that it seemed instinct with his own will, and to require no physical effort to guide it. He said that, when some Indians visited Concord a few years since, he found that he had acquired, without a teacher, their precise method of propelling and steering a canoe. Nevertheless he was desirous of selling the boat of which he is so fit a pilot, and which was built by his own hands; so I agreed to take it, and accordingly became possessor of the Musketaquid. I wish I could acquire the aquatic skill of the original owner.