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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

January 30, 2013
The enchanting language, images, happenings–everything in the book is eery, off-kilter, like bright reflections wavering, stretching, disappearing on the clear dark lake at its center.
We peer through the novel’s distorting “lens” at our own world made strange. But the distortions of Robinson’s fiction only render extreme a distortion already there, allowing us to see and feel a certain problem, fathom and dwell with it, “grieve” it, turn it meditatively over and over. There’s something freeing, even exhilarating in doing so, even though you can’t “solve” the problem.
Here’s this homeless little middle-American town dropped by the Westward progress of an empire whose dreams, ambitions, and gods have abandoned it to the slippery rails it’s set for itself. Still, this little lost province is haunted by the hugeness of surrounding sky, by the clear darkness of a lake whose cold searching fingers pry sometimes into the cellars of its homes, by the strange light (what is it for?) that glows in certain families and persons–makes them odd, unstable, ghostly.
There’s no place, no communal shelters for “the life of the spirit” here, except the too-tiny space of the home itself which, if it doesn’t succumb to the prim, drab norms of social workers, keeps its own life, “feeds [its] light’s flame with self-substantial fuel”–a life and a light dis-integrated from town and nation, focused precariously inward. (A sort of Dickinson-speak pervades the story–and the whole book is like a story-rendering of her artistic situation.)
There’s something impossible, inhuman, unlivable in the situation, something that pulls the book’s two sisters–Ruth and Lucy–apart from each other: one into the small-minded, provincial world, one into a flittering ghost world. Two worlds divide from each other, and each in its own way deranges. And, though we’re prepared to prefer Ruth (who narrates the book) and her venturing, wandering way, a jarring ending warns us: not so simple, this story has been told by a ghost.

Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned

January 29, 2013

From Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Teritius by Jorge Luis Borges

There are no nouns in Tlön‘s conjectural Ursprache, from which the “present” languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word “moon,” but there is a verb which in English would be “to moon” or “to moonate.” “The moon rose above the river” is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlö, or literally: “upward behind the onstreaming it mooned.”
The preceding applies to the languages of the southern hemisphere. In those of the northern hemisphere … the prime unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective. The noun is formed by an accumulation of adjectives. They do not say “moon,” but rather “round airy-light on dark” or “pale-orange of-the-sky” or any other such combination. In the example selected the mass of adjectives refers to a real object, but this is purely fortuitous. The literature of this hemisphere … abounds in ideal objects, which are convoked and dissolved in a moment according to poetic needs. At times they are determined by simultaneity. There are objects composed of two terms, one of visual and another of auditory character: the color of the rising sun and the faraway cry of a bird. There are objects of many terms: the sun and the water on a swimmer’s chest, the vague tremulous rose color we see with our eyes closed, the sensation of being carried along by a river and also by sleep. These second-degree objects can be combined with others; through the use of certain abbreviations, the process is practically infinite. There are famous poems made up of one enormous word. This word forms a poetic object created by the author. The fact that no one believes in the reality of nouns paradoxically causes their number to be unending.

Faulkner’s review of Old Man and the Sea

January 27, 2013
I read The Old Man and the Sea over Christmas break–the first of Hemingway’s books I’ve really loved (though I mean to read more of him eventually). I feel that it has something in common with Faulkner’s stories The Old People and The Bear, and with some of Helprin’s in The Pacific. I was delighted to discover that Faulkner admired this little book too, and has some good words for it.
The Old Man and the Sea
By Ernest Hemingway
His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hand of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

Beauty is not Abstraction, but Result

January 22, 2013

Nature (actual growing, making, producing) moves in a slow cycle–much slower than the cycle of the mind and its flittering, flashing thoughts. Real thoughts, like real fruits, grow too slow for us to watch them gestate and mature, and so always take us gently by surprise, one day announcing their own rightness and ripeness.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why attention sustained through boredom & dullness–the daily, weekly, yearly round, etc–is so important: It puts a drag on the cycle of the mind, a yoke that pulls thought back toward the cycle of life, and makes it fruitful.

(Edit: this post is, in part and first of all, a response to some provoking lines from an article about Oscar Wilde’s visit to America which a good friend pointed out to me:

‘When he ventured the starchy observation that he, Wilde, couldn’t bear “to listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style, or by beauty of theme,” the older poet put him in his place. “Why, Oscar,” said Whitman, “it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction.” Wilde quickly retreated. “Yes,” he said, “I think so too.”’)

Something to believe

January 15, 2013

You are looking for something to believe.

I know it, because either

(1) you don’t know what to believe and so your inborn and inescapable capacity, your shapeless embryo need to believe in, commit to something goes out wandering every night, roves out toward it doesn’t know what, rummages about in the dark like an orphan who wants not to love or to own another–having never had the luxury to invent for itself the need to love or own–but just to be loved and owned, moving out and about not from purpose or courage or desire but just from simple, natural need;


(2) you already know what to believe; you preach and stand up for it morning, noon, and evening until by night you’re hoarse and your bones and tendons ache; you’ve believed so long that, like a train already married long ago to the rails on which it hurtles through the night, you don’t even need to remember where it was you’re hurtling to, and sometimes (as when the train wobbles to an unscheduled stop, hesitates uncomfortably long at some no-place between stations for its less-than-quarter hour of loneliness among infinite rows of cornfield under an infinite sky–a less-than-quarter hour that will already begin to be forgotten, gone forever, will already almost have once more never been by the time the engine starts to fire again, breathe steam, and the train to wobble again into motion), sometimes you don’t even know whether you believe in the thing you already know to believe in, and feel that, if you really did believe, really had committed to it, something about you as indefinable and all-permeating as the way you walk, or the everlasting changes which pass like days and nights, like trailing clouds, like flocks of flying birds across your face would be solider and deeper, more radiant and real, so that not just your raw voice and aching bones and ligaments at night but even the smallest gesture of your hand or the light that looms sometimes behind your eyes would definitely and simply say, I believe, I know.

And since you are looking for something to believe, this is a good starting place–Just to be, just to exist is a waterfall of blessing–because if you don’t start there, can you possibly end up anywhere good?

New Translations of Three Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

January 10, 2013

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
Und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
Gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
Dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
Die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
Wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
Und wird in den Alleen hin und her
Unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Der Panther

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im aller kleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf — dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

Archaïscher Torso Apollo

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle
und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

Fall Day

Lord: It is time. The summer has been long.
Let fall your shadows on the sundials now,
And on the meadow, let the wind run loose!
Command the very last fruits to be full.
Allow them still, two more Italian days
And urge them on to their perfection, press
Their final sweetness out, as heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, builds no more!
Whoever is alone, will be alone for long,
Will wake, and read, compose long letters;
Will wander restless byways up and down,
Under the leaves that scatter in the sky.

The Panther

From passing over bars, his gaze is tired,
And takes in nothing more.
To him, there are a thousand bars–behind
A thousand bars, no world.

His massive footpads’ silent tread revolves
In ever smaller rounds,
Like power dancing round a midpoint, where
A mighty will stands numbed.

But then, a noiseless eyelid lifts. An image
Enters in, runs down
The tensile stillness of his limbs, and ends
Its being, in the heart.

Ancient Torso of Apollo

We never knew his mythic head,
Where eyes like fruit grew ripe. His chest
Still glows though, like a candletree
In which his gaze, drawn inward now,

Dwells on and shines. Or else, how could
The thrust of breast bedazzle you?
Or could a smîle ride those curves
That meet where fatherhood should rise?

Instead, this lopped-off stone would hulk
Beneath the shoulders’ see-through gap,
Not glisten like a lion’s hide
And flash from all its edges, like
A star! For now there is no place
That does not see you. Change your life.

The Shining Sonata

October 13, 2012

Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle

The novel’s title refers to an island of respite in the gulag of Stalinist Russia. It’s a sharashka, a special kind of prison where you work at a desk and there is bread on the table; it’s a camp for intellectuals, for minds somehow categorized “useful to the state.”  There’s even butter here, “for professors … one and a half ounces and for engineers three-quarters of an ounce.” The sharashka‘s not only a respite from the inhumanity of the camp system; it’s also something of respite from tyranny itself. The prisoners–despite their enforced asceticism (sometimes itself a blessing) and the always imminent likelihood of their return to brutal camps they’ve only temporarily escaped–are at times freer than the guards and administrators that keep them, freer too than the thousand civil servants who wait by midnight telephones, tapping pens on blank pads of paper, staring out dark windows with the lidless eyes of mute aquarium-fishes–sleepless because Stalin is sleepless and, when he is awake, it’s not that his janissaries may not, but (like men in a fairy-tale spell)  they physically cannot sleep.

Nevertheless, the sharashka, island of respite though it is, is still (according to its inmates) hell–it is “a concept [says Rubin, an honest-to-God-and-man, evangelizing Communist who loves his Hemingway and Goethe] … thought up by Dante. … It was a Christian’s duty to toss those pagans into hell. But the Renaissance conscience couldn’t reconcile itself to the idea of enlightened men being packed in with all sorts of sinners and condemned to physical torture. So Dante thought up a special place for them in hell. If you’ll allow me . . . It’s the fourth Canto and goes about like this

At last we reached the base of a great Citadel …

Look around at the old arches here!

… Circled by seven towering battlements
And by a sweet brook flowing all around them all …

You came here in the Black Maria, so you didn’t see the gates–

… I saw four mighty presences come toward us
With neither joy nor sorrow in their bearing.
… ‘What souls are those whose merit lights their way
Even in Hell? What joy sets them apart?’ ”

At work even in the loveless, inefficient machine of Stalin’s state is a grace (actual but not saving) that nations at war extend to men of talent, setting them apart. And while merit does thus in some sense receive the honor due to it, it is also objectively insulted to subserve the opaque–and ultimately destructive–ends of invisible and invincible masters, is inwardly embarrassed to embrace a reprieve denied to others. When all is said and done, then, these men “whose merits light their way, even in hell” are sufferers-with, even sufferers-for the rest of their peoples in a unique and uniquely human manner. In fact, the “joy that sets them apart”  intensifies their experience of their peoples’ predicament–even while that joy, in itself, is genuine and free, a pure and shining signal from beyond the reign of futility to which they and their peoples are subjected.

The novel’s fourth chapter shows its quiet, strong virtues:

Read more…