“Live Forever”

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Donna Tartt

“The weekends at Francis’s house were the happiest times. The trees turned early that fall but the days stayed warm well into October, and in the country we spent most of our time outside…

It was always a tremendous occasion if Julian accepted an invitation to dinner in the country. Francis would order all kinds of food from the grocery store and leaf through cookbooks and worry for days about what to serve, what wine to serve with it, which dishes to use, what to have in the wings as a backup course should the soufflé fall. Tuxedos went to the cleaners; flowers came from the florists; Bunny put away his copy of The Bride of Fu Manchu and started carrying around a volume of Homer instead…

Though, at the time, I found those dinners wearing and troublesome, now I find something very wonderful in my memory of them: that dark cavern of a room, with vaulted ceilings and a fire crackling in the fireplace, our faces luminous somehow, and ghostly pale. The firelight magnified our shadows, glinted off the silver, flickered high upon the walls; its reflection roared orange in the windowpanes as if a city were burning outside. The whoosh of the flames was like a flock of birds, trapped and beating in a whirlwind near the ceiling. And I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the long mahogany banquet table, draped in linen, laden with china and candles and fruit and flowers, had simply vanished into thin air, like a magic casket in a fairy story.

There is a recurrent scene from those dinners that surfaces again and again, like an obsessive undercurrent in a dream. Julian, at the head of the long table, rises to his feet and lifts his wineglass. ‘Live forever,’ he says.

And the rest of us rise too, and clink our glasses across the table, like an army regiment crossing sabres: Henry and Bunny, Charles and Francis, Camilla and I. ‘Live forever,’ we chorus, throwing our glasses back in unison.

And always, always, that same toast. Live forever.”

__________

A slice of high neo-romantic writing from the close of act one of Donna Tartt’s spellbinding debut novel The Secret History.

Reading Tartt, who was born in Greenwood, Mississippi and whose prose percolates with an impeccably controlled energy, I’m again struck by the talent of writers from that state, which has long had the lowest literacy rate in the country. Especially when read on the heels of Mr. Foote, a Greenville, Mississippi native who grew up next to Walker Percy, her work will make you think there’s gotta be something in the water.

More fiction:

America’s Second Original Sin

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Civil War

“This country has two great sins on its very soul. One is slavery, which we’ll never get out of our history and our conscience… the marrow of our bones. The other one is emancipation.

They told four million people, ‘You are free. Hit the road.’ Two-thirds of them couldn’t read or write. Very few of them had any trade except farming, and they went back into a sharecropper system that closely resembled peonage. I’m not saying emancipation is a sin, for God’s sake… but it should have been an emancipation that brought those people into society without all these handicaps on their head. And now, my black friends, they are tremendously protective about slavery. They don’t want to hear the word. The opposite of the Jews, who are very proud of coming out of Egypt. And it was this short-circuiting, this instant emancipation… it had a very bad effect on them.

I don’t know whether it’s a lesson or not, but I think it needs to be looked at as if you were in that time and place. A lot of things change when you move back to being a part of it…

Go back to the time. Muzzle-loading weapons sound awful primitive. They didn’t seem primitive to them. They were a new kind of infantry rifle that was deadly at 200 yards. That was a tremendous step forward. And the tactics were based on the old musket, which was accurate at about 60 feet. They mostly lined up shoulder to shoulder and moved against a position, and got blown down because they were using tactics with these very modern weapons. They were using the old-style tactics with very modern weapons. A few of the men realized that, Bedford Forrest for instance. He would never make a frontal attack on anything with this new weapon in their hands. But too many of them, including Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, followed the old tactics against these modern weapons. That’s why the casualties — there were 1,095,000 casualties in the Civil War. If today you had that same ratio, you’d have something like 10 million casualties, to give you some idea of what happened.

It was far worse in the South than it was in the North. One out of four southerners of conscriptable age was a casualty in that war. In the year after the war, the state of Mississippi spent one-fifth of its income on artificial arms and legs for the veterans. Very few people today realize how devastating that war was, especially to the South, but to the North too. A lot of fine men went into graves in that thing. There’s no telling how many Miltons or John Keatses got buried.”

Slaves

__________

From Shelby Foote’s June 1999 interview with the Academy of Achievement. You’ll find similar and extended reflections in his three-part opus The Civil War and in William C. Carter’s catalog of Conversations with Shelby Foote.

Later in their conversation, the historian is asked to entertain the counterfactual and assess whether the Civil War — with its million-plus casualties — can be rightfully called “inevitable.”

Interviewer: Now that we have 130 years of hindsight, did the Civil War have to be fought?

Foote: There’s a lot of argument about that.

The fact that it was fought seems to me to prove it had to be fought, but even at the time, Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, called it “an irrepressible conflict.” And indeed, the differences were so sharp, especially by the extremists on both sides: the Abolitionists in the North and the Fire-eaters in the South… there was scarcely any way to settle it except fighting. Just as two men can get so angry at each other, the only way to settle a thing is to step out in the alley and have a fistfight. People don’t do that much any more. They’re more apt to take some blind-side swing at somebody instead of a real fight. But I think there probably wasn’t any other way to settle it. Now if we were the superior creatures we claim to be as Americans, we would not have fought that war, but we’re not that superior by a long shot.

These remarks are basically longer forms of a point made several times in Ken Burns’s documentary Civil War: A Film. In it, Foote reiterates the above theme (and can’t help again nodding to his penchant for throwing fists):

Right now I’m thinking a good deal about emancipation. One of our sins was slavery. Another was emancipation. It’s a paradox. In theory, emancipation was one of the glories of our democracy — and it was. But the way it was done led to tragedy. Turning four million people loose with no jobs or trades or learning. And then, in 1877, for a few electoral votes, just abandoning them entirely. A huge amount of pain and trouble resulted. Everybody in America is still paying for it…

People want to know why the South is so interested in the Civil War. I had maybe, it’s a rough guess, about fifty fistfights in my life. Out of those fifty fistfights, the ones that I had the most vivid memory of were the ones I lost. I think that’s one reason why the South remembers the war more than the North does.

The top photograph, taken in 1862, shows the staff of Brigadier General Andrew Porter. Lying next to the dog in the bottom right of the shot is George Custer, who would later on go to fight and die along with his men in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Below it: figures whose names and dates are unknown. If you have a clue, send it my way.

Read on:

Shelby Foote

“Sonogram” by Paul Muldoon

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Ireland - Inch Beach

Only a few weeks ago, the sonogram of Jean’s womb
resembled nothing so much
as a satellite map of Ireland:

now the image
is so well-defined we can make out not only a hand
but a thumb;

on the road to Spiddal, a woman hitching a ride;
a gladiator in his net, passing judgement on the crowd.

__________

“Sonogram” by Paul Muldoon, which you’ll find in his T.S. Eliot Prize-winning collection The Annals of Chile. Muldoon would go to earn even greater honors, picking up a Pulitzer for poetry eight years later for Moy Sand and Gravel.

Speaking to The Paris Review in 2004, Muldoon reflected on how wild metaphors can form the basis of some of the best poetry (as showcased in “Sonogram” and its effortless, playful smirk, its images for the female then male drives to be freed):

Well, I think many poems begin with an instant. I was driving home from New York with my four-year-old son and in the Lincoln Tunnel, out of nowhere, he said, Those lights are like tadpoles, and then this morning he came up with the bright idea that we’re like horses. I think that the impulse to find the likeness between unlike things is very basic to us, and it is out of that, of course, which the simile or metaphor springs. So a poem moves towards some sort of clarification, and the creation of a space in which sense, however fleetingly, may be made.

Muldoon then moved into a short reflection on children, which again ties nicely into the above work:

One of the things you discover about children of course is that they come, not exactly fully formed, but quite formed, in terms of their personalities. And I can imagine myself around three or four being a right little smartass, in the way that my children come up with the most extraordinary things, but I’m programmed to accept them. That was probably more difficult for my parents to deal with… One is never going to get it right, no matter what one does. Of course that’s one of the things one understands as a parent, that one’s children are going to have to find something against which they can react. Most of these reasons are emblematic rather than real. So I think the invention of a life is not such a far-fetched notion, I think it happens all the time.

I took the above picture on Inch Beach in Ireland, not too far from Muldoon’s place of birth.

More short poems that spin on brilliant metaphors:

Paul Muldoon

The Writer’s Drug of Choice

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Ernest Hemingway

Interviewer: John, you’ve been an editor for a very long time, and I imagine that you’ve worked with writers who have used various drugs to stimulate their writing.

John Bennet, New Yorker editor: Mostly caffeine and tobacco, and drugs of that nature. And simple hysteria.

I think it’s pretty hard to really write a complicated piece of writing if you’re hallucinating. That’s not to say that many of these writers haven’t done that in the past. But when they’re actually producing, they rely on caffeine, which is of course a drug.

Most writers I know write better than they’re able to write. That’s to say if it’s a good writer, he or she can write a great piece. But they do it by dent of great personal sacrifice. They tend to adrenalize themselves, whether it’s with caffeine or with just simple hysteria or panic, into this highly agitated state, whereby they are able to produce writing of the quality that they want to produce — that otherwise they feel they can’t produce.

And in general I must say it’s a rather destructive process to watch, when you work with writers who essentially have nervous breakdowns every time they have to write a piece. Which means it’s really a damnable profession, writing, because most people who are writers tend to be miserable — at least when they’re writing.

__________

Bennet, exchanging words with Sasha Weiss, story editor for the New York Times Magazine, in his joint interview with Oliver Sacks for The New Yorker Out Loud (Bennet’s remarks start at around 19:30 in the audio above).

You’ll find Sacks’s longer takes on this stuff in his highly acclaimed new memoir On the Move, which I plan to pick up in the coming weeks.

Read on:

Debauchery and Its Discontents

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Edmond du Goncourt“I have drunk my fill, I have had my mistress. I am in that condition in which the monstrosities one has committed seem like children’s games. I am left with a craving which, in drunkenness outlasts love and copulation, a craving which shows all over a man’s face, in his mouth and in his flaring nostrils. How utterly futile debauchery seems once it has been accomplished, and what ashes of disgust it leaves in the soul! The pity of it is that the soul outlives the body, or in other words that impression judges sensation and that one thinks about and finds fault with the pleasure one has taken.

And these are the thoughts which occur to me.

The facts: nothing matters but the facts: worship of the facts leads to everything, to happiness first of all and then to wealth… Bonald’s maxim needs to be reversed: man is mind betrayed, not served, by his organs.

There are moments when, faced with our lack of success, I wonder whether we are failures, proud but impotent. One thing reassures me as to our value: the boredom that afflicts us. It is the hall-mark of quality in modern men. Chateaubriand died of it, long before his death. Byron was stillborn with it. The essence of bourgeois talent is to be gay. Voltaire spent his life taking an interest in something: himself.

There are moments of discouragement when glory seems as insignificant as the office of mayor of a little market-town.

Debauchery is perhaps an act of despair in the face of infinity.”

__________

Leafed from the Pages from the Goncourt Journals, in an entry from July 30th, 1861.

While I’m a fan of the Goncourt brothers’ journals — with their lush descriptions of Parisian haut monde, their cameos from Zola, Flaubert, and Daudet — I’m never quite hooked enough to read more than a year’s long log in one sitting. Though usually sharp, their musings often stoop to ground level gossip. Two speakers capable of bold and intricate philosophizing about the everyday turn into whisperers about the Parisian upperclass.

The Goncourt brothers were a bit of a case: they wrote all their books together and never spent more than a day apart in their entire adult lives. Despite this apparent eccentricity, they seem to’ve met everyone, maintained many friendships, and been generally free of insecurities about their sibling issues. Their voices are entirely self-confident, even self-flagellating at times, and clear. It’s just that I don’t care about what went down at the spring 1889 revival of Henriette Marechal at the Théâtre-Français.

(By the way: I Googled “Chateaubriand bored” and found his truly heart-lifting remark, offered to friends while on the way to a popular theater production in Paris, “I am boring myself so as to relieve my boredom.” This reflects Schopenhaur: that boredom is the reflexive condition of mankind, that existence is a process of oscillating between discomfort and boredom. Flaubert wasn’t much better. He’s on the record as saying, at the ripened age of twenty-five, “I was born bored; it is my leprosy, which eats away at me. I tire of life, of people, of myself, of everything.”)

More from the great journals:

How Christopher Hitchens Became an American Citizen (Or, a Case Study in the Need for Immigration Reform)

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“The American bureaucracy very swiftly overcompensates for any bright-eyed immigrant delusions. Nihil humanum a me alienum puto, said the Roman poet Terence: ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’ The slogan of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service could have been the reverse: To us, no aliens are human. When folded — along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, the only department of state I had ever hoped to command — into the vast inner space of the Department of Homeland Security, the resulting super-ministry was more like the Circumlocution Office than a reformed bureaucracy. My Canadian friend David Frum, who was actually working in the White House and had had a hand in writing the famous ‘axis of evil’ speech, had his personal paperwork lost when he applied to become an American. Ian McEwan was put under close arrest and hit with an indelible ‘entry denied’ stamp while trying to cross from Vancouver to Seattle for a big public reading: it would have been of little use to him to plead that the First Lady had recently asked him to dinner…

Innumerable times I was told, or assured without asking, that I would hear back from officialdom ‘within ninety days.’ I wasn’t in any special hurry, but it grated when ninety days came and went. Letters came from offices in Vermont and required themselves to be returned to offices in states very far away from the Canadian border. Eventually I received a summons to an interview in Virginia. There would be an exam, I was told, on American law and history. To make this easier, a series of sample questions was enclosed, together with the answers. I realized in scanning them that it wouldn’t do to try and be clever, let alone funny. For example, to the question: ‘Against whom did we fight in the revolution of 1776?’ it would be right, if incorrect, to say ‘The British’ and wrong, if correct, to say ‘The usurping Hanoverian monarchy.’ Some of the pre-supplied Qs and As appeared to me to be paltry… Q: ‘What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?’ A: ‘It freed the slaves.’ No it didn’t: that had to wait until the Thirteenth Amendment, the first United States document to mention the actual word ‘slavery’ (and not ratified by the State of Mississippi until 1995).

Christopher Hitchens

Having previously been made to go to a whole separate appointment in deepest Maryland just to be fingerprinted, I sat up on the night before my Virginia one, and decided to read slowly through the Constitution… One had to admire the unambivalent way in which these were written. ‘Respecting an establishment of religion,’ said the very first amendment, drawing on Jefferson’s and Madison’s Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom, ‘Congress shall make no law.’ Little wiggle room there; no crevice through which a later horse-and-cart could ever be driven. Alas for advocates of ‘gun control,’ the Second Amendment seems to enshrine a ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms’  irrespective of whether they are militia members or not. (The clause structure is admittedly a little reminiscent of the ablative absolute.) And the Eighth Amendment, forbidding ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ is of scant comfort to those like me who might like that definition stretched to include the death penalty. If the Founders had wanted to forbid capital punishment (as, say, the state constitution of Michigan explicitly does), they would have done so in plain words…

For a writer to become an American is to subscribe of his own free will to a set of ideas and principles and to the documents that embody them in written form, all the while delightedly appreciating that the documents can and often must be revised, so that the words therefore constitute, so to say, a work in progress.

This was all rather well set out in the passport that I immediately went to acquire… Human history affords no precedent or parallel for this attainment. On the day that I swore my great oath, dozens of Afghans and Iranians and Iraqis did the same. A few days later, I noticed that I had sloppily gummed a postage stamp onto an envelope with the flag appearing upside down. I am the most frugal of men, but I reopened the letter, tore up and threw away the envelope, invested in a whole new stamp and sent Old Glory on its way with dignity unimpaired. A small gesture, but my own.”

__________

From the closing of the chapter “Changing Places” in the memoir Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens.

Below: Hitchens takes his oath of citizenship with the Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, on April 13, 2005. You can read more about the event and its lead up in Hitch’s piece in the Atlantic in the following month “On Becoming American”.

Then read on:

Hitchens Citizenship

The Nazis’ Astonishing Conquest of France

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Hitler in Paris

“[T]he French based their operational plan [for repelling a Nazi invasion] on four assumptions…

These assumptions were, first, that the Maginot Line was indeed impregnable; second, that the Ardennes Forest north of it was impassable; third, that the Germans were therefore left with no option but a wheel through the Low Countries [Belgium and Holland], a replay of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914; and fourth, that to meet and defeat this, the French would advance into Belgium and Holland and come to their aid as soon as the war started. The Anglo-French were sure, correctly, that the minute the first German stepped over the frontier, the Dutch and Belgians would hastily abandon their neutrality and start yelling for help.

Materially, though they were unaware of it, the Allies were more than ready for the Germans. Figures vary so widely — wildly even — that one can choose any set to make any argument desired. In 1940, the French high command was speaking of 7,000 German tanks, deliberately overestimating them to cover themselves in the event of a disaster. What this did for French morale can readily be imagined. Figures now available give a comparison something like this:

German Men: 2,000,000
Divisions: 136
Tanks: 2,439
Aircraft: 3,200

Allied Men: 4,000,000
Divisions: 135
Tanks: 2,689
Aircraft: 2,400

Nazi Germany Invasion of France

The original [Nazi] plan called for a drive north of Liège [Blue ‘X’ on the map above]; Hitler now changed it to straddle Liège, that is, he moved the axis of the attack farther south. Finally, he was convinced by von Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General Erich von Manstein, that the plan ought to be reversed. Instead of making the main effort in the north, the Germans would go through the Ardennes; instead of Schlieffen, there would be ‘Sichelschnitt,’ a ‘sickle cut’ that would slice through the French line at its weak point and envelop the northern armies as they rushed to the defense of the Belgians and Dutch. Manstein was an infantryman and was uncertain about the Ardennes; he approached General Heinz Guderian, the recognized German tank authority, who said it could be done. Hitler jumped at it immediately, and the plan was turned around. The assumptions on which the French had planned their campaign were now totally invalidated. […]

In the early dawn of May 10 the Germans struck.

There were the usual Luftwaffe attacks at Allied airfields and communications centers, and by full day the Germans were rolling forward all along the Dutch and Belgian frontiers. The whole plan depended upon making the Allies think it was 1914 all over again. Therefore, the initial weight of the attack was taken by General von Bock’s Army Group B advancing into Holland. Strong infantry and armor attacks were carried out, along with heavy aerial bombardment, and paratroop and airborne landings on key airfields at The Hague and Rotterdam, and bridges across the major rivers. The Dutch hastened to their advanced positions, some of which they managed to hold for two or three days, others of which they were levered off almost immediately.

The whole campaign of Holland took a mere four days.

Nazis in Paris

The mass of French armor was in Belgium and Holland and busy with its own battle. The French tried; they threw an armored division, newly organized under General de Gaulle, at the southern German flank. This attack later became one of the pillars of de Gaulle’s reputation — he at least had fought — yet it achieved nothing more than the destruction of his division. The few gains the French tanks made could not be held against the Germans sweeping by, and they hardly noticed that there was anything special about this attack.

As the Germans went on toward Cambrai, toward the sea, the new British Prime Minister, Churchill, came over to see what on earth was going on. He visited [French Commander-in-chief Maurice] Gamelin and looked at the maps. Surely, he said, if the head of the German column was far to the west, and the tail was far to the east, they must be thin somewhere. Why did the French not attack with their reserves? In his terrible French he asked Gamelin where the French reserves were. Gamelin replied with an infuriating Gallic shrug: there were no reserves. Churchill went home appalled.

Hitler was determined to rub it in. The armistice talks were held at Rethondes, in the railway carriage where the Germans had surrendered to [former Head Allied] Marshal [Ferdinand] Foch in 1918. The Germans occupied northern France and a strip along the Atlantic coast down to the Spanish frontier. They retained the French prisoners of war, more than a million of them, and used them in effect as hostages for the good behavior of the new French government, set up at the small health resort of Vichy. They wanted the French fleet demobilized in French ports, but under German control. The French agreed to essentially everything; there was little else they could do but accept the humiliation of defeat. After their delegation signed the surrender terms, Hitler danced his little victory jig outside the railway carriage and ordered that it be hauled off to Germany. He left the statue of Foch, but the plaque commemorating Germany’s surrender twenty-two years ago was blown up.

Parisian during Nazi invasion

On the morning of the 25th, the sun rose over a silent France. The cease-fire had come into effect during the hours of darkness. The refugees could now go home or continue their flight unharassed by the dive-bombers. Long silent columns of prisoners shuffled east. The French generals and politicians began composing their excuses, the Germans paraded through Paris, visited the tourist sites, and began counting their booty. It had indeed been one of the great campaigns of all time, better than 1870, probably unequaled since Napoleon’s veterans had swarmed over Prussia in 1806; Jena and Auerstadt were at last avenged, and there would be no more victories over Germany while the thousand-year Reich endured.

The casualties reflected the inequality of the campaign. The Germans had suffered about 27,000 killed, 18,000 missing, and just over 100,000 wounded. The Dutch and Belgian armies were utterly destroyed; the British lost about 68,000 men and all their heavy equipment: tanks, trucks, guns — everything. The French lost track of their figures in the collapse at the end, but the best estimates gave them about 125,000 killed and missing, about 200,000 wounded. The Germans claimed that they had taken one and a half million prisoners, which they probably had. Except for defenseless England, the war appeared all but over.”

__________

Selections from the eighth chapter (“The Fall of France”) in James L. Stokesbury’s A Short History of World War II. Though I’m not if it’s considered AAA historiography by experts in the field, Stokesbury’s book is a highly informative, tight read, divided into episodes that make for good twenty minute immersions in specific topics. I recommend it.

The above photo, often called “The Weeping Frenchman,” was taken several months after the invasion and published in the March 3rd, 1941 edition of Life Magazine. It depicts Monsieur Jerôme Barzetti, a resident of Marseilles who wept as the flags of his country’s last regiments were exiled to Africa. You can read more about it here.

Below: soldiers from the Wehrmacht march down a Parisian boulevard.

Politics Is a Strong and Slow Boring of Hard Boards

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Portrait of German political economist and social scientist Max Weber (1864 - 1920), a founder of the discipline of sociology, who called himself 'The Enemy of the Squires' and championed the cause of social and economic reform in Wilhelmine Germany, circa 1910. His most famous work is 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' (1905) in which he explored the cultural and religious roots of Western capitalism. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth — that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”

__________

Max Weber, writing in the final paragraph of his truly edifying political-philosophical essay, “Politics as a Vocation”. You’ll find it in his Essays in Sociology. (Buy the book, but the whole thing’s here.)

Though Weber wrote his essay in German, adapted as it was from a 1919 lecture he gave to the Free Students Union in Bavaria, I can’t help but love the double entendre of “boring” in the opening sentence. Whenever there’s a showmen performing rhetorical tricks — like a magician proudly parading his assistant or waving a colored hankerchief — reach for your pocket, and see who’s pulling out your wallet.

Thanks to my friend M.S. for reminding me of this one.

There’s more:

“Provide, Provide” by Robert Frost

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Robert Frost

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

__________

“Provide, Provide” by Robert Frost. You’ll find it in his Collected Poems. The poem is also cited movingly in the 50th chapter of Julian Barnes’s excellent book Nothing to Be Frightened Of.

Randall Jarrell called this poem a subtle description of how “wisdom of this world… demonstrates to us that the wisdom of this world isn’t enough.” There’s no level of material success or social status — nor is there a level of knowledge about either — that will save you from the brute realities of life.

Writing about “Provide, Provide” in his book Modernist Quartet, Frank Lentricchia observes that,

The entire tone and manner is that of the public poet speaking to his democratic culture. The diction is appropriately drawn from the accessible middle level, with the exception of “boughten,” a regionalist trace of the authentic life, meaning “store-bought” as opposed to “homemade,” the real thing as opposed to the commodified version; no major problem if the subject is ice cream or bread, but with “boughten friendship” we step into an ugly world. The bardic voice speaks, but now in mock-directives (“Die early and avoid the fate,” “Make the whole stock exchange your own”), counseling the value of money and power; how they command fear; how fear commands, at a minimum, a sham of decency from others (better that than the authenticity of their meanness). Genuine knowledge? Sincerity? Devices only in the Hollywood of everyday life. Try them, they might work.

I also found the following comments, from an unknown author, helpful:

Robert Frost doesn’t mince words and refuses to whitewash the hard realities of life. The world & nature are essentially unconcerned about human welfare or wellbeing. The onus to provide for oneself squarely lies on one’s own self come what may, under all circumstances. Morals and ethics may fail to garner support or friendship for oneself in the end.

Terrifying? Yes and no. Superficially yes, actually not. Nowhere does Frost want you to show your back and run away. The poet neither suggests escapism nor a cowardly exit from this world. Rather, there is a clear cut call to gird up your loins and provide provide, whatever the circumstances, whatever the situation to the best of your ability.

More:

Charles Darwin Decides to Marry

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Richmond - Charles Darwin J980057

In late July of 1838, a twenty-nine-year-old Charles Darwin, mulling over his charmed courtship of cousin Emma Wedgwood, split two pages of his journal for a cost-benefit analysis in which he jotted the following:

“This is the Question [whether to marry or not].

Marry:

Children (if it Please God). Constant companion (& friend in old age) — who will feel interested in one. Object to be beloved & played with — better than a dog anyhow. Home, & someone to take care of house. Charms of music & female chit-chat — these things good for one’s health. But terrible loss of time.

My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won’t do. — Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

Marry—Marry—Marry Q.E.D.,

Not Marry

Freedom to go where one liked. Choice of Society & little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs. Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.— To have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling. Loss of time. — cannot read in
the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread. (But then it is very bad for one’s health to work too much.)

Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —

It being proved necessary to Marry.

Marry when? Soon or Late?

The Governor says soon for otherwise bad if one has children — one’s character is more flexible — one’s feelings more lively & if one does not marry soon, one misses so much good pure happiness.

But then if I married tomorrow: there would be an infinity of trouble & expense in getting & furnishing a house… Then how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife.— Eheu!! I never should know French, or see the Continent, or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales — poor slave. — you will be worse than a negro. And then horrid poverty, (without one’s wife was better than an angel & had money). Never mind my boy —  Cheer up — One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in one’s face, already beginning to wrinkle. Never mind, trust to chance. Keep a sharp look out — there is many a happy slave.”

__________

Selections from the diaries of Charles Darwin, which you can find neatly summarized in Adam Gopnik’s short book Angels and Ages: Lincoln, Darwin, and the Birth of the Modern Age. And so the either-or above seemed to settle it. The Darwins were married on January 29th, 1829. 

Gopnik, a fluent, often funny writer and hyper-articulate storyteller, has produced several assessments of Darwin the man, the spouse, and the father. In his essay “Is There a Secret to a Happy Marriage?,” he hinges his theory of marriage on the relationship between Emma and Charles, opening:

Anyone who tells you their rules for a happy marriage doesn’t have one. There’s a truth universally acknowledged, or one that ought to be anyway.

Just as the people who write books about good sex are never people you would want to sleep with, and the academics who write articles about the disappearance of civility always sound ferociously angry, the people who write about the way to sustain a good marriage are usually on their third.

Gopnik goes on, quickly making his way to dissecting Darwin’s marriage:

What made it work? My theory is that happy marriages, from the Darwins on down, are made up of a steady, unchanging formula of lust, laughter and loyalty.

The Darwins had lust, certainly — 10 children in 17 years suggests as much anyway — and they had laughter. Emma loved to tease Charles about his passion, already evident in youth, for obsessive theorizing.

“After our marriage,” she wrote to him early on, “you will be forming theories about me, and if I am cross or out of temper you will only consider: ‘What does that prove?’ which will be a very philosophical way of considering it.”

And loyalty? Well, despite Emma’s Christian faith, she stood by him through all the evolutionary wars, and did for him the one thing only a loyal spouse can do — pretend he wasn’t in when German journalists came calling.

So, marriages are made of lust, laughter and loyalty — but the three have to be kept in constant passage, transitively, back and forth, so that as one subsides for a time, the others rise.

Read on:

Darwin Journal - Marry

Nuclear Weapons Are a Black Hole

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Martin Amis

“What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening to use nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves. Nuclear weapons can kill a human being a dozen times over in a dozen different ways; and, before death — like certain spiders, like the headlights of cars — they seem to paralyze.

Indeed they are remarkable artifacts. They derive their power from an equation: when a pound of uranium-235 is fissioned, the liberated mass within its 1,132,000,000,-000,000,000,000,000 atoms is multiplied by the speed of light squared — with the explosive force, that is to say, of 186,000 miles per second times 186,000 miles per second. Their size, their power, has no theoretical limit. They are biblical in their anger. They are clearly the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet, and they are mass-produced, and inexpensive. In a way, their most extraordinary single characteristic is that they are manmade. They distort all life and subvert all freedoms. Somehow, they give us no choice. Not a soul on earth wants them, but here they all are.

And the trouble with deterrence is that it can’t last out the necessary time-span, which is roughly between now and the death of the sun. Already it is falling apart from within.”

__________

Pulled from the introduction to Martin Amis’s collection of stories about the nuclear world Einstein’s Monsters.

Because Kingsley, Martin’s father, is in my opinion the funniest post-war writer, I have to include the following anecdote, which comes only a few pages later:

I argue with my father about nuclear weapons. In this debate, we are all arguing with our fathers… [he] regards nuclear weapons as an unbudgeable given.

Anyone who has read my father’s work will have some idea of what he is like to argue with. When I told him that I was writing about nuclear weapons, he said, with a lilt, “Ah. I suppose you’re … ‘against them,’ are you?” Epater les bien-pensants is his rule. (Once, having been informed by a friend of mine that an endangered breed of whales was being systematically turned into soap, he replied, “It sounds like quite a good way of using up whales.” Actually he likes whales, I think, but that’s not the point.) I am reliably ruder to my father on the subject of nuclear weapons than on any other, ruder than I have been to him since my teenage years. I usually end by saying something like, “Well, we’ll just have to wait until you old bastards die off one by one.” He usually ends by saying something like, “Think of it. Just by closing down the Arts Council we could significantly augment our arsenal. The grants to poets could service a nuclear submarine for a year. The money spent on a single performance of Rosenkavalier might buy us an extra neutron warhead. If we closed down all the hospitals in London we could…” The satire is accurate in a way, for I am merely going on about nuclear weapons; I don’t know what to do about them.

We abandon the subject. Our sessions end amicably. We fall to admiring my one-year-old son. Perhaps he will know what to do about nuclear weapons. I, too, will have to die off. Perhaps he will know what to do about them. It will have to be very radical, because there is nothing more radical than a nuclear weapon and what it can do.

I apologize for the extended break — personal business. I promise to try to make it up in the next few weeks.

Read on:

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