Saturday, June 11, 2005
By your/their indiff’rence in the dank
The draft of my Nabokov & etc. chess essay contains an alleged quote from Denis Donoghue: "I hate chess". But no citation. I was confident of my capacity to remedy this defect; the thing was to be found on a left-hand page, either of Ferocious Alphabets or The Pure Good of Theory. Alas, two cover-to-cover readings have disabused me of this inexplicable delusion. If anyone can document Donoghue's authorship of this sentence, I will, um, thank you profusely. In fact, I have to email Donoghue about the Theory's Empire event. He's a contributor to the volume. Perhaps I can try to induce him to write me the sentence in an email. I feel rather like Earbrass, in The Unstrung Harp:
Mr. Earbrass was virtually asleep when several lines of verse passed through his mind and left it hopelessly awake. Here was the perfect epigraph for TUH:
A horrid ? monster has been [something]
By your/their indiff'rence in the dank
Below the garden ...
His mind's eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive bound book he read at least five years ago. When he does find them, it will be a great nuisance if no clue is given to their authorship.
[N.B. I just discovered something odd. You can actually search inside Amphigorey at Amazon, and see scanned pages as results. But you only see text. They've whited the pictures. I should check whether they've done the same for Pat the Bunny and Goodnight, Moon. By the by, Amazon thinks Ferocious Alphabets is for ages 4-8. Have to tell Donoghue about that.]
I greatly enjoyed rereading both Donoghue books, so much so that my desperate need for expressions of caissaphobia submerged for pages at a time. Most interesting was chapter 4 of Alphabets, "Style As Compensation". Its theme dovetails with something else I've just read. An essay, "Your Own Personal Satan", by Glen David Gold, in Bookmark Now. (More about that book in a couple days maybe.) "To find a reader engaged in your work is incredibly rare, up there with finding a unicorn laying his head in a virgin's lap." Gold tells of his first published work, an essay on his experience interning as a suicide prevention counsellor. He sees a woman reading it, goes up to her. "You liking the story?" "Yes I am." "Great, because I wrote it." "I'm hoping this article can explain to me why my son killed himself." Awkwardness, born of the author's uncertain relationship to his audience. Narcissism gets its wires crossed regarding species of escapism.
Back to Donoghue:
But suppose a writer doesn't feel that he knows his readers, shares and defines their interests: or doesn't feel sure that he has any readers; or, even if he has, that he has them constantly. He would still write, but he would take account of the situation, and his style would reflect the account. One instance of a void or rift between himself and his readers would be enough to complicate his dealings with language. This is my theme for the moment: style as compensation for defects in the conditions of writing, starting with the first defect, that it is writing not speech. I want to describe various styles, strategies which a writer might use to make up for his situation.
Apart from the appalling paucity of expressed chess hatred, the theme is a good one. And the discussion of cases is interesting. Ransom, Blackmur, Kenner, Richards & Empson, Eliot, Gass. I enjoyed the bit about Kenner so much I went and checked out The Counterfeiters to get a reference for one quote. (Donoghue provides no reference.) Found it! About Pythagoras. I have a use. The Empson discussion contains the only critical reference I have ever seen (but who's looking?) to the poem from which the Valve's tag line is drawn.
Actually, this starts being about Blackmur, then moves into Empson:
His essays often read like poems, and they end not when he has delivered his theme and secured its force but when his language has released him from it. He has done his best by it and the best his language can do with it. He doesn't want to be released - his conscience is strict in these matters - but he must be released at last and his style allows him to escape. Having conspired with the words, he escapes into them, not in the beginning but in the end.
Empson has ascribed this technique of escape to American literature in general and to James in particular: the style gives a writer a way in and a way out. The point is to judge when and how to get out. A reader has to decide in each case whether the style is self-indulgent, so that escape from the theme is effected but not earned; or a decent consolation prize earned by a writer browbeaten by his theme and, so far as readers go, nearly friendless. It is not a rebuke to call this second style escapist. Empson made a good case for escapist writing in the verse of "Your Teeth Are Ivory Towers" and the prose of his note to that poem, his point being that the safety valve knows the worst about the engine. Artists are safety valves; they show a society where its dangerous spots are: having marked the spots, the writer has done all he can; he should be allowed to escape. When we feel that a writer is serious rather than frivolous, we let him find consolation, as Blackmur does, among the words. Nabokov's sentences resort to pleasures sweeter than anything provided by the office of communication. Is it not clear that Beckett, enjoying few pleasures apparently in daily life, takes pleasure in attaching one word to another? Saul Bellow's letter-writing Herzog finds relief, although all we are told of is need, in the compulsion "to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends."
Now that we have gotten back to Nabokov, I am done. But I will note that "Your teeth Are Ivory Towers" honestly isn't a good poem, but has a few nice lines:
There are some critics say our verse is bad
Because Piaget's babies had the same affection,
Proved by interview. These young were mad,
They spoke not to Piaget but to themselves. Protection
Indeed may safely grow less frank; a Ba
Cordial in more than one direction
Can speak well to itself and yet please Pa.
So too Escape Verse has grown mortal sin.
This gives just one advantage; a mortal Ha
Can now be retorted in kind. Panoplied in
Virtuous indignation, gnawing his bone,
A man like Leavis plans an escape. To begin
With brickbats as your basis of the known
Is to lose ground, and these ones were compiled
From a larger building: the safety valve alone
Knows the worst truth about the engine; only the child
Has not yet been misled. You say you hate
Your valve or child? You may be wise or mild.
That's not the whole poem. It goes on. No one can write a truly first-rate poem about F.R. Leavis and Piaget, it seems clear to me. (Kenner actually talks about why this won't work in The Counterfeiters. But he considers a different case.)
I do like the ambiguity of the valve line. It is either an apology for escapism, or a defense against the charge of escapism, or both. Which suits me (and isn't that what matters?) Plus the brickbats and 'valve or child/wise or mild' I like.
The only other potential tag line I could think of was Adolph Loos: "The plumber - the indispensable man of the age!" But I don't agree with Loos at all about the 'ornament is crime' stuff. After that, it's Mario Brothers or I don't know what.
Doesn’t go work better here?
Am I the only one impressed with even moderately successful terza rima in English? Pinsky’s slant rhymes in his translation of The Inferno are the high-water mark for me...but I don’t read much poetry.
It is either an apology for escapism, or a defense against the charge of escapism, or both.
Are you implying Empson’s ambiguous here? My god man, you’re insane!
Wow, the Valve ate half my second faux-html tag. Alright, alright, it’s not ambiguous. Jeez…
We interrupt this thread for the following bulletin:
The Counterfeiters comes back into print in October.
The same month, Gingko Press has scheduled its (long delayed) release of something long unpublished, McLuhan’s Classical Trivium: Thomas Nashe and the Learning of his Time (which was to his later writing what Beckett’s Eleutheria was to his) (but don’t hold your breath, figure early 2006):
McLuhan’s Ph.D. thesis was entitled The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time. Nashe was a little known 16th century satirist and pamphleteer who was involved in what was a hot debate on whether learning should be done according to the tradition of the church, or through a more “liberal” approach. As the theoretical basis of his argument, McLuhan included a history of the trivium — a classical study of rhetoric, grammar (the art of interpretation) and logic or dialectic (the method of proof), plus a study of the classical literature from the ancient Greeks to the medieval. One of the reviewers, Professor Frank Wilson, commented that he had learned more from McLuhan’s dissertation than from any other he had previously read. (via http://www.mcluhan.utoronto.ca/marshal.htm )
Thanks for the news, nnyhav. I’ve never been much for McLuhan, but Thomas Nashe is one of my favorite writers (if I believed in answering “favorite books” or “most personally influential books” questions, “Have With You to Saffron-Walden” would always be among my answers) and god knows I’ve seen little enough worthwhile criticism.
Two corrections to the quotation:
1. No comma after “begin”
2. Colon, not semicolon, after “building”
The second matters. The lines about the safety valve and the child are not coordinate with the criticism of Leavis. They’re exemplifications. They’re aspects of literature that Leavis ignores: “Another book to cross off your list.”
Thanks for the corrections, jim. Scott, I think of it as being ambiguous because, although the thing is obviously escapist, Empson toys with the paradoxical thesis that escapism isn’t escapist. Being in fact a form of responsible social criticism and engagement. (Not saying it’s a good paradox, mind you.)
Chess provided one of the “safety valves that kept the lid on the cold war.”
(Much arguable, and much not even wrong ... including the Nabokov bit [Luzhin more von Bardeleben than anyone else]—but I can’t pass up that kind of linkage.)