Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Note On Chapter 20, Book 2 Of Middlemarch

I had read the first few brilliant pages of the magnificent Chapter Twenty, near to the end of Book 2 of Middlemarch, when a friend asked me: that when she (Dorothea) realizes what he (Casaubon) is? Or he does? Or both?...

I answered:

....No, it's when they're on their "honeymoon" and reality displaces her imaginings during the courtship, when she's left alone a lot, when she feels everything closing in on her rather than her life opening up, when her sobbing is a function of just a dimly realized understanding of how bleak their married life is, not yet fully knowing what he's like. That is amazing in its rendering as is how Rome is past and present and its impact on her as a provincial girl uneducated and unprepared for it, unable to receive it, too deep of sensibility to be unaffected by it. All enriched by the narrator's own explanations and idiosyncratic comments.

It's something baby...

Having read all of Chapter 20, I wrote him an amending note:

....I wrote the below email to this one only after reading the first few stunning pages of Chapter 20.

I just finished it and have to amend my answer. She does, it's shown in second two thirds of the Chapter, begin to understand, not fully yet, Casaubon's desiccation and his defensive rejection of her as her passionate emotional fullness and capacity to give of herself show him up to himself, a suspicion he tries to suppress, of what a hollowed out man of the scholastic margins he is, a man of utter marginalia. As the Chapter moves on, our inclination to revile him for so cruelly and coldly rejecting all her imprecations to be part of his "great labour," which she now begins to harbour doubts about, with more realization than she cares to admit to herself, moves to pity as we see how pitiable his pedantic lifelessness is and how he harbours a deeply conflicted consciousness of it. Her passion scares him into himself; he is his own isolated castle the moat of which is broad and deep to fend off the charging forward army of her doubts about him. If there's a greater literary account of the complex and terrible psychology of trouble in paradise stemming from youthful idealistic passion, ardency in a word, showing up a dithering lifeless, polite lack of it, of people having such mistaken conceptions of each other in these ways, I'd be surprised. I've never read anything like it.

A few other things:

It would be worthwhile to write some literary criticism on this Chapter. It deserves some loving treatment.

A subtext, a kind of subtextual elephant in its room, I'd think, is that they're presumably fucking.

It's fascinating to compare the callow, impulsive, opinionated Miss Brooke, Dodo if you will, irritatingly self righteous, somewhat intolerantly so, with the chastened Mrs. Casaubon, or Dorothea as he formally calls her, and work out all the differences in her as battered by the stifling reality of him and being trapped in marriage to him and the simultaneous impact on her of the grandeur and falling off from it that is Rome.

Suffice it to say, IMO, within the mountain range of this great novel, Chapter 20 is an early Everest like peak....

Thoughts On Thoughts On Leonard Cohen

Some thoughts on thoughts on Leonard Cohen followed by an my amazing unlocking the mystery of his "Famous Blue Raincoat:

Cohen in his relatively youthful---30ish---persona of sensitive, suffering, alienated, truth telling artist as seer was a mixture of straight up bullshit, itself inextricable from his complicated real belief in it, and of calculated poseur as a means of commercially making it as that kind of artist. (The present day Cohen is too worldly and wis/ze(ned) to touch that self congratulation.) 

A problem with this well written engaging extract is that it buys into the silliness of Cohen as seer, of any artist as prophet:

....But Cohen was no longer there. He was in his small white house in the Greek island of Hydra, playing his guitar outside his favorite taverna, dreaming up a new way to tell his stories, training to become a prophet...

On that ground, the romanticization of the artist, Cohen's, and Leibowitz's---channeling him rather than putting in some critical distance---account of A.M. Klein's progression to his break down is altogether too pat and is patronizing:

...A.M. Klein, a brilliant poet who, squeezed by necessity, had become a speechwriter for Samuel Bronfman—the omnipotently wealthy owner of the Seagram Distillery—before suffering a breakdown, attempting to take his own life, and retreating to his home, never to resurface...

....he (Klein) spoke with too much responsibility, he was too much a champion of the cause, too much the theorist of the Jewish party line. … And sometimes his nostalgia for a warm, rich past becomes more than nostalgia, becomes, rather, an impossible longing, an absolute and ruthless longing for the presence of the divine, for the evidence of holiness. Then he is alone and I believe him. Then there is no room for the ‘we’ and if I want to join him, if, even, I want to greet him, I must make my own loneliness."...

....Klein, he continued....fell victim to a Jewish community where honor had migrated “from the scholar to the manufacturer where it hardened into arrogant self defense. Bronze plaques bearing names like Bronfman and Beutel were fastened to modern buildings, replacing humbler buildings established by men who loved books in which there were no plaques at all...

When Cohen says he must "make his own loneliness," he's saying he must create his own holiness. When he says this he continues the confounding mix in him of poseur and some measure of belief in his own bullshit, (with the confoundment perhaps resolved by the nonsense of the notion of Cohen questing after his own holiness.) This silliness informs the simplistic account of Klein driven to breakdown and attempted suicide due to his forsaking the holiness/loneliness of the prophet for his community sustaining role as priest. Why anyone, especially the brilliant, tormented Klein, public man, lawyer, artist, breaks down, attempts suicide, becomes a recluse, will self evidently defy such jejune characterization.

In line with that romantic reductiveness are, at least, two other things that Leibowitz uncritically adopts from Cohen: one,  the utter dismissal of the mainstream Jewish community of the time as a conventional mediocrity hiding in its religion cowardly to evade hard, biting truth:

...The chase, then, is a lonely sport, and the community, observing the prophet, becomes suspicious. Most people would rather visit lifeless and antiquated things in air-conditioned museums than seek thrills in steaming swamps, running the risk of getting bitten by something wild...;

and Cohen's view of himself as aborning seer, ready to be a lonely, holy truth teller bringing biting prophecy to the shirking, shrinking away masses:

....To do it properly, he noted, he would have to go into exile. He would also have to stay stoic as his fellow Jews labeled him a traitor for daring to think up other possibilities for spiritual life—possibilities, like love and sex and drugs and song, for which there was little room in the synagogue. He was ready....

Really though, what Cohen, who was and is nothing more than a very smart, good writer, was ready for was fame, fortune and celebrity, with his pose buoying and blowing up his not inconsiderable talent.

Take, finally, as a microcosm of one big aspect of all this--real talent in combination with errant silliness--his great and haunting song Famous Blue Raincoat:

...And Jane came by with a lock of your hair 
She said that you gave it to her 
That night that you planned to go clear 
Did you ever go clear?...

Going clear refers to Scientology, one of our abiding absurdities, and the question ending the quatrain presupposes the possibility of going clear and therefore a belief in that possibility. And voila holiness a la that younger Leonard Cohen that Leibowtiz here writes about. 

Now as to mystery solved:

It all comes down to one word in answer to: why is the blue rain coat famous?

It all comes down to this one word: DANDRUFF--(capitalized for emphasis.)

Consider the textual evidence:

"... and Jane came by with a *lock of your hair*

She said you gave it to her

That night you planned to go *clear*... (i.e. no dandruff)

And you treated my woman to a *flake* of your life..."

Clearly, any number of years of higher education in English Literature have not gone to waste.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Read Literature, The Best Way To

A piece on why read literature and the best way to, followed by my comment.

Actually, the tease is in the area of the wiggly argument here, as I read that argument, but not right on the money. One piece of it, covered by the tease, is that the cliche that we are made better persons by reading, better as in morally better, is, in the tease's language, "blather." But that point seems to fade away along the way after getting some concrete attention:

....But a serious, non-circular opposition case has been made, if not against reading, then against the idea that the western canon is morally improving or good for the soul....the debate was finally settled in the public sphere, where the cultural warriors, keen to alter reputations and revise the agenda, were greeted with indifference or derision....

Myself, I hold we're not bettered by reading but we're better off for it, enriched rather than improved.

The main argument concerns itself more fully with the best way to read. Two different approaches contrast. One is the dreariness of reading out of some sense of obligation or career necessity, coupled with seeing it, rationalizing it?, as more enhanced than lived life itself:

....Carey confesses to feeling guilty that as an undergraduate he could read all day, while “out in the real world” (there it is again) people were “slogging away.” But it doesn’t seem all that different from his life in the non-real world: “I secured a copy from Hammersmith Public Library … and slogged through all sixteen thousand lines of it. It was unspeakably boring” (Layamon’s Brut). “I slogged through it of course, because my aim was to learn, not to have fun” (Johnson’s Lives of the Poets)....

...... Carey notes that people like him often prefer reading things to seeing them—typically, his example comes not from his own life but from a poem by Wordsworth—and reflects: “So living your truest life in books may deaden the real world for you as well as enliven it.” But how, judging by this account, does reading enliven things?....

The other approach is, simply stated, as a "...first hand mode of experience..." in which reading is an "unhermetic" facet of exuberant, wanted, lively experience:

....The library had been a place for studying,” Mead writes, of her rather jollier time at Oxford, “but it had also been a place for everything else; seeing friends, watching strangers, flirting and falling in love. Life happened in the library.”...

That's nice and is instanced by Rebecca Mead's book "The Road To Middlemarch," in which her spaced apart rereadings of the novel are so integral to her evolving sense of her own life. I get that in relation to the two approaches to reading. As a sophomore, reading Middlemarch was a labour of labour, dutiful necessity and a terrible slog. Now, inspired by a broadcast conversation with Mead and two others,  (, I'm rereading it just as a matter purely wanting to, for my own pleasure and contemplation, slowly, thinking about various parts, marvelling at Eliot's powerful intelligence, psychological acuity and mature vision all as carried forward by her poetic,  trenchant prose, trying to work out its meaning as I go. For example:

....“Rosamond played admirably. Her master at Mrs. Lemon's school ...was one of those excellent musicians here and there to be found in our provinces, worthy to compare with many a noted Kapellmeister ... Rosamond, with the executant's instinct, had seized his manner of playing, and gave forth his large rendering of noble music with the precision of an echo.”....( Chapter 16)

"...with the precision of an echo": what an evocative metaphor fused with psychological insight!

I don't know why I've written all this. Just felt like it, I guess.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ozick On Malamud

Wonderful words: from a review essay by Cynthia Ozick on collected works of the wonderful Bernard Malamud:

....When the ambient culture changes, having moved toward the brittleness of wisecrack and indifference, and the living writer is no longer present, it can happen that a veil of forgetfulness falls over the work. And then comes a literary crisis: the recognition that a matchless civilizational note has been muffled. A new generation, mostly unacquainted with the risks of uncompromising and hard-edged compassion, deserves Malamud even more than the one that made up his contemporary readership. The idea of a writer who is intent on judging the world — hotly but quietly, and aslant, and through the subversions of tragic paradox — is nowadays generally absent: who is daring enough not to be cold-eyed?...
Like ·  · 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Note On Book 1 Of Middlemarch

Principally for my own later referring back, I'm going to record, as they strike me, a few thoughts on Middlemarch.
A friend asked me whether I thought Dorothea Brookes's impulse to self sacrifice is "misguided or has she chosen the wrong object?"
I answered as follows, now being three quarters of the way through Book 1:
....From what I so far understand from the novel your distinction seems without a difference: her impulse seems misguided and due to that she has chosen the wrong object, if by object you mean her husband and service to him. Her impulses are misguided due to defects, imbalances, in her nature and character.
She seems to me to be foolishly and irritatingly self suppressing in being so fanatically self sacrificing. She is shown to be "ardently submissive." Her 18 year old piety has her repressing her sexuality at every juncture, even feeling conscience bound to forgo riding horses, which she has sensually enjoyed.
She is absurdly "theoretic." She is too "abstract," so abstract she can not see what is in plain sight before her. Her sister, less intellectual and more conventional, at least so far, is more sensible, common sensical and clear seeing. So, in one sense, are all those, everone really, who think her choice of a husband is nuts, against nature and bad for her.
Her annoying self sacrificing piety is actually, it seems to me, an argument in favour of the strength of the common sense of conventionality as evident in her uncle, in Chettam, in her sister and in Mrs, Cadwallader, even while Dorothea appears to be set apart from most by her apparent spirited vivacity, radiance, intelligence and moral seriousness, and even as Eliot makes the limits of conventionality, bound by the constraints of "provincial life," apparent.
So, thematically, Eliot seems nothing so far if not dialectical, everything having divergent qualities in tension with each other, qualifying each other, and complicating apparent meaning.
If the virtues of mercy and self sacrifice are what Eliot means primarily to extol, that has not yet presented itself to me...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Few Thoughts On The Finale Of True Detective

There's no arguing the (in)adequacy of the finale. Adequacy lies in the eyes of the beholder. But there is arguing the focus and meaning of the series. And, in that contention, there is a tendency to be too binary: crime drama vs psychological drama centred on the detectives' relationship. It seems obvious to say it is profoundly both, which accords with the split in finale focus between getting the killer followed by the last quarter of the episode dealing just with Hart and Cohle.

The bridge between these foci is their interrelation, the former the ground for the latter, the latter dynamically affecting the former. The point here is that how we characterize the focus and meaning of the series informs our response to its finale.

For me, the finale worked for among the reasons Chotiner (see link below) argues. But a few points:

My take is that Hart's wife remarried. She lives in a big house. At the hospital, with what had been a family all together, she wears a wedding ring. This is all to me the husk of family, shaped by irreducible but permanently fractured bonds, with the ineffable sadness of irretrievable loss conveyed in Hart's tears.

In Cohle's descent into and ascent from the heart of darkness, from his experience of aborning death, he confronts the very limits of his brittle, soul destroying and defensive nihilistic cynicism, parading as a superior apprehension of the nature of things. That argument from both futility and his own sense of superiority was always in tension with his inexorable drive, his obsession, to do right and discharge his self-perceived debt, as evident in needing compulsively to solve the series's crime. It's on that moral basis, the need to set right and complete the episode 5 concocted faux resolution, that Cohle is able finally to convince Hart to join him in episode 7.

So there is for me a thematic closing of a circle as relationship finds ground for itself in crime solution, the unspeakable magnitude of the crime bracketing and defining the detectives' own imperfections, albeit haunting their lives, but giving truth and content to the idea of bad guys with their own darkness guarding against and warding off much darker and much worse than them. 

The last two episodes as procedurals show the detectives in their ascending relationship fulfilling their moral lives and their competencies in being true detectives.

Final note: the disappointment over unresolved details, clues, and mysterious significances is to me beside the point. All is not well. All the unresolved aspects of the murderous cult whose tentacles spread beyond these true detectives' ken and capacity, all the tantalizing clues and false positives slung throughout the series, they are all of a piece with the vast territory of the darkness the detectives understand they cannot surmount. They must be content with one of Auden's points of light that sets off and gets a measure of human purchase on the darkness.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Contemporary Meaning Of Masada

I've been thinking about the contemporary meaning of Masada for Israeli Jews while reading Ari Shavit's book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.

Masada, in brief, involved a sect of Jewish rebels who, after their fighting their way into Masada, ultimately and finally chose mass suicide, men, women and children, rather than face inevitable Roman conquest.

Jewish history is replete with attempts to destroy as many Jews as possible, culminating in Holocaust genocide, the meaning of which continues in the modern ongoing existential threat posed to Israel by her neighbouring enemies.

Given the Holocaust as a culmination of Jewish history carried forward by the continuing concrete and real danger of national extinction, Masada, I argue, finds its contemporary meaning in Israel seeking to protect itself existentially with its nuclear arsenal.

So Ari Shavit writes, "But the debate was neither moral nor ethical. In the Israeli siege-republic of the 1950s and 1960s, the memory of the Holocaust felt very close, as did the existential threat. Both of these factors underpinned the general agreed-upon moral justification regarding the right to acquire a nuclear option."