Monday, February 25, 2013

The Spanish Civil War by Elias Canetti

Two years of my friendship with Abraham ben  Yitzhak ( Sonne) coincided with the Spanish Civil War.  It was the main subject of our daily talks.  All my friends sided with the Republicans. Our sympathies with the Spanish government were unconcealed and expressed with passion.

For the most part we simply discussed what we had read in the papers that day.  It was only in my conversations with Sonne that we looked more deeply into what was happening in Spain and considered its consequences for the future of Europe.  Sonne proved to be well versed in Spanish history.  He ha studied every phase of the centuries-long war between Christianity and Islam, of the Moorish period and the Reconquista.  He was as familiar with the country’s three cultured as if he had grown up in all of them, as though they still existed and were accessible through a knowledge of the three languages, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew, and of the corresponding literatures.  From him I learned something about Arabic literature.  He translated Moorish poems of the time as easily as if he had been translating from the Bible, and explained their influence on the European Middle Ages. Though he never claimed for a moment to know Arabic, it came out quite coincidentally that he was fluent in that language.

When I tried to explain certain events in the recent and past history of Spain by the particular type of mass movements specific to the Iberian peninsula, he listened and did not try to discourage me. I had the impression that if he expressed no reaction it was because he realized my ideas were still fluid and that it would be better for their future development if they were not yet solidified by discussion.

It was only natural at that time that we should think of Goya and his Horrors of War engravings. For it was his experience of the cruel; reality of his time that made this first and greatest of modern artists what he was.  “He didn’t look the other way,” said Sonne. Those words were spoken from the heart. How shattering to contrast the rococo style of Goya’s early work with these engravings and the late paintings. Goya had his opinions, he was partisan; how could a man who saw the royal family with his eyes have failed to be partisan?  But he saw what was happening as if he belonged to both camps, because his knowledge was a human knowledge.  He detested war, more passionately perhaps than anyone before him or even today, for he knew that there was no such thing as a good war, since every war perpetrates the most evil and dangerous of human traditions. War cannot be abolished by war, which merely consolidates what is most detestable in man.  Goya’s value as a witness exceeded his partisanship; what he saw was monstrous, it was more than he had any desire to see. Since Grunewald’s Christ no one had depicted horror as he did, no whit better than it was – sickening, crushing, cutting deeper than any promise of redemption – yet without succumbing to it.  The pressure he put on the viewer, the undeviating direction he gave to his gaze, was the ultimate in hope, though no one would have dared to call it by that name.

Those who had not forgotten the teachings of the First World War were in a sate of grave spiritual torment. Sonne recognized the nature of the Spanish Civil War and knew what it would lead to. Though he hated war, he thought it was necessary and indispensable hat the Spanish Republic should defend itself. With Argus eyes he followed every move of the Western powers that were trying to prevent the war from spreading to Europe. He groaned to see the democratic powers reducing themselves to impotence with their nonintervention policy and knowingly letting the Fascists pull the wool over their eyes.  He knew this weakness had its source in a dread of war, which he shared with them, but it also revealed ignorance of the enemy and terrifying shortsightedness. The pusillanimity of the Western powers encouraged Hitler, who was testing their reactions, trying to find out how far he could go; his enemies’ dread of war confirmed him in his warlike plans.

 Sonne was convinced that nothing could be done to change Hitler’s determination top make war, that it was his basic principle (derived from his experience of war), the principle by which he lived and through which he had come to power.  Sonne regarded all attempts to influence Hitler as futile.  But it was necessary to break off the chain of his successes before all anti-war sentiment had been suppressed in Germany.  This sentiment could be encouraged only by an unequivocal action outside of Germany.  Hitler’s triumphal march was a deadly threat to all, the Germans included.  With his fanatical sense of historic mission Hitler was bound in the end to drag the whole world into this war, and how could Germany hope to defeat all the rest of the world?

Sonne’s opinions were far in advance of his times. Politicians were staggering from one makeshift solution to the next.  Though he saw the coming catastrophe more and more clearly, he took interest in every least detail in the Spanish conflict.  For to his lucid mind, oddly enough, nothing could be regarded as settled once and for all; an unforeseen event, however unimportant at first sight, could give rise to a new hope – and such hopes must not be overlooked, everything must be borne in mind, nothing was unimportant.  .  .

I shall never forget the day when in a state of great agitation I came to meet Sonne at the Café Museum and he received me in total silence.. The newspaper lay on the table in front of him, his hand lay on top of it, he didn’t lift his hand to shake mine. I forgot to pronounce a greeting; the words that I was going to fire at him stuck in my throat.  He had turned to stone, I was delirious with excitement.  The same news – the destruction of Guernica by German bombers –had affected us in very different ways.  I wanted to hear a curse from his lips, a curse in the name of all the Basques, all Spaniards, all mankind. I did not want to see him turned to stone.  His helplessness was more than I could bear.  I felt my anger turning against him. I stood waiting for a word from him. I couldn’t sit down until he said something. He paid no attention to me.  He looked drained; he looked desiccated, as though long dead.  The thought passed through my head: A mummy. She’s right. He is a mummy. That’s what Veza called him when she was angry.  I was sure he felt my condemnation, even if I hadn’t said anything. But that too he disregarded.

He said: “I tremble for the cities.” It was hardly audible, but I knew I had heard right.

I didn’t understand. Those words were then harder to understand than they would be today.  He’s befuddled, I thought, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Guernica destroyed , and he talks about cities.  I couldn’t bear the thought of his being befuddled.  His clarity had become the biggest thing in the world for me. Two disasters had hit me at once. A town destroyed by bombers. Sonne stricken with madness. I asked no questions. I offered no moral; support. I said nothing and left. Even out on the street I felt no sympathy for him. I felt –it sickens me to say it – pity for myself. It was a though he had died in Guernica, as though I had lost everything and was trying to face up to it.

I hadn’t gone far when it suddenly occurred to me that he might be ill; he had looked frightfully pale.  He couldn’t be dead, I thought, for he had spoken, I had heard his words, what hit me so hard was the absurdity of those words. I turned back, he welcomed me with a smile, he was the same as usual. I would have gladly forgotten the incident, but he said: “You needed a breath of air. I can see that. Maybe I need one myself.” He stood up and I left the café with him. Outside, we spoke as if nothing had happened. He made no further reference to the words that had so upset me. That may be why I have never been able to forget them.

Years later, in England during the war, the scales fell from my eyes. We were far apart, but he was still alive. He was in Jerusalem. We did not correspond. I thought to myself: Never has there been a more reluctant prophet. He saw what would happen to cities. And he had seen all the rest. He had had plenty to tremble for. He didn’t justify one atrocity by another. He had left the blood feud of history behind him.

The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, “The Play of The Eyes”; Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1977-99

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Passing the Torch by Hershel Parker

In discussing the appeal of Melville to the British admirers from the last decades of his life through the 1920s  it is essential  to remember the way William Morris read the book and immediately began quoting it with “gusto and delight.” The “bold and nervous lofty language” that Melville had created in the book, and the humbler but equally memorable quaintness of phrasings, took rank in his admirer’s minds with phrases from Shakespeare and were irresistibly sharable.

In the next generation Melville’s most famous admirers would include men (D. H. Lawrence and T. E. Lawrence are obvious examples) who devoted as much passionate writing to male-male relationships as to male-female relationships, as well as bisexual women, most notably Virginia Woolf.  Even though Melville did not come, as Whitman and Thoreau did, with a social program in hand, the British admirers saw him as having learned to think the way they wanted to think, “untraditionally and independently.”  Equally appealing to these writers was his intense awareness of his own “moods of thought”, his phrase in Pierre, and his capacity for analyzing and evoking complicated moods of body-and-mind, often in relationship to the physical universe and to the fellowship of all human beings (among whom, as many of his admirers were keenly aware, were well muscled men whose appeal was not diminished by their not always being of the white race and not always being altogether fluent in the English language).

Part of Melville’s special appeal to his British admirers came from specific scenes of male bonding as well as from his more general underlying feeling of brotherhood with all men. A substantial set of Mevilleans from late in his own time to the present has consisted of male (and sometimes female) homosexuals or bisexuals, men and women who can become influential out of proportion to their absolute numbers (however high those numbers are) in artistic and literary circles – journalistic critics, academic critics, editors, bibliographers, rare book dealers, publishers, and writers as diverse as Carl Van Vechten, Lawrence of Arabia, E. M. Forster, W .H. Auden, Malcolm Lowry, and Angus Wilson.  I issue a challenge to queer theory and gay studies professors to abandon the Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick -  []-  stereotypes and look at American and English admirers of Melville in their full family, societal, and cultural contexts.

Little enough is known about the relationship between sexual orientation and the cherishing and sharing of literary works (certainly not in relation to Melville).  Little was said until recently about the much larger topic of the the relationship between aesthetic responses, sexual stimulation, and social and cosmic questionings – a topic that must form a part of any history of the reputation of The Whale and Moby-Dick. In his supercharged psychological, aesthetic, and intellectual unfolding which culminated in 1851 and early 1852, Melville recognized something very like what modern French literary theorists call the pleasures of the text and devised a style which he thought would allow him to write about such a forbidden topic. Very likely the first literary writing he did after finishing Moby-Dick was the opening of Pierre as we know it, where Pierre simultaneously thrills from the onset of puberty and the effect of imaginative eroticism in literature, The Faerie Queene recognized as pornographic.

The Melville Revival which began in nineteenth-century London simmered there until the centennial of Melville’s birth, 1919. The term was justifiably used in the New York Times Saturday Review of Books on July 22, 1899, where “T.B.F.” reported in “Books News in London” on “a conspicuous revival of interest in America’s sea author,”  the result of W. Clark Russell’s “repeated glowing tributes.” Russell deserves much of the credit, but it took dozens of men and women over the course of four decades to bring about the rediscovery of Melville and Moby-Dick.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century John Masefield repeatedly praised Moby-Dick in his books and interviews.  Not all his early tributes to Melville have been located, but in A Mainsail Haul (1905) he put an evocative prose fantasy into the mouth of an old sailor named Blair: In this “Port of Many Ships” the “great white whale, old Moby-Dick, the king of all whales,” leads all the other whales of the world in raising all the sunken ships and drowned sailors and towing them “to where the sun is.” Then “the red ball will swing open like a door, and Moby-Dick, and all the whales, and all the ships will rush through it into a grand anchorage in Kingdom Come.”

During this time W.H. Hudson was as loyal as an admirer as Masefield, and, as I have mentioned, Melville’s influence was plain in the writings of James Barrie. Many of the admirers from the 1890s survived for decades –G. B. Shaw, H. S. Salt, and other Fabians spanned literary generations – but did they talk much about Melville to younger friends in the 1910s? There were living links between Pre-Raphaelite admirers of Melville and the Bloomsbury crowd (around 1915 Ford Madox Hueffer encouraged D. H. Lawrence and introduced him to Edward Garnett, who had corresponded with Melville – but did they mention Melville to each other?) Little evidence has yet been brought forth, but a surprising number of Lady Ottaline Morrell’s friends came to know The Whale or Moby-Dick.  Among them were Augustine Birrell (born like Salt in mid-century) and younger literary people – Walter De Mare,, D. H. Lawrence, J. D. Beresford (in whose Cornwall cottage Lawrence fist read The Whale, in 1916), later Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Aldous Huxley. De la Mare knew Alice Meynell (mother of Viola Meynell, who emerged as an enthusiast in 1920) and John Freeman, who in 1926 became the first Englishman to write a book about Melville.  We know that some of these people were among the secret sharers of The Whale or Moby-Dick in the 1910s, but the proof is yet fragmentary and elusive.

That proof will come in large part from the Internet, but sometimes old-fashioned book searching will produce surprises.  I buy copies of Raymond Weaver’s biography when I can.  After all, he never returned Melville’s drawing of Arrowhead to his granddaughter Eleanor Metcalf, so the nearest thing to it is the reproduction in Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic.  Maybe, just maybe, Melville’s original drawing is tuck in some copy. I bought a copy on eBay around 2002, one Weaver had inscribed to Thomas Monro, who had stashed clippings in it.  Among the discolored and torn clippings was an article entitled “Passing the Torch”, a partial reprint from the “Gossip Shop” in The Bookman of February 1922, presumably by John Farrar. (Now you can easily find it online.)  Here is the full text, italicized to emphasize the extraordinary claims set forth in it:

The history of “Moby Dick”, Melville’s titanic dramatization of human fortitude and implacable resolve, has been the history of a book’s laudation by literary artists who recognize in Melville an artist who transcended all they themselves could do in words.  The most interesting genealogy of “book recommending,” the passing on of a torch from one hand to another, was supplied one day recently by James Stephens, the wizard who wrote “The Crock of Gold,” “Mary, Mary” and “The Demi-Gods.” Reveling over “Moby-Dick” with Samuel McCoy, who has just returned from Ireland, Stephens said:

“Did I ever tell you how I first heard of the book? George Meredith, who was about twenty years old when ‘Moby-Dick’ was first published, read it, recognized a master in Melville, and passed the book on to Watts-Dunton. Watts-Dunton, equally enthralled, urged Dante Gabriel Rossetti to read it.  Rossetti ran with it to Swinburne, crying out that Swinburne must read it. Swinburne, finding in it the roar of the sea described as he himself could not, with all his music, silently passed it on to Oscar Wilde, then the most glittering star among the literary lights of London. Wilde, A Dubliner, handed to book on to another Irishman, young William Butler Yeats, making, as he did so, an epigram on Melville’s greatness that would be worth repeating – if I could remember it.  Yeats, coming back from London to Dublin, brought a copy of the book with him and presented it to George Russell, ‘A. E.,’ essayist, poet, painter, and seer, commanded him by all the ancient gods of Eire to read it at once. And ‘A. E.,’ chanting solemn rhapsodies through his beard, handed it on to us, his disciples,  I pass it on to all I know, as the greatest prose work in the English tongue.

“Melville,” added Stephens thoughtfully, “was the last of the bards. He was wider than Shakespeare.”

Pronounced on the afternoon of August 7, 19212, in the dingy little dining room of the hotel in Galway town on the west coast of Ireland, where bearded sailors from all the ports of the world once drank Spanish wine in the Galway inns.

 I knew the story of how around the turn of the last century Sir Alfred Lyall had casually passed The Whale to friends along with other books, making no special mention of it. If they returned it with perfunctory thanks, he had taken their measure. IF they came back raving, they were to be clasped as lifelong friends. I had made my connections already, identifying those who were known to have passed The Whale or Moby-Dick on to a friend, and the Kennedy’s had made others.  This account in The Bookman is so wonderfully specific that I want to believe the whole of it. I want to know how much truth there is in a story of what was sworn to in the dingy little dining room of the hotel in Galway town on the west coast of Ireland. Who will go to the archives and to the databases and expose it as a fabrication or triumphantly verify it in the course of writing a fine book on what the Melville Revival owes to such loving readers?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nostalgia by Helmut Illbruck

This book is an intellectual history of Nostalgia, a term coined in 1688  as  a medical reference to the mental perturbation or pain caused by a longing for home i.e. homesickness. It was originally considered an illness  which we would characterize today as  a ‘narcissistic masochism that resists all efforts at amelioration, acculturation, community; a loss of critical perspective, intellectual reserve and moral courage’[Edward Said]. Nostalgic patients were not seen as mere idiots deserted by their powers of reason but as individuals willfully and quite paradoxically incapacitating themselves by stubbornly and obsessively clinging to their private fantasies- ‘Imagining the certainty of their self-feeling to be fully alive only in that particular place of which, once cut off, they could only dream [Hegel].

Does the longing associated with nostalgia articulate the promise of a health to be recovered,  a dangerous delusion to be enlightened, a lure to be dismissed, or a disease to be healed, not by returning home, but only by discrediting the longing itself? According to the author these questions lie at the very heart of nostalgia’s intellectual history and interrogate fundamental aspects of modernity itself.

In Anthropology, Emmanuel Kant makes the point that

The homesickness of the Swiss (and, as I have it from the lips of an experienced general, also of the Westphalians and Pomeranians from certain areas) which befalls them when they are transferred to other lands, is the effect of a longing that is aroused by the recollection of a carefree life and neighborly company in their youth, a longing for the places where they enjoyed the very simple pleasures of life.  Later, when they visit these places, they there find their anticipation deceived and thus even their homesickness cured. To be sure, they think that everything has been wholly transformed, but in fact it is that they cannot bring back their youth with them.  It is remarkable that such homesickness befalls peasants of a penniless province, where there are strong family ties, and it strikes them more than it does those who are busy earning money and who take for their motto the patria ubi bene.”

Kant’s argument is appears quite simple enough.  In nostalgia, we are yearning retrospectively for a time that we imagine to have been a life without cares and of pure enjoyment; we associate that life with a particular place which we seek to return to but, since we cannot “bring back” our “immature” youth with us, what we truly long for remain forever beyond our reach, and that is why our expectations continually delude us.

Never-the-less, the author claims, even Kant himself had an inkling of the complexity of the phenomena of nostalgia and how it carries on even when the unenlightened sense of home – an irreducible and untranslatable particularity of place incommensurable to the Enlightenment itself –has tuned into a metaphor  that carries many modern dreams not just poetic but often purely noetic in character

Where the longed-for home becomes a  metaphor, the meaning of nostalgia itself is transformed, from an insufferable disease into an itself desirable and positive longing to indulge in, to compensate for the fear of no longer knowing a place that without any reservations might qualify as “home.”  It is because the original nostalgics seemed so incurably certain about their particular home as both the cause and the cure of their longing that they could easily turn into the sentimentalized objects of an anxious Enlightenment and a more modern nostalgia. But where the notion of home becomes a mere metaphor, this also means that modern nostalgia can become an even more speculative eros ready to attach itself to ever more ideal and metaphysical places.

  Such dreams are not per se more enlightened in that they carry with them also what instigates them, a sense of anxiety and often also inevitable defeat and frustration likely to turn into ever more aggressive dreaming hostile to all that real otherness which does not easily square with the dream itself.

 On the other hand, some nostalgic speculations, even where they seem to take on a politically conservative coloring, must never-the-less be reckoned with in terms of their futural-progressive and also practical thrust.  The author goes on to “prominence” the utopian dimension of a nostalgia provocatively critical of the Enlightenment’s universalizing thrust…

Beyond these general remarks I am hardly able to clarify the author’s thoughts; not in my own words, certainly not in his. As Hans Blumenberg wrote in The Legibility of the World: “The tenacity with which some things return and invent their metamorphoses calls for more insistent reflection on the constancy with which other things simply abide.”

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mlle Vinteuil by Marcel Proust

It was true that in Mlle Vinteuil’s habits the appearance of evil was so absolute that it would have been hard to find it exhibited to such a degree of perfection save in a convinced sadist; it is behind the footlights of a Paris theatre and not under the homely lamp of an actual country house that one expects to see a girl encouraging a friend to spit upon the portrait of a father who has lived and died for her alone; and when we find in real life a desire for melodramatic effect, it is generally sadism that is responsible for it.  It is possible that, without being in the least inclined towards sadism, a daughter might be guilty of equally cruel offenses of those of Mlle Vinteuil against the memory and the wishes of her dead father, but she would not give them deliberate expression in an act so crude in its symbolism, so lacking in subtlety; the criminal element in her behavior would be less evident to other people, and even to herself, since she would not admit to herself that she was doing wrong.

But, appearance apart, In Mlle Vinteuil’s soul, at least in the earlier stages, the evil element was probably not unmixed. A sadist of her kind is an artist in evil, which a wholly wicked person could not be, for in that case the evil would not have been external, it would have seemed quite natural to her, and would not even have been distinguishable from herself; and as for virtue, respect for the dead, filial affection, since she would never have practiced these things, she would take no delight in profaning them.

Sadists of Mlle Vinteuil’s sort are creatures so purely sentimental, so naturally virtuous, that even sensual pleasure appears to them as something bad, the prerogative of the wicked. And when they allow themselves for a moment to enjoy it they endeavor to impersonate, to identify with, the wicked, and to make their partner’s do likewise, in order to gain the momentary illusion of having escaped beyond control of their own gentle and scrupulous natures into the inhuman world of pleasure.  And I could understand how she must have longed for such an escape when I saw how impossible it was for her to effect it.

At the moment when she wished to be thought the very antithesis of her father, what she at once suggested to me were mannerisms in thought and speech, of the poor old piano-teacher.  Far more than his photograph, what she really desecrated, what she subordinated to her pleasures though it remained between them, was the likeness between her face and his, his mother’s blue eyes which he had handed down to her like a family jewel, those gestures of courtesy and kindness which interposed between her vice and herself a phraseology, a mentality which were not designed for vice and which prevented her from recognizing it as something very different from  the numberless little social duties and courtesies to which she must devote herself every day.

It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure, it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil. And as, each time she indulged in it, it was accompanied by evil thoughts such as ordinarily had no place in her virtuous mind, she came at length to see in pleasure itself something diabolical, to identify with Evil.

Perhaps Mlle Vinteuil felt that at heart her friend was not altogether bad, nor really sincere when she gave vent to those blasphemous utterances.  At any rate, she had the pleasure of receiving and returning those kisses, those smiles, those glances, all feigned, perhaps, but akin in their base and vicious mode of expression to those which would have been evinced not by an ordinarily kind, suffering person but by a cruel and wanton one. She could delude herself for a moment into believing that she was indeed enjoying the pleasures which, with so perverted an accomplice, a girl might enjoy who really did harbor such barbarous feelings towards her father’s memory.  Perhaps she would not have thought of evil as a state so rare, so abnormal, so exotic, one in which it was so refreshing to sojourn, had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone else, that indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives to it, is the most terrible and lasting cruelty.