Our Politics Has Yet to Turn Up a Better Man: Joseph Epstein on George Washington

Washington Crossing the Delaware. Emanuel Leutze. 1851.

I have been dipping into Joseph Epstein’s Essays on Biography in which collection he writes about important figures ranging from the 5th century BCE (Xenophon) to the 21st century (V.S. Naipaul).  The essays are arranged into the categories of “Americans,” “Englishmen,” “Popular Culture,” “And Others.”  The first essay, equally parts commentary on leadership and biography, outlines the career and myth of George Washington.  He begins writing about this topic, which is subtitled “An Amateur’s View” with:

In The American Commonwealth, his book of 1888, Lord Bryce, considering American political institutions, provides and early chapter titled, ‘Why Great Men Are Not Chosen President.’  Most Americans, without needing to hear the argument, are likely to agree with the chapter’s premises.  the planetarkhis, the modern Greek word for ruler of the planet, the President of the United States may well be, but we can all be assured that, whever he is, nowadays he is almost certainly likely to be a mediocrity.  ‘Besides,’ Bryce wrote, ‘the ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity.  He has a lower conception of the qualities requisite to make a statesman than those who direct public opinion in Europe here. He likes his candidate to be sensible, vigorous, and, above all, what he calls “magnetic,” and does not value, because he sees no need for, originality or profundity, a fine culture or a wide knowledge.’ Mr. Ford, Mr. Carter, Mr. Regan, Messrs. Bush, Mr. Clinton, and Mr. Obama—take a bow, please.

So if the last five decades of American leadership are the epitome of mediocrity, then what, you might wonder as I have, does Epstein make of the current administration?  In an op-ed piece for the The Wall Street Journal last month, he compared Mr. Obama’s successor, Number 45 to Kaiser Wilhelm II and had this to say about his leadership style: “…He does share with Kaiser Wilhelm volatility, instability and a combination of paranoid touchiness and megalomania, along with a boundless self-confidence lashed to an often astonishing ignorance.”  Epstein goes on to compare the current president to a high school boy who resorts to constant, cruel name calling.  But personally I think this is insulting to my high school students who are much more mature and, quite frankly, kinder than the current occupant of The White House.  A comparison to my friend’s toddler who gets irrationally upset for the slightest reasons—someone looked at her the “wrong” way, she doesn’t have her favorite outfit on for ballet class, her sister touched her stuffed animal—seems more fitting.  But, then again, this comparison might be insulting to the three-year-old.

Epstein argues in his Washington essay that the founding father was by no means perfect.  Even while he was alive, the myth of Washington grew and grew.  He had a very rigid sense of honor, was seen as aloof, and constantly worried about his reputation.  He was the right man, at the right time, for the right position.  But, Epstein argues, the single most important belief that Washington upheld was that a political leader ought to be a moral and honorable man who is above party interests:

He believed that honorable conduct was crucial to public life.  He believed that a political leader needed to surmount the parochial interests of party.  He believed that good character meant more than anything else—than special interest, than idealism, than any theoretical concerns—and worked to develop a character of the kind in himself that proved his point.  Washington was not a great military mind; he was a good though not a saintly man; he was no master politician.  In the end, his genius was perhaps the rarest kind of all: a genius for discerning right action so strong that he was utterly incapable of knowingly doing anything wrong.  He was our founding father, and our politics has yet to turn up a better man.

In light of what has gone on in my country in the last two years, Epstein’s words are….depressing.  If only…

(Some of the otherbiographical essays in this book I am eager to read are those on Henry James, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Isaiah Berlin, V.S. Naipaul, Xenophon, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.)

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Moon Clock by Donald Hall

Like an oarless boat through midnight’s watery

ghosthouse, through lumens and shallows

of shadow, under smoky light that the full moon

reflects from snowfield to ceilings. I drift

on January’s tide from room to room, pausing

by the wooden clock with its pendulum that keeps

the beat like a heart certainly beating, to wait

for the pause allowing passage

to repose’s shore—where all waves halt

upreared and stony as the moon’s Mycenaean lions.

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Satisfying my Craving for Details: Autobiography, Auto-Fiction, and Letters

On one of our daily walks this week, my dear friend was telling me about a cousin she had lost touch with but through a series of different circumstances she had the opportunity recently to meet and reconnect with her family member.  My friend and her cousin had been close as children but in the last ten years had not spoken for a variety of reasons.  I was fascinated by what many would consider an ordinary story and, as is my habit, I asked my friend a plethora of detailed questions, some of which she could not answer.  She likes to tease me that I ask intricate details about a story, a character, a life, that “no one ever thinks of except you, Melissa”   I like to have a complete picture, I like to get lost in the details, I like to know what it is about life and fate that brings people together and drives them apart.  I think that my habit of incessant questioning, seeking out the minutiae, is what has drawn me to reading quite of bit of autobiography, auto-fiction and letters in the past year.

I read Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place and The Possession early in the year and had mixed feelings about both.  There are narrow details about specific events in these brief autobiographical novellas.  A Man’s Place, for instance, describes Ernaux’s relationship with her father and the particulars of his painful illness and death.  But the scope of the story was too narrow for me; I wanted to know more about the aftermath of her parent’s death and how it was situated in the broader context of her life.  In The Possession, Ernaux recounts a relationship she has with a man after her divorce.  Even though she is the one to break off the love affair, she becomes obsessed with him after she learns that he is living with another woman.  Once again, I wanted to know how the circumstances of this affair came about—how did he compare to her ex-husband, her father, and to subsequent intimacies in her life.  Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, which I read over the summer, felt similar in approach to Ernaux’s shorter autobiographical works.  Levy describes a very specific period in her life, the aftermath of her divorce and the adjustment to a new life but, once again, the narrow approach of her subject matter left me wanting more.

I was excited that Ernaux’s longer autobiography, The Years, was finally being translated and published in English because it might give me some of these answers I sought after reading her previous books.   The Years, told in the third person, sometimes third singular, sometimes third plural, is more of a social history than a traditional autobiography.  Ernaux describes the years between the end of World War II and the 2000’s within the broader context of what was happening in the world.  There are a lot of lists and the writing has more of a journalist tone than a personal narrative: “With the abbreviated memory one needs at sixteen simply to act and exist, she sees her childhood as a sort of silent film in colour.  Images of tanks and rubble appear and blur with others of old people who have died, handmade Mother’s Day cards, the Becassine albums, the First Communion retreat, games of sixes played against a wall.  Nor does she care to remember the more recent years, all awkwardness and shame—the time she dressed up as a music-hall dancer, the curly perms, the ankle socks.”  While I appreciate her unique approach to autobiography, I was unsatisfied for lack of personal details.  The lists, the detached narrative, became, at times, too generic and therefore uninteresting.

The recent trend towards auto-fiction feels like an attempt to turn what could be an mundane autobiography into a more engaging narrative that appeals to a wider audience.  Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction, for instance, have gained a lot of attention in the literary press and have been included on many a “best of” list.  I read the fourth book of Knausgaard’s autobiographical fiction and was captivated by his details, but, for some reason, I haven’t been drawn back to read any more of his books in the My Struggle series since.   I read the first two books in Cusk’s trilogy last year and enjoyed immensely the style of her writing as well as her storytelling.  But in the spring, as I read Kudos, the final book in the series, I realized that her approach to autobiography is difficult to sustain in multiple works.  There are, in my opinion, much better examples of aut0-fiction in other languages that have not gotten the same attention as Cusk or Knausgaard. Per Olov Enquist’s The Parable Book, Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and Friederike Mayrocker’s Requiem for Ernst are all linguistically interesting and satisfied my need for details.

Since reading Kafka, I have been obsessed with the personal letters and correspondence of authors which are uniquely autobiographical.  Kafka’s letter to Felice, for instance,  that painstakingly describes their first meeting at Max Brod’s house could easily have been incorporated into an autobiography.  Kierkegaard’s surprisingly tender letters to Regine would have made a fascinating few chapters in his autobiography. Simone de Beauvoir’s letter to Nelsen Algren in which she describes her encounters with the sculptor Giacometti is the stuff of fascinating autobiographical material.  One of the first collections of personal letters that I ever read were those of Cicero which I was forced to translate during my first year of university.  I thought they were boring, self-centered and self-righteous and I haven’t given them very much attention since then.  But perhaps with my new appreciation for the autobiographical details contained in personal letters I ought to give poor Cicero another try.

Finally, this week I have begun reading Simone de Beauvoir’s three volume autobiography and I have been immediately captivated by the rich details of her childhood that she includes in the first book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  Maybe I am just a traditionalist, or maybe it’s my penchant for loose, baggy monsters, but of all the autobiography, auto-fiction, and letters I have read over the past year, Beauvoir’s work is by far the most satisfying, even at only 60 pages into the first volume.  Her writing is honest, straightforward and charming: “It doesn’t take much for a child to become the sedulous ape; I had always been willing to show off: but I refused to play the parts expected of me in false situations concocted by adults for their own amusement,” she writes.  A strong foreshadowing, I suspect, of how her character and strong personality develop throughout the course of her life.

On one final note (I promise), I bought Journey Into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch that was just reissued by NYRB Classics.  The introduction, written by Georgia de Chamberet describes this autobiography as an untraditional one: “the non-fiction novel” she calls it.  I’m interested to see where this fits into the genre of “auto” books I’ve described here.

What are your favorite autobiographies, auto-fiction, letters, and non-fiction novels?  Let me know in the comments!

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Thou Sun Amongst Women: Kierkegaard’s Letters to Regine

Reading Kierkegaard’s letters, selections from his journals and a short biography of this Danish philosopher and author was a rabbit hole I tumbled down while making my way through Kafka and Stach’s biography of Kafka.  Kierkegaard comes up numerous times in Kafka’s life, but no so much for his philosophy as for the details about his personal life and his broken engagement.  A twenty-four-year old Kierkegaard meets the fifteen-year old Regine Olsen at a mutual friend’s house in 1837 and he is immediately smitten with her.  He wisely waits, however, until she is eighteen to begin writing her love letters and courting her.  I was surprised, delighted and, at times,  just slayed by the tender, caring, erudite and loving messages that Kierkegaard composes for her.  The intelligence combined with sincere, true expressions of love are what impressed me most about these letters.   He would oftentimes visit Regine more than once a day and hand deliver these letters (letter undated-translated by Henrik Rosenmeier):

Yesterday your brother scolded me for always speaking of my cobbler, my fruit dealer, my grocer, my coachman, etc., etc., etc.  By this means he seems to have accused me of a predominant use of the first-person possessive pronoun.  Only you know of your faithful friend that I am not extensively but intensively much more given to the use of the second-person possessive pronoun.  Indeed, how could he know that, how could any person at all—as I am only yours.

On another occasion, he remembers the details of a conversation on one of their daily visits and thoughtfully sends her a gift (letter undated, trans. Rosenmeier):

The other day when you came to see me you told me that when you were confirmed your father had presented you with a bottle of lily of the valley.  Perhaps you thought that I did not hear this, or perhaps you thought that it had slipped by my ear like so much else that finds no response within.  But not at all!  But as that flower conceals itself so prettily within its big leaf, so I first allowed the plan of sending you the enclosed to conceal itself in the half-transparent veil of oblivion so that, freed from every external consideration, even the most illusive, rejuvenated to a new life in comparison with which its first existence was but an earthly life, it might now exude that fragrance for which longing and memory (‘from the spring of my youth’) are rivals.  However, it was nearly impossible for me to obtain this essence in Copenhagen.  Yet in this respect there is also a providence, and the blind god of love always finds a way.  You happen to receive it at this very moment (just before you leave the house), because I know that you, too, know the infinity of the moment.  I only hope it will not be too late.  Hasten, my messenger, hasten my thought, and you, my Regine, pause for an instant, for only a moment stand still.

My impression of him before reading this letter was that of a taciturn, melancholy, selfish man but he was clearly capable of being thoughtful, tender and even happy.  It shows a lot about his character that he went to some trouble to get this scent for Regine!

And this gift was not a one-time occurrence.  He loved to send her all sorts of thoughtful gifts—paintings, a scarf, a handkerchief, and drawings he did himself.  He would also include in his letters translations of poems or poetry he composed himself based on famous verses.  For example, on Wednesday, the 28th of October, 1840 he writes to Regine and quotes Joachim von Eichendorff:  “In the stillness of midnight, for the day does begin at midnight, and at midnight I awoke and the hours grew long for me, for what is as swift as love?  Love is the swiftest of all, swifter than itself: Two musicians journeyed thither/From the woods so far away./One of them is deeply in love,/The other would like to be so.”

Much like Kafka, Kierkegaard struggles with making a full commitment to marriage and family life.  In the end he decides that he cannot go through with it, but Regine puts up a good fight.  There is a hint, I think, in some of the letters of Kierkegaard’s anguish between wanting to be alone and wanting to marry Regine.  This passage, from an undated letter, is one of my favorites (trans. Rosenmeier):

In truth, I come, I write, I think, I speak and falter and sigh, and my room resounds with my monologues, and in you alone, my sole confidante, dare I confide what it is that now boisterously wells up in me and then again is lost in silent reverie—in you alone dare I confide—what you have confided in me.  For know that every time you repeat that you love me from the deepest recesses of your soul, it is as though I heard it for the first time, and just as a man who owned the whole world would need a lifetime to survey his splendors, so I also seem to need a lifetime to contemplate all the riches contained in your love.  Know that every time you thus solemnly assure me that you always love me equally well, both when I am happy and when I am sad, most when I am sad—most when I am sad—because you know that sorrow is divine nostalgia and that everything good in man is sorrow’s child—know that then you are rescuing a soul from Purgatory.

He ends the letter with a tender postscript: “Whenever you catch a breath of that heliotrope at home, which is still fresh, please think of me, for truly my mind and my soul are turned towards this sun, and I have a deep longing for you, thou sun amongst women.”  Although he breaks off their engagement, he loves her and thinks of her for the rest of his short life. He never courts another woman and his diaries continue to mention her and so does his will.  In an entry of his journal in 1848, a full seven years after their broken engagement,  he writes, “The few scattered days I have been, humanely speaking, really happy, I always have longed indescribably for her, her whom I have loved so dearly and who also with her pleading moved me so deeply.”  When he dies he leaves all of his money and possessions to Regine:  “What I wish to express,” he writes, “is that for me the engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage.”

I am planning on reading Kierkegaard’s work Either/Or and his Works of Love.  Please leave me other Kierkegaard reading suggestions in the comments!

 

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A Reading List Inspired by Kafka

I have the worst book hangover I’ve ever had in my life. I keep thinking about Stach’s biography of Kafka, and Kafka’s life and everything related to Kafka. I am having a hard time focusing on other books this week. As I was reading Stach I keep a list in my notebook of books that Kafka read, kept in his library, or mentioned often. Most of the books on my list were already sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention. I am thinking of slowly trying to make my way through some of these books next. If Kafka loved them, then maybe I will too.

Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857. Sentimental Education is mentioned in all three volumes of Stach’s biography because it was one of Kafka’s favorite books. He even learned French so he could read it in the original language. Flaubert’s style of writing was one Kafka wished to emulate.

Franz Grillparzer, “The Poor Musician.” This short story was one of Kafka’s favorites. I have Volume 37 of the German Library which I bought to read Stifter, so I was thrilled to find that the Grillparzer story is in the same collection.

Heimito von Doderer, The Lighted Windows. Doderer’s name comes up a few times in Stach’s biography. Thanks to a Twitter post from flowerville, I had already bought this Doderer book. Now I have more motivation to finally read it!

Heinrich von Kleist. Hyperion; The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist; An Abyss Deep Enough-The Letters of Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist is one of Kafka’s go-t0 authors. I’ve already read, and loved, Penthesilea, but I still have Hyperion sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention. Kafka actually loved to read the letters of Kleist, Flaubert and Hebbel.

Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet; Letters on Life; Letters Summer 1926 with Pasternak and Tsvetayeva; The Notebooks of Laurids Brigge. Rilke, who was also born and raised in Prague, is mentioned a few times in Stach’s biography. Rilke and Kafka actually met briefly at a literary reading. I’ve had most of these Rilke books sitting on my shelves for a while and I am now very eager to explore his writings.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain; Death in Venice and Other Stories; Thomas Mann Diaries 1918-1939; Thomas Mann Letters. As a contemporary of Kafka whose novels were very popular Mann is mentioned several times by Stach. Kafka and Brod, while vacationing in Italy, met Mann’s brother Heinrich as well.

Søren Kierkegaard. Either/Or; Kierkegaard-Letters and Documents; Works of Love; The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard by W.H. Auden. One of Kafka’s last diary entries is about Either/Or. But it was not so much his philosophy that Kafka was interested in as his personal life. Kierkegaard also had a failed loved affair and a broken engagement with a woman named Regine. So I am reading these letters as well as a biography of Kierkegaard recently written by Stephen Backhouse.

Max Brod. Three Loves. One of the things that I learned from Stach’s biography is that Max Brod was a prolific writer. The amount of novels, articles and reviews he turned out is astonishing but very few of them have been translated into English. I was lucky enough to find a rare copy of his novel Three Loves which hasn’t been in print since the 1930’s at my favorite NYC bookstore, The Strand.

This is by no means a complete list. These are the ones that piqued my curiosity and that I could find in English translation. There are many other books that I would liked to have included, but are not translated into English. Friedrich Hebbel, Felix Weltsch, and Oscar Baum, just to name a few. It was actually Hebbel’s 1800-page diary he was reading when Kafka wrote the famous line in his letter to his friend Oskar Pollack: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

On an unrelated note, I also have the three volume autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir that I am contemplating reading. I also just bought a few of the novels and volumes of poetry written by H.D. I am hoping one of these books will pull me out of my rut! If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

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