Category Archives: Essay

This Obscure Warmth of the Soul: Memory, Grief and Love

A Girl Defending Herself Against Eros. William Aldophe-Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1880.

Grief feels like a race against time while I wait for my memories to fade—the memories of a happy life, the memories of a shattered life, the memories of the pain. Distract yourself with new activities, meet new people, make new connections is the advice I am constantly given. And strangely enough sometimes being with other people makes the grief and my sense of being alone worse.

Reading Paul Valery’s writings. on “Eros” in the final sections of his Cahiers/Notebooks 1 has especially struck a cord with me as I think about memory, grief and love. Valery had an eight year love affair with poet Catherine Pozzi and much of his writings about Eros are influenced by his love for her.  I’m not surprised he used the Ancient Greek word Eros for love—Eros is a complex figure that is unpredictable; Eros both elevates men and ruins them. Many see love as a distraction or a drain on one’s time and energy but Valery suggests that real love gives us more energy to accomplish other goals in life. Valery had some of his most productive and creative years of writing when he was with Catherine and she even gave him notes and encouraged him to publish his notebooks:

Happy love mobilizes all our strength. It creates superabundance, which is the supreme good, and the need for the finest works, making them necessary, easily accomplished, a relief. The happy lover is rich. He’s a physiological and psychological millionaire. He’s the king of expenditure. 

And:

To be profoundly loved, is the greatest thing in the world. It was the impossible object of God. ‘Profoundly,’ this is not about pleasure, nor about pride. But to received this obscure warmth of the soul, to warm yourself at the life which glows only for you…

What is a true, deeply loving relationship?  What is it, exactly, that I’ve lost? Alan wasn’t a distraction from my job or my reading or writing, but instead he enhanced it.  I think he would agree that I wasn’t a distraction from his work or his motorcycles or his camping, but I enhanced and encouraged and supported these things.  I hadn’t thought about this until Alan’s death, but I realize now that our lives were intertwined in a way that allowed us to complement each other;  and since my old life has been destroyed I feel that every day is an attempt to slowly build back my own foundation—find new supports, new ways of carrying on. Valery uses the metaphor of roots and a tree to explain this relationship-as-support idea beautifully: 

Love grows like a plant and what we see of it, namely the leaves and flowers, the fruit and stem, is nothing without what we don’t see, the roots. Nobody knows them exactly, neither their extent, nor their depth, nor their precise trajectories, nor the state of them.

For nothing imaginable explains the penetration, the vitality, the development of this plant by the apparent conditions of its nature. 

Any love love which can be reduced to a few things that can be counted out, described, understood, foreseen is a small plant of no importance.

But when we lose this kind of love Valery describes having a “soul-pain.”  When he is apart from Catherine  and when they finally go their separate ways for good the intensity of his grief is unbearable—something to which I can certainly relate. He writes about it simply and concisely as, “The one thing I think of tenderly, I think of also with pain. What is that thing? It’s you or it’s me.” 

Valery feels that the only true comfort for the pain is fading memory—he calls this a “fruitful forgetfulness.” When everyone tells me what I really need for the grief to pass is time that is what they are essentially saying—as the memories fade, so will the pain.  Valery writes:

The more or less powerful faculty we have…of diminishing the importance of something by taking other objects into consideration with it, by introducing a very different scale , or a much broader angle of view, —it seems that time, of its own accord, exercises this faculty automatically through the weakening of impressions, forgetfulness. Although intense pain can scarcely be weakened by thinking of or looking at other things, by reducing it to the point of the body where it’s apparently produced, still the succession of time undoes it and cancels it out little by little.

New people, new connections, new memories; grief as a race against time…

And so, is the pleasure, the beauty, and the intensity of love worth the pain?  I keep asking myself this question over and over and over. 

The answer to this, I think, is the last thing that Alan taught me.  We were always learning new things from each other and his final “lesson” was probably his most important.  His last text message to me said, “Goodnight, I love you! See you soon.”  And my response, “I love you too. Can’t wait to see you!” If given the choice to send a final message before he was killed, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have sent this same message and sent it to me. 

I suspect that when my own time is up that I won’t think to myself that I should have worked more, or worked harder or spent more hours making money or starting a business or fixing my house, or doing one of the million other chores I fret over everyday. Today especially I’ve learned that people, connections, relationships and love are so much more important than any of the number of things or tasks we spend hours of our time and effort on.  It sounds clique and almost silly to say, but the true measure of a successful life is love; that’s what we are here for and nothing else in the end really matters—even when it ends in incredible pain and tragedy and heartsickness—nothing else really matters.

And so the natural question for me is, “Now what?” Do I close myself off to new connections, new relationships, new love? Do I want to suffer that kind of pain again?

What would Penelope have done if Odysseus never came home?

A dear, kind, astute friend write to me recently and gave me an answer that has changed my thought process: “Consider the Universe and his possibilities,” he said.

 

 

 

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Filed under Essay, French Literature, Opinion Posts

Discovery and Insight: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

In the preface to the Penguin modern classics edition of Borges’s Labyrinths, Andre Maurois writes, “His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges has read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound—he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas—-but it is vast.”  This vast erudition is evident in the forty pages of essays that are included in this collection.  Argentine, Chinese, Spanish, German, American and ancient literature are all matters of interest for Borges.  His essay on Kafka’s sources was a particular favorite.  We always think of Kafka as being so unique, in a literary vacuum, without any predecessors.  But Borges argues that Zeno’s paradox against movement, the writings of Kierkegaard and Brownings “Fears and Scruples” all contain hints of which authors Kafka had in his mind.

The short stories felt to me like a journey through the labyrinth of Borges’s mind which was always thinking about language and literature.  At the center of almost every story is a book or a series of books or a library.  The Garden of Forking Paths begins with, “On page 252 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by the thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for 24 July 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th.”  The rest of the story is told by a Chinese professor of English named Dr. Yu Tsun.  Tsun is a spy who has been found out and is trying to get a message to his German commanders before he is executed.  Tsu takes the train to the village of Ashgrove where he meets up with an imminent Sinologist who happens to be studying Tsu’s famous ancestor.  Ts’ui Pen was a civil servant of the Emperor but gave up his position to write an immense novel and to construct a labyrinth.  The Sinologist realizes that Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth, his “garden of forking paths” was the novel itself: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them.  He creates, in his way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.”  I suspect that the literary threads running through Borges’s mind might be described in the same way.

My favorite story in the collection, which I have read and taught with before, is The House of Asterion which gives a background story that is compassionate and sympathetic to the Minotaur.  He is lonely and isolated and wants to be put out of his solitary misery.  Borges is influenced by Ovid’s Theseus and Ariadne story, but gives us the Minotaur’s point of view.  He tells us that every nine years a group of men enter his home but fall and die on their own.  One of them prophesies Asterion’s escape:

Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise about the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries and fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? Will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no long even a vestige of blood.

‘Would you believe it, Ariadne?’ said Theseus. ‘The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.’James E. Irby, the editor of this edition, sums up Borges’s writing in this collection best:  “His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; these are achieved at times gradually, at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect.”  The effect is just as striking for the reader as for the characters in Borges’s stories.

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Filed under Essay, Literature in Translation, Short Stories, Spanish Literature

How Shall We Live?: Thoughts from Robert Musil on this Memorial Day

This long weekend in May in the United States is a federal holiday which is meant to remember and honor veterans who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As I was reading Robert Musil’s essay entitled, “Twilight of War”  I thought it sad and ironic that this holiday is called Memorial Day because we really do not seem to learn or retain the lessons that history has taught us.  What Musil wrote during the early part of the 20th Century is not only relevant, but good advice today for my country in particular:

If one wants peace, one has to do something, not just have a conference about it.  There is no radical defense against war.  Because there is no radical defense against the stupidity, fantasy, and bestiality of human beings.  But there are a dozen small defenses, and none of them should remain untried.  The weaker a person is, the more he will develop and pay attention to his intellectual powers, in order to carry on in difficult times.  The stronger he is, the heavier his fist, the sooner he will surrender his reason in order to finish off a difficult thing with his fists.  But that is not bravery. That is the obtuseness of brutality.  Little David was brave, not the strong Goliath.  He was nothing but strong, and he finished off nothing but himself.

No state has ever maintained of its army that it is kept for offensive purposes. Each one affirms that it is only there for defense.  For four years dozens of armies have defended something against something else. Only one thing remained undefended, that there is nothing which armies could defend that could justify such an expenditure of human lives.  It is a myth that disarmament would have to be agreed upon universally.  Those who make the assertion want, at best, to just talk about it.

This essay is in Musil’s collection of Thought Flights, brilliantly translated by Genese Grill.  Divided into three parts, the book includes short stories, glosses and literary fragments.  The extent of topics in the collection is impressive: art, fashion, politics, morality and love are just a few of his interests.  Genese Grill simply and eloquently describes these writings in her introduction, “As always, Musil is really asking: How shall we live?”

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Filed under Classics, Essay, German Literature, Short Stories

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2019

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” This is a fitting way for me to think about and discuss my reading plans for the new year since my previous literary patterns help to shape the future.

In 2018 I was not content to read a single book by an author, but instead engaged in what I called literary projects that involved immersing myself in an author’s oeuvre while also reading whatever additional sources were available by or about that author (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Here are a few such projects I have in mind, so far, for 2019:

Classics (20th century or earlier):

John Cowper Powys: I am half way through his novel Wolf Solent and think Powys’s writing is brilliant. I am also planning to read his magnum opus A Glastonbury Romance and his autobiography, aptly titled, Autobiography. I’ve ordered a copy of The Pleasures of Literature which should be arriving any day now and I am also thinking of tracking down some of his letters and poetry which, I believe, are all out of print.

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time (I have yet to purchase the entire series, but am leaning towards the University of Chicago Press editions). I also found, last week at my favorite secondhand bookshop, the first volume of his autobiography, Infants of the Spring. When the time comes I will complete my collection of his autobiographical books. Finally, I’ve ordered copies of his non-fiction writing, Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writing on Writers and Under Review: Further Writings on Writers, 1946-1990.

Andre Gide: I discovered Gide in 2018 by reading his very short book, Theseus. I’ve put together a pile of his books that I would like to read in 2019 which include: Madeleine, Journals: 1889-1949, Straight is the Gate, If it Die: An Autobiography, The Andre Gide Reader and Pretexts.

H.D.: I saw quite a few posts last year about H.D.’s writing, especially her poetry, and her volume of Collected Poems which I’ve already been dipping into is magnificent. I also plan to read: Palimpsest, Nights, Notes on Thought and Vision, and Bid me to Live. And I’ve ordered copies of The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan and A Great Admiration: H.D./Robert Duncan Correspondence 1950-1961 which should both arrive any day now.

Dawn Powell: I’m especially excited about this author which will be completely new to me. I bought Library America editions of her fiction as well as the volume of her Diaries from Steerforth Press. (Thanks to @deckr_j on Twitter for this discovery).

Anita Brookner: I’ve been tempted for a while to try this author because of Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes who raves about her books. Having collected three of her books I’m ready to dive in: A Start in Life, A Friend from England and Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

W.G. Sebald: I did a Michael Hamburger reading project this year and discovered that he was also a translator of Sebald. I would like to read all of Sebald’s fiction in the order that they were written and published. I haven’t bought any of his books yet, though, because I would like to research which editions and translations would suit me best.

Other possible books that are sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention include the six volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time I received for Christmas, Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, Alexander Herzen’s massive autobiography, Casanova’s 12-volume memoir, and Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I was thinking it might be a good idea to choose one of these as a summer reading project, but there is no way I could get to all of them! I would also like to explore Flaubert, whose Sentimental Education particularly captivated Kafka, and the last George Eliot novel I have yet to read, Romola.

Contemporary:

Giorgio Agamben: The few books I read by him in 2018 captivated my attention due to his discussion of words and language. I am especially excited that Agamben has quite a backlog of translations published by Seagull Books that I have yet to read. I’ve also acquired Profanations, Karman and his magnum opus, Homo Sacer. I will slowly work my way through his shorter pieces before I even think about cracking open Homo Sacer.

Sergei Lebedev: His previous two novels, Oblivion and The Year of the Comet, are brilliant. I am eagerly awaiting The Goose Fritz from New Vessel Press which will be published in March.

Claudio Magris: I have yet to finish his book Journeying from Yale Press and I will also add to my piles his new book, Snapshots, translated for the first time in English and also published by Yale Press.

Kate Zambreno: Her Book of Mutter was intriguing and I am looking forward to her new book due out in April entitled Appendix Project: Talks and Essays

Clarice Lispector: The Besieged City is due out in April. Even though she is a 20th century author, this is a new translation published by New Directions.

I will also catch up on some of the publications from the Cahiers series which are always a delight. And, finally, I have my eye on new releases from Seagull Books, Fitzcarraldo Books, & Other Stories (publishing Gerald Murnane this year) and New York Review of Books which I won’t list here. But all of these publishers are wonderful if you are looking for interesting contemporary authors, literature in translation, or reissued classics.

Poetry:

In 2018, I’ve read more poetry than any other year and would like to continue that into 2019. I always enjoy the variety of publications from Ugly Duckling Presse. I’ve also been tempted by flowerville to explore Emily Dickenson which I haven’t picked up since studying her in school. My intention is to also read Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets and Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry to enhance my understanding of and appreciation for different types of poets and poetry.

Of course, all of this is subject to change based on weather, mood, alignment of the planets, attention span, etc.

What is everyone else excited to read in 2019?

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Essay, French Literature, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books, Poetry, Seagull Books

An Insatiable Craving for Books

“One unquenchable longing has the mastery of me, which hitherto I neither would nor could repress; ’tis an insatiable craving for books, although, perhaps I have more than I ought.” —Francesco Petrarch

I had the chance today to visit one of my favorite bookstores in New England.  Located in a small, shoreline community, it actually has five different locations spread throughout the town.  I only managed to visit two of the five locations today and even that took me a few hours.  The main store is a large, old farmhouse with a series of barns on the property, all filled from floor to ceiling with books.  None of the barns are heated so it was a bit rough going on this cold, wet day.  But, in the end, (even though I was cold and drenched and looked like a wet poodle) it was totally worth the trip.  Here is my haul:

Poetry:

I’ve become quite fond of collecting the Library of America editions—they look rather handsome on one’s shelves. I have been making a concerted effort to read more American authors, so this LOA edition of 17th and 18th century poetry was a great find. I was also pleased to add more Michael Hamburger, Marianne Moore and C.P. Cavafy to my poetry collection. The “Diaries of Exile,” translated from the Modern Greek and published by Archipelago Books, was also a pleasant find.

Essays:

I was so thrilled to find another George Steiner collection of essays that I don’t own, as well as another volume of Joseph Epstein essays.  The J.M. Coetzee essays look intriguing—topics include Cees Nooteboom, Translating Kafka, Robert Musil’s Diaries, Dostoevsky and the essays of Joseph Brodsky, just to name a few.  I already owned the paperback version of Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets, and I was excited to upgrade to this hard copy edition that is in perfect condition.  Lord’s The Singer of Tales is a nice addition to my classics library as it deals with the orality of Homeric poetry.  And finally, the Hamburger and Colin Wilson essays will be a nice additions (or editions)  to my shelves.

Autobiography and Letters:

I am especially excited about this stack.  I’ve already started reading John Cowper Powys’s novels and I upgraded to this hard copy edition of his Autobiography.  My Powys reading project will take me into 2019.  I am also planning an Anthony Powell reading project for the new year and was exited to find this first volume of his autobiography.  I own a copy of the first volume of Flaubert Letters which is in tatters, so not only did I get a copy in perfect condition but I also found a copy of the second volume.  Finally, I found a wonderful early, hard copy edition (Yale Press, 1933, collected by Thomas J. Wise) of Robert Browning’s Letters.

Fiction:

Finally, I did manage to buy some fiction as well.  I want to read Anita Brookner in the new year.  I already have one of her books sitting on my shelves so these two will be nice additions.

Bonus: Today’s Book Mail

I’ve also become captivated by Andre Gide’s writing and these two gems arrived today in the mail.  (I thought my family was going to have a fit when I arrived home with all of these books and there were also more books waiting for me in the post!)  I am planning to explore Gide in the new year and I am also awaiting a copy of his Journals which I have already sampled and am eager to dive into.

As Petrarch says, perhaps I have more than I ought?

It doesn’t matter, I will still collect books and read them anyway.

(For what it’s worth I did cull three large bags of books from my shelves today so, overall, I broke even.)

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Classics, Essay, Letters, Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry