Category Archives: Nonfiction

Musaeus Dulcis Mel: A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

Cesare Maccari. Cicero Denounces Catiline. 1888.

The essays in Anne Boyer’s collection are fierce, poetic, erudite, engrossing and melodic. The first piece of writing is simply and strongly entitled “No.” “History is full of people who just didn’t,” she begins. A common theme throughout the essays is the multitude of ways that people and animals refuse. Her discussion about silence as resistance, however, resonated with me the most:

Saying nothing is a preliminary method of no. To practice unspeaking is to practice being unbending, more so in a crowd. Cicero wrote cum tacent, clamant—‘in silence they clamor”—and he was right: never mistake silence for agreement. Silence is as often conspiracy as it is consent. A room of otherwise lively people saying nothing, staring at a figure of authority, is silence as the inchoate of a now-initiated we won’t.

The Latin that Boyer cites is from Cicero’s Speech against Catiline who has been accused of plotting to overthrow the Roman government in an open meeting of the Senate. Cicero is attempting to persuade Catiline that, instead of being convicted of his crimes and put to death, it would be better for him to leave the city and take his band of thieves with him. When Catiline walks into the Senate to face Cicero and hear the changes against him, Cicero points out the deafening silence with which the alleged criminal is met. The two verbs in Cicero’s Latin can be translated even more strongly to reflect better the contrast that Cicero is attempting to make in his speech. “When they (The Senate) are silent, they are shouting.” Cesare Maccari, in his painting “Cicero Denounces Catiline” depicts the dejected, lonely Catiline who has been the target of this silence. Nothing is more hurtful to me than when I am ignored, stood up, ghosted; I would rather be yelled at by someone than given the silent treatment.

I detected another type of silence-as-resistance in her essays entitled Erotology.  Boyer hints at unsuccessful love affairs and unrequited love in other essays, but in Erotology the longing one experiences for another person is shrouded in the lonely silence of the night:

Night performs a difference operation: you want what you want which isn’t what you want at all, but a desire formed by processes, by having had, then having no more.  It is as if in matters of heartbreak the night world and the day work take on different planets with different axes or in different courts with different testimonies, different warrants, different judges, different sentences, different prisons, different laws.  The night contests the day, then the day contests the night.  The clarity and ordinary pace of the day is suspicious to the heartbroken person in the night: what if what the day says about the longing at night is slander?

Who among us hasn’t spend a long, solitary night contemplating an unrequited love, a lost love, an impossible love?

Many of her other essays are also a struggle, her own and others, a resistance, against all of the harsh ugliness that we are forced to endure in this strange world. The way that Boyer engages with and makes connections among different texts is engrossing. Her essay, entitled “Kansas City,” for instance, includes a reflection on that Midwestern city by drawing on the music of Fats Domino and a quote from Socrates:

When Fats Domino sings his version of the song ‘Kansas City,’ he is like Socrates who says of his ideal city: ‘Let me feast my mind with the dream as day dreamers are in the habit of feasting themselves when they are walking alone; for before they have discovered any means of effecting their wishes…they proceed with their plan, and delight in detailing what they mean to do when their wish has come true.’

Fats Domino might take a plane to the ideal city, he might take a train, but even if he has to walk there, he will get to it the same.

Kansas City becomes, for Boyer, one of the first places that she associates with resistance. The city resists or defies real description or categorization; depending on who one asks, it is a utopia—like the Kansas City of Fats Domino, it is the façade of a city that was erected for the set of the Robert Altman film, or it is the difference between freedom or slavery for black people in the 1850’s. Boyer herself moves to Kansas City in 1996 and lives there for four years and the city becomes a source of personal resistance:

What I knew when I got to Kansas City was I couldn’t be a poet—that I refused to be one—and I was soon inside whatever was not a poem, working in the shelters and community centers of Kansas City and thinking the only possible life was a life of politics, and the only possible politics was a politics for women and children and the poor. When I think of telling you what was in Kansas City the year the facades of Kansas City were built, my thoughts turn red and what I see is a field of feeling: sorrow, rage.

Her work with the poor women and children of Kansas City is one of many passionate and poignant reflections of the real struggle it is to be female in this world.  In “The Dead Woman,” she writes, “But women become dead women every minute and always have, so I’m more surprised the whole world is not on fire every minute, that the winds are not roaring, that the earth hasn’t shaken open, that everyone hasn’t felt like they could die.  There’s a line in Alice Notley’s epic poem Alma that I can’t find now but remember and need: something like ‘women are born dead.'”  In “Shotgun Willie” she describes barely making ends meet as a single parent when her daughter was young, living in a small apartment and only listening to the A-side of a Willie Nelsen album which she bought at the Goodwill for a dime:  “I didn’t like whiskey, but wanted, like Willie Nelson, for a river to take my mind, to take my memory, not from the torture of unattainable, unrequited love, but my failures, how I’d basically just let myself be nothing at all, and for years then, and treated poorly, and barely rebelling against my own poor treatment.”

One of my favorite essays (although it’s really difficult to choose) is entitled “My Life” in which she writes about three strong, talented, and resilient women who resist the struggles they face as women—the singer Mary J. Blige, the poet Lyn Hejinian and Anne Boyer herself.  She begins the essay with a powerful statement that reminded me of the line about women from Notley’s epic poem cited above: “This is about calling what isn’t a life a life and calling what isn’t one’s own life one’s own, about the embellishment of any ‘my’ on a life that isn’t and can’t be or isn’t quite living, at least not all the time.” Similar to the Kansas City essay, she reads, interprets, quotes the singer and the poet and creates her own poetry through her reactions:

Mary J. Blige at the opening for the Mary J. Blige Center for Women…Blige removed her sunglasses to wipe away her tears. ‘When I was 5 years old there was a lot that happened to me …that I carry…all my life…  And when…I was growing up after that, I saw so many women beaten to death, almost to their death, by men.’  LH: ‘As for we who love to be astonished, we close our eyes to remain for a little while longer within the realm of the imaginary, the mind, so as to avoid having to recognize our utter separateness from each other.’  Mary J: ‘I still love you/You know I’ll never live without you/ I wish you’d change your ways soon enough/ So we an be together.’ Mary J. Blige made a perfume.  It is called My Life.  The thing about My Life is almost anyone can wear it.  Though a perfume is not an album and an album is not a life and a life is not a book of poetry and a book of poetry is not an essay written for a journal of music and experimental politics, one might mistake one for the other when My Life is, for so many of us, so difficult to find.

There is a struggle throughout the essays with her writing, her craft.  In “Clickbait Thanatos,” Boyer laments the surfeit of poetry available online which drains the entire body of 21st century verse of its uniqueness.  (In the next essay she has several humorous and, sometimes disgusting, ways of making poetry more difficult to publish.) It is full of “TMI and OMG—just like anyone’s Facebook feed.”  Boyer’s thoughts about her art remind her of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, which Epicurean, Roman, epic poem, written during the last years of the Republic,  ends with a horrifying description of the plague.  The meter of the poem, no doubt, has helped it last for centuries, but the poem’s baffling and gruesome ending probably also has something to do with its preservation: “…what is also in the work of Lucretius is that everything, and nothing, lasts forever.”

Anne Boyer’s collection of writing also ends with her own description of a plague, of sorts; the last several essays have heartbreaking descriptions of her long struggle with cancer.  I like to think that Lucretius ends his epic with a description of disease in order to test his readers; he has spent hundreds of lines of poetry convincing us that since life is short,  we must avoid pain and do things in this life that bring us pleasure.  He also believes, unlike the Stoics, that there is no afterlife, so once we are dead then that’s the end of it—no more worries, no more pain, no more resistance.  Lucretius explains in Book 4 that his poetry is the equivalent of putting honey on the rim of a cup of medicine so that a child will be tricked into taking something that is good for her.  If De Rerum Natura has successfully served as a type of didactic honey with which to trick people into learning his Epicurean lesson, then no one will be upset by a silly plague, will they?  Although Boyer’s last few essays are especially tough to read, they, too, are a test to see if we are paying attention to her poetry, her writing on resistance, her resilient spirit.  A Handbook of Disappointed Fate,  is what Lucretius would call musaeus dulcis mel (the sweet honey of the muses.)

I’ve made a playlist on Spotify of the music that Boyer writes about in her essays.  I found that listening to the music and rereading some of the essays as I listened made them even more meaningful:

As the week comes to a close, I’ve been basking in the afterglow of my reading experience with these essays and listening to the playlist. Please do give Boyer’s essay a try and also look at Ugly Duckling Presse for other brave, smart, riveting literature.

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Arcs of Compressed Voltage: George Steiner on Heraclitus

Polymath George Steiner in his text entitled The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, ambitiously seeks to explore the tension between philosophy and language that has occupied western thinkers for millennia.  The author begins his essay with his thoughts on Heraclitus, the Presocratic philosopher whose fragmentary writing is notoriously enigmatic.  The Presocratics, and Heraclitus in particular, fascinated me so much as a graduate student that I chose them as the topic for one of my specialized exams for my Master’s degree.  After reading Steiner’s first chapter I immediately, and enthusiastically, dug up my old Heraclitus texts which I am chagrined to say I have not looked at for many years.  I offer a translation here of a few of my favorite fragments:

Fragment 2:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν.

With the logos being common, many men live having their own personal purpose.

Fragment 7:
εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.

If all things would become smoke, then noses would discern them.

Fragment 12:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.

Different things step into the same waters and different waters are flowing upon the surface.

Fragment 17:
οὐ γὰρ φρονέουσι τοιαῦτα πολλοί ὁκοίοις ἐγκυ­ρεῦσιν, οὐδὲ μαθόντες γινώσκουσιν, ἑωυτοῖσι δὲ δοκέουσι.

Many men do not think about the things, nor do they know the things they learn. But they think they do.

Fragment 31:
πυρὸς τροπαὶ πρῶτον θάλασσα, θαλάσσης δὲ τὸ μὲν ἥμισυ γῆ, τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ πρηστήρ.

The transformations of fire are first the sea, half of the sea is earth, half of the sea is a hurricane.

Fragment 43:
ὕϐριν χρὴ σϐεννύναι μᾶλλον ἢ πυρκαϊήν.

It is necessary to extinguish hubris more than a fire.

Fragment 64:
τὰ δὲ πὰντα οἰακίζει κεραυνός.

The thunderbolt steers all things.

George Steiner’s discussion of Heraclitus is equally as poetic and philosophical as that of the Presocratic whose work he is attempting to analyze. In Poetry of Thought he says about Heraclitus’s prominent place in the history of philosophy and language:

Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless ‘nobility of the beginning.’ Meaning at dawn.

Philologists, philosophers, historians of archaic Hellas, have labored to define, to circumscribe this auroral force. Heraclitus’s dicta are arcs of compressed voltage setting alight the space between words and things. His metaphoric concision suggests immediacies of existential encounter, primacies of experience largely unrecapturable to rationalities and sequential logic after Aristotle.

Steiner continues his own fiery, mesmerizing language to discuss Heraclitus:

Heraclitus ‘works in original manner with the raw material of human speech, where “original” signifies both the initial and the singular.’ (Clemence Ramnoux one of the most insightful commentators). He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent—the trope of fire is unavoidable. Where it follows on a shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limitless and bounded. Heraclitus does not narrate. To him things are with an evidence and enigma of total presence like that of lightning (his own simile).

“Auroral,” “voltage,”  “setting alight,”  “incandescent,”  “lightning.”  No one does Heraclitus like Steiner.  Steiner’s discussion of Lucretius in the next section of his text is equally as fascinating. More to come…

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The Tongues of Eros: More Thoughts on George Steiner

There are some intriguing and surprising personal stories and anecdotes that George Steiner weaves into the essays in My Unwritten Books.  In his essay on his political and religious beliefs, for instance, he admits that he has never once in his life voted in any election, local or national.  He is an avid dog lover and the emotion he shows towards his pets, he admits in the essay “On Man and Beasts,”  sometimes runs deeper than that which he feels for his family.  And, perhaps the most intriguing statement in the book, comes in his writing about Eros: “I have been privileged to speak and make love in four languages.  Also in the interstices, sometimes inhibiting, sometimes playful, between them.”

Steiner begins with a general discussion of his thoughts on language and moves on to describe how Eros is a unique language in and of itself that has not been studied in any methodical way.

We have no systematic poetic or rhetoric of eros, of how the making of love is a making of words and syntax.  No Aristotle, no Saussure has taken up this pivotal challenge.  More specifically, we have, so far as I am aware, no study, even summary, of how sex is experienced, of how love is made in different languages and different language-sets (ethnic, economic, social, local).  Per se, the polyglot condition at varying levels of immediacy and proficiency is not all that rare.  It features in numerous communities, such as Sweden, Switzerland, Malaysia.  A multitude of men and women dispose of more than one “native” tongue, from very earliest childhood.  Yet we seem to have no valid account, no introspective or socialized record of what must be their metamorphic erotic lives.  How does lovemaking in Basque or Russian differ from that in Flemish or Korean?  What privileges or inhibitions arise between lovers with different first languages? Is coitus also, perhaps fundamentally, translation?

Steiner describes his sexual experiences with a German, Italian and French woman and gives specific details about how making love in each of these three languages was a unique experience.  Sex with a German woman he calls Ch. is described as an encounter in which the interplay of sex and sadism is prominent.  He concludes, “To make love in German can be taxing.”  It was an Italian woman, named A.M., he says that “instructed me in the litany of seduction.”  And he debunks the myth that the French culture is more amorous than any other.  He learns by having sex with a French woman that French erotic exchanges happen with formal language: “Gloriously astride me, my first teacher in the arts of orgasm, praise God, an older woman burnished by irony and compassion, bade me ‘come, come now and deep.’ But did so using the formal vous.”

I have to admit that I was disappointed that Steiner did not give equal time to describing his sexual experiences in English.  He argues that his own observations would not be able to capture any universal experiences because of the global pervasiveness of the English language: “How can any one person register more than an insignificant fraction of a sexual lexicon and grammar which stretch from the syncopations of Afro-Carribean pidgeons to the delicate love lyrics of Anglo-Bengalis, which comprise the creole of English hybrids in Southeast Asia and the worn passwords of the multinational dealer summoning his escort service to an anonymous hotel room in Istanbul or Valparaiso?” I think that at least some general statements about his lovemaking in English versus his experiences with other languages would have made the essay seem more complete.

Steiner’s concluding remarks in the essay, I suspect, are a better explanation for his omission of English sexual encounters: “Perhaps shared orgasm is an act of simultaneous translation.  I sense that I could have made a contribution, even pioneering.  But the hurt is would have done to that which is most precious and indispensable in my private life (this chapter comports risk) made this impossible.  Indiscretion much have its limits.”  Steiner’s wife, Zara, is the American-born, British historian…

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Chinoiserie and Invidia: My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

Each of the seven chapters in this book is an essay about a book that George Steiner did not write.  The first two chapters, “Chinoiserie” and “Invidia” are dedicated to Joseph Needham and Cecco d’Ascoli, authors whose works were just too large of a scope for Steiner to tackle.  But, in usual Steiner fashion, he uses the writings of Needham and d’Ascoli as a starting point to explore other ideas.  At times the level of erudition in his essays is astounding.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a British scientist, historian and sinologist whose body of writing, even to someone as erudite as George Steiner, is overwhelming:

So far as I am aware, there is no definitive bibliography of Needham’s opera omnia.  The catalogue of lectures, articles, monographs and books extends well beyond three hundred.  Their range is awesome.  It comprises technical publications in biochemistry, in biology and comparative morphology, in crystallography by one of the ranking members of the Royal Society.  There are voluminous studies, both monographic and summarizing, on the history of the natural sciences, theoretical and applied, on instrumentation and technology, from antiquity to present.

In addition, Needham published historical novels that dealt with the Cromwellian period.  And Needham’s largest work, begun in 1937 and carried on until his death in 1995,  is Science and Civilization in China.  Steiner discusses and tries to grapple with Needham’s difficult-to-categorize, massive work on Chinese science and culture:

By 1948, Needham had outlined seven volumes.  These were to range from Chinese contributions to physics and mechanical engineering all the way to Chinese medical botany, navigation and physiological alchemy.  Before long, the proposals for SCC, as it became known internationally, ran to ten monumental parts (some in double volumes).  Soon even this manifold blueprint was overtaken by the plethora of new materials and queries.  The eighteen volumes which Needham intended to write himself—several installments being simultaneously in the pipeline—would require an estimated sixty years of unbroken labor plus the immense task of preliminary research and bibliography.  Literally hundreds of sources, many recondite and difficult to locate, would have to be combed.

Needham would have had to live to the age of one-hundred and seven to finish SCC according to this schedule.  It is said that he worked on it up until two days before his death at the ripe, old age of ninety-four.  Steiner compares the literary style and scope of the SCC to a number of authors whose work is equally as erudite, comprehensive and voluminous as Needham’s magnum opus.  Pieces of A.E. Housman’s body of work, Nabokov’s four volume translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, Proust’s Recherché and Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy  are all discussed in relation to the SCC.  But none of these other narratives in their entirety, however, is exactly like the SCC.  Steiner concludes, “SCC, however, belongs to a more special genre.  One that has not, so far as I can tell, been properly identified, let alone elucidated.”  It is no wonder why this project defeated Steiner.

The other author whose writing that Steiner felt was too daunting a task to analyze is Francesco degli Stabili (Cecco d’Ascoli) (1257-1327).  The only pieces of d’Ascoli’s writing that has survived is an incomplete epic entitled l’Acerba, two astrological treaties, and a handful of sonnets.  Steiner says of d’Ascoli’s literary reputation: “During the sixteenth century, the theme which surfaces is that of Cecco’s intellectual boldness, of an unyielding proto-scientific integrity which makes of him a true predecessor to Giordano Bruno and Galileo.” In later centuries De Sanctis, Carducci, Petrarch and Goethe all praise Cecco’s intellectual and literary merits.  So why, then, was Cecco burned at the stake along with all of his writings in 1327 and why has he not obtained the same level of fame as Dante, his literary contemporary?

Steiner speculates that invidia (envy) was at the core of Cecco’s failures and he uses Cecco’s life as a starting point for a fascinating discussion of invidia as it has been portrayed in mythology and literature.  Steiner argues that Cecco’s fate, when matched up against Dante’s, was doomed from the start:

What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante, as it were, in the neighborhood?  To be a contemporary playwright when Shakespeare is out to lunch?  ‘How can I be if another is’ asks Goethe.  Outside my door at the Institute for Advanced study in Princeton I heard J. Robert Oppenheimer fling at a junior physicist the demand, ‘You are so young and already have done so little.’ After which, the logical option is suicide.  Themes of rivalry, of jealousy, of envy have been perennially cited and dramatized.  They are as ancient as Saul’s rage of David’s meteoric ascent and the venomous derisions spat out by Homer’s Thersites.

Steiner ends his essay on Cecco’s life and the theme of invidia on a personal note and gives us the reason for not writing this book: “I did not write the study of Cecco d’Ascoli.  It might have been of some interest.  But it came too near the bone.”

I’ve only highlighted the first two essays in this collection; Steiner’s level of knowledge and scholarship is astounding.  My favorite passages are those in which he inserts personal anecdotes.  His chapter on sex, eros, and language are intriguing, to say the least.  I have to gather my thoughts first and process his writing if I am going to write about that chapter…

 

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Errata by George Steiner

Errata is a Latin perfect passive participle, neuter, nominative plural that means “these things having been done in error” or “these things having been done by mistake.”  Errata are oftentimes issued as corrections to a published text and are not a usual part of a book.  George Steiner’s Errata, an usual book itself being part memoir and part essay,  is a reflection of and commentary on those accidents of fate that launched him on the path of being a teacher, polyglot, critic and scholar.  There is an underlying tone of gratitude for the fortuitous errata that have made up what he humbly considers to be happy accidents in his life.

Steiner was born in Paris in 1929 to Jewish Viennese parents who escaped Austria just as Nazism was taking hold.  His words about his father’s perceptions of Austria in the early twentieth century are chilling:  “With gram clairvoyance, my father perceived the nearing disaster.  A systematic, doctrinal Jew-hatred seethed and stank below the glittering liberalities of Viennese culture.”  Steiner’s father, whom he fondly calls “Papa” in his narrative,  moved the family once again to America in 1940, one month before the Germans invaded Paris.  Of the many Jewish children in Steiner’s Lycee in Paris, there were only two that survived.  Steiner’s parents not only had the foresight to save his life, but they also had a profound effect on his education and his passions.

There is a beautiful passage in Errata that I’ve already written about which describes Steiner being introduced to Ancient Greek and the Iliad by his father.  An enthusiasm for learning that goes even deeper is instilled in Steiner by his father from a young age:

I accepted, with unquestioning zest, the idea that study and a hunger for understanding were the most natural, the determinant ideals.  Consciously or not, the skeptical ironist had set out for his son a secular Talmud.  I was to learn how to read, how to internalize word and commentary in the hope, however chancy, that I might one day add to that commentary, to the survival of the text, a further hint of light.  My childhood was made a demanding festival.

Steiner’s mother was also a great influence on him as he was brought up in a truly trilingual household: “My radiant Mama would habitually begin a sentence in one tongue and end it in another.”  He uses this as a background for a beautiful discussion on language.  These are some of my favorite passages about Steiner’s observations on the errata of language:

It is my conviction that these liberations from the constraints of the physical, from the blank wall of our own death and a seeming eternity of personal and collective disappointment, are in crucial measure linguistic.  Bio-socially we are indeed a short-lived mammal made for extinction, as are all other kinds.  But we are a language-animal, and it is this one endowment which, more than any other, makes bearable and fruitful our ephemeral state.  The evolution in human speech—it may have come late—of subjunctives, optatives, counter-factual conditionals and of the futurities of the verb (not all languages have tenses) has defined and safeguarded our humanity.  It is  because we tell stories, fictive or mathematical-cosmological, about a universe a billion years hence; it is because we can, as I mentioned, discuss, conceptualize the Monday morning after our cremation; it is because “if”-sentences (“If I won the lottery,”  “If Shubert had lived to a ripe age,” “If a vaccine is developed against AIDS”) can, spoken at will, deny, reconstruct, alter past, present, and future, mapping otherwise the determinants of pragmatic reality, that existence continues to be worth expecting.  Hope is grammar.

One final thought I had about Errata is that the Latin verb Erro also means to wander or to roam  Steiner’s life also involves a lot of wandering, not just between languages but between countries.  He has a wonderful chapter that describes his favorite places in France, England and The United States.  He also discusses the many teachers and memorable students he has met in the various places he has taught and held academic chairs.  When Steiner says, “I have scattered and, thus, wasted my strength” he is, in my opinion, being humble to the extreme.

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