Tag Archives: non-fiction

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essay, Nonfiction

The Rush of Wonder: George Steiner on The Iliad

I was emotionally stirred when reading George Steiner’s beautiful second chapter in his book Errata in which he describes his initial experience with reading and translating Homer as a six-year-old boy: “My father, in broad strokes, had told me the story of the Iliad.  He had kept the book itself out of my impatient reach.  Now he opened it before us in the translation by Johann-Heinrich Voss of 1793.  Papa turned to Book XXI.”  Steiner’s father goes on to read Homer’s account of Achilles’s murderous fury and his killing of the Trojan youth Lycaon who begs for his life in vain.

Steiner’s father then opens the passage in Ancient Greek and as a very young boy he gets his first taste of the language:

My father read the Greek several times over.  He made me mouth the syllables after him.  Dictionary and grammar flew open.  Like the lineaments of a brightly colored mosaic lying under sand, when you pour water on it, the words, the formulaic phrases, took on form and meaning for me.  Word by sung word, verse by verse.  I recall graphically the rush of wonder, of a child’s consciousness troubled and uncertainly ripened, by the word “friend” in the  midst of the death-sentence: “Come friend, you too must die.”  And by the enormity, so far as I could gauge it, of the question: “Why  moan about it so?”  Very slowly, allowing me his treasured Waterman pen, my father let me trace some of the Greek letters and accents.

…Papa made a further proposal, as in passing: “Shall we learn some lines from this episode by heart?”  So that the serene inhumanity of Achilles’  message, its soft terror, would never leave us.  Who could tell, moreover, what I might find on my night-table when going back to my room?  I raced.  And found my first Homer.  Perhaps the rest has been a footnote to that hour.

Steiner further discusses what effect classic works like those of Homer, Tolstoy and Dante have on us.  He ends the chapter with this personal reflection: “Exposure, from early childhood, to these ordinances of excellence, the desire to share with others the answerability and transmission in time without which the classic falls silent, made of me exactly what my father intended: a teacher.”

4 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, Nonfiction

Respice Futurum: Some Reading Plans for 2018

Henricus Respicit Futurum.

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 public 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.” These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past— it is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.   Respice Futurum is an fitting description for thinking about my reading plans for 2018

Respicio in Latin means more than “looking back.” One of my favorite translations of this word is “to have regard for another person’s welfare.” The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, applies respicio to the idea of self-improvement in his work De Clementia: sapiens omnibus dignis proderit et deorum more calamitosos propitius respiciet. (A wise man will offer help to those who are worthy and, in the manner of the gods, he especially will have regard for those in need.”) A good person, Seneca argues, always looks towards his future but uses experiences from the past to inform his decisions.  So as I look forward to books I intend to read in 2018, I can’t help but consider which literary selections in 2017 have influenced my choices.  Which books, based on previous choices, will give me a chance for deep reflection and even self-improvement?

Based on my past experiences, there are a few of my favorite publishers that put out spectacular books year after year.  A few of these titles I am looking forward to are:

Seagull Books:

Villa Amalia, Pascal Quignard
Eulogy for the Living, Christa Wolf (trans. Katy Derbyshire)
The Great Fall, Peter Handke (trans. Krishna Winston)
Monk’s Eye, Cees Nooteboom (trans. David Colmer)
Lions, Hans Blumberg (trans. Kári Driscoll)
Requiem for Ernst Jandl,  Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)

NYRB Classics:

The Juniper Tree, Barbara Comyns
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (trans. Michael Hofmann)
Kolyma Stories, Varlam Shalamov (trans. Donald Rayfield)
The Seventh Cross, Anna Seghers (trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)
Anniversaries, Uwe Johnson (trans. Damion Searls)

Yale University Press:

Packing my Library, Alberto Manguel
A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan
Journeying, Claudio Magris (trans. Anne Milano Appel)

I am also looking forward to more publications from Fitzcarraldo Editions, New Directions, Archipelago Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, Persephone Books (whose bookshop I hope to visit in the spring) and the Cahier Series. I’ve also heard that new books by Kate Zambreno and Rachel Cusk will be coming out later in 2018 and I am eager to read new titles by both of these women.

While I am waiting for the books listed above to be published, I will dip into German and British classics which I have loved reading over the last year. Here is what I have sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention in 2018:

German Literature:

Hyperion, Holderlin (trans. Ross Benjamin)
The Bachelors, Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)
The Lighted Windows, Heimito von Doderer (trans. John S. Barrett)
brütt, or The Sighing Gardens, Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)
On Tangled Paths, Theodor Fontane (trans. Peter James Bowman)

British Literature:

Marriage, Susan Ferrier
The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (I’d also like to continue reading her volumes of essays and diaries)
To the Wedding and G., John Berger
Pilgrimage, Vols. 3 and 4, Dorothy Richardson

Russian Literature:

I was disappointed this year not to get around to this stack of Russian literature in translation books as well as Russian history books I have sitting on my shelves—

Gulag Letters, Arsenii Formakov (ed. Elizabeth D. Johnson)
Found Life, Lina Goralik
City Folk and Country Folk, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)
Sentimental Tales, Mikhail Zoshchenko (trans. Boris Dralyuk)
October, China Mieville

(I’ve toyed with the idea of starting War and Peace as well, but who knows where my literary moods will take me)

And for some Non-fiction:

I am very eager to read more George Steiner: Errata, The Poetry of Thought and Grammars of Creation are all on my TBR piles.
I am teaching a Vergil/Caesar class and an Ovid (Metamorphoses) class in the spring and in preparation for these authors I would like to read some of Gian Biaggio Conte’s books, especially Latin Literature: A History and Stealing the Club from Hercules: On Imitation in Latin Poetry.

I know, this list seems impossible, ridiculous, all over the place. But who knows what rabbit holes I will fall down, or where my journey will take me. All I can say for sure is that 2018, much like 2017, will be filled with great books and interactions with other wonderful readers. Happy New Year!

47 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Cahier Series, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Seagull Books, Virginia Woolf

The Early Essays of Virginia Woolf

I am making my way through the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays that she composed between the years 1904 and 1912.  In “The Decay of Essay Writing” (1904) she gives us some insight into her motivations behind writing her personal essays.  She teaches us how to read her essays with a bit of a rant about the way in which writers in her day have approached the personal essay:

But though it seems thus easy enough to write of one’s self, it is, as we know, a feat but seldom accomplished.  Of the multitude of autobiographies that are written, one or two alone are what they pretend to be.  Confronted with the terrible spectre of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes.  And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity.

I wonder what Woolf would think of the personal essays written  in the 21st century?  In the age of the Internet and social media, have we gone too far the other way with oversharing?

Much of the first volume is taken up with reviews of books that Woolf did for the Guardian and the TLS in order to earn some money.   I am in awe of the wide range of books that she read.  Just as a sample, for the year 1905 she read:

Fiction: The Golden Bowl by Henry James; Arrows of Fortune by Algernon Gissing; A Dark Lantern by Elizabeth Robins.

Non-fiction: The Women of America by Elizabeth McCracken; The Thackeray Country by Lewis Melville; The Dickens Country by F.G. Kitton.

Even when her reviews are not flattering, she still makes me want to read a book.  I want to read what she read and replicate her literary experience.  Her review of James, for example, is not positive but she still inspires me to take another look at his novels:

‘She rubbed with her palm the polished mahogany of the balustrade, which was mounted on fine iron-work, eighteenth-century English.’ These are trivial instance of detail which, perpetually insisted on, fatigues without adding to the picture.  Genius would have dissolved them, and whole chapters of the same kind, into a single word.  Genius,  however, is precisely what we do not find; and it is for this reason that we do not count Mr. James’s characters among the creatures of our brains, no can we read his books easily and without conscious effort.  But when we have made this reservation our praise must be unstinted.  There is no living novelist whose standard is higher, or whose achievement is so consistently great.

12 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, Nonfiction, Virginia Woolf

A Lover’s Discourse—Fragments by Roland Barthes

I had a couple of very intense discussions recently with two people closest to me about the complicated, enigmatic, confusing concept of love—both filial and passionate.

There were two comments, each from a different person, that didn’t sit well with me and that I keep returning to over and over in my mind:

“You can dislike someone but still love that person.”

And

“You can love someone but feel no affection for that person.”

I did what I always do when I am struggling with something:  I read a book.  Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse is what jumped out at me from my shelves.  Divided into fragments, each chapter of sorts deals with different terms related to love—absence, affirmation, body, languor, tenderness, etc.  The author’s thoughts come from reading Goethe, Plato and Nietzsche, from conversations with friends and from his own life experiences.  Wayne Kostenbaum in the introduction to the translation describes Barthes writing: “Barthes never dissertates.  Barthes never stops to explain.  He is happy to make the lightest of allusions—a lodestone such as “Nietzsche” or “Descartes” in the margins—but to leave the reference unplumbed.”

I will share a few passages that were especially striking to me:

From the fragment entitled “Atopos”:

The atopia of Socrates is linked to Eros (Socrates is courted by Alcibiades) and to the numbfish (Socrates electrifies and benumbs Meno).  The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos.  I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire.  The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (which is the truth of others).

Yet I have loved or will love several times in my life.  Does this mean, then, that my desire, quite special as it may be, is linked to a type?  Does this mean that my desire is classifiable?  Is there, among all the beings that I have loved, a common characteristic, just one, however tenuous (a nose, a skin, a look), which allows me to say: that’s my type!

From the fragment entitled “At Fault”—fautes/faults

Any fissure within Devotion is a fault: that is the rule of Cortezia.  This fault occurs whenever I make any gesture of independence with regard to the loved object; each time I attempt, in order to break my servitude, to “think for myself” (the world’s unanimous advice), I feel guilty.  What am I guilty of, then, is paradoxically lightening the burdern, reducing the exorbitant load of my devotion—in short, “managing” (according to the world); in fact, it is being strong which frightens me, it is control (or its gesticulation) which makes me guilty.

From the fragment entitled “The Ghost Ship”—errance/errantry:

How does a love end?—Then it does end?  To tell the truth, no one—except for the others—ever knows anything about it; a kind of innocence conceals the end of this thing conceived, asserted, lived, according to eternity.  Whatever the loved being becomes, whether he vanishes or moves into the realm of Friendship, in any case I never see him disappear: the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when and how we expect).  This phenomenon results from a constraint in the lover’s discourse: I myself cannot (as an enamored subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative.

From the fragment entitled “Special Days”—fete/festivity:

The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected.  What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.”

For the Lover, the Man-in-the-Moon, the Festivity is a jubilation, not an explosion: I delight in the dinner, the conversation, the tenderness, the secure promise of pleasure: “an ars vivendi over the abyss.”

Barthes’ book of fragments is one that I will dip into over and over again and find something new, fresh, and thought-provoking each time.

Finally, Books, Yo has written a fabulous personal reflection about love in his review of Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc.  Please do take a look at his blog and his fantastic writing.

 

8 Comments

Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction, Philosophy