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Prose

At the start of this year, I wrote up some delusions about what I might read in 2017. Now that the halfway point is past, I am in the mood to find out how I have done.

Here is what I have read from that list, with associated posts:

Homer – Odyssey (Lombardo, trans.) – post
Virgil – Aeneid (Lombardo, trans.) – posts (collected)
Robert Frost – A Boy’s Willpost
Fernando Pessoa ­– The Book of Disquietpost1, post2, post3, post4, post5
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi – [no posts]
Henri Cole – Nothing to Declare – [contemporary poetry] [no posts]

Not altogether terrible, though certainly less than half of what I predicted. As I knew would happen, my reading took me down other rabbit holes. I give the highlights below; the full list would be a bore.

Pessoa’s succulent nihilism brought me to read A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Zenith, trans.), the Penguin Classics collection of his poetry. Whereas The Book of Disquiet is all in one voice (that of Bernardo Soares), the poetry here is in four voices: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Of these, I felt the closest kinship with Reis, the melancholy Epicurean, whose compact odes find joy even in their resignation. Reis works in bulk: no single poem stands out, but together they form a powerful collection. In contrast, de Campos is a poet of the single poem, most especially the dazzling “Maritime Ode,” which defies description. At 31 pages, it is too long to leave here, so I leave instead the much more compact “Ah, a Sonnet…”—also by de Campos:

Ah, a Sonnet…

My heart is a mad admiral
Who quit his life at sea
And remembers it little by little
At home, pacing, pacing…

With this motion (the mere thought
Of which makes me shift in my seat)
The seas he once sailed still toss
In his muscles bored of inactivity.

Nostalgia’s in his legs and arms.
Nostalgia pours out of his brain.
His boredom turns into raving.

But if, for God’s sake, the heart
Was my theme, why is this poem dealing
With an admiral instead of with feeling?

I can never read enough translations of Virgil’s Aeneid, so, a couple months after finishing up Lombardo’s fine rendition, I began Sarah Ruden’s, which I think may be my favorite of the five I have read (Ruden, Lombardo, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum, Fagles). It is a line-by-line, mostly blank verse translation—the sort of thing that will either succeed or fail on a large scale. It is hard to imagine such an attempt being middling. Ruden’s, happily, succeeds. Her lines are terse and forceful, and lack the somewhat stiff grandiosity that occasionally characterizes the blank verse translations of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum. The compact lines serve Virgil better than the loose lines of Fagles, and she avoids Fagles’ tendency toward being too colloquial. Lombardo’s translation is the freest (though highly musical), and makes a nice pairing with Ruden.

The introduction to the Lombardo translation was written by W. R. Johnson. It was sufficiently insightful that it induced me to buy Johnson’s book Darkness Visible, a classic work of Virgil scholarship. Johnson’s book does exactly what I ask for from a book of criticism: it makes me a better reader. Johnson’s central concern in the work is to elucidate the way in which the world of the Aeneid constants hovers around darkness and chaos, always threatening to fall fully under their sway. He shows this by comparing passages in Virgil to passages in earlier authors, especially Homer. He convincingly demonstrates that where Homer’s passages are characterized by brilliant clarity, Virgil’s re-envisionings of these same passages make them deliberately, carefully murky. Thus Virgil captures a world beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. I had sensed this in my reading of Virgil—it is a major part of why I prefer Virgil to Homer—but I could not have articulated it without having read Johnson. I cannot recommend Darkness Visible highly enough.

Leaving behind poetry, I have been reading a number of the classics of Chinese Philosophy: Confucius’ Analects (Chin, trans.), the book of Mengzi (Lau, trans.), and the book of Zhuangzi (Palmer, trans.). Confucius and Mengzi make a nice contrast. Where Confucius is flexible, emphasizing situationally appropriate conduct (guided but not rigidly determined by the rites), Mengzi is rigid, the sort who might never talk to you again if you bow to him the wrong way. Even if I disagree with Confucius about the general shape of his program, I can feel the deeply humane impulse behind it. In Mengzi that impulse is more difficult to find. But I should be fair to Mengzi. Especially near the start of his work, Mengzi develops certain interesting philosophical themes. Concerning, for instance, the motivation to be ethical, he attempts to start from our natural sympathy for friends and families and to extend this as far as possible. This, I think, is a more plausible solution to the problem of moral motivation than that of the Mohists, who begin with universal love as an imperative. And, as Republicans in the Senate work to savage our healthcare system, Mengzi’s stern moral stance seems especially apt: “Is there any difference between killing a man with a knife and killing him with misrule? There is no difference.”

The real treasure, however, is Zhuangzi, whose laughter still resonates today. He is a relentless puncturer of pretensions, and as pretense is an eternal temptation of the human soul, Zhuangzi will never cease to be relevant. The book that accrued around his name is a hodge-podge, a collection of vignettes and perspectives that do not resolve into any single clearly articulable theme. One imagines Zhuangzi would not have it any differently. I leave, from this work, the following beautiful passage. I might have chosen any number of others.

Words are like the ebb and flow of the wind-blown seas: the purpose of them can become overwhelmed. The wind and seas are easily stirred, and what was attempted can be swamped and lost. (ch. 4)

Enough said about where I have been. Where am I going? I have no interest in predicting the remainder of this year in detail. I will only sketch a few paths that lay within my sight.

I have been reading, with great pleasure, The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of commentaries on the aim and nature of poetry by American poets associated with the volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (which I have not read). The volume captures the ferment that surrounded the birth and development of vers libre, both their negative program of throwing off the shackles of forms that were imposed a priori and their positive programs, which were many and resist easy summation. I imagine that I will, upon concluding this volume, be drawn to further explore the poetry of this period, of which I have little firsthand experience. Already, H.D.’s Trilogy, The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, and Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems lie before me, and Bunting I have even begun. His “Villon” is a marvelous poem. Perhaps I will write about it here.

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I returned home with a number of used books (I visited at least eight bookstores in my six-day trip). Among these was Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I find the Buddhist notion of emptiness intriguing and appealing, and what I have read of this volume already suggests that it may tally with conclusions I have independently reached in my professional work in the philosophy of science. Such concordance may prove to be nothing in the end, but I am sure I will enjoy finding out, one way or the other.

On this same trip I also acquired a copy of Susan Howe’s new book, Debths. It is a short book (though >100 pages, much of each page is white space), and I have already made a first pass through it. But it will require more time. I expect I will be writing about it, one way or another, so I will not say more here. Happily, this will get me closer to meeting my goal of reading four works of contemporary poetry.

And beyond that? My shelves overflow with unread books—perhaps I will make some dents in this. I will not speculate as to the precise locations of these dents.

The secret to good literature is simple enough, abstractly considered. Humans are complicated and beguiling. They talk to each other and fail to talk to each other, often simultaneously. They are disappointingly predictable, and yet resist easy summation. Good literature should capture this perplexity while still maintaining some sense of order. It should chart a path through the murky waters of human life without pretending the waters are clear.

Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America”, the third story in her collection Birds of America, does this well. It begins with two tragedies of different orders, the broken life and breaking body of the narrator, and the foreseeable death of her friend Cal’s young son, Eugene. These intersect when the narrator, a dance instructor, goes to visit Cal, who she has not seen in a dozen years.

Moore’s handling of these two tragedies is masterful. That Eugene is dying of cystic fibrosis is laid out upfront, but, once the narrator starts interacting with Eugene, it fades into the background. It sets the mood of these interactions, lurks in the background, but becomes explicit only in small details, as when, in the middle of a pre-bedtime dance:

…Eugene suddenly sits down to rest on the sofa, watching the grown-ups. Like the best dancers and audiences in the world, he is determined not to cough until the end.

These moments are touching, but not maudlin. And that is appropriate, for the story belongs to the narrator, and Eugene’s disease is not her tragedy. It belongs to Cal, to his wife Simone, and of course to Eugene. For the narrator, it is background, is an element of the tone of her experience reconnecting with her friend.

Much more at the center of her mind is her own tragedy. This is twofold: her marriage has failed, and her body is starting to break down. She cannot dance as she once did, and is transitioning into the mode of an instructor. And though this is less devastating than, not just the death of one’s child, but living with the knowledge that that death is coming, it is nonetheless more prominent in the narrator’s mind, and understandably so. Though she shows few outward signs of being upset about the failure of her marriage, it creeps up on her, until:

All I can think of is how Patrick said, when he left, fed up with my “selfishness,” that if I were worried about staying on alone at the lake house, with its squirrels and call girl-style lamps, I should just rent the place out—perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like myself.

This charge of selfishness weighs heavily upon her, and comes to a head in the most charged passage in the story. Cal, Simone, Eugene, and the narrator are all dancing before Eugene goes to bed. As we have seen, Eugene has stopped dancing mid-song to rest. The narrator goes to draw him back in:

“Come here, honey,” I say, going to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here, that unbeguilable, broken basket, that stiff merinque. I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

This passage refuses to be simplified. I will need three passes to cover it, and that is only because I will not discuss an aspect of it that would require a fourth.

First, then, take the narrator’s perspective for granted. She is not, she says, being selfish, and indeed she is not. She is helping Eugene to dance, is overcoming her broken body to help another, even more broken. She is putting another first.

But we cannot rest in that reading. Is she not, after all, making her “selfless” act about herself, an attempt to prove to Patrick that his accusation was false? And is she not also making it about her aging, her inability to dance as she once did? It is almost a paradox: precisely by insisting that her act is not about all this, she ensures that that is precisely what it is about.

In the end, though, we cannot rest in that second reading, either. The conception of the philosophers, that the selfless act requires a certain inner purity of mind, has always been a caricature. Humans are complicated. They may act for another and yet be unable to escape themselves—such is the position of the narrator here. She is at once selfless and selfish, reaching out across the gap between minds to interact with the life of another and, simultaneously, trapped within her own mind. But that is what human communication is. Lorrie Moore is only doing justice to the facts. The secret, as I said, is simple enough.

An especially apt passage from Pessoa, in light of my recent post:

The highest honour for a superior man is to not know the name of his country’s chief of state, or whether he lives under a monarchy or a republic.

He should be careful to position his soul in such a way that passing things and events can’t disturb him. Otherwise he’ll have to take an interest in others, in order to look out for himself.

I was struck, today, by another concordance between Laozi and Pessoa and, nestled within this concordance, another disagreement. Laozi first this time, again in the wonderful Addiss and Lombardo translation (easily superior, at least as English poetry, to the Hinton and Ivanhoe translations that I also own):

Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.

Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.

Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.

Therefore
….Having leads to profit,
….Not having leads to use. (11)

This poem strikes me as (in part) an elaboration of an earlier bit of advice, from the eighth poem: “Keep your mind deep.” The eighth poem advocates non-contention, and suggests that keeping the mind deep is one of the things one must do to avoid contention. I understand the advice to keep the mind deep as counseling a kind of non-possession of, non-attachment to one’s thoughts. Let the mind be deep enough to house them so long as they linger, but not detain them. I will return to the way that the eleventh poem elaborates on this, but first Pessoa (I give selections of a substantially longer passage in The Book of Disquiet):

Art frees us, illusorily, from the squalor of being. […]

Love, sleep, drugs and intoxicants are elementary forms of art, or rather, of producing the same effect as art. But love, sleep and drugs all have their dissolution. […] But in art there is no disillusion, since illusion is accepted from the start. […]

Since the pleasure we get from art is in a sense not our own, we don’t have to pay for it or regret it later.

By art I mean everything that delights us without being ours – the trail left by what has passed, a smile given to someone else, a sunset, a poem, the objective universe.

To possess is to lose. To feel without possessing is to preserve and keep, for it is to extract from things their essence. (§270)

Pessoa, like Laozi, appears to praise a kind of non-possession of one’s one feelings and sensations. Here, art is recommended as a way to have sensations that one knows are illusory from the start, that one never expects to possess and so never must relinquish. Pessoa, in his own way, advocates keeping the mind deep. (Many other passages in The Book of Disquiet bear this out; §270 simply happens to be the one I read today.)

The difference between Pessoa and Laozi lies in the relation they see between keeping the mind deep and activity. Pessoa is the patron saint of inactivity, which in prominence is perhaps second only to disquiet itself in The Book of Disquiet. He puts it succinctly: “To see clearly is to not act” (§275). (I cannot resist inserting a third voice into the mix, that of Emerson, from his essay “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection. The whole frame of things preaches indifferency.”)

Keeping the mind deep by turning to art, where art is understood as Pessoa understands it, is to avoid possessing one’s sensations by ensuring that those sensations are produced in response, not to the world itself, but to something at one remove from the world. Art does not call for action. To seek one’s sensations in art, knowing that art is illusory, is to keep those sensations sequestered from action, from interaction with the world.

This is where Laozi, as I read him, disagrees. I take the eleventh poem of the Daodejing as suggesting that non-possession of one’s thoughts, sensations, etc. is precisely the way in which to make the mind useful. And it’s easy for me to see why this should be, especially in these troubled times. The near-constant fretting over the state of my country that has of late beset renders me little better than worthless, a quivering mass. To achieve some kind of distance from these agitations, to let them pass through me without wholly owning them, I suspect will help me to act. It is too early to say: I have only just begun to make the effort.

At the same time, I know only too well, from past experience, that attempts to attain such non-possession can easily turn into an entirely inward focus on my own peace of mind, never bringing the promised usefulness. Relatedly, my wife (who is Chinese) made a very interesting comment today when I was discussing this with her. She said that Chinese people have looked more to Confucius in good times, more to Laozi in bad times. These turns to Confucius were connected to an eagerness to contribute. The turns to Laozi, conversely, were connected to a turning away from engagement. This, if true, corroborates on a large scale my private experience. As a certain friend of mine very often insists, the gap between abstruse philosophy and practical action is wide indeed.

The last time I put Laozi and Pessoa in conversation, I declared Pessoa the winner of the debate, though I cautioned against taking this too far. This time, again, past experience forces me to declare Pessoa the winner. But, again, this judgment comes with a caveat: time may yet prove Laozi right, at least in my own case.

For as much as I claim to agree with Emerson that self-reliance is the basis of all virtue, I often feel as if I have no self, no natural state of thought and feeling that is distinctly mine, and on which I can stubbornly rely. Rather, I find within myself many competing voices, all engaged in a continual struggle for power. And I find, further, that what I choose to read plays a substantial role in this power struggle.

I first noticed this when reading Cioran. His dour pessimism seemed to enliven the more melancholy voices within me, to give them an advantage over those that opposed them. And I am noticing the same thing with Pessoa. His praise of a certain form of lethargy rouses what in me inclines to torpor, and I become more torpid. Why, then, read Pessoa? What in his work provides value that overcomes this negative effect?

I had this thought after reading the following passage from The Book of Disquiet:

Whether I like it or not, everything that isn’t my soul is no more for me than scenery and decoration. Through rational thought I can recognize that a man is a living being just like me, but for my true, involuntary self he has always had less importance than a tree, if the tree is more beautiful. That’s why I’ve always seen human events – the great collective tragedies of history or of what we make of history – as colourful friezes, with no soul in the figures that appear there. I’ve never thought twice about anything tragic that has happened in China. It’s just scenery in the distance, even if painted with blood and disease. (§165)

This is a thought that I do not, on balance, endorse. If needed, I could argue with this passage, point out the one subtle flaw that unravels it. But that is not the point. There is a part of me that thinks this way, and when I read this passage that part is emboldened, for it has been externally validated. No amount of arguing rids me of it, nor particularly do I want to be rid of it. At most I want to control it, to allow it to contribute to the richness of my experience without destroying me.

The main value in reading Pessoa is that he has taken this voice, which is not unique to me, and fleshed it out into an entire person, one who is, if not fully consistent, at least more persistently under the thumb of this mood and feeling than I am. Bernardo Soares, the invented author of The Book of Disquiet, is a magnification of this element of myself. In reading this book, I am thus able to study this element writ large without fully giving myself over to it. It is a highly useful means of self-scrutiny.