· Scholarly, Critical, Theoretical Academic Librarianship, Leon Howard Style ·
I've been packing books lately since I've moved into a new Trope Topic College building. The move has had the effect of putting me in mind of academic librarianship, literally the care and keeping of books. It has had the effect, too, of putting in hand a valued text from the past, an academic biography I studied forty years ago now, Leon Howard's Herman Melville (1951). You should know that Howard was my Doktor Vater, and as I had not seen his work in years, I took a brief peek.
Howard was a fine scholar trained in the German style at Johns Hopkins — one writing the nineteenth dissertation in American literature ("of which there are no extant copies," he happily joked). His long career at Northwestern, UCLA, and New Mexico was highlighted by New Mexico's naming a small library for him in 1983. I thought that fitting, since as Moby-Dick readers may recall, "librianship" is a key theme in Melville's novel.
My own work in that service (getting students into the library and weaning a few from the net) is modest enough, but since books are all helpful, getting folks to read, and even beyond that to "think" about literature, is still more so. You may recall my Whose Words These Are I Think I Know, a January 2005 post centered on finding abstraction, figuration, and organization in books. Today I thought to add a fresh take on still more academic work — work stretching over the entire course of the past century.
Howard's biography can help us in defining it — at least at the boundaries.
As I tell students, twentieth-century literary academics fall broadly into three kinds, scholars, critics, and theorists. All have played one-upsmanship games over time, the older looking down on the younger, and vice versa, of course. Though I am quite non-sectarian, in aging I have grown to appreciate the work of the older scholars like Leon Howard.
Here's how he stakes his claim on "critical" study in his brief "Preface":
To those critics who insist that a work of literature makes its most admirable appearance an an independent object of aesthetic experience, I can only suggest that the arts which we call the humanities are, as a matter of fact, unavoidably human. Of them, literature is the most comprehensive and illuminating in its humanity; and, for my part, the knowledge of human beings, in all their complex relationships, which can be gained from literary study is one of the greatest incentives to its pursuit. I cannot, in short, share the apparently widespread feeling that a rereadable book is so delicate a plant that it needs to be removed from its natural environment before it can attract the imagination.
Those perfect adverbial phrases, "as a matter of fact," "for my part," and "in short," catch Howard's concern: some gathered "facts," "personally" acquired, and all "briefly" shown are, indeed, his point. So, naturally, his conclusion ("Recollection and Renown") drives it home more stylishly.
Critics whose impulse has been to worship Art have found in Melville's works a challenge to their ceremonial ingenuity in rationalizing impressions. So satisfactory has been his reflection of their subtleties that typographical errors in cheap editions of his books and mistranscriptions of his difficult handwriting have inspired them to intellectual gyrations of ectasy. The omission of a comma in modern versions of a sentence addressed to Bulkington in Moby Dick has transformed that character from one of Melville's forgotten men into one of his most "significant" heroes. The error which changed a "coiled fish of the sea" into a "soiled fish" in some editions of White Jacket has been the basis for a lyrical tribute to the author's unique genius in imagery. The probable misreading of Melville's original spelling of the word "visible" as a reference to a "usable truth" in a letter to Hawthorne has provoked discourse on the "usable truth" of both men and inspired a meditation on the "usable past."
What more can I say?
Lots, of course, but any real "usable truth" in this "blog post" cannot sustain — even theoretically — a more "usable past" in his book.
And, less so, that in the Leon Howard Memorial Library.
I learned students' names today. It's always my task the second day of a new term. Classes go better on an all-first-name basis, especially if students figure out (fast) that academic literary criticism needn't take itself so seriously.
My trick is simple. Since "writing about reading" is our common theme, I ask everyone to mark in a paragraph the experience of "getting lost in a book." Next I've the task of linking faces to texts — applying names and joking with everyone about their getting suckered by "virtual reality."
I start everyone out with
A Slam Dunk for Thomas Mann
That I missed a basketball game is all I remember. The year was 1962 and Reading University, my alma mater, was playing a home game across the street when one of my dormmates, Bill Keyes, griped loudly of my lackluster enthusiasm: "You mean you are going to stay here in your room while we go off to the game?" Sure enough, I was letting them go off to the game while I sat there reading. I had just begun a translation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to support my beginning studies in German. Perhaps because I was so rudely interrupted, I have only a vague memory of the book now. All I have in mind is the sad image of poor Gustav Aschenbach, a famous writer on vacation in Venice who, in tarrying over a vision of ideal beauty in the form of a young boy, succumbs to a cholera epidemic his Italian hosts have hidden from the guy as he soaks up a few rays on a sunny beach. I now think he might have gone to the game. In any case, old Gustav's experience serves to raise an interesting question: "Why should any beautiful work of the human imagination so fascinate us?" With Mann's considerable authority behind me, all I can say is that ideal beauty gets us all at last, as does the grim reaper. Only basketball provides the form for some, and, for others, books do.
You'll be interested to know how I learned today of a "Brandy" who started a small kitchen fire by solving a Who-Done-It one night here, and of a "Leah" who ran her car out of gas to the sound of her husband's reading Riptide over the "Continental Divide" in Wyoming.
As both discovered coasting thirty-seven miles to safety, literary criticism, naturally, I suppose, always goes downhill from there.
I drove up to Redmond last week to attend a Microsoft event. A book discussion, it came near to the day, ironically enough, that Wayne Booth, author of The Rhetoric of Fiction and A Rhetoric of Irony, passed away — the Chicago critic whose work lays solid claim to grasping ironically "unreliable narrators."
But it is the larger topic — almost as Booth discusses it — of irony itself that matters here; for in Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler extends Booth's fine take on irony by noting a Rilke quote drawn from the Letters to a Young Poet — one happily fit in his text to the thought that "The first layers are just a filter"*:
Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it [Rilke writes], especially not in uncreative moments. In creative moments try to make use of it as one more means of grasping life. Cleanly used, it too is clean, and one need not be ashamed of it; and if you feel you are getting too familiar with it, if you fear this growing intimacy with it, then turn to great and serious objects, before which it becomes small and helpless. See the depth of things: thither irony never descends — and when you come thus close to the edge of greatness, test out at the same time whether this ironic attitude springs from a necessity of your nature. For under the influence of serious things it will fall from you (if it is something fortuitous), or else it will (if it really innately belongs to you) strengthen into a stern instrument and take its place in the series of tools with which you will have to shape your art.
Though I can't begin to mark the richness of Wilson's place — much less that of Weschler's fine book — I can at least mark a modest effort, made some twenty years ago now, to examine another American artist, Henry James, in his short story "The Real Thing." It too dwells in the ironic slip between reality and appearance, and I thought to include it.
I've some added notes, but it's offered here as drafted — not under the influence of Wayne Booth but that of Paul de Man — as an early, academic effort toward deconstructive anti-deconstructive theory. Should that sound like a bunch of "unreliable narration," I'll let you, of course, be the judge.
*In context, Wilson has told Weschler (on p. 62) "I don't understand the difference [between aesthetically and ethically just men]" :
"You know, certain aspects of this museum you can peel away very easily, but the reality behind, once you peel away those relatively easy layers, is more amazing still than anything those initial layers purport to be. The first layers are just a filter . . . "
I found an interesting Mark Twain passage today. Quoted in Larzer Ziff's brief study, Mark Twain, part of the Lives and Legacies Series (Oxford 2004), it catches perfectly what might be called Twain's speaking-truth-to-power style.
Its prompt was simple. Twain was suddenly levied taxes in 1887 on his English royalties, and rather than write to the revenue clerk who'd informed him, Edward Bright, he wrote to Queen Victoria instead. You can almost hear the old writer say, "No Taxation without Representation," while presenting himself in a cagey tone of mock familiarity to Her Highness.
I do not know Mr. Bright [Twain wrote], and it is embarrassing to me to correspond with strangers, for I was raised in the country and have always lived there, the early part in Marion County, Missouri, before the war, and this part in Hartford County, Connecticut, near Bloomfield and about 8 miles this side of Farmington, though some call it 9, which it is impossible to be, for I have walked it many and many a time in considerably under three hours and General Hawley says he has done it in two and a quarter, which is not likely; so it has seemed best that I write your Majesty.
As Dr. Ziff says, "[Twain's] was a being that constantly manifested itself in his writings . . . yet was never embodied by them . . . an uncontainable force that could burst forth at any moment regardless of context." That's why, when given his honorary doctorate from Oxford, Twain slyly said, "I like the degree, but I'm crazy about the clothes."
Charming. Perhaps Matthew Arnold's shade might even have said then: "Hereabouts, Sam, it's 'the best that has been thought and said.'"
Short of rereading the book — an unlikely event at this late stage of my life — I'm rather given to outlining James Joyce's Ulysses. For it's Bloomsday today, and old Styles must mark at least Bloom's Centennial, since Ulysses merits some brief mention, especially at 100.
But what, pray tell, does that mean? Possibly that I might ignore the full text while concentrating, partially, on Chapter 14, "Oxen of the Sun." After all, what Joyce chapter better celebrates "English style."
OXEN OF THE SUN
Time:10.00 pm. Scene: The National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street. Organ: Womb Art: Medicine Colours: White Symbol: Mothers Technique: Embryonic development Correspondences: Trinacria-the hospital; Lampote and Phaethusa-the nurses; Helios-Horne; Oxen-fertility; Crime-fraud. (Helios Hyperion, Jove, Ulysses. Fecundation, frauds, parthenogenesis. Sense: The eternal herds).
Homeric Parallels: After passing between SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS Odysseus and his crew land on the island of the sun god Helios. Despite warnings from Circe and Tiresias in HADES, Ulysses' men kill and eat the divine oxen on the island of the sun. When they depart Lampote informs her father Helios, who petitions Zeus to punish the travellers. Death by thunderbolt ensues, and all of Odysseus' crew are killed, fulfilling the dark prophecies of Circe and Tiresias. Lashed to a mast and keel, Odysseus drifts back through SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS and is beached on CALYPSO's island, where years of sexual slavery await him.
Summary: Mrs Purefoy is in labour, and Bloom is visiting her at the hospital. A party is in progress, and Dr Dixon is there (who once treated Bloom for a bee-sting) along with Stephen, Lynch, Lenehan and others, and Mulligan who comes later. A nurse begs for quiet. The group are discussing problems in the philosophy of medicine: whether, in a dire childbirth, the mother or baby should be saved, and the ethics of contraception. Bawdy comments and noise ensue (like Odysseus' men, they lack respect for the sacred inhabitants of the place). Bloom can think only of his dead son Rudy. The talk turns to Stephen's choice of literature over the Church. There is a storm, and Bloom provides a scientific explanation of thunder. Papal Bulls are the next topic, then Mulligan gets bawdy. The nurse again asks them to keep the noise down, and Bloom too disapproves of the way things are going as the party gets drunker. Mulligan tells a gothic horror story, the Purefoy baby is born, and then the group pour into the street — Stephen and Lynch head for the red light district.
Comment: Stylistically, this is one of the densest chapters. It Begins with a primitive invocation, moves through (symbolically) nine stages of the development of the English language (which parallel the nine months of pregnancy), and ends in a chaos of Dublin slang, student witticisms, an evangelist's speech and nonsense — a sort of chronological synopsis of the English language and a sustained metaphor of the process of gestation. For Joyce here ontegeny (the development of the individual) recapitulates phylogyny (the evolutionary history of the species). Again the emphasis is on the dependency of narrative events on discursive style, and the relativity of styles in their mediation of reality. In the style of the 15th century, for example, Bloom's bee sting and treatment becomes "a spear wherewith a horrible and dreadful dragon was smitten him for which he did do make a salve of volatile salt and chrism..." The line-numbers and opening words of each stylistic imitation are given below:
1-6: "Deshil Holles..." primitive incantations.
7-32: "Universally that person's..." Latin prose style of the Roman historians Sallust and Tacitus.
33-59: "It is not why therefore..." mediaeval Latin prose chronicles.
60-106: "Before born babe bliss had..." Anglo-Saxon alliterative prose.
107-22: "Therefore, everyman..." Middle English prose.
123-66: "And whiles they spake..." imitates the C14th Travels of Sir John Mandeville.
167-276: "This meanwhile this good..." C15th style of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur.
277-333: "About that present time..." Elizabethan prose chronicles.
334-428: "To be short this passage..." C16th-C17th Latinate prose styles of Milton, Richard Hooker, Sir Thomas Browne.
429-73: "But was Boasthard's..." John Bunyan.
474-528: "So Thursday sixteenth..." C17th diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys.
529-81: "With this came up..." Daniel Defoe.
581-650: "An Irish bull in..." Jonathan Swift.
651-737: "Our worthy acquaintance..." C18th essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.
738-98: "Here the listener who..." Laurence Sterne.
799-844: "Amid the general vacant..." Oliver Goldsmith.
845-79: "To revert to Mr Bloom..." Edmund Burke.
880-904: "Accordingly he broke his mind..." Richard Sheridan.
905-41: "But with what fitness..." C18th style of the satirist Junius.
942-1009: "The news was imparted..." Edward Gibbon.
I read today that three-hundred-and-fifteen prisoners have been released from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. With the aim of saving America's good name, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has of course engineered the event, perhaps also saving his own job. A clever move, it clearly suggests Rumsfeld's rising to do George W. Bush's political chores, trying also to save the President's own political life.
The news reminds me of a passage from Frank O'Connor's short story "Guests of the Nation." Set in Ireland during the First World War, the story deals with the fate of two British prisoners (Belcher and Hawkins) who are sacrificed to a sadly fateful political necessity. They are eliminated because, following word of the execution of Irish prisoners elsewhere, their captors can't excuse them from the terrible, bloody consequences of war. Despite their good efforts, they must go.
The particular passage that interests me is this:
It was a treat to see how Belcher got off with the Old woman of the house where we were staying. She was a great warrant to scold, and cranky even with us, but before ever she had a chance of giving our guests, as I may call them, a lick of her tongue, Belcher had made her his friend for life. She was breaking sticks, and Belcher, who hadn't been more than ten minutes in the house, jumped up from his seat and went over to her.
"Allow me, madam," he says, smiling his queer little smile, "please allow me"; and he takes the bloody hatchet. She was struck too paralytic to speak, and after that, Belcher would be at her heels, carrying a bucket, a basket, or a load of turf, as the case might be. As Noble said, he got into looking before she leapt, and hot water, or any little thing she wanted, Belcher would have it ready for her.
Now I don't mean to trivialize his story, but O'Connor's stylistic finesse is breathtaking. His larger intent notwithstanding, he has shifted — or so it seems to me — from objects initially listed in his fine penultimate sentence ("a bucket, a basket, or a load of turf") to the objective, substantive weight of "hot water" marked in his last. Reread and you'll maybe see his move!
What I ask is this: does anyone know the correct stylistic name for it — or perhaps, too, the political?
· Twain, James, Mencken, and the Colloquial Style ·
I've been reading Terry Teachout's biography of H. L. Mencken, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. Noting his achievement in crafting a colloquial style, Teachout claims Mencken's primary model was Mark Twain, "the perfect model — perhaps the only possible one — for the racy prose with which he would make his name":
How he stood above and apart from the world [Teachout recalls Mencken saying in Happy Days, his memoir], like Rabelais come to life again, observing the human comedy, chuckling over the eternal fraudulence of man! What a sharp eye he had for the bogus, in religion, politics, art, literature, patriotism, virtue! What contempt he emptied upon shams of all sorts — and what pity!
Since I have abused Mencken's prose — in Conservative Soul Substance: H. L. Mencken on Style — I've thought to modify my claim by noting here (quite plainly in the interest of fairness) that Mencken might also have chosen as his secondary model Henry James.
Now don't get me wrong; I understand that Mencken once sneered at James's writing:
Isn't it wobbly with qualifying clauses and subassistant phrases [he asked]? Doesn't it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder? Isn't it 'crude, untidy, careless,' bedraggled, loose, frowsy, disorderly, unkempt, uncombed, uncurried, unbrushed, unscrubbed? Doesn't it begin in the middle and work away from both ends? Doesn't it often bounce along for a while and then, of a sudden, roll up its eyes and go out of business entirely?
My clue comes from chapter three of Richard Bridgman's book, The Colloquial Style in America (1966), "Henry James and Mark Twain." Bridgman rightly defends the view that, in its dialogue at least, James's prose shines with stresses, repetitions, and fragmentations commonly characteristic of American colloquial speech. The difference between Twain and James, of course, remains Twain's substantive reference to things, and Henry James's to consciousness, but stylistically, as Bridgman himself notes,
despite such persistently opposing views, we can justifiably assert in the formal characteristics of repetition, interrupted phrasing, isolation of the word, accentuated peculiarities, and patterns of sound Henry James and Mark Twain corroborated and re-enforced one another's efforts. Each arrived at his stylistic peak through the faithful management of dialogue, followed by partial or wholesale importation of colloquial features into the narrative prose. Each dramatically advanced the movement toward an American prose by his efforts to purify the language of the tribe.
It is perhaps interesting to claim that H. L. Mencken, author of The American Language (1921), might himself have been merely half-inspired. For as Teachout himself admits (p. 75), "Mencken's inability to find anything but hot air in Henry James indicates the limits of his education as exactly as it does the breadth of his ambition."
But again, as hinted above, Mencken didn't really care for the cool, airy reflections of "bucolic college professors."
I've been incommunicado recently, marking tests and papers in my three classes. Though often dull, the work earns my academic keep and of course keeps some of my students — suffering, struggling, and complaining — semi-sharp. Stylistically, it always takes regular grinding on the old blue pencil, yet sometimes it gives me a good occasion for real learning.
Take today's lesson. A student reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, A Tale for Children," had a basic problem — one we discussed in conference. Though marking Marquez's point by reading his tale as saying something about abusive, careless treatment of the old, she delineated his point by speaking not directly about Marquez but about our nursing homes and hospices. So I had to mark the simple difference between literature and life, between Marquez's writing indirectly about life, but she, alas, not quite directly about "A Very Old Man."
Then hitting her head with her hand, she brightened: "I get it. Like all those children's stories I write, his story has a moral, but I have to go in reverse, from the moral backwards to the story, not the other way around. Still, it's the same point."
This has been a busy week, as I've had conferences, tests, and papers in each of my three classes. Though I've hardly had time to think, today I thought to recall the week's memorable highlights — from the worlds of sports, learning, and, above all, college teaching.
Consider the smiling face you see here, that of the Ancient Seattle Mariner, Edgar Martinez. Though now long in the tooth, Edgar's signed a new contract with the club and will return in 2004 to smack singles, doubles, triples, and homers again. Not since Birthday-Baseball Triple Play have I had such cause for greater celebration.
Consider also my student who modeled Monday the sage advice Father Walter Ong gave me back in '84: "For every good page written, there should ten thousand read." Though I try to reduce that ratio, my student's "Fictional Books Wrote a Non-Fictional Bookworm" suggests we should perhaps keep it just that high:
If I chose to forego pleasure reading entirely, I could, over the next two years, obtain 30 additional college credits at a minute fraction of their usual cost, due to a combination of rare circumstances; such a course would greatly increase my money-making opportunities, yet the bookworm in me could not accept such a decision. In my intense scrutiny of countless works of art from dozens of authors, I could not fail to acquire some fragment of worthy technique. For I have learned to understand the proper flow of a well formed phrase to a greater degree than most ever manage.
Like Martinez this kid knows already the real secret of the pros, or is that of prose? All I could say was: "Now get on with your next piece."
Finally consider my extraordinary luck Wednesday: after getting my mail here, I found myself reading, on returning to my office, not some kid's 101 essay but "Committee Assignments for 2003-2004." On reaching my neighbor's door I found myself saying:
I've an important announcement. I'm ultimately valued and ignored! I'm in Academic Nirvana; I've died and gone to heaven! Not since darkening the doorway in the guise of a teacher in 1968 have I ever been committeeless.
She smiled and, returning then to the novel I'd suggested two weeks ago — David Lodge's comedy, Nice Work — happily said she was nearing the place wittily featuring the very stylish American professor, Dr. Morris Zapp.
Although but distantly related, I am — don't you think? — perhaps partially feeling the power.
· Indirection in the King's Road: Edith Wharton on Henry James ·
Robert Frost once famously described a guide "who only has at heart your getting lost." But consider the reverse: a famous direction-seeker only losing his guide. That is my subject today, here prompted by a take on the firm, crisp, smooth, direct, easily flowing style of Edith Wharton engaged upon the mostly infirm, uncrisp, indirect, halting style of Henry James. I thought you might like the stylistic pairing.
My adjectives today come from Louis Auchincloss. Auchincloss finds Wharton "in full command of the style that was to make her prose as lucid and polished as any in American fiction," as he writes in Edith Wharton, A Woman in Her Time. "It is a firm, crisp, smooth, direct, easily flowing style, the perfect instrument of a clear, undazzled eye, an analytic mind, and a sense of humor alert to the least pretension." It's Wharton's humor I emphasize, one drawn colorfully from A Backward Glance (her autobiography, 1934), presented here with liberties she'd perhaps herself find amusing. Wharton's words are printed in Blue, Henry James's in Rust, and the guide's in Lost.
The most absurd of these episodes [Wharton and James getting lost while motoring in England] occurred on another rainy evening, when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur — perhaps Cook was on holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King's Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. "Wait a moment, my dear — I'll ask him where we are"; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
"My good man, if you'll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so," and as the man came up: "My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station."
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: "In short" (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), "in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to . . . "
"Oh, please." I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, "do ask him where the King's Road is."
"Ah — ? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?"
"Ye're in it," said the aged face at the window.
I hope you see the real advantages here, as the old cliché has it, of what's sometimes mistakenly called a "Cook's Holiday."
· Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator ·
Today my two previous posts have prompted a third on footnotes. I'm sorry if apologies are due. I take up from the musical world of footnotes sounded first in Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik — and reechoed in Bloch's The Historian's Craft — two added notes sounded by Nicholson Baker in his clever first novel, The Mezzanine (1988). If Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes and Footnotes: From Low Art to High Science make my noted theme old, I hope my variations are at least semi-pleasing. Please consider them an allegro, adagio, and presto "set" — with my belated "movement" being too long here.
Baker's first novel, you may know, describes a man's brief ride at the end of his lunch hour from the ground floor to the mezzanine on an escalator. Although Baker's text meditates on the man's brief ascent and, more, on his own needed noon-time purchase of a new pair of shoelaces, the text so well delineates much of what I have said recently that I have thought to share it — especially since citation and acknowledgment epitomize Baker's key themes, namely, physical-textual-dialectical displacements in vertical space and the old debt of consciousness to "the quotidian" — of art and thought to "the technological-scientific everyday."
Here foreshortened from 3 pages, Baker's notes are just 2 among 49 in a text of 135 pages. So fully "contrapuntal" and loopily "digressive" are they, that you might also be prepared for some slight "misquotation" — recalling my U & I post maybe — since the thought is riffed as subtly, cleverly, and trickily as that of a blues musician on speed. To help you follow, I've indeed had to largoize these notes, cutting them down some. So if you want your Baker "up," consider popping on down fast to buy The Mezzanine. After all, your next job is to recheck my notes.
Although Baker's first note aims clearly to link "shoelaces" and "footnotes," its note-referring sentence — "A glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky's History of European Morals (which I had been attracted to . . . by the ambitious title and the luxuriant incidentalism of the footnotes* . . . )" — also adds other crucial elements: the central notion, first, that artists and philosophers have quirky habits (I cite just two), and second, repeated news that Baker's narrator had earlier purchased a (Penguin) copy of Aurelius's Meditations, which text provides Baker with an epitomizing theme for all his notes: namely, "Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!" Here foreshortened to essentials, then, is the narrator's 46th note:
*In one footnote [he starts] . . . Lecky quotes a French biographer of Spinoza to the effect that the philosopher liked to entertain himself by "dropping flies into spiders' webs . . ." I crave knowledge of this kind of detail. As Boswell said, ". . . Everything relative to so great a man is worth observing. I remember Dr Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures at Glascow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes, instead of buckles." (Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Herbrides, Penguin, page 165. Think of it: John Milton wore shoelaces! ) Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of "ibid.'s" and "compare's" and "see's" that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one's mind. . . . Digression — a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument — is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. . . . It is true that Johnson said, . . . "The mind is refrigerated by interruption; . . . the reader is weary, he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book[.] . . . " ("Preface to Shakespeare.") . . . But the great scholarly or anecdotal footnotes of Lecky, Gibbon, or Boswell, written by the author of the book himself to supplement . . . what he says in the primary text, are reassurances that the pursuit of truth doesn't have clear outer boundaries: it doesn't end with the book; restatement and self-disagreement and the enveloping sea of referenced authorities all continue. Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wiser reality of the library.
Baker's "finer-suckered" image sounds a profound library note, in effect, that sounds "The Bathos," so to speak, "of the Bibliothek." For though it's happily occasioned by an earlier-mentioned (I'd say "Puget-Sound-locked") "octopus," Baker seems rather to anticipate a higher, but still lower, note — one pardoxically ending The Mezzanine. I'll cite it later myself. But for now, with such a "finer-suckered" grasp, Baker turns himself to a reflective understanding of his 49th note, wherein his narrator aptly invokes some "periodicity" (though I'd more simply call it his "style") "ratings." Baker's referring sentence reads: "It was impossible to predict which of the two, Aurelius or shoelaces, would rank higher in my overall lifetime periodicity ratings upon my death.*"
*I am fairly certain now [he avers] that shoelaces will rank higher. In the course of preparing the present record of that Aurelius-and-shoelace noon [essentially epitomizing The Mezzanine], I lived through a rigorous month in which the subject of shoelace-tying and shoelace wear came up 325 times, whereas Aurelius's sentiment cycled around only 90 times. I doubt very much that I will ever concentrate on either of them again, having worn both of the thoughts out for myself. But these sudden later flurries may not count, since they are artificial duplicative retrievals performed in order to understand how the earlier natural retrievals had come about. The very last instance of shoelace thought happened as follows: by chance, I was flipping through the 1984-1986 Research Reports of MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at my office, and I noticed . . . the subject of the "pathology of worn ropes" . . .
And then [later at the library], checking the 1984 volumes of World Textile Abstracts, I read entry 5422:
Methods for evaluating the abrasion resistance and knot slippage strength of shoe laces
Two mechanical devices for testing the abrasion resistance and knot slippage performance of shoe laces are described and investigated. Polish standards are discussed. [C] 1984/4522
I let out a small cry and slapped my hand down on the page. The joy I felt may be difficult for some to understand. Here was a man, Z. Czaplicki, who had to know! He was not going to abandon the problem with some sigh about complexity and human limitation after a minute's thought, as I had, and go to lunch — he was going to make the problem his life's work. Don't tell me he received a centralized directive to look into a more durable weave or shoelace for the export market. Oh no! His very own shoelace had snapped one time too many one morning, and instead of buying a pair of replacement dress laces at the corner farmacja and forgetting about the problem until the next time, he had constructed a machine and strapped hundreds of shoelaces of all kinds into it, wearing them down over and over, in a passionate effort to get some subtler idea of the forces at work. And he had gone beyond that — he had built another machine to determine which surface texture of shoelace would best hold its knot, so that humanity would not have to keep retying its shoelaces all day long and wearing them out before their time. A great man! I left the library relieved. Progress was being made. Someone was looking into the problem. Mr. Czaplicki, in Poland, would take it from there [my emphasis*].
*Here is room, perhaps, to say that Baker's last chapter shows his narrator returned from lunch — at the "top" of the escalator — looking down finally: "I looked down," Baker's narrator says, "the great silver glacier to the lobby. The maintenance man was at the bottom. I waved to him. He held up his white rag for a second, then put it back down on the rubber handrail." Permit me, but could this itself be a proper acknowledgement of some "tenor" to his "vehicular ride"? It's a good "high note" to end on, at least, and perhaps "sustain" . . .
Over the holiday weekend I read Nickolson Baker's U & I: A True Story (1991). A book of one-hundred-and-seventy-nine pages, it marks in impressive, if exasperatingly obsessive, often meandering detail, Baker's imaginary "friendship" with John Updike. It slyly wraps Updike's lifework, as Baker writes there, in "crisscrossing strips of rivalry and gratefulness over an armature of remembered misquotation," detailing in long and very stylishly-crafted sentences Baker's desire for (and dread of) Updike's well-earned literary "mastery." For example, he well describes Updike's peculiar knack for finding right words in short occasional forms:
I wanted so much to have the assured touch, the adjectival resourcefulness, that Updike had in all his occasional writings; for though early on he eloquently disparaged the "undercooked quality of prose written to order," the truth was that some of his finest moments were to be found in the aforementioned introductions, award-acceptance speeches, answers to magazine surveys, the last sentences of reviews (like the one that leaps blurb-driven, to memory concerning Nabokov's Glory: "in its residue of bliss experienced, and in its charge of bliss conveyed, Glory measures up as, though the last to arrive, far from the least of this happy man's Russian novels" — terrifying mastery!), prefaces to his own writings, dedications (like the one that I think about all the time, in Problems and Other Stories, to his children, which includes the phrase "with the curve of sad time it subtends" — imagine him applying high school geometry to the mess of his own divorce in such a perfect figure!): those incidental forms that induce his verbal tact to close around some uncomfortable chip of reality even as it reaches to reawaken our dulled sense of why certain conventions (like book dedications) or stock phrases (like "last but not least") exist and what limber life can be found in them; those forms whose mastery seems to me to be more convincing proof of the spontaneity of true talent, its irrepressive oversupply, than any single masterpiece is; and forms which for emulous younger writers can be more important as objects of study than the triple-deckers they besprinkle, because they are clues to the haberdashery of genius, its etiquette, its points of specific contact with recognizable obligations of life, independent of some single lucky choice of subject that bigger forms such as the novel demand.
Baker possessed the gift, I recognized, to assess Updike's career whole, not only in his narrative work, but in the little jobs of his everyday life. But then I noticed (more disturbingly) Baker's confessed negligence as a reader — his precise, but curiously careless admission that among Updike's thrity-plus books, he had read then "most or all" of just eight, "more than half" of six, "less than half" of four, "fewer than twenty pages" of five, and "fewer than five" of five — and, presumably, none of the rest.
That set me to thinking: might not Updike himself — in one of those occasional forms Baker's says he's mastered — might not this same U have himself replied in kind to this I's self-confessed literary negligence? At first, of course, I checked the net, quickly finding a short interview (scroll down half way) expressing Updike's admitted "liking" there for Baker — as "a younger writer with a real gift and vocation," perhaps a little "pedantic" but with a curious, "Bakeresque precision." But Updike's (parenthesized) laughter reminded me of Baker's own advocacy of library-, not just net-sleuthing — so I immediately went off to my own local library (a Carnegie public library) to find, indeed, a handy, hardback copy of Updike's Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (1991). Checking to see if Baker's obsessive "Hobby Horse" as well as his stylistic meandering was Shandean — after Laurence Sterne's great novel — I directly found there Sterne's name in the index and, after three dry runs — on page 848 — also this undated but intriguing quotation from The New York Times Book Review — "as to 'important' books one has never been able to finish reading" (my emphasis):
Like many an autodidact I have taken simple-minded pride in finishing a book once I began to read it. With considerable pleasure I devoted a youthful summer to reading through Don Quixote; in my early twenties I made my blissful way, over several years, through all of Remembrance of Things Past. War and Peace, Portrait of a Lady, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, The Iliad, and The Odyssey all in their season fell to the buzzsaw of my reading. I had every expectation of relishing Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. My taste ran to prankish books, British books, and books of pivotal importance in the history of Western thought. Tristram Shandy, modernism's first masterpiece, triply qualified. Had I not, furthermore, read through Ada and Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, thus somewhat straddling the case? I remember well more than one summery occasion when my increasingly tired-looking Modern Library edition of Sterne's facetious, mind-addling classic was hauled down from its shelf into the sun and shade; once I took it with me to a week alone on Martha's Vineyard, thinking to force the issue. Alas, even the boredom of utter solitude was no match for the boredom that poured in waves off the chirping pages of this particular great book. I made it as far as page 428, a half-faded bookmark tells me; but, like Scott on his return from the South Pole, I did not quite have the stuff to complete the job. I should have eaten the sledge dogs, like Amundsen.
I can't help but see in the "blissful" way his "buzzsaw" reads through "the case" — in fact "straddling" Nabokov's "Ada" on the one hand and Boswell's "Life of Johnson" on the other — the long and short of Updike's "terrifying mastery!" (all the way to page 428). Subtract 179 from 428, and you'll see who still thinks he plays Amundsen's #1 to Scott's #0 in this short, "odd job" of polar trekking here.
Naturally, should someone doubt my take, just call U or I for the definitively right "factual" answer, though I may still be right stylistically.
I was under the weather, as the cliché has it, this last weekend, wheezing my way through the Veterans' Day holiday, but thankful I wasn't more literally than figuratively under the weather down South. Bad tornadoes there. But, alas, this morning I chanced to awaken to some winds of our own, gale winds howling and blowing in from the Pacific as they do in November, across a well-named Gale Street fronting my house — one built two years after the big Columbus Day storm of 1962. When I'd bought the place in 1986, I'd asked the seller about the rafters: "Oh," he replied, "they're doubly strong; just look." This morning, I'm afraid, I heard them creak.
In any event, I hope you're not feeling either figuratively or literally "under the weather" today, and here to express my hopes — summer-style, on the bright side of dark — I thought to excerpt a famous passage from Mark Twain. Though its plot-significance in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is tragically sad, at least for anyone who can ignore the unfolding story, the style is also in some ways descriptively pleasing, even comically so. Tragi-comic, let's call it, weather-style.*
Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten [Huck writes in Chapter IX]; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest — FST! it was as bright as glory, and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs — where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.
*N. B. In quoting Huck in · You Got Style · know that I'm not fully satisfied with anybody's glib word about rafters. You never know when, "down the sky toward the under side of the world," a storm might turn your holiday into a Columbus Day or a Veterans' Day whether you like it or not.
Wendell Berry, in his 1990 book What Are People For? happily links style to fishing and gives me a convenient place to start.
Farmer-essayist Berry understands well Thoreau's dictum that getting one's "hands" dirty knocks the "palaver" out of one's writing, and he understands like Izaak Walton how to make points about style in some taut, intelligent lines about angling. Maybe that's why he focuses on Ernest Hemingway and Norman Maclean in his short essay, "Style and Grace."
The essay is about Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" (1925) and Maclean's A River Runs through It (1976). Berry notes the clear strengths of these contrasting masterpieces of English style, praising Hemingway's craftsmanly fastidiousness — his "refusing clutter" in not fishing the narrative's famous swamp at last — and Maclean's "not so neat or self-contained, but just as fine," messiness — his choosing to fish in a story of loss, bewilderment, and misunderstanding for "the essential mysteriousness of our experience." I like his contrast, fastidiousness and messiness, and I recommend them both.
But I can't help noting Berry's ending:
I am only trying to make a distinction between two literary attitudes and their manifestations in styles.
Hemingway's art, in "Big Two-Hearted River," seems to me an art determined by its style. This style, like a victorious general, imposes its terms on its subject. We are meant always to be conscious of the art, and to be conscious of it as a feat of style.
Mr. Maclean's, in contrast, seems to me to be a used, rather than an exhibited art, one that ultimately subjects itself to its subject. It is an art not like that of the bullfighter, which is public, all to be observed, but instead is modest, solitary, somewhat secretive — used, like fishing, to catch what cannot be seen.
What cannot be seen, of course, is the big fish — named Grace — which, as Maclean's story makes clear (and you might note here), "comes by art and art does not come easy."