Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

On the United States of America

November 9, 2016

I have never been to the United States, and I can’t see that I ever will: partly because I don’t fly, and partly because I don’t really wish to cope with seeing people carrying weapons in the street. I’ve read lots about the US in my exploration of all sorts of travel writing, from the very earliest days in the explorations of William Bartram, to the later expeditions of Lewis and Clark, and the twentieth century wanderings of others. There are certainly places I’d like to see: Isabella Bird’s descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and Estes Park in particular have fascinated me, and John Muir’s descriptions of the National Parks are wonderful; of course I’d like to see the Grand Canyon and lots of other places I’ve read about, too.

I was fascinated at school when we got to study US history as half of the course for our O-Level, and I’ve read a lot of American literature, too: the American Literature unit in my second year at university was one of my favourite courses. I wrestled with, and enjoyed Walt Whitman’s poetry, and came to read widely in Mark Twain’s novels, essays and travelogues, all of which I really enjoyed and come back to from time to time. And then there were all the writers of the Beat Generation that I came to know during my master’s degree studies. And Catch-22

I grew up during the Cold War; I can vaguely remember hearing news bulletins at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I came early to realise that what the US was doing across the world was as evil as what the USSR was up to; what was different was that the US was much better at PR and propaganda and held all the pretty cards. They presented themselves very effectively as the good guys, offering the sweet taste of freedom. However, there is freedom to and freedom from, and when you start looking more closely, the cards are dealt rather differently. The US was very good at suggesting it had a dream, that it was a noble enterprise, a moral force for good in the world, and many people swallowed that.

I know relatively few Americans. Those that I have met, as colleagues or a students, I have really liked, have enjoyed talking with: they have seemed just like any other people I have met and got to know from many different lands. I’ve always enjoyed diversity and learning about other nations, people and places, and regular readers will probably have me down as a curious person.

And so I am dumbfounded today. I’ve often thought that many Americans – the ones I haven’t met, but read about – come from a different planet. Make all the allowances and excuses you like for the US political establishment or the Democratic party being out of touch with ordinary people – and I agree with those sentiments – I cannot see how anyone can think that it’s acceptable to vote for a serial liar who boasts about assaulting women; I’m utterly gob-smacked that any self-respecting woman could go into a booth thinking ‘I will vote for this man to run my country’. I’ve read a lot about the 1920s and 1930s (see my previous post) and I’m getting an awful dense of deja-vu, even though I wasn’t alive then…

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

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David Jones: In Parenthesis

September 1, 2016

There was a documentary about Jones and his poem on television a few weeks ago: I was very surprised, as a teacher who’d taught First World War literature for many years, not to have heard of the poet or the work. The programme was fascinating, and now I’ve read the book.

It’s poetry in the way James Joyce’s prose is poetical, lyrical in its use of the language’s sounds and images. More prose than poetry, then, and running to nearly a couple of hundred pages, it’s not as immediately accessible as Owen or Sassoon, perhaps. We follow the speaker – an ordinary soldier – from call-up through basic training, his complicated journey to the Western Front, near Ypres first and then to the Somme, where he sees his mates killed, and he is wounded.

The writing is impressionistic. Often the soldiers are backgrounded an atmosphere takes centre-stage, very effectively. Often his verse reminds me of Whitman, with echoes of those long, gradually developing accretive sentences. Sometimes he reads like Hopkins in his use of adjectives and nonce-words. There is erudition in his epic similes, and his myriad religious references, though the constant recalling of Arthurian and Celtic mythology did pall after a while, as did having to refer to the notes Jones provided to help his readers through his text.

I was impressed by the poem; it moved me greatly, even though it was hard work. An uncanny beauty somehow conceals the horrors of the offensive, and you only gradually realise the carnage taking place around the narrator, and by the time you have realised, you are in the very middle of it, with him, sharing his perspective. I’m still not quite sure how he did it, because there is at the same time a perspective and a curious distancing effect too. I shall have to come back to this soon.

People of the Book (2)

August 21, 2016

I’ve read the Bible several times; basically, the Old Testament is the Jewish scriptures, the ‘old dispensation’ that was superseded by the advent of Christ. It’s a curious hotch-potch of very different things, and is also pretty violent in places. I have always liked the stories I first came across when very young, the stories that, sadly, children do not seem to meet any more at school, from the five books of Moses: Adam and Eve and all the subsequent tales, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and lots more. And if you wonder why children should meet these stories, it’s because they are part of our cultural heritage and historical past: though we may no longer be a Christian country, those beliefs and stories have inescapably shaped our world, and we need to know them.

But then, there’s the strangeness of Leviticus, with all the minutiae of Jewish ritual observances, and all the marauding and battles and infighting in the books of Samuel and Kings and elsewhere, which I find very tedious and tiresome and not very edifying at all.

The prophets I find weird, basically, full of gloom, warnings and threats, admonishing wayward people in a very similar manner to some of the rather hectoring passages in the Qur’an; basically telling people that if you don’t do what you are told, you will meet a sticky end. Thus have people been oppressed by religion through the ages…

For me, the best parts of the Old Testament are the various Wisdom books, which are confusingly known by a variety of different names, and some of which are also excluded from the Old Testament by Protestants and Anglicans, and labelled apocryphal, whatever that bizarre judgement and appellation might actually mean. But certain of the books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are philosophical, reflective and capable of speaking to us across many centuries; the Psalms are often beautiful, poetic although somewhat repetitive: when I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman at university, I learned that his poetry is modelled on the Hebrew poetic style, which involves repetition which isn’t quite repetition: something is changed, modified and perhaps extended as part of the repeating, so that there is a gradual, accretive effect. It can be tiresome, but when it works it is quite beautiful, in a way totally unlike our Western styles of versification.

In some ways I find it curious the way that the New Testament is tagged onto the end of the Old. I know it’s meant to be the fulfilment of many of the earlier prophecies, an extension or replacement for what went before, and so we need to know what there was before. There is such a difference in tone and also in structure. There are five narrative books – the Gospels and Acts, then all the epistles to the new churches, then the weirdness of the Revelation, and that’s it. And by and large it’s free from violence and warfare, apart from the Revelation.

Raised a Catholic, I know the gospels pretty well, at least in terms of the stories. Coming back to them many years later, I notice how they have different foci: one presents Jesus as a worker of wonders and miracles, another emphasises his teachings and preachings, another reminds us as often as he can how Jesus is fulfilling all those Old Testament prophecies. So we get several different portraits of the man. There is overlap and difference, and, if one digs into detail in the way Geza Vermes does, for instance, then there are also plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies. And yet, there is clearly a very powerful story, of a thinker who offered a different way of living, and of looking at the world and life, a teacher with something revolutionary to say to people, who offered hope then and for many continues to do so now… and then there is the story of what happened after his death. I have to say that I cannot believe in a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead, but that lack of belief does not diminish for me the power of the ideas and the message.

Unravelling the truth about what really happened is very difficult because so little was written, and a long time after the events; we have no way of knowing what was suppressed or destroyed. Clearly his followers thought his message was worth keeping alive; when we get onto St Paul and his epistles, I do begin to wonder: here’s an interloper almost, someone who wasn’t there and who never knew Jesus and yet who issues all sorts of edicts and instructions, who interprets and glosses, for his own purposes; I’ve always been uneasy with almost all he wrote, and that’s without looking at the misogyny. And the Revelation is just seriously bonkers; for my money it makes most of Hunter S Thompson’s wilder ravings seem positively normal and balanced… All in all the Bible is a curious book to place at the centre of a religion; I find the Catholic balance between scripture and tradition, or the Quaker one between scripture and the workings of the Spirit rather more convincing and comforting…

Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.

 

 

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